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The New York Review of Books - October 26, 2017

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Mark Ford on Joni Mitchell
October 26, 2017 / Volume LXIV, Number 16
Lisa Appignanesi on Freud
Nathaniel Rich on Salman Rushdie
Peter Brown on Augustine
The President’s Minders
by James Mann
Tory Europhiles
Outsider Art
Stalin at the Movies
Vivian Maier
A Ph
Photographer’s Life and Afterlife
The Testing Charade
Pamela Bannos
Pretending to Make Schools Better
offers a clear-eyed investigation of Maier’s
life, aiming to penetrate the myths surrounding her
and to assess her stature as an artist. . . . In alternating
chapters, she juxtaposes Maier’s biography with her
afterlife. . . . A sympathetic portrait of an artist who
remains elusive.”—Kirkus Reviews
Daniel Koretz
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“Koretz demonstrates that high-stakes testing has
corrupted instruction, led educators to cut corners
and even cheat, and produced sham increases in
scores, while yielding precious little in the way of
real improvements in student learning. The Testing
Charade is accessible, riveting, and spot-on. Please
put this important book on your must-read list.”
—John Merrow, author of Addicted to Reform
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Henry David Thoreau
A Life
Laura Dassow Walls
“Luminous. . . . Through Walls’s biography, Thoreau
once more challenges us to see, with his passion and
intensity, the world in all its cruelty and its splendour,
riddled with human lies and abundant in natural
truths.”—Financial Times
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The Red Atlas
How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World
John Davies and Alexander J. Kent
With a Foreword by James Risen
“Amazing. . . . Carefully researched, well-written,
and exquisitely designed and printed, The Red Atlas is perhaps the only recent map history that can
be called a real eye-opener.”—Mark Monmonier,
author of How to Lie with Maps
Cloth $35.00
Giza and the Pyramids
Dinner with Darwin
The Definitive History
Food, Drink, and Evolution
Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass
Jonathan Silvertown
“Giza and the Pyramids is an extraordinary treatment
of these fascinating monuments, and of the complexity
of archaeological remains that surround them.”
—David O’Connor, Institute of Fine Arts at New York
“A series of beautifully plated amuse-bouche, raising
tantalizing, and rich ideas. . . . The book left me
feeling as if I had attended a dinner party, where
foodies, historians, and scientists mingled, sharing
Cloth $75.00
Cloth $27.50
The Aeneid
Nature’s Fabric
Translated by David Ferry
Leaves in Science and Culture
David Ferry—a National Book Award–winning poet
and a brilliant translator of Augustan Latin—gives us a
new Virgil for a new generation. Never before have
Virgil’s twin gifts of poetic language and fleet storytelling been presented so powerfully for English–
language readers.
“In this fascinating and original book, Lee leads us
poetically through the medium of leaves to unimagined insights into our world, why we should care
about it, and how best to love it.”—Peter H. Raven,
president emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden
Cloth $35.00
David Lee
Cloth $35.00
James Mann
Ruth Margalit
Robert O. Paxton
Sanford Schwartz
Robyn Creswell
Peter Green
Jed Perl
Nathaniel Rich
Lisa Appignanesi
Stephen Kotkin
Helen Vendler
Peter Brown
Colin Thubron
David Bromwich
Helene Cooper
Neal Ascherson
Mark Ford
Ian Johnson
Marianne Boruch
Ferdinand Mount
Letters from
The Adults in the Room
Menashe a film directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein
Srugim a television series created by Laizy Shapiro and Havvah Deevon
The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture by Benjamin G. Martin
Eugen Gabritschevsky: 1893–1979 an exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum,
New York City
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Antoine de Galbert, Noëlig Le Roux,
Sarah Lombardi, and Valérie Rousseau
The Conference of the Birds by Attar, translated from the Persian by Sholeh Wolpé
An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn
Donald Judd Writings edited by Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray
The Golden House by Salman Rushdie
Freud: The Making of an Illusion by Frederick Crews
Stalin at the Movies
Half- light: Collected Poems 1965–2016 by Frank Bidart
Confessions by Augustine, translated from the Latin by Sarah Ruden
Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires
by Dominic Ziegler
On Empson by Michael Wood
Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror by Helen C. Epstein
Tumult by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, translated from the German by Mike Mitchell
New Selected Poems by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, translated from the German
by David Constantine, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Michael Hamburger, and Esther Kinsky
and two other books by or about Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe
Sexual Life in Modern China
First Confession: A Sort of Memoir by Chris Patten
Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir by Ken Clarke
Allan Lichtman, Noah Feldman and Jacob Weisberg, E. Haberkern, Bill Roller and
Philip Zimbardo, Colin Jones, Henrik Otterberg, and Albert J. Ammerman
LISA APPIGNANESI is Chair of the Royal Society of Literature and former Chair of the Trustees of the Freud Museum in
London. She is the author of Mad, Bad, and Sad: A History of
Women and the Mind Doctors, among other books.
NEAL ASCHERSON is the author of Black Sea, Stone Voices:
The Search for Scotland, and the novel Death of the Frosac. He
is an Honorary Professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.
MARIANNE BORUCH’s most recent books are Eventually
One Dreams the Real Thing, a collection of poems, and The Little
Death of Self: Nine Essays Toward Poetry.
DAVID BROMWICH is Sterling Professor of English at Yale.
Moral Imagination, a collection of his essays, was recently published in paperback.
PETER BROWN is the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of
History Emeritus at Princeton. His books include Augustine of
Hippo: A Biography and, most recently, Treasure in Heaven: The
Holy Poor in Early Christianity.
HELENE COOPER is a Pentagon Correspondent with The New
York Times. She is the author of The House at Sugar Beach: In
Search of a Lost African Childhood and Madame President: The
Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
ROBYN CRESWELL is Assistant Professor of Comparative
Literature at Yale and the Poetry Editor of The Paris Review.
MARK FORD’s latest book is Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner.
He teaches in the English Department at University College
PETER GREEN is Dougherty Centennial Professor Emeritus of
Classics at the University of Texas at Austin and Adjunct Professor at the University of Iowa. His books include The Hellenistic
Age: A Short History and a translation of the Iliad. His translation of the Odyssey is forthcoming.
IAN JOHNSON reports from Beijing and Berlin. His new book,
The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, was published in April. He received the 2016 Shorenstein Journalism
STEPHEN KOTKIN is the John P. Birkelund Professor in History and International Affairs at Princeton and a senior fellow at
Stanford’s Hoover Institution. His essay in this issue is adapted
from Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941, which will be published in October by Penguin.
JAMES MANN is a Fellow-in-Residence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His books
include The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to
Redefine American Power and Rise of the Vulcans: The History
of Bush’s War Cabinet.
RUTH MARGALIT’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker
and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications.
She grew up in Israel.
FERDINAND MOUNT is the former Editor of The Times Literary Supplement. His books include The New Few: A Very British
Oligarchy and, most recently, English Voices: Lives, Landscapes,
ROBERT O. PAXTON is Mellon Professor of Social Science at
Columbia and the author of Vichy France and The Anatomy of
Fascism, among other works.
JED PERL’s Calder: The Conquest of Time, the first volume of
his biography of the American sculptor, has just been published.
NATHANIEL RICH is the author of Odds Against Tomorrow
and The Mayor’s Tongue. His novel King Zeno will be published
in January.
SANFORD SCHWARTZ is the author of Christen Købke and
William Nicholson.
COLIN THUBRON is a President Emeritus of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of The Lost Heart of Asia,
Shadow of the Silk Road, and, most recently, Night of Fire, a
HELEN VENDLER is the Arthur Kingsley Porter University
Professor in the Department of English at Harvard. Her latest
book is The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, a collection of her
most recent essays.
Editor: Ian Buruma
Deputy Editor: Michael Shae
Senior Editors: Eve Bowen, Gabriel Winslow-Yost
Prudence Crowther, Julie Just
Senior Editor, Poetry: Jana Prikryl
Contributing Editor: Ann Kjellberg
Assistant Editor: Andrew Katzenstein
Founding Editors: Robert B. Silvers (1929–2017)
Barbara Epstein (1928–2006)
Publisher: Rea S. Hederman
Associate Publisher: Catherine Tice
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» J. Hoberman: A Plague of Trumps
» Francine Prose: Mother! and Me
» Zack Hatfield: The Garden of Ruth Asawa
» Glenn Ligon: Black and Blue
Plus: Darryl Pinckney on race and immigration, Tim Parks on consciousness, and more
“Internationally acclaimed
historian Serhii Plokhy knows
his subject like few others,
and he writes with aplomb
and a keen eye for the ironies,
contingencies, and tragedies
of this history. A book that
should be read by everyone
seeking to understand
Russia today.”
author of Rasputin
“Serhii Plokhy does for
Russia what only great
historians can do—make
the connections between the
distant past and vital present
feel relevant and alive. . . . Lost
Kingdom is essential reading for
those wishing to understand
Russia beyond the headlines.”
author of Winter Is Coming
“A timely work of impeccable
research that elucidates
the Russian impulse toward
regaining lost lands under a
powerful myth of origins. . . .
Plokhy continues to show
that he is the master of
this terrain.”
The illustrations on the cover and on pages 6, 28, and 36 are by Siegfried Woldhek. The illustrations on pages 39 and 70 are by David Levine. The illustration on
page 66 is by Gerald Scarfe. The artwork on page 32 by Donald Judd is © Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
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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From Head Shops to
Whole Foods
The Rise and Fall of Activist
“Using solid, representative examples, Davis traces each vein of
activist entrepreneurialism to show
how activists’ original intentions
were frustrated, altered, or abandoned.”
—Publishers Weekly
A History of Consumer Surveillance
and Financial Identity in America
“[A] fascinating study of the
credit-rating industry’s central
role in creating the ‘modern
surveillance society’ . . .
Lauer’s top-down economic
history is a thorough, enlightening,
and long-overdue contribution to
the field.”
—Publishers Weekly
Down and Out
in New Orleans
Transgressive Living
in the Informal Economy
“[Marina’s] New Orleans is a
lived-in, off-the-beaten-path place
. . . The result is a work that will
equally serve sociologists, anthropologists and those who are simply interested in seeing another
side of one of the country’s most
fascinating cities.”
—The Times-Picayune
Modern Slavery
A Global Perspective
“For all my association with the
world of slavery, I’ve never known
anyone remotely like Siddharth
Kara. He grounds the reader
through statistics and definitions
before launching into scenes more
true than any statistic or definition could ever be. No reader,
however carefully clad in hyperrationality, will emerge unchallenged and unchanged.”
—Swanee Hunt, former U.S.
Ambassador to Austria
Hidden Atrocities
Japanese War Criminals
Japanese Germ Warfare
and American Obstruction of Justice
at the Tokyo Trial
The Politics of Justice After the
Second World War
“Full of memorable personalities,
Hidden Atrocities is a documentary
‘whodunit’ that brings a disgraceful
moment in history long erased by a
shocking obstruction of justice back
to vivid life.”
—Ambassador Chas W. Freeman Jr.,
former U.S. assistant secretary of
The Australian Pursuit
of Japanese War
Criminals, 1943–1957
From Foe to Friend
“Aszkielowicz sheds new light
on this underappreciated story
and assesses its implications
to Australian domestic politics
and international relations in the
Asia-Pacific region.”
News under Fire
China’s Propaganda against Japan
in the English-Language Press,
“A superbly researched and
well-nuanced account of an overlooked topic.”
—Julia C. Strauss, University of
—Yuma Totani, author of
The Tokyo War Crimes Trial
The New York Review
Birth of a New Earth
A New Geology
for the Twenty-First Century
The Radical Politics of
“Rampino has pulled off the clever
trick of producing a book about
geology that will appeal to serious
professionals and weekend rockhounds alike . . . His crisp narrative
matches the dynamism of the science it explains.”
“One of those rare and brilliant
books that critiques the ongoing
destruction of the environment in
a writing style that is lyrical, compassionate, and as accessible as
it is informative. Parr . . . makes a
convincing case for environmental
and economic justice on a global
—Dan Fagin, author of the Pulitzer
Prize-winning Toms River: A Story
of Science and Salvation
—Henry Giroux, author of America
at War with Itself
In Search
of the Lost Orient
An Interview
Artaud the Moma
Edited with an afterword by Kaira M.
Cabañas. Translated by Peggy Kamuf.
Translated by C. Jon Delogu. Foreword by
Jean-Louis Schlegel and Olivier Mongin.
“A complete intellectual life
story . . . An engagingly written,
impressive book that provides a
rare and unique view of political
Islam and one of its major
—Benjamin Brower, author of
A Desert Named Peace
“Truly unprecedented. It is the most
amazing attempt ever written—brilliant, baroque, unstoppable—to
confront the mad poet’s vociferations and relentless scatology in
their own terms while resisting his
metaphysical rage for reappropriation.”
—Sylvère Lotringer, general
editor of Semiotext(e)
And Now:
Architecture Against a
Developer Presidency
Is All Over
Essays on the Occasion of
Trump’s Inauguration
October 26, 2017
[The book] investigates architecture’s simultaneous diminishment
and ubiquity in the early twentyfirst century. Taken together, the
pieces in this volume reinterpret
architecture’s “all-over-ness” as
an untapped disciplinary property rather than a temporary or
terminal condition.
Wright’s Writings
Reflections on Culture and Politics,
[The book] traces the discursive work of Frank Lloyd Wright
through a set of essays by
Kenneth Frampton. It presents a
history of the architect through
the essays, books, letters, lectures, and speeches he wrote as
well as the material and social
cultures he navigated.
Why Only Art
Can Save Us
Aesthetics and the Absence of
“Zabala’s extraordinary book
strikes at the very heart of our spiritual predicament.”
—Slavoj Žižek
“The art world, as well as the philosophical community, will benefit
from Zabala’s best book so far.”
—Gianni Vattimo
The Adults in the Room
James Mann
The timeworn metaphor has been used
and reused ever since the earliest days
of the Trump era, when Donald Trump
was first putting together his cabinet. On December 4, after he named
James Mattis to be his defense secretary, the website Politico asserted that
“there’s finally an adult in the room.”
In January, as Rex Tillerson was being
confirmed as secretary of state, Bob
Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told his
colleagues, “To me, Mr. Tillerson is an
adult who’s been around.” In February,
during Trump’s first visit to Mexico,
the Financial Times quoted one source
as saying that Tillerson and John Kelly
(then secretary of homeland security)
“represent the adult wing of the new
Before long, the metaphor became
a collective one: a small group of officials within the Trump foreign-policy
team represented “the adults” or “the
grownups in the room.” The membership in the club changed slightly from
time to time. At first, the “adults”
honorific was most commonly applied
to the threesome of Tillerson, Mattis,
and National Security Adviser H. R.
McMaster. This summer, after Trump
brought in Kelly to be his White House
chief of staff, Kelly became not only
a member but the leading figure in
the Adults club, while, gradually, Tillerson’s problems and increasing marginalization as secretary of state have
made him less central to the group.
Phrases like “the adults” or “the
grownups in the room” seem on the
surface to carry intuitive meanings but
raise all sorts of questions that deserve
scrutiny. What does it mean to be an
“adult” in Washington in general, or,
in particular, under Donald Trump?
What policies do the “adults” favor?
Where do they come from, and what do
they believe? Most importantly, what is
the significance of the fact that most of
Trump’s so- called grownups come from
the military? To answer such questions,
it helps to look at the history, both of
the way the idea of “adults” has been
used in Washington in the past and of
the way military officers in the US have
served in top civilian jobs.
he notion that some officials are
“adults” or “the grownups in the room”
is an old Washington trope dating back
decades before the arrival of Donald
Trump. It is linked to an opposing metaphor: in Washington parlance, others
are said to be “in need of adult supervision.” These phrases go to the heart of
the way those who work in Washington
operate, see themselves, and, above
all, talk about themselves. Washington insider newsletters like The Nelson
Report and Washington columnists
like The New York Times’s Thomas
Friedman purvey the notion that some
people are “adults” or “grownups” and
See Mark Perry, “James Mattis’ 33-Year
Grudge Against Iran,” Politico Magazine, December 4, 2016; Corker remarks
to Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
January 23, 2017; Demetri Sevastopulo
and Stephen Woodman, “Rex Tillerson
Promotes US Ties During Mexico Trip,”
Financial Times, February 24, 2017.
others are in need of “adult supervision.” The phrases were meant to imply
a judgment about an individual’s character or behavior: some people were
deemed to be mature, while others
were merely being juvenile.
Before Trump, this Washington
lingo was usually a cover for policy differences. The “adults” were those who
favored certain policies or approaches;
those in need of “supervision” were
the opponents of such policies. Thus,
the metaphors amounted to a verbal
sleight- of-hand, transforming political
judgments into personal ones. Other,
more neutral adjectives could usually
have been applied to those who were
approvingly called “adults” (“prag-
matists,” “centrists,” and “moderates”
come to mind), but the “adults” metaphor added an extra bit of sneer and
insult to the opposing side.
The “adults” were usually those who
didn’t stray too far from the political
center, however that was defined at
the moment. Bernie Sanders has never
qualified as an “adult” in the Washington usage of the word, although he is
old enough to collect Social Security;
nor did Ralph Nader; nor did Rand
Paul, though he is old enough to perform eye surgery. What made them deficient was not their character or their
immaturity, but their views.
ollowing the arrival of Donald
Trump in the White House, the meaning of the words “adult” and “grownup”
has undergone a subtle but remarkable
shift. They now refer far more to behavior and character than to views on
policy. This is where Kelly, McMaster,
Mattis, and (to a lesser extent) Tillerson
come in; “grownup” is the behavioral
role that we have assigned to them.
For the first time, America has a
president who does not act like an adult.
He is emotionally immature: he lies,
taunts, insults, bullies, rages, seeks vengeance, exalts violence, boasts, refuses
to accept criticism, all in ways that most
parents would seek to prevent in their
own children. Thus the dynamic was
established in the earliest days of the
administration: Trump makes messes,
or threatens to make them, and Americans look to the “adults” to clean up
for him. The “adults,” in turn, send out
occasional little public signals that they
are trying to keep Trump from veering
off course—to educate him, to make
him grow up, to keep him under control. When all else fails, they simply
distance themselves from his tirades.
Sometimes such efforts are successful;
on many occasions, they aren’t.
The back-and-forth between Trump
and the “adults” has been evident on
matters both big and small. Sometimes
these involve questions of symbolic
significance concerning the role of
the president: when, at Trump’s first
cabinet meeting, officials took turns
in front of television cameras thanking
Trump and singing his praises, as if the
president were a Central Asian dictator, Mattis opted out, saying, “It’s an
honor to represent the great men and
women of the Department of Defense.”
Sometimes these matters involve is-
sues of sweeping importance: before
Trump’s first trip to Europe, Tillerson,
Mattis, and McMaster joined together
to put into a draft of his speech a reaffirmation of Article V of the NATO
treaty, committing the United States to
the collective defense of Europe.2 Yet
Trump ultimately cut the words from
his speech. Then, after the understandable and predictable uproar, he turned
around and made the commitment.
Trump’s blustering, threatening behavior has raised fears that he might
do something impulsive, such as launch
a nuclear attack. Those fears, in turn,
have heightened the perception of the
“adults” as watchdogs or guardians. In
February, the Associated Press said
that “for the first few weeks after the
inauguration, Mattis and Kelly agreed
that one of them should remain in the
United States to keep tabs on the orders rapidly firing out of the White
House.”3 Ever since, various versions
of this story have appeared again and
again, sometimes including McMaster
or Tillerson, and usually without the
time limits of the original story.
Mattis has had the (relatively) easiest
time of it with Trump, while McMaster
Susan Glasser, “Trump National
Security Team Blindsided by NATO
Speech,” Politico Magazine, June 5,
and, now, Kelly, have had the hardest,
in part because of the nature of the different jobs they hold. As defense secretary, Mattis has a cabinet job that keeps
him across the Potomac River, running
the US government’s biggest department, and Trump seems to allow him
considerably more latitude than the
other “adults.”
Mattis, a former Marine Corps general who served as commander of
America’s Central Command forces
in the Middle East, has the satisfaction
of knowing he has strong-to-intense
support on Capitol Hill, where John
McCain, the chairman of the Senate
Armed Services Committee, let it be
known at the start of the administration that he would serve as Mattis’s
protector. Mattis has also been especially popular within the military. Before his appointment, he said that he
would speak his mind when his views
differed from those of Trump. He explained, for example, why he opposes
the use of torture.
With greater job security than the
other “adults,” Mattis seems to have
assumed the role of reminding Americans and the rest of the world that the
American government existed before
Trump and will survive him. At a conference in Singapore in June, when
asked if America were retreating
from its role in the world, he invoked
a quote routinely misattributed to
Churchill about America: “Bear with
us,” Mattis told the audience. “Once
we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right
In contrast, McMaster and Kelly
work at staff jobs inside the White
House, where they must deal with
Trump day after day. After he was appointed White House chief of staff in
late July, Kelly sought to impose order,
controlling who gets to see Trump and
restricting what materials are given to
him. But there were quickly signs that
Kelly’s discipline campaign could go
only so far. He could not stop Trump
from saying outrageous things in public on the spur of the moment; Trump’s
outburst equating the two sides in the
Charlottesville protests came at what
was supposed to be a press conference
on infrastructure, and it left Kelly staring at the floor. It was not long before
some of Trump’s friends let it be known
that the president was chafing against
Kelly’s restrictions. In his recent book,
The Gatekeepers, Chris Whipple writes
that the position of White House chief
of staff “is what may well be the toughest job in Washington—so arduous that
the average tenure is a little more than
eighteen months.”4 At this juncture, it
seems extremely unlikely that Kelly
will raise the average.
As national security adviser, McMaster has had to handle especially
acrimonious disputes inside the White
House over issues ranging from trade
and immigration to America’s role in
the world. At the same time, he has had
to wrestle with personnel battles that
extend beyond the usual ones among
cabinet secretaries. He has had to deal
with various White House figures,
including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared
Kushner, whom Trump set up as a miniczar over foreign-policy issues ranging
Vivian Salama and Julie Pace, “Trio of
Military Men Gain Growing Influence
with Trump,” Associated Press, February 23, 2017.
Chris Whipple, The Gatekeepers: How
the White House Chiefs of Staff Define
Every Presidency (Crown, 2017), p. 11.
The New York Review
S T E P H E N M I T C H E L L , T R A N S L AT O R ,
Beowulf “A most readable, energetic, and colorful translation of this savage
epic. . . . An amazing achievement.”—Billy Collins
D AV I D B E N T L E Y H A R T ,
The New Testament: A Translation “This necessary, brilliantly presented translation reads
like taking a biblical studies class with a provocative professor.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
A B B A S A M A N AT ,
Iran: A Modern History “Those who wish to understand how an early modern silk road
monarchy transformed into a contemporary petroleum-fueled theocracy will find no more informed or captivating
guide.”—Juan Cole, Director, Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, University of Michigan
J O H N F. H A U G H T,
The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe “This book . . . will become a permanent
contribution to the religion and science literature.”—Holmes Rolston, III, Templeton Prize winner Q “Fascinating
and important.”—John D. Cressler, Georgia Tech
G U Y S TA N D I N G ,
Basic Income: A Guide for the Open-Minded “This book is the most comprehensive guide ever
written on basic income, and offers both a history and a road map forward to a more just and economically
sustainable future.”—Andy Stern, author of Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy
and Rebuild the American Dream
The Language of Light: A History of Silent Voices “Thought-provoking . . . a highly recommended
and important work that provides a convincing argument advocating change in society’s attitudes toward the
Deaf.”—Library Journal
True Stories: And Other Essays “This debut essay collection from novelist Spufford has many
strengths, chief among them the diversity of topics covered. . . . Spufford fits no cookie-cutter definition: he is
journalist and scholar, science lover and Christian, word lover and poet, and his writing satisfies deeply.”—Publishers
Weekly, starred review
Stormtroopers: A New History of Hitler’s Brownshirts “A definitive study of the
Stormtroopers. . . . Quite simply, this is the best book on its subject.”—Richard Bessel, author of Germany 1945
October 26, 2017
from the Middle East to Mexico and
China. Above all, McMaster waged a
months-long battle with Stephen Bannon, the leader of the populist wing of
the administration, until Bannon finally departed in mid-August.
Tillerson has been the most baffling of the “adults.” He had years of
experience running one of America’s
leading corporations but is serving as
a classic example of why such experience does not necessarily prepare
one for a top cabinet post. He came
to the position of secretary of state
with more establishment credentials
(or at least job references) than any of
the other “adults”; luminaries of past
Republican administrations, such as
Robert Gates, Condoleezza Rice, and
James Baker all supported him. Yet
Tillerson has gone further than anyone else on the foreign policy team to
create a radical break with the past.
His determined, prolonged efforts to
pare down the State Department—by
supporting budget cuts, reorganizing
positions out of existence, and, above
all, choosing to leave major jobs unfilled—have left the nation’s leading
diplomats shocked and demoralized,
wandering around the silent halls
past one empty office after another.
Indeed, whether intentionally or not,
Tillerson has done much to carry out
Bannon’s populist call of last February for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
or all the attention given to the personal qualities of the “adults” (that is,
their ability to preserve a modicum
of stability within the administration
amidst the Trumpian turmoil), their
views have attracted far less scrutiny.
It can be argued that what the “adults”
believe about various foreign-policy issues is more important than it was for
their predecessors in past administrations, because Trump himself seems to
care little about policy, certainly not
about its details or complexities. He
operates in the public realm of words,
tweets, and cable shows, leaving hard
policymaking to underlings. Indeed,
sometimes there seems to be a complete disconnect between Trump’s
show-business presidency and what is
actually transpiring inside the federal
government, as when Trump issued
a seeming ban on transgenders in the
military on Twitter, while Mattis both
limited its scope and delayed it from
taking effect.
The “adults” have a record of beliefs
and actions that, in any other administration, would stand out more. Kelly,
now in the White House, was early
on—as secretary of homeland security—a strong supporter of Trump’s
order to limit immigration from Muslim countries into the United States.
Tillerson seems to have an especially
rosy view of Putin’s Russia, as well as
an obvious aversion to issues of human
rights and democracy. McMaster,
along with Gary Cohn, the director of
the National Economic Council, last
spring wrote the startling Wall Street
Journal Op-Ed that gave a Hobbesian
underpinning to Trump’s “America
First” worldview: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a
clear- eyed outlook that the world is
not a ‘global community’ but an arena
where nations, nongovernmental actors
The Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History
The University of Texas at Dallas • • 214-883-2475
and businesses engage and compete for
It is the underlying foreign-policy
views and experiences of the three
“adults” with military backgrounds—
Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly—that
are the most important and the least
covered. What counts above all are
their views on issues concerning armed
conflict. Because they come from the
military, there have been occasional
suggestions that they will somehow
bring the United States into new wars.
As will be seen, there is solid ground
for concern about their military backgrounds, but the simplistic fear that
their military service might lead them
to support the use of force seems misplaced. Most of America’s disastrous or
ill-fated military interventions—Vietnam, George W. Bush’s war in Iraq,
Libya—were spearheaded by civilians.
The notion that military officers are
Washington’s leading hawks dates back
to the era when Air Force General Curtis LeMay tried to persuade President
Kennedy to bomb Cuba. But the stereotype has less validity today, when military leaders seem intensely aware of the
risks of stumbling into war. Before coming to the White House, McMaster was
known primarily as the author of the
book Dereliction of Duty, an account of
America’s involvement in Vietnam. McMaster’s conclusion was blunt and stark:
The war in Vietnam was not lost in
the field, nor was it lost on the front
pages of the New York Times or on
the college campuses. It was lost in
Washington, D.C. . . . The disaster
in Vietnam was not the result of
impersonal forces but a uniquely
human failure, the responsibility
for which was shared by President
Johnson and his principal military
and civilian advisers.6
he three “adults” from the military
do seem to share a kind of collective
view, based on their experiences in
uniform. All of them fought on the
ground in America’s post-September 11
conflicts. Mattis was the commander in
charge of America’s wars in both Iraq
and Afghanistan. Kelly served under
Mattis in Iraq; his own son was killed in
combat in Afghanistan. McMaster commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an essay about Afghanistan in
2012, McMaster wrote: “The difference
between how the war is briefed in Washington, D.C., and in Kabul, versus how it
is waged in the field, cannot be starker.”7
It is this perspective, the result of
being longtime outsiders to Washington, that distinguishes the current group
of “adults” from previous generals and
admirals who moved into civilian posts.
Most of the military leaders often
mentioned as their predecessors—for
example, Alexander Haig, the former
White House chief of staff and secre-
tary of state; or Brent Scowcroft, the
two-time national security adviser; or
Colin Powell, the national security adviser and secretary of state—rose to
prominence largely through their long
service in Washington. All of these predecessors had powerful civilian mentors who, over time, promoted them to
senior positions (Richard Nixon and
Henry Kissinger for Haig and Scowcroft, Defense Secretaries Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci for Powell).
But Trump’s “adults,” as a group, have
been mostly soldiers, not staff officers in
the Haig model. As a result, their disposition seems to be not so much to enter
into new wars as to find ways to win the
wars America has already entered—
the wars in which they themselves have
fought. If there is a single major issue on
which they have clearly prevailed over
Trump’s own initial instincts, it was the
decision in August to send new American troops to Afghanistan.
In a perceptive description of the outlook of Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly,
veteran defense correspondent James
Kitfield wrote that they aim “to correct what senior military officers see as
the mistakes of the Obama administration.”8 Those mistakes, from the military viewpoint, include the complete
withdrawal of American troops from
Iraq after a 2012 deadline, leaving a
vacuum that was filled by the Islamic
State; the setting of a time limit for
Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan;
and Obama’s failure to enforce the red
line he drew against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. (The “adults”
were instrumental in Trump’s decision
to launch Tomahawk missiles against
Syria last April when Bashar al-Assad’s
forces again used such weapons.9)
Beyond this desire for successful outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in
the ongoing war with ISIS, the views of
Trump’s “adults” are more vague and
less predictable. They seem to favor generally tougher approaches to Iran, particularly in comparison with the policies
of the Obama administration. Mattis,
in a long interview with a high school
newspaper last spring, called Iran’s
government “a murderous regime” and
“certainly the most destabilizing influence in the Middle East.”10 So far, however, the Trump administration has not
withdrawn from the nuclear agreement
Obama negotiated with Iran.
Yet there is little that suggests what
these three generals think about China
or North Korea. Like US military officers in general, they tend to favor preserving and strengthening America’s
existing military alliances. That, in
itself, creates the sort of tension with
Trump that was apparent during the
president’s first visit to Europe.
he most troubling question about
Trump’s “adults” is not so much what
they believe but why most of them
H. R. McMaster and Gary D. Cohn,
“America First Doesn’t Mean America
Alone,” The Wall Street Journal, May
30, 2017.
That Assad’s regime used chemical
weapons was confirmed in September
by an independent UN commission.
See “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the
Syrian Arab Republic,” released September 6, 2017.
H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty:
Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara,
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies
That Led to Vietnam (HarperCollins,
1997), pp. 333–334.
H. R. McMaster, “Afterword,” in Daniel R. Green, The Valley’s Edge: A Year
with the Pashtuns in the Heartland of
the Taliban (Potomac, 2012), p. 217.
James Kitfield, “Trump’s Generals
Are Trying to Save the World. Starting With the White House,” Politico
Magazine, August 4, 2017.
Transcript, James Mattis’s interview
with the Islander, June 20, 2017.
The New York Review
—O R H A N PA M U K ,
recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature
—K I R K U S R E V I E W S
To call it a ‘memoir’ even is to represent only a small
part of Mazower’s investigation into his family’s past.
This is a saga of cities—Vilna, Moscow, Paris, London,
and New York—and a profound meditation on what
it takes to call a place home.”
—M I CH A E L G R E E N B E RG ,
author of Hurry Down Sunshine
An acclaimed historian
explores the struggles of
twentieth - century Europe
through the lives and hopes
of a single family
— his own.
October 26, 2017
00&33/6-27,) 78(-)6
come from the military. There have
never been so many military leaders
at the top levels of America’s foreignpolicy apparatus. Many in this country
do not realize how strong the strictures
have been in the past against military
officers serving in senior civilian posts.
The reasons for the old rules start,
above all, with concerns about civilian
control of the military, but they go further, to the impact within the military
itself. If military leaders are allowed to
take top civilian posts, the argument
goes, it opens the way for those officers
to take a civilian (or “political”) route
to military promotion. The classic example is Haig, who entered the Nixon
White House in 1969 as a colonel and
left in 1974 as a four-star general.
When Scowcroft became national
security adviser in 1975, he chose to resign from the Air Force. “For a senior
White House official to retain a military commission would, [Scowcroft]
thought, divide his loyalty between
his military superiors and the American president,” wrote his biographer,
Bartholomew Sparrow.11 Twelve years
later, the report of the congressional
committees investigating the Irancontra affair specifically urged that
the job of national security adviser be
held by a civilian. Nonetheless, since
that recommendation, various presidents have appointed one or another
active- duty or retired military officer
to serve along with the civilians in top
leadership ranks: Powell was Ronald
Reagan’s national security adviser,
Scowcroft was George H.W. Bush’s,
and retired Marine Commandant
James Jones was Obama’s.
With Trump, this pattern has been
reversed. There are few civilians at the
top of the national-security apparatus,
while present or former military leaders occupy the positions of national
security adviser, defense secretary, and
White House chief of staff. Mattis this
year became the first former military
leader to serve as secretary of defense
since George Marshall was appointed
to the job in 1950.
The ascendance of Trump’s generals has raised alarms that the military
might be trying to take over the country. “Is a Military Coup in the Cards?”
blared one Newsweek headline this
summer, after a video went viral showing Mattis telling some American
troops, “Our country, right now, it’s
got problems that we don’t have in the
military. You just hold the line until
our country gets back to understanding
and respecting each other and showing
it.” It turned out that those remarks
were not new; Mattis had, on other occasions, decried the political divisions
in America and urged those in the military to “hold the line.”12
But for now there is scant evidence
that the military is pushing to increase
its political influence. Trump’s three
generals didn’t seek out the civilian
jobs they now hold, collectively or individually. Trump chose to put them
there. The chances are that some of
them won’t stay for long, either; there
have already been occasional reports
Bartholomew Sparrow, The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call
of National Security (PublicAffairs,
2015), p. 179.
that McMaster or Kelly will be fired or
quit. (It is a fair and continuing question whether the proper course for an
“adult” in the Trump administration is
to resign from it.)
The underlying, longer-term problem is the lack of civilian influence
on foreign policy. Even if the generals
leave, Trump may choose other military leaders to replace them, rather
than appoint civilian leaders who might
emerge as dissenters, challengers, or rivals. It is hard to remember now, but
when Trump was creating his foreignpolicy team, he talked with centrist Republicans (Mitt Romney), right-wing
Republicans (John Bolton), and proTrump Republicans (Newt Gingrich)
before rejecting all of them, along with
various other foreign policy specialists, turning instead to Tillerson and
the generals. Moreover, this dearth in
civilian leadership will last longer than
Trump’s initial choices and appointments: Tillerson’s failure to fill many
State Department jobs means that
there are fewer civilians in second-level
positions gaining the valuable experience they could use to shape American
foreign policy in the future.
In a recent insightful book based on
her experiences in the Pentagon under
Obama, How Everything Became War
and the Military Became Everything,13
Rosa Brooks describes how the military has come to dominate American
foreign policy overseas because it possesses the money and personnel to do
what the State Department cannot.
“It’s a vicious circle: as civilian capacity
has declined, the military has stepped
into the breach,” Brooks wrote.
Under Trump, this phenomenon is
now spreading from US operations
abroad to the top levels of leadership in
Washington. After the racist violence
in Charlottesville and Trump’s incendiary comments about it, the leaders
of America’s five military services—
that is, the individual members of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff—published statements condemning racist hatred. They
had strong and legitimate military reasons to do so, in order to make certain
there was no racial upheaval among
the troops. Nevertheless, it was a little
unsettling. In the past, America did
not have to rely upon its military leaders to calm passions or make soothing statements, because those are the
sorts of things that usually come from
presidents and top civilian leaders.
Such statements raise, momentarily,
the specter of countries like Turkey or
Egypt or Thailand, where the military
assumes an obligation to step in for the
good of the country when civilian governments have collapsed.
For now, such comparisons seem remote. But what has been most disturbing this year is the subtle link that is
being created in American consciousness between the phrases “military
leaders” or “generals” and the phrases
“adults” or “grownups in the room.”
Having military figures act as “adults”
may somehow suggest that civilians
lack the capacity to govern on their
own, or even that civilians act like children. That, in Trump’s case, would be
sadly accurate.
—September 28, 2017
■ 06835(6625*
Greg Jaffe and Dan Lamothe, “With
a Drama-Filled White House, Mattis
Has Shown Deft Political Touch,” The
Washington Post, August 30, 2017.
Simon and Schuster, 2016. See Kenneth Roth’s review in these pages,
March 9, 2017.
The New York Review
Congratulations to the first international winner of the
“The Islands is evocative, moving yet tough-minded, written with
marvelous style and authority. After just the first few sentences,
we trust absolutely that this writer is in control and knows what
he’s doing. The narratives move expeditiously, even when
they’re thick with description, and the characters’ voices are
distinct and convincing.” —David Gates, judge
is the author of four novels, three
collections of poetry, and two previous volumes of short fiction.
His work has won many prizes, including the Virginia Faulkner
Award, the Patrick Kavanagh Award, and the Sean O’Faolain Prize.
He has been short- or longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the
Irish Book Awards, the Raymond Carver Prize, and the Manchester
Fiction Prize, among others. He lives in Cork, Ireland.
& / 2 7+‡ October 26, 2017
So When Are You Getting Married?
Ruth Margalit
a television series created by
Laizy Shapiro and Havvah Deevon
How insular a community is may be
measured by its share of members
who wish to appear on camera. When
a casting call went out to New York’s
ultra- Orthodox community, which
numbers in the hundreds of thousands,
to appear in Menashe, a feature film
set in the Borough Park neighborhood
of Brooklyn, only sixty people showed
up. “I would call it uncasting,” Joshua Z. Weinstein, the film’s director,
told an interviewer. Even
after they agreed to
participate in the film,
many of the actors soon
dropped out, citing rabbinical prohibitions or
cold feet. A full cast list
has yet to be released; the
filmmakers are worried
that even extras could
face excommunication.
Menashe’s clandestine
aspect—it was shot in
secret entirely within
the Hasidic community
it depicts—has at least
one salutary side effect: it lends the story an
understated, naturalistic
quality that might have
been missing in a flashier
production. That quality
is heightened by the fact
that most of its cast members are first-time actors, and many had never
stepped inside a movie
theater. Menashe is spoken completely
in Yiddish, except for one brief but
consequential scene in English (to
which I’ll return). It loosely tells the
real-life story of Menashe Lustig, the
ultra- Orthodox actor playing the title
character. Having been widowed for a
year, Menashe wants to raise his tenyear- old son, Rieven, by himself. But
his religious faith won’t allow it. As the
Book of Genesis says: “It is not good
that the man should be alone.” Until
Menashe remarries, a rabbi decrees,
Rieven is to be left in the custody of his
uncle and aunt. But Menashe doesn’t
wish to remarry, and the rabbi gives
him a week to prove himself as a single
The plot takes place during that
week, as Menashe, a devoted father
but a helpless klutz, bumbles his way
through his parental duties and his
low-paying job behind the cash register of an ultra- Orthodox- owned supermarket. He is always short on money
and on the verge of being fired. He
gets drunk on a night out with his son,
oversleeps, then gives Rieven Coke
and cake for breakfast. Our desire to
see Menashe win custody of Rieven is
complicated by the fact that he is far
from an ideal father. When Menashe’s
stringent brother-in-law blames him for
having neglected his wife when she fell
ill, Menashe doesn’t dispute him.
Still, we find ourselves rooting for
Menashe. It helps that Lustig is a born
actor, with a rare ability to project
comic expressiveness at key dramatic
moments. One of the film’s most riveting scenes is without dialogue: we
simply watch as Menashe moves about
his cramped apartment, knocking over
a plastic cup here, scratching his belly
there. His physicality is thoroughly
commanding—like a paunchy Chaplin
with a yarmulke. So embedded are we
within the strictures of Orthodox life
that even when Menashe slaps Rieven
for a small infraction, we quickly forgive him. When Rieven asks his father,
who wears a black yarmulke and whose
tzitzit, or prayer shawl fringes, dangle
or a film that focuses on parentchild relations in the wake of a tragic
death, Menashe remarkably eschews
sentimentality or lazy conjecture. You
may, for example, presume, as I did,
that Menashe does not wish to remarry
because he is still in love with his late
wife. You’d be wrong. Their marriage,
we find out, was not a happy one. The
couple met through a matchmaker on a
mutual trip to Israel, and spent most of
their time together fighting. Even a moment of tenderness, in which Menashe
gives his son a fluffy little chick, isn’t
saccharine. As Rieven pets it, his father
belts out a song in Yiddish: “Tomorrow
are Bobover Hasidim who originated
in Galicia, in today’s southern Poland. The Bobovers are credited with
establishing a major ultra- Orthodox
community in the United States after
a near- complete annihilation of their
sect in the Holocaust. Much like the
Satmars of Williamsburg, they belong
to a zealous, antimodernist branch of
ultra- Orthodox Judaism, though one
that is less vocal against the State of Israel than the Satmars. Lustig himself is
a member of a far smaller sect, called
Skver, that is based in New Square, a
village in Rockland County, New York,
where men and women walk on separate sides of the street.
Women often occupy
a paradoxical position
in Hasidic life—a position Menashe deftly portrays. They are largely
absent from civic life, yet
hold much power when
it comes to the home.
In some Hasidic circles,
they are even employed
in fields that are considered too modern for men,
such as computer work
or design. This is particularly true in Israel,
where Haredi, or ultraOrthodox, women serve
as their households’ main
breadwinners while more
than half of Haredi men
don’t work and spend
their days studying the
Talmud. An old Jewish joke tells of a devout
woman who says that her
husband is in charge of
the “big things,” such as
going to war or relations
with the king, while she is
responsible for the “little things”: their
livelihood, their children’s education.
This ambivalent status of ultraOrthodox women—outsized yet marginalized—can be summed up in one
sentence that Menashe utters matterof-factly partway through the film.
Why marry, he asks his rabbi, if a stepmother wouldn’t be allowed to touch his
son anyway? In other words, a woman’s
presence is so vaunted that a man cannot be expected to raise a child without her, but she is also deemed ritually
impure and cannot touch even a young
boy who is not her blood relative. Such
is the plight of ultra- Orthodox women.
Unsurprisingly, the dialogue in the
film is spoken almost exclusively by
men. A rare exception is a scene in
which Menashe goes on a blind date
organized by a community matchmaker. The meeting is cold, like the
ice cubes in the couple’s Coke glasses.
As befits Orthodox custom, they barely
make eye contact. “Besides marriage
and children, what else is there?” Menashe’s date asks him solemnly. Menashe sighs. Oy.
Not only are women otherwise largely
missing from the film, but so is secular life. Unlike the Chabad-Lubavitch
movement, which is famous for its outreach, the majority of ultra- Orthodox
Jews shun non-Hasidic society. Only
once do we see Menashe interact with
anyone outside his community, and to
hear him suddenly speak in English (a
Federica Valabrega/A24
a film directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein
Menashe Lustig in Joshua Z. Weinstein’s film Menashe
out from under his shirt like curtain
tassels on a windy day, “Why don’t you
wear a hat and coat like everyone else?
You’d look much nicer,” I found myself
thinking: Yeah, Menashe, why don’t
The lifelike feel of Menashe is further compounded by improvisation.
Weinstein has said that because of his
casting problems, the film’s script had
to go through countless iterations.
A large part reserved for Menashe’s
father-in-law, for example, had to be
scrapped: the actor playing the role
pulled out after shooting began. Then
there was the language barrier. Yiddish
is the main language spoken by most
ultra- Orthodox Hasidim (but not by
Chabadniks or Lithuanian Orthodox
Jews, who converse in Hebrew). Yet
neither Weinstein nor his fellow writers speak it. So the actors were given
free rein to translate the English script
as they saw fit. The resulting dialogue
comes across as refreshingly unpolished—the English subtitles rightly
read like a translation, not like a superior original. The same unpolished
veneer characterizes the film’s visuals.
At one point, Menashe and Rieven
look for decorations to liven up the
bare walls of their apartment. Most
pictures are out of the question. Instead, they settle on a watercolor portrait of a rabbi, set against a pinkish
sunset. “Very authentic,” Menashe says
we’ll have you in the chicken soup.”
Both father and son laugh. Menashe
thus follows the very best of Yiddish
literary tradition—Sholem Yankev
Abramovitsch (known by his alter ego
Mendele the Book Peddler) comes to
mind, as does Solomon Naumovich
Rabinovich (Sholem Aleichem)—in
which gallows humor is the surest salvation from kitsch.
Menashe’s depiction of Hasidic society is likewise nuanced. Weinstein,
whose background is in documentary,
is interested in life as it is, not in life
as it should be. (Nor is he interested
in bogging down his story with explication: we watch Menashe and his
neighbors feed a growing conflagration with no commentary on its being
Lag BaOmer, a holiday celebrated by
lighting bonfires.) Despite Menashe’s
small rebellions—his informal attire,
his refusal to remarry—there is no
question of his leaving the confines
of his religion, no matter how unfair
its rabbinical edicts. Whether or not
Menashe gets to raise his son, the film
makes clear, he will remain within the
rigid boundaries of Borough Park—
home to one of the largest Hasidic
communities outside Israel.
Hasidism, a spiritual movement
that grew out of ultra- Orthodox Judaism in the eighteenth century, is comprised of different sects, each with its
own tzadik, or “righteous” leader. The
majority of Borough Park residents
The New York Review
Every Reader
from the
“Highly readable.... History offers few
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“Thoroughly recommended.... A most
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“Breathtakingly important…. David France
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The story of Bellevue, Oshinsky
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Fro the author of the
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a rrevelatory history of one
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A magisterial
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An updated account that sheds new light on
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“A seamless, riveting narrative that is both
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—The Washington Post Book World
rael’s national-religious Jews. To say of
a group of people that they are srugim
conjures in Israel a specific segment of
society: people who take an active part
in all of the country’s institutions (military, parliament, universities) while
also adhering to the strict interpretation of Jewish law. They keep the commandments; they observe the Shabbat;
they do not touch members of the opposite sex before marriage.
Active participation in political and
civic life has been the main distinction
between the Zionist religious Jews and
the Haredim—the ultra- Orthodox—
since the founding of the State of Israel
in 1948, an event that tore religious Jews
apart. Leaders of the ultra- Orthodox
community rejected the nascent country as an “attempt to replace divine
agency with human agency,” in the
a nonkosher sandwich by handing it to
an Arab doctor, who quips, “I hope it’s
not poisonous.” Another time, Yifat
and Amir think they see an Arab man
and run away in fear, only to discover
that the man was, in fact, a neighbor’s
If all this sounds riling to a liberal
sensibility, Srugim was also met with
criticism from ultra-religious groups in
Israel who argued that the series had
“crossed many red lines,” as one review
on Arutz Sheva, a news site identified
with the religious right, put it. The
show’s transgression? “Saying prayers
in vain, having a woman bless the wine
in front of men, and, above all, breaking many of the modesty precepts between men and women, from touching
to more blatant acts.” That the series
should be rebuked by religious Jews for
Abut-Barkai Talisma/ YES
halting English, at that) is so jarring
that we forget this has been New York
all along. He is seen sitting with two
Hispanic employees of the supermarket after a long day’s work. All three
are sipping beer from forty- ounce bottles as the men invite Menashe to join
them on a night out. Menashe laughs.
With them he feels welcome, at ease.
And yet part of the joke is precisely the
impossibility of their proposition: Menashe will not be joining their fiesta,
of course. Though he may find his religion suffocating, its pull is too strong
for him to resist.
Menashe ends exactly as it begins,
with a long shot of Menashe pacing
the streets of Borough Park, drowned
out by a sea of other people—with one
difference. He now wears a long coat
and black hat. Not only will he not be
rebelling against his community but
he seems to have taken to heart their
criticism of him and to be eager to do
better. It may not be the lesson we were
hoping for, but this, after all, is life.
Another portrayal of the pressures
on young religious people to marry can
be found in Srugim, an Israeli drama
series that premiered a decade ago
and streams with English subtitles on
Amazon. Though decidedly less insular than the ultra- Orthodox of Borough Park, Israel’s national-religious
movement, known outside of Israel as
Modern Orthodox, still tends to view
secular television and cinema with a
combination of skepticism and distrust.
Srugim was written by two religious
filmmakers, and deals with the dating
lives of single religious Jerusalemites:
Yifat, a genial graphic designer; Hodaya, a rabbi’s daughter who undergoes
a crisis of faith; Nati, a heartthrob doctor; Amir, a divorced Hebrew teacher;
and Reut, a no-nonsense accountant.
In an early episode, Yifat and Hodaya,
who have been best friends since their
days in Bnei Akiva, a religious youth
movement, are squinting in front of
a computer, bemoaning the fact that
nearly all religious parts on Israeli
commercials and TV are performed by
nonreligious actors.
Hodaya: “That religious kid smiling next to the Coke bottle?”
Yifat: “I don’t think an Orthodox
family would allow its son to shoot
a commercial for Coca Cola.”
Hodaya: “The ultra- Orthodox
guy from Visa?”
Yifat: “I think he’s Swedish.”
Hodaya: “Why is it? Don’t we
deserve models from the sector?”
The irony, as Israelis will pick up on,
is that the two well-known actresses
offering this bit of dialogue—Yael Sharoni and Tali Sharon—are themselves
nonreligious, as are the other actors.
And yet when it came out, Srugim
proved a hit among religious Israelis—
as well as a hit generally: the newspaper Yediot Ahronot called it “a rare
instance of superb television.” While
Menashe will not be watched by the
very community it portrays, Srugim
is a more mainstream affair. In a way,
Srugim can be seen as the reverse of
Menashe: written by “insiders,” cast
with “outsiders,” and watched by both
insiders and outsiders alike.
Srugim means “knitted” and is short
in Hebrew for kippot srugot, or “knitted yarmulkes,” the ones worn by Is14
The cast of the Israeli television series Srugim
words of Moshe Halbertal, a scholar of
Jewish philosophy, whereas nationalreligious Jews came to regard Israel’s
founding with rapture—as a hastening
of redemption and of the arrival of the
Messiah. If secular Israelis defined the
country’s early decades (David BenGurion, Golda Meir, the kibbutznik
pioneers), the Zionist religious Jews
are likely to define its future. Their
ranks, due to very high birthrates, are
swelling: about a quarter of Israelis
identify as national-religious, according to 2014 statistics from the Israel
Democracy Institute. Interestingly,
only 10 percent of Israelis described
themselves as religious when asked
solely about religiosity without adding nationalism to the mix, suggesting
that the definition is fluid and that Zionism plays an important role in their
Srugim has been described, not
outlandishly, as the Israeli Friends
(though it’s not a sitcom). Most of its
scenes take place inside an apartment
in the Old Katamon neighborhood of
Jerusalem, and the focus never veers
from the group of five singles at its
center. But because this is Israel, politics are never far away, either. Yifat
attempts to clear her head and escape
city life by moving to a West Bank settlement—a move that is presented as
rational and commonplace. In a 2008
interview with a religious Israeli publication, Laizy Shapiro, the co- creator
of the show, who lives on a settlement
himself, took pride in having bussed
the entire production team “across the
Green line” for the shoot, calling it a
“great accomplishment.” Only twice,
and briefly, do we see Arabs mentioned
on the show: once when Nati gets rid of
not being modest enough is unsurprising. What is surprising is the opposite:
that its creators managed to bring to
Israeli prime time a show about dating
where the most “blatant acts” include
nothing more than a rare kiss or a daydream of jumping on a bed with one’s
love (on a bed, not into bed), and one
scene in which sex is portrayed only by
showing a married couple in bed, fully
covered, after the fact.
If anything, Srugim makes a rather
convincing case for religious Judaism,
with an emphasis on family and on a
tight-knit sense of community. By contrast, the picture that emerges of secular life revolves around lighthearted
bromides about food. Secular people,
we are told, eat fancy cheese and “fly
off to Barcelona to eat squid” and complain about store-bought cake. On the
one hand, Hodaya’s growing disillusion
with religion is presented sympathetically—in one of the show’s most affecting scenes, she has an exchange with a
formerly religious writer who tells her:
“All the laws and the commandments
and the fact that everyone knows what
to do all the time, I felt like that’s the
furthest thing from God.” On the other
hand, there is a nagging implication in
the series that secularism equals selfishness. As Hodaya questions her faith,
she repeatedly turns down job offers
and romantic partners, deeming them
all beneath her. “Stop looking down on
everything,” Yifat berates her at one
point. “Stop thinking that you’re so
confess that I may be bristling at the
show’s depiction of nonreligious life
more than is warranted. To be fair,
one of the most endearing characters
is Avri, a secular Ph.D. with whom
Hodaya falls in love. But since I grew
up in a secular family in Jerusalem
only a few blocks from where the series takes place, watching Srugim felt
strangely personal to me, like a home
video beamed out to the world. The series namechecks little havens of nonreligious life that my friends and I used
to frequent: Smadar cinema, Café BaGina, Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony.
But such places are disappearing at
a dizzying pace (or else turning glatt
kosher). Today, 35 percent of Jerusalem residents define themselves as
Haredi while only 21 percent say they
are secular—an increase of 5 percent
and a decrease of 7 percent respectively compared to a decade ago, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of
Statistics. This in itself would not be
an issue were it not for the growing
realization that secular people are increasingly unwelcome in the city: the
process of Jerusalem’s “Haredization”
peaked a few years ago when all images of women were scrubbed from the
city’s billboards. It’s no coincidence,
perhaps, that when Hodaya and Avri
affirm their love, they’re on the beach
in Tel Aviv.
Srugim at times feels contrived,
heavy-handed. More than once it suffers from what I’ve come to think of
as a tendency in Israeli productions to
cram in “and, and”—in this case, to
deal with divorce and homosexuality
and infertility and losing one’s faith,
sometimes in a single episode. I suspect
this has to do with the richness of Israeli society and the attempt by Israeli
writers to encompass it all, to check
every box on its multitude of layers.
All the more so in recent years, when
so much of Israeli television is being
made with an eye overseas, where a
larger audience and big money beckon.
(Such productions have a proven track
record: Homeland originated in Israel,
as did HBO’s In Treatment; the thriller
Fauda, about a special forces unit of
the Israeli military, is available on Netflix; the excellent drama Shtisel, about
a Haredi family, is currently being
adapted by Amazon.)
But it’s not often that a TV show
centered on romantic entanglements—
that most hackneyed of tropes—comes
across as bracing. “There’s no place for
single life in the religious community,”
Shapiro said when the show’s first season aired in Israel. “If you don’t have a
family or a wife, you barely have an existence in religious society.” Dating, for
the characters of Srugim, isn’t casual or
diversionary: it is existential. A sense
of high drama drives their encounters—chaste as they are—emphasizing
just how high the stakes are. No milestone is dreaded on the show quite like
turning thirty alone. And so the characters date aggressively: speed dating,
online, through acquaintances, even at
synagogue. (“You pray at Yakar, but all
the girls are waiting at Ohel Nehama,”
Yifat tells Nati). They are desperate to
start a family, but are not willing to give
up on love in the process, or on professional fulfillment. When Reut realizes
that her boyfriend resents her earning
more than him, she promptly breaks
up with him. And that, in the end, may
be the show’s quietly radical stance—
one that is also echoed in Menashe.
Love and marriage, yes. But at what
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October 26, 2017
The Cultural Axis
Robert O. Paxton
The Nazi- Fascist New Order
for European Culture
by Benjamin G. Martin.
Harvard University Press,
370 pp., $39.95
“When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I
reach for my revolver.” This philistine
wisecrack is often attributed to Air
Marshal Hermann Goering, or some
other Nazi notable. Benjamin Martin
sets us straight on its source: the 1933
play Schlageter by the Nazi Party member Hanns Johst, in which a character
says: “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I
release the catch on my Browning.”
Martin’s illuminating book The NaziFascist New Order for European Culture shows how badly astray this famous
quip leads us: cultural concerns were in
fact vital to the imperial projects of Hitler and Mussolini. We do not normally
associate their violent and aggressive
regimes with “soft power.” But the two
dictators were would-be intellectuals—
Adolf Hitler a failed painter inebriated
with the music of Wagner, and Mussolini a onetime schoolteacher and novelist. Unlike American philistines, they
thought literature and the arts were important, and wanted to weaponize them
as adjuncts to military conquest. Martin’s book adds a significant dimension
to our understanding of how the Nazi
and Fascist empires were constructed.
German power and success gave the
Nazi case particular salience. The special meaning of Kultur in Germans’
evaluation of themselves is an important part of the story. According to a
famous essay by Norbert Elias, the
meaning of Kultur for Germans is
hardly comprehensible without reference to a particular historical development.* Kultur, he explains (along with
Bildung, or education), denoted in
pre-unification Germany those qualities that the intellectuals and professionals of the small, isolated German
middle class claimed for themselves in
response to the disdain of the minor
German nobles who employed them:
intellectual achievement, of course, but
also simple virtues like authenticity,
honesty, and sincerity.
German courtiers, by contrast, according to the possessors of Kultur,
had acquired “civilization” from their
French tutors: manners, social polish,
the cultivation of appearances. As the
German middle class asserted itself in
the nineteenth century, the particular
virtues of Kultur became an important
ingredient in national self- definition.
The inferior values of “civilization”
were no longer attributed to an erstwhile French- educated German nobility, but to the French themselves and to
the West in general.
By 1914, the contrast between Kultur
and Zivilisation had taken on a more
aggressively nationalist tone. During
World War I German patriotic propaganda vaunted the superiority of Germany’s supposedly rooted, organic,
*Norbert Elias, “Sociogenesis of the
Antithesis Between Kultur and Zivilisation in German Usage,” in The
Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and
Psychogenetic Investigations, revised
edition (Blackwell, 2000).
spiritual Kultur over the allegedly effete, shallow, cosmopolitan, materialist, Jewish-influenced “civilization” of
Western Europe. Martin’s book shows
how vigorously the Nazis applied this
traditional construct. Hitler invested
considerable money and time in the
1930s, and even after World War II
began, in an effort to take over Europe’s cultural organizations and turn
them into instruments of German
power. These projects had some initial
success. In the end, however, they collapsed along with the military power
they were designed to reinforce.
In a parallel and even less enduring effort, Mussolini’s Fascist regime
tried to establish the primacy of Italian
culture under the umbrella of Hitler’s
conquests. Mussolini’s cultural executives, such as his Minister for Press
and Propaganda Dino Alfieri, asserted
that the Mediterranean and classical
tradition of Italy was the proper foundation of a European “cultural Axis.”
Having thrown in their lot definitively
with Hitler, the Italians could hope to
be the contemporary Greece to Germany’s new Rome, but the Nazi leaders
never entertained the slightest doubt
that German Kultur was the foundation stone of the “new cultural order”
for Europe.
An extensive network of international
cultural organizations already existed
before Hitler came to power. They had
been greatly expanded after 1919 in the
orbit of the League of Nations. Hitler
saw them cynically as instruments of
French cultural influence and as a reinforcement of Allied hegemony. Just as
he planned to overthrow the political
system set up by the victorious Allies
after World War I, he was determined
to overthrow the democratic cultural
network. He intended to replace it with
his own organizations headquartered
in Berlin and dedicated to spreading
throughout Europe the Nazi conception of the unique racial character of
each national culture.
The word “international” acquired
a special meaning in its usage by Nazi
and Fascist cultural officials. The Allies’ international cultural associations
had rested on a set of liberal democratic assumptions: that works of art
and literature should be evaluated by
universal standards of quality; that
masterpieces were the product of individual creativity; and that no national
culture deserved hegemony over another. The Nazi and Fascist dictators
reversed all of these assumptions. They
measured the merit of works of art and
literature by their significance within
unique national cultural traditions.
Masterpieces, in their view, grew out
of community roots. And national cultural traditions were ranked in a natural hierarchy, with the German and
Italian ones at the top.
Hitler concerned himself with cultural matters as soon as he became
chancellor of Germany in January
1933. He purged the German section of
PEN International of “leftist” and Jewish writers. When PEN International
protested, Hitler dissolved the German
section altogether at the end of 1933.
During this dispute the president of
the Italian PEN club, the provocateur
Futurist intellectual Filippo Tommaso
Marinetti, supported the German position. Thus from the earliest days, Nazi
cultural projects proved capable of enlisting foreign support.
Hitler made his ambitions for German culture clear from the beginning.
At a Nazi Party Congress on Culture
in September 1933 he promised that the
Nazi state would intervene more actively
in cultural matters than the Weimar Republic had done, in order to make art
an expression of the “hereditary racial
bloodstock” and to transform artists
into defenders of the German Volk.
Hitler left the daily tasks of his bid
to reorganize European culture under
German dominance to his propaganda
minister, Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels—another would-be intellectual
and a failed novelist—threw his frenetic energy, his ideological passions,
and a generous budget into spreading
abroad the Nazis’ racialist and nationalist approach to the arts.
Cinema was the Nazi leaders’ first
cultural target. Goebbels and Hitler
were as obsessed with movies as American adolescents are today with social
media. Convinced that cinema was their
era’s main engine of cultural influence,
they tried to control filmmaking as far
as their influence could reach. At the
Venice Film Festival in 1935, at Goebbels’s instigation, delegates of twelve
nations agreed to create an International Film Chamber (IFC) designed
to establish a continent-wide system of
film exchange and regulation. As the
possessor of the continent’s largest and
most powerful film industry, Germany
became the dominant force in the IFC .
Fascist Italy, however, assured for itself
a strong second position by exploiting
its considerable film-producing assets,
such as the technologically advanced
studios of Cinecittà and the Venice
Film Festival, which continued to be
the main venue of IFC activities.
The IFC was a genuinely European
organization, and even had a French
president in 1937. Its inspiration had
been German, however, and its organizational form was less international
than something Martin usefully calls
“inter-national,” a federation of national arts organizations on the model of
the Reich Film Chamber, which Goebbels had formed in July 1933 on corporatist principles. Corporatist doctrine
required that capital, management, and
labor abandon their separate advocacy
groups and sit down together to find
their common interests, alongside state
representatives. Corporatism smothered internal conflict in film production
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W W W. U C P R E S S . E D U
October 26, 2017
enjamin Martin shows most interestingly that the Nazi and Fascist
“inter-national” organizations had
authentic appeal to some European
intellectuals and arts executives who
were not themselves Nazis or Fascists.
These organizations promised material as well as intellectual advantages.
The IFC provided access to a market
of continental dimensions, a feature
particularly attractive to European
filmmakers who all suffered from the
limited size of their national audiences.
It also simplified thorny problems of
cross-boundary payments and differing copyright laws.
The main role of the IFC was to combat the Hollywood menace. The dominance of American films had troubled
European filmmakers and intellectuals
from the beginning. By 1928 54 percent
of all films shown in France, 72 percent
in Britain, and 80 percent in Italy came
from Hollywood. Already in the 1920s
most European countries had imposed
quotas on American films or limited
them by reciprocity agreements. The
respite given to European films by the
arrival of “talkies” in 1929 had been
brief, as expert dubbing soon allowed
Hollywood films to predominate again.
Many Europeans endorsed the IFC position that American films were trivial
entertainment designed to make money,
while European films were artistic creations that deserved protection. Although the British and Dutch refused to
join, IFC membership extended by 1935
“from Belgium to Hungary [and] revealed a Europe,” according to Martin,
“ready to accept German leadership.”
German military conquests early
in World War II enabled the Nazis to
tighten even further their control of
European cinema. In August 1940 they
banned American films altogether in
the territories they occupied. A similar
ban within Germany itself followed in
1941. The Fascist regime had already
reduced the number of Hollywood films
shown in Italy by the “Alfieri law” of
1938 that created a state monopoly with
sole authority to buy and show foreign
films (Hollywood’s four biggest studios
withdrew from the Italian market in response). The unintended result of such
protectionism was to give Hollywood
films the allure of forbidden fruit and to
prepare their triumphant return to Europe in 1945. In Jean-Pierre Melville’s
Resistance film Army of Shadows, two
underground leaders are smuggled out
of France to consult personally with
Free French leader General Charles de
Gaulle. The first thing they want to do
in London, after eating a filling meal, is
to go see Gone with the Wind.
Beyond cinema, the Nazis meant to
reorganize the whole range of German
cultural activities along corporatist
lines. The Reich Chamber of Culture
contained subgroups for music, literature, theater, press, radio, and so on. The
Nazis soon tried to extend the reach of
these cultural corporations to the entire
European continent, according to their
geopolitical vision of a world divided
into blocs, or “great spaces,” continentscaled, self-sufficient economic systems
aligned with the appropriate cultural
associations protected by authoritarian
states. Their European “New Order”
was meant to be cultural as well as economic and political.
Music was a realm that Germans
felt particularly qualified to dominate.
But first the German national musical
scene had to be properly organized.
In November 1933 Goebbels offered
Richard Strauss the leadership of a
Reich Music Chamber. In June
1934 Strauss invited composers
from thirteen countries to the annual meeting of the German Music
Association in Wiesbaden. The delegates created a Permanent Council for International Cooperation
among Composers.
The Permanent Council grew by
exploiting an aesthetic rift in European musical culture. Since the
early twentieth century a generation of gifted innovators had created
new musical languages, such as Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. Organized in the influential
International Society for Contemporary Music, the avant-garde had
come to have a powerful influence
on the European musical scene.
Traditional composers resented the
modernists’ celebrity, and the Nazis
(Mussolini remained more open to
modernism) attracted conservative support by attacking the avantgarde as internationalist, rootless,
and Jewish. In a famous speech in
December 1934 Goebbels derided “an
atonal noise maker,” by whom he was
generally assumed to mean the composer Paul Hindemith (who was not
Jewish). Goebbels organized in Düsseldorf in 1938 a presentation of “degenerate music” following the better-known
1937 exhibition of “degenerate art.”
Most of the composers who were
affiliated with the Permanent Council, advocates generally of a national,
rural, or folklorist approach to musical composition, are forgotten today.
The council did draw some prestigious
composers who were not really Nazi
or Fascist, like Jean Sibelius and Albert Roussel. The presence of Richard
Strauss, a onetime moderate modernist
who resented the decline of his fame,
gave legitimacy to the IFC . He continued to preside over it even after he had
been removed from the Reich Music
Chamber in 1935 in a dispute over
his continued association with Stefan
Zweig, who had written the libretto for
his opera Die schweigsame Frau.
The Permanent Council’s attention to composers’ material problems
was an additional attraction. These included inconsistencies among different
national copyright codes, problems of
international royalties payments, and
droit moral—the right claimed by authors and composers to assure that their
work was not presented in a deformed
way or with offensive associations. Thus
the Permanent Council was able to fill a
busy schedule of concerts in various European capitals through the late 1930s.
he Nazi organization of European
literature came later, but by similar tactics: a federation of national corporative
bodies. German authors already gathered annually in Weimar. In connection
with the 1941 Weimar authors’ meeting,
Goebbels invited fifty foreign writers to
visit the city of Goethe and Schiller at
the expense of his Propaganda Ministry (an indulgence that caused many of
them trouble after the war). The following October authors from fifteen European countries met at Weimar to found
a European Writers’ Union.
As with music, the Nazis were able
to attract writers outside the immediate orbit of the Nazi and Fascist parties by endorsing conservative literary
styles against modernism, by mitigating
copyright and royalty problems, and by
expelling Jewish scientists such as the
talented nuclear physicist Lise Meitner.
The soft power of science is fragile, as
Americans may yet find out.
Without specifically setting out to
do so, Martin casts interesting light on
soft power and the conditions for its
success. Nazis and Fascists turned out
to be poor at it. Inherent contradictions undermined their attempts at cultural dominance. Dictatorial methods
clashed with literary and artistic independence. Nazis had burned books, and
both Germany and Italy had excluded
prominent writers and artists. Their
evident desire to put their own cultures
first undermined their lip service to
“inter-national” cooperation.
Within the “cultural Axis,” the
relationship between Germany and
Italy was strained. Martin was right
to include the Italian case, even if
Mussolini’s parallel bid for cultural
power, like his parallel war, accomplished little. Hitler always accepted
that Mussolini was his forerunner—the Duce’s bust stood on his
desk—and while always ready to try
to upstage him never let him drop.
And so his “inter-national” organizations often attributed a strong
second role to the Italians. But the
Italians worked from within to subvert German claims to primacy.
A major obstacle to the success
of Axis “inter-national” cultural
organizations—especially with the
Nazis—was their ideological narrowness. While an alignment with
militant antimodernism attracted
conservative writers and artists,
these generated little excitement
compared to the modernists. Hitler’s efforts to stem the mass appeal
of Hollywood films and jazz only made
them (as Martin suggests) more seductive and, in a final irony, prepared for
the triumph of American music, jeans,
and film in the postwar world by trying
to make them taboo.
Soft power seems to have thrived
best without direct military occupation. The global influence of French
language, manners, and ideas began in
the seventeenth century, and depended
little on the conquests of Louis XIV
and Napoleon. The ascendancy of the
English language began with the commercial and financial power of the City
of London in the nineteenth century,
and owed little to conquest or colonial
occupation, though those helped. The
soft power of the United States, the
most successful yet, spread far beyond
direct American military presence. It
prospered by appealing to mass popular tastes in music, dress, and entertainment, while the “cultural axis”
aimed at conventional forms of high
culture. The United States government
did not ignore high culture—consider
the activities of the United States Information Agency and the Congress
for Cultural Freedom after World War
II. But American soft power thrived
mostly through the profit motive and
by offering popular entertainment to
the young.
Far from reaching for a revolver to
deal with “culture,” Hitler (with Mussolini struggling behind) tried with at
least some initial success to use international cultural organizations to enhance his military power. This story
has been approached mostly, if at all,
in individual national terms, but Martin has brought the whole Axis cultural
project admirably into focus.
SZ Photo/Scherl/Bridgeman Images
and gave determining influence to the
state rather than to the market.
Each IFC member nation was expected to have a national film organization similar to the Reich Film
Chamber. Within Germany the Reich
Film Chamber became the instrument
through which the Nazi regime controlled an increasingly concentrated
German film industry purged of Jews.
In 1942, the largest production companies, such as UFA and Tobis, were
merged into one state- controlled entity.
Sepp Hilz’s Peasant Venus, shown in the
‘Great German Art Exhibition,’ Munich, 1939
offering sybaritic visits to Germany and
public attention. Some significant figures
joined, such as the Norwegian novelist
Knut Hamsun, winner of the 1920 Nobel
Prize in literature, but most were minor
writers who employed themes of nationalism, folk traditions, or the resonance
of landscape. Martin unravels these multinational connections with clarity and
precision, aided by research and reading
in at least five European languages.
Painting and sculpture, curiously, do
not figure in this account of the cultural
fields that the Nazis and Fascists tried
to reorganize “inter-nationally,” perhaps because they had not previously
been organized on liberal democratic
lines. Within Germany, of course,
modernists could not show or sell their
work, but this was not the case in occupied Paris, where Picasso and Kandinsky painted quietly in private and
Jean Bazaine organized an exhibition
with fellow modernists in 1941. Nazi
cultural officials thought “degenerate”
art appropriate for France.
Hitler made effective use of some
German intellectuals’ resentment at
being shut out of international cultural
institutions after 1919. Martin seems to
accept this sense of victimhood as legitimate, but it is difficult to square with
the prestige of German cinema, music,
and science in the 1920s.
Science would have made an interesting case study, a contrary one.
Germany dominated the world of science before 1933. Germans won fifteen
Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and
physiology or medicine between 1918
and 1933, more than any other nation.
Far from capitalizing on this major
soft power asset, Hitler destroyed it by
imposing ideological conformity and
The New York Review
The Origin of Others
The Dead March
Collecting the World
Toni Morrison
A History of the Mexican-American War
A Citizen’s Guide
Foreword by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Peter Guardino
Hans Sloane and the Origins of the
British Museum
+Author Louise Penny picked The Origin
of Others as one of her favourite books
for fall on PBS NewsHour
“By examining the motivations and
viewpoints of fighters on both sides,
Guardino presents a balanced and
“This book collects the great novelist’s
deeper understanding of the war,
James Delbourgo
+A Daily Mail Book of the Week
+A Guardian Book of the Week
+A Times Book of the Week
“Delbourgo’s engrossing new biography
Norton lectures at Harvard, giving those
challenging readers to determine
of us who didn’t get to attend a glimpse
why and how America triumphed and
situates Sloane within the welter of
at Morrison’s thoughts on race and
the long-term ramifications for both
intellectual and political crosscurrents
otherness, and how these things affect
countries . . . Extremely well-researched
that marked his times.”
literature and lives around the world.”
and highly readable.”
—The Millions
—Publishers Weekly
— Bruce Boucher,
New York Times Book Review
Jottings under Lamplight
Belknap Press | $35.00
Cass R. Sunstein
“Thoroughly grounded in constitutional
history and past practice . . . Excellent.”
— Noah Feldman & Jacob Weisberg,
New York Review of Books
“What makes Sunstein’s book of such
great interest is its lack of fanfare and
knife-sharpening. The author is a learned
and accessible guide . . . A welcome,
timely, ideal primer.”
—Kirkus Reviews
$7.95 | paper
American Niceness
Pious Fashion
Lu Xun
Collective Choice and
Social Welfare
A Cultural History
How Muslim Women Dress
Edited by Eileen J. Cheng • Kirk A. Denton
An Expanded Edition
Carrie Tirado Bramen
Elizabeth Bucar
“An often searing and sometimes startling
collection . . . Animating every essay is
Lu Xun’s deeply felt humanity . . . The
Amartya Sen
“Expanding on the early work of
Condorcet, Pareto, Arrow, and others,
“Any nation that lays claim to certain
“A look at contemporary dress and how it
principles, just like any person who dares
can help us see the ‘Muslim community’
to do so, opens itself up to the charge of
as a vast array of individuals rather
totality adds up to a portrait of a country
Sen provides rigorous mathematical
hypocrisy. Some of the best moments in
than an inscrutable monolith . . . Bucar
struggling with uncertainty and transition,
argumentation on the merits of voting
Bramen’s history ask what might happen
disabuses readers of any preconceived
a picture just as relevant to the West
mechanisms . . . For those with graduate
were we to actually live up to our ideals.”
ideas that women who adhere to an
today as to early-20th-century China.”
training, it will serve as a frequently
—Meghan O’Gieblyn, New Yorker
aesthetic of modesty are unfashionable
—Publishers Weekly
consulted reference and a necessity on
or frumpy.”
one’s book shelf.”
—Robin Givhan, Washington Post
—J. F. O’Connell, Choice
October 26, 2017
w w w. h u p . h a r v a r d . e d u
b l o g : h a r v a r d p r e s s .t y p e p a d . c o m
t e l : 8 0 0. 4 0 5.1 6 1 9
The Master of Eglfing-Haar
Sanford Schwartz
It is possible that the people who run
the American Folk Art Museum have
wondered in recent years about the
name of their institution. Works by
American folk artists make up the
majority of its exhibitions, it is true.
In the last decade or more, however,
the museum has become an invaluable part of New York’s cultural life
because it has produced a little stream
of full-fledged introductions to figures
who are much the opposite of folk artists and frequently are not American.
The term “folk art” implies an art for
a wide, popular, and perhaps not overly
discriminating audience—ingenious
and lovely as folk-art creations can be.
But the day has passed when this kind
of work, which was at its most vibrant
in the early decades of the nineteenth
century, was crowded with figures waiting to be discovered.
In this gaping situation the museum
has informally reinvented itself with
occasional explorations of what have
been called outsider artists. They are
sometimes confused with folk artists in
that their work also has little or no connection with professional art-making.
Yet in their creations (and their persons) they present the underside of
the demotic, folk ethos. In no way a
movement, they give us instead highly
idiosyncratic, often confounding experiences. Folk artists in their work tend
not to invite us into their private lives.
We almost assume that they do not
have private lives. Outsider art, which
is frequently made by people who have
spent their days as isolates, or have suffered mental or physical impairment
and need to be cared for in assisted
conditions, can seem like nothing but
an immersion in the private.
The Folk Art Museum has given
us definitive shows of such masters of
the private as Martín Ramírez, Henry
Darger, and Adolf Wölfli.* Two years
ago, to take another significant example, there was an overdue examination
of Jean Dubuffet’s pioneering project,
begun in the 1940s, of collecting the
work of these artists, which he called
“art brut.” And recently the museum
again expanded our sense of outsider
art—a term that the curators there
seem to use sparingly, preferring “selftaught art and art brut”—with separate but concurrent shows of Eugen
Gabritschevsky (1893–1979) and Carlo
Zinelli (1916–1974).
*On Martín Ramírez see my “A Track
All His Own,” The New York Review,
April 12, 2007; on Adolf Wölfli see my
“Wölfli’s Empire,” The New York Review, May 29, 2003.
These were first- ever retrospectives
in the States for these artists, though
Zinelli, who spent a fair amount of his
adult life in a psychiatric hospital in
Verona, may be an almost-familiar figure for some New York gallery-goers.
His good-size works on paper, which
show silhouette-flat figures, abstract
shapes, and passages of writing lined
up in loose formations—and which
please us in the seemingly spontaneous yet rhythmic ways they are parked
here and there—often seem to be on
hand at art fairs. One remembers regu-
we look at small paintings surrounded
by mats and behind glass.) These works
range from dreamlike portrait heads
to total abstractions, some showing
merely the swish of a brush, others giving us galaxies of interconnecting little
There are as well pictures where
semblances of faces and bodies appear
in what might be windy and stormy, or
sometimes cloudy and stilled, atmospheric conditions. Other pictures are
of stageset-like city and factory views,
and we find scenes of theaters, and
pared in the catalog to the roughly similar ways that Victor Hugo, starting off
with spills of dark brown ink, and Max
Ernst, beginning with rubbings made
on wood boards, developed some of
their drawings. But Gabritschevsky
leaves us even more with a newfound
interest in gouache itself. We tend to
think of it as a utilitarian medium, a
fast- drying tool, not temperamental
like watercolor, that is suitable for
making posters or perhaps mock-ups
for paintings. Gabritschevsky shows
that it can be streaky and florid in
Collection Chave, Vence, France/Estate of Eugen Gabritschevsky
Eugen Gabritschevsky: 1893–1979
an exhibition at La Maison Rouge,
Paris, July 8–September 18, 2016;
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne,
November 11, 2016–February 19, 2017;
and the American Folk Art Museum,
New York City,
March 13–August 13, 2017.
Catalog of the exhibition edited
by Antoine de Galbert,
Noëlig Le Roux, Sarah Lombardi,
and Valérie Rousseau.
Snoeck, 192 pp., $35.00
Eugen Gabritschevsky: Untitled, gouache on paper, 8 1/4 x 11 5/8 inches, 1942
larly finding them at the no longer extant Phyllis Kind Gallery, for years the
place to go, in New York, to see such
Gabritschevsky, however,
has been a far less visible figure. It is
likely that even Americans who have
come to realize in the past few decades how powerful the very different epical visions of Ramírez, Wölfli,
and Darger can be are unfamiliar with
his pictures. And of the two exhibitions it was that of the Russian-born
Gabritschevsky, who suffered a mental breakdown when he was in his late
thirties and lived for most of the remaining decades of his life in a psychiatric hospital, that provided the more
mysterious and absorbing experience.
This is partly due, of course, to what
for most of us is the total novelty of his
But it really derives from the marvelous, and elusive, visual poetry he often
attained. Uncommonly varied in nature, his pictures are primarily works
on paper, done largely in gouache,
a medium like watercolor (which he
sometimes added in) but with more
body and less translucence. (In effect,
compositions that resemble tapestries,
jammed with molecule-small figures.
Close looking at his various tableaux
reveals that curving lines of dots might
be rows of the tiniest people—on the
march somewhere.
If we didn’t know much about Gabritschevsky the person, and limited
ourselves to the reproductions of his
work in the show’s valuable and handsome accompanying catalog—it presents many more pictures than were
in the museum’s exhibition—we might
not at first assume that their author
was a schizophrenic patient living in a
psychiatric hospital. We might, rather,
wonder whether we were encountering a newly discovered modern master,
a kind of Paul Klee, say, whose each
small-size picture feels like its own selfcontained world. He is an artist who,
like Klee and others, seems to proceed
less from having a particular image
in mind at the start than from letting
images be suggested to him from the
runny and brusque, or the pasty and
porous, way he introduced his medium
onto the given sheet of paper to begin
We know that Gabritschevsky sometimes did work in this manner, and his
method has appropriately been com-
one instance, or ploppy and indecisive in the next—or waxy, and then
somehow carved into. His skill with
gouache is one of the revelations of
his work.
Should Gabritschevsky be called an
outsider artist? The question hovers
over his pictures, adding yet another
level of mystery to them. In a number
of obvious senses, he was certainly the
opposite of the figures we generally
think of as outsiders. Their bodies of
work, if one can generalize, tend to
emphasize (in quite different styles)
lines, patterns, and structures. Gabritschevsky’s scenes in comparison
are practically amorphous. He was
also very different from many outsiders as a person. Such figures tend not
to have an interest in art in itself and
to make pictures and objects for the
first time only after they are stricken.
(Their work seems to have the quality
of a suddenly found language.) Most
tend to come, moreover, from milieus
where art is hardly thought about.
Wölfli and Ramírez were laborers.
Darger supported himself as, among
other things, a janitor, and the highly
regarded James Castle, who was born
The New York Review
Golden Kingdoms
Luxury Arts in the Ancient America
Edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy Potts, and Kim N. Richter
This catalogue features over three hundred highly valued works made
of jade, gold, delicate shell, and other materials, that traveled great
distances across space and time, revealing connections between regions
and challenging our sense of bounded traditions.
Hardcover $59.95
Photography in Argentina
Contradiction and Continuity
Edited by Idurre Alonso and Judith Keller
This groundbreaking volume tracks a course through Argentine history
using photography as a path to understanding notions of modernity,
immigration, and national identity.
Hardcover $55.00
Making Art Concrete
Works from Argentina and Brazil in the Colección
Patricia Phelps de Cisneros
Pia Gottschaller and Aleca Le Blanc
In the years after World War II, artists in Argentina and Brazil engaged
in lively debates about the role of artwork in society and used novel
synthetic materials and geometric abstraction, creating objects that
they proposed become part of everyday life. This collection sheds new
light on the social, political, and cultural underpinnings of these artists’
Hardcover $39.95
Revolution & Ritual
The Photographs of Sara Castréjon, Graciela Iturbuide,
and Tatiana Parcero
Edited by Mary Davis MacNaughton
This richly illustrated catalogue features photographs by three Mexican
photgraphers—Sara Castréjon, Graciela Iturbide, and Tatiana Parcero—
each representing a different generation, who have explored and
stretched notions of Mexican identity in works that range from the
documentary to the poetic.
Paper £22.50
David Lamelas
A Life of Their Own
Edited by María José Herrera and Kristina Newhouse
The renowned Argentine conceptual artist David Lamelas has an expansive oeuvre of sensory, restive, and evocative work. This book, published
to coincide with the first monographic exhibition of the artist’s work in
the United States, offers an incisive look into Lamelas’s art.
Hardcover £50.00
Prometheus 2017
Four Artist From Meixco Revisit Orozco
Edited by Rebecca McGrew and Terri Geis
José Clemente Orozco’s 1930 mural Prometheus, created for the Pomona
College campus, is a dramatic and gripping examination of heroism. This
thoughtful volume examines the multiple ways Orozco’s vision resonates
with four artists working in Mexico today: Isa Carrillo, Adela Goldbard,
Rita Ponce de León, and Naomi Rincón-Gallardo.
Hardcover £35.00
Getty Publications
© 2017 J. Paul Getty Trust
October 26, 2017
Collection of Audrey B. Heckler/Estate of Eugen Gabritschevsky
humor, that are also felt in his picnervously and appealingly watchful
the circumstances are quite different,
tures. The many instances in his scenes
while other shapes, equipped with unthe image reminded me of the nightwhere, for instance, aspects of women’s
friendly eyes that resemble pomegrantime scene in Citizen Kane when the
nude bodies appear make it seem as
ate seeds, float along in the currents.
reporter comes to interview Bernstein
if we were encountering a mind that
Then in an extraordinary work from
in his office while, outside the windows,
was being visited not only by his vi1947, we are confronted by a head that
the city seems to glow.)
sions and memories as a naturalist but
has been stretched out, as we might
Gabritschevsky’s literally dark, and
see ourselves in a funearly, charcoal pieces
house mirror, with an
tend to be more threateyeball at either side and
ening and overcast in
a wispy bowtie underspirit than the Columbia
neath. Taking up almost
lab picture, however, and
the entire sheet of paper,
it is fascinating to turn
the bloated, pinkish
from these charcoals
head, with one eye sugto the often fantastical
gesting a wounded soul
works in gouache that he
and the other an angry
did after his breakdown.
one, could be the official
They suggest that when
face of anyone suffering
he was a functioning
mental turmoil (or of
person in society (who
any of us when we sense
also happened to be a
that we have become all
widely respected scihead and yet wonder if
entist), Gabritschevsky
anything is in it).
saw the world as an
And in, lastly, a strikominous place—a spirit
ing scene dated circa
that is only occasion1947, we see a hugeally felt in the pictures,
headed, puppetlike man,
with their fanciful, and
Eugen Gabritschevsky: Untitled, gouache and watercolor on paper,
each of his large eyes
wonderful, colors, that
11 5/8 x 15 3/4 inches, 1957
a black abyss, in a railhe made after he beway or subway station.
came ill. We might say
Every space around him
that, excruciating as the
ingeniously, and inaccessthroes of his crisis were,
ibly, contains unclothed
it liberated him from
women. Did Gabritschevpervasive dread.
sky make other pictures
It is hard, of course,
that, like these, portray
to pin down the content
states of imprisonment
of the little paintings
and yet give us joy as
that he did at the hosworks of art? There is
pital. Annie Le Brun
a good chance that he
and Valérie Rousseau,
did. The two-hundredin separate strong esodd pictures in the pressays in the catalog, see
ent catalog are but a
Gabritschevsky’s conportion of the roughly
cerns as a biologist perthree thousand works on
meating his pictures.
paper that he left.
Le Brun writes about
We have Jean Dubufthe artist, whose scenes
fet to thank for setoften show forms and
ting in motion the
substances in flux, that
process whereby those
“we cannot forget that
works were preserved.
he was a geneticist
Gabritschevsky made
who was fascinated by
them, it appears, over
the transmission and
the first three decades of
possible transformations
his stay at Eglfing-Haar.
of form.” His images of
Then in the 1960s and
“strings of bead-like
1970s, whether due, it is
forms stretching from
thought, to new medicahorizon to horizon,”
tions, or because, as a vishe says, “may be taken
sual artist, he said what
for a barely transposed
he had in him to say, he
representation of the
made hardly any new
arrangement of genes.”
And Rousseau evokes
He had long since lost
the sense of constant
his ability to be a scienbubbling activity in
tist, and he now lost his
these pictures, with
desire to make art. Yet
their instances of nearhis losses seem not to
molecular miniaturism,
have weighed on him.
when she refers to “that
His doctors, we read,
bacterial colony in which
were amazed by his
the whole body of Gafortitude. After all his
britschevsky’s work is
years of hospitalization,
he should have become,
one of them wrote, a
e Brun and Rous“silent shadow, an emaEugen Gabritschevsky: Untitled, gouache and pencil on paper,
8 11/16 x 5 1/8 inches, circa 1947
seau’s approaches will
ciated body with nothsurely be guidelines
ing human left.” But he
as Gabritschevsky becomes better
by his predicament as a person. One
didn’t give in to “despondency,” and
known. (It will also be helpful to learn
feels this even more in some of the few
“he looks better than many other men
more about the vast number of letters
images of faces in the present selecof his age”; and another doctor believed
and essays that we hear he wrote—in
tion. They are Gabritschevsky’s most
that Gabritschevsky ultimately came to
what years?—in the hospital.) Yet for
affecting works.
see himself with “a deep wisdom full
this nonscientist, the “natural uniIn a buoyant picture from 1942, say,
of resignation.” He was now, one might
verse,” as Rousseau puts it, doesn’t
showing a bubbling forth of atmosay, in the third act of his life, and he
account for the sense of violence, and
spheric forces, a blob at the bottom
was again proving himself to be, as Le
of longing and hiddenness, and the
of the delectably red- orange scene is
Brun writes, “always exceptional.”
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne/Estate of Eugen Gabritschevsky
deaf and mute, lived primarily on his
family’s Idaho farm.
Gabritschevsky, though, was a person of considerable learning, and he
came from a background of some
wealth and stature. At the home of his
mother’s relatives, where much of his
childhood was spent, Leo Tolstoy was a
visitor. Eugen’s father was a renowned
bacteriologist. When he died at a relatively young age from an infection connected to his work, Eugen’s mother
assiduously took over the education
of her five children. There were tutors,
many esteemed in their own right, for
every subject, and Eugen and his brothers and sisters all eventually mastered
numerous languages. Eugen as a matter
of course had drawing (and dancing)
lessons as a boy; he drew consistently
and learned to paint and sculpt. He attended exhibitions in Moscow in the
years before World War I of the most
progressive new Russian art and stage
Eugen’s chief interest was the natural
world, which he seems to have seen in
terms that were equally scientific and
imaginative. From childhood, he personified birds, flies, and insects, and
his brother Georges wrote that he so
blended fanciful details with precise
factual ones that it was hard to know
what was real. Eugen became a biologist, with a particular concern for morphology and heredity. An accomplished
researcher, he was able, in 1925, to do
postdoctoral work in genetics—then a
new field—working with Thomas Hunt
Morgan at Columbia. (Morgan would
later win a Nobel Prize for his work in
heredity.) After his stay in New York
and then at the Woods Hole labs (and a
western vacation that included a visit to
Yellowstone), Eugen moved on to the
Pasteur Institute in Paris for further
His papers and findings were admired by his colleagues, and he was
already, in his field, a figure of real
distinction when in the late 1920s his
grip on reality began to disintegrate. It
precipitated a time, his brother wrote,
of “violence that is familiar to all doctors and that is impossible to describe.”
By 1931, now entirely unable to handle
his personal and professional lives, he
was admitted to the Eglfing-Haar Psychiatric Hospital outside Munich. He
remained there—apart from the years
of World War II, when he seems to have
been taken to the homes of different
people—until he died, in 1979.
A number of Gabritschevsky’s drawings done before his breakdown have
been preserved, and they show him to
have been a conventional realist artist
of the era, albeit one with a taste for
large, rounded forms. He worked primarily in charcoal and, clearly sensitive to the properties of the materials
he used, he saw the medium as lending
itself to presenting blackness, or darkness. Areas where there was no charcoal on the sheet became, as he drew,
vestiges of light.
The charcoals are from his time in
the States, and one alluring piece from
1926—most of his pictures are untitled
but many are dated—shows Thomas
Morgan and another researcher at a
Columbia lab, working at night. Their
test tubes and microscopes are before
them, and the room’s pervasive darkness plays against the beckoning lights
from the scientists’ desk areas and
from building and street lights outside,
seen through the window. (Although
The New York Review
p re ss . j h u .e
Facing the Future
The Wonder and Complexity of Spontaneous Generation
“A profoundly important book. Well-argued and lively, this book is a must
read for climate change skeptics, millennials who can shape a better world,
and grandparents like myself who worry about just what we have left to our
—Ben Hoffman, author of The Violence Vaccine
Left Hand, Right Brain, Mental Disorder, and History
“Kushner, a distinguished historian of science and medicine with a deep knowledge
of neuroscience, identifies an extremely interesting and puzzling set of issues
around the phenomena of left-handedness. Illuminating.”
“A very well-written and well-researched book that grapples with the foundational
questions of the history of Western philosophy.”
—Justin E. H. Smith, author of The Philosopher: A History in Six Types
The Achaemenid Empire, Athens, and Sparta, 450–386 BCE
“A wonderful book, well-conceived and brilliantly executed.”
—Stephen Ruzicka, author of Trouble in the West:
Egypt and the Persian Empire, 525–332 BCE
—Alice R. Wexler, author of The Woman Who Walked into the Sea:
Huntington’s and the Making of a Genetic Disease
October 26, 2017
The Seal of the Poets
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Robyn Creswell
The Conference of the Birds
by Attar, translated from
the Persian by Sholeh Wolpé.
Norton, 376 pp., $25.95
Almost nothing is known for certain about the life of Farid ud-Din
Attar, a Persian poet celebrated
for his delightful long poem The
Conference of the Birds. He had
no contemporary biographers and
the few vignettes of his life that do
exist feel apocryphal. He was born
toward the middle of the twelfth
century and made his living as an
apothecary (Attar, a pen name,
means “perfumist” or “pharmacist”). In addition to The Conference of the Birds, he composed
three other long narrative poems,
a large collection of shorter verses,
and a charming book of anecdotes
about famous followers of Sufism,
the mystical branch of Islam.1 Later
Persian poets such as Jalal ad-Din
Rumi in the thirteenth century
and Hafez in the fourteenth were
openly indebted to Attar’s work.
He probably died around 1220,
when Mongol armies sacked his
home city of Nishapur. According
to one tradition, after an enemy soldier decapitated him, Attar picked
up his head and recited the Bisarnama (“Book of the Man with No
Head,” an actual work, though
Attar did not compose it).
The Conference of the Birds is
widely understood to illustrate and
allegorize Sufi teachings—Henry
Corbin, the French scholar of Islamic philosophy, called it a “peak
of mystical experience”—but it is not
certain Attar ever belonged to a Sufi
order or studied with a qualified master.
This is curious, for the teacher– student
relation was at the heart of medieval Sufism. Each congregation was centered
on a particular sheikh, and one could
only become a Sufi after intensive study.
The early mystics of the ninth and tenth
centuries preached austerity in response
to the corruption of rulers in Baghdad
and the Islamic east, and they countered the strict legalism of the clerics
with esoteric, often symbolic interpretations of religious texts. The Sufis taught
an exaggerated form of monotheism:
not only is there a single God, but God
is all that truly exists; everything else,
including our worldly selves, is merely
a shadow of His presence. Accordingly,
Sufi sheikhs urged their followers to disdain wealth and bodily pleasures. By
looking inward, believers were taught to
recognize the affinity of their soul with
God. Through ascetic discipline, they
were guided toward a self-annihilating
union with the divine.
The Conference of the Birds, which
is close to five thousand lines in the
original Persian (about the length of
Dante’s Inferno), is an allegory of Sufism’s central drama: the soul’s quest to
unify itself with God. The poem tells
the story of a flock of birds who fly to
the ends of the earth in search of the
mythical Simorgh, an Iranian version
is an infinity of things. You, you
are music,
Rivers, firmaments, palaces and
O endless rose, intimate, without
which the Lord will finally show
to my dead eyes3
Borges, who elsewhere compares
Attar favorably to Dante, is subtly
suggesting that Attar is first of all
an imaginative thinker—a poet for
whom any one thing might become
the symbol of any other thing. The
delight one gets in reading Attar’s
poem has everything to do with its
surprising turns of thought, its intellectual daring, its literary wit.
In his role as spiritual guide, the
‘The Conference of the Birds’; detail of an illustration by Habiballah of Sava
from a Persian manuscript of the poem by Farid ud-Din Attar, circa 1600
of the phoenix. The title comes from a
passage in the Koran about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in which
the king claims to have learned “the
speech of the birds” (mantiq al-tayr), a
more literal translation of Attar’s title.
Solomon’s go-between is the hoopoe, a
small bird with a spikey crest of feathers, who is also the main character
of Attar’s poem. Like a Sufi spiritual
guide, or pƯr, Attar’s hoopoe exhorts
the other birds to renounce their material comforts and join him on a difficult
journey through seven valleys (the first
is the Valley of the Quest, the last is the
Valley of Poverty and Nothingness) to
reach Mount Qaf, home of the Simorgh.
At the beginning of Attar’s epic,
which is composed in rhyming couplets, each species hesitates to join the
hoopoe for his own reasons. The finch
complains that he is too weak for the
journey, the hawk boasts that he already enjoys lofty connections, and the
nightingale is infatuated with a flower:
My love is for the rose; I bow to
From her dear presence I could
never stir.
If she should disappear the
Would lose his reason and his
song would fail.2
In the hoopoe’s responses to each
bird, readers are given a primer on Sufi
A selection of these stories has been
translated by A. J. Arberry, Muslim
Saints and Mystics (University of Chicago Press, 1966).
poem that imagines Attar in his
garden meditating on a rose—“like
one who thinks, not like one who
prays”—as the Mongol armies close
in. Borges projects his own blindness onto the Persian poet, who
is free to imagine that the rose he
holds and smells is white, or gold,
or red. In the last lines of Borges’s
poem, the flower loses all specificity, transformed into a bottomless
allegorical sign:
All citations are from the translation
of Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi
(Penguin, 2011).
beliefs and ethics: the impermanence
of worldly things, the importance of
spiritual courage, the ideal of divine
love. In response to the nightingale,
the hoopoe warns against deceiving
Dear nightingale,
This superficial love which makes
you quail
Is only for the outward show of
Renounce delusion and prepare
your wings
For our great quest.
After traversing the world, just thirty
birds of the original multitude remain
to meet the Simorgh. They arrive in his
presence only to discover a mystical
mirror: “There in the Simorgh’s radiant
face they saw/Themselves, the Simorgh
of the world—with awe/They gazed,
and dared at last to comprehend/They
were the Simorgh and the journey’s
end.” The birds were the very thing
they’d searched for. It is an eloquent
summary of the Sufi teaching that the
divine lies within each believer’s soul. In
Persian, this collapse of difference into
unity is clinched by an accident of language. Simorgh, the name of the divine
bird, breaks down into si-morgh, meaning “thirty birds.” How many poets
would dare to put so much pressure on
what is essentially a linguistic joke? The
German scholar of Sufism Annemarie
Schimmel called it “the most ingenious
pun in Persian literature.”
Late in his life, Jorge Luis Borges
wrote “The Unending Rose,” a short
hoopoe tells the assembled birds
many short tales along their journey to illustrate his arguments. The
bulk of Attar’s poem is made up
of these stories, adapted from the
Koran, Islamic history, and the lives
of Sufi saints. In the centuries after Attar’s death, as the Mongol conquerors
of Persia converted to Islam and established courts that rivaled those of
Istanbul and Florence in sophistication
and luxury, many of these retellings
became subjects for elaborately illustrated manuscripts. The most exquisite
of these, which includes works by the
master painter Behzad, was commissioned in the late fifteenth century in
Herat, Afghanistan, and is now in the
permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.4
The retellings of Koranic tales are,
in effect, Attar’s interpretations of the
holy text. Some of them are terrifically
strange, seeming to upend the meaning
of the original story altogether. This
sort of revisionism is a Sufi specialty. It
is a commonplace of mystical teaching,
for example, that the Koranic story of
Satan’s refusal to bow before Adam as
the rest of the angels do, a story that appears in several passages of the Koran,
is not evidence of Satan’s pride, as it is
understood in traditional interpretations, but rather of his overpowering
love for God, which did not permit him
to bow to anyone else. (In this sense,
Satan is the model monotheist.) Attar
Borges: Selected Poems, translated by
Alastair Reed (Penguin, 2000), p. 367.
An illustrated volume of the epic,
which includes these original fifteenthcentury images along with others from
a variety of sources, was published in
2014 as The Canticle of the Birds: Illustrated in Eastern Islamic Painting
(Paris: Éditions Diane de Selliers).
The New York Review
Through January 7
Catalogue available at
Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil is organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Major support is generously provided by The Diane & Bruce Halle Foundation. Additional funding is contributed by the
Morton International Exhibition Fund, Robert J. Buford, Noelle C. Brock, Constance and David Coolidge, Margot Levin Schiff and the Harold Schiff Foundation, the Jack and Peggy Crowe Fund, and Erika Erich. Annual support for Art Institute exhibitions is
provided by the Exhibitions Trust: Neil Bluhm and the Bluhm Family Charitable Foundation; Jay Franke and David Herro; Kenneth Griffin; Caryn and King Harris, The Harris Family Foundation; Liz and Eric Lefkofsky; Robert M. and Diane v.S. Levy; Ann and
Samuel M. Mencoff; Usha and Lakshmi N. Mittal; Thomas and Margot Pritzker; Anne and Chris Reyes; Betsy Bergman Rosenfield and Andrew M. Rosenfield; Cari and Michael J. Sacks; and the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation.
Tarsila do Amaral. Abaporu, 1928. Colección MALBA, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.
October 26, 2017
new books from polity
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30 years of independent thinking
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goes further, saying that God’s curse of
Satan is to be prized, since any form of
divine attention, even in the form of a
curse, must be counted a blessing.
The most important Koranic narrative for Attar’s poem is the story of Joseph, which the Koran itself calls “the
best of all stories.” Joseph, who was cast
into a well and then sold into slavery by
the very brothers who pledged to watch
over him, makes many appearances in
The Conference of the Birds, most often
as a symbol of the pure soul. At the end
of Attar’s poem, before the birds confront themselves in the mirror, they are
shown a ledger of their worldly deeds.
Attar compares this balance sheet to
the slave merchant’s receipt that Joseph
reveals to his brothers when they meet
in Egypt. It is one of the most powerful
passages in the poem, moving between
Koranic original, Attar’s fable, and the
reader’s conscience:
As they read
They understood that it was they
who’d led
The lovely Joseph into slavery—
Who had deprived him of his
Deep in a well, then ignorantly
Their captive to a passing chief
for gold
(Can you not see that at each
breath you sell
The Joseph you imprisoned in
that well,
That he will be the king to whom
you must
Naked and hungry bow down in
the dust?)
While much of Sufi literature is esoteric, mechanically allegorical, and
spiritually high-strung, it can also be
playful and experimental (the same
might be said of Jewish mystical literature). Attar is skilled at retelling old
stories to reveal unsuspected meanings,
and he has a special liking for stories
that turn on some dramatic reversal of
fortune—a religious conversion, a king
brought low, a slave raised high. One effect of these topsy-turvy narratives is to
cast doubt on the permanence or even
legitimacy of any worldly power. Kings,
like roses, will not last forever, and the
man who seems to be a sovereign might
actually be a slave to his passions.
Attar’s suspicion of authority lends
his poetry an attractively modern note,
but this skepticism is deeply rooted in
his own times. In medieval Iran, Sufi
communities emerged for the most part
outside the royal courts, which they
regarded as dens of debauchery and
worldly intrigue. The mystics’ legendary piety and ascetic way of life stood as
a rebuke to the intemperance of rulers
(as well as the hypocrisy of official clerics). Attar boasted of never having written a poem in praise of a king—“Why
eulogize/Some idiotic fool as great and
wise?”—and warned against cozying up
to powerful men. “An earthly king acts
righteously at times,” the hoopoe warns
the hawk, “But also stains the earth with
hateful crimes,/And then whoever hovers nearest him/Will suffer most from
his destructive whim.”
ltimately more subversive than his
mistrust of rulers is Attar’s conception
of love. One might even say that for him,
Sufism is fundamentally the cultivation
of love—not in the sentimental sense of
an affection for particular people (although this may be the first symptom of
the real thing), but rather as the state of
readiness to give up everything, including one’s most deeply held beliefs, for
the sake of one’s passion. Love in this
sense is a profoundly irrational and asocial—even antisocial—force. “Give up
the intellect for love,” the hoopoe urges
his disciples more than once, “and see/
In one brief moment all eternity.”
In a rich and extraordinarily wideranging study, the late scholar of Islam
Shahab Ahmed recently argued that
the “religion of love” (madhhab- i ‘ishq)
is a central element of Muslim history
and thought, in societies stretching
from the Balkans to Bengal. 5 The popular stereotype of Islam as a puritanical and legalistic faith—an image that
often persists in scholarship as well—is
in his account very far from the lived
truth. In view of the enormously widespread circulation of poems by Attar,
Rumi, and Hafez, as well as the visual
art that grew out of these works and the
philosophical arguments they engaged
with, Ahmed argues that Sufi poetry
is a more reliable guide to Muslim “orthodoxy” than jurists and theologians.
Ahmed’s argument is a useful corrective to more prevalent opinions, but
it is difficult to imagine Attar’s notion
of love ever serving as a guiding principle for a social or religious organization. For Attar, love is instead a process
of transformation that transcends received notions of good and evil. The
longest story in The Conference of the
Birds is about Sheikh San’an, a pious
Meccan who falls for a Christian girl
and converts to her religion—one of
Attar’s typical reversals. The sheikh’s
disciples remonstrate with him, but he
responds with a series of blasphemies,
delivered with the eerie serenity of a
man who is head- over-heels in love:
One urged him to repent; he said:
“I do,
Of all I was, all that belonged
One counseled prayer; he said:
“Where is her face
That I may pray toward that
blessèd place?”. . . .
And one reproached him: “Have
you no regret
For Islam and those rites you
would forget?”
He said: “No man repents past
folly more;
Why is it I was not in love
Divine intercession eventually restores
the sheikh to his original faith—the
Christian girl converts to Islam—but
the experience of love has profound
consequences. It liberates the sheikh
from the outward shows of religion and
inducts him into its deeper mysteries.
The sheikh’s passion for the Christian girl is clearly an allegory of the
spiritual love that rises above earthly
distinctions of sect. In this sense, the
Christian is—paradoxically—the Muslim sheikh’s pƯr, or Sufi master, who
initiates him into higher truths. But as
Attar tells us in lingering detail, the
girl is beautiful in a mundane sense
too: “Her mouth was tiny as a needle’s
eye,/Her breath as quickening as Jesus’
sigh;/Her chin was dimpled with a silver
Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam?: The
Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press, 2016), pp. 38–46.
The New York Review
well/In which a thousand drowning Josephs fell.” Later on, the girl demands
that the sheikh drink forbidden wine
to prove his love for her, which leads to
an equally rapturous passage about the
effects of intoxication. The celebration
of physical beauty and sensual delight
is clearly at odds with Attar’s strictures
against worldly pleasures and outward
shows. But the poet’s joy in language,
which is itself a kind of sensual pleasure, seems to outrun his spiritual dictums. For some readers, it is the thrill of
seeing style triumph over stricture that
gives Attar’s poetry its special appeal.
Sufism has a reputation, particularly
in the West, as a “moderate” or even
ecumenical branch of Islam. An ode of
Ibn Arabi, the Andalusian philosopher
and poet, is often quoted in this spirit:
My heart can take on
any form:
a meadow for gazelles,
a cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka‘ba for the circling pilgrim,
The tables of the Toráh,
The scrolls of the Qur’án.
I profess the religion of love;
wherever its caravan turns
along the way, that is the belief,
the faith I keep.6
Sufism’s reputation for tolerance and
mysticism has attracted religious syn6
The translation is by Michael Sells,
Stations of Desire: Love Elegies from
Ibn ‘Arabi and New Poems (Jerusalem:
Ibis, 2000).
1 2 5
cretists of all kinds. In the United
States, what goes by the name of Sufism
is basically a branch of the New Age
movement and bears almost no relation
to Sufi orders of the Middle East and
South Asia. In this spiritualist milieu,
the poetry of Attar, Rumi, and Hafez—
like that of the early-twentieth- century
Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran—is read
as a form of wisdom literature, valued
above all for its sayings, parables, and
Sholeh Wolpé, the most recent translator of Attar’s epic into English, writes
in the foreword to her new version that
“the parables in this book trigger memories deep within us all. The stories inhabit the imagination, and slowly over
time, their wisdom trickles down into
the heart. The process of absorption is
unique to every individual, as is each
person’s journey. We are the birds in
the story.” This is a plausible response
to Attar’s pedagogic intentions. We are
plainly meant as readers to identify
ourselves (or at least our souls) with
the birds. But this interpretation ignores the literary and rhetorical dimensions of Attar’s poem, and it is in this
respect that Wolpé’s translation often
falls short.
The Conference of the Birds is not a
poem that cries out for retranslation.
Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi’s
version, first published in 1984 and
revised in 2011, is a wonderfully lucid
and stylish rendition. Darbandi and
Davis maintain the rhyming couplets
of the original—they turn the elevensyllable lines of the Persian into iambic
pentameters—without any sacrifice of
sense (and astonishingly few stumbles).
Their Attar is at once folksy and for-
mal; the couplets maintain narrative
momentum even during the most esoteric flights. Darbandi and Davis, accomplished Persianists, approach the
poem primarily as a work of imaginative literature, for which Attar’s
conception of Sufi doctrine provides
a convenient structure. No doubt the
doctrine is at times seriously meant,
but it is not where the real action is—
not for the poet, and not for the translator, either.
Wolpé’s version is rather earnest
and earthbound by comparison. She
makes the curious choice to render
the retellings of legendary material in
what she calls “poetic prose”—though
it is not exactly clear what makes it
poetic—and the speech of the birds in
unrhymed verse. But her hoopoe often
sounds merely sententious:
Cast off the shame of narcissism.
How long will you keep this faithlessness, this disgrace?
Stake your life for the Beloved
and you will be
Liberated from everything, even
good and evil.
Surrender your ego and step into
the Path,
Cross that threshold dancing.
“Surrender your ego” is a maxim of
the yoga studio. Wolpé defends her use
of that jarringly clinical word, which
she employs throughout her translation: “I chose ‘ego’ because it felt like
a word closest in meaning to the inner
conceited self, the non-soul. Do not
read it as the psychoanalytical ego,
minted by the nineteenth- century neurologist and father of psychoanalysis,
Sigmund Freud.” One must point out
that Freud’s word was in fact the German Ich or, “I”; “ego” was minted by
his English translator, Ernest Jones.
In any case, translators get to choose
only the words, not the words’ connotations. “Ego” cannot help but make
contemporary readers think of Freud,
but also—more worrisomely—of New
Ageism and the tendency it encourages to treat literature as a kind of
therapy or self-help. This approach is
not entirely foreign to Attar, but it fails
to pick up on what is most distinctive
about his poetry.
The epilogue of The Conference of
the Birds, a poem dedicated to scourging the self, is Attar’s grand self- eulogy:
“Until the end of time there’ll be
no one
Who’ll write about these things as
I have done.
I bring pearls from Truth’s sea,
and poetry—
This book’s the proof—has found
its seal in me!”
Muhammad was “the seal of the prophets” in the sense that he was the last
prophet, whose revelation superseded
all previous revelations. Attar’s claim
to be the seal of the poets seems to
be another case of his pleasure in language—in this case, the pleasures of
hyperbole—getting the better of his
doctrine of humility. He was not the
last poet, of course; many others have
been guided by Attar’s example in the
nine centuries since his death. The best
students recognized that his virtue lay
not in his precepts but in his limitless
powers of invention.
Broke and Patriotic
The Myth of Millionaire
Tax Flight
Why Poor Americans Love Their Country
Francesco Duina
How Place Still Matters for the Rich
Cristobal Young
“An excellent, timely book, which can help us
understand the results of the recent election.”
—Liah Greenfeld,
author of Mind, Modernity, Madness
“A tour-de-force that should be read by
taxpayers everywhere.”
—Douglas S. Massey,
Princeton University
Secret Cures of Slaves
Forgotten Disease
People, Plants, and Medicine in the
Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World
Londa Schiebinger
Illnesses Transformed in Chinese Medicine
Hilary A. Smith
A long-ranging history of medicine in
China and the West’s influence on Chinese
understanding of disease
A rich examination of medicine and human
experimentation in the eighteenth-century
Atlantic World
October 26, 2017
A Family Cruise
Peter Green
An Odyssey:
A Father, a Son, and an Epic
by Daniel Mendelsohn.
Knopf, 306 pp., $26.95
In January 2011, just before the beginning of the spring semester, Daniel
Mendelsohn—well known to readers
of The New York Review and a professor of classics at Bard College—was
approached by his eighty- one-year- old
father, a retired research mathematician and instructor in computer science. Could he, Jay Mendelsohn asked
his son, “for reasons,” Daniel writes,
“I thought I understood at the time,”
sit in on his annual freshman seminar
on Homer’s Odyssey? Nervously, Daniel welcomed this unexpected auditor,
believing, as he was assured, that the
old man would be happy just listening.
Before the first session was over he had
realized his mistake and was thinking: This is going to be a nightmare. In
fact the paternally augmented seminar,
and the Odyssey-related Mediterranean cruise that father and son took
shortly after it, turned out to be an
unexpected, and revealing, success. In
particular, they stimulated exploration,
via Homer, of the timeless elements of
family relationships down through the
About a year after the seminar, Jay
Mendelsohn suffered the fall that unexpectedly led to his final illness. The
unusual, and unusually complex, nature of the book before us is previewed,
and explained, in a meditation that its
author recounts in its early pages of
watching over his unconscious father,
“as imperturbable as a dead pharaoh
in his bandages,” in the local hospital’s
intensive care unit:
But we had had our odyssey—had
journeyed together, so to speak,
through this text over the course of
a semester, a text that to me, as I sat
there looking at the motionless figure of my father, seemed more and
more to be about the present than
about the past. It is a story, after
all, about strange and complicated
families, indeed about two grandfathers—the maternal one eccentric, garrulous, a trickster without
peer, the other, the father of the father, taciturn and stubborn; about
a long marriage and short dalliances, about a husband who travels
far and a wife who stays behind,
as rooted to her house as a tree is
to the earth; about a son who for
a long time is unrecognized by
and unrecognizable to his father,
until late, very late, when they join
together for a great adventure; a
story, in its final moments, about
a man in the middle of his life, a
man who is, we must remember, a
son as well as a father, and who at
the end of this story falls down and
weeps because he has confronted
the spectacle of his father’s old age.
The sight of his infirm father is so
overwhelming to Odysseus that he, a
congenital liar and expert storyteller,
abandons his manipulative tales and
“has, in the end, to tell the truth. Such
is the Odyssey, which my father decided he wanted to study with me a few
sponse: neither can you see the world
clearly without knowing the Aeneid.
In consequence father and son come
appreciably closer by tackling bits of
Virgil together over the phone. As the
Latin finally gets too difficult for Jay,
he disarms his son by saying: “It’s okay.
Now you’ll read it for me.” And hard
as Jay may be, no one could have been
more understanding when, as a confused adolescent, Daniel came out to
him as gay.
The seminar, of course, has a wider
reach than the Mendelsohn family, so
as we enter the classroom the focus
broadens. We are always conscious
of Jay, small, bald, quietly aggressive,
week after week in the same seat by
the window, a little apart from the rest,
coming out with some arresting and
essentially nonliterary comment: apropos Odysseus and Penelope’s marriage,
on the shared “little things that nobody
else knows about”; on Telemachus,
“He proves he’s a grownup by taking
responsibility”; and, most unforgettably, on Achilles’s confession in the
Underworld—a complete negation of
his Iliadic social code—that he’d rather
be a living hired field hand than rule as
king of the dead: “It reveals that you
can spend your whole life believing in
something, and then you get to a point
when you realize you were wrong about
the whole thing.”
Jay & Daniel Mendelsohn
years ago; such is Odysseus, the hero in
whose footsteps we once travelled.”
What are we to make of this remarkable declaration? In the first instance,
obviously, that anyone embarking upon
this fascinating book would be well advised to read, or reread, the Odyssey
first, since Mendelsohn’s exploration
is at least as much a personal family
memoir as a critical report on Homer’s
epic, and the two facets of the book are
by no means always related, despite the
surprising ways they frequently illuminate each other. But we have here also,
understandably, a partial and selective
reading of Homer that concentrates on
familial relationships above all else,
sometimes sees these in a way that
may surprise the experts (for example
the description above of Odysseus’s reunion with his father, Laertes—what’s
the point, now the suitors are dead, of
yet another otiose cover story, not least
one causing uncalled-for distress?),
and attributes to the ancient text illuminations that more plausibly derive
from modern reflection.
aniel, as his meditation makes very
clear, this time around is not only teaching the Odyssey but using it as a psychological key to unlock the personality of
a father he feels he has never really understood: this odyssey only makes sense
as a quest for emotional understanding.
We can see how the alleged parallels
assist him, but we also can’t help noticing how the discoveries he makes and
mysteries he solves emerge not from
Homer, but rather from his persistent
questioning of his own family—various
Mendelsohn uncles, cousins, brothers,
and close acquaintances.
Thus we learn a good deal about the
members of the extensive and tightly
woven Mendelsohn clan, and in the
process one or two striking Homeric
likenesses are indeed established, most
particularly that of Daniel’s maternal
grandfather, who is remembered as
vain, talkative, and a great trickster,
and had four marriages but only one
son: the alert Homerist will at once
be reminded of Odysseus’s maternal
grandfather Autolycus, and the repeated one-son pattern of Odysseus’s
own family. Jay himself comes across
initially—as he has long seemed to his
son—as an impatient man of dogmatic
opinions that too frequently recall the
clichés of his professional class and
generation. He believes in firm definitions (“x is x,” “Only science is science”) and the virtues of hard work,
the more difficult the better; he’s suspicious of emotionalism. He and his
devoted wife, Marlene—housebound,
but witty, cheerful, fun-loving, extrovert: a fine teacher, and this book’s
dedicatee—are classic opposites in all
respects, an arrangement that seems to
work well.
Like the vagrant Odysseus, Jay has a
large, bald cranium (to the young Daniel he seemed “all head”). On his trips
to Bard he sleeps on the narrow bed
that he had, years earlier, carpentered
for Daniel after he outgrew his crib; it
had been doubling as a sofa in Daniel’s
study. Father and son, like Odysseus
and Penelope, share a bed secret: just as
Odysseus built their bed around a bedpost made from an immovable vine, so
Jay had made Daniel’s bed from a door.
Daniel, who has no real grasp of
mathematics, appreciates, but is nervous about, his father’s dictates: “It’s
impossible to see the world clearly if
you don’t know calculus.” Yet Jay, who
gave up Latin as a schoolboy, does,
grumblingly, take note of his son’s re-
most readers, Mendelsohn’s
students, and his father, are puzzled
by a work that presents its presumptive
hero at the outset only briefly, offstage,
as a castaway on a remote island. The
victim of the angry Poseidon, Odysseus
is rescued by a sexy nymph: after living with her for seven years, he is now
miserably yearning for wife and home
but seems incapable of doing anything
about it. He’s lost all his men and ships,
Jay keeps complaining; he cheats on
his wife. What kind of a hero is that?
Further, he is left there in limbo until
Book 5, awaiting the gods’ decision to
bring him back.
Books 1 and 2 describe, in arresting
detail, the situation in his island kingdom of Ithaca: local government is in
collapse, while a bunch of young aristocratic hooligans, convinced that the
long-absent King Odysseus is dead,
have invaded his house (on the excuse
of courting his presumed widow, Penelope) and are living riotously, consuming
his goods and swilling his wine. There
is, clearly, not much that Penelope and
her near-adult son, Telemachus, can
do about the situation. Mendelsohn’s
students don’t get a chance to analyze
Homer’s sharp- edged portrayal of a
society enduring the prolonged absence of its leaders during a foreign
war, since they are being treated to a
lecture on the Homeric question: Were
the two epics attributed to Homer the
work of a single person, or did they
evolve orally through many bards, by
a process described by Mendelsohn as
These students also, understandably
in view of their age, seem a little shy
on the subject of Telemachus’s “adolescent oscillation between awkwardness
and braggadocio,” his bursts of rudeness to his mother (he clearly finds her
The New York Review
unwashed and unlaundered state of
mourning distasteful), and his tearful
aggressiveness in confronting the suitors. But they emerge as shrewdly perceptive when it comes to Books 3 and
4, which describe Telemachus’s visits to
Pylos and Sparta seeking news of his
father. As they see at once, the societies of both Nestor and of Menelaus and
Helen—peaceful, settled, observing
religious and domestic customs—are
drawn in deliberate contrast to the anarchic conditions that Telemachus has
left behind in Ithaca.
By now, however, we also have to
consider the numerous divine intrusions
into the story by the goddess Athena,
who not only sends Telemachus off on
a journey in search of his father—even
assuming his likeness to organize his
departure—but again and again intervenes to help both father and son
(Odysseus is her particular favorite) in
moments of crisis. It is hard not to sympathize with Jay’s reiterated complaint
that Telemachus and Odysseus are just
following orders, that the gods do everything for them, that life isn’t like that.
and an entire fabric of belief with them.
When beyond-the-horizon myths like
those of the Sirens or the Wandering
Rocks were being supplanted by less
colorful geographical fact, it is quite
possible that our composer hedged
bets on the authenticity of such tales by
having Odysseus, their self-proclaimed
protagonist, narrate them, leaving everyone, including the Phaeacians, to
decide for themselves whether he was
telling the truth or, as so often, fabricating a tall tale for the pleasure of it.
This kind of historically conscious
scrutiny is not what we get in Mendelsohn’s seminar, which covers
ground familiar to all teachers and
college freshmen. Beyond discussion
of the Homeric question, the class
does not, for instance, take up issues
of transmission and sourcing for the
Odysseus finally returns to
Ithaca, the seminar becomes preoccupied with the literary proposition that
he needs to be alone to be a proper
hero. There is also the question of
whether a real hero can cry. This misses
the forceful display of Odysseus’s physique, prowess, and seductive masculinity, which are stressed from the first
moment of his appearance in Book 5.
He fells twenty trees, builds a raft in
four days, and steers it effectively by
the stars. All his helpers—Calypso,
Athena, the sea-nymph Ino, the Phaeacian princess, Nausicaa, and finally
Nausicaa’s mother, Queen Arêtê—are
female. He appears in front of Nausicaa
and her handmaidens like a mountain
lion, naked except for a leafy branch,
and the verb that describes his “mingling” with them, mixesthai, is also a
term for sexual intercourse. Tactful,
clever, and prepossessing, he has not
been talking to Nausicaa’s father, King
Alcinöos, for five minutes before the
king declares he would fancy him as a
son-in-law. The helpless castaway has
been neatly transformed into a prize
catch—a hero indeed.
Mendelsohn discourages his students, on literary grounds, from arguing that the off-the-map wanderings
with which Odysseus regales his
Phaeacian hosts (his sojourns among
the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the
Lotus-Eaters, Circe, and so on) are
imaginary. As Daniel’s old teacher
Jenny Strauss Clay—consulted on this
point—reminds him, Circe is mentioned, by the narrator, i.e., Homer, as
having taught Odysseus a special knot:
ergo, she, and everything connected to
her, must be regarded, for the Odyssey,
as real, not fictional. But Odysseus does
frequently tell fictitious stories about
himself (often posing as a Cretan,
which reminds us, with mischievous intent, of the old saying that all Cretans
are liars). Furthermore our Odyssey
was put together in a period, the seventh century BCE , that saw not only
the expansion of physical horizons,
through commerce and exploration,
but also the dawn of scientific rationalism. The old mythical frontiers of
the Mediterranean—including the encircling Ocean and the Underworld—
were everywhere being challenged,
October 26, 2017
Penelope’s suitors; engraving
of a drawing by John Flaxman
three-thousand-year- old text as it is
parsed and analyzed to establish character and motivation. Differences from
modern thinking are noted. Timeless
similarities, not least of psychology and
behavior, are weighed as proof of greatness. In the hands of a clever and imaginative teacher, as here, the method has
considerable merit, even though by its
very nature it tends (as, again, here) to
ignore improbabilities of plot, of which
the Odyssey contains several particularly egregious examples. How can
Odysseus kill, almost single-handed,
over a hundred suitors? (Answer: originally, there seem to have been only a
dozen.) And why does Menelaus have
to wander around the eastern Mediterranean for seven or eight years after the
war? (Answer: in order to avoid getting
home before the murder of his brother
Agamemnon is avenged by the latter’s son, Orestes; otherwise everyone
would wonder why Menelaus hadn’t
done the job himself.)
The Odyssey cruise, wished on Mendelssohn and his father by another of
his former teachers, Froma Zeitlin, paid
off in surprising ways, despite the fact
that the Sicilian and Italian sites visited
were mostly the improbable suggestions
of Greco-Roman savants desperate to
maintain that the myths retold by Odysseus had a solid factual origin. Though
Jay begins as expected, ready for a serious educational experience backed
up by the actual Homeric locations, he
finds the sites disappointing (at Troy he
decides that “the poem feels more real
than the ruins”) and, to his son’s astonishment, mellows socially at sea, singing
old songs from the 1930s and making
unlikely friends over the martinis. All
this leads Daniel to wonder—having
already been taken aback to learn, postseminar, from his students how much
they’d been enjoying Jay’s company on
their train journeys home—“How many
sides did my father actually have, and
which was the ‘real’ one?”
most moves Mendelsohn at
the end of the Odyssey is the image
of son, father, and grandfather standing triumphantly together, the suitors
slaughtered, present and past “juxtaposed in a single climactic moment.”
The enlightenment he gains often
comes not directly, but by associative
suggestion, reflecting on “long journeys and long marriages and what it
means to yearn for home.” Jay’s bluntness and inflexibility, we come to see,
conceal anxieties and sympathies as
well as enduring (though secular) Jewish principles. His passion for education and hard work, his appreciation
for solidity and authenticity, are just
those qualities that led his son to pursue the rigors of classical philology.
Yet for whatever reasons—several are
suggested—somehow Jay never completed, and indeed may never have
begun, his Ph.D. dissertation in mathematics, and a strong recommendation
from his commanding officer that he
go to West Point and train as an officer
came to nothing. Some human mysteries never get solved.
There are many moments to cherish
in this tangled and passionate investigation. The discussion of the Odyssey,
if narrow in some respects, sparkles,
and the seminar was lucky in its students. (I shall not forget in a hurry
the suggestion of one that Telemachus
may unconsciously hope that his longabsent father is dead, since being expected to love a living stranger would
be tougher than continuing to mourn a
dead one.) It was a symbolically happy
accident—the temporary closing of the
Corinth Canal—that prevented the
cruise from ever reaching the island
that may or may not be Ithaca. This left
a whole day without instruction. The
captain, recalling that Mendelsohn had
translated C. P. Cavafy’s marvelous
poem on the value of not hurrying to
reach Ithaca—a poem made famous by
its recital at the funeral of Jacqueline
Kennedy Onassis—persuaded him to
fill in with a reading of the poem and
a lecture on Cavafy. He did, with much
of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” as well as
Cavafy, and we get a haunting glimpse
of it here: the fear that the end of your
journey means finis, the hope residual
in perpetual postponement, in “the virtues of not arriving.”
But best of all are the various small
recognitions that combine to build the
late-blossoming intimacy between Jay
and his son. Of these the most intensely
moving for me was the moment on the
cruise at which Daniel, who suffers
from intense claustrophobia, hysterically refuses to go into an Italian cave
(allegedly that of the seductress Calypso). Jay takes him gently by the hand
and not only walks him through what
he most fears (“You did good, Dan”)
but afterward tactfully explains to
other travelers that his son was helping
him manage the steep stairs. We recall
what he said to his wife when Daniel
confessed to being gay: Let me talk
to him, I know something about this.
Despite his embarrassing table manners and defensively obstinate declarations, this is far from the only matter of
real importance that Jay Mendelsohn
knew something about. We should all
be so lucky as to have had a father like
that; and now we can enjoy his son’s
honest, and loving, account of the improbable odyssey that gave them this
one last deeply satisfying adventure
A Visionary of the Real
Jed Perl
The writings of Donald Judd are triumphantly matter- of-fact. The sculptor,
who died in 1994 at the age of sixtyfive, was decisive even about his second thoughts and doubts. “Cocksure
certainty and squirming uncertainty
are both wrong,” he once wrote. “It’s
possible to think and act without being
simple and fanatic and it’s possible to
accept uncertainty, which is nearly everything, quietly.” In the essays that he published over
more than three decades, he
turned even his equivocations into dictums as he explored subjects that included
not only art, architecture,
and the art world, but also
urban development and national affairs.
What rescues even Judd’s
most sweeping pronouncements from crackpot irascibility is the easy, pungent
power of his prose. He arranges relatively simple nouns
and verbs (and a minimum of
adjectives) in sentences and
paragraphs that have a plainspoken, workmanlike beauty.
Judd’s direct, unequivocal
writings are a perfect match
for his sculptures, with their
precisely calculated angles
and unabashed celebration
of industrial materials such
as plywood, sheet aluminum,
and Plexiglas. This fiercely
independent artist belongs
in a long line of American
aesthetes who embraced an
unadorned style, including
figures as various as Ernest
Hemingway, Barnett Newman, Virgil
Thomson, and Walker Evans.
Reading Judd’s prose two decades
after his death, you will experience,
amid the overheated and gaseous atmosphere of the contemporary art
world, an invigorating blast of cold,
clear air. Donald Judd Writings, although not the first collection of his
prose, is the first to span his entire career. Edited by Flavin Judd, the artist’s
son, and Caitlin Murray, the book includes, in addition to previously published work, selections from notes that
Judd made over the years. All the way
through, you hear the voice of a man
who was never afraid to say no. It was
not the refusal of an outsider, however,
at least not in his earlier years of writing and exhibiting. Judd’s no is that of
the dedicated avant-gardist—the man
who leads the charge. This no is fundamentally positive and celebratory—a
cry for the new.
Judd believed that the search for the
new involved, both in his own work and
the work of his contemporaries, a rejection of the conventions of painting
and sculpture in favor of new forms,
which were often aggressively curious
or idiosyncratic and startlingly sized
or scaled. Judd refused to favor either
representational or abstract images.
He was an enthusiast for Claes Olden30
burg’s oversized quotidian objects, Lee
Bontecou’s shaped canvas convexities,
Lucas Samaras’s bedecked and bejeweled boxes, and Dan Flavin’s neon geometries. He gathered these variegated
works by his contemporaries under a
singular rubric when he titled one of
his most famous essays “Specific Objects” (1964).
Although Judd had a great deal to
say about many varieties of art, architecture, and design, he was a man with
one big idea. “Most works finally have
one quality,” he wrote in “Specific Objects.” “The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting.” In
sculpture and his writing their staying
Judd grew up in New Jersey, served in
Korea in 1946–1947, and attended the
Art Students League and Columbia
University, where he studied philosophy and graduated cum laude in 1953.
The first three essays in Donald Judd
Writings, previously unpublished, were
written while he was doing graduate
work in art history at Columbia later
in the 1950s. They reveal a mind and
a style almost fully formed. In these
essays about a Peruvian wood carv-
never left him. He wanted to nail things
down. He began his long discussion
of Brooks’s lyrical abstraction with a
simple declaration: “In the contemporary dichotomy of the dispersion or
concentration of form, Brooks’s work
is mediate.” In the next few sentences,
he assigned particular places within
this contemporary dichotomy not only
to Brooks but also to Jackson Pollock,
Bradley Walker Tomlin, Willem de
Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and a Frenchman,
Pierre Soulages. Judd, still a student,
was very much in control—a young,
masterful mind, sizing up the situation.
Beginning in the late
1950s, when many writers
were still inclined to cast
what was being referred to as
the new American painting
of Pollock, de Kooning, and
Rothko in a romantic light,
Judd argued that these artists
weren’t dreamers and mythologizers but realists and
pragmatists, albeit of an altogether different kind. Writing about Pollock in 1967, he
complained that most discussions of Pollock were “loose
and unreasonable.” No doubt
thinking of the writers who
had associated Pollock’s
mazelike dripped canvases
with mystical cosmologies or
the hurly-burly of urban life,
Judd observed that “almost
any kind of statement can
be derived from the work:
psychological, sociological, political.”
He wanted to distinguish
Pollock’s paintings from the
expressionism of Soutine
and van Gogh, which he saw
as “portray[ing] immediate
emotions.” This, so he explained, “occurs through a
sequence of observing, feeling, and recording.” Pollock, Judd believed, wasn’t
concerned with emotions but with
“sensations.” Emotions were evolutionary; sensations were immediate. “The
dripped paint in most of Pollock’s paintings is dripped paint,” he wrote. “It’s
that sensation, completely immediate
and specific, and nothing modifies it.”
Richard Einzig/Brechten-Einzig Ltd. /Whitechapel Gallery Archive
Donald Judd Writings
edited by Flavin Judd
and Caitlin Murray.
Judd Foundation/David Zwirner,
1,055 pp., $39.95 (paper)
Donald Judd at an exhibition of his work at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1970
Judd’s grandest sculptures he certainly
proved his point. I’m thinking especially of the hundred sheet aluminum
boxes gathered together in two buildings in Marfa, Texas, and the richly
polychromed wall-hanging compositions of his later years.
While everybody who cares about
the arts will agree that unity and complexity are both qualities to be admired, there is a fundamental divide
between those who crave a complexity
that may risk disunity and those who
crave a unity that may give short shrift
to complexity. Judd, although his heart
was always with unity, knew that it was
enriched by variety. His hundred aluminum boxes, although alike in their
external dimensions, are subdivided
inside in many different ways. His polychromed wall-hanging compositions
dazzle with their playful, unpredictable
color orchestrations.
In an essay entitled “Symmetry”
(1985), Judd declared that “art, for
myself, and architecture, for everyone, should always be symmetrical
except for a good reason.” But he
immediately went on to observe that
“symmetry itself allows variation,”
and that there are forms of symmetry
that are “very close to asymmetry.”
There are intricacies amid Judd’s simplicities. That’s what gives both his
ing, a marble relief by the seventeenthcentury French sculptor Pierre Puget,
and an Abstract Expressionist painting
by the New York artist James Brooks,
there is already the methodical attentiveness and the razor-sharp analysis.
Judd abhors a mystery. He demands
clarity. In describing an impossibly
crowded Baroque battle scene, he cuts
straight through the pileup of human
beings in various states of stress, arguing
that the painting is “organized through
a virtual grid of diagonals of varying directions and prominence.” Judd took at
least one course with the great art historian Meyer Schapiro at Columbia, which
leads me to wonder if he was somehow
influenced by Schapiro’s bold but methodical mind—by his combination of
boundless curiosity, strenuous critique,
and analytical precision.
“I leapt into the world an empiricist,”
Judd wrote in 1981 in an essay about
the Russian avant-garde. In the graduate school essay about James Brooks,
he quoted David Hume’s ideas about
“the nature of substance,” and commented that “much present American
painting seems related to the indigenous pragmatic philosophy, especially
Peirce, and its source, the similar British Empiricists.” Judd began with an
empiricist’s taste for the concrete, the
particular, and the specific. That taste
or Judd writing became a way of reasoning his way through the world—of
reconciling the singularity of his own
artistic vision with the chaotic heterogeneity of the art and ideas that he encountered everywhere he turned. When
he first collected his writings in 1975,
he claimed that much if not most of
what he had written between 1959 and
1965 for Arts magazine he had written
“as a mercenary and would never have
written . . . otherwise.” Writing had
been little more than a way to eke out
a living. “Since there were no set hours
and since I could work at home it was a
good part-time job.” I don’t think this
can be taken at face value. While Judd
was surely frustrated by having to write
short reviews of the work of artists who
interested him little if at all, there was
a wonderful steadiness about his eye
and his mind as he chronicled the sea
changes that were overtaking the New
The New York Review
art, he was equally convinced that the
conditions that invited creation were
variable, diverse, and unpredictable.
In both “Specific Objects” and another
essay written in 1964, “Local History,”
Judd rejected any unified theory of the
history of art. This was the heart of
his disagreement with Greenberg—as
well as with Fried, who even as he was
extending and transforming Greenberg’s ideas launched a direct assault
on Judd in his essay “Art and Objecthood.” Judd sensed an underlying and
unwanted Hegelian idealism in Greenberg’s belief that any authentic artistic
style, as Greenberg put it, “had its own
inherent laws of development.” “The
history of art and art’s condition at any
time,” Judd wrote in 1964, “are pretty
messy. They should stay that way.”
Judd disliked the simplification
implicit in a stylistic label such as
Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, he rejected the labels that were ascribed to
his own work and that of close friends,
such as Minimalism and ABC Art.
“‘Crisis,’ ‘revolutionary,’ and the like,”
he observed, “were similar attempts
to simplify the situation, but through
its historical location instead of its
nature.” Judd, whatever the unified
look of his own work, applauded the
pluralism of the early 1960s. He saw a
situation in which “a lot of new artists”
had “developed their work as simply
their own work. There were almost no
groups and there were no movements.”
He believed not in world history but in
what he called local history.
Judd had his first one-man show at the
Green Gallery in New York in 1963, at
a time when he was as active as a critic
as he would ever be. He exhibited a
number of works that hung on the wall
and behaved rather like paintings, even
as their curved and convex edges, insistently symmetrical compositions, and
elements of galvanized iron and aluminum put gallerygoers on notice that
they were dealing not with metaphors
but with actualities. Perhaps even more
arresting were a few works that Judd
set on the floor. With their blunt, carpentered wooden shapes, they suggested enigmatic inventions not yet
under copyright. The most striking
was a right angle made of two pieces
of wood painted cadmium red, with a
black pipe fitted between them and also
right-angled, so as to create a pokerfaced juxtaposition of right-angled red
wood and right-angled black pipe.
The inscrutability of Judd’s work,
which some might be tempted to describe as a Platonic cool, could more
accurately be described as an impassioned particularity. The key to it is
to be found in the distinction between
emotions and sensations that Judd
made when he wrote about Pollock.
From the very first, he wanted to present gallerygoers with surprising sensations. In the early work exhibited at
the Green Gallery, it was sensations
of rectilinearity, right-angledness,
curvedness, and redness. Judd turned
his back on narrative or storytelling,
which abstract artists from Kandinsky
and Brancusi to de Kooning and David
Smith had not so much jettisoned as reimagined in nonnaturalistic ways. Judd
hungered for something sharp, clear,
and immediate. He was for being, not
Louise Bourgeois
An Unfolding Portrait
In 1989, looking back to the idealism
of the early twentieth century, Judd remarked that “Mondrian tried to keep
the larger view in mind, while I, we,
are not sure that there is a larger view.”
That “we” is striking—a declaration of
a communal sense of diminishment.
For all the aloof, mandarin elegance
of his art, Judd was in many respects a
characteristic figure of the later 1960s
and early 1970s, when the initial hopes
of the Civil Rights movement and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society had given
way to despair following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm
X, and Robert Kennedy, the traumas of
the inner cities, the struggles of the antiwar movement, and the ever-growing
radicalization of the left. Judd’s work
was fueled by a determination to create something extraordinarily lucid in a
world where confusion reigned. He had
no choice but to embrace the particular and enlarge it—ennoble it. Like so
many men and women of his generation,
he believed in beginning again, rethinking every aspect of human experience.
There is something in Judd’s self-reliant,
can-do attitude that brings to mind the
sensibility of the Whole Earth Catalog,
which was first published in 1968. Judd’s
imagination, in which an instinctive
skepticism is shot through with flashes
of hope, makes him an exemplary artistic figure to contemplate in considering
those troubled times.
In the first flush of fame, when some
New York real estate was still relatively affordable, Judd bought a castiron building at 101 Spring Street. The
year was 1968, decades before SoHo
became the shopping mall it is today.
Judd was one among a group of artists
See It Now
11 West 53 Street, Manhattan
York art world in the early 1960s. It was
a tumultuous time, with contemporary
art acquiring a growing prestige even
as many artists and writers worried that
the old modern ideas and ideals that had
nourished the Abstract Expressionists
were proving unworkable and perhaps
totally irrelevant. Judd was eager to sort
it all out and find a way forward.
Critical essays and reviews resurrected decades after they were first
written can convey the atmosphere of
a time, but they can also feel dim and
obscure—the stakes once so high now
registering as little more than stale
skirmishes, with yesterday’s battle lines
all but erased. I can understand readers dismissing as hardly more than illtempered backbiting and gossip Judd’s
characterization of Clement Greenberg’s views as “little league fascism”
or Michael Fried’s opinions as “pedantic pseudo-philosophical analysis.” But
if Judd’s rhetoric sometimes reached a
fever pitch, it was not without reason. A
great deal was at stake as the authority
of the Abstract Expressionists waned.
Judd was one of a number of artists who
felt the need to speak out and found
themselves doubling as eloquent critics. In Art News and The Nation, the
painter Fairfield Porter looked toward
a revival of representational painting
that might build on the strengths of de
Kooning’s painterly abstraction. And
writing alongside Judd in Arts, Sidney
Tillim, although a painter little known
today, vigorously articulated the sense
shared by many that Abstract Expressionism had mostly degenerated into
mannerism and affectation.
For all that Judd believed in the unity,
wholeness, and singularity of works of
Louise Bourgeois. Spider Woman (detail). 2004. Drypoint on fabric. The Museum of Modern Art,
New York. Gift of The Easton Foundation. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY
October 26, 2017
Toward a New History
By Richard Edwards,
Jacob K. Friefeld,
& Rebecca S. Wingo
“Homesteading the Plains, the first
major scholarly study of homesteading in a generation, uses
new data sources and new digital
techniques to present a nuanced
account of an important government program that scholars will
need to reevaluate.”
— Richard White,
Stanford University
“Homesteading the Plains fundamentally alters the dominant
frame for understanding the costs
and consequences of settling the
Great Plains. Engagingly written,
full of lively people’s stories, this
book upends many tired and
baseless myths about the
settlement of the continent. The
authors tell a nuanced, fascinating national story that is regionally rooted and beautifully illustrated with tables, charts and maps.”
— Karen V. Hansen,
Brandeis University
“Homesteading the Plains unsettles
longstanding homesteading myth
and history alike. Provocative and
illuminating, it offers new data,
technologies, and questions to
open new historical terrain.”
— Elizabeth Jameson,
University of Calgary
University of Nebraska
“Finally,” Judd wrote in 1988, “the
only ground you have is the ground you
stand on.” It was that search for something steady—some foundation on
which to build and live—that inspired
not only Judd’s fascination with downtown New York but also his increasing
involvement with the life and landscape
of the American Southwest. He was already becoming interested in cacti and
Native American ceramics and rugs in
the early 1970s, when he began looking for a place where he might spend
time and work and perhaps display
some of his larger compositions along
with some by his friends. He found his
way to Marfa, Texas, a town south of
El Paso, near the Mexican border. In
an essay about Marfa that he wrote in
1985, Judd brought a laconic passion to
his description of the land. “The area of
West Texas was fine, mostly high rangeland dropping to desert along the river,
with mountains over the edge in every
direction. There were few people and
the land was undamaged.” For Judd,
this measured, steady description was
high praise indeed.
Ever entrepreneurial when it came
to finding a way forward with his work,
Judd soon enough bought a number of
buildings in the practically abandoned
town of Marfa and then took over an
old army base, which he turned into
the Chinati Foundation. Much of the
writing of his later years—whether
done in Texas, New York, or Switzerland, where he also spent time—concerns his evolving vision of places to
work, exhibit art, and live. He became
interested in designing furniture and
architecture and wrote about the differences between functional and nonfunctional objects, often looking back
with a critical eye to the experiments
of the Bauhaus and the De Stijl movement in Europe. He sounded off about
the state of contemporary architecture, praising Louis Kahn and raging
against the postmodernism that Philip
Johnson was advocating for at the time.
Johnson became a bête noire. Even his
Miesian Glass House, almost universally admired, came in for criticism;
Judd called it “discreetly vulgar.”
Some of the most interesting of Judd’s
later writings are about artists whom he
admired and whose work he eventually
exhibited at the Chinati Foundation. He
wrote about artists of his generation and
devoted a long essay to an enormous
Donald Judd. There are more than
eight hundred pages of text and more
than a hundred of illustrations, contained in a format so compact and well
constructed that it can easily be held
in the hand. The bright orange canvas
covers are strong but flexible. And the
orange is beautifully set off by the cerulean blue endpapers, for an effect
that has some of the drama of Judd’s
own late polychrome works. The pages
of his private notes, often quite brief,
are a welcome addition to the writings
we already know. They offer a different kind of reading experience—quick,
glancing, sometimes witty. Judd can
illuminate an entire era in a few sentences. This is what he has to say about
Bernini, that commanding figure of
the Roman Baroque: “Bernini made
Judd Foundation
The Plains
who were determined to preserve the
old industrial neighborhoods of downtown New York and revitalize them as
artists’ neighborhoods. Here was local
history in action. “Everything that can
be stopped, started, run by a community should be run by that community,”
he wrote in 1971. “The decision to delegate something to a wider area, say
the city or the county, should be very
carefully made.” Judd had an almost
utopian vision of human society; he
wanted to get back to basics.
The building he bought was a beautiful, simple structure, five stories high,
on the corner of Spring and Mercer
Streets, with the cast-iron grid of the façade framing expansive planes of glass.
Twenty years later, he wrote lovingly
about this structure, designed by Nicholas Whyte, “whose only other castiron building is in Brazil.” He noted
the ruinous state of the interior when
he bought it, and how he carefully restored it. He characterized the building
as “a right angle of glass. The façade is
the most shallow perhaps of any in the
area and so is the furthest forerunner
of the curtain wall.”
He described it as if it were one of
his own sculptures. “The given circumstances were very simple: the
floors must be open; the right angle
of windows on each floor must not be
interrupted; and any changes must be
compatible.” In this building, which
Judd speculated had been used for the
manufacture and sale of some sort of
cloth, he found an aesthetic that somehow prefigured his own. He argued for
this not as some grand historical continuum but as a particular affinity—an
artist of the later twentieth century
sensing some connection with an architect of a century earlier.
Donald Judd: Untitled, cadmium red light oil, blue-gray oil,
and wax on canvas, 69 x 101 x 2 1/12 inches, 1962
horseshoe, Monument to the Last Horse,
by Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen,
which was set up at Chinati in the 1990s.
His taste remained unpredictable. He
took a great interest in a Swiss geometric painter, Richard Paul Lohse, who
has remained relatively unknown in the
United States. And at a time when Josef
Albers had come to be seen by many as
a somewhat outdated figure, Judd embraced his work with considerable vigor.
The closing essay in the new collection, “Some Aspects of Color in
General and Red and Black in Particular” (1993), is a magnificent piece
of writing in which Judd reaches far
and wide as he explains the thinking
behind his own opulently colored late
wall-hanging works. He explains: “The
last real picture of real objects in a real
world was painted by Courbet.” The
real, the immediate, is always what he’s
after. “Color is like material,” he writes
at one point. “It is one way or another,
but it obdurately exists. Its existence
as it is is the main fact and not what it
might mean, which may be nothing.”
Here we see the core of Judd’s vision,
a purity that’s precisely not Platonic,
that’s anti-ideal—a purity of the real.
Thinking about Mondrian, Malevich,
and Van Doesburg, he finds himself
wondering why “it is idealistic—even
what does that mean—to want to do
something new and beneficial, practical also, in a new civilization.” Judd
wanted to liberate the search for the
new from the search for some ideal.
he new volume, beautifully designed, would have certainly pleased
religion, supposedly the nature of the
world, personal. And so religious art
and architecture ended; after that it
was sentimental and academic.” Judd
is suggesting that a genius can, all at
once, brilliantly transform and catastrophically terminate a tradition.
I wish this new collection included
some of the short reviews that Judd
published in Arts in the early 1960s, because they reflect the reach of his imagination. Although they are part of the
Complete Writings 1959–1975—which
is now back in print—they would have
helped give a fuller picture of Judd’s
thinking in what is bound to become
the essential collection of his prose.
Those short reviews are certainly of
more significance than the seventypage critique of the collector Giuseppe
Panza included here, in which Judd
lays out an altogether credible indictment of this Italian who took it upon
himself to make unauthorized versions
of some of his work. Judd in high dudgeon is fun to read, but his vehemence
is most exciting when grounded in deep
thought. When he entitled a two-part
essay “Complaints,” he knew that he
could get away with that almost selfmocking title because he was a person
who didn’t just complain. There was
substance to his gripes. He was spot on
when he complained about the banality with which his art and the art of his
friends was exhibited in most galleries
and museums. The eloquent installations of his own work in Marfa prove
that he knew of what he spoke. Judd
was a visionary—a visionary of the real.
Reading Judd, I am reminded of the
prophetic voices of certain nineteenthThe New York Review
and early-twentieth-century artists
and writers—of Gauguin, Kandinsky, Pound, and Lawrence. Whatever
Judd’s skepticism about the idealism
of early-twentieth- century abstraction,
he admired the great modern visionaries, especially Malevich and Mondrian,
and he brought some of the quickening
power of their manifestos into his own
writing. Prophetic figures who castigate the societies that formed them are
almost inevitably paradoxical figures.
Judd was certainly aware that a prophet
can set off complex, even masochistic
reactions in his contemporaries, who
embrace (or at least half embrace) his
criticisms as a way of expiating what
they may be inclined to regard as their
own sins. What is perhaps Judd’s most
famous diatribe, the two-part “A Long
Discussion Not About Master-Pieces
but Why There Are So Few of Them,”
originally published in Art in America
in 1983 and 1984, can still send a shiver
of excitement and confusion down the
spines of people who first read it more
than thirty years ago. No wonder Judd
had an ambivalent relationship with so
many critics, curators, and collectors.
Even as he gleefully pointed out their
mistakes, they lionized him and made
him a wealthy man.
Judd began his “Long Discussion”
with a line from Gertrude Stein: “Everything is against them.” Judd was emboldened by a battle. But in his art, his
writing, and his life, he was never anything less than a man of affirmations.
He affirmed the astonishing beauty of
what some might dismiss as ordinary
things: a box carpentered of plywood;
an aluminum construction painted in
shades of red, yellow, blue, orange, and
black; a simple declarative sentence.
He reminds us that the ordinary can
be extraordinary. If a man can be a
pragmatic utopian, that man is Donald
Rushdie’s New York Bubble
Magnum Photos
Nathaniel Rich
The Golden House
by Salman Rushdie.
Random House, 380 pp., $28.99
Whether by design, chance, or oracular
divination, Salman Rushdie has managed, within a year of the 2016 election, to publish the first novel of the
Trumpian Era. On purely technical
merits this is an astounding achievement, the literary equivalent of Katie
Ledecky lapping the Olympic field in
the 1500-meter freestyle. The publishing industry still operates at an aristocratic pace; Egypt built the new Suez
Canal in less time than it typically takes
to convert a finished manuscript into a
hardcover. As a point of comparison,
the first novel to appear about September 11, Windows on the World, by the
French author Frédéric Beigbeder, was
not published until August 2003. Yet
less than eight months into the administration, Rushdie has produced a novel
that, if not explicitly about the president, is tinged a toxic shade of orange.
Trump poses a risky temptation for
novelists, especially those writing amid
the shit torrent of his presidency. As
political journalists have discovered,
the volume of revelations erupting from
the White House and the presidential
Twitter feed threatens to undermine
the reliability of even daily news reports by the time they appear in print.
It would seem masochistic to attempt to
write a book about such a swiftly moving target, when events could at any
time be hijacked by a new revelation of
collusion with the enemy, impeachment
charges, a nuclear war, a race war. In
a nod to the futility of this enterprise,
Rushdie uses as an epigram a line from
François Truffaut: “La vie a beaucoup
plus d’imagination que nous.”
Far more perilous to a novelist, however, is the prospect of writing about
a public figure whose name, in the
decades before his ascension to the
presidency, has carried a fixed set of
cultural associations, has been a brand,
a trademark, a cliché, appearing in
the consciousness if not on the page
in boldface type, a textual black hole
that threatens to vacuum into itself any
gesture toward nuance, complexity, or
original thought. Rushdie parries this
hazard by omitting Donald Trump’s
name and distributing his signature
qualities among several characters. The
abstraction allows him to scrutinize in
turn various aspects of the presidential
character, and ours, without succumbing to the familiar catechisms of contemporary political debate.
October 26, 2017
obsession with national politics, supporting Romney and loathing Obama
with a rage animated by racial bigotry.
Nearing the end of his eighth decade, he
begins to show signs of mental deterioration. Yet despite his advancing senility—or perhaps because of it—he is able
to land a Soviet-bloc third wife, a former
nude model, several decades his junior.
Yet Golden possesses qualities that
Salman Rushdie, New York City, 2005; photograph by Bruce Davidson
The Golden House is not about
Trump himself as much as it is about
the conditions that produced him—the
conditions, we can now say, with the
dawning confidence of retrospect, that
made him inevitable. It reads as if Rushdie sought to write a novel of a specific
place (Lower Manhattan) at a singular
time (the last days of the Obama administration), was overtaken by events,
and concluded that the same logic that
demanded his fictional narrative end in
tragedy also governed our reality. The
alternative is that Rushdie possesses
the powers of the seer in Midnight’s
Children, Shri Ramram Seth, who tells
the mother of the unborn narrator that
her son will have “two heads—but you
shall see only one.”
The Golden House recounts the fall
of the house of Nero Golden, a rich
septuagenarian businessman and egoist, famous for being famous, “a man
deeply in love with the idea of himself
as powerful.” He is the kind of man
who walks “toward closed doors without slowing down, knowing they would
open for him” (for all his narrative
fireworks, Rushdie is a master of isolating the behavioral tic that reveals a
character). A veteran of the downtown
scene of the 1970s and 1980s, Golden
got his start in the construction business and trafficked in a wide range of
legal and semilegal schemes, including
popular entertainment, before leveraging his fame into a valuable branding
operation. His name is itself another
scheme, a pseudonym invented to
sound as American as Jay Gatsby and
to conceal a criminal past (and Indian
nationality) behind a scrim of Roman
imperial grandeur. He licenses it to office towers, for-profit universities, and
hot dogs, the word GOLDEN written in
capital letters, illuminated in gold neon.
His customers don’t seem to mind that
his businesses are plagued by persistent
rumors of pyramid schemes, bankruptcies, and ties to organized crime.
With his three grown sons, from two
women, he has a “strangely authoritarian relationship,” holding separate daily
meetings with each of them in which
he demands to know what their brothers are saying about him behind his
back. For Golden, loyalty is “the only
virtue worth caring about,” apart from
strength. “Once he decides you’re a
weakling,” says one of his sons, “you’re
dead to him.” During the 2012 presidential election, Golden develops an
Trump does not: introspection, historical perspective, remorse. Fiction, unlike reality, makes certain inflexible
demands on its author. Chief among
these is credibility. For a character to
hold the attention of a reader over the
course of an entire novel, he must possess some semblance of an inner self,
capable of complex and contradicting emotions, fear as well as bombast,
shame as well as pride. He must, that is,
appear to be human.
The source of Golden’s shame and
fear is a mystery that Rushdie’s narrator, a twenty-five-year- old neighbor of
the Goldens named René Unterlinden,
endeavors to solve. The Golden House
is primarily a character study, not only
of Golden but of his three sons, his viperish young wife, and René. Rushdie
is too devoted a storyteller to rely entirely on characterization, however. He
turns to a trio of narrative conceits to
enliven the action, one for each of the
novel’s three acts. In the first, we learn
that René, an aspiring filmmaker with
a lot of time on his hands, sees in the
Goldens a subject for his début: “I
felt the excitement of the young artist
whose subject has arrived like a gift in
the holiday mail.”
René’s cinematic ambition justifies
his nosy efforts to insinuate himself
into the Goldens’ cloistered lives; from
his apartment’s rear window he spies
on his neighbors in the common garden below. It also allows Rushdie to
make frequent use of film references,
to render scenes in a screenwriter’s
shorthand (ending chapters with “Cut,”
“Slow dissolve,” “Blackout”), and the
license, when convenient, to shift promiscuously, if inconsistently, between
René’s first-person narrative and an
omniscient perspective.
Rushdie is a restless presence on
the page, with a deep bag of tricks,
and unconcerned with breaking his
own rules in service of a narrative
jolt. So while there are scenes written
in the form of a screenplay, consistent
with the premise, there are also chapters rendered as inner monologues,
The Presidency of
Ulysses S. Grant
Charles W. Calhoun
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Well-researched and well-written, this book is a
must-read for scholars and others interested in
gaining accurate insight about a major
American leader.”—John F. Marszalek, Giles
Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History
and executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant
Presidential Library, Mississippi State University
American Presidency Series
736 pages, 24 photographs, Cloth $39.95
The Election of 1860
“A Campaign Fraught with
Michael F. Holt
“Readers have long expected indefatigable
research and fresh interpretations from
Michael Holt, and The Election of 1860 will
meet those expectations. Holt’s description
and analysis of this exceedingly important
election is a valuable addition to the literature
of politics, the Civil War, and Abraham
Lincoln.”—Michael S. Green, author of
Lincoln and the Election of 1860
American Presidential Elections
272 pages, 7 photographs, Cloth $29.95
Ebook editions available from your favorite ebook retailer.
University Press of Kansas
785-864-4155 • Fax 785-864-4586 •
ARTHUR JAMES BALFOUR, United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary
Balfour Declaration: Origins and Legacy
Centennial of International Recognition of a Jewish Homeland
Dr. Daniel Gordis
Shalem College
MONDAY, OCTOBER 30, 2017 I 7 P.M.
Yeshiva University Museum I Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street, New York City (Between Fifth and Sixth Avenues)
written and imagined correspondence,
stream- of- consciousness, parables, an
interrogation, and a word collage. Lest
the reader’s attention flag during the
expositional first act, Rushdie makes
frequent asides portending juicy developments to come: “As we will see . . .”
“Patience: I will not reveal all my secrets at once.” “By the time I’m done,
much will be said, much of it horrifying.” “Many years later, when we knew
everything . . .” “Now that everything is
known . . .” “Now that I know the family secrets . . .”
One personal rule Rushdie does
not break, however: the intervention of a femme fatale. Vasilisa, with
her shadowy connections to the Russian petrocracy, sylphlike figure (“she
is striking . . . astonishing . . . she runs
marathons, and is a fine gymnast”),
and calculating, Siberian affect is a descendant of Rushdie vixens like Fury’s
Mila Milo (“The queen webspyder . . .
had him in her net”); the incarnation
of Padma Lakshmi that appears in the
memoir Joseph Anton, “who had grand
ambitions and secret plans that had
nothing to do with the fulfillment of
his deepest needs”; and Teresa Saca in
Two Years Eight Months and TwentyEight Nights, “a notorious libertine and
fisher-for-rich-men” who electrocutes a
lover with lightning bolts shot from her
Vasilisa too is a sexual sorcerer
with “the wisdom of the spider” who
casts “the web of her words and deeds
around the little fly, the old fool.” She is
a fisher-for-rich-men with grand ambitions and secret plans that have nothing
to do with the fulfillment of Golden’s
deepest needs. Nero’s sons are not
fooled. They predict she will marry
their declining father and attempt to
seize their inheritances. Nero is not
fooled either, however. Vasilisa understands that the four Golden men are
not fooled. Yet she manages to prevail
nevertheless, with an unlikely assist
from our compromised narrator.
Though the film René ultimately
ends up making about the Golden family is a prestige drama, the novel assumes, in Part II, the narrative velocity
of a telenovela. A horrific car crash is
followed by an adulterous pact leading
to a falsified parentage, the appearance of a male hypnotist with a blond
bouffant, the first of two major acts
of arson, a cameo by Werner Herzog,
a sex change, a double assassination,
a prison escape, a suicide, and a mass
shooting, all against the backdrop of
the 2016 election. In Rushdie’s comicbook parallel universe, which varies
only by a degree from our own comicbook universe, “Batwoman” runs for
president against a building magnate
named Gary “Green” Gwynplaine,
who apart from his inexplicable limegreen hair and purple coat, has much
in common with Golden. The offices
of Golden Enterprises are even located
in Gwynplaine’s Midtown skyscraper,
though Nero considers his rival a vulgarian and refuses to utter his name.
Rushdie follows his character’s example. Once introduced, the villain
Gwynplaine is exclusively invoked by
his nickname, the Joker. (Gwynplaine
is the name of the deformed hero of
Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs,
a model for Batman’s Joker.)
Tickets are complimentary and available at
Tickets and valid photo ID required for admission
In cooperation with the American Jewish Historical Society
he novel’s final act plays out in the
manner of a gangster film, with the
appearance of a dandy international
assassin, a crime boss known as Don
Corleone, and a quartet of epitheticized heavies, one of whom is known as
“Short Fingers with the orange hair.”
Meanwhile, amid litanies of mass
shootings and racial violence, the bitter presidential campaign endures its
final anarchic convulsions. The contest
is not between right and left (political
parties are not named) but between
morality and savagery. It is a battle for
modern civilization. “I began to wonder,” writes Rushdie, “if we were moral
beings at all or simply savages who defined their private bigotries as necessary ethics.”
The Joker speaks at packed, chanting
arenas, where he extols “the unrivaled
beauty of white skin and red lips.” He
is utterly insane, that is obvious, but his
supporters back him “because he was
insane, not in spite of it. What would
have disqualified any other candidate
made him his followers’ hero.” Who
cares if he is propped up by Russian
oligarchs, proposes that Mexico will be
forced to pay for a wall built on its border, assails the First Amendment, and
opines that a hostile female reporter
has blood coming out of her whatever?
Not enough voters to stop him. The
Suicide Squad—Two-Face, the Riddler, the Penguin, and Poison Ivy—is
swept into the White House on the
Joker’s purple coattails.
Yet despite the maelstrom of René’s
private life and the public life of the
nation, life goes on. “The Republic,”
René observes in a tone of wonder,
“remained more or less intact.” To a
certain extent this reflects a philosophical truth. As Rushdie writes, “I know
that after the storm, another storm,
and then another. I know that stormy
weather is the forecast forever and
happy days aren’t here again.” But the
note of equanimity also reflects René’s
milieu, which is to say the bubble or,
in the pronunciation of René’s Belgian
professor father Gabe, “de bubble.”
Though “the liberal bubble” is now
taken to include most major American cities, college towns, and large
swathes of the coasts, Gabe Unterlinden defines his bubble more narrowly. It is a bubble within the bubble.
Its geographical boundaries include
only Manhattan—below 96th Street,
it is implied, and perhaps even below
Union Square—and, grudgingly, parts
of Brooklyn. Those who live in de bubble share not only progressive political
attitudes but financial prosperity. De
Bubblians are the guardians of enlightenment thought. In the national contest between morality and savagery, de
Bubble is morality’s headquarters, the
central command.
“De point is, we like de bubble, and
so do you,” René’s father tells him.
“We don’t want to live in a red state,
and you—you’d be done for in for example Kansas, where dey don’t believe
in evolution. . . . So dis iss who you
are. . . . The boy in the bubble.”
But The Golden House’s milieu is
really a bubble within de bubble within
the bubble. Most of the action occurs
within the Macdougal- Sullivan Gardens in Greenwich Village, a hedgelined park of maple and sycamore trees
that occupies the interior of a full city
block, accessible only to the inhabitants
of twenty- one brick townhouses that
stand along its perimeter. In Rushdie’s
novel the Gardens resembles the Grand
Hotel in Grand Hotel, a luxurious oasis
The New York Review
occupied by a cosmopolitan cast of
characters of ambiguous international
wealth. Besides the Goldens, who have
moved there from Mumbai after a family crisis, there are a pair of Sicilian aristocrats, a solitary Argentine-American,
a UN diplomat from Myanmar, and
the “post-Belgian” Unterlindens, their
membership justified with an aside noting that they bought their townhouse
“back in the Jurassic era when things
were cheap.” (It is not explained why
they haven’t yet sold the property, but
we can guess: though they would profit
by many millions of dollars, they would
be forced to live outside of de bubble.)
he Macdougal- Sullivan Gardens,
Rushdie neglects to note, were intended
to be cheap. They were designed in
1921 by William Sloane Coffin Sr., later
the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as part of a private campaign to preserve affordable homes for
middle- class New Yorkers. Coffin had
been alarmed that the booming real
estate market had ejected artists, actors, tradesmen, and musicians into the
outer boroughs and beyond. For the
original tenants the communal vegetable garden was a necessity more than a
pastime, and the park a protected refuge for their children, who numbered
in the dozens.
New Yorkers will not be surprised
by how this story ends. In June one of
the Macdougal- Sullivan townhouses
sold for $14 million. A few artists, actors, and musicians still live in the Gardens, but only those successful enough,
and late enough in their careers, to
afford it. Others, like the director
Baz Luhrmann, rent (the going rate is
$40,000 a month). One of the buildings
belongs to Vogue’s Anna Wintour, one
to the Italian director Francesco Carrozzini (son of the former editor of Italian Vogue), another to Francesco and
Alba Clemente, friends of the author, to
whom Rushdie dedicates The Golden
House. There are fewer children, and
when they play soccer it is, according to
a resident quoted in a recent New York
Times Fashion & Style piece, “much to
the dismay of some neighbors.” The old
communal garden is kept up by a private landscaping firm.
Last year a rowhouse built during
the Civil War on Bleecker Street, at the
northern end of the block, was demolished and replaced by the Dolce Greenwich Village, a seven-story “boutique
condominium” nearly twice the height
of the other buildings, with terraces
overlooking the gardens, despite Wintour’s protests that it would block out
the sun. The gardens themselves have
become a luxury accessory, listed on
Dolce’s brochures between the tanned
oak hardwood floors and Caesarstone
countertops. It would be difficult to
find a better metaphor for what Manhattan has become.
Rushdie acknowledges that the inhabitants of the Gardens are “cocooned
in liberal downtown silk,” but his sympathy with its residents is unironic,
his satire never rising beyond a playful chiding. In a novel full of howling
political outrage, with excursions into
transgender politics, shootings of and
by police officers, Black Lives Matter protests, campus battles over safe
spaces and confederate monuments,
Gamergate, the Internet-generated
rise of conspiracy theories, and riffs on
the nature of “truth” and “freedom,”
Rushdie’s disinterest in New York
City’s most contentious social issue—
accelerating economic inequality and
the forced relocation of its working
and middle classes—is as conspicuous
as an out- of-scale condo development
blotting out the sun. He comes closest
to the issue when Apu Golden, Nero’s
melancholic middle son, takes a field
trip to the Occupy Wall Street protest,
dressing down to blend in, and marvels
at the protesters costumed as Gandhi and Henry Ford. “So wonderful,”
says Apu, “to see Goethe lying down
among the sleeping bags, G. K. Chesterton standing in line for soup.” His
sketches of the scene are exhibited at
an art gallery on the Bowery.
No writer, even in a novel so heavily
engaged with social issues, need weigh
in on any particular subject; as Rushdie
knows better than any other living novelist, the author’s only blood allegiance
is to his reader. Yet amid his sharp refrains about “our age of bitterly contested realities,” “the prevalence of the
unreal over the real” (a line credited
to Primo Levi), and fears that a “cloud
of ignorance has blinded us,” one wonders whether life among the Garden
people might not impose at least a cirrus cloud of ignorance over their view
of the world.
The Golden family, we are assured
from the novel’s opening pages, will
suffer a tragic fate. But the world that
Rushdie describes—the private island
parties, the Madison Avenue shopping sprees, the film festival circuit,
the celebrity cameos, the fetishization of multicultural artists (a Faroese
singer, a blind accordionist from Ecuador, a Somali metal sculptor), the
ladies’ lunches at Sant Ambroeus, the
billionaires joking about their “units”
(one unit=$100 million), the publicists
hired to suppress instead of generate
publicity, the flawless taste in cinema
and rugs, the endless downtime—is
immune from real danger. This is not
a political fault, but a dramatic one; it
means the stakes are never especially
high. Just like the Joker’s supporters,
René and his neighbors live in a world
in which the unreal prevails over the
real. It is the same world, in fact, that
created the Joker.
By the end of the novel Rushdie has
traveled into the future, more than
a year after the Joker’s victory. The
world has not ended but René and
his coterie remain in shock and grief.
Their only response—their best response—to “the monstrous forces that
faced us” is to live without fear, cherishing love and beauty and friendship.
“Humanity,” writes Rushdie, “was the
only answer to the cartoon.” This may
not prove an effective campaign slogan
in 2020, but it has the virtue of being
true. And the novelist’s subject, after
all, is humanity—the inner life, with its
maddening contradictions and inadequacies. For all of The Golden House’s
folkloric architecture and twinkling
prose, for all its impish cartoonery and
exuberant storytelling, the novel is at
its heart an unsettling portrait of the
state of humanity in the United States
of 2017. It celebrates our meager glories
and exposes our flaws, particularly our
inability to see outside of our own little
cocoons, whether they be constructed
of silk or some coarser material.
David M. Dorsen, close friend to Antonin Scalia, provides a unique glimpse at the
liberal side of one of the most important, outspoken and controversial Justices of
the last century.
“Dorsen’s reputation and obvious scholarship, coupled with his
lively writing, should insure a high level of spirited debate.”
Retired Chief Judge Patricia Wald of the D.C. Circuit
"A comprehensive and well-reasoned treatment of the opinions of
Justice Antonin Scalia - with a wonderful surprise ending, with
which the Justice (I believe) would have been pleased."
John Sexton, Former President of New York University and Dean Emeritus of NYU Law School.
For more information, visit
October 26, 2017
Freud’s Clay Feet
Lisa Appignanesi
The Making of an Illusion
by Frederick Crews.
Metropolitan, 746 pp., $40.00
Frederick Crews has a loyalty of preoccupation rare in a literary academic.
His attacks on Sigmund Freud began
way back in the mid-1970s with his
publicly proclaimed conversion away
from the Freudian literary criticism
he practiced at the time. Since then
his assault has drawn sustenance from
a variety of revisionist Freud sleuths
and scholars. High among the sleuths
is the tireless Peter Swales, a onetime
assistant to the Rolling Stones and a
follower of the cultish G. I. Gurdjieff,
who grew interested in Freud because
of his cocaine use and sniffed out all
manner of facts about the originals of
his cases and his supposed affair with
his sister-in-law. The scholars include
more academic thinkers whose conclusions about Freud don’t always agree
with Crews’s, whatever their arguments
with Freud’s practice or writings. Like
Karl Popper or Adolf Grünbaum, they
may also question Freud’s status as a
scientist—whether he was one at all, or
whether his claims are sufficiently supported by empirical evidence.
Crews’s 746-page biography, Freud:
The Making of an Illusion, damning
and mesmerizing by turns, is about
the young Freud and reaches The Interpretation of Dreams only on page
543, allowing just a few brief glimpses
into the second part of his life. It marks
the zenith of what has become Crews’s
crusade “to put an end to the myth
of psychoanalysis and its creator” by
stripping Freud of both his empiricist
credentials and the image of a “lone
explorer possessing courageous perseverance, deductive brilliance, tragic
insight, and healing power,” a series of
attributes Crews finds in Freud’s own
self-portrayal and in Ernest Jones’s
landmark biography (1953–1957).
The idealization of Freud the man
that Crews is so keen to prove a blinding illusion is hardly prevalent. Most
scholars, commentators, and even
analysts don’t need it to make use of
Freud’s insights into the opacity and
unpredictability of the human mind, or
the ways in which love and hate coexist,
or how our childhoods echo through
us, sometimes trapping us, or how our
identifications with early figures in our
lives shape the complicated humans we
become. Or perhaps most important,
how much we share with those whom
we casually label with the many diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Jones himself, by the time he wrote
his biography of Freud, had shifted
his theoretical allegiances to Melanie
Klein, the Hungarian analyst who so
influenced the British Pychoanalytic
Society. Indeed, the Freud illusion was
only prevalent in the United States
from the 1950s until about 1968. At that
time, Freud was taken up first by liberal
then by radical intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse; and Freudian therapy, in
an American translation, formed part
of psychiatric training. Freud, who had
died in 1939, became an often comic
know-it-all figure in popular culture.
Ironically, despite this “fame,” in 1956,
the year of his centenary, there were
only 942 card- carrying psychoanalysts
in the country.
It is the attention Freud receives
that most irritates Crews. His opening
line headily claims: “Among historical figures, Sigmund Freud ranks with
Shakespeare and Jesus of Nazareth
for the amount of attention bestowed
upon him by scholars and commentators.” Surely not. And surely not even
in America, where Jesus—with his
clergy and priests, many of whom count
as scholars and commentators, not to
mention his countless churches, followers, websites—still gets more attention
than the author of The Interpretation
of Dreams and Civilization and its Discontents. But Crews is on the march
against the man who purportedly had
a “craving to pull down the temple of
Pauline law.” Perhaps Pope Pius XII
hadn’t noticed this when in 1953 he formally approved “the use of psychoanalysis as a healing device,” indicating that
“science affirms that recent observations have brought to light the hidden
layers of the psychic structure of man.”1
Pope Francis himself recently revealed
that he had had psychoanalysis at the
age of forty-two. He called his analyst a
courageous woman.
rews’s subtitle echoes Freud’s The
Future of an Illusion (1927), in which
Freud argues that our religious beliefs
Dagmar Herzog, Cold War Freud
(Cambridge University Press, 2017),
p. 52.
are “fulfilments of the oldest, strongest,
and most urgent wishes of mankind.”
Crews doesn’t explore—as Ernest
Gellner did in The Psychoanalytic
Movement (1985)—how the growth of
psychoanalysis may be understood as
akin to the development of a religious
movement, or how its claims, while
pretending to be scientific, are actually those of a belief system in disguise.
His main thrust is always ad hominem.
Crews is convinced that if Freud is
shown to be a case-faking scoundrel
more interested in money than patients, then everything he has written
about repressed memories, sexuality
and desire, fantasy and the Oedipal romance of the family, dreams, slips, and
the everyday workings of the human
mind will be seen to be only the seedy
fictions of a demented, hypnotizing Caligari, after whose cabinet Crews suggestively names one of his chapters.
In Crews’s view Freud was a man who
set out to “achieve fame at any cost”
and who sacrificed “his integrity as
both a scientist and a physician” to that
end. Having invented a science with no
empirical base, only fabrication, Freud,
with his inability to “forgo his luxuries,” his “commercial mentality,” and
his aim “to protect and promote his
brand,” was able to perpetrate a gigantic hoax on the twentieth century.
The rhetorical strategy at work here
is that of a talented prosecutor. It traps
the reader. Either you buy into the facts
Crews foregrounds and relish the mounting glee of his attack or you’re propelled
into an identification with the accused
and ever struggling for breath, wishing
that a defense attorney were in sight.
It also makes you wonder why on
June 23, 1938, a bare two weeks after
Freud, fleeing Nazi persecution, landed
in England with his immediate family,
he received a visit from representatives
of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest
scientific establishment. Founded in
1660, inspired by Francis Bacon, and
including among its eminent fellows
Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, it
had elected Freud to be one of its own.
Why had this elite scientific body decided to name Freud to its ranks? The
citation certificate reads “for pioneering work in psychoanalysis.” The everdisputatious fellows, with their long
view of history, knew that science is not
a narrow domain whose residents, like
adherents of a strict religion, follow
one rigid set of eternal rules, but rather
a capacious and diverse mansion where
observation of not only the animal but
also the human world could count as
science, where doubters could live side
by side and engage in heated argument.
They also, in their wisdom, recognized that scientists are not uniformly
consistent either in their ideas or in
their lives. Nor is it always clear how
one shapes the other. Newton, who
had formulated the laws of motion and
universal gravitation, was also a mystic
with beliefs strange even for his time,
and behaved fraudulently in a dispute with Leibniz. Crews, by contrast,
seems to idealize science and even to
dehistoricize it, forgetting that at the
time Freud began his practice, dangerous patent medicines were touted by
many doctors in the US; clinical trials
of drugs were not instituted until 1947.
rews is only interested in Freud’s
speculations and observations when
they relate to hysteria and his earliest
cases, or to his rivalries, claims to priority, and “lazy reluctance to collect
sufficient evidence.” He portrays Freud
as “aroused” by “envy” of the wellconnected young French psychologist
Pierre Janet, and claims that Freud
simply borrowed Janet’s conceptions
of the unconscious and symptom formation. But the Standard Edition of
Freud’s writings has sixty references to
Janet and his ideas, tracing a sustained
argument with him between 1888 and
1925. Freud may want to win the debate, but there is nothing to indicate
that he thought his own ideas came to
him ex nihilo—as his own notes and
countless references to literature ancient and modern suggest.
Crews brings a great many, if highly
selective, facts to his case. His early
Freud is not only a sloppy neurologist but a deluded cocaine addict, a
betrayer of friends, homoerotic in his
desires (though he may have committed adultery with his sister-in-law), and
a doctor who had very few patients on
whom to base his ever- changing theories. Those he did have he let down or
harmed or falsely suggested ailments
to. His only patient was himself. When
he didn’t steal his ideas from others,
he provided no verifiable evidence for
any of his own. He was also neurotic,
depressive, and sex- obsessed. The rest
is all a giant con. The whole edifice of
psychoanalysis, Freud’s insights over
The New York Review
many volumes, is a sham—as must, by
deduction, be the worldwide institution
of psychoanalysis from Brazil to China
and its offshoot therapies.
Many of the basic facts of Crews’s account, as he admits, already appeared
in Ernest Jones’s chatty but far fuller
life of Freud. Jones, despite the myth
he is purported to have launched, was
no hagiographer. He wrote of Freud’s
use of the then new drug cocaine, his
Victorian views on women and their
psychic satisfaction in having children
(even if Freud welcomed women into
the new profession), his changes of
mind as his practice progressed, the autobiographical content in The Interpretation of Dreams, and more.
All this was in the 1950s, when biographies of public figures rarely went into
private matters. When Jones’s biography appeared in the US in 1956, Time
stated that it came from the “wartsand-all” school. Crews forgets the “all”
and wants only to pick at the warts, aggravate them, and find new ones. In the
process what emerges is a lurid Freud
who is something of a Faustian cartoon
villain. “By 1895,” Crews writes,
current purposes it is reliable only as
long as it concerns negative memories of Freud. Freud’s own memories,
in Crews’s view, inevitably lie. In the
climax to a chapter intent on underlining Freud’s lack of success with
his early hysterics, his untrustworthy
and repugnant nature, and his being
“widely regarded with suspicion” by
elite Viennese Jews, Crews quotes
Arthur Koestler’s mother speaking
in 1953 about her experience with
Freud sixty-three years earlier. Having been sent to the young neurologist in 1890 at age nineteen and gone
only reluctantly, she recalls that “he
was a disgusting fellow,” his interest
in sex was “scandalous and outlandish,” and no one in her circle took him
seriously. She sounds just like a teenager to me, though it’s slightly odd,
if what she says about the prevailing
view is true, that she was sent to Freud
at all.
Such evidence could of course be
used to demonstrate Freud’s sense of
himself as a lone outsider, but Crews
doesn’t want that either. Freud’s own
seventy-page Autobiographical Study
(1925) is used to question his veracity
about the disappointment he experienced when he first went to the University of Vienna in 1873 at the age of
seventeen. “Above all,” the sixty- eightyear- old Freud wrote, “I found that I
was expected to feel myself inferior and
an alien because I was a Jew.” Crews is
but he lingered over an eclectic
potpourri of courses. Nor does it
appear that he was deprived of an
active social life.
Since 21 percent of the student body
were “already” Jews, though they composed 10.1 percent of the Viennese
population, Crews distrusts Freud’s
memory, and sees it only as feeding his
own myth of an “outcast who had nobly
embraced his fate.”
ies. Crews is sadly deaf to ambivalence,
the simultaneous wishes to belong and
make a triumph of feeling yourself
apart, in particular when it comes to
The voluminous correspondence between Freud and his fiancée, Martha
Bernays—known as Die Brautbriefe
since it covers the period of their engagement—has recently been made
available on the Library of Congress
website, and also published in meticulously edited form in German. Of the
five projected volumes, three have appeared in German 2 and one in English.
Though a selection of the letters had
been published before and Jones had
had access to all of them, the Brautbriefe is one of the new sources Crews
brings to his biography.
The letters begin in June 1882, when
Freud is an impoverished young researcher and end in September 1886,
after he had returned home from his
four months of research in Paris at the
Salpêtrière hospital with Jean-Martin
Charcot, the Napoleon of the Neuroses. They cover the period when Freud
set up in private practice, alongside his
hospital work, so that he could earn
enough of a living on which to support a wife and children, as well as the
many other members of his family who
were dependent on him. The Brautbriefe, eloquent on both sides, are used
by Crews largely to throw vitriol at
If Freud had been met with ostracism on entering the university, he
surely would have wanted to end
the ordeal as speedily as possible,
f course, there is something of the
noble lonely pioneer in Freud’s Autobiographical Study. It was part of a series
commissioned by Leipzig publishers of
brief lives of eminent doctors, several
of whom write in the same vein. These
are the tropes of the profession. They
remember the heroic age of medicine:
they are Ibsenesque enemies of the people who have had steep paths to climb,
struggles to establish new fields—epidemiology, public health medicine,
new diptheria antitoxins, and, yes, psychoanalysis. The romantic legend that
Crews attacks—and arguably it is no
more romantic than the scientific romance of the careful, persistent siever
of years of accumulated evidence—is
not peculiar to Freud, even if his may
be the one we know best.
But it is Crews’s querying of Freud’s
feelings about anti- Semitism that is
itself questionable here. Contrary to
what he states, anti- Semitism was in
fact prevalent when Freud entered the
university. But no young person hungry for knowledge, as Freud was, and
strained in finances would be easily
routed by prejudice and leave his stud-
Eduardo Galeano:
Through the Looking Glass
Pioneers of Ecological Humanism:
Mumford, Dubos and Bookchin
The New Anarchism (1974-2012)
Volume III of Anarchism
Karl Polanyi in Dialogue:
A Socialist Thinker for our Times
Martha Nandorfy, Daniel Fischlin
Brian Morris
Edited by Robert Graham
Michael Brie
“Thrown like darts at the brain and the heart
of the reader, Galeano’s texts reveal one of
the most important voices to come out of
Latin America, discussed here in a critical
work of the first order.”
— Elena Poniatowska, author of Here’s
to you, Jesusa!
Morris’ lucid outline of the ecological and
political thought of Lewis Mumford, René
Dubos and Murray Bookchin.
“Brian Morris blazed a lot of trails. He is
a scholar of genuine daring and great
humanity, and his work deserves to be
read for a very long time to come.”
— David Graeber, author of Debt: The
First 5,000 Years
The New Anarchism completes the most
comprehensive anthology on the history of
anarchist theory and practice.
“Graham’s excellent anthology is essential
reading for all interested in political thought.
The breadth of subjects is both comprehensive and impressive, giving a much needed
overview of an evolving social movement.”
— Iain MacKay
Michael Brie (Senior Fellow, Rosa Luxemburg
Foundation) reinterprets Karl Polanyi’s thought
for present times in response to neoliberalism,
the growing authoritarian right and the ecological crisis. Included are original writings
by Polanyi himself and Nancy Fraser
(the New School).
ISBN 978-1-55164-607-7
ISBN 978-1-55164-336-6
Freud had already awarded himself a license to invent, suppress,
alter, and rearrange facts in the interest of enhanced self-portraiture
and theoretical vindication. . . . The
Katharina chapter [in Studies on
Hysteria] puts us on notice that its
author . . .would stop at nothing in
manufacturing “evidence” of his
imaginary prowess.
Though Crews has written much
about the vagaries of memory, for his
ISBN 978-1-55164-178-2
October 26, 2017
Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays,
Die Brautbriefe, edited by Gerhard
Fichtner, Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, and
Albrecht Hirschmüller in collaboration with Wolfgang Kloft (Frankfurt
am Main: Fischer, 2011–2015).
ISBN 978-1-55164-601-5
Distributed by the University of Toronto Press
Freud. Freud’s constant references to
money and desperate need for it—either from new discoveries that would
secure future posts or, toward the end
of the period when he has decided to
abandon research, from new paying
patients—are never seen as something
Martha might expect from a fiancé
forced to delay their marriage. In
Crews’s view they’re a signal that Freud
values wealth above scientific integrity
or his patients.
Crews is taken aback by the daily toll
of Freud’s letters with their details of
“migraine headaches, crippling depression, and outbursts of fierce anger,” occasionally against Martha, but mostly
against people who have slighted him.
It’s Martha, too, who gets all the ups
and downs that accompany Freud’s
cocaine habit during these years, his
lustful fantasies, and, far more sadly,
his confessed failure to cure his friend
Ernst Fleischl von Marxow of morphine addiction. It’s hard for Crews to
imagine why Martha Bernays—intelligent, well read, from a more privileged
background—waited for and decided
to marry the dishonest, bungling bully
Crews portrays and stay with him
through six children and fifty years.
Her decision is even more astonishing given Crews’s belief in the circumstantial evidence that purportedly
places her sister Minna, who moved in
with the Freuds soon after their sixth
child arrived, squarely in her husband’s
bed, not only on travels, one of which
might have ended with an abortion,
but in a house filled with children who
never noticed. No one else ever actually
saw the two in bed together either, nor
have any records of an abortion been
found by assiduous investigators into
Freud’s life. The rumor of the relationship comes from a casual remark that
Carl Jung—himself a serial adulterer—
made in 1957 that Minna had confessed
the affair to him as he was leaving the
Freud apartment in 1907.
Crews’s fulsome concentration on
the details of what he blithely calls
“Sigmund and Minna’s lovefest on the
banks of Lake Garda” and the supposed subsequent abortion is meant to
undermine the moral credentials that
have been attributed to the “legendary” Freud by his biographers Ernest
Jones and Peter Gay. But equally important for Crews is the opportunity
the episode gives him to do some textual analysis—to give us “an object lesson in how to apprehend Freud’s texts
with due awareness of their guile.”
His aim is to reveal that much of
Freud’s writing on dreams, screen
memories (or memories that hide
deeper or older memories), love, sex,
and marriage is more autobiographical
than we already know. His Freud is utterly solipsistic, never actually drawing
on patients or any human and social
observation. So Freud’s essays on sex,
love, and marriage (1908, 1910–1911)
are built on his own case, not on more
general behavior. Yet his Viennese
contemporaries, like Arthur Schnitzler
and Stefan Zweig—as well as early feminists who decry the lack of education,
including sexual education, for women
at the time—paint a picture of life that
corresponds to Freud’s descriptions.
rews has a good grasp of the general
culture of neurological and psychiatric
medicine at the turn of the last century,
but in his zealous attempt to indict
Freud, he fails to give it proper historical weight. There were no cures for
psychiatric illnesses, including hysteria, with its wide range of often severe
symptoms. Treatments were harsh,
penitential, and sometimes terminal.
Because Freud learned from Charcot, Crews tries to disparage him. Charcot was indeed theatrical in his public
lectures and used hypnotism. But hypnotism was one of the time’s scientific
experimental methods, and in Charcot’s
case a diagnostic tool. Crews chooses
not to mention that what Freud learned
from Charcot was “la chose genitale”—
the sexuality that was everywhere in the
hospital and in the stories the hysterics told about themselves and to which
Freud, unlike Charcot, listened.
In contrast, Crews rightly admires
the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, a contemporary of Freud’s, for his
orderly disease classifications and descriptions, the kind that form the basis
for the DSM. Kraepelin may have kept
the kinds of tables Crews values, but he
was also a believer in the born criminal and a firm eugenicist, facts Crews
doesn’t bother with. Both Kraepelin and
Charcot had large asylum populations
to draw on for their detailed clinical
descriptions. But neither was primarily
interested in curing the mentally ill.
Freud at least attempted to do so.
At the time, mental hospitals and private clinics used whatever drugs they
could find, from chloral to potassium
bromide, to calm their patients. The
anguished behavior of the ill—often
verbally, sexually, and physically
agitated—is well known. It’s hardly
surprising that Josef Breuer used sedatives on Bertha Pappenheim, known as
Anna O., the first patient in the Studies
on Hysteria, or that Freud at first tried
that and whatever other techniques
were available to him. Managing such
patients was the best that could be
done. Failure was the norm.
et Freud left drugs and hypnotism
behind for his new, far gentler talking
and listening therapy. Most hospitals
and asylums, even clinics, did not. In the
course of the more “scientific” twentieth century came miracle cures, often
deadly on application, such as insulin,
tooth-pulling, lobotomy, and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Modern ECT
entails a more powerful application of
electricity than the nineteenth- century
electrotherapies the young Freud used,
and for which Crews mocks him.
Crews’s decision to turn Freud’s
work with his early hysterical patients
into an exposé of his callow incompetence makes for unsavory reading.
Many mental and emotional illnesses
are intractable or recurrent. If Freud
at first turned to a sexual and eventually a familial etiology for the internal
conflicts that in his view led to illness,
he often enough, as in the case of Dora,
alerted us to his own mistakes in treatment. Whatever Freud’s highhanded
and patriarchal misreadings of this
troubled adolescent girl, Dora didn’t
commit suicide, as her parents were
worried she might; nor did Freud’s
other patients. That may not be a miraculous result, but neither is it a total
failure, as anyone working in today’s
challenging mental health environment
would surely agree. Freud, unlike many
in his time, at least acknowledged that
women’s voices were worth listening
to—that women were sexual beings
with desires. Crews chooses not to give
any positive accounts of analysis with
Freud, but there have been notable
ones, not least from the American
poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and the
Russian-born writer and psychoanalyst
Lou Andreas-Salomé.
Nor is it accurate for Crews to claim
that Freud had almost no patients in
his early years on whom to base his
insights, or that he routinely misdiagnosed. His patient record book from
1896 to 1899 is held by the Library of
Congress. Freud saw about sixty patients a year for over five hundred visits. It was through these sessions and
his own self-analysis that he moved
from a short-lived use of hypnosis to
a talking treatment based on free association and dream and transference
analysis. After 1900, aside from the
war years, he was working with patients
some eleven hours a day.
Putting psychological conflicts into
words in a therapeutic setting seems
to help. The recent exposure of the
extent to which negative evidence in
clinical trials of much-hyped psychoactive drugs was massaged away with
the help of doctors on pharmaceutical
company payrolls, the way clinical results highlighted only what would prove
profitable, the masking of side effects,
suicide among them—all this has made
the purported misdeeds of psychoanalysts look benign.3 The talking therapies may produce no instant miracles;
neither do they do comparable harm.
Insurers may want to think again about
costs over a patient’s lifetime. Then, too,
hand in hand with the development of
these new, highly touted “scientific”
psychoactive drugs, the number of sufferers from mental disorders has grown
Unlike Adam Phillips in his brilliant
Becoming Freud (2014) or Joel Whitebook in his recent intellectual biography (2017), Crews is never interested in
touching on what Freud’s writing might
still convey about the mysteries of our
everyday lives. I think when it comes to
Freud and psychoanalysis, I’ll take my
cue from Stanley Cavell:
Most philosophers in my tradition,
I believe, relate to psychoanalysis,
if at all, with suspicion, habitually
asking whether psychoanalysis deserves the title of a science. . . . I
am for myself convinced that the
corpus of Freud’s writing, and a
considerable amount of writing
that depends upon it, has achieved
an unsurpassed horizon of knowledge about the human mind. Accordingly I would not be satisfied
with an answer that declares psychoanalysis not to be a science, if
that answer denies that horizon of
See Marcia Angell’s articles in these
pages, among them “Drug Companies
& Doctors: A Story of Corruption,”
January 15, 2009; “The Epidemic of
Mental Illness: Why?,” June 23, 2011;
and “The Illusions of Psychiatry,” July
14, 2011. See also David Healy, The
Antidepressant Era (Harvard University Press, 1999) and Let Them Eat
Prozac: The Unhealthy Relationship
Between the Pharmaceutical Industry
and Depression (NYU Press, 2004).
The New York Review
Stalin at the Movies
Stephen Kotkin
wrote. “Turning to comrade Voroshilov, he pointed out that the march would
go to the masses, and began to recall
the melody and ask about the words.”
A new genre, the Soviet musical
comedy, was born. Shumyatsky’s determination had paid off. He had witnessed a live performance of Utyosov’s
band—whose musicians sang, danced,
and acted—and had suggested they
team up with the director Alexandrov.
Utyosov, for his part, had insisted on
music by Isaac Dunayevsky, a graduate
of the Kharkov Conservatory who had
Long focused on the impact of live
theater, Stalin did not immediately
grasp the full power of film. But the
producer Boris Shumyatsky persisted,
and goaded the Party to issue a directive to film all major events in the
USSR, design handheld cameras to be
put into wide production, and have regional officials treat newsreels the way
they treated the press. Stalin began to
review the newsreels at Kremlin cinema sessions. But it had really been his
previewing of the 1934 film
Joseph Stalin
Chapayev that transformed
him—a person accustomed to
working with written texts—
from someone who occasionally viewed films for diversion
to their executive producer,
overseeing everything from
the backgrounds of scenes to
the dialogue and score.
The dictator played a decisive part in supporting not just
subjects of political import
but also farce. In that regard,
an enormous breakthrough
was wrought by a young assistant to the virtuoso Sergei
Eisenstein, after the latter’s
scandalous failure to finish a
film in Mexico. Shumyatsky
had suggested that Eisenstein next make a Soviet comedy, but the director showed
little interest. His assistant,
Grigory Alexandrov, using
every Hollywood trick he had
learned in their travels to Los
Angeles, then cowrote and
directed Jolly Fellows, which
became a smash hit.
Stalin’s inner circle had
divided over the appropriateness of comedy. When Shumyatsky was set to premiere
Jolly Fellows in the Kremlin,
Kliment Voroshilov, who had
seen it, stated, “It’s an interesting, jolly, thoroughly musical film
made a name for himself at the Moscow
featuring Utyosov and his jazz.” Lazar
Satire Theater and more recently the
Kaganovich objected that the musician
Leningrad Music Hall. Vasily LebedevLeonid Utyosov had no voice; Andrei
Kumach, the son of a Moscow cobbler
Zhdanov complained that Utyosov
and himself a writer at the satirical pewas a master only of criminal underriodical Crocodile, composed the lyrics.
world songs. “You’ll see,” Voroshilov
When ideologues attacked the recountered, “he’s a very gifted actor,
sulting work, Shumyatsky galvanized
an extraordinary humorist, and sings
Stalin’s support. Jolly Fellows had
delightfully in the film.” He was right.
gone into final editing, following the
“Brilliantly conceived,” Stalin said to
dictator’s suggestions, but its opening
Voroshilov after viewing one scene with
was delayed by Sergei Kirov’s assasa jazz orchestra rehearsal that devolves
sination. It premiered publicly on Deinto a hilarious fight, and another with
cember 25, at Moscow’s Shock Worker
collective farm livestock run amok.
cinema, where Orlova, Utyosov, and
Alexandrov were in the audience. A
The film allows you to relax in an
banquet followed at the Metropole.
interesting, entertaining fashion.
General release took place in January
We experienced the exact feeling
1935, and soon an astonishing six thouone has after a day off. It’s the first
sand copies of the film were in circulatime I have experienced such a feeltion throughout the country.
ing from viewing our films, among
The publicity campaign, unprecwhich have been very good ones.
edented for the Soviet Union, borrowed American techniques, with
After watching another film, Stalin repostcards of scenes from the film and
turned to discussion of Jolly Fellows,
phonographic records of the songs.
lauding the bold acting of the female
Shumyatsky even had sheet music of
lead, Lyubov Orlova, and male lead,
the score published with an attractive
Utyosov, as well as the excellent jazz. “He
cover, and there were tie-in cookies
talked about the songs,” Shumyatsky
from the baking trust and cigarettes
from the tobacco trust. The film’s stars
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen Kotkin
featured in radio appearances.
October 26, 2017
any cultural figures collaborated
with the Soviet party-state precisely
for its wherewithal to deliver mass audiences. To be sure, whereas listeners
in Britain or Germany could tune in
to several stations, including some that
originated from abroad, the Soviets invested in cable (wire) radio, which was
inexpensive and durable, enabling mass
production, and imposed far stricter
state control over content, since the
wires delivered just the two official
stations. Only the privileged few had
hard-to-procure wireless receivers with
tuners. Wire radios were
installed in outdoor public
spaces, factories, meeting
halls, clubs, and dormitories.
The Soviet Union had 2.5 million radio reception points already by 1934. Radio Moscow
and Radio Comintern were
broadcasting approximately
eighteen hours per day, creating an ambient Sovietness.
“Boring agitation is counteragitation,” one Soviet film
critic argued. Surveys of
radio listeners’ letters showed
that they wanted fewer symphonies and more humor,
information about the outside world, advice on childrearing, medical issues, and
other daily life concerns, and
entertainment, such as folk
music, Gypsy romances, jazz,
operettas (not operas), and
songs from the latest films.
While Germany had Marlene
Dietrich and America Greta
Garbo, the Soviets had Orlova, promoted in the press,
books, and fan postcards.
(She and Alexandrov would
begin a love affair and later
marry.) The songs proved to
be easily and widely memorized. From streets to shop
floors, almost the entire
USSR was singing “Such a
Lot of Nice Girls” (or the tango version, “Heart,” released by Pyotr Leshchenko) and the march “A Happy Song
Lightens Your Heart.” Even in profoundly anti-Soviet Poland Jolly Fellows would find popularity. The comic
master Charlie Chaplin would praise
the film as better propaganda for the
Soviet cause than executions.
Stalin authorized an all-Union Creative Conference of Workers in Soviet
Cinema (January 8–13, 1935), albeit
without formation of a formal union
such as the writers had. Eisenstein was
awarded the task of delivering the keynote. “When I heard Eisenstein’s report,
I was afraid that he knows so much, and
his head is so clear that, it is obvious,
he’ll never make another film,” the director Oleksandr Dovzhenko said in his
follow-up speech. “If I knew as much as
he does, I would literally die. (Laughter,
applause.)” Pravda published a congratulatory note from Stalin to Shumyatsky:
“Greetings and best wishes to the workers of Soviet cinema on the day of its
glorious fifteenth anniversary.”
Soviet power expects from you new
successes—new films that, like
Chapayev, proclaim the greatness
of the historic cause of the struggle
for power of the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union, mobilize
for the attainment of new tasks,
and remind us of both the achievements and difficulties of socialist
That same day, Stalin attended the
ceremony at the Bolshoi where, for the
first time, state awards were handed
out to film workers. He had edited the
proposed awards list: Orders of Lenin
were given to the Leningrad Film Studio, Shumyatsky, Pavel Tager (who
had helped introduce sound to Soviet
films), and numerous directors. Eisenstein had been proposed for the lesser
Order of the Red Banner, which Stalin crossed out, substituting something
lesser still: “honored artist.” After this
humiliation, Eisenstein had to offer the
closing remarks. “No one here has had
to listen to so many compliments about
highbrow wisdom as I,” he stated. “The
crux—and this you know—is that I
have not been engaged in film production for several years, and I consider
the [awards] decision a signal from the
party and government that I must enter
production.” The gathering concluded
with a performance of the third act of
Swan Lake.
Shumyatsky did not speak at the ceremony or at the conference, but Pravda
published an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Cinema for the Millions.
“The victorious class wants to laugh
with joy,” he wrote. “That is its right,
and Soviet cinema must provide its audiences with this joyful Soviet laughter.” He admitted, however, that “we
have no common view on such fundamental and decisive problems of our art
as the interrelationship between form
and content, as plot, as the pace and
rhythm of a film, the role of the script,
the techniques of cinema.” In fact, all
he and other film people had to go on
was Stalin’s utterances or their own intuition about what might please him.
Secret police, in their smartest dress
uniforms, lined the walls of the cavernous main hall and all the entrances of
the Grand Kremlin Palace for the 1939
New Year’s banquet. Soviet officials
did not bring their wives unless the
latter, too, held official positions, such
as Vyacheslav Molotov’s wife Polina
Zhemchuzhina (fishing industry commissar). But much of the beau monde
was intermarried: the actor Ivan
Moskvin attended with his wife, Alla
Tarasova, a star of the same theater;
the filmmaker Grigory Alexandrov
with his wife, the singer-starlet Lyubov Orlova; the dancer Igor Moiseyev
with his common-law wife, the Bolshoi
prima ballerina Nina Podgoretskaya.
But Stalin himself could come off
as the movie star: the mischievous
grin, the lifted head, the pauses, nods,
glances. During the toasts, when he
called out Soviet triumphs and heroes,
people clinked glasses, tapped knives
and forks, and shouted his name. By the
time the USSR State Jazz Band entered
the anteroom of the Andreyev Hall, it
was after 2:00 AM. A Chekist, as the
police liked to be called, summoned
NOTHING • Introduction by Francine Prose
In Nothing two generations face off as two former lovers obsessively conspire to end the relationship between their children, who have fallen in love with each other. The parents, Jane
Weatherby and John Pomfret, seem intoxicated by the sudden purpose that has entered their
war-torn lives. The children, Philip and Mary, both as serious and sober as their parents are
not, struggle to match their parents’ will to have their way.
DOTING • Introduction by Michael Gorra
Doting, the last of Henry Green’s novels, is, as its title would suggest, a story of yearning
and lusting and aging in which a wife and a brash young woman run hilarious circles around a
hapless hardworking civil servant suddenly seized by long-dormant urges. Like its immediate
predecessor, Nothing, it stands out from the rest of Green’s work in its brilliant, experimental
use of dialogue. Green was fascinated with the extravagance, ambiguity, absurdity, and unintentional implications and consequences of everyday human communication, and in Doting
language slips and slides the better to reveal the absurdity and persistence of love and desire,
exciting laughter while troubling the heart.
Previously published by NYRB Classics
BLINDNESS • Introduction by Daniel Mendelsohn
Green’s first novel is the story of John Haye, a young student with literary airs. It starts with an
excerpt from his diary, brimming with excitement and affectation and curiosity about life and
literature. Then a freak accident robs John of his sight, plunging him into despair.
LIVING • Introduction by Adam Thirlwell
Living is a book about life in a factory town and the operations of a factory, from the workers
on the floor to the boss in his office. “Living introduced a whole school of proletarian literature,
and yet remains apart from, and superior to, any of its followers.” —The Times Literary Supplement
PARTY GOING • Introduction by Amit Chaudhuri
“Green paints an unforgettable portrait of a doomed, amoral world whose characters, trapped
in the fog, are somehow waltzing blithely towards oblivion . . . . Within a few years it had acquired a distinguished retinue of literary admirers—including Auden, Isherwood and Eudora
Welty.” —Robert McCrum, The Guardian
LOVING • Introduction by Roxana Robinson
“Loving is a classic upstairs-downstairs story, with the emphasis on downstairs. . . Green’s
generosity towards even the most scheming and rascally of them offers a lesson you never
forget.” —Richard Lacayo, Time
CAUGHT • Introduction by James Wood
“Caught manages the improbable feat of being both a harrowing war story of London during
the Blitz and a sharply observed comedy about social class.” —Charles McGrath, The New
York Times Book Review
BACK • Introduction by Deborah Eisenberg
The story Charley Summers, back from the war and a POW camp, having lost the woman he
loved to illness before he left and his leg to fighting. Back is at once a Shakespearean comedy
of mistaken identities, a voyage into the world of madness, and a celebration of the improbable healing powers of love.
Concluding, Henry Green’s ninth novel, is published by New Directions.
Nothing and Doting will be published on October 17, 2017. The NYRB Classics editions of
the novels of Henry Green, published in paperback at $14.00, are also available as e-books.
NYRB Classics and New Directions Publishing
invite you to a party to celebrate the release of Henry Green’s final novels
Nothing, Doting, and Concluding.
Thursday, October 19th, 7pm
Community Bookstore, 143 7th Avenue, Brooklyn, New York
them to the stage following the Alexandrov Red Army Ensemble—240 singers and dancers—and Igor Moiseyev’s
State Folk Dance Ensemble.
“We walked into the dimly lit, deserted Andreyev Hall, which is used by
the Supreme Soviet for its meetings,” recalled Juri Jelagin, a violinist. “The hall
was lined with rows of armchairs like
a theater auditorium, or perhaps more
like a university auditorium, because
each chair was equipped with a small
writing desk and a radio headset.” They
reached a door, behind which was a
stage. “The bright lights blinded us. We
were in the ornate, white [St. George’s]
Hall of the Kremlin. . . . The large tables
were crowded with people, and a regular feast was in progress.” In front of the
stage, at a distance from the other tables,
was the Presidium table, the seats facing
the hall, backs to the performers.
When the jazz musicians appeared
on the stage, Stalin and his entourage
turned and applauded. “Stalin was
wearing a khaki tunic without any ribbons or decorations. He smiled at us
and nodded encouragement. In front of
him stood a half-empty glass of brandy.”
The jazzmen, with their female vocalist, Nina Donskaya, performed “Jewish
Rhapsody,” by Svyatoslav Knushevitsky,
perhaps Moscow’s top cellist. (He was
married to Natalya Spiller, the Bolshoi
soprano much admired by Stalin.) For
whatever reason, according to Jelagin,
Stalin paid no attention to Donskaya.
“He turned away and began to eat.”
he mass murderer was able to differentiate, within his conventional
tastes, a sublime performance from a
merely good one. He loved opera, and
selections were invariably included
from the prerevolutionary repertoire
(Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky) and the
better-known Western classics (Carmen, Faust, and Aida). But his greatest passion was for Russian, Ukrainian,
and Georgian folk songs. After the jazz
band had concluded its six approved
numbers—among them Tchaikovsky’s
“Sentimental Waltz” and Stalin’s sentimental favorite, “Suliko”—the Presidium table, according to Jelagin,
“applauded long and vigorously.”
Only now, after exiting and storing
their instruments, were the musicians
invited to dine—in a separate hall for
performers, one floor below, at tables
loaded with “caviar, hams, salads, fish,
fresh vegetables [in winter], decanters
of vodka, red and white wine, and fine
Armenian brandy. There were about
four hundred of us, but the tables could
seat at least a thousand.” Here, the
Chekist servers wore their police uniforms. The musicians were addressed
by the latest chairman of the committee on artistic affairs, Alexei Nazarov,
who toasted Stalin as well as some of
the most famous performers, such as
the singer Ivan Kozlovsky.
Kozlovsky, the virtuoso soloist at
the Bolshoi, would receive the Order
of Lenin in 1939. (The next year, Stalin would make him a USSR People’s
Artist.) He possessed a transparent,
even voice, with a beautiful and gentle
timbre in the upper register; it was not
particularly powerful yet filled the largest spaces. He hailed from a Ukrainian
village and had a brother who had emigrated at the end of the civil war and
wound up in the United States, which
alone would have been enough to
doom the tenor. Zealous Chekists went
to Kozlovsky’s native village to dig up
dirt, but when Poskryobyshev handed
Stalin thick files of compromising material, the despot was said to have observed, “Fine, we’ll imprison comrade
Kozlovsky—and who’ll sing, you?”
Whether the story is apocryphal or
not, the despot was said to keep track
of the schedule for the Bolshoi and
to terminate meetings in the Little
Corner to catch an aria sung by Kozlovsky, Maxim Mikhailov (a bass) or
Mark Reizen (also a bass), the lyrical
tenor Sergei Lemeshev, the lyrical sopranos Spiller and Yelena Kruglikova,
or the mezzo-soprano Vera Davydova.
At the New Year’s gala, Kozlovsky, who
acquired the reputation of being an unbearable person, sang “La donna è mobile,” from Rigoletto, at Stalin’s request.
Two days later, Stalin informed USSR
Procurator General Andrei Vyshinsky
that he wanted a public trial of those arrested in the NKVD. “The enemies of the
people who penetrated the organs of the
NKVD,” the commission on the secret
police internally reported to Stalin—as
if the secret police rampage had somehow occurred without his directives—
consciously distorted the punitive
policy of Soviet power, conducting
a mass of baseless arrests of people
guilty of nothing, and at the same
time protecting the activities of enemies of the people. . . . They urged
that prisoners offer testimony
about their supposed espionage
activity for foreign intelligence,
explaining that such invented testimony was necessary for the party
and the government in order to
discredit foreign states.
The despot circulated the report to the
inner circle: they needed to know how to
interpret the terror, as the result of the
infiltration of “spies in literally every
[NKVD] department.” But for whatever reason, a public trial of the NKVD
never took place. “I am very busy with
work,” Stalin wrote on January 6, 1939,
to Alexander Afinogenov, a reprieved
writer, who had sent in a copy of his
latest play to read. “I beg forgiveness.”
Lavrentiy Beria, the chief of the
NKVD, issued a secret directive calling
for NKVD branches to cease recruiting
informants for surveillance of Party
and factory bosses, and to destroy,
in their presence, the files compiled
against them. Provincial Party bosses
were even invited to scrutinize the dossiers of all NKVD personnel in their
domains. But Stalin had some second
thoughts. “The Central Committee has
learned,” he wrote in a telegram to all
locales on January 10, 1939, “that the
secretaries of provinces and territories, checking on the work of the local
NKVD, have charged them with using
physical means of interrogation against
those arrested as if it were a crime.”
He informed them that the “physical
methods” had been approved by “the
Central Committee” and agreed to by
“the Communist parties of all the republics” (whose leaders had almost all
been shot as foreign agents and wreckers). “It is known that all bourgeois
intelligence services apply physical coercion with regard to representatives of
the socialist proletariat, and in the ugliest forms,” he stressed. “One might ask
why the socialist intelligence service
must be more humane with regard to
inveterate agents of the bourgeoisie.”
The New York Review
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October 26, 2017
The Tragic Sense of Frank Bidart
Helen Vendler
Twenty years ago, Frank Bidart called
his sixth book Desire. It is desire that
drives his poetry, just as making desire believable on the page drives his
imagination. Besides its erotic reach,
“desire” signifies for Bidart a yearning
toward the absolute in any domain. To
desire to create a perfect work of art;
to find provable truth; to speak with
a candor “that gives a candid kind to
everything” (Stevens) is—as any adult
knows—to fail. And yet. It is that “and
yet” that gives passion to Bidart’s voice,
as he both succumbs to and resists desire. Hoping in love for a perfect entwining of body and mind, the young
are violently disappointed by each broken relationship; longing for the sustenance of family affection, the young are
astonished and hurt by its deficiencies;
the artist-in-the-making aspires after
an unattainable aesthetic cohesion of
heart, eye, mind, and medium; and the
devotee attempts a mystical knowledge
of the divine, only to have the radiance
Bidart’s fiercely original poetry,
now collected into one volume with
several interviews, has found again
and again an entry into the heartbreak, pathos, plangency, rage, and
depression into which the longing
for perfection will lead anyone who
finds compromise intolerable. This is
an old theme: Coleridge treated it in
“Constancy to an Ideal Object”; Hopkins saw himself “with this tormented
mind tormenting yet”; and Yeats, in
“Among School Children,” bitterly addressed those unattainable ideal perfections of love, worship, or maternal
aspiration, those
That passion, piety, or affection
And that all heavenly glory
[Those] self- born mockers of
man’s enterprise.
Bidart’s poems establish themselves
on the paradox of the compulsion to
return to the scene of desire, loathing
its fundamental insufficiency as well
as the self that returns to it. His intricate twists of syntax, coiling like a
python about the tortured sensibility,
act out the dilemmas and melodramas
of the desiring self. Because above all
he wants to register the sound of the
human voice, he is driven to unusual
representations of that voice on the
For Bidart, anyone awaking to consciousness who finds himself incapable of obeying—or at least giving
lip-service to—imposed conventions
of behavior is forced into the labor of
self-articulation through desire, experiencing painful torsions and painful
results. The young and intellectual Bidart—raised a Catholic by uneducated
parents, afraid to come out as gay until
his parents died, and enthralled by art
from his adolescence—had to invent a
path of his own beyond the theologi42
Nancy Crampton
Half- light:
Collected Poems 1965–2016
by Frank Bidart.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
718 pp., $40.00
becomes forbidden longing, her longing advances to compulsion, compulsion provokes deception, deception
permits sex, sex necessitates punishment, and punishment takes the form
of metamorphosis, with the pregnant
Myrrha transformed into a pine tree,
secreting amber tears. In Ovid, the
voice of Orpheus as he relates the
story is distinct from the voice that
ventriloquizes the doomed Myrrha.
Although Orpheus admits Myrrha’s
“confusion of mind” between apprehension and joy, he judges her (I quote
from the Loeb translation) as impious
and criminal:
The unhappy girl felt no joy at all
in her heart, and her heart prophetically mourned, yet she was
still glad: such was her confusion
of mind. . . .
She left the room impregnated
by her father, bearing impious
seed in her fatal womb, carrying
the guilt she had conceived. The
next night the crime was repeated:
nor did it finish there. Eventually,
Cinyras, eager to discover his lover
after so many couplings, fetching
a light, saw his daughter and his
guilt, and speechless from grief,
he snatched his bright sword out of
the sheath it hung in. Myrrha ran,
escaping death by the gift of darkness and secret night.*
Bidart, by contrast, does not judge:
when Myrrha, ashamed of her desire
for her father, tries to hang herself, the
poet follows her mental distress with
the understanding inherent in lyric
Frank Bidart, New York City, April 2017; photograph by Nancy Crampton
cal and social constraints of his family.
(It is only later in life that the frightened young person of either sex learns
with some relief that others have been
obliged to the same desperate courage: in “The Badgers,” Seamus Heaney
asked, with comparable anxiety, “How
perilous is it to choose/not to love the
life we’re shown?”)
If the alienated young artist is, like
Joyce, a novelist, the populous social
world becomes his broad canvas, and he
may write Ulysses. When the artist is a
lyric poet, the world by contrast might
appear a restricted one, its boundaries
set by the single self in colloquy with itself. Yet every significant lyric poet has
found a large cosmos in which to situate the self: for Herbert, the sacred; for
Blake, the heterodox; for Wordsworth,
“the noble living and the noble dead”;
for Keats, the Hellenic world; for Shelley, the scientific universe; for Lowell,
history; for Bishop, geography. Bidart’s
cosmos is the society of those who have
felt hunger and thirst for the absolute.
His poems track the successive means
through which he hoped to satisfy that
hunger: religion, philosophy, art, passion. Eventually, he faced—and began
to articulate in a contemporary American diction—the eventual impossibility
of such satisfaction.
As Bidart works out, decade by de-
cade, ways to animate existential desire
on the page, he writes in two genres.
The first is the lyric of deluded hope and
ultimate sadness common in English
verse (at least since Shakespeare’s sonnets) but ready to be articulated afresh
in every historical revolution in style.
His second form draws on biographical sources as it funnels life experience
into the focused expressiveness of lyric,
its motivation less to tell a tale than to
share emotion over time between biographical subject and poet. The characters who appear in his poems can
be modern, like the anorexic patient
Ellen West described by her doctor
Ludwig Binswanger; or mythological,
like the incestuous daughter Myrrha of
Metamorphoses 10; or perilously ambitious, like Nijinsky dancing his selfchoreographed World War One. For
each such life, Bidart invents an improvisatory form. The verse-matrix can
allow prose interpolations: as journal
entries by Binswanger describe West’s
illness and Nijinsky’s wife recounts
the terror of living with her deranged
husband, their sentences become a
backdrop for the disintegrations they
describe. In other such poems, the lyric
adopts the voice of a single narrator
who takes on a character’s anguish.
Of these longer works, the most intense reenacts Myrrha’s incestuous
desire for her father, Cinyras the king.
Bidart hypnotically reproduces Myrrha’s recurrent rhythm of advance
and retreat as her sexual awakening
What she wants she does not
The night she could no longer
NOT tell herself
her secret, she knew that there had
been a time she had not known
it. . . .
Grief for the unlived life, grief
which, in middle age or old age,
as goad
or shroud, comes to all,
early became Myrrha’s
familiar, her narcotic
chastisement, accomplice, master.
The reader is expected to decode the
implications of each “grief”: a witch’s
“familiar” is her demon companion; a
narcotic chastisement yields masochistic pleasure; an accomplice is an acknowledged fellow- criminal; a master
creates a slave. Such juxtapositions of
risky metaphors and such modern interpretations of behavior are among
Bidart’s resources as a storyteller.
At irregular intervals, the poem
repeats Myrrha’s fatal approach—a
*Ovid, Metamorphoses, Volume II:
Books 9–15, translated by Frank Justus
Miller, with revisions by G. P. Goold
(Loeb Classical Library, 1984).
The New York Review
hesitation-step that gains no ground,
but cannot be given up:
four steps forward then
one back, then three
back, then four forward. . . .
Sinuously the psychic tale goes on,
backing up to the past, stealing on toward the future, as glimpses of plot
alternate with the panic of sexual starvation. In the end, Myrrha is “not free
not to desire” because, as she comes to
perceive, the sinister force that draws
her on is already inside her:
I fulfill it, because I contain it—
it prevails, because it is within
Ellen West’s anorexia prevails because it is already within her; in her
terrified desire not to have a body, she
abjures food until she attains death.
Nijinsky, caught up in the horror of
World War I, is unable not to choreograph it and, dancing, collapses,
never to perform again. Bidart’s insistence on the mass of compulsions
within (of which sexual desire is only
one) repudiates any faith in reason
and free will. Robert Lowell, with
whom Bidart studied at Harvard,
says of the heroic Colonel Shaw in
“For the Union Dead” that he “rejoices in man’s lovely,/peculiar power
to choose life and die”—but Bidart
cannot so confidently believe in that
power of choice, since very few, male
or female, are spared the biological
sexual drive—universal, innate, and
persistently recurrent. Nor is anyone
spared the cultural appetites instilled
from birth by familial and educational
ow is the poet to voice the drivenness and pain of existential compulsions? To transmit on the page the
voice of the poem—its drama, its emphases, its ungovernable sentiments—
Bidart conspicuously alters the
conventions of print: font, lineation,
punctuation, capitalization, grammar,
placement of the line on the page, and
spaces between the fluctuating phases
of narrative (often single lines). Over
the forty- one pages of Myrrha’s tale,
the intermittent voice rises and falls,
protests and yields, speaks parenthetically and epigrammatically, reminisces, hypothesizes, and deplores.
As the volatile line sinks deeper and
deeper into Myrrha’s fear—“four steps
forward then/one back, then three /
back, then four forward. . .”—her obsession, as long as the poet’s voice
haunts the ear, becomes native to the
reader’s mind.
Bidart’s long poems reveal how narrative can be transformed into lyric,
how the soliciting and tracking of
emotions can sustain a tale within
the unfolding of form and feeling. In
one of the interviews included in this
collection, Bidart mentions that as an
adolescent he had dreamed of being a
filmmaker, and the seductive way in
which these long poems melt and regroup, using flashbacks and side-plots,
confirms that it is not the conventional
forward-moving narrative found in
chronicles and most novels that attracts the poet, but rather the fluid narrative of film, allowing jump cuts and
crosscuts, panoramas and close-ups,
grisaille and technicolor, obscenities
and vows.
Bidart’s other poems—the taut
short lyrics—will continue, rightly, to
resonate in anthologies. One of these,
“Half-light,” gives its title to this volume. In this touching short poem, Bidart remembers a stifled shyness that
arose between himself and a boy he
mutely fell in love with in high school.
Now, in the “half-light” of the recording page, he can imagine a late conversation in which, as old men, they
could admit to that censored relation.
The phrase “half-light” appears as well
when the imagined ghost of a beloved
friend courteously asks, says Bidart,
if he can “briefly//borrow, inhabit my
body.” This dream- drama incarnates
Bidart’s wistful resurrection of the
. . . grace is the dream, halfdream, halflight, when you appear. . . .
Memory itself—half- dream, halflight—recalls, in retrospect, avatar after avatar of desire, each forebodingly
resembling the unchanging original.
Bidart’s last words to the reader define
his aesthetic: “The aim, throughout,
has been not chronology, but a kind
of topography of the life we share—in
chaos, an inevitable physiognomy.”
Bidart’s early volumes investigate
his own psychological history. The
first, Golden State (1973), sketching
the poet’s childhood, youth, and adolescence in Bakersfield, California,
unspools the drama by which Bidart’s
mother, through two marriages and
two divorces, brings her only child
closer and closer to her inner dreams
and her worsening suffering. Her son,
in his own drama, devotes himself to
what he interprets (retrospectively)
as his desire to outdo her husbands
in his intimacy with her. The possessiveness intrinsic to eroticism seems
dishonorable, its predictable recurrence shameful. Golden State also
presents the first of Bidart’s long
portrait-poems, “Herbert White,”
the soliloquy of a pedophile, rapist,
and murderer—the extreme case, one
could say, of the perversions of desire,
yet uttered in a voice that is convincingly human, uneducated, cunning,
and frustrated. It was a startling
olden State was followed by The
Book of the Body (1977), containing the
harrowing “Ellen West” and “Elegy”
(commemorating Bidart’s mother). He
later tells us in a poem called “Writing
‘Ellen West’” that imagining this story
of suicidal fasting served as an “exorcism” of his mother’s presence within
him after her death. The title poem,
“The Book of the Body,” reviews the
sorrows of desire, desire inseparable
from desolation. Who could not echo
this thwarted lament:
. . . All those who loved me
whom I did not want;
all those whom I loved
who did not want me;
all those whose love I reciprocated
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October 26, 2017
Elite Academia From The Inside
but in a way somehow
wanted . . .
Office Hours
H. N. Hirsch
Quid Pro Press
A well-crafted, wistful memoir of life in
higher education.—Kirkus Reviews
America’s Moral Corrosion
Masha Gessen
—Blindness. Blankness.
Bidart’s next book, The Sacrifice
(1983), which includes the poem about
Nijinsky, offers in the ironically titled
“Confessional” an extended stylized
dialogue between analyst and analysand, an exchange unlike any dialogue
conceivable in a Catholic church. Here
it is not sin but rather the poet’s chaotic love and hatred of his mother that
is staged in an arresting poetic simulacrum of therapeutic exchange, with the
analyst as a modern Socrates:
Is she dead?
By now Bidart has devised his own
Yes, she is dead.
Did you forgive her?
Afghan Surge Redux
Ahmed Rashid
No, I didn’t forgive her.
Did she forgive you?
No, she didn’t forgive me.
Barcelona’s Jihadists
Nafees Hamid
Germany: The Unspeakable
Madeleine Schwartz
and more at
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As the analyst repeatedly puts the
same question—“Why are you angry?”—an entire relationship passes
before us, constantly circling back to
the impossibility, or possibility, of forgiveness. As in the lyric life stories, the
reader oscillates with the pendulum
of emotion, back and forth, session
after session, for almost thirty pages,
as Bidart “confesses” his reactions to
his mother’s madness, her deranged
jealousy (she strangled his cat, if the
story is to be read autobiographically),
her hospitalization, her fury, and her
sense of guilt, confessing as well his
own “predatory” competitiveness with
her husbands. The helpless and guilty
relations between mother and child
anatomized in “Confessional” recur in
later volumes as helplessness and guilt
in adult erotic life.
Bidart’s next book, In the Western
Night, contains, in caps, his barest
formulation of desire and its consequences: WHAT YOU LOVE IS YOUR
FATE . In his childhood adoration of
movies, and in his love of parents and
friends, he sums up his repetitive destiny of “baffled infatuations” (with
more capitals):
then I saw the parade of my loves
those PERFORMERS comics
actors singers
forgetful of my very self so often I
desired to die to myself to live in
then my PARENTS my
FRIENDS the drained
SPECTRES once filled with my
baffled infatuations. . . .
The future depends on what you do today.
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young Bidart pursues a vertiginous
path through the history of philosophy.
The poem arose from the depiction of
a gathering of thinkers in Raphael’s
fresco “The School of Athens.” The
poet, more and more hopeful, more
and more distressed, tries on the garments of Western thought (classical,
Christian, and post- Christian) until he
comes to a dead end, seeing philosophers as no more universal than poets.
Like poets, each has an individual view
of the world constructed by an individual style of thought and expression;
each system is incommensurable with
any other. The conclusion—voiced
in “Confessional”—denies philosophy any particular access to the truth:
“man needs a metaphysics;/he cannot
have one.”
His title In the Western Night echoes
the poem “The First Hour of the Night”
(included in the volume), in which the
Subscribe to
methods of rendering the double bind
of desire and its consequences. One
method is to stage a clash of dictions.
The devastating poem “Queer,” for instance, opens in abstract colloquy, the
self addressing the self, illustrating the
price one will pay for remaining in the
closet: “Lie to yourself about this and
you will/forever lie about everything.”
With significant line breaks and an
uneasy alteration of single lines with
couplets, “Queer” spells out the danger of consenting to the covert familial
Everybody already knows
so you can
lie to them. That’s what they want.
But lie to yourself, what you will
lose is yourself. Then you
turn into them.
Yet that abstract colloquy is abruptly
followed by colloquial Americanese:
“For each gay kid whose adolescence//
was America in the forties or fifties/
the primary, the crucial//scenario//
forever is coming out—/or not. Or not.
Or not. Or not. Or not.” Then the poet,
with yet another change in diction, is
quoting his mother’s confusing remark
to her child: “Sex shouldn’t be part of
marriage.” A few pages later, the voice
perverts itself into scatology, as each
generation’s effort to maintain the fiction of former happiness devolves into
Oedipal disgust: “They smeared shit
all over//their inheritance because it
was broken,/because they fell in love
with it.”
Sometimes the clashing dictions are
satirical. Bidart parodies the science
of sexology as it boasts of its ability to
peer, beyond the insights of literature,
into the secret life of the mind. The vividly inconsistent tones in the threatening voice of the experimental scientist
bring dread:
We have attached sensors to your
most intimate
body parts, so that we may
what you think, not what you
think you think.
The image now on the screen
will circumvent your superego
and directly stimulate your
vagina or dick
or fail to. Writing has existed for
centuries to tell us
what you think you think. Liar,
we are interested in what lies
beneath that. This won’t hurt.
Bidart’s poetry offers its multiverse
of dictions without apology or censorship, composing ceaseless variations
of confidential tale and intimate colloquy. The symbols darken as Bidart
ages: recalling that the American colonists of Plymouth had exhibited on a
pole—for twenty years—the head of
their vanquished enemy, the Indian
chief Metacomet, Bidart applies that
history as a brusque and brilliant summary of his parents’ mutual absorption
and hatred:
My father’s head
hung outside my mother’s window
for years when I was a kid.
She pretended that it wasn’t there;
but hers
also did outside his.
Are there drawbacks to Bidart’s
earnest, bewildered, harsh, and tragic
view? Yes, of course, just as there are
limitations to O’Hara’s chattiness or
Bishop’s discretion. Every idiolect is
its own Procrustean bed. Bidart has
renewed—for his own generation—the
line of suicidal Romanticism that produced Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life”
and Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy,” but
his model is neither the dramatic narrative of Shelley nor Keats’s mythological personifications. Bidart has taken
as his model the aria of a voice in extremis, always fixed in a drama not of
its own choosing, incorrigibly recasting its desire. It is no accident that Bidart has translated, or “imitated,” three
times Catullus’s terse “Odi et amo,” “I
hate and love,” which responds—with
ever more contorted gestures—to the
question, “Why would you live this
I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who
wants the fly while writhing.
I hate and—love. The sleepless
body hammering a nail nails
itself, hanging crucified.
What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds
the nail that now is driven into
itself, why.
Each translation illuminates a different analysis of compulsion, each
one intensifying the self-torture (and,
by contrast, suggesting the forbidden voluptuousness) of sex. Bidart’s
Collected Poems could bear any—or
all—of these three translations as an
The New York Review of Books®
on the Web:
The New York Review
Dialogue With God
Peter Brown
by Augustine, translated
from the Latin by Sarah Ruden.
Modern Library, 484 pp., $28.00
of words spoken, as if on the edge of an
abyss, to a God on the far side—to a
being, to all appearances, vertiginously
separate from ourselves.
The measure of the success of
In 2012, Sarah Ruden brought us, in
Ruden’s translation is that she has
a crackling translation, the secondmanaged to give as rich and as diverse
a profile to the God on the
known as The Golden Ass of
far side as she does to the irApuleius. The Golden Ass is
repressible and magnetically
full of impudent incongruiarticulate Latin author who
ties. A topsy-turvy tale about
cries across the abyss to Him.
a hapless young man turned
Most translations of the Coninto a donkey is combined
fessions fail to do this. We are
with a love story (of Cupid
usually left with the feeling
and Psyche) as bright and dethat one character in the story
lightful as the tapestries that
has not fully come alive. We
would illustrate it throughout
meet an ever-so-human Authe late Middle Ages and the
gustine, with whom it is easy
Renaissance. Utterly unexto identify even when we most
pectedly, the book ends with
deplore him. But we meet him
the vision of a goddess rising
perched in front of an imfrom the swell of a moonlit
mense Baroque canvas called
“God”—suitably grand, of
Ruden now leads us to a
course, suitably florid, but flat
yet more incongruous masas the wall.
terpiece. A little over two
How does Ruden remcenturies after The Golden
edy this lack of life in God?
Ass, we discover a person
She takes God in hand. She
who appears to be a highly
renames Him. He is not a
Latinate North African such
“Lord.” That is too grand a
as Apuleius had been—a
word. Its sharpness has been
product, indeed, of a school
blunted by pious usage. Auestablished in Apuleius’s own
gustine’s God was a domihometown, Madauros (modnus—a master. And a Roman
ern M’Daourouch, in Algeria,
dominus was a master of
near the tense border with Tuslaves. Unlike “Lord,” the
nisia)—only to learn that he
Latin word dominus implied,
was a middle-aged Christian
in Augustine’s time, no disbishop, with his back turned
tant majesty, muffled in fur
to us, speaking endlessly, urand velvet. It conjured up life
gently to his God.
in the raw—life lived face to
We call this riveting diaface in a Roman household,
logue with God the Confeslived to the sound of the crack
sions of Saint Augustine. It
of the whip and punctuated by
was probably written in 397
bursts of rage.
AD, a few years after AugusIn the house of Augustine had become a Christian
tine’s parents, slaves were
bishop in Hippo (modern Anwell thrashed for gossiping.
naba, in Algeria: one of the
Monnica herself confronted
few good ports available west
wives whose faces bore
of Carthage, sheltered by a
bruises from angry husbands,
row of promontories that prowith the grim reminder that,
trude into the Mediterranean
after all, their marriage conlike a fleet straining at anchor
tracts had handed them over
to take sail for Rome).
to these men as so many
The Confessions is as much
“slaves.” One should add that
a jumble of contrasts as is
brilliant recent studies of the
Apuleius’s dirty, courtly, and
later Roman Empire by Kyle
ecstatic tale. We try to anchor
Harper and others have left us
it by calling it the first Chrisin no doubt that slavery was
tian autobiography—even, in
alive and well in Roman Afmore heady moods, the first
rica and elsewhere, adding a
autobiography ever. But to
bitter taste to the social life, to
call it an autobiography is a
the sexual morality, and to the
Saint Augustine of Hippo; painting by El Greco, 1590
misleading half-truth. In the
imaginations of Romans of
first nine books of the Conthe age of Augustine.2 In her
introduction, Ruden writes: “This imfessions, Augustine does indeed deinto the shadowy, magical forest of the
agery . . . may be harsh and off-putting,
scribe his life from his birth in 354 to
Hebrew Scriptures to meditate on what
but a translator must govern her dishis conversion in Milan in 386, and the
Moses had really meant when he dedeath of his mother, Monnica, at Ostia,
scribed the six days of Creation.
in late 387. Only these books, account2
Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman
ing for slightly more than half of the
AD 275–425 (Cambridge UniWorld,
o what is the correct reaction when
text, deal with Augustine’s past life.
2011) and From Shame
we open the Confessions? It should,
After that—for a further 206 pages in
to Sin: The Christian Transformation
perhaps, be one of acute embarrassRuden’s translation—the great work
of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity
ment. For we have stumbled upon a
floats triumphantly out to sea, ever fur(Harvard University Press, 2013); see
human being at a primal moment—
my review of the latter in these pages,
standing in prayer before God. Having
The Golden Ass, translated by Sarah
December 19, 2013, and Brent D. Shaw,
intruded on Augustine at his prayers,
Ruden (Yale University Press, 2012),
“The Family in Late Antiquity: The Exwe are expected to find ourselves
reviewed in these pages by G.W. Bowperience of Augustine,” Past & Present,
ersock, December 20, 2012.
pulled into them, as we listen to a flow
Vol. 115, No. 1 (May 1987).
Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo/Bridgeman Images
ther away from modern expectations of
an autobiography.
In books ten and eleven, we are
treated to minute self- examination and
to spells of philosophical heavy lifting
on the nature of memory and time. In
the last two books, Augustine plunges
October 26, 2017
taste and try to make her author’s
thought and experience as vivid and
sympathetic as it plainly was to his contemporaries.” To do otherwise would
be “condescending, manipulative, and
To make God more of a person, by
making Him a master, does not, at
first sight, make Him very nice. But
at least it frees Him up. It also brings
Augustine to life. In relation to God,
Augustine experiences all the ups and
downs of a household slave in relation
to his master. He jumps to the whip. He
tries out the life of a runaway. He attempts to argue back. Altogether, “Augustine’s humorously self- deprecating,
submissive, but boldly hopeful portrait
of himself in relation to God echoes
the rogue slaves of the Roman stage.”
(Indeed, the thought of the bishop of
Hippo as having once been the slippery slave of God—like Zero Mostel
as the plump and bouncy Pseudolus in
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way
to the Forum—somehow lightens the
impression of a seemingly inextricable
roller coaster of sin and punishment
that we usually derive from reading the
first part of the Confessions.)
For God can change His mood. Like
any other free person, He can show a
different side. The Confessions is about
the marvelous emergence of new sides
of God as Augustine himself changes
in his relation to God, over the years,
from slave to repentant son to lover.
Ruden may have to defend her retranslation of the name of God from
“Lord” to “Master.” But her approach
is a thoughtful one. It is governed by a
determination to present Augustine’s
relations with his God as endowed with
the full emotional weight of a confrontation between two real persons. She
takes no shortcuts. Small departures
from conventional translations show
her constant effort to capture an unexpected dimension of tenderness (very
different from that of the slave owner)
in God’s relation to Augustine and in
Augustine’s to God.
To take small examples: Ruden does
not have Augustine “embrace” Jesus as
if He were a proposition. He takes Him
in his arms. When Augustine looks
back at his first mystical awakening, he
cries: Sero te amavi: “Late have I loved
you!” It is a famous cry. But it is a little
grand. You and I would say: “I took
too long to fall in love.” And this—the
less dramatic but more human turn of
phrase—is what Ruden opts for. Repeated small acts of attention to the
humble, human roots of Augustine’s
imagery of his relations to God enable Ruden to convey a living sense of
the Being before Whom we find him
transfixed in prayer: “Silent, longsuffering and with so much mercy in
your heart.”
reviewer may add some touches to
this picture. After the rude shock of
meeting God as a slave master, some
attention might also have been given,
in Ruden’s introduction, to Augustine’s
images of the tenderness of God. I
think particularly of the image of the
doctor and the eye salve. In the ancient world, the doctor was not the icy
My swelling settled down under
your unseen medicinal hand, and
the . . . darkened eyesight of my
mind, when the stinging salve of . . .
sufferings was applied, was healing
day by day.
Ruden also might have explained
even more fully the carefully constructed sense of vertigo induced by the
direct encounter of two totally incommensurable beings—a storm-tossed
human and an eternal God. She presents this supreme incongruity almost as
an occasion for merriment. In describing Augustine’s intellectual fireworks,
she stresses the element of freefloating, almost childlike intellectual
play beneath the eyes of God. Here was
a Being so different from us that even
the most serious intellectual endeavor
on our part was vaguely ludicrous.
But Augustine also uses this sense
of vertigo in a different way. He has a
deadly gift for miniaturizing sin. There
are no large sins in the Confessions.
Those that he examines most closely
are tiny sins. He spends a large part of
book two (nine entire pages) examining his motives for robbing a pear tree.
Modern readers chafe. “Rum thing,”
wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
to Harold Laski in 1921, “to see a man
making a mountain out of robbing a
pear tree in his teens.”
But Holmes was wrong to be impatient. Only by winnowing every motive that played into that obscure act
of small-town vandalism was Augustine able to isolate the very smallest,
the most toxic concentrate of all—the
chilling possibility that he had acted
gratuitously, simply to show that he
(like God, and then like Adam) could
do whatever he wished. The publishers
were right to put on the jacket of this
book, which contains a succession of
sins, each reduced to chillingly minute
proportions, the image of a half- eaten
The publishers would have found it
much harder to illustrate the middleaged Augustine’s notion of sex. By the
time the bishop approached his sexual
temptations as he wrote book ten of the
Confessions in 397, they had thinned
out for him so as to seem next to transparent. He had abandoned sex for a
decade. Sexual scenes appeared only in
his dreams. But they were there. They
still spoke of forces in him that were
all the more enduring for being next to
He speaks of these urges as a viscum—as a form of birdlime. We should
note the terrible precision of this word.
Birdlime is not only sticky. It is transparent. This barely visible substance
would be placed at the end of a rod
that would then be inserted among the
boughs of a tree in such a way that the
unsuspecting bird would hop without
noticing from the living branch on to
the adhesive surface. (In the fresco in a
fourth- century bathhouse at Sidi Ghrib,
nineteen miles southwest of Carthage,
the owner of the villa is shown setting
out for a bird hunt followed by a slave
carrying a bundle of these deadly rods.)
This barely perceptible, cloying glue—
and not the hot pleasures of the bed,
as we might expect—was what preoccupied the bishop. It might still brush
against the wings of his soul, slowing, if
only a little, his ascent to God.
Altogether, in reading book ten of
the Confessions, we find Augustine
looking at his sins as if through the
diminishing end of a telescope. They
are disturbing precisely because they
are so very small but so very tenacious.
Confronted by sensuality and violence,
ancient moralists and Christian preachers had tended to deploy an “aversion
therapy” based upon rhetorical exaggeration. They pulled out all the stops
to denounce the shimmer of ornament,
the drunken roar of the circus, the rippling bodies of dancers and wrestlers,
the sight of beautiful women, and the
languid seduction of perfumes. With
Augustine, all this falls silent. The effect of the baleful glare of material
beauty becomes no more than noting in
himself a touch of sadness when he was
deprived for too long of the African
sun: “The queen of colors herself, this
ordinary light, saturates everything we
see . . . and sweet-talks me with the myriad ways she falls on things.”
Even the noisiest, the most colossal
place of all, and the place of greatest
cruelty—the Roman amphitheater—
seems to shrink drastically. Augustine
knew only too well what a gladiatorial show was like. He described his
friend Alypius in Rome “guzzl[ing] . . .
cruelty” as he watched the gladiatorial games. But had the cruel urge to
watch gone away? No. No longer does
Augustine follow the venationes, the
matador-like combats of skilled huntsmen armed with pikes and nets against
lithe and savage beasts that had replaced gladiatorial shows all over
[But] what about the frequent
times when I’m sitting at home,
and a lizard catching flies, or a spi-
der entwining in her net the flies
falling into it, engrosses me? Just
because these are tiny animals
doesn’t mean that the same predation isn’t going on within me, does
For Augustine, this is no idle lapse of
attention. It is a realization of continued urges that is as disturbing as the
thin voice of a ghost in a lonely room:
“You see, I am still here.”
But despite the eerie hiss of sin, Augustine also remembers that he had
tasted a little of the sweetness of God:
And sometimes you allow me to
enter into an emotion deep inside
that’s most unusual, to the point
Musée Thomas Henry, Cherbourg/Art Resource
professional that he or she has become
in the modern imagination. Unlike the
surgeon, with his dreaded bag of knives,
the doctor entered the house as a figure
of magical, tender care. In a world with
nothing like modern anesthesia, the
doctor stood for the one principle of
gentle change made available to bodies
all too often held rigid on the rack of
pain. His skilled words brought comfort, if only to the mind. His skilled
hands played across the body, untying,
where possible, the knots of pain. His
drugs always carried with them reassuring traces of occult energies culled
from herbs, which worked slowly and
silently to bring the pain-wracked body
back to its natural state.
As for the eye salve: the bitter mixture known as collyrium was known to
everyone. Eye diseases (glaucoma and
conjunctivitis) were everywhere in the
dusty landscapes of the Mediterranean.
The dangers to the eye of infected
water were exponentially increased in
every Roman city by the splendor of
their public baths. Even in the bracing
atmosphere of Hadrian’s Wall, 12 percent of the Roman garrison of Vindolanda (near Housesteads Roman Fort
in Northumberland) were out of action,
with eye infections predominating.
Hence the supreme skill with which
Augustine uses medical terminology in
books six and seven of the Confessions
to describe the last, almost subliminal
stages of his conversion. Here the crack
of the whip is silent. Nor does truth
dawn suddenly for him in the garish,
broken-light manner of conventional
conversion narratives. Instead, we
enter the gentle half-light of a Roman
sickroom, as God, the supremely tender doctor, tiptoes in to place his hand,
at last, on Augustine’s heart:
Fra Angelico: The Conversion of
Saint Augustine (detail), circa 1430s
of a mysterious sweetness, and if
this is made whole in me, it will be
something this life can’t ever be.
And what is more, he remembered that
he had once tasted this sweetness in
company. The astonishing (and littlenoticed) fact about the much- debated
vision of Ostia, which occurred on the
eve of Monnica’s death in 387 and offered a view of “what the eternal life to
come would be like,” was that Augustine had experienced it along with his
mother: “We conversed together alone,
very gently,” and the vision had come
to them both.
At the end of time, a vast company
of humans and of angels would share
forever the same vision that Monnica
and Augustine had shared, if only for
a fleeting moment. And they would do
it all together. That is the whole point
of the last, triumphant book of the
Confessions: for, up above the heavens,
“they always see our face . . . and they
lose themselves in love for it.”
eanwhile, there was a church to
run. A body of hitherto unknown letters written by Augustine in his old
age, discovered and published by the
Austrian scholar Johannes Divjak in
1981, has been much discussed and
used by scholars, but has yet to receive
its due weight in our general image of
Augustine. Pundits ourselves and the
students of pundits, we like to think of
our heroes and heroines in an elevated
light. We expect the author of a Great
Book such as the Confessions to remain in his study—lucubrating darkly,
for good or ill, on weighty topics such
as sex, subjectivity, and the self.
It should come as a salutary surprise
to learn, from Letter 10 of the Div-
jak collection, that in 428 AD —thirty
years after the writing of the Confessions, that is, and maybe only two years
before his death—Augustine, now
seventy-four, was deeply engaged in an
attempt to block the slave trade out of
the port of Hippo. Sent inland by slave
traders, gangs of slavers had scoured
the isolated hamlets in the mountains
behind Hippo, shipping cargoes of terrified peasants across the sea. They
may have sold them to landowners in
Italy and Gaul who were anxious to restock their estates after the disruption
caused by the barbarian invasions earlier in the century.
Augustine reported the affair to his
old friend Alypius, who was in Rome
once again—no longer to watch the
games, but to search the libraries of
the city for copies of imperial laws that
might be used to put an end to this
“evil of Africa.” The church of Hippo
had already ransomed 130 of these captives. Well lawyered-up, the slave traders had responded by suing Augustine
for theft of their property. Ever conscientious and on his guard to make a
watertight case, Augustine noted for
Alypius the testimony of those rescued
by the church:
Once when I was with some of
those who had been freed from
their wretched captivity by our
church, I asked a young girl how
she had come to be sold to the slave
dealer. She said she had been taken
from her parents’ home . . . she said
that it was done in the presence of
her parents and brothers. One of
her brothers . . .was present [while
Augustine spoke to the girl] and,
because she was little [and may
well have known no Latin: the hinterland of Hippo was still Punicspeaking], . . . he revealed to us
how it had been done. He said that
thugs like these break in at night.
The more they are able to disguise
themselves, the less likely the victims are to resist: since they think
they are a barbarian band. But
if there were not traders such as
these [back on the docks of Hippo]
things like this would not happen.
For Augustine, service to the church
had come to include such humanitarian
work, among so many other things. But
it also continued to mean the attempt
to find, somewhere in this world—in
common prayer, in the collective singing of the Psalms, in the high drama
of saints’ feasts, and in the gathering
for the Eucharist—some place for the
shared sweetness of God. A few years
before his intervention in the slave
trade at Hippo, Augustine concluded
one of his sermons on the Gospel of
I sense your feelings of yearning,
of eagerness, being lifted up with
me to what is above. . . . But now I
will put away the copy of the Gospel. You are all going to depart as
well, each to your own home. It
has been good, sharing the Light
together, good rejoicing in it, good
exulting in it together; but when we
depart from each other, let us not
depart from Him.
It is good to be reminded of such a
man by a translation of his masterwork
that does justice both to him and to his
The New York Review
A River Runs Through It
Colin Thubron
The Amur is the ninth-longest river in
the world, but to Westerners it may be
the least known and most remote. It
evokes no ancient culture, as the Nile
or the Indus does, nor does it occupy
a nation’s heart, like the Mississippi.
Instead it creates a little-known and
potentially dangerous borderland. Rising in the uplands of Mongolia, it flows
for over 2,800 miles between
the Siberian forests of Russia to
the north and the mountains of
Manchurian China to the south,
before spilling at last into the Pacific Ocean at the Okhotsk Sea.
Its terrain is a frontier of empires. In the late seventeenth century Russian Cossacks, pushing
east and south, came into contact here with the borders of the
powerful Chinese Qing dynasty.
A treaty signed in 1689 confined
the Cossacks north beyond the
Amur basin, while also opening up Chinese trade to Russia,
and the peace between the two
countries held for nearly two
centuries. Then in 1854 Nikolay
Muraviev, the aggressive Russian governor of eastern Siberia, sailed down the river with a
convoy of seventy-seven military
rafts and barges, and began establishing settlements. By 1860
the enfeebled and preoccupied
Qing had ceded all their territories up to the Amur’s left bank,
an area that corresponds roughly to
today’s Russian Priamurye and maritime provinces, reaching to the Korean
Almost at once Chinese migrants
were crossing the river northward.
They were viewed by most Russians
as a locust horde with no allegiance to
their host country. There was growing
talk of the yellow menace and fear of a
sleeping giant, even as Chinese cheap
labor helped build up the factories,
roads, and ports that ensured Russian
control. Then the Soviet Union closed
off this diaspora with an iron curtain
as rigid as that in Central Europe, all
but erasing the Chinese presence from
historical memory.
But in the early 1990s, after the
Soviet collapse, the Chinese migration renewed and gathered pace. Now
Chinese traders, builders, entrepreneurs, and farmers have penetrated far
beyond the riverside Russian towns,
causing resentment and sometimes
paranoia. There are fears of Chinese
buying up real estate, unfounded rumors of increasing intermarriage and
proliferating Chinatowns. Statistics
are so erratic and unverifiable that
estimates of Chinese migration veer
between 300,000 and five million, complicated by seasonal movements, often
illegal. Interaction between Russians
and Chinese—products of profoundly
different cultures—is confined to little
more than commerce, and the Russian
media routinely treat the migrants as a
faceless biomass. One study recorded
that “the more frequent and intensive
October 26, 2017
expected to explore this battleground,
and to describe Chinese and Russian
regional feeling. Ziegler is a respected
commentator on Chinese politics and
finance. He was the China correspondent for The Economist for six years
and is now its Asia editor, and the persona in his written journey is a knowledgeable and sympathetic one.
His book opens with promise. Ziegler
seeks out the source of the Amur on a
horseback trek into northeast Mongolia, and finds it among the forested
hills surrounding the Onon River, the
most distant of the Amur’s tributaries.
a wobbly table by the roadside. The
region is quarantined because of footand-mouth disease, she says, and its
borders are indefinitely closed. Such
unpredictable chances are the curse of
travel here.
More formidable barriers shadow the
Amur itself. On the Russian side hundreds of miles of barbed wire and watch
towers are still in place beside “the conChina has huge territorial claims
trol tracking strip,” whose raked earth
against Russia and stimulates in
will betray infiltrators. Only a few ferry
every possible way the penetration
crossings breach the frontier. Where
of her citizens into Russian territhe borders are contiguous, there are
tory. . . . The main goal of China’s
no bridges. Ziegler crosses only once,
on a day trip, and records China
in less than two pages.
The prohibited Russian river
zone obstructs deep exploration,
and Ziegler does not attempt it.
Instead he veers into history,
and his promised “journey down
the Amur” comes to resemble
instead a study of southeast Russia along the Trans-Siberian
Railway. The Amur drains a
basin almost as huge as Mexico,
so numerous towns, regions, and
topics can loosely be held relevant to the river. In a series of
well-paced and well-researched
narratives, Ziegler explores subjects as various as the decorative
arts of the native peoples and
the bizarre Jewish homeland
proposed in 1928, whose idealistic settlers became the victims
of Stalin’s paranoia. Ziegler’s
visit to Irkutsk, the one-time
“Paris of the East,” leads him to
describe tsarist Russian expediFishermen on the Okhotsk Sea, at the mouth of the Amur River, which separates Russia and China
tions in the Pacific. Chapters on
the sleepy provincial capital of
entry into Russia, regardless of its
His writing here is at once poetic and
Chita evoke a detailed history of the
forms and channels, is its integraprecise, and reveals a passion for the
Buddhist Buryats, who still inhabit the
tion into economic activities, acfauna and flora of the region (he annoborderland of Russia and Mongolia,
quisition of property and land, i.e.
tates them lovingly), and for its pristine
and who were the most sophisticated of
the creation of economic and legal
the native peoples confronting Russia
preconditions for the legal seizure
in the eighteenth century.
of territory. . . .2
Over the pass, fold upon fold of
Then there are the Decembrists, exthick-forested mountains pushed
iled to Chita and beyond in 1826 during
Such alarms are mainly sounded by renorth, like standing waves. It was
the reign of the implacable Tsar Nichogional authorities. More sober evaluaanother world, an unbroken riplas I. Mostly principled noblemen at
tions number the Chinese migrants at
ple of dark green: barely touched
odds with tsarist autocracy, they staged
somewhere between 500,000 and a milby man, indifferent—a profound
an inept rebellion in St. Petersburg
lion. Yet there are commentators who
stillness. . . .
and were scattered into Siberian exile.
fear that in time the Amur River fronWe were dropping down toTheir legend accrued glory through the
tier will become irrelevant, and that
ward the Onon, which we did not
numbers of women who voluntarily folall Asiatic Russia will be absorbed by
glimpse until we were nearly upon
lowed them into banishment, leaving
China, the erosion stopping only at the
it. To decree where any river betheir comfort and even children beUral Mountains.
gins must necessarily involve a
hind. In Russia the term “Decembrist
fiction. Only the very rare stream
wife” survives as an epithet for devoallows you to stand and point to
tion, although the wives did not all reominic Ziegler’s Black Dragon
the spot where it bubbles, fully
main faithful.
River: A Journey Down the Amur River
formed, from the ground. . . .
at the Borderlands of Empires might be
The Onon began where two
f there is an intermittent theme to
streams, each no more than three or
these blocks of history, it is Russia’s
four horse-lengths across, emerged
See Ye. I. Plaksen, Integration of the
recurring vision of a shining Pacific
from a blueberry patch. . . . Here
Maritime Kray into the Economic
future, of the Amur opening up the
the streams slipped together withStructure of the Far Eastern Region
Siberian hinterland eastward as triumout fuss, 6,700 feet above sea level,
(Rossiya i ATR, 1993), quoted in Alphantly as the Americans were opening
at the tip of a gravel promontory
exander Lukin, The China Threat:
up their West. Siberia, too, had its native
that lay between them. I waded
Perceptions, Myths and Reality, edited
peoples—scattered groups of herders,
by Herbert Yee and Ian Storey (Routfishermen, and hunters (who still surcupped
ledgeCurzon, 2002), p. 97.
vive)—and the myth persists that these
water of the earth, at the heart of
See Viktor Dyatlov, “Chinese Mi“small peoples of the north” (as Soviet
an empty continent.
grants and Anti-Chinese Sentiments in
ethnographers defined them) welcomed
Russian Society,” in Frontier Encounthe Russians as peaceful carriers of enSoon
ters: Knowledge and Practice at the
lightenment. As Ziegler makes his way
to cross the Mongolian frontier into
Russian, Chinese and Mongolian Boreast, he visits dim-lit local museums
China by jeep, then to turn north to
der, edited by Franck Billé, Grégory
displaying stuffed animals and rusty
rejoin the Onon. But his way is barred
Delaplace, and Caroline Humphrey
(Open Book, 2012), pp. 82–83.
weapons. The curators seem oblivious
by a woman in a white mask sitting at
the contacts of the local population
with the Chinese, the less it is inclined
to evaluate positively the immigrants’
At worst, the migrants are seen as
tools of a long-term plot, hatched in
Beijing, to take over eastern Siberia.
As early as 1994, influential Russian
academics were asserting:
Reza/Getty Images
Black Dragon River:
A Journey Down the Amur River
at the Borderlands of Empires
by Dominic Ziegler.
Penguin, 357 pp., $27.95; $17.00 (paper)
to what their Cossack halberds and
manacles suggest about the brutal Russian conquest. Ziegler writes:
The somersault, the handspring, the ball
pedaled in orbit—all depend on a combination
of nerve and verve, qualities possessed in
abundance by illustrator and author Edward
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For a couple of decades around the
middle of the nineteenth century,
the Amur River was at the heart
of an extravagant delusion that
gripped the people of a stagnant
autocratic Russia. . . . Russians rediscovered a river that for centuries
had hung forgotten on the eastern
edge of their realm, flowing through
empty Chinese lands. They knew
almost nothing of this river and
its watershed—neither its physical aspects nor, really, who dwelled
there. All the better: onto this river
they first projected dreams of mineral and agricultural wealth, and
then dreams of national renewal.
This river-road was to be Russians’
route to greatness.
In the desolation of Russia’s presentday Pacific provinces—where the population is declining as fast as China’s is
expanding—the dream of the Amur’s
future carries its own pathos. The vigor
and optimism of the pioneers whose
exploits Ziegler charts—the ruthless Yerofei Khabarov and MuravievAmursky, whose statues tower over
Siberian cities in decay—are redolent
of another age: an age when China
seemed in terminal decline.
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he expanding Russian power first
met the Chinese at a remote settlement
on the Amur in 1651, when the freebooter Khabarov massacred the members of a Manchu garrison and seized
their women. A quarter of a century
was to elapse before resurgent Manchu forces, during the sixty-year reign
of the Kangxi emperor, began tightening their hold on the river, and engulfed all but one of the tiny Cossack
forts there.
This last remote stronghold, named
Albazino—a primitive rectangle of
stockades and wooden towers—became the testing ground of two empires
that barely knew each other. Following orders from the Chinese emperor,
its six-hundred-strong garrison, which
had reluctantly surrendered, was permitted to leave, unarmed. But within
two months the Russians returned to
the abandoned fort with 826 men and
twelve cannons, and rebuilt it more
strongly than before. Its ramparts
were fronted by a deep ditch and pits
concealing iron stakes. A gun turret
swiveled cannonfire through a commanding arc, and the palisades were
hung with baskets of resin to illumine
night attacks.
For a few months this solitary outpost staked Russia’s claim to the Amur
River. Even now, reduced to an empty
depression no larger than a football
field, it seems inaccessibly far from the
Russian heartland, and almost unvisited. The returning Chinese encircled
its ramparts with a triple earthwork,
lined by light artillery, and sealed off
the river with gunboats. For a full year
they bombarded Albazino with shot
and incendiary arrows, charged it from
behind leather-covered assault engines,
and rained down long-range fire from
a nearby hill. Meanwhile both garrison and besiegers were dying of scurvy.
By the time the fort surrendered, the
Cossacks were reduced to sixty-six
wraith-like survivors.
Soon afterward, in 1689, the Treaty
of Nerchinsk confirmed Russia’s expulsion from the Amur. But it was concluded with a scrupulous appearance
of parity that—Ziegler claims controversially—set the tone for Sino-Russian
relationships thereafter. The treaty was
drawn up carefully in the language of
neither nation, but in the Latin of two
Jesuit priests at the Qing court. Yet
the Chinese retinue at the negotiations
included 15,000 armed men, whose
clanking presence may have hurried
on the outcome. In exchange for trade
concessions the Cossacks were forced
to retreat from the Amur to the crest of
its northern watershed.
More than a century and a half later,
in 1854, the Russians returned under
Muraviev-Amursky, to a waning Qing
empire and a bloodless recovery of
all they had once conceded. The Chinese have intermittently contested this
reoccupation, and it was by a reversion to the Nerchinsk Treaty that Mao
Zedong, as the Sino-Soviet relationship
declined, laid claim to the lands lost by
China. Ziegler, mindful of the thinning
Russian presence there today, writes:
Russia seized these lands at a
time when Western imperial powers were carving up a stricken
China among themselves—“like a
melon,” as Chinese pointed out at
the time. Russians have since had
a century and a half to convince
themselves that the lands were
always rightfully theirs.
est pier-glasses in the world, “each the
height of a giraffe.”
Ziegler recoils from contact, above
all, with the Chinese. In all the book’s
334 pages, there is a single, ten-line exchange with one embittered Chinese
trader. If Ziegler ever considered traveling on the river’s southern bank, he
does not mention it. This, in an accomplished journalist with more Chinese
than Russian experience, is a mystery.
Nor is this omission explained by
want of courage. In a prank that strikes
a curious contrast to Ziegler’s usual
prudence, he falls in with an ex-convict
who lobs some money over a prison
wall at Nerchinsk in exchange for a
fighting knife that comes sailing back.
After they are both arrested, Ziegler
escapes with a caution from an indulgent prison governor. But it is hard not
to conclude that such enterprise might
have been better put to more enlightening purpose: a probe along “the control
tracking strip,” perhaps, or a journey
along the Chinese shore, a border less
closely monitored than the Russian
For it is the Sino-Russian tension
that haunts today’s river, and that cries
out for the insights of experience on
the ground. Travelers are few here, and
human interaction on any but a commercial level seems exceptional. The
Chinese are regularly featured in Russian television and newspapers, writes
Viktor Dyatlov, director of the Research Centre on Inner Asia, but there
are no “faces”:
There is no interest in the individual person, his life or his destiny. Russia is concerned not so
much with the Chinese as people,
but merely in the problems they
are seen to embody. . . . Today, the
Chinese migrant has become a
function, an abstraction. 3
Black Dragon River is
framed as a travel book, these expansive histories are not balanced by
Ziegler’s experience on the ground.
He writes intermittently that “I now
wanted to explore how Russians had
pushed so far east” or how the Amur
“shaped the empires that have come
into contact with it.” But this is not the
kind of knowledge that travel readily
yields. A journey is colored by the history the traveler brings to it, while individual experience offers insight into
present feelings and conditions. It is
in this last, crucial respect that Black
Dragon River falls short.
This is the more to be regretted since
Ziegler’s encounters, when they come,
are sometimes graphic. There is the
description—an account bursting with
information—of his visit to a fish research institute, and of the Amur’s 120
species, including “the silver carp, the
sharpbelly, the skygazer, the three-lips,
the black Amur bream, and the northern snakehead, which survives in mud
by drawing its breath from the air.”
This financial journalist may seem endearingly more interested in the fate
of the kaluga sturgeon and the demoiselle cranes, which “walk with a Parisian bustle of dark tail feathers behind
them,” than in the often calamitous doings of his own species.
In Nerchinsk he comes upon the
lavish and dilapidated mansion of the
Butins, long-gone barons of the nearby
silver mines, who transported from the
1878 Paris Exposition the biggest mirrors in the world. After hobnobbing
with the caretaker, Ziegler is admitted
down a passageway heaped with tilework from the abortive archaeological dig of a Mongolian palace, enters
rooms still dripping with damask and
ormolu, and ends up for the night in
a canvas sleeping bag, under the larg-
The Sino-Russian relationship now
is trumpeted as being closer than ever.
Officially the border disputes are resolved. Yet in times of stress the old
sores chafe again. Putin himself, near
the start of his presidency, remarked:
“Unless we make a serious effort, the
Russians in the border regions will
have to speak Chinese, Japanese, and
Korean in a few decades.” But whatever
that “serious effort” might entail for
the symbiosis of the two nuclear powers, it must accommodate the thinning
Siberian populace who fear that Moscow has abandoned them. A census in
2010 numbered the inhabitants of Russia’s Far East at a mere 6.3 million—
one of the sparsest populations in the
world—while the three abutting provinces across the river to the south are
home to 110 million Chinese. Ziegler,
confronting this question on his final
page, at last wonders:
Some [Siberians] are already
thinking through the consequences. If Russia can tear up
agreements and treaties to grab
Crimea, what kind of an example
does that set for an increasingly assertive China that might one day
awake to feel longings for its former lands beyond the Amur?
See “Chinese Migrants and AntiChinese Sentiments in Russian Society,” p. 82.
The New York Review
Alexandre Gallery
Tom Uttech, Dibewagendamowin, 2017, oil on
linen, 67 x 73 inches
Tom Uttech: New Paintings
On view through Saturday, November 25, 2017.
with text by Lucy Lippard
Boris Lurie Art Foundation 599 11th
Avenue, Floor 4, New York, NY 10036
Boris Lurie in Havana, a large-scale retrospective survey of Lurie’s work at the
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes La Habana, Cuba will be up through October
and November.
"That art was a perpetual revolution
seemed to him a paltry idea in the face of
Korea, Algeria, McCarthy and the struggle in the South. Out of this ever more
penetrating nausea grew NO!art which
was associated, in those days, with the
idea of social protest and political indignation. Its target was not only art itself,
but the society which could calmly conBORIS LURIE. “Yellow star of
template it while crimes of unspeakable
David over red flag”, c. 1973.
dimensions were being executed every
Acrylic paint on synthetic cloth
day." —Dore Ashton, "Merde, Alors!" in
NO!art: Pin-Ups, Excrement, Protest, Jew-Art, 1988
Not Or, 1998, acrylic on paper, 4 1/4 x 9 1/4”
Victoria Munroe Fine Art 67 East 80th Street #2, New York, NY 10075;;;
(917) 900-6661; Wednesday–Saturday 11-5 p.m. and by appointment.
Opening November 1 through December 22, 2017 Victoria Munroe Fine
Art presents intimate and large scale paintings by Pat Adams whose
last show in New York City was in 2008 at Zabriskie Gallery where she
exhibited for 5 decades. In her lyrical, abstract compositions Adams
imagines transformations of matter. Grinding eggshell, mica and carborundum into oil paint, her sparkling medium evokes dust of the cosmos.
Lazy Susan Gallery 191 Henry
Street; (917) 650-7287; www.; Gallery hours:
Wednesday–Sunday, 12–6 p.m.
& by appointment.
Pasadena Leaves is a solo exhibition of new photographs by
Tom Bovo, portraying autumnal
leaves from Pasadena, California.
"Untitled" (2017) by Tom Bovo.
October 26, 2017
John Davis Gallery
362 ½ Warren Street,
Hudson, NY 12534;
(518) 828-5907; art@;
La Wilson, Constructions, 10.14–11.08
La Wilson, Landscapes, 2008, mixed media, 11 x
"I try to steer clear of
18.5 x 2 inches
objects that are too
loaded with meaning; but then, when I think about it, everything I use
is loaded—snakes, pencils, firecrackers, matches, hair pins. What I try
to do is free myself from the conscious associations so that the unconscious ones can take over. I am much more interested in what I don't
know than what I do know."
Hugo Galerie 472 West
Broadway, New York, NY
10012; (212) 226-2262;;
Marc Chalmé: Dans
l’écho du réel
Artist Reception: Saturday November 4, 2017,
Marc Chalmé, L'eau et les rêves, 2017, oil on
6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
canvas, 63" x 95"
Exhibition: November 4
though November 26. Chalmé creates mysterious landscapes, still-lifes
and figurative pieces. He has mastered his approach to these subjects.
Perhaps one of the most impressive and notable aspects of his work
is his handling of light, which is, at times, almost eerie; the light often
seems to glow organically from within the painting and the viewer can
nearly feel its warmth. The shadows and sense of depth are handled in
such a way that the viewer is invited into the painting, into the room. This
innate ability to understand the complexities of light and shadow, and
render the subtleties with such talent, is exceptionally rare.
Smithsonian’s National Museum of
the American Indian One Bowling
Green, New York, NY
10004;; Free Admission.
Through video proAnsel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,
silver print, 1941, printed circa 1965. Estimate $80,000
sound art, interactive
to $120,000.
digital media, performance, and installation, Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound
presents the work of ten artists who reflect on their place in and between traditional and dominant cultures, demonstrating the continuity
of indigenous cultures and creativity in the digital age. Transformer
presents works by Jordan Bennett (Mi'kmaq), Raven Chacon (Diné),
Jon Corbett (Métis), Marcella Ernest (Ojibwe), Stephen Foster (Haida),
Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit), Julie Nagam (Anishnawbe/Métis), Marianne
Nicolson (Kwakwaka'wakw), Keli Mashburn (Osage), and Kevin McKenzie (Cree/Métis). Open Nov. 10, 2017, to Jan. 6, 2019.
Swann Auction Galleries
104 East 25th Street, New
York, NY 10010; (212) 2544710;
Upcoming Auction: “Old
Master Through Modern
Prints,” November 2; Preview: October 28 to November 1. With stunning works
by Heironymous Bosch,
Paul Cadmus, Albrecht
Edward Hopper, The Lonely House, etching,
1923. Estimate $150,000 to $200,000.
Dürer, Edvard Munch and
Rembrandt van Rijn, this
auction offers rare and museum-quality prints from the fifteenth to
twentieth centuries. Gritty urban scenes by Edward Hopper are complemented by a suite of seasonal etchings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. An
important collection of works by Will Barnet provides whimsy and color.
Andrei Kushnir Studio /
American Painting Fine
Art 5125 MacArthur Blvd.,
NW, Washington, DC
20016; (202) 244-3244;;
Wednesday through Saturday, 11 AM to 7 PM, and
by appointment or chance.
Andrei Kushnir, Late Snow, 14” x 20” Oil on
October 7 through NoCanvas
vember 11: BLUE RIDGE
Paintings, New works by plein air painter Andrei Kushnir, featuring the
Shenandoah Valley as viewed from the Skyline Drive, Virginia. A full
color catalog with plates of all 20 works, poems by Michele Martin Taylor, and pricelist of all paintings, is available upon request. Our gallery
is dedicated to the finest work in landscape, still life, genre, urban, and
marine art by current traditional American painters, many with national
reputations, including recent works by Andrei Kushnir (Landscape and
Marine), Michele Martin Taylor (Post-Impressionist), David Baise (NYC
Watercolors and Acrylics), Carol Spils (Archetypal), Michael Francis
(Urban Landscape), and Ross Merrill (Eastern Shore, Western Landscape). Brighten your life with original, museum quality art.
The Drawing Room 66 Newtown
www.d rawi ngroom - g al ler y.c om ;
On view through November 26, The
Drawing Room in East Hampton
presents: selections from MARY
Gardens. A passionate bibliophile,
Bartley is known for her penetrating
photographs inspired by the formal
properties of books and the context
Mary Ellen Bartley, Red Cloth Cover
(Reading Grey Gardens), 2017, archi- of particular collections. In this new
val pigment print, 18 3/4 x 15 inches series, Bartley documents beautifully worn linen books with marvelous titles from the 20th c. library of the storied Beale family. On several
iconic covers the typography has disappeared due to the salty ocean
air. Bartley's photographs preserve these relics of 20th c. book design.
Hours: Friday, Saturday & Sunday 11-5, and by appointment.
Shepherd / W & K Galleries 58 East 79th
Street, New York, NY
10075; (212) 861-4050;
s h e p h e rd ny@ a o l.c o m ;
w w w. s h e p h e rd g a l l e r y.
1871 - 1956
October 26th through
December 22nd.
Thinking Big: Blue Mountain Gallery at Westbeth November 2-25,
55 Bethune Street, New York City
(Four blocks south of the Whitney
Thinking Big addresses the impact
of an artwork’s size in relation to its
thematic concerns. For Gina Sawin,
one of 41 artists represented, birds
offer various ways to consider scale:
against an infinite sky, they are minGina Sawin, 'Migration" 44 x50
ute, yet powerful. In migration, they
cover thousands of miles, marking the globe, while the individual is
made more consequential through the strength of the group. Sawin’s
flock paintings depict micro-moments in the earth’s life cycles. Wednesday through Sunday 12 – 6p.m.
In Praise of Ambiguity
David Bromwich
Ambiguity has been an arresting feature of language ever since people
learned to care about words for reasons
unconnected with utility. An instruction manual on fixing a wheel shouldn’t
leave you uncertain whether a wood
or a metal spoke is preferred. But diplomacy can allow for “strategic ambiguity,” well understood by all parties,
where too much specification would
hamper an agreement.
Ambiguity in literature is a more
elusive thing—not a matter of tacit
meanings suppressed to secure a particular end. An ambiguous moment in
a poem may indicate a suspension between two states of mind, in a situation
where someone confined to either state
could not know the reality of the other.
It commonly turns on a hidden complexity that the reader is prompted to
notice in a single word—for example,
the word “honest” in Othello, as applied to the character of Iago. Or it may
emerge from the cunning deployment
of a genre like pastoral, which induces
readers to reflect on themselves while
looking at something apparently unlike
None of this would have seemed
implausible or unfamiliar to Johnson,
Coleridge, or Hazlitt, the great critics
of the eighteenth and the nineteenth
century. Yet the widespread practice of
“close reading” was only settled in the
mid-twentieth century; and its original
genius and greatest practitioner was
William Empson. His first three books,
Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930),
Some Versions of Pastoral (1935),
and The Structure of Complex Words
(1951), all deal with motives and doubts
of a sort that don’t declare themselves
on the face of a work.
How recondite is this concern? Michael Wood in On Empson picks out a
remarkable sentence from Seven Types
to show the connection between ambiguity in action and in writing:
People, often, cannot have done
both of two things, but they must
have been in some way prepared to
have done either; whichever they
did, they will have still lingering
in their minds the way they would
have preserved their self-respect if
they had acted differently; they are
only to be understood by bearing
both possibilities in mind.
The passage suggests a broader truth.
Empson’s criticism is full of sympathy
for human weakness and blindness,
but this need not coincide with a high
estimation of humanity. He thinks we
are creatures who can’t fully know ourselves: there is a strong parallel here
between Empson on ambiguity and
Freud on the unconscious. Our reasons
are never identical with our motives;
the condition seems incurable. Still, we
are right to want to understand its nature and manifestations.
Empson had a consistent aim as an
educator. “The main purpose of reading imaginative literature,” he wrote
New Directions
On Empson
by Michael Wood.
Princeton University Press,
212 pp., $22.95
William Empson, circa late 1940s
in the Festschrift for his teacher I. A.
Richards, “is to grasp a wide variety
of experience, imagining people with
codes and customs very unlike our
own.” He said it another way in a generalizing passage of his only work of
full-length commentary, Milton’s God
The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realize that other people act on moral
convictions different from your
own. . . . What is more, it has been
thought from Aeschylus to Ibsen
that a literary work may present
a current moral problem, and to
some extent alter the judgement of
those who appreciate it by making
them see the case as a whole.
To make the reader see the case as a
whole, the author must have seen all
around the subject. So if a work celebrates a heroic action, the judgment of
those who appreciate it must be made
to recognize the cost to the hero and
his cause—especially the part of the
cost they fail to understand. The Iliad
does this for the martial valor and vanity that protract the sufferings of the
Trojan War; so does Paradise Lost
when it instructs readers in the ambiguous gift of a freedom achieved through
transgression of God’s law.
Before he wrote his critical books,
Empson had acquired a separate
fame as an avant-garde poet—gaining
admirers in later years from his appearance in a great many anthologies
around midcentury—and though he
stopped writing poems at thirty-four,
his work in verse has an originality as
pronounced as that of his criticism.
Wood dedicates a chapter to interpreting poems in Empson’s early metaphysical manner; but even in his first book
of poems, one may notice a congruence
with the ethical aims of his criticism.
“Homage to the British Museum” addresses—from a perspective of anthropological tolerance—the multiplicity of
religious beliefs. The approach is generous and serenely skeptical; the gods appear, in this setting, as human creations,
not lined up to pick out a single truth,
but struggling differently and wrongly
to satisfy all-too-human cravings:
There is a Supreme God in the
ethnological section;
A hollow toad shape, faced with a
blank shield.
He needs his belly to include the
Which is inserted through a hole
At the navel, at the points
formally stressed, at the organs
of sense,
Lice glue themselves, dolls, local
His smooth wood creeps with all
the creeds of the world.
Attending there let us absorb the
cultures of nations
And dissolve into our judgement
all their codes.
Then, being clogged with a
natural hesitation
(People are continually asking
one the way out),
Let us stand here and admit that
we have no road.
Being everything, let us admit that
is to be something,
Or give ourselves the benefit of
the doubt;
Let us offer our pinch of dust all
to this God,
And grant his reign over the entire
“The world is everything that is the
case,” wrote Wittgenstein, in an aphorism that Empson admired and variously echoed. This poem says that the
knowledge of “all their codes” imparted by science is all we can claim to
understand about the world. The gods
are vapors emitted by our daydreams of
order and omnipotence. In that sense,
a “Supreme God” is ethnologically interesting; satisfactory for those who believe, and harmless to those who don’t.
Empson regards with a detachment
bordering on contempt the part of
human nature that would grant moral
authority to a god; the poem, meanwhile, concedes the picturesqueness of
theology, so long as it doesn’t get out
of hand. But we are also being warned
against the posture of superiority that
an enlightened onlooker is apt to assume: “we have no road,” either, and
our job as spectator-participants is
simply to “attend”—as if religion were
a theatrical performance or a medical
operation. Accordingly we must offer
“our pinch of dust,” the homage of our
own unbelief, to this inadequate symbol of human aspiration that “creeps
with all the creeds of the world.” Two
of Empson’s later poems, “Sonnet” and
“Manchouli,” are carriers of the same
nyone’s experience of reading poetry as difficult as Shakespeare’s or
Milton’s or Hart Crane’s will show how
intricate it can be to work out a basic
sense of the words. An anxious shyness or frustration in the reader, or the
academic wish for a “truth” that will
satisfy the scientists, has sometimes led
to the suggestion that this difficulty can
be solved by referring to the author’s
intention. Doesn’t the writer know best
what his work really means? And can’t
we find out what he wanted us to know?
A theoretical rebuke to any such solution came from the argument of the
New Critics of the 1940s and 1950s
against “the intentional fallacy”: the
work had a life of its own, they said,
not dependent on the author, and neither a writer’s own testimony nor any
amount of circumstantial evidence
could claim automatic authority or exhaust the possibilities of interpretation.
Empson agreed about the difficulty
and inexhaustibility of great writing,
but he thought that commentators who
omitted all talk of intention had gone
too far. They were excluding on principle a kind of knowledge their own
experience and affections could have
Wood admires—from too careful a
distance I think—the speculative freedom that Empson allowed himself in
writing about the intentions of Shakespeare, George Herbert, and many
other poets. The adventurous quality
that sets him apart from other commentators seems hard to regret; if it
The New York Review
makes him rash or unconsciously funny
(as Wood now and then suspects), so
much the worse for seriousness. Thus,
in his late essay on Hamlet, Empson
supports and elaborates the theory that
Shakespeare was working from an “urHamlet” with a stale revenge-plot he
had somehow to breathe life into. Empson here takes his full swing:
He thought: “The only way to shut
this hole is to make it big. I shall
make Hamlet walk up to the audience and tell them, again and
again, ‘I don’t know why I’m delaying any more than you do; the motivation of this play is just as blank
to me as it is to you; but I can’t help
it.’ What is more, I shall make it
impossible for them to blame him.
And then they daren’t laugh.”
There has never been a quicker insight
into the conventional genre Shakespeare inherited and the tremendous
change he wrought.
In Empson’s reading of Hamlet, as
always in his criticism, a generous view
of the entire work is built up from particulars. Consider Horatio’s uneasy
comment when, in the fifth act, Hamlet
reveals that he has procured the deaths
of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “So
Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to’t.”
Empson remarks that “on this mild
hint Hamlet becomes boisterously selfjustifying”—Hamlet says, in fact, that
these deaths “are not near my conscience,” and Horatio comments further, “Why, what a King is this!”
Now, exactly what work is that last
line doing? In his reply to Horatio,
Hamlet says:
Does it not, think’st thee, stand
me now upon—
He that hath killed my king and
whored my mother,
Popped in between th’election and
my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my
proper life,
And with such coz’nage!—is’t not
perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm?
Empson writes:
The repetition of “conscience,” I
think, shows the gleaming eye of
Shakespeare. Critics, so far as I
have noticed, take Horatio’s remark to mean that Claudius is
wicked to try to kill Hamlet, and
this is perhaps what Hamlet thinks
he meant; but I had always assumed, and still do, that he meant
“what a King you have become.”
Hamlet, in short, has become a king indeed and a nasty one, quite comparable
to Claudius.
Try this reading by the practical
test—how would it play?—and Empson’s interpretation comes off markedly superior to the alternative; for
Horatio’s tone here is subdued and
ironic, whereas a reading that blamed
Claudius would be redundantly reassuring to Hamlet—a piece of flattery
out of key with Horatio’s temperament.
Near the end of the essay, Empson
decides that “the eventual question is
whether you can put up with . . . Hamlet, a person who frequently appears in
the modern world”; and he concludes,
“I would always sympathize with anyone who says . . . that he can’t put up
October 26, 2017
with Hamlet at all. But I am afraid it
is within hail of the more painful question whether you can put up with yourself and the race of man.”
Some of Empson’s most inspired
thinking went into his criticism of
Shakespeare; and the essays on King
Lear and Othello in The Structure of
Complex Words show how thoroughly
he favored reading over performance.
But if the words are good enough, they
want to be said in a certain way:
The thing most needed in Shakespeare productions . . . is that the
actors should believe in their words
sufficiently to say them; firmly and
rather coolly, with rhythm and not
much “poetry,” not burying them
under the “acting,” not shuffling
them off in the course of a walk
round the stage with an air of having to take a swim through butter
before the play can proceed.
And yet, some way in back of our
reading we must discern an intention,
a motive, a story under the story, or
what an actor would call a subtext. In
this sense, Empson’s criticism puts him
forward as the most convincing imaginable interpreter of lines that the poet
has supplied—whether the poetry is
dramatic, epic, or lyric. If you are not
saying it this way, he is telling his readers, you are getting the wrong feeling
out of it, a weaker and thinner feeling,
and somehow closer to cliché.
An extraordinary episode in Emp-
son’s long career would emerge from
his claim of just such unconditional
authority. In the late 1940s, when he
was teaching in China, he published
a review of Rosemond Tuve’s Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery, a
book he reports parenthetically having
read alongside two books on Shakespeare’s rhetoric—“comforting things
to have in bed with one while the guns
fired over Peking.” Tuve argued that
Empson had overrated the presence of
ambiguity in Donne and other metaphysical poets; and in a later article,
she supplied an orthodox reading of
Herbert’s poem “The Sacrifice” to refute Empson’s idea that an image of
Christ on the cross as a boy climbing a
tree was a scandal for the Christian believer, a painful proof of the cruelty at
the heart of the faith. The controversy
went on for many years in public and
private correspondence and reached a
climax with Empson’s assertion:
I claim to know not only the traditional background of Herbert’s
poem (roughly but well enough)
but also what was going on in Herbert’s mind while he wrote it, without his knowledge and against his
intention; and if [Tuve] says that I
cannot know such things, I answer
that that is what critics do, and that
she too ought to have “la clef de
cette parade sauvage.”
He was hardly more concessive in his
disagreements with F. R. Leavis, Raymond Williams, C. S. Lewis, Frank
Kermode, and Helen Gardner.
His interest in the probable motives
of a writer—the “story” to be discerned
behind the most condensed and impersonal of poems—led Empson into a
uniquely perceptive train of thought on
the anti- Semitic lines in the published
Hermann Karnau is a sound engineer obsessed with
recording the human voice—the rantings of leaders,
the roar of crowds, the rasp of throats constricted in
fear—and indifferent to everything else. Employed by
Ulli Lust the Nazis, he finds himself in the household of Joseph
Based on a novel by Goebbels, where he meets Helga, the eldest daughter:
Marcel Beyer bright, good-natured, and just beginning to suspect the
Translated from the German horror that surrounds her.
by John Brownjohn
with Nika Knight The first fictional graphic novel by the award-winning
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an unlikely friendship and of a childhood betrayed, a
grim parable of naïveté and evil, and a tour de force
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“Following her award-winning graphic novel memoir Today
Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life, Lust adapts
The Karnau Tapes, Beyer’s dense, dark novel set during the collapse of the Third Reich. She is more than
up to the task, transmuting the material with visual
imagination and insight. . . . It’s a rare adaptation that,
rather than simply transcribing the source material,
transcends it.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
Available in bookstores, call
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“The illustration style and muted color palette (like an aged
newspaper) achieve a haunting realism. . . . Stunning.”
—Kirkus, starred review
“Elizabeth Hardwick, long recognized as
one of the great literary critics of the 20th
century, is generously represented by this
selection of her eloquent, erudite, chatty,
and often very witty essays and reviews, with a
warmly sympathetic and informative introduction by Darryl Pinckney.” —Joyce Carol Oates
Elizabeth Hardwick wrote during the golden age
of the American literary essay. For Hardwick, the
essay was an imaginative endeavor, a serious
form, criticism worthy of the literature in question. In the essays collected here she covers civil
rights demonstrations in the 1960s, describes
places where she lived and locations she visited,
and writes about the foundations of American
literature—Melville, James, Wharton—and the
changes in American fiction, though her reading
is wide and international. She contemplates
writers’ lives—women writers, rebels, Americans
abroad—and the literary afterlife of biographies,
letters, and diaries.
The Collected Essays gathers more than fifty essays
for a retrospective of Hardwick’s work from 1953 to
2003. “For Hardwick,” writes Pinckney, “the poetry
and novels of America hold the nation’s history.”
Here is an exhilarating chronicle of that history.
Selected and introduced by
Darryl Pinckney
“How crucial it is to have Hardwick’s
Collected Essays now. For they are
incorruptible. Their intelligence is
prodigious, but never boastful.
This major American writer dares,
inspires, and cajoles us into reading
and writing with renewed conviction
and resistance to the meretricious.”
—Catharine R. Stimpson
Available in bookstores, call
(646) 215-2500, or visit
Tuesday, October 17th, 7pm
Barnard College, Sulzberger Parlor, Barnard Hall
3009 Broadway (at 117th Street), 3rd Floor
With Darryl Pinckney, Saskia Hamilton,
Daphne Merkin, and Susan Minot
Wednesday, October 18th, 7:30pm
Brooklyn Public Library, Central Library, Dweck Center
10 Grand Army Plaza
With Darryl Pinckney and Stephanie Danler
Wednesday, November 1st, 7pm
Presented by 192 Books
Paula Cooper Gallery, 534 W 21st Street
With Darryl Pinckney, Margo Jefferson,
and Sigrid Nunez
Sunday, November 19th, 11am
92nd Street Y, Weill Art Gallery
1295 Lexington Avenue
With Darryl Pinckney
John Wilson Foster
draft of The Waste Land. “The young
Eliot,” says Empson,
had a good deal of simple old St.
Louis brashness; half the time,
when the impressionable English were saying how wonderfully
courageous and original he was to
come out with some crashingly reactionary remark, he was just saying what any decent man would say
back home in St. Louis—if he was
well heeled and had a bit of culture. . . . [In The Waste Land] Eliot
wanted to grouse about his father,
and lambasted some imaginary
Jews instead.
This is a story of flocks of birds so vast
they made the sky invisible. It is also a
story of a collapse into extinction.
Empson goes on to say that Eliot’s
grandfather “went to St. Louis as a
missionary preaching Unitarianism”;
that “Unitarians describe themselves
as Christians but deny that Jesus was
God”; and so the inference becomes
In the fate of the North American passenger pigeon we can read much of the
story of wild America—the astonishment that accompanied its discovery,
the allure of its natural productions,
the ruthless exploitation of its commodities, and the ultimate betrayal of
its peculiar genius. And in the bird’s
fate can be read the essential vulnerability of species and the unpredictable
passage of life itself. A morality tale
for our times, this is a compelling and
deeply researched chronicle of the last
years of the passenger pigeon.
Now if you are hating a purseproud business man who denies
that Jesus is God, into what stereotype does he best fit? He is a
Jew, of course; and yet this would
be a terrible blasphemy against
his family and its racial pride, so
much so that I doubt whether Eliot
ever allowed himself to realise
what he was doing. But he knows,
in the poem, that everything has
gone wrong with the eerie world to
which the son is condemned.
On sale October 10th
An innocent reader might talk of what
“the author is telling me”; an aesthete, purified of the author’s intentions, would perhaps want to say “the
poem knows”; and the difference in
Empson’s way of putting it is instructive. The poet, he says, “knows, in the
Introduction by Gyles Brandreth
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or visit
mpson’s three separate intervals of
teaching in the Far East occurred from
necessity as well as choice. Near the
end of an undergraduate career with
distinction in mathematics and English, he had been thrown out of Cambridge when condoms (“love engines”)
were discovered in his rooms. Conventional employment closer to home became as unlikely as it was undesired.
At the same time, his nature was congenial to life at the frontiers, where he
could witness close-up a “heartening
fact” about cultures remote from the
English, namely “their appalling stubbornness.” From 1931 to 1934 he held
positions at Tokyo University of Literature and Science and Tokyo Imperial
University; from 1937 to 1939 in the
makeshift universities of China under
siege; and after returning to England
during the war years, from 1947 to 1952
at Peking National University.
In London during the 1940s, he
broadcast alongside his friend George
Orwell for the BBC Overseas Service. “My second volume of verse The
Gathering Storm,” he wrote in a letter, “means by the title just what Winston Churchill did when he stole it, the
gradual sinister confusing approach to
the Second World War.” And again in
another letter: “I gave up writing for
ten years because I really thought allied propaganda important.” When his
colleagues and students in China had
to adapt quickly to the military and
political changes, Empson lent a hand
where he could, and in a way that no
one else could have done. As a witness of that period testified, what they
chiefly required was books, and “Empson, without saying anything, typed out
Shakespeare’s Othello from memory.”
It was in these years, too, that he composed the study of the Buddha’s faces,
the manuscript of which was recovered
after his death and has recently been
published.* It is a work of comparative
ethnology that is altogether compatible, as Wood takes care to notice, with
Empson’s concern that we see two sides
of a question or a complex state of mind
in a speaker. The complex state, in this
account, often appears in the two sides
of the face of the Buddha. “It will be
agreed,” Empson wrote in a draft digest of his theory, “that a good deal of
the startling and compelling quality
of these faces comes from their combining things that seem incompatible,
especially a complete repose with an
active power to help the worshipper.”
The strength of On Empson is to
demonstrate by well- chosen quotations
and commentary “the verve and provocation of Empson’s writing”; criticism
and poetry are dealt with in separate
sections, but Wood makes us aware
that the mind at work is the same in
both idioms; and his treatment of Empson’s essay “Honest in Othello” has a
marvelous immediacy. Empson, says
Wood, is writing here “about meanings that are very close to a word,” and
Wood himself brings life to the strangest of imaginative conjectures, namely
that a dubious word may “take the
stage” and displace a character who has
less reality than the stray and shifting
words spoken by and about him.
has been supposed by scholars
who set a high value on cleverness
that Empson cherished ambiguity and
complex words for their own sake. The
truth is that the struggle with words,
for him, had a psychological dimension
that went beyond any intellectual satisfaction. “The poem,” he said once in an
interview, “is a kind of clinical object,
done to prevent [the poet] from going
mad”; and he said the same, in other
words, in two of his best known poems,
“Missing Dates” and “Let It Go.” One
can imagine him agreeing with the last
sentences of R. G. Collingwood’s Principles of Art, which speak of art as an
almost medical remedy against “the
corruption of consciousness.”
Empson’s own poems seek a resting
place they know to be temporary, and
they are written under immense pressure. “All losses haunt us,” he says in
one poem: “It was a reprieve/Made
Dostoevsky talk out queer and clear.”
And his great poems all seem to be
about loss. The most dryly intimate and
commanding from start to finish are
“Villanelle” and “Aubade”; but when
Empson wrote about pain, “queer and
clear,” it was often in an abstract idiom
that held back almost every connective
clue to personal experience.
“The Teasers” seems to share the existentialist mood of the time, as Empson later admitted somewhat ruefully,
and its central argument and motive
are plain enough. Our acts are governed, as if from a place beyond us,
by a pattern or fate we can only dimly
*William Empson, The Face of the
Buddha, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith
(Oxford University Press, 2016).
make out, and with which nonetheless
we cannot fail to cooperate:
Not but they die, the teasers and
the dreams,
Not but they die,
and tell the
careful flood
To give them what they clamour
for and why.
You could not fancy where they
rip to blood
You could not fancy
nor that mud
I have heard speak that will not
cake or dry.
Our claims to act appear so small
to these
Our claims to act
colder lunacies
That cheat the love, the moment,
the small fact.
Make no escape because they
flash and die,
Make no escape
build up your love,
Leave what you die for and be
safe to die.
The ending is stoical: it is never “safe”
to die, of course, and the flatness of the
irony there is chilling. When once you
have separated yourself from every
cause, however, and given up the idea
of escape, you are alone with whatever
love you have built up and there is a
kind of reprieve in that solitude. It is as
true as Sartre’s aphorism “we are left
alone, without excuse”—and perhaps
less tinged by melodrama. The tenor
of the poem is desolate, but the feeling
is of an achieved equilibrium: nothing
more needs to be said. And it may have
been this undertone of his poetry that
commended it to the Movement poets
of the 1950s: Thom Gunn, Kingsley
Amis, D. J. Enright. Philip Larkin’s
clinching line in a characteristic poem,
“Nothing, like something, happens
anywhere,” could be a repeated line in
a villanelle by Empson.
When I started reading him in 1968,
Empson had written most of what he
was going to write but had chosen to
publish only four books of criticism
and his Collected Poems. Thanks to the
scholarly labors of his biographer John
Haffenden, and the critical interest incited by Christopher Ricks, Paul Fry,
Christopher Norris, and others, we now
have fourteen books by my count—not
including Haffenden’s edition of Selected Letters, Jim McCue’s chapbook
of the brilliant undergraduate reviews
he contributed to the Cambridge magazine Granta, and the finely made selection Coleridge’s Verse, edited by
Empson and David Pirie, for which he
wrote a major introductory essay.
If you want to know what critical
writing in English can be, these make
a large proportion of the short list
of books you will want to have; and
Wood’s On Empson offers the most fluent guidance imaginable to the genius
and the ingenuity of the man. Candor
in argument and a nervous susceptibility to shades of meaning are among the
traits one encounters everywhere in
his writing, but there is another quality he conveys without trying. One of
the feelings you have when you read his
criticism is elation. This is not a matter
of a particular insight, observation, or
epigram. It can last for pages.
The New York Review
Routine Horrors
Helene Cooper
When I was twelve years old, a new
man-about-town arrived in Monrovia,
the city of my birth. His name was Captain Stevens, he had a mysterious job in
the United States military, and he had
just been detailed to the American embassy in Mamba Point. He showed up
at parties hosted by my aunt and uncle,
sipped cognac, and charmed the Liberian ladies, who all whispered about
the handsome African-American military officer.
What I would find out two years later
was that Captain Stevens was spending
much of his time in Liberia meeting
with disaffected men in the Liberian
military who were plotting to overthrow the government. A century and a
half of rule by the descendants of freed
American slaves who had established
themselves as the ruling elite while
the rest of the country made do with
scraps meant that Liberia was ripe for
a coup, one that would be supported,
at least in the beginning, by most of the
President William R. Tolbert, the
latest heir to the dynasty begun by the
freed slaves who founded the country, had been cozying up to the Soviet
Union, even approving the opening, in
Monrovia, of a Soviet embassy. In 1980,
during the height of the cold war, when
African countries were seen by American officials as being allies of either the
US or Russia, it was anathema indeed
to the American government for Liberia to even consider such a thing.
And so it was that on the night of
April 12, 1980, when twenty-eight enlisted soldiers in the Armed Forces of
Liberia stormed the executive mansion, killed the presidential guards, and
disemboweled Tolbert in his pajamas,
there was not much outrage coming
out of the American embassy. When
Tolbert’s minister of foreign affairs,
Cecil Dennis, arrived at the embassy
a few hours later to ask for sanctuary,
he was turned away. He later surrendered to Liberia’s new military government, which executed him—along
with twelve other former government
officials—on the beach by firing squad
ten days later.
And Liberia? The country plunged
into eight years of mismanagement,
brutality, and tit-for-tat ethnic killings under its new American-backed
president, the former master sergeant Samuel K. Doe. The US kept
Doe’s government afloat with a flood
of American dollars, and when Doe
ran out of those, he just ordered his
printing presses to issue Liberian
dollars. The Liberian currency, once
pegged to the dollar, quickly became
Doe soon turned on many of the
men who helped him storm the executive mansion and executed them one
by one, accusing them of trying to kill
him. When one of his former friends
snuck into the country from exile
and tried to seize the government,
the president had him hunted down
October 26, 2017
Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Another Fine Mess:
America, Uganda,
and the War on Terror
by Helen C. Epstein.
Columbia Global Reports,
262 pp., $14.99 (paper)
President Yoweri Museveni, Entebbe, Uganda, November 2007
and executed; his body was paraded
through the streets of Monrovia before being chopped into pieces and put
on public display. Then Doe went on a
manhunt, finding and killing as many
members of his rival’s ethnic group as
he could.
Through it all, the United States continued to back Doe. The Reagan administration invited him to the White
House. President Reagan mistakenly
called him “Moe” instead of “Doe,”
causing hilarity among journalists and
Liberian expats. But the White House,
the State Department, and Congress
continued disbursing the checks that
kept the Doe regime afloat—right up
until 1990, when Doe himself was executed by the warlord Prince Johnson
at the start of a civil war that would last
more than thirteen years and kill more
than 200,000 people in Liberia and
neighboring countries.
Helen Epstein’s Another Fine Mess:
America, Uganda, and the War on Terror makes no mention of Liberia—it is
preoccupied by events three thousand
miles away, in the Uganda of Yoweri
Museveni, the strongman who has ruled
there for more than thirty years. But
Epstein’s absorbing book is a damning
indictment of the American hypocrisy
that has been on display across Africa
since the Europeans packed up and left
as colonialism collapsed after World
War II.
A public health consultant who has
spent many years talking to and writing about many of the dissidents who
have opposed strongman rule in East
Africa, Epstein has compiled a catalog of almost every arrest, kidnapping, and execution engineered by
Museveni and his goons—all while
America looked the other way. She examines the billions of dollars that have
poured into the country ostensibly to
fight AIDS and poverty but that have
ended up financing Museveni and his
military, professed allies to a series of
American administrations, from Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Bush Jr. to
The East Africa presented by Epstein is a lawless place ruled by corrupt and criminal masterminds, going
back to the British. “In Acholiland,
Acting Commissioner J. R. P. Postlethwaite, nicknamed ‘chicken thief’ by
the Acholi, publicly strung up a rebellious chief and lowered him headfirst
into a pit latrine until he died,” Epstein
In a British-backed operation
against the Bavuma people, “such
was the enormity of the slaughter,”
wrote historian Michael Twaddle,
“that, not only were sections of
Lake Victoria ‘all blood,’ there
were so many dead bodies bobbing
up and down in the water that their
heads resembled a multitude of upturned cooking pots.”
And that was before Museveni even
came to power. Early in his career, he
served in rebellions that toppled first
Idi Amin and then Milton Obote. His
National Resistance Army commit-
ted wartime atrocities of its own in
the fight against Obote, but American
government officials paid attention instead to Obote’s slaughters, and there
were many. By the time the war was
over, America and the West had endorsed an account of Museveni as a
peace-loving national hero of the people, Epstein writes. “A series of glowing tributes to Museveni” appeared in
Western newspapers. “Polite Guerrillas End Fourteen years of Torture and
Killing” read one headline; “The Pearl
of Africa Shines Again” read another.
According to his admirers, Museveni
was Robin Hood, Che Guevara, and
Field Marshal Montgomery all rolled
into one.
Museveni swept into office hailed
by the West as one of a new generation of African leaders who could
be trusted with IMF loans that would
secure economic relief for his country. Joseph Kony and his murderous
Lord’s Resistance Army, which rose
up in opposition to Museveni’s government, were the bad guys—the Obama
administration would spend almost
$800 million on a futile effort to capture the notorious Kony, deploying
Special Operations forces, intelligence,
and logistical assistance to Uganda and
to the African Union soldiers fighting the group. They were able to diminish his army, which now consists
of around one hundred people, down
from a former fighting force of three
But they never found Kony, and in
May of this year a group of Ugandan
and American military officials flew
from Entebbe to the remote town of
Obo, in the southeastern part of the
Central African Republic, to participate in a ceremony organized by
Uganda to mark the end of the mission to capture or kill him—in essence
celebrating something that was never
or a native African, it is both disheartening and infuriating to see one’s
entire continent portrayed by the US
government as a dumping ground for
produce American farmers can’t sell
disguised as food aid (the US Department of Agriculture); a classroom for
junior diplomats-in-training to offer up
their platitudes about democracy (the
State Department); or the next front
in the battle against radical Islam (the
Pentagon). But really, as Africans, how
can we expect better given what we’ve
done to ourselves? In the years after
the Europeans finally left, we revived
all that was bad about the West, from
racism to cronyism to privilege, while
ostentatiously rejecting the worthier
aspects of Western civilization, including support for democratic institutions
and a more liberal approach to things
like sexual preference and women’s
In many African countries it became accepted as pro-African to reject
Western notions of equality for homosexuals. When, in 2009, Ugandan Parliamentarian David Bahati introduced
his anti-homosexuality act, which would
punish gays with the death penalty,
there was hardly a word of criticism
from elsewhere on the continent—other
“As if Chekhov had written Lolita . . . I
would contend that in its own felicitous
small-scale way, Other Men’s Daughters
is to. . . the sixties what The Great
Gatsby was to the twenties, The Grapes
of Wrath to the thirties, and Rabbit Is
Rich to the seventies: a microscope
exactly focused on a definitive specimen
of what was once the present American
—Philip Roth, from the Introduction
Dr. Robert Merriwether teaches at
Harvard in the 1960s. One summer,
while his wife and children are away
on vacation, he begins an affair with
a student, which is later aided and
abetted by her father. The affair ultimately destroys Merriwether's family.
In Other Men’s Daughters we find a
chronicle of the attitudes and mores
of a bygone era, and a moving portrait
of the destructive powers of love.
“A novel so good it would have
been one of the most valid
contenders for the Great American
Novel of the decade. It may have
achieved in a sane, civilized,
academic and romantic way what
its showier contemporaries miss by
a mile.” —Ann Rosenberg,
The Philadelphia Inquirer
“It is a pleasure to find a novel
written with such intelligence and
feeling, a novel that judges none
of its people but holds them up to
calm and affectionate scrutiny. Other
Men’s Daughters. . . is ‘relevant’—
but its real subject is in the disruptions and exaltation of the human
heart.” —Jonathan Yardley,
The Washington Post Book World
Richard Stern
Introduction by Philip Roth
Afterword by Wendy Doniger
Paperback and e-book • $15.95
Thursday, November 16th, 7pm
Seminary Co-op
5751 S Woodlawn Avenue
Chicago, IL
Alane Rollings, Wendy Doniger, and
Richard Strier will be in conversation.
Available in bookstores, call (646) 215-2500,
or visit
countries were too busy rushing to pass
their own anti-sodomy laws.
And it became accepted as proAfrican to reject Western notions of
free democratic processes. I can’t quite
keep track of the number of times
Museveni stood for elections and then
pronounced himself the winner, or
coerced judges into declaring him so,
in spite of obvious improprieties. The
United States and Museveni’s other
Western backers looked the other way
again and again when democracy activists in Uganda were beaten or disappeared completely, usually under
mysterious circumstances.
But it’s not as if other Africans stood
up against the sham elections. Across
the continent, Museveni’s fellow presidents were either too busy rigging their
own elections or seeing to their own
political survival, at whatever cost, to
question election results and the court
rulings supporting them that consistently seemed to ignore what actually
happened at the polls.
It became perfectly acceptable, in
fact, for leaders to stay in office for
decades, treating their citizenry as if
it were eager to see a despot embodying their national aspirations. Paul
Biya, in Cameroon, has been president
since 1982. Idriss Déby has ruled Chad
since 1990. Robert Mugabe has headed
Zimbabwe since 1987.
While Epstein should be lauded
for the time she spends in her book
taking the Americans—and the British—to task for all that both countries
have done to perpetuate the mess in
Uganda, I wish she had done more to
hold Africans to account for their own
misdeeds. These are our countries, our
presidents; at the end of the day it’s up
to us to figure out how to fix this. The
days of blaming all of the continent’s
many woes on the European colonizers
should be at an end; we’ve done plenty
pstein is a molecular biologist by
training, but Another Fine Mess, while
dense, is leavened somewhat by the
presence of the Ugandan journalist
Lawrence Kiwanuka Nsereko as her
Ishmael. Epstein calls him by his first
name, sharing with the reader their
familiarity, and his improbable life reveals the human consequences of the
disasters she describes.
At the time Another Fine Mess was
written, Lawrence had been chased out
of Uganda and was living in Poughkeepsie, New York. But before he
boarded a flight to JFK, he was, in Epstein’s words,
a child soldier, a reporter, an editor, a democracy activist, and a
political candidate. He’d seen
his newspaper offices ransacked,
his party headquarters torched,
friends and colleagues killed. He’d
been arrested and tortured and
narrowly escaped assassination
All that occurred before he was forty.
Through Lawrence, we join the
Uganda Freedom Movement as part of
the opposition against Obote, the president who preceded Museveni. We travel
with Lawrence to northern Uganda,
near the Sudanese border, where, at
Kalongo Hospital, we meet a teenage girl whose ears and lower lip have
been cut off. This particular mutilation,
Lawrence knows, is preferred by Kony’s
LRA. But we are puzzled, along with
Lawrence, by two things the girl tells us:
the men who attacked her were better
dressed than Kony’s ragtag rebels, and
they didn’t speak Acholi, the language
of the LRA. Most likely, the men who attacked her belonged to Museveni.
Lawrence rashly mentions what the
girl has told him later that night to
a group of journalists, one of whom
would soon be appointed Museveni’s
press secretary. “When Lawrence returned to the hospital the next day,”
writes Epstein, “the girl was gone. The
nurses said she’d been taken away for
further treatment, but they didn’t know
where. She remains on his conscience
to this day.”
We actually could use a bit more of
Lawrence in Another Fine Mess. The
ters, sixteen and eight, from a similar
fate. I remember her recounting what
had happened a few days later, after
my family fled from our isolated house
to town, where my mom believed the
safety of numbers might protect us.
At my cousins’ house, where we took
refuge, we ran into Captain Stevens
It’s been more than thirty years but
I can still remember that exchange.
My mom, my grandmother, and my
uncle, all on the front porch, talking to
Captain Stevens. My sisters and cousins and I eavesdropped on them from
the living room window.
“The soldiers told me that if I didn’t
go downstairs with them, they would
rape my daughters,” my mom told
Captain Stevens. “There were three
of them. At first, one soldier tried to
stop the others, but he gave up soon.
The last thing he said to me before he
Magnum Photos
Sanniquellie, Liberia, 2006; photograph by Tim Hetherington
passages about him are alive in a way
the rest of the book is not. The recitations of Museveni’s evil and American
complicity can occasionally become
monotonous, reducing the effect of
some of their horrors. The rape of local
women by Congolese rebels so that the
women would produce future child
soldiers to fight Tutsis—and Rwandabacked Tutsi rebels mutilating the
same women by ramming them with
guns to prevent them from ever conceiving again—are described almost
I had to reread Epstein’s paragraph
on that subject three times. But perhaps that is her intention—to convey
the almost routine prevalence of the
horrors these women experienced on
a daily basis. The quote she uses to
punctuate this story—“As one survivor
told journalist Paul Ndiho, ‘I’ve been
violated so many times I feel part of me
is not my body’”—does not come close
to capturing the magnitude of what
these women endured. But who could
do so? In the end, perhaps Epstein
makes the right choice, to detail
the never-ending violations inflicted
upon innocents without delving too
When the United States backed Samuel Doe in his coup against the ruling
Liberian elite in 1980, it was also implicitly backing the nine years of reprisal killings and rapes that followed,
which then led to another fourteen
years of civil war.
I remember my mom, who was raped
by Doe’s soldiers as she fought to protect me, a thirteen-year-old, and my sis-
raped me was, ‘You think the Americans are going to come and help you?
Well, they back us.’”
When she said that part, she looked
straight at Captain Stevens. He looked
back at her for a moment, and then he
looked away.
And yet we ran away to America. It
was to the American embassy in Monrovia that my mom went every day to try
to get us visas. It took almost a month
but eventually she got tourist visas for
us. It was a Pan Am plane that we got
on, eventually ending up in Knoxville,
Lawrence’s journey to Poughkeepsie
is a little more mysterious than mine, in
Epstein’s telling. After years in and out
of jail, and with Museveni spies tracking his every move, he suddenly turned
up on the doorstep of a Catholic priest
in Nairobi, Kenya. Back in Uganda,
his father was brutally beaten. Lawrence met with US embassy officials
who seemed only to care about who
had leaked to him a letter his newspaper published that suggested that the
US was involved in a plan to topple
Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of the
Democratic Republic of Congo and a
nemesis of Museveni.
Lawrence didn’t reveal his source
and somehow, mysteriously, got a ticket
to New York, where two men—we’re
not told who—drove him to LaGuardia
and sent him to Boston, and then Newburgh, New York, where he was met
by someone who drove him to Poughkeepsie. He eventually ended up in his
own place there, and teaches school.
America to the rescue.
The New York Review
Corrective Affinities
Neal Ascherson
by Hans Magnus Enzensberger,
translated from the German
by Mike Mitchell.
Seagull, 320 pp., $27.50
New Selected Poems
by Hans Magnus Enzensberger,
translated from the German by
David Constantine, Hans Magnus
Enzensberger, Michael Hamburger,
and Esther Kinsky.
Bloodaxe, 400 pp., $35.00 (paper)
(distributed in the US by Dufour)
mostly poetry but including essays,
plays, and prose works. The Silences of
Hammerstein (2009), a marvelous collage of history, recollection, and fiction,
was his most recent success in English
In 1965 Enzensberger cofounded
and edited Kursbuch, for some years
the most influential journal of ideas
in the former West Germany, and he
helped launch the always-absorbing
book series Die Andere Bibliothek.
Like Goethe, he has acquired languages with greed, translating from
English, Italian, Spanish, Swedish,
version of rules, an escape from dogmas (including the tyranny of hope), a
journey of searches, disappointments,
and painful displacements. He is emphatically not a guru who thinks he is
Goethe. Reducing this endlessly lively
and elusive man to a statue on a pedestal simply invites the pigeons to settle
on his head and gag him with guano.
Tumult is much more interesting
than an autobiography. Its four deliberately chaotic main sections revisit periods in his past; they are based on old
notebooks, diaries, scribbles, and letters that have been critically edited and
Bob Peterson/Life Images Collection/Getty Images
Mr Zed’s Reflections:
or Breadcrumbs He Dropped,
Gathered Up by His Listeners
by Hans Magnus Enzensberger,
translated from the German
by Wieland Hoban.
Seagull, 172 pp., $21.00
Writing with the Words of Others:
Essays on the Poetry of
Hans Magnus Enzensberger
by Alan J. Clayton.
Würzburg: Königshausen
and Neumann,
271 pp. (2010)
“Waiting for Goethe” has been a habit
of tired German intellectuals over the
generations. Will this ascendant sage or
that once-young hell-raiser grown venerable turn out to be the giant of Weimar come again? As a waste of time,
the habit is nearly but not quite harmless. It’s an excuse for not taking the
trouble to read contemporary writers
and thinkers closely. Is one of them the
new Goethe or not? At this question,
any book review editor should reach
for the rejection slips. But even now,
not all do.
Both left and right can harbor this
cargo cult in the back of their minds. I
remember the late Günter Grass being
heckled in Berlin as he tried to dampen
the revolutionary ecstasy of students in
1968. They shouted him down:
Grass, du Kröte,
Halt dich nicht für Goethe!
[Grass, you toad,
Don’t imagine you’re Goethe!]
He was furious, partly because being
booed was a nasty new experience to
him, but mostly because he, at least,
never did think of himself in that way.
Some readers—for a time—came to
consider him “Germany’s conscience,”
but nobody tried to canonize him as a
supreme arbiter of European literature
and ethics. Now, however, German literary journalists are trying to attach
the G-word to the work, influence, and
personality of somebody else: Hans
Magnus Enzensberger.
Skeptical, with a quite English knack
for self- deprecation, Enzensberger
would politely hand that laurel wreath
back while trying not to laugh. All the
same, although the two writers don’t
fit together into anything like a resemblance, there are a few similarities. Now
in his mid- eighties, Enzensberger has
survived to become the most revered
living figure in German literature. His
productivity in published work is stupendous: something like sixty books,
October 26, 2017
Walter Höllerer, Susan Sontag, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger,
Princeton University, April 1966
and Norwegian, to name a few, and his
sovereign translations of his own work
into English are sometimes better than
their originals. His scholarly learning
in literature, history, and politics is profound. And he is one of the vanishingly
few imaginative writers—even in the
twenty-first century—who has bothered to make himself scientifically and
mathematically literate. There, too, he
shares a virtue with that polymath of
Weimar. (I remember going to an exhibition in Weimar, in the time of the
Communist “Democratic Republic,”
that presented Goethe as a pioneering
theoretician of sanitary engineering.)
there the comparisons should
stop. Awe is absolutely the wrong mood
for understanding this often playful,
sometimes inconsistent, almost always
ironic writer. Alan Clayton in Writing
with the Words of Others (2010) quotes
the Berlin critic Norbert Bolz:
Nobody writes better. So it’s a
wise idea not to attempt a “critique” of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, because that implies that
one is measuring oneself against
an incomparably successful author
of matchless intelligence—and
thereby making oneself ridiculous.
It’s hard not to feel that one has already
made oneself ridiculous with remarks
like that. Enzensberger’s whole life has
been an evasion of superlatives, a sub-
*Reviewed in these pages by Adam
Kirsch, June 10, 2010.
written up into memoir form. At the
end of each section comes a retrospective “postscript,” dated in the twentyfirst- century present, and a poem.
The first episode begins in 1963:
“Notes on a First Encounter with Russia.” The reader meets Enzensberger as
plainly a young, sharply observant man,
but might not realize how well known
he already was in West Germany. Tumult reveals almost nothing about his
previous life, beyond stating that “for
many years” he had been married to
his Norwegian wife, Dagrun, and living on an island in the Oslo Fjord with
their daughter, Tanaquil. Old enough
to have witnessed World War II—he
was fifteen when Hitler’s Reich collapsed—he had been recognized as
one of the most talented of the young
postwar poets. Defense of the Wolves
(1957), his first collection, was an angrily left-wing and stylistically radical
anthology whose first edition included
a flyer defining his poems as “graffiti,
posters, leaflets, scratched into a wall,
pasted onto a wall. . . .”
But in spite of his views—he was not
a Communist, and in reality his politics at this point were no more extreme
than those of left-wingers in the Social
Democratic Party—Enzensberger had
become one of the acceptable angry
faces of “young Germany” to those
who managed cultural patronage in the
Bonn republic. And the Soviet cultural
authorities, still competing for influence in Germany, also hoped that this
well-known poet with a Marxist outlook might be feasted and flattered into
becoming a “progressive bourgeois”
He was invited to a congress on the
“problems of the contemporary novel”
in Leningrad. Most of the period’s
conference celebrities were there:
Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir,
Nathalie Sarraute, and Angus Wilson
among them; and on the Soviet side
Alexander Tvardovsky, Mikhail Sholokhov, Konstantin Fedin, Ilya Ehrenburg, and the mutinous poet Yevgeni
Yevtushenko. Enzensberger found the
two escorts assigned to him much more
entertaining than the delegates, apart
from Ehrenburg, whom he remembered as the only one to say anything
interesting. But the delegates got their
money’s worth when a select group—
including Enzensberger—was flown
down to Gagra on the Abkhazian coast
to meet Nikita Khrushchev in his villa.
Enzensberger rather liked Khrushchev,
finding him (from his notes made at the
time) “plain and simple,” “totally lacking in ‘charisma.’”
n the next section, dated 1966, something happens that was to derail his life
and obsess him through all the years
remembered in this book. Back in the
Soviet Union, as an invited guest at a
“Peace Congress” in Baku, he met the
poet Margarita Aliger and her young
daughter Maria Alexandrovna Makarova—“Masha.” He was in his late
thirties, charming and brilliant, above
all a Western foreigner of independent
mind. Masha was twenty-three, an impulsive, fiery spirit with the strikingly
blue-gray eyes of a Siberian wolf. (The
shamanic eyes were inherited from her
father, Alexander Fadeyev, Stalin’s
handsome but infamous henchman in
the Soviet Writers’ Union, to whom
Aliger was briefly attached during the
Enzensberger calls what followed
“a tempestuous Russian novel” or “an
amour fou.” Crazy passion flung him
and Masha together, and kept reuniting them after fulminating quarrels
and separations. I knew them both in
later years, Masha better than Hans
Magnus, but had not understood until
I read this frank and melancholy account quite how improbable a couple
they were—he cool, tidy-minded, wary
of reckless surrender to an ideology or
another person; she demanding the loyalty of every particle of his heart and
mind by day and night. Anything less
was treachery. As he puts it, her jealousy was not erotic:
We were often separated for
months, but she never asked
whether I’d been to bed with another woman. . . . But when I was
with her, it was enough for me to go
out to buy the paper, talk in German with a visitor from Germany,
to need some peace and quiet in
order to write—then she would
behave as if I were stabbing her in
the back.
In some ways, he was closer to,
more at ease with, her wise and patient mother, Margarita Aliger. He
and Masha divorced their spouses
and married in Moscow, but her arrival at his home in West Berlin was a
signs that things were about to
fall apart in the Federal Republic.
The long- established authoritarian state with its leftovers from the
days of the kaiser and its persistent
heritage from the dictatorship was
no longer viable.
The joyful, utopian ideas of these revolutionaries—the abolition of all hierarchy, the continuous self-management
of all “workers by hand or brain,” the
“demasking” of the authoritarianism
concealed in liberal states—were to occupy Enzensberger’s life and work for a
time. But on that fateful day—just fifty
years ago as I write—he was not there.
Not being there on fateful days was
a pattern. With typically disarming
irony he suggests that it was more than
accidental. He traveled constantly,
compulsively: “I’d got into the habit of
solving my problems with the help of
geography.” He missed June 2; he was
in Moscow. He missed the tremendous
theatricals of the West Berlin “Vietnam Congress,” at which three thousand people gathered to oppose the war
in February 1968; he was in Berkeley.
Was this habit of absence derived
from his discovery that he, a mild poet,
also possessed the gift for rousing a
rabble? In October 1966, he spoke to
25,000 people at a demonstration in
Frankfurt with the slogan “Emergency
for Democracy,” and recalls that “it was
terrible, for, in the middle of my tirade,
I realized I was capable [of] whipping
up the crowd, that was already aroused,
even more.” The echo of Joseph Goebbels haranguing the Nazi ranks in Berlin’s Sportpalast rose to his memory:
I was well on the way to becoming
a demagogue. It was a nauseating
feeling. . . . I finished the speech
as best I could and swore never to
speak on a platform again.
he next main section of the book,
“Memories of a Tumult (1967–1970),”
covers the years of Enzensberger’s
“revolutionary” commitment. His surviving notes for the period—the later
1960s—are fragmentary: he cannot
now recognize the man who wrote
them, so he constructs a dialogue between a younger self and an incredulous old Hans Magnus: “Can you
explain to me what you were up to back
then? No. I’ve forgotten most of it and
didn’t understand the most important
It would not be wise to treat this central part of Tumult as a history of “the
Sixties.” It’s more a reflection on what
the Spanish melodiously call sesentayochoismo: fixation on the experiences
of the year 1968—his own and that of
others. The account darts about in time
and place, confusingly but in tune with
the deafening cataract of happenings
that swamped linear memory. At one
moment Enzensberger compares it all
to “Brownian molecular motion”:
Just as every particle suspended
in a heated gas is subject to random, uncontrollable fluctuations,
exactly the same is true of the political, erotic, climatic and, damn it
all, moral turbulence we are dealing with here.
His version of his own part in those
events is modest to the point of distortion: “During the years of tumult, I was occasionally seen as
playing an active role in which
I was genuinely never interested.” But speaking as a witness and sometime participant,
I remember Enzensberger as
a central figure in the German
upheavals of 1967–1968, not a
revolutionary ideologist guiding
day-to- day struggles like Rudi
Dutschke (whom he calls “the
only political leader the opposition to the system produced”)
but a sort of supreme counselor,
an intellectual respected by everybody whose heart was assumed to be firmly on the side of the
marchers, demonstrators, and pamphleteers. Everyone read his Kursbuch
and discussed its articles in university
canteens, in bars with dirty floors, or in
dim, crowded apartments. He writes:
I was 38 when all that stuff started,
much too old for the so- called
student movement. . . . What I
did like, however, was the disruption of the traditional social
order in Germany. That was long
overdue and difficult to stop.
Antiauthoritarian—that was the
catchword. It didn’t bother me
that I myself was in danger of becoming a kind of authority, even
if against my wishes and only a
But he was trusted to a staggering
degree. Leading figures of the “movement,” from Dutschke to Christian
Semler, Bernd Rabehl, and Horst
Mahler, used his study as a meeting
place. The anarchist Communards
squatted in his house while he was
away. In May 1970, after a gunfight to
liberate Andreas Baader from jail, he,
Ulrike Meinhof, and Gudrun Ensslin
fled straight to Enzensberger’s house
to take refuge and draw breath. Later,
when the Baader-Meinhof Group, by
then renamed the Red Army Faction,
was fighting its murderous underground war against the state, Enzensberger was taken to their secret hiding
place in Hamburg and invited to help
“[bring] down the ‘system’ by violence.” He did not accept, but he did
not betray them either.
To say, as he does here, fifty years on,
that “I was the poor comrade who never
became a full member” is misleading. Enzensberger shared—indeed,
helped to develop—the neo-Marxist
analysis of “late capitalism” and state
power that inspired rebellions all over
Europe. But fanatical Maoism, much
in fashion then, disgusted him. And
political violence was never his way,
neither Meinhof’s invitation to take up
the gun nor Dutschke’s complicated
license for “symbolic counter-violence
against objects.” Most Germans would
agree with him that the unintended
outcome of the 1968 “revolution” in
West Germany was to reform, liberalize, and thus perpetuate the “system”
instead of destroying it: “To my surprise—very gradually, almost behind
our backs—our desolate country was
becoming more and more a land that
was fit to live in.”
nzensberger had almost stopped
writing poetry in those years. In a 1968
Kursbuch, he attacked the very idea
of literary art, “for which no essential
derdevelopment into art than to
abolish it.
Masha, on the other hand, was revived
by Cuba. A decaying tyranny full
of censor- dodging intellectuals with
ample time for talking and partying:
this was her natural Russian milieu in
which she felt at ease. Enzensberger
writes, “We’d never got on so well
But the regime’s support for the
Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia,
Castro’s disastrous “revolutionary
offensive” against all small private
enterprises, and finally the brutal persecution of their close friend the poet
Heberto Padilla finally convinced them
that it was time to leave. Hans Magnus
returned to Berlin, Masha to a new life
in London and then Cambridge.
Now he settled back to writing,
interrupted only by his constant
travel around the world to lecture, debate, and receive awards
for literature. The extraordinary
Mausoleum came out in 1975:
a collection of “biographical
ballads” about historical figures—often obscure to an average reader—who had appealed
to his imagination. “B. de S.,”
for example, turns out to be Bernardino de Sahagún, the monk
who tried to rescue Aztec culture
from destruction; “E. J. M.” is the
nineteenth-century French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey, pioneer of the photography of motion.
Titanic was reconstructed in these
years, and a flow of verse collections
resumed, running from The Fury of
Disappearance (1980) to Lighter Than
Air (2000) and A History of Clouds
(2003). His latest prose includes Mr
Zed’s Reflections—a little album of almost three hundred sardonic debunkings of received ideas, pronounced by
a fat man who sits in a public park and
addresses a small crowd of fascinated
but often resentful listeners.
ullstein bild/Getty Images
disaster. Everything German offended
her, and after only three days she threw
a Strindbergian row and walked out.
She had reached Berlin in June 1967.
A few days before that, on June 2, a
West Berlin policeman had shot and
killed the student Benno Ohnesorg,
who had been demonstrating against
the visit of the Shah of Iran. That
night, rioting and car-burning spread
across the city center, effectively touching off the huge revolt by the “extraparliamentary
students, left-leaning intellectuals, radical Christians, industrial apprentices,
and Germany’s embryonic hippie communities—that would shake the Bonn
republic to its foundations.
Enzensberger had sensed the storm
coming. A few years before, he had
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, 1994
social function can be indicated in
our context.” Literature had failed to
wrest the means of production from
the bourgeoisie: instead, he proposed
to quit the “ghetto of cultural life” and
undertake the “political alphabetization” of Germany.
But this ultra-left severity was not to
last. In the same year, he and Masha
moved to Cuba, where they spent the
next two years. That sojourn changed
him in many ways, one of which was
to return him to poetry. It was in Havana that he wrote the first version of
his masterpiece, the long, wayward,
and often overwhelmingly powerful
The Sinking of the Titanic, parts of
which are included in the New Selected
Poems. (The first draft—the only copy,
as there was no carbon paper in Havana—was lost in the mail somewhere
between the Caribbean and Berlin; he
wrote it all over again when he returned
to Europe, and it was finally published
in Germany in 1978.)
Enzensberger never discovered why
he had been invited to Cuba. No job
ever materialized; he led a vivid life
with other expats and rebellious Cuban
intellectuals, joined a brigade digging
a new coffee plantation, and cut sugar
cane, besides beginning once more to
write verse. He became increasingly
disillusioned, not only with the Castro regime but with all utopian promises: “In Havana I’d eventually started
to feel like a left- over from a distant
There are brilliant, mordant sketches
here of Cuban people and scenes. Most
memorable, perhaps, is his visit to the
surreal “human-being factory” in Havana, where teams of men and women
were building educational body models
out of papier-mâché and gaudy paints:
To me it seemed like a malicious
parody of the socialist concept of
the New Man. Moreover, it shows
that it’s easier to transform un-
Clayton’s book proposes to
show how Enzensberger writes “extraordinarily original poems by systematically incorporating the words
of others into his texts.” Attributing to
him the use of literary devices that include chiasmus, parataxis, Entstellung,
and hypallage (terms assumed to be familiar to the cowering reader), Clayton
goes on to assert that with Mausoleum
Enzensberger “establishes himself as a
highly accomplished literary thief.”
No offense intended. Clayton is a
passionate if not uncritical admirer.
And it’s entirely true that some of Enzensberger’s verse is inspired collage,
beautiful jackdaw nests built out of
sparkling or resonant or darkly absurd
fragments that have caught his fancy.
Clayton refers to “the poet’s massive documentary research” and his
“uninhibited use of a vast amount of
borrowed material that he either cites
verbatim, disguises, or alters to suit his
Titanic often relies, with piercing effect, on contemporary texts, films, news
bulletins, and popular songs. Its main
source for details of the disaster and
for anecdotes is Walter Lord’s famous
old best-seller A Night to Remember
(1955). In the Nineteenth Canto of
the poem, a recitation of “news wires
of April 15, 1912,” slides into pastichepoetry of official jargon:
The New York Review
The transition from peacetime to
a state of war must be facilitated.
Comparative statistical tables
have been published in order to
clarify how the increased effective force of the army will affect conscripts of different age
Just after that comes Enzensberger’s
free version of a ribald black street
song, recorded in Philadelphia: “The
eighth of May was one hell of a day/
when the Titanic was sinking away. . . .”
And everywhere, his delight in allusion
Man’s struggle against man,
according to reliable sources
close to the Home Office,
will be nationalised in due course,
down to the last bloodstain.
Kind regards from Thomas
Enzensberger himself once said in an
It’s just a superstition that writers
have to compose their texts themselves. I really do think that’s a
bourgeois superstition. It’s based
on a notion of originality which I
find especially questionable.
That was in 1971, but I hope he would
still stand by those words today. It’s a
method that, in his case, has allowed
him to unload the phenomenal wealth
of his reading and scholarship directly
and successfully into his verse. Enzensberger is not the first to do this, of
course: Hugh MacDiarmid was one of
several great figures of Modernist po-
etry who kidnapped sonorous scientific
texts for their echo as well as for their
meaning (geology and petrology, in his
Writing with the Words of Others is,
for the most part, a helpful and intelligent book, exploring Enzensberger’s
sometimes recondite allusions and subtle techniques. But Clayton has his limits, political rather than aesthetic. He
is puzzled and pained by his subject’s
engagement with Marxist theory and
practice, although it’s impossible fully
to appreciate the spellbinding Blindenschrift poems (1964) without a sense of
the illuminating power of the ideology
in that time and place. A patronizing
comment rejoices that “the Marxist
terminology thankfully disappeared
and even the word socialism eventually
gave way to democracy . . . a blessing for
the reader.”
Enzensberger, for all his smiling
imperturbability, might well be irritated by that. His life has shown that
to change one intellectual position for
another can be a change of chapters in
a story, not a blunder requiring apologies and remorse. It’s with dignity, and
with some respect for those he leaves
behind, that Hans Magnus Enzensberger has turned away from Utopia.
In the future, he may well be best remembered for what he wrote in Tumult
about the Garden of Eden:
The apple was the greatest pleasure
the Garden had to offer. . . . Without
the forbidden fruit, the place would
have been a prison. One requirement of a paradise is that you can
leave it when you’ve had enough.
She Shampooed & Renewed Us
Mark Ford
David Gahr/Getty Images
Reckless Daughter:
A Portrait of Joni Mitchell
by David Yaffe.
Sarah Crichton Books/
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
420 pp., $28.00
In an interview with Gene Shay for
the “Folklore Program” broadcast on
March 12, 1967, Joni Mitchell revealed
the improbable origins of one of her
best-known and most frequently covered songs:
I was reading a book, and I haven’t
finished it yet, called Henderson
the Rain King. And there’s a line in
it that I especially got hung up on
that was about when he was flying
to Africa and searching for something, he said that in an age when
people could look up and down at
clouds, they shouldn’t be afraid to
die. And so I got this idea “from
both sides now.”
In the event, Joni would never finish Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain
King, a novel she had been instructed
to read by her soon-to-be- ex first husband, Chuck Mitchell, a college graduate who, it seems, had only derision for
his wife’s ditty; but virtually everyone
else who heard the song was rapidly
conquered by it. Later that spring the
irrepressible Al Kooper, famous for not
being an organ player and yet coming
up with the greatest organ riff in all
rock history for Bob Dylan’s “Like a
Rolling Stone,” met a girl in a bar:
She and I were talking and she told
me she wrote songs. She’s goodlooking and I figured I could follow her home, which couldn’t be a
bad thing no matter how you look
at it.
Back at her apartment on West Sixteenth Street, the newly met singersongwriter played him “Both Sides,
Now,” and although it was 3 o’clock
in the morning Kooper at once telephoned Judy Collins, a major participant in the folk music scene of those
years, with news of his discovery. Joni
October 26, 2017
Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen at the Newport Folk Festival, July 1967
repeated her performance over the
phone to a sleepy Collins, who instantly woke up:
Absolutely mind-boggling. I had
an album that was being recorded
right then and I wanted to record
the song right away. That night, I
went crazy and said, “I must have
this song.”
And her instinct wasn’t wrong; Collins’s version was not only a hit but won
a Grammy.
The passage in Bellow that caught
Mitchell’s attention might serve as an
epigraph to her checkered career, which
now, alas, may be nearing its close (she
suffered brain trauma from an aneurysm in March 2015, although she has
since made significant progress toward
what is to be hoped will be a full recovery, and—who knows?—she may yet
be lured back on stage or into the studio): “We are the first generation to see
clouds from both sides,” muses an airborne Henderson. “What a privilege!
First people dreamed upward. Now they
dream both upward and downward.”
For those who dreamed upward in the
late 1960s, there was not only Woodstock, there was also its commemoration by Mitchell in her optimistic paean
to the festival’s significance in her song
of the same name. Despite its use of the
first person plural (“By the time we got
to Woodstock/We were half a million
strong”), Mitchell’s “Woodstock” was
in fact written in New York while she
followed live coverage of the sets of The
Who, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills, Nash
& Young, Jimi Hendrix, and others on
television. Mitchell had been booked to
perform, but it was feared by her management team that she might not make
it back in time for a scheduled appearance on Dick Cavett’s TV talk show the
following day.
Present in spirit although absent in
person, Mitchell set about composing a song that would vividly capture
the sense of communal possibility and
the hopes for change that Woodstock
came to symbolize: “And everywhere
there was song and celebration/And
I dreamed I saw the bombers/Riding
shotgun in the sky/And they were turning into butterflies/Above our nation.”
The song’s chorus unashamedly celebrates the countercultural visionaries
who gathered in the mud of Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York
that historic weekend in 1969 as “stardust” and “golden,” as angelic children
of nature taking the first vital step that
will lead us “back to the garden.”
But how about this for dreaming
downward, from “Sex Kills” on Turbulent Indigo (1994)—the album whose
cover features a Mitchell self-portrait
in the style of Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait
with Bandaged Ear:
All these jackoffs at the office
The rapist in the pool
Oh and the tragedies in the
It’s difficult to imagine this bleak jeremiad being well received at the hippie
lovefest of a quarter-century earlier.
Although Mitchell was just twenty-
three when she composed “Both Sides,
Now,” and still performed her material
in clubs and coffee shops in a winsome,
girlish soprano, she had much right to
claim that she had already experienced
life’s ups and downs. She was born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort Macleod,
Alberta, in 1943, the only child of conservative Canadian parents who would
view with skepticism, and on occasion
dismay, their reckless daughter’s career
and views, and well-publicized love life.
At the age of nine she fell victim to the
same outbreak of polio that partially
paralyzed Neil Young; it weakened her
left hand, and was in part responsible
for her “open tunings,” which helped
reduce the amount of fingering needed
to play the guitar.
The Andersons tried their luck next
in Maidstone (“When we were kids
in Maidstone, Sharon/I went to every
wedding in that little town,” as she
recalls in the glorious “Song for Sharon” on Hejira, largely written, I was
surprised to learn from this biography, while Mitchell was revved up on
cocaine), then moved to nearby North
Battleford. Finally, after Joan’s yearlong battle with polio, much of it spent
in a harrowing sanatorium that seriously restricted visiting hours and was
far from home, the Andersons settled
in the city of Saskatoon.
Bright but unengaged by school,
Joni (she changed her name when she
was thirteen) developed into something of a rebel. She secretly began
smoking at the age of nine, eventually
reaching a steady eighty cigarettes a
day, and while in eleventh grade was
caught shoplifting. Her teenage years
were spent hanging with kids from the
wrong side of the tracks, and it was in
order to perform at the boozy parties
they held that she bought a ukulele for
$36, a guitar being too expensive. Only
Arthur Kratzmann, her first English
teacher in Saskatoon, made an impression, but it was a deep one: her first
album, Song to a Seagull, is gratefully
dedicated to him for having “taught
me to love words.”
But it was as a painter that Joni Anderson initially intended to make her
name. In 1963 she enrolled in the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, but she
dropped out after a year, unimpressed
by the faculty’s doctrinaire insistence
that Abstract Expressionism was the
only game in town. She found more
inspiration at musical evenings in Calgary coffeehouses, performing herself
in one called the Depression for $15
a week. Yet Alberta College did have
a decisive effect on her life, for it was
there she met Brad MacMath, a fellow art student. That spring she found
herself pregnant. At the end of the aca58
demic year the penniless couple moved
to Toronto, until, as Blue’s “Little
Green” poignantly recalls, “He went to
California/Hearing that everything’s
warmer there/So you write him a letter and say ‘her eyes are blue.’” Joni
gave birth to her blue- eyed daughter in
February of 1965, naming her Kelly. No
word of her situation was to find its way
back to her parents in Saskatoon: “To
be pregnant and unmarried in 1964,”
she later recalled, “was like you killed
Casting around for a solution to her
dilemma, Joni deposited Kelly in a foster care home yet delayed putting her
up for adoption. Since she was unable
to afford the $150 required for musicians’ union membership fees, she
could play at only a handful of Toronto
venues. At one of these, however, the
Penny Farthing, she met an American
folksinger called Chuck Mitchell, who
liked to perform his own “improved”
version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” After a whirlwind romance
of a few weeks they married in Chuck’s
hometown of Rochester, Michigan,
then settled in Detroit, where they
began appearing as a duo, mixing folk
songs with a few Brecht/Weil numbers,
and even Flanders and Swann.
Haunting their courtship and early
weeks as a married couple was the
question of what to do with Kelly. The
heartbreaking “Little Green” recreates
the moment when Joni finally decided
to surrender her:
Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending
So you sign all the papers in the
family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry but
you’re not ashamed
Little green have a happy ending.
Mitchell’s parents would not learn of
the lies she was sending home until they
were in their eighties, when tabloids
broke the story that Joni was searching
for the daughter she had given up for
adoption thirty years earlier.
he first song on Mitchell’s first album
is called “I Had a King,” and it’s pretty
mean about Chuck. He is figured as a
“king in a tenement castle” who has
taken “to painting the pastel walls
brown.” While he sweeps the rooms
with “the broom of contempt,” he is far
from cool, for he dresses in “drip- dry
and paisley” and seems marooned in
folk music’s past: “Ladies in gingham
still blush/While he sings them of wars
and wine/But I in my leather and lace/I
can never become that kind.”
Although warbled in her highest,
sweetest register, it’s a somewhat cutting divorce song, and reveals the influence of Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street,”
a track Mitchell credits with helping
kick-start her compositional career.
“You got a lotta nerve/To say you are
my friend/When I was down/You just
stood there grinning,” Dylan’s vitriolic
single opens. It struck Mitchell with the
force of a revelation: “I realized that
this was a whole new ballgame; now
you could make your songs literature.”
For both Dylan and Mitchell (who, although she discarded Chuck, opted to
keep her married surname), making
songs literature often involved getting
them to deliver unpalatable truths,
even ad hominem denunciations.
As it had for Dylan earlier in the
decade, the Newport Folk Festival
helped make Mitchell known to an audience beyond the cliques and coteries
of the coffeehouse scene. Judy Collins
persuaded its reluctant board to offer
Mitchell a slot at the 1967 festival,
where her set was rapturously received.
Also on the bill was fellow Canadian
Leonard Cohen, author of four books
of poetry and two novels, and, at the
age of thirty-three, poised to make
his musical debut. Their brief affair
is charted in Blue’s “A Case of You,”
whose opening again reveals Mitchell’s
gift for puncturing male pretension:
Just before our love got lost you
“I am as constant as a northern
Jack Robinson/Jack Robinson Archive LLC
Little kids packin’ guns to school
The ulcerated ozone
These tumors of the skin
This hostile sun beating down on
This massive mess we’re in!
And the gas leaks
And the oil spills
And sex sells everything
And sex kills
Sex kills
Sex kills
Sex kills . . .
Joni Mitchell, New York City,
November 1968
And I said “Constantly in the
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar.”
Nevertheless, “A Case of You” frankly
acknowledges the powerful effect
Cohen had on her (“Oh you’re in my
blood like holy wine”) while also insisting on her ability to survive exposure to
his potent, if contradictory, energies, his
mix of bitterness and sweetness—“Oh
I could drink a case of you darling/And
I would still be on my feet.” Cohen, like
Chuck, furnished her with reading lists,
but Mitchell was nonplussed, when she
got around to reading the likes of Lorca
and Camus and Rilke, to discover that
Cohen had lifted a number of lines
from them for his songs.
Mitchell’s finest albums were made in
the 1970s, before developments in studio technology tempted her, most disastrously on Dog Eat Dog (1985), into
various experiments with synthesizers
and computers that tended not to suit
her voice or material. Her first contract
with Warner Brothers, signed in 1968,
granted her pretty much complete artistic control over the production of her
records, and she fiercely defended her
right to independence from the industry’s suits and moneymen in all subsequent deals. The two highest points
in her recording career, it is generally
agreed, are Blue (1971) and Hejira
(1976), but for Prince, an early fan and
later ardent friend, it was The Hissing
of Summer Lawns (1975) that stood
out as her greatest achievement.
Although her first three albums include some durable and famous songs,
such as “Chelsea Morning” (which inspired Bill and Hillary Clinton to name
their daughter Chelsea), “Both Sides,
Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi” (the one with
the chorus “Don’t it always seem to go/
That you don’t know what you’ve got/
Till it’s gone/They paved paradise/And
put up a parking lot”), as well as that
staple of campfire sing-alongs, “The
Circle Game,” it was not until she entered Studio C at A&M Studios in Hollywood to record Blue in January 1971
that Mitchell’s voice, music, and words
meshed to create a record that people
still find they want to listen to again
and again. Many of the songs had been
written the year before, during a tour
of Europe, which included five weeks
living in a cave with a hippie community in the coastal village of Matala in
Crete—which is why her fingernails
are dirty and she has beach tar on her
feet in the song “Carey” (based on one
Cary Raditz, whom she met during her
sojourn there). This groovy scene is revisited in “California,” which features
a snapshot of a “redneck on a Grecian
isle/Who did the goat dance very well.”
But while Blue deftly channels the
alternative lifestyles of the counterculture’s pioneers and crazies, it avoids
celebrating them with the kind of dewyeyed hopefulness that buoyed “Woodstock.” The mélange of dangers lurking
beneath the hedonistic petals of flower
power are succinctly captured in the
album’s title song: “Acid, booze, and
ass/Needles, guns, and grass.” Mitchell’s own self-figurations in these songs
often radiate melancholy and indecision, a longing to find the key that will
set her free. The intimacy of her revelations on the songs of Blue is enhanced
by the subtlety and originality of her
phrasing, and by her discovery of a new
melodic range and intensity. Her voice
is almost unbearably soft and poignant
on “Little Green,” but can also be bracing and energetic, as on, say, “Carey.”
“I was at my most defenseless during
the making of Blue,” she later confided.
“And when you have no defenses, the
music becomes saintly and it can communicate.” Undoubtedly Blue does
communicate, but along with her defenselessness it conveys a wide-ranging
curiosity and a resonant delight in ordinary pleasures, such as the prospect of
sharing a bottle of wine with Carey at
the Mermaid Café. As well as confessing that she’s selfish and sad and wants
to skate away on a frozen river, Blue
celebrates the urge to get up and jive in
a jukebox dive, even to indulge in some
sweet romance. It’s the inventiveness
of the songs and the vigor of their performance, rather than the cris de coeur
they occasionally emit, that make it feel
like such a startlingly effective leap beyond her first three albums.
“I am on a lonely road and I am traveling,” opens Blue, “Traveling, traveling, traveling/Looking for something,
what can it be.” As proved the case
for nearly all those who cut their musical teeth in the 1960s American folk
scene, at some point the lonely traveler
ends up realizing that, to make it big,
what he or she most desperately needs
to find is a band; also, that a great deal
depends on finding the right one. The
likes of Stephen Stills and James Taylor had made guest appearances on
early Mitchell albums, but as the ideal
of the folk troubadour receded ever
further into the past, Mitchell began
scouting for a group that might enable
her to reach a wider audience. Court
and Spark (1974), her highest- charting
album, featured LA Express, an ensemble of versatile jazz musicians who
were unfazed by her eccentric tunings.
The New York Review
A single from the album, “Help Me,”
reached number seven in the US charts
(her one and only appearance in the
Top Ten).
gifts, it seems to me,
reached their fullest and most efflorescent in the albums and concerts of her
LA Express years. Particularly wondrous is her voice, somewhat roughened and lowered by her indefatigable
consumption of cigarettes, which soars
and swoops like the black crow in the
song of that name included on Hejira,
an album that came out the year after
Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and
Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, thus
completing a mid-1970s holy trinity.
Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Tour was,
if only obliquely, a catalyst for the first
song on Hejira, “Coyote.” Mitchell was
not among those originally recruited
for Dylan’s ten-week cavalcade through
the northeastern states. She joined halfway through in late November, fascinated both by the carnivalesque shows
and by the behavior the tour elicited
from those involved (“everybody was
so insane, I mean insane”). Despite
her misgivings, and her acute dislike of
the reigning queen of the troupe, Joan
Baez, she was not prepared to miss out
as she had at Woodstock. “Coyote”
is “allegedly,” as her website puts it,
about Sam Shepard, who was along to
work on the script of the film Renaldo
and Clara (which Dylan would release,
to little acclaim, a few years later). Rumors that she and Shepard had hooked
up were soon swirling through the tour
buses, despite his preexisting commitments—or as “Coyote” puts it, “Now
he’s got a woman at home/He’s got another woman down the hall/He seems
to want me anyway.” Shepard, for his
part, saluted in his Rolling Thunder
Logbook the “uncanny” nature of
Mitchell’s “word maneuverings,” citing
a line from “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow”: “I’ve got a head full of quandary/
And a mighty mighty thirst.”
Eager not to be considered a puri-
tanical, drug-averse party-pooper like
Baez and keen to get with the spirit
of the tour, Mitchell asked to be paid
in cocaine for her appearances. Some
lines from “Coyote” memorably capture the prevailing Geist of life on the
road with Cap’n Bob:
And peeking thru keyholes in
numbered doors
Where the players lick their
And take their temporary lovers
And their pills and powders to get
them thru this passion play
“Coyote” also initiates Mitchell’s presentation of herself as a restless seeking wanderer on Hejira as a whole—the
album’s title, meaning “journey or
flight,” alludes to Muhammad’s departure from Mecca to Medina in the
Koran. The chorus of “Coyote” subtly illustrates, however, her ability to
examine the myths of the road in the
same spirit as Bellow’s Henderson the
Rain King from both sides now: “You
just picked up a hitcher/A prisoner of
the white lines on the freeway.” Does
the freeway offer escape or just a different kind of entrapment?
Up until Hejira America’s open
road seemed invariably to have been
the imaginative province of men, from
Walt Whitman to Woody Guthrie, from
Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and Dean
Moriarty to the footloose narrator of
Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” (written, incidentally, after Dylan spent a
weekend listening to Mitchell’s Blue).
The courage required to reconfigure so
boldly and brilliantly such a well-worn
trope may have owed something to the
effects of cocaine, described by Mitchell as “a warrior’s drug,” and one which
made her feel as indestructible and aggressive as Scarface. Yet Hejira is not
an aggressive album; its exploration of
the “strange pillows of [her] wanderlust,” of the “refuge of the roads,” is at
once exacting and beautiful, as haunting and fragile as the vapor trails she
observes while driving across the burn-
ing desert in “Amelia,” and compares
to both the hexagram of the heavens
and the strings of her guitar.
Mitchell’s “head full of quandary”
and her “mighty thirst” have propelled
her music in all manner of directions
in the four decades since Hejira. She
has never been afraid to experiment, as
was perhaps most dramatically proved
when Mingus, her avant-garde tribute
to the irascible jazz bassist Charlie
Mingus, was released in 1979.
The album had mixed reviews and
undoubtedly alienated a segment of
Mitchell’s fan base. But her collaborations with a number of other jazz musicians, such as the gloriously innovative,
if somewhat unstable, Jaco Pastorius,
whose deep, thrumming bass guitar
provides an exquisite counter point to
Mitchell’s voice and open tunings, and
with the genius saxophonist Wayne
Shorter (who was part of Miles Davis’s
quintet in the 1960s, and like Pastorius,
a member of Weather Report in the
1970s), have resulted in wholly successful fusions of Mitchell’s words and
sound with the idioms of post-bebop
Although her lyrics are often full of
self- questioning and self- criticism, her
belief in her talent and judgment seems
never to have wavered. Perhaps the
most striking testimony to this comes
from her Rolling Thunder rival, Joan
Baez, who in an interview with David
Yaffe for his new biography observed:
“She’s a really strong woman who
doesn’t give a fuck about what anybody
thinks, and we all wish we could be that
way, but we can’t.”
Undoubtedly she can be somewhat
cantankerous. In Yaffe’s copiously
quoted interviews with Mitchell she
vividly denounces the music industry, complaining at length of the short
straw she feels it has given her in the
years since her heyday. Many times she
has quit in disgust, only to return with
a new album, and eventually a wholly
new voice and act. In 2000 Both Sides
Now appeared, and two years later
Travelogue, both of which presented
her as a throaty torch singer backed
by a full orchestra. Whether she was
covering standards such as “You’re
My Thrill” or “Answer Me, My Love”
or “Stormy Weather,” or hits from her
own by now vast back catalog, the results were often spine-tingling. Her
independence and audacity were also
strongly in evidence in her adaptation
for Night Ride Home (1991) of W. B.
Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,”
retitled “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and including many extra lines
penned by Mitchell herself, while her
last studio album, Shine (2007), closes
with a reworking of Rudyard Kipling’s
“If.” Clearly she couldn’t sing Kipling’s
original conclusion (“And—which is
more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”);
instead Mitchell’s oeuvre to date ends
with lines twinning the pugnacious and
the visionary: “Cause you’ve got the
fight/You’ve got the insight/You’ve got
the fight/You’ve got the insight.”
Yaffe conducted two sets of interviews with Mitchell: one in 2007 for a
profile in The New York Times (which
she hated), and the second eight years
later (by which time she’d forgiven him).
These form the core of his contribution
to Mitchell studies, for as a biography
Reckless Daughter is definitely not to
be preferred to Karen O’Brien’s much
better written Shadows and Light: Joni
Mitchell (2001). Still, the excerpts from
his extensive interviews are revealing
in a range of ways: there is much settling of old scores—with Dylan, for
instance, who fell asleep when Mitchell first played him Court and Spark
back in 1974, getting accused by her of
plagiarism. Ex-lovers and ex-husbands
also have their cards harshly marked.
But why, I found myself wondering,
should one expect Mitchell, alone on
her pedestal as the grande dame of
North American singer-songwriters,
to have mellowed? For how could she
have achieved what she did had she not
both trusted her insights and been full
of fight?
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A Photo Documentary
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A Political Thriller
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In the not-so-distant future, Googlecars
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“A philosophical fantasy... prose that’s as
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Franklin D. Murphy, The Kansas Years
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In 1951, Dr. Franklin Murphy, just 35,
became University of Kansas Chancellor.
This readable biography traces his impact
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294 pages • Scholarly & Biography
Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful
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In an ever-polarizing religious landscape,
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A Novel
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A pregnant teenage girl is stranded on the
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A divorced couple meets in a singles bar.
A mother tries to convince a school principal that her four year old is “gifted.”
Two executives of an investment
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A Memoir
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Love’s healing power, the lessons learned
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A Novel Based on a True Story About
the First Musician to Perform at Red
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434 pages • Literary Fiction
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by Jon Foyt
WWII guns blast outside Switzerland
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A novel about an immigrant merchant
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The compelling sequel to City of Cards.
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The Logic of Balance
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How to establish real trust and establish a
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Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing
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A missing fiancé who may be alive, a
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Beating the Odds in Colonial New York
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The Vatican Trial of Pierre Teilhard de
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A Jewish Believer Peers Backward to
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Kidnapped in France and brought to
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Exactly 500 years after Martin Luther
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The New York Review
Sexual Life in Modern China
Ian Johnson
October 26, 2017
to bawdy, coarse works. Abroad, almost none of his writing had been
translated. He seemed destined to be
little more than one of the many writers whose works are reduced to fodder
for doctoral students researching an
era’s zeitgeist.
In the twenty years since Wang’s
death, however, something remarkable
has happened. In the West he remains
virtually unknown; a single volume of
his novellas has been translated into
English. But Chinese readers and
critics around the world now widely
regard Wang as one of the most important modern Chinese authors. Two
and Wang Xiaobo grew up with rickets. He had a slightly bulging skull and
a barrel chest, as well as bones so soft
that he would entertain his four siblings
by yanking his legs behind his head and
pulling himself along the floor on his
stomach like a crab. His one privilege
was sweetened calcium pills, which he
ate by the handful while his siblings
watched enviously.
Despite the family’s misfortunes,
Wang grew up intellectually privileged.
His father had a wide collection of foreign literature in translation. In school,
Wang would stare at the wall and ignore his teachers, but at home he de-
mainly as China’s foremost expert on
sex and interviewed her about Chinese
people’s sexual liberation in the reform
era (a typical clichéd idea written up
by foreign journalists; how often have
we read stories about Chinese people’s
sexual liberation?).
It took me awhile to realize that she
was actually a leading chronicler of
something more profound: the return
of the private sphere in the lives of ordinary people. She had researched and
written about China’s gay and lesbian
movement, and in recent years has
stood up for transgender and bisexual
citizens as well, but the bigger picture
was the government’s retreat from
people’s daily lives.
This past spring I talked with
her about her late husband. She
said that they had had a similar upbringing. Both came from
educated families, and both had
secretly read novels like The
Catcher in the Rye. While in the
United States in the 1980s, Wang
had read Michel Foucault and his
ideas about the human body, but
she felt he was more influenced
by Bertrand Russell and ideas of
personal freedom. “The person he
liked to cite the most was Russell,
the most basic and earliest kind of
liberalism,” she said. “I think he
had started reading these books in
his childhood.”
The two met in 1979 and married
the next year. Li was part of a new
generation of sociologists trained
after the ban on the discipline had
been lifted. In the Mao era, sociology had been seen as superfluous
because Marxism was supposed
to be able to explain all social
phenomena. Supported by China’s pioneering sociologist Fei Xiaotong, Li
studied at the University of Pittsburgh
from 1982 to 1988. Wang accompanied
her for the final four years and studiedwith the Chinese-American historian
Cho-yun Hsu.
Now retired, Hsu told me that he
was initially flummoxed by Wang. Although not formally a novelist, the
young man wanted to write. And although he was living in the United
States he spoke very little English. “I
realized that I was training not a historian or sociologist but a Chinese
novelist who needed to understand history,” he said. “He was writing a form
of trauma literature.” Hsu put Wang on
a course of independent study, mostly
systematic reading in the Chinese classics and recent Chinese history, which
had been lacking in his Communist- era
education. Wang received a master’s
degree in East Asian Studies but spent
most of his time writing—for the desk
drawer. “He wasn’t ready to publish,”
Hsu said. “And I respected that. My
goal was to help him develop.”
After Li received her Ph.D., the
couple returned to China and collaborated on a groundbreaking study, Their
World: A Study of the Male Homosexual Community in China. Li eventually took a position at the Chinese
Academy of Social Sciences, and Wang
taught history and sociology at Renmin
and Peking universities.
The 1989 student movement came
and went, ending on June 4 with the
Mark Leong
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s,
Chinese writers grappled with the
traumas of the Mao period, seeking to
make sense of their suffering. As in the
imperial era, most had been servants of
the state, loyalists who might criticize
but never seek to overthrow the system.
And yet they had been persecuted by
Mao, forced to labor in the fields or
shovel manure for offering even the
most timid opinions.
Many wrote what came to be known
as scar literature, recounting the tribulations of educated people like themselves. A few wrote sex-fueled accounts
of coming of age in the vast reaches of
Inner Mongolia or the imagined
romanticism of Tibet. Almost all
of them were self-pitying and insipid, produced by people who
were aggrieved by but not reflective about having served a system
that killed millions.
Then, in 1992, an unknown
writer published a strange novella
that told the hilarious and absurd
story of two young lovers exiled to
a remote part of China near the
Burmese border during the Cultural Revolution. There they have
an extramarital affair, are caught
by officials and forced to write
endless confessions, tour the countryside in a minstrel show reenacting their sinful behavior, escape
to the mountains, and return for
more punishment, until one day
they are released, unrepentant and
slightly confused.
The novella was immediately
popular for its sex, which is omnipresent and farcical. But it isn’t
described as something liberating
during a period of oppression or
as a force of nature unleashed by living
in Chinese borderlands. Instead, sex is
something the Communist Party wants
to control—the apparatchiks want the
couple to write endless self- criticism so
they can drool over the purple prose—
but the narrator and his lover still manage to imbue it with a deeper meaning
that they understand only later, at the
end of the story.
After the sex, what was most shocking about the novella was how intellectuals are portrayed. They are almost
as bad as the party hacks who control
them. The novel’s hero cons his lover
into the sack, picks fights with locals,
dawdles at work, and is as tricky as his
tormentors. The novella’s title added to
the sense of the absurd. It was called
The Golden Age, leaving many to wonder how this could have been anyone’s
or any country’s best years.
And who was Wang Xiaobo, the author? He was not part of the state writers’ association and hadn’t published
fiction before. But after its publication
in Taiwan, The Golden Age was soon
published in China and became an immediate success. Wang followed it with
a torrent of novellas and essays. He was
especially popular with college students, who admired his cynicism, irony,
humor—and of course the sex.
Just five years later, in 1997, Wang
died of a heart attack at the age of
forty-four. Few remarked on his passing. Most in China’s literary scene saw
him as little more than an untrained
writer who had become famous thanks
Wang Xiaobo, Beijing, 1996; photograph by Mark Leong
new collections of his works have been
published in China. Internet forums
honor his life and writings. A café has
opened in his name. He is now included
in every major anthology of recent Chinese fiction, and his essays are considered crucial to understanding China’s
recent past.
He was also an early user of the Internet and spoke up online for disadvantaged groups—then an unusual
position but now common among
public figures such as the filmmaker
Jia Zhangke, the writer Liao Yiwu,
and the novelist Yan Lianke. In a less
overtly activist way he resembles the
recently deceased Nobel Peace Prize
laureate Liu Xiaobo: an interloper who
pushed for change outside the state literary and intellectual apparatus.
ang Xiaobo was born in Beijing in
1952, the fourth of five children; his
father, the logician Wang Fangming,
was a university professor. That year,
the elder Wang had been labeled a
class enemy and purged from the Communist Party. The newborn’s name,
Xiaobo, or “small wave,” reflected
the family’s hope that their political
trouble would be minor. It wasn’t, and
people like Wang Fangming were rehabilitated only after Mao died in 1976.
In his memoirs, Wang’s elder brother,
Wang Xiaoping, said their mother was
so distraught at her husband’s political
problems that she spent her pregnancy
weeping. She was unable to breastfeed,
voured works by Shakespeare, Ovid,
Boccaccio, and especially Mark Twain.
His brother estimated that Xiaobo
could read one hundred pages an hour,
even of difficult works by Marx, Hegel,
or classical Chinese writers.
When Wang Xiaobo was fourteen,
Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, hoping to purge the Party of his
enemies and return the revolution
to a purer state. After that quickly
descended into chaos, Mao ordered
young people to go down to the countryside to learn from the peasants.
Even though weak, Wang volunteered
to go to Yunnan, spurred by romantic
fantasies of the border region. He was
fifteen when he arrived, and he wrote
endlessly while there. He would get up
in the middle of the night to scribble
with a blue pen on a mirror, cleaning it
and then writing again. He dreamed of
being a writer and rehearsed his stories
over and over again.
When he returned to Beijing in 1972
he kept writing but didn’t publish. He
worked in a factory for six years, and
when universities reopened he got a
degree and taught in a high school. All
along he stayed silent until one day he
have met Wang’s widow, Li Yinhe,
several times over the past twenty-five
years.1 Until recently I thought of her
See my interview with her, “Sex in
China,” NYR Daily, September 9, 2014.
Later, I had another sudden realization: that I belonged to the
greatest disadvantaged group
in history, the silent majority.
These people keep silent for
any number of reasons, some
because they lack the ability or
the opportunity to speak, others
because they are hiding something, and still others because
they feel, for whatever reason,
a certain distaste for the world
of speech. I am one of these last
groups and, as one of them, I have
a duty to speak of what I have seen
and heard.
Wang’s most prominent chronicler in
the West, Sebastian Veg at the School
of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences
in Paris, believes that he was shocked
by the 1989 massacre and his own failure to support the protesters. At the
same time, he was searching for a new
way for people to change society that
went beyond protests and marches. Finally, he had something that needed
to be said. In 1992 Wang finished The
Golden Age, which he had been working on since returning from Yunnan in
1972. Unsure how to publish it, he sent
a copy to Professor Hsu in Pittsburgh.
Hsu sent it to United Daily News, a
prominent Chinese-language newspaper in Taiwan that sponsored a literary
prize. Wang won and entered what he
called a “yammering madhouse”—the
world of speech.
Wang was the second son in his fam-
ily, or er—number two—a name he
gave most of his heroes: Wang Er. In
The Golden Age, Wang Er is a twentyone-year- old sent to Yunnan, where
he meets Chen Qingyang, a twentysix-year- old doctor whose husband
has been in prison for a year. Gossips accuse Chen of being “damaged
goods”—of having cheated on her husband with Wang—and she asks him
to vouch for the fact that they haven’t
slept together. Parodying the logical
formulas of Wang Xiaobo’s father,
Wang Er tells Chen:
We would have to prove two things
first before our innocence could be
1. Chen Qingyang was a virgin;
2. Castrated at birth, I was unable to have sex.
These two things would be hard
to prove, so we couldn’t prove our
innocence. I preferred to prove our
Eventually the couple have an affair and retreat to the mountains. They
are later rounded up and “struggled
against”—put on a stage and forced
to reenact their sins. But instead of
the ages. Wang also set down his ideas
in two collections of essays published
in his lifetime: My Spiritual Homeland
and The Silent Majority. Many of the
pieces originally appeared in the edgy
magazines and newspapers that used to
exist in southern China and which over
the past decade or so have been hammered into docility.
I met Wang in 1996 because of a
piece he had published in Orient, a
magazine that had devoted a special
edition to the thirtieth anniversary of
the start of the Cultural Revolution.
Wang’s essay analyzed periods of unreason in history and the thinkers who
resisted: Galileo challenging the doctrines of Rome; the Austrian writer
Stefan Zweig opposing the Nazis; and
the Chinese writer Lao She opposing
Maoist excesses. But Wang didn’t stop
tradition, there is no sense of the
About six months after we talked,
Wang died. His friend the literary
critic Ai Xiaoming 2 carried out what
she thought of as his last wish. The Trilogy of the Ages had been published just
days earlier, which he hadn’t lived to
see. She placed it on his body before it
entered the crematorium’s furnace.
As the scope of Wang Xiaobo’s pub-
lications in those five frenetic years
became apparent, Chinese critics became more appreciative. On the fifth
anniversary of his death, the former
culture minister Wang Meng wrote
an article about Wang Xiaobo saying he had “lived a life of clarity.” The
strong sales of his books didn’t hurt
either. The Shanghai-based critic
and literature professor Huang
Ping told me that Wang now rivals the World War II–era Hong
Kong writer Zhang Ailing (better
known abroad as Eileen Chang) as
the most popular modern Chinese
Wang had no sense of this in his
lifetime, according to Li Yinhe.
“There weren’t too many literature reviews of his works in the
mainstream,” she said. “People
just began to pay attention to his
works and essays. We had no idea
of his sales.”
Huang has a slightly contrarian
explanation of Wang’s popularity. While government critics see
him as a libertarian, he can also
be read as someone whose irony
and sarcasm exonerates middleclass Chinese from responsibility
for social problems. Huang said
that “instead of explaining how to
overcome the issues, [Wang] tells
you by his ironic tone that the issues have nothing to do with you.”
This could be one reason why Wang’s
works are in print in China—their
humor and sarcasm can be seen as putting distance between then and now,
in essence absolving today’s Communist Party for its sins of half a century
earlier. And yet his books don’t read as
if he were a practitioner of what Perry
Link calls “daft hilarity”—a use of
humor to avoid social criticism. In his
fiction, the system and the officials are
clearly misguided. His essays are also
sharply critical of issues like nationalism. His support for marginalized
members of society is now common
among Chinese intellectuals in the
post-Tiananmen era. People like Ai
Xiaoming turned to filmmaking, along
with independent filmmakers like Hu
Jie and Wu Wenguang, to document
victims of the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution.
And Li Yinhe became an advocate for
the LGBT movement, eventually coming out herself as having a transgender
It’s abroad that Wang is little known.
Only three short works, including The
Golden Age and the story “2015” from
The Silver Age, are in print in English,
published in one volume with the silly
title Wang in Love and Bondage. 3 The
Mark Leong
Tiananmen massacre. Still, Wang did
not publish. “On the night of June 4,
we were actually in Xidan [the intersection in Beijing near the worst killings],” Li said. The couple watched
the protesters, hoping they would succeed where their generation had failed.
“Wang Xiaobo hid behind a concrete
traffic island at a corner of the street to
take photos,” she told me. “We thought
at the time that we should just let the
young people do it.”
Staying silent became the theme of
Wang’s most famous essay, “The Silent Majority.” He describes how during the Mao era people were silenced
by the ubiquity of the great leader:
his thoughts, his ideas, and his words
rained down on people day and night.
Later, that left a scar, which for Wang
meant that he “could not trust those
who belonged to the societies of
speech.” The struggle to find a
voice became a personal quest and
an allegory for the whole nation’s
trauma during the Mao era.
This is what drew Wang to homosexuals in China. Disadvantaged
groups were silent groups. They
had been deprived of a voice, and
society ignored them, sometimes
even denying their existence. Then
Wang had an epiphany—that all of
Chinese society was voiceless:
Wang Xiaobo and Li Yinhe, Beijing, 1996
humiliation, Chen feels only that this
is an acting challenge. And when they
are forced to confess their sins in writing, both tell the most absurd stories of
their sexploits, seeing the punishment
as a literary exercise. When freed of
this state bullying, the couple make
love in their room—a true emotional
act that the party couldn’t control.
The experience makes Wang Er realize that society is nothing more than
a series of power relationships. In the
village, he notes, locals didn’t just castrate bulls, they also hammered their
testicles into a pulp to make sure the
bulls got the message. After that, he
says, even the feistiest bull was a docile
beast of burden.
Only much later did I realize that
life is a slow process of being hammered. People grow old day after
day, their desire disappears little
by little, and finally they become
like those hammered bulls.
This message of control is reflected
in Wang’s other fictional works. As
part of The Trilogy of the Ages, The
Golden Age is a novella sandwiched
between The Bronze Age, a series of
curious stories set in the Tang dynasty
(one of which has been recently translated by Eric Abrahamsen as “Mister
Lover”) and The Silver Age, a series
of futuristic dystopian stories in which
social control is nearly perfected. This
makes the Cultural Revolution merely
a variation of the suffering that humans
have endured in societies throughout
there. He also pointed out parallels
to the China of the 1990s (and, in effect, today) by writing about the rise of
At our first meeting, in a hotel near
his apartment, he showed up disheveled, wearing a Hawaiian shirt that
made him look like a Hong Kong businessman on a weekend fling. He had
a big sideways grin and a mop of hair
combed over rakishly. He talked garrulously for a couple of hours, and later
we went home to meet his wife and play
with his computer.
One of his biggest complaints then
was a book called China Can Say No,
a collection of polemical essays by a
half- dozen young writers fed up with
the United States and its perceived
bullying of China. The writers ranted
against Hollywood, Boeing jets, and
other reminders that China was inextricably bound to the outside world. Wang
thought the book was rubbish, written
by opportunists. “People of my age had
miserable experiences. We have seen
the dark side of things,” he told me.
“But today’s young people may not be
aware of it. [The writers] are sentimental and unreasonable, and that is why I
dislike them.”
Those young authors and most of
their intellectual contemporaries committed what for Wang was a cardinal
sin: they aspired to lead society rather
than remain outside of it as independent critics. Wang said: “The maladies of Chinese society are mainly
from autocracy and centralization of
state power. In the Chinese cultural
Interviewed in “The People in Retreat,” NYR Daily, September 8, 2016.
Translated and with an introduction
by Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer
(SUNY Press, 2007).
The New York Review
cover is a disaster, showing a drawing,
reminiscent of a 1940s American crime
novel, of a man and woman in a cheap
hotel room after a tryst. Two other essays are available online, but about 90
percent of his work is untranslated—a
strange oversight when publishers are
often searching (seemingly desperately, given what sometimes gets translated) to find Chinese voices to explain
the country’s rise.
David Der-wei Wang, a professor of
Chinese literature at Harvard University, said the lack of translation can’t
be due to Wang’s work being difficult to read. Besides including Wang
Xiaobo in his New Literary History of
Modern China (2017), Professor Wang
regularly teaches Wang Xiaobo in literature classes to non– China specialists. “They really like it—the style, the
story, the laughter and the melancholia, even though they didn’t know who
this person was or what the Cultural
Revolution was all about,” Wang told
me. “These are issues that speak to a
worldwide audience.”
On the anniversary of Wang Xiaobo’s death this past April, some of China’s best-known literary critics met to
discuss his works, while his widow and
a half- dozen of his fans made a pilgrimage to his grave on the outskirts of Beijing. There they spilled a bottle of his
favorite grain alcohol in his honor and
read poems. The group had made commemorative T-shirts for the day, with
Wang’s face and the dates 1952–1997
on the front. “To me, it was never easy
to encounter a romantic love,” Li said
as she walked up the steep path. “He
was the trigger to it. It felt great.”
Following Li was Zhang Linlin, a
thirty-year- old high school history
teacher. Zhang regularly introduces
his students to Wang Xiaobo. He said
they are drawn to Wang’s works for
the sex but stay for the ideas and the
social criticism. For Zhang, Wang
has become something more important than a favorite author—a guidepost, his principled and thoughtful
life an inspiration for his own. “When
Nietzsche was in trouble, he’d find a
portrait of Schopenhauer and shout,
‘Save me, Schopenhauer,’” Zhang said.
“I hold a portrait of Wang Xiaobo
and think about what he would do.
He shows me the direction. He is a perfect person.”
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October 26, 2017
Good Lord
Ferdinand Mount
First Confession:
A Sort of Memoir
by Chris Patten.
London: Allen Lane, 312 pp., £20.00
Kind of Blue:
A Political Memoir
by Ken Clarke.
London: Pan, 525 pp., $15.95 (paper)
History to the defeated doesn’t even
say “alas,” it just cuts them dead. In
the British Conservative Party especially, the waters of oblivion close over
the defenders of deserted orthodoxies
like appeasement and the Corn Laws.
So now with the Tory Europhiles. For a
generation and more, to be “a good European” was the passport to promotion
in the party. In the 1950s and 1960s,
the Young Conservatives prided themselves on being the largest youth movement in the free world, and they were as
passionately devoted to the Common
Market as they were to table tennis and
the twist. By contrast, the opponents
of Britain’s entry in 1973 were a sullen
minority, easily written off as crusty
nostalgists for the Empire. In the 1975
referendum on Britain’s continued
membership, they made a wretched
showing alongside the dinosaurs of the
Old Left. Enoch Powell and Michael
Foot sharing a platform looked like
a tableau vivant of the wrong side of
In retrospect, it is remarkable how
soon that tide began to turn. Already
by the late 1980s the YC s had come
under the control of the anti-European
pro-Empire right. The Federation of
Conservative Students had been closed
down in 1986 for its scandalous racist
antics by the party chairman, Norman
Tebbit. The YC s themselves were closed
down as an embarrassment in 1998.
The party’s future direction was becoming clear. The painful struggle that
John Major endured in 1992 to push
through Parliament the Maastricht
Treaty, which created the European
Union, was only the most conspicuous sign that “the bastards,” as Major
so delicately dubbed them, were on a
long-term roll. Aspiring Conservative
candidates had to take on the protective coloration of Euroskepticism to
have much hope of selection.
Today, as the remaining Remainers
pick their way through the debris of
the referendum of June 2016, they hear
only the derisive cries of the victorious
Brexiteers: “You lost, get over it, stop
moaning.” Analysis of the results of the
general election that Theresa May so
foolishly called in June 2017 shows that
the Conservatives owed their survival
to the influx of millions of Leavers. All
that is left of the great Europhile generation is their memoirs. If revenge is
a dish best served cold, we are in for a
veritable smorgasbord.
Patten and Ken Clarke
are the two most attractive survivors of that generation: genial, unstuffy characters, easily reaching for
the slang—“gobsmacked,” “double
whammy”—that doesn’t trip off the
lips of their stiffer colleagues. Even
their book titles tell you something—
the familiar first names, the selfdeprecation in the subtitles. (Kind of
Blue is borrowed from the Miles Davis
album, Clarke being an obsessive jazz
buff more likely to be found tapping
time with his Hush Puppies at Ronnie
Scott’s than at the Athenaeum.)
The two men came from modest backgrounds to occupy most of the great offices of state, both of them offering the
safe pair of hands that the state gropes
for in fraught moments. Clarke’s father
was an electrician in the local Nottinghamshire colliery. Patten’s family
had emigrated from Ireland to escape
the horrors of the Famine. It is hard to
imagine a sharper contrast with Patten’s own secure and happy childhood
in the suburban lanes of Perivale. The
garden smelled of honeysuckle, and
there were tiny new potatoes from the
vegetable patch that his mother fried in
bacon fat. Patten’s father, the lovable
Frank, was a not very successful music
publisher, though he was responsible
for one of my favorite songs of the early
1950s, “She wears red feathers and a
huly-huly skirt.” Father and son were
both fine cricketers and keen supporters of England and Blackpool Football
Club, just as Clarke father and son—an
equally happy duo—would traipse off
to see Nottinghamshire play cricket at
Trent Bridge. Clarke and Patten are
lookers-forward, an admirable quality
in life but not ideal for a memoirist, and
in both cases, I would like to have had
more of those idyllic early days.
Patten and Clarke sailed through
their scholarship exams into St. Benedict’s, Ealing, and Nottingham High
School respectively, both first-rate
schools that reserved a generous
tranche of places for scholarship boys
and provided a springy ladder out of
the suburbs. Patten has remained an
unwavering though not uncritical Catholic all his life, and he is grateful to St.
Benedict’s and sad to see it ravaged in
recent years by horrific stories of child
abuse. He says of himself, “I was in
clover, never bored, well taught, not
remotely bolshie,” and he sailed on to
Balliol College, Oxford, just as Clarke
did to Gonville and Caius, Cambridge.
Those who persist in regarding Britain
as a closed, caste-ridden society should
reflect on these not untypical examples
of postwar likely lads. England, and
still more Scotland, has always been a
more open society than it appeared, if
not as open as it should be.
Herbert Henry Asquith, prime minister during World War I, described
Balliol men like himself as possessing “the tranquil consciousness of an
effortless superiority.” Patten tells us
that this description is not helpful or
accurate. But then he gives a list of
conspicuous twentieth- century alumni
of the college: Ted Heath, Roy Jenkins,
Denis Healey, the Lord Chief Justice
Tom Bingham, the Guardian columnist Hugo Young, and Ian Gilmour. I
have to say that, in their different ways,
effortless superiority was exactly what
they all exuded.
his is not a mere social footnote.
It is decidedly relevant to the casus
belli of our times. For all the abovementioned were also passionate, unwavering supporters of the European
ideal. Tom Bingham was the first judge
to urge that the European Convention on Human Rights be incorporated into English law. Hugo Young
wrote the most influential polemics in
support of British participation in the
European enterprise. It was Roy Jenkins and his coterie of pro-European
Labour supporters who assisted Edward Heath in getting the European
Communities Bill through the House
of Commons.
You could be forgiven for seeing the
whole thing as a Balliol conspiracy of
the elite against the unenlightened.
That word “elite” did not figure much
in political debate until the referendum
campaign of 2016, when it went toxic.
“Elites” or “experts” suddenly became
Public Enemy No. 1 in the rhetoric
of Michael Gove and Nigel Farage,
as they did in the rhetoric of Donald
Trump. The country, we were told, was
being dragged in the wrong direction
by an exclusive clique of know-it-alls
who were out of touch with the real
needs and desires of the people. Such
an outcry was not unknown in the
United States. But it was rather new in
the United Kingdom.
When the Daily Mail of November
4, 2016, carried the headline ENEMIES
OF THE PEOPLE on its story about the
High Court’s ruling that Parliament
must have a say on triggering the Brexit
process, there was a collective frisson,
shared by quite a few people who voted
Leave. It was not simply that if the object of leaving the EU was to restore
the sovereignty of the British Parliament, then it seemed only logical that
Parliament should approve the process.
It was also the implicit assumption that
the Will of the People had the right to
brush aside everything else, Parliament
and the rule of law included, a doctrine
that owed more to Robespierre than to
Patten’s account of his thirteen
years in the House of Commons seems
worlds away from these alarming
events. Elected for Bath in 1979, after
five years as the precocious head of the
Conservative Research Department,
he immediately fell into the company
of a congenial bunch of talented young
MPs like himself in the liberal wing of
the party. The whips called them the
Blue Chips, which suggests a clique of
well-heeled aristocrats, but though a
couple of them were the sons of peers,
most were middle- class meritocrats
like Patten.
For Patten, the company of kindred
spirits like Gilmour, William Waldegrave, and Tristan Garel-Jones must
have passed the time agreeably. Yet
perhaps for this reason there is something flat about his account of those
years, which were indeed swept by
“sharp conflicts” and “tempestuous
passions.” It is as though Patten and
his friends scarcely mingled with anyone else. The leading figures of the
Thatcher Revolution (or counterrevolution)—Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit—scarcely figure.
Thatcher’s chief guru, Sir Keith Joseph,
was briefly Patten’s boss at the Department of Education, but he has only
a walk- on part as a slightly deranged
obsessive—it was, I think, Patten who
The New York Review
makes Clarke’s ministerial
experience so fascinating is that he
passed through virtually every department of government except the Foreign
Office, and in each of them he found
virtually the same situation: the formal
hierarchy of minister and department
concealed an extraordinary covert syndicalist reality. Almost everywhere the
minister and his officials had become
accustomed to doing little more than
acquiesce in the day-to- day control of
the trade unions and staff associations.
The 1980s British sitcom Yes, Minister has achieved global renown as an
accurate and enduring picture of bureaucracy that is applicable in every
country and to every type of regime.
Yet the peculiar, elegant impotence of
Whitehall at this period gave the program an extra bite in Britain. Time
and again, on arriving in a department,
Clarke encountered a staggering level
of noncooperation, which elsewhere
would have been grounds for dismissal.
After agreeing to a reform program for
the National Health Service with the
prime minister, Clarke sauntered back
to his office to be informed by the affable permanent secretary, Sir Christopher France, that regrettably he did not
October 26, 2017
If they were stirred at all, it was mostly
by dislike of Thatcher’s favorites (several of them admittedly easy to dislike) and by a growing dislike of their
constituents, whose devotion to the
Blessed Margaret became even more
doglike. Patten rightly remarks that it
is extraordinary how many politicians
“do not seem to like people—their
voters—very much: a bit like doctors
not being able to stand the sight of
blood.” But he himself is not immune
to such aversions; he admits that “my
feeling about Bath fell short of dewyeyed love” and that when he lost the
seat in 1992, “my sentiments at parting
company were thus not those of unalloyed gloom.” He particularly disliked
“a number of rather unattractive and
mildly snobbish middle- class voters.”
People of this middling sort he dismisses as “the blazered vote.”
But who are the real snobs here?
Patten had, after all, worn a blazer
himself in his day. The dislike was returned as heartily at Westminster as
at Bath. Famously, when the news of
Patten’s defeat came up on the screen
at an election party given by the Tory
treasurer, the faux bonhomme Alistair
McAlpine, the assembled hard-liners
crowed “Conservative gain.” A remarkable show of loathing, considering
that Patten was party chairman at the
time and had just helped to win them
the general election.
You sense that he was not unhappy
to say goodbye to domestic politics and
sail off to Hong Kong as Britain’s last
governor. His remit was to prepare for
the handover to China in five years’
time. This was to be the beginning of
a period in his life in which everything
went right for him and he rendered signal service to the state.
On reaching Hong Kong, Patten immediately incurred the formal hostility of the Chinese government and the
rather more heartfelt hostility of the
British business community by injecting a degree of democracy that previous governors had not thought to offer
the colony. Patten took seriously Deng
Xiaoping’s offer of “one country, two
systems.” Edward Heath had originally
supported the argument that an injection of democracy would be the best
guarantee of Hong Kong’s future freedom. But after being repeatedly feted
in Beijing, he abandoned this view,
inviting himself to stay with Patten,
then going around the colony saying
what a mess the governor was making
by being so confrontational. It was a
typical piece of Heath boorishness,
equaled in Patten’s experience only by
the time when he demolished a lobster
and half a bottle of Chablis during a
speechwriting session without offering
Patten and his colleague so much as a
Patten is struck by how much of his
“public and private life has been spent
dealing with the politics of identity,
whose wild and carnivorous beasts
have torn so many societies to pieces
and unleashed so much havoc.” For
over a decade, first in Hong Kong, then
as chairman of the Independent Committee on Policing in Northern Ireland
from 1998 to 1999, and finally as an EU
commissioner from 1999 to 2004, he
was engaged in the business of smudging sovereignty, in the greater interests
of civil concord and prosperity.
In Northern Ireland, the British had
fought the IRA to a standstill, and a
sequence of peace deals wound the
conflict down until the province could
begin to breathe again. The outstanding issue that Patten was sent to resolve
was that of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which by virtue of its name and
the Crown on its cap badge was seen
as a sectarian force by the Catholic minority, who risked death if they joined
it, as indeed the Protestants did too.
Three hundred RUC officers had been
killed during the Troubles, 277 by the
have any officials who could be spared
to work on it. So often the minister
was, to borrow the embittered Norman
Lamont’s phrase about the Major government after he left it, “in office but
not in power.”
To have restored a modicum of genuine ministerial power was not the least
of Thatcher’s achievements, for which
subsequent governments, whatever
their aims, have reason to be grateful.
And throughout her principal hatchet
man was the most notorious of the
Wets, Kenneth Clarke. After her fall,
as John Major’s chancellor of the exchequer, he did more to restore the
public finances than any other chancellor since the war. In this office too, he
was acting in a decidedly Thatcherite
No one could have been better qualified to succeed John Major as party
leader in 1997. Yet Clarke was utterly
humiliated in that contest and on the
two other occasions he stood. He lost
55–45 to William Hague, then an inexperienced pipsqueak; he lost 61–39
to the risibly inadequate Iain Duncan
Smith; and in 2005, when David Cameron won, he was eliminated in the
first round. Each time, his opponent
claimed, with varying degrees of plausibility, to be a fervent Euroskeptic.
Each time, Clarke’s friends implored
him to muffle his enthusiasm for the
EU. Each time, Clarke refused.
Twenty years ago then, the Conservative grassroots were already venomously hostile to the EU. And it cannot
be denied that much of the damage
was done by Thatcher herself. She
persistently badmouthed the EU and
its leaders at every opportunity while
energetically deepening the Union
through the achievement of the Single
Market. It might be too much to say, as
Patten reports the acerbic Jock BruceGardyne saying, that she would save
the country but destroy the Conservative Party and that both the country
and the party deserved what was coming to them. But she certainly is a good
part of the reason why we are where we
Patten himself came too late to the
High Table to take much part in the
struggle. He reached the Cabinet in
Thatcher’s closing years, and his first
task was the hopeless one of trying to
rescue the wretched Poll Tax, which
shifted the local tax burden from property owners to all adults, one of the
worst ideas ever to make it onto the
statute book. Anyone who retains any
illusions about Cabinet government
should note the craven way in which
every minister except Nigel Lawson
tamely assented to a measure they knew
would be a disaster (and even Lawson
retreated into an impotent grump). In
general, it seems, the Wets declined
into a sort of internal exile, still ready
to accept any office that came their way
but unwilling to offer any sustained critique or alternative.
New York
christened him “the Mad Monk.” Margaret Thatcher herself figures mostly
as a sort of stern house matron who
occasionally shows a softer side. The
great battles of the period—the miners’
strike, the ferocious arguments about
trade union reform and the governance
of state schools and the privatizing of
nationalized industries—all seem to be
happening offstage, as they would in a
play by Racine or Aeschylus.
Patten does pay dutiful tribute to
Thatcher’s achievements in “making Britain governable again,” but he
does not show much interest in how it
was done, and he remains hostile to
her economic policy, which he refuses
to consider seriously. I noticed the
same thing in his earlier account of his
travels around the United States on a
Coolidge Fellowship after leaving Balliol in the late 1960s. There too tempestuous passions were in play, new ideas
up and running. Patten shows little
interest in these debates, writing off
Reagan as a buffoon, or, worse, a dishonest buffoon. He reads Hayek but
does not inhale, remaining wedded to
the old patrician Republican Party of
John Lindsay (for whom he worked
and whom he came to admire), Nelson
Rockefeller, and Jacob Javits. He is just
as proud to be immoderate in the defense of moderation as Goldwater said
he was in the protection of liberty.
Which is fine, except that contentment with the conventional wisdom
was unlikely to provide much of an
engine for reform. It is notable that the
“Wets,” as the moderates came to be
called, were often resistant to reforming anything much. As employment
secretary, Jim Prior, for example, espoused what he called “a step-by-step
approach” to the reform of trade union
law, but his instinct turned out to be
more like Cardinal Newman’s “I do not
ask to see the distant scene; one step
enough for me.” The sustained energy
came mostly from the rougher element
who would not have been welcome at
the Blue Chips’ table. But it was Kenneth Clarke who displayed the most
conspicuous energy in turning Thatcher’s mantras into concrete results.
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under which the force was to be renamed the Police Service of Northern
Ireland and recruits were to be drawn
on a fifty-fifty basis, so that within ten
years 30 percent of the force would
be Catholic. The Unionists protested,
quite accurately, that British sovereignty over the Province was being
smudged to encourage Republicans
who continued to hope for a united Ireland one day. But the deal stuck.
In Brussels, he was in charge of the
EU’s external affairs. He found himself cleaning up the moral and physical
chaos left by the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Kosovo war had only just
ended. After a shaky, hesitant start, the
EU was now launched on an ambitious
program that combined financial aid
and support for building institutions
such as the courts and the police with
trade deals and the eventual prospect
of EU membership in return for good
behavior. By backing down on extreme
nationalist demands and agreeing to
accept outside supervision, the various
statelets could have a tolerable future,
provided they accepted the smudge.
These were tense and often dangerous
days, punctuated by gunfire, in shabby
bandit country where compromise had
been regarded as a crime. But tireless
negotiation, plus American backing
(the visiting US firemen like Richard
Holbrooke were indispensable), made
an uneasy peace stick.
These are remarkable achievements.
On the basis of this experience, Patten
could be forgiven for believing that it
ought to be possible to persuade people
to accept smudged sovereignty, overlapping identities, call it what you will, in
any circumstances in which they would
be demonstrably better off as a result.
He remains puzzled and hurt that the
British Conservative Party turns out to
be an exception to this rule:
The only great regret I have at this
stage of my life is the result of the
EU referendum and what it tells us
about the populist perils that ambush liberal international values
here, elsewhere in Europe and alas
in America too.
and Clarke are both happy
men. They find it hard to imagine the
unhappiness of others, to think themselves into the resentments of the less
fortunate. “Identitarianism,” whether
they see it at work in Europe or the US,
is a closed book to them. In particular, Patten cannot see why people fuss
about sovereignty. He insists that
what sovereignty means in practice is the power and authority you
have in relation to events at any
given moment. Sovereignty is not
a once-and-for-all commodity, or
an incredible shrinking asset. It is
not . . . like virginity, as Geoffrey
Howe used to note—there one moment, gone the next.
But this is not how the word is commonly—and, I think, correctly—used.
Sovereignty (“aboveness”) is not the
same as power. It is a matter of locating legitimate authority. The questions
to be asked are not about the quantum
of power being exercised under that authority. The questions are: What is the
nature of that authority? Where does it
come from? Who in the end calls the
shots? Who makes the ground rules?
What we are in quest of is what might
be more helpfully called ultimacy.
“A State either is sovereign, or is
not,” to quote Sir Noel Malcolm, our
foremost expert on Hobbes. You can’t
share sovereignty. It’s plenary and it’s
exclusive. This is a doctrine that comes
straight from Hobbes via Bagehot and
Enoch Powell. Bagehot says in The
English Constitution:
Hobbes told us long ago, and everybody now understands that
there must be a supreme authority,
a conclusive power in every state
on every point somewhere.
When a nation-state joins an international organization like NATO or
the UN or the EU, power, not sover-
remains tiny. Ninety-nine percent of
British taxpayers’ money is spent by
British ministers to suit British needs.
In their day, many of the most fervent
Brexiteers, like Lawson, Gove, and
Tebbit, carried out vast reforms of the
British tax system, state schools, and
trade union law without a squeak out
of the EU. The euro remains hopelessly
crippled by the continued reluctance of
Germany and other Northern European states to transfer funds to Greece
and other Mediterranean members,
which would be an essential first step
for the creation of a federal Europe.
“Take back control,” Patten retorts,
not unreasonably—“what control did
we lack?”
To Patten and the 48 percent who
voted like him, it seems obvious that
EU membership offers opportunities
Andrew Parsons/ PA Archive/ PA Images
IRA. Patten brokered a new settlement
the balance of power to malign effect,
as the Irish members did in the Asquith
I quite agree that “it is crucial to
manage national opinion so that the
public do not believe that their loyalties
are being rolled over.” But how is this to
be done? Is it really true that, as Patten
claims, “it should be relatively straightforward for political leaders to prevent
national pride turning into aggressive
xenophobia”? If so, why didn’t they do
it? Several times, he laments that he
and the other pro-Europeans failed to
confront the myths, lies, and exaggerations about Europe, for fear of stirring
up the right wing and out of reluctance
to stand up to the tabloid press.
I don’t think it was just fear, or political prudence, to use a kinder term.
There was also a lofty unwillingness to
look more closely at what the identitarians were worried about. There was a
certain Balliol insouciance among the
elite, and the common folk felt it. The
fact that we have only just begun to
talk about identitarianism suggests that
we haven’t really thought much about
what it means. The nearest I can get to
defining it is that it is the old Hobbesian case dressed up as “traditional
Put quite simply by Sir Roger Scruton
in a recent newspaper article, the indictment is that a familiar and coherent tradition of living together has been
undermined by a sequence of hasty, illthought- out tamperings with Britain’s
political arrangements:
Ken Clarke in his office in Westminster, September 2005
eignty, is being pooled. For mutual
convenience, the parties may agree to
smudge their sovereignties, but they
are not thereby obliterated. Any party
is entitled to leave and take back the
relevant powers whenever it chooses,
a right made explicit in the case of the
EU by the Lisbon Treaty of 2007. Exactly how any nation-state makes its
decision to join, not to join, or to leave
is up to that nation. The people of Norway and Switzerland have both voted
to stay out, several times, despite the
wishes of their governments, and both
nations have stayed out. The people of
France, Ireland, and the Netherlands
have all voted “No” to further development of the EU, and their governments all blithely disregarded their
I remember Frits Bolkestein, a Dutch
EU commissioner alongside Patten, lamenting that “the people were not well
instructed.” A breathtaking piece of
condescension, but there was no doubt
that the Dutch government had the
right to ignore the vote. The poor Irish
people were made to vote again to give
the desired answer, which they obediently did. The British government too
had the theoretical right to disregard
the result of the 2016 referendum, but
it would have been political suicide.
The point is that the European Union
remains an association of nation-states,
and is likely to remain so, despite the
hopes of the federalists and the fears of
the Europhobes.
Nor is it true that the mission creep
of the EU’s institutions is likely to
bring its members closer and closer to
the point where they ultimately lose
their individual sovereignty to a United
States of Europe. The EU’s budget
in trade, work, travel, and national security to us all, not just the pampered
elites. The auto workers of Sunderland
owe just as much to the UK being in
the EU as do the slickers of the City of
London. What’s more, the connections
built up over forty years are devilishly
difficult to disentangle without damage, as Britain’s negotiators are now
finding every day.
In an earlier work, Not Quite the
Diplomat (2005), Patten gives an acute
analysis of the difficulties we are now
running into, and the drawbacks of any
alternative arrangements such as those
now enjoyed or endured by Norway
and Switzerland. These problems were,
in truth, not hard to foresee: if you
withdraw from a trade bloc but wish to
continue trading with it on favorable
terms, then inevitably you must become
a rule-taker instead of a rule-maker. In
return for access to the single market,
we graciously allow Continentals to
come to Britain to do the jobs we were
not prepared to do ourselves, stocking
shelves, picking peas and strawberries,
waiting tables. One numbskull Brexiteer suggested recruiting British pensioners to pick the potatoes instead.
“Now there’s an election winner!” Patten chortles.
Patten rejects the idea that Cameron had no alternative but to offer a
referendum on Brexit. Even if the Remainers had won, let’s say by the margin they lost by of 52–48, the Leavers
would have been back for one more
heave. True enough, but could Cameron really have gritted his teeth and
carried on regardless, as the UKIP vote
continued to rise beyond three to four
million and to reach the point where
the party began to win seats and hold
The mass immigration of communities who define their political membership in religious rather
than secular terms; the transfer
of sovereignty from parliament to
unelected officials in foreign countries and foreign courts of law; the
disruption of the common law by
the abolition of the tutelary office of Lord Chancellor and the
creation of a continental-style Supreme Court; the assault on national unity caused by creating a
Scottish parliament while leaving
the English with no assembly of
their own—all these changes have
occurred with only the most muted
of protests from the Conservative
Party and certainly with no attempt to articulate in a coherent
way what is really at stake in them,
namely our survival as a distinctive
sovereign body.
One may certainly quarrel with the
slant that Scruton puts on these items. I
have already argued, for example, that
there has been no transfer of sovereignty to Europe. But it has to be admitted that, taken together, these changes
do add up to something. I would define
it as an unclenching of power from the
balled fist of Whitehall/Westminster.
As they work their way through, these
changes nudge us in the direction of a
more open, devolved society, in which
it is easier to raise questions and interrogate authority. But then plenty
of people, especially older people, are
not that keen on the idea of an open
society, and do not care to be nudged.
Nothing was more remarkable about
the results of the EU referendum than
the age breakdown: over 70 percent of
under-twenty-fives voted Remain; two
thirds of over-sixty-fives voted Leave.
The New York Review
There is a fair case, based on reallife experience, for each of the changes
that Scruton abhors. Scottish opinion
was overwhelmingly in favor of restoring its old Parliament to bring
government closer to home. The new
Supreme Court is not the brainchild
of demented rationalists; it is a natural
response to a world in which we expect judges to review official decisions
without fear or favor. As for the EU,
many of its activities arise out of purely
practical needs for common standards
of health, safety, patent law, environmental protection, trading rules, design, professional qualifications, and
a dozen other desiderata of the modern world. Yes, Patten concedes, the
EU often tries to do too much, but if
it did not exist, we would need to in-
To the Editors:
I write to clear up misconceptions about
the Constitution, the law, and my book in
the review of The Case for Impeachment
[NYR, September 28]. The reviewers’ most
serious error, with profound implications
for current debates, is their claim that impeachment is inapplicable to offenses occurring prior to the presidency. The reviewers cite no authorities for this proposition
and ignore the lack of any such limitation in
the Constitution. They dismiss my example
of a federal judge impeached for transgressions before assuming the bench, saying,
“Judges may be different from presidents,
since past criminal activity could impinge
on their ability to deliver justice fairly.”
Yet they fail to draw the obvious connection that any collusion between Trump and
the Russians would profoundly impact his
ability to govern, even subjecting him to
foreign blackmail.
The reviewers incorrectly claim that
Trump could not be charged with treason
if he colluded with the Russians, saying
that treason requires “a state of war.” Yet
Russia had engaged in acts of war against
America, not with bullets and bombs, but
through a modern form of warfare, a cyberattack on our democracy. According to Russia’s “Gerasimov Doctrine,” propounded
in 2013 by Valery Gerasimov, chief of the
general staff of the Russian Armed Forces,
“The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The
role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in
many cases, they have exceeded the power
of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”
The reviewers claim that in suggesting that Trump could be charged with a
“crime against humanity” for throttling
back efforts to combat climate change, I
advocate impeachment over a policy difference, a position I explicitly disavow, writing, “Differences of policy and values do
not make a case for impeachment.” I say
instead that impeachment requires proof
that his backtracking on climate change
threatens the well-being and survival of
humanity. Crimes against the environment
are well recognized in international law,
and have grounded successful civil suits in
several nations. A similar suit is pending
in the United States. Trump himself made
the case of considering inaction on climate
change a crime against humanity in a 2009
open letter to President Obama, saying, “If
we fail to act now [on climate change], it is
scientifically irrefutable that there will be
catastrophic and irreversible consequences
for humanity and our planet.”
The reviewers incorrectly say that I cite
Trump’s history of lying as a ground for
impeachment. Rather, I claim only that
Trump’s propensity to lie could expose him
to impeachment if, like Bill Clinton, he lies
when testifying under oath. They claim that
I present Trump’s “misogyny” as another
impeachable offense, although I cite his war
on women only as a potential impeachment
trap through a civil lawsuit that might compel him to testify under oath.
October 26, 2017
Alexander Hamilton;
portrait by James Sharples, circa 1796
Ironically, the reviewers draw extensively
on other parts of my book without attribution. They closely track my language on why
impeachment need not involve an indictable
crime, even requoting phrases from Alexander Hamilton presented in my book. They
make a case for Trump’s violation of the
Emolument Clause of the Constitution that
is nearly identical to my analysis, citing many
identical examples, such as his trademarks
from China, his Trump Tower Manila, and
foreign profits from his hotels. They ignore
my chapter on abuse of power, yet make
nearly the same claims for impeachment,
including his attacks on the judiciary and
the press, and his accusation that President
Obama had wiretapped his phones.
The reviewers make another damaging
mistake by claiming that even if Trump colluded with the Russians, “the issue really is
the cover-up, not the crime.” This trivializes the importance of such collusion, which
would constitute the most serious threat to
our democracy in the history of the nation.
An emphasis on the “cover-up” plays into
the hands of Trump and his apologists who
have been implying that collusion was not
a serious matter. In response to revelations
of the June 2016 meeting between leaders
of his campaign and the Russians, with the
intent of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton,
Trump said, “Most people would have
taken that meeting . . . it’s very standard.”
If such conduct were ever to become standard, American democracy would suffer a
grievous, perhaps even fatal blow.
Allan Lichtman
Distinguished Professor of History
American University
Washington, D.C.
Noah Feldman
and Jacob Weisberg reply:
Contrary to Professor Lichtman’s assertion,
the text of the Constitution does specify
that crimes a president may have committed before taking office are not impeachable offenses—by using the word “high” to
modify “crimes and misdemeanors.” High
crimes, as we explained, are those that relate to the office occupied by the person
being impeached. Actions taken without
connection to political office, such as prior
wrongdoing unconnected to the presidency,
vent something not unlike it—which
is what we are currently struggling
to do.
All this needed to be said loud and
clear before public opinion had soured
and congealed. The failure of the elite
was not in what they did but in what
they failed to say. Their heads were
clear enough, but they never cleared
their throats. I do not say that an invi-
tation to join the modern world is ever
an easy one to put to suspicious voters.
But it is a sad fact that over the past
forty years nobody with that kind of
persuasive power has led the Conservative Party, or the nation, in the general direction of Europe. Ken Clarke
might well have managed it, but he
was too unbending to give himself the
are not and cannot reasonably be construed
to be “high.” Precedent overwhelmingly
supports this understanding. From 1789
until 2010 not one federal official was impeached for actions taken before assuming
As Alan Baron, a former special counsel on impeachment, points out in another
letter to the editors not published here,
the 2010 impeachment of federal judge G.
Thomas Porteous went against this tradition to a degree. One of the four articles of
impeachment against Porteous was for “a
longstanding pattern of corrupt conduct”—
taking kickbacks from a bail bondsman—
that had begun when he was a state court
judge and continued while he served on
the federal bench. The other three articles
related exclusively to Porteous’s federal judicial service. To the extent that the citation of the judge’s earlier conduct could be
understood as a departure from precedent,
as was justified at the time by then Senator Jeff Sessions, it was in our view highly
As we noted, the Porteous article of impeachment could arguably be justified on
the theory that the constitutional status of
judges differs from that of presidents. Under
Article III of the Constitution, judges serve
“during good behavior”—a restriction not
applied to the president. It could be maintained that prior wrongful acts by judges
constitute a violation of “good behavior”
deserving impeachment insofar as they
make it impossible for judges to be seen
to be doing justice—especially when the
course of conduct is ongoing, as Porteous’s
was. In any event, Congress’s impeachment
of him in 2010 should not be interpreted as
a “seismic change” in the law of impeachment, as Baron suggests, but rather as an
outlying case that does not set a clear precedent for presidential impeachment.
Whether this matters in practice will
probably depend on what the Mueller investigation reports. As we argued, collusion
over the election would be a borderline
case, since the election relates to the presidency. However, collusion during the campaign would likely be linked to unambiguously impeachable offenses in office, such
as a cover-up or rewards to co-conspirators.
Some of Lichtman’s other assertions also
rest on mistakes of law. The US is not now
in a legal state of war with Russia despite
that country’s attempts to affect the 2016
election. The Constitution requires Congress to declare war or authorize the use
of military force. Furthermore, President
Trump’s announcing an intent to withdraw
from or renegotiate the Paris climate accord, while in our view bad policy, does not
violate international law according to any
remotely plausible theory, much less constitute a crime against humanity. This sort
of hyperbole tends to undercut serious discussion of impeachment.
Finally, Alexander Hamilton’s account of
impeachment has been discussed by every
scholar on the topic since Joseph Story in
his 1833 Commentaries on the Constitution.
Trump’s attacks on the judiciary and violation of the emoluments clause have been
front-page topics for months, written about
at length by both of us among thousands of
other commentators. We respectfully submit that discussion of these topics does not
require attribution to Professor Lichtman.
To the Editors:
Colin Jones, in his review of Timothy Tackett’s The Coming of the Terror in the French
Revolution [NYR, June 22], ignores the role
of the popular movement on the left that
opposed the dictatorship of Maximilien
Robespierre and the Terror. Neither Tackett nor Jones is unusual in this.
In particular, the role of the most important opposition group, La Société des Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires
(The Society of Revolutionary Republican
Women), is completely ignored. There are
two serious histories of this movement
in French: Daniel Guérin’s La Lutte des
classes sous la première République: Bourgeois et “bras nus” and Le Club des Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires by
Marie Cerrati. A recent book in English
by Hal Draper, Women and Class, includes
a discussion of this movement. Albert Soboul’s The French Revolution 1787–1799,
also in English, briefly notes that the club,
and all other women’s clubs, were abolished by Robespierre on October 30, 1793.
The history of the popular movement in
the French Revolution is one that has been
largely ignored.
E. Haberkern
Berkeley, California
To the Editors:
Colin Jones’s review of Timothy Tackett’s
The Coming of the Terror in the French
Revolution presents us with some curious
propositions. Undoubtedly, human emotions fueled the passage of the French
people from the legitimate assertion of the
public interest versus the royal prerogatives
in 1789 to the wholesale scapegoating of the
royalist class as well as fellow revolutionists caught up the frenzy of terror in 1793.
But how do we understand the structure of
these emotions and their origin in the public consciousness?
That question takes us from intellectual history to the realm of behavioral
and social science. And prompts another
question: Must revolutionary movements
take such destructive—and ultimately
self-destructive—measures as part of their
It doesn’t have to go in that direction—as
our recent study of group behavior demonstrates (Group Dynamics and the New
Heroism: The Ethical Alternative to the
Stanford Prison Experiment).
The norms of group behavior are set from
the top and communicated both explicitly
and implicitly, verbally and nonverbally. In
this social context, the emotional content
of a group is carried by specific leadership
roles that emerge from the group as part of
its organizational structure and process of
formation. One of the most salient features
of this paradigm is the scapegoat leadership
role that can either summon a spirit of collective acceptance and inclusion or lead to
suspicion, paranoia, and murder. How the
scapegoating behavior is managed by the
task leaders is the determining factor.
Historians and social psychologists
as distinct disciplines have not enjoyed
much cross-fertilization. But there may be
room for fruitful collaboration when investigating the structure of revolutionary
Bill Roller and Philip Zimbardo
Berkeley, California
Colin Jones replies:
Timothy Tackett’s The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution seeks to go
beyond factional maneuverings in 1793 to
focus on how apparently perfectly respectable members of the middling classes were
drawn toward acceptance of actions from
which they would ordinarily have shrunk in
horror. He wants to understand that acceptance from the inside, moreover, as a felt
phenomenon, and thus draws on the diaries
and letters of ordinary men and women
(who inevitably therefore are predominantly from the literate classes).
This emphasis on the emotional life of
what historians used to call the Revolutionary bourgeoisie is pertinent and welcome
in that it rejects most earlier discussions of
emotions in the Revolution, which luridly
highlighted the allegedly irrational, hysterical, and bloodthirsty motivations of the
lower classes, particularly women in fact.
Far from “completely ignoring” the Society for Revolutionary Republican Women,
moreover, Tackett cites it on multiple occasions, highlighting the ways that it inspired
and pioneered a set of feminist demands
that remain brightly relevant in our own
day. He is surely correct, however, not to
view the society as “the most important oppositional group” at the time. It comprised
less than two hundred members, had very
limited influence within Paris, and developed a fluctuating political agenda over
its short life of a few months before it was
crushed in late 1793—to disappointingly
low levels of popular protest.
Like Dr. Zimbardo and Mr. Roller, I
too somewhat regret that Tackett’s history
of the emotions in the Revolution fails to
signal what the field might gain from interdisciplinary links to social psychology. In
my review, I noted that he did not utilize
the work of William Reddy, whose study
of eighteenth-century France (notably The
Navigation of Feeling, 2001) draws heavily
on social science methodologies. Tackett’s
own approach adapts the medieval historian Barbara Rosenwein’s idea of “emotional communities,” a concept that might
offer bridges into the kind of leadership
studies cited by Roller and Zimbardo.
To the Editors:
I was surprised at Robert Pogue Harrison’s
assertion in “The True American” [NYR,
August 17] that “Thoreau hardly makes it
onto the list of notable American authors
outside his home country,” and that “his peculiar brand of American nativism has little
international appeal.” In fact, Thoreau’s
international reception is both broad and
deep at this summer’s mark of his bicentennial. Already Tolstoy appreciated what he
saw as Thoreau’s back-to-the-land ethics of
simplicity, while later on Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and representatives of several emanicipatory movements,
including the Spanish opponents of fascism
during the civil war and the Danish resistance to Nazi occupation during World War
II, found value and inspiration in Thoreau’s
brand of civil disobedience.
Thoreau’s Walden was published in England in the late nineteenth century, aided
by the promotion offered by the famous
proponent of vegetarianism cum social activist Henry S. Salt. During the early-to-mid
decades of the twentieth century, the book
was also translated into German, French,
Spanish, Russian, Italian, several Nordic
languages, Japanese, and Chinese. By all
accounts it has been a decided success, seeing new translations and editions surface
regularly—among them a very recent one
in Farsi in Iran. In 1971 Thoreau’s international reception had reached a point where
it received due attention in the anthology
Thoreau Abroad (1971), containing a dozen
essays by American and international Thoreau scholars covering different regions.
While it is certainly true that Thoreau research remains overwhelmingly American,
which fact will be amply evident already by
the Thoreau books covered by Harrison’s
omnibus review, it seems erroneous to claim
that Thoreau is too quirkily and idiosyncratically American to appeal to foreign readers. As Harrison himself states, putatively
“American” outlooks or behaviors are easily
contrasted by their evident opposites. Thoreau likewise provokes and inspires readers
near and far for the interpretive choices and
responsibilities his writings prompt. Working beside his environmentalism and abolitionism, Thoreau’s never-failing penchant
Henry David
for proud paradox and plural entendre,
along with his ever-rich veins of humor, continually prod his readers to self-inquiry and
action both private and civic.
Yet there is also, and undeniably, a vibrant and ongoing scholarly exchange on
Thoreau beyond the shores of America.
In 2009 European and American Thoreau
scholars joined for an ambitious conference
in Lyon, France, to discuss his writings and
their legacy. The ensuing well-received anthology, Thoreauvian Modernities: Transatlantic Conversations on an American Icon
(2013), was published by the University
of Georgia Press. A follow-up bicentennial Thoreau conference, also to be held
in Lyon, is scheduled for this mid-October,
and next spring a Thoreau symposium will
be held in Gothenburg, Sweden, in early
May. These are just indications of Thoreau’s continued interest among scholars, of
course, while there are bound to be more
Thoreau-related panels and events unfolding internationally in the near future.
Writing from provincial Sweden, I can report that the last decade has seen the following Thoreau publications disseminated to
curious Swedish readers: a new, annotated
translation of Walden (2007); two translations of “Resistance to Civil Government”;
an edited selection of Thoreau’s bird notes
in his journal; as well as a wider swath of his
1850s journal. While he cannot compete for
attention with our popular crime authors,
recipe-book writers, and other peddlers to
the popular moment, Thoreau’s impact has
remained distinct and steadily growing over
time. He has had several more lives to live
beyond his native Concord and America.
the whole, she ably rose to the challenge. I
would like to offer two brief comments that
may help to round out the story.
The first concerns the many attempts
that have been made at reconstructing the
ancient city of Rome since the time of the
Renaissance. A reconstruction of a city is
nothing if it does not take risks. And yet it
must not go too far: otherwise it becomes
simply an imaginary city or an architectural
caprice. There is a delicate balance in taking just a few steps beyond the bounds of
knowledge at the time and in completing
the unknown according to culturally accepted rules (again at the time), so that the
reconstruction will be seen as convincing.
Over the years, reconstructions of ancient Rome have taken many different
forms: maps, paintings, prints, gardens,
theater scenery, scale models, and now an
atlas. In 1561, Pirro Ligorio, an architect,
was the first to produce a bird’s-eye-view
map of the entire ancient city. Stefano Du
Perac (1574) and Mario Cartaro (1579)
then followed in his footsteps—each claiming, of course, that his reconstruction was
better than the previous ones. Michel de
Montaigne formed his initial ideas about
ancient Rome by studying such “pictures,”
as he called them. When he made his first
visit to Rome in 1581, he walked around the
city and soon realized that all of the reconstructions had their limitations.
What Carandini and his coauthors are
doing is more than just reading the ruins
of Rome. They are returning to a timehonored endeavor and giving us the most
recent edition of Montaigne’s “pictures.”
It will be the task of the next generation
of scholars to probe the strengths and the
weaknesses of their reconstructions.
The second comment involves the parallels in the lives of Carandini and Giacomo
Boni (1859–1925), who have made major
contributions to the archaeology of early
Rome. They both had charismatic personalities, a passion for digging well and deeply
at sites in the center of ancient Rome, and
an enthusiasm for seeing Romulus as a figure in history. Today most archaeologists
and ancient historians view the first king of
Rome as a legendary figure. And this was
the case in Boni’s time as well.
In 1899, Boni made two important discoveries at the Comitium in the Forum: the
first was the Lapis Niger (the shrine where
he thought Romulus was buried) and the
second was the famous early inscription
written in archaic letters with the word rex
(king) in it, which dates to the sixth century
BC. Boni’s belief in the historical Romulus
led him to draw connections with what he
was finding in his excavations that have
not survived the test of time. In retrospect,
it would have been better for him to follow the advice of Domenico Comparetti, a
leading scholar at the time, and take a more
cautious approach to reading the ancient
sources on Romulus.
In the case of Carandini, there are leading scholars today who tried to wave him
off this quixotic course but to no avail. Instead, he forged ahead and bet the whole
house on Romulus. Whether or not this was
such a good decision on his part, only time
will tell.
To the Editors:
Andrea Carandini stands out from other
scholars who have studied ancient Rome
over the last forty years in his enthusiasm
for creating visual reconstructions of the
early city and in his fascination with Romulus as a figure in history. Mary Beard
had her hands full in reviewing The Atlas
of Ancient Rome [NYR, July 13], and, on
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Twilight of Empire
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