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Harper's Magazine - May 2018

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RICK MOODY: MY SEVEN YEARS OF IDENTITY THEFT
Rebecca Solnit
MISREMEMBRANCE
OF THINGS PAST
EX
PL
MIK
ERSECUTIO
P
’S
N
E
C
C
N
IT’S TIME TO
DISCONNECT
Geoff Dyer
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HARPER’S MAGAZINE/MAY 2018
BANTER OF
THE SEXES
Rachel Cusk
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Securing Peter Hujar’s place among the greats
From the Archive
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SEVEN YEARS OF IDENTITY THEFT
An epistolary sequence
Letter from Pretty Prairie
DRINKING PROBLEMS
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Rebecca Solnit
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Jacqueline Rose
the potty humor of Éric Chevillard
Rachel Cusk
Molly Dektar, Karine Laval, Guy Martin,
and a university professor is sexually harassed by a man-child
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Meghan O’Gieblyn
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Will Ford
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Stephen Koch
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Susan Sontag
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Rick Moody
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Elizabeth Royte
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Juliana Spahr, introduction by Ben Lerner
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Geoff Dyer
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HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
LETTERS
Things We Can Do Without
Katie Roiphe ignores the fact that
gender inequality is a psychological
condition, not just a material one
[“The Other Whisper Network,” Essay, March]. She dismisses participants of the #MeToo movement as
being motivated by “Trumpian” urges
toward “grandeur,” but if anything
has driven these women to such ends
it is the denial of justice through our
legal system, which more often compels silence. The 35 percent of women who have experienced sexual violence surely do not need Roiphe’s
characterization of their efforts to
now be heard as a performance “enticed” by the “drama of the moment.”
What Roiphe and Rebecca Solnit
[“Nobody Knows,” Easy Chair,
March] both acknowledge is that
drama is sometimes the only weapon
available to the powerless against the
powerful. Unlike Roiphe, though,
Solnit afirms what she sees as the
writer’s essential obligation to sociHarper’s Magazine welcomes reader response.
Please address mail to Letters, Harper’s
Magazine, 666 Broadway, New York, N.Y.
10012, or email us at letters@harpers.org.
Short letters are more likely to be published,
and all letters are subject to editing. Volume
precludes individual acknowledgment.
ety: “to hear and to tell the stories of
the powerless.”
Valerie Grey
Portland, Ore.
Sexual assault and boorish behavior are not the same thing. When we
conflate the two, we trivialize the
more serious issue, making it harder
to ight genuine sexual assault and
physical abuse. Such behavior, ironically, is anti-feminist: it implies that
women are weak, constantly victimized by a world of men who see them
only as sex objects. It also fails to
recognize that human beings, no
matter their gender, are complex animals navigating loneliness, desire,
and the need for validation. Instead
of demanding a legal document from
someone before kissing them, we
should build a culture of mutual understanding and respect.
Wendy Gordon
Portland, Ore.
I have voiced concerns similar to
Roiphe’s regarding the damage done
to our collective sense of legal and
moral justice by the zeal of #MeToo,
and have also been viliied for doing
so. My career in the corporate world
began in the mid-Seventies—a less
enlightened time—and was fraught
with issues similar to those described
by many women today.
But while the times have changed,
the choices available to women (absent physical or chemical coercion)
remain the same: say yes, say no, or
work around it. Whatever you
choose, own it.
Ann Kulonda
Harrisburg, Pa.
Roiphe has long acted as a female
proxy providing cover for male
grievance. All movements that confront the status quo contain elements of overreach; it comes with
the territory. But for Roiphe to
characterize the injustices some
men might experience as equivalent
to the injustices women suffer is ludicrous. And for Harper’s Magazine
to devote so much space to this defense (and to anoint Roiphe its
commentator above all other feminist writers) reflects an ignorance of
the deep, long-standing, and constant abuses that women face because of entrenched sexism.
Gay Walch
Los Angeles
Stories of being hit on, touched,
or even just approached by men imply a type of power held by the storyteller: the power to incite desire.
If we are demanding that men interrogate their thought processes
and the influence of subconscious
desires, then perhaps we should
consider whether there might not
also be the barest hint of bragging
in our stories.
Liz Wheeler
Bethlehem, Pa.
Solnit understands what Roiphe
does not: sexual harassment is about
power, and #MeToo is about women
wising up to that. Roiphe, it seems,
would rather women continue to
cower than shed light on this.
May Partridge
Nanaimo, British Columbia
The #MeToo movement doesn’t
have power; it has influence. Enough
women came forward that something inally had to change, but few
(if any) of us have demanded that
this happen without due process.
The question waiting to be answered, then, is why due process has
in some instances seemingly been eschewed, with companies choosing to
quickly dump men accused of sexual
misconduct. Are they really so
shocked at what has been happening
that they must immediately eject the
culprits? Or are these efforts actually
gestures to placate the movement
while hoping that momentum will
soon swing back to the status quo
and the cover it provided?
Dorothy C. Miller
Cleveland
Roiphe creates the impression that
she and her anonymous sources have
little personal knowledge of the
structural oppression of women.
Even though she does acknowledge
the marginalized and powerless
women who have been the targets of
harassment and exploitation, she
nonetheless inds a way to separate
herself from them. This is a form of
female tokenism. The force with
which many of these women express
their rage is not new, but they are
now being heard in a context that
demands inclusivity.
Kathleen Kambic
Albuquerque, N.M.
For too long now we have been
listening to women’s accusations of
sexual misconduct as though all such
accusations are of the same merit or
veracity. Women like me, who began
in support and understanding of the
movement, now find ourselves
shocked by a blithe and arrogant
readiness to dispense with due process and fairness, to castigate anyone
who dares raise questions. Roiphe is
far from alone in her views, and the
number of women who agree with
her is growing.
Jenny Falloon
Jávea, Spain
Roiphe compares two “whisper
networks”: one used by victims to
support one another in the absence
of appropriate action by the systems
tasked with protecting them, and
another made up of private conversations with friends and acquaintances who keep criticisms of the
former quiet lest they face backlash.
LETTERS
3
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This equivalence is wrong. Popular
opinion changes over time, but people have always been restrained as
to where and how far they can comfortably stray from it. For instance,
where once you could discuss victim
precipitation (she shouldn’t have
gone back to his apartment, etc.) in
“polite society,” now too many people know better.
Finding an agreeable audience
with similar opinions has proved
easy enough for Roiphe’s network—
much easier than for victims seeking
justice in the other.
Zach Neeley
Petaluma, Calif.
I had concluded that the mainstream media industry was simply a
cheer squad for a shared orthodoxy
and that independent thinking was
not allowed. Roiphe has given me
reason to consider engaging again.
Stan Brown
Claremont, Calif.
As Roiphe herself acknowledges,
we live in a patriarchy. Our media,
workplaces, schools, and political
and cultural institutions raise men
to believe they have power over
women. Over time, they learn that
intimidation or harassment not only
goes unpunished but also, as Rebecca Solnit writes earlier in the same
issue, often wins them opportunities. The public lists of accused men
that Roiphe inds so hysterical are
not intended to ruin or “castrate”
men; they’re intended to undermine
a culture that sanctions sexist behavior as a source of capital. In conjunction with undermining that
culture, we must also educate people
of all genders as to what healthy
professional and personal relationships look like between women and
men. No one—including men—is
safe in a society where sexual exploitation is a ticket to success.
Roiphe says that she has never
herself experienced sexual harassment. If so, she’s clearly had an easier path than most women. I’m glad
she’s found some small cadre of
like-minded folks, few and “deeply
anonymous” as they may remain,
with whom to weather this frightening moment, since any man will
4
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
tell you that privilege is a terrifying
thing to lose.
Hilary Lustick
Austin, Tex.
Roiphe’s essay is another instance of an elite group demanding
that an oppressed group censor its
frustration in deference to diplomacy. Roiphe’s argument rests on
women being able to distinguish
for themselves a predatory man
from a flirtatious one (forgoing the
need for a “burn list”), but then
somehow doesn’t grant these women the discernment to responsibly
receive the same opinions from
others. Why is the gray area in our
society always reserved for men? I
am concerned that Roiphe and the
“deeply anonymous” are bending
the forward path of this movement,
circling back around to disagreements between women and thereby
restricting the conversation to an
ineffective orbit.
Sadie Bills
Woodland, Calif.
Fighting Words
Ian MacDougall describes well the
real-world impact of “strategic lawsuits against public participation”
[“Empty Suits,” Report, March]. Although corporations intent on eliminating public participation by iling
SLAPPs rarely win in the courtroom,
they are effective in silencing citizens with the threat of court battles
and lawyer fees.
But readers should know that
many states have anti-SLAPP laws
that permit counterclaims for “vexatious litigation,” and fee-shifting
provisions that can enable private
citizens and public interest groups
to collect from litigious corporations. Also, when citizens prevail in
court, they can “SLAPP back”—sue
the corporation, using the commonlaw intentional tort action of “abuse
of process,” and recover damages for
certain harms suffered, such as loss
of reputation and credit, humiliation, and mental suffering.
Early use of this information can
deter cor porations f rom filing
SLAPPs by sending the message that
citizens and their lawyers have litigation tools, too.
Charlene LaVoie
Ofice of the Community Lawyer
Winsted, Conn.
Grace Under Fire
Sallie Tisdale expresses what
I’ve felt for several years while caring for my mother, who has vascular dementia [“Out of Time,” Miscellany, March]. I braced myself
stoically for heartbreak at irst, but
time and again she surprises me in
small, positive ways: spontaneously
hula dancing to a favorite hymn;
sitting still reading with me at the
library; learning to knit, a completely new skill for her. Despite the
behavioral problems and incredible
time demands, her condition has
taught me that being open to positive surprise takes effort—small
moments are easy to miss—but that
effort is often rewarded.
Oliver Eng
Madison, Wis.
For the decade it took my wife to
slip into the abyss of dementia, I felt
like a sidewalk gawker watching a
house burn to the ground. My efforts
to save her only compounded my
feelings of helplessness, and yet the
endless, all-consuming mystery of
this undeserved fate never gave way
to anger or pity.
The recollections of caregivers,
professional or otherwise, mean little
to me, but then maybe that’s because
mine is a story more about love than
about sickness. That we lived
through better and worse was our
shared fate, which nothing can
shake and not even death alter.
William Earley
Merion Station, Pa.
My mother developed vascular dementia in her early sixties and died
years later in a memory care unit,
slumped over in her wheelchair. She
had broken her leg a few years earlier,
and although she was able to recover,
she basically forgot how to walk during the healing period. Thank God
she never knew what she had come
to, this beautiful woman who once
took such pride in her appearance,
eventually reduced to a lump of uncomprehending, suffering flesh.
Tisdale’s experiences do not remotely reflect mine, and she is in no
position to interpret my feelings about
this patient’s—my mother’s—identity. It
is simply her opinion, and a hurtful one.
Nancy Udell
Lake Worth, Fla.
Exhausting Excuses
I’m seventy-two and have been a
dedicated runner for decades. I feel
that Barbara Ehrenreich goes too far
in her critique of itness culture, giving those less committed the relief
they need from trying [“Running to
the Grave,” Readings, March].
Ehrenreich does make a passing reference to “my gym,” suggesting she
has not discarded the notion entirely, but concludes her essay with a
graphic description of biology’s ultimate victory and the comment “So
much, then, for the hours—and
years—you have devoted to itness.”
But reasonable efforts to stay fit
are generally not directed at defeating the aging process. Rather, it is
about quality of life. Sure, we know
no one’s getting out of this alive—
and I agree with Ehrenreich’s criticism of fad diets and expensive potions and treatments—but I fear her
belittling of any attempt to stay
moderately it because of inevitable
decay may deprive those who accept
this absolute conclusion of prolonged
quality of life.
Gil Jordan
Coram, Mont.
Just One Small Thing . . .
I wasn’t surprised by Alan Lightman’s initial dismissal of the supernatural in favor of a veriiable material world [“The Infinity of the
Small,” Essay, March]. After quoting
Emily Dickinson, the poet who
chose to wed the two, he remarks
that “nature in her glory wants us to
believe in a heaven, something divine and immaterial beyond nature
itself,” while science proves the
world material. And yet he doesn’t
seem to appreciate how he tempts
us to believe in the supernatural
when he concludes that this material world, in its essential form, dissolves into “mansions within mansions” of space with energy, a world
“so thin that it dissolves into
nothingness”—“a ghost world.”
Why resist the supernatural world
and the way so many of us seek to
access it, choosing instead to contain it with equations or terminology
suspiciously poetic?
Mary Anagnos
Los Angeles
Lightman mentions Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, but he ignores Bertrand Russell’s solution to that paradox. If space is indeed infinitely
divisible, then time should likewise
be ininitely divisible. Therefore, although we must make an infinite
number of journeys to walk from the
chair to the door, are we not in fact
able to do so, since we have an ininite amount of time to spend on
these journeys?
Jonathan Allmaier
Bronx, N.Y.
Near the end of his essay, Lightman writes: “At the Planck scale,
time itself randomly speeds up and
slows down, perhaps even going
backward as well as forward.” I
strongly suspect this is a conscious
oversimpliication to avoid having to
explain the scientiic concept of time
to people who probably don’t understand it, but it bugs me. If physicists
keep saying things like that (which
they do say quite often when speaking to the rest of us), then those of
us who know a little physics will
keep doubting ourselves unnecessarily, and those of us who don’t will
simply be misled.
Time is not a thing but a label we
place on experience. I assume what
Lightman means is that if we could
shrink an observer to Planck scale,
that observer’s experience of time
could be that it was speeding up,
slowing down, or even reversing. And
that’s pretty interesting. I’d like to
learn more about why that is.
Scott Feuless
Houston
LETTERS
5
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EASY CHAIR
Driven to Distraction
By Rebecca Solnit
“O
nly connect” are the words that
E. M. Forster is most famous
for. What they actually meant
to him, however, often fades behind a
vague notion that his was a boosterish,
pro-connection position. The phrase
comes up when Margaret Schlegel, the
protagonist of his novel Howards End
(1910), drifts in reverie after accepting
a marriage proposal. “Only connect!”
we read. “That was the whole of her
sermon. Only connect the prose and
the passion, and both will be exalted,
and human love will be seen at its
height.” Margaret hopes to turn her
industrialist iancé into a person who
knows what he feels and questions what
he thinks—into a person possessed of
self-awareness and empathy, which in
the case of the widower Henry Wilcox
represents a major remodeling job.
Forster describes Henry as an imperialist: that is, a person who tends to
destroy the things to which he is connected. On the way to his newly acquired Shropshire estate, one of the
motorcars bringing Margaret and the
other guests flattens a cat in the road.
After briefly pondering the insurance
implications, the others intend to
zoom right on. Margaret, however,
leaps out of the car to console the
child whose cat it was. Afterward, she
reflects on their deep disconnection
from the landscape: “They had no part
with the earth and its emotions. They
were dust, and a stink, and cosmopolitan
chatter, and the girl whose cat had been
killed had lived more deeply than they.”
The novel’s title comes from an old
farmhouse, Howards End, which presides like a god over the lives of the
protagonists, sheltering and orienting
them and perhaps even disciplining
them. Forster idealizes the pastoral, the
slow, the natural, the deliberately fo-
cused, and insists that the variety and
bustle of urban life is an affliction. “The
more people one knows,” says Margaret,
“the easier it becomes to replace them.
It’s one of the curses of London.” You
might just as easily postulate Forster’s
ethos as “only disconnect.” Indeed, a
host of recent editorials on technology’s
damage to our minds have used that
phrase as their title without quite
grasping that Forster meant both his
original phrase and its inverse.
In both Howards End and a dystopian story he published a year earlier,
“The Machine Stops,” Forster proposes that the only way to connect to
the people closest to us, to the earth,
and to our own interior lives is to disconnect from other things. The story
is set in a future that bears an alarming
resemblance to our own present: people live alone in technologically sophisticated cells that provide for their
bodily needs, like embryonic bees in
their honeycombs. One day, as Forster’s
title suggests, the machine stops—and
the result is both fatal and liberatory.
T
hanks to our own megamachine, it often seems to me that
we have become a different species altogether, as though before social
media and smartphones we were something roaming in relative solitude, like
wolverines. Back then, our lives were
full of gaps. During the journeys between home and school and work, for
example, we were on our own, selfreliant, self-directed. In some ways, we
accepted more uncertainty in our lives,
and in others, we operated with more
inflexibility—without smartphones, you
couldn’t renegotiate your arrival time
over and over, or suddenly decide that
you wanted green olives and not black.
You had to live with black olives.
If we were wolverines then, we are
ants now, touching antennae repeatedly, checking in constantly as we laud
the conventional Instagram beauty or
shoot down the unresolved analysis.
The language that has emerged recognizes this collective, with terms like
“hive mind” and “swarm intelligence.”
Even our ability to find our way
through a given landscape has been
outsourced to devices.
This is what Silicon Valley has
brought us. And throughout the rise of
that economic and political powerhouse, connection has been celebrated
as a wonder and a gift. We heard endlessly of networking and interactivity
and the web and hyperlinks as if they
were self-evidently good and liberatory
things. These panegyrics were issued
without anything being said about the
vulnerabilities entailed or the potential
virtues of not being connected. Many
of the recent “only disconnect” editorials did inally raise this issue, but they
advocated mostly for personal disconnection, not for dismantling or limiting
the networks that run the world. Forster’s point, however, goes beyond the
merely personal. When you connect to
some things, he suggests, you disconnect from others, and those choices are
not only critical in shaping our lives but
are sometimes a form of resistance.
We are talking about a blessing, a
curse, and a profound tangle. Every
topic is a knot on a net, or a network.
Yank on it, and you tug on the other
topics it relates to, and each of them also
exists at the center of another nexus of
connections. You can’t explain something by isolating it, because its meaning comes from its context. Yet trying to
understand context easily replicates the
distractedness so often associated with
the internet: we drift along as link leads
EASY CHAIR
7
to link, or social media throws up topics
in no particular order, or search engines
churn the waters and whatever we manage to bring up from the depths is algorithmically weighted to serve agendas
other than our own. Distraction could
be described as a phenomenon in which
you connect, inadvertently or absentmindedly, to more things than you intended. The noise drowns out the signal.
Proposing, for example, that Uber’s
labor problems stem from tech’s wagesuppressing tendencies could lead you
to Spotify’s notorious underpayment of
musicians or Amazon’s attack on publishing or Airbnb’s impact on housing
markets and hotel employees. From
there, you could circle back to Uber’s
other human rights violations, from
massive internal misogyny to fairly
alarming invasions of privacy. Or you
could leapfrog over to the limousine
driver who shot himself in front of city
hall in Manhattan early this year because he could no longer make a living
in the trade he’d been practicing for
decades, and then you might think
about driverless cars and the ways that
tech is resolutely eliminating the human factor, also known as jobs, from so
many sectors of the economy.
If you talk about how Facebook gathers and sells data, you could go on to
discuss the very speciic data that was
sold to Cambridge Analytica and the
Trump campaign in the 2016 election.
That in turn raises the links between
Cambridge Analytica, which one former employee has called a “psychological warfare irm,” and Silicon Valley’s own sinister data-mining company,
Palantir. The latter was founded in part
by Peter Thiel (destroyer of Gawker,
early investor in Facebook, cofounder
of PayPal), and its “predictive policing”
technology has been a boon to racial
proiling in cities such as New Orleans.
Thiel in turn is connected to Rebekah
Mercer, the daughter of Cambridge
Analytica’s billionaire owner and a
major backer of Trump and Breitbart.
Each of these problems is connected
to other problems, and trying to understand any single one of them entangles
you in loose threads and associative and
(more to the point) literal networks. The
broad issue of privacy, for example, leads
quite naturally to the National Security
Agency as well as to Google, and to how
Apple phones track us all if we don’t
8
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
turn off the appropriate setting. For that
matter, you could cut to the chase and
explore how five of the biggest tech
companies—Amazon, Facebook,
Google, Apple, Microsoft—are trying to
create what Siva Vaidhyanathan, the
director of the Center for Media and
Citizenship at the University of Virginia, calls the “operating system of our
lives.” That is, they are endeavoring to
enmesh us in their programs and tools
and products. Taken to its logical conclusion, that means a world in which we
connect only through them, in which
we are absolutely surrounded by their
managing, filtering, informationgathering, information-shaping, and
moneymaking technologies.
D
istraction is far from the only
price we are paying, though it is
slowly but surely diminishing our
attention spans. Key elements of modern
life are connected in ways they were not
before, including the global financial
system, energy infrastructure, weapons
and security systems, and voter rolls. That
vulnerability is another phenomenon
that is largely invisible, or at least overlooked by the general public, and trying
to probe it leads into more tangles.
For example, on May 12 of last year,
more than 200,000 computers in more
than 150 countries were infected
thanks to a bug in older versions of
Microsoft Windows. The cost of the
so-called WannaCry ransomware attacks was estimated to be in the billions,
but the impact was more than monetary. The United Kingdom’s National
Health Service was taken offline by the
hackers, who also hit numerous hospitals in the country, crashing computers,
canceling operations, and forcing providers to turn away nonemergency patients. In some cases, the attackers also
extorted ransom payments from their
victims, and to avoid those payments
being tracked, they demanded payment
in the virtual currency bitcoin. The
success of the attack, in other words,
hinged on precisely who was accessible
and who was not, in ways that don’t
make the new connectedness seem like
a boon, exactly.
For that matter, almost all of the
Putin regime’s interference in the 2016
election was made possible by the internet. This includes the troll factories
and the bot armies and the advertise-
ments trying to shape opinion on Facebook and Twitter, the attempted invasion of voter rolls in twenty-one states,
and the release of fake news into a
chaotic system in which people no longer comprehend where information
comes from and how to ilter it.
That Russia also appears to have
hacked and sabotaged the Ukrainian
energy grid a few years ago is a warning
that hasn’t been heeded much, nor has
the possibility that all this amounts to
cyberwar and that we’re in the middle
of one, or several. We do not know
where we are in many ways. The public
and even the politicians we elected are
not making most of the decisions about
how our world is morphing, nor are
they even fully cognizant of how it is,
and that’s a form of disconnection that
should be terrifying.
O
ne evening not long ago, I dined
with two people who understand where we are better than
almost anyone else. One was Eva Galperin, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director of cybersecurity (“I hunt
governments”), and the other was Leigh
Honeywell, who works with the American Civil Liberties Union on security
and privacy issues. Talking to these
young powerhouses about the world of
digital connection was a bit like bounding onto a tennis court with Venus and
Serena Williams. Acronyms and specialized terminology—air gaps, InfoSec, the
Scunthorpe problem, griefers—flew between them, and I scrambled to keep up.
Somewhere in there, Galperin made
some remarks about the insecurity of
medical devices that can be hacked,
with fatal consequences, and mentioned
that Dick Cheney’s pacemaker had been
disconnected to prevent exactly that.
We moved on to sex toys with similar
operational pitfalls and some other gendered nastiness in the wired world.
There was, they mentioned, a “smart
vibrator” for couples that could be operated remotely, had text and chat features, and shared data with the manufacturer. Of course, it could be hacked,
too, and the information the company
collected was both extremely personal
and inadequately secured, which led to
a lawsuit and a $3.75 million settlement.
The impact of connectivity on our
intimate lives hardly stops there. We
talked about revenge porn, which af-
wesleyan university press
fects an enormous number of young
women now that sexual relationships
involve a lot of easily uploadable digital
photographs. The images are often
made by men replicating the iconography of online porn, and are displayed
on websites speciically designed for
such vengeful voyeurism. The day before our meeting, a Briton was sentenced to thirty-two years in prison
after using such images to blackmail
forty-six people, many of them children
and adolescents, into performing further acts of degradation for the camera.
The genre, built on pain and humiliation, is appropriately called hurtcore.
Then there is “deepfake” porn,
which came up in the conversation
over curry and spicy eggplant. Over the
past year, artificial intelligence has
made such great leaps forward that we
can now produce convincing videos in
which recognizable people appear to do
and say things they never did or said.
Inevitably, one of the offshoots is pornography with famous women’s faces
pasted onto other women’s bodies. The
ability to ind images, turn them into
recombinant forms of fakery, and circulate them around the globe is reaching a new summit of perfection.
Indeed, deepfake videos, pornographic or merely propagandistic, may
well inish off photography as what we
wanted it to be since 1839—a largely
trustworthy documentation of the actual. Perhaps all this will lead to an era
in which no one believes anything,
and everything solid that hasn’t already melted into air liquefies into
slime. We’re already well on the way.
Earlier this year, special counsel
Robert Mueller indicted the Kremlinconnected Russian Internet Agency,
along with twelve of its employees and
contractors, for using social media to
create havoc during the 2016 election.
The organization generated inflammatory Facebook pages with names such
as “Secured Borders,” “Blacktivist,” and
“United Muslims of America,” and used
these pages to promote real-life protests
and marches throughout the United
States. The Senate Intelligence Committee even alleged that the organization promoted both pro- and antiIslamic demonstrations at an Islamic
Center in Houston on May 21, 2016,
with the goal of further inflaming partisan tensions.
Another possible argument might be
that we don’t even have to worry about
the fake stuff. What most of us have
actually done and said and bought and
protested could come back to haunt us
like revenge porn, now that we’re in a
world where nearly any act performed
in view of a digital device and virtually
anything said on electronic media will
be archived. People running for ofice
or trying to adopt children or become
citizens are going to be facing documentation more comprehensive and
often more damning than any of us
ever did before.
Still, we face dangers on a far greater
scale than the personal. In the booth
in the dark restaurant, Galperin’s lavender hair and Honeywell’s pinkish
locks glowed as they talked about the
May 2017 cyberattacks—which at one
point they compared to the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic. In that case too,
Honeywell noted, the vulnerability
came from a lack of what she called
“discipline and hygiene.” She insisted
that in today’s networked world, we
were dealing with the same problem:
“Nobody’s washing their hands.” She
noted that all kinds of widely used
software were full of such bugs, and
described some that she had encountered a few years earlier.
Galperin remarked, “Jesus, was that
written on clay tablets?”
“What does worry me is state voting
rolls,” Honeywell said. “It’s like kicking
puppies. All of these systems are independently administered, and each one
is a nice, soft, juicy target.” The thing
that would alert most Americans to
the scale of the problem, they agreed,
was a catastrophic attack on the US
power grid.
“It will be like cyber Pearl Harbor,”
Honeywell noted half-jokingly, since
that’s a stock phrase among the alarmists. “Then people will pull their heads
out of their asses.”
Which was her way of saying that we
are disconnected from the frightening
reality of the world we live in. Disconnected in our incomprehension or ignorance, connected in all the ways that
make us vulnerable. We are dust, and a
stink, and cosmopolitan chatter, and
the girl whose cat has been killed lives
more deeply than we do—that’s one
way to frame the situation. Another is
to wonder if we’re the cat.
Q
EASY CHAIR
9
Inquisition
Kazim Ali
How we answer to
love beneath the
lash of history
Extra Hidden
Life, among
the Days
Brenda Hillman
Poetry of grief and
sustenance from an
award-winning poet
The Trailhead
Kerri Webster
Visionary poems lay
claim to the power
of the female poet
Typescript of
the Second
Origin
Manuel de Pedrolo
Translated by Sara
Martín
7KHƓUVW(QJOLVK
translation of a
Catalan science
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The Dog & the
Fever
Pedro Espinosa
Translated by
William Carlos
Williams
First full translation
and commentary
by famed American
modernist
wesleyan.edu/wespress
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or call 800-421-1561
Few members of the House and
the Senate read the paperwork they
sign into law, much of it composed
by lobbyists in whose interest the
wording is procured. The honorable
ladies and gentlemen on both sides
of the aisle spend virtually no time
in the building. They don’t debate;
they deliver favors to patrons, clients,
and friends, route insults to enemies
real and imagined, attend photo
opportunities to promote their
money and vote-getting smiles.
—Lewis H. Lapham
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LAPHAM’S
Q U A R T E R L Y
10 YEARS
HARPER’S INDEX
Number of US states in which fluorescent pink is a legal color for hunting apparel : 6
Percentage of US gun owners who report storing all their guns safely : 46
Who report storing some of their guns “on my person” : 11
Chance an American has taken an “active shooter” preparedness class : 1 in 10
Percentage of US “active shooters” from 2000 to 2016 who were killed by police : 21
Who were killed by armed civilians : 1
Minutes after refusing to debate an assault weapons ban that the Florida Legislature declared porn a “public health risk” : 58
Percentage of Florida homicides deemed “justiiable” before the 2005 enactment of the state’s “stand your ground” law : 3.4
Of Florida homicides that have since been deemed “justiiable” : 8.7
Percentage change last year in the number of federal inmates who earned a GED : −59
Number of New Jersey state prisons in which the book The New Jim Crow was banned before January : 2
Number of universities in which half of all the US tenured and tenure-track history professors are trained : 8
Percentage of US college students who have a worse opinion of conservatives after their irst year : 31
Who have a better opinion : 50
Percentage change last year in the portion of people in US-allied nations who approve of US leadership : −42
In non-allied nations : −11
Percentage of South Koreans over the age of 60 who support reuniication : 71
Of South Koreans in their twenties : 39
Number of the twenty largest German companies that are headquartered in the former East Germany : 0
Rank of Germany in consumption of nonalcoholic beer : 2
Of Iran : 1
Estimated percentage of US children who exhibit symptoms of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders : 5
Factor by which the portion of central Appalachian coal miners with severe black lung has increased since 1998 : 13
Percentage of US adults who claim to support organ donation : 95
Who register to donate their organs : 54
Estimated percentage of the world’s donkeys slaughtered annually to produce ejiao, a gelatin with alleged healing properties : 9
Chance that a Swede under the age of 30 is vegetarian or vegan : 1 in 5
Average change in the Yelp rating of an independent fast-food restaurant over the past ive years : +7
In the rating of a chain fast-food restaurant : −16
Portion of Hawaii’s drinking water that comes from underground wells : 9/10
Gallons of raw sewage that leak into the ground from Hawaii cesspools each day : 53,000,000
Percentage change since 2009 in reports of human waste on San Francisco streets : +391
Minimum number of 9-1-1 calls made after Apple workers walked into glass walls the month after their new headquarters opened : 3
Minimum factor by which references to emoji and emoticons in US court opinions have increased since 2014 : 7
Amount charged by Zain, Iraq’s largest telecom company, for a phone number with nonconsecutive digits : $5.90
For a phone number whose last ive digits are the same : $1,340
Percentage change since 2001 in the number of slot machines in Nevada : −24
Chance that a given day is a public holiday in Cambodia : 1 in 13
Rank of Disneyland among the happiest places on earth, according to Disneyland : 1
Percentage of Disneyland employees who worry about being evicted from their homes : 56
Figures cited are the latest available as of March 2018. Sources are listed on page 41.
“Harper’s Index” is a registered trademark.
HARPER’S INDEX
11
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READINGS
[Essay]
MOTHERS SUPERIOR
By Jacqueline Rose, from Mothers: An Essay on
Love and Cruelty, which was published this month
by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Rose is the author of
more than ten books, including Women in Dark
Times (Bloomsbury).
O
n October 12, 2016, a front-page story in
the Sun, a conservative UK newspaper, reported
that nine hundred women who were not British
citizens had given birth at a single National
Health Service hospital in the previous year.
Taxpayers were to pick up the four-millionpound tab. The hospital—read the nation—was
being “deluged” with foreign mothers.
The article was illustrated with a photo of Bimbo Ayelabola, a Nigerian woman who had delivered quintuplets by caesarean section ive years
earlier, at a cost to the NHS of 200,000 pounds.
The image of Ayelabola holding her ive babies
had clearly been chosen to reinforce the stereotype of blacks and the poor reproducing irresponsibly and to excess. “Get this mother out,” the paper seemed to say. (It barely refrained from the
suggestion that she should be hunted down.) The
scheming dereliction of foreign women threatened the nation’s values and resources alike.
The Sun article was published at a moment
when images of motherless children were also at
the forefront of the news. Unaccompanied minors were fending for themselves in the “Jungle,”
an encampment in Calais, France, hoping that
the British government would allow them entry
into the UK. Since the migration crisis began in
2015, an estimated 90,000 children and young
people had made the journey to Europe by
themselves, and roughly a thousand of them
ended up in Calais, where they led feral lives:
sharing tents with as many as eighteen other
children, no mattresses, no heating, no blankets.
Some of these minors were killed as they made a
run for freedom in the UK—by attaching themselves to the undersides of trucks, hiding in refrigerated containers, or throwing themselves
into the paths of cars they hoped would drive
them to Britain. The Conservative government
stalled their admission at every turn, and, in early 2017, halted their resettlement.
Where are the mothers of these children? The
migrant children’s absent mothers are the other
face of the pregnant “health tourists” lambasted
by the Sun. The mothers are either overlooked
or the target of blame, with migration and its
miseries the true story behind both.
Why are mothers so often held accountable
for the ills of the world? The breakdown in the
social fabric, the threat to welfare, the declining health of the nation—mothers are seen as
the cause of everything that doesn’t work in
who we are. We hold them uniquely responsible
for simultaneously securing and jeopardizing our future.
“A
ll I want is for you to be happy.” What
mother, what parent, would not stand by that appeal, however impossible the demand may be?
Impossible, irst, as a demand to be happy rather
than, say, alive in your own life; then, as a kind
of vicarious living through one’s child; and, inally, as the death knell for any chance of happiness, since you surely kill happiness the moment
you ask for it. My sister, Gillian Rose, once told
me about how she found herself on a train talking to a woman who had migrated from the Caribbean in the Fifties and then worked her way
through the system, against considerable odds, to
become the head teacher in a London school.
READINGS
13
The woman threw her head back in laughter at
the suggestion that parents should want their
children to be happy, as if the whole idea were
some kind of sick joke, the very last thing a
mother should ask for—of—her child. She had
the ills of the world at her ingertips, but she was
jubilant at the prospect of what needed to be
done. Her son became one of the most renowned
analysts of antiblack racism in the UK.
I always remember that story, and the woman’s
stubborn, expansive generosity of spirit, when I
think of the way mothers are expected to lock any
feelings of despair behind closed doors, especially
in those irst precarious moments of a mothering
life. Nowadays, postnatal depression is ascribed to
hormone imbalance and typically treated with
drugs or cognitive behavioral therapy. But perhaps
what goes by the name of postnatal depression is
a way of registering grief—past, present, and to
come. It should be reentered into the canon of
human distress, acknowledged as psychically and
historically meaningful instead of as a purely
clinical matter.
In South Africa, postpartum depression has been
described as an epidemic. It is prevalent among poor
black people, who are affected by unremitting racism
and persistent social and economic inequality. A
recent South African study focused on depression
among low-income black mothers who enacted
forms of violent rage, to their utmost despair, against
their children. When asked how they understood
their anger and aggression, they gave three main
causes: the demanding child and their own longing
to be an “ever-bountiful, ever-giving mother”; the
inconsiderate child who made them acutely aware
of their own need for attention, support, and respect;
and the child engaged in violence and drug abuse
who thwarted the mother’s yearning for “a new
identity and a new life through her child.” Note the
mirroring that binds the depressed mother to her
child: the child’s demands drive the mother to
unattainable perfection; the inconsiderate child
underscores the mother’s radical neglect of her own
life; the violent child destroys the hope for a better
future that the child was meant to personify.
These testimonies bear witness to the strong
correlation between major depression and poverty, a link that tends to be overlooked clinically
(and that must in this case be hugely exacerbated by the unmaterialized promise of a better
life after the end of apartheid). Also, the participants in the study are repeating a familiar pattern
in which a woman’s anger, deemed socially unacceptable, is internalized as violence against herself
and her child. But what stands out most clearly to
me is the vicious circle of idealization in which
these women are trapped. One by one, they source
their rage to the “pain and disappointments associated with not being the mothers they wanted
to be.” They feel they have failed because they lash
14
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
out at their children; they lash out at their children
because they feel they have failed.
In modern families, the mother is blamed for
all the shortcomings of an individual life. The
truth is that mothers do fail. Such failure should
be viewed not as catastrophic but as
normal, a crucial part of the task.
T
he worst, most insufferable demand imposed on mothers, beyond the saccharine image
of a perfect future, beyond the expectation that
they will produce lives of happiness and fulillment, is the vast reach of historical, political,
and social anguish that we ask them to nullify.
We expect mothers to trample over the past and
lift us out of historical time—or, in the version
that at least has the virtue of its own sentimentality, to secure a new dawn. But each birth arrives with a history not of its own choosing. A
mother who yearns—understandably—for her
child to embody only the free, the new, the
good, is in danger of inscribing her denial of history, her own flight from suffering, across the
body and mind of her child.
My maternal grandmother’s family perished
in the Chełmno concentration camp during the
Second World War. My grandparents in London
wanted nothing more than to be safe in their
new surroundings, and for their two daughters to
bear no trace of the atrocity that had irredeemably scarred their own lives. Their most fervent
wish was for their daughters to marry Jewish
men, have children, and settle down. Barely
twenty years old, my mother was married off to
my father, who was returning from his own trauma, having been tortured in a Japanese prisonerof-war camp. My mother had wanted to be a
doctor, but she was not allowed to assume the
place she had secured at medical school—
instead she was married to a doctor.
Her ambitions for her own daughters would
grow from that thwarted moment. My sister
and I would have the freedoms our mother was
denied. But, I ind myself asking, what made
her think that this would be enough to silence
the past? That educational and sexual
freedom—for which I will always be grateful—
could guarantee a future unstained by history?
Maybe there will always be a radical disjunction
between what a mother most fervently wants for
her child and what that child becomes. Maybe
that is one of the agonies of being a mother: to
ind that your child harbors in the recesses of
her soul a story from which you had hoped,
once and for all, to free her.
The task of a mother, they say, is to calm a
child’s fears. But we do not consider that her ability to do so might be colored by fears of her own.
A mother is meant to be as fearless as a lioness. A
lioness, it is implied, will instinctively protect her
COURTESY THE ARTIST
“Heterotopia #70,” a photograph by Karine Laval, whose work is on view this month at Photo London with Crane Kalman Brighton.
cubs because she has no internal life of her own
to grapple with. She is stripped of all memory and
history, reduced to an unthinking beast. You
might say that having nothing of her own to
grapple with—being “it all” for her child, at the
cost of her own inner life—is the very deinition,
or at least the unspoken agenda, of
being a mother.
W
hen I started down the path of adopting
my daughter, the irst question on the form I was
asked to ill in was: “What are your family se-
crets?” I refused to answer it (just one of several
moments that nearly brought the whole process
to an abrupt halt). Surely, I suggested, a family
secret should be respected as such? It had not occurred to the agency that a potential mother
who betrays her family secrets as the price to pay
for a child cannot be trusted with anything. The
assumption was that minds and hearts are fully
open for inspection, that there are no boundaries between what can and cannot be said.
Within months of bringing my daughter back
from China, I headed off to Paris to introduce her
READINGS
15
proudly to some of my oldest, dearest friends, only
to be turned back at the airport. I had the adoption papers with me, and my baby was now entered
[Juvenilia]
ALWAYS BE BABY
From notes on the reported actions of an adult male
student at Vancouver Island University who is diagnosed with paraphilic infantilism. The notes were
compiled by Katrin Roth von Szepesbéla, the university’s former director of human rights and workplace
safety, and included in a complaint that she iled in
November with the British Columbia Human Rights
Tribunal. Roth von Szepesbéla accuses the university of failing to take action against the student after
several teachers and staff members claimed that he
sexually harassed them.
Wants a play area for students
Carries a backpack full of stuffed animals
Email signature contains several pages of quotes
from various animals
Filmed puppet play in the forest
Invited another student to make a club for
stuffed bears, didn’t hear back
Asked about Winnie the Pooh as a subject for
an English class research paper assignment
In En glish class, asked for children’s stories
like Beatrix Potter, Winnie the Pooh, and
Curious George
Submitted a number of papers involving diapers
Thinks that professors should read stories to
students to help them relax, like the story
about the raven and the moon
Shows instructors images of his naked body
wearing diapers
Refers to mothers nursing, cradling, and other
mother-baby interactions in emails
Submitted picture of himself on laundry room
floor, his hand holding up his feet, his buttocks facing the camera
Submitted essay for English 125 that refers to a
dirty diaper, baby bottles, desire to suck on
a nipple, nap as a baby cradled in a crib
Insists his “bare-bummed video by the river isn’t
sexual at all”
Emailed professor alleging she “tattled on him
for no reason”
Appears to feign naïveté and innocence but behaves in sexually predatory manner
Alleges discrimination and threatens to ile a
complaint with the human rights tribunal
16
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
in my passport, but she did not yet have a British
passport of her own. The border officials announced that they could not be sure I was not
planning to leave her in France as an illegal migrant who in time might start claiming housing
and work beneits. (She was not yet one year old.)
At the airport, I wanted to scream at the oficials: “You do not know this baby’s history.” But
then, I realized, neither—fully—did I. Nor would
I, ever. It is a crime to abandon a baby in China,
even if the practice was precipitated by the government’s own One Child policy, which, in the
absence of proper pension provisions, made parents desperate for boys whose future wives would
tend to them in their later years (whereas married
daughters would leave the home). Those of us
who adopted from China in the early Nineties
were not able to uncover the histories of our
children. My daughter does not know—she has
accepted that she cannot know—the story of her
own past, although she must surely be carrying
it within her.
Any mother, any child, faces a past that will
not yield its secrets willingly or without a struggle, if it will at all. Despite the popular formulation in the Western world of mothers and daughters as friends who share secrets, gossip, and
clothes (the long-running television series Gilmore Girls would be a prime example), mothers
and daughters cannot tell each other everything
because they do not know everything about
themselves: not about their own lives, or the secrets of their families, or that part of history
weighing on their shoulders that is too hard to
communicate. All of which is simply another
way of saying that one of the most unrealistic demands made of mothers is that they
be so inhumanly sure of themselves.
I
t is a truism of both feminism and Marxism
that the image of stability represented by safe,
white, middle-class homes is a myth, resting on
the exploitation of workers, women, and
colonies —just as it is a truism of Freudian
thought that the facade
¸
of civilized living in nations Freud referred to, with limited sympathy, as
“the great, world-dominating nations of the white
race” is precarious and phony in direct proportion
to the insistence with which that facade
claims to
¸
believe unerringly in itself. A simpler way of putting this would be to say that there is a violence
behind the norm, a violence that it is truly a form
of insanity to expect mothers to placate.
A suffering mother bereft of her child is a
staple of maternal imagoes: Niobe lamenting the
murder of her fourteen children by jealous gods,
for example, and the pietà, the Virgin Mary
grieving the dead Christ. With the suffering of
the whole world etched on her face, the mother
carries and assuages the burden of human misery.
© ANDREA GRÜTZNER. COURTESY JULIE SAUL GALLERY, NEW YORK CITY
“Untitled (Garage)” and “Untitled (Quad Wall),” photographs by Andrea Grützner, whose work was on view in February at Julie Saul Gallery, in
New York City.
But what the pain of mothers must not expose is
a viciously unjust world in a complete mess.
[Plaint]
COMIC RELIEF
By Éric Chevillard, from QWERTY Invectives.
The book appeared last month as part of the Cahiers
Series, which is published by Sylph Editions and the
Center for Writers and Translators at the American
University of Paris. Chevillard is the author of numerous novels and essays. Translated from the
French by Peter Behrman de Sinéty.
W
ater closet is misleading, loo is nonsense,
restroom euphemistic, necessary house grandiloquent, shitter vulgar, privy archaic, facilities bureaucratic, lavatory hypocritical, potty ridiculous, craspes and modulette two neologisms I
just made up on the spot.
Gowns and hats on the ladies. Top hats and
frock coats on the gents. Dammit, someone
might have told me this was a formal occasion!
I suppose it is acceptable, before one knows
what the procedure entails, when one is still in
the dark about the particulars, to yield to the
shit-impulse on a single occasion. But to repeat
the offense is unconscionable. Unforgivable!
As for the oft-vaunted pleasures of defecation, I confess I indulge in them only when no
better alternatives are available and when there
really is not a single seat left at the Opéra.
And what if it were necessary to dedicate a
space in one’s home entirely to earwax, and another to eye rheum?
Strephon enters Celia’s dressing room in that
pungent poem by Jonathan Swift and is dismayed
to discover: “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”
Vespasienne: the sort of street urinal favored
by Proust’s Baron de Charlus. It’s the name I
give to the WC-shaped Colosseum, in honor of
that same noble emperor who ordered its construction in the heart of Rome in ad 72, so
that the evisceration of slaves by bears, with
blood pissing and splashing, could become public spectacles.
READINGS
17
According to a recent study conducted by
fearless statisticians who live only for their
work, France produces 8,400 metric tons of excrement per day. The France of Voltaire, of Pasteur, of Général de Gaulle, the France of MontSai nt-Michel a nd Not re D a me, eldest
daughter of the Church, the nation of the
Rights of Man, the France of my youth, is,
therefore, not a land in which everything ends
in grandeur. The report talks of 8,400 tons of
excrement—and I have no wish to inspect the
state of their scales—or (as the study later
adds) approximately the weight of the Eiffel
Tower. So lo and behold: Gustave’s miracle of
engineering smeared in turds from masthead
to base!
Forgive this autobiographical avowal, but I
am keen you should know the following: I am
entirely innocent in this whole affair. There exists not a single enclave for such base deeds
in the rotunda that is my home, unless you
count the frames of the elevated windows
(before which I stand, erect, my forehead
pressed against the pane as I brood upon
thoughts often melancholy, or keep watch for
the break of dawn). Chez moi, down the hall
on the right is to be found the library; down
the hall on the left, the guest bedroom. The
door at the end of the hall opens onto an
abyss; as a precaution, I have had a rim of
white porcelain installed around it, and, by a
little trick of which I am rather proud, there
is even a lid that can be lowered over the
top. Danger eliminated: there is no risk of
falling into said abyss.
Place in your toilets a traditional chair with
a seat of wood or straw, instead of that hollow
porcelain in the shape of a washbowl, and you
will ind that nobody dares soil it: you see, they
don’t really have to go.
For myself, I have no such needs. Nothing of
this order ever tempts me. Rudely do I expel
from my home, with a curt kick on the arse
(which aforesaid arse rightly serves from childhood onward as our crude contrite face, destined
for chastisement, piteously inclined to the
ground and already repentant, abjuring its faults,
accepting its just punishment), the plumbingsupply salesman who would be more cordially received were he selling encyclopedias.
And yet I’m willing to admit: not everything
that deposits itself within me deserves to be retained, archived, collected. There is a deal of
waste, of superfluity; there are some highly disagreeable and occasionally painful invaders,
and then there are certain ine products—of
such ephemeral value as morning dew—that do
not age well, that rot and ferment. One must,
indeed, rid oneself of all such. Yet come now:
surely—surely humankind has perfected modes
18
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
of recycling more sophisticated than this. Art,
for example—would that not serve? If in a work
of art we can sublimate a bitter memory, an unfortunate experience, a crisis, a catastrophe,
then can we not equally ind a way to exalt a
beet, a bœuf en daube, or a cauliflower gratin?
Mercy me! Can it really be that this obscene
residue on the foot of the pot every evening
constitutes existence’s very precipitate? Is this
in truth what our day amounts to?
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: that was the
plan. For my part, it’s what I signed up for;
these were the terms I committed to when I
was given the opportunity to assume corporeal
form. Nothing else was on offer.
[Fiction]
DINNER PARTY
By Rachel Cusk, from Kudos, which will be published next month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Cusk is the author of nine previous novels.
W
e entered the restaurant and sat down
at a long table reserved for the writingconference delegates that stretched all along
one side of the room. The other side was
crowded, and the noise and laughter that emanated from there contrasted with the awkwardness of the long table and the ixity of its set
places, to which the delegates were reluctant to
consign themselves, knowing their fate would
thus be settled for the duration of the meal.
A woman I recognized from an all-female
panel discussion in Amsterdam that I had
once participated in entered the restaurant
and, seeing an empty place beside mine,
came and sat down in it. She reminded me of
her name—which was Sophia—with the
pragmatic directness of someone who accepts
rather than fears the likelihood of such things
being forgotten. In that same moment, a writer who was one of the best-known novelists at
the conference entered and could be seen
striding toward the other end of the table and
then bypassing it entirely, taking a seat alone
at a small table in the very farthest corner of
the restaurant. Sophia gave a little gasp of
frustration and, standing up, said that she was
going to ind out why Luís was insisting on sitting alone. She trod lightly off in her highheeled boots, returning after some minutes
with a truculent-looking Luís in tow.
“We won’t allow this depressive behavior,”
she said to him with a trilling laugh. “We’re
going to keep you in the land of the living.”
Luís sat down with an expression of undisguised irritation and promptly joined the other men in discussing football, whereupon Sophia turned to me and meekly said into my
ear that while she realized Luís could give the
impression of being arrogant, in fact his success was painful for him and caused him to
suffer from intense guilt, as well as from feelings of overexposure.
“Unusually for a man of this nation,” she said,
“and perhaps for any man, he has been honest
about his own life. He has written about his
family and his parents and his childhood home
in a way that makes them completely recognizable, and because this is a small country, he worries he has used them or compromised them,
even if for readers in other parts of the world it is
just the honesty itself that comes through.
Though, of course, if he were a woman,” she
said, leaning more conidentially toward my ear,
“he would be scorned for his honesty, or at the
very least no one would care.”
She sat back so that the waiters could put
the dishes on the table. They contained a
brown, strong-smelling puree, and Sophia
wrinkled her nose and said that this dish had
a name that could be translated more or less
as ‘“the parts no one would eat otherwise.”
She took a tiny spoonful and dabbed it on
the edge of her plate. A Welsh novelist now
appeared, his hair stiffened by the wind and
his shirt unbuttoned to show his f lushed
neck. After some hesitation, he sat down in
the only remaining seat, beside Sophia, smiling warily to show his narrow yellow teeth.
When he asked her what was in the dishes,
she did not repeat her translation but merely
smiled graciously and said that it was a local
delicacy made of ground meat. He reached
forward and piled some onto his plate. We
would have to excuse him, he said: he was extremely hungry, having attempted to walk
out along the coast and instead become increasingly entangled in a series of industrial
complexes and housing developments and
shopping precincts, all of which appeared to
be in a state of semiruin and were more or
less deserted, yet to which all roads unerringly led, so that inally he was forced to clamber
over walls and verges in the attempt to get to
the water, finding himself at last in a
cordoned-off concrete expanse surrounded by
barbed wire and what looked like numerous
watchtowers, being held at gunpoint by three
men in uniform. He had wandered, apparently, into a military zone, and it took all his
scant linguistic resources to explain to these
men that he was not a terrorist but a writer
attending the literary conference.
Luís’s attention had been caught by this
narrative, and he launched into an account of
the country’s socioeconomic decline, which
had been precipitated, he said, by the inancial
crisis nearly a decade earlier, whose reverberations, in places like this one, were still being
felt. The Welsh novelist used this diversion as
the opportunity to eat, nodding his head frequently while he dispatched his irst course
and then, satisied, sitting back in his chair.
His own region of Wales, he said when Luís
had inished speaking, was similarly on a more
or less unrelievedly downward trajectory,
though it had barely completed its evolution
into the modern era in the irst place. There
were still families, he said, in which only a
generation earlier the elders had spoken no
English. The novel he was currently writing
[Phenomena]
FREQUENT FLIERS
From a table detailing the reported shapes of UFOs
in sightings in the United States since 2001. The table
is included in the UFO Sightings Desk Reference,
which was self-published last year by Cheryl Costa
and Linda Miller Costa. The authors collected and
analyzed data from more than 120,000 sightings. The
list is ordered from most to least common.
Circle
Sphere
Triangle
Fireball
Star
Oval
Disk
Cigar
Cylinder
Diamond
Boomerang
Chevron
Rectangle
Egg
Teardrop
Bullet
Cone
Blimp
Cross
Square
READINGS
19
COURTESY THE ARTIST
A photograph by Molly Dektar, from the series Farming.
was an attempt to revive that vanished world.
He had interviewed countless people, most of
them—for obvious reasons—elderly, and had
built up a quite extraordinary picture in terms
of his preparatory notes. Nothing remained,
one old lady had said to him, of the world she
knew: not one blade of grass was the same.
Luís had been listening with an impassive
expression on his great moody face, his ingers
occupied with tearing small sections from a
piece of bread and rolling them into hard little
balls that he then dropped on the table around
his plate.
“My mother once told me,” he said, “that at
harvesttime when she was a child, the village
held a day of festival, and the farmers would always leave one last ield to mow on that day. It
was a tradition that they left a circular patch in
the middle of the ield unmowed, working in from
the edges of the ield rather than up and down
in straight lines as they usually did. All of the
frightened wildlife that normally had the opportunity to run away was therefore trapped in
this circle,” he said, “which got smaller and
smaller as the men mowed around it, so that in
the end there were a great number of creatures
20
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
cowering there. The village children had already been armed with shovels and picks and
even knives from the kitchen, and at a certain
moment they were permitted to come forward
and descend on the unmowed circle in a cheering mob to kill the animals, which they did
with great pleasure and gusto, spattering themselves and one another with blood. My mother
cannot think about these episodes,” he said,
“without becoming upset, even though at the
time she participated in them quite happily.
When I started to write,” he said, “it was because I felt the pressure of her sensitivity, as
though it were an affliction or an uninished
task I had to take from her, or something she
had bequeathed to me that I had to fulill. Yet
in my own life, I have been as doomed to repetition as anyone else.”
“But that is completely untrue,” Sophia exclaimed. “Your life has been completely transformed by your talents and what you have
made of them—you can go anywhere and meet
anyone, your praises are sung all over the world,
you have your nice apartment in the city, you
even have a wife,” she said with a pleasant
smile, “whom you don’t have to live with and
who is devoted to bringing up your child. If you
were a woman you would certainly ind your
mother’s life hanging over your head like a
sword, and you would be asking yourself what
progress you had made other than to double for
yourself the work she had been expected to do
and receive three times the blame for it.”
The waiters had by now removed the dishes
of puree and were bringing the next course, a
small molded shape that Sophia portentously
described as being made of ish, and of which
she again took only the tiniest amount. When
the dish was passed to Luís he waved it away
and sat hunched and unoccupied in his chair,
staring at the wall above our heads, where various nautical items had been hung as decorations. It was interesting, Sophia said now to the
Welsh novelist, that he had repeated those
words of the old lady, because she had recently
heard almost exactly the same words herself, although in a very different context. Her son had
not long ago gone to stay for a few days with his
father, and had come upon a cache of photograph albums that her ex-husband had taken
with him when they separated.
“When my son found the albums in a cupboard,” she said, “he was in a way seeing my life
with my ex-husband for the irst time, since much
of it he was too young to remember. When he
came home after the visit,” she said, “he told me
about inding the albums, which he spent the
whole morning going through because his father
had gone out to play tennis with some friends
and had left him alone. You are in the pictures,
Mama, he said to me, except it isn’t actually you.
I couldn’t recognize you. It isn’t that you look
older. It’s that everything about you has
changed. Nothing is the same as in the photographs, not your hair or your clothes or your expression, not even your eyes.”
While she spoke her eyes grew larger and more
brilliant, and it seemed possible they were illing
with tears, yet she continued to smile in a way
that made it clear she was practiced in keeping
her composure. The Welsh novelist looked at
her with polite concern, an expression of faint
alarm on his face.
“Poor kid,” Luís said gloomily. “Why does this
bastard arrange a tennis match in the irst place?”
“Because that way,” Sophia said, smiling more
graciously than ever, “he knows he deprives me
of my freedom and peace of mind even when I
have some time to myself. If he took care of our
son during their weekends together,” she said,
“he would in a sense be giving something to me,
and he has devoted his life to making sure that
is something he will never do, even through the
medium of our child. In court,” she said, “he
fought me for custody, and I know that many of
my friends were shocked that I opposed it, be-
cause they thought that, as a feminist, I ought to
promote equality for both sides, and also because
there is the belief that a son needs his father in
some special way, to learn how to be a man. But
I don’t want my son to learn to be a man,” she
said. “I want him to become one through experience. I want him to ind out how to act, how to
treat a woman, how to think for himself. I don’t
want him learning to drop his underwear on
the floor,” she said, “or using his male nature as
an excuse.”
The Welsh novelist raised a inger hesitantly
and said that he hated to disagree, but he felt it
was important to point out that not all men
would behave as her ex-husband had, and that
male values were not merely the product of enshrined selishness but could include such things
as honor, duty, and chivalry. He himself had two
sons, as well as a daughter, and he liked to think
they were well-balanced individuals. He recognized he was very lucky in that he and his wife
had a good marriage, and he found that their
differences were generally complementary rather
than the source of conflict.
“Is your wife also a writer?” Luís said, toying
indifferently with his napkin.
His wife was a full-time mother, the Welsh
novelist said, and both of them were satisied
with that arrangement, since his literary revenue very fortunately meant that she didn’t have
to earn money and could instead help him ind
the time he needed to work. In fact, he said,
she did do a bit of writing in her spare time and
had recently written a book for children that
had been quite a surprise hit. When their children were smaller, she used to tell them stories
involving a Welsh pony called Gwendolyn, and
in the end there were so many of these stories,
all following one from the other so as to keep
the children’s attention night after night, that
the book, she had said, literally wrote itself.
Obviously he himself was too subjective to be
able to offer an opinion on the adventures of
Gwendolyn, but he had shown it to his agent.
“My ex-wife and I used to tell my son stories,” Luís said gloomily, “and we read to him in
bed every night, but it hasn’t made the slightest
difference. He doesn’t pick up a book from one
day to the next. My ex-wife and I,” he said,
“have done everything in our power to get
along with each other since our separation and
to reassure my son that he was not the cause of
it, but his response has been to show absolutely
no curiosity about life. He sits in his room day
after day, motivated to do nothing but watch
television and eat pastries.”
Sophia, who had been becoming increasingly
agitated while Luís spoke, now interrupted him.
“But you aren’t helping him,” she said, “by
treating him as a fragile thing and shielding him
READINGS
21
and covering up your conflict, when the consequences of that conflict are right in front of him
every day. Children have to survive hardship,”
she said, while Luís somberly shook his head,
“and you have to let them, because otherwise
they will never be strong.”
By now the waiters had brought the final
course, an oily ish stew of which no one except
the Welsh novelist was eating very much. Luís
looked with a harrowed expression at Sophia, and
sadly pushed his plate away from him as if it were
the offer of her optimism and determination.
“They are wounded,” he said slowly.
“Wounded, and I don’t know why this particular wound has been so deadly in the case of my
son, but since I gave him the wound it is my job
to tend to him.”
There was a silence while the waiters cleared
the dishes, and even the men opposite, who
had sustained a conversation about the leadership qualities of José Mourinho for all this
time, stopped talking and gazed ahead of them
with blank, satiated expressions.
“After my son found the photographs in his
father’s house,” Sophia said, resting her slender arms on the table, whose white cloth was
littered with crumpled napkins and wine
stains and half-eaten pieces of bread, “and
made the observation that I was not the same
[Poem]
THE NEW SOBRIETY
By Rodney Koeneke, from Body & Glass, which
was published last month by Wave Books.
Liver, recover.
Years pass and are salutary.
A thin scum coats
the ornamental pond
quickening spawn
out of nothing, working
a languid expanse. Life
is raw and indifferent
to reinement, as
happy using Leda
as the swan. Before
the whole system descends
into Lent, hush, bitter
organ, and wear your
brief colors—dim orange,
dull pink, bruise blues.
22
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
person I had been, not even in the molecules
of my skin, I became for a while very confused and depressed. It suddenly felt as if all
my efforts since the divorce to keep things
the same, to keep my own life recognizable to
me and to my son, were in fact false, because
underneath the surface not one thing remained as it was. Yet his words also made me
feel that for the irst time someone had understood what had happened, because while I
had always told the story to myself and others
as a story of war, in fact it was simply a story
of change. While my son was away for those
few days visiting his father,” she said, “I had arranged to spend time with a man and had invited him for the weekend to our apartment.
When I heard footsteps on the stairs and the
key turning in the lock, I suddenly became
confused as to which of the men I’ve known
in my life was about to walk through the
door. It seemed to me in that moment,” she
said, “that I had made too much of the distinctions between these men, when at the
time the whole world had appeared to depend
on whether I was with one rather than another. I realized that I had believed in them,” she
said, “and in the ecstasy or agony they caused
me, but now I could barely recall why and
could barely separate them from one another
in my mind.”
Sophia’s audience at the table were becoming visibly uncomfortable, twitching in their
chairs and allowing their eyes to rove, embarrassed, around the room, except for Luís, who
sat very still and watched her steadily with an
impassive expression.
“When my son made those comments to me
about the photographs,” she said, “I realized that
he had taken the burden of perception from me,
which to my mind was inseparable from the burden of living and of telling the story. The effect
on me was an incredible sense of freedom. You
have to live,” she said to Luís, reaching her hand
imploringly to him across the table, and he reluctantly reached out his own hand and gave
hers a squeeze before withdrawing it. “No one
can take that obligation from you.”
One of the organizers came to the table and
said that the bus was now ready to take us back
to the hotel. Outside the restaurant, the Welsh
novelist remarked that things had got pretty intense back there.
“I wondered whether Sophia was making a bit
of a play for Luís,” he said in a low voice, glancing to either side of him, where the ruined walls
of the buildings showed dark voids behind their
crumbling edges and the wind sent the weeds
growing along the roadside rocking back and
forth. “Actually,” he said, “I think they’d make
quite a good couple.”
Untitled photographs from Turkey by Guy Martin from his monograph The Parallel State, which was published this month by Gost.
© Guy Martin
READINGS
23
Yunte Huang, award-winning author of
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and
His Rendezvous with American History, returns with:
… By turns ghastly, hilarious, unnerving, and moving. [Huang] not only richly illuminates the past of
P.T. Barnum and Mark Twain but also probes the racial and sexual politics of the present.”
—Stephen Greenblatt, National Book Award-winning author of The Swerve
“Chang and Eng waltzed, arm and arm, indivisible, across a brutally divided America.
Huang’s spellbinding account tells their story with a complexity, and sensitivity,
with which it has never been told before.”
—Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Liveright Publishing Corporation
A division of W.W. Norton & Company
wwnorton.com
E
S
S
A
Y
EXILED
Mike Pence and the evangelical fantasy of persecution
By Meghan O’Gieblyn
I
t has become something of a commonplace
to say that Mike Pence belongs to another era.
He is a politician whom the New York Times has
called a “throwback,” a “conservative proudly
out of sync with his times,” and a “dangerous
anachronism,” a man whose social policies and
outspoken Christian faith are so redolent of the
previous century’s culture wars that he appeared
to have no future until, in the words of one journalist, he was plucked “off the political garbage
heap” by Donald Trump and given new life.
Pence’s rise to the vice presidency was not
merely a personal advancement; it marked the
return of religion and ideology to American politics at a time when the titles of political analyses were proclaiming the Twilight of Social Conservatism (2015) and the End of White Christian
America (2016). It revealed the furious persistence of the religious right, an entity whose inal
demise was for so long considered imminent that
even as white evangelicals came out in droves to
support the Trump-Pence ticket, their enthusiasm was dismissed, in the Washington Post, as
the movement’s “last spastic breath.”
But Pence is a curious kind of Christian politician. He is more ixated on theological arcana
than on the Bible’s greatest hits (the Ten Commandments, the beatitudes). His faith is not that
of Mike Huckabee, say, whose folksy Christian
nationalism is reflected in the title of his book
God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy; nor is it the humble
self-help Methodism to which George W. Bush
once deferred (at least in his early years, before
his faith was hijacked by a geopolitical crusade),
speaking of Jesus as the guy who had “changed
my heart.” Indeed, the most peculiar thing about
Pence’s Christianity is how rarely he mentions
the teachings of Christ. Despite his fluency with
Scripture, he seldom quotes the Gospels. He
speaks fondly not just of the Good Book but also
of the Old Book, by which he usually means the
Hebrew Bible, and it is this earlier testament that
he draws from in his speeches, often with the
preface that it contains “ancient truths” that are
“as true today as they were in millennia past.”
Pence does live in the past, a past far more
ancient than anyone has assumed. He speaks of
the Old Testament as familiar terrain and regards its covenants as deeply relevant to evangelicals. The God of these stories is not the familiar, tranquilized Jesus of hymns and
dashboard figurines but the more forbidding
Yahweh who disciplines and delivers the nation
of Israel. The God of Mike Pence is the God of
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a God who sets up
kings and tears them down, who raises the poor
from the dust and lifts up the needy, who pulls
candidates off the political garbage heap and allows them to rule with princes. He is a God
who keeps his promises, and the promise,
throughout the ages, has always been the same:
that the Chosen People will be restored to their rightful home.
T
he biblical concept of exile—a banishment
followed by a return to the homeland—has lately
Meghan O’Gieblyn’s irst book, a collection of essays, will be published this year by Anchor Books.
ESSAY
25
acquired special meaning for evangelicals. The
term inundated Christian discourse in the United
States following the failure of Indiana’s Religious
Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which Pence,
then the governor, signed in 2015, soon after a
judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex
marriage. The bill, which would have allowed
businesspeople such as florists and caterers to refuse to serve gay clients, inspired a national boycott and culminated in a disastrous appearance
on George Stephanopoulos’s This Week, in which
Pence evaded question after question and stammered about open-mindedness being a two-way
street. “From people who preach tolerance every
day,” he said, “we have been under an avalanche
of intolerance.” Pence was forced to neuter the
bill, and the ordeal soon fell out of the news cycle.
But for conservative Christians, who had long
seen themselves as at war with the culture, the
backlash was a wake-up call. Rod Dreher, an
Eastern Orthodox writer for The American Conservative, claims this was the moment he realized
that American believers were “living in a new
elites were deported to Babylon, where they remained for seventy years, lamenting the ruin of
Zion and praying for deliverance. In these stories,
the empire is led by a series of despotic rulers—
Nebuchadnezzar, Nabonidus, Belshazzar—who
seem to ind sadistic pleasure in forcing the Jews
to renounce their God and, when they refuse,
throwing them to wild animals or into the iery
furnace. When I was studying theology at Moody
Bible Institute, during the Bush years, none of my
fellow students were particularly drawn to
these books. But Christians have often returned
to them during times of persecution, and apparently they had become newly relevant for believers who saw themselves as a religious minority in
a hostile pagan empire—a people who had long
mistaken Washington for Jerusalem, and for
whom the image of the White House lit up in a
rainbow was a defeat as inal as the
desecration of the Temple.
O
f course, for anyone familiar with evangelical rhetoric, it is obvious that “exile” is not
THE STORY OF DANIEL SUGGESTS THAT GODLY PEOPLE CAN NEGOTIATE POWER BY
INFLUENCING LEADERS WHOSE VALUES DIFFER VASTLY FROM THEIR OWN. GOD’S
PEOPLE CAN SURVIVE IN EXILE EVEN UNDER THE FIST OF A DESPOTIC RULER
country.” In late June 2015, the Obergefell v.
Hodges decision legalized gay marriage in all ifty
states, and Dreher proclaimed in Time magazine
that the culture wars were oficially over. Progressive views on marriage and sexuality had become
consensus, and Christians would now be targeted
as dissenters, their beliefs classed as hate speech.
“We are going to have to learn how to live as
exiles in our own country,” he wrote. Russell
Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention lamented Obergefell but offered a brighter perspective, calling on Christians to “joyfully march toward Zion” as “strangers and exiles in American
culture.” Soon, cries of exile (or #exile, per Twitter) could be heard all over Christendom.
I left the faith more than a decade ago but remain connected to it, tangentially, through a
large born-again family and an abiding anthropological curiosity, so these things tend to reach
me. I knew that while exile appeared to be a fluid
metaphor—a way to talk about religious liberties
and political impotence—it also had a speciic
historic referent: the period the Jews spent in
Babylonian captivity. Accounts of the exile are
scattered throughout the books of the Old Testament, though the story generally begins in 587
bc, when Nebuchadnezzar’s army razed Jerusalem
and burned the Temple to the ground. The Isra-
26
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
a white flag but a revamped strategy. The Babylonian exile, after all, was temporary. All the
lamentations were ultimately about deliverance, and that deliverance came in the form of
a strongman: in 539 bc, Cyrus the Great, the
king of Persia, conquered Babylon and allowed
the Jews to return to Jerusalem.
Once Donald Trump became a serious contender for the Republican Party’s presidential
nomination in early 2016, some Christians saw
him as the instrument of deliverance. This idea
came primarily from the theological fringe that
Trump courted: televangelists, Pentecostals,
health-and-wealth hucksters. It came from men
such as Lance Wallnau, an evangelical public
speaker who met with Trump during his campaign and, since 2015, had been writing articles
that likened the candidate to Cyrus. Throughout history, Wallnau argued, God had used
pagan leaders to enact his will and protect his
people. Just as Cyrus was a powerful leader
anointed by Yahweh to end the exile, so Trump
was “a wrecking ball to the spirit of political
correctness.” Wallnau eventually published his
theory in a book titled God’s Chaos Candidate
(2016). Just before the election, it reached number nineteen on Amazon’s bestseller list, and
others have continued to make the comparison.
In March 2018, Israeli prime minister Benjamin
Netanyahu visited the United States and joined
the evangelical chorus. “The Jewish people have
a long memory,” he told Trump in the Oval Ofice. They remember Cyrus. “Twenty-ive hundred years ago, he proclaimed that the Jewish
exiles in Babylon could come back and rebuild
our temple in Jerusalem.”
Plenty of Christians cautioned against this
narrative—most notably Moore, in the Washington Post. He and Dreher represent a more orthodox core who remained skeptical of Trump
and believed his presidency would be a continuation of pagan rule. (Dreher has condemned
Christians who want to “Make Babylon Great
of Pence solidifying the evangelical vote. (As a
former believer, I am sometimes considered an
authority on such things.) I remarked offhandedly that Christians regarded Pence as an intercessor, one who would temper the president’s
moral excesses just as Christ intervened two
thousand years ago to mollify the reckless
whims of Yahweh.
I’d forgotten that there is a more apt analogy
in the Old Testament. One of the foremost
heroes of the exile stories is Daniel, an Israelite
who serves in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace. Daniel
manages to preserve his Jewish identity, refusing
the king’s food and wine and continuing to pray
to his God, sometimes in secret. When Daniel
Again.”) Alan Snyder, a Christian historian,
wrote on his blog, “There’s another biblical igure who didn’t acknowledge God, yet God used
him to carry out a purpose.” He was referring to
Nebuchadnezzar, who is not remembered kindly
in the Old Testament. In one story, he decrees
the construction of a gold statue of himself and
orders his subjects to bow down and worship it.
In another, his counselors fail to adequately interpret a dream, and he threatens to kill off his
entire court. He is suspicious of his advisers, tortured by nightmares of his own demise;
eventually, he loses his mind. For Christians
who were anti-Trump, the parallels were obvious, and ominous: “His purpose?” Snyder wrote
of Nebuchadnezzar. “To destroy Jerusalem and
take the people into captivity.”
How did Pence it into these narratives? Soon
after the Republican National Convention that
summer, a friend asked me about the likelihood
correctly interprets one of the king’s dreams, he
is promoted to chief counselor, a position he uses
to establish protections for the Jews and secure
appointments for his Hebrew friends. He also
ends up serving as the king’s spiritual adviser,
encouraging him to turn from idolatry and worship Yahweh, the one true god. Still, despite
earning royal favor, Daniel frequently comes into
conflict with the king’s temper and the paganism
of Babylon. When he refuses to obey a decree
that would prohibit him from praying to his God,
he is thrown into the lion’s den.
These stories have long been read by Christians as a handbook in civil disobedience.
(Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the Book of
Daniel in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to defend the virtue of protesting without a permit.)
But the story of Daniel also suggests that godly
people can negotiate power by influencing leaders whose values differ vastly from their own. At
Illustrations by Andrew Zbihlyj
ESSAY
27
the dawn of the Trump era, the lesson contemporary evangelicals gleaned from the story of Daniel
was that God’s people can survive in exile—even
under the ist of a despotic ruler—so long as one
of their own tribe advocates on their
behalf in the corridors of power.
C
ollege Park Church, the congregation that
Mike Pence attended during his governorship, sits
in northern Indianapolis, among golf courses and
midpriced chain hotels. The neighborhood is on
the cusp of the suburbs, many of which are
named, incidentally, after the landscape of the
Old Testament: Lebanon, Carmel, Zionsville. As
soon as I entered the foyer, I recognized it as the
kind of church I grew up in: large and contemporary but without the gaudy trappings of a megachurch; doctrinally orthodox but passionate about
social welfare. It’s the kind of church that people
inflected his political worldview. But the more
immediate reason I’d come to Indianapolis was
that College Park was wrapping up an eighteenmonth sermon cycle on exile. In the sanctuary,
a dimmed auditorium with stadium seating, a
member of the church pointed to the spot a few
rows behind me where Pence used to sit on Sunday mornings with his wife, Karen, taking copious notes while dressed in a windbreaker bearing the state seal. The last time the congregant
I was speaking to had spotted Pence in church
was shortly after he joined Trump on the Republican ticket. He was accompanied by two
Secret Service agents and sneaked out before
the benediction.
At that time, College Park’s lead pastor, Mark
Vroegop, was in the middle of the exile series.
From early 2016 until the middle of 2017, he
walked his congregation through Lamentations
PENCE SEES HIMSELF AS THE DEFENDER OF AN IMPERILED MINORITY. DRAWING
ON THE VOCABULARY OF IDENTITY POLITICS, HE SAID THAT THE RFRA WOULD
“EMPOWER” RELIGIOUS PEOPLE WHOSE LIBERTIES WERE BEING “INFRINGED UPON”
like my parents would call “theologically sound,”
which is a way of saying that the pastors went to
the right schools, that worship avoids the charismatic theater of snakes and spirit slaying, that the
sermons never descend into partisan shilling. It is
not, in short, the kind of church that is, or ever
was, uniformly gung ho about Trump.
Pence took a somewhat circuitous route to
evangelicalism. He was raised Irish Catholic
and converted in college, when he realized, at a
Christian music festival, that “what happened
on the cross, in some small measure, actually
happened for me.” He avoided explicitly linking
his beliefs to his politics during his early public
career, but his faith deepened after he lost his
second congressional race, in 1990.
Around the same time, he began regularly
attending an evangelical megachurch with his
family and joined the board of the Indiana Family Institute, a far-right group that was antigay
and antiabortion. By the time he campaigned
again for Congress, in 2000, his faith was at the
forefront of his platform, which zeroed in on
issues such as abortion, school prayer, and support for Israel. When Pence arrived in Washington as a representative from Indiana, one
staffer claimed that he would cite speciic verses to justify policy decisions. “These have stood
the test of time,” Pence said of the Scriptures.
“They have eternal value.”
I was curious about Pence’s spiritual heritage
and how the Bible teaching he’d received had
28
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
and Daniel, then on to a series called This Exiled
Life. These sermons often drew on Babylon stories to explore ethical dilemmas that his flock
might encounter in the world of boardrooms and
watercoolers: Your boss hands down a new policy
that your faith precludes you from fulilling. Your
co-workers don’t know you’re a Christian. Do you
share your views or fly under the radar? “For some
of you,” Vroegop said, “the island of marginal
Christianity is shrinking, and you’re going to
have to think very carefully. . . . ‘When do I draw
a line?’ ”
Vroegop is a tall, fortysomething man with a
commanding voice, the kind of pastor who
seems equally suited to heading corporate leadership seminars. I met him one day in his ofice,
a small, sunny room lined with hundreds of theology books, alphabetized by author. He gave me
one of them—Timothy Keller’s Making Sense of
God—when I mentioned that I’d left the faith in
my early twenties. He told me the sermons on
exile grew out of conversations he had with his
congregants following RFRA and the Obergefell
decision. “I would encounter believers who,
frankly, just had this sense of panic about them,”
he said. Many of them, particularly those who
worked in HR or higher education, were confronting new ofice protocols about gender and
sexuality, and he realized that the Old Testament might be instructive. “I think in the Babylonian exile, there was this reality of, look, we’re
going to be here for a while, we’ve got to igure
out how to be Jewish and to honor our God in
the midst of a culture that is just godless,” he
said. “And there were folks who igured out how
to do that. You know, Daniel gets to a very high
level of government.”
During the summer of 2016, Vroegop
preached on the Book of Daniel, describing
Nebuchadnezzar as “an angry, irrational king”
and likening Daniel’s position to “the vice presidency, if you will, of the country.” The sermons focused on the delicate balancing act
that Daniel performs. While he strives to stay
have floated the idea of him as a Daniel-like
igure, including some Indianapolis Christians
who know him personally. Gary Varvel, a columnist and political cartoonist who has been
friends with the vice president since the Nineties, told me he’d thought of Daniel as soon as
Pence was announced as Trump’s running
mate. “I would be surprised if he didn’t consider this as a divine appointment, so to speak,”
he said.
It’s clear that Pence sees himself as the defender of an imperiled religious minority. During
on the king’s good side, he also tells him dificult truths and urges him to keep his promises
to the exiles. “Somehow,” Vroegop said in one
sermon, “Daniel had figured out how to be
faithful to God while serving the Babylonian
Empire faithfully as well.” I pointed out to
Vroegop what seemed obvious to me—that the
sermons were an allegory about Pence and
Trump. Vroegop listened patiently while I drew
these parallels but insisted that Pence had not
been on his mind. At the time, he said, Pence
wasn’t even being considered for the ticket.
(Vroegop preached his inal Daniel sermon on
June 26; Pence was announced as running
mate on July 15.)
Vroegop has a long-standing policy against
speaking about Pence to the press, but others
the uproar after the RFRA, he did not refer to
the country’s supposed religious foundations,
nor did he appeal to Christian values as an allpurpose national ethic. Instead, drawing on the
vocabulary of identity politics, he declared that
the law would “empower” religious people
whose liberties were being “infringed upon.”
Pence had tapped into the language of exile,
and by the time he joined Trump’s campaign,
he had become fluent, promising James Dobson
that a Trump-Pence Administration would be
“dedicated to preserving the liberties of our
people, including the freedom of religion that’s
enshrined in our Bill of Rights.”
For Christians who were immersed in these
ancient myths, Pence made for a familiar igure,
a member of the tribe who would represent them
ESSAY
29
in the court of a pagan empire, a man who could
encourage an unpredictable king to keep his
promises. A former adviser quoted in GQ claims
that Pence joined the ticket after he was reminded that “proximity to people who are off
the path allows you to help them get
on the path.”
he stories of exile helped evangelicals
come around to the idea of a Trump presidency.
Since Election Day, these same stories have
been marshaled to incite loyalty to Trump—
particularly within the administration itself.
fractiousness over the incoming president.
(Drollinger was an outspoken Trump supporter
throughout the campaign.)
The document begins by acknowledging
that many people in office had been vocal
about their displeasure at Trump’s election.
Drollinger aimed to demonstrate the “exemplary behavior” of Old Testament igures like
Daniel, “who stood their ground for God, and
yet maintained respect for those in authority
with whom they did not agree.” What distinguished Daniel, he wrote, was his “loyal service” to and “manifest respect” for the king.
Ralph Drollinger, a former NBA player and the
founder of Capitol Ministries, leads Bible studies that take place weekly in both the House
and the Senate. During the Obama Administration, Pence was one of the group’s sponsors,
along with Michele Bachmann, Tom Price, and
Mike Pompeo.
A few weeks after the election, on November
28, Drollinger held a reception where he distributed Bible-study notes on the stories of
Daniel, Joseph, and Mordecai. He declined my
request for an interview, but Capitol Ministries sent me the notes, “Maintaining Biblical
Attitudes with New Political Leadership,”
which were clearly designed to quell internal
Even though he served a foreigner who did
not recognize his religion, Daniel made himself useful and encouraged the ruler to follow
Scriptural commands. Drollinger then explicitly likened Pence to Daniel. “For years,
Governor Pence has embodied these aforesaid biblical characteristics, and God has elevated him to the number-two position in our
government.”
Pence has certainly fulilled this prescription
of loyalty. During the irst full Cabinet meeting,
the vice president declared that working for
Trump was “the greatest privilege of my life,”
provoking a chain of obsequious echoes from the
other attendees. His unwavering devotion to his
T
30
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
leader has earned him the endearment “sycophant in chief.” He has declined to publicly disagree with the president, even in the crucible of
his worst political traumas. When Trump refused to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, for example, Pence not only
defended him but did so in the soothing tones of
a spiritual adviser. “I know this president,” he
told Matt Lauer. “I know his heart.”
And yet it’s difficult to overstate how far
Drollinger’s exegesis—which imagines Daniel
as a deferential subject—strays from Christian
orthodoxy, which traditionally celebrates him
as a righteous dissenter. Pence’s shows of deference reek of political strategy; his tenure so far
ref lects the more cynical implication of
Drollinger’s lesson: that the most expedient
way to accomplish a religious agenda is to perform fealty to the king while working behind
the scenes on behalf of your own people.
Pence was instrumental in the choice of Neil
Republic that if Pence had his way, America
would become like Gilead, the dystopian state of
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where
women are considered property and “gender traitors” are publicly executed.
But one needn’t look to iction to conjure the
kind of theocracy that Pence might prefer. It’s
right there in the Bible. After the Israelites were
freed from exile, they returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt the Temple, and constructed a wall around
the city. Under the leadership of a high priest,
Judah became a theological state operating according to the Law of Moses, which outlined an
inflexible code of hygiene and diet and forbade
divorce and homosexuality. Some Old Testament
sources dramatize this era as a revival of religious
and ethnic purity, a period in which Jerusalem
was systematically purged of foreign influences;
in the Book of Ezra, non-Jews were persecuted,
and men were forced to give up their foreign
wives and children.
PENCE’S SHOWS OF DEFERENCE REFLECT A CYNICAL LESSON: THE MOST EXPEDIENT
WAY TO ACCOMPLISH A RELIGIOUS AGENDA IS TO PERFORM FEALTY WHILE
WORKING BEHIND THE SCENES ON BEHALF OF YOUR OWN PEOPLE
Gorsuch for the Supreme Court and is believed to have influenced many Cabinet appointments, including those of Betsy DeVos,
Tom Price, and Mike Pompeo—a cohort that,
in the words of the writer Jeff Sharlet, may create “the most fundamentalist Cabinet in history.” Christian lobbyists, along with Pence,
seemed to play an important role in persuading
Trump last December to declare that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s
capital. In his address to the Knesset the next
month, Pence explicitly tied American history
to the Jewish exile narratives. “In the story of
the Jews,” he said, “we’ve always seen the story
of America.”
Although Pence has denied that he has higher ambitions, political commentators haven’t
ruled out the prospect of a Pence presidency. Last
year, he launched the Great America Committee, the irst PAC started by a sitting vice president. This development, coupled with reports
that he was hosting dinners for wealthy Republican donors at his oficial residence, led to rumors that he might be running a shadow campaign. Regardless of whether Pence ends up
running in 2020—or whether some fateful event
promotes him to commander in chief—it appears
he is planning a political future independent of
Trump. This prospect causes no shortage of anxiety on the left. Sarah Jones remarked in The New
Pence himself has alluded to this return narrative in his speeches and public appearances. The
verse he chose for his swearing-in as vice
president—2 Chronicles 7:14—reiterates the conditions of God’s covenant with Israel and the
promise of a restored theocratic homeland. American evangelicals see themselves as the inheritors
of these covenants, which is something commentators miss when they predict, again and again,
the decline of the religious right. Such assumptions rest on the modern, liberal notion that
history is an endless arc of progress and that religion, like all medieval holdovers, will slowly vanish from the public sphere. But evangelicals themselves regard history as the Old Testament authors
do, as a cycle of captivity, deliverance, and restoration, a process that is sometimes propelled by
unlikely forces—pagan strongmen, despotic
kings. This narrative lies deep in the DNA of
American evangelicalism and is one of the reasons it has remained such a nimble and adaptive
component of the Republican Party.
One of Pence’s favorite Bible verses is Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you . . .
plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans
to give you hope and a future.” The verse, which
currently hangs above the mantel of the vice
president’s residence in Washington, contains
God’s promise to free the Jews after their captivity in Babylon. In a later verse, God vows,
ESSAY
31
“I will gather you from all the nations and
places where I have banished you . . . and
will bring you back to the place
from which I carried you into exile.”
K
ingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. After
Cyrus conquered Babylon, the region remained
within the Persian Empire until 331 bc, when it
fell to the Greeks under Alexander the Great.
The Romans came next, then the Arab Islamic
empires and the Ottomans. Today, several of
the countries that once made up the NeoBabylonian Empire—including Syria and Iraq—
are blighted by war and political chaos as vicious
as that of the biblical era. Since the beginning
of the civil war in Syria, 11 million people have
fled their homes. Many are living in exile across
the Middle East, while others have sought refuge
in Europe or the United States.
In November 2015, days after the Paris terrorist attacks, Mike Pence, as governor, issued a directive suspending the resettlement of Syrian
refugees in Indiana. He claimed this was a security measure, arguing that Syrian refugees had
carried out the attacks. (The culprits were in
fact believed to be EU citizens, though there
were reports that one had posed as a refugee.) It
is dificult to ignore a central irony: the rhetoric
of exile had cleared the way for an administration that is waging war on actual political exiles.
During our conversation, Vroegop had told me
that Indianapolis is home to a sizable refugee community. This was something he mentioned to me
in passing while describing his church’s outreach
programs, but it stuck with me. While I was at College Park, nobody said anything nativist or xenophobic; Vroegop himself spoke of the “growing,
beautiful diversity” of his congregation. So before I
left town, I visited Exodus Refugee Immigration,
the largest resettlement agency in the state. After
Pence’s 2015 Syrian ban, Exodus partnered with the
American Civil Liberties Union to ile a lawsuit
against the governor. Eventually, an appeals court
ruled that Pence’s directive amounted to “discrimination on the basis of nationality.” Cole Varga, the
executive director of Exodus, told me that last year
had been “fairly chaotic,” which struck me as a
morbid understatement. Because of the Trump
Administration’s travel bans, Exodus had received
roughly half the arrivals they had expected, and
their federal funding had been drastically cut; that
February, he’d let go more than a third of his staff.
Varga introduced me to Shereen, a Syrian exile
whose journey to the United States was almost
derailed by the travel ban in January 2017. (Shereen
asked that her last name not be used.) She, her
husband, and her son had been living in Turkey as
refugees for three years when their ile was inally
referred to the United States. They were packed and
ready to go when they got the news that their flight
32
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
had been canceled. “We thought we would never
get the chance to come,” Shereen told me. “For my
husband and I, it’s not a problem. We can live
anywhere, we can work. We can start all over. But
we were more concerned for my son. . . . We wanted
the opportunity to come to the United States to
provide a life for him.”
Her son, Jowan, was in the Exodus ofice with
her. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at
birth and was in a wheelchair. Shereen explained that from the time they fled Aleppo in
2013, Jowan hadn’t been able to attend school
or receive physical therapy. When a federal appeals court put the ban on hold, she and her
family came to the United States, and Jowan is
now enrolled in school and receiving treatment.
But they are among the lucky ones. Varga told
me that he spends a lot of time thinking about
all the people who “should be here right now.”
Throughout our conversation, I kept thinking of
a speech Pence gave a few months earlier at the
Mayflower Hotel in Washington, at an event for
persecuted Christians. He argued, as he has elsewhere, that Christians are called to live in exile,
“outside the city gate,” barred from the security of
the polis. Even though this administration has returned evangelicals to power, Pence still refers to
Christians as an endangered minority. “No people
of faith today face greater hostility or hatred than
followers of Christ,” he said in the speech. His
sympathy for exiles, it seems, doesn’t extend to nonChristians. Pence pays lip service to the religious
liberties of “all people of all faiths,” but he has
consistently defended Trump’s measures to prevent
Muslims from entering the United States. When
Trump signed the travel ban that would have prevented Shereen and her family from immigrating,
Pence stood by his side.
Though the vice president likes to draw from
the Old Testament’s promises of redemption,
these texts are undergirded by a brutal moral
calculus that is dificult to reconcile with the
teachings of Christ. Israel always gets what it
deserves—punishment or deliverance—and yet
so many others are the collateral damage of that
cycle. There are the enemies of Israel, who are
slain without mercy. And there are the countless
foreign tribes who get caught in the crosshairs—
groups who are settled on territories God intends
for Judah, or people whose religion poses a threat
to Jewish purity. Their demise appears in the margins of these stories, often in a single sentence:
They burned all the towns where the Midianites had
settled, as well as all their camps. I remember coming across these passages when I was in Bible
school, struggling with the irst shadows of doubt,
trying and failing to understand why so many
people had to suffer for one group’s redemption—
why this ongoing drama between the elect and
their God had to come at such a terrible cost. Q
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CHURCH AND STATE
Buddhism meets the Chinese economy
By Will Ford
J
ust after dawn in Lhamo, a small
town on the northeastern corner
of the Tibetan Plateau, horns
summon the monks of Serti Monastery to prayer. Juniper incense smolders in the temple’s courtyard as
monks begin arriving in huddled
groups. Some walk the kora, a clockwise circumambulation around the
building. Others hustle toward the
main door, which sits just inside a
porch decorated in bright thangka
paintings. A pile of fur boots accumulates outside. When the last monks
have arrived, the horn blowers leaning out of the second-floor windows
retire indoors.
When I visited Lhamo in 2015,
most monks at Serti attended the
morning prayers, but not Ngawang
Chötar, the vice president of the
monastery’s management committee,
or siguanhui. Instead, he could usually
be found doing business somewhere
on Lhamo’s main street. Like all Tibetan monks, he sports a buzz cut,
and his gait, weighed down by dark
crimson robes, resembles a penguin’s
shuffle. When he forgets the password
to his account on WeChat, China’s
popular messaging service—a frequent occurrence—he waits for the
town’s cell phone repairman at his favorite restaurant, piling the shells of
sunflower seeds into a tidy mound.
Will Ford lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
34
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
I irst met Chötar that June, at a
noodle shop in the center of town. I
was sitting by myself having breakfast and he waved me over with an
amused expression.
Chötar was sitting with Boss Pan, a
Han Chinese man who had been living in Lhamo for a year. Thin, in his
forties, with a weathered face and a
gap-toothed smile, Pan was a construction manager. His latest project
had been the subject of much controversy in town—a new hotel to be run
by Chötar’s monastery. He didn’t see
it that way, of course. Lhamo, he told
me, wasn’t much different from other
outposts where he’d worked. He’d
spent twenty years doing construction
in a remote corner of Xinjiang, in the
northwest, which felt even more distant. (In imperial times, dissidents
were often exiled there.) In a bored
tone, Pan explained that Tibetans
were destined for the same modernization that had brought hundreds of
millions of Chinese out of poverty
over the past thirty years. Chötar listened calmly; in China, it’s common
to hear people talk about ethnic minorities this way.
We added one another on WeChat,
and I told them I’d be exploring the
area for a while. It had been eight years
since I’d last visited, and Lhamo remained as beautiful as I remembered.
Situated at 11,000 feet, the remote
town is tucked into rolling grasslands
next to a mountainside spring, with
upland buzzards soaring on thermals
above the peaks. The monastery overlooks the town from its perch at the
edge of a cliff.
As I made my way around town, I
had to cover my ears—businesses
were scrambling to open before July’s
tourist wave, and a cacophony of
jackhammers, cement mixers, and
backhoes rang out everywhere. As in
many regions in China’s interior, the
government was trying to kick-start
development via tourism, promoting
Tibetan culture, horse trekking, and
hiking. The authorities had recently
doubled the length of the town,
building a half-mile-long commercial
strip that extended from a central intersection. The strip had two stories
that could be used for a variety of
commercial establishments—the
textbook approach to design around
Tibet. The local government had
provided interest-free loans, and new
businesses alternated in a predictable
pattern—restaurant, hotel, souvenir
shop, corner store. Noodle shops were
everywhere. A hodgepodge of vehicles rushed up and down the street:
peasants’ trucks with their diesel engines thumping, BMWs and Audis
filled with tourists, speeding local
buses, every species of moped imaginable. Cowboy nomads in dark brown
robes mixed with monks, tourists, and
shop owners.
Lhamo’s main street marked the
boundary between Gansu and Sichuan provinces. Serti sat on the Gansu side, and the town’s other monastery, Kirti, sat in Sichuan. In town,
Illustration by Simon Pemberton
the division was invisible, save a
Gansu province Rural Credit Union
on one side and a Sichuan Rural
Credit Union on the other. But out
of sight brewed another conflict. In
the mid-Aughts, a low-simmering religious dispute intensified as the
monasteries struggled to contend
with the Chinese economy. They responded in dramatically different
ways. Serti has expanded its business
significantly while Kirti has remained largely apart from local commerce. Across Lhamo, monks have
ceased speaking to one another.
Later that morning, as I passed
the central intersection, Chötar
shouted at me from a hotel window;
this was the Dacang Lhamo, Serti’s
first hotel, which opened in 2003.
“Ni hao! Hallo! Hallo!”
I saw myself up. The room was a
standard double with a sleek bathroom. It had been converted into an
ofice, swapping out the beds for desks
and a table, where Chötar took business calls and worked on plans for the
new hotel. He sat at a desk next to
the window, reclining in his chair so
that his robes obscured the seat entirely. Chatting on his iPhone, he carried himself like a CEO sitting for a
Forbes shoot—“the monk mogul.”
Another monk, younger, sat nearby,
frowning at no one in particular. He
greeted me in Mandarin with a
heavy Tibetan accent and poured
some tea. His name was Tsültrim
Drakpa; he looked about thirty years
old. He’d been in the hotel business for
barely a month but already had a few
gray hairs. Chötar was training him to
be the new manager. I asked him how
the process was going, and his
frown deepened.
“It’s hard. In the beginning it was
even harder. Doing business uses a
different part of your brain. I sometimes can’t get it moving.” He gestured to the pen in his other hand.
“If I bought this for ten kuai, I
wouldn’t sell it for three hundred.1
That’s what most people do. I’d sell it
for maybe eleven—at most fifteen.
All this still makes me uneasy.”
“Monks don’t do business,” Chötar
added from his chair. He nodded.
Then he smiled. Then he giggled.
He did that whenever he talked,
opening his eyes wide as if everything were a small, entertaining revelation. Chötar explained that the
monastery capped room rates below
1
“Kuai” is the colloquial term for China’s
currency, also called the yuan.
LETTER FROM TIBET
35
market price, and that the profits
went to support the monastery.
Serti had bought the best real estate in town—fourteen units that
wrapped around a corner of the new
strip. Monks were operating a souvenir shop in one, but Chötar planned
to rent out the rest to other businesses. Behind their shops, across the river and just below the monastery,
loomed the beginnings of their second hotel. It was an enormous, halfinished cement structure shaped like
a Tibetan palace, scheduled to open
the following year. A hospital that
specialized in traditional medicine
would operate next door.
“We can’t proit too much,” Drakpa said. “But we have to yang ziji”—
to take care of ourselves.
I nodded. In the Nineties, the Dalai
Lama had encouraged Tibetan institutions in China to achieve economic
self-suficiency. But the direction contained a paradox, since economic
health was hard to sustain without
tapping into the Chinese tourist
economy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hopes that such
development can stabilize the region politically and bring the Tibetan Plateau—the site of more
than 140 self-immolations in protest of Chinese rule—more deeply
into the fold.2 Some of the oldest
Tibetan institutions—including Serti—
have chosen to do more business with
the Chinese than have others. To Kirti
monks and more resistant Tibetans,
arrangements such as Serti’s partnership with Boss Pan are tainted. To
engage with China, some feel, is to
become cultural, political, and even
spiritual sellouts.
C
hötar has served as the vice
president of Serti’s siguanhui
on and off since 2001. The
committees date back to the early
Eighties, when Tibetans began rebuilding monasteries destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Such
2
The present-day boundaries of Tibet
have been manipulated by Chinese occupation. For Tibetans themselves, and for
this article, the word “Tibet” covers the
traditional regions of Amdo, Kham, and
U-Tsang, which includes territories located in the modern Chinese provinces of
Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, Qinghai, and
Tibet proper.
36
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
projects required a political body to
coordinate with Chinese authorities,
and the siguanhui became the main
liaison between the monastery and
the CCP.
Though the abbot technically
leads every monastery’s board, the
vice president does all the hard work.
Depending on the region of the plateau, or the monastery’s relationship
with the local government, monks
appoint their representatives with
varying degrees of independence.
Sometimes the boards are mostly
laymen, but not always: though government oficials have inal approval
of the nominees, they often avoid rejecting the monks’ selections for fear
of angering local communities. Monasteries, they know, enjoy far more
respect on the plateau than the CCP.
Because of their position, siguanhuis negotiate a variety of delicate issues, but none more important than
FOR MONASTERIES, DECIDING
WHETHER TO EXPLOIT THE
COLONIAL ECONOMY CAN BE
AN EMOTIONAL CHOICE
their monastery’s finances. Before
Chinese occupation, monasteries
owned about 35 percent of the plateau’s territory, supporting themselves
mostly by leasing land to nomad families who farmed and grazed yaks.
(Because of this, Chinese authorities
have often considered monasteries to
be remnants of the feudal era, when
high-level lamas were some of the
wealthiest members of Tibetan society. Abbots could amass fortunes for
t hei r mon a ster ies — a nd of ten
themselves—by pooling donations,
charging pilgrims for blessings, or
controlling their monastery’s trade in
markets like Tibetan jewelry.) But
since the Fifties, only the government
has been permitted to own land, leaving monks stripped of a major source
of revenue. Siguanhuis are expected to
make up the difference.
Without land, monasteries have
essentially three options: raise money from donations and religious services, charge tourists entrance fees,
or run businesses. Deciding whether
to exploit the colonial economy can
b e a n emotion a l choice, a nd
each option demands its own cultural and political sacrifices. How
funds are invested often generates
controversy and suspicion as well:
many monks believe that the Chinese government prefers that money
be spent on temple renovations
over, say, scholarship funds for advanced Buddhist studies, since the
party is suspicious of Buddhist masters at Tibetan institutions of higher learning. But without land, monasteries have few options beyond
engaging with the Chinese world.
O
ver the next few months, I
spent time with Chötar whenever he was in Lhamo. He
traveled frequently on monastery business, and his itinerary changed constantly, sometimes less than a day in
advance; we’d arrange to meet, and
then he would be nowhere to be
found when I arrived at our designated spot. Usually, he’d taken off
to attend an economic conference
sponsored by the Chinese government. “I’m in Lanzhou now!” “I’m
in Sichuan!” “I’m on the grasslands!” “I’m in Qinghai!” he’d text.
Most of the conferences were
held to discuss private and public inancial tools—loans, bonds, government development programs—and
featured oficials pontiicating on the
importance of a “harmonious society” for minorities in China. “That
part wasn’t so interesting,” he once
told me, with a sheepish smile. The
lectures shared the deining characteristic of many government meetings in China—the audience dozing
off or playing on their cell phones.
Like many in the room, Chötar was
a pragmatist, attending to maintain
good relations with the CCP.
It was hard to know how Kirti
dealt with such conferences. When
I went looking for its committee
members, I always hit a dead end.
That was by design: Kirti monks
kept to themselves. Like many
monasteries, they ran a modest hotel next to their entrance, but it
was a small operation compared
with Serti’s vast real estate holdings. “We raise our own money,”
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that they never accepted loans
from Chinese banks. Stubbornness
was one of the few acts of deiance
they had left; Kirti monks were allowed to shop at only a handful of
stores in town.
In the middle of the summer, Serti went on vacation. Chötar took a
ten-day road trip with a few other
monks and sent me updates—
mostly pictures of them playing volleyball, in full robes, or picnicking
with his best friend, a chubby old
monk whom he called the Fatty.
Once he invited me to tag along
with him and the Fatty to the bedand-breakfast yurt of a nomad family in the grasslands looking for business advice and perhaps a loan.
Before we left, Chötar assured me
that the Fatty was a good driver because, unlike many Tibetans who
drove, he actually had a license.
Business was good that summer.
Soon after I ar rived in tow n,
Chötar delivered a lease to a new
tenant, who was opening a Sichuanese restaurant. The large stack of
papers written in the Chinese legal
code made Chötar giggle. A few
days later, we returned to eat with
the restaurant staff, a mixture of
Chinese and Tibetans.
At the restaurant, there were clear
signs that the forces changing Tibet
weren’t solely Chinese. The monks
were watching the NBA inals on their
iPhones, and some of them noted that
Steve Jobs was a Buddhist. That explained, they said, why iPhones had
the most user-friendly Tibetan script.
When the Warriors won the series,
one monk sent around a photo on
WeChat, the crying face of LeBron
James superimposed on a basketball
Steph Curry was shooting. They’d
been rooting for Curry.
Chötar’s spontaneous business
travel was complemented by a conversation style that featured a lot of
abrupt subject changes. At first I
found it a little rude, but soon I grew
accustomed to it. Many monks talked this way, perhaps because Buddhism stresses a mindfulness in the
present moment that rarely lends itself to planning ahead. “Mindfulness
should never be displaced from the
fate of the mind,” wrote one eighth-
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38
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
century lama. “If it is gone, it should
be reinstated while recalling the anguish of hell.”
I imagined that this approach to
life must confuse the Chinese government, which organizes its economy in ive-year plans. At dinner
one night with a few friends, I
heard Chötar mock the term “monastery economic development”—a
popular phrase at party conferences. The table, full of Tibetans,
broke out in laughter.
A
fter Chötar and I spent more
time together, he mentioned
that he had a nephew named
Sangyal in Canada. Chötar hoped to
visit him one day but wasn’t optimistic. The government rarely granted
passports to Tibetans, concerned
they’d be radicalized by dissidents
abroad. Monks had it worse than
anybody. In November, Chötar asked
me to contact Sangyal on WeChat,
without explaining why he couldn’t
reach out himself.
Sangyal picked up my call in a Toronto grocery store. “We don’t talk,”
he said of Chötar. “They worship
Shugden at his monastery.”
I’d heard about Dorje Shugden before. For centuries, the spirit—a deity
known as a dharma protector, who
defends believers from harm—had
been a minor igure in the Gelug tradition, the dominant sect of the four
denominations of Tibetan Buddhism.
But in the middle of the twentieth
century, a series of prominent lamas
dramatically elevated his status and
made him a central igure of the faith.
In the Seventies, a lama named
Zimey Rinpoche published an influential text known as The Yellow Book,
which also promoted devotion to
Shugden. The text consists of stories
of lamas whose lives were cut short by
Shugden because they worshipped deities of other sects. True Gelugs,
Rinpoche argued, should not worship
other gods lest they incur the wrath
of Shugden, whose punishment could
include even death.
T he cur rent Dalai Lama— a
Gelug, like all those before him—
rejected The Yellow Book. In 1977, after the text was published, the Dalai
Lama began to restrict Shugden worship, causing a rift within the com-
munity.3 In extreme cases, monks
have been murdered, allegedly because of the schism, and the division
exists in many areas of the plateau.
In Lhamo, Serti allows worship of
Shugden. Kirti does not.
One widely shared rumor holds
that the Chinese gover nment,
looking to divide the Tibetan community and undermine the Dalai
Lama, favors monasteries that worship Shugden. Serti’s investments
in the local economy seemed to reinforce the notion, but academics
close to the issue told me that no
hard proof of favoritism exists,
mostly because the subject has
grown so taboo that it is nearly impossible to research. Still, perception is powerful, and pro-Shugden
monasteries are often held in contempt by institutions like Kirti,
which follow the Dalai Lama’s
guidance more strictly. Families,
too, are divided on the issue.
On the phone, Sangyal, now
twenty-seven, spoke English with a
hint of an Indian accent. In 2004,
when he was just fourteen, he’d left
Lhamo to seek the Dalai Lama in
India. He attended school in exile
and then found his way to Canada.
His family still worshipped at Kirti
in Lhamo, and Sangyal believed
that Chötar’s position at Serti and
his devotion to Shugden had cursed
them, causing Sangyal’s younger
brother to die and his mother to develop eye problems.
“He’s a good monk,” Sangyal told
me on the phone. “But I don’t ever
want to talk to him.”
“We all believe in the same Buddha!” Chötar told me later. “How can
family members refuse to talk to one
another because of something like
this?” It was the only time I ever saw
him grow angry.
L
ater that summer, Chötar left
on another trip, this time to
visit museums in nearby monastery towns. Serti was considering
3
In this way, the Dalai Lama has advocated for a more inclusive Buddhist practice.
He has largely broken with the convention
of previous Dalai Lamas by employing the
practices of other denominations, such as
worshipping deities from the Nyingma, the
oldest sect. Some observers see this as a
way of preserving Tibetan unity.
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building one in Lhamo, but Chötar
didn’t like the proposals for it. One
potential model—a massive stone
construction built above a huge
plaza—brought to mind Tiananmen
Square. The architecture was a hybrid of communist brutalism and Tibetan traditional styles, and it made
him wince. It was too big, larger than
any of his temples. He thought Serti
could design something better. Having seen the beginnings of the new
hotel’s construction, I wasn’t optimistic. A Chinese irm out of Lanzhou
had designed the structure, basing it
on their idea of what a Tibetan palace should look like.
But those concerns were minor
compared with others. The trash,
overcrowding, and noise in Lhamo
deeply bothered Chötar. The river
running through town was filled
with litter, and I’d seen many
groups—Chinese, Tibetan, Hui—
throw trash everywhere. One night,
when Chötar and I were walking
along the hotel construction site
next to the river, he gazed at the
banks covered in discarded plastic.
“T his much development isn’t
good,” he said. At the Sichuan restaurant, he had covered his ears
when drunk tourists began to shout,
then politely suggested that they
drink less. Fifteen years ago, he’d
rarely encountered such problems.
Still, he always projected a jovial
energy, waving hello to shop owners, shuffling down the road and
checking his cell phone.
The work of managing the monastery’s inances was also tiring, as
was staying in the party’s good graces. He often criticized government
policy. The passport denials frustrated him, and there had been a dificult period after 2008, when the plateau had erupted in anti-Chinese
riots. In the crackdown that followed, two Kirti monks had selfimmolated. Like most Tibetans,
Chötar believed that harming oneself contradicted Buddhist principles, and the act confused him.
Since so many of the self-immolators
were young, like suicide bombers, he
diagnosed the problem as one of
misguided youth. But he sympathized with their grievances; during
the upheaval, soldiers from the Chi-
40
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
nese army stationed themselves in
Serti’s first hotel, and monks were
interrogated. The military left in
2014, but the local police still targeted monks in roadside stops.
“China has a good constitution,”
Chötar told me once, “but they don’t
enforce what’s in the law.”
When I asked whether the events
of 2008 had driven the inal wedge
between the two monasteries—as
some in town speculated—Chötar
disagreed. He traced the split to
around 2005, when cell phones and
the internet arrived in town. It was
then that he began to hear more and
more rumors about his monastery, its
Shugden followers, and the favoritism they were alleged to receive.
Many of the rumors, he said, were
transmitted from the Tibetan exile
community abroad, often thousands
of miles away. He pointed out that
government money was made available to every single monastery in the
prefecture, regardless of its stance on
Shugden. At one point, his tone became almost pleading. He was exhausted by accusations he considered
baseless. “Everything they say,” he
said, “it’s all to trick the people. Really!” He recalled fondly the days before the split, when monks of Kirti
and Serti spoke to one another and
the monasteries’ tulkus—or living
Buddhas—remained cordial. Now
they no longer spoke.
Government policy, Chötar said,
encouraged unity between the monasteries. Oficials frequently invoked
the word “harmony”—a favorite
term for China’s former president Hu
Jintao. The CCP probably feared
that isolated monasteries would drift
closer to the exile government. One
of Kirti’s sister monasteries, founded
by the same lama, maintained a close
association with the government in
exile, and their town had seen more
than forty self-immolations since
2008—more than anywhere else in
Tibet. The attitude of those less
hostile to touristic development,
the CCP hoped, would rub off on
others. The goal was one that
Chötar shared, but not for the political reasons the Chinese did. What
he wanted was a return to how
things were—monasteries, and families, reconciled.
A
year later, I came back to
Lhamo. In the interim,
Chötar continued to send
me Buddhist greetings, pictures of
conferences he attended, and photographs of the town. One set of photos
came from a beach on a plush CCPsponsored trip to Hainan, China’s
tropical island province. In the
spring, he told me I should come see
the new hotel in its inished form. It
had opened in May.
When I arrived, the hotel looked
bigger than I remembered. The rubble from the construction had been
cleared, and a large parking lot had
been paved. The exterior of the hotel
was painted in traditional Tibetan
whites and reds that made it look
even more palatial.
I sat down in one of the leather
chairs in the lobby and looked
around. Everything glistened, and a
sparkling chandelier hung over the
room, which was as cavernous as a
church nave. Behind the front desk
loomed an enormous fresco of Lhasa’s
Potala Palace. The hotel wouldn’t
have looked out of place in Las Vegas. I imagined that Kirti monks
must have hated it: everything
about the hotel felt ostentatious and
overdone, a betrayal of Buddhism’s
humbler messages.
Tourist season hadn’t quite arrived
yet, and there were no cars in the lot.
The concierge stared at me, confused
at having a foreigner sitting in her
palace. A few minutes later, Chötar
emerged from one of the hallways.
He was smiling, walking faster than
usual and talking with one of the hotel managers, all of whom were Chinese. As he approached, I noticed he
was wearing rain boots.
After we greeted each other,
Chötar called the concierge over for
some tea. She placed two glasses on
the table between our chairs. Chötar
sat down. The armrests were so large
that it was hard to reach the tea, and
the distance made conversation awkward. You had to lean over to one
side to talk to the person sitting next
to you.
Chötar began to take off his
boots; the past few months had been
rainy, and the ground around town
was muddy. “The basement is flooded. So much rain!” He shook his
head in disbelief. “It wasn’t supposed
to flood at all.” I mentioned that I’d
heard Lhamo rarely got this much
precipitation. “That’s true. More
than I have ever seen. But this basement flooded earlier in the year. And
now it flooded again! It was supposed
to be ixed,” he said, chuckling.
Chötar took me upstairs to look
at some rooms. As we walked down
the hall, trailed by hotel staff, he
pointed out problems and asked
about supplies the hotel still needed. He showed me their most expensive suite, a unit with a living
room, a big-screen TV, and a view
of the mountains. Chötar inspected
the room and made a few notes to
one of the managers. He didn’t ask
me what I thought of it. The hotel
had been open for less than a
month now, and he looked tired
from all the work.
As we toured the building, my incredulity grew. I couldn’t possibly
imagine why Chötar’s monastery
needed such an enormous hotel. It
looked like a vanity project of exactly the sort the Chinese government
had encouraged, and which Kirti
would certainly resent. Chötar
sensed my confusion.
B efore Chi nese occupation,
Chötar said, his monastery had
owned the land next to the river—
about the size of a football ield—on
which the hotel now stood. They often performed prayer ceremonies
there. In the Fifties, it was taken
away, and then used by different
work units through the Great Leap
Forward, the Cultural Revolution,
and China’s recent reform period,
until just a few years ago. When the
government began planning the new
strip in town, they returned the land
to Serti—perhaps, I thought, a sign
of pro-Shugden favoritism. But the
transfer came with a catch: if Serti
failed to build commercial property
on it within two years, the government would take the land back. Later, I learned that local oficials might
have misled Chötar: exactly how
nonproit institutions were expected
to use land granted to them was left
vague—regulations didn’t necessarily
require them to build. The monastery had simply taken the party’s
word for it.
Had Serti left the land underdeveloped, they were convinced that
the government would have found
a different buyer to build another
strip. Instead, they’d chosen to
construct the biggest structure possible. It was a defensive move, to
occupy the maximum amount of
the land the monastery had once
owned. Behind the hotel, a narrow
shortcut led up the hill and into
the monastery residences, no more
than a few hundred feet above. A
hand-painted sign at its entrance
read tourists keep out. That,
more than anything else, felt like
an expression of the true purpose
of the hotel.
Chötar left to tend to the basement, and I pondered the absurdity
of the situation. To protect itself,
Kirti had distanced itself from the
local economy, while Serti—the alleged sellout—had taken the colonizer’s money and built a defensive
castle.
When it comes to integration
with the Chinese world, the choice
between these two approaches, engaging with Chinese institutions or
shunning them, underscores nearly
every decision surrounding the plateau’s future. The Chinese economy offers a support railing—or perhaps a bribe, impossible to refuse,
with a veiled threat behind it. The
most defiant institutions avoid
holding on to it, hoping to maintain balance on their own. Others,
like Serti’s siguanhui, grasp it carefully as they make their way up,
hoping that they won’t fall were it
suddenly to vanish. For the most
idealistic Tibetans, especially those
in the exile community, reaching
for the railing is completely unacceptable. But that condemnation
ignores a sobering reality. Under
colonial rule, the economy helps
entrap citizens, leaving the occupied with only imperfect choices.
Pragmatism forces them to work
within the framework set by the
powerful, even if the railing may
become an encircling fence.
And on the ground in Lhamo,
those delicate decisions were made
amid deafening scenes of chaos.
One day, I attended a store opening at the height of the tourist sea-
son, and a Tibetan café manager
invited me to sample her Western
menu. I found a table and sat down
to an overly spiced pizza. Outside, a
staff member was arranging boxes
of ireworks. Behind her, a parade
had begun on the street. A living
Buddha was due to arrive at Kirti
Monastery, and a pickup truck, followed by a trail of monk-driven
cars, rolled through town. Two
young monks stood in the bed of
the truck holding an ornamental
yellow parasol to receive the tulku.
Tourists’ SUVs tried to maneuver
around the parade, and trucks on
delivery runs threw themselves into
the fray. The monks smiled, tossing
white prayer flags into the street. As
the trafic jammed, the café staff set
off the fireworks, jackhammers
sounded, and I covered my ears.
The monks laughed at the commotion. The staffers cheered. When I
lo oked up, t he pa r ade h ad n’t
moved, and a backhoe came into
view, carrying a set of steel rods. It
was Boss Pan, the Chinese contractor. He kept his eyes ixed on
the road as he advanced toward the
hotel. It was hard to imagine him
turning around.
Q
May Index Sources
1 Harper’s research; 2,3 Cassandra
K. Crifasi, Johns Hopkins University
(Baltimore); 4 YouGov (NYC); 5,6 Federal
Bureau of Investigation; 7 Harper’s research;
8,9 David K. Humphreys, University of
Oxford (England); 10 Federal Bureau
of Prisons; 11 New Jersey Department
of Corrections (Trenton); 12 American
Association for the Advancement of Science
(Washington); 13,14 Interfaith Youth Core
(Chicago); 15,16 Gallup (Atlanta); 17,18
Beyond Parallel (Washington); 19 Harper’s
research; 20,21 Euromonitor International
(London); 22 Philip May, University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill; 23 Coal
Workers’ Health Surveillance Program
(Morgantown, W.Va.); 24,25 Health
Resources and Services Administration
(Rockville, Md.); 26 The Donkey Sanctuary
(Sidmouth, England); 27 Animal Rights
Sweden (Stockholm); 28,29 Yelp (San
Francisco); 30,31 Hawaii State Department
of Health (Honolulu); 32 City and County
of San Francisco; 33 County of Santa Clara
(San Jose, Calif.); 34 Eric Goldman, Santa
Clara University (Calif.); 35,36 Harper’s
research; 37 Center for Gaming Research,
University of Nevada, Las Vegas; 38 Royal
Embassy of Cambodia (Washington); 39
Walt Disney Travel Company (Anaheim,
Calif.); 40 Peter Dreier, Occidental College
(Los Angeles).
LETTER FROM TIBET
41
P
O
R
T
F
O
L
I
O
THE PICTURES
Securing Peter Hujar’s place among the greats
By Stephen Koch
A
s he approached his death in
1987, the photographer Peter
Hujar was all but unknown,
with a murky reputation and a tiny, if
elite, cult following. Slowly circling
down what was then the hopeless spiral of AIDS, Peter had ceaselessly debated one decision, which he reached
only with dificulty, and only when
the end drew near. He was in a hospital bed when he made his will that
summer, naming me the executor of
his entire artistic estate—and also its
sole owner.
The move transformed my life and
induced a seething fury in lots of
decent people. I can see why. Peter
did not make me his heir for any of
the usual reasons. I was a good and
trusted friend, but he had scads of
those. I was not the irst person he
considered for the job, nor was I the
most qualiied. In fact, I was a rank
amateur, and my understanding of his
art was limited. I knew his photographs were stunning, often upsetting, unpredictably beautiful, distinctively his. I also knew they were
underrated and neglected. But I did
not then really grasp his achievement.
Yet he chose me. By making that
choice, he bequeathed to me a mission. Success—serious success—had
always teased and eluded us both,
and we were constantly debating
why. What were we doing wrong?
What was the secret? Because of our
Stephen Koch’s most recent book is The
Breaking Point (Counterpoint).
42
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
countless intimate talks on this
thorny subject, I instantly knew why
he had chosen me. Peter wanted me
to pull his work out of the shadows
where it had both flourished and languished: he wanted the reputation
and the place in history we both
knew he deserved. My mission, in
other words, was to usher his art into
posthumous fame.
T
he grand archetype for posthumous fame in art is, of
course, the rescue of Vincent
van Gogh’s work by his bourgeois
younger brother, Theo (and Theo’s
wife, Johanna). When he died, Van
Gogh had a small circle of admirers,
and had sold at least two paintings.
None of that was enough, however, to
secure his legacy. Shepherding his
work out of obscurity took decades of
hard work, oxlike persistence, strong
allies, strategic smarts, unshakable
faith, and (not least) good luck.
Of course, any rescue depends irst
and foremost on the quality of the
art itself. The work the dead leave
behind can’t be merely good or even
very good. It must be magniicent—
anything short of that and the resurrection will fail. And even then, Van
Gogh’s paintings and drawings could
have been left to rot in some attic in
Amsterdam or a reeking stable in Arles. Someone had to save them.
Someone had to find a public for
them. Someone had to keep them
from the inevitable oblivion that
swallows up almost all human effort,
whether mediocre, magnificent, or
somewhere in between.
Why did Peter choose me? I was
his Theo, his bourgeois brother.
We were so different that it was
almost a kind of bond. Peter’s mother was a waitress in a diner. His father was a small-time bootlegger who
abandoned her while she was pregnant. Their gifted son reached adolescence sleeping on the couch in a
small, shabby Manhattan apartment,
and the night his alcoholic mother
hurled an empty gin bottle at him
that smashed against the wall, Peter
stepped over the broken glass, walked
out the door, and never returned. He
was sixteen.
I am the son and grandson of Midwestern lawyers. I sidestepped a predictable fate as a third-generation Midwestern lawyer when I hoisted my little
leather suitcase onto the luggage rack
of a Greyhound bus and watched
through its tinted windows as, mile by
mile, my Midwest glided away en route
to New York City, where I was going to
become a writer. I was nineteen.
Peter’s habitat, the Lower East Side,
was, I suppose, bohemian. Yet Peter
was beyond bohemianism. He’d never
known a middle class to reject. As for
me, I considered myself a free spirit, an
unconventional igure with my books
and black turtlenecks who would never, ever be understood by my cousins
in St. Paul, Minnesota. Peter, however,
was amused and perplexed by my
bourgeois oddity. I was quite comfortable in a lawyer’s ofice. I could read a
Opposite page: “Boy on Raft,” 1978. All photographs by Peter Hujar © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC. Courtesy Pace/MacGill
Gallery, New York City/Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco. Hujar’s work is on view at the Morgan Library and Museum, in
New York City, through May 20, and his monograph, Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, was published last year by Aperture.
contract without going blind with fear
and bewilderment. I understood that
negotiations did not need to end in
yelling or swinging barstools.
Even after I broke into print, my
books were published by mainstream
houses, my articles in mainstream magazines. From the Seventies on, I taught
at Ivy League universities, where I it in
just ine, and I managed to cobble together a middle-class income. Peter
never did.
We were opposites in other ways too.
My growth as a writer was slow, stumbling, and uncertain, while Peter
44
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
stepped with uncommon confidence
into his identity as an artist. By the time
he was sixteen, he knew he was a photographer, and just as he seems never to
have been particularly troubled by
shame, insecurity, or any kind of inner
torment over being gay, he did not spend
the usual years struggling to ind his
medium or his style or (most forbidding
of all) himself. Peter was always himself,
and by the age of twenty-three, he was
making masterpieces.
Financially, Peter more or less made
his way at irst. But after 1973, when
he turned his back on commercial
photography to focus on his personal
work, he seemed to live on nothing. He
just about squeaked by from one month
to the next, with not even a dollar to
spare. Yet he never seemed poor. He
just never had any money. Tall, exceedingly handsome, calm, and upright, he
seemed entirely sure of himself. But
under that self-possession lurked something ominous, even dangerous.
P
eter told me about his decision
on a stifling July day during the
last summer of his life. That
afternoon, he was pretty sure the end
Clockwise from top left: “Ethyl Eichelberger Applying Makeup,” 1982; “Candy
Darling on Her Deathbed,” 1973; “Edwin Denby (I),” 1975; “Susan Sontag,” 1975
had come. (It hadn’t; he survived until
late November.) I had walked over to
his place to take him to Cabrini Medical Center for what he evidently
thought would be his inal hospitalization. I made my way there through the
intolerable July air, sweltering as only
New York can swelter, so thick with
humidity that it was almost viscous.
At his loft at Second Avenue and
12th Street, Peter was packed but not
quite ready to go. The loft was, as
usual, in perfect order. He lived in half
of it and worked in the other half,
which was vacant in a gray, spacious,
scuffed way—the neutral other space
where most of the portraits were made.
We must have talked a bit, until he
didn’t want to talk anymore. Walking
had become hard for him, but he began to shuffle around that big, ascetic
space as if he were alone. Instinctively
silent, I sat in one of the brown corduroy easy chairs that were his sole concession to ordinary comfort. He
reached his kitchen space and addressed the big blue table in the center. “Goodbye, table,” he said. Then he
turned to the stove. “Goodbye, stove.”
The sink came next. “Goodbye, sink.
Goodbye, refrigerator.” I sat still, wishing to be invisible. Leaving the kitchen, he crossed to his darkroom and,
standing in the doorway, peered in.
“Goodbye, darkroom. Goodbye.
Goodbye.” Shambling back into the
living space, he addressed everything
there individually: chairs, bookcase,
books, records, stereo, television.
He ignored me.
He turned to the bed where he had
sweated through the agony of one
Left: “Running Horse,” 1985. Right: “Orgasmic Man,” 1969
opportunistic infection after another.
It was immaculately made. “Goodbye,
bed,” he said gently. “Goodbye.”
Somehow it came time to go. I stood
up. Peter was very weak, just barely able
to walk. I picked up his bag and took his
arm, and we made our way toward the
door. But then he stopped, looked me
squarely in the face, and said, “I have
decided that you should have the pictures.” Then, knowing that my wife and
I were trying to have a child, he added,
“Send little Madeleine to college.”
I must have said something. I can’t
remember or even imagine what. I do
remember exactly what I felt. I felt my
destiny changing course. We took a
few more shuffling steps to the door.
Before we reached it, Peter inished
with a typical Hujar stinger.
“You’re no good,” he said. “But
you’re the best I have.”
Negotiating the narrow, slummy
stairs to the street was a delicate business. I had to help Peter with his balance many times. Once we were in the
taxi, he asked me to contact a lawyer
and send her to his hospital room as
soon as he settled in. He was ready to
write his will, he said. He kept gazing
steadily out the window. At some
point, he murmured, “This is the
neighborhood where I grew up.”
Then, after a pause, he turned to
me and said, “You’re a dear one, Stephen. You really are.”
I could not reply.
T
he camera was Peter’s instrument of intimacy. Its lens gave
him something he could not
otherwise achieve and could not live
without: an equilibrium between
closeness and distance. He also believed that the camera could reveal
things that were invisible to the naked eye. It could show the evidence
of people’s inner lives on their bodies
and faces, and how they lived in the
moment, how they were or were not
fully themselves.
Being photographed by Peter
sometimes took hours. The room was
usually very quiet, except for the
clicking camera. He chatted very little. His eyes stayed fixed on you,
steadily watchi ng. He walked
around. He might say, “This isn’t
working, try a different position.”
You sensed that he was waiting—
waiting for you to tire of being photographed, waiting for the flicker of
something that the camera would
snatch out of time and reveal as you
and nobody else. Such moments
come and go quickly. Peter often
found them only in the contact
sheets. In a portrait of Edwin Denby,
the poet and dance critic, the subject’s eyes are closed in what seems
an old man’s introspective serenity.
In fact, Denby had merely blinked.
Peter had no formula. The special
thing the camera saw had to be unique
and your own. Anything less was, as he
put it, “worthless.” It could be graceful
or awkward, pleasing or mortifying,
candid or posed. It just had to be real,
and it had to be beautiful, in his personal sense of those crucial words.
The special thing might be Susan
Sontag’s solitary reverie in Peter’s famous portrait of her reclining. Or it
could be quite obviously staged, as
when he realized the terminal fantasy
of a dying transgender actress in “Candy Darling on her Deathbed,” a picture
that the philosopher Arthur Danto
has called “one of the truly great photographs of the century.” Or it could
be caught in a moment when the personality itself is relinquished, or consigned to a sort of ecstatic oblivion, as
in “Orgasmic Man.” Your portrait was
always unmistakably you, but only
because it was also unmistakably his.
The intimacy was in his style.
In life, Peter’s intimacy was strictly
controlled. His charisma was surrounded by strict boundaries that lay around
him like rings. They determined what
was possible. The outer circle was wide,
PORTFOLIO
45
and reserved for groups and strangers.
It was wonderful. If you deine charm
as the capacity to seem intimate without the work and risks of real intimacy,
Peter could be charming as few people
are charming.
Within the outer circle of Peter’s
charm lay an inner circle of his friendships. It, too, felt wonderful. According
to the photographer Gary Schneider,
Peter “made every one of his friends feel
like they were his only friend.” There
were long, probing conversations. He
had absolutely no small talk. Right away,
you opened up, and he opened up. He
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HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
would sit over coffee at his big blue
kitchen table, listening as nobody else
seemed to listen and responding as nobody else seemed to respond. He made
everyone, including me, feel unique.
But inside the inspired circle of
his friendship lay an innermost
circle—the up-close region where his
vulnerability was concealed. That
boundary was a kind of circular third
rail. You approached it at your peril.
Behind it was a reservoir of limitless
rage. Was it the rage of the abused
child he had been? Whatever the
source, it was frightening, often vio-
lent, lethal to relationships, and the
force behind his profound loneliness.
Its high-voltage wire kept him forever trapped inside his all too complex
sex life and all too arid emotional
life. Anyone who touched his immeasurable neediness threatened to
shatter the self-suficiency that was
his most treasured creation, and all
he had.
A
lmost every one of his close
friends was subjected to that
anger at some point. Oddly
enough, I was not. I see now that de-
“Gary in Contortion,” 1979
spite all the good times, I was always
a little scared of Peter. Whenever I
edged too close to the third rail,
some instinct made me retreat. This
caution now looks to me like intimidation: I sensed his ire. I could see it
coming as his handsome face twisted
into a mask of annoyance, indignation, fury. Without fail, I would back
off. It worked. I witnessed Peter’s full
ferocity only once, when I saw him
hurl an unwelcome visitor down the
long flight of stairs outside his loft.
Another example: Peter owned,
played, and loved a harpsichord. One
“The Shareef Twins,” 1985
night, in a pointless frenzy at one of
his few serious boyfriends, he seized a
hammer and smashed the harpsichord into a heap of splinters and
wire. (The boyfriend fled the loft
and begged a friend to let him spend
the night, afraid that Peter would
follow him to his own apartment and
kill him.) These gushers of rage were
compounded by volcanic irritability
over the most trivial things. Once,
on a flight to Mexico, he got into a
screaming ight with a flight attendant over a tray of breakfast buns.
The captain ordered him conined
to his seat. Upon landing, he and
the captain quarreled so violently
on the tarmac that Peter narrowly
missed being tossed in jail. Over a
tray of breakfast buns!
During the time I knew him, only
one person was untouched by this
rage. Only one reached the center of
his intimacy. In 1981, a spectacularly
talented young man named David
Wojnarowicz entered Peter’s life. The
two met in a bar, and after a brief
sexual interlude, they formed what
amounted to an alternative familial
bond. When they met, David’s life was
PORTFOLIO
47
chaotic, imperiled by drugs, and his
prodigious talent was unfocused, juvenile, and mainly wasted. David desperately needed a father, and as the shadows lengt hened, Peter just a s
desperately needed a son. David craved
a mentor, a guide out of his chaos,
someone who could see his soul. Peter
craved renewal, restoration of his life,
someone whose soul he could see and
who was worthy of whatever Peter
could give him.
For David, and David alone, there
was no third rail. In life, he was
gawky and awkward and had a bad
complexion. But Peter’s portraits of
him make him look like a serene
young god. David, for his part, did not
share Peter’s paralysis over success. If
they had lived, who knows what
might have happened? But David succumbed to AIDS in 1992, ive years
after Peter.
“Everything I made,” David once
said, “I made for Peter.” That was intimacy. And it gave Peter six years of
grace before the end.
A
fter Peter died, I embarked on
my mission knowing exactly
nothing. Nothing about galleries, curators, museums, critics, collectors, shows, auctions, conservation,
inventories, digitization, databases, art
storage, or the public. Shortly after his
standing-room-only funeral in a Catholic church in Manhattan, Peter’s
friends organized a private memorial,
lining the walls of his loft with a hasty
but beautiful exhibition of his work. I
was there only briefly. I feared all those
people who were so pissed off at me.
Yet Peter’s estate chalked up its irst
sale on that occasion: Robert Mapplethorpe bought “Running Horse” on
the spot. He paid $500 for it, thanks
in part to the fact that I had already
announced that no Hujar print would
sell for one penny less than $500.
Enough with this cringing obscurity!
It seemed a bold move, and I was
proud of it.
Of course, Peter had died without a
dealer. His exchanges with dealers almost always ended in tumult or disaster.
He saw his own behavior as a crippling
psychic curse, rightly feeling that he
simply could not allow himself to be
commercially successful. Yet perhaps
his maddening lack of success was
48
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
Top: “West Side High-rise,” 1976. Bottom: “Boys in Car, Halloween,” 1978
somehow necessary to his achievement.
In any case, I now needed to ind him
a dealer, and fast. I started at the top
and made many calls, knocked on
many doors. Yet everywhere I turned in
the art world, I heard the same question: “Peter who?”
One notable dealer told me that
while Peter was clearly gifted, the
most I could hope for would be a tiny
coterie of homosexual collectors. Another agreed to come to the little
ofice where I stored the pictures. I
had laid out all the boxes, and my
visitor started looking. He was chatty
and relaxed, but I could see that he
was looking with obvious expertise
and intelligence. When he was inished, he said that Peter was clearly a
great photographer, but his reputation
needed building, and I should check
back later.
At one point, I thought I had a
nibble from Maria Morris Hambourg,
the formidable photo curator at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art. With
some encouragement, I had illed a
box with ifty of Peter’s best pictures
and simply dropped it off at her ofice.
Not only would I spare her the vulgarity of a pitch, she wouldn’t even
have to lay eyes on me. She could
look or not look as she pleased. And
she alone would decide when to return the box.
A rather long time later, my phone
rang, and Hambourg herself was on
the line. She invited me to the Met for
tea. I was escorted through a mighty
maze of corridors in that palatial ediice and shown into a small, lovely
room that the public never got to see.
There sat Hambourg, and there was
the tea. After the niceties, she told me
that she had looked carefully at the
pictures and concluded that Peter was
indeed a great photographer. She
would very much like to give him a
show at the Met.
I sat very still and kept calm, thinking this-is-it, this-is-it, this-is-it, this-isit, the moment. Then came the but.
Hambourg urged me to keep two things
in mind. First, given the Met’s longterm planning, we would probably both
be old and inirm before such a show
could open. Then came the clincher.
“You must remember,” she said. “I have
a very conservative board of directors.”
It was the most elegant no I received.
Top: “Christopher Street Pier #4,” 1976. Bottom: “Be Sweet, Newark,” 1985
PORTFOLIO
49
I
have developed a little parable
about success in the arts, or at
least about Peter’s posthumous
success. You are managing a body of
work that you know is wonderful, but
you are confronting a brick wall. Success waits on the other side. What to do?
You look for cracks in the wall. There
aren’t any. You try to dig under it. You
try to climb over it. No way. So you try
to knock the wall down. You kick it, you
slam your body against it, thinking you
must be nuts, this is so obviously futile.
Besides, it hurts—a lot. Your body is
bruised. Your shirt is in rags. Your shoulder is bleeding. And the wall, of course,
hasn’t budged one millimeter.
Then, a hundred feet away, an entirely different brick wall, one that
you’ve never even noticed before, suddenly topples over. That’s how it was. I
never stopped banging, yet every really
important event in Peter’s resurrection
came as a surprise, off somewhere in the
middle distance.
Peter had been dead two years when
the irst of these walls came tumbling
down. The director of the Grey Art
Gallery at New York University announced that he wanted to do a big
show of Peter’s work. A large, if unfocused, exhibition was assembled. Many
prints had to be prepared, and for that I
hired a skilled young technician whose
regular job was with Richard Avedon,
then America’s most celebrated photographer. One night, he was working on
this freelance gig while at Avedon’s studio, and as he hunched over Peter’s
prints, Avedon strolled in.
“What’s all this?” the master asked.
Avedon sat down and started looking.
Then he looked some more. He didn’t
stop looking even when his assistant
packed it in for the night, and the next
morning, he asked him to convey to me
his strong interest in the show. In fact, I
was told, Avedon would very much like
to hang it himself.
Hang the show himself? I was thrilled
by the affirmation and by the wild,
dumb luck of it. Trembling with exhilaration, I called the Grey Art Gallery
with the glorious news. It was greeted
with flinty silence. In my innocence, I
had failed to grasp that this show was a
career move for the director, and he did
not want to have his leading role overshadowed, even (or especially) by the
likes of Richard Avedon. None of my
50
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
Top: “David Wojnarowicz Smoking,” 1981. Bottom: “Grass, Port Jefferson,” 1984
many arguments softened his stony refusal. (Asked for comment, the former
director said he did not recall an offer
from Avedon.) I found myself sitting
down to the desolate task of composing
a letter to the nation’s preeminent photographer, thanking him for his interest
and his extraordinarily gracious offer of
support but most respectfully and most
regretfully declining.
I never heard from Avedon again.
I
n the Nineties, more walls suddenly tumbled down. First, a discriminating young dealer named
James Danziger took on Peter’s work,
spurred by a recommendation from
Gary Schneider, Peter’s friend and fellow photographer. Danziger went on
to organize several shows of Peter’s
work, and sold Peter’s portrait of a reclining Susan Sontag to Annie Leibovitz. Then, in 1994, two curators,
Hripsime Visser of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Urs Stahel of
the Fotomuseum Winterthur, in Switzerland, mounted a full-scale retrospective, complete with multiple venues and a sophisticated catalogue.
Peter’s star was finally on the rise.
Though there was still no European
dealer, his work was shown in Zurich,
in Berlin, in Brussels. In 1996, Peter
was included in a modest three-person
show at the San Francisco Museum of
Modern Art—the irst major American museum to give him space after
his death.
It was around then that I had the
irst of many almost identical dreams,
which recurred over the years more
times than I can count. In each dream,
I would be at home when I heard that
Peter was back from the dead. He was
alive again, and he was waiting to talk
with me in somebody’s loft in SoHo. I
would jump into a cab, and on the ride
downtown a wave of sadness would
wash over me as I realized that now I
would have to return his work, to
which I had become very attached.
The irst time I had the dream, I
reached the loft, and there stood Peter,
looking as healthy and handsome as he
did before he got sick. I greeted him
joyfully, but my joy was not reciprocated. Instead, his face was twisted into
exactly the mask of impending violence
that came when you edged too close to
the third rail. I stepped back. He asked
Top: “Stromboli,” c. 1960. Bottom: “Bouche Walker (Reggie’s Dog),” 1981
PORTFOLIO
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what I had been doing,
but when I started telling him, he interrupted
brusquely. “Wrong!
Stop! Not one more
word!” Every move I’d
made was stupid, incompetent. The whole
enterprise was a disaster. He would never
forgive me.
I didn’t try to justify
myself. I groveled. I
stammered useless apologies. His fury did not
subside. Peter wanted
me out of his resurrected life forever. And
he wanted his work
back now, this minute,
this instant.
I started awake. It’s
just a dream, I told myself. Surely I had done
b et ter t h a n t h at.
Hadn’t I? Each time, I
felt terrible. But each
time, I sensed that Peter was maybe just
a little less angry. Could that be true?
Dream or no dream, Peter’s posthumous career kept picking up momentum. When Danziger closed his gallery,
I got calls from several powerful dealers
and ended up going with Matthew
Marks, who represented many big stars:
Lucian Freud, Brice Marden, Ellsworth
Kelly, Nan Goldin, Jasper Johns. In
New York, a dazzling show of his
work—in some ways, the best yet—was
staged at MoMA PS1, the contemporary branch of the Museum of Modern
Art. As I walked through it again and
again, I noticed that the place was
thronged with people under thirty-ive.
They had been children, or not yet
born, when Peter died. Now, what was
that about? It must mean something.
My job grew ever more demanding.
I hired an assistant. The whole body
of work was digitized. Major museums
and collectors were buying. The poorest adult I had ever known had transformed me into what I had never even
wanted to be: a rather successful
small businessman.
While all this was happening, the
dreams kept on coming. But they
began to change. Now the resurrected Peter would sometimes welcome
me politely and actually smile. Later,
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HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
published. You have a
large, enthusiastic following among t he
youth of not one but
two new generations.
And if there is something in that state of
affairs that you ind less
than satisfactory, I suggest you go fuck yourself.” I jolted awake.
I have not had the
dream since.
P
the old charm came back. So did the
hasty fraternal embrace. Our discussion about returning his work was
easy, almost fun. I was beginning to
enjoy the damn dreams.
Until one night the old dream returned. When I walked into the usual
loft downtown, the place was as tense
as a courtroom in which some criminal
is about to be sentenced to death. Peter
stood in the center, radiating all the
rage that I had so often managed to
evade. The attack began. He condemned me. He denounced me. The
tirade didn’t stop, and every sentence
was crueler than the last.
Feeling an unfamiliar sense of calm,
I inally spoke up. “Peter,” I began, “I
want to say from the bottom of my
heart that I am thrilled that you are
back from the dead. And I’ll be returning every scrap of your work, starting
tomorrow morning. But before I do, let
me say something. In the many years
since you died, I have managed to pull
your wonderful work out of the dank
little hole where you left it. Because of
its quality, and my efforts, it is now in
many of the major museums of the
world. Critics and journalists on three
continents write respectfully about
you. Curators and collectors clamor for
your photographs. Your work is widely
eter now stands
on the threshold of the pantheon. Major critics
have declared that he
belongs “among the
greatest of all American photographers.”
By age twenty-three,
Peter felt certain that he
was destined to be famous. That conviction
never changed, and
when the passing decades left him still
obscure, he was sure he would be famous
after his death. Somehow I was sure of
it, too. In retrospect, I’d say his quiet
charisma in life was somehow luminous,
as if he were already famous, but secretly
so—famous before the fact.
Now recognition has come. For
thirty years, my job has been to bring
Peter’s work to the big world. In the
future, the big world will come to
Peter’s work. I have lived a long time
with these images, and they never
bore me, never pall. Each year they
look better, aging into a durable beauty that was once hard to see and is
now obvious. My task is far from over,
but as time goes by, I will matter less
and less. Finally, I won’t matter at all,
because, as Auden said about Yeats
in his elegy, Peter will have become
his admirers.
Peter grew up abused and in hardship, and he created his great body of
work in obscurity, poverty, and
against all odds, but no difficulty
could stop him. He never faltered.
He always knew exactly who he was
and exactly how to turn the damaged world he saw around him into
images that are whole, beautiful, and
his own.
He has triumphed.
Q
“Self-portrait in Black T-shirt,” 1975
F
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1 9 6
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4
AN ORDINARY MAN
By Susan Sontag
H
e stayed drunk the irst week. He
paced up and down the apartment
howling, and Mrs. Voltaire hid behind
the stove. After a week he went back to
the ofice during the day, though it was
some time before he did any work.
In the elevator at ive-thirty, Malcolm tells him a joke. But jokes make
him feel like crying. The world is flat,
everything is what it is. Tea is dark
water, bread is straw, a book weighs a
pound, newspapers are black and white.
He does not desire
things otherwise, but
his life is a tremendous
exertion.
The sorrow is heavy, he
feels languorous, he wants
to sleep. He is living with
the pain, it ills his life.
The pain is an embrace.
He needs to go to the
dentist, but he doesn’t,
the effort is too great. If
someone would make the appointment
for him, he would go.
Mrs. Voltaire is underfoot, in the way,
beneath the piano, on the bed. She is
pregnant, and her weight when she
jumps on his lap drives her claws
through his trousers into his thighs.
Saturday night she gives birth to two
kittens, one alive and one dead, and eats
the dead one.
He perspires a lot. A rash appears on
the calf of his left leg. Because of the
headaches, it occurs to him that he may
need glasses after all these years. And,
in the morning, he does not know
which is worse: the involuntary dreams
of joy, or the sleeplessness.
He has a fantasy about the red telephone booths stationed throughout the
city. Though mostly glass, they are really refuges to cry in. On every street
corner, a tall box to run and cry in,
a public comfort station, a place to take
a leak. Pick up the phone (the phones
are just to save face), pretend to be talking to someone. A line gathers outside.
But don’t be intimidated! Weep away!
It’s your right, as long as you press that
black phone to your ear.
He waits all afternoon to speak to his
boss, to tell him that he’s going to take
another week off, but his boss doesn’t
return from lunch that day. His wound
has begun to stink. Most of his friends
avoid him.
Sometimes his screams are so discreet
he wonders if he’s suffering at all. Then
the phone rings, and his heart butts
against his ribs like a caged bull. It is
only Stanley, asking him to a party, and
he yells at him and says he wouldn’t
dream of going to his goddam party. An
hour later he calls Stanley back and
accepts the invitation.
During his lunch hour he sits on a
bench in the park behind the public
library. Pigeons strut and tremble,
drunks sprawl, the children of weary
lady shoppers play tag. He pretends he
is waiting for someone.
S
unday afternoon. Get up! Out into
the city, like a timid child sent out to
play or a gawking tourist from Ohio, he
who has lived in Manhattan all his life.
What shall it be? The Staten Island
ferry, Central Park, the Frick Collection.
He thinks he can survive tame, civil
amusements and diversions overrun
with people.
Someone accosts him on the ferry.
“You look terrible, sir.” He is indignant,
and then he laughs. This laughter becomes a palpable thing, it congeals, it
solidiies, like a spar of wood thrown out
to a man sinking in quicksand. Then he
realizes that no one has
spoken to him, that he
has been gazing into a
mirror in the men’s room.
But he doesn’t scorn or
patronize this demented
laugh of his. Any species
of order is order enough,
he thinks; any place
where I can take hold is as
good as any other.
Back on the deck, he
buys some peanuts and then settles on
a bench along the railing. He yawns.
His mother told him that when he or
any of his ive brothers and sisters were
ill, she knew they were recovering
when she saw them yawn.
The sun is shining; there is a breeze;
the lower end of Manhattan, receding
across the water, looks like the prow of
a giant ship. He feels he is floating, too.
It’s quiet, calm. Something has snapped
today: the backbone of his longing.
Which is it—madness or sanity?—to
conclude, as he does now: Why, I’m just
like everyone else! I’m alone. I’m unhappy. I’m unloved by the one I loved.
Whatever made me think my lot would
be different?
Q
© 1964 Susan Sontag, used by permission
of The Wylie Agency LLC.
From “Man with a Pain,” which appeared in the April 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete story—along with the magazine’s entire
167-year archive—is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.
ARCHIVE
53
E
S
S
A
Y
SEVEN YEARS OF
IDENTITY THEFT
An epistolary sequence
By Rick Moody
D
ear Most Honorable President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari,
It all started at the Crossroads Literary Festival in Macon, Georgia, on October 2, 2011. Or that is my guess. I was at the festival to give a reading and
serve on a panel, and I had flown a great distance, from El Paso, Texas, to be
there. I suspected the festival would be modestly attended, and in this I was
not wrong. I read to an audience that was both warm and small.
Here is the relevant part of the story. In the middle of the afternoon in
Macon, between events, I decided to ind a cash machine. I wandered down
a major thoroughfare looking for a bank, or deli, or convenience store—and
at one end of the street, I found my quarry, an outdoor cash machine that
would readily suck my ATM card into its viscera. I withdrew $200 or so and,
in my haste, immediately hurried away from the machine. I found a cab,
climbed in, traveled to the airport, padded down the tedious airport corridors
to the plane, boarded the plane, and laid over at DFW.
Was it in the middle of the second flight that I realized I’d left my card
in the ATM? I had a moment of clarity about my own powerlessness, the
total impotence that comes from being aloft and beyond the reach of telephony and its customer-service buffet. My debit card was perhaps still sitting in the slot, waiting for the grifters and panhandlers and bunco artists
of Macon to come by and snatch it up, after which they could do with it
whatever they pleased.
It is possible that this was the beginning of the theft of my identity, Your
Excellency. I have arrived at this supposition because it was only a week later
that my brand-new replacement card was rejected at a MetroCard vending
machine in New York City. Then, soon after, the card was rejected for an online transaction. In due course, a visit to my bank revealed the problem: my
card had been deactivated because of fraudulent transactions.
The seizure of my information may have begun even earlier than my trip to
Macon. I say this not because I have hard evidence of the police-procedural sort,
but because I have learned that one casualty of identity theft is the traditional
association of criminal activity with narratives that have beginnings and endings,
Rick Moody is the author of many books, of which the most recent is Hotels of North
America (Little, Brown). His essay “Slender Mercies” appeared in the December 2015
issue of Harper’s Magazine.
ESSAY
55
ONCE A CREDIT CARD GOES COLD
FOR A PARTICULAR THIEF, THE
DETECTIVE SAID, THE PERSONAL
DATA IS IMMEDIATELY SOLD
victims and perpetrators, and a shapely trajectory of justice. Identity theft is
much more slippery. So I cannot be certain that losing my ATM card in Macon
irst turned the screw of fraudulence in my life. On the other hand, the crooks
who found their way into my checking account in 2011 did so right on the heels
of my trip to Georgia. It makes for a reasonable theory.
Within a few weeks of the irst hold on my checking account, I had a second hold. The perpetrators had tried to get additional ATM cards in my name
mailed to them. I had to cancel multiple cards. I had to close my bank account and then reopen it, after which there was the laborious process of informing various parties that the checks I had written them might bounce.
Some of those checks did bounce. For example, a check made out to my
daughter’s day care center bounced, and when I explained the whole business
to the director of the facility, she observed that, alas, my identity theft was not
her problem. She felt for me, but I would nonetheless be dinged an additional
$50. Your Excellency, this was just the irst of many opportunities I have had
to pay good, hard-earned cash in my capacity as the victim of a crime.
In researching online, I learned that I should keep a log of events relating to
my identity theft, as per the Federal Trade Commission. The resulting document
more or less bulges with criminal ingenuity.1 Within a week or two of the initial
theft in October, an ETrade account was opened in my name and
then quickly closed. (I didn’t even know what ETrade was.) The sum
of $5,000 was debited from my checking account in early November,
then restored by Citibank. In January, my AOL account was repeatedly hacked, as was my Gmail account. In early February, my Amazon
account was hacked, then closed by the company. That same month,
my American Express card was hacked, and the perpetrator tried to
purchase $8,000 worth of merchandise on the Walmart and QVC
websites. Around the same time, my new Gmail account and my
PayPal account were breached as well.
As you can see from this catalogue, in those days I was a guy who
occasionally used products authored by the multinational corporation
known as Google. It is very dificult not to use products by Google,
even if you come from the dark ages of dial-up, as I do. And it was on
Gmail, when the irst wave of identity theft crested over me, that I
began to have an unsettling experience. Not only would I be locked
out of my own email account, but somebody else would be using
it—and the whereabouts of that person would be indicated to me in a bright red
box on my Gmail screen. As you have probably guessed by now, President Buhari,
I would often discover that the user manipulating my account was in Nigeria.
How did your countrymen get my information, Your Excellency? I asked
this question of a friend, David, who has long worked in a private detective
agency and is well versed in such things. He could not tell me precisely how
the information was seized, of course. But he observed that in general, personal data plundered online is most often employed very rapidly. The store is
open for business, as it were, for three to six hours, because that is about how
long it takes for someone to realize that his or her credit card is being used
fraudulently. During this brief span, the thieves favor large, pawn-worthy
electronics purchases: televisions, laptops, car stereos, and the like. Then,
when the three-to-six-hour window closes, they usually move on.
But the process doesn’t end there. Once a credit card goes cold for a particular thief, my detective friend told me, the personal data is sold, whereupon
someone else with energy and resources tries to employ those zeros and ones
anew. Perhaps someone from Nigeria.
It soon became obvious that whatever was happening on Gmail was happening so quickly—the malefactors seemed to possess my new passwords the
1
That said, there are some biggish holes in my documentation of this ordeal, most of them
pertaining to its initial years. Some of the materials I compiled for a brief earlier dispatch on
the topic have become dificult to locate. The vanishing of hard, putatively fact-checkable
evidence into the quicksand of daily life and (especially) the internet is, perhaps, frustrating
to those with law-and-order minds. It is also, I’m afraid, thematically appropriate.
56
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
Illustrations by Hanna Barczyk
moment I created them—that it was almost as though they were reading
over my shoulder. The IT experts out there already know where this is going,
so I will make it plain: the identity thieves were reading over my shoulder. Or
at least reading everything on my old Dell laptop, even though my antivirus
program alleged that the computer was free of malicious spyware.
As my predicament dawned on me, I junked my Dell. (Actually, it’s still in
my closet, since I’m afraid to throw out even a purportedly wiped hard drive.) I
went over the fence to Apple, closed my Gmail account, stopped using Google
products, closed my PayPal account, and achieved, at least for a few weeks, some
small measure of peace. But then the Nigerian guys started texting me.
Your Excellency, there are many boast-worthy aspects of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This I recognize. Nigerian cinema is really very strong
these days, as is Nigerian iction. But it seems that digital malfeasance is
also among your primary exports. If you remember your Dante, you will recall that the sin of fraud is punished in both the eighth and the ninth circles of hell. In the eighth (and therefore somewhat less punitive) circle, con
artists are thrown into a river of boiling tar. If these unfortunates attempt to
climb onto the shore, they are impaled on grappling hooks by demons and
returned to the pitch. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it?
As it happens, I was attending a meeting of my Dante study group in 2011
when I was contacted by some faux Citibank employees using a fanciful simulation of corporate diction. Our exchange was conducted via text, and all dialogue below is guaranteed genuine:
IN 2011 I WAS CONTACTED BY
SOME FAUX CITIBANK EMPLOYEES
USING A FANCIFUL SIMULATION
OF CORPORATE DICTION
hacker: yes this is the Citi bank from CA
moody: I have already tipped off the cops and Amex, so you’d better move on.
hacker: What do you mean Hiram Moody?
moody: Tell me about your childhood dreams. Did you have childhood dreams?
Did they involve bad grammar?
hacker: What do you mean i wanna ask you some Question about you order?
moody: I am at my Dante group right now. Did you ever read Dante? The thing
I can’t igure is why misappropriation of funds is punished in a circle right
next to murderers. Well, maybe I can understand a little bit now. In the lowest circle of Inferno a guy is stuck eating another guy’s head for all eternity.
What do you think? Is it a just punishment?
moody: What gives? I thought we had a nice conversation going on?
hacker: Hello, who are you?
hacker: Who are you?
moody: I am the guy who has been getting fraudulent messages from your number. Who are you?
At this point, the conversation went cold. Your Excellency, if you consider
international bank and wire fraud to be an important Nigerian cultural product, you’re going to have to improve the business English of your professional
class. Had I been not a writer but rather a pensioner in his late eighties, living
alone and uncertain about digital stuff, this grammatically loose approach
might well have worked. For that matter, I am not usually one to carp about
nonstandard usage—indeed, I ind such carping frankly elitist. But in this
case, it was the casual, punctuation-averse syntax that tipped me off.
“Who are you?” the Nigerians asked that night. In my irst year of identity theft, I had no reason yet to be made uncomfortable by this question,
though it now causes me an existential shiver. Back in 2011, I still honestly believed that I could get to the bottom of my case, and that there was
an authority to whom I could appeal for help. Because I believed this, I
worked hard to follow the threads and keep abreast of developments. At
one point, it seemed that there was a guy in California who was somehow
involved: people calling to ask for my personal data used his number, and
his address was briefly appended to my Amazon account. I found a satellite
image of his apartment building using a Google product and could even
see the communal swimming pool. But as I now know, masking your
phone number is a routine ploy in the world of identity theft.
ESSAY
57
AFTER THE THEFT, I SOMETIMES
FEEL THAT I NO LONGER HAVE AN
IDENTITY IN ANY RELIABLE,
CONTEMPORARY WAY
In those days, I was spending two or three hours a week, sometimes
more, trying to stay ahead of the story. It didn’t do much good. At one
point, I called the police in Brooklyn, where I was living at the time, and
told them the whole wretched tale. Although their oficial position these
days is that they will investigate all such crimes, I was told to call back
only when some real money had been stolen from me.
And that, Your Excellency, was the irst act of my story, as carried out by
Nigerian fraudsters or the international equivalent. By the end of it, I had begun to wince whenever anyone online or on the phone employed my given
name, Hiram Moody. It was always bad news. And therefore, I sign this
missive otherwise.
Sincerely,
Rick Moody
D
ear Stephen J. Squeri, Chairman and Chief Executive Oficer of
the American Express Company,
Sir, I would like to describe to you what it feels like to suffer on an ongoing
basis from identity theft, so that you can better understand the experience of
your many customers who struggle with this violation.
Identity theft is said by some to have emerged widely only in the aftermath of Prohibition. Following the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in
1933, one had to be of age, and to have identiication proving this, in order
to drink of the newly legalized alcohol. Along with the forged passports of
wartime (so meticulously scripted and lovingly aged), the identiication cards
of the post-Prohibition period may well have been an early attempt to create
erroneous identities en masse.
Large-scale inancial fraud via impersonation followed with the advent of
the modern credit card, the irst of which was created by Diners Club in
1950. The funny thing about the American Express card, Mr. Squeri, which
followed the Diners Club into the market in 1958, is that I had the most
dificult time obtaining one. Being not terribly employable as a young person (too bookish), I inally applied for your product in 1988, after I secured a
poorly remunerated job as an editorial assistant at a big publishing house.
The very day my card arrived in the mail, I also received a letter rejecting
my application.
What was going on there, Mr. Chairman? Mistaken identity? Were there
two Hiram Moodys? I did not inquire into the speciics of this mishap, not
then. As I saw it, the mere possession of the card transformed me into an
actual person, a responsible American consumer. My father, who worked in
inance, told me to be very careful with my credit card, and so I was. I think
that in the irst couple of years I had my traditional American Express
green card, I made only one major purchase: an area rug.
You do know, Mr. Chairman, about the Eriksonian stages of psychosocial
formation? The psychologist Erik Erikson argued that as one approaches
adulthood, one consciously graduates into the true formation of identity, and
rejects the diffused sense of self that is typical of adolescence. Identity, so
much less stable when we are young, acquires a weighty and inal stolidity.
One integrates. But the irony of my life as a victim of identity theft is that
forces beyond my control have led me to worry about such matters in my early ifties, long after the period of diffusion was supposed to have ended. I
sometimes feel that I no longer have an identity in any reliable, contemporary way, because the capitalist reiications of self that come with state-issued
identiication, purchasing power, and credit history have become increasingly fraught for me, and liable to be revoked or called into question at any moment. People may interact with me as though “Hiram Moody” or “Rick
Moody” are stable, uncontaminated concepts, representations of a person
with deinable features—but that doesn’t mean that I feel like him.
There was a moment when a teller at Citibank took on the byzantine
strands of my identity theft as a personal project, calling me every day for a
week or so to tell me which checks had cleared, and when, and that the ac-
58
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
tivity on my account appeared to be secure. This was a bolt of human kindness as sudden and overpowering as a monsoon. His name was Anthony,
and he was deinitely just passing through the Citibank branch in Park
Slope. He was a young guy, irst-generation Chinese-American, and incredibly affable and friendly. There was no reason why he had to be kind to me in
the way he was, Mr. Chairman. There was no particular reason why he had
to call me every day, but he did so, and this proved to be a model for interactions relating to identity theft in the coming years. If the onslaught of the
experience leaves your reliable sense of self in tatters, and effects a inancial
isolation that feels emblematic of psychic isolation, only one thing can help:
actual human interaction of a meaningful sort.
So, Mr. Chairman, the second act of my identity-theft saga began in December 2016. Let me say that at this late date, it takes a signiicant amassing of fraud for me to do anything about it—even to lift the phone and
contact the relevant parties. My feeling now is that identity theft is above
all a quality-of-life crime. Any attempt to address the problem with a multinational inancial corporation (like yours) leaves one with an overpowering feeling of being effaced. You are, again and again, in the netherworld
of ongoing customer-service entanglements, no more than a depersonalized, residual, contestable account number. As long as the amounts stolen
are not so large, why bother to protest?
The second act began, in fact, with my American Express card being declined
at a bookstore in Dutchess County, New York. There’s something humiliating
about having one’s card declined, as I’m sure you know,
and because I was looking for Christmas gifts that afternoon, the suggestion by the cashier that I try a different
card was especially unwholesome. And yet I didn’t give
the matter another thought for some days. Not until the
card was declined again. And even then, instead of getting
right on it, I just shifted my credit usage away from your
business. “American Express is just very cautious,” the
bookstore owner had said to me.
If I had become more passive about identity theft,
more resigned, it was matched by a resignation on your
part, Mr. Chairman. In my experience, as the large inancial corporations have come to understand the inevitability of identity theft, they have also decided to
treat it as the cost of doing business: they have erected
procedures to minimize the impact on the bottom line,
without caring if a particular hacker or fraudster is apprehended. (Look, for example, at the recent Equifax
hack, following which the corporation initially agreed to
protect consumers for a fee.) What I am trying to say is
that I didn’t get any message from American Express in
December 2016 to tell me about my card being declined. Only in February, in
fact, did I notice that I hadn’t received a bill for two months—at which point
I looked into the matter and discovered the very bad news.
First, in late January, there was $975 charged to my card for an exceedingly large purchase of liquor in Georgia—and then, in February, a $400 cash
advance. Because I don’t drink, the former was particularly distressing to
ind on my monthly statement. Had I somehow made the purchase without
being conscious of doing so—in a blackout, perhaps? Was my doppelgänger
in the midst of a furious booze-fueled bender in the Deep South? Eventually,
I collected myself and called your company to alert your people to the disputed transaction. Then, a few hours later, in the middle of the night, I got
the bright idea to check the address associated with my account online.
My account now sported an address in Alabama, where I have never
lived. And then, of course, there followed the dreary succession of transactions, which had already begun and would continue for many more weeks.
In January, an unauthorized change of address had interrupted the mailing
HAD I SOMEHOW MADE THE
PURCHASE WITHOUT BEING
CONSCIOUS OF DOING SO—
IN A BLACKOUT, PERHAPS?
ESSAY
59
THROUGHOUT THIS KAFKAESQUE
PROCESS, I WAS MADE TO VERIFY
MY SO-CALLED IDENTITY IN
EVER MORE BAROQUE WAYS
of my monthly statements. In February, my Citibank checking account was
drained of nearly $2,200, most likely to cover the earlier charges. In March,
there was a request for an extra card to be mailed to my Alabama address,
and a new trading account was opened in my name at Capital One. In
June, there were more fraudulent transactions at Citibank to the tune of
$2,000, which caused my account to be closed and reopened.
Mr. Chairman, I have become very well acquainted with the customerservice wing of American Express in these recent months, and in particular
with the fraud prevention department. And what I found, during my endless
telephone calls, was a paradox: identity theft begins to confer criminality,
or at least the veneer of criminality, on the victim. That is, Mr. Chairman,
I found myself again and again having to defend myself on the telephone
with the large multinationals, desperately attempting to prove that I was
myself the victim of the fraud rather than the perpetrator.
Throughout this Kafkaesque forking of narrative paths, I was made to
verify my so-called identity in newer and ever more baroque ways. I would
produce not just my mother’s maiden name (which had long since become
public property), not just my “Social,” as you and your kind call it, but my
irst pet’s name, the elementary school I irst attended, the town of my birth,
my father’s middle name, my long-abandoned address in Hoboken, New Jersey, and so on. I had so many PINs at the various inancial institutions, I
couldn’t keep them straight and still cannot. And inevitably I would fail at
some or all of the “additional security questions,” in a way that seemed to
suggest to customer service that I myself was scamming to gain access.
One night, your company called me, Mr. Chairman, right after my account was closed and reopened and a new card issued. This call came from a
working AmEx number. (I know because I checked online.) The caller asked
whether I had received my new card and would I please verify the number
and expiration date and security code. My wife, who is adept at snifing from
afar the perfume of my crisis, started yelling at me from the other room:
“Don’t give them that number! Those are the frauds! Don’t do it!” But I was
exasperated, and I wanted to trust someone. I wanted to believe this caller
was acting in good faith when he asked for all the security codes on my card,
in part because he kept saying, “Okay, you’re good to go!” with such verve.
He was not acting in good faith. The hackers instantly attempted to ring
up a few new charges on my new card, the one I’d just provided to them.
Whereupon I had to close and reopen the account again, for the second
time in a week. As it happens, I still get periodic calls from this ictitious
but genuine American Express telephone number.
In the aftermath of the second wave of assaults on my various accounts,
your company, Mr. Chairman, would no longer talk to me on the phone
unless I took my passport and a form generated by your fraud department
to the nearest notary public to verify that I was me. For some weeks, I
failed to undertake this process because, as I later said to an AmEx
customer-service representative: I suspect I know who I am. When the CS
representative threatened to freeze my account if I didn’t ill out the form,
I did in fact say, on a recorded line: “Please! Please suspend my account! I
beg of you!” And later: “If it was a choice between keeping my account at
American Express and joining the military, I would join the military. At least
the military attempts to confer dignity upon their employees.” When I asked
to speak to a supervisor about this additional layer of humiliation, I was told
that I wouldn’t be able to speak to anyone at American Express ever again
until I had illed out the veriication form. The process, I was told, was
there to protect me.2
2
According to an American Express spokesperson, “If we determine there’s still an
identity theft risk after all veriication methods to authenticate a Card Member are exhausted, we may ask the Card Member to provide notarized documents and send them
to American Express.” All such procedures, the spokesperson asserted, were meant to
protect the “identity and information” of cardholders. She also noted that the extent of
the company’s investigations would depend “on the severity of losses.”
60
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
I decided to go to the state police again. It was now March 2017.
At this point, I have to ask again, Mr. Chairman: What is identity? Is
this not the question at the heart of our discussion? Webster’s Third New
International deines the word as the “unity and persistence of personality.”
The dictionary also adds a philosophical codicil, calling identity “reality
at its deepest level at which subject and object are one.” By the time I
went to the state police in Dover Plains, New York, which is just down the
road from my house, I was experiencing a failure to identify with my identity, and I was not feeling a unity or persistence of self, and I was also experiencing a kind of horror at the way technology enables and encourages
the misapprehension of “reality at its deepest level.” Technology remakes
identity in its own image. And identity, on the internet, becomes an effect
of technology, contested and fragmentary, easy to replicate, conferring on
the self an absence of self. Hence the perhaps self-evident fact that the
glimmering of poignant material in my story is to be found only in exchanges with other human beings.
To Troop K in Dover Plains I brought my gigantic stack of paperwork,
nearly a hundred pages of credit card statements, credit reports, bank
statements, and a fraudulently obtained credit card from Capital One.
These I presented to a trooper there, and in the Beckettian monologue
that followed, in which I told her all that I have just told you, I sounded
a little unhinged. My recursions and doublings-back must have seemed
scarcely believable. (I scarcely believe them myself.) The trooper took
down all my information and asked me to write it out in an oficial complaint, and then she made me come back a day later and repeat it all to
an oficial investigator, who said that he had just closed an identity theft
case on which he had been working for an entire year. He wanted to
know whether I meant to press charges. To which I said, “Hell, yes.” And
yet I already understood that a story like mine, a crime like mine, generates threads, or implications, or waves of recurrence, rather than the adamantine material of resolution. Who committed my fraud? Some Nigerians? Some alcoholics in Georgia and Alabama? A woman in Las Vegas
trying to buy a used car at CarMax? These were all plausible perpetrators
at various points in my journey. Were they working together? Or were
they just pieces of a massive fraud built into the online world itself, into
its dark web of exploitation?
What was different about the trooper in Dover Plains on the day I reported
my case to her was that she looked me in the eye, and sighed, and said, “I’m
really sorry you’re going through this.” It was the least she could do.
Since then, as I have said, I have once again had $2,000 pilfered from
my checking account, which I had to close and open anew, and I had to
open an oficial investigation at Citibank, which takes up to ninety days
before the bank is willing to reinstate the money. This also led to the addition of some new and adverse activity on my credit report, which threatened to upend the purchase of a new home this past summer.
My intention, Mr. Chairman, is more unambiguous now. My intention is
to resist abstraction. My intention is to recover what is left of being human
in this process, and right now, come what may, that involves closing my remaining account with your irm, closing my account with Citibank, opening a bank account with a dowdy old credit union, and continuing my attempts to shed layers of online presence. No PayPal. No personal Google
account. No online trading. No direct deposit. Fewer online transactions.
But more than that, my intention is to experience my being as the actual
Rick Moody rather than the virtual Hiram Moody, even if that constitutes
an idealization of pre-internet life. Better the human interaction, with all its
morbid and fleshy complexities, than the perfect fantasy of the fleshless and
fungible and shadowy life of the web.
And thus, sir, my letter to you.
Sincerely,
Rick Moody
Q
BETTER THE HUMAN
INTERACTION, WITH ITS FLESHY
COMPLEXITIES, THAN THE
PERFECT FANTASY OF THE WEB
ESSAY
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DRINKING PROBLEMS
A Kansas town confronts a tap-water crisis
By Elizabeth Royte
T
he friendly waitress at the
Pretty Prairie Steak House
delivers tumblers of tap water
as soon as diners take their seats.
Across Main Street, the
Wagon Wheel Café offers the same courtesy.
Customers may also order coffee or iced tea,
but it all starts at the
same tap, and everyone
is fine with that. This
blasé attitude about
drinking water surprised
me: everyone in this
little farm town in Reno
County, Kansas, knew
beyond the shadow of a
doubt that the liquid
flowing from the municipal water tower was
highly contaminated
with nitrate, a chemical
compound derived from
fertilizer and connected
to thyroid problems and
various cancers. At the
time I visited Pretty
Prairie, last fall, nitrate
levels there were more
than double the federal
standard for safe drinking water.
When the Kansas Department of
Health and Environment irst notiied
Elizabeth Royte’s article “The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn” appeared in the March
2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine. This article was produced in collaboration with the
Food and Environment Reporting Network,
a nonproit investigative news organization.
Pretty Prairie that its water was out of
compliance, twenty-nine years ago, the
town collectively shrugged. After all,
the water tasted and smelled normal.
(Nitrate has no flavor or odor.) No one
I spoke to had noticed abnormally high
cancer rates, nor had anyone seen a case
of blue baby syndrome, a nitrate-linked
disease in which infants’ blood does not
supply enough oxygen to their bodies.
“A lot of us grew up drinking this water,” Mike Seyb, the mayor, told me,
“and we’re healthy.”
Illustrations by Jen Renninger. Source photographs, this page: irrigation equipment and
the water tower in Pretty Prairie, Kansas, by the artist. Opposite page: a creek north of
town (top) and grasses near the First Mennonite cemetery (bottom), by the artist.
The years passed. People died or
moved away; families settled in town;
and a few folks installed reverse-osmosis
iltration units under their kitchen sinks.
Still, most preferred to do
nothing at all. Pretty
Prairie considered a few
high-tech solutions,
such as building a iltration plant, but that would
have cost an estimated
$800,000, a steep price
for a community with
around 320 ratepayers, a
median household income of $33,167, and an
annual budget of less
than $1 million. And so
nitrate levels continued
to rise, eventually topping 20 parts per million.
(The federal limit is
10 ppm.) In 2015, word
came down from on high:
the Environmental Protection Agency was issuing a formal “notice of
violation” to Pretty Prairie for its noncompliance
with the Safe Drinking
Water Act. By then, the
projected cost of building a treatment
plant, plus an underground storage tank
and a new water tower, had risen to
some $2 million. A federal grant—if it
came through—would cover only part
of a new plant’s construction costs.
When I first heard about Pretty
Prairie’s predicament, I wondered how
a town of roughly six hundred could
LETTER FROM PRETTY PRAIRIE
63
possibly clean up its water without
going broke. But the more time I
spent there, the less interested I
was in how the community might
resolve its problem and the more
interested I became in why it had
taken so long to take action
against the farmers who had polluted its water supply. Only a few
residents worked the surrounding
ields. The others had jobs in the
schools or the nursing home, or
commuted to nearby Hutchinson.
But it was fertilizer applied to the
farmland, according to several
hydrogeological studies, that had
contaminated the area’s groundwater. Why had the townsfolk,
who drank this water, not insisted that the farmers either
control their nitrogen or foot the
bill for its removal? Why, for so
long, had Pretty Prairie mopped
a flooded floor, rather than turn
off a running spigot?
A
t 7:45 am on a windy day
last October, the Wagon
Wheel Café had only
one customer. I asked the proprietor and sole employee, Henrietta
Duran, for milk with my coffee,
but the place sees so little trafic,
she said, that it’s hard to keep the
fresh stuff on hand. She slid over
a container of powdered creamer and a
copy of the extremely thin Hutchinson
News, published from the county seat,
which led with features about a local
who now worked for NASA and milo
ields under attack from aphids.
I was on page 2 when Nellie Graber
entered. Graber, who is sixty-seven and
wears her white hair long and loose,
owned the guesthouse where I was
sleeping, plus 800 acres of farmland
outside town, which she was leasing to
a cattle rancher. She told me that her
great-grandfather came over from Russia as a child, just as the town was beginning to develop. Her grandparents
ran the hardware store, her mother
taught music at the primary school,
and her father farmed. He also helped
found Pretty Prairie’s “night rodeo” in
the 1930s. “A family friend we called
Aunt Alma used to ride sidesaddle in
Victorian costume for the Grand Entry,” Graber told me. The night rodeo
is the largest in the state; it still oper-
64
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
ates for four days every July and still
features mutton busting—an event in
which kids race sheep bareback.
I set down my coffee cup: “Your
family came here from Russia?” Graber ordered scrambled eggs and explained that in the early 1760s, Catherine the Great, born a German
princess, attracted foreigners, including Swiss and German Mennonites,
to her adopted nation with promises
of exemption from military service,
freedom from religious persecution,
and gifts of land. Later, facing increasing nationalism in central Europe in
the 1860s, Russia threatened to revoke the Mennonites’ military exemption. Sensing an opportunity,
agents of the Atchison, Topeka and
Santa Fe Railway Company began recruiting, looking to settle farmers—
potential customers—along its tracks.
Between 1874 and 1880, an estimated
10,000 Mennonites in southern Russia immigrated to the United States.
It’s said that the winter wheat planted
in Kansas today is heir to the Turkey
Red seeds carried out of Russia by the
ancestors of people like Graber.
In sod houses heated with buffalo
chips, the Mennonites struggled at
irst. They died from injuries and starvation; they suffered scorching summers, plagues of grasshoppers, lightning fires, hailstorms, blizzards, and
temperatures that swooned to twentyfour below. But the land was fertile
and achingly beautiful—golden, rolling plains interrupted by tree-shaded
draws. Gradually, the immigrants built
up their farmsteads, adapted to local
conditions, and began illing railcars
with livestock, produce, and grain.
The government established a post
ofice in the budding town in 1874—a
can for mail collection planted outside
the home of Mary Collingwood, an
Indiana widow who, in search of land,
had stepped off a wagon with her nine
children just two years earlier. Though
Source photographs: construction of the J. M. Collingwood Barn, by Joe Barton, c. 1913 (top). Courtesy Dan
and Brenda Pace for J. M. Collingwood Barn; Mary Collingwood and family in front of their home (center
right). Courtesy the Pretty Prairie Public Library; water tower, prairie, and barn (bottom), by Jen Renninger
pressured by neighbors to name the
new town after herself, according to
local legend, Collingwood insisted on
something more descriptive. Pretty
Prairie was oficially incorporated in
1907, and three years later had grown
to 327 people, with a bank, feed mills,
two grain elevators, a telegraph ofice,
and three postal routes.
Through much of the twentieth
century, the town bustled. Graber remembered two supermarkets, a slaughterhouse, a communal meat locker, two
hardware stores, and 120 students in
her high school. The town even got a
touch of Hollywood glamour when the
grain heiress Diantha Collingwood,
Mary’s great-granddaughter, was briefly
married to—and living on a local farm
with—Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer of Little
Rascals fame.
But the texture of life in town
would soon change. In the 1970s,
government policies favoring
large-scale farming began to take
their toll on places like Pretty Prairie. Giant farms that owned big
trucks could haul their grain to
distant buyers who offered higher
rates than the local elevator, a
practice that drained revenue from
the railroad and contributed to its
eventual abandonment. When the
trains stopped coming and big-box
stores opened in Hutchinson, Graber
told me, “the town started to fall
apart. Now it’s stranded.” Today,
many of Pretty Prairie’s storefronts
are empty—the town no longer has a
supermarket—and just seventy-two
teenagers, drawn from a wide area,
attend the high school.
Finished with her breakfast, Graber drove me past endless fields of
grain to see her own rolling farmland, dotted with red and black cattle. The mixed-grass prairie that so
entranced Mary Collingwood—
dancing with butterflies and bright
flowers—had now been almost completely plowed for crops or converted
to pasture. Graber drew my attention
to a neighbor’s pile of bulldozed
trees. Area farmers, some of whom
work several thousand acres, she
said, were cutting their shelterbelts—
the Osage oranges, cedars, and elms
planted in the aftermath of the Dust
Bowl to keep soil in place and slow
the relentless winds. “They need
more space for turning big equipment,” she said. “They want more
land in production.”
eno County is 93 percent
farmland, and while its soils
range from clay to sand to
loam, and periods of rain are often
followed by drought, the widespread
adoption of synthetic fertilizer and
center-pivot irrigation has signiicantly increased the region’s output.
One late afternoon, I set off with Darrin Unruh—a seed salesman and city
council member who lives in Pretty
Prairie with his wife and two teenaged
daughters—to see what these advancements had wrought. Just outside
Yoder, which is even tinier than Pretty
Prairie, Unruh stepped on the brake
and turned in to a former airield,
where a thirty-foot wall of grain, snug
under a white sheet of plastic, rose
R
WHY, FOR SO LONG, HAD PRETTY
PRAIRIE MOPPED A FLOODED
FLOOR, RATHER THAN TURN OFF
A RUNNING SPIGOT?
from the tarmac. Harvested in the
spring of 2016, the winter wheat—
more than 5 million bushels, or
enough for at least 200 million loaves
of bread—awaited a buyer. Driving
parallel to this densely packed berm at
a stately pace, Unruh consulted his
odometer: “Six tenths of a mile,” he
said, impressed.
In the gloaming, we turned south
for Pretty Prairie, passing combines
harvesting this year’s soybeans and
milo, and tractors planting the seeds
of next season’s wheat. “There was a
record yield in 2016,” Unruh said.
(Corn and soybeans also set state records.) By the time we pulled into
town, stars dappled the black-velvet
sky and the potholed streets were
empty. I hopped out of the truck, anticipating a profound silence, but the
industrial fans of the grain elevator,
looming like a brutalist skyscraper in
the center of town, were roaring at
full bore.
Consumption of the nitrogen fertilizers that built walls of wheat and
stuffed grain elevators has nearly tripled nationwide since the early 1960s.
The growth has been a boon for grain
buyers but a bane for those who manage drinking-water supplies. That’s
because plants absorb only an estimated 50 percent of the nitrogen applied as fertilizer, leaving the rest to
sluice into surface water or groundwater with snowmelt, rain, or irrigation.
Largely because of the overapplication
of fertilizer or animal manures, which
are also rich in nitrogen, about 118
public water systems—most in heavily
farmed areas of Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and California—are currently
out of compliance with the federal
nitrate standard.
After the state irst warned Pretty
Prairie about its nitrate levels in 1989,
the town began exploring its options.
It decided to provide free bottled water
to pregnant women, nursing mothers,
and the roughly six infants born
there each year. On a larger scale,
it considered building a chemical
ion-exchange system, to be partially funded with a $250,000 state
grant. But before a shovel could hit
the ground, the town changed its
mind. “We learned we had no reliable place to dispose of the plant’s
waste,” Ed Markel, an engineer who
owns the Pretty Prairie Steak House
and lives just beyond the city limits,
told me. A 1990 edition of the Ninnescah Valley News summarized the
situation in what would become a
typical front-page headline: problem
needs more study.
In 1994, Pretty Prairie opted to
drill a new well on the northeast
edge of town, where nitrates were
well below the federal limit. But as
the town pulled from this well over
the next year, the level rose to 9 ppm,
and then higher. Unable to find a
cleaner water source, Pretty Prairie
signed a consent order with the state
in 1996 that allowed its bottledwater remedy to continue as long as
the town notiied residents of nitrate
levels and adopted a wellhead protection program, in which nearby
farmers were asked to apply fertilizer
conservatively. If the water supply
exceeded 15 ppm for two of three
consecutive quarters, the town
would be required to study potential
remedies. If it exceeded 20 ppm in
LETTER FROM PRETTY PRAIRIE
65
ered consolidation—in this case, laying
two of three quarters, it would be rea fourteen-mile pipeline to Kingman,
quired to actually implement one.
which drew from a cleaner water
To hit its marks, Pretty Prairie waxed
source, but according to Wyatt Hoch,
creative. It sampled during droughts,
a lawyer who has long served as Pretty
hoping recently applied fertilizer hadn’t
Prairie’s counsel on water issues, that
trickled down from soil to groundwater.
town wasn’t keen on selling off a porIt sampled after heavy rains, hoping
tion of their own supply. Moreover,
nitrates would be diluted. It even tried
Brace said, “We didn’t want to come
sending samples to different labs to ind
under Kingman’s thumb if they raised
the lowest possible results. “It was amazthe water rates.” Another idea, installing what a difference that made,” said
ing a ilter on everyone’s kitchen tap,
the city clerk, Patti Brace, seated at a
was discouraged by the state. It wouldn’t
long table in city hall, which doubles as
protect people who visited for the rodeo
the library. All they had to do was get
or high school football games, and who
one good sample in a quarter to break
would be responsible for changing
the chain of enforcement. “We did that
those ilters? The only workable solufor a long, long time. We put off any
tion, the town reluctantly acknowlremediation for as long as we possibly
edged, was to build a reverse-osmosis
could, and we had the backing of the
plant. But irst, it needed to apply for
public on it.”
a $500,000 federal block grant. The
Mindful of its consent order, the town
paperwork was iled on time, but an
continued to consult with geologists and
engineering irms, which tested wells,
analyzed water chemistry, measured
flow rates, and estimated the costs of
T’S COUNTERPRODUCTIVE TO
various treatment options. MeanTELL FARMERS TO CHANGE. AND IT’S
while, residents and visitors continued to drink from the tap, while
A SURE WAY TO CAUSE DIVISION AND
farmers modestly tweaked their fertilizer use. In 2007, nitrate levels rose
UNREST IN A SMALL COMMUNITY”
above 15 ppm for two straight quarters. In accordance with the consent
inaccurately recorded date resulted in
order, the town commissioned a feasibilrejection. As rumors circulated that the
ity study to explore solutions once again.
mistake had been intentional, Pretty
As the years passed, state officials
Prairie applied for an even larger grant,
seemed to grow frustrated. Acknowledgshortly before I visited. The message
ing the huge financial hurdle that a
from the state and feds, Brace recalled,
remedy would pose for such a small
was clear: “Enough.”
town, Darrel R. Plummer, the chief of
the Kansas Department of Health and
ationwide, utilities spend
Environment’s public water supply secmore than $5 billion a year
tion, wrote to the EPA’s regional ofice
removing nitrates from
in May 2013:
drinking water via ilters and chemiWe have got to ind better, less costly,
cals. With plenty of ratepayers to
solutions to bring these small aging/
share the burden, the price tag is usudying communities into compliance
ally manageable. Many rural commuwith drinking water rules . . . or just
nities, however, rely on funds from
decide to ignore them, like Pretty
ever-shrinking US Department of
Prairie, until the communities just
Agriculture programs to build these
fade away.
treatment plants, which can cost tens
The EPA seemed to choose the latter
of thousands of dollars a year to operoption, at least until 2014, when, for
ate. That is, if you can even ind
two successive quarters, nitrate consomeone to do the job properly.
centrations topped 20 ppm. The
“Small towns ind it harder and hardagency iled their notice of violation
er to obtain and retain certiied opthe next year: it was time for Pretty
erators for these systems,” said Elmer
Prairie to act.
Ronnebaum, of the Kansas Rural
Like many other towns with conWater Association. A 2004 study by a
taminated water, Pretty Prairie considUSDA researcher reported that being
“I
N
66
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
on call 24/7 leads to a high rate of
burnout. Also, not everyone wants to
live in a town without a supermarket.
The cheaper, more efficient option, of course, is to reduce nitrate
loss on farmland itself, before the
chemical can reach the water supply.
And so a few states have begun passing laws that limit where and when
farmers can apply fertilizer to their
ields. In Minnesota, farmers are required to plant vegetated buffers instead of crops along waterways, to
soak up excess nutrients. And if local wells show rising nitrate levels,
some farmers may soon be forbidden
to fertilize in the fall and on frozen
soils, when plants are far less able to
absorb the nitrates.
State agriculture departments, as
well as local conservation groups, academics, and some food corporations,
including General Mills and Unilever, have also tried to persuade
farmers in areas with high-nitrate
water to better control their fertilizer. Offering technical expertise
and small grants, some of these
groups encourage farmers to plant
strips of grasses, sedges, and forbs
amid their crops to soak up
nitrogen-laced runoff, and to sow
cover crops such as cereal rye or alfalfa
after harvesting their corn and soybeans, so that ields aren’t left bare in
the winter months. Not only will these
crops scavenge excess nitrogen from
the soil, they’ll also improve soil quality and reduce the amount of fertilizer
required by the next cash crop.
The USDA has been promoting
cover cropping since at least 1915, but
at last count it was standard on less
than 3 percent of cropland nationally,
and even less common in Kansas.
Among Pretty Prairie grain producers, the practice is equally rare. The
agronomists and retailers who advise
farmers—and profit off fertilizer
sales—have no incentive to promote
it. For many, cover cropping is prohibitively expensive, with some species’
seeds costing up to $40 an acre. Planting and terminating the crop costs
even more. The USDA offers a costshare program for farmers planting
cover crops for the irst time, but the
practice typically pays off only after
several years. This is a sacriice few
can afford to make. Given the recent
history of high yields and low prices,
Darrin Unruh told me, “the farm
economy sucks.”
Another challenge is managing
the labor and equipment required
for cover cropping on a large farm
that’s already running efficiently.
“There’s a timing issue that holds us
back,” Kirk Larson, who farms about
3,500 acres around Pretty Prairie,
said. “You can’t harvest your cash
crop and plant your cover crop at
the same time.” Weather that’s increasingly unpredictable can whittle
away at the hours farmers can operate, and heavy rains can make ields
too soggy to support today’s enormous farm equipment. By the time
the ground dries out, the opportunity to sow an additional crop may
have vanished.
I asked Ed Markel, sitting in his
large, richly furnished living room
under the gaze of a bear he shot in
Saskatchewan, how the land he
owns in southeast Kansas is farmed.
“It’s fertilized,” he said, acknowledging that the practice probably pollut-
ed the water. He understood how nitrogen moves through sandy soil to
the groundwater, but he hadn’t
pushed his tenants to change their
practices. Cover crops and buffers
would be great, he explained, “if you
can get ’em to do it without a club.”
Other farmers doubted that the nitrates in Pretty Prairie’s water supply
came from their own application of
fertilizer. Rather, they said, the contamination was a legacy of the bad old
days, when their fathers and grandfathers overapplied the stuff, believing
that if a little was good, a lot was better.
(Nitrates can linger in groundwater for
decades.) Still others linked high nitrate levels to increased irrigation,
which has contributed to the lowering
of the water table and may have concentrated pollutants. Drought has a
similar effect, and Pretty Prairie has
experienced below-average precipitation in ive of the past seven years.
Whatever your belief about the
provenance of nitrates, Unruh had
said to me when we visited the wheat
pile, the bottom line is simple: “It’s
Source photographs: water tower and grain silos, by Jen Renninger
counterproductive to
tell farmers to change;
it doesn’t help. And it
is a sure way to cause
division and unrest in
a small community.”
It took me a while
to fully understand
this concept. I live in
a large city where relatively few know my
name or care where
I’m from or where I’m
going. In Pretty Prairie, however, I couldn’t
walk down the street
wit hout someone
greeting me or asking
how my meeting with
so-and-so had gone.
They knew where I
was sleeping—where
else but at Nellie Graber’s guesthouse? And
they knew where I
was eating—Ed
Markel’s steak house
was practically the
only game in town.
I knew that farming sustained the
economy, but it took
Bob Krehbiel, who grew up drinking
nitrate-heavy water on his family’s
dairy farm, to make explicit the centrality of nitrogen to the town’s existence. “If farmers quit fertilizing, it
would destroy the community,” he said
over a cup of tap-water tea at the
struggling public golf course. Less fertilizer means lower yields, and if farmers earn less, they might default on
loans, exacerbating the shrinking of
the town. The Farmer’s Co-op, which
sells fuel, would take a hit, as would
the Schrag family, which sells fertilizer, and Darrin Unruh, who sells seed.
The grain elevator would idle, Ed
Markel would serve fewer steaks, and
Henrietta Duran, at the Wagon
Wheel, would scramble even fewer
eggs than she does now. Real estate
values would plummet, the school
would shrivel, and only those too poor
to leave would remain, further straining social services, not to mention the
underfunded water utility.
“We are too small a town to have
these battles,” Krehbiel, who served
ive terms as a state representative,
LETTER FROM PRETTY PRAIRIE
67
summarized. “Our friends and neighbors are farmers. And that’s why
we’re ignoring fertilizer on the
ground, and the city is charged with
taking it out.”
efore coming to Pretty Prairie, I paid a visit to Bill Stowe,
the general manager of the
Des Moines Water Works, in Iowa.
In 2015, the utility had sued the supervisors of a number of upstream
drainage districts—local political
bodies that organize ditching and
draining to improve agriculture. The
Water Works claimed that farmers
were pouring high levels of nitrates
into the Raccoon River, the source
of drinking water for half a million
Iowans, through perforated pipes
that underlay their ields. Tired of
footing the bill to remove the contaminants and convinced that they
posed a public health threat, the
utility reasoned that the polluters
themselves should bear some legal
and economic responsibility.
The utility lost the case: in March
2017, a federal judge dismissed it, ruling that nitrate pollution was a matter for the state legislature to address.
(It hasn’t, yet.) But when I asked him
what he thought Pretty Prairie
should do, Stowe didn’t hesitate with
advice. Build the treatment plant, no
matter the cost, he said. And because
voluntary measures obviously do not
work, pass laws that require farmers
to reduce the amount of nitrates
leaching into source water. “The public health science that brought us to
ten parts per million—that wasn’t
randomly selected,” Stowe said. “If
you start getting to the point where
you let people opt out of that based
on personal circumstances, you are
getting away from science. You are
throwing the dice.”
So far, Pretty Prairie has been
willing to take that gamble, and it
seems to have beaten the odds. Sure,
it has spent tens of thousands of dollars on tests, studies, and consultants, and its water rates have risen,
but farmers have not been required
to change how or when they apply
fertilizer. Nor are they expected to
anytime soon.
Waiting for the results of the federal grant application last fall, many
B
68
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
residents hoped their stall tactics
would pay off with a reprieve from
Donald Trump or his regulationbusting EPA administrator, Scott
Pruitt, at whose conirmation hearing
Senator Jerry Moran testified. The
Kansan at once told Pruitt the town
would need “financial resources” to
help build a treatment plant and expressed hope that Pruitt would “work
with communities” on “commonsense
solutions.” In other words, a continuation of the live-and-let-live approach
with farmers and a bottled-water provision for those in town.
Betsy Southerland, who recently
ended her thirty-three-year career at
the EPA’s Ofice of Water, suspected
that Pruitt might cut the town some
slack. “He’ll do anything industry
wa nt s,” she said. “T hese a re
industrial-scale farms and they’re applying massive amounts of chemicals.”
Pruitt’s EPA, she continued, doesn’t
believe in taking preventive action.
“But it’s an absolutely true fact that
cleaning up contaminants upstream
is an order of magnitude cheaper
than taking action downstream.”
ate one afternoon, I visited
both the First Mennonite cemetery, southeast of town, and
the Lone Star, to its northeast. In both
places, I noted a preponderance of
Krehbiels, Grabers, Seybs, Schrags,
Stuckys, and Unruhs. The headstones,
dating from three centuries, spoke of
large families and rootedness—the
habit of sticking around to create businesses, till the earth, serve in local
government, ill church pews, teach in
the schools, and contribute to the
semimonthly newspaper. If someone
went away to college, or for work or
marriage, they often came back to
retire—“for the open space, the freedom,” as Bob Krehbiel put it. Or to
die, with an interim stop at the Prairie
Sunset Home.
I strolled around the Lone Star,
buffeted by a persistent westerly. Over
here, the grave of Alma L. Graber, of
sidesaddle rodeo fame. Over there,
the headstone of Tim Stucky, beloved
editor and publisher of the Ninnescah
Valley News, which is now in the
steady hands of his wife, Nancy. By
the entrance, a brace of Collingwoods, offspring of the widow who
L
founded Pretty Prairie after stepping
off that wagon train.
A combine chugged through an
adjacent ield, sending plumes of dust
to the east. Climate change is expected to make Kansas less suitable
for agriculture by the end of the
twenty-irst century—too hot and too
dry. Farmers might adapt through increased irrigation, but the portion of
the aquifer that underlies Pretty
Prairie is depleted enough that the
district has made it dificult to get a
permit for new wells. Higher temperatures will make plants thirstier
while also increasing rates of evaporation; droughts will last longer than
they already do.
And what of the nitrate that will
likely continue to appear in the
town’s groundwater? This past November, Pretty Prairie received a
$2.4 million loan from the state, in
addition to the $600,000 federal
grant, which was awarded in January.
The town is scheduled to start stripping the chemical in its brand-new
treatment plant next year. On the
upside, some might say, the technology will obviate the need for farmers
to change their practices, and bottled water will no longer be necessary. But the plant will devour energy, require constant maintenance,
excrete nitrate-rich waste into the
sewer, and squander water in backwashing its filters. Surely, if other
farmers could still make a living
while tweaking their use of synthetic
fertilizers, enhancing soil health, and
protecting groundwater, Pretty Prairie could, too.
But that’s not how Pretty Prairie
sees it. After twenty-ive years of debate and study, of big government
breathing down its neck, the town
is ready to move on. “If we build the
plant,” Patti Brace had told me, “we
won’t have to worry about water
ever again.”
That may be true, but I suspected
Brace’s sense of relief—and the community’s—was related more to social,
rather than civil, engineering. A decision had been made: the farmers would
do their best, within the bounds of
their economies, and the townsfolk—
with a onetime boost from the feds—
would continue uncomplainingly to
clean up after them.
Q
P
O
E
M
A DESTRUCTION STORY
By Juliana Spahr
Introduction by Ben Lerner
T
his poem tells the story of a song (a song
about a snake) from its ancient origins through
its incorporation into the soul music of the Sixties to its perversion in the mouth of our president. Trump doesn’t sing the song; instead, at his
rallies, he “treats the song like it is a poem,” Juliana Spahr writes, delivering it with a dramatic
pause at the end of each line. Of course, Trump
gets the origin of the song wrong (“Sometimes
he claims it was written / by Al Wilson in the
1990s. / Sometimes he attributes it to Al Green”),
although he seems aware that he is appropriating it from African-American music. On the
campaign trail, Trump’s “poem” was used to
stoke his followers’ xenophobic rage, to rally
them behind his Muslim ban, his border wall.
Just as with his use of “Make America Great
Again,” which echoed Charles Lindbergh’s fascism, it’s hard to decide whether Trump or his
supporters know what sources he’s working with
(or against)—and hard to know which would be
worse, ignorance or cunning. (Perhaps we need
to update Hegel for the Trump era and speak of
“the cunning of ignorance.”)
To tell the story of a song is to extend it.
Spahr’s “A Destruction Story” does more than
just track another way Trump wreaks havoc on
the language as he wreaks havoc on the world.
Spahr herself samples another line of poetry—
Robert Frost’s “Something there is that doesn’t
love a wall”—and uses it to develop a beautiful
catalogue of anti-nationalist sentiment, compil-
ing a litany of animals that, despite the political territories embedded in their names (Sudan golden sparrows, Syrian serins, northern
Mexican garter snakes), “move back and
forth / across the border as if it did not exist.” I
think the fact that Frost famously read at a presidential inaugural is signiicant here, as is the fact
that he’s so often held up as a quintessential
American, plainspoken poet. Spahr is using Frost
against the (nationalist) grain, just as—and also
not at all as—Trump was using Aesop and Oscar
Brown Jr. and Al Wilson. She repurposes and
crosses received language in order to alter its
meaning, although her recycling is, as in all her
poetry, in the service of imagining new forms
of interconnection.
Songs, like serins and snakes, cross borders.
They cross genders and races. Their symbolism is
unstable. They circulate and resurface in unpredictable ways. “Oscar Brown Jr. always thought
that music was his activism”—and yet his song
ended up in the mouth of a racist demagogue.
Spahr both tells that story and keeps it from ending. She has no illusions about poetry’s power to
counter the forces of hate. (And she reminds us
that Trump has his own hateful poetry: “his
hand pointing for further emphasis / as he multiplies the word vicious.”) But the unpredictability,
the slipperiness of art, even the way it turns on
you, is also grounds for hope. Something always
escapes or exceeds the use to which a song is put.
Something serpentine.
POEM
69
A DESTRUCTION STORY
In 1963, Oscar Brown Jr. wrote a song about a snake.
It’s an obvious sort of snake in the grass story.
A woman inds a cold snake on the road
takes him home, feeds him milk and honey,
and then as she holds him to her bosom,
he bites her as he lectures her that snakes bite.
The snake gets the refrain in the song.
Take me in, tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman, sighs the snake.
as he multiplies the word vicious.
In his understanding the woman is the nation.
The snake is all Syrians.
And the poem is a series of easy mottoes:
evil for good is often the return; the lesson is not to
expect a reward from the wicked; learn not to take pity on
a scoundrel; the greatest kindness will not bind the
ungrateful; beware how you entertain traitors.
Brown took the story from Aesop.
In Aesop’s telling of it, a man is the naïf.
He warms up the snake by putting him in his coat.
But when Brown sings the story,
he reverses the genders
and it turns the song into one
about all those things men do to women,
not just the violence, the rapes,
the slaps to the face
and yanks to the arms but also
yelling, belittlement, wolf whistles too,
the long tired history women know
all too well. His voice is all slithery as he sings
the snake, upbeat and so all the more ominous.
What is this moment where snakes and women
defend walls, fences, borders of all sorts?
It’s been said before that
there’s something that doesn’t love a wall.
Surely snake is something that doesn’t love it.
With women, I admit it’s more complicated.
But it is not just snake that doesn’t love a wall.
Neither Kyrgyz horse nor Uzbek black goat loves the barbed
wire of the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan fence. And the Turkoman
horse and the Kazakh horse, both known for their stamina,
don’t love the barbed-wire fence surrounded by unmarked
Al Wilson sings Brown’s song in 1968
with the heavy beat and the fast tempo
of Northern soul.
His voice squeaks not on the snake
but on the woman.
It might be more confession than complaint.
It might be that the snake is Wilson,
pleading to be taken in.
Oscar Brown Jr. always thought that music was his
activism. So it is easy, if one listens,
not only to hear divisions between genders
but what it means to be black and grow up,
as Brown did, as Wilson did,
having to ight for the milk and honey.
In 2016 Donald Trump treats the song like it is a poem.
Sometimes he claims it was written
by Al Wilson in the 1990s.
Sometimes he attributes it to Al Green.
It is about people coming into our country, he says.
He reads it line-break heavy
and often pauses between words,
his hand pointing for further emphasis
Snake, c. 1939–42, by Bill Traylor © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, New York City.
Promised gift of Charles E. and Eugenia C. Shannon. Courtesy the National Gallery of Art, in
Washington, from the exhibition Outliers and American Vanguard Art, on view through May 13
70
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
land mines that is the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan barrier.
And even while the Spanish imperial eagle flies over, even
while the Moroccan jird scampers underneath the fences of
the Ceuta and Melilla borders, all of them topped with
barbed wire, monitored by underground cables that are
connected to spotlights, noise and movement sensors, even
to tear gas canisters, still no love. Same with the much more
modest fence along the Yalu River even as it does nothing to
stop the Chinese egret from perching in the Korean spruce.
The Afghan vole and the Egyptian nightjar always scatter
without love when the heavily armed Uzbek soldiers patrol
near the two barbed-wire fences, one of them electriied,
both with land mines in between. And the Arabian leopards
split by the barbed-wire fence of the United Arab EmiratesOman barrier, also have no love. Both the Malaysian ant,
despite its ighting take-no-prisoners and sacriice-the-self
explosive tendencies, and the secretive and nocturnal
Bornean bay cat have no love for the Brunei-Malaysia
security fence. And neither the Indian eagle owl nor the
Bengal tiger has love for the barbed wire and concrete of the
India-Bangladesh barrier. The Israeli West Bank apartheid
wall is not loved by the Palestine viper nor would it be by the
Israeli painted frog.
There are more, but I don’t need to go on, right?
Oscar Brown Jr. always thought that music was his activism.
He merged songwriting with social commentary about
being black in America.
He once wrote a black power manifesto in the form of an
opera; Muhammad Ali starred in it.
In 1967 he made Opportunity Please Knock with the Blackstone
Rangers, a sprawling decentralized gang in Chicago.
It featured the Rangers in colorful pastel costumes dancing
and singing and drumming.
The Blackstone Rangers, like many gangs, were something
hard to deine, something communal and something criminal,
ierce and protective.
Al Wilson also complicated.
He grew up in the segregated South, much aware of its
oppressions, but he seems to have spent his later years
calling in to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.
It is not necessarily true that toil can become ecstasy.
Not necessarily true that prose can be an epic song.
Not necessarily true that I can inventory these nation-divided
singularities back into collectives.
All is snake.
Art too is snake, awkward in its murmurations.
At moments something going a whee-whee-wheeoo
and a twee-tee-too
and then the next a dry wraaa that varies in pitch
and provides a sort of beat
that mixes with a which-which-which-which-ri-ri-ri-ri
only to be broken by snake’s tszeee and short sharp tship.
Still together we circle;
now dense like a polished roof,
now disseminated like the meshes
of some vast all-heaven-sweeping net
wheeling, rending, darting
the air heavy with the ceaseless sweep.
What else is there to do
as there is no way other than this impossible murmuration?
The twists and turns of the wing in this moment.
A great roar as at irst Yemen serins with Syrian serins make
a while, close about it, then out but at the same moment
seem drawn back into it again, bouts of flapping with gliding
on closed wing, into the throbbing mantle of life and joy and
the larks are there too, the Eastern Iraqi desert larks and the
Somali short-toed larks, circling, despite preferring not to
form large flocks they are there still, there with the Libyan
blue tits, awkward in the murmuration as they usually flit
about, but the highly gregarious Sudan golden sparrows show
them the twists and turns of the wing and with a mighty
commotion we are swept together into one enormous cloud
tearing, crossing, piercing.
All is together, like it or not,
as through the many wings
we see the bright dark colors of the sunset
and not just the sunset but also
that jaguar, the one we call El Jefe,
the one who sleeps among
the oaks of the Santa Rita Mountains by day
the one who wakes at night
to move back and forth
across the border as if it did not exist.
He claims twenty miles
and shares them with others,
not just with the Chiricahua leopard frog,
not just with the Southwestern willow flycatcher,
but also with the northern Mexican garter snake.
He has a heart-shaped rosette on his right hip
and a question mark over the left side of his rib cage.
Q
POEM
71
72
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
M
E
M
O
I
R
NOTHING BUT
The untruths of memory
By Geoff Dyer
The truth—that thing I thought I was
telling.
—John Ashbery
T
o start with the facts: the
chapter in my book White
Sands called “Pilgrimage” is
about a visit to the house where the
philosopher Theodor Adorno lived in
Los Angeles during the Second World
War. It takes its title from the story of
that name by Susan Sontag (recently
republished in Debrieing: Collected
Stories) about a visit she and her friend
Merrill made to the house of Adorno’s
fellow German exile Thomas Mann in
the Paciic Palisades, in 1947, when she
was fourteen. It seemed strange that
the story was originally published as
iction, in 1987, in The New Yorker,
when it reads like memoir. Was this
because, so long after the event, it
could not be reliably fact-checked?
Some time after my book came
out—such conversations always happen too late—Tom Luddy, co-director
of the Telluride Film Festival, told me
that, shortly after Sontag’s story was
published, he arranged for her to be
reunited with her old friend Merrill.
The meeting went well, but Merrill
wondered why Sontag had cut out
Geoff Dyer is the author, most recently, of
The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand (University of Texas Press). His essay
“Dead Ball Situation” appeared in the December 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
their other friend, Gene, from the story. Sontag was adamant that she
hadn’t cut anyone out, but Merrill insisted: three young friends had turned
up at the great Mann’s house, not
two. Not for the irst time in her life,
Sontag became cross, but in the
course of the conversation, she reluctantly accepted that there had indeed
been three guests, not two.
In her memoir, Sempre Susan,
Sigrid Nunez recalls how, in the
mid-Eighties, while “struggling to
write a memoir” of that visit, Sontag
had a revelation about what was missing from her writing:
She didn’t really notice details the way
a writer like Nabokov did; or if she did
notice them, she did not remember
them later. For example, she could remember almost nothing speciic about
Thomas Mann’s house that day.
But somehow Sontag succeeded in
taking us in—to the house, I mean—
and convincing us of the truth of her
account. By airbrushing Gene out of
the picture, she made life slightly easier for herself as a writer: there was
one fewer body to move around the
room. He is not missed dramatically
because there are suficient tensions
in the assembled cast (between Susan and Merrill, between the young
visitors and their venerable hosts),
and between the infatuated teenage
Susan and the venerable author tell-
ing the story. Still, the completeness
of the erasure—of both the erasure
and its erasure—is a startling manifestation of the vagaries of memory
and a vindication of what can sometimes seem like the fussiness of editorial fact-checking. It’s also a reminder
that we must be doubly cautious
about treating as a deposition a piece
of iction that seems reliable.
Terry Castle’s account of her
friendship with Sontag, “Desperately
Seeking Susan,” in her book The Professor, features a hilariously excruciating description of a dinner at Marina
´ loft in New York. Castle
Abramovic’s
is there as Sontag’s plus-one but is
made to feel like a minus-one. Lou
Reed and Laurie Anderson barely acknowledge her existence.
As a non-artist and non-celebrity, I
was so “not there,” it seemed—so
cognitively unassimilable—I wasn’t
even registered enough to be ignored.
I sat at one end of the table like a
piece of antimatter.
On the internet, I read a rebuttal
from another guest at the dinner, perhaps “the freakish-looking lead singer
from the cult art-pop duo Fischerspooner,” who said that he had been
even more ignored and that one of the
people doing the ignoring was Terry. I’d
like to give a fuller account of this alternative testimony but can no longer ind
it. Can things actually go missing on
Opposite page: Photographs from the series Whether It Happened or Not, by Augusta Wood. In this series, Wood overlaps
archival and contemporary photographs of her family and their New England home. Top: “Garden (1976, 2012, 2013)”
Bottom: “Plant Room Dining Room, Susan and Rosy (1976, 1983, 2008)” © The artist
MEMOIR
73
the internet? Isn’t it out there in some
unignorable corner of Cyberia of which
I remain technologically ignorant?
However cross Sontag became with
Merrill, it’s unlikely that the exchange
could have reached the boiling point
in quite the way the conversation did
when George Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick lunched with the author’s
widow, Sonia, at Bertorelli’s in London. They were talking about “Shooting an Elephant,” or, more accurately,
about whether Orwell really did shoot
an elephant in Burma. “ ‘Of course he
shot a fucking elephant,’ Sonia shouted. ‘He said he did. Why do you always
doubt his fucking word!’ ” Because,
Crick replied, “he was a writer, not a
bloody cub reporter.” A third bottle of
wine—at lunch!—set all to rights, but
Crick remained unreconciled with
Michael Shelden, another biographer,
on the grounds that “he treats Orwell’s
essay, story, or polemic ‘Such, Such
74
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
Were the Joys’ as true beyond doubt
because it rings true.”
I
f my wife is tired, moping about,
dragging her feet while we’re out
hiking, or on her way to the gym,
I encourage her by asking, as assertively as possible, “Are you going to
show me some heart, son?” This, as
many of you will remember, is the
question—an exhortation in the form
of a question—put by the football
coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) to one of his young players when
the team is getting battered in the ilm
Friday Night Lights. I don’t quote this
only to my wife; I say it aloud to myself whenever I’m showing a lack of
heart, which is pretty much all the
time. We watched the ilm again recently, greatly looking forward to
this moment—and the line never
came. The only time we got close
was in a brief cameo, when the coach
of one of the opposing teams bellows, “Show me some heart.” My irst
impulse was to assume that I’d missed
it, that I’d somehow drifted off as
Thornton uttered the ilm’s deining
line, but the truth is that it doesn’t
exist. It’s not even in the H. G. Bissinger book on which the ilm is
based. So, in a case of reverse plagiarism, I had invented this line. But
where had it come from?
A related disappointment occurred
while I was reading Timothy B. Tyson’s
meticulously researched book The
Blood of Emmett Till. From the TV
series Eyes on the Prize, I remembered
the moment at the trial of Till’s killers,
in September 1955, when Moses
Wright identiies J. W. Milam as one of
the men who abducted his grandnephew with the words “Dar he.” Tyson renders Wright’s words as “There
he is.” The “documentary” version is
more moving. Lacking the command
“Rosy and Posy, Inked Feet, Misères Humaines (1974, 2012, 2013)”
America’s Longest Running Catalog
of “correct” English—let alone the elevated diction of the court or the subsequent oratorical majesty of Martin
Luther King Jr.—Wright somehow
inds the courage to confront the unassailable institution of white power.
Explaining his rewrite of this epochal
testimony, Tyson notes that the “transcript and all the other contemporary
accounts of the trial instead report,
‘There he is.’ ”
M
ore modestly, I was the star
witness at a trial in London
several years ago. Star? Yes,
I was the only witness, so, strictly
speaking, that is true. I’d like to give
the exact details, but my old diaries
are boxed up, thousands of miles
away, and the various emails relating
to the case are frozen in the vault of
an old computer. The incident occurred when I was cycling back toward Camden after playing tennis in
Regent’s Park. It was a gorgeous day, a
Sunday—I remember because we’d
been lucky to get a court on such a
nice afternoon—that might actually
have been a bank holiday Monday.
(Since writing the preceding sentences I have managed to exhume a couple of emails conirming that the incident did indeed take place on
Monday: Monday, May 25, 2009, to
be exact—so not “several” but a full
nine years ago. I would bet that underestimating the amount of time
that has passed since any given event
is the most frequent distortion of
memory.) In any case, I would swear,
however ineffectually, to the following account. Nine years ago on that
bright Monday, everyone was in a
good mood except people in cars,
who were, of course, stuck in trafic.
At the lights at Prince Albert Road,
two cyclists, a man and a woman,
squeezed up on the left of a car on
the inside lane. I was on the right of
the car, waiting to go straight ahead.
If there had been any prior car-bike
antagonism, I had not witnessed it.
As the lights changed and both car
and cyclists began to move, the driver
deliberately turned in to the irst cyclist, knocking him onto the pavement. His girlfriend screamed. I
shouted, “What the fuck are you doing?!” Pedestrians shouted as well.
The cyclist was unhurt but his bike
was mangled. He picked himself up,
knocked his bike back into shape,
and took off after the car. Outraged, I
followed, too. We never caught up
with the car, but the cyclist managed
to memorize the license plate—rather
impressive under the circumstances—
and when we got back to his girlfriend, she wrote it down. I said I’d be
a witness if the driver was caught.
The case came to trial about six
months later. The occupants of the car
were a father in his forties and his son
(late teens or early twenties), both
dressed smartly for court in jackets and
ties. It was the father who had been
driving and the car was a Range Rover. I remember this even though I
suffer from a Sontagian blindness to
vehicular detail because at one point
during the trial it came up that he
owned several Range Rovers. The defense attorney asked in a friendly way
whether he was a bit of a Range Rover
nut, and I wanted to call out, “He’s just
a fucking nut nut.” Both father and son
felt threatened by the cyclist, both in
the lead-up to the incident and in its
aftermath, and in any case, they
hadn’t deliberately done anything to
harm him. In legal jargon, if I understand things correctly, this is called
pleading in the alternative. The prosecution faltered as the defense exploited a discrepancy between my version
of events and that of the cyclist. He
remembered my being on the passenger side of the car whereas I’d said—
correctly—that I was on the driver’s
side. The stories of the yob father and
son, on the other hand, matched perfectly. One would have thought that
part of the training and experience of
magistrates would teach them—as
happens with students of literature—
that a slight discrepancy is often a sign
of truth, whereas exact uniformity often indicates collusion. Apparently
not. Aided by the corroborating testimony of his son, the father was acquitted. Rightly, as it turned out. He was
being charged with careless driving—
or driving without due care and attention, I forget the exact terms—and
there was nothing careless about what
had happened. It was—and there can
be no doubt on this score—deliberate,
careful. I’m not under oath, but I’m
glad, all these years later, to set the
record straight.
Q
MEMOIR
75
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T
O
R
Y
SLINGSHOT
By Souvankham Thammavongsa
I
was seventy when I met Richard.
He was thirty-two. He told me he
was a young man, and I didn’t respond to that because I really didn’t
know what that was, to be a young man,
if that was a good thing to be or a bad
one. He had moved in next
door to us, me and Rose, my
granddaughter, in January.
She was hardly home that
summer. She had gotten
together with a new guy
and was mostly at his place
across town. All my friends
were in assisted living, but
I wasn’t. We didn’t have the
money, and besides, I didn’t
care much about going. I
didn’t want to be around
people I didn’t know.
Richard had parties at
his place every Saturday.
At first, it was just the
housewarming, and then it
was other things. His
apartment was an open
door, people coming in
and out at all hours. Sometimes there were just kids,
little ones, over there, with
Christmas lights all over
the floor. Other times it
was middle-aged people
crawling through some tent maze built
out of cardboard boxes. He even had a
party where people brought over their
bikes, and we took a tour of the city
with him. I did not have a bike, so he
let me ride with him. I sat on the bar in
Souvankham Thammavongsa is the author
of three books of poetry, most recently Light
(Pedlar Press). She lives in Toronto.
“Lucas,” by Emily Porter © The artist
front of the seat and he pedaled. He
told us stories, personal ones, about his
time living here. He’d been in the city
for a few years. On the bike tour, he told
us about a woman he’d loved once, his
roommate. Where they ate in the city
and skipped out on a bill, the places
they kissed. The city became his with
those stories. When I walked by that
building, that corner, his stories were
there, the way he told them.
“T
here’s no such thing as love.
It’s a construct,” Richard told
me one day when I went over
to his apartment. I had gotten a pack-
age of his in my mail. “You know anyone who is in love?”
I thought of Rose, who always said
she was in love whenever she met a
new guy and then would wait by the
phone all day, crying. Then I thought
of my friends and my own
experience. We had all
k now n it, but it was
somet hi ng t hat happened a long time ago,
not something we sat
around thinking about.
It happened, and when it’s
happened, there is no need
to think too hard about it.
“Maybe,” I said, “you
haven’t had much time to
know a range of people.”
He told me he knew a
lot of people. Thousands
was the number he gave
me. I got the feeling that
what I wanted to say to
him was about the quality
of closeness, not what he
was talking about. A few
minutes passed between
us, and he said, “People say
that they are in love all the
time, but they’re not. I
don’t believe them. They
think they should say it
because it’s what you say. Doesn’t mean
they really know what it is.”
I looked around his apartment.
There wasn’t much in it. A few plastic
chairs, a couch he had dragged back
from someone’s front lawn, a table, and
a little anatomy man. The anatomy
man had little plastic bits inside. I
reached inside him and took out a
small brown thing the size of a pencil
STORY
77
eraser. I didn’t know what it was and
put it back.
R
ichard liked to talk about the
women he had slept with.
There were two he brought
up a lot. The irst was his roommate,
whom he didn’t talk to anymore, the
one he told us about on the bike tour.
The second was a woman named Eve.
She lived in New York now but came
back once in a while to visit. He said
he wasn’t in love with her, that they
were best friends. They had, for seven
years, been a couple, but then they
weren’t anymore. The chemistry
wasn’t there. When she didn’t answer his emails or phone calls, he
would google her. He always wanted
to know what she was doing.
I asked him, “Do you think maybe
you’re in love with her?” He said no, to
be in love, you should have sex with
that person, and he didn’t want that
with her. He asked me if I’d had sex
with anyone lately. I took my time to
answer. I could tell he had no use for
anyone who didn’t have sex. I tried to
remember the last time. I hadn’t been
with anyone but my husband. He died
thirty years ago. A heart attack. Sudden. Thirty years is a lifetime for some
people. As far as I was concerned, I
hadn’t had sex for such a long time
that I could consider myself a virgin. I
couldn’t remember how it all happens.
Richard knew how. He was always
talking about all the sex he’d had.
Hundreds of women, he told me.
“It’s easy. You just ask. And you
never know. If someone tells me no,
I don’t get worked up about it. I
mean, they said no. What’s more
clear than that? There are always
others who want to. It’s sometimes
just athletic to do it.” Richard was
not a beauty but he acted like one.
He said, “I’m not bad-looking. Anyway, looks don’t have anything to
do with it. Sometimes good-looking
people don’t do anything in bed.
They just lie there. You want someone who has imagination, who is
excited. It’s the best feeling ever.”
R
ichard had one of his parties.
This party was different from
the others. There wasn’t any
food, and it began later in the evening. There was a green glass bottle
78
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
in the middle of the room. All his
furniture had been cleared, piled on
one side of the room. For all his talk,
I had never seen him with a woman
before. I knew what the bottle in the
middle of the room was for.
I looked around the room, at the
twenty-five or so people, to see if
there was anyone I would hope it
would land on. There wasn’t, but I
wanted to play. When I spun the bottle, it landed on a beautiful blond
woman. A lawyer. She was still in her
business suit, with the jacket. I kissed
her on the forehead, like she was
some child, and everyone laughed.
Richard said, “Isn’t she sweet?” I hated
that he said that. I didn’t want to be
sweet. I was old and I knew it and I
had been called a lot of words, but
“sweet” really irritated me. I watched
as those who were chosen by the bottle kissed each other. After a while, it
got boring. The people at the party
thought so, too, and started to file
out. It was Richard’s turn again, and
each time it was, he always spent a
long time with that person, kissing.
There was a man with a beer belly
whom he kissed, and a dancer. I
didn’t want to go home. It was the
start of summer, and I wanted something to happen to me.
Richard told me, “You could go
home, if you want. We’re just going to
keep playing this game. It might get
boring.” But I didn’t go. There were
three of us now. The other woman
was named Lorrie. She worked at an
art gallery. Lorrie behaved like she
was a girl. Giggling, chewing on her
long hair, blushing. When Richard
spun the green bottle, it landed on
me. He laughed, and said, “You don’t
have to. You can say no.” But I didn’t
want to, to say no. He was sitting
cross-legged on the floor, and I leaned
over. He chewed spearmint gum.
When we stopped, she was gone.
He said, “It’s three in the morning. You should go home.” He said it
like a good friend who was looking
out for me. I got the sense too that
Richard didn’t like me being there
at that time, alone with him, like he
was afraid of what an old woman
wanted. “I don’t want to,” I said. I
don’t know why I said that. Just to
see what he would do. He was a
man, and I was bored.
His bedroom was clean and quiet.
I said, “Can you take off your
clothes? I want to see.” It surprised
me, how he listened. He didn’t protest like I thought he would. He
didn’t say it was a bad idea. He stood
there naked. He was beautiful, the
way women are. He had hair on his
chest and legs. I hadn’t seen hair on
a chest for a long time and so I
reached out to touch it. He closed
his eyes and breathed deeply. It was
so easy. He sat down on the bed and
I sat on top of him. He didn’t go in
deep, but held me there. I was supposed to lower myself. But I didn’t. I
could go as far as I wanted. The
morning light came in, and he said,
“We have to stop.” I didn’t want to. I
liked looking at Richard’s face when
he held me there. He looked scared,
or like he was about to cry. Then he
lifted me off of him and turned
around so I couldn’t see his face. He
said, “You have to go. I want to fuck
you.” And that’s why I didn’t want to
go. Because he wanted that.
I
didn’t see Richard for a few
weeks. He had his parties and
people came and went. I heard
their talk through the walls, and the
women too. I wanted to know what it
would feel like to have a sound like
that in my mouth. But it was only the
women. He was silent, breathing quietly, probably.
I asked him why he never made
any noises, not even a grunt. “Concentrating,” he said. He always talked that way. Easily. He told me what
it felt like, for him, for a man, and
what it was like having sex with a
woman. I had never known that,
but he did. He told me things I
wished I could have asked my mother when I was a young girl, but this
was better because he gave me facts.
I wanted to know how he knew
where to put himself, if it was the
same each time, how he got them to
come home to his apartment, how
he undressed them. He always asked
them, Can I do this? Is this all right?
You’re okay with this? The way he
told it to me, it was like I had done
it, too, had also been inside them,
just like him, as a man. There was no
metaphor, no seed and soil and growing flowers. Just the facts.
“W
hat have you been doing
all summer?” Rose asked
me one afternoon when
she came home. I knew how she
would react if I told her. When she
left for the weekend, I knocked on
Richard’s door. I tried the doorknob
and went in.
I could hear the shower going, and
when he came out, he said, “You hungry?” Just like that. He was a good cook.
I watched him cook. Bringing out plates,
the pan, opening the cupboards, the
fridge. He looked graceful. His long legs
and arms. I liked that he wasn’t mad at
me for what happened last time, after
the party, when we had gotten so close.
“Why would I be?” he said. “Don’t
have sex with men who get mad about
things like that.” He smiled at me and
said, “I liked that nothing really happened. We were close. That’s the best
part. To be that close. And to let
nothing happen.”
S
oon after, we were sitting on the
edge of the bed. I sat on top and
I had Richard between my legs.
We had been kissing. It started off really slow. And then I kissed harder.
Then he pulled his mouth away from
mine. His mouth was open, and he
was breathing heavily. His head tilted
back when mine leaned forward. We
were so close, breathing into each
other. Then I lowered myself onto
him and said, before I pushed further,
“Do you want me to pull out?” I
meant stop, but I didn’t say that. He
knew what I meant and why I didn’t
say that. He laughed, and said, “No,
no. God, no.” His lips were red, his
cheeks pink. I wanted him to say it,
even though I knew it wasn’t true.
“Tell me you love me,” I said. “Even if
it’s not true. Say it.” And he did. I
wanted to feel what it was like to
have someone inside me again, and I
pushed him into me.
I
t was the end of August, and Richard didn’t have his parties as often.
We were spending more time
alone together. He’d call me on the
phone and ask whether I wanted to
come over. I knew what he wanted me
over for, and I wanted that, too. I went
over whenever he called. Sometimes
we spent the whole day together, not
talking at all. And sleeping. We didn’t
have much to say, doing what we did.
What I liked about the sex we had was
how slow it was, and how long we
could go, how he waited for my body to
respond. When we began it was usually dark outside, and then we stopped
when there was light. He told me,
“You should get a boyfriend. I can’t be
your boyfriend.” I didn’t want a boyfriend, whatever that was these days. I
wanted what I had. I didn’t say anything. I just watched him put on his
clothes. Then he asked me if I wanted
to go with him to see Eve the next day;
she was in town, and she wanted him
to meet her new boyfriend. He said he
didn’t want to go alone. It was the irst
time I did anything with him outside
the apartment.
I
stood on the front porch of a
house, on a small street, and
Richard went inside to get Eve.
She was in the back of the house,
where the kitchen was. She called to
me to come inside, waved me in. She
had long, shiny black hair and brown
eyes. She said her boyfriend was upstairs taking a shower and that he’d
join us in a few minutes. Richard
talked to Eve, asked her about this
new man of hers, teased her about
him, about being in love.
Then Richard said, “Well, I’m in
love,” and pointed to me. “With her.”
We laughed, Richard and I, as if this
were our joke and Eve were outside
it. You can do that with a joke, hide
how you feel and mean what you say
at the same time, and no one would
ask you which it was.
Eve’s boyfriend, Daniel, came
down the stairs in a white T-shirt
that clung to his chest and plain
khaki shorts. “Hey, guys, how is everyone?” I didn’t reply because it
wasn’t really directed at me. Richard
answered for himself.
That morning, we played board
games and charades. Eve and Richard had a way of talking with each
other that made it dificult to join
in. They made references and jokes
and told stories about each other in
bits and pieces that never came together because they’d break out in
laughter. They never bothered to explain what any of this was about, always saying we would have had to be
there to know. I had been around. I
STORY
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knew what was happening. Richard
was oblivious to what Eve was doing
with him. Playing the two men off
each other.
I got up and went out to the front
porch. It was only three in the afternoon. I thought of going home, and
then Daniel came out for a smoke.
He lit his cigarette and we watched
the trees around us. The leaves were
far apart from one another; they
waved, darted left and right. Pushed
by the wind, they looked like a
school of fish in the blue sky. A
thing out of place. We did not know
what to say to each other. We were
there at the same time and wanting
the same thing, but from different
people. If there were anyone else
who understood what it was like to
be on the outside looking in on
those two, it was Daniel.
After a while, he said to me, “You
ever seen a tornado before?” I told
him I hadn’t. He nodded and went
on, “They destroy everything. You
can see it coming in the distance.
Most people would try to get the
hell out of there. Some people see it
coming and can’t help but watch.” I
didn’t say anything. He winked at
me. I had only known him for a few
hours that day. He saw me.
A
fterward, Richard thought it
would be a great idea to bike
around the city. Eve and Daniel didn’t want to go, so it was just us
again. We arranged our bodies on the
bike like we had done once before, me
on the bar in front of the seat, and he
pedaled. We went around like this,
without helmets. I wasn’t scared of getting into an accident. That’s what it
felt like then, to be with Richard. I
didn’t think about what would happen
to me, what the future would look like.
I was in it. I had had a life and had still
gotten there.
Richard biked past the crowd at
the ferry dock, and we followed the
trail out of the city until we got to the
lake. We weren’t supposed to swim in
it because it was polluted, but he did,
saying there was nothing wrong with
it. He swam far out but close enough
for me to see him pretend he was
drowning. His arms waved about and
his head bobbed. Then he swam out
farther and did it all over again.
80
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
We returned to his apartment. He
told me his friendship with Eve was
changing. She was getting on with
her life, without him. She didn’t drop
everything to see him anymore. “I
should marry her,” he said. “I love
her and I don’t want to lose her.” I
did not tell him what to do about
her. I did not ask what it would mean
for me.
He took off his clothes. One by
one, and then mine. The afternoon
had changed him somehow. He had
always been very tender with me
but was even more so now. He put
himself down on the bed and closed
his eyes. I took him in. I did it slowly. “Yes,” he said. I wanted to put
something inside him that we could
both see come in and out. I put a
inger into his belly button, and he
got so loud about it, like the women
I heard him with through the wall
of the apartment. I was quiet,
breathing, taking everything in.
Then he gasped like something was
about to happen to him. He sat up
and pulled me closer. He kissed me
very hard and did not pull away. We
continued like that, face to face. I
love you, he kept saying.
He asked me to sleep over, but I
didn’t want to. I watched him with a
sadness he couldn’t see. I didn’t want
to be with someone who could do
that—who could deny me of what he
would give someone else. He had the
time to have regrets, to be stupid. I
didn’t. And when he turned around,
I don’t know why I did what I did. I
reached out and grabbed a piece inside the anatomy man. It was his
stomach. A small plastic thing. It
wasn’t real, of course, but it was
there, and it was something.
I went home and was surprised to
find Rose there. She asked me
where I had been, said she knew
that I was spending a lot of time
with that guy next door. She said,
“He’s never going to love you, you
know. Have you forgotten how old
you are? Look at all your wrinkles.”
That’s the thing about being old.
We don’t know we have wrinkles
until we see them. Old is a thing
that happened outside. A thing other people see about us. I didn’t know
why she was talking to me this way.
I didn’t know whether she meant
this about me or whether she was
telling herself. I didn’t say anything.
It seemed to me she’d been drinking, so I let her talk. After a while, I
didn’t hear anything she said. My
mind was somewhere else.
I
did see Richard one last time, later
that year, in October. It was at
Daniel’s funeral. Richard was
there, with Eve, supporting her, holding her, like a partner. It seemed
strange to me to have done the things
people who loved each other did, so
often, and for it to seem now like they
had never happened. And it seemed
strange to me to see him go back to
her, to want so little. And what kind
of person was Eve to see someone
else’s love and agree to see it wasn’t
there. But after a while, it didn’t matter to think about it.
I looked over at the closed casket
and thought of Daniel, how he died.
He was a strong swimmer, in excellent shape, but it was very cold, he
got a cramp, and he drowned. I
thought of him and his whole life,
how short it was. Forty. That isn’t
much time. I was there with him
when he loved someone, and he was
willing to wait it out. I wondered
whether, in life, you get one big role,
some message you need to deliver to
someone, and when it’s done, it’s
time to go. I thought of what Daniel
said about tornadoes. He was wrong
about me. What he said wasn’t true.
We weren’t the same. I did not wait. I
am not the kind of person who watches something happen in the distance.
Daniel’s family and friends stood up
and told stories about him. I did not
tell mine. It was for no one to know,
and I left. I looked back at the black
everyone was wearing. I could not tell
which one in the crowd was Richard.
I was beginning to forget his face.
O
nce, walking down the street
in front of my old building,
Richard called out to me. I
must have been closing in on eighty
then. I looked through him and spun
around. I wanted to be in the distance, beautiful and dark, spinning
all by myself, in the clear. I didn’t
want him to come close. Nothing,
not even the call of my name, could
make me stop.
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H é c tor Ab a d
H A N N E Ø R S TAV I K
The Farm
L OV E
translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken
archipelago
arc hi p elago b o o k s
book s
Love can change everything. And it does in
this edgy, elegiac, and beautifully written
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Kerri Arsenault, Oprah.com
Angot unmasks with frightening precision the
roiling heart and the sharp edges of lust, loathing,
and scorn lodged within love’s fossil record. This
is a book that points you toward the subterranean
roots of your own emotions, the intricacies and
murk we cover up in the name of normal daily
operations.
Alexandra Kleeman
I store up what I have read by Héctor Abad like
spherical, polished, luminous little balls of
bread, ready for when I have to walk through a
vast forest in the nighttime.
Manuel Rivas
PE A R L S O N A B R A N C H
antonio tabucchi
Oral Tales
Fo r I s a b e l
a mandala
Translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris
Najla Jraissaty Khoury
I don’t see a lot of books like this one . . . Which is
archipelago books
to say, stories for a range of ages that serve the sole
purpose of transporting you somewhere new
These tales are radiant with sunlight and Awe-inspiring . . . A jaw-dropper made comfort- The book has a mercurial, dream-like
quality that is stunning in its subtlety.
flowers, jinns and spirits, palaces and sultans able for the younger set. Worth discovering.
. . . the themes will resonate with anyone who
Elizabeth Bird, School Library Journal Never heavy-handed, this quiet novel is
loves fairy tales and folklore . . . An absolute
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Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Translated from the Arabic by Inea Bushnaq
a rc h i p e l a go
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Distributed to the trade by Penguin Random House
R
E
V
I
E
W
S
title, poking into the thoughts of men
like Hauser, whose free-world lives
seem almost equally stalled—is one of
pervasive claustrophobia. The protagonist, Romy Hall, who yearns for the
small son she left behind and is serving
two consecutive life sentences without
any realistic possibility of parole, sometimes recognizes that the prison is
merely a horriically exaggerated extension of the hamster wheel outside:
NEW BOOKS
By Lidija Haas
To work at IHOP, you first go to
Walmart or a place like it to get work
shoes. Where you see, if you didn’t already know, that most of the adultsized shoes they sell are for working
on construction sites or in hospitals,
prisons, restaurants, and schools, and
the children’s shoes are starter versions of the same.
t’s hard for bookish people not to
romanticize the act of reading—as
a spur to imagination and compassion for others or just an escape from
whatever real-life trap you may ind
yourself in. If only the incarcerated
women he’s been sent to prep for the
GED, Gordon Hauser tells himself in
Rachel Kushner’s new novel THE
MARS ROOM (Scribner, $27), “could
learn to think well, to enjoy reading
books, some part of them would be uncaged.” Sadly, his own extensive reading does not appear to have produced
any such result: he tends to make the
same mistakes over and over, such as
picking out an inmate to gormlessly
crush on, deciding that she “did not
know to use her beauty to manipulate,
didn’t even know she was beautiful.”
I
(Let’s suppose for a moment that there
exists any space through which a grown
woman can move without noticing
what she looks like and what
effect that has. You can bet
that prison isn’t it.)
In any case, what ails the
inmates of Stanville Women’s
Correctional Facility clearly
isn’t an inability to think well.
Kushner’s great gift is for the
evocation of a scene, a time
and place, and the atmosphere this book most frequently conjures—following
prisoners around the administrative segregation cells and
the electric-fenced yard, flashing back
to their memories of court and skid row
and the San Francisco strip club of the
Top: “Bird Sounds,” from the series Library Copies, by Mary Ellen Bartley. Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson
Gallery, New York City. Bottom: A dust storm in California’s Central Valley © Lexey Swall/GRAIN
Her other civilian job was as a stripper at the Mars Room, where the same
basic economics applied. (Women there
had to choose between a frantic hustle
and the better income guaranteed by a
regular, who in Romy’s case turned
stalker, but in either case they were always being undercut by Russian girls
willing to give handjobs for twenty
bucks a song.) Romy’s cellmate, Sammy,
locked up off and on since age twelve,
stashes her few possessions with other
inmates every time she gets paroled,
knowing that “her leaves from prison
were just that, not departures but vacations.” As for Hauser, who lives up a
mountain and tries to see his tenure
at Stanville as a Thoreauvian adventure, he looks out not on an expanse
of wilderness but on “a brutal, flat, machined landscape, with a strange lemonade light, thick with drifting topsoil
REVIEWS
83
and other pollutants from farm equipment and oil reineries.”
For the reader, there’s a familiarity
to all this that only adds to the sense
of walls closing in—we seem already
to know the violence and boredom
of the prison routines; the unintentionally comic institutional language
(“Ladies, report to staff if you have a
staph infection. Ladies, no whining”); the casual sadism of the
guards; the systems for smuggling in
contraband; the alliances, power
struggles, and racial divides among
the inmate population. Most of all,
there’s the claustrophobia of the narrative itself: the combination of constant risk and limited possibility, the
sickening strain of knowing something bad could happen at any minute and that nothing good ever will.
This mood is often explicitly gendered. “Unfortunately for that baby,”
Romy observes of a child born in receiving to a teenage fellow prisoner,
“it was a girl.”
A
ll this is enough to make
more genteel forms of female
imprisonment—the nuclear
family, say—look like nothing to
complain about. The English professor Lara Feigel is, in her determinedly
unacademic work of literary criticism
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$20), aware of that pitfall, though it’s
part of her courageous take-me-orleave-me approach to not bring it up
until fairly late. She mentions the
“anxiously protective” friends, both
men and women, who read her
drafts and worried that in sharing
her discomfort with the gilded conines of monogamy and motherhood, Feigel might seem greedy and
“dislikeable” on the page. (Ladies,
no whining.) Hers is a quest narrative, exploring ideas about freedom
that she inds in Lessing’s biography
and work—how, and at what cost, it
might be found, sexually, politically, socially, intellectually, in passionate love, or alone in nature—and
weaving them into an account of her
doubts and concerns about the course
of her own life and marriage. This
double plot requires an approach to
reading about which Feigel the scholar at times feels self-conscious—an
84
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
almost adolescent identiication that
she knows could seem needy as well
as unprofessional.
She begins with her rereading of
The Golden Notebook at a point, in
her thirties, when at a succession of
weddings she found herself frustrated
by the conventionalism and domesticity all around her. She is disappointed by how little interest in freedom her gener at ion ev i nc e s,
considering how much is in theory
available to them. Is it possible, she
asks, for a woman “both to avoid
wreckage and to avoid succumbing
to the puritanical aspects of my own
age”? Writing about Lessing leaving
her two oldest children and her irst
husband, Feigel explores her own
maternal ambivalence and her dificulty conceiving a second child; in
considering Lessing’s thoughts on
sexual desire and fulfillment, she
gives a remarkably thorough accounting of her own varieties of orgasmic experience—and so on.
Feigel is an attentive reader, but
the slightly riskier part of her venture is its demand that attention be
paid to the inner workings of her
life, a life that is extraordinary only
in its advantages. In the course of
writing the book, she becomes
aware that the sense of unfreedom
she chafes at may have more to do
with her own oppressive “eagerness
to please,” and thus that the selfexposure inherent in her project is
part of a liberatory attempt to “conquer embarrassment and shame.”
Where Kushner’s prisoners know
that “you don’t talk about yourself
because there is nothing to be
gained from it,” and that when for
White on White (Nine Sections of Wedding Cake), by Julia Jacquette © The artist
strategic reasons you do decide to
tell a story, it had better not be true,
Feigel’s goal is to describe her feelings and discoveries in as much detail as possible.
ushner’s prison does have its
share of braggarts and bleeders. But unlike a memoirist,
they have the immense advantage,
from the reader’s point of view, of being made up. In CAPTIVE AUDI-
K
ENCE: ON LOVE AND REALITY TV
(Vintage, $16), the essayist Lucas
Mann identiies a crucial challenge
for both the kind of television he favors and the confessional mode of
writing he likes to publish: readers
and audiences will forgive an imaginary protagonist almost anything,
but moral complexity seems a harder
sell with someone we know to exist
for real. Fundamentally, he writes, it
is the manifestation of desire, especially the desire to be liked or at least
watched, that evokes disgust. (Fictional characters can be seen without
asking us to look.)
Mann is even more committed to
self-exposure than Feigel, and where
she risks elevating her emotional
journey by putting it in proximity to
a Nobel winner’s, he makes a point
of iltering his through a “feminized”
form that most people consider too
lowbrow to be culturally rehabilitated. (Still, he can’t resist trotting out
the likes of Roland Barthes, John
Berger, and Guy Debord every now
and again, and suspects reality TV
haters of a kind of puritanism as well
as snobbery—they can’t bear to
watch an ordinary person become
rich and famous, as if it’s immoral
that such slobs should be getting
“something for nothing.”) They’re
both admirers of Chris Kraus’s I Love
Dick, though Mann cites in particular Kraus’s defense of “bad art.” Such
work invites inventive engagement
from the reader or viewer and has
the Ed Wood–esque charm of seeing
the gulf between someone’s intent
and actual accomplishment.
No surprise, then, that Mann
takes the effort to embarrass himself so much further than Feigel
does, offering up his petty ambitions and insecurities in excruciating detail, sparing no undigniied
angle, letting no vain or histrionic
thought go unshared. Feigel might
suggest, as she does about Karl Ove
Knausgaard, that a man can get
away with such antics more easily—
still, it’s only fair to say that Mann
goes out of his way to court the derision of anyone with a taste for the
macho. With his stage-actress wife
(addressed in a heightened second
person throughout), he agonizes
about his weight: “ ‘Am I as fat as
Rob [Kardashian]?’ I ask so that
you’ll say no.” “I was so moved,” he
writes, of a poem he came across
on Twitter. “I am so moved writing
this; tears on my fucking keyboard
and all that, literal tears, no metaphor.” He ixates on how he and his
wife must look to others and admits that these thoughts only intensify at times when you might
expect them to be supplanted by
something more substantial: “I felt
so horrified at the prospect of a
world without you,” he recalls of
the time she broke her back in a
bike accident, “and I wanted to see
what that degree of care might
look like on me.” When the doctor
greets his visible distress with a
compassionate, admiring expression, Mann “registered his look as
one I’d never received.”
The reader spends much of the
book observing Mann slumped
against his wife in front of the TV,
savoring the real housewives and
Honey Boo Boos, watching her
watching them, imagining how he
might appear when she lifts her eyes
from the screen to him. This is
Mann’s version of Kushner’s mimesis, in which the reader feels as
trapped as the characters: as though
he is our very own reality star, we
see Mann anxiously packaging himself for our consumption, daring us to
wonder whether it’s worth it to continue watching, and whether we are
in some way complicit in his sedentary, obsessive lifestyle. We observe
his marriage rather as he observes
the less fortunate characters in rubbernecking shows like Hoarders or
Intervention: “It’s the fear of what
you see in front of you, and the desire to protect yourself from what
you see until the intensity of that
desire begins to resemble the panic
of what you’re seeing.” Marriage, of
course, is more usually portrayed as
captivity from the woman’s perspective. In this case, I felt for Torvald
nearly as much as for Nora. Here,
the relationship is apparently a happy one, and in this context, the lack
of resolution—a key part of the appeal of soapy reality TV—can perhaps be seen as romantic in itself.
Anyone hoping, as I now and then
did, that Mann’s endlessly supportive wife might one day leap from
the couch, fling aside the remote,
and make a break for it will be
disappointed—although I did take
note that one of her most “visceral”
stage performances was in her own
adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Since this book of necessity follows the anti-transformational logic
of its subject (even if someone does
lose the weight or get off drugs,
there’ll be another hopeless case in
the next episode, and the genre’s biggest stars have a vested interest in
not changing themselves too much),
and since, as Mann admits, reality
TV seems to have ebbed from its cultural high-water mark, it’s not clear
how he would have ended his book
had the 2016 election gone differently. As it stands, he’s able to close
with the bizarre extradiegetic success
of The Apprentice, about which he
grills a group of big- and small-time
producers. This tribe has a set of
highly specific rules and assumptions, rather as Romy and her comrades do. They
spoke the way I imagine soldiers speak
to one another, or bail bondsmen, or
sex workers; they spoke as though
there was a world of civilians out
there—rubes, naïfs—and then there
was them, the ones who had seen the
thing up close.
Yet they don’t have a lot to add
about Donald Trump, whose appeal
is pretty much what it looks like. As
with marriage, putting in the time
doesn’t always mean you understand
something better than anyone else
would. Even Kushner’s creepy prison
teacher gradually begins to notice
that there are some problems that
won’t allow you to read—or write—
your way out.
Q
REVIEWS
85
WALK AWAY
Helen DeWitt’s uncompromising ictions
By Jonathan Dee
Discussed in this essay:
Some Trick: Thirteen Stories, by Helen DeWitt. New Directions. 224 pages. $22.95.
n “On the Town,” one of the stories
in Helen DeWitt’s eagerly awaited
collection Some Trick, a young man
named Benny Bergsma tells this story
about his famous-author father, to illustrate why, after a fantastic early success, he never managed to publish another book:
I
line to the stories in this book, its
points are the artists like Mr. Bergsma, who pop up over and over again:
unicornlike, huge-brained, eccentric
geniuses whom the world of commerce—
the culture industry in particular—
pursues and then irritates to the point
of paralysis and/or madness.
They’re not all writers. In another
story, a British band called the Breaks is
blithely victimized by their manager,
who commits behind their backs such
artistic crimes as retitling their second
album Groovin on Down. He has made
this and other unilateral changes, he
says remorselessly, for the fans, who, by
buying so many copies of the Breaks’ irst
album, have demonstrated what they
want and are entitled to get it. The re-
Jake Rabinowitz, a top entertainment
lawyer, had negotiated a movie deal
which included the right to two irstclass tickets to the premiere. . . .
Mr. Bergsma: “What is this. What
the fuck is this.”
JR: “I got them to agree to irst-class
tickets to the premiere.”
Mr. Bergsma: “Look. I don’t want
this. I never asked for this. I don’t want
to clutter up my head with this crap.”
JR: “The contract does not require
you to attend the premiere.”
Mr. Bergsma: “I don’t want to get
into all this crap about what I want or
do not want. I am trying to write a
fucking book. You have now used up
bargaining space, you piece of shit, you
have squandered leverage, for something about which I do not give a fuck.
I want this out of the fucking contract.
I want a Crap. Free. Deal.”
When Rabinowitz suggests that it
would constitute a loss of face for him
to go back and demand the removal
of this perk after previously demanding its inclusion, Mr. Bergsma fires
him. Thus no movie, no new book
deal, and no money, only a semiindigent alcoholic son who lives in
Brooklyn and wonders bitterly why
his father has to control everything to
the point of self-sabotage.
“On the Town” is actually a kind of
fable about someone else entirely—a
guileless Iowa boy named Gil, whose
good cheer and effectiveness with a
toolbox propel him to success in the
Big Apple—but if there is a through-
86
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
Illustration by Demetrios Psillos
sponse of the front man, Pete, is to begin
signing all his autographs on their ensuing American tour “Willy the Wanker,”
an act of subversion that backires when
those autographs become expensive
collector’s items, making Groovin on
Down more popular than ever. Eventually, Pete just jumps off the tour bus
somewhere near Route 66, buys a harmonica, and learns to play it.
The plot of “Stolen Luck,” about
various igures who get caught up in a
rock-and-roll copyright dispute (not in
court but in a poker game), features a
street “musician” who sits on the pavement and, blowing trumpetlike through
the small end of an orange trafic cone,
plays “My Way.” He may be annoying,
like a flatulent earworm, but his relationship to his art, and to his audience,
is enviably uncontaminated.
“Brutto,” the collection’s opening
story, is a tale for the Age of Hirst about
a painter who doesn’t sell out so much
as give in to a commercial whirlwind she
doesn’t understand. A famous collector
sees hanging in the painter’s closet a
magniicently ugly suit—the remnant of
a kind of inal exam she took many years
earlier, when her father was pushing her
to forget about art and get into the dressmaking trade—and demands that she
sew nineteen more. (It is typical of the
polymath DeWitt that this story should
revolve around the German word
Gesellenstück—meaning, approximately,
“apprentice piece”—archaic and magniicently ugly in its own right.) He predicts, correctly, that hanging twenty of
these horrifying garments in a gallery
and calling it a show will create a sensation. The painter has no idea what is
happening or why. But she is too old to
win the Turner Prize, her all-white
paintings are tough to sell because she
insists on painting in such thick gobs
that they can never properly dry, and, as
she keeps saying defensively, as much to
herself as to us, “People think it would
be easy to walk away.”
T
he resemblance between these
artist igures and their author is,
though it wasn’t always, a matter of record, and DeWitt did walk away,
or try to, on several occasions, in ways
that were sometimes amusing (canceling
her contract after reading one publisher’s
irst round of editorial notes) and other
times not funny at all. Eighteen years
ago she published The Last Samurai, one
of the most distinctive irst novels in
recent memory, to impressive sales and
critical kudos. She then disappeared
from print for quite a long time. When
her second novel, Lightning Rods, was
inally released in 2011, the story of her
hiatus began to emerge.
Lightning Rods had gotten stuck in
contractual limbo when its presumptive American publisher, Talk Miramax Books, was restructured. (A literary partnership between Tina Brown
and Harvey Weinstein? What could
go wrong?) Before that, DeWitt had
suffered epic battles with arrogant
copy editors who “corrected” aspects
of the very complicated text of Last
Samurai without asking her. She hired
and ired numerous agents. She got
into legal and inancial straits over the
cancellation of various contracts. The
collapse of at least one self-negotiated
publishing deal proved so traumatic
that she literally went missing. Reuters
reported her disappearance; a policeman eventually picked her up on a
street in Niagara Falls, New York, and
took her to a hospital.
It got worse. She was stalked for
months by a neighbor who was ultimately convicted for breaking into her
home and sent to prison. When the
manuscript of Lightning Rods was inally
liberated, sixteen publishers turned it
down; she emailed her agent a suicide
note. “One reason all of these years have
been lost,” she told a Canadian blogger
a few years later, “is that I was trying to
get something that the industry is just
not built for. It’s a sort of machine for
disempowerment. It’s horriic.”
So it is happy news that there is new
iction from DeWitt at all. And one is
even happier to discover that the stories have managed to turn the author’s
struggle to live the life of the mind
unhassled by the predations, wellmeaning and otherwise, of the latecapitalist culture industry and its minions to boisterously comic account.
I
t seems safe to say that DeWitt,
who knows fourteen languages
and is conversant in advanced
math and computer code, etc., possesses an unusually capacious and
powerful brain. The voice of these
stories—compulsive, overstuffed,
highfalutin and colloquial in equal
REVIEWS
87
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measure, unafraid of exclamation
points that would make Tom Wolfe
blush—is like a record of the speed at
which such a brain works, and the
concomitant dificulty of slowing it
down in order to deal with what we
regular people would call “regular
people.” That voice’s resting pulse, so
to speak, is a kind of deadpan logical
progression. “My Heart Belongs to
Bertie,” a story about the efforts of
an American literary agent, Jim, to
get a British writer named Peter to
write a follow-up to his best-selling
collection of tales about robots (there
are a whole lot of references in Some
Trick to robots), incorporates twentythree diagrams demonstrating the
Gaussian curve, sixteen lines of programming code, and exchanges such
as this one:
[Peter] said, It would mean a lot to me
to work with someone who admired
Bertrand Russell. . . .
The statement seemed, if not
meaningless, then uselessly imprecise.
(The irst book had made all this
money. Why could he not use that
money to buy what he wanted? Was
that not the general point of having
money in the irst place?)
He said, I’d be happy to switch the
percentages around if that would help.
You’d be very welcome to take an 85%
commission.
This was undoubtedly precise but
was perhaps not the sort of thing
Americans say.
At other times—moments of crisis,
usually, or of catharsis, which for a
high-functioning brain might as well
be the same thing—the narration hits
a more manic register. “Stream of consciousness” doesn’t always seem an
adequate term—it’s more like a kind
of ire hydrant of consciousness:
Ought he, perhaps, to go rushing back
to, oh God, the other
But no, Jim (he was pretty sure it
was Jim) would have gone back to
his ofice. Ought he, in all decency,
to drop off the correctly labeled
chart at the ofice? Or call, perhaps
he should
There was the matter of the briefcase, but it had only contained printouts of PDFs which were on the laptop, so there was no particular need to
retrieve, but
Wait. Wait wait wait wait wait
wait wait.
88
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
If I were to compare this voice
and its densely allusive, high-low
dynamic—a voice that spits out probability theory one moment and namechecks Thom Yorke or J. K. Rowling
the next—to that employed by other
living writers, Mark Leyner would
come to mind, or Stephen Dixon, or
maybe a really over-caffeinated Richard Powers, even though those may all
be writers of whom the classically educated DeWitt has never heard. She
might even be angry at me for mentioning them. That’s the thing about
reviewing work by someone so demanding of exactitude in others: it
makes you self-conscious about your
own role in a process that has functioned in her life more or less like Prometheus’ vulture.
But why shouldn’t one be more selfconscious about it? It’s all she asks of
us. And it makes no sense to expect,
or even to want, an artist of her intellect to produce work that is less than
hypercritical, even of itself. She is
puckish about the enterprise of iction
itself: for no good reason at all, there
are characters in multiple stories
named Peter and Gil and Rachel, and
at one point, she compares the traditional literary process of building a
character to the witness protection
program. Many of the stories end on a
note more of fragmentation than of
resolution; one concludes with its two
main characters singing, for three
quarters of a page, “When the Saints
Go Marching In.”
It shouldn’t work, really, none of it.
It should seem too self-pitying, too inside baseball. Even armed with the
knowledge of all that the author’s
struggles have cost her, reading tales
about geniuses suffering the indignity
of exposure to nongeniuses might well
cause a reader’s eyes to roll: I mean,
tell it to James Joyce, you know? He
had a pretty bad time with copy editors, too, and managed to soldier on.
What saves Some Trick in the end is
not only that DeWitt is so very funny
but that she has harnessed her coder’s
brain to negative capability. Which is
to say, while she is irmly on the side
of the intellectual unicorns, she is
also capable of doing full and hilarious justice to their bizarre, frustrating,
alien, occasionally tiresome aspect.
And she does treat the plight of these
artists as a comedy rather than a tragedy, even if, as in any serious comedy,
there are casualties.
P
erhaps the most nakedly DeWittlike of Some Trick’s characters is
a Dutch writer named Peter Dijkstra in “Climbers,” which irst appeared
in this magazine. After ive years in an
asylum, he is leading a humble existence
in Vienna (which he inds comforting
because in Vienna “they speak German
like robots”), trying to write a new book.
But the world of agents and editors—
not cynics who want to capitalize on
him so much as people who worship
him, think he’s a genius, and want only
to help him—will not leave him alone.
They would really love, they say, to “see
some pages.” They think he will produce the next 2666, a book he dislikes
on the basis of the two pages he has
read. One agent says imploringly to
him, “I need to know what you care
about,” and, after a moment’s consideration, Dijkstra responds:
Actually, you know, there’s one thing.
I really like the fact that “front seat” is
a spondee. And it’s reflected in the
spelling, the two separate words. And
one thing I really hate is the way they
try to make you agree to “backseat,”
which is trochaic. I don’t agree.
Perplexed but undeterred, the agent
asks again for pages, whatever he’s got,
so that a deal might be made while the
timing is perfect. Finally, Dijkstra just
dumps all his incomprehensible notes,
most of which are written on index
cards, into a padded envelope and
mails it to New York. When it arrives,
the agents and editors stare at this
uncommodiiable pile of junk in bemusement and awe. For one of them,
it brings back memories of visiting the
Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam:
“You deinitely got the feeling, holding
these objects, that they had been in a
room with a crazy guy, or rather a guy
with the potential to be crazy who was
trying to keep madness at bay.”
Meanwhile, Dijkstra—back to
square one, his notes gone, his nascent
project turned into a mental Superfund site by well-meaning strangers—
asks a bartender for a pen and a napkin, on which he begins making notes
for “a book in which people did not destroy the thing they loved.”
Q
A PERFECTLY
RESPECTABLE LADY
The bowdlerization of Jean Rhys
By Elizabeth Lowry
Discussed in this essay:
A View of the Empire at Sunset, by Caryl Phillips. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
336 pages. $26.
ew writers have written as seductively about the free fall
from self-control as Jean Rhys.
She is best known for her novel Wide
Sargasso Sea (1966), a reimagining of
the backstory to Edward Rochester’s
disastrous youthful marriage in Jane
Eyre (1847). In Rhys’s version, the irst
Mrs. Rochester is neither depraved
nor even necessarily destined to go
mad. She is the Jamaican Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway Mason, emotionally unguarded and lethally innocent in her passion for the chilly
Englishman, who marries her for her
money and is terriied both by her ar-
F
dor and by the physical desire she
awakens in him. He soon rejects her,
pronounces her insane, and locks her
up in the attic of Thornield Hall. After many years, by now truly crazed as
the result of her incarceration, she escapes by setting ire to the building
and throwing herself from the roof.
The rest is literature: Rhys’s prequel
and Brontë’s novel have between them
generated more critical evaluations in
the ields of nineteenth-century, postcolonial, and women’s studies than
perhaps any other two linked texts.
Erotic passion, rage, madness: Rhys
knew what she was writing about.
Photograph of Jean Rhys © Paul Joyce/National Portrait Gallery, London
She was born Ella Gwendolen Rees
Williams in 1890, the daughter of a
Welsh doctor who had settled on
Dominica and a third-generation
Creole—the term used at the time
to denote anyone native to the island, whether of European or African descent. After attending the
convent in Roseau, Ella was sent at
sixteen to boarding school in Cambridge to continue her education.
England was a shock. She was ridiculed for her accent, for her unpolished manners, for failing to grasp the
nuances of English society. She left at
the end of 1908 to enroll in stage
school in London but lasted only two
terms before joining a traveling musical show as a chorus girl. Little more
than a year later she was living the
life of a demimondaine in a flat paid
for by a wealthy lover, Lancelot
(“Lancey”) Grey Hugh Smith. When
he dropped her after eighteen months
she slid briefly into prostitution, and
permanently into alcoholism. In 1919
she married Willem Johan Marie
Lenglet, a Dutch journalist and spy
whose shady inancial dealings would
see him arrested five years later in
Paris, where husband and wife were
living hand to mouth. By that time
she was on the brink of an affair with
the English writer Ford Madox Ford,
who gave her the pen name Jean
Rhys and encouraged her to publish.
For Rhys had started to set it all
down: the lost childhood in the West
Indies; the misery of being adrift in
London; the crisis she’d suffered in Paris when Ford refused to leave his longterm lover, the painter Stella Bowen.
Her irst two novels, Postures (1928;
published in the United States as
Quartet in 1929) and After Leaving
Mr. Mackenzie (1931), are thinly
veiled, imperfectly shaped cries from
the heart about the affair with Ford.
The next, Voyage in the Dark (1934),
involved a return to her liaison with
Lancey. By the time it came out, she
had divorced—she and Lenglet had
lost their irst child, to pneumonia,
and she was estranged from their surviving daughter, who was being raised
in Holland—and remarried, to the
English literary agent Leslie Tilden
Smith. Good Morning, Midnight, a
retrospective look at the Paris years
that shivers with regret, appeared in
REVIEWS
89
1939, and then she produced no new
work for two decades, disappearing
from public view. It was not until
1956, when the BBC was about to
broadcast a radio adaptation of Good
Morning, Midnight, that anyone
thought to ask what had happened to
her. Was she dead? But Rhys was still
living, resettled in Cornwall. Now on
her third marriage (Tilden Smith
died in 1945), she was working on the
manuscript that would become Wide
Sargasso Sea.
It would take nine more years to
complete, but the book made Rhys’s
name and went some way to redeeming what had been a chaotic life. After this she wrote no more novels,
concentrating on short stories and on
her memoirs, which appeared in uninished form after her death in 1979
as Smile Please. It’s a magnificently
ironic title. What had she ever had to
smile about? The consolations of literary fame, she said, had come too
late. And yet she also knew that she
had no choice but to write. “If I stop
writing my life will have been an abject failure,” she once confessed in
her diary. “It is that already to other
people. But it could be an abject failure to myself. I will not have earned
death.” Her writing was always, irst
and foremost, a cathartic necessity,
an act of exorcism, an attempt to
make sense of the fragile balance of
stresses and vulnerabilities that was
“Jean Rhys.”
A
s her biographer Carole Angier asserts, Rhys was temperamentally divided all her life
“between a lady above and a savage
below,” between dependence on men
and rampant fury at being thus dependent. Though she wanted to be
desired, she resented being sexually
appropriated. When the novelist Rosamond Lehmann met Rhys in 1935,
she was astonished to ind that the author of such louche novels presented
as “a perfectly respectable lady”: “demure, shy, distant.” In reality, Rhys
was already subject to ungovernable
alcoholic rages; she would later be
ined for being drunk and disorderly in
public, and in 1949 she would spend
ive days in the hospital wing of Holloway Prison on charges of assault.
Both the lady and the savage were
90
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
genuine aspects of Rhys’s character,
but Angier is surely right to claim
that, as a writer, she knew that the latter was “the source of her real and individual vision.” Her female protagonists, from Marya, the troubled
heroine of Quartet, to Antoinette
Rochester, are wild and rebellious at
heart, resistant to false propriety but
trapped by the limitations of the very
people they turn to for love. Rhys
could write so persuasively about the
crazed Mrs. Rochester because she
had a great deal of Mrs. Rochester in
her. Loss of control, even madness, is,
as Angier concludes, “defeat only for
the lady”; for the primitive self it is
“liberation and triumph.”
Rhys was often caught, in her personal relationships, between passivity
and wrath. Time and again she
looked, like Antoinette, for a savior
who would rescue her from the dificult circumstances of her life. Her affair with Lancey, from whom she continued to accept an allowance until
she married Lenglet (including the
money for an abortion), set the pattern, and each marriage conirmed it.
Leslie Tilden Smith became Rhys’s
agent in 1926, when her union with
Lenglet was disintegrating; he found
her accommodations in London and
paid her rent, and by 1928 she had
moved in with him. He was the sort
of Englishman she liked best: well
bred, privately educated, eager to
come to her aid. But he was also difident and yielding, both in business
and in his interaction with Rhys. By
1936 he was eking out a living as a
freelance publisher’s reader, and their
marriage had degenerated into episodes of domestic violence in which
Rhys was the aggressor.
In 1939, three years after they’d
traveled together to Dominica—
Rhys’s irst return visit in nearly thirty years—Tilden Smith gave her a
copy of Jane Eyre, which she had last
read as a girl. Rhys’s ideas for a story
set wholly in the West Indies began
to coalesce: she soon produced half of
a manuscript, provisionally titled “Le
Revenant,” which he typed up from
her chaotic notes. But then they had
one of their periodic arguments, and
to spite him Rhys burned the typescript. Like Mrs. Rochester, the urtext
of Rhys’s masterpiece “perished in the
flames,” in the words of its Penguin
editor, Angela Smith. It’s a sad anecdote, and all the more pitiful for what
it reveals of Rhys’s self-destructive
masochism. It is also, as Smith intuits, an apt metaphor for the writing of
this particular book, which is so intimately concerned with the space between “sanity and madness, expectation and fulfilment.” The Sargasso
Sea, which lies between Europe and
the West Indies, is, Smith reminds us,
“dificult to navigate, like the human
situations in the novel.” Or the human situations in Rhys’s own life, for
that matter.
T
his is the sea that Caryl Phillips, equipped with copies of
the memoir and the iction, as
well as his own personal experience of
displacement, sets out to cross in his
new novel about the middle-aged
Rhys, A View of the Empire at Sunset.
Like Rhys, Phillips was born in the
West Indies, he on the island of
St. Kitts. Having relocated to England
with his family when he was four
months old, he visited St. Kitts for the
irst time at the age of twenty-two—a
journey that led to The Final Passage
(1985), his irst novel, about the British Caribbean diaspora. Ten subsequent novels, a historical study, four
essay collections, and scripts for radio,
stage, and screen have followed. Phillips, who has won the Commonwealth
Writers’ Prize and been long-listed for
the Man Booker, writes with understated passion about freedom and slavery, belonging and exile, identity and
exclusion. He of all authors should
have been able to do justice to Rhys,
yet he succeeds only in reducing her to
a cliché.
The problem is partly one of tone,
partly one of style. We meet Phillips’s
Rhys and Tilden Smith in 1936, on
the eve of their trip to Dominica.
They have been married for eight
years, so there is much that Phillips
needs to establish: their fraught, often
violent history; Tilden Smith’s fundamental decency and panicked dependence on Rhys’s approval; her own dependence, as panicked as his, on
alcohol and writing. They are hard up;
the voyage is being funded by a surprise legacy that he has received. But
he holds none of the cards. Rhys (or
Gwen, as she is called throughout) is
terriied of going back and being seen
by her family to be poor. And she
doesn’t want, as Leslie proposes, to it
in a “relaxing trip to the Sussex coast”
irst: she wants to stop in Holland to
see Maryvonne, the daughter she
has neglected for thirteen years. So
she drinks. Leslie is disapproving:
he hopes that a holiday might lead
to “a marked improvement in her
behaviour.” This, a tipsy Gwen reflects, “was precisely the kind of
phrase that Leslie loved to use.
‘Marked improvement.’ ”
It is also the kind of empty phrase
that Phillips likes to use. Leslie is, on
page after page, dully and repetitively
described as “her overly sensitive husband,” “her demure husband,” “her
tired husband,” “her glum-looking
husband,” whose “nervous face lights
up with relief” when Gwen “smiles
weakly” at him, who, when she is
drunk, “barked at her in a irm whisper, telling her to either hold her
tongue or keep it down.” Money, we
learn, “would help to ease the embarrassment of the spectacle she presents, but any mention of the thorny
subject tends to plunge Leslie into a
monosyllabic mood.” When thus depressed, Leslie says things like, “You’re
slipping away from me, aren’t you?”—
and all the while “the weak light iltering through the bay window is
picking out the lines on his face and
causing the grey strands in his hair
to occasionally sparkle.” He is going
to need all the occasional sparkle he
can muster. For Gwen, musing that
“the poor man” has, after all, “now
purchased the tickets for our transatlantic voyage,” hazards pompously,
Perhaps, my husband, if I show you the
West Indies, then you will inally come
to understand that I am not of your
world, and maybe then you will appreciate the indignity I feel at not only
having to live among you people but
possibly die among you, too.
This simply doesn’t sound like the
Rhys we know. Where, in this turgid
sentence, is the bitten-back violence?
Rather than rage, we get self-pity. “Indignity” strikes a primly false note: in
neither her own ferocious, selflacerating prose nor in her memoir is
Rhys ever concerned with dignity or
REVIEWS
91
First published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in 1906
New York Revisited
BY HENRY JAMES
FRANKLIN
SQUARE
PRESS
Introduction by Lewis H. Lapham
Order online at store.harpers.org
SOLUTION TO THE
APRIL PUZZLE
NOTES FOR “MIX
’N’ MATCH”:
The unclued entries in the top half
are anagrams of CAPITOL; in the
bottom half, of ELATING.
Note: * indicates an anagram.
C
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ACROSS: 12. d.-evoured*; 13. a-IM; 15. unsex*-ed; 16. to-ad; 17. N(it)S; 18. preinst(AL)l*;
25. rub-E; 26. *; 27. LEM[on]; 28. *; 29. homophone; 37. a(V)ril(rev.); 39. G-rim; 40. a(I’m)able;
41. h[ealth]-one; 42. O(bbligat*)O.
DOWN: 1. pun, homophone; 2. amn*-I-on; 3. post-p-aid; 4. [dec]ides; 5. *; 6. homophone;
7. O(U)T; 8. pronoun-c(E)able; 9. tea-sable; 10. *; 11. air-line; 14. mul(timil,rev.)lion; 20. chari*vari[able]; 21. rev.; 23. *; 24. two mngs.; 30. irst letters; 32. [I’m]aging; 33. homophone;
34. two mngs.; 35. t(re)at; 36. hidden; 38. Vega[n].
Introducing
THE BEST
the lack of it. While writing (which
we don’t see her doing at all in this
novel) she routinely downed two bottles of wine a day. She relished the
“debauch” of whiskey. She didn’t minimize her addiction: when she wrote
about her binges, it was always with
gluttonous frankness. Like Marya, she
needed “a glass of wine on an empty
stomach” in order to make life “signiicant, coherent and understandable”;
on the rare occasions when she managed to dry out, she looked forward to
“the kick I’ll get out of my irst drink”
once she’d relapsed, as she knew she
would. Rhys was ruthlessly honest
about her shortcomings. And she was
a punctilious stylist, who achieved an
equivalent honesty and clarity in her
prose. Phillips’s interpretation of this
pain-racked perfectionist is strangely
supericial, his response to her deiant
hedonism bizarrely old-fashioned. It’s
as if “the lady” has taken control of
the narrative, and the whole book suffers as a result.
FOOD O
WRITING
from
HARPER’S
MAGAZINE
Featuring essays by M.F.K.
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ne of the areas in which the
novel suffers most is that of
sex. Sex was vital to Rhys: it
was the arena of her liberation, and her
undoing. It was the means by which she
separated herself from her conservative
Edwardian family back on Dominica,
her passport to the London of the chorus line and Soho’s notorious Crabtree
Club, where she met the men who kept
her going inancially and emotionally
once Lancey had thrown her over. As
Angier has suggested, after her disabling involvement with Lancey, Rhys
craved a sexual connection and its attendant emotional risks “as she craved
drink, but like drink it was bad for her.”
The problem of sex, and what it means
for the Rhys heroine, is what each of
her novels tries to solve: the earlier
books by returning compulsively to the
raw matter of her own experience of
sexual degradation, Wide Sargasso Sea
by teasing out Charlotte Brontë’s intuition about the potential destructiveness to the female psyche of sexual surrender. For the eroticism that the Rhys
heroine fears is, as Angier perceives,
“not men’s but her own.” It is “that foreign, tropical thing in her which is uncontrolled and uncontrollable.”
Edward Rochester detects this uncontrollable aspect of Antoinette in
STORE.HARPERS.ORG
92
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
her appetite for sex: “Very soon she
was as eager for what’s called loving
as I was—more lost and drowned afterwards.” He equates her heady sexuality with the mystery of the island,
its “alien, disturbing, secret loveliness.” Rhys divined the same quality
in herself, in her sensual identiication with the “wild beautiful” land,
which was, as she writes in Smile
Please, at the same time a longing “to
lose myself in it.” Rhys’s mother seems
to have recognized this. “She must
have seen something alien in me,”
said Rhys in 1938 in a private record
of her childhood memories, “which
would devour me and make me unhappy, and she was trying to root it
out at all costs.”
Phillips approaches this potent material with a leaden formality. The
pubescent Gwen duly climbs trees
and boycotts her mother’s tea parties,
in contrast to her younger sister,
Brenda, “who besported herself as an
obedient angel.” She is close only to
her father—“her exhausted father,”
“her unsteady father,” “her bleary father,” “her glassy-eyed father.”
(Dr. Rees Williams copes with the
stresses of his medical practice by tippling.) “Was her lonely mother having
further doubts about her marriage to
the loquacious Welsh doctor?” muses
Gwen. “Was she chastising herself for
having chosen a colonial arrivant
from outside her family’s Creole
world?” Adolescent girls do not think
in this way. Nor do they have enough
foresight to predict, as Gwen does,
“that her mother’s anxieties about her
would only increase once she began
to secure the attentions of men.”
So it proved—but having set out
his stall, Phillips inexplicably passes
up the opportunity to let us in on the
most unnerving example of this dynamic. When Rhys was about fourteen (in different accounts she was
sometimes thirteen, sometimes
twelve), she became the victim of a
family acquaintance’s grotesque
grooming experiment. He appears as
Captain Cardew in the short story
“Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose,”
where he is old and very handsome,
like “some aged but ageless god.” In
the private record of her childhood
that Rhys made as a grown woman he
is called Mr. Howard. Tall and impos-
Back to School
ing, with a soldier’s bearing, a white
mustache, and a glass eye, he won her
over utterly. “I was captivated,” she
writes. Mr. Howard took her for a
walk in the botanical gardens, put his
“cool, masterful hand” inside her
blouse, and groped her breast. Rhys
says that she was “dreadfully attracted, dreadfully repelled.” In the weeks
that followed, he didn’t lay a inger on
her but seduced her verbally by spinning elaborate fantasies in which he
abducted her, raped her, and kept her
as his slave. Rhys admits that she
“only struggled feebly” not to listen.
“What he had seen in me was there.”
It was her irst experience of a humiliating sexual subjection.
What Phillips chooses to make, or
rather not make, of Mr. Howard is
symptomatic of his novel’s general
coyness. Gwen (aged ifteen in Phillips’s book) meets him at a party given by her parents. Instead of being
the vigorous military igure he was in
life, he is “spindly, grey-bearded,” a generic elderly gentleman who poses no
real threat. As Gwen’s father gives a
boring speech, Mr. Howard, who has
been speaking to Gwen in whispers,
“attempted to once again establish a
hushed intimacy with her.” Gwen
isn’t “easily duped” and manages a
quick escape. Earlier, it turns out,
Mr. Howard had run “his hand down
her arm,” saying, “My dear, you have
a haunting sensuality that very few
young ladies ever achieve. . . . You’re
like a flower opening up, but for
whom, may I ask?” And that’s it. The
whole double-edged episode is reduced to an encounter as banal and
etiolated as Mr. Howard himself.
T
he life is either crammed in
like this—perfunctorily, with
none of the ambiguous bite
that Rhys gives it in her iction—or it
is introduced with a gratuitous illip
for which there is no justiication in
the biography. A proposal that Rhys
received at drama school from a fellow
student, Harry Bewes, and seems never to have considered seriously is
beefed up into three chapters of emotional dithering. Lancey—a weak,
privileged son of the English uppermiddle classes who, lacking the nerve
to ditch Rhys himself, got his cousin to
do it by letter—becomes a swaggering
bully with a taste for put-downs: “Are
your family truly beastly to the blacks?”
“Do all of you stage girls have your
eyes set on titled men?” This is absurd,
but not as absurd as Gwen’s breathless
reaction:
Retirement Living where you
can walk to Oberlin College –
audit classes, with no homework,
no tests and no tuition.
Did he not feel any responsibility for
her buoyant heart? Had the attitude of
his mother successfully corroded whatever affection remained unspent? . . . It
appeared as though the remainder of
her life’s journey would now have to be
completed without the consolation of
his reassuring presence.
It is not entirely clear what she
finds “reassuring” about Lancelot
Grey Hugh Smith (Phillips gets his
name wrong, calling him “HughesSmith”), whose idea of an endearment is “you’re such a funny little
thing” and who goes in for “judicious
lovemaking,” after which she has to
“remain as stiff as a corpse.” Rhys’s actual response to Lancey was a rapturous, self-immolating capitulation. It’s
impossible not to feel that the important men in Rhys’s life, unsatisfactory
as they may have been, were more
nuanced than this.
Rhys herself was certainly more
nuanced. Take what was arguably
the crucial moment in her formation: the moment she became a writer. She was twenty-three, had resorted to having sex with men for money,
and was recovering from her abortion
in a bedsit in Bloomsbury as Christmas 1913 approached. Phillips’s Gwen
feels Lancey’s “loss as a wound.” She
is still missing him when “her mind
began to spin.” She wakes up on
Christmas Day with a doctor bending
over her: she has tried to commit suicide, though we aren’t told how.
We aren’t told, because it never happened: what really occurred was both
more bathetic and indicative of Rhys’s
deeper instincts. She writes in Smile
Please that on Christmas Day, Lancey
sent her a Christmas tree with “little
parcels wrapped in gold and silver all
over it.” The tree was the inal insult.
She got into a taxi with it, meaning to
give it away, but appears to have entered a fugue state: “The next thing I
remember clearly is being back in my
room. The tree was gone and there
was a full, unopened, bottle of gin on
the table.” She decided to drink the
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1 in 2
THE
INDEX BOOK
V O L U M E
3
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whole bottle and jump to her death
out the window. But a girlfriend came
around, they started to sip the gin, got
drunk, and by the end of the night
“everything seemed so funny I could
only giggle.” Instead of committing suicide, Rhys sat down and recorded every detail she could remember about
her relationship with Lancey, filling
three exercise books—material she
would later mine for Voyage in the
Dark. In Phillips’s telling, there is no
poisonous Christmas tree metamorphosed into a potentially lethal gin
bottle, no saving comic self-awareness,
and no redemptive outpouring in
which the drive toward death is subsumed into the drive to create.
Most disappointingly of all, there is
no Ford Madox Ford. He is simply left
out. Rhys arrives at Tilden Smith’s
London office, after her split with
Lenglet, as a fully fledged writer. The
last we’d heard of her, she was an
abandoned wife in Paris, but now she
has an appointment with this “courtly man” who “genuinely admired her
writing.” When asked about her life,
Gwen smiles “sweetly” and manages
to distil the narrative down to the
skimpiest of plot lines: colonial girl
comes to England to seek her fortune
and eventually escapes the misery of
the postwar years by leaving for the
Continent, where she quite unexpectedly takes up writing in a series of melancholy hotel rooms.
Tilden Smith doesn’t pick up the
lead: he has, by this stage, “effectively
given up talking about matters related
to the world of books.” And so, alas,
has Phillips.
It’s no good. It’s no good because
for Rhys, this dedicated and professional writer, this consummate stylist, the books were everything. It
was partly in order to have the freedom to write them that she gave up
custody of her daughter, a constant
source of anguish to Rhys. And
when Gwen and Leslie inally get to
Dominica, there is no sense of the
bitter insight into the parallels between a society founded on ownership and submission and her own
life that must have come to Rhys
during this trip. Phillips’s Gwen visits the ruins of the old family plantation, which “ungrateful Negroes”
have burned down. “Why don’t they
like us?” she wonders. In its merciless exposure of the long-term damage of every kind of bondage, Wide
Sargasso Sea shows that Rhys knew
very well why they didn’t. Phillips
tells us that “her island had both arranged and rearranged her, and she
had no words.” But words were the
one thing she always did have.
Wide Sargasso Sea is the hard-won
fruit of Rhys’s commitment to words.
It is a triumphant novel, the book in
which her fractured life experiences
are transformed by a mature selfawareness, her twin preoccupations
with sex and exile lifted from the autobiographical to a universal vision of
alienation that is as hauntingly modern as anything written by her contemporaries. Caryl Phillips is a vital
early-twenty-irst-century voice who
has already earned his place in the
literature of displacement and dispossession. If only he had given her a
better outing than this.
Q
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94
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
PUZZLE
2 ACROSS
By Richard E. Maltby Jr.
2
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Work at what helps get you to describe LA: boring (7)
She got M*A*S*H notes, quick but not loud (4)
11
14
30
(See instructions) (10)
Complain about things we bail out (6)
Mythological igure—part of a two-party system? (7)
Hit the ground and turned tail (4)
Señoritas flocking around Frenchman—they have
decreasing importance! (5,5)
Chalets: rent is in the bag (7)
NASA joins us developing places for sweaters (6)
A ish served medium (4)
College girl, around 2000: also-ran (9)
We don’t go, “Oy!” Funnily enough, I go, “My!” (5)
Speaking of flying, there’s the classical Spirit (5)
Cut back cheeky stuff! (4)
Receiver of TV gossip (4)
Irish fellas cry about you not quite heading west (5)
For Spanish savoir faire, there’s a swimmer (8)
Was naughty in church? Quite the opposite! But I
don’t get stressed (5)
Butler in iction, right about the murdered (5)
Wear thin ruffle (4)
Antelope, ailing, shot . . . (6)
. . . but set aside (4)
Dancing disco is a problem for the kidneys (8)
Piece of furniture too short for hot drinks (5)
Start on bra, then get wild, nakeder—turn out the
lights! (8)
Someone passing for a cat drinking, perhaps? (6)
Hear, see Sir Thomas’s famous third wife (7)
Slippery child, always taking Latin (5)
10
19
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across
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nter all clue answers normally. After that, nine
additional entries, to be determined by the solver but
all thematically related, are to be entered in appropriately 2 Across fashion—which will allow solvers to ill
the shaded squares and complete the puzzle. The nine
entries begin at the following numbered squares and
have the indicated word lengths: 4. (7); 5. (6); 14. (8);
22. (6); 32. (10); 33. (10); 45. (3-2-5); 46. (5); and 50. (5).
Each of these nine entries is discrete, i.e., none uses a
letter that is in another.
Clue answers include seven proper nouns, one foreign
word, and one abbreviation. 47A and 4D are uncommon; 23D is a variant. As always, mental repunctuation
of a clue is the key to its solution. The solution to last
month’s puzzle appears on page 91.
8
13
15
E
7
53
55
56
57
3.
4.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.
14.
18.
20.
23.
24.
26.
27.
28.
33.
37.
38.
39.
41.
42.
43.
45.
46.
48.
53.
Seat, mostly down (3)
I’m a religious master, but being Irish, I moved down (5)
Something you can bat back: the old you lied badly (6)
Participant in translating a Lagos-based African
language (5)
no ban on small chickens, written in caps (4)
A bit of familiar hippy material? (4)
School that sends up a quaver (4)
Old coin unraised in play (8)
Low voice heard around sound equipment—it’s all up
from here! (4,5)
Hookups after lab gets mixed up in obscene
messages (11)
Something with a tail, without a tail in advance (4)
Decapitated songbird’s foot part (4)
Doubting a nostalgic recollection (10)
Promising outcome of leprosy? (4)
In the center, upset, not too smart (3)
And so on: a inal conclusion (4)
Moving a bed onto a piece of furniture is problematic (9)
Energy consumed by unleashed soccer forces (7)
Following Police Department leaders—yes! and
yes!—time for checks (6)
Rainbow flag (4)
Queeg’s inal records of mental state (4)
California hush money (4)
Waiver allowing four to flip? What could be more
kinky! (6)
For men or otherwise, it’s big in poetry (5)
Awful mark, a pretty good mark—it’s all wonderful! (3)
Bad idea, becoming someone in the White House (4)
Renter leaves oficer in place (4)
Bruiser in a gym (3)
Contest Rules: Send completed diagram with name and address to “2 Across,” Harper’s Magazine, 666 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012. If you
already subscribe to Harper’s, please include a copy of your latest mailing label. Entries must be received by May 4. The sender of the irst correct
solution opened at random will receive a one-year subscription to Harper’s Magazine (limit one winner per household per year). The winner’s name
will be printed in the July issue. The winner of the March puzzle, “Theme and Variations,” is Hudson Rouleau, Bryan, Tex.
PUZZLE
95
FINDINGS
A
two-year meta-analysis by the Rand Corporation
found that the quality of gun-violence research in the
United States is very low. Germans who played Grand
Theft Auto V for two months exhibited normal levels of
empathy when watching a woman accidentally cut herself while slicing cucumbers. Dutch researchers found
that guns, but not knives, allow robbers to achieve
dominance through “aggrandizing posturing and forward movements.” Between 1972 and 2016, Americans
became more tolerant of free speech by people whose
values oppose theirs or who possess fringe views, with
extreme liberals being the most tolerant. Racial, religious, and ideological identity are stronger components
of Republican partisanship than of Democratic partisanship. Family support and sensitivity to neural reward
responses insulated Americans from the depressing effect of Trump’s election. Liberals have more emotionally expressive faces. Major facial recognition software
makes mistakes at least forty-three times as often with
dark-skinned women as with light-skinned men. Goodlooking people are likelier to believe in a just world.
Plastic surgeons warned that people misled by wide-angle
distortion in selies were seeking nose jobs.
P
hysicists attempted to predict the point at which tipping will be abandoned. Male macaques acquire a preference for Acura and Adidas logos if those are shown paired,
respectively, with the face of a dominant male or the
genitals of a female; they will not form a preference for
Pizza Hut paired with a submissive male. Adult male pedophiles, unlike non-pedophiles, exhibit higher levels of
nurturing activity in the brain for baby animals than for
adult animals. A yellow cardinal was spotted in the town
of Alabaster, a white cardinal was spotted in Knoxville,
and an invasive spotted lantern fly was observed in Wilmington. Most Anna’s hummingbirds have mites living in
their tail feathers. As many as seven yellow-billed oxpeckers will sleep upside down in a giraffe’s armpit. Brazilian
zoologists described eleven kinds of bats’ penises. The
Australian ire beetle uses its heat sensors to avoid burning
its feet. Skeletonizing leaf beetles hide by creating bite
marks that look like skeletonizing leaf beetles. Purple
sea urchins eat granite more slowly than mudstone or
sandstone. Lost memories were discovered in sea slugs.
Woodpeckers may be giving themselves brain damage
after all.
C
aribbean hurricanes appear to suppress the snapping
of snapping shrimp but encourage the choral singing of
ish. The right whales of the North Atlantic, in their most
recent breeding season, failed to produce a single calf. A
supercolony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins was discovered
on the Danger Islands. Scientists laser-inscribed a graphene Athenian owl on numerous foods and declared a new
age of edible electronics. A lack of genetic diversity threatens a chickpea collapse. A lost city of the Purépecha that
contained 40,000 buildings was discovered in central
Mexico. Astronomers argued that it would be less expensive for aliens to destroy our civilization by broadcasting
malicious code—which could include an artiicial intelligence who would seduce humankind with its knowledge
and promises—than by sending battleships. The researchers suggested that signals received by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence might therefore be quarantined
instead of being distributed, as they are currently, to volunteer computers, many of which have recently had their
spare processing capacity reassigned from SETI tasks to
mining cryptocurrency. Scientists at the Russian Federal
Nuclear Center were arrested after they reportedly connected the facility’s supercomputer to the internet in an
attempt to mine bitcoin. A physicist determined that some
black holes can free an observer from strong cosmic censorship by erasing her past, thereby allowing her an ininitude of possible futures. French gynecologists examining a ten-year-old girl found a wineglass from a dollhouse
hiding near her cervix.
Q
And Here Lies the Paradise of Foreign Voyagers, a painting by Melissa Loop. Courtesy the artist and grayDUCK Gallery, Austin, Texas
96
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2018
LET’S GET
SOCIAL FOR
JUSTICE
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Register today!
“The powerful story of the gutting
of American diplomacy”* from
“A gifted writer with a powerful intellect …
will be required reading
for generations to come.”
—MARTHA RADDATZ, ABC News chief global affairs
correspondent and author of The Long Road Home
“Part insider account and part sober analysis,
War on Peace traces the fall of American
diplomacy and pulls no punches …
A must-read.”
—IAN BREMMER, editor-at-large, Time magazine,
and president, Eurasia Group
“Farrow is a riveting storyteller with
a great eye for colorful characters.
This is one of the most
important books of our time.”
—*WALTER ISAACSON, author of Steve Jobs
and professor of history, Tulane University
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