In a Vigilant State
I'm being vigilant these days, per Mr. Ashcroft, watching the neighbors. It hasn't done much to advance national security, I must admit. Would instead that books could float in the air and be inhaled as easily as a spore, infecting us with their ideas, their zeal, their humanity, their--vigilance. For writers are first and foremost close watchers, and we rely on them for that, whether it's David Halberstam studying the political context of George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton and the generals who surrounded them and marveled so at the efficacy of stand-off bombing (hence Halberstam's title, War in a Time of Peace); or Paula Fox (Borrowed Finery) refracting her painful childhood memories (her parents' arrangements, as near as she could work out, were "permanently temporary") across a distance of seven decades.
This books issue opens with John Leonard's examination of Isaac Babel's Complete Works. "No other writer of the Soviet era ever aroused as much American emotion as Babel," writes Leonard, who calls the book a "grand occasion of literature." Babel himself lamented that "I've got no imagination. All I've got is the longing for it." Of course, he wrote from a society under amorphous (but very real) threat of death, which included an encompassing assault on writers and intellectuals--a condition requiring true vigilance and courage on their part, simply to relate the truth. "We are the vanguard, but of what?" Babel asked.
That same question, in a different context, has been asked by those in the vanguard of postcolonial writing. The new novels of Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul (recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature) are taken up by Amitava Kumar, who has some surprising things to say, given the well-known politics (and impolitics) of each writer. "Despite his railings against 'half-formed societies,' you discover in Naipaul repeated tributes to small beginnings and small triumphs," Kumar writes, an acknowledgment of "the daily, tragicomic routine of unacknowledged lives."
One very acknowledged life is that of the writer Naomi Wolf, taken up by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith Michaels, in a dispute over feminist--or antifeminist--approaches to motherhood. "Now who needs Pat Robertson, Dr. Laura or Operation Rescue when you can have Naomi Wolf? She blames female irresponsibility for unwanted pregnancies and suggests that most abortions are as frivolous as a haircut," they write. Social friction is also examined in Peter Schrag's look at drug-war "heresies" and Richard D. Kahlenberg's dissection of the school voucher debate. "Perhaps we should be thankful that the right has...shifted its strategy of putting a black face on crime and welfare, and instead is depicting African-Americans as striving for educational opportunity," he writes. Rounding out the issue, we have a report on Robert Bly's Sufi-inspired poetry, on business motivational books and on Jennifer Egan's new novel Look at Me, in which the characters lead double lives. So be vigilant.