In a Vigilant State | The Nation


In a Vigilant State

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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.

About the Author

Art Winslow
Art Winslow is a former literary editor of The Nation.

Also by the Author

As you are no doubt aware, First Lady Laura Bush is a former teacher and
has a master's degree in library science. This is all to the good.

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," some sage once wrote. Just so. As this issue went to press, the Museum of International Folk Art, a state-run institution under the aegis of the Museum of New Mexico, finally decided--in a debate that had been raging since February--to allow a computerized image of Our Lady of Guadalupe to remain on display. The artwork's offense? Our Lady was clad less than demurely, in a bikini of roses. The photographer Renee Cox (Yo Mama) sparked a similar controversy in New York with a portrait of the artist as a youngish woman--standing in for Jesus, at the Last Supper--unimpeded by clothing. The mayor of this fair city, which likes to consider itself the nation's art capital, hastily appointed a commission to assess the decency of art appearing in publicly funded venues. The fey breezes of our "culture wars" continue to blow, in other words, and you don't need a wind sock, either, to suss out their direction.

All of the essays assembled here relate in some way to this aeolian theme, whether it's the roots of political conservatism in the gusty person of Barry Goldwater or the history of feminism; the concussive moment in Birmingham nearly two score years ago or the sexual revolution in fact and fiction; the home-grown philosophy of pragmatism or the emblematic figure who famously wrote that our answers, friend, are "Blowin' in the Wind." As Casey Nelson Blake argues in the lead essay in this collection, though, the notion of the artist as a prophetic seer of sorts needs some radical updating as well--it often seems a cause without rebels, in fact.

The reductio ad absurdum of the situation, despite the fact that the sails of our public life may at times appear to be swelled out in vigorous debate, is that what we are left arguing over is the fittingness of a bikini in a work of the imagination. Annette Funicello, where are you?

Which brings us to another work of the imagination, this one beached on the gritty shores of copyright law and its interpretation: Alice Randall's novel The Wind Done Gone. You might have been reading a discussion of it in this issue, or from the book itself, if a federal district court in Atlanta hadn't found it "piracy" a few weeks back, for borrowing characters and scenes from Gone With the Wind. Randall's novel is told from a slave perspective, and bears mention here because the commercial question--would the trusts that own Margaret Mitchell's copyright be damaged--should be considered against larger questions of the nature of artistic invention, the process of cultural embroidering and the understanding of what constitutes literature in the first place. It was E.M. Forster, I believe, who spoke of creating "word masses" that we call characters; if we have a different "word mass" with the same name and perhaps even many of the same attributes, is the inflection of feeling in the reader--the received idea of "character"--the same? If anything can leave us culturally becalmed, stuck in the fetid doldrums with bad art, literary or visual or any other kind, it is the cutting off of spaces in which to reimagine the world. We hope you'll find that the following essays create some instead, to help you to do just that.

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.

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