In early June I sat on a panel, in front of a large and mainly Arab audience, with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Our hosts, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, had asked for a discussion of contrasting images of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The general tempo of the meeting was encouragingly nontribal; there were many criticisms of Arab regimes and societies, and one of our co-panelists, Raghida Dergham, had recently been indicted in her absence by a Lebanese military prosecutor for the offense of sharing a panel discussion with an Israeli. However, it's safe to say that most of those attending were aching for a chance to question Friedman in person. He was accused directly at one point of writing in a lofty and condescending manner about the Palestinian people. To this he replied hotly and eloquently, saying that he had always believed that "the Jewish people will never be at home in Palestine until the Palestinian people are at home there."
That was well said, and I hadn't at the time read his then-most-recent column, so I didn't think to reply. But in that article he wrote that Chairman Arafat, by his endless double-dealing, had emptied the well of international sympathy for his cause. This is a very Times-ish rhetoric, of course. You have to think about it for a second. It suggests that rights, for Palestinians, are not something innate or inalienable. They are, instead, a reward for good behavior, or for getting a good press. It's hard to get more patronizing than that. During the first intifada, in the late 1980s, the Palestinians denied themselves the recourse to arms, mounted a civil resistance, produced voices like Hanan Ashrawi and greatly stirred world opinion. For this they were offered some noncontiguous enclaves within an Israeli-controlled and Israeli-settled condominium. Better than nothing, you might say. But it's the very deal the Israeli settlers reject in their own case, and they do not even live in Israel "proper." (They just have the support of the armed forces of Israel "proper.") So now things are not so nice and many Palestinians have turned violent and even--whatever next?--religious and fanatical. Naughty, naughty. No self-determination for you. And this from those who achieved statehood not by making nice but as a consequence of some very ruthless behavior indeed.
I am writing these lines in memoriam for my dear friend and comrade Dr. Israel Shahak, who died on July 2. His home on Bartenura Street in Jerusalem was a library of information about the human rights of the oppressed. The families of prisoners, the staff of closed and censored publications, the victims of eviction and confiscation--none were ever turned away. I have met influential "civil society" Palestinians alive today who were protected as students when Israel was a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University; from him they learned never to generalize about Jews. And they respected him not just for his consistent stand against discrimination but also because--he never condescended to them. He detested nationalism and religion and made no secret of his contempt for the grasping Arafat entourage. But, as he once put it to me, "I will now only meet with Palestinian spokesmen when we are out of the country. I have some severe criticisms to present to them. But I cannot do this while they are living under occupation and I can 'visit' them as a privileged citizen." This apparently small point of ethical etiquette contains almost the whole dimension of what is missing from our present discourse: the element of elementary dignity and genuine mutual recognition.
Shahak's childhood was spent in Nazified Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; at the end of the war he was the only male left in his family. He reached Palestine before statehood, in 1945. In 1956 he heard David Ben-Gurion make a demagogic speech about the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt, referring to this dirty war as a campaign for "the kingdom of David and Solomon." That instilled in him the germinal feelings of opposition. By the end of his life, he had produced a scholarly body of work that showed the indissoluble connection between messianic delusions and racial and political ones. He had also, during his chairmanship of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, set a personal example that would be very difficult to emulate.
He had no heroes and no dogmas and no party allegiances. If he admitted to any intellectual model, it would have been Spinoza. For Shahak, the liberation of the Jewish people was an aspect of the Enlightenment, and involved their own self-emancipation from ghetto life and from clerical control, no less than from ancient "Gentile" prejudice. It therefore naturally ensued that Jews should never traffic in superstitions or racial myths; they stood to lose the most from the toleration of such rubbish. And it went almost without saying that there could be no defensible Jewish excuse for denying the human rights of others. He was a brilliant and devoted student of the archeology of Jerusalem and Palestine: I would give anything for a videotape of the conducted tours of the city that he gave me, and of the confrontation in which he vanquished one of the propagandist guides on the heights of Masada. For him, the built and the written record made it plain that Palestine had never been the exclusive possession of any one people, let alone any one "faith."
Only the other day, I read some sanguinary proclamation from the rabbinical commander of the Shas party, Ovadia Yosef, himself much sought after by both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. It was a vulgar demand for the holy extermination of non-Jews; the vilest effusions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad would have been hard-pressed to match it. The man wants a dictatorial theocracy for Jews and helotry or expulsion for the Palestinians, and he sees (as Shahak did in reverse) the connection. This is not a detail; Yosef's government receives an enormous US subsidy, and his intended victims live (and die, every day) under a Pax Americana. Men like Shahak, who force us to face these reponsibilities, are naturally rare. He was never interviewed by the New York Times, and its obituary pages have let pass the death of a great and serious man.
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR REBATE?
Starting the week of July 23, many Americans will begin receiving tax "rebates" as part of George W. Bush's massive tax-cut scheme aimed at helping the rich get richer. Some readers, dismayed at how the rebates are being used to win support for Bush's skewed priorities, have asked us to suggest ways to protest. As we see it, the rebates, unlike the broader tax cut plan, are progressive; everyone who pays taxes gets virtually the same amount. Also, they help people hurting from the economic downturn. But for those who feel they can afford to donate their rebate, the Nation Directory (www.thenation.com) lists worthy groups working for voting rights, reproductive rights and other forms of social justice. Or why not consider a donation to The Nation? We've received letters and e-mails suggesting just that (see this week's "Letters" page). If you do forward your rebate to a worthy cause, write George W. Bush as follows: "Your tax rebate has enabled me to make a donation to _______________, which is fighting your repellent policies."
TALKING UNION BLUES
In a little-noticed but far-reaching decision on May 29, the Supreme Court dealt a body blow to nascent efforts to organize professional workers. NLRB v. Kentucky River Community Care, Inc. concerned a group of registered nurses who had tried to exercise their right, under the National Labor Relations Act, to form a union. The NLRB had affirmed that right, declaring that the nurses were not supervisors because they could not use "independent judgment" in performing their duties, which included directing less-skilled employees. The Court disagreed. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia disdained the "independent judgment" test, placing instead a greater burden on unions to prove that potential members are not supervisors. As a result, the American Medical Association has called off its organizing efforts among private-sector physicians, and similar efforts among nurses and other professionals will likely be stalled as well. So, thanks to this opinion, Scalia's son Eugene, who was nominated to be Bush's Solicitor of Labor despite (or because of) his longstanding commitment to suppressing the rights of working people, will enjoy a lighter work load.
LAST MEALS ON DEATH ROW
Charles Tanzer writes: For those who felt that the media's publication of Timothy McVeigh's last meal--two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream--was a bit morbid, it only gets worse. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice apparently has so little compunction about leading the nation in executions that it posts the final meal requests of condemned men on its website. A brief perusal of them gives a telling indication of the likely economic class of those on death row: There are many, many requests for double cheeseburgers, french fries and ice cream, but noticeably absent are such upper-class treats as lobster or filet mignon. Equally poignant are those who declined a last meal, one man instead requesting "God's saving grace, love, truth, peace, and freedom," another appealing for "Justice, Temperance, with Mercy." There is no caviar on death row (see www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/deathrow.htm).
The potential domestic consequences of the Administration's national energy policy--opening up protected areas to drilling, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, building more nuclear reactors--have galvanized environmentalists, but its international ramifications, which have received scant comment in the press, give equal cause for alarm. Closer scrutiny of the National Energy Policy Report, released in May, reveals that the White House expects to obtain most of the additional oil and natural gas the United States will need in the years ahead from foreign rather than domestic sources. As the report makes clear, this will entail greater political and military intervention abroad.
According to the report, US consumption of oil is expected to rise from 19.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2000 to 25.8 million in 2020, an increase of 32 percent. At the same time, domestic oil production is expected to remain more or less flat, at about 9 million bpd--meaning that total imports will have to rise by 61 percent, from 10 to 16.5 million bpd.
In the report's final chapter, the Administration spells out how America will achieve these increased oil imports. It articulates an aggressive, two-pronged strategy for gaining access to key overseas supplies of petroleum: first, pressuring foreign governments to open up their energy sectors to significant investment by US energy firms, and second, insuring political stability in producing countries so that the US companies can safely operate in them.
In particular the report calls on the government "to continue supporting American energy firms competing in markets abroad," "to level the playing field for U.S. companies overseas" and "to reduce barriers to trade and investment." To overcome these barriers in Latin America, the secretaries of State and Commerce are directed to take steps "to improve the energy investment climate for the growing level of energy investment flows between the United States and each of these countries," especially in Brazil and Venezuela, which historically have resisted foreign involvement in their petroleum industries.
Other such directives are aimed at increasing the involvement of US energy firms in the petroleum industries of Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and the Persian Gulf countries. The State and Commerce departments are expected to use economic and political pressure to remove impediments to investment by foreign firms, which could provoke strong opposition in these countries.
But it is not only State and Commerce that will carry out this policy. The report makes clear that the procurement of sufficient energy for future US requirements is a matter of "national security," and it highlights a number of areas where this effort is likely to require support from the US military. One of these is Colombia, now in the throes of a brutal civil war. Because Colombia's oil fields and pipelines are located in areas often attacked by guerrillas, any increase in production there would require intensified counterguerrilla operations by the Colombian military and its US allies, though this is not mentioned in the energy report.
Similarly, the report calls for increased energy production in the Caspian Sea basin, where the Administration seeks to accelerate the construction of an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey. Because these countries are suffering from internal unrest and violence, any such effort will mean stepped-up arms deliveries and the dispatch of US military advisers.
Even more worrisome are the implications of increased US dependence on the oil supplies of the Persian Gulf. As the report notes, the Gulf is the only area with sufficient petroleum reserves to satisfy expanding American demand over the long term. Given the instabilities in the region, a permanent US military presence there will be necessary, along with intervention in local conflicts.
The basic thrust of the Bush energy policy is clear: To acquire an ever-enlarging supply of imported oil, Washington will have to step up its meddling in the internal affairs of numerous countries around the world, many of which are deeply divided along political, ethnic and religious lines. The accompanying risk of involvement in foreign wars will grow proportionally.
Opposition has already been voiced to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to the construction of new nuclear power plants. Now it must be joined by vociferous protest against White House plans to funnel more and more of the world's oil to the United States, which will only lead to increased anti-Americanism overseas and endless energy wars.
When they came for Newton Arvin, as he had always known they someday would--the sex cops, the truth squad, the Cossacks, fathers and philistines--he spilled his beings. In the cross-shaped top-floor apartment of his Northampton tower, "unbreachable save for two narrow sets of steeply twisting stairs," the 60-year-old professor of English at Smith College was listening to Mozart, reading Proust and drinking Scotch. He didn't own a TV set. (Nor had he ever learned to drive.) But there were drawers full of linen shirts and cashmere sweaters, shelves stocked with leather-bound Loeb Library Greek and Latin classics, a Leonard Baskin woodcut (of Tormented Man) and the journal to which he had recently confided: "Emerson is right about old age: one of its blessings is the knowledge that there cannot be so very much more of all this."
There were also, alas, muscle magazines like Adonis and Physique Pictorial, photographs of Athenian boys at homoerotic play and, on his bedroom bureau, a bodybuilder snapshot of a nude Truman Capote. Yes, Truman Capote, the one great love of Newton Arvin's life and the only hero in this dreary tale, which is otherwise a parable of the Closet and the Snitch.
Although his criticism was admired by both H.L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson, Arvin had all but vanished from our sonar till three years ago, when The New Yorker published Barry Werth's "encapsulation" of this book. He might turn up occasionally in memoirs of the 1930s and 1940s, back when he was still a radical, before giving it up for Harry Truman, as he gave up writing for The Nation in favor of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, but those suggestive biographies in which he looked at the secret lives of Hawthorne, Whitman and Melville through binoculars of Marx and Freud were out of print, waiting for queer theory to catch up. He was a regular, and even a trustee, at Yaddo, the Saratoga Springs Bomarzo of writers' colonies, before they dumped him at crunch time, just like Smith. And he is also mentioned in the journals of his former student Sylvia Plath, who, maybe because he had so disliked Ted Hughes, describes him as "fingering his keyring compulsively in class, bright hard eyes, red-rimmed, turned cruel, lecherous, hypnotic, and holding me caught like the gnome Loerke held." But until Werth got interested, the rest was fuzzy. Didn't he die suddenly at age 63, coincident with the publication of his book on Longfellow, during a New York newspaper strike, after some hushed-up smut-ring scandal?
Whereas we tend to recall the worst of Truman Capote: the performing seal and celebrity pudge of the talk shows, gossip columns and police blotters, devolved back into a caterpillar from the monarch butterfly on the jacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms; the neogothic parajournalist who propagandized for capital punishment before and after his masked ball at the Plaza Hotel; the corrupted choirboy who traded in his bamboo flute and his marzipan sweet tooth for a cold-blooded, bestselling Grant Wood grotesque (and still his boozy mother couldn't stand her sissy son); the society poodle who stopped licking and started biting the hands of those who used to pet him, only to end up with a bottle for a mother, never delivering that so-much-blabbed-about great novel, guzzling vodka in a dirty bathrobe and hallucinating assassins from whom he could only be saved by Liz Smith. Of this Truman Capote, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote that he "never showed an interest in political or moral debate and perhaps this was prudent since ideas, to some degree, may define one's social life and could just be excess baggage he didn't need to bring aboard; and, worse, boring, like the ruins and works of art he declined to get off the yacht to see."
Yet only one of these two men was brave, loyal, free or even liked himself. After Newton Arvin named every name he could think of to the Massachusetts State Police in September 1960, he would explain himself to one of those he fingered: "I couldn't go through this alone." We are reminded not only of Whittaker Chambers, Elia Kazan, Linda Tripp and David Brock, but of what Marianne Moore once said about Jean Cocteau:
One has...the sense of something submerged and estranged, of a somnambulist with feet tied, of a musical instrument in a museum, that should be sounding; of valor in a fairy tale changed by the hostile environment into a frog or carp that cannot leave its pool or well. In myth there is a principle of penalty. Snow White must not open the door of the dwarf's house when the peddler knocks. Pandora must not open the box. Perseus must not look at the Gorgon except in his shield.
Newton Arvin's stereotypical story is almost as depressing to read about as it must have been to live through. From his unhappy, bookish childhood in Valparaiso, Indiana, he recalls an ominous incident with a secondhand bike when he was 12. Noticing that the seat was too low for him, his father raised it. After a long July afternoon of riding, the boy developed a painful limp. During the next few days of "nervous anxiety, irritability, and dejection," he suffered what he would come to believe was his first nervous collapse. His subsequent propensity for "crackups and breakdowns," his physical weaknesses and cowardice, his hypochondria and hysterical self-absorption, even the symbolism of the sexually injured, father-hating hero in the Ahab section of his Melville book, could all be traced back to this Philoctetes trauma, as if a bicycle seat were a pineal gland. Still, "I had succeeded in getting attention of a concerned and kindly sort from my father, and that, no doubt, was enough."
He was, he thought, "uniquely misbegotten": "I was certainly a girlish small boy, not a virile one, even in promise. I was timid, shrinking, weak, and unventuresome. I had no skill in boyish games and sports, and no interest in them, and I was quickly penalized as a result." But at Harvard, although they drummed him out of the Student Army Training Corps for failing a physical, Arvin by age 19 had already read everybody from Freud to Lenin, from Emily Dickinson to William James, plus, decisively, Van Wyck Brooks, whose Letters and Leadership persuaded him that "literary criticism was social criticism, a nobler calling" than the business culture he despised. He had also discovered a crush on his roommate.
Van Wyck Brooks was more obliging than the roommate. So impressed was the literary editor of The Freeman by Arvin's Phi Beta Kappa book reviews that he offered Arvin a job. When that fell through, Arvin taught briefly at the Detroit Country Day School, where "the strain of working with boys just a few years younger than he while concealing his ambiguous sexual longings unnerved him." He didn't finish the year. Fortunately, an all-girl student body at Smith College needed an instructor in English composition, and he fell spellbound into his lifelong locus, like a frog in a pool or a carp in a well. While he would leave Northampton--to Europe on one fraught occasion, to Yaddo whenever they said yes and to mental hospitals almost as often as Yaddo, as if they were weight-watcher spas with electroshock--Northampton was the only home that Arvin knew for the next thirty-seven years. He was afraid of Harvard, afraid of New York and afraid of himself. It is hard to imagine his ever voting for William Z. Foster in 1932.
But in the Smith library, Arvin found the clue to Hawthorne, a "queer changeling" like himself: "It was an ill thing to have a poetic imagination." Worse, "to be a writer of storybooks was little better, little less degenerate, than to be a fiddler." The indifference of the world was a punishment for "the very act of withdrawing into himself." The essential sin, Hawthorne seemed to say, "lies in whatever shuts up the spirit in a dungeon where he is alone, beyond the reach of common sympathies and the general sunlight. All that isolates damns: all that associates, saves." The "A" embroidered on Hester's breast obsessed Arvin as much as Hawthorne: "For how deep a wrong might it not be the expiation, and how terrible loneliness the cause!" Werth sums up both of them: "The root sickness of America...wasn't exploitation or deviancy. It was repression and self-hatred--shame."
And at Smith, in 1931, he met the woman who would be his wife. Poor Mary Garrison, a college swimmer with "a full face, bobbed hair, long limbs, and sumptuous breasts." If it worked for Hawthorne... Before their marriage, he asked her to read Walt Whitman's Calamus poems, hoping she'd guess his secret. Mary didn't. She was no more use to him than electroshock, morphine or tranquilizers. "Real intimacy with anyone," says Werth, "was more than Arvin could achieve." If he emerged from his "guilt-filled isolation," it was to consort with male friends, whether heterosexuals like Granville Hicks and Daniel Aaron or homosexuals like Oskar Seidlin, Howard Doughty and, later on, untenured faculty like Ned Spofford and Joel Dorius, whose names he blurted to the cops in 1960. Not even his oldest boyhood pal, David Lilienthal, busting trusts all the way up to the Atomic Energy Commission, ever guessed that Newton was a Calamus until he read it in the papers. There was room in this closet for only one hanger.
Yaddo was another story. In that magic castle, not only did he write the Whitman book that faced up to the poet's "manly attachment" and self-celebration, if not his own, but he also met Katherine Anne Porter, Louis Kronenberger, Eudora Welty, Marguerite Young, John Malcolm Brinnin, Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, age 21 in 1946, after which many meals, movies, moonlit walks and, Werth tells us, a two-year love affair that was "the happiest, most productive period of Arvin's life," including most of the hard work on Melville. About this furtive scholar, Capote said: "He was like a lozenge that you could keep turning to the light, one way or another, and the most beautiful colors would come out." And later added: "Newton was my Harvard." To "Little T," Newton wrote:
Only I am not a bad boy, and neither are you; we are very good indeed and we shall be better and better as time wears on--for we are at the source of good, and we are drinking the water of truth, and what we are making between us is purely beautiful. Is it possible to be better than that?
More amusing, so much so that it breaks the heart, is a note from Newton in Northampton to Truman in New York: "LOST probably in Manhattan, one peppermint stick, beautifully pink and white, wonderfully straight, deliciously sweet. About a hand's length. Of great intrinsic and also sentimental value to the owner."
But they couldn't live together: Not in New York, where Arvin was as terrified as he was fascinated by drag queens in Harlem. Not even in Nantucket, which was all right in the mornings when Arvin worked on Meville and Capote wrote Other Voices, and also in the afternoons, when Arvin read Pascal and Capote sunbathed. But over dinner, F.O. Matthiessen and the Trillings were not impressed by Truman. (Said Edmund Wilson: "A not unpleasant little monster, like a fetus with a big head." Said Capote: "I must have looked like a male Lolita to those people.") And surely not in Northampton, where Arvin "lived under more or less strict protective cover as a faculty bachelor." It was, Werth tells us, "unthinkable that a staid New England townsman, even a reluctant one like Arvin, would cohabit with someone as flagrantly undisguised as Capote," who showed up on alternate weekends, "raced through town on his visits trailing a signature long scarf" and even sat in the back of Arvin's classes on Proust, James and Shakespeare.
Moreover, Arvin didn't want to live with anybody. Not for the first time or the last, he undertook to sabotage himself. Putting off Capote, who couldn't write at home with his alcoholic mother and wanted to spend time up north, Arvin cautioned him: "It is as if something physical like blood were ebbing out of me--not always, but much of the time--when I am not alone; and the point comes when my identity begins to slip away from me, and I cease to be a whole person even for someone I love." And no sooner had Capote sailed for Europe in May 1948 than Arvin entered into an affair with one of the young novelist's best friends in New York. Capote, as it happens, didn't find out about it from the friend himself, although he would have. He found out about it by reading Arvin's journal.
Which would have been the end of it, except that twelve years later when Arvin was sick, broke and besieged, abandoned by Smith and Yaddo, arrested and facing a trial for trafficking in pornography in a state in which sodomy was still against the law, it was Capote who phoned and wrote from New York and Europe, Capote who made repeated offers of money to help out, Capote who stuck to a friend who hadn't even liked his books, Capote who left funds in his will to endow an award for Lifetime Achievement in Literary Criticism in Arvin's name, Capote who may have been out, flagrant and undisguised, but understood his loyalties enough to stand tall and fast. One of many slogans in Alcoholics Anonymous--we call them bumper stickers--is that you're only as sick as your secrets. Like many AA bumper stickers, this one is smarter than it looks.
I see that I want to fast-forward through the rest, speed-read the writing on the wall, past behaviors simultaneously more reckless and clandestine--the blue movies, the readings from Propertius and the seducing of junior faculty; the trips by bus to Springfield to cruise the Arch and to New York for the Everard Baths; the Etruscan dancers and the public restrooms--unto hospitals (McLean's was his favorite) and suicide attempts (two, both featuring sixteen Nembutals). Of course, Arvin suffered from depression. Of course, he medicated that depression with alcohol, which is a depressant. Of course, if you are serious about suicide, try jumping like F.O. Matthiessen from eleven stories up. And, of course, he died of pancreatic cancer complicated by diabetes, both of which are associated with alcohol abuse. But, at a certain point of muddled vehemence, all these ailments conspire with one another, transcending any one origin myth. Even after Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe raved about his Melville book, he still left the light on all night long. Equally, of course, as Werth observes, "his whole life had been against the law." Death by misadventure in the closet.
How can he be read with respect, or perhaps at all, in a time when we all seem agreed that anguish, inquietude, the experience of guilt, and the knowledge of the Abyss are the essential substance of which admissible literature is made?
(Newton Arvin on RalphWaldo Emerson)
Oh, come off it, Newton.
Still, when the cops came to ransack his tower and then asked him who his friends were, who else had looked at the dirty pictures so ferociously objected to by the Postmaster General of the United States, whatever possessed him to rattle off their names and ruin their careers? Werth doesn't have a theory, any more than he has time for more than a cursory look at the scholarly books, any more than he has bothered to talk to any of the women who worshiped Arvin at Smith in the 1950s and who speak of him, even today, as "a tragic figure," any more than he has done any comparison shopping among brave and craven behaviors by literary intellectuals at moments of stress or witch hunt, even before they started mortgaging their skepticism, their intellectual property rights and their firstborn children for a think-tank sinecure, a corporate canary cage, an Op-Ed parking space, a cable-television camera and an invitation to a way-cool party. He is just relieved to be able to tell us that 1960 was the last time such a thing could happen here.
Are we so sure? I'm as pleased as anyone else that Northampton elected a lesbian mayor in 1999 and that the Empire State Building turns lavender on Friday nights before Gay Pride parades. But the blood-dimmed tide has reversed itself before, even in the ancient world, where you'd think Alexander the Great taught us something about gays in the military. And in the Renaissance, where Michelangelo proved to be a credit to his race. And in prewar Vienna, postwar Weimar and merry old England, which chose to crush its very own Enigmatic thinking machine, Alan Turing. From Harvey Milk to Matthew Shepard, the signals are scary. And the same sexual hysterics are also busy going after stem cells and French contraceptives. Meanwhile, people lose their jobs for logging on to the wrong website.
I sometimes wonder if the Closet doesn't create the Snitch; if, according to another principle of penalty, outlaw desires encoded like A.E. Housman's in Latin poetry, or Alan Turing's in cryptanalysis, or Newton Arvin's in symbolic literature, or even in the superstructure of Marxism and the manifest content of psychoanalysis and the deconstructive text, don't elaborate a psychology of secrets--a kind of underground, spycraft and espionage of false-bottomed narratives, counterfeit identities, microdots, camouflage and disinformation; the closet as deep cover and the snitch as counterintelligence. Are we all hiding? Will we all betray ourselves...and others? If any of this is true, then "outing" may contain an element of self-hatred. On the other hand, without snitches, there couldn't be a War on Drugs, nor would we need the Witness Protection Program. On the third hand, Truman Capote was transparency itself.
Los Angeles organizers may have clinched the city's title as a laboratory for cutting-edge economic justice policy with a deal concluded in late May between grassroots groups and downtown developers, including billionaire Philip Anschutz and media titan Rupert Murdoch. The agreement, which concerns a planned expansion of the mammoth Staples Center, stipulates that 70 percent of the 5,400 permanent jobs created will pay a living wage of $7.72 an hour with benefits, $8.97 without, or be covered by a collective bargaining agreement.
The Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice, an alliance of twenty-nine community organizations and several union locals, was the driving force behind the unusual deal. Ordinarily, living-wage campaigns focus on public expenditures, arguing that a city subsidy or contract should yield jobs that pay enough to sustain a family. But the only potential subsidy for the Staples expansion has been for a hotel planned for the site--and the agreement covers far more than that.
In addition to the broad living wage commitment, the developers pledged $1 million for the creation or upgrading of parks within a mile of the project, encompassing some of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles and portions of the most densely populated area west of the Mississippi. The Figueroa coalition will be written into city documents as partners in the project.
After coming together in 1998 in support of food service workers fighting subcontracting at the tony University of Southern California, the coalition began meeting regularly about local development issues, says Sandra McNeill, an organizer for the coalition and for Strategic Action for a Just Economy (SAJE), its convening organization. There were plenty of problems to address--such as the expansion of USC into adjacent neighborhoods and the threat to existing housing posed by plans for a light-rail line.
Just before the National Democratic Convention at Staples Center in August 2000, the community became alarmed by reports that there would be a large police presence during the planned protests. That drew hundreds more into the coalition, which soon turned to longer-term issues related to the Staples expansion. Meanwhile, five unions--Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Local 11; Service Employees International Union 1877, which had organized the landmark Justice for Janitors campaign; the Teamsters; the Operating Engineers; and IATSE, the stage workers' union--had agreed to negotiate collectively with the developers instead of allowing themselves to be split apart by separate deals. The unions and community organizations then banded together, swiftly forging a list of demands around housing, environmental issues, a living wage and union jobs. Says Madeline Janis-Aparicio of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), "Once [the developers] pulled their jaws up from the floor, they started negotiating."
"When things were tough in our negotiations, the union would bring up the issues in theirs; when things were tough for labor, we'd bring it up in our negotiations," says McNeill. "And that was really powerful."
It helped that the coalition had good timing. LA had just elected a new mayor and new council members to six of its fifteen seats, and the developers wanted the deal concluded and approved before July 1, when new top city officials were to take over. Too much community opposition or potential lawsuits could have been a fatal stumbling block.
Negotiations threatened to jump the track numerous times, not only because of differences between the coalition and the developers but intra-alliance tensions as well. Thankfully, the organizations ironed it out. As Janis-Aparicio says, "The choice was to be divided and conquered or have a united front and win."
Is human cloning a feminist issue? Two
cloning bans are currently winding their way through Congress: In the
Senate, the Human Cloning Prohibition Act seeks to ban all cloning of
human cells, while a House version leaves a window open for cloning
stem cells but bans attempts to create a cloned human being. Since
both bills are the brainchildren of antichoice Republican yahoos, who
have done nothing for women's health or rights in their entire lives,
I was surprised to get an e-mail inviting me to sign a petition
supporting the total ban, organized by feminist heroine Judy
Norsigian of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective (the producers
of Our Bodies, Ourselves) and signed by Ruth Hubbard, Barbara
Seaman, Naomi Klein and many others (you can find it at
www.ourbodiesourselves.org/clone3.htm). Are feminists so worried about "creating a
duplicate human" that they would ban potentially useful medical
research? Isn't that the mirror image of antichoice attempts to block
research using stem cells from embryos created during in vitro
My antennae go up when people start talking about
threats to "human individuality and dignity"--that's a harrumph, not
an argument. The petition raises one real ethical issue, however,
that hasn't gotten much attention but by itself justifies a ban on
trying to clone a person: The necessary experimentation--implanting
clonal embryos in surrogate mothers until one survives till
birth--would involve serious medical risks for the women and lots of
severely defective babies. Dolly, the cloned Scottish sheep, was the
outcome of a process that included hundreds of monstrous discards,
and Dolly herself has encountered developmental problems. That's good
reason to go slow on human research--especially when you consider
that the people pushing it most aggressively are the Raelians, the
UFO-worshiping cult of technogeeks who have enlisted the services of
Panayiotis Zanos, a self-described "cowboy" of assisted reproduction
who has been fired from two academic jobs for financial and other
Experimental ethics aside, though, I have a hard
time taking cloning seriously as a threat to women or anyone
else--the scenarios are so nutty. Jean Bethke Elshtain, who took a
break from bashing gay marriage to testify last month before Congress
against cloning, wrote a piece in The New Republic in 1997 in
which she seemed to think cloning an adult cell would produce another
adult--a carbon of yourself that could be kept for spare parts, or
maybe a small army of Mozart xeroxes, all wearing knee breeches and
playing the Marriage of Figaro. Actually, Mozart's clone would
be less like him than identical twins are like each other: He would
have different mitochondrial DNA and a different prenatal
environment, not to mention a childhood in twenty-first-century
America with the Smith family rather than in eighteenth-century
Austria under the thumb of the redoubtable Leopold Mozart. The clone
might be musical, or he might be a billiard-playing lounge lizard,
but he couldn't compose Figaro. Someone already did
People thinking about cloning tend to imagine Brave New
World dystopias in which genetic engineering reinforces
inequality. But why, for example, would a corporation go to the
trouble of cloning cheap labor? We have Mexico and Central America
right next door! As for cloning geniuses to create superbabies, good
luck. The last thing most Americans want are kids smarter than they
are, rolling their eyeballs every time Dad starts in on the gays and
slouching off to their rooms to I-M other genius kids in Sanskrit.
Over nine years, only 229 babies were born to women using the sperm
bank stocked with Nobel Prize winners' semen--a tiny fraction, I'll
bet, of those conceived in motel rooms with reproductive assistance
from Dr. Jack Daniel's.
Similarly, cloning raises fears of
do-it-yourself eugenics--designer babies "enhanced" through gene
manipulation. It's hard to see that catching on, either. Half of all
pregnancies are unintended in this country. People could be planning
for "perfect" babies today--preparing for conception by giving up
cigarettes and alcohol and unhealthy foods, reading Stendhal to their
fetuses in French. Only a handful of yuppie control freaks actually
do this, the same ones who obsess about getting their child into a
nursery school that leads straight to Harvard. Those people are
already the "genetic elite"--white, with lots of family money. What
do they need genetic enhancement for? They think they're perfect
Advocates of genetic tinkering make a lot of assumptions
that opponents tacitly accept: for instance, that intelligence,
talent and other qualities are genetic, and in a simple way. Gays,
for example, worry that discovery of a "gay gene" will permit
selective abortion of homosexual fetuses, but it's obvious that
same-sex desire is more complicated than a single gene. Think of
Ancient Greece, or Smith College. Even if genetic enhancement isn't
the pipe dream I suspect it is, feminists should be the first to
understand how socially mediated supposedly inborn qualities
are--after all, women are always being told anatomy is their
There's a strain of feminism that comes out of the
women's health movement of the seventies that is deeply suspicious of
reproductive technology. In this view, prenatal testing, in vitro
fertilization and other innovations commodify women's bodies, are
subtly coercive and increase women's anxieties, while moving us
steadily away from experiencing pregnancy and childbirth as normal,
natural processes. There's some truth to that, butwhat about the side
of feminism that wants to open up new possibilities for women?
Reproductive technology lets women have children, and healthy
children, later; have kids with lesbian partners; have kids despite
disabilities and illness. Cloning sounds a little weird, but so did
in vitro in 1978, when Louise Brown became the first "test tube
baby." Of course, these technologies have evolved in the context of
for-profit medicine; of course they represent skewed priorities,
given that 43 million Americans lack health insurance and millions
worldwide die of curable diseases like malaria. Who could argue that
the money and brain power devoted to cloning stem cells could not be
better used on something else? But the same can be said of every
aspect of American life. The enemy isn't the research, it's
Pierre Bourdieu's newsworthiness has become news. The profile of him in the New York Times deals more with how bright his star is than with its substance, and quite a bit of the attention Bourdieu receives from the French press has to do with the attention he receives from the French press. What set this cycle into motion? In France, where academics play a much larger role in public life than they do here, academic visibility is neither rare nor strange. So why did Bourdieu's particular brand of it become a media spectacle?
There are a number of reasons, some of which are obvious--for example, volume. Bourdieu gives televised addresses on the ills of television. He speaks about charged political issues, such as labor and immigration laws, at large demonstrations. He writes incendiary Op-Ed essays in major newspapers. Of course, in order to be taken seriously as a scholar while you do much more than your colleagues in the public arena, much more volubly, you must also maintain enormous intellectual credibility. Bourdieu does. He is professor of sociology at the Collège de France, the apex of French academe, as well as director of studies at the prestigious École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. And Bourdieu very clearly worked his way to the top. In roughly forty years he has produced approximately thirty books, many of which are regarded by sociologists as major accomplishments. Indeed, the International Sociological Association put his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984) on its list of the ten most important works of sociology written in the twentieth century.
The book examines how aesthetic taste builds and reinforces social hierarchies. It is a typical theme for Bourdieu, who seeks in all his research to lay bare hidden mechanisms of power. When he writes bestselling essays in an activist key, Bourdieu can claim to be drawing directly on his expertise. In this regard, as is often pointed out, he stands in close proximity to another postwar maître penseur, Sartre.
Bourdieu belongs to a different generation, of course, but not necessarily his own. In the early 1960s--before Foucault and Derrida--Bourdieu reoriented structuralism, which was then fashionable among French social scientists, and created a kind of poststructuralist theory. Bourdieu still uses structuralist code-cracking techniques; he sees culture as a series of "fields," each of which is organized according to its own deep grammar. But he dismisses the structuralist principle that you can explain the internal logic of a social system--language, for example--without reference to external factors. Throughout his career, Bourdieu's goal has been to trace shifts in the most autonomous fields, such as the evolution of aesthetic taste and the intensifying opacity of academic discourse, back to the struggle for social or "symbolic" power.
This mode of cultural analysis is quite unlike the other great French poststructuralisms, even the one to which it is most similar, Foucault's. Bourdieu may be interested in something he calls symbolic power; Foucault may have written a history of the prison. Yet the operations of power are much more concrete for Bourdieu than they are for Foucault, who often seems primarily concerned with highly abstract "discursive regimes" that have us by the seat of our subjecthood. And so Bourdieu sees more possibility for getting his hands on, and altering, the power structure: "We must work to universalize the conditions of access to the universal." You will not find a sentence like that in Foucault's writings.
At the same time, Bourdieu hardly exudes optimism. His worldview is dark, but not quite in the way critics generally make it out to be. What they tend to find most striking is the ubiquity of competition--how, for him, the grubby struggle to get ahead, to accumulate "symbolic capital," pervades all areas of culture, even the most refined. Yet something else weighs more heavily on Bourdieu: the unconscious complicity of the oppressed. Bourdieu's world is Kafkaesque rather than Brechtian. For hidden, complicated reasons, those who are "dominated" cede authority to an "established order" that is manifestly absurd. This, Bourdieu claims, is the great "paradox of doxa." Its prime example is masculine domination.
Bourdieu, accordingly, takes up the topic of gender inequality in most of his studies on symbolic power. In fact, his earliest research--on familial organization in North Africa's Kabyle society--figures prominently in his new book, as do ideas worked out in The Logic of Practice (1990). But Masculine Domination is neither a rehashing of old material nor a collection of thematically cohesive essays. Rather, it is itself an essay, the form of which may have been influenced by Virginia Woolf, whom Bourdieu repeatedly invokes as the guiding spirit of his project. For although he states that his deepest affinities are with To the Lighthouse, and not with Woolf's "endlessly quoted" feminist essays, Masculine Domination bears similarities to them in structure (its pointed argument is sustained over about 100 pages and divided into three sections), if not in style.
Following Woolf, Bourdieu wants to "suspend...'the hypnotic power of domination.'" With him, as with her, this means challenging readers to take a new approach to the problem, which in turn means exposing the inadequacy of existing approaches. Bourdieu believes that we produce gender identity. It is a function of our worldview, not a simple anatomical fact around which we form our worldview. For this reason he attacks "differentialist" feminists. By celebrating certain patterns of behavior as natural female strengths, they bolster the false consciousness on which masculine domination relies: the fallacy that what we consider to be male and female characteristics are essential properties. Bourdieu's attitude toward the most dynamic alternative to this feminism, constructivist gender theory, is more complex. He agrees with its main premise: that gender identity is a linguistic construct, right down to its most intimate parts. But he questions its practical value and argues that while constructivism probes forcefully, it does not probe far enough. It is insufficiently radical.
Here Bourdieu's position is refreshingly counterintuitive. For constructivist gender theory, which has been influential in France and the United States since the late 1980s and is itself refreshingly counterintuitive, appears to be nothing if not radical. Indeed, Monique Wittig, a well-known French constructivist, avers that she has no vagina. This claim may sound strange. But its basis is a rational response to a series of reasonable questions: What is the real significance of the term "vagina"? What is its referent? And what is its social function? The point is that "vagina" is not a neutral, innocent label that we give to a self-evidently discrete body part. Rather, as for Bourdieu, it is a concept that imposes an artificial order on the body and regulates our perception of it. When such concepts feel natural to us, when we see what they refer to as organic objects, we are confusing linguistic objects, objects we construct by "inscribing" names and borders onto the world, with diffuse physical reality.
Most of us accept as organically given a vast matrix of constructs, starting with our own bodies. According to critics like Wittig and Bourdieu, this leaves us blind to a very important fact: Power interests always guide our articulation of the world. Concepts not only designate objects, they carry meanings, meanings that generally will be advantageous to some of us. For example, the word "vagina" does not simply refer to a female anatomical feature. In our culture it connotes the defining feature of the female body, the locus of gender identity. And classifying people according to their reproductive organs reflects and institutionalizes a heterosexual bias.
One implication of all this is that when we use everyday language we reinforce meanings and structures of perception that support our gender norms, even where our utterances contain annihilating invectives against our gender norms. Since these meanings and structures depend on reinforcement from the very people who suffer under them, refusing to acknowledge words like "vagina," or playing with them subversively, counts, at least for some constructivists, as resistance. So does constructing identities that openly challenge "normal," heterosexual assumptions about the stability of gender and the natural function of certain body parts.
Bourdieu thinks otherwise. In his preface he declines, rather peremptorily, even to consider the idea that "parodic performances" of identity might loosen masculine domination. He calls instead for "political mobilization, which would open for women the possibility of a collective action of resistance." And in the body of his book Bourdieu writes, "Symbolic power cannot be exercised without the contribution of those who undergo it and who only undergo it because they construct it as such. But instead of stopping at this statement (as constructivism in its idealist, ethnomethodological or other forms does) one has also to take note of and explain the social construction of the cognitive structures which organize acts of construction of the world and its powers." In order to deconstruct patriarchy, it is not enough to speak in abstract terms about how gender identity is constructed. You need to know, in some detail, how gender identity has been constructed historically.
This is not exactly a novel proposition. Much research has been done over the past two decades on the historical construction of gender identity. In fact, Bourdieu draws freely on this research in his own book. What such works--he cites the second volume of Foucault's History of Sexuality as an example--have not done is grab the problem of masculine domination by its roots. They may go back to the ancient Greeks, as is the case with Foucault, but they discuss only famous interpretations of gender constructs (for instance, Plato's), not the ur-constructs that continue to undergird "masculine sociodicy." For Bourdieu it is crucial to penetrate to this level. If we do not, we will go on thinking in circles, laying down a Faustian injunction that is oppressive to both men and women: Become what you already are. Or, as Bourdieu puts it, "The particular strength of the masculine sociodicy comes from the fact that it combines and condenses two operations: it legitimates a relationship of domination by embedding it in a biological nature that is itself a naturalized social construction." Gender identity starts as a social construction, only to become biological. Because "it is brought about and culminates in profound and durable transformations of bodies (and minds)," masculine domination is its own justification. A relationship of domination produces the very biological differences that, when treated as ahistorical and organic, legitimize that relationship.
The way to break out of such "circular causality" is to "reconstruct the history of the labour of dehistoricization." And the way to do this is, again, to begin at the beginning, at the very beginning: with an archetype. In Kabyle society in North Africa there exists, according to Bourdieu, "a paradigmatic form of the 'phallonarcissistic' vision and the androcentric cosmology which are common to all Mediterranean societies." We can see, in Kabyle society, the foundation of Western patriarchal ideology being poured. By bringing to light similarities between it and us, Bourdieu hopes to show us that our most basic premises about gender rest upon an originary, arbitrary social construction and, therefore, cannot be timeless or natural.
Bourdieu analyzes Kabyle society for a second reason. He often asserts that symbolic power works only when the dominated come to see the world from the perspective of the dominant. The process through which this happens, "symbolic violence," is "gentle," "invisible" and "unconscious." It creates cognitive structures so deep and so durable that superficial enlightenment as to the constructedness of gender norms does not suffice to dismantle their coercive power. For as we all know, people who know better behave in accordance with pejorative gender norms, "despite themselves," all the time. More is necessary to break the hypnotic spell of masculine domination: the shock of seeing yourself, or a "paradigmatic" version of yourself, under hypnosis, and eerily unaware of it. Bourdieu thinks that by confronting us with gender relations in Kabyle society he will present us with our own "cultural unconscious," making visible the invisible workings of symbolic violence.
And so he takes us on a "detour through an exotic tradition" in his attempt to develop a forcefully historicizing, psychologically plausible and, therefore, practically effective gender theory. This plan is very compelling. Unfortunately, the detour turns out to be little more than a bleak frontage road. For Bourdieu simply points out a series of damning parallels between modern and Kabyle gender discrimination. He does not go into the latter in detail; the invisible process of symbolic violence never becomes visible--a visible target for critical analysis. Thus his argument does not quite reach its goal. Yet this small book contains many original insights and therefore great promise. Indeed, if Bourdieu decides to write a more comprehensive study of masculine domination, a study on the scale of The Logic of Practice or Distinction, he will produce a theoretical breakthrough in an important field. And that, of course, would be big news.
Thinks..., David Lodge's new novel about cognitive science, university politics and marital infidelity, shows once again the author's knack for making intellectual concepts user-friendly by couching them in funny, satirical plots that even anti-intellectuals will chuckle over. With a cast of characters from both on and off campus, Lodge's latest foray among imaginary academic communities deftly conveys an insider's take on a scene we'd never have dreamed of as undergraduates.
At the center of this wily spoof is middle-aged bad boy Ralph Messenger, director of the Holt Belling Centre for Cognitive Sciences at the University of Gloucester. A successful popularizer of scientific theories of cognition, Messenger brandishes an unshakable, if rather smug, conviction in the prerogatives of science and its ultimate truth-value over other forms of critical inquiry: "These postmodernists are mounting a last-ditch defence of their disciplines by saying...there are no foundations, and no sand. But it's not true. Science is for real. It has made more changes to the conditions of human life than all the preceding millennia of our history put together."
Messenger's intellectual forthrightness doesn't prevent him, however, from being a sly departmental intriguer, an effective media pundit and an incorrigible adulterer. But for appearance' sake he keeps his skirt-chasing at a distance, indulging in these shenanigans only at academic conferences, with the tacit consent of his rich and shrewdly tolerant wife, Carrie, who likes to address him by his last name. (It is a name well suited to a cognitive scientist, but one with ironic implications for a philanderer.)
Messenger's academic archrival, Douglas C. Douglass (a k a Duggers), weighs in on cognition when he describes quantum physics: "Very small particles behave like waves, in random and unpredictable ways. When we make a measurement, we cause the wave to collapse. It's been suggested that the phenomenon of consciousness is a series of continuous collapses of the wave function." When certain secrets unexpectedly come to light, a series of private collapses, or crises, ensue. But the mind of Messenger is an excellent and durable thing, and after a number of complex electrochemical interactions in his brain, clever political maneuvers among his colleagues and a thorough re-examination of the mental hard-drive of his heart, Ralph Messenger is back--if kinder, gentler, more monogamous.
In short, the book is a novel of consciousness updated for the postcomputer age. At a time in which the human mind is increasingly theorized in terms of simultaneously running software programs, Lodge seems to have selected the multitasking model as a way of formally structuring his story, putting a kind of Cubist twist on a Henry James novel. (It's no accident that James is either referred to or quoted at least ten times.) Thinks... also follows on Lodge's many successes in the "campus novel" genre that has so recently tempted the likes of Francine Prose, Philip Roth, Michael Chabon and Jane Smiley. Lodge's multiple entries include Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work, incisive spoofs of academe, replete with university dons, internecine scholarly feuds and all the schmoozing and posturing that goes on at academic conferences.
Thinks... is told in the form of alternating first-person narratives (in the respective media of speech-recognition software or traditional diary) by Messenger and Helen Reed, the English department's new Writer in Residence. Helen is teaching a seminar in creative writing--a profitable course for the university but one that pays "peanuts," as Helen acknowledges and any adjunct professor knows. Recently widowed, she is half in mourning and half in heat, though she doesn't yet realize the latter. She only came to Gloucester U to get out of her emotional rut, and if Messenger has his way, she will, just as fast as you can say "artificial intelligence."
But Helen is a well-known novelist of sensitivity and subtle expressiveness (the kind that Joyce Carol Oates writes appreciative reviews about), so we know it'll take more than the usual academic high jinks to bed her. Like many in the humanities, she's stereotypically suspicious of scientific endeavors to quantify human consciousness: "They have decided that consciousness is a 'problem' which has to be 'solved.' This was news to me, and not particularly welcome. I've always assumed, I suppose, that consciousness was the province of the arts, especially literature, and most especially the novel," she asserts. Ralph will have to engage her mind at a higher level of intellectual involvement than he's used to with women, and he only manages it with the full arsenal of tantalizing scientific tales (handily represented on an illustrative mural) about the problem of consciousness. It's a form of intellectual seduction that seems to work on Helen, if not quite so well on the reader, who can't help wondering where this putatively successful novelist has been for the last ten years, considering that she doesn't even know how to use e-mail until Ralph installs it on her computer. But before such questions are ever answered, unsuspected infidelities are exposed and the delicate balance of human relations crashes, like the central computer system at the Holt Belling Centre. Thus the novel manages to prove, by a kind of narrative algebra, Ralph's thesis that you can never really know what another person is thinking (something most of us know already).
Lodge's story caps the "subjective" chapters told by his characters with a third, "objective" kind, as if to capture in third person the wave of first-person blather, mostly about past sexual experiences or lost loves, in the female register. Lodge is attempting to isolate constituent narrative elements that are normally fused, as Helen observes, in the work of someone like James, where "it's all narrated in the third person, in precise, elegant, well-formed sentences. It's subjective and objective."
These narrative triads are also interrupted by experimental chapters that parody the work of Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh and Salman Rushdie in the form of writing exercises by Helen's students (take that, amateurs!), or as funny e-mail exchanges between Ralph and the various women in his life, all jockeying for advantage. (Ludmila Lisk, a Czech graduate student he meets in Prague, is especially adept at this kind of electronic blackmail.)
While the subjective chapters imply how language can reproduce the lived experience of human consciousness--or qualia, as the novel informs us--the objective ones hint at the efforts of cognitive scientists to quantify such experience. Thus the book represents a kind of formal struggle between sense and sensibility, science and subjectivity.
Each half of the paradigm is personified by Ralph or Helen, who find their mutual seduction taking place in the form of a continuing debate about the nature of mind, its relation to the body and whether or not it has an existence all its own, like a soul. Sensualist that he is, Ralph denies the possibility of mental life existing independently of the body, while Helen stubbornly insists that the best works of literature suggest otherwise. But Helen suffers from residual religious feeling, even if she doesn't accept the basic catechism of her old faith anymore. Not surprisingly, she finds that her shaky beliefs, like her determination to resist Ralph's advances, are flagging under the assault of a rather glib scientific discourse generated by the "Messenger."
Ralph Messenger is Lodge's ad man for cognitive science, artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge disciplines. Like most skilled careerists, he seems to outsmart all his critics, often to the detriment of the reader's appreciation. He even wriggles from the grasp of threatened fate when a potentially cancerous lump discovered in his liver gets downgraded to a mere "hydatid cyst," whatever that is. That's OK in a story intended to tickle our sense of quirky destiny and intellectual fun--particularly at the expense of new-age and postmodern pieties. But one can't help thinking that Lodge himself is taking a few too many swipes at the usual suspects: political correctness, cultural studies, women and... incidently, does anyone of color attend Gloucester U?
One gets impatient with Lodge's contrived plot twists, pedantic explanations (the book defines things like CT scans and colonoscopies) and tendentious dialogues that often betray a smug contempt for nonconformists with unpopular critical agendas. The crafty Messenger even short-circuits student activism, noting, "Students these days are more concerned about what hurts their pockets than about principles." Anyone who doesn't scintillate with media savvy or swagger at departmental cocktail parties is routinely caricatured and usually turns out to be some kind of backstabber or sexual deviant (Douglas Douglass is Humbert Humbert).
This, of course, does not apply to Helen, whose supple aesthetic instincts sometimes cruelly position her for the most chilling revelations about her colleagues, their spouses, her students, her deceased husband. She provides the conscience her male counterpart often lacks and, by the end, even manages to draw moral lessons about the new technologies themselves. When Ralph informs her that everything one downloads from the Internet is indelibly recorded on a computer's hard drive, she asks: "Like the recording angel writing down your sins?" Yet even Helen (Lodge's bait for a larger female readership?) seems to fall in and out of love, in and out of mourning, with a kind of mechanical efficiency and not from any deeper fund of feeling. Thus what Lodge often gains through structural complexity, formal experimentation and witty observation, he squanders through facile characterization. But in the end, for anyone still struggling with the reality of A.I. and the theories behind the machines that increasingly run our lives, the book should provide a humorous introduction.
--Headline, New York Times
The dollar's strong. That must be good.
It's doing what a dollar should.
The world cannot afford our junk.
You see: It's never what you thunk.
THE HUDSON, THE MOON, THE JEJUNE
Eric Alterman's July 2 "Full-Court Press" insinuates that the Hudson
Institute "sent [scholar Evan Gahr] packing" because Gahr called Paul
Weyrich an anti-Semite. This charge has no merit and presents a false
impression of the institute. Alterman made no effort to contact us
before writing his piece. Had he done so, he would have learned that
Gahr's firing was an internal matter, unrelated to any ideas Gahr
For forty years, Hudson Institute has been a research
organization that encourages debate among peers, affording scholars
considerable latitude to express their ideas. Our researchers
regularly voice opinions more controversial than Gahr's comments
about Weyrich. Gen. William Odom (ret.), director of security studies
at Hudson, was in fact quoted in the June 18 Nation, arguing
for the dissolution of the CIA. Evidence for Hudson's eclecticism can
be found in the fact that our scholars are Democrats and Republicans,
liberals, moderates and conservatives. Moreover, in the past few
months alone, two prominent contributors to The Nation--David
Corn and Rick Perlman--have spoken at institute-sponsored
Vice president and director
apparently thinks lying is a form of mooning. In his case it's also
compulsive, relentless and boring. For the record, I am obviously not
a "staunch defender of the anti-Semites' right to blood-libel Jews,"
as he hilariously proposes; nor did I "expunge" or remove a single
word, sentence, paragraph--let alone an entire article--by the
equally addlebrained Evan Gahr from my website. Nation readers
interested in the facts--Gahr's original article and Weyrich's, my
commentaries on Gahr and Weyrich, Gahr's infantile complaints,
Crouch's column, my answer and an account of the slanders against
Laszlo Pastor by the Soviet occupiers of Communist Hungary, which
Alterman and Conason eagerly spread--can find them with ease on my
"censorious" website (www.frontpagemagazine.com). Such a waste of
valuable Nation space that could have been put to better use
defending the oppressed.
New York City
Weinstein says that I
"insinuate" anti-Semitism on the part of the Hudson Institute. That's
silly. I "insinuate" only cowardice. His defense, meanwhile, in
making reference to Nation contributors sounds a great deal
like the "some of my best friends..." line. When using it, however,
he would be wise to get the names of his friends right. It is
"Perlstein," not "Perlman." I hate to stereotype, but I hear Jews can
be quite touchy about that kind of thing.
As for David Horowitz,
well, I don't write about David Horowitz unless I'm getting paid for
GALE BREWER'S RUN
New York City
Doug Ireland writes an article ["Those Big Town
Blues," June 4] and a letter ["Exchange," July 2] asserting his
positions on city politics and the Working Families Party and manages
to make such an incorrect statement about one of the candidates that
one wonders what else he has wrong. Ireland dismisses Gale Brewer's
increasingly successful run for the City Council by describing her as
"a longtime patronage employee of the Manhattan Borough President's
Office." For the record, Brewer never worked for the Borough
President's Office. She came onto my Council staff when I was first
elected, in 1978, with no party or patronage ties of any kind. She
established a record in that office of being available to
constituents, solving problems of every type, attending to the needs
of people who had never called a legislative office in their lives
and training at least thirty student interns every year for eleven
years. She won us the Daily News designation of Most
Accessible Council Office. It is a great tribute to Gale that the
contacts she made in the district in the 1980s are standing her in
great stead in this campaign. Mayor Dinkins hired Gale to do the
city's federal relations and to increase government accessibility.
She also worked for Public Advocate Mark Green and for a private
contractor increasing services to public housing residents in Queens.
Quite a record, none of it in the Borough President's Office and all
of it on her own merits. No wonder the Working Families Party, trying
to change politics in New York, picked her as a candidate.
Manhattan Borough President
Former City Council member
My only point about Gale Brewer was that she
could hardly be included on a list of "nontraditional" candidates,
because she had spent quite a few years as a political appointee on
the public payroll--which Messinger's letter confirms.
GLOWING IN THE DARK IN CAROLINA
Thanks for David Potorti's excellent article on the
nuclear waste battle in North Carolina ["Nuclear Danger Zone, NC,"
July 2]. Most media have ignored the key facts of Carolina Power and
Light's creation of the nation's largest storage site for "spent"
nuclear fuel--the $7 billion corporation has worked hard to mute
criticism. And the potential for horrific fires from high-density
waste pools at nuclear plants across America has been left out of the
nuclear revival debate.
Loss of cooling pool water at most plants
could result in a fire that would spread across the entire pool (in
CP&L's case, four pools). Since most pools have been tightly
packed with thousands of assemblies (compared to hundreds in a
reactor core), such a fire could exceed the Chernobyl
The dirty secret is that an NRC security assessment
program concludes that US plants are highly vulnerable to terrorist
attack. Even after being allowed to bolster security in advance of
scheduled drills, at nearly half the plants mock intruders not only
got inside but also were able to simulate meltdown of the reactor
core. Now the industry is furiously working to abolish the NRC
You'd think Democratic rising star and "populist"
Senator John Edwards would be standing up to CP&L and the NRC on
this hometown debacle, especially with the NRC under investigation
for colluding with CP&L. The only logical reason for his silence
is the nuclear industry's prominence in funding presidential
Executive director, NC WARN
(NC Waste Awareness & Reduction Network)
POLL OF THE PEOPLE REVEALS...
Alexander Cockburn quoted the journal Dissent in his June 18
"Beat the Devil" and called it "an obscure journal," then later adds
this footnote: "The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel,
wishes it to be on record that she takes exception to the description
of Dissent as 'obscure.' I suggest a poll of the American
Saved by the hip editor. I suggest that a poll of the
American people would consider The Nation obscure. But a poll
of Nation readers would not consider Dissent
Even before I
saw the footnote, I'd reached for my pen: Dissent is hardly
"obscure," and a less-than-majority poll vote won't establish that it
EVELYN A. MAUSS
is clearly targeted to the academy and to a broader "intelligentsia,"
and in this regard is not at all "obscure." All academic journals are
obscure to the general population, so a poll of "the American people"
would prove little. Journals tailored to a specific subdisciplinary
group, such as Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography (now
in its thirty-third volume), are even more "obscure" to the public,
but even this example is one of the leading sources of citations in
its field. Dissent might even be called popular when judged
within its context.
RAYMOND P. BARUFFALO
I am not particularly erudite but I did subscribe to
Dissent for a year. I must have picked it up at a bookstore;
as I recall it had an article by Dr. Gerda Lerner, whose books I had
read. I found it to be, well, challenging--but obscure? If a
lab technician in Rochester has read it, it's not
GE... BRINGS PCBs TO LIFE
Richard Pollak did a fine job of
summarizing the sad saga of GE, PCBs and the Hudson River ["Is GE
Mightier Than the Hudson?" May 28]. Unfortunately, there's another
GE-type destruction in the making. People who value the historic and
natural beauty of the Hudson Valley do not want to read "Is PG&E
Mightier Than the Hudson?" years down the road. Largely because of a
faulty and undemocratic state permit process, Athens Generating (a
subsidiary of PG&E), a 1080-megawatt, gas-fired electric power
plant, was recently given final approval by the Army Corps of
Engineers. New York State's sham of an energy deregulation process,
including corporate "gifts," behind-the-scenes political maneuvering,
community profiling, disregard of environmental policies and public
sentiment, amounts to an unholy alliance between a huge corporation
and a state bureaucracy. The press, the politicians, even
environmental groups have been silenced or have treated the project
as a done deal. This story, and its ramifications for the whole
Hudson River Valley, needs to be brought to light and now.
Have we learned nothing from the GE story?
STOPP (Stand Together
Oppose Power Plant)
East Nassau, N.Y.
result of your exposé, I decided to sell all my shares in GE.
Thanks for helping me to make my decision.
Any day now the Bush Administration will begin sending out its
much-touted tax rebate. How should progressives who believe this
rebate is wrong both as a matter of principle and policy respond to
this "windfall"? Spend it on themselves? Send it back to the
government? We'd like to propose another possibility: Use it against
Bush and his right-wing compatriots by sending it to The
Nation. Use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house!
We plan to send a portion of our rebate to The Nation and the
rest to progressive PACs that will have the greatest impact during
the next election cycle. When other media are complicit in this
Administration's mis-exercise of power, The Nation continues
to speak truth to power. You are a national treasure!
PETE BROSIUS and ELLEN WALKER
So if you managed to endure CBS's three-plus hours of Grammy cov erage, if you survived the sparsely attended protests from GLAAD and NOW, host Jon Stewart's lame commentary, the lip-synced perfor
WILLIAM KRISTOL KIDNAPPED BY ALIENS--
REPLACED BY SILLY, DISHONEST IMPOSTER
"I admit it. The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures."
--The real William Kristol,
The New Yorker, May 22, 1995
"The trouble with politics and political coverage today is that there's too much liberal bias.... There's too much tilt toward the left-wing agenda. Too much apology for liberal policy failures. Too much pandering to liberal candidates and causes."
--William Kristol imposter, in a Weekly Standard subscription pitch, June 2001
NEW YORK TIMES WRITERS/EDITORS
LOVE-BOMBED INTO BRAIN DEATH
Remember when the Times's Frank Bruni thought George Bush's boots "peeked out mischievously" from beneath his trousers in Mexico? Well, Bruni's condition--enabled by apparent narcolepsy on the part of his editors--appears to be deteriorating. First, there's the prose. Bruni noted that upon meeting Tony Blair, Bush "broke into a smile, indulged a mischievous impulse and offered him a greeting less formal than the ones the British leader usually hears. 'Hello, Landslide!' Mr. Bush shouted out. It was a reference--an irreverent, towel-snapping one at that--to Mr. Blair's recent re-election, and it recalled the playful dynamic...when he cracked during a news conference that he and Mr. Blair liked the same brand of toothpaste." An "irreverent, towel-snapping" reference? Methinks Bruni spent too much time in the sauna. Recalling the "playful dynamic" of the toothpaste "crack"--how about "doltish" dynamic? And, hello, Blair did actually win in a landslide. (And so should have Gore!) Now, if the Prime Minister had greeted the Court-appointed Bush as "Landslide," that might qualify as "irreverent."
Perhaps the Times editors might also be willing to offer us a short seminar on the rules and purpose of the official "background" quotation in their newspaper. Two days before he began snapping presidential towels, Bruni quoted a "senior administration official" offering up the following explanation of the European reaction to Bush's missile defense proposal, in language identical to that frequently used by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. "It was, 'We very much appreciate the President's decisions to consult fully, we understand that there is a threat, we want to work with the United States.'"
We have a few problems here. First off, the statement is false. One paragraph earlier, French President Jacques Chirac, who, after all, is one of the people reacting, is quoted condemning the idea as a "fantastic incentive to proliferate" (which Vladimir Putin proved almost immediately by promising to "reinforce our capability by mounting multiple warheads on our missiles" should Bush go ahead with missile defense). Second, Bush, who presumably outranks said "senior official," offered up virtually the same quote on the record. "Still pumped up," according to Bruni, Bush professed to detect "a willingness for countries to think differently and to listen to different points of view." The Times rolls over because someone in the Administration finds it convenient to spin reporters and readers while avoiding responsibility for her (?) misleading comments. I know why "senior officials" do this, but why does the Times allow it?
And finally, before bidding adieu to Mr. Bruni, how long are we going to keep reading stories celebrating the fact that the President did not pick his nose in public? "Rarely," Bruni wrote, "have the two nations' leaders so surpassed the limited expectations of their meeting." Oh really? How rarely? Whose expectations? How limited? Limited to what? I guess Bush surpassed the expectations of those who didn't know he could see into people's souls, but I don't think pandering to viewers of the Psychic Friends Network is going to help much when it comes to missile defense.
SAY WHAT YOU WILL ABOUT GEORGE WILL, THE MAN HAS GOOD TASTE IN PLAGIARISM...
George Will...calls Chris Matthews "half-Huck Finn, half-Machiavelli."
--New York magazine, June 18, 2001
"Imagine if you will, a guitar-wielding political synthesis of Huck Finn and Machiavelli..."
--Eric Alterman, "GOP Chairman Lee Atwater: Playing Hardball,"
The New York Times Magazine, April 30, 1989
MORE LIBERAL MEDIA MUSH: THE NUMBERS SPEAK
Number of weeks the New York Post's new editor took to fire Jack Newfield, its most distinguished and only liberal columnist: six. Weeks it took same to fire the Post's only black editor, who, by the way, has breast cancer: same.
While we're on the topic of the Post, Rupert Murdoch, who has already been granted more than his share of waivers to hold on to his extremist, Republican/Chinese Communist-pandering scandal sheet, is now back before the Senate communications subcommittee, seeking yet another special antidemocratic dispensation to allow him to become the first mogul to control, in addition to the Post and The Weekly Standard, a major broadcast network (Fox), a major cable network (FNC) and soon, a fast-growing satellite distribution system that already has 10 million subscribers (DirecTV). If this sounds like an Orwellian nightmare to you, to say nothing of the onslaught of right-wing sleaze, sensationalism and suck-ups to torturers it will likely produce, contact the committee at (202) 224-5184 (phone) and (202) 224-9334 (fax), and get on their case.
We're on the edge of the twentieth century and Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco concludes that without abundant water and electrical power San Francisco is stymied. He fixes his thirsty gaze upon Hetch-Hetchy 200 miles east, a U-shaped glacial valley in the Sierras, flat-floored and hemmed in by 2,500-foot granite cliffs. Through it flow the abundant waters of the Tuolumne River. Problem: Hetch-Hetchy lies within the bounds of Yosemite National Park, and conservationists led by John Muir vow a fight to the death to save the valley.
After an epic struggle Congress passes the Raker Act in 1913, which OKs the construction of a dam that will inundate Hetch-Hetchy. Muir dies the following year. Representative John Raker, in whose district Yosemite lies, is a progressive, a profound believer in public power. Under the terms of his act the Feds will waive Hetch-Hetchy's protected status to San Francisco. The dam must be used not only to store water but also to generate electric power. This power must be sold directly to the citizens of San Francisco through a municipal power agency at the cheapest possible rates. Publicly owned water and electric energy will free the city from what another progressive Congressman calls "the thralldom...of a remorseless private monopoly." If San Francisco does not honor the terms of the Raker Act, it will lose the federal waiver.
By the early 1920s San Francisco is watering itself with the Tuolumne, and it has built a powerhouse at Moccasin Creek to use the Tuolumne's pent-up power. It buys hundreds of miles of copper wire to run that power into the city. Pending completion of its own power lines, it agrees to sell the hydro-power to a rapidly growing utility company called Pacific Gas & Electric, which will use its grid to carry the power to San Francisco, at which point PG&E will sell the power back to the citizenry at an outrageous markup.
The camel's nose is under the tent, and there it stays. In the Roosevelt era Interior Secretary Harold Ickes fights a tenacious struggle to force San Francisco to abide by the terms of the Raker Act. PG&E's mayors, newspapers, public utility managers, city supervisors and legislators steadfastly thwart the bonds required to finance a municipally owned utility.
Years go by. The Raker Act is all but forgotten. PG&E rules supreme. In the mid-1960s a young muckraker called Bruce Brugmann comes to San Francisco. He's grown up in Rock Rapids, Iowa, a public-power town. He's gone to school in Nebraska--thanks to George Norris, a public-power state. He founds the Bay Guardian and by the late 1960s is deep into the PG&E wars. By now the utility is trying to build a nuclear power station at Bodega Bay. Joe Neilands and Charlie Smith, respectively a UC biochemist and an organizer, mount a successful battle against PG&E's plan. In the course of this campaign Neilands disinters the hidden history of the Raker Act and Brugmann publishes the story.
Let Brugmann carry our drama forward:
"What heated me up and got me increasingly angry over the years was that this was a structural scandal of epic proportions. PG&E had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars down the years. But it was verboten to discuss PG&E publicly. The phrase is, When PG&E spits, City Hall swims. The company had wired the city, put out thousands of dollars to various civic groups. It controlled the grand jury, and to a large extent the judiciary. Then the downtown boys managed to put in at-large elections in San Francisco, meaning candidates had to raise large sums. That slowed us down for a generation.
"Finally we got district elections again. That changed the rules of the game. Now we have a more progressive board of supervisors, beholden to constituents and their districts. Then we won a sunshine ordinance. Our coalition got the 24,000 signatures last year. We dealt with each and every condition the city attorney imposed. Then, in the first district elections in years, our slate won, so we suddenly have a progressive 9-to-2 majority. At the Guardian we tied down every supe to a pledge to put a municipal utility district on the ballot and to support MUD. We finally have a pro-public power and anti-PG&E majority. Of course, we still have to win the election. PG&E is lobbying behind the scenes, putting millions into the fight, even though it's bankrupt. But for the first time in our memory nobody is running on a pro-PG&E platform."
Act III is unfinished at this time, but if ever there was a favorable moment, it's surely now. When PG&E successfully pushed deregulation through the California legislature in the mid-1990s it surely patted itself on the back for a master stroke. The public would pick up the tab for the company's vast losses in nuclear power. Nationally, the Clinton Administration was ushering in a whole new era of energy deregulation. Senator Dianne Feinstein was at PG&E's beck and call. The public-power crowd was hemmed in, and "green" outfits like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council were actually in the vanguard of the dereg movement.
Now we have California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer pushing a criminal investigation into the conspiracy to hike energy prices. Among the big questions: Is PG&E a shark that got chewed by bigger sharks from Houston, like Enron, or did the utility simply shuffle its money elsewhere on the Monopoly board and then declare bankruptcy? Almost a century after Raker sought to write public power into the history of San Francisco, the tide may be turning, and we have long-range populist campaigners like Brugmann and his Bay Guardian to thank for it.
Maybe that Karl Rove ain't such a genius. In the past few weeks Democrats have, with a touch of glee, been wondering about George W. Bush's Svengali-strategist as Rove has stepped into several cow pies. Shortly after the Jeffords jump--for which Rove took his lumps--the Associated Press revealed that in March Rove met with senior Intel executives seeking federal approval of a merger of two chip manufacturers--at a time when Rove held between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of Intel stock as part of a portfolio worth $2 million. Rove claimed he had not discussed this particular matter and merely referred the Intel guys to others in the government. But if someone knocks on the door of a Bush Administration official and can say, "Karl sent me," does that not help the visitor? Several weeks later, the Justice Department OK'd the merger--and Intel politely sent a thank-you note to several Bushies, including Rove.
In addition to his ethics, Rove's judgment has been questioned, as his ham-handed role in contentious policy decisions has made the Bush White House appear as political as its predecessor--a tough task! On the campaign trail, Bush the Outsider blasted the Slickster in Chief for governing by polls and setting policy by focus groups. Yet Rove has pushed the Administration to oppose stem-cell research, which involves human embryos, to advance his plan to cement Catholic voters into the GOP bloc. And when Bush announced that the Navy would halt bombing practice on Vieques in Puerto Rico in 2003, angry Hill Republicans questioned Rove's crucial part in the decision and assailed him for placing politics above national security.
Other bad news for Rove: A much-ballyhooed (and front-page) New York Times/CBS poll in mid-June showed Bush's key numbers in decline. Have Bush's (anti-)environment stands and coziness with Big Bidness taken a toll? In other words, is Rove losing his knack?
The White House stood by him--for Rove is the White House--and quickly tried to douse the Rove/Intel story. "My level of confidence with Karl Rove," declared Bush, "has never been higher." White House press-spinner Ari Fleischer pooh-poohed the Rove matter, claiming, "The American people are tired of these open-ended investigations and fishing expeditions." How did he know? Did he take a poll? And how convenient for the GOP to gripe about free-for-all investigations now. Dan Burton, the conspiracy-chasing Republican chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, who investigated every speck of controversy hurled at the Clintons, is still pursuing the Clintonites, most recently by probing a nine-year-old prosecution in Florida that tangentially involves Janet Reno. In any event, when Fleischer made his statement, there was no Rove investigation under way. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on Burton's committee, had merely written Rove, asking him to answer six questions regarding his stock holdings and whether he had conducted meetings with representatives of other companies in which he owned stock, including Enron, the Texas energy company. (At press time, Waxman had yet to receive a reply.)
Perhaps Democratic senators--who, unlike Waxman, possess the power to initiate an investigation--ought to consider poking into Rove's finances and, more important, the influence of corporate contributors and lobbyists at the White House. (Of course, the latter would invite similar questions about the Democratic Party.) Yet they have not pounced. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle said publicly, "Democrats want to legislate, not investigate." But Waxman and Democratic Representative John Dingell have tried to push beyond the Rove/Intel episode. They asked the General Accounting Office, the Congressional watchdog, to examine the meetings of Vice President Cheney's energy task force and determine who--and what interests--helped shape the Bush energy plan.
Cheney's office balked. "We have not released a list of names so that people could choose whether or not they wanted to air [their] views publicly," explained Mary Matalin, a Cheney aide. Funny, Republicans weren't this respectful of privacy several years ago, when they demanded information about the proceedings of Hillary Clinton's healthcare task force. But few Democrats have raised a fuss about White House reluctance to release the information. The GAO, though, told Cheney he must comply with its request. And still Cheney has not turned over the material, setting up a potential clash.
The bloom may be off the Rove, but he's far from wilted. After all, Rove got a fellow widely derided as a boob into the White House, and then he guided a gigantic relieve-the-rich tax cut through Congress. Those are damn good first--if not last--laughs. Now Bush can also thank Rove (and Cheney) for helping to show that his White House is a down-home hoedown of corporate and political favoritism.
In a famous sequence of photographs, Henri Matisse documented, over the course of six months in 1935, twenty-two states of his evolving Large Reclining Nude. On impulse, I recently made photocopies of these and fastened them together as a kind of flipbook. This yielded a crude approximation to a cinematic experience in which the nude figure turned and twisted and fluttered her legs up and down, while parts of her body swelled and subsided. It was in fact quite sexy but did not seem quite to fit what Matisse spoke of, figuratively of course, as a motion picture film of the feeling of an artist. So I shifted into a sort of slow motion, and register the following tentative observation: In the first state, recorded on May 3, Matisse's model is depicted in a fairly straightforward way, occupying roughly the lower half of the canvas. By September 6, her head has been disproportionately enlarged, and it has become a recognizable portrait of Lydia Delectorskaya, his poseuse. On October 30, the head has grown disproportionately small, the features are schematic, the torso has grown lank and her bent arms fill the canvas from top to bottom. It really felt as if I had been able to track the artist's feelings toward the model, who becomes for him an individualized woman about midway through the painting's development. If so, the sequence does more than document the stages of a painting. It charts a transformation, from an external relationship between artist and model to an intimate relationship between man and woman. The motion picture film then yields something we could not easily get from the completed painting itself, marvelous as that great work is, and it shows something about the limitations of painting as a medium. Who knows if Matisse did not begin photographing his painting because he sensed there might be a deeper story to tell than the history of how a painting changes.
The artist's emotional involvement with Lydia Delectorskaya has remained a Matisse family secret, but it is difficult to suppress the thought not only that a change of feeling toward her took place in the course of executing Large Reclining Nude but, more boldly, that Matisse used painting as a way of discovering what his feelings were. The South African artist William Kentridge speaks of drawing in almost these terms: "The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are or how we operate in the world. It is in the strangeness of the activity itself that can be detected judgment, ethics and morality.... So drawing is a slow motion version of thought.... The uncertain and imprecise way of constructing a drawing is sometimes a model of how to construct meaning." Note the cinematic metaphor through which Kentridge characterizes mental process and how, though his artistic ambitions otherwise resemble those of Matisse to no appreciable degree, he also sees drawing as an avenue to self-discovery.
South Africa was invited to exhibit in the Venice Biennale in 1993 in acknowledgment of the repeal of apartheid; and in 1995 the first Johannesburg Biennale was organized as a gesture that South Africa was now part of the international art community. Kentridge himself exhibited in the Fourth Istanbul Biennale, held that same year, and ever since he has been widely shown and highly admired for his animated films, based on his drawings. But the drawings themselves have an independent authority, in large part, I believe, because of the palpable evidence they provide of their author's search for meaning and even for personal meaning. It may seem curious that in work with so marked a political intention as Kentridge's, there should be the same preoccupation with self-understanding that we find in Matisse, who seems almost flagrantly hedonistic as an artist. But upon reflection it is no less curious that someone who created for himself a world of luxe, calme, et volupté--to use an early title that Matisse appropriated from Baudelaire--should, at a somewhat advanced age, use painting as a method of self-analysis.
In point of style, Kentridge's work has a certain retrospective aura, as if it belonged more to the era of Matisse than to the contemporary world. The drawings and, indeed, the animated films for which they serve as material feel much in spirit as if their provenance were the art world of Mitteleuropa from the early part of the twentieth century. Kentridge himself has commented on this:
Much of what was contemporary in Europe and America during the 1960s and 1970s seemed distant and incomprehensible to me.... The impulses behind the work did not make the transcontinental jump to South Africa. The art that seemed most immediate and local dated from the early twentieth century, when there still seemed to be hope for political struggle rather than a world exhausted by war and failure. I remember thinking that one had to look backwards--even if quaintness was the price one paid.
It is perhaps testimony to the deep pluralism of the contemporary art world that the language of early Modernism should be accepted and even admired as a vehicle for expression and exploration today. Kentridge is rightly considered a very important artist, which explains why he is the subject of a major exhibition at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art (until September 16). It will then travel to the MCA in Chicago, the CAM in Houston and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, before its final venue in the South African National Gallery in Cape Town, from December 7, 2002, through March 23, 2003.
Kentridge draws primarily in charcoal, a medium versatile enough to have been used in the achievement of the demi-teinte drawings prized by the beaux-arts academies of the nineteenth century, as well as in the broad expressive drawings of German Expressionism. Kentridge appreciates charcoal (enhanced by a sparing use of pastel) for its softness and quickness on paper. But with its sensitivity to pressure, to revision and overdrawing, to erasure and smudging, it lends itself particularly well to the kind of probing exploration for which Kentridge prizes drawing as an activity. The final result often stands as a kind of palimpsest of the stages of its emergence as an image. There is, moreover, an internal connection between drawing in charcoal and the exceedingly primitive technique of animation Kentridge evolved. One can photograph a drawing, then modify the drawing, then photograph that--and continue this process until one has transcribed, through sequences of smudging, erasing and overdrawing, a complete transition not just in the drawing, physically considered, but in what the alterations in the drawing sequentially depict. In short, the photographs taken at various stages of a drawing's alteration literally become frames in a filmstrip that, when projected, show a change in the reality depicted. Animation enables Kentridge to get beyond the limits that Matisse circumvented by means of serial photography.
An example will make this clear. Consider a sequence of fourteen frames from Kentridge's 1991 film, Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old. Each of these is a photograph of the same drawing, as it has undergone a series of changes. In the first frame, we see a factory building in a somewhat dated modernesque style of architecture, drawn in a correspondingly dated Modernist style that Kentridge has made his own. The factory, sharply highlighted, stands against the sky, alone in a barren landscape. In the next frame, the artist has begun to scribble a sort of dark mass, like a dust cloud, at the building's base. In the third frame, the artist has begun to erase, hence lighten, the top part of the cloud. This cloud grows larger and lighter through a number of frames. Meanwhile, he has begun to rub out the drawing of the building. The building grows fainter and fainter as the cloud engulfs it. Now the artist begins to erase the cloud so that there is a frame in which a ghostly pentimento of the building hovers over the thinning cloud. Finally, as the dust has settled, the artist has drawn the figure of a man standing in what remains of the cloud, his back to us, facing where the building used to be. In the final frame, the figure of the man is darkened. He stands alone before the traces on paper of an erased factory. As with Matisse's Large Reclining Nude, where there is only one canvas, the changes in which have been documented by his photographs, here there is only one drawing, systematically modified. But where Large Reclining Nude shows no signs of the changes Matisse made, the final photograph in Kentridge's sequence shows the stages it has gone through--the erasures, the scribbles, the darkening, the outlines of the factory that used to be there, the shape of the man who entered the picture only in the final stages of the drawing. It is like a face that bears the marks of its owner's experience. "What is interesting about doing the animated films," Kentridge told interviewers, "is that it's a way of holding on to all the moments and possibilities of the drawing." His drawings record the struggle to achieve them.
Put another way, the changes in Large Reclining Nude were not made for the sake of being photographed; the photographs merely document those changes. The changes in the drawing of the factory, by contrast, were narratively driven, and made for the sake of the photographs, because it is through them, as a film sequence, that a story is told. It is the story of a world falling apart. The figure in the drawing is internally related to the factory. He was in fact the factory's owner, as we know from the film from which this sequence has been extracted. We have been shown the fact that his world has fallen apart, that he is left alone in the landscape in which his factory once stood. The figure is that of the industrialist Soho Eckstein, a character Kentridge invented--the star of his series of allegorical films, which he calls "Drawings for Projection," of which Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old is the fourth.
Soho is an overweight, balding, ruthless man, with a heavy cigar and an emblematic pinstriped suit and striped necktie. The suit-and-tie is his attribute--as much so as keys are the attribute of St. Peter or a chalice of blood that of the bereaved Madonna in Christian iconography--or a silk hat and moneybags the attributes of The Capitalist in left-wing iconography. Soho is never shown not wearing it, whether working or sleeping, or lying in a hospital bed, or in a symbolic pool of water, embracing his alienated wife. In the first of the films in which he is introduced--Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris--Soho Eckstein is the embodiment of greed and rapacity. He has bought up half the city of Johannesburg, and sits at his desk, running his vast network of enterprises, or at a table swilling down mountains of food with bottle upon bottle of wine. Outside, we see an industrial wasteland, punctuated with pylons and floodlights, and traversed by the expropriated masses. In Monument, Soho addresses a crowd as a benefactor, at the dedication of a monument to the Working Man. In Mine--a wonderful pun, since the mine is mine--the film connects Soho with his mining enterprises. We see rows of miners blasting away in dark precincts, and we see Soho orchestrating their activity from a desk, on which are displayed pieces of African art as trophies. But things have begun to go very badly for Soho in Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old. His empire has collapsed. He is alone in a world for whose barrenness he is largely accountable.
But the loss is more personal by far than my narrative thus far would suggest. Soho's wife has been taken away from him by his alter ego, Felix Teitlebaum, a moony artist who looks like a somewhat leaner Soho with his clothes off. Aside from these differences, Felix and Soho look much alike, which suggests that together they constitute a self-portrait of the artist, since he resembles them both. And that is another illustration of how drawing leads to self-knowledge.
As in the final frame of the collapsing factory, we see Soho alone against an empty sky--a mere smudged blankness onto which the artist has superimposed the words, printed in block letters:
And we find ourselves feeling sorry for poor Soho, a human being after all, with a broken heart.
Kentridge's commentators see the films as filled with references to the political drama of South Africa, and doubtless the artist's countrymen will be able to read these in terms far more local than are available to us who have not lived through the agonies of those struggles. At the same time, the films attain a level of allegory that makes them almost universal. Soho is an inspired invention, but he corresponds to the hard-nosed kind of industrialist commonplace in the representation of capitalism since at least the time of Marx and Engels. "I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose," Marx wrote in his preface to Capital. But here individuals are dealt with only insofar as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class relations and class interests. Were it not for lettering in "Johannesburg"there would be no way of knowing that the masses represented in Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris were African blacks. The image could have been by Käthe Kollwitz or some illustrator for New Masses. There is thus something generic in the relationship between Soho and the country he exploits, into which the particularities of apartheid have to be read. But similarly, it is by virtue of romantic allegory that Soho's guilt is internalized as insensitivity to his wife's emotional needs. And where in South African political reality does the sensitive and artistic figure of Felix Teitlebaum exactly fit? In Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old, the political becomes the personal. There is a wonderful image in that film in which the essential triangle of Soho, Mrs. Eckstein and Felix is represented. Soho, holding a cigar that gives off the dense black smoke of one of his factory chimneys, is gazing into what I take to be a loudspeaker, while luscious Mrs. Eckstein lies beneath Felix, her eyes closed either in dream or rapture, while--in the animation--a kind of fish swims from Felix to her. It is exceedingly erotic, as the film itself at moments is, though it is difficult to know whether the love scenes are imagined by Soho or enacted by the couple, or, for that matter, imagined by them. In a way, Soho, Felix and Mrs. Eckstein--Tycoon, Artist and Wife--form as rich an allegorical triangle as Offissa Pupp, Ignatz and Krazy Kat in George Herriman's inspired landscape. The films Kentridge made afterward are deeply introspective exercises in which both Soho and Felix undertake, in their different ways, to construct meanings for their lives. Mrs. Eckstein is not developed further.
I am very impressed by the way, as an artist, Kentridge seeks to reflect political problems through interpersonal relationships. In her instructive catalogue essay, Lynne Cooke cites Kentridge's way of seeing his situation as an artist who is at once engaged and disengaged: "Aware of and drawing sustenance from the anomaly of my position." At the edge of huge social upheavals, yet also removed from them. Not able to be part of these upheavals, nor to work as if they did not exist. That is the way I see his art--not part of the upheavals but to be understood through the fact that they exist and in some deflected way explain the art. In the end, if one thinks about it, this is the way artists have often dealt with political upheavals: at their edge, and in the framework of love stories. Think of Hemingway or Tolstoy or, if you like, Jane Austen or possibly Matisse.
The films are the heart of the exhibition, as they are the crown of Kentridge's oeuvre, and I would head for them immediately. After that you can work your way back through the gallery, in which some of the stills--the drawings he used for the films--are on display. On your way in, you will have passed a sort of animated Shadow Procession, in which silhouetted figures, which inevitably remind one of the disturbing cutouts of the brilliant Kara Walker, sweep past your vision. It is a little soon to pronounce the show unforgettable, but I have not been able to erase from my memory the song by Alfred Makgalemele, which accompanies the Shadow Procession, and my feeling is that certain of the images will be with me for a very long time.