Victor Navasky criticizes John Ashcroft's misreading of history, Jonathan Schell critiques recent media coverage of the "new" nuclear threat, Patricia J. Williams insists that torture is the essence of totalitarianism and Eric Alterman examines the lessons of New York City's mayoral election.
Warfare American-style has in recent years produced a familiar pas de deux. The United States bombs, the enemy declares that civilians and nonmilitary targets were struck and the Pentagon challenges the account. Occasionally, reporters can trek to the site and try to construct an accurate picture. But in remote locations, that's not always possible. One tool exists that could be useful in resolving these disputes: high-resolution satellite photography. For almost two years, Space Imaging, a commercial US firm, has been selling photos from its Ikonos satellite, which circles the globe at a height of 423 miles and snaps shots of 1-meter resolution. In certain instances, a media outfit, a human rights group or another party could examine an Ikonos image and determine what damage occurred at a particular place. But there's little chance of that happening during the war in Afghanistan, because the Pentagon's National Imagery and Mapping Agency has signed an exclusive deal with Space Imaging that gives the Defense Department control of all the commercially available, high-quality overhead images of Afghanistan.
Under the NIMA contract, the Pentagon, for at least $2 million a month (and perhaps more), has purchased all time that the satellite is over Afghanistan, which means no one else can hire Space Imaging to take pictures of the war zone. And unlike most images obtained by Space Imaging, the photos of Afghanistan captured by Ikonos cannot be sold to any other parties. It's a government takeover of an information source.
Overhead imagery would not necessarily provide quick and easy answers to conflicting accounts about wartime action. "It takes a lot of training and skill to read satellite imagery," says Patrick Eddington, a former analyst at the CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center. And the 1-meter-resolution shots--which can show car-sized objects--require skilled interpretation, not widely available outside government. But Ikonos photos could assist nongovernment analysts looking to conduct bomb-damage assessments independent of the Pentagon. "If the Taliban claimed a village was hit, and the Pentagon said no such thing happened, commercial imagery conceivably could provide verification one way or another," says John Pike, director of the nonprofit GlobalSecurity.org. This sort of imagery could offer indications of how successful the United States has been in hitting Taliban facilities.
Refugee and humanitarian groups could use satellite photos in their efforts to assist displaced Afghans. "One of our big issues is how to get food to Afghans and find the people who need it," says Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International and a Pentagon spokesman during the Clinton years. "I just saw a report from the United Nations that there are 229 pockets of displaced people within Afghanistan. If we knew where they were--and we don't--that would make it much easier to arrange ways to get them food. Presumably satellite imagery could help us if the groups of people are big enough. But we would also have to be able to figure out what the images mean." Several humanitarian aid groups have been talking to NIMA about obtaining maps, images and analytic assistance. (At press time, no agreement had been reached.)
The Pentagon does possess several satellites of its own, some of higher resolution. So why buy up the Ikonos images? Though the Pentagon has not officially spelled it out, there are obvious reasons. By training Space Imaging's satellite on lower priority targets, the Pentagon frees its satellites for high-priority shots. The Administration also can use commercial images, which are unclassified, in public or in semiprivate--say, when it shares information with coalition partners--without having to reveal the capabilities of its advanced imaging systems. As for the need for exclusivity, the Pentagon could argue that were it to release images, the enemy would get helpful information and leads on the military's areas of interest. An unidentified NIMA spokesman told Satellite Week, "We didn't do it primarily to censor.... We get that as an additional benefit."
This censorship-by-contract saved the Bush Administration the trouble of invoking what's known as "shutter control." Under the government license that allows Space Imaging to operate the satellite, the government has the power to restrict the images in times of national emergency. If the government had taken this course, it would surely end up in court, challenged by news outlets and others for violating the First Amendment. "With this deal, the government is imposing shutter control without giving me or the newsmedia a legal basis for suing," says Pike.
The NIMA-Space Imaging deal--renewed in early November--has not provoked many howls from the media. Reporters Sans Frontieres did complain that the contract was "a way of disguised censorship aimed at preventing the media from doing their monitoring jobs." But mainstream media executives have been more focused on other Pentagon press restrictions, like the Defense Department's refusal to position reporters with ground troops in Central Asia. "To get images of this resolution is very new," says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which has protested the contract. "So they are not missed so much.... And defense reporters may be reluctant to ask about it at briefings, because they don't want to come across as self-serving." Adam Clayton Powell III, outgoing vice president for technology programs at the Freedom Forum, notes that "there's not been a lot of grumbling because not many editors realize what's at stake.... People don't want to take on the Pentagon, and they do not yet understand the value of this resource."
The Pentagon has succeeded in keeping overhead imagery out of the story. (Instead, the public can absorb jittery videophone reports, blurry green night-vision shots and Pentagon-controlled gun-camera video footage that details explosions more than targets.) But the national security establishment may not be able to sustain its position for long. Overseas and domestic competitors are moving to catch up to Space Imaging, and Space Imaging itself is planning to launch two 0.5-meter-resolution satellites in the coming years. These more accurate satellites will grab shots that can be read more easily by nongovernment analysts looking to judge "collateral damage" or evaluate refugee situations. With all these birds in the sky--including several beyond the licensing powers of the US government--the Pentagon will find it tough to control how war is seen from the heavens. For now, though, the sky is indeed the limit, as the Pentagon seeks to wage war free (literally) of oversight.
The upcoming Bush-Putin mini-summit in Crawford, Texas, is expected to produce the outlines of a new nuclear bargain that combines sharp reductions in US and Russian arsenals with greater freedom for Washington to expand its program of missile defense testing and development without walking away from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. While this outcome would be far preferable to a unilateral US withdrawal from the ABM treaty, it still represents a deeply flawed response to the ongoing threat posed by nuclear weapons.
In the dangerous and unpredictable security environment that has followed in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, the safest course is to seek the deepest possible reductions in US and Russian nuclear forces as a first step toward multilateral nuclear disarmament. Major reductions would also set the stage for a concerted effort to get other nuclear weapons states like France, Britain, China, India and Pakistan to scale back their own arsenals, on the way to the ultimate goal of abolishing these deadly weapons once and for all.
Unfortunately, the Bush Administration's fatal attraction to missile defense stands in the way of any such historic breakthrough. As long as the United States has as its stated goal the deployment of a multitiered missile defense system, Russia will be hard pressed to reduce its nuclear arsenal much below 1,500 to 2,000 warheads (the level that will be discussed in Crawford). And China, which currently has only twenty single-warhead missiles that can reach the United States, will be far more inclined to build its number of long-range warheads up to several hundred, if not 1,000 or more. That in turn will spur India and Pakistan to augment their nuclear arsenals, hardly a stabilizing development as they continue to battle over Kashmir and the United States is engaged in a war of uncertain duration in Afghanistan.
This is no way to build a more secure world. Moreover, the Administration is willing to risk provoking a new round of nuclear proliferation in pursuit of a missile defense system that has little prospect of working in the near term, if ever. In the latest in a long line of technical glitches that have plagued the program, tests of both the land- and sea-based elements of the system were recently postponed as a result of equipment and software failures. Yet the system's major contractors were rewarded with a 57 percent funding increase, making the $8.3 billion missile defense allotment the most expensive weapons-program item in the Pentagon budget.
Both Bush and Putin have their own reasons, rooted in domestic and international politics, for cutting some kind of deal now. But the international community has a right to demand that they go beyond a tepid bargain that could institutionalize large nuclear arsenals for years to come and instead seek radical reductions in their current arsenals. We also have an opportunity to pressure Bush and Putin to include de-alerting as part of the new strategic framework. If the United States and Russia are now partners, then preparing for a quick-launch of nuclear missiles at each other makes no sense. To accomplish these ends, the Bush Administration will have to abandon its vain hope of finding a technical fix that will defend against the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
"Our Democratic Moses is going to lead us to the promised land," United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts told grizzled coal miners in rural Virginia on the eve of the November 6 elections that restored Democrats to top jobs not only in Virginia but in statehouses and city halls across the country.
The man Roberts was introducing, high-tech millionaire Mark Warner, was an unlikely Democratic Moses. A self-proclaimed "fiscal conservative" who overwhelmed his Republican foe with $5 million in personal spending and tactical outreach to independents and moderate Republicans, Warner sold himself as the sort of "new economy" Democrat that Al Gore tried so hard to be last year. The difference, of course, is that Warner won a clear victory, making him the first Democrat to secure his state's governorship since George W. Bush's father was President. And Warner won with a campaign that backed abortion rights, opposed celebration of Confederate holidays, embraced unions and called for better pay for public employees. That made him more than enough of a Moses for Cecil Roberts and other Democratic stalwarts--in Virginia and beyond. Shaken by their party's loss of last year's contested presidential election and by Bush's 90 percent approval ratings in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Democrats were looking for a sign that their party was still in the game. And they got it.
Warner's win in Virginia--an Old Confederacy state that trended Republican through the 1990s--came on the same night that Democrats elected a former civil rights lawyer as Virginia's lieutenant governor, retook the New Jersey governorship, upset ten years of Republican control of both houses of the New Jersey legislature, took control of the Washington State House of Representatives and won most major mayoral and county executive contests. Though party chairs always try to spin off-year elections harder than is warranted, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe could stake a legitimate claim to this year's bragging rights. Eight years after Republicans swept off-year contests and then used those victories to push their successful drive to win control of Congress in 1994, Democrats pretty much reversed the trend. "[Republicans] basically said...when they swept these offices that this bodes very badly for the Democratic Party. Well, I can turn around and say the same thing," bragged McAuliffe.
The rare exception is New York City, where Democrat Mark Green lost to billionaire businessman Democrat-turned-Republican Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg won with strong end-of-the-campaign backing from outgoing Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He benefited as well from lingering anger among Latino and African-American voters, who felt Green's primary campaign had played on racial fears.
But Giuliani's coattails did not extend far beyond his city. Virginia and New Jersey Republicans relied heavily on television advertising featuring Giuliani endorsements, to little effect. New Jersey's Jim McGreevey countered with endorsements from police, fire and construction unions, which since September 11 have taken on heroic stature. Virginia's Warner also did something few Democrats have in recent years: He went after rural voters with a vengeance, returning repeatedly even in the critical closing days of the campaign to hard-hit coal-mining, textile and farming regions that Democrats often write off as lost to cultural conservatism. Warner's success in using economic themes to draw small-town and farm-country votes gives new impetus to McAuliffe's efforts to implement a rural strategy, to renew the party's national appeal.
Another new strategy, making use of initiative referendums to break legislative deadlocks on major issues, appears to be paying off for progressives. In Washington, voters overwhelmingly endorsed the highest cigarette tax in the nation to aid healthcare and a labor-backed move to create a "homecare quality authority" that will give expanded bargaining rights to state-paid homecare workers. Portland, Maine, voters endorsed universal healthcare. While it appeared Houston voters would narrowly endorse a measure prohibiting city-paid domestic partner benefits, gay rights backers won referendums in three Michigan cities, and Miami Beach voters said the city should provide city employee benefits to gay domestic partners. In San Francisco, though anthrax scares slowed counting of absentee ballots that will decide a pair of too-close-to-call votes on initiatives to take over local utilities, it appeared that at least one of two proposals was winning. Easily prevailing, however, were two solar-power initiatives designed to provide the policy and funding support for making the city a world leader in development of alternative energy sources.
A little learning, the old adage has it, can be a dangerous thing.
Example: US Attorney General John Ashcroft's speech at the US Conference of Mayors.
His message: "Forty years ago, another Attorney General...
Robert F. Kennedy, came to the Department of Justice at a time when organized crime was threatening the very foundations of the Republic. Mobsters controlled one of the nation's largest labor unions [the Teamsters]. Racketeers murdered, bribed and extorted with impunity....
"Then as now, the enemy that America faced was described bluntly and correctly as a conspiracy of evil. Then as now, the enemy was well financed, expertly organized and international in scope. Then as now, its operations were hidden under a code of deadly silence.
His theme: "Attorney General Kennedy made no apology for using all of the available resources in the law to disrupt and dismantle organized crime networks. Very often prosecutors were aggressive, using obscure statutes to arrest and detain suspected mobsters. One racketeer and his father were indicted for lying on a federal home loan application. A former gunman for the Capone mob was brought to court on a violation of the Migratory Bird Act. Agents found 563 game birds in his freezer, a mere 539 birds over the limit.
His conclusion: "Robert Kennedy's Justice Department, it is said, would arrest mobsters for spitting on the sidewalk if it would help in the battle against organized crime.... It has been said that that was an effective policy, and I believe it was."
He then cites an unnamed "author" who "chronicled" Robert Kennedy's Attorney Generalship in support of his contention that the moral of this cautionary tale is that all sorts of freedoms and civil liberties will have to be sacrificed in any serious and effective war on terrorism.
At first I thought I might be the anonymous author to whom he referred, because I am indeed the author of Kennedy Justice*, a book about Robert Kennedy's Attorney Generalship, and I reported his use of the home loan mortgage applications and the Migratory Bird Act to "get" gangsters. But I also reported that the Migratory Bird Act conviction was eventually overturned, because it involved an illegal search and seizure. Ashcroft forgot to mention that, and he also neglected my larger point--that while Kennedy was indeed an effective Attorney General, his "Get Hoffa" squad and a number of his actions in the course of his war on organized crime lent themselves to easy abuse and were dangerous precedents for the future.
So much for the Attorney General's history lesson. Since September 11 our government has secretly rounded up and detained more than 1,000 people. Under the new antiterrorism law Ashcroft has not been required to tell us who they are, why they have been picked up, what their status is.
What is doubly distressing, however, is that the Attorney General's misreading of Robert Kennedy's Attorney Generalship was followed days later by the announcement that the President had signed a new executive order allowing the White House or a former President to veto release of presidential papers. This means that scholars and reporters as well as subsequent historical actors will be deprived of the raw materials that might help unlock the true lessons of our past. Taken together, the Attorney General's history lesson and the President's executive order suggest an unfortunate contempt for history.
The philosopher George Santayana famously observed that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. In this case we appear to have an Administration determined to distort it or, in the alternative, to withhold it.
* Now available from iUniverse.com, under the aegis of the Authors Guild.
Eric Scigliano was intrigued by the announcement that United Airlines, caught up in post-September 11 woes, tapped John Creighton Jr. as its new CEO. Creighton, retired president of the timber giant Weyerhaeuser, has also sat on the board of
the California-based oil multinational Unocal since 1995--the period in which Unocal became the main US corporate suitor seeking to do business with the Taliban, alleged protectors of Osama bin Laden, alleged mastermind of the terrorist plot that resulted in the September 11 crashes of two United planes. In 1995 Unocal conceived a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea and enlisted Saudi, Pakistani, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian partners. In December 1997 Unocal hosted Taliban delegates in Texas, and even took them to the beach. It also gave nearly $1 million to a job-training program in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, out of up to $20 million it spent on the pipeline effort. After the Taliban took Kabul in 1996 and women's groups protested its increasingly intolerant policies, Unocal hung on. Finally, in the wake of Osama bin Laden's fatwa on the United States, of embassy bombings and US missile reprisals, it withdrew from the pipeline project (for more details: www.thenation.com).
The copious references to God in public life these days leave the Rev. Peter Laarman of the Judson Memorial Church in New York City unimpressed. He sent us what he calls "Among the Reasons God May Temporarily Be Unavailable to Bless America." Among them: (1) because God has had it up to here with the assumption that prayers for national exemption from pain and tragedy deserve an answer; (2) because God is too busy processing Americans' prayers for their high school football teams; (3) because God takes for granted that the bombs falling on Kabul are America's real prayers; (4) because such a tasteless and lurid efflorescence of red, white and blue (including flags wrapped around church steeples) gives God a massive headache.
YOU READ IT HERE FIRST
"Even more damning is the Saudi terrorist link. According to a New York Times story, US officials have concluded that 'much of the financial support for terrorists who attack Americans... comes from wealthy individuals from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies of the United States.' Moreover these same officials concede that the principal problem is not state-sponsored terrorism, which the United States continues to target, but the emergence of sophisticated privately financed networks of terrorists" (Sherle Schwenninger, The Nation, October 7, 1996).
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Call him irresponsible. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on civilian casualties caused by US bombing: "Responsibility for every single casualty in this war, be they innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of the Taliban and Al Qaeda."
It's been more than five years since Congress ended welfare as we knew it by passing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, over the objections of activists who warned of a large-scale social catastrophe once a recession came. Those dire predictions were dismissed as alarmist, and after four years, with welfare rolls down 50 percent, the law was declared a success. Now, with the economy in recession and unemployment spiking to 5.4 percent, the disaster is imminent, if not already upon us. Congress has begun to debate the reauthorization of the act, which expires next year, and this time, its critics are vowing not to go down without a serious fight.
Thanks to welfare "reform," this is the first recession since the 1930s in which we have virtually no safety net. Of the 415,000 jobs the economy shed in October, 111,000 were in the service industry--a sector dominated by the kinds of temporary, low-wage, low-skill jobs commonly portrayed as a stepping stone out of poverty for welfare moms. Only 40 percent of those tossed out of work collect unemployment insurance, an outrage the so-called stimulus package passed by the House does nothing to address. Of the rest, a disproportionate share are poor single mothers, who don't qualify because they have worked part time, left jobs as a result of childcare problems or recently come off welfare. (Before it was eviscerated, welfare functioned as a sort of unemployment insurance system for such women--offering the added benefit of stimulating a sluggish economy by steadying their purchasing power.) Immigrants who entered the country post-1996, comprising a growing share of the low-wage work force, are mostly ineligible for welfare and other benefits. Worst of all, in most states, poor families will be reaching their five-year welfare time limit over the next six months, just as the recession may be deepening.
It is against this ominous backdrop that the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, a coalition of grassroots groups, is partnering with organized labor, civil rights, women's and faith-based organizations to push for an overhaul of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the block grant that replaced the old system. Their "End Poverty: Make TANF Work!" campaign is asking Congress to stop the time-limits clock for families in compliance with welfare rules; expand education and training; create a decent public jobs program; restore benefits to immigrants; and insure that women never have to make a choice between their income and the well-being of their kids. Representative Patsy Mink of Hawaii has introduced a bill (soon to be followed by a companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Paul Wellstone) that includes many of these proposals.
In recent years, grassroots groups representing low-income women have made great strides at the local and state levels--winning increased welfare benefits, living-wage guarantees, healthcare for the uninsured, real job training and expanded childcare benefits. And they demonstrated some national strength this past spring, winning a partly refundable child tax credit in an otherwise feudal tax bill. Next year's battle over welfare will test their newfound unity. It's a fight many of their members simply cannot afford to lose.
Once again, we're being sold on the devil theory of history.
The new USA PATRIOT Act has brought into being an unprecedented merger between the functions of intelligence agencies and law enforcement. What this means might be clearer if we used the more straightforward term for intelligence--that is, spying.
The New York mayor's race was weird and depressing in virtually every imaginable way.
Open the November 5 edition of Newsweek and here's Jonathan Alter, munching on the week's hot topic, namely the propriety of the FBI torturing obdurate September 11 suspects in the bureau's custody here in the United States. Alter says no to cattle prods, but continues the sentence with the observation that something is needed to "jump-start the stalled investigation." The tone is lightly facetious: "Couldn't we at least subject them to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap?" There are respectful references to Alan Dershowitz (who's running around the country promoting the idea of "torture warrants" issued by judges) and to Israel, where "until 1999 an interrogation technique called 'shaking' was legal. It entailed holding a smelly bag over a suspect's head in a dark room, then applying scary psychological torment.... Even now, Israeli law leaves a little room for 'moderate physical pressure' in what are called 'ticking time bomb' cases."
As so often with unappealing labor, Alter arrives at the usual American solution: outsource the job. "We'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies," he says.
What's striking about Alter's commentary and others in the same idiom is the abstraction from reality, as if torture is so indisputably a dirty business that all painful data had best be avoided. One would have thought it hard to be frivolous about the subject of torture, but Alter managed it.
Would one know from his commentary that under international covenants--signed and ratified by the United States--torture is illegal? One would not, and one assumes that as with the war against the Taliban's Afghanistan, Alter regards issues of legality as entirely immaterial. Would one know that in recent years the United States has been charged by the UN and also by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with tolerating torture in prisons, by methods ranging from solitary, twenty-three-hour-a-day confinement in concrete boxes for years on end, to activating 50,000-volt shocks through a mandatory belt worn by prisoners?
Would one know that one of the darkest threads in postwar US imperial history has been the CIA's involvement with torture, as instructor, practitioner or contractor?
Remember Dan Mitrione, kidnapped and killed by Uruguay's Tupamaros and portrayed by Yves Montand in Costa-Gavras's film State of Siege? In the late 1960s Mitrione worked for the US Office of Public Safety, part of the Agency for International Development. In Brazil, so A.J. Langguth (a former New York Times bureau chief in Saigon) related in his book Hidden Terrors, Mitrione was among the US advisers teaching Brazilian police how much electric shock to apply to prisoners without killing them. In Uruguay, according to the former chief of police intelligence, Mitrione helped "professionalize" torture as a routine measure and advised on psychological techniques such as playing tapes of women and children screaming that the prisoner's family was being tortured.
Alter expresses a partiality for "truth drugs," an enthusiasm shared by the US Navy after the war against Hitler, when its intelligence officers got on the trail of Dr. Kurt Plotner's research into "truth serums" at Dachau. Plotner gave Jewish and Russian prisoners high doses of mescaline and then observed their behavior, in which they expressed hatred for their guards and made confessional statements about their own psychological makeup.
As part of its larger MK-ULTRA project the CIA gave money to Dr. Ewen Cameron, at McGill University. Cameron was a pioneer in the sensory-deprivation techniques for which Jonathan Alter has issued his approval. Cameron once locked up a woman in a small white box for thirty-five days, deprived of light, smell and sound. The CIA doctors were amazed at this dose, knowing that their own experiments with a sensory-deprivation tank in 1955 had induced severe psychological reactions in less than forty hours.
Start torturing, and it's easy to get carried away. Torture destroys the tortured and corrupts the society that sanctions it. Just like the FBI today, the CIA in 1968 got frustrated by its inability to break suspected leaders of Vietnam's National Liberation Front by its usual methods of interrogation and torture. So the agency began more advanced experiments, in one of which it anesthetized three prisoners, opened their skulls and planted electrodes in their brains. They were revived, put in a room and given knives. The CIA psychologists then activated the electrodes, hoping the prisoners would attack one another. They didn't. The electrodes were removed, the prisoners shot and their bodies burned. Alter can read about it in Gordon Thomas's book Journey into Madness.
The Israelis? They're still torturing. In July, AP and the Baltimore Sun relayed charges from the Israeli human rights group B'tselem of "severe torture" by police: Palestinian youths as young as 14 being badly beaten, their heads shoved into toilet bowls and so forth. But Israel outsourced too. After Israel finally retreated from its "security strip" in southern Lebanon, run by its puppet South Lebanese Army, the journalist Robert Fisk visited Khiam prison. His report for The Independent, May 25, 2000, began thus: "The torturers had just left but the horror remained. There was the whipping pole and the window grilles where prisoners were tied naked for days, freezing water thrown over them at night. Then there were the electric leads for the little dynamo--the machine mercifully taken off to Israel by the interrogators--which had the inmates shrieking with pain when the electrodes touched their fingers or penises. And there were the handcuffs which an ex-prisoner handed to me yesterday afternoon. Engraved into the steel were the words: 'The Peerless Handcuff Co. Springfield, Mass. Made in USA.' And I wondered, in Israel's most shameful prison, if the executives over in Springfield knew what they were doing when they sold these manacles."
If handcuffs are sold these days to the FBI's subcontractor of choice, at least the executives will know they have Jonathan Alter to explain the patriotic morality of their bottom line.
From the heights of this border town the view into Afghanistan is cruel.
United Nations resolutions don't usually warrant birthday commemorations, but on October 30, women from three war-torn regions--Afghanistan, Kosovo and East Timor--honored the first anniversary of
On the eve of Vladimir Putin's upcoming visit to the United States, there is a troubling new phenomenon developing in the Russian capital.
Martyrs' Crossing, the debut novel from Nation contributing editor Amy Wilentz, couldn't be more timely. The book opens at a military checkpoint in Jerusalem, where we meet Marina, an American-born Palestinian, who is trying to enter the city with her sick child Ibrahim in order to visit her husband, who is being held in an Israeli prison on charges of terrorism. Usually, crossing the border "was more or less civilized.... [the soldiers] were naturally unsuspicious and lenient with mothers and children."
But on this day, crossing the checkpoint is different. There are stones thrown by the Palestinians who are eager to cross into Jerusalem; tear gas and sound grenades tossed by Israeli soldiers into the crowd. As the group disperses, Wilentz's other protagonist, checkpoint officer Lieutenant Ari Doron, sees Marina for the first time, "coming at a run, almost, but graceful and dignified...a beautiful woman...carrying a child." He notices, "One of her shoes was missing."
What follows is a story of identity, loss, love, politics and death. After young Ibrahim dies while Marina waits to carry him across the border, he becomes a martyr; Ari Doron, in turn, is blamed for the young boy's death. Marina's father, George Raad, an ailing, prominent Palestinian intellectual, leaves comfortable Cambridge for the West Bank to help his daughter. "I will give them bloody hell," he thinks. "I will rescue my little boy from their old claws." A massive rally is organized around the image of Ibrahim, and the family is called to action; "The Palestinian people are demanding justice," a lawyer tells George at a restaurant; graffiti reading "Find the Soldier" is scrawled randomly on walls.
Even as Ibrahim's death is manipulated for the personal and political ends of others, Marina and Ari Doron find themselves considering one another outside the proscribed lines of their situation, and their people. "I just feel something about him," she tells her father. "That he was trying to be on my side." But in the end, as justice and a quick solution are sought, their feelings are deemed irrelevant. A martyr belongs to the public.
Edward Said hardly needs introduction. Yet one might be astonished to find what book he would anoint an American classic. After a brief discussion of the American interest in "fact" and the institutionalization of "news," and of the anxieties and deformations of American literature, he writes that "in such an unusual setting it is not surprising to discover that one of the greatest American books of the twentieth century is Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon.... Rarely in modern literature, except perhaps in writers like Kafka, does one come across such a studious rendering of the mechanics of ritualized suffering... nowhere else do words like 'nobility' and 'elegance' have so lurid and yet so compelling an aura." This from "How Not to Get Gored," among a compilation of forty-six of Said's often-surprising essays culled from a period of thirty-five years of public writing in venues such as Raritan Review, The London Review of Books and Critical Inquiry.
"The greatest single fact of the past three decades has been, I believe, the vast human migration attendant upon war, colonialism and decolonization, economic and political revolution.... Exiles, émigrés, refugees, and expatriates uprooted from their lands must make do in new surroundings, and the creativity as well as the sadness that can be seen in what they do is one of the experiences that has still to find its chroniclers," Said writes in his introduction. And yet this collection constitutes a part of that chronicle. It includes political-philosophical writings such as "Orientalism Reconsidered" and "Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community"; assessments of figures as varied as Walter Lippmann, Michel Foucault, Naguib Mahfouz, George Orwell, V.S. Naipaul, T.E. Lawrence, Eric Hobsbawm and Ahdaf Soueif; and examples of Said's music criticism (on Bach, Chopin, Glenn Gould), as well as some wonderful evocations of Egypt, complete with homage to a belly dancer.
Freedom Stumped Its Toe
Nation editorial board member Roger Wilkins relates an anecdote near the start of his new meditation on slavery, the Founding Fathers and black identity. He's on a streetcorner in Cape Town, South Africa, when the apartheid regime still stood. Wilkins is thinking how his skin makes him look just like those who are classified "colored" there; before the light changes, a small white South African woman looks up at him and says, "Where're you from, Philadelphia?" He reflects on how profoundly American he feels abroad, and the places--Kansas City, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pike County, Ohio, etc.--that his "blood came down through." And much of the ensuing book plays out the tension between a sense of patriotism and the full knowledge that this country was created by people who countenanced slavery. To this end, Wilkins examines carefully the words and acts of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and George Mason--all of whom "lived lives cushioned by slavery" and created a nation "dedicated to the proposition that whites were and should be supreme." This, despite the fact that at the time of the Revolution, 40 percent of all Virginians were black, as were, at the end of the war, some 20 percent of the soldiers in the victorious Continental Army.
Jefferson's Pillow is by turns angry (that "America had become a country in which a good part of white self-esteem flowed simply from not being black"), analytical and ruminative as it ranges over questions of motive and identity, rights and the legacy of history. "Without black Americans," Wilkins observes, "the America that General Washington led into revolution in 1775 would have been a vastly different place--a poorer and weaker place, much less capable of waging a successful revolt.... Blacks and their works were present in the Revolution as essential elements both of its strengths and of the Virginians' greatness."
Rather Fight Than Switch?
In his introduction to Smoke in Their Eyes, Michael Pertschuk quotes from chemistry Nobelist M.F. Perutz writing on the threat of biological weapons (well before anthrax appeared in the mail): "In 1995, the last year for which official statistics are available, the number of people killed by tobacco in the United States was 502,000, of whom 214,000 were aged between thirty-five and sixty-nine.... It seems to me that the still-prospering tobacco industry poses a proven threat to health and life that is many thousand times greater than the potential threat of bioterrorism." And it's the lessons Pertschuk (a Nation editorial board member) has learned in decades of fighting this pernicious threat--he headed the FTC under President Carter--that form the basis of the book.
Pertschuk parses the story into four phases. First is the approach to settlement of state suits--from the earliest attempts by Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore to recoup billions in Medicare costs from the industry to the exchanges and deal-making in building a coalition of antitobacco forces. Second, he discusses the June 20, 1997, settlement itself, complete with behind-the-scenes maneuvering by various coalition leaders to scuttle or strengthen it along the way. Next he discusses the rise--and fall--of the McCain bill the following year. (That bill would have strengthened public health provisions of the settlement, but it fell three votes short of the sixty necessary in the Senate to bring it to a vote.) Last, he turns to lessons of the settlement and its aftermath.
While acknowledging significant gains, Pertschuk also notes that "as of this writing, only six states have met or come close to the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for a minimally adequate state [tobacco control] program, and only fifteen states have allocated more than half of what CDC has set at a minimum." He concludes that "the collective leadership of the tobacco control movement, heroes all, nonetheless blew the opportunity of a lifetime."
David Halberstam is a legend in American journalism. I was a journalism student when Halberstam was the New York Times correspondent in Vietnam in the early 1960s, and I remember how much we admired his work. His dispatches offered empirical evidence that our ally in Saigon was an Oriental despot who terrorized his own people and that the US-supported military program was a fake and a failure. This, of course, was not the way US Embassy officials in Saigon saw it, and they questioned his patriotism. The reporter stood his ground, brashly charging that the embassy had become "the adjunct of a dictatorship."
Halberstam subsequently became what most journalists secretly aspire to--a successful author of big and smart books on sweeping topics. His The Best and the Brightest, which deals with the decision-making in military and foreign policy surrounding America's involvement in Vietnam, remains a classic. What makes it still so compelling a read is his critical eye, passion for truth and sheer zest for mapping out the Washington bureaucratic infighting that steered the country into Vietnam. It was not hyperbole to present the narrative in epic terms, for although Vietnam is a small and underdeveloped, distant land, the war there was a part of a historic struggle between the world's two superpowers and two competing ideologies.
In War in a Time of Peace Halberstam returns for the first time to the area of national security reporting to look at America in the 1990s "through our decisions in foreign policy." He brings to the task his prodigious writing skills and the understanding that decision-making in military and foreign policy affairs is driven by personality as much as by events. The canvas is vast. But the baby boomers who now run the US government are a different breed from the men who surrounded JFK and LBJ. President Clinton, an enormously talented man of great promise that was never fulfilled, himself seems to embody the new generation. Quite apart from various domestic scandals, he had little interest in foreign affairs. (A few days before taking office, he told Lee Hamilton, then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that nobody in America cared about foreign policy except for a handful of journalists.) After informing the nation that he had ordered an attack on Yugoslavia, Clinton vanished from public view, apparently shying away from public responsibility for it.
The President, as far as the military was concerned, was perhaps its most detested Commander in Chief. Their problem with Clinton went back to the way he handled his draft call. They did not like his decision to allow gays to serve openly in the military, but liked it even less when, facing opposition, he quickly backed off. Various scandals during his presidency further undermined his standing. They despised what they saw as the primary concern at the White House: not necessarily reality but "the appearance of reality--spin." The very qualities that made him a superb operator in American politics--his skill with words, his immense ambiguity, his knowledge of how to please different constituencies--made the military distrust him.
Clinton's top foreign policy advisers--Warren Christopher, Tony Lake, Sandy Berger and Madeleine Albright--had one common characteristic: None was a forceful, independent figure. Christopher became Secretary of State, we are told, because nobody knew "whether he had ideas or a vision of his own." Endowed with "a Hamlet-like quality," Lake is described as a "world class survivor" who presided over the National Security Council while the massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda took place. Berger, "the most pragmatic of men," was Clinton's political twin in his outlook toward foreign policy--which may explain why Berger could almost boast in a newspaper interview about how the Administration did almost everything in foreign policy ad hoc and mock those who thought it needed a larger strategic vision. Albright was a pioneer in a man's world and as such was ignored for a long time. (Her peers viewed her as "acceptably talented, not exceptional in intellect" and given to media grandstanding and self-promotion.)
Working with this cast of characters, the author could not replicate the drama and the tension of The Best and the Brightest, where decisions emerged from a caldron of strong feelings, ambition and anti-Communist zeal. For even when they took misguided steps, the American leaders of the 1960s were firmly convinced that Communism was threatening America's very existence and that relentless struggle on all fronts was crucial to preserve our way of life. This sounds like a platitude today; with the collapse of Communism it is hard to grasp the depth of passions that were tearing America apart. Occasionally, Halberstam stretches somewhat inappropriately to make the Clinton men into interesting personalities. For example, Lake is cast as a "Wilsonian figure" because his grandfather was a Harvard theologian. (This was "an almost sure sign that there would be significant Wilsonian traces in the gene pool.")
The central theme is America's groping for a strategy, a vision of what it should do in an unsettled and turbulent post-cold war world to stabilize it at low cost. The Administration first stumbled into a nation-building mission in Somalia, which was in the grip of civil war. (As Albright put it, the objective was to help lift Somalia "from the category of a failed state into that of an emerging democracy.") But the mission turned into a fiasco when the Somalis turned on the Americans. Then, in 1994, Clinton invaded Haiti to end the rule of a military junta and restore the elected president to power. Somalia and Haiti, Halberstam says, taught Clinton that "foreign policy might not help you, but it could certainly hurt you." He and his advisers were still plagued by the problem of Bosnia, "which limited everything else they did in foreign affairs." The focus of this book is overwhelmingly on the Balkans, where, according to Halberstam, the Clinton Administration finally discovers the answer, in the 1999 Kosovo war: that things in the world could be changed by a minimum, casualty-free application of American air power.
This hit Halberstam as a kind of revelation. While US and NATO aircraft pounded Yugoslavia for almost three months, the United States went about its business as usual. "It was something stunningly new--war in a time of peace." With few people realizing it, he observes, the Clinton Administration "had finally faced a critically important test for uses of American might." His view that this was a momentous event in the history of warfare is buttressed by British military historian John Keegan: "Now there is a new turning point to fix on the calendar, June 3, 1999, when the capitulation of President Milosevic proved that a war can be won by airpower alone."
The heroes of Halberstam's book are two second-echelon officials--Richard Holbrooke and Gen. Wesley Clark--helped by Albright, the original interventionist who had urged air attacks on Serbia as far back as 1993. They had nudged a reluctant President in the right direction, according to Halberstam.
Both Holbrooke and Clark are fascinating and engaging figures, each of them a wunderkind, each very ambitious, focused, brilliant and driven. Halberstam has known Holbrooke since their Vietnam days, when Holbrooke was a young diplomat who openly questioned official policy. ("Then and later, Holbrooke's ambition was matched only by his intelligence and the awesome quality of both, plus his raw charm, made him likeable sometimes inspite of himself.") Clark, "a water walker," parted company with his Army colleagues and embraced interventionist views after he became Holbrooke's military aide. ("The fault line in American geopolitical life ran right through him," Halberstam says.)
The interventionists were opposed by the Pentagon and Defense Secretary William Cohen, who is portrayed as an ineffectual wimp. ("If Cohen wrote an autobiography, after his career in the House and the Senate, his years in the Pentagon would get one brief chapter.") All top Pentagon generals are portrayed here as good but limited men. For example, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hugh Shelton, was "a good man, not brilliant but fair and steady, who represented the virtues, the strength, the limitations and the conservatism" of the Army. Some, in addition, are capricious. Army chief Dennis Reimer had refused to sign off on Clark's appointment as NATO commander because he "simply did not like" him.
Here, on the whole, is where the book fails. However amusing and sharp the portraits and insight into the political manipulations, the substantive issues are presented incoherently and in a rambling fashion. What is missing is Halberstam's bone-deep knowledge and refined critical powers that gave his Vietnam book a firm spine of political argument. He does not know the Balkans; as a result, he brings little knowledge or insight gained firsthand. He thinks Vojvodina, the largest province of Serbia, is a town. I choose this particular, and minor, error because Vojvodina--the flatlands between Belgrade and the Hungarian border--happens to have been the venue for a possible ground invasion that Reimer and other chiefs favored over Clark's ill-chosen southern route leading through the Albanian Alps into Kosovo.
Halberstam's shaky grasp of the situation on the ground is coupled with his uncritical acceptance of what was essentially war propaganda. Exhibit A is the repeated assertion of genocide in Kosovo. ("This time the enemy was genocide, not Communism.") A year after the war's end, the Red Cross said 3,368 Albanian Kosovars were missing; the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia says 4,300 Albanian Kosovars have been exhumed so far. There are probably more victims that have not been accounted for, but that's not the point. Genocide--"acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," according to the tribunal's statutes--definitely occurred in Bosnia, where tens of thousands of Muslims died and more than a million were uprooted, but easy use of the term for Kosovo is ill advised.
In developing the argument for the use of air power, Halberstam presents a fuzzy account of the collapse of the Bosnian Serbs in 1995. The key role in it was played by the Croatian Army, which was trained by retired American officers led by Gen. Carl Vuono, the former Army chief of staff. To say that the Croatian invasion of Bosnia "by chance" coincided with the American diplomatic push in August of 1995 is doubtful at best. (A Holbrooke aide told me at the time, "The Croats have long wanted to humiliate the Serbs, and this time we gave them the yellow light--proceed with caution.")
At one point in the book, we are told that at a meeting in Washington three weeks prior to the invasion Holbrooke favored "unleashing the Croats," while Lake and Albright were for "a yellow light." Moreover, Holbrooke's deputy, the late Robert Frasure, told a senior Croatian military official, "Well, do be careful," after the latter had presented him a detailed plan for the invasion. Holbrooke, in his own memoir, says the Croats moved "still against American recommendations," but this could be because he did not care to be associated with the atrocities the Croats committed during the mission.
Halberstam's argument is further weakened by the fact that the air campaign in the Kosovo war did remarkably little damage to Milosevic's military. Only when the United States unleashed the full force of NATO air power on Yugoslav cities, after forty-five days of trying to destroy the military, did the Serbian people begin to protest openly against Milosevic. The systematic destruction of the country's economic life and infrastructure undoubtedly led to the capitulation, but even then it was Washington's diplomatic deal with Moscow that finally forced Milosevic's hand. Without access to Russia's arms and energy, he was doomed.
There was never any question in anyone's mind--Milosevic included--that the NATO alliance could demolish Yugoslavia. But the test for any military action is whether violence can achieve political objectives. The heart of the matter is a clear definition of our political objectives in Kosovo. In his own memoir, Clark observes that after the war started "a number of us had begun to ask in private about the political goals of the campaign."
Clark had been so keen to fight a war that he had apparently not thought about those goals. He reasoned, according to Halberstam, that once it started Washington would have no choice but to give him everything he wanted, because if things started going badly, "the national security and humanitarian rationales would give way to other considerations: the ego and the vanity and the place in history of the Clinton (and Blair) administrations, and the need to show that NATO had not been defeated by some tinhorn dictator." No wonder the generals were worried about Clark.
The chiefs, starting with Colin Powell (who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the first Clinton term), wanted to know what the roles and missions were, what the objectives were and what the exit strategy was. They also wanted a strong White House commitment and Congressional support. Do these matters reflect the military's innate conservatism, as Clark and Holbrooke insist, or are they legitimate concerns of military professionals? Sadly, Halberstam's list of interviewees does not include Shelton, Reimer or other chiefs, who might have shed some light on the issue.
Coming after the bloody terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the book's seductive concept that a war can be won by air power alone is now being put to a real test. There is far more at stake in the current war against terrorism than in any of Clinton's military ventures. Moreover, the terrible loss of American lives gives the United States a moral justification that Clinton's engagements lacked. But it is obvious that much more is needed than air power. Conservatives advocate the use of ground troops and the expansion of war to Iraq, Iran and Syria. Liberals urge restraint and a multinational effort to eradicate terrorism. Powell, now Secretary of State, has staked out the middle ground, and at least this is encouraging. But in the current climate it is virtually impossible to have a calm debate about how best to achieve our political objectives and, more important, how to reassess America's place in the world in the twenty-first century.
Halberstam's book offers a catalogue of mistakes that flowed from Clinton's inattention to international affairs and his ad hoc resort to violence for tactical ends. Halberstam's "war in a time of peace" acquires a wholly different meaning after September 11. Given the short American political attention span, the air bombardments in the Balkans could be presented as victories even though they resolved none of the problems on the ground, where US troops continue doing constabulary duty to keep peace in Bosnia and Kosovo. The war against terrorism is something of an entirely different magnitude, and it will engage our attention for a long time.
Every memoir, no matter where its author chooses to break off her auto-narration (walking out of the marriage, entering the gates of the college, gazing into the promising future from some hard-won higher ground), has an implicit as well as an explicit ending: I survived and surmounted all this to become the person who could write this book, turn strife and struggle into order and art. The book's very existence becomes a token of transcendence and projects an idea of the author as a meta-presence, a figure both implicated in and yet detached from the character portrayed in the narrative. A real imagined person if you will, and one who piques our curiosity as to how they "turned out," since we feel we "know" their younger self so well.
Despite more than her fair share of vicissitudes, Paula Fox has turned out just fine, thank you. Her Borrowed Finery, a precise, elegant, yet truly heartwrenching account of a young life filled with far too much disorder and early sorrow, comes at a crucial and near-perfect moment in her career. Thanks to a coterie of passionate admirers and a program of trade paperback reissues by W.W. Norton, she and her novels have emerged quite startlingly from the twilight to which so many "distinguished" literary careers are consigned. She's this year's Dawn Powell--and she's even alive to enjoy it. Both the literary bluebloods (Andrea Barrett, Shirley Hazzard, Frederick Busch, a New York Intellectual trifecta of Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling) and youngbloods (David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Walter Kirn and especially the newly lionized Jonathan Franzen) have signed on at one time or another as her advocates, a rather startlingly diverse group of boosters. Here is an instance where the generally Brownian motion of literary life has, through some happy accident, shifted into Darwinian mode, insuring the survival of the aesthetically fittest. How this happened makes for an interesting tale.
As he doubtless would have explained on the Oprah Winfrey show had he made it there, several years back Jonathan Franzen was mired in the slough of despond--a failed marriage, a commercially unsuccessful second novel, a despair that serious fiction could say anything to or do anything for an American culture of sensation rather than thought. In this dry season he stumbled upon Paula Fox's second novel, Desperate Characters, and was saved. It renders in pitiless detail three miserable days in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, cultured inhabitants of Fun City circa 1969, trapped in a marriage and a city both in the final stages of collapse. The Bentwoods, the crooked timber of humanity that their name implies, are equal neither to the challenges of a progressively decaying civilization (remember muggings?) nor to their own spousal failings. It's a tour de force of marital unhappiness and a soul-shivering portrait of the intellectual class at its lowest ebb--late Auden in prose. That such a book should be the occasion not for suicidal musings but, by Franzen's own testimony, the rebirth of his faith in the whole literary enterprise, is proof of the inscrutable nature of the novelist's psychology. That a novel of the strictest social realism, with nary a fillip or a frill, should inspire such cult devotion among the high IQ/postpomo set is equally perplexing, but it probably has something to do with the law of contraries. In the event, Franzen and Company's enthusiasm for Desperate Characters inspired a paperback republication, followed in due course by reissues of four other novels: Poor George, a 1960s urban black comedy; The Western Coast, an expansive novel of California in the 1930s; The Widow's Children, a family novel of Spanish-Cuban immigrants to New York tearing themselves to pieces; and A Servant's Tale, a portrait of a Hispanic maid rendered in the spirit of "A Simple Heart." Then journalistic lightning struck in the form of an admiring profile of Paula Fox in The New York Times Magazine, setting the stage for Borrowed Finery in a manner guaranteed to gladden her publisher's heart.
Paula Fox has done her part in this scenario of late-stage career rebirth by writing the most well-wrought work of early privation and family payback since Memories of a Catholic Girlhood--if there's a hell and it's properly arranged, Mary McCarthy's Uncle Myers and Fox's feckless parents are tormenting each other there right now. Many readers will also be reminded of the dual masterpieces of the contemporary American memoir, The Liars' Club (serious mother problems) and Angela's Ashes (piercing shortage of material and emotional necessities). Paula Fox's style is neither hotwired like Mary Karr's nor relentlessly charming like Frank McCourt's, but rather calm and measured--and all the more effective for that. The score-settling, I hasten to add, is hardly Fox's intent but rather the collateral result of her clear-eyed vision of herself as a child at the mercy of a vast adult carelessness; she renders, but it is the reader who judges.
Constructed as an often discontinuous series of vignettes, episodes and interludes, Borrowed Finery stands as eloquent proof of the virtue of a memoirist's biding her time (Fox is 78). Its effect is of things recalled at a distance for their import but purified by the passage of the years, leached of anger and terror but not of meaning and impact. Rarely has dispassion packed a stronger emotional wallop.
The particulars of Fox's peripatetic journey through childhood and adolescence make you want to call the child welfare authorities. Her parents were a dissolute, seedily soigné couple utterly unsuited to reproduction. Her father, Paul Fox, was a writer who shuttled between the East and West Coasts, Europe and the States, with at least enough talent to have had Maxwell Perkins as an editor and to have scripted Graham Greene's most loathed movie, Last Train to Madrid. Her mother, Elsie, was a beauty of Cuban background who contracted an inexplicable hatred of her first and (thank God) only daughter at birth. It is Elsie who is the demonic center of the book, the never-answered question. Fox puts it with typically chilling clarity: "For years I assumed responsibility for all that happened in my life, even for events over which I had not the slightest control. It was not out of generosity of mind or spirit that I did so. It was a hopeless wish that I would discover why my birth and my existence were so calamitous for my mother."
Left in a foundling home immediately after her birth, Fox by good fortune "land[s] in the hands of rescuers, a fire brigade that passed me along from person to person until I was safe." The trail leads to early childhood years spent in upstate New York, in the aptly named town of Balmville, in the gentle care of a Congregationalist minister she calls Uncle Elwood. He is a character whose real, surpassing goodness is made manifest as Fox follows him on his pastoral rounds and in his loving ways with her--a quietly noble soul whom she adored: "I would have been one of those children found in the wilderness written about in case histories if it had not been for Uncle Elwood," she writes. "I learned civility and kindness from him." This threadbare rural idyll is interrupted at irregular intervals and finally shattered by her father's visits, dragging her back into her parents' unstable lives--"their arrangements, as far as I could work out, were permanently temporary." New York, Provincetown, Hollywood, the Adirondacks, Northern California, Florida--the only fixed point is the dependability with which Fox will be subjected to instances of callousness and emotional cruelty impossible, for this reader at least, to comprehend or forgive. A glass of ice water flung in her face by her mother, in the grip of some mysterious anger. A room-service meal of lamb chops and peas dropped summarily by her father down an airshaft after she remarks innocently about the absence of milk. A terrifying, rage-filled drive by her mother at breakneck speed in the Malibu hills to punish her for complaining of a toothache. "I'll fix that for you," Elsie announces calmly as she places her daughter in the rumble seat. "Through the back window," Fox writes, "I saw how rigidly she held her back, how stiff her neck was, as she drove like the wind and I was shaken like a rattle." All this and more is rendered from the heartbreakingly convincing perspective of a young girl with no yardstick marked "normal" to measure these deviations from ordinary human behavior. And yet Paula Fox, in her unformed way, clearly loved her father, even as she began to grasp his weakness, self-importance and alcoholic self-pity. So well is the stoic worldview of the child inhabited that it will be no mystery to readers why Fox has had a distinguished parallel career as a novelist for young adults.
Among the most exotic and strikingly well-rendered episodes in the book is Fox's time in Cuba with her grandmother, who serves as a companion for her rich sugarcane-plantation-owning cousin, whose "eyebrows were like black caterpillars that had come to a halt on her forehead." The two of them travel south from New York on Tía Luisa's own private railroad car, their luggage handed over to an elderly British butler of exquisite condescension. ("I thought to myself that Prince's smile was a sign that he forgave us for being poor.") Left, as usual, to her own devices--"There was no one who said my name for hours at a time"--she wanders about the elaborate gardens, is watched over by the servant staff and goes to school with the children of the cane cutters. The kitchen of her teacher, Señora García, becomes her refuge and her place to meet other children, her entree into the wider life of Olmiguero: "I had begun to belong to the plantation but not to the people in the grand house--who had not, in any case, asked for me." In short, it becomes for a time Balmville South. This period is ended by the Cuban revolution of 1933, which drives Fox and her grandmother back to Queens, but it offers a tantalizing experience of otherness that has served her well in her fiction, particularly in A Servant's Tale and The Widow's Children.
Fox recounts the balance of her rocky coming-of-age--her parents' divorce and remarriages, her education at a finishing school in Montreal and at the Juilliard School of Music, her brief and disastrous marriage to an older actor (interestingly alike in this respect to Mary McCarthy), her string of odd jobs in Los Angeles (painting ceramics, teaching dancing at Arthur Murray, sorting rivets, reading South American novels for Warner Brothers)--in similar style, with a unity achieved more by style and sensibility than by narrative design. There are, curiously, a number of intriguing Hollywood walk-ons, including Orson Welles, John Barrymore, F. Scott Fitzgerald (passed out drunk), Stella Adler and a "very young and handsome and thin" John Wayne, with whom she dances at a Mexican nightclub. The book ends with a two-pronged coda: a visit with her dying 92-year-old mother on Nantucket, at which the only emotion stirred is the old revulsion ("I had lost out on a daughter's last privilege, I couldn't mourn my mother"); and a successful reunion with a daughter she'd given up for adoption decades before. And so this sobering book ends on a lovely grace note: "What I had missed all the years of my life, up to the time when Linda and I met, was freedom of a certain kind: to speak without fear to a woman in my family."
If Borrowed Finery were simply the triumph of careful craft and flawlessly controlled prose that it certainly is, it would still rank as one of the most impressive books of the year. But it offers its readers something even more valuable: an inspiriting embodiment of courage, integrity and, to use an old-fashioned word, character. There is a particular sort of toughness of mind to be found in American women writers--Flannery O'Connor and Dawn Powell had it--and its finest living avatar is now clearly Paula Fox. We should have known this much earlier, but there is plenty of opportunity now to make up for lost time.
America's longest-running metaphorical war, a campaign against a hidden and even less well defined enemy than terrorism, is the war on drugs. This one also has its insidious domestic threats, its overseas campaign of interdiction and extermination, its potential to foster guerrilla wars and destabilize governments. It too has been supported with little dissent from a Congress where few dare to question the prevailing orthodoxy.
Of course the analogy is misleading. There are huge differences between the threat of drugs and the threat of terrorism, whose very object is the slaughter of innocents. But to point out that obvious distinction is also to underline the excesses of a campaign whose cost in lives, privacy, social damage and political instability easily exceeds the more than $25 billion in tax money that the nation now spends on it every year. More than half of all those sent to federal prison are drug offenders.
Nonetheless, the most significant challenge to that orthodoxy so far--most of it from intellectual and social elites--is a free-market libertarianism that's as ideological and unrealistic, both as politics and policy, as the case for an all-out war. So the issue tends to be vastly oversimplified: the zero-tolerance absolutism of former US drug czar William Bennett versus the libertarian, free-market absolutism of economist Milton Friedman; prohibition with long prison terms even for simple possession versus decriminalization, including, at the margins, regulated commercial sale.
Robert J. MacCoun, a professor of law and public policy at Berkeley, and Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, are certain that there is a third, and better, set of alternatives--more rational, based on experience, less sure of itself--that can thread its way, almost on a case-by-case basis, between the ideological poles and out of the morass in which US drug policy has been stuck.
In part that third way requires doing more--in needle exchanges, safe-use campaigns targeted at addicts and a whole range of non-drug policy issues like better welfare and healthcare. In part it means doing less--particularly through selective, targeted enforcement of prohibitions, shorter criminal sentences and fewer encroachments on civil liberties. MacCoun and Reuter make a sharp distinction between decriminalization and what they call depenalization, which differs from conventional prohibition not in restricting access but in limiting the severity of the penalties, particularly by replacing criminal with civil penalties. (In the case of cocaine, which they regard as far too destructive, they don't favor depenalization but only a reduction of the severe and unequal criminal sentences the United States imposes even for possession.) Nor do they support anything that would lead to commercialization even of soft drugs like marijuana, which they feel would bring--and, in places like the Netherlands, has brought--expanded use.
But their preference, often implicit, nonetheless follows a general European model that seeks overall harm reduction rather than merely a reduction in the prevalence of use, as US policy now does. They acknowledge that total harm reduction--mitigating the overall social costs not only of drug use but of prohibition and the criminal behavior associated with it--is not always an easy calculation. Among other things, calculations need to include measures of total consumption--reduction in heavy use--not just in the number of users. But it's certainly more realistic than measuring the success of policy simply by how many fewer people regularly use some illegal substance.
The implicit, and occasionally explicit, policy preferences in Drug War Heresies seem almost an afterthought next to the huge amount of data that forms the core of this book and that sheds light on almost every aspect of this issue. MacCoun and Reuter have surveyed and analyzed hundreds of studies, past and present, in this country, Europe and Australia, not just on drug policies but on experience with a range of issues that have parallels to this one--alcohol prohibition in the United States, tobacco regulation, legalized gambling, the enforcement of laws against prostitution. The real objective of the book is to document the complexity of drug policies, their often unintended consequences and, more fundamental, the lack of scientific foundation for so much of US policy. The analysis of these data, dispassionately presented in all their complexity, makes this an enormously important book. This is especially true because drug policy is a field where tendentiousness prevails, with the exception of a very few other works, like Mark Kleiman's Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (1992).
Needless to say, Drug War Heresies is hardly an easy read, much less an easy book to summarize. Nor will either side in this fight find it entirely to its liking. It leaves the standard slogans and clichés--that better policy research on things like marijuana, for example, would send the wrong message--lying in the dust. Excepting only Sweden, most of Europe, as MacCoun and Reuter make clear, is moving away from the punitive model, only rarely toward legalization and more commonly toward a far more realistic, nuanced, "harm reduction" approach not stuck in the puritanical mode that so much of US policy finds itself in. (And even the Swedes, who reject methadone maintenance and needle exchange, provide well-supported treatment and social services to addicts.) That hardly means that policies in the Netherlands, Britain, Spain and Italy, all of which they examine, are beyond question. All of them, as MacCoun said in a recent talk, are flawed in one way or another. But Europe is a rich source of lessons.
At the core of those lessons is the question of trade-offs: How much do the substantial reductions in crime and criminal justice costs (including the cost of police corruption) resulting from any loosening of criminal penalties, plus the benefits of safe-use programs, offset the costs imposed on families, individuals and neighborhoods from increased drug consumption?
And that, in turn, depends again and again on individual circumstances--on the details of the policy and the surrounding culture. The Dutch, for example, appear to have successfully depenalized marijuana possession without terribly significant increases in use, thereby reducing both the costs of incarcerating marijuana users and the associated human costs. In the mid-1980s, when passive depenalization--essentially, nonenforcement of laws against personal possession--became de facto decriminalization, marijuana became commercially available in coffee shops and use did drift up. But even that increase didn't drive up the use of hard drugs or increase drug-related crime. Other than producing an increase in patients seeking treatment for marijuana-related problems and occasional complaints from neighboring retailers about certain coffee shops, say MacCoun and Reuter, "we are unable to document any significant social harms accompanying increased cannabis use."
MacCoun and Reuter make clear that at times harm reduction can go badly wrong. After years of chasing an active heroin scene around its neighborhoods, Zurich established its so-called Needle Park (Platzspitz), thereby concentrating heroin users in one park near the main railroad station, in an effort to minimize petty crime and neighborhood nuisances, and to create a central location for providing health services to addicts. The experiment failed: It drew heroin users from far and wide, and turned the place into a "Hieronymous Bosch vision of a drug hell," which in turn was cited by prohibitionists everywhere as evidence that such ventures never work. But there were also gains: from AIDS outreach, which appears to have driven down HIV-positive rates, and from the efficient handling of medical emergencies. And while there were some notorious gang-related murders, crime rates were surprisingly low. Switzerland had a serious heroin problem before Platzspitz was created, but there is no evidence that overall use of heroin in the country increased as a result of it.
The book's general read of the overall European experience is that it has a lot to tell us about what is feasible. "The Dutch have shown that harm reduction can be used as a principle to guide decisions consistently; [it has] some successes to show and no disasters to hide. Italy has removed criminal sanctions for possession of small quantities of cocaine and heroin without experiencing much greater problems than their neighbors." Swiss trials (begun following the Platzspitz failure) "show that heroin maintenance programs can operate in an orderly and systematic fashion for the benefit of a substantial fraction of the clients." The authors also point out that American experience with the enforcement of prostitution laws indicates that the harms that theoretically follow from vice prohibition can be mitigated--though not eliminated--by selective enforcement. Indeed, despite America's moralistic views about prostitution and adultery, policing of prostitution has much in common with the discretionary policing of drug use in many European cities.
Conversely, however, MacCoun and Reuter also caution against excessive enthusiasm for the contention that regulatory policies are inevitably an improvement over outright prohibition. Recent US experiences with alcohol and tobacco illustrate the power of commercial marketing and the difficulty of maintaining or tightening regulatory controls in the face of that power. The evidence for both of those licit substances shows quite clearly that while "prohibition may cause considerable harm, eliminating prohibition does not mean eliminating drug-related harm." Put briefly, they contend that contrary to the libertarian enthusiasm for such a course, the alcohol and tobacco model has to be approached with a lot of caution. In the case of tobacco, for example, restrictions on promotion, product regulation and taxation have all been greatly attenuated by the industry's strategic use of political contributions and reframing of legal issues (e.g., making promotion of a dangerous product a free-speech issue).
Despite the wealth of research available to help guide drug policy, the tests and calculations--essentially on the harm-reduction principle--MacCoun and Reuter are under no illusion that there's any specific formula by which to evaluate reform proposals. In the end, value judgments still have to be made, weights attached to each element of harm. Politically, moreover, the burden of proof is still on reformers to show why their proposals are preferable to the status quo, no matter how dismal it is. And that's often complex. Much easier, unfortunately, are the simplistic warnings put out by government prohibitionists that any experiment--say, with safe-use programs or even good medical studies on the safety and efficacy of marijuana in reducing the nausea associated with chemotherapy or the loss of appetite of AIDS patients--would "send the wrong signal."
MacCoun and Reuter may overestimate the political obstacles blocking the kind of reform that they clearly seem to prefer. A call for "nonzero tolerance," they write, is tantamount to treason in some circles; but such a call might encourage more humane, less intrusive, less damaging ways of coping with drugs and their harms. They cite the passage of the first initiatives, in California and Arizona in 1996, permitting the medical use of marijuana, which they call "at best sloppy," because those ask doctors to make decisions without adequate scientific evidence. But their book apparently went to press before the wave of recent ballot measures and state laws: medical marijuana initiatives in six or seven other states, state laws liberalizing sterile syringe access and reducing prison terms for drug possession, and California's Proposition 36, passed in the fall of 2000, which requires all those convicted of simple drug possession or drug use to be sent to treatment rather than prison. All suggest that, at least before the terrorist attacks of September 11, the public may have been in a far more tolerant and reformist mood than its elected leaders.
Still, the authors are right that despite polls showing that Americans believe the drug war has been a failure, it's a political standard, not a philosophical or analytic one, that reformers have to meet. And that standard is quite protective of the status quo. The combination of high uncertainty about the outcome of any change; the partial irreversibility of any bad outcomes; and a pervasive tendency for decision-makers to favor the status quo pose steep barriers for reformers. Despite the high number of Americans incarcerated for nothing more than marijuana offenses--an affront to a liberal society's belief in the benevolence of government--reactions to existing policies have not been strong enough for politicians to risk any real reforms. A punitive stasis prevails.
Yet even in the face of such passive resistance, Drug War Heresies should pose a formidable challenge, not necessarily to cause pursuit of the policies and trial programs that MacCoun and Reuter seem to favor--maintenance, reducing the penalties for use of marijuana, more judicious drug law enforcement--but to pay attention to the data, end the misrepresentation of information where it exists and go after it where fear has repressed even research, especially in assessing the consequences and efficacy of existing policies.
More fundamentally, the book may also introduce policy-makers to the relatively novel thought that prevalence reduction and use reduction are not the same. While cocaine prevalence has gone down, they point out, "total cocaine consumption and its related harms have remained relatively stable." It may also make clearer that harm reduction is not simply a flag flown by closet libertarians who are philosophically opposed to all prohibitive drug laws.
At the same time, Drug War Heresies leaves no doubt about the limits of policy--and on that score it's important for a lot of other fields. It's doubtful, as the authors say, that a complete solution to the US drug problem exists. The major differences between the American and European illicit drug situations, they suggest, may be rooted as much in broader societal differences, in the peculiarities of geography or in other policies--in lack of healthcare or unequal income distribution--as in drug law per se and its enforcement. That's particularly true of treatment programs, which, even under the best of circumstances, will only be partially successful. But that hardly eliminates the need for reform, in reducing the severity of sentences and the intrusiveness of drug law enforcement, and shifting to more selective, targeted enforcement.
Such a course, MacCoun and Reuter acknowledge, reflects only their opinion. But they leave little doubt that the evidence indicating a need for major reform has both an empirical and an ethical basis. "To scorn discussion and analysis of such major changes, in light of the extraordinary problems associated with current policies, is frivolous and uncaring." For many reasons this book isn't easy; but for anybody seriously and earnestly concerned about drug policy, it is likely to become indispensable.
I'm being vigilant these days, per Mr. Ashcroft, watching the neighbors. It hasn't done much to advance national security, I must admit. Would instead that books could float in the air and be inhaled as easily as a spore, infecting us with their ideas, their zeal, their humanity, their--vigilance. For writers are first and foremost close watchers, and we rely on them for that, whether it's David Halberstam studying the political context of George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton and the generals who surrounded them and marveled so at the efficacy of stand-off bombing (hence Halberstam's title, War in a Time of Peace); or Paula Fox (Borrowed Finery) refracting her painful childhood memories (her parents' arrangements, as near as she could work out, were "permanently temporary") across a distance of seven decades.
This books issue opens with John Leonard's examination of Isaac Babel's Complete Works. "No other writer of the Soviet era ever aroused as much American emotion as Babel," writes Leonard, who calls the book a "grand occasion of literature." Babel himself lamented that "I've got no imagination. All I've got is the longing for it." Of course, he wrote from a society under amorphous (but very real) threat of death, which included an encompassing assault on writers and intellectuals--a condition requiring true vigilance and courage on their part, simply to relate the truth. "We are the vanguard, but of what?" Babel asked.
That same question, in a different context, has been asked by those in the vanguard of postcolonial writing. The new novels of Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul (recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature) are taken up by Amitava Kumar, who has some surprising things to say, given the well-known politics (and impolitics) of each writer. "Despite his railings against 'half-formed societies,' you discover in Naipaul repeated tributes to small beginnings and small triumphs," Kumar writes, an acknowledgment of "the daily, tragicomic routine of unacknowledged lives."
One very acknowledged life is that of the writer Naomi Wolf, taken up by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith Michaels, in a dispute over feminist--or antifeminist--approaches to motherhood. "Now who needs Pat Robertson, Dr. Laura or Operation Rescue when you can have Naomi Wolf? She blames female irresponsibility for unwanted pregnancies and suggests that most abortions are as frivolous as a haircut," they write. Social friction is also examined in Peter Schrag's look at drug-war "heresies" and Richard D. Kahlenberg's dissection of the school voucher debate. "Perhaps we should be thankful that the right has...shifted its strategy of putting a black face on crime and welfare, and instead is depicting African-Americans as striving for educational opportunity," he writes. Rounding out the issue, we have a report on Robert Bly's Sufi-inspired poetry, on business motivational books and on Jennifer Egan's new novel Look at Me, in which the characters lead double lives. So be vigilant.
Napoleon Hill died a great man--if you measure greatness by book sales. Hill is the author of one of the all-time bestselling business/self-help books Think and Grow Rich, which has sold more than 10 million copies since it was published, in 1937. But was Hill a great man?
He spent thirty years writing that book and making speeches about the power of positive thinking, but he left behind a series of failed businesses and broken marriages. Like hard-living rock stars, he achieved his greatest fame after death. You can visit the Napoleon Hill World Learning Center in Hammond, Indiana, or take his "Positive Mental Attitude" class online through Purdue University, Calumet.
Hill says the idea for Think and Grow Rich originated with industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1908, who challenged the young reporter interviewing him to turn his questions on other successful capitalists of the day, and use their insights to develop a science of success.
"In every chapter of this book, mention has been made of the money-making secret which has made fortunes for hundreds of exceedingly wealthy men whom I have carefully analyzed over a long period of years," Hill writes in the book. "The secret was brought to my attention by Andrew Carnegie, more than half a century ago.... He asked if I would be willing to spend 20 years or more preparing myself to take it to the world, to men and women who, without the secret, might go through life as failures."
In this paragraph, Hill reveals the secret to his own success, and the secret behind that of the Depression-scarred motivational gurus of his time. Books like Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking harnessed the twin demons of self-doubt and fear of failure to teach millions how to stop worrying and love themselves. It was a secret formula that would be repeated hundreds of times to sell books in the burgeoning business/self-help genre, from Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Suze Orman's The Courage to Be Rich. Not only was greed good, but you could be good at it and still "fulfill your desires with effortless ease," Deepak Chopra wrote in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.
These books "peddled a sort of inner Taylorism or 'personal efficiency' to an army of insecure executives," writes Tom Frank in One Market Under God. It is a particularly American form of personal efficiency, which traces its roots to Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac and the Calvinistic teachings of the Puritans.
But Hill did what few writers had done before: Add rigorous research to back up his findings and translate the results into rules that any Joe could follow. The business/self-help instruction manual wouldn't make another evolutionary leap until the early 1980s. It took the onset of baby boomers' thirtysomething ennui to reinvent the dusty business-management genre, long an academic backwater, into a sexy personal-development genre with Tom Peters and Robert Waterman's In Search of Excellence in 1982.
Now that they're beginning to approach retirement, the boomers are contemplating their legacy. For these businesspeople, the latest twist on the literature of success is Jim Collins's just-published Good to Great, which Strategy & Business magazine recently named the top business book of 2001.
"I've got to have an angel on my shoulder," Jim Collins told me recently, "because my books keep dropping into the right zeitgeist." Collins knows a thing or two about surfing the zeitgeist. His 1994 book, Built to Last, has sold almost 600,000 copies--monster sales in the business-book world--thanks to a powerful message of spiritual redemption through the "successful habits of visionary companies": "We hope you take away confidence and inspiration that the lessons herein do not just apply to 'other people,'" he wrote in the preface to Built to Last. "You can learn them. You can apply them. You can build a visionary company."
After spending five years microscopically dissecting companies that have not only lasted but achieved greatness, Collins has come down from the mountain with a new set of commandments. In Good to Great, he argues that "good is the enemy of great." It's not important to simply be good, he says, but rather to become great. He then goes on to explain how only eleven companies have done it since 1965.
The case studies of companies like Fannie Mae, Walgreens and Kroger are fascinating--and the financial methodology that produced his chosen companies is rock-solid--but there's a spiritual message inside the book's many koanlike riddles. Collins says he's discovered the "timeless principles of good to great" and the "immutable laws of organized human performance": You need self-effacing Level 5 leaders; you need to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus and the right people in the right seats; you have to confront the brutal facts but never lose faith; you have to transcend the Curse of Competence; you must relentlessly push the flywheel to achieve a breakthrough; you must rinse your cottage cheese.
Say what? You have to read the book, of course, to follow most of this. And if you're looking for a motivation for achieving greatness, you won't find it from the Zen master: "The question of Why Greatness? is almost a nonsense question," Collins intones, like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. "If you're engaged in work that you love and care about, for whatever reason, then the question needs no answer. The question is not why, but how."
This isn't your average one-idea, case-study-choked business book. In fact, Collins says he's not writing about business problems at all but rather human problems. If it all sounds like some kind of bad trip, maybe you just can't handle the truth. Maybe you don't have the "seed" to become a Level 5 leader. But that's OK, because you're only as great as you feel.
Good to Great isn't an aberration. In fact, at least three other books out this year claim to analyze hundreds of companies and deliver the secrets of greatness: The New Market Leaders: Who's Winning and How in the Battle for Customers, by Fred Wiersema; The Myth of Excellence: Why Great Companies Never Try to Be the Best at Everything, by Frederick Crawford and Ryan Mathews; and Creative Destruction: Why Companies That Are Built to Last Underperform the Market--And How to Transform Them, by Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan.
For all their newfangled talk about "human values" and "customers' unmet needs," these books are really pointing to companies for answers to the eternal question about the meaning of life. But the unspoken assumption is that the answer lies within. To update the 1960s slogan, the personal is commercial.
When did writers start making this leap from creating individual change to leading corporate revolution and, in the process, equating the two transformations? The seeds were planted with I'm OK, You're OK. The 1967 self-help classic used interviews with hundreds of patients to reduce the tangled world of Freudian psychotherapy to a simple vocabulary for understanding yourself and others. Through the power of Transactional Analysis, the book promised "a new answer to people who want to change rather than to adjust, to people who want transformation rather than conformation." The idea was that if you can change individuals, you can change the world.
It wasn't until Peters and Waterman came along with In Search of Excellence that business self-help books merged with the pop-psychology self-help field. What started as a dry McKinsey study of "organizational effectiveness" went on to sell millions of books, to the authors' great surprise. As Economist writers John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge wrote in The Witch Doctors, "For all the research that went into it, In Search of Excellence sometimes reads like a popular how-to book.... As Peter Drucker has put it, In Search of Excellence made management sound 'incredibly easy. All you had to do was put that book under your pillow and it will get done.'"
The popularity of the book in turn fueled a cottage industry of Tom Peters books and workshops, not to mention Peters's house organ, Fast Company magazine. Businesspeople became "change agents," they were a "brand," they got in touch with their inner "wow." The one-man-show school of management gurus was born, and then blossomed into a troupe of gurus like Gary Hamel, James Champy, Michael Hammer and Peter Senge.
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, business books incited the oppressed lumpenmanageriat to re-engineer their corporations, compete for the future, even lead the revolution. The responsibility for transformation--as with the self-actualization books of an earlier era--lay with you and you alone. "Excellent companies require and demand extraordinary performance from the average man," Peters wrote in In Search of Excellence. "Companies don't reengineer processes; people do," wrote Hammer and Champy in Reengineering the Corporation, a book that, despite what may have been good intentions, helped in the cause of re-engineering hundreds of thousands of people right out of their jobs in the 1990s.
Some would even say businesspeople were on a sacred mission: "It is the entrepreneurs who know the rules of the world and the laws of God," wrote futurist George Gilder in The Spirit of Enterprise. "They are the heroes of economic life."
If you didn't have time to read these business books--and insiders know that very few people actually finish these things--you could watch the Success Channel on TV, read magazines like Success and Fast Company ("Are You Marked for Greatness?"), buy the "Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work Personal Organizer," or sign up for a motivational seminar with Tony Robbins or Stephen Covey.
But this takes time, and as we know, time is money. And the even bigger problem is that personal transformation is hard work--and too often it doesn't last. How long did the "warm fuzzies" linger after your last corporate off-site or self-help book? The tricky thing about transformation is that you're just one drink--or one quarterly earnings report--away from a relapse.
What if, perchance, you do achieve greatness--what's next for the ambitious change agent? There's only so much further you can push the envelope, before extreme excellence begets supreme greatness in a downward spiral of aspiration. And what will history say about the mighty that have fallen? Of the forty-three companies In Search of Excellence identified as "excellent companies," Business Week reported two years later that fourteen had lost their luster, having failed to "stick to the knitting," "stay close to the customer" or any of the other attributes of excellence Peters and Waterman earlier found in them.
Nevertheless, books like In Search of Excellence and Built to Last struck a deep chord, thanks to a potent mixture of good timing and economic malaise. Peters's book dropped like manna from heaven onto an American business landscape battered by recession and fierce competition with Japan. Built to Last hit the market following the painful recession of the early 1990s with a myth-busting message about personal and professional change. Now Good to Great lands in the middle of a dark period of introspection and recessionary gloom.
Collins attributes his past success to "enormous good luck." Judging from the seductive message of transformation in his latest effort, luck will have nothing to do with his success this time.
For a little while I led a double life. By day I was an earnest student, searching alongside my geology professor for life and oxygen in the murky waters of the remote, and aptly named, Lake Lonely. By night I was an anxious, love- struck pixie who craved the indoors, having found deep but illegal love with someone I shouldn't have. I liked living this way, half in the shadows; it made my 19-year-old life sensual, imbued with importance. But as the affair staggered to its inevitable end, I watched my night self pass gradually away. Now I marvel at the evidence that it ever was: notes, photos, a tiny, anatomically correct heart cast in pink plastic I was given as a gift.
Though I thought it was at the time, that double life of mine wasn't so unique. Who doesn't, in some way or another, have a secret self? We adapt and pretend; we have different personas for different occasions; the secret passions and plans we nurture in the long minutes before sleep often seem like those of someone else. So the characters in Jennifer Egan's rich new novel Look at Me--double lifers all--feel sort of familiar, despite the less-than-familiar circumstances that surround them. There's Moose Metcalf, a gentle if unhinged academic whose mental life constantly wars with his material one. There's Charlotte Hauser, Moose's 16-year-old niece, who conducts an illicit affair with a math teacher at night and halfheartedly attends high school during the day. And in the fore there's another, older Charlotte--Charlotte Swenson--an almost-supermodel who, having opted out of a double life early on, is shocked to find herself thrust into another. After surviving both a car crash that shattered every bone in her face and a series of reconstructive surgeries, Charlotte must design a new life, having been given a face that's unrecognizable not only to those from her past, but to her as well.
This Charlotte holds the center of Look at Me. Wryly, she narrates alternating chapters, revealing the day-to-day details of her recovery and a fragmented picture of her past, stringing us along to the novel's denouement--the explanation (and bizarre re-enactment) of Charlotte's car accident just outside her hometown of Rockford, Illinois. Though she declares, on page 1, "The truth is that I don't remember anything," she also lets on that she's not to be trusted. Preparing to meet a private detective who's investigating the disappearance of Z, a man Charlotte knew in her pre-accident days, she explains, "I would lie, of course. I lied a lot.... Telling someone a secret was like storing plutonium inside a sandwich bag; the information would inevitably outlive the friendship or love or trust in which you'd placed it. And then you would have given it away."
As she lazes on her sectional couch in a Manhattan highrise, smoking Merits and drinking before noon, Charlotte fans out the glitter of her spoiled life. "Photographers. 'You've got it!' Cocaine in tiny spoons, in amber vials. Expensive dinners no one touched." Her life full of images, empty of feelings. Still, "it had a lazy, naughty appeal, the allure of skipping dinner and eating a gallon of ice cream instead, of losing a whole weekend prone before the TV set."
But before jumping to conclusions, I'll warn that Look at Me shouldn't be lumped together with the skin-deep works of Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. Charlotte isn't your average fictional model. To the extent that she's obsessed with appearances, it's only to look for a person's "shadow self," the evidence of a double life, "that caricature that clings to each of us, revealing itself in odd moments when we laugh or fall still, staring brazenly from certain bad photographs." Usually, she spots it quickly; "when all else failed," she explains, "I found it by looking at people when they thought they couldn't be seen--when they hadn't arranged themselves for anyone."
Only the shadow self of Z, "one of those people whom it was impossible, and slightly unpleasant, to imagine in daylight," escapes her. Charlotte meets him in a crowded nightclub, assumes he's just another promoter making the model scene. But, uncannily enough, Z is actually a Hezbollah-trained terrorist--one who eerily conforms to all of our post-September 11 expectations. He leads the ultimate double existence, cruising Manhattan for targets by night and crashing in a cramped Jersey City apartment by day. He's Middle Eastern. He's made a career of slipping in and out of people's lives, vanishing and surfacing in points West. And "he hates--despises--America."
Disappointed with the results of the 1993 WTC bombing--"only seven people dead of the many thousands who worked in those buildings, seven including an unborn child! Structural damage completely underground"--Z sets about designing a new plot. "If the collective goal was to be seen--to saturate the airwaves with images of devastation that would serve as both a lesson and a warning--why not strike at the famous people themselves?" He fixates on Charlotte after recognizing her from a cosmetics ad on TV. "In that instant, his hatred and lust and longing to destroy, his regret over all he'd gouged from himself in the process, affixed themselves to this woman.... He imagined sinking his teeth into her lovely white arm." Charlotte, in turn, finds him mysterious, and attractive.
Given recent events, it's weird to find a character like Z in this book. But he's not Egan's first terrorist. In her beautiful, sad first novel, The Invisible Circus, Egan explored the idea of double identity through the phantom character of Faith O'Connor, a member of two terrorist sects active in Berlin in the early 1970s. As Faith's younger sister Phoebe scours Europe to understand the circumstances surrounding Faith's mysterious suicide, her detective mission evolves into one of reconciliation. How could Faith--who, as a young girl, had buried a rabbit she'd shot on a hunting trip in the backyard with a gravemarker reading "i am sorry, Bunny"--have been responsible for killing people?
Back in Rockford, a burned-out industrial town ninety miles west of Chicago, Charlotte Hauser inhabits a world opposite to that of Charlotte Swenson. She is not pretty or sardonic. She understands that there are "two worlds, and in one of them, everything was harder. No one came to you, and if you went to them, you were likely to be punished for it." Charlotte's life intersects with her namesake's in ways that I cannot disclose, but most of the time we see her in the company of older men: math teacher Michael West and her uncle Moose. She encourages Michael to seduce her, and they begin a sexual affair; around midnight a few times a week, she pedals her bike to his house. She asks Moose to tutor her, and they begin a different kind of affair; once a week, in the hours after school, she pedals to his office.
Despite her atypical taste in intimate relationships--"Moose, and Michael West. Her secret life. She gave up the rest."--Charlotte is not only a credible teenager, but a sort of typical one. She keeps a journal, recording her encounters with Michael in a girlish code: "N1T2"0412*//**KL1704 (November first; Thursday; raining; left at 12:04; returned at 4:17; with details of the visit sandwiched in between.)" She plays games with herself: "If he kisses me now, he loves me. If he smells my hair, he loves me." She demands that her "boyfriend" give her something, "anything." All this so that "later, when she was gripped by a fear that it might not be real--that it was nothing, had not even happened--she could...be calmed."
Moose, meanwhile, teaches Charlotte about history. Once a rising academic star, Moose now toils in disgrace at Rockford's Winnebago College; he was fired from Yale for endangering the lives of his students by giving them a "thought experiment" that involved real explosives. Each week he opens his small, subterranean office to Charlotte, or takes her on tours of the abandoned, decrepit downtown of Rockford, explaining the past lives of the rail station, the river, the grain elevator. He carries a small photo of the buildings that used to line the Rock River that runs through town for "evidence" of what the town once was. She writes papers and titles them ("How Two Machines Changed Everything About Grain," "Grass"); she recites dates on demand. She is pulled by a desire to please Moose, who ultimately mistakes her preoccupation with Michael West for a life-changing understanding of his own life's work.
Between Charlotte Hauser and Phoebe O'Connor and the young women she's reported on in various pieces for The New York Times Magazine, Egan could be the patron saint of teenagers. She draws young women as if they are her close sisters; Egan lets them err, she does not condescend to them, she respects their naïveté. The fact that she's had real access to real teenagers might help. Egan's reported stories for the Times have covered everything from girls who cut themselves (a theme explored in her short-story collection, Emerald City) to gay teen relationships over the Internet. The sad arc of Phoebe O'Connor's desperate sexual awakening in The Invisible Circus rings too true. In Look at Me, after a few visits to Michael West's, Charlotte feels
hurt inside, broken maybe, thinking, I'll never go back there, no one will ever know about it. But after two or three days her craving for him made her almost sick--to flee the tiny envelope of her life into the strange other world where he lived, to feel his hands on her. All of it.
Still, when Charlotte finally leaves her secret self behind to wear makeup and flirt with boys her own age and work at TCBY, we understand that this is part of her growing up; it's OK if she wants to be normal. Egan doesn't push.
Look at Me has not been universally praised (though it has been justly nominated for a National Book Award). It's true, Egan's characters are potentially dislikable, if not despicable. Look at them: They're liars, they're injurers, they take much for granted. Charlotte Swenson gets to live not only one lavish life as a fashion model but a second one, as a filthy-rich multimedia celebrity--just by being herself, online. Charlotte Hauser initiates an affair with a man twice her age. Z is, well, a terrorist. Moose is plain crazy.
But caring about the protagonists of Egan's book is beside the point, anyway (even though I liked them all). Look at Me is about bigger things: double lives; secret selves; the difficulty of really seeing anything in a world so flooded with images.
In an article for the online magazine Slate, Egan explained that with Look at Me she "set out to examine the impact of image culture on human identity." "How," Egan wondered, "has America's emphasis on display...altered the makeup of people's private selves?" By this book, the picture isn't pretty. Charlotte Swenson, whose entire adult life was constructed around her real and metaphorical images, has no private self. She has no interests or real friends or distinguishing characteristics, other than her ultra-dry wit. (Oh, and she loves to watch Unsolved Mysteries.) She's so bland, in fact, that although we know she was beautiful (a model, after all), we never really know what she looks like, before or after the accident. (With that gap to fill, I pictured her looking like Jennifer Egan, who, judging from her author photo, is glamorous enough to be a model herself.) As for Z, he has nothing but an idea for a picture.
Toward the end of Look at Me, Moose repeats the words "we are what we see" like a mantra. But what that means is that we aren't all that much. It doesn't matter how closely we look at each other, Egan shows us again and again, there's more that we can't see than we can.
And about that double life.... Two characters in Look at Me, both mentioned in this review, are actually the same person.
When I interviewed Robert Bly on an icy London evening in December 1997, he talked about the Eskimo. This was a short while after the English publication of his second popular prose work, The Sibling Society, a book far more radical in its propositions and conclusions than Iron John had been. Where the earlier book dealt with the boy-child's journey to maturity, this new book focused on the end of that journey--adulthood--or, rather, the lack of it in contemporary society. Without getting too close to what remains a touchy topic in liberal society, the book circled around the subject of authority, trying to wrest it from its negative associations and historical abuses. Bly was interested in the meaning of maturity, which he posited as a state of dignity, clarity and power, and he was concerned about the effects of our having removed the positive hierarchies and limitations that previously aided our passage to genuine adulthood. So he was intrigued to have read somewhere that the Eskimo were the most adult people on the face of the earth. This was because, as he put it, "Adulthood is connected, in some mysterious way that no one understands, with the number of limitations that there are in your life." And of course the deprivation and difficulty of living with extreme weather and other conditions give ample limitations.
But the reason we turned to the Eskimo was that we were speaking about poetry, and poets have always had to work with limitations. Most of the poets of Bly's generation--he spoke specifically of Ginsberg, James Wright and Louis Simpson--learned and practiced traditional forms at the beginning of their careers. "And then free verse came, and we went into free verse, which is really un-Eskimo-like behavior." He and his young fellow poets gave up their limitations and wrote the free-form work for which they are now best known. But Bly went on to say, "I'm 70 now, and I'm more and more interested in finding limitations in poetry, so I'm going back and finding ones, even though I don't have to."
He had then just published in the United States his last volume of new work, Morning Poems. The self-imposed limitation that governed that book was the discipline of writing a poem every morning--following the habit of his friend William Stafford, who woke early most mornings to write, from the period of his internment as a conscientious objector during World War II until his death in 1993. Bly explained that his own working method had been to remain in bed until he finished the poem, which on some days meant getting up at dawn, on others at noon.
The Night Abraham Called to the Stars has a different set of limitations entirely: The poems are all written in an invented eighteen-line form consisting of six three-line stanzas, with unrhymed lines of between nine and fourteen syllables in length. The stanzas, like those of the Islamic ghazals on which Bly based his form, are not necessarily linked in theme or narrative. As Bly put it in his introduction to the volume of Ghalib's ghazals that he translated with Sunil Dutta, "It slowly becomes clear that we are dealing with a way of adventuring one's way through a poem utterly distinct from our habit of textual consistency in theme" (The Lightning Should Have Fallen on Ghalib). Like Ghalib's work, Bly's new poems often jump from praise to despair, from absurdity to love, but sometimes he runs lines on between stanzas, as in the first poem, from which the book takes its title:
Do you remember the night Abraham first called
To the stars? He cried to Saturn: "You are my Lord!"
How happy he was! When he saw the Dawn Star,
He cried, "You are my Lord!" How destroyed he was
When he watched them set. Friends, he is like us:
We take as our Lord the stars that go down.
("The Night Abraham Called to the Stars")
The poems of the book's final section tighten the limitation by requiring also that each stanza end on the same word:
I never understood that abundance leads to war,
Nor that manyness is gasoline on the fire.
I never knew that the horseshoe longs for night.
During my twenties I worked in the opal mines.
No one could open the door to Saturn's house.
I had no choice but to live in my father's night.
("Noah Watching the Rain")
Since his 1994 volume, Meditations on the Insatiable Soul, Bly's work has more clearly expressed his interest in spiritual themes, and in the imagery and storytelling of several spiritual traditions, especially the Gnostic heritage and that of Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam. Indeed, the title of that book was itself a translation of a distinction observed in Sufism--it designates the lowest aspect of the nafs, the fourfold Sufi concept of the soul. In The Sibling Society, Bly quoted Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, head of the Nimatullahi Order of Sufis, and the person to whom his new poems are dedicated:
This nafs is of a bestial character that harasses other created beings and consistently sings its own praise. It always follows its own desires and grazes on the field of material nature; it drinks from the spring of the passions and knows only how to sleep, eat, and gratify itself.
Rumi sometimes calls this the "Animal Soul," which he symbolized as a snake in a poem quoted in The Sibling Society. The poem tells the story of a snake-catcher who goes into the mountains: "He wanted a friendly pet, and one that would amaze/audiences, but he was looking for a reptile, something/that has no knowledge of friendship." He finds a snake that he believes to be dead, but that is actually only sleeping, which wakes and eats him as well as the audience gathered round to witness his remarkable bravery. The "insatiable soul" is like this--mean, unpredictable, likely to harm us and those around us; it will not be our friend.
This has become a commanding image in Bly's work: It stands for all the powers of immaturity, for all that blocks us from true individuation and adulthood, eventually for what most fundamentally keeps us from union with the Beloved, the transcendental ideal for which Sufi mystics long. In the new poems, this nafs has different names and a range of imageries--sometimes Bly speaks of it directly, as when he writes, "We all live close to our greedy souls./We have inherited so many longings/That in the other world our name is 'So Many.'" But it is invoked, too, when he says "a dove's breastbone is a cathedral of desire." This nafs is the animal aspect of our consciousness not only in the sense that it is desiderative, but in that it is also frequently stupid, motivating us to do things we regret, or to harbor feelings that harm us or others, or simply to think in ways that are foolish and ridiculous:
My greedy soul and I share the same room.
When I see a book written two thousand years
Ago, I check to see if my name is mentioned.
("The Five Inns")
Without directly invoking this nafs, Bly speaks of its effects when, in another poem, he confesses some of the stridency and opinionatedness of his own earlier writing:
One teaspoon of envy was enough for me
To attack Robert Lowell; with a tablespoon
I could have taken on Henry James or Abelard.
("The Way the Parrot Learns")
One of the stages of the journey described in Iron John is a period of humiliation, which Bly termed katabasis, a word referring to military retreat but derived from Greek roots meaning literally "to go down." In the Iron John story it refers to a time when the young hero works in the kitchens of a castle, way down in the building's basement, close to the earth. The kind of self-parody and playful confession in the passage quoted from "The Way the Parrot Learns" exemplifies a kind of katabasis in Bly's mature work. Increasingly in his last few books he has considered his past work and opinions, and reflected with humility and sadness on some of his own attitudes. Eating the Honey of Words, the new and selected volume published in 2000, included some telling revisions of earlier work, changes that usually made the poems less strident and opinionated. In another of the Abraham poems, Bly admits, "The muddler you are reading has lied to you/Often." Humiliation is one of the best ways of dealing with the "hungry soul": It longs for praise and gratification--telling the truth undermines its vanity and desire. A poem about a painting by Rembrandt ends saying, "The father protects his son by washing him in the night." The line is ambiguous: The father washes the child at nighttime, and in the waters of darkness. Another poem declares, "The soul is in love with marshy ground and snails,/With mud, darkness, wind, smoke and fire." This elemental imagery of descent runs through Abraham--there is much mud here. "My poems are sad," Bly writes. "How could it be otherwise?" But his poems are also joyful, filled with a reflective pleasure in the passing moment but tinged with sadness at each moment's ending. The collection begins and ends with poems about setting stars, the closing lines of the final poem circling round to the book's first words, quoted above:
People in love with the setting stars are right
To adore the baby who smells of the stable, but we know
That even the setting stars will disappear at dawn.
Like the line about the father washing his son in the night, there is poignant ambiguity in this image, for though, like Abraham, we are "destroyed" when we watch the stars we love go down, it is into the brightness of day that they disappear.
Many of the poets who began writing around the time Bly did have already died; almost all the masters and exemplars who guided him are long dead, many have already faded from public memory, some from literary memory. The patterns of influence within his work are wide-ranging--Bly has read voraciously in the literatures of many languages and times. Among his contemporaries, the late William Stafford stands out more and more clearly as Bly's closest confrère--his vision and his sympathies were similarly broad, and he expressed in his poems a sense of care and value that resonates with Bly's work. The poems of The Night Abraham Called to the Stars mark the ripening of a new current in Bly's career: Now in his mid-70s, he is writing with tremendous energy and clarity and force, and producing some of the best work of his long career.
During a reading at the Globe Theatre in London, Bly spoke of Rumi as the most popular poet in America. The expression of longing is one of the most characteristic aspects of Rumi's poetry--the longing of the aspirant for his spiritual teacher, of man for God, which is often expressed in Sufi poetry as longing for the Beloved. The Night Abraham Called to the Stars expresses this yearning more urgently than any of Bly's prior work, and it's certain to be said that his poems are influenced by Rumi. But the points of coincidence run deeper than this, and too closely likening Bly's new poems to those of the great Sufi teacher is to take away from Bly's achievement. He has previously made versions of Rumi's work--as he has of work by Ghalib, Kabir, Tranströmer, Machado and others. Bly tells at least one story in Abraham that was told previously by Rumi. Coleman Barks, who is probably the best known of Rumi's many contemporary translators, has spoken of the pivotal role of Bly's early encouragement in his decision to dedicate so many years to the task of translation. But the poems of The Night Abraham Called to the Stars express more than influence, a word meaning, literally, a flowing-in from another source--Bly's poems flow from the same source as did Rumi's, the great current of longing for reality, for true maturity, the devotee's call to the Beloved.
No woman, in the annals of history, has ever really been pregnant. Until now. No gestation has been more fraught with meaning, so filled with unexpected and profound discoveries, so laden with policy implications, so deserving of a second-by-second account, as that of Naomi Wolf. And no woman, until now, has ever noted that the medical industry is a tad technocratic when dealing with pregnant women. Expanding the narcissistic trajectory that was implicit but subdued in her earlier work, Wolf has now produced a book so utterly solipsistic that it is hard to imagine what the point of entry would be for any reader, pregnant or not. Though she worries obsessively throughout the book about how her impending motherhood is causing her to "lose her self," only a few pages into it we wish she had. Seldom do accounts of pregnancy and childbirth in the American medical system actually make you feel sorry for the doctors and nurses who had to attend to the mother. Until now.
Wolf's previous books were afflicted with their own share of self-absorption and "eclectic" musings. The strong feminist critique of the beauty industry in The Beauty Myth (1990) has been devolving into an increasingly faux feminism of the "me too" variety, accompanied by fantasies of other times and cultures allegedly more woman/girl friendly than our own. Though Wolf continues to agree that patriarchal practices have played a role in maintaining women's inequality, she has become, over the past decade, less inclined to think that men themselves have anything to do with patriarchy. In Fire With Fire: The New Female Power (1993), Wolf effused about a "genderquake" that supposedly occurred after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings and "led women into becoming the political ruling class." While a bit overoptimistic on this score, Wolf argued for "power feminism" and rightly criticized the media's neglect or distortion of feminist issues. (She also thought feminists should publicize widely that one woman in nine carries a gun.) But in her chapter "Plagues of a Movement" and indeed throughout the book, Wolf criticized second-wavers as ideologues who promote "victim feminism" and require "loyalty oaths," reinforcing, to her own lecture-circuit advantage, the very media stereotypes about feminists she claimed to debunk. In Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood (1997), Wolf explored the construction of female sexual desire by brewing a concoction whose ingredients included her own "coming of age" story, tales of Zunis, Mesopotamians and Taoists, and various "say what?" claims. To wit, Wolf asserted that Anne Frank's sexual awakening was less fraught than her own because Anne just had her fantasies in the attic whereas Naomi had to contend with a cultural barrage of conflicting messages. In Misconceptions, Wolf takes on another topic of particular concern to feminists and literally remakes it in her own image.
The book opens promisingly enough. Although this trail has been trod for at least thirty years by women as diverse as Ellen Peck, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Maushart and Barbara Katz Rothman, to name just a few, Wolf pledges to offer an updated exposé of the misinformation surrounding pregnancy and childbirth and a critique of the overromanticization of motherhood. And although Ann Crittenden, most recently in her powerful book The Price of Motherhood, has exposed our country's Neanderthal public policies surrounding mothers and children, we should always welcome another voice that condemns how undersupported mothers are, especially by their workplaces and the federal government.
But maybe not this voice. What is most pernicious about the book is the way Wolf gushingly contributes to the pervasive postfeminist narrative according to which women inevitably move away from feminism once motherhood approaches. After her relatively tough-talking introduction, we find ourselves in Italy with "ex-models" at a "wedding celebration" of a friend of Wolf's "whose fiancee was the doyenne of a certain group of hard-living glitterati." It is here, in the hills of Umbria, that Wolf learns she is with child. How did she become pregnant? Why, she willed it. She was using birth control, but because her "heart and body longed for a baby," her "will and longing...somehow altered chemistry"; her inherent, driving "mother love, the mother wish," overrode birth control. Later on in the book we hear more about the power of Baby Gap/Earth Mother thinking to conquer biology and technology. One woman Wolf interviewed, after suffering through the many disappointments and real indignities of fertility treatment, went to a therapist who told her to imagine that her ovaries were blooming. She did (she also thought about Jesus rising from the dead), and voilà: pregnant. Want to get pregnant? If you have a powerful New Age will and are truly a determined individualist, you can simply resolve your way to conception. This reporting technique, which Wolf resorts to with abandon, is a favorite of ideologues: Pay lip service to the canons of good research by collecting "data" from interviewees who are just as loopy as you are.
Next we find ourselves in Washington in a "highly respected" Ob-Gyn practice "full of gleaming French Provincial furniture." (Thanks, Naomi, for that InStyle touch.) Wolf is shocked, like really, really shocked, to discover that doctors, even swanky ones, can be perfunctory when treating pregnant women, that they recommend tests like amniocentesis to protect themselves from lawsuits, that the C-section rate is higher in this country than in others and that hospitals often manage labor and delivery for the convenience of the doctors, not the mothers. Jeez, Our Bodies, Ourselves never pointed this out.
Certainly the most offensive and dangerous part of the book is Wolf's decision to cave in completely on reproductive rights. Back in 1995, in an article for The New Republic called "Our Bodies, Our Souls," Wolf placed herself at the top of the slippery slope of antiabortion tale-spinning by introducing the helpful notion of the "chardonnay abortion," the kind that liberated women get because they are prone to high-end debauchery. Here, she's greased herself up for the ride to the bottom. Now that she's seen her fetus on the ultrasound screen, now that she's heard her fetus's heartbeat, the "voice of the species" speaks to her (we swear) and says, "You must protect that little hand at all costs...that little hand...is more important now than you are." "My politics were rebalancing around my belly," she tells us, promoting a bogus, hormonal, antifeminist determinism that comes down to "biology is politics." She is newly condemnatory of women who become pregnant out of "carelessness" because of "a condom left in a drawer." Wolf likens America to a hair salon, "in which something sort of alive, but not really, is either allowed luxuriantly to grow" (that would be her baby), or is "shorn away."
Now who needs Pat Robertson, Dr. Laura or Operation Rescue when you can have Naomi Wolf? She blames female irresponsibility for unwanted pregnancies and suggests that most abortions are as frivolous as a haircut. When you start suggesting that a three-month-old fetus speaks with some transhistorical, authoritative voice of the ages, you are squarely in right-to-life country, a land where fetal auditory hallucinations take precedence over the real cries of the millions of hungry children neglected by our nation's retrograde social policies. Wolf's highly privileged position and class biases--or maybe it's just hormones--prevent her from thinking about the pregnant 16-year-old who wants to finish high school, the mother stretched too thin by her existing children, the couple with the dismal amnio report, all of whom might find their bodies speaking in a different voice.
Wolf's indictment of how labor and birth are managed in hospitals, although hardly new, is mostly on target, as is her denunciation of how much medical information is still withheld from women. But lest you forget what the book is really about, we are soon back to the changes in Wolf's body (do you want to read about "the emerging linea nigra" on her belly?). The author of The Beauty Myth was not really pleased that she gained a lot of weight during her pregnancy. But matters were made worse at one of the parties she went to, when a "political activist," a "biographer" and a "literary critic" all suggested she was no longer "a mere slip of a thing."
Even worse are her personal epiphanies. For example, in an aqua-aerobics class at a resort, Wolf feels herself "drowning in the Lake of Fecundity" (is this a square on Candyland?) because she realizes she has entered the great circle of life and is going to age and then die, an epiphany that only comes in the fifth month of pregnancy. This leads her to conclude that "the fear of women is grounded in the fear of death." On another day of hormonal inspiration, after seeing some squirrels, she realizes that "we were all held, touched, interrelated, in an invisible net of incarnation...the motheredness of the world." One could dismiss these as merely embarrassing, self-indulgent banalities. But Wolf, the lapsed feminist, enlightened by estrogen, reaffirms a host of essentialist and reactionary assumptions about women's "true nature" as she questions her "entire belief system about 'the social construction of gender.'"
By her seventh month, Wolf, who told Diane Rehm on NPR that this was when she felt her "cuddling hormones" kick in, wanted "some acknowledgment" of "the sacredness of [her] state," a paean that was sadly not forthcoming. Claiming that many, many mostly unnamed non-Western cultures have "magic" celebrations honoring pregnancy, Wolf longs for a romanticized primitivism that is an insult to the daily struggles of mothers in developing countries. Inadvertently evoking images of My Favorite Martian, Wolf claims to have grown "celestial antennae" as "pregnancy put me into a state of heightened openness to altered insight." But she could still will her body to do what she wanted. Her baby was head up instead of head down, so she asked her in-laws to join her in sending the baby a powerful telepathic message to turn around. "Half a minute later," after some "buckling and shifting," the baby had indeed flipped over, precisely as instructed. (Women can also accomplish this by doing somersaults in a swimming pool, or writing letters to their fetuses, Wolf tells us with a straight face.)
Remember when feminists sought to debunk the notion that all women are wired with a "maternal instinct" and that we are ruled by our hormones? Forget about it. Babies are "leaky little understudies for God" and call on all women, "on a spiritual level, to sacrifice." In fact, your brain changes and you get the "pregnant mind," which is "superstitious and medieval." (Maybe this is when she gave Gore that alpha-male advice.) Pregnant women should not look at violent movies or accidents (if they do they should cover their stomachs so the baby can't see), and they should definitely, definitely not let any "white-haired, well-intentioned Women's March for Peace activist" touch their belly because she might really be "a conjurer" whose "evil" could go straight into the baby. (Go on, go to the bookstore and look on page 110 if you don't believe us.)
Of course women undergo a host of physical and emotional changes throughout pregnancy, and many of them take us by surprise. It's bad enough that Wolf repeatedly universalizes from her own white, heterosexual, privileged experience to that of all women; even worse, she jumps from her own psychic changes to alleged sweeping truths about gender roles that serve primarily to reaffirm her own position in the social hierarchy. Wolf and most of her friends "revert[ed] to some of the basic tenets of a patriarchy they had all their lives rebelled against--for love," an experience possibly not shared by at least some readers of this magazine. Those of us who looked like Moby Dick in our eighth month will be surprised that women become "girly" then. Those of us who worked until the day we went into the delivery room or have women for partners might not recognize the "dependency" on men that nature "mandates."
Finally, the baby comes, and Wolf is stunned, once again, that "nothing happened the way I had imagined." Her delivery was truly miserable because she had to have an emergency C-section. Therefore all deliveries are miserable. Nowhere do we meet women whose pregnancies were relatively uneventful and who had good care from their doctors or midwives.
Finally, in the eleventh chapter of the book, Wolf steps out of herself and takes on the truisms, many of them inimical to women's health, propounded by the medical establishment. She reviews the diametrically opposed approaches offered by many in the midwifery community and yearns for the utopian moment when the approaches might get together. Here, for a brief moment, despite the "pregnant mind," Wolf sounds almost like a feminist again.
But not for long. Whose fault is it that working mothers have to be superwomen? You guessed it, girls--it's feminism's fault. Because second-wave feminists resisted attempts to define pregnancy as a disability--on the grounds that such a definition was filled with sexist connotations and discriminatory consequences--they "coerced working women to delegate the details of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood to some offstage setting," likening it to "taxidermy or beekeeping." Here we have a glib eradication of how many feminists, among them the childless Gloria Steinem, argued passionately for adequate compensation of the work of housewives and mothers, and of how many second-wavers pushed for a national daycare system, maternity leave and flextime. Our country is indeed primitive when it comes to supporting mothers and children, but the fact that we have anything better than we had is due to the second wave. Once again, Wolf appropriates without acknowledgment the feminist critique of a culture dominated by patriarchal values, and on the other, she reproduces the lie that feminists are meanspirited megalomaniacs who care only about being allowed into the boys' locker room. "We need a feminism that says it's OK to take a break," says one of Wolf's friends. Feminism? How about a capitalist patriarchy that acts on this principle?
At the end of the book, Wolf issues a call to arms for a "Motherhood Feminism" that insists on a national daycare system, paid maternity leave, universal healthcare and other reforms, and here we couldn't agree with her more. The problem is that since, in her "journey to motherhood," Wolf has reinforced the notion that women are guided by their hormones, which make them addled, eager to cuddle and dependent on men, while she also challenges a woman's right to control her reproductive life, some of us might be reluctant to march with her. On the one hand, Wolf suggests that she was once a feminist but motherhood made her see the error of her ways. On the other, she insists that motherhood makes you more of a feminist than ever. Had she forgone the yuppie-centered, narcissistic musings about what happened to her in the "Lake of Fecundity," she might have built an important bridge between the fury shared by second- and third-wave feminists about our society's shameful failure to support mothers and children of all races and classes. But why bring others, especially those who have preceded you, up on the stage when what you really want is to have it all to yourself?
Covered with ash and dust, the survivors of the attacks on the twin towers would barely have made it to their homes that evening of September 11 when the first reports started coming in of assaults, in various parts of the United States, on Arab-Americans, Pakistanis and Indians. It was not only the South Asians with Muslim names who were the victims of attacks but, in a bizarre twist, even the Sikhs, who, because of their beards and turbans, were assumed to be followers of the Saudi Osama bin Laden. When asked about the harassment of Sikh cabbies, a spokesman for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance told a reporter, "Americans saw Lawrence of Arabia and think all Muslims wear turbans."
Mistaken identity, of course, has been the province of much postcolonial fiction. An important feature of this writing is the manner in which misrecognition has haunted all cognition. History is often a detour into fiction in this literature, an attempt to create a narrative of the self in a fantasy zone of displacement, mirroring in some ways the history of the immigrant (which is, of course, what many of the prominent postcolonial writers are). Witness a recent letter in the New York Times by a Sikh man in Kansas who feared being attacked. The letter proposed a plan that perhaps one could be forgiven for reading as part mimicry, part mockery: "Tomorrow morning when I go out, I will be wearing a nice red turban, white shirt and blue pants, our national colors, walking proud as a peacock, smiling at people I love and live with in our great country." (The peacock, incidentally, is the national bird of India. The principal colors of its plumage are, improbably enough, different from the colors of the US flag.)
Where else can we find such crazy hybridity? A postcolonial writer who has often been credited with mixing the mundane with the magical, and history with fiction, is Salman Rushdie. He applies the same formula, with the uneven effect that has also by now become another Rushdie hallmark, in Fury, his latest novel. The story is set in New York, and with what might appear to be something akin to prescience, at least to those who religiously read astrology columns each week, Rushdie has chosen as his theme the idea of violence in the big, mad city.
While remaining glued to the television set like the rest of America recently, I have often thought of Rushdie's new book. In particular, I have thought of an Urdu-speaking Muslim taxi driver in Manhattan, Ali Majnu, whom Rushdie makes use of on two occasions for a couple of pages. Majnu is introduced to the readers as a bigoted prophet on wheels, screaming deliverance as he skids on Tenth Avenue: "Islam will cleanse this street of godless motherfucker bad drivers.... Islam will purify this whole city of Jew pimp assholes like you and your whore roadhog of a Jew wife too." The cabbie appears again, 110 pages later. This time he says, "Islam will cleanse your soul of dirty anger and reveal to you the holy wrath that moves mountains." Then, switching to English, Majnu addresses another driver, "Hey! American man! You are a godless homosexual rapist of your grandmother's pet goat."
Lucky Ali Majnu. Unlike the other sullen, equally rude working-class immigrants in Fury, each from a benighted corner of the globe, Majnu at least gets a few colorful lines. Majnu stands alone in the novel for the whole of Islam and also for the "wealth-free" from South Asia. This is the brown man's burden, the burden of having to symbolize or answer for more than one is. Shall we regard it as a consolation that Rushdie doesn't force this character to carry the additional load of interiority or even a minimum of complexity? One is reminded of literary critic Michael Gorra's comment about Rushdie's first, great success, Midnight's Children: "Yet I remain troubled that a book about the nightmare of history, a book meant to disturb, cannot make me care about the individual characters to whom that history happens."
We know next to nothing about Ali Majnu. And yet, because Rushdie doesn't shirk big themes, he feels obliged to peremptorily link Majnu's road rage to the failure of the talks between Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat at Camp David. Thus, we are simply told that our cabbie, whose first name means "beloved," was "Indian or Pakistani, but, no doubt out of some misguided collectivist spirit of paranoiac pan-Islamic solidarity, he blamed all New York road users for the tribulations of the Muslim world." No doubt.
Rushdie's presumptuous protagonist, his voice indistinguishable from the author's, is Malik Solanka. Solanka was born in Bombay and educated in England. Now this 55-year-old former professor and doll-maker has arrived in America. In an $8,000 a month rented apartment in New York City, his sleep is interrupted by calls from the wife and child he has left behind. Solanka seems to have an unfailing ability to attract beautiful women half his age. When he is not having sex or walking around the city suspecting himself of having killed rich young heiresses with kinky tastes, Solanka continues to drop observations on nationalism, religion, Elián González and Monica, as if he were enrolled in cultural studies classes at Columbia.
The spheres of academia, sex and worldly passion have recently been explored with some subtlety by Philip Roth in The Human Stain and The Dying Animal. Saul Bellow's last novel, Ravelstein, also comes to mind. Like Roth and Bellow, even if with greater volubility than either, Rushdie can deliver lucid lines on the state of our complex world; again like them, he explores in this novel, although with an embarrassing sentimentality, sexual ecstasy and human finitude. However, there the similarities end. Unlike for the American writers, Rushdie's real theme is success. Sex is only a substitute for, or perhaps only proof of, what Rushdie really cares about, which is stardom.
The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Rushdie's previous outing, was a nearly 600-page anthem to the love of Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama, two world-famous rock stars. Fury, at half the size, remains fully as starry-eyed about global popularity. Solanka metamorphoses from a dull academic to a television personality: He hosts history-of-philosophy programs using dolls that he has created himself. Solanka's protagonist is called Little Brain. Soon, to the surprise of other dull academics, Solanka's show becomes a cult classic and then blossoms into "a full-blooded prime-time hit." It is this, rather than the mythical story of the furies--the three women in Solanka's life--that provides the novel with its underlying theme. And what is likely to drive the reader to fury is the narrator's relentless discourse on success and wealth and chic consumer products even while appearing to denounce them.
Early in the book, we are told that Solanka has decided on "using the material of his own life and immediate surroundings and, by the alchemy of art, making it strange." The Russian Formalists and other proponents like Brecht called this aesthetic principle "the alienation effect," or estrangement. You do not need a degree in psychoanalysis to see that the estrangement that really propels Fury is of another sort. We usually call it divorce.
The failure in love gives fury to Malik Solanka's life and the lives of the others around him. Solanka's best friend, Jack Rhinehart, is a journalist. After we have been told that his refrigerator is stocked with "larks' tongues, emus' testicles, dinosaurs' eggs," we are also told that he has stopped writing meaningful journalism. Instead of visiting the war zones, Jack has begun writing "lucrative profiles of the super-powerful, super-famous, and super-rich." He has turned to writing novels that chronicle the loves, the misdeeds, the sexual practices, the cars, of the rich. These novels are about "the lives of today's Caesars in their Palaces." The reason that Jack has started writing this trash is that his exotically beautiful, estranged wife has been squeezing him for money. The "long, languid, pale" Mrs. Rhinehart has "the sticking power of a leech."
It took me a while to see that the book I was holding in my hand pretty much matched the description of Jack's writing. But even after I had finished reading the novel, I could not decide whether Rushdie was publicly venting his fury about what he thought had led to a degradation in art or, in a way that was equally disturbing, was simply seeking to justify the book he had now written about the subject. Fury aims at providing, it would be polite to assume, social satire. But it suffers from what Solanka in another context calls "tragedy of insulation." The story remains bound up in the persona of the protagonist, who appears utterly complicit in what he wants to lampoon. And, in our hero's view, the rulers are brutal, and the ruled, brutish. That leaves us with the garrulous Solanka and his dream girl, Neela, whose sole specialty seems to be to induce whiplash in passing males. This is not enough even to salt the satire.
By the time the novel comes to an end, we find that Solanka's dolls have begun to strut on the global stage. His Puppet Kings, stories about a mad cyberneticist, a drowning planet, cyborgs and lotus eaters, have been put on the web. Suddenly they are all the rage in the hyperlinked universe, perhaps only because everyone who plays the game can become a little Malik Solanka. A little brain. We learn that the dolls have inspired a rebellion on the Fiji-like island of Lilliput-Blefuscu, a rebellion that goes horribly wrong. But by then the reader is weary of art's (read Rushdie's) ambition to inspire world revolutions or, at least, global commercial success. You begin to wish that Rushdie would be content with U2 singing his songs, enjoying the rush of stepping up at Wembley Stadium to have "80,000 fans cheering you on." Here, in these pages [July 9], Rushdie wrote of a photo from that evening: "There I am looking godlike in Bono's wraparound Fly shades, while he peers benignly over my uncool literary specs. There could be no more graphic expression of the difference between our two worlds."
Yes, the difference... But, who am I to now remind Rushdie of that?
The difference between a tabloid celebrity and a serious writer is not so much worth addressing. It is more useful, I think, to ponder the ironies of a self-professed leftist author writing novels that, despite the invocation of deeply democratic themes, are fundamentally undemocratic. I am being harsh. Yet I cannot find better terms to describe writing that is so possessed of a zeal for self-glorification. Equally bothersome, Rushdie's attention to small, ordinary lives is in a pronounced way abstract, uncaring and even hostile. On June 8 last year, he wrote a sympathetic Op-Ed column in the New York Times in which he pleaded for the acceptance of Fiji's Indians as Fijians. In Fury, an analogous group is inexplicably, far too easily, turned into a murderous military force led by a psychotic, megalomaniacal swine.
There might be a moral here for the academic Marxism of classrooms and fashionable literary salons; the less doubtful lesson is about postcolonial literature itself. That literature cannot be strengthened by gestures--Rushdie has been exemplary in this regard, standing up for progressive causes and writers' rights--but by the evidence of the writing itself. In this regard, it is not the leftist writer Rushdie but the rightist V.S. Naipaul, recently awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, whose work returns us to an engagement with the roots of writing and, through that process, the narrative of individual struggles and the geography of marginalization.
Despite his railings against "half-formed societies," you discover in Naipaul repeated tributes to small beginnings and small triumphs. And, instead of the Las Vegas feel that mars Rushdie's fiction, in Naipaul you get a record of the hurt of human failure. For the reader, there is no escape from being reminded of Naipaul's origins--in a family that had barely climbed out of indentureship in a plantation economy in far-off Trinidad. As in A House for Mr. Biswas, what we are offered is a classic account about heartbreaking achievement and the daily, tragicomic routine of unacknowledged lives.
This difference--between Naipaul and Rushdie, rather than between Rushdie and Bono--is worth fighting over. In contrast to Rushdie, the older, conservative Naipaul can be relied upon to make appalling public statements. Most recently, he has fulminated against delinquent youth in England: "I see that several generations of free milk and orange juice have led to an army of thugs." In some of his writings, particularly on Islam, Naipaul can also be awfully misleading. Indeed, many have conjectured that the Nobel for the Islamophobic Naipaul is a fallout of the events of September 11. If the eminences in Stockholm were searching for anything to condemn Osama bin Laden in Naipaul's fiction, they would have found little to console them. This is because, as Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Statesman, Naipaul, unlike Rushdie, has "alchemized the trauma of early poverty and unbelonging into a bristly but always accessible humanism." With the younger writer, you get a politically correct but often hollow, and fleshless, postmodernism.
The opposition between Rushdie and Naipaul presents us with a lesson in great, unexpected irony. But the irony goes beyond just telling us something about the two writers. The paradox actually becomes a parable about mistaken identity, that wonderful, abiding theme of postcolonial writing. We learn that our lives find narrative form neither in the tired, familiar slogans of our captains nor in the symmetries of ideological camps, but in the differences that thrive behind settled, more clear-cut divisions.
Clear lines of opposition blur, for instance, when there is mimicry. Naipaul's new novel, Half a Life, begins with the words, "Willie Chandran asked his father one day, 'Why is my middle name Somerset? The boys at school have just found out, and they are mocking me.'" In response, the father, a small man in a small town in southern India, begins to tell the story of how the son was named after a famous writer who had been on a visit to India in the years before independence. We see the outlines of a story about Somerset Maugham and The Razor's Edge. But the story is also about the father's desire to mimic another man. That man is Gandhi. And the narrative, with the distant, pedagogical economy of a fable, draws us into a tale, touched with farce, about how love and writing and politics are born through imitation. The son rebels against the knowledge his father gives him. And, in what is also a mimicry of his father, but laced with his own difference, he begins to write stories that mock his father and their shared, pitiable condition.
In doing all this, the writer Naipaul is also mimicking himself. The story he is telling here echoes what we have read in his earlier books. His account of the agitations of people belonging to the untouchable caste borrows its energy from what Naipaul wrote in the opening chapter of his travel book India: A Million Mutinies Now. The pattern is repeated in what follows in Half a Life. The second part of the book follows young Willie Chandran's arrival in England on a scholarship. Willie's fumbling attempts at sex, the lack of money compounded by the poverty of his experience, are subjects that Naipaul also wrote about with some feeling in The Mimic Men. ("Intimacy: it was violation and self-violation. These scenes in the book-shaped room didn't always end well; they could end in tears, sometimes in anger, a breast grown useless being buttoned up, a door closed on a room that seemed to require instant purification.")
In Half a Life, we also accompany Willie on his path to self-discovery as a writer in London. This is Naipaul's turf. Again, as in his fragmentary memoir Finding the Center, Naipaul prepares us not only for the excitement of writing or its difficulties but for the discovery, touched with belittlement, of the colonial life as a subject of metropolitan consumption. Willie is told by a friend, "India isn't really a subject. The only people who are going to read about India are people who have lived or worked there, and they are not going to be interested in the India you write about." Today, when postcolonial fiction is all the rage, Naipaul's restaging of this account of his past--the men wanting Bhowani Junction and the women, Black Narcissus--allows us to place his own writing, and the shape that immigrant fiction has taken in the West, into a historical context of Western desires and demands.
The third and final part of Half a Life is set in Africa, where Willie goes after he meets Ana in London, a woman who is from a country that resembles Mozambique. This happens after Willie has married Ana, who was attracted to him because she finds in his book a story of her own past. It is Willie, insecure and without money, who asks Ana to return with him to her home in Africa. This travel to Africa, which for Naipaul has always been beset by Conradian tropes, returns us to a landscape of ruins and grim omens. At the same time, the tale is enlivened by a writer's sense of inquiry: "But I felt that the overseer had a larger appreciation of the life of the place; his surrender was more than the simple sexual thing it seemed. And when I next saw the mildewed white staff bungalows I looked at them with a new respect. So bit by bit I learned. Not only about cotton and sisal and cashew, but also about the people."
Rob Nixon, in London Calling, described Naipaul's first book of travel, The Middle Passage, as "a journey of rage into the terra incognita of the self." Naipaul's latest novel, in its final section, journeys into the darkness of the sexual self. It is a journey into a form of awakening and even grace--a new theme within the pattern of repetition I am tracing here--but it is also touched with a tender recoil from cruelty. Adulterous lovers copulate, literally, among snakes. Love is poisoned by the landscape of failure. Africa, then, no less than India in this story, plays a part in a fable, even if the fable is made up expertly from details of a well-recorded life.
This Africa, it would not be a stretch to say, is not very different from Rushdie's New York: Both are imagined by outsiders; both are places animated by fury. The difference lies in how the two novelists imagine the figure of the writer traversing the alien landscape that is so caught up in their fantasy and fear. And that is where, while absorbing all the stories in the news after the events of September 11, I came to an understanding that what Rushdie's Fury relentlessly offered was a species of the writer as exceptional, while what Naipaul's Half a Life returned us to was a sense of the writer as the opposite. In the circumstances of our times, I found resonant Willie Chandran's apperception of life on the streets of London after that social disaster called a race riot:
The newspapers and the radio were full of the riots.... It seemed to him that everyone was reading the newspapers. They were black with photographs and headlines. He heard a small old working man, years of deprivation on his face, say casually, as he might have done at home, "Those blacks are going to be a menace." It was a casual remark, not at all reflecting what was in the papers, and Willie felt at once threatened and ashamed. He felt people were looking at him. He felt the newspapers were about him.
This is a literature about us. Here and There. Willie Chandran, fearful that the papers are about him, teaches us that there is getting attention, and then there is getting attention.
Isaac Babel, the Jewish Cossack, told Konstantin Paustovsky, the playwright and publicist: "If you use enough elbow grease even the coarsest wood gets to look like ivory. That's what we have to do with words and with our Russian language. Warm it and polish it with your hand till it glows like a jewel." For instance:
The first version of a story is terrible. All in bits and pieces tied together with boring "like passages" as dry as old rope. You have the first version of "Lyubka" there, you can see for yourself. It yaps at you. It's clumsy, helpless, toothless. That's where the real work begins. I go over each sentence time and time again. I start by cutting out all the words I can do without. Words are very sly. The rubbishy ones go into hiding.
This is the Babel who so famously informed us in "Guy de Maupassant": "When a phrase is born, it is both good and bad at the same time. The secret of its success rests in a crux that is barely discernible. One's fingertips must grasp the key, gently warming it. And then the key must be turned once, not twice." Later in the same story, on the same page, comes a sentence quoted so often that it must be true: "No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place."
To be sure, as a kid in Odessa he loved Flaubert, and even wrote his first couple of stories in French. Adulthood was more difficult. One might say that the key's last twist, the ultimate shortening, the final polish, the iron spike, was a blank page. Accused in 1934 of the sin of "unproductivity," he told the first Soviet Writers' Congress that he had become a "master of the genre of silence." On the same occasion, just to prove how contrary he could be, Babel also defended the right of the writer to write badly: "Comrades, this is a very important right and to take it away from us is no small thing.... Let us give up this right, and may God help us. And if there is no God, let us help ourselves."
But back to his chat with Paustovsky: "I've got no imagination," he said. "All I've got is the longing for it." Which means: "I can't invent. I have to know everything, down to the last vein." This would explain why he thought "the most interesting things I have ever read are other people's letters." And how come, first in Odessa and then in Paris, he paid people to tell him the story of their first love. Ilya Ehrenburg likewise testifies:
Babel wanted to know everything: what his brother-soldier, a Kuban Cossack, felt when, after a two days' drinking bout, in a fit of melancholy, he had set fire to his own house; why had Mashenka of Land and Factory, after cuckolding her husband, taken up biokinetics; what sort of poetry did the White Guard Gorgulov, the French President's assassin, write; how did the old accountant seen once in the window of the Pravda office die; what was the Paris lady at the next table in the café carrying in her handbag; did Mussolini keep up his bluster when he found himself alone with Ciano...
It also explains why, as a 23-year-old apprentice journalist in 1918, he reported without fear or favor in the pages of Maxim Gorky's magazine Novaya Zhizn on every open wound in revolutionary Petersburg, from the anger of the unemployed, the panic of the disabled veterans and the mortality rate of newborn children to the murdered bodies that overwhelmed the morgue and the animals starving in the zoo. How's this for a flashy lead: "I'm not about to draw any conclusions. I'm not in the mood"? Or this, for editorializing:
Our government, as everyone knows, wallows in administrative bliss in only two cases: when we need to run for our lives or when we need to be mourned. During periods of evacuation and ruinous mass resettlement, the government's activity takes on a vigor, a creative verve, an ingenious voluptuousness.
And it may even explain how Babel, "with glasses on his nose and autumn in his heart," happened to be on a horse in the first place, on the Russian-Polish front during the civil war between Reds and Whites in 1920, pretending not to be Jewish even though everybody knew he was. His agit-prop dispatches to ROSTA, the state news agency, and The Red Cavalryman, the army's daily newspaper, can't be said to have glowed like jewels--"Slaughter them, Red Army fighters! Stamp harder on the rising lids of their rancid coffins!"--but he was just as hungry for extremes as he was for information. To his diary he confided darker ideograms that would translate, rubbed up and whittled on like ivory tusks, into Red Cavalry.
"Trickster, rapscallion, ironist, wayward lover, imprudent imposter," Cynthia Ozick calls him in her intro to this grand occasion of literature, the Complete Works--"and out of these hundred fiery selves insidious truths creep out, one by one, in a face, in the color of the sky, in a patch of mud, in a word. Violence, pity, comedy, illumination. It is as if he is an irritable membrane, subject to every creaturely vibration." And maybe he knew too much. He would return to Ukraine in 1929-30, for a firsthand look at the famine caused by collectivization. Two chapters are all we have of the unpublishable novel, Kolya Topuz, he was secretly writing about it when they came for him in 1939.
There are no longer any bees in Volhynia. We desecrated the hives. We fumigated them with sulfur and detonated them with gunpowder. Smoldering rags have spread a foul stench over the holy republics of the bees. Dying, they flew slowly, their buzzing barely audible. Deprived of bread, we procured honey with our sabers. There are no longer any bees in Volhynia.
(Babel, "The Road to Brody")
Like a plug of cork in a tub of blood, Ilya Ehrenburg could always be counted on to float. So while there is no reason not to believe him when he tells us in his Memoirs that Babel was "my most intimate and true friend, the author to whom I looked up as an apprentice to a master," we also know that he wouldn't say so in public until it was safe, decades later. That when Babel, after eight months of torture and a twenty-minute trial, was executed by a firing squad early in the morning of January 27, 1940, for Trotskyite terrorism and spying for France, Ehrenburg happened as usual to be abroad. That a prudent Ilya waited to declare himself till Stalin, too, was dead. Not to mention Mandelstam, Meyerhold, Pilnyak and Gorky (murdered). Or Mayakovsky, Yesenin, Tsvetayeva and Fadeyev (suicides). Or Akhmatova, Bulgakov, Olesha and Zoshchenko (zipped up in fearful silence; writing, if at all, for the crypt). Plus all the émigrés, castaways, jailbirds and boat people, from Bunin and Zamyatin to Aksyonov, Brodsky, Sinyavsky, Solzhenitsyn, Voinovich, Zinovyev and--in his portable Winter Palace, his Zemblatic mobile home--the gaudy Nabokov.
"True literature," said Zamyatin in 1921, "can only exist where it is created, not by painstaking and reliable clerks, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics." Mandelstam added later, "Only in Russia is poetry respected--it gets people killed." After a visit to Osip in exile, Akhmatova wrote: "In the banished poet's room/terror and the muse watch by turn,/And a night is coming/that has no dawn." In The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn advised us: "A great writer--forgive me, perhaps I shouldn't say this, I'll lower my voice--a great writer is so to speak a second government, that's why no regime anywhere has ever loved its great writers only its minor ones." To Ehrenburg, in Moscow in 1938, Babel observed, "Today a man talks frankly only with his wife--at night, with the blanket pulled over his head."
Not Ilya, who loved to party. But neither Ehrenburg's sociability nor his evasive memoir explains why, in Paris in 1946, he went out of his way to lie to Babel's widow, Evgenia, telling her that Isaac was still alive, merely under house arrest. Or why, when he finally got around to something more approximate to the truth ten years later, he hit her between the eyes with the news that not only was her husband dead but that he had another wife and another child, on whose behalf Ehrenburg wanted Evgenia to sign a fradulent admission of divorce. She spat in his face.
More such lying faces should have been spat in: Andrei Zhdanov's, for instance, who called Akhmatova "half nun, half whore." Mikhail Sholokhov's, who wanted Sinyavsky shot and believed any author publishing in the West without permission deserved to be exterminated like the Colorado beetle. And the faces of the 70,000 censors, with their 300-page index of banned subjects--earthquakes, plane crashes, food shortages, crime stats, Trotsky. And all those Socialist Realists who rewrote their production novels about making sausage, tempering steel and pouring cement according to the ever-changing line. And every single one of the 130 writers, including Gorky and Zoshchenko, who went out to admire a new canal linking the White Sea with the Baltic, praised the project as a triumph of progressive penology, and forgot to mention that the canal had been built by the forced labor of 300,000 convicts, a third of whom had perished in the triumphant progressive process.
They would like to blame Stalin for everything. But Boris Pasternak reminded us in Dr. Zhivago of self-helping prisoners in a woodsy gulag in the 1930s:
They told us: "Here is your camp. Settle down as best you can."... We cut down saplings with our bare hands in the forest to build huts. And would you believe it, we gradually built our own camp. We cut down the wood to build our own dungeons, we surrounded ourselves with a stockade, we equipped ourselves with prison-cells and watch-towers--we did it all by ourselves.
Must we dig up all over again the bad faith and yellow bones? Yes, because generations of Americans grew up reading Russian literature, Soviet-styled, as if it were samizdat from the historical unconscious, the whirlwind's deep word; as if it either apostrophized a radiant future better than Oz, or cried instead from Dante's hell for help. ("We are the vanguard, but of what?" Babel wondered in his diary.) The cold war only intensified the hysterical quality of this reading, its gnomic-cryptic scuttle, its masquerade of spycraft. Never mind Babel versus Kafka. Who knew for sure if Gorky's Mother, radicalized by the factory workers, was a better person than our own, or Portnoy's? If Bely had done for Petersburg what Joyce would do for Dublin? If Blok was a sort of Rimbaud? If Symbolism, Futurism and Acmeism were better off with a NEP or a Five-Year Plan? If Pilnyak with his "men in yellow jackets" belonged on the shelf with Malraux? If it was absolutely necessary to read Olesha's Envy? If Dudintsev's gumption made up for the dreariness of Not by Bread Alone? Or, for that matter, whether Solzhenitsyn was really a nineteenth-century Russian novelist or just another messianic Old Believer, covered like an icon with soot and candlewax, part of the nostalgia craze?
No other writer of the Soviet era ever aroused as much American emotion as Babel. If his Red Cavalry and Odessa Tales impressed Gorky, Bely, Mayakovsky and Ehrenburg, as well as Malraux, Mann, Canetti and Brecht, they also wowed Hemingway, Bellow, Trilling, Paley, Howe, Malamud, Roth, Berryman and Carver. Even though "The Story of My Dovecote" is probably the best account of a pogrom and one of the finest stories ever written, Cynthia Ozick seemed to suggest in an essay on the 1920 Diary that when Babel traveled undercover with the Cossacks, he became what he impersonated. As if the rape and murder of Jews in the Pale of Settlement hadn't been a Polish specialty before Babel was born, she also used him as a stick to beat "the cruelly ignorant children of the Left who still believe that the Marxist Utopia requires for its realization only a more favorable venue, and another go." In her introduction here, she pulls that punch. But her doubts may have encouraged John Updike to assert, in his New Yorker review of the Complete Works on November 5, that Babel "to the end, sought to accommodate" an "increasingly totalitarian revolution." This is flabbergasting. He didn't run out of gas or--from the overconsumption of junk food, cheap sensations and disposable ideas--simply explode. He wasn't a fucking Rabbit.
It made sense that most Russian writers would at first welcome the revolution as a deliverance from a medieval mind haunted by fires, bears, church bells melted down into cannon balls and golden hordes of Scythians in cloaks of sewn-together scalps. Out of such a mind rode Ivan the Terrible's Oprichniki, secret police on black horses with severed heads tethered to their saddlebows, the dwarfs of Empress Anna, Pugachev in an iron cage and goat-smelling Rasputin. "Our brethren the Slavs," said Vissarion Belinsky, the critic who got Dostoyevsky into so much trouble, "cannot be awakened to consciousness quickly. It is a well-known fact that when the lightning does not strike, the peasant does not cross himself, he has no lord...whereas the holy mother La Guillotine is a good thing." Or so maybe it seemed to an alienated intelligentsia up to its eyeballs in vodka, dominoes, smoked fish, sable skins, onion domes, six-winged seraphs, a snuff box and the knout.
Although he confused Revolution with Resurrection, even Blok was enthusiastic at the start. Mayakovsky imagined himself in a "Cloud in Trousers" as both John the Baptist and "a sewage disposal operative...mobilized and drafted" by Lenin. If Mandelstam was predictably ambivalent as early as 1918--"We shall meet again in Petersburg,/as though we had buried the sun there"--not so Pasternak, an expert on "the maximalist temperament" of Russian intellectuals and their "nostalgia for the future," whose alter ego Zhivago rhapsodized:
The Revolution broke out...like a breath that's been held too long. Everybody was revived, reborn, changed, transformed. You might say that everyone has been through two revolutions--his own personal revolution as well as the general
one. It seems to me that socialism is the sea, and all these separate streams, these private individual revolutions are flowing into it--the sea of life, of life in its own right. I said life, but I mean life as you see it in a work of art, transformed by genius, creatively enriched.
Before long, of course, Pasternak, Akhmatova and little-did-he-know Bukharin would be petitioning Stalin for Mandelstam's life. Osip never mastered the genre of silence. By 1928, in "The Egyptian Stamp," he had decided, "Petersburg has declared itself Nero, and was as loathsome as eating a soup of crushed flies." In 1930 he would add: "Petersburg! I don't want to die yet! You know my telephone numbers. Petersburg! I've still got the addresses: I can look up dead voices." And then, in 1933, he attacked Stalin himself: "His fingers are fat as grubs,/And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips.... His cockroach whiskers leer/And his boot tops gleam.... He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries./He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home." It's amazing Mandelstam wasn't immediately whacked. But he was merely sent away for awhile, his murder postponed till 1938.
And here's the eerie part, which almost seems to mimic our own kinkiness with the Soviet texts. Stalin telephoned Pasternak in July 1934 to tell him he was letting Osip off the hook. Pasternak told Stalin during the same call that he'd like to meet and talk. "About what?" Stalin wanted to know. "About life and death," said Pasternak. So Stalin hung up on him. Such, in the Soviet Union, was the awful intimacy between the realm of the imagination and the ministries of fear. If Pasternak, who wrote a note to Stalin after his wife's suicide, had a sort of fool's license that kept him from dreadful harm, that license didn't extend to his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, sentenced to five years in a labor camp. If Babel had been safe while Gorky was alive, Ehrenburg was no use once he disappeared. Bulgakov's life may have been spared because Stalin enjoyed a play of his, Days of the Turbins, so much that he sat through it fifteen times. A toadying poem by Akhmatova in 1949 got her son out of a labor camp, but didn't get her back into the Writers' Union so she could publish a book. And when that same son was arrested for the third time, in 1949, she burned all her papers.
It may seem perverse to spend so much emotion on such a minority--600 Soviet writers disappeared, most of them forever, into penal colonies, labor camps, torture chambers and psychiatric wards, whereas millions died in collectivization, and we haven't even gotten to the schoolteachers, garage mechanics, Catholic nuns and Jewish "refuseniks" found guilty of writing a letter, reading an article, seeking a visa or belonging to a human rights watch group--but these writers were remarkable. Twentieth-century literature isn't really worth imagining without Bely's St. Petersburg, Babel's Red Cavalry and Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. They were also fascinating. Tsvetayeva and Rilke wrote poems to each other. Yesenin was married to Isadora Duncan. Modigliani did sixteen potraits of Akhmatova in Paris in 1911--and when she had to be evacuated from Leningrad during the siege, she took off by propeller to Tashkent clutching the score of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony.
What had such a prodigality of personality and talent to do with party cells, cadre perks, city soviets, farm collectives, lapdog writers' unions, bought psychiatrists, secret policemen, technocrats on the pig-iron front, informers, apparatchiks or the three elements of Socialist Realism--narodnost (national character), ideinost (ideological expression) and partiinost (party spirit)--not to wonder why a Stalin would even be interested, much less suspicious (and of what?), with his love for Charlie Chaplin, his hatred of everyone else, his bad teeth and not very interesting Georgian inferiority complex, such a mensch for all the bloody seasons, but especially a Great Terror? Why trouble himself with a Babel and his minimalist fictions, his Cycladic sculptures and Yiddish spitballs? And then why, if everything was Stalin's fault, try a Sinyavsky for slander and a Brodsky for parasitism after Stalin was dead? Where is it written in any socialism that we gouge out the eyes of our brilliant children with Five-Year Plans? That we put a bullet through our own heart like Mayakovsky?
In his 1966 novel The Holy Well, Valentin Katayev, otherwise a time-serving rewrite man on the Socialist Realist pig-iron front, imagined a cat trained to speak by its Georgian master, who died trying to mouth the latest polysyllabic catchword. He also imagined a shadow that "never left me but followed a step behind," a "most rare cross between a man and a woodpecker...an informer, a bootlicker, an extortioner, and a bribetaker."
"Bring good men and we shall give them all our gramophones. We are not simpletons. The International, we know what the International is. And I want the International of good people, I want every soul to be accounted for and given first-class rations. Here, soul, eat, go ahead, go and find happiness in your life. The International, Pan Comrade, you have no idea how to swallow it!"
"With gunpowder," I tell the old man, "and seasoned with the best blood."
There will doubtless be gripes about this or that in Peter Constantine's translation, but not from me. I'm familiar with Babel only from previous translations, by Mirra Ginsburg, Max Hayward and David McDuff. Judging from these English variants, Constantine sometimes improves on his predecessors and sometimes fudges up or jaunties. But this is the Babel we already know--except much, much more of him, including dramas, screenplays, notebooks and journalism.
Besides, I was traumatized at an early age by two different translations of the very same passage in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. In the Ralph Matlaw version, on page 91 of the Norton Critical Edition, we read: "And now I hope, Arina Vlasyevna, that having satisfied your maternal heart, you will turn your thoughts to satisfying the appetites of our dear guests, because, as you're aware, even nightingales can't be fed on fairy tales." But Neal Burroughs translates the same sentence, on page 122 of the Washington Square Press edition, this way: "And now, Arina Vlasyevna, I hope your maternal heart has had its fill, and you will see about filling our dear guests, for, as you know, fair words butter no parsnips."
Did you know that the Russian word for "parsnip" is "Pasternak"? And so must most of us make do with the edible roots of a writer while not quite hearing his whole song. Never mind. Some sort of magic-making happens anyway, or Toni Morrison and Kobo Abe wouldn't have been knocked out by English and Japanese translations of Gabriel García Márquez, who was himself overwhelmed by Jorge Luis Borges's translation into Spanish of Franz Kafka, who has also been translated into Italian by Primo Levi, who didn't care for Babel, and into Polish by Bruno Schulz, who was murdered about the same time as Babel. For that matter, Günter Grass read Tanizaki in Old Teutonic.
"If you think about it," Babel wrote in an early, breezy "Odessa" story, "doesn't it strike you that in Russian literature there haven't been so far any real, clear, cheerful descriptions of the sun?" He certainly obliged, although perhaps not cheerfully, with suns that hang down like the pink tongues of thirty dogs, suns that pour into clouds like the blood of a gouged bear, suns that soar and spin like red bowls on the tips of spears, suns that roll across the sky like severed heads. But he was equally interested in animate objects--grandmothers, schoolchildren, Hebrew teachers, landladies, pawnbrokers, prostitutes, police chiefs, playwrights, sailors, cash-register girls, medical orderlies, wrestling champions, dying bulls and peeping Toms. Plus, of course, the Cossacks and the Jews.
But most of all Babel was possessed by extremes of subjectivity looking for prose analogues, by "the fat and funny bourgeois [who] lie in the evenings in their white socks on couches in front of their funny, philistine dachas, digesting their meals beneath a dark and velvety sky, while their powdered wives...are passionately squeezed behind bushes by fervent students of medicine or law"; by the wings of angels, mounted on hinges, which have to be removed at night and wrapped in clean sheets; by the purchase of a prostitute with a loaf of bread; by gangsters on their way from a wedding to a brothel dressed up like hummingbirds; by a crucifix as tiny as a courtesan's talisman; by "the sweetness of dreamy malice, the bitter contempt for the swine and dogs among men, the flame of silent and intoxicating revenge"; by ancient synagogues, yellow walls and prophet-bearded Jews selling chalk, bluing and candlewicks; by the "captivating Stavitsky," smelling of perfume "and the nauseating coolness of soap," whose "long legs looked like two girls wedged to their shoulders in riding boots"; by honeybees and Spinoza and looking at the world as if it were "a meadow in May over which women and horses wander"; by a churchful of saints who "marched to their deaths with the flair of Italian opera singers"; by the chimneys of Zamosc, "the thievish lights in the ravines of its ghetto, the watchtower with its shattered lantern," the green rockets over the Polish camp and a"damp sunrise poured down on us like waves of chloroform"; by faith, love, death and cruelty.
Babel--who told "fairy tales about Bolshevism" all over the Polish front; who would live to regret "the foppish bloodthirstiness and loudmouthed simplicity with which in those days we solved all the problems of the world"; who asked of his executioners only that they "let me finish my work"--went into battle without bullets in his gun. "You believe in God, you traitor!" he was told. And: "I can see right through you! Right through you! What you want is to live without enemies, you'll do anything not to have enemies." And when the rabbi's son who looked like a young Spinoza ended up among the revolutionary dead, here's how Babel mourned him:
I threw everything together in a jumble, the mandates of the political agitator and the mementos of a Jewish poet. Portraits of Lenin and Maimonides lay side by side--the gnarled steel of Lenin's skull and the listless silk of the Maimonides portrait. A lock of woman's hair lay in a book of the resolutions of the Sixth Party Congress, and crooked lines of Ancient Hebrew verse huddled in the margins of Communist pamphlets. Pages of The Song of Songs and revolver cartridges drizzled on me in a sad, sparse rain.
This, of course, was his own jumble and his private rain. Nevertheless:
He died before we reached Rovno. He died, the last prince, amid poems, phylacteries, and foot bindings. We buried him at a desolate train station. And I, who can barely harness the storms of fantasy raging through my ancient body, I received my brother's last breath.
Once upon a time in an Isaac Babel story, there was in the Odessa seaport a boy named Karl-Yankel, as if to yoke Marx and shtetl. The Jewish Cossack had high hopes for him: "I grew up in those streets, now it is the turn of Karl-Yankel, but they did not fight for me as they are fighting for him, few people had any thought for me. 'It's not possible,' I whispered to myself, 'that you won't be happy, Karl-Yankel. It's not possible that you won't be happier than I.'"
We are the vanguard, but of what?