Most Americans are probably unaware that "the Dark Ages were not all bad and the Enlightenment not all good." Or that "homosexuality [is] a sin worthy of death." Or that one of the greatest threats to the country is "the Feminization of American Life." Or that we should still be debating the question: "Who Was Right in the War Between the States: the Union or the Confederacy?"
If you are active with the Christian fundamentalist organization American Vision, however, this is mainstream thinking--or, more precisely, the thinking you hope to force down the throat of the mainstream. The Georgia-based group's president, Gary DeMar, preaches about "the necessity of storming the gates of hell" and cleansing public institutions of "secularism, atheism, humanism, and just plain anti-Christian sentiment." He may soon be dispatching a prominent foot soldier to do just that. J. Robert Brame III, American Vision's board secretary, reportedly tops President Bush's list of likely appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, the five-member agency that determines the fate of workers seeking union recognition and helps define how federal law protects women, gays and lesbians, and others seeking representation in the workplace.
Brame, a management lawyer, previously served on the board from 1997 to 2000. Technically appointed by Bill Clinton, he was actually a choice forced upon the former President by Senate Republicans who refused to act on Clinton's appointments unless he gave Brame the job. During those three years, Brame was the most frequent dissenter from the board's pro-labor decisions. He opposed moves to make it easier for temporary workers, graduate students and medical interns and residents to unionize. He was a lonely advocate of steps to limit the ability of unions to use dues money to pay for organizing. Brame even complained about NLRB rulings that "facilitate union organizing in the modern work place."
Brame's record, his association with American Vision and the very real prospect that he could end up chairing a Bush-appointed NLRB majority by the end of the year have energized opponents. Taking the lead is the gay and lesbian labor group Pride at Work, which aims, says interim executive director Marta Ames, "to make enough noise so that Bush decides it's not worth it to appoint someone who is associated with the viewpoint that LGBT people are 'monsters' who should be stoned."
"Gays and lesbians, women, people of color and young people are harassed on the job all the time, and that harassment becomes vicious when we're trying to organize into unions," says Sarah Luthens, a Seattle union organizer active with the Out Front Labor Coalition. "To think that someone like Brame would be in a position to decide whether that harassment represents a violation of labor laws that are already too weak is horrifying."
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Pacifica Radio executive director Bessie Wash said that the Pacifica management's goal "is to increase listenership." In the name of that worthy ambition, however, Wash has continued to further alienate many longtime supporters and staff and to weaken the core programming that should be the foundation on which that listenership is built. In the latest development, Pacifica is no longer originating and distributing its most popular (and much-honored) news program, Democracy Now!, following disputes with host Amy Goodman. (The program is being produced elsewhere and aired on some stations, while Pacifica sends out reruns of earlier shows.) Meanwhile, in order to fight lawsuits brought by former employees and listeners, and the accompanying bad publicity, Pacifica is using scarce listener-donated dollars to hire a white-shoe law firm and a high-priced PR outfit. And dissidents are pushing an economic boycott that will reduce those dollars even further.
At the rate things are going, there will soon be no Pacifica worth fighting over (apart from its valuable real estate on the dial). It is time for both sides to pull back from the brink. We continue to believe that Democracy Now! and Goodman exemplify Pacifica's fifty-year tradition of tough, radical reporting and that they represent an asset of immense worth. We also believe that the only way out of the current downward spiral at Pacifica is for dissidents as well as management to focus on positive steps to move the enterprise forward. For the dissidents, it means an end to the boycott, which is incompatible with a devotion to the spirit of community radio, and a willingness to be open to change. For the Pacifica management and board, set to hold a key meeting on September 12, it means a commitment to respecting its employees and a restructuring of the organization to grant more legal power to the staff and listeners, who have made Pacifica what it is today.
As we've said before, Pacifica is one of the bastions of the precept, enshrined in the Federal Communications Act, that the airwaves are a public trust. It deserves the care and concern of all who believe in that precept.
William Kristol claims that Senator Jesse Helms's departure at the end of his term represents "the end of an era." We can only hope. Helms has championed an odious brand of conservatism that combines segregationist and antigay sentiments, contempt for the United Nations and a know-nothing attitude toward culture. His office once told Loudon Wainwright III, composer of "Jesse Don't Like It," that "if it weren't for people like you left-wing, communist, radical, weirdo types, Senator Helms would not have won." Not by much, though. And now it's increasingly Jesse's voters who are the radical weirdos.
We regret the loss of two valued contributors. Richard Cloward, for forty-seven years a professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work, was author of such influential books as Delinquency and Opportunity (with Lloyd E. Ohlin), Regulating the Poor and Why Americans Don't Vote (with Frances Fox Piven). Displaying a rare ability to weld theory and practice into a seamless continuum, he was founder of Mobilization for Youth, a paradigm of federal antipoverty programs in the 1960s. He helped found the National Welfare Rights Organization, which mobilized poor people in behalf of welfare reform, and was founder and executive director of Human SERVE, a project to expand voter registration among the poor, which inspired the 1993 Motor Voter Act and established the principle of using government to facilitate rather than block people exercising their suffrage. Cloward was dedicated to transmuting cool scholarship into street heat. The following from Joel Rogers, professor of law and political science at the University of Wisconsin, provides a good summing up: "His biggest strength was simply his tenacity and quiet rage against the machine. In all his long years, he never lost the capacity to be astonished, and outraged, by cruelty and unnecessary barriers to freedom. At some level, he just couldn't believe them. And then he'd go back to the hard work of removing them." (John Nichols's assessment of Richard Cloward appears on our website: www.thenation.com. A tribute to him will be held on September 20 in New York City. For further information see page 28.)
Nora Sayre was a witty, vivacious writer with a steel backbone who set herself to being a chronicler of her--and the left's--times. In her books Sixties Going on Seventies, Previous Convictions: A Journey Through the 1950s and On the Wing, a memoir of literary London in the 1950s, she made the political personal, mingling a Boswell's relish for anecdote with a shrewd sense of the zeitgeist. Her Running Time: Films of the Cold War is one of the best analyses of the impact of McCarthyism on Hollywood.
When The Red Queen boasts in Through the Looking-Glass that in her country, "it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place," she could have been talking about today's labor movement. To turn their long slide into a winning streak, unions need to add millions of new members each year. The terrain seems only to get more treacherous, with a White House in thrall to business assaulting labor at every turn, a worldwide economic slowdown, increasing layoffs and plant closings, growing economic inequality.
But hold the sympathy cards. As various reports in this special Labor Day issue attest, unions have been organizing more boldly and effectively in recent years, making inroads into new constituencies, like immigrants, and opening up the once-scorned service sector. Election 2000 aside, more adept political organizing has boosted the union-household share of the electorate from 19 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2000. Unions have forged promising new alliances with students, religious communities, anti-WTO activists and environmentalists. There have been tactical stumbles--and most unions have yet to shake old bureaucratic habits--but the stepped-up investment in organizing by the AFL-CIO and its aggressive affiliates has begun to show the way forward.
The challenge now is for all unions to wield their resources and power more strategically, to engage their members as organizers and campaigners, and to articulate a social vision that will inspire hard daily slogging but also elevate eyes to long-range goals beyond paycheck issues, important as those are. Such a vision can impart unity and strength to the progressive movement. Teamsters can't be expected to hug a sea turtle daily, but their embrace of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was destructive, as was the United Auto Workers' endorsement of the weaker fuel-efficiency standards in the Bush Administration's energy plan.
The "blue green" coalition is currently facing another important test in George W. Bush's demand for fast-track trade promotion authority. Big business will spend $20 million lobbying for fast track, which would grease the way for the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas through Congress. The crucial fight is in the House, where the Administration will dangle all sorts of phony "side agreements" before Democrats and moderate Republicans. Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch is on the road, fanning out into home districts of key representatives. Labor is ready to jump into the fray, guns blazing. Recent ruptures notwithstanding, progressives have formed a united front to block fast track twice before, under Clinton, and they can do it again.
But labor's political success will be short-lived unless it is driven by an energized rank and file and animated by a morally compelling mission that resonates with workers at home and abroad. Labor will thrive to the extent that it acts not as a "special interest" but as a new civil rights movement--rallying union and nonunion workers alike around their rights to dignity and democracy in the workplace, to economic justice and a living wage, and to the voice and power that union representation can bring. The rest of us can't stand on the sidelines. Despite its frustrations, the labor movement remains the backbone of progressive politics in this country.
Finally, President Bush is "deeply worried" about the economy. Yep, in remarks last week, he even went so far as to observe that "the recovery is very slow in coming."
Last night I had the strangest dream...
All of America's wealthy, conservative and safely belligerent pundits had been delivered by a just and beneficent Almighty Power to a Palestinian refugee camp, following the bulldozing of their homes--including vacation homes--and the expropriation of all their possessions. Instead of pontificating between beach walks and vodka tonics in Vineyard Haven, these armchair bombardiers were treated to rivers of open sewage and hopeless lives of beggary. Those who resisted were arrested, tortured and selectively assassinated. Meanwhile, editorial pages across America cheered the "restraint" of their tormentors.
In extremely lengthy articles, the New York Times and The New York Review of Books recently demonstrated beyond any doubt that the Israelis (and the Americans) shared in the blame for the breakdown of peace negotiations and ensuing cycle of violence that now tragically appears to be engulfing the region. To the punditocracy, however, these dispassionately argued, extensively reported stories amounted to an existential insult of near biblical proportions. Marty Peretz's New Republic published a vicious attack on the articles by Robert Satloff, executive director of a pro-Israel think tank. William Safire got so excited, he denounced his own newspaper in a hysterical fit of ad hominemism: "Do not swallow this speculative rewriting of recent events," he warned readers. "The overriding reason for the war against Israel today is that Yasir Arafat decided that war was the way to carry out the often-avowed Palestinian plan. Its first stage is to create a West Bank state from the Jordan River to the sea with Jerusalem as its capital. Then, by flooding Israel with 'returning' Palestinians, the plan in its promised final phase would drive the hated Jews from the Middle East."
Mortimer Zuckerman, in his capacity as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, insisted, "This is just revisionist history.... There is one truth, period: The Palestinians caused the breakdown at Camp David and then rejected Clinton's plan in January." The baldest comment came from the Zionist Organization of America's president, Morton Klein: "Whether their account is accurate or not is irrelevant.... I reject any discussion of what happened."
In the wake of the suicide bombings, three different Washington Post pundits demanded war three days in a row. Michael Kelly, recently seen complaining about too many fatsoes at the beach, advised the Israelis to unleash "an overwhelming force...to destroy, kill, capture and expel the armed Palestinian forces." The more moderate George Will called only for a "short war." (Charles Krauthammer did not specify a length.) To read these would-be warriors, you would think the Palestinians were summering in Edgartown. A reader would never guess that a regional superpower is carrying out a brutal military occupation, coupled with a settlement policy that directly contravenes Article 49 of the Geneva Convention.
No one with any sense would argue that Arafat and his corrupt cronies do not bear considerable responsibility for the collapse of any hope of peace in the Middle East in the near future. And suicide bombers against civilian targets in Israel are as counterproductive as they are immoral (though those who settle in occupied territory are knowingly putting themselves in harm's way and hence share some responsibility when their families are forced to pay for this fanaticism with their lives). Nevertheless, a conflict where "our team" engages in terrorism, assassination and the apparently routine torture of teenagers to defend a cruel and illegal occupation is one in which neither side holds a monopoly on virtue.
Since a majority of Israelis supports a freeze in the provocative practice of settlement-building, the mindless hysteria of the American punditocracy must have other sources than mere logic. It's dangerous to draw firm conclusions without any special knowledge about the psyches of those involved, but much of the materially comfortable American Jewish community has had an unhappy history of defending the principle of Jewish sovereignty over captured Palestinian lands right down to the death of the last Israeli. Because of the sacrifices they demand of others, many American Jews feel they must be holier than the Pope when defending Israeli human rights abuses. The New Republic's Peretz is a particularly interesting specimen. He reflexively defends everything Israel does and routinely slanders its critics. Peretz, who owes his prominence to money, in this case his (non-Jewish) wife's fortune--which allowed him to purchase his magazine--has never published a single book or written a significant piece of scholarship, reportage or criticism. It's not hard to imagine that his self-appointed role as Israel's American Torquemada--seen in his obsession with smearing the world-renowned Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said--is inspired as much by guilt and envy as by more rational motivations. (I say this as a supporter of the peace process who has respectfully disagreed with almost all Said has said about the conflict in recent years.)
Whatever the reason, the net result is the same. For a brief moment in recent history, when Israel had a government that was dedicated to finding a way to make peace, the warrior pundits were placed on the defensive and the Palestinians received a reasonably fair shake from the nation's elite media. More recently, a review of leading editorial pages by the ADL found that "the major newspapers across the country are viewing the situation in the Middle East in a realistic and objective manner." The authors of the study helpfully defined their terms. To the ADL "realistic and objective" means "critical of and hostile to Arafat...directly blaming him for the continuing violence and creating a climate of hatred" along with the dismissal of all Palestinian peace overtures as "calculated tools for his goal of gaining further concessions from Israel."
In a rational world, the ADL report would at least complicate efforts by Safire, TNR and others to charge the media with "pro-Arab" and "anti-Israel" bias. Alas, I'm betting bubkes...
The current uproar over the posture of the Bush Administration on global warming and, most recently, on power-plant emissions vividly illustrates the political hypocrisy and opportunism imbuing debates on environmental issues. Take first global warming. The charge that the current phase of global warming can be attributed to greenhouse gases generated by humans and their livestock is an article of faith among liberals as sturdy as is missile defense among the conservative crowd. The Democrats have seized on the issue of global warming as indicative of President Bush's willful refusal to confront a global crisis that properly agitates all of America's major allies. Almost daily, the major green groups reap rich political capital (and donations) on the issue.
Yet the so-called anthropogenic origin of global warming remains entirely nonproven. Back in the spring of this year, even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which now has a huge stake in arguing the "caused by humans" thesis, admitted in its summary that there could be a one-in-three chance its multitude of experts are wrong. A subsequent report, issued under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, is ambivalent to the point of absurdity. An initial paragraph boldly asserting the caused-by-humans line is confounded a few pages later by far more cautious paragraphs admitting that the thesis is speculative and that major uncertainty rules on the role played in climate equations by water vapor and aerosols.
It's nothing new to say the earth is getting warmer. I myself think it is, and has been for a long, long time. On my shelf is an excellent volume put out in 1941 by the Department of Agriculture called Climate and Man, which contains a chapter acknowledging "global warming" (that same phrase) and hailing it as a benign trend that will return the earth to the normalcy in climate it enjoyed several hundred thousand years ago.
Anything more than a glance at the computer models favored by the caused-by-humans crowd will show that the role of carbon dioxide is grotesquely exaggerated. Indeed, the models are incapable of handling the role of the prime greenhouse gas, water vapor (clouds, etc), which accounts for twenty-five to thirty times as much heat absorption as carbon dioxide.
Similarly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change admits to a "very low" level of scientific understanding on an "aerosol indirect effect" that the panel acknowledges is cooling the climate system at a hefty rate (aerosols are particles so fine they float in air).
In a particularly elegant paper published in May in Chemical Innovation, journal of the American Chemical Society, Professor Robert Essenhigh of Ohio State reminds us that for the past 850,000 years, global temperature and carbon dioxide have been moving up and down in lockstep. Since 849,700 of these years were ones preceding any possible human effect on carbon dioxide, this raises the question of whether global warming caused swings in carbon dioxide or vice versa. Essenhigh argues convincingly that the former is the case. As global temperatures warm, a huge reservoir of carbon dioxide absorbed in the oceans is released into the atmosphere. Clearly, this is a much more potent input than the relatively puny human contribution to global carbon dioxide. Thus natural warming is driving the raised level of carbon dioxide, and not the other way round.
But science can barely squeeze in the door with a serious debate about what is prompting global warming. Instead, the Europeans, the greens and the Democrats eagerly seize on the issue as a club with which to beat President Bush and kindred targets of opportunity.
Now take the latest brouhaha over emissions from coal-fired plants. The industry wants what is coyly called "flexibility" in emissions standards. EPA chief Christine Whitman is talking about "voluntary incentives" and market-based pollution credits as the proper way to go. Aware of the political pitfalls, the Bush Administration has recently been saying that it is not quite ready to issue new rules.
Now, there's no uncertainty about the effects of the stuff that comes out of a power-plant chimney. These heavy metals and fine particles kill people or make them sick. There are also cleaning devices, some of them expensive, that can remove these toxic substances. Ever since the 1970s the energy industry has fought mandatory imposition of such cleaners. If Bush and Whitman enforce this flexibility they will be condemning people to death, as have previous foot-dragging administrations, Democratic as well as Republican.
Both political parties have danced to the industry's tunes. It was with the propagandizing of Stephen Breyer (now on the Supreme Court, then a top aide to Senator Ted Kennedy) that the trend toward pollution credits began. And after the glorious regulatory laxity of the Reagan/Bush years, the industry was not seriously discommoded in Clinton Time. Ask the inhabitants of West Virginia and Tennessee whether they think the coal industry lost clout in those years.
The sad truth of the matter is that many "big picture" environmental theses, such as human-caused global warming, afford marvelously inviting ways of avoiding specific and mostly difficult political decisions. You can bellow for "global responsibility" without seriously offending powerful corporate interests, some of which, for reasons material, cynical or both, now have a big stake (the nuclear industry, for example) in promoting the caused-by-humans thesis. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill loves it, and so does the aluminum industry, in which he has been a prime player. On the other side we can soon expect to hear that powerful Democrat, Senator Robert Byrd, arguing that the coal industry is in the vanguard of the war on global warming, because the more you shade the earth, perhaps the more rain you cause. So burn dirty coal and protect the earth by cooling it.
The logic of the caused-by-humans models installs the coal industry as the savior of "global warming"--you want to live by a computer model that does that?
The brother of the Sultan of Brunei
Set out to see how much a guy could buy,
And fifteen billion's what he finally spent
Before the sultan voiced some discontent.
The guilt of many shoppers was assuaged.
The most committed shopaholic gauged,
"I'd really have to spend a lot more dough
To be a spendthrift like the sultan's bro."
At 5 o'clock in the morning, the radio alarm begins to blare the news. The United States is threatening to pull out of the World Conference Against Racism if the conversation includes tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. What a nightmare, I think as I sit up in bed. How can the most powerful and diverse country on earth refuse to go to the first global discussion of race? No one expected easy accord about what's racial and what's not, but to refuse to attend the discussion at all?
Perhaps I am unduly depressed because I am in a small motel somewhere in...South Dakota, is it? Or maybe San Diego? I made the terrible mistake of watching Planet of the Apes the night before, in this dim room whose walls are flocked in orange fuzz with silver trim. It is the end of a long week of speaking to organizations that have called me in because someone has done something like hang a big noose over a black person's work space, and they would like me--me!--to get everyone speaking again.
The last five days have involved flying into Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City or Tampa in order to take a shuttle to terminal Z, where militia members in camouflage or square dance teams in pouffy skirts or troupes of young missionaries take flights to and from small towns all over America in very small planes. I have been lining up behind them, boarding ancient Cessna prop planes seating ten--give or take carry-on weapons caches, guitars, extra Bibles and box of diversity pamphlets--and bounce low to the ground all the way to Saginaw or Elko or Huntsville or Dayton.
I get out of bed and look for coffee on the room service menu. There is no room service menu. There is no room service.
The gentleman who comes to greet me on behalf of the Better Business Through Multicultural Harmony Committee is from Bahrain and hails me like a long-lost sister. I can assure you from personal experience how dramatically America's demographics are changing; the smaller and more off the beaten track the American town, the more likely the confused little minority community will include representatives recently arrived from Bangladesh or Sudan or Cambodia or Cameroon.
The gentleman from Bahrain settles me into a large, all-American car and whisks me off into the cornfields and more cornfields. An hour later we hit a strip mall, turn left, a mile and a half of soybeans--et voilà! East-West Central Southern Industries (name changed to protect the innocent). The conference room at whose door he deposits me has coffee! muffins! and is really pretty pleasant, even given my yuppie pretensions.
The problem I have been asked to tackle is a new but essentially old-fashioned one. Someone with too much free time has created a list of all the employees, put it online and created the kind of cyberspatial graffiti that one hoped one never had to think about after tenth grade, when notebooks were passed around with a name on each page, and cruel anonymous comments were scrawled beneath. This particular list ranks everyone by sexiness, intelligence, dress and, perhaps most destructively, smell. The comments are racialized, sexually crude, almost pathologically immature but as hard to dismiss as a punch in the stomach. It is a bully's shopping list of strategies to humiliate, and it has created the intended havoc, spilling into the small town beyond. "Affirmative action bitch. Wears Payless shoes," is a typically bitter little entry.
It takes me all morning just to sort out who has injured whom. Virtually everyone in the company has hurled enough epithets to make everyone else on the planet hate them forever. I decide to speak to just a few people, those in the best position to try to make some systemic improvements.
The gentleman from Bahrain volunteers to organize a dinner. He makes a few phone calls on my behalf, and soon we are off to a Vietnamese restaurant in the mall, where we meet with an odd assortment of community organizers and spokesmen. The cast of characters includes a local black minister who (like a weird inverted image of George W. Bush's saying that the Nation of Islam was one of the world's great religions) is worried that his new Islamic Moroccan neighbors are followers of Louis Farrakhan. There's a white police officer who is sincerely trying to smooth the waters while dropping phrases like "outside agitators" and "stingy as a Jew." There's a Nigerian man with five sons who is worried about his children being called "gang members" every time they walk to school together. There's a Native-American man who shows up to protest that no one remembered to invite him.
There's the head of a local evangelical group trying to raise money to buy Sudanese slaves in order to set them free. There's a representative of a human rights agency who says that buying slaves is not a political solution but rather encourages traders to raise the price. "It's part of a larger global sex market," he says. "And it operates right here in America--you don't have to travel to Eastern Europe or Africa. Would you consider going to some big-time pimps, buying a few sex slaves, setting them free on a street corner and really think you'd accomplished much of anything in the way of eliminating the business?"
There is a genial Republican Party leader who wants me to meet a Mozambican woman who has been studying at the local university and who is miserably homesick. "We haven't done our job if she wants to go back to a country like that," he says, and introduces me as "an example of what can be achieved in the US." She is a charming person, with a degree from the Sorbonne. "Mozambique is my home," she sighs wearily. "Americans know nothing of Mozambique."
And there's a recently arrived Palestinian refugee and a Jewish teacher whose family migrated to this town seventy years ago. They are neighbors, and express overlapping concerns about events in the Middle East. "We might not get along at all if we were there. But here we are friends. Here," they add, "it is everybody else." As we gaze around the room, it does seem as if these two are the only ones on fully cordial terms.
"But," they conclude after a moment's reflection, "at least they all showed up."
In his essay for the catalogue that accompanies "Picasso Érotique," beautifully installed in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until September 16, Jean-Jacques Lebel reproduces an extraordinary drawing that is not included in the exhibition itself. On the right is a vagina, sparsely surrounded by pubic hairs. It dwarfs the homuncular male figure, moving open-eyed and stubble-cheeked into the dark night of death, emblematized by a sweep of black wash. The date of execution is inscribed in large and ornamental numerals--25.7.72. It was perhaps the last of the goaty old master's drawings of a woman's sexe--he was to die, aged 91, the following April. The figure, of course, is Picasso himself. In his middle 70s, after he was abandoned by his young and beautiful mistress, Françoise Gilot, he represented himself as some figure of contempt--an old man, a monkey, a clown, a grotesquely fat caricature of an infantile male personage, often an artist--juxtaposed with an inward-dwelling woman, a model, usually nude, indifferent to his presence. The male will often be shown draped and ornamented with the paraphernalia of worldly recognition--armor, for example, or robes too large by far for his shrunken physique. The woman needs no external mark of power. Her youth and nakedness, which at times is accentuated by a circlet of flowers worn in her hair, is emblem enough. In this small, scary masterpiece, Picasso is taking leave at once of life and of sex. Eros c'est la vie was the punning pronunciation of Rrose Sélavy--the pseudonym that his fellow eroticist, Marcel Duchamp, took for himself when he assumed his periodic female identity. The same disproportion of this farewell drawing is embodied in Duchamp's monumental Large Glass, in which the Bride sits aloof and alone in an upper chamber while her various Bachelors are segregated in a limbo of desire below.
The disengaged vagina is a universal symbol. What Picasso has scrawled in the 1972 drawing could have been incised in plaster outside a doorway in India or brushed in red pigment on a wall in Rome at any moment of its history--or scribbled with ballpoint in lavatory booths or drawn with a pencil stub wherever lonesome men languish. On the other hand, it belongs to its meaning to be furtive and hidden. The female nude is omnipresent in Western art, but the representation of a woman with her genital orifice displayed is exceedingly rare. There are two celebrated exceptions. The first is the somewhat presumptuously titled The Origin of the World, by Gustave Courbet, painted in 1866--roughly the moment when the term pornography entered the language. It shows a reclining woman, her legs spread apart, her garment lifted to the level of her breasts and her luxuriant pubic thatch exposed to the viewer. The woman's head, lower legs and arms are cropped by the edges of the canvas, which was evidently kept covered by a green veil after the painting was done. It was commissioned by a Turkish diplomat, Khalil Bey, and was later acquired by the celebrated French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who was, incidentally, Picasso's consultant on most medical questions. Lacan too kept it hidden--like the portrait of La Belle Noiseuse in Balzac's Chef d'oeuvre inconnu. It was concealed behind a painting by Lacan's brother-in-law, the Surrealist André Masson, and shown only to favored visitors. Courbet's painting became the property of the French state after Lacan died, and I first saw it at--naturally--the Brooklyn Museum. It was shown in the 1988 "Courbet Reconsidered" exhibition in the days predating Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, when it aroused neither outcry nor outrage but only a certain curiosity. Later it went on view at the Musée d'Orsay, surrounded with enough art history almost to neutralize it. I once discussed it in a lecture at Yale but was hesitant to show a slide--though I was told afterward that avant-garde feminists have adopted it as a symbol of female power. In certain African societies it is considered lethal to behold a woman's genitals, which are kept safely out of view by means of the myth of their dangerousness.
The other example is Duchamp's mysterious Étant donnés... in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where, peering through a peephole, one finds oneself looking at the shaven cleft, between her spread legs, of a woman lying on her back. Duchamp designed the installation in such a way that the hole through which we see her will not allow the viewer to see her head or even if she has a head. It was Duchamp's last work, done in secrecy during the last twenty years of his life, when the received opinion was that he had given up art for chess. There is a wall in "Picasso Érotique" with small apertures through which one can see backlit transparencies both of the Courbet and the Duchamp as Picasso's predecessors in the representation of a woman's open sexe. It is a distinguished but not a particularly extensive artistic genealogy, considering the wide distribution of this particular organ, and the extraordinary interest it generates in most of our lives. A visitor from outer space could acquire a wide knowledge from the history of art of what human females look like undressed, but have not a clue as to the vagina's existence or visual appearance.
There are two main aesthetic reasons for its absence from art. The first is enunciated by Freud: The genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are hardly ever regarded as beautiful. When a New York gallerist was shown some examples from a work by the French Surrealist Henri Maccheroni, titled 2000 photographies du sexe d'une femme, she said she realized why, by contrast with breasts and buttocks, this particular attribute played no part in the stereotype of feminine beauty. The second reason is this: The difference between male and female nudes is that the male's genitals are visible unless they are covered but the female's are invisible unless uncovered, which requires that the woman assume an awkward posture in which they are displayed. There are two circumstances in which this routinely takes place. The first is the gynecological examination. The second is where they are flashed by sex workers for the enticement and arousal of clients. In a superb review of a book on a brothel in a recent issue of this magazine, Leah Platt quoted the author's interview of a working woman on her job, performed behind a window before a paying male: "make eye contact, pout, wink, swivel your hips a little, put a stiletto-clad foot up on the window sill to reveal an eye-full of your two most marketable orifices, fondle your tits, smack your ass, stroke whatever pubic hair you haven't shaven off...until the customer comes, then move on to the next window." The segregation of the Bride from the Bachelors in Duchamp's Large Glass could be an allegory of this transaction.
In her legendary early film Fuses, the great performance artist Carolee Schneemann undertook to discover whether showing how sexual love looked corresponded to the pleasure of experiencing it, and this involved her in finding a way of exhibiting herself that was neither gynecological nor pornographic. I have never seen Fuses, but in her forthcoming book, Imaging Her Erotics, Schneemann describes how the film landed her in hot water with audiences from the art world, from which she had supposed she could count on a measure of support. Since there are a certain number of opened vaginas in "Picasso Érotique," the exhibition's organizers--Jean-Jacques Lebel and Jean Clair, director of the Musée national Picasso in Paris--prudently decided against seeking a New York venue for their show, thinking, with the European's affecting ignorance of North American geography, that New Yorkers need but slip across the border to see it. So unless you're prepared to take an hour's flight on Air Canada--or do the thing properly by postponing your trip to Barcelona until the show is installed in the Museu Picasso, near where it all began--you'll have to make do with consulting the catalogue and writing a letter of indignation to Giuliani's Panel on Decency.
Just inside the entrance to "Picasso Érotique," the exhibition's designer has re-created an imagined bordello bedroom as one might have existed in the red-light district of Barcelona in the era of Picasso's youth. Projected on its wall is a clip from what I take to be a vintage film, in which a generously proportioned woman, sitting on the edge of the bed, lifts her breasts in the time-honored way, and then stands, with her wrapper open, to give us a view of her nakedness. The action is pretty fast. We get a shot of a man administering cunnilingus while a frustrated customer peers through a keyhole until he evidently can't hold himself in any longer and falls to the floor, clutching his front, like one of Duchamp's bachelors. It certainly beats an acousta-guide in setting the somewhat merry tone the early drawings and watercolors carry out. The pictures are really scraps, pages from a sketchbook, graphic souvenirs of the artist's erotic encounters in the kinds of bedrooms we have just seen, with the kinds of women we have just been shown. A lot of the pictures are on the border between cartoons and life drawings. There is a certain amount of cunnilingus, some lively sketches of an ecstatic woman in high sockings fingering herself, some scenes of women sitting around half-dressed, a few quite tender scenes of lesbian caress and a fairly ambitious painting of the artist himself, looking as innocent as a choirboy and wearing a striped jersey, being treated to fellatio. It is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I'll lay odds that though it was painted in 1903, in the middle of Picasso's extravagantly admired Blue Period, you won't see it proudly displayed there when the Montreal show is over.
The interest of these mostly ephemeral works lies as much in what they tell us about the male sexual imagination as about what Picasso saw. Men visited the brothels of the so-called barrio chino--the Chinese Quarter of old Barcelona--as they visit brothels everywhere: in part to see, in part to enact, what life otherwise only allows them to imagine. That is why the displayed vagina belongs so centrally to pornography--the much-debated male gaze is not readily gratified, due to its object's hiddenness. There are relatively few depictions in the early parts of the show of the way men and women in love express that condition sexually.
But there is a great deal of that in Picasso's art, beginning with when he fell profoundly in love with Fernande Olivier in 1904, and began to see life en couleur de rose: The so-called Rose Period is not merely a change of palette. Pictures titled Le Baiser (The Kiss) or L'Étreinte (Embrace) outnumber by a significant factor those showing special couplings of the kind advertised in Pompei--though there is a gouache from 1917 that could easily have been copied from the kinds of souvenir postcards that are probably still hawked outside the excavations. Its chief pictorial function is to display the man's enormous penis in a state of futile erection, since the couple has assumed a position too athletic for actual intercourse to take place: She is standing on her head, with one foot braced against his chin. In the main, except when he is being satirical, Picasso has no use for the caricaturely gross penis. He shows himself as normally proportioned in an awkward, scowling 1902 Self Portrait With Nude.
The kisses are intensely felt and at the same time comically shown: In a painting dated January 12, 1931, the couple dart their triangular tongues into each other's mouths; the woman's nose is draped affectionately over the man's, her eyes closed and his rolled upward. In Figures at the Seashore, it is impossible to determine to which of the two kissers the breasts belong, as if the difference between two individuals has been transcended, and they are one being, with tangled legs and arms. One cannot but think, in these wonderful middle-period works, of Aristophanes' vivid thesis in The Symposium, that each of us was once part of a single being, now split into two, each part seeking to be reunited with the other. So many of the Baisers and Étreintes are ingenious, imperfect reassemblages of bodily parts into helpless erotic wholes, destined to fall apart despite the great passion that brought them together. The overall mood is one of tenderness and comedy.
So I was not surprised to learn from the museum's publicist that there have been very few complaints about the show in Montreal, though attendance so far has greatly exceeded expectations. But there has been a spontaneous show of affection on the part of those who visit the show together. Basically the show is about love. She told me that she had been alerted by one of the guards that couples often begin to hold hands while looking at the work, to whisper in each other's ear, to embrace lightly, even to kiss. I found that a very touching discovery, and really something of a vindication for mounting such a show. It is evidence that there is more to experiencing art than allowing one's eyes to be flooded with form. This is the power of erotic representation: We respond with affection. But sex has another strand as well, a raucousness and comedy that the ancients appreciated when they rocked with laughter at the sight of satyrs capering across the stage with leather phalluses. For all his tenderness, Picasso was a fierce satirist, aware that we can look pretty ridiculous in the grip of sexual passion. There is a delicious suite of etchings done in 1968, showing the painter Raphael making endless love to his mistress, La Fornarina, never so overcome by passion that he has to put down his brushes and palette and use both arms. In all of these images, Picasso shows the couple's genitals fitted together like bolt and bolt-hole, but each wears the calm smile of Hindu deities in cosmic fornication, as if butter would not melt in their mouths. Most of these etchings contain observers as well as the lovers themselves. The Pope, for example, often drops into a picture to observe the action--and in some of them Michelangelo gets an eyeful while hiding under the bed.
Raphael, painter of sweet madonnas and charming infants, was not above doing a bit of pornography himself now and then. His notorious 1516 frescoes of the history of Venus, commissioned for Cardinal Bibbiena's bathroom in the Vatican, were whitewashed over in the nineteenth century as inconsistent with what was felt to be spiritually fitting for the artist of the Acts of the Apostles. The nineteenth century was a bad time for the erotica of the masters. Ruskin had no hesitation in ordering the destruction of Turner's horny drawings on the grounds that he was obviously insane when he drew them. But the depiction of sex was one of the main reasons that drawing was invented. Even the misogynous Degas executed a series of monoprints in the Maison Tellier, one of Paris's best-known brothels of the 1880s. They show the prostitutes lounging about, waiting for clients or engaged in lesbian sex with one another. Picasso owned some of these quite compassionate images, and as he approached the age of 90, he devoted a rowdy suite of etchings to the somewhat implausible episode of Degas observing the whores. There are a good many exceedingly open, exceedingly juicy vaginas in these pictures, I would say lovingly drawn, in which it is indeterminate whether the women are mocking or tempting the voyeur. In one, Picasso shows lines of sight from Degas's eyes to the hairy juncture of vaginal lips spread open for his uncertain delectation.
There are no open vaginas in Picasso's own celebrated brothel scene, the famous Demoiselles d'Avignon, one of the canonical works of Modernism and by all accounts his masterpiece. It could in one way almost be a Cubist paraphrase of one of Degas's monoprints, in which the women are gathered to greet the visitor, who will hopefully select one of them for whatever he is into. Here are five women in all--three classical figures to the viewer's left, two masked women to the right, one of them, her back to us, squatting. The masks could be African, could be Oceanic, but hardly belong to any European tradition other than that of the ethnographic museum, where Picasso first saw them. Whatever they are up to, the women hardly look as if they are out to tempt us. If we did not know from scholarship that it was a brothel scene, it is hard to know how we would read the work. It is easy to sympathize with Alfred Barr, who acquired the painting for the Museum of Modern Art, when he described this as a purely formal figure composition, which as it develops becomes more and more dehumanized and abstract. Leo Steinberg quotes this in a great essay, together with a 1912 interpretation by the poet André Salmon, of Picasso's own inner circle: The women "'are naked problems, white numbers on a blackboard.' Can we be looking at the same canvas?" Steinberg asks with incredulity. I shall always be grateful for this "Can we be looking at the same canvas?" It definitively erased from my aesthetic whatever inclination I had toward formalism in art. On the other hand, I am not ready to be included in the "us" to whom Steinberg says this picture looks like a tidal wave of female aggression. I cannot get female aggression to fit with the overall feeling toward women conveyed in this wonderful exhibition in Montreal, not even in the period when Picasso was painting Salome dancing for the price of John the Baptist's head. The Demoiselles d'Avignon is not in the show, and that's a good thing. Nobody really understands it; nobody is even able to say whether it is a success or a failure. It may not be white numbers on a blackboard, but it falls outside the range of the human--all too human--to which eroticism, as behavior and imagination, belongs.
I came upon her weeping,
gray face gone pewter.
She held still for me
and the wet sponge
pressed gently down,
and closed her eyes.
Beneath her skin the muscle rippled
as a pond does
under water's pressure.
past the screen that windows the view,
field's edge, an island of trees.
I put it on, to know
what the horse sees
caged in the blue mesh,
in a realm of monocular vision.
I fasten it
beneath the throat
while she chews the grain,
lips roving in the bucket.
beyond the cage. Cold's oncoming
as the wind cries,
whatever antennae I had
lost in the generations.
Ah, the films of summer. When they get it right, they win our hearts. A sublime treat with which to beat the heat, Ghost World deserves every bit of the praise that has been rolling its way. Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, LouieBluie) has conquered the jinx that so often afflicts filmmakers trying to make the transition from documentary to fiction. That he gets it right is due in no small part to his co-scenarist Daniel Clowes, whose cult comic Ghost World provides the raw material that here mutates so aptly into a loopy coming-of-age story packed with genius one-liners, the detritus of popular culture and a never-ending lineup of oddball characters. What is truly remarkable, though, is that these two 40-something guys have captured the world of teenage girls with sublime accuracy.
Best friends Enid (Thora Birch, who was so good in American Beauty) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, first discovered in Manny & Lo) have it all: Thrift-shop outfits--assembled with a jaundiced eye for fashion--accompany rooms packed with carefully edited stuff and attitude to match. Claiming their inalienable rights as teenagers, the two exercise an unmitigated scorn for all adults in the immediate vicinity and a consummate ability to reconfigure anyone via sassy vitriol. Ghost World opens on Enid and Rebecca's high school graduation and chronicles their summer of discontent, by the end of which their friendship will be in tatters and their future prospects will be, well, reduced.
The summer after high school is quintessentially the time when the bravura hits the fan. Think Dazed and Confused for girls, and then imagine a completely different film: an anti-Clueless wrought by a sensibility seemingly shaped by reading The Catcher in the Rye at an impressionable age and carrying it forward to twenty-first-century suburbia. (That the suburb is Los Angeles as envisioned by a pair of San Francisco/Berkeley artistes guarantees that it's meant to be a nightmare.) Almost without exception, Ghost World hits its target with a bull's-eye. It renders, nearly pitch-perfect, the tone of teenage girls' friendship--the overidentification and competition, the combined desire for and horror of boys/men, the simultaneous reinvention and rejection of femininity and the torment of succumbing to minimum-wage conformity while desperately trying to figure a way out.
Enid is part Goth, part Holden Caulfield. She's first seen rocking out to a classic Indian Bollywood film and disdaining the dude music of her contemporaries and its pretentious practitioners. She narrativizes everyone in her path. Haunting cheap retro-1950s diners, Enid sketches the down-on-their-luck customers and constructs story lines for them with Rebecca, her inseparable but prettier pal, who may be less verbal but is equally disaffected (and woefully underwritten). They turn one pathetic couple into Satanists and make a lowlife crackpot into their private antihero. When a personals ad in the weekly paper (a plea from a "bookish fellow" to the woman he was too shy to speak to on an airplane) offers them an opportunity for a prank, it sets the film's plot in motion. Enid and Rebecca impersonate the target, then trail their victim to the Wowsville diner for his no-show date.
They're still kids, of course, for all their daring. That they're being cruel doesn't occur to them until mid-assignation. For Rebecca, the game is then over and it's time to move on to the next best thing: getting jobs so they can afford their dream apartment. She finds employment at a Starbucks-esque cafe with its own retinue of oddballs, while Enid's sole attempt at gainful employment is a hilarious disaster sure to thrill anyone who's ever darkened a multiplex. She works--for one day--at a movie theater refreshment stand, where she's ordered to push larger sizes than requested and warned to stop dissing the movies to the customers. Enid's insolent enactment of these rules is hilarious and naturally leads to her departure from the, uh, profession. And leads her instead to Seymour.
Who's Seymour? As embodied by Steve Buscemi in a career-elevating performance, Seymour is the sad-sack guy framed with the fake blind date. Post-prank, though, Enid gets curious and starts tailing him. Seymour may have his own adult dead-end job (professional life doesn't fare well in this film, where people have jobs, not careers), but he has an avocation, a passionate hobby unsullied by filthy lucre: his 78 rpm record collection of pure blues music. All it takes is listening to his 1931 Skip James recording of "Devil Got My Woman" to hook Enid. Seymour fills her ideal of an uncompromised life, as she transforms his commitment to blues from pathetic geek characteristic to banner of permanent rebellion.
"Only stupid people have healthy relationships," confides Enid. "That's the spirit," agrees Seymour. No good will come of this, to be sure, but like a satisfying journey, the road toward the messy tragedies at story's end is strewn with pleasures. Not least among them is the character of Roberta (Illeana Douglas, in her best role since To Die For), the truly horrifying teacher of the "summer art class for retards" that Enid has to take to complete her high school requirements. Roberta introduces herself to the students by showing a fiercely feminist avant-garde video, then praises anything--however awful--backed by a feminist screed and disapproves of Enid's cartoons, which were actually supplied by R. Crumb's daughter Sophie from her own sketchbooks. Enid lampoons Roberta until, when encouraged even a little, she tries to court her favor in some of the film's most poignant moments. (Dare I disclose her portrait of...Don Knotts?)
By the time Enid finally "gets on the bus," Ghost World has plumbed its characters' depths with a deep-sea diver's precision and exploded the hypocritical balloon of social mobility and material success that is fast replacing ideals and principles in the age of Bush. Never underestimate a teenage girl's ability to destroy everything in her path, even if that means screwing up her own life in the process. If teenagers are a society's truest barometer, then Ghost World offers a rather worrisome forecast.
Along the way, though, Ghost World tips its hand more than a bit, despite Affonso Beato's seductive camerawork, which has a way of making it all go down like a storybook. If middle-aged men hadn't made this film, for example, would Enid really be so sympathetic to a loser like Seymour? Who, by the way, has the same 78 rpm obsession as director Zwigoff. Which, excuse me, we're supposed to believe this hip outsider girl-child is so easily hooked on? And would feminism be a bad joke? Would LA suburbs be the seat of all evil, at a time when San Francisco was dot-comming and dot-bombing its way into the history books? And what's up with the wheelchair jokes?
Still, Ghost World gets points for avoiding the calculated, prefab cynicism characteristic of overpraised films like American Beauty, on the one hand, and Happiness, on the other. We care about these characters and, despite themselves, they care for one another, too. Irony meets empathy here and both are better for it. Conservative compassion be damned.
Note: For another version of girl power in unexpected quarters, check out Legally Blonde. Sure, it's improbable, what with being a Hollywood product showcasing Reese Witherspoon's star power and all, but it's got wit and even bite. The scenes of female bonding across class in the beauty parlor would be enough to make it worthwhile even if it weren't the best empowerment movie for teenage girls to come along in ages.
Also worth catching are two fantastic films currently on screens around the country. Scott McGehee and David Siegal's The Deep End is a sun-drenched noir that lets Tilda Swinton prove herself as an action hero--and a likely heroine for PFLAG in her efforts to clear her gay teenage son's name and get him that scholarship to Wesleyan. And Lumumba is a historically astute and politically pointed history of what really happened in the Congo in its most tumultuous moment--as dramatized by erstwhile documentarian Raoul Peck, who experienced the African transition to independence firsthand and recently served as Haiti's minister of culture.
"Stop all printing of my play. I shall never write another one again." So wrote the frustrated young Dr. Chekhov to his publisher the morning after his new play, The Seagull, was booed off the stage by an audience in St. Petersburg, outraged by its incomprehensibility and Symbolist decadence.
This disastrous opening night, on October 17, 1896, at the Alexandrinsky Theater, is a legend in theater history. So is the fate of The Seagull itself. The play, which Chekhov doubted would ever be performed again, went on to crown the inaugural season of the Moscow Art Theater two years later in a stunning turnaround, introducing a confident young director/actor named Stanislavsky and a passionate young actress named Olga Knipper (who later became the playwright's wife). It was followed by three other masterpieces from the same author for that theater company (Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard), creating a quartet of "new forms" and paving the way for the twentieth-century revolution called modern drama.
And now, 106 years after this controversial masterpiece was written, The Seagull is again taking center stage, as the theatrical event of the new decade in an arresting production at the Public Theater's Shakespeare in Central Park during August, proving theater can indeed still be the center of culture.
This Seagull reunites acclaimed director Mike Nichols with illustrious screen star Meryl Streep (they did Silkwood, Heartburn and Postcards From the Edge together), who is appearing on the stage after an absence of twenty years. (Her last performance was in Alice in Concert, also at the Public, in 1981, and it was she who approached him with the idea to do The Seagull together.) Nichols, who has lured stars to the stage with Chekhov before (his Uncle Vanya in 1973 at Circle in the Square featured George C. Scott, Julie Christie and Nicol Williamson), has assembled a luminous cast that is attracting queues outside the Delacorte Theater that rival those at Madison Square Garden. John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Debra Monk, Larry Pine, Natalie Portman, Stephen Spinella and Christopher Walken (yes, all of them, live!) join Streep in the park's final production of the summer season, and it is the synergy of this array of artists, this magical play (in Tom Stoppard's clear, respectful version of the text) and the stunning mise en scène of Central Park (as well as the scarcity of tickets) that has produced a Seagull to be remembered, perhaps for decades.
The Seagull tells the story of a group of writers and actors gathered on the lakeside estate of the famous actress Irina Arkadina (played by Streep), who is summering there with her lover, the author Trigorin (Kline), and a coterie of stock Chekhovian types (a doctor, a schoolteacher, assorted country neighbors and so on). Arkadina's son, Konstantin (Hoffman), an aspiring young playwright, has written a new play with which he hopes to win the approval of his mother and her famous lover. It is performed by Nina (Portman), a stage-struck young actress and the object of Konstantin's desperate affections. The story follows the deepening involvement of these characters over that star-crossed summer wherein everyone falls in (unrequited) love; then it jumps two years ahead, where things end badly. It's a play about love and art and creativity and nature and death--and the alchemy of all these elements. "I started it forte and ended it pianissimo, contrary to all the rules of dramatic art," Chekhov wrote, as he attempted to describe his experiment in writing a comedy that ends as a tragedy.
It's also the first Chekhov play to be performed in Shakespeare in the Park's forty-season history, and an irresistible choice, given the natural setting. Still, it's a brave one, for The Seagull, while sacred around the world in artistic circles, theater conservatories and academia, remains the Macbeth of the Chekhovian canon, the one that directors and producers (especially American) tend to avoid, for fear of its mystery and impenetrability. Indeed, if you look at the history of Chekhov in America and the list of publicly acclaimed, "landmark" productions in recent decades--most notably Lee Strasberg's Three Sisters (Actors Studio, 1964), Andrei Serban's Cherry Orchard (Lincoln Center, 1977), Peter Brook's (imported) Cherry Orchard (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1988) and the wave of popular Uncle Vanyas in the 1990s both on stage and screen (most notably Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, based on Andre Gregory's direction of the play)--The Seagull is not on it.
But Nichols, whose strongest suits are comedy and celebrity, has made a wise and timely choice in staging a play about the theater that is calling such attention to the theater. And of course the jewel in his crown is Streep, whose sweeping entrance down the staircase of her estate onto the Delacorte stage evokes an ecstatic ovation. Whether in mauve or white or emerald or scarlet, Streep illuminates the night, as she plays the flamboyant actress who struggles to preserve her passion for the theater against the hostility of her suicidal son, the stultification of the Russian countryside, the threat of aging and the danger of losing her glamour and her lover (to the younger actress). It's a complex, demanding, potentially unsympathetic role, and Streep follows in the footsteps of many great actresses on the English-speaking stage--including Dame Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Worth, Susan Fleetwood, Penelope Wilton, Judi Dench, Felicity Kendall, Rosemary Harris and Blythe Danner--who have faced its daunting challenges with aplomb. Streep, comedian par excellence, endows the role with a daredevil panache and and flair for physicalizing comedy. (Those of us who remember her Dunyasha in The Cherry Orchard twenty-four years ago at Lincoln Center, when she fell into a flat-out faint, are astonished once again when here, in Act II, she erupts into a full-petticoated cartwheel.) Swanning around the garden, throwing tantrums over a horse and carriage, nursing her son's wounds tenderly and then insulting him cruelly, weeping over her finances or tousling with her lover on the Oriental rug, she ranges across the spectrum of human emotions, flaunting her character's flaws and capturing our sympathies in the end. It is a charismatic and commanding performance.
Streep is well matched by her fellow cast members: Marcia Gay Harden's deliciously dark Masha (dragging around the stage "in mourning for her life" over unrequited love for Konstantin); John Goodman's jelly-bellied Shamraev (the estate's manager and would-be baritone), with his booming "Bravo, Silva!"; Christopher Walken's sprightly Sorin (a hilarious and heartbreaking portrayal of Arkadina's aging brother)--all are finely etched, acrobatic performances, in the spirit of Chekhov's vaudevillian intent.
There are also the gentle, bittersweet portrayals of Stephen Spinella's sensitive schoolteacher Medvedenko; Larry Pine's wise, knowing Dr. Dorn; and Debra Monk's tender Paulina, whose pathetic hope to reclaim lost love and youth, like her bouquet of flowers, is torn to shreds.
In the roles of the doomed young lovers and aspiring artists, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Natalie Portman give unadorned, affecting performances, courageous in their vulnerability. Hoffman, known for his flamboyant character roles in film (including Almost Famous and The Talented Mr. Ripley) and his recent tour de force on Broadway in Sam Shepard's True West, shows great versatility here with his sensitive, understated portrayal of the tortured young writer. And Portman's delicate youth and soaring spirit make her fall all the more heartbreaking in the play's final, immortal scene, played by both with simplicity and restraint.
The illusive role of the writer Trigorin, the lover who leaves Arkadina for Nina and then abandons Nina and their child, is, like Arkadina, a dangerously unsympathetic one (it was originated by Stanislavsky himself, and Chekhov never felt he got it right). Kevin Kline, distinguished classical leading man (remember his Hamlet and Ivanov), has given this subtle role an elegant, seductive, ironic and highly appealing rendering.
While The Seagull is considered a realistic play (radically experimental, at the time it was written), it is in truth an impressionistic one, and directors are understandably lured by its suggestive symbolism. Hence, there have been numerous vivid imagistic productions over the years, including, most recently, Romanian-born Andrei Serban's Seagull in Japan (1980), with a vast lake on stage, into which Treplev falls after he shoots himself; Petr Lebl's white-on-white Art Deco one in Prague (1994); and Michael Greif's production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (1994), where the back wall of the stage rises at the end of Act IV, revealing Konstantin's blood-drenched body draped over the piano. In the case of Nichols's Seagull, the director has trust enough in the author, the text, the splendid cast and the spectacular natural setting to allow the play to play itself. Indeed, Central Park provides everything that Chekhov asked for: a vast outdoor park, a lake (Turtle Pond) and the silhouette of grand estates (Belvedere Castle) on the other shore. Bob Crowley (scenic and costume designer) has provided an elegant, vine-covered mansion stage left, whose brilliant windows (lit by Jennifer Tipton) blaze against the dark sky, promising a cozy, safe interior against the dangerous lures of nature and creativity. Marcia Gay Harden and Stephen Spinella wander in from behind the birches, Natalie Portman rides in on horseback, Kevin Kline sits silently on the shore and fishes. "Ah, the spells this lake casts," sighs Larry Pine. (Who needs Hollywood?!)
Above all, Mike Nichols has understood why Chekhov called this play a comedy. Chekhov, the vaudevillian, the writer of sketches and short stories, had the soul of a comedic writer in the body of a dying man. Diagnosed at 29, he died of consumption at the age of 44 (he wrote The Seagull at 35). As a doctor, Chekhov saw life ironically, in tragicomic terms--"I write about life as it is," he said. Nichols (once a comedic actor himself), with four award-winning decades in the theater (directing Simon, Albee, Beckett and Stoppard, among many others), has his own deep understanding of how comedy and drama cohabit on the stage. Accordingly, he has inspired comedic performances that follow the story's descent into sorrow with simplicity and truth.
"I would like life to flash by in moments, brilliantly," Chekhov once wrote to his publisher. In the end, the deep truths of his four great plays are unfathomable, and productions over the past century have not always been greeted with praise by the public and the critics. And yet, the glory and eternity of Chekhov lies in fleeting but indelible moments created on the stage. For me, there's the memory of Irene Worth running round the empty house in the last act of Serban's Cherry Orchard, as she leaves her home forever. Or of Brian Dennehy in Brook's production, as he pounds his chest and shouts, "It's mine, the cherry orchard is mine!" Or Ian McKellen's Uncle Vanya clutching his bouquet of roses at the Royal National Theatre (1993). Or Vanessa and Corin Redgrave (brother and sister playing the same) in the RNT's current production of The Cherry Orchard, frolicking on the nursery floor. And now, add the moment of Meryl Streep's joyful, triumphant cartwheel under the stars in Central Park, in celebration of life and art and talent--and return to the theater.
IF I HAD A HAMMER...
I agree with Katrina vanden Heuvel on the necessity of building a better infrastructure to combat the right-wing corporate giant ["Building to Win," July 9]. The right has the money and the media. The progressives have the brains and the moral highroad. Let's keep to the latter while concentrating on how best to position the former. Newt Gingrich used computer technology to fire his misguided agenda. Progressives need to capture the Internet as the means to train, inform, meet and proselytize (The website Common Dreams is a good start). Technology can go far beyond a simple reprinting of well-written articles. I suggest that the web be our printing press as well as our town meeting hall to take back our party, the Democratic Party, and to then move the rest of the country back from the fringe of fascism.
New York City
Unquestionably, infrastructure is essential. But until we regain command over the buzzwords, conservatives hold the advantage. After a relentless barrage of invective by conservatives and sixties radicals, "liberal" became a term of opprobrium. "Marketplace" must be shown to be a myth; "privatize," a synonym for corrupt favoritism; "missile defense initiative," a form of corporate welfare; "interests" returned to its original meaning, corporate oligopoly; "tax reduction," a transfer of wealth from those who have little to those who have much; "globalization," a search for the most repressive dictatorships that deliver the lowest wages and costs. Government and labor must be what they were in the past, the only counterweights to supranational conglomerates.
Katrina vanden Heuvel perpetuates a common misunderstanding when she states, "The 1997 Supreme Court decision against the New Party...has chained us constitutionally to the existing duopoly." Not so. Nothing in the Constitution "chains" us to the two-party system. Only federal law does. A statute passed by Congress forces states to gerrymander their territories into single-member districts. This law entrenches duopoly politics, because a one-winner election turns third parties into spoilers and encourages voters to hold their noses and vote for one of only two candidates. Thus, states are prevented from using proportional representation (PR), which the Constitution would allow. By using larger, multimember districts and preference or party-list voting, PR would give third and fourth parties a chance. A bill in Congress, HR 1189, the Voters' Choice Act, would eliminate the single-seat requirement, allowing states to experiment with PR. The duopoly can be broken without having to face the Supreme Court or amend the Constitution. It's a legislative issue, like other election reforms, and progressives should be leading the way.
Midwest Democracy Center
VANDEN HEUVEL REPLIES
New York City
I'm sorry if my shorthand summary of our present predicament was confusing. It is quite true, of course, that the Constitution does not mandate a two-party system. Indeed, it says nothing at all about parties. Our duopoly is a creation of statutory law and administration rule, and in principle we could change it by the same means. The age-old problem, however, is that the very duopoly the law protects also runs our government and has never shown the slightest interest in increasing competition. So those who wish to reform the system are forced to use citizen initiative or the courts.
What the Supreme Court's decision in Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party did was in effect to preclude the second line of attack. Steered by the same Gang of Five that later gave us Bush v. Gore, it held that the current major parties werefree to construct electoral rules for the exclusive purpose of limiting competition to themselves. Just how profound a departure from past law this was is important to see. Before Timmons the Court often recognized the endurance of our two-party system and even the possible virtues of the duopoly over other electoral systems. But what it had never done was misread the Constitution to favor party duopoly, and it had always treated any effort by the two major parties to reproduce themselves indefinitely as the duopoly--by erecting artificial barriers to new party entry and effective competition--with something approaching contempt. The Court said in Timmons that existing parties had a legitimate interest in doing just that. Moreover, it declared itself prepared to uphold this interest regardless of a showing, as was made and accepted in the case, that doing so hurt our electoral system's representativeness with no gain in any other electoral value--accountability or stability, for instance--traditionally recognized by the Court. After Timmons, I see no constitutional argument that might successfully be made against the rules upholding our duopoly. That's what I meant by saying the decision "chained us constitutionally."
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL
A MODEST PROPOSAL
I know a place where the Navy can shift its bombing operations that will make everybody happy--Martha's Vineyard [Angelo Falcón, "Liberating Vieques," July 9]! Like Vieques, the Vineyard is a charming island with easy access to sea and land. With more than three times Vieques's paltry fifty-one square miles, it should afford the Navy a much wider range of out-of-the-way targets. And since the peak season runs only about three months, there'll be ample opportunity to squeeze in the 180 days a year of bombing the Navy says it needs to maintain readiness. Since the Navy claims these operations have no significant impact on public health, safety, economy, ecology or quality of life, I don't foresee a problem.
YOU CAN TAKE THIS VOTE & SHOVE IT
As one of those blue-collar white folks examined in Andrew Levison's review of why most supported Bush in the last election, I'd like to point out that most of us didn't support anybody--refusing to take what time off we have to vote for one elitist son of a politician over another. Just whose version of NAFTA were we supposed to endorse? As best as I can tell, a lot of scholarship went into explaining the obvious ["Who Lost the Working Class?" May 14].
Working white folk have been abandoned for decades by the Democrats and corporate labor, a feeling native workers "of color" are beginning to experience. Racial divisions were exploited by conservatives for profit and liberals for posture. And while we knocked heads over jobs and wages, the libs and cons retired to their clubs under the awning of loyal opposition.
Levison continues the obvious fallacy that unions represent the majority of workers and their interests. After they purged action-oriented activists a couple of generations ago, their flaccid advocacies have served only to diminish their own numbers, bolstered today only by a willingness to adopt scabs once workers have lost their jobs. The new predominant service industries require servility over skill. Americans suck as servants. Immigrant labor, so unsurly and so adored by progressives, met no opposition from the liberal side until it impacted jobs of college graduates in the high-tech industries. Republicans don't have the working-class vote any more than the Democrats have our interest at heart. It don't take four years in the Ivy League for most of us to recognize the two empty husks in the American shell game.
I recognized the values Andrew Levison enumerates as "working class," and his description of the 1950s, from my own experience as the daughter of an East Texas railroad engineer and labor organizer. We used to iron my father's striped work overalls, so he left the house each day starched and clean and returned greasy. But in the 1950s he started wearing a suit to work and would change into his overalls at the rail yard. Even as a child, I sensed the shame that had replaced his militancy.
"Who Lost the Working Class?" fails to mention two singular men who also toiled in Andrew Levison's vineyard. Where is Will Gavin (whose prophetic 1975 sleeper, Street Corner Conservative, argued that the "Right" kind of Republican could take all the marbles in places like the People's Republic of Queens)? And what about the late Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Tom Fox (who in 1976 coined the phrase "Reagan Democrats")? I gave Fox my own Rx for the GOP: Let Jerry Ford spend more time with Joe Garagiola (and less with Henry Kissinger) and he wins. But they didn't. So he didn't.
NOEL E. PARMENTEL JR.
NOT BY SEX ED ALONE
Santa Cruz, Calif.
Marjorie Heins disputes myths of abstinence-only education only to uphold the myth that better sex education would eliminate the difference between high US and low European teen pregnancy rates ["Sex, Lies and Politics," May 7]. In fact, the biggest reason for the difference is poverty. In more affluent communities where US teenagers have poverty rates as low as those of European youth (around 5 percent), US teen pregnancy rates are as low as Europe's; in America's impoverished inner cities and rural areas, teen pregnancy rates are 20 times higher. Black and Hispanic adolescents suffer poverty levels triple those of white youths, and the Centers for Disease Control's latest report shows that black and Hispanic adolescents have pregnancy rates three times higher than whites'.
Comprehensive evaluations of American teen pregnancy prevention do not show that sex and abstinence education reduce pregnancy rates but that poverty exerts powerful effects. The best evidence indicates that sex education and contraception provision help to deter pregnancy only when accompanied by social and economic reforms that provide expanded opportunities for poorer populations. By drastically overstating the effectiveness of programmatic interventions, sex education advocates interfere with the crucial need to redress America's grotesque socioeconomic inequalities and youth poverty levels.
COLD WAR CITATION REVISIONISM
New York City
In my July 16 essay, "Cold War Ghosts," I should have cited either Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes's Venona or Allen Weinstein's Perjury rather than The Haunted Wood (by Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev) for the argument that since the person code-named ALES returned from the Yalta Conference via Moscow, and Alger Hiss did the same on a plane carrying three others, none of them spy material, ALES was probably Hiss.