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We are all fascinated by the lives of the powerful and famous, and in
the last part of the twentieth century Andrei Sakharov became one of
Russia's most famous. He burst onto the world stage in the summer of
1968, and seemingly overnight he went from the high-clearance obscurity
of thermonuclear

weapons to world fame. His essay advocating "convergence" of capitalism
and socialism, which was smuggled to the West, was extraordinary. It did
not matter that its contents were naïve and sophomoric (he
envisioned a world government by the year 2000). Its author was the
"father" of the Soviet H-bomb, someone who understood that life and
civilization could be incinerated in an hour's time and as such
commanded instant respect. Moreover, he was a member of the elite, whose
views were "profoundly socialist" and who abhorred the "egotistical
ideas of private ownership and the glorification of capital." But there
were deeply heretical undertones in his thinking. He insisted that the
Soviet Union needed economic and political reforms, and if necessary a
multiparty system, even though he did not regard the latter as an
essential step "or even less, a panacea for all ills."

This was, of course, the time of the Prague Spring, when the peoples of
the Communist part of Europe followed with sympathy and apprehension
Prague's reformist Communist leaders taking Czechoslovakia down the path
of democratization. A nascent democratic movement had emerged in Russia
in the mid-1960s as well, spreading through large sections of the
intelligentsia. "What so many of us...had dreamed of seemed to be
finally coming to pass in Czechoslovakia," Sakharov said later. "Even
from afar, we were caught up in all the excitement and hopes and
enthusiasm of the catchwords: 'Prague spring' and 'socialism with a
human face.'"

All hopes were squelched on August 21, 1968, when Russian tanks entered
Czechoslovakia and arrested the reformers. It was also a fateful moment
for Sakharov: His essay had transformed him into the leading personality
of a small dissident movement. The regime ended his career at the secret
weapons lab in Turkmenistan but allowed him to work at the Institute of
Physics in Moscow. After a decade of defending dissidents, he was
arrested in 1980 and exiled to the closed city of Gorky (now Nizhni
Novgorod), where he was force-fed when he attempted a hunger strike. The
dramatic struggle between a lone individual and a mighty totalitarian
state ended with an astounding concession by the state: On December 16,
1986, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, personally invited
Sakharov to return to Moscow and "go back to your patriotic work." It
was an act of contrition that also enhanced Gorbachev's reputation in
the West.

In this first English-language biography of Sakharov, Richard Lourie
offers a beautifully written and engaging account of the physicist's
life. Lourie is a distinguished author and a leading translator of
Russian literature. He also translated Sakharov's own Memoirs,
which they had discussed at length. Lourie has had extended help from
Elena Bonner, Sakharov's second wife, and the portrait of their marriage
is one of the most insightful aspects of the book. But writing a
biography of so complex a figure as Sakharov is more difficult than it
may seem, in part because his life was the stuff of which myths are
made. It had two distinct phases.

In the first he eagerly served the state and performed his great
bomb-making accomplishments. It was a period of Stalinist terror and
appalling privations in which Sakharov accepted everything with
"cheerful fatalism." Like Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss, he clung to his
belief that everything Stalin did was for the best, that creating the
most destructive weapons mankind had known was his patriotic duty, that
"the Soviet state represented a breakthrough into the future." Even the
repugnant KGB system of informing seemed to him a normal fact of life,
an "ordinary link in the network of surveillance that enveloped the
whole country." When the dictator died in 1953, Sakharov was deeply
moved. "I am under the influence of a great man's death," he wrote to
his wife. "I am thinking of his humanity."

The second period--one of political activism, open dissent and real
sacrifices by Sahkarov--has been meticulously documented in the press.
Needless to say, he was lionized in the Western press and awarded a
Nobel Peace Prize. Yet his impact on the events that led to the collapse
of the Soviet Union remains unclear. As a leading actor in the dissident
movement, he seemed from the beginning a tragic figure who most fully
reflected its strengths and weaknesses. Sakharov not only lacked
charisma, as Andrei Amalrik said, but he also rejected the leadership
role bestowed upon him by the dissidents. Sakharov, Amalrik says in
Notes of a Revolutionary, wanted to be "a solitary monk under a
leaky umbrella whose voice in the defense of the oppressed would be
heard because of his moral prestige."

It is difficult to explain the almost complete break between these two
periods. It coincides roughly with the publication of his controversial
essay, "Reflections on Progress, Co-Existence, and Intellectual
Freedom," and the death of his first wife. What made him do his U-turn,
or, in Professor Philip Morrison's apt image, what made him go "from a
Teller to an Oppenheimer"?

We can only speculate what went on in Sakharov's head. His explanation
seems incomplete. He said he confronted a "moral dilemma" at the time of
the 1955 H-bomb test because his calculations of death by fallout over
the generations made it clear that the total numbers were staggering. He
was also appalled by the ecological consequences and began advocating a
ban on nuclear testing.

An incident at a banquet to honor a successful test may have had a
greater impact on Sakharov. His toast at the banquet--"May all our
devices explode as successfully as today's, but always over test sites
and never over cities"--was immediately countered by Air Marshal
Mitrofan Nedelin, who wanted to put the scientist in his place by
telling a crude story:

"An old man wearing only a shirt was praying before an icon: 'Guide me,
harden me. Guide me, harden me.' His wife who was lying on the stove
said: 'Just pray to be hard, old man, I'll take care of the guiding.'"
"And so," said the air marshal, "let's drink to getting hard."

Sakharov felt "lashed by a whip." An exceedingly proud man, he was
humiliated before his colleagues. He drained his glass and never said
another word for the rest of the evening. He was, he said later, shocked
into a realization that he and his colleagues had created a terrible
weapon whose uses "lie entirely outside our control."

After the first successful test, in 1953, Sakharov's self-confidence was
at a peak. Still "outwardly modest," inwardly he was "actually quite the
opposite." The director of the atomic weapons program, physicist Igor
Kurchatov, had called him "the savior of Russia!" He had replaced Igor
Tamm, his mentor, as scientific head of the hydrogen bomb project. He
alone had written a report on his conception of the next generation of
nuclear weapons and delivery systems; he attended a Politburo meeting
that approved it. To outsiders he seemed able to walk on water. He
enjoyed every privilege the state could bestow. He had the attribute of
highest importance: a high-frequency phone, a direct line to all
leaders. He was made a Hero of Socialist Labor, the nation's highest
honor (for the first of three times). He was elected to full membership
in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, bypassing the usual period of
candidacy (Tamm's had lasted twenty years in an election before he
became a full member).

Yet, as Yuli Khariton, the director of the secret weapons lab, put it,
Sakharov's immense self-confidence was both his strength and his
failing. Sakharov "felt his own strength and could not imagine anyone
understanding better than he." When others found the solution to a
problem he was unable to solve, Sakharov would set about with
"exceptional energy" to search for the flaws in it. Not finding them, he
was forced to admit that the solution was correct.

If the 1955 test was the turning point in his thinking, it was reflected
only in his interest in and advocacy of a ban on nuclear testing.
Clearly he had little understanding of the politics of nuclear weapons
or the domestic political pressures that Nikita Khrushchev was facing.

Ignoring his pleas, Khrushchev insisted that the largest Soviet bomb
ever be tested so it would coincide with the Communist Party Congress
(and the expulsion of Stalin's body from the Lenin Mausoleum in Red
Square). Having been overruled and slavishly following orders, Sakharov
proposed that not one bomb but two be tested at the same time. This
would provide sufficient information to eliminate the need for further
testing for a long time. Even more bizarre was his grandiose proposal
for a giant, atomic-powered torpedo with a 100-megaton charge that could
inflict enormous casualties on enemy ports. A Russian admiral Sakharov
tried to consult would not give him the time of day. As a military man,
the admiral believed in "open battle" and was disgusted and outraged by
the idea of merciless mass slaughter.

By 1957 the Russians had sent Sputnik into orbit and the competition for
the control of outer space became a top priority. In the 1960s the space
program was allocated the largest chunk of the research budget. Sakharov
and other bomb-makers were shunted aside. This may be one of the reasons
for Sakharov's foray into political theory, though Lourie does not
explore it. But Sakharov is a hard man to assess. For example, his role
in enabling Russia to detonate its first hydrogen bomb just nine months
after the Americans is indisputable, but his accomplishments as a
physicist must await final judgment. So far, none of his peers have
placed him in the pantheon of top Russian physicists. None doubted his
talent, but the common judgment may have been summed up by Lev Landau,
the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who called him "outstanding" and
said: "While I would not consider him a genuine theoretical physicist,
he is rather a 'constructive genius.'" Tamm, another Nobel Prize winner,
was more generous. Sakharov's tragedy, Tamm said, was "that he had to
sacrifice his great passion--elementary-particle physics--first to
create an atomic and hydrogen bomb," then sacrifice it a second time in
the struggle for social justice.

It's even harder to assess him as a man. I first met him in the hospital
of the Academy of Sciences in 1967, where he was a patient. I was
visiting another patient, the writer Nikolai Erdman, who took me "to say
hello" to Sakharov, who was recovering from a hernia operation. First
impressions often gel into lasting images. I have subsequently written
dozens of stories about him, and I never had any doubt that he was a
rare good man who was prepared to oppose evil. As an absent-minded and
eccentric professor, he was unassuming and humble. Yet his benevolent
smile somehow demanded respect. He was born into a family that belonged
to that section of nineteenth-century intelligentsia that believed it
their duty to fight Russia's backwardness and authoritarianism. There
was a sense of entitlement about him, something that must have come
about from special considerations and privileges that had been extended
to him over the years. Following the publication of his controversial
essay, he was banned from military projects but accepted the position
offered him at the Physics Institute, working under Tamm. He accepted.
Neither side had entirely given up on the other. What if Sakharov came
up with a new discovery? At the time, neither science nor politics had
much meaning for Sakharov, who was grieving for his late wife and
looking after his 12-year-old son, Dima.

Sakharov was still a unique figure, both admired and envied. His
unanimous election to the Soviet Academy of Sciences was without
precedent for two reasons: Not only had he not completed his doctorate
(he was a candidate of science), but his work was so classified that
more than 99 percent of those who voted for him had no idea why he was
honored. Academic Vasily Yemelyanov, who headed the Soviet atomic energy
commission in the 1950s, told me in an interview how Khrushchev had
asked him to insure Sakharov's election without revealing his role in
the H-bomb project. Yemelyanov replied that that was impossible. People
are going to ask questions. After all, Sakharov, 32 at the time, was a
molokosos (baby). "You tell them that he had done a great service
to the state but you are not at liberty to reveal what it is,"
Yemelyanov quoted Khrushchev as saying.

Sakharov was still viewed as salvageable when two prominent dissidents
were incarcerated in psychiatric institutions: Gen. Pyotr Grigorenko and
biologist Zhores Medvedev, twin brother of Marxist historian Roy
Medvedev, a friend of Sakharov's who distributed his original 1968 essay
in samizdat form. Roy Medvedev's book about Stalin, Let
History Judge
, which Sakharov read in samizdat, played a
major role in his developing politics. As Soviet policy hardened under
Leonid Brezhnev, open dissent turned into a concerted opposition to a
return to Stalinism. Sakharov created an international incident in 1970
when he appeared at an international symposium held in Moscow and
announced that he was collecting signatures in defense of Medvedev, who
was under psychiatric detention. A week later he protested directly to
Brezhnev. Medvedev was freed in mid-June, but Grigorenko remained
incarcerated for four years.

A void of ostracism, however, began to form around Sakharov. He had
crossed over to the other side. This became irrevocable when he met his
second wife, Elena Bonner, a die-hard political dissident.

Ironically, Sakharov was finally happy, being married to a woman he
loved and who shared his ideas. Like God's fool from the Russian
tradition, he was regularly challenging the lies on which the system was
constructed yet not ending up in jail, because God's fool was the only
person who could speak the truth to czars. The authorities, unwilling to
lash out at Sakharov himself, instead targeted Bonner's children. Bonner
herself was reviled in the press. Sakharov fought back--hunger strikes
were his ultimate weapon. The state had considerable success in
radicalizing his image and making it appear that the human rights
movement was used by Sakharov to obtain exit visas for his family and
friends.

Lourie presents a compelling account of Sakharov's personal odyssey,
going behind the glossy picture we painted and repainted over the years.
If there is a serious shortcoming here it is that Bonner's role has
been, perhaps inadvertently, minimized. The book leaves the reader with
a sense of disappointment that this genuinely great man did not have a
more lasting effect. But we'd be remiss to forget the electrifying
impact on Russia of his return from internal exile in 1986. Even more
significant was his decades-long struggle to keep alive the best
traditions of the Russian intelligentsia. Like his beloved Pushkin, he
will remain loved because--in the poet's words--"I've struck the chords
of kindness/and sung freedom's praise in this cruel age,/calling for
mercy to be shown the fallen."

It's boring but do it, says the playwright. Otherwise, you allow evil to
settle in.

Hot, rained-on, packed-down straw, strewn then abandoned
between the rows of eggplant, tomato plants, onion, and herbs
catches the evening's last September gnats in pale mats
and renders, for a moment, the fall surrender untenable.

Impossible, too, to make this sign--your birthday month--
the winding vine of grapes at harvest, for who could drink
in this heat, or light the candles and praise the cake?
The half-century it took to make the man you are is far

outstripped by the tipped and tilting present tense in which
you accurately move, correcting the angle of guyed bamboo,
brushing a confusion of wings from the plot, and not,
in the slightest sense, wincing ahead to the unfathomable,

intolerable winter, for straw, you said, muffles
the living so they can't hear the dead.

A hundred days ago Wu'er Kaixi was a fugitive.... Yesterday, before an
audience of 800 Americans and Chinese at Brandeis University, he showed
what brought a 21-year-old Beijing Normal School student to the head of
an earth-shaking movement.
      He sang a song about a wolf.
And he told people who had listened to two days of often-ponderous
analysis of the student movement that Chinese rock music composers Qin
Qi of Taiwan and Cui Jian of mainland China were more important to the
students than the dissident physicist Fang Lizhi...
      The auditorium buzzed with the gasps and whispers of delighted students
and their bewildered elders.
            (Boston Globe, September 18, 1989)

John Sebastian's famous lyric about the impossibility of "trying to tell
a stranger about rock and roll" notwithstanding, it was a special moment
indeed when Wu'er Kaixi--the flamboyant Tiananmen student
leader--attempted to do just that. I know. I was one of the strangers
who heard him sing Qin Qi's "Wolf From the North" and explain what its
celebration of individualism meant to his generation. The students
agreed with senior dissidents that institutions must change, he said,
but what they yearned for most was to live in a freer society. (The
anniversary of the Beijing massacre recently passed, on June 4.)

When I witnessed Wu'er's performance, even though I was no longer a
student and even though I had misgivings about any single activist
claiming to speak for the Tiananmen generation, I was definitely in the
"delighted" camp. One reason was that I was in Shanghai in 1986 when
demonstrations occurred that helped lay the groundwork for those of
1989. I was struck then by the Western media's tendency to overstate the
dissident Fang Lizhi's impact. Students found his speeches inspiring,
but other things also triggered protests: complaints about compulsory
calisthenics, for example, and a scuffle at--of all things--a Jan and
Dean concert.

Another reason Wu'er's performance pleased me was that I was to give a
presentation at Harvard the next evening and planned to talk about a
song, albeit one without a backbeat: "Frère Jacques." Why that
one? Because Chinese youth often put new lyrics to it during pre-1949
protests, Red Guards did likewise in the 1960s and the Tiananmen
protesters had just followed suit. Wu'er used a new song to argue for
his generation's uniqueness. But I used an old one to show how often he
and others had reworked (albeit often unconsciously) a rich inherited
tradition.

I also pointed out that the lyrics to the latest version of
"Frère Jacques" (which began "Down With Li Peng, Down With Li
Peng, Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping," and which went on to refer to these
and other Communist Party leaders as "bullies") expressed contempt for
corrupt, autocratic officials.

A desire for reform and personal freedom helped get students onto the
streets--not just in Beijing but in scores of Chinese cities. A major
reason that workers joined them there in such large numbers, though, was
moral outrage, widespread disgust with power-holders whose attachment to
the ideals of the Communist revolution of 1949 had seemingly disappeared
completely. The country's leaders now seemed only to care about
protecting their privileged positions. And this meant, I argued, that
there were topical as well as melodic links between 1989 and some
protests of the first half of the century. During the civil war era
(1945-49), for example, demonstrators criticized the ruling Nationalist
Party's leaders for being corrupt and abandoning the ideals of the
revolution that had brought them to power.

In the many books on the events of 1989 published in Chinese and Western
languages in the past dozen years, the uniqueness of the Tiananmen
generation, the root causes of their activism and the songs that
inspired them have all been handled in still different ways from the two
just described. Most notably, when it comes to music, many Tiananmen
books--including the two under review--have singled out for special
attention one of two songs that neither Wu'er Kaixi nor I discussed.
These are a Communist anthem (the "Internationale") and a composition by
Taiwan pop star Hou Dejian ("Heirs of the Dragon"). Students frequently
sang these songs throughout the demonstrations of mid-April through late
May. And each was sung a final time by the last group of students to
leave Tiananmen Square on June 4, during a pre-dawn exodus that took
them through the nearby streets, which had just been turned into killing
fields by the People's Liberation Army.

Zhao Dingxin's The Power of Tiananmen is the latest in a long
line of works to treat the "Internationale" as the movement's most
revealing song. He claims, in a section on "The Imprint of Communist
Mass Mobilization," that students were drawn to it because it is
"rebellious in spirit" and because a steady diet of post-1949
party-sponsored "revolutionary dramas and films" in which the song
figured had made singing it "a standard way of expressing" discontent
with the status quo. In this section, as elsewhere in his study, Zhao
stresses the importance of history in shaping 1989, but he sees only the
preceding forty years as directly relevant. In contrast to my approach,
which linked the pre-Communist and Communist eras, he distinguishes
sharply between (nationalistic) pre-1949 protests and the
("pro-Western") Tiananmen ones.

The Monkey and the Dragon mentions the "Internationale" and many
other compositions (from Cui Jian's rousing "Nothing to My Name" to the
punk-rock song "Garbage Dump"), but the gently lilting "Heirs" gets most
attention. This is to be expected. Linda Jaivin's book is not a
Tiananmen study per se (though 170 pages of it deal with 1989) but a
biography of Hou Dejian. This fascinating singer-songwriter grew up in
Taiwan and, while still in his 20s, saw "Heirs" become a hit (and be
appropriated for political purposes) on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Soon afterward, he surprised everyone (even close friends like Jaivin)
by defecting to the mainland--only to quickly become a gadfly to the
authorities there.

Hou ended up playing key roles in 1989 both as a songwriter (he penned a
song for the movement, "Get Off the Stage," which called on aging
leaders like Deng to retire) and eventually as a direct participant. He
stayed aloof from the movement at first, but from late May onward threw
himself into it with abandon. In short order, he flew to Hong Kong to
perform in a fundraiser, returned to Beijing to join other intellectuals
in a hunger strike, then helped negotiate a temporary cease-fire that
allowed that last group of youths to leave the square on June 4. In 1990
the party shipped him back across the strait, making him, as Jaivin puts
it, with typical irreverence and stylistic flair, "the first Taiwan
defector to be returned to sender."

Patriotism is the central theme of "Heirs" (the "Dragon" in its title is
China), and Jaivin argues that this explains the song's appeal to a
generation of Chinese students who (like many of their predecessors) saw
themselves as charged with an epic mission to save their homeland from
misrule. According to Jaivin, this patriotism occasionally blurred into
a narrow jingoism of a sort that appalled Hou--particularly because his
song was used to express it. Her discussion of "Heirs" thus plays up
1989's nationalistic side and links it both backward (to pre-1949
struggles by youths determined to save their country) and forward (to
such events as the anti-NATO demonstration that broke out when the
Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was hit by US warplanes in 1999).

These opening comments on music are meant to convey three things. First,
China's 1989 was a complex, multifaceted struggle (not a simple
"democracy" movement). Second, in part because of this, the events of
that year remain open to competing interpretations, even among those of
us who dismiss (as everyone should) Beijing's self-serving "Big Lie"
about the government's supposed need to use force to pacify
"counterrevolutionary" riots. Third--and this is a much more general
point--providing a clear picture of a multifaceted movement is never
easy.

This is because one has to grapple continually not only with big
questions of interpretation but also numerous small ones of
detail--right down to picking which songs to discuss. This is true
whether the protesters in question are American or Chinese and whether
the person doing the grappling is a former participant (like Wu'er), a
cultural historian (like me), a dispassionate sociologist (like Zhao) or
an impassioned, iconoclastic, frequently entertaining, often insightful
and sometimes self-indulgent
journalist-turned-novelist-turned-biographer (like Jaivin). Whatever the
movement, whoever the writer, contrasting approaches to small matters
can create big gaps in overall perspective.

Leaving China aside, consider how minor divergences can create major
differences in presentations of an American student movement--that of
the 1960s--depending on the answers given to the following questions:
When exactly did this movement begin and end? Which student activists
and which nonstudents (leaders of related struggles, radical
philosophers, singers, politicians) had the largest impact? How much
weight should we give to the protesters' stated goals? How much to
actions that contradicted these? Were countercultural elements central
or peripheral to the movement? Give one set of answers and Abbie Hoffman
gets a chapter to himself, but give another and he becomes a footnote.
The same goes for everyone from Mario Savio to Malcolm X, Herbert
Marcuse to Jane Fonda, Jimi Hendrix to Ronald Reagan. It also goes for
such events as the Free Speech Movement (too early?), be-ins
(irrelevant?) and the first gay-pride parades (too late?).

Accounts of student movements can also diverge, depending on the answers
given to more basic questions. If one has complete data and knows a lot
about "political opportunity structures" and "rational choice analysis,"
can one explain all dimensions of a movement? Or will some things remain
mysterious, such as the moment when a nonviolent event turns violent or
the process by which a song or chant assumes talismanic properties? Do
we need to leave room for spontaneous, even irrational individual
choices? To put this another way, do we need to make analytic space for
what might best be termed--for lack of a more precise word--magic? I
mean by this both the black magic that transforms a group of individuals
into a lynch mob and the glorious sort that leads to brave acts of
inspiring heroism.

It may be true that the potential for divergence between accounts is
unusually great in that particular case, due to the struggle's
protracted nature and connections to other upheavals, especially the
civil rights movement. And yet, anyone who reads Zhao's study and then
Jaivin's book may doubt this. Tiananmen was comparatively short-lived
and self-contained, yet accounts of China's 1989 spin off in
dramatically different directions.

This is not to say that Zhao's and Jaivin's treatments of Tiananmen
never converge. You could even claim that for works by such different
authors--Jaivin's previous writings include a rollicking novel called
Eat Me, while Zhao's peer-reviewed scholarly articles are
peppered with charts and tables--their books have much in common. One
author may rely on things she observed and was told in 1989, the other
on interviews conducted later according to social scientific protocols,
but some of their narrative choices are the same. For instance, each
focuses tightly on Beijing as a site of protest (it was actually just
one of many) and of state violence (there was also a massacre in
Chengdu). And each pays relatively little attention to workers.

Still, it is the divergences between the discussions of 1989 that remain
most striking. There are people Jaivin discusses in detail (Cui Jian)
who are not even listed in Zhao's index. And there are aspects of the
struggle analyzed insightfully by Zhao that are ignored by Jaivin--what
Zhao calls "campus ecology" (the physical structures and social patterns
of student life) for instance. His treatment of the way this shaped 1989
is excellent, yet the topic falls outside the scope of Jaivin's
interests.

The two authors also treat previous studies very differently. Take
sociologist Craig Calhoun's justly acclaimed 1994 study Neither Gods
Nor Emperors
. Zhao cites it several times (sometimes approvingly,
sometimes to criticize Calhoun for making too much of 1989's links to
pre-1949 events and patterns); Jaivin never mentions it. On the other
hand, she draws heavily on works by Geremie Barmé, a leading
Australian China specialist whom Zhao never cites. Jaivin's reliance on
Barmé is no surprise: The two co-edited a superb
Tiananmen-related document collection, New Ghosts, Old Dreams,
were married for a time (Monkey includes a diverting account of
their courtship) and remain close friends. What is surprising is that
none of Barmé's writings are listed in Zhao's bibliography. This
wouldn't matter except that some specialists (myself included) think him
among the most consistently insightful and on-target analysts of Chinese
culture and politics.

Switching from references to events, we again find divergences. For
example, only Jaivin refers to the 1988 campus riots in which young
African men were attacked. In these incidents, some male Chinese
students--of the same Tiananmen generation that would soon do such
admirable things--lashed out against African males whose freer
lifestyles they envied. The rioters also expressed outrage at efforts by
the black exchange students to establish sexual liaisons with Chinese
women. That only Jaivin mentions these racist incidents is illustrative
of a general pattern. Zhao criticizes the Tiananmen generation for
strategic mistakes, factionalism and political immaturity but otherwise
veers toward hagiography. Jaivin takes a warts-and-all approach to her
heroes. Hou gets chided for egotism and sexism, and the students for
their tendency to be elitist (toward workers) and antiforeign (on
occasion even toward Westerners).

Surprisingly, given Jaivin's greater fascination with pop culture, among
the many events that she ignores but that Zhao mentions is the Jan and
Dean concert fracas. I was glad to see Zhao allude to this November 1986
event (few analysts of 1989 have), but found his comments problematic.
He states that demonstrations began in Shanghai "as a protest against
the arrest and beating of students after many students danced on the
stage" with the surf-rock band. Soon, the movement's focus shifted to
"democracy and other issues," Zhao continues, when news arrived of
campus unrest in Hefei (where Fang Lizhi taught). The protests there
were triggered by complaints about cafeteria food and manipulated local
elections. This is accurate but leaves out a significant twist: The buzz
around Shanghai campuses had a class-related dimension. Students
complained that concert security guards had treated their classmates
like mere "workers," not intellectuals-in-the-making, the flower of
China's youth. And while this sort of elitism was tempered a bit during
the 1989 mass movement, it never disappeared.

In the end, though, where Jaivin and Zhao really part company has to do
with something more basic than choices about whom to cite or even how
critical to be of activists. It comes from the fact that only one
(Jaivin) leaves space for magic. Zhao is influenced by a recent (and
welcome) development in social movement theory: a commitment to paying
more attention to emotion. And yet, in his hands, this emotional turn
amounts to only a minor shift in emphasis. It is as though, to him, a
sense of disgust or feelings of pride can be factored into existing
equations quite easily, without disrupting a basic approach that relies
heavily on assessing structural variables, the sway of formal ideologies
and rational calculations of risk.

In Jaivin's book, magic--of varying sorts--figures centrally. Even the
book's title is a nod toward the magical, since the "Monkey" in it
refers to the most famous trickster character in Chinese culture, the
mischief-loving hero of the novel Journey From the West, with
whom Hou apparently identifies. A major characteristic of Monkey (in the
novel) and Hou (in Jaivin's biography) is an ability to transform
himself and contribute to the transformation of others--something often
associated with spells of enchantment.

When it comes to the magical aspects of Tiananmen, Jaivin stresses the
"magnetic pull" (Barmé's term) that the square exerted. And she
emphasizes that the 1989 movement was full of unexpected developments
that perplexed even those who knew Chinese politics intimately. In
addition, she gives a good sense of how often people did peculiar,
seemingly contradictory things. For example, she writes that Hou was
convinced by late May that the students should leave the square before
the regime cleared it by force. Only by living on could they build on
what they had accomplished and continue to work to change China, he
felt, as did many others. And yet, Hou flew to Hong Kong, even though he
knew the funds raised by the concert there would help the students
extend their occupation of the square. He could never explain why he did
this, and I doubt any "model" can do justice to his choice. Moreover,
Hou was not the only one to find himself doing inexplicable things as
magic moments followed one another at a dizzying speed that spring.

Those who know little about Tiananmen can learn more from Zhao than from
Jaivin (even if they find her more fun to read). And specialists will
come away from his book with more new data. In the end, though, I think
Jaivin gets closer to the heart of 1989. I say this in part because I
agree with her on several points (the role of nationalism, for example).
But my main reason for preferring her book is my conviction that with
Tiananmen--and perhaps many mass movements--you have to take seriously
not just structures and calculations of interest but also passion and
magic.

In the United States a deeply rooted bias toward the practical renders
all knowledge, even the most sublime forms of wisdom, merely an
instrumental good. This pragmatic streak tends to push our literature of
epiphany toward pop psychology and self-helping boosterism unless the
work connects with something larger than the self. In some cultures that
larger-than-the-self thing would be God, and the result becomes
Spiritual Wisdom literature--a form that does not, in any serious way,
flourish among us. The chief Other we celebrate is our Great Outdoors,
and when moral epiphany connects with it the result is a distinctively
American product: Environmental Wisdom literature.

At 67, with nearly forty volumes of work to his credit, Wendell Berry is
undeniably a master of the genre. As poet, essayist and novelist, he has
been concerned throughout his long writing life with how humans live and
work in place, and with the moral and spiritual elements of their
relationship to land. His nonfiction should properly be seen as a
contribution to political theology, but in America we shelve it as
Nature Writing.

Berry is one of the few contemporary authors worthy of mention in the
same breath with that triumvirate of immortals, Thoreau, Muir and
Leopold. If Thoreau stands for romantic naturalism; Muir for the
preservationism of his creation, the Sierra Club; and if Leopold traced
in his life and work the intellectual distance between conservationism
(which treats nature as economically instrumental) and something like
modern ecology (which doesn't), Berry too is the chief articulator of an
environmentally relevant "ism": He is our foremost apostle of the
agrarian ideal.

Ah--the agrarian ideal. But farmland isn't "nature," and Jefferson died
centuries ago, right? Hasn't the Jeffersonian vision of a republic of
free and equal yeoman farmers been completely occluded by the success of
Hamilton's plan for a national manufactory? With only a minuscule
portion of our population engaged in farming, talk of an agrarian ideal
seems outdated at best.

Mainstream environmentalism seems to agree: It generally accepts that
not in agriculture but "in wildness is the salvation of the world," as
Thoreau famously put it. Thoreau meant also, of course, that in wildness was the salvation of the self. But Thoreau was a bit of a romantic poseur; during his idyll in the woods at Walden he was never out of earshot of the Fitchburg
railroad, and when he did enter actual wilderness (in Maine, on the
flanks of Mount Katahdin) he found it "savage and dreary," "even more
grim and wild" than he had anticipated. If Thoreau's virtue was that he
studied nature in detail while all around him men turned their backs on
it (when they weren't actively cutting it down, draining it and
otherwise "improving" it), still, he rarely saw the big picture except
through the distorting lens of his romanticism. Like many another
romantic, he did not see the ways in which his dissent from the
antiromantic realities of his day failed to transcend the evils he
railed against.

In 1850 it was not quite so clear that industrial culture, with its
dark, satanic mills and the increasingly complicated, spiritually barren
life that Thoreau bemoaned, could, without being deflected far from its
course, easily accommodate and even assign value to "nature" as the
romantics understood it. Even Robert Moses, the auto enthusiast whose
highway planning led us into the promised land of modern urban life,
understood the value of parks and green space; they were a necessary
anodyne, a complement to the city he helped to create. "Nature" has
exchange value. Within a market system, anything with exchange
value--anything that people will pay cash money for--will be preserved.
The market undervalues some things, yes, but market effects can be
controlled and augmented by legislation. (Sadly, neither the market nor
Congress has managed to preserve enough untrammeled nature for natural
processes to operate there. Oxymoronically, we have to manage wilderness
in order to keep it wild.)

The logic of industrial culture can preserve a bit of wilderness, but it
won't preserve the life of the planet on which all of us ultimately
depend. It won't even preserve the soil fertility that lets us fend off
our own immediate death by starvation. Berry takes articulate exception
to this failure, and he speaks with the authority of long practice as a
farmer. His love of his hillside farm in Kentucky, which he works with
horses, is evident on every page he writes.

Berry doesn't say that we all must become farmers in order to save the
world. As Norman Wirzba, the editor of this volume, points out in his
introduction, Berry isn't asking us to hitch up horses and become
tillers of soil. He merely wants us to adopt the values,
responsibilities and concerns of an agrarian life. Wirzba writes: "Just
as we have adopted...the assumptions of an industrial mind-set without
ourselves becoming industrialists--we are still teachers, health-care
providers, builders, students, and so forth--so too can we integrate
agrarian principles without ourselves becoming farmers."

One of the clearest contrasts between industrial and agrarian values
concerns the matter of garbage. Urbanites dispose of it at the curb,
where it is taken care of by jumpsuited specialists. Where these men
take it the urbanites know not, nor are they able to see their
responsibility for the damage it does when it gets there. The agrarian,
with the wisdom and clarity of the farmer, knows that there is no such
thing as a "sanitary" landfill. (No farmer would be so foolish as to
welcome a dump anywhere near land being cultivated.) Agrarians are led
to ask subversive questions about the origins of the waste they find so
problematic. Is this purchase necessary? Can the old article be made to
last longer? If the thing shouldn't be released into the environment
when I'm done with it, then it shouldn't be created in the first place.
Do I need it? What do I really need?

The contrast is between ideal types seen romantically, through the
shimmering heat of passionate belief. Even so, the difference seen is
real. There are those who understand culture's root in nature, and those
who don't. For all but hunters and gatherers, farming is the definitive,
determinative point of contact between culture and its environment. As
farming goes, so goes the nation and the planet. Both have been going
badly precisely because we have let the market assign valuations that
should have been made morally, practically, agriculturally,
ecologically. "A man who would value a piece of land strictly according
to its economic worth is as crazy, or as evil, as the man who would make
a whore of his wife," Berry declares in The Unforeseen
Wilderness
. For him that comparison is not an illustrative simile
but an equation: How we treat the land is not separate from how we treat
each other. Our agricultural practice should be ruled not by the market,
whose cues and commandments are culturally and temporally parochial, but
by a clear apprehension of what is needed to insure the long-range
health of the soil, the communities it supports and the individual
organisms (both human and nonhuman) within those communities. Berry's
vision is trinitarian: These three kinds of life are one. He is enough
of a romantic to believe that health is indivisible--that human health
and the health of the planet are complementary, not antagonistic ideals.

Berry's romanticism is a source of hope. It doesn't distort his vision.
He knows we're not going to save the planet or the self by playacting at
being wild. Our world is neither completely a factory nor ideally a
wilderness but in practice is very much under cultivation: We are
inescapably agrarian. With even our wildernesses needing tender care,
the question we face is not, "Shall we be gardeners?" or even "What
proportion of garden to wilderness will we have?" but "What sort of
gardeners should we be?" The essays collected here are Berry's
thoughtful, comprehensive answer.

Berry throws off epigrammatic wisdom like a scythe sprays sparks when
held against the sharpening wheel. Thus: "There can be no such thing as
a 'global village.' No matter how much one may love the world as a
whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small
part of it"; "We live in agriculture as we live in flesh"; "We do not
understand the earth in terms of what it offers us or of what it
requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably
destroy what they do not understand"; "Marriage...has now taken the form
of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things
shall be divided"; "There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy.
Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and
irresponsible dependence." And, with an especially startling clarity:
"The basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral
ignorance and weakness of character." If the essential rightness of
these epigrams isn't immediately obvious to you, you need more Wendell
Berry in your life.

Part of Berry's brief against agribusiness and the rule of the market in
general is that both radically decontextualize human experience,
including the necessary experience of nurturing life to grow food. Fewer
and fewer of us have that primary experience any longer, and those who
do still make a living directly from the soil are continually pressed to
pursue their calling not in accord with its own standards of excellence
but in response to market imperatives, which push farmer and consumer
alike toward thoughtless, selfish, live-for-today exploitation. This
isolation from context--this replacement of a dense web of communal,
historical and natural relations with naked cash nexus--keeps most of us
from supporting, or even seeing, the sort of care, knowledge, honor and
integrity that good farming practice (and good neighboring) requires. In
a society ruled by industrial values, commerce is the only context, and
relations are dramatically simplified.

It's ironic, then, that the selections in this volume have been taken
out of context. The cumulative effect of reading through them is not the
effect created by reading Berry at his best. Berry is a farmer and a
moralist, one who speaks with the humble authority of a man who
regularly treads ground behind a team of horses. His contributions to
the rarefied discourse of political theology are earned by the sweat of
that kind of direct experience, and he knows it. In their original
context the selections here achieve a better balance between theoretical
rumination and chewy first-person detail, between wisdom gained and the
texture of the life that produced it. When Berry speaks his mind,
usually it's to the jangle of harness and hitch. In emphasizing Berry as
an agrarian theorist, this collection tends to underrepresent Berry the
farmer and neighbor and nephew and husband, the man whose experience
makes his agrarian theorizing compelling. Reading the essays assembled
here is rather like sitting down to a plate full of gravy and potatoes:
It might be just what you want, but be aware that what the waiter
brought you is only part of the meal the chef originally had in mind.

Berry is a master craftsman. His essays move from the personal to the
abstract, the reportorial to the indignant, the anecdotal to the
reflective as smoothly as an ecosystem moves through stages of
succession, evolving toward its climax. Throughout Berry's work comes a
strong sense of the narrative persona behind it: A kind and generous
man, one at peace with his lot but deeply at odds with the temper of his
times, a man of insight and empathy who never retreats into the solace
of irony or smug detachment. Berry has a poet's ear, which keeps his
prose from dissolving into the galumphing polysyllables and hissing
sibilants (the "-isms" and "-nesses") that infect abstract subjects in
the hands of lesser writers. He's constantly aware that, just as we are
food incarnate (sunshine and soil, condemned to mortal life), so too are
our ideas incarnated in our acts and organizations, each of which has a
history it cannot fully escape.

It's odd, then, that Wirzba's Berry is a rather disembodied, timeless
intellect. Sometimes the individual chapters in this collection aren't
effectively introduced, and often something as basic as the date of
original publication is missing. Occasionally Berry's text will refer to
"the point of this book," though we are of course no longer in "this"
book--we're in Wirzba's book, and he hasn't given us easy access to what
the original textual reference meant. (For most selections, you've got
to comb through the acknowledgments to discover the origin, and even
then the provenance of many of them remains unclear.) Berry's 1993
plaint against the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade still has
relevance--the issue of globalization hasn't gone away, and its portent
for agrarian values is enormous--but "A Bad Big Idea" would benefit from
annotation or an introduction explaining the current status of world
trade in agricultural goods and limning the continuing relevance of
Berry's analysis. Without that context, the reader may well dismiss the
piece as an outdated tilt against a fait accompli.

As with any collection, one can second-guess the selections. I longed to
read Berry's elegiac mea culpa, "Damage," in which he recounts
his misguided attempt to carve a stock pond into one of his farm's
hillsides. The piece, a kind of prose poem, could have served admirably
as part of Wirzba's first section, "A Geobiography," which aims to
"introduce Berry's person and place to the reader." Also missing is
Berry's notorious essay from Harper's in which he gave his
reasons for refusing to buy a computer (he writes with a pencil). Wirzba
has included Berry's response to critics of that piece, though without
the original essay the rebuttal's elaborate analysis of feminism seems
puzzlingly non sequiturish. (In his original essay Berry mentioned that
his wife types and edits his manuscripts, a circumstance that drew harsh
criticism from some readers. A wife, one letter writer said, meets all
of Berry's criteria for an appropriate technology: She's locally
producible, easily repairable, doesn't burn fossil fuel, doesn't
radically transform the community when exploited, etc.) Without a
clearer sense of the whole exchange, one can't fully appreciate why
Berry titled his reply "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine," or why he
offers the telling insight that "one cannot construct an adequate public
defense of a private life." (It's clear he's not apologizing, but
admonishing those whose passion for political rectitude would destroy
the boundary between public and private life. But the full exchange
makes clearer why this is an agrarian's concern: It's that boundary, and
not some chimerical escape from meaningful work or moral duty, that is
crucial to the exercise of our liberty.)

Even with these limitations, this volume is worth a read. There is so
much good sense collected here that one is tempted not to review it but
simply to repeat it. Examples: "We must recover that sense of holiness
in the world, and learn to respect and forbear accordingly." "Economic
justice does not consist of giving the most power to the most money."
"Eating is an agricultural act."

As to solutions: Berry's advice for those of us wishing to do what we
can to make things better is simple, direct and difficult: "Eat
responsibly." His essay "The Pleasures of Eating" (taken from What
Are People For?
) describes in detail what that means. Deal directly
with a local farmer whenever possible. Prepare your own food.
Participate in food production to the extent that you can--raise herbs
in a window pot if that's what you can do. Learn the origins of the food
you buy, and buy food produced close to your home. Learn what is
involved in the best farming and gardening. Learn as much as you can, by
direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of
food species. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy
and technology of industrial food production.

The imperative, you see, is to learn. Of course: This is wisdom
literature.

We are accustomed to our wisdom about nature coming from people who
write about wilderness. We don't think of farmland as nature, or of the
farming life as offering us much in the way of opportunity to accrue and
exercise wisdom. As this volume shows, on both counts we are sadly
mistaken.

Late in her life, Lorine Niedecker collected several dozen of her poems
in handmade books that she gave to three friends. One poem common to all
three books is "Who Was Mary Shelley?," a Gothic ballad in which the
author of Frankenstein dwells not in possibility but anonymity.
"What was her name/before she married?" Niedecker wonders. What was she thinking
when she "Created the monster nights/after Byron, Shelley/talked the
candle down."

When Niedecker died in 1970 at the age of 67, her work was shrouded in
mystery as well. During the half-century she spent writing poems,
Niedecker published in the best little magazines and earned the praise
of Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky.
Nevertheless, opinion of her poetry remained dominated by hearsay and
caricature. The view of George Oppen, who had met Niedecker just once,
during her stay with Zukofsky in Manhattan in 1933, is typical.
Niedecker was "a tiny little person, very, very near sighted always,"
Oppen told a friend in 1963, adding that she "was too timid to face
almost any job. She took a job scrubbing floors in a hospital near the
run-down farm she inherited, and is still living in that crumbling farm
house and scrubbing floors. Someone in Scotland printed a tiny little
book of her poems, which are little barely audible poems, not without
loveliness." In a similar vein, the Jargon Society published Epitaphs
for Lorine
in 1973, and several contributors memorialized Niedecker
with the diminutive "poetess."

The portrait of Niedecker as the Grandma Moses of American verse can't
be attributed entirely to the provincialism or paternalism of the
avant-garde poetry world. When Oppen wrote to his friend, Niedecker had
just two books in print (the second being a redaction of the first), and
both books contained, well, poems rarely longer than four lines. But
Niedecker didn't write just "little" poems, and access to the rest of
her oeuvre improved in 1985 with the publication of Cid Corman's
The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker and
Robert Bertholf's From This Condensery: The Complete Writing of
Lorine Niedecker
. The problem was that Corman and Bertholf presented
contrasting Niedeckers. Corman's text contains less than half of
Niedecker's poetry, and it emphasizes her lyrics about nature and
domestic life on Black Hawk Island in south-central Wisconsin, her home
for all but a few years of her life. Bertholf's volume includes those
lyrics plus Niedecker's poems about history and politics, but it teems
with textual errors (misattributions, mistranscriptions), and so its
emphasis on the Niedecker who probed the world beyond Black Hawk Island
is useless.

"Isn't it glorious? Let's trim green thought in one place and let it
grow wild in another," says a character in "The Evening's Automobiles,"
one of two short stories that Niedecker wrote in the 1950s. Jenny
Penberthy has let Niedecker's green thought run wild by restoring poems
that either went unpublished in books or periodicals during Niedecker's
lifetime or were trimmed from or mangled in posthumous editions.
Collected Works includes Niedecker's two published collections,
New Goose (1946) and North Central (1968); three complete
unpublished manuscripts, "New Goose" (a collection of twenty-nine poems
in the same style as the forty-one poems in New Goose), "For Paul
and Other Poems" and "Harpsichord & Salt Fish"; the gift-book poems;
uncollected poems, both published and unpublished; and published and
unpublished fiction and radio plays. Though one regrets the exclusion of
essays Niedecker wrote on Zukofsky and Corman, the range of forms and
ideas is still electrifying. Not since the appearance of the facsimile
version of The Waste Land in 1971, which clearly established how
T.S. Eliot's poem had been transformed by Ezra Pound's editing, has a
new edition of an American poet's work shattered the prevailing sense of
that writer's art. Niedecker may have lived in a marshy backwater, but
thanks to Penberthy's meticulously edited volume she can no longer be
treated as an unintellectual pastoral miniaturist. Isn't it glorious?

"The old words have reached the age of retirement. Let us pension them
off! We need a twentieth-century dictionary!" This is Eugene Jolas,
writing in the pages of transition in 1932. With contributors
like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, Jolas's transition crackled
with Surrealist-tinged linguistic experiment. It was also one of several
little magazines that Niedecker read faithfully in the early 1930s. The
standard story of Niedecker's career is that she became a disciple of
Zukofsky after reading the Objectivist issue of Poetry he edited
in 1931. Collected Works opens with several dozen poems from the
early 1930s--all previously unpublished in book form--and they reveal
Niedecker's preoccupation with a surrealism at odds with Zukofsky's
focus on the affectless object. Typical is the beginning of "Synamism":
"Berceuse, mediphala/and the continent. German and therefore
unidentified./Cricket night, seismograph and stitch. All tongues backed/by a
difference." Absent from Niedecker's early poems are Surrealism's heroic
sadism and insane hallucinations. Instead, she prefers a surrealism of
language, a poetry that takes root in neologisms and portmanteau words
and swirls into an aural collage of illogical but syntactically sound
phrases. "Close the door and come to the crack quickly./To jesticulate
in the rainacular or novembrood//in the sunconscious...as though there
were fs/and no ings, freighter of geese without wings," she writes in
"Progression." By mixing the abstract and discursive, Niedecker sought
to create a poetry capable of evoking different levels of thought and
feeling. She sought the "rainacular," a nonsense not without sense
because it records its own kind of testimony--a fluid vernacular, lived
speech.

In the late 1930s, Niedecker recalibrated her explorations of language's
subliminal texture. She started to use idiomatic phrases, casting them
into the hey-diddle-diddle artifice of Mother Goose: "She had
tumult of the brain/and I had rats in the rain/and she and I and the
furlined man/were out for gain." Though not hermetic, Niedecker's "New Goose" poems still create an aura of deceptive lucidity, due in part to the
unwavering march of their trochaic rhythms. In poem after poem the
ephemeral suddenly turns serious, but one isn't exactly sure why.
"Scuttle up the workshop,/settle down the dew,/I'll tell you what my
name is/when we've made the world new." Niedecker had tapped the cryptic
sounds of Mother Goose, but she wasn't writing bedtime verses. In
the late 1930s, she was employed by the Federal Writer's Project,
working as a research editor on Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger
State
. In New Goose and its many corollary poems, Niedecker
extends the study of local speech and lore she had undertaken for the
guide:

What a woman!--hooks men like rugs,
clips as she hooks, prefers old wool, but all
childlike, lost, houseowning or pensioned men
her prey. She covets the gold in her husband's teeth.
She'd sell dirt, she'd sell your eyes
fried in deep grief.

Many of the New Goose poems are ballads that distill a specific
local incident to its pungent emotional essence. Together they tell the
history of an old, weird Wisconsin, a place of desire and Depression,
betrayals and bombs, politics and privations. What's remarkable about
New Goose is Niedecker's ability to blend a surreal aesthetic
with a documentary impulse without diluting local character or dulling
her sometimes caustic attitude toward it. Had Niedecker used a camera
instead of a typewriter to make her art, her photographs would have
resembled the early work of Walker Evans. Like Evans, Niedecker conveys
the abstract textures of everyday life without reducing everyday life to
an abstraction. "There's a better shine/on the pendulum/than is on my
hair/and many times//I've seen it there." New Goose is
Niedecker's rainacular.

Several years before New Goose appeared, in 1946, Niedecker began
a job as a proofreader for a local trade journal, Hoard's
Dairyman
. Deteriorating eyesight forced her to quit Hoard's
in 1950. Seven years later, amid financial difficulties, she started a
job as a cleaner at the Fort Atkinson Hospital. (Niedecker's poor
eyesight and floor scrubbing are the two facts Oppen got right in his
letter to his friend.) Until she retired from the hospital in 1963, when
she married Al Millen, Niedecker had little time for writing poetry, or
at least for further refining the variety of forms and styles of "For
Paul and Other Poems," which she composed in the early 1950s. Addressed
to Zukofsky's son, "For Paul" includes persona poems, ballads, quasi
epigrams and blues songs. They are written in brisk free verse or
stanzas bristling with riddling rhymes and range in length from four to
204 lines. Niedecker developed a new style during her six years at the
hospital: a concentrated five-line stanza in which lines of one to six
syllables are organized more by sonic stresses than syntax. The role of
sound as the poem's organizing force is intensified by ellipsis, with
verbs and transitions being the most frequently omitted words.

The virtues of such compression are apparent in one of Niedecker's most
remarkable poems, "Lake Superior," which she wrote following a road trip
through Wisconsin, Canada and Minnesota that she and Millen made in
1966. "Rock creates the only human landscape," W.H. Auden told a friend
in 1948 while he was writing "In Praise of Limestone." Auden was
speaking figuratively, for in his poem he uses the limestone terrain of
the Italian island of Ischia as an allegory of the human body. Some of
the oldest rock in North America is exposed around Lake Superior. That
azoic rock is the core of Niedecker's poem, and her approach to it isn't
allegorical.

In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock

In blood the minerals
of the rock

Niedecker sustains this taught, unpunctuated equilibrium through the
next six sections, as she considers the fate of several explorers who
have preceded her. Among them is the fur trader Pierre Esprit Radisson,
who in the mid-seventeenth century became the first European to traverse
the lake. "Radisson:/'a laborinth of pleasure'/this world of the Lake,"
Niedecker writes, "Long hair, long gun//Fingernails pulled out/by
Mohawks." Niedecker's estimation of the cost of wonder--for humans and
the landscape--is interrupted in the eighth section of the poem by an
eruption of sensuality.

Ruby of corundum
lapis lazuli
from changing limestone
glow-apricot red-brown
carnelian sard

Greek named
Exodus-antique
kicked up in America's
Northwest
you have been in my mind
between my toes
agate

Instead of possessing the landscape's mineral wealth, Niedecker is
mesmerized and possessed by it. But that wealth is linguistic too, for
Niedecker's description vividly echoes her early Surrealist poems.
"Corundum" is a mineral that crystallizes into ruby and sapphire, but it
might very well be a corruption of "conundrum." "Sard" is a type of
quartz but could also be a fusion of "snarl" and "bard." It's as though
the rainacular had percolated through fissures in Superior's limestone.
"The North is one vast, massive, glorious corruption of rock and
language," Niedecker remarks in her notes from the 1966 trip, and in her
poem she portrays Superior as a Precambrian compost pile, a place where
words and things are pulverized and transformed, where North American
rocks acquire Greek names, where "Sault Sainte Marie" becomes "the Soo."

In the poem's penultimate section Niedecker synthesizes these issues.

The smooth black stone
I picked up in true source park
         the leaf beside it
once was stone

Why should we hurry
           Home

These lines, and their uncharacteristic surfeit of verbs, would be
unsettling if they opened the poem, but coming at the end, after
Niedecker's geological meditations, they are soothing. Niedecker has
found a home, in both an eschatological and epistemological sense. The
stone may preordain her end, but it also is the product of a profound
creative pressure, which "Lake Superior" answers in kind. Niedecker
acknowledges the stony transformation that awaits her and her reciprocal
desire to compress and recompose that fact ever so briefly into the
sensuous, fleeting order of her poem.

"Lake Superior," like much of Niedecker's late poetry, expresses a
fundamental Modernist idea: All ages are somehow contemporaneous. "'The
ancient present. In me the years are flowing together,'" as the narrator
of "The Evening's Automobiles" explains. Niedecker, however, never
overlayed her lyrical historicism with an epic mythology. She drew a map
of the world but never pretended that it was anything other than her
own. Consequently, despite the riches of its localism, "Lake Superior"
is unlike, say, Williams's Paterson because it does not seek to
be a perfect, absolutely metaphorical America.

This is most clear in "Darwin," Niedecker's final poem. Her Darwin is
neither the avid reader of Shakespeare nor the eccentric who played the
trombone to his French beans. He has the intellectual bearing of the
Darwin in Auden's 1940 "New Year Letter," who "brought/Man's pride to
heel at last and showed/His kinship with the worm and toad." But unlike
Auden, Niedecker doesn't portray Darwin as a dark angel of intellectual
cataclysm. Instead, her Darwin suffers doubts and frustrations as he
struggles to reconcile his understanding of the animal appetite for
survival with the precarious pleasures of human intelligence. The
struggle consumes him even on his sickbed. Stricken by a fever in the
Andes, he writes to his wife, "'Dear Susan.../I am ravenous/for the
sound/of the pianoforte.'"

In fact, the person whom Darwin most resembles is the Niedecker of "Lake
Superior," the poet mesmerized by the geological remnants of lava,
glacier and sea. The naturalist's and poet's temperaments are blended
through the very form of "Darwin"--a collage of elliptical quotes from
Darwin's writings that gain the tincture of Niedecker's voice as they
are recast into stepped four-line stanzas. Just as when Niedecker
catalogues Superior's minerals in a melodious trance, Darwin's senses
open his mind to matters beyond his mastery.

I remember, he said
         those tropical nights at sea--
                     we sat and talked
   on the booms

Tierra del Fuego's
         shining glaciers translucent
                     blue clear down
   (almost) to the indigo sea

Darwin stands not against the world but within it, conscious of its
awesome mutability as well as of the need to understand that force on a
human scale so as not to be philosophically annihilated by it. (The
possibility of nuclear annihilation was on Niedecker's mind at the time
as well. In "Wintergreen Ridge," from 1968, she writes: "thin to nothing
lichens/grind with their acid//granite to sand/These may survive/the
grand blow-up/the bomb.") Like Niedecker, Darwin realizes the world is
something he knows but can't control or own. Yet he still possesses an
idea, and it encompasses more than the fact of his kinship with the worm
and toad:

the universe
not built by brute force
         but designed by laws
The details left

to the working of chance
   "Let each man hope
        and believe
   what he can"

"Darwin" is a defense of the individual task of imagination and
understanding, and Collected Works allows one to appreciate how
passionately and carefully Niedecker took up that task. Like Darwin,
Niedecker felt at home even when she was away from home, her subtle and
sensuous words disclosing her belief that the actual earth is often
fantastic enough.

The SAT has been on the ropes lately. The University of California
system has threatened to quit using the test for its freshman
admissions, arguing that the exam has done more harm than good. The
State of Texas, responding to a federal court order prohibiting its
affirmative action efforts, has already significantly curtailed the
importance of the SAT as a gatekeeper to its campuses. Even usually
stodgy corporate types have started to beat up on the SAT. Last year,
for example, a prominent group of corporate leaders joined the National
Urban League in calling upon college and university presidents to quit
placing so much stock in standardized admissions tests like the SAT,
which they said were "inadequate and unreliable" gatekeepers to college.

Then again, if the SAT is anything, it's a survivor. The SAT
enterprise--consisting of its owner and sponsor, the College Board, and
the test's maker and distributor, the Educational Testing Service--has
gamely reinvented itself over the years in myriad superficial ways,
hedging against the occasional dust-up of bad public relations. The SAT,
for example, has undergone name changes over the years in an effort to
reflect the democratization of higher education in America and
consequent changes in our collective notions about equal opportunity.
But through it all, the SAT's underlying social function--as a sorting
device for entry into or, more likely, maintenance of American
elitehood--has remained ingeniously intact, a firmly rooted icon of
American notions about meritocracy.

Indeed, the one intangible characteristic of the SAT and other
admissions tests that the College Board would never want to change is
the virtual equation, in the public's mind, of test scores and academic
talent. Like the tobacco companies, ETS and the College Board (both are
legally nonprofit organizations that in many respects resemble
profit-making enterprises) put a cautionary label on the product.
Regarding their SAT, the organizations are obliged by professional codes
of proper test practices to inform users of standardized admissions
tests that the exams can be "useful" predictors of later success in
college, medical school or graduate school, when used in conjunction
with other factors, such as grades.

But the true place of admissions testing in America isn't always so
appropriate. Most clear-eyed Americans know that results on the SAT,
Graduate Record Exam or the Medical College Admission Test are widely viewed as synonymous with academic talent in higher education. Whether it's true or not--and there's lots of evidence that it's not--is quite beside the point.

Given the inordinate weight that test scores play in the American
version of meritocracy, it's no surprise that federal courts have been
hearing lawsuits from white, middle-class law school applicants
complaining they were denied admission to law school even though their
LSAT scores were fifty points greater than a minority applicant who was
admitted; why neoconservative doomsayers warn that the academic quality
of America's great universities will plummet if the hordes of unwashed
(read: low test scores) are allowed entry; why articles are written
under titles like "Backdoor Affirmative Action," arguing that
de-emphasizing test scores in Texas and California is merely a covert
tactic of public universities to beef up minority enrollments in
response to court bans on affirmative action.

Indeed, Rebecca Zwick, a professor of education at the University of
California, Santa Barbara, and a former researcher at the Educational
Testing Service, wrote that "Backdoor Affirmative Action" article for
Education Week in 1999, implying that do-gooders who place less
emphasis on test scores in order to raise minority enrollments are
simply blaming the messenger. And so it should not be surprising that
the same author would provide an energetic defense of the SAT and
similar exams in her new book, Fair Game? The Use of Standardized
Admissions Tests in Higher Education.

Those, like Zwick, who are wedded to the belief that test scores are
synonymous with academic merit will like this concise book. They will
praise its 189 pages of text as, finally, a fair and balanced
demystification of the esoteric world of standardized testing. Zwick and
her publisher are positioning the book as the steady, guiding hand
occupying the sensible middle ground in an emotional debate that they
claim is dominated by journalists and other uninformed critics who don't
understand the complex subject of standardized testing. "All too
often...discussions of testing rely more on politics or emotion than on
fact," Zwick says in her preface. "This book was written with the aim of
equipping contestants in the inevitable public debates with some solid
information about testing."

If only it were true. Far from reflecting the balanced approach the
author claims, the book is thinly disguised advocacy for the status quo
and a defense of the hegemony of gatekeeping exams for college and
university admissions. It could be more accurately titled (without the
bothersome question mark) "Fair Game: Why America Needs the SAT."

As it stands, the research staff of the College Board and the
Educational Testing Service, Zwick's former employer, might as well have
written this book, as she trots out all the standard arguments those organizations have used for years to show why healthy doses of standardized testing are really good for American education. At almost every opportunity, Zwick quotes an ETS or College Board study in the most favorable light, couching it as the final word on a particular issue, while casting aspersion on
other studies and researchers (whose livelihoods don't depend on selling
tests) that might well draw different conclusions. Too often Zwick
provides readers who might be unfamiliar with the research about testing
with an overly simplistic and superficial treatment. At worst, she
leaves readers with grossly misleading impressions.

After providing a quick and dirty account of IQ testing at the turn of
the last century, a history that included the rabidly eugenic beliefs of
many of the early testmakers and advocates in Britain and the United
States ("as test critics like to point out," Zwick sneers), the author
introduces readers to one of the central ideologies of mental testing to
sort a society's young for opportunities for higher education. Sure,
mental testing has brought some embarrassing moments in history that we
moderns frown on nowadays, but the testing movement has had its good
guys too. Rather than being a tool to promote and protect the interests
of a society's most privileged citizens, the cold objectivity of
standardized testing remains an important goal for exercise of
democratic values.

According to this belief, standardized testing for admission to college
serves the interest of meritocracy, in which people are allowed to shine
by their wits, not their social connections. That same ideology, says
Zwick, drove former Harvard president James Bryant Conant, whom Zwick
describes as a "staunch supporter of equal opportunity," in his quest to
establish a single entrance exam, the SAT, for all colleges. Conant, of
course, would become the first chairman of the board of the newly formed
Educational Testing Service. But, as Nicholas Lemann writes in his 1999
book The Big Test: The Secret History of the American
Meritocracy
, Conant wasn't nearly so interested in widening
opportunity to higher education as Zwick might think. Conant was keen on
expanding opportunity, but, as Lemann says, only for "members of a tiny
cohort of intellectually gifted men." Disillusioned only with the form
of elitism that had taken shape at Harvard and other Ivy League
colleges, which allotted opportunities based on wealth and parentage,
Conant was nevertheless a staunch elitist, an admirer of the
Jeffersonian ideal of a "natural aristocracy." In Conant's perfect
world, access to this new kind of elitehood would be apportioned not by
birthright but by performance on aptitude tests. Hence the SAT, Lemann
writes, "would finally make possible the creation of a natural
aristocracy."

The longstanding belief that high-stakes mental tests are the great
equalizer of society is dubious at best, and at worst a clever piece of
propaganda that has well served the interests of American elites. In
fact, Alfred Binet himself--among the fathers of IQ testing, who would
invent the first version of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, the
precursor to the modern SAT--observed the powerful relationship between
one's performance on his so-called intelligence test and a child's
social class, a phenomenon Binet described in his 1916 book The
Development of Intelligence in Children.

And it's the same old story with the SAT. Look at the college-bound high
school seniors of 2001 who took the SAT, and the odds are still firmly
stacked against young people of modest economic backgrounds' beating the
SAT odds. A test-taker whose parents did not complete high school can
expect to score fully 171 points below the SAT average, College Board
figures show. On the other hand, high schoolers whose moms and dads have
graduate degrees can expect to outperform the SAT average by 106 points.

What's more, the gaps in SAT performance between whites and blacks and
between whites and Mexican-Americans have only ballooned in the past ten
years. The gap between white and black test-takers widened five points
and eleven points on the SAT verbal and math sections, respectively,
between 1991 and 2001. SAT score gaps between whites and
Mexican-Americans surged a total of thirty-three points during that same
period.

For critics of the national testing culture, such facts are troubling
indeed, suggestive of a large web of inequity that permeates society and
the educational opportunities distributed neatly along class and race
lines, from preschool through medical school. But for Zwick, the notion
of fairness when applied to standardized admissions tests boils down to
a relatively obscure but standard procedure in her field of
"psychometrics," which is in part the study of the statistical
properties of standardized tests.

Mere differences in average test scores between most minority groups and
whites or among social classes isn't all that interesting to Zwick. More
interesting, she maintains, is the comparative accuracy of test scores
in predicting university grades between whites and other racial groups.
In this light, she says, the SAT and most standardized admissions tests
are not biased against blacks, Latinos or Native Americans. In fact, she
says, drawing on 1985 data from a College Board study that looked at
forty-five colleges, those minority groups earned lower grades in
college than predicted by their SAT scores--a classic case of
"overprediction" that substantiates the College Board claim that the SAT
is more than fair to American minorities. By contrast, if the SAT is
unfair to any group, it's unfair to whites and Asian-Americans, because
they get slightly better college grades than the SAT would predict,
Zwick suggests.

Then there's the odd circumstance when it comes to standardized
admissions tests and women. A number of large studies of women and
testing at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of
Michigan and other institutions have consistently shown that while women
(on average) don't perform as well on standardized tests as male
test-takers do, women do better than men in actual classroom work.
Indeed, Zwick acknowledges that standardized tests, unlike for most
minority groups, tend to "underpredict" the actual academic performance
of women.

But on this question, as with so many others in her book, Zwick's
presentation is thin, more textbookish than the thorough examination and
analysis her more demanding readers would expect. Zwick glosses over a
whole literature on how the choice of test format, such as
multiple-choice versus essay examinations, rewards some types of
cognitive approaches and punishes others. For example, there's evidence
to suggest that SAT-type tests dominated by multiple-choice formats
reward speed, risk-taking and other surface-level "gaming" strategies
that may be more characteristic of males than of females. Women and
girls may tend to approach problems somewhat more carefully, slowly and
thoroughly--cognitive traits that serve them well in the real world of
classrooms and work--but hinder their standardized test performance
compared with that of males.

Beyond Zwick's question of whether the SAT and other admissions tests
are biased against women or people of color is the perhaps more basic
question of whether these tests are worthwhile predictors of academic
performance for all students. Indeed, the ETS and the College Board sell
the SAT on the rather narrow promise that it helps colleges predict
freshman grades, period. On this issue, Zwick's presentation is not a
little pedantic, seeming to paint anyone who doesn't claim to be a
psychometrician as a statistical babe in the woods. Zwick quotes the
results of a College Board study published in 1994 finding that one's
SAT score by itself accounts for about 13 percent of the differences in
freshman grades; that one's high school grade average is a slightly
better predictor of college grades, accounting for about 15 percent of
the grade differences among freshmen; and that the SAT combined with
high school grades is a better predictor than the use of grades alone.
In other words, it's the standard College Board line that the SAT is
"useful" when used with other factors in predicting freshman grades. (It
should be noted that Zwick, consistent with virtually all College Board
and ETS presentations, reports her correlation statistics without
converting them into what's known as "R-squared" figures. In my view,
the latter statistics provide readers with a common-sense understanding
of the relative powers of high school grades and test scores in
predicting college grades. I have made those conversions for readers in
the statistics quoted above.)

Unfortunately, Zwick misrepresents the real point that test critics make
on the question of predictive validity of tests like the SAT. The
salient issue is whether the small extra gains in predicting freshman
grades that the SAT might afford individual colleges outweigh the social
and economic costs of the entire admissions testing enterprise, costs
borne by individual test-takers and society at large.

Even on the narrow question of the usefulness of the SAT to individual
colleges, Zwick does not adequately answer what's perhaps the single
most devastating critique of the SAT. For example, in the 1988 book
The Case Against the SAT, James Crouse and Dale Trusheim argued
compellingly that the SAT is, for all practical purposes, useless to
colleges. They showed, for example, that if a college wanted to maximize
the number of freshmen who would earn a grade-point average of at least
2.5, then the admissions office's use of high school rank alone as the
primary screening tool would result in 62.2 percent "correct"
admissions. Adding the SAT score would improve the rate of correct
decisions by only about 2 in 100. The researchers also showed,
remarkably, that if the admissions objective is broader, such as
optimizing the rate of bachelor's degree completion for those earning
grade averages of at least 2.5, the use of high school rank by itself
would yield a slightly better rate of prediction than if the SAT scores
were added to the mix, rendering the SAT counterproductive. "From a
practical viewpoint, most colleges could ignore their applicants' SAT
score reports when they make decisions without appreciably altering the
academic performance and the graduation rates of students they admit,"
Crouse and Trusheim concluded.

At least two relatively well-known cases of colleges at opposite ends of
the public-private spectrum, which have done exactly as Crouse and
Trusheim suggest, powerfully illustrate the point. Consider the
University of Texas system, which was compelled by a 1996 federal
appeals court order, the Hopwood decision, to dismantle its
affirmative-action admissions programs. The Texas legislature responded
to the threat of diminished diversity at its campuses with the "top 10
percent plan," requiring public universities to admit any student
graduating in the top 10 percent of her high school class, regardless of
SAT scores.

Zwick, of course, is obliged in a book of this type to mention the Texas
experience. But she does so disparagingly and without providing her
readers with the most salient details on the policy's effects in terms
of racial diversity and the academic performance of students. Consider
the diversity question. While some progressives might have first
recoiled at the new policy as itself an attack on affirmative action,
that has not been the case. In fact, at the University of Texas at
Austin, the racial diversity of freshman classes has been restored to
pre-Hopwood levels, after taking an initial hit. Indeed, the
percentage of white students at Austin reached a historic low point in
2001, at 61 percent. What's more, the number of high schools sending
students to the state's flagship campus at Austin has significantly
broadened. The "new senders" to the university include more inner-city
schools in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, as well as more rural
schools than in the past, according to research by UT history professor
David Montejano, among the plan's designers.

But the policy's impact on academic performance at the university might
be even more compelling, since that is the point upon which
neoconservative critics have been most vociferous in their condemnations
of such "backdoor" affirmative action plans that put less weight on test
scores. A December 1999 editorial in The New Republic typified
this road-to-ruin fiction: Alleging that the Texas plan and others like
it come "at the cost of dramatically lowering the academic
qualifications of entering freshmen," the TNR editorial warned,
these policies are "a recipe for the destruction of America's great
public universities."

Zwick, too, neglects to mention the facts about academic performance of
the "top 10 percenters" at the University of Texas, who have proven the
dire warnings to be groundless. At every SAT score interval, from less
than 900 to scores of 1,500 and higher, in the year 2000, students
admitted without regard to their SAT score earned better grades than
their non-top 10 percent counterparts, according to the university's
latest research report on the policy.

Or, consider that the top 10 percenters average a GPA of 3.12 as
freshmen. Their SAT average was about 1,145, fully 200 points lower than
non-top 10 percent students, who earned slightly lower GPAs of 3.07. In
fact, the grade average of 3.12 for the automatically admitted students
with moderate SAT scores was equal to the grade average of non-top 10
percenters coming in with SATs of 1,500 and higher. The same pattern has
held across the board, and for all ethnic groups.

Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, is one case of a college that seemed
to anticipate the message of the Crouse and Trusheim research. Bates ran
its own numbers and found that the SAT was simply not a sufficiently
adequate predictor of academic success for many students and abandoned
the test as an entry requirement several years ago. Other highly
selective institutions have similar stories to tell, but Bates serves to
illustrate. In dropping the SAT mandate, the college now gives students
a choice of submitting SATs or not. But it permits no choice in
requiring that students submit a detailed portfolio of their actual work
and accomplishments while in high school for evaluation, an admissions
process completed not just by admissions staff but by the entire Bates
faculty.

As with the Texas automatic admission plan, Zwick would have been
negligent not to mention the case of Bates, and she does so in her
second chapter; but it's an incomplete and skewed account. Zwick quotes
William Hiss, the former dean of admissions at Bates, in a 1993
interview in which he suggests that the Bates experience, while perhaps
appropriate for a smaller liberal arts college, probably couldn't be
duplicated at large public universities. That quote well serves Zwick's
thesis that the SAT is a bureaucratically convenient way to maintain
academic quality at public institutions like UT-Austin and the
University of California. "With the capability to conduct an intensive
review of applications and the freedom to consider students' ethnic and
racial backgrounds, these liberal arts colleges are more likely than
large university systems to succeed in fostering diversity while toeing
the line on academic quality," Zwick writes.

But Zwick neglects to mention that Hiss has since disavowed his caveats
about Bates's lessons for larger public universities. In fact, Hiss, now
a senior administrator at the college, becomes palpably irritated at
inequalities built into admissions systems that put too much stock in
mental testing. He told me in a late 1998 interview, "There are twenty
different ways you can dramatically open up the system, and if you
really want to, you'll figure out a way. And don't complain to me about
the cost, that we can't afford it."

Zwick punctuates her brief discussion of Bates and other institutions
that have dropped the SAT requirement by quoting from an October 30,
2000, article, also in The New Republic, that purportedly
revealed the "dirty little secret" on why Bates and other colleges have
abandoned the SAT. The piece cleverly observed that because SAT
submitters tend to have higher test scores than nonsubmitters, dropping
the SAT has the added statistical quirk of boosting SAT averages in
U.S. News & World Report's coveted college rankings. That
statistical anomaly was the smoking gun the TNR reporter needed
to "prove" the conspiracy.

But to anyone who has seriously researched the rationales colleges have
used in dropping the SAT, the TNR piece was a silly bit of
reporting. At Bates, as at the University of Texas, the SAT
"nonsubmitters" have performed as well or better academically than
students who submitted SATs, often with scores hundreds of points lower
than the SAT submitters. But readers of Fair Game? wouldn't know
this.

One could go on citing many more cases in which Zwick misleads her
readers through lopsided reporting and superficial analysis, such as her
statements that the Graduate Record Exam is about as good a predictor of
graduate school success as the SAT is for college freshmen (it's not,
far from it), or her overly optimistic spin on the results of many
studies showing poor correlations between standardized test scores and
later career successes.

Finally, Zwick's presentation might have benefited from a less
textbookish style, with more enriching details and concrete examples.
Instead, she tries to position herself as a "just the facts" professor
who won't burden readers with extraneous contextual details or accounts
of the human side of the testing culture. But like the enormously
successful--at least in commercial terms--standardized tests themselves,
which promote the entrenched belief in American society that genuine
learning and expert knowledge are tantamount to success on Who Wants
to Be a Millionaire
-type multiple-choice questions, books like Fair Game? might be the standardized account that some readers really want.

A more virulent nuclear era has superseded the perils of the cold
war.

Sister, they say heed the hymn in your heart.
You've learned you've an odd rhythm in your heart.

You and I versus our brothers: pitched war.
The four of us in the swim of your heart.

I saw a bird chasing moths trace spirals
in the air, how you love him in your heart!

The wind blows an apple, an acorn down.
Let's revise: follow each whim in your heart.

In the west, weft ascends warp. In the east,
weft treads warp. Silk Route wisdom in your heart.

Knowledge an ocean shaped by desire,
who defines the idiom: in your heart

of hearts? How many hearts do we have? When
one breaks song soothes like a balm in the heart.

Who'll play dub to your syncopated lub?
Endeavor, love, 'gainst tedium in the heart.

The hated math teacher played, "Less is more,"
with my name. Whence the harem in your heart?

A young man of 16, visiting his cousins in Calcutta in a house in a
"middle-middle-class area," has just published his first poem. This
not-yet-poet from Bombay is the narrator of Amit Chaudhuri's short story
"Portrait of an Artist." The artist in the story is not the visiting
youth, however, but an older man, the English tutor who comes each week to instruct the cousins. This
man is respectfully called mastermoshai.

Mastermoshai has already been shown the narrator's poem. (One of the
cousins reports that the teacher was "very impressed.") On a Saturday
morning, the budding poet meets mastermoshai. He has a "very Bengali
face" with "spectacles that belonged to his face as much as his eyes
did" and "teeth that jutted out from under his lip, making his face
belong to the preorthodontal days." The cousins, and also the narrator,
wait for mastermoshai to say something about the poem. When two literary
men meet in Bengal, they do not indulge in small talk but instead
"straightaway enter realms of the abstract and articulate," we are
advised. Fittingly, mastermoshai's first question to the poet, in a
Bengali-inflected English, is, "Are you profoundly influenced by
Eliot?"

"It was mastermoshai who first spoke to me of Baudelaire," the narrator
says, and there are other discoveries in this induction into the
literary life. When the older man takes the poet to an editor's house in
another part of Calcutta, Chaudhuri's portrait of the artist shades into
a portrait of private homes and of the city as a whole. In Calcutta, our
poet discovers, clerks and accountants nurture an intellectual or
literary life, not only in English but also Bengali. The city appears
provincial, but it also reveals, like Joyce's Dublin, its particularity.

The literary passions that this city with a colonial past breeds are
already obsolete elsewhere. Yet they inspire a romance that is real and
productive. That is what the young poet feels after the years have
passed. By then, mastermoshai has faded into the oblivion of insanity.
His interest in Eliot and Baudelaire is seen by the narrator as a
"transitional" time during which, after the early losses of his life,
mastermoshai had returned to his "youthful enthusiasms." You realize
that the story is not so much about the space of literature, which like
the city itself offers surprises that serve as a refuge from the general
claustrophobia and madness. Instead, it is about the patient and
sometimes crazy, and mostly anonymous, striving in the former
colonies--and also about the tribute we need to pay to mentors in a
literary culture that functions without the trappings of creative
writing programs and, in the case of the poor, even ordinary colleges
and schools.

Chaudhuri's other stories in this debut collection, Real Time,
also concern themselves with the conditions under which art is born or
the circumstances in which artists live. The book's closing story is
about Mohanji, a gentle and gifted singer trained in classical
Hindustani music. He makes a living by teaching affluent housewives in
Bombay how to sing devotional bhajans and ghazals.
Mohanji's life now is "a round of middle-aged women" in Bombay's
affluent districts like Cuffe Parade and Malabar Hill. At night, he
takes the fast train back to his home in a ghetto in distant Dadar.

Lately, Mohanji has been feeling ill. He believes he has an ulcer. He
also suffers from tension. This tension comes "from constantly having to
lie to the ladies he taught--white lies, flattery--and from not having a
choice in the matter."

Mohanji's student Mrs. Chatterjee does not always have the time to
practice. But, she would like to sing. She tells her teacher that she
wishes she could sing like him. Mohanji is "always surprised" that the
rich had desires for "what couldn't be theirs." He is also amused that
"it wasn't enough for Mrs. Chatterjee that she, in one sense, possessed
him; she must possess his gift as well."

This sudden sharpness on Mohanji's part, like his illness, reveals a
malaise. The gentleness in the guru, a quality to which Mrs. Chatterjee
had grown so accustomed, is now shown to be the result of great
restraint and even artistic discipline. The story's presentation of
Mohanji's speech and his silence ushers us into the domain of criticism.

We get a clue here to Chaudhuri's own art. He belongs to a very small
group of Indian writers in English who are as good critics as they are
storytellers. This skill at criticism is not a result of close
reading--though that ability is in fine evidence in The Picador Book
of Indian Literature
, which Chaudhuri has edited--but of a serious
search for a reading public. Chaudhuri's writing, both critical and
fictional, subtly demonstrates for this public (which is yet unborn) its
most responsible function.

There is a great need for such acts in India. Recently, at a literary
festival in Delhi, I heard a well-known writer telling her audience that
there were only two literary critics in Punjabi in the whole country.
But this wasn't the worst. She said that one of the two critics was a
university professor who was interested only in promoting the female
students who were doing their doctorates under him. The other was a man
in Chandigarh who wrote exclusively about other writers from his own Jat
caste. The writer said, "Since I am neither a pretty face nor a Jat, I
am ignored."

I thought about the Punjabi writer, and about Chaudhuri, who was also
there at the festival, when I was awakened past midnight in my hotel
room in Delhi by a call from London. It was someone from the BBC.
Earlier that day, V.S. Naipaul had been rude to another writer. Now the
BBC wanted to know if I believed that "Naipaul had lost it."

I wasn't able to provide gossip. But, as I lay awake in bed after the
call, I remember wondering whether I hadn't made a mistake thinking that
the problem of building a critical culture was India's alone. Did
Britain, for example, have a vibrant literary public sphere? Why then
was the BBC not rousing people from sleep to ask about the solitude of a
writer working in Punjabi, a language that is used by millions, and
endowed with a rich literary past, but now possessing no critics?

Fifteen short stories and a reminiscence-in-verse make up Real
Time
. Not all the pieces are as strong as the ones mentioned above.
A few of the short stories, like the one in the voice of a humiliated
demon from the Ramayana, are clever sketches but call for a more
extended treatment in order to be satisfying. There is a first-person
account of a housewife who is writing a memoir--a story meant to mock
the Indian writing scene, where, it seems, a new writer is born every
day. But Chaudhuri's wit is suited to a more muted, or perhaps just more
nuanced, register, and here the mockery falls flat.

"Words, silences," a story about two male friends who are meeting each
other after a long time, contains a hint of a half-understood homosexual
exchange between them in their boyhood. But the story, in its reticence,
offers too little, the author's silence acting like a silencing of its
own. A couple of other stories in the autobiographical mode work better,
recalling the lyricism and humor of Chaudhuri's earlier fiction. His
first three novels, published in a single volume in the United States
under the title Freedom Song, won a Los Angeles Times book
award in 2000. That year Chaudhuri also published a novel, A New
World
, about an expatriate Indian's return to Calcutta after his
divorce.

A real gem in the present collection is the title story "Real Time,"
which along with the account of Mohanji was first published in the
British magazine Granta. This elegantly crafted story recounts an
executive's visit to a house in Calcutta where a shraddha, or
memorial ceremony, is being held. The ceremony is for a young married
woman who has committed suicide by jumping from the third-floor balcony
of her parents' house.

The visitor and his wife--the latter is related to the family--have been
able to find the house only with some difficulty. They have bought
tuberoses on the way, having bargained the price down from sixteen to
fourteen rupees. The rituals of mourning are not clear in the case of a
suicide. The narrative supplies very little conventional pathos, and yet
pathos is present in the story, always in tension with other quotidian
details that intrude upon the consciousness of the narrator. The visitor
spots an acquaintance and they fall into a conversation about "the
recent changes in their companies," their own children and even "a brief
disagreement about whether civil engineering had a future as a career
today."

Death produces a great absence, but here, in the story, the absence has
more to do with the fact that the visiting couple know very little about
the suicide. They had learned of the death from an item in the
newspaper. Grief remains remote. More than death, it is this distance
that produces a blankness, which, however, slowly gets filled with
ordinariness, and even trivia. The narrative is so precise that it is
with a tiny jolt that the reader realizes that this inconsequential
ordinariness is what we usually call life.

Jacques Derrida has written that the Moroccan Abdelkebir Khatibi does
not speak of his mother tongue "without a trembling that can be heard,"
a "discreet tremor of language that undersigns the poetic resonance of
his entire work." The same can be said of Chaudhuri. In his prose,
history always happens elsewhere. It is like an earthquake in the heart
of the earth. What the writing registers is only the shock and the
falling buildings.

In early 1993, a short while after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in
Ayodhya and the riots that had followed, Chaudhuri wrote a travel essay
about this return to India from Oxford. In that essay, he described how
the metal nameplates in the house where his father had lived in Bombay
were now all blank. This had been done to protect the Muslims living in
the building. "Small, accidental sensations, too small to be called
incidents," he wrote, "told me I was now living in a slightly altered
world."

The trip on which Chaudhuri discovered the small detail of blank metal
nameplates sowed the seed for his novel Freedom Song. While
reading his earlier novels, I had been struck by the way in which
Chaudhuri's evocative, Proustian sentences accumulated visual details. I
thought of Bengali cinema, the moment of its modernity and the movement
of the camera recording the texture of middle-class life. But there was
also an aural element to this writing. It was punctuated with delicate
pauses that made the prose musical. The sentences were marked by spaces
of silence and filled with near-poetry.

It was only when reading Freedom Song, however, that I got a more
vivid sense of Chaudhuri's unique and flawed aesthetic. The rise of
Hindu fundamentalism and the changes ushered in by market liberalization
provide the immediate occasion for the novelist to examine the changes
that affect a small group of relatives and friends. These changes are
not overwhelming; they are subtle variations on a more settled routine.
The technique works because it saves history from the banality of a
slogan. At the same time, it also carries the danger of slipping into a
mannerism. Both the strength and, on occasion, the weakness are present
in the stories of Real Time.

In recent weeks, hundreds have died in India in religious riots
orchestrated by the Hindu right in retaliation for the burning alive of
fifty-eight Hindus in a train. These events have challenged the
democratic credentials of the Indian nation-state. But they also pose a
question for intellectuals and artists, and this is the question of
seeking a powerful and imaginative response to the carnage.

What is our response in "real time"? And how does this time find breath
in our writing? Chaudhuri, in his attention to the imaginative use of
language, makes the search for the answers a process of magical
discovery. Let me end with a passage from Freedom Song that
captures the inertness but also the dynamism of the life that Chaudhuri
sees unfolding around him:

It was afternoon. And in a small lane, in front of a pavement, with the
movement of a wrist, something like a curve began to appear, it was not
clear what pattern was forming, then the letter D appeared upon a wall
of a two-storey house, in black paint, and then U, and N, until DUNKEL
had been formed, in the English language, which seemed to blazon itself
for its curious purpose; then it began again, and I and M and F began to
appear in another corner. Afternoon; no one saw them; it was too hot; on
the main road cars went past, up and down; a few people rested; they had
eaten; beggars dozed, blind to the heat and shadows, their heads bent to
the stomach.

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