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"Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics," business "guru" Peter Drucker proclaimed in Forbes five years ago. "It took more than 200 years for the printed book to create the modern school. It won't take nearly that long for the [next] big change." Historian David Noble echoes Drucker's prophecies but awaits the promised land with considerably less enthusiasm. "A dismal new era of higher education has dawned," he writes in Digital Diploma Mills. "In future years we will look upon the wired remains of our once great democratic higher education system and wonder how we let it happen."
Most readers of this magazine will side with Noble in this implicit debate over the future of higher education. They will rightly applaud his forceful call for the "preservation and extension of affordable, accessible, quality education for everyone" and his spirited resistance to "the commercialization and corporatization of higher education." Not surprisingly, many college faculty members have already cheered Noble's critique of the "automation of higher education." Although Noble himself is famously resistant to computer technology, the essays that make up this book have been widely circulated on the Internet through e-mail, listservs and web-based journals. Indeed, it would be hard to come up with a better example of the fulfillment of the promise of the Internet as a disseminator of critical ideas and a forum for democratic dialogue than the circulation and discussion of Noble's writings on higher education and technology.
Noble performed an invaluable service in publishing online the original articles upon which this book is largely based. They helped initiate a broad debate about the value of information technology in higher education, about the spread of distance education and about the commercialization of universities. Such questions badly need to be asked if we are to maintain our universities as vital democratic institutions. But while the original essays were powerful provocations and polemics, the book itself is a disappointing and limited guide to current debates over the future of the university.
One problem is that the book has a dated quality, since the essays are reproduced largely as they were first circulated online starting in October 1997 (except for some minor editorial changes and the addition of a brief chapter on Army online education efforts). In those four-plus years, we have watched the rise and fall of a whole set of digital learning ventures that go unmentioned here. Thus, Noble warns ominously early in the book that "Columbia [University] has now become party to an agreement with yet another company that intends to peddle its core arts and science courses." But only in a tacked-on paragraph in the next to last chapter do we learn the name of the company, Fathom, which was launched two years ago, and of its very limited success in "peddling" those courses, despite Columbia president George Rupp's promise that it would become "the premier knowledge portal on the Internet." We similarly learn that the Western Governors' Virtual University "enrolled only 10 people" when it opened "this fall" (which probably means 1998, when Noble wrote the original article) but not that the current enrollment, as of February 2002, is 2,500. For the most part, the evidence that Noble presents is highly selective and anecdotal, and there are annoyingly few footnotes to allow checking of sources or quotes.
The appearance of these essays with almost no revision from their initial serial publication on the Internet also helps to explain why Noble's arguments often sound contradictory. On page 36, for example, he may flatly assert that "a dismal new era of higher education has dawned"; but just twenty-four pages later, we learn that "the tide had turned" and the "the bloom is off the rose." Later, he reverses course on the same page, first warning that "one university after another is either setting up its own for-profit online subsidiary or otherwise working with Street-wise collaborators to trade on its brand name in soliciting investors," but then acknowledging (quoting a reporter) that administrators have realized "that putting programs online doesn't necessarily bring riches." When Noble writes that "far sooner than most observers might have imagined, the juggernaut of online education appeared to stall," he must have himself in mind, two chapters earlier. Often, Noble is reflecting the great hysteria about online education that swept through the academy in the late 1990s. At other times (particularly when the prose has been lightly revised), he indicates the sober second thoughts that have more recently emerged, especially following the dot-com stock market crash in early 2000.
In the end, one is provided remarkably few facts in Digital Diploma Mills about the state of distance education, commercialization or the actual impact of technology in higher education. How many students are studying online? Which courses and degrees are most likely to appear online? How many commercial companies are involved in online education? To what degree have faculty employed computer technology in their teaching? What has been the impact on student learning? Which universities have changed their intellectual property policies in response to digital developments? One searches in vain in Noble's book for answers, or even for a summary of the best evidence currently available.
Moreover, Noble undercuts his own case with hyperbole and by failing to provide evidence to support his charges. For example, most readers of his book will not realize that online distance education still represents a tiny proportion of college courses taken in the United States--probably less than 5 percent. Noble sweepingly maintains, "Study after study seemed to confirm that computer-based instruction reduces performance levels." But he doesn't cite which studies. He also writes, "Recent surveys of the instructional use of information technology in higher education clearly indicate that there have been no significant gains in pedagogical enhancement." Oddly, here Noble picks up the rhetoric of distance-education advocates who argue that there is "no significant difference" in learning outcomes between distance and in-person classes.
Many commentators have pointed out Noble's own resistance to computer technology. He refuses to use e-mail and has his students hand-write their papers. Surely, there is no reason to criticize Noble for this personal choice (though one feels sorry for his students). Noble himself responds defensively to such criticisms in the book's introduction: "A critic of technological development is no more 'anti-technology' than a movie critic is 'anti-movie.'" Yes, we do not expect movie critics to love all movies, but we do expect them to go to the movies. Many intelligent and thoughtful people don't own television sets, but none of them are likely to become the next TV critic for the New York Times. Thus, Noble's refusal to use new technology, even in limited ways, makes him a less than able guide to what is actually happening in technology and education.
Certainly, Noble's book offers little evidence of engagement with recent developments in the instructional technology field. One resulting distortion is that some readers will think that online distance education is the most important educational use of computer technology. Actually, while very few faculty teach online courses, most have integrated new technology into their regular courses--more than three-fifths make use of e-mail; more than two-fifths use web resources, according to a 2000 campus computing survey. And few of these faculty members can be characterized, as Noble does in his usual broad-brush style, as "techno-zealots who simply view computers as the panacea for everything, because they like to play with them."
Indeed, contrary to Noble's suggestion, some of the most thoughtful and balanced criticisms of the uses of technology in education have come from those most involved with its application in the classroom. Take, for example, Randy Bass, a professor of English at Georgetown University, who leads the Visible Knowledge Project (http://crossroads.georgetown.edu/vkp), a five-year effort to investigate closely whether technology improves student learning. Bass has vigorously argued that technological tools must be used as "engines of inquiry," not "engines of productivity." Or Andrew Feenberg, a San Diego State University distance-education pioneer as well as a philosopher and disciple of Herbert Marcuse, who has insisted that educational technology "be shaped by educational dialogue rather than the production-oriented logic of automation," and that such "a dialogic approach to online education...could be a factor making for fundamental social change."
One would have no way of knowing from Noble's book that the conventional wisdom of even distance-education enthusiasts is now that cost savings are unlikely, or that most educational technology advocates, many of them faculty members, see their goal as enhancing student learning and teacher-student dialogue. Noble, in fact, never acknowledges that the push to use computer technology in the classroom now emanates at least as much from faculty members interested in using these tools to improve their teaching as it does from profit-seeking administrators and private investors.
Noble does worry a great deal about the impact of commercialization and commodification on our universities--a much more serious threat than that posed by instructional technology. But here, too, the book provides an incomplete picture. Much of Noble's book is devoted to savaging large public and private universities--especially UCLA, which is the subject of three chapters--for jumping on the high-technology and distance-education bandwagons. Yet at least as important a story is the emergence of freestanding, for-profit educational institutions, which see online courses as a key part of their expansion strategy. For example, while most people think of Stanley Kaplan as a test preparation operation, it is actually a subsidiary of the billion-dollar Washington Post media conglomerate and owns a chain of forty-one undergraduate colleges and enrolls more than 11,000 students in a variety of online programs, ranging from paralegal training to full legal degrees at its Concord Law School, which advertises itself as "the nation's only entirely online law school." This for-profit sector is growing rapidly and becoming increasingly concentrated in a smaller number of corporate hands. The fast-growing University of Phoenix is now the largest private university in the United States, with more than 100,000 students and almost one-third in online programs, which are growing more than twice as fast as its brick-and-mortar operation. Despite a generally declining stock market, the price of the tracking stock for the University of Phoenix's online operation has increased more than 80 percent in the past year.
As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year, "consolidation...is sweeping the growing for-profit sector of higher education," fueled by rising stock prices in these companies. This past winter, for example, Education Management Corporation, with 28,000 students, acquired Argosy Education Group and its 5,000 students. The threat posed by these for-profit operations is rooted in their ability to raise money for expansion through Wall Street ("Wall Street," jokes the University of Phoenix's John Sperling, "is our endowment") and by diminishing public support for second-tier state universities and community colleges (the institutions from which for-profits are most likely to draw new students). Yet, except for an offhand reference to Phoenix, Digital Diploma Mills says nothing about these publicly traded higher-education companies. And these for-profit schools are actually only a small part of the more important and much broader for-profit educational "sector," which is also largely ignored by Noble and includes hundreds of vendors of different products and services, and whose size is now in the hundreds of billions of dollars--what Morgan Stanley Dean Witter calls, without blushing, an "addressable market opportunity at the dawn of a new paradigm."
A strong cautionary tale is provided by Noble, that of the involvement of UCLA's extension division with a commercial company called Onlinelearning.net--the most informative chapter in the book. He shows how some UCLA administrators as early as 1993 greedily embraced a vision of riches to be made in the online marketing of the college's extension courses. UCLA upper management apparently bought the fanciful projections of their commercial partners that the online venture would generate $50 million per year within five years, a profit level that quickly plummeted below $1 million annually. But Noble conflates the UCLA online-extension debacle with a more benign effort by the UCLA College of Letters and Sciences, beginning in 1997, to require all instructors to post their course syllabuses on the web. He seems unwilling to draw distinctions between the venal and scandalous actions of top UCLA administrators and the sometimes ham-handed efforts of other administrators to get UCLA faculty to enhance their classes by developing course websites, a fairly common educational practice and a useful convenience for students. Three-fifths of UCLA students surveyed said that the websites had increased interactions with instructors, and social science faculty recently gave the website initiative a mostly positive evaluation.
Sounding an "early alarm" so that faculty members can undertake "defensive preparation and the envisioning of alternatives" is how Noble explains his purpose in writing Digital Diploma Mills. But will faculty be well armed if they are unaware of the actual landscape they are traversing? In the end, Noble leaves us only with a deep and abiding suspicion of both technology and capitalism. His analysis of technology and education does echo Marx's critique of capitalism, with its evocation of concepts like commodification, alienation, exchange and labor theories of value. But unlike Marx, who produced a critical analysis of the exploitative nature of early capitalist production without outright rejection of the technology that made industrialization possible, Noble cannot manage the same feat.
In the current political climate, Noble's undifferentiated suspicion of technology hinders us more than it helps us. Are we prepared to follow him in his suspicion of any use of technology in higher education? Are faculty members willing to abjure e-mail in communicating with their students and colleagues? Are instructors at small colleges with limited library collections prepared to tell their students not to use the 7 million online items in the Library of Congress's American Memory collection? Are they ready to say to students with physical disabilities that limit their ability to attend on-campus classes or conduct library research that they can't participate in higher education? Are faculty at schools with working adults who struggle to commute to campus prepared to insist that all course materials be handed directly to students rather than making some of it available to their students online?
Similarly, what lines are we prepared to draw with respect to commercialization of higher education within the capitalist society in which we live? Are faculty willing to abandon publishing their textbooks with large media conglomerates and forgo having their books sold through nationwide bookstore chains? Are they prepared to say to working-class students who view higher education as the route to upward mobility that they cannot take courses that help them in the job market?
Noble's answer to most of these questions would undoubtedly be yes, insisting, as he does, that anything less than the "genuine interpersonal interaction," face to face, undermines the sanctity of the essential teacher-student relationship. In a March 2000 Chronicle of Higher Education online dialogue about his critique of technology in education, Noble complained that no one had offered "compelling evidence of a pedagogical advantage" in online instruction. (He pristinely refused to join online, and had a Chronicle reporter type in his answers relayed over the phone.) A student at UCLA, who had unexpectedly taken an online course, noted in her contribution to the Q&A that because she tended to be "shy and reserved," e-mail and online discussion groups allowed her to speak more freely to her instructor, and that she thought she retained more information in the online course than in her traditional face-to-face classes at UCLA. Noble rejected the student's conclusion that the online course had helped her find her voice, arguing that writing was "in reality not a solution, but an avoidance of the difficulty." "Speaking eloquently, persuasively, passionately," he concluded, "is essential to citizenship in a democracy." Putting aside the insensitivity of Noble's reply, his position, as Andrew Feenberg points out in Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited, is reminiscent of Plato's fear that writing (the cutting-edge instructional technology in the ancient world) would replace spoken discourse in classical Greece, thus destroying the student-teacher relationship. (Ironically, as Feenberg also notes, "Plato used a written text as the vehicle for his critique of writing, setting a precedent" for current-day critics of educational technology like Noble who have circulated their works on the Internet.)
The conservative stance of opposing all change--no technology, no new modes of instruction--is appealing because it keeps us from any possible complicity with changes that undercut existing faculty rights and privileges. But opposition to all technology means that we are unable to support "open source" technological innovations (including putting course materials online free) that constitute a promising area of resistance to global marketization. And it makes it impossible to work for protections that might be needed in a new environment. Finally, it leaves unchanged the growing inequality between full-time and part-time faculty that has redefined labor relations in the contemporary university--the real scandal of the higher-education workplace. Without challenging the dramatic differences in wages and workloads of full professors and adjunct instructors, faculty rejection of educational technology begins to remind us of the narrow privileges that craft workers fought to maintain in the early decades of industrial capitalism at the expense of the unskilled workers flooding into their workplaces.
We prefer to work from a more pragmatic and realistic stance that asks concretely about the benefits and costs of both new technology and new educational arrangements to students, faculty (full- and part-time) and the larger society. Among other things, that means that academic freedom and intellectual property must be protected in the online environment. And the faculty being asked to experiment with new technology need to be provided with adequate support and rewards for their (ad)ventures. As the astute technology commentator Phil Agre wrote when he first circulated Noble's work on the Internet, "the point is neither to embrace or reject technology but to really think through and analyze...the opportunities that technology presents for more fully embodying the values of a democratic society in the institutions of higher education."
When a girl becomes her school's designated slut, her friends stop talking to her. Pornographic rumors spread with dazzling efficiency, boys harass her openly in the hallways, girls beat her up. "WHORE," or sometimes "HORE," is written on her locker or bookbag. And there is usually a story about her having sex with the whole football team, a rumor whose plausibility no one ever seems to question.
Even those of us who weren't high school sluts and don't recall any such outcast from our own school days have become familiar with her plight--through media stories and the growing body of feminist-inspired literature on female adolescence, as well as the talk shows and teen magazine spreads that have made her their focus. What's harder to understand is how the label persists when the landscape of sexual morality that gives it meaning has so drastically changed--well within living memory. If the sexual revolution didn't obliterate the slut, wouldn't the successive waves of libidinous pop stars, explicit TV shows and countercultural movements to reclaim the label have drained it of its meaning? What kinds of lines can today's adolescents, or those of the 1990s or 1980s, for that matter, possibly draw between nice and not nice girls?
Emily White's Fast Girls sets out to look at the central dilemmas of the slut label. Two earlier books that have focused on the slut--Leora Tanenbaum's Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, a collection of oral histories, and Naomi Wolf's Promiscuities, a reflection on girls' sexual coming-of-age in the 1970s that combines memoir with a casual survey of the women Wolf grew up with--rely primarily on the subjective narratives of women and girls to explore the slut phenomenon. Paula Kamen's Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution surveys the sexual mores and activities of young women, but not specifically of teenagers. White is the first to combine different methodologies in an attempt to write specifically about the functions and significance of the teenage slut--in her words, "to shed some light on that space in the high school hallway where so many vital and troubling encounters occur."
White spoke to or corresponded with more than 150 women who had been the sluts of their school (whom she found largely by soliciting their stories through newspaper ads), and she spent "a couple of weeks" observing in a Seattle-area public high school. She also offers cultural criticism--of horror movies and the riot grrrls, for instance--as well as a digest of psychological, sociological and post-structuralist theory pertinent to the subject. White's evident ambition makes it all the more frustrating that the book's impressive breadth doesn't translate into thoroughness or rigor.
When White interviewed the women--most of them white, middle-class and from the suburbs--who responded to her ads, the stories she heard had certain similarities. There was a "type" of girl who tended to be singled out: She developed breasts earlier than other girls; she was a loud, vocal extrovert; she was self-destructive, tough or wild; often she had been sexually abused; and in one way or another she was usually an outsider, whether she had moved from a different town, had less money than most kids or belonged to some peripheral subculture. Some women described themselves as having been promiscuous, but more said they were not as sexually active as their (untainted) friends, and none of them had done the things that were later rumored. Often the first rumors were started by bitter ex-boyfriends or jealous friends. Once they caught on, the ritual torments and "football team" fantasies inevitably followed.
These similarities make up what White calls the "slut archetype," and for much of the book she riffs on the common factors of the stories, with chapters dedicated to subjects like the role of suburbia, the slut's social isolation and the preponderance of sexual abuse. Though sprinkled liberally throughout the book, the women's testimonies are only a launching point for White's meditations. She writes about these interviews in a way that at times both romanticizes and condescends to the women. "She walks so confidently in her boots," writes White of one 18-year-old, "causing tremors in the ground beneath her feet. She presents herself as a girl who has crawled up out of the underworld, who has found her way through the isolation and the drugged dreams.... It is a way of coping, this tough act. It's a start." Still, despite certain problems of credibility, this overwrought style is pretty effective at conveying the anguish of the ostracized adolescent girl (if only by echoing her earnest self-dramatization). It's much less suited to considering the girl in social and cultural context.
In editing and interpreting her interviews, White emphasizes their similarities at the expense of the kind of detail that makes a particular social universe come to life. Her time observing the Seattle-area high school students inspires mostly familiar observations. ("The cafeteria is high school's proving ground. It's one of the most unavoidable and important thresholds, the place where you find out if you have friends or if you don't.") Only about half the time do we get any real sense of the sort of community an interviewee grew up in or what the social scene was like at her school. There's even less detail about precisely how she fit into the hierarchy before the slut label took hold, whether she was perceived as threatening or flirtatious, what her past relationships were like with girls, boys and teachers. Even worse is that for all their lack of texture, the women's stories are by far the most interesting part of the book; when White pulls away to supply her own commentary, it's usually vague and predictable--precisely because she's not attuned to the details that would reveal how the slut really functions in the teenage universe. Although she acknowledges that the slut myth is much bigger than any individual girl behind it, she is also attached to the literal-minded notion that the girl being labeled has some kind of privileged relationship to the slut myth--that her individual story is the slut story, and the women's emotional recollections of abuses and scars collectively explain the slut myth. In fact, to understand the myth we need to know at least as much about what the rest of the school is thinking.
White suggests that "the slut becomes a way for the adolescent mind to draw a map. She's the place on the map marked by a danger sign...where a girl should never wander, for fear of becoming an outcast." But, given the arbitrary relationship White found between the slut label and a girl's actual sex life, does the slut myth really have any practical applications for girls? Do they limit sexual activity out of fear of these rumors? Are there particular sex acts that can bring censure in themselves? Can social status insulate some girls from slutdom, regardless of how much they fool around? White doesn't directly pose these questions, but one of her findings hints that, though they may fear the label, kids themselves interpret slutdom as primarily an expression of social status rather than a direct consequence of sexual activity: "Girls who at one time might have been friends with the slut recede as her reputation grows; they need to be careful how they associate with her or they will be thought of as sluts along with her."
The slut doesn't seem to point to an actual line that a nice girl can't cross; she commemorates the fact that there once was such a line, and suggests that the idea of a line still has currency, even if no one can figure out where it is anymore. It's no surprise that she is such a popular subject for third-wave feminists; her ostracism seems to have implications not only for residual sexism but for the way that we personally experience sex and desire.
Ididn't think I had a personal connection to the slut story. For most of my adolescent years, which were in the late 1980s and early '90s, I was very good, and too awkward to attract attention from boys. In the schools I attended there were whispers about who did what, and some girls were considered sluttier than others, but there was no single figure who captured the imagination of the whole class.
Then I remembered something about one of the girls I was closest to from age 10 to about 13 or 14. We didn't go to the same school, but for much of the time we both attended Saturday Russian classes held in her kitchen by an elderly neighbor. She was the only one of my friends who was, like me, born in Russia, though her family still lived in Philadelphia's immigrant neighborhood while mine had moved to a more prosperous, non-Russian suburb several years earlier. My family had a bigger house. We had, thanks to my American stepdad, more American ways of doing things. I was a better student. I think she was more popular at her school than I was at mine; at least, she was more easygoing and sociable. I never felt in awe of her, as I did of other friends. I was not always nice to her, though usually I was.
She knew more about sex in our early years than I did, but, like me, she didn't go out with anyone in the time we knew each other. She was pretty, in a round-faced, unfashionable way that made me think I had a discerning eye for appreciating it. She always seemed more developed than I was. (That may not have been true in any measurable sense.) At some point in those years, though it didn't particularly affect our friendship, and I don't remember thinking about it while I was actually with her, I began to spend nights casting her as my proxy in every kind of pornographic fantasy I could conjure.
It's always difficult to figure out the relationship between cultural fantasies and mores, on the one hand, and actual behavior and sexual self-image on the other. You could probably spend a long time listening to teenagers and still not get to the bottom of how the slut myth filters into their own lives. Still, the site of the slut's continuous re-creation, the high school hallways, deserves closer scrutiny, and the mysteries of her endurance await further exploration.
Campbell McGrath's entertaining and frustrating fifth book of poems--every single one of them devoted to some aspect of Florida--raises two large questions. One has to do with representations of that state; the other, with precision, personality and populism in poetry, and the relative value of each.
Elizabeth Bishop, who lived in Key West for some years, called Florida "the state with the prettiest name," "the state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white"; Wallace Stevens saw in Florida's "venereal soil" an escape from intellection--though he came to find its fertility unnerving. Among living poets, William Logan, Tony Harrison and Michael Hofmann have all taught in Gainesville and written about it. Donald Justice described the Florida of his youth in such poems as "A Winter Ode to the Old Men of Lummus Park, Miami, Florida." Dionisio D. Martínez evoked the state's lightning-prone flats in Bad Alchemy, while Karen Volkman skewered Miami in her much-anthologized "Infernal."
McGrath aims to capture in verse a Florida as disturbing as any of those, and far more comprehensive. His narrative, didactic, essayistic and lyric poems together try to depict the whole troubled state, a state that (in McGrath's view) cries out either for political action to set it on a new course or for an apocalypse to wash it all away. As in his celebrated Spring Comes to Chicago (1996), McGrath's models here include the Ginsberg of Howl; the Whitman of big catalogue poems like "A Song for Occupations"; crowd-pleasing comic poets like Billy Collins; and writers of the modern left--from Carl Sandburg to Martín Espada--who wish to tie locally oriented description to socioeconomic protest. McGrath offers, first, a ten-part narrative poem (based on Aristophanes' Birds) called "A City in the Clouds"; next, a group of short poems on subjects Floridian; last, a long verse-essay called "The Florida Poem." Though they share attitudes, topics and techniques, each section has to be judged on its own.
McGrath's narrative shows the rise, success and eventual fall of an airborne city built above Florida--one that bears remarkable resemblances to it. Readers of Aristophanes, or of the headlines, will know quickly what fate McGrath's cloud-folks face (or refuse to face): Seeking a carefree New World, the cloud-dwellers end up dependent on complex irrigation, McDonald's sandwiches, tourism, real estate speculation, overbuilt prisons and exploited noncitizen "laborers [who] were needed...to man the pumps for the earthward flow of water upon which their entire economy depended." Menaced by aerial alligators, then by failing machinery, the cloud-folks finally let the city collapse. The poem's most original moments are those closest to (prose) science fiction: In one, the cloud-dwellers haul up "whatever could be gathered at the ever-shifting terminal point where the wind-flexed elevator shaft met the ground."
Despite such descriptive energies, McGrath's cloud-poem lacks the verbal reliability we expect from most modern verse: His long lines can forsake semantic control. Here, for example, the citizens view their new home:
Times the clouds were like riven badlands, foils and arroyos and alluvial fans, rough country best traversed with safety ropes as if crossing polar seas over plates of tilting ice.
Times the clouds were gongs and temples, a rapture in pewter, grand passions, coffers of incense and precious woods.
Rapture and passions. Badlands and alluvial fans, and ice. Often McGrath seems to operate by the rule "Never use one word when three will do": The cloud-dwellers "missed things, various places and objects, old friends or distant cousins, specific sounds, familiar certainties" (as against unfamiliar ones). Later we see "luxurious waterfalls rooted in the barest mist or veil of vapor." Nor is such excess confined to the narrative poem. In the short poem "The Miami Beach Holocaust Memorial" McGrath summons "the vestigial memory of some as yet undreamed/category of violent distinction and hatred," a phrase almost any prose editor would blue-pencil.
McGrath's vivid description and his social critiques carry over into his short poems. So, alas, does his insistence on spelling things out. In a villanelle about the Florida State Fair,
...we're stamping and hooting all over the place
while the Texas swing band plays "Rocky Top, Tennessee"
and Haitian kids dip kettle candy beneath a live oak tree
in historic Cracker Country, apt and ironic misnomer for the place,
because this is Florida, after all, not Texas or Tennessee.
McGrath has to tell us what he finds "ironic"; otherwise we might not know. Elsewhere it can be hard to tell if he's kidding: "Trouble with Miami," one poem opines, "is...a dearth of cultural infrastructure so profound//that the only local institution worth its salt is the ocean," where "watching the beautiful women on the beach/...may be our best shot at real enlightenment." Is this a persona we're meant to dislike? Apparently not: "Florida," McGrath explains later, "is bereft of mythic infrastructure,/symbolically impoverished." It's an odd complaint in a book full of (highly symbolic) conquistadors, Seminoles, mangroves, alligators, mouseketeers and scarily iconic restaurants (of which more below). If that's "symbolically impoverished," what to call Delaware?
McGrath seems to mean not that Florida lacks symbols, but that its symbols end up either sinister or ridiculous, or both. The poems he finds he can make out of them are comic, and the comedy moves him to complain. When McGrath instead describes his private life, he can be more careful, and far more likable: "The Zebra Longwing" (named after a butterfly) ends as follows:
have borne them awayWings
have borne them away
from the silk
of the past as surely
as some merciful wind
has delivered us
to an anchorage of such
Elizabeth. All my life
I have searched, without knowing it,
for this moment.
McGrath has transported James Wright's famous poem "A Blessing" to a warmer climate and a happy marriage. He's done it so carefully that the transposition works.
McGrath rarely gets that calm, though; normally he wants for his own work the prophetic enthusiasms of Whitman or Ginsberg, who also combined sometimes-radical politics with long personal digressions. Yet Ginsberg and Whitman at their best were fascinated by the individuals who made it into their poems, whether for half a book (Carl Solomon in Howl) or for a couple of lines (Whitman's soldiers, prostitutes, firefighters). McGrath almost always considers people other than himself in fairly large groups--cloud-dwellers, exploited workers, the Calusa, the old folks, the tourists. He does better with "Maizel at Shorty's in Kendall":
All shift them sugar donuts
been singing to me,
calling to me something crazy in a voice
Dolly Parton'd be proud of--Maizel, honey,
eat us up!
Notice the alphabetical acrostic (lines begin a, b, c--), a form McGrath uses three times. It suits him, since it allows for long free-verse lists. "What I loved most," he declared in Spring Comes to Chicago, "was the depth and rationality of the catalogue"; here one acrostic ("Seashells, Manasota Key") comprises nothing but catalogue, from "Abras, augers, arks and angel wings" to Zirfaea crispata.
These lists take their place among other manifestations of McGrath's exuberance: He loves to say what he sees, and he finds most of it either very attractive or ugly indeed. Poetry, Yeats said, came not from our quarrels with others, but from our quarrels with ourselves. If there's such a quarrel here, it sets McGrath's impulse to celebrate absolutely everything--cars, lightning, alligators, America--against his understandable sense that Florida, and the other forty-nine states, are resource guzzlers headed for a fall. Usually, though, these poems enact McGrath's excited quarrels with others. Of "Disney's realm of immortal/simulacra," McGrath says that it makes too easy a target "when there are nastier vermin to contest," vermin like "Orlando itself," where "the anthem of our freedom is sung by Chuck E. Cheese." There follows a three-page attack on that fast-food chain and its iconic mouse, "the monstrous embodiment of a nightmare," designed "to entice the youngest among us/to invest their lives in a cycle of competitive consumption." This lengthy philippic against a pizzeria moves beyond predictability, beyond comedy and beyond politics into a vituperation as excessive as it is entertaining: What did Chuck E. Cheese ever do to McGrath?
In poems like that one ("Benediction for the Savior of Orlando"), McGrath is at bottom a dazzling performer, as much so as the cartoon figures he says he hates, though with an admirable politics his corporate nemeses obviously lack. The standard critique of, say, TV ads (they reduce us to passive receivers) might hold just as true for McGrath's verse, which leaves us little to figure out for ourselves. "The Florida Anasazi" attacks "the alligator-headed figure known to us as The Developer who works his trickery upon the people of the tribe, pilfering communal goods, claiming to produce that which he despoils." Pound called poetry news that stays news. Is this news? Does it tell us anything unexpected, either about how to understand evil developers or about how to resist what they try to do?
The long poem titled "The Florida Poem" is a different, and happier, matter. In it McGrath returns to a form that can showcase his talents and neutralize most of his faults. The form is the long, research-filled essay-cum-rant, with roots (McGrath's note suggests) in Pablo Neruda's Canto General--and in McGrath's own bigger, better, earlier, funnier "Bob Hope Poem" (from Spring). Neruda in one way, and "Bob Hope" in another, tried to give the history of a continent; here McGrath contents himself with one state in the union, about which his form allows him to say, and to enjoy saying, anything at all, from the whimsical to the sarcastic to the mock-classical ode:
Sing through me, o native goddess, o sacred orange
blossom nymph, o Weeki Wachee naiad...
Florida: it's here!
Florida: it's here and it's for sale!
Florida: it's neat, in a weird way!
Florida: Fuckin' Fantastic!
This would be my official suggestion for a new state motto...
Much of the poem returns to familiar targets, "marketers/and technocrats and mouseketeer apparatchiks" and so on. Yet the real subject of "The Florida Poem" is not the damage such folks have done but instead McGrath's feelings about the state they have produced, with its eye-popping sights and consumerist excess, its real fun and its false Fountains of Youth:
been enticed to sw...I myself have more than once
been enticed to swim in the icy oasis of DeLeon Springs,
and have eaten at the remarkable restaurant
reputedly housed in an old Spanish mill
where they grind still the wheat
to mix the batter you pool and flip on a griddle
in the middle of your very own table.
Pancakes and alligators and paddleboats and ruins
of vanished conquerors vanquished
in their turn. It's one of my favorite places in the state,
not merely for the flapjacks and historical ironies
but for the chaste fact of its beauty.
In this kind of writing, compression, obliquity, even precision, may be sacrificed for the sake of a voice. For this reason alone "The Florida Poem" is by far the best in the book. Its size lets it encompass both the obvious judgments McGrath thinks we need to hear (conquistadors bad, manatees good, "Indians...easily romanticized" yet "human, familiar with power and avarice") and the details that make those judgments entertaining even at their most predictable. (Floridian readers--especially if they speak Spanish--may call to mind aspects of their state McGrath leaves out.) Above all, "The Florida Poem" gives us the sound of a person talking: It has not only the faults but some of the virtues of what's now called "performance poetry" (a movement to which McGrath has not been linked):
...Andrew Jackson bought the whole place
for five million dollars and a solemn promise
to relinquish all future American
claims to Texas.
It's because McGrath--ordinarily--can't slow down for more than a couple of syllables that he gets comic effects from that one-line nonword. Elsewhere his rant reminds me of Williams's splendid and splenetic "Impromptu":
What the governor meant was
come and get it,
down, rip it up,
mill it for lumber, boil it for turpentine,
orchard it for oranges or pit-mine it for phosphates,
shoot it for hides or skins or quills
"It" comes to mean at once particular natural resources, the exploited population and the whole state: It's a neat rhetorical effect, one McGrath can only achieve in a long poem, and one that makes this long poem worth a try. As it spreads back into the prehuman past, and then into a misty future, McGrath applies these effects of capacious verve not just to the parts of the state he hates but to scenes within the state he loves:
of an element so...visceral
of an element so clear each grain of sand
sings forth, each bordering leaf of oak or heliconia,
each minnow or sunfish in the mineral wicker-work,
one jump, one plunge
toward the crevice of rifted limestone
wherefrom the earth pours forth
its liquid gift...
Now that's a Florida worth going to see.
Like it or not, America has been able to achieve and maintain its supremacy as a global power because of its capacity to absorb the best from the rest of the world. This dependency on foreign imports is especially clear in the realm of science and technology. Roughly one-third of US Nobel laureates were born outside the United States and became naturalized citizens. The father of the American nuclear program was a foreigner. But most foreign-born scientists toil away unrecognized in our nation's research labs, universities and private firms, forming the backbone of American high technology. In computer software development, now widely considered the most important area of American advantage, foreign nationals are commonly recognized as being among the best programmers. Almost a third of all scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley are of Chinese or Indian decent.
America cannot afford to lose the loyalty of these high-tech coolies it has come to depend on, yet that's exactly where it seems to be heading with recent cases of immigrant-bashing and racial and ethnic profiling by opportunistic politicians seeking short-term political gains. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the animosity aimed at the enemies of the United States has also been extended to immigrants and American citizens who originally came from the same part of the world. Hundreds of Arab-Americans and Asians from the Indian subcontinent have been detained as suspects, without charges filed against them, under "special administrative measures" in the name of national security. The majority of Americans, the interpreters of polls tell us, approve. It was in the name of the same national security that a Chinese-American physicist, Wen Ho Lee, was accused some three years earlier of stealing the "crown jewels" of the US nuclear program and giving them to mainland China; similarly enacted special measures threw him in chains and into solitary confinement, although the government had no evidence against him. His public lynching, which was caused by and fed into America's national angst concerning enemy number one of that time--China--is the subject of the two books under review. As a perfect example of a national security investigation botched by racial and ethnic profiling, which led to a shameful failure of all the institutions involved, it could not have been exposed at a better time.
China emerged as America's prime antagonist after the end of the cold war. During the cold war, it was always easy to tell who was America's enemy and who was a friend. Then, with the normalization of Chinese-US diplomatic relations in the late 1970s, those lines began to blur. For a time at least, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was no longer a foe. Individuals and institutions from all walks of life were happily embracing the idea of scientific and cultural exchange, and even nuclear scientists went back and forth. It was understood that the common enemy was the USSR. This cozy relationship ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, when US policy-makers, without clearly defined targets, began to show signs of what Henry Kissinger calls "nostalgia for confrontation" and cast about for a manichean opponent. With its rapidly expanding economy in the 1990s, which brought it into some conflict with American interests in Asia, China became the most logical choice.
The targeting of Chinese-Americans and the questioning of their loyalties did not begin in earnest until after the 1996 general election, when Republicans accused members of the Chinese-American community of passing campaign donations from government officials of the PRC to Bill Clinton's re-election campaign. It was said to be a clandestine plan by China to influence US policy; the charge was not substantiated, but Asian-American contributors to the Democratic Party were investigated by the FBI for possible involvement in traitorous activities, and suspicions of disloyalty among Chinese-Americans lingered.
The investigation of Wen Ho Lee, who was then a research scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico, started soon after the campaign scandal. It was initiated by an intelligence report that in 1992 China had tested a bomb very much like the Los Alamos-designed W-88, considered one of the smallest and most highly optimized nuclear weapons in the world. Carried on Trident II submarine-launched missiles, the W-88 can hit multiple targets with great accuracy. When a Chinese defector to Taiwan brought documents with diagrams and text descriptions of a long list of US strategic weapons, including the W-88, US counterintelligence circles cried espionage and began an investigation.
Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, who covered the story for the San Jose Mercury-News and the Albuquerque Journal, teamed up to write A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage, in which they reveal the scandalous details of the misguided search for the Chinese-American spy. Written like a crime novel, their book is at its best as an exposé of the behind-the-scenes workings of Washington politics, in which the truth is all too easily sacrificed for political expediency. The authors blame everyone involved, from the incompetent employees of the FBI and the ambitious bureaucrats of the Department of Energy (DOE) to the zealous anti-China hawks in Congress and a colluding press corps all too willing to swallow government-distributed information without corroboration.
The government spent four years and millions of dollars to pin Wen Ho Lee, ultimately only to find him innocent of spying. Many American weapons designers who were familiar with the Chinese nuclear program saw no reason that Chinese scientists could not invent in the 1990s the miniaturized warheads US scientists had developed in the 1950s. Others pointed out that most of the details on US missiles were available on a website maintained by the Federation of American Scientists. China could have easily made its own bombs by processing the mounds of information gathered from newspapers, magazines and scientific literature that Chinese students and scientists, over more than a decade of scholarly and business exchanges, had obtained legally--a method US counterintelligence circles refer to as gathering grains of sand. Yet the director of counterintelligence at the DOE, Notra Trulock, refused to believe that the Chinese were capable of developing the most modern weapon in the US arsenal on their own. "There's one spy out there and we're going to find him," he reportedly told an assistant.
The spy, if there was one, could have been any of the scientists from a half-dozen national nuclear-weapons-design labs, or an employee of one of the many plants that manufacture the parts, as they all had blueprints. Yet Trulock's order for an administrative inquiry stipulated that the initial consideration would be to identify those US citizens of Chinese heritage who worked directly or peripherally with the design development. This was a logical starting point, the attached memo went on to explain, based upon the intelligence community's evaluation that the PRC targets and utilizes ethnic Chinese for espionage rather than persons of non-Chinese origin. Following this perilous logic, the investigation took on the shape of a funnel: The list of suspects swiftly shrank from the employees of Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore research labs who had traveled to China to the scientists of Chinese heritage who had worked directly or peripherally on the W-88 design development and had had contacts with Chinese scientists. From there, it was a quick jump to Wen Ho Lee as the only person who had the opportunity, motivation and legitimate access to the specific nuclear weapons information believed to have been leaked to the Chinese.
The choice of Wen Ho Lee as the spy was far from logical. He was a native of Taiwan and had openly expressed his sympathy for Taiwanese independence, and has in fact admitted to providing unclassified scientific documents to the Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology--Taiwan's military research center involved in developing nuclear weapons. Also, he had been trapped into cooperating with the FBI many years earlier in an investigation of another Chinese-American scientist, while his wife was recruited to act as an unpaid informant on the activities of visiting Chinese scientists.
This may explain why no one at the FBI or any other government agency initially believed Trulock's accusations against Lee. Trulock's first request for a wiretapping order from the Justice Department was turned down. But he doggedly took his spy story to the CIA, the White House and the Defense Department until he finally found a sympathetic ear among Republicans in Congress. Representative Christopher Cox of California was heading the House Select Committee on US National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns, which was investigating the Clinton Administration for jeopardizing national security by being soft on China in exchange for campaign contributions. Cox immediately saw the potential of using an indictment against Wen Ho Lee to help the charges against Clinton stick. Trulock's unverified assertions became bombshells in Cox's committee report. On one occasion a zealous committee member even confused the scientist Wen Ho Lee with Bill Lann Lee, who was at the time waiting to be confirmed as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
But the real damage was done when someone leaked the spy story to the ever-hungry-for-a-Clinton-scandal press. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times passed the information along without corroboration, and soon Congress and the media were "locked in a game of one-upmanship," describing Lee's crime in ever more superlative-laden rhetoric, according to Stober and Hoffman. In no time, expressions of fear and hatred of the Chinese inundated the Internet, TV and radio talk shows. As the storm gathered, Clinton's appointees, instead of standing up against wrongful accusations, buckled. The new Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, weighing the risk of losing his nomination as the running mate to presidential candidate Al Gore, ordered that Wen Ho Lee be summarily dealt with.
The FBI at first tried to scare Wen Ho Lee into confessing that he had passed nuclear secrets to China. The Rosenbergs professed their innocence, he was told, and the Rosenbergs are dead. When that did not work, he was put in jail, although the government still had no evidence to convict him as a spy. Five years of relentless hounding by its agents--at times more than 100 FBI personnel were working on his case--had produced nothing. The only wrongdoing he could be charged with, discovered by accident during a search of his office, was his downloading of several weapons codes from the lab's secure computer system onto the unsecured one. Similar security infractions were often ignored at the lab, rarely resulting in disciplinary measures. (In an error of potentially much graver consequences for national security, former Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch had downloaded top-secret files onto his unsecured home computer, which a family member had been using to surf pornography websites. Deutch was disciplined but he did not lose his job, much less end up incarcerated.)
Lee was prosecuted under the cold-war-era Atomic Energy Act, which allowed for the harshest treatment: He was put in manacles and shackles that were chained to his waist, and was locked up in solitary confinement. When members of his immediate family were permitted to visit him for one hour each month, they were not allowed to speak in Chinese--the language they spoke at home. Lights in his cell were on twenty-four hours a day, with a guard on constant watch. Such conditions are rarely experienced by even the most vicious convicted criminals.
Much to Wen Ho Lee's credit, he did not crack. The US district court judge in New Mexico who was put in charge of the prosecution was so incensed by the government's handling of the case that he said to Lee: "I believe you were terribly wronged.... [Government officials] have embarrassed our entire nation.... I sincerely apologize to you."
This unusual gesture, with which Wen Ho Lee opens his account of the ordeal in My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy, is by the book's end almost certain to draw applause from the readers, as an enlightened conclusion to a grave miscarriage of justice by the government; but the negative consequences of the incident have yet to be fully tallied.
More than 150,000 Chinese-American engineers and scientists work in US industry, government and academia today; roughly 15,000 are employed by the defense sector alone. Because of the way in which the government handled Wen Ho Lee's case, many found that their loyalty was being severely questioned by their bosses and colleagues. They were frequently subject to innuendo and distressing jokes. There were numerous reports of security clearances withdrawn and promotions denied, of people forced into early retirement. A survey conducted by the Committee of 100 and the Anti-Defamation League soon after Wen Ho Lee's release from prison found that 68 percent of Americans feel negative toward Chinese-Americans; 32 percent believe that Chinese-Americans are more loyal to China than to the United States; and 46 percent believe that Chinese-Americans passing secrets to China is a problem.
Even Stober and Hoffman, who make every effort to show the lack of credible evidence proving that Lee was a spy, maintain that his own unexplained actions fed into the political furor that made him all too convenient a target. For instance, Lee lied to the FBI, to his family and to his lawyers about why he had copied voluminous amounts of non-work-related computer codes used to design nuclear weapons and put them on portable tapes that have never been completely recovered.
In his own book, Lee explains the copying as a precautionary measure against losing his files--as had happened to him when the lab switched from one computer system to another. He defends the volume of downloads as necessary to test his portion of the codes "against the snapshot of the whole code at a certain time," because as the weapons designers change their calculations, his codes are affected as well. To Lee's scientific mind, the measure was prudent and logical. John Richter, a Los Alamos physicist known as "the guru of gurus" on the subject of plutonium explosives, testified in court in Lee's defense. He described Lee's actions with an old saying: Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.
Whatever the case, Lee comes across as impossibly naïve as he recounts the events of late 1998, considering that he was in the very eye of the storm raised by the Cox investigation. He continued to cooperate with investigators by submitting to polygraph tests and repeated FBI questioning, without the presence of a lawyer. When his daughter told him that a New York Times article headlined "China Stole Nuclear Secrets from Los Alamos, U.S. Officials Say," published March 6, 1999, was about him, he didn't believe it. He didn't read newspapers, didn't vote and professed not to care about politics. Yet his book is politically sophisticated. It shows the unmistakable imprint of his co-author, Helen Zia, an experienced freelance journalist and a seasoned and respected Asian-American activist, who understood the significance of Wen Ho Lee's case in the context of American ethnic and civil rights politics.
In contrast to the position taken by Stober and Hoffman, who credit Lee's lawyers as being the only morally noncorrupt heroes of this story, Zia recognized that the legal case gained moral weight and credibility through the support of brave people who were willing to risk their careers to speak out in Lee's favor. The American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued statements condemning the government's harsh treatment of Lee. A number of eminent scientists, among them several of Lee's colleagues, individually took the stand. Richter, the guru, provided crucial testimony debunking the government's nonsense that Lee had stolen the nation's "crown jewels," thus altering the balance of power in the world.
The Chinese-American community, still licking the wounds inflicted by Clinton's campaign fundraising scandal, was initially cautious in dealing with the sensitive issue surrounding nuclear secrets. But it picked up Lee's cause as soon as the government went public with its outrageous actions. Foreign-born Chinese-American scientists and engineers, who for years had sweated away quietly in research labs and universities, unrecognized, unappreciated and underpaid, but who were suddenly all suspect, turned their anger into building the Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his legal bills. Supporters established websites and organized rallies and teach-ins around the country, demanding that members of Congress stop the persecution of Lee. When Professor Ling-chi Wang, director of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, called for a collective boycott of DOE-overseen national labs by all Asian-American scientists and engineers, the labs took notice. (An agreement with the labs on new procedures appeared imminent at press time.)
Job applications by foreign graduate students, from among whom most research labs and engineering firms recruit their future staff, are down. The National Science Board estimates that 30-50 percent of those who hold science or engineering doctorates in the United States are foreign-born (the number is the highest in math: 57 percent). About 7 percent of all physicists and 15 percent of all engineers in the United States are Asian-American. If Asian-American and other foreign-born scientists are discouraged from entering the US work force, notes Eamon Kelly, chairman of the National Science Board, the country could have a hard time filling the gap.
Yet, spurred by the September 11 attacks, Senator Dianne Feinstein has called for a moratorium on admissions of foreign students to US educational institutions. American national interests can ill afford this type of mindless antiforeign hysteria. American high school students rank near the bottom in math and science, according to studies on schooling worldwide. The country's best and brightest students often opt for careers as lawyers, doctors and financial professionals, where they can command much higher salaries than in the pure science fields. Wen Ho Lee, for instance, despite holding a PhD from an American university and with twenty years of experience at the Los Alamos labs, made only $80,000 a year--an absurdly meager remuneration for a man accused of changing the balance of power in the world.
If there is a lesson in all this, it is that the pre-eminent position of the United States in the world--"our scientific capabilities and national security," in the words of the president of the American Physical Society, James Langer--was in fact compromised by the government's action in the case of Wen Ho Lee and the resulting alienation of the most qualified foreign-born scientists necessary to maintain that pre-eminence. Unfortunately, the lesson is also, as Wen Ho Lee found out, that an immigrant dream--coming to America, working hard, getting an education, taking care of one's family and minding one's own business--can easily be shattered by politics. Only by becoming politically engaged and organized can immigrants gain the respect of the rest of the American people and stop being singled out as easy victims.
If I die one day from the bullet of a young killer--
a Palestinian who crosses the northern border--
or from the blast of a hand grenade he throws,
or in a bomb explosion while I'm checking the price
of cucumbers in the market, don't dare say
that my blood permits you to justify your wrongs--
that my torn eyes support your blindness--
that my spilled guts prove it's impossible
to talk about an arrangement with them
to talk about an arrangement----that it's only possible
to talk with guns, interrogation cells, curfew, prison,
expulsion, confiscation of land, wisecracks, iron fists, a steel heart
that thinks it's driving out the Amorites and destroying the Amalekites.
Let the blood seep into the dust: blood is blood, not words.
Terrible--the illusion of the Kingdom in obtuse hearts.
Translated from the Hebrew by Shirley Kaufman
By identifying ethics with civic virtue, we create an ethics of the left.
A few years ago I concocted a theory about John Grisham I was too lazy to prove. Here was the hypothesis: This bestselling author was the most successful popularizer of populist notions in American culture. His stories--on paper and onscreen--often pit small folks against malicious corporations and their anything-for-a-buck lawyers who manipulate a system that favors monied elites. In The Pelican Brief, a rapacious oil developer looking to drill in the environmentally precious marshlands of Louisiana funnels millions to government officials and bumps off two Supreme Court Justices to thwart a lawsuit brought by public-interest lawyers against his wildlife-threatening scheme. In The Rainmaker, a young lawyer battles a mega-firm on behalf of a couple screwed over by an insurance company that won't cover a bone-marrow transplant for their son, who is dying of leukemia. The Runaway Jury's bad guy is Big Tobacco. In The Street Lawyer, a corporate attorney bolts from his firm when he discovers it's been wrongfully evicting poor people from their homes. Justice for sale. Money in politics. Corporate greed and malfeasance. And millions of readers devour this stuff.
But not me. I was interested in this notion of Grisham the Populist, based on reading the book reviews and seeing several Grisham flicks. After tearing through The Pelican Brief--too breezy, too melodramatic, too unrealistic, even for airport fiction--I was not eager to do the heavy lifting necessary to confirm the theory (that is, read the books). Instead, I tasked an assistant to peruse some Grisham novels and draft plot summaries. In the meantime, I wrote Grisham and requested an interview to discuss the politics of Grishamland. Should face time be granted, I figured, I would crack open paperbacks in preparation. In the meantime, the summaries started appearing on my desk, and my assistant complained, "This is like reading television." But no word came back from Oxford, Mississippi. I deep-sixed Project Grisham.
Then recently the phone rang. A book review editor asked, "Didn't you once have some ideas about John Grisham?" "Well, uh, kind of, but I didn't really pursue it...." Yet that was enough for this editor: The new Grisham was being FedExed to my office. I was back on the case.
I was under no illusion that Grisham was a modern-day Steinbeck or Odets. He's not writing to send a message. And he does take his swipes at progressive-minded characters. The NAACP lawyer in A Time to Kill is an egotistical cad who cares more about money and power than helping a black man on trial for killing the two white men who raped his daughter. The anti-tobacco activists of The Runaway Jury use underhanded means to defeat the tobacco-industry lawyers. But by placing legal Davids in battle against corporate Goliaths to derive drama, Grisham has consistently presented an unflattering picture of the Enron class. However, his latest, The Summons, only marginally hews to such a story line. The main clash is not between the powerful and the screwed. It occurs within a family. There is an evil-corporations subplot, but it's mostly device, not driving force.
The setup: Ray Atlee, a 43-year-old law professor at the University of Virginia, receives a letter from his dying father, "The Judge," calling Atlee back home to Clanton, Mississippi, to discuss his father's estate. Atlee, estranged from Dad and the ancestral home, does not look forward to the trip. He's already in a funk. His ex-wife has married a millionaire corporate raider and borne him twins (conceived, all too obviously, while she was married to Atlee), and a lovely (and rich) third-year law student is teasing Atlee silly. So off he goes in his midlife-crisis sports coupe to the town he escaped. When Atlee arrives home, he finds Dad dead. Atlee dutifully starts organizing his father's papers and stumbles across a surprise: more than $3 million in cash hidden in twenty-seven stationer's boxes. Where did this poorly paid public servant get the moolah? What should Atlee do with all those Ben Franklins? Include them in the estate--which would mean the government would grab its share, his father's honor might be tainted and Atlee's alcoholic/junkie brother, Forrest, would claim half and be able to finance his descent into complete self-destruction?
This is a what-would-you-do mystery, and a how-would-you-do-it thriller. (We learn that three mil in hundreds fills three large garbage bags--and that poses logistical difficulties if you're driving a car with a small trunk.) Grisham throws in enough moral shading to supply Atlee reason beyond avarice to take the money and run. But greed hovers, even as Atlee tells himself he's not sure he's going to keep the loot. First, he has to uncover the backstory.
A warning to any potential readers of The Summons: There are a few plot points in this book, and to describe it further is to reveal precious twists. If you have an inclination to read this novel, do not continue beyond this paragraph. Skip ahead to the review of the Italian Baroque lady painter who specialized in blood-drenched scenes.
OK, now that the Grisham fans are gone, let me say that this book is much better than the improbability-ridden Pelican Brief, but it was still unsatisfying. The main dilemma is engaging--what to do with free, albeit probably tainted, money?--yet there's not much oomph to the tale. Perhaps that's because Grisham does not provide reason for readers to care about Atlee. He's a good-enough sort, plays well with fellow faculty members, has been hurt by a woman who done him wrong and won't sleep with a student until she graduates. He specializes in antitrust, but we're spared his views. He's not the Jimmy Stewart type, drawn helplessly into an alternative world of intrigue. He's a guy who likes flying and is coasting. Until he finds the cash.
Atlee then faces three immediate challenges: how to move the money without being spotted, how to determine whether it's marked and how to discover its origins. Of course, he's able to succeed on each front, but the trouble is that these tasks end up not requiring great ingenuity. Also, there's someone trailing him, and that unknown person wants the cash and is willing to use violence to get it. Atlee has to watch his back as he shuttles to various rental-storage lockers (where he keeps the money) and to various casinos (where he drops hundred-dollar bills, looking to see if the expert money-handlers will detect them as marked). As for the money's source, Atlee's investigation is too straightforward. In the judge's papers, the files concerning one case are missing. Atlee heads to the Gulf Coast to examine the court records. He then talks to the lawyer who won. And--bing!--that mystery is solved, a bit too easily.
It is this case that brings us the novel's hint of populism. Seems a Swiss pharmaceutical behemoth was selling an anticholesterol drug that had an unfortunate side effect: kidney failure. The company was aware of the problem but marketed the drug anyway. By the time Judge Atlee came to be presiding over a wrongful death suit, filed against the company by a widow living in rural Mississippi, tens of thousands of kidneys had been ruined. The judge showed the company's lawyers no quarter and in the end socked the pharma with an $11.1 million fine. "The opinion," Grisham writes, "was a scathing indictment of corporate recklessness and greed.... [The] trial was Judge Atlee at his finest." How did this lead to boxes full of cash? I'll leave that to your imagination. Here Grisham is in sync with his past us-versus-them plots. But The Summons does not dwell upon the malfeasance of the drug-maker. Rather, the book blasts away at the attorney who won the case, in what amounts to an indictment of mass-tortlawyers. The pages drip with scorn for attorneys who become wealthy by handling class-action suits against corporate malefactors, such as tobacco companies and asbestos manufacturers. "I worship money," this lawyer tells Atlee. Grisham takes the bogeymen of the Naderish left and the Chamber of Commerce right--corporate evildoers and trial attorneys--and places them in a state of moral equivalence.
But this is far from the point of the book; it's simply the point of my review, for there's not much to dig into in The Summons. The solutions to the few mysteries in it are not big shockers. The novel contains just enough elegant touches to make readers realize there should be more. Atlee's difficult relationship with his brother is rendered well. The impact of the found money on Atlee is interesting to watch. Yes, watch--this is like reading television. But the drama is not as intense as in A Simple Plan, which used a similar scenario. (Grisham does obliquely reference that book/movie in this novel.) Atlee's desire to hold on to the bucks ends up threatening his comfortable life, and Grisham throws in a much-yearned-for curveball toward the end. For a moment, it looks as if Atlee might actually be facing time in the slammer. But fate is not that unkind. And who is it that's after Atlee? A reader who looks at this book as an English parlor mystery, wherein the culprit has to be someone in the room, will not be hard pressed to conjure up the answer.
Back to the important matter: my take on Grisham. He's certainly not writing left-wing agitprop disguised as legal-drama pulp. But in his universe, lustful and reckless corporations often run wild until they are checked by a righteous judge or some other soul moved by ideals, not dollars. Trial attorneys might be scumbuckets who care more about champagne baths than about their clients. Still, Grisham has the novel's annoying millionaire ambulance-chaser tell Atlee, "It takes people like me to keep 'em honest"--a proposition that neither author nor protagonist rebuts. The Summons does not advance the unsteady justice-ain't-equal populism of Grisham's previous work. That's not its mission. But in general Grisham presents the tens of millions who glide through his popcorn novels with the view--in some books more than others--that life is often unfair for a reason, unfair by design, and that specific interests are responsible for this. Not quite a Nation editorial, but better than Sidney Sheldon.
My sister-in-law, a historian and researcher in alternative medicine, once told me of a doctoral dissertation she'd happened across in which the writer interviewed a number of committed liberals and conservatives for the purpose of drawing conclusions about their governing emotional equipment. Liberals, the student found, feel most at home with guilt. Conservatives, as you might expect, don't have much truck with that; instead, they do anger.
It may be hard to call these findings shocking ones, and I do not know whether the candidate's advisers concluded that he or she had sufficiently advanced the literature so as to earn a doctorate. But I can say from personal experience that the liberalism-guilt correlation rings true, and, after reading David Brock's Blinded by the Right, I can certify on the strength of Brock's eyewitness--and often eye-popping--account that conservatives really do anger. Anger as trope; anger as strategy; anger as immutable biological condition; and anger just because it's fun. Yes, we knew this. But we didn't know it the way Brock knows it. Let me put it this way. Throughout the Clinton era, I read every major newspaper and all the magazines and a lot of the websites and most of the pertinent books; I didn't think there was much more for me to learn. But once Blinded by the Right kicks into gear, there is a fact, anecdote or reminiscence about the right's feral hatred of the Clintons every ten pages or so that is absolutely mind-boggling. And, as often as not, these stories are also about the rancid hypocrisy (usually sexual) that underlay, or probably even helped cause, the hatred. In sum: You cannot fully understand this fevered era without reading this book.
The question you may fairly ask is the one some people are already asking: Given the source--Brock was the capital's most famous conservative journalistic hit man before quite famously commencing a mea culpa routine in 1997--can we believe it? The short answer is yes, mostly. The long answer requires that we start, as Oscar Hammerstein III put it, at the very beginning.
The book dances back and forth between exposé and memoir. David Brock was raised in New Jersey, the adopted son of a mother who paid too much mind to what the neighbors thought and a father so rigidly conservative that he did something, as Brock notes, that even Pat Buchanan never felt moved to do: He left the Catholic Church to protest the liberal reforms of Vatican II and worshiped in a sect overseen by the profoundly right-wing French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. It was partly for the sake of agitating his taciturn father that Brock's first political stirrings were liberal (Bobby Kennedy) to moderate (Jimmy Carter, for whom he secretly persuaded his mother to vote). The family moved to Dallas, an inhospitable milieu in general for a Kennedy acolyte, not least one who was coming to terms with the fact that the sight of his fellow boys disrobing after gym class did more to quicken his pulse than, say, a stolen glance in the direction of the décolletage of the Cowboys cheerleaders. Hating Dallas and still seeking to traduce the old man, for college he chose, of all lamentable destinations, Berkeley.
There, Brock expected to drop anchor in a tranquil moorage of like-minded, tolerant, liberal bien pensants. Instead, he ran head-on into the multicultural, academic left, a bird of altogether different plumage. When Jeane Kirkpatrick came to campus to speak, and protesters would not let her utter a sentence as one of them unloaded a bucket of simulated blood on the podium, that was enough for Brock. Soon he was writing columns in the Daily Californian applauding the "liberation" of Grenada and submitting an essay to the Policy Review, a publication of the Heritage Foundation, on campus Marxism. The Wall Street Journal adapted that piece as an Op-Ed, which caught the eye of John Podhoretz, son of Norman, and Midge Decter, and then an editor at Insight, a magazine put out by the Washington Times. Podhoretz offered him a job, and Brock was off to Washington.
The story of Brock's ideological conversion is important, because it reflects a pattern with regard to several of his comrades we meet later in that it was at once both shockingly superficial and utterly fervent. Forget Burke or Oakeshott or Hayek or even Russell Kirk; Brock admits he hadn't read a single thing beyond some issues of Commentary he tracked down in the library. "I knew nothing of the movement's history," he writes. Joe McCarthy, Goldwater, Nixon--all were mysteries to him, for the most part. His politics were nothing more than a reaction to his personal experience. While the same cannot fairly be said of the movement's intellectuals, from Brock's telling it was indeed true of many of the activists, operatives and media babblers. Their conservatism was purely an emotional or psychological response to their immediate environment. In the most extreme case, Brock writes that his former close friend Laura Ingraham, one of the bombastic blondes of cable television, didn't "own a book or regularly read a newspaper." But as we have seen, in our age, ignorance is no barrier to expertise, particularly on cable television.
Shallow though it may have been, Brock's conversion was virtually consummate. I say virtually because there were some matters on which he claims he never drank the Kool-Aid. He had little taste, he says, for the racist shock antics of
the Dartmouth Review crowd; he quietly backed abortion rights; and, of course, on the gay question, he marched to a very different drummer than that of the movement to which he belonged. Of parties at the home of archconservative fomenter Grover Norquist, who hung a portrait of Lenin on his living room wall and often quoted Vladimir Ilyich's dictum to "probe with bayonets, looking for weakness," Brock writes that he was "ill at ease" at these gatherings; "unsure of how to handle the issue of my sexuality, I drifted in late and out early, usually accompanied by a woman colleague," traversing the room "like a zombie." Nevertheless, he wanted nothing more than their approval, and he put his remaining misgivings, and the odd homophobic joke, to the side.
This brings us to the book's second vital point about the winger psyche. The need to belong--and, specifically, to belong to a self-styled minority that felt itself embattled, thumbing its nose at the larger, contaminated culture--is a constant motif of Blinded by the Right, and it becomes clear over the course of the book that it was this convulsed emotional state, even more than ideology, that was, and I suppose still is, the real binding glue among the right. For Brock, it began with his trying to shock his father with Jimmy Carter and Berkeley; it went on to Brock's seeking to vilify the campus lefties. It was present, too, among many of the movement types he befriended: "There was electricity on the right, the same sense of bravely flouting convention--of subverting the dominant culture--that I had first felt in Texas and then at Berkeley."
It was by the time of the 1992 election, when this mindset joined hands with a group of men--and their many millions of dollars--who couldn't accept that the GOP was losing the White House to such a man as Bill Clinton, that it went from being a kind of batty nuisance to a well-oiled agitprop apparatus to, ultimately, a threat to the Constitution. Brock was by then ensconced at The American Spectator, which became in time the most virulent right-wing magazine in America, willing to publish any thinly sourced rumor as long as it made a Clinton look bad, and the home of the Arkansas Project, the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded operation that sought to dig up any Clinton dirt it could find. Brock sharpened his knife first on Anita Hill. With Laurence and Ricky Silberman holding his hand--he was a circuit judge in Washington and a member of the hard-right Federalist Society; she had worked for Clarence Thomas with Hill--Brock could scarcely believe how quickly and easily previously unreleased affidavits and so on fell into his hands from GOP Congressional staffers.
Brock knew intuitively what he was supposed to do with this material, and it wasn't journalism. It was character assassination, and not only of Hill. Of one Democratic Senate staffer, he wrote that the man was "known for cutting ethical corners...to achieve desired results." Brock admits he knew nothing about the man. He made no effort to contact sources who might have had different interpretations (and obviously not Hill herself); he double-checked nothing; he twisted the hearing record to make Hill look like a vengeful harridan who was, in his infamous phrase, "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty." But it was good enough for the Spectator, which billed it, natch, as investigative journalism. Rush Limbaugh began reading sections of the piece on the air. Brock was put on to Glen Hartley and Lynn Chu, the literary agents of choice for the hard right. He signed a book contract with the Free Press, then run by archconservative Erwin Glikes and Adam Bellow, son of Saul. The Real Anita Hill hit the bestseller lists. The right-wing newspeak machine, now such a fact of political life, was born.
Next up, the famous "Troopergate" story (again in the Spectator), about Arkansas state policemen supposedly setting up sexual liaisons for Governor Clinton. Brock followed the old MO--no independent sourcing, printing rumors, etc.--to the same triumphant effect. And this time he found to his surprise a willing abettor. Though a few mainstream news organizations did shoot down some specific charges that didn't check out, the chief response of a largely panting Washington press corps ("I was astonished to see how easy it was to suck in CNN") was for more, more, more. Brock became a bigger star still.
Hillary Clinton was the next quarry, and Adam Bellow had obligingly put a $1 million price on her head in the form of Brock's advance. But Hillary proved to be Brock's Waterloo--as she has been, incidentally, for several other men who were supposed to steamroller her (Starr, Whitewater committee chair D'Amato, candidate Giuliani, candidate Lazio...). By then, Brock was starting to develop a conscience. In 1994, Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer's book on the Thomas-Hill matter, Strange Justice, had hit the stands. It proved to everyone in the world but hard-shell rightists that Thomas was indeed a ravenous porn enthusiast and that Hill, in all likelihood, was the truthful one. When even Ricky Silberman, who had been Brock's source and cheerleader while Brock was writing the Anita Hill book, seemed to acknowledge privately that Thomas had lied, Brock was shaken.
By the time he got around to Hillary, Brock was determined to write an actual book. ("I began to relish the complexity of my subject. I realized I had never known what journalism was.") I cannot here convey the full flavor of the contempt his old comrades regarded him with as a result: the sideways glances, the calls not returned, the party invites not received--and, now that he wasn't "on the team," in the argot, the jokes about and denunciations of his sexuality, suddenly delivered within earshot. He was not supposed to commit journalism or write what he thought. He was supposed to kill Clintons. Period. Once he stopped that, his life on the right was finished.
David Brock gave up anger and turned to guilt. In the process, he flings open a most illuminating window on this hideous circus. Here is Newt Gingrich, vowing "to say the word 'Monica' in every speech" even while "conducting his own illicit affair." We see Georgia Congressman Bob Barr plotting to bring the troopers to testify on Capitol Hill to expose Clinton's adultery--the same Barr who, interestingly enough, married his third wife within one month of divorcing his second. We hear Jack Romanos, the head of Simon & Schuster, telling Brock, as he signed the million-dollar Hillary book deal--without even writing a proposal!--that the only thing he wanted to know before OK'ing the money was whether Hillary was a lesbian. We eavesdrop on the publisher of the Spectator asking Brock, "Can't you find any more women to attack?" We read of George Conway, one of the lawyers who played a crucial role in pushing Paula Jones's story, admitting that privately he didn't believe Jones's allegation at all but that her case must be pressed nonetheless because the point was to force a situation in which Clinton would have to lie under oath about extramarital sex. We witness Ted Olson, a member of the bar and now this country's Solicitor General, telling Brock that while he believed Vince Foster had committed suicide, the Spectator should still run a trashy, unsourced piece about Foster's "murder" to keep the pressure on the Administration until the Spectator could shake loose another "scandal."
Anecdotes like these spill out of this book. And so we return to the question: Why believe this man? I was not persuaded by every assertion about his emotional state in 1992 or 1995; there could be some after-the-fact varnishing going on there. But as for what he saw, and whom he saw doing it, there are three very good reasons to believe every word. First is the simple standard of factual recall. Brock names names, places, dates, the food and wine consumed, the color of the draperies. Perry Mason would love to have called Brock as a witness and watched as poor Hamilton Burger buried his vanquished head in his hands.
Second, quite simply, the writing has about it the tenor of veracity and candor. Brock comes clean on things he has no contemporary motive to come clean on, like a lie he told back at Berkeley in an attempt to discredit a journalistic foe. That strikes me as an act of expiation, not public relations.
And third, most persuasive to me, is this: You would think the right's screamers would be engaging right now in flamboyant public harangues about Brock's duplicity and so forth. But to date, I've scarcely heard a peep. Admittedly, it's early yet, as the book is just out. If Blinded by the Right ascends the bestseller lists, I expect at that point that the screamers will decide they have to deal with it. Until then, my hunch is that they hope they can bury it with their silence. That tells me that David Brock, while no longer right, is, in fact, right as rain.
On December 14, the German writer W.G. Sebald died, age 57, in a car accident in England, where he had lived for thirty-five years. He had published four remarkable books: fluid, melancholy novel-essays composed in beautifully rich and formal language, and studded with odd black-and-white photos rescued
from the oblivion that was his overwhelming theme. In each book, including Austerlitz, brought out just before Sebald's death in an English translation he supervised, a solitary traveler undertakes research into devastation (of trees and animal species, of human practices and populations) and conducts interviews among the bereaved, making himself into a kind of tribune of universal loss. About the traveler we know little but that he shares the main features of the author's life and suffers from precarious mental health, especially a "paralyzing horror...when confronted with the traces of destruction."
I had read Sebald with uneasy admiration, and learning of his death I felt jolted, brought up short. It wasn't only that he was in the middle of a great career; there was something in specific I still expected from him, and not until I happened to see a movie version of Hamlet could I formulate my question.
Act I, Scene 2. Queen Gertrude is remonstrating with her gloomy son: "All that lives must die," she reminds him, "Passing through nature to eternity." Hamlet: "Ay, madam, it is common." Gertrude: "If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?"
But we know why grief is so particular with Hamlet: His father has just died. Likewise, in Austerlitz, we discover just why the life of Jacques Austerlitz has been "clouded by an unrelieved despair." As Austerlitz reveals in one of several huge monologues, he was raised in Wales by a grim Calvinist couple and without any knowledge of his origins. Only as an adolescent was he told of his real name, and not until middle age, when he sits in a London train station slated for demolition, does he recall, in a sudden blow of anamnesis, that he had passed through this station once before, as a child of 4. It turns out that Jacques Austerlitz is the son of Prague Jews, saved from their fate by one of the Kindertransporten that spirited a few Jewish children to safety at the beginning of the Second World War.
Austerlitz's recovered memory, as always in Sebald, serves only to take the measure of his loss. In this way Sebald is the counter-Proust, despite his preoccupation with memory and the serpentine elegance of his precisely measured long sentences. Memories stand in relationship to forgetting as photographs to unrecorded time and Holocaust survivors to the 6 million dead: They are a small, exceptional minority. They refer, in Sebald, more to the absence of others than to their own thin presence. Page 183 of Austerlitz reproduces a photo of a towheaded little boy dressed in operatic costume as a queen's page, a picture Austerlitz's childhood nanny shows him when, searching for traces of his parents, he tracks her down more than fifty years later in post-Communist Prague. She tells him that it is himself looking out from the photograph:
As far back as I can remember, said Austerlitz, I have always felt as if I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all, and I never had this impression more strongly than on that evening...when the eyes of the Rose Queen's page looked through me.
Of course, the reader doesn't know whether the boy pictured was really, like Austerlitz, the son of a Jewish opera singer. Fact and fiction go into Sebald's characters--even their documentary aspects--in unknown proportions, and to an interviewer he said: "Behind Austerlitz hide two or three, perhaps three-and-a-half, real persons." Sebald added the unreliability of fiction to the frailty of memory and made it seem a double wonder that anything at all should be plucked from oblivion and spared.
It is this way of representing what has been destroyed that is most moving in his work. That is the task of each of his four books, and it accounts in large part for their having been invariably called sublime. Typically a term of a vague commendation, it must nevertheless have come to mind in Sebald's case because of its precise, Kantian sense: the insufficiency of our faculties to what they contemplate. The sublime is what we know to be more than we can know, and thus the past--available only in fragments--is a perfect instance of sublimeness.
So, too, is the Holocaust, an event, in this sense, as sublime as it was obscene. The Nazis created in their camps and ghettos (to one of which, Theresienstadt, Austerlitz's mother was confined before presumably being shipped east to be murdered) "an infinite enormity of pain," as Primo Levi wrote, only a tiny portion of which can be apprehended by "our providentially myopic senses." Sebald's approach to the genocide is more direct in Austerlitz than before, but still exemplary in its indirectness: He depicts only the furthest, charred edge of the phenomenon, letting the sufferings of one comparatively very fortunate European Jew evoke, in the half-imaginary person of Austerlitz, the far greater and unrepresentable sufferings of the massively more numerous unlucky ones. And sometimes it is even as if Sebald matches the degree of indirection to the degree of horror, as when he writes of the notorious Nuremberg rally at fourth hand, the narrator recounting what Austerlitz said about what his nanny said about what his father, Maximilian, an eyewitness, had said. (But it's interesting to note that Sebald's third name was Maximilian and that friends knew him as Max.)
Sebald's art is exemplary in another way. The writers he explicitly identified with were Conrad and Nabokov, emigrants like himself, but his books' deepest affinities are with his native tradition of German Romanticism--its convention of the solitary wanderer, its love of fragments, its sense of the nobility of spiritual sickness, its hymns to night. Yet the same Novalis who wondered, as Sebald might have done, what life could offer "to outweigh the chain of death," also felt a keen nostalgia for "the beautiful and glorious time, when Europe was a Christian land, inhabited by one Christianity." Romanticism was a more political and longer-lasting affair in Germany than elsewhere, and its frequent enthusiasm for an "organic" nation-state and disdain for cosmopolitan reason supplied Nazi ideology with much of its spurious dignity, not least in its anti-Semitic elements. Sebald's is a romanticism, then, in which death and grief and wandering retain their strange prestige, but for which European Jews and other displaced people have become questing heroes chasing a lost past. Such a romanticism alludes relentlessly to the murderousness that romanticism once helped to underwrite, and so Sebald manages at once to preserve and to subvert a great literary tradition, to renovate it through disgrace.
It's impossible not to admire a feat like that. But to notice Sebald's romanticism is also to realize what is troubling in his work. Part of the method of romanticism is to find symbols of the self--its moods and truths--in the features of nature. Yet the landscape Sebald has before him belongs not to nature, but to history. It is easy enough to understand why Austerlitz himself would identify with the calamities of history: He has lost his past to them. And Sebald has taken the audacious and even ludicrous step of naming his character after a great Napoleonic battle. When Austerlitz hears a fervent account of the battle of Austerlitz, he naturally feels that his name has made him intimate with the sorrows of Russian and Austrian soldiers drowned in retreat. But why did Sebald make the damaged survivors of his books into his own army, and how is it that he heard in various historical crimes and disasters, above all the Holocaust, an echo of his own name? The grief his books describe is there in the world to be found, but why was it so particular with Sebald?
All we can say is that there seems to have been in him some unspecified pain that sought and found affiliation with the felled trees and vanished industries of The Rings of Saturn, with the dead hunter in Vertigo and with the scarred remnant of European Jewry in The Emigrants and now Austerlitz. At times he made fun of his insistent grief, as when he wrote of drinking a Cherry Coke "at a draught like a cup of hemlock." But more often this grief was simply his principle of selection, his lens. Because he didn't take its subjective character enough into account, permitting himself only the scantiest and most covert autobiography, his work sometimes had the effect--no doubt unintentional--of muffling the atrocities to which he was so curiously attracted. "Our history," he wrote, "is but a long account of calamities." The Holocaust and other historical crimes would belong very naturally to such a history, and might even seem its consummation. Yet history consists no more exclusively of calamity than any population consists of the suicides and other solitaries who are Sebald's characters. There might have been more truth to his work had it been less noble and self-effacing, and explained in some way not only how he came to speak on behalf of the lost, but how it was that they seemed to speak for him. It might also be that in books to come Sebald would have done just that. As it is, he died too soon, forced to illustrate the hidden motto of his work: that time destroys everything but mystery, which it conserves.
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