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A half-century after the appearance of The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s spirited political polemic, we have more than sufficient cause to meditate on what might be called Dead Centrism.
To judge from magazine covers, the American divorce rate is either a disaster for children or no problem at all. First came the famous "Dan Quayle Was Right" article in The Atlantic in 1993, with a cover line that said divorce "dramatically weakens and undermines our society." Then, in 1998, Newsweek heralded The Nurture Assumption, whose author, Judith Rich Harris, argued that whether parents divorce makes little difference in children's lives because genetics and peer groups determine their problems. This September, Time featured The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, a book whose authors, psychologists Judith Wallerstein and Julia Lewis and journalist Sandra Blakeslee, brought the gloomy news that a majority of children of divorce still suffer twenty-five years later. What's a reader to think?
The facts are not in dispute: The American divorce rate doubled in the 1960s and 1970s and has held steady or possibly declined a bit since then. At current rates, about half of all marriages will end in divorce. One million children experience a parental divorce every year. Most of them are upset in the immediate aftermath of the breakup. Some act out, others become withdrawn. Too often, fathers fail to provide adequate financial support and mothers and children see their standards of living drop. Without doubt, going through a divorce is a traumatic experience for parents and children alike.
But are most children harmed in the long term? On this question, recent media coverage has lurched between two extremes. At one end is the doomsday view that divorce sentences children to life at emotional hard labor. In this view, a parental divorce starts a chain of events that leaves most adult children anxious, unhappy and often unable to make a commitment to a partner. At the other end is the evolutionary psychologists' view that children's behavior is genetically programmed, so that whether parents divorce doesn't matter very much. According to this line of reasoning, divorce is just a flag that identifies genetically challenged families whose troubles would have occurred even if the parents had stayed together.
Said this starkly, neither extreme seems convincing. Yet it is a sad fact of public debates about social problems that the extremes tend to capture everyone's attention. Magazines are sold and talk shows are fueled by the announcement that a particular problem is devastating American society and then by the news that--wait a minute--it's really not a big problem after all. There's little patience for discussions of problems that are serious but not calamitous. And yet the gravity of many social problems lies in the demilitarized zone between the extremes.
For example, consider teenage childbearing. It was initially declared a scourge. A leading researcher wrote famously in 1968, "The girl who has an illegitimate child at the age of 16 suddenly has 90 percent of her life's script written for her." More recently, however, some researchers and commentators have argued that most teenage mothers would not be better off had they delayed having children. Teenage childbearing, it is alleged, merely reflects growing up in disadvantaged circumstances. Poor teen mothers would still be poor even if they hadn't had their babies. While there is some merit to this argument, research suggests that having a baby as a teenager does add to the difficulties girls from disadvantaged backgrounds face.
Research on divorce also suggests that extreme views are inaccurate. But you wouldn't know it to read the latest report by Wallerstein and her colleagues on her long-term study of children of divorce. In 1971, she selected sixty families that had been referred by their attorneys and others to her marriage and divorce clinic in Marin County, California, shortly after the parents separated. Wallerstein kept in touch with the 131 children from these families. Her book on the first five years, Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce, written with Joan Berlin Kelly, contained insightful portraits of the difficulties the children faced as their parents struggled with the separation and its aftermath. Her book about how they were doing at the ten- and fifteen-year mark, Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce, written with Sandra Blakeslee, became a bestseller. It chronicled the continuing problems that most of the children were having.
For her new book, she was able to talk to ninety-three of the children at the twenty-five year mark. Her striking conclusion is that most of these individuals, now 33 years old on average, have suffered greatly in adulthood. A minority have managed to construct successful personal lives, but only with great effort. The legacy of divorce, it turns out, doesn't fade away:
Contrary to what we have long thought, the major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence. Rather, it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move center stage. When it comes time to choose a life mate and build a new family, the effects of divorce crescendo.
Young adults from divorced families, Wallerstein writes, lack the image of an intact marriage. Because they haven't had the chance to watch parents in successful marriages, they don't know how to have one. When it comes time to choose a partner or a spouse, their anxiety rises; they fear repeating the mistakes of their parents. Lacking a good model, they tend to make bad choices. (In the realm of work, in contrast, Wallerstein's subjects had no particular problems.)
A woman who took the role of caregiver to a distraught parent or to younger siblings while growing up, for instance, may choose a man who needs lots of caring in order to function. But she soon finds his neediness and dependency intolerable, and the relationship ends. Wallerstein writes of one such woman in her study:
She described how she would come home after work and find her partner lying on the couch, waiting for her to take charge. It was just like taking care of her mom. At that point, she realized she had to get out.
Young men, Wallerstein tells us, were wary of commitment because they were afraid their marriages would end as badly as their parents' had. Many avoided casual dating and led solitary lives. She tells the story of Larry, who after courting and living with Grace for seven years still could not bring himself to marry her. Not until she packed up and left in frustration did he agree. He told Wallerstein:
I realized I loved her and that she was important to me but I was unable to make a decision. I was afraid because of the divorce. I was afraid of being left and I think that is why I was afraid of making a commitment to her.
Other children in the study turned to alcohol, drugs and, particularly among girls, early sexual activity. Wallerstein writes that sexual promiscuity was a result of girls' feelings of abandonment by their fathers. Their low self-esteem, their craving for love and their wish to be noticed led them to seek sexual liaisons and sometimes to start ill-conceived partnerships and marriages.
Overall, we are told, close to half the women and over one-third of the men were able to establish successful personal lives by the twenty-five-year mark--but only after considerable pain and suffering, much anxiety about repeating the mistakes of their parents, many failed relationships and, for one-third, psychotherapy. The rest were still floundering. Only 60 percent had ever married, compared with about 80 percent among all adults at their ages. Moreover, only one-third had children, as if they were afraid of doing to children what had been done to them.
Without doubt, a disturbing picture. And what makes it even more disturbing is Wallerstein's claim that her subjects are more or less representative of the typical American middle-class family that undergoes a divorce. Her families were carefully screened, she assures us, so that the children were doing "reasonably well" at school and had been developmentally "on target" before the divorce. Nor were the families especially troubled before the breakup, she says. "Naturally," Wallerstein writes, "I wanted to be sure that any problems we saw did not predate the divorce. Neither they nor their parents were ever my patients."
This claim to have a sample of typical, not unduly troubled families is, however, contradicted by the extensive psychological problems that the parents displayed when they were assessed at the initial interview. But you won't find that information in this book or the previous one. Only in the appendix to her first book, Surviving the Breakup, in 1980, does Wallerstein discuss the parents' mental states. There we learn the startling information that 50 percent of the fathers and close to half the mothers were "moderately disturbed or frequently incapacitated by disabling neuroses or addictions" when the study started:
Here were the chronically depressed, sometimes suicidal individuals, the men and women with severe neurotic difficulties or with handicaps in relating to another person, or those with long-standing problems in controlling their rage or sexual impulses.
And that's not all: An additional 15 percent of the fathers and 20 percent of the mothers were found to be "severely troubled during their marriages." These people "had histories of mental illness including paranoid thinking, bizarre behavior, manic-depressive illnesses, and generally fragile or unsuccessful attempts to cope with the demands of life, marriage, and family."
Typical American middle-class families? Hardly. These were by and large troubled families of the kind one might expect to come to a divorce clinic for therapy. Why this information was excluded from the nine-page appendix on the research sample in the new book--why an interested reader can only find it buried in the appendix of a book written twenty years ago--is puzzling. Does Wallerstein now consider this information to be in error? Irrelevant? Or just embarrassing?
The problem for Wallerstein is that troubled families often produce troubled children, whether or not the parents divorce. So it may be a considerable overstatement to blame the divorce and its aftermath for nearly all the problems she saw among her children over the twenty-five years. In a study of the records of several thousand British children who were followed from birth to age 33, Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Christine McRae Battle and I found that children whose parents would later divorce already showed more emotional problems at age 7 than children from families that would remain together. The gap widened as the divorces occurred and the children reached adulthood, suggesting that divorce did have a detrimental long-term effect on some of them. But a large share of the gap preceded the divorces and might have appeared even had the parents stayed together.
Sensitive to the particularities of her sample, Wallerstein recruited a "comparison sample" of adults from nondivorced families. The comparison sample, we are told, was selected to match the socioeconomic level of the families in the study. In many respects, the individuals in the comparison group were doing better than the study's children, which Wallerstein presents as evidence that divorce really is the cause of the difficulties in the latter group. But since the comparison sample presumably was not matched on the parents' chronic depression, suicidal tendencies, problems in controlling rage, bizarre behavior and manic-depressive illness, their inclusion does not prove Wallerstein's case.
What, then, can we take from Wallerstein's study? It is an insightful, long-term investigation of the lives of children from troubled divorced families. It gives us valuable information on what happens to children when things go wrong before and after a divorce. And things sometimes do go wrong: Many divorcing parents face the kinds of difficulties that Wallerstein saw in her families. Her basic point that divorce can have effects that last into adulthood, or even peak in adulthood, is valid. She was one of the first people to write about children who seemed fine in the short-term but experienced emotional difficulties in adolescence or young adulthood--in her previous book she called this the "sleeper effect"--and now she is the first to describe it in detail among adults who have reached their 30s. Psychotherapists, social workers, teachers and other professionals who see troubled children of divorce and their parents will find her analyses instructive. Parents and children who are struggling with divorce-related problems will find her analyses helpful.
But no one should believe that the negative effects of divorce are as widespread as Wallerstein claims. Some portion of what she labels as the effects of divorce on children probably wasn't connected to the divorce. And the typical family that experiences divorce won't have as tough a time as Wallerstein's families did. Parents with better mental health than this heavily impaired sample can more easily avoid the worst of the anger, anxiety and depression that comes with divorce. They are better able to maintain the daily routines of their children's home and school lives. Their children can more easily avoid the extremes of anxiety and self-doubt that plague Wallerstein's children when they reach adulthood.
What divorce does to children is to raise the risk of serious long-term problems, such as severe anxiety or depression, having a child as a teenager or failing to graduate from high school. But the risk is still low enough that most children in divorced families don't have these problems. In the British study, we found that although divorce raised the risk of emotional problems in young adulthood by 31 percent, the vast majority of children from divorced families did not show evidence of serious emotional problems as young adults.
Except for Wallerstein, many of the writers most concerned about divorce now appear to recognize this distinction. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, who wrote the "Dan Quayle Was Right" piece in The Atlantic (drawing heavily on Wallerstein's earlier work), acknowledged in a more recent, book-length treatment, The Divorce Culture, that a majority of children probably aren't seriously harmed in the long term. But she argued that even if only a minority of children are harmed, divorce is so common that a "minority" is still a lot. And she is correct. Divorce is not a problem that "dramatically weakens and undermines our society," but it nevertheless deserves our attention.
For that reason, some of the remedies Wallerstein suggests would be useful: creating more support groups in schools for children whose parents are divorcing, insuring that divorced fathers contribute to the cost of their children's college education and educating newly separated parents about how to shield their children from conflict. Measures such as these would help some children without imposing undue strain on parents, schools or the courts.
Less clearly useful is Wallerstein's recommendation that parents in unhappy, loveless, but low-conflict marriages consider staying together for the sake of their children. I think she is probably right that children can develop adequately in "good enough" marriages that limp along without an inner life of love and companionship. There were millions of these marriages during the baby-boom years of the 1950s, when wives weren't supposed to work and women were forced to choose between having a career and being a mother. The result was often frustration and depression. Few people (not even Wallerstein) want to constrain women's choices again. Certainly, unhappy parents have an obligation to try hard to change an unsuccessful marriage before scuttling it. Without doubt some parents resort to divorce too hastily. But no one as yet has a formula that can tell parents how much pain they must bear, how much conflict to endure, before ending a marriage becomes the better alternative for themselves and their children.
Least defensible is the attempt by Wallerstein to inform readers whose parents have divorced that their problems with intimacy stem from the breakup. In high self-help style, Wallerstein tells her readers:
You were a little child when your parents broke up, and it frightened you badly, more than you have ever acknowledged.... When one parent left, you felt like there was nothing you could ever rely on. And you said to yourself that you would never open yourself to the same kinds of risks. You would stay away from loving. Or you only get involved with people you don't care about so you won't get hurt. Either way, you don't love and you don't commit.
And so forth. Wallerstein plants the seed of the pernicious effect of exposure to divorce as a young child--and then waters it. Yes, the reader thinks, that must be why I'm so anxious about getting married. Never mind that making a commitment to marry someone is anxiety-producing for young adults from any background. Or that we live in an era when the average person waits four to five years longer to marry than was the case a half-century ago. Wallerstein encourages readers to believe that most of their commitment problems stem from their parents' divorces. But parental divorce isn't that powerful, and its effects aren't that pervasive. To be sure, it raises the chances that children will run into problems in adulthood, but most of them don't. Unfortunately, that's a cover line that doesn't sell many magazines.
Judith Butler, who is a Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is a troublemaker. She announced as much when she arrived on the critical feminist scene in her second and most well-known work, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, first published in 1990:
Contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism. Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence. To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: The prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.
In the 149 dense pages that follow this preface, Butler took on a host of psychoanalytic theorists, from "Freud and the Melancholia of Gender" to "Lacan, Riviere, and the Strategies of Masquerade." She also critiqued "The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva" (who uses semiotics in the service of psychoanalytic critique) and "Monique Wittig: Bodily Disintegration and Fictive Sex," whose The Lesbian Body and other works are, according to Butler, limited by Wittig's humanism. In Gender Trouble, Butler's admiration is reserved for Michel Foucault, the openly gay philosopher of power most famous for his History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish, a philosopher whose terms are evident in Butler's preface above: "the reigning discourse of my childhood"; "rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms"; "the subtle ruse of power." Butler's genealogical critique of gender, i.e., a critique of gender's very origins, a critique of the very terms of the critique, was a grand synthesis of the most radical European ideas about sexuality and sexual identity. Simone de Beauvoir's famous statement in The Second Sex that one is not born but rather becomes a woman is a conceptual starting point, but only a starting point. Foucault's work on the journals of Herculine Barbin, a nineteenth-century hermaphrodite so tortured by his/her predicament in a sexually normative world that s/he commits suicide, enables Butler's challenge not only to the categories of gender but to the categories of sex itself. But what stands head and shoulders above Butler's illustrious collection of radical theories is Gender Trouble's overarching claim that gender, and possibly even sex itself, is not an expression of who one is but rather a performance.
Toward the end of Gender Trouble, Butler poses a set of questions that indicate the practical, political direction of her critique:
What performance where will invert the inner/outer distinction and compel a radical rethinking of the psychological presuppositions of gender identity and sexuality? What performance where will compel a reconsideration of the place and stability of the masculine and the feminine? And what kind of gender performance will enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire?
Not only did Gender Trouble immediately appear on feminist-theory syllabuses around the country, it became a foundational text of queer theory. Is it any wonder it provoked a backlash?
Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death is a slender, very well-written book that is the published version of the Wellek Library Lectures Butler gave at the University of California, Irvine, in May 1998. Butler starts out:
I began to think about Antigone a few years ago as I wondered what happened to those feminist efforts to confront and defy the state. It seemed to me that Antigone might work as a counterfigure to the trend championed by recent feminists to seek the backing and authority of the state to implement feminist policy aims. The legacy of Antigone's defiance appeared to be lost in the contemporary efforts to recast political opposition as legal plaint and to seek the legitimacy of the state in the espousal of feminist claims.
Butler's study of Antigone led her someplace she had not anticipated. Rather than view Antigone as the figure who defies the state in the person of her uncle, Creon the King, who has forbidden her to bury her brother Polyneices--"I say that I did it and I do not deny it"--Butler follows some of her own most important intellectual mentors, namely, the Enlightenment philosopher and founder of dialectics, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and the poststructuralist psychoanalysts Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray, in viewing Antigone "not as a political figure, one whose defiant speech has political implications, but rather as one who articulates a prepolitical opposition to politics, representing kinship as the sphere that conditions the possibility of politics without ever entering into it." Butler is interested in Antigone as a liminal figure between the family and the state, between life and death (this is the choice she must make, and in her defiance of Creon she chooses the latter), but also as a figure, like all her kin, who represents the nonnormative family, a set of kinship relations that seems to defy the standard model.
In addition, there is a contemporary occasion for Antigone's Claim, one that is elucidated in Butler's new preface to the tenth-anniversary edition of Gender Trouble, in which she declares her interest in "increasing the possibilities for a livable life for those who live, or try to live, on the sexual margins." I do not think it amiss to describe Antigone's Claim as dedicated to those who try to die on the sexual margins. Though directly referred to only occasionally in her text, it is the specter of death as a result of AIDS that haunts Antigone's Claim, and the particular dilemma AIDS presents to those who live and die outside the boundaries of normative family and kinship relations. Toward the end of the third and final chapter, "Promiscuous Obedience," Butler states:
For those relations that are denied legitimacy, or that demand new terms of legitimation, are neither dead nor alive, figuring the nonhuman at the border of the human. And it is not simply that these are relations that cannot be honored, cannot be openly acknowledged, and cannot therefore be publicly grieved, but that these relations involve persons who are also restricted in the very act of grieving, who are denied the power to confer legitimacy on loss.
The outlines of the troubled Theban family are well-known. Oedipus Rex, actually written after Antigone (442 BCE) though its action precedes it, begins with the problem of a plague. As a priest informs us:
A blight is on the fruitful plants of the
A blight is on the cattle of the fields,
a blight is on our women that no children
are born to them; a God that carries fire,
a deadly pestilence, is on our town,
strikes us and spares not, and the house
is emptied of its people while black
grows rich in groaning and in
Soon, of course, we learn what the trouble is, when the blind seer Teiresias informs Oedipus the King, "You are the land's pollution." Unwittingly, the man has murdered his own father during an altercation at a crossroads, wedded his own mother and produced four offspring who are in fact his half-siblings. This unbearable truth causes his wife and mother Jocasta to hang herself in the polluted bedchamber, where afterward Oedipus tears the brooches from her robe in order to blind his own eyes. Toward the end of Antigone's Claim, Butler raises an issue that supports my reading of the book's contemporary occasion: "Consider that the horror of incest, the moral revulsion it compels in some, is not that far afield from the same horror and revulsion felt toward lesbian and gay sex, and is not unrelated to the intense moral condemnation of voluntary single parenting, or gay parenting, or parenting arrangements with more than two adults involved (practices that can be used as evidence to support a claim to remove a child from the custody of the parent in several states in the United States)."
In Oedipus at Colonus (401 BCE), the middle play of the trilogy but written last, an old, blind Oedipus is led onstage by his daughter Antigone. (Sigmund Freud, who did so much for the Oedipus myth, referred at the end of his life to his daughter and fellow psychoanalyst Anna Freud as his "Antigone.") Here, the theme of proper burial, which is so important a theme in Antigone and in Antigone's Claim, receives advance treatment. Oedipus begs of Theseus, King of Athens, a proper burial when he dies, that Theseus accept "the gift" of his "beaten self: no feast for the eyes." The oracle has prophesied that if Oedipus's sons do not tend his corpse, Thebes will be conquered by Athens, and Oedipus wants revenge on his sons because they drove him into exile from Thebes. When Polyneices makes an appearance toward the end of Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus not only rejects his son's plea to join his side against his other son, presently in possession of Thebes, he curses them both; a curse that comes to pass between the action of Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, when in battle both brothers die at once on the other's sword. Polyneices' final words in the trilogy are spoken at the end of Oedipus at Colonus to his beloved sister Antigone, to whom he offers a blessing if she will honor his corpse with burial rites. And here we have arrived at Antigone and Antigone's Claim.
From the start of her career, Judith Butler has been on a quest for a theory of the subject that might work for "those who live, or try to live, on the sexual margins." As she stated in her new preface to the recent reissue of her first book, Subjects of Desire: "In a sense, all of my work remains within the orbit of a certain set of Hegelian questions: What is the relation between desire and recognition, and how is it that the constitution of the subject entails a radical and constitutive relation to alterity?" Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit has underwritten most of Butler's work, as has the work of Lacan, whose seminar on "The Ethics of Psychoanalysis" is the other major influence on Antigone's Claim. The book both follows from Butler's earlier work and turns in some interesting new directions; namely, it moves explicitly into the realm of ethics and implicitly into practical politics.
While Butler has tended in the past to focus particularly on the section of the Phenomenology of Spirit that deals with the famous "Lordship and Bondage" relation, in Antigone's Claim she makes what seems like an inevitable advance in the text, given the confluence of her present interests, into the section of the Phenomenology that deals with "the true Spirit: The ethical order." In this part, Hegel argues that it is the "Family" that "as the element of the nation's actual existence...stands opposed to the nation itself; as the immediate being of the ethical order, it stands over against that order which shapes and maintains itself by working for the universal; the Penates [household gods] stand opposed to the universal Spirit." For Hegel, it is woman who is associated with these household gods that stand opposed to the universal Spirit or the state; it is woman who is associated with the divine, as opposed to the human, law. The figure of Antigone upholds the divine law when she buries her brother Polyneices (twice) in defiance of her uncle Creon, who has ordered that the corpse of a man who threatened the integrity of the state will be left to rot in the sun, torn by beasts and birds.
Butler's affinities with a philosophical tradition arising from Hegel--the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxist philosophers and social critics (though she rarely if ever refers to them in her work)--are not limited to her use of difficult language, which notoriously won her a Bad Writing Award from the journal Philosophy and Literature. Butler shares with the Frankfurt School a fundamental, one might say foundational, debt to the Hegelian dialectic, which Marx harnessed in his theories of history. Hegel explains his dialectic in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit:
Knowledge is only actual, and can only be expounded, as Science or as system; and furthermore, that a so-called basic proposition or principle of philosophy, if true, is also false, just because it is only a principle. It is, therefore, easy to refute it. The refutation consists in pointing out its defect; and it is defective because it is only the universal or principle, is only the beginning. If the refutation is thorough, it is derived and developed from the principle itself, not accomplished by counter-assertions and random thoughts from outside.
The Hegelian dialectic is a philosophical tradition a classical liberal humanist like Martha Nussbaum does not, apparently, have much sympathy for. It's unfortunate that Nussbaum did not take on this philosophical difference in attacking Butler in The New Republic last February. Instead of accepting the work as being of a tradition "that seeks to provoke critical examination of the basic vocabulary of the movement of thought to which it belongs," in Butler's self-characterization, Nussbaum isolates her as a philosopher:
Butler gains prestige in the literary world by being a philosopher; many admirers associate her manner of writing with philosophical profundity. But one should ask whether it belongs to the philosophical tradition at all, rather than to the closely related but adversarial traditions of sophistry and rhetoric.
According to Nussbaum, Butler is a "new symbolic type" of feminist thinker, influenced by a lot of French "postmodernist" ideas. In Nussbaum's vision, Butler is the Pied Piper of academia, traipsing off with all the "young feminists" behind her. Not only does Nussbaum claim that Butler's ideas are philosophically soft (if they are even philosophy at all), but she claims that Butler is leading a trend away from engaged feminism, having traded "real politics" for "symbolic verbal politics." The "new feminism" of Judith Butler "instructs its members that there is little room for large-scale social change, and maybe no room at all." From here, Nussbaum stoops to condescension ("In public discussions, she proves that she can speak clearly and has a quick grasp of what is said to her") and, ultimately, after several swipes at Butler's "sexy acts of parodic subversion," to the astonishing claim that Butler "purveys a cruel lie, and a lie that flatters evil by giving it much more power than it actually has": Butler's "hip quietism," according to Nussbaum, "collaborates with evil."
In Antigone's Claim, it is not only Antigone's public grief over Polyneices and her insistence that she bury him that absorbs Butler's interest but also the way in which her defiance of Creon, her condemnation to death and the taking of her own life (like her mother, Jocasta, she hangs herself) "fails to produce heterosexual closure for that drama"--if Antigone had complied, she would have married Creon's son and presumably become a mother. This, Butler claims, "may intimate the direction for a psychoanalytic theory that takes Antigone [as opposed to Oedipus] as its point of departure," namely, a psychoanalytic theory that would step outside the confines of compulsory heterosexuality.
And yet Butler's attraction to this particular family drama goes further back. While for Freud and for Lacan after him the Oedipal drama is a paradigm that in various ways instates, by way of prohibition, normative heterosexuality and kinship relations, Butler views this drama differently. In its deviations from the law and in its apparent need for prohibition, the most famous Theban family represents not just the predicament of those who live on the sexual margins but in a more historical sense, the family and kinship relations of our times:
Consider that in the situation of blended families, a child says "mother" and might expect more than one individual to respond to the call. Or that, in the case of adoption, a child might say "father" and might mean both the absent phantasm she never knew as well as the one who assumes that place in living memory. The child might mean that at once, or sequentially, or in ways that are not always clearly disarticulated from one another. Or when a young girl comes to be fond of her stepbrother, what dilemma of kinship is she in? For a woman who is a single mother and has her child without a man, is the father still there, a spectral "position" or "place" that remains unfilled, or is there no such "place" or "position"?... And when there are two men or two women who parent, are we to assume that some primary division of gendered roles organizes their psychic places within the scene, so that the empirical contingency of two same-gendered parents is nevertheless straightened out by the presocial psychic place of the Mother and Father...that every psyche must accept regardless of the social form that kinship takes?
Butler sees in the Oedipal story an allegorical reflection of things as they presently are; what if, rather than prohibiting such things, we took them as our starting point; what if we accepted the nonnormative? Second, Butler wants to move the fulcrum of the drama a generation forward because Antigone occupies a position not only between life and death, and not only between private and public, between the family and the state: Antigone figures for Butler a desirable transition into the world of ethics that does not forget familial origins. This is made clear in Antigone's extended exit speech, one Butler focuses especially on. On the point of being led away to her death, Antigone argues that her brother Polyneices is irreplaceable and therefore had to be honored by her even though it means her own death. A husband or child could have been replaced, but since her parents are no longer alive, not a brother.
What is the law that lies behind these
One husband gone, I might have found
or a child from a new man in first child's
but with my parents hid away in death,
no brother, ever, could spring up for me.
Such was the law by which I honored
In this speech one senses that Antigone is finally at peace. For she, like the rest of her family, is characterized as much by her personal moral sense as she is by her strange kinship predicament. And one senses in Butler's interest in these lines a homage to those who have lived, or have tried to live, and to those who have died "on the sexual margins."
A few years back, critics of postmodernism, both left and right, chuckled at the academic sting pulled on the journal Social Text when it published Alan Sokal's bogus article on the socially constructed nature of nature. For conservatives, that the journal ran Sokal's fuzzy call for a progressive postmodern science confirmed the fundamental divide between the politicized humanities and the objective sciences--proof positive of cultural studies run amok. In all the discussion that followed, however, little notice was paid to the origins of post-World War II radical critiques of science. In the shadow of Hitler and Stalin and in the wake of the Vietnam War, theorists from Theodor Adorno to Donna Haraway have been concerned with the ways in which science has colluded with acts of barbarism.
Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado examines the tragic consequences of medical and social science research on the Venezuelan Yanomami and reminds us why scientific practices and theories should indeed be the domain of social critics. White scientists in the jungle have long been central characters in the stories the West tells about itself. Alongside Humboldt and Mengele, Tierney's book now adds to the tropical pantheon James Neel, founder of the University of Michigan's human genetics department, and Napoleon Chagnon, perhaps the world's most infamous living anthropologist.
Well before Darkness's publication, Tierney's most damning charge--that Neel and Chagnon provoked, perhaps knowingly, a fatal 1968 measles epidemic responsible for "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of deaths--has created a scandal that threatens to distract from the real significance of his research. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the book may create a crisis "unparalleled in the history of anthropology." At a special American Anthropological Association forum in mid-November, defenders of Neel charged libel and politicized agendas. One panelist proclaimed that Tierney's "anti-science views" would jeopardize future vaccine efforts and lead to more deaths from disease. Chagnon, evoking the terms of the Sokal affair, has responded that only "cultural anthropologists from the Academic Left" who "despise the words 'empirical evidence' would take Tierney's claims seriously."
Empirical evidence is not lacking in Tierney's copiously footnoted book. Like all good chronicles of Western rationalists who lose their mind among primitives, Darkness in El Dorado is filled with absurd and disgraceful behavior: a French anthropologist who loses himself for decades in a sexual Eden; the world's wealthy holding a tuxedo dinner catered by helicopters on a jungle mountain; researchers who try to kill one another with machetes or commit suicide after being spurned by a Yanomami lover. But aside from his Joseph Conrad-like musings as to what it is about the Yanomami that made white people crazy, Tierney has written a fascinating, but also frustrating, ethnography of the practices and beliefs of cold war medical and social science researchers.
Tierney focuses primarily on the long and strange career of Napoleon Chagnon, who originated the myth of Yanomami aggression in his book The Fierce People, the all-time-bestselling ethnography. Chagnon portrayed the Yanomami as one of the most violent cultures on earth, where villages went to war to procure women and serial murderers bred at a higher rate than men who did not kill.
Tierney convincingly demonstrates his charge that unethical methodology and false science produced this myth. He also describes its often fatal consequences.
Most cultural anthropologists now believe that the wars Chagnon witnessed were provoked by Chagnon himself. He offered axes, machetes, fishhooks and pots in exchange for ethnographic information, creating tensions among villages that vied for monopoly control of his wares. Within months of Chagnon's arrival in 1964, three different fights broke out between villages that had previously been at peace for decades. Anthropologist Brian Ferguson reports that Chagnon was "very much involved in the fighting and the wars. Chagnon becomes a central figure in determining battles over trade goods and machetes."A Yanomami reports that Chagnon offered him an outboard motor in exchange for help, including the procurement of a Yanomami wife. Shotguns, a seemingly unlimited supply of trade goods and willingness to don feathers, face paint and a loincloth allowed Chagnon to transform himself from an "impoverished Ph.D. student at the bottom of the totem pole to being a figure of preternatural power."
Tierney argues that many of Chagnon's data are simply false. The Yanomami do not have a particularly high murder rate, nor do men who kill reproduce more than those who don't. Neither are the Yanomami particularly well-nourished--a claim that Chagnon uses to argue that men fight over women and not food.
In the United States, Chagnon and his sociobiologist allies continue to portray the Yanomami as an untainted relic of our past--a handy control group used to prove the biological basis of a range of aggressive human traits. In Latin America, the endurance of the myth of Yanomami aggression has reinforced racism and justified indifference. Both the Venezuelan and Brazilian governments have used unfavorable images of the Yanomami to justify their failure to protect them from migrants, who, starting in the late 1980s, increasingly entered the region, resulting in the death from disease and violence of untold numbers of Yanomami.
Tierney is at his best when he discusses Chagnon's career within the cultural history of the cold war. Born poor in Michigan, Chagnon used the expanding university system to climb out of poverty. Like many at the time who through discipline and hard work improved their class standing, Chagnon developed a visceral antipathy toward communism. It manifested itself in an intense masculine persona that earned Chagnon a reputation for barfighting and academic brawling. One of Tierney's insights is that Chagnon's theories had their "genesis during the Vietnam War and its cultural equivalent on the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus, where hippies in tepees chanted slogans like 'Make love, not war.' The whole point...was that you had to make war in order to make love--that violence was part of the natural order.... As a cold war metaphor, the Yanomami's 'ceaseless warfare' over women proved, that even in a society without property, hierarchies prevailed."
Tierney is on to something important here. The Fierce People was published in 1968, a particularly tough year for the United States abroad. American officials justified counterinsurgency campaigns that were taking place in the jungles of Latin America, Africa and Asia in decidedly Chagnonian terms. As one 1968 dissenting State Department memo put it: "We have condoned counter-terror.... We suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that... murder, torture, and mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are communists. After all hasn't man been a savage from the beginning of time so let us not be too queasy about terror. I have literally heard these arguments from our people."
Tierney rightly reads The Fierce People as a piece of home-front propaganda. To counter those who argued that war was caused by struggles over resources (a central claim of New Left interpretations of both the cold war and the Vietnam War), Chagnon "engineered a bold creation myth, a ferocious Garden of Eden, where the healthy, well-fed Yanomami fought for... sexual pleasure.... It was not the Yanomami but Chagnon's fellow Americans who belonged, in reality, to one of the best-fed, healthiest societies in history. America enjoyed abundance so delirious that it seemed, for a short time in the 1960s, that its citizens would not agree to the stress of world combat against Communism.... At that critical moment, The Fierce People... came to reverse a dangerous complacency, proof that the battle is never won, that the fight can never be abandoned."
By the late 1980s Chagnon was in trouble. Tierney misses an important opportunity to discuss how the decline in Chagnon's fortunes was tied to the end of superpower tensions. At home, a generation of anthropologists critical of its discipline's role in justifying US foreign policy came into professional power. In Venezuela his former research subjects were demanding that he be barred from entering their territory. And reflecting the post-cold war extension of economic activity into areas previously off-limits, gold miners poured into the Amazon, causing widespread ecological destruction and social dislocation. Challenged by his liberal colleagues, harangued by feminists, threatened by dark-skinned peoples and adrift in the new post-cold war economy, Chagnon became an international version of the angry white man.
Chagnon did what many did at the end of the cold war--he went private. He teamed up with a flamboyant Venezuelan industrial gold miner, who turned "tracts of forest into mud soup," and the mistress of the Venezuelan president, who has since fled the country following indictments for corruption and fraud. The three came close to establishing a private biosphere in Yanomami territory that would have given them political authority over the Yanomami and monopoly rights over mineral and scientific claims. In order to muster international support for their scheme, they shuttled journalists and scientists in and out of remote Yanomami communities on lightning helicopter tours, without providing protection against possible contagion. Newspapers and television news ran stories of recently discovered "lost villages," while "foreign scientists carried out huge amounts of plant and animal samples."
When Venezuelan and international opposition scuttled his plan to set up a fiefdom in his former field site, Chagnon, now largely shut out of anthropology journals, stepped up efforts to disseminate his theories in the popular press. Although Chagnon often casts himself as an embattled truth-seeker--the preferred role of most biological determinists, no matter how much funding or open access to the media they have--Tierney points out the "abject admiration many male journalists apparently felt for the great anthropologist." He cites a fax that Matt Ridley, the science reporter at The Economist, sent to Chagnon apologizing for not writing a more sympathetic piece: "I have written it in the way that the International Editor wanted, which means 'impartially.' (She is a bit PC, herself.) So you may find it less unambiguously sympathetic to you than you might have hoped, but it is about as far as I dare go.... I do hope you like it."
What will make and, unfortunately, probably break Darkness in El Dorado is its description of the deadly 1968 outbreak of measles that coincided with the arrival of an expedition, funded by the Atomic Energy Commission and headed by Neel and Chagnon, to collect Yanomami blood samples.
Tierney's speculation that Neel may have been responsible for the epidemic is based on Neel's decision to use what was by 1968 an antiquated vaccine, Edmonston B, which was contraindicated for isolated populations such as the Yanomami. Tierney suggests that Neel chose this vaccine to prove that American Indians were not genetically vulnerable to European germs. Since Edmonston B produced the same level of antibodies as an infection of real measles, follow-up antibody tests would allow for a comparison of European and Yanomami immune systems. This may be why, according to Tierney, Neel opted for Edmonston B even though it was known to cause measleslike symptoms among isolated groups and even though a cheaper, safer vaccine (but one that did not produce antibodies comparable to the disease) was available. Tierney argues that because Edmonston B produces symptoms similar to measles, its use may have ignited the outbreak; he goes even further by proxy, citing a medical historian who ventures that Neel may have intentionally started the epidemic.
Tierney unfortunately has presented his case in a way that allows for easy dismissal. He provides compelling evidence that Neel and Chagnon did indeed treat the vaccination campaign as an experiment. For instance, by Neel's own telling, in the first village, before the epidemic, the team inexplicably vaccinated only forty Yanomami out of a total population of seventy-six, even though it had enough doses for all. Combined with the fact that most in this village had been tested for measles antibodies two years earlier, the inoculation of half the village created a fortuitous control group for Neel's published findings. It also seems that the vaccine did induce fevers and rashes in many Yanomami. Nevertheless, the fact that Tierney gives no direct evidence to back up his most serious conjecture--that the measles epidemic was caused by the vaccine--threatens to discredit his entire study. (Also, in response to the pre-publication controversy, most medical experts insist that it is impossible for a vaccine, no matter what symptoms it may bring on in the inoculated, to spread as an epidemic.)
Tierney's missteps here speak to a larger problem with his book, which draws its inspiration more from The X-Files than from the Frankfurt School. Tierney tries too hard to link the actions and motives of the individuals involved in a tight net of intrigue, misrepresenting cold war social science as a secret society of an elected few.
Of course, for many, the actions of the United States during the cold war don't make sense any other way. Consider this history: Neel, who did research on Hiroshima survivors, was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission to collect thousands of samples of Yanomami blood because it was thought it could be used as a baseline to measure degrees of genetic mutation. In 1958 the AEC, which in other instances engaged in deadly human radiation experiments, paid Marcel Roche, a Venezuelan doctor who worked on Neel's 1968 expedition, to inject the Yanomami, without their knowledge, of course, with radioactive iodine to study why they did not suffer from goiters. Tierney should not be entirely blamed if he didn't have a theory, other than conspiracy, to explain this.
Darkness in El Dorado unconvincingly attempts to trace this shameful history directly to Neel ("I felt that Neel was the key"), unfairly describing him as an extreme eugenicist. This is unfortunate, for Tierney could have written a more powerful book by demonstrating how the cold war produced acts of barbarism regardless of individual motive.
This is not to let Neel and Chagnon off the hook. They were instrumental in the creation of a body of knowledge that valued the Yanomami not for their own sake but for what they could provide cold war science. Their blood was believed to contain answers to questions raised by the new post-Hiroshima world, while their culture was thought to be a distilled version of what the West once was and, for some, should be again.
In the documentary made of the 1968 expedition, Neel and others are shown professionally inoculating Yanomami, who are presented as pictures of vibrant health. Sound outtakes reveal a different story. The team was exhausted, sick and panicked as the epidemic escaped their control and ravaged the Yanomami. Neel can be heard ordering the cameraman to stop filming a sick Yanomami. Whatever the cause of the measles outbreak, it is probable that the research team exposed the Yanomami to respiratory infections and other illnesses. The outtakes also reveal that Neel and Chagnon were much more concerned with making the documentary and collecting blood samples than with containing the epidemic. They broke quarantine lines to procure donors and quickly abandoned the area so that their blood would not be ruined in the tropical heat.
Tierney's effort to pin the tragic history of the Yanomami on Neel speaks to a larger problem, both in his book and in current ways of thinking about colonialism. With the failure of socialism and the discrediting of revolutionary movements and governments, many First World activists have thrown their energy into advocating on behalf of the cultural rights of native peoples. Much of this work is profoundly apolitical, justified more by appeals to Indian virtue than by critical analysis. This kind of activism too easily sets itself up for dismissal when it is revealed that Indians may have their own interests and may not be as innocent as portrayed.
This problem is reproduced in Tierney's book. It speaks to the poverty of our political culture that Tierney, an experienced investigative reporter, refuses, either out of ignorance or bias, to discuss the history of the Amazon in reference to colonialism, capitalism or racism. Instead, he searches for the mastermind behind the mayhem. Tierney creates a kitschy Heart of Darkness-like tale and casts himself as Marlow and Chagnon as Kurtz (Neel, perhaps, could be King Leopold). Well before we hear any Yanomami voices, we learn of Tierney's battles against jungle thieves and malaria, heroically rescuing Yanomami children and fending off evil gold miners.
Tierney's narrative rightly demonstrates how objective scientists can be implicated in a history of atrocity--and his gaffes should not distract from this history--but it can't account for the fact that while the AEC was paying for Neel's and Chagnon's jungle excursions, it was also funding the work of Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin, along with other progressive scientists and anthropologists. These scholars became powerful critics of how the supposed objective research of their colleagues served not-so-objective agendas and had not-so-benign consequences. These politicized scholars have served science well--proof positive that Adorno was right, that "science needs those who disobey it."
I have been waiting for Manifesta to come out. I had certain hopes for this book. In particular, I was looking forward to using it as a corrective addition in a course I'm teaching on "Third Wave Feminism and Girl Culture." When I first taught this class last spring, my students became increasingly frustrated with the overwhelmingly personal tone of the contemporary feminism we were reading. Our central texts, and until now they have been the central texts of the self-proclaimed Third Wave, were three anthologies, all published in the past five years: Barbara Findlen's Listen Up: Voices From the Next Generation; Rebecca Walker's To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism; and Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake's Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. While each of these collections takes its own approach to the Third Wave, they share an emphasis on the singular experience of young women and the occasional young man as grounds for a new generation of feminist politics ("young" in this context generally designates those born between 1964 and 1980). Specifically, all three anthologies grapple with how to combine some version of feminist politics with what Third Wave Agenda calls the "lived messiness" of real life. After reading assorted articles in which individual Third Wavers describe their intimate struggles with eating disorders, gender dysphoria, racial difference and antifeminist workplaces or, conversely, their sustaining attachments to various punk rockers, my students begin to ask, "Isn't there some Third Wave theory we could read?"
Last spring I suggested to my students that, for the moment, this return to experience in all of its messy multiplicity might be the unifying theory of the Third Wave (we might see it, for instance, as a historically necessary return to the "personal" moment of "the personal is political"), but I share their longing for a militant, argumentative feminism--one that would abandon the personal essay with its fetishization of contradiction and get on with elaborating a political program. Contemporary feminism needs the kind of intervention Manifesta purports to be. Billed as "a powerful indictment from within of the current state of feminism, and a passionate call to arms," Manifesta aims to challenge the experientialism and fragmentation of the emerging Third Wave with history, political argument and activism. These are, to my mind, exactly the grounds on which to confront the Third Wave, but how effectively Manifesta manages this confrontation is another question entirely.
Written by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, both journalists, activists and Third Wavers themselves, Manifesta turns out to be a strange book. Some of this strangeness no doubt derives from its collaborative production. The two writers seem to be trying to repress, rather than sharpen, their differences, and this results in a book that is, narratively, both bland and contradictory by turns. This general atmosphere of forced consensus extends to the content as well. As Richards outlines in her introduction (each writer provides an introduction, not to the book but to herself), she and Baumgardner created Manifesta by combining their separate book projects, one on activism and the other a cultural analysis of current feminism, into one text. The end result is a long, wide-ranging and episodic book that touches on everything from Barbie and Riot Grrrls to voter registration and Title IX without ever fully integrating its cultural and activist components. Perhaps the strangest thing about the book is its title, for Manifesta is neither short nor scrappy like the best of its genre (e.g., the SCUM and Communist manifestoes). I was, however, encouraged to find that the book does contain (finally! on page 278) an actual "thirteen point" manifesta that distills its uncontroversial pro-choice, pro-ERA, anti-domestic violence agenda.
Its structural peculiarities aside, Manifesta does supply several potentially powerful correctives to contemporary feminism--the first of which is a historical perspective. One of the striking features of works of Third Wave feminism published so far is their general impatience with, and desire to break from, the feminist past. (Although the editors of both Listen Up and Third Wave Agenda make a point of pledging their allegiance to the Second Wave, their contributors for the most part do not.) Third Wavers frequently accomplish this break by declaring the Second Wave outmoded, unrealistically militant and irrelevant to the lives of young women. Melissa Klein describes this renunciation in her contribution to Third Wave Agenda, "Duality and Redefinition":
Many young women hesitate to take on the mantle of feminism, either because they fear being branded as fanatical "feminazis" or because they see feminism not as a growing and changing movement but as a dialogue of the past that conjures up images of militantly bell-bottomed "women's libbers."
In Third Wave writing, reductive caricature--those "bell-bottomed feminazis"--often displaces and deters real historical knowledge about the politics, accomplishments and legacy of the Second Wave, not to mention earlier feminisms. (For an especially sharp and poignant instance of the Third Wave's failure to recognize the Second, see the foreword and afterword to Rebecca Walker's To Be Real, in which a bewildered Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis wrestle with the treatment that feminism of the sixties and seventies receives in the book.)
Baumgardner and Richards reject this species of feminist ahistoricism. Point 5 of their manifesta aims
To tap into and raise awareness of our revolutionary history.... To have access to our intellectual feminist legacy and women's history; for the classics of radical feminism, womanism, mujeristas, women's liberation, and all our roots to remain in print; and to have women's history taught to men as well as women as a part of all curricula.
Against the Third Wave's rebellious declarations of independence, Baumgardner and Richards insist on a cross-generational, continuous understanding of feminism secured through the study of feminist history. "Having no sense of how we got here," they write, "condemns women to reinvent the wheel and often blocks us from creating a political strategy." Manifesta works throughout to supply some of this prehistory by linking current feminist cultural forms and figures to earlier ones. The Lilith Fair, for instance, is presented in the tradition of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and prosex profemininity Girlie feminists are recognized as descendants of Helen Gurley Brown.
The authors systematize their version of feminist history in a chapter titled "What Is Feminism?" Here they produce a sketchy, breakneck overview of United States feminism from Seneca Falls, through the Nineteenth Amendment, the Second Wave and the ERA, up to the Third Wave. They make some attempt to be multiculturally and politically inclusive by mentioning Native American matriarchies, Sojourner Truth and Emma Goldman, but what they call feminist history here is fundamentally the history of white, middle-class liberal feminism and its record of US governmental reforms. Manifesta's restricted focus on liberal feminism is, unfortunately, systemic. In the rest of the book, where Second Wavers provide most of the historical counterpoint, Baumgardner and Richards repeatedly offer up liberal feminists as representative of all feminism: Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Carol Gilligan, Gloria Steinem... Please note that our authors met while interning at Ms.
Feminists on the left and feminists of color will not find their history represented in Manifesta. The contributions of Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Lydia Sargent, bell hooks, Heidi Hartmann, Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, to name only a few, go pretty much unmentioned. This historical prejudice is especially striking, given that recent anthologies tend to date Third Wave feminism from the critiques that women of color launched against liberal feminism toward the end of the Second Wave. In this context, Manifesta's historical sensibility reads as reaction, as a call for a return to some imagined white, homogeneous Second Wave feminism. On the few occasions that Baumgardner and Richards deign to mention leftish feminisms, they criticize leftists not for their politics but for being unnecessarily divisive, for undermining some presumed feminist consensus. Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt, for instance, receive sharp criticism for having the gall to "[point] their fingers" at other feminists.
This anxiety about feminist dissent permeates Manifesta. Like a mantra, Baumgardner and Richards repeat phrases like "everyday feminism," "the same old feminism" and "organic" feminism, as if there were some reassuring common sense that united all feminists. For our authors, this "same old feminism" designates the same old liberal reformism, and while I praise their historical instincts--the Third Wave needs its past more than it knows--I wish Baumgardner and Richards had worked harder to be more fully historical. Not only do they provide the feminist history that is most likely to be familiar to readers without their help (through mainstream institutions like Ms., NOW and the Democratic Party) but their reductive version of the feminist past is unlikely to speak to the interests and experiences of women of color, working-class and radical women, or queers (though of all differences among women, they give the most lip service to sexual difference). Manifesta's history simply isn't adequate for comprehending, much less galvanizing, the actual class, racial, sexual and political heterogeneity of American women.
The second correction that Manifesta brings to the Third Wave is an insistence on political argumentation. If Third Wavers are vulnerable to charges of navel-gazing, of musing endlessly and confessionally over the contradictions between feminism and life, the authors adamantly resist this deferral of political consciousness. Throughout Manifesta they insist on making feminist sense of the world, using anecdotal narratives and statistical data (they admit to being obsessive fact-checkers) to remind us that the pay gap between women and men persists and remains substantial (74 cents to the dollar, by current calculations), that rape and domestic violence still operate to restrict women's independence, that the sexual double standard continues to distort female sexuality and that reproductive rights are only partially and tenuously secure. Although their political consciousness remains disappointingly close to their own experiences and needs as young professional white women (they give an inordinate amount of time to the injustices that face female journalists in New York City, while other feminist issues, like daycare, racism, gay-bashing and collective bargaining in the pink-collar ghetto, receive little to no treatment), at least Baumgardner and Richards model the process of politicizing experience, of seeing the personal as political. "Consciousness-raising," they argue, "must precede action."
At a deeper level, however, Manifesta simply isn't argumentative enough. In fact, the argument we most expect from a work of contemporary feminist theory--a systemic analysis of the causes of women's oppression today--is entirely absent. If the Third Wave intends to remake feminism for this generation, then it needs a comprehensive account of the specific material conditions that currently determine (and determine differentially) the social and economic position of women in the United States and outside the United States as well. Such an account requires thinking through systems (capitalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia) in the way many Second Wavers did, although it does not require that the Third Wave simply redeploy arguments generated in the seventies. After all, material conditions change. Instead of systemic argumentation, however, Baumgardner and Richards offer up a loose platform of issues: prison reform, pay inequality, military access for women, negative body images, the ERA, egalitarian healthcare, etc. Because Manifesta lacks a coherent structural account that could link these disparate issues (e.g., through the underlying socioeconomic processes that produce them), readers are unlikely to recognize any inner logic in this collection of so-called women's issues. Nor can Manifesta provide an argument for prioritizing one issue over another. In Baumgardner and Richards's account, feminism becomes analytically rootless, seemingly implicated everywhere, but no more effective or necessary in one arena than another.
In the absence of sustained structural analysis, our authors use large quantities of populist boosterism to hold the book together. Their populism underwrites two of Manifesta's larger claims, the first of which is that despite what critics say, feminism is everywhere in contemporary culture, just waiting to be acknowledged. The authors announce the existence of what they call a contemporary "Feminist Diaspora"--a large, dispersed population of "everyday" feminists who embody the Second Wave's success in establishing feminism as part of our cultural common sense. "For anyone born after the early 1960s," they assert, "the presence of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it--it's simply in the water." Of course this is a controversial proposition, as it assumes that the feminism of the sixties and seventies was disseminated uniformly to young women throughout the United States, irrespective of class, racial, educational or geographical distinctions. You get a very different picture of feminism's reach if you talk to women who, although "born after the early 1960s," were raised in rural areas, in immigrant families or in working-class neighborhoods. But if it's true, as our authors say, that feminism can now be taken for granted, that it has become part of popular consciousness, this presents Baumgardner and Richards with a unique dilemma. "The only problem," they acknowledge, "is that, while on a personal level feminism is everywhere, like fluoride, on a political level the movement is more like nitrogen: ubiquitous and inert." So even though they see "a generation of [young women] leading revolutionary lives," our authors concede that these same women are "best known for saying, 'I'm not a feminist, but...'"
Point 1 of the manifesta contains their plan for attacking this lack of feminist self-identification: "To out unacknowledged feminists, specifically those who are younger, so that Generation X can become a visible movement and, further, a voting block of eighteen- to forty-year-olds." As far as I can tell, "outing," in this context, consists of making feminism so enticingly broad and nondemanding that young women, realizing they are in no way required to interrogate themselves or their social practices, will claim feminism for themselves. "Maybe you aren't sure you need feminism," Baumgardner and Richards coax,
...or you're not sure it needs you. You're sexy, a wallflower, you shop at Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax. In reality, feminism wants you to be whoever you are--but with a political consciousness.
By asserting that young women are already feminists, if unconscious ones, Baumgardner and Richards feel empowered to claim that there is, indeed, a feminist "movement" afoot today. Although they admit that it does not consist of "a huge force of conscious feminists" (i.e., it does not look like anything we'd recognize as collective action), they repeatedly refer to "the movement" as if saying the word could call the social form into being. I share Manifesta's desire for a movement (the fizzled Riot Grrrl was arguably the closest--and it wasn't very close--we've come to collective feminist action in the last decade), but I don't believe that calling whatever women do to survive "a movement" or trying to swell the feminist ranks with prepolitical young women is the most effective way to get us there.
Baumgardner and Richards's populist strategies also emerge in the second of their larger claims, namely that political differences between types of feminism really don't, and ideally shouldn't, matter all that much. Our authors take a staggeringly latitudinarian approach to feminism. They stage extended defenses of Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe, both of whom most feminists consider conservative backlashers, in order to assert their rightful membership in the feminist camp. "We have to put down our relentless search for feminist purity," they argue,
...and look at Katie Roiphe, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Naomi Wolf, and the rest of the emerging young women as what they are: feminists, the next generation.... Yes, all feminists deserve critique and debate, but save your political vitriol for the young babes who are right-wing and political.
Baumgardner and Richards also extend feminist inclusion to "Girlie" types, those young women, vaguely associated with Bust's readership, who find personal empowerment in the cultural trappings of traditional adolescent femininity. They even make a case for Monica Lewinsky as a contemporary feminist icon, calling her "a twenty-three-year-old White House intern who owned her own libido and sexual prowess."
What our manifesta writers hope to gain by stretching feminism to its outer limits in order to include Roiphe, Wolf, Girlies and Lewinsky is a kind of "big tent" feminism that could take on "right-wing babes" like Christina Hoff Sommers, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter. And they are not the first Third Wavers to promote this kind of feminist populism. Rebecca Walker, in To Be Real, argues that we should "[broaden] our view of who and what constitutes 'the feminist community,'" so as to "stake out an inclusive terrain from which to actively seek the goals of societal equality and individual freedom." What they lose in the stretch, however, is any real content to feminism, other than the crudest and too often imaginary distinction between the right and left wing. Baumgardner and Richards would do for feminism what Clinton did for the Democrats over the past eight years: try to absorb, rhetorically, everyone from left-liberals to centrists in order to build a strategic coalition against the radical right. But why should the broad spectrum of feminists be forced to define themselves negatively and homogeneously against a few shrill right-wingers? While feminists need to be able to come together around issues that concern us, and I think we do, our differences are politically meaningful and, to my mind, ultimately productive. Roiphe, Wolf et al., for instance, raise important questions about the Third Wave revalorization of beauty, sexual power and femininity. What happens to feminism when it reclaims the very sources of power the patriarchy has always been happy to grant us? Why is it difficult to recognize feminist "agency" in the circumstance of a young female intern, smitten with male presidential power, dropping to her knees? Rather than subordinate our differences in the service of the flabby populism Manifesta promotes, I would like to see contemporary feminism embrace contention, sharpen its differences and strengthen its analysis.
There are limits, however, even to Baumgardner and Richards's feminist magnanimity. Their inclusionism breaks down not only around the "divisive" left but in their engagement with psychoanalytic Second Waver Phyllis Chesler. Chesler elicits their ire for, apparently, using the wrong tone of voice. In her 1997 Letters to a Young Feminist, Chesler draws on her longstanding engagement with feminism to delineate what she sees as the Second Wave's "legacy" to the next generation. Specifically, she focuses on the contradictions produced by Second Wave feminisms (e.g., between the ideology of "sisterhood" and the reality of female competition, between movement egalitarianism and the hierarchies "professional" feminism reproduced) and presses younger feminists to learn from and supersede these contradictions. In keeping with her training, Chesler approaches her Letters through the lens of the family drama and uses the persona of a feminist mother to address imagined feminist daughters (and, in the last chapter, her real-life feminist son). The phony intimacy of this address makes for some serious rhetorical melodrama: The reader is regularly addressed as "darling" and "my dear" by an overbearing Ma Chesler. Despite its stylistic goofiness, however, Chesler's book remains one of the few Second Wave feminist "memoirs" (and there are now many) that work to instrumentalize, rather than glorify or recant, the feminist past in order to serve the feminist future.
Baumgardner and Richards are unable to recognize how Chesler's book, like their own, attempts to build a bridge between the Waves. Instead, in an angry "Letter to an Older Feminist," our authors perform their rebellion against Chesler and her cohort, exclaiming "You're not our mothers." "We let you off your mother trip," they announce, "Now you have to stop treating us like daughters. You don't have the authority to treat us like babies or acolytes who need to be molded." As much as our authors say they want to connect with the Second Wave, they clearly want the connection on their own terms. It's OK for Chesler to participate in the Third Wave as an icon, as an inspiring bit of history, but Baumgardner and Richards would rather she quit trying to contribute her own work. "Read our books, buy our records," they command the Older Feminist. Ever vigilant of ageism when it's directed at younger feminists, here Baumgardner and Richards themselves, unnecessarily, reproduce a generation gap.
My favorite part of Manifesta, and the final corrective it offers to the Third Wave's nearly exclusive focus on cultural critique, is its insistence on activism. In the final section of the book, in a chapter titled "What Is Activism?" Baumgardner and Richards push young feminists to take action. "Activism," they write, "starts with the acknowledgment of injustice, but it doesn't stop with the rant...or even with the manifesta." To insure that their readers develop realistic expectations, the two debunk what they say are four myths about activism: that "activism will bring an immediate and decisive victory," that activism "has to be huge," that activism requires "superleaders" and, finally, that contemporary feminism is "politically impotent." Baumgardner and Richards also challenge the common preconception that volunteering is necessarily the highest form of activism. They make a fabulous distinction between "activist" and "charity" types of volunteer work, defining the latter as those positions (like candy stripers and literacy instructors) that have a long tradition of relying on unpaid female labor. Readers are directed away from the feminized sector and are encouraged instead to turn their efforts toward the "activist" groups--those "organizations that are too ahead of their time to be funded by the government"--and to continue to lobby for pay for their work. Central to successful activism, Baumgardner and Richards suggest, is a "clear intention, a realistic plan, and an identifiable constituency," and they provide steps for developing these strategic elements. In addition to an appendix containing contact information for numerous activist organizations (along with record labels, makeup brands and sex-toy shops), Baumgardner and Richards also provide a series of "creative social justice" issues that they think warrant activist involvement, such as political asylum for female refugees who have suffered gendered forms of violence, getting female reproductive care into prisons and pressing the National Honor Society to strike down its exclusion of pregnant women. For each issue they provide concrete avenues for action: Lobby the President, recruit Ob-Gyns to go into prisons, petition the NHS with lists of male members who have impregnated women.
While I love its demystification of activism, I remain unenamored with Manifesta's overall political vision, which never moves much beyond liberal reformism. For all their talk of "revolution," Baumgardner and Richards are primarily interested in, as they call it, putting the "participatory back into participatory democracy." The book, moreover, contains no clear sense of how issue-by-issue reformism of the type they advocate could lead to the "revolutionary movement" and larger social transformation they often invoke as their long-range goal. Despite its political tunnel vision, however, Manifesta works productively, in my view, to reorient the Third Wave toward action, particularly action beyond just the cultural level. Baumgardner and Richards encourage young feminists to engage with politics, the law and (to some extent) the economy, and they supply concrete strategies and realistic expectations for beginning this kind of activist work. Manifesta provides a solid starting place for reformist-style activism, and in the current moment, any activism is better than none. Who knows how young feminists might be revolutionized through the types of activism Baumgardner and Richards advocate; Manifesta could lay the groundwork for more radical forms of political action.
All in all, I think Manifesta suggests a formula, if not the specific content, for a better version of Third Wave feminism. We need to build on the feminisms that have preceded us, but we need the history of all feminisms, not just the least controversial, most mainstream forms. We need to embrace political argument, but we need to root our arguments in a larger understanding of the conditions that oppress us--all of us. We also need to be able to argue among ourselves about what feminism at this historical moment ought to look like, and to do that we have to dispense with the idea--itself an artifact of the backlash--that feminism needs warm bodies more than it needs theory or principles. We need to fight the seemingly widespread preconception that a state of feminist grace is prerequisite to action and that essay writing should be our preferred mode of activism. We need to get busy in the ways Manifesta urges and in many more. Without meaning to, Manifesta also prompts us, through some of its engagement with "older feminists," to think about how the Third Wave may be founding itself on unexamined ageism. In the end, a better version of Third Wave feminism might involve changing the name as a first step toward unloading altogether the dubious politics of generationality.
They laughed when I sat down with these two writers--and never mind that both books arrived in the same box. The bad gay boy and the cold war saint! The apostle of derangement and the lexicographer of Newspeak! The red cape and the tweed jacket, the rotting knee and the lousy lung, the drunken boat and the memory hole! "I came to find my mind's disorder sacred," said the poet on a camel. "Good prose is like a window pane," said the novelist who shot elephants.
But both Arthur Rimbaud and George Orwell did go down-and-out in Paris and London. Both their fathers were mostly absent, doing time as globocops in Third World tropics of the French and British empires. (On a sand dune, Captain Rimbaud taught himself Bedouin ways, the better to repress them. Orwell's dad was a deputy opium agent, making sure the poppy juice got from India to the Chinese addicts.) Both their mothers loved cards more than kids. Both sons, hating school, gifted at languages, hostile to religion, intrigued by popular culture, would follow their fathers to the colonies, enlist in foreign wars, lose not only their tempers but also amazing amounts of manuscript and die younger than they should have, after dreaming up and acting out alternative identities. (Take a hike, Eric Blair: "I is somebody else.")
Both live on as cautionary tales, litmus tests, celebrity role models and undead icons. In his wickedly entertaining revised version of Rimbaud, Graham Robb points to his posthumous career "as Symbolist, Surrealist, Beat poet, student revolutionary, rock lyricist, gay pioneer and inspired drug-user," as well as "an emergency exit from the house of convention" for avant-gardes everywhere. Well-thumbed copies of A Season in Hell and The Illuminations are to be found in the portmanteaus of Picasso, Breton, Cocteau and Malraux and in the backpacks of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Bruce Chatwin and Kurt Cobain. Jim Morrison, that swinging Door, is even rumored "to have faked his death in Paris and followed Rimbaud to Ethiopia"--just the right splash of mythic Tabasco.
Whereas Orwell's name is mentioned every time we are looked down upon by surveillance cameras, lied to by governments, read about journalists who have been "disappeared" or hear about dissidents in mental hospitals. Big Brother is a member of our extended family, the pigs go on drinking all the milk and eating all the apples, and the SLORC word for Burma in Newspeak is "Myanmar." In Democracy, her 1984 (!) novel of skulduggery on the Pacific Rim, Joan Didion would notice that "all reporters had paperback copies of Homage to Catalonia, and kept them in the same place where they kept the matches and the candle and the notebook, for when the hotel was bombed." So postmodern is Curious George that he has even been abducted by such aliens as Norman Podhoretz.
And both for a season or so professed revolutionary socialism. Even if the moment passed like measles, Rimbaud was there for the Paris Commune, and Orwell was there for the Spanish Republic, and these, of course, are two of the biggest Super Bowl games in the left's long losing streak, and it makes you want to weep.
Robb reminds us that the massacre of the Communards in 1871 "was the bloodiest week in French history: a savage humiliation of the proletariat. Thousands were shot, inexpertly tortured or shipped to the penal colonies without a proper trial. Women carrying bottles in the street were bayoneted by soldiers who had heard of the mythical, bomb-throwing 'pétroleuses.' More people died during la Semaine Sanglante than in the Reign of Terror or the Franco-Prussian War." While the Rimbaud article in my Britannica omits any mention of the Commune, the young poet yo-yo'd in and out of all of it, and Robb suggests that he may have been raped by a gang of soldiers while trying to slip through the lines a couple of weeks before the slaughter, after which he wrote his famous Lettre du Voyant--announcing the poet as Romantic Lucifer and Promethean Satan, whose job it was to rescue man from God.
On the open wound of the Spanish Republic, Jeffrey Meyers quotes Albert Camus: "It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so many men, the world over, regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy." Certainly it was personal for Orwell. On his first Barcelona stop, he found a socialist community "where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no bootlicking," and dining rooms in the luxury hotels had been turned into canteens for the militia. But his second time around, he saw fat men eating quails while children begged for bread, and the commissars were hunting down his anarchist friends like deer. And then he took a bullet in the throat.
Anyway, both of them were lonely guys: vagabonds and vanishing acts. And they somehow hang together, coincidental and corresponding, in a rainbow arc from the Cult of the Artist to the Writer on the Barricades to Joe DiMaggio for Mr. Coffee and Bob Dole for Viagra. In Democracy, Joan Didion also quotes Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."
It can only be the end of the world, ahead of time.
"The first poet of a civilization not yet born," as René Char called him, showed up on October 20, 1854, in Charleville in French Flanders, three years after Napoleon III's coup d'état. At age 4, already precocious, he tried to trade his baby sister for some colored prints in a bookshop window. At age 6, his father shipped off for Algeria and never came back, leaving Arthur at the mercy of a mother devoted to church, shopping and whist, with a "phenomenal capacity for not showing affection." At age 7, he entered the "corpse-yellow" rooms of the local lycée as if preparing "for a life in prison." By age 14, he had inhaled all of French poetry, won every academic prize and developed acute self-consciousness:
I have the bluish-white eyes of my ancestors the Gauls, their small brains, their clumsiness in battle. I find my dress as barbaric as theirs. But I do not butter my hair.
Picture him in the summer of 1870, chatting up navvies and quarrymen, reading Verlaine for the first time and stowing away under a seat on the train to Paris, where he will be arrested on suspicion of republicanism and/or spying for Bismarck, and spend maybe a week in prison, during which not even Robb can say for sure what happens to him, except lice. There followed, as if on an elastic string that kept snapping him back to "the Mouth of Darkness," as he called his disapproving mother, an itchy six-month period of itinerant journalism, cafe polemics, bohemian sonnets and shopping for surrogate fathers, during which he swore like a prisoner, ate like a pig, refused to pass the salt and came to believe that "the mind could be shaped by an act of will," that morality "is a weakness of the brain" and that Society "will fall to the axe, the pick and the steamroller."
In the cities, the mud suddenly appeared to me red and black, like a mirror when the lamp moves about in the next room, like a treasure in the forest! Good luck, I cried, and saw a sea of flames and smoke in the sky, and, to left and to right, all riches blazing like a billion thunders.
This is a kid ready for a Commune. He sells his watch for a third-class ticket to Paris in February 1871, and for two weeks walks the streets "feasting on theatre bills, advertisements, pamphlets and shop signs," sleeping on coal barges, competing with dogs for scraps of food--a "vagrant poet with a fish in his pants." Six days after he has hoofed it home, workers rise, generals are lynched and he has to go back again: "Paris had fallen to poets who worked with laws and human beings instead of words." A new chief of police removes "Saint" from every street name and issues a warrant for God's arrest. Maybe words actually do have "a direct, controllable influence on reality."
"Order is vanquished!" declares the 16-year-old, and writes his own revolutionary Constitution: A permanent state of referendum! Abolition of families and their "slave-holding" of children! Communication with animals, plants and extraterrestrials! He will return in late April, at the delirious height of the Commune, to enlist as a Left Bank guerrilla: "To whom shall I hire myself? What beast should I worship? What holy image are we attacking? Which hearts shall I break? What lie must I keep?--In what blood shall I walk?" When government troops bomb their own capital, he slips away, suffers what he suffers and enters the gaudy tent of his own legend: "I owe my superiority to the fact that I have no heart."
In fact, says Robb, he has decided "to seize control of the means of intellectual production.... In terms that were unavailable to him in 1871, he was considering the possibility of detaching the censorious superego from the endlessly imaginative id." And the "superego incarnate" is Mme. Rimbaud, from whom he's always hiding out in attics, cellars or latrines, and to whom he always returns, until Africa. You are saying this is reductive. But every once in a while, praxis so improves on theory that we get a penguin.
That summer of 1871 he posts a batch of poems to Verlaine so full of kinky innuendo that The Nasty Fellows raise a subscription to bring the prodigy to the capital and subsidize his genius. Rimbaud arrives with "a strange nostalgia for the future," one of the most remarkable poems in any language, "The Drunken Boat," and a plan to fold, bend, spindle and mutilate his own personality. Almost immediately, he will trash hotel rooms like a rock star and leave turds behind on pillows. Verlaine, of course, will fall in love with him, when he isn't rotting his brain with absinthe or setting his wife's hair on fire. Verlaine is easy to make fun of only if you've never been smitten by somebody bad for you, or until you are reminded that Pol Pot was one of his great admirers.
We are now in familiar territory, with the familiar contradictions. Rimbaud the vandal, hooligan, sadist and "murderous" prankster is also the Rimbaud who writes a lovely article about "human alarm-clocks" who for a small fee rush around in the early hours in the poorer sections of the city waking up factory workers. The "vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy" is also the author of the marvelous "Voyelles," a poem in which each vowel has its own color (noir, blanc, rouge, vert, bleu)--inspired by Ernest Cabaner, a composer who plays piano in a bar, collects old shoes to use as flowerpots and believes that each note of the octave corresponds to a particular color and vowel. According to Robb:
This is the ambiguity that lies at the heart of Rimbaud's work: the ardent search for powerful systems of thought that could be used like magic spells, conducted by an acutely ironic intelligence--a combination that rarely survives adolescence gracefully.
He loses a notebook, the Belgian poems and the manuscript of "Spiritual Hunt." Since he believes "every being...to be entitled to several other lives," why not go to England, live with Verlaine in Soho, grub sixpence from writing business letters and teaching French, admire the boys in tight-fitting suits waiting outside public urinals and read Shakespeare, Longfellow, Poe and Swinburne? Certainly, like all ex-Communards in jittery Europe, they are spied upon and hassled. So should they be. They hobnob with the socialist underground. They see Karl Marx. Robb even suggests that several of The Illuminations can be construed as glosses on Kapital--on "the alienated consumers of the modern metropolis, the disinherited masses, the resurrectionary mythology of the Commune and the magic wand of global capitalism."
Not so his astonishing A Season in Hell, in which Modernism rears its contrary head; in which experiments with language are investigations into the unstable self; in which, "like a particle accelerator," repellent forms of thought collide: Job and Goethe; fairy tales and Taine; Fleurs du Mal and "the Mouth of Darkness." "Rimbaud, at the age of 18, had invented a linguistic world that can be happily explored for years like the scrapyard of a civilization." After which, confoundingly, he abandoned literature, France, fame and Mme. Rimbaud.
Well, now: Brussels, Stuttgart, Milan, Siena. Enlisting in the Carlist rebel army, then absconding with the cash bonus. Enlisting in the Dutch Colonial Army, then deserting the minute he gets to Java. Trying to enlist in the US Navy, then having instead to run off to Scandinavia with a circus. Going over the Alps on foot, setting sail for Alexandria, learning Russian, Arabic and Hindi. Discovering at last that while no tree grows in Aden, there is a nearby Forbidden City unseen by Europeans since Richard Burton, and money to be made trading coffee, tobacco, incense, ivory, spices, spears, swords, ostrich eggs, animal skins and guns. He will wear a turban, keep a woman, chew khat, catch syphilis, ride camels, write mom, lose another manuscript (on Abyssinia) and then his right leg (to bone cancer). At the end, he refuses opium for fear of what he might say in his delirium to his sister.
Disregard previous rumors, even in Enid Starkie. He neither converted to Islam nor traded in slaves, though you couldn't do business in his part of Africa without cutting the warlords in on the deal. What he did do, by selling guns to Menelik, was help an African army defeat a European nation--well, at least Italy--for the first time. Disregard as well the Tragic Aura. He didn't die bitter and broke. He actually made a lot of money, which he hid from his mother in bank accounts all over the Middle East. Some people are still looking for it.
Some people are also still looking for the poet. Rimbaud killed him off when he stopped living with other people, after he realized that the world couldn't be changed by verbal innovation. Literature, Robb explains, hadn't worked:
For Rimbaud, poetry had always been the means to an end: winning esteem, causing irritation, changing the nature of reality. Each redefinition of the goal had rendered the old technology obsolete. The prose Rimbaud had shown no more nostalgia for verse than most mathematicians showed for their slide-rules after the invention of the personal computer.
It's hard to read this as anything other than a triumph of capitalism over Bohemia.
My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.
(Orwell, "Why I Write")
Orwell lasted ten years longer, but all of it was much less thrilling. And so, compared to Graham Robb, is Jeffrey Meyers. Whether, after two volumes by William Abrahams and Peter Stansky, one full-length bio by Bernard Crick, another by Michael Shelden, a short and elegant "Literary Life" by the editor of the twenty-volume Complete Works, Peter Davison, and a brilliant black valentine by Raymond Williams in the "Modern Masters" series, we even need another account is open to question. "'Father Knew George Orwell' is a cracked old song," wrote Williams almost three decades ago. But the centennial of his birth will be upon us in three short years, so batten down your aspidistra.
According to Meyers, he felt guilty about everything: "his colonial heritage, his bourgeois background, his inverted snobbery and his elite education," not to mention his behavior as a policeman in Burma, his inability to get himself arrested while he was collecting material for Down and Out and maybe even the uncircumcised penis that so mortified him at Eton among such contemporaries as Anthony Powell, Henry Green and Harold Acton. And so his whole life was a kind of penance, never taking care of himself, doing it all the hard way, always off to another dangerous front, ending up on an island off the coast of Scotland as far away from medical attention as an Englishman with tuberculosis could get. "All these risky moves were prompted by the inner need to sabotage his chance of a happy life," Meyers the schoolmarm tells us.
We've heard this before, from everybody else, and it still doesn't explain anything. How many boys went to Eton and not to Spain? How many writers went to Spain, like Hemingway, and failed to notice anything peculiar? How come Lawrence Durrell and Anthony Burgess never felt guilty about their colonial service or imperial privilege? Who else (who didn't have to) went down the Wigan mines, or into the casual wards of a public hospital to find out how the poor died, or saw a man hanged and decided on the spot, "When a murderer is hanged, there is only one person at the ceremony who is not guilty of murder"?
From Meyers, we also get a surprising amount of sex, all of it depressing. Orwell was nervous about women, apparently not much good in bed and would complain in his "Last Literary Notebook" about "their incorrigible dirtiness & untidiness" and "their terrible, devouring sexuality":
Within any marriage or regular love affair, he suspected that it was always the woman who was the sexually insistent partner. In his experience women were quite insatiable, & never seemed fatigued by no matter how much love-making.... In any marriage of more than a year or two's standing, intercourse was thought of as a duty, a service owed by the man to the woman. And he suspected that in every marriage the struggle was always the same--the man trying to escape from sexual intercourse, to do it only when he felt like it (or with other women), the woman demanding it more & more, & more & more consciously despising her husband for his lack of virility.
How does this square with his adventures in Rangoon brothels or among Parisian trollops and Berber girls in Marrakech? Was the former colonial cop and declassed intellectual only capable of getting it up with the lower orders? Raymond Williams was much exercised by this class angle in Orwell--an unconscious condescension, a double standard, a writing off of the brute masses because he'd come to feel all politics "was a mode of adjustment to one's own wishes and fantasies." Hadn't he, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, projected his own apathy on the oppressed proles by insisting that, "Under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me"?
But these are difficult thoughts, getting into what Williams called Orwell's "submerged despairs"--the "radical pessimism" and "accommodation to capitalism" of this self-described "shock-absorber of the bourgeoisie." Meyers will no more entertain them than he will explore the kind of craft questions that bring out the best in Peter Davison--on, for instance, how those magnificent essays about elephants, toads and Dickens got themselves written. Or the precise debt of Nineteen Eighty-Four to Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Jack London's Iron Heel and Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night. No mention in Meyers, either, of how the 1955 film version of Animal Farm omitted the last-scene melding of men and pigs, which might have opened questions about cultural expropriation, body-snatching and even Doublethink--all for the greater good of the cold war cause. In all Meyers's many pages, not a single sentence stops us in mid-platitude to say anything half as intellectually arresting as these several in Raymond Williams, on Orwell's recurring patterns:
This experience of awareness, rejection, and flight is repeatedly enacted. Yet it would be truer to say that most of Orwell's important writing is about someone who tries to get away but fails. That failure, that reabsorption, happens, in the end, in all the novels mentioned, though of course the experience of awareness, rejection, and flight has made its important mark.
To think these thoughts is then to ask whether, on a fundamental level, Nineteen Eighty-Four had much of anything to say to Chinese students or the Velvet Revolutionaries, who turned out to be made of sterner stuff than Winston Smith.
Instead, we get the same old stories: St. Cyprian's, with Cyril Connolly and Cecil Beaton; Eton and his unrequited crush on a younger boy; Burma, where he briefly imagined that the "the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts"; Paris, where he wrote and destroyed two novels; teaching boys, selling books, being rejected by T.S. Eliot, marrying Eileen; Spain, Morocco and the Blitz; the BBC, the adopted child and the dead Eileen; P.G. Wodehouse, Edmund Wilson, Animal Farm and the audition of the widows in waiting--after which egregious Sonia, the widow everybody loves to hate, who is said here to have spat in disgust whenever she passed a nun on the street.
And along with the famous decency, the equally famous abuse: W.H. Auden was "a sort of gutless Kipling." William Morris, Bernard Shaw and Upton Sinclair were "dull, empty windbags." Off with the heads of "the creepy eunuchs in pansy-left circles" and "all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearing and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat." Wouldn't it be loverly "if only the sandals and the pistachio-colored shirts could be put in a pile and burnt and every vegetarian, teetotaler and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!"
Wilfrid Sheed once said that Orwell wrote best about the things he hated. So maybe we're just lucky that some of the things he hated were more important than sandals and vegetarianism.
But for now, it's the night before. Let us receive all influxes of vigor and real tenderness. And at dawn, armed with ardent patience, we shall enter the splendid cities.
(Rimbaud, A Season in Hell)
I am reminded of Simone Weil, who also negated herself, who willed herself out of this world. At her funeral, the priest arrived too late, because of a stalled train. At Rimbaud's funeral, nobody came, because his mother kept it secret. Orwell is remembered on the one hand, by Malcolm Muggeridge, as having "loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future," and on the other by H.G. Wells, as "a Trotskyist with big feet." And George himself told us that "saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent."
So Rimbaud gave up poetry when it failed to change the world. Orwell at the end must have had his doubts about language, too, or he wouldn't have dreamed up Newspeak. Neither is remembered for his hard work at identity-making. Instead, the poet's name is worn by freaks, geeks and videodrones as if it were a logo on a T-shirt or a jet-propelled sneaker, and the novelist is propped up on a horse like the dead El Cid to frighten the Moorish hordes. They have both been turned into the standard-issue celebrity flacks of this empty, buzzing time, selling something other than themselves, unattached to honor, glory, kingship, sainthood or genius. They join a talk-show parade of the power-mad, the filthy rich and the serial killers, the softboiled fifteen-minute Warhol eggs, the rock musicians addled on cobra venom, the war criminals whose mothers never loved them and the starlets babbling on about their substance abuse, their child molestations, their anorexia and their liposuction. "I have never belonged to this race," said Rimbaud.
The twentieth century produced few American heroes like Joe DiMaggio. He was arguably the best all-around ballplayer who'd ever taken the field, a unique combination of power, speed and grace, a lifetime .325 hitter with a classic swing and an unworldly calm whose fielding was as nearly flawless as it seemed effortless. He was not a fidgeter, adjusting batting gloves a hundred times (there were no batting gloves). Once he squared his bat, said his friend Tony Gomez, "the guy was a statue." There was no wasted motion on the field--he flowed to the ball--and no hotdogging: The fielders' mitts were too small for snap-catches. Those of us who saw him play when we were teenagers would caricature the batting styles of other players, but we all wanted to look and move like DiMaggio. He was also the possessor, as any fan knows, of what is the most extraordinary feat in baseball, and perhaps in any sport, a fifty-six-game hitting streak that defies all statistical logic and that most people believe will never be matched again. That in itself is the material of myth.
But there was something else as well. When he first appeared in a New York Yankees uniform in 1936, he seemed to come from nowhere at the very moment when both the Yankees and a depressed nation--and the rising second generation of Italian-Americans--seemed to need him most. Paul Simon's line "where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio," could have been written as anticipatory longing thirty years before it became ironic sentimentality.
Unlike the boisterous beer-swilling Babe Ruth, who'd retired the year before, DiMaggio, the son of an immigrant Sicilian fisherman from San Francisco, became the essence of that elusive thing called class. He rarely spoke; he dressed superbly--another thing he would become known for--and he seemed to conduct himself, both on and off the field, with a royal calm, even an icy distance, that only enhanced the allure. The Yankees, in those days when baseball was the national pastime, had won the World Series just once since their Murderers' Row rampage of the 1920s. In the four years after he arrived, they would win four times. In his thirteen war-interrupted seasons--the last was 1951--they would win the pennant ten times. He played not only to win--to drive his team to win, often playing through his own pain, the bone spurs in his heels, the aching knees, the trick shoulder--but to play flawlessly. He was the epitome of Yankees royalty.
And somehow, after those thirteen seasons, when the myth might have faded into an endless haze of celebrity golf tournaments and testimonial dinners, it seemed only to thrive--through the 286-day klieg-light royal marriage to Marilyn Monroe, the ensuing divorce and the love that seemed to survive both, through the Mr. Coffee and Bowery Bank commercials and through tawdry rounds of high-priced baseball-card shows and memorabilia signings--little seemed to tarnish the mythic glow. If anything, the forty-eight years after DiMaggio's retirement--he died in 1999--seemed only to burnish it. Almost from the moment he arrived in New York, people wanted to touch him, do him favors, run his errands, drive him places, give him things. Cops gave him access to places denied anyone else. He rarely paid for his own meals, his own cars or even his own hotel rooms. There would always be guys eager to be his delivery boys, to bring him women--mostly the blond showgirls he preferred--even some who moved out of their homes to be with him, to take care of him. Anything for the Dago. The namewas used with so much affection that it became an honorific.
But of course there was more--lots of it--and Richard Ben Cramer is there to mine every ugly moment: the money, ultimately more than a million, that came under the table in hundreds and two hundreds from mobsters (who adored him even more than did other American males, and who found him a useful draw to Toots Shor's, El Morocco or the other clubs and restaurants they controlled in New York); DiMaggio's compulsive whoring, combined with his possessiveness--unto physical abuse--of his two wives; the estrangement from his own brothers, who were also big-league ballplayers; frosty rejection of his son (except when publicity photos were required), who would die of a drug overdose; the envy directed at other great players; the grudging World War II military career that he spent in safe, warm places playing baseball for the prestige of the brass under whom he served; the obsessive money-grubbing--$150, or $175, for each signed baseball, each signed bat, each photograph, thousands upon thousands of them, deals upon deals.
Cramer contends that DiMaggio not only wanted the money--he was pathological in the thought that others would profit: "Who else would make money off the deal? How much? Why should those guys make a buck off my life?" The fear went back to the beginning of his career, to the days before free agency when ballplayers were chattel: Club owners like Ruppert beer baron Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees and his general manager Ed Barrow owned not just the players but many of the writers and columnists as well. You could try to hold out, but in the end, it was the owners who set the terms; you either played for the team that owned you or you didn't play at all. Worse, as DiMaggio discovered early in his career, even the attempt was likely to expose you to a torrent of press and fan abuse as an ingrate. The same newspaper hacks who could manufacture heroes could just as easily be turned to embarrassing them or tearing them down. DiMaggio, the idol who was making the owners additional millions in attendance, was lucky to get his $25,000, or his $40,000. In the Depression years, those seemed like princely sums. In a way, you could understand the paranoia about other people making money off you. Lots of them tried.
In the course of telling the story, Cramer seems to have turned over every rock in DiMaggio's life, but in the end even he seems uncertain how to frame his flawed hero's life, caught up, on the one hand, in the man's greatness and lavishing us, on the other, with his rage, his distrust, his shabbiness.
DiMaggio excelled and continued to excel, against the mounting "natural" odds. He exceeded, withal, the cruelest expectations: He was expected to be the best--and he was. He was expected to be the exemplar of dignity, class, grace--expected to look the best.... And he looked perfect.
DiMaggio did for us--for the sake of our good opinion--through every decade, every day. He was, at every turn, one man we could look to who made us feel good. For it was always about how we felt...with Joe. No wonder we strove for sixty years to give him the hero's life. It was always about us. Alas, it was his destiny to know that, as well.
Of course it was always about us; what else could it be about? But as with a lot of other latter-day muckraking of heroes "who did for us"--Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy--the ground rules have changed. Even the un-kept, independent sports writers of the 1930s and 1940s would never have written the other DiMaggio story, would have respected the man's privacy, as the White House press respected Kennedy's. (Through Marilyn Monroe, of course, the two stories were linked: DiMaggio thought maybe the "fucking Kennedys" had killed her.) If we were charmingly naïve then, a nation of hicks who liked simple morality tales, our confessional age now demands full disclosure--we expose our potential heroes before they even have a chance to show their stuff. Cramer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and wrote a fine book about the 1988 presidential campaign, gets himself caught in between--still in love with the performance, the style, the heroism, but probing the private, inner man until little is left. Heroes on pedestals are all fair game. But Cramer gives us little help in squaring the two DiMaggios. How do we hold the one without forgetting the other? In the end, it's even hard to square what Cramer tells us about DiMaggio's admiration for--and friendship with--people like Woody Allen with the shallow DiMaggio he mostly gives us.
What makes that even more exasperating is that Cramer gets into his characters' heads, reports events and quotes conversations with no attribution. The book's acknowledgments include a huge list of people, from old ballplayers to Henry Kissinger, himself a DiMaggio idolater from the 1930s who would later sit with the Clipper at Yankee Stadium and get enlightenment about the subtleties of big-league pitching and hitting. But there are no footnotes, no lists of sources. In the hours after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, Cramer reports, DiMaggio rushed to his sister's house in the Marina--the house, which he had given to his family many years earlier, was undamaged--and emerged with "his big right hand around the neck of a garbage bag...which held six hundred thousand dollars, cash." How does he know that--not the part about the bag, but about the contents? And where did the cash come from? (It seems to have belonged to some long-gone mobster who was making certain that he could make a fast exit if necessary, but we are not sure.) There's also the touching story about Marilyn Monroe's tour entertaining the troops in Korea in 1954, three years after DiMaggio--who wanted his wives to be homebodies and never approved of their careers--had retired. "Joe," she said on her return, "you never heard such cheering." "Yes, I have," he said. Where did that come from? And when "he was off to himself, on his cot, thinking about (his first wife) Dorothy," where did that come from?
To compound the exasperation, Cramer likes to affect a wise-guy writing style that's often more annoying than evocative. The ambient sporting life of 1930s New York is itself a nice story, full of Guys and Dolls characters--prizefighters, jockeys, ballplayers; Broadway showgirls; politicians like La Guardia, columnists like Walter Winchell and Sidney Skolsky; small-time hoods like Jimmy "Peanuts" Ceres, who drove DiMaggio around, and some big-time ones as well, Ruggiero "Richie the Boot" Boiardo, Joe Adonis, Abner "Longy" Zwillman, "who put the 'organized' in organized crime"; Toots Shor himself, who loved the Dago and would later be spurned by him, as would so many other onetime friends. But the Runyonesque rhetoric gets in the way: sentences like "See, Joe had to have a private life," or "See, Gomez was gone," or "In the sixth, Joe got ahold of a pitch...", or "Winchell, Len Lyons, that nosy Kilgallen broad; even the battle-ax, Louella Parsons, used to write up Joe like an old friend" or (even more bizarre) "Joe was digging for second base, when Gionfriddo, in an act of God...and--Cazzo! Figlio di putana!--stole the home run away from DiMaggio." Now who said (or thought) that?
It's hard to deny Cramer's portrait of DiMaggio as an empty and increasingly lonely and embittered man, whose lifelong act as an aging public monument could only have added to the bitterness. "From the start," Cramer writes early in the book, "he had to have it both ways: he wanted to be well known at what he was known for--and for the rest, he wouldn't be known at all." We once allowed our heroes that privilege--but as Cramer's book demonstrates, we permit it less and less, either to the living or the dead. If DiMaggio had cooperated, he would probably have received more consideration, but DiMaggio being who he was, no such cooperation could have been expected. In the end, our sympathy is restored only by the venality of his lawyer Morris Engelberg, who continues to mine DiMaggio's memorabilia and exploit his name even more ruthlessly than DiMaggio did. In the penultimate moment in Cramer's book, a few minutes after DiMaggio's death, there is Engelberg, in DiMaggio's room, ordering the nurse to force DiMaggio's 1936 World Series ring, the only genuine one he had left, from the dead hero's finger. When the nurse succeeded, "Morris yanked [it] out of his hands, and left the room in a hurry." He would claim that DiMaggio "gave him that ring, on his deathbed--before Joe died in his arms."
Thirty years ago, I went to the San Francisco Giants Arizona spring-training camp to do a magazine piece on Willie Mays, another of our imperfect diamond heroes. How much, Mays asked, was he going to get paid for cooperating? At that point, I decided I would simply hang around for a week or two and watch and listen. There was little he could tell me, I decided, that would strengthen the piece. (In the days following, I learned more than I ever expected--about Mays, about the changing culture of baseball and about the game itself.) Sometimes, maybe, the work of athletes, like that of dancers or, for that matter, composers or actors or novelists, deserves to be well known, as DiMaggio seemed to wish, without the unceasing pursuit and exposure of all the rest. In some cases, say in Mozart's or Wagner's or J.D. Salinger's, or maybe even in Bill Clinton's, if you can't separate the neuroses or the anti-Semitism or just the ordinariness of a man from the public performance--you may never know greatness at all. But it gets harder every day.
In the Acknowledgments section of his biography of Saul Bellow, James Atlas quotes a somewhat greater biographer, Samuel Johnson: "We know how few can portray a living acquaintance, except by his most prominent and observable particularities, and the grosser features of his mind, and it may be easily imagined how much of this little knowledge may be lost in imparting it, and how soon a succession of copies will lose all resemblance of the original."
Johnson knew few of those whose lives he described and none nearly as well as Boswell knew him. (Would he have been as pessimistic about the unreliability of history and biography if he'd read Boswell's book? Probably more so. The truer the portrait, the more repellent to such a subject.)
I'm not as pessimistic about discovery as Johnson was. So, for instance, well as I knew Bellow before reading Atlas's biography, I think I know him better now.
I mean that I know more about the places he lived, what his parents were like, what others thought of him, what he said about many things, including me. (To my surprise, I learned that I was once mentioned in his will and that, perhaps after one of our arguments, I was removed from it.) It doesn't mean that my view of Bellow now is Atlas's. By no means.
Atlas also knows Bellow and was helped by him in the course of writing his book.1 He writes that he immersed himself in Bellow's records and acquaintances far more than he'd done in work for his prizewinning biography of Delmore Schwartz (whom he'd never met). Atlas wonders, though, if familiarity and labor have produced a better book. I think this is a better book, largely because Bellow is a more brilliant and interesting man than Schwartz was. (Indeed, his version of Schwartz in Humboldt's Gift is more interesting, amusing and touching than the one in the Atlas biography, which was--we learn in the new book--inspired by it.)
Better, truer; more interesting, more touching.
The first two distinctions don't matter in works of fiction. So the uproar over Bellow's Ravelstein and the real Allan Bloom doesn't bear on its power as a novel or, on the other hand, on the pain it gave and gives some who saw themselves "portrayed" and/or "betrayed" in it. They do matter, however, for biography. Would Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson be as good a book if it were a work of fiction--if, say, the Johnson in it hadn't lived or been a totally different man? It would not be. The understanding a biographer establishes with his readers includes the sense that he is telling as much of the truth as he's been able to gather about actual people and events. If that understanding is compromised, it constitutes an aesthetic betrayal different from--and, in my view, worse than--the "betrayal" of a fiction writer's acquaintance in his fiction.
I'm one of the many Bellow friends Atlas interviewed and whom he cites in Bellow: A Biography. Much I know and feel about Bellow is not in the book because I didn't tell Atlas about it. Some of it would have somewhat altered his portrait of Bellow; none of it would have altered it significantly.2
Most of the book's citations from me are from letters Bellow wrote me or I him.3 Such citations constitute the sort of record biographers and other historians have drawn on for the two or three hundred years in which history has been assessed as a function of it. If I'd given Atlas access to my diaries, he would have found another source of Bellow matter that would have expanded--if not deepened, let alone altered--his view of his subject. The subject of every biography has had millions of thoughts and experiences that have never--thank God--been recorded. It means that the gulf Johnson wrote about is an uncrossable one.
The difference between modern history/biography and, say, what constituted their equivalent in Thucidydean Athens or seventeenth-century Europe is enormous. Scholars don't believe that Pericles delivered the magnificent oration that Thucydides attributed to--that is, wrote for--him, though he probably delivered a speech that resembled it. Our problem with a presidential speech today is not the actuality of the words pouring from the presidential mouth but who wrote and even who conceived them. We're content that our conception of Periclean Athens is to no small degree that of Thucydides' interpretation of it, but the historical standard is different for modern events and people, those who leave their tracks in letters and diaries, interviews and film.
Atlas uses such archival materials and such biographical techniques as interviews, and he is far more aware of the hazards as well as the advantages of such usage than, say, Vasari was in his verbal portraits of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists, some of whom he knew. An experienced journalist, Atlas has a nose for bias and such vested interest as the desire of ordinary people to be part of the record of extraordinary ones. (This is probably a trait of most biographers.) He also raises the question of how his long biographical labor affected his book. Did he, like his mythical namesake, get so weary of "holding up" the "bewilderingly complex" Bellow world that the exasperated weariness created a portrait as far from actuality as Thucydides' Pericles was from the "actual" Pericles?
I've known Bellow for almost forty-five years. For many of those years, we've been close friends and have said things to each other we may not have said to other people. We have also quarreled, disagreed and not seen each other for months and even years at a time. Our politics have been different, and the difference counted--perhaps more for him than for me. Nonetheless, we are close enough so that a few days before I write these words, we could tell each other on the phone--the first time we'd spoken since my wife and I stayed with him and his wife in their Vermont house two years ago--that we loved each other. We are old men now, and I believe that we both thought it possible that we wouldn't see each other again. In that conversation, I told Bellow that I'd read much of Atlas's book and that he shouldn't be concerned about it. I said that Atlas had built a crate large and secure enough to deliver the marvelous sculpture within.
A few hours later, I finished the last 100 or 150 pages of the book. In them, I detected the kind of weariness Atlas himself mentions, but I saw it as a weariness complicated by judgmental anger. Atlas had interviewed many people who'd been hurt--or said they'd been hurt--by Bellow. Partly as an attempt to maintain his independence of and objectivity about Bellow, partly from exasperated weariness, partly from his sense that he'd surrendered--his verb--his life to another man, a man whom he'd been seeing in part through the angry eyes of others, Atlas became harsher and harsher in his assessments. So I wrote Bellow telling him that although what counted--the portrait of a remarkable person becoming over decades ever more remarkable--was intact, I believe that it was deformed by Atlas's querulous anger, if not by sanctimonious contempt, and that he and Janis (Bellow's wife) would do well not to read it. "Hector and Andromache," I wrote, "Don't need to know Thersites' version of their lives."
This was perhaps as unfair to Atlas as I thought he was, at times, to Bellow, but then Atlas writes that I am Bellow's "old and loyal friend," the "Boswellian explainer of the great man to the general public," so any unfairness to him has been--clairvoyantly?--subverted.
Very well. As friend of subject and author,4 I am disqualified from reviewing this--I'll risk two adjectives--fascinating and sometimes brilliant book. I will instead talk about Johnson's concern, the gulf between actuality and its representation in biography, conversation and history.
I've read a number of books and hundreds of articles about people I've known. There are few, though, from which I've not learned often surprising, even shocking, facts, none in which I haven't felt at least some distance between what was written and what I knew. At times, as in the case of Bellow, my complex admiration for the central portrait has complicated and deepened my admiration for the friend portrayed. Reading remarks Bellow made or wrote years before I met him made me realize even more how remarkable a person he was and is.
Twenty-odd years ago, the day after I finished reading the manuscript of Humboldt's Gift, I had lunch with its author and said to him that it was difficult for me to think that the man across the table was the same man who'd written that profound, delightful and beautiful book. The man eating a sandwich and drinking tea talked with me about ordinary as well as extraordinary things, but nothing out of his mouth came close to the depth and beauty of what was on its best pages, and I said something like, "Yet there's less distance between you and your work than between any writer I've known and his."5
Atlas's biography has narrowed that distance for me. For all the schmutz that accumulates about and spatters the central portrait, it emerges as that of a very great man becoming great in the course of a long life of activity, acquaintance, introspection and expression. There is more original power in the intelligence recorded here than in 95 percent of biographies. Atlas does not have the mimetic power of Boswell or of a writer he rightly praises here, Mark Harris, author of a delightful Bellow book called Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck;6 he does not have the stylistic or analytic gifts of Samuel Johnson or Richard Ellmann, but what he does have is access to hundreds of brilliant Bellow observations and analyses outside of Bellow's books. Atlas's Bellow is like a match, Atlas's contribution being the assemblage and, perhaps, the wooden stem, Bellow's the sulfur that, rubbed, ignites and fires the wood.
The day the galleys of this book arrived in the mail, I saw my sister-in-law, who, days earlier, on a trip with her husband to Israel, had swum in the Dead Sea. She said there were all sorts of perils there, the crystalline spears one dodges to get to the viscous water, which deposits a salty scum on one's skin, and the water's semi-impenetrability, so that if one somehow managed to dive into it, ascending would be dangerously difficult. I felt an analogy to the perils of biography. The subject is himself almost impenetrable, guarded by fearful suspicion and his own complexity; even after getting access to him, the progress is difficult, and biographer-readers are left with the scum of his resistance to their penetration.
I've thought and talked about Bellow--and now this biography--with a few friends who also know him. Each sees Bellow in a somewhat different way; all condemn Atlas's version more than I. (I credit Atlas for collecting and organizing the materials that enable us to know more about Bellow; they blast him for his inability and/or unwillingness to understand him.) One friend, a first-rate novelist, thinks Atlas not only misunderstands Bellow's radical independence but resents it. So he sees a politically correct Atlas piling up criticism along familiar--to Bellow critics--misogynist, conservative and racial lines. He thinks that Atlas is shocked by Bellow's anarchic "cocksmanship," and when I suggested that Bellow had a grand streak of bad boy, if not outlaw, in him, he found a different way to express his own view: "He's a transgressive monkey. And a great con man."7 He makes Bellow into a version of a favorite character of his own fiction, a brilliantly anarchic, half-crazed sexual adventurer.
A former woman friend of Bellow's talked of his powers of devotion and charm. She detests Atlas's portrait, especially the account--to which she feels one of her letters has contributed--of his lovemaking.8 "He made me feel wonderful. I still love him." (She hasn't seen him in ten years.)
I myself have written about Bellow as a man simpler in many ways than other people, one who very early in his life discovered his own powers and let them set his course. More important than what happened to him--and I'm persuaded by Atlas that such things as the death of his mother help explain much later behavior--were these exceptional powers, an extraordinary memory, an extraordinarily acute and cultivated sensorium (visual, musical, olfactory, tactile) and--let's call it--emotional power (unusual ability to empathize, sympathize, love, hate and also, be detached). Like most of us, Bellow is many things, but unlike most of us, he's more of a piece and has been that way a very long time. The piece is stamped "writer," indeed "great writer," and the pressure of that stamp isn't like most other professional pressures; but this is something that is talked about ad nauseam meam, and I'll not add to the nauseating complex here.
What I've mostly wanted to hint at is the difficulty of writing, reading and being the subject of other people's descriptions of oneself, and to spell out what Johnson said was the distance between the real, the remembered and the written version of reality, the deformation of the "was" in the "is."
Yet such versions are what we have of the past, the history and biography with which we're left. One work of history can challenge or even refute another, or it can add, refine or subtilize it. Even memories rub against one another. Yet I do not subscribe to the notion (of, say, Peter Novick's splendid book That Noble Dream) that tries to dispose of the actuality of objectivity. I don't think we should abandon the recording of actuality as an ideal or ever think that there's no crucial difference between what we believe is actual and what we know we've made up or lied about. Nonetheless, what we get when we describe something or someone is, at its driest and purest, metamorphosis.
The greatest--at least the most delightful--investigator of such metamorphoses, Marcel Proust, claimed that only in what he called "involuntary memory" does the past ever re-emerge with its original--and even more than its original--power. (Beckett's comment about this was that Proust showed that the only real paradise was a lost one.) That sensuous, unsummoned memory is clarified as reflections in a clear pool are, free of the dust particles and blinding light that make what's reflected almost impossible to see.
Atlas's Bellow is a work built around voluntary, elicited and recorded memory. It is a version of actuality that may be read, sometimes with shivers of remembrance, by its subject and his acquaintances. It has a truth of its own, somewhere between the original actualities, the complex feelings and memories of those who supplied the author with data, and the author's own gifts and feelings. The portrait of the great man who is its subject will be difficult to dislodge. Luckily, the man has left a far more powerful self-portrait, that of the mentality behind his beautiful books.
1. Although Bellow recently told me that he "opened himself" to Atlas, who, lately, seemed to have turned away from him. I said that Atlas probably didn't want his work to be compromised by affection. After I wrote him not to read the book, he answered that he wouldn't, that there was "a parallel" between it "and the towel with which the bartender cleans the bar." This image of biography as the soak of spilled drinks is the sort of thing Bellow has invented for most of his 85 years.
2. One description of me there is so peculiar--"the Oblomov-like Stern"--that I actually wrote Atlas to ask what it meant. When I told Bellow, he said that Atlas had probably not read the wonderful Goncharov novel. When I questioned the adjective in a letter to Atlas, he replied genially that Oblomov "is a sympathetic character and so are you."
3. Most of our letters are filed in the Special Collections of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago.
4. Cf. Atlas's well-done interview with me, originally commissioned by George Plimpton for the Paris Review, in Chicago Review, Fall-Winter, 1999.
5. No one seemed more different from his work to me than Samuel Beckett, whom I saw about once a year between 1977 and 1987. Cf. the portrait of him inOne Person and Another (Dallas: Baskerville Books. 1993).
6. A book dedicated to me in which I play a minor role.
7. We both remember Bellow's early portrait of the terrific Chicago con man, Yellow Kid Weil.
8. One of John F. Kennedy's "girls" is said to have described the relationship as "the greatest thirty seconds of my life."
To buy or not to buy turns out to have been the question of the century in America--Just Do It or Just Say No. And in the past fifteen years, consumer society has moved to the center of historical inquiry as well. It began with the social history of commercial culture and the advertising industry, in books such as Kathy Peiss's Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (1986) and Roland Marchand's Advertising the American Dream (1985). Drawing inspiration from the pioneering anthropological explorations of Dick Hebdidge (Subculture, The Meaning of Style, 1979), Arjun Appadurai (The Social Life of Things, 1988) and, especially, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood (The World of Goods, 1979), investigators then turned to the cultural history of how ordinary people use and assign meanings to commodities. A good example of this genre is Alison Clarke's Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America (1999). In recent works--such as Robert Collins's More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America (2000) and Alan Brinkley's The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (1995)--they have studied the political history of how nation-states promote and foster particular regimes of consumption. Where once consumption was deemed relevant only to the history of popular culture, in other words, it is now seen as intertwined with the central themes of American history, touching as it does on economics, politics, race relations, gender, the environment and other important topics.
Gary Cross, a professor at Penn State University and a pioneering and prolific historian of Europe and America, has explored the social, cultural and political dimensions of consumption before. In the past decade, he has published a half-dozen books on topics ranging from the history of leisure and working-class commercial amusements to the material culture of children's toys. Cross may study leisure, but his scholarship suggests that he doesn't take a whole lot of time to participate in consumer society. Fortunately, his work ethic has enabled the rest of us to understand our consumer ethic with clarity and historical perspective. Indeed, An All-Consuming Century displaces Daniel Horowitz's still-impressive but less wide-ranging The Morality of Spending (1985) as the best survey yet written of the history of modern American consumer society. Much more than a summary of recent scholarship (although it performs this task admirably), it is an informed, balanced, thoughtful and surprisingly passionate meditation on the making and meaning of our society. Avoiding the extremes of celebration and condemnation that too often pass for analysis, Cross's searching book is imbued with a generous concern for the revival of an active, democratic and participatory public sphere.
According to Cross, a paradox lies at the heart of American consumer society: It has been both an ideological triumph and a triumph over politics. Although it may be "difficult for Americans to see consumerism as an ideology," this is, Cross argues, precisely how it functions. It is, in his words, the "ism that won," the quiet but decisive victor in a century of ideological warfare. Over the course of the twentieth century it became naturalized to such an extent that few citizens "consider any serious alternatives or modifications to it."
In describing this ideological victory, Cross eschews conspiratorial interpretations of advertising and business collusion and gives consumer society its due for concretely expressing "the cardinal political ideals of the century--liberty and democracy--and with relatively little self-destructive behavior or personal humiliation." It won, Cross believes, because in large measure it met people's basic needs, helped them to fit into a diverse society even as it enabled them to forge new understandings of personal freedom, and served to fulfill, rather than mock, people's desire for the pleasures of the material world.
In spite of its popularity and successes, Cross believes that the ascension of consumer society has come at great cost: the abrogation of public life in favor of private thrills. By valorizing the private over the public and the present over the past and future, consumer society has "allowed little space for social conscience" and truly democratic politics. Rather than shoring up civil society, consumerism has pretty much replaced it: "The very idea of the primacy of political life has receded" as individual acquisition and use of goods has become the predominant way that Americans--and, increasingly, the rest of the industrialized world--make meaning of their lives. The suggestion that there should be limits to commercialism--that there are sacred places where the market does not belong--is, according to Cross, no longer taken seriously in a society that equates commercialism with freedom. Moreover, by the end of the century, "there seemed to be no moral equivalent to the world of consumption." The politics of consumption, in Cross's view, makes alternative conceptions of the good life virtually unimaginable in large part because it encourages people to think about themselves in isolation from the rest of society and from their history. (Reading Cross's book, I was reminded of Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks, in which a customer at an urban diner sits alone, utterly disconnected from the humanity that surrounds him.) If Cross ultimately loses sight of the paradoxical nature of American consumerism and concludes on this dark note, An All-Consuming Century nonetheless provides important resources for others to explore the democratic potential of consumer society.
The narrative unfolds both chronologically and analytically. Cross divides the development of modern consumer society into four periods: 1900-1930, 1930-1960, 1960-1980 and 1980 to the end of the century. In this breakdown, the first three decades of the century were a takeoff period, during which a number of crucial elements converged to make America a consumer society. Cross consistently overstates the degree to which nineteenth-century America was a "traditional" society, untainted by commercialism; many elements of consumer society were born in the market revolution of the early 1800s and the corporate revolution of the later nineteenth century. But he is right to single out important developments that transformed the country from what we might call a nineteenth-century society with consumerist features to a full-blown consumer society in the twentieth century. The keys were increases in leisure time and personal income on the demand side, along with new products and innovations in selling on the supply side.
New, nationally advertised, branded products became widely available and affordable after the turn of the century. These products alleviated material needs, but more than that, Cross astutely notes, they became markers of new feelings of "comfort and ease" and "new sensations of power and speed." Modern products like cigarettes, candy and soft drinks made the sensational available on a daily, indeed almost hourly, basis. Amusement parks like Coney Island and other "cheap amusements" also made the regular purchase of spectacular thrills affordable for working people. In the consumer society, the utilitarian was always mixed with the sensual. The embodiment of this mixture was, of course, the great symbol of early-twentieth-century consumer society, the automobile. Already characterized by an increasing number of what Cross calls "private pleasures," in this period, as he shows, mass culture contributed to political and social changes as well: It blurred ethnic and class divisions and encouraged the children of immigrants to redefine themselves as members of a blended, multiethnic, if still racially segregated, youth culture.
The period 1930-1960 was one of consolidation in time of crisis. The constraints of the Great Depression and World War II led to a "frustrated consumerism more than a rejection of the capitalist system." Rather than blame the new consumerism, most policy-makers and indeed many ordinary Americans came to see "underconsumption" as the root cause of the slump. After the war, government policy encouraged the development of mass purchasing power rather than efforts to equalize the distribution of wealth. During the cold war, consumer society became "a positive answer to communism." In his 1959 "kitchen debate" with Nikita Khrushchev, Vice President Richard Nixon drove this point home by contrasting modern American appliances with outdated Soviet culinary technology. Despite the linkage in these years between consumption and freedom, Cross notes that the consumerism of the postwar years was not hedonistic but "domesticated," focused on the suburban home and the nuclear family. Signature developments of these years were Levittown, McDonald's and Holiday Inn, sites of responsible, respectable, family-oriented consumption.
From 1960 to 1980 consumer society faced a very different set of challenges but emerged stronger than ever. First, the counterculture challenged the very premises of consumerism, and in the 1970s, the specter of scarcity called into question the permanence of the cornucopia upon which consumer society depended. In spite of these challenges, "consumption became even more ubiquitous." Indeed, Cross suggests, the roots of the even more individualistic and socially fragmenting consumerism of the late twentieth century lay in part in the 1960s critique of consumerism: While countercultural figures critiqued conformity and idealized the "authentic self," many Americans sought to achieve this authenticity through consumption. Businesses began to modify the Fordist practice of mass production in favor of flexible production and segmented, demographically distinct markets. Drawing on the work of cultural critic Thomas Frank (rendered throughout the book as "Frank Thomas"), Cross writes that consumerism became "adaptable to the green and the hip." Similarly, during the energy crisis of the 1970s those politicians who took the shortage to be the result of overproductionwere rebuked as naysayers. With great political success, Ronald Reagan attacked President Jimmy Carter for a speech in which Carter had the temerity to suggest that "owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning." Reagan called that 1979 "malaise" address un-American in its pessimism and its call for restraint.
The trend toward fragmented, individualistic consumption accelerated during the last two decades of the century, an era that Cross labels "markets triumphant." Radical faith in the virtues of the market led politicians like Reagan to put a moral gloss on the "unfettered growth of market culture in the 1980s." Government constraints of an earlier era, in the form of environmental and advertising regulation, weakened, and commerce entered unfettered into areas where it had previously been kept at arm's length: children's homes and classrooms. By century's end the "Victorian notion that some time and place should be free from commerce" seemed as quaint as a Currier and Ives lithograph. Cross, who has a knack for unearthing telling statistics, notes that "supermarkets carried about 30,000 different products in 1996, up from 17,500 in 1986 and about 9,000 in the mid-1970s." Even the all-time-high consumer debt--$1.25 trillion by 1997--did nothing to stop the belief that the future of American prosperity and freedom depended upon the continuing expansion of the realm of consumption. Indeed, shopping had become the nation's primary form of entertainment, and monuments to consumption like the gargantuan 4.2-million-square-foot Mall of America became a haven for tourists from around the world.
In Cross's telling, the attractions and problems of consumer society are in effect one and the same: the cult of the new, immediate gratification and the valorization of "private pleasures." Consumerism is the "ism that won," owing to its ability not only to withstand challenges but, through a magical jujitsu, to co-opt them. Although initially formulated in terms neither celebratory nor condemnatory, Cross's story is ultimately one of declension. While he avoids the nostalgia of many commentators, there is little doubt that Cross finds contemporary consumer society to be a negative force: asocial, apolitical, amoral and environmentally dangerous. Whereas consumerism once helped integrate the diverse inhabitants of an immigrant nation in a youthful mass culture, by century's close, cynical marketers were happy to divide an equally multicultural nation into segmented demographic units based on "multiple and changing lifestyles." Thus the shift from an integrative, public-spirited popular culture in the early twentieth century to an increasingly privatized, solipsistic commercial culture of the late twentieth century. What was seductive in 1900--cornucopia and pleasure for the masses--became obscene by 2000, as a cultural stimulant turned into a dangerous narcotic.
An All-Consuming Century is one of the few indispensable works in the ever-expanding library of books on American consumer society. But in an otherwise rich overview the author has surprisingly little to say about the role of women, African-Americans and ethnic minorities (and nothing about regional variations) in the construction of consumer society. These are serious omissions. As admen and women's organizations recognized early on, women have performed the vast majority of the unpaid labor of consumer society: the shopping, budgeting and refashioning of older items. Cross notes that African-Americans were excluded from many of the benefits of the emerging mass culture, but he does not address the ways popular culture served to reinforce both the whiteness of the "new immigrants" from Eastern and Southern Europe--a skin privilege that was not yet fully acknowledged by the majority culture--and the otherness of Asian and Latino immigrants.
Nor does Cross discuss the attractions of nationwide retailers and national brands for African-Americans, who often took advantage of what the historian Edward Ayers has called the "anonymity and autonomy" made possible by the advent of the Sears catalogue (and chain stores in the nonsegregated North), whose mass customer base and "one price" system reduced the possibilities for racial discrimination that frequently accompanied visits to the corner store. For this group, the private pleasures occasionally afforded by the advent of national markets offered advantages over the public humiliations that so often accompanied local commerce.
Cross's relative neglect of women and minorities leads him to underestimate the importance of grassroots consumer activism as well, which has often been led by members of these groups. Meat boycotts, cost-of-living protests, "don't buy where you can't work" campaigns and sit-ins were integral to the development of American consumer society because they represented demands to expand the benefits of consumerism beyond a middle-class elite. One of the most important women's political organizations of the first half of the century, the National Consumers League, which pioneered the crusade for "ethical consumption" and labor rights, goes unmentioned. Cross stresses the ways marketers attempted to co-opt the civil rights movement, but he does not address the degree to which the demand for full participation in consumer society was a key ingredient in that crusade for social justice. By virtually ignoring these movements, Cross leaves out an important part of the story of consumer society--efforts to unite citizenship with consumption.
The critics of consumer society whom Cross discusses most often are proponents of what he calls the "jeremiad," the high-culture dismissal of mass culture as vulgar. He condemns the elitism and arrogance of such thinkers and is surely correct to note that their criticism had little impact on ordinary shoppers. Cross is less critical of the "simple living" tradition and calls the self-provisioning movement of the 1960s "the most positive aspect" of the counterculture. He argues that "the idea of the 'simple life,' perhaps never more than a daydream, had almost ceased being even a prick to the conscience," but he only briefly mentions the growing popularity of the "voluntary simplicity" movement, a topic addressed in more detail in Juliet Schor's The Overspent American (1998).
Cross also develops a persuasive critique of the consumer rights movement. While the Depression era saw the rise of groups like Consumers Union, which sought to make consumers a greater force against the power of business and advertisers, he notes that by focusing primarily on product quality and prices, many consumer rights groups have served only to reinforce "the individualism and the materialism of American consumption." This tradition of angry but apolitical individualism can still be found at innumerable websites, like starbucked.com, that highlight at great length the indignation of formerly loyal customers: "The sales clerk who sold me the machine was rude, then decidedly refused to hand over the free half pound of coffee given with every purchase of a Starbucks espresso machine...." The democratizing power of consumer demands for corporate responsibility is too often dissipated by such narrowly cast diatribes.
In spite of the failure of the jeremiad, the seeming irrelevance of simplicity and the individualization of the concept of consumer rights, Cross is too definitive about the nature of the "victory" of consumer society. Many Americans still recognize that however much advertisers and marketers attempt to cover it up, consumption is fundamentally a social and political act. So although it is true that "late twentieth century consumerism turned social problems into individual purchasing decisions," it is also the case that individual shopping decisions have frequently been viewed in the context of social problems. As consumer activists from the League of Women Shoppers in the 1930s through environmentalists today have pointed out, the goods that we buy leave ecological, labor and government "footprints." In spite of corporate attempts to fetishize goods, diligent activists like John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning of Northwest Environment Watch have described--and tried to estimate--the hidden social costs incurred by the purchase of quotidian products, including coffee and newspapers. The actions of students in the antisweatshop campaigns of recent years indicate that a growing number of consumers are looking behind the logo to determine the conditions under which the clothing they buy is made. As Naomi Klein has recently argued in No Logo:Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, the ubiquity and importance of brands provides an opening for protesters who can threaten, through consumer boycotts and other actions, to sully corporate America's most valuable asset, the brand name. One teen in Klein's book puts it this way: "Nike, we made you. We can break you." Cross may decry the "inwardness of the personal computer," but the protests at the Seattle World Trade Organization and Washington International Monetary Fund meetings reveal that the Web creates alliances and expands social bonds. The history of consumer activism--and its recent incarnations--shows that consumerism does not necessarily lead to an antipolitics of radical individualism.
Cross does put forth important arguments about the "excesses of consumer culture": the environmental degradation, the waste, the lack of free time and the sheer mind-numbing meaninglessness that accompany modern consumerism. But these must be balanced with the recognition that most Americans, especially those in the working class, have viewed the enjoyment of the fruits of consumer society as an entitlement, not a defeat. This should not be dismissed as false consciousness or "embourgeoisement." Far from allowing consumerist demands to erode political impulses, working people--through living-wage, union-label and shorter-hour campaigns--have consistently politicized consumption. Rather than pitting the culture of consumption against democracy, it will be important to continue this tradition of democratizing, rather than demonizing, the culture of consumption. In his assessment of the twentieth century's most influential "ism," Cross provides important warnings about the difficulties of such an effort. But in its stress on the paradoxes of consumer society--an emphasis that then too rapidly gives way to condemnation--An All-Consuming Century also provides lessons from history about the necessity of the undertaking.
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