Nation Topics - Books and the Arts

Topic Page

Nation Topics - Books and the Arts


Arts and Entertainment Books and Ideas


News and Features

As all reputable news outlets assure us, privatization benefits
everyone--which is lucky, since these same outlets report that
privatization is inevitable. We live out a happy fate, which rolls on
despite the occasional need to report, say, the resignation under fire
of Britain's transport secretary, Stephen Byers. Mr. Byers comes to mind because I happen to be writing to you on the very day he stepped down, following the bankruptcy of his privatized Railtrack service, and also the fifth fatal rail crash in six years of newly efficient service.

You may have noticed that when the route of progress bumps over such
inconveniences, all reputable reports concentrate on the disappointment
of the privatizers (who nevertheless must go on) and of consumers (who
certainly will be happier sometime soon). Nobody ever seems to report on
the experience of the privatized workers--nobody, that is, except for
Ken Loach. His new film, The Navigators, finds drama in the
resentments and resistances, adjustments and accommodations of a crew of
track repairmen in Yorkshire, who yesterday worked for British Rail and
today begin working for a new company, Midlands Infrastructure, which in
another two weeks will be called something else entirely. Not that the
name matters. Twelve more weeks down the line, and the men will all be
working for themselves--that is, for an employment agency, which will
hire them out to contractors who needn't bother with sick pay, vacation
time or a superstitious regard for safety rules.

The Navigators is now about to receive its US premiere as the
opening-night feature of the Human Rights Watch International Film
Festival. Now in its thirteenth year, the festival will be on view June
14-27 at New York's Walter Reade Theater, in Lincoln Center, where Ken
Loach is also scheduled to receive the Irene Diamond Lifetime
Achievement Award. An unaffectedly modest man, Loach will probably try
to blend in with the audience, as if hoping someone else will show up to
claim the prize. But as The Navigators shows, it's his by right.
Every performance in the film is effortlessly convincing; every scene
plays out with its own easy rhythm. There's time and space in The
for domestic trials (as when a man attempts to court his
estranged wife and winds up feeding a bouquet of roses through the mail
slot), casual slapstick and practical jokes--even for a spirited defense
of day labor. "There's plenty of work, at top dollar," declares one of
the crew, who seems happy now to be an entrepreneur of his own labor
power. And so, when doom strikes, it seems foreordained but not at all

Of the pictures I had a chance to sample in this year's festival--there
are thirty-three in all--The Navigators struck me as being both
the freshest and the most Old Masterly. This is hardly a definitive
statement; I wasn't able to preview such big bookends of the festival as
the new feature films by Costa-Gavras and Chris Eyre or the new
documentary by Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati, the team
that made Jung: War in the Land of the Mujaheddin. But here are a
few recommendations:

Lourdes Portillo went to Ciudad Juárez, just across the border
from El Paso, to make Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young
, a documentary on the kidnapping and murder of hundreds of
women over the past decade. You may be aware that workers from the
booming assembly factories in Juárez have been turning up dead in
the desert, after having been raped, mutilated and burned. What you may
not know is that the authorities to date have arrested exactly one
suspect, whom they blame for everything; that the killings continue,
despite the chosen culprit's imprisonment; that the police officers
investigating these cases maybe ought to handcuff themselves; and that
in the eighteen months Portillo spent in making this film, another fifty
young women disappeared. Although Portillo brings a skeptic's
sensibility to these events, I wish she'd been more skeptical still.
Some of the testimony that she accepts strains credulity, despite its
coming from victims. But, that said, she isn't preparing a legal brief.
She's creating a meditative investigation--or is it an investigative
meditation?--and doing it with real poetic power.

Of the many films in this year's festival that deal with conflict in the
Middle East, most seem to me to be sketches toward a movie, rather than
finished works. Valuable raw information emerges about Palestinian and
Israeli attitudes in Michal Aviad's Ramleh, Mai Masri's
Frontiers of Dreams and Fears, Jean Khalil Chamoun's In the
Shadows of the City
, Avi Mograbi's August; but you have to
sift through self-indulgence, self-righteousness, clumsy fictionalizing
or diffident storytelling to get at the data. The exception, among the
films I was able to preview, is Rachel Leah Jones's 500 Dunam on the

Jones had the wit to seize on a revelatory topic for her picture and the
patience to develop it fully, telling the story of three villages in the
Galilee. The first was Ayn Hawd, an old Arab settlement that Israeli
forces emptied in 1948. The second village, built from the first, is Ein
Hod, an artists' colony established in 1953 on Dadaist principles. (I
wish I were kidding, but I'm not.) To this day, Ein Hod remains a
well-frequented site for the production and sale of bad Israeli art. And
to this day, nearby, many former residents of Ayn Hawd live in the
third, makeshift village, Ayn Hawd al-Jadida (New Ayn Hawd), a place
that officially does not exist, even though its inhabitants do the heavy
labor in Ein Hod, helping to keep their former homes picturesque.

Finally, let me mention two films from The Nation's orbit. The
Trials of Henry Kissinger
is a brisk, well-argued documentary
directed by Eugene Jarecki and written by Alex Gibney, based largely on
Christopher Hitchens's book of similar title. Unlike Lourdes Portillo's
documentary, this one really is put together like a legal brief, and a
very effective one at that. Of course, as a Nation type, I've
always thought of Kissinger as a war criminal and am glad to see the
filmmakers make the case. I complain only that they may have been a
touch too adulatory to the writer who has guided them. However estimable
his work, Hitchens is not quite the lone, precedent-shattering crusader
that he appears here.

Then again, at the mere mention of the Hitchens name, Gen. Alexander
Haig trembles with rage and sputters, "He, he's a sewer-pipe sucker! He
sucks the sewer pipe!" This is an enviable endorsement, on which we
should all congratulate the author.

Congratulations also to John Friedman and Eric Nadler, whose documentary
Stealing the Fire will have its US premiere at the festival. An
investigation of the traffic in nuclear weapons, following a tortuous
trail from Germany to Pakistan to Iraq, Stealing the Fire is a
CinemaNation production.

For complete information on the Human Rights Watch International Film
Festival, you may visit or

Since there's no point in watching human rights unless someone or
something gets liberated, let me now join in the celebration of freedom
that is Undercover Brother. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee from a
screenplay by John Ridley and Michael McCullers, Undercover
is not the first pastiche, in MAD magazine style, of
the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Keenen Ivory Wayans was there
first, with I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, just as Mike Myers and the
Austin Powers team were a little quicker to collage into the
present a pop-culture character from the recent past. Even so, you will
understand how right Undercover Brother gets everything when I
tell you that it runs just ninety minutes and stars a magnificently
Afro'd Eddie Griffin, who is so cool that he winks at the camera in
every damn scene.

The plot--do you really care about the plot? Griffin steps out in a
wardrobe of platform shoes, flared pants and shirts cut to show off the
discus-size Black Power medallion he wears around his neck. He drives a
Coup de Ville convertible, drinks large quantities of orange soda and is
aptly described by the film's kung-fu-kicking love interest (Aunjanue
Ellis) as "a Soul Train reject with a Robin Hood complex." Recruited by
a secret organization called B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., Griffin learns that
the most weed-addled fantasies of Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle)
are actually true. There really is a fantastically wealthy and powerful
white man--called The Man--who keeps black people down.

From this point on--I'm three minutes into the movie--the jokes
really get cheap. They're also consistently, wildly funny,
despite being based without exception on the stale scheme of "White
folks do this, but black folks do that." Sure they do. But then, as the
chief of B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. explains, his goal is to "help black
people of all races," which clarifies everything.

The role of the white she-devil is capably played by Denise Richards.

My wife issues literary judgments on an irregular but reliable basis; so
when she took her half-read copy of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya
and hurled it against the wall, I knew this was a book I
should not pick up. As a result, I can't tell you how much the new movie
of the same title might deviate from Rebecca Wells's gazillion-selling
novel. I went to see the picture only because it's written and directed
by Callie Khouri, who also wrote Thelma & Louise. I can
report as follows:

Divine Secrets is a sandwich made of two slabs of angel food cake
around a slice of raw liver. The sticky-sweet stuff is women's
friendship and the mother-daughter bond, tributes to which are layered
onto the movie at the beginning and end. The liver is the very long
middle section, in which Ashley Judd (the film's one saving grace) shows
how sexual frustration and the demands of childrearing can drive a woman
crazy. Apparently, this truth is unknown to Ashley's daughter, Sandra
Bullock, who must be told, at excruciating length, what everyone in the
audience has guessed in a flash.

Every scene in Divine Secrets is expository. Every performance
demands that the actress wave her arms energetically (perhaps to swat
away clouds of gnats in acknowledgment of the Louisiana setting). Every
character is affluent and white, except for a loyal black maid who says
things like "I knew it wuz trouble. Just yestiddy I heerd dat screech
owl." Every sequence ends like a dinner plate hitting the floor, and
every new sequence begins with a fresh plate being dropped.

Cans of 35-millimeter film are heavy, and projection booths tend to be
locked. I went home, found my wife's copy of the book and gave it a
fresh ride.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In blood the minerals
of the rock

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

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

Greek named
kicked up in America's
you have been in my mind
between my toes

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

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

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

Why should we hurry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry James could not resist giving the hero of his 1877 novel The
the allegorical name "Newman," but he went out of his way
to describe him as a muscular Christian, to deflect the suggestion that
Newman might be Jewish, as the name would otherwise imply. He is, as an
American, a New Man, who has come to the Old World on a cultural
pilgrimage in 1868, having made his fortune manufacturing washtubs; and
James has a bit of fun at his hero's expense by inflicting him with an
aesthetic headache in the Louvre, where his story begins. "I know very
little about pictures or how they are painted," Newman concedes; and as
evidence, James has him ordering, as if buying shirts, half a dozen
copies of assorted Old Masters from a pretty young copyist who thinks he
is crazy, since, as she puts it, "I paint like a cat."

By a delicious historical coincidence, another New Man, this time
unequivocally Jewish--the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman--visits
the Louvre for the first time in 1968, exactly a century later. By
contrast with his fellow noble savage, this Newman has had the benefit
of reading Clement Greenberg and working through Surrealism. So he is
able to tell his somewhat patronizing guide, the French critic Pierre
Schneider, to see Uccello's The Battle of San Romano as a modern
painting, a flat painting, and to explain why Mantegna's Saint
bleeds no more than a piece of wood despite being pierced
with arrows. He sees Géricault's Raft of the Medusa as
tipped up like one of Cézanne's tables. "It has the kind of
modern space you wouldn't expect with that kind of rhetoric." And in
general the new New Man is able to show European aesthetes a thing or
two about how to talk about the Old Masters, and incidentally how to
look at his own work, which so many of his contemporaries found
intractable. In Rembrandt, for example, Newman sees "all that brown,
with a streak of light coming down the in my own painting."

"All that brown, with a streak of light coming down the middle" could be
taken as a description of the first of Newman's paintings with which the
artist felt he could identify himself, done exactly two decades earlier
than the Louvre visit, and retroactively titled by him Onement 1.
Most would have described it as a messy brown painting with an uneven
red stripe down the middle, and nobody but Newman himself would have
tolerated a comparison with Rembrandt. But Newman told Pierre Schneider,
"I feel related to this, to the past. If I am talking to anyone, I am
talking to Michelangelo. The great guys are concerned with the same
problems." We must not allow it to go unnoticed that Newman counted
himself as among the great guys, though it is something of a hoot to
imagine trying to convince Henry James, were he resurrected, that the
works that make up the wonderful Newman exhibition at the Philadelphia
Museum of Art (until July 7, when they travel to the Tate Modern) are
concerned with the same issues as the Louvre masterworks that gave his
protagonist Newman a headache and eyestrain. Even critics otherwise
sympathetic to advanced painting in the 1950s were made apoplectic by
Newman's huge, minimally inflected canvases--fields of monochromatic
paint with a vertical stripe or two--and they have provoked vandalism
from the time of his first solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in
1950. As we shall see, Newman thought he had resolved the problems that
concerned the great guys who preceded him. They had been struggling to
make beautiful pictures, whereas he considered himself as having
transcended beauty and picturing alike. His achievement was to capture
the sublime in painting.

Newman regarded Onement 1 as marking a breakthrough for his work,
and a new beginning. The installation in Philadelphia dramatizes this by
framing the piece by means of a doorway leading from one gallery into
another. While standing in a gallery hung with pictures done by Newman
before the breakthrough, one glimpses a new order of painting in the
room beyond. Like all the great first generation of Abstract
Expressionists, Newman seems to have passed abruptly from mediocrity to
mastery with the invention of a new style--like the flung paint of
Pollock, the heavy brush-strokes of de Kooning, Kline's timberlike black
sweeps against white, Rothko's translucent rectangles of floating color.
The pre-Onement paintings may seem somehow to point toward it, in
the sense that there is in most of them a bandlike element that aspires,
one might say, to become the commanding vertical streak. But in them,
the streak (or band, or bar) shares space with other elements, splotches
and squiggles and smears that are tentative and uninspired. The vertical
streak alone survives a kind of Darwinian struggle for existence, to
become the exclusive and definitive element in Newman's vision, from
Onement 1 onward. The basic format of Newman's work for the
remainder of his career is that of one or more vertical bands, which run
from the top to the bottom of the panel, in colors that contrast with a
more or less undifferentiated surrounding field. Sometimes the bands
will be of differing widths in the same painting, and sometimes, again,
they will differ from one another in hue. But there will no longer be
the variety of forms he used in the pre-Onement period of his
work. It is as if he understood that with Onement 1, he had
entered a newfound land rich enough in expressive possibilities that he
need seek for nothing further by way of elementary forms. Onement
is planted like a flag at the threshold, and when one crosses over
it, one is in a very different world from that marked by the uncertain
pictures that preceded it.

I have followed Newman in respecting a distinction between pictures and
paintings. Onement 1 was a painting, whereas what he had done
before were merely pictures. How are we to understand the difference? My
own sense is that a picture creates an illusory space, within which
various objects are represented. The viewer, as it were, looks through
the surface of a picture, as if through a window, into a virtual space,
in which various objects are deployed and composed: the Virgin and Child
surrounded by saints in an adoration; stripes surrounded by squiggles in
an abstraction. In the Renaissance, a picture was regarded as
transparent, so to speak, the way the front of the stage is, through
which we see men and women caught up in actions that we know are not
occurring in the space we ourselves occupy. In a painting, by contrast,
the surface is opaque, like a wall. We are not supposed to see through
it. We stand in a real relationship with it, rather than in an illusory
relationship with what it represents. I expect that this is the
distinction Newman is eager to make. His paintings are objects in their
own right. A picture represents something other than itself; a painting
presents itself. A picture mediates between a viewer and an object in
pictorial space; a painting is an object to which the viewer relates
without mediation. An early work that externally resembles Onement
is Moment, done in 1946. A widish yellow stripe bisects a
brownish space. Newman said of it, "The streak was always going through
an atmosphere; I was trying to create a world around it." The
streak in Onement 1 is not in an atmosphere of its own, namely
pictorial space. It is on the surface and in the same space as we are.
Painting and viewer coexist in the same reality.

At the same time, a painting is not just so much pigment laid across a
surface. It has, or we might say it embodies, a meaning. Newman did not
give Onement 1 a title when it was first exhibited, but it is
reasonable to suppose that the meaning the work embodied was somehow
connected with this strange and exalted term. In general, the suffix
"-ment" is attached to a verb like "atone" or "endow" or "command,"
where it designates a state--the state of atoning, for example--or a
product. So what does "onement" mean? My own sense is that it means the
condition of being one, as in the incantation "God is one." It refers,
one might say, to the oneness of God. And this might help us better
understand the difference between a picture and a painting. Since Newman
thinks of himself and Michelangelo as concerned with the same kinds of
problems, consider the Sistine ceiling, where Michelangelo produces a
number of pictures of God. Great as these are, they are constrained by
the limitation that pictures can show only what is visible, and
decisions have to be made regarding what God looks like. How would one
picture the fact that God is one? Since Onement 1 is not a
picture, it does not inherit the limitations inherent in picturing. The
catalogue text says that Onement 1 represents nothing but itself
and that it is about itself as a painting. I can't believe, though, that
what Newman regarded in such momentous terms was simply a painting about
painting. It is about something that can be said but cannot be shown, at
least not pictorially. Abstract painting is not without content. Rather,
it enables the presentation of content without pictorial limits. That is
why, from the beginning, abstraction was believed by its inventors to be
invested with a spiritual reality. It was as though Newman had hit upon
a way of being a painter without violating the Second Commandment, which
prohibits images.

Kant wrote in the Critique of Judgment that "perhaps the most
sublime passage in Jewish Law is the commandment Thou shalt not make
unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in
heaven or on earth, or under the earth," etc. This commandment alone can
explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people felt for their religion
when compared with that of other peoples, or can explain the pride that
Islam inspires. But this in effect prohibited Jews from being artists,
since, until Modernism, there was no way of being a painter without
making pictures and hence violating the prohibition against images!
Paintings that are not pictures would have been a contradiction in
terms. But this in effect ruled out the possibility of making paintings
that were sublime, an aesthetic category to which Kant dedicated a
fascinating and extended analysis. And while one cannot be certain how
important the possibility of Jewish art was to Newman, there can be
little question not only that the sublime figured centrally in his
conception of his art but that it was part of what made the difference
in his mind between American and European art. Indeed, sublimity figured
prominently in the way the Abstract Expressionists conceived of their
difference from European artists. Robert Motherwell characterized
American painting as "plastic, mysterious, and sublime," adding, "No
Parisian is a sublime painter." In the same year that Newman broke
through with Onement 1, he published an important article, "The
Sublime Is Now," in the avant-garde magazine Tiger's Eye. And my
sense is that in his view, there could not be a sublime picture--that
sublimity became available to visual artists only when they stopped
making pictures and started making paintings.

Peter Schjeldahl recently dismissed the sublime as a hopelessly jumbled
philosophical notion that has had more than two centuries to start
meaning something cogent and has not succeeded yet. But the term had
definite cogency in the eighteenth century, when philosophers of art
were seeking an aesthetics of nature that went beyond the concept of
beauty. Beauty for them meant taste and form, whereas the sublime
concerned feeling and formlessness. Kant wrote that "nature excites the
ideas of the sublime in its chaos or in its wildest and most irregular
disorder and desolation, provided size and might are perceived," and he
cited, as illustrations,

Bold overhanging and as it were threatening rocks; clouds piled up in
the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in
all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of
devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty
waterfall of a mighty river, these exhibit our faculty of resistance as
insignificantly small in comparison with their might.

Since Kant was constrained to think of art in terms of pictures as
mimetic representations, there was no way in which painting could be
sublime. It could only consist in pictures of sublime natural things,
like waterfalls or volcanoes. While these might indeed be sublime,
pictures of them could at most be beautiful. Kant does consider
architecture capable of producing the feeling of sublimity. He cites
Saint Peter's Basilica as a case in point because it makes us feel small
and insignificant relative to its scale.

What recommended the sublime to Newman is that it meant a liberation
from beauty, and hence a liberation from an essentially European
aesthetic in favor of an American one. The European artist, Newman

has been continually involved in the moral struggle between notions of
beauty and the desire for the sublime.... The impulse of modern art was
this desire to destroy beauty. Meanwhile, I believe that here in
America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are
finding the answer, by denying that art has any concern with the problem
of beauty and where to find it. The question that now arises is how can
we be creating an art that is sublime?

There can be little doubt that in Newman's sense of his own achievement,
he had solved this problem with Onement 1. It is certainly not a
beautiful painting, and one would miss its point entirely if one
supposed that sooner or later, through close looking, the painting would
disclose its beauty as a reward. There was a standing argument, often
enlisted in defense of Modernism, that the reason we were unable to see
modern art as beautiful was because it was difficult. Roger Fry had
written, early in the twentieth century, that "every new work of
creative design is ugly until it becomes beautiful; that we usually
apply the word beautiful to those works of art in which familiarity has
enabled us to grasp the unity easily, and that we find ugly those works
in which we still perceive only by an effort." Newman's response to this
would have been that he had achieved a liberation from what feminism
would later call the beauty trap. He had achieved something grander and
more exalted, a new art for new men and women.

Newman used the term "sublime" in the title of his Vir Heroicus
(1950-51). It is a tremendous canvas, nearly eight feet high and eighteen feet
wide, a vast cascade of red paint punctuated by five vertical stripes of
varying widths, set at varying intervals. Newman discussed this work
(which the critic for The New Republic called asinine) in an
interview with the British art critic David Sylvester in 1965.

One thing that I am involved in about painting is that the painting
should give a man a sense of place: that he knows he's there, so he's
aware of himself. In that sense he related to me when I made the
painting because in that sense I was there. Standing in front of my
paintings you had a sense of your own scale. The onlooker in front of my
painting knows that he's there. To me, the sense of place not only has a
mystery but has that sense of metaphysical fact.

Newman studied philosophy at City College, and Kant sprang to his lips
almost as a reflex when he discussed art. But it is difficult not to
invoke the central idea of Martin Heidegger's philosophy in connection
with his comment to Sylvester. Heidegger speaks of human beings as
, as "being there," and it is part of the intended experience
of Newman's paintings that our thereness is implied by the scale of the
paintings themselves. In his 1950 exhibition at the Betty Parsons
Gallery, he put up a notice that while there is a tendency to look at
large paintings from a distance, these works were intended to be seen
from close up. One should feel oneself there, in relationship to the
work, like someone standing by a waterfall. The title of the painting
meant, he told Sylvester, "that man can be or is sublime in his relation
to his sense of being aware." The paintings, one might say, are about us
as self-aware beings.

A high point of the Philadelphia show is Newman's The Stations of the
, a series of fourteen paintings that is certainly one of the
masterpieces of twentieth-century art. As a spiritual testament, it
bears comparison with the Rothko Chapel in Houston. I have the most
vivid recollection of being quite overcome when I first experienced
The Stations of the Cross in the Guggenheim Museum in 1966.
Newman used as subtitle the Hebrew words Lema
--Christ's human cry on the Cross. The means could not be
more simple: black and white paint on raw canvas, which he used as a
third color. The fourteen paintings do not map onto corresponding points
on the road to Calvary. But Newman seems to use black to represent a
profound change of state.

The first several paintings have black as well as white stripes (or
"zips," as he came to call them, referring perhaps to the sound that
masking tape makes when it is pulled away). Black entirely disappears in
the Ninth Station, in which a stripe of white paint runs up the
left edge, and two thin parallel white stripes are placed near the right
edge. The rest is raw canvas. The Tenth and Eleventh
stations resemble it, through the fact that they too are composed of
white stripes placed on raw canvas. Then, all at once, Twelfth
is dramatically black, as is the Thirteenth Station.
And then, in the Fourteenth Station, black again abruptly
disappears. There is a strip of raw canvas at the left, and the rest is
white, as if Christ yielded up the ghost as St. Matthew narrates it. The
work demonstrates how it is possible for essentially abstract paintings
to create a religious narrative.

No one today, I suppose, would hold painting in the same exalted state
that seemed possible in the 1950s. Newman became a hero to the younger
generation of the 1960s, when the history of art that he climaxed gave
way to a very different era. He triumphed over his savage critics, as
great artists always do; and all who are interested in the spiritual
ambitions of painting at its most sublime owe themselves a trip to
Philadelphia to see one of the last of the great guys in this thoughtful
and inspired exhibition, the first to be devoted to his work in more
than thirty years.

British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who
could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement.
The first single from Bragg's England, Half English (Elektra),
"NPWA" (No Power Without Accountability), is destined to become an
enduring anthem for anticorporate organizers everywhere. Just before leaving England to tour the United States in April, Bragg took a few minutes to talk with
Nation assistant literary editor Hillary Frey about
globalization, Woody Guthrie, the duty of a political songwriter and,
perhaps most important, why the AFL-CIO should be sponsoring free rock
concerts. A longer version of this interview appears on The
's website (

HF: I've read that you were politicized during the Thatcher years
in England. How did that happen, and how did your politics find their
way into your music?

BB: When Margaret Thatcher was first elected, in 1979, I didn't
vote. Perhaps that was the arrogance of youth.... It was at the height
of punk, and I was titularly an anarchist. Although, frankly, that was
more of a T-shirt than a developed idea. Her second term, between 1983
and 1987, really brought my political education. By then, Thatcher had
started to chip away at the idea of the welfare state and what that
stands for--free healthcare, free education, decent affordable housing
for ordinary people.

Then, the 1984 Miners' Strike [which protested pit closures and paltry
pay increases for workers] was the real politicization for me. I started
doing gigs outside of London in the coal fields and found that I was
able to articulate what I believed in so that these people who we were
doing benefits for--the miners--didn't think I was just some pop star
from London trying to enhance my career by doing a few fashionable
benefits. I began to define myself by something other than the standard
"Blowin' in the Wind" sort of politics, which aren't that hard to

HF: You were in New York City when the World Economic Forum [WEF]
met, and I heard you speak about the groups organizing demonstrations. I
recall a comment to the effect of, "If you really want to be doing
something active and participatory you would organize your local
McDonald's." What are your opinions on the tactics of the global justice

BB: I feel very strongly that the movement is a positive thing.
The fact that it hasn't yet defined itself in a clear ideological way
doesn't mean that it won't eventually. I feel very much on the
activists' side. However, I don't believe you can change the world by
smashing up fast-food joints.

My approach is perhaps a little more traditional left; I believe that if
you want to change the world, as I said, you should be organizing
fast-food joints. To me, that is a positive way of changing the world.
It's a lot slower, and it won't get you on CNN. But the sort of
campaigns that I've worked with in the USA--Justice for Janitors,
living-wage initiatives in LA and cities like that--have all been rooted
in labor organizing.

HF: How did your relationship with the labor movement evolve?

BB: I made a very strong bond with the labor movement in England
during the Thatcher years, particularly during the Miners' Strike. And
those bonds have stood me in good stead when coming to a country like
the United States, where not only are the politics very different from
the ideological politics of my own country, but I'm a foreigner. As an
internationalist I support UNITE, who are trying to end sweatshop labor
in the clothing industry; we're doing that in the UK as well. That is
the sort of internationalist angle prevalent in the global justice
movement too, and it's something that I can support across borders.

HF: I was surprised to see that your tours are actually sponsored
by a union.

BB: I've just come off a tour actually, that was sponsored by the
GMB, which is one of our general unions.

HF: I can't imagine a union being involved in a concert here in
the United States.

BB: I know! In 1992 I participated in a concert in Central Park
marking the eightieth birthday of Woody Guthrie that was sponsored by
one of the big soft-drink companies. Now why could it not have been
sponsored by the AFL-CIO? Why couldn't the AFL-CIO say, "This is what we
do, we put on free gigs." This is what unions do--bring people together.
The unions have been doing this in the UK for a while, and certainly all
over continental Europe. I've been doing gigs in Italy and France
organized by the big unions there for the last two decades.

How do you explain to young people what unions are for--do you wait
until they're in trouble? Do you wait till they're in a dead-end job?
Wait till they're fired? Or do you get in before with some positive
ideas of what a union is?

HF: Speaking of Woody Guthrie... A few years back you recorded,
with the band Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vols. I and II--two records
comprising songs written around unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. How did
you get to be the lucky one rooting around in the Guthrie archives and
recording his words?

BB: Woody Guthrie is the father of my tradition--the political
singer/songwriter tradition. I've tried to answer the question of why
[Woody's daughter] Nora chose to give me the great honor of being the
first one in her father's archives.... I guess Nora saw something in my
experience that she thought chimed in with Woody's. Who writes about
unions in the United States and the song gets on the charts? All of the
postwar singer/songwriters have grown up in a nonideological atmosphere.
Their influences have been single issues like the civil rights movement,
Vietnam, campaigning for the environment. There's not been that whole
ideological struggle really going on in the USA.

HF: Is it harder to write political music now than it was when
you started?

BB: It's much more difficult to do this now, without Margaret
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the Berlin wall and apartheid--these
things were shorthand for struggles that went on across the world. Now I
don't miss any of those things; I have absolutely no nostalgia for the
1980s whatsoever, and I never want to see any of those things again. But
the job of the political singer/songwriter is perhaps more challenging
because, with a subject like identity, which I deal with on England,
Half English
, it's personal--it means different things to different

HF: But it's clear there is plenty happening now to respond to.
The single from your new record, "NPWA" (No Power Without
Accountability), strikes me as a paean to the global justice movement.

BB: The job of the singer/songwriter is to try to reflect the
world around him, and obviously the global justice movement has been the
big cause célèbre since Seattle. When I was in New York in
February, there was stuff I saw going on the like of nothing I've ever
seen on the left before.

I went to a Methodist Church where activists were speaking about how
they were going to organize the demonstrations [around the WEF] two days
later. They asked me to sing a couple of songs so I sang "NPWA"--and
then they wanted me to sing the "Internationale," and that really
touched me, because we do have a strong tradition on the left, and one
of the things we have to gain from the demise of the Stalinism of the
Soviet Union and the Berlin wall is that we have an opportunity to
create a leftist idea outside the shadow of totalitarianism. And there,
in New York, among very radical young people, I thought, "OK--this isn't
really so different from what I know. It's just a different approach to
get to the same place." And the fact that I've been doing this for
twenty years and people are still interested--I feel fortunate. I figure
I must be hitting some bases.

England, Half English is available now from Elektra Records.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the past two decades, Richard Rodriguez has offered us a gamut of
anecdotes, mostly about himself in action in an environment that is not
always attuned to his own inner life. These anecdotes have taken the
form of a trilogy that started in 1983 with the classic Hunger of
, continued in 1993 with Days of Obligation and concludes now with his new book Brown:
The Last Discovery of America.
This isn't a trilogy about history.
It isn't about sociology or politics either, at least in their most
primary senses. Instead, it is a sustained meditation on Latino life in
the United States, filled with labyrinthine reflections on philosophy
and morality.

Rodriguez embraces subjectivity wholeheartedly. His tool, his
astonishing device, is the essay, and his model, I believe, is
Montaigne, the father of the personal essay and a genius at taking even
an insect tempted by a candle flame as an excuse to meditate on the
meaning of life, death and everything in between. Not that Montaigne is
Rodriguez's only touchstone. In Brown he chants to Alexis de
Tocqueville and James Baldwin as well. And in the previous installments
of his trilogy, particularly owing to his subject matter, he has emerged
as something of a successor to Octavio Paz.

The other trunk of this genealogical tree I'm shaping is V.S. Naipaul,
or at least he appears that to me, a counterpoint, as I reread
Rodriguez's oeuvre. They have much in common: They explore a
culture through its nuances and not, as it were, through its
high-profile iconography; they are meticulous littérateurs,
intelligent, incessantly curious; and, more important, everywhere they
go they retain, to their honor, the position of the outsider looking in.
Rodriguez, in particular, has been a Mexican-American but not a
Chicano--that is, he has rejected the invitation to be a full part of
the community that shaped him. Instead, he uses himself as a looking
glass to reflect, from the outside, on who Mexicans are, in and beyond
politics. This, predictably, has helped fill large reservoirs of
animosity against him. I don't know of any other Latino author who
generates so much anger. Chicanos love to hate him as much as they hate
to love him.

Why this is so isn't difficult to understand: He is customarily critical
of programs and policies that are seen as benefactors to the community,
for example, bilingual education and affirmative action, which, in his
eyes, have only balkanized families, neighborhoods and cities. In
Hunger of Memory he portrayed himself as a Scholarship Boy who
benefited from racial profiling. He reached a succinct conclusion: Not
race but individual talent should be considered in a person's
application for school or work--not one's skin color, last name or
country of origin, only aptitude. Naipaul too can play the devil: His
journeys through India and the Arab world, even through the lands of El
Dorado, are unsettling when one considers his rabid opinions on the
"uncivilized" natives. But Naipaul delivers these opinions with
admirable grace and, through that, makes his readers rethink the
colonial galaxy, revisit old ideas. In that sense, Naipaul and Rodriguez
are authors who force upon us the necessity to sharpen our own ideas. We
read them, we agree and disagree with them, so as to fine-tune our own
conception of who we are. They are of the kind of writer who first
infuriates, then unsettles us. What they never do is leave the reader
unchanged. For that alone, one ought to be grateful.

Apparently, the trilogy came into being after Rodriguez's agent, as the
author himself puts it in "Hispanic," the fifth chapter of Brown,
"encouraged from me a book that answers a simple question: What do
Hispanics mean to the life of America? He asked me that question several
years ago in a French restaurant on East Fifty-seventh Street, as I
watched a waiter approach our table holding before him a shimmering
îles flottantes."

The image of îles flottantes is a fitting one, I believe,
since the Latino mosaic on this side of the border (Rodriguez often
prefers to use the term "Hispanic" in his pages) might be seen as
nothing if not an archipelago of self-sufficient subcultures: Cuban,
Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Dominican... and the
whole Bolivarian range of possibilities. Are these islands of identity
interconnected? How do they relate to one another? To what extent are a
Brazilian in Tallahassee and a Mexicano in Portland, Oregon, kindred

Judging by his answer, Rodriguez might have been asked the wrong
question. Or else, he might have chosen to respond impractically. For
the question that runs through the three installments is, How did
Hispanics become brown? His belief is that brown, as a color, is the
sine qua non of Latinos, and he exercises it as a metaphor of mixture.
"Brown as impurity," he reasons. "I write of a color that is not a
singular color, not a strict recipe, not an expected result, but a color
produced by careless desire, even by accident." It is the color of
mestizaje, i.e., the miscegenation that shaped the Americas from
1492 onward, as they were forced, in spite of themselves, into modern
times. It is the juxtaposition of white European and dark aboriginal, of
Hernán Cortés and his mistress and translator, La
Malinche. And it is also the so-called raza cósmica that
Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos talked about in the early
twentieth century, a master race that, capitalizing on its own impurity,
would rise to conquer the hemisphere, if not the entire globe.

But have Hispanics really become brown on the Technicolor screen of
America? Rodriguez is mistaken, I'm afraid. The gestation of race in the
Caribbean, from Venezuela to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, has a
different tint, since African slaves were brought in to replace Indians
for the hard labor in mines and fields, and their arrival gave birth to
other racial mixtures, among them those termed "mulattoes" and "zambos."
Argentina, on the other hand, had a minuscule aboriginal population when
the Spanish viceroys and missionaries arrived. The gauchos, a sort of
cowboy, are at the core of its national mythology, as can be seen in the
works of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, José Hernández and
Jorge Luis Borges. "Brown," in Rodriguez's conception, might be the
color of Mexicans in East LA, but surely not of Cubans in Miami. Some
Latinos might have become brown, but not all. And then again, what does
"brown" really mean? Rodriguez embraces it as a metaphor of impurity.
Mestizos are crossbreeds, they are impure, and impurity is beautiful.
But the term "brown" has specific political connotations as well. It is,
to a large extent, a byproduct of the civil rights era, the era of
César Chávez and the Young Lords, coined in reaction to
the black-and-white polarity that played out in Washington policy
corridors and the media: Brown is between white and black, a third
option in the kaleidoscope of race. A preferred term in the Southwest
was La Raza, but "brown" also found its way into manifestoes, political
speeches, legal documents and newspaper reports.

Rodriguez isn't into the Chicano movement, though. My gut instinct is
that he feels little empathy toward the 1960s in general, let alone
toward the Mexican-American upheaval. His views on la
in America are defined by his Mexican ancestry and by
his residence in San Francisco, where he has made his home for years. He
is disconnected from the Caribbean component of Latinos, and, from the
reaction I see in readers on the East Coast, the Caribbean Latinos are
also uninvolved with him.

Furthermore, Rodriguez limits himself to the concept of miscegenation,
but only at the racial level. What about promiscuity in language, for
example? Promiscuity might be a strong word, but it surely carries the
right message. Rodriguez's English is still the Queen's English:
overpolished, uncorrupted, stainless. How is it that he embraces
mestizaje but has little to say about Spanglish, that
disgustingly gorgeous mix of Spanish and English that is neither one nor
the other? Isn't that in-betweenness what America is about today? On the
issue of language, I have a side comment: I find it appalling that
Rodriguez's volumes are not available in Spanish to Mexicans and other
Latinos. Years ago, a small Iberian press, Megazul, released Hambre
de memoria
in a stilted, unapologetically Castilian translation.
That, clearly, was the wrong chord to touch, when the author's resonance
is closer to San Antonio than to San Sebastián. How much longer
need Mexicans wait to read the work en español mexicano of
a canonical figure, whose lifelong quest has been to understand Mexicans
beyond the pale? The question brings us back to Paz and his "The Pachuco
and Other Extremes," the first chapter in his masterpiece The
Labyrinth of Solitude
, released in 1950. It has angered Chicanos for
decades, and with good reason: This is an essay that distorts Mexican
life north of the border. Paz approached the pachuco--a social type of
Mexican youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s who fashioned a specific
lingo, and idiosyncrasies that Elvis Presley appropriated obliquely--as
a deterioration of the Mexican psyche. In his work, Rodriguez has
established a sort of colloquy with Paz, though not a direct address. He
embraces Paz's cosmopolitanism, his openness, and perceives him as a
Europeanized intellectual invaluable in the quest to freshen up Mexican
elite culture. But he refuses to confront Paz's anti-Chicanismo, and in
general Paz's negative views on Latinos in the United States. Once, for
instance, when asked what he thought about Spanglish, Paz responded that
it was neither good nor bad, "it is simply an aberration." In any case,
reading both authors on US-Mexican relations is an unpredictable,
enlightening catechism, filled with detours. While Mexicans might not
like to hear what Rodriguez has to say about them and about himself (he
has talked of "hating Mexico"), at least they will be acquainted with
his opinions.

All this is to say that Rodriguez's response to "What do Hispanics mean
to the life of America?" is partial at best. The trilogy shows a mind
engaged, but its subject is almost unmovable. Hunger of Memory
was an autobiographical meditation set in the United States as the
country was about to enter the Reagan era. It denounced a stagnant
society, interested in the politics of compassion more than in the
politics of equality, a society with little patience for Mexicans.
Days of Obligation was also about los Estados Unidos as
the first Bush presidency was approaching its end. By then the Reagan
mirage was officially over. We were about to enter another house of
mirrors under the tutelage of Bill Clinton. And this third installment
of the trilogy arrives in bookstores at a time when the melting pot,
la sopa de culturas, is boiling again, with xenophobia against
Arabs at a height, and Latinos, already the largest minority according
to the latest US Census data--35.3 million strong by late 2000, if one
counts only those officially registered--are still on the fringes,
fragmented, compartmentalized, more a sum of parts than a whole.

These changes are visible only through inference in the trilogy;
Rodriguez seldom makes use of political facts. He lives in a dreamlike
zone, a universe of ideas and sensations and paradox. Somewhere in
Brown he announces:

A few weeks ago, in the newspaper (another day in the multicultural
nation), a small item: Riot in a Southern California high school.
Hispanic students protest, then smash windows, because African-American
students get four weeks for Black History month, whereas Hispanics get
one. The more interesting protest would be for Hispanic students to
demand to be included in Black History month. The more interesting
remedy would be for Hispanic History week to include African history.

This sums up Rodriguez's approach: a micromanagement of identity
delivered periodically from the same viewpoint. Or has the viewpoint
changed? It is possible to see a growing maturity by reading the trilogy
chronologically. He started as an antisegregationist, a man interested
in assimilation of Mexicans into the larger landscape of America. His
feelings toward Mexico and toward his homosexuality were tortured at the
time. These became clear, or at least clearer, in the second
installment, in which a picture of a San Francisco desolated by AIDS and
an argument with the author's own mexicanidad as personified by
his father, among other changes, were evident. Assimilation was still a
priority, but by the 1990s Rodriguez had ceased to be interested in such
issues and was more attracted to his own condition as a public gay

Brown is again about assimilation, but from a perspective that
asserts America is a country shaped by so many interbred layers of
ethnicity that nothing is pure anymore. At one point, he describes the
conversation of a couple of girls one afternoon on Fillmore Street. He
renders them and their dialogue thus: "Two girls. Perhaps sixteen.
White. Anglo, whatever. Tottering on their silly shoes. Talking of boys.
The one girl saying to the other: ...His complexion is so cool, this
sort of light--well, not that light." And Rodriguez ends: "I realized my
book will never be equal to the play of the young." This need to capture
what surrounds him is always evident, although it isn't always
successful, because he is an intellectual obsessed with his own stream
of consciousness rather than in catching the pulse of the nation. But
I've managed to explain the continuity of themes in Rodriguez's three
volumes only tangentially.

There is another take, summed up in three catchwords: class, ethnicity
and race. He appears to encourage this reading. The first installment is
about a low-income family whose child moves up in the hierarchy; the
second about the awakening to across-the-border roots; and the third
about "a tragic noun, a synonym for conflict and isolation," race. But
Rodriguez is quick to add:

race is not such a terrible word for me. Maybe because I am skeptical by
nature. Maybe because my nature is already mixed. The word race
encourages me to remember the influence of eroticism on history. For
that is what race memorializes. Within any discussion of race, there
lurks the possibility of romance.

So is this what the trilogy is about, finally? The endeavor strikes me
as rather mercurial. Because Rodriguez works extensively through
metaphor and hyperbole, future generations will read into his books what
they please, depending on the context. I still like Hunger of
the best. Days of Obligation strikes me as a
collection of disparate essays without a true core. And Brown is
a book that is not fully embracing, not least because it refuses to
recognize the complexity of Latinos in the United States. In it
Rodriguez describes his namesake, Richard Nixon, as "the dark father of
Hispanicity." "Surviving Chicanos (one still meets them) scorn the term
Hispanic," Rodriguez argues, "in part because it was Richard Nixon who
drafted the noun and who made the adjective uniform." A similar
reference was invoked in an Op-Ed piece by him in the New York
, in which he declared George W. Bush the first Hispanic
President of the United States, the way Bill Clinton was the first black
President. Is this true? The argument developed is not always clear-cut:
It twists and turns, as we have by now come to expect. I've learned to
respect and admire Rodriguez. When I was a newly arrived immigrant in
New York City, I stumbled upon an essay of his and then read his first
book. I was mesmerized by the prose but found myself in strong
disagreement with its tenets, and we have corresponded about that in the
intervening years.

At any rate, where will Rodriguez go from here, now that the trilogy is
finished? Might he finally take a long journey overseas? Is his vision
of America finally complete? Not quite, I say, for the country is
changing rapidly. Mestizaje, he argues, is no longer the domain
of Latinos alone. We are all brown: dirty and impure. "This is not the
same as saying 'the poor shall inherit the earth' but is possibly
related," Rodriguez states. "The poor shall overrun the earth. Or the
brown shall." This is a statement for the history books. In his view,
America is about to become América--everyone in it a Hispanic, if
not physically, at least metaphorically. "American history books I read
as a boy were all about winning and losing," Rodriguez states in
"Peter's Avocado," the last of the nine essays in Brown. And with
a typical twist, continues, "One side won; the other side lost.... [But]
the stories that interested me were stories that seemed to lead off the
page: A South Carolina farmer married one of his slaves. The farmer
died. The ex-slave inherited her husband's chairs, horses, rugs, slaves.
And then what happened? Did it, in fact, happen?"

British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who
could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement.
The first single from Bragg's England, Half Engli


Eric on this week's concerts and Reed on the two-party debate that has only one, pro-war side.

September 30, 2014

“How can I have seemed so settled in my opinions? So smug in my attitudes?”

September 24, 2014

The Roosevelts pumps PBS ratings, but that doesn’t make the network any less centrist.

September 19, 2014

Ntozake Shange, author of the groundbreaking choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, explains what the Ray Rice scandal means for black feminism.

September 18, 2014

The Nation and the Center for Community Change partnered together for an essay contest in which young people were asked to submit a photo they found meaningful and an essay explaining the significance of the photo in 500 words.

September 17, 2014

Eric on "The Beatles in Mono" and Reed on how the emphasis on optics skews our democratic priorities.

September 11, 2014

"Outside, the ground separates, / breaking open like sores..."

September 3, 2014

An incomplete list of ten of the best songs ever written about school.

September 3, 2014

A solo Koons exhibition, Danto wrote in 1989, was “a vision of an aesthetic hell.”

September 2, 2014

In honor of Labor Day, here’s a stab at the impossible task of naming the best songs ever written about working people.

August 29, 2014