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The subtitle sounds bad, but keep in mind that Thorstein Veblen considered subtitling his book on academics "A Study in Total Depravity." The really bad news concerns the title: The term "public intellectual" is practically obsolete.
It's dying young. Although the subject of much hoo-ha lately, it has not been current for very long. Russell Jacoby popularized it in his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Jacoby did not coin the term--he quoted C. Wright Mills using it in 1958--but he found a congenial semantic niche for it: to distinguish unaffiliated from college-based thinkers. In the old days, there wasn't any need to make the distinction, because the generation born in and around 1900 doubted that intellectual life could take place in academia. "To be an intellectual did not entail college teaching," Jacoby wrote of the era that formed Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson; "it was not a real possibility." By the time of Jacoby's book, however, contemplative lives were being led on campuses, or so it was claimed, and since the campuses had the dollars to back the claim, the old-fashioned independent intellectuals were marked with the delimiting adjective "public."
Now the adjective is about to disappear, because the independents are on the verge of losing even their right to the noun. In his new book, Richard Posner hints that there is today "a certain redundancy in the term 'public intellectual.'" One would expect Posner to be highly sensitive to the use of the term, because he lives the role it describes. Profiled in Lingua Franca and more recently in The New Yorker, and invited to post his diary on Slate, Posner is a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, a founder of the field of law and economics, and the author of books on everything from the rational-choice theory of sex to the 2000 presidential election.
The term is redundant, Posner suggests, because an intellectual is by definition someone who addresses the public. Writing for fellow experts may take just as much brainpower but is merely academic. For practical reasons Posner is not concerned, as Jacoby was, with the brave last stand of independent thinkers. "There was a time when an intellectual could do as well (or rather no worse) for himself financially by writing books and articles as by being a professor," Posner writes. "That time is largely past. The opportunity cost of being an independent public intellectual has skyrocketed because of the greatly increased economic opportunities in the academic market." Nowadays the term "public intellectual" merely refers to an academic in his capacity as a moonlighter. The qualifier "public" is expendable once all intellectuals have day jobs.
In other words, the short lifespan of the term corresponds to the interval between the decline of "Intellectuals cannot be professors" and the rise of "All intellectuals are professors." About this transition Jacoby was wistful and, in a desperate, Gertrude-Stein-beckoning-the-Lost-Generation way, optimistic. "A specter haunts American universities or, at least, its faculties: boredom," Jacoby wrote, and he quoted a report that found "almost 40 percent [of professors] ready and willing to leave the academy." Posner, in contrast, is resigned and matter-of-fact. He knows the laws of economics. The marketplace of ideas, like other markets, results from the preferences and resources of those who participate in it. If 40 percent of professors say they want to leave the academy, they must have excellent reasons for staying. After all, if nothing were holding them back, their dissatisfaction would not show up in surveys of professors; they would not be professors.
The market has reasons that reason knows not of, and Posner is willing to respect them. "In the main we shall have to live with this slightly disreputable market," he writes. "But what else is new? We Feinschmeckers have to live with vulgarity in popular culture, the sight of overweight middle-aged men wearing shorts and baseball caps, weak coffee and the blare of the television set in every airport waiting lounge. It is doubtful that the public-intellectual market is a more debilitating or less intractable feature of contemporary American culture than these other affronts to the fastidious."
But although a monopoly by academics may be inevitable, Posner apprehends the mediocrity of it, acutely. "The disappointment lingers," he admits. In fact he was motivated to write this book by dismay at what his tenured peers had written and said about the impeachment of Clinton, the Microsoft antitrust case and the supposed moral decline of America. Their commentary seemed so shoddy and silly as to require an economic explanation.
How do you analyze the economics of something so airy? In fact, once Posner sets in, it turns out to be less airy than bloody. Much of the fun in reading Public Intellectuals consists of watching Posner triage the meats for his sausage.
You won't be put through his grinder just because you're smart and pop up in Nexis. Of Nation writers, Alexander Cockburn and Patricia Williams make his list, as do Victor Navasky and Katrina vanden Heuvel, but Christopher Hitchens inexplicably does not, even though Posner has a footnote to him. John Rawls is out--too, too academic.
Harvard's new president, Lawrence Summers, qualifies, just barely. Theodore Roosevelt, Newt Gingrich, Winston Churchill, Leonard Bernstein and William Sloane Coffin are excluded because they are better known for nonintellectual achievements. This caution is justified because intellectual celebrity is so easily dwarfed by other kinds. The intellectual most often mentioned in the media between 1995 and 2000 was Henry Kissinger, and yet the 12,570 allusions to him are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as the small dust on the balance beside Michael Jordan's 108,000.
Whether devised by art, science or expedience, the tallies and rankings are where most readers will start, and Posner has strategically placed them in the precise middle of his book, as far from either end as possible, for the same reason grocers put milk at the back of the store. "Consumer Reports does not evaluate public intellectuals," Posner observes, and people like to know the score. It is disconcerting to see Camille Paglia and Oliver Wendell Holmes nearly tied in a ranking by media mentions. It is suggestive that the intellectual most often cited in scholarly writing between 1995 and 2000 was Michel Foucault, and even more suggestive that Foucault's score is nearly twice that of the second-most-cited intellectual, Pierre Bourdieu. (Posner himself comes in tenth.)
Once the air of the horsetrack has dissipated, the reader turns to Posner's analysis. Here is the news, in summary:
If you are a public intellectual, your odds of being mentioned in the media improve if you are not an academic, are not dead, have served in government and are either a journalist or a writer.
At first glance this might look like good news. But the higher profile of nonacademics does not mean that the unaffiliated intellectual is alive and well. It means, rather, that those who have managed to become public intellectuals despite a lack of academic credentials tend to be mentioned more frequently than their academic peers. As time goes by, there are fewer such people. Of the 546 intellectuals in Posner's sample, 56 percent of the dead ones are academics, and 70 percent of the living ones. And as Posner deadpans, "Notice the high average age even of the living public intellectuals"--64 years old. Among actual young people, the rate of intellectual institutionalization is probably even higher.
"Media mentions come at the expense of scholarly citations (and vice versa)," Posner observes. "An academic who wants to succeed as a public intellectual might be well advised to substitute government service for additional scholarly publications!" But if it is posterity you hunger for, think carefully. In Posner's sample, being dead correlates well with scholarly citations, which suggests that "public-intellectual work is more ephemeral than scholarship." The correlation may, of course, suggest other inferences to less sanguine minds. So much for the facts. Although Posner is known as a pragmatist, the most provocative analysis in Public Intellectuals is actually of his own hunches and grudges, and of the social maps drawn by observers like Jacoby and Bobos in Paradise author David Brooks.
Posner thinks that public-intellectual work offers the consumer three goods: entertainment, solidarity and information. The consumer (and the magazine editor or television producer who procures on the consumer's behalf) can usually tell by inspection whether a commentary is entertaining and whether it reassures people that they are on the right team, be it of abortion-haters or deconstruction-defenders. In an age of specialized knowledge, however, only another expert can judge whether the information in a piece of commentary is worthwhile. Its value is what an economist would call a "credence good"; consumers have to take it on faith. By the time you figure out that there must have been a flaw somewhere in that September 1999 Atlantic Monthly article titled "Dow 36,000," it is too late to get your money back.
By now even the writers have been paid.
Most markets in credence goods correct for this uncertainty, in order to keep frustrated consumers from fleeing. Sellers may offer money-back guarantees, advertise heavily to signal long-term commitment to a product, cooperate with a third-party rating system, choose retailers who are reputed to be judicious gatekeepers or consent to government regulation. Even in the absence of any correctives, however, sellers usually refrain from offering egregiously low-quality products, because they want customers to buy from them again in the future. They are deterred by "the cost...of exit from the market."
The public-intellectual market deals in credence goods, but Posner fears that it may be suffering from market failure. Consumers trust periodicals and talk shows to act as filters, but they seem to be filtering for entertainment and solidarity rather than for information. More damaging, the cost of exit from the public-intellectual market is very low. No academic loses his job because he has made a fool of himself on the Op-Ed page. It has therefore become unwise for the consumer to believe public intellectuals. Posner likens them to palm readers: They claim to know the answers to vital questions, but the cost of figuring out whether they really do is prohibitive. The rational consumer responds by discounting the value of the information and consulting them merely for entertainment.
Why is the cost of exit from the public-intellectual market so low? For the simple reason that there is not much reward for entering it in the first place. Here economic analysis converges with traditional lament. The professors have ruined everything. They are obscurantist, pedantic, naïve, exaggerative of the reach of their expertise, theory-mad, timid toward anyone who might put a letter in their tenure file and intemperate toward everyone else, but the real problem is their free time. They have a lot of it, and they are willing to sacrifice almost any quantity to see their names in print. They are, in other words, cheap. They drag the supply curve downward on the dollar axis. The price of public-intellectual work drops, and more of it is produced.
With prices so low, unaffiliated intellectuals can no longer make a living. (At many periodicals, the payment for editorials and book reviews is lower than for other kinds of writing. This is not because they require less effort; it is because an academic can always be found to write them.) Absent a class of people whose livelihood depends on the market, an ethos of quality gives way to an ethos of tourism. "He is on holiday from the academic grind and all too often displays the irresponsibility of the holiday goer," Posner writes of the moonlighting professor. "Insulated from the retribution of disappointed consumers by virtue of being part-timers," academic intellectuals behave like movie-star politicians.
You're so vain, you probably think this book is about you, don't you? Public Intellectuals is a portmanteau book. The first part consists of the analysis of the public-intellectual market described above, but in the second, the reader is dropped into conversations whose beginnings he has not witnessed. Martha Nussbaum is wrong to think that the moral of The Golden Bowl is resignation to your husband's adultery. (Martha Nussbaum is here? In the room with us?) Wayne Booth's attempt to reconcile the aesthetic to the ethical is doomed. Aldous Huxley predicted the future better than George Orwell, but Orwell wrote a better novel. Robert Bork is disingenuous about so-called partial birth abortions. Gertrude Himmelfarb is unconvincing about the cultural metastasis of the naughty. Richard Rorty may be the heir to Socrates, Dewey and J.S. Mill, but he deploys a rhetoric that passed its freshness date sometime in the 1930s, and as for Martha Nussbaum--did I mention her already? The chapters are informative and at times highly entertaining ("The 'Ode on Melancholy' is not improved by being made risqué, just as a pig is not enhanced by wearing lipstick," writes Posner, in a simile that becomes more disturbing the more it is considered), but they are miscellaneous, and the reader senses that because of a wish to revisit old grudges--or recycle old articles--the tail is wagging the pig. In his conclusion, Posner returns to topic. Academia has diminished intellectual life, but rebellion is futile, because academia is what Tocqueville would call a soft tyranny. Like the Hand of God as described to me in Sunday school, it destroys not by striking the wicked but by releasing them into the danger they prefer, where they must write for in-flight magazines in order to pay their rent.
Accordingly, Posner offers extremely modest proposals for reform: He would like to encourage academics to post their public-intellectual work on websites, deposit printouts in libraries and disclose relevant earnings. He doesn't think the reforms will be adopted, because "the irresponsibility of public-intellectual work is one of the rewards of being a public intellectual." But even if Posner's suggestions were adopted, they would change nothing. The money involved is usually trivial, as he himself admits, and he has overestimated how hard it is to trace what an academic has said in public.
As near as I can tell, only one of Posner's suggestions has even the faintest chance of success: "One might hope that as a matter of self-respect the university community could be persuaded to create and support a journal that would monitor the public-intellectual activities of academics and be widely distributed both within and outside the community." Thus would specialized academics be matched by specialized journalists, and the failure of one market remedied by the development of another. Alas, Lingua Franca suspended publication in November.
The first time that Agha Shahid Ali, the great Kashmiri poet, spoke to me about his approaching death was in April of last year. The conversation began routinely. I had telephoned to remind him that we had been invited to a friend's house for lunch and that I was going to come by his apartment to pick him up. Although he had been under treatment for brain cancer for some fourteen months, Shahid was still on his feet and perfectly lucid, except for occasional lapses of memory. I heard him thumbing through his engagement book and then suddenly he said: "Oh dear. I can't see a thing." There was a brief pause and then he added: "I hope this doesn't mean that I'm dying..."
Although Shahid and I had talked a great deal over the past many weeks, I had never before heard him touch on the subject of death. His voice was completely at odds with the content of what he had just said, light to the point of jocularity. I mumbled something innocuous: "No, Shahid--of course not. You'll be fine." He cut me short. In a tone of voice that was at once quizzical and direct, he said: "When it happens I hope you'll write something about me."
I was shocked into silence, and a long moment passed before I could bring myself to say the things that people say on such occasions: "Shahid, you'll be fine; you have to be strong..." From the window of my study I could see a corner of the building in which he lived, some eight blocks away, where he'd moved to be near his sister, Sameetah, after learning of his tumor. Shahid ignored my reassurances. He began to laugh, and it was then that I realized that he was dead serious.
"You must write about me," he said.
By the end of the conversation I knew exactly what I had to do. I picked up my pen, noted the date and wrote down everything I remembered of that conversation. This I continued to do for the next few months: It is the record that has made it possible for me to fulfill the pledge I made that day.
I knew Shahid's work long before I met him. His 1997 collection, The Country Without a Post Office, made a powerful impression on me. His voice was like none I had heard before, at once lyrical and fiercely disciplined, engaged and yet deeply inward. Not for him the mock-casual almost-prose of so much contemporary poetry: His was a voice that was not ashamed to speak in a bardic register. I could think of no one else who would even conceive of publishing a line like: "Mad heart, be brave."
In 1998 I quoted a line from The Country Without a Post Office in an article that touched briefly on Kashmir. At the time all I knew about Shahid was that he was from Srinagar and had studied in Delhi. We had friends in common, however, and one of them put me in touch with Shahid. But we were little more than acquaintances when he moved to Brooklyn. Once we were in the same neighborhood, we began to meet for occasional meals and quickly discovered that we had a great deal in common. By this time, of course, Shahid's condition was already serious, yet his illness did not impede the progress of our friendship. And because of Shahid's condition even the most trivial exchanges had a special charge and urgency: The inescapable poignance of talking about food and half-forgotten figures from the past with a man who knew himself to be dying was multiplied in this instance by the knowledge that this man was also a poet who had achieved greatness--perhaps the only such that I shall ever know as a friend. He had a sorcerer's ability to transmute the mundane into the magical.
Shahid was legendary for his gregariousness and his prowess in the kitchen, frequently spending days over the planning and preparation of a dinner party. It was through one such party, given while he was in Arizona, that he met James Merrill, the poet who was to radically alter the direction of his poetry: It was after this encounter that he began to experiment with strict metrical patterns and verse forms such as the canzone and the sestina. No one had a greater influence on Shahid's poetry than James Merrill: Indeed, in the poem in which he most explicitly prefigured his own death, "I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World," he awarded the envoy to Merrill: "SHAHID, HUSH. THIS IS ME, JAMES. THE LOVED ONE ALWAYS LEAVES." Merrill loved Shahid's cooking, and on learning that Shahid was moving to upstate New York, he gave him his telephone number and asked Shahid to call. On the occasion of Shahid's first reading at the Academy of American Poets, Merrill was present: a signal honor considering that he is one of America's best-known poets. "Afterwards," Shahid liked to recall, "everybody rushed up and said, 'Did you know that Jim Merrill was here?' My stock in New York went up a thousandfold that evening."
Shahid placed great store on authenticity and exactitude in cooking and would tolerate no deviation from traditional methods and recipes. He had a special passion for "Kashmiri food in the Pandit style." I asked him once why this was so important to him and he explained that it was because of a recurrent dream, in which all the Hindus had vanished from the valley of Kashmir and their food had become extinct. This was a nightmare that haunted him, and he returned to it again and again, in his conversation and his poetry.
At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me:
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory...
There is nothing to forgive. You won't forgive me.
I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to
There is everything to forgive. You can't forgive me.
If only somehow you could have been mine,
what would not have been possible in the world?
This was at a time when his illness had forced him into spending long periods in bed. He was on his back, shielding his eyes with his fingers. Suddenly he sat up. "I wish all this had not happened," he said. "This dividing of the country, the divisions between people--Hindu, Muslim, Muslim, Hindu--you can't imagine how much I hate it. It makes me sick. What I say is: Why can't you be happy with the cuisines and the clothes and the music and all these wonderful things?" He paused and added softly, "At least here we have been able to make a space where we can all come together because of the good things."
Of the many "good things" in which he took pleasure, none was more dear to him than the music of Begum Akhtar. He met the great ghazal singer when he was in his teens, through a friend, and she became an abiding presence and influence in his life. In his apartment there were several shrinelike niches that were filled with pictures of the people he worshiped: Begum Akhtar was one of these, along with his father, his mother and James Merrill. "I loved Begum Akhtar," he told me once. "In other circumstances you could have said that it was a sexual kind of love--but I don't know what it was. I loved to listen to her, I loved to be with her, I couldn't bear to be away from her. You can imagine what it was like. Here I was in my mid-teens--just 16--and I couldn't bear to be away from her." It was probably this relationship with Begum Akhtar that engendered his passion for the ghazal as a verse form. Always the disciplinarian in such matters, he believed that the ghazal would never flourish if its structure were not given due respect: "Some rules of the ghazal are clear and classically stringent. The opening couplet (called matla) sets up a scheme (of rhyme--called qafia; and refrain--called radif) by having it occur in both lines--the rhyme immediately preceding the refrain--and then this scheme occurs only in the second line of each succeeding couplet. That is, once a poet establishes the scheme--with total freedom, I might add--she or he becomes its slave. What results in the rest of the poem is the alluring tension of a slave trying to master the master." Over a period of several years he took it upon himself to solicit ghazals from poets writing in English. The resulting collection, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, was published in 2000. In establishing a benchmark for the form it has already begun to exert a powerful influence: The formalization of the ghazal may well prove to be Shahid's most important scholarly contribution to the canon of English poetry. His own summation of the project was this: "If one writes in free verse--and one should--to subvert Western civilization, surely one should write in forms to save oneself from Western civilization?"
For Shahid, Begum Akhtar was the embodiment of one such form, not just in her music but in many other aspects of her being. An aspect of the ghazal that he greatly prized was the latitude it provided for wordplay, wit and nakhra (affectation). Begum Akhtar was a consummate master of all these, and Shahid had a fund of stories about her sharpness in repartee. He was himself no mean practitioner of that art. On one occasion, at the Barcelona airport, he was stopped by a security guard just as he was about to board a plane. The guard, a woman, asked: "What do you do?"
"I'm a poet," Shahid answered.
"What were you doing in Spain?"
No matter the question, Shahid worked poetry into his answer. Finally, the exasperated woman asked: "Are you carrying anything that could be dangerous to the other passengers?" At this Shahid clapped a hand to his chest and cried: "Only my heart."
This was one of his great Wildean moments, and it was to occasion the poem "Barcelona Airport." He treasured these moments, and last May I had the good fortune to be with him when one such opportunity presented itself. Shahid was teaching what turned out to be the last class he ever would. I had heard a great deal about the brilliance of his teaching, and it was evident from the moment we walked in that the students adored him: They had printed a magazine and dedicated the issue to him. Shahid, for his part, was not in the least subdued by the sadness of the occasion. From beginning to end, he was a sparkling diva, Akhtar incarnate, brimming with laughter and nakhra.
Toward the end of the class, a student asked a complicated question about the difference between plausibility and inevitability in a poem. Shahid's eyebrows arched higher and higher as he listened. At last, unable to contain himself, he broke in. "Oh you're such a naughty boy," he cried, tapping the table with his fingertips. "You always turn everything into an abstraction."
But Begum Akhtar was not all wit and nakhra: Indeed, the strongest bond between Shahid and her was, I suspect, the idea that sorrow has no finer mask than a studied lightness of manner. Shahid often told a story about Begum Akhtar's marriage: Although her family's origins were dubious, her fame as a beauty was such that she received a proposal from the scion of a prominent Muslim family of Lucknow. The proposal came with the condition that the talented young singer would give up singing: The man's family was deeply conservative and could not conceive of one of its members performing onstage. Begum Akhtar--or Akhtaribai Faizabadi, as she was then--accepted, but soon afterward her mother died. Heartbroken, Akhtaribai spent her days weeping on her grave. Her condition became such that a doctor had to be brought in to examine her. He said that if she were not allowed to sing she would lose her mind: It was only then that her husband's family relented and allowed her to sing again.
Shahid was haunted by this image of Begum Akhtar as a bereaved and inconsolable daughter, weeping on her mother's grave; it is in this grief-stricken aspect that she is evoked again and again in his poems. The poem that was his farewell to the world, "I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World," opens with an evocation of Begum Akhtar:
A night of ghazals comes to an end. The singer
departs through her chosen mirror, her one diamond
cut on her countless necks. I, as ever, linger
Shahid's father's family was from Srinagar and they were Shia, a minority among the Muslims of Kashmir. When Shahid was 12, the family moved to Indiana (his father was getting a PhD), and for three years he attended school in Muncie. After that they moved back to Srinagar, which is where Shahid completed his schooling; it was that early experience, I suspect, that allowed Shahid to take America so completely in his stride when he arrived as a graduate student years later. The idea of a cultural divide or conflict had no purchase in his mind: America and India were the two poles of his life, and he was at home in both in a way that was utterly easeful and unproblematic.
After 1975, when he moved to Pennsylvania, Shahid lived mainly in America. His brother was already here, and they were later joined by their two sisters. But Shahid's parents continued to live in Srinagar, and it was his custom to spend the summer months with them: "I always move in my heart between sad countries." Traveling between the United States and India he was thus an intermittent but firsthand witness to the mounting violence that seized the region from the late 1980s onward:
It was '89, the stones were not far, signs of change
everywhere (Kashmir would soon be in literal
The steady deterioration of the political situation in Kashmir--the violence and counterviolence--had a powerful effect on him. In time it became one of the central subjects of his work: Indeed, it could be said that it was in writing of Kashmir that he created his finest work. The irony of this is that Shahid was not by inclination a political poet. I heard him say once: "If you are from a difficult place and that's all you have to write about then you should stop writing. You have to respect your art, your form--that is just as important as what you write about." Another time, I was present at Shahid's apartment when his longtime friend Patricia O'Neill showed him a couple of sonnets written by a Victorian poet. The poems were political, trenchant in their criticism of Britain for its failure to prevent the massacre of the Armenians in Turkey. Shahid glanced at them and tossed them offhandedly aside: "These are terrible poems." Patricia asked why, and he said: "Look, I already know where I stand on the massacre of the Armenians. Of course I am against it. But this poem tells me nothing of the massacre; it makes nothing of it formally. I might as well just read a news report."
Anguished as he was about Kashmir's destiny, Shahid resolutely refused to embrace the role of victim that could so easily have been his. Had he done so, he could no doubt have easily become a fixture on talk shows, news programs and Op-Ed pages. But Shahid never had any doubt about his calling: He was a poet, schooled in the fierce and unforgiving arts of language. He had no taste for political punditry.
Such as they were, Shahid's political views were inherited largely from his father, whose beliefs were akin to those of most secular, left-leaning Muslim intellectuals of the Nehruvian era. Although respectful of religion, he remained a firm believer in the separation of politics and religious practice.
Once, when Shahid was at dinner with my family, I asked him bluntly: "What do you think is the solution for Kashmir?" His answer was: "I think ideally the best solution would be absolute autonomy within the Indian Union in the broadest sense." But this led almost immediately to the enumeration of a long list of caveats and reservations: Quite possibly, he said, such a solution was no longer possible, given the actions of the Indian state in Kashmir; the extremist groups would never accept the autonomy solution in any case, and so many other complications had entered the situation that it was almost impossible to think of a solution.
The truth is that Shahid's gaze was not political in the sense of being framed in terms of policy and solutions. In the broadest sense, his vision tended always toward the inclusive and ecumenical, an outlook that he credited to his upbringing. He spoke often of a time in his childhood when he had been seized by the desire to create a small Hindu temple in his room in Srinagar. He was initially hesitant to tell his parents, but when he did they responded with an enthusiasm equal to his own. His mother bought him murtis and other accoutrements, and for a while he was assiduous in conducting pujas at this shrine. This was a favorite story. "Whenever people talk to me about Muslim fanaticism," he said to me once, "I tell them how my mother helped me make a temple in my room. What do you make of that? I ask them." There is a touching evocation of this in his poem, "Lenox Hill": "and I, one festival, crowned Krishna by you, Kashmir/listening to my flute."
I once remarked to Shahid that he was the closest that Kashmir had to a national poet. He shot back: "A national poet, maybe. But not a nationalist poet; please not that." If anything, Kashmir's current plight represented for him the failure of the emancipatory promise of nationhood. In the title poem of The Country Without a Post Office, a poet returns to Kashmir to find the keeper of a fallen minaret:
"Nothing will remain, everything's finished,"
I see his voice again: "This is a shrine
of words. You'll find your letters to me. And mine
to you. Come soon and tear open these vanished
This is an archive. I've found the remains
of his voice, that map of longings with no limit.
The pessimism engendered by the loss of these ideals--that map of longings with no limit--resulted in a vision in which, increasingly, Kashmir became a vortex of images circling around a single point of stillness: the idea of death. In this figuring of his homeland, he himself became one of the images that were spinning around the dark point of stillness--both Sháhid and Shahíd, witness and martyr--his destiny inextricably linked with Kashmir's, each prefigured by the other.
I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir,
and the shadowed routine of each vein
will almost be news, the blood censored,
for the Saffron Sun and the Times of Rain....
Among my notes is a record of a telephone conversation last May 5. He'd had a brain scan the day before that would determine the future course of treatment. When he answered, there were no preambles. He said: "Listen Amitav, the news is not good at all. Basically they are going to stop all my medicines now--the chemotherapy and so on. They give me a year or less."
Dazed, staring blankly at my desk, I said: "What will you do now, Shahid?"
"I would like to go back to Kashmir to die." His voice was quiet and untroubled. "It's still such a feudal system there, and there will be so much support--and my father is there, too. Anyway, I don't want my siblings to have to make the journey afterwards, like we had to with my mother."
Later, for logistical and other reasons, he changed his mind about returning to Kashmir: He was content to be laid to rest in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the vicinity of Amherst, a town sacred to the memory of his beloved Emily Dickinson. But I do not think it was an accident that his mind turned to Kashmir in speaking of death. Already, in his poetic imagery, death, Kashmir and Sháhid/Shahíd had become so closely overlaid as to be inseparable, like old photographs that have melted together in the rain.
Yes, I remember it,
the day I'll die, I broadcast the crimson,
so long ago of that sky, its spread air,
its rushing dyes, and a piece of earth
bleeding, apart from the shore, as we went
on the day I'll die, past the guards, and he,
keeper of the world's last saffron, rowed me
on an island the size of a grave. On
two yards he rowed me into the sunset,
past all pain. On everyone's lips was news
of my death but only that beloved couplet,
broken, on his:
"If there is a paradise on earth
It is this, it is this, it is this."
Shahid's mother, Sufia Nomani, was from Rudauli in Uttar Pradesh. She was descended from a family that was well-known for its Sufi heritage. Shahid believed that this connection influenced her life in many intangible ways. "She had the grandeur of a Sufi," he liked to say.
Although Shahid's parents lived in Srinagar, they usually spent the winter months in their flat in New Delhi. It was there that his mother had her first seizure--from what would prove to be a malignant brain tumor. The family brought her to New York, where an operation resulted in her partial paralysis. Shahid and his siblings moved her to Massachusetts, where they were living. When she died two years later, in keeping with her wishes, the family took her body back to Kashmir for burial. This long and traumatic journey forms the subject of a cycle of poems, "From Amherst to Kashmir," that was later included in Shahid's 2001 collection, Rooms Are Never Finished.
During the last phase of his mother's illness and for several months afterward, Shahid was unable to write. The dry spell was broken in 1998, with "Lenox Hill," possibly his greatest poem. The poem was a canzone, a form of unusual rigor and difficulty (the poet Anthony Hecht once remarked that Shahid deserved to be in Guinness Book of World Records for having written three canzones--more than any other poet). In "Lenox Hill," the architectonics of the form creates a soaring superstructure, an immense domed enclosure, like that of the great mosque of Isfahan or the mausoleum of Sayyida Zainab in Cairo: a space that seems all the more vast because of the austerity of its proportions. The rhymes and half-rhymes are the honeycombed arches that thrust the dome toward the heavens, and the meter is the mosaic that holds the whole in place. Within the immensity of this bounded space, every line throws open a window that beams a shaft of light across continents, from Amherst to Kashmir, from the hospital of Lenox Hill to the Pir Panjal Pass. Entombed at the center of this soaring edifice lies his mother:
they asked me, So how's the writing? I answered My mother
is my poem. What did they expect? For no verse
sufficed except the promise, fading, of Kashmir
and the cries that reached you from the cliffs of Kashmir
(across fifteen centuries) in the hospital. Kashmir,
she's dying! How her breathing drowns out the universe
as she sleeps in Amherst.
The poem is packed with the devices that he perfected over a lifetime: rhetorical questions, imperative commands, lines broken or punctuated to create resonant and unresolvable ambiguities. It ends, characteristically, with a turn that is at once disingenuous and wrenchingly direct.
For compared to my grief for you, what are those of Kashmir,
and what (I close the ledger) are the griefs of the universe
when I remember you--beyond all accounting--O my mother?
For Shahid, the passage of time produced no cushioning from the shock of the loss of his mother: He relived it over and over again until the end. The week before his death, on waking one morning, he asked his family where his mother was and whether it was true that she was dead. On being told that she was, he wept as though he were living afresh through the event.
In the penultimate stanza of "Lenox Hill," in a heart-stopping inversion, Shahid figures himself as his mother's mother:
"As you sit here by me, you're just like my mother,"
she tells me. I imagine her: a bride in Kashmir,
she's watching, at the Regal, her first film with Father.
If only I could gather you in my arms, Mother,
I'd save you--now my daughter--from God. The universe
opens its ledger. I write: How helpless was God's mother!
I remember clearly the evening when Shahid read this poem in the living room of my house. I remember it because I could not keep myself from wondering whether it was possible that Shahid's identification with his mother was so powerful as to spill beyond the spirit and into the body. Brain cancer is not, so far as I know, a hereditary disease, yet his body had, as it were, elected to reproduce the conditions of his mother's death. But how could this be possible? Even the thought appears preposterous in the bleak light of the Aristotelian distinction between mind and body, and the notions of cause and effect that flow from it. Yet there are traditions in which poetry is a world of causality entire unto itself, where metaphor extends beyond the mere linking of words, into the conjugation of a distinctive reality.
Shahid thought of his work as being placed squarely within a modern Western tradition. Yet the mechanics of his imagination--dreams, visions, an overpowering sense of identity with those he loved--as well as his life, and perhaps even his death, were fashioned by a will that owed more perhaps to the Sufis and the Bhakti poets than to the Modernists. In his determination to be not just a writer of poetry but an embodiment of his poetic vision, he was, I think, more the heir of Rumi and Kabir than Eliot and Merrill.
The last time I saw Shahid was at the end of October, at his brother's house in Amherst. He was intermittently able to converse, and there were moments when we talked just as we had in the past. He was aware, as he had long been, of his approaching end, and he had made his peace with it. I saw no trace of anguish or conflict: Surrounded by the love of his family and friends, he was calm, contented, at peace. He had said to me once, "I love to think that I'll meet my mother in the afterlife, if there is an afterlife." I had the sense that as the end neared, this was his supreme consolation. He died peacefully, in his sleep, at 2 AM on December 8.
Now, in his absence, I am amazed that so brief a friendship has resulted in so vast a void. Often, when I walk into my living room, I remember his presence there, particularly on the night when he read us his farewell to the world: "I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World." I remember how he created a vision of an evening of ghazals, drawing to its end; of the be-diamonded singer vanishing through a mirror; I remember him evoking the voices he loved--of Begum Akhtar, Eqbal Ahmad and James Merrill--urging him on as he journeys toward his mother: "Love doesn't help anyone finally survive." Shahid knew exactly how it would end, and he was meticulous in saying his farewells, careful in crafting the envoy to the last verses of his own life.
They're looking for help with college and a reason to believe in government.
You may have read, in these pages and elsewhere [see Danny Goldberg, "Harvard Raps West," February 4], about the flap that Harvard University's president, Lawrence Summers, kicked off in a meeting with Cornel West, a professor of African-American studies and philosophy. Among other things, Summers implied that hip-hop had little street cred at the university--West had made a rap CD--and suggested that some serious scholarship was in order instead. West, miffed, mused about leaving for Princeton, and other prominent scholars in his department--Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chair, and Anthony Appiah--seemed ready to follow suit. While subsequent meetings have apparently tempered tempers, we thought a look at the CD itself might prove illuminating.
Whatever Cornel West's Sketches of My Culture (Artemis Records) is (or isn't), this experiment in hip-hop and homily doesn't warrant a stuffy fusillade of rabbit punches and groin kicks to West's academic standing. Harvard University is still in America, where an educator, at whatever position in relation to her nation's cultural elite, has the right to throw down, shout out, make a joyful noise and/or public display (if she does no serious psychic or physical harm to others) without being hassled about it by her boss.
Well, wait a moment. Let's try to step into this mess with, you know, a "positive" attitude, as the uplift posses like to put it.
"The Journey," the opening track on Sketches of My Culture, is also the only one whose words aren't conspicuously flattened against a throbbing beat. And thus it's the only track that foregrounds what Cornel West does best: Preach. As anyone who's heard him speak can attest, West can bring the raucous intimacy of a storefront church into the toniest lecture hall. The slashing cadences, rolling timbres and freewheeling alliteration that are standard equipment for the fiercest pulpit orators cleave to West's rhetorical style as crisply as his three-piece suits cling to his frame. He is never more a rhythm master than when he sermonizes with the abandon of a cocktail-lounge organist playing blues-funk variations after midnight.
But there's nothing in the content of "The Journey" that's original or provocative--unless it's news to you that people of African descent have managed to create a profound musical tradition against tremendous odds. The information conveyed on this track and those that follow is intended to comfort, to reinforce, to (you know) be positive and bring uplift to African-American listeners.
West and his collaborators have fashioned a serviceable black product, the digitally mastered equivalent of one of those needlepoint samplers that grandmothers kept--still keep?--on their kitchen walls. If this be insurrection, then I want an extra marshmallow in my hot chocolate before I take a nap.
Public Enemy's Chuck D once proclaimed that rap music is the black community's CNN. Riding this analogy, you could say that Sketches of My Culture transmits its news along frequencies that are practically threadbare from overuse. Once the overdubs, beat machines and vocal riffs settle in for the disc's duration, the obsolescence of thought, the repetitiveness of sentimentality become more pronounced, skating the edges of embarrassment.
Take (or leave) "3Ms" as an example. Now it's possible, though unlikely, that the memories of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X have become wispy and frail more than thirty years after their murders, especially to 20-something-and-under citizens of Hip-Hop Nation. But if "Martin, Medgar and Malcolm/Keep on keeping on/Keep on staying strong" is the best that these martyrs can expect as a chorus on a tribute presided over by one of the leading African-American public intellectuals of the present day (and the rest of the track is barely less banal), then consider yourself challenged to make yourself a better T-shirt.
Mahmoud Darwish burst on the Arab poetic scene in the mid-1960s with the publication in Beirut of poems written while he was living in Haifa, Israel, and working as a translator and editor for the Israeli Communist Party, Rakah. As Munir Akash points out in his introduction to this volume of selections from Darwish's recent work, with their fiery intensity and assuredness, the early poems touched a raw nerve in Arab readers. In a matter of a few years Darwish had become the most vocal and eloquent poetic spokesman of the Palestinians, and the foremost practitioner of what had come to be known as "the poetry of resistance."
Among poets writing in Arabic today, in fact, Darwish is the most widely translated. His work has made a home for itself in more than twenty-two languages, the bulk of it in some twenty books in French, which are bestsellers. By contrast, English has so far been less receptive to Darwish's poetry, except for a handful of volumes mostly out of print and a number of individual poems published in English-language literary magazines and anthologies. The Adam of Two Edens is only the second book-length volume of translations into English currently available to readers in the United States. Adam invites into our midst a deeply lyrical, sorrowful and unforgettable poetic voice.
The selections in The Adam of Two Edens are from Darwish's later works, mainly Ahad Ashar Kawkaban (Eleven Planets, 1992) and Limatha Tarakta al-Hissana Waheedan (Why Have You Left the Horse Alone?, 1995). Both collections were occasioned by a constellation of historic and personal events, at the center of which was the flawed Oslo Declaration of Principles in 1993. That year Darwish resigned from the PLO Executive Committee in protest and returned to the Middle East after an eleven-year exile in Paris. He settled first in Amman, the Jordanian capital, and then in the Palestinian town of Ramallah, where he also edits the Modernist Arabic literary journal al-Karmel, which he founded in 1981 in Beirut and continued editing in France.
Akash notes that the differences between Darwish's early, more declarative "poems of resistance" and the later works are striking--in thematic complexity and expressive sophistication. The curve of Darwish's poetic progress is little short of staggering--not only in the volume of his writerly and editorial output but also in the ways in which his writing has enlarged itself, consciously and systematically. For more than a decade now, the poet has slowly steered toward more open spaces and brought into his poetic sphere voices from other literary traditions and grafted their symbols, concerns and directions onto the trunk of Arabic poetry. His aim has been to create a poetic community of cultures, especially those that have been obliterated or are threatened with erasure--from the Native American to the Andalusian to the Palestinian and beyond.
Paradoxically, the expansion has also made Darwish's poetry more interior and personal. In this newly crafted lyrical space, atop the Palestinian soil, the experience of migration and the longing for solidarity with those who have embarked on the same trail have found an enduring anchor:
In migration we remember shirt buttons we lost,
forget the glittering crowns of our days,
recall the scent of apricot sweat,
forget the dancing horses on our wedding nights.
("In the Great Migration, I Love You More")
But even in its most intimate moments, his lyrical voice is often tempered with irony and seasoned with the salt of many departures. The intensity is always held in check, somewhat distanced and detached. Like the birds that inhabit Darwish's Mediterranean sky, his poems often flutter between poetic assertion and its difficulty in the face of the Palestinian national narrative of the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948:
I illuminate tomorrow's present in the moment.
Time separates me from my place.
My place separates me from my time.
All the prophets are my kin.
But heaven is still far from its earth
and I am still far from my words.
("On a Canaanite Stone at the Dead Sea")
The distance and separation are geographical, historical and personal. The Edenic title of the collection reverberates from poem to poem, as Darwish weaves symbolic nets that connect the biblical expulsion with the expulsion of the Arabs from Andalusia in "Ruba'yat":
I've seen all I want to see of the sea:
gulls flying through sunset.
I close my eyes:
this loss leads to Andalusia--
this sail is doves' prayers
pouring down on me.
And centuries later, with the migration of the poet from his native village of Birweh in the Upper Galilee, which the Israelis set ablaze and razed in 1948:
Do you remember our migration route to Lebanon?
Where you forgot me in a sack of bread
(it was wheat bread).
I kept quiet so as not to wake the guards.
The scent of morning dew lifted me onto your shoulders.
The metaphor of migration wanders the entire universe of Darwish's poetry. It crosses cities, cultures, regions, landscapes and historic periods, reproducing itself in an abundance of doubles and ironic twists to finally return home to the most bitter and prophetic irony of all: Home is another form of occupation, which robs people of their ability to dream of paradise. In a poem in 1982, Darwish asked, "Where should we go after the last frontiers?" In the poems of this collection, he tries to describe that rudderless, shadowy territory where everything has been co-opted by the mirage and rhetoric of peace.
Still, in these later works Darwish knows that the best the poet can do is populate these shadowy territories with the products of the only tools he has at his disposal--imagination and language:
My mother illuminates Canaan's last stars
around my mirror
and throws her shawl across my last poem.
In a poem dedicated to an Iraqi poet, he writes:
I'll remove the fingers of my dead from your body,
the buttons of their shirts and their birth certificates.
You'll take the letters of your dead to Jerusalem.
We'll wipe the blood from our glasses, my friend,
and reread our Kafka,
and open two windows onto a street of shadows.
("A Horse for the Stranger")
The image of two Arab poets rereading Kafka against the open window of uncertainty is a telling example of the kind of grafting that is common in Darwish's poetry: The poetic voice is also a communal voice--of García Lorca and Yeats, Homer and the bards of ancient cultures.
But these alliances, which Darwish weaves so masterfully, are also emblematic of the direction of his more recent poetry. Borrowing Adorno's term, Edward Said has noted that Darwish's "late style" opens onto a realm of irresolution and fracture, where poetry itself becomes the tenuous terrain of a lost homeland and an imagined community. Evoking the Arab expulsion from Granada in 1492, Darwish writes:
One day I'll pass by her moons and
scent my desires with lemon.
Embrace me, so I can be reborn
from aromas, from sunlight, from the river
thrown over your shoulders.
From two feet scratching the twilight
to make it weep milk tears
for a night of poetry!
("One Day I'll Sit on the Sidewalk")
In the end, what remains, what is permanent and real, is something as fleeting as a night of poetry whose fragile shoulders must carry not only the poet's longing for return but also the load of history, the long trail of expulsion and migration. In these dark, plaintive poems, though, poetry performs its essential task:
I'll shed my skin and from my language
words of love
will filter down through the poetry of García Lorca
who'll dwell in my bedroom
and see what I've seen of the bedouin moon.
("A sky Beyond sky for Me")
As an introduction to Darwish's later poetry, The Adam of Two Edens is an indispensable source. Akash's introduction --part memoir, part tribute, part analysis, part historical context--is both moving and effective in bringing Darwish and his poetry to life for American readers. Even those who have never read Darwish will know that they are in the company of a great poet whose imagined worlds are informed by great erudition, mythic sweep and meticulous lyricism.
Despite its noble aims, The Adam of Two Edens is limited in one key area. It lacks the translator's deliberate self-consciousness about the project at hand. We are told that several writers who are themselves versed in Arabic and English translated the individual poems, which were later "polished" by the American poet Daniel Moore to make them "harmonious in a single voice." But a translation's primary aim is to recast the music of the original in a wholly new expressive context, and to do so in bold ways. The collection would have benefited immensely from a discussion of the issues that the translators and Moore faced in this passage from Arabic to English, and how these issues were resolved, dodged or reframed.
Every translation renews the language of the original as well as the adopted language. So, too, with every poem. Darwish is well versed not only in Arabic and Hebrew poetry but also poetry written in English and French. The range of his poetic concerns is evident in a groundbreaking book of conversations with Arab and Israeli interviewers, La Palestine comme métaphore (Palestine as Metaphor, 1997; alas, not available in English). Part argument, part meditation, part analysis, it outlines not only Darwish's literary biography and the ways in which Palestinian and Israeli literatures have shaped his writing but also his efforts at forging an alliance between his native Arabic poetic tradition and the currents of Modernist poetry. But the introduction of The Adam of Two Edens merely notes that Darwish's "sense of cadence is symphonically structured," which, says Akash, has few equivalents in American poetry. That begs the question: What are the hurdles that a translator of Darwish's poetry faces in executing a translation into a poetic tradition and idiom that seems to lack what is so essential in the original?
Darwish's poetry, for example, sometimes displays instances where a line or a phrase or a word is repeated, and language seems to fold in on itself. This kind of creasing, which has its sources in the classical Arabic tradition of recitation, is a very effective device in giving the writing a pause, a suspended quality. A poetry reading by Darwish is always a huge cultural event in the Arab world, and this attribute places him in a line of poets who were also great reciters of their poetry--with Yeats, Ginsberg, Voznesensky, Dylan Thomas and others. But Darwish's Modernist impulses subvert the traditional comforts of this kind of creasing, turning this poetic device of classical Arabic into a source of both pleasure and anxiety. English, by contrast, does not tolerate repetition as well as Arabic does, and the translator has a huge problem in reinventing the original. It may be that with the best of intentions, the translators of the present volume have ended up being too loyal to the original, too willing to assume that there is a natural congruity between Arabic and English poetic cultures. The result is that sometimes the creases and folds seem clunky and pull the poem down.
The cadence of Darwish's Arabic sometimes has an eerie, miragelike feel to it, as if the lines were about to go into nothingness. Often the progress of the poetic line is musical; it seems to hover at the edge of something unknown, at the point where it can quickly become other than itself--a whisper, a silence, perhaps even a muffled sob. Darwish has argued at some length for the fraternity of music and poetry in the Arabic poetic tradition, even describing himself as something of a "reactionary," who, unlike some of his Arab contemporaries, has neither destroyed the poetic meter nor chosen prose over poetry. In the translations of The Adam of Two Edens we often do not have this sense of impending loss; the lines sometimes have a prosaic security that is at odds with the fragility of Darwish's poetry--reading it, writing it, listening to it.
In 1945 Czeslaw Milosz asked:
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
Against hope, Darwish's poetry still speaks of coexistence and a shared culture:
Stranger, hang your weapons in our palm tree
and let me plant my wheat in Canaan's sacred soil.
("On a Canaanite Stone at the Dead Sea")
His vision of peace is the poet's prerogative, of course, but it may, in the end, be the only one that stands a chance--if not of saving nations, then at least of perspective and moderation:
All I want of love is a beginning.
Doves flew above the roof of the last sky,
flew off and kept flying...
After we're gone there'll be plenty of wine in the jars.
A little land is land enough for us for a place to meet,
enough for peace to descend...
("All I Want of Love is a Beginning")
In this most emotionally charged of times, I think that many of the moral issues we face are overlaid by an oft-expressed tension between the need for security and the full protections of human rights. It is always expressed as a tension, freedom as opposed to security. It is a false dichotomy but understandable, given how afraid we all are. And so we limit our sights to the need for good policy, good intelligence and strong, democratically inclined, diplomatically gifted leaders.
But I am also a lawyer, and a child of the civil rights era, which was, a bit like these times, a dangerous time, troubled by terrorizing outlaw behavior, a violent time. Yet what guided us, black and white, men and women, minority and majority, through that time was a determined appeal and, ultimately, adherence to principles of morality, justice and law. Dr. King's appeal to a transformative progressive society, to what he referred to as The Beloved Community, was of course an overtly theological argument, grounded in a love of all humanity. But it was also a metaphor, and that metaphor was grounded in a legal case, in a series of legal cases that held steadfastly to notions of fairness, equality and due process of law. The legal and political triumphs of the civil rights era remain a monument to America's best ideals.
Those times too were fraught with passion and grief. There were those who thought that Dr. King's work for racial equality was too radical, too deeply subversive, or unpatriotic. There were those who thought his opposition to American policy in Vietnam merited the response Love it or leave it. Similarly, there are those who have taken George W. Bush's oft-repeated statement--originally a warning to Iraq, as I recall--of "you're either with us or against us" and applied it broadly and inappropriately to men and women of conscience who express their concern that international conventions and norms of human rights be scrupulously applied in the battle against Al Qaeda.
Trust, don't ask, some have said. Say something positive or shut up. I worry a lot about the predominance of flat "either-or" dualisms that by their very syntax eliminate the middle ground so necessary to political debate. Love it or leave it. But Dr. King loved his country, and there was no "or" about it. He did not leave America but worked to impart a legacy that changed it and the world for the better. He appealed to a society that is committed to unity and yet vaunts individual freedom, including the freedom to dissent.
These tensions are often placed like roadblocks: security versus freedom, community versus dissent. That pervasive sense of opposition was a challenge for Americans in Dr. King's time, and it is a challenge for Americans now. And because the United States is a model others copy as well as a global force to be reckoned with, the citizens of the world are, one by one, having to resolve these tensions as well. As Dr. King said, "Civil rights"--or human rights I think he would add in today's global context--"civil rights is an eternal moral issue..."
Whatever the issue, whatever the time, we must resist a mindset that defines those who are "with us" as those who accept all policies as untouchable, all military action as automatically legitimate, all criticism as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Otherwise we consign people who are engaged in the essence of democratic debate to the conceptual dustbin of those who are "against us." You're either on board as a team player or (according to the last few days of the New York Post alone) you're a brainless, overintellectualizing, group-thinking, anarchist, socialist, communist, stalinist, nihilistic, solipsistic, atheistic, politically correct, race-card-playing feminazi crackpot.
I sometimes wonder if we've forgotten who the enemy is.
But it is not unpatriotic to question and argue about our public policy; it's a duty of citizenship. It is not disrespectful to the Republic to ask, when our Defense Secretary says the men held in Guantánamo Bay are receiving better treatment than the Taliban ever gave their prisoners, what that means precisely. That they have not yet been beheaded? Or that the norms of the Geneva Convention and the Constitution are being rigorously observed?
I worry too about the degree to which we keep referring to these enemies as The Evil Ones or The Bad Guys--such odd terms, as though our leaders were speaking to very young children. By this, Al Qaeda is placed in an almost biblical narrative, ready to be smote and cast out. In this model, giving The Evil Ones so mundane a forum as a trial is literally "courting" the devil. While this sort of embedded language has certainly galvanized the people in a time of great crisis, I don't believe it's a useful long-term model for a democratic secular government trying to fight real political foes, particularly stateless enemies who are religious zealots in their own right. This sort of narrative obscures the adult reality that they are enemies, not viruses. They are humans, not demons. They are criminals, not satanic extraterrestrials. They may indeed be our New Age Goebbelses and Goerings, but we did not put Nazi war criminals in cages. We brought them to justice.
Given all this we will need all the thoughtful voices we can get to help our beleaguered leaders figure out a world that is growing more mobile, more diasporic, more riven by racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism (and I mean anti-Semitism in the broad sense of prejudice against all Semitic peoples, including Jews, Arabs and some Asians), religious intolerance, economic disparity and struggles for land. Indeed, recent tensions are such that some are calling this a "clash of civilizations." This too is something we should be wary of. Organized crime syndicates--whether the Ku Klux Klan in the civil rights era or Al Qaeda now--do not a civilization make.
As we move into Black History Month, it is good to remember that Dr. King's message was far more complex than the naïve rosiness to which he's often reduced. He insisted on equal protection even for those we do not like. He insisted on due process of law even for those whom we have reason to fear. And he demanded that we respect the humanity even of those we despise.
As the chairman of Artemis Records, the company that released Cornel West's CD, Sketches of My Culture, I considered criticizing Cornel for his association with Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard. Without ever listening to it, Summers attacked West merely for having released a CD, dismissing the entire universe of recorded music as being "unworthy of a Harvard professor." But like most record executives, I'm more tolerant of unorthodox associations than Summers, so I'll continue to judge West by his work and the inspiration it provides.
Among the flurry of press reports sparked by the controversy--most of which alluded to the alleged "rap CD"--quite a few couldn't get the facts straight. The New Republic claimed that West "has spent more time recording a rap CD and stumping for Al Sharpton than doing academic work." In fact, West has canceled only one class in twenty-six years of teaching, and that was several years ago, to deliver a lecture in Ethiopia. West recorded the CD during a leave--a long-established privilege in academia. (Summers himself took a leave from a professorship at Harvard to work for the World Bank.)
A Summers aide has said that the confrontation with West was a "terrible misunderstanding," but it's possible that Summers knew exactly what he was doing, using West the way Bill Clinton used Sister Souljah: to placate conservative elements of his constituency. Not only did Summers harshly criticize West's published work, he acknowledged that he had not read any of it or listened to the CD. Moreover, it's obvious that what disturbs Summers is not the notion of a Harvard professor engaging in political activity but West's particular beliefs: He criticized West's involvement with Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader and Al Sharpton, but Summers himself supported Al Gore (as did West's friend and supporter Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of the Afro-American studies department). Summers has been silent as his supporters have misrepresented West's record and called him names. Two examples: The National Review's Rod Dreher referred to West as a "clownish minstrel" and the New York Daily News's Zev Chafetz called him "a self-promoting lightweight with a militant head of hair."
West's decision to record a CD is in keeping with a commitment to spread his ideals and ideas as far and wide as possible. His book Race Matters has sold more than 350,000 copies and is one of the most influential books on race of the past couple of decades. His other works are used as texts in college classes around the world. There is no other public figure who is welcome in academia, in the media, in both conventional and activist politics and in the religious world.
By the way, Sketches of My Culture is not a "rap" CD. West, like most contemporary music critics, acknowledges that hip-hop is a vital cultural language. But Sketches itself is a concept album that is predominantly spoken word surrounded by r&b music, a montage that includes limited and focused uses of hip-hop language. Like any work of art, it's open to legitimate criticism, but it is clearly a serious attempt to use a modern art form to grapple with the themes that have animated West's career: black history, spirituality and political morality. There is not a word of profanity on it.
The indefatigable West has reached out to poor communities, moderating the crucial final panel at a recent "Rap Summit" and appearing on urban radio shows that had never been graced by the presence of an academic. I have seen the faces of young people inspired by West's linking of their own aspirations to the civil rights struggle and to the great philosophical and religious traditions. He urges them to live up to those examples. It has said something to the broader American community about Harvard that Cornel West is a professor there, and it will say something about Harvard if he is not.
A review of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul.
Zero built a nest
In my navel. Incurable
Longing. Blood too--
From violent actions
It's a nest belonging to one
But zero uses it
And its pleasure is its own.
(from The Quietist)
The limits have wintered me
as if white trees were there to be written on.
It must be purgatory
there are so many letters and things.
Faith, hope and charity rise in the night
like the stations of an accountant.
And I remember my office, sufficiency.
The stains of blackberries near Marx's grave
do to color what eyes do to everything.
Help me survive my own presence, open to the elements.
Fog mist palloring greens, no demarcations,
but communitarian gravestones.
Celts lost to Anglo Saxons who endlessly defended marks.
Guerrilla war, terror:
the tactics for landless neo-realists.
When The Majestic was about to be released--it's the movie, you will recall, in which Jim Carrey plays a blacklisted screenwriter who suffers from amnesia--someone asked me to tote up the other films that touch on the Hollywood inquisition. I eliminated the allegories, such as Johnny Guitar, and the pictures that deal with other branches of show business (the music industry in Sweet Smell of Success, television in A King in New York and The Front) and calculated that all of two features--The Way We Were and Guilty by Suspicion--pay attention to the blacklist.
The number is also two with The Majestic included.
Talk about suffering from amnesia! Of course the movie industry feigned ignorance when the witch hunt was on--among its other unmentionable traits, the blacklist was illegal--and you can see how a certain forgetfulness was convenient afterward. But as Hollywood moved into the 1970s and '80s, with new corporate masters taking over the studios and old decision-makers dying off, the subject of the blacklist might have seemed ripe for exploiting. The industry has always loved to dramatize itself; and here, lying unexplored, was an episode that had convulsed all of Hollywood, and much of America with it.
Two films--if you feel generous toward Carrey, three. But now the count has risen significantly with One of the Hollywood Ten, the most honest movie of its very small group and arguably the best. It is not, however, an American picture. To our shame, it has taken a Welsh writer-director, Karl Francis, and producers based in Britain and Spain to film the true story of a blacklisted couple, Herbert Biberman and Gale Sondergaard, and their making of that remarkable movie, Salt of the Earth.
Since even Nation readers might be unaware of these events--and since truthfulness is a large part of Francis's merit--here's a quick synopsis:
Biberman was called before HUAC in 1947, among the committee's first group of unfriendly witnesses. Until that time his work as a writer and director had been so sparse, and so lackluster, that no one could have rationally accused him of transmitting ideology through the movies. That he had an ideology was unquestionable; Biberman was a committed Communist. But his greatest distinction was his marriage to Sondergaard, a hard-working, Oscar-winning actress.
Citing his First Amendment rights, Biberman refused to testify before HUAC, whereupon he was charged with contempt of Congress and sent to prison. When Sondergaard insisted on standing by him, she too was blacklisted. She found herself, upon his release, running a household of the dual unemployed.
It was at this point that their friends and fellow blacklistees Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico came up with the idea of making an independent film about a labor uprising in New Mexico. The members of Local 890 of the Mine-Mill Workers, most of them Mexican-American, had gone on strike against Empire Zinc, demanding the same pay and conditions as Anglo workers received. The company's response was to get an injunction against the union, forbidding the miners from picketing. But the injunction said nothing about the miners' wives. In a brave and ingenious improvisation, the women came forward to walk the line, and did it so effectively that Empire Zinc finally settled.
Wilson turned this episode into the screenplay for Salt of the Earth. Jarrico took on the producer's duties, and Biberman signed on as director. Sondergaard had expected to play the lead--she was the cooperative's only bankable property--but at Biberman's request she stepped aside in favor of a Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. Most of the other parts, including the male lead, were also cast with an eye for authenticity (and budgetary restraint), with the people of Local 890 playing themselves.
I said that One of the Hollywood Ten is a rare movie. Salt of the Earth is unique. It would have stood alone in its era just for having been made by movie industry veterans, but shot on location and acted by a largely nonprofessional cast. But, even more extraordinary, Salt of the Earth was a story about the problems of Mexican-American workers, as told by a Mexican-American woman. You'd have trouble finding such a movie today, when independent filmmaking is well established in America. Salt of the Earth was released in 1954.
Of course, neither unique nor pioneering is a synonym for good. And though the filmmakers faced extraordinary hardships, those, too, must remain external to any judgment of Salt of the Earth. The government deported Rosaura Revueltas in the midst of production, discouraged labs from processing the film, accused the crew of wanting to spy on atomic secrets at Los Alamos, kept theaters from booking the completed Salt of the Earth and warned projectionists away from showing it. This was an impressive show of force to mount against one little movie; but the harassment, in itself, doesn't justify what you see on the screen.
Biberman and his many collaborators justified Salt of the Earth. They managed to imbue the film with the feelings of a living community: at house parties and on picket lines, in the saloon and the church. Scenes percolate with the natural interplay of friends and neighbors, giving rise to a barely suppressed boisterousness. (The ruckus breaks into the open after the women are arrested for picketing. They mount a protest in their cell, with undisguised glee.) The ease of the group interaction makes up for the occasional awkwardness in individual performances--an awkwardness that at any rate has its own charm. And no excuses are needed for Revueltas, with her finely nuanced movements toward self-assertion; for the pace of the film, which keeps building and building; or for Biberman's eye, which seems to have been delighted with every face, landscape feature and stick of furniture in New Mexico.
To the eyes of present-day viewers, who may be accustomed to strains of neorealism developed everywhere from Italy to Iran, Salt of the Earth looks surprisingly good. It is not a based-on-a-true-story movie but something more valuable: the chief American prototype for those films that are simultaneously fiction and documentary. As for the virtue of its uniqueness: Doesn't a special honor accrue to the one film to have done something that was well worth doing?
I believe One of the Hollywood Ten has earned a similar distinction--though its internal, cinematic merits are entirely different. That's as it should be. The two films take entirely different approaches to their medium.
Biberman and his partners made a movie that barely acknowledges the existence of the entertainment business; the only evidence of pop culture in Salt of the Earth is a radio, bought on the installment plan. One of the Hollywood Ten, by contrast, reminds you at every turn that you're watching a movie, and that movies are (among other things) a business and a site of ideological contest. Francis opens his film with a prologue set in 1937, in which he tosses up two opposing forms of movie politics: the opening in New York City of Triumph of the Will, and the announcement by Gale Sondergaard (in the midst of the Academy Awards broadcast) of the formation of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Once Francis jumps into 1947, he continues this theme, showing the HUAC hearings as newsreel fodder (which they were). Everybody in One of the Hollywood Ten is playing for the camera and the microphone.
It's fitting, then, that Francis's movie should feature three star performances. The biggest of them is Jeff Goldblum's, as Biberman. Much of the usual Goldblum shtick is in evidence: the talking with dark eyes unfocused, the bursting forth of little phrases after unpredictable, Miles Davis pauses. But, also as usual, Goldblum feels his way deep into the character. He shows us Biberman as a chronic empathizer, someone who's always draping his big hands reassuringly over anyone he talks to. The voice is low, patient, thoughtful; and then, when Biberman doesn't get his way, he jumps without transition to a full bellow.
Greta Scacchi, as Gale Sondergaard, makes good use of a certain brittleness in her screen personality. Here she's playing a Hollywood star of the old school--a woman with perfectly groomed vowels, who keeps her well-powdered face turned toward the key light in any room--which allows her to find authentic feeling, even gutsiness, within her pose. But the movie's biggest star turn, the one that steals One of the Hollywood Ten, is Angela Molina's performance as Rosaura Revueltas. Molina looks older than Revueltas did in Salt of the Earth; whereas Revueltas had smooth, freckled features, Molina's face is lined and sunken. When Molina begins to play Esperanza, the central character in Salt of the Earth, her eyes take on the outsize look of hunger. And the voice! Molina puts a weariness, and a wariness, all her own into Esperanza's lines, using intonations that cut into your bones.
One of the Hollywood Ten thrives on these performances, and on Francis's fascination with movies themselves--how they're made, how they work on their audiences. (In one of the picture's truest moments, Biberman bubbles over with enthusiasm at his own cleverness, talking about the best way to shoot and edit Salt of the Earth.) Where the movie strays from these strengths, it also falters. Among its several glaring faults, One of the Hollywood Ten gives us an FBI agent who is so monotonally nasty that he seems to have strayed in from a bus-and-truck tour of Les Miz, and a Gale Sondergaard who is indomitably firm, except when she's not. When her husband tells her she won't play the lead in Salt of the Earth--her husband, who wouldn't have gotten to direct the picture without her intervention--she needs only a brief walk on the beach to calm her down. And, of course, there's music on the beach. There's music everywhere in One of the Hollywood Ten, poured out of a can of creamed corn.
This is merely to say that no one has yet made a masterpiece about the Hollywood blacklist. Karl Francis has made a good, intelligent movie about the subject, and a largely truthful one. Let's see somebody try to top him.
One of the Hollywood Ten has just been shown in the New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
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