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No one has contributed more to the United States than James Madison. He
was the principal architect of the Constitution, the brilliant theorist
who, more than any other single individual, was responsible for
designing the American system of government. Moreover, along with
Washington and Franklin, Madison was one of the men who made the Constitutional
Convention in Philadelphia work. Whenever passionate disagreements
threatened the enterprise, it was Madison's calm logic to which the
others listened. As one delegate put it, it was Madison who had "the
most correct knowledge" about government affairs.
And no one did more than Madison to get the Constitution ratified in the
face of strong anti-Federalist opposition. The most hyperbolic
superlatives cannot do justice to the twenty-nine newspaper essays
Madison wrote that, together with essays by Alexander Hamilton and John
Jay (all written under the pseudonym Publius), comprise the
Federalist Papers. Suffice it to say that 200 years later a
distinguished political scientist wrote, "The Federalist is the
most important work in political science that has ever been written, or
is likely to be written, in the United States," and that Madison's
contributions shine the brightest.
And that is not all. At the convention in Richmond when anti-Federalists
George Mason and Patrick Henry used every argument and stratagem to
persuade Virginia to refuse to ratify the new Constitution--which, had
they been successful, would have caused the Union to be stillborn--it
was Madison's cool, clear reasoning that once again saved the day.
Madison's place in the pantheon of great Americans, therefore, is secure
regardless of how we evaluate his performance as the nation's fourth
President (1809-17). His reputation can withstand the central inquiry of
Garry Wills's short and provocative new book, namely: Why was James
Madison so great a constitutionalist but so dreadful a President?
Perhaps I overstate by calling Madison's presidency "dreadful." Wills
does not go that far. He presents an evaluation of Madison's successes
and failures, finding both. Nor do historians generally consider Madison
a dreadful President. When C-SPAN asked historians to rank the forty-two
American Presidents, Madison came in at number 18, putting him slightly
above average and, by way of modern comparisons, ahead of George H.W.
Bush (20) and Bill Clinton (21).
Wills's strongest pejorative is his description of Madison as a "hapless
commander in chief." Nevertheless, Wills's examination makes me wonder
whether, out of deference to Madison's other accomplishments, historians
are being unduly charitable to his presidency.
The defining issue of Madison's tenure was the War of 1812. Some
historians argue that he cannot be blamed for a war thrust upon him by a
"War Hawk Congress." Others, however, including most prominently Ralph
Ketcham of Syracuse University, argue that Madison wanted the war and
maneuvered Congress into declaring it. Wills sides with Ketcham and
builds a persuasive case that Madison deliberately propelled America
into a war for which it was ill prepared.
War was raging between England and France when Madison came to office.
Napoleon's armies were conducting their bloody marches across the
Continent while England was using her sea power to try to keep him
confined there. During his term, Jefferson had been confronted with the
problem of what to do about the combatants seizing ships that were
carrying American exports to their adversaries or, in England's case
especially, boarding American ships to seize sailors, many of whom were
deserters from the British Navy. At Madison's urging (Madison was
Jefferson's Secretary of State), Jefferson imposed an embargo on
American ships crossing the Atlantic. While some supported an embargo to
keep American ships out of harm's way, Madison believed an embargo would
exert enough commercial pressure on England to force it to agree to
leave American shipping alone.
But in fact the embargo meant little to England or France. It meant much
more to America, particularly New England, whose economy depended
heavily on trade with England. In the first year of the embargo
America's exports fell by almost 80 percent. New England preferred
having some of its ships and cargo seized by combatants to suspending
all trade. Under great pressure, Congress ended the embargo and replaced
it with the Nonintercourse Act, which permitted American ships to cross
the Atlantic as long as they did not trade with England or France. The
virtue of this approach was that it was unenforceable; once American
ships disappeared over the horizon, there was no telling where they
The embargo ended on the last day of Jefferson's presidency, and the
indignity of combatants seizing American ships and sailors resumed in
full force as Madison took office. Then Madison heard good news: A
British diplomat reported that his government was ready to grant America
neutral trading rights. Thrilled, Madison immediately issued a
proclamation repealing America's prohibition against trade with
whichever nation, England or France, first granted neutral trading
rights to the United States. Believing troubles with England at sea to
be at an end, 600 ships sailed from American ports confident that all
would be well when they arrived at their trading destinations across the
But England quickly announced there had been a mistake. Its
representative had failed to communicate that England would grant
neutral status only upon several conditions, one of which was that
England would continue to stop and board American ships and seize former
British sailors. Madison was fit to tied. By reneging on its word, said
Madison, England had committed an "outrage on all decency" more horrible
than the capture of black slaves from the shores of Africa.
Madison should have realized something was wrong with the original
repre-sentation, Wills argues. The US government's own survey revealed
that roughly 9,000 American crewmen were British deserters, and England
could not possibly afford so many of her sailors safe haven on American
Madison tried to wipe the egg off his face by announcing a new
policy--America would unilaterally resume trade with England and France
and continue to trade with both until either nation recognized America's
neutral trading rights, at which time America would automatically
reimpose an embargo upon the other. In view of the failure of the first
embargo, there was no reason to believe a potential new embargo would
force England or France to change its policy. But, says Wills, Madison
remained stubbornly committed to the failed policy of embargo.
Unfortunately, Wills believes, Napoleon shrewdly exploited it as a means
to maneuver America into war against England.
Napoleon announced he would repeal his ban on neutral trade on November
1, 1812, provided that the United States reimposed its embargo against
England by then. Acting once again without bothering to get
clarification, Madison reimposed the embargo upon England. But just as
he had previously acted without learning England's details and
conditions, this time Madison acted on Napoleon's offer only to discover
that Napoleon refused to rescind an order confiscating American ships at
port in recently captured Holland and other harbors of the empire.
Getting bamboozled by Napoleon appears, paradoxically, to have made
Madison even more furious at England. For its part, England found
Madison's willingness to side with France deplorable. "England felt that
it was defending the free world against the international tyranny of
Bonapartism," Wills writes. "Anyone who was not with them in that
struggle was against them." And so, increasingly, America and England
perceived each other as enemies.
Madison's anger with England was one factor that moved him toward war,
but there was another as well: He wanted to seize Canada. Jefferson
urged Madison to pluck this ripe plum while England was militarily
engaged with Napoleon. "The acquisition of Canada this year will be a
mere matter of marching," advised Jefferson.
It may be worth pausing to observe that many of Madison's worst
disasters involve following Jefferson. With the exception of the War of
1812, the most lamentable mistake of Madison's career was his plotting
with Jefferson to have states nullify federal laws, specifically the
Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The acts violated fundamental
principles of free speech and press, and Jefferson and Madison cannot be
blamed for opposing them. But the medicine they prescribed--the claim
that the states could enact legislation nullifying federal law--was
potentially far worse than the disease.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison had argued that
Congress should be given the authority to nullify state law, and was
discouraged when he lost this battle. He later betrayed his own
convictions by arguing that the state legislatures could nullify laws
enacted by Congress, though for tactical reasons he called this
"interposition" rather than "nullification." Moreover, Madison allowed
himself to be Jefferson's cat's-paw in this matter. Jefferson, then Vice
President, wanted to keep his own involvement secret, and Madison
fronted for both of them. Madison was haunted by this throughout his
career: Southern states invoked Madison's support of nullification
during disputes over slavery, and Madison's political opponents
delighted in forcing him to try to explain the difference between
"interposition" and "nullification."
Why did Madison so readily follow Jefferson over cliffs? Madison was
nervous, bookish, provisional and physically unimposing (5'4" and 100
pounds). He was so insecure with the opposite sex that he did not
attempt courtship until he was 31. The object of his desire was 15, and
Madison was so crushed by her rejection that he did not venture into
romance again until he was 43, when he successfully won Dolley's hand.
It would be only natural for Madison to fall under the thrall of the
tall, dashing, passionate, cosmopolitan and supremely self-confident
Any sensible strategy to seize Canada from one of the world's
superpowers would necessarily hinge upon a quick and powerful attack to
overwhelm British forces before they could be reinforced or before the
British Navy could be brought to bear in the conflict. Madison and his
military commanders planned a rapid, two-pronged strike: One American
force, commanded by William Hull, was to invade Canada from the west,
crossing over the border from Detroit. Meanwhile, Henry Dearborn was to
lead American forces from the east, crossing the Saint Lawrence River
from various points in New York.
Rather than take the time to raise and train a professional army,
Madison decided to invade Canada with militia forces. But this strategy
was the military equivalent of throwing pebbles at a hornet's nest--and
Madison should have known it.
Before the Revolutionary War, there had been much soapbox rhetoric about
the glories of the militia: Citizen soldiers were supposed to be more
virtuous and therefore more capable than professional soldiers. The
Revolutionary War proved this to be bunk. After the skirmishes at
Lexington and Concord, the militia performed terribly. So often did the
militia bolt in the face of even much smaller opposing forces that it
became Continental Army doctrine to position militia units in front of
and between regular army units, who were ordered to shoot the first
militiamen to run. Washington won the war only after raising and
training a professional army.
Notwithstanding the militia's dismal performance, some
politicians--particularly Southern slaveholders like Madison who relied
on the militia for slave control--continued to cling to the notion that
the virtuous citizen militia was superior to a professional army. One
Southerner who would have found these views laughable if they were not
so dangerous was George Washington. "America has almost been amused out
of her Liberties" by pro-militia rhetoric, he said: "I solemnly declare
I never was witness to a single instance, that can countenance an
opinion of Militia or raw Troops being fit for the real business of
Madison, however, had not been listening. In the Federalist
Papers, he and Hamilton expressed differing views about the militia.
Hamilton argued that an effective fighting force required professional
training and discipline, and he urged Congress to support only a select
militia. Madison, however, continued to envision a universal militia
consisting of all able-bodied white men.
This debate resonates even today in the gun-control debate. Because the
Second Amendment connects the right to bear arms to the militia,
gun-rights advocates suggest that the Founders considered the universal
militia to be sacrosanct. The militia was then composed of the whole
body of the people, and thus the Constitution permanently grants the
whole body of the people the right to keep and bear arms--or so the
argument runs. This makes little sense as a matter of constitutional
law, however, because, as both Hamilton and Madison recognized, the
Constitution expressly empowered Congress to organize the militia as it
Despite the Revolutionary War experience, Madison launched his attack on
Canada almost entirely with militia forces. The results were
predictable. In the east, most militiamen refused to cross the Saint
Lawrence, claiming that it was unlawful to take the militia outside the
United States. Dearborn did manage to coax a small contingent across the
river. But when shooting accidentally broke out among his own forces,
they all fled in confusion back across the Saint Lawrence.
Meanwhile, in the west, Hull's forces were paralyzed by militia refusing
to take orders from regular Army officers. There was an invasion, but
American forces were not the invaders. By the end of 1812, when America
was to be in possession of most of Canada, a few American units that had
failed to retreat successfully back into New York were being held
prisoner in eastern Canada, and English forces had taken Detroit and the
Things continued downhill. Two years later, a British force of 1,200
marched nearly unchallenged into the District of Columbia while 8,000
American troops, mostly militia, "ran away too fast for our hard-fagged
people to make prisoners," as one British commander put it. The British,
of course, burned the White House and Capitol to the ground.
Wills gives Madison high marks for grace and courage during the British
invasion of Washington, and, all in all, the war did not turn out too
badly. The British had not wanted it and settled for the status quo ante
bellum. And rather than feeling disgraced, America took patriotic pride
in a series of Navy successes, remembered through battle slogans and
anthems ("Don't give up the ship," James Lawrence; "We have met the
enemy and they are ours," Oliver Hazard Perry; "the rockets' red glare,"
Francis Scott Key). America came out of war feeling good about itself.
For this, historians give Madison much credit.
Some credit is undoubtedly deserved. More than once, Madison acted with
courage and grace in the midst of panic. America was properly proud of
its naval feats, though it is not clear that a President who took a
nation with seven warships into battle against an adversary with 436
Is it unfair to call Madison a dreadful President? If Wills is correct
about Madison stumbling his way toward war through a series of
diplomatic blunders and then deciding to take on a world power with
militia forces, perhaps not.
And what is it that allowed Madison to be so great a constitutionalist
and so poor a President? Wills argues that it was provincialism and
naïveté: What Madison had learned from the great minds by
reading books allowed him to understand political theory better,
perhaps, than anyone else. But without greater worldly experience, even
Madison could not operate the levers of power that he himself designed.
Yet as Wills aptly concludes, "Madison did more than most, and did some
things better than any. That is quite enough."
Dread ripples through me as I listen to a phone message from our manager
saying that we (The Doors) have another offer of huge amounts of money
if we would just allow one of our songs to be used as the background for
a commercial. They don't give up! I guess it's hard to imagine that
everybody doesn't have a price. Maybe 'cause, as the cement heads try to
pave the entire world, they're paving their inner world as well. No
imagination left upstairs.
Apple Computer called on a Tuesday--they already had the audacity to
spend money to cut "When the Music's Over" into an ad for their new cube
computer software. They want to air it the next weekend, and will give
us a million and a half dollars! A MILLION AND A HALF DOLLARS! Apple is
a pretty hip company...we use computers.... Dammit! Why did Jim (Morrison) have to have such integrity?
I'm pretty clear that we shouldn't do it. We don't need the money. But I
get such pressure from one particular bandmate (the one who wears
glasses and plays keyboards).
"Commercials will give us more exposure," he says. I ask him, "so you're
not for it because of the money?" He says "no," but his first
question is always "how much?" when we get one of these offers, and he
always says he's for it. He never suggests we play Robin Hood, either.
If I learned anything from Jim, it's respect for what we created. I have
to pass. Thank God, back in 1965 Jim said we should split everything,
and everyone has veto power. Of course, every time I pass, they double
It all started in 1967, when Buick proffered $75,000 to use "Light My
Fire" to hawk its new hot little offering--the Opel. As the story
goes--which everyone knows who's read my autobiography or seen Oliver
Stone's movie--Ray, Robby and John (that's me) OK'd it, while Jim was
out of town. He came back and went nuts. And it wasn't even his song
(Robby primarily having penned "LMF")! In retrospect, his calling up
Buick and saying that if they aired the ad, he'd smash an Opel on
television with a sledgehammer was fantastic! I guess that's one of the
reasons I miss the guy.
It actually all really started back in '65, when we were a garage
band and Jim suggested sharing all the songwriting credits and money.
Since he didn't play an instrument--literally couldn't play one chord on
piano or guitar, but had lyrics and melodies coming out of his ears--the
communal pot idea felt like a love-in. Just so no one got too
weird, he tagged that veto thought on. Democracy in action...only
sometimes avenues between "Doors" seem clogged with bureaucratic BS. In
the past ten years it's definitely intensified...maybe we need a third
party. What was that original intent? Liberty and justice for all
songs...and the pursuit of happiness.... What is happiness? More money?
More fame? The Vietnamese believe that you're born with happiness; you
don't have to pursue it. We tried to bomb that out of them back in my
youth. From the looks of things, we might have succeeded.
This is sounding pretty depressing, John; where are you going here? The
whole world is hopefully heading toward democracy. That's a good thing,
John.... Oh, yeah: the greed gene. Vaclav Havel had it right when he
took over as president of Czechoslovakia, after the fall of Communism.
He said, "We're not going to rush into this too quickly, because I don't
know if there's that much difference between KGB and IBM."
Whoa! Here comes another one: "Dear John Densmore, this letter is an
offer of up to one million dollars for your celebrity endorsement of our
product. We have the best weight loss, diet and exercise program, far
better than anything on the market. The problem is the celebrity must be
overweight. Then the celebrity must use our product for four weeks,
which will take off up to 20 pounds of their excess body fat. If your
endorsement works in the focus group tests, you will immediately get
$10,000.00 up front and more money will start rolling in every month
after that--up to a million dollars or more." Wow! Let's see...I've
weighed 130 pounds for thirty-five years--since my 20s...I'll have to
gain quite a bit...sort of like a De Niro thing...he gained fifty pounds for Raging Bull--and won an Oscar! I'm an artist, too, like him...
We used to build our cities and towns around churches. Now banks are at
the centers of our densely populated areas. I know, it's the 1990s....
No, John, it's the new millennium, you dinosaur. Rock dinosaur, that is.
My hair isn't as long as it used to be. I don't smoke much weed anymore,
and I even have a small bald spot. The dollar is almighty, and
ads are kool, as cool as the coolest rock videos.
Why did Jim have to say we were "erotic politicians"? If I had been the
drummer for the Grassroots, it probably wouldn't have cut me to the core
when I heard John Lennon's "Revolution" selling tennis shoes...and
Nikes, to boot! That song was the soundtrack to part of my youth, when
the streets were filled with passionate citizens expressing their First
Amendment right to free speech. Hey...the streets are filled again! Or
were, before 9/11. And they're protesting what I'm trying to wax on and
on about here. Corporate greed! Maybe I should stick to music. I guess
that's why I hit the streets with Bonnie Raitt during the 1996
Democratic National Convention. We serenaded the troops. Bob Hope did it
during World War II, only our troops are those dressed in baggy Bermuda
shorts, sporting dreadlocks. Some have the shaved Army look, but they're
always ready to fight against the Orwellian nightmare. A woman activist
friend of mine said that with the networking of the Net, what's bubbling
under this brave new world will make the '60s unrest look like peanuts.
I don't want "Anarchy, Now," a worn-out hippie phrase, but I would like
to see a middle class again in this country.
Europe seems saner right now. They are more green than us. They're
paranoid about our genetically altered food and they're trying to make
NATO a little more independent in case we get too zealous in our
policing of the globe. When The Doors made their first jaunt from the
colonies to perform in the mother country back in '67, the record
companies seemed a little saner, too. The retailers in England could
order only what they thought they could sell; no returns to the
manufacturers. That eliminated the tremendous hype that this country
still produces, creating a buzz of "double platinum" sales, and then
having half of the CDs returned. Today, there is a time limit of three
to six months for the rackjobbers to get those duds back to the company.
Our band used to be on a small folk label. Judy Collins, Love and the
Butterfield Blues Band were our Elektra labelmates. We could call up the
president, Jac Holzman, and have a chat...and this was before we
made it. Well, Jac sold out for $10 million back in '70, and we were now
owned by a corporation. Actually, today just five corps own almost the
entire record business, where numbers are the bottom line. At
least we aren't on the one owned by Seagram's! Wait a minute...maybe
we'd get free booze...probably not. Advances are always
recoupable, booze probably is too.
Those impeccable English artists are falling prey as well. Pete
Townshend keeps fooling us again, selling Who songs to yuppies hungry
for SUVs. I hope Sting has given those Shaman chiefs he hangs out with
from the rainforest a ride in the back of that Jag he's advertising,
'cause as beautiful as the burlwood interiors are, the car--named after
an animal possibly facing extinction--is a gas guzzler. If you knew me
back in the '60s, you might say that this rant--I mean, piece--now has a
self-righteous ring to it, me having had the name Jaguar John back then.
I had the first XJ-6 when they came out, long before the car became
popular with accountants. That's when I sold it for a Rolls
Royce-looking Jag, the Mark IV, a super gas guzzler. That was back when
the first whiffs of rock stardom furled up my nose. Hopefully, I've
learned something since those heady times, like: "What good is a used-up
world?" Plus, it's not a given that one should do commercials for the
products one uses. The Brits might bust me here, having heard "Riders on
the Storm" during the '70s (in Britain only) pushing tires for their
roadsters, but our singer's ghost brought me to my senses and I gave my
portion to charity. I still don't think the Polish member of our
band has learned the lesson of the Opel, but I am now adamant that three
commercials and we're out of our singer's respect. "Jim's dead!" our
piano player responds to this line of thought. That is precisely
why we should resist, in my opinion. The late, transcendental George
Harrison had something to say about this issue. The Beatles "could have
made millions of extra dollars [doing commercials], but we thought it
would belittle our image or our songs," he said. "It would be real handy
if we could talk to John [Lennon]...because that quarter of us is
gone...and yet it isn't, because Yoko's there, Beatling more than ever."
Was he talking about the Nike ad, or John and Yoko's nude album cover
shot now selling vodka?
Actually, it was John and Yoko who inspired me to start a 10 percent
tithe, way back in the early '80s. In the Playboy interview, John
mentioned that they were doing the old tradition, and it stuck in my
mind. If everybody gave 10 percent, this world might recapture a
bit of balance. According to my calculations, as one gets up into the
multi category, you up the ante. Last year I nervously committed to 15
percent, and that old feeling rose again: the greed gene. When you get
to multi-multi, you should give away half every year. Excuse me, Mr.
Gates, but the concept of billionaire is obscene. I know you give a lot
away, and it's easy for me to mouth off, but I do know something about
it. During the Oliver Stone film on our band, the record royalties
tripled, and as I wrote those 10 percent checks, my hand was shaking.
Why? It only meant that I was making much more for myself. It was the
hand of greed. I am reminded of the sound of greed, trying to talk me
into not vetoing a Doors song for a cigarette ad in Japan.
"It's the only way to get a hit over there, John. They love commercials.
It's the new thing!"
"What about encouraging kids to smoke, Ray?"
"You always have to be PC, don't you, John?" I stuck to my guns and
vetoed the offer, thinking about the karma if we did it. Manzarek has
recently been battling stomach ulcers. So muster up courage, you
capitalists; hoarding hurts the system--inner as well as outer.
So it's been a lonely road resisting the chants of the rising
solicitations: "Everybody has a price, don't they?" Every time we (or I)
resist, they up the ante. An Internet company recently offered three
mil for "Break on Through." Jim's "pal" (as he portrays himself in
his bio) said yes, and Robby joined me in a resounding no! "We'll give
them another half mil, and throw in a computer!" the prez of Apple
pleaded late one night.
Robby stepped up to the plate again the other day, and I was very
pleased that he's been a longtime friend. I was trying to get through to
our ivory tinkler, with the rap that playing Robin Hood is fun, but the
"bottom line" is that our songs have a higher purpose, like keeping the
integrity of their original meaning for our fans. "Many kids have said
to me that 'Light My Fire,' for example, was playing when they first
made love, or were fighting in Nam, or got high--pivotal moments in
their lives." Robby jumped in. "If we're only one of two or three groups
who don't do commercials, that will help the value of our songs in the
long run. The publishing will suffer a little, but we should be proud of
our stance." Then Robby hit a home run. "When I heard from one fan that
our songs saved him from committing suicide, I realized, that's it--we
can't sell off these songs."
So, in the spirit of the Bob Dylan line, "Money doesn't talk, it
swears," we have been manipulated, begged, extorted and bribed to make a
pact with the devil. While I was writing this article, Toyota Holland
went over the line and did it for us. They took the opening
melodic lines of "Light My Fire" to sell their cars. We've called up
attorneys in the Netherlands to chase them down, but in the meantime,
folks in Amsterdam think we sold out. Jim loved Amsterdam.
I received the news of paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen
Jay Gould's death, at age 60, in the week I was reading Jonathan Marks's
new book on genetics, human evolution and the politics of science. My
friends and I discussed our shock--Gould had famously "beat" cancer some
years back--and shared charming and ridiculous Gould information, like his
funny-voice contributions to The Simpsons. Postings on leftist
listservs noted that Gould's fulsome New York Times obituary,
which rattled on about his "controversial" theory of punctuated
equilibrium, his SoHo loft and love of baseball, neglected to mention
his extensive antiracist writing and many other radical activities,
including working with the Science for the People group. Rhoda and Mark
Berenson wrote in to commend his strong support for the release of their
daughter Lori, the young American leftist sympathizer long imprisoned as
a "terrorist" in Peru.
With Gould gone, the landscape of progressive English-language popular
science writing is much impoverished. In particular, in an era in which
silly, and most frequently racist and sexist "it's all in our genes"
narratives have become--alas!--purely commonsensical in the mass media,
if not in the academy, we have lost a stalwart and articulate
evolutionary biologist who wrote prolifically against sociobiology's
reductionist framings of human experience. But molecular anthropologist
Jonathan Marks, with his broad history-of-science background, his
take-no-prisoners stance on scientific stupidity and overreaching, and
his hilarious Groucho Marx delivery, can help to fill that void.
What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee addresses precisely that
question--the issue of human/higher primate connections--and all its
existential and political entailments. Marks reframes the old C.P. Snow
"two cultures" debate, on the gulf between the sciences and the
humanities, in a new and interesting way. Rather than blaming the
general public for its scientific ignorance--which I must confess is my
own knee-jerk tendency--Marks turns the lens around. He indicts
scientists, and particularly his own confrères in genetics, for
their long history of toadying to elite interests: "Where human lives,
welfare, and rights are concerned, genetics has historically provided
excuses for those who wish to make other people's lives miserable, to
justify their subjugation, or to curry favor with the wealthy and
powerful by scapegoating the poor and voiceless." Marks's conclusion is
that genetics "is therefore now obliged to endure considerably higher
levels of scrutiny than other, more benign and less corruptible, kinds
of scientific pronouncements might."
And scrutinize he does. First, Marks provides us with an accessible
history of the linked Western efforts, since the seventeenth century, to
comprehend the natures of nonhuman higher primates, and to develop
biological taxonomy, both before and since the rise of evolutionary
theory. With word-pictures and actual illustrations of explorers' and
others' accounts of "Pongoes," "Baboones, Monkies, and Apes," he makes
vivid for us the ways in which "the apes, by virtue of straddling a
symbolic boundary, are highly subject to the projections of the
scientist from the very outset of modern science." Not the least of
Marks's virtues are his deft along-the-way explanations, as for instance
the key physiological differences between monkeys and apes (the latter
are "large-bodied, tailless, flexible-shouldered, slow-maturing"). Only
last week, I found myself hectoring a hapless video-store worker about
the absurd conjunction, in the store's display case, of an orangutan
(ape) stuffed animal with a Monkey Business movie poster. Now I
can just hand out 98% Chimpanzee.
The "projection" problem, according to Marks, is far more inherent to
biological taxonomy than heretofore realized. He offers amusing
lightning sketches of scientists past and present, from the
eighteenth-century catfight between Buffon and Linnaeus over whether
intrahuman variation could be categorized biologically--the latter
eventually acknowledging Buffon "by naming a foul-smelling plant after
him"--to paleobiologist George Gaylord Simpson's two-martini lunches in
his 1980s Arizona retirement as he declaimed against contemporary
genetic reductionists. These humanized history-of-science narratives
allow Marks to make clear the uncertainties and arbitrariness of "hard"
science categorizations. While "every biology student knows that humans
are mammals," because human females nurse their young, Marks notes that
"it is not obviously the case that breast-feeding is the key feature any
more than having a single bone in the lower jaw (which all
Mammalia, and only Mammalia, have)." He uses historian
Londa Schiebinger's work to show us how Linnaeus, who had been operating
with Aristotle's four-legged "Quadrupedia" label, switched to
Mammalia because he was active in the contemporary movement
against upper-class women sending their infants out to wet nurses: "He
was saying that women are designed to nurse their own children, that it
is right, and that it is what your family should do."
Political apprehensions, as we know, were woven just as deeply into
scientists' evolving modes of categorizing
intrahuman--"racial"--variation. Here Marks tells some familiar stories
in new ways. Many know, for example, about racist University of
Pennsylvania anthropologist Carleton Coon's last-ditch claims, in the
early 1960s, that "the length of time a subspecies has been in the
sapiens state" determines "the levels of civilization attained by some
of its populations." But Marks offers us as well a fascinating sense of
the times. We see, for example, Sherwood Washburn, the Harvard Yankee of
later Man the Hunter fame, and Ashley Montagu, the debonair English
anthropologist redbaited out of the academy and onto What's My
Line appearances, ending up "on the same side, working to purge
anthropology once and for all of the classificatory fallacy that had
blinded it since the time of Linnaeus.... Coon died...an embittered and
largely forgotten figure, done in, he supposed, by the forces of
political correctness, and more darkly (he allowed in personal
correspondence) by a conspiracy of communists and Jews as well."
The importance of cultural constructions, and their irreducibility to
biological functions, have been hoary apothegms in anthropology
classrooms for a half-century. Awareness of the susceptibility of
scientific practice to the politics of reputation has been with us since
the Kuhnian 1960s. Ethnographic, historical and journalistic work on
bench science from the 1980s forward has focused on the political
framing of, and politicized language use in, hard science research and
on the power of corporate and state funding to determine research
directions and even findings. But Marks takes the "cultural construction
of science" line much further than even most progressive critics of the
contemporary idiocies of sociobiologists--although he does get off some
lovely lines, like "sociobiology, which studies the biological roots of
human behavior, whether or not they exist." He takes the critique home
to his specialty, evolutionary molecular genetics, and demonstrates the
multifarious ways that recent claims about human nature and evolution,
based on DNA evidence, have been misframed, are irrelevant or often
That we "are" 98 percent chimpanzee, says Marks, is a profound
misframing. First, our biological closeness to the great apes "was known
to Linnaeus without the aid of molecular genetics." "So what's new? Just
the number." Then he points out that the meaning of phylogenetic
closeness depends upon the standpoint from which it is viewed: "From the
standpoint of a daffodil, humans and chimpanzees aren't even 99.4%
identical, they're 100% identical. The only difference between them is
that the chimpanzee would probably be the one eating the daffodil."
Then, the diagnostic genetic dissimilarities between chimpanzees and
humans do not cause the observed differences between them, and are
therefore irrelevant to discussions of the "meaning" of our genetic
When we compare their DNA, we are not comparing their genes for
bipedalism, or hairlessness, or braininess, or rapid body growth during
adolescence.... We're comparing other genes, other DNA regions, which
have either cryptic biochemical functions, or, often, no known function
at all. It's the old "bait and switch." The genes we study are not
really the genes we are interested in.
Thus all of the wild claims about our "chimp" nature, which have ranged
over the past forty years from male-dominant hunter (early 1960s) to
hippie artist and lover (late 1960s through 1970s) to consummate
competitor (Gordon Gekko 1980s) are entirely politically constructed.
And, Marks adds, in considering the "demonic male" interpretation of
chimp competition as like that of Athens and Sparta, they are simply
argument by analogy: "Maybe a chimpanzee is sort of like a Greek
city-state. Maybe an aphid is like Microsoft. Maybe a kangaroo is like
Gone With the Wind. Maybe a gopher is like a microwave oven."
Just plain dumb.
Using this set of insights, Marks eviscerates a wide array of
contemporary "hi-tech folk wisdom about heredity" claims, from the
"successes" of both the Human Genome and Human Genome Diversity Projects
to the "Caucasian" Kennewick Man, the "genetic" athletic superiority of
black Americans, the genetics of Jewish priesthood and the existence of
a "gay gene." He is particularly trenchant against the Great Ape
Project's use of human/ape genetic similarities to argue for "human
rights" for apes, frequently to the detriment of the impoverished
African and Southeast Asian residents of ape homelands: "Apes should be
conserved and treated with compassion, but to blur the line between them
and us is an unscientific rhetorical device.... our concern for them
can't come at the expense of our concern for human misery and make us
numb to it."
There is much more in 98% Chimpanzee, a real treasure trove of
thoughtful, progressive scientific thought. But I do have a quibble.
While Marks takes an uncompromising equal rights stance when it comes to
female versus male biology, he doesn't delve anywhere near as deeply
into the insanities of contemporary "hi-tech folk wisdom" about
sex--like the "rape is genetic" claims of a few years back--as he does
about race. And they are legion, and just as politically consequential.
Nevertheless, this is an important and refreshing book, the first
claimant to replace the magisterial and out-of-print Not in Our
Genes, and a fitting monument to Stephen Jay Gould's passing. Now
tell me the one again about the duck with lips.
Although car chases are formulaic, they needn't be standard issue. One
of the many substantial pleasures that The Bourne Identity offers
is a thoughtful car chase, a loving car chase, in which the characters
truly care about their conduct amid prolonged automotive mayhem. It
doesn't hurt, of course, that the scene is Paris. The streets there are barely wide enough for a single fleeing vehicle--which means that Jason Bourne may as well use the sidewalk when he needs an extra lane. Once the pedestrians dive out
of the way, he gets to skid through every degree of turn except
ninety--Descartes never laid his grid over this city--until the route
ends at a set of stairs. They're very picturesque; and considering what
his car's undercarriage was already like, they can't do much harm.
By the time the car fully resumes the horizontal, some of the pursuing
motorcycle cops have managed to pull up. "Turn your head," Jason warns
his passenger, Marie Kreutz, in a surprisingly gentle tone. She was
guzzling booze straight from the bottle even before this ride; he'd
rather not worsen her alarm by letting her watch the next maneuver. But
we see it, as one cop after another is shaken off and the car hurtles
onto a highway. At last--a chance to make time! The camera drops to
within an inch of the macadam so that our brains, too, can get a good
rattle, as Jason and Marie's car seems to race straight out of the
screen. Then, almost without transition, it's shooting through more
non-Cartesian turns, off a ramp, past the spot where the last motorcycle
cop makes his rendezvous with a passing truck, to come to a very
temporary version of rest.
How should a car chase end? If the sequence is standard issue, the
filmmaker will require a fireball, or a roll downhill and then a
fireball, followed perhaps by the sight of the good guys speeding away.
But in The Bourne Identity, director Doug Liman has been witty
enough to conclude the sequence by having Jason pull into a parking
garage. From this, we may learn that the hero is a fundamentally
conventional person, despite what he's been doing for the past five
minutes. But this is only part of what we learn--because Liman is also
clever enough to make the real action start when the motor stops.
All but vibrating from what they've been through, Marie and Jason sit in
the car in silence, each glancing awkwardly toward the other and then
looking away. The camera, static at last, takes them both in at once.
Time stretches; they squirm. Someone is going to have to say something
pretty soon--and the words, when they come, will have the shy banality
of a postcoital stab at conversation, when the two people have scarcely
met and are wondering what the hell they've just done.
For me, this was the moment when The Bourne Identity revealed its
true nature, as a study of those people in their 20s who can't yet put
up with workaday life. Liman has looked at such characters before, in
Swingers and Go. Those movies were about using
recreational drugs, selling recreational drugs, selling over-the-counter
medicines that you claim are recreational drugs, losing yourself in
music, losing yourself in lap dancing, losing your sense that this cute
thing before you might not be an ideal companion when you get to be 70.
Jobs in these movies count for little or nothing; friendships mean the
world, though they're always breaking apart. If you can recognize these
attitudes, and if you're familiar with the behavior through which
they're expressed nowadays, you will understand Jason Bourne and Marie
Kreutz. They're typical Doug Liman characters, who just happen to live
in a spy thriller.
Now, since The Bourne Identity is adapted from a Robert Ludlum
novel and was written for the screen by two people other than the
director, you might doubt the wisdom of ascribing all the above to
Liman. But look at the casting. In the title role, Liman has Matt Damon,
who carries over from Good Will Hunting his persona of the
regular working stiff--an unpretentious guy who must nevertheless come
to grips with a great power he's been given. In Good Will
Hunting, the gift was mathematical genius, which somehow was shut up
behind Damon's sloping brow and wary, squinting eyes. In The Bourne
Identity, in which he plays a CIA assassin suffering from amnesia,
Damon is puzzled to hear himself speak many languages, and to find that
his arms and legs demolish anyone who threatens him. Different skills;
same aura of being troubled, but decent and game. When Jason Bourne
refuses to hold on to a gun--something that he does more than once in
the picture--Damon infuses the gesture with the gut-level morality of a
Catholic boy from South Boston.
Paired with Damon, in the role of Marie, is Franka Potente, the young
German actress who is best known for Run Lola Run. She, too, has
retained her persona from the earlier film, so that she brings to Marie
a convincing impression of having enjoyed quite a few good times over
the past years, many of which she can't remember. Her basic facial
expression is something between a scowl and a sneer--the sign, you'd
think, of a feral sexuality that bores her, because it encounters no
worthy challengers and yet prevents her from concentrating on anything
else. No wonder she runs--or drifts in this case, playing someone who
has done nothing since high school except wander about. When first seen
in The Bourne Identity, Potente is at the American Embassy in
Zurich, making a pain of herself by demanding a visa to which she is
most likely not entitled. When first approached by Damon, Potente
establishes her baseline attitude toward people by snapping "What are
you looking at?" Her Marie isn't a bad person, you
understand--she's just been bad news for any man she's hung around. Now,
though, she's met the right guy in Jason Bourne, meaning someone who can
be bad news for her.
I think it's worthwhile to compare these characters with those played by
Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins in Bad Company, a routine
bomb-in-a-suitcase thriller, whose main function is to help audiences
kill time till the release of Men in Black 2. Hopkins plays the
self-controlled CIA agent, who is so white he's English. Rock plays
(guess what?) the street-smart, fast-talking black guy, who must be put
into the field at once, or else the world will end. There's an
underground trade in nuclear weapons, you see, which Hopkins can foil
only with the aid of someone who looks exactly like Rock.
And there's the essential problem of Bad Company. The mere
appearance of Chris Rock is supposedly enough; the assignment requires
no one to act like him. In any decent movie of this sort--48
Hours, say, or Trading Places--the white character will fail
in his task, except for the wiles the black character can lend him. But
in Bad Company, Rock exists solely to be educated. A very smart
man who has made nothing of his abilities--the reasons for which failure
are left disturbingly vague--his character must be trained to wear a
suit, sip Bordeaux and rise at dawn. These traits, according to the
movie, are proper to a white man; and Rock will help defeat terrorism by
adopting them. As an interim goal for the character, this is bad enough.
What's worse is the final justification for rubbing some white onto
Rock: to make him a fit husband.
Bad Company was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, directed by Joel
Schumacher and written, so far as I can tell, by the welfare policy
officials of the Bush Administration. Heartless in theme and faceless in
style, it is so many thousands of feet of off-the-shelf filmmaking,
through which you sift, disconsolate, in search of a single live moment.
There is one: the scene in which Rock tells off a CIA supervisor. Of
course, this, too, is part of the formula; but when Rock lets loose his
falsetto indignation, the world's shams all wash away in the torrent.
You feel clean and free, listening to Rock's outrage. I wonder what he'd
say in private about this movie.
Maybe he'd say The Bourne Identity has more soul than all of Joel
Schumacher's films put together. I think soulfulness has to do with
acknowledging the reserves of personality in someone who might at first
seem a mere type--or acknowledging, for that matter, the personality in
a movie that appears generic. It's about individual but strict judgments
of right and wrong; and, always, it's about the exuberance of talent.
This last point is the one that makes The Bourne Identity into
Liman's movie. His direction is a performance in its own right,
combining the logic and flair of a first-rate bop solo. He attends to
the small, naturalistic gestures--the way Jason pauses to brush snow off
his sleeve, or Marie shields her mouth to hide a smile. He pushes the
cinematography to extremes, using low levels of light from very few
sources, to give you a sense of intimacy with the characters' flesh. He
continually thinks up ways to keep the action fresh. Sometimes his
tricks are unobtrusive, as when he makes a shot shallower than you'd
expect, and so more arresting. Sometimes he's expressive, as when Bourne
teeters on a rickety fire escape, and the camera peers down at his peril
while swinging overhead. And sometimes he's flat-out wild. In the midst
of a fight scene, Liman tosses in a point-of-view shot, about half a
second long, to show you what the bad guy sees as he flies over a desk,
upside down. If my schedule of screenings and deadlines had been more
merciful, I would now compare Liman's direction with that of the master,
John Woo, in his new Windtalkers. But I wasn't able to see
Windtalkers by press time; and, on reflection, I'm glad I didn't.
The Bourne Identity deserves to be enjoyed for its own sake.
If you're interested in the plot, you can enjoy that, too. I've left it
till last, since that's what Liman does. In one of his cheekiest
gestures, he lets the movie's McGuffin go unexplained. But as a public
service, I will give you this much detail: The Bourne Identity
assumes that the CIA's activities are an endless chain of cover-ups,
with each new calamity needing to be hidden in turn. That's why the
agency needs unlimited power.
Bad Company? Right.
How their wealth and power threaten democracy
On May 14, 2002, the first wave of Internet file-sharing died.
Politics were never far from anyone's mind at this year's fifty-fifth
Cannes International Film Festival, which unfolded in a France still
reeling from the shock of far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's
victory over Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin during the first
round of presidential elections in April. Over 30 percent of Cannes residents (including a substantial number of its elderly poodle lovers) gave their vote to Le Pen in the election's second round. Few among the 34,000 industry types, stars, publicists and journalists from ninety-three countries who annually
invade this quiet seaside retirement community may have noticed the
offices of Le Pen's party, the Front National, a mere block away from
the congested, glittering Palais des Festivals. But the shadow of
Europe's rightward shift did make itself felt obscurely.
Le Pen's cultural program (less abstract art, more nature paintings)
contained little mention of cinema. But it's doubtful that this
resolutely cosmopolite media spectacle, with its requisite scandal--this
time, bad boy French director Gaspard Noë's
Irréversible, a skillful but ultimately sophomoric
meditation on time and violence, in which the beautiful Monica Bellucci
is forcibly sodomized for about nine minutes--fits Le Pen's definition
of a wholesome art "that respects our national identity and the values
of our civilization."
In fact, the idea of a film festival in the south of France was first
conceived in 1939 as an alternative to Venice, then under the sway of
Mussolini. (Eerily enough in these unstable times, the current
organizers included a selection of films that had been slated for
competition at that first Cannes festival, an event annulled by the
outbreak of war.) And the twenty-two films in competition this year, as
well as the hundreds of others screening in parallel sections and in two
simultaneous independent festivals, the Directors' Fortnight and
Critics' Week, offered a heteroclite and truly global definition of
cinema. In a single afternoon, one might take in nonagenarian Portuguese
auteur Manoel de Oliveira's latest recondite opus or a crowd-pleasing
sex farce by French director Catherine Breillat, beside films by fresh
or unknown talents from Thailand, Chad and Tajikistan.
The festival's top honor, the Palme d'Or, went to Roman Polanski's
The Pianist, a cumbersome and uneven but oddly fascinating work
of memory. Polanski, the son of Polish Jews living in France who
returned home two years before the onset of World War II, drew upon
childhood recollections of a shattered Krakow for this adaptation of the
memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (played by Adrien Brody)
who survived the Warsaw ghetto and spent the rest of the war in hiding.
What begins as a very conventional Holocaust drama gathers strength from
an accumulation of detail drawn from the ghetto's microhistory, and then
shifts registers into a horror film, as it follows Szpilman's solitary
transformation into a hirsute and famished specter.
At the film's press conference, someone asked Polanski if his hero's
voyeurism and enforced passivity--Szpilman witnesses the Warsaw ghetto
uprising from the window of his apartment hideout--reflected his own
choice of filmmaking as a profession. "That's one of those questions
you'd need to ask my psychiatrist, if I had one," the director quipped
acerbically. No one asked line producer Lew Rywin (who also worked on
Schindler's List and Aimée & Jaguar) why
big-budget Holocaust features seem inevitably to highlight stories of
Germans saving Jewish lives, and thus to flout the grain of history.
Less hullabaloo surrounded documentarian Frederick Wiseman's brilliant
fiction debut, The Last Letter, a one-hour feature screening
out-of-competition. Filmed in rich black-and-white, Catherine Samie, an
actress from the Comédie Française, performs a text drawn
from Russian author Vasily Grossman's novel, Life and Fate--a
chapter consisting of the last letter that a Russian Jewish doctor in
German-occupied Ukraine writes to her son, who is behind the frontlines
in safety. Visuals reminiscent of German Expressionist film--the
actress's physiognomy and the shadows surrounding her figure--combine
with the pure power of language to conjure up the lost world of the
ghetto (the poor patients who pay her with potatoes, the neighbor in an
elegant linen suit, wearing his yellow star like a camellia). Using
these subtle and minimalist means, Wiseman's film builds to an
emotionally devastating conclusion.
But that's Cannes, where the purest cinematic pleasures coexist beside a
rare degree of hype and glamour. Where else would a jury including
surrealists (president David Lynch and fellow director Raoul Ruiz) and
powerful babes (actresses Sharon Stone and Michelle Yeoh) assemble to
judge the fate of world cinema? They gave this year's critical favorite,
Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past,
the Grand Jury Prize, while its star, Kati Outinen, took the award for
Best Actress. A tender and whimsical portrait of a man who, having lost
his memory after a beating by street thugs, finds himself reborn into a
world of homeless people living in industrial containers by an abandoned
Helsinki port, The Man Without a Past seemed to distill Europe's
hope for redemption from a turbulent past and uncertain present with
lyricism, gentleness and beauty.
In the Official Selection, refugees and genocides were everywhere: from
the boat filled with survivors of the Shoah heading toward the shores of
Palestine in 1948 during the mesmerizing opensequences of Kedma,
Israeli director Amos Gitaï's alternately moving and unwieldy
existential drama about the first days of Israel's founding amid the
confusion of war between British, Arab and Jewish forces; to the hordes
of Armenians fleeing Turkish forces in Atom Egoyan's Ararat, an
overly intellectualized evocation of Turkey's 1915 extermination of its
Armenian population (which came complete with a condemnation by that
government); to the Kurds massed along the boundary between Iraq and
Iran in Bahman Ghobadi's Songs from My Mother's Country, a letter
from an ongoing genocide; to the largely unseen immigrants heading
secretly north across the border in Chantal Akerman's From the Other
Side, a bracingly experimental (if ill-paced) documentary
exploration of the frontier between the United States and Mexico.
Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami provided a triumph of minimalist style
in Ten, a film shot in digital, in which a divorced woman driving
hectically through the streets of Teheran picks up a series of
passengers--including an elderly peasant, a prostitute and her own young
son--whose conversations illuminate her own condition in Iranian
society. At the film's emotional climax, she stops her car to talk, and
we suddenly feel the losses that have propelled her relentless forward
motion. In an Official Selection routinely dominated by male directors,
Ten was one of a mere handful of films to address women's
It was a good year for gallows humor and dark comedies. Nebraskan
satirist Alexander Payne's About Schmidt (an adaptation of the
novel by Louis Begley) was notable both for its mordant wit and for Jack
Nicholson's restrained performance as a retired insurance executive
suddenly confronted with the meaninglessness of existence. A far wackier
vision of America emerged from Michael Moore's Bowling for
Columbine, the first documentary to screen in competition at Cannes
in forty-six years, which received a special prize from the jury. At
times hilarious and biting, Moore's film ropes together the 1999 high
school shootings in Colorado, the Oklahoma City bombing and an incident
that occurred near Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, where one
6-year-old shot another, to raise the question, Why is gun violence
endemic in America? Officials of the Lockheed Corporation, members of
the Michigan Militia and Timothy McVeigh's brother James (a gun-toting
tofu farmer) weigh in with their suggestions. There are a few surprises
(a sheriff, for example, who thinks workfare should be abolished), but
as an interviewer Moore is overly fond of the rhetorical question, and
his film founders when it encapsulates the history of American foreign
policy as a unique series of bloody coups and massacres. (Even the
liberal French daily Libération took issue with Moore's
anti-Americanism, which it deemed too much in the spirit of France
today.) And so we're left to wonder, is it something in our water or in
Alas, even a cursory glimpse at the festival's other selections showed
violence to be far from an American exception. There was Brazilian
director Fernando Meirelles's fast-paced favela epic, City of
God, in which trigger-happy children devastate the slums of Rio. And
there was Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman's Divine
Intervention, a comedy set (miraculously) on the West Bank and in
the town of Nazareth, where he was born. Playing E.S., a figure like
himself, Suleiman melds Buster Keaton's melancholy and Jacques Tati's
precision into a film whose plot revolves around a father's death and
Palestinian lovers who meet at a checkpoint between Ramallah and
Jerusalem. But this slim story is merely a thread upon which to hang a
series of inane gags--a discarded apricot pit that blows up a tank, a
Santa Claus stabbed by a knife--that poetically encapsulate the
absurdity, paralysis and rage-filled fantasies underpinning contemporary
Palestinian life. Suleiman finished his script two years ago, just
before the West Bank exploded. Though he considers himself a pacifist,
at least a few of the dreams of his character have since become
realities. During the festival's closing ceremony, in which winners
evoked a variety of political causes--from the plight of Belgian actors
to that of the people of Mexico--Suleiman (whose film took the Jury
Prize) made a short speech noteworthy for its absence of polemic. He
thanked his French producer.
Two offerings from different parts of the globe suggested that the best
course for artists is to steer clear of politics. Italian auteur Marco
Bellocchio's My Mother's Smile is a psychological thriller about
a middle-aged painter, an atheist and a leftist, who suddenly realizes
with horror that his deceased mother is being considered for
canonization. ("Wouldn't it be useful for our son's future career to
have a saint for a grandmother?" his estranged wife asks him, with what
certainly appears to be an excess of calculation.) The film seemed a
visionary nightmare, from a member of the generation of '68, about the
state of contemporary Italian society.
And from Korea, Im Kwon-taek's Chihwaseon provided a lusty and
inspired portrait of the legendary painter Ohwon Jang Seung-Ub, who
sprang from common roots to dominate nineteenth-century Korean art.
Ohwon (who apparently incorporated the worst qualities of both Van Gogh
and Pollock) was never sober for a day, and kept a constantly changing
series of mistresses filling his cups; he negotiated the intricacies of
chaotic Chosun Dynasty politics with the proverbial delicacy of a bull
in a china shop; yet his precise and remarkably vivid scrolls and
screens filled with fog-covered mountains, wild beasts and flowers
seemed to surge forth endlessly from some hidden well of creation. The
66-year-old Im (who shared the directing prize with American
Wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson for his Punch-Drunk Love)
is perhaps the most prolific filmmaker on the planet, with some
ninety-eight features to his credit, including dozens of studio genre
pictures from his salad days as a hack, before his conversion to high
culture. "In art," he said in an interview, "there is no completion, but
only the interminable struggle toward it."
We are all fascinated by the lives of the powerful and famous, and in
the last part of the twentieth century Andrei Sakharov became one of
Russia's most famous. He burst onto the world stage in the summer of
1968, and seemingly overnight he went from the high-clearance obscurity
weapons to world fame. His essay advocating "convergence" of capitalism
and socialism, which was smuggled to the West, was extraordinary. It did
not matter that its contents were naïve and sophomoric (he
envisioned a world government by the year 2000). Its author was the
"father" of the Soviet H-bomb, someone who understood that life and
civilization could be incinerated in an hour's time and as such
commanded instant respect. Moreover, he was a member of the elite, whose
views were "profoundly socialist" and who abhorred the "egotistical
ideas of private ownership and the glorification of capital." But there
were deeply heretical undertones in his thinking. He insisted that the
Soviet Union needed economic and political reforms, and if necessary a
multiparty system, even though he did not regard the latter as an
essential step "or even less, a panacea for all ills."
This was, of course, the time of the Prague Spring, when the peoples of
the Communist part of Europe followed with sympathy and apprehension
Prague's reformist Communist leaders taking Czechoslovakia down the path
of democratization. A nascent democratic movement had emerged in Russia
in the mid-1960s as well, spreading through large sections of the
intelligentsia. "What so many of us...had dreamed of seemed to be
finally coming to pass in Czechoslovakia," Sakharov said later. "Even
from afar, we were caught up in all the excitement and hopes and
enthusiasm of the catchwords: 'Prague spring' and 'socialism with a
All hopes were squelched on August 21, 1968, when Russian tanks entered
Czechoslovakia and arrested the reformers. It was also a fateful moment
for Sakharov: His essay had transformed him into the leading personality
of a small dissident movement. The regime ended his career at the secret
weapons lab in Turkmenistan but allowed him to work at the Institute of
Physics in Moscow. After a decade of defending dissidents, he was
arrested in 1980 and exiled to the closed city of Gorky (now Nizhni
Novgorod), where he was force-fed when he attempted a hunger strike. The
dramatic struggle between a lone individual and a mighty totalitarian
state ended with an astounding concession by the state: On December 16,
1986, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, personally invited
Sakharov to return to Moscow and "go back to your patriotic work." It
was an act of contrition that also enhanced Gorbachev's reputation in
In this first English-language biography of Sakharov, Richard Lourie
offers a beautifully written and engaging account of the physicist's
life. Lourie is a distinguished author and a leading translator of
Russian literature. He also translated Sakharov's own Memoirs,
which they had discussed at length. Lourie has had extended help from
Elena Bonner, Sakharov's second wife, and the portrait of their marriage
is one of the most insightful aspects of the book. But writing a
biography of so complex a figure as Sakharov is more difficult than it
may seem, in part because his life was the stuff of which myths are
made. It had two distinct phases.
In the first he eagerly served the state and performed his great
bomb-making accomplishments. It was a period of Stalinist terror and
appalling privations in which Sakharov accepted everything with
"cheerful fatalism." Like Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss, he clung to his
belief that everything Stalin did was for the best, that creating the
most destructive weapons mankind had known was his patriotic duty, that
"the Soviet state represented a breakthrough into the future." Even the
repugnant KGB system of informing seemed to him a normal fact of life,
an "ordinary link in the network of surveillance that enveloped the
whole country." When the dictator died in 1953, Sakharov was deeply
moved. "I am under the influence of a great man's death," he wrote to
his wife. "I am thinking of his humanity."
The second period--one of political activism, open dissent and real
sacrifices by Sahkarov--has been meticulously documented in the press.
Needless to say, he was lionized in the Western press and awarded a
Nobel Peace Prize. Yet his impact on the events that led to the collapse
of the Soviet Union remains unclear. As a leading actor in the dissident
movement, he seemed from the beginning a tragic figure who most fully
reflected its strengths and weaknesses. Sakharov not only lacked
charisma, as Andrei Amalrik said, but he also rejected the leadership
role bestowed upon him by the dissidents. Sakharov, Amalrik says in
Notes of a Revolutionary, wanted to be "a solitary monk under a
leaky umbrella whose voice in the defense of the oppressed would be
heard because of his moral prestige."
It is difficult to explain the almost complete break between these two
periods. It coincides roughly with the publication of his controversial
essay, "Reflections on Progress, Co-Existence, and Intellectual
Freedom," and the death of his first wife. What made him do his U-turn,
or, in Professor Philip Morrison's apt image, what made him go "from a
Teller to an Oppenheimer"?
We can only speculate what went on in Sakharov's head. His explanation
seems incomplete. He said he confronted a "moral dilemma" at the time of
the 1955 H-bomb test because his calculations of death by fallout over
the generations made it clear that the total numbers were staggering. He
was also appalled by the ecological consequences and began advocating a
ban on nuclear testing.
An incident at a banquet to honor a successful test may have had a
greater impact on Sakharov. His toast at the banquet--"May all our
devices explode as successfully as today's, but always over test sites
and never over cities"--was immediately countered by Air Marshal
Mitrofan Nedelin, who wanted to put the scientist in his place by
telling a crude story:
"An old man wearing only a shirt was praying before an icon: 'Guide me,
harden me. Guide me, harden me.' His wife who was lying on the stove
said: 'Just pray to be hard, old man, I'll take care of the guiding.'"
"And so," said the air marshal, "let's drink to getting hard."
Sakharov felt "lashed by a whip." An exceedingly proud man, he was
humiliated before his colleagues. He drained his glass and never said
another word for the rest of the evening. He was, he said later, shocked
into a realization that he and his colleagues had created a terrible
weapon whose uses "lie entirely outside our control."
After the first successful test, in 1953, Sakharov's self-confidence was
at a peak. Still "outwardly modest," inwardly he was "actually quite the
opposite." The director of the atomic weapons program, physicist Igor
Kurchatov, had called him "the savior of Russia!" He had replaced Igor
Tamm, his mentor, as scientific head of the hydrogen bomb project. He
alone had written a report on his conception of the next generation of
nuclear weapons and delivery systems; he attended a Politburo meeting
that approved it. To outsiders he seemed able to walk on water. He
enjoyed every privilege the state could bestow. He had the attribute of
highest importance: a high-frequency phone, a direct line to all
leaders. He was made a Hero of Socialist Labor, the nation's highest
honor (for the first of three times). He was elected to full membership
in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, bypassing the usual period of
candidacy (Tamm's had lasted twenty years in an election before he
became a full member).
Yet, as Yuli Khariton, the director of the secret weapons lab, put it,
Sakharov's immense self-confidence was both his strength and his
failing. Sakharov "felt his own strength and could not imagine anyone
understanding better than he." When others found the solution to a
problem he was unable to solve, Sakharov would set about with
"exceptional energy" to search for the flaws in it. Not finding them, he
was forced to admit that the solution was correct.
If the 1955 test was the turning point in his thinking, it was reflected
only in his interest in and advocacy of a ban on nuclear testing.
Clearly he had little understanding of the politics of nuclear weapons
or the domestic political pressures that Nikita Khrushchev was facing.
Ignoring his pleas, Khrushchev insisted that the largest Soviet bomb
ever be tested so it would coincide with the Communist Party Congress
(and the expulsion of Stalin's body from the Lenin Mausoleum in Red
Square). Having been overruled and slavishly following orders, Sakharov
proposed that not one bomb but two be tested at the same time. This
would provide sufficient information to eliminate the need for further
testing for a long time. Even more bizarre was his grandiose proposal
for a giant, atomic-powered torpedo with a 100-megaton charge that could
inflict enormous casualties on enemy ports. A Russian admiral Sakharov
tried to consult would not give him the time of day. As a military man,
the admiral believed in "open battle" and was disgusted and outraged by
the idea of merciless mass slaughter.
By 1957 the Russians had sent Sputnik into orbit and the competition for
the control of outer space became a top priority. In the 1960s the space
program was allocated the largest chunk of the research budget. Sakharov
and other bomb-makers were shunted aside. This may be one of the reasons
for Sakharov's foray into political theory, though Lourie does not
explore it. But Sakharov is a hard man to assess. For example, his role
in enabling Russia to detonate its first hydrogen bomb just nine months
after the Americans is indisputable, but his accomplishments as a
physicist must await final judgment. So far, none of his peers have
placed him in the pantheon of top Russian physicists. None doubted his
talent, but the common judgment may have been summed up by Lev Landau,
the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who called him "outstanding" and
said: "While I would not consider him a genuine theoretical physicist,
he is rather a 'constructive genius.'" Tamm, another Nobel Prize winner,
was more generous. Sakharov's tragedy, Tamm said, was "that he had to
sacrifice his great passion--elementary-particle physics--first to
create an atomic and hydrogen bomb," then sacrifice it a second time in
the struggle for social justice.
It's even harder to assess him as a man. I first met him in the hospital
of the Academy of Sciences in 1967, where he was a patient. I was
visiting another patient, the writer Nikolai Erdman, who took me "to say
hello" to Sakharov, who was recovering from a hernia operation. First
impressions often gel into lasting images. I have subsequently written
dozens of stories about him, and I never had any doubt that he was a
rare good man who was prepared to oppose evil. As an absent-minded and
eccentric professor, he was unassuming and humble. Yet his benevolent
smile somehow demanded respect. He was born into a family that belonged
to that section of nineteenth-century intelligentsia that believed it
their duty to fight Russia's backwardness and authoritarianism. There
was a sense of entitlement about him, something that must have come
about from special considerations and privileges that had been extended
to him over the years. Following the publication of his controversial
essay, he was banned from military projects but accepted the position
offered him at the Physics Institute, working under Tamm. He accepted.
Neither side had entirely given up on the other. What if Sakharov came
up with a new discovery? At the time, neither science nor politics had
much meaning for Sakharov, who was grieving for his late wife and
looking after his 12-year-old son, Dima.
Sakharov was still a unique figure, both admired and envied. His
unanimous election to the Soviet Academy of Sciences was without
precedent for two reasons: Not only had he not completed his doctorate
(he was a candidate of science), but his work was so classified that
more than 99 percent of those who voted for him had no idea why he was
honored. Academic Vasily Yemelyanov, who headed the Soviet atomic energy
commission in the 1950s, told me in an interview how Khrushchev had
asked him to insure Sakharov's election without revealing his role in
the H-bomb project. Yemelyanov replied that that was impossible. People
are going to ask questions. After all, Sakharov, 32 at the time, was a
molokosos (baby). "You tell them that he had done a great service
to the state but you are not at liberty to reveal what it is,"
Yemelyanov quoted Khrushchev as saying.
Sakharov was still viewed as salvageable when two prominent dissidents
were incarcerated in psychiatric institutions: Gen. Pyotr Grigorenko and
biologist Zhores Medvedev, twin brother of Marxist historian Roy
Medvedev, a friend of Sakharov's who distributed his original 1968 essay
in samizdat form. Roy Medvedev's book about Stalin, Let
History Judge, which Sakharov read in samizdat, played a
major role in his developing politics. As Soviet policy hardened under
Leonid Brezhnev, open dissent turned into a concerted opposition to a
return to Stalinism. Sakharov created an international incident in 1970
when he appeared at an international symposium held in Moscow and
announced that he was collecting signatures in defense of Medvedev, who
was under psychiatric detention. A week later he protested directly to
Brezhnev. Medvedev was freed in mid-June, but Grigorenko remained
incarcerated for four years.
A void of ostracism, however, began to form around Sakharov. He had
crossed over to the other side. This became irrevocable when he met his
second wife, Elena Bonner, a die-hard political dissident.
Ironically, Sakharov was finally happy, being married to a woman he
loved and who shared his ideas. Like God's fool from the Russian
tradition, he was regularly challenging the lies on which the system was
constructed yet not ending up in jail, because God's fool was the only
person who could speak the truth to czars. The authorities, unwilling to
lash out at Sakharov himself, instead targeted Bonner's children. Bonner
herself was reviled in the press. Sakharov fought back--hunger strikes
were his ultimate weapon. The state had considerable success in
radicalizing his image and making it appear that the human rights
movement was used by Sakharov to obtain exit visas for his family and
Lourie presents a compelling account of Sakharov's personal odyssey,
going behind the glossy picture we painted and repainted over the years.
If there is a serious shortcoming here it is that Bonner's role has
been, perhaps inadvertently, minimized. The book leaves the reader with
a sense of disappointment that this genuinely great man did not have a
more lasting effect. But we'd be remiss to forget the electrifying
impact on Russia of his return from internal exile in 1986. Even more
significant was his decades-long struggle to keep alive the best
traditions of the Russian intelligentsia. Like his beloved Pushkin, he
will remain loved because--in the poet's words--"I've struck the chords
of kindness/and sung freedom's praise in this cruel age,/calling for
mercy to be shown the fallen."
It's boring but do it, says the playwright. Otherwise, you allow evil to
Hot, rained-on, packed-down straw, strewn then abandoned
between the rows of eggplant, tomato plants, onion, and herbs
catches the evening's last September gnats in pale mats
and renders, for a moment, the fall surrender untenable.
Impossible, too, to make this sign--your birthday month--
the winding vine of grapes at harvest, for who could drink
in this heat, or light the candles and praise the cake?
The half-century it took to make the man you are is far
outstripped by the tipped and tilting present tense in which
you accurately move, correcting the angle of guyed bamboo,
brushing a confusion of wings from the plot, and not,
in the slightest sense, wincing ahead to the unfathomable,
intolerable winter, for straw, you said, muffles
the living so they can't hear the dead.
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