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The twentieth century was arguably the bloodiest in modern history,
earning from one commentator the moniker of the Age of Barbarism. From
the Nazi genocide, to the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda, to the
"ethnically cleansed" areas of the former Yugoslavia, the twentieth
century was one of unprecedented horror for many.

Mass slaughter of civilians is, of course, much older than these
horrors. The modern world brought about by European expansionism, the
famed Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad once observed, is a time of
extraordinary unrecorded holocausts. How many of us, for instance, are
familiar with the deaths of upward of 10 million in the
Belgian-controlled Congo in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries? Or how about Australia's extermination of the indigenous
population of Tasmania? The decimation of inferior races in settler
colonies, brought about by Western imperialism and the associated
legitimizing ideologies, in fact, contends Sven Lindqvist in his
brilliant Exterminate All the Brutes, ostensibly laid the
groundwork for Hitler's crimes by creating particular habits of thought
and political precedents.

What was unique to the twentieth century--and thus the subtitle of
Samantha Power's very impressive "A Problem From Hell": America and
the Age of Genocide--
was the invention of the very word "genocide"
and its establishment as a legal construct outlawing one of the most
egregious forms of state terror. That represents a great advancement in
the construction of international law and associated political and
juridical mechanisms, but the fact that genocide continues to occur and
to go unpunished speaks to the difficulties of giving life to a legal
regime.

While the parties most responsible for this shortcoming are those that
perpetrate genocide, Power focuses much of her opprobrium on the party
that is in her estimation best positioned to put an end to or at least
significantly curb such horror: the US government. "No US President has
ever made genocide prevention a priority," she writes, "and no US
President has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its
occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on."

The myriad horror stories of this age of genocide have many ugly
characters, several of whom Power profiles in her well written and
extensively documented book. But there are also many heroes, namely
those within and without the US government who have spoken the
proverbial truth to power with the goal of making Washington appreciate
or acknowledge--and thus take appropriate action--that genocide was
taking place in the various case studies that Power carefully details.

Perhaps the biggest hero in Power's book is Raphael Lemkin. A Polish Jew
who as a young boy had a fascination with the history of mass
slaughters, Lemkin became a lawyer and international legal scholar. He
set out to ban the destruction of ethnic, national or religious groups,
to end the national sovereignty-granted impunity of state actors
who perpetrate such atrocities and to insure universal jurisdiction for
their prosecution.

Forced to flee his homeland when the Nazi army invaded in 1939, Lemkin
ended up in the United States soon thereafter. He worked indefatigably
to bring attention to and to record Hitler's extermination of Jews,
while urging Americans to do everything they could to put a stop to it.
At the same time, he endeavored to invent a word to characterize such
slaughters, one that, in Power's words, "would connote a practice so
horrid and so irreparable that the very utterance of the word would
galvanize all who heard it." When he coined the term "genocide" in 1944,
Western governments and political pundits quickly embraced it. This led
Lemkin to assume that actions to codify the term and fight the practices
comprehended in it would quickly follow. He soon learned that he had a
long fight on his hands--one that he waged incessantly until he died,
penniless, in 1959.

Before his demise, however, Lemkin saw the United Nations General
Assembly pass the genocide convention on December 9, 1948, the body's
first passage of a human rights treaty. And less than two years later,
the necessary twenty countries had ratified the convention, making it
international law. But he did not live to see the United States ratify
it, a necessary step, Lemkin thought, to insure its enforcement, given
American power. Indeed, it would not be until 1988 that the Senate did
so, but not before attaching a set of reservations, understandings and
declarations that insured that the United States itself could never be
charged with the crime, thus rendering American approval largely
symbolic.

The architects of the convention understood the danger of making
Hitler's crimes the standard by which to determine future genocides.
States must be able to identify as genocide acts aimed at destroying "in
whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group"--the
legal definition of the crime--well before they have the chance to reach
such a scale in order to trigger appropriate actions. (The convention
enjoins its signatories to take measures to prevent and punish the
crime.) Despite such intentions, the link between genocide and Hitler's
so-called Final Solution "would cause endless confusion for
policy-makers and ordinary people who assumed that genocide occurred
only where the perpetrator of atrocity could be shown, like Hitler, to
possess an intent to exterminate every last member of an ethnic,
national or religious group."

While the Hitler-standard problem did help to undermine effective
responses by American officials and opinion-makers to various
post-World War II genocides, there were other dilemmas as well,
including the difficulty of believing reports of horrific slaughter.
Even in the face of extensive and graphic media coverage, Power writes,
"American policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to
muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil." In addition, there
is a tendency to assume, before the fact, that the would-be perpetrators
of genocide are rational actors who will not engage in horrific terror;
that traditional diplomacy can resolve the crisis; and that civilians
who keep a low profile during the conflict will survive. At the same
time, cold geopolitical calculations underlie official reactions, and
they often spin the violence as two-sided, a result of age-old hatreds
and thus inevitable, while arguing that any type of serious intervention
would be futile and even counterproductive. Thus, not only does
Washington abstain from sending troops but it also takes very few steps
along a continuum of potential interventions to deter genocide.

This nonresponse, Power demonstrates, is not something unique to the
presidencies of George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, who emerge looking
especially bad. It manifested itself to varying degrees in all the cases
she examines, beginning with the Ottoman Turks' slaughter of almost a
million Armenians in 1915. The United States under Woodrow
Wilson--despite being well informed of Turkey's crimes--did not support
the Allies' condemnation of Turkey's crimes against humanity, lest such
support undermine American neutrality. Disregarding the pleas of
Washington's ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, the Wilson Administration
refused even to issue a direct government-to-government appeal to cease
the killings or to pressure the Turkish authorities to allow
humanitarian aid deliveries to Armenians driven from their homes and on
the brink of starvation. For Power, Wilson's nonresponse "established
patterns that would be repeated."

But as Power illustrates, it was not simply that the United States did
nothing. Often Washington indirectly and directly aided the
genocidaires. In Cambodia, for example, the US bombing that
preceded Pol Pot's seizure of power "killed tens of thousands of
civilians." While horrific in its own right, "it also indirectly helped
give rise to a monstrous regime" responsible for the deaths of upwards
of an estimated 2 million Cambodians. And in the case of Iraq's
slaughter of the Kurds, the Reagan White House dismissed reports of
Saddam Hussein's gassings and other atrocities while maintaining aid to
his regime, preferring to maintain its unholy alliance with Iraq in its
war with Iran. The year after Saddam's forces decimated several thousand
Iraqi Kurdish villages and killed close to 100,000 Kurdish civilians
(1987-88), Washington, now under Bush Sr., actually doubled the
amount of agricultural credit it had been providing to Saddam's regime,
increasing it to more than $1 billion.

In other cases, the United States helped to undermine effective
international responses to genocide. Perhaps the most shameful case was
that involving the Clinton Administration during the 1994 slaughter in
Rwanda, which involved the killing of approximately 800,000 Tutsis and
moderate Hutus in the span of 100 days, making it the fastest, most
efficient killing spree of the twentieth century. Clinton, whom Power
inexplicably refers to as "a committed multilateralist," one with "faith
in the United Nations," did everything he could to avoid doing something
constructive. Throughout, and similar to their conduct through much of
the Serb-perpetrated atrocities in Bosnia, Administration officials
feigned ignorance of what was going on. US intelligence reports had
warned Washington of the likelihood of mass killings in Rwanda.
Nevertheless, Clinton refused Belgium's request to reinforce the small
UN peacekeeping mission to the country. And once the killing started,
the Administration denied almost until the end that genocide was taking
place, despite full knowledge to the contrary. To do otherwise would
have required that Washington take appropriate action. Instead, the
Administration insisted that UN peacekeepers withdraw from Rwanda and
then refused to authorize the deployment of a stronger UN force. It was
not until the Rwandan Patriotic Front had driven most of the
perpetrators out of the country and seized power in the capital that
Clinton ordered the closing of the Rwandan Embassy in Washington and the
seizure of its assets.

In her investigation, Power justifies her choice of case studies by two
key criteria: that each meets the terms of the 1948 genocide convention;
and that it presented the United States with the options for meaningful
diplomatic, economic, legal or military intervention. But as we shall
see, it is questionable whether all her cases satisfy the criteria.

In terms of the first, to suggest that what took place in Kosovo was a
genocide, or would have been had NATO not intervened, is a highly
contentious issue in the international legal and human rights community.
As for the Khmer Rouge, while they were guilty of killing large
percentages of the country's Muslim Chams, Vietnamese and Buddhist
monks, the bulk of their human targets were alleged political enemies.
In this regard, these killings would not form part of a genocide, at
least through the narrow criteria of the 1948 convention.

As Power explains, the architects of the genocide convention made the
explicit decision to exclude political groups--a move actively supported
by Lemkin. They did so in order to insure the support of many countries,
largely those of the Soviet bloc and some from Latin America as well,
that feared the inclusion of political groups would inhibit the ability
of states to suppress armed rebellions within their boundaries. It
appears that Lemkin was sympathetic to neither the underlying
assumptions nor the implications of such an argument but supported it
for pragmatic reasons--a position that Power seems to share. This might
explain why she has no problem including the horrors inflicted by the
Khmer Rouge under the general rubric of genocide. But given this more
flexible notion of what constitutes genocide, it begs the question of
why Power chose the cases she did in laying out her argument and ignored
other possible instances.

This question also relates to the second criterion for her choices,
namely that the United States had a variety of options available for
meaningful intervention. Here, Power is treading on even weaker ground
in some instances.

On Rwanda and Bosnia, Power makes her most convincing case that there
were concrete steps the United States could have taken that would have
had significant effects in lessening the bloodletting. In other
instances she examines, however, such as those of the Nazi and Khmer
Rouge holocausts, she is less convincing. Regarding Cambodia, for
example, she contends that the Khmer Rouge were less immune to outside
criticism than was claimed by American authorities. In this regard, she
argues that "bilateral denunciations by the United States may well have
had little effect on the Khmer Rouge's internal practices.
Unfortunately, because so few US officials spoke out publicly against
the genocide, we cannot know." In terms of the Nazis, Power appeals to
conventional wisdom and suggests that Washington could have done things
to prevent Hitler's crimes, but makes no serious effort to persuade the
reader or to engage the literature that has called such arguments into
question. As Peter Novick argues in his much-acclaimed The Holocaust
in American Life
, the various ex post facto proposals for rescuing
Jews from Nazi clutches ignore what were very real constraints at the
time and often would have been of little practical use. Substantial
rescue efforts, Novick contends, would have had a marginal effect at
best. (Nevertheless, he asserts, it would have been worthwhile to carry
out the proposed actions; but they would have saved 1, or perhaps 2
percent at most, of those who died.)

Power applauds US action loudly in the case of Kosovo. Indeed, she
argues that hundreds of thousands of lives would have been lost had the
United States and its NATO allies not engaged in the bombing campaign
against the Serbs. She offers no substantiation for this claim. And, of
course, how could she? Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Kosovo
chapter, however, is that she does not engage any of the critiques put
forth by the likes of Noam Chomsky and other commentators--many writing
in this magazine--that there were alternatives to the NATO action, ones
that would have been consistent with international law and might have
actually lessened the killings and expulsions that increased
dramatically after the start of the bombing, to say nothing about its
effects on Serb civilians. At the very least, Power should have
presented and grappled with such arguments. Hardly anyone contends that
Milosevic & Co. were not capable and guilty of enormous brutality.
Indeed, Power graphically shows how Serb forces put this capacity to
horrific and massive use in Bosnia and the fatal consequences of the
failure of the West to acknowledge the bloodshed and respond
appropriately. In this regard, mass killings in Kosovo were arguably a
distinct possibility. But the question remains, Were there courses of
action other than that taken up by Washington and its NATO allies?

Power understandably feels outrage at international and, more
specifically, American inaction in the face of mass killing. With an
American audience in mind, she challenges the reader to do
something--whatever is in her power--to suppress and/or bring to justice
those responsible for the slaughter of innocents. She makes a compelling
case for a collective moral, as well as an international legal,
obligation for the US government to do so. But this also raises what is
perhaps the biggest problem with "A Problem From Hell": Even
though she acknowledges that the United States sometimes directly and
indirectly aids genocidal regimes, the overall effect of her examples
and the manner in which she frames the book is to situate Washington as
an outsider to such horrors. In the book's final pages, for example, she
asks, "Why does the United States stand so idly by?" In this sense,
Power's choice of cases is quite safe. Had she looked beyond the
parameters of the conventional and examined instances in which the
American role in mass slaughter has been less that of a bystander and
more that of a partner-in-crime perpetrator, her call for greater levels
of US intervention would seem at best unpersuasive and at worst
hypocritical and potentially dangerous. Three cases--those of Indonesia,
East Timor and Guatemala--illustrate this point.

Led by General Suharto, the Indonesian military and the civilian militia
that it armed and directed engaged in one of the worst bloodlettings of
the postwar era. Over the course of several months in 1965-66, they
slaughtered members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) along with
members of loosely affiliated organizations (women's groups, labor
unions, etc.). While Indonesia's holocaust does not meet the strict
guidelines of the genocide convention, the scale and nature of the
killing spree were undoubtedly genocide-like, similar to the bulk of the
Khmer Rouge's crimes in Cambodia. Amnesty International estimated "many
more than 1 million killed." The head of the Indonesian state security
system approximated the toll at half a million, with another 750,000
jailed or sent to concentration camps. The American political
establishment welcomed the slaughter and the emergence of Suharto's New
Order, with Time hailing it as "the West's best news for years in
Asia."

The United States had effectively helped to lay the groundwork for the
military's seizure of power through its interference in Indonesian
affairs and support for the military over the years. Washington had also
long urged the military to move against the PKI. Accordingly, it
supplied weaponry and telecommunications equipment, as well as food and
other forms of aid, to the Indonesian Army in the early weeks of the
slaughter. The American embassy also provided the military with the
names of thousands of PKI cadres who were subsequently killed.

About ten years later, the Indonesian Frankenstein that Washington had
helped to create decided to invade Indonesia's tiny neighbor of East
Timor. Rather than just looking away, as Power incorrectly reports in
her one reference to East Timor, Washington aided and abetted an
international crime of aggression. While this has long been alleged, the
recent release of formerly classified documents by the Washington-based
National Security Archive now proves that then-President Gerald Ford and
Henry Kissinger, his foreign policy czar, gave Suharto the green light
for the December 7, 1975, invasion while meeting with him the previous
day. Over the following quarter-century, various US administrations
provided billions of dollars in weaponry, military training and economic
assistance to Jakarta during its more than two decades of occupation.
And in the early years of the slaughter, a time described by an
Australian government body as "indiscriminate killing on a scale
unprecedented in post-World War II history," Washington took
concerted steps to insure that the UN did not take effective action to
end Indonesia's annexation. The result was the death of well over
200,000 East Timorese, about one-third of the preinvasion population.

And, finally, Guatemala. There, more than 200,000, most of them
indigenous Mayans, lost their lives in the context of a brutal conflict
between a US-backed military oligarchy and a guerrilla force during the
1970s and '80s. The 1999 report of the internationally supported
Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification concluded that the
state was responsible for over 90 percent of the deaths and had
committed "acts of genocide." The commission also found that American
training of members of Guatemala's intelligence apparatus and officer
corps in counterinsurgency "had significant bearing on human rights
violations."

Because Samantha Power excludes cases like these from her analysis, she
seems to have little problem endorsing American global dominance and, on
the basis of such, calling for the United States to take the lead in
battling genocide. At the very end of an excellent chapter on the grisly
slaughter by Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica, for example, Power lets
Senator Bob Dole explain why the United States finally became involved
in helping to end the terror in Bosnia. "Because we happen to be the
leader of the world," Dole stated.

Clearly there is a problem with Washington taking the lead in fighting
something it has helped to perpetrate on numerous occasions, and for
which it has never atoned, apart from a halfhearted admission of
wrongdoing (but not an apology, by Clinton in the case of Guatemala).

Simply because the United States has been complicit in gross atrocities
in the past does not mean, of course, that it is therefore incapable of
doing good, if even for the wrong reasons. But it does mean that we
should remain extremely skeptical of American leadership on the global
stage. As the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict painfully
demonstrates, what Washington calls American leadership is, as often as
not, unilateralist, bullying, obstructionist. All of these manifest
themselves in Washington's acceptance of Israel's flouting of
international law regarding its ongoing occupation and dispossession of
the Palestinian people. The United States has long been a principal
obstacle to an internationally acceptable solution, and it has done what
it can to prevent a multilateral approach to resolving the conflict.
Such antipathy toward international law and political institutions means
that "genocide prevention" could turn out to be just another instrument
in Washington's empire-maintenance tool kit.

If one of the main objectives of Power's book is to get the United
States to take a more active role in ending mass slaughter, surely it
would seem to be more efficacious--as well as principled--to begin by
scrutinizing cases in which the United States has been directly
involved. In this regard, her appeal to the American political
establishment on the basis of morality and enlightened self-interest
(genocide, she argues, causes regional and international instability,
something bad for the United States) is ill conceived. Ending
Washington's role in the slaughter of innocents requires struggling
against American militarism and unilateralism, as well as against
Washington's refusal to submit to international security and legal
mechanisms that would have even a remote possibility of holding US
officials accountable. The US refusal to sign on to the recently
established International Criminal Court and to cooperate with efforts
by a number of countries to question Henry Kissinger regarding various
international crimes is merely the latest manifestation of such
obstructionism.

This is not to suggest that if we could get the American house in order,
the world would be fine. As Power's book shows, there are plenty of
"evildoers" to go around. Something must be done to stop them, yes, but
it should be a truly international project. The best place to start is
at home, but not by first and foremost asking Washington to intercede
abroad. Demanding a US foreign policy consistent with international law
and human rights standards, as well as international accountability for
American officials who may have engaged in war crimes and crimes against
humanity, is the first step. Doing so will also increase the likelihood
of international cooperation in cases championed by Washington.

Finally, it is not obvious why mass killing that falls under the rubric
of genocide should be paramount in terms of international prevention and
adjudication. Power does not claim this explicitly, but it is a fair
conclusion to draw given that she does not discuss other terrible crimes
against humanity that result in massive loss of life. Why, for example,
should Serbian crimes in Bosnia be more worthy of scrutiny and demands
for accountability than, say, the US war against Vietnam, which caused
the deaths of 2-3 million civilians? In this regard, we must be
careful that the need to suppress and seek justice for genocide does not
prevent us from seeing all mass killings of civilians, no matter who
commits them, as unacceptable, and from acting accordingly.

"The original inspiration for The New Intifada," explains Roane
Carey in his foreword to this volume, "arose out of disgust at the
mainstream media's consistent misrepresentation of the basic facts of
this uprising." To "correct the balance," Carey, The Nation's
copy chief, assembled an impressive array of essays for this collection,
which aims to illuminate the myriad failings of the Oslo Agreements,
describe the struggles of the current peace movement, deconstruct the
media coverage of the Middle East and reveal the experiences of
Palestinians living under Israeli occupation before and during this new
intifada.

Palestinians, Israelis, Americans and others ("voices rarely tolerated
in the US media") have contributed to this volume; some are well-known,
like Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk, while others are less
so, though no less important. Harvard research associate Sara Roy writes
about the Palestinian economy, which, compared with those of other
states in the region, is weaker now than it was in 1967. Egyptian
novelist Ahdaf Soueif shares a diary of her first visit to Israel, a
place she never intended to go: "My life," she writes, "like the life of
every Egyptian of my generation, has been overcast by the shadow of
Israel." Photographs separate the sections of The New Intifada,
and give a sense of the devastated landscape and people this book brings
to light.

In an essay from 2000 reprinted here, Said asks, "Why is it that more
Israelis do not realize--as some already have--that a policy of
brutality against Arabs in a part of the world containing 300 million
Arabs and 1.2 billion Muslims will not make the Jewish state more
secure?" Despite the efforts of Carey, his contributors and others, a
year and a half later, the question still stands.

The Past Ahead of Us

"History," wrote James Baldwin, "does not refer merely, or even
principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history
comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously
controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present
in all that we do." Citing this as a starting point, historian and
Nation editorial board member Eric Foner goes on to note, "There
is nothing unusual or sinister in the fact that each generation rewrites
history to suit its own needs, or about disagreements within the
profession and among the public at large about how history should best
be taught and studied." He assembles a set of essays primarily taken
from events in his life over the past decade--it's a personal book in
this regard--including accounts of his experience in two societies
grappling with deep historical change, Russia and South Africa. All
investigate the relationship between the historian and his or her world.
Since much of Foner's own work has centered around Reconstruction, many
of the essays broach that subject and the effects on race relations to
this day (he takes on Civil War documentarian Ken Burns and the cult of
nostalgia in this context).

Overall, much of Who Owns History? stands as an argument for
public engagement, and touches on issues such as globalization, social
reconciliation and national identity. "'American' is what philosophers
call an 'essentially contested concept,'" Foner observes, and he
cautions in his chapter on "American Freedom in a Global Age" that, in
the shadow of the Reagan revolution, "the dominant constellation of
definitions seems to consist of a series of negations--of government, of
social responsibility, of a common public culture," amid the tightening
web of economic and cultural ties termed "globalization." Foner says
that "the relationship between globalization and freedom may be the most
pressing political and social problem of the twenty-first century."

Devotees of "balanced," "objective," "fair" and "evenhanded"
nonfiction--well, they be hurtin' in these early days of the
twenty-first century. Enough, perhaps, to demand that self-help, how-to
and "wisdom of menopause" books return to dominate, as they once did,
the now separated-from-birth (and diet and crosswords) New York
Times
nonfiction bestseller list. In the
April 21 issue of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, nearly
half the top ten nonfiction bestsellers belong to a genre that
middle-of-the-road innocents might label "one-sided," "unbalanced,"
"exclusionary" or worse, though the Times's blurbs artfully avoid
the issue.

Michael Moore's Stupid White Men, which manages the non-Euclidean
trick of being centrifugally one-sided, denounces us as a racist, sexist
"nation of idiots" even though we're plainly not a nation of idiots.
Whether you love Moore for blasting the "Thief-in-Chief" or adore him
for bashing Clinton and paying dues to the NRA, he's still guilty, as
Ben Fritz's stiletto review in Salon demonstrated, of being "One
Moore Stupid White Man," because "Moore gets his facts wrong again and
again, and a simple check of the sources he cites shows that lazy
research is often to blame."

David Brock's Blinded by the Right castigates the conservative
movement, which Brock recently fled, as "a radical cult" bored by ideas
and committed to a "Big Lie machine that flourished in book publishing,
on talk radio and on the Internet through the '90s." Brock insists on
that even though many conservatives believe in right-wing principles as
honestly as leftists and liberals believe in theirs. While it was lauded
by Frank Rich as "a key document," by Todd Gitlin as a book that "rings
with plausibility" and in these pages by Michael Tomasky as essential to
understanding this "fevered era," its credibility on the left seems
largely based on Brock's hawking a story the left wants to hear, just as
the right thrilled to The Real Anita Hill: that a "convulsed
emotional state," as Tomasky construes it, rather than an ideology, "is
the real binding glue among the right." Despite Brock's repeated
acknowledgments that he's been an unscrupulous, self-serving liar
throughout his life, flatterers of his book give little credit to the
possibility voiced by Slate's Timothy Noah that lying may be "a
lifelong habit" for the author. Bernard Goldberg's Bias, in turn,
offers mirror-image goods to true believers on the right: chapter and
verse on how his old employer, CBS News, and the media in general,
"distort the news" in a liberal direction, even though the media, by and
large, do not distort the news--they report it. On the strength of one
purported conversation with CBS News president Andrew Heyward, however,
and his own epiphanic experience after writing an anti-CBS Op-Ed for the
Wall Street Journal, Goldberg sounds certain that he's packing
smoking guns. No matter that he fails to clarify, in case after case,
how "bias" differs from a presumptive judgment held on the basis of
revisable evidence, or why conservative bias poses no problem within
eclectic media.

Finally, Kenneth Timmerman's Shakedown, another targeted killing
by the only national publishing house with the reflexes of a helicopter
gunship, leaves Jesse Jackson barely breathing as a political player.
But if fairness ruled the world of book manuscripts, this one would have
swelled to far more than 512 pages. Because while Rod Dreher of The
National Review
complimented the author for "collecting the dossier
on Jackson between two covers," a dossier in court or an academic
department typically contains both good and bad. The Washington
Post
's Keith Richburg, crediting Timmerman's "meticulous research,"
rightly noted that the author also wholly ignores "Jackson's
accomplishments," like his registration of millions of new voters.

So is Moore a direct literary descendant of Adolf Hitler, that
over-the-top idea man whose snarly diatribes grabbed Publishers
Weekly
's number-seven bestseller slot for 1939? Will self-confessed
"right-wing hit man" Brock--political sex-change operation or not--be
remembered as an heir to the legacy of Barry (Conscience of a
Conservative
) Goldwater? Should Timmerman, whose Shakedown
batters Jesse so badly his reproductive equipment may never recover, be
considered just another scion of Victor Lasky, whose ferociously
critical attack on John F. Kennedy awkwardly arrived in 1963? And what
of Goldberg, our redemption-minded spy who came in from the ill-told?
Will his Bias someday be taught in the Columbia publishing course
alongside that 1923 bestseller, Emile Coué's Self-Mastery
Through Conscious Auto-Suggestion
, whose system apparently involved
repeating to oneself, "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and
better"?

Yes, Flannery O'Connor was right: "There's many a best-seller that could
have been prevented by a good teacher." Each of these polemics keeps
rolling as a big commercial success for its publisher, even though, by
any standard of evenhandedness, each practices the big lie by what it
omits. Are they skyrocketing hits because they're tantamount to "big
lies," texts unwilling to address contrary views?

Maybe we've entered an era in which publishers and readers no longer
care about two hands working at complementary tasks--about evidence and
counterevidence, arguments and counterarguments, decency toward subject
matter. One way to interpret the ascent of the Feckless Four is to
accept that literary producers and consumers think we should leave all
that to college debating societies, scholarly journals and books,
newspapers of record and the courts. That's truth territory--this is
entertainment. And could that actually be the crux of the putative
trend? The recognition, by publishers, buyers and canny trade authors
alike, that well-balanced, evenhanded, scrupulously fair nonfiction
books bore the hell out of readers, however many prizes they may win?

Perhaps, in other words, the rise of the polemic is not simply a passing
curiosity, a reaction to political correctness cutting both ways in 2002
America, but a stage of evolutionary development in a post-
eternal verities culture. Educated readers--whether right or
left--hunger for books that simply smash the opposition and make one
feel the only sensation sweeter than orgasm: the sense of being utterly,
unimpeachably right. To update an old saw by publisher William Targ, too
many people who have half a mind to write a nonfiction bestseller do so,
and that's roughly the amount of brainpower the reader desires.

It certainly feels as if we're facing an epiphenomenon of the moment, an
upshot of the electorate we saw polarized on that red and blue 2000
electoral map. And yet, over the decades one spots many precursors of
Moore, Brock, Goldberg and Timmerman (a crackerjack adversarial firm
that might cost hundreds per hour if journalists billed like lawyers).
Michael Korda's recent Making the List: A Cultural History of the
American Bestseller, 1900-99
(Barnes & Noble), suggests
that curators of American bestseller lists could have put up the neon
Onesided Books 'R' Us sign long ago. Diet books, medical guides, how-tos
and self-improvement schemes, after all, ritually command readers to do
it this way, not that way. Dale Carnegie made it to the list with How
to Win Friends and Influence People
, not How to Win Friends,
Influence People and Also Estrange a Ton of Other Folks
. Books by
political candidates advancing their platforms may not sizzle with
Moore's streety phrases or Brock's inside snitching, but they slant the
truth just the same. Similarly, the titles of leading bestsellers of the
1930s--Ernest Dimnet's What We Live By, Walter Pitkin's Life
Begins at Forty
and Walter Duranty's I Write as I
Please
--suggest unshakable points of view promised and delivered.
Even in that war-dominated decade, one sees the forerunners of today's
divided left/right list, with Mission to Moscow, which offered,
Korda writes, a "benevolent view of Joseph Stalin," coming in second on
the 1942 bestseller list, while John Roy Carlson's Under Cover,
"an expose of subversive activity in the United States," rose to number
one in 1943. Yet, Korda observes, while Americans favor books that
"explain to them what is happening," they "still want to be amused,
entertained, and improved." So when authors like Moore, Brock, Goldberg
and Timmerman bring added assets to their unbalanced texts--Moore's
over-the-line wit, Brock's salacious gossip, Goldberg's hate-the-media
vibes and Timmerman's avalanche of dirt--it's like attaching an extra
rocket to the binding.

The presence of one-sided books on bestseller lists, in short, is no
fleeting phenomenon. It's a tradition. But might their increase threaten
the culture? Not likely. Here an insight from Korda fuses with a larger
appreciation of how philosophy in the broadest sense--the way we
organize what we know into views that hang together--operates in
American culture.

Korda extrapolates from bestseller history that "American readers have
been, since the 1940s, increasingly willing to be challenged and even
attacked. They might not have been eager to accept these challenges in
person...but they were willing to buy and read books that criticized the
status quo." He cites fiction as well Laura Hobson's novel
Gentleman's Agreement (1947), with its critique of anti-Semitism,
and Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), which
eviscerated the "white upper-middle-class lifestyle." It's equally true
that American bestsellers from the beginning sometimes set themselves
against a prevailing yet vulnerableview. Tom Paine's Common Sense
took off and became common sense after he insulted George III and monarchy
the way Moore zaps George the Second, and, well, monarchy.

Korda's insight jibes with a larger truth. Our growing readiness not
only to tolerate but to prefer lopsided views of things arises from our
gut-level understanding that America, at the dawn of the twenty-first
century--and contrary to its clichéd cultural image--stands as
the most vibrant philosophical culture in the history of the world, an
unprecedented marketplace of truth, argument, evidence and individuated
positions on sale to any browser with a browser. Anyone with a pulse and
a laptop can access material supporting the right, the left, the up, the
down, the Israeli view, the Arab view, the Zoroastrian, the pagan, the
poly, the foundationalist, the nonfoundationalist, the libertine, the
puritanical, the environmental, the deconstructionist, the Lacanian, ad
infinitum. That reservoir of opinions, attitudes and slants lifts our
tolerance for one-sidedness into an appetite for edifying entertainment.
Because we can order or click our way to the other side of almost any
viewpoint, and can get it wholesale or retail, we forgive omissions. In
our cornucopia culture, only diners have to offer everything.

TV executives, of course, knew from early on that brash, partisan
talk-show hosts would outrate scholarly balancers every time. (The talk
show, from Alan Burke and Joe Pyne to Bill O'Reilly, has mainly been an
exercise in getting someone to scream uncle.) So, in turn, canny
commercial publishers know that supplying "the other hand" can safely be
left to the equally one-sided polemicist around the corner, or to the
culture at large (particularly if the status quo is the "position"
omitted). The nonfiction polemic, like provocative theater, demands an
interactive audience member who'll supply or obtain elsewhere whatever's
missing, up to the level of individual need. The upshot of rampant
American pluralism, if not neatly packaged truth or beauty in marketable
texts, is an unburdening of public intellectuals and trade authors from
the academic obligation to be fair, judicious and open-minded. Like
artists, they're simply expected to arouse.

It's an unholy system, all right. A typically American market solution
to our supposedly innate demand for equity in the pursuit of knowledge.
But it's ours. And the big bucks it produces for paperback and foreign
rights? Don't even ask.

Is this it? The end of the Oprah Book Club as we know it?

It's Thursday, April 4, at approximately 3:45 pm. In less than
twenty-four hours, virtually everyone in America will have received word
of Oprah Winfrey's abrupt decision to cancel her televised book club,
but now, as member

number 251 in a select studio audience of about 300, I find myself privy
to this news before it has broken over the general populace. It is with
no small sense of irony that I find myself here at this unforeseeably
historic taping. For one thing, I don't even own a TV and have had
little direct exposure to The Oprah Winfrey Show up until this
moment. For another, I'm here not because I'm a fan but because I'm
hurrying to finish my lengthy English thesis on the impact of the Oprah
Book Club on American literary culture. In fact, my very arrival here at
Harpo Studios played out something like a game of six degrees of
separation, starting during a thesis-writing seminar last fall when a
friend and fellow student mentioned that her mother's cousin's friend
knew Oprah's makeup artist, and would I like help getting tickets.

Now--countless e-mails, multiple phone calls and several months later--I
have come to Chicago's West Loop from Washington this very morning
expecting to receive a typical and formulaic book-club-segment
experience. I plan to take a few notes, write a nice, anecdotal
first-person account of the whole thing upon my return home and be done
with it. Still, along with every other polite, neatly dressed guest
present, I gasp with pure, unstaged shock when, immediately after
returning from a commercial break, Winfrey stands up and declares, "I
just want to say that this is the end of the book club as we know it."

I sit stunned in my seat listening to the rest of her official statement
that will air during her regularly scheduled program on Friday, the
statement in which she explains before the cameras that "the truth is,
it has just become harder and harder for me to find books on a monthly
basis that I am really passionate about." I hear from Winfrey--as will
anyone else who watches the show, listens to the soundbites or reads the
papers--that "I have to read a lot of books to get to something that I
really passionately love, so I don't know when the next book will be. It
might be next fall or it could be next year. But I have saved one of the
best for last. It's one of my all-time favorites, and we'll be
discussing this selection as usual in about a month. So my final
selection is Sula. Sula, by my favorite author, Toni
Morrison." Unlike most other people who will hear this quote bandied
about the press for weeks to come, from my position, dead-center in the
third row, I have the advantage of hearing those parts of Winfrey's
explanation that will not make the TV edit.

I hear her say during one of the final commercial breaks that six years'
worth of book club has been long enough for her, that having to read so
many contemporary novels with an eye toward picking one for the show is
just too much pressure in conjunction with everything else she has to
do, and that she wants to take time now to return to the classics. I
hear her say that she spent the previous weekend rereading The Great
Gatsby
, a title to which the audience responds appreciatively with
knowing oohs, ahhs and nods.

Back on the air again at a few minutes before 4 o'clock, an assortment
of staffers pass out copies, both hardcover and paperback, of the final
selection. Winfrey reminds all of us in the audience and, of course,
everyone watching at home, "After you read it, write me a nice letter. A
great Toni Morrison-worthy letter, OK, because in the end she's
going to see your letters too," before laughing, thanking us and
plunging into the well-mannered crowd herself to help with the
distribution of books. The cameras are rolling as I receive my copy of
Sula straight from Winfrey's hand; I could reach up and touch the
sleeve of her fuzzy, pale blue sweater or the crease of her tailored
gray trousers were I so inclined. By slightly after 4 , the show is
over. The books have all been handed out, but Winfrey sticks around, as
is her habit, to chat with the audience after hours. It is during this
unaired window of time that Winfrey's fans have the opportunity to tell
their heroine what's on their minds. It is during this time, too, that I
witness the saddest part of my in-studio experience, sadder even than
Winfrey's initial announcement, sadder because it is heartfelt and
wholly unorchestrated.

Rising before posing her question, as we were instructed to do at the
beginning of the taping, a well-spoken middle-aged woman in a periwinkle
blue shirt addresses Winfrey. I do not catch her name because she is
speaking quickly and earnestly, and I couldn't record it anyway because
writing materials are not allowed. I do catch that she is a former
English teacher, a current mother and homemaker, and a longtime fan of
the Oprah Book Club. As such, she thanks Winfrey for having done so much
for reading and literature. Then, standing unselfconsciously in front of
us all, she pleads with Winfrey not to stop now. Recalling Winfrey's
rereading of The Great Gatsby and desire to return to the works
of dead authors, she wonders if it might be possible to continue to
include literature in the show's format by, say, hosting a themed
dinner, throwing a Roaring Twenties party or inviting a Fitzgerald
professor to say a few words about the works of F. Scott. There's
something strange and desperate and true in her plea, and I want so
badly for Winfrey to assent. Instead, Winfrey explains that she just
wants to be a "normal reader" for a while, and that although she and her
staff certainly considered such alternatives, the likelihood that any of
them could ever take place is slim. She does not want, she says
laughing, to have to read and select classic novels on the basis of
their potential for an accompanying dinner. By a quarter after 4, the
discussion turns from the announcement entirely. At approximately 4:30,
Winfrey announces that she must take her leave. Without another word
about the cancellation of the club, she's gone.

Filing from my section to the studio exit, I can't help considering that
this unexpected last chapter in the story of the Oprah Book Club is not
dissimilar to the kind of secret or surprise divulged in a number of the
novels that were her book club picks. Unlike the best of the Oprah
selections, though, this story seems to have a highly unsatisfying
conclusion. Nonetheless, it is done, and it seems a shame that the club
was never discussed as the rich cultural phenomenon that it really was,
but rather, as is typical of so much contemporary cultural commentary,
almost exclusively in terms of commerce. In fairness, each and every one
of Winfrey's forty-eight selections over the past six years became a
bestseller, and in an industry in which only a few novels sell more than
30,000 copies, the fact that those recommended by Winfrey routinely sold
a million or more secures the club's status as an undeniable economic
marvel.

Still, even when the opportunity for broad-based exploration of the club
arose, as in the case of last fall's dust-up with Jonathan Franzen,
reductive high-versus-low cultural bickering seemed the only result. Now
that the club is over, perhaps we can examine the story of the Oprah
Book Club with the care we would devote to the analysis of any complete
story.

More than anything else, we'll find that the club was not just extremely
significant, hopeful and positive as a development but was actually a
revolutionary cultural event. The use of such a far-reaching television
program--The Oprah Winfrey Show charts a domestic audience of an
estimated 26 million viewers per week, plus a foreign distribution in
106 countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe--as a deliberate
means to such a flourishing literary end was unheard-of before Winfrey.
More than any other cultural authority, Winfrey made an almost
subversive use of television, a categorically "low" medium, to bridge
the high-low cultural chasm that cleaves the American literary
landscape. Thus, Winfrey fought the good fight for literature in America
by promoting an enormous and active readership, racking up her
victories--succeeding with grace and ease in the creation of new readers
where the book industry itself had failed. Indeed, her widely inclusive
televised discussion of books had millions of people reading within the
club and outside it. Typically, by the time a book club segment
appeared, more than 500,000 people had read at least part of the novel
and nearly as many would buy the book in ensuing weeks. Moreover, the
club resulted in people reading titles other than those featured on the
show. According to Bob Weitrach, director of merchandise at Barnes &
Noble, 75 percent of the people who bought a book club title bought
something else too. And even though there are some who would say--and
who did say--that the revolution should not have been televised, they
were, quite simply and sadly, wrong, and now we're seeing the cost of
their snide, misguided complaints.

Whatever else can be said about the Oprah Book Club--that it
superficially treated fictional works as Things That Really Happen; that
the narratives of the books themselves were flattened by the pandering,
shallow narrative of the television program; that it drew an inordinate
amount of attention to the personalities of the authors--the reality
that it offered or came close to offering a third way of sorts between
America's high and low cultural literary camps cannot be denied. By
providing substantial evidence that such arbitrary and binaristic
classifications as high and low may actually have the same limits,
boundaries and scope, the Oprah Book Club presented a way to begin
healing the senseless rift in American literary culture.

Paradoxically, within Oprah's success rested the very problem so many
people had with the book club, and that led to its untimely demise. For
as Richard Lacayo noted in Time, "Culture snobs who thought of
her as that mawkish woman who was always on a diet now think of her as
that mawkish woman on a diet who has got millions of people to read Toni
Morrison." In short, even though Winfrey's position as a major arbiter
of literary taste was undoubtedly established, her right to hold that
position in the first place was subject to a great deal of unabashed
public doubt. As C. Wright Mills observed, virtually all taste is
dictated, if not by recognized cultural authorities at the so-called
top, then from somewhere. All reviewing of or advocacy for a particular
book--whether it appears on the book's jacket, in The New York Times
Book Review
or wherever else--may be construed as suggestion or even
a subtle form of coercion from those in positions of cultural
superiority to those at lower levels. Worthy of note, too, is the fact
that most people seem fairly comfortable with this long-established
tradition of how we, the public, are told how and what to read by
various powers that be, many of whom are perceived as members of some
kind of specialized literary class.

A reasonable question, then, becomes why widespread signs of discomfort
surfaced only when said power manifested itself in the form of a
middle-aged black woman and, more precisely, a middle-aged black woman
with lots and lots of money (her net worth is estimated at $425
million). For even though Winfrey picked a multitude of critically
acclaimed books (including Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize-winning
Song of Solomon and Jane Hamilton's PEN/Hemingway-winning
The Book of Ruth), her picks still managed to be subject to
critical scorn once they had received her approbation. In short, Winfrey
books exhibited an inversely proportional relationship between their
cultural capital--low--and their economic capital--high. The critical
backlash against the selections of the club presented unfortunate proof
of how caught up in a kind of textbook hierarchy of legitimacy American
literary culture really is.

Indeed, in large part because Winfrey selected titles with an eye toward
both their literary merits and their ability to go over well with an
audience consisting chiefly of women between the ages of 18 and
54--which women, incidentally, purchase and read more than 70 percent of
the fiction sold in this country--the club was perceived as an easy
target, open to countless cheap shots. I'm not suggesting here that all
the Winfrey-selected books of the past six years--thirty-five of them by
women and thirteen of them by men--were brilliant, nor that there should
be no distinction drawn between top- and poor-quality literature. What I
am suggesting, having read the majority of the novels myself, is that
Winfrey's picks proved that readable literature is not by definition
unchallenging or unworthy of both popular acclaim and critical respect.
Put another way, for every stray inferior club pick, like The Pilot's
Wife
, there were multiple superior club picks, like The
Poisonwood Bible
. Moreover, Winfrey continued to move the club in
increasingly challenging directions right up to the bitter end, picking
such serious and demanding works as Rohinton Mistry's A Fine
Balance
and Franzen's The Corrections. The disinvitation
fiasco--wherein Franzen insulted Winfrey and she, in turn, canceled his
appearance on the show--could have served as a tremendous asset to the
club, the literary community and the country. Instead, it became a
liability, a disheartening battle of egos between its figureheads and
led to attendant galvanization along the lines of high culture versus
low among the population at large. Owing in no small part to this highly
publicized challenge to her cultural authority, Winfrey seems to have
come now to the conclusion that the club is just no longer worth it if
it means being exposed to such derision.

None of this alters the fact that while it lasted, the club was an
unquestionably encouraging phenomenon, indicative of an American impulse
toward intellectual self-improvement and a hunger for the kind of
seriousness and stimulation that good literary fiction can offer. Such a
story as that of the Oprah Book Club should not suffer from so weak an
ending. The closing of the book before a satisfactory denouement
represents a tremendous loss to the promotion of active
readership.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has been traveling around the
country recently as part of a nationwide post-9/11 effort to promote
debate about civic values in schools and colleges. According to the
Boston Globe, Kennedy spent a day in that city's top public school,
Boston Latin Academy, and proposed a scenario in which "students
accidentally end up on a three-day layover in a very poor (imaginary)
nation called Quest, where Drummer, a young charismatic man, preaches
that the decadent United States should be destroyed. Quest citizens say
Drummer offers hope for change and that America is corrupt." Quest is
described as pervasively corrupt; although it has a written
constitution, "promises are not kept." The students were challenged to
defend American democracy.

The idea of getting students to excavate and examine the values they
hold most dear is an excellent one, although I must say I'm suspicious
of such a flatly simplistic scenario. I'd want to know a lot more about
the politics, history and economy of Quest. What's driving the
resentment--is it poverty? If so, is the anti-American sentiment merely
due to the abstract symbolic wealth of the United States, or is there
some specific industrial business presence in Quest--say an Enron--whose
unethical exploits have, by exacerbating living conditions, been
mistaken for the people and values of the United States? Does
anti-American resentment in Quest cut across all socioeconomic
spectra--hinting at some more ideological or religious discontent? Or is
it the result of some specific trauma, like Bhopal? Has the United
States supported oppressive regimes in the region? Is Quest an ally,
like Iran or China?

I suppose Justice Kennedy would not appreciate a devil's advocate like
me; I suppose he wants students to imagine Quest along the lines of
Zimbabwe or Iraq. I suppose the "right" answer would be that I'd spend
my three days proselytizing, as I do right here at home, about the
salutary effects of due process, free and honest elections, the Bill of
Rights and equal opportunity for all. But any good player in strategic
games knows that studying the motives and designs of the opposition
makes all the difference.

So I question what was accomplished by the vagueness of this exercise.
Indeed, its open-endedness made me think of an essay I read recently by
Harvard law professor Richard Parker, in the spring issue of the Harvard
Journal of Law and Public Policy
. Parker urges the "making" of
patriotism as a mobilization of emotion--"a political equivalent of
love"--that must be "grounded like electricity." He poses a set of
questions to test those sensibilities: "Recall your own early reactions
to the September 11 attack. (1) Did you feel that it was, in fact, an
attack 'on the United States'? (2) Did you believe that the United
States should defend itself--including preemptive self-defense to the
extent necessary? (3) Did you focus mostly on the past misdeeds of our
country. (4) Did you adopt a 'pragmatic' stance and argue that we ought
to govern ourselves by attending to 'the way we and our actions are
perceived' abroad? those who love our country are more likely than not
to give one set of answers: yes, yes, no and no."

Much of this essay struck me as romantic, murky nonsense; but what
troubled me most was its source. Like Justice Kennedy, Professor Parker
is powerfully positioned to be advancing a Rorschach test no more
reliable than a mood ring--patriotism reduced to "which side of the line
did you see yourself on if I flash this picture of September 11." And it
is irresponsible if one is then prepared to fashion a set of
consequences for being on the wrong side--as could well be under the USA
Patriot Act, which authorizes increased surveillance and interference in
the activities of those deemed unpatriotic.

What I thought on September 11 was considerably more tangled than
Parker's test. Lots of people were confused--people whom it would be
quite foolish to characterize as unpatriotic. When I first heard of the
hijackings, for example, I feared that it was retribution for Timothy
McVeigh's execution only a few months before. That gut reaction might
place me on the wrong side of Parker's test--my fears didn't
"privileg[e] insiders" more than "hostile outside forces." Moreover, in
my conviction that our civil rights are on a continuum with human
rights, I might run afoul of his assertion that "strict commitment to
universal values," including the notion of human rights, tends to
"stretch and break the bonds of patriotism, as their enthusiasts
proclaim themselves 'citizens' of nothing less than 'the world.'"
Indeed, by this measure, Timothy McVeigh might have had a greater chance
of passing Parker's test than I, which is distressing, to say the least.

Back in Boston, Justice Kennedy asked "whether it was right to let
people in other nations choose dictatorships." That troubled one senior,
who felt that the Justice was saying it was OK to impose democracy. "I
don't agree...[but] if I was in another country, I wouldn't be able to say
such things to such important people. You probably wouldn't see me
tomorrow." (I do hope the student was a citizen; if not, he could be
subject to President Bush's order allowing indefinite detention of
noncitizens without charge in undisclosed locations, with no recourse to
lawyers of their choice.)

If I were designing such an exercise, I'd use specific examples--like
Argentina under the junta or Turkey under martial law--rather than a
one-size-fits-all fictional foe. I'd have students compare the text of
the Constitution with the text of the USA Patriot Act. I'd have them
studying the right of habeas corpus, to my mind the greatest
contribution of Western jurisprudence. And I'd remind them of playwright
Arthur Miller's concern that we not turn our civic engagement into a
crucible where a "political policy is equated with moral right, and
opposition to it with diabolical malevolence. Once such an equation is
effectively made, society becomes a congeries of plots and counterplots,
and the main role of government changes from that of the arbiter to that
of the scourge of God."

In 1851, when the 32-year-old Herman Melville published his masterpiece
Moby-Dick, he was already known as a man who'd consorted with
cannibals. His first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life
(1846), was an international sensation. A fictional travelogue based
on his adventures, some of them sex-

ual, in the Marquesas Islands, it offended genteel Christians and sold
pretty well, so Melville dipped into his escapades again for Omoo
(1847), more tales from the South Seas, and the career of Herman
Melville, swashbuckling author, was launched.

The young salt then married Boston Brahmin Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter
of Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
Actually, the scandalous Melville was something of a Brahmin himself.
Grandson of the Revolutionary War hero Gen. Peter Gansevoort, and of
Maj. Thomas Melvill, a hero of the Boston Tea Party, Melville was also
related to the Van Rensselaers of Albany, the New York State Dutch
equivalent of Boston blue blood.

Now a bona fide writer, Melville published another, more complex romance
of Polynesian adventure, Mardi (1849), not nearly as popular as
his first two, and the autobiographical Redburn (1849), followed
by a story of seamen, White-Jacket (1850): five novels in a manic
four years.

The scene is set. Melville is "the first American literary sex symbol,"
writes Hershel Parker in Herman Melville, A Biography, Volume 2,
1851-1891
. From then on, Melville has to deal with a public that
typecasts its authors: Melville is a sailor who writes, not a writer who
sailed. He also must live down a reputation for writing too fast and, as
his novels grow less popular, shoulder an ever-enlarging specter of
mortgaged debt, neither of which would be easy for anyone, least of all
the man whose own improvident father, the importer Allan Melvill, had
squandered the family fortune, such as it had become, as well as his
sanity and his patrimony, dying when Herman was only 12.

Yanked out of school, the young Melville (as the name was spelled after
Allan's death) then clerked in a bank for $150 a year; he also worked in
his elder brother's store, ran an uncle's farm, taught school and in
1839 set out to sea in a merchant ship bound for Liverpool. "Whenever it
is a damp, drizzly November in my soul," says Ishmael in
Moby-Dick, "then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as
I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball." In 1841 Melville
signed on to the whaler Acushnet, jumped ship and met his tribe of
cannibals.

All this is copiously documented in the 941 pages of Parker's Herman
Melville: A Biography, Volume 1, 1819-1851
(1996), which ends when
Melville, living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, presents to his Berkshire
neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a copy of the newly minted
Moby-Dick, containing that singular act of literary generosity,
its printed dedication to Hawthorne "in token of my admiration for his
genius."

In fact, Parker's fine sleuthing turned up a newspaper article, printed
in the 1852 Windsor, Vermont, Journal, that recounts Melville
meeting Hawthorne for dinner at a hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts,
conveniently situated between Pittsfield and the small house the
Hawthornes were occupying on the border of what today is known as
Tanglewood. And on the basis of this gossip column, Parker speculates
that the dinner took place circa November 14 and that as the two friends
lingered, alone in the dining room, Melville handed Moby-Dick to
Hawthorne. ("In no other way could Hawthorne have had a copy so soon,"
Parker explains.)

As Hawthorne held Moby-Dick in his hand, "he could open the book
in his nervous way (more nervous even than normally)," writes Parker,
"and get from his friend a guided tour of the organization of the thing
now in print, and even sample a few paragraphs that caught his eye or
that the author eagerly pointed out to him." He could indeed. Whether he
did is another matter, though not for Parker, as secure in his
fantasy as Edmund Morris is in his imaginary Dutch: A Memoir of
Ronald Reagan
. "Take it all in all," Parker concludes, "this was the
happiest day of Melville's life."

This reconstructed dinner purports to have happened because Parker, a
mighty researcher, has loaded his book with enough fact, detail and
circumstantial inference to oblige assent from a weary reader. Yet
despite the hulking material he's amassed from a mountain of newspapers,
a fairly new cache of family papers and a host of collateral letters, to
name just a few of his sources, Parker continually veers into unwonted
speculation that then careens into certainty, moving back and forth
between data and guesswork, seamlessly fusing the two and squandering
his credibility as biographer along the way. The happy dinner is a
jarring case in point--and surprising in the work of a scholar as
seemingly scrupulous as Parker, the associate general editor of the
Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville.

Yet the happy dinner is essential to Herman Melville, A Biography,
Volume 2, 1851-1891
, another prodigious undertaking, 997 pages, that
chronicles the second, sad half of Melville's life. Here, Parker focuses
on Melville's relationship to Hawthorne. But it's one of his book's more
contradictory themes, since Parker is irritated by the pairing.
Neighbors only for eighteen months, the two authors afterward saw one
another about three more times but in the nineteenth-century eye were
yoked forevermore, Melville in the background and remembered, "if
remembered at all," snaps Parker, "as a man who had known Hawthorne,
the literary man who had known Hawthorne during the Lenox
months."

Of course, Parker isn't the first biographer implicitly to lay the blame
for Melville's neglect at Hawthorne's feet. Laurie Robertson-Lorant,
whose earnest Melville: A Biography appeared the same year as the
first installment of Parker's biography, doesn't much like Hawthorne.
Though Hawthorne appreciated Moby-Dick, he took Melville
literally when he said not to write about it, and Robertson-Lorant never
forgave him, particularly since Moby-Dick met with
uncomprehending reviewers who called it "careless," "patchy," "dazzling"
and "absurd." Sales were predictably bad.

Worse yet, in 1852 Melville published Pierre, or, The
Ambiguities
, an undomestic novel about incest and authorship (the
two symbolically related), which also contained a coruscating sendup of
writers and editors. They were not amused. Herman Melville Crazy ran a
headline in one New York paper. Enter Parker, who reasonably argues that
Melville's screed against publishers was a wanton act of
self-destruction (or hubris) and then less reasonably suggests that
Melville "may have sensed what would become a recurrent phenomenon for
the rest of his life, that he was being eclipsed by Hawthorne." This is
Parker speaking, not Melville. Despite Melville's capaciousness, Parker
is convinced that envy preoccupies Melville, though the evidence
suggests Parker is the envious one, so riled is he by Hawthorne's
posthumous reputation and Melville's sinking one. Parker closely
identifies with Melville, at times too closely, and will cross swords
with anyone who ignored, outsold, criticized or just plain didn't like
Melville.

But alas, Melville was in fact forgotten in America until his own
posthumous revival in the 1920s, especially in Britain, when, Parker
declares more than once, Moby-Dick and sometimes Pierre
take their place in a literary pantheon that does not include the
establishment writer (according to Parker) Hawthorne. "Not one of all
these British admirers ever asked Melville what it had been like to be a
friend of Hawthorne," Parker writes near the end of his book. "They
understood that Hawthorne, like Longfellow, was immensely popular but
not of the same order of literary greatness as Melville and Whitman."
Take that, you American fools.

The question of Hawthorne's immense popularity aside--the truth is, he
couldn't earn a living as a writer--Melville's treatment by a boorish
America obsessed with commonplace prosperity is another of Parker's
themes, and he strews his biography with the silly statements of vapid
critics like Melville's friend Evert Duyckinck, whom he also holds
responsible for Melville's eclipse. The trouble here isn't that Parker
is wrong but that his target--American stupidity--is too wide a mark.
Americans can be stupid, to be sure, and Melville's gifts are
staggering, but so is his tendency for self-subversion; his almost
vicious search for meaning--"if man will strike, strike through the
mask!"--ends with his pervasive, magniloquent sense that nothing will
avail. This makes him a complex, fascinating man and genius of
heartbreaking proportion. "Ourselves are Fate," he wrote in
White-Jacket.

After Pierre, Melville presumably wrote another book from a story
he'd heard, while vacationing in Nantucket, about Agatha Hatch, the
abandoned wife of a bigamist sailor. According to Parker, who expertly
excavated information about the lost manuscript, including its title
("The Isle of the Cross"), Melville finished this book, which his
publisher, Harper's, was prevented from printing for some unknown
reason. (Parker thinks the Harper brothers feared a suit from survivors
of Agatha Hatch, should they have recognized themselves, although he
concludes that the prospect is unlikely.)

Parker nicely points out that "The Isle of the Cross" is the missing
link between Pierre and Melville's subsequent magazine tales,
including the brilliant story "Bartleby, the Scrivener," an inquiry into
moral accountability and the fecklessness of social norms. It was
collected in a volume of stories, The Piazza Tales (1856), which
also includes the great "Benito Cereno," about an insurrection aboard a
slave ship that turns shallow parlor values upside down, and "The
Encantadas," sketches that Melville may have purloined from a longer,
unpublished manuscript of his about tortoises, whose crowning curse,
Melville writes, "is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a
belittered world." This is pure Melville: philosophical, rueful, ironic,
bold. He also serialized a historical novel, Israel Potter, in
Putnam's Monthly Magazine, in which he forecast, argues Parker,
the ultimate loss of his own career. But he didn't stop writing.

Now the father of four (two boys and two girls), Melville had already
begun the satiric Confidence-Man (1857) when his health
collapsed, likely under the weight of depression and heavy debt. Loans
due, he had to sell off eighty acres to save his farm from seizure by a
creditor; humiliated, he borrowed $5,000 from his father-in-law, who'd
already contributed $5,000 to family coffers. A kind man where Melville
was concerned (though he cut an equivocal place in history by enforcing
the Fugitive Slave Act), Judge Shaw dispatched the ailing Melville to
Rome, Egypt and the Levant, where Melville had long wanted to go, hoping
to find among the hieroglyphics tidings to quiet his uneasy soul.

He traveled by way of Liverpool, where Hawthorne, stationed as American
consul, briefly entertained him. "He certainly is much overshadowed
since I saw him last," Hawthorne observed, noting Melville's strange
comment that he'd

"pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not
seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until
he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists--and
has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before--in
wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the
sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be
comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to
try to do one or the other.

Melville never received a more searching analysis.

As Hawthorne surmised, Melville would not find what he sought in the
vastness of the Pyramids, and after returning to America, he beached his
pen to earn a scant living on the lecture circuit, his audiences
complaining that his whiskers muffled his words. A platform fiasco, he
took off again, intending to circumnavigate the globe, but when he
disembarked in San Francisco and learned that publishers had rejected a
new manuscript, he returned home, defeated and miserable. His works
falling out of print, he solaced himself in long walks around New York
City after he and his family moved there in 1863, and eventually landed
a dry-dock job as a Custom House inspector.

Oddly, the unsold manuscript was a book of poems. Why write poetry?
Given the prestige of poetry in the nineteenth century, it's not a
question, says Parker, Melville would have thought to ask. But that's no
answer. The man was chronically depressed, debt-ridden and rightly fed
up with publishers and readers; yet write poetry he did, perhaps seeking
something unavailable to the novel, especially during wartime. The
trenchant Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) contains
such poems as "The House-top," Melville's reflection on the 1863 draft
riots, and his ironic depiction of Sherman's "March to the Sea." Parker
favors Melville's allusive, ambitious epic, "Clarel: A Poem and a
Pilgrimage in the Holy Land" (1876), though the jury's still out on
that. I myself would like to be convinced, but Parker prefers to tease
out the poem's hypothetical references to Hawthorne rather than traffic
in enormities, poetic or otherwise.

Similarly, Parker gives remarkably short shrift to the tragic death of
Malcolm, Melville's firstborn, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound
at 18. Here, Parker should indulge his penchant for speculation: Why did
Malcolm tuck his gun under his pillow each night? What was he trying to
tell his father, with this pistol and ball? Did Melville hear him? And
wouldn't it be safe to assume that Malcolm's ghost, not Hawthorne's,
spooked Melville when he visited the Berkshire Hills in 1869, just
before he began writing "Clarel"? Do littérateurs haunt only one
another?

Likewise, Parker could dig deeper into allegations about Melville's
abuse of his wife, which so upset her brothers they wanted to kidnap her
and the children and hustle them back to Boston. Psychological abuse,
Parker admits; but physical abuse? Throwing her down the stairs?
Poet Charles Olson reportedly got the word from Melville's oldest
granddaughter, and he's not a source a responsible biographer can put
much faith in, says Parker, except that the claims are worth
interpreting at least in terms of Melville's fascination with violence.
The posthumously published tour de force Billy Budd, an inside
narrative, as Melville terms it, tells of an innocent youth's murder:
Malcolm? Melville's younger, more sexual self? The beleaguered Melville
frequently did abandon his wife, whom he seemed to love, though he was
clearly drawn to the company of men, either in fantasy or in the context
of his work. (Edwin Miller, an unreliable biographer, imagines Melville
propositioning Hawthorne in the Berkshire Hills and Hawthorne rejecting
him: more grist for the anti-Hawthorne mill. On this subject, Newton
Arvin remains the best, most elegant, Melville interpreter to date.)

Commendably cautious, Parker eschews reckless or fashionable theories
about Melville's sexuality. Yet questions remain, skirted by Parker, as
if his dizzying array of biographical detritus would prevent our posing
them. Cramming his book with long, bloodless catalogues of what Melville
might have seen or read, Parker layers each sentence with so much stuff
he sacrifices drama, insight and even, on occasion, grammar. "Knowing
Melville's sightseeing habits as detailed in his journals," Parker
obfuscates, "chances are he saw all he could see, keeping a lookout for
superb views." He then provides us with all these vistas, plus newspaper
reports and tangential historical information, fudging the biographical
imperative: to show how Melville transforms the shaggy minutiae of life
and its myriad characters (whether Hawthorne, Malcolm, a besieged wife
or a shipmate) into an alembic of wishes, conflicts and disappointments
that, taken together, reflect him, a mysterious, roiling, poignant
writer alive, painfully alive, in every phrase he wrote.

Still, Parker offers a sweeping history of the reviews Melville
received, a comprehensive account of Melville's reading (ditto his
literary sources), a jeremiad against mediocrity in American letters,
all the characters in Melville's extended family, a record of his aching
debt and a peevish defense of an artist who needs, as artist, no defense
at all.

Grateful scholars will chew over this massive undertaking in years to
come, as they should, saluting Parker for his devotion, solemnity and
sheer stamina. As for Melville the man: As Ishmael presciently remarks
in Moby-Dick, "I cannot completely make out his back parts; and
hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face."

Since this is going to be a story about sex and children, let's start
with a bit of groping in the priests' chamber.

I must have been 12. My confederates and I, all suited out in our little
Scout uniforms--demure blouse, ribbon tie, sash of merit badges across
the chest, jaunty tam-o'-shanter--were mustered in the rectory of St. John
Gualbert's, there to be investigated on our knowledge of and devotion to
the Blessed Virgin. This was the last step toward our achieving a
Catholic girl's honor called the Marian Award. I remember the word
"investigated." I remember, too, sitting on the long bench, looking at
the heavy draperies, the carved legs of the vast dining table, waiting
my turn in the half-dark, feeling the gaze of the stripped and suffering
painted Jesus behind me while, at the head of the table, our resolutely
unmortified investigator began asking first one girl then another such
questions as "Where do babies come from?" "What do you have between your
legs?" "What do you have here?" laying hand on breast, and so on like
that. Hmm, I thought, these were nothing like the sample questions in
the manual I'd been reviewing for days. And what was he doing
easing my friend up across his tumid belly and onto his lap? I'd never
liked this priest. He was florid and coarse, with piggy eyes, a bald
head and thick fingers that he'd run along the inside of the chalice
after Communion, smacking his lips on the last drops of the blood of
Christ. My mother didn't teach me about sex--I don't count the
menstruation talk--but, without quite saying so, she taught me to regard
authority figures as persons who had to earn respect. Obedience was
rarely free, never blind. Time has stolen what this priest asked me,
where, if anyplace, he touched me; I remember him stinking of drink is
all, and myself standing schoolmarm straight and reciting, with the
high-minded air I affected for such occasions, the statement I'd been
preparing: "Father, I fail to see what that question has to do with the
Marian Award. Girls, let's go." We escaped in a whirl of gasps and
secretive giggles, rushing to telephone our Scout leader. I had no
inclination to tell my mother, but most of the other girls told theirs,
and soon the priest was relieved of child-related duties. We got our
Marian medals without further investigation, and before too long the
priest dropped dead in the street of a heart attack. Even now, as
middle-aged men weep about the lifelong trauma inflicted by an uninvited
cleric's hand to their childish buttocks, I consider my own too-close
brush with the cloth as just another scene from Catholic school.

There were very different scenes, many more in fact, that I could just
as easily conjure forward now under the heading "sex and childhood,"
though at the time I no more thought they had anything to do with sex
than our encounter with the priest or, for that matter, my mother's
subtle lessons in self-possession. They contained, rather, the bits and
pieces of a sensual education that would be fit together in some
recognizable pattern only later. And because, at least in my school at
that time, official silence about sex meant we were also spared lectures
against abortion and homosexuality, onanism and promiscuity ("Thou shalt
not commit adultery"? who knew?), what was left to us was indulgence in
the high-blown romance of the church: Gregorian chants and incantatory
Polish litanies; the telling and retelling of the ecstasies of the
saints; the intoxicating aroma of incense, of hyacinths at Easter and
heaped peonies in June; the dazzling brocades of the priests' vestments
and the Infant of Prague's extravagant dresses, which we girls would paw
through when cleaning the church on Saturday; the stories of hellfire
and martyrdom; and the dark, spare aesthetic of the nuns.

There is a parallel in my ordering of childish memories here and the
public reaction to Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors. Levine
spends a large portion of the book advocating for candid, comprehensive
sex education in schools, something I and many of my generation never
had. But the spirit that animates the book is a less programmatic,
polymorphous appreciation of the sights and smells, the sounds and
language and tactile delights that make a person--adult or child--feel
alive in her skin. Levine's central preoccupation, running like a golden
thread throughout the book, is the pursuit of happiness, the idea that
kids have a right not just to safety and knowledge but to pleasure too.
And "pleasure" here is more than the sweet shudder of a kiss, the happy
exhaustion of climax; it is the panoply of large and small things that
figure under the heading joie de vivre, including the
satisfaction, quite apart from sex, of relating deeply with others in
the world. "Knowledge" is more than facts and technical skill; it is the
ability to understand the prompts of body and mind--to recognize "when
you can't not have it," as one woman quoted by Levine replied to her
daughter's "How do I know?" question--and the wherewithal to decide when
it's time to get out of the rectory.

In another age and country this might be called reasonable, everyday
stuff. Levine spends hardly any time talking about pedophiles, none on
priests. In dissecting the various sexual panics of the past couple of
decades, she marshals a catalogue of what, in the scheme of things,
should be reassuring studies and statistics to show that satanic ritual
abuse is a myth; child abduction, molestation and murder by strangers
(as opposed to family members) is rare and not rising; pedophilia (an
erotic preference of maybe 1 percent of the population) typically
expresses itself in such "hands-off" forms as voyeurism and
exhibitionism; child sex offenders have among the lowest rates of
recidivism; child porn, whether on the Net or the streets, is almost
nonexistent and then (less reassuring) its chief reproducers and
distributors are cops; sexual solicitations aimed at children over the
Net, while creepy, have not resulted in actual assaults; and "willing"
encounters between adults and minors do not ruin minors. Although Levine
has noted in interviews that, as a teenager, she had a sexual
relationship with an older man, she never mentions it in the book, nor
does she delve too far into this last taboo. She relegates to a footnote
the fascinating, difficult story of Mary Kay Letourneau, the 35-year-old
Seattle area teacher jailed for her affair with a 13-year-old student
who impregnated her twice and insisted to the press, "I'm fine."
Levine's most detailed discussion of age-of-consent laws involves the
more easily comprehended story of a precocious 13-year-old, who also
asserted her free will, and an emotionally immature 21-year-old,
currently locked up for statutory rape. More than once Levine states,
for anyone suspicious enough to wonder, her unswerving opposition to
every form of forced, coerced or violent sex, and to sex between adults
and young children. It shouldn't be necessary for her to assert that
just because kids have a far greater chance of dying in a car accident
than at the hands of a sex offender that doesn't mean the latter isn't a
problem, but she does. Yet, for all that, her book is being blasted by
the heavy guns and light artillery of the right-wing sex police as a
child molester's manifesto.

One reason is timing. The priest scandal, one of those things that
everyone knew but kept an unbothered or guilty silence about until the
court cases and daily headlines forced a response, has raised a hysteria
against which any rationality on youthful sexuality has about as much
chance as that student facing the tank in Tiananmen Square. Even without
that, nothing seems to make the blood boil like the suggestion that it's
possible for minors to emerge unscathed or even enriched from consensual
sexual relations with adults. I have had such conversations with
leftists who angrily reject the whole notion, even as I ask, What about
X, who says it was like an answered prayer when his parents'
30-something friend initiated him sexually at 13, when for months
afterward at the end of the school day he would politely kiss his
same-age girlfriend (now his wife of twenty-five years) and then rush to
this experienced woman's bed? What about Y, who seduced her married
teacher when she was 17 and he 45, and who, thirty years later, has with
this same man one of the most loving unions I have ever seen? What about
Z, who as a youth regularly sought out the company of older men because,
apart from a sexual education, they offered him a safe place for
expression, a cultural home, a real home? The priest scandal, which
forecloses any attempt to separate vicious crime from pervy nuisance
from consenting encounter, has further limited the possibilities for
thoughtful discussion on the real things people do and feel, the causes
and effects and complex power exchanges of a human activity that does
not, and will never, operate according to the precepts of a textbook or
lawbook.

Another reason is that Levine's most bombastic critics had not read
Harmful to Minors before damning it. Dr. Laura, who called
on the University of Minnesota Press to stop the book's release, took
her cues from Judith Reisman, who declared Levine an "academic
pedophile." A longtime zealot in the trenches of the antipornography
cause, Reisman told the New York Times, "It doesn't take a great
deal to understand the position of the writer. I didn't read Mein
Kampf
for many years, but I knew the position of the author." Tim
Pawlenty, the Minnesota House majority leader and a Republican hopeful
for governor, also admitted to not having read the book before equating
the press's role in its publication with "state-sanctioned support for
illegal, indecent, harmful activity such as molesting children." Robert
Knight, a spokesman for Concerned Women for America who urged the
university regents to fire those responsible for publishing this "evil
tome," says he "thumbed through it." Knight, whose organization is
dedicated to bringing "Biblical principles into all levels of public
policy," might consider what, at a practical level, that might mean,
starting with Moses' commands to his warriors in the Book of Numbers:
"Kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the
women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive
for yourselves."

Still, I think Levine would be pilloried by Dr. Laura and her ilk even
without the priest scandal and even if she had ignored the subject of
sex across the age divide. For the pleasure principle she enunciates
challenges the twenty-five-year-old organizing strategy of the right.
Ever since Anita Bryant first demonstrated that a power base could be
built by attacking homosexuals, the right has exploited real anxieties
about sex, love and family to constrain the liberatory spirit, whether
expressed by sexual preference, divorce, abortion, contraception,
women's freedom or teen sex. This has not managed to send queers back to
the closet, lower divorce rates or "protect the children." American
teenagers have about four times the pregnancy rate of teens in Western
Europe. Those in a program of "abstinence only" education still have sex
and are about half as likely to protect themselves than kids who've
received broad sex information. Even with abortion rights severely
curtailed, US teenagers have abortions at about the rate they did just
after Roe v. Wade. One in four has had a sexually transmitted
disease; one an hour is infected with HIV; and, not incidentally, among
American children one in six is poor. That notwithstanding, the sex
panic strategy has succeeded in the only way it had to: creating a
movement, with all the institutions, political power, lawmaking
capability, grassroots presence and funding that implies, to advance an
agenda for everything from global dominance to bedroom snooping.
Levine's critics are all part of that project, and since she butts
against it almost from the opening pages of her book, they are striking
back.

What is more telling is who isn't rushing to the defense. While a group
of free-speechers, pro-sex feminists and radical gay activists have
generated press releases, opinion pieces, e-mail alerts and letters of
support to Levine's publisher, there has been silence from mainstream
feminist organizations and the liberal sex-education and child-health
establishments. That may be partly because they, too, have felt the
sting of Levine's criticism. Rather than build a countermovement to
insist on sexual freedom, she writes, such heavyweights as Planned
Parenthood, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, ETR
Associates (the largest US mainstream sex-ed publisher), the National
Education Association, the Health Information Network and a host of
progressive sex educators tried to appropriate the "family values"
rhetoric of the right, joining in "a contest to be best at preventing
teen sex."

"The Right won," she writes, but the mainstream let it. Comprehensive
sex educators had the upper hand in the 1970s, and starting in the
1980s, they allowed their enemies to seize more and more territory,
until the Right controlled the law, the language, and the cultural
consensus.... Commenting on its failure to defend explicit sexuality
education during an avalanche of new HIV infection among teenagers,
Sharon Thompson [author of the engrossing book on sex and love among
teenage girls, Going All the Way] said, "We will look back at
this time and indict the sex-education community as criminal. It's like
being in a nuclear power plant that has a leak, and not telling
anybody."

Throughout the Clinton era those forces largely stood by as the most
sexually reckless President in memory signed a sheaf of repressive
legislation, acts with names like Defense of Marriage, Abstinence Only,
Personal Responsibility and Child Pornography Protection. The last on
that list, capping a legal trend that, as Levine says, "defined as
pornography pictures in which the subject is neither naked, nor doing
anything sexual, nor...is even an actual child," was recently struck
down by the Supreme Court. The second to last, also known as the welfare
bill, is up for reauthorization this year, along with its enhancements
of penalties for statutory rape and its policing of teen sex, motherhood
and marriage. As part of that bill the Clintonites fanned the notion
that minors were too young to consent to sex with an adult, while in
criminal law they eased the way for prosecuting children as adults and
jailing them as adults, in which circumstance consent usually isn't an
issue. To grasp the effect of liberal silence about Levine, it is
perhaps enough to recall one name: Dr. Joycelyn Elders, sacked by
Clinton as Surgeon General in 1994 for saying that masturbation is part
of childhood and it doesn't hurt to talk about it. Elders has written an
eloquent and sensible foreword to Harmful to Minors. Back when
Elders was twisting in the wind ABC's Cokie Roberts called her "a sort
of off-to-the-left, out-of-the-mainstream, embarrassing person"; now
the Washington Times insinuates she's soft on molestation. From
self-abuse to child abuse in eight years, one absurd charge prepares the
ground for the other.

That said, it's too easy to read the reception of Levine's book as
simply more evidence of right-wing lunacy and liberal retreat. What the
brouhaha also signals in its small way is a failure of the left. In
organizing around issues of sex, love and family, the right has surely
been cynical but at least it speaks to the deepest questions of intimate
life. Its answers are necessarily simplistic and straitened. The family
is falling apart? It's the homos. Marriage seems impossible? It's the
libbers. Sex brings suffering? Just say No. Love seems distant? Await
the Rapture. Except for a small group of queer radicals and pro-sex
feminists, to the extent that such questions are even entertained on the
left, the answers tend toward a mixture of social engineering and
denial: There's nothing wrong with the family that an equitable economy,
divorce or gay marriage won't fix. Marriage is possible; equality is the
key. If sex ed was better and condoms were free, teens wouldn't get
pregnant and wouldn't get AIDS. If abortion is painful, you've been
propagandized. If sex is painful, you're doing it wrong. If love is
painful, find a new lover.

Levine is too sensitive to the mysteries and complexities of human
relations to be characterized as advocating anything so pat as
happiness-through-policy in the area of childhood sexuality. But if her
putting children and sex together in the same sentence can be read by
the right as a call to licentiousness, her heavy emphasis on the
pleasure-enhancing possibilities of sex education may encourage readers
on the left to believe that kids can be protected from bad sex, mediocre
sex, regret, risk, danger, pain. And they can't, any more than adults
can. They can't because in matters of sex, desire is a trickster. What
you see isn't always what you get, much less what you want, though it
may be what you need. In matters of the heart, intimacy means
vulnerability means daring to bet against pain. As with all bets,
sometimes, often, you lose.

Levine actually makes this point but she so wants kids to have better
information, better experiences--and she argues so well and hard for
these--that somehow it gets lost. Citing a study showing that 72 percent
of teenage girls who'd had sex wished they had waited, Levine wonders
whether this regret isn't perhaps really about romantic disappointment
and asks, "Might real pleasure, in a sex-positive atmosphere, balance or
even outweigh regret over the loss of love?" Can we know pleasure
without pain? one might ask in return. Can regret over lost love, at any
age, be so easily balanced? Even sidestepping those twisting lines of
inquiry, isn't the promise of "real pleasure" as much a romantic ideal,
as much an invitation to disappointment, as the promise of true love,
especially for the young? However wished, it's not so easy to
disentangle sex from the hope for love, to revel in pure, transporting
sensuality without letting expectations, not to mention fumbling
technique, get in the way. It doesn't have to, and it doesn't always,
but sex can change everything between two people. We are weak,
after all, and life's little joke is that in that weakness lies the
potential for our ecstasy and our despair.

This isn't to discount the lifesaving value of open education about sex,
condoms, desire, freedom. (And because discussions like this always
force one to state the obvious, I'll also note that nothing in the
foregoing should suggest that I oppose equality, economic
redistribution, abortion rights, child safety, sexual liberation, the
search for love or, so long as heterosexuals insist on having the state
sanction their unions via the marriage contract, divorce and gay
marriage.) But rather than promise kids a world of good sex--like
promising a world of happy marriages, monogamous fulfillment,
self-sustaining nuclear families--maybe it's more helpful to explain sex
as the sea of clear water, giddy currents, riptides, sounding depths and
rocky shoals that it is. You navigate, find wonder in the journey,
scrape yourself up, press on anyway and survive. And sometimes,
sometimes, you experience a bliss beyond expression. The political job
is to expand the possibilities for such experience, to free people to
navigate, help them survive the hurt or not hurt so bad. Maybe if we
could be honest about sex, we could be honest about marriage and
monogamy and family. Maybe if so much didn't hinge on an outsized faith
in pleasure and fidelity and romantic love--if for people in couples or
families, everything didn't depend on the thin reed of love, and for
people alone, coupledom wasn't held out as the apex of happiness--all
the talk we hear about community might actually mean something. The
greatest virtue in Levine's book is its hope that children might learn
to find joy in the realm of the senses, the world of ideas and souls, so
that when sex disappoints and love fails, as they will, a teenager, a
grown-up, still has herself, and a universe of small delights and strong
hearts to fall back on.

Charles Wright and Charles Simic count among the best poets of their generation. Each career has unfolded with considerable excitement for serious readers of contemporary poetry, their latest work always building on previous work, always shifting in unexpected ways, challenging the reader to answer light with light, dark with dark. Their latest books are certainly as good, if not better, than those that preceded them, and that's saying a good deal.

In Wright's fifteenth volume, A Short History of the Shadow, he reaches back to earlier moments in his creative and spiritual life (which, in his case, are intimately connected), revisiting "old fires, old geographies," as he says in "Looking Around," which opens the volume. This and other poems in the collection resemble in form and texture those of his middle period, which began with The Other Side of the River, where the terse, imagistic lyrics of his earlier work gave way to long and languid meditations in the loose, associative format of a journal. As ever, Wright centered each poem in a particular landscape--Tennessee, Virginia, California, Italy--sometimes skipping blithely from landscape to landscape, season to season, assembling images that seemed miraculous in their originality and oddness. Ignoring the dogged domesticity that informs so much of contemporary poetry, he addressed large matters: the place of human intelligence in nature, the nature and role of memory and time in the life of the soul, the fate of language as a conduit between spirit and matter. Wright was, in a sense, adding apocryphal books to his own hermetic scripture with each poem.

He still is. Admitting to a "thirst for the divine" in "Lost Language," he catalogues his habits and desires:

I have a hankering for the dust-light, for all things illegible.
I want to settle myself
Where the river falls on hard rocks,
where no one can cross,
Where the star-shadowed, star-colored city lies, just out of reach.

A dark Emersonian, Wright reads the Book of Nature closely, consistently and fiercely, as in "Charlottesville Nocturne," where he concludes:

Leaning against the invisible, we bend and nod.
Evening arranges itself around the fallen leaves
Alphabetized across the back yard,
desolate syllables
That braille us and sign us, leaning against the invisible.

Our dreams are luminous, a cast fire upon the world.
Morning arrives and that's it.
Sunlight darkens the earth.

Here as elsewhere, Wright fetches the reader's attention with compelling aphorisms, with phrases arranged to create a subtle, alluring music. He could not be mistaken for any other poet, although one notices the remnants of his reading, thoroughly absorbed and transmogrified, in almost every line. It's often amusing to hear him toying with phrases and linguistic motions from the poets who have influenced him: Whitman, Eliot, Stevens, Pound, Montale (whom he has translated) and others. When he says, for example, "I like it out here," in "Why, It's as Pretty as a Picture," one can't help hearing Stevens's similar remark in "The Motive for Metaphor." Of course, poems often unfold from poems, and most good literature is a tissue of allusions. Wright knows this; indeed, he embraces it.

There is evidence of wit everywhere in this volume, more so than before. Wright sounds immensely self-confident and authoritative and can say anything, as in the above-mentioned poem, which disarmingly opens:

A shallow thinker, I'm tuned
to the music of things,
The conversation of birds in the dusk-damaged trees,
The just-cut grass in its chalky moans,
The disputations of dogs, night traffic, I'm all ears
To all this and half again.

Tell me about it. Wright is all ears, all eyes, sifting the world that falls before him with astonishing freshness, thinking shallowly so he can see and hear profoundly. His poems, like all good poetry, embody their meanings well before they are available for rational understanding, and they are only understood in a full way over time, in the context of his previous work and, indeed, the work to come.

Though rooted in the traditions of European and American Romanticism, Wright has kept an eye on the East, and in the new poems he alludes easily and often to Chinese poets and philosophers, who embrace the concept of emptiness in ways that complement Wright's aesthetic, as he suggests in the gorgeous "Body and Soul II," where he presents another in his series of poems in the ars poetica mode:

Every true poem is a spark,
and aspires to the condition of
      the original fire
Arising out of the emptiness.
It is that same emptiness it wants to reignite.
It is that same engendering it wants to be re-engendered by.

In "Body and Soul" itself, Wright embraces his aesthetic more ardently than anywhere in his previous writing, if I'm not mistaken. He writes:

I used to think the power of words was inexhaustible,
That how we said the world
was how it
      was, and how it would be.
I used to imagine that word-sway and
      word-thunder
Would silence the Silence and all that,
That words were the Word,
That language could lead us inexplicably
      to grace,
As though it were geographical.
I used to think these things when I
      was young.

I still do.

Movingly, Wright places his confidence in the gnostic way of knowledge, in the appropriation of Logos through language itself, in "word-sway and word-thunder," a formulation that recalls Hopkins, who sought the divine in language, wherein he discovered an "inscape"--his term for a distinct internal form--that embodied the mystery of grace.

Wright is a seer in the truest sense, a poet who stands out among contemporary poets as a lone figure, belonging to no recognizable school, inimitable. His vatic stance, though unpretentious because the manner of the poet is often quite offhanded and colloquial, remains central to the meaning of his poetry, and he falls smack in the line of American visionaries, who look always to Emerson as the source.

Wright and Charles Simic could not be more different in style, even substance, though Simic's work shares with Wright's an abiding interest in the realm of spirit in its worldly embodiments. Simic, though, is more likely to find "the proof of God's existence riding in a red nightgown." Simic's interlocutor in the title poem of the new volume, Night Picnic, asserts: "All things are imbued with God's being--." This God, however, is a dark and possibly demonic figure, defined as much by his absence as his presence.

A bitterness over this absence appears to haunt Simic, here as before, although humor blends with the bitterness to create his unique affect. His poetry locates itself in casual moments of sudden recognition, as in "We All Have Our Hunches," which follows in its entirety:

The child turning from his mother's breast
With a frightened look
To watch his grandfather raise a beer
And drink to his future happiness
In the kitchen full of unwashed plates
And busy women with quarrelsome voices,
The oldest of whom wields a rolled newspaper
With the smiling President's picture
Already speckled by the blood
Of warm-weather flies and mosquitoes.

In the somewhat claustrophobic hothouse of this poem, a rather typical one, Simic contrasts young and old, powerful and powerless--oppositions that have intrigued him from the outset. The shadow of violence falls across the room, emblematized by the oldest "quarrelsome" woman with the rolled newspaper and amplified by the blood-speckled picture of the President. The reflexive fear of this child is a fear that permeates Simic's verse, which often trembles on the edge of despair.

Born in Belgrade in 1938, Simic's early childhood was spent in the turmoil of war. His first language was Serbo-Croatian, and he brings an Eastern European sensibility to his poems, a feeling of almost lightheaded absurdity coupled with a wryly sardonic feeling of helplessness. For close ancestors, one might look to poets like Georg Trakl or Zbigniew Herbert--poets at home in the eerie dreamworld of surreal poetry.

In the unnamed country where most of his poems are set, war seems to hover in the background. The authorities in this country rule by violence, and ordinary souls shrink into the crevices of history, destined for oblivion. The poet's voice in this almost speakerless poetry emerges from an anonymous Mouth, that "old rathole/From which the words/Scurry after dark." Typically, Simic's poems gather their disparate parts in unexpected ways, hinting at "dark secrets still to be unveiled," the pieces falling miraculously into place in the final image, where the reader is often led to a huge metaphysical brink, which beckons from below.

A prolific poet--by my count this volume is his fifteenth--Simic revisits similar nightmares in book after book. He dreams about butcher shops, ominous city streets, prisons and dismal bedrooms, where the insomniac poet studies the flies on the ceiling and contemplates his own dim fate. But there have always been some bucolic poems, too, and they are usually set in deep country, under blue skies, as in "Summer in the Country," which opens:

One shows me how to lie down in a field of clover.
Another how to slip my hand under her Sunday skirt.
Another how to kiss with a mouth full of blackberries.
Another how to catch fireflies in a jar after dark.

That we never learn who, exactly, these instructors are doesn't matter. In Simic's surreal world, anything can happen; guide-ghosts can unexpectedly materialize to lead the characters in the poem into heaven or hell--or some combination of the two.

I've always relished Simic in his wry but happy moods, as in "The Secret of the Yellow Room," where he celebrates sloth and the "silky hush of a summer afternoon." But the weather of any given poetic mood can shift unexpectedly. "Roadside Stand," for example, begins with a sumptuous account of a kid's roadside vegetable and fruit stand:

In the watermelon and corn season,
The earth is a paradise, the morning
Is a ripe plum or a plump tomato
We bite into as if it were the mouth of a lover.

The kid, however, is bored. He doesn't understand the peculiar enthusiasm of his customers, who make such a fuss over his produce; wanly if not wisely, he surmises that "what makes people happy is a mystery." The gears shift quietly under the hood of Simic's poem as it widens in meaning.

Though Simic rarely mentions a specific historical situation, he refers often--and chillingly--to politics. "Sunday Papers," a remarkable lyric, begins: "The butchery of the innocent/Never stops." "Views from a Train" offers the depressing sight of "squatters' shacks,/Naked children and lean dogs running/On what looked like a town dump." "In the Courtroom" laments a world of injustice, where "ghastly errors" occur and "mistaken identities are the rule." But Simic sees no easy remedy for these problems, which seem eternally to plague humankind. If poetry makes nothing happen, as Auden suggested, then a poet's nightmares can't help much. In "New Red Sneakers," Simic notes with rueful candor: "A lifetime of sleepless nights/Cannot alter the course of events."

The "Wee-hour world" of his writing is haunted by twisted faces, tinhorn preachers and a variety of indigents who cannot reinvent their lives or take comfort in philosophical musings. Even art doesn't help much. "The true master," suggests one voice in an eerie poem called "The Lives of the Alchemists," "needs a hundred years to perfect his art."

Simic has been working for more than four decades at his art, and he's brushed up against perfection more than a few times. Indeed, American poetry would be desperately poorer without at least a dozen of his poems, and the work in Night Picnic is as lively, horrific, amusing and satisfying as anything he has yet published.

It seems scarcely to have required a great philosophical mind to come up
with the observation that each of us is the child of our times, but that
thought must have been received as thrillingly novel when Hegel wrote it
in 1821. For it implied that human nature is not a timeless essence but
penetrated through and through by our historical situation.
Philosophers, he went on to say, grasp their times in thought, and he
might as a corollary have said that artists grasp their times in images.
For Hegel was the father of art history as the discipline through which
we become conscious of the way art expresses the uniqueness of the time
in which it is made. It is rare, however, that grasping his or her own
historical moment becomes an artist's subject. It was particularly rare
in American art of the second half of the twentieth century, for though
the art inevitably belonged to its historical moment, that was seldom
what it set out to represent. It strikes me, for example, that Andy
Warhol was exceptional in seeking to make the reality of his era
conscious of itself through his art.

German artists of the same period, by contrast, seem to have treated the
historical situation of art in Germany as their primary preoccupation.
How to be an artist in postwar Germany was part of the burden of being a
German artist in that time, and this had no analogy in artistic
self-consciousness anywhere else in the West. Especially those in the
first generation after Nazism had to find ways of reconnecting with
Modernism while still remaining German. And beyond that they had to deal
with the harsh and total political divisions of the cold war, which cut
their country in two like a mortal wound. Gerhard Richter was a product
of these various tensions. But like Warhol, whom he resembles in
profound ways, he evolved a kind of self-protective cool that enabled
him and his viewers to experience historical reality as if at a
distance. There is something unsettlingly mysterious about his art.
Looking at any significant portion of it is like experiencing late Roman
history through some Stoic sensibility. One often has to look outside
his images to realize the violence to which they refer.

Richter grew up in East Germany, where he completed the traditional
curriculum at the Dresden Academy of Art, executing a mural for a
hygiene museum in 1956 as a kind of senior thesis. Since the institution
was dedicated to health, it was perhaps politically innocuous that the
imagery Richter employed owed considerably more to the
joy-through-health style of representing the human figure at play, which
continued to exemplify Hitler's aesthetic well after Nazism's collapse,
than to the celebration of proletarian industriousness mandated by
Socialist Realism under Stalin. This implies that East German artistic
culture had not been Sovietized at this early date. The real style wars
were taking place in West Germany and surfaced especially in the epochal
first Documenta exhibition of 1955. Documenta, which usually takes place
every five years in Kassel, is a major site for experiencing
contemporary art on the international circuit today. But at its
inception, it carried an immense political significance for German art.
It explicitly marked the official acceptance by Germany of the kind of
art that had been stigmatized as degenerate by the Nazis and was thus a
bid by Germany for reacceptance into the culture it had set out to
destroy. The content of Documenta 1--Modernism of the twentieth century
before fascism--could not possibly carry the same meaning were it shown
today in the modern art galleries of a fortunate museum. But Modernism,
and particularly abstraction, had become a crux for West German artists
at the time of Documenta 1, as if figuration as such were politically
dangerous. It was not until Richter received permission to visit
Documenta 2 in 1959, where he first encountered the art of the New York
School--Abstract Expressionism--that some internal pressure began to build
in him to engage in the most advanced artistic dialogues of the time.
The fact that he fled East Germany in 1961 exemplifies the way an
artistic decision entailed a political choice in the German Democratic
Republic.

It was always a momentous choice when an artist decided to go
abstract--or to return to the figure after having been an abstractionist,
the way the California painter Richard Diebenkorn was to do. But to
identify oneself with Art Informel--the European counterpart of the
loosely painted abstractions of the New York School--as many German
artists did, was to make a political declaration as well as to take an
artistic stand. Richter was to move back and forth between realism and
abstraction, but these were not and, at least in his early years in the
West, could not have been politically innocent decisions. Neither was
the choice to go on painting when painting as such, invariantly as to
any distinction between abstraction and realism, became a political
matter in the 1970s. If ignorant of the political background of such
choices, visitors to the magnificent Museum of Modern Art retrospective
of Richter's work since 1962--the year after his momentous move from East
to West--are certain to be baffled by the fact that he seems to vacillate
between realism and abstraction, or even between various styles of
abstraction, often at the same time. These vacillations seemed to me so
extreme when I first saw a retrospective of Richter's work in Chicago in
1987, that it looked like I was seeing some kind of group show. "How can
you say any style is better than another?" Warhol asked with his
characteristic faux innocence in a 1963 interview. "You ought to be able
to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a
realist, without feeling that you have given up something." For most
artists in America, it is important that they be stylistically
identifiable, as if their style is their brand. To change styles too
often inevitably would have been read as a lack of conviction. But what
the show at MoMA somehow makes clear is that there finally is a single
personal signature in Richter's work, whatever his subject, and whether
the work is abstract or representational. It comes, it seems to me, from
the protective cool to which I referred--a certain internal distance
between the artist and his work, as well as between the work and the
world, when the work itself is about reality. It is not irony. It is not
exactly detachment. It expresses the spirit of an artist who has found a
kind of above-the-battle tranquility that comes when one has decided
that one can paint anything one wants to in any way one likes without
feeling that something is given up. That cool is invariant to all the
paintings, whatever their content. As a viewer one has to realize that
abstraction is the content of one genre of his painting, while the
content of the other genres of his painting is...well...not abstraction.
They consist of pictures of the world. So in a sense the show has an
almost amazing consistency from beginning to end. It is as though what
Richter conveys is a content that belongs to the mood or tone, and that
comes through the way the quality of a great voice does, whatever its
owner sings.

Before talking about individual works, let me register another
peculiarity of Richter's work. He paints photographs. A lot of artists
use photography as an aid. A portraitist, for example, will take
Polaroids of her subject to use as references. The photographs are like
auxiliary memories. With Richter, by contrast, it is as if photographs
are his reality. He is not indifferent to what a photograph is of, but
the subject of the photograph will often not be something that he has
experienced independently. In 1964 Richter began to arrange photographs
on panels--snapshots, often banal, clippings from newspapers and
magazines, even some pornographic pictures. These panels became a work
in their own right, to which Richter gave the title Atlas.
Atlas has been exhibited at various intervals, most recently in
1995 at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, at which venue there
were already 600 panels and something like 5,000 photographs. These
photographs are Richter's reality as an artist. When I think of
Atlas, I think of the human condition as described by Plato in
the famous passage in The Republic where Socrates says that the
world is a cave, on the wall of which shadows are cast. They are cast by
real objects to which we have no immediate access, and about which, save
for the interventions of philosophy, we would have no inkling. But there
is an obvious sense in which most of what we know about, we never
experience as such. Think of what the experience of the World Trade
Center attack was for most of us on September 11 and afterward. We were
held transfixed by the images of broken walls and burning towers, to use
Yeats's language, and fleeing, frightened people.

The first work in the exhibition is titled Table, done in 1962.
Richter considers it the first work in his catalogue raisonné,
which means that he assigns it a significance considerably beyond
whatever merits it may possess as a painting. It means in particular
that nothing he did before it is part of his acknowledged oeuvre.
Barnett Newman felt that way about a 1948 work he named Onement.
He considered it, to vary a sentimental commonplace, the first work of
the rest of his artistic life. Next to Table, one notices two
photographs of a modern extension table, clipped from an Italian
magazine, on which Richter puddled a brushful of gray glaze.
Table itself is an enlarged and simplified painting of the table
in the photographs, over which Richter has painted an energetic swirl of
gray paint. It is easy to see why it is so emblematic a work in his
artistic scheme. Whatever the merits of the depicted table may have been
as an object of furniture design, such tables were commonplace articles
of furniture in middle-class domestic interiors in the late fifties. In
1962 it was becoming an artistic option to do paintings of ordinary,
everyday objects. We are in the early days of the Pop movement. The
overlaid brushy smear, meanwhile, has exactly the gestural urgency of
Art Informel. So Table is at the intersection of two major art
movements of the sixties: It is representational and abstract at once.
Warhol in that period was painting comic-strip figures like Dick
Tracy--but was dripping wet paint over his images, not yet able to
relinquish the talismanic drip of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, in
1960 he painted a Coca-Cola bottle with Abstract Expressionist
mannerisms--a work I consider Table's unknown artistic sibling.
Richter gave up Art Informel in 1962, just as Warhol dropped Abstract
Expressionist brushiness in favor of the uninflected sharpness and
clarity of his Pop images. By 1963 Richter had begun painting the
blurred but precise images that became his trademark. Richter's
marvelously exact Administrative Building of 1964 captures the
dispiriting official architecture of German postwar reconstruction,
especially in the industrial Rhineland. And his wonderful Kitchen
Chair
of 1965 is a prime example of Capitalist Realism, the version
of Pop developed by Richter and his colleague, Sigmar Polke, in the
mid-sixties. Richter and Warhol had fascinatingly parallel careers.

The deep interpretative question in Richter's art concerns less the
fact that he worked with photographs than why he selected the
photographs he did for Atlas, and what governed his decision to
translate certain of them into paintings. There are, for example,
photographs of American airplanes--Mustang Squadrons, Bombers and Phantom
Interceptor planes in ghostly gray-in-gray formations. Richter was an
adolescent in 1945, and lived with his family within earshot of Dresden
at the time of the massive firebombings of that year. The photograph
from which Bombers was made had to have been taken as a
documentary image by some official Air Force photographer, whether over
Dresden or some other city. The cool of that photograph, compounded by
the cool with which that image is painted--even to the hit plane near the
bottom of the image and what must be the smoke trailing from
another--cannot but seem as in a kind of existential contrast with the
panic of someone on the ground under those explosives falling in slow
fatal series from open bays. But what were Richter's feelings? What was
he saying in these images?

And what of the 1965 painting of the family snapshot of the SS
officer--Richter's Uncle Rudi--proudly smiling for the camera, which must
have been taken more than twenty years earlier, shortly before its
subject was killed in action? Tables and chairs are tables and chairs.
But warplanes and officers emblematize war, suffering and violent death.
And this was not simply the history of the mid-twentieth century. This
was the artist's life, something he lived through. We each must deal
with these questions as we can, I think. The evasiveness of the artist,
in the fascinating interview with Robert Storr--who curated this show and
wrote the catalogue--is a kind of shrug in the face of the
unanswerability of the question. What we can say is that photographs
have their acknowledged forensic dimension; they imply that their
subjects were there, constituted reality and that the artist himself is
no more responsible than we are, either for the reality or the
photography. The reality and the records are what others have done. He
has only made the art. And the blurredness with which the artist has
instilled his images is a way of saying that it was twenty years
ago--that it is not now. Some other horrors are now.

The flat, impassive transcriptions of Richter's paintings are
correlative with the frequent violence implied by what they depict. That
makes the parallels with Warhol particularly vivid. It is easy to
repress, in view of the glamour and celebrity associated with Warhol's
life and work, the series of disasters he depicted--plane crashes,
automobile accidents, suicides, poisonings and the shattering images of
electric chairs, let alone Jackie (The Week That Was), which
memorializes Kennedy's funeral. Or the startlingly anticelebratory
Thirteen Most Wanted Men that he executed for the New York State
Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair. Compare these with Richter's 1966
Eight Student Nurses, in which the bland, smiling, youthful faces
look as if taken from the class book of a nursing school--but which we
know were of victims of a senseless crime. Warhol's works, like
Richter's, are photography-based. The pictures came from vernacular
picture media--the front page of the Daily News, or the
most-wanted pictures on posters offering rewards, which are perhaps
still tacked up in post offices. These were transferred to stencils and
silk-screened, and have a double graininess--the graininess of newspaper
reproduction and of the silk-screen process itself. And like Richter's
blurring, this serves to distance the reality by several stages--as if it
is only through distancing that we can deal with horror. I tend to think
that part of what made us all feel as if we were actually part of the
World Trade Center disaster was the clarity of the television images and
the brightness of the day that came into our living rooms.

Whatever our attitude toward the prison deaths of the Baader-Meinhof
gang members in 1977, I think everyone must feel that if Richter is
capable of a masterpiece, it is his October 18, 1977 suite of
thirteen paintings, done in 1988 and based on aspects of that reality.
These deaths define a moral allegory in which the state, as the
guarantor of law and order, and the revolution, as enacted by utopian
and idealist youths, stand in stark opposition, and in which both sides
are responsible for crimes that are the dark obverses of their values.
But how fragile and pathetic these enemies of the state look in
paintings that make the photographs from which they were taken more
affecting than they would seem as parts, say, of Atlas. Who knows
whether Richter chose the images because they were affecting, or made
them so, or if we make them so because of the hopelessness of a reality
that has the quality of the last act of an opera, in which the chorus
punctuates the tragedy in music? There are three paintings, in graded
sizes, of the same image of Ulrike Meinhof, who was hanged--or hanged
herself--in her cell. The paintings do not resolve the question of
whether she was killed or committed suicide. They simply register the
finality of her death--Dead. Dead. Dead. (Tote. Tote. Tote.)--in a
repetition of an image, vanishing toward a point, of a thin dead young
woman, her stretched neck circled by the rope or by the burn left by the
rope. That is what art does, or part of what it does. It transforms
violence into myth and deals with death by beauty. There was a lot of
political anger when these paintings were shown in 1988, but there was
no anger in the gallery on the occasions when I have visited it in the
past several weeks.

By comparison with the ferocity of human engagements in the real world,
the art wars of the mid-twentieth century seem pretty thin and petty.
But it says something about human passion that the distinction between
figuration and abstraction was so vehement that, in my memory, people
would have been glad to hang or shoot one another, or burn their
stylistic opponents at the stake, as if it were a religious controversy
and salvation were at risk. It perhaps says something deep about the
spirit of our present times that the decisions whether to paint
abstractly or realistically can be as lightly made as whether to paint a
landscape or still life--or a figure study--was for a traditional artist.
Or for a young contemporary artist to decide whether to do some piece of
conceptual art or a performance. Four decades of art history have borne
us into calm aesthetic waters. But this narrative does not convey the
almost palpable sense in which Richter has grasped his times through his
art. One almost feels that he became a painter in order to engage not
just with how to be an artist but how, as an artist, to deal with the
terribleness of history.

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