News and Features
Click here for readers' reactions to this article.
Wonder why it took ex-Republican Jim Jeffords to alert the national media to the fact that the Bush Administration is run out of the extremist end of the GOP? Writing from inside the belly of the beast not long ago, the Washington Post's White House correspondent John Harris helped crystallize an increasingly unavoidable proposition: "The truth is, this new president has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton."
The argument over whether reporters are "liberal" is tired and stale. It's also irrelevant. You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind to believe that liberals get more generous coverage. Harris focuses on the structural part. "There is no well-coordinated corps of aggrieved and methodical people who start each day looking for ways to expose and undermine a new president.... the liberal equivalent of this conservative coterie does not exist." What he does not say is that in the press itself there is no liberal equivalent to nakedly biased news sources like Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, the Washington Times, the New York Post, Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and The McLaughlin Group, which dictate punditocracy discourse and cable schmoozathons.
Add to this the rapid decline of what constitutes verifiable "news" among our most high-minded journalistic institutions. Harris gingerly notes that his colleagues "may have fallen a bit out of shape at the hard work of examining, exposing, and critiquing public officials as they go about making the decisions that affect national life." Oh yeah, that. Now throw in the natural tendency of Beltway reporters to write for sources rather than for their readers. At least before the Jeffords switch, those sources were almost exclusively Republican and conservative.
Consider the news coverage of the China "crisis," as has an intelligent examination in the Columbia Journalism Review. The media wanted inside "ticktock" coverage, and the White House complied. Harris's Washington Post presented readers with a twenty-six-paragraph, front-page analysis replete with inside anecdotes designed to make the President appear somehow simultaneously in charge and comfortable with delegating details. He "peppered" his advisers with questions about Bibles and exercise. Bush "grilled" Condoleezza Rice. He set "redlines" for negotiators regarding possible concessions. Never mind that no Post reporters were there during the events they so breathlessly reported as fact. To question the official version handed out by the President's propaganda machine is no longer part of the job description. (And let's not even go into why these aides wanted to portray their boss, as the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland observed, as "a know-nothing, fundamentalist fitness freak.")
An equally egregious example can be found in the media coverage of the alleged vandalism perpetrated by Clinton aides before their departure from the White House. Washington Post gossip Lloyd Grove originally broke the nonstory, as Bush officials pretended to pooh-pooh it while privately stoking it. What began as a few missing W's on keyboards soon mushroomed into--according to a page-one Post report by Mike Allen--"sliced phone and computer lines, obscene messages left in copy machines and champagne flutes missing from an Air Force jet." Lurid reports were aired by Tom DeFrank in the New York Daily News, Andrea Mitchell on NBC News, Matt Drudge, Tony Snow, Fred Barnes, Paula Zahn, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, William Kristol, Tom Schatz, Oliver North and Brit Hume on Fox.
Apparently, no one thought to ask the Bush White House if there was any evidence for these claims. When GSA investigators looked into the matter, they found, "The condition of the real property was consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy." The GAO also looked into it and found "no record of damage that may have been deliberately caused by the employees of the Clinton administration." Not surprisingly, this news went buried or unreported. Mitchell's employer, NBC, ignored it; the Post ran a wire service report on page 13.
Mike Allen and Andrea Mitchell did not return my call seeking their reaction to the news. Tom DeFrank told me he is "deeply puzzled" and plans to do more reporting on it. The respective reputations of Matt Drudge and Fox News speak for themselves. But you get the point. At least until Jim Jeffords upset its applecart, the Bush Administration, and the conservative movement supporting it, controlled its press coverage so effectively, it owned just about all the marbles in the game. And as every kid knows, it's the guy with the marbles who gets to decide the rules.
* * *
Did former New York Times executive editor and anti-Communist hysteric Abe Rosenthal squash an article that shed light on the guilt of the Rosenbergs for fear of offending the judge who sent them to their deaths? Ronald Radosh makes this shocking claim in his memoir, Commies, citing as his source Ed Klein, then editor of the Times magazine. Radosh's article, commissioned by the magazine and written with Sol Stern, concurred with the judgment that Irving Kaufman had illegal ex parte communications with the likes of Roy Cohn during the trial. But Kaufman had been promoted to the US Court of Appeals, which heard many First Amendment cases, so Rosenthal killed the piece, insisting that the Times "could not afford to run a piece that might inflame Kaufman to vote against the paper in an important press case."
Rosenthal did not (surprise, surprise) return my call, but Klein informs me that the Radosh version is "flat-out false." There was no "shocking late-night call" from Klein to Radosh and no admittance that "Abe killed it." (Indeed, even if true, what editor would be stupid enough to admit such an order to a writer?) Unfortunately, much of Radosh's memoir appears to exist only in his imagination. Conspiracies abound, wild charges are tossed about and the public record is contradicted sans evidence. A great many of Radosh's failures in life are blamed on a large and powerful pro-communist conspiracy controlling virtually every important cultural institution in America. Who knew?
The leftists organizing in Vermont since the 1970s prepared the ground for James Jeffords's jump, and he never would have done it without them. In the 1970s and 1980s Democrats howled with fury when Vermont's Progressive Party said that no matter what the short-term consequences, the important political task was to build a radical, third-force movement in the state.
In 1988 this progressive coalition backed Bernard Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, in a run for Vermont's single Congressional seat. Democratic liberals raised the "wrecker" charge, saying the Sanders intervention would cost the Democrats votes and put in a Republican. It did. Then, two years later, Sanders ran again against the incumbent Republican and won. Creative destruction worked.
Without decades of work by radicals, nourishing the propriety of independent politics in Vermont, would Jeffords ever have jumped the Republican ship and handed control of the Senate back to the Democrats? I don't think so.
A couple of weeks ago someone sent me an article by Todd Gitlin and Sean Wilentz, published in an obscure journal called Dissent. Since Gitlin's prime political function for years has been to fortify respectable opinion about the impropriety of independent thinking, I knew what to expect, particularly since he was in harness with Wilentz, a truly hysterical proprietarian.
Sure enough, it was an attack on those who voted for Ralph Nader, tumid with a full-inventory parade of every cliché from the past forty years about the folly of radical hopes. Want a taste?
Numbers aside, there is a deeper force at work, behind the delusion that the masses hanker for radical change that Gore would not give them--a purist approach to politics. This all-or-nothing approach, allergic to democratic contest and compromise, is rooted equally in American self-righteousness and traditional left-wing utopianism. It is as if by venting one's anger, one were free to remake the world by willing it so...
Yup, this pompous cant translates into the single, finger-wagging admonition, "You should have voted for Al Gore," the latest variant on Gitlin's one-note career sermon about voting for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. (What is it about these Humphrey lovers? Vermonter Marty Jezer, another sermonizer about main-chance political propriety, recently lashed out at CBS in his column in the Brattleboro Reformer for what he denounced as excessively hostile and prejudicial interviewing of baby-killer Bob Kerrey! The lust to be respectably "fair," whether to HHH or Kerrey, leads to some astonishingly ridiculous postures.)
In Vermont the Republican Party is pretty much dead. Jeffords should sign up right now as a member of the Progressive Party, with whose political positions he has some things in common. Of course Jeffords, at least in his latest incarnation, is truly an independent, whereas Sanders is effectively a Democrat.
Now let's see how much fortitude the Democrats on the Hill have in contesting Bush and Cheney. They no longer have the alibi of the Republicans' controlling the White House and both chambers. Footnote: The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, wishes it to be on record that she takes exception to the description of Dissent as "obscure." I suggest a poll of the American people.
More on the Gandoo Man
In a recent column I described how the Chicago police have declined the request of a gay Pakistani poet to hit his supposed assailant, Salman Aftab, with a hate-crimes charge. Ifti Nasim claims Aftab called him a faggot bottom and lunged at him with a knife. For some of Chicago's gays it's become a very big issue. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network prompted the ACLU's Pamela Sumner to write a three-page letter to State's Attorney Dick Devine detailing why she felt he should pursue hate-crimes charges in Nasim's case. Devine has refused to do so.
The cops and Devine are quite right. It turns out that the initial quarrel between Nasim and Aftab wasn't about the former's sexual orientation but about an article he'd written. Aftab never attacked Nasim with a knife (though Nasim insists he'd gone to the kitchen to get one). And Nasim put up Aftab's bail money, though he still wants him hit with a hate-crimes charge for calling him an insulting sexual term. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network supports this position, which only goes to show how dementedly wrongheaded progressives are on the hate-crimes issue.
The Bush Menu
Poor Jenna Bush's travails with the absurd liquor laws of Texas take me back to my gilded youth at Oxford, when even the appearance of sobriety, at least at Keble, was an object of scandal and reproof from the better element. As it admits elsewhere in this issue, The Nation was a tad unfair relaying the claim that the Bush White House has ordered its chef to prepare genetically modified foods on some state occasions. The source of this claim was a piece by Jennifer Berkshire posted on Alternet. The Nation earnestly commented that "the demonstration smells like a paid political announcement for the agribusiness lobby."
I remember reading Berkshire's Alternet piece as an excellent little satire, and Jennifer confirms that this was indeed the case. Satire is always an uncertain weapon. My father once wrote an update of Swift's "A Modest Proposal," this time about inoculating people with the same sort of lethal strain that wiped out rabbits with myxomatosis. When it appeared in Punch furious letters poured in, denouncing him as an advocate of mass murder. Back in my days at the Village Voice I wrote a parody of conspiracy mongering and awoke to hear it being read out as serious news on WBAI by the late Samori Marksman. Since then I've stayed with the unvarnished truth, which is usually far more incredible than anything a satirist could dream up. For evidence see Marty Jezer's onslaught on CBS, noted above.
The urban rebellion in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood that followed the April 7 death of yet another black man, Timothy Thomas, at the hands of police shocked city residents. Mayor Charlie Luken lamented the "violence" as "unthinkable" and at a press conference pleaded for it to stop. At times like these it is vital to think clearly about how social problems, especially violence, are defined. In Cincinnati the media identify the core problem as "police-community" relations. But reducing the myriad and interrelated forms of violence in the inner city to a problem of police-community relations misses an opportunity to understand such issues in a deeper and more systemic sense. We need to understand how violence has been waged against people of color for a very long time.
Since the late 1940s a series of moves on the part of government and the private sector have reinforced an American form of apartheid. Ushering in the explosion of the suburbs for the white middle class, the Federal Housing Authority's liberalization of the mortgage market, its regulations favoring new construction of single-family detached houses and its appraisal process helped insure that neighborhoods continued to house the same social and racial classes. Under "urban renewal," many black neighborhoods were razed to make way for freeways, sports arenas and corporate redevelopment. Global restructuring of the economy then gutted the black working class's job base in the manufacturing sector.
Add to these the rise to power of neoconservatives, who divest the state of responsibility for meeting social needs, evidenced by rollbacks of affirmative action, the elimination of welfare and cutbacks in housing, combined with more punitive measures like increases in police forces and prison-building and a continued militarized economy.
The "hypersegregation" of blacks in the inner cities is now a structural reality. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton note in American Apartheid, "One-third of all African Americans in the United States live under conditions of intense racial segregation.... No other group in the contemporary United States comes close to this level of isolation within urban society."
Recent census data show that Cincinnati is the ninth most segregated city in the United States, with Over-the-Rhine, about 77 percent black, being its poorest neighborhood. This extreme social and spatial isolation exacerbates the effects of poverty, making it difficult to sustain neighborhood institutions and social organizations. These trends take a particular form in Cincinnati. Consider that in 1996, at the request of an alliance of corporate, business and city power, the Urban Land Institute came to Over-the-Rhine bearing gifts of a homeownership agenda for a community where approximately 75 percent of the population have incomes well below the reach of the rental market, let alone homeownership. Consider Cincinnati Pops director Erich Kunzel's "dream" to build the Greater Cincinnati Fine Arts and Education Center near Music Hall, which, after originally promising no displacement, called for the removal of the Drop Inn Center, the area's largest homeless shelter and lead institution in the Over-the-Rhine People's Movement.
And consider the motion passed by the City Planning Commission last July not to fund additional low-income housing units on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine, a motion that discriminates against a particular race and class and ignores the city's own Consolidated Plan, which identifies the need for 30,000 affordable housing units. Further, city records show that between January 1995 and the first quarter of 2000, 60 percent of the $8 million invested by the Department of Neighborhood Services in housing programs in Over-the-Rhine supported market-rate rather than affordable housing development.
Last, consider the mayor's about-face decision last summer not to support the $4.5 million tax-credit package of ReSTOC, a community-based, nonprofit housing cooperative, intended to finance construction of economically mixed housing in Over-the-Rhine, a project that qualified for state funding. The mayor then forced ReSTOC to sell one of the buildings in its package to a private owner to develop dotcom enterprises.
These examples of institutional violence have one thing in common: the way they market Over-the-Rhine as an idealized version of itself, effectively erasing it as a place for poor people of color. Revitalization efforts are selling an image that has no place for the poor who actually live there. "Development" means attracting people of higher incomes to live and play and work.
I am not suggesting that the neighborhood keep out newcomers, including people of higher means. The point is that the city fights to deny resources to community-based organizations while promoting renovation that caters to white, wealthier residents. And in this process, the buildings and urban ambience are sold like a stage set to folks who want to consume an urban night out. Over-the-Rhine is being Disneyfied, and this requires pushing people who don't fit the postcard image out of the way. No wonder Over-the-Rhine residents feel resentful.
Gentrification is often advocated as an antisegregation measure. This may be true in the short run, before poor residents are displaced. But community development today is rarely conceived outside the ideology of corporatism, with its lingo of public-private partnerships, enterprise and empowerment zones, tax incentives, and abatements and deregulatory legislation, all of which are ploys to advance privatization and subordinate social movements to the interests of business and the profit system. Community development has been reduced to a kind of plea bargaining with the powers that be, and thus what gets constructed as hope within the community is the desire to have a little more money funneled in its direction. That community institutions persist at all in these circumstances is an amazing testament to their perseverance in meeting desperate need.
Urban disruptions like the rebellion in Cincinnati are indictments of entrenched patterns of police-community relations and community development. Gentrification that produces displacement is an act of violence. Economic development that neglects to provide jobs for Over-the-Rhine residents is an act of violence. Building stadiums and supporting corporations at public expense while closing inner-city schools are acts of violence. We should not be surprised when communities erupt in righteous anger against the bonds of their oppression.
When a renowned abortion doctor opened a clinic in Ocala, Florida, he was seen as a public pest. So local authorities used the courts to get rid of him.
Thefts from other countries pale in relation to the looting of Russia, with
the indispensable assistance of the "Offshornaya Zona." The 1995 "loans for
shares" scheme transferred state ownership of privatized industries worth
billions of dollars to companies whose offshore registrations hid true owners.
More billions were stolen around the time of the August 1998 crash.
Insider banks knew about the coming devaluation and shipped billions in
assets as "loans" to offshore companies. The banks' statements show that their
loan portfolios grew after the date when they got loans from the Russian
Central Bank, which were supposed to stave off default. After the crash, it was
revealed that the top borrowers in all the big bankrupt banks were offshore.
For example, the five largest creditors of Rossiisky Credit were shell
companies registered in Nauru and in the Caribbean. As the debtors' ownerships
were secret, they could easily "disappear." Stuck with "uncollectable" loans
and "no assets," the banks announced their own bankruptcies. Swiss officials
are investigating leads that some of the $4.8 billion International Monetary
Fund tranche to Russia was moved by banks to accounts offshore before the 1998
The biggest current scam is being effected by a secretly owned Russian
company called Itera, which is using offshore shells in Curaçao and
elsewhere to gobble up the assets of Gazprom, the national gas company, which
is 38 percent owned by the government. Itera's owners are widely believed to be
Gazprom managers, their relatives and Viktor Chernomyrdin, former chairman of
Gazprom's board of directors and prime minister during much of the
privatization. Gazprom, which projected nearly $16 billion in revenues for
2000, uses Itera as its marketing agent and has been selling it gas fields at
cut-rate prices. Its 1999 annual report did not account for sales of 13 percent
of production. As its taxes supply a quarter of government revenues, this is a
devastating loss. Itera has a Florida office, which has been used to register
other Florida companies, making it a vehicle for investment in the US economy.
An activist think tank is fighting the right at the ballot box--and winning.
On April 26, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced the creation of a memorial for the soldiers who died during France's bloody war against the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), which ended in humiliating defeat and the loss of the empire's most prized possession. It was among the most savage of colonial wars: Of the 1.7 million French soldiers who served in Algeria from 1954 to 1962, 30,000 never returned; between 300,000 and a million Algerians were killed, and hundreds of thousands were placed in concentration camps, where torture was routine. Until two years ago, when it finally acknowledged having fought a war in Algeria, the French government referred to the conflict as les événements--the events.
In case there were any doubts as to what these young men died defending, there was Paul Aussaresses, an 83-year-old general wearing an eye patch and the cross of the Legion of Honor. In an interview with Le Monde last November, Aussaresses confessed, without a note of remorse, to torturing and executing Algerian militants. Even so, no one, certainly not Jospin, was prepared for the incendiary memoir that Aussaresses was to publish ten days later.
The book, Special Services, Algeria 1955-1957, has riveted the French, stirring long-suppressed memories of the "war without a name" and generating calls for an official declaration of repentance and judicial action against its author. It is a remarkable document, both for what it reveals of France's crimes in Algeria and for what it reveals of the miscarriage of justice that took place after the war.
When Aussaresses arrived in Algeria in 1955, he was a hero, having carried out a series of daring intelligence missions across enemy lines for de Gaulle's Free French forces. In Algeria, he quickly acquired a mastery of the very tactics that he had feared would be applied to him had he been caught by the Gestapo. Electrodes to the eyes and testicles, half-drownings, beatings--he stopped at nothing in his efforts to get his suspects to crack. After torturing and killing his first Arab, he writes with a disturbing detachment that calls to mind Camus's Mersault: "I thought of nothing. I had no regrets over his death--if I had any regrets, it was because he did not talk."
Aussaresses's book sheds light on some of the most important unresolved mysteries of the war, notably the deaths of Larbi Ben M'Hidi, an FLN leader, and of Ali Boumendjel, a prominent Algerian attorney. The French have always maintained that both men committed suicide. In fact, Aussaresses meticulously arranged their deaths--and, one suspects, many others--to look as if they were suicides. Boumendjel, he reports, was thrown from a rooftop after having been tortured for forty-three days. Aussaresses drove Ben M'Hidi to a farm outside Algiers, where the prisoner was strangled to death.
The historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, an early opponent of the war, told Le Monde, "One must take this book for what it is, the memoirs of an assassin." True enough. But Aussaresses was not alone. He was no more a rogue agent than the Vichy collaborators Maurice Papon and René Bousquet were--or than Bob Kerrey and his men were in the jungle of Vietnam. Aussaresses is well aware of this fact. In torturing and executing suspects, he says he was simply employing the "special powers" that he had been granted in 1956 by the government of Socialist Prime Minister Guy Mollet, with the support of the Communist Party. According to Aussaresses, François Mitterrand, Mollet's justice minister, had "an emissary...in the person of the judge Jean Berard, who covered for us.... I had the best possible relationship with him and I never hid anything from him."
Aussaresses's book has inspired widespread revulsion; 56 percent of the French have expressed support for an official apology and legal action against officers who ordered torture. Prime Minister Jospin, who insists that torture was "an aberration," has firmly rejected the idea of a parliamentary inquiry, proposing further "scientific research" by historians. President Jacques Chirac, who served in Algeria and says he is "horrified" by the book, has initiated proceedings to strip the general of his uniform.
Unfortunately, nothing more is likely to come of the indignation roused by Aussaresses's book. There is a ten-year statute of limitations on war crimes in France, and the broader definition of "crimes against humanity" applies only to abuses committed since 1994. The generals of Algeria also enjoy the protection of amnesties granted in 1962 and 1968. In mid-May, a French court threw out a suit against Aussaresses for "crimes against humanity" by the International Federation for Human Rights. The general's actions, the court opined, are "in all likelihood covered by the amnesty of July 31, 1968." It will require extraordinary audacity for any French politician to challenge these legal obstacles. Meanwhile, Paul Aussaresses can talk about his crimes, which are also France's crimes, without fear of punishment. His freedom is a grim reminder that when nations fail to settle their accounts with torture, it is torturers who have the last laugh.
Here we go, starting on what promises to be a pleasantly engrossing tour of the landmarks of three centuries of Anglo-American intellectual feminism, guided by a seriously impressive scholar, Elaine Showalter of Princeton University.
When Philip Roth compiles lists of the writers he most admires, Tolstoy never seems to make it. There's Flaubert, Kafka, Bellow--the touchstones. Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Céline--the madmen. Henry Miller, of course; even Chekhov and Thomas Mann. But Tolstoy, when he appears in Roth's fiction at all, is usually something of a joke. In The Ghost Writer, young Nathan Zuckerman travels to meet his hero, the reclusive novelist E.I. Lonoff ("Married to Tolstoy" is how the novel describes the plight of Lonoff's wife); lying the first night in the sanctum where Lonoff composes his masterpieces, and knowing that a fetching student of Lonoff's is also staying at the house, Zuckerman is, shamefully, seized by erotic yearnings. He yields to them. "Virtuous reader," he reports, "if you think that after intercourse all animals are sad, try masturbating on the daybed in E.I. Lonoff's study and see how you feel when it's over."
As if this wasn't bad enough, four years later Roth began The Anatomy Lesson with a sexual rewriting of Anna Karenina's famous opening. "Happy families are all alike," Tolstoy wrote. "Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Everything at the Oblonskys' was in confusion." Roth's version: "When he is sick, every man wants his mother; if she's not around, other women must do. Zuckerman was making do with four other women."
So perhaps it is as punishment for this needling that in his old age Roth has become Tolstoy. His last five novels have been Tolstoyan in scope, and, like Tolstoy, he has been celebrated for them. Like Tolstoy he is loathed by the official organs of religion--an archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church suggested that Tolstoy be executed for the antimarital rantings of "The Kreutzer Sonata," while here in America an influential rabbi demanded to know, "What is being done to silence this man?" after Roth's attacks on Jewish suburbia in Goodbye, Columbus. And if it so happens that the Jews are wrong, and Hell exists, there can be no question that the author of Sabbath's Theater will spend eternity there.
But the chief reason that Roth is Tolstoy is that he, almost alone of our contemporary novelists, so insistently has Something to Say, and is prepared, at times, to forsake all his literary instincts in order to say it. Tolstoy's digressions in War and Peace on the mechanisms of history infuriated such early readers as Flaubert ("he repeats himself and he philosophises!"), as well as everyone since. After completing his masterpiece, Anna Karenina, Tolstoy for some time wrote only philosophical and religious tracts. As for Roth, who came dangerously close to turning his last, very powerful novel, The Human Stain, into a political rant against the Clinton impeachment, he too has for the moment dropped most pretenses to fiction and produced, with The Dying Animal, something far closer to an essay.
It is an essay, naturally, about sex. Lenin claimed that Tolstoy was the mirror of the Russian Revolution; for the past forty years, Roth has been the mirror of the sexual one. In his work, the contradictions of that libidinal revolt have found their fullest expression. During the 1960s, Roth hailed its arrival--indeed, three years after the 1969 publication of Portnoy's Complaint, Irving Howe could damningly suggest that Roth was "a man at ease with our moment." But Portnoy, Zuckerman and the rest have also testified eloquently to the costs of such freedom. You may shatter convention, Roth showed, but be warned that society (with its thuggish enforcer, the superego) has the resources to defend itself, with extreme prejudice.
The same paradigm fits the slim plot of The Dying Animal. The narrator, 70-year-old David Kepesh, is a cultural arbiter and professor who has systematically been sleeping with everyone, including and especially his students, since leaving his wife and child in the 1960s. You will perhaps object that Kepesh doesn't have any kids, and you'll be right. Roth has never been scrupulous with his characters' biographies--Zuckerman's childhood, for example, what with the boxing lessons and ping-pong in Swede Levov's basement and the Communism, is beginning to look awfully crowded--and in this case he outfits Kepesh, who appeared in two previous, rather mediocre outings as a hesitant philanderer in The Professor of Desire and as a giant breast in The Breast, with a more virile résumé and an abandoned son from a different first marriage. Nor does he bother to explain how the mammillary Kepesh turned himself back into a man.
But it's still the same Kepesh, of all Roth's narrators the dullest and most methodical. Even when he ceased to be a man, Kepesh was a most reasonable breast. He is reasonable still, as he catalogues his sexual habits, rules and arrangements; of an affair with a middle-aged former student, he explains: "It was a joint venture, our sexual partnership, that profited us both and that was strongly colored by Carolyn's crisp executive manner. Here pleasure and equilibrium combined." Given this regimented administration of his own happiness, it is naturally satisfying to see Kepesh--"the propagandist of fucking"--caught up in all the old emotions after an affair with a particularly stunning student. "This need," he moans, referring not to lust but to attachment. "This derangement. Will it never stop?"
But before everyone runs out to buy this paean to the triumph of the bourgeois spirit, they should be warned that Roth takes Kepesh far more seriously than this plot summary indicates--takes him at his word. It should even be noted--if I may be allowed a quick critical crudity--that Kepesh's style is the closest among his narrators to the style of Roth's own essays and memoirs. His concerns are Roth's, and he shares many of the master's ideas about the world. For Kepesh is not merely a reflection of the sexual revolution, but also its historian.
And here I must stop myself--it is so easy to make fun of Roth. Sixty-eight years old and again with the sex. When Tolstoy published his attack on physical love in "The Kreutzer Sonata," young wits suggested that the Count's own kreutzer might be out of order. It is easy, in other words, to make fun of old men. I myself have done so. I thought--it seems to be the general consensus--that sex for Roth was a device with which to propel his fictions; that he could have used cars, or whales, or sports, and chose sex merely because it was historically ripe, as a subject, and for the simpler reason that it was the quickest way to épater ye olde bourgeoisie. Diaphragm! Cunt! "The Raskolnikov of jerking off"!
I no longer think so. It seems obvious that at this point Roth can do little with sex that he hasn't done already (though he tries in The Dying Animal, he tries). This continued fixation is fictionally fallow--as Roth writes, baldly, in The Dying Animal, "You know you want it and you know you're going to do it and nothing is going to stop you. Nothing is going to be said here that's going to change anything." Since sex is, in this view, overdetermined, it's like writing about gravity. (In fact, not having sex is far more promising--one of the things it promises being future sex.)
Yet Roth persists, and after forty years it can only be because he believes sex the most important topic he could possibly tackle, and now more than ever. So this book demands that we approach it with a straight face, even when a straight face seems the least natural response. Kepesh, of course, is professorial, telling of the Merry Mount trading post in colonial Massachusetts, raided by the Puritans because it was a bad influence on the young. "Jollity and gloom," he quotes Hawthorne, "were contending for an empire." He is also empirical, a one-man research institute, reporting the number of times (one) that he was the beneficiary of oral sex in college in the 1950s, and clinically tracing the progress made in the interim: "The decades since the sixties have done a remarkable job of completing the sexual revolution. This is a generation of astonishing fellators. There's been nothing like them ever before among their class of young women."
If this seems deliberately offensive, it is part of the general urgency, even desperation, that pulses through this book. Roth is running out of time; he must tell you as quickly as possible, he must convince you to change your life. Now, Roth has always considered the sexual revolution in quasi-world-historical terms. "The massive late-sixties assault upon sexual customs," he told an interviewer in 1974,
came nearly twenty years after I myself hit the beach fighting for a foothold on the erotic homeland held in subjugation by the enemy. I sometimes think of my generation of men as the first wave of determined D-day invaders, over whose bloody, wounded carcasses the flower children subsequently stepped ashore to advance triumphantly toward that libidinous Paris we had dreamed of liberating as we inched inland on our bellies, firing into the dark.
This is sweet and funny and light--and wholly innocent, it seems, of the damage done.
There is no such lightness in The Dying Animal. When the same idea (Roth as sexual revolutionary vanguard) resurfaces, it has an embattled quality to it, as if Roth is no longer certain what has happened, or who won. "Look," says Kepesh, in his demotic, direct address:
I'm not of this age. You can see that. You can hear that. I achieved my goal with a blunt instrument. I took a hammer to domestic life and those who stand watch over it. And to [my son]'s life. That I'm still a hammerer should be no surprise. Nor is it a surprise that my insistence makes me a comic figure on the order of the village atheist to you who are of the current age and who haven't had to insist on any of this.
The shift in tone from the interview is remarkable. The confidence is gone; the winds of history are shifting. Not only have the young forgotten their benefactors, they've started to cede the freedoms won for them--"now even gays want to get married," says Kepesh. "I expected more from those guys." And the deflowered order has been replaced by a new form of surveillance, which Kepesh scrupulously documents during a student conference: "we sat side by side at my desk, as directed, with the door wide open to the public corridor, all eight of our limbs, our two contrasting torsos visible to every Big Brother of a passerby." The revolution for which Kepesh fought so ruthlessly has been betrayed.
Which is a well-known habit of revolutions. Roth might have predicted, in fact, that women could not merely come alive as autonomous sexual beings without also developing ways of defending themselves against groping professors. He might even have predicted that this defense would at times grow absurd, that it would seek regimentation not only for physical but for verbal relations, that it would create a vocabulary of misunderstanding so dense it may take the passing of an entire generation before men and women can speak to one another again.
That all this might have been predicted in no way suggests that Roth is wrong to raise his voice in protest. It is striking, indeed, that a writer forever accused of it has now turned himself so vehemently against vulgarity--against the very leveling and coarsening of our conversation. Toward the end of The Dying Animal, Roth's former lover is beset by tragedy: "She began telling me about how foolish all her little anxieties of a few months back now seemed, the worries about work and friends and clothes, and how this had put everything in perspective," says Kepesh, "and I thought, No, nothing puts anything in perspective."
No, because there is no privileged view, no heights from which to look. This is the endpoint of the nihilist's wisdom. And Roth, after a circle of great radius, comes again to look like Tolstoy, like a writer who turns the light of his reason upon all the expressions and conventions by which we thoughtlessly live. How out of place he seems at a time when most fiction, competent as it is, has taken to being demure about its own necessity; when most writers are such professionals. Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon, of his generation, are all at least as talented as Roth; DeLillo is as timely, as ready to philosophize and to use the word "America." But no one is as urgent, as committed to the communication of his particular human truth.
The Dying Animal is not a great work in the way that The Human Stain, American Pastoral, Operation Shylock and, especially, Sabbath's Theater were great works. But it completes the picture--the picture of what a writer can be. Where DeLillo's recent novella, The Body Artist, was remarkable for its departure from his customary mode, The Dying Animal is remarkable for its fealty to the ground Roth has always worked. It cedes nothing, apologizes for nothing; it deepens, thereby, the seriousness of all his previous books.
"Because [sex] is based in your physical being, in the flesh that is born and the flesh that dies," says Kepesh.
Only [during sex] are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself. It's not the sex that's the corruption--it's the rest. Sex isn't just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death. Don't forget death. Don't ever forget it. Yes, sex too is limited in its power. I know very well how limited. But tell me, what power is greater?
You could answer (virtuous reader), as you have answered Roth so many times before, that art, and its promise of eternity, is greater; or politics, and its promise of justice, is greater; or religion, and its promise of spiritual peace, is more powerful. You could answer Roth thus, but one of you would have to be lying.
Facebook Like Box