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Have you been there?
If so, can you describe the shape of the shadows?
When you entered, did anyone greet you?
Did the moss hug your foot or a jay screech in your ear?
Were you afraid you would not get back?
Did they ring a bell?
How many times, and what did it sound like?
Did a horse bow its head by the side of a road?
Did a single feather lie at the clearing?
Did a green wave cascade into a grove?
Did the flavor of light infect your sleep?
Did a toad leap from the dust onto a twig?
Did deer turn in terror as you passed?
Did a doe lick your hand and find you wanting?
Did you behold a flower that cannot fade?
Was the sky so empty that you fell upward?
Did the needles of a pine tickle your nose?
Did you sniff the ghost of the cedars of Lebanon?
Did you follow a petal blown to the edge of the sea?
Did you wake with a sheet twisted around your throat?
Did you call out?
Did you kneel at a blade of grass or at the mound of an anthill?
Did you ask for a way in or a way out?
Did a bough sway imperceptibly?
Did you rest your hand on the shoulder of a god?
Did you open a piece of fruit and offer a portion of it to the sun?
How long did it take to finish, and were you satisfied?
Did a fly sip some water from a stone?
Did you touch the haze on a plum, its blue cloud?
Did you rub its skin until it lost its bloom?
Did the day burn in a crow's eye?
Were the stars so clear another heaven appeared behind them?
Did you hear the wind consoling the leaves?
Did you look inside the cap of a mushroom, and part the curtain of disbelief?
If book publishing were subject to truth-in-labeling laws--a concept we should all abominate--Herbert Romerstein would be in serious trouble.
First, this book presents itself as jointly written by Romerstein, a veteran federal investigator of Soviet activities in the United States, and the late New York Post editorial-page editor Eric Breindel. But I could find no evidence whatever of textual input by Breindel in this volume, which appears two and a half years after he died. Love him or hate him (and I am fairly certain most Nation readers fall in the latter category), Breindel was a working journalist who knew how to write. However, this production is so leaden, prosaic and perfunctory it is hard to imagine a professional scribe having had anything to do with it. It reads like a printout of several government reports, strung together.
Further, it offers very little that is new about the Venona program, a US-run interception and decryption of some 2,900 secret Soviet communications originally transmitted in the 1940s. Nearly everything important to be said about this phenomenon, from an anti-Soviet perspective, was published in Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, a meticulous and detailed examination by the historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, issued by Yale University Press in 1999 [see Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, "Cables Coming in From the Cold," July 5, 1999].
This is not to say there is nothing new or interesting in this book. In addition to Venona, Romerstein has trolled through other US files, as well as the "MASK" decryptions, Soviet communications captured by the British intelligence before World War II, and he has dipped into Soviet and East German archives, although in a haphazard way. But because Romerstein's approach is only thorough in certain instances, he leaves some useful items hanging, unelucidated.
One of these involves the disappearance, in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, of Mark Rein, son of the exiled Russian Menshevik Rafail Abramovich. Rein was associated with Scandinavian social democracy when he vanished in wartime Catalonia. His case is one of a short list of unsolved atrocities alleged against the Soviet secret police on Spanish Republican territory. According to Romerstein, Rein may have been betrayed to Stalin's agents by a German leftist named Paul Hagen. A footnote discloses that sources on the Rein affair may be found in the German Communist Party Archives. (Hagen is discussed in a recent work that, although self-published, is written to a high standard and is of considerable interest, Wilhelm Reich and the Cold War, by Jim Martin. For information, see flatlandbooks.com.)
But Romerstein handles this revelation--which, although significant, has very little to do with Venona--in a sloppy and incomplete way because such episodes, and indeed, Venona itself, are not what really interests him. Romerstein is a man of obsessions, and his obsessions are familiar to Nation readers. The main example in this book involves his crusade to incriminate the journalist I.F. Stone as a Soviet spy.
Romerstein has previously been burned by this topic [see D.D. Guttenplan, "Izzy an Agent?" August 3/10, 1992; Romerstein's letter in response and Guttenplan's "Stone Unturned," September 28, 1992; and Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir's "Stone Miscast," November 4, 1996]. But caution and precision are not his touchstones, as his argument on Stone exemplifies.
As shown in the Venona messages, Stone rebuffed Soviet attempts to enlist him, although one Soviet report states that the journalist "would not be averse to having a supplementary income." However, there is no evidence that any money ever changed hands or that Stone was alluding to anything other than, for example, Soviet translation and publication of his work by the news agency TASS, which was the cover under which some agents in New York worked. Haynes and Klehr dealt with Stone's appearance in these messages with laudable objectivity, declaring, "There is no evidence in Venona that Stone ever was recruited by the KGB."
Yet Romerstein seems determined to smear Stone whether or not he can prove his charges. According to him, an NKVD "business" relationship with Stone "worked out" when at the end of 1944 "a group of journalists, including Stone, provided [Soviet spy Vladimir] Pravdin with information" about US military plans in fighting the Germans. At the end of the paragraph, Romerstein breezily admits that the journalists in the group, aside from Stone, were not spies and did not know that Pravdin was a spy. Nor is there any indication the information they transmitted was secret.
Thus, there was nothing questionable about these American journalists briefing a Soviet colleague. Still, according to Romerstein, because "Stone knew full well" that Pravdin was a spy, the incident was "evidence that Stone was indeed a Soviet agent." But given that so many top Soviet representatives in America were spies, and that a considerable number of intelligent people knew this or took it for granted, what difference did it make?
The remainder of Romerstein's summary case against Stone consists of some garbled gossip by Russian retired spy Oleg Kalugin, which Kalugin himself disclaimed, followed by an absurdly convoluted and arbitrary argument. Romerstein points out that Soviet agents referred to Stone by the code alias "Blin," the Russian word for pancake, from which the word "blintz" is derived. He then notes that in 1951 Stone complained in a column that he would not be surprised to be accused in the anti-Communist press of having been "smuggled in from Pinsk in a carton of blintzes." To Romerstein, this is not only a dead giveaway, it is the clincher.
He writes, "Intelligence tradecraft requires that agents not know their codenames, but as Venona revealed, in a number of cases it seems some did." He continues, apparently on no evidence whatever, "Stone was one of them. His inside joke was odd. You might talk about smuggling something from Russia in a vodka bottle or caviar jar or some other normal Soviet export, but blintzes?" Well, Izzy Stone was diminutive, but he wouldn't have fit in either a bottle of booze or a can of caviar.
All this goes far beyond stretching the truth in the interest of ideology. One could say that when inquisitors like Romerstein are reduced to deconstructing wisecracks, Marx's famous transition from tragedy to farce has come into full effect. But the overall enterprise pursued by Romerstein remains both historically meretricious and socially evil, in that it obstructs meaningful debate on meaningful issues, of which the activities of Soviet secret agents in the West is certainly one.
One might also dismiss Romerstein as a McCarthyite, but that would be a mistake. Romerstein is not a McCarthy--that is, a hysteric lashing out at perceived enemies. He is something worse: a Stalinist who changed sides and joined the West, without changing his essential mindset. The fabrication of arguments like those presented against I.F. Stone, based on attempts to read nonexistent significance into trivial details, is reminiscent of nothing so much as the Soviet demonization of Trotskyists, Mensheviks, anarchists and other alleged counterrevolutionaries. Indeed, this method is typically visible in the hallucinated documents of the Moscow trials, in Chinese denunciations during the Cultural Revolution, in the interrogations practiced under Pol Pot in Cambodia, in American conspiracy literature and, in the KGB canon, in the writings of Herbert Romerstein.
Haynes and Klehr showed that Venona represents a documentary resource that historians of the twentieth-century left can ignore only at considerable risk. Venona materials interpreted as referring to the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss cannot be dismissed. More, the attempt by some historians to discredit the Venona communications as bragging and exaggeration by Soviet operatives runs up against a notable aspect of Soviet intelligence history. The Russian security organs, unlike the US and British agencies, underwent a series of purges in the late 1930s that can only be described as wholesale massacres.
The ferocity of these murderous campaigns impelled the most important defectors from Soviet service in the 1930s to flee their fellow agents or "go private," in the parlance of the secret police. These included Ignacy Porecki, a k a Reiss, murdered within three months of his break with Stalin in 1937, and Lev Lazarevich Feldbin, alias Aleksandr Orlov, who escaped to the United States and remained underground for more than a decade. The "renegacy" of Whittaker Chambers was driven by physical fear, at the height of the purges, that he would be kidnapped and taken to Moscow for execution. Other cases included that of the legendary Bolshevik diplomat and operative Fyodor Raskolnikov, who jumped, fell or was thrown from a window to his death in France soon after his break, and, of course, the well-known Samuel Ginsberg, or Walter Krivitsky.
Krivitsky, who had been a comrade of Reiss and Orlov, died in a Washington hotel room in 1941, allegedly a suicide. The case remains mysterious, and Haynes and Klehr employ great care in their comment on it: "There were some puzzling aspects to his death that suggested murder." But once again, Romerstein knows no hesitancy; he writes, offering no substantiation, "Krivitsky was murdered."
Given the fate of individuals like Reiss, emblematic of the thousands of agents purged and executed within Russia in the late 1930s, the suggestion that any Soviet operative would have engaged in false reporting, which would have excited fatal suspicions in the higher ranks, is untenable if not surrealistic.
However, there is a major lesson to be drawn from Venona that for political reasons has been somewhat underestimated by historians of both the right and the left. It involves the extraordinary energy Soviet agents all over the globe dedicated to the pursuit and persecution of dissident leftists, both Russian and foreign, American as well as Spanish, German and other.
The extent of these obsessions is revealed in Venona not only by messages describing infiltration and manipulation of the American Trotskyist movement but even more so by those attesting to Soviet surveillance of various political targets on Mexican soil. The long list of enemies is eloquently presented in a Venona communication from Moscow to Mexico City dated June 11, 1945, a few days before a massive victory parade scheduled in Moscow to celebrate the end of World War II. This communiqué, sent simultaneously to KGB stations in Algiers, Bogotá, Brussels, London, Montevideo, New York, Ottawa, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, Washington and Zagreb, prohibits the issuance of visas to any nondiplomatic foreigner for a period of eleven days from June 15 to June 25.
The communiqué additionally demands special vigilance to make sure that none of the following elements might utilize the occasion of the victory celebration to infiltrate the Soviet Union "on terrorist missions": White Russian émigrés, nationalists (that is, Ukrainians or Armenians), Trotskyists, Zionists, priests, veterans of the "national legions" (presumably, foreign anti-Bolshevik forces during the Russian civil war), Mensheviks, Russian Constitutional Democrats and monarchists. A later message demands a survey and analysis of the presence in Mexico City (no doubt extremely marginal) of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Armenians, Georgians, mountain folk from the northern Caucasus, Central Asians and Balts who might have emigrated from the USSR. One can only add that the life of a northern Caucasian mountaineer, say a Chechen or Daghestani, in Mexico City in 1945, is a topic to which only literature, and that of a high imaginative order, could possibly do justice.
That the majority of these "anti-Soviet elements," such as Trotskyists, Mensheviks, Constitutional Democrats and monarchists, were, at that time, politically and organizationally on the edge of extinction, and that they had little or no presence in Mexico, to say nothing of Bogotá or Montevideo, seems to have been irrelevant to the KGB bosses in Moscow. In any case, thousands of refugees from the Soviet Union had attempted to remain in Western Europe, and some must have escaped to the Western Hemisphere. Polish exiles in Mexico were followed and surveilled to gauge the utility of clandestine operations against them. Nevertheless, the apprehensions of Moscow regarding such minuscule groups must appear absurdly exaggerated. As an additional example, on February 21, 1945, Moscow commanded that the KGB in Mexico City report on "the reaction in Armenian circles," presumably in the capital, to a synod of the Armenian Orthodox Church that had been held in the monastery of Echmiadzin in Armenia.
The irrational character of KGB orders is especially obvious in the continued tracking of Natalya Ivanovna Sedova, the isolated and psychologically bereft widow of the murdered Trotsky. After the 1940 slaying, Sedova lived for twenty more years just outside Mexico City on Calle Viena in the little house (a narrow and somewhat claustrophobic space that's more like a stone cabin) that had been inhabited by the couple for a year and a half before the killing. Her circle was small. Apart from Trotskyist militants like the Mexican writer Manuel Fernández Grandizo (G. Munis) and other exiles like Victor Serge, Sedova received few visitors and none of influence in the outside world. Even so, the KGB maintained a rigorous scrutiny over her activities.
In general, few who have examined KGB history have grasped how crucial the harassment of dissident leftists was to its mission. For the pro-Washington faction, only treason to the Stars and Stripes is important; to their critics, it is replying to the accusation of lack of patriotism in the American Communist milieu. In addition, the perception of KGB assassins hunting down Trotskyists and social democrats clashes with the sentimental idea of "the family of the left."
Romerstein has grasped some of the irony of this situation, but he applies to it his usual sloppiness. He asserts that aside from Sedova and their son, Leon Sedov, who was murdered in Paris in 1938, "the rest of Trotsky's family, with the exception of his young grandson, had all been killed or forced to commit suicide in Stalin's USSR." This is inaccurate, as anyone knowledgeable about post-Gorbachev Russian journalism and historiography should know.
One of Trotsky's grandchildren, who lives in Mexico today under the name Esteban Volkov, but who was born Vsevolod and is also known as Seva, had a sister, Alexandra, who remained in Russia and died of cancer in 1988. They were children of Trotsky's elder daughter, Zinaida, who committed suicide in Berlin, not in Russia, after a nervous breakdown. But they also had two cousins, the offspring of Trotsky's other daughter, Nina, who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1928. None of this third generation are known to have "been killed or forced to commit suicide." Numerous similar gaffes appear in this book.
Trotskyists were "polecats" in the Venona code vocabulary. This was not the only example of such insults; Zionists were referred to as "rats." This is unpleasant enough; but once again Romerstein ups the ante. On the dust jacket and in the book's text and footnotes, it is asserted that "the code word 'Rats' was used by NKVD both for Jews, generally, and for the Zionists.... They considered all Jews 'Jewish nationalists,' i.e., Zionists, and even distrusted the small group of Jewish Communists."
Unfortunately for Romerstein, there is not a single example in Venona that I'm aware of--and I've reviewed much of the material for books and articles of my own--of the use of "rat" to refer to Jews in general. And regardless of how few Communists were Jewish in the longer run of history, the roster of KGB agents of Jewish origin speaking to one another in Venona is, sadly, pretty long. They include, among a great many others, Gen. Naum Eitingon, organizer of the attack on Trotsky ("Tom"); Grigory Kheifitz ("Kharon"), who was KGB "rezident" (local chief) in San Francisco; and one of the most assiduous and deadly of all Soviet spies, Mark Zborowski ("Tulip"). An accomplice in the murder of Ignacy Reiss, betrayer of Leon Sedov and co-conspirator in numerous other crimes, Zborowski reinvented himself in America as a medical anthropologist. It is difficult to imagine Moscow referring to any of these valuable assets as "rats," even though many of them were purged under Khrushchev and imprisoned after the elimination of their master, Lavrenti Beria.
Stalinism remains among the most horrifying features of the twentieth century. Millions of innocents were killed, and millions of idealists were used and destroyed--the original, honorable socialist and labor movements were often profoundly undermined and in certain cases wrecked. Some of the countries that lived under Stalinist regimes may not recover for generations. To distort and exploit this tragedy for any ideological goal, either leftist or rightist, is as distasteful as it is in the case of the Jewish Holocaust. Herbert Romerstein, like David Horowitz and others of their cohort, is, to recall a phrase from the 1960s, part of the problem, not part of the solution.
A woman left her abusive husband in the middle of the night and, taking their 3-year-old son with her, drove through the dark from Ohio to Boston, reaching across the boy to hold the broken handle on the passenger door to make sure he didn't fall out. The scene stuck with me, like many others I heard in workshops I began leading in writing autobiography a decade or so ago. It seemed to me that these true stories, personal slices of American life, conveyed the feel and taste and sense of this society more faithfully and compellingly than the novels I used to count on for such understanding. Current novels continue to seem to me less revealing of "the way we live now" than the best of the memoirs that appear with increasing regularity on bookshelves and even bestseller lists.
The breakthrough contemporary memoir was Mary Karr's The Liars' Club in 1995, accelerating what was already a popular trend and upping the literary stakes of the genre by the poetic precision of its language and the headlong thrust of its narrative. Now she is back with a sequel to her childhood, the adolescent era whose major symbolic (as well as physical/mental/emotional/psychic) event was losing one's virginity. In typical Karr-like celebration of the vernacular, the title, of course, is Cherry.
If her second effort is not as uniquely satisfying as the first, it is not because Karr has lost any of her considerable powers as a prose stylist or suffered from the ancient curse that allegedly plagues any follow-up with mediocrity. The problem--or at least the difference--is simply that The Liars' Club was based not only on the author's experience but on the soap-operatic adventures of her boozing, man-loving, peregrinating mother. Mary's mom not only blessed her with life but also with as colorful a ready-made character as any author-daughter could wish for to star in her first memoir. Like Mary as a child and her sister, Lecia, the reader of The Liars' Club is carried along by their mother's dramatic ups and downs and outs, providing in the process plenty of plot. Agnes Nixon, creator of the longtime favorite soap opera All My Children (as well as nearly the entire ABC lineup of daytime drama) once defined the basic rule of plot as "the heroine must always be in peril," and Mary's mother followed that rule.
Focusing this time on adolescence, Karr is true to the inherent ennui of the teenage years, which means that Cherry is long on mood and short on plot (for one thing, Mom stays put in this era). Karr explains that "no long episodes from that dull time exist.... There are only brief snippets of memory, outtakes, captured instants where your sagging performance becomes plain." Her teenage best friend shares with teenage Mary "a monastic passion for doing virtually nothing." Reflecting on that era of her life the author reports that "a camera trailing you would find neither plot nor action--two girls laze around on sofas at various stages of torpor reading or talking about what they will read or have read or plan to write or make or do in some vaporous future."
True as this is to adolescent life, and as artfully as it is described, torpor is hardly riveting. Nor does the small-town East Texas setting of Leechfield provide much to write from home about, "with its mind-crushing atmosphere of sameness.... Sometimes you even fancied you could hear the traffic light over deserted main street blink. Time lagged mule-like in muddy tracks."
As if to compensate for the lack of action or drama in her story, Karr jazzes things up with a barrage of the sexual slang of time and place. She tells us of boys "talking about how they finger-fucked you and your ying-yang made their hand smell like tuna fish," a "dick hard as a crescent wrench," a girl whose "knockers" are like "headlights," another who "yanks both her pants and undersancies down," and wonders how Wonder Woman "keeps her D-cup boobs from flopping out of the red strapless bra top she's got on," while "your mother holds loudly forth on any and all pussy-related subjects," and you call your sister "Old moose-boobs." Sexual lore is passed on and learned ("After a date, throw your panties against the wall, and if they stick, you had a good time") as well as proposed initiation rites for a teen sex club ("Blindfold Davie Ray Hawks and tell him he's putting his finger up somebody's butt, but really it's just wet bread wadded up in a soup can"). As Karr puts it, "I had a lot of double-dog fuck-you in me by then."
As well as employing a blitz of teen sex slang, Karr sometimes slips into a kind of collegiate cuteness as she looks back at her adolescent self: "The stoicism I favored was less in the mode of Marcus Aurelius and more reminiscent of the donkey Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh."
But just as she seems to be bogging down in the mire of teenage torpor, dutifully slogging on to close out this era of her experience, Karr taps into a real narrative that gathers speed and carries us breathless to the end. It happens when
one legendary night you travel to Effie's Go-Go, a black juke joint in the bowels of Beaumont behind the shipyards where no underage girl of any color should be granted admission. You drive there flaming so luminously on orange sunshine that dark trees on the roadside seem to rear back to let you pass, and your bare arms and hands glow in the car's hull like fine marble.
Karr returns from what seems a near-death acid trip with the hallucinated illusion that she has found the meaning of life, reduced to one sentence, only to realize it's the kind of commonplace Grandma might have stitched on a pillow. After sharing her revelation with her best friend, adolescent Mary comes down from her illusory nirvana, and Karr the writer looks back to see that what's unalterable as bronze, though, is the image of your radiant friend that morning barefoot on the porch with sun in her rampant hair. She's holding out that bowl of Froot Loops and touching your shoulder as if to bestow the right name upon you, the one you'll bear before you through the world, each letter forged into a gleaming shield.
Stephen King, author of thirty "worldwide bestsellers," was "stunned" by The Liars' Club, and his admiration for the "beauty" and "ferocity" of Karr's memoir seems to have inspired him to try his own, yet he feels he lacks the "totality" of her memory. His own "herky-jerky childhood" seems to him more like "a fogged out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees...the kind that look like they might like to grab and eat you." His father "did a runout" after piling up a lot of bills when Stephen was 2, and he was raised by his mother, moving around to different relatives and different jobs in different places, trying to keep it all together.
King stresses that his own On Writing is "not an autobiography" but "a kind of curriculum vitae--my attempt to show how one writer was formed." It is also an attempt to help aspiring writers with advice, counsel, exercises in writing and even an offer of personal criticism:
When you finish your exercise, drop me a line at www.stephenking.com and tell me how it worked for you. I can't promise to vet every reply, but I can promise to read at least some of your adventures with great interest.
King is not only a popular but also a populist writer who believes that "large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that these talents can be strengthened and sharpened." And he seems to have written this book primarily for the purpose of helping them. Maybe this generosity of spirit comes from memories of his own down-and-almost-out days, when he pieced together a living teaching high school English and writing stories for magazines like Cavalier at night and on weekends, barely able to pay for his daughter's needed medicine.
Prickly from nonappreciation by the literary high priests, King complains that "critics and scholars have always been suspicious of popular success" and cites Dickens, "the Shakespeare of the novel," as a victim of "constant critical attack" because of his "sensational subject matter," his prolific output and, "of course, his success with the book-reading groundlings of his time."
It is to the groundlings that King speaks here, not in the memoir-writing manner he admires in Karr, who shapes and re-creates experience into novelistic scenes and dialogue, but rather in chatty, informal talk. Perhaps the best of that talk--and the most useful--is on one of the subjects King feels most strongly about, his own recovery from drugs and booze, and the mythology of those substances as useful muses.
King had fallen so far into addiction that "in the spring and summer of 1986 I wrote The Tommyknockers, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding." The intervention that saved him was organized by his wife, Tabitha, who emerges as King's favorite character in this book as in his life. Mrs. King and his children gave him the ultimatum of rehab or leave, and he chose life.
"The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time," King writes.
Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers--common garden variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I've heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.
If his prose lacks the beauty he admired in Karr's memoir of her childhood (a gift, I suspect, that can't be taught), King dispenses good common sense on life as well as writing.
The calling that led to Frank Rich's career as chief drama critic of the New York Times not only helped him survive a turbulent childhood but provides the theme and narrative line of his memoir: "I was now destined to trace my childhood almost exclusively through an accelerating progression of plays, good and bad, that would captivate and kidnap me in circumstances both mundane and dramatic, in different cities, in the company of a multitude of audiences."
More than the story of Rich's childhood and adolescence, Ghost Light could well be described as the memoir of a calling. It began even before he was born, when his mother felt "transformed" by the songs of South Pacific, the premier musical of its era (and perhaps of the entire American theater). She listened to the record "over and over, she liked to recall, when it was time to go to the hospital and have her first baby." One of the child's earliest memories was of his mother singing songs from the musical and playing the record, explaining that it was from a Broadway "show" in New York and therefore "magical" to her; and so, it turns out, to her son.
Successive records of musical shows his parents brought home heightened the child's fascination, and though Broadway was far from his suburban DC home, young Frank was taken to a road company performance of Damn Yankees at Washington's venerable National Theatre. He went home to play the record and relive the show, wanting to learn "how each piece of the whole big Tinkertoy worked."
The "ghost light" of the title refers to the old theatrical superstition that if the stage is left dark a ghost will move in, so a single bulb is kept burning at center stage after everyone goes home. The term also has an eerie relevance to this memoir, for the author as a child suffered from night fears and insomnia, and a truly fearful menace entered his life when his mother remarried. Rich's mercurial stepfather, Joel, at first bears a harrowing resemblance to the nightmarish stepfather of another compelling memoir of the first rank, Tobias Wolfe's This Boy's Life.
The wheeling and dealing, larger-than-life lawyer Joel was alternately generous and abusive with his own children as well as his new wife and son. Though he never physically attacked Frank's sister, he lashed out at the boy in brutal scenes like this one in front of a crowd of onlookers at a family summer camp:
Joel slapped me to the ground with his huge hand. My brain felt as if it was knocking against my head. Then he grabbed me by the ankles and started dragging me up the road on my back, the dirt and gravel scraping against my skin. We were at the next building--some fifty yards away--before he dropped me in a heap in the center of the road.
Yet unlike Tobias Wolfe's stepfather, the volatile Joel was supportive and encouraging of Rich's talent and ambition, taking him to the theater, sending him to New York with tickets for Broadway plays, cheering his achievements and acceptance to Harvard. Rich is somehow able to give a balanced portrait of this brilliant and deeply troubled man who ended in a nursing home with terminal dementia.
Through the tension and fears of his stepfather's outbursts and his mother's tears, the theater served as solace, haven and home. When he got his first job as an usher at the National Theatre in high school and walked past the line of ticket buyers, he felt as if "some powerful, nameless spirit were rising within me, raising my whole being to a more elevated place, the sort of heaven people talked about in religious school but that I had never glimpsed before." He knew from then on that no matter what bad scenes erupted at home, "whatever else happened, I'd be remembered at the National Theatre and be at home there, if nowhere else."
Rich is able to convey the excitement for the theater he felt as a child, watching spellbound as
The lights shining on the curtain dimmed, too, plunging the theater into complete darkness. Then, just when the suspense became overwhelming, the whole audience holding its breath, the curtain did rise, ascending heavenward so fast (where did it go?) and revealing such an explosive cacophony of light and costumes and people singing and dancing that it was more than I could absorb. The whole whirligig of sights and sounds and bodies rushing forward seemed to be aimed directly at me.
The words of his compelling memoir seem aimed directly at us. Perhaps it's that quality of direct experience, without the artifice of fiction, that makes the memoir so popular now and has earned it a respected place in our literature.
William Trevor is in some ways the last Edwardian. The shabby-genteel elegance is always there, the archaic turns of speech, the fraying tweeds and musty old homes full of knickknacks, the family heirlooms dusting over in cupboards and attic closets, on window sills. Trevor's characters often have something anachronistic about them; even if tolerably comfortable in their skins, they are seldom so in their times. And yet few story writers are so timely. Trevor, who has been publishing story collections for more than thirty years (The Hill Bachelors is his ninth; The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, his first, was published in 1967), somehow knows the world of urban down-and-outs, the contemporary Britain to which US Anglophiles are blind: the greasy curry houses, tattered news agents and rundown off-licenses of the high street; the sour industrial hinterlands of Felicia's Journey; the drab cavernous railway and tube stations of Death in Summer; the blaring pop music that is the city's perennial soundtrack. Trevor has written stories of Northern Ireland's Troubles that are contemporary and unutterably poignant, like "Lost Ground" in his previous collection, After Rain; and "The Mourning," in The Hill Bachelors; also "Against the Odds," with its hint of the breakdown of the Good Friday Agreement, its mention of Drumcree and Omagh.
The modern world is bearing down relentlessly on Trevor's characters, and most are overwhelmed. To recoil from sex, any intimacy, is an instinctive move against annihilation. When it happens at all, it takes on an unusually decorous edge. In "Lovers of Their Time," from the 1978 volume of that name, illicit sex loses all sense of sweat or fear or reckless abandonment; the prevailing image is of a sumptuous hotel bathroom with "delicately veined marble and the great brass taps, and the bath that was big enough for two," with the Beatles playing "Eleanor Rigby" and Union Jack-bedecked mods sauntering down Carnaby Street. Lacking eroticism of any flavor, it is vaguely unreal; it seems mistaken.
Yet this story is the exception. For Trevor, a paralyzing detachment coupled with the terrors of sexual yearning is more usual. A classic story of his is "In Isfahan," from Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories (1975), where a lone English traveler falters at a very real romantic possibility he has surrendered for no good reason other than his fear:
It was a story no better than hers, certainly as unpleasant. Yet he hadn't had the courage to tell it because it cast him in a certain light. He travelled easily, moving over surfaces and revealing only surfaces himself. He was acceptable as a stranger: in two marriages he had not been forgiven for turning out to be different from what he seemed.
Still he has his chance: He can dress, chase the woman down at the bus station, persuade her to stay, travel with her to Shiraz, "city of wine and roses and nightingales." None of that; he hasn't the courage. The story ends: "He was the stuff of fantasy. She had quality, he had none."
Trevor has been rewriting the same story ever since. It is the avoidance of confrontation, the concealment of true feeling, the traveling in surfaces, mistaken for privacy. The difference now is that his characters have attained quality, the "stuff of fantasy" dissipating with the times.
One of the more celebrated Irish novels of recent years, John McGahern's Amongst Women, ends with a country funeral; the title story of The Hill Bachelors begins with one. The cast is nearly the same as McGahern's: The family tyrant is dead, leaving a widow; the children, a looked-down-upon son among them, return from their far-flung livings (Dublin, other parts of Ireland, Boston) and just as quickly take off again, having sorted out their mother with a little help around the farm and arranged for a neighbor to look in from time to time. For years they have known there is no life for them there. The outcast son stays behind, however. For his mother, who has never really known him, it is a pleasant surprise, and she is complimented on her good fortune by the parish priest. "Isn't he the good boy to you?" remarks Father Kinally. "Isn't it grand the way it's turned out for you?" Yet the son knows otherwise: "Guilt was misplaced, goodness hardly came into it." He has become one of the hill bachelors, forever unmarrying--no woman will have him now. "Enduring, unchanging, the hills had waited for him, claiming one of their own."
This is the significant departure from McGahern (author of a novel called The Pornographer), who writes with the hair-raising frisson of the erotic, whose characters are carnal in their desires and attainments. One should count sometime how many sexually forlorn characters there are in a volume of Trevor stories, by way of contrast: the virginal, the celibate, the asexual--the men or women, it is clear, who will never marry, never couple; the ones for whom the carnal urge has forever left, even if at one time they had it. In The Hill Bachelors seven of its dozen stories prominently feature such characters. These people are not always priests, although, of course, some are. There is Michingthorpe, the eponymous "A Friend in the Trade," who might in his late middle age still be a virgin; the celibate Protestant clergyman Grattan Fitzmaurice in "Of the Cloth," keeping company with Father Leahy, whose joint affirmation that they have never left Ireland ("I have never been outside it") might speak equally for other deprivations in their lives; Vera in "Three People," whose elderly father knows she "will be alone for the rest of her days." Sexual frustration might be one of the reasons driving the laborer Liam Pat Brogan back to Ireland from the London building sites at which he toils in "The Mourning." When he opens his Irish mouth, girls turn away. His mourning, which is of several kinds, all "lonely and private," will never leave him, it is implied; this too might speak for another loneliness and isolation that is the peculiar sexual geography of William Trevor.
Irish writers are usually more red-blooded, even lusty. One thinks not only of McGahern but also of Joyce, O'Casey, Edna O'Brien. But Trevor is unlike other Irish writers: a Protestant, for starters, and a long-term émigré, living in England for over forty years. Other Irish writers who are exiles have tended to flee the smothering influence of the British Isles; Trevor rather bravely has embraced it, becoming something in between Irish and British. Among prominent English-language writers it is a territory inhabited only by himself, and his most deeply felt fiction reflects its author's aloneness. The man is standing still, but still reaching out.
In The Hill Bachelors bravery takes on a certain passivity and becomes nobility. In "Death of a Professor," a scholarly victim of a prank (Trevor has been here before with his academic hoaxes: Witness "Two More Gallants" in The News From Ireland) carefully reviews his life, wondering how he has become hated: "He is not arrogant that he's aware of, or aloof among his students; he does not seek to put them in their place." A proud Ulster widower, victim of a more serious treachery from a Belfast woman in "Against the Odds," feels himself a fool ("His resistance had been there, he had let it slip away") but nevertheless puts on his suit on the day of their rendezvous: "He waited for an hour in their corner of the bar, believing that against the odds there might somehow be an explanation."
What redeems the men is kindliness or patience or some similar quality; for the widower it is "a flicker of optimism, although he did not know where it came from or even if what it promised was sensible. He did not dwell upon his mood; it was simply there." For the professor, in the eyes of his wife, it is not brains or skill or knowing a lot but wisdom, "almost indefinable, what a roadworker might have, a cinema usher or a clergyman, or a child." This voice is that of an old-fashioned moralist: humble, rather shy, uninterested in success and accomplishment and fulfillment as we perceive it nowadays. Dignity instead emerges from within and remains private, known only to loved ones or, if there are none, to the self. A good part of life is keeping secrets: Vera's in "Three People," the laborer Liam Pat's in "The Mourning" and (a rare foreign protagonist) the Frenchman Guy's in "Le Visiteur." Retreating from an awkward encounter with a married woman traveling with her stone-drunk husband, Guy sits down among the rocks, wondering if he would tell anyone, and if he did, how exactly he would put it. It was how they lived, he might say; it was how they belonged to one another, not that he understood. In the cold moonlight he felt his solitude a comfort.
The oddest story in The Hill Bachelors is "The Virgin's Gift," an allegory set in Ireland's premechanical, possibly medieval past, where the gift of the Virgin's first visitation to a young man named Michael is solitude. First he is sent to an abbey, which means breaking with his love, a girl named Fódla; then to an island off Ireland's coast, where he will be truly alone. He is happy there, loving his solitude, and resents the Virgin's final visitation when instructed that he must leave it. There is a purpose, of course: a return home to his elderly parents, his father now blind, the farm fallen to pieces. The moment--"the gift of a son given again"--is quiet, not sensational: "No choirs sang, there was no sudden splendour, only limbs racked by toil in a smoky hovel, a hand that blindly searched the air." It makes perfect sense for Trevor--homecoming is a triumph allowed even the defeated, as we know from Robert Frost: "the place where, when you have to go there,/ they have to take you in." Frost's was a sexless creature, too, the old hired hand coming home to die, without a past that implies at all the intimate mark of other people.
The Hill Bachelors is mostly, too, a book of homecomings. Paulie in the title story comes home in the literal sense; so too Liam Pat. The happily married couple of "A Friend in the Trade" sell their London home in which they have raised three children; yet the home to which they will retire--an oast-house in rural Sussex--will, it seems, be a more private and intimate place for the two of them than their city home has ever been, with its frequent visitor and interloper Michingthorpe.
There is no sense that William Trevor, who is 72, is about to give up writing; yet in nearly every tale in this collection there is a hint of his valediction: that his characters, whether they live or die, are alone or intimately involved, have come home to rest and so too has their author. A fine and careful writer, master of the perfectly oblique sentence, the sly and compassionate aside, rarely arouses himself to something approaching a speech, a pronouncement on the times. More common is the terse peroration, as in the finale of "Of the Cloth": "Small gestures mattered now, and statements in the dark were a way to keep the faith." And yet in "Against the Odds" we have epiphany presented newsreel-style, the March of Time, the broad, wet stroke of the brush from the exacting miniaturist:
The troubles had returned since Mrs Kincaid had travelled back to Belfast. There had been murder and punishment, the burning of churches, the barricades at Drumcree, the destruction of the town of Omagh. Yet belief in the fragile peace persisted, too precious after so long to abandon. Stubbornly the people of the troubles honoured the hope that had spread among them, fierce in their clamour that it should not go away. In spite of the quiet made noisy again, its benign infection had reached out for Blakely; it did so for Mrs Kincaid also, even though her trouble was her own. Weary at last of making entries in a notebook, she wrote her letter.
It is not Trevor's finest writing: too general, too rushed, too naïve, perhaps, even untrue; a writer who has visited with pinpoint precision his character's deepest fears and isolation is not likely to seem so hopeful about the fate of nations. Yet in its generosity, its kindness, its making the general personal, domestic ("Weary at last...she wrote her letter"), its final ambiguousness, it is unambiguously William Trevor's, a landmark in the terrain he has mapped out for us in thirty years of telling stories. In anticipation of when he will finally leave us, we have the words from another story in this collection: "The long acquaintanceship seems already over, the geography of their lives no longer able to contain it."
"The fish are in the fishman's window," the grain
Is in the hall, "the hunter shouts as the pheasant falls."
That shout rises from deep in Adam's chest.
The great trawlers pull in the shining bodies.
Horses' teeth rip night from sleepy day.
We are all like Nebuchadnezzar on his knees.
Because the greedy soul gained its teeth in the womb,
More than one twin died in the safest place;
We fell into the doctor's hands with haunted eyes.
We inherited much when we inherited teeth.
We will never have one whole day of peace.
An old horse will die or a house will burn.
Each evening we reach for our neighbor's food.
Each night we crawl into imaginary beds;
Each midnight we visit the darkness with Saturn.
We can go on sitting in the Meeting House,
But the greedy one in us will still survive.
One cry from the crow contains a thousand more.
A decade after economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq, international support for them is eroding rapidly. The Security Council is deeply divided. Air travel has resumed. As winter sets in, Iraq has threatened to stop pumping oil.
The situation in Iraq has been the most visible and elaborate of the sanctions regimes of this decade, and the ethical issues entailed have been particularly acute. But the issues raised by economic sanctions are also much broader. If the cold war's end gave rise to a unipolar "new world order," it also gave rise to a set of new experiments in global governance and the enforcement of international law, notably humanitarian intervention and economic sanctions. Economic sanctions are certainly not novel. Since ancient times, embargoes and siege warfare have been imposed, in the contexts of both trade competition and warfare. Comprehensive embargoes--the economic strangulation of a city or a people--have often been described in terms of the suffering and slow death they bring, particularly to the elderly, the ill and the very young. Michael Walzer, in his Just and Unjust Wars, quotes a passage from an account of the Roman siege of Jerusalem:
The restraint of liberty to pass in and out of the city took from the Jews all hope of safety, and the famine now increasing consumed whole households and families; and the houses were full of dead women and infants; and the streets filled with the dead bodies of old men. And the young men, swollen like dead men's shadows, walked in the market place and fell down dead where it happened. And now the multitude of dead bodies was so great that they that were alive could not bury them; nor cared they for burying them.... And they who were yet living, without tears beheld those who being dead were now at rest before them. There was no noise heard from within the city.
There are those who hold that siege warfare and economic sanctions are simply different things altogether. I am not of this view. I hold that, while the intent of economic strangulation may indeed be very different when the purpose is international governance rather than conquest, the empirical impact on civilian populations is the same; and for this reason, to knowingly impose hardship and harm on the vulnerable, even where there is a "good cause," is morally problematic. The near-comprehensive embargo on Iraq, which continues to exact a devastating toll on its population, demands the most serious kind of ethical scrutiny, regardless of the fact that it is imposed within the context of international governance.
The modern version of economic sanctions as a form of international governance came about at the end of World War I, when the League of Nations envisioned the boycott as an alternative to warfare and as the device that would bring aggressor nations to their knees--but gently, bloodlessly. It would be, as Woodrow Wilson put it, "a peaceful, silent, deadly remedy." The League's boycott of Mussolini did not so much as give him pause, though, and economic sanctions were dismissed, along with the League of Nations, as ineffectual.
But the view of economic sanctions as a nonviolent means to prevent aggression and restore peace did not disappear altogether. It resurfaced in the United Nations Charter, in Chapter VII, which addresses aggression and threats to peace. Article 41 gives the Security Council the option of using economic measures to respond to aggression, and Article 42 provides a military option as well, in the event that other measures fail. Economic sanctions continued to be used by groups of nations or single nations--in particular the United States--to pursue foreign policy, to pressure or to "send a message." Of the more than sixty sanctions cases between 1945 and 1990, the United States initiated more than two-thirds; and in three-quarters of those, the United States acted with little to no participation from other countries.
The cold war paralysis of the Security Council meant that if the United States had tried to persuade the Council to sanction the Soviets or a client state, such a resolution would have been vetoed, and the same would have happened if the Eastern bloc had tried as well. Economic sanctions were used by the Security Council only twice in the next four decades, against Rhodesia and South Africa.
Discussion of economic sanctions among political scientists was far more active. In the 1960s and '70s, Johan Galtung and others noted that to the extent that sanctions were intended to undermine the legitimacy of the wrongdoing state, they were quite ineffectual. In fact, they typically generated a "rally round the flag" effect: In the face of economic sanctions imposed by foreign nations, the population tended to support their leaders far more vocally. Others looked at the logistical and political problems of sustaining sanctions, when some nations were less committed than others or suffered greater economic losses by the imposition. By the 1980s there was a resurgence of interest in sanctions, brought on in part by the Soviet grain embargo following its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, and considerable discussion of the problem of effectiveness.
How do we know when sanctions are "effective"? Is it when the targeted leader succumbs and complies? Or is there a kind of effectiveness that comes just from creating pressure and changing the calculus of the decision-making process? Or even if neither of these occurs, maybe the goal of sanctions can simply be to "send a message" or impose retribution, in which case they are, as it were, automatically successful.
Until 1990 the question of whether sanctions were ethical or not was rarely raised, although they had been implemented something like 120 times since the close of World War I. The only notable exception was the (presumably hypocritical) claim of the Reagan Administration to be concerned about the humanitarian consequences of sanctions on South Africa. Indeed, there was little reason to be particularly concerned about the ethics of sanctions. Comprehensive sanctions were impossible, again because of the cold war: If the United States embargoes Cuba, Cuba can turn to the Soviets. As a result, the economic sanctions that were imposed were partial and porous. They caused some inconvenience, or caused economic loss in particular areas, but they couldn't shut down an economy or generate widespread and extreme suffering. At the time that Iraq invaded Kuwait, sanctions were seen as a "middle route": They were more concrete than mere diplomatic protests and far less lethal than warfare. It is one of the ironies of our times that a measure that was long understood to be a nonviolent method to achieve peacekeeping has in fact generated more civilian deaths than any weapon of mass destruction.
The 1990s saw the end of the paralysis in the Security Council and, with it, sanctions imposed against eleven countries, most notably Iraq. The Iraq sanctions, in a sense, say less about Iraq than they do about the unipolar world, in which comprehensive measures are now possible. The result of a comprehensive global enforcement of trade restrictions, after massive destruction from bombing, is devastation. In Iraq everything from nutrition to education to agriculture has lost a generation; not to mention the social instability, loss of scientists and intellectuals, and the exodus of the professional class. Iraq has by several measures gone from being a First or Second World country, with considerable wealth and a healthy and highly educated population (the most prevalent health problem for Iraqi children in the 1980s was obesity), to a pre-industrialized economy, in which the middle class has lost everything, the poor have suffered horribly and criminals and black marketeers are doing quite well.
More modest versions of the same phenomenon took place in the sanctions regimes against Haiti and Yugoslavia, where the constriction of the economy meant that the state held greater control over communications and mass media, existing inequities between the wealthy and the poor became far more extreme, and those who suffered worst were those least responsible for the state's policies--infants and young children, the elderly, widows with children, the sick and the handicapped.
So it is not surprising that a great deal of attention is now being paid to the question of sanctions, in particular the situation in Iraq, and that the writings are as diverse and contentious as they are. Iraq Under Siege, edited by Anthony Arnove, offers poignant descriptions and photos of the suffering of Iraqis under the sanctions. With chapters written by Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Voices in the Wilderness and others, it presents the perspective of activists and intellectuals who most vocally oppose the sanctions on Iraq. It offers information on the deterioration of public health and the media portrayal of the issue, as well as an interview with former UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq Denis Halliday, while it also lodges accusations and stories of US global bullying and callousness on this situation.
Anthony Cordesman's Iraq and the War of Sanctions is a detailed analysis of Iraq's armed forces, with a good deal of useful information about Iraq's weapons capabilities. It also includes features such as a 139-page "table," a day-by-day chronology from July of 1997 to November of 1998, describing in excruciating detail hundreds of excerpts from press conferences, meetings and reports by every conceivable party. All this ultimately demonstrates, according to Cordesman, that Iraqi leaders misstated facts and sought to exploit the growing "sanctions fatigue" in the Security Council (neither of which seem to me surprising, or in need of such elaborate documentation, any more than would the observation that US leaders also misstated facts and used political pressure to retain support for the sanctions in an increasingly uneasy Security Council). Cordesman also goes a bit further than simply focusing on the weapons issues rather than humanitarian concerns. At one point, he makes the fairly odd claim, based on 1997 CIA data, that the infant mortality rate in Iraq did not increase greatly in the 1990s. He maintains that World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that held otherwise "could not survive minimal peer group review in any normal research effort," and that estimates in the mid-1990s of the human damage due to sanctions came from "a small fringe group of US doctors." In fact, the massive public health crisis in Iraq that has resulted from the sanctions has been documented extensively by UNICEF, the International Red Cross and a host of other organizations. Scholarship on the magnitude of the public health crisis has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine, as well as in many other medical and public health journals, with the major researchers in this area from Harvard and Columbia universities.
The Iraq sanctions committee of the Security Council has been harshly criticized by activists and ethicists for its burdensome procedures and arbitrary decision-making in granting humanitarian waivers for Iraq's purchase of essential goods for the civilian population. It must be noted that the situation has improved dramatically under the Oil-For-Food program--applications and guidelines are available on the OFF website, submissions can be made electronically and approvals for large classes of goods are granted quickly. But it is nevertheless fascinating to read Paul Conlon's account of the first years of the Iraq sanctions committee's operation, United Nations Sanctions Management: A Case Study of the Iraq Sanctions Committee, 1990-1994. I have never before heard of any bureaucratic apparatus with such an extreme aversion to transparency that the agenda for its meetings was not distributed to its own members and no actual minutes were kept, only summaries. The 6,000 decisions per year were not computerized, making them effectively unavailable, even to the committee's members.
Needless to say, the meetings were closed, and neither vendors nor representatives of Iraq were permitted to attend for the purpose of addressing questions about a proposed contract. No criteria for approval or rejection were formulated, much less made available to Iraq or to companies seeking to sell goods to Iraq. When a contract was rejected, no reasons were given to the applying company (or to its permanent mission to the UN, which presented all proposed contracts of its nationals). Thus, a company or government could not know whether the flaw in a rejected contract was that the goods were prohibited, the quantity was unacceptable, the vendor was unacceptable or someone on the committee was just in a foul mood that day. The committee operated by consensus, which meant that a hold by any of the fifteen members (the Iraq sanctions committee mirrored the Security Council) could block a contract. The situation was not helped by the apparent arbitrariness of the decisions--identical goods, in identical quantity, by the same vendor, could be approved at one time and rejected six months later.
The Permanent Five members of the Security Council, especially the United States, ended up with enormous influence in these proceedings, but, interestingly, for a very different reason from what is the case in the Security Council itself. In the Security Council the P5 hold veto power and the rotating members do not--a fact that has obvious (and enormous) ramifications. In the Iraq sanctions committee the influence had a different source: Because there were virtually no mechanisms of institutional memory, and because each year a third of the committee rotated off , the P5 were the only members who knew what had happened in prior years and prior cases, and could invoke those in arguing each new waiver application. Were ambulance tires approved before? Does beer count as a "foodstuff"? Can an Iraqi diplomat sell his car before returning home, or is that a violation of the sanctions regime?
Conlon tells us that the arbitrariness was not as extreme as it seemed. He says that the committee was broadly guided by the US focus on end-use and end-users, based upon an analysis of which sectors should be given priority. Thus, tires for ambulances would be approved, whereas identical tires for private cars would not. But that did little to clarify to anyone else--Iraq, vendors, other states--what on earth was going on, and it had the overall result of presenting far more obstacles to the flow of humanitarian goods.
The bizarre aspect of the committee's operations was not limited to its extreme commitment to nontransparency. The conflicts of interests and agendas took several forms, as the parties that had pressed most adamantly for restricting Iraqi imports then held responsibility for granting exemptions to it (see my March 22, 1999, Nation article on the operations of the 661 committee). Conlon tells the following story: In 1991 the bombing by the United States and Britain destroyed the windows in a Baghdad building that housed a UN agency, the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. The cost of replacing the glass was $56,000. As summer approached, air conditioning was impossible without its replacement, and temperatures were expected to rise to 120 degrees--more or less frying the $4 million worth of UN computer equipment in the building. The UN itself applied for a waiver (all UN agencies, as well as international humanitarian organizations, were required to seek humanitarian waivers from the committee for economic transactions or exports to Iraq), and the United States vetoed the application, on the grounds that the repairs were technically illegal, since they would involve the purchase of $56,000 worth of glass and services from Iraqi glaziers. "During acrimonious debate," Conlon writes, "no delegate [was] impolite enough to bring up the fact that the government taking the hard line in this matter had caused the damage in the first place." The UN Secretariat intervened, and the matter was ultimately resolved diplomatically after special appeal.
By far the most impressive work on the Iraq sanctions is Sarah Graham-Brown's Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq. It is a thorough and scholarly work, with meticulous documentation of the impact and operations of sanctions, the refugee crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan and the functioning of NGOs. Based on an apparently exhaustive analysis of every reliable source of information on Iraq, Graham-Brown includes discussions of not only the Iraqi political parties but all the Kurdish ones as well, estimates of the amount of smuggling that occurs through various routes, human rights abuses and the mechanisms of state survival, the rationing system and its role in staving off famine while solidifying state control of the existing economy, and on and on. It is a rich and thorough work that does not shy away from identifying the tensions, the confusion, the ambivalence or the raw callousness that has marked the agenda of nearly every party in this interminable nightmare. We might begin with the shifting of blame: "Those in the international community who wish...to see sanctions remain in place, stress the political responsibility of the regime for all the outcomes of sanctions, whether foreseen or not. The regime, on the other hand, continues to use civilian suffering to call for the lifting of sanctions, and to blame on those sanctions all the ills of society." Yet there is more than enough blame to go around. The invasion of Kuwait was rooted in part in Iraqi policies that had led (despite significant gains in health and education) to a deteriorating overall economy alongside an enormous military. At the same time, the Security Council has said precious little about the massive influx of arms into Iraq and Iran--sold to them by members of the P5--during the 1980s.
Graham-Brown suggests that the intractable shortsightedness that has marked the Iraq sanctions regime appears in every domain. As aid agencies, Security Council actors and Iraq continued to treat the humanitarian problems as short-term emergencies and limited imports to emergency relief while prohibiting reconstruction, planning for even six months or a year in advance was impossible, and economic and institutional stability was precluded. This in turn perpetuated the problems of food insecurity, long-term malnutrition and deterioration of infrastructure. Regardless of the emergency relief available, the overall collapse in the economy, industrial production and education devastated the middle class and triggered the flight of professionals and rapid growth in the uneducated and unemployed. It generated a considerable increase in theft, prostitution and begging as means of economic survival and as markers of social deterioration.
In the end, despite the emergence of an elaborate humanitarian-exemptions regime within the sanctions bureaucracy, there is no satisfactory resolution of the fundamental tension between accomplishing the economic strangulation of a country of 22 million people and doing so without widespread humanitarian consequences. "We break their legs, and then we give them crutches," Graham-Brown quotes an aid worker as saying. And, in the end, there is no reason to expect that the strategy of radical disarmament of a single nation will lay the groundwork for lasting peace in the region. Given the local arms buildup (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt were among the leading recipients of conventional arms between 1992 and 1996, and the arms purchases by Iran and Syria did not diminish), once the sanctions are over, it is hard to think that the leader of Iraq--whether it is Saddam Hussein or someone else--will not be tempted to do some catching up.
The recent books on sanctions also address broader questions that go beyond the situation of Iraq. The Sanctions Decade: Assessing UN Strategies in the 1990s, edited by David Cortright and George A. Lopez, offers an overview of the transformation in the role of the UN, as it imposed economic sanctions with both a frequency and scale that was unprecedented. Using case studies of the countries sanctioned by the Security Council, the authors look at the structural tensions between the Security Council and the member states in this context, as well as the increasing sophistication of institutional processes to implement sanctions along with humanitarian exemptions. In a broader context, they also discuss methods for studying and evaluating sanctions, as well as the emerging discussion about "smart sanctions" (those narrowly targeted to affect only political or military leaders, or particular items, such as arms). The result is a balanced overview of key conceptual issues, the factual background of each of the UN's sanctions episodes of this past decade and the political and institutional processes within which sanctions regimes were framed.
Geoff Simons's Imposing Economic Sanctions: Legal Remedy or Genocidal Tool? poses in stark terms the issue that some have started to raise, particularly in regard to Iraq. The Genocide Convention provides that one form of genocide is to deliberately inflict, on a national, ethnic, religious or racial group, "conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part," with the intent to destroy the group as such, in whole or in part. Simons contends that since ancient times, economic blockades have had this result, and he offers a good deal of factual information and some legal argumentation not found elsewhere in the voluminous literature on sanctions. I am not sure he succeeds in proving that sanctions do constitute genocide--the intent requirement is particularly thorny--but the extent of human loss in the sanctions episodes of the 1990s obliges us to examine that possibility closely.
Two other recent books address economic sanctions in the context of US foreign policy: Economic Sanctions and American Diplomacy, edited by Richard Haass, and Feeling Good or Doing Good With Sanctions: Unilateral Economic Sanctions and the U.S. National Interest, by Ernest Preeg. The Haass collection contains essays on both unilateral and multilateral sanctions episodes, including China, Cuba, Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The book concludes with a set of observations (and corresponding recommendations) consistent with those made by many others in recent years: The imposition often causes considerable unintended secondary damage; sanctions are most effective when there is broad multilateral support; the more authoritarian the target state, the less likely sanctions are to generate effective internal pressure for change; international support for sanctions regimes tends to flag over time; and so on. Feeling Good or Doing Good With Sanctions also uses case studies, looking at Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, Myanmar and China. Preeg, like Haass and his contributors, sees sanctions as "deeply flawed" and suggests that this is particularly true where they are unilaterally imposed by the United States, to further US political, economic and security interests, without international support. In discussing the "inherent downsides," Preeg reiterates the problems of harming the civilian population and enhancing state control, all while adversely affecting US commercial interests and burdening relations with US allies and trading partners.
What is striking about both books is the degree to which they reiterate the arguments against sanctions from the 1970s and 1980s: Sanctions have political costs, both domestically and internationally; not only that, they don't accomplish what we want them to and are even counterproductive. Equally notable, both books miss the opportunity to point out that many of the truisms about sanctions don't apply to the United States, because of the singular political and economic influence it exercises. Conventional wisdom holds, for example, that unilateral sanctions tend to have little effect because they are necessarily limited and porous. Yet, in the case of Cuba the fact that certain goods are manufactured only in the United States (for example, parts for the US-made water purification system that has been in place since Batista's time, or an implantable defibrillator for heart patients) and that goods patented in the United States are, under US law, subject to embargo (such as a Swedish-made filter for dialysis machines) means that a whole array of crucial products is simply not available in Cuba at all, except by an extraordinary and costly process using intermediaries and sometimes smugglers. Because many of the major pharmaceutical companies in the world are American, these restrictions effectively render unavailable more than half of the new medicines available on the world market, including, for example, pediatric cancer medications. The United States is the only country in the world that can impose a unilateral embargo with such an effect.
Conventional wisdom also holds that unilateral sanctions are difficult to impose and sustain because they lack international support and, arguably, legitimacy. Yet what characterizes the United States, and almost no other country in the world, is precisely the ability to sustain sanctions unilaterally--not only without cooperation from other nations but in the face of widespread international protest and in open defiance of international laws concerning trade and extraterritoriality. The UN General Assembly has just condemned the US embargo of Cuba--with its attendant interference in Cuba's trade with third countries--for the ninth consecutive year, most recently by a vote of 167 to 3. Challenging the extraterritorial consequences of the US legislation, the European Union brought a case before the World Trade Organization; and Canada, Mexico and the EU passed retaliatory legislation. The unilateral embargo against Libya and Iran, which also provided for punitive measures against foreign companies engaged in trade with the target nation, were similarly condemned as extraterritorial. Thus, the United States is the only country in the world whose economic and political influence is so great that it can in fact do con-siderable damage with its unilateral sanctions; it can do so regardless of the rulings or resolutions of the recognized institutions of international governance.
Finally, the United States, more than any other country in the world, provides a graphic illustration of one of the often observed features of sanctions--that they are almost exclusively a tool of powerful nations and coalitions, which do the greatest damage to weaker and smaller nations. In the text accompanying the major database on economic sanctions, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, the authors note that sanctions do the most severe economic damage to weak and import-dependent economies, while large and diversified economies are virtually immune. The sheer size and diversity of the US economy, its near-universal participation in global trade, the magnitude of the US military and a host of other factors make the United States effectively immune from the effects of embargoes of the sort that we have witnessed in Iraq, Haiti and Yugoslavia. The frequency and ease with which the United States imposes sanctions--with no fear of being subjected to the same sorts of disruption and damage--cannot be separated from this fact.
It is not clear what the future of economic sanctions will be. In this decade they have come to be used for purposes that go well beyond intervention to stop aggression, or "sending a message," or even retribution. We have seen sanctions used instead for the methodical devastation of a nation's infrastructure. At the same time, the United States and Britain no longer have the near-unanimous support of the Security Council that was present in 1990. It remains to be seen what lessons will be learned from a decade of using this deeply problematic instrument of international governance. One hopes they will include the idea that superpowers, above all, require restraint and accountability; and that a superpower that conflates self-interest with global governance, and political hegemony with moral mandate, is every bit as dangerous as a rogue dictator with a weapon of mass destruction.
In a July 1950 entry from Thomas Mann's diary, written during a summer retreat to St. Moritz while he was still living in exile in Pacific Palisades, the German Nobel laureate recalls a conversation with his son Klaus and his daughter Erika "about the situation in America and our future there... amid intensifying chauvinism and persecution of any non-conformity." He follows this observation, perhaps already anticipating his ultimate return to Switzerland a mere two years later, with a decidedly pessimistic remark: "Passport fairly certain to be revoked."
One of the great ironies of history concerning the German and Austrian migration to America in the 1930s and '40s is that the very same people who fled the Nazi dictatorship--on political as well as racial grounds--soon became suspects, or "enemy aliens" as they were called during the war years, in their newfound home. Not only were they targets of extreme criticism among reactionary politicians touting jingoistic anti-immigration slogans, but many of the German-speaking émigrés, including Mann and his extended family, Bertolt Brecht, Anna Seghers and others, were forced to endure a full-scale assault (interrogation, mail inspection, wiretaps, etc.) mounted by the FBI, the State Department, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Office of Censorship and a host of other federal and local agencies.
The history of this assault, including key players in the ranks of the investigators and suspects alike, serves as the subject of Alexander Stephan's revealing new study, "Communazis": FBI Surveillance of German Emigré Writers. A scholar of German literature at Ohio State University, Stephan has waded through thousands of pages of formerly concealed documents--more than fifty dossiers from the FBI, the CIA and military intelligence services--recently made available to him through the Freedom of Information and Privacy acts. His work is organized around the three main centers of German-speaking exiles--Los Angeles, New York and Mexico City--with chapters on the intelligence operations in each city and a series of subsections on the individual files. More broadly, he treats the US political climate during the FBI watch over the émigrés, setting his discussion in motion with a chapter on what he calls "J. Edgar Hoover's America."
Stephan first published his findings in a nearly 600-page German edition, issued under the more sedate title In the Sight of the FBI: German Exile Writers in the Files of the American Secret Service, in 1995. The abridged English edition, deftly translated by Jan van Heurck, takes its title from a term used mainly by Hoover and his henchmen, but also by some of the exiles themselves, to describe a particular brand of suspicious German refugee. (Although the term does not apply to the exile communities in Los Angeles and New York as well as it does to the one in Mexico City, where it was more widely used, it was perhaps chosen for its potential marketability to a US audience.) Indeed, one of the great fears, especially in the wake of the Hitler-Stalin pact, was that these émigrés might be double agents working for both the Soviet and Nazi regimes.
To understand the magnitude of the FBI-led operations, Stephan avers, we must recall the intense expansion of Hoover's office during the war years. Having already amassed considerable experience in the Justice Department during the First World War, when he monitored "German aliens along with anarchists and dissidents,"Hoover increasingly assumed the self-appointed role of protector of the nation from the threat of foreign Communist infiltration. The number of FBI special agents under Hoover's direction grew exponentially from the mid-1930s to the 1940s; from 1941 to 1943 alone, Hoover employed some 7,000 agents to assist him in his grand inquisitions, while his annual budget for those years grew from $6 million to more than $30 million. Even though his brutal tactics earned him the moniker "J. Edgar Himmler," and Eleanor Roosevelt declared similarities between his G-men and the Gestapo, Hoover's dogged pursuit of "foreign interlopers," "international swindlers" and "espouser[s] of alien philosophies"proved unrelenting.
In the case of Los Angeles, which because of the thriving film industry became a favored destination for many German writers seeking employment, a "Special Agent in Charge" called R.B. Hood--a name that could have been lifted from a Raymond Chandler novel--took command as chief investigator of émigré activities. (Noir affinities proliferate throughout the book, and the occasionally dry, plodding tone of Stephan's account bears a certain resemblance to a Dragnet report.) This meant tracking phone calls, reading mail, accounting for visitors, observing dinner parties and debriefing guests. Paradoxical as it may seem today, Hood became, in Stephan's apt phrase, "head of the world's first center for German exile research."
During the years of the Hitler regime, the seeming paradise of Southern California came to be known as "Weimar on the Pacific." Some residents, such as filmmakers Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Douglas Sirk, enjoyed varying degrees of success in their adopted city, creating in Hollywood, or rather out of the imaginary world of cinema, a new home for themselves. Others, particularly writers bound to the German language, fared less well. The celebrated dramatist Brecht, who with the assistance of Lang and a stipend from the European Film Fund came to California in 1941, had a far less charitable view of Los Angeles, which he once dubbed "Tahiti in metropolitan form." Brecht's ill-fated efforts to write for the movies, the "dream factories," as he called them, would begin and end with Lang's Hangmen Also Die (1943). Little did Brecht know, however, that during his six years in American exile--and he was quite adamant about thinking of it as "exile" rather than as permanent migration--he was the subject of intense scrutiny by FBI agents.
Stephan demonstrates the extent to which the FBI and, later, the House Un-American Activities Committee, hounded Brecht. Drawing on the 400-odd pages of Brecht's FBI file released to him, Stephan cites passages that show the acute level of concern regarding the perceived threat. A few lines from a June 1943 report cut to the chase: "Subject's writings...advocate overthrow of Capitalism, establishment of Communist State and use of sabotage by labor to attain its ends." Up until his dramatic departure the day after his HUAC hearing, in October 1947, Brecht remained a premiere target. Not only did FBI agents probe his writings, looking for grounds to intern or deport him, they also pored over his mail and, under the supervision of Special Agent Hood, bugged his room at the Chalet Motor Hotel, where he frequently met his paramour, Danish actress Ruth Berlau. As if that weren't enough, the FBI also performed a "trash cover," or inspection of household garbage, at Berlau's New York apartment.
Arguably the most lurid examples of the FBI's intrusion into, or plain obsession with, the émigrés' personal lives concern the Mann family. No detail was too small, no personal matter too mundane, for the G-men. They zeroed in on the two arrests (each for drunk driving in Beverly Hills) and the later suicide of Nelly Mann, Thomas's sister-in-law, in an attempt to ferret out information about her suspicious husband, Heinrich. They trailed overnight male visitors to Klaus Mann's room at New York's Hotel Bedfort, noting in their report that Klaus was a "well known sexual pervert" and "connected with various Communistic activities." Finally, they indulged in the absurd speculation that Klaus and his sister, Erika, herself an alleged FBI informant, had engaged in an incestuous affair. Here, as in other cases, the files--many of them riddled with distortions, errors and half-truths--seem to say much more about the FBI than the suspects.
In terms of tactics and the overall virulence of the FBI's pursuit, the situations in New York and Mexico City did not differ categorically from Los Angeles. What was distinct, however, was the demographic features of the émigré communities, the motives for choosing--or resigning themselves to--a particular locale and the agents involved in the operations. New York became the home of several well-known theater directors, among them Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, and numerous actors, writers, publishers and intellectuals who preferred to remain in a more urbane, cosmopolitan city rather than move to the "Mediterranean-like climate" of the West Coast. (New York-based refugee scholar and critic Hannah Arendt once remarked, following a brief visit to Los Angeles, "the climate alone is enough to turn people meshuge.") Piscator, whose acting workshops served as training grounds for such American luminaries as Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and Harry Belafonte, had his apartment searched by FBI agents, sustained extensive interviews and had his appeals for US citizenship denied. Stephan also tells of similar encounters, some merely in thumbnail sketches, among a wide array of lesser-known émigrés.
Because of the more overtly leftist political leanings of the émigrés in Mexico City, many of whom were denied entry to the United States, and the groups engaged in the plans for reconstituting a democratic Germany after the war, FBI agents south of the border were particularly fearful of the transmission of subversive ideas to US-based refugee groups. Stephan documents the repeated interference of FBI agents and the Office of Censorship, which prevented letters from the leaders of Freies Deutschland (Free Germany), Ludwig Renn and Paul Merker, from reaching Los Angeles-based Heinrich Mann, honorary president of the group. Though he was suspected for his supposed Communist affiliations, Renn was later accused by Hoover--in a classic case of "Communazi" paranoia--of "working in behalf of the Nazis." Several of the refugees based in Mexico (for example, Merker, Leo Zuckermann and others) went on to play important roles in founding the German Democratic Republic after the war.
Among the dossiers of the Mexico City-based émigrés examined by Stephan is one of particular significance, the 833-page file of Anna Seghers, bestselling author of The Seventh Cross (a feature of the Book-of-the-Month Club from 1942 to 1946, which was made into a popular MGM movie in 1944, directed by émigré Fred Zinnemann and starring Spencer Tracy). As Stephan notes, Seghers's dossier "has all the earmarks of a thriller, replete with intercepted letters, notes written in invisible ink, mysterious coded messages, mail drops, break-ins, murder, and of course--how could it be otherwise when J. Edgar Hoover was involved?--the Red Scare threatening democracy and the American Way." Seghers was very active in the exile community, giving lectures and readings at the Heinrich Heine Club, the main cultural venue for Mexico City's émigrés. The FBI observed her every step, duly noting those in attendance at her lectures, combing through her correspondence with a "Hollywood insider" concerning the filming of The Seventh Cross and, finally, long after her 1947 return to East Germany, taking into consideration a "Save Angela Davis" flier, which Seghers signed in 1972.
Although "Communazis" follows the basic structure of the German edition, it unfortunately lacks many of the original's illustrations--photographs of the exiles and additional reproductions of the actual files--as well as other useful documents, including transcripts from various interrogations, memorandums and case synopses. In his preface to the English edition, Stephan calls the reader's attention to the more extensive German original; yet it is unlikely that American readers, save for a few scholars, will have access to that version. The absence of these materials, not to mention much-needed further explication of several German writers no longer well-known to a US audience (for example, Oskar Maria Graf, Alfred Döblin, Carl Zuckmayer et al.), is regrettable.
Yet despite such misgivings, Stephan and translator van Heurck should be commended for widening the scope of our understanding of the FBI witch hunts. (Their work nicely augments that done by Natalie Robins in her 1992 book Alien Ink: The FBI's War on Freedom of Expression, and Herbert Mitgang in his 1988 book Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America's Great Authors.) "Communazis" brings this neglected chapter of German and American history to an audience living in the nation where most of these shameful events transpired. Stephan's work lays the groundwork for further critical analysis, and the story that he brings to light is certainly one that merits retelling.
Eileen Myles's new novel, Cool for You, is much more a writing-out of female madness than a book about it. Framed around the author's search for the medical records of her grandmother, who spent the last years of her life in a state mental institution, Cool for You is about the institutionalized life in general. Though she begins with a description of the sanctioned squalor of the state asylum, really Myles is looking at the big picture: the processing of people into grades and schools and genders, cliques and classes. Like the writing of the late Kathy Acker, Cool for You is a kind of fragmented autobiography. Both Acker and Myles write adventure books in which their lived experience becomes the engine, not the object, of a narrative. Both present an "I" as large as the narrators of Heart of Darkness or Tropic of Cancer, although in female hands, the use of "I" is often misconstrued as memoir. Like Acker, Myles values the most intimate and "shameful" details of her life not for what they tell her about herself but for what they tell us about the culture. In this sense, Cool for You makes the classic Female Madness Tale, from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar through Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, look like a kind of psychic liberalism.
Unlike Plath and Kaysen, and dozens of practitioners in between, Myles has no particular belief in the possibility of a fully integrated female self. She doesn't think her experience will be redeemed. The circumstances of Myles's life--she is the daughter of a Polish secretary and an alcoholic Irish mail carrier in class-riddled Boston--are no more dire than those of millions who daily feel the disparity between their own lives and the surfaces of upper-middle-class life that are projected blandly on TV and intricately probed in most contemporary literary fiction. What's harrowing is the detail in which this disparity is experienced and recorded.
Nellie Reardon Myles entered the Westborough State Hospital at the age of 60. Her complaint: "I don't feel well." She was a refugee of the Irish potato famine who'd cleaned houses all her life in Boston and given birth to seven children. Appetite: normal. Sleep: normal. Speech: normal. Nellie was stricken with grief over the death of her daughter, Helen. The color of her urine is fully documented over the fifteen years she spent before her death at Westborough. Teeth missing: thirty-two. Economic condition upon her entry: marginal. Her mental state: sometimes resentful. What Myles remembers most are the Sunday outings of her family to the asylum: "Dad went inside. My mother stayed out with us and the camera. Nellie is led out with great aplomb. The queen mother. The camera clicks.... It was our Buckingham Palace."
It's fitting that Cool for You begins with a quote from the Modernist hero Antonin Artaud. Just as Artaud's experience as a wartime inmate of the Rodez asylum became a launching pad and paradigm for his rage against the military-corporate forces that were then gathering toward a new postwar order, Myles reads the cursory entries on her grandmother's life at Westborough State Hospital, where she waswarehoused by the State of Massachusetts, as proof of something she already knew: The Poor Don't Matter.
The writing of both Myles and Acker is dependent on a great belief in myth, the conduit through which we may experience the Modernist passion to be larger than oneself. To use a very public "I" to speak, as Myles has put it, "to her time..." But mythification doesn't happen much to female writing. We have great hagiographies through which to read the works of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, but in the case of their contemporary, Diane di Prima, the twenty books she's published must suffice. Criticism also helps create a myth around the lives of certain male contemporary fiction writers. Girls in my writing class refer to the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as "Dave," as if they knew Eggers, and memorize his interview remarks as if they were late-night phone confessions. Female myth, it seems, is something much more self-created.
Myles and Acker have both succeeded in bringing difficult work that goes against the grain of contemporary commercial narrative to wider audiences through the sheer willingness to cultivate and engage with myth. Acker hit large in the United States and England following Grove's rapid publication of her books in the mid-1980s. She knew the game and cultivated straight-girl celebrity with a vengeance: sex and motorbikes, tattoos, black leather. Acker Junkie, screamed the headline of her review in The Independent. She could be seen at 10 am hailing taxis on Third Avenue in full Punk Priestess regalia whenever heading uptown to meet her agent. By 1995, she knew myth inside out. "The kathy acker that you want...," she wrote to a friend in Australia, "another mickey mouse, you probably know her better than I do. It's media, it's not me. Like almost all the people I know, and certainly all the people I'm closest to, all of whom are 'culture-makers' and so-called successful ones...our only survival card is fame.... We're rats walking tightropes we thought never existed. Oh sure, we all look good while traveling. We're good at media images."
Myles, who isn't straight and is best known as a poet, approaches myth from a different angle. Since the publication of her first book, The Irony of the Leash, in 1982, she's been offering audiences fleshy, candid slices of her consciousness and life. A friend and apprentice of the late James Schuyler, Myles writes in a style that is deceptively immediate and conversational, giddily expressing a huge range of speculative thought. She arrived in New York City in 1974, a working-class butch lesbian from Boston, and adapted the literate candor of New York School Poetry to her needs. Her very presence at that time and place was perceived as confrontational, and it was a challenge she accepted. In 1992 Myles ran as a write-in candidate for President in eleven states, memorizing her poems and delivering them like stump speeches. In "An American Poem," she poses as a Kennedy and implores her listeners:
Shouldn't we all be Kennedys?
This nation's greatest city's
home of the business-
man and home of the
rich artist. People with
beautiful teeth who are not
on the streets. What shall
we do about this dilemma?...
Like Acker, Myles uses "autobiographical" material, but her deployment of it is more revelatory, less strategically conceptual. In Cool for You, Myles's first published novel, she sees much of her own life in tandem with her grandmother's madness. "It seems people go nuts," she writes, "from a number of things," and then proceeds to tell us what. The trajectory of a lost, dissatisfied working-class girl who wants to be a boy is necessarily less insulated, more wide open to a scary form of chance than that of the Harvard Blessed, whose lives she naïvely tries to emulate. She takes a job at Harvard Coop and gains twenty pounds stealing expensive candy bars while marveling at her co-worker, a girl who'd come from Beaver Country Day School who took time off from school to work a little job. "All these people had a certain colored skin, kind of golden peachy and expensive. It was leisure skin." Meanwhile, she was getting pimples. She attends the University of Massachusetts, Boston, imagining "images of the past--college, some bunch of bright young people in sweaters dashing up the steps to their astronomy class," only to find that "it was not school. There was no campus." She commutes on a string of suburban trains and buses to her classes and sits with her fellow students at a seedy coffee shop called Patsio's, as close as U Mass got to an off-campus hangout:
We would sit...and drink our bleary morning coffee and see the first street people we had ever laid eyes on. An old woman pulled up her skirt for us and showed us her bald old pussy. We were going to school. There was an Irish bar around the corner where we'd go after jazz class and smell stale beer and a trio would play there on Friday afternoons, a really old man and a really old woman and some third thing, I can't remember, but I know it was a trio. They were so drunk the music was incredibly bad...and one afternoon they weren't there because one of them had died.... This could not be college.
She knows she's lost. She feels the future opening up into the present and looping back again; she sees a girl dancing to the Doors and it is Jim Morrison's voice that keeps repeating in her head as if the voice were hers, and she wants to be the one to take the dancing girl on a ride into a parallel universe. Like Sade's Justine, Myles has many picaresque adventures. She quits her taxi-driving job and starts working as a nurse-assistant at The Fernald School after a chance conversation with a fare. The Fernald School is an institution for retarded men, and there she finds three classes: the institutionalized men; the staff, consisting of "the slightly educated well-meaning down and out confused," like her; and the Harvard-trained behavior-modification therapists, who rarely venture out into the wards but devise a program in which the staff pass out handfuls of M&Ms to reward appropriate behavior. The Fernald School is as dead-end an institution as any Myles encounters. She recalls: "All around us was the subtle feeling of a campaign for self-improvement. If we were daily...improving these men's capacity to live 'normally' then what could the therapy do for paragons of intelligence like ourselves. When the buzzer went off we would hug each other for not smoking."
She saves up; she travels to the West. She remembers blueness and the perfection of the air and mountains and working lots of different jobs. She wants to be James Joyce, get rid of everything and write, but then there's nothing to hold on to. She starts a book but can't get past line one, about gerbils running around a cage. At night she hears a million voices. The only thing that held her still was taste, and she kept thinking if she could taste the right thing then she would have something to hold on to. "The day was some runs that I knew with my mouth." One time in the park she floats, and realizes she's not anyone or thing. "I was not connected...not in at all. Not outside either. It wasn't like a movie."
For Myles, madness is not exactly something to be overcome. It is a permanent state, because it is a correlate of the female struggle against poverty. Madness isn't ever isolated from the dead-end jobs, the crummy schools, the institutionalized future that awaits the unconnected. Therefore, madness is something richer, darker, more inevitable than a way station on an affluent, rebellious girl's journey to success. In one of the book's most terrifying scenes, 14-year-old Eileen is working part time in her neighborhood at a nursing home. Delivering trays one night, she gets a glimpse of a familiar body, a woman she'd known as Mrs. Beatty. Seven-year-old Eileen had known the same Mrs. Beatty as the most elegant lodger at her friend Lorraine's mother's boardinghouse. She was a large woman with chestnut hair, joyful, with an air of sophistication, who wore hats with veils. But now she's naked, no longer wrapped in an elaborate fox-fur coat, and she's being lifted off the potty by a nurse and she's not a person anymore, she is a smelly shapeless thing. "She turned or a I saw her face and there was nothing in it. She was gone.... I wanted it to be someone else so I wouldn't have to have seen what I saw. This is Mrs. Beatty, said the nurse, disgusted."
Cool for You is a difficult, painful book to read. It is a construction of identity that's truly public, absorbent of the lives of others. With the audacity of Henry Miller, without the protection of his bravado, Myles lets the voice of poverty-madness-shame speak through her and proves the past is never operable.
All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth.
Florida's electoral mishegoss lends itself to the exploration of an issue that receives no attention in the media and yet underlies virtually everything its members do. I speak to you, dear reader, of the Meaning of Truth.
Ever since Fox's John Ellis began the mistaken media stampede for his cousin George W. Bush's victory on election night, reporters, producers and executives have spun themselves silly trying to describe a situation that is ultimately an epistemological bottomless pit. There is no single "truth" about who won Florida. From the point of view of "institutional truth," we began without clear rules or precedents for measuring the vote, whether they include dimple-counting, partially punched chads or butterfly ballots. I am convinced Gore carried the will of the people, but I'm guessing that Lady Katherine Harris Macbeth would rather contract rabies than accept my admittedly subjective interpretation. From the perspective of "brute truth," however, the difference between the Bush/Gore numbers turns out to be so small that it will never exceed the count's margin of error. What we are seeing, therefore, is not a process of objective measurement but a contest of raw power. The Democrats use the courts and the law. The Republicans rely on rent-a-mobs, partisan hacks and power-hungry allies in the state legislature and Congress. Guess which side is bound to win?
Our media coverage admits none of this, because it is committed to a fairy-tale version of truth and objectivity that separates "fact" and "opinion" but cannot fathom anything in between. When Tim Russert declared on November 26 that George Bush "has now been declared the official winner of the Florida election...and therefore he is the 43rd President of the United States," he was making a statement that could not have been true when he made it. (Even Bush understood that he was only playing a President-elect on TV.) But the feared and celebrated Russert knew that his words were bound by only the narrowest definition of "truth." He could always take it back later.
The attachment to the idea of attainable objective "truth" on the part of American journalism is partially responsible for its frequent brainlessness. As NYU's Jay Rosen points out, "objectivity as a theory of how to arrive at the truth is bankrupt intellectually.... Everything we've learned about the pursuit of truth tells us that in one way or another the knower is incorporated into the known." (Remember Heisenberg? Remember Einstein?) The famous 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey shed considerable light on this problem, with Lippmann arguing for a "spectator" theory of reality and Dewey arguing for a more consensual one, arrived at through discourse and debate.
The notion of a verifiable objective truth received what many intellectuals considered its final coffin nail in the form of Richard Rorty's classic 1979 work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. While the word true may have absolute correlations in reality, Rorty later argued, "its conditions of application will always be relative." What was "true" in ancient Athens--that slavery and pederasty were positive goods--is hardly "true" to us today. As Rorty explains it, we call our beliefs "true" for the purposes of self-justification and little more. The point is not accuracy but pragmatism. Moreover, Ludwig Wittgenstein has taught us that the gulf between what "is" and the language we use to describe it is so large as to be unbridgeable. "Truth" may be out there, but there is no answer to a redescription, Rorty observes, "save a re-re-redescription." Truth is what works.
Now, it's possible to contest Rorty on any number of counts. I personally find him overly generous to the extreme relativism of antifoundationalists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. (The antifoundationalist perspective can be simplistically summarized by the famous Surrealist painting of a pipe by René Magritte beneath the words, Ce n'est pas une pipe.) But the argument itself cannot be avoided. Truth, as Lippmann never understood but Dewey did, is a lot more complicated than a baseball box score or a Johnny Apple New York Times news analysis. What is needed to evaluate whether a report is ultimately credible is not an endless parade of "facts" that may or may not be true but a subjective marshaling of evidence. Yet because the entire media establishment treats these questions as just so much mental masturbation, the standard definition of "fact" often turns out to be any given statement that cannot be easily disproved at the moment it is made. Hence, we frequently see journalistic accounts of the mood of an entire country or even a whole continent based on little more than the taxi ride from the airport.
A second byproduct of American journalism's childish belief in attainable objective truth, Rosen notes, is the alienation it causes between journalists and intellectuals. In Europe the public profits from a two-way transmission belt between the world of ideas and that of reported "fact." But here such exchanges are nearly impossible because, as Rosen puts it, "intellectuals familiar with the currents in twentieth-century thought just can't deal with some of the things that come out of journalists' mouths." Such people, he notes, believe it "useless to try to talk with journalists" owing to their "naïve empiricism." Still, the academy is also at fault, owing to its recent retreat into a Derrida/Foucault-inspired debate that admits almost no reality at all outside the text and does not even pretend to speak intelligibly to the nonspecialist.
In any case, George W. Bush may be our next President. But it won't be because he outpolled Al Gore in Florida in any remotely objective sense. It will merely be because he might have, and we decided to call it "true."
* * *
Congratulations to Ralph Nader on George W. Bush's decision to appoint Andrew Card, formerly the auto industry's top antienvironmental lobbyist, to be his Chief of Staff. Just a few more appointments like this one, I suppose, and the revolution can begin in earnest.
STILL LOSING RUSSIA
"As a result of the Yeltsin era, all the fundamental sectors of our state, economic, cultural and moral life have been destroyed or looted," lamented Alexander Solzhenitsyn earlier this year--quoted, with no doubt a great sense of historical irony, by Stephen F. Cohen in his latest book, Failed Crusade. Some of former "Sovieticus" columnist and frequent Nation contributor Cohen's reportage will be familiar to readers of the magazine, reprising pieces that appeared here and elsewhere, with new chapters bringing the perspectives up to the minute. He traces the history of the impulse to remake Russia in the US image and its resurgence in mainstream thinking by 1992, the first post-Soviet year and last gasp of the Bush Administration. Cohen then proceeds to chronicle how both Russia specialists and the press badly mischaracterized events, to the point of malpractice. In "Transition or Tragedy?" for instance, the most widely reprinted of his articles in the 1990s, Cohen warned that a national tragedy was unfolding about which Westerners would be told little but instead be assured that the transition to a free market "has progressed remarkably." No wonder, he writes, "few readers of the American press were prepared for Russia's economic collapse and financial scandals of the late 1990s." After a catalogue of how the picture has been distorted, the ensuing portions of the book present Cohen's analysis of developments from 1992 to 2000, arranged chronologically, and then his recommendations in working toward a new Russia policy.
In his bracingly corrective view, Cohen concludes that "the missionary crusade of the 1990s was not only the worst American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam; its consequences have contributed to new and unprecedented dangers." Among the necessary remedies: much new thinking in US circles, an openness to Russian-derived solutions and extension of substantial financial aid. His warning is dire, but so is the situation: "For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized country has already been perilously destabilized, but still there is no sufficient American understanding."