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By the last few times we saw her it was clear
That things were different. When you tried to help her
Get out of the car or get from the car to the door
Or across the apartment house hall to the elevator
There was a new sense of heaviness
Or of inertia in the body. It wasn't
That she was less willing to be helped to walk
But that the walking itself had become less willing.
Maybe the stupid demogorgon blind
Recalcitrance of body, resentful of the laws
Of mind and spirit, was getting its own back now,
Or maybe a new and subtle, alien,
Intelligence of body was obedient now
To other laws: "Weight is the measure of
The force with which a body is drawn downward
To the center of the earth"; "Inertia is
The tendency of a body to resist
Proceeding to its fate in any way
Other than that determined for itself."
That evening, at the Bromells' apartment, after
She had been carried up through the rational structure
By articulate stages, floor after flashing floor,
And after we helped her get across the hall,
And get across the room to a chair, somehow
We got her seated in a chair that was placed
A little too far away from the nearest table,
At the edge of the abyss, and there she sat,
Exposed, her body the object of our attention--
The heaviness of it, the helpless graceless leg,
The thick stocking, the leg brace, the medical shoe.
. . .
Her smiling made her look as if she had
Just then tasted something delicious, the charm
Her courtesy attributed to her friends.
This decent elegant fellow human being
Was seated in virtue, character, disability,
Behind her the order of the ranged bookshelves,
The windows monitored by Venetian blinds--
"These can be raised or lowered; numerous slats,
Horizontally arranged, and parallel,
Which can be tilted so as to admit
Precisely the desired light or air."
. . .
The books there on the bookshelves told their stories,
Line after line, all of them evenly spaced,
And spaces between the words. You could fall through the spaces.
In one of the books Dr. Johnson told the story:
"In the scale of being, wherever it begins,
Or ends, there are chasms infinitely deep;
Infinite vacuities . . . For surely,
Nothing can so disturb the passions, or
Perplex the intellects of man so much,
As the disruption of this union with
Visible nature, separation from all
That has delighted or engaged him, a change
Not only of the place but of the manner
Of his being, an entrance into a state
Not simply which he knows not, but perhaps
A state he has not faculties to know."
The dinner was delicious, fresh greens, and reds,
And yellows, produce of the season due,
And fish from the nearby sea; and there were also
Ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink.
Don't be too eager to ask
What the gods have in mind for us,
What will become of you,
What will become of me,
What you can read in the cards,
Or spell out on the Ouija board.
It's better not to know.
Either Jupiter says
This coming winter is not
After all going to be
The last winter you have,
Or else Jupiter says
This winter that's coming soon,
Eating away the cliffs
Along the Tyrrhenian Sea,
Is going to be the final
Winter of all. Be mindful.
Take good care of your household.
The time we have is short.
Cut short your hopes for longer.
Now as I say these words,
Time has already fled
Hold on to the day.
The chair left out in the garden night all winter
Sits waiting for the summer day all night.
The insides of the metal arms are frozen.
Over the house the night sky wheels and turns
All winter long even behind the day.
"I don't want to stay here. I want to stop it."
Was "here" the nursing home? Was it the chair?
The condition she was in? Her life? Life? The body?
. . .
..."Life" seems melodramatic,
Too large and general to fit the case.
But "the chair" seems too small. And "the nursing home"
Too obviously the right answer to be so.
In my reason and health I was outside this world,
Translating her words with a too easy confidence.
But Mary was there, imprisoned in it, sovereign.
The scene changed in the way I experienced it.
It was as if I wasn't in the room
But in the empty lobby of some building.
Mary was in an open elevator,
Old-fashioned, ornate, and beautiful.
The elevator kept moving up and down,
Kept going down to the hell below--when I
Leaned over and looked down then I could see
The suffering and also I could hear
Sounds of the suffering too--then up again
To the hellish heaven above--peering up there
Through the elevator shaft I saw and heard
The transcendental hilarious suffering there.
I heard voices as if there was singing or quarreling.
The Otis elevator never stopped at all.
Mary's body and spirit kept passing back and forth
Before my eyes, vivid, free of the conditions
In terms of which her sympathetic friend,
Standing in the deserted hallway, saw her
Carried up and down in the elevator.
Over and over I saw her going past,
Clinging to the bars, gesticulating,
Frantic, confusingly like a figure of joy.
In the heat of the room on the summer day
Mary, standing now, began to unzip her dress,
With a slowness and persistence that suggested
An indecent purpose, a naked revelation
Of body or soul, embarrassing to a visitor
There at the nursing home on a kind errand.
Perhaps she only wanted to unzip the dress
A little way, because of the summer heat.
But something about it seemed to refuse the suggestion.
There was a concentration and seriousness,
Oblivious of the visitor and his thoughts,
As when she looked so earnestly at the bouquet.
We were in the same room and not in the same room.
I was in the same room. She was in a shirt of fire.
She was out on a plain crossed by steppewinds.
Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations represents a life's work in poetry. The component volumes did not meet with fanfare, yet the work is brilliant with the certainty that comes with contemplation. David Ferry's poems are defined as remarkably by the virtues of theme as by those of style. Plainness grows eloquent as it moves across the subjects of true feeling, from an un-self-pitying awareness that is perhaps more Greek than Roman to a generosity of mind that works in parallel with that awareness. As often as Ferry indulges in classical equability and reserve, this poet of open eye and heart will revert to character sketches full of pathos: These are the moving profiles of unresting souls that haunt Ferry's poetry--aged relatives in homes, the street wanderers in his community and the long-since-changed figures caught with the light draining through them in the sort of old photograph "which, somehow,/Perhaps because of the blankness of the sky,//Looks Russian, foreign, of no country I know." It is not far from any of these subjects to the abyss of non-being: "From this far off you can't hear what they are saying," he writes of one family group, suggesting that the still photo has a sort of speech, hard to catch, and close to that of the demented solitaires who walk his world.
Almost all the guests are under some
kind of enchantment:
Of being poor day after day in the same
Of being witness still to some obscene
Of listening all the time to somebody's
Whispering in the ear things divine or
In the quotidian of unending torment.
("The Guest Ellen at the Supper
for Street People")
Ferry welcomes into his poems a homespun style of deliberation reminiscent of Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell (but more intense than either) as he ponders the layers that mask us from one another. Of the photograph of an aunt subjected to decades of silent distress in an uncouth marriage, the late-born nephew writes that his distance helped him see "Some things she didn't know about yet, or was only/Part way through knowing about, in all the story//Of that future." For aunt and nephew alike, truth needed time to grow; and experience, room to be suffered. One of Ferry's hallmarks is the ample and unblinking attention to pain and to the way we approach and veer off from the nearest hard truth in order to save the precarious self. Photographic illusion is a frequent trope for this work of fragmentation, which the poet explores with a compassionate yet grieving demeanor.
Ferry's diction is so transparent and accurate that we do not balk when great symbols flare out. A boy riding his bike to the drugstore becomes regal, "All-conquering," "his bare//Chest flashing like a shield in the summer air." As a father and son take a placid Sunday walk, a loose page from a newspaper--"a leaf/Fallen from a terrible tree,//The tree of anger,/
Tears, fearfulness"--threatens a world of harm. Nor are we surprised that in the service of livid premonition Ferry requires a syntax almost propositional in its precision: "It wasn't/That she was less willing to be helped to walk/But that the walking itself had become less willing." Minute adjustments in diction have in Ferry an arresting, then reverberating effect: "The scene changed in the way I experienced it." Sliding tissues of meaning create new dimensions, occasionally, from the deft yet non-semantic parting of the lines:
He is without mercy
As he is without the imagination that he is
It is as if every percept were the product of a rigorous tightening of definition just to the side of flat truth. A child in a photograph advancing with her people toward the camera lens seems to come
Streaming out of some hideyhole or
Into the way that that was how I saw
The trees of the kind that grew there establish the place.
We know that way the story of what it was.
("Little Vietnam Futurist Poem")
In presenting anew the war photograph of Vietnamese refugees running toward us, led seemingly by the half-clothed, delicate child who quickens her own plane of existence far to the foreground, "screaming something or other//As if her little mouth was fervently singing," Ferry's gulps of circularity suggest waves of reality resuffered, discarded, then reconfirmed. The poem marks out a terrain of brooding that is only beginning once we reach the last line. "We know that way the story of what it was," says Ferry, as if to insist that we re-establish our old connection to this narrative only as we might find our place in a book that cannot now be closed.
When the poet conjures up an amorphous sylvan scene, to see whether there was a secret he might have missed, all at once the pretty place amid the trees is accompanied by "Death dappling in the flowing water," and a toneless wail belonging to his mother rises up out of the ground like both a burning and a writing--it is
A winter vapor,
Out of the urn, rising in the yellow
Air, an ashy smear on the page.
("Rereading Old Writing")
If, almost as soon as he staggers under horrors, Ferry's speaker moves on, and the frame of being cheers up, and life delights again, reflexively, in itself, still the mildness is shot through with revulsion at the nearness of dread (never very far in Ferry from simplicity, tact, self-knowledge and the selflessness of candor). In another poem he writes of a few flowers near each other in the yard, some of bizarre shape when looked at closely, others ordinary but for being of identical species and variety, yet sporting different intensity of green in the leaf, or white in the blossom:
There is something springlike and free about the littleness,
Oddness, and lightness of this combination of things,
Observed here at the very tag end of summer,
In my good fortune.
Indeed, the phrase with which this verse paragraph ends practically has the feeling of a coolly calm translation from a complex idiom--"in my good fortune"--is this a callow "In my period of surprising luck and health"? Or rather a more grateful, "In my happiness so paradoxical at the very end of summer when the strength in things is giving out"? What's to come, he asks, of all this "Ill-informed staring at little flowers"? And in this suspended state, questions hanging in the air in a state of wistful well-being as they take their places in life, it was as if everything in the garden,
these trees and bushes, the white ash, the sugar-
Maple, the deutzia, the young unflowering pear tree,
Had all suddenly had the same idea,
Of motion and quiet sound and the changing light,
A subtle, brilliant, and a shadowy idea.
("In the Garden")
The poem ends there. Why is it satisfying? What moves it beyond idle listing? Acknowledgment of mortality. And more than this: a chronically surprised and impassioned comprehension of the randomness of rarity as well as risk. I believe that in all of his work, even when the original is in another language, as in his version of Horace's carpe diem ode (which Ferry shows us need not mean seize the day but the more fragile hold on to the day), the poet peers behind a scrim. He sees through veils (like the tongues he translates from and the unpromising, low-frequency prose of dictionary definitions) to uncover the shadow of nonexistence, which makes the living world--the world of moments--tender and valuable.
There is also an eerie sense that Ferry has created his own precursors, so that he helps us read Montale and Horace and the Gilgamesh epic and even the prose of Samuel Johnson as if, all along, a mineral seam of Ferry's had run glinting through them, on an elegiac current. It is often early autumn or late summer in Ferry's work, "The shade full of light" (as he writes in "Courtesy") "without any thickness at all," but about to slip downward to a place where "Stillness and dust are on the door and door bolt," as in the dream of Gilgamesh's friend Enkidu. The perceptual world is often about to speak about its fading--but then, it fades:
The shadows of wings
Print and unprint erratically on the little
Porch roof that I look out on from my window,
As if to keep taking back what has just been said.
("An Autumn Afternoon")
One recognizes the tact of the poet in not saying too much, remaining composed before the experience that is part celebration, part sorrow, part distraction and part rage. In his oeuvre, so perfectly attuned to an unearthly simple witnessing of hardness by goodness, the trace of annihilation is profoundly caustic, as he describes it in the great new poem "That Evening at Dinner":
The dinner was delicious, fresh greens, and reds,
And yellows, produce of the season due,
And fish from the nearby sea; and there were also
Ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink.
Every fiercely quiet and strangely heroic poem David Ferry has given us casts the light of insight into the valley of this shadow.
One of the most haunting images in David Riker's film La Ciudad is of the New York City skyline seen from a work site miles away from midtown. There, a group of Hispanic dayworkers scrape off bricks, carry them to a designated area and pile them neatly on top of one another. No one, including the film viewer, seems to know where he or she is. The images evoke a vivid sense of place/
no-place that reflects the condition of multitudes of Hispanic immigrants to this country--not as much the ones like my parents, whose sense of place had as much to do with their schooling as with their new geography, but immigrants who enter the global Norte in search of a way out of strife and into life itself--improvement, fulfillment of dreams, a future that will be better than now. Like many Latin American renderings of reality, the reality of La Ciudad is informed by the imaginary.
While Juan Gonzalez's Harvest of Empire deals with reality in a conventional sense--it is filled with charts, numbers and facts--his book cannot help conjuring up a series of past and present constructions of what it is to be Latino (or Hispanic, or Latin American, or Spanish-American, or Spanish-speaking, all identities modified by residence, however brief, in the Coloso del Norte). Indeed, a more diverse group is difficult to fathom, as Gonzalez makes clear not only through his facts but by the very structure of the book. He covers more than 500 years of history; the internal politics (historical and actual) of scores of countries; racial, gender and class conflicts within the multifarious national groups; varying US government immigration policies and practices; and all this in an attempt--a welcome one in my opinion--to create a sense of unity among all the ethnicities calling themselves Hispanic and living in America (capital: Washington). Imagine the difficulty: What could a Kanjobal indigenous-language-speaking peasant fleeing Guatemalan repression in 1980, who might later work in the tomato fields of South Florida, possibly have in common with a black Panamanian ex-cop (son of a West Indian) who left his country for New York out of guilt for having participated in quelling an anti-US demonstration and now is in the Air Force living in Alaska? These are two real people whose cases are discussed in Gonzalez's Harvest, or better yet, harvests. Yet in light of all the peaches and pairs, Gonzalez has made a compelling case for unity.
A veteran of sixties left politics--co-founder of the Young Lords--and now co-host with Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now!, Juan Gonzalez lays out those figures and charts in the service of what some in cultural studies might call his "subject-position," a position he never disguises in a voice of academic objectivity. His subject reads as follows: "I was born in 1947 to working-class parents in Ponce, Puerto Rico. My family brought me to New York City's El Barrio the following year and I have lived in this country ever since. As a journalist, and before that as a Puerto Rican community activist...
I have spent decades living in, traveling to and reporting on scores of Latino communities...devouring in the process every study or account of the Latino experience I could find." And his position: "Mine is the perspective of a Latino who has grown tired of having our story told, often one-sidedly, without the passion or the pain, by 'experts' who have not lived it." Indeed, we hear the voice of a hard-hitting social critic from the inside.
Gonzalez shows not only his advocacy/journalistic flair for making a convincing case but also a sense of narrative. His accounts of Puerto Rican immigration along with his own family history--a story that could have been an added segment of Riker's film--give him an air of authority, but always an authority that leaves itself open to other authorities, which includes anyone with a border-crossing tale to tell. And there are many in this book.
Gonzalez's subject-position notwithstanding, the force of the facts is a crucial dimension of his narrative. There are several important depictions of Hispanic immigrant reality in Harvest of Empire that have not been given the attention they deserve. Perhaps the most important is that The United States Empire--this designation is not taken lightly--has at once created and fed on Hispanic immigration. The expansionist policies of the nineteenth century, including the military annexation of a great chunk of Mexico, the cold war obsession with a perceived Soviet threat and the enrichment of US-based corporations through exploitation of Latin American labor and raw materials are the foundation for the desire of our neighbors to the (global) South to move to the (global) North. And once over the frontier of El Norte, Hispanic immigrants further the enrichment of US elites by providing cheap labor. For Gonzalez, this foundation places US government officials in a hypocritical position of decrying the effects of demographic movement northward--welfare payments made out of the pockets of US citizens, rising crime, drug trafficking, general social disintegration--when US financial elites have caused and benefited from them. Surely we have heard the indictment about US world domination before, especially in the pages of The Nation (not as often in the mainstream, though), but what makes Gonzalez's take unique, I think, is that he frames the critique within the specific realities of Hispanics living in the United States. Note one of many examples: The consequences of the repeated annexation of Mexican territory between 1836 and 1853 were as lucrative for the isolated yeoman culture that characterized the United States at that time as they were devastating not only for the Mexican residents living in those vast territories but for Latin America as a whole. Mexico lost half its land and major mineral resources, and the new US territory would later pave the way for cheap labor for US corporations.
Another argument in Gonzalez's "harvest" is that the Hispanic influx is different from other immigrations to this country. It is not that the Hispanic situation is unique; in fact, Gonzalez uses other immigrant experiences as models for comparison. It is rather that certain dimensions of late-twentieth-century capitalism (on the global scale) have made for differences. Hispanic immigration is occurring at a moment when multinational corporations enjoy a prosperity and control over markets that were not the case during previous periods of high immigration to the United States. In addition, the fluidity of Hispanic immigration--the fact that many Spanish speakers come here with the intention of returning, an intention realized in many cases because of the greater accessibility of travel--is different from previous patterns. Moreover, what makes Hispanic immigration different, perhaps more in quantitative than qualitative terms, is the relative importance and unity created as the result of language. The polemic over language instruction, the use of Spanish on the job and in the media, its marker as a definitive ethnic trait that transcends national boundaries, the debate about the United States as a bilingual nation by definition--all serve to strengthen Gonzalez's insistence that we as US citizens would do well to pay more attention to Hispanics regardless of the European ethnicities that, as Todd Gitlin puts it in The Twilight of Common Dreams, are chosen like flavors of ice cream. Mexican society recently witnessed a political transformation that is sure to have far-reaching consequences for all US residents. Yet if our media continue to focus their attention on the pathetic Hispanic imaginary, i.e., the Elián Show, we will remain unprepared for these repercussions.
There is no end to this in sight, says Gonzalez, which is another argument in his crop. The much-mentioned statistic that, by the mid-twenty-first century, one in four US citizens will be Hispanic is simply one projection out of many that point to the writer's hope (along with that of José Martí) that North America will come to know the other America, so that it will cure itself of its scorn. More and more Hispanics are becoming citizens; the median age of Hispanics is far younger than that of most other Americans; there is a rising political consciousness among Latinos, as well as a rising middle class; and all this is occurring as free-trade ideology is wreaking economic havoc on the people most in need of improvement of material conditions in their native lands.
No, there is no end in sight. If I may add a Midwestern story to Gonzalez's all-encompassing one, I'll point out that we've got troubles too, right here in mid-Missouri. Sedalia, Marshall and Mílan--communities that I'm sure the sophisticated Latinos of San Francisco would consider pueblachos de mala muerte (cowtowns)--have seen dramatic increases in their Hispanic populations because of work opportunities in the meatpacking industry. Outside of a few gruesome accidents and violations of child-labor laws, we don't have major problems (yet). But what if the boom economy runs out of steam? What if there are layoffs of these hard-working young women and men?
The images of La Ciudad that caught my imagination return. Perhaps the shot of the New York skyline from that working no man's land lurks in our memories because it fuses a cityscape with the lives of people, people whom we first see as others. Yet with the wide angle, we come to know them as mirrors of ourselves. Carlos Fuentes puts it poignantly when, in The Buried Mirror, he evokes without mentioning it the North/South division that is the mainstay of Gonzalez's discussion:
California, and in particular the city of Los Angeles facing the Pacific basin, the North American bridge to Asia and Latin America, poses the universal question for the coming century: How do we deal with the other? North Africans in France; Turks in Germany; Vietnamese in Czechoslovakia [before the division]; Pakistanis in England; black Africans in Italy; Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Latin Americans in the United States. Instant communication and economic dependence have transformed the once isolated problem of immigration into a universal, definitive and omnipresent reality.
We don't have a TV at home, so we've missed the much-drubbed NBC Olympics coverage. So when a little friend of my son's said she'd been watching, I asked her if any of the events had inspired her to want to be an Olympic athlete when she grew older.
"Yeah!" she raved. "Just wait! I'm gonna be a rock star and I'll ride onto the field with my helmet on my head and my crossbow on my back and I'm gonna have a band and six backup singers, and then when they light the torch, all the soldiers I've been saving in my disk drive are gonna burst onto the screen and do a dance and then there'll be fireworks, fireworks, fireworks, boom, boom, kaBOOM! Like you've never seen before!"
Flushed from such imaginative exertions, this dangerous little person ran off with my precious son, she humming a tune by Britney Spears, he shouting a song by the Backstreet Boys. (It was a perfect fugue, by the way. Has anyone else noticed that Britney is just Lance hung upside down and played backwards?)
Each culture develops its own sense of sport, I suppose. When I travel, I confess I make up for the deprivation at home by watching a lot of hotel-room television. I am always fascinated to see the kinds of competitive sports that people will sit up late for in other parts of the world. I've been to Edinburgh during sheepherding finals (sort of a par course for sheepdogs grafted onto a running of the bulls, except with large shaggy rams. Like Babe, but vicious). I've spent time with friends in Minnesota where ice fishing--which is, I assure you, one of the slower sports known to mankind--took up Real Time in dinner party conversation.
Once I spent five days in a small German town in a university dormitory built on the site of what had been a Nazi bank vault. This being truly the belly of the beast, I was not at all surprised when the heat went out the moment I got there. Within hours, I fell sick with a raging fever, my body temperature rising with each degree the room temperature fell. As I lay shivering beneath the thin cotton blanket, I used my last ounce of strength to flick through the channels on the steel television set (which was bolted to a fixed rod hanging from the ceiling, like the ones in hospitals or prisons). Aside from the ubiquitous CNN, all the available stations were displaying the same sporting event--in German, Swiss German, Farsi, Turkish and Basque. The event in question appeared to be a particularly formal version of Austrian dressage: horses with knotted manes and beribboned tails prancing rigidly through backbreakingly unnatural placements and postures, two-stepping, then waltzing to martial music. The riders, who wore high hats and polished boots, put the animals through their paces with the reins tightened so as to hold the horses' necks upright, the bits so tight the horses looked as though they were leering. The riders were tense and ferocious. The horses were precise, wild-eyed, slobbering with foam.
In happier times, I've been to the far north, up around the Arctic Circle, where Icelandic log-tossing is what in other climes might be called "hot." These are not little logs we're talking about, if the broadcast I saw is any measure--contestants trained by hoisting Yugo minivans on their backs. Indeed, in a side event to the log-toss, they ran a course where every thirty feet or so they stopped to pick up a 350-pound block of stone and chuck it in a rain barrel. "These Icelandic strong men" the voiceover explained, "consume from eight thousand to ten thousand calories a day"--a conceivable goal if, like me, you're thinking of the energizing properties of Ring Dings and marshmallow fluff, but an impressively ambitious one when you learn that a professional log-tosser's diet is fat- and sugar-free.
In South Africa, I once watched a spoofy (I think) combat in which a white gladiator and a black gladiator battled each other up the sheer face of a wall, the goal being not just to reach the top first but to dislodge your opponent so that he has no chance of ever making it up.
Then there's Wisconsin, where, back in the eighties, I lived through three deer-hunting seasons. The season was only nine days long but with more than 600,000 licensed hunters on the prowl, around 260,000 deer could expect to meet their maker within that time. "I guess they have bad aim," said my sister dryly when she heard this bit of data, but the truth is they did indeed have exceedingly bad aim. If memory serves me, Wisconsin was the only state that actually gave blind people a license to shoot. I was told they had to wear a neon-red sign that said: blind hunter (thus giving other blind hunters the chance to duck, I suppose).
Not only did more deer die at that time of year than at any other, more Wisconsiners did too. So the real suspense of the daily television tally was always the human toll, not the animal. Lost bullets seeking their mark took shortcuts through people's breakfast nooks and open bathroom windows and attic hideaways. Stray bullets always caught people by surprise in the middle of some intensely private act. Not that every such death was a complete surprise: One year the sheriffs and game wardens got worried about hunters who shot across busy highways at deer on the other side. So they set up lots of deer decoys by the sides of lots of busy highways to catch the sort of people who would do such a thing. Many of us just hid in the basement until they thought the logic of that one over.
I'm optimistic that we humans will always express our sporting instincts in locally interesting and richly varied ways. Indeed, a recurring criticism of the NBC coverage has been precisely its homogenization of the Olympics--the sappy human interest, the weepy mood music, the breathlessly overdramatized replays. But when I think about what the youngest consumers of American sports culture are exposed to as routine athletic fare, I guess it's no wonder some of them would opt for the halftime song-and-dance act. They already know that too often the real action is played out in culturally revealing games like the Bobby Knight Memorial chair-tossing competition, Hide and Seek the Steroids, the Million Dollar Endorsement Dash, Soccer Mom Slugfest and Hockey Dad Death Match.
Not too long ago, the members of the Ms. Foundation for Women, the feminist group that inaugurated Take Our Daughters to Work Day, began concocting a comparable holiday for boys. They planned the first "Son's Day" for October 20, 1996, a propitious time, the organizers thought: October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The activities that the Ms. Foundation recommended included taking your son (or "son for a day") to an event focused on ending men's violence against women ("Call the Family Violence Prevention Fund at 800 end abuse for information"); playing a game with no scores and no winners; helping to make siblings' lunches and lay out their clothes for the school week ahead; shopping for and preparing the evening meal. And then, presumably, just kicking back and letting the good times roll on.
Ultimately, Son's Day was canceled; its originators backed off. "Nevertheless," says Christina Hoff Sommers in The War Against Boys, "Ms.'s attempt to initiate a boys' holiday is illuminating. It shows the kind of thinking girl advocates do when they reflect on what influences would be good for boys." Sommers believes that girl advocates--or "misguided feminists"--are ascendant now in American culture and that they're turning boys' lives into a sorry morass.
The overt gist of Sommers' book, written in stolid, mass-production-style prose, is that we've begun to think of boyhood as a pathological state. What society once considered a normal part of being a boy--aggression, energy, noise, restlessness; rampant, crude curiosity--now looks like sick behavior. The current archetypes for boys, the figures that popular culture takes to epitomize being young and male, are the thugs from the Spur Posse in California and the killers at Columbine High. The result is that boys are coming to hate themselves simply for being who they are.
This situation Christina Hoff Sommers is determined to amend. She's hot with righteous indignation on boys' behalf: Judgment Day approacheth.
To Sommers it's supremely patronizing (and dead wrong) to argue that strong masculinity is a disease, one that can, with the right kind of socialization, be cured. Boys need some indulgence if they're going to transform their wilder energies into civilizing drives. Turning furies into muses is no easy trick.
Sommers' book has a very contemporary feel to it. She spends a lot of time pulling together horror stories we've all heard from the recent news and organizing them to make a full-blown, quasi-legal case for the view that boys, en masse, are being repressed by an alien regime. She talks about the kid who was suspended for kissing a girl in school, and about boys forced to study exclusively female figures in an American history class. She describes boys brainwashed into believing myths about their own inborn turpitude: It comes with the testosterone.
One of the best Sommers horror stories is about the hugger:
In [an] unpublicized case, a mother in Worcester, Massachusetts, who came to pick up her son was told that he had been reprimanded and made to sit in the "time-out" chair for having hugged another child. "He's a toucher," she was told. "We are not going to put up with it." That little boy was three years old.
The tales of "Son's Day" and the hugger, and the other stories that Sommers picks off TV news and from the daily papers, often make The War Against Boys seem like a pure artifact of the way we live now. But in another of its dimensions, this book is very old-fashioned. For Sommers assumes that she knows something that probably no one can know, or at least that many people gave up claiming to know thirty years ago. For her, the old gender wisdom pretty much holds: Boys are active, aggressive, outgoing; girls are inclined to be quiet, nurturing, restrained.
Loneliness burdens most college freshmen, though precious few find lasting relief from it in the realm of ideas. So it happened for one freshman in 1935, when he left behind the isolation he had experienced at Texas A&M for the University of Texas and "the big discourse," his term for the Enlightenment humanism that extended him both refuge and inspiration. Once a diffident student who reserved his compositions for private display, he quickly gave to this tradition the allegiance of an apostle. At age 20, he wrote his father: "I work and live very rapidly these days. Mine is a pen from whose point much ink will flow and some day into the brains of the populace. But let that be."
Much ink did indeed flow from the pen of C. Wright Mills. As a professor of sociology at Columbia University, Mills wrote prodigiously throughout the forties and fifties, publishing in major newspapers and journals of opinion and in "little magazines" in equal measure. Two of his books, White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956), sold widely outside the academy, exerting a profound influence on the early New Left. A heart attack in March 1962 cut short his life at 45 years. But ten books and nearly 200 articles, essays and reviews had already won him an international reputation. His books, now translated into twenty-three languages, remain widely circulated, as these anniversary editions and a new book of letters and autobiographical writings indicate.
Mills departed Austin in 1939 for doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin. Two years later, he completed a dissertation that fused the pragmatist philosophy he had learned at Texas with his new métier, sociology. "A Sociological Account of Pragmatism" disappointed him. Yet that dissertation, and particularly three innovative articles on the sociology of knowledge that preceded it, impressed influential members of the profession. In December 1940 Robert Merton, himself a theorist only six years Mills's senior, privately named him one of the three most promising sociologists in the nation.
A young prince in a rising discipline, Mills accepted an associate professorship of sociology at the University of Maryland, but he turned much of his attention to the lonely task of left-wing political agitation. In these years, whispers of a "permanent war economy" traveled among New York's Trotskyist community, to which Mills began to appeal for contacts, and his political writings expressed fear that monopoly capitalism was generating a proto-fascist domestic apparatus underwritten by cultural insensibility and mass discipline.
Unusually sensitive to the fast-changing character of liberal social structures, Mills proved impervious to the bitter ironies of reform. Unlike so many of his elders, he did not know firsthand the capacity of entrenched power to co-opt and redirect dissent; nor had he suffered the lost promises of international Communism. "I did not personally experience the thirties. At that time, I just didn't get its mood," he explained in one of the 150 letters published in C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, a beautifully edited volume by Kathryn Mills with Pamela Mills (his daughters). "Only with the onset of World War II did I become radically aware of public affairs."
Released from military duty because of hypertension, Mills viewed the war as "a goddamned bloodbath to no end save misery and mutual death to all civilized values." He harbored no sympathy for the fresh scars of erstwhile agitators. In an essay published in 1942 in the New Leader, he observed that their chastened radicalism belonged to a more thoroughgoing "crisis in American pragmatism," in which private religious introspection, not political action, now served as the preferred sphere for the full development of the human personality. This kind of retreat into religion, Mills complained, neglected a "social theory of the self" (which he had explored in his early writings on the sociology of knowledge). Thereby, it left individuals intellectually powerless to affect the massive secular forces that increasingly overwhelmed them. The move away from politics "offers a personal and accommodative celebration of the modern fact of self-estrangement." (Similarly, he would later christen the "cult of alienation" that enveloped postwar literature merely as "a fashionable way of being overwhelmed.") Already by 1942, he had come to regard commitment to humanist politics and ideas as a spiritual enterprise that demanded steadiness of public purpose in the face of illiberal forces. This disposition, part evangelical, part stoic, would thereafter guide his criticism of US institutions.
Mills published widely during the mid- and late forties, furthering his formidable reputation for precocity even while shifting his research interests from the sociology of knowledge to stratification, labor and social psychology. In 1945, an invitation arrived from the empiricist Paul Lazarsfeld to join the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University, and he left College Park for New York.
The New Men of Power appeared three years later, the first fruit of Mills's work for the bureau. Surveying the origins, attitudes and party affiliations of 500 labor leaders, the book aspired to an objective, collective portrait that would also become "politically relevant." "The most democratic societies of their size in the world," labor unions, he concluded, nonetheless possessed the tendencies of the political economy that had shaped them: the elaboration of hierarchy and bureaucracy, the exclusive reliance on the major parties, the nervous impulse to conserve recent gains, the demotion of labor intellectuals to the role of gadfly or technician. Could labor leaders, Mills asked, a new "strategic elite" in the contest for power, successfully resist such trends of "the main drift"?
Somewhat like the labor leaders he studied, Mills was managing a host of positions and influences in his thought. The New Men of Power contained traces of Wisconsin progressivism, Trotskyist socialism, a concept of "publics" imported from John Dewey, the standard implements of social science research--even the rebellious spirit of the Wobblies. This pluralism made possible a salutary absence of dogmatism, and the book gathered reviews appreciative of its political energy and broad vision. He finished, though, with an uncertain consideration of prospects for an accord between labor leaders and labor intellectuals, which he thought vital for any recrudescence of independent politics: "Never has so much depended upon men who are so ill-prepared and so little inclined to assume the responsibility."
White Collar signaled a rapidly maturing social theory. It also commenced Mills's rise to a peculiar place in American intellectual life. Although many professional sociologists greeted the book with indifference or distrust, others hailed it as a brave, provocative examination of the psychology of class. It became a bestseller, evidence that independent radicalism could find a place even during the dark nights of McCarthyism.
Mills, in turn, looked with growing confidence outside his profession for authority as a critic. Over the course of the decade, cold war dissidents and uneasy students repaid his efforts in direct proportion to his escalating boldness. "I can no longer write seriously without feeling contempt for the indifferent professors and smug editors of the overdeveloped societies in the West who so fearlessly fight the cold war, and for the cultural bureaucrats and hacks, the intellectual thugs of the official line," he announced in The Causes of World War Three (1958), an antiwar pamphlet that sold a remarkable 100,000 copies. In Listen Yankee (1960), a pro-Castro polemic that sold more than 400,000 copies, Mills called the United States a "reactionary menace" and proclaimed his independence even from the growing student movement that drew inspiration from his example. "I cannot give unconditional loyalties to any institution, man, state, movement, or nation. My loyalties are conditional upon my own convictions and my own values."
As the New Left gathered momentum, Mills seemed the man for the moment. Agitating for "our own separate peace," with Communist intellectuals, he made official visits to Cuba and the USSR, traded counsel with Sartre in France, talked up E.P. Thompson to the Cubans and Carlos Fuentes to US publishers. One year before his fatal heart attack, he wrote to his parents about the obligations he supposed his writings had brought him. "I know now that I have not the slightest fear of death; I know also that I have a big responsibility to thousands of people all over the world to tell the truth as I see it and to tell it exactly and with drama and quit this horsing around with sociological bullshit." A self-proclaimed "permanent stranger" in a nation he could not leave, Mills died a triply distinctive figure of US culture: a radical intellectual celebrity.
The body of literature that now surrounds Mills is generally distinguished only by its tendency to respond to this outsized reputation and audacious personality, rather than to the ideas they embroidered. To many of his colleagues, he appeared an abrasive and even irresponsible sociologist, his contentious manner hardly worthy of the detached, scientific ideals to which their discipline aspired.
Such is the guiding spirit of last year's Collaboration, Reputation, and Ethics in American Academic Life by Guy Oakes and Arthur Vidich, professional sociologists. Oakes and Vidich recount the bitter disputes between Mills and the refugee sociologist Hans Gerth, his friend and collaborator on two books, Character and Social Structure (1953), a textbook, and From Max Weber (1946), an influential collection of Weber translations. Mills and Gerth quarreled incessantly over credit and control of these works. Theirs was a complicated relationship that these authors reduced to a cynical, one-dimensional interpretation aimed at little more than proving Mills a charlatan and misanthrope. Though the book claims to offer a minor advance in "the history of academic ethics," it fails to discuss prevailing standards of scholarly publishing in a fast-changing academy, against which we might most clearly perceive the genuinely difficult issues involved. Instead, Oakes and Vidich draw inferences from a batch of letters, some of them missing pages, and from an incomplete account of Mills's swift rise to prominence. Placing him in the worst possible light at every turn, they refuse to offer readers the opportunity to reach conclusions contrary to their own.
The competing portraits of Mills as leftist hero and Mills as academic villain each tend to caricature a stubbornly complex man. They fix his character within the very roles that he constantly tried to elude or combine, imposing evaluative criteria that disregard his own terms and habits of self-understanding. Insofar as they attribute his ideas to his eccentric personality, moreover, they deradicalize the work. What remains to be explored, among those who would take his books with their intended seriousness, are the foundations of his undeniable popularity.
Throughout the fifties, Mills, borrowing freely from Dewey, Lippmann and Mead no less than from Veblen, Marx and Weber, always returned to a theme that connected him to the decade's subterranean rumblings: the abstracted character of postwar life. Society, culture and politics, he insisted, had grown bloated by the conceits of formalism. An "overdeveloped" supersociety, the United States had fattened on a feast of decayed symbols, which offered only outdated fragments of "the whole of live experience." Public life therefore yielded not morally relevant ideas but tremulous moods and slogans. It produced not craftsmen but "cheerful robots," not the means to use civil liberties but a rhetoric in their abstracted defense, not leaders of reason but paeans to the reasonableness of leadership. Massive, centralized institutions had arisen ("big, ugly forces"), by "drift" and by "thrust" alike. Yet corresponding pictures of reality failed to amplify what terrible challenges these institutions posed to "genuinely lively things."
Mills argued that white-collar workers and other Americans, bereft of reliable firsthand portraits of everyday reality, suffered confusion and powerlessness, trapped by the detritus of outworn images fixed in the social worlds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In national politics, a dominant liberalism did not suffocate alternatives, as some Marxists believed. Rather, a "liberal rhetoric" diverted attention from a more important consideration: There existed no coherent ideologies of any sort to connect the universalist ideals transmitted by liberalism and Marxism to the colossal social structures that now threatened to overwhelm them. Reason and freedom did not inevitably increase, as the progressive teleologies had assumed. But no satisfactory projects for the modern realization of these ideals had evolved accordingly. Now, they suffered eclipse before the impersonal forces of bureaucratization, centralization and rationalization so characteristic of a mass society. The "big discourse" stood homeless.
Alive to this gap separating experience and consciousness, he suggested, opportunistic elites appropriated and managed "second-hand worlds" in the service of a pecuniary standard of value. The money standard, the only measure of value permitted to flourish, in turn made possible the commodity culture that spun ever faster around the axis of the US class structure. "Images of American types have not been built carefully by piecing together live experience," he remarked in White Collar. "Experience is trapped by false images, even as reality itself sometimes seems to imitate the soap opera and the publicity release." The "tang and feel" of American life meant "shrill trivialization" of culture by the mass media and hypnotic manipulation of psychic existence by moneyed elites. Workers had become possessed by the logic of "personality markets." Citizens were "strangers to politics. They are not radical, not liberal, not conservative, not reactionary; they are inactionary; they are out of it." Even leisure, where people might expect to revivify their creative instincts, betrayed its promise. For the absence of pictures of reality autonomous from the commodity nexus allowed only formal options emptied of real substance. "The most important characteristic of all these [leisure] activities is that they astonish, excite, and distract but they do not enlarge reason or feeling, or allow spontaneous dispositions to unfold creatively."
Much the same attack on formalism propelled The Power Elite, Mills's "good loud blast at the bastards, one they can't ignore maybe." The selection and formation of leaders in government, business and the military, he argued, occurred within social worlds narrowly circumscribed by the values of money and militarism. The prep school, the corporate hierarchy, the "total way of life" of the military regimen: Each of these transits to power lacked clearly articulated, open rules of advancement, instead fostering social and psychological affinities "designed to form members that will tacitly accept and trust and respect one another." Thus imbued with class consciousness, this power elite pursued the major "command posts" of modern American society.
Merely to assert in the fifties that an American upper class existed meant to court controversy. Mills went much further still. Long-term trends in US social structure, he maintained, had both enlarged and consolidated the "command posts" occupied by the elite. "Local society," its business and Congressional retinue, had suffered a fatal decline. Now, the higher officer corps, the administrative apparatus surrounding the presidency and a corporate hierarchy of the "very rich," exercised international power of unprecedented scope. Professional politicians had abdicated their responsibility to make this power responsive. So, increasingly, a quasi-official "political directorate" of businessmen and military "warlords" appropriated the "executive centers of decision."
That an elite possessed such immense power at all should induce profound distress in any serious democrat, he seemed to suggest. That it exercised such power on behalf of private, self-interested standards of value should now solicit outrage. For prevailing values linked war and profit. Within the "second-hand worlds" that determined public consciousness, that is, the requirements of America's "permanent war economy" foreclosed alternative views. Pluralism, the dominant but now outdated picture of US democracy, only muddled the origins of the "moral uneasiness of our time": the dimly perceived understanding that the power elite adhered to a "crackpot realism," "a paranoid reality all their own" that might produce the most terrible of results: a third world war.
The Sociological Imagination (1959) continued Mills's assault on bourgeois formalism, focusing attention on prevailing models of social science. "Until now I have not really fought these people in American sociology," he wrote the British socialist Ralph Miliband late in the decade. "I've ignored them and done my own work; but they've been fooling around behind the scenes and now I declare war: I am going to expose their essential bankruptcy." By "behind the scenes" Mills was alluding, one supposes, to his own department. For his book expressed and then sought to surmount the major fault lines in professional social science at Columbia and other leading departments.
"Grand Theory," said Mills, offering a witty "translation" of the jargon-laden prose of Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons, was afflicted by a formalist withdrawal from actual problems of the world. The grand theorists trafficked in a self-referential realm of reflection dominated by minute distinctions and interminable elaborations of basic concepts. In ascending to their "useless heights" they presupposed a natural harmony of ideas--their "metaphysical anchor point"--and so regarded conflict as a deviant phenomenon to be explained, not assumed. Yet because Parsons "has fetishized his Concepts," the exercise of power in real-world situations could not very well make its way into his work in the first place, nor into that of other grand theorists. "The basic cause of grand theory is the initial choice of a level of thinking so general that its practitioners cannot logically get down to observation. They never, as grand theorists, get down from the higher generalities to problems in their historical and structural contexts. This absence of a firm sense of genuine problems, in turn, makes for the unreality so noticeable in their pages."
"Abstracted Empiricism," too, constituted a withdrawal from substantive problems. Possessed by method often at the expense of clear-eyed content, the empirical studies of Paul Lazarsfeld and others yielded a great many details about attitudes and opinions of social life. But such studies "do not convince us of anything worth having convictions about." Their frame of reference, according to Mills, usually remained so narrow and precise as to deny the fruits of empirical data any larger connection to social structures. "There is, in truth, no principle or theory that guides the selection of what is to be the subject of these studies," he remarked. Abstracted empiricism, an approach that aspired to put sociology on a particular type of scientific basis, shrank from the task of moral and political judgment. The "formal and empty ingenuity at its center," not to mention the basic requirements of its processes--large, well-funded research institutes--had turned sociologists into mere technicians, solicitous of only the most immediate questions of the day.
Throughout his career Mills offered figures such as Veblen, Balzac, Agee and Huizinga as models of inquiry, because they "took it big"--took in the "whole of experience" and thereby sought to stand apart from their milieu. In The Sociological Imagination, Mills lamented that modern social science was, in the first and final instance, connected only to the upper reaches of American society: From there came the funding for the research institute, the bureaucratic organization and specialized character of the university; from there, he said, came the very definitions of the problems of study. Mass society had rendered equivocal reason and freedom. Now, without an intellectually autonomous class of thinkers who made plain the political and ethical features of this condition, society promised only to continue its fearful trajectory toward a postmodern epoch. Thus Mills implored his colleagues to connect history to biography, the private troubles of ordinary folks to publicly relevant issues, and the trusted intuition of their own experience to historically situated, interdisciplinary questions for research.
Mills left precious little opportunity in much of his work for the formation of private consciousness, and his sociological portraits frequently appeared overdrawn. Today, his white-collar man implies a comparison not to George Babbitt but instead to Hannah Arendt's Adolf Eichmann. The Power Elite, too, concluded darkly, shadowed by the specter of US totalitarianism. To the extent that these books stimulated the impulse to act, such inspiration owed not to precept but to example, to the fact of their existence.
So it was for Mills's criticism of his colleagues: his moral psychology and political hope outran his sociology. Much of his sociological work situated the creative individual within a terrible web of psychic manipulations and centripetal forces. Thus when he denounced his fellow intellectuals as "futilitarians," his complaints seemed mere hectoring. Late in the fifties he began to write more positively about "cultural workmen" as agents of change and "the cultural apparatus" as a site of progressive advance. But he never developed these sentiments, and left important questions unanswered. In challenging the monopolization of secondhand worlds by class-conscious elites, for instance, why should intellectuals be trusted to contain their own predatory instincts?
Might Mills's calls for the transcendence of distinctions between culture and politics trivialize public life? He did not live to answer such questions fully. What is clear is that an elitism stood back of his writings on the topic. "Who wants to be loved by masses, or by mass-like minds?" he asked his longtime friend William Miller in 1954. In the end, his belief in intellectuals as an advance guard of social change became a modern version of the "labor metaphysic" he rejected in Victorian Marxism, as historian Michael Denning has recently noted.
Yet the tenacious exhortation for intellectuals to seek "publics" over masses constituted a strength, too. It belongs to his venture to make "reason democratically relevant," as he put the matter in The Sociological Imagination. Appreciating Mills's achievement in this respect does not require a sacrifice of the intellect, as his most parsimonious critics insist. Nobody did more to revive popular discussions of class and democracy in a postwar period darkened by formalism. Nor did anyone make a more compelling bid to connect politics and ideas and "the whole of live experience" at a time when none of these seemed very compelling.
Mills refused to abandon universalist values even when his investigations disclosed ample reasons for doubting their continued relevance. If this grim perseverance could lead to a kind of elitism, it could also imbue his books with rhetorical force. Much of the power of his books and essays owes to the way in which he mined various traditions and impulses--liberal progress, Weberian irony, Texas populism, modern views of the sociology of knowledge--in the service of a near-missionary rhetoric of humanist redemption. In a sense, a conservative kind of radicalism anchored his life. He reported himself a member of the "classic tradition," a "plain Marxist" and especially an intellectual craftsman who sweated over his prose, which became less academic and more vernacular over time. "Isn't there room for just plain solid stuff; workmanlike stuff by an artisan stratum?" he wondered to his friend Lewis Coser at mid-decade. "That's my ideal kind of production and reception."
Other correspondence records his wide-ranging amateur interests: in music, movies, motorcycles, photography, art and architecture. They indicate an approach to reflection not as the highly technical endeavor so characteristic of the twentieth century but instead as a deeply personal, occasionally aesthetic way of realizing older notions of selfhood in a world now constrained by impersonal institutions. To Dwight Macdonald, Mills defined White Collar as a series of "prose poems" toward such a realization. "The book is my little work of art," he wrote elsewhere. And the "politics of truth" which so exercised Mills's evangelical imagination implied "the act of a free man who rejects 'fate'; it is an affirmation of oneself as a moral and intellectual center of responsible decision." Even his idiosyncratic style seemed a response to the sterile rituals of professionalism. He wrote in a 1948 letter, "About flamboyance: don't you love it? God, the only way to live: the only personal answer to bureaucratic precision and form which, part of the managerial demiurge, would stultify everything we do and are."
In a 1956 letter to novelist Harvey Swados, his neighbor and confidant, Mills claimed that "what these jokers--all of them--don't realize is that way down deep and systematically I'm a goddamned anarchist." Yet this best describes his own view of his temperament, at the center of which stood a visceral determination to avoid the "sense of the trap" that he seemed to see around every American corner. The actual substance of his concerns points toward a far more traditional conclusion. He opposed promiscuous mingling of Freud and Marx, defended liberal education and promoted a national civil service as well as a "genuine bureaucracy." He defined the "cultural apparatus" as "the seat of civilization," invoking no less an apostle of sensibility than Matthew Arnold. And when he sent a telegram of support to a rally protesting American policy toward Cuba, he made the most familiar of distinctions: kennedy and company have returned us to barbarism.
Perhaps since Mills came to believe that the freedom and reason embedded in the "big discourse" he first learned in Texas would now require the radical subversion of the prevailing order, he properly insisted that Columbia University belonged to him and his kind. His colleagues--note the peculiar language--had "defaulted." Others will catalogue many additional motives for his undeniably large ambition. Still, his letters and autobiographical compositions show a consistent, sincere sense of his role as a redeemer of lost ideals, as an old-fashioned moralist in a time of "mindlessness" and existential despair. That his public moralism existed alongside a flawed personal life did not escape his sense of irony, nor the attentions of his many academic enemies.
If Mills hoped to belong anywhere, he remarked, it was to "the heritage that mankind has produced in its best moments." His extensive writings to an imaginary Russian friend, Tovarich, suggest how alone he believed he was in this aspiration. That so many have flocked to his work in the past four decades also shows, happily, how mistaken that conviction has become.
The symptoms and clues have been staring us in the face for some time. Early in the campaign, Bush said that he did indeed crack the odd book and was even at that moment absorbed by James Chace's biography of Dean Acheson. But when asked to report anything that was in the damn volume, the governor pulled up an empty net. His brother Neil is an admitted dyslexic. His mother has long been a patron of various foundations and charities associated with dyslexia. How plain it all now seems.