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By identifying ethics with civic virtue, we create an ethics of the left.
A few years ago I concocted a theory about John Grisham I was too lazy to prove. Here was the hypothesis: This bestselling author was the most successful popularizer of populist notions in American culture. His stories--on paper and onscreen--often pit small folks against malicious corporations and their anything-for-a-buck lawyers who manipulate a system that favors monied elites. In The Pelican Brief, a rapacious oil developer looking to drill in the environmentally precious marshlands of Louisiana funnels millions to government officials and bumps off two Supreme Court Justices to thwart a lawsuit brought by public-interest lawyers against his wildlife-threatening scheme. In The Rainmaker, a young lawyer battles a mega-firm on behalf of a couple screwed over by an insurance company that won't cover a bone-marrow transplant for their son, who is dying of leukemia. The Runaway Jury's bad guy is Big Tobacco. In The Street Lawyer, a corporate attorney bolts from his firm when he discovers it's been wrongfully evicting poor people from their homes. Justice for sale. Money in politics. Corporate greed and malfeasance. And millions of readers devour this stuff.
But not me. I was interested in this notion of Grisham the Populist, based on reading the book reviews and seeing several Grisham flicks. After tearing through The Pelican Brief--too breezy, too melodramatic, too unrealistic, even for airport fiction--I was not eager to do the heavy lifting necessary to confirm the theory (that is, read the books). Instead, I tasked an assistant to peruse some Grisham novels and draft plot summaries. In the meantime, I wrote Grisham and requested an interview to discuss the politics of Grishamland. Should face time be granted, I figured, I would crack open paperbacks in preparation. In the meantime, the summaries started appearing on my desk, and my assistant complained, "This is like reading television." But no word came back from Oxford, Mississippi. I deep-sixed Project Grisham.
Then recently the phone rang. A book review editor asked, "Didn't you once have some ideas about John Grisham?" "Well, uh, kind of, but I didn't really pursue it...." Yet that was enough for this editor: The new Grisham was being FedExed to my office. I was back on the case.
I was under no illusion that Grisham was a modern-day Steinbeck or Odets. He's not writing to send a message. And he does take his swipes at progressive-minded characters. The NAACP lawyer in A Time to Kill is an egotistical cad who cares more about money and power than helping a black man on trial for killing the two white men who raped his daughter. The anti-tobacco activists of The Runaway Jury use underhanded means to defeat the tobacco-industry lawyers. But by placing legal Davids in battle against corporate Goliaths to derive drama, Grisham has consistently presented an unflattering picture of the Enron class. However, his latest, The Summons, only marginally hews to such a story line. The main clash is not between the powerful and the screwed. It occurs within a family. There is an evil-corporations subplot, but it's mostly device, not driving force.
The setup: Ray Atlee, a 43-year-old law professor at the University of Virginia, receives a letter from his dying father, "The Judge," calling Atlee back home to Clanton, Mississippi, to discuss his father's estate. Atlee, estranged from Dad and the ancestral home, does not look forward to the trip. He's already in a funk. His ex-wife has married a millionaire corporate raider and borne him twins (conceived, all too obviously, while she was married to Atlee), and a lovely (and rich) third-year law student is teasing Atlee silly. So off he goes in his midlife-crisis sports coupe to the town he escaped. When Atlee arrives home, he finds Dad dead. Atlee dutifully starts organizing his father's papers and stumbles across a surprise: more than $3 million in cash hidden in twenty-seven stationer's boxes. Where did this poorly paid public servant get the moolah? What should Atlee do with all those Ben Franklins? Include them in the estate--which would mean the government would grab its share, his father's honor might be tainted and Atlee's alcoholic/junkie brother, Forrest, would claim half and be able to finance his descent into complete self-destruction?
This is a what-would-you-do mystery, and a how-would-you-do-it thriller. (We learn that three mil in hundreds fills three large garbage bags--and that poses logistical difficulties if you're driving a car with a small trunk.) Grisham throws in enough moral shading to supply Atlee reason beyond avarice to take the money and run. But greed hovers, even as Atlee tells himself he's not sure he's going to keep the loot. First, he has to uncover the backstory.
A warning to any potential readers of The Summons: There are a few plot points in this book, and to describe it further is to reveal precious twists. If you have an inclination to read this novel, do not continue beyond this paragraph. Skip ahead to the review of the Italian Baroque lady painter who specialized in blood-drenched scenes.
OK, now that the Grisham fans are gone, let me say that this book is much better than the improbability-ridden Pelican Brief, but it was still unsatisfying. The main dilemma is engaging--what to do with free, albeit probably tainted, money?--yet there's not much oomph to the tale. Perhaps that's because Grisham does not provide reason for readers to care about Atlee. He's a good-enough sort, plays well with fellow faculty members, has been hurt by a woman who done him wrong and won't sleep with a student until she graduates. He specializes in antitrust, but we're spared his views. He's not the Jimmy Stewart type, drawn helplessly into an alternative world of intrigue. He's a guy who likes flying and is coasting. Until he finds the cash.
Atlee then faces three immediate challenges: how to move the money without being spotted, how to determine whether it's marked and how to discover its origins. Of course, he's able to succeed on each front, but the trouble is that these tasks end up not requiring great ingenuity. Also, there's someone trailing him, and that unknown person wants the cash and is willing to use violence to get it. Atlee has to watch his back as he shuttles to various rental-storage lockers (where he keeps the money) and to various casinos (where he drops hundred-dollar bills, looking to see if the expert money-handlers will detect them as marked). As for the money's source, Atlee's investigation is too straightforward. In the judge's papers, the files concerning one case are missing. Atlee heads to the Gulf Coast to examine the court records. He then talks to the lawyer who won. And--bing!--that mystery is solved, a bit too easily.
It is this case that brings us the novel's hint of populism. Seems a Swiss pharmaceutical behemoth was selling an anticholesterol drug that had an unfortunate side effect: kidney failure. The company was aware of the problem but marketed the drug anyway. By the time Judge Atlee came to be presiding over a wrongful death suit, filed against the company by a widow living in rural Mississippi, tens of thousands of kidneys had been ruined. The judge showed the company's lawyers no quarter and in the end socked the pharma with an $11.1 million fine. "The opinion," Grisham writes, "was a scathing indictment of corporate recklessness and greed.... [The] trial was Judge Atlee at his finest." How did this lead to boxes full of cash? I'll leave that to your imagination. Here Grisham is in sync with his past us-versus-them plots. But The Summons does not dwell upon the malfeasance of the drug-maker. Rather, the book blasts away at the attorney who won the case, in what amounts to an indictment of mass-tortlawyers. The pages drip with scorn for attorneys who become wealthy by handling class-action suits against corporate malefactors, such as tobacco companies and asbestos manufacturers. "I worship money," this lawyer tells Atlee. Grisham takes the bogeymen of the Naderish left and the Chamber of Commerce right--corporate evildoers and trial attorneys--and places them in a state of moral equivalence.
But this is far from the point of the book; it's simply the point of my review, for there's not much to dig into in The Summons. The solutions to the few mysteries in it are not big shockers. The novel contains just enough elegant touches to make readers realize there should be more. Atlee's difficult relationship with his brother is rendered well. The impact of the found money on Atlee is interesting to watch. Yes, watch--this is like reading television. But the drama is not as intense as in A Simple Plan, which used a similar scenario. (Grisham does obliquely reference that book/movie in this novel.) Atlee's desire to hold on to the bucks ends up threatening his comfortable life, and Grisham throws in a much-yearned-for curveball toward the end. For a moment, it looks as if Atlee might actually be facing time in the slammer. But fate is not that unkind. And who is it that's after Atlee? A reader who looks at this book as an English parlor mystery, wherein the culprit has to be someone in the room, will not be hard pressed to conjure up the answer.
Back to the important matter: my take on Grisham. He's certainly not writing left-wing agitprop disguised as legal-drama pulp. But in his universe, lustful and reckless corporations often run wild until they are checked by a righteous judge or some other soul moved by ideals, not dollars. Trial attorneys might be scumbuckets who care more about champagne baths than about their clients. Still, Grisham has the novel's annoying millionaire ambulance-chaser tell Atlee, "It takes people like me to keep 'em honest"--a proposition that neither author nor protagonist rebuts. The Summons does not advance the unsteady justice-ain't-equal populism of Grisham's previous work. That's not its mission. But in general Grisham presents the tens of millions who glide through his popcorn novels with the view--in some books more than others--that life is often unfair for a reason, unfair by design, and that specific interests are responsible for this. Not quite a Nation editorial, but better than Sidney Sheldon.
My sister-in-law, a historian and researcher in alternative medicine, once told me of a doctoral dissertation she'd happened across in which the writer interviewed a number of committed liberals and conservatives for the purpose of drawing conclusions about their governing emotional equipment. Liberals, the student found, feel most at home with guilt. Conservatives, as you might expect, don't have much truck with that; instead, they do anger.
It may be hard to call these findings shocking ones, and I do not know whether the candidate's advisers concluded that he or she had sufficiently advanced the literature so as to earn a doctorate. But I can say from personal experience that the liberalism-guilt correlation rings true, and, after reading David Brock's Blinded by the Right, I can certify on the strength of Brock's eyewitness--and often eye-popping--account that conservatives really do anger. Anger as trope; anger as strategy; anger as immutable biological condition; and anger just because it's fun. Yes, we knew this. But we didn't know it the way Brock knows it. Let me put it this way. Throughout the Clinton era, I read every major newspaper and all the magazines and a lot of the websites and most of the pertinent books; I didn't think there was much more for me to learn. But once Blinded by the Right kicks into gear, there is a fact, anecdote or reminiscence about the right's feral hatred of the Clintons every ten pages or so that is absolutely mind-boggling. And, as often as not, these stories are also about the rancid hypocrisy (usually sexual) that underlay, or probably even helped cause, the hatred. In sum: You cannot fully understand this fevered era without reading this book.
The question you may fairly ask is the one some people are already asking: Given the source--Brock was the capital's most famous conservative journalistic hit man before quite famously commencing a mea culpa routine in 1997--can we believe it? The short answer is yes, mostly. The long answer requires that we start, as Oscar Hammerstein III put it, at the very beginning.
The book dances back and forth between exposé and memoir. David Brock was raised in New Jersey, the adopted son of a mother who paid too much mind to what the neighbors thought and a father so rigidly conservative that he did something, as Brock notes, that even Pat Buchanan never felt moved to do: He left the Catholic Church to protest the liberal reforms of Vatican II and worshiped in a sect overseen by the profoundly right-wing French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. It was partly for the sake of agitating his taciturn father that Brock's first political stirrings were liberal (Bobby Kennedy) to moderate (Jimmy Carter, for whom he secretly persuaded his mother to vote). The family moved to Dallas, an inhospitable milieu in general for a Kennedy acolyte, not least one who was coming to terms with the fact that the sight of his fellow boys disrobing after gym class did more to quicken his pulse than, say, a stolen glance in the direction of the décolletage of the Cowboys cheerleaders. Hating Dallas and still seeking to traduce the old man, for college he chose, of all lamentable destinations, Berkeley.
There, Brock expected to drop anchor in a tranquil moorage of like-minded, tolerant, liberal bien pensants. Instead, he ran head-on into the multicultural, academic left, a bird of altogether different plumage. When Jeane Kirkpatrick came to campus to speak, and protesters would not let her utter a sentence as one of them unloaded a bucket of simulated blood on the podium, that was enough for Brock. Soon he was writing columns in the Daily Californian applauding the "liberation" of Grenada and submitting an essay to the Policy Review, a publication of the Heritage Foundation, on campus Marxism. The Wall Street Journal adapted that piece as an Op-Ed, which caught the eye of John Podhoretz, son of Norman, and Midge Decter, and then an editor at Insight, a magazine put out by the Washington Times. Podhoretz offered him a job, and Brock was off to Washington.
The story of Brock's ideological conversion is important, because it reflects a pattern with regard to several of his comrades we meet later in that it was at once both shockingly superficial and utterly fervent. Forget Burke or Oakeshott or Hayek or even Russell Kirk; Brock admits he hadn't read a single thing beyond some issues of Commentary he tracked down in the library. "I knew nothing of the movement's history," he writes. Joe McCarthy, Goldwater, Nixon--all were mysteries to him, for the most part. His politics were nothing more than a reaction to his personal experience. While the same cannot fairly be said of the movement's intellectuals, from Brock's telling it was indeed true of many of the activists, operatives and media babblers. Their conservatism was purely an emotional or psychological response to their immediate environment. In the most extreme case, Brock writes that his former close friend Laura Ingraham, one of the bombastic blondes of cable television, didn't "own a book or regularly read a newspaper." But as we have seen, in our age, ignorance is no barrier to expertise, particularly on cable television.
Shallow though it may have been, Brock's conversion was virtually consummate. I say virtually because there were some matters on which he claims he never drank the Kool-Aid. He had little taste, he says, for the racist shock antics of
the Dartmouth Review crowd; he quietly backed abortion rights; and, of course, on the gay question, he marched to a very different drummer than that of the movement to which he belonged. Of parties at the home of archconservative fomenter Grover Norquist, who hung a portrait of Lenin on his living room wall and often quoted Vladimir Ilyich's dictum to "probe with bayonets, looking for weakness," Brock writes that he was "ill at ease" at these gatherings; "unsure of how to handle the issue of my sexuality, I drifted in late and out early, usually accompanied by a woman colleague," traversing the room "like a zombie." Nevertheless, he wanted nothing more than their approval, and he put his remaining misgivings, and the odd homophobic joke, to the side.
This brings us to the book's second vital point about the winger psyche. The need to belong--and, specifically, to belong to a self-styled minority that felt itself embattled, thumbing its nose at the larger, contaminated culture--is a constant motif of Blinded by the Right, and it becomes clear over the course of the book that it was this convulsed emotional state, even more than ideology, that was, and I suppose still is, the real binding glue among the right. For Brock, it began with his trying to shock his father with Jimmy Carter and Berkeley; it went on to Brock's seeking to vilify the campus lefties. It was present, too, among many of the movement types he befriended: "There was electricity on the right, the same sense of bravely flouting convention--of subverting the dominant culture--that I had first felt in Texas and then at Berkeley."
It was by the time of the 1992 election, when this mindset joined hands with a group of men--and their many millions of dollars--who couldn't accept that the GOP was losing the White House to such a man as Bill Clinton, that it went from being a kind of batty nuisance to a well-oiled agitprop apparatus to, ultimately, a threat to the Constitution. Brock was by then ensconced at The American Spectator, which became in time the most virulent right-wing magazine in America, willing to publish any thinly sourced rumor as long as it made a Clinton look bad, and the home of the Arkansas Project, the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded operation that sought to dig up any Clinton dirt it could find. Brock sharpened his knife first on Anita Hill. With Laurence and Ricky Silberman holding his hand--he was a circuit judge in Washington and a member of the hard-right Federalist Society; she had worked for Clarence Thomas with Hill--Brock could scarcely believe how quickly and easily previously unreleased affidavits and so on fell into his hands from GOP Congressional staffers.
Brock knew intuitively what he was supposed to do with this material, and it wasn't journalism. It was character assassination, and not only of Hill. Of one Democratic Senate staffer, he wrote that the man was "known for cutting ethical corners...to achieve desired results." Brock admits he knew nothing about the man. He made no effort to contact sources who might have had different interpretations (and obviously not Hill herself); he double-checked nothing; he twisted the hearing record to make Hill look like a vengeful harridan who was, in his infamous phrase, "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty." But it was good enough for the Spectator, which billed it, natch, as investigative journalism. Rush Limbaugh began reading sections of the piece on the air. Brock was put on to Glen Hartley and Lynn Chu, the literary agents of choice for the hard right. He signed a book contract with the Free Press, then run by archconservative Erwin Glikes and Adam Bellow, son of Saul. The Real Anita Hill hit the bestseller lists. The right-wing newspeak machine, now such a fact of political life, was born.
Next up, the famous "Troopergate" story (again in the Spectator), about Arkansas state policemen supposedly setting up sexual liaisons for Governor Clinton. Brock followed the old MO--no independent sourcing, printing rumors, etc.--to the same triumphant effect. And this time he found to his surprise a willing abettor. Though a few mainstream news organizations did shoot down some specific charges that didn't check out, the chief response of a largely panting Washington press corps ("I was astonished to see how easy it was to suck in CNN") was for more, more, more. Brock became a bigger star still.
Hillary Clinton was the next quarry, and Adam Bellow had obligingly put a $1 million price on her head in the form of Brock's advance. But Hillary proved to be Brock's Waterloo--as she has been, incidentally, for several other men who were supposed to steamroller her (Starr, Whitewater committee chair D'Amato, candidate Giuliani, candidate Lazio...). By then, Brock was starting to develop a conscience. In 1994, Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer's book on the Thomas-Hill matter, Strange Justice, had hit the stands. It proved to everyone in the world but hard-shell rightists that Thomas was indeed a ravenous porn enthusiast and that Hill, in all likelihood, was the truthful one. When even Ricky Silberman, who had been Brock's source and cheerleader while Brock was writing the Anita Hill book, seemed to acknowledge privately that Thomas had lied, Brock was shaken.
By the time he got around to Hillary, Brock was determined to write an actual book. ("I began to relish the complexity of my subject. I realized I had never known what journalism was.") I cannot here convey the full flavor of the contempt his old comrades regarded him with as a result: the sideways glances, the calls not returned, the party invites not received--and, now that he wasn't "on the team," in the argot, the jokes about and denunciations of his sexuality, suddenly delivered within earshot. He was not supposed to commit journalism or write what he thought. He was supposed to kill Clintons. Period. Once he stopped that, his life on the right was finished.
David Brock gave up anger and turned to guilt. In the process, he flings open a most illuminating window on this hideous circus. Here is Newt Gingrich, vowing "to say the word 'Monica' in every speech" even while "conducting his own illicit affair." We see Georgia Congressman Bob Barr plotting to bring the troopers to testify on Capitol Hill to expose Clinton's adultery--the same Barr who, interestingly enough, married his third wife within one month of divorcing his second. We hear Jack Romanos, the head of Simon & Schuster, telling Brock, as he signed the million-dollar Hillary book deal--without even writing a proposal!--that the only thing he wanted to know before OK'ing the money was whether Hillary was a lesbian. We eavesdrop on the publisher of the Spectator asking Brock, "Can't you find any more women to attack?" We read of George Conway, one of the lawyers who played a crucial role in pushing Paula Jones's story, admitting that privately he didn't believe Jones's allegation at all but that her case must be pressed nonetheless because the point was to force a situation in which Clinton would have to lie under oath about extramarital sex. We witness Ted Olson, a member of the bar and now this country's Solicitor General, telling Brock that while he believed Vince Foster had committed suicide, the Spectator should still run a trashy, unsourced piece about Foster's "murder" to keep the pressure on the Administration until the Spectator could shake loose another "scandal."
Anecdotes like these spill out of this book. And so we return to the question: Why believe this man? I was not persuaded by every assertion about his emotional state in 1992 or 1995; there could be some after-the-fact varnishing going on there. But as for what he saw, and whom he saw doing it, there are three very good reasons to believe every word. First is the simple standard of factual recall. Brock names names, places, dates, the food and wine consumed, the color of the draperies. Perry Mason would love to have called Brock as a witness and watched as poor Hamilton Burger buried his vanquished head in his hands.
Second, quite simply, the writing has about it the tenor of veracity and candor. Brock comes clean on things he has no contemporary motive to come clean on, like a lie he told back at Berkeley in an attempt to discredit a journalistic foe. That strikes me as an act of expiation, not public relations.
And third, most persuasive to me, is this: You would think the right's screamers would be engaging right now in flamboyant public harangues about Brock's duplicity and so forth. But to date, I've scarcely heard a peep. Admittedly, it's early yet, as the book is just out. If Blinded by the Right ascends the bestseller lists, I expect at that point that the screamers will decide they have to deal with it. Until then, my hunch is that they hope they can bury it with their silence. That tells me that David Brock, while no longer right, is, in fact, right as rain.
On December 14, the German writer W.G. Sebald died, age 57, in a car accident in England, where he had lived for thirty-five years. He had published four remarkable books: fluid, melancholy novel-essays composed in beautifully rich and formal language, and studded with odd black-and-white photos rescued
from the oblivion that was his overwhelming theme. In each book, including Austerlitz, brought out just before Sebald's death in an English translation he supervised, a solitary traveler undertakes research into devastation (of trees and animal species, of human practices and populations) and conducts interviews among the bereaved, making himself into a kind of tribune of universal loss. About the traveler we know little but that he shares the main features of the author's life and suffers from precarious mental health, especially a "paralyzing horror...when confronted with the traces of destruction."
I had read Sebald with uneasy admiration, and learning of his death I felt jolted, brought up short. It wasn't only that he was in the middle of a great career; there was something in specific I still expected from him, and not until I happened to see a movie version of Hamlet could I formulate my question.
Act I, Scene 2. Queen Gertrude is remonstrating with her gloomy son: "All that lives must die," she reminds him, "Passing through nature to eternity." Hamlet: "Ay, madam, it is common." Gertrude: "If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?"
But we know why grief is so particular with Hamlet: His father has just died. Likewise, in Austerlitz, we discover just why the life of Jacques Austerlitz has been "clouded by an unrelieved despair." As Austerlitz reveals in one of several huge monologues, he was raised in Wales by a grim Calvinist couple and without any knowledge of his origins. Only as an adolescent was he told of his real name, and not until middle age, when he sits in a London train station slated for demolition, does he recall, in a sudden blow of anamnesis, that he had passed through this station once before, as a child of 4. It turns out that Jacques Austerlitz is the son of Prague Jews, saved from their fate by one of the Kindertransporten that spirited a few Jewish children to safety at the beginning of the Second World War.
Austerlitz's recovered memory, as always in Sebald, serves only to take the measure of his loss. In this way Sebald is the counter-Proust, despite his preoccupation with memory and the serpentine elegance of his precisely measured long sentences. Memories stand in relationship to forgetting as photographs to unrecorded time and Holocaust survivors to the 6 million dead: They are a small, exceptional minority. They refer, in Sebald, more to the absence of others than to their own thin presence. Page 183 of Austerlitz reproduces a photo of a towheaded little boy dressed in operatic costume as a queen's page, a picture Austerlitz's childhood nanny shows him when, searching for traces of his parents, he tracks her down more than fifty years later in post-Communist Prague. She tells him that it is himself looking out from the photograph:
As far back as I can remember, said Austerlitz, I have always felt as if I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all, and I never had this impression more strongly than on that evening...when the eyes of the Rose Queen's page looked through me.
Of course, the reader doesn't know whether the boy pictured was really, like Austerlitz, the son of a Jewish opera singer. Fact and fiction go into Sebald's characters--even their documentary aspects--in unknown proportions, and to an interviewer he said: "Behind Austerlitz hide two or three, perhaps three-and-a-half, real persons." Sebald added the unreliability of fiction to the frailty of memory and made it seem a double wonder that anything at all should be plucked from oblivion and spared.
It is this way of representing what has been destroyed that is most moving in his work. That is the task of each of his four books, and it accounts in large part for their having been invariably called sublime. Typically a term of a vague commendation, it must nevertheless have come to mind in Sebald's case because of its precise, Kantian sense: the insufficiency of our faculties to what they contemplate. The sublime is what we know to be more than we can know, and thus the past--available only in fragments--is a perfect instance of sublimeness.
So, too, is the Holocaust, an event, in this sense, as sublime as it was obscene. The Nazis created in their camps and ghettos (to one of which, Theresienstadt, Austerlitz's mother was confined before presumably being shipped east to be murdered) "an infinite enormity of pain," as Primo Levi wrote, only a tiny portion of which can be apprehended by "our providentially myopic senses." Sebald's approach to the genocide is more direct in Austerlitz than before, but still exemplary in its indirectness: He depicts only the furthest, charred edge of the phenomenon, letting the sufferings of one comparatively very fortunate European Jew evoke, in the half-imaginary person of Austerlitz, the far greater and unrepresentable sufferings of the massively more numerous unlucky ones. And sometimes it is even as if Sebald matches the degree of indirection to the degree of horror, as when he writes of the notorious Nuremberg rally at fourth hand, the narrator recounting what Austerlitz said about what his nanny said about what his father, Maximilian, an eyewitness, had said. (But it's interesting to note that Sebald's third name was Maximilian and that friends knew him as Max.)
Sebald's art is exemplary in another way. The writers he explicitly identified with were Conrad and Nabokov, emigrants like himself, but his books' deepest affinities are with his native tradition of German Romanticism--its convention of the solitary wanderer, its love of fragments, its sense of the nobility of spiritual sickness, its hymns to night. Yet the same Novalis who wondered, as Sebald might have done, what life could offer "to outweigh the chain of death," also felt a keen nostalgia for "the beautiful and glorious time, when Europe was a Christian land, inhabited by one Christianity." Romanticism was a more political and longer-lasting affair in Germany than elsewhere, and its frequent enthusiasm for an "organic" nation-state and disdain for cosmopolitan reason supplied Nazi ideology with much of its spurious dignity, not least in its anti-Semitic elements. Sebald's is a romanticism, then, in which death and grief and wandering retain their strange prestige, but for which European Jews and other displaced people have become questing heroes chasing a lost past. Such a romanticism alludes relentlessly to the murderousness that romanticism once helped to underwrite, and so Sebald manages at once to preserve and to subvert a great literary tradition, to renovate it through disgrace.
It's impossible not to admire a feat like that. But to notice Sebald's romanticism is also to realize what is troubling in his work. Part of the method of romanticism is to find symbols of the self--its moods and truths--in the features of nature. Yet the landscape Sebald has before him belongs not to nature, but to history. It is easy enough to understand why Austerlitz himself would identify with the calamities of history: He has lost his past to them. And Sebald has taken the audacious and even ludicrous step of naming his character after a great Napoleonic battle. When Austerlitz hears a fervent account of the battle of Austerlitz, he naturally feels that his name has made him intimate with the sorrows of Russian and Austrian soldiers drowned in retreat. But why did Sebald make the damaged survivors of his books into his own army, and how is it that he heard in various historical crimes and disasters, above all the Holocaust, an echo of his own name? The grief his books describe is there in the world to be found, but why was it so particular with Sebald?
All we can say is that there seems to have been in him some unspecified pain that sought and found affiliation with the felled trees and vanished industries of The Rings of Saturn, with the dead hunter in Vertigo and with the scarred remnant of European Jewry in The Emigrants and now Austerlitz. At times he made fun of his insistent grief, as when he wrote of drinking a Cherry Coke "at a draught like a cup of hemlock." But more often this grief was simply his principle of selection, his lens. Because he didn't take its subjective character enough into account, permitting himself only the scantiest and most covert autobiography, his work sometimes had the effect--no doubt unintentional--of muffling the atrocities to which he was so curiously attracted. "Our history," he wrote, "is but a long account of calamities." The Holocaust and other historical crimes would belong very naturally to such a history, and might even seem its consummation. Yet history consists no more exclusively of calamity than any population consists of the suicides and other solitaries who are Sebald's characters. There might have been more truth to his work had it been less noble and self-effacing, and explained in some way not only how he came to speak on behalf of the lost, but how it was that they seemed to speak for him. It might also be that in books to come Sebald would have done just that. As it is, he died too soon, forced to illustrate the hidden motto of his work: that time destroys everything but mystery, which it conserves.
When it comes to the events of September 11, everyone is an expert and no one is.
Kanan Makiya, the Arab world's most ardent and vocal supporter of America's projected intervention in Iraq, the hammer of liberal Arab intelligentsia, the arch anti-Orientalist, has just published a new book. The Rock: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalem is a beautifully crafted fictionalized account of
the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, related by Ishaq, the architect of the Dome under which the Rock of Foundation now lies. To call it a novel, however, is misleading. It's more a performance, and a highly political one too. The Rock is a chapter in Makiya's complex political program.
Kanan Makiya is America's favorite dissident. For a start, he's the Iraqi intellectual whose descriptions of life under Saddam Hussein provided the first Bush Administration with peripheral justification for the first war in the Persian Gulf. But he's gone further and taken up America's battered cause against the legions of fashionable intellectuals--Arab and other--who blame the United States for the ills of the Middle East, the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine and the general misfortunes of the Third World.
Makiya's Republic of Fear, first published under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil in 1989, described a dystopia the likes of which were hardly imagined by such fearmongers as Huxley and Orwell. The hells of Brave New World and 1984 were founded on the wholesale indoctrination of a people, and the insidious bureaucratized destruction of individuality. Iraq under Saddam Hussein, as described by Makiya, made claims to no such subtlety or totalitarian sophistication. There, the system's survival rested quite simply on its subjects' physical pain, and fear of it. Violence, first used as a carefully prescribed political medicine, became the instrument of state control.
Iraq in the 1960s and '70s saw the frenetic invention of domestic pariahs--Kurds and Shiite radicals, but also those political undesirables who threatened to undermine the all-conquering Baathist revolution. (The Baath Party was founded in the 1940s in Damascus along populist, socialist and nationalist principles, based in large part on the belief that Arabs had a special mission to end Western colonization. It swept to power in Iraq in 1968.) Their violent destruction legitimized a movement that, much like Slobodan Milosevic's ultranationalism, could only unify negatively--against an other. The society Baathist politics created, founded on violence, bred a populace "to whom strength of character is invariably associated with the ability to both sustain and inflict pain," wrote Makiya. Violence directed outward quickly proved itself to be the most effective sedative for a restless population. It took little time to turn it inward to the same effect: It bred fear and made power. In Makiya's descriptions of the punishments of first-time thieves (brandings on the forehead, amputation of limbs), the horrific tortures and endless disappearances of suspected dissenters, the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, even the executions of military deserters, lies an anatomy of political evil.
Edward Said and other luminaries of the exiled Arab intellectual community virtually accused Makiya of being an American agent, of showing hatred toward his fellow Iraqis and of providing ammunition for Islamiphobes and Arab-haters across the West. The faintest justification for such a condemnation does exist. In Republic of Fear, Makiya avoids detailing all the reasons for the Iraqi hatred and massacre of the Assyrians in the 1930s, explaining it away as a political machination intended to unify a divided people by inventing a common enemy. He fails to mention that the Assyrians had played an important role in the British persecution of this divided Iraqi people in the previous decade, creating huge resentment at what was perceived as treachery. But his own betrayal of the Arab cause as represented by his critics goes only so far--omission in the footnotes.
Principally, Makiya causes concern to his fellow Arab exiles because he has turned their most powerful conceptual tool on its head, and against them. The notion that the West has unconsciously condescended to the Muslim world since first encountering it in the early modern period, and willfully exploited it ever since, has formed the basis of every indictment of US (and British) policy toward the Middle East: It is superior, self-interested imperialism. Ten days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Said wrote in the London Independent: "Is it too much to connect the stark political and military polarisation [building up in the Gulf] with the cultural abyss that exists between the Arabs and the West?" Makiya's response to American intervention in the area was wholehearted support. He claimed that the Arab world was failing itself; he let himself imagine a scenario that turned Said into the condescending Orientalist: Makiya dared imagine that the Arabs themselves might have fought Iraq, in defense of Muslim values and an Arab people, in this case the Kuwaitis. Arab intellectuals, he claimed, were conniving in the cataclysm befalling the Arab world by blaming the West rather than attacking the virus within.
Of course, both Said and Makiya provide vital weapons against the troubles of the Middle East, and Said is just as Saddamophobic as Makiya. Said's tireless attacks on Western neo-imperialism in the region are hugely important correctives to what is undoubtedly a tendency in the powerful West, eager for low oil prices. And Makiya's emphasis on Arab responsibility represents perhaps the bravest and most immediate proposal for change in the Middle East. Said and Makiya may talk at opposite ends of the spectrum, but the solutions they envisage to the problems of their areas of interest both focus on the crucial role of US involvement: Said argues that Palestinians have everything to gain from curtailed US intervention in support of Israel, while Makiya contends that Iraqis can only gain from full-fledged US involvement.
Although Makiya is best known for his politics, specifically vis-à-vis Iraq, in his political program there is another striking difference from most Arab intellectuals known in the West: his engagement with Islam. Islam is, of course, a core coefficient of the Arab worldview and subsequently of its politics. In what many perceive as the Arab world's struggle with and into modernity, it is also the hardest element to include, in large part because most Arab efforts to upgrade their political and societal structures have imitated a specifically Protestant West, where, in addition, church and state are divided. But very few secular Arab thinkers venture to write about Islam or consider it as a component of their political thinking. Doing so involves pitching headlong into the vipers' nest that is doctrinal competition in Islamic theology today--it is much easier to avoid it.
Makiya's first response to September 11 was to analyze the Islam that justified it. In his first major piece of journalism after the attacks, he wrote in the Observer of bin Laden's theology: "This is not Islam any more than the Ku Klux Klan is Christianity." He picked up this theme again in a detailed piece for the New York Review of Books in January, where he provided an intricate exegesis of the form of Islam propounded by the terrorists, as laid out in a document found by the FBI after the event. His concluding paragraph for that piece read:
The uses and distortions of Muslim sources in the hijackers' document deserve careful consideration. If arbitrary constructions of seventh-century texts and events have inflamed the imagination of such men, we should ask whether the ideas in the document will become part of the tradition that they misrepresent.... To contend with such an ideology [that of the hijackers] effectively it is not enough to go back to the original core of the tradition.... Bold and imaginative thinking must come from within the Muslim tradition in order to present social and political ideas that Muslims will find workable and persuasive. The tragic events of the past months have shown all the more clearly how urgently such ideas are needed.
The Rock was written before the horrors of September 11, but it must be read with all the above in mind. Makiya's first crusade was directed against the horrors of Baathism in Iraq--a secular, nationalist totalitarianism with universalist pan-Arab overtones. That crusade has now been extended to include what at first glance appears to be Baathism's nemesis but that lays an identical claim to absolute truth, justice and good: political Islamism.
In Republic of Fear, Makiya made the point that Baathism had failed to yoke the social to the political: It had failed to include the basic yearnings and ideals of its populace within its political program. Religion, such a vital component of Iraq's social fabric, had only been excluded. Khomeini's Iran, on the other hand, turned religion into politics at the immense cost of its political openness.
There is a middle ground. The Arab world has yet to produce a political system that is capable of incorporating its ethical and moral heritage (Islamic) within a social context that allows for freedom, individuality and those other values typical of "modern" (Western) society but so highly prized by a majority of the Arab world. To do so, the notions of both modernity and Islam must be addressed. Makiya looked at the practical politics of the Middle East and its foremost "modern" thinkers in Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence. In The Rock, he tackles Islam.
This, Makiya's first novel, tells the story of Ka'b al-Ahbar, a Jewish Yemeni convert to Islam, who accompanies Umar ibn al-Khattab, second of the Rashidun (or Rightly Guided) Caliphs of Islam, in his conquest of Jerusalem. Tired of the desolation of life in Yemen, Ka'b sets off to make his fortune in the booming renaissance of northern Arabia, where a Prophet has blessed the people of Mecca and Medina. By his knowledge of the stories of Genesis and the cosmology of Abraham, he is quickly included into the elite Muslim fold, in which he converts, before setting off for the Holy City with the Arabian army. There, after battling with Sophronius the Christian Patriarch, he and Umar discover the Rock under a mountain of refuse on the Temple Mount. Here, on the site of Solomon's Temple, Ka'b finds home. If he kneels in the right place, he can pray facing both Mecca and the holy stone on which the father of mankind descended in his fall from Eden: the Precious Stone, the Rock of Atonement, the Rock of Sacrifice, the Rock of the Ages, the Rock of Judgment. He founds a family. His son recounts the story.
While it does spin a tale--and well--the novel is really a skeleton upon which to drape a patchwork cloak of stories. Ka'b hails from a family of rabbis, and his role in the book, just as it was in history (such a Ka'b appears periodically in the annals of early Islam), is as a sourcebook of traditions.
The first Muslims of Arabia, Caliph Umar included, for all their beautiful epic poetry, were not a cultured people. They inherited through the Koran an immense and complicated cosmology that, for all its strength and beauty, left much unexplained. As a Jewish convert to Islam who met the Prophet, deeply versed in the Abrahamic tradition that all monotheists share, Ka'b acted as the exegete of meaning for a people with profound conviction and colossal, newfound power but almost no epistemological context. In history, as in the novel, Ka'b was the one who could advise on the traditions; he was the jurist of myth.
The Rock is a historical novel with a difference. While it traces the lives and developments of people who did exist and events that did happen, its real sources and ultimate focus are the traditions of monotheism. These center on the rock that now sits under the Dome on the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, in divided Jerusalem. In chronological order, these traditions describe the rock as that upon which Adam landed when he was banished from Paradise, the rock upon which Abraham was called to sacrifice his firstborn, the site of Solomon's Temple, where Jesus preached and from which Mohammed ascended on his tour of the seven heavens. These and countless other stories--all sourced in one or the other of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts--are delicately brought to life by Ka'b to help the first Muslims make Jerusalem theirs, physically and spiritually.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the first effect of the novel, achieved by going so deep into the competing and complementary myths about the place, is to remind its reader of the great arbitrariness that designated this rock to be the focal point of worship for half the world. It is, after all, just a rock. That some have seen it as a kind of warp-zone to heaven, others as being suspended between the two worlds of God and Man, and yet more as the launch pad of History (and Apocalypse) is testament to man's unflinching search for meaning, of which Makiya seems proud.
The second act of Makiya's performance, achieved via the endless interplay of the stories related by Ka'b, suggests an interpretation of how meaning works. Just as some literary critics argue that books owe more to those that precede them than to the historical context in which they were written, so Makiya insinuates that religious truth is dependent on and develops out of the canon of truth that precedes it. In his long appendix on the sources he has used, Makiya writes: "It is not always easy for readers to discern from the narrative whether a given story, or a particular detail within a story, or even a passage of scripture is Jewish, Muslim or Christian in origin. This was the way things were in Ka'b's time and place, if not in ours."
In providing an anatomy of the context out of which Muslim truth was articulated, Makiya has provided the foundations for an inquiry into the nature of religious ideas, particularly as they relate to Muslim society. That inquiry will stand on two pillars. The first is the profound acceptance of the fact that truth is always relative, that it must be looked at contextually and that it perpetuates itself. For when these things are forgotten, the letter will always overcome the spirit of religion. And the second is a hyper-self-conscious sense of symbolism that takes itself for what it is: an expression of meaning, not a truth in itself.
The Rock is a compendium of the monotheistic myths, the ultimate guide to the city of Jerusalem and a narrative history of the Muslim conquest as factually correct (or ambiguous) as any we might expect. But it is also a profoundly sensitive proposal for the basis of a new Islamic theology.
For the past few decades a virulent debate has been raging across the Muslim world, pitching Islam against modernity. It has been brought to a head by the events of September 11. In that context, Kanan Makiya's novel is as important a piece of political writing as any of his work to date.
"There are things/We live among 'and to see them/Is to know ourselves.'" These three lines are among the most stirring written by George Oppen, a poet whose modesty and honesty permitted him to look for meaning only in the knowable. He was preoccupied with the world outside his window, and writing about it in a clear language was always a struggle: "say as much as I dare, as much as I can/sustain I don't know how to say it."
For all his commitment to clarity, there is much about Oppen himself that remains unknown. He was a Modernist, but unlike his mentors Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, he was not prolific. When he published his Collected Poems in 1975, he had written exactly one book review and one essay. No manifestoes, no dissertation, no autobiography. When he died in 1984, he had given only a handful of interviews. A Selected Letters was published in 1990, but its paper trail begins in 1958, the year Oppen and his wife, Mary, returned to the United States from political exile in Mexico. The Oppens had been members of the Communist Party in the 1930s, and they went into exile in 1950 to escape the dragnet of McCarthyism. Even George's FBI file, a crucial source of information about the Mexico years, is riddled with black-outs. To know Oppen one must live among his poems, a pleasure that has been greatly enhanced by the publication of George Oppen: New Collected Poems. Housing Oppen's seven full-length books, plus fifty-seven pages of previously uncollected poems, the volume is an astonishing record of the development of an indigenous American avant-garde style by a poet of great intelligence and humanity.
Discrete Series, Oppen's first book, was published in 1934. At first glance its thirty-one lyrics look like offshoots from Williams's Spring and All. Both Oppen and Williams favored spare, compressed lines divested of emotional subversions and devoted to sight and sound. But for all their quotidian scenes, Oppen's poems lack Williams's drama and localism. Instead, they are general, almost categorical, building a moment of perception from prepositions, generic nouns and pauses. "On the water, solid--/The singleness of a toy--//A tug with two barges.//O what O what will/Bring us back to/Shore,/the shore//Coiling a rope on the steel deck." What's equally notable about Discrete Series is that Oppen hewed to a Modernist style without endorsing Modernism's abiding themes; no blood-dimmed tides are loosed, no fragments shored against ruins. But Oppen didn't only defy Modernism. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, and instead of abiding by an orthodoxy that had corralled Pegasus and led it to the Socialist Realist glue factory, he stopped writing altogether. He was a left-wing thinker who did not believe that poetry had the same kind of efficacy as political action, a view that made him "A most inappropriate man/In a most unpropitious place," to borrow a few lines from Wallace Stevens's "Sailing After Lunch." Oppen did not write again until 1958.
What to make of Oppen's silence? Hugh Kenner called it a mere pause between poems; Charles Bernstein has wondered if it is the longest line break in Oppen's oeuvre. While it would be inaccurate to say that the hiatus did not cause Oppen any anxiety as a poet, it's certainly misleading to describe it as just another pregnant pause. Oppen did many things during those years; none were poetic, but all nourished his thinking as a poet. He and Mary organized a farmers' union milk strike in 1937; they became parents in 1939. George worked as a tool-and-die maker at Grumman Aircraft during the early years of World War II and then served as an infantryman in the US Army. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944; later, near Alsace, he suffered serious shrapnel wounds from German shellfire. After the war he built houses near Los Angeles.
"And Bronk said/Perhaps the world/Is horror," Oppen writes in "A Narrative." The poem is from This in Which (1965), and Oppen is most likely referring to a few lines from William Bronk's "The Nature of the Universe": "we/are the inner mirror of those stars, who find/only an ecstasy to outfeel/horror." When Oppen was writing in the 1960s, he returned over and over to the political and philosophical dimensions of horror. He was terrified and disgusted by the proliferation of nuclear weapons ("My love, my love,/We are endangered/Totally at last") and the escalation of the Vietnam War ("Now in the helicopters the casual will/Is atrocious"). Elsewhere he takes a longer view, wondering about "a lone universe that suffers time/Like stones in sun. For we do not." Oppen's struggles with horror and suffering, however, did not turn him into either a nihilist who sneered at a meaningless universe or an aesthete who walled off that universe with intricate formal masonry. "Survival: Infantry," from The Materials (1962), is an important poem for understanding why. Oppen returns to his wartime experience in Alsace, with memories of an artillery barrage--"Where did all the rocks come from?/And the smell of explosives"--mixed with memories of recovery:
We were ashamed of our half life and our misery: we saw
that everything had died.
And the letters came. People who addressed us thru our
They left us gasping. And in tears
In the same mud in the terrible ground
The crucial word is "addressed." Oppen does not say that people "wrote" to him; they addressed him, spoke to him, through their words and hence through his life. Those words in turn create an experience of awe ("They left us gasping"), and while they fail to deliver Oppen from a devastated world (he remains stuck in the "same mud"), they alleviate his despair.
The letters, in other words, gave Oppen a language of survival, and of his many attempts to create this language himself the richest is the serial poem "Of Being Numerous," which appeared in the 1968 Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title. "Urban art, art of the cities, art of the young in the cities--/The isolated man is dead, his world around him exhausted," Oppen writes, and he tries to understand and repair that failure through the very construction of "Of Being Numerous." Some of its poems begin with "Or," "So" or "Because" while others redact lines from Oppen's earlier poems, as if the poet was publishing excerpts from an endless conversation with himself. Yet "Of Being Numerous" is not Oppen's song of himself. Self-reflection is knitted into a larger conversation with friends, family members and other writers, whose words Oppen lifted from correspondence or essays and incorporated into his jagged little lyrics, sometimes in quotation marks, sometimes not. To write a language of survival is to be numerous, but to be numerous is not necessarily to contain multitudes. Rather, it is to startle the self into a meditative drama of reversal and qualification, interruption and invitation, of being pressed into dialogue with others.
Oppen's last book, Primitive, which appeared three years after the publication of his Collected Poems, is perhaps his most haunting vision of survival. Oppen wrote its thirteen poems under some duress; he was growing increasingly disoriented and forgetful, battling the Alzheimer's disease that went undiagnosed until 1982 and claimed his life two years later. Yet it is difficult to determine the impact of the disease on Oppen's poetry, since Primitive is the culmination of the vibrant, attenuated syntax that Oppen had introduced in Of Being Numerous and continued to hone in his next two books, Seascape: Needle's Eye and Myth of the Blaze. In poem nine of "Of Being Numerous," Oppen proposes an ideal: "To dream of that beach/For the sake of an instant in the eyes." Primitive is the dream of that beach, a linguistic "sea-surge," as Eliot Weinberger writes in his lucid preface to this volume, "of contradictory forces: assertions and their negations, declarations couched in double-negatives, questions without answers." The poems are the work of "a returned Crusoe," a poet entranced by mysterious images of war, water, light and rescue. From "The Poem":
in the room it was all
part of the wars
of things brilliance
in the appalling
lives and wakes us together
out of sleep the poem
opens its dazzling whispering hands
The inclusion of Primitive is not the only reason Michael Davidson's edition of Oppen's Collected Poems is "new." The volume also contains the twenty-nine poems that were published in magazines or anthologies but not collected during Oppen's lifetime, and sixty poems that were not published at all. Among the uncollected poems are some gems, including Oppen's last published verse and an epitaph for his close friend and fellow poet Charles Reznikoff. The unpublished poems are fascinating as well and of more than a scholarly interest; one can better appreciate Oppen's technique by considering what he chose to leave in the drawer. Some of the unpublished poems are derivative of Williams's work, relying too much on parochial images or idiomatic speech to convey an idea or emotion. Still others are a heap of images and phrases that Oppen had yet to refine into a few radiant and haunting parts of speech. "The New People," for instance, which dates from the late 1950s, opens with a description of a neighborhood's gentrification: "Crowding everywhere/Angrily perhaps/The world of stoops,/The new young people//With their new styles, the narrow trousers/Of the young men and the girls' bee hive/hair-do's this year they seem a horde." The scene is a messy version of the milieu portrayed in poem twenty-five in "Of Being Numerous": "Strange that the youngest people I know/Live in the oldest buildings//Scattered about the city/In the dark rooms/Of the past.... They are the children of the middle class.//'The pure products of America--'//Investing/The ancient buildings/Jostle each other." It's telling that like most of Oppen's unpublished poems, "The New People" lacks the generic adjectives and nouns that Oppen treasured: thin, strange, home, populace, little and, most important, small.
Davidson's arrangement of the uncollected and unpublished material is curious. Instead of organizing the entire volume chronologically, which would have involved interspersing the uncollected published poems between the contents of the seven published books and placing the unpublished poems (which are often difficult or impossible to date) at the end of the volume, Davidson has placed the uncollected and unpublished poems in a single annex following Primitive. If you want to compare published, uncollected or unpublished poems, which Davidson's editorial notes to individual poems often encourage, be prepared for some page-flipping between poem and poem and poem and note.
The notes themselves are usually informative, providing snippets of relevant biographical and bibliographical information. A few notes could stand to be more precise. The fifth poem in "Of Being Numerous" begins with one of Oppen's most famous images: "The great stone/Above the river/In the pylon of the bridge//'1875.'" Here is Davidson's gloss: "Probably a reference to the Brooklyn Bridge, which was built between 1869 and 1883, making 1875 a likely date for one of the pylons." A glimpse at any good history of the bridge's construction will reveal that its two granite pylons (or towers) were completed in 1875, and that on the eastern and western facades of the Manhattan pylon, centered between the apexes of its great gothic arches, is a stone engraved with the digits "1875." (The Brooklyn pylon is undated.) The engraved stone is easily seen from the pedestrian walkway that runs above the bridge's roadways.
Verifying the location of the engraved stone is important, and not merely for precision's sake. "The great stone" is a central poem of Oppen's canon because it symbolizes the poet's relationship to the visible world. He seizes on a public object--the engraved marker--as an image of consciousness: "Frozen in the moonlight/In the frozen air over the footpath, consciousness//Which has nothing to gain, which awaits nothing,/Which loves itself." Clarifying that Oppen is referring to the Brooklyn Bridge helps to underscore the unromantic nature of his aesthetic. Oppen's stance is the antithesis of Hart Crane's, who in the opening lyric of his long poem "The Bridge" pleads with the granite and cables to "lend a myth to God." In Oppen's poem, the bridge does not become heroic or mythical in the poet's eyes. And even though "1875" hovers at a height that, in the topography of Oppen's poetry, is usually cluttered by the absurd parapets of office buildings, the engraved stone is hardly above it all. Instead, both stone and poet remain public, functional and objective, firmly lodged within the bridge's design as well as the various streams and cycles of space and time churning below and above: the East River, automobile traffic, pedestrian traffic and the moon's orbit.
Oppen was well acquainted with the Brooklyn Bridge. It loomed over the building where he rented a workroom and was not far from the three different apartments in Brooklyn Heights where he and Mary lived at different times between 1960 and 1966. Brooklyn Heights occupies a bluff directly across the East River from lower Manhattan, and while walking around Oppen's old neighborhood it's impossible not to wonder what he would have thought about the devastation of September 11. One recalls an image of Manhattan in "Of Being Numerous":
A city of the corporations
Or a line Oppen used repeatedly in his correspondence, "the girder/Still itself among the rubble," which is a misquotation of a line from Reznikoff's Jerusalem the Golden ("Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies/a girder, still itself among the rubbish"). But these images, though provocative, are mere fragments, and Oppen's work is likely to disappoint someone who thinks that poems of the past can somehow divine the physical and emotional dimensions of the recent catastrophe. "The events of Sept. 11 nailed home many of my basic convictions," the poet Mary Karr explained recently in the New York Times, before describing her September 11 reading list, "including the notion that lyric poetry dispenses more relief--if not actual salvation--during catastrophic times than perhaps any other art form."
I can't imagine a sentiment more alien to Oppen's work. How peculiar to have one's aesthetic convictions "nailed home" by an act of mass murder, and how more peculiar still for Karr to proclaim, after having assimilated September 11 into poetic accounts of past disasters, "Here I stand, bat cocked, ready for whatever impossible pitch history flings." Oppen wrote often about disasters, but he never counseled a quick flight into culture as a remedy for them. His poems are as void of softball pitches as they are of similes. Things are not "like" other things; they appear and exist before your eyes. In this respect, Oppen's work offers no figurative or topical premonitions of what occurred on September 11; neither thing is like the other, which is precisely why his work remains remarkable and relevant. Hardly a self-contained world of words, the poetry of George Oppen is a place where words about the world must be earned--phrase by phrase, line by line, poem by poem.
It's official now: The United States has a policy on climate change. President Bush announced it on Valentine's Day at a government climate and oceans research center. "My approach recognizes that economic growth is the solution, not the problem," he said. Instead of requiring the nation to lower greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels, as called for in the Kyoto Protocol, the new policy is voluntary and aims only to slow the growth of emissions, not reduce them. The centerpiece of the new climate policy is a tiny little tax cut for any manufacturers who are interested.
Of course, it's not nearly as big as the tax cuts used for real national priorities like distributing income upward or starving civilian government of resources. It's just some walking-around money, less than $1 billion a year, for investors who voluntarily, now and then, feel like doing the right thing for the environment. The President would also like industries to report their own emissions levels voluntarily, which may earn them valuable credits in the future if an emissions trading scheme is implemented.
It takes a creative imagination to believe that this is an appropriate way for the world's largest economy (and producer of about 20 percent of the world's greenhouse emissions) to respond to a serious global crisis. If you believe, that is, that global warming is a crisis. George Bush and his friends keep hoping it's not, but the scientific consensus, not to mention world opinion, is absolutely clear on this point. At the request of the Bush Administration, the National Academy of Sciences re-examined the climate change issue last year and promptly concluded that the problem is every bit as important as previously reported. Finding a way to debunk all this annoying environmental science must be high on the White House wish list.
It almost looks like that wish has been granted. Bjørn Lomborg, a statistics professor at a Danish university and self-described "old left-wing Greenpeace member," says the story began when he got interested in the longstanding debate between environmentalist Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon. Ehrlich claimed that shortages of many natural resources were imminent; Simon said they were not. A few years ago Lomborg started researching the facts in order, he says, to prove that Ehrlich was right. Instead he found to his surprise that Ehrlich was wrong--and indeed, environmentalists were wrong about many, many things.
Trapped by the "litany" of doom and gloom, environmental advocates have, according to Lomborg, missed the evidence that most of the problems they worry about are not so bad, and are not getting any worse. There are more acres of forests all the time, plenty of fish in the sea, no danger of acid rain, no threat of rapid extinction of species, no need to do much about global warming and no reason to worry about environmental causes of cancer. Everyone in the environmental world, his erstwhile comrades at Greenpeace included, has misunderstood the subtleties of statistics and overlooked the growing good news, as he graciously offers to explain.
Preposterous as it sounds (and, in fact, is), that's the message that Lomborg presents in The Skeptical Environmentalist. It received rave reviews in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, The Economist and elsewhere, and it looks as if the Bush Administration has torn a few pages from it. Lomborg plausibly points out that the environmental litany of short-run crisis and impending doom is unrealistic, and sometimes based on statistical misunderstandings. If he had stopped there, he could have written a useful, brief article about how to think about short-run versus long-run problems and avoid exaggeration.
Unfortunately, Lomborg stretches his argument across 350 dense pages of text and 2,930 somewhat repetitive footnotes, claiming that the litany of doom has infected virtually everything written about the environment. As an alternative, he paints a relentlessly optimistic picture of dozens of topics about which he knows very little. Responses from researchers who are more familiar with many of his topics have started to appear, including rebuttals in the January issue of Scientific American, in a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists and on the website www.anti-lomborg.com.
On global warming, Lomborg believes that "the typical cure of early and radical fossil fuel cutbacks is way worse than the original affliction, and moreover [global warming's] total impact will not pose a devastating problem for our future." In support of this Bush-friendly thesis, Lomborg attempts to reinterpret all the massive research of recent years, including the carefully peer-reviewed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. But he is not up to the task. Discussing the standard graphs of average temperature over recent centuries, which most analysts use to highlight the exceptional recent increases, he offers pages of meandering speculation and concludes that "the impression of a dramatic divergence [in recent world average temperature] from previous centuries is almost surely misleading." Lomborg's own figures 134, 135 and 146 present strong visual evidence against his strange conclusion, showing average temperatures heading sharply and unprecedentedly upward in recent decades. He also finds it terribly significant that we do not know exactly how fast temperatures will change in the future, as greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere; nonetheless, he accepts IPCC estimates that temperatures above the range of recent historical experience are essentially certain to occur.
When it comes to estimating the economic costs of greenhouse gas reduction, Lomborg's claim that all models produce "more or less the same results" is absurd. He has missed a valuable analysis from the World Resources Institute, by Robert Repetto and Duncan Austin (The Costs of Climate Protection: A Guide for the Perplexed), which describes and analyzes the huge range of sixteen major models' estimates of the costs of greenhouse gas reduction. Repetto and Austin attribute the divergent estimates to the models' differing assumptions about the pace of economic adjustment to future changes, the extent of international emissions trading and the uses the government will make of revenues from carbon taxes or similar measures, among other factors.
I turn out to have a small part in Lomborg's story, in a manner that does not increase my confidence in his research. My name appears in footnote 1,605 in his chapter on solid waste, where he cites in passing a three-page article based on my 1997 book on recycling but overlooks the book (Why Do We Recycle?) and the larger point that it makes. Lomborg's solid-waste chapter simply says that the United States is not running out of space for landfills. Echoing an example long favored by the most vehement critics of recycling, he calculates that a landfill big enough to hold all US solid waste for the next 100 years would be quite small compared with the country's land area. Nothing is said about other countries--Denmark, for example--where land might be a bit scarcer. Almost nothing is said about recycling, either, because it seems that it doesn't much matter: "We tend to believe that all recycling is good, both because it saves resources and because it avoids waste.... We may not necessarily need to worry so much about raw materials, especially common ones such as stone, sand and gravel, but neither should we worry about wood and paper, because both are renewable resources."
The United States is not running out of landfill space, but this does not invalidate concern about waste and recycling. Rather, it shows the error of collapsing our thinking about long-term problems into short-term crisis response.
Several life-cycle analyses of material production, use and disposal (none of which Lomborg refers to) have found that extraction and processing of virgin materials accounts for far more environmental damage than landfilling the same materials when they are discarded. The greatest benefit of recycling is not that it solves a nonexistent landfill crisis, or that it staves off any immediate scarcity of resources, but rather that it reduces pollution from mining, refining and manufacturing new materials.
There are similar shortcomings in many other areas of The Skeptical Environmentalist, of which I will mention just a few. Lomborg claims that there is little need to worry about trends in air pollution: "The achievement of dramatically decreasing concentrations of the major air pollutants in the Western world...is amazing by itself.... There is also good reason to believe that the developing world, following our pattern, in the long run likewise will bring down its air pollution." He endorses wholeheartedly the hypothesis that economic growth will first cause air pollution to get worse, but then later will lead to improvement. This controversial idea, the so-called environmental Kuznets curve (EKC), was more widely accepted in the mid-1990s, the period from which Lomborg's citations are taken. Recent research has cast doubt on this pattern, as he acknowledges in the second sentence of a footnote. Yet he has missed the most comprehensive critique of the EKC research, by David Stern ("Progress on the Environmental Kuznets Curve?," Environment and Development Economics, 1998). According to Stern, the EKC pattern can be clearly detected only for a few air pollutants, such as sulfur, and then only in developed countries.
Rushing to critique environmental views in one area after another, Lomborg may not have had time to read all his citations. In his introductory chapter he maintains that the collapse of the indigenous culture of Easter Island was based on factors unique to that island and does not suggest that an ecological crash caused by resource overuse could threaten other societies. But the only source he cites about Easter Island reached exactly the opposite conclusion, speculating that ecological problems could have caused the decline of such civilizations as the Maya, early Mesopotamia and the Anasazi in what is now the southwestern United States: "Easter Island may be only one case of many where unregulated resource use and Malthusian forces led to depletion of the resource base and social conflict," concluded James Brander and M. Scott Taylor in "The Simple Economics of Easter Island" (American Economic Review, March 1998).
In his concluding chapter, Lomborg relies heavily on studies by John Graham and Tammy Tengs. These studies purport to show vastly different costs per life saved, or per life-year saved, from different regulations. At one extreme, the federal law requiring home smoke detectors, flammability standards for children's sleepwear and the removal of lead from gasoline have economic benefits outweighing their costs. At the other extreme, controls on benzene, arsenic and radioactive emissions at various industrial facilities are said to cost from $50 million to $20 billion per life-year saved. The implication is that shifting resources from the more expensive to the cheaper proposals would be enormously beneficial--by one wild calculation (which Lomborg uncritically accepts) saving 60,000 lives annually: "And the Harvard study gives us an indication that, with greater concern for efficiency than with the Litany, we could save 60,000 more Americans each year--for free." Graham and Tengs follow closely in the footsteps of John Morrall, who made similar claims in a related, earlier study.
A widely cited article in the Yale Law Journal ("Regulatory Costs of Mythic Proportions," 1998) by Georgetown University law professor Lisa Heinzerling explains the fatal flaws in the Morrall study. This, too, escaped Lomborg's notice. Heinzerling demonstrates that Morrall's long list of allegedly expensive regulations includes numerous items that were never adopted and in many cases never even proposed. Moreover, many of the cheaper lifesaving measures--removing lead from gasoline, for example--have already been done and cannot be redone for additional savings. Thus the re-allocation of money that would putatively save thousands of lives would have to be from nonexistent expensive regulations to already completed cheaper rules. In more recent, forthcoming work, Heinzerling and I have found that the same fundamental errors occur throughout the Graham and Tengs studies, including "the Harvard study" that Lomborg likes so well.
Finally, Lomborg cannot be allowed to speak for "old left-wing Greenpeace members" in general. I personally remain happy to support Greenpeace because, among other reasons, I admire its courageous and imaginative confrontations with the likes of nuclear weapons testers, the whaling industry and oil companies drilling in ecologically fragile areas. I am of course disappointed, but hardly shaken in my worldview, to learn that Lomborg claims to have caught Greenpeace in a statistical error or two. Greenpeace doesn't rely on me to throw grappling hooks onto whaling ships, and I don't rely on it for quantitative research. On the strength of this book, I won't rely on Lomborg, either.
It's been three decades since President Richard M.
The birds stopped coming after the annuals died.
I didn't realize how much I missed them until the bluebird
Returned, lured by the burgundy haze of the fall pansies
Pouring from the window boxes. I was too slow finding
The camera and then I left the cap on. The bird rose
Into a cut of sky and I was left with a vision of blue--
His sapphire eye and marigold breast. Maybe it was you,
Released from your standing body--fingers fluid between
Tissue and organ--as you operate in the crowded surgical
Theatre, transformed to tell me autumn is here. I would not
Be surprised. This brief visit imitates your frequent calls
Between cases. After he flies, the room seems to hold you.
I see the white waves throwing themselves into the Cliffs
Of Moher, your eyes stealing blue from the sky.