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Are sanctions ethical--or an ill-used weapon of mass destruction?
Noah Isenberg reviews Communazis, by Alexander Stephan.
Chris Kraus reviews Cool for You, by Eileen Myles.
All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth.
Florida's electoral mishegoss lends itself to the exploration of an issue that receives no attention in the media and yet underlies virtually everything its members do. I speak to you, dear reader, of the Meaning of Truth.
Ever since Fox's John Ellis began the mistaken media stampede for his cousin George W. Bush's victory on election night, reporters, producers and executives have spun themselves silly trying to describe a situation that is ultimately an epistemological bottomless pit. There is no single "truth" about who won Florida. From the point of view of "institutional truth," we began without clear rules or precedents for measuring the vote, whether they include dimple-counting, partially punched chads or butterfly ballots. I am convinced Gore carried the will of the people, but I'm guessing that Lady Katherine Harris Macbeth would rather contract rabies than accept my admittedly subjective interpretation. From the perspective of "brute truth," however, the difference between the Bush/Gore numbers turns out to be so small that it will never exceed the count's margin of error. What we are seeing, therefore, is not a process of objective measurement but a contest of raw power. The Democrats use the courts and the law. The Republicans rely on rent-a-mobs, partisan hacks and power-hungry allies in the state legislature and Congress. Guess which side is bound to win?
Our media coverage admits none of this, because it is committed to a fairy-tale version of truth and objectivity that separates "fact" and "opinion" but cannot fathom anything in between. When Tim Russert declared on November 26 that George Bush "has now been declared the official winner of the Florida election...and therefore he is the 43rd President of the United States," he was making a statement that could not have been true when he made it. (Even Bush understood that he was only playing a President-elect on TV.) But the feared and celebrated Russert knew that his words were bound by only the narrowest definition of "truth." He could always take it back later.
The attachment to the idea of attainable objective "truth" on the part of American journalism is partially responsible for its frequent brainlessness. As NYU's Jay Rosen points out, "objectivity as a theory of how to arrive at the truth is bankrupt intellectually.... Everything we've learned about the pursuit of truth tells us that in one way or another the knower is incorporated into the known." (Remember Heisenberg? Remember Einstein?) The famous 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey shed considerable light on this problem, with Lippmann arguing for a "spectator" theory of reality and Dewey arguing for a more consensual one, arrived at through discourse and debate.
The notion of a verifiable objective truth received what many intellectuals considered its final coffin nail in the form of Richard Rorty's classic 1979 work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. While the word true may have absolute correlations in reality, Rorty later argued, "its conditions of application will always be relative." What was "true" in ancient Athens--that slavery and pederasty were positive goods--is hardly "true" to us today. As Rorty explains it, we call our beliefs "true" for the purposes of self-justification and little more. The point is not accuracy but pragmatism. Moreover, Ludwig Wittgenstein has taught us that the gulf between what "is" and the language we use to describe it is so large as to be unbridgeable. "Truth" may be out there, but there is no answer to a redescription, Rorty observes, "save a re-re-redescription." Truth is what works.
Now, it's possible to contest Rorty on any number of counts. I personally find him overly generous to the extreme relativism of antifoundationalists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. (The antifoundationalist perspective can be simplistically summarized by the famous Surrealist painting of a pipe by René Magritte beneath the words, Ce n'est pas une pipe.) But the argument itself cannot be avoided. Truth, as Lippmann never understood but Dewey did, is a lot more complicated than a baseball box score or a Johnny Apple New York Times news analysis. What is needed to evaluate whether a report is ultimately credible is not an endless parade of "facts" that may or may not be true but a subjective marshaling of evidence. Yet because the entire media establishment treats these questions as just so much mental masturbation, the standard definition of "fact" often turns out to be any given statement that cannot be easily disproved at the moment it is made. Hence, we frequently see journalistic accounts of the mood of an entire country or even a whole continent based on little more than the taxi ride from the airport.
A second byproduct of American journalism's childish belief in attainable objective truth, Rosen notes, is the alienation it causes between journalists and intellectuals. In Europe the public profits from a two-way transmission belt between the world of ideas and that of reported "fact." But here such exchanges are nearly impossible because, as Rosen puts it, "intellectuals familiar with the currents in twentieth-century thought just can't deal with some of the things that come out of journalists' mouths." Such people, he notes, believe it "useless to try to talk with journalists" owing to their "naïve empiricism." Still, the academy is also at fault, owing to its recent retreat into a Derrida/Foucault-inspired debate that admits almost no reality at all outside the text and does not even pretend to speak intelligibly to the nonspecialist.
In any case, George W. Bush may be our next President. But it won't be because he outpolled Al Gore in Florida in any remotely objective sense. It will merely be because he might have, and we decided to call it "true."
* * *
Congratulations to Ralph Nader on George W. Bush's decision to appoint Andrew Card, formerly the auto industry's top antienvironmental lobbyist, to be his Chief of Staff. Just a few more appointments like this one, I suppose, and the revolution can begin in earnest.
STILL LOSING RUSSIA
"As a result of the Yeltsin era, all the fundamental sectors of our state, economic, cultural and moral life have been destroyed or looted," lamented Alexander Solzhenitsyn earlier this year--quoted, with no doubt a great sense of historical irony, by Stephen F. Cohen in his latest book, Failed Crusade. Some of former "Sovieticus" columnist and frequent Nation contributor Cohen's reportage will be familiar to readers of the magazine, reprising pieces that appeared here and elsewhere, with new chapters bringing the perspectives up to the minute. He traces the history of the impulse to remake Russia in the US image and its resurgence in mainstream thinking by 1992, the first post-Soviet year and last gasp of the Bush Administration. Cohen then proceeds to chronicle how both Russia specialists and the press badly mischaracterized events, to the point of malpractice. In "Transition or Tragedy?" for instance, the most widely reprinted of his articles in the 1990s, Cohen warned that a national tragedy was unfolding about which Westerners would be told little but instead be assured that the transition to a free market "has progressed remarkably." No wonder, he writes, "few readers of the American press were prepared for Russia's economic collapse and financial scandals of the late 1990s." After a catalogue of how the picture has been distorted, the ensuing portions of the book present Cohen's analysis of developments from 1992 to 2000, arranged chronologically, and then his recommendations in working toward a new Russia policy.
In his bracingly corrective view, Cohen concludes that "the missionary crusade of the 1990s was not only the worst American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam; its consequences have contributed to new and unprecedented dangers." Among the necessary remedies: much new thinking in US circles, an openness to Russian-derived solutions and extension of substantial financial aid. His warning is dire, but so is the situation: "For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized country has already been perilously destabilized, but still there is no sufficient American understanding."
O Marvel, that one can give to another what one does not possess. O Miracle of our empty hands.
--George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest
The integrity of book publishing in the past half-century often relied on the outsized personalities at the helms of the independent houses. The very diminutiveness of their operations helped empower these small businessmen and -women to place the imagination first and shape their companies around literature, social issues and ideas. The "profit incentive" among them had more to do with survival and pleasure than money-making. When they survived and--more rarely--made money, it was with a sense of surprise, even embarrassment, which endeared them to their authors, since it was clearly not what they were in business for. They were talent magnets, because the publishing life is colorful and the work meaningful. Perhaps most important, the best among them sought out and encouraged the humanity and intelligence in those around them--writers, editors, salespeople. That humanism is a rare quality but a necessary one for publishers.
One thinks of George Braziller, publisher of Australian novelist Janet Frame and Matisse's cutouts, and hundreds of other important books; Barney Rosset, formerly of Grove, successful defendant of free speech in court cases involving Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer, publisher and friend of Samuel Beckett and Kenzaburo Oe; Stanley Moss, poet and owner of the Sheep Meadow Press, where he publishes Stanley Kunitz, Yehuda Amichai, David Ignatow and many others; Marion Boyars, the eponymous British publisher (who died this year) of Julian Green, Ivan Illich, Ken Kesey and other lights; Glenn Thompson of Writers and Readers, publisher of the "For Beginners" series, which recasts the most difficult subjects into documentary comic books; Florence Howe of the Feminist Press, with its signature anthologies and reprints of womanist classics like The Yellow Wallpaper; and André Schiffrin of Pantheon, and now the New Press, publisher of Studs Terkel, Matt Groening and Art Spiegelman's Maus; to name just a few--soldiers from the publishing wars, and innovators all.
There was James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions, where Delmore Schwartz, Ezra Pound and H.D., not to mention extraordinary translations by Louise Varèse and others of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, found shelter; Nicolás Kanellos of Arté Publico in the Southwest, publisher of a whole generation of Latino authors whose voices might otherwise not have been heard; John Martin of Black Sparrow, who managed a stationery store when he came across Charles Bukowski in the early 1960s and decided he would publish him, since Bukowski "didn't hide behind metaphor" and he could print the books on the store's offset press; of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and publisher, at City Lights, of Ginsberg's Howl and other masterpieces.
On the shelves we find works from Curbstone, the Permanent Press, Coffee House, Copper Canyon, Graywolf, Walker, Soho, Steerforth, my own Seven Stories, Verso, Overlook, Arcade, Seal, Sun and Moon; there are probably dozens of worthy, committed houses you could name. And even this would be a sampling; the entire list would be not endless, but surprisingly long, suggesting that these smaller houses are a kind of grassroots force, without which America might have suffocated in the dust of the long march of the fifty-five years since the end of the Second World War.
Lives spent in book publishing don't tend to turn out men and women of perfect virtue. Years fighting on the battlefield between art and commerce make for wily, poker-faced, hard-boiled characters. If those I name above are to me worthy heroes nonetheless, it may be because, almost like dancers whose every performance is life and death, they are people for whom each book is utterly important, for whom words are paramount, who are creations, as much as creators, of their lives as publishers--and who became better human beings for having spent their adult lives reading and fighting for shelf space for the books they published. In the end, they are seekers following a light. "We're fools," Thompson says, "or we wouldn't be doing what we do." But what human being battling for something isn't part fool?
Then there is the other side of the book publishing business, the corporate sector, mostly based in midtown Manhattan, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of the vast number of books--over 120,000 titles--published each year in the United States. And it is here that the pace of change is like a runaway train, not only with merger upon merger but with a not-so-gradual shift from editorial (with complementary sales-centered) philosophies to financial-growth and marketing-centered ones. At times in recent decades the struggle between the editorial-minded and the fiscal-minded has seemed like trench warfare.
In the period just past, the battle reached, one hopes, its bloodiest point. One after another, following an accelerating consolidation of publishing houses into fewer than a handful of conglomerate entities, wonderful imprints closed or were blended into the corporate edifice in ways that left their unique character forever lost (Dial, Schocken, Atheneum, the Free Press, Owl, Morrow...). Hundreds of independent bookstores across the country failed as well (in Manhattan alone, this included Endicott, Books & Co., Spring Street Books, Verso Bookstore, Eighth Street Books, Paperback Booksmith's, Brentano's). Repackaged actors-turned-authors (who rarely wrote their own books) were emblematic of the historical moment, with first printings of their "works" sometimes approaching a million copies, while those of Nobel Prize-winners or future Nobel Prize-winners could be published nearly invisibly. Esteemed and gifted editors (Elisabeth Sifton, David Stanford, Tom Engelhardt, Allen Peacock, Mark Chimsky, Mary Cunnane, to name just a few) were pushed out by the "new thinking" or simply walked away in disgust.
The air in the corridors of corporate publishing houses developed a pall, slightly stagnant, that was not just people's fear of losing their jobs but also a fear of new ideas and new kinds of voices. And while the editors named above would find work as writers, contributing editors and freelancers, and while a good number of great independent bookstores survived (Three Lives, Shakespeare & Co., Coliseum, St. Mark's, among the Manhattan establishments) and new ones were born (Labyrinth), the axis of power in book publishing nonetheless shifted toward devotees of a pure business model that has never been shown to apply to books, causing a new and now fundamental instability that has not been good for readers or writers.
And what will be the effect in years to come of Bertelsmann's ownership of Random House and Doubleday? Or of the just-announced acquisition of Harcourt Brace by Reed Elsevier? Are Holt, Farrar, Straus & Giroux and St. Martin's marginally better off for being among the eighty or so companies owned by Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, a massive publishing conglomerate, rather than by an entertainment or information empire? Perhaps. But to think that Norton, the smaller Grove/Atlantic and the up-and-coming, larger, Perseus Group may be the only remaining American independent houses with critical mass is disturbing. Is the American future to be that we are in effect recolonized, an increasingly important market for culture but less and less creators of culture?
In the middle of this stew, one of our worthy heroes has brought us a book that demands we acknowledge what has happened: reduced to crude basics, that a world built upon respect for the written word has been replaced by one dominated by a bottom-line sensibility (which may be an oxymoron, but I prefer it to the even less descriptive bottom-line "reality"). André Schiffrin asks, Has the torch that is our literature and our collective intellectual output been taken out of our hands?
That the publishing profession is under siege has of course been the stuff of panels and lunches and some newspaper reporting; but not, ironically, of books. So the appearance of the pioneering independent publisher Schiffrin's The Business of Books is newsworthy and important, to be followed close on its heels by a similarly titled work (Book Business) due out in January by Random House editor Jason Epstein (still working, and still working there), a volume expanded from an initial essay last April in The New York Review of Books and a more recent follow-up in those same pages.
America can be an extremely hostile environment for serious cultural endeavor. There seems an overriding confusion and ignorance regarding the tremendous significance of our First Amendment freedoms, the necessity of literature to national life (except perhaps as entertainment) and why we should care in the first place. Fame and fortune we understand, but literature? The funny thing is, hostile environment or not, it has also been a splendidly rich environment for culture producers in all the arts, especially in literature. Is that now changing?
One result of our cultural myopia--it borders on blindness--is that instead of operating with an implicit national consensus about the importance of literature, say, or even the role of investigative reporting in protecting our civic rights, the independent press community often stands as the sole advocate of those causes. As the pervasiveness of corporate culture grows daily, being a good publisher, in either an independent or a conglomerate setting, means learning how to survive while at the same time resisting, even defying, standard business-model values.
The apparent naïveté of the corporate sector when faced with our First Amendment responsibilities has been striking. Large publishing houses have sometimes been quick to call on their corporate prerogative, saying, in effect, We're just a business. They can try it, but we should not let them get away with it so glibly. Remember how lightly HarperCollins let go of former Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten's book because, up the corporate ladder, Rupert Murdoch wanted to protect his satellite TV deal with China; or when Penguin/Putnam declined to publish Carol Felsenthal's S.I. Newhouse biography; or how St. Martin's turned against its author (the imprint's editor resigned in the controversy) when it canceled its biography of George W.
The last two titles were picked up by independent houses, Seven Stories and Soft Skull. But the actual cancellation of publishable, contracted manuscripts for reasons of corporate comfort suggests that executives often fail to acknowledge any responsibilities to the Word beyond packaging it and selling it for profit.
Smart people are doing good and important work within corporate structures--this too must be said. But the challenges facing those individuals are imposing when they work for parent companies that may be primarily concerned with other types of businesses, be it music (Bertelsmann), television and movies (TimeWarner and Viacom) or textbooks and professional publishing (Pearson and Reed Elsevier), and may be beholden to shareholder concerns over and above other considerations. Independent publishers represent as little as 5 percent of overall book sales in this country, but we are responsible for a disproportionately large share of our country's cultural life, First Amendment responsibilities and writers' hopes.
What the writer's role is in society, and what constitutes good writing, are two underlying questions that hang in the balance. Today, the notions of writer as voice of conscience, writer as critic, writer as visionary are understood to be part of the covenant between author and reader. But it is not hard to imagine a future in which the balance is tipped differently, and writers are routinely seen more as prettifiers and apologists for the status quo. A trend in that direction is implicit in the whole idea of the celebrity author, as books depend more on television tie-ins or exposure to sell them.
Well into Schiffrin's eloquent and anguished account of the book biz, you'll read about a recent meeting of the Freedom to Read Committee of the American Association of Publishers. Addressing the group were a number of top attorneys in the publishing field. Juries are starting to be less sympathetic to publishers than they once were, the attorneys advised: Judgments against publishers are on the rise, and it needs to be made more apparent that publishers are defenders of the First Amendment. About forty book-publishing executives were present, representing, according to Schiffrin, most of the major New York houses. When the attorneys asked, "Can we assure jurors in the future that if an important book comes along you will publish it?" Schiffrin writes, "Not a hand was raised. No one seemed aware of the irony that the publishing industry's own anti-censorship committee was itself part of the new market censorship."
It is just such obeisance to market values, Schiffrin suggests convincingly, that has led corporate owners to strip down publishing imprints on the grounds that they weren't profitable enough, only to replace them with bland and bloodless versions that are no more able to generate the desired profits than were their predecessors. In the late 1990s, HarperCollins folded Basic Books, its serious nonfiction imprint, into its trade division, although Basic had never lost money. Later, HarperCollins made news headlines when it canceled more than a hundred contracts in an attempt to stem the flow of red ink. Apparently, Basic had not been the big problem! Likewise, Simon & Schuster eviscerated its serious nonfiction imprint, the Free Press, keeping its name alive but skewing it toward finance-related titles. Today, S&S is rumored to be on the block. The Free Press may not have been its biggest problem either, though it was the one that management chose to fix.
Most movingly, Schiffrin describes--for the first time, I believe, and in intricate detail--some of what went on at his own former imprint, Pantheon, when its overseers at Random House decided it was too left-leaning, too independent, oh and yes, not profitable enough. In the end Schiffrin and his staff had to choose between overseeing what they saw as the house's destruction or leaving, which practically all of them did. Was Pantheon a cash cow after Schiffrin and his colleagues were gotten rid of? Hardly. It became and still is a shell of its former self, doing some good books, some less good, but beyond that just another name in the galaxy of names under what is now a German-owned multimedia conglomerate.
Writing about the purchase of Random House (America's premier book-publishing venture) by Bertelsmann two years ago, Schiffrin reminds us how, just one year earlier, Random had written off $80 million in unearned advances, which he interprets as proof that "the policy of risking more and more money on [large advances for] books had been an enormous failure." And how, when the New York Times reported Random's profit margin of 0.1 percent, the figure was so low that many thought it a typographical error. And further, that soon after the takeover, Bertelsmann "issued a press release saying they expected Random House to make a 15% profit in the next few years. That [would have] meant a change in profit from $1 million to $150 million (on their annual sales of a billion or so)." Schiffrin sees that as a laughably implausible goal. (Historically, return in book publishing runs around 5 percent.)
What is the alternative? I believe the best among us expect to lose money on at least some of the books we publish. This allows other sets of values to cohabit with more commercial ones, as would be true also at magazines like The Nation and Harper's. At Seven Stories, for example, we look to have profit on one-third of the list to cover losses on the other two-thirds. If, at the large corporate houses, the expectation is for virtually every title to turn a profit, then their "bottom-line sensibility" is indeed a threat to any literary aspirations they may have, since I believe that literature simply requires a longer look.
Missing from the merger fever of recent years has been the sense of a publishing mission to go with the obvious corporate one (it's cheaper to buy a backlist than to build one). One notable exception to this may be the Perseus Group, which appears to have a purposeful plan in place to buy serious nonfiction imprints in order to restore them to the project of publishing serious nonfiction. Fancy that.
Jason Epstein suggests that it may well come to pass that the newest wave of corporate owners will lose interest in book publishing just as previous ones did, once they learn that it "is not a conventional business...[but] more closely resembles... an amateur sport in which the primary goal is the activity itself, not its financial outcome." (Lest the reader come away with the impression that Epstein is just a snob, he also says this: "Guerrilla armies live amid the people who sustain them and for whom they fight. So do book publishers.")
Both Schiffrin and Epstein seem to believe that the publishing behemoths that have emerged are fundamentally unsound creations. Schiffrin takes it a step further in suggesting that structural instability has enormous social implications: "We cannot speak of open competition or a free market in American publishing today. We are faced with a classic situation of oligopoly, approaching monopoly." Others, like Soho publisher Juris Jurjevics, believe that Bertelsmann has built "a juggernaut" whose very size will sustain it. Whether or not the financial-return-led model is workable, I'm troubled by what appears to happen to authentic voices in the corporate environment, be they authors or editors or managers: Too often they seem to lose their way as it becomes clear that their employers don't necessarily place a high value on what they have to offer.
Schiffrin's indictment is impassioned and filled with righteous, if quiet, indignation. He has gone to the trouble of studying the catalogues of the major houses for the past forty years, finding that in the sixties and seventies there was still an unspoken understanding that books deemed important were to be published regardless of their commercial prospects. Publishers recognized, in other words, that theirs was a balancing act with cultural and political, not just financial, imperatives. Did such a Golden Age really exist? Yes, certainly, although many would point out that it was also characterized by an asphyxiating elitism--that it created little space for African-American titles, say, or Latino or overtly gay and lesbian works.
Here's how financial pressures can distort the publishing process at the large houses: Minimum projected sales thresholds frequently prevent editors from signing up the "little" books that would include many of the most important books ever published. At some of the larger paperback imprints, that threshold number is 20,000 copies; few serious new works will generate that level of sales. So a misbegotten rule holds sway: Serious works need not apply. But the less serious books that are acquired in their place don't necessarily meet the 20,000-copy quota with numbing regularity either. Dumbing down can work, but it tends to be a very short-term approach; in the long term it actually destroys the two most valuable assets of any publishing house, the intellectual curiosity and commitment of the people working there and the good will of writers and readers for whom you're producing books.
Not just across the country but around the world, colorful personalities at the established corporate houses have left or been replaced by management professionals better equipped to head divisions within huge entertainment conglomerates. In Europe they call this "centralization." Last year at this time, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I met with a legendary German head of a wonderful publishing house. "I'll be here until January," he said. And indeed, his house is now an imprint of a larger corporate entity, still with his name on it, in unintended mockery.
Far from feeding on crumbs that fall from the tables of the larger houses, we at the independent houses find ourselves approaching the whole process of publishing differently from the way they do. University presses do as well, though often they operate with a specific institutional mandate to publish regional titles or to focus on specific academic areas. And publishers of conscience such as Beacon, South End and Common Courage represent in some ways the most impressive alternative model when it comes to nonfiction.
The decision-making process at independent houses involves the author and the book more closely; the promotion curve is usually a much longer one than at the larger houses; and books tend to grow and change more during their development time, as a manuscript is read by several people, the author is introduced into our community and a conversation ensues. And there are often more people in decision-making positions, creating a genuine community of voices in-house, generating and putting into effect fresh ideas. Perhaps most important, authors influence us and can be influenced by us, as would be true in any relationship.
In the corporate publishing sector, with the big houses now so much bigger than ever, editors are expected to produce three or four times the sales volume and number of new titles as in the past. It is not unusual for a book to have four editors at a large house, not all of whom may have actually read the book, as people leave or are reshuffled. The differences between the corporate houses and the independent publishing community have never been this stark.
Two recent exceptions to that rule are Metropolitan Books (at Holt) and Riverhead (at Penguin), where an independent-press model is nested inside a corporate parent. In each case the imprint's first-generation leadership, Michael Naumann (who left to become Germany's Minister of Culture) at Metropolitan and Susan Petersen at Riverhead, passed on the reins to editorial-minded successors, Sara Bershtel at Metropolitan and Julie Grau and Cindy Spiegel at Riverhead. The number of titles the editors take on is far smaller than elsewhere, a most promising sign (since volume of "product" is probably our greatest nemesis in the fight for quality publishing), and editors seem to stay put.
Oprah's Book Club has been hugely positive in this environment, too--and not just because she sells hundreds of thousands of copies of any title selected. Winfrey is a smart reader with a profound respect for literature. She understands that books exist to challenge and teach, provoke and disturb, and consistently chooses works that live up to that.
Companies such as Schiffrin's publisher, Verso, and its compatriots are able to be far more competitive now than in the past. In the eight years since founding the New Press, Schiffrin has created a list at his not-for-profit house that ranges from bestsellers to publishing for teachers in the schools; his house is recognized throughout Europe as an important US repository for culture and one that has been a pioneer in bringing minorities into publishing.
Publishing important books well requires enormous energy and commitment and a long attention span; large corporations, with their bulky overheads and profit pressures, deliver those commodities only through special exertions. So, increasingly, books of great import are falling to the independent houses to do. We're helped by the Internet, by excellent independent distribution, by the large companies' common failure to read around, and by the serious interest of book-review editors, reviewers, college professors and the bookselling community (both independent and chain stores), who recognize the significance of what we do.
The electronic book may change publishing forever, though, and soon, with e-books that are not just convenient but beautiful to look at and enjoyable to read. A few months ago, I met a novelist whose last book had been brought out by a good independent house, but her new novel is being released by a British e-publisher, Online Originals, which she tells me reviews hundreds of manuscripts for every one it accepts, and which really edits their books, too. Perhaps this time she simply couldn't find the right traditional publishing house; but the time may come when the choice to go with an online publisher instead of a traditional one mirrors what is now the writer's decision to go with an independent rather than a corporate house.
But here again, knowledgeable insiders disagree, with a good number already likening e-books to 8-track tapes--a momentary blip that may not be sustained. I find it hard to imagine a future in which electronic transmission isn't a fundamental and transformative factor in how we read, and hence how we publish. This sort of repositioning has not occurred in many lifetimes, perhaps not since Gutenberg, as Epstein suggested in his New York Review articles.
Will the nature of storytelling itself change? And if so, will it be technology that will have made whatever transformation occurs possible? Some, including the novelist Stephen King, are entering the new areas in a spirit of wonderment and openness, motivated by curiosity as much as anything, not to find quick answers but just to travel along the road wherever it leads. (Success and failure--he's had a lot of both--seem secondary to the main project of being at the forefront of change; King calls his efforts "goofin'.") As ever, the technocrats and financiers will follow people of imagination, not vice versa.
Will the new technologies also provide opportunities to undo some retrograde publishing tendencies? Can we imagine a future in which copyright law is as concerned with rights of speech as it is of ownership of speech? Or where authorship is about the freedom and responsibility to write as much as it is about the privilege to write?
On the retail side, the stock of the brick-and-mortar giants Barnes and Noble and Borders has wilted over the past few years, and the rate at which Barnes and Noble opens new stores has slowed from 1997 levels. This means that growth now has to come from actual robust sales, in a retail environment where Internet retailers like Amazon.com are appealing to many book buyers--the independent-bookseller version, BookSense, will soon open and stands to appeal to many more. The stubbornness of the book trade to resist standard business practices must be maddening to the largest corporate owners. A mood of mutual antagonism can sometimes surface among the retailers, distributors and wholesalers, and publishers--each trying to find its elusive profit at the expense of the others. At the same time, the retail sector overall may be learning new respect for more traditional bookselling approaches. Recently, both the major chains and Internet retailers eliminated their heavy discounting policies. This is a positive development, since it levels the playing field for small independent booksellers and may encourage publishers to maintain somewhat lower pricing on their titles to begin with.
Schiffrin's book and Epstein's pronouncements share a certain tone of voice, patrician and authoritative. But there are no authorities right now. And these two, if asked, might be among the first to confess, in Socratic fashion, their ignorance in the face of what is happening. Is the sorry state of affairs they describe already behind us? It may be. Certainly, the future for publishing has never been so filled with possibilities and opportunities as now.
I once bumped into George Braziller near Union Square in Manhattan. He asked me, excitedly, if I had read that morning's paper. There was some good writing in it that had gotten him started at around 8 am. Six hours later he was still going on about it, and able to get me going. I went back and reread the piece he mentioned, and he was right, there was something marvelous there. George was being a publisher--seeing, perhaps before anyone else, that someone is thinking, feeling, saying something important. And then he looked to find a way to make sure others found out about it. Shareholder value notwithstanding. Electronic whatzit notwithstanding, too.
At the other extreme, my friend Glenn Thompson spoke to me not long ago about fearing for his "publishing soul" in the current climate. Without bespectacled outlaws like Schiffrin, Braziller and Thompson, there is the real risk that the publishing process will operate only too smoothly. As Schiffrin writes, "If the domain of ideas is surrendered to those who want to make the most money, then the debate that is so essential for a functioning democracy will not take place."
I believe it was with this danger in mind that Schiffrin wrote The Business of Books--with some bitterness, out of deep concern, with robust faith in his own restorative powers and that of the kinds of books he knows best, and a need to tell what he knows. The book is smart, thoughtful and well presented. News told truthfully and with loving care always brings some hope.
On the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, the so-called forgotten war was finally remembered. With the Associated Press's Pulitzer Prize-winning "revelation" a year ago that hundreds of civilians were massacred under a concrete bridge outside the village of Nogun-ri, and the recent "uncovering" of the execution of dozens of leftists by the South Korean Army before the battle of Taejon, the horrors of the Korean War are beginning to come to light.
To the survivors and witnesses of these tragedies, however, the truth of their experiences was never in question. Their remembrances were repressed in a variety of ways--by government authorities, who denied these events ever happened; by society at large, which wanted to forget the past and move on; by family members and friends, who did not want to hear about such painful things; or even by themselves, who held these memories inside for almost fifty years. As a result, many have never spoken of what they witnessed during the three-year conflict, in which more than a million Koreans and tens of thousands of US troops died. The Korean War continues--in the lives of survivors and in reality; no peace treaty was ever signed, only an armistice agreement in 1953. Hence the enormity of headlines this past June when leaders from the two Koreas held a summit meeting for the first time since the Korean War.
In her memoir, Ten Thousand Sorrows: The Extraordinary Journey of a Korean War Orphan, Elizabeth Kim tells of another forgotten legacy of the war. The daughter of a Korean mother and an American GI, Kim's curly hair and hazel eyes branded her as an outcast in Korean society, a honhyol--"a despicable name that meant nonperson, mixed race, animal." In a culture where patriarchal bloodlines form the basis of the most important structure in society--the family--mixed-race children were (and still are, in many cases) not tolerated. Kim writes, "National pride is deeply ingrained, and in Korea the intense love for the country's heritage and traditions has its darker side of hatred for anything that taints the purity of that heritage."
Kim begins her moving yet vague memoir with the horrific "honor killing" of her beloved Omma (mother) by her own grandfather and uncle, an act she claims to have witnessed as a young child while hiding in a basket. Omma had brought great shame to her family, many of whom were village elders, by producing a honhyol. She also had the audacity to refuse the generous offer of another family to allow her child to work in their home as a servant--a higher status than that of a half-breed. In her relatives' eyes, the family's honor could only be saved by Omma's death.
A sympathetic aunt leaves Kim, somewhere between the age of 4 and 6 at the time (or maybe even younger), at a Christian orphanage without any components of her identity: "In a Korean's view, it would be better to be dead than to be the embodiment of shame such as I was: a honhyol, a female, nameless, without a birth date." Behind the bars of a crib, she is sustained by memories of her mother's love. "Omma told me that somewhere in the world it would be possible for me to become a person. She explained her Buddhist belief that life was made up of ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows, and all of them were stepping-stones to ultimate peace."
Kim relays her litany of sorrow in spare, poetic prose and never succumbs to self-pity or sentimentality. Her hellish existence as a nonperson continues in the squalid orphanage and even after her adoption by a white fundamentalist pastor and his dutiful wife from central California. Like many Korean adoptees of the time, Kim found herself in a community without any other Asians or people of color. Instead of being stigmatized by her Caucasian features, as she was in Korea, she was tormented because of her Asian ones in the rural desert community where she grew up. Her ultra-Christian parents reared her according to the edict of assimilation, never allowing Kim to speak of Korea or her birth mother. Instead, they openly disparaged the only person who showed her love: "My parents told me she was something very bad and sinful called a prostitute. She didn't love me, they said; it didn't matter to her whether I lived or died."
Kim carries the stigma of the honhyol well into her adult life, as her sorrows multiply. A loveless arranged marriage to a deacon in her parents' church follows her traumatic childhood, as do years of physical and psychological abuse. Mercifully, joy does make an appearance in this wrenching memoir, in the form of her daughter, Leigh. Kim finds the strength to spirit away the newborn from her schizophrenic husband before her daughter witnesses the abuse her mother has endured for years.
In the book's most affecting sections, the author describes her brief yet loving relationship with Omma, in which the two outcasts create a private world of their own in a shack just outside their village (a portion of this was excerpted in the first issue of Oprah Winfrey's magazine, O). Decades later, the next generation of mother and daughter also live in poverty on the outskirts of a small town and find happiness through stories and fantasy. "Whether in Korea or in America, the make-believe tapestry made life bearable."
But if fantasy was responsible for Kim's happiness, was it for her despair, as well? Just as the sources for the AP's story have come under question--in particular, one US soldier who originally admitted to getting the order to shoot civilians was not even in the vicinity of Nogun-ri at the time--Kim's story has come under scrutiny as well.
In September the Korea Herald, an English-language newspaper based in Seoul, published a letter to the editor titled "'Memoir' defames Korean culture." The author, Brian Myers, a Korean studies scholar in the United States, sharply criticized Ten Thousand Sorrows as "wildly inaccurate" in its descriptions of "Korean life, language and custom." He went on to write that Kim's "account of the Confucian 'honor killing' is so improbable, that the only question for me is whether she herself believes what she has written." Some in Korean studies have pointed out that it would have been more common in Korean culture at the time for a mother to have committed suicide than to have been murdered by members of her own family.
Answering such criticisms, Kim's publisher recently issued a carefully worded press release stating that "there are not sufficient studies for Ms. Kim and Doubleday to have stated as an established fact that there is a tradition of honor killings in Korea." Doubleday subsequently promised to delete the offending term in future paperback editions of Ten Thousand Sorrows. Kim, a longtime journalist, admitted to Associated Press reporter Hillel Italie that she was "careless" both in using the term "honor killing" (which is found primarily in Muslim cultures) and in stating in an admittedly "bad bit of writing" that Korea was divided by the Korean War, when in fact it was split years earlier, in 1945, after the country's liberation from Japan.
Considering Kim's background (she was most recently an editor at the Marin Independent Journal), her "bad bits of writing" are inexcusable and regrettable. In short, she should have known better. But as she has stated, her book "is not intended to be representative of Korean adoption or anything else. It's just my life." Kim's critics are quick to dismiss her account because of errors and inconsistencies; they point to her six-figure advance as motivation for sensationalizing the truth. But as any seasoned reader of memoirs knows, the genre tends toward self-reflection rather than historicity or definitiveness in describing a specific culture or experience.
Kim's critics forget, too, that the basis of any memoir is memory, which is by its very nature slippery, fragmented and often unreliable. What Kim is most guilty of in Ten Thousand Sorrows is not misrepresentation but neglecting to describe adequately the state and processes of her own memory. As a result, the book feels unfinished, like a work in progress, especially in the last sections, where it devolves into shards of self-help homilies. The book would have benefited greatly from a discussion of how the author's early-childhood recollections coalesced in her brain over time and why she chose to believe the version of what happened to her that she devoted to print. The book's unsatisfying ending suggests that perhaps the author hadn't quite achieved the distance necessary to deal with such questions when she wrote the book.
In his letter to the Korea Herald, Myers questioned whether Kim believes what she has written, implying that the author might be guilty of willful misrepresentation. The same charge has been leveled at the civilians and US servicemen who witnessed what happened at Nogun-ri. Is the inherent haziness of memory (especially that of the Korean War, half a century ago) enough reason to deny the actuality of events? If one thinks so--even in the afterglow of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il's first summit meeting--the wounds of the last battle of the cold war will never heal.
John Lennon once characterized his wife, Yoko Ono, as the world's "most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does." What she was famous for, of course, was him. The art for which she was unknown could not conceivably have made her famous--although even the most famous of artists would be obscure relative to the aura of celebrity surrounding the Beatle of Beatles and his bride. Yoko Ono had been an avant-garde artist in New York and Tokyo in the early 1960s, and part of an avant-garde art world itself very little known outside its own small membership. The most robust of her works were subtle and quiet to the point of near-unnoticeability. One of her performances consisted, for example, of lighting a match and allowing it to burn away. One of her works, which she achieved in collaboration with the movement known as Fluxus, consisted of a small round mirror which came in an envelope on which YOKO ono/self portrait was printed. It belonged in Fluxus I--a box of works by various Fluxus artists, assembled by the leader and presiding spirit of the movement, George Maciunas. But the contents of Fluxus I were themselves of the same modest order as Self Portrait. We are not talking about anything on the scale, say, of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. We are speaking of things one would not see as art unless one shared the values and ideologies of Fluxus.
Fluxus, in that phase of its history, was much concerned with overcoming the gap between art and life, which was in part inspired by John Cage's decision to widen the range of sounds available for purposes of musical composition. Cage's famous 4'33'' consisted of all the noises that occurred through an interval in which a performer, sitting at the piano, dropped his or her hands for precisely that length of time. A typical Fluxus composition was arrived at by selecting a time--3:15, say--from the railway timetable and considering all the sounds in the railway station for three minutes and fifteen seconds as the piece. As early as 1913, Marcel Duchamp made works of art out of the most aesthetically undistinguished vernacular objects, like snow shovels and grooming combs, and he was in particular eager to remove all reference to the artist's eye or hand from the work of art. "The intention," he told Pierre Cabanne in 1968, "consisted above all in forgetting the hand." So a cheap, mass-produced object like a pocket mirror could be elevated to the rank of artwork and be given a title. How little effort it takes to make a self-portrait! In The Republic Socrates made the brilliant point that if what we wanted from art was an image of visual reality, what was the objection to holding a mirror up to whatever we wished to reproduce? "[You] will speedily produce the sun and all the things in the sky, and the earth and yourself and the other animals and implements and plants." And all this without benefit of manual skill!
Fluxus made little impact on the larger art world of those years. I encountered it for the first time in 1984, at an exhibition held at the Whitney Museum of New York in which the art made in New York in the period between 1957 and 1964 was displayed. It was a show mainly of Pop Art and Happenings; and there were some display cases of Fluxus art, many of them objects of dismaying simplicity relative to what one expected of works of art in the early 1960s, exemplified by large heroic canvases with churned pigment and ample brush sweeps. Maciunas spoke of Fluxus as "the fusion of Spike Jones, vaudeville, gag, children's games and Duchamp"; and the display cases contained what looked like items from the joke shop, the children's counter in the dime store, handbills and the like. Ono's relationship to Fluxus is a matter of delicate art-historical analysis, but if she fit in anywhere, it would have been in the world Maciunas created around himself, where the artists and their audience consisted of more or less the same people. It was a fragile underworld, easy not to know about. Ono's work from that era has the weight of winks and whispers.
So, it was as a largely unknown artist that Lennon first encountered her, at the Indica Gallery in London, in 1966. The point of intersection was a work titled YES Painting, which consists of a very tiny inscription of the single word Yes, written in india ink on primed canvas, hung horizontally just beneath the gallery's ceiling. The viewer was required to mount a stepladder, painted white, and to look at the painting through a magnifying lens, suspended from the frame. It was part of the work, as it was of much of Yoko Ono's art, then and afterward, that it required the participation of the viewer in order to be brought fully into being. Much of it, for example, had the form of instructions to the viewer, who helped realize the work by following the instructions, if only in imagination. The ladder/painting was a kind of tacit instruction, saying, in effect, like something in Alice in Wonderland, "Climb me." Somehow I love the fact that John Lennon was there at all, given what I imagine must have been the noisy public world of the Beatles, full of electric guitars and screaming young girls. Lennon climbed the ladder and read the word, which made a great impression on him. "So it was positive," he later said. "It's a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn't say no or fuck you; it says YES." There was only the simple affirmative rather than the "negative... smash-the-piano-with-a-hammer, break-the-sculpture boring, negative crap. That 'YES' made me stay." It would be difficult to think of a work of art at once that minimal and that transformative.
"YES" is the name of a wonderful exhibition at the Japan Society, much of it given over to the works for which, other than to scholars of the avant-garde, Yoko Ono is almost entirely unknown. I refer to the work from the early sixties, a blend of Fluxus, Cage, Duchamp and Zen, but with a poetry uniquely Ono's own. The most innovative of the early works are the Instructions for Paintings, which tell the viewer what to do in order for the work to exist. These have the form of brief poems. Here, for example, is the instruction for a work called Smoke Painting:
Light canvas or any finished painting
with a cigarette at any time for any
length of time.
See the smoke movement.
The painting ends when the whole
canvas or painting is gone.
Here is another, called Painting in Three Stanzas:
Let a vine grow.
Water every day.
The first stanza--till the vine spreads.
The second stanza--till the vine withers.
The third stanza--till the wall vanishes.
Now these are instructions for the execution of a work, not the work itself. They exist for the purpose of being followed, like orders. In formal fact, the instructions are very attractive, written out in gracious Japanese calligraphy by, as it happens, Yoko Ono's first husband, Ichiyanagi Toshi, an avant-garde composer. It is true that the conception was hers, but by means of whose handwriting the conception should be inscribed is entirely external. Nothing could be closer to Duchamp's idea of removing the artist's hand from the processes of art. Duchamp was interested in an entirely cerebral art--the object was merely a means. And so these attractive sheets of spidery writing are merely means: The work is the thought they convey. "Let people copy or photograph your paintings," Ono wrote in 1964. "Destroy the originals." So the above instructions, in numbers equal to the press run of The Nation plus however many pass-alongs or photocopies may be made of this review, are as much or as little of "the work" as what you would see on the walls of the gallery. The question is not how prettily they are presented or even in what language they are written. The question is how they are received and what the reader of them does to make them true: The instructions must be followed for the work really to exist.
So how are we to comply? Well, we could trudge out to the hardware store, buy a shovel, pick up a vine somewhere, dig a hole, plant the vine, water it daily--and wait for the wall against which the vine spreads to vanish. Or we can imagine all this. The work exists in the mind of the artist and then in the mind of the viewer: The instructions mediate between the two. At the Indica Gallery, Ono exhibited Painting to Hammer a Nail. A small panel hung high on the wall, with a hammer hanging from its lower left corner. Beneath it was a chair, with--I believe--a small container of nails. If you wanted to comply with the implicit instructions, you took a nail, mounted the somewhat rickety chair, grasped the hammer and drove the nail in. At the opening, Ono recalls, "A person came and asked if it was alright to hammer a nail in the painting. I said it was alright if he pays 5 shillings. Instead of paying the 5 shillings, he asked if it was alright to hammer an imaginary nail in. That was John Lennon. I thought, so I met a guy who plays the same game I played." Lennon said, "And that's when we really met. That's when we locked eyes and she got it and I got it and, as they say in all the interviews we do, the rest is history."
Jasper Johns once issued a set of instructions that became famous: "Take an object./Do something to it./Do something else to it." Ono's version would be "Imagine an object./Imagine doing something to it./Imagine doing something else to it." Ono's enthusiasts like to say how far ahead of her time she was, based on some entirely superficial parallels between her Instructions for Paintings and certain works of Conceptual Art, which also consisted of words hung on the wall. Thus in 1967 Joseph Kosuth composed a work that reproduced the definition of the word "Idea" as it appears in a dictionary. The title of the work is Art as Idea as Idea. The work of art is the idea of idea (Spinoza--profoundly--defined the mind as idea ideae). For reasons entirely different from Ono's, Kosuth was bent on transforming art into thought.
Art historians are always eager to establish priority, usually by finding resemblances that have little to do with one another. In truth, Ono was precisely of her own time. It was a time when the very idea of art was under re-examination by artists. Works of art can never have been more grossly material--heavy, oily, fat--than under the auspices of Abstract Expressionism. But the aesthetic experiments of Cage, of Fluxus and of Yoko Ono were not, in my view, addressed to the overthrow of Abstract Expressionism. They were rather applications of a set of ideas about boundaries--between artworks and ordinary things, between music and noise, between dance and mere bodily movement, between score and performance, between action and imagining action, between artist and audience. If the impulse came from anywhere, it came from Zen. Cage was an adept of Zen, which he transmitted through his seminars in experimental composition at The New School. Dr. Suzuki, who taught his course in Zen at Columbia, was a cult figure for the art world of the fifties. Yoko Ono had absorbed Zen thought and practice in Japan. The aim of Zen instructions was to induce enlightenment in the mind of the auditor, to transform his or her vision of world and self. The aim of Ono's instructions was similarly to induce enlightenment in the mind of the viewer--but it would be enlightenment about the being of art as the reimagination of the imagined. In her fine catalogue essay, Alexandra Munroe, director of the Japan Society Gallery, writes, "Asian art and thought were the preferred paradigm for much of the American avant-garde." Abstract Expressionism and the New York avant-garde exemplified by Cage, Fluxus and Ono belong to disjointed histories that happened to intersect in Manhattan at the same moment.
At the time of their marriage, Ono said that she and John Lennon would make many performances together, and the fact that Lennon set foot in the Indica Gallery in the first place and engaged with Yoko Ono in that atmosphere implies that he found something in art that was lacking in the world of popular music, for all his great success. It is characteristic that for him, art meant performance--not painting on the side, which was to become an outlet for his fellow Beatle Paul McCartney (there is an exhibition of McCartney's paintings making the rounds today). What Ono offered Lennon was a more fulfilling way of making art, and inevitably she was blamed for the dissolution of the band. What Lennon offered Ono was a way of using her art to change minds not just in terms of the nature of art and reality but in terms of war and peace. In 1968 Yoko Ono declared that "the art circle from which I came is very dead, so I am very thrilled to be in communication with worldwide people." One of Yoko Ono's most inspired pieces was her White Chess Set of 1966 (a version of which, Play It By Trust, can be seen in the Japan Society lobby). Instead of two opposing sides, one black and one white, she painted everything--the board and the pieces--white. Since one cannot tell which pieces belong on which side, the game quickly falls apart. "The players lose track of their pieces as the game progresses; Ideally this leads to a shared understanding of their mutual concerns and a new relationship based on empathy rather than opposition. Peace is then attained on a small scale." But with Lennon, she and he could attempt to achieve peace on the largest scale--could use art to transform minds. In 1969, for example, they enacted their Bed-in for Peace. The tremendous widening of the concept of art earlier in the decade made it possible for being in bed together to be a work of art. The press was invited into their hotel bedrooms, gathered around the marital bed, to discuss a new philosophy in which, as in White Chess Set, love and togetherness replaced conflict and competition. In the same year the couple caused billboards to be erected in many languages in many cities, as a kind of Christmas greeting from John and Yoko. The message was WAR IS OVER! (in large letters), with, just beneath (in smaller letters), IF YOU WANT IT. There was no definite article: The sign was not declaring the end of the Vietnam War as such but the end of war as a human condition. All you have to do, as their anthem proclaimed, was GIVE PEACE A CHANCE. Get in bed; make love, not war.
There is a somewhat darker side to Ono's work than I have so far implied. In a curious way, her masterpiece is Cut Piece, a performance enacted by her on several occasions, including at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1965. Ono sits impassively on the stage, like a beautiful resigned martyr, while the audience is invited to come and cut away a piece of her clothing. One by one, they mount the stage, as we see in a video at the Japan Society, and cut off part of what she is wearing. One of the cutters is a man, who cuts the shoulder straps on her undergarment. The artist raises her hands to protect her breasts, but does nothing to stop the action. Ideally the cutting continues until she is stripped bare. I find it a very violent piece, reminding me somehow of Stanley Milgram's experiment in psychology, in which people are encouraged to administer what they believe are electrical shocks to the subject (who pretends to be in agony). The audience has certainly overcome, a bit too gleefully, the gap between art and life--it is after all a flesh-and-blood woman they are stripping piecemeal with shears. It reveals something scary about us that we are prepared to participate in a work like that.
Another film, Fly, shows a housefly exploring the naked body of a young woman who lies immobile as the fly moves in and out of the crevices of her body, or moves its forelegs, surmounting one of her nipples. The soundtrack is uncanny, and we do not know if it is the voice of the fly, the suppressed voice of the woman or the weeping voice of an outside witness to what feels like--what is--a sexual violation. It is like the voiced agony of a woman with her tongue cut out. The sounds are like no others I have heard. Yoko Ono is a highly trained musician who gave her first concert at 4 and who sang opera and lieder when she was young. But she is also a disciple of Cage and an avant-garde singer who uses verbal sobs, damped screams, deflected pleas, to convey the feeling of bodily invasion.
Yoko Ono is really one of the most original artists of the last half-century. Her fame made her almost impossible to see. When she made the art for which her husband admired and loved her, it required a very developed avant-garde sensibility to see it as anything but ephemeral. The exhibition at the Japan Society makes it possible for those with patience and imagination to constitute her achievement in their minds, where it really belongs. It is an art as rewarding as it is demanding.
Travel writing is a dismal art. From Herodotus, wide-eyed (and perhaps more than a little disoriented) in an India of man-eating ants and black sperm; to Ibn Batuta, the fourteenth-century Arab wanderer who endured the thirst and marauding tribesmen of the Sahara; to Graham Greene in lawless Mexico and Redmond O'Hanlon on the untamable Amazon: The classics of the genre are journeys into the night, tales of loneliness and hardship and danger. As Ian Jack puts it, no traveler has written a better--or more exemplary--sentence than Captain Scott, who stood at the South Pole in January 1912 and wrote in his diary, "Dear God, this is an awful place."
Certainly, one would be hard pressed to find many finer sentences in Eastward to Tartary, Robert Kaplan's latest installment of gloom and hopelessness, an account of his travels in the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus. Kaplan likes to quote Shakespeare and Gogol, and he has elsewhere extolled the usefulness of Conrad's writing in political analysis, but his own prose chokes on stilted aphorisms and anodyne observations. "Relative change, more than absolute change, is what history is often about," he concludes at a Romanian border post. Traveling by train between Bulgaria and Turkey, Kaplan comes to the realization that "the idea that the Internet and other new technologies annihilate distance is a half-truth." "You see, Robert," one of his informants tells him, "Hungarian nationalism, Romanian nationalism--they're all bad."
Perhaps the best that can be said about Kaplan's writing is that what it lacks in elegance, it makes up for in earnestness: As V.S. Naipaul--another traveler with a dyspeptic view of the world--has written of Conrad, his vision is flawed and unremittingly "dismal, but deeply felt." As in his earlier books--cataclysmic travelogues with titles like The Coming Anarchy, The Ends of the Earth and An Empire Wilderness--Kaplan shrouds the world in darkness, lamenting the "imprisoning desolation" and "Brezhnevian gloom" of the lands he visits. In the former Yugoslavia, in Africa, even in his own United States, whose decline he predicted in An Empire Wilderness, Kaplan has never met a society that wasn't falling apart. This dogged credo has earned him much notoriety and a considerable degree of influence: A correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, his essays are circulated in the White House and National Security Council, and his portrait of intractable "ancient hatreds" in Bosnia famously led President Clinton to conclude that intervening in the Yugoslav war would result in a quagmire (a dubious achievement that Kaplan has himself disowned). Over the course of two decades, Kaplan has established himself as the leading chronicler of the post-Communist Pax Americana, a grim reaper whose seamy version of globalization contrasts sharply with so many of the sunny--and often flippant--promises of global culture and prosperity.
Like those of many doom-mongering travelers--and like Conrad, memorably called a "bloody racist" by Chinua Achebe--Kaplan's jeremiads against the rot of the non-Western world have drawn charges of ill-informed prejudice. The Somali writer Nuruddin Farah has even suggested that Kaplan's forlorn vision of Africa was the result of a mefloquine-induced hallucination. But while it is true that Kaplan sometimes slips into mortifying disquisitions on "Asiatic" despotism and "the exotic confusion of the Orient," he deserves to be taken more seriously. In retrospect, what's striking about his books is not so much their bleakness as their prescience. Balkan Ghosts, written in 1989 and rejected by fourteen publishers before it was finally published at the start of the Yugoslav war, was an unheeded warning of the disintegration to come. In 1997, as the West was only beginning to awaken from its "end of history" delirium, Kaplan published a provocative essay in which he asked if "democracy was just a moment." (The essay coincided with an influential article by Fareed Zakaria, then the editor of Foreign Affairs, in which he similarly lamented the rise of "illiberal democracy.") The Coming Anarchy, whose eponymous essay has earned Kaplan the greatest opprobrium, was less pessimistic than downright hysterical. But it, too, evinced a remarkable ability to pierce the self-serving delusions of an African revival being bandied about by Western policy-makers. Today, as Central Africa burns amid what Madeleine Albright has called "Africa's first world war," Kaplan's portrait of civil war and disease and institutional meltdown is sadly accurate.
Eastward to Tartary returns to many of Kaplan's pet themes--indeed, one of the troublesome aspects of the book is that it sometimes seems like a not-altogether-comfortable imposition of old ideas on new geography. Traveling through some fourteen countries, Kaplan finds the familiar "erosion of [the] nation-state," pull of "blood loyalties" and evidence that "democracy was leading to separation, not reconciliation." It's hard to discern an overarching argument within the book's peripatetic structure, but the general thrust of Eastward to Tartary appears to be a return to the inferno. "Anarchy in some form or other, as I had seen, was almost everywhere," Kaplan writes near the end of the book, foreseeing "revolutionary upheaval" and "disintegrated" nations in a region where institutions are weak and ethnic strife is filling the vacuum left by the Soviet Union's collapse. The book is also a restatement of Kaplan's philosophy of political realism, a cynical faith--with intellectual roots in the writing of Thucydides and Machiavelli, both of whom Kaplan cites repeatedly--that politics is the exercise of self-interest. "What had I learned?" Kaplan asks as he ponders 4,000 miles of travel. The answer: "That power and self-interest would shape the immediate future, at least in this part of the world."
These aren't cheerful thoughts, but I fear that Kaplan's Hobbesian vision will once again prove prophetic--although, as in those earlier books, only partly so. The problem with Kaplan's bleakness is that it tends to overreach, as though driven as much by a craving for attention as by the urge to report faithfully. Kaplan's gloom is narcissistic; in love with itself, it can't get enough of its own darkness, always grasping beyond the limits of reasonable skepticism toward apocalypticism. The result is a certain misalignment of vision: Taken with the momentum of his own morose logic, he misses the real story. This tendency was notoriously pronounced in The Coming Anarchy, in which Kaplan not only foresaw (quite reasonably) a "bifurcated world"--one populated by comfortable citizens of the West, the other by the deprived denizens of the Third World--but went on to argue that, gradually, the boundaries between the two worlds would blur. "West Africa's future," he wrote, "will also be that of most of the rest of the world." What's more, Kaplan suggested, casting the shadow of his pessimism even wider, Africa (and the rest of the Third World, where Kaplan saw similar anarchy) would be responsible for the West's collapse. Like insidious viruses, the shantytowns, civil wars and tribal hatreds would slip through the borders of disintegrating nation-states, infecting the West with a "terrifying array of problems that will define a new threat to our security."
The irony, of course, is that the tragedy of the earth's wretched is in many respects precisely the opposite: that they will never escape the centrifugal pull of their collapsing societies, that today's electrified fences and immigration counters keep misery in its place more effectively than the mountains and deserts and icescapes that separated nations in an earlier age of travel. Kaplan's ambition is large: He claims allegiance to "the lay of the land" and the stories of "individuals," but, setting himself alongside Herodotus and Gibbon (to whose contemporary relevance The Coming Anarchy includes a paean), his real master is the grand sweep of History.
Under such tutelage, Kaplan becomes an incorrigible didact, turning every anecdote into an occasion for explication and instruction. The "extortionist cost" ($45) of a Turkish visa, he writes, was "part of a larger political story...that had not quite made it through the world media filter." While getting his shoes polished on the street in Turkey, he reflects that "commonplace but elaborate traditions such as baking bread and shoe maintenance...[allow] Turks to enjoy the benefits of global materialism without losing their identity." Apart from making him sound like the quintessential American tourist, Kaplan's determination to squeeze meaning out of every incident strains credibility. Just outside a decrepit train station in Bulgaria, Kaplan sees "a city of homeless youth and impoverished gypsies." This innocuous scene of poverty surrounding a railway station--ubiquitous in transport centers throughout the Third World, or indeed, visible in New York's Port Authority terminal--is proof for Kaplan that "tyranny creates a social vacuum," evidence that "social anarchy was never far from the surface here." Such moments verge on the incomprehensible: Kaplan's barren moonscapes are so devoid of redemption, so overflowing with suffering, that they appear as from a different reality.
To be fair, Eastward to Tartary's prognosis is, overall, more reasonable than The Coming Anarchy's, but it displays the same propensity for exaggeration. Kaplan is probably right that the countries he visits--the Caucasus in particular--are a caldron of ethnic hatred and political instability. He may be right, too, that a democratic free-for-all could exacerbate that instability (which is not an argument against democracy but against demagogic practitioners of democracy). But Kaplan is not satisfied with these insights. Donning his soothsayer's mantle, he prophesies Yugoslavia Round Two. "In the Caucasus, tribe and clan--not formal institutions--have always been the key to politics," he argues, apparently resurrecting the "ancient hatreds" that got him into such trouble in Balkan Ghosts. And, in fact, close on the heels of his recycled tribalism come predictions of Bosnia-style implosion. Eastward to Tartary, billed as a sequel to Balkan Ghosts, is overflowing with analogies and references to another war, in another part of the world. Indeed, part of Kaplan's purpose in writing this book is to "introduce Tartary (known today as Central Asia) as a place that has more in common with the Western Balkan countries than with the Oriental images conjured up by its exotic name." Thus, in Jordan, Prince Hassan shares with Kaplan his fears of a "balkanized Middle East with ethnic-sectarian conflict"; in Georgia, Kaplan hypothesizes that "the West would have to prove as muscular...as in the Balkans if it chose to keep these states alive"; and the Caucasus in general, for which Kaplan reserves his most ominous warnings, is destined to slide into chaos, abandoned and ignored by the West, "the Balkans of the future."
This is too dire, and sits uncomfortably with some of Kaplan's own observations. Although he pays less attention to it than might be expected, Kaplan discusses what the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, referring to the nineteenth-century quest for empire in Central Asia known as "the great game," has called "the new great game" of pipeline politics. In Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, Kaplan discovers the scramble for oil wealth that has transformed what would no doubt be another neglected corner of the world into a game of "geostrategic poker." At times, discussing this game of stakes, Kaplan seems to backtrack on his grim predictions that the West will abandon Central Asia to its fate. But the clouds never lift completely, and he is soon back on song, remarking skeptically that "remaking this part of the world...would take both the resolve of a missionary and a sheer appetite for power that the West could probably never muster." This is a curious--not to mention naïve--position for someone so wedded to the belief that states act in their self-interest. Surely the lesson of the Gulf War is that the West is quite prepared to go to battle over oil? Bosnia is a poor prism for this part of the world. Despite all the pieties about the West's fundamental interests--motivated in no small part by memories of Sarajevo's ignition of World War I and a questionable faith in the cyclical nature of history--the greatest threat posed by the implosion of Yugoslavia to its powerful neighbors was never more than a wave of refugees (and a certain aesthetic discomfort). There was no oil to defend in Bosnia; as David Rieff and Michael Ignatieff, among others, have consistently argued, the case for intervention was always based on an idealistic commitment to the alleviation of misery, and that commitment--as evidenced by Boutros Boutros-Ghali's infamous assertion to the citizens of Sarajevo that he could list at least ten places in the world worse off than they were--never ranked very high in Western priorities.
So why, despite his own apparent misgivings, is Kaplan so stubbornly attached to his trope of the Balkans? Ego may have something to do with it, as may, ironically, a certain sentimentalism. Tucked between the lines of his hard-nosed realism, Kaplan often displays a certain missionary zeal to save the miserable societies he visits. "Travel writing is only a vehicle to do something else," he has said. But a vehicle for what? Read enough of Kaplan and you start thinking that he protests too much--that all the sound and fury could well be partly an attempt to frighten the West into action. Perhaps this explains the poignant sense of loss, the almost elegiac quality, that sometimes infuses his descriptions of political and social breakdown. In Turkmenistan, in a vacant lot "filled with rusty metal and the omnipresent smell of oil," Kaplan meets his friend Anna, part Armenian, part Azeri Turk. Anna admires a rose; Kaplan reflects that, in this dismal landscape, "you must learn to extract pleasure from small things." Anna tells him--"in anguish"--about the loss of her cosmopolitan world and the rise of ethnic politics that has followed the Soviet Union's collapse. Kaplan sums it up in a line: "An empire had collapsed," he writes, "and all that remained were blood loyalties."
It's an evocative and perhaps even profound sentence--but it also suggests what seems to be the real reason for Kaplan's attachment to Bosnia. His repeated invocations of collapsing empires and orphaned states are indications of his lingering fascination with the death of what the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski has called the Soviet "imperium." Kaplan is a man of his times: He sees the world as a chessboard of competing empires, and his sepulchral vision is filtered through the lens of that era's paradigmatic political disasters. "What Vietnam was to the 1960s and 1970s, what Lebanon and Afghanistan were to the 1980s, and what the Balkans were to the 1990s, the Caspian region might be to the first decade of the new century," he writes. This is formulaic and, eleven years after the collapse of the Berlin wall, anachronistic. The world has moved on, new political forces are emerging--forces that Kaplan, ever with one eye on History, overlooks.
There is an important piece of the puzzle missing in Kaplan's descriptions of Islamic revivalism and Central Asian ferment. Although it does contain a few cameo appearances, Eastward to Tartary has surprisingly little to say about the clerical warriors of the Taliban, whose revolution in Afghanistan is sending tremors across South and Central Asia and reshaping the area Kaplan explores. As Ahmed Rashid argues in Taliban, his excellent insider's account of the continental upheaval, Afghanistan has "held Central Asia in a tight embrace for centuries," and now the rise of Taliban-sponsored fundamentalism is "sending shock waves" throughout the region. Kaplan encounters the pan-Islamic sentiments sweeping the region, but he hardly mentions the movement from which those sentiments are drawing inspiration, and in many cases material support. He describes some of the strange bedfellows emerging in Central Asia, but he only scratches the surface of the geopolitical transformations. From Russia (struggling with Islamic rebellion in Chechnya) to India (bearing the brunt of Taliban-trained militancy in Kashmir) to Shiite Iran (determined to limit the influence of the Taliban's Sunni revolution) to the United States (which has already sent its missiles in search of Afghanistan-sheltered Osama bin Laden), the world's powers are suddenly finding that they have a stake in Central Asia. Russia, which recently bullied its former Central Asian colonies into a security alliance to combat Islamic terrorism, just signed a similar agreement with India. The United States, too, has signed a counterterrorism memorandum with India, and--as Rashid recently told me--it has been conducting talks with Iran on a common strategy to handle the Taliban. China (with a nervous eye on its separatist Muslim province of Xinjiang), Pakistan and the Arab monarchies (confronted with a genie they unleashed but can no longer control), and even Indonesia and Malaysia (where the economic crisis has led to a resurgence of Islamic sentiment) are being drawn into a complex and treacherous struggle for influence in South and Central Asia.
None of this suggests that the region will be spared the mayhem envisioned by Kaplan--in fact, the mosaic of outside interests may only make matters worse. But it does suggest that far from being an orphaned corner of the post-Communist world--another Bosnia--Central Asia is emerging as the fault line in a new ideological conflict. Kaplan's view of the impending chaos is resolutely local: In his version of the post-Soviet vacuum, there is no room for such transnational alliances and interests, only for primeval ethnic and tribal ties, countries tearing themselves apart from within. Indeed, in a recent article on Pakistan, Kaplan discounts the role of the Taliban in South Asian instability, blaming instead the "bewildering complexity of ethnic and religious divisions" in Pakistan. In the process, he ignores the extent to which those divisions are being exacerbated by the fundamentalist influence of the Taliban.
Given his penchant for grand narratives, it's a little strange that Kaplan misses the larger picture, the broad canvas upon which the events he describes are unfolding. But that's the danger of serving history too faithfully. In Georgia, a man named Alexander Rondeli warns Kaplan about this. "All of us," he says, speaking of the stubbornness of ethnic animosity, "have this heavy weight from the past attached to our legs. We can only move forward while looking back." Kaplan is like Rondeli: Standing at ground zero of an emerging geopolitical order, he remains haunted by his Balkan ghosts, predicting the future while staring at the past.