Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has been traveling around the
country recently as part of a nationwide post-9/11 effort to promote
debate about civic values in schools and colleges. According to the
Boston Globe, Kennedy spent a day in that city's top public school,
Boston Latin Academy, and proposed a scenario in which "students
accidentally end up on a three-day layover in a very poor (imaginary)
nation called Quest, where Drummer, a young charismatic man, preaches
that the decadent United States should be destroyed. Quest citizens say
Drummer offers hope for change and that America is corrupt." Quest is
described as pervasively corrupt; although it has a written
constitution, "promises are not kept." The students were challenged to
defend American democracy.
The idea of getting students to excavate and examine the values they
hold most dear is an excellent one, although I must say I'm suspicious
of such a flatly simplistic scenario. I'd want to know a lot more about
the politics, history and economy of Quest. What's driving the
resentment--is it poverty? If so, is the anti-American sentiment merely
due to the abstract symbolic wealth of the United States, or is there
some specific industrial business presence in Quest--say an Enron--whose
unethical exploits have, by exacerbating living conditions, been
mistaken for the people and values of the United States? Does
anti-American resentment in Quest cut across all socioeconomic
spectra--hinting at some more ideological or religious discontent? Or is
it the result of some specific trauma, like Bhopal? Has the United
States supported oppressive regimes in the region? Is Quest an ally,
like Iran or China?
I suppose Justice Kennedy would not appreciate a devil's advocate like
me; I suppose he wants students to imagine Quest along the lines of
Zimbabwe or Iraq. I suppose the "right" answer would be that I'd spend
my three days proselytizing, as I do right here at home, about the
salutary effects of due process, free and honest elections, the Bill of
Rights and equal opportunity for all. But any good player in strategic
games knows that studying the motives and designs of the opposition
makes all the difference.
So I question what was accomplished by the vagueness of this exercise.
Indeed, its open-endedness made me think of an essay I read recently by
Harvard law professor Richard Parker, in the spring issue of the Harvard
Journal of Law and Public Policy. Parker urges the "making" of
patriotism as a mobilization of emotion--"a political equivalent of
love"--that must be "grounded like electricity." He poses a set of
questions to test those sensibilities: "Recall your own early reactions
to the September 11 attack. (1) Did you feel that it was, in fact, an
attack 'on the United States'? (2) Did you believe that the United
States should defend itself--including preemptive self-defense to the
extent necessary? (3) Did you focus mostly on the past misdeeds of our
country. (4) Did you adopt a 'pragmatic' stance and argue that we ought
to govern ourselves by attending to 'the way we and our actions are
perceived' abroad? those who love our country are more likely than not
to give one set of answers: yes, yes, no and no."
Much of this essay struck me as romantic, murky nonsense; but what
troubled me most was its source. Like Justice Kennedy, Professor Parker
is powerfully positioned to be advancing a Rorschach test no more
reliable than a mood ring--patriotism reduced to "which side of the line
did you see yourself on if I flash this picture of September 11." And it
is irresponsible if one is then prepared to fashion a set of
consequences for being on the wrong side--as could well be under the USA
Patriot Act, which authorizes increased surveillance and interference in
the activities of those deemed unpatriotic.
What I thought on September 11 was considerably more tangled than
Parker's test. Lots of people were confused--people whom it would be
quite foolish to characterize as unpatriotic. When I first heard of the
hijackings, for example, I feared that it was retribution for Timothy
McVeigh's execution only a few months before. That gut reaction might
place me on the wrong side of Parker's test--my fears didn't
"privileg[e] insiders" more than "hostile outside forces." Moreover, in
my conviction that our civil rights are on a continuum with human
rights, I might run afoul of his assertion that "strict commitment to
universal values," including the notion of human rights, tends to
"stretch and break the bonds of patriotism, as their enthusiasts
proclaim themselves 'citizens' of nothing less than 'the world.'"
Indeed, by this measure, Timothy McVeigh might have had a greater chance
of passing Parker's test than I, which is distressing, to say the least.
Back in Boston, Justice Kennedy asked "whether it was right to let
people in other nations choose dictatorships." That troubled one senior,
who felt that the Justice was saying it was OK to impose democracy. "I
don't agree...[but] if I was in another country, I wouldn't be able to say
such things to such important people. You probably wouldn't see me
tomorrow." (I do hope the student was a citizen; if not, he could be
subject to President Bush's order allowing indefinite detention of
noncitizens without charge in undisclosed locations, with no recourse to
lawyers of their choice.)
If I were designing such an exercise, I'd use specific examples--like
Argentina under the junta or Turkey under martial law--rather than a
one-size-fits-all fictional foe. I'd have students compare the text of
the Constitution with the text of the USA Patriot Act. I'd have them
studying the right of habeas corpus, to my mind the greatest
contribution of Western jurisprudence. And I'd remind them of playwright
Arthur Miller's concern that we not turn our civic engagement into a
crucible where a "political policy is equated with moral right, and
opposition to it with diabolical malevolence. Once such an equation is
effectively made, society becomes a congeries of plots and counterplots,
and the main role of government changes from that of the arbiter to that
of the scourge of God."
In 1851, when the 32-year-old Herman Melville published his masterpiece
Moby-Dick, he was already known as a man who'd consorted with
cannibals. His first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life
(1846), was an international sensation. A fictional travelogue based
on his adventures, some of them sex-
ual, in the Marquesas Islands, it offended genteel Christians and sold
pretty well, so Melville dipped into his escapades again for Omoo
(1847), more tales from the South Seas, and the career of Herman
Melville, swashbuckling author, was launched.
The young salt then married Boston Brahmin Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter
of Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
Actually, the scandalous Melville was something of a Brahmin himself.
Grandson of the Revolutionary War hero Gen. Peter Gansevoort, and of
Maj. Thomas Melvill, a hero of the Boston Tea Party, Melville was also
related to the Van Rensselaers of Albany, the New York State Dutch
equivalent of Boston blue blood.
Now a bona fide writer, Melville published another, more complex romance
of Polynesian adventure, Mardi (1849), not nearly as popular as
his first two, and the autobiographical Redburn (1849), followed
by a story of seamen, White-Jacket (1850): five novels in a manic
The scene is set. Melville is "the first American literary sex symbol,"
writes Hershel Parker in Herman Melville, A Biography, Volume 2,
1851-1891. From then on, Melville has to deal with a public that
typecasts its authors: Melville is a sailor who writes, not a writer who
sailed. He also must live down a reputation for writing too fast and, as
his novels grow less popular, shoulder an ever-enlarging specter of
mortgaged debt, neither of which would be easy for anyone, least of all
the man whose own improvident father, the importer Allan Melvill, had
squandered the family fortune, such as it had become, as well as his
sanity and his patrimony, dying when Herman was only 12.
Yanked out of school, the young Melville (as the name was spelled after
Allan's death) then clerked in a bank for $150 a year; he also worked in
his elder brother's store, ran an uncle's farm, taught school and in
1839 set out to sea in a merchant ship bound for Liverpool. "Whenever it
is a damp, drizzly November in my soul," says Ishmael in
Moby-Dick, "then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as
I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball." In 1841 Melville
signed on to the whaler Acushnet, jumped ship and met his tribe of
All this is copiously documented in the 941 pages of Parker's Herman
Melville: A Biography, Volume 1, 1819-1851 (1996), which ends when
Melville, living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, presents to his Berkshire
neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a copy of the newly minted
Moby-Dick, containing that singular act of literary generosity,
its printed dedication to Hawthorne "in token of my admiration for his
In fact, Parker's fine sleuthing turned up a newspaper article, printed
in the 1852 Windsor, Vermont, Journal, that recounts Melville
meeting Hawthorne for dinner at a hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts,
conveniently situated between Pittsfield and the small house the
Hawthornes were occupying on the border of what today is known as
Tanglewood. And on the basis of this gossip column, Parker speculates
that the dinner took place circa November 14 and that as the two friends
lingered, alone in the dining room, Melville handed Moby-Dick to
Hawthorne. ("In no other way could Hawthorne have had a copy so soon,"
As Hawthorne held Moby-Dick in his hand, "he could open the book
in his nervous way (more nervous even than normally)," writes Parker,
"and get from his friend a guided tour of the organization of the thing
now in print, and even sample a few paragraphs that caught his eye or
that the author eagerly pointed out to him." He could indeed. Whether he
did is another matter, though not for Parker, as secure in his
fantasy as Edmund Morris is in his imaginary Dutch: A Memoir of
Ronald Reagan. "Take it all in all," Parker concludes, "this was the
happiest day of Melville's life."
This reconstructed dinner purports to have happened because Parker, a
mighty researcher, has loaded his book with enough fact, detail and
circumstantial inference to oblige assent from a weary reader. Yet
despite the hulking material he's amassed from a mountain of newspapers,
a fairly new cache of family papers and a host of collateral letters, to
name just a few of his sources, Parker continually veers into unwonted
speculation that then careens into certainty, moving back and forth
between data and guesswork, seamlessly fusing the two and squandering
his credibility as biographer along the way. The happy dinner is a
jarring case in point--and surprising in the work of a scholar as
seemingly scrupulous as Parker, the associate general editor of the
Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville.
Yet the happy dinner is essential to Herman Melville, A Biography,
Volume 2, 1851-1891, another prodigious undertaking, 997 pages, that
chronicles the second, sad half of Melville's life. Here, Parker focuses
on Melville's relationship to Hawthorne. But it's one of his book's more
contradictory themes, since Parker is irritated by the pairing.
Neighbors only for eighteen months, the two authors afterward saw one
another about three more times but in the nineteenth-century eye were
yoked forevermore, Melville in the background and remembered, "if
remembered at all," snaps Parker, "as a man who had known Hawthorne,
the literary man who had known Hawthorne during the Lenox
Of course, Parker isn't the first biographer implicitly to lay the blame
for Melville's neglect at Hawthorne's feet. Laurie Robertson-Lorant,
whose earnest Melville: A Biography appeared the same year as the
first installment of Parker's biography, doesn't much like Hawthorne.
Though Hawthorne appreciated Moby-Dick, he took Melville
literally when he said not to write about it, and Robertson-Lorant never
forgave him, particularly since Moby-Dick met with
uncomprehending reviewers who called it "careless," "patchy," "dazzling"
and "absurd." Sales were predictably bad.
Worse yet, in 1852 Melville published Pierre, or, The
Ambiguities, an undomestic novel about incest and authorship (the
two symbolically related), which also contained a coruscating sendup of
writers and editors. They were not amused. Herman Melville Crazy ran a
headline in one New York paper. Enter Parker, who reasonably argues that
Melville's screed against publishers was a wanton act of
self-destruction (or hubris) and then less reasonably suggests that
Melville "may have sensed what would become a recurrent phenomenon for
the rest of his life, that he was being eclipsed by Hawthorne." This is
Parker speaking, not Melville. Despite Melville's capaciousness, Parker
is convinced that envy preoccupies Melville, though the evidence
suggests Parker is the envious one, so riled is he by Hawthorne's
posthumous reputation and Melville's sinking one. Parker closely
identifies with Melville, at times too closely, and will cross swords
with anyone who ignored, outsold, criticized or just plain didn't like
But alas, Melville was in fact forgotten in America until his own
posthumous revival in the 1920s, especially in Britain, when, Parker
declares more than once, Moby-Dick and sometimes Pierre
take their place in a literary pantheon that does not include the
establishment writer (according to Parker) Hawthorne. "Not one of all
these British admirers ever asked Melville what it had been like to be a
friend of Hawthorne," Parker writes near the end of his book. "They
understood that Hawthorne, like Longfellow, was immensely popular but
not of the same order of literary greatness as Melville and Whitman."
Take that, you American fools.
The question of Hawthorne's immense popularity aside--the truth is, he
couldn't earn a living as a writer--Melville's treatment by a boorish
America obsessed with commonplace prosperity is another of Parker's
themes, and he strews his biography with the silly statements of vapid
critics like Melville's friend Evert Duyckinck, whom he also holds
responsible for Melville's eclipse. The trouble here isn't that Parker
is wrong but that his target--American stupidity--is too wide a mark.
Americans can be stupid, to be sure, and Melville's gifts are
staggering, but so is his tendency for self-subversion; his almost
vicious search for meaning--"if man will strike, strike through the
mask!"--ends with his pervasive, magniloquent sense that nothing will
avail. This makes him a complex, fascinating man and genius of
heartbreaking proportion. "Ourselves are Fate," he wrote in
After Pierre, Melville presumably wrote another book from a story
he'd heard, while vacationing in Nantucket, about Agatha Hatch, the
abandoned wife of a bigamist sailor. According to Parker, who expertly
excavated information about the lost manuscript, including its title
("The Isle of the Cross"), Melville finished this book, which his
publisher, Harper's, was prevented from printing for some unknown
reason. (Parker thinks the Harper brothers feared a suit from survivors
of Agatha Hatch, should they have recognized themselves, although he
concludes that the prospect is unlikely.)
Parker nicely points out that "The Isle of the Cross" is the missing
link between Pierre and Melville's subsequent magazine tales,
including the brilliant story "Bartleby, the Scrivener," an inquiry into
moral accountability and the fecklessness of social norms. It was
collected in a volume of stories, The Piazza Tales (1856), which
also includes the great "Benito Cereno," about an insurrection aboard a
slave ship that turns shallow parlor values upside down, and "The
Encantadas," sketches that Melville may have purloined from a longer,
unpublished manuscript of his about tortoises, whose crowning curse,
Melville writes, "is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a
belittered world." This is pure Melville: philosophical, rueful, ironic,
bold. He also serialized a historical novel, Israel Potter, in
Putnam's Monthly Magazine, in which he forecast, argues Parker,
the ultimate loss of his own career. But he didn't stop writing.
Now the father of four (two boys and two girls), Melville had already
begun the satiric Confidence-Man (1857) when his health
collapsed, likely under the weight of depression and heavy debt. Loans
due, he had to sell off eighty acres to save his farm from seizure by a
creditor; humiliated, he borrowed $5,000 from his father-in-law, who'd
already contributed $5,000 to family coffers. A kind man where Melville
was concerned (though he cut an equivocal place in history by enforcing
the Fugitive Slave Act), Judge Shaw dispatched the ailing Melville to
Rome, Egypt and the Levant, where Melville had long wanted to go, hoping
to find among the hieroglyphics tidings to quiet his uneasy soul.
He traveled by way of Liverpool, where Hawthorne, stationed as American
consul, briefly entertained him. "He certainly is much overshadowed
since I saw him last," Hawthorne observed, noting Melville's strange
comment that he'd
"pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not
seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until
he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists--and
has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before--in
wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the
sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be
comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to
try to do one or the other.
Melville never received a more searching analysis.
As Hawthorne surmised, Melville would not find what he sought in the
vastness of the Pyramids, and after returning to America, he beached his
pen to earn a scant living on the lecture circuit, his audiences
complaining that his whiskers muffled his words. A platform fiasco, he
took off again, intending to circumnavigate the globe, but when he
disembarked in San Francisco and learned that publishers had rejected a
new manuscript, he returned home, defeated and miserable. His works
falling out of print, he solaced himself in long walks around New York
City after he and his family moved there in 1863, and eventually landed
a dry-dock job as a Custom House inspector.
Oddly, the unsold manuscript was a book of poems. Why write poetry?
Given the prestige of poetry in the nineteenth century, it's not a
question, says Parker, Melville would have thought to ask. But that's no
answer. The man was chronically depressed, debt-ridden and rightly fed
up with publishers and readers; yet write poetry he did, perhaps seeking
something unavailable to the novel, especially during wartime. The
trenchant Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) contains
such poems as "The House-top," Melville's reflection on the 1863 draft
riots, and his ironic depiction of Sherman's "March to the Sea." Parker
favors Melville's allusive, ambitious epic, "Clarel: A Poem and a
Pilgrimage in the Holy Land" (1876), though the jury's still out on
that. I myself would like to be convinced, but Parker prefers to tease
out the poem's hypothetical references to Hawthorne rather than traffic
in enormities, poetic or otherwise.
Similarly, Parker gives remarkably short shrift to the tragic death of
Malcolm, Melville's firstborn, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound
at 18. Here, Parker should indulge his penchant for speculation: Why did
Malcolm tuck his gun under his pillow each night? What was he trying to
tell his father, with this pistol and ball? Did Melville hear him? And
wouldn't it be safe to assume that Malcolm's ghost, not Hawthorne's,
spooked Melville when he visited the Berkshire Hills in 1869, just
before he began writing "Clarel"? Do littérateurs haunt only one
Likewise, Parker could dig deeper into allegations about Melville's
abuse of his wife, which so upset her brothers they wanted to kidnap her
and the children and hustle them back to Boston. Psychological abuse,
Parker admits; but physical abuse? Throwing her down the stairs?
Poet Charles Olson reportedly got the word from Melville's oldest
granddaughter, and he's not a source a responsible biographer can put
much faith in, says Parker, except that the claims are worth
interpreting at least in terms of Melville's fascination with violence.
The posthumously published tour de force Billy Budd, an inside
narrative, as Melville terms it, tells of an innocent youth's murder:
Malcolm? Melville's younger, more sexual self? The beleaguered Melville
frequently did abandon his wife, whom he seemed to love, though he was
clearly drawn to the company of men, either in fantasy or in the context
of his work. (Edwin Miller, an unreliable biographer, imagines Melville
propositioning Hawthorne in the Berkshire Hills and Hawthorne rejecting
him: more grist for the anti-Hawthorne mill. On this subject, Newton
Arvin remains the best, most elegant, Melville interpreter to date.)
Commendably cautious, Parker eschews reckless or fashionable theories
about Melville's sexuality. Yet questions remain, skirted by Parker, as
if his dizzying array of biographical detritus would prevent our posing
them. Cramming his book with long, bloodless catalogues of what Melville
might have seen or read, Parker layers each sentence with so much stuff
he sacrifices drama, insight and even, on occasion, grammar. "Knowing
Melville's sightseeing habits as detailed in his journals," Parker
obfuscates, "chances are he saw all he could see, keeping a lookout for
superb views." He then provides us with all these vistas, plus newspaper
reports and tangential historical information, fudging the biographical
imperative: to show how Melville transforms the shaggy minutiae of life
and its myriad characters (whether Hawthorne, Malcolm, a besieged wife
or a shipmate) into an alembic of wishes, conflicts and disappointments
that, taken together, reflect him, a mysterious, roiling, poignant
writer alive, painfully alive, in every phrase he wrote.
Still, Parker offers a sweeping history of the reviews Melville
received, a comprehensive account of Melville's reading (ditto his
literary sources), a jeremiad against mediocrity in American letters,
all the characters in Melville's extended family, a record of his aching
debt and a peevish defense of an artist who needs, as artist, no defense
Grateful scholars will chew over this massive undertaking in years to
come, as they should, saluting Parker for his devotion, solemnity and
sheer stamina. As for Melville the man: As Ishmael presciently remarks
in Moby-Dick, "I cannot completely make out his back parts; and
hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face."
Since this is going to be a story about sex and children, let's start
with a bit of groping in the priests' chamber.
I must have been 12. My confederates and I, all suited out in our little
Scout uniforms--demure blouse, ribbon tie, sash of merit badges across
the chest, jaunty tam-o'-shanter--were mustered in the rectory of St. John
Gualbert's, there to be investigated on our knowledge of and devotion to
the Blessed Virgin. This was the last step toward our achieving a
Catholic girl's honor called the Marian Award. I remember the word
"investigated." I remember, too, sitting on the long bench, looking at
the heavy draperies, the carved legs of the vast dining table, waiting
my turn in the half-dark, feeling the gaze of the stripped and suffering
painted Jesus behind me while, at the head of the table, our resolutely
unmortified investigator began asking first one girl then another such
questions as "Where do babies come from?" "What do you have between your
legs?" "What do you have here?" laying hand on breast, and so on like
that. Hmm, I thought, these were nothing like the sample questions in
the manual I'd been reviewing for days. And what was he doing
easing my friend up across his tumid belly and onto his lap? I'd never
liked this priest. He was florid and coarse, with piggy eyes, a bald
head and thick fingers that he'd run along the inside of the chalice
after Communion, smacking his lips on the last drops of the blood of
Christ. My mother didn't teach me about sex--I don't count the
menstruation talk--but, without quite saying so, she taught me to regard
authority figures as persons who had to earn respect. Obedience was
rarely free, never blind. Time has stolen what this priest asked me,
where, if anyplace, he touched me; I remember him stinking of drink is
all, and myself standing schoolmarm straight and reciting, with the
high-minded air I affected for such occasions, the statement I'd been
preparing: "Father, I fail to see what that question has to do with the
Marian Award. Girls, let's go." We escaped in a whirl of gasps and
secretive giggles, rushing to telephone our Scout leader. I had no
inclination to tell my mother, but most of the other girls told theirs,
and soon the priest was relieved of child-related duties. We got our
Marian medals without further investigation, and before too long the
priest dropped dead in the street of a heart attack. Even now, as
middle-aged men weep about the lifelong trauma inflicted by an uninvited
cleric's hand to their childish buttocks, I consider my own too-close
brush with the cloth as just another scene from Catholic school.
There were very different scenes, many more in fact, that I could just
as easily conjure forward now under the heading "sex and childhood,"
though at the time I no more thought they had anything to do with sex
than our encounter with the priest or, for that matter, my mother's
subtle lessons in self-possession. They contained, rather, the bits and
pieces of a sensual education that would be fit together in some
recognizable pattern only later. And because, at least in my school at
that time, official silence about sex meant we were also spared lectures
against abortion and homosexuality, onanism and promiscuity ("Thou shalt
not commit adultery"? who knew?), what was left to us was indulgence in
the high-blown romance of the church: Gregorian chants and incantatory
Polish litanies; the telling and retelling of the ecstasies of the
saints; the intoxicating aroma of incense, of hyacinths at Easter and
heaped peonies in June; the dazzling brocades of the priests' vestments
and the Infant of Prague's extravagant dresses, which we girls would paw
through when cleaning the church on Saturday; the stories of hellfire
and martyrdom; and the dark, spare aesthetic of the nuns.
There is a parallel in my ordering of childish memories here and the
public reaction to Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors. Levine
spends a large portion of the book advocating for candid, comprehensive
sex education in schools, something I and many of my generation never
had. But the spirit that animates the book is a less programmatic,
polymorphous appreciation of the sights and smells, the sounds and
language and tactile delights that make a person--adult or child--feel
alive in her skin. Levine's central preoccupation, running like a golden
thread throughout the book, is the pursuit of happiness, the idea that
kids have a right not just to safety and knowledge but to pleasure too.
And "pleasure" here is more than the sweet shudder of a kiss, the happy
exhaustion of climax; it is the panoply of large and small things that
figure under the heading joie de vivre, including the
satisfaction, quite apart from sex, of relating deeply with others in
the world. "Knowledge" is more than facts and technical skill; it is the
ability to understand the prompts of body and mind--to recognize "when
you can't not have it," as one woman quoted by Levine replied to her
daughter's "How do I know?" question--and the wherewithal to decide when
it's time to get out of the rectory.
In another age and country this might be called reasonable, everyday
stuff. Levine spends hardly any time talking about pedophiles, none on
priests. In dissecting the various sexual panics of the past couple of
decades, she marshals a catalogue of what, in the scheme of things,
should be reassuring studies and statistics to show that satanic ritual
abuse is a myth; child abduction, molestation and murder by strangers
(as opposed to family members) is rare and not rising; pedophilia (an
erotic preference of maybe 1 percent of the population) typically
expresses itself in such "hands-off" forms as voyeurism and
exhibitionism; child sex offenders have among the lowest rates of
recidivism; child porn, whether on the Net or the streets, is almost
nonexistent and then (less reassuring) its chief reproducers and
distributors are cops; sexual solicitations aimed at children over the
Net, while creepy, have not resulted in actual assaults; and "willing"
encounters between adults and minors do not ruin minors. Although Levine
has noted in interviews that, as a teenager, she had a sexual
relationship with an older man, she never mentions it in the book, nor
does she delve too far into this last taboo. She relegates to a footnote
the fascinating, difficult story of Mary Kay Letourneau, the 35-year-old
Seattle area teacher jailed for her affair with a 13-year-old student
who impregnated her twice and insisted to the press, "I'm fine."
Levine's most detailed discussion of age-of-consent laws involves the
more easily comprehended story of a precocious 13-year-old, who also
asserted her free will, and an emotionally immature 21-year-old,
currently locked up for statutory rape. More than once Levine states,
for anyone suspicious enough to wonder, her unswerving opposition to
every form of forced, coerced or violent sex, and to sex between adults
and young children. It shouldn't be necessary for her to assert that
just because kids have a far greater chance of dying in a car accident
than at the hands of a sex offender that doesn't mean the latter isn't a
problem, but she does. Yet, for all that, her book is being blasted by
the heavy guns and light artillery of the right-wing sex police as a
child molester's manifesto.
One reason is timing. The priest scandal, one of those things that
everyone knew but kept an unbothered or guilty silence about until the
court cases and daily headlines forced a response, has raised a hysteria
against which any rationality on youthful sexuality has about as much
chance as that student facing the tank in Tiananmen Square. Even without
that, nothing seems to make the blood boil like the suggestion that it's
possible for minors to emerge unscathed or even enriched from consensual
sexual relations with adults. I have had such conversations with
leftists who angrily reject the whole notion, even as I ask, What about
X, who says it was like an answered prayer when his parents'
30-something friend initiated him sexually at 13, when for months
afterward at the end of the school day he would politely kiss his
same-age girlfriend (now his wife of twenty-five years) and then rush to
this experienced woman's bed? What about Y, who seduced her married
teacher when she was 17 and he 45, and who, thirty years later, has with
this same man one of the most loving unions I have ever seen? What about
Z, who as a youth regularly sought out the company of older men because,
apart from a sexual education, they offered him a safe place for
expression, a cultural home, a real home? The priest scandal, which
forecloses any attempt to separate vicious crime from pervy nuisance
from consenting encounter, has further limited the possibilities for
thoughtful discussion on the real things people do and feel, the causes
and effects and complex power exchanges of a human activity that does
not, and will never, operate according to the precepts of a textbook or
Another reason is that Levine's most bombastic critics had not read
Harmful to Minors before damning it. Dr. Laura, who called
on the University of Minnesota Press to stop the book's release, took
her cues from Judith Reisman, who declared Levine an "academic
pedophile." A longtime zealot in the trenches of the antipornography
cause, Reisman told the New York Times, "It doesn't take a great
deal to understand the position of the writer. I didn't read Mein
Kampf for many years, but I knew the position of the author." Tim
Pawlenty, the Minnesota House majority leader and a Republican hopeful
for governor, also admitted to not having read the book before equating
the press's role in its publication with "state-sanctioned support for
illegal, indecent, harmful activity such as molesting children." Robert
Knight, a spokesman for Concerned Women for America who urged the
university regents to fire those responsible for publishing this "evil
tome," says he "thumbed through it." Knight, whose organization is
dedicated to bringing "Biblical principles into all levels of public
policy," might consider what, at a practical level, that might mean,
starting with Moses' commands to his warriors in the Book of Numbers:
"Kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the
women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive
Still, I think Levine would be pilloried by Dr. Laura and her ilk even
without the priest scandal and even if she had ignored the subject of
sex across the age divide. For the pleasure principle she enunciates
challenges the twenty-five-year-old organizing strategy of the right.
Ever since Anita Bryant first demonstrated that a power base could be
built by attacking homosexuals, the right has exploited real anxieties
about sex, love and family to constrain the liberatory spirit, whether
expressed by sexual preference, divorce, abortion, contraception,
women's freedom or teen sex. This has not managed to send queers back to
the closet, lower divorce rates or "protect the children." American
teenagers have about four times the pregnancy rate of teens in Western
Europe. Those in a program of "abstinence only" education still have sex
and are about half as likely to protect themselves than kids who've
received broad sex information. Even with abortion rights severely
curtailed, US teenagers have abortions at about the rate they did just
after Roe v. Wade. One in four has had a sexually transmitted
disease; one an hour is infected with HIV; and, not incidentally, among
American children one in six is poor. That notwithstanding, the sex
panic strategy has succeeded in the only way it had to: creating a
movement, with all the institutions, political power, lawmaking
capability, grassroots presence and funding that implies, to advance an
agenda for everything from global dominance to bedroom snooping.
Levine's critics are all part of that project, and since she butts
against it almost from the opening pages of her book, they are striking
What is more telling is who isn't rushing to the defense. While a group
of free-speechers, pro-sex feminists and radical gay activists have
generated press releases, opinion pieces, e-mail alerts and letters of
support to Levine's publisher, there has been silence from mainstream
feminist organizations and the liberal sex-education and child-health
establishments. That may be partly because they, too, have felt the
sting of Levine's criticism. Rather than build a countermovement to
insist on sexual freedom, she writes, such heavyweights as Planned
Parenthood, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, ETR
Associates (the largest US mainstream sex-ed publisher), the National
Education Association, the Health Information Network and a host of
progressive sex educators tried to appropriate the "family values"
rhetoric of the right, joining in "a contest to be best at preventing
"The Right won," she writes, but the mainstream let it. Comprehensive
sex educators had the upper hand in the 1970s, and starting in the
1980s, they allowed their enemies to seize more and more territory,
until the Right controlled the law, the language, and the cultural
consensus.... Commenting on its failure to defend explicit sexuality
education during an avalanche of new HIV infection among teenagers,
Sharon Thompson [author of the engrossing book on sex and love among
teenage girls, Going All the Way] said, "We will look back at
this time and indict the sex-education community as criminal. It's like
being in a nuclear power plant that has a leak, and not telling
Throughout the Clinton era those forces largely stood by as the most
sexually reckless President in memory signed a sheaf of repressive
legislation, acts with names like Defense of Marriage, Abstinence Only,
Personal Responsibility and Child Pornography Protection. The last on
that list, capping a legal trend that, as Levine says, "defined as
pornography pictures in which the subject is neither naked, nor doing
anything sexual, nor...is even an actual child," was recently struck
down by the Supreme Court. The second to last, also known as the welfare
bill, is up for reauthorization this year, along with its enhancements
of penalties for statutory rape and its policing of teen sex, motherhood
and marriage. As part of that bill the Clintonites fanned the notion
that minors were too young to consent to sex with an adult, while in
criminal law they eased the way for prosecuting children as adults and
jailing them as adults, in which circumstance consent usually isn't an
issue. To grasp the effect of liberal silence about Levine, it is
perhaps enough to recall one name: Dr. Joycelyn Elders, sacked by
Clinton as Surgeon General in 1994 for saying that masturbation is part
of childhood and it doesn't hurt to talk about it. Elders has written an
eloquent and sensible foreword to Harmful to Minors. Back when
Elders was twisting in the wind ABC's Cokie Roberts called her "a sort
of off-to-the-left, out-of-the-mainstream, embarrassing person"; now
the Washington Times insinuates she's soft on molestation. From
self-abuse to child abuse in eight years, one absurd charge prepares the
ground for the other.
That said, it's too easy to read the reception of Levine's book as
simply more evidence of right-wing lunacy and liberal retreat. What the
brouhaha also signals in its small way is a failure of the left. In
organizing around issues of sex, love and family, the right has surely
been cynical but at least it speaks to the deepest questions of intimate
life. Its answers are necessarily simplistic and straitened. The family
is falling apart? It's the homos. Marriage seems impossible? It's the
libbers. Sex brings suffering? Just say No. Love seems distant? Await
the Rapture. Except for a small group of queer radicals and pro-sex
feminists, to the extent that such questions are even entertained on the
left, the answers tend toward a mixture of social engineering and
denial: There's nothing wrong with the family that an equitable economy,
divorce or gay marriage won't fix. Marriage is possible; equality is the
key. If sex ed was better and condoms were free, teens wouldn't get
pregnant and wouldn't get AIDS. If abortion is painful, you've been
propagandized. If sex is painful, you're doing it wrong. If love is
painful, find a new lover.
Levine is too sensitive to the mysteries and complexities of human
relations to be characterized as advocating anything so pat as
happiness-through-policy in the area of childhood sexuality. But if her
putting children and sex together in the same sentence can be read by
the right as a call to licentiousness, her heavy emphasis on the
pleasure-enhancing possibilities of sex education may encourage readers
on the left to believe that kids can be protected from bad sex, mediocre
sex, regret, risk, danger, pain. And they can't, any more than adults
can. They can't because in matters of sex, desire is a trickster. What
you see isn't always what you get, much less what you want, though it
may be what you need. In matters of the heart, intimacy means
vulnerability means daring to bet against pain. As with all bets,
sometimes, often, you lose.
Levine actually makes this point but she so wants kids to have better
information, better experiences--and she argues so well and hard for
these--that somehow it gets lost. Citing a study showing that 72 percent
of teenage girls who'd had sex wished they had waited, Levine wonders
whether this regret isn't perhaps really about romantic disappointment
and asks, "Might real pleasure, in a sex-positive atmosphere, balance or
even outweigh regret over the loss of love?" Can we know pleasure
without pain? one might ask in return. Can regret over lost love, at any
age, be so easily balanced? Even sidestepping those twisting lines of
inquiry, isn't the promise of "real pleasure" as much a romantic ideal,
as much an invitation to disappointment, as the promise of true love,
especially for the young? However wished, it's not so easy to
disentangle sex from the hope for love, to revel in pure, transporting
sensuality without letting expectations, not to mention fumbling
technique, get in the way. It doesn't have to, and it doesn't always,
but sex can change everything between two people. We are weak,
after all, and life's little joke is that in that weakness lies the
potential for our ecstasy and our despair.
This isn't to discount the lifesaving value of open education about sex,
condoms, desire, freedom. (And because discussions like this always
force one to state the obvious, I'll also note that nothing in the
foregoing should suggest that I oppose equality, economic
redistribution, abortion rights, child safety, sexual liberation, the
search for love or, so long as heterosexuals insist on having the state
sanction their unions via the marriage contract, divorce and gay
marriage.) But rather than promise kids a world of good sex--like
promising a world of happy marriages, monogamous fulfillment,
self-sustaining nuclear families--maybe it's more helpful to explain sex
as the sea of clear water, giddy currents, riptides, sounding depths and
rocky shoals that it is. You navigate, find wonder in the journey,
scrape yourself up, press on anyway and survive. And sometimes,
sometimes, you experience a bliss beyond expression. The political job
is to expand the possibilities for such experience, to free people to
navigate, help them survive the hurt or not hurt so bad. Maybe if we
could be honest about sex, we could be honest about marriage and
monogamy and family. Maybe if so much didn't hinge on an outsized faith
in pleasure and fidelity and romantic love--if for people in couples or
families, everything didn't depend on the thin reed of love, and for
people alone, coupledom wasn't held out as the apex of happiness--all
the talk we hear about community might actually mean something. The
greatest virtue in Levine's book is its hope that children might learn
to find joy in the realm of the senses, the world of ideas and souls, so
that when sex disappoints and love fails, as they will, a teenager, a
grown-up, still has herself, and a universe of small delights and strong
hearts to fall back on.
Charles Wright and Charles Simic count among the best poets of their generation. Each career has unfolded with considerable excitement for serious readers of contemporary poetry, their latest work always building on previous work, always shifting in unexpected ways, challenging the reader to answer light with light, dark with dark. Their latest books are certainly as good, if not better, than those that preceded them, and that's saying a good deal.
In Wright's fifteenth volume, A Short History of the Shadow, he reaches back to earlier moments in his creative and spiritual life (which, in his case, are intimately connected), revisiting "old fires, old geographies," as he says in "Looking Around," which opens the volume. This and other poems in the collection resemble in form and texture those of his middle period, which began with The Other Side of the River, where the terse, imagistic lyrics of his earlier work gave way to long and languid meditations in the loose, associative format of a journal. As ever, Wright centered each poem in a particular landscape--Tennessee, Virginia, California, Italy--sometimes skipping blithely from landscape to landscape, season to season, assembling images that seemed miraculous in their originality and oddness. Ignoring the dogged domesticity that informs so much of contemporary poetry, he addressed large matters: the place of human intelligence in nature, the nature and role of memory and time in the life of the soul, the fate of language as a conduit between spirit and matter. Wright was, in a sense, adding apocryphal books to his own hermetic scripture with each poem.
He still is. Admitting to a "thirst for the divine" in "Lost Language," he catalogues his habits and desires:
I have a hankering for the dust-light, for all things illegible.
I want to settle myself
Where the river falls on hard rocks,
where no one can cross,
Where the star-shadowed, star-colored city lies, just out of reach.
A dark Emersonian, Wright reads the Book of Nature closely, consistently and fiercely, as in "Charlottesville Nocturne," where he concludes:
Leaning against the invisible, we bend and nod.
Evening arranges itself around the fallen leaves
Alphabetized across the back yard,
That braille us and sign us, leaning against the invisible.
Our dreams are luminous, a cast fire upon the world.
Morning arrives and that's it.
Sunlight darkens the earth.
Here as elsewhere, Wright fetches the reader's attention with compelling aphorisms, with phrases arranged to create a subtle, alluring music. He could not be mistaken for any other poet, although one notices the remnants of his reading, thoroughly absorbed and transmogrified, in almost every line. It's often amusing to hear him toying with phrases and linguistic motions from the poets who have influenced him: Whitman, Eliot, Stevens, Pound, Montale (whom he has translated) and others. When he says, for example, "I like it out here," in "Why, It's as Pretty as a Picture," one can't help hearing Stevens's similar remark in "The Motive for Metaphor." Of course, poems often unfold from poems, and most good literature is a tissue of allusions. Wright knows this; indeed, he embraces it.
There is evidence of wit everywhere in this volume, more so than before. Wright sounds immensely self-confident and authoritative and can say anything, as in the above-mentioned poem, which disarmingly opens:
A shallow thinker, I'm tuned
to the music of things,
The conversation of birds in the dusk-damaged trees,
The just-cut grass in its chalky moans,
The disputations of dogs, night traffic, I'm all ears
To all this and half again.
Tell me about it. Wright is all ears, all eyes, sifting the world that falls before him with astonishing freshness, thinking shallowly so he can see and hear profoundly. His poems, like all good poetry, embody their meanings well before they are available for rational understanding, and they are only understood in a full way over time, in the context of his previous work and, indeed, the work to come.
Though rooted in the traditions of European and American Romanticism, Wright has kept an eye on the East, and in the new poems he alludes easily and often to Chinese poets and philosophers, who embrace the concept of emptiness in ways that complement Wright's aesthetic, as he suggests in the gorgeous "Body and Soul II," where he presents another in his series of poems in the ars poetica mode:
Every true poem is a spark,
and aspires to the condition of
the original fire
Arising out of the emptiness.
It is that same emptiness it wants to reignite.
It is that same engendering it wants to be re-engendered by.
In "Body and Soul" itself, Wright embraces his aesthetic more ardently than anywhere in his previous writing, if I'm not mistaken. He writes:
I used to think the power of words was inexhaustible,
That how we said the world
was how it
was, and how it would be.
I used to imagine that word-sway and
Would silence the Silence and all that,
That words were the Word,
That language could lead us inexplicably
As though it were geographical.
I used to think these things when I
I still do.
Movingly, Wright places his confidence in the gnostic way of knowledge, in the appropriation of Logos through language itself, in "word-sway and word-thunder," a formulation that recalls Hopkins, who sought the divine in language, wherein he discovered an "inscape"--his term for a distinct internal form--that embodied the mystery of grace.
Wright is a seer in the truest sense, a poet who stands out among contemporary poets as a lone figure, belonging to no recognizable school, inimitable. His vatic stance, though unpretentious because the manner of the poet is often quite offhanded and colloquial, remains central to the meaning of his poetry, and he falls smack in the line of American visionaries, who look always to Emerson as the source.
Wright and Charles Simic could not be more different in style, even substance, though Simic's work shares with Wright's an abiding interest in the realm of spirit in its worldly embodiments. Simic, though, is more likely to find "the proof of God's existence riding in a red nightgown." Simic's interlocutor in the title poem of the new volume, Night Picnic, asserts: "All things are imbued with God's being--." This God, however, is a dark and possibly demonic figure, defined as much by his absence as his presence.
A bitterness over this absence appears to haunt Simic, here as before, although humor blends with the bitterness to create his unique affect. His poetry locates itself in casual moments of sudden recognition, as in "We All Have Our Hunches," which follows in its entirety:
The child turning from his mother's breast
With a frightened look
To watch his grandfather raise a beer
And drink to his future happiness
In the kitchen full of unwashed plates
And busy women with quarrelsome voices,
The oldest of whom wields a rolled newspaper
With the smiling President's picture
Already speckled by the blood
Of warm-weather flies and mosquitoes.
In the somewhat claustrophobic hothouse of this poem, a rather typical one, Simic contrasts young and old, powerful and powerless--oppositions that have intrigued him from the outset. The shadow of violence falls across the room, emblematized by the oldest "quarrelsome" woman with the rolled newspaper and amplified by the blood-speckled picture of the President. The reflexive fear of this child is a fear that permeates Simic's verse, which often trembles on the edge of despair.
Born in Belgrade in 1938, Simic's early childhood was spent in the turmoil of war. His first language was Serbo-Croatian, and he brings an Eastern European sensibility to his poems, a feeling of almost lightheaded absurdity coupled with a wryly sardonic feeling of helplessness. For close ancestors, one might look to poets like Georg Trakl or Zbigniew Herbert--poets at home in the eerie dreamworld of surreal poetry.
In the unnamed country where most of his poems are set, war seems to hover in the background. The authorities in this country rule by violence, and ordinary souls shrink into the crevices of history, destined for oblivion. The poet's voice in this almost speakerless poetry emerges from an anonymous Mouth, that "old rathole/From which the words/Scurry after dark." Typically, Simic's poems gather their disparate parts in unexpected ways, hinting at "dark secrets still to be unveiled," the pieces falling miraculously into place in the final image, where the reader is often led to a huge metaphysical brink, which beckons from below.
A prolific poet--by my count this volume is his fifteenth--Simic revisits similar nightmares in book after book. He dreams about butcher shops, ominous city streets, prisons and dismal bedrooms, where the insomniac poet studies the flies on the ceiling and contemplates his own dim fate. But there have always been some bucolic poems, too, and they are usually set in deep country, under blue skies, as in "Summer in the Country," which opens:
One shows me how to lie down in a field of clover.
Another how to slip my hand under her Sunday skirt.
Another how to kiss with a mouth full of blackberries.
Another how to catch fireflies in a jar after dark.
That we never learn who, exactly, these instructors are doesn't matter. In Simic's surreal world, anything can happen; guide-ghosts can unexpectedly materialize to lead the characters in the poem into heaven or hell--or some combination of the two.
I've always relished Simic in his wry but happy moods, as in "The Secret of the Yellow Room," where he celebrates sloth and the "silky hush of a summer afternoon." But the weather of any given poetic mood can shift unexpectedly. "Roadside Stand," for example, begins with a sumptuous account of a kid's roadside vegetable and fruit stand:
In the watermelon and corn season,
The earth is a paradise, the morning
Is a ripe plum or a plump tomato
We bite into as if it were the mouth of a lover.
The kid, however, is bored. He doesn't understand the peculiar enthusiasm of his customers, who make such a fuss over his produce; wanly if not wisely, he surmises that "what makes people happy is a mystery." The gears shift quietly under the hood of Simic's poem as it widens in meaning.
Though Simic rarely mentions a specific historical situation, he refers often--and chillingly--to politics. "Sunday Papers," a remarkable lyric, begins: "The butchery of the innocent/Never stops." "Views from a Train" offers the depressing sight of "squatters' shacks,/Naked children and lean dogs running/On what looked like a town dump." "In the Courtroom" laments a world of injustice, where "ghastly errors" occur and "mistaken identities are the rule." But Simic sees no easy remedy for these problems, which seem eternally to plague humankind. If poetry makes nothing happen, as Auden suggested, then a poet's nightmares can't help much. In "New Red Sneakers," Simic notes with rueful candor: "A lifetime of sleepless nights/Cannot alter the course of events."
The "Wee-hour world" of his writing is haunted by twisted faces, tinhorn preachers and a variety of indigents who cannot reinvent their lives or take comfort in philosophical musings. Even art doesn't help much. "The true master," suggests one voice in an eerie poem called "The Lives of the Alchemists," "needs a hundred years to perfect his art."
Simic has been working for more than four decades at his art, and he's brushed up against perfection more than a few times. Indeed, American poetry would be desperately poorer without at least a dozen of his poems, and the work in Night Picnic is as lively, horrific, amusing and satisfying as anything he has yet published.
It seems scarcely to have required a great philosophical mind to come up
with the observation that each of us is the child of our times, but that
thought must have been received as thrillingly novel when Hegel wrote it
in 1821. For it implied that human nature is not a timeless essence but
penetrated through and through by our historical situation.
Philosophers, he went on to say, grasp their times in thought, and he
might as a corollary have said that artists grasp their times in images.
For Hegel was the father of art history as the discipline through which
we become conscious of the way art expresses the uniqueness of the time
in which it is made. It is rare, however, that grasping his or her own
historical moment becomes an artist's subject. It was particularly rare
in American art of the second half of the twentieth century, for though
the art inevitably belonged to its historical moment, that was seldom
what it set out to represent. It strikes me, for example, that Andy
Warhol was exceptional in seeking to make the reality of his era
conscious of itself through his art.
German artists of the same period, by contrast, seem to have treated the
historical situation of art in Germany as their primary preoccupation.
How to be an artist in postwar Germany was part of the burden of being a
German artist in that time, and this had no analogy in artistic
self-consciousness anywhere else in the West. Especially those in the
first generation after Nazism had to find ways of reconnecting with
Modernism while still remaining German. And beyond that they had to deal
with the harsh and total political divisions of the cold war, which cut
their country in two like a mortal wound. Gerhard Richter was a product
of these various tensions. But like Warhol, whom he resembles in
profound ways, he evolved a kind of self-protective cool that enabled
him and his viewers to experience historical reality as if at a
distance. There is something unsettlingly mysterious about his art.
Looking at any significant portion of it is like experiencing late Roman
history through some Stoic sensibility. One often has to look outside
his images to realize the violence to which they refer.
Richter grew up in East Germany, where he completed the traditional
curriculum at the Dresden Academy of Art, executing a mural for a
hygiene museum in 1956 as a kind of senior thesis. Since the institution
was dedicated to health, it was perhaps politically innocuous that the
imagery Richter employed owed considerably more to the
joy-through-health style of representing the human figure at play, which
continued to exemplify Hitler's aesthetic well after Nazism's collapse,
than to the celebration of proletarian industriousness mandated by
Socialist Realism under Stalin. This implies that East German artistic
culture had not been Sovietized at this early date. The real style wars
were taking place in West Germany and surfaced especially in the epochal
first Documenta exhibition of 1955. Documenta, which usually takes place
every five years in Kassel, is a major site for experiencing
contemporary art on the international circuit today. But at its
inception, it carried an immense political significance for German art.
It explicitly marked the official acceptance by Germany of the kind of
art that had been stigmatized as degenerate by the Nazis and was thus a
bid by Germany for reacceptance into the culture it had set out to
destroy. The content of Documenta 1--Modernism of the twentieth century
before fascism--could not possibly carry the same meaning were it shown
today in the modern art galleries of a fortunate museum. But Modernism,
and particularly abstraction, had become a crux for West German artists
at the time of Documenta 1, as if figuration as such were politically
dangerous. It was not until Richter received permission to visit
Documenta 2 in 1959, where he first encountered the art of the New York
School--Abstract Expressionism--that some internal pressure began to build
in him to engage in the most advanced artistic dialogues of the time.
The fact that he fled East Germany in 1961 exemplifies the way an
artistic decision entailed a political choice in the German Democratic
It was always a momentous choice when an artist decided to go
abstract--or to return to the figure after having been an abstractionist,
the way the California painter Richard Diebenkorn was to do. But to
identify oneself with Art Informel--the European counterpart of the
loosely painted abstractions of the New York School--as many German
artists did, was to make a political declaration as well as to take an
artistic stand. Richter was to move back and forth between realism and
abstraction, but these were not and, at least in his early years in the
West, could not have been politically innocent decisions. Neither was
the choice to go on painting when painting as such, invariantly as to
any distinction between abstraction and realism, became a political
matter in the 1970s. If ignorant of the political background of such
choices, visitors to the magnificent Museum of Modern Art retrospective
of Richter's work since 1962--the year after his momentous move from East
to West--are certain to be baffled by the fact that he seems to vacillate
between realism and abstraction, or even between various styles of
abstraction, often at the same time. These vacillations seemed to me so
extreme when I first saw a retrospective of Richter's work in Chicago in
1987, that it looked like I was seeing some kind of group show. "How can
you say any style is better than another?" Warhol asked with his
characteristic faux innocence in a 1963 interview. "You ought to be able
to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a
realist, without feeling that you have given up something." For most
artists in America, it is important that they be stylistically
identifiable, as if their style is their brand. To change styles too
often inevitably would have been read as a lack of conviction. But what
the show at MoMA somehow makes clear is that there finally is a single
personal signature in Richter's work, whatever his subject, and whether
the work is abstract or representational. It comes, it seems to me, from
the protective cool to which I referred--a certain internal distance
between the artist and his work, as well as between the work and the
world, when the work itself is about reality. It is not irony. It is not
exactly detachment. It expresses the spirit of an artist who has found a
kind of above-the-battle tranquility that comes when one has decided
that one can paint anything one wants to in any way one likes without
feeling that something is given up. That cool is invariant to all the
paintings, whatever their content. As a viewer one has to realize that
abstraction is the content of one genre of his painting, while the
content of the other genres of his painting is...well...not abstraction.
They consist of pictures of the world. So in a sense the show has an
almost amazing consistency from beginning to end. It is as though what
Richter conveys is a content that belongs to the mood or tone, and that
comes through the way the quality of a great voice does, whatever its
Before talking about individual works, let me register another
peculiarity of Richter's work. He paints photographs. A lot of artists
use photography as an aid. A portraitist, for example, will take
Polaroids of her subject to use as references. The photographs are like
auxiliary memories. With Richter, by contrast, it is as if photographs
are his reality. He is not indifferent to what a photograph is of, but
the subject of the photograph will often not be something that he has
experienced independently. In 1964 Richter began to arrange photographs
on panels--snapshots, often banal, clippings from newspapers and
magazines, even some pornographic pictures. These panels became a work
in their own right, to which Richter gave the title Atlas.
Atlas has been exhibited at various intervals, most recently in
1995 at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, at which venue there
were already 600 panels and something like 5,000 photographs. These
photographs are Richter's reality as an artist. When I think of
Atlas, I think of the human condition as described by Plato in
the famous passage in The Republic where Socrates says that the
world is a cave, on the wall of which shadows are cast. They are cast by
real objects to which we have no immediate access, and about which, save
for the interventions of philosophy, we would have no inkling. But there
is an obvious sense in which most of what we know about, we never
experience as such. Think of what the experience of the World Trade
Center attack was for most of us on September 11 and afterward. We were
held transfixed by the images of broken walls and burning towers, to use
Yeats's language, and fleeing, frightened people.
The first work in the exhibition is titled Table, done in 1962.
Richter considers it the first work in his catalogue raisonné,
which means that he assigns it a significance considerably beyond
whatever merits it may possess as a painting. It means in particular
that nothing he did before it is part of his acknowledged oeuvre.
Barnett Newman felt that way about a 1948 work he named Onement.
He considered it, to vary a sentimental commonplace, the first work of
the rest of his artistic life. Next to Table, one notices two
photographs of a modern extension table, clipped from an Italian
magazine, on which Richter puddled a brushful of gray glaze.
Table itself is an enlarged and simplified painting of the table
in the photographs, over which Richter has painted an energetic swirl of
gray paint. It is easy to see why it is so emblematic a work in his
artistic scheme. Whatever the merits of the depicted table may have been
as an object of furniture design, such tables were commonplace articles
of furniture in middle-class domestic interiors in the late fifties. In
1962 it was becoming an artistic option to do paintings of ordinary,
everyday objects. We are in the early days of the Pop movement. The
overlaid brushy smear, meanwhile, has exactly the gestural urgency of
Art Informel. So Table is at the intersection of two major art
movements of the sixties: It is representational and abstract at once.
Warhol in that period was painting comic-strip figures like Dick
Tracy--but was dripping wet paint over his images, not yet able to
relinquish the talismanic drip of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, in
1960 he painted a Coca-Cola bottle with Abstract Expressionist
mannerisms--a work I consider Table's unknown artistic sibling.
Richter gave up Art Informel in 1962, just as Warhol dropped Abstract
Expressionist brushiness in favor of the uninflected sharpness and
clarity of his Pop images. By 1963 Richter had begun painting the
blurred but precise images that became his trademark. Richter's
marvelously exact Administrative Building of 1964 captures the
dispiriting official architecture of German postwar reconstruction,
especially in the industrial Rhineland. And his wonderful Kitchen
Chair of 1965 is a prime example of Capitalist Realism, the version
of Pop developed by Richter and his colleague, Sigmar Polke, in the
mid-sixties. Richter and Warhol had fascinatingly parallel careers.
The deep interpretative question in Richter's art concerns less the
fact that he worked with photographs than why he selected the
photographs he did for Atlas, and what governed his decision to
translate certain of them into paintings. There are, for example,
photographs of American airplanes--Mustang Squadrons, Bombers and Phantom
Interceptor planes in ghostly gray-in-gray formations. Richter was an
adolescent in 1945, and lived with his family within earshot of Dresden
at the time of the massive firebombings of that year. The photograph
from which Bombers was made had to have been taken as a
documentary image by some official Air Force photographer, whether over
Dresden or some other city. The cool of that photograph, compounded by
the cool with which that image is painted--even to the hit plane near the
bottom of the image and what must be the smoke trailing from
another--cannot but seem as in a kind of existential contrast with the
panic of someone on the ground under those explosives falling in slow
fatal series from open bays. But what were Richter's feelings? What was
he saying in these images?
And what of the 1965 painting of the family snapshot of the SS
officer--Richter's Uncle Rudi--proudly smiling for the camera, which must
have been taken more than twenty years earlier, shortly before its
subject was killed in action? Tables and chairs are tables and chairs.
But warplanes and officers emblematize war, suffering and violent death.
And this was not simply the history of the mid-twentieth century. This
was the artist's life, something he lived through. We each must deal
with these questions as we can, I think. The evasiveness of the artist,
in the fascinating interview with Robert Storr--who curated this show and
wrote the catalogue--is a kind of shrug in the face of the
unanswerability of the question. What we can say is that photographs
have their acknowledged forensic dimension; they imply that their
subjects were there, constituted reality and that the artist himself is
no more responsible than we are, either for the reality or the
photography. The reality and the records are what others have done. He
has only made the art. And the blurredness with which the artist has
instilled his images is a way of saying that it was twenty years
ago--that it is not now. Some other horrors are now.
The flat, impassive transcriptions of Richter's paintings are
correlative with the frequent violence implied by what they depict. That
makes the parallels with Warhol particularly vivid. It is easy to
repress, in view of the glamour and celebrity associated with Warhol's
life and work, the series of disasters he depicted--plane crashes,
automobile accidents, suicides, poisonings and the shattering images of
electric chairs, let alone Jackie (The Week That Was), which
memorializes Kennedy's funeral. Or the startlingly anticelebratory
Thirteen Most Wanted Men that he executed for the New York State
Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair. Compare these with Richter's 1966
Eight Student Nurses, in which the bland, smiling, youthful faces
look as if taken from the class book of a nursing school--but which we
know were of victims of a senseless crime. Warhol's works, like
Richter's, are photography-based. The pictures came from vernacular
picture media--the front page of the Daily News, or the
most-wanted pictures on posters offering rewards, which are perhaps
still tacked up in post offices. These were transferred to stencils and
silk-screened, and have a double graininess--the graininess of newspaper
reproduction and of the silk-screen process itself. And like Richter's
blurring, this serves to distance the reality by several stages--as if it
is only through distancing that we can deal with horror. I tend to think
that part of what made us all feel as if we were actually part of the
World Trade Center disaster was the clarity of the television images and
the brightness of the day that came into our living rooms.
Whatever our attitude toward the prison deaths of the Baader-Meinhof
gang members in 1977, I think everyone must feel that if Richter is
capable of a masterpiece, it is his October 18, 1977 suite of
thirteen paintings, done in 1988 and based on aspects of that reality.
These deaths define a moral allegory in which the state, as the
guarantor of law and order, and the revolution, as enacted by utopian
and idealist youths, stand in stark opposition, and in which both sides
are responsible for crimes that are the dark obverses of their values.
But how fragile and pathetic these enemies of the state look in
paintings that make the photographs from which they were taken more
affecting than they would seem as parts, say, of Atlas. Who knows
whether Richter chose the images because they were affecting, or made
them so, or if we make them so because of the hopelessness of a reality
that has the quality of the last act of an opera, in which the chorus
punctuates the tragedy in music? There are three paintings, in graded
sizes, of the same image of Ulrike Meinhof, who was hanged--or hanged
herself--in her cell. The paintings do not resolve the question of
whether she was killed or committed suicide. They simply register the
finality of her death--Dead. Dead. Dead. (Tote. Tote. Tote.)--in a
repetition of an image, vanishing toward a point, of a thin dead young
woman, her stretched neck circled by the rope or by the burn left by the
rope. That is what art does, or part of what it does. It transforms
violence into myth and deals with death by beauty. There was a lot of
political anger when these paintings were shown in 1988, but there was
no anger in the gallery on the occasions when I have visited it in the
past several weeks.
By comparison with the ferocity of human engagements in the real world,
the art wars of the mid-twentieth century seem pretty thin and petty.
But it says something about human passion that the distinction between
figuration and abstraction was so vehement that, in my memory, people
would have been glad to hang or shoot one another, or burn their
stylistic opponents at the stake, as if it were a religious controversy
and salvation were at risk. It perhaps says something deep about the
spirit of our present times that the decisions whether to paint
abstractly or realistically can be as lightly made as whether to paint a
landscape or still life--or a figure study--was for a traditional artist.
Or for a young contemporary artist to decide whether to do some piece of
conceptual art or a performance. Four decades of art history have borne
us into calm aesthetic waters. But this narrative does not convey the
almost palpable sense in which Richter has grasped his times through his
art. One almost feels that he became a painter in order to engage not
just with how to be an artist but how, as an artist, to deal with the
terribleness of history.
What date shall I assign to Chris Marker's magnum opus, A Grin
Without a Cat? This rugged oak of an essay-film, whose gnarls trace
the growth and withering of decades of leftist politics, is now playing
for the first time in the United States, where it's being shown in the
form Marker gave it after
the demise of the Soviet Union. I might say it's a film from 1993; and
yet the version we now have is the revision of a work completed in 1977,
when Communism was still alive, and anti-Communism was more than the
hungry zombie it's since become.
Communism was still alive, but even then Marker perceived a change. The
last major event he incorporated into his essay was the 1974 election of
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to the presidency of France. In the
film, this election represents the end of a period of turmoil that had
begun in 1967: the year of campus uprisings in the United States against
the Vietnam War, increased union militancy in France, bloody student
protests in Berlin against the visiting Shah of Iran, the death in
Bolivia of Che Guevara. It's fair to say that the main body of A Grin
Without a Cat deals with these years, so I might date the film
But then, the historical marker slips back even further. To explain why
Che perished as he did, to account for his prestige in death, to suggest
how that martyrdom shaped the period that followed, the film revisits
1962, when Douglas Bravo launched a guerrilla war in rural Venezuela.
Believing that a few militants could spark revolution on their own,
Bravo and his followers abandoned the discipline of the Communist Party.
That was the good news. The bad news was, they also abandoned the
party's political base. In Marker's words (which are spoken throughout
the film by several voiceover narrators), the guerrillas made themselves
into "a spearhead without a spear, a grin without a cat."
The phrase brings to mind Lewis Carroll, and maybe Gogol, too. I will
have something to say about the rude adventures of this grin. First,
though, a question: Assuming there was once a whole cat, what did it
Marker gives a filmmaker's reply: He goes back in time to The
Battleship Potemkin. His picture begins in that other movie--begins
twice, in fact. As his first gesture in A Grin Without a Cat,
Marker shows us Eisenstein's celebrated vision of the Potemkin
mutiny, in which a sailor faces a line of riflemen and wins them over
with a single shout: Brothers! Out of that moment, Marker develops a
great, thrilling montage sequence of his own, spanning half a century of
conflicts in the streets and ending on Eisenstein's Odessa steps, more
or less in the present day. There, as if to begin the film again, Marker
shows us a pleasant young woman who sits in the sunshine, chatting with
an offscreen interviewer. She is a French-speaking Intourist guide, and
she can testify that this site is very popular. She brings people to it
two or three times a day.
We might conclude that the not-quite-mythical cat was on the prowl
sometime between these two historical moments, the first of inspiration,
the second of nostalgia. We might decide that A Grin Without a Cat
is dated 1925-93.
During those years, was anything left unfilmed? To watch this picture is
to be astonished at the world of footage that's been piled up here, some
of it shot by Marker himself, most of it recorded by others, both known
and anonymous. The raw materials of A Grin Without a Cat include
images of a US pilot bombing Vietnam, as seen from the cockpit; scenes
of carefully staged party congresses in Havana and Beijing and of an
unscripted, on-the-run congress in 1968 Prague; views of the festive Cat
Parade in Ypres; broadcasts of the Watergate hearings and of the Shah of
Iran's grandiose party for himself in Persepolis; raw footage of
Communist and Trotskyist workers getting into a fistfight at a factory
gate; interviews in the jungle with Douglas Bravo, in the Pentagon with
a counterinsurgency expert, in the Citroën headquarters with that
firm's managing director; Soviet newsreels from World War II; a student
collective's newsreel from 1967 Berlin; shots of Giscard d'Estaing
playing the accordion and of The Who destroying their instruments;
behind-the-scenes pictures of training sessions at the School of the
Americas; and the usual amalgam of flaming automobiles, flying tear-gas
canisters, descending truncheons and human beings lying in pools of
So complete is the filmed record on which Marker draws, and so
associative is his method of using it, that he can show us a statement
made in 1968 by a Czech national hero, Emil Zatopek, just before he was
stripped of his military rank for protesting against the invasion;
Zatopek at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, when he famously swept the
distance running events; and Zatopek in 1972, when he was released from
the mines and trotted out to look solemn at the Munich Olympics, when
the games continued despite the murder of eleven Israeli athletes. But
then, Marker comments, "I had been in Mexico City in 1968, when 200
people were killed so the games could begin," and we have that footage,
This sort of thing can make your head spin; but since it should also
make your head clear, Marker's montage is not only associative but
diagrammatic as well. A Grin Without a Cat is divided into two
main sections. Part One, "Fragile Hands," concentrates on the events of
1967 and 1968, up to the fizzling of the May revolt in France. Part Two,
"Severed Hands," begins with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia,
continues with the rise and fall of Salvador Allende (and the Gang of
Four) and concludes with the fading of the cat's grin, late in the
Marker tends to present these events in big loops. He'll jump from
source to source, place to place, to develop an argument (about the
concept of a revolution in the revolution, for example); he'll digress
to examine the way people gestured with their hands, or how they either
filled or did not fill the space between striking workers and police;
and then he'll swing back to close the loop, concluding one phase of his
essay and moving on to the next. At each phase (at least in the earlier
part of the film) he also introduces elements that I might as well call
dialectical. When he shows a group of war protesters preparing to burn
their draft cards in 1967, he also shows a rally of the American Nazi
Party. When French student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit comes into the
picture, so does Giscard d'Estaing. We watch the New Left rise in tandem
with the New Right. In Marker's view of history, the development of the
New Right may have been the New Left's greatest achievement.
If so, then the Old Left contributed ample help. Marker makes the point
with stunning force during his section on Czechoslovakia, when he
unexpectedly closes one of those big loops of montage. Citizens of
Prague have surrounded a Soviet tank driver and are berating him--"How
could you, a Communist, be doing this?"--when that intertitle from
The Battleship Potemkin pops onto the screen again, in a way
that's now heartbreaking and futile: Brothers!
And since Marker is a moviemaker above all, A Grin Without a Cat
also makes its point as a movie should, through the actions of its star.
Yes, there is a lead actor in this film: Fidel Castro, whose many
performances, interspersed throughout the picture, amount to a little
drama of their own, complete with a nasty plot twist. Here is Fidel on
the podium, addressing a night-time rally with wit, vigor and good
sense. Here he is again, sprawled casually on the grass for the benefit
of the camera, giving a very good impersonation of a man speaking
spontaneously, sensitively, about popular militancy and his comrade Che
Guevara. And here, giving a radio broadcast, Fidel appears to work
himself into a fury against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, as a
dramatic overture to praising the Soviets for their tanks.
This is dense, complex, allusive filmmaking, encyclopedic in ambition,
profound in understanding, playful enough in form to make you smile
sometimes at the tricks of history. Though Marker has made an elegy to
the left, he would prefer that you leave the theater invigorated,
feeling that power is still abroad in the world, and that you and your
friends might still disrupt its dirty work.
My only complaint is that the film could have sent you home feeling even
better. During the period Marker covers, the feminists got a few things
done, often without bothering to define their relationship to the
Communist Party; but feminism shows up very late in A Grin Without a
Cat, as a mere afterthought. Africa doesn't show up at all; yet
activists from around the world made some changes there too, such as
ending apartheid and establishing a new democratic state. You may choose
to add to the list a third or fourth victory. We've had a few, despite
all of history's tricks.
That said, A Grin Without a Cat was made for you, Nation
reader. It premieres in America on May Day, at New York's Film Forum.
Abbas Kiarostami's most recent documentary, which premieres in the
United States on May 3 at New York's Cinema Village, is about nothing
other than Africa and feminism. Made on behalf of the UN's International
Fund for Agricultural Development, ABC Africa is the record of a
trip to Uganda, during which Kiarostami investigated the effect of AIDS
on women and children.
The effect, briefly stated, is that children are orphaned, and women are
left to care for them: six, eleven, thirty-five at a time. According to
the film, there are now more than 1.6 million orphans in Uganda, out of
a population of 22 million. The Catholic Church helps by offering a
wretched level of care to the suffering, meanwhile insuring there will
be more suffering by discouraging the use of condoms. By contrast, the
Uganda Women's Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO) helps with a program that
encourages women to band together and become economically
I lack the space in this column to describe even a part of what
Kiarostami recorded with his digital video cameras. It's enough to say
that, while he captured images on the run, he somehow made a Kiarostami
film. ABC Africa is devastating, as you'd expect. It's also
lyrical, beautiful and quietly inventive.
The Nation announces the winners of Discovery/ The Nation, the Joan
Leiman Jacobson Poetry Prize. Now in its twenty-eighth year, it is an
annual contest for poets whose work has not been published previously in
book form. The new winners are: Linda Jenkins, Gregory McDonald, Andrew
Varnon and Stefi Weisburd. This year's judges are Catherine Bowman,
Carolyn Forché and Paul Muldoon. As in the past, manuscripts are judged
anonymously. Distinguished former winners include Susan Mitchell, Katha
Pollitt, Mary Jo Salter, Sherod Santos, Arthur Smith and David St. John.
This year's winners will read their poems at Discovery/The Nation
'02 at 8:15 pm on Monday, May 6, at The Unterberg Poetry Center, 92nd
Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue (92nd Street and Lexington Avenue) in
New York City.
--Grace Schulman, poetry editor
The Lewis & Clark Snowglobe
There exists one, anti-gewgaw, memento
ingenuous as any wonder,
though I've never seen nor heard of it, and yet--
as is revolution of heavenly body, of colony--
all's a given. The only question being which scene
of scenes? Spring 1804: keelboat,
all fifty-five feet of it, curses
the Missouri's sawyers--
Shake it and snow that falls in summer
plagues unseen men--Clark's "misquetors."
Or Lewis gazes, dizzy with May and his first
"plain and satisfactory view" of the Rockies'
plastic expanse, its blue-lipped ardor soothing
words Northwest Passage forever.
In a roadside gift shop,
Sacagawea proves false
an old adage; Home again Home again, swirls
her first moments back
among the Shoshones; with a knick-knack's economy,
sixteen mounted warriors become
one or two; her lost brother has become chief,
and they embrace:
novelist's fantastical turn.
It's the day a horse takes badly a Bitterroots precipice, the group--
ravenous, anonymous, androgynous--proceeds,
one colt divided among thirty-plus bellies. It's Clark,
jubilant at the first
(if false) view of Pacific.
It's hermetic 1806 St. Louis,
its sluicy tempest of rounds and cheers.
And not famed, not at all likely
to be the scene, yet Washington's elite toasts Lewis
with a ball; outside, glitter falls--and Lewis, triumphant, drunk
off the New Year, raises his glass, voices
a toast of his own:
"May works be the test
of patriotism as they ought, of right, to be of religion,"
as they ought (redundant or no) to be of love.
It was in an Age of Such Incredible Secrets
It was in an age of such incredible secrets
that my mother began to paint her toenails
the color of eggshells, and my father
learned how to make love with his hands
at his side. I saw them practicing once,
but all I could think about was our icebox
full of fish and ketchup, and the small wooden bird
above my grandmother's bed, rocking back and forth,
dipping its red beak into a bowl of water.
What I Remember
I lift the bottle every time you catch me
looking at you. In all the apartment
complexes down Alafaya Trail,
I roll on the floor away from the wet nose
of a basset hound. Pennies spill
that I will forget; lips are moving but
I can't keep my footing in the mud.
Spanish moss hangs from a tree, there is a frog
and everybody throws water balloons.
A black dress with pink flowers
A storm over the gulf at sunrise
Empty beach chairs face turquoise
Traffic lights change without cars
I chase you with whiskey and chase
whiskey with beer and chase an armadillo
around the art gallery, muttering something
about "plasticity" or "negative space."
The search lights catch up with me. I walk
out the back door too easy, afraid of fists
that put holes in your wall. Mine
is the long walk home under streetlights
with only beat cops and that one Muddy Waters
song I know to keep me company, me and that
thirsty head full of wilderness I'm so afraid of.
Elegy For Two
A yowling pulls like tides at our blind ear
from down the hall. The sound of Baby's ire
at God knows what, the broken night, the leer
of suns, I said. The nurse spit out: Liar.
Eyes of fruit and cinder block conspire.
His cries would fever milk and wrench the bed.
A letter in my husband's hands perspires.
For the love of God, it's just a cat, my nurse said.
But cats don't antidote true love or shred
the film of sleep with shrill ballistic shrieks
or tick heart's tomb, slash the vagrant thread,
tear the doll to wipe the bloody streaks.
Cats don't rasp or beg with gnawing squall
on stairs to help the helpless totter, fall.
Alan Dershowitz prides himself on his credentials as a civil
libertarian, and to judge by most of the essays in his latest book,
Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age, he has good
reason to do so. The Harvard law professor has built a considerable
reputation on his defense of free speech, due process and the separation
of church and state, to say nothing of his propensity for controversial
clients and clamorous talk shows. Shouting Fire is a pastiche of
fifty-four essays, some of them new, most of them not, the earliest
dating from 1963. The impetus for the collection appears to be at least
in part a desire to reassert the importance of civil liberties, even in
the face of such national security threats as those posed by the events
of September 11 and their aftermath. Moreover, Dershowitz admirably
offers what rights advocates rarely do: a philosophical grounding for
civil and political rights beyond the mere positivist assertion that
"that's the law."
If this were all Dershowitz had done in Shouting Fire, the book
might have received its share of kind reviews and headed off to
Remainderland. But in less than two of the book's 550 pages, he manages
to guarantee the collection a longer shelf life. For in an addendum to a
1989 article in the Israel Law Review, Alan Dershowitz, civil
libertarian, champion of progressive causes, counsel to human-rights
hero Anatoly Shcharansky, makes a case for torture or, more exactly, for
the creation of a new legal device that he dubs a "torture warrant." And
then, through a deft combination of newspaper editorials, public
appearances and an extended interview on 60 Minutes, Dershowitz
has expanded upon that proposition in a way designed to make talk of
torture routine and, not incidentally, banter about his book robust.
Dershowitz's proposal, therefore, deserves careful scrutiny, not only
because it comes from a respected voice but also because sources in the
FBI have floated the possibility that torture will be applied against
prisoners or detainees who refuse to tell what they know about
terrorists. Last October 45 percent of Americans approved of that.
Today, thanks to Dershowitz and others having lent the idea the patina
of respectability--Jonathan Alter writing in Newsweek, Bruce
Hoffman in The Atlantic--the number may be higher.
Dershowitz starts with the familiar scenario from every freshman
philosophy class, the case of the ticking bomb. Suppose the authorities
are holding a suspect who knows where a ticking bomb is located, a bomb
that will kill hundreds of people if it explodes. Would they be
justified in torturing the suspect to procure the information and
thereby save innocent lives?
Dershowitz contends that whether we like it or not, the officials would
inevitably resort to torture and, what's more, the vast majority of us
would want them to. But because any officer who did so might be subject
to prosecution, despite the availability of the common law defense that
a crime may be justified if it is necessary to prevent a greater evil,
the onus of responsibility should not be left on the individual
official. Instead the authorities should apply to a court for a "torture
warrant," similar to a search warrant, so that the courts must bear the
burden of authorizing torture or the consequences of failing to do so.
In another context Dershowitz has offered the reassurances that "the
suspect would be given immunity from prosecution based on information
elicited by torture" and that "the warrant would limit the torture to
nonlethal means, such as sterile needles being inserted beneath the
nails to cause excruciating pain without endangering life."
Despite these precautions, however, Dershowitz's proposal has not met
with universal acclaim, and in recent weeks he has appeared to be
distancing himself from it. In a February 17 letter to The New York
Times Book Review responding to a critical review of Shouting
Fire, Dershowitz claims that "the only compromises [with civil
liberties] I suggest we should consider, and not necessarily
adopt, relate directly to protecting civilians against imminent
terrorist attacks [emphasis added]." But there is no hint on the two
relevant pages of Shouting Fire that Dershowitz's "torture
warrant" proposal is merely hypothetical. Indeed, in commenting on the
decision by the Supreme Court of Israel that prompted the idea in the
first place, he chastises the court for leaving interrogating officers
vulnerable to prosecution if they use torture and says, "The Supreme
Court of Israel...or the legislature should take the...step of requiring
the judiciary to assume responsibility [for torture] in individual
cases." Dershowitz is stuck with his "torture warrants" just as surely
as Arthur Andersen is stuck with its Enron audits.
So what, after all, is wrong with that--other than the fact that torture
violates both the Convention Against Torture, which the United States
ratified in 1994, and the Constitution? The first thing that is wrong is
that the act of torture, unlike that of searching for something, is in
itself both universally condemned and inherently abhorrent. Under
international law, torturers are considered hostis humani
generis, enemies of all humanity, and that is why all countries have
jurisdiction to prosecute them, regardless of where the torture took
place. The fact that a US court or legislature might offer its approval
of the act does not abrogate that internationally recognized standard
any more than a court in Singapore that authorizes the jailing of a
dissident journalist makes Singapore any less guilty of violating the
rights of a free press. Tyrannical governments often try to cloak their
human rights violations in national statute. It is interesting, however,
that no country has ever legalized torture except, arguably, Israel,
until the Israeli Supreme Court struck down the provision for the use of
"moderate physical pressure," and even while that provision was on the
books, the Israeli government argued vehemently that such pressure was
not the equivalent of torture.
To see more clearly the shoals upon which the "torture warrant"
flounders, consider this. There is no doubt that despite official
efforts to eradicate it, police brutality is practiced in many US
jurisdictions and probably always will be. Some police officers will
claim, in their more candid moments, that the use of excessive force is
often the only way to protect the lives of officers and the general
public. Why ought the police not be able, therefore, to apply for
"brutality warrants" in specialized cases? Why ought police officers who
believe that a little shaving of the truth on the witness stand is worth
sending a bunch of drug pushers to prison, thus protecting hundreds of
youngsters from a life of drugs and crime, not be able to seek
"'testilying' warrants"? Why ought correctional officers who argue that
allowing dominant male prisoners to rape other prisoners helps preserve
order among thugs and thus protects the lives of guards not be allowed
to seek "warrants to tolerate prisoner rape" in particularly dangerous
situations? The answer in all cases is the same: because the act itself
(brutalizing citizens; committing perjury; facilitating rape) is itself
abhorrent and illegal. Dershowitz's analogy to search warrants fails
because, while a particular search may itself be illegal, the act of
searching is not ipso facto unethical or a crime. For a society
to start providing its imprimatur to criminal acts because they are
common or may appear to provide a shortcut to admirable ends is an
invitation to chaos.
But even if torture were a licit activity under some circumstances,
there are very good pragmatic reasons to reject its use. If the ticking
bomb scenario were designed only to establish the abstract moral
calculus that the death of X number of people constitutes a greater evil
than the torture of one, it would certainly be possible to make a
plausible utilitarian argument for torture. The problem is, however,
that the proponents of the ticking bomb scenario want it to serve as the
basis of public policy, and unfortunately reality rarely conforms to
scenarios and life doesn't stop where the scripts do. How strange that
though the ticking bomb scenario has been used for decades to justify
torture, its defenders are unable to cite the details of even one
verifiable case from real life that mirrors its conditions.
Perhaps, upon reflection, that is not so strange. For what the ticking
bomb case asks us to believe is that the authorities know that a bomb
has been planted somewhere; know it is about to go off; know that the
suspect in their custody has the information they need to stop it; know
that the suspect will yield that information accurately in a matter of
minutes if subjected to torture; and know that there is no other way to
obtain it. The scenario asks us to believe, in other words, that the
authorities have all the information that authorities dealing with a
crisis never have.
Even aficionados of ticking bomb torture agree that its use can only be
justified as a last resort applicable to those we know to a moral
certainty are guilty and possess the information we seek. That 45
percent of Americans who reported last October that they approved of
torture were approving of the "torture of known terrorists if they know
details about future terrorist attacks." But how do we know all that?
The reason torture is such a risky proposition is exactly because it is
so difficult to tell ahead of time who is a terrorist and who is not;
who has the information and who does not; who will give the information
accurately and who will deceive; who will respond to torture and who
will endure it as a religious discipline. The fact is that many people
suspected of being terrorists turn out not to be, as our experience
since September 11 has proven so well; that, historically, many of those
subjected to torture are genuinely ignorant of the details the
authorities seek; that the information protracted with torture is
notoriously unreliable; and that torture almost always takes a long
time--days and weeks, not hours and minutes--to produce results. Torture
is of course extraordinarily common. Almost three-fourths of the world's
countries practice it. But not to find ticking bombs. To punish
political opponents. To intimidate their allies. To cow a citizenry. The
ticking bomb scenario in its purest form is a fantasy of "moral" torture
all too easily appropriated by tyrants as an excuse to justify the more
And if the ticking bomb scenario is a fantasy, the Dershowitzian
addition of a "torture warrant" makes it into a chimera. Here is a
situation Dershowitz envisions for the warrant's use:
Had law enforcement officials arrested terrorists boarding one of the
[September 11] airplanes and learned that other planes, then airborne,
were headed toward unknown occupied buildings, there would have been an
understandable incentive to torture those terrorists in order to learn
the identity of the buildings and evacuate them.
This assumes that those law enforcement officials would have had time in
the hour and a half or so between the boarding of the planes and the
impact on their targets to (1) take the suspects into custody; (2)
ascertain with enough certainty to warrant torture that the suspects
were (a) terrorists who (b) had the needed information in their
possession; (3) apply to a judge for a torture warrant and make the case
for one; (4) inflict torture sufficient to retrieve the necessary facts;
(5) evaluate the validity of those facts in order to be assured that no
innocent plane would be identified and blown out of the sky; and (6)
take the steps required to stop or mitigate the terrorist act. Perhaps
after John Ashcroft has been Attorney General another three years, law
enforcement will have learned to cut enough corners of the legal
niceties to accomplish this feat. But at the moment, given the INS, Tom
Ridge, bureaucratic infighting and all, it seems unlikely.
Which leads to the question of whether, if the United States were to
become the first country in the world to adopt "torture warrants," they
would make us safer. That, after all, is presumably the only ultimate
rationale for their use. But here is another place where the traditional
ticking bomb case explodes in the face of reality. For it assumes that
there are no further detrimental consequences once the victims of the
bombing are saved--no retaliatory strikes, for example, by the torture
victim's comrades to pay back the inhumanity done to their brother. It
doesn't take much imagination to see how quickly officially authorized
torture would diminish the credibility of a struggle against terrorism
that is being fought in the name of defending American values and the
rule of law. How many people would need to be tortured before our allies
threw up their hands in disgust and our adversaries started celebrating
their moral victory? How many innocent people would have to be
brutalized before their resentment and that of their friends and family
would spill over into violence? In his book No Equal Justice law
professor David Cole has shown how mistreatment of the innocent by US
police can alienate entire communities and result in increases in crime.
Torture, similarly, is a sure-fire way to manufacture an embittered
opponent of the United States where there was none before. And make no
mistake that innocent people would be tortured, warrant or no, for,
after all, if close to 100 innocent people have been convicted of
capital crimes and sentenced to death in this country despite all the
protection our legal system offers, how much more likely is it that
miscarriages of justice will flow from the pen of a single judge?
Whatever leadership the United States can claim in the world is
intimately linked to our practice of values universally regarded as
fundamental to a civilized people.
So how could a distinguished human rights advocate like Alan Dershowitz
have strayed so far from the mark? Part of it may have to do with the
philosophical basis for rights that he sketches in the beginning of his
book. Wisely rejecting the notions that rights are derived from deity or
natural law and yet unconvinced that positivism alone provides
sufficient heft for rights claims, Dershowitz adopts what he calls the
"experiential-advocacy approach." In effect, he says, we should look to
history to identify prototypical instances of injustice (slavery, for
example) and then, based upon that human experience, construct a set of
rights--free speech, due process--that are most likely to bring about
the type of society in which we would want to live. So far, so good.
Human rights are assuredly derived from human experience.
But what if you disagree with my vision of the good society? The best we
can do, Dershowitz insists, is to try to argue you out of your myopia:
"That is all I can do," he says. "Defend my preference for [certain]
rights.... But I make no claim for these rights beyond my ability to
persuade you to agree with me that history--especially the history of
wrongs--has shown these rights to be important enough to be given a
special status in the hierarchy of preferences. It may surprise you to
learn that for me there is no sharp line...separating rights from
strongly held preferences." It is here that Dershowitz stumbles.
For while rights are, in a sense, preferences, they are also more than
that: They are norms, behavioral norms necessary to create and sustain a
good society. And they become norms not through argument alone but
through its conclusions, through an articulated consensus of the
international community. One of the most astonishing lacunas in the
philosophical section of Shouting Fire is the absence of even one
mention, if the index and my reading are to be believed, of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For while the UDHR did not set
out to be a legally binding treaty (the State Department called it in
1948 "a hortatory statement of aspiration") and hence avoids the limits
of positivism, it does reflect--imperfectly, to be sure, but as well as
possible within the current limits of human endeavor--what St. Augustine
called our "overlapping loves," our common measures of a decent world.
To those who disagree with its vision of that world, we can offer much
more than a shouting contest, much more than any one person's reading of
history or any one nation's perception of its needs. We can offer the
collective wisdom of the human community as hammered out, written down
and, more and more frequently, enforced. And part of that wisdom is that
torture is wrong. Everywhere. In all circumstances. With or without
Alan Dershowitz may not like that. And he is certainly entitled to go on
arguing about it. He is a persuasive fellow and eventually he may even
succeed in helping erode the international prohibitions on torture. That
will be a sad day, no doubt, but how comforting it will be to know at
that point that, thanks to the professor, the needles will be
To immerse oneself in Robert Caro's heroic biographies is to come face to face with a shocking but unavoidable realization: Much of what we think we know about money, power and politics is a fairy tale. Our newspapers, magazines, broadcast and cable newscasts are filled with comforting fictions. We embrace them because the truth is too messy, too frightening, simply too much.
In a 1997 speech on the topic, Ben Bradlee attributes our problem to official lying. "Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face. No editor would dare print.... 'The Watergate break-in involved matters of national security, President Nixon told a national TV audience last night.... That is a lie.'"
But the problem is much larger than Bradlee allows. Caro demonstrates how this colossal structure of deceit clouds the historical record. The unelected Robert Moses exercised a dictatorial power over the lives of millions of New Yorkers for nearly half a century. He uprooted communities and destroyed neighborhoods using privately run but publicly funded entities called "public authorities," whose charters he personally wrote. Before the publication of The Power Broker in 1974 (1,246 pages, after having been cut by 40 percent to fit into a single volume), no book or major magazine article existed on the topic. Caro's obsessive exhumation of Moses's career transformed our understanding of the mechanics of urban politics. And yet even today the media proceed as if it's simply a matter of campaigns, elections and legislation.
The true face of our money-driven political system is buried so far beneath the surface of our public discourse that almost nobody has any incentive to uncover it. With a meager $2,500 advance to sustain him, Caro sold his house and nearly bankrupted his family; his wife, Ina--a medieval historian--went to work as his full-time researcher. When I asked why he did it, he got a little choked up about the sacrifice of Ina's career and how much she had loved their old house. Finally he said he had no idea. The Caros' combination of intellectual independence and professional dedication inspires comparisons with another great marital partnership: that of the late, great Izzy and Esther Stone. (Can anyone imagine what Izzy would have come up with if he had committed virtually his entire career to smoking out the truth about just two powerful men?)
Caro's new book, Master of the Senate, volume three of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, forces us not only to rewrite our national political history but to rethink it as well. What Caro is doing here is something we rarely see attempted in any medium: His aim, as he once explained to Kurt Vonnegut, "is to show not only how power works but the effect of power on those without power. How political power affects all our lives, every single day in ways we never think about."
Caro's been burrowing beneath the shadows of the substance of our politics for more than twenty-eight years, and what he finds is both fascinating and surprising. In many ways Johnson's personality--so outsized and contradictory as to be cognitively uncontainable--gets in the way of this compulsively readable story, which is about how power is exercised in this country.
Lyndon Johnson did not invent the form of legislative power he exercised through the Senate in the 1950s, but Caro has almost had to invent a new history to describe it. People have told pieces of it here and there, but who's got the time, the motivation or the patience to really nail down not only what happened but what it meant to the nation? Here's a tiny example, of which this new book has almost one a page. Listen to longtime Senate staffer Howard Shuman: "William S. White, [whom Caro terms the Senate's "most prominent chronicler"] wrote that the way to get into the Club was to be courteous and courtly. Well, that's nonsense." Johnson mocked and humiliated liberal New York Senator Herbert Lehman at every opportunity: "It didn't have anything to do with courtly. It had to do with how you voted--with whether or not you voted as Lyndon Johnson wanted you to vote." Neil MacNeil, veteran Time correspondent adds, "The Senate was run by courtesy, all right--like a longshoreman's union."
Now don't go looking in old Time magazines for any hint of this. Caro spends more than 300 of his 1,167 pages on the incredible story of Johnson's navigation of the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress, something that hardly anyone thought possible until he pulled it off. With the singular exception of Tom Wicker, then a green (and largely ignored) young reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, no one covering the story had an inkling of how it happened.
One indisputable conclusion that Caro offers is pretty tough to swallow. The advances in civil rights legislation that helped end centuries of legal apartheid in this country could never have occurred had they not been planned and executed by a man who turns out to have been a thoroughgoing racist. Caro was much criticized for downplaying Johnson's 1948 support for Truman, considering the fact that his lionized opponent, Coke Stevenson, stood with the racist Strom Thurmond Dixiecrat campaign. But Johnson, it turns out, attacked Truman's civil rights policies no less virulently. He gave a campaign speech in May 1948 in which he compared civil rights legislation to the creation of "a police state in the guise of liberty." Caro found the speech in a White House file with the following admonition stapled on top. "DO NOT RELEASE THIS SPEECH-speech--not even to staff...this is not EVER TO BE RELEASED." Thanks to Caro, this story, and with it a big chunk of our history, has been released as well.
Addendum: George W. Bush's Executive Order 13233, which effectively eviscerates the Presidential Records Act of 1978 by fiat, is designed to insure that no historian can ever provide this kind of public service again. Twenty Democrats and three Republicans are co-sponsors of a bill to restore it. Write your representatives and tell them to get on board.
The buildings' wounds are what I can't forget;
though nothing could absorb my sense of loss,
I stared into their blackness, what was not
supposed to be there, billowing of soot
and ragged maw of splintered steel, glass.
The buildings' wounds are what I can't forget,
the people dropping past them, fleeting spots
approaching death as if concerned with grace.
I stared into the blackness, what was not
inhuman, since by men's hands they were wrought;
reflected on the TV's screen, my face
upon the building's wounds. I can't forget
this rage, I don't know what to do with it--
it's in my nightmares, towers, plumes of dust,
a staring in the blackness. What was not
conceivable is now our every thought:
We fear the enemy is all of us.
The buildings' wounds are what I can't forget.
I stared into their blackness, what was not.