Against the Barricades

Against the Barricades

Exposing the debasement of language in service to ideologies was Renata Adler’s cause.


In 1970, Joan Didion wrote of the “ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood.” Renata Adler, born in 1938, just four years after Didion, shared in part this conception of generational identity. In the introduction to her 1969 collection Toward a Radical Middle, Adler identified the cause that Didion left more oblique: the experience of World War II and memories of its revelations. She wrote, “Ours was the first age group to experience the end of the Just War as a romantic possibility.” As a result, her generation, she believed, was wary of ideological rhetoric, of the “particular totalitarian lie at the heart of political cliché.” We, she said, “still distinguish among literalisms, metaphors, questions of degree.” And “the simplicities of ‘imperialism,’ ‘genocide,’ ‘materialism,’ ‘police brutality,’ ‘military-industrial complex,’ ‘racism,’ tossed about as though they were interchangeable, and as though they applied equally to anything with which one is out of temper, are not for us. Neither are the simplicities of anti-Communism, free world, ‘violence,’ and ‘radicalism’ itself.”

Didion thought that her cadre had been “robbed” early on “of a certain capacity for surprise,” and suggested they were cheated of more. “If I could believe,” she wrote, “that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.” The result of the same dark era, the same acquired mistrust, was for Adler slightly different: “From now,” she wrote, “it is all patient effort, unsimple victories.”

We find in her new collection, After the Tall Timber, a selection of nonfiction work from 1965 to 2003, that Adler did indeed go to the barricades, though as a decided nonparticipant in party politics—like Didion, and unlike so many writers of their era. But where Didion says that she and her peers resigned themselves to the world of the “personal,” to “a separate peace,” in the face of their existential dead end—where she would find an unavoidable, unfortunate truth—Adler finds instead a dilemma. Her way forward, though not her way out, seems to be this: At least we might, and at first we must, tell the truth.

Michael Wolff, in his preface to After the Tall Timber, writes that Adler’s “politics, to the extent that she has any prescribed position, has to do with language.” I would say it slightly differently. While rejecting political ideology, Adler holds to an ethics of language. She opposes misinformation in its many forms: exaggeration—the “apocalyptic sensibility,” the “gesture and rhetoric of revolution”; oversimplification; nonsense in the dress of substance; the co-option, or, in today’s parlance, “appropriation,” of terms more meaningful in other realms; all manner of imprecision, euphemism, and cliché. Her career-long fight, her barricade, is for faithful representation and fidelity to the real meanings of words, and thus against obfuscation and the “debasement of language.” This was her “patient effort”—or, more accurately, her persistent effort, of variable patience—sustained as she followed civil-rights marchers to Selma and Mississippi; reported from wars in Biafra and Israel; and worked to “decode” the Nixon scandal, the Starr Report, and “the most lawless decision in the history of the Court,” Bush v. Gore.

In these instances and others, Adler works to hew to the facts of what was said and done, and holds others to their words—indeed to the letter, and sometimes to the letter of the law. Exposing the misuse of language in dissembling service to ideologies—whether of movements, personalities, or institutions—becomes her cause; and relatively innocent opacity or “muddle,” employed incidentally, doesn’t escape her scrutiny. She hears echoes of authoritarian systems past in unexpected places. On the “Northern liberal” response to the “overtones” of “Black Power,” she writes: “A mob chanting anything, and particularly a spondee followed by an unaccented syllable, seemed distressingly reminiscent of prewar German rhetoric.” She is steadily wary, not of “right” and “wrong,” but of totality.

From this position, Adler makes her complaint. And her nonfiction, as collected here, is that, to be sure. She implores never, and her tone implies that we—the reader, the society—may take or leave the case she has built. As in the work of Didion and many male writers whose tones are seldom discussed in such terms, Adler is never obsequious, rarely deferential. In her career, in which she has penned multiple condemnations of colleagues and powerful publications, including former employers, this may not have been advantageous. (Though Adler had other ambitions, and her first novel, Speedboat, received the Ernest Hemingway Award for the best fiction debut of 1976 and earned her a position in the annals of lauded experimental realism.) Regardless, it has served her nonfiction very well: Hers is a voice of pure authority.

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This authority is, in part, a legacy. Her title, After the Tall Timber, recalls Mary McCarthy’s eulogy for the New York Intellectuals, of whom Adler is a direct descendant. The book covers events and phenomena with notable current relevance: civil rights and Black Power; the corrupt and incompetent regulation of domestic armed forces; war in the Middle East; the politicization of the courts; and failures of the press, including the tendency to elevate “meta-journalistic” concerns over the news, and inconsequent failures of reporting over those deeply consequent. This is all perhaps only an indication that the struggles of the 20th century unfortunately abide.

In all cases, Adler tests the coherence of the ideological systems and positions around her, and they most often fail. Her findings can fall in unloosed exasperation—the “no longer New Left” was “contributing as much to serious national concern with the problems of war, racism, and poverty as a mean drunk to the workings of a fire brigade”—or quieter, simmering scorn. At a gathering of the National Guard, whom she has convicted of killing many innocent civilians, she asks “whether so many hansoms were normal even for a convention of tourists at the Americana”; a cabdriver responds that “they were not.” Her complaint can come, too, in calm, bricklaying finality—perhaps most famously on a collection of Pauline Kael’s late-career film criticism: “to my surprise, and without…exaggeration, not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.”

Her own work seeks the specific. Rather than pretend there is such a thing as the “hippie left,” she lays out “the constellation that is longhair, bohemia, the New Left, individualism, sexual freedom, the East, drugs, the arts.” Writing on the James Meredith March Against Fear—a Black Power march in Mississippi in 1966—she devotes eight pages to “the cast” of the civil-rights march “institution.” She reports as well on the slight, fluid boundaries of types—of people, events, incidents—and the tensions pulling across those faint, flimsy, or brittle lines.

Complex phenomena become succinct: Stokely Carmichael, finding that he is continually misrepresented in the press, doubles down in obstinacy and begins “to make himself eminently misrepresentable”; Pauline Kael is guilty of the “hack carom,” “taking, that is, something from within the film and…turning it against the film.” Adler’s well-chosen details are in the classic mode of the 1960s New Yorker, from which many of these pieces are culled: “the marchers lined up for supper (three tons of spaghetti), which was served to them on paper plates, from brand-new garbage pails.” Also typical of that style is the specificity of her vocabulary—not a “dance,” but a “frug.” Her metaphors are evocative—“The decision…is a swamp”—and her descriptions chosen for associative import. On the march to Selma: “the skeletons of old kites were just visible in the dim lights from the windows of St. Jude’s Hospital.”

Adler favors understatement—hypocrisy is “interesting,” illogic “curious”—and often finds opportunity for deep sarcasm that overlaps entirely with straightforward fact: “By Wednesday noon, Resolutions had abolished the capitalist system.”

Rhetorics are translated: “Being ‘radicalized’” meant “voting against one’s principles with an expression of Machiavellian deviousness, or discussing one’s politics as a most interesting turn in one’s personal psychology.” The word “‘revolution’…was used for every nuance of dissent.” And continually, she works to define “what really is at stake” in muddied conversations. What has gone unspoken is of utmost importance; she seeks “the underlying fact,” “the underlying logic,” “the underlying proposition,” and often believes she’s found it. She is concerned with the “jettisoning” of “meaning from vocabulary”; and when she discredits Pauline Kael in roughly 25 pages of dedicated demolition, finding that the work is empty—“the whole verbal apparatus promotes, and relies upon, an incapacity to read”—the implication is that dogmatic, reflexive vacuity matters, no matter its realm.

That her concern with language is not a “delusion of punctilio”—a diagnosis she levels at The New York Times as the least of that paper’s problems—is a case more directly made by her condemnation of the Times’s evasion of responsibility in the plight of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, whose imprisonment (after being accused of sharing US nuclear secrets with China) was aided by the paper’s likely erroneous findings of treasonous deeds. Adler’s fight against the Times eventually became its own cause, and leads to true breakdowns in measured argument—the only such breakdowns I found in After the Tall Timber. She writes, for example: “There is no longer even a vestige or pretense, on the part of the print journalist, of any professional commitment to uninflected coverage of the news.” But of course there is a “vestige,” of course there is a “pretense.” In this way, her failure actually validates her prior commitment to no cause; but the most powerful arguments for her dedication to language, and to reason, may come when this fidelity leads directly to the high ground:

What the movement seeks now is not benevolence but a recognition of reality: the black man’s rights are law—and for the white community to resist or ignore the law implies the collapse of an entire legal and moral system. It has become intolerable to the black man to win so slowly what is his by right, and it has become too costly, in every possible sense, to go on denying him his just place in this society.

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The politics of language have stalked the electronic and literary air as of late. In January, Jonathan Chait, in a much-discussed article for New York magazine, aimed to debunk an ascendant second wave of left-born political correctness—one that, in the age of the Internet, would have far wider reach than the university-derived PC-ism of the 1990s, and thus would be more stifling and, in instances of real censorship, more dangerous for society at large. Those implicated as “police” by Chait’s argument, you might have guessed, did not agree.

Implicit here, it does not seem to have been said, are questions of the barricades: who is to go to them, and where they properly lie. These are questions of political versus rhetorical versus literary commitment, and though these co-exclusions are fraudulent, such terms may be of use. Some writers are activists first, and certainly these are of a different creed. Agreement as to whether the barricades of politically committed writers are well chosen, and their arguments sound, varies widely; whether Jonathan Chait’s work is logical, whether it can withstand the measure of Writer, simply, remains to be argued elsewhere.

There is a related current complaint, widespread and well-founded, that the nonfiction essay today is too predictable, too partisan. Michael Wolff, in the preface to After the Tall Timber, writes: “What is to be made of the usefulness or intellectual integrity of journalists and commentators whose positions are always known? They might as well never write at all—saving time for everyone.” This seems to be, more obviously, a concern of the barricades—too firmly fixed, and players too firmly fastened to each side—but it is not that entirely.

In the foreword to the newest edition of the annual Best American Essays, series founder Robert Atwan writes: “I’ve come to think that one reason for the oppressive predictability of polemical essays can be found in today’s polarized social and political climate. To paraphrase Emerson: ‘If I know your party, I anticipate your argument.’ Not merely about politics but about everything.”

He goes on: “Most of us open magazines, newspapers, and websites knowing precisely what to expect. Many readers apparently enjoy being members of the choir.” Wolff writes, similarly, of predictable opinions: “And yet, of course, the market accommodates them, whereas unanticipated views are met with hostility and confusion”—implying that the market is free, and pinning at least some blame on the common reader. But the market does much more than “accommodate.” The content of today’s popular journalism is not the result of a country of people whose minds blink in yeses and nos, but at least in great part a result of systems blinking in zeros and ones. That is: the demands and rewards of the Internet, which we strangely, frequently put aside in such conversations, as if pretending they weren’t there, might let it be true.

Atwan calls the current environment “rancorously partisan,” and I am inclined to agree, if we allow “partisan” to mean something greater, a meta-step removed from its standard definition: a perpetual interest in, and dedication to, the breaking of ideas into parts and sides—a way of thinking that implies that there is always a dividing wall, and we may always stand along it.

Opinion writing with the broadest reach—that is, the most trafficked—comes to us from a strange world of either/or, and its most damaging, most stifling effect is not the imposition of specific thought—of anti-liberal PC-ism, or privileged liberalism, or right-wing invective. It is neither, in my view, the deadening familiarity of the established stance. It is instead the ever-present normative push, not to specific thought but to organizing ideas into ready and waiting positions. Consider two very familiar formulas for the titles of online articles. The first, “What We Talk About When We Talk About X,” is a mutated open-ended question, formerly indicating an exploration of meaning (“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is a short story, and collection, by Raymond Carver; “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” a memoir by Haruki Murakami). It is used now most often to correct an interpretation of meaning. “What X Got Wrong About Y” is more straightforward in its purpose, but both structures, used ad nauseam, include unreasonable premises of totality and simplicity.

Today’s online commerce of words necessitates repetition—hence the fetishization of keywords, which become, in practical terms for editors and magazines, the correct labels for ideas, for observations, for all parts of thought. Cliché is quite literally the currency. We kid ourselves every time we discuss the devolution of public language as if it exists separately from this commoditization. Profitable words—those that embed a piece in a widespread “discussion,” the same words any writer would use to “join the conversation”—are used to mean more and more, and, as they are wont to do, in their distinction begin to mean less.

Whether it follows from the market or no, there also seems to be a genuine fetish for correctly breaking thought into parts. Of the flood of think pieces following the attack at Charlie Hebdo, scores were written to rectify expressions of sympathy and solidarity: “Free speech,” “respect,” and “identity” had been categorized incorrectly. This is an environment in which no nuance is taken for granted—enough so to fuel a cottage industry for explaining that human experience, or international injustice, is “complicated”:

Why are we crying? The complicated truth about the tears that we shed

The Complicated Truth Behind Domestic Violence

The complicated truth behind the empire of the United States of America

The complicated truth behind Islamic State’s horrifying Libya video

And, for good measure:

The complicated truth behind aspartame

Although the comparison is far from fair, it’s all very funny and ludicrous, and seems barely real against the steady, triply qualified lines of a Renata Adler, nearly shameful alongside Didion’s bounded lens of self-awareness. But where the barricades lie, and where one stands, if one is to go, are still questions of greatest significance. There is still, as there has always been, what an astute subject of Adler’s called, in 1969, the “nuisance of having to reevaluate.” It is accompanied now by new, particular obstacles, and we would do well to grant their existence. The rest will take, as it always has, some effort.

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