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The Magazines & Newspapers are in the Black Mirror.
Stephen Greenblatt: Scenes from a Mystery
June 11, 2020 / Volume LXVII, Number 10
AN AMERICAN PLAGUE
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: WHAT GOT US HERE
MICHAEL POLLAN: THE ROT IN OUR FOOD SUPPLY
FRANCESCA MARI: BAILOUTS AND VULTURES
Deborah Eisenberg on Jessica Hagedorn
Sigrid Nunez on Garth Greenwell
Gregory Hays on Horace
Telegram: @WorldAndNews
The Magazines & Newspapers are in the Black Mirror.
Telegram: @WorldAndNews
Contents
4
Michael Pollan
8
Sigrid Nunez
10
Francesca Mari
14
The Sickness in Our Food Supply
Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
Mitko by Garth Greenwell
Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates,
Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and
Demolished the American Dream by Aaron Glantz
BASIC BOOKS
Adam Shatz The Newest Sound Around an album by Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake
The Newest Sound You Never Heard: European Studio Recordings 1966/1967
an album by Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake
Free Standards: Stockholm 1966 an album by Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake
18
Stephen Greenblatt Witness to a Mystery
23
Deborah Eisenberg Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn
25 Christopher de Bellaigue
The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage
of an Empire by William Dalrymple
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor
27
francine j. harris
Poem
28
Gregory Hays
30
Rachel Polonsky
Without the Banya We Would Perish: A History of the Russian Bathhouse
by Ethan Pollock
32
Peter E. Gordon
Charisma and Disenchantment: The Vocation Lectures by Max Weber,
edited and with an introduction by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon,
and translated from the German by Damion Searls
37
Colm Tóibín
40
R. J. W. Evans
42
NE W IN
PAPERBACK FROM
Horace’s ‘Ars Poetica’: Family, Friendship, and the Art of Living
by Jennifer Ferriss-Hill
The Catholic School by Edoardo Albinati, translated from the Italian
by Antony Shugaar
“Dying of Whiteness
brilliantly demonstrates
the tremendous impediment
that white racism and
backlash politics pose to
our society’s wellbeing.”
— D O R O T H Y R O B E R T S,
author of Killing the Black Body
Emperor: A New Life of Charles V by Geoffrey Parker
Emily Berry Poem
43
Marilynne Robinson
46
Letters from
What Kind of Country Do We Want?
Mitchell Abidor, Jed Perl, and Luc Sante
CONTRIBUTORS
CHRISTOPHER DE BELLAIGUE’s latest book is The
Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and
Reason, 1798 to Modern Times.
EMILY BERRY is the Editor of The Poetry Review. She is the
author of the poetry collections Stranger, Baby and Dear Boy.
DEBORAH EISENBERG’s latest collection of short stories
is Your Duck Is My Duck. She is also the author of a play,
Pastorale.
R. J. W. EVANS is a Fellow of Oriel College and Regius
Professor of History Emeritus at Oxford. He is the author
of Austria, Hungary, and the Habsburgs: Central Europe,
c. 1683–1867, among other books.
PETER E. GORDON is the Amabel B. James Professor of
History and a Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard. His books include Migrants in the Profane:
Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization, which will
be published in the fall.
STEPHEN GREENBLATT is the Cogan University Professor
of the Humanities at Harvard. He is the author of The Rise
and Fall of Adam and Eve: The Story That Created Us and
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, among other books.
francine j. harris’s third collection of poetry, Here Is the
Sweet Hand, will be published in August. She is an Associate
Professor of English at the University of Houston.
GREGORY HAYS is an Associate Professor of Classics at
the University of Virginia.
FRANCESCA MARI has written for The New York Times
Magazine, The Atlantic, The Cut, and Texas Monthly.
SIGRID NUNEZ’s most recent book, The Friend, received
the 2018 National Book Award for fiction. Her eighth novel,
What Are You Going Through, will be published in September.
MICHAEL POLLAN is the author of several books about
food and agriculture, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma and
In Defense of Food. His most recent book is How to Change
Your Mind. He teaches writing at Harvard and UC Berkeley,
where he is the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of
Journalism.
RACHEL POLONSKY teaches Slavonic Studies at Cambridge. Her latest book is Molotov’s Magic Lantern: A Journey
in Russian History.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON is the author, most recently, of
the essay collection What Are We Doing Here? A novel, Jack,
will be published this fall.
ADAM SHATZ is a Contributing Editor at the London
Review of Books.
COLM TÓIBÍN is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor
of the Humanities at Columbia. His latest book is Mad, Bad,
Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce.
Editors: Emily Greenhouse, Gabriel Winslow-Yost
Deputy Editor: Michael Shae
Senior Editors: Eve Bowen, Prudence Crowther,
Julie Just, Andrew Katzenstein
Senior Editor, Poetry: Jana Prikryl
Editor-at-Large: Daniel Mendelsohn
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Barbara Epstein (1928–2006)
Publisher: Rea S. Hederman
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CREATIVITY IN CONFINEMENT
nybooks.com/daily
“This fierce, capacious, and
startlingly intelligent defense
of a whole political, social,
and moral order is essential
reading for our time.”
— S T E P H E N G R E E N B L AT T,
author of The Swerve:
How the World Became Modern
“A work of deep scholarship
and powerful storytelling.”
» Pamela Druckerman: Pandemic Marriage & Me
» Sayed Kashua: The Perils of Lockdown Living
— V I C T O R S E B E S T Y E N,
» Daphne Merkin: All Made-Up, Nowhere to Go
» Åsne Seierstad: A Virus in the Neighborhood
Sunday Times (London)
Plus: Nicole R. Fleetwood on art and incarceration, Tamar Avishai on the paintings of Edo Japan, and more…
basicbooks.com
On the cover: Fallow tomato fields, Corcoran, California, 2014; detail of a photograph by Matt Black (Magnum Photos). The illustration on page 8 is by Hope
Gangloff. The drawing on page 32 is by David Levine.
The New York Review of Books (ISSN 0028-7504), published 20 times a year, monthly in January, June, August, and September; semi-monthly in February, March, April,
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3
The Sickness in Our Food Supply
Michael Pollan
“Only when the tide goes out,” Warren Buffett observed, “do you discover
who’s been swimming naked.” For
our society, the Covid-19 pandemic
represents an ebb tide of historic proportions, one that is laying bare vulnerabilities and inequities that in
normal times have gone undiscovered.
Nowhere is this more evident than in
the American food system. A series
of shocks has exposed weak links in
our food chain that threaten to leave
grocery shelves as patchy and unpredictable as those in the former Soviet
bloc. The very system that made possible the bounty of the American supermarket—its vaunted efficiency
and ability to “pile it high
and sell it cheap”—suddenly
seems questionable, if not
misguided. But the problems
the novel coronavirus has revealed are not limited to the
way we produce and distribute food. They also show up
on our plates, since the diet
on offer at the end of the industrial food chain is linked to
precisely the types of chronic
disease that render us more
vulnerable to Covid-19.
The juxtaposition of images
in the news of farmers destroying crops and dumping
milk with empty supermarket
shelves or hungry Americans
lining up for hours at food
banks tells a story of economic
efficiency gone mad. Today the
US actually has two separate
food chains, each supplying
roughly half of the market.
The retail food chain links
one set of farmers to grocery
stores, and a second chain
links a different set of farmers to institutional purchasers
of food, such as restaurants,
schools, and corporate offices.
With the shutting down of much of the
economy, as Americans stay home,
this second food chain has essentially
collapsed. But because of the way the
industry has developed over the past
several decades, it’s virtually impossible
to reroute food normally sold in bulk
to institutions to the retail outlets now
clamoring for it. There’s still plenty of
food coming from American farms, but
no easy way to get it where it’s needed.
How did we end up here? The story
begins early in the Reagan administration, when the Justice Department rewrote the rules of antitrust enforcement:
if a proposed merger promised to lead
to greater marketplace “efficiency”—
the watchword—and wouldn’t harm
the consumer, i.e., didn’t raise prices,
it would be approved. (It’s worth noting that the word “consumer” appears
nowhere in the Sherman Anti-Trust
Act, passed in 1890. The law sought
to protect producers—including farmers—and our politics from undue concentrations of corporate power.) 1 The
1
This history is recounted in Barry C.
Lynn, Cornered: The New Monopoly
Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction (Wiley, 2011), pp. 135–138.
4
new policy, which subsequent administrations have left in place, propelled
a wave of mergers and acquisitions in
the food industry. As the industry has
grown steadily more concentrated
since the 1980s, it has also grown much
more specialized, with a tiny number
of large corporations dominating each
link in the supply chain. One chicken
farmer interviewed recently in Washington Monthly, who sells millions of
eggs into the liquified egg market, destined for omelets in school cafeterias,
lacks the grading equipment and packaging (not to mention the contacts or
contracts) to sell his eggs in the retail
This should come as no surprise: social
distancing is virtually impossible in a
modern meat plant, making it an ideal
environment for a virus to spread. In
recent years, meatpackers have successfully lobbied regulators to increase
line speeds, with the result that workers
must stand shoulder to shoulder cutting and deboning animals so quickly
that they can’t pause long enough
to cover a cough, much less go to the
bathroom, without carcasses passing
them by. Some chicken plant workers,
given no regular bathroom breaks, now
wear diapers. 5 A worker can ask for a
break, but the plants are so loud he or
by a shortage of meat. In order to reopen their production lines, Tyson and
his fellow packers wanted the federal
government to step in and preempt
local public health authorities; they
also needed liability protection, in case
workers or their unions sued them for
failing to observe health and safety
regulations.
Within days of Tyson’s ad, President
Trump obliged the meatpackers by invoking the Defense Production Act.
After having declined to use it to boost
the production of badly needed coronavirus test kits, he now declared meat a
“scarce and critical material essential to the national defense.”
The executive order took the
decision to reopen or close
meat plants out of local hands,
forced employees back to work
without any mandatory safety
precautions, and offered their
employers some protection
from liability for their negligence. On May 8, Tyson reopened a meatpacking plant
in Waterloo, Iowa, where more
than a thousand workers had
tested positive.
The president and America’s
Illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck
marketplace.2 That chicken farmer had
no choice but to euthanize thousands
of hens at a time when eggs are in short
supply in many supermarkets.
On April 26, John Tyson, the chairman of Tyson Foods, the second-largest
meatpacker in America, took out ads in
The New York Times and other newspapers to declare that the food chain
was “breaking,” raising the specter of
imminent meat shortages as outbreaks
of Covid-19 hit the industry. 3 Slaughterhouses have become hot zones for
contagion, with thousands of workers
now out sick and dozens of them dying.4
2
See Claire Kelloway, “Why Are Farmers Destroying Food While Grocery
Stores Are Empty?,” Washington
Monthly, April 28, 2020.
3
See “In America, the Virus Threatens
a Meat Industry That Is Too Concentrated,” The Economist, April 30, 2020.
she can’t be heard without speaking
directly into the ear of a supervisor.
Until recently slaughterhouse workers
had little or no access to personal protective equipment; many of them were
also encouraged to keep working even
after exposure to the virus. Add to this
the fact that many meat-plant workers
are immigrants who live in crowded
conditions with little or no access to
health care, and you have a population
at dangerously high risk of infection.
When the number of Covid-19 cases
in America’s slaughterhouses exploded
in late April—12,608 confirmed, with
forty-nine deaths as of May 11—public
health officials and governors began ordering plants to close. It was this threat
to the industry’s profitability that led
to Tyson’s declaration, which President
Trump would have been right to see as
a shakedown: the president’s political
difficulties could only be compounded
4
See Leah Douglas, “Mapping
Covid-19 in Meat and Food Processing Plants,” Food and Environmental
Reporting Network (FERN), April 22,
2020. FERN has covered this story extensively and compiled statistics. Also
see Esther Honig and Ted Genoways,
“‘The Workers Are Being Sacrificed’:
As Cases Mounted, Meatpacker JBS
Kept People on Crowded Factory
Floors,” FERN, May 1, 2020. Civil Eats
and FERN have both done an excellent
job of covering the outbreaks in the
meat industry.
5
See Magaly Licolli, “As Tyson Claims
the Food Supply Is Breaking, Its Workers Continue to Suffer,” Civil Eats,
April 30, 2020.
meat eaters, not to mention
its meat-plant workers, would
never have found themselves
in this predicament if not for
the concentration of the meat
industry, which has given us
a supply chain so brittle that
the closure of a single plant
can cause havoc at every step,
from farm to supermarket.
Four companies now process
more than 80 percent of beef
cattle in America; another
four companies process 57
percent of the hogs. A single
Smithfield processing plant in
Sioux Falls, South Dakota, processes
5 percent of the pork Americans eat.
When an outbreak of Covid-19 forced
the state’s governor to shut that plant
down in April, the farmers who raise
pigs committed to it were stranded.
Once pigs reach slaughter weight,
there’s not much else you can do
with them. You can’t afford to keep
feeding them; even if you could, the
production lines are designed to accommodate pigs up to a certain size
and weight, and no larger. Meanwhile,
you’ve got baby pigs entering the process, steadily getting fatter. Much the
same is true for the hybrid industrial
chickens, which, if allowed to live beyond their allotted six or seven weeks,
are susceptible to broken bones and
heart problems and quickly become
too large to hang on the disassembly
line. This is why the meat-plant closures forced American farmers to euthanize millions of animals, at a time
when food banks were overwhelmed by
demand.6
Under normal circumstances, the
modern hog or chicken is a marvel of
6
See Tyler Whitley, “Don’t Blame
Farmers Who Have to Euthanize Their
Animals. Blame the Companies They
Work For,” Civil Eats, April 30, 2020.
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5
brutal efficiency, bred to produce protein at warp speed when given the right
food and pharmaceuticals. So are the
factories in which they are killed and
cut into parts. These innovations have
made meat, which for most of human
history has been a luxury, a cheap
commodity available to just about all
Americans; we now eat, on average,
more than nine ounces of meat per person per day, many of us at every meal.7
Covid-19 has brutally exposed the risks
that accompany such a system. There
will always be a tradeoff between efficiency and resilience (not to mention
ethics); the food industry opted for
the former, and we are now paying the
price.
Imagine how different the story
would be if there were still tens of
thousands of chicken and pig farmers
bringing their animals to hundreds of
regional slaughterhouses. An outbreak
at any one of them would barely disturb
the system; it certainly wouldn’t be
front-page news. Meat would probably
be more expensive, but the redundancy
would render the system more resilient,
making breakdowns in the national
supply chain unlikely. Successive administrations allowed the industry to
consolidate because the efficiencies
promised to make meat cheaper for the
7
It’s worth remembering that the federal government actively promotes
meat consumption in myriad ways, from
USDA advertising campaigns—“Beef:
It’s What’s for Dinner”—to exempting
feedlots from provisions of the Clean
Water and Clean Air Acts, to the dietary guidelines it issues and the heavy
subsidies it gives for animal feed.
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6
consumer, which it did. It also gave us
an industry so powerful it can enlist the
president of the United States in its efforts to bring local health authorities to
heel and force reluctant and frightened
workers back onto the line.
Another vulnerability that the novel
coronavirus has exposed is the paradoxical notion of “essential” workers
who are grossly underpaid and whose
lives are treated as disposable. It is the
men and women who debone chicken
carcasses flying down a line at 175 birds
a minute, or pick salad greens under the
desert sun, or drive refrigerated produce trucks across the country who are
keeping us fed and keeping the wheels
of our society from flying off. Our utter
dependence on them has never been
more clear. This should give food and
agricultural workers a rare degree of
political leverage at the very moment
they are being disproportionately
infected. Scattered job actions and
wildcat strikes are beginning to pop
up around the country—at Amazon,
Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, and
some meat plants—as these workers
begin to flex their muscle. 8 This is probably just the beginning. Perhaps their
new leverage will allow them to win the
kinds of wages, protections, and benefits that would more accurately reflect
their importance to society.
8
See, for example, Daniel A. Medina,
“As Amazon, Walmart, and Others
Profit Amid Coronavirus Crisis, Their
Essential Workers Plan Unprecedented
Strike,” The Intercept, April 28, 2020.
So far, the produce sections of our
supermarkets remain comparatively
well stocked, but what happens this
summer and next fall, if the outbreaks
that have crippled the meat industry
hit the farm fields? Farmworkers, too,
live and work in close proximity, many
of them undocumented immigrants
crammed into temporary quarters on
farms. Lacking benefits like sick pay,
not to mention health insurance, they
often have no choice but to work even
when infected. Many growers depend on
guest workers from Mexico to pick their
crops; what happens if the pandemic—
or the Trump administration, which is
using the pandemic to justify even more
restrictions on immigration—prevents
them from coming north this year?
The food chain is buckling. But it’s
worth pointing out that there are parts
of it that are adapting and doing relatively well. Local food systems have
proved surprisingly resilient. Small, diversified farmers who supply restaurants
have had an easier time finding new
markets; the popularity of communitysupported agriculture (CSA) is taking
off, as people who are cooking at home
sign up for weekly boxes of produce
from regional growers. (The renaissance of home cooking, and baking,
is one of the happier consequences of
the lockdown, good news both for our
health and for farmers who grow actual
food, as opposed to commodities like
corn and soy.) In many places, farmer’s
markets have quickly adjusted to pandemic conditions, instituting socialdistancing rules and touchless payment
systems. The advantages of local food
systems have never been more obvious, and their rapid growth during the
past two decades has at least partly
insulated many communities from the
shocks to the broader food economy.
The pandemic is, willy-nilly, making the case for deindustrializing and
decentralizing the American food system, breaking up the meat oligopoly,
ensuring that food workers have sick
pay and access to health care, and pursuing policies that would sacrifice some
degree of efficiency in favor of much
greater resilience. Somewhat less obviously, the pandemic is making the case
not only for a different food system but
for a radically different diet as well.
It’s long been understood that an industrial food system built upon a foundation of commodity crops like corn
and soybeans leads to a diet dominated
by meat and highly processed food.
Most of what we grow in this country
is not food exactly, but rather feed for
animals and the building blocks from
which fast food, snacks, soda, and all
the other wonders of food processing,
such as high-fructose corn syrup, are
manufactured. While some sectors of
agriculture are struggling during the
pandemic, we can expect the corn and
soybean crop to escape more or less
unscathed. That’s because it takes remarkably little labor—typically a single
farmer on a tractor, working alone—to
plant and harvest thousands of acres of
these crops. So processed foods should
be the last kind to disappear from supermarket shelves.
Unfortunately, a diet dominated by
such foods (as well as lots of meat and
little in the way of vegetables or fruit—
the so- called Western diet) predisposes
us to obesity and chronic diseases such
as hypertension and type-2 diabetes.
These “underlying conditions” happen to be among the strongest predic-
tors that an individual infected with
Covid-19 will end up in the hospital
with a severe case of the disease; the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that 49 percent
of the people hospitalized for Covid-19
had preexisting hypertension, 48 percent were obese, and 28 percent had
diabetes.9
Why these particular conditions
should worsen Covid-19 infections
might be explained by the fact that all
three are symptoms of chronic inflammation, which is a disorder of the body’s
immune system. (The Western diet is
by itself inflammatory.) One way that
Covid-19 kills is by sending the victim’s
immune system into hyperdrive, igniting a “cytokine storm” that eventually
destroys the lungs and other organs. A
new Chinese study conducted in hospitals in Wuhan found that elevated
levels of C-reactive protein, a standard
marker of inflammation that has been
linked to poor diet, “correlated with
disease severity and tended to be a
good predictor of adverse outcomes.”10
A momentous question awaits us on
the far side of the current crisis: Are
we willing to address the many vulnerabilities that the novel coronavirus
has so dramatically exposed? It’s not
hard to imagine a coherent and powerful new politics organized around precisely that principle. It would address
the mistreatment of essential workers
and gaping holes in the social safety
net, including access to health care and
sick leave—which we now understand,
if we didn’t before, would be a benefit
to all of us. It would treat public health
as a matter of national security, giving
it the kind of resources that threats to
national security warrant.
But to be comprehensive, this postpandemic politics would also need to
confront the glaring deficiencies of a
food system that has grown so concentrated that it is exquisitely vulnerable
to the risks and disruptions now facing
us. In addition to protecting the men
and women we depend on to feed us,
it would also seek to reorganize our
agricultural policies to promote health
rather than mere production, by paying
attention to the quality as well as the
quantity of the calories it produces. For
even when our food system is functioning “normally,” reliably supplying the
supermarket shelves and drive-thrus
with cheap and abundant calories, it
is killing us—slowly in normal times,
swiftly in times like these. The food
system we have is not the result of the
free market. (There hasn’t been a free
market in food since at least the Great
Depression.) No, our food system is the
product of agricultural and antitrust
policies—political choices—that, as
has suddenly become plain, stand in
urgent need of reform.
Q
—May 12, 2020
9
See Shikha Garg et al., “Hospitalization Rates and Characteristics of
Patients Hospitalized with LaboratoryConfirmed Coronavirus Disease 2019,
COVID-NET, 14 States, March 1–30,
2020,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly
Report, Vol. 69, No. 15 (April 17, 2020).
10
See Xiaomin Luo et al., “Prognostic
Value of C-Reactive Protein in Patients
with COVID -19,” medRxiv, March 23,
2020. The study has not yet been peerreviewed.
The New York Review
ALL EPISODES STREAMING
THIRTEEN.ORG/PASSPORT
June 11, 2020
7
Sex and Sincerity
Sigrid Nunez
Cleanness
by Garth Greenwell.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
223 pp., $26.00
is always scrupulously controlled. A
walk in a park one early spring day inspires feelings of freedom and elation,
of being “struck somehow stupidly
good for a moment at the extravagant
beauty of the world,” and thoughts
about lines from Whitman, whose poetry he has been teaching,
Garth Greenwell
What Belongs to You
by Garth Greenwell.
Picador, 194 pp., $17.00 (paper)
Mitko
by Garth Greenwell.
Miami University Press,
96 pp. $15.00 (paper)
When, in 1993, the editor in chief of
Literary Review, Auberon Waugh, together with the critic Rhoda Koenig
established the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, their declared goal was to
expose what they saw as the deplorable
ubiquity of “crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of
sexual description in the modern novel,
and to discourage it.” Extracts by the
shortlisted and winning novelists in
the many years since might well leave
a reader thinking there really is nothing harder to write about than fucking.
(Without a doubt they will leave the
reader rolling on the floor.) Back in
the days before most MFA students had
become too fearful of being called out
for politically “problematic” content to
include sex scenes in the fiction they
submit to workshop, a teacher knew
what three pitfalls to expect: either the
description would be too clinical or it
would be too coy or it would be too
smutty. Bad sex writing happens even
to seriously good writers (John Updike,
famed for his bravura powers of description and the meticulous elegance
of his style, was also the winner of a
Bad Sex in Fiction Lifetime Achievement Award), giving strength to the
idea that describing this particular
human behavior, however important a
part of life it may be, is so fraught, so
likely to break the spell every novelist
strives to cast and maintain over the
course of a book, that the best thing
might indeed be just to avoid it.
Jonathan Franzen, in an essay on
books about sex, described the unpleasant feeling he experiences as a reader
at the signs of a looming sex scene:
Often the sentences begin to
lengthen Joyceanly. My own anxiety rises sympathetically with
the author’s, and soon enough the
fragile bubble of the imaginative
world is pricked by the hard exigencies of naming body parts and
movements—the sameness of it all.
The sameness of it all: one of the
hallmarks of pornography. “When
the sex is persuasively rendered,” his
complaint went on, “it tends to read
autobiographically.” True, and, if not
off-putting to everyone, this surely
risks making many other readers besides Franzen cringe. But the greatest
challenge, the one that even the most
gifted writers almost never transcend,
remains the limits of our erotic vocabulary, now and forever “hopelessly contaminated through its previous use by
writers whose aim is simply to turn the
reader on.” Having thus hit the nail on
the head, Franzen himself went on to
be shortlisted for the Bad Sex in Fic8
lines in which the whole world
stands sharpened to an erotic
point, aimed at the poet lain bare
before it. They had always mildly
embarrassed me . . . and yet it was
these lines that came to me on
the path in Blagoevgrad watching
seeds come down like snow, that
determined and defined and enriched that moment, language as
always interposing itself between
ourselves and what we see. What
were they, these seeds, if not the
wind’s soft-tickling genitals, the
world’s procreant urge; and finally
it felt plausible to me, his desire to
be bare before that urge, his madness, as he says, to be in contact
with it.
tion Award, for a passage in his fourth
novel, Freedom.
So what happens when someone sets
out to write fiction that is “100 percent pornographic and 100 percent
high art”? According to Garth Greenwell, that was one of his goals in writing Cleanness, a collection of stories
so connected they can be read as a
novel (he himself has called the book
a lieder cycle) and which includes several graphic descriptions of sex, some
loving and tender, some brutally S&M,
and all tending to read autobiographically. (Like his fictional unnamed firstperson narrator, Greenwell is gay, was
raised in a southern Republican state,
and has lived and taught in Bulgaria. A
recent profile in The New York Times
suggested that, despite these parallels,
readers who assume Greenwell is writing about himself are mistaken. However, when I asked him if it would be
appropriate for me to include his work
in a course I taught on autobiographical fiction, and if I had his approval to
do so, he said yes.)
Greenwell, who before turning to
fiction wrote poetry and who has also
been a dedicated student of music,
published his first book in 2011. Mitko,
which won the Miami University Novella Prize, is set in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, where the book’s narrator,
a young American writer, lives alone
and works as a teacher in an American high school. Beneath a government building in a public bathroom
frequented by men seeking anonymous
sex, he pays for the services of a young
hustler—Mitko—thus initiating what
will become an increasingly intense
and complicated affair. Handsome and
alluring, Mitko turns out to have other
charms as well, displaying at times an
appealingly childlike side, affectionate
and marked by the kind of innocence
that is owing not merely to his youth
but to the severely restricted life that
has been available to him. Without
money, without education, and, like so
many of his countrymen, without prospects for decent employment, Mitko is
basically homeless.
Unsurprisingly, he has a dark side
too. A heavy drinker, habitually dishonest, he can also be coldly manipulative, bullying, and worse. The
narrator’s attraction to Mitko does not
blind him to the considerable risk their
relationship involves. To keep seeing
him means to live constantly on edge
(not that the element of danger, like the
risks the narrator is aware anyone runs
by cruising, doesn’t also feed his excitement). For narrator and reader alike,
there is the gut-clenching knowledge
that this story cannot possibly end well.
The narrator’s complex sexual and
emotional entanglement with Mitko,
his awareness of Mitko’s bleak future,
his own guilt over the inequality that
exists between them, the shame he
feels for his desire for Mitko and the
tormenting hunger that draws him to
the toilets where they first found each
other—all this is examined with insight, delicacy, and skill. Here, in this
short but rich debut, Greenwell’s talent
is already plain. He writes beautiful
sentences. There is no superfluous or
perfunctory language, and no matter
how turbulent or overwrought the content of what he is describing, the prose
To paraphrase Isaac Babel, a writer’s
story is finished not when no sentence
can be added but when none can be
taken away. This occurred to me when
I read Mitko, for me a satisfyingly complete work, needing nothing added or
taken away. The author, however, had
other ideas. He turned Mitko into the
first section of a new book, to which he
added a second and a third part. The
result, What Belongs to You, is a superb novel, wholly deserving the wide
praise it received when it was published
in 2016. The expansion gave Greenwell
a chance to provide, in part two, material about the narrator’s earlier life,
specifically his coming of age in a broken family, before taking up the thread
of the Mitko story again and bringing it
to its poignant and fated conclusion in
part three.
From recollections prompted by the
news from home that his dangerously
ill, possibly dying father wishes to see
him, we learn about the narrator’s relationship with that chronically adulterous, psychotically homophobic man,
from whom he has long been estranged,
and about a generational family history of violence and cruelty. There is
also a description of his first romantic
encounter with another boy, an experience that begins in pleasure only to descend into pained bewilderment before
culminating in an especially twisted
and heartbreaking betrayal. But however painful, this episode is nothing in
comparison with what he suffers at the
hands of his father and stepmother, an
account of parental abuse and rejection
so harrowing that, years after I first
read it, the memory can still chill me.
All the same preoccupations found
in What Belongs to You—love, desire,
abandonment, humiliation, betrayal,
self-disgust, disease, shame—reappear
in Cleanness, which, if not exactly a sequel, is, Greenwell has acknowledged,
part of the same literary project. Some
of the stories have been published before, and I have to say that the ones I
read at the time they appeared left me
somewhat disappointed to see how
similar the new work was to the old
The New York Review
(according to what I’ve read about the
book, I am not the only one to have
had such a response). But reading the
collection—or lieder cycle—as a whole
offers a much different and deeper experience and has dispelled what qualms
I might have had, even if I did not find
Cleanness as a novel quite the equal of
What Belongs to You.
Once again in the ardent, brooding
consciousness of Greenwell’s narrator—the same unnamed American
writer leading the same life as the protagonist of Mitko and What Belongs
to You: teaching high school in Sofia,
cruising the same parks and bathrooms, yearning for the love that will
save him from cruising—the reader is
treated to his unfailingly intelligent
observations, his acute ability to describe what he sees and thinks and
feels. At the heart of these stories
lies a desire for radical, even ruthless
self- disclosure (“the whole bent of
my nature is toward confession,” confesses the narrator), and the degree
of intimate detail, both physical and
emotional, may at times shock readers
and leave some repulsed. (Again, the
thing about writing pornographically,
above all when the writer appears to be
talking about himself, is that there is as
much chance of turning readers off as
there is of turning them on.) “His only
demand was to be fucked bare,” we are
told about a sexual partner the narrator
hooks up with through an Internet chat
room, and for the narrator, you could
say, this book is the literary equivalent
of just that. In any case, his willingness
to go to extremes in his self-exposure
and self-flagellation can make it seem
as though he has not only stripped himself naked for our scrutiny but flayed a
layer of skin.
Like What Belongs to You, Cleanness is divided into three parts. Each
contains three stories. Only the second part is given a title, “Loving R.,”
and here we find Greenwell’s attempt
to fulfill another of his goals for the
composition of this book, which was
to write about happiness, or, as he has
said in an interview, to give some joy to
his characters who elsewhere are made
to suffer so much. R. the beloved is a
young Portuguese man who has come
to Bulgaria as part of a program for
European college students and with
whom the narrator has a two-year affair. In the middle story, “The Frog
King,” the men go on vacation to Italy,
where, among other joys, there is the
freedom of behaving openly like the
loving couple they are.
For all his moving and wholly convincing depictions of giddy new romance and blissful, near-religious
lovemaking in “Loving R.,” the men’s
happiness does not last. “I had accepted that passionate feeling faded, all
my earlier experience had confirmed it,
when love that seemed certain simply
dissolved, on one side or both, for no
particular reason, leaving little trace,”
says the narrator. “But what I felt for
R. was different.” As readers we are
made to believe in that difference, but,
in spite of it, what happens in the end is
what always happens. “I love you, I said,
we love each other, it should be enough,
though even as I said this I knew it was
unfair.” When, in our complicated relationships, is love ever enough?
In a story called “Gospodar,” the sex
the narrator has—endures might be a
June 11, 2020
better word—with a sadistic older man
with whom he has chatted online is of a
whole other kind. Set in the cheap, ugly
apartment of this man, whom the narrator is meeting for the first time, it is
one long, excruciatingly detailed S&M
scene. Sentences lengthen Joyceanly,
body parts and movements are named,
but the spell does not break:
He returned his hand to my head
and gripped me firmly again, still
not moving, having grown very
still; even his cock had softened
just slightly, it was large but more
giving in my mouth. And then he
repeated the word I didn’t know
but that I thought meant steady
and suddenly my mouth was filled
with warmth, bright and bitter, his
urine, which I took as I had taken
everything else, it was a kind of
pride in me to take it. Kuchko
[bitch], he said as I drank, speaking softly and soothingly, addressing me again, mnogo si dobra,
you’re very good, and he said this a
second time and a third before he
was done.
As the second story in the collection,
“Gospodar” introduces the reader
early to one of Greenwell’s deepest
concerns: the struggle between a person’s craving for painful, dehumanizing
sex and the mortification, self-loathing,
and self-despair that are its inescapable
consequences.
As a counterpart to “Gospodar”
there is “The Little Saint.” Symmetrically placed as the second-to-last story
in the book, it too consists of one long
explicit sex scene between strangers,
but this time it’s the narrator who takes
the punisher’s role, in obedience to the
other man’s request to be made to suffer, to be fucked bare, “to be nothing
but a hole.”
The middle of “The Little Saint”
was the only time reading Greenwell
that I ever got bored. Many years ago
I worked for a (mercifully brief) time
as a proofreader for a publisher of
pornography—oh, excuse me, erotica—and “The Little Saint” carried me
back. Able to predict more or less accurately what would be said and what
would be done next (and hadn’t I just
read “Gospodar”?), I could not help
wishing—unfairly and even absurdly,
I admit—that the narrator were doing
something else.
A friend of mine once told a story
about a boy he knew as a child who,
having learned exactly what was involved when two people engaged in
sexual intercourse, asked, How do
they keep from laughing? At the beginning of “Gospodar,” the narrator
mentions two moments when he might
have laughed, the first being when the
Bulgarian announces how he must
be addressed—as Gospodar, which,
in English (master, lord), strikes the
narrator as somewhat ridiculous—and
again when the man opens the door to
his apartment “naked except for a series of leather straps that crossed his
chest, serving no particular function.”
In “The Little Saint,” the narrator describes the words he uses with his partner as “the language of porn that’s so
ridiculous unless you’re lit up with a
longing that makes it the most beautiful language in the world, full of meaning, profound.”
A mere reader, though, might find
it, if not necessarily ridiculous, just the
usual coarse, limited, banal language
of porn. If the reader is a woman, she
is likely to find confirmation of what
makes so many of her gender wary of
men and sex: the violence. The recklessness. The whoring. The addiction
to risk. The difficulty drawing the line
between consensual sex and assault,
and how, when one man wants another
man to feel totally humiliated and debased, to feel like the worst thing, like
dirt, like less than dirt, like nothing but
a hole, he calls that man she.
Ah, the sameness of it all.
“There’s no fathoming pleasure,” the
narrator tells us, “the forms it takes or
their sources, nothing we can imagine
is beyond it; however far beyond the
pale of our own desires, for someone
it is the intensest desire, the key to
the latch of the self.” I wouldn’t argue
against such well-said wisdom. What
I’ve always been highly unsure of,
though, is just how much a person’s sex
life defines who that person is, and how
much it can really tell us—or even the
person themselves—about the rest of
their being. I will never be convinced,
as some people apparently are, that we
are most ourselves when we are in bed
(indeed, it seems to me that the number of people for whom this might be
true must be quite small), or that all
that much can be known about a person from the way they perform, or fail
to perform, the sexual act, or by their
individual erotic tastes. Maybe this is
partly because I have never noticed
big—if any—changes in the personalities and behavior of people I know
during the times when I happened to
be aware they were having lots of sex
and the times when I was aware they
were having little or none. Nor have I
seen significant differences, in other
areas of their lives, between people I
know who are wildly promiscuous and
those who are celibate.
For Greenwell, the kinds of sexual
encounters he writes about, in which
sadomasochism plays an essential
part, offer strong possibilities for selfdiscovery and self-understanding, for
liberation and even salvation. His narrator, raised to believe that his desires
make him worthless, foul—“a faggot,”
according to his father, “which remained his word for me when for all his
efforts I found myself as I am”—yearns
for that moment of sexual union that
will leave him “scrubbed of shame.”
And not in vain: writing about his first
time in bed with R., he describes how
all the familiar “shame and anxiety
and fear” that is almost all he has ever
known of sex “simply vanished” at the
sight of R.’s smile, which “poured a kind
of cleanness over everything we did.”
None of this would work so well were
Greenwell not entirely sincere. (Something I observed when I was working
for the erotica publisher: most of the
writing about gay men contained an
element of sincerity, which was not
true of the rest.) There is no irony in
Greenwell’s writing, and—for me, regrettably—no comic touch. But one of
the things I most admire is the quality
of intense earnestness that marks every
page. Laying himself bare, putting himself so mercilessly on the line, subjects
the protagonist to the risk of appearing
self-absorbed, shameful, exhibitionistic, and, of course, ridiculous. But that
risk is surely part of the point: it is what
makes writing like this worth doing.
Resemblances to W. G. Sebald, not
just in the prose style and the tendency
toward meditative reflection but in a
corresponding brooding temperament,
have not gone unremarked by readers
of Greenwell, but I was reminded too of
the enchanting, cadenced prose of V. S.
Naipaul and in particular of his autofictional novel, The Enigma of Arrival.
A kinship with Virginia Woolf has also
been suggested, though Greenwell
doesn’t revel in language the way Woolf
does; he has nothing of her playfulness,
and compared with her dense, luxuriantly poetic style, his own lyricism
seems almost spare. Something said by
Elizabeth Hardwick, however, about
reading Woolf’s The Waves—“I was
immensely moved by this novel when I
read it recently and yet I cannot think
of anything to say about it except that
it is wonderful. . . . You can merely say
over and over that it is very good, very
beautiful, that when you were reading
it you were happy”—captures my own
similar experience reading Greenwell.
S
ome of the most affecting and beautiful scenes in his books have nothing to
do with sexual identity or gay desire but
involve exquisite observations about
others whose vulnerability has touched
the narrator’s heart. What Belongs to
You includes a chapter describing his
encounter with a charming Bulgarian
boy who happens to be traveling in the
same train compartment. Reflecting on
his fascination with this child, the narrator says, “I felt I was watching Mitko
as a boy, before he had become what
he was now.” This in turn prompts the
mournful observation that “any future
I could imagine for him gave me something to grieve.” For if it is far too easy
to imagine for the boy a life as bleak
as Mitko’s—at least if he remains in
“dying” Bulgaria, “where there is no
future, my students tell me again and
again,” and “only criminals survive”—
to imagine him escaping into a better
world with happier prospects gives rise
to “the thought, unbearable to me, of
what Mitko might have been.”
Elsewhere in the novel, while riding
a crowded bus, the narrator experiences mounting concern for the fate of
a trapped housefly in danger of being
crushed: “It was ridiculous to care
so much, I knew, it was just a fly, why
should it matter; but it did matter,” for
after all, he asks himself, “why should
it be a question of scale?” Among the
inhabitants of Sofia are many sad, neglected street dogs, and in the marvelous story that closes Cleanness, “An
Evening Out”—a story as surprising in
where it takes us as the pornographic
stories are predictable—the narrator,
unsettled by his own behavior while
out drinking earlier with some former
students, shares a moment of tender
communion and mutual comfort with
a scruffy old female stray to whom he
offers shelter for the night. Each of
these scenes is radiant with kindness,
and, for me, reading them was like a
balm. Compassion, that supreme quality in a fiction writer, is a main source
of Greenwell’s power.
What kind of fiction will do for us
now? In a time of unending global crises and rising despair, of climate grief
and democracy grief, of Trumpschmerz
and pandemic attack, a time when the
overwhelming fear seems to be setting
in: there where the future should be, in
place of enlightened progress lie chaos
9
and darkness—what stories do we
want to write, and what do we want to
read? Karl Ove Knausgaard, another
writer obsessed with shame and bent
on radical confession, has described
reaching a point when the only kinds of
literature that seemed to be meaningful were those that “just consisted of a
voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet.
What is a work of art if not the gaze of
another person?” I was happy reading
Greenwell. The carefully constructed
sentences, the authenticity of the voice,
the clarity and deep humaneness of
the gaze—all this had a soothing and
uplifting effect on me, the usual effect
of good literature. Coming to the end
of Cleanness, I was already thinking
about Greenwell’s next book, knowing
that I would read anything he wrote.
But when I looked up, Donald Trump
was still the president of the United
States.
Q
The Housing Vultures
Francesca Mari
David McNew/Getty Images
Homewreckers:
How a Gang of Wall Street
Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates,
Crooked Banks, and Vulture
Capitalists Suckered Millions
Out of Their Homes and
Demolished the American Dream
by Aaron Glantz.
Custom House, 398 pp., $27.99
“They control the people through
the people’s own money.”
—Louis Brandeis
1.
In an alternate reality, the one progressives wanted, the government wouldn’t
have bailed out the banks during the
2008 crash. When mortgage-backed
securities began catching flame like
newspaper under logs, the government would have prioritized struggling
homeowners instead. It would have
created a corporation to buy back the
distressed mortgages and then worked
to refinance those mortgages—lowering monthly payments to reflect the
real underlying values of the homes or
adding years to the mortgages to make
the monthly payments more manageable. If a homeowner missed mortgage payments, rather than initiating
a foreclosure after two months, as was
done by many banks during the recession, the government would have held
off for an entire year, maybe more. In
the event the homeowner still couldn’t
keep up, the government would have acquired the home, fixed it up, and rented
it out until another person bought it.
Who could ever dream up such wild
ideas? Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
for one. To stanch foreclosures during
the Great Depression, FDR created
the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), which bought more than
a million distressed mortgages from
banks and modified them. When modification didn’t work, it sold the foreclosed
homes—200,000 of them—to individuals. While the program was costly, in the
end it pretty much paid for itself: because
homes weren’t dumped on the market
all at once, they almost always sold for
close to the amount of the original loan.
The New Deal—which also created
the Federal Housing Administration
(FHA), to guarantee mortgages with
banks, and the US Housing Authority,
to build public housing—inaugurated
the golden era of homeownership and
middle- class prosperity. It wasn’t without significant problems—the HOLC
invented redlining, only providing FHAbacked loans to white people purchasing
in white neighborhoods—but if you were
white, this was a stabilizing and egalitarian response that held speculators at bay.
10
A deteriorating bank-owned house, Moreno Valley, California, August 2008
Homewreckers, Aaron Glantz’s recent book about the investors who
exploited the 2008 financial crisis, is
essential reading as we plunge headlong into a new financial catastrophe.
Glantz, a senior reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting’s public
radio show, Reveal, has written books
on the mishandling of the Iraq War
(How America Lost Iraq) and the neglect of veterans that followed (The
War Comes Home). He observes that
there are two ways a government can
respond to a crisis caused by reckless speculation: by stepping in or by
stepping aside. Roosevelt stepped
in; Ronald Reagan, dealing with the
savings-and-loan crisis, stepped aside.
Starting in 1986, as a result of Reagan’s deregulation, countless savingsand-loan associations had run amok
with other people’s money, taking risky
bets; 747 of them imploded.1 But rather
than restructuring the toxic debt, the
Reagan administration sold it to “vulture investors,” those who profit off disaster by swooping in to gobble up the
cheapest, most troubled assets from
failing entities. The government sold at
firesale prices with lucrative loss-share
agreements: whatever money an investor recovered on the debt was its to
keep, but losses would be guaranteed
by the government. The deals cost the
US government more than $124 billion
in subsidies.
1
Savings and loans, or “thrifts,” like the
Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association featured in It’s a Wonderful
Life, are geared to consumers rather
than businesses and by law must have
65 percent of their lending portfolio
tied up in consumer loans. They generally focus on checking and savings accounts as well as home loans.
The George W. Bush and Barack
Obama administrations, alas, hewed
closer to Reagan’s example, spending
$700 billion on the Wall Street bailout
and frantically trying to attract investors to the collapsed housing market by
auctioning off delinquent mortgages at
low prices and with loss-share agreements that essentially guaranteed that
the investors wouldn’t lose money.
These policies not only provided firms
with financial incentives to pursue foreclosures but also enabled an enormous
and permanent transfer of wealth from
homeowners to private equity firms,
as thousands of homes were flipped or
converted to single-family rental homes
and rented at above-market prices.
Glantz’s book is an unabashedly
partisan tale of how some extremely
wealthy investors—many of them now
Trump’s cronies—preyed on panic at
the expense of middle- class homeowners. Homewreckers opens with two such
victims in 2005: Dick and Patricia Hickerson, seventy-nine and seventy-seven,
with liver cancer and Alzheimer’s.
After seeing a television ad for a reverse mortgage, a financial product that
allowed seniors to borrow cash against
their homes without repayment during
their lifetimes, the couple called the
number on the screen and were pressured into signing by a pushy salesmen
working on commission. They didn’t
understand the price their daughter
Sandy, who had quit her job and moved
home to take care of them, would pay.
The interest rates and fees were so
high that by the time they died, in 2011,
their $80,000 loan had ballooned to a
debt of $300,000. Their $500,000 home
went to foreclosure auction, where it
was bought by a private equity–backed
real estate investment trust. The Hickerson’s mortgage had been $600 per
month. Now the private equity company was offering to rent the home
back to Sandy for $2,400, a rent 30
percent higher than that of other properties in the area. Too overwhelmed
to move, she signed the lease. It included a variety of fees (such as a $141
monthly fee to rent the house month
to month) and left her responsible for
typical landlord duties, like landscaping. In return, the company shirked
maintenance, at one point declining to
fix a broken water pipe, sticking Sandy
with a $586 water bill and a $450 repair.
(As I’ve noted in The New York Times
Magazine, minimizing maintenance
costs and maximizing service fees are
integral to single-family rental companies’ business models because private
equity generally seeks double- digit returns within ten years.2)
This exploitation of a regular family may seem like a minor story. But
as Glantz shows, it happened over and
over in similar ways across the country,
systematically turning middle- class
homeownership into immiseration and
corporate profits, facilitated at every
stage by the federal government.
2.
By February 2008 the subprime mortgage problem was evident—housing
prices were plummeting—but Bear
Stearns was still a month away from
collapse. Connecticut senator Christopher Dodd and former vice chairman
of the Federal Reserve Alan Blinder
were calling for a revival of the Home
Owners’ Loan Corporation to lend
homeowners between $200 billion
and $400 billion. “I was laughed out
of court,” Blinder told Glantz. Instead,
eight months later, Congress approved
a $700 billion bailout of the banks.
The first FDIC -insured bank to fail
had been IndyMac, on July 11, 2008,
after an eleven- day bank run resulting
in $1.3 billion in withdrawals. The day
it failed, FDIC employees reluctantly
boarded a flight from Washington, D.C.,
to Los Angeles. They seized control of
the Pasadena-based bank, a notorious
generator of reverse mortgages (including the one the Hickersons signed) and
Alt-A mortgages (riskier than prime
but less risky than subprime), and
sought a buyer. They hoped it would
take days; it took nearly nine months,
the value of the bank decreasing with
every passing week. 3
2
“A $60 Billion Housing Grab by Wall
Street,” March 4, 2020.
3
During this time, the FDIC worked
with 8,500 borrowers on loan modifications—but they could only help
The New York Review
That’s when a band of billionaires
stepped in. Exploiting the Fed’s angst
about continuing to manage IndyMac,
the group, which included George
Soros, Michael Dell, John Paulson,
J. C. Flowers, and Steve Mnuchin (the
only nonbillionaire of the bunch), offered to invest $1.6 billion in the bank
in exchange for all of its assets—its
branches, real estate deposits, and
loans, which were valued at more than
$20 billion. Concerned about the appearance of a prolonged federal takeover and thus anxious to close the deal,
the government also agreed to extend a
generous loss-share agreement: If, for
instance, a homeowner owed $300,000
on an FHA-insured mortgage, but the
home only sold at foreclosure auction
for $100,000, the government agreed to
reimburse the rest, all $200,000. While
the sale technically required the company to continue the FDIC’s limited
loan modification, as Glantz writes, the
loss-share agreement “effectively removed economic incentives that would
have otherwise caused Mnuchin’s
group to think twice about foreclosing
on homeowners.” Upon acquiring IndyMac, Mnuchin and his group renamed
it OneWest and proceeded to foreclose
on more than 77,000 households, including those of 35,000 Californians.
The California attorney general’s office put together a robust report against
the bank, detailing widespread misconduct, which included backdating false
documents, performing foreclosure
actions without legal authority, and
violating proper foreclosure notification practices. “If the state of California found that OneWest violated those
rules,” Glantz writes, the loss-share
payments could stop—saving both
homeowners, since the bank would
have much less incentive to foreclose if
it wasn’t being paid when it did so, and
government money. But the attorney
general at the time, Kamala Harris, did
nothing.
With its loads of recovered debt,
OneWest—which newly billed itself as
a “community” bank—could begin to
offer loans. But rather than financing
community initiatives or middle- class
mortgages (it denied both in great numbers), it lent vast sums to the investors’
friends, like Thomas Barrack, the private equity titan, Trump megadonor,
and founder of Colony Capital.4 Barrack, in turn, used the money to pursue
a new idea. Starting in 2012, he began
to buy foreclosed homes in bulk—to
turn them into rental properties and
keep them forever, or for as long as he
retained interest. He targeted heavily
discounted houses in areas with high
employment, good transportation, and
strong school districts. His hometown
of Los Angeles certainly fit the bill.
He scooped up more than three thousand houses there, including the Hick-
the lucky borrowers whose mortgages
hadn’t been carved up into mortgagebacked securities and sold on the bond
market.
4
Colony Capital was in fact the first
vulture firm created during the
savings-and-loan crisis. Barrack’s acquisition of American Savings and
Loan turned out to be one of the most
expensive bailouts at the time, costing
at least $4.8 billion in government subsidies. He then sold the bad loans back
to their original investors for a $400
million profit.
June 11, 2020
ersons’, which would eventually be
managed under a Colony subsidiary,
Colony American Homes.
As Eileen Appelbaum, the codirector for the Center for Economic and
Policy Research, told me:
This industry of rental homes at
this kind of scale is a product of
government policy. I know that the
private sector says they don’t like
government interfering, but in fact
they love the government in their
business.
Or, as Barrack has said, “Anytime the
government is intervening in our business, if you buy, you will be successful.”
Overdue and panicked government intervention is the vulture investor’s best
friend.
3.
Barrack wasn’t the only one. Across
the Sunbelt—from California to Florida—investors had the same idea. In
Las Vegas, Phoenix, and California’s
Inland Empire, the prices of millions of
starter homes (those under two thousand square feet) had dropped by more
than half since their 2006 peak. Private
equity firms snapped them up. Barry
Sternlicht, the founder and CEO of
Starwood Capital Group and a veteran
of the savings-and-loan crisis, amassed
thousands. B. Wayne Hughes, the multibillionaire founder of Public Storage,
the country’s largest self-storage company, started American Homes 4 Rent,
which now operates 54,000 houses.
But the biggest buyer was Blackstone,
the nation’s largest private equity firm,
which funded a subsidiary called Invitation Homes whose representatives
traveled with cases full of cashier’s
checks to auctions around the country,
spending as much as $100 million per
week. In 2017 Invitation Homes merged
with Waypoint, which had bought Colony two years before, creating the largest single-family rental company in the
country, with more than 80,000 houses.
No longer were these homes a way for
the middle class to accrue savings—
now they were lucrative investments for
the very rich.
The Obama administration facilitated the transfer of wealth from homeowners to private equity firms in two
ways. A house that goes to foreclosure
auction but doesn’t sell is repossessed
by the bank that holds its mortgage, becoming what is bewilderingly referred
The Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers bids fond farewell to the
Class of 2019–2020
Andrés Barba
Susan Bernofsky
Ken Chen
Bill Goldstein
Hua Hsu
Mitchell S. Jackson
Gilbert King
Carol Kino
Sana Krasikov
Ben Marcus
Josephine Quinn
Sally Rooney
Eric W. Sanderson
Elizabeth Sears
Justin E.H. Smith
ͽ
…and welcomes with pleasure the
Class of 2020–2021
Burkhard Bilger
Barbara Demick
Hernán Díaz
Steven Hahn
Jonas Hassen Khemiri
Peter Kuper
Jennifer Mittelstadt
Nina Munk
Togara Muzanenhamo
Gregory Pardlo
Hanna Pylväinen
Sophia Roosth
Namwali Serpell
Caroline Weber
Mason Williams
The Cullman Center is made possible by a generous endowment from Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman in
honor of Brooke Russell Astor, with major support provided by Mrs. John L. Weinberg, The Andrew W.
Mellon Foundation, The Estate of Charles J. Liebman, The von der Heyden Family Foundation, John and
Constance Birkelund, and The Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, and with additional gifts from Helen
and Roger Alcaly, The Rona Jaffe Foundation, The Arts and Letters Foundation Inc., William W. Karatz,
Merilee and Roy Bostock, and Cullman Center Fellows.
11
to as a real estate owned home, or REO.
By August 2011, the federal government
owned 248,000 repossessed and unsold
properties, nearly a third of the nation’s
REOs. In 2012 the HUD launched the
Real Estate Owned-to-Rental pilot
program, encouraging investors to
buy bundles of the government-owned
REOs if they agreed to maintain them
as rental units. The pilot put 2,500
homes in Chicago, Riverside, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and
various cities in Florida up for auction
in batches. Meg Burns, senior associate director of housing and regulatory
policy for the Federal Housing and Finance Authority, said the program was
intended to “gauge investor appetite”
for single-family housing and to “stimulate” the housing market by “attracting large, well- capitalized investors.”
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner,
meanwhile, argued that creating new
options for selling foreclosed properties would “expand access to affordable
rental housing”; this turned out to be
gravely mistaken.
In a congressional hearing on the
program, Michigan congressman Bill
Huizenga asked, “How are we going to
do this in a way that makes sense and
doesn’t do further harm?” But some,
like Congressman David Schweikert,
who represented hard-hit Maricopa
County in Arizona and identified
himself as “the largest buyer of singlefamily homes in the southwest,” balked
because only a tiny fraction of homes
were made available to investors. “I can
take you through neighborhoods that
have been devastated by foreclosures
and look better today than they have
in 30 years,” he said. “Because one,
two, three, four, foreclosure, investor
bought it, new roof; one, two, three,
four, foreclosure, new family, new landscaping. It has become almost an urban
renewal.”
Barrack’s Colony Capital was one of
the biggest winners in the HUD auction, outbidding five other investors
to acquire the largest bundles—970
houses. (According to the Paradise Papers, financing came from a Japanese
bank and investors ranged from South
Korea’s National Pension Service to
an investment company in Qatar, and
a plethora of shell companies in California, the Cayman Islands, and the
British Virgin Islands.) While the pilot
program didn’t originate the idea of the
single-family rental, it gave the government’s imprimatur to the concept and
signaled that the government wouldn’t
intercede.
The second way in which the Obama
administration facilitated the rise of
the single-family rental industry is
more complicated. The government
took on $5 trillion worth of bad FHAinsured mortgages when it assumed
ownership of Fannie Mae and Freddie
Mac in 2008, then auctioned that debt
off through the Distressed Asset Stabilization Program (DASP) with almost
no safeguards. Notably, the investors
were not required to offer the floundering homeowner a principal reduction
to reflect the decreased value of the
home, or to work out any other reasonable loan modification, or to offer the
homeowner first dibs on the property if
it went to sale. The next act is, by now,
familiar, a mirror of what happened at
OneWest. By the end of 2016, Fannie
Mae and Freddie Mac had auctioned
more than 176,760 delinquent mortgages at fire-sale prices, as much as 95
12
percent of them to Wall Street investors; the mortgage terms these investors subsequently offered homeowners
were terrible, because pushing homes
through foreclosure was the most expedient way to cash in on the investment.
How many of these mortgaged homes
ended up in foreclosure auctions, where
they were then scooped up by private
equity? Glantz doesn’t have the figures
(they are nearly impossible to get), but
he draws our attention to the larger, underlying problem: how the one percent
has managed to monopolize credit.
4.
“The great monopoly in this country
is the money monopoly,” Woodrow
Wilson said in 1911, while campaigning for the presidency. “So long as that
exists, our old variety and freedom and
individual energy of development are
out of the question. A great industrial
nation is controlled by its system of
credit.” Glantz quotes this not once but
twice, for obvious reasons.
In 2013 Blackstone’s Invitation
Homes created a new financial tool to
unleash even more credit: the singlefamily rental securitization. It was a
mix between commercial real estate–
backed securities, which are backed by
expected rental income, and residential mortgage–backed securities (the
ones we most commonly hear about),
which are backed by the home value.
The single-family rental securitization
was backed by both. Colony American
and other single-family rental home
companies followed suit. More than
ten companies have entered into the
market, together owning some 260,000
single-family homes and generating
seventy securitizations totaling $35.6
billion.
Mortgage-backed securities aren’t
inherently bad. In fact, they are a government invention, born out of the
New Deal. Prior to that, banks only
offered loans for three to five years
with 50 percent down, limiting property ownership to the rich. By enabling
banks to sell mortgage debt as bonds,
the government allowed banks to distribute risk among investors, making
long-term, low-interest loans possible.
The result was the thirty-year mortgage, a distinctly American product
(to this day, Denmark is the only other
country where it’s available; other
countries typically offer five-to-tenyear loans with balloon payments due
at the end of the term, which can then
be refinanced.) With the thirty-year
mortgage, middle- class families could
slowly build wealth and secure housing
stability. But there needs to be oversight, and the incentives ought to align
with the interests of the public.
Like the subprime mortgage–backed
securities that precipitated the 2008
crash, single-family-rental-backed securities are effectively unregulated.
And until now, they’ve been extremely
stable: a company isn’t apt to default
on a mortgage, especially when rental
demand is so strong that rental income
can easily cover the mortgage, maintenance, and interest—and still leave
a solid profit. Moreover, if a renter defaults, it’s somewhat easier to address
than if a homeowner defaults. Eviction takes an average of thirty to sixty
days. Foreclosure takes six months to a
year. Since 2013, single-family-rentalbacked securities have reliably created
large sums of credit for the predatory
investors who needed it least, enabling
them to extract as liquid funds the
appreciation from their properties.
“Their level of risk is very low. It would
take something really cataclysmic to
cause a loss,” Jade Rahmani, one of
the first analysts to follow the singlefamily rental market, told me last fall.
(That something may be Covid-19,
which has driven record-breaking unemployment, a decrease in the share of
people able to pay rent, and rent strikes
in some high- cost cities, like New York
and Los Angeles. Commercial real estate securities will fare even worse, and
vulture investors have already raised
vast sums of money to snatch up distressed malls and office buildings.)
The chilling power of Homewreckers
is the way in which Glantz shows that
credit is, in the end, all about connections. Remember the arrangement
between OneWest Bank and Colony
American Homes? “This line of credit
created a financial revolving door, as
Colony bought OneWest’s foreclosures
using a loan from OneWest,” Glantz
writes. “By the end of 2014, OneWest’s
commitment to Colony had grown to
$45 million—more than all the money
it made available to African American and Latino home buyers over five
years.” When those with access to
credit fail, they fail up.
Meanwhile, nearly 10 million Amer-
icans were foreclosed on between 2006
and 2014. Some bought more than they
could afford. Some were targeted by
predatory products, subprime loans, or
reverse mortgages. Others fell victim to
predatory ideas (“There’s been a lot of
talk about a real estate bubble,” Trump
told students of Trump University in
an audio recording in October 2006,
Glantz notes. “That kind of talk could
scare you off real estate and cut you out
of some great opportunities.”)
The Obama administration’s response to the foreclosure crisis was
its greatest failing. It could have mandated principal reduction on mortgages
and reformed bankruptcy law so that it
would protect a person’s primary residence. The government had a chance
to convert the FHA-insured homes
that had gone through foreclosure into
something that served the public good,
like public housing, or to sell them to
individuals, as with the Home Owners’
Loan Corporation. At the very least,
the government could have wiped clean
people’s credit scores, absolving victims of predatory mortgage products
from the accompanying scarlet letter
that compounded their misfortune.
Instead, the administration put
forth an insufficient program to modify mortgages in 2009; it was implemented after those who were dealt the
worst subprime products—many of
them black and Latino—had already
lost their houses. The Home Affordable Modification Program set aside
$28 billion, meant to aid four million
homeowners, but the program was
overly complicated; 70 percent of those
who applied were rejected, and only 1.6
million were assisted, a third of whom
defaulted anyway because the average
monthly mortgage reduction was only
$500. Meanwhile, banks frequently
claimed to have lost homeowners’ paperwork or wrongly told homeowners
they didn’t qualify, and the Treasury
didn’t force banks to abide by the rules
quickly enough. Wall Street was too
big to fail (and executive compensation wasn’t limited, because Treasury
Secretary Hank Paulson feared banks
wouldn’t accept government aid if it
came with such a stipulation), but individuals who made poor home investments had their credit docked for the
next ten years.
With wages stagnant since 1971, the
nation’s homeownership has hit its
lowest rate in fifty- one years. Renters
now outnumber homeowners in nearly
half of all major cities, up from only 21
percent a decade earlier. Some of those
renters sign checks to one of the singlefamily rental companies. Though these
companies own less than 1 percent
of the rental housing available in the
country, they have saturated many of
the country’s most desirable cities.
The major single-family rental companies own 11.3 percent of single-family
rental homes in Charlotte, 9.6 percent
in Tampa, and 8.4 percent in Atlanta.
The “explosive growth of the singlefamily rental market has been a defining characteristic of the housing bust
and recovery,” wrote Patrick Simmons,
Fannie Mae’s director of strategic planning. “Starter-home shortage . . . appears
to be slowing the return of first-time
buyers to the housing market.” So long
as competition for housing remains
fierce in these cities, companies have
no incentive to invest in their products or cater to their customers. The
Better Business Bureau has received
hundreds of complaints about these
companies, and Glantz notes their
higher-than-market rents and rampant
maintenance issues. The Atlanta Federal Reserve found that a third of all
Atlanta tenants of Colony American
Homes received eviction notices, and
that one of the greatest predictors of
eviction was the percentage of black
people in a community.
“The data tell a damning story,”
Glantz writes.
During the boom years, IndyMac
charged high interest rates (defined
by the government as more than 3
percentage points above prime) to
24 percent of its white borrowers,
but 36 percent of Hispanics and 43
percent of African Americans.
This discrimination was repeated at
banks across the country. When the
recession hit, people of color saddled
with higher interest rates on their
monthly mortgages were more vulnerable to foreclosure. Communities
of color suffered the greatest rates of
foreclosure, and now they’re experiencing the greatest rates of single-family
rental saturation and the greatest rates
of ruthless corporate eviction.
5.
Last April I spent several afternoons
driving around low-slung neighborhoods on the outskirts of Los Angeles
County, knocking on doors to see if the
stories I had heard about single-family
rental companies were the exception
or the norm. These were communities
that had been hit hard during the foreclosure crisis—East Pasadena, Woodland Hills, Van Nuys—communities
that outsiders would seldom have reason to drive through. Thanks to Meredith Abood, who analyzed Los Angeles
County assessment records while reThe New York Review
searching the rise of the single-family
rental industry at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, I had a spreadsheet with more than four hundred
addresses of Invitation Homes properties, a mere 5 percent of the company’s eight thousand homes in Southern
California and less than half a percent
of the company’s 80,000 homes across
the United States. I plugged them into
my phone at random. I passed lawns
and driveways and the cerulean-white
sparkles of pools flickering through the
slats of a fence.
Of the dozen tenants who opened
the door, all were people of color save
for a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses I interrupted one night during prayer. And
almost everyone had had serious trouble with Invitation Homes. (No one felt
safe having his or her name in print,
fearing retribution.) A Latina paralegal told me she called the company
every time she submitted rent to make
sure it was received, having once come
home to an eviction notice posted to
her door when her rent was in fact sitting unopened in the Invitation Homes
office’s mailbox. After disputing the
fees on a pool that had been broken
and drained for months without any
response, a Filipino-American tenant
and her foreign husband e-mailed to
notify the company that if they continued to be charged, they would sue. Invitation Homes employee Chris Warren
allegedly told them, “I go to court all
the time, and I always win.” (Warren
could not be reached for comment, but
several other tenants shared similar
stories.)
A Samoan woman I met who was
raising her grandchildren had filled two
journals documenting her home’s roof
and plumbing problems, the mold that
blossomed on her walls and ceilings,
the endless service calls she’d made
to try to resolve the problems. For the
mold on the ceiling alone, she had had
to stay home to receive four different
servicemen who had inspected her roof
without fixing it; the fourth explained
that the roof needed to be replaced,
but Invitation Homes was only allowing $600 worth of repairs, so he would
only be able to patch it. (The other
servicemen, he suspected, had left because they refused to do the work for
that paltry amount.) While living in the
home, the Samoan woman’s husband
developed a lung infection and died.
Throughout his visitation, which the
woman held in her living room and for
which his relatives had traveled from
Fiji to attend, water poured out of a
leak that had sprung from her ceiling
into a bucket she’d set on the floor.
The only couple to say they were generally happy with Invitation Homes,
the Jehovah’s Witnesses, also said that
they would be moving to Oregon as
soon as their youngest son graduated
from high school. They felt that the
management company made repairs
easier, and they appreciated being
able to pay online. But they hated the
automatic annual rent increases. The
wife had successfully negotiated them
down by as much as half, but even so,
their rent went from $1,700 to $2,860
per month over six years. The company
made no improvements, however, and
refused to fix the peeling paint. Just
across the street, another Invitation
Homes property was being rented out
to a family that had recently immigrated from Sinaloa. In the driveway,
an old gray Honda was stuffed to the
June 11, 2020
roof with plastic recycling, which they
would trade in for nickels and dimes to
put toward their rent.
This is what the recovery from the
2008 crash looks like. People scrambling to pay rent for decrepit houses,
houses that let everyone cash in except the occupants: the company that
bought the home, the investors that
financed that company, the bank that
securitized the home’s debt, the bondholders who bought those securities,
and the speculators who make bets
on whether the bonds will pay out or
not.
Glantz juxtaposes the investors’ way
of life with his own. He knows he’s
been lucky. During the recession, he
and his wife bought a foreclosed home
in San Francisco that had previously
been owned by hucksters who were
flipping houses among one another to
profit from the appreciation. His parents helped him with the down payment, as did his wife’s parents. Now he
can afford to live in the least affordable
place in the country. Though he doesn’t
plan to move anytime soon, he knows
that in the event of an emergency, he
could always cash out his home. It’s an
insurance policy that enables him and
his wife to work as journalists.
Homewreckers amounts to a sort of
middle-class manifesto. To his credit,
Glantz doesn’t just tally inequities and
abuses. He also suggests some solutions.
The government needs to “change economic incentives so that the profits come
more easily when [companies] provide home ownership opportunities to
middle-class families,” he writes. This,
he notes, has proven successful with
even the most exploitative businessmen
in the past—even Donald Trump’s father, Fred. When the National Housing Act unleashed lots of credit for the
FHA-backed purchase of high- quality
construction, high- quality construction
is what Fred Trump produced. When
the government switched to supporting
apartment complexes, so too did Fred
Trump. One good thing about amoral
money hounds is that they welcome
manipulation so long as there’s money
to be made.
There’s no question that the financial
system needs resetting. Unfortunately
another financial crisis has arrived
first. And what’s terrifying, as Glantz’s
damning book demonstrates, is that
the vultures who exploited the last
crisis are dictating the bailout of this
one.
Q
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13
An Invitation from Jeanne Lee
Adam Shatz
The Newest Sound You Never Heard:
European Studio Recordings 1966/1967
an album by Jeanne Lee
and Ran Blake.
A- Side Records, 2 CDs, $25.00
Free Standards: Stockholm 1966
an album by Jeanne Lee
and Ran Blake.
Barcelona: Fresh Sound Records, $10.91
Twenty years ago, I fell in love with a
jazz singer. Jeanne Lee had died
earlier in 2000 of cancer, but she
couldn’t have been more alive to me.
A hip woman I knew had given me
BMG’s reissue of The Newest Sound
Around, Lee’s 1962 debut album
with the pianist Ran Blake. You’ve
never heard anything like it, my
friend promised, and I hadn’t, until
I realized I’d heard that soft, warm,
and inviting contralto before (don’t
all infatuations begin with a sense of
déjà vu?). But since I’d lost track of
her name, she was “only a dream,”
as Lee sings in her haunting rendition of Johnny Mercer’s “Laura.”
Now the dream had a name; now
she was real; now she was mine.
I was hardly alone in these feelings of possessive adoration. Lee,
who would have been eighty-one
this January, was the ultimate singer’s singer. And she’s still something
of a secret—an artist you want everyone to know about, but also to
keep for yourself. Her voice had
the timbre and range of a cello and a
cloud-like beauty; it enveloped you like
the shawls she wore on stage. “Jeanne
could say good morning and it sounded
right,” the bassist William Parker, who
performed with her, told me. “Like a
coat with reverse lining, that was Jeanne
Lee’s voice.” Her sense of time was unusually elastic, as if she lived on a planet
of eternal rubato, but her singing was always buoyed by a feeling of dance—and
of wonder at the fact of being alive. A
poet and composer as well as an interpreter of other people’s songs, she loved
words and seemed to caress as much as
sing them. She carried herself with unfailing grace and swayed on stage to the
slow, languorous rhythms of her voice.
L
ee’s best-known record is still probably The Newest Sound Around, which,
in its mélange of youthful effervescence
and noir fatalism, captured the sensibility of New York bohemia as much
as John Cassavetes’s Shadows or James
Baldwin’s Another Country. On that
album, and in the dazzling recordings
the duo made in Europe in 1966 and
1967—released last year for the first
time under the title The Newest Sound
You Never Heard—Lee and Blake approached each other not as singer and
accompanist but as highly interactive
improvisers, taking apart standards
like “Summertime” and “Night and
Day” and rearranging them like a pair
of musical Cubists. Full of whimsical,
often violent contrasts in color and
dynamics, Blake’s playing was an ec14
centric, fractured collage of twentiethcentury modernism, Thelonious Monk,
gospel, and film music. His spiky, unresolved style found a perfect foil in
the serenity and poise of Lee’s singing
and in her precise, sensuous diction.
“I know of no other singers who can
project the introspective, often somber mood that is generated by Jeanne’s
dark-rich voice, at the same time improvising far- out vocal lines and feeling
at home in the even further- out accompaniments of Ran Blake,” Gunther
Schuller wrote in his liner notes to The
Newest Sound Around.
The path Lee chose next, however, was even more perilous. Widely
music. “We were trying to figure out
what else the voice could do,” Clayton,
a friend and occasional collaborator of
Lee’s, told me.
Lee shared this desire but also stood
apart from her peers. For all her fascination with (in her words) “what the voice
is in itself,” hers was steeped in the blues
vernacular, which she honored even in
her wildest vocal experiments. The black
musical tradition, she said, gave her “a
ground to stand on and move from”; it
enriched and enlivened her work. But it
also exacted a toll: like the black minimalist composer Julius Eastman (born
a year after her), she vanished from histories of avant-garde music, which was
her classmates was Ran Blake, a white
student from Springfield, Massachusetts. “You sound like Art Tatum,” she
said when she first heard him playing
the piano. He didn’t agree, but he appreciated the compliment. “I’d never
met a musician so open, so tolerant,”
Blake told me at his home in Boston,
and he loved her “timbre, her low tone,
the way she could move up to soprano.
Her voice had a gut, a majesty. She could
follow me intuitively.” In the autumn of
1961 they performed at Amateur Night
at the Apollo. They cut a striking profile: a nerdy, introverted white pianist
and a supremely elegant black woman
in conversation, making a new kind
of chamber music. They won first
prize, and George Avakian of RCA
signed them to make a record.
The Newest Sound Around didn’t
sell many copies, but it attracted
the attention of Germany’s “jazz
pope,” the critic and impresario
Joachim-Ernst Berendt, who organized a European tour for the duo
in the spring of 1963. Audiences in
Germany, France, and Italy were
spellbound. “They called her a new
Billie Holiday, but when we came
back to New York we had no work,”
Blake told me. “One club owner
said he’d hire her if she’d hire a different pianist, but she was so loyal.”
Her loyalty to Blake was also
faithfulness to her own search for
musical freedom. At the time of The
Newest Sound Around, the freejazz revolution launched by Ornette
Coleman, which had emancipated
improvisation from chord structures
and other traditional forms, was
only a few years old. The question
for singers, Lee said, was “how to take
advantage of the freedom offered by
these innovations.” To her, the choices
looked narrow: you could “scat, thus imitating the jazz instrumental sounds” or
“set words to instrumental solos,” and
“neither of these options allowed space
for the natural rhythms or sonorities or
the emotional content of words.”
Lee’s interest in this “space” led her
to Berkeley, where she spent a few years
after her European tour. She sang in
performances by the Fluxus artists Dick
Higgins and Alison Knowles, took part
in happenings at the Open Theater with
slideshows and nude dancers, and married the sound-poet David Hazelton,
with whom she had a daughter, Naima.
Berkeley was “very, very far- out,” and
it freed her from “the conventional idea
of music,” she recalled. “I could take
music out of musicality, add space and
silence.” You can hear the impact of
her Berkeley experience in the recordings she made in Europe with Blake in
1966 and 1967. The dreamy, nocturnal
cabaret of The Newest Sound Around is
entering the Age of Aquarius, with covers of the Beatles and Dylan, and Lee
is beginning to exhibit her fascination
with wordplay, in an inspired setting of
Gertrude Stein’s verse to Thelonious
Monk’s “Misterioso.”
Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos
The Newest Sound Around
an album by Jeanne Lee
and Ran Blake.
RCA Victor (1962)
Jeanne Lee performing at the Banlieues Bleues Festival, Seine-Saint-Denis, France, 1997
praised as an heir to Billie Holiday and
Abbey Lincoln, she seemed destined to
follow in their footsteps. But Lee didn’t
see herself as strictly a jazz singer, or
even merely as a singer. She came to
think of herself as a “voice environmentalist,” and gravitated to the most
adventurous musical environments,
from the Fluxus movement to the freejazz avant-garde, which recognized her
not simply as a kindred spirit but as
an environment in her own right. Lee
fearlessly explored the continent of her
own voice—vocalise, breathing, sighs,
cries and whispers, giggles and laughter, even saliva—and revealed a new,
enchanting, and profoundly corporeal
world of sound. “Her body is song,” the
playwright and poet Ntozake Shange
wrote of her. “We got a woman among
us who isn’t afraid of the sound of her
own voice.”
In her embrace of the body, and her
own body’s natural music, Lee took
part in a movement in vocal art that
arose in the early 1960s with the work
of the mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, the wife and muse of the Italian
composer Luciano Berio, and that
soon attracted singers such as Meredith Monk, Joan La Barbara, and Jay
Clayton. Most were women who felt
that Western classical music had barely
scratched the surface of what La Barbara called “the original instrument,”
and they were keen to investigate their
instrument’s untapped resources, including “unmusical” noises—groans,
grunts, screams, wails—that male composers had all but banished from vocal
depicted as if it were an entirely formalist and exclusively white movement.*
Today those histories are being rewritten, and Lee, like Eastman and other
hidden figures of the black avant-garde,
is reemerging from oblivion. She’s even
fashionable: revered by younger singers,
celebrated by Afro-futurists, worshipfully discussed by musicologists and
black feminist scholars.
B
orn in 1939, Lee grew up in the
Bronx, an only child. Alonzo Lee, her
father, was an opera singer who practiced lieder and spirituals at home;
her mother, Madeline, was an accomplished tap dancer. The Lees weren’t
wealthy, but they were culturally rich,
and raised their daughter with a deep
sense of her heritage. Lee took piano
and voice lessons, went to see Marion
Anderson and Paul Robeson perform
in Harlem, and attended a progressive,
largely white private school based on
Thoreau’s teachings where she read
Shakespeare, Petrarch, and Blake. She
hid her interest in jazz from her father,
who considered it “low-life music.”
In 1956, she enrolled at Bard, where
she majored in psychology, befriended
Hannah Arendt, and helped resettle
Hungarian refugees. She read French
and Russian novels, and choreographed dances set to Bartók and other
twentieth- century composers. One of
*See my article on Eastman, “Bad Boy
from Buffalo,” The New York Review,
May 10, 2018.
None of this music, however, prepares
you for the work that Lee began making in the late 1960s, when she discovered the power and dimensions of her
own voice. She was now a widow: in
The New York Review
1967 Hazelton’s body was discovered
in New York harbor, an apparent suicide. Not long after, Lee began a relationship with Gunter Hampel, who
would become her second husband.
A vibraphonist from Göttingen who’d
first seen Lee on German television,
Hampel was a pioneer of Europe’s
free-jazz scene. Lee roamed around
Europe with him for the next few years,
making music in France, Holland, and
Germany. On July 8, 1969, they made
an improvised trio album in Paris with
the multi-reed player Anthony Braxton and called it The 8th of July. Here,
for the first time, Lee’s voice becomes
pure sound; here she introduces her
inimitable style of scatting: soulful yet
abstracted, at once earthy and celestial.
A month later in Paris, Lee made
the recording that led to her crowning as the queen of the “new thing”:
the title track of the tenor saxophonist
Archie Shepp’s album Blasé. In this
slow, brooding song, set to a series of
chilling ostinatos on the piano, a black
woman addresses her wayward man, a
militant who’s done her wrong. Shepp,
the author, thought he’d written a story
of the couple’s reconciliation, but Lee
transformed his lyrics into a bitter, harrowing indictment—and a precocious
expression of the black feminism that
would soon erupt out of exasperation
with the Black Power movement’s patriarchal politics. “Blasé/ain’t you
daddy?” she sneers, her voice emboldened by contempt. “You/who shot your
sperm into me/but never set me free.”
Her cry that “all of Ethiopia awaits
you/my prodigal son” is laced with
mocking, accusatory irony. Equally
stunning—and as calming as “Blasé” is
incendiary—was her rendition, on the
same album, of the spiritual “There Is
a Balm in Gilead,” where her voice virtually becomes that balm, offering to
make the wounded whole.
After Blasé, Lee lent her voice to
some of the landmark recordings of the
jazz avant-garde: Marion Brown’s pastoral tone poem Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, Carla Bley’s opera Escalator
Over the Hill, and Braxton’s 1972 Town
Hall concert. Whenever she sang, the
music would suddenly grow larger, as
if her presence imbued it with an electrifying sense of occasion. For all the
liberties she took in her improvisations, she never forgot the melodic line
of a song or descended into the kind of
screaming that became a cliché of freejazz vocals. Her singing—often in the
form of vocalise or Sprechgesang—was
as modest as it was majestic: she’s always in the music, never on top of it.
In the spring of 1974 Lee made her
first album under her own name, Conspiracy, with a group of free-jazz musicians including Hampel, the reedmen
Mark Whitcage and Sam Rivers, the
clarinetist Perry Robinson, and the
drummer Steve McCall. She wrote
most of the music and coproduced the
album. By then Lee was back in New
York, living on Second Avenue and
12th Street. The city’s jittery energy
infuses her poem “Subway Couple,”
in which she describes a “very black”
man “leaning his long, young self” into
his “slim, tawny, silent girl /with eyes
like Aretha,” while Rivers, like a train
arriving in the station, nearly drowns
out her stentorian recitation with his
frenetic improvisation on tenor saxophone. “Subway Couple” taps into the
mood of a new, defiant cultural nationalism, and Lee resembles a young Black
Arts poet on the cover of Conspiracy,
where she appears in contemplative
close-up against a yellow background,
her eyes half shut, her lips pursed, beneath a towering, Angela Davis–style
Afro.
But Lee, a left-wing pacifist wary of
nationalism of any kind, wasn’t drawn
to gestures of rhetorical militancy: art
was her revolution, not a weapon in service of the revolution. (In this she was
very different from, say, Nina Simone.)
“Jeanne was an African-American
who was psychologically free, for
whom racism was an inconvenience,”
the choreographer Mickey Davidson,
Lee’s friend and collaborator, told me.
“She didn’t see the ugliness of life—
she saw only beauty.” Conspiracy was
a work of celebration: of the voice, of
aesthetic and natural wonder, of fertility and motherhood. Lee was pregnant
with her son Ruomi, the first of her
two children with Hampel—Cavana,
their daughter, was born a few years
later—and the album trembles with the
anticipation of birth. Its open, expansive mood is immediately set by a poem
called “Sundance”:
No words
Only a feeling
No questions
Only a light
No sequence
Only a being
No journey
Only a dance
Lee recites the poem, written by her
late husband David Hazelton, without
accompaniment, leaving ample space
between each line. After a pause, we
hear a bass line, flute, soprano saxophone, and drums, and her joyful scatting in conversation with the horns;
later, she returns to the poem, this
time singing each syllable in a sweet,
melismatic trance. Lee had a linguist’s
fascination with the sonic properties
of words, with the way that sounds
create meaning. In one of the most
inventive tracks on Conspiracy, a solo
performance called “Angel Chile,”
Lee’s laughter slowly turns into syllables, which eventually form the word
“Naima,” her daughter’s name. The
name splits apart, then forms again,
in a gripping sequence of sonic effects
and textures that seem to evoke the kaleidoscope of feelings that a child conjures in a mother’s imagination. The
stark, mournful “Yeh Come T’be,”
a kind of latter- day medieval motet,
goes still further in its exploration of
Lee’s voice, layering three tracks of it
in an intricate harmonization of sighs,
moans, hiccups, and throat sounds.
The sounds we hear on pieces like
“Angel Chile” and “Yeh Come T’be”
aren’t in themselves unusual, but we’re
not accustomed to their being incorporated into the fabric of musical compositions. Why, then, does Conspiracy
sound so uncontrived, so natural, unlike so much of the era’s vocal experimentation? The beauty and control
of Lee’s voice are part of the reason:
she can turn a hiccup into an infectious rhythm, and her laughter is seduction itself. But I think what makes
Lee’s most extreme work so alluring,
and so gentle, is the way she speaks
to her audience, teaching us how to
COMPLEX
CONTROVERSIAL
RELEVANT
This vibrant, richly illustrated
book accompanies the first fullscale retrospective exhibition in a
generation of the groundbreaking
modern artist. Forty years after
Guston’s death, his work remains
distinctly contemporary.
National Gallery of Art in association with
D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.
Hardcover $60
Watch for new exhibition dates at the
National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Tate Modern, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston,
and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
MAJOR SUPPORT FOR THE INTERNATIONAL TOUR
OF THE EXHIBITION AND THE CATALOG IS PROVIDED BY
THE TERRA FOUNDATION FOR AMERICAN ART.
#PhilipGustonNow
www.nga.gov
June 11, 2020
15
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listen, inviting us to join her conspiracy. “Take a breath,” she exclaims over
a gust of wind-like sounds on reeds and
bass. “Let it go . . . don’t get scared . . .
That sound you heard /ain’t nuthin /
but nature /an’ her children /breathin /
toGETHer.” As Thulani Davis wrote
of Lee’s black female novelist contemporaries, her poetry was an “ecstatic,”
“body- centered” language, full of “hallucinations, magic, recipes, potions,
song, fire, and flight.”
Lee was ubiquitous on the Lower East
Side free-jazz scene of the 1970s, where
women weren’t especially welcome except as muses or groupies, but her talent
was too exceptional to be ignored. The
drummer Andrew Cyrille, whose 1979
trio album Nuba featured Lee and the
alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, told me,
“Jeanne would not back down or back
off from anything any of us did.” She
performed in lofts, mentored young
female singers, taught music in public
schools, and performed with the pianist
Cecil Taylor in a production of Adrienne Kennedy’s play A Rat’s Mass. She
was one of four singers in John Cage’s
Renga and Apartment Building 1776,
composed for the bicentennial, and
wrote an operatic song cycle of her own
inspired by the Sufi poet Farid ud- din
Attar’s Conference of Birds. She integrated dance and movement into her
work, and at one performance covered
herself in blue paint and sang in front
of an enormous blue monochrome canvas. She would sometimes appear on
stage with a microphone in one hand
and one of her young children in her
other arm: a deeply inspiring image for
women on the scene.
“Jeanne lived a very clean truth,”
Mickey Davidson told me. “Her existence was the living manifestation of
what Ntozake [Shange] wrote about.
Art was what she lived.” But you
couldn’t make much of a living on
art—certainly not Lee’s kind of noncommercial art—and she was barely
getting by. Hampel, who was mostly
with men, lived in a separate apartment
a block away and was often in Europe,
leaving her to raise their children as the
neighborhood fell prey to drugs, prostitution, and street crime. (They eventually separated.) Her poem “In These
Last Days,” which she sings to lacerating effect on Nuba, evokes a period of
“total disintegration /where every day/
is a struggle /against becoming/an object in /someone else’s /nightmare.”
In that song, Lee finds “great joy”
and “unassailable strength” in motherhood. Ruomi, her son, remembers her
as a “walking empath” who exposed
him to literature and art and took him
to Quaker meetings so he could learn
how to become a conscientious objector in case the draft was restored.
But Lee sometimes buckled under the
demands of parenting and depended
on a wide network of other women
to pitch in—her “sister friends,” she
called them. “Jeanne was a princess,”
one of them told me. “She expected
other people to take care of things. It
wasn’t that she didn’t love her kids. But
her work came first, and she assumed
everyone else would pick up the slack
when things fell apart.”
In financial emergencies she called
upon her mother, who, in Ruomi’s recollection, “was often the difference
between another challenging moment
and heartbreak.” Lee’s academic ad-
mirers have celebrated her as a radical
black feminist, but the life of a black
woman artist in the avant-garde could
feel like another kind of bondage. As
the late writer and filmmaker Kathleen
Collins wrote in Notes from a Black
Woman’s Diary (2019), “I believe in
liberation, but I do not believe it is
at all the thing we think it is.” By the
mid-1980s, Lee had fallen into a slump.
She hadn’t made an album as a leader
since Conspiracy, and nearly all of her
recorded work in that decade appeared
on obscure albums by her former husband. She took solace in the occasional
European tour, only to find herself unable to pay her rent back home.
In her last decade, Lee experienced a
new surge of creative energy after moving to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where a
younger generation of black artists and
musicians had settled. She joined forces
with two of her sister friends, Davidson
and Shange, on a piece for the Whitney Museum, A Sense of Breath. And
she reemerged as a recording artist.
Returning to her roots as a jazz singer,
she made a luminous duet with her old
partner Ran Blake, You Stepped Out of
a Cloud, in 1989. A sequence of midand slow-tempo standards and originals, it’s as lusciously atmospheric an
album as The Newest Sound Around,
but it’s a more sedate, ruminative affair, the work of two masters in middle
age. Blake’s playing is spare and impressionistic, Lee’s voice now almost
operatic in its voluptuousness. She performs a cappella on several tracks, notably her setting of Blake’s composition
“Vanguard,” in which she sings lyrics
based on “The Dream of a Ridiculous
Man,” turning Dostoyevsky’s short
story into a fable of colonial despoliation and delusion.
Lee was equally imaginative in her
setting of text on Natural Affinities
(1992), her second and final album as a
leader. She created a collage out of excerpts from Charles Mingus’s memoir
Beneath the Underdog, and sang it in a
slow, stately duet with the bassist Dave
Holland. In “Journey to Edaneres,”
she evoked a marketplace where a bird
flies over a caravan as a “dancing girl”
dreams of a “city at night/alight with
the glow of many lamps,” her voice
forming an exquisite arabesque with
the singer Amina Claudine Myers. Natural Affinities is an aesthetically more
conservative work than Conspiracy—
there’s no overdubbing, no hiccupping,
and Lee even gives us an old-fashioned
rendition of “I Thought About You.”
But her voice had never sounded more
beautiful or more supple, especially
in the final track, “Ambrosia Mama,”
a samba set to a short poem in praise
of motherhood that Shange had written for their Whitney performance.
It opens with an aching duet between
Lee and the guitarist Jerome Harris;
they’re soon joined by Lisle Atkinson
on bass and Newman Baker on drums,
and in the closing moments, Lee’s
scatting snakes around Harris and her
rhythm section, effortlessly shifting
registers, hitting falsetto notes with a
pillowy grace.
With Atkinson and Baker, Lee had
a working band of her own for the first
time. It expanded on tour to include
other musicians, such as the trumpeter
Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of
Chicago and the baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett of the World SaxThe New York Review
rumbling, propulsive ostinatos. Waldron, who struck Lee as a “natural
mystic,” shared her love of birds, her
fascination with East Asian culture,
and her sense of humor: as Ruomi remembers, “they made each other laugh
like they were standup comedians.” In
an interview about her work with Waldron, Lee said, “He really transcends
this understanding of accompaniment.
He’s not feeding you something, he’s
talking.” They talked to each other
brilliantly in their album After Hours
(1994), performing compositions by
Mingus, Ellington, and Waldron himself. As marvelous as her duets with
Blake are, her chemistry with Waldron,
a fellow bluesman in European exile, is
more organic: they finish each other’s
sentences like an old couple still in love.
Lee joined Waldron in Japan for
A heartbreaking tale and uplifting
love story based on the sinking of the
Struma, a ship carrying eight hundred
Jewish refugees fleeing Europe at
the height of World War II.
Stefan Roloff
ophone Quartet. Sometimes her
sidemen took advantage of her laissezfaire attitude on stage, and Atkinson,
the band’s director, had to remind them
that it was Lee’s band. “Lester said that
for a woman to be on the bandstand,
she has to have her titties strapped on
tight,” Davidson told me. “Lisle helped
tighten up her bra for her. With her
faith in people’s creativity, she could
leave space open to a fault. She had difficulty doing forty-minute sets. She’d
explore that moment as long as it could
go, and just like with Cecil or Sun Ra, it
could go on forever with Jeanne.”
European audiences didn’t mind
those longueurs, however, and in the
mid-1990s, Lee moved to Holland,
after being hired to teach at the conservatory in The Hague. She found an
apartment with a terrace and plenty of
“COMPELLING…
Zülfü Livanelli’s attacks on Turkish
censorship are fearless and eloquent.”
—Wall Street Journal
Jeanne Lee in Kinetic Colors—Blue, a performance created by Stefan Roloff
and Christina Jones, New York City, 1985
light, filled it with plants, and began
writing a children’s book about the
history of jazz, Jam!, published in
1999, a year before her death. Susanne
Abbuehl, one of her students, remembers reading Gertrude Stein, Shange,
and haiku in her class: “She taught us
the musicality of words, the dancing
and the movement of words, the unity
of words, music and dance.” Singers
should be guided by “occurrence and
cessation,” not “time or meter”; above
all, they should model their singing on
nature. Abbuehl told me Lee would
point to the window and tell her to
“sing with the light.” She was happy
to be living outside the United States,
where, she said in a 1997 documentary,
“the government is turning the young
against the old, the men against the
women, the blacks against the whites,
the whites against the blacks. . . . If
you’re an artist of any kind, you’re an
object of suspicion there right now.”
In Europe, Lee forged her last great
artistic partnership, with Mal Waldron,
a pianist as iconoclastic and as Monkobsessed as Blake. As a young man,
Waldron had played in bands led by
Mingus and Eric Dolphy; he had also
accompanied two of Lee’s idols, Billie
Holiday and Abbey Lincoln. After escaping to Europe in the mid-1960s, he
had created one of the most hypnotic
styles in post-bop pianism, based on
a series of concerts commemorating
the fiftieth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The
album that came out of those concerts,
Travellin’ in Soul-Time, with the flutist
Toru Tenda, was a stirring suite of Waldron compositions, some set to lyrics
that drew powerfully upon the poetry
of the hibakusha, the survivors. Lee
summoned an extraordinary gravitas
as she described the “black rain” of
atomic destruction. But her most moving performance was on a song about
birds, Waldron’s “The Seagulls of Kristiansund.” “They know from the past,”
she sings in her low, rich voice, “a life
cannot last/so they live /for today/for
tomorrow/they may not/be able /to
dive /from the sky.” Over Waldron’s
dark, rippling chords, she cries, wails,
and ululates.
It was one of her last flights on record: Lee had recently been diagnosed
with cancer; five years later she would
be dead. She never complained of her
illness. “She was losing weight, but she
was laughing and singing her can off,”
according to Cyrille. “The music kept
her alive. She loved the music, and the
music loved her.” In an early poem, Lee
wrote, “the miracle is/that the layers/
continue to be stripped away/each time/
uncovering a center/more brilliant/and
more revealing/than the one/before.”
The poem is addressed to a lover, but
it’s a perfect description of the miracle
that was Jeanne Lee’s voice.
Q
“A POIGNANT
HISTORICAL NOVEL
is one to get lost in....Ultimately the love story
says much about the beauty and perseverance of
the human spirit; loyalty, love and facing up to loss.”
—NB Magazine
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Editor: Edwin Frank
Managing Editor: Sara Kramer
Senior Editors: Susan Barba, Michael Shae, Gabriel Winslow-Yost, Lucas Adams
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June 11, 2020
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17
Witness to a Mystery
Stephen Greenblatt
I returned to Spain last summer to see
it for myself. With a population of more
than a quarter of a million, Elche is not
notably quaint. The surrounding highways are lined with shoe factories. The
brutalist architecture of the 1950s and
1960s has left its telltale footprint up to
the edge of the historic center. Some
remarkable finds from the nearby ruins
of ancient Iberian settlements are displayed in the fine archaeological museum housed in an old fortress, but
the greatest of these finds, a haunting
fourth-century BCE stone bust known
as the Lady of Elche, was taken away to
1
In a history of the city written in the
early seventeenth century, Cristobal
Sanz claimed that the play originated in
the thirteenth century, perhaps to commemorate the conquest of the city from
the Moors in 1265. Another account,
from the early eighteenth century,
added a miraculous event: the arrival
on the beaches of Elche of a mysterious
ark in May 1266, containing the script
and perhaps the music of the play. Most
modern scholars date the Misteri d’Elx
to the first half of the fifteenth century.
The text, for the most part in octosyllabic couplets, is in a dialect of Occitan
with a strong influence from Catalan. I
am indebted to José Manuel González
Fernández de Sevilla for making my
visit to Elche possible.
18
the National Archaeological Museum
in Madrid. Elche’s most beautiful physical feature is an enormous grove of
date palms, a legacy of the Moorish inhabitants who were driven out in 1238
by Jaume I of Aragon.
It is the annual performance of the
mystery play that makes Elche unique.
Performed over the course of two days,
the Misteri d’Elx is a celebration of
the Dormition and Assumption of the
Blessed Virgin Mary—the belief that
the immaculate mother of God passed
from earthly life without suffering, her
corpse miraculously spared the decay
a life-sized wooden statue of the Virgin of the Assumption, richly dressed
and crowned, the eyes in her masklike
face closed and her bejeweled fingers
pressed together in a gesture of calm
piety.
The substitution of the statue for the
boy does not break the theatrical illusion: there is no illusion to break. The
performers have all along behaved less
like characters in a play than like figures in a medieval or Renaissance altarpiece. The first part of the Misteri ends
with an angel clad in white descending
from the ceiling surrounded by four
iment. The painted ceiling opens once
again to lower sweetly singing angels
who have come to transport Mary to
her son. The holy statue is slowly lifted
toward heaven, and a mystical apparition of the Holy Trinity descends, amid
a shower of golden confetti, and gently
lowers a golden crown onto the Virgin’s
head. The apostles and the converted
Jews together sing their beautiful polyphonic choral refrains, the massive
organ sounds its triumphant chords,
fireworks explode outside, and the
crowd filling the nave, balconies, and
tribunes weeps and applauds and
shouts the praises of Mary,
Mother of God and protectress
of Elche.
The Misteri d’Elx is unusual
not only because it has survived
the vast political, aesthetic, and
ideological mood swings of
many centuries—including the
Council of Trent’s restrictions
on popular religious drama, the
Enlightenment, the scientific
revolution, radical anticlericalism, civil war, the attempted suppression of Catalan nationalism,
globalization, and the rise of
digital media—but also because
it is set entirely to music. It has
managed to retain this setting,
along with two remarkable aerial stage devices, dating in their
current form from as early as the
sixteenth century, that transport
singing angels (and ultimately
the statue of the Virgin herself)
between the marble floor of the
basilica and the ceiling of the
dome high above.
The more spectacular of these
devices is known popularly as
the pomegranate (in Catalan,
magrana). A flap cut into the frescoed
ceiling of the basilica’s dome opens
and a glittering red machine slowly
emerges and unfolds to reveal the angel
who bears the message to Mary that
she will soon rejoin her son. The second device, known as the recèlica or
araceli, is lowered to reveal the group
of guitar-strumming, harp-playing angels. The devices are charmingly archaic—men operating a winch in the
attic space behind the painted canvas
flap are clearly visible—but their enduring effectiveness was apparent in
the ecstatic cries of excitement and the
rapt, tear-stained faces of the crowd.
When the ceiling opened, the spectators’ frenzy of fanning—this was Spain
in August, after all, and the church
was like an oven—gave way to bursts
of passionate applause. In an enclosed
gallery high above the cadafal, even the
nuns, who must have been roasting in
their wimples and heavy black tunics,
clapped their hands in wonder and
delight.
Though the available online videos
are substantial, they can only gesture
toward the actual experience of the
mystery play in its entirety. That experience includes not only the two-day
liturgical drama itself but also tryouts,
first to select the best singers and then
to determine if any of those who might
sing the part of the angels are afraid
of heights; neighborhood feasts; the
making of elaborate costumes; multiPatronat Del Misteri d’Elx
A few years ago I received an honorary
degree from the University of Alicante,
in Spain’s Valencia province. At the
end of my visit, my host, presenting me
with a lavishly illustrated book in Catalan entitled La Festa o Misteri d’Elx,
urged me to return someday in midAugust to the nearby town of Elche (or
Elx, in the Catalan spelling) to witness
the elaborate religious drama of the
book’s title, which has been performed
annually since the fifteenth century
and may have roots even earlier.1 This
event—recognized by UNESCO as “a
masterpiece of the oral and intangible
heritage of humanity”—is, like
the Oberammergau passion play
in Bavaria, one of the few living
relics of collective celebrations
that were once widespread in
medieval Europe.
These celebrations, known
as mystery or miracle plays, did
not have a single set form, but
they shared a focus on sacred
themes drawn from the Bible
and from the legends that had
gradually accumulated around
biblical stories. They have left
very few living traces: mystery
plays were actively suppressed
in the sixteenth century, both by
Protestant authorities who felt
they were indelibly stained with
Catholicism and by CounterReformation Catholic authorities who were anxious, after the
Reformation, to exercise more
doctrinal control over popular
religious enthusiasm. The survival of the Misteri d’Elx, more
or less intact, is something of a
miracle (more prosaically, its
continuance required a papal
dispensation, granted in the seventeenth century by Pope Urban VIII).
The festival of the Misteri d’Elx in the Basilica de Santa María, Elche, Spain, 2015
that befalls all other mortals, and that
her body as well as her soul ascended
to heaven to be reunited with her son
Jesus.
On the first day of the festival, accompanied by musicians and civic officials, the Virgin, played by a young
boy arrayed in a white tunic and blue
hooded cape surmounted by a gilded
diadem, walks in a procession through
the streets of the town. With an entourage, including several blond-wigged
angels, she then solemnly approaches
Elche’s baroque Basilica de Santa
María. The basilica, which stands on
the site of an ancient mosque, was gutted in 1936 during the Spanish Civil
War, but, lovingly restored, it is packed
with spectators who have been waiting
for hours for this moment. The Virgin
sings plaintively as she proceeds up
a specially built walkway (known as
the andador) to a raised platform (the
cadafal) erected at the crossing of the
nave and the transept. There, informed
by an angel that her end is near, she
expresses the wish to see the apostles
once more before she departs from this
life of sorrow.
After an exquisitely sung choral reunion with Saint John, Saint Peter,
and the others, she lies down upon a
bier. While the apostles surround her
and lament her passing, a cleverly constructed trapdoor in the cadafal opens,
allowing the boy playing the Virgin to
disappear below. In his place appears
more angels, one playing a harp, the
others strumming guitars, and all singing sweetly. On the cadafal, the central
angel receives a small doll—a miniature version of the recumbent statue
lying on the bier—and carries it back
up to the heavens. Mary’s soul—an
icon of an icon of a boy doing his best
to resemble an icon—is thus glorified.
The next morning there is a second
solemn procession: the recumbent
statue of the Virgin, accompanied by
costumed penitents, is carried through
the streets of Elche, which are lined
with the faithful holding candles,
and then back to the platform in the
church. When in the late afternoon
the large crowd has once again gathered in the basilica, the mystery play’s
most dramatic event occurs: led by a
gaunt, elderly man with long braided
hair and beard, a crowd of Jews, wearing prayer shawls and skullcaps and
singing Oh Déu Adonai, rushes into
the church and up the walkway in an
attempt to reach the Virgin’s corpse.
The apostles valiantly try to repel the
onslaught, but the ferocity of the malevolent Jews, stirred up by their chief
rabbi, is overwhelming. Suddenly, just
as the attackers are about to reach the
body—presumably for some nefarious
purpose—there is a miracle: the rabbi’s
hands are paralyzed. The Jews fall to
their knees, convert, and are baptized.
The remainder of the sacred event
then proceeds without further imped-
The New York Review
ple rehearsals; a succession of parades,
mock battles, and unbelievably noisy
daylight pyrotechnic events (mascletás)
to celebrate the reconquest of Valencia from the Moors; solemn candlelit
processions in honor of the Virgin;
masses starting at 4 AM ; and spectacular fireworks filling the night sky with
shimmering light and the acrid smell of
gunpowder.
My kind host in Alicante was per-
fectly right in thinking that I would
find Elche’s mystery play fascinating.
But my fascination was interwoven
with perplexity. What exactly are we
meant to do with these artistic traces
of a past in which a dark history of
religious hostility is twisted together
with popular faith, and in which we
can glimpse the sources of some of our
most intractable contemporary problems? The strictly formalist literary
training that I received, at Yale in the
1960s, dismissed almost all historical
and cultural considerations, past and
present, as irrelevant. I was taught to
analyze the internal structure of a work
of art, rather the way an engineer might
analyze the machine that raises and
lowers the angels from the ceiling: How
exactly do the cog wheels and pulleys
function, and what are the weight limits
of those slender ropes? But though it is
a powerful tool for understanding how
certain aesthetic effects are produced,
such formalism deliberately keeps its
distance from the ethical questions
raised by works like the Misteri d’Elx.
It has little to say about the intense, potentially dangerous energies that make
those ethical questions pressing.
In a printed text, works like mystery
cycles and miracle plays can be treated
as if they were abstract puzzles, narrative problems solved either cleverly or
imperfectly. But the power of medieval art lies in its insistence on larger
frames of reference, which extend to
the community of the living and the
dead, to the hidden powers of nature,
and, above all, to the numinous beings
who reside in heaven and hell and preside over our salvation or damnation.
This is an art that makes explicit what
is often hidden in the works of later
periods: the inculcation of the shared
values and collective beliefs that define
the corpus Christianorum, the entire
body of Christendom. Hence the vivid
effect of what I witnessed on those
summer days in Valencia: “This is who
we are and what we believe,” the whole
city seems to declare in unison. “This
performance marks the boundary between those who belong and those who
must be excluded; it manifests our faith
and makes clear who are our brothers
and who are the others.”
The enormous civic involvement in
the array of events in Elche is one of
the central features of medieval drama:
on their own, the surviving texts—the
fifteenth-century Wakefield mystery
plays from England, for example, or
Les Actes des Apôtres from France—
provide only a small clue to a cultural
form whose vitality depends upon communal participation. Understanding
the nature and meaning of that participation lies at the center of much recent
scholarship, whose primary inspiration
was a brilliant book written almost
twenty years ago by Sarah Beckwith,
Signifying God: Social Relation and
Symbolic Act in the York Corpus
Christi Plays.
June 11, 2020
Beckwith’s insights were based in
part on attempts in the contemporary
theater to recover something of the
spirit of the original performances. In
Tony Harrison’s celebrated adaptation
of The Mysteries, which I saw in London in the early 1980s and which is
based on the Wakefield cycle, the director, Bill Bryden, had the audience
move around the huge open acting
space and lend a hand to actors dressed
as workmen from different trades. At
one moment we were all milling about
as if among the angels witnessing the
creation of the world; at another we
were part of the crowd watching the
Crucifixion with mingled curiosity and
horror. What I remember most vividly
was holding onto a large piece of blue
plastic and shaking it up and down
to create the vast, seething ocean on
which Noah’s ark was bobbing. It was
all homely and more than a bit absurd,
but I distinctly felt I had ceased to be a
mere spectator and was actively participating in something important.
Affirming their collective faith, the
performers in medieval mystery plays
generally came, as they do in Elche,
from the lay populace. The sense of
civic solidarity was heightened in
many performances by the role of craft
guilds, each of which assumed responsibility for a particular segment of the
narrative. (The term “mystery” has its
origin not in enigma but, more mundanely, in the Latin ministerium, that
is, métier or trade.) In the mystery cycle
performed in Chester, in northwest England, for example, the tanners were
responsible for the Fall of Lucifer, the
drapers for the Creation of the World,
the “waterleaders and drawers” (water
carriers) for the Flood, and so on, all
the way through to the ironmongers for
the Passion, the cooks and innkeepers
for the Descent into Hell, and the skinners for the Resurrection.
Sometimes, as in Elche, most of the
event took place in the sacred precincts
of the church, but often much of it unfolded outside, on wagons in the streets,
and in squares and marketplaces. We
are now accustomed to situating performances in specially demarcated spaces:
theaters, opera houses, concert halls,
arenas. (The dominant model in the
English-speaking world was laid out in
1576 when an entrepreneurial builder,
James Burbage, constructed the first
free-standing public theater in England
since the fall of the Roman Empire.)
But for much medieval drama, there
was no sharp distinction between theatrical spaces and the spaces of ordinary life, while the boundary between
the sacred and the profane was remarkably porous. All the world was a stage.
If in the Middle Ages the performance
of a mystery moved as it does in Elche
from the streets into the basilica, the
sense of the sacred would have been
heightened, but the principal performers
continued to be lay, rather than clergy,
and the events depicted remained at
some distance from the liturgical rituals and hieratic solemnity of the church.
Reverence was often seasoned by a certain playful raucousness or a lingering
tang of theatricality. The most delightful of the surviving English mysteries, the Wakefield Second Shepherds’
Play, features a comedy about a stolen
sheep that the thief’s wife attempts to
conceal by swaddling it as a newborn
baby and hiding it in a cradle. Only
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Vincent van Gogh, Cypresses (detail), 1889, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1949.
19
after the shepherds discover the ruse
and punish the thief does the play turn
its attention to the real newborn, the
Christ child, in the manger. The thief, a
boisterous rogue, is one of many figures
in the mysteries who leaven the liturgical sobriety with histrionics and, like
the Jews in the Misteri d’Elx, inject an
anarchic energy that flourishes briefly
before it is contained.
Such figures take many forms. There
are lively allegorical sinners like Mischief, Avarice, and Lust alongside an
array of scolds, skeptical neighbors,
peddlers, and soldiers. Herod and Pilate both throw their weight around,
as do various noisy devils and demons. Judas, of course, plays his sinister role, and on occasion, as in the
Misteri d’Elx, there are other, less
infamous troublemakers identified as
Jews. Take, for example, the fifteenthcentury Play of the Sacrament from the
village of Croxton, in Cambridgeshire.
This miracle play depicts an immensely rich Jew, Jonathas, who pays
the corruptible Christian merchant
Aristorius to steal a Eucharist wafer
and then, in the company of four fellow Jews, subjects the consecrated host
to a series of attacks. Their ostensible
motive is to demonstrate, as Jonathas
puts it, that “the belief of these Christian men is false . . . for they believe in
a cake.” Of course, if the Jews thought
the wafer was only a cake, they would
hardly have paid a fortune for it and
set about stabbing it with their daggers
and driving nails into it. As so often in
the long history of violent iconoclasm,
the ostensible skeptics are the ones
who are most in the grip of magical
conviction.
“Now, by Muhammad”—as Jews in
this and other medieval plays repeatedly swear, conflating Christianity’s
two great enemies—“with our strokes
we shall fray [assault] him as he was
on the rood [the cross].” They are unwittingly reenacting the Crucifixion,
depicted here as the work of the Jews,
without the distraction of the pagan Romans. But the perfidious Jews are in for
an unpleasant surprise, for when Jonathas strikes the host, it begins to bleed,
and when in dismay he tries to cast the
bleeding wafer into a cauldron of boiling
oil, it clings to his hand. His fellow Jews
try desperately to pull it away, but they
manage only to pull his hand off as well.
In horror-movie style, the shocks
keep coming. Plucking out the nails
that they had driven into the consecrated host, they wrap the hand and
wafer in a cloth and, hoping they have
seen the last of them, throw the hideous packet into the cauldron. The
oil, however, bubbles up into a mass of
seething blood. To staunch it, they fire
up an oven with straw and thorns, and
then, gingerly lifting the “cake” and
what remains of the hand out of the
oil, they cast them both into the flames.
But the Jews cannot contain the mysterious power they have inadvertently released. A stage direction in the original
manuscript calls for a spectacular coup
de théâtre: “Here the oven must rive
asunder and bleed out at the crannies,
and an image appear out with wounds
bleeding.” The “image” is none other
than the suffering Jesus, who addresses
his tormentors directly: “Oh ye marvelous Jews,/Why are ye to your king
unkind?” The Jews precipitously fall to
their knees, repent, and convert.
T
here were no Jews in England in
the fifteenth century when The Croxton Play of the Sacrament originated.
As with all the other depictions of
Jews, from the medieval mystery plays
through Elizabethan masterpieces like
The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of
Venice, this play was performed in a
conspicuously Jew-free environment.
The entire Jewish community had been
expelled in 1290, the first such ethnic
cleansing in Europe. By the late sixteenth century, as James Shapiro has
persuasively argued in Shakespeare
and the Jews (1992), there were probably in London a handful of marranos,
that is, nominal Christians of Spanish
and Portuguese origin who in secret
observed certain Jewish rituals. But
Jews—that is, people who openly professed and practiced Judaism—were
not admitted back into the country
until the late seventeenth century.
Christian society, however, has never
had to rely altogether on the presence
of “real Jews”; it has always been able,
in Marx’s wry formulation, to “produce
Judaism from its own entrails.”2 As
the historian David Nirenberg amply
shows in his magisterial Anti-Judaism,
Jews, at least imaginary Jews, pervade
Western habits of thought. 3 Their presence is necessary, and not only because
they cannot be erased from the historical origins of Christianity. In medieval drama, Jews, along with a variety
of devils and pagans, emperors and
sultans, repeatedly act out the doubts
that even pious Christians occasionally experience. Hence in Croxton, at
the end everyone files into the church,
where not only do all the Jewish characters become Christian but also the
penitent Christian merchant Aristorius
confesses that he has acted like Judas:
“I sold our Lord’s body for lucre.”
The plaintive figure of Jesus having
resumed the form of bread, the entire
community, cleansed of its Jews, can
now take communion.
Moving the whole performance into
the church has the virtue of highlighting the authority of the institution
and its ordained representatives, but
it also runs the risk of labeling those
representatives as actors and exposing the high altar as a theatrical stage
on which fraudulent illusions are produced. Indeed, in place of the altar the
Misteri d’Elx requires the construction
of an actual stage, complete with trapdoor, from which Mary ascends into a
painted heaven by means of an altogether visible rope and pulley. To be
sure, the Jews’ skepticism—their conviction that Mary is simply mortal or
that the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is hocus pocus—is soundly
defeated. This defeat presumably signifies the hoped-for vanquishing of the
quiet skepticism that evidently lurked
in the rational minds of ordinary Christians and found dangerous expression
in those whom the church called heretics and tried to silence. The problem
is that the triumphant demonstration
of the Assumption of the Virgin or the
miracle of the Eucharist is ineradicably
tinged with theatricality. “The host,
the little biscuit,” as Beckwith observes
Helen Frankenthaler
The Red Sea, 1978
Lithograph on pink handmade paper
23 1/4 x 27 7/8 inches, Edition 58
hirambutler.com
20
2
Karl Marx, “Zur Judenfrage,” quoted
in David Nirenberg, “Shakespeare’s
Jewish
Questions,”
Renaissance
Drama, Vol. 38 (2010), p. 78.
3
David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The
Western Tradition (Norton, 2013).
of the Croxton Play, “is a mere stage
prop.”4 If this is proof, what would disproof look like?
The best that mystery plays can do
is to deflect the skepticism they unleash—the little, nagging voice that
says that the wafer is only bread or that
Mary must die and putrefy like everyone else—onto public enemies and to
make these enemies conspicuously theatrical, as if they belonged to a different medium from that of the virtuous
Christians in their icon-like stillness. 5
As in Croxton, at the end of the Misteri
d’Elx the Jews are compelled to quiet
their skepticism and their noisy histrionics and to enter the world of Christian mystery. One by one, as they are
touched by Saint John’s palm frond,
they bend down to adore the statue that
they would in their former Jewish lives
have regarded with contempt. Then
they rise and solemnly follow one of the
apostles, who is holding up a crucifix.
Their conversion is complete, or rather
as complete as it can be, since the Jews
remain separate as a group and distinct
in dress. Set apart from Mary and the
apostles, who seem never to have had
anything at all to do with Judaism,
these figures, still in tallises and yarmulkes, are in effect marked as conversos, New Christians, who have not yet
fully merged with the true faithful.
I
n Spain, such a spectacle of conversion inevitably brings to mind 1492,
when the entire Jewish population
of the kingdom, newly united under
Ferdinand and Isabella, was forced to
choose between baptism and exile. But
the Misteri d’Elx is not a depiction of
that event or of the lamentable history
of inquisitorial suspicion and persecution that both preceded and followed
the forced conversions. In the early fifteenth century, when the performance
originated, the Jews were already
largely gone from Elche and its region.
The substantial Jewish population of
late-medieval Valencia had been the
special obsession of Saint Vincent Ferrer, a charismatic Dominican preacher.
Ferrer, born in 1350 and tirelessly active until his death in 1419, believed
that the continued existence of the Jews
was a scandal and an impediment to
the Second Coming of Christ. Accompanied by a retinue of some three hundred flagellants, the peripatetic Ferrer
launched a succession of spectacular
anti-Jewish campaigns whose combination of economic sanctions, political
pressure, rhetorical fervor, and sheer
menace led a significant number of
Jews, including some highly influential
rabbis, to embrace Christianity.
4
Sarah Beckwith, “Ritual, Church, and
Theatre: Medieval Dramas of the Sacramental Body,” in Culture and History, 1350–1600: Essays on English
Communities, Identities and Writing,
edited by David Aers (Wayne State
University Press, 1992), p. 68.
5
This logic continues well beyond the
Middle Ages. Shakespeare’s Shylock also voices subversive, skeptical
thoughts, before being forced to his
knees and compelled to convert. But
The Merchant of Venice, written for a
secular theater in a Protestant country,
does not end in a religious ritual. Shylock simply disappears from the play,
and the last act depicts a set of decidedly worldly couples squabbling and
reconciling.
The New York Review
“W
ular celebration to honor the death and
assumption of Mary.” If Elche is indeed free from religious conflict—and
free from the presence of Jews—why
should Jews figure at all in its fervent
celebration of Mary? The answer is
that virtually from its inception the
cult of Mary was closely bound up with
a current of vehement anti-Judaism.8
The vehemence may have intensified
in angry responses to skeptical denials
of Mary’s virginity, denials most notoriously summed up and circulated in a
Jewish alternative biography of Jesus
known as the Toledot Yeshu. But the
anti-Jewish strain long outlasted any
direct polemical contact between the
two faiths and seems to have become
focused, somewhat surprisingly, not
only on Mary’s miraculous pregnancy
but also on representations of her
bodily ascent to heaven.
British Library
One outcome of the public zeal
Ferrer’s preaching tapped into was a
large-scale massacre in 1391 of Jews
in Valencia and elsewhere. Though the
royal authorities, taken by surprise,
punished a few of the ringleaders of the
violence—the Jews were technically
royal property and therefore under protection—the event marked the beginning of the end of Spanish Convivencia,
the time-honored mutual toleration
of the three monotheistic faiths. The
Jewish survivors of the slaughter got
the message: some fled; others begged
to be baptized. So many would-be converts lined up outside churches that the
priests worried that their supply of holy
chrism, the mixture of oil and balsam
used in baptisms, would be exhausted.6
Almost immediately after the massacre in Valencia, stories began to circulate about wondrous occurrences that
Men desecrating the host; from the Lovell Lectionary, illustrated by John Siferwas, circa 1400
seemed to validate or justify what had
happened. According to reports sent to
the king, chrism was suddenly filling
the empty vessels of the churches. Such
events, the local witnesses averred,
could not have occurred through
human ingenuity but must have been
the work of divine intervention.7 It is
a relatively modest distance from such
stories to the fantasies that seem to be
motivating the Misteri d’Elx. Instead
of guilt and shame, there is vindication.
Instead of a murderous attack on the
Jews, there is a providentially averted
attack by the Jews upon the Holy
Mother of God. Instead of robbery,
bloodshed, and compulsion, there is
the spectacle of penitent Jews, down on
their knees before the image of Mary,
gratefully acknowledging the revealed
truth: “Nosaltres tots creen,” they
sing, “que és la Mare del Fill de Déu.
Batejau-nos tots en breu, que en tal fe
viure volem”—“We all believe that the
mother of the son of God will soon baptize us all in that faith in which we want
to live.” Vincent Ferrer—canonized in
1455—could not have hoped for more.
Today there are almost no Jews in
Elche, and very few in all of Valencia.
As a Spanish colleague wrote to me
when I delicately asked if there had
ever been any discussion of the interfaith issues in the Misteri d’Elx, “I must
tell you that Elche is a town free from
religious conflict or racist hatred and
violence. Those prejudices against Jews
are only in the play which is just a pop6
See Henry Charles Lea, “Ferrand
Martinez and the Massacres of 1391,”
The American Historical Review, Vol.
1, No. 1 (1895), pp. 217–18.
7
See Philippe Wolff, “The 1391 Pogrom
in Spain: Social Crisis or Not?,” Past
and Present, No. 50 (1971), pp. 9–10.
June 11, 2020
In the Misteri d’Elx, as the Jews
enter the basilica and rush up the andador, they do not say why they want to
seize Mary’s body or what they would
do with it if they got their hands on
it. But legends, many dating back to
the year 500, supply the missing explanation: the earliest texts tell a tale
in which the Jews, fearing that Mary’s
bodily relics will work wonders and will
therefore win converts to the Christian
faith, conspire to burn her corpse. All
but one of the conspirators are struck
blind, but that one, named Jephonias,
runs in a rage toward the apostles who
are carrying Mary’s body and attempts
to overturn her bier.9 In defense of the
Mother of God, an angel with a flaming
sword cuts off Jephonias’s hands, which
remain clinging to the bier. When the
mutilated Jew begs the apostles to heal
him, they reply that he must pray to the
Virgin. In doing so, he is miraculously
healed and immediately converts. With
a palm branch from the Tree of Life, he
then touches those of his fellow Jews
who are willing to be cured of their
blindness and join him in embracing
the true faith.
8
See Miri Rubin, “The Passion of
Mary: The Virgin and the Jews in Medieval Culture,” in The Passion Story:
From Visual Representation to Social
Drama, edited by Marcia Ann Kupfer
(Penn State University Press, 2008);
Rubin, Mother of God: A History of
the Virgin Mary (Yale University Press,
2009); and Stephen J. Shoemaker, The
Dormition and Assumption Apocrypha (Leuven: Peeters, 2018), pp. 83–
136.
9
See, for example, the earliest Greek
Dormition narrative, in Stephen J.
Shoemaker, Ancient Traditions of the
Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption (Oxford University Press, 2003).
ell, what did you think of it?”
my Spanish host asked, as the crowd,
their cries of exaltation still ringing
in my ears, filed out of the basilica. I
replied that I found it compelling and
beautiful; the music was splendid, the
spectacle unforgettable, and the collective energy almost overwhelming. I was
very glad to have seen it. But, I added
after a pause, it also made me extremely
uncomfortable. He looked baffled, so I
asked him as a thought experiment to
imagine himself in Baghdad watching
a powerful, moving, ancient performance of a ritual drama that celebrated
the miraculous awakening of a pack of
angry Christians to the luminous truth
of Islam. Would that make him uncomfortable? He hesitated for a moment
and said that, yes, it would.
Why go out of one’s way to engage
with an experience like the Misteri
d’Elx? One needn’t, after all. But refusing to look will not make the annual
spectacle go away. It is, as UNESCO assures us, part of the heritage of humanity, one with considerable antiquity,
beauty, and allure. Moreover, it is a living link to innumerable other texts and
performances that over many generations fashioned the consciousness of the
Christian West, and helped to shape its
history. If we want to understand that
history—if we want, for that matter, to
understand the passions of the present—we must not simply turn our eyes
away from unnerving, alienating, or offensive works of art in the hope of constructing a sanitized, reassuring canon.
Such a canon does not exist, or if it did,
it would have to exclude for one reason
or another many of the most precious
works of the human imagination, from
Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Dickens’s
Oliver Twist, from The Tale of Genji to
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Where would we stop—and how could
we ever understand how we got here?
But even as I write these words, I
glance nervously at the newspaper to
see if there has been yet another violent outburst of Jew-hatred somewhere
in the world. The August celebration
in Elche is certainly not responsible
for these attacks, but it is not entirely
innocent either, any more than Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale,” Shakespeare’s
Merchant of Venice, or Pound’s Pisan
Cantos are entirely innocent. Should
artistic beauty confer a special privilege for the spreading of lies? Isn’t cultural prestige precisely one of the ways
in which vicious stereotypes are freely
reproduced and passed from generation to generation? Surely it is important to speak out, to object, and to
articulate one’s own ethical principles.
Some years ago, as the editor of the
Norton Shakespeare, I was pilloried for
my alleged political correctness—Harold Bloom dubbed me “the chief of the
School of Resentment”—for calling
attention to an antiblack slur in Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About
Nothing. Would it actually have been
better to let the slur pass unglossed? I
think, on the contrary, that registering
the presence of the racist stereotype illuminates the character who speaks the
words, supplies contextual information
about the period’s dominant assumptions, and gives needed expression to
our own values.
Exploring the ethical dilemmas
found in the “intangible heritage of
humanity” is hardly the only available
option, either in the public sphere (there
was no trace of that exploration at all,
“Books enable readers to
broaden their lives, and this
one—in which Marie Mutsuki
Mockett joins a crew harvesting wheat—is a doozy, as
Studs Terkel’s were. . . .
I never knew a person on a
wheat-harvesting crew, and
now I do, thanks to Mockett’s
vivid and true account.”
—ANNIE DILLARD
AMERICAN
HARVEST
GOD, COUNTRY, AND
FARMING IN THE HEARTLAND
B Y M A RI E
MU TS U KI MO C KE TT
“An extraordinary feat of
empathy set against a land of
reds, whites, and blues,
American Harvest doesn’t just
speak to the great divide—
it dares to bridge it.”
—MARLON JAMES
“Mockett, writing with a
gentle self-consciousness,
offers a compassionate portrait
of conservative evangelicals,
along with lucid musings on
agricultural science, Native
American history, and the quiet
majesty of the Great Plains.”
—THE NEW YORKER
“Mockett describes the American
plains as having ‘a subtle
gradation in topography that
suits a ruminating mind,’ and the
same can be said of her stunning
new book. . . . Her insights are
ones we could all stand to learn
from right about now.”
—JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN
GRAYWOLF PRESS
graywolfpress.org
21
DIALOGUES:
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Podcast
Artists on the
creative process
Vija Celmins
Karon Davis
Kahlil Joseph
Tyler Mitchell
Helen Molesworth
Rachel Rose
Antwaun Sargent
Diana Thater
Luc Tuymans
Doug Wheeler
#DZDialogues
@davidzwirner
Listen now at davidzwirner.com/podcast
or wherever you get your podcasts
David Zwirner
22
of course, in Elche) or in the academy
(where it is sometimes thought to be
pervasive). Often the aspects of this
heritage that one might expect to be
most vehemently challenged are quietly ignored, winked at, or even actively
championed. “What’s wrong, exactly,
with euro-centrism?” asks Milo Yiannopoulos, a former editor at Breitbart
News, reflecting on the Crusades. “And
aren’t we glad the Christians won?”
After all, he cheerfully says of fanatics who slaughtered innumerable Jews
and Muslims, “the Christians were the
good guys.”10
One need not go to this extreme to
defend and appreciate an event like
the one performed in Elche. The annual festival, it is possible to argue, is
a time-honored civic ritual that has
nothing to do with old histories of persecution and hatred. Those histories
belong to a past as distant as the pagan
rites that were no doubt once practiced
on the site that gave way to a Christian
church and then to a mosque and then
to the current basilica. Moreover, what
is depicted in the miracle of conversion
is in effect the conferral of a form of citizenship—not quite our form, since we
no longer insist upon a single faith as
a condition of full membership in our
civic community, but, for its time, the
late Middle Ages, a reasonably decent
one.
It is also possible with a work like the
Misteri d’Elx to treat the disagreeable
aspects as irrelevant and to focus more
or less entirely on those elements that
give aesthetic pleasure. It may help if
you are a connoisseur whose interest
is almost entirely formal. Hence the
old joke about the German Jewish art
historian on his deathbed visited by a
priest who holds a crucifix before his
fading eyes and urges him to look up.
The dying man whispers, “Netherlandish, late seventeenth century, around
1670.” Alternatively, it may help if the
performance is in a language you do
not understand or if you know virtually nothing about the history of its
reception.
But such responses risk underestimating the vitality that characterizes
the greatest cultural achievements.
Living works of art are never fixed and
closed. They are subject to revising and
reimagining in the light of shifting values, historical scholarship, and newly
awakened sensitivities. With a work
still performed in public—as the Misteri d’Elx decidedly is—it is possible
to encourage frank discussion and to
hope for transformation. There have
been such transformations in the past.
In the late eighteenth century a bishop,
finding the whole business of the Judiada inappropriate, ordered it cut from
the performance. The bishop was not
concerned with religious tolerance.
He simply thought the spectacle of the
eruption of the Jews into the basilica
and the melee with the apostles was unseemly and dangerous. (Evidently the
actors playing both the Jews and the
apostles bore swords, and on occasion
there had been bloodshed.) For more
than a century Elche observed its communal celebration of the Assumption
without Jews, and it turned out that
the town managed perfectly successfully to express its identity, reinforce its
10
Milo Yiannopoulos, Middle Rages:
Why the Battle for Medieval Studies
Matters to America (Dangerous Books,
2019).
solidarity, and celebrate its faith. The
Jews only returned to the Misteri d’Elx
in the 1920s.11
Even as the play is currently performed, its director has innumerable
choices to make in dress, gesture, facial features, and vocal expression that
shape the experience and subtly alter it
from year to year. The coming iteration
of the Misteri d’Elx, which would ordinarily take place in mid-August, has
been postponed because of Covid-19
and provisionally planned instead for
autumn. So here is a modest proposal
for whenever the next performance occurs: change the costumes. If there are
to be tallises and yarmulkes, have all
the men wear them. A director who decided through costuming to acknowledge the simple historical fact that the
apostles (along, of course, with Mary)
were themselves Jews would, without
altering a word, change the meaning of the whole. The strict boundary
between Christians and Jews, insiders and outsiders, natives and others,
would be blurred. The spectacle would
no longer conjure up the distinction,
responsible for centuries of suspicion
and persecution in Spain, between Old
and New Christians. It might even lead
some of the people of Elche to reflect
on their own mixed ethnic origins. The
sublime music and the startling scenic
effects would remain the same, but
they would arise from less poisoned
ground.
It is through such reinvention—
awakening implications that are only
latent—that artistic masterpieces stay
truly alive. Transformations of this
kind rarely resolve in any completely
satisfying way the issues raised by
ethically problematical works that are
deeply rooted in tradition. (The costume changes I have just proposed
would hardly eliminate the struggle
over Mary’s body or the miraculous
conversion of the attackers.) The experience of such works, for some of us
at least, will always remain uncomfortable, even on the page and still more so
in live performance. This queasiness is
the price of a voyage to another time
and place, the voyage that is the core
experience of the humanities.
The Misteri d’Elx is probably as
close as it is possible to come to a living encounter with medieval drama.
Buried in its origins is an ancient faith,
along with an ancient hatred, to which
the poets and composers gave a powerful expression that has miraculously
endured into the present. To witness
it now is to shuttle back and forth for
several days between proximity and
distance, engagement and detachment,
attraction and revulsion. Its music, its
stage magic, and its collective ardor
provoke wonder, but if my days in
Elche are any indication, the wonder
is not unmixed with pain, pain that is
a measure of the distance between the
world conjured up in the celebrated
work of art and the world in which we
live, or at least hope to live. Q
11
The revival of the Judiada seems to
have been largely the work of the gifted
composer Óscar Esplá, whose long,
complicated, and politically ambiguous
career took him from Spain to antiFranco exile in Brussels, to writing
for the Nazi-sympathizing newspaper
Le Soir during World War II, and finally back to Spain. See Eva Moreda
Rodriguez, Music and Exile in Francoist Spain (Routledge, 2015).
The New York Review
Tyrannical Days
Deborah Eisenberg
Some good news is that Penguin is
bringing greater attention to Jessica
Hagedorn’s Dogeaters with its celebration of the novel’s thirtieth anniversary,
and it turns out that the book is every bit
as spectacular as it was on its initial appearance. Although by the standards of
both the serial-publication and the
word-processor-enabled decades
it’s a brief book, it is a mighty one;
open it up, and a universe erupts
from its modest 250 pages.
The story begins innocently
enough: from an unspecified
distance in the future, Rio, the
book’s main narrator, looks back
at an afternoon outing in 1956
with her cousin Pucha to see All
That Heaven Allows, playing in
Cinemascope and Technicolor
at Manila’s Avenue Theater. Rio
is ten and Pucha is fourteen, and
they are chaperoned by Lorenza,
Rio’s yaya, the family servant
who looks after her.
After the movie, the three go
to the Cafe España, where the
girls, enraptured by midcentury
Hollywood’s benign glossy dream
clichés of love, America, and
beauty, discuss the movie’s finer
points over TruColas. To Rio’s
distress, a group of boys at a table
nearby start to flirt coarsely with
the overdeveloped and somewhat
under-brained Pucha. Worse,
Pucha, obviously thrilled by the
attention, cannot be budged from
the café either by Lorenza or by
Rio. The leader of the onslaught presses
his advantage and Pucha “smiles back,
blushing prettily”:
“Pucha,” I say with some desperation. . . . “What are you going to
do—give him your phone number?
You mustn’t give him your phone
number. Your parents will kill you!
Your parents will kill me. . . . He’s
only a boy. A homely, fat boy . . . He
looks like he smells bad.” Pucha
gives me a withering look. “Prima,
shut up. Don’t be so tanga! Remember, Rio—I’m older than you. . . . I
don’t care if he’s a little gordito, or
pangit, or smells like a dead goat.
That’s Boomboom Alacran, stupid. He’s cute enough for me.”
And with this blithely efficient introduction to the potency of the Alacran
family name, we begin our descent into
the maelstrom that doesn’t release us
until the book ends. As we soon discover, the loutish Boomboom is the
crude face of the Alacran family—the
flip side of his sleek, charismatic uncle,
Severo Alacran, from whom the cachet
of the Alacran name derives. And why
is Severo so powerful?
BECAUSE , they would say. Simply
because.
Because he tells the President what
to do. Because he dances well. Because he tells the First Lady off.
Because he dances well and collects art. Because he calls the GenJune 11, 2020
eral Nicky. . . . Because he employs
a private army of mercenaries.
Because he collects primitive art,
renaissance art, and modern art.
Because he owns silver madonnas,
rotting statues of unknown saints,
and jeweled altars lifted intact
from the bowels of bombed-out
churches. Because his house is not
a home but a museum. Because he
smokes cigars. Because he flies his
International Coconut Investments.
Rio describes her father as a “privileged
member and stockholder” of Alacran’s
huge Monte Vista country club, “where
the magnificent greens are rumored to
be infested with cobras, and the highbeamed ceilings of the open-air dining
pavilions are a nesting place for bats”:
Part of my father’s job includes playing golf from dawn until dusk every
Saturday, and Sundays after
Mass, gambling for high stakes
with his boss Severo Alacran,
the nearsighted Judge Peter
Ramos, Congressman Diosdado “Cyanide” Abad, Dr.
Ernesto Katigbak, and occasionally even General Nicasio
Ledesma.
Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
Dogeaters
by Jessica Hagedorn.
Penguin, 251 pp., $17.00 (paper)
Jessica Hagedorn, 1980s
own yellow helicopter. Because
he plays golf with a five handicap.
Because he plays polo and breeds
horses. Because he breeds horses
for fun and profit. Because he is a
greedy man, a generous man. Because his wealth is self-made, not
inherited. Because he owns everything we need, including a munitions factory. Because he dances
well: the boogie, the fox-trot, the
waltz, the cha-cha, the mambo,
the hustle, the bump. Because he
dances a competent tango. Because he owns The Metro Manila
Daily, Celebrity Pinoy Weekly, Radiomanila, TruCola Soft Drinks,
plus controlling interests in Mabuhay Movie Studios, Apollo Records, and the Monte Vista Golf
and Country Club. Because he conceived and constructed SPORTEX,
a futuristic department store in the
suburb of Makati. Because he was
once nominated for president and
declined to run. Because he plays
poker and wins. Because he is short,
and smells like expensive citrus. Because he has elegant silver hair, big
ears, slanted Japanese eyes, and the
aquiline nose of a Spanish mestizo.
Because his skin is dark and leathery from too much sun. Because
he is married to a stunning, selfish
beauty with a caustic tongue.
Rio’s father, Freddie Gonzaga, is
vice-president in charge of acquisitions
at Alacran’s conglomerate, Intercoco—
Rio’s greatest pleasure is to listen to a radio soap opera, Love
Letters—readers are treated to
delicious excerpts—along with
her sweetly addled grandmother
and the servants who congregate
in the grandmother’s room for
that purpose. She’s well aware of
the class stratifications on display
all around her, but like most fairly
privileged children, she takes for
granted her family’s degree of
prestige and their position with
respect to the levers of power.
For the most part, those we
meet early in the book—habitués
of the Monte Vista such as the
Alacrans, the socialite physician
couple the Katigbaks, and General Ledesma—are, along with
Rio’s family and the family servants, the figures in her world.
They are also the people who constitute, along with the unnamed president
and his outlandish wife, the nearly invincible, mutually fortifying triad—the
government, the wealthy, and the military—that is the gravitational center of
power of the entire nation portrayed in
the book.
But the narration soon billows out
beyond Rio’s consciousness. A resourceful, tormented street boy and a
hovering omniscient viewer each take
their turns with the story, and a richly
informative current of gossip is overheard now and again. And soon we
meet people who travel in various orbits around that center of power, people whom the child Rio would not have
encountered: the General’s ambitious
and murderous lieutenant; a number of
actors, including a complicated, heroinaddicted movie star; a distinguished
liberal/reformer senator, the public
face of the political opposition; a rather
mysterious Englishman with a penchant for Filipinas; the owner and patrons of a gay bar/disco; the “Barbara
Walters of the Philippines”; an arty
German filmmaker; a self-deceiving,
desperate, and extremely unlucky young
man from a small village—and plenty
more from across the range of classes
and the many, often reciprocally disdainful ethnicities.
As the book whirls along, the lives of
these people intersect and sometimes
collide. The web between them appears slowly and with an ominous clarity as we come to understand that we’re
being acquainted not only with individual trajectories and the ways they
fit together, but simultaneously with a
map of social relations that expresses
the inner logic of the president’s regime and the vast, stinging reach of
authoritarianism.
Hagedorn’s stylistic flexibility—which
moves gracefully between fast-paced
storytelling, dreamy contemplation,
satire, elegy, and visionary delirium—
and her occasional inclusion of short
texts that function more or less as chapter headings contribute to the book’s
sweeping dimensionality. Some of these
quotations are entirely fictional, such as
clippings from the Metro Manila Daily,
an invention of Hagedorn’s, but others
are real. There are several from Jean
Mallat’s 1846 volume The Philippines:
History, Geography, Customs, Agriculture, Industry, and Commerce of the
Spanish Colonies in Oceania, and there
is one, a real jaw-dropper, from President William McKinley.
McKinley, perhaps best remembered
for having been assassinated, was arguably the initiator of the United States’s
imperial project; in 1898 he sent the US
Navy on a roundabout course aimed
at delivering Cuba from Spanish rule
(into the hands of his own country), and
on the way the convoy almost inadvertently took control of the Philippines.
Initially, McKinley had planned
only to set up a base in Manila, but
apparently decided that while he was
at it, he might as well claim sovereignty over the entire archipelago—
all seven thousand islands and seven
million inhabitants. Over the course
of this blood-drenched but strangely
casual exploit, many atrocities were
committed, which the American
press—formulating disclaimers that
have rung ever more loudly in our
ears throughout the twentieth century
and into the twenty-first—declared to
be the work of a few bad apples, an
aberrant departure from American
values.
The capture of the Philippines, ratified by the dubious Treaty of Paris
in December 1898, marked the first
US acquisition of foreign territory.
And read from our vantage, the section Hagedorn quotes from McKinley’s address in 1898 to a delegation of
Methodist churchmen provides a classic lesson in the sorrowful, ludicrous
ironies of hindsight:
I thought first we would take only
Manila; then Luzon; then other islands, perhaps, also. I walked the
floor of the White House night
after night until midnight; and I
am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my
knees and prayed Almighty God
for light and guidance more than
one night . . . And one night it came
to me this way—I don’t know
how it was, but it came; one, that
we could not give them back to
Spain—that would be cowardly
and dishonorable; two, that we
could not turn them over to France
or Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be
23
bad business and discreditable;
three, that we could not leave them
to themselves—they were unfit for
self-government—and they would
soon have anarchy and misrule
over there worse than Spain’s was;
and four, that there was nothing
left for us to do but to take them
all, and to educate the Filipinos,
and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace
do the very best we could by them,
as our fellow men for whom Christ
also died. And then I went to
bed, and went to sleep and slept
soundly.
Of course, the well-known intractability of the future rarely troubles the
sleep of those who have the firm upper
hand. And to be fair to the memory of
McKinley, the Philippines achieved independence in 1946; the United States
did not actually install Ferdinand
Marcos.
The United States did, however, involve itself deeply with Marcos, who
was, regrettably, president of the Philippines from 1965 until 1986. In fact,
Marcos was highly distasteful to the
American presidents who supported
him—except for a starry-eyed Ronald
Reagan, who adored him—and increasingly galling to the US businessmen with interests in the Philippines
whose own (possibly themselves questionable) profits he siphoned off. But
the strategic value of the Clark and
Subic Bay military bases was such that
the US compensated Marcos lavishly
for his compliance, and he was guaranteed a long, rollicking joyride no matter how distasteful and galling he might
have been.
The money the US poured into
his hands, supplemented by what he
squeezed from his own nation, he used
partly to nourish his military and partly
for some flashy monuments and infrastructure initiatives. Mainly, though,
Marcos used American aid, along
with the yield of Philippine resources,
to stuff his own pockets. But in time,
the very rapacity, looting, and brutality
that stripped his country and rendered
his people increasingly vulnerable to
his repressions engendered a correspondingly determined insurgency.
Inevitably, the cycle intensified, and
in 1972 a series of bombings in Manila
furnished Marcos with the opportunity
to declare martial law.
T
he noxiously distinctive excesses of
Marcos and his wife, Imelda, have secured them an enduring place in the
public imagination’s gallery of ghoulish dictators, and Hagedorn pointedly
models her president and wife on them.
(It’s unlikely to be a coincidence that
Hagedorn’s first lady is nicknamed the
Iron Butterfly, as Imelda was.)
Like their fictional counterparts,
the flamboyant First Couple of real life
were free-spenders and party animals
on a grand scale, and, predictably, various international socialites and celebrities piled onto the heap of people
social-climbing all over one another.
Van Cliburn, George Hamilton, and
Cristina Ford, for example, were intimates of the Marcos’s, and they make
cameo appearances in Dogeaters.
One pet project of Imelda’s was an
astoundingly costly cultural center established in 1966, and its fictional mirror image in Dogeaters is harrowing:
24
The workers are busy day and
night, trying to finish the complex
for the film festival’s opening night,
which is scheduled in a few weeks.
Toward the end, one of the structures collapses and lots of workers
are buried in the rubble. Big news.
Cora Camacho even goes out there
with a camera crew. “Manila’s
Worst Disaster!” A special mass is
held right there in Rizal Park, with
everyone weeping and wailing over
the rubble. The Archbishop gives
his blessing, the First Lady blows
her nose. She orders the survivors
to continue building; more cement
is poured over dead bodies; they
finish exactly three hours before
the first foreign film is scheduled
to be shown.
Imelda Marcos was a great gift to
American journalists, who never got
a chance to interview Marie Antoinette. And Hagedorn devotes an entire
dizzying chapter to a fictional American reporter’s efforts to gingerly extract from the fictional president’s wife
a statement concerning the arrest and
disappearance of an obviously innocent, ridiculously harmless, and utterly
expendable young man who has been
accused of the murder of a pivotal opposition figure:
Madame uses her favorite American expression as many times and
as randomly as possible throughout her interview. “Okay! Okay!
Okay lang, so they don’t like my
face. They’re all jealous, okay?
My beauty has been used against
me . . . I’ve been made to suffer—I
can’t help it, okay! I was born this
way. I never asked God—” she
sighs again. “Can you beat that,
puwede ba? I am cursed by my own
beauty.” She pauses. “Do you like
my face?”
The reporter tries not to look
astonished. . . .
She appraises and dismisses
him swiftly, noting his hairy arms,
cheap tie, limp white shirt, and
dreary wing tips. . . .
The reporter keeps his voice
steady. “What about the young
man arrested by Ledesma’s men
earlier this week?. . . Are any formal charges being made?”
Madame shakes her head slowly.
She affects a look of sadness, which
she does well. “You should interview General Ledesma and Lieutenant Carreon about that. These
are terrible times for my country,
Steve. Do you mind if I call you
Steve? Good.” She pauses. “Ay! So
much tragedy in such a short time!
It’s unfortunate, all this violence.
Thanks be to God for our Special
Squadron, a brutal assassin has
been apprehended . . .”
Marcos murdered and tortured
swaths of dissidents, from far-leftist
guerrillas to peaceful protesters, including moderates, Muslims, members
of church groups, and students. And
this he did with near impunity. It was
only after his assassination of Senator
Benigno Aquino in 1983 that Marcos’s
excesses were judged too great an embarrassment and liability to his American protectors. By the time the United
States cut off his support, billions in US
dollars had simply vanished.
Before it became an occasion for
Shock and Horror, the first lady’s astounding extravagance was, of course,
no more of a secret than were her husband’s exhibitions of greed and cruelty.
But when a despot has exhausted his
utility to the United States and must
be whisked away or allowed to be toppled, it has been the prudent practice
to provide a justification, some “newly
discovered” outrage that makes his
overthrow palatable to the American
public. And in the case of Marcos,
there was an outrage ready to hand, as
vivid, graspable, and unforgettable as
an advertising jingle: his wife’s three
thousand plus pairs of shoes!
In 1990, when Dogeaters was first pub-
lished, however riveting as a work of
fiction, the book would have seemed
to address a fairly restricted political
phenomenon; the whole category of
“tyrant” seemed to be receding into
the past. In 2020 we watch aghast at its
resurgence.
Apparently it’s not so hard to destroy a democracy or to prevent one
from developing. These days we’re seeing foolproof techniques deployed all
over the place, including, again, in the
Philippines: the dismantling of protections, the levying of viciously punitive
measures, the curtailing or corrupting
of the press, the sowing of confusion
and discord, the folding of the justice
system protectively around the upward
consolidation of wealth, the criminalization and disenfranchisement of the
already marginalized, the politicized
use of the police, and so on.
And if the enterprise should run into
difficulty, an aspiring tyrant can always
declare an emergency that calls for the
suspension of laws and the imposition
of extreme measures. An occasion can
always be found—a virus, for example,
might turn out to be as useful as some
bombings or a fire in a government
building. In fact, it’s looking more and
more—to more and more of us—as if
we in the US have installed over ourselves our own mad tyrant.
But a tyrant must stay alertly poised
between those whom he rewards and
those whom he bleeds, and at a certain
point, Marcos lost his balance and went
down at the hands of both. Hagedorn
portrays with great verve the few who
thrive under the rule of her president,
and she portrays with delicacy and conviction the transfiguration of several
characters who for one reason or another exchange the life they’ve known
for a more difficult, more dangerous,
and no doubt more gratifying life devoted to loosening his lethal grip.
What is harder to understand when a
repressive regime has taken over is the
behavior of those who carry on with
their lives more or less as before—an
entrenched middle that’s decreasing in
size, to be sure, in our part of the world
and in many others, but one that is still
large enough to provide a significant
buffer around those who call the shots.
Many of us in my generation grew up
bewildered by the apparent passivity
of an astonishing number of ordinary
Europeans during the years of Adolf
Hitler’s triumphs: Were people terrified into submission, willfully blind,
profoundly obtuse, befuddled by propaganda, enthusiastic about the policies
of the Third Reich, clinging to fragile
comforts, or what? In what ways and by
what means were so many people paralyzed or bought off into inaction? What
did these people say to themselves—
how did they describe to themselves
what looks from a distance like nothing
other than pure complicity?
And, most mystifyingly and significantly, how is it possible not to know
something that’s right in front of your
eyes? What preconceived model is interposed between reality and what one
perceives? That is to say, what does
“not knowing” something mean?
In bad times, such questions are as urgent as answers, and Hagedorn is adept
at portraying this middle zone of passive, everyday involvement, too. Here’s
a little bit from a family gathering in
which Rio’s family chats about a rumor
that the whiskey that General Ledesma
supplies to his troops is counterfeit:
“Papi,” Mikey says to his father,
“they say the soldiers don’t know
the difference, and they’re grateful!… The putok is so terrible,
their guts rot and burn, and they
wake up with killer hangovers.
They say that’s why Ledesma’s
men stay mean-spirited and ready
to kill—” My cousin Mikey says all
this with admiration. My brother
looks impressed. Pucha leans over
to whisper in my ear. “This is so
boring. I think I’m going to vomit.”
“The General is from a good
family,” Tito Agustin says to my
mother. “Do you remember the
Ledesmas from Tarlac?”. . .
“What about those camps?” my
brother Raul suddenly asks.
“What camps?” My father is
annoyed. Tita Florence and my
mother seem perplexed, while
Pucha looks bored. Uncle Agustin
keeps drinking.
“The camps,” Raul repeats… .
“You know—for subversives.
Senator Avila’s always denouncing them—he calls them torture
camps.”
“Senator Avila,” Uncle Agustin
groans. “Por favor, Freddie—how
about another drink?”
“Senator Avila has no proof. It’s
those foreign newspapers again—”
“American sensationalism,” Uncle Agustin agrees.
“Does anyone want more coffee?” my mother wants to know.
“How about you, Agustin?” Tita
Florence gives my uncle a meaningful look. Uncle Agustin ignores
her.
“Boomboom Alacran went to
the main camp, just to see for
himself. . . .”
“Boomboom’s full of shit,”
Uncle Agustin says, smiling. He
lights a fresh cigar.
“AGUSTIN! ” Tita Florence’s
hand flies to her watermelon
breasts in a gesture of dismay.
“Your language—the children!”
A friend once characterized Ivan
Turgenev’s marvelous First Love as
something beautiful made out of ugly
things, and it has subsequently struck
me that most really good works of fiction might be described in that same
way. Hagedorn unwaveringly paints
a menacing world, one that should
sound an urgent alarm to us now—but
the book is so beautiful! It’s painted
in the shimmering, fierce, lush colors
of memory and longing; it has the radiant evanescence of a dream—and it
leaves behind the lingering authority of
a dream’s veiled warning.
Q
The New York Review
The Pillage of India
Christopher de Bellaigue
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Anarchy:
The East India Company,
Corporate Violence, and
the Pillage of an Empire
by William Dalrymple.
Bloomsbury, 522 pp., $35.00
Inglorious Empire:
What the British Did to India
by Shashi Tharoor.
Melbourne: Scribe,
294 pp., $17.95 (paper)
In the eighteenth century a career with
the East India Company was a throw of
the dice for unattached young British
men. Arriving in India wan and scurvy
after a year at sea, many quickly succumbed to disease, madness, or one
of the innumerable little wars that the
company fought in order to embed itself on the subcontinent. The salary
was hardly an incentive. In the 1720s
junior clerks, or “writers,” received just
£5 per year, not enough to live on in
Bengal or Madras and a pittance when
set against the handsome 8 percent
annual dividend the company’s shareholders awarded themselves back in
London. Such drawbacks tended to put
off all but those whom circumstances
had already disfavored: second sons,
members of the down-at-heel AngloIrish gentry, dispossessed Scottish
landowners who had backed the losing
side in a rebellion against the crown.
Being on the company payroll was
rather a means to an end; moonlighting
was where the money lay in one of the
richest places on earth. In 1700 India
is estimated to have accounted for 27
percent of the world economy and a
quarter of the global textile trade. A
considerable number of company employees who survived the shock of arrival went on to make fortunes from
off-books trading in textiles, saltpeter,
indigo, opium, salt, tobacco, betel, rice,
and sugar; sidelines also included selling Mughal-issued tax exemptions and
lending money to distressed Indian
grandees.
The wills of company officials in the
early 1780s show that one in three left
their wealth to Indian wives, or as one
put it, “the excellent and respectable
Mother of my two children for whom I
feel unbounded love and affection and
esteem.” Others went home. Newly enriched returnees elbowed their way into
high society and were rewarded with a
moniker, “nabob,” which derived from
an Indian word for prince, nawab, and
signified an Indian-made plutocrat of
boundless amorality.
Neither the directors in Leadenhall
Street, the company’s headquarters in
the City of London, nor the Mughal
authorities who had granted the company its trading privileges in return for
“presents” and taxes, approved of the
nabobs’ freelancing. But the directors
didn’t particularly mind, provided that
the thirty- odd ships that sailed east
every year from England’s south coast
returned laden with luxury imports,
along with a share of the taxes collected
from the Indian enclaves that the company controlled. All the while the authority of the emperor, the unwarlike
Shah Alam, was crumbling under the
pressure of repeated Maratha, Afghan,
and Iranian incursions into the MuJune 11, 2020
An East India Company official, probably the Scottish surgeon William Fullerton
of Rosemount, with attendants; painting by Dip Chand, circa 1760–1764
ghal heartland of the Gangetic Plain.
These and the foragings of another
group of armed Europeans, the French
Compagnie des Indes, turned what the
Mughal chronicler Fakir Khair ud-Din
Illahabadi called “the once peaceful
abode of India” into “the abode of
Anarchy.”
Through adroit use of its welltrained, disciplined armies, over the
course of the eighteenth century the
company expanded its influence inland
from the three littoral “Presidencies”
of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. By
the 1750s, William Dalrymple tells us
in The Anarchy, his new account of
the rise of the company, it accounted
for almost an eighth of Britain’s total
imports of £8 million and contributed
nearly a third of a million pounds to
the home exchequer in annual customs
duties.
A well-known historian both in his
native Britain and his adoptive India,
where he cofounded what may be the
world’s biggest literary festival, at Jaipur, Dalrymple has influenced the
scholarly as well as the popular understanding of South Asian history
through his use of both European and
Indian sources, thus uniting the halves
of a previously bisected whole. (To
pick just two examples from the extensive company literature, both John
Keay’s 1993 book, The Honourable
Company, which also deals with its extensive involvement in Southeast Asia,
and Nick Robins’s commercial history,
The Corporation That Changed the
World, from 2012, are entirely reliant
on British sources.) Dalrymple’s ability
to present events from an Indian as well
as a European perspective owes much
to his mining of the National Archives
in Delhi and his collaboration with the
late Bruce Wannell, a waspish global
flaneur and gifted linguist who lived
in a tent on Dalrymple’s lawn in South
Delhi while translating Mughal- era
texts for him.
The company was transformed into
an instrument of imperialism under
Robert Clive, a terse, pugnacious delinquent from Shropshire. After arriving
in Madras as a writer in 1744, Clive distinguished himself on the battlefield,
making up in daring what he lacked
in experience. In 1752 he and a fellow
officer led a company force that took
prisoner almost three thousand troops
from the Compagnie des Indes, for
which he was rewarded with a lucrative
sinecure.
In 1756, after a spell back home,
Clive’s taste for conquest and treasure
took him to Bengal, whose production
of silks and muslins made it the biggest
supplier of Asian goods to Europe. In
1757 Clive led the company’s forces to
victory against both the French and
the uncooperative local nawab; from
defeating the latter the company received what Dalrymple calls “one of
the largest corporate windfalls in history”—in modern terms around £232
million. Clive himself pocketed an astronomical £22 million, with which he
went on to acquire a string of desirable
British properties, including an estate
outside Limerick to go with his Irish
peerage, while Lady Clive, as the Salisbury Journal informed its readers, gar-
landed her pet ferret with a diamond
necklace worth more than £2,500.
Besides his military exploits Clive
was admired by the directors for his
administrative vigor, and he ended his
Indian career as governor of Bengal.
In 1765—two years before he returned
to Britain for good—he secured his
most substantive legacy when he forced
Shah Alam to recognize the company’s
financial authority over three of his
richest provinces, Bengal, Bihar, and
Orissa. A Mughal chronicler lamented
that the British “have appointed their
own district officers, they make assessments and collections of revenue, administer justice, appoint and dismiss
collectors . . . heaven knows what will
be the eventual upshot of this state of
things.”
The baneful consequences of a commercial concern enjoying political
power but answering only to its shareholders became apparent during the
Bengal famine of 1770–1771. Company
officers exacted dues from a dying populace as diligently as they had from a
healthy one. Tax evaders were publicly
hanged. The following year Calcutta
informed Leadenhall Street that “notwithstanding the great severity of the
late famine . . . some increase [in revenue] has been made.”
While at least one million Bengalis
were dying of the famine and its effects, some company employees enriched themselves by hoarding rice.
According to one anonymous whistleblower whose account was published
in the Gentleman’s Magazine back in
London:
Our Gentlemen in many places
purchased the rice at 120 and 140
seers a rupee [a seer was about two
pounds], which they afterwards
sold for 15 seers a rupee, to the
Black [Indian] merchants, so that
the persons principally concerned
have made great fortunes by it; and
one of our writers . . . not esteemed
to be worth 1,000 rupees last year,
has sent down it is said £60,000 to
be remitted home this year.
In Calcutta, the same source went on,
“one could not pass the streets without
seeing multitudes in their last agonies,”
while “numbers of dead were seen with
dogs, jackalls, hogs, vultures and other
birds and beasts of prey feeding on
their carcases.”
Back home, denunciations of the
company’s conduct equaled in vehemence anything that would be uttered
by nationalist Indians in the later stages
of British rule. One satire attacked the
directors of the company, among them
“Sir Janus Blubber,” “Caliban Clodpate,” “Sir Judas Venom,” and “Lord
Vulture,” as a “scandalous confederacy to plunder and strip.” But when
Clive was investigated by Parliament
on charges of amassing a fortune illegally, his achievements in defeating the
French and increasing company revenues counted for more than the regime
of plunder he had overseen—and Parliament included company shareholders and men who owed their seats to his
largesse. Clive was exonerated in May
1773. The following year he committed suicide. He had, Samuel Johnson
25
The company was now a permanent
subject of controversy in Britain, which
was, in strenuous, unemphatic fits, moving from absolutism to accountability.
But only rarely in the course of the Indian debates, trials, polemics, and reports that punctuated British politics
in the last third of the eighteenth century did the company’s critics suggest
that its abuses might be so grave as to
warrant a full withdrawal from India.
In 1783 George Dempster, a penitent
former company director and MP, told
Parliament, “I for my part lament that
the navigation to India had ever been
discovered. . . . It would be wiser to
make someone of the native princes
king of the country, and leave India to
itself.” But many more MPs believed
that the answer to the recent abuses
was to bring the company and its Indian possessions under state control.
The company’s growing financial
woes made it vulnerable to annexation.
In 1772 its balance sheet finally showed
the effects of the Bengal famine, and
it defaulted on loan repayments to
the Bank of England. The £1.4 million bailout that Parliament approved
in June 1773 was made conditional on
closer state supervision of company appointments and operations, beginning
a trend toward nationalization that
accelerated as Britain took control of
the rest of India in the early nineteenth
century.
In Dalrymple’s hands the later life of
Shah Alam, the Mughal emperor whom
Clive humbled in 1765, is a plangent
tale of thwarted revival. Exhausted by
the brutality of the Marathas’ expansion from their heartlands in the west
and by the annual sackings of Afghan
raiders, many North Indians felt nostalgic for the comparative stability,
plenty, and communal harmony that
the region had enjoyed until Mughal
authority began to wane in the 1680s.
Setting out in 1770 to reoccupy his ancestors’ domains, Shah Alam and the
commander of his army, an Iranian of
royal blood named Mirza Najaf Khan,
won to their side an eclectic set of recruits including opportunistic Maratha
chieftains, European soldiers of fortune—among them a gloomy Alsatian,
Walter Reinhardt, who kept a “numerous seraglio, far above his needs”—and
the dreadlocked and naked Nagas,
devotees of Shiva whose reputation
for sanctity was known to inspire even
their foes to prostrate themselves at
their feet.
The Delhi that the emperor occupied
in 1771 after more than a decade in
exile had been reduced by war to what
the Urdu poet Mir described as “ruined walls and doorways . . . the palaces
were in ruin, the streets were lost in
rubble.” While Najaf Khan used modern tactics he had learned from French
mercenaries to reimpose his master’s
rule over large parts of northern India,
the emperor played dice with his concubines, wrote lyric poems, and visited
the saints’ tombs that delineate the
sacred geography of Sufi Islam. Shah
Alam’s Sunni faith was accommodating and eclectic. When Najaf Khan, a
Shia Muslim, was stricken with consumption, the emperor attempted to
placate the Hindu gods by distributing
sweets to Brahmans and releasing cows
26
Tharoor’s arguments in Inglorious
that had been earmarked for slaughter.
pendence that mass famine has threatEmpire reflect a consensus, shared by
After Najaf Khan’s death in April
ened, in Bihar in 1967, the government
many current Indian and Western his1782, rebellions surged in the provinces
of Indira Gandhi stopped it in its tracks
torians, on the iniquity of colonial rule.
along with factionalism in Delhi. News
using food aid and public works.)
He is critical of the late Cambridge
that the emperor’s Maratha guards
To modern eyes the most odious ashistorian Christopher Bayly’s conwere neglecting the capital’s defenses
pect of British rule was its racism. A
tention that the schools, newspapers,
reached the ears of Ghulam Qadir, an
color bar denied talented Indian civil
and courts of British India allowed
Afghan chieftain’s son who wanted to
servants access to senior jobs, and for
the Congress Party to build a liberal
avenge his father’s defeat at Mughal
British judges the color of the defendemocracy after independence, and
hands and the sexual humiliation that
dant was sometimes the most importhe vigorously rebuffs the argument of
according to some chroniclers he himant factor in a verdict. “The death of an
Niall Ferguson, a Scottish historian
self suffered while a young captive at
Indian at British hands was always an
with professorships at Stanford and
Shah Alam’s court. In July 1778 Ghuaccident,” Tharoor writes, “and that of
Harvard, that the British Empire belam Qadir and his army entered Delhi.
a Briton because of an Indian’s actions
queathed its colonies such laudable
Drawn mostly from sources in Peralways a capital crime.” The relative
precepts as free trade and democracy.
sian, Dalrymple’s account of Ghulam
cultural intermingling of the 1780s gave
Tharoor draws instead on research into
Qadir’s despicable vengeance bears
way to a British horror of miscegenation.
comparison with the almost
Whether in the bedroom, the
contemporaneous writings of
club, or the railway carriage, the
the Marquis de Sade. An Afseparation of the races was
ghan knife, Illahabadi recounts,
the outstanding feature of Britwas used to scoop the emperish rule that distinguished it from
or’s eyes from their sockets; the
that of earlier colonizers, notably
dowager empress was stripped
the Mughals, who married Innaked and the younger prindian women and were quickly
cesses searched “in every orisubmerged in the local gene pool.
fice” before being raped. When
In 1890 just six thousand
a retainer whose mouth was to
British officials presided over
be stuffed with excrement pro250 million Indian subjects;
tested that he had saved GhuStalin later found it laughable
lam Qadir’s life as a baby, the
that India was kept down by so
latter retorted, “Do you not
few. While many British offiknow the old proverb, ‘to kill a
cials strove honestly to promote
serpent and spare its young is
harmony among India’s many
not wise.’”
racial, religious, and linguistic
In due course Ghulam Qadir
groups, a policy of divide and
met his predictably violent end,
rule informed the British debut the Mughal revival was
cision in 1905 to split Bengal
over almost before it started,
into two provinces, a Muslimwith the sightless Shah Alam
majority one and a Hindureduced to the status of a chessmajority one. That policy also
board king in Maratha hands.
influenced the constitutional reIn 1803 the British displaced
forms of 1919, which introduced
the Marathas, and the emperor
a limited franchise while reservended his days a British patsy in
ing seats in the new legislative
an increasingly pacified North
assembly along religious lines.
India. “In comparison with the
As independence approached,
Robert Clive; portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1764
horrors of the last century,”
the implications of minority
Dalrymple writes, “the next
status in a free India alarmed
Britain’s exploitation of India’s wealth
fifty years would be remembered as the
many Muslims; they looked in vain to
and on the work of Nicholas Dirks, a
‘Golden Calm.’” It ended with a rebelthe British to protect them from Hindu
former chancellor of the University of
lion in 1857, when mutinous soldiers in
majoritarianism before adopting the
California at Berkeley, who has written
company uniforms rallied to the relucidea of a separate state, which had first
that class- obsessed British bureaucrats
tant Bahadur Shah Zafar, the grandson
been mooted by a Muslim law student
helped change the caste system from
of Shah Alam, before being crushed by
at Cambridge University in 1933. Maone measure of identity among many
forces that stayed loyal to their British
hatma Gandhi’s unavailing efforts to
into the pervasive agent of social stratipaymasters. In the uprising’s aftermath
bind communal wounds ended with
fication it became.
the British put an end to both the Muthe country’s bloody partition in 1947,
Colonial India was a captive marghal dynasty and the East India Comwhich created Pakistan, resulted in
ket for British products and services.
pany, whose assets were transferred to
the deaths of at least one million peoBritish-made rails carried British-made
the crown.
ple, and led to Gandhi’s murder at the
rolling stock the length and breadth
hands of a Hindu chauvinist.
of the subcontinent; British ships offInglorious Empire is an impassioned
nglorious Empire is a bracing, polemloaded Indian cargoes at British ports
indictment of an alien government
ical work that spans both the company
after rules were introduced that diswhose true interests lay in an impeand imperial phases of Britain’s incriminated against ships that had been
rial capital five thousand miles away.
volvement in India. Its author, Shashi
built in India. In the 1750s India had a
And yet for all the rapacity of the naTharoor, was for years a senior official
commanding global position as a probobs and the unrealized reforms and
at the United Nations. In 2006 he came
ducer of textiles, yet by 1870 it was
investment—which, when applied by
second to Ban Ki-moon in the contest
importing more than a billion yards
Meiji Japan in the 1870s, turned a
for the secretary-generalship, after
of British cloth and woven fabrics. As
closed monarchy into a modern nationwhich he returned home to become a
Britain’s home secretary put it in 1928,
state—Tharoor’s assessment of British
Congress MP, junior minister, and un“It is said in missionary meetings that
conduct is too uniformly negative to do
flagging presence on social media. The
we conquered India to raise the level
justice to a multifaceted engagement
book is the byproduct of a debate he
of the Indians. That is cant. We conthat lasted well over three centuries.
took part in at the Oxford Union in
quered India as an outlet for the goods
While the premise and ethos of British
2015, in which he argued that Britain
of Britain.”
rule seem ever more suspect with the
owed India symbolic reparations for
Recalling the economist Amartya
passing years, its consequences for the
the wrongs it had inflicted on its coloSen’s dictum that “no famine has ever
people of India were more mixed.
nial subjects. Atonement, not money, is
taken place in the history of the world
In the 1750s the roughly 200,000 Inthe point; “a simple ‘sorry’ would do as
in a functioning democracy,” Tharoor
dians who flocked to live in British Calwell.” The Oxford debate got a lot of atnotes that between 1770 and 1900 some
cutta (just a thousand or so of whose
tention online (Tharoor has more than
25 million Indians died in famines, the
residents were European) were drawn
seven million Twitter followers), and
mortality rates aggravated by colonial
not only by the city’s wealth but also the
he was congratulated even by his most
officials who viewed with Malthusian
prospect of security from the Marathas.
prominent political opponent, India’s
detachment nature’s solution to the
(A recent Maratha invasion of Bengal
prime minister Narendra Modi, for sayproblem of overpopulation. (In support
had caused as many as 400,000 civilian
ing “the right things at the right place.”
of Sen, on the only occasion since indedeaths.) An affluent and literate class
National Army Museum, London
wrote, “acquired his fortune by such
crimes that his consciousness of them
impelled him to cut his own throat.”
I
The New York Review
of Bengalis, the bhadralok, prospered
alongside the company’s employees,
while in the boom of the 1780s laborers’ wages rose 50 percent. In the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Bombay’s impressive public works
and thriving Parsi and Jewish minorities attested to intense pockets of
dynamic wealth creation and multiculturalism. Nor was the empire’s record
of indigenization always as bad as Tharoor maintains. Having been a supplier
of raw jute to the mills of Dundee, by
1914 Calcutta had eclipsed the Scottish
port city as the world’s leading manufacturer of jute products, and Indians
owned 60 percent of shares in the jute
companies.
Tharoor is frustrated by the “cravenness, cupidity, opportunism and lack of
organized resistance” that his compatriots exhibited toward their colonial
masters. Only after World War I, and
intensifying after a British massacre of
hundreds of protesters in the northern
city of Amritsar in 1919, would polite
requests for more Indian representation in the government harden into
the independence movement. But no
Indian empire in history had ruled as
large a territory as the British Raj. That
the fantastically diverse peoples whom
the British had coerced into their Indian domain might voluntarily unite
as a modern nation wasn’t as obvious
to the Congress Party in 1885, the year
of its foundation, as it seems now, seventy years into India’s independence.
And when the republic’s founding fathers, Gandhi and his protégé Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister,
brought about this miraculous feat, the
loss of Pakistan amid the violence of
Partition proved to be surmountable
traumas; the Republic of India is a sovereign state in good standing and has
never been threatened with revolution
or internal collapse. Ironically enough,
the unwillingness of the British to set
down roots in the countries they colo-
nized made withdrawal more straightforward than it was for the French, for
example, in Algeria. As soon as the
economic and psychological reasons
for keeping up the empire were exhausted, the British simply went home.
Well into the late twentieth century a
residue of India clung to postimperial
Britain. To “have a dekko” (from the
Hindi verb dekhna, to see) meant to
take a look at something, while kedgeree and mulligatawny persisted on
the menus of coastal guest houses.
That residue has since flaked away
along with memories of the Raj. No
longer do national museums mount
the kind of glittering exhibitions that
were common into the 1990s, celebrating the scope and splendor of British
rule; more representative is the recent
exhibition “Forgotten Masters: Indian
Painting for the East India Company”
at the Wallace Collection in London
(curated by Dalrymple), which featured deftly done ornithological pictures by hitherto little-known Indian
painters in the company period. Gone,
too, are the days when pupils at the
nation’s schools were taught the heroics of “Clive of India.” Ten years into
a government of Conservatives who
brought the country out of the European Union amid grandiose talk of a
return to greatness, the history syllabus
that British schoolchildren must follow
remains virtually silent on the empire,
save for the iniquities of slavery, and
few young people have any idea who
Clive was.
Amnesia isn’t the apology that Tharoor and his compatriots arguably deserve and will probably never receive.
It is a national elision, an unstated decision not to interrogate ourselves about
awkward aspects of the past. For India,
living with the consequences of the
events Tharoor writes about, its Gandhian template of communal amity
trampled on by Hindu nationalist rule,
there is no such comfort.
Q
AND
A C URR ENT L I ST IN G
The Drawing Room
55 Main Street
East Hampton, NY 11937
(631) 324-5016
www.drawingroom-gallery.com
Mary Ellen Bartley:
Return to Summer Reading
0D\²-XQHɕ
catalog available online
Reading Color #17, 2020
archival pigment print
18" x 13" (edition of 7)
Alexandre Gallery
724 Fifth Avenue, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10019
(212) 755-2828
alexandregallery.com
3OHDVHYLVLWWKHJDOOHU\·V
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John Walker Studio, April 2020
Marlborough Graphics
545 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001
(212) 463-8634
[email protected]
Monday–Saturday 10AM –6PM
Red Grooms
Flatiron Building, 1995
Etching, soft-ground and aquatint in 5 colors
on Somerset textured paper
45" x 26 "
Edition of 75
Other works available by Red Grooms
SONATA IN F MINOR,
K.183: ALLEGRO
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—francine j. harris
LewAllen Galleries
Railyard Arts District
1613 Paseo de Peralta
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 988-3250,
[email protected];
www.lewallengalleries.com
Philip Pearlstein: Resilience of the Real
Show Dates To Be Announced
3KLOLS3HDUOVWHLQ·VZRUNFKDOOHQJHGWKHDUWZRUOG
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the vanguard of a new movement that began in
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Left: Model with Indonesian Mask, 2015,
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Top: Nude in Santa Fe with Self Portrait, 1994,
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AND
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June 11, 2020
27
Horace’s How-To
Gregory Hays
Scala/Art Resource
Horace’s Ars Poetica:
Family, Friendship, and
the Art of Living
by Jennifer Ferriss-Hill.
Princeton University Press,
301 pp., $45.00
Among the previously uncollected
pieces in Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories is a six-pager called “How I Write
My Songs.” The “I,” like many of Barthelme’s narrators, is initially anonymous; we learn his name—it turns out
to be Bill B. White—only in the secondto-last sentence. The songs he writes, or
that Barthelme has written for him, are
country- and blues-inflected numbers,
vacuous yet weirdly plausible:
Goin’ to get to-geth-er
Goin’ to get to-geth-er
If the good Lord’s willin’ and
the creek don’t rise.
White is evidently a master of his craft:
“When ‘Last Night’ was first recorded,
the engineer said ‘That’s a keeper’ on
the first take and it was subsequently
covered by sixteen artists including
Walls.” Such reminiscences alternate
with helpful hints, all of them comically
banal: “Various artists have their own
unique ways of doing a song.” “It is also
possible to give a song a funny or humorous ‘twist.’” In the final paragraph
the lecture modulates into a pep talk
(“The main thing is to persevere and to
believe in yourself”) before ending on
an oddly defiant note: “I will continue
to write my songs, for the nation as a
whole and for the world.”
The story reads like a parody of
something we half-recognize but cannot quite put our finger on. Is it the emptiness of popular song lyrics? The vapid
idiom of Parade magazine? Or is it, we
might wonder uneasily, Barthelme’s
own readers who are being gently
mocked? For the story purports to answer that question asked innumerable
times of every famous artist—“Where
do you get your ideas?”—with its implicit corollary: How can I do it?
Whatever else Barthelme’s story
may be, it is a sly rewriting of one of the
classics of American literary criticism,
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Philosophy of
Composition.” In that essay Poe, in his
best professorial voice, explains how he
went about writing his most successful poem, “The Raven.” He began, he
tells us, by settling on the ideal length
(a hundred lines or so), the effect to
be aimed at (beauty), the tone (sadness), the central device (a refrain), the
nature of the refrain (a single word),
and the kind of word needed (one
with prominent o and r sounds, these
being “sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis”). “In such a search,”
he adds complacently, “it would have
been absolutely impossible to overlook
the word ‘Nevermore.’ In fact, it was
the very first which presented itself.”
But how should the refrain be introduced? At this point things take a perilous turn: “Here . . . immediately arose
the idea of a non-reasoning creature
capable of speech; and, very naturally,
a parrot, in the first instance, suggested
itself.” A brief vision flashes before our
eyes: a nervous schoolchild standing
before a prize-day audience to recite
28
Horace; detail from Luca Signorelli’s fresco of the Last Judgment
in the Cathedral of Orvieto, Italy, 1500–1503
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Parrot.” But no,
disaster is averted: the parrot is weighed
and considered, but ultimately discarded
in favor of a raven (“equally capable of
speech, and infinitely more in keeping
with the intended tone”). Like his great
detective, C. Auguste Dupin, Poe reconstructs logically for us the process that
led ineluctably to the poem we know and
love. This most emotional and romantic
of poems was, it turns out, the product of
cold calculation at every turn.
Or was it? Is this how anyone writes
a poem? And if Poe could really reason
himself into writing this smash hit, how
is it that he never wrote another poem
as successful? The more one reads the
essay, the more one suspects that Poe’s
account is a typical Poe hoax, swallowed whole by gullible readers as his
circumstantial account of crossing the
Atlantic in a balloon was by the New
York Sun. Surely it was the poem that
came first. “The Philosophy of Composition” is an elaborate piece of reverse
engineering, designed to conceal from
the public (and perhaps, at some level,
from the author himself) the unsettling
truth: that Poe had no idea how he had
managed to write “The Raven,” and no
idea how to write another one.
The ultimate ancestor of all such liter-
ary howdunits is Horace’s Ars Poetica.
In 476 lines of dactylic hexameter, one
of the great Roman poets tells us, if
not how he wrote his songs, at any rate
how we should go about writing ours.
The advice is not all his own; an ancient commentator notes that the poet
drew some of it from a third-century
BC Greek critic called Neoptolemus of
Parium. But it is Horace’s version that
has lasted. The Ars lays down literary
laws observed by writers for centuries:
modern editions divide Shakespeare’s
plays into five acts, for instance, be-
cause that’s how many Horace said a
play should have. It canonized critical ideas, like the concept of artistic
unity, that we now take as self-evident.
Phrases from it have become conventional tags, some typically encountered
in translation (“purple patch” from purpureus . . . pannus), but others familiar
in the original Latin: ut pictura poesis;
norma loquendi; in medias res; laudator temporis acti; sub iudice; ab ovo.
Yet the work is full of mysteries,
starting with its very title. The rhetorician Quintilian, several generations
later than Horace, evidently knew it as
the Ars Poetica, but we can’t be sure
that Horace called it that. The poem,
now normally printed after the second
book of Horace’s Epistles, is addressed
to three members of the Piso family: a
father and two sons. Some critics therefore prefer to call it the “Epistle to
the Pisos.” But which Pisos? Piso père
might be Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law
and the target of one of Cicero’s nastier
invectives. Or it might be his son, consul in 15 BC . Both had literary interests,
although the younger Piso is not known
to have had a brother, nor can we be
sure that he had two sons himself. Another candidate, Gnaeus Calpurnius
Piso, did have two sons—but no known
interest in literature. And why is the
poem addressed to any Piso? Why not
to Horace’s longtime friend and patron
Gaius Maecenas, or to someone mentioned elsewhere in his oeuvre?
We also can’t be certain where the
poem falls in Horace’s career. Many
readers have wanted to make it a late
work, or even Horace’s last—a poetic testament comparable to Yeats’s
“Under Ben Bulben” or Stevens’s “The
Planet on the Table.” A late date would
fit the younger Lucius and his putative
sons, and some metrical features might
also support it. But there is no external
evidence; if we opt for Gnaeus Piso or
the senior Lucius as addressee, then
the poem could be considerably earlier,
a product of Horace’s prime.
That Horace should write a poem
about writing poetry is not in itself surprising. But here too there are puzzles.
The rest of his oeuvre falls into two
parts. On the one hand, we have the
Odes and Epodes, short lyric poems of
great metrical virtuosity. On the other,
the Satires and Epistles, loose, talky
poems written, like the Ars, in dactylic
hexameter. Yet the Ars itself is primarily about how to write drama, a form
that Horace never practiced and which
employs a meter (iambic trimeter) that
he barely used. It includes side notes on
epic, another non-Horatian genre.
Equally mysterious is the poem’s
organization. Generations of critics
have struggled to discern—and some
have tried by main force to restore—a
coherent structure in a text in which everything seems like a digression. Horace
goes off on tangents, extends similes beyond their relevance, circles back to topics already covered. He includes a potted
history of theater, not obviously useful
to the aspiring dramatist, and answers
elementary questions (like what an iamb
is) that no likely reader could have had.
As an actual manual, indeed, the Ars
seems notably unhelpful. Much of its advice is negative (“Don’t put scenes that
belong offstage onstage”), or uselessly
vague (“Choose a subject appropriate to
your strengths”), or comes down on both
sides of a question (“Either take a traditional plot or invent a plausible one of
your own”). A much later “Ars Poetica,”
the brief poem by Archibald MacLeish,
catches this quality well when it instructs
us that “a poem should be palpable and
mute/as a globed fruit.” It’s a lovely
image, but perhaps not all that helpful to
the aspiring author.
Some of the difficulty may stem from
the work’s genre. The Ars is a didactic
poem, a form that goes back to the beginnings of ancient literature and remained vibrant into late antiquity. The
oldest surviving example is Hesiod’s
Works and Days, a kind of versified
farmer’s almanac. The early thinkers
Parmenides and Empedocles wrote
philosophical treatises in verse, and
the Roman Lucretius used Latin hexameters to expound the philosophy of
Epicurus. The Hellenistic Greek Nicander wrote poems about venomous
snakes and cures for poisons. Aratus
of Soli composed a manual of astronomy in verse, which was translated several times into Latin (once by Cicero).
Later Greek poets wrote about hunting
dogs and ichthyology. Ovid, predictably, wrote an Art of Love, a send-up of
the whole genre, and at least started a
didactic poem on cosmetology.
The didactic poet aimed both to instruct and delight—at least in theory.
As Horace says in the Ars, “he hits
the bull’s eye who has mingled utility
with pleasure.” Of the extant poets it
is perhaps Lucretius (and, ironically,
Ovid) who did this most successfully.
But usually utility was the junior partner. A doctor faced with a case of poisoning would have needed a scholarly
commentary to understand Nicander’s
The New York Review
Rosenwald Collection/National Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Alexipharmaca, and one does not envy
thus “provides for Horace the ideal vehiArs Poetica, from the passing interest
the aspiring farmer who tried to use the
cle for connecting writing with living.”
evinced in anger, death, and property
Works and Days as a real guide. This
Living, and also dying. For the Ars is
management to the abiding importance
is even more true of Vergil’s Georgics,
notably concerned with transience and
of friendship, teaching, and criticism.”
by common consent the greatest exammortality. Its reflections on the coining
It is striking that the things Horace
ple of the form. It offers some practical
of new words and their obsolescence
values in poetry are virtues he endorses
information on agriculture, but in small
plainly echo Homer’s famous compariin life as well: the importance of decodoses—enough to give it that textbook
son of the generations of men to leaves.
rum, for example, and of knowing your
feel, and to make digressions a welcome
The principle that characters in drama
place. A concept that crops up at varirespite. But then, the Georgics is only
should be portrayed in a way appropriate
ous points in the poem is pudor, a sense
ostensibly a poem about farming. Its
to their age prompts a character sketch
of modesty or propriety, a quality as relreal subject matter is what it means to
of an irascible old man, far longer than
evant to writing (for Horace) as to manbe Roman, and, at a deeper level, what
the context seems to require, leading to
ners. Indeed, many terms that apply to
it means to live as a human being in a
a poignant meditation: “The arriving
writing can also apply to one’s character
world governed by nonhuman forces.
years bring many enjoyments with them/
or actions. A poem, we are told, should
“Human,” as it happens, is the openand many in their departure they take
be “uncomplicated” (simplex), but siming word of the Ars Poetica. This is
away.” The presence as addressees of
plicity or the absence of duplicitousness
unlikely to be an accident. Ancient
two generations of Pisos allows Horace
is also a virtue in people.
writers gave thought to beginnings; after
to touch on related topics: youth and age,
Another example of this is rectum, a
Plato’s death, his heirs supposedly found
birth and death, parents and children.
word that can mean anything between
a tablet with various versions of the
The Pisos are important to Ferriss“correct, by the book” and “morally
opening of the Republic:
Hill’s reading in other re“I went down yesterday to
spects as well. Not their
the Piraeus. . . .” The story
exact identity, on which
is probably apocryphal,
she is agnostic. Indeed, she
yet it reveals something
suggests that it does not
about the Republic, a work
really matter much which
in which we descend from
Pisos are meant. Rather
intangible verities to their
the aristocratic “Piso”
pale shadows in earthly sofunctions in the poem
cieties. The Aeneid’s first
primarily as a symbolic
two words—“arms” and
name, like “Rockefeller.”
“man”—lay out its subWhat matters is the relaject: “warfare and a man at
tionship the poem itself
war,” as Robert Fitzgerald
constructs between the
expanded them. Simultaauthor and his addressees.
neously, they establish the
Yet that relationship is
poem’s relationship to the
curiously elusive. Horace
Iliad (a poem of arms) and
shifts unpredictably from
the Odyssey (whose own
the second person plural
first word is “man”).
to a singular “you” (one
It might seem odd, then,
of the Pisos? the reader?)
Etching by Giovanni Battista Bracelli from Bizzarie di varie Figure, 1624
that the opening word of
to an all-embracing “we.”
the Ars does not point
The Pisos undergo a simimore clearly to poetry—“songs,” say,
lar slippage. Nominally the addressees
right.” Horace tells us that “most of us
or “lyre.” But it does not seem strange
of the poem, they gradually prove to be
poets . . . are led astray by the illusion of
to Jennifer Ferriss-Hill, a classics proin some ways its subject: a wealthy amcorrectness” (specie recti). Our writerly
fessor at the University of Miami; her
ateur and his two failsons in search of a
errors, that is, spring from a mistaken
new book argues that the Ars Poetica
writing coach—or perhaps just a cheerbelief that we are following the rules,
is not really about poetry at all. It may
leader. Didactic addressees are somedoing what we should. But is that not also
masquerade as a guide for would-be
times portrayed as slow or troublesome
true of many of our nonwriterly errors?
writers, but its real concerns are larger:
students in need of a stern lecture. HeAgain, we are told that “the basis and
human behavior, family relationships,
siod characterizes his brother, Perses,
wellspring of writing properly (recte) is
friendship, and laughter. Rather than a
as an idiot; Lucretius sometimes seems
good taste.” But “good taste” here is sanew departure, the poem is in her view
to show impatience with his addressee,
pere, which can also mean “wisdom,” the
a continuation of—or, if it is a late work,
Memmius. Ferriss-Hill reads the relaquality that allows us not only to write
a return to—the poetry of the Satires.
tionship between Horace and the Pisos
well but to act rightly. The two words
In those early poems, Horace explores
as similarly fraught, his attitude to
will be juxtaposed again when Horace
human weaknesses and self-deception,
them as implicitly critical.
compliments the older Piso son, who is
not least his own, as they play out in
For she sees the Ars Poetica as also
being brought up by his father to behave
social interactions. Here he does the
an essay on criticism (the title of Pope’s
properly (ad rectum) but also has good
same.
imitation catches something important
sense himself (sapis). Ferriss-Hill is atWe do not typically think of literature
about Horace’s original)—and not just
tentive to such repetitions. As she notes:
as a branch of ethics. When W. Somliterary criticism, either. Indeed, the
erset Maugham said that “to write
famous vignette that opens the poem
Horace creates meaning by repeatsimply is as difficult as to be good,” he
is a scene of assessment and critique.
ing specific terms, clustering them
was not equating the two. But earlier
Suppose, says Horace, that a painter
close together or layering them at
readers saw closer connections: medidepicted a human head on a horse’s
intervals . . . often in such a way
eval commentators categorized Ovid’s
neck with feathers and a tail: “If you
that on the second or third recurArt of Love as a work of moral phiwere admitted to view it, friends, would
rence of a term we feel we have
losophy. A letter of Seneca’s famously
you be able to restrain your laughter?”
met it before but cannot say so for
makes the case, summed up in Buffon’s
On the surface the scene is there to ilcertain or recall where exactly that
aphorism, that le style c’est l’homme
lustrate an aesthetic principle: a work
might have been.
même. An important predecessor of
should possess organic unity (“Be a
Horace in this respect is the Greek EpRothko, not a Rauschenberg!”). But
f poetry in the Ars is really a stalkingicurean philosopher Philodemus, parts
for Ferriss-Hill it is the final line that
horse for ethics, that might help explain
of whose treatises have been restored
we should be looking at. Horace here
something about the structure of the
to us in recent years as scholars unroll
depicts criticism as something that
poem. A little over halfway through, the
and decipher charred papyrus scrolls
takes place in a social context, among
Ars shifts its focus noticeably, from pofrom Herculaneum. A poet himself
friends. The image will return toward
etry and poetic creation to the poet him(he wrote epigrams), Philodemus was
the end of the poem as the poet quesself. Horace lures us in by promising to
known personally to Vergil and pertions how to tell a true friend from
help us with our writing, but his real goal
haps to Horace too; it may not be coan insincere yes-man. (Philodemus,
is our character and our relations with
incidental that his principal patron
author of the treatises “On Flattery”
those around us. The focus on human afwas the older Lucius Calpurnius Piso.
and “On Frank Criticism,” may be
fairs might also explain why the Ars privHorace mentions him by name in the
lurking here too.) The real friend, it
ileges drama among other poetic forms:
Satires, and for Ferriss-Hill his “finturns out, is the one who is willing to
drama is built on human interaction and
gerprints can be discerned all over the
laugh at you—and not only at your bad
I
June 11, 2020
poetry—with a view to your improvement. And this, we might suppose, is
what Horace does for the Pisos. In fact,
it is what the poem itself does for them.
Didactic poets sometimes close on a
darker note. Lucretius’s poem, On the
Nature of Things, meant to teach us inner
tranquility, concludes with a description
of a devastating plague. The first book of
Vergil’s Georgics closes with the image
of a chariot—the Roman state—running out of control, its driver powerless
to stop it. The late Greek writer Oppian’s five-book poem on fishing ends with
a sponge-diver mauled to death by creatures of the deep, his colleagues grieving
over his remains. And the Ars? It ends
with a comic yet disturbing portrait of
a mad poet, lashing out at others like a
savage bear or bleeding them dry like a
parasite. (“Leech” is the final word of
the poem, as “human” is the first.) For
the poem’s message is in the end a negative one: “Horace does not concretely
help his addressees . . . become better
poets or become poets at all because
he cannot; in fact, no one can.” Poets
need talent as well as training, and for
those who want to write without the former, Horace’s implicit advice is, “Don’t.”
Ferriss-Hill has written a dense book,
frustrating to the reader in the same
way, and for much the same reasons, as
the Ars itself. Her method is close reading in its most austere form: she worries
at Horace’s phrasing, teases out implications, toys with alternative interpretations, follows him down blind alleys.
The book loosely follows the trajectory
of the poem, but it assumes knowledge
of the whole: the discussion can jump
forward unexpectedly, and passages we
had thought we were done with will crop
up again later, now viewed from a new
angle or in light of new information.
Readers without Latin are likely to find
it hard going. Ferriss-Hill does provide
an English translation facing the Latin
text at the beginning of the book, though
one that egregiously disobeys the poem’s
own injunction not to translate word for
word. When Horace discusses the coining of new words, for instance, we get:
If it is perhaps necessary
to show with recent symbols the
hidden ones of things,
it will fall to you to craft ones not
heard by the girded
Cethegi and a license taken up
prudently will be granted.
This painful woodenness is plainly deliberate; the rendering is meant solely
as an aid in construing the facing
Latin. Yet no reader new to Horace will
emerge from the book with much sense
of why he is a great poet.
What the book does do well is to
document an intelligent reader’s journey through this most elusive of poems.
In the process it offers us a new way of
thinking about it, one in which its apparent center moves to the margins and
its apparent defects become strengths.
It offers a richer and more interesting
Ars than most of us are used to, but
one recognizably by the Horace we
know from other works. Of this Horace
it could be said, as Robert B. Parker
wrote of Ross Macdonald, “It was not
just that [he] taught us how to write; he
did something more, he taught us how
to read, and how to think about life,
and maybe, in some small, but mattering way, how to live.”
Q
29
Naked Souls
Rachel Polonsky
In the parilka, the wooden steam room
at the heart of every Russian banya, a
stove heats a pile of stones. When the
stones are red-hot, water is thrown onto
them, raising billows of light steam. Reclining or standing on wooden benches,
bathers sweat and whip themselves
with veniki, switches of leafy twigs.
When they are hot enough (or too hot),
the bathers leave the parilka to cool off
by plunging into rivers, ponds, barrels,
or marble-tiled pools, pouring tubs of
icy water over their heads, or rolling
naked in the snow.
In grand urban buildings, village huts,
and prison barracks; on trains, ships,
and submarines; wherever Russian communities exist, the steam in the parilka
has been endlessly refreshed. Over centuries, diverse cultural meanings have
taken shape in this insubstantial vapor.
As Ethan Pollock writes in Without
the Banya We Would Perish, the banya
“persisted in Russia despite radical
changes in ideas about what constitutes
bodily cleanliness and despite remarkable social ruptures.” With its connection to fire and ice, the banya seems to
transcend history. Yet it has a history of
its own, which gives “an access point to
every stage of Russia’s history.”
Muscovite tsarinas gave birth in the
parilka. The Romanov tsars, who came
to power in the early seventeenth century, saw steam baths as a lucrative
source of tax. When the westernizing
tsar Peter the Great uprooted Russia’s ancient customs at the beginning
of the eighteenth century, shaving off
the beards of his noblemen and dressing them like Europeans, he left the
banya untouched, though nothing like
it existed in the West at the time. Catherine the Great built a stone banya on
her estate at Tsarskoe Selo in 1779, and
promoted the ancient Russian institution as vital to the health and power of
her expanding empire.
In 1812, when Napoleon invaded
Russia, a popular broadside showed
him in a parilka with three Russian
soldiers. “I’ve never withstood such
torture in my life!,” he cries, as the soldiers toss water on the stove and beat
him with a venik. “They are scraping
and roasting me like in Hell.” “You
were the one who entered the Russian
banya,” one of the soldiers reminds
Napoleon, a stereotypical weedy foreigner (see illustration on page 31).
A century later, when luxurious bathhouses were among the pleasures of the
modern city, Grand Duke Konstantin
Romanov, cousin of Nicholas II, visited the banyas of St. Petersburg for
paid sex with young banshchiki (male
banya workers), confiding in his diary
the torments of conscience he suffered
over his “great sin.” Grigory Rasputin, who became the spiritual intimate
of the tsar’s family, took aristocratic
women with him to the banya, to “remind them,” in his peasant presence,
“of their Russian bodies and souls.”
For the Bolsheviks, the banya was a
matter of public hygiene. In 1920 Vlad30
Nizhny Novgorod State Art Museum
Without the Banya
We Would Perish: A History
of the Russian Bathhouse
by Ethan Pollock.
Oxford University Press,
343 pp., $34.95
Boris Kustodiev: Russian Venus, 1926
imir Lenin lectured Leon Trotsky on
the importance of banyas to the welfare
of the revolutionary regime. Though
there was a banya on the armored train
from which Trotsky commanded the
Red Army during the civil war, there
were not enough in the cities and villages to slow the ravages of epidemics. A hot banya with soap and water
could prevent infection and kill the lice
that spread typhus. Propaganda posters explained the vector of diseases,
ordering people to “go to the banya
more often!” Joseph Stalin relaxed in
the banya, but, as Pollock writes, the
failure of the whole Stalinist project
can be measured in “the woeful state
of construction and upkeep of banyas”
for the masses. No five-year plan could
meet the people’s need for steam baths.
Public health officials recommended
bathing once a week, but by the end of
the 1930s, there were hardly enough
banyas in Moscow for monthly visits.
In other cities, it was worse. Throughout the Soviet period, the chronic lack
of clean, functioning banyas was one of
the few subjects on which satirical criticism of state authorities was tolerated.
After Stalin’s death, his henchman
Vyacheslav Molotov condemned the
new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev
for going to a banya with the Finnish
president, as though bathing with a foreigner meant capitulation to the international bourgeoisie. In the 1960s and
1970s, during the era of “stagnation”
under Leonid Brezhnev, the banya was
not so much a means of hygiene as,
Pollock writes, “a magical space of rejuvenation and rebirth,” celebrated in
popular culture. The singer Vladimir
Vysotsky’s 1968 ballad “White Banya”
still resonates with the lacerations of
Stalinism. The song is told from the
point of view of a man who has a tattoo
of his lover Marinka on his right breast
and a tattoo of Stalin on his left, above
his heart: “Fire me up the banya, woman, /I’ll forge myself, burn myself/At
the very edge of the bench, /I’ll destroy
all my doubts.”
“The end of the Soviet Union began
in a banya,” Pollock writes. In August
1991 the head of the KGB, Vladimir
Kriuchkov, and a group of hard-liners
from the army and the Communist
Party gathered in a banya to plot a
coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. A
few months later, Boris Yeltsin, who
led the defeat of the coup, dissolved
the USSR, celebrating afterward in a
banya. As a young man, Yeltsin had
been made by his grandfather to build
a country banya with his own hands as
a rite of passage. He reminisced that it
was in a banya that he realized, in 1989,
that he was no longer a believing communist: “The banya, after all, purifies
things. . . . In that moment in the banya
I changed my world view.”
Vladimir Putin also grants the banya
a transformative part in his own rise
to power. As he tells it, he was taking
a banya at his dacha with a group of
friends in 1996, at a low point in his
political career. As they cooled off
in a nearby lake, he noticed that the
dacha and banya were on fire. All that
survived was an Orthodox cross, a gift
from his mother, that he had removed
from his neck before entering the
parilka. With little but the cross salvaged from the ashes, Putin was back
on course. Ten years later, the writer
Vladimir Sorokin set the finale to his
dystopian satire on Putin’s Russia, Day
of the Oprichnik, at a grotesque allmale ritual orgy in a banya. “Great is
the brotherhood of the banya,” the nar-
rator declares, parodying centuries of
nationalistic banya rhetoric. “Everyone
is equal here—the right and the left,
the old and the young.”
“An
archaic institution of pain
distributed over a diverse geographical space” is how Daniel RancourLaferriere describes the banya in The
Slave Soul of Russia (1995). He is in
a long line of foreigners for whom the
banya is the symbol of an essential
Russian oddness. In the fifth century
BCE Herodotus traveled to lands north
of the Black Sea that would one day be
within the Russian empire, and saw how
the Scythians threw hemp seeds onto
hot stones raising a vapor that made
them howl with elation and took the
place of a bath. Fifteen hundred years
later, the Persian traveler Ibn Rusta
observed the steppe- dwellers tossing
water onto hot stones and cleansing
their naked bodies in the steam. In the
twelfth- century Primary Chronicle,
a monastic document relating the origins of Kievan Rus, another foreigner,
the Apostle Andrew, is amazed by the
banya when he reaches the Slavic lands:
They warm [their bathhouses] to
extreme heat, they undress . . . take
young branches and lash . . . themselves so violently that they barely
escape alive. Then they drench
themselves with cold water . . . they
actually inflict such voluntary torture upon themselves. . . . They
make of the act not a mere washing
but a veritable torment.
As the east Slavic tribes united
under the rule of the princes of Kiev,
the banya became a defining feature of
medieval Rus’. It combined the opulent
civic bathing traditions of Greece and
Rome with the wooden sweat lodges of
the Vikings. Its customs were shaped
by the diverse cultures converging on
the trade routes between Scandinavia and Byzantium: pagan, Jewish,
Christian, and Muslim. It absorbed
their taboos and age- old associations
of bathing with purity and defilement,
sanctity and licentiousness, virtue
and corruption. While the Orthodox
church integrated steam bathing into
its teachings and rituals (with prohibitions on mixed-sex bathing), the banya
was seen in folk culture as a place for
sorcery, magic, and unclean spirits.
Between the fifteenth and eighteenth
centuries, when public bathhouses
had died out in Western Christendom, where they were associated with
disease and illicit sex, the banya was
part of everyday life in Muscovy. In
the accounts of European travelers, astonishment at public nudity, extremes
of temperature, and violent flagellation with veniki became a stock motif.
Queen Elizabeth I’s ambassador, Giles
Fletcher, described people coming
“out of their bath stoves all on a froth
and fuming as hot almost as a pig at a
spit . . . in the coldest of all the wintertime,” and leaping “stark naked” into
rivers. For the seventeenth- century
scholar Adam Olearius, the men and
women of Muscovy bathing together
“divested themselves of every trace of
shame and restraint.”
The New York Review
In the late eighteenth century Euro-
pean observers began to consider the
medicinal effects of the banya. Some
even crossed the threshold into the
parilka. “The heat was too much for me
to bear,” the French astronomer JeanBaptiste Chappe d’Auteroche gasped.
“[I] got out of the baths as soon as I
could.” He had traveled from Paris to
Siberia in 1761 to watch the transit of
Venus across the sun. His Voyage en
Sibérie, an account of the “manners
and customs of the Russians,” published in 1768 with exquisite engravings
by Jean-Baptiste Le Prince, was one of
the most influential travel books of its
time, authoritative in Enlightenment
debates about Russia’s standing beside
“civilized Europe.”
The banya fascinated Chappe. A natural philosopher in the spirit of Montesquieu, he viewed “Russianness” as a
consequence of meteorological conditions acting on bodily fluids. “Whoever
has been through one province knows
all the Russians,” he assures his readers. He lists the banya as a cause of their
“want of genius,” as though it were as
much a part of the natural environment
as a cultural institution. The “effect
of the soil and the climate,” Chappe
writes, makes the “nervous juice” of
Russians “inspissated and sluggish,”
while the “sensibility of [their] external organs” is blunted by “the flogging they constantly undergo in the
baths, and the heat.” As he describes
his own attempts to bathe à la russe,
the assured discourse of the Enlightenment scholar becomes slapstick. In
the steam, Chappe is no longer an objective observer wielding instruments
of science, but a naked buffoon, giddy
and panting. “The prodigious heat . . .
seized my head,” he writes. “I . . . fell in
an instant . . . my thermometer breaking
to pieces.”
An admirer of female beauty,
Chappe recorded manifestations of
Venus among the Siberian peasantry
(noting that Russian women’s looks
are “gone before they are thirty” because “the baths spoil their shapes”).
Le Prince’s engraving of the banya in
Voyage en Sibérie (which Catherine the
Great regarded as “most indecent”)
depicts a rococo idyll in which naked
men, women, and cherubic babies wash
together. At its center, a statuesque
beauty, in the contrapposto of Botticelli’s Venus, her modesty concealed by a
venik, empties a tub of water over her
long hair. Le Prince’s image exemplifies the ambivalence of Europeans contemplating the banya’s simultaneous
suggestions of innocence and license.
A conspicuous advance in Enlightenment understanding came from the
Portuguese doctor António Ribeiro
Sanches, whose writings, Pollock says,
June 11, 2020
had a “profound long-term impact
on the way Europeans and Russians
conceived of the banya.” Educated at
the great medical schools of Europe,
Sanches came to Russia as first doctor
of the Imperial Army. He served at
court and saved the life of the fourteenyear- old Princess Sophie AnhaltZerbst. When the princess became
empress Catherine the Great, Sanches
corresponded with her about the benefits of the banya. His Traité sur les bains
de vapeur de Russie (1779) argued for
the banya’s role in the prevention and
cure of many ailments, and its importance to the state for the management
of public health. After the regimen of
parilka, veniki, and cold water, Sanches
wrote, “the whole body will feel easy,
fresh and the soul will also lighten. The
banya is the great healer.”
times sex, “for a few rubles and some
beer”).
“Not a single Muscovite abstained . . .
not a master of trade, not an aristocrat,
not a poor man, not a rich man could live
without the commercial banya,” wrote
Vladimir Gilyarovsky, a chronicler of
city life. In the 1880s Anton Chekhov
published two vignettes called “In the
Banya,” in which naked mingling in the
steam gives rise to comic muddling of
social identities. In his essay of 1899,
“On Writers and Writing,” the mystical nationalist writer Vasily Rozanov
quoted the Primary Chronicle, hailing the banya as a thousand-year-long
“stream of human contact,” “a wonderful world,” more ancient and democratic than the English constitution.
As Pollock writes, he “welcomed the
banya’s associations with sex, extreme
the profound contentment to be found
out of sight of men. The RussianScottish writer Eugenie Fraser remembers the “happy orgy of splashing” as
she bathed in a late-imperial banya
with her mother, nanny, and grandmother, who lay on the highest shelf
in the parilka with a cold cloth on her
forehead. In the women’s section of
Moscow’s Sanduny in the late 1970s,
the American novelist Andrea Lee
enjoyed the “magical freedom . . . of
women in a place from which men are
excluded.” Among the “unpretentious
and unself- conscious” women at the
banya—women she had seen “carrying
string bags on the metro”—Lee identified a “wholesomeness” that she found
“characteristically Russian.”
New York Public Library
“Sex trumped health when it came
to travelers’ assessments of the banya,”
Pollock writes. Foreign onlookers assumed that its health benefits applied
only to Russians. “In the whole world
there is only themselves who can bear
it,” one Frenchman remarked. The
eminent London doctor Jodocus Crull
noted in the late seventeenth century
that banyas were “universal remedies,” contributing to the longevity of
Muscovites, who live healthily “for the
most part without physicians,” but he
was more preoccupied by the fact that
women were “not very shy to be seen by
men” when they bathed naked.
Napoleon being beaten in a banya; illustration by Ivan Terebenev, circa 1812
It took over a century for medical sci-
ence to catch up. Russian doctors were
among the last to concede that an indigenous practice so long regarded as
backward could be at the forefront
of European prophylactic medicine.
By the late nineteenth century, when
germ theory showed that microscopic
organisms causing infectious illnesses
lived on skin, bathing was generally
acknowledged as a public good. In the
wider culture, the banya was by now
revered for its ancient origins, seen as
a “uniquely Russian social space” untainted by the West, reflecting the intuitive wisdom and authenticity of the
people. The banya’s “origins are synchronous with the origins of Russian
history,” one doctor wrote in 1888; “it
is directly connected with the conception of ‘Russian.’” Peasant sayings like
“the banya steams, the banya cures”
and “without the banya we would perish” were endorsed by the Brockhaus
and Efron encyclopedia in 1891, which
listed scores of ailments that the banya
could treat, from catarrhal illnesses to
neurosis and heart disease.
Late-imperial Russia was a golden
age for the urban banya. Innovation
came from commercial proprietors
rather than doctors or the state. Establishments like the Egorov banya in St.
Petersburg and the Sanduny in Moscow were as much about sociability and
relaxation as health. Typically, banyas
had four sections with ascending levels
of comfort and amenity. The luxurious
sections were fitted out with leather
couches, chandeliers, tiled washrooms,
gilded mirrors, and swimming pools.
Banshchiki provided a range of services: cleaning, hauling fuel, tending
the steam, flogging bathers with veniki,
and selling food and drink (and some-
heat, and beatings that so shocked foreign observers.”
In 1906 Mikhail Kuzmin’s novella
Wings unveiled the banya’s homosexual
subculture. For the Hellenist Kuzmin
(unlike Grand Duke Konstantin), this
aspect of the banya was an unashamed
harking back to ancient Greece, but despite the aesthetic refinement of Wings,
it was labeled pornographic. The photojournalist Karl Bulla’s pictures of
the interior of the men’s washroom in
St. Petersburg’s Egorov banya “almost
dared his viewers not to see sex,” Pollock writes. His photographs are like
tableaux vivants: frozen in their ablutions, men and boys lie on marble
benches, stand under showers, and hold
veniki over each other’s naked bodies.
Representations of women bathing
are a perennial fascination of male fantasy in visual art, and, at least since Le
Prince’s engravings for Chappe’s Voyage
en Sibérie, the banya has been an ideal
subject. The painter Firs Zhuravlev imitated European depictions of languid
odalisques with flirtatious eyes in his
1885 canvas Bridal Shower in the Banya.
Zinaida Serebriakova sensationally disrupted these traditions in her 1913 painting The Banya. The powerful bodies
and open faces of her bathing women
convey, Pollock writes, “indifference . . .
rather than allure.” Soviet paintings,
from Boris Kustodiev’s Russian Venus
(1926; see illustration on page 30) to the
1950s works of Socialist Realist painters
Alexander Gerasimov and Arkady Plastov, confirmed the female nude in the
banya as a timeless symbol of Russian
wholesomeness: radiant flesh and long
blond hair in a haze of steam against a
backdrop of wood and wet birch leaves.
Rare glimpses into women’s experience of the banya, meanwhile, convey
Like all cultural rituals of purity and
impurity, the rituals of the banya create unity in experience across time. In
both tsarist and Soviet times, the banya
could be a space of redemptive happiness, cleanliness, and freedom, or it
could be hell. The aristocratic narrator
of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from
the House of the Dead is horrified by a
prison bathhouse: “Steam blinds your
eyes; there’s soot, dirt, and human
flesh packed together so densely.” Similar images echo in the testaments of
the Soviet Gulag by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov, and others, for whom the labor camp banya
was a place of filth, degradation, and
violence. In the Gulag banya there was
“no limit to bullying” and “no limit
to human endurance,” one survivor
remembers.
In the late Soviet period, the country banya resurfaced as a cultural
ideal. By then, despite the efforts of
the Banya-Laundry Administration
and generations of Communist planners (whose activities Pollock recounts
with a weight of statistical detail mined
from the archives of municipal bureaucracies), banyas in the cities were
often dilapidated, squalid, and scarce.
In literature and film, the rural banya,
“a space conducive to contemplation
and potential redemption,” came to
embody authentic Russian tradition.
In Vasily Shukshin’s story “Alyosha
at Large,” the peasant Alyosha steadfastly devotes his Saturdays to the slow
rituals of the banya, true to the rural
ideal in the face of modernization. In
Nikita Mikhalkov’s 1980 film A Few
Days from the Life of I. I. Oblomov,
the rural banya makes a natural setting for soulful conversation between
friends, conducive to “vigor and idleness all at once.” The urban banya was
the ideal space for a different kind of
male friendship, offering alcohol and
freedom from domesticity. In The
Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Steam, one
of the most popular Russian or Soviet
films ever made, the steam conjures a
beneficial transformation in the life of
the hero, Zhenia.
The volatility of the post- Soviet period accentuated the banya’s power
to heal and transform, “to set things
right,” as Pollock writes: “The more
the culture changed, the more the
banya accrued value as something that
was ancient and consistent.” As contemporary Russia revels in national
traditions, the banya is still accruing
value. The Sanduny, which preserves
the grandeur of late-imperial Moscow, now sells its own brands of vodka
and honey, with an oak leaf on the
31
label. Yet expert banshchiki still
tend the steam, bathers still pay to be
thrashed with fragrant veniki, and nakedness still feels wholesome.
Pollock tells the long story of the
banya in chronological order, exploring
countless nuances of social reality and
artistic representation, gathering its recurring themes. But he begins and ends
his book in the present tense, naked in
the parilka. In his prologue, Pollock is
bathing with Russian friends in 1991,
“as the Soviet Union collapsed and a
new Russia emerged.” In the whimsi-
cal epilogue, Pollock immerses himself
in the illusion of the banya’s timelessness. His friends are transformed, in
his daydream, into the many historical
figures, writers, and fictional characters invoked in the pages in between,
all bathing with him in the parilka. The
lightness of the steam overcomes the
weight of history, and culture is timeless. “I feel relaxed and alive,” Pollock
writes, “washed clean enough to imagine that the banya has no beginning
and, so long as there is Russia, that the
banya will have no end.”
Q
Max the Fatalist
Peter E. Gordon
Charisma and Disenchantment:
The Vocation Lectures
by Max Weber, edited and with
an introduction by Paul Reitter and
Chad Wellmon, and translated
from the German by Damion Searls.
New York Review Books,
137 pp., $15.95 (paper)
When the young Max Weber returned
home in 1883 after his third semester
as a law student at the University of
Heidelberg, his mother slapped him.
Gone was the lanky eighteen-year-old
whose sagging shoulders made him,
in the words of his future wife Marianne, a “candidate for consumption.”
Thanks to nights of drinking with his
fraternity, Max had gained considerable weight, and he had also run up a
serious debt, compelling him to trouble
his father with frequent entreaties for
money. Worst of all, he bore a dueling
scar on his cheek. At the time, this was
nothing unusual. In German fraternities until the end of the nineteenth
century, fencing remained a venerable
tradition, a rite of manhood in which
the contestants competed for ribbons
that they wore on their ceremonial
gowns while they sang patriotic songs
and downed buckets of beer. But for
his mother, Max’s transformation was
evidently too much. Her first-born son
had been named after his father, an esteemed deputy in the National Liberal
Party, and he was expected to conduct
himself with restraint.
He soon abandoned his youthful
ways and embarked on a scholar’s path.
In 1889 Weber, now twenty-five, completed a doctoral dissertation on the
history of trading companies in the
Middle Ages, a formidable tome that
straddled economic and legal history.
In 1891, upon completing his habilitation—a second work required for advancement in the German university
system—on Roman agrarian history,
he secured a professorship in political
economy, first at Freiburg and then at
Heidelberg. He threw himself into his
academic labors with great intensity,
consumed by the idea that true worth
comes only to a Berufsmensch—an individual who is dedicated to a vocation.
This idea—that one must pursue
the burdens of labor with dignity and
quasi-religious devotion—proved his
personal undoing. The precipitating
incident may have been a violent confrontation with his father, who died
before the two men could reach a reconciliation. Although Weber would
not admit to any guilt, he slept poorly
and often found that he could no longer speak. “When I look at my lecture
notes,” he wrote, “my head simply
swims.” Only a few years into his pro32
Max Weber
fessorship he reached a point of complete exhaustion, and in 1899 he asked
to be excused from his lectures. Several
years passed before he could resume
his scholarly career.
By the end of his life, Weber enjoyed a growing reputation, not only
in Germany but across the globe. This
year marks the centenary of his death,
which offers a suitable occasion for
reflecting on his legacy and his continued significance. To call Weber the
founder of modern sociology would
seem uncontroversial, though the title
must be shared with contemporaries
such as Georg Simmel in Germany,
Herbert Spencer in England, and
Émile Durkheim in France, along with
W. E. B. Du Bois in the United States.
Weber corresponded with Du Bois,
and upon reading The Souls of Black
Folk he expressed his hope that the
book might be translated into German.
“I am absolutely convinced,” he wrote,
“that the ‘color-line’ problem will be
the paramount problem of the time
to come, here and everywhere in the
world.”
But Weber’s disciplinary identity is
far from obvious. When he was writing his most celebrated works, the
word “sociology” (an early-nineteenthcentury neologism coined by the
French positivist August Comte) was
still new, and if one considers how dramatically he shaped our thinking about
the modern world, that single academic
discipline seems far too narrow. His curiosity and capacity for learning were
boundless. He wrote with confidence
about trade law in medieval Europe
and also about the Hindu religion, he
studied ancient kingship and modern
bureaucracy, and he even wrote an
insightful treatise on the sociology of
music. But he was forever afflicted by
the fear that he was a mere dilettante,
a word that he also hurled at adversaries. When asked by colleagues why he
drove himself to such extremes of erudition, he offered a grim response: “I
want to see how much I can bear.”
The idea of work as a personal call-
ing resounds with relentless rhythm
through all of Weber’s sociological
works. The theme of a calling (or vocation) is central to what is surely his
most famous text, The Protestant
Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism,
first published in two installments
in 1904–1905. Like other books that
have suffered from an excess of fame,
The Protestant Ethic is often cited but
frequently misunderstood, beginning
with Weber’s contemporaries, some
of whom faulted him for promoting
the notion that capitalism had been
“caused by” Protestantism, though he
never said anything of the kind.
His thesis was far more subtle. Modern capitalism had first arisen in the
early-modern era in Northern Europe,
within the distinctive setting of a Christian culture that traditionally looked
upon economic life with mistrust and
saw the pursuit of wealth as a sin. (This
view found its biblical authorization in
Matthew 19-24: “It is easier for a camel
to go through the eye of a needle than
for a rich man to enter the kingdom of
God.”) Throughout the medieval era
the church also imposed restrictions
on moneylending that frequently consigned it to Jews and other outsiders,
which fed poisonous stereotypes that
persisted well into modern times. Even
Martin Luther, an Augustinian by
training before his revolutionary break
with Catholicism, nourished the old
prejudice that financial activity was a
sign of cupiditas.
Weber now posed a question: How,
given such patterns of Christian belief,
could entrepreneurial habits have taken
hold, and how, by the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, could capitalist
trade have flourished in Europe to such
a degree that countries like the Dutch
Republic and England, along with their
colonies in North America, could effect fundamental transformations in
all areas of modern life? His answer
was ingenious. Capitalism, he argued,
was not merely a set of institutions or
transactions; it was also a behavior or
cultural style, carried along by a host of
attitudes and dispositions that made it
singular and perhaps unprecedented. In
Northern Europe its unusual strength
was due in part to the spirit of methodical deliberation and restraint that
merchants brought to their work. They
amassed great fortunes but avoided all
hedonism, conducting themselves with
a sense of duty that drove them onward
to further success.
But what could explain such peculiar
conduct? It was Weber’s great insight to
propose that capitalism’s “this-worldly
asceticism”’ might have found its initial
warrant in Protestant teaching. The
Calvinist doctrine of predestination
had made divine favor into something
The New York Review
unknowable—a gift bestowed upon the
elect. The effect was to elevate God’s
sovereignty beyond all possible appeal,
but for the believer this could be psychologically devastating, since human
agency itself seemed stripped of meaning. The official teaching proved so
intolerable that Calvinist preachers introduced a subtle modification that allowed worldly success to serve as a sign
of divine election. From Luther and
from Catholicism they adopted the idea
of a vocatio or “calling,” namely, that
one is summoned by God to the priesthood. (The German word for “calling”
is Beruf, which derives from the verb
rufen, to call.) In Calvinism, however,
the idea of a calling was now applied to
worldly pursuits that Christianity had
once condemned. Election, of course,
remained uncertain, since there could
be no salvation through works. But a
bond was reestablished between God
and the world: if one conducted oneself in the proper spirit of piety and restraint, one’s good fortune in this world
might serve as a sign of one’s ultimate
fortune in the world to come.
For Weber this seemingly minor shift
in Calvinist doctrine had dramatic consequences. Protestantism could now license a plunge into this-worldly action,
while capitalist entrepreneurs could
see in their conduct a spiritual significance it would otherwise have lacked.
As Weber noted, there had been something irrational about this conduct: it
required a readiness to defer gratification, to save and reinvest for the sake of
an uncertain future. It was the religious
ethic of the ambient Protestant culture
that infused commercial activity with a
higher meaning. Clearly, this argument
was not causal. Rather, it illustrated
an “elective affinity,” a term Weber
borrowed from Goethe’s 1809 novel
of romantic liaisons. Capitalism and
Protestantism were two historically
independent formations that joined to
create a uniquely powerful bond, and
in concert they revolutionized the modern world.
In the United States today one often
encounters the boastful claim that its
citizens are beneficiaries of a “Protestant work ethic,” as if this explained
the power of American capitalism. But
Weber offered a more tragic view. In
his estimation the religiously inspired
ethic of a calling had died out long
ago, a casualty of the rationalization
process it helped to set in motion. Capitalism, Weber argued, now runs on its
own, with machine-like indifference
to all spiritual values, while the idea
of a calling “haunts our lives like the
ghost of once-held religious beliefs.”
Meanwhile, those who are caught in
its mechanism are left with little more
than a sense of mindless compulsion.
“The Puritans wanted to be men of
the calling,” Weber wrote; “we, on the
other hand, must be.” In the US in
particular, the pursuit of wealth had
been “divested of its metaphysical significance” and was now linked with
“purely elemental passions.”
In the closing lines of The Protestant
Ethic, Weber described the typical capitalists of his own time as mediocrities
much like the stunted creatures that
Nietzsche had called “the last men.”
A world populated by such soulless
beings ran not on individual initiative
but on the imperatives of the system:
“Today,” Weber wrote,
this mighty cosmos determines,
with overwhelming coercion, the
style of life not only of those directly involved in business but of
every individual who is born into
this mechanism, and may well continue to do so until the day when
the last ton of fossil fuel has been
consumed.
Those final lines were prescient.
Although Weber could not have anticipated the unfolding catastrophe of
climate change or the environmental
ravages that have attended the process
of industrialization, he understood that
capitalism’s unrestrained expansion
across the planet could hardly be taken
as a sign of social betterment or historical progress. In documenting the rise of
the modern world, he sustained an attitude of cool skepticism. The purpose
of sociology was not to discover general
laws but to understand human action in
all its complexity. This emphasis on the
unique rather than the universal made
his work difficult to categorize. Not a
few of his colleagues were tripped up
by his arguments—errors he attacked
in print with lacerating criticism. Especially common was the mistaken
view that he had written The Protestant Ethic as an idealistic corrective
to Marxism, as if he had meant to suggest that religious ideas rather than the
forces of production were the primary
engines of historical change. Weber
dismissed this as rubbish. Replacing a
“one-sided” and “materialist” explanation of historical causality with a
“one-sided” and “spiritual” explanation would only exchange one fallacy
for another.
A
fter his resignation from Heidelberg, Weber gradually regained his
ability to work, and by 1903 he had
commenced a new phase in writing.
Alongside The Protestant Ethic he also
produced the major essay “‘Objectivity’
in Social Science and Social Policy.” In
1904 he traveled to the United States,
accompanied by Marianne and the historian of religion Ernst Troeltsch. Manhattan left an impression of modernity
in chaos. Their twenty-story hotel rose
above streets that buzzed with traffic
and smelled of horse manure. To get to
their rooms they rode an “elevator,” a
word that struck Marianne as exotic.
They traveled as far as St. Louis and
New Orleans, and on their return they
stopped at Mount Vernon to see Washington’s birthplace, but also attended
an African-American religious service.
They were nearly stranded in Philadelphia due to the crowds that swarmed
the train station to cheer the University of Pennsylvania football team on
its departure for a game against Harvard. They spent their final evening in
Brooklyn, where they attended a performance at a Yiddish theater.
The last fifteen years of Weber’s life
were ones of tremendous productivity.
Starting in 1913 he worked on a comprehensive treatise in sociology that he
did not live to finish; it was published
after his death as Economy and Society.1 He also grew especially absorbed
in comparative studies in the sociology
of religion: between 1915 and 1919 he
vaulted himself into the monumental
1
A superb new English translation by
Keith Tribe has just been published by
Harvard University Press.
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35
36
Weber the more conventional view that
the individual who embraces scholarship as a calling can lead a “meaningful life.”) To be a scholar one must
acknowledge that in the modern age an
irreparable chasm separates facts from
values: facts are objective, values are
not. Weber stated this point as early as
his 1905 essay on objectivity: “the fate
of an epoch which has eaten of the tree
of knowledge” is that “we cannot learn
the meaning of the world from the results of its analysis.” The highest ideals
are formed “only in the struggle with
other ideals,” and we must abandon our
hope for their reconciliation. Weber
portrays this predicament as a final consequence of the millennia-long process
of disenchantment that has gradually
stripped the cosmos of any objective
meaning. For the individual who wishes
to pursue scholarship as a calling, this
political professionals. An authentic
leader, however, must temper vision
with realism. Even the most utopian
movements must eventually compromise their idealism if they wish to remain in power. Politics, Weber declares,
is like “a slow and difficult drilling of
holes into hard boards.” The individual who feels a calling for politics must
therefore achieve the proper balance
between an “ethics of personal conviction” and an “ethics of responsibility.”
True leadership demands far more than
untamed charisma; it demands a sense
of proportion and a grasp of what reality permits. “There is no more destructive corruption of political power,”
warns Weber, “than the parvenu,” who
goes “blustering around, conceitedly
rejoicing in feeling powerful.”
Weber died of pneumonia, possibly
due to the Spanish flu (though the cause
Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
task of writing on all of the world’s
major religions, completing volumes on
Confucism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. (He died before
he could finish the one on Islam.) In
these works, Weber demonstrated an
admirable capacity for understanding
cultures other than his own, but he was
still preoccupied with the question of
the West’s unique character. Beginning
with ancient Judaism, he traced a certain style of “occidental” rationalism
in religion that gradually stripped the
world of its magical luster and imposed
on the cosmos the idea of a single and
all-encompassing law. Protestantism,
with its assault on priestly rituals and
the veneration of relics and saints,
brought this rationalizing process in religion to its terminus even while it also
prepared the way for the emergence of
a modern legal-bureaucratic society in
which religion was pushed to the margins. In this process, Weber assigned
an ambivalent role to religious intellectuals such as the Hebrew prophets.
It was the intellectual class, the theologians and prophets, who first raised
the question of the world’s “meaning.”
Ironically, however, this group was also
hostile to conventional and magical
belief and thereby set in motion the
process of world-rationalization that
eventually brought to an end the very
idea that the world had meaning at all.
These arguments reappear in two lectures, “Scholarship as a Vocation” and
“Politics as a Vocation,” which Weber
delivered near the end of his life. Masterpieces of concision, they have been
newly translated by Damion Searls (as
“The Scholar’s Work” and “The Politician’s Work,” though these titles lose
Weber’s sense of Beruf as a vocation or
calling) and published in a slender volume with a helpful introduction by Paul
Reitter and Chad Wellmon. In a deliberate and solemn style that rises gently
toward tragedy, Weber ruminates on
the question of a “vocation” and on
what is required of an individual who
feels the calling for a career in scholarship or politics. No doubt the lectures
left many in his audience dissatisfied,
since they are as much warning as
exhortation.
Weber presented “Scholarship as a
Vocation” in November 1917, at the invitation of a student society in Munich.
At a moment when the ongoing war
threatened to bring the ideals of European civilization to a crashing end, the
theme of the lecture carried a special
urgency. What purpose was to be found
in the scholar’s life, and what historical
and sociological significance inhered in
such a career? Weber did not offer his
students many words of encouragement.
The modern world has passed through a
trial of rationalization and disenchantment. While some cling to the consoling
notion that the cosmos still has an objective meaning, a genuine scholar must be
strong enough to confront the truth that
this idea has been extinguished. Value
has lost the appearance of objectivity;
the world only has moral significance
from a particular point of view. Monotheism has given way to a new polytheism: values clash with one another like
warring gods.
Weber portrays the scholar as a modern stoic who must be prepared to live
in full awareness of the relativity of
all value. But this posture can itself
become a source of value. (In their
introduction, Reitter and Wellmon do
not capture this irony; they ascribe to
A rally in support of the Weimar Republic in the Sportpalast, Berlin, February 1, 1925
process has a paradoxical consequence.
If the heavens are empty, one can no
longer speak of a caller behind the call;
one can make one’s career into a calling
only by a sheer act of will.
T
his stoic motif recurs in “Politics as
a Vocation,” which Weber delivered
before the same student organization
in Munich in late January 1919. In the
interval between the two lectures, the
political situation in Germany had
changed dramatically. The old Reich
had collapsed at the end of the war,
and the moderate wing of the Social
Democrats had declared the founding
of a republic. Though Weber remained
a fierce nationalist, he assisted in the
drafting of the new Weimar Constitution and served on the executive
committee of the centrist German
Democratic Party, which consisted
chiefly of lawyers and other professionals. Meanwhile, a revolution had
spread from Berlin to Bavaria, where
the journalist and philosopher Kurt
Eisner declared the founding of a Bavarian Socialist Republic.
In his lecture on politics Weber
speaks with disdain about the revolution, and he warns his audience that in
the coming decade they should expect
an era of darkness and political reaction. The modern state is little more
than a machine—a vast bureaucratic
entity that has gained a monopoly on
the legitimate use of violence—and
the only real question is whether it
will bring about a democracy with authentic leaders to guide the machine or
will settle for a “leaderless democracy”
managed by a class of unimpressive
remains uncertain) in June 1920, too
early to see how Germany’s fledgling
democracy fared. But the signs were
not auspicious. Right-wing students
had demonstrated against him when
he condemned the pardoning of Count
Arco-Valley, the Austrian aristocrat
who had assassinated Eisner. Although
Weber loathed the socialist revolution,
he loathed political murder more, and
he feared what would happen if citizens lost their faith in established conventions of law. He may have longed
for a strong leader to seize the wheel
of history, but he looked upon the development of the modern bureaucratic
state with a certain fatalism. The age of
prophecy and tradition was long gone,
no more suitable to a disenchanted age
than were the dueling fraternities of
his youth. Any attempt to resurrect the
charismatic leaders of the distant past
would spawn only demagogues, not
genuine prophets.
Weber will no doubt remain a fixture
of the modern canon of social and political thought even if central themes in
his work now strike us as questionable.
Consider, for instance, the sharp distinction between fact and value. It was
Weber’s view that conflicts of value
cannot be resolved through rational argument, since we cleave to our values
with a conviction that surpasses critical scrutiny. This theory of value illustrates the affinities between Weber and
Nietzsche, whose views on the will as the
final grounding for value helped inspire
Weber’s reflections on the irrational
character of our moral commitments.
Such affinities became an embarrass-
ment for later Anglophone scholars
such as Talcott Parsons, who wished to
cleanse Weber of any taint of old-world
irrationalism and reintroduced him
in the United States as a cool-minded
forerunner to his own “functionalist”
theories of modern society.
But Weber’s darker side is hard to
ignore. If our value commitments lie
at a level of pure decision beyond rational deliberation, then we are robbed
of any prospect for genuine consensus.
It should not surprise us that the rightwing political theorist Carl Schmitt saw
in this “decisionist” theory of value a
justification for Nazism. Nor was it implausible that the philosopher Jürgen
Habermas, at the 1964 centenary celebrations in Heidelberg to mark Weber’s
birth, described Schmitt as Weber’s
“legitimate pupil.” The distinction between fact and value left Weber with
a one-sided image of social rationalization. He failed to grasp the crucial
point that a rationalized society is not
necessarily a rational one; the latter
demands not only a formal rationality
of systems and procedures but also a
substantive rationality in the values we
endorse because they are right.
Here we see how Weber’s views on
scholarship and politics converge. The
problem with the distinction between
facts and values is not only that it casts
values into a realm of irrational decision. No less questionable is Weber’s
trust in the solidity of facts, seeing
them as a hard and obdurate reality
that intrudes upon the latticework of
our value- commitments as if from the
outside. An effective teacher, he declared, is one who makes the student
look unflinchingly at facts even when
they are “uncomfortable”2 or push
against one’s partisan opinions. But
in an age that is now drowning in “alternative facts,” the old distinction between facts and values may have lost its
credence. Values not only frame facts,
as Weber knew; they also lend facts
their authority, propelling them into
the public sphere where they are taken
up into our political deliberations. But
a fact can only count as a fact if society
treats it as one. Today’s demagogues
are not content with reshaping political
values; they also seek to reshape facts,
turning debate over policy into a struggle over what is real.
Weber may have been ready to accept
the relativity of values, even if he did so
with some reluctance and in a fatalist
mood. But we cannot blame him for failing to anticipate our modern tilt into the
relativity of facts, which has robbed us of
any confidence that in our political disputes we at least agree on what the facts
are. Nor can he be blamed if he held fast
to the heroic ideal of work as a calling.
When one reads Weber today, it is difficult to overcome the impression that
this ideal has lost much of its prestige,
not least because many politicians (and
not a few scholars) seem moved more by
a longing for fame than a deeply felt belief in the integrity of their task. Weber’s
idea of a calling embodies a paradox: it
is a trace of religion in a nonreligious
world. But we have passed beyond the
last threshold of disenchantment, and
even that final ideal now threatens to
fall into total eclipse.
Q
2
The old Hans Gerth translation of
the lecture had “inconvenient” for the
German word unbequem, but Searls’s
rendering of it as “uncomfortable” is
perhaps best.
The New York Review
Nasty, Brutish, and Long
Colm Tóibín
The Catholic School
by Edoardo Albinati, translated
from the Italian by Antony Shugaar.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
1,268 pp., $40.00
Musil charts Törless’s engagement
with this abuse, using subtle terms to
invoke “the strange attraction that Basini exerted upon him.” It is clear that,
while not the leader of the campaign
against Basini, Törless is the one most
affected by what he witnesses, and the
one who derives the most pleasure from
it. While the assaults on Basini are
done in secret, it is as though the institution itself gives permission for them
to occur, or creates the conditions,
both physical and moral, whereby such
a cruel vendetta could be carried out.
the dormitories and his colleagues. In
2005 it emerged in The Ferns Report,
the result of an official Irish government inquiry into clerical sex abuse in
the diocese of Ferns (which included
Wexford and St. Peter’s), that this
priest, whose sexual interest in the students had come to the attention of the
bishop, was placed in that old building so that he would be away from the
dormitories. He later served a prison
sentence for abuse of students in the
school.
Herbert List/Magnum Photos
After almost half a century, I still
dream that I am back at St. Peter’s, the
Catholic boarding school in Wexford,
Ireland, where I spent two years before
I went to university. What is strange
is how oddly comforting some of the
images are. Even the dormitory, with
its narrow cubicles, and the timetable,
which began with morning
hat Musil writes well
mass and included daily roabout is the mixture of pure
sary, with benediction benormality and high artificifore study during months
ality in an all-male acadthat were deemed to be
emy. At St. Peter’s, aged
especially sacred, hold no
sixteen, I was fascinated
terror. The diocesan priests
by Brendan Behan’s autowho were our teachers
biographical novel Borstal
seem warm, friendly presBoy (1958), which dealt
ences, even though a couwith the incarceration of a
ple of them, in reality, were
boy more or less my age. He
great brutes. The most disnot only experienced loneturbing part of the dream
liness and loss in prison
is that in it I am me now.
but also became used to its
And I am ready, despite
routine and rules. Slowly
everything, to be embraced
it became normal, not a
by the orderliness of life in
microcosm of the outside
that school, by the all-male
world or anything as simcompany, by the possibility
ple as that, but rather a
of intense friendships, by
place apart, fully enclosed
the many rules and regulaby its own systems.
tions, by the thought that I
During the Christmas
can decide almost nothing
holidays of 1970, a friend
for myself.
told me about a film showSoon after I left St. Peing in Dublin called if . . . ,
ter’s, I found myself one
directed by Lindsay Anday in the studio of the
derson and set in an EnIrish painter Paul Funge,
glish boarding school. I
who had also been a stumanaged to convince my
dent there. He handed me
family that I needed to
a book, saying that it was
attend the Young Scienpossibly the most accurate
tists’ Exhibition in Dublin
version of our experience
with a school group—there
at boarding school. It was
were special cheap train
The Confusions of Young
fares for visitors to this—
Törless (1906) by Robert
but once the train hit DubMusil.
lin I slipped away from the
Despite the fact that my
Students from a boys’ school with a priest, Rome, 1953
group and found the right
dreams of St. Peter’s are
cinema and attended the
benign, Musil’s unsettling
early afternoon showing.
account of all-male school life seemed
What happens to Basini is presented as
The regime in Anderson’s film was
accurate to me, down to small deritual rather than outrage. It is almost
harsher and more stylized than that
tails such as a moment early in the
normal; it happens calmly rather than
at St. Peter’s. The sexual tension in
book after Törless has left home for
as a result of flared tempers. And it apthis boarding school was more apparboarding school, when his relationpears to satisfy something deep within
ent than in ours, and the brutality and
ship with his parents becomes strained
the perpetrators.
bullying more fierce. The boys in if . . .
and uneasy. Once he has recovered
In Musil’s novel, normal school life
were also more obviously beautiful
from missing them, he grows distant
goes on as though the nightly attacks
than any of my schoolmates. But the
from them. His being away from home
on Basini were merely a sideshow. At
film brought into the open what was
induces in him a kind of coldness
St. Peter’s, I always had the sense that
kept hidden by the dull routine at St.
that no new-found independence will
something else was happening that
Peter’s that I had assented to.
assuage.
was hidden from us, or that some set
And that was the idea of conformity,
Young Törless deals most forcefully
of codes were in use that had not been
how easy it was to impose conformity.
with violence and bullying. Like St. Pefully disclosed. At night, in my second
The main fear at St. Peter’s was not that
ter’s, Musil’s academy is an old building
year there, I often had reason, once
you would be beaten up or attacked,
with unused rooms and hidden spaces.
my dormitory became quiet, to make
but that you would be excluded. EveryIt is to one of these that Törless and his
my way to another dormitory, using a
one’s behavior was fine-tuned to make
two friends Beineberg and Reiting take
shadowy cloister, dark stairways, long
sure that he fit into the system created
their classmate Basini to whip him, sexcorridors. There was not a sound. But a
by his fellow students. In his novel The
ually abuse him, and torture him. They
few times I had to move quickly into a
Catholic School, Edoardo Albinati
do this ostensibly because they believe
doorway as a priest’s footsteps could be
writes about the need not to stand out:
that he has been stealing. But their real
heard approaching. I wondered where
motive, it seems, is that they do it behe was going, what he was doing, at this
No one realizes just how far a boy
cause they can, and because they enjoy
time of night. He might have wondered
would go in order to win the apit. They take their time humiliating the
the same about me.
proval of his classmates and pals;
boy, thinking of further, more rigorous
Although the teaching priests all
the quantity of abuse that he can
punishments for him, taking him to
had apartments close to the dormimake up his mind to tolerate,
that hidden, private space night after
tories, one priest was lodged in an
whether inflicted upon himself or
night.
older part of the school, away from
June 11, 2020
W
inflicted upon others, in order to
earn recognition.
The Catholic School centers on San
Leone Magno, a fashionable school
in Rome run by the Marist Brothers,
and a gruesome crime that took place
in 1975 when three former students
were found to have tortured two young
women, then raped them and murdered
one of them. Albinati, born in 1956,
attended San Leone Magno and was
acquainted with the perpetrators. The
Catholic School, all 1,268 pages of it,
is an effort to explore why boys from
such a privileged and settled background would commit such a crime. It
pays little attention to the crime itself;
we learn hardly anything about the
victims other than that they are from
a lower class than the perpetrators. Instead, most of the book muses on the
meaning of masculinity, on the family
and the middle class, on rape, violence,
the penis, sadism and masochism, not
to speak of morals and manners among
Italians of a certain income bracket.
Albinati writes about how he “loved
to go to school” and the “intolerable”
idea “of going home when lessons were
over.” He uses Musil’s novel as a template: “What happened to me was the
exact opposite of what happened to
young Törless as a student.” At home,
he missed his “classmates. And the
gym, the courtyard, the chapel, the
priests.” While Törless suffers from
homesickness and recovers, he does
not revert to his previous self: “The
disappearance of his yearning did not
bring with it any long-awaited contentment, but left a void in the soul of young
Törless.” It is that void that concerns
Albinati, the strangeness that develops in an all-male institution as Musil
describes it: “Here, where young, impulsive forces were imprisoned behind
grey walls, the boys’ imaginations were
crammed full with random, voluptuous
images that robbed more than one boy
of his senses.”
The Catholic School has scenes that
mirror moments in Young Törless, including one in which several boys whip
a fellow schoolboy. Albinati’s “Now
you could hear the whistle and snap
of the cords on our classmate’s flesh”
echoes Musil’s “From the sounds that
reached him, Törless could make out
that they were taking Basini’s clothes
from his body and whipping him with
something thin and flexible.”
In both books, the boys believe
that they belong to an exclusive world
and have a duty to detect and exclude
anyone who does not belong to it. In
Musil’s novel, one of the most violent
characters says: “After all, we’re being
educated together because we belong
to the same society.” In Albinati’s, the
school leaves a mark of privilege that
lasts for life, “practically an emblem, a
trademark, to such an extent that nearly
ten years later, a young woman would
notice it, that indelible brand. ‘Say, by
any chance, did you go to a school run
by priests?’”
This strange forced cohesion that
develops in an all-male school can be
quickly broken, as Anderson makes
clear in if . . . when the students, formerly so willing to take part in the
set of hierarchies that the school
37
“A rare glimpse into
an insular world.”
—Kirkus Reviews
represents, stage an armed revolt on the
roof of the school. Albinati describes
going to a screening of if . . . himself and
witnessing the joy when the headmaster is shot. “We all leapt to our feet.”
At St. Peter’s, it was taken for granted
that some priests had a sexual interest
in the students. It was never spelled out
but was part of a system of sly jokes
and sneering whispers. At San Leone
Magno the chemistry teacher, Svampa,
an “elderly priest with [a] thin, nasal
voice . . . would scrutinize each of us with
a gaze that seemed to physically palpate
the face and grope the body.” Since the
brothers or priests in the school devote
themselves to teaching academic subjects to rich boys rather than, say, visiting the sick and spreading the word of
God, it is hard to understand precisely
what their function as clergy is. Albinati sees the effect this has on them:
Friend
A Novel from North Korea
PAEK NAM-NYONG
Translated by Immanuel Kim
“In its candid examination of
domestic conflict and female
ambition, Friend unsettles
expectations of North Korean
life ... [It] offers a beguiling
introduction to the everyday,
with none of the rockets and
military parades that the words
‘North Korea’ often bring
to mind.”
—The New York Times
“This tender, witty novel is indeed
a page-turner. Neither a searing
indictment of the regime nor
a propaganda screed, Friend
illuminates the personal rather
than the political, the daily trials
of workplace conflcts and martial
woes. In doing so, it sharpens
our ability to see the fragility and
messy humanity in lives too often
obscured by state agendas.”
—The Guardian
“Reading Friend is like sifting
through a black box for clues into
a sealed world.”
—Times Literary Supplement
COLUMBIA
UNIVERSITY
PRESS
CUP.COLUMBIA.EDU
38
The member of a male community,
who lives in it for a long time or
even for his entire life, is generally
sadistic, narcissistic, obsessed with
the power that he exercises and
submits to on a daily basis, and
homosexual, either practicing or
latent. Otherwise, he won’t be able
to hold out.
In The Catholic School, the male students “hold out” through the intensity
of their response to women: “For the
males, the simplest way of proving that
they are, in fact, male is to hold femininity in contempt.” And through their
fear:
The true opposite of masculinity
wasn’t femininity but homosexuality: a perilous border. The masculine ideal could be defined as
a negation: the exact opposite of
a man wasn’t a woman, it was a
queer.
The most intolerable fear for
us males was that someone might
laugh at us . . .
Toward the end of the book, Albinati
has an evocative account of being fondled by a priest in the sick bay, but he
also has descriptions of homoerotic
moments between the boys themselves, such as a scene in which two of
them, with their backs to each other
for the sake of modesty, remove their
swimsuits.
It is the absence of women in the
school that creates an intensity around
male behavior: “In an all-male school,”
Albinati writes, “the threat can be
sensed in a physical way, as it is among
dogs. . . . Males are monotonous, and
monotony tends to evolve into frustration, and frustration in its turn splits into
melancholy or aggression.” There is also
the matter of insecurity: “The abstract
ideal of virility, well, it’s almost impossible to nail it, the vast majority of men
fail to come even close over the course
of a lifetime.” Instead, there is “fragility, sense of inadequacy, anxiety, fear of
judgment, of being unable to satisfy the
expectations of others, fear of failure.”
Albinati’s book, made up of many
short sections, is long and long-winded.
It lacks what we might call the literary
tone, showing no signs of irony, inwardness, self-consciousness, or ambiguity.
Most of the time it is simply garrulous.
Reading it is like being buttonholed
by a man in a bar who wishes to speak
at length about sex and men and rape.
Some of the comments in the book are
startlingly crass. After giving some illustrations of male insecurity, for example, Albinati writes:
There’s probably a connection
between this insecurity and the
number of women raped: as the insecurity increases, the number of
rapes rises correspondingly. And
the rape isn’t caused by testosterone, if anything, it’s a surrogate for
it.
The word “probably” here doesn’t
help; it makes the conclusions even
more glib. While Albinati has a great
deal to say about why men commit the
crime of rape, his observations sound
half-baked and spurious. The tone he
takes is filled with provocative assertion and blockheaded theory, but also a
lack of awareness of what his own voice
sounds like as he rattles on about testosterone and masculinity.
The central question around which
the book circles is: “Why shouldn’t our
bourgeoisie, with its frenzy, its thirst
for recognition, why shouldn’t it produce criminals?” In Albinati’s version
of bourgeois life and male insecurity,
something untoward is bound to occur.
“Some of the most respected scholars
of violence,” he writes,
maintain that there is no violence
more bloodthirsty than bourgeois
violence. No revolution has ever
been as ferocious as the ones led
by intellectuals of bourgeois extraction and education (such as Pol
Pot).
No matter what the subject, Albinati
has an opinion on it. “In five-a-side soccer, you can’t camouflage or disguise
your nature.” “The religious sentiment
does not depend on any particular process of reasoning.” “All this sex, all this
violence could always be legitimized as
a reaction against bourgeois hypocrisy,
conformism, the stupidity of the world of
television and consumerism.” “The underlying paradox of the family is that it
originates from sexuality but is destined
to become an institution.” “A cock is a
tool with all the sensitivity of a hammer.”
Albinati refers to his own verbose
tendencies. At the opening of chapter 9
we are given permission to skip “to the
next, decisive chapter.” At the opening
of chapter 14, having asked, “Are you
still listening to me?,” he writes that
he “could recommend skipping a few
chapters and go directly to Part V.”
Later, on page 855, he writes, “I will be
repetitive, obsessive.”
One small reason not to skip any
part of this book may arise from a note
at the end telling us that it was begun
in 1975 and finished forty years later.
These are years in which so much
changed in the conversations about the
relationship between men and women.
What is fascinating about The Catholic
School is that it enacts, in the most extreme way, the very sounds some men
might have made before they were invited to become more mannerly, more
intelligent, more alert, more sensitive,
and less stupid. The book was finished
in a time when men were often asked
to shut up completely and let someone
else talk. The Catholic School is, sometimes, a good example of what it was
like before this had any real effect.
At other times, however, it is a good
example of nothing at all, other than
the author’s boorishness. Toward the
end of the book, Albinati writes:
The feminine sex organ sits there,
anonymous, dark, concealed beneath layers of fabric but, so to
speak, always present, always perceptible in its hiding place between
the thighs, another hole just an
inch or so from the hole that everyone has, even men.
The best that can be said about this observation is that it occurs on page 916.
Most readers will surely have become
too exhausted by the book’s tediousness to get that far.
Not long afterward, in his analysis of
the motives that he imagines lie behind
rape, Albinati writes with an even more
intense crudeness:
In rape, the targets are interchangeable: it depends on opportunities.
Proof of this is the fact that when
it was a matter of abusing wellto-do young women, before the
CR / M [the crime that is the subject
of the book], the boys certainly
hadn’t been shy about it. You can
find just as many reasons to rape a
rich little bitch as you can to rape a
working-class slut. In different but
every bit as intense ways, you can
feel provoked and challenged by
both categories of girls, you can get
the same itch on the palm of your
hands, the same yearning to crush
them underfoot, humiliate them,
punish them.
The only possible excuse for this passage, and many like it, is that Albinati
may not, in fact, be speaking in his own
voice, and that these opinions may belong to others. He is perhaps letting us
know, as graphically as he can, what
they sound like. Because the tone is
often so glib, gross, and offensive, it
might seem impossible that the author
and the narrator could be one and the
same. And it is thus tempting to feel
that the author may merely be letting
us know how men who take rape lightly
speak when no one else is listening.
In the following passage, for example,
it appears almost unimaginable that
a writer could offer these words to us
as his own opinions rather than something overheard or ascribed to others:
If a woman gets uppity, if she denies or concedes herself to too
many men, the rape will put her
back in line. If she likes solitude,
or fun, or books and concerts, or
if she goes around without an escort in the illusion that she is independent, autonomous, or if she is
too demanding because she wants
to be loved and understood, then
rape will make it clear to her just
where she was wrong. When it’s
time to give her a lesson, rape is
always handy, within reach.
But there is no evidence at all that
Albinati is reporting how others speak
or feel, or that these passages in his
book are acts of ventriloquism. In The
Catholic School, the writer makes clear
that his narrator is not a persona or a
created voice. A number of times in the
book, Albinati lets us know about his
own life—his time teaching in a prison,
The New York Review
for example, or the year and place of
his birth—thus emphasizing that the
first-person singular here is not a literary invention but the author himself,
an author who asserts that “feminist
thinkers have set records for appearing equally brilliant and deranged” but
who doesn’t name any of these thinkers or quote from any texts by them on
the subject of rape, violence against
women, class, and masculinity.
It might have added a degree of subtlety to Albinati’s book had he become
involved in a discussion with those who
have put serious thought into the subject of rape. When he writes about rape
not as a crime but as an aspect of sex
between men and women, instead of
quoting from research on the subject,
or testimony from women who have
been raped or from rapists, he offers
his own offhand views as though they
should be taken seriously:
In every relationship between
male and female, between any
male and any female, rape is present. Even where there has been
no coercion; even where there is
love and tenderness, there is rape.
Rape is the simplified paradigm
of relations between the sexes, its
energy-saving mode, its substantial
diagram, and it lies at the foundation of every relationship, of every
act of intercourse, not necessarily
brutal ones.
A decade ago, I spent time in a village
near Rome, often using a network of
narrow roads to drive between the city
and the village. The more deserted the
stretch of road, the more likely I was
to see prostitutes, usually of African
origin, standing alone, waiting for clients. They were totally vulnerable, at
the mercy of pimps who had dropped
them there, and at the mercy of those
who might pick them up. For anyone
driving by, I thought, this was a forlorn,
miserable, desperate sight.
Albinati witnessed a similar scene.
When he writes about this, he registers
no pity, no worry, no outrage. Instead,
he sees African prostitutes as they “extend their rounded asses toward the
road and those who are driving along
it.” They do this, he writes, “even today,
Easter Sunday.” He notices that they
displayed their bottoms openly, “while
simultaneously concealing the least
attractive aspect, because their faces
are ugly, extremely ugly, bad enough to
drive away anybody.”
Twenty pages later, he mentions advice from a friend when he found that a
“homely” young woman, Maria Elisa,
was interested in him, but her “pretty
girlfriend” was not:
“Don’t start thinking about how
homely Maria Elisa is. Instead,
think about what fantastic blow
jobs she would give you. Often
that’s the way real dogs are: they
know they aren’t pretty, so they
make an effort to bridge the gap by
becoming first-class cocksuckers.”
Albinati creates the impression that
men, by virtue of having a penis and
testosterone, are somehow irredeemable. He seems determined to become
an example of what he also manages, at
times, to deplore. The author gives the
impression that he has thought deeply
on these matters, an impression belied
by the crudity of his language and his
oafish attitudes.
When he writes, “A man may make
use of a female body in one of four
ways: by paying the woman for her services; by viewing an image of her body,
nude or clothed, in still photo or film;
by seducing her; or by kidnapping her,”
one wonders not only where he had
been since 1975 that he could equate
these four things, put them in the same
list, but where his editors have been,
and where the jurors of the Strega
Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary
award for a novel, have been, since they
gave this book the prize in 2016.
Sometimes, Albinati makes clear
that he is writing about Italy rather
than the wider world. In this passage,
for example:
Bourgeois joy consists of the sentiment of contrast: possessing
what others do not and what they
therefore envy. Apartments, suits,
automobiles, and women, wives or
lovers selected like pieces of fine
silver or paintings or tapestries or
rare furniture.
He must be in Italy too when he writes
about people “always setting the table
with double sets of utensils and two
glasses, even when there’s nothing to
eat.” But it is hard to know where in the
world he is describing when he writes:
“There is not a more ascetic creature in existence than the well-to-do
housewife.”
To write this book, Albinati emphasizes, he consumed “shelves full of
books and a plethora of cases that actually happened; nearly every paragraph
from here [page 855] to the end of Part
VII of this book will be a condensed
version.” Despite the length of the novel
and the amount of detailed argument
and heated assertion and digression, it
is clear that rape and violence against
women cannot be usefully dealt with in
a tone that is so assertive, self-confident,
and creepy. As he circles his subject, Albinati, who seems pleased with himself,
lets us know in passing that he would
like to have a street named after him,
“just a little, out-of-the-way street.”
To suit its name, the street would, of
course, have to be long as well as out-ofthe-way, and it might lack a number of
necessary signs suggesting caution.
While Albinati’s descriptions of
school life, of all-male enclaves and
their discontents, are accurate and
sharp, his ability to write about rape
is limited. While his sense of class and
privilege is perceptive, as is his version
of Catholicism, the minute he begins to
generalize he loses the plot. Because he
has, it seems, no sense of his own limits,
and because he gives the impression of
someone who feels entitled to be heard,
his book is of value only as an unexpurgated version of a dark unconscious, or
a mind unfettered by circumspection,
or a man who feels free to say whatever
comes into his mind. It would be too
cruel to suggest that this book is necessary reading for anyone, but it may
be useful for those who wish to see an
example of how little progress we have
made over the past forty years, or for
those who wish to experience an interminable display of loquaciousness and
idiocy masquerading as a novel.
Q
SAVE THE DATES SEPTEMBER 28 - OCTOBER 5
Stay tuned for details on how we will celebrate authors and books this year.
Keep Reading. Stay Safe.
brooklynbookfestival.org
June 11, 2020
39
The Dream of World Monarchy
R. J.W. Evans
Emperor: it’s an arresting title. And the
concept looks simple. If it means a ruler
over vast lands and numerous peoples,
then Charles V eminently qualifies.
Through the accidents of fecund marriages and mortality among other prospective claimants, he held sway over a
multitude of territories across much of
Europe—from the Straits of Gibraltar
and Sicily to the North Sea and the Baltic—and over American colonies newly
conquered and settled. Yet things are
not quite what they seem. As monarch
of Spain, his richest possession, he famously signed himself “Yo el Rey”—“I
the King”—and was known as Charles
I. So why do we remember him as
Charles V?
No one could be more aware of the
complexities of Charles’s situation than
Geoffrey Parker. Emperor is a meticulous and comprehensive account by
a master of traditional biography, the
powerful narrative of a military and
political career like no other. Charles
enjoyed his share of fortuna, of triumphs like that when, as a young man
in 1525, he destroyed the army of his
French adversaries at Pavia, and even
took their king, François I, prisoner on
the battlefield. Increasingly, however,
there were disasters too, such as the
catastrophic sieges of Algiers in 1541
and Metz in 1552; Charles himself was
almost captured the same year during
an insurgency of former client princes
in Germany. Success predominated,
according to Parker, but his reign
ended in “downfall” (the last part of
the book bears that heading), when the
bankrupt emperor could no longer settle even small debts. Hence, perhaps,
Charles’s dramatic abdication in 1556
and his retirement to a remote Spanish
monastery.
It’s a vast canvas, but most memorable for Parker’s love of small descriptive or corroborative details. Indeed,
at the heart of his presentation he
places Charles’s person: his measured
and stylish manner, his winsome blond
hair, conspicuous projecting lower lip,
and mouth always lolling slightly open,
his politesse and affability in public,
and his forbearance with detractors
(“kynges be not kinges of tonges,” he
conceded). Many less attractive traits
are also recorded: Charles could be
uncommunicative and dilatory, evasive
and mendacious, refractory, vindictive, obstinate, even outright wicked,
though self-delusive about the motives
of others.
He was contradictory in his cast of
mind too: a slow and reluctant reader,
mainly of romances and books of devotion, but quite bright (none other
than Erasmus said he had “plenty of
brains”). Charles was selectively inquisitive, for example about the indigenous cultures of the New World,
and later about clocks to the point of
obsession. He was likewise selective in
the crucial imperial skill of language
acquisition: he learned French, then
Spanish and Italian by immersion; he
spoke German and Dutch with bare
adequacy, and struggled over a lifetime
40
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Emperor:
A New Life of Charles V
by Geoffrey Parker.
Yale University Press, 737 pp., $35.00
Charles—diligent, and often supportive beyond the call of duty, especially
his aunt Margaret of Austria and his
sister Maria. They built up solid administrative practices across his realms, in
loose and desultory liaison with the
itinerant warrior and his chief advisers.
Charles showed little affection for
his kin, and regularly indulged in
moral blackmail. That shines through
both his major male relationships, with
his son Philip and his brother Ferdinand, whom Charles rarely dealt with
face to face (the brothers didn’t meet
at all until Ferdinand was in his teens).
Philip turned out cool and calculating,
though he owed more to his father than
he wanted to acknowledge. Charles
micromanaged his education and
trained him to be heir to all his lands.
Ferdinand could be pliant, even submissive, and Charles took advantage,
envisaging him as some kind of auxiliary ruler. Actually, however, Philip
became a “true prince of Castile,” a
ruler rooted in Spain, whereas Charles
gradually came around to accepting
Ferdinand’s authority in Germany. For
decades he periodically contemplated a
future partition of his lands but could
never quite bring himself to it; that
progressively poisoned relations with
his brother and culminated in bitter estrangement later.
Alongside
Titian: Emperor Charles V at Mühlberg, 1548
with Latin. Increasingly he became
preoccupied with his own physical
sufferings, especially piles and gout,
and by the end his body was often
racked with pain.
H
ow do we know so much about him?
Parker enlists a host of wonderful witnesses, for Charles was never alone.
Particularly rich are the observations of
Englishmen, from early diplomats like
John Stile and Sir Thomas Spinelly to
the perceptive scholars Roger Ascham
and Sir John Mason, who can all be
quoted in their own vivid language.
Mason, for instance, is Parker’s correspondent at the abdicatory farewell in
1555, when Charles’s “heart seemed
overwhelmed by grief, and his sobs prevented him from speaking, while tears
poured down his cheeks, provoked”—
the envoy thought—“by seing the hole
company to doo the lyke before [him],
being in myne opynion not one man in
the hole assemblee” that during “his
oration poured not owte habondantly
teares.” Besides interrogating the vast
array of printed sources, built up over
centuries, from official correspondence
to private diaries, Parker has conducted
an exhaustive trawl of the archives too.
Moreover, Charles himself created an
extensive and revealing paper trail,
notably the “secret document” to instruct his son Philip II, the future king
of Spain, from 1543 and the “political
testament” five years later.
All this evidence yields remarkable
insights into the everyday life of the
emperor, with many intimate particulars and sometimes earthy language.
The wealth of material fails, however,
to convey much sense of Charles’s
principal preoccupation: his endless
warring. As one example, here he is, in
that programmatic statement (Parker
calls it his “grand strategy”) to Philip,
about their chief adversary, the king
of France: “I intend to defend myself
from him. . . . But if I find that he has
not attacked me, I will attack him.” If
readers feel they are losing the thread
of causation, that seems to be exactly
what happened to Charles and his advisers. The same is true of all the marital permutations, pursued in series and
in parallel between the Habsburgs and
other ruling families, that litter Parker’s text.
Yet the ultimate rationale for both
aggression and conjugation was as
clear then as it is now. Dynasticism,
the dynasty as a principle of rule—in
its Habsburg version—made possible
Charles’s authority through the windfall of inheritance (much of it contrived
by his grandfather Emperor Maximilian I) and was the vehicle for further
strategic marriages. The Habsburgs
had built on or usurped the familial
networks of their rivals—Trastámaras,
Valois, Luxemburgs, Jagiellons—yielding unions of crowns across the continent whose operations depended on
the genes and brains of siblings.
The often dysfunctional and increasingly inbred Habsburg clan dominates
this book. It included Charles’s deranged mother, Joanna, the daughter
of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella
of Castile, who, although technically
still queen of Castile and Aragon, was
disempowered and held in seclusion
for decades by her son. But other relatives were capable—some more so than
the bonds of dynasty,
Charles committed himself to a particular kind of courtly conduct and style
of rule. The inspiration came not from
Spain or Germany, but from the terrain
of his upbringing, Burgundy. We might
wonder today what was so special about
this failed state, which had been based
in what is today northeast France, Benelux, and adjacent parts of the Rhineland. But it was Charles’s native soil,
“his owne patrymonye”; he spent half
his life there and was always reluctant
to leave it; he long hoped to be buried
in its soil. He bore the name of his ancestor Charles the Bold, independent
Burgundy’s last and most memorable
ruler, and was always mindful that it
had been the heartland too of an earlier and still more illustrious namesake, Charlemagne. Charles, needless
to say, fought over these lands, added
some provinces to them, and had all
of his Low Countries established as a
separate administrative unit (“circle”)
in 1548.
Yet the Burgundian traditions to
which Charles clung were already a
wasting asset. He espoused a world of
chivalry, of joust and pageant, of duel
and heraldic challenge, of aulic refinement—his court was already over three
hundred strong as he entered his teens,
and he took over six hundred retainers with him to Spain in 1517—and
the ideal courtier. The famous Libro
del Cortegiano of his protégé Baldassare Castiglione was one of his favorite
texts. That meant frequent histrionics:
extravagant ceremonies for his majority in 1515; the ceremonial entrance
into Bologna and coronation as Holy
Roman Emperor in 1529–1530; the
triumphal procession to Rome in 1536
after a successful campaign to recapture Tunis from the Turks; a grand reconciliation with the king of France in
The New York Review
1539; the penance of the seditious burghers of his birthplace, Ghent, in 1540.
Just to unfurl his standard before yet
another battle could be a highly symbolic act.
Reputation was all: “I do not want
to disappear from the world without
leaving something memorable behind”;
“the day that a man loses his honour, he
should die.” Such civilian virtues as financial competence or simple rectitude
had little appeal for Charles. He was a
military man to the core: brave, even
reckless; marching at the head of his
troops even into old age, “wearing full
armour with a tunic made of cloth-ofgold, to make himself look good,” “reconnoitr[ing] enemy positions with his
own eyes,” tackling mutineers head-on,
and exercising the personal command
needed over “almoost a dousen diverse
nations . . . in myn armey.”
The abdication too, proclaimed in
Brussels, possessed Burgundian echoes.
His grandfather Maximilian I had already toyed with such a step in Charles’s
youth. It was an emotional occasion
for all concerned, but Parker shows it
to have been not a coup de théâtre or
admission of failure, as it is often portrayed, but rather a pragmatic calculation and strategic withdrawal. Charles
chose the seclusion of Yuste in Extremadura for his final residence, but
he still desired some share in the affairs
of state (Philip denied him that), and
his cloister certainly did not become
a locus of otherworldly meditation.
Moreover, despite all those ailments
the emperor was not a really sick man
until—Parker’s ultimate irony—the
monastery’s pestilential mosquitoes
caused his death.
As his final sojourn among the er-
emites of Saint Jerome reminds us,
Christianity was central for Charles, as
a rhetoric of rule and as a living faith.
The two went together: Charles’s genuine—and time-consuming—piety and
the sincerity of some of his personal
statements (freely cited by Parker) exposed the hollowness of many of the
church’s official postures. That hollowness is what generated the enormous
protests initiated by Martin Luther in
1517, and the subsequent schism over
which Charles had to preside. He evidently saw what came to be called the
Reformation as a squarely German
problem, but troubles in Central Europe coincided with signs of spiritual
crisis across his entire empire.
Much depended on Charles’s relations with successive popes (he dealt
with seven of them). These were often
fractious and mistrustful; at times
Charles could be entirely disparaging about prelatical behavior. He had
a turbulent Spanish bishop tortured
and murdered; then came the imperial troops’ sack of Rome in 1527
(though that was followed by another
of Charles’s grand reconciliations); at
the end he had to contend with the psychotic, cruel, and deeply divisive Pope
Paul IV. Emperor and pontiffs agreed
on the need to combat “heresy,” but
that meant different things at different times and places. Charles equally
sought a “council that the Germans
say must be held in order to resolve
the situation there,” without papal cooperation if necessary. In the event, he
held aloof from the settlement reached
with the Lutherans by his brother Ferdinand, but when a council friendly to
June 11, 2020
Rome eventually convened at Trent in
1545 after decades of delay, he declined
to endorse its doctrinal pronouncements either.
For doctrine was not Charles’s concern. Although he appealed to theologians for edification and counsel,
theology itself could send him to sleep.
The unity, not the purity, of Christendom was central to the legitimacy of his
rule. His celebrated motto “Plus Ultra”
(Still Further) blended a classical and
a Christian commitment to global dominion. For both his person and his dynasty, Charles believed in providence:
even his chancellor had to warn him
(unavailingly) not to expect “that God
will always perform miracles in your
affairs.” Had not the hegemony of the
first Roman emperor providentially afforded a universal political vehicle for
the emergence of the Christian community at the very start?
If the vision was uniform, the reality
was disjunctive. Parker graphically conveys the peripatetic life of Charles (who
himself cataloged forty major shifts of
location in as many years). The interminable travels, often with much discomfort, as when he first arrived in Spain
in 1517 (“probably the most miserable
[months] of his life,” says Parker), went
with a trouble-shooting style of rule
and an extraordinarily intense pursuit
of personal diplomacy. We feel a sense
of continual near chaos and helplessness in the face of those unprecedented
challenges: “so many things happening
at the same time”; “the wars that I have
been forced to fight so many times and
in so many places.”
Yet that somehow melded with the
beginnings of bureaucracy, based on
written opinions (called consultas in the
Spanish administration) and genuine
assiduity over business. Charles had to
leave much to a small team of shrewdly
chosen and often long-serving advisers
(above all the Perrenots de Granvelle,
father and son). Hence laborious outcomes, which could be all too closely
considered, as the emperor would “take
his time to think things through,” and
sluggish decision-making, sometimes
by his own admission “so impenetrable and uncertain . . . full of confusions
and contradictions.” It became a quip
of the time that if death came in a letter from Spain we should all be immortal—though on occasion the regime did
employ express couriers.
All this worked best within the Hispanic lands. Charles first saw them
when he was seventeen, and he only
gradually and partially became a Spaniard. As a callow ruler there, he immediately faced a large-scale rebellion,
the so-called revolt of the Comuneros,
partly provoked by his own insensitive actions; but it collapsed under the
weight of its own contradictions. Thereafter Spain grew easier to govern, with
its representative bodies near-dormant,
and Charles could pioneer an administrative consolidation centered on Castile (“the chief among our kingdoms”),
from which many of his chief counselors and confidants were drawn.
Castile also managed and strictly
controlled the great American enterprise: the freshly acquired tracts several
times the size of Spain, with millions of
mainly indigenous inhabitants. Their
governance did not much preoccupy
Charles, but the implications of this
“New World of gold made just for him”
were huge, since the Hispanic heartland
and the galvanic transatlantic opportunities enabled his imperial adventures
elsewhere. His “grand chancellor,” the
cosmopolitan humanist Mercurino
Arborio de Gattinara, came nearest
to being the ideologue of this “dream
of the last world monarchy,” or “acquisition of the whole globe.” Charles
himself later repudiated such an ambition, but it underpinned his aspirations
to gain a real empire when in 1519 he
spent 1.5 million florins to achieve election as Holy Roman Emperor.1 Henceforth, this was his highest title: that’s
why we remember him as Charles V
1
Strictly speaking, Charles was elected,
in 1519, and crowned, in 1520, as “king
of the Romans.” The substantive title
of “Roman emperor” followed upon
his coronation by the pope in Bologna
ten years later. But the two dignities
had become largely synonymous, the
more so as this latter coronation proved
the last of its kind.
(Charlemagne seven hundred years
earlier was deemed to have been the
first). Prestige (“reputation”) and security alike required Charles to assume
this unique dignity as the purportedly
lineal successor to the universal imperium of ancient Rome.
Spain had never been part of the
Holy Roman Empire, but it did include Burgundy and much of Italy. Its
center of gravity lay in “Germany”—
then merely a loose geographical expression for a congeries of larger and
smaller principalities, free cities, and
lands of the church. Through his election Charles became officially Kaiser
of “the German nation” and needed to
be perceived as a native ruler (for all
his erratic grasp of the language). He
could browbeat there, even gain temporary mastery in the 1540s, fighting
a hideously expensive war against his
own people. But though he claimed
that “I . . .will not bargain with my subjects,” mostly he needed consensus, and
he never built the same secure political,
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41
social, or institutional base in Germany
as he did in Spain. Protected by sympathetic—and calculating—princes, Luther could challenge Charles to espouse
religious reform. And menacing Ottoman garrisons were now stationed just
beyond the empire’s frontiers. The leaders of the “German nation” struck back
again in 1552 (that’s when they nearly
managed to take Charles prisoner),
revealing the extraordinary debility of
the emperor’s overall geopolitical situation, exacerbated as it was by resort to
loans as wars became ever costlier and
supplies of New World treasure tailed
off.
In the end, the “real” empire, and
the unreal visions and expectations it
had induced, proved to be the undoing
of Charles. Yet he did leave one major
legacy to Germany (unmentioned by
Parker): the Constitutio Criminalis
Carolina, a major advance in the codification and administration of justice.
Set alongside his better-remembered
pioneering legislation on native rights
in America, the Carolina did something
to justify the confidence of his supporters that Charles would “lay down the
law to all of Christendom.” However,
its many hideous penalties reflected
Charles’s own ideas of criminal (and
international) law, which—as Parker
repeatedly shows—could be both
cruel and vengeful. One of the emperor’s last acts as a military commander
was personally to order—with evident
Schadenfreude—the total destruction
of Thérouanne, not just a fortress but
an entire cathedral city on the chronically contested border with France,
which he reckoned contumacious.
T
he fate of Thérouanne was part
of a much bigger picture, a token of
Charles’s international legacy. Parker
doesn’t make much of the “grand strategy” here, though he’s written about it
elsewhere in relation to Charles’s son
Philip.2 Perhaps even he is tiring by the
end, and his “balance of the reign” appears rather mechanical and obvious
by the supremely high standard he’s
set and sustained hitherto. So let us
give the word to Charles’s first serious
biographer:
It was during his administration
that the powers of Europe were
formed into one great political system, in which each took a station,
wherein it has since remained. . . .
The great events which happened
then have not hitherto spent their
force. The political principles
and maxims then established still
continue to operate. The ideas
concerning the balance of power
then introduced, or rendered general, still influence the councils of
nations. 3
That is William Robertson, writing in
1769 (Parker calls it the earliest “standard work”). Robertson was an urbane
and perspicuous commentator, just a
decade before Gibbon, on the growth
and rise—as it were—of another, more
recent but still quasi-Roman empire.
We should beware of accounting
Charles a “European” avant la lettre,
but these are issues of a novel and European balance. Did Charles’s ascendancy—and that of the Turks—bring
about this new diplomatic equilibrium?
The Muslim threat also coincided exactly (but improvidentially?) as Sultan
Suleiman, later called the Magnificent,
succeeded his father Selim, the conqueror of Mecca, in the same year that
Charles became emperor. Yet Charles’s
engagement with the Ottomans (by
contrast with his brother Ferdinand’s)
proved desultory. He said that “in
order to defeat the Turks he would
abandon everything,” but he failed
to keep his word. He did just enough
to make the Turks natural partners
of Charles’s other foes, especially the
French, and thus to spread an alliance
system continent-wide.
At least equally crucial was the
newly established nexus between Ibe-
ria and Central Europe. Habsburg rule
became reasonably secure in each of
them, but the combination of the two
bred instability, as Charles realized
in his more lucid moments, and as the
next generation would show, when the
perilous chemin des Espagnols, or
Spanish Road, between the Habsburg
territories in northern Italy and the
Low Countries had to be negotiated
by troops (fifty years ago, Parker traveled that route closely himself and
launched his distinguished career with
a book about it4). The militant response of a now encircled France left
the Habsburgs seriously overextended,
above all in the Netherlands.
4
The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567–1659: The Logistics of
Spanish Victory and Defeat in the Low
Countries’ War (Cambridge University
Press, 1972).
This was, at heart, the lasting problem of Burgundy, the “middle kingdom” between French, German, and
English spheres of influence. Charles’s
fierce loyalty to it had huge geopolitical
ramifications. For centuries to come,
disputes over sovereignty there continued to provoke military conflicts.
Meanwhile he facilitated, while Ferdinand created, a semidetached “Austrian” subempire, never envisaged as
an entity in itself until much later, and
always vulnerable to international
power shifts. This “monarchy” of the
Habsburgs would preserve something
of their imperial pretensions, as part
of a European power balance. Yet the
gap between aspiration and reality
grew ever wider for this dynastic state.
Eventually, in 1918, it would go down in
war (with another Habsburg emperor
Charles at its helm), four hundred
years after Charles V had first staked
his claim to hegemony.
Q
HOLES
In the midst of a continual program
of demolition and reconstruction, we
noticed, one summer, that our city had
begun to replicate, via its infrastructure,
the prohibitions of the mind. There were
roadworks constricting almost every
major thoroughfare. Buses were regularly terminated short of their destination or
treated passengers halfway through their
journey to the wearying and ominous automated announcement, “This bus is on
diversion.” A number of these roadworks
were connected to the development of a
high-speed railway line whose viability
had never been proven, now a pawn of warring factions of the government. Others
looked temporary and unconvincing, as
though they were only props intended to
convey the impression of industry—but
whether they were temporary or not, they
remained. Our illusion of control, fundamental to whatever fragmentary sense
of well-being we could cling to, became
ever more illusory until it vanished completely. Several times I watched a man in
a fluorescent vest roughly pry up a drain
cover with a screwdriver, kneel down and
start poking around inside it, something I
took personally. You saw things like this
every day in the city, where they were
always digging. They would scratch and
scratch with their tools at the surface of
roads until they split them open because
this was a necessary precursor to change,
and change was intrinsic to growth. Anyone could see that the pursuit of perpetual
growth was maniacal, but it went on all the
same. Naturally the human body ceases to
grow after a certain age; what grows after that are malignancies, like the growths
one saw all over the city. It was unremarkable until you looked at it on the macro
scale; in fact nothing ever changed, noth-
ing of note—we had instead the sense that
what was being uncovered in this relentless excavation was an advanced condition
of sclerosis, a hardened and continually
hardening rigidity, resistant to change. It
was the same state we ourselves endured,
were made hard by, in this city which had
more and more holes where something
had been dug up and never filled in (they
could never be filled in, not really, even if
they were filled in the city would still never be anything other than a collection of
filled-in holes). On my route into town I
passed buildings still standing that had
been ripped half to pieces by bulldozers,
looking desolate, bombed (though they
had not of course been bombed, it had
been arranged for all the bombing to happen elsewhere), their insides on show, like
wrecked dolls’ houses atop a trash heap.
Which is what they were, in a manner
of speaking, to the forces of money that
powered this city and destroyed it every
day, except that they had not been cherished as a doll’s house is often cherished,
they had been blighted and abandoned
even as they stood intact. Torn-off wiring
stuck out all over these blasted buildings
like hair standing on end, and your hair
did stand on end to see the remains of so
many rooms that once enclosed people,
providing, in the best-case scenario perhaps, the illusion of safety and permanence, if not actual safety and permanence, which were elusive in this city, even
in this city, which was said to be among
the world’s most important, this most powerful, most desirable, most influential, most
visited, most expensive, innovative, sustainable, most—of course—investment-friendly,
most popular for work city in the world.
—Emily Berry
2
The Grand Strategy of Philip II (Yale
University Press, 1998).
3
William Robertson, History of the
Reign of Charles the Fifth (two volumes, London: Routledge, 1857), volume 1, p. vii.
42
The New York Review
What Kind of Country Do We Want?
In my odd solitude I stream the America of recent memory. The pretext for
drama, in the foreground, seems always to be a homicide, but around and
beyond the forensic stichomythia that
introduces character and circumstance
there is a magnificent country, a virtual
heaven. In a dystopian future, children
would surely ask what it was like to
live in such a country. Candid memory
would say, By no means as wonderful
as it should have been, even granting
the broad streaks of pain in its history.
Before there was a viral crisis whose
reality forced itself on our notice,
there were reports of declines of life
expectancy in America, rising rates of
suicide, and other “deaths of despair.”
This is surely evidence of another crisis, though it was rarely described as
such. The novel coronavirus has the
potential for mitigation, treatment, and
ultimately prevention. But a decline in
hope and purpose is a crisis of civilization requiring reflection and generous
care for the good of the whole society
and its place in the world. We have
been given the grounds and opportunity to do some very basic thinking.
Without an acknowledgment of the
grief brought into the whole world by
the coronavirus, which is very much
the effect of sorrows that plagued the
world before this crisis came down on
us, it might seem like blindness or denial to say that the hiatus prompted
by the crisis may offer us an opportunity for a great emancipation, one
that would do the whole world good.
The snare in which humanity has been
caught is an economics—great industry and commerce in service to great
markets, with ethical restraint and respect for the distinctiveness of cultures,
including our own, having fallen away
in eager deference to profitability. This
is not new, except for the way an unembarrassed opportunism has been enshrined among the laws of nature and
has flourished destructively in the near
absence of resistance or criticism. Options now suddenly open to us would
have been unthinkable six months ago.
The prestige of what was until very
lately the world economic order lingers on despite the fact that the system
itself is now revealed as a tenuous set
of arrangements that have been highly
profitable for some people but gravely
damaging to the world. These arrangements have been exposed as not really
a system at all—insofar as that word
implies stable, rational, intentional, defensible design.
Here is the first question that must
be asked: What have we done with
America? Over the decades we have
consented, passively for the most part,
to a kind of change that has made this
country a disappointment to itself, an
imaginary prison with real prisoners
in it. Now those imaginary walls have
fallen, if we choose to notice. We can
consider what kind of habitation, what
kind of home, we want this country to
be.
No theoretical language I know of
serves me in describing or interpreting
this era of American unhappiness, the
drift away from the purpose and optimism that generally led the development of the society from its beginnings.
June 11, 2020
Magnum Photos
Marilynne Robinson
Doña Ana County, New Mexico, 2017; photograph by Matt Black
This can be oversimplified and overstated, but the United States did attract
immigrants by the tens of millions. It
did create great cities and institutions
as well as a distinctive culture that has
been highly influential throughout the
world. Until recently it sustained a generally equitable, decent government
that gave it plausible claims to answering to the ideals of democracy. This is a
modest statement of the energies that
moved the generations. Optimism is
always the primary justification for its
own existence. It can seem naive until it
is gone. The assumption that things can
get better, with the expectation that
they should, creates the kind of social
ferment that yields progress. If we want
to avoid the word “progress,” then call
it the creative unrest that made 2019 an
advance on 1919.
In recent decades, which have been
marked by continuous, disruptive
change and by technological innovation that has reached assertively into
every area of life, a particular economics has become a Theory of Everything,
subordinating all other considerations
to some form of cost-benefit analysis
that silently insinuates special definitions of both cost and benefit. If neither
of these is precisely monetizable—
calories might have to stand in for
currency in primordial transactions—
personal advantage, again subject to a
highly special definition, is seen as the
one thing at stake in human relations.
The profit motive has been implanted
in our deepest history as a species, in
our very DNA.
This kind of thinking has discredited
ideals like selflessness and generosity
as hypocritical or self- deceived, or in
any case as inefficiencies that impede
the natural economy of self-interest—
somehow persisting through all the mil-
lennia that might have been expected
to winnow out inefficiencies, if the pervasiveness of this one motive is granted.
I consider the American university to
be among the highest achievements of
Western civilization. And I know at the
same time that varieties of nonsense
that would not last ten minutes if history or experience were consulted can
flourish there, and propagate, since our
entire professional class, notably teachers, go to university. There has always
been learned nonsense, of course. But
when angels danced on the heads of
pins, at least the aesthetic imagination
was brought into play.
Much American unhappiness has
arisen from the cordoning- off of lowincome workers from the reasonable
hope that they and their children will
be fairly compensated for their work,
their contribution to the vast wealth
that is rather inexactly associated with
this country, as if everyone had a share
in it. Their earnings should be sufficient to allow them to be adequate providers and to shape some part of their
lives around their interests. Yet workers’ real wages have fallen for decades
in America. This is rationalized by the
notion that their wages are a burden on
the economy, a burden in our supposed
competition with China, which was
previously our competition with Japan.
The latter country has gone into economic and demographic eclipse, and
more or less the same anxieties that
drove American opinion were then
transferred to China, and with good
reason, because there was also a transfer of American investment to China.
The terrible joke is that American
workers have been competing against
expatriated American capital, a flow
that has influenced, and has been influenced by, the supposed deficiencies
of American labor. New factories are
always more efficient than those they
displace, and new factories tend to be
built elsewhere. And as the former
presidential candidate Mitt Romney
remarked, workers in China sleep in
factory dormitories. Employing them
in preference to American workers
would sidestep the old expectation
that a working man or woman would
be able to rent a house or buy a car.
The message being communicated to
our workers is that we need poverty
in order to compete with countries for
whom poverty is a major competitive
asset. The global economic order has
meant that the poor will remain poor.
There will be enough flashy architecture and middle- class affluence to appear to justify the word “developing” in
other parts of the world, a designation
that suggests that the tide of modernization and industrialization is lifting
all boats, as they did in Europe after
World War II.
In the recent environment, I was hesitant to criticize the universities because
they are under assault now, as humanist institutions with antique loyalties to
learning and to freedom of thought.
But the universities have in general
bent the knee to the devaluation of
humane studies, perhaps because the
rationale for that devaluation has come
from their own economics departments
and business schools. For decades
scholars have read American history
in these and related terms, excluding
those movements and traditions that
would challenge this worldview. Freedom of thought has valorized criticism,
necessarily and appropriately. But
surely freedom of thought is meant to
encourage diversity of thinking, not a
settling into ideological postures characteristic of countries where thought is
not free. If the universities lose their
souls to a model of human nature and
motivation that they themselves have
sponsored, there will be some justice in
this and also great loss, since they are
positioned to resist this decline in the
name of every one of the higher values.
Any reader of early economics will
recognize the thinking that has recently become predominant, that the
share of national wealth distributed as
wages must be kept as low as possible
to prevent the cost of labor from reducing national wealth. This rationale lies
behind the depression of wages, which
has persisted long enough to have become settled policy, a major structural
element of American society and a
desolating reality for the millions it
defrauds. Polarization is no fluke, no
accident. It is a virtual institutionalization in America of the ancient practice
of denying working people the real or
potential value of their work.
Institutionalization may be less a factor here than inculcation. Long before
the pandemic struck, the protections of
the poor and marginalized that largely
defined the modern Western state had
been receding, sacrificed to the kind of
policy that presents itself as necessity,
discipline, even justice tendentiously
defined. Wealth can be broadly shared
prosperity, or it can be closely held,
private, effectively underwritten by the
cheapening of the labor of the nonrich,
43
44
history, and at the same time that we
cannot share benefits our grandparents enjoyed? When did we become
too poor to welcome immigrants? The
psychology of scarcity encourages resentment, a zero-sum notion that all
real wealth is private and is diminished
by the claims of community. The entire
phenomenon is reinforced by the fact
that much of the capital that accumulates in these conditions disappears,
into Mexico or China or those luridly
discreet banks offshore.
The minimum wage has become the
amount an employer can get away with
paying. It is neither the amount a worker
needs to sustain a reasonable life nor,
crucially, to be important enough as
a consumer for his or her interests to
align with other interests. Because
workers are underpaid, they are often
treated as dependents, as a burden on
the “safety net,” which is actually a
public subsidy of the practice of underpayment. Workers often do not fall
into the category of “taxpayer,” a word
now laden with implication and consequence. It implies respectability, a more
robust participation in citizenship, and,
fairly or not, an extreme sensitivity to
demands made on his or her assets for
the public benefit. Equitable policies
are often precluded in the name of the
taxpayer so forcibly that the taxpayer—
that is, a fair percentage of the public—
is never really consulted. In this time of
polarization, such language reflects an
ugly, alienating division in our society,
with bad faith at the root of it. Proud
people are insulted, those same people
we now call “essential” because they
work steadily at jobs that are suddenly
recognized as absolutely necessary.
Behind all this there is a scarcely articulated variant of an old model, once
prevalent throughout the West, that
invoked national wealth as the summum bonum of collective life. For the
purposes of the theory in its present
iteration, the absurd wealth that has
accumulated at the top end of polarization is reckoned as part of the national wealth no matter how solidly it is
based in poverty. In the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, great engines of
wealth built global empires that filled
the world with colonialism, militarism,
and racialism, as well as monuments
and marching bands. These trappings
of power generated the excited identification of the masses with the nation
no matter how hostile the system was
to their own interests.
As adapted for what was recently the
present, this wealth is still a product
of national policies—favorable taxation, imaginative banking regulations,
and low production costs, including depressed wages and lowered safety and
environmental standards. The cinch
that tightens such slack as remains in the
lives of the underpaid is called “austerity” or “fiscal discipline.” Austerity has
not touched the beneficiaries of these
arrangements, nor has fiscal discipline.
These policies amount to continuous
downward pressure on the accommodations made to the fact that wages are not
sufficient to meet basic needs. “Austerity” and “discipline” retain their brisk,
morally coercive force, amazingly. The
work ethic persists through impoverishment, unemployment, deindustrialization driven by pools of cheap labor
elsewhere, and the de-skilling that is the
effect of all these declines.
This is to say that the kind of shame
suffered most sharply by proud people
has been put to use to sustain this ugly
economic and social configuration, too
opportunistic and unstable to be called
a system. It offers no vision beyond
its effects. Obviously the depletions
of public life, the decay of infrastructure, the erosions of standards affecting general health are not intended to
make America great again. They are,
in the experience of the vast majority
of Americans, dispossessions, a cheapening of life.
T
he theory that supports all this is
taught in the universities. Its terminology is economic but its influence is
broadly felt across disciplines because
Theodor Jung/Library of Congress
which reduces their demand for goods
and services. When schools and hospitals close, the value of everything that
is dependent on them falls. Austerity
toward some is a tax cut for others, a
privatization of social wealth. The economics of opportunism is obvious at
every stage in this great shift. And yet
Americans have reacted to the drove
of presumptive, quasi, and faux billionaires as if preternatural wealth were a
credential of some kind.
All the talk of national wealth, which
is presented as the meaning and vindication of America, has been simultaneous with a coercive atmosphere of
scarcity. America is the most powerful
economy in history and at the same
time so threatened by global competition that it must dismantle its own institutions, the educational system, the post
office. The national parks are increasingly abandoned to neglect in service to
fiscal restraint. We cannot maintain our
infrastructure. And, of course, we cannot raise the minimum wage. The belief has been general and urgent that the
mass of people and their children can
look forward to a future in which they
must scramble for employment, a lifeengrossing struggle in which success
will depend on their making themselves
useful to whatever industries emerge,
contingent on their being competitive
in the global labor market. Polarization
is the inevitable consequence of all this.
The great error of any conspiracy
theory is the assumption that blame
can be placed on particular persons
and interests. A chord is struck, a predisposition is awakened. America as a
whole has embraced, under the name
of conservatism and also patriotism, a
radical departure from its own history.
This richest country has been overtaken with a deep and general conviction of scarcity, a conviction that has
become an expectation, then a kind of
discipline, even an ethic. The sense of
scarcity instantiates itself. It reinforces
an anxiety that makes scarcity feel real
and encroaching, and generosity, even
investment, an imprudent risk.
Lately, higher education has been
much on the minds of journalists and
legislators and, presumably, potential
students and their families, who are
given to understand that higher education is crucial to their financial prospects and also that the costs and debts
involved may be financially ruinous.
Worse, the press speaks of elite universities as if there were only a dozen or
so institutions in the country where an
excellent education can be had. In fact
there are literally hundreds of colleges
and universities in this country that educate richly and ambitiously. Many of
the greatest of them are public, a word
that now carries the suggestion that
the thing described is down-market, a
little deficient in quality. Anyone who
notices where research and publishing
are done knows that these schools are
an immense resource, of global importance. In the midst of this great wealth
of possibility, an imaginary dearth is
created, and legislators—out of an association between political courage and
parsimony—respond with budget cuts
that curtail the functioning of these
magnificent, prosperity-generating institutions. It should be noted that elite
schools are also embracing the joylessly
vocational emphasis that is the essence
of these panicky reforms.
How is it that we can be told, and believe, that we are the richest country in
An abandoned brick factory, Ohio, 1936
it is in fact an anthropology, a theory of
human nature and motivation. It comes
down to the idea that the profit motive
applies in literally every circumstance,
inevitably, because it is genetic in its origins and its operations. “Selfishness,”
its exponents call it, sometimes arguing that the word in this context has a
special meaning, though the specifics
of the sanitizing are unclear. Behind
every act or choice is a cost-benefit
analysis engaged in subrationally. This
is to say that thinking itself is the product of this constant appraisal of circumstance, which is prior to thinking,
therefore not subject to culture, moral
scruples, and so on, which are merely
a scheme of evolution to hide this one
universal intention from the billions of
us who, in our endless diversity, make
up the human species. Greed is good,
or at least good enough to have brought
us this far. For an important part of
any population, these would be glad
tidings—moral considerations not only
suspended but invalidated, moralists
revealed as hypocrites and fools as well,
since they have no idea that the genius
and force of evolution are against them.
By its nature, this worldview is based in
the moment, in any new occasion to
seek advantage.
This view of things is radically individualistic, indifferent to any narrative
of identity or purpose. It takes a cynical
view of people as such, since no one’s
true motives are different from those
of the consciously selfish. Because
there is only one motive—to realize a
maximum of benefit at a minimum of
cost—those who do not flourish are losers in an invidious, Darwinian sense.
Winners are exempt from moral or eth-
ical scrutiny since advance of any sort
is the good to be valued. “Progress” is
likewise exempt from the kind of scrutiny that would raise questions about
the real value this process generates,
reckoned against other value that is
precluded or destroyed.
Americans never believe that Americans are actually influenced by the
education they require of themselves
and one another, on which they lavish
much wealth. To do so would smack of
intellectualism, a trait we do not grant
ourselves. The same economic model
is prevalent in Britain and France, perhaps Europe in general, though it is
asserted in other terms. Austerity has
prevailed there for decades. The issues
raised by the Yellow Vest movement
in France are highly consistent with
the situation in America. The retraction of policies that acknowledged the
claims of the population at large on the
wealth of their nation can be described,
historically, as the return of the ancien
régime, or as the final triumph of capitalism, or as proof of the waning of
Judeo- Christianity, or as recognition
of the fact that, when all is said and
done, self-interest is indeed the one unvarying human motive. All these could
be true simultaneously, each reinforcing the others.
This theory has all the power among
us of an ideology, though it lacks any
account of past or future, any vision
of ultimate human well-being. It promotes itself as nationalism, though its
operations are aggressively global. The
supposed nationalism plays on a nostalgia for the postwar decades, when
the prestige of countries and regions
was measured by living standards. Perhaps it derives also from the myth of
ideological conflict, the notion that if
the Russians had communism, America must have an equal and opposite
ideology. This would be called and in
time would become capitalism, though
the economy Marx critiques under that
name is the highly exceptional colonial,
industrial, and mercantilist Britain of
the nineteenth century.
It is one of the stranger turns in
modern history that, for the purposes
of this epochal controversy, one man,
Karl Marx, named and described both
of these ideologies. This is a great
concession made to someone whose
thought his antagonists claimed to deplore, though it is fair to assume both
that they had not read him and that
they were simply content to be spared
the effort of arriving at definitions
of their own. Also, he had the chic of
being dangerously European. The pastiche, or the motley, we are inclined to
think of as American self-awareness
is strange under scrutiny. If we are
uniquely characterized by entrepreneurialism, for example, why is the
only name we have for it a word of unassimilated French? That sort of thing
is usually a signifier for pretentiousness
or embarrassment. This little oddity
is germane to the larger case against
the status quo ante, in which many of
our governing assumptions are flimsy
and nonsensical, and have stood in the
place of meaningful thought, especially
in lofty circles, in institutions of great
influence, the universities.
Because of this quaint adherence
to Marxian categories a narrative has
emerged over time that capitalism is
the single defining trait of American
civilization, the force that has propelled the country not only to unpreceThe New York Review
dented wealth but also to high levels of
personal and political freedom. These
assumptions are in need of scrutiny, not
by comparison with other countries but
of this country with itself a few generations ago. The other half of the great
binary, communism, was never realized anywhere, never successful anywhere so far as it was attempted. That
somehow legitimizes Marx’s schema,
even though this is not at all the result
he predicted.
Never mind. We are left with the
certainty that a civilization can be
wholly described by its economy, and
that ours is exhaustively and triumphally capitalist—making anomalous
the many well- established features of
the culture to which the word “public”
might attach: schools, lands, and, more
generally, public works, public services,
the public interest. If the furthest implications of the reign of “selfishness”
are not yet fully actualized, no doubt
custom, manners, image, shame, or
the occasional laws are the obstacle,
since the theory itself is so simple and
natural in its operation that it should
be as small an intrusion on the order
of things as multiplying everything by
one. It could be used to rationalize
stealing the pennies from a dead man’s
eyes, true, even considering the nugatory value of the contemporary penny.
Judgment as to whether it has reached
this extreme must await a fuller knowledge of its global impact. Closer to
home, it has scuppered the old habit of
measuring wealth by standard of living. Averaging helicopters, yachts, and
offshore accounts against imminent
eviction would not yield a meaningful
result.
The cult of cost/benefit—of the profit
motive made granular, cellular—not
only trivializes but also attacks whatever resists its terms. Classic American
education is ill-suited to its purposes
and is constantly under pressure to
reform—that is, to embrace as its purpose the training of workers who will
be competitive in the future global
economy. What this means, of course,
is that universities and students themselves should absorb the cost to industry of training its workforce. Since no
one knows what the industries of the future will be, a wrong guess about appropriate training could be costly, which
means it would be all the smarter, from
a certain point of view, to make colleges
and students bear the risk. If this training produces skills that are relevant to
future needs, their cost to the employer
will be lowered by the fact that such
skills will be widely available. In any
case, the relative suitability of workers
will be apparent in their school history,
so industry will be spared the culling
of ineffective employees. Those who
fail to make the cut will be left with the
pleasures of a technical education that
is always less useful to them, skills that
will be subject to obsolescence as industries change. Certain facts go unnoticed in all this. The great wealth that
is presented as endorsing an American
way of doing things was amassed over a
very long period of time.
Lifetime earnings as well as longevity
are adduced to demonstrate the value
of university education. Obviously,
these are measures of the well-being of
people who were educated a generation
or two ago. Otherwise, there would be
no way of measuring workers’ peak
June 11, 2020
earnings or their longevity. So there is
clear evidence of the economic value
of an education based on the humanist
model that is now under siege. There is
no evidence that education designed to
train a workforce would be equally productive of wealth, but it would be profitable in another way, cheapening labor
by diminishing the participation of the
public in whatever wealth is produced.
This is the embrace of inequality, accumulation on one side accelerated by
deprivation on the other.
Historically, we have offered our
young—though never enough of
them—exposure to high thought and
great art, along with chemistry and
engineering. There is an opulence in
all this that has no equivalent in the
world. What were those earlier generations thinking when they built our
great city-states of research and learning? All those arches and spires induce
the belief in undergraduates that they
have a dignified place in human history, something better than collaborating in the blind creep of a material
culture that values only itself, that is
indifferent on principle to the past, and
inclined, when it considers a future,
to imagine the ultimate displacement
of the human worker and at the same
time to develop systems of social control of which even Bentham could not
dream. Why control people for whom
no role or use is imagined? If these futures seem incompatible, the theory of
cost/benefit does not admit of such criticism. Present trends, inevitably understood in light of emergent possibilities,
are, in the nature of things, ineluctable—or they were until a few weeks
ago, when the system that had become
more or less coextensive with our sense
of reality abruptly collapsed.
Emergencies remind us that people
admire selflessness and enjoy demands
on their generosity, and that the community as a whole is revivified by such
demands. Great cost and greater benefit, as these things are traditionally understood. If in present circumstances
we are driven back on our primitive
impulses, then we should be watching
our collective behavior carefully, because it will be instructive with regard
to identifying an essential human nature. In more senses than one we are
living through an unprecedented experiment, an opportunity it would be a
world-historical shame to waste.
Its value as experiment is enhanced
by the near absence of leadership from
the central government. In various
forms, the crisis will persist indefinitely.
Over time communities will organize
themselves according to their senses
of decency and need. Since this crisis
is as novel as the virus that has caused
it, and since the lack of a helpful central
government is unique in the modern
period, old thinking and new thinking
will emerge over time, and the calculus of cost will be reckoned against the
cost of failing to sustain the things that
are valued. Benefit will be realized in
the fact that needs are identified and
served, with all the satisfactions this
will entail. Allowing for regional variations, to the degree that democratic
habits persist, the country will get by.
As Americans, we should consider
our freedoms—of thought, press, and
religion, among others—the basic constituents of our well-being, and accept
the controversies that have always
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45
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Paris: A Literary Visit
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arisen around them as reflecting their
vitality. Not so long ago they were something new under the sun, so if there is
still a certain turbulence around them
this should remind us that they are
gifts of our brief history. We should
step away from the habit of accepting competition as the basic model of
our interactions with other countries,
first because it creates antagonisms
the world would be better off without,
and second because recent history has
shown that the adversary is actually us,
and for ordinary people there is no success, no benefit.
And we have to get beyond the habit
of thinking in terms of scarcity. We live
in the midst of great wealth prepared
for us by other generations. We inherited sound roads and bridges. Our
children will not be so favored. Since
the value of basic investments is not
realized immediately, we cannot rationalize the expenditure. We are the
richest country in history, therefore
richer than the generations that built
it, but we cannot bring ourselves even
to make repairs. Our thrift will be
very costly over time. The notion or
pretense that austerity is the refusal to
burden our children with our debts is
foolish at best. But it is persuasive to
those who are injured by it as surely
as to those who look at a pothole and
see a tax cut. Hiding money in a hole
in the ground has seemed like wisdom
to some people since antiquity. And
there are many who are truly straitened and insecure, and are trusting
enough to assume that some economic
wisdom lies behind it. Legislators all
over America, duly elected, have subscribed to this kind of thinking and
acted on it.
We have seen where all this leads. It
creates poverty, and plagues batten on
poverty, on crowding and exhaustion.
If the novel coronavirus did not have
its origins in the order of things now
in abeyance—other possibilities are
even darker—that order was certainly
a huge factor in its spread.
As a culture we have spent a great
deal of time in recent decades naming and deploring the crimes and injustices in our history. This is right
and necessary. But the present crises
have exposed crimes and injustices
deeply embedded in the society we
live in now. So we provide our descendants with a weighty burden of guilt to
lament. This irony—too mild a word—
casts grave doubt on the rigor of our
self- examinations.
All this comes down to the need to
recover and sharpen a functioning
sense of justice based on a reverent appreciation of humankind, all together
and one by one. The authenticity of our
understanding must be demonstrated
in our attempting to act justly even at
steep cost to ourselves. We can do this
as individuals and as a nation. Someday
we will walk out onto a crowded street
and hear that joyful noise we must hope
to do nothing to darken or still, having
learned so recently that humankind is
fragile, and wonderful.
Q
LETTERS
cost him his eye. Tailhade made the comment at a banquet, referring to the bomb
thrown by Auguste Vaillant onto the floor
of the Chamber of Deputies in 1893. The
bomb resulted in no deaths but resulted in
Vaillant’s execution and further acts of anarchist terror.
into advertising and promotion, as a handy
portmanteau that would cover his literary
and advertising activities. I trusted that
a full account of his work would preclude
his being associated with the more recent meaning of the term. Evidently I was
wrong, so I would like to make it clear that
O’Brien was never a press agent or a public
relations consultant.
‘ALMOST CERTAIN’
To the Editors:
New York: A Literary Visit
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46
Jed Perl, in his review of the Félix Fénéon
show at MoMA [NYR, May 14], speaks of
how most historians who have looked at
the evidence agree that it’s almost certain
that Fénéon planted a bomb at the Restaurant Foyot, one that took out the eye of the
writer Laurent Tailhade. Looking at the
evidence and the historians’ accounts more
closely, that near certainty evaporates.
In the first instance, almost all historians
cite the same source, Joan Ungersma Halperin’s brilliant and definitive biography of
Fénéon. She, however, bases her account of
Fénéon’s guilt not on any solid proofs but
on a chain of hearsay (Fénéon supposedly
confessed his guilt to the wife of a comrade
who told the writer André Salmon who told
a friend of his in 1964, who later reported
it to Halperin) and the unreliable memoirs
of André Salmon, written in 1959, decades
after the events. Halperin adds unsourced
details of Fénéon’s conduct in the minutes
leading up to and immediately following
the attack which have no basis in fact, but
which lend her account an air of veracity.
There is stronger reason to believe that
one of two comrades of Fénéon’s, Armand
Matha and Paul Delesalle, the latter of
whom disappeared for a time almost immediately after the bombing, might have
planted the bomb. None of these men, it
must be said, were ever held by the police in
connection with the Foyot attentat, nor was
Fénéon even questioned at the prefecture.
Another, equally likely possibility, was
that the bomb was planted by the police.
The device had little power, so did not risk
causing death, yet it served the authorities
in their war against anarchism, making the
anti-anarchist lois scelerates more palatable. The historian Philippe Oriol has presented several other alternatives, including
the tsarist Okhrana, again with the aim of
darkening the image of the anarchists.
Fénéon was certainly in sympathy with
the propagandists of the deed, and there’s
nothing in his ideas that would have prevented him from planting the bomb at the
restaurant. Nevertheless, the case against
Fénéon is far from proven, and certainly is
not a matter of near certainty.
Perl in his review also states that Tailhade’s famous quote “What matter the
victims, if the gesture is beautiful!” was
said to the police after the bombing that
Mitchell Abidor
Brooklyn, New York
Luc Sante
Jed Perl replies:
Mitchell Abidor’s letter only confirms
what I said at the beginning of my review,
namely that “Fénéon’s political actions and
beliefs, like many of his artistic opinions,
aren’t always easy to pin down.” In assessing Fénéon’s involvement in the Restaurant
Foyot bombing I am indebted to Joan Ungersma Halperin, whose biography, which
Abidor describes as “brilliant and definitive,” leaves a reader in no doubt as to his
culpability. Abidor’s disagreement isn’t
with me but with Halperin, who describes
Fénéon as he lit the fuse and set the bomb
on the windowsill of the restaurant. Of
course anybody who cares about Fénéon
will be interested in the competing narratives that Abidor offers in his letter; the long
and the short of it is that he doesn’t regard
what he himself describes as Halperin’s
“definitive” biography as all that definitive.
Perhaps Halperin herself has somewhat
modified her view in the more than thirty
years since it was first published; in the Museum of Modern Art catalog she refers to
Fénéon as “likely the perpetrator” of the
bombing. In another essay in the catalog,
on Fénéon’s anarchism, Patricia Leighten
writes that “it is believed that Fénéon set
the next bomb [at the Restaurant Foyot]
himself.” My “almost certain” was meant to
acknowledge these issues. None of this has
anything to do with my central argument,
namely that Fénéon’s attitudes toward art
and politics should not and cannot, pace the
curators of the exhibition at the Museum of
Modern Art, be viewed as “two sides of the
same coin.”
A PUBLICIST
IN THE OLD SENSE
To the Editors:
In my review of Glenn O’Brien’s Intelligence for Dummies [NYR, April 9], I referred in passing to O’Brien as a “publicist.” I reached for that word, which once
meant “journalist” and gradually extended
Kingston, New York
CORRECTIONS
In Edward Chancellor’s “The Long Shadow
of the Austrian School” [NYR, May 14],
the Bolshevik who attended Eugen von
Böhm-Bawerk’s Vienna seminars on economics was named Nikolai Bukharin, not
Mikhail.
A typographical error misrepresented
a detail in Susan Tallman’s “The Master
of Unknowing” [NYR, May 14]: Gerhard
Richter’s Strip series was built from “4096
(212) segments,” not “4096 (212).”
In David Cole’s “Why We Need a Postal
Democracy” [NYR, May 28], the order allowing anyone in New Hampshire to vote by
mail did not come from the governor, and
the state did not officially move to no-excuse
absentee voting. The secretary of state and
the Republican attorney general issued an
opinion permitting anyone with Covid-19
concerns to vote by mail not just in the primary but also in November, making New
Hampshire the first excuse-required state
to do so for the general election.
The illustration on page 40 of Michael
Dirda’s “Rending the Veil” [NYR, May 28]
is from the book jacket of the 1906 edition
of Arthur Machen’s The House of Souls,
not the frontispiece.
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WHAT GOOD SHALL I DO THIS DAY?
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Benjamin Franklin began each day by asking
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TELL YOUR STORY
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The Independent Press Listing
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