At the time of his death, in 2017, the Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman was working on a short book with the Italian journalist Thomas Leoncini. What follows is an edited excerpt of their conversation drawn from Born Liquid, his last published work; the phrase refers to a generation born after the 1980s into a society in a state of constant flux.
ThomasLeoncini: Have you ever been bullied?
ZygmuntBauman: Yes, I was. Permanently, daily. Throughout my schooling in Poznan, Poland, until my escape from my hometown at the outbreak of war. In the company of the other two Jewish boys among the pupils. Obviously, I wasn’t then a trained sociologist, but I remember understanding quite well that being bullied was a matter of exclusion. You are not like us, you do not belong, you have no right to join our games, we won’t play with you; if you insist on sharing in our life, don’t be puzzled by all that beating, kicking, offending, degrading, and debasing.
Much later I understood, once I started reading sociology books and learned to think sociologically, that the exclusion of three Jewish boys in the several-hundred-pupil-strong school was, for our persecutors, the flip-side of the coin of their self-identification. Somewhat later still, I followed the novelist E.M. Forster’s advice, “only connect.” It dawned on me that appointing an enemy and proving his inferiority, by hook or by crook, was the inseparable second face of the self-identification coinage. There wouldn’t be “us” were there no “them.” But fortunately for making real our wish to stay together, to like each other and help each other, there are “them” and therefore there are—there need to be—“us,” manifesting our togetherness in word and deed and never tiring of reminding ourselves of it and demonstrating—reaffirming—proving it to others around.
For all practical intents and purposes, the idea of “us” would be meaningless if not coupled with “them.” That rule, I am afraid, does not bode well for the dream of a world free of bullying.
Leoncini: So you’re talking about exclusion.
Bauman: Demand for bullying, and above all for its objects and reasons, hardly ever goes to sleep—and, indeed, it never did. At one time, life’s bitterness blamed demonic possession; then, unsuccessful marriage or lack of orgasms; later still, it was sexual exploitation and abuse by parents; currently, it’s childhood sexual harassment by teachers, priests and—best of all—celebrities; now homosexuals are the culprit—but you forgot to mention the migrants, currently leaving every other pretender far behind…
Leoncini: The migrants, you’re right: another distinct problem facing us today.
Going back to bullying, the story of Kitty Genovese comes to mind; more than being about indifference, it is a story that is often used as an example in social psychology to emphasize how people tend to shift personal responsibility onto the level of collective social responsibility, forgetting that in everyday life people are influenced by a strong sense of individuality and this affects their social relations. Kitty Genovese was a woman from New York who was stabbed to death close to her home, in Kew Gardens, in Queens. It happened in 1964, and the next day TheNewYorkTimesdedicated the front-page headline to the subject: “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.”
Without going into too much detail about the story and the controversy that it sparked (searching for the truth, Kitty Genovese’s brother later pointed out a number of mismatches between the newspaper reports and what actually happened), to put it bluntly, what is the conclusion? Here it is: a single witness to a tragic event, realizing he is alone, is more likely to go to the aid of the victim than an individual who realizes that he is with others, with a collective presence of other people.
Bauman: If I remember correctly, during the debate that followed and went on for a length of time unusual for moral panics, I heard for the first time of the concept of the “bystander”—a person who witnesses evil being done but turns their eyes the other way and does nothing to stop it.
That concept struck me immediately as perhaps by far the most important category among those absent from the studies of genocide but crying for admission. It took me, however, two decades to give it the justice it deserved in my own attempt to crack the mystery of the Holocaust conducted at the peak of the modern civilization.
(Genovese was murdered in 1964, at the threshold of what was perceived as a cultural revolution re-evaluating all values—as the 1960s were soon to become recorded in the annals of cultural history—and before learned attention found another topic on which to focus; as the psychologist Gordon Allport once caustically—and only partly tongue-in-cheek—put it, we in human sciences never solve issues, we only get bored with them… What Allport neglected to mention, however, was that not every problem has a solution; many don’t—and gratuitous murders like Genovese’s belong to that category. Policemen who, as we learn from detective films, seek motives in the first place, have an impossible task to perform—and so do the prosecutors, and the jury, and the judges.)
But we may say retrospectively, with the benefit of later insights, that the Genovese case brought to the surface one more phenomenon destined to acquire more and more somber importance in the years that followed, and yearning to be caught in the conceptual net: that of “random evil,” or “disinterested evil.” At his trial, the perpetrator, Winston Moseley—the murderer—told the jury that he chose a woman rather than a man for a victim simply because women “were easier and didn’t fight back.”
Norbert Elias, the formidable German-British sociologist and social historian, in 1939 memorably unpacked the concept of the “civilizing process” as referring not so much to the elimination of aggressiveness, undue coercion and violence from human life (that, probably, he considered a downright utopian idea), but as, so to speak, “sweeping all three of them under a carpet”: removing them from the sight of “civilized people,” out of places such people are likely to visit, or all too often even to hear about, and transferring them to the charge of “inferior people,” excluded for all practical intents and purposes from the “civilized society.” Efforts to achieve such an effect went together with elimination of behavior which had been recognized, evaluated, and condemned as barbaric, coarse, crude, discourteous, ill-bred, ill-mannered, impertinent, impolite, inelegant, loud-mouthed, loutish, rude, unseemly or vulgar—and, all in all, uncouth and unfit to be used by “civilized persons,” and degrading and discrediting them if used.
Elias’s study was published on the eve of the most barbaric explosion of violence in the history of the human species—but, at the time it was written, the phenomenon of “bullying” was all but unknown, or at least stayed unnamed. When, in the last decade, violence returned from exile with a vengeance, and vulgar language elbowed out the elegant speech from salons and the public stage, numerous disciples and followers announced the advent of a “de-civilizing process” and leaned over backward to explain the sudden, unanticipated reversal in the human condition—albeit to little, unsatisfactory, and unconvincing effect.
The cynicism and aimlessness of “random” or “gratuitous” evil escape understanding and “rational,” “cause-and-effect” explanations, which in our modern way of thinking it must possess. Novel, unfamiliar, heretofore unnoted (let alone mentally and emotionally assimilated) events tend to shock simply because they are such. Similar events, when repeated, multiplying and watched or heard of daily, tend to be stripped of their shocking capacity. However appalling and horrifying they might have been at their first appearance within sight, they become, through the monotony of their repetition, “normalized,” made “ordinary”—in other words, they are trivialized, and the function of trivia is to amuse and entertain, rather than shock.
In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik committed two mass murders: one targeting the government and contingent civilian population, the other against the inmates of a summer camp run by the Workers’ Youth League. He explained his crimes in advance in an electronically published manifesto sounding the alarm against Islam and feminism joining forces in “creating a European cultural suicide.” He also wrote that his main motivefor the outrage was to “markethis manifesto.” We may say that Breivik appealed here to the present-day common sense: the more scandalous and dire the advertising copy, the higher the TV ratings, the newspaper sales or box-office profits it may generate. What strikes a thoughtful reader, nevertheless, is the total absence of a logical link between the cause and effect: Islam, feminism on one side, and the random victims of mass murder on the other.
We are being quietly adjusted to this logic-defying, indeed mind-boggling, state of affairs. Breivik is anything but an exceptional, one-off blunder of nature, or a solitary monster without likes and progeny: the category of which he is a member is notorious for recruiting ever new members through the mechanism known as the “copycat.” Look, for instance, around American campuses, schools, and public gatherings; watch the terrorist and other violent acts incessantly screened on TV; check the repertoire of cinemas near you, or browse through the successive lists of bestselling books, to see how much we are daily exposed to the sights of random, gratuitous, unmotivated violence—violence for its own sake, and no other.
Evil has been fully and truly trivialized, and what really counts among the consequences is that we have been, or are rapidly being, made insensitive to its presence and manifestations. Doing evil no longer demands motivation. Has it not—bullying included—been shifting in its great part from the class of purposeful (indeed, meaningful) actions to the space of (for a growing number of bystanders) pleasurable pastime and entertainment?!
Born Liquid: Tranformations in the Third Millennium, by Zygmunt Bauman and Thomas Leoncini, is published by Polity Books.
Peter van Ham’s Alchi, the third volume of a monumental trilogy published by Hirmer on the Buddhist art of western Tibet, must be one of the finest art books ever produced. Its subject, the site of Alchi, sits on the bank of the Indus River in Ladakh, in the high mountain ranges to the east in what is now the Indian state of Kashmir, some thirty-five miles northwest of the capital city of Leh. Unlike Guge, the subject of van Ham’s second volume, Alchi is relatively accessible—good roads now connect Alchi to Leh and (a little less smoothly) to the haunting monastery of Lamayuru, still farther to the north and west.
I visited there with my wife in 2004. A caretaker monk unlocked for us the eleventh-century carved doorway to the Dukhang, every inch of which is painted with Buddhas, Buddhas-to-Be, gods, goddesses, demons, hungry ghosts, imps, flying nymphs, other celestial beings, royal hunters and patrons, monks, Yogi magicians, and many hallucinatory figures that seem to have floated up from the stuff of our dreams. The monk was bored and impatient; after some thirty minutes, he shooed us away. Needless to say, we had no time to unravel even one of the painted tableaux. But I was left, then as now, after spending some weeks with van Ham’s book, with a sense of a dizzying proliferation of vital beings mobbing my eyes. In all of South Asian art, there is nothing quite like these densely painted murals.
As in van Ham’s previous two volumes—Tabo—Gods of Light (2014) and Guge—Ages of Gold(2016)—van Ham’s photographs provide definitive documentation of the sites along with a relatively sparse text identifying each item in the complex iconographic program followed by the painters and sculptors. To get an idea of what this means, look, for example, at the mandala named for the Buddha of Ultimate Wisdom, Manjushri (the technical name for this particular meditative configuration is Dharmadhatu Vagishvara Manjushri Mandala, that is, “the circular cosmos of the deity of wisdom, lord of sound, in his essence of being”). This single mandala encompasses 280 figural images, each specified, named, and ordered according to a program of disciplined visualization in stages and levels aimed at changing things—maybe all things—in the meditator’s mind. And this is only one of the enormous diagrams that fill the walls of the Alchi shrines.
Van Ham’s profound knowledge of Tibetan art and iconography guides the reader through these labyrinthine recesses and multicolored geometric designs; the Tibetologist and art historian Amy Heller introduces the epigraphic records that tell us, among other things, of the aristocratic monks Kaldan Sherab and Tsültim Ö, who founded the two major shrines at Alchi, the Dukhang congregation hall and the adjacent three-tiered building, or Sumtsek, respectively. Together, these two buildings contain the acme of early western Tibetan art.
Some of the Alchi treasures have been photographed before, and there have been important studies of the site by David Snellgrove and Tadeusz Skorupski (The Cultural Heritage of Ladakh, 1977), Pratapaditya Pal and Lionel Fournier (A Buddhist Paradise: The Murals of Alchi, 1982), and Roger Goepper and Jaroslav Poncar (Alchi, 1996), among others. But it must be said that no one before van Ham has been able to document the whole of the Alchi monastic complex, image by image, inch by inch. He was lucky—or blessed with exceptionally good karma from his former lives—to get the support of Nari Rinpoche, the brother of the Dalai Lama, and ultimately the consent of the Likir Monastery, which administers the site. Working in extremely challenging conditions, particularly in the narrow, almost unreachable second and third stories of the Sumtsek, van Ham put together a masterpiece. The true achievement, however, lies not merely in the completeness of the photographic record but—as with his previous books—in his ability to convey the interlacing layers of light and shadow, the uneven textures of surface and color, and the emotional punch these images from a thousand years ago are still able to deliver, even to a viewer who knows nothing of Buddhist iconography and ritual practice.
The major temples at Alchi were built in the final years of the eleventh century or, at the latest, the first decade of the twelfth. Lavish royal patronage was involved; this was a period when the Guge kings were extending their control westward and northward into Ladakh (one has to forget the modern nation-state boundaries in order to understand the politics of twelfth-century Nari Khorsum, the vast western Tibetan kingdom flourishing at that period). A major figure linked to this process was the translator Rinchen Zangpo, who is supposed to have urged the Guge king Ö De to move to Ladakh (circa 1024) and who produced Tibetan versions of many canonical Sanskrit works, also transmitting the Tantric texts that shaped the iconography of the Alchi site. These texts, discussed in my earlier review of Guge, offer detailed descriptions of the elaborate mandalas focused on the Buddha of Light, Vairochana, his close counterpart and companion Manjushri, the Wisdom Buddha, and the Buddha Still to Come, Maitreya, the Compassionate Friend. Huge painted clay images of the latter two Buddhas stand on the ground floor of the Sumtsek, along with the white Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, much beloved of the Tibetans. Maitreya, taller than the other two, occupies the center.
The painted mandalas were meant not simply to take the visitor’s breath away, though that is what they do, but to serve as templates for meditative visualization. Monks adept in the practice enter into the mandala, noting (or, more precisely, generating) as they penetrate ever deeper the sparkling array of Buddhist divinities that are there to greet and accompany them on their way. In some sense, the adept transforms himself into the Buddha of Light—according to teaching, literally, not metaphorically—and thus comes to occupy, as a form of Vairochana himself, the glowing bodily center of this highly patterned Buddhist universe.
Each new mandala offers another arena in which to practice this art of becoming, as the Tantric texts tell us. But all of these mandala worlds are predicated on the root principle of emptiness, the void out of which phenomena emerge and into which they continually dissolve. Van Ham thus nicely titles his section on the great carved doorway of the Dukhang “Entering the Path to the Void.” One could also describe the meditative praxis proper to these temples as one of continuous emptying and filling: the self, or the mind, is drained of its illusory solidity and replaced by no less illusory, yet profoundly liberating, Buddhas and Buddhas-to-Be.
Alchi is such interiority gone wild. Exquisite visions pop up everywhere you look, and not only on the walls. And these finely calibrated beings are in movement—however stable, fixed in attribute and position, they might seem to a casual eye. They tend to merge or overlap with one another, so that the exuberance of shape and color repeatedly reveals worlds emerging within worlds, gods within gods, temples within temples, time within time (and so we have, for example, the still-living Buddhas of the Fortunate Era, the Bhadrakalpa). To describe these processes adequately would require a new language, one free from even residual traces of a representational notion of seeing and meaning.
Not surprisingly, the painters have also left us images of craftsmen, artists, and musicians at work, as in the highly unusual panel of a Greek-Indo-Iranian fire god, perhaps akin to the Vedic Agni or to the eastern Iranian deity Athosho. Deities borrowed from the Hindu pantheons of India—Yamantaka, the God of Death; Naga serpents, male and female; the great goddess Parvati and many of her counterparts and rivals—are regular “guests,” as van Ham calls them, in the ramified iconographies enshrined on all levels of the Alchi temples.
These examples point to the marked cross-cultural influences on the Alchi painters, many of whom must have been imported by the Guge rulers from Kashmir. Iranian and Central Asian elements are particularly in evidence in depictions of clothing, in conspicuous themes and motifs, and in stylized decoration (hence such images as the “Parthian shot,” when an archer on horseback turns backward in his saddle to shoot a lion; Iranian lion rondels; a largely Sassanian royal drinking scene). But there are also Mediterranean and Far Eastern influences on this Inner-Asian art. Twelfth-century Ladakh, separated by the Himalayan, Kunlun, and Karakorum ranges from other parts of the world, was unexpectedly cosmopolitan, porous to the traditions, both artistic and intellectual, of the several branches of the Silk Road. I think it likely, for example, that these Tibetan Vairochanas owe something to the Iranian theme of the cosmic Man of Light, now thoroughly reconceived in a Buddhist cosmology of radiant perception.
As in Tholing in Guge, we meet here the five-fold sequence of Buddhas, or Buddha-families, centered on Vairochana in his four-headed manifestation, as befits his epithet, Sarvavid, All-Knowing. Each of these Buddhas has his female partner (thus pairing insight and instrumental means, in the language of the texts); and their entourage, located in outer circles and squares of the mandala, includes sixteen Bodhisattvas or future Buddhas, four goddesses of the inner offering, another set of sixteen Bodhisattvas, four goddesses of the outer offering, and gatekeeper figures at the points of entry into the circle. Except for the inner Buddhas, all of these figures carry a sword in the right hand, ostensibly to help the meditator cut through the ignorance endemic to the human mind, or perhaps because true insight rarely comes without terror.
One striking feature at Alchi is the surpassing beauty of the seemingly endless array of goddesses, of many colors, some with wonderful names such as Firebrand of Diamond and Wrinkled Brow. Loveliest of all is the blue-green Tara, the benevolent goddess who carries all who worship her across the oceans of sorrow (also across ordinary lakes, rivers, and mountain streams). A unique panel painted on the second story of the Sumtsek, known to the texts as the “Mandala of the Adamantine Mystery,” converts all the male deities, including the Buddha Vairochana himself, into their corresponding, elegant female forms. All of these divinities can be summoned and made present—in effect, created in the mind—if one knows the proper mantras that give them life and breath. Listening to the mantras, adepts can hear these gods before they see them. In this Adamantine Mystery, the sonic invocations, dharanis, appear embodied and personified in feminine form.
Some of the most remarkable images are located on the dhotis—the waist cloths—worn by the massive clay images mentioned above. The entire narrative of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, based largely on the Sanskrit Lalitavistara, or “Charming Dilation,” is depicted in miniature on the dhoti of Maitreya, the Buddha Still to Come (again, the motif of Buddhas within Buddhas). In over fifty medallions, we see Shakyamuni in the Tushita Heaven, instructing Maitreya about the latter’s ultimate, redemptive role; then the birth of Prince Siddhartha in Kapilavastu, his overly protected childhood, and his shock at learning that illness, old age, and death are parts of life; his escape from the royal palace, his spiritual experiments in the wilderness, and the climactic moment of his enlightenment. Here, past fuses with future seen on a human time scale; and this association of the messianic Maitreya with the heroic founder figure fits well with the central position Maitreya occupies in the Sumtsek. The figure of the Compassionate Friend was a favorite of the Guge kings, as we see in the Golden Maitreya temple one of them, Lha De, founded at Shey, not far from Leh and the great shrines of Nyarma.
Although the progression from one immense painted mandala to the next allows for several possible readings of what the Alchi painters had in mind (in this regard, a map of the walls and their primary icons would have been a useful addition to the book), I think a fuller understanding of Alchi, indeed of western Tibetan art in general, requires a broad vision that would extend to the Tantric Buddhist monuments of Southeast Asia, especially the early-ninth-century Borobudur in central Java, probably the greatest and most mysterious Buddhist monument in the world. Borobudur highlights the future Buddha and the house of infinite mirrors where he lives. Indeed, it is possible that Borobudur was planned and built at least in part as a ritual device for bringing Maitreya to earth or reconstituting him in visible form and thus accomplishing the end of days—either in our world or in the pilgrim’s primed and disciplined mind. Java is far from Ladakh, but we have textual hints of links between them in this period; I can’t help wondering if Alchi has absorbed, as a part of its ritual and meditative structure, something of this earlier, radically millenarian doctrine. Or perhaps Maitreya has already come and now resides on the banks of the Indus.
It isn’t easy to paint emptiness. It’s even harder to perceive the void shimmering and beckoning from within the plethora of figures that swirl before our eyes. Harder still would be to photograph such a painting without reducing its expressive power. But Mahayana Buddhism tells us that emptiness is not in any sense outside our own, visible world. Just here—in the constant process of vanishing and re-emergence—lies the infinite beauty of the world. At the heart of van Ham’s artistic enterprise is his uncanny gift for showing us, in the paintings he has photographed, this continuous, ravishing evanescence. Once one takes in this truth of transience and sees, with open eyes, its logic and inherent wonder, the most remarkable feeling of freedom and happiness sets in.
Last February the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held its convention in Washington, D.C. This annual gathering is a kind of right-wing Davos where insiders and wannabes come to see what’s new. The opening speaker, not so new, was Vice President Mike Pence. The next speaker, very new, was a stylish Frenchwoman still in her twenties named Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.
Marion, as she is widely called in France, is a granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the far-right National Front party, and a niece of Marine Le Pen, its current president. The French first encountered Marion as a child, beaming in her grandfather’s arms in his campaign posters (see illustration on page 46), and she has never disappeared from the public scene. In 2012, at the age of twenty-two, she entered Parliament as the youngest deputy since the French Revolution. But she decided not to run for reelection in 2017, on the pretext that she wanted to spend more time with her family. Instead she’s been making big plans.1
Her performance at CPAC was unusual, and one wonders what the early morning audience made of her. Unlike her hotheaded grandfather and aunt, Marion is always calm and collected, sounds sincere, and is intellectually inclined. In a slight, charming French accent she began by contrasting the independence of the United States with France’s “subjection” to the EU, as a member of which, she claimed, it is unable to set its own economic and foreign policy or to defend its borders against illegal immigration and the presence of an Islamic “counter-society” on its territory.
But then she set out in a surprising direction. Before a Republican audience of private property absolutists and gun rights fanatics she attacked the principle of individualism, proclaiming that the “reign of egoism” was at the bottom of all our social ills. As an example she pointed to a global economy that turns foreign workers into slaves and throws domestic workers out of jobs. She then closed by extolling the virtues of tradition, invoking a maxim often attributed to Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is not the cult of ashes, it is the transmission of fire.” Needless to say, this was the only reference by a CPAC speaker to a nineteenth-century German composer.
Something new is happening on the European right, and it involves more than xenophobic populist outbursts. Ideas are being developed, and transnational networks for disseminating them are being established. Journalists have treated as a mere vanity project Steve Bannon’s efforts to bring European populist parties and thinkers together under the umbrella of what he calls The Movement. But his instincts, as in American politics, are in tune with the times. (Indeed, one month after Marion’s appearance at CPAC, Bannon addressed the annual convention of the National Front.) In countries as diverse as France, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Italy, efforts are underway to develop a coherent ideology that would mobilize Europeans angry about immigration, economic dislocation, the European Union, and social liberalization, and then use that ideology to govern. Now is the time to start paying attention to the ideas of what seems to be an evolving right-wing Popular Front. France is a good place to start.
The French left, attached to republican secularism, has never had much feel for Catholic life and is often caught unawares when a line has been crossed. In early 1984 the government of François Mitterrand proposed a law that would have brought Catholic schools under greater government control and pressured their teachers to become public employees. That June nearly a million Catholics marched in Paris in protest, and many more throughout the country. Mitterrand’s prime minister, Pierre Mauroy, was forced to resign, and the proposal was withdrawn. It was an important moment for lay Catholics, who discovered that despite the official secularism of the French state they remained a cultural force, and sometimes could be a political one.
In 1999 the government of Gaullist president Jacques Chirac passed legislation creating a new legal status, dubbed a pacte civil de solidarité (civil solidarity pact, or PACS), for long-term couples who required legal protections regarding inheritance and other end-of-life issues but did not want to get married. Coming not long after the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the PACS was largely conceived to help the gay community but soon became popular with heterosexual couples wanting a more easily dissolved bond. The number of straight couples pacsés annually is now approaching the number of those getting married, and the arrangement for gays and lesbians is uncontroversial.
To build on that success, during his campaign for the French presidency in 2012 the Socialist candidate François Hollande promised to legalize same-sex marriage and open up adoption and additional rights to gay and lesbian couples. Mariage Pour Tous—marriage for everyone—was the slogan. Once in office Hollande moved to fulfill his campaign promise, but he repeated Mitterrand’s mistake by failing to anticipate the strong right-wing reaction against it. Shortly after his inauguration, a network of laypeople drawn heavily from Catholic Pentecostal prayer groups began to form. They called themselves La Manif Pour Tous—the Demonstration for Everyone.
By January 2013, just before Parliament approved gay marriage, La Manif was able to draw over 300,000 people to a demonstration opposing it in Paris, stunning the government and the media. What especially surprised them was the ludic atmosphere of the protest, which was more like a gay pride parade than a pilgrimage to Compostela. There were lots of young people marching, but rather than rainbow banners they waved pink and blue ones representing boys and girls. Slogans on the placards had a May ’68 lilt: François resist, prove you exist. To top it off, the spokeswoman for La Manif was a flamboyantly dressed comedienne and performance artist who goes by the name Frigide Barjot and played in a band called the Dead Pompidous.
Where did these people come from? After all, France is no longer a Catholic country, or so we’re told. While it’s true that fewer and fewer French people baptize their children and attend mass, nearly two thirds still identify as Catholic, and roughly 40 percent of those declare themselves to be “practicing,” whatever that means. More importantly, as a Pew study found last year, those French who do identify as Catholic—especially those who attend Mass regularly—are significantly more right-wing in their political views than those who do not.
This is consistent with trends in Eastern Europe, where Pew found that Orthodox Christian self-identification has actually been rising, along with nationalism, confounding post-1989 expectations. That may indicate that the relationship between religious and political identification is reversing in Europe—that it is no longer religious affiliation that helps determine one’s political views, but one’s political views that help determine whether one self-identifies as religious. The prerequisites for a European Christian nationalist movement may be falling into place, as Hungarian president Viktor Orbán has long been predicting.
Whatever motivated the many thousands of Catholics who participated in the original Manif and similar demonstrations across France, it soon bore political fruit.2 Some of its leaders quickly formed a political action group called Sens Commun, which, though small, nearly helped to elect a president in 2017. Its preferred candidate was François Fillon, a straitlaced former prime minister and practicing conservative Catholic who vocally supported La Manif and had close ties to Sens Commun. He was explicit about his religious views during the primary of his party, the Republicans, at the end of 2016—opposing marriage, adoption, and surrogacy for gay and lesbian couples—and surprised everyone by winning. Fillon came out of the primary with very high poll numbers, and given the Socialists’ deep unpopularity after the Hollande years and the inability of the National Front to gain the support of more than one third of the French electorate, many considered him the front-runner.
But just as Fillon began his national campaign, Le Canard enchaîné, a newspaper that mixes satire with investigative journalism, revealed that his wife had received over half a million euros for no-show jobs over the years, and that he had accepted a number of favors from businessmen, including—Paul Manafort–style—suits costing tens of thousands of euros. For a man running on the slogan “the courage of truth,” it was a disaster. He was indicted, staff abandoned him, but he refused to drop out of the race. This provided an opening for the eventual victor, the centrist Emmanuel Macron. But we should bear in mind that despite the scandal, Fillon won 20 percent of the first-round votes, compared to Macron’s 24 and Marine Le Pen’s 21 percent. Had he not imploded, there is a good chance that he would be president and we would be telling ourselves very different stories about what’s really going on in Europe today.
The Catholic right’s campaign against same-sex marriage was doomed to fail, and it did. A large majority of the French support same-sex marriage, although only about seven thousand couples avail themselves of it each year. Yet there are reasons to think that the experience of La Manif could affect French politics for some time to come.
The first reason is that it revealed an unoccupied ideological space between the mainstream Republicans and the National Front. Journalists tend to present an overly simple picture of populism in contemporary European politics. They imagine there is a clear line separating legacy conservative parties like the Republicans, which have made their peace with the neoliberal European order, from xenophobic populist ones like the National Front, which would bring down the EU, destroy liberal institutions, and drive out as many immigrants and especially Muslims as possible.
These journalists have had trouble imagining that there might be a third force on the right that is not represented by either the establishment parties or the xenophobic populists. This narrowness of vision has made it difficult for even seasoned observers to understand the supporters of La Manif, who mobilized around what Americans call social issues and feel they have no real political home today. The Republicans have no governing ideology apart from globalist economics and worship of the state, and in keeping with their Gaullist secular heritage have traditionally treated moral and religious issues as strictly personal, at least until Fillon’s anomalous candidacy. The National Front is nearly as secular and even less ideologically coherent, having served more as a refuge for history’s detritus—Vichy collaborators, resentful pieds noirs driven out of Algeria, Joan of Arc romantics, Jew- and Muslim-haters, skinheads—than as a party with a positive program for France’s future. A mayor once close to it now aptly calls it the “Dien Bien Phu right.”
The other reason La Manif might continue to matter is that it proved to be a consciousness-raising experience for a group of sharp young intellectuals, mainly Catholic conservatives, who see themselves as the avant-garde of this third force. In the last five years they have become a media presence, writing in newspapers like Le Figaro and newsweeklies like Le Point and Valeurs actuelles (Contemporary Values), founding new magazines and websites (Limite, L’Incorrect), publishing books, and making regular television appearances. People are paying attention, and a sound, impartial book on them has just appeared.3
Whether anything politically significant will come out of this activity is difficult to know, given that intellectual fashions in France change about as quickly as the plat du jour. This past summer I spent some time reading and meeting these young writers in Paris and discovered more of an ecosystem than a cohesive, disciplined movement. Still, it was striking how serious they are and how they differ from American conservatives. They share two convictions: that a robust conservatism is the only coherent alternative to what they call the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of our time, and that resources for such a conservatism can be found on both sides of the traditional left–right divide. More surprising still, they are all fans of Bernie Sanders.
The intellectual ecumenism of these writers is apparent in their articles, which come peppered with references to George Orwell, the mystical writer-activist Simone Weil, the nineteenth-century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, the young Marx, the ex-Marxist Catholic philosopher Alasdair Macintyre, and especially the politically leftist, culturally conservative American historian Christopher Lasch, whose bons mots—“uprootedness uproots everything except the need for roots”—get repeated like mantras. They predictably reject the European Union, same-sex marriage, and mass immigration. But they also reject unregulated global financial markets, neoliberal austerity, genetic modification, consumerism, and AGFAM (Apple-Google-Facebook-Amazon-Microsoft).
That mélange may sound odd to our ears, but it is far more consistent than the positions of contemporary American conservatives. Continental conservatism going back to the nineteenth century has always rested on an organic conception of society. It sees Europe as a single Christian civilization composed of different nations with distinct languages and customs. These nations are composed of families, which are organisms, too, with differing but complementary roles and duties for mothers, fathers, and children. On this view, the fundamental task of society is to transmit knowledge, morality, and culture to future generations, perpetuating the life of the civilizational organism. It is not to serve an agglomeration of autonomous individuals bearing rights.
Most of these young French conservatives’ arguments presume this organic conception. Why do they consider the European Union a danger? Because it rejects the cultural-religious foundation of Europe and tries to found it instead on the economic self-interest of individuals. To make matters worse, they suggest, the EU has encouraged the immigration of people from a different and incompatible civilization (Islam), stretching old bonds even further. Then, rather than fostering self-determination and a healthy diversity among nations, the EU has been conducting a slow coup d’état in the name of economic efficiency and homogenization, centralizing power in Brussels. Finally, in putting pressure on countries to conform to onerous fiscal policies that only benefit the rich, the EU has prevented them from taking care of their most vulnerable citizens and maintaining social solidarity. Now, in their view, the family must fend for itself in an economic world without borders, in a culture that willfully ignores its needs. Unlike their American counterparts, who celebrate the economic forces that most put “the family” they idealize under strain, the young French conservatives apply their organic vision to the economy as well, arguing that it must be subordinate to social needs.
Most surprising for an American reader is the strong environmentalism of these young writers, who entertain the notion that conservatives should, well, conserve. Their best journal is the colorful, well-designed quarterly Limite, which is subtitled “a review of integral ecology” and publishes criticism of neoliberal economics and environmental degradation as severe as anything one finds on the American left. (No climate denial here.) Some writers are no-growth advocates; others are reading Proudhon and pushing for a decentralized economy of local collectives. Others still have left the city and write about their experiences running organic farms, while denouncing agribusiness, genetically modified crops, and suburbanization along the way. They all seem inspired by Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’ (2015), a comprehensive statement of Catholic social teaching on the environment and economic justice.
Coming out of La Manif, these young conservatives’ views on family and sexuality are traditionalist Catholic. But the arguments they make for them are strictly secular. In making the case for a return to older norms they point to real problems: dropping rates of family formation, delayed child-bearing, rising rates of single parenthood, adolescents steeped in porn and confused about their sexuality, and harried parents and children eating separately while checking their phones. All this, they argue, is the result of our radical individualism, which blinds us to the social need for strong, stable families. What these young Catholics can’t see is that gay couples wanting to wed and have children are looking to create such families and to transmit their values to another generation. There is no more conservative instinct.
A number of young women have been promoting what they call an “alter-feminism” that rejects what they see as the “career fetishism” of contemporary feminism, which unwittingly reinforces the capitalist ideology that slaving for a boss is freedom. They are in no way arguing that women should stay home if they don’t want to; rather they think women need a more realistic image of themselves than contemporary capitalism and feminism give them. Marianne Durano, in her recent book Mon corps ne vous appartient pas (My Body Does Not Belong to You), puts it this way:
We are the victims of a worldview in which we are supposed to live it up until the age of 25, then work like fiends from 25 to 40 (the age when you’re at the bottom of the professional scrap heap), avoid commitments and having children before 30. All of this goes completely against the rhythm of women’s lives.
Eugénie Bastié, another alter-feminist, takes on Simone de Beauvoir in her book Adieu mademoiselle. She praises the first-wave feminist struggle for achieving equal legal rights for women, but criticizes Beauvoir and subsequent French feminists for “disembodying” women, treating them as thinking and desiring creatures but not as reproducing ones who, by and large, eventually want husbands and families.
Whatever one thinks of these conservative ideas about society and the economy, they form a coherent worldview. The same cannot really be said about the establishment left and right in Europe today. The left opposes the uncontrolled fluidity of the global economy and wants to rein it in on behalf of workers, while it celebrates immigration, multiculturalism, and fluid gender roles that large numbers of workers reject. The establishment right reverses those positions, denouncing the free circulation of people for destabilizing society, while promoting the free circulation of capital, which does exactly that. These French conservatives criticize uncontrolled fluidity in both its neoliberal and cosmopolitan forms.
But what exactly do they propose instead? Like Marxists in the past who were vague about what communism would actually entail, they seem less concerned with defining the order they have in mind than with working to establish it. Though they are only a small group with no popular following, they are already asking themselves grand strategic questions. (The point of little magazines is to think big in them.) Could one restore organic connections between individuals and families, families and nations, nations and civilization? If so, how? Through direct political action? By seeking political power directly? Or by finding a way to slowly transform Western culture from within, as a prelude to establishing a new politics? Most of these writers think they need to change minds first. That is why they can’t seem to get through an article, or even a meal, without mentioning Antonio Gramsci.
Gramsci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, died in 1937 after a long imprisonment in Mussolini’s jails, and left behind mounds of notebooks with fertile thoughts on politics and culture. He is best remembered today for the concept of “cultural hegemony”—the idea that capitalism is not only sustained by the relation of forces of production, as Marx thought, but also by cultural assumptions that serve as enablers, weakening the will to resist. His experience with Italian workers convinced him that unless they were freed from Catholic beliefs about sin, fate, and authority, they would never rise up and make revolution. That necessitated a new class of engaged intellectuals who would work as a counter-hegemonic force to undermine the dominant culture and to shape an alternative one that the working class could migrate to.
I don’t have the impression that these young writers have made their way through Gramsci’s multivolume Prison Notebooks. Instead he’s invoked as a kind of conversational talisman to signal that the person writing or speaking is a cultural activist, not just an observer. But what would counter-hegemony actually require? Up until this point I have portrayed these young conservatives, perhaps a little too neatly, as sharing a general outlook and set of principles. But as soon as Lenin’s old question comes up—What is to be done?—important and consequential divergences among them become apparent. Two styles of conservative engagement seem to be developing.
If you read a magazine like Limite, you get the impression that conservative counter-hegemony would involve leaving the city for a small town or village, getting involved in local schools, parishes, and environmental associations, and especially raising children with conservative values—in other words, becoming an example of an alternative way of living. This ecological conservativism appears open, generous, and rooted in everyday life, as well as in traditional Catholic social teachings.
But if you read publications like the daily Figaro, Valeurs actuelles, and especially the confrontational L’Incorrect, you get another impression altogether. There the conservatism is aggressive, dismissive of contemporary culture, and focused on waging a Kulturkampf against the 1968 generation, a particular obsession. As Jacques de Guillebon, the thirty-nine-year-old editor of L’Incorrect, put it in his magazine, “The legitimate heirs of ’68…will end collapsing into the latrines of post-cisgender, transracial, blue-haired boredom…. The end is near.” To bring it about, another writer suggested, “we need a right with a real project that is revolutionary, identitarian, and reactionary, capable of attracting the working and middle classes.” This group, though not overtly racist, is deeply suspicious of Islam, which the Limite writers never mention. Not just of radical Islamism, or Muslim men’s treatment of women, or the refusal of some Muslim students to study evolution—all genuine issues—but even of moderate, assimilated Islam.4
All this grand talk of an open culture war would hardly be worth taking seriously except for the fact that the combative wing of this group now has the ear of Marion Maréchal. Marion used to be difficult to place ideologically. She was more socially conservative than the National Front leadership but more neoliberal in economics. That’s changed. In her speech at CPAC she spoke in culture war terms, giving La Manif as an example of the readiness of young French conservatives to “take back their country.” And she described their aims in the language of social organicism:
Without the nation, without the family, without the limits of the common good, natural law and collective morality disappear as the reign of egoism continues. Today even children have become merchandise. We hear in public debates that we have the right to order a child from a catalogue, we have the right to rent a woman’s womb…. Is this the freedom that we want? No. We don’t want this atomized world of individuals without gender, without fathers, without mothers, and without nation.
She then continued in a Gramscian vein:
Our fight cannot only take place in elections. We need to convey our ideas through the media, culture, and education to stop the domination of the liberals and socialists. We have to train leaders of tomorrow, those who will have courage, the determination, and the skills to defend the interests of their people.
Then she surprised everyone in France by announcing to an American audience that she was starting a private graduate school to do just that. Three months later her Institute of Social, Economic, and Political Sciences (ISSEP) opened in Lyon, with the aim, Marion said, of displacing the culture that dominates our “nomadic, globalized, deracinated liberal system.” It is basically a business school but will supposedly offer great books courses in philosophy, literature, history, and rhetoric, as well as practical ones on management and “political and cultural combat.” The person responsible for establishing the curriculum is Jacques de Guillebon.
Not many of the French writers and journalists I know are taking these intellectual developments very seriously. They prefer to cast the young conservatives and their magazines as witting and unwitting soldiers in Marine Le Pen’s campaign to “de-demonize” the National Front, rather than as a potential third force. I think they are wrong not to pay attention, much as they were wrong not to take the free-market ideology of Reagan and Thatcher seriously back in the 1980s. The left has an old, bad habit of underestimating its adversaries and explaining away their ideas as mere camouflage for despicable attitudes and passions. Such attitudes and passions may be there, but ideas have an autonomous power to shape and channel, to moderate or inflame them.
And these conservative ideas could have repercussions beyond France’s borders. One possibility is that a renewed, more classical organic conservatism could serve as a moderating force in European democracies currently under stress. There are many who feel buffeted by the forces of the global economy, frustrated by the inability of governments to control the flow of illegal immigration, resentful of EU rules, and uncomfortable with rapidly changing moral codes regarding matters like sexuality. Until now these concerns have only been addressed, and then exploited, by far-right populist demagogues. If there is a part of the electorate that simply dreams of living in a more stable, less fluid world, economically and culturally—people who are not primarily driven by xenophobic anti-elitism—then a moderate conservative movement might serve as a bulwark against the alt-right furies by stressing tradition, solidarity, and care for the earth.
A different scenario is that the aggressive form of conservatism that one also sees in France would serve instead as a powerful tool for building a pan-European reactionary Christian nationalism along the lines laid out in the early twentieth century by Charles Maurras, the French anti-Semitic champion of “integral nationalism” who became the master thinker of Vichy. It is one thing to convince populist leaders in Western and Eastern Europe today that they have common practical interests and should work together, as Steve Bannon is trying to do. It is quite another, more threatening thing to imagine those leaders having a developed ideology at their disposal for recruiting young cadres and cultural elites and connecting them at the Continental level for joint political action.
If all French eyes are not on Marion, they should be. Marion is not her grandfather, though within the soap-operatic Le Pen family she defends him. Nor is she her aunt, who is crude and corrupt, and whose efforts to put new lipstick on the family party have failed. Nor, I think, will her fortunes be tied to those of the Rassemblement National né Front National. Emmanuel Macron has shown that a “movement” disdaining mainline parties can win elections in France (though perhaps not govern and get reelected). If Marion were to launch such a movement and make it revolve around herself as Macron has done, she could very well gather the right together while seeming personally to transcend it. Then she would be poised to work in concert with governing right-wing parties in other countries.
Modern history has taught us that ideas promoted by obscure intellectuals writing in little magazines have a way of escaping the often benign intentions of their champions. There are two lessons we might draw from that history when reading the new young French intellectuals on the right. First, distrust conservatives in a hurry. Second, brush up your Gramsci.
This past summer both she and the National Front changed their names. She has dropped Le Pen and insists on being called simply Marion Maréchal. Meanwhile her aunt has officially rebranded her party as the Rassemblement National (RN). Rassembler is French political jargon for bringing in and unifying people for a common cause, something like “big tent” in American English. ↩
It also inspired the spectacular Mishima-like suicide of one of its supporters, the nationalist historian Dominique Venner, who a few days after passage of the gay marriage law left a suicide note on the altar of Notre Dame Cathedral and then blew his brains out in front of over a thousand tourists and worshipers. ↩
Pascale Tournier, Le vieux monde est de retour: Enquête sur les nouveaux conservateurs (The Old World Is Back: A Study of the New Conservatives) (Paris: Stock, 2018). ↩
One night I attended a dinner with some young writers in a bistro whose owner, obviously a National Front supporter, was complaining loudly that a public television station was about to run a special for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. Curious, I watched the show when I got home. It was utterly banal, an extravaganza that resembled a wedding, with tables of guests watching pop performers. The hostess went around asking those guests what Ramadan meant to them, and one young woman’s response was typical: “I want to live my life, as a woman, and succeed.” A self-made Muslim businesswoman, obviously quite successful, was also interviewed and spoke of her faith…in herself. It was an assimilationist’s dream. ↩
Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights is about movement, and it so happened that I read it in motion, mostly on planes. At first, it felt like one of those airplane encounters that confirm barely six degrees of separation between you and the passenger in the next seat: both Tokarczuk’s unnamed female narrator and I grew up in Eastern Europe; she studied psychology and I was raised by a psychotherapist father; both of us travel a lot, alone; I also wrote a book about life on the hoof. There was a map of my city of birth on page thirty-seven! I became giddy: it was like looking in the mirror. I delighted in the affinity—delighted doubly because of the exquisite intelligence of this new traveling companion, because Tokarczuk’s prose is hypnotic, spellbinding in both imagination and rendering.
Then I noticed: something in the mirror was awry.
The travel Tokarczuk portrays is the stuff of airport hotels and dinner vouchers. The protagonist, a perpetual traveler, intersperses essayistic observation on motion with sketches of other eccentric voyagers, real and fictionalized: Frédéric Chopin’s sister, a Scandinavian woman who documents abuse against animals worldwide, a Russian housewife who runs away from home. This narrator is “drawn to all things spoiled, flawed, defective, broken,” largely of the Kunstkammer variety: she lingers in museums of curiosities; several of her characters dismember and preserve dead bodies for the purposes of science or passion or for personal bemusement.
The travel I witness is often forced: exodus, the tribulation of exile, flight from violence or famine. I have spent my life documenting the world’s iniquities, and my own panopticon of brokenness comprises genocide and mass starvation, loved ones I have lost to war, friends’ children who died of preventable diseases. For nearly each elegant vignette I read in Flights, my world seemed to proffer an evil twin, until the looking glass of the novel became akin to a funhouse mirror: the book smoothed away much of the wretchedness I know.
On my flight from Atlanta to Raleigh, as my plane prepared for descent over the flooded Carolina coast where Hurricane Florence had made 20,000 people homeless and left half a million without power, I read: “Everything is well lit; moving walkways facilitate the migration of travelers from one terminal to another so they may go, in turn, from one airport to another… while a discreet staff ensures the flawlessness of this great mechanism’s workings.” On the trip from Honolulu to Dallas, I read: “The flight attendants, beautiful as angels, check to make sure we’re fit to travel, and then, with a benevolent motion of the hand, permit us to plunge on into the soft, carpet-lined curves of the tunnel that will lead us aboard our plane and onto a chilly aerial road to new worlds”—as south of my flight path thousands of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador trudged northward in pursuit of a new world of safety and dignity.
The aggregate effect was a strange and haunting polyphony. “Each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim,” the narrator of Flights repeats throughout the novel. But where did anyone I knew to be real—the hurricane victims and the migrants, my makeshift families and temporary hosts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, in the refugee camps of the Caucasus, fellow travelers who share with me their most intimate joy and grief— fit in to Tokarczuk’s world of these others? How was it possible that Tokarczuk’s intricately rendered cast of characters in movement—a young husband who goes mad after his wife and son briefly go missing during a family vacation, a émigré scientist who returns to Poland to help her ailing ex-boyfriend die in dignity—does not include these transitory people I’ve come across? In Flights, the traveling world exists as an antipode to the sedentary world from which Tokarczuk’s narrator feels alienated because she “did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots”—but both worlds are sanitized of the people who belong to the less privileged realm of forced uprooting.
Halfway through the novel, a vagrant Russian woman delivers a spell-like soliloquy about perpetual motion as salvation from suffering: “This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated hatred for the nomads—this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free people to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences.” Here, Flights came closest to mapping the sedentary world I know, one that treats rootlessness as a crime, militarizes borders, incarcerates children, tears apart families. But the novel stopped short of mentioning the horrors and hardships that settled states impose on people who are made to migrate. It is as if, in this hyper-informed era, chronicles of suffering are so numbingly accessible we have become inured to it. “Turn off the news / burn the papers / skip the funerals,” writes the poet Morgan Parker.
The average cruising altitude of most commercial airlines is 35,000 feet. From such distance you can imagine shrinking the world, blurring its peopled surface. “It could well be just a lump in the throat, this globe,” muses Tokarczuk’s narrator. And later: “If something hurts me, I erase it from my mental map.”
You can also use the elevation to take in more. From 35,000 feet in the sky, you can see 235 miles away. Media outlets often photograph mass migration from the air to emphasize its magnitude: here, the caravan of Central American migrants is snaking northward; there, in the pointillist nightmare of Dadaab, Kenya, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, almost a quarter of a million people who from the sky look like dots are waiting for a home, for arrival.
Ai Weiwei’s documentary about the global refugee crisis, Human Flow, also begins with an aerial view: a bird pushes off the surface of the Mediterranean Sea, its tail feathers and feet leave the slightest purled trace of white on the water. The bird is so tiny, and the endless sea around it is so beautiful, so ineffably, indifferently blue. A jump cut—and, instead of the bird, there is an inflatable boat crammed with migrants in orange vests; the boat, too, trails white wake.
On a flight from Raleigh to Detroit, I read about Flights’ narrator attending, at airports during layovers, pop-up lectures on travel psychology. Below the wing, one in seven people on Earth is migrating. I search the book in my lap for the world “refugee,” for the word “migrant.” They are not there.
You see? It’s all about how we choose to curate our attention. Ai Weiwei could have just kept the camera on the bird.
Kahului to Honolulu: waterfalls pour into the Pacific past the most fragrant forests in which I have ever walked, gurgle beneath a highway that during mango season must be cleared of fallen fruit by bulldozers to make the road passable. Bulldozers in Hawaii also play a more sinister role: they excavate sacred burial grounds to make room for corporations—a Walmart in Honolulu, the hotel where I will stay in Waikīkī. For the duration of my stay, vacationers and wedding guests will revel in luxurious restaurants and ocean-view rooms, and down below, under frangipani in waxy bloom, on the sidewalk that paves over the desecrated sites, dozens of hotel workers will be striking for days to demand a living wage. Grains of sand will stick to bridal slippers, to the soles of protester’s shoes, to my feet, and I will think of the opening lines of a poem by Mahealani Perez-Wendt—
O, The sands of my birth The sands of my birth Are digging places Are trenching places For excavators, Earth movers, And shovelers
—and there it is, just below my plane, skimming the blue majesty of the ocean: a sea bird taking off.
The night before I fly from Hawaii to Dallas, it rains over Waikīkī. A downpour sluices away dozens of stories of opulence and newly-wed hope; bangs on the windows of students and government workers; drenches people living in inadequate tents they have pitched in city parks; and striking hotel workers; and, beneath, feeds the roots of scented gardens and anoints ancestral bones that remain unbulldozed, before braiding into runnels that flow into the depthless ocean and rise again, as evaporation, to fall elsewhere.
One afternoon, a friend and I hike up the thousand-year-old ruins of a Kushan castle in Northern Afghanistan. The Buddhists who ruled the Khorasan for five centuries are long gone, and bits of sheep skulls and wisps of broken pottery dot the tall eroding walls. Below us, the alkaline desert shines white, and in that desert there are Taliban patrols and bandits, and, in the domed ceramic sky above us, American warplanes are supersonic specks. The slang term the US military uses for aerial images of humans killed from planes, I recall, is “bug splats.”
“Is it more important to bear witness to beauty, or to denounce horror?” asks a traveling photographer in a José Eduardo Agualusa novel. I wonder: Is it possible to do both?
I ask my companion, an old hunter whose nomadic grandfathers herded sheep in this desert, what he thinks of the place. He says: “This is my country. It is beautiful.”
Halfway between the Kushans and our hike, in the year 1207, in this same beautiful volatile desert, the poet Rumi was born, and became a refugee, a child migrant fleeing a Mongol invasion. In exile, he wrote:
I am so small I can barely be seen. How can this great love be inside me?
Look at your eyes. They are small, but they see enormous things.
How to take a clear-eyed view of the world’s complexities, how to grasp the world in its totality of dignity and shame? Can we hold all of it, grief and beauty and the rest, the way the world already does? On this hyper-informed planet, how do we not lose intimacy with one another? What does it mean to look past the mirror, to choose to see something truly other than what has become comfortable? To make a deliberate effort to see the world in a grain of sand requires a level of curiosity that supersedes the confines of our prejudice and fear.
At one point, Flights’ narrator finds herself gazing at a sarira, a fleck-like relic that sometimes remains after the cremation of the corpse of a Buddhist spiritual master, and wonders if the world’s beaches and deserts are “entirely made up of the posthumous essences of the bodies of enlightened beings?”—and acknowledges that she would never become such a grain, she was never devout enough. In this moment, her flight of imagination is so indisputably beautiful, so earnestly true, I feel that she has glanced into that immense beyond.
When my parents used all their savings to send me across the oceans from India at the age of sixteen, they made the ultimate sacrifice of separating from their child without knowing if we would ever live on the same continent again. They did so because they believed America was where I would get the best education and have the most opportunity. It took me seventeen years—involving an alphabet soup of visas and the abiding fear that I might not be able to stay in my new home—to get my US citizenship, in 2000. That was a teary and complex moment. Surrounded by people from all over the world, with hands over our hearts, we pledged allegiance to our new country. We knew we were the lucky ones and we were grateful, even as we felt our loss in saying good-bye to the families and countries we had left behind.
Just a year later, in the wake of September 11, I went on to found and lead what became the largest immigrant advocacy organization in Washington state. We organized tens of thousands of immigrants, faith leaders, labor unions, and businesses, engaging in a national conversation on immigration, identity, and the need to reform our outdated laws. Today, more than three decades since I arrived in America, I have the privilege of serving as the first South Asian-American woman in the House of Representatives, and I am one of only twelve members of the 115th Congress who are proud naturalized citizens.
I have become intimately familiar with the policy and the politics of immigration, and I am deeply troubled by the widening divide between the inherent complexity of immigration laws and the simplistic, generally punitive rhetoric that aims to criminalize migration. Through my work, I have met many new Americans and am constantly amazed at the sheer diversity of how they came here and what they end up doing—as farmworkers, doctors, caregivers, entrepreneurs, or researchers. Their stories add to the long tapestry of this uniquely American experience, one that is central to our national identity.
And today’s immigration stories are stitched to the stories and experiences of each successive wave of new arrivals: the Irish, Polish, Germans, Chinese, Mexicans, Jews, Greeks, Nigerians, Somalis, and many others. More than most others, America is a nation of the imagination: its imagined horizons promised our forebears the freedoms of a nobler, more resilient, more just society, one that did not exist anywhere else and would be created from whole cloth by daring trailblazers and idealists who celebrated the land of plenty. It was this imagined America that spurred people to come. In their coming, and their working here, they built America and their successors continue to do so.
During the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the demand for labor in this new, growing nation meant that almost anyone who arrived here was allowed into the country with just a physical exam—unless they fell into a few deeply exclusionary categories. Before 1921, the only immigration laws that existed were ones that restricted Chinese people from immigrating (repealed only in 1943), as well as excluding most other Asians and certain categories of people such as prostitutes, those with “dangerous and loathsome contagious disease,” or “the insane.” Later, in 1921 and 1924, quotas were established based on race and nationality, heavily favoring immigrants from Western Europe.
But because there were few laws and little bureaucratic control over who came and stayed, undocumented immigration was the norm for generations. As much as “amnesty” has become a dirty word today, amnesties were applied to waves of European immigrants who were here without proper authorization. The 1929 Registry Act, for example, allowed “honest law-abiding alien[s] who may be in the country under some merely technical irregularity” to register as permanent residents if they could prove they had been here since 1921 and were of “good moral character.”
It wasn’t until 1965 that the national-origin quota system was abolished and replaced with a system whereby immigrants were admitted on the basis of relationships to immediate family members or employers. The last major overhaul of the immigration system to increase legal admissions caps, in 1990, focused largely on employment-based visas.
Complex and multifaceted as our history on immigration is, it is marked by two deep traditions that are at war with each other. One is inextricably bound up with bigotry, while the other is tied to the spirit of generosity and renewal of a country that is always being shaped by those who come here. This battle has to be fought in every generation, and it has never been easy.
Today, the election of President Trump and his makeover of the Republican Party has resulted in some of the nastiest rhetoric about immigrants to ever come from the White House. The president and his hardline advisers coldly calculate that their path to political victory is best served by stoking fear: what were once fringe racist theories of immigrant “invasion” and “infestation” are amplified into existential threats and directed toward an implicitly white, Christian America. This is not the nation that generations of Americans created or imagined.
The midterm elections, however, have provided a glimmer of hope. In the final weeks leading up to them, Trump worked from his anti-immigrant playbook. He lit up the airwaves with an unconstitutional threat to revoke the citizenship of those born here, and trafficked in the fear of a supposed horde of migrants that he claimed necessitated the sending of some 7,000 troops to the border. In spite of all this, Americans in red and blue districts across the country elected a wave of diverse Democrats to a comfortable majority in the House despite a map gerrymandered to favor Republicans, and limited losses in the Senate.
Now it’s more important than ever that Democrats—and any remaining willing Republicans—recapture America’s moral imagination on immigration. Our job is to tell the truth about immigration instead of cowering before falsehoods. Anti-immigrant forces would have us believe that our laws work and that undocumented immigrants prefer to live in the shadows, where they can “game the system” and benefit unfairly from the generosity of taxpayers. The worst thing about this narrative is not that it’s absolutely false, but that it obscures the deep, common desire that all of us—aspiring Americans and those already here—have for one simple thing: an updated, orderly, and effective process for people to come to America, stay, and work here.
As long as we accept the Trump administration’s rhetoric on immigration and try to merely gain small victories against a harsh, restrictionist policy, we will lose—politically, economically, and, most importantly, morally. Instead, we must disperse the fog of lies and scapegoating and make clear that a sensible, humane system of immigration laws is best for everyone.
As America grows and ages, our economy needs immigrants to replenish America’s work force as baby-boomers age. In the fast-growing industries of domestic care, home health aides, nursing assistants, and personal care aides, immigrants make up the vast majority of workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that in those industries alone, from 2016 to 2026, the US will need workers to fill 1.2 million jobs. Yet our legal immigration system is groaning under the weight of outdated category caps that simply don’t meet the needs of our economy or our people. The number of visas for nonagricultural workers (such as construction workers, housekeepers, or forest workers) is stuck at the 1990 level of 66,000 visas—even though our economy requires millions. Just last year, more than 3.9 million US citizens and permanent residents who had applied legally for their closest family members—parents, spouses, children, and siblings—were in an immigration processing “backlog” that could take decades to clear. (Contrary to the “chain migration” narrative, these immediate family members are the only ones eligible to migrate via the family-based system.)
There is also still bipartisan consensus that we must fulfill our moral and legal obligations (under US and international law) to take asylum seekers and refugees from around the world. Refugees and asylum seekers are often fleeing the very forces of oppression, war, and dictatorship that threaten the world’s safety, including America’s. In some cases, the United States has been complicit in propping up foreign leaders that become dictators, or in fostering economic conditions that lead to devastation. In all cases, consigning millions of people to refugee camps with little freedom, dire living conditions, and no hope of determining their own futures becomes a moral question for all nations, including those that seek to lead the world. Despite statements to the contrary from this White House, the US ranks only fiftieth in the world for welcoming refugees, and leaders from all faiths (including evangelicals) have emphasized the need to strengthen, not cut, our refugee resettlement program.
It is critical that Americans understand that there currently is no orderly, functioning process for people to come to America. Under Presidents Reagan and Bush, there were superficial, temporary fixes, such as legalizations or “amnesties” for those who were undocumented at the time. But without underlying reform so that the system functions, we were bound to end up in the same place again. Most Republicans—and too many Democrats—have given in to the simplistic narratives supplied by anti-immigrant forces, throwing billions of taxpayer dollars into mass deportations, a vast labyrinth of expensive private prisons, and a border that is already one of the most secure and militarized in the world.
The problems caused by indiscriminate enforcement and the lack of comprehensive reforms certainly did not start with Donald Trump, but he has taken an approach dramatically different from that of every Republican and Democratic president of the past several decades. Instead of embracing the fact that immigration has been the unique genius of America’s history and is necessary to the economic vitality of our nation, Trump has welcomed the rigidly restrictionist agenda of anti-immigrant zealots. He has instituted inhumane policies such as ripping children from their parents and imprisoning them indefinitely, shackling pregnant women, cutting refugee admissions to their lowest level in decades, curbing all forms of legal migration, and vilifying immigrants at every opportunity. This is not an administration or a Republican Party that has displayed any interest in principled compromises to fix the underlying broken and outdated immigration system or allow it to be fixed. If they did so, they would lose what they see as a potent tool to rile up their base.
Our prescription for recapturing the moral imagination of immigration must be grounded in a few central principles. We must state clearly our belief that our nation has the right to control who comes in and out at our borders, and knock down the Republican strawman that any Democrat who believes in fixing the immigration system and calls for humane policies actually believes in “open borders.” That is a baseless slander and we should say so.
An accountable, transparent, and humane plan of enforcement against both employers and employees who continue to break the law is vital, but it’s important to note that with an underlying system of laws that actually works and meets the needs of our economy, we will dramatically reduce the need for enforcement. The vast majority of immigrants currently held in expensive private prisons are there simply because of their undocumented status or because they are waiting to see a judge. With effective reform, these individuals would no longer be held in prison and our immigration courts can go back to functioning efficiently again.
And we need to promote facts and help Americans understand what the evidence has shown. For example, research shows that, far from reducing illegal immigration, a more militarized and hardened southern border has actually led to enormous surges in the numbers of undocumented immigrants who set down roots in the United States. This seeming paradox arises because in the past, there was a “circular flow” of migration, which meant that workers moved back and forth across the border more easily. Those laws, however, had weak worker protections and were ultimately ended. But this is a roadmap forward: nimble laws with strong worker protections would encourage more migrant workers to stay in the homes they love while supplying our economic needs with their temporary labor.
We should sing strongly the benefits of family immigration, which has been the bedrock of the US system since its founding—bringing us strivers of all kinds to fill jobs at every skill level.Family connections have also provided the essential support that immigrants need in order to integrate and become self-sufficient more quickly, contributing to the economy through their work, taxes, and civic contributions—think of grandparents taking care of grandchildren while parents work or of children taking care of aging parents. Those closest relatives who come in through the family-based system bring great benefits—to their families and to our economy—and their applications should be processed immediately.
While our immigration system should be updated regularly to prioritize certain industries that are seeing rapid growth and need workers, we also need a new set of domestic policies that address the problems of declining economic conditions for both American-born and immigrant workers. In industries that are undergoing structural change or decline, measures like retraining initiatives and new investment programs would help displaced workers find reliable new jobs quickly.
At the same time, we must put resources into helping immigrants integrate rapidly in their new home. The sooner immigrants can learn to speak English (while preserving their own languages) and obtain the skills and training they need to realize their talents, the sooner our nation will see the economic and civic benefits of their presence.
Finally, we must recognize our strong national interest in development, diplomacy, and the protection of human rights around the world. Rather than using the blunt tool of a militaristic foreign policy, American investments in countries that uphold the rule of law pays off by encouraging people to make their own opportunities where they live, rather than feeling forced to make perilous migrations. The logical, cost-effective way to address the root causes of migration is to focus our efforts on building equitable economies and rights in countries that send the biggest flows of people to America.
Economists from both parties are also well aware of the economic benefits of immigration. Back in 2005, they were extensively summarized by President George W. Bush’s Economic Report of the President, which found “a comprehensive accounting of the benefits and costs of immigration that shows the benefits of immigration exceed the costs.” The report noted, among other things, that Social Security payroll taxes paid by undocumented workers who can never claim those benefits back had led to a $463 billion funding surplus. In other words, undocumented immigrants are paying for the retirement of this country’s aging, mostly Caucasian, population. The following year, the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote in a 2006 report that “the argument that immigrants harm the American economy should be dismissed out of hand.” A economic projections from a 2013 White House report showed that passing comprehensive immigration reform would contribute an additional $1.4 trillion to GDP by 2033.
And in spite of the rhetoric and the cruel policies of Trump and other Republicans, Americans do not actually believe that immigration is some unspeakable “third-rail” of American politics. In fact, in the history of public polling, immigration has never been more popular. A Gallup poll this year found that a record 75 percent of Americans consider immigration “a good thing.” A 2017 poll found that the percentage of Americans saying immigrants “mostly help” the economy reached its highest point since Gallup began asking the question in 1993. Simultaneously, fears that immigrants bring crime, take jobs from American-born, or damage the budget and overall economy are at an all-time low. The share of Americans calling for lower levels of immigration has fallen from a high of 63 percent in the mid-1990s also to an all-time low of just 29 percent, as of June.
We know the basic pillars of immigration reform. As recently as 2013, the United States Senate passed—with a remarkable sixty-eight bipartisan votes—a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have fixed many of the most outdated parts of immigration law. The bill was a major compromise for left and right, setting aside $40 billion over ten years to pay for more border security while creating a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants—including Dreamers –and fixing the outdated family visa caps, processing the immigration backlogs, and addressing the critical workforce needs of employers.
Had that bill been allowed to come to the floor of the House for a vote, everyone acknowledges that it would have passed. Instead, since then we’ve spent over $20 billion on border security, but with no underlying solutions to our immigration policy. Worse, we have besmirched America’s reputation and betrayed our values with the inhumane separation of families and detention of children (many of whom will likely never see their parents again). Americans know this, feel it, and abhor it: one recent poll found that two-thirds of those polled opposed detaining families with children who come to the border seeking asylum, while three-quarters supported humane forms of enforcement (such as providing families thatare seeking to live free from danger with case managers who can ensure they understand and are in full compliance with the process).
We can do this, and we must. Imagine a country with immigration laws that actually work. We would know who is in the country, and they would not be hiding in the shadows but getting to know their neighbors, investing in houses and cars, and becoming quintessential Americans. In our country’s history, immigration has never been just about policy. It has always been about who we are and what we are willing to stand up for. That is why a fair and forward-looking immigration system must be at the heart of America’s moral imagination.
California’s San Joaquin Valley, from Stockton in the north to Arvin in the south, is 234 miles long and 130 miles wide. If you drive there from the Bay Area, in less than an hour the temperature will go from 57 to 97 degrees. It will keep rising. The radio stations are predominantly Spanish: ranchera music, boleros, corridos, ballads of spurned love, and the distinctive norteño sound—percussive, driving, no brass. On the English-language station an indignant voice advises listeners to be mentally vigilant against “sitcoms, news reports,” the entire panoply of “mainstream media because it’s all the same skank, it’s all from one cesspool, their snakish agenda for a one-world order.” The country music summer hit is called “Take a Drunk Girl Home.”
The Valley is flat, under a constant cloud of dust, smog, pesticides, and smoke. The smog is from Bay Area traffic carried in by the wind, the pesticides from the millions of pounds of chemicals poured onto the land every year, the smoke from the wildfires that burn to the north and get trapped in the Valley, pushed to the ground by the heat. The cloud is kept there by the Sierra Nevada to the east, the Coast Ranges to the west, and the Tehachapi Mountains to the south, which the Fresno-based writer Mark Arax calls “our Mason-Dixon Line,” because it marks the Valley’s physical and psychological separation from the cosmopolitan culture of Southern California and Los Angeles. The city of Bakersfield and the area around it, on the southern edge of the Valley, has the worst air quality in the United States.
Measured by yearly production, the San Joaquin Valley is one of the highest-value stretches of farmland in the country, and is dominated by large growers who preside over a labor force of migrant workers in a way that has not changed much since Carey McWilliams described it in his 1939 book, Factories in the Fields. Arax likens it to a Central American country. “It’s the poorest part of California,” he told me. “There’s almost no middle class. To find its equivalent in the United States you’d have to go to Appalachia or the borderlands of Texas.”
Raisins, table grapes, pistachios, almonds, tomatoes, stone fruits, garlic, and cabbage are some of the crops of the Valley. The clementines that we buy in netted bags at the supermarket are grown here, as are the pomegranates that make the juice we are told protects us from cancer. The revenue from all the crops harvested here and elsewhere in California is $47 billion a year, more than double that of Iowa, the next-biggest agricultural state. Most of this revenue benefits a few hundred families, some with as many as 20,000 or even 40,000 acres of land.
Plantations on the west side of the Valley are so huge that managers keep track of workers by flying over the fields in planes. Computers monitor the release of water, which is delivered to the plants with an intricate system of pipes and valves. “It’s prisons and plantations, nothing else,” Paul Chavez, the son of Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union (UFW), told me. “You can’t even get an education in these places. According to the state of California’s own survey, in farmworker towns barely 30 percent of school teachers are accredited.”
When Cesar Chavez started organizing farmworkers in the 1950s, his son said, 12 to 14 percent of field hands “were still Okies and Arkies, the Steinbeck people,” and 8 to 10 percent were African-Americans brought in by cotton planters during the boll weevil infestation in the 1920s. About 12 percent were Filipino, and 55 percent were Mexican, “half of them Mexican nationals, the other half first-generation Americans like my father.”
Today, at least 80 percent of farmworkers are undocumented Mexicans, the majority of them Mixteco and Trique, indigenous people from the states of Oaxaca, Sinaloa, and Guerrero—the poorest regions in Mexico—who speak no or very little Spanish, much less English. Most of them have been working the fields for at least a decade, have established families here, and live in terror of la migra, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is called, and instant deportation or imprisonment that would wrench them from their children.
In late June, I visited a tomato field in Fresno County near the town of Mendota. The fields are owned by Gargiulo, one of the biggest tomato growers in the country. Dozens of beat-up cars were parked at the edge of the various sections that were ready for harvest. Clusters of Mixteco workers relied on the one fluent Spanish speaker among them to communicate with the crew foreman and the union representative from the UFW who had smuggled me onto the property. During peak season these fields employ four hundred pickers; about 250 were working that day, almost half of them women, some of them visibly pregnant.
Because of the heat, the workday lasted from 5 to 10 AM, when temperatures rose to 113 degrees. The sun beat down, but everyone was covered from head to foot in several layers of clothes: cracked baseball caps anchored in place by hoodies and homemade scarves, sweatshirts over sweatshirts, two pairs of pants, heavy socks and boots; only eyes and cheeks and fingers were exposed. This was to protect against pesticides. Cancer rates among pickers throughout the Valley are high. The soil is so hardened by chemicals that it comes up in the hand in dry, pale stone-like clumps. In the heat the chemicals rise potently from the earth; within an hour I tasted them burning in my mouth.
Tomato picking is “stoop labor,” the most wearying and painful kind. But the Oaxacans went at it with dizzying speed. The pay was 73 cents for every five-gallon bucket they could fill, which workers prefer to the alternative of $11 per hour, California’s minimum wage.1 Younger workers filled two buckets at a time, yanking supersized green tomatoes from their plants, flicking off the stems, dropping them into the bucket, then racing to deliver them to the packing trailer hitched to a tractor fifty or sixty yards away at the end of the section. They then ran back to the harvest row, calling and shouting to one another like soldiers to keep up their spirits and pace. In five hours, a skilled picker could earn between $75 and $85.
The tomato season lasts four months, from June to October, after which the workers move to the east side of the Valley to pick citrus or prune grapevines and fruit trees. With luck, a diligent field hand can find work eight or nine months a year, earning $20,000 to $23,000, before taxes. In 2010, undocumented workers paid about $12 billion in Social Security taxes, money that accrued to the retirement benefits of American citizens—benefits those workers will likely never receive.
In response to the argument that immigrants steal jobs from Americans by undercutting their wages, the UFW set up a website offering citizens and legal residents agricultural jobs anywhere in the country through state employment services. This was in 2010, during the Great Recession. The website received about four million hits, out of which around 12,000 people filled out employment forms. Of these, a total of twelve citizens or legal residents actually showed up for work. Not one of them lasted longer than a day. According to a Los Angeles Times report, Silverado, a farm labor contractor in Napa, “has never had a white, American-born person take an entry-level gig, even after the company increased hourly wages to $4 above the minimum.” A wine grower in Stockton couldn’t lure unemployed citizens for $20 an hour.
Fruit and vegetable picking is a one-generation job—farmworkers I spoke to neither wanted nor would allow their children to follow them into the fields. The heat and physical toll, combined with the feudal power of the growers, make it preferable to work in an air-conditioned hotel or packing house, where you can stand upright and be free of pesticides for the same low wages.
This means that a constant supply of impoverished Mexican immigrants willing to do the work is required. But those immigrants aren’t coming. Since 2005 more Mexicans have been leaving the US than arriving. And this isn’t only because of a crackdown at the border. In 2000, when the border was far more porous than it is now, 1.6 million Mexicans were apprehended trying to cross into the US. In 2016 the number was 192,969.2 Ed Taylor, an economist at UC Davis, estimates that the number of potential immigrants from rural Mexico shrinks every year by 150,000. This can be partly explained by improved economic conditions in northern and central Mexico, which have dimmed the allure of minimum-wage labor in the US, and partly by the cost and danger of venturing across the border. If you do make it into the US, payments to a smuggler can keep a minimum-wage laborer in debt for life.
We have witnessed families being separated at the border—images of primal outrage. But the cruelties visited upon undocumented immigrants on the lowest rungs of the labor force who already live in the US have received far less attention. Thousands exist in a cordon of terror, and this is true in California despite its sanctuary laws. Some Californians argue that sanctuary laws have actually made matters worse, by turning ICE into a roving paramilitary force beefed up by an ever-increasing budget and egged on by the president’s open contempt.
Everywhere I went in the San Joaquin Valley fear of la migra was palpable. Some farmworkers were afraid to leave their homes for the fields or even to go grocery shopping because of the pervasive presence of ICE, in both marked and unmarked cars. On Radio Campesina, a network of Spanish-language stations in the Valley owned by the Cesar Chavez Foundation, people called in to advise listeners of where ICE agents had been spotted—at a supermarket, at a school, at a pop-up road checkpoint. “We tell our listeners what’s going on out there, what to expect, what to avoid,” the Bakersfield station manager for Radio Campesina told me. “We give subtle warnings, we keep them apprised. But we have to be sure that it comes from random call-ins or we’ll be liable to charges of obstruction.”
The federal policy appears to be to deport as many undocumented immigrants as possible and to make life so untenable for the rest that they leave the country on their own. ICE agents scour the Valley for Mexicans who have entered the legal system for minor infractions—fines, summonses, at worst a victimless DUI. The husband of a woman I spoke with was deported for an unpaid speeding ticket after living in California for twenty-two years.
At UFW headquarters in downtown Fresno, I met with a group of twelve pro-bono legal advisers to immigrants from every major city in the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys. They all told me that they were inundated with a virtually endless stream of terrified workers panicked about their future. “Our main job is instructing people on how to deal with ICE,” said Fatima Hernandez, an adviser at the UFW Bakersfield office. “How to avoid arrest and deportation.” The instructions are simple and severe. Don’t answer a single question; don’t sign anything; don’t show any documents; don’t allow an agent into your house unless he slides a signed warrant with your name on it under the door. They urge immigrants to take pictures and videos, to note badge numbers and car types: “Be prepared to show exactly what transpired.” Their main protection is the Fifth Amendment, which grants even a noncitizen the right to remain silent.
Hernandez and her colleagues seemed shaken by the climate of fear coursing through the Valley “like an electric shock.” Every immigrant arrested there ends up at Mesa Verde, a privately owned prison in Bakersfield where, because of immigrants’ lack of support and poverty, it is almost impossible to retain legal representation. This is where Hernandez and the legal advisers step in, “a drop in the ocean,” she says. Detainees “attend” their hearing at the prison via video feed to a courtroom in Sacramento, 286 miles away. Judgments are rendered in a matter of minutes. The backlog is enormous. The court has innumerable cases on the docket and plows through them numbly.
Hernandez coached parents to prepare their children for the worst. One topic of conversation was: What Happens If Your Parents Don’t Come Home Today. People were insecure before, but they more or less had the sense that their labor was needed, that they were valued for, if nothing else, their willingness to do work no one else wanted. Their kids could go to school and live, for the most part, without the fear of their parents disappearing, even under Obama’s aggressive deportation policies. Now, even people with temporary legal status won’t apply for food stamps, unemployment benefits, Head Start, and child development services. The Trump administration recently announced a rules change that would make immigrants and green card holders ineligible for naturalization if they have received or applied for social assistance. People out of work, as farmworkers invariably are for part of the year, go hungry rather than run the risk of being put on a government blacklist.
Paranoia has infiltrated every aspect of life. Civic activity, such as attending town meetings and other public events, has ground to a virtual halt. “People change their names or ask that their faces be blocked out, if they agree to give testimony or share their stories on media at all,” said Eriberto Fernandez, an organizer whose parents still pick table grapes in Kern County. “Some don’t even want to be seen on our Facebook page.” When he was a child his parents took him along to the fields because there was no one to care for him while they worked. “By the time I was seven or eight I started working alongside them myself after school. A typical story.” Fernandez now registers Latinos to vote, with little success:
People tell us, “We voted last time and things got worse. We’re not voting anymore.” There was a record low turnout of Latinos in Monterey County in the June 5 primary. There’s just a lot of pessimism on the part of first- , second- , and third-generation Latinos—Latinos who are US citizens.
Some of them may resent illegals or look down on them or simply not care. A significant minority—25 to 30 percent by most counts—favor Republican gun laws and oppose abortion.
In Delano I met an eighteen-year-old woman named Rufina García. She had lived in the US since she was one and a half; her Mixteco parents brought her with them from the town of Putla in Oaxaca. Both of them worked in the fields, moving with the harvest, picking cherries, grapes, mandarins, and oranges. In sixteen and a half years in the US, they had five more children, all of them born in the San Joaquin Valley.
For months they had been noticing ICE agents hovering around them, tracking their movements. The agents would appear in the parking lot of the building where they lived or at the children’s school or just drive behind them, letting them know they had been singled out, that they were being watched. Neither Rufina nor her parents understood why—lamigra usually went after people with a police record. “My brother got good at spotting them while my father drove,” she said. “You can tell the unmarked ones by their license plates. My father was very anxious. He knew what they could do to us. They could take away everything. He kept asking me, Why us?”
At 6 AM on March 13 her parents dropped Rufina’s sister at RFK High School for early morning track practice. As they drove away, two ICE officers who had been tailing them since they had left home flashed their emergency lights to signal them to pull over. Rufina’s father, Santos, obeyed, but as the agents approached the car, he panicked and stepped on the gas. The agents gave chase at high speed. Santos crashed into a utility pole; the car flipped over on its side. He and Rufina’s mother, Marcelina, were killed.
It turned out the ICE agents had mistaken Santos for his brother, Celestino, whom they had intended to deport for a 2013 DUI. The DUI carried no charge of reckless driving and had been satisfactorily settled in court. The deaths galvanized farmworkers in the valley. It seemed more than an accident; it seemed a natural result of what they all experienced, in one way or another, under lamigra’s surveillance. Hundreds of people came to the funeral. Camera and TV crews swooped in. Arturo Rodriguez, the avuncular president of the UFW, showed up, and the funeral took on the aura of a timid demonstration.
Not long after the funeral, ICE agents deployed multiple cars to encircle Celestino in his home and take him away as if he were a dangerous criminal. He was immediately deported, leaving behind his wife and four children, two of whom are US citizens. Under duress he signed his own deportation papers, which meant he would be thrown out of the US without a hearing and could never return. Rufina believes ICE made a spectacle of his arrest because he had given interviews to the press about the accident and the toll it had taken on the family. “He was helping us emotionally,” she said. “He was like a son to my father. My father raised him.”
Rufina—a so-called Dreamer, with no legal status and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that controls her fate in judicial limbo—now had to care for herself, her five siblings, the youngest of whom was eight, and her one-year-old baby, William. Her eyes were opaque and unshakably sad. I had the sense that she was living in two worlds—the one in which we were politely conversing and a nightmare world that she appeared to be unable to escape or comprehend.
She wanted me to see the roadside shrine to her parents, near the spot where they were killed. On the way we drove past the Forty Acres, the dusty site of a former gas station where, in 1968, Cesar Chavez conducted a twenty-five-day fast to bring attention to a strike against Giumarra Brothers, the largest table grape growers in the Valley. Robert Kennedy visited Chavez the day he broke the fast, an event that made Chavez famous and thrust the plight of California’s farmworkers into the national spotlight. Seventy thousand grape pickers were unionized in 1970, after the strikers, with the support of a national grape boycott, prevailed.
Today the UFW represents only about 10,000 workers, partly because Chavez envisioned his union as a social movement that would provide its members with everything—religious life, social life, housing—rather than as merely an agent for collective bargaining, with its tedious (and to Chavez materialistic) focus on pay raises and benefits. There were limits to what the UFW could reasonably deliver in this regard, and many farmworkers were lured by the Teamsters, who began negotiating contracts with growers after the UFW’s initial success in the 1970s. Chavez was a mystical Catholic at heart; he called his fasts “acts of penance,” not hunger strikes. Paul Chavez told me that he would have gone to Mass every day if he could have.
There are other reasons why the UFW shrunk. After becoming governor in 1983, George Deukmejian repaid growers for their support by dismantling the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which had been set up by Jerry Brown—a serious blow to the organizing capabilities of the union. The itinerant nature of fieldwork, combined with the fact that today almost no pickers enjoy the legal protection of US citizenship, makes organizing more difficult. Long-term benefits are of little use to field hands who may be deported at any moment and need every penny of their wages to feed themselves and their children. I saw for myself the futility of a UFW representative’s trying to get tomato pickers to sign on to a union pension plan. The concept seemed absurd to them, like being asked to throw their money into the sea.
The shrine to Rufina’s parents was on a boiling two-lane road near the turnoff to North Kern Prison, which we could see through the heat, enclosed in shining coils of concertina wire. PRISON DON’T PICK UP HITCHHIKERS said a sign on the side of the road. On the other side of the road was another prison, for women. Footage from the prisons’ surveillance cameras of ICE agents tearing down the empty road in pursuit of Santos and Marcelina indicated that they had lied when they told Delano police they had not given chase, but they were not prosecuted. A woman on her way to work at the prison had stopped and held Marcelina’s hand through the window of the overturned car while she died. The agents parked a quarter-mile away and didn’t offer assistance. Forty minutes later, an ambulance arrived.
The shrine told the story of Rufina’s parents’ lives: flowers, a can of Arizona iced tea, a pink vase, a cross affixed with a statue of Guadalupe, a bottle of hot sauce, an old automobile headlight, a pot of black soil, a can of Tecate beer. Rufina pointed out a votive candle that someone had placed there since her last visit. It seemed to comfort her. She believed in the invisible presence of the dead. She told me that eggshells scattered on the ground were dropped there by people worried that “what happened to my parents will happen to them.” In a stern voice, as if to make sure there were no misunderstandings, she added, “They said it was my parents’ fault because they got scared and drove away. But it wasn’t their fault, they were just going to work.” An ICE spokesman blamed the deaths on California’s sanctuary laws, which “have pushed ICE out of jails [and] force our officers to conduct enforcement in the community—which posed increased risks for law enforcement and the public. It also increases the likelihood that ICE will encounter other illegal aliens who previously weren’t on our radar.”
The ICE crackdown is only one aspect of a plan to deport all undocumented Mexicans who occupy the lowest rungs of the labor market and to eliminate completely new immigration from south of the border. A movement is underway in Congress to replace these laborers with a vast new “guest worker” program.
Under the current guest-worker law, which is intended to address emergency labor shortages, guest workers are expensive: employers must pay for their travel from and back to their country of origin and provide housing during the term of their contract, which cannot exceed one year. The law is designed to discourage businesses from engineering a labor surplus by importing unlimited numbers of Mexicans and undercutting workers who already live in the US, as growers did under the Bracero Program (whose name comes from the Spanish word for manual laborer) from 1942 to 1964, in response to the agricultural labor shortage during World War II.
A bill sponsored by Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia seeks to weaken—and in some instances abolish—employer requirements, such as mandatory housing and transportation, in order to create a vast pool of two million or more regulated guest workers. Passage of the bill, its sponsors believe, will make it economically feasible to do away with hiring undocumented workers from Mexico and to deport virtually every one of them already living in the US.
Under the Goodlatte bill, guest workers could be hired for up to three years and would be paid the minimum wage in the state they are brought to—$7.25 in Texas, $8.25 in Florida, $10 in Arizona, $11 in California, all states that use a substantial number of farmworkers. Crucially, they would not be allowed to bring their spouses or children. And they could only work for the contractor who hired them. If they experienced wage theft or maltreatment on the job, they would have no recourse to seek justice or find work elsewhere. If fired, they would be immediately deported, at their own expense. If they fled, they would be hunted as outlaws. At least 10 percent of their wages would be withheld until the contract expired, to make sure that they left the country.
I asked Arturo Rodriguez (since retired as UFW president) if such conditions would attract significant numbers of workers. He assured me that they would: “Farmworkers in the south of Mexico make the equivalent of between $10 and $13 dollars a day, so it’s worth it to them to come here, even with the restrictions. As it is, they have to bribe recruiters in order to be chosen for guest work.”
The Goodlatte bill was defeated in Congress earlier this year. But a revised version has the support of 203 Congress members, only fifteen votes short of the number needed for passage. Speaker Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who represents part of the San Joaquin Valley, have indicated their desire to bring it to a vote again before the new Congress is sworn in in January. Nationwide, two hundred agricultural groups back the bill, including the American Farm Bureau Federation. California growers oppose it because it includes a requirement that employers verify the legal immigration status of their workers. The requirement, said thirty California agricultural groups, would “devastate” them. The growers I talked to want a timely and sufficient supply of cheap labor to harvest their crops that they can easily control. The current system has served them well for a century. Until the Goodlatte bill or any other program guarantees them cheap labor, they will continue to cooperate with California’s policy of barring ICE from workplace raids and roundups.
As things stand, there is a labor shortage the magnitude of which hasn’t been seen in at least ninety years. It has prompted growers to rip out labor-intensive fruits like table grapes and plant almond trees, which require relatively few workers. Housing costs, especially in the Coastal Valley, have made it even harder to attract and keep workers. In recent years, millions of dollars’ of unpicked crops have been plowed under or left to rot in the fields.
“We’re all competing for the same worker,” said John D’Arrigo, president of D’Arrigo Brothers, the largest lettuce and broccoli grower in the Salinas Valley, with 38,000 acres under cultivation. D’Arrigo’s antilabor practices were the reason for an acrimonious lettuce boycott in the 1970s, led by Chavez and the UFW. Last summer, the company signed a contract with the UFW, for the sole purpose of ensuring itself a steady workforce. Fifteen hundred lettuce pickers will get $13.35 an hour and full medical coverage from the union health plan paid for by D’Arrigo during the months that they work. In exchange, the UFW will use its radio network to put out the word that D’Arrigo is a good employer and make sure that when D’Arrigo needs them, pickers will be in the fields.
—This is the first of two articles on California.
It is set to rise to $12 per hour in 2019, $13 per hour in 2020, and $15 per hour in 2022. ↩
As of 2014, 5.8 million unauthorized Mexicans live in the US, down from 6.9 million in 2007. About 30 percent of these reside in California, more than in any other state by far. ↩
The story of British novelist Penelope Mortimer is, in part, the all too familiar tale of a woman writer plagued by her readership’s inability to separate the life from the art. This situation was made all the more complicated because Penelope drew so very heavily on her lived experience when it came to the fiction she put down on the page. As debates around this issue still rage today, despite the fact that Penelope’s books, published between 1947 and 1993—nine novels, a short story collection, two volumes of memoir, and a biography of the Queen Mother—languish for the most part out of print, there’s no better time for readers to discover both the fascinating story of her life, and her once highly acclaimed writing.
In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the Mortimers—John and Penelope, and their six children—proved irresistible to the press. As was observed in the double profile of the husband and wife that ran in the regular “Personality of the Month” column in the October 1958 edition of Books and Bookman magazine, the Mortimers “are not just literary personalities. Their large and happy-looking family are frequently photographed and have received attention from both the popular and the more sober representatives of the press.” Fittingly, the accompanying photograph shows the couple surrounded by five of their six children. John combined his esteemed position as a barrister with an increasingly high-profile writing career, producing hit novels, plays, and film scripts, as well as short stories, reviews, and a weekly column (under the pen name Geoffrey Lincoln) about life at the Bar for Punch. His home life with his beautiful, talented novelist wife, and their brood of children, was seen as equally enviable. In the double-page spread featured in the 1960 Christmas issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, John and Penelope describe the festive holiday traditions in their home. As the piece points out, the Mortimers are not the “usual” family. In addition to writing novels, and journalism for The Observer, and The Sunday Times, Penelope was a regular fiction contributor to a variety of magazines from Lilliput to The New Yorker.
One of the stories she published during this period was “Such a Super Evening,” which appeared in the former in 1959. It’s narrated by an unassuming housewife who can’t believe her luck when a famous couple accept her invitation to dinner. Nothing short of “an institution,” the fictional Mathiesons “symbolize a whole way of life.” They’re the parents of eight “remarkable” children, but they’re also both “fantastically successful writers,” full of energy, humor, and intelligence. “None of the stories could accurately be described as fiction,” Penelope later explained, making no secret of the fact that she “mined” her life for ideas; “the moment I fabricated or attempted to get away from direct experience The New Yorker regretfully turned it down.” But “Such a Super Evening” is not a case of shameless bragging. As the night progresses, the gleam of the Mathiesons’ glamour is tarnished, and their apparently perfect marriage is exposed as anything but. He reveals that his wife’s famous energy comes courtesy of “American pills,” while she’s quick to disabuse the fawning company of her husband’s commitment to either work or family. Rather than revel in everyone’s admiration of his children, Mr. Mathieson boasts about how he uses them in a tax evasion scheme before confessing that not all of them are his anyway, at which point Mrs. Mathieson erupts in violent hysterics. The story is a scathing satire of Penelope’s own family. Admittedly, the more egregious abuses here are the figments of the author’s imagination, but a kernel of truth underlies the story: her and John’s marriage was far from as perfect as it looked to the outside world.
What the many profiles and accompanying photo shoots of the famous Mortimer family didn’t show was the overdose Penelope had taken in early 1956, or the affairs John was having and would continue to conduct through the end of their marriage in 1971. They don’t portray Penelope’s own dependence on pills, her unhappy visits to a psychiatrist, or her frustrations with the demands of domesticity. The all but forced abortion and sterilization she underwent in the spring of 1961 is hard to reconcile with the photos of this picture perfect family that precede it, especially the striking portrait of the couple that ran in The Tatler in 1961, in which, against the backdrop of an elegant-looking bookshelf-lined room, the beautiful Penelope sits at her desk, cigarette in hand, gazing beatifically up at John who’s resting his right hand on her typewriter. When she put pen to paper only ten months later in November 1961 to write what would be her most successful novel, The Pumpkin Eater (republished in 2011 by New York Review Books), about a housewife’s breakdown following the collapse of her marriage—she finds herself suddenly and without warning openly weeping in the Harrods linen department, “sprinkling the stiff cloths with extraordinarily large tears”—it was a depiction of familial disharmony that was revolutionary for its time. Thereafter, Penelope’s writing was an ongoing attempt to construct a self that society continually denied her. She spent the remaining thirty-eight years of her life trying to carve out a public identity that matched how she felt in private, but ultimately it was to no avail. She was trapped as Mrs. Mortimer, mother of six and the wife—then ex-wife—of the more famous John.
Penelope Fletcher married her first husband, the Reuters correspondent Charles Dimont, when she was nineteen years old. By the time she met John Mortimer ten years later, she was already the mother of three daughters, with another on the way—her eldest two had been fathered by Dimont, her third by Kenneth Harrison, and her fourth by the poet Randall Swingler, who, on finding out she was pregnant, disappeared from her life for the next seventeen years. She and John were married on August 27, 1949—the day her divorce from Dimont came through—and went on to have two more children, another girl and a boy. Although Penelope had been writing for years—her first novel, Johanna (published under the name Penelope Dimont), appeared the same year as John’s debut, Charade—wife and mother were the identities that publicly defined her throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. She wrote a column, “Five Girls and a Boy,” for the Evening Standard which proffered advice on topics like choosing schools or organizing birthday parties.
Meanwhile, after signing a contract with TheNew Yorker in 1957 for six stories a year, she also provided the magazine with a “steady stream” of writing inspired by daily domestic life. She published three novels before the decade was out—A Villa in Summer (1954), The Bright Prison (1956), and Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (1958)—as well as co-authored, with John, an account of an Italian summer sojourn en famille, With Love & Lizards (1957). To many, it appeared that Penelope had achieved the enviable work-life balance many women today are still striving for. Behind the scenes, however, things were beginning to come apart. One only needs to look to her short story, “Saturday Lunch with the Brownings,” published in The New Yorker in 1958, to catch a glimpse of the tensions that lay beneath the surface. A put-upon wife and mother, Madge Browning, struggles to appease her husband William as he’s increasingly vexed by their house full of children distracting him from his work and generally getting on his nerves. “What’s the plan?” he demands of Madge as they lie in bed together first thing in the morning. “He meant, she knew, what had she arranged for them today, this compulsory holiday; what had she provided for their entertainment, what meals, expedition, security from disturbance.” Not only does the story speak to the unfair division of labor in the home—what had she arranged to keep the children out of his hair—it also highlights another inequality: between the way William treats his biological daughter Bessie, “his darling,” whom he spoils, and her step-sisters, Madge’s daughters Melissa and Rachel, with whom he’s much less tolerant. Despite the differences between characters, circumstances and settings, like “Such a Super Evening” the year before, “Saturday Lunch with the Brownings” revealed something of the reality behind the Mortimer façade:
If we can just get through lunch, Madge thought, we shall be all right. She beamed at him encouragingly as he picked up the carving knife and fork. It was at times like this, when they were all together and relatively peaceful, that she almost felt they might make a success of it. She had given William roots, set him at the head of a family table, given him something to work for; she had given her own children a home and a father. The picture was as clear, as static and lifeless as a Victorian print of domestic bliss. It was her ideal, doggedly worked for. That, she had told herself, the strong, wise, loving father, is William; those devoted, secure, happy children are ours; that beautiful, gentle, capable mother might, with a stretch of the imagination, be me. This is Saturday Lunch with the Brownings.
Of course, such bliss is short-lived, and by the end of the meal, the family are fighting again. Despite Madge’s rule of never arguing with William in front of the children, she explodes in fury. “You think I’d stay with you and these delinquent little bitches of yours?” William shouts in retaliation. “Get their father to keep them. Go on, go and find him. Tell him to keep the lot of you on his five pounds a week. I’m taking Bessie and I’m getting out.” As Valerie Grove perceptively observes in her biography of John, A Voyage Round John Mortimer (2007), “Penelope did more than milk their domestic life; her stories reflect how deeply and sympathetically she understood her children and how she also felt a fundamental empathy with her beleaguered, over-burdened husband.”
But these weren’t the only issues putting a strain on the Mortimers. From the mid-1950s onward, John embarked on a series of inconsequential, albeit damaging affairs, so it’s no surprise that the subject of marital infidelity preoccupied his wife’s novels during these years. While her tackling of the subject was judged masterful in A Villa in Summer, one critic describing it as “a brilliantly successful attack on one of the most challenging fortresses of fiction: the spiritual and physical relationship of married life,” The Bright Prison was deemed notably less effective. The novel, set over the course of a single weekend in the depths of winter when a couple’s marriage comes under pressure and their family’s life breaks apart, clearly draws on the “black, black time” Penelope describes in her diary:
House in chaos, children rampant; everything wrong. I am enquired into until I feel desperate, hysterical; Pen, Pen, PEN, all the time. And days of bad temper & bad liver & childishness sandwiched between nights which are meant—god knows how—to transform me into a devoted angel. I can hardly stand it, the perpetual personal prying: what are you thinking, feeling, doing, & why? And not a thought or an idea or even a laugh in between it all. Stale. Everything, in this hot & dusty room, stale and over-breathed & under-nourished. During the days, I’ve been working from 10.30 to 3.30; then, after the children are fed & fetched & put to bed, I’ve made a dress for Sally and a coat for Julia. I am sucked dry like the lemon and could scream with this Pen Pen PEN—in fact do scream, which helps nothing.
All the vicissitudes of marriage and motherhood—the confusing contradictions of loving one’s children and finding much of one’s meaning in life as a mother, but so, too, feeling trapped by motherhood itself, and longing to be viewed as something more than a caregiver—culminated for Mortimer in 1961. In February, she discovered she was pregnant for the eighth time (two years earlier a seventh pregnancy had ended in miscarriage). The forty-two-year-old mother of six—her eldest was twenty-three, her youngest only six—was suffering from depression, and her marriage was on rocky ground.
Although she initially embraced the idea of having another child—her short story collection, Saturday Lunch With the Brownings, had been published to tepid reviews the year before (one rather hostile review described the couples in the stories therein as “trivially embittered, chronically quarreling about nothing, filled with a fatigued desperation”), and she thought a new baby might bring her the contentment her writing hadn’t—both her doctor and John encouraged her to have a termination; the former advice on medical grounds, the latter arguing that saving their marriage mattered more. Putting her faith in John, Penelope agreed to both an abortion and sterilization. But while recovering from the surgery in the hospital, the wound in her abdomen still a “suppurating mess,” she discovered that John had been having yet another affair (with the actor Wendy Craig whom herself soon became pregnant, bearing him a son) since the beginning of her pregnancy. The news was devastating.
After a lengthy, near unbearable period of writer’s block, Penelope began work on The Pumpkin Eater that November. She poured her recent experience into it, barely fictionalized, and the writing came naturally: “like being oiled, shining, on ball-bearings once more,” she wrote in her diary. “I went to the basin and was sick,” says Mrs. Armitage, the protagonist, when she discovers that her husband Jake, a very successful writer, advocated for her surgeries because a new baby would have forced him to end the affair he was having. “I could feel the lips of my wound parting, as though my wound were laughing at me.”
Published the following year, The Pumpkin Eater is as close to autobiography as a novel can be while still professing to be fiction. It’s a book that resounds with truth—both Mortimer’s own and that of many women of the era. Shortly before Mrs. Armitage has her abortion, she receives a letter from a Mrs. Evans, who explains that she was prompted to put pen to paper after seeing a photo shoot of the supposedly happy Armitage family in a magazine. Mrs. Evans is married, with three children, and has recently had a hysterectomy, she explains. She toils from morning to night cleaning and cooking, but there’s never enough money and, to add insult to injury, her husband refuses to make love to her anymore. “Please write to me before I do something I’ll regret,” she begs Mrs. Armitage, “because my love for the babies won’t hold me here if things don’t change.” Conscious that the photograph that elicited Mrs. Evans’ letter didn’t tell the full story, Mrs. Armitage struggles to think of how to reply:
‘Dear Mrs Evans, I enclose a cheque for £10. This, of course, is tax free and therefore worth double…’ ‘Dear Mrs Evans, I am about to have an abortion and wonder if you could give me some advice…’…. Dear Mrs Evans, my friend. Dear Mrs Evans, for God’s sake come and teach me how to live. It’s not that I’ve forgotten. It’s that I never knew…. Really, anyone would think that the emancipation of women had never happened.
Penelope’s diary from the mid-1950s is full of tirades against a woman’s lot—“My life has been measured out in meals, socks, little bloody Noddy,” she wrote only six weeks before starting The Pumpkin Eater—and outrage at the fact that few told the “ridiculous truth” about motherhood and domesticity. Seven years later, she did just that. “[A]lmost every woman I can think of will want to read this book,” wrote Edna O’Brien, then just enjoying her meteoric rise as a fiction writer who brought a new realism to the lives of young women on the page, of Penelope’s magnificent novel when it was published. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond the reviews were equally euphoric: “a subtle, fascinating, unhackneyed novel,” wrote the feminist author and critic Elizabeth Janeway in the New York Times. “Mrs Mortimer is toughminded, in touch with human realities and frailties, unsentimental and amused. Her prose is deft and precise. A fine book, and one to be greatly enjoyed.” Not that Penelope could enjoy these glowing write-ups—she was recovering from the overdose she had taken at the beginning of September, and the subsequent hospitalization and ECT treatment she underwent.
Somewhat tragically, while The Pumpkin Eater cemented her professional reputation, it did little to free her from the bonds of domesticity; it simply made her famous for writing about them—it remains the best-known of her books. In early 1962, despite naming Penelope as one of the “Top Women in literature today,” the feminist writer and critic Elizabeth Coxhead also complained about her—and other contemporary women writers’—narrow outlook. “[I]t is curious,” she writes, “that though life offers a woman so much more scope than it did in George Eliot’s day, none of these writers have her breadth of interest. They keep mainly in the world of acute sensibility, whose most noteable [sic] explorer was Mrs. Virginia Woolf.” Coxhead elaborates on her observations in Books and Bookmen magazine:
It would be unfair to say that they [Coxhead names Penelope, alongside Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, and Elizabeth Jane Howard] have only one theme; but the anguish of love betrayed so haunts them that it eclipses all the rest. Reading them, you would never know there had been a movement of women’s emancipation—and indeed, for the young married woman of the middle classes, there hasn’t. She is the one to whom our society has given a thoroughly dirty deal, by shutting her up in a suburban house or flat with a family of small children and a lot of gadgets, and no intellectual outlet—except, of course, to write novels.
Penelope and John struggled on together for the next decade before eventually divorcing. The novels she published during these years are both attempts to make sense of the aftermath of the conflicts portrayed in The Pumpkin Eater and efforts to reinvent her identity without John by her side. Her 1971 novel The Home is The Pumpkin Eater’s sequel in all but name. “[A]lone, untrammelled, a free human being,” for the first time in her life, Penelope’s heroine—another surrogate for Penelope herself—Eleanor Strathearn is starting over again after twenty-six years of marriage. She’s “rediscovered energy that she thought had long ago died,” but harnessing this in the service of a future proves nearly impossible.
Later, in her diaries Penelope described herself as a “Handicapped Parent” during these years. “[My children] longed for me to grow up, leave home, have a successful job, get married. But I couldn’t.” Much of this, she understood, was gendered. “If I were a man I’d take on or marry a young wife; possibly have children; sit in my study and work away while life went on round me, always on tap.” She didn’t need to mention John by name; it’s clear she was thinking about the freedoms society afforded him and denied to her. He didn’t find it hard to reinvent himself either professionally or personally after their divorce. He immediately went on to build a new life with the woman who later became his second wife and bore him two more daughters, yet “husband” and “father” were not identities that ever limited him. On the contrary, he enjoyed kudos for his conquests; he was often described, with shades of admiration, as a famous “womanizer.” By comparison, Penelope’s efforts to make sense of the woman she was now—no longer a wife, nor a mother able to bear any more children—was made even harder because of the public’s inability to separate the writer from her writing. Punishment particular to a woman.
In October 1972, doctors advised Penelope that she needed a hysterectomy. “Once…there was a young man called John Mortimer,” she writes melancholically in her diary. “Now it’s lawyers & hysterectomies & John Mortimer distant, tiny, remote, gesticulating at the wrong end of a Fallopian tube.” She has the operation in January 1973, and, like her sterilization twelve years earlier, it plunges her into another deep depression. But history repeated itself in more ways than one. Just as her breakdown in 1961 bore creative fruit in the form of The Pumpkin Eater, this time around she produced Long Distance (1974), which she considered “the most important achievement of my career.” Written that summer of 1973, during a residency at Yaddo, it’s a continuation of her autobiographical project, although the novel doesn’t adhere to the traditional mimetic qualities of her previous works. Instead, it’s a fragmentary and hallucinatory account of her unnamed protagonist’s desperate journey through an unspecified institution—part Yaddo, part hospital—that clearly draws on Penelope’s experiences of being hospitalized for depression. Her narrator is “a blank slate, an empty glass,” someone who’s doomed to “repeat experience until it is remembered.” So, too, does the novel’s narrative loop back on itself, dream and reality converging, past and present overlapping, and the narrator experiences her fragmented sense of self as a physical splitting.
Without doubt, it’s Penelope’s boldest bid to start over, both as a woman and as a writer. As the critic Ronald Blyth noted, “The sexual and spiritual progress of female middle age has rarely received such an excitingly imaginative treatment.” And while it was published in The New Yorker in its entirety, something the magazine hadn’t done since J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters in 1955, the novel failed to have the impact Penelope hoped. The figure of the broken housewife was one the public could rally around. That of the middle-aged divorcee battling her demons in order to secure for herself a fresh start apparently, less so.
“I have to go on from LONG DISTANCE,” Penelope wrote in her diary four years after the book was published. “That ‘body’ of domestic novels isn’t enough.” She was all too aware of the fate of the authoress whose work is maligned, dismissed as inward-looking and unimportant. Later that year, she left London and moved to a hamlet in the Cotswolds, which provided her with the setting for her ninth and final novel, The Handyman (1983). “She no longer knew what her role was,” Penelope wrote of Phyllis Muspratt, her middle-aged protagonist who buys a country cottage following her husband’s death, “pulled this way and that, protected and unprotected, assumed to be dependent on those who ought to depend on her and independent by those who didn’t know how to treat her as a solitary woman.” Reflecting her own battle for self-realization, the figure of the solitary woman would preoccupy Penelope for the final two decades of her life.
Two unfinished, unpublished novels haunted her during this time. The first she began almost immediately after her divorce, describing it as “a swan song, a huge, rambling story told by a grossly fat old woman I called Agatha. Everything I had ever thought, felt or experienced would go into Agatha, except that there would be no children. In this way I might discover the person I was before I married […] the person I needed now my tenuous thread with the future was broken.” If Agatha was driven by Penelope’s desire to rediscover the woman she had been before three decades of marriage and motherhood left their indelible imprints on her identity and body, the other work in progress that increasingly consumed her attention—a grand novelistic retelling of King Lear which replaced the domineering father figure with a formidable matriarch—was tied up in Penelope’s attempts to make sense of the lonely future she found herself facing.
Lear is also a project that sheds light on the biography of the Queen Mother that Penelope published in 1986. Considering her royal subject in a very particular context—a woman who had been a constitutionally enshrined, living embodiment of widowhood for over thirty years, her very title implying “the lonely eminence of a widow, a solitary female relic of the previous reign”—allows us to see the book as something other than the puzzling aberration in Penelope’s canon that it’s been all too readily dismissed as. The Queen Mother was fifty-two years old when she was widowed, only a year younger than Penelope when she and John divorced. By the time Penelope came to write this biography, she had had more than a decade of first-hand experience feeling like the “solitary female relic” of what had once been widely promoted as her and John’s glorious reign. And while the intervening years had only seen John become more and more famous, Penelope’s prominence was steadily dwindling.
Contrary to the impression I might have given here, Penelope lived an extremely interesting life in the years following her divorce from John. Throughout the 1970s, she split her time between the UK and America. There were her two residencies at Yaddo—during the first she wrote Long Distance; while she used the second, five years later in 1978, to write her first memoir, About Time: An Aspect of Autobiography (1979), which went on to win the prestigious Whitbread Prize—as well as periods spent teaching, at The New School and Boston University. She also made a great many interesting friends in America: Penelope Gilliatt, The New Yorker’s film reviewer; Kurt Vonnegut; Edmund White; and the film star Bette Davis among them—her encounters with the latter, as described in Penelope’s second memoir, About Time Too (1993), are nothing short of fabulous (on settling Penelope into a cottage the actor had rented for the writer, Penelope writes how Davis “showed me how the dishwasher worked, broke a number of plates, swore a great deal, prepared me a supper of southern fried chicken, told several scurrilous stories about Joan Crawford and finally left.”)
However, despite personal and professional successes, Penelope continued to be stalked by depression, along with a gnawing sense that she hadn’t achieved what she should have. She felt stifled by the woman she’d once been, Mrs. John Mortimer, mother of six, author of The Pumpkin Eater, a novel that although still admired was fading into relative obscurity with every passing year. Although The Pumpkin Eater had resonated so poignantly with O’Brien, the Irish writer was twelve years younger than Mortimer, and that age gap, slight as it was, made all the difference. O’Brien’s rebellious voice may have resulted in the banning of her fiction in her homeland of Ireland, but it won her acclaim in England and thereafter in America too. Her debut, The Country Girls (1960) kicked off the decade of the sexual revolution and women’s liberation. When Penelope had published her first novel thirteen years earlier in 1947, the world had been a very different place, and she found herself still trying to fight her way out of the sexual stereotypes of the 1950s—the decade during which she came of age both as a writer, and a woman—long after she’d left those years behind.
Her story is also a lesson in the damaging effects of the term “woman writer,” and the many inequalities stemming from the association. When Penelope died in 1999, the legacy that remained was the same one she’d spent the previous four decades trying to escape. As she put it in her last book, About Time Too, which was published only six years before her death: “The outside world identified me as ‘ex-wife of John Mortimer, mother of six, author of The Pumpkin Eater’ [in that order]—accurate as far as it went, but to me unrecognisable.”
The wonders of the Royal Academy’s “Oceania” exhibition begin with the evocation of a myriad islands, scattered over more than a third of the earth’s surface. “Tell them what it’s like / to see the entire ocean level with the land,” recites Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, in a video in the first room, from her poem about the Marshall Islands:
tell them we are descendants of the finest navigators in the world tell them our islands were dropped from a basket carried by a giant tell them we are the hollow hulls of canoes as fast as the wind slicing through the pacific sea.
“Oceania” is not the historical, ethnographic show that Western museum-goers might expect. At the entrance a shimmering wave of blue material cascades from the ceiling. Titled Kiko Moana, this flowing wave uses ancient techniques of weaving, embroidery, layering, and cutting, but it’s a contemporary work in polyethylene and cotton, created by four Maori women from the Mata Aho Collective in New Zealand who have also compiled an online archive of stories about the supernatural spirits of the waters. Old and new technologies meet.
A constant oscillation between tradition and modernity runs through the exhibition, organized jointly with the Musée du Quai Branly—Jacques Chirac in Paris, which brings together objects from over twenty European museums as well as from New Zealand. The curators, Peter Brunt and Nicholas Thomas, insist that the arts of the Pacific should not be seen as idealized historical objects. Instead, their “real meaning” lies in the successive transactions from the eighteenth century to today—as gifts, objects of trade, and trophies of anthropologists and collectors. If this feels like a saga of plunder, “Oceania” makes it clear that exchange is a two-way process, and although the show marks the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s first voyage in 1768, its focus is not on Western expeditions but on the indigenous art of the diverse island cultures themselves.
For the islanders, the sea is their home: most dwellings are built on the water, except for those of communities in the uplands of the largest islands. But the ocean is also a road. Tahitian cosmological charts show the ancestors sailing star canoes across the heavens, the creator god Ta’aroa making his body into the first canoe and his descendants skimming over the waves to bring groups of islands up from the deep.
Photo by Marianne Franke/Museum Fünf Kontinente, MunichFemale tattooed figure, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, eighteenth or early nineteenth century
The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa TongarewaTene Waitere, Tā Moko panel, 1896–1899
Photo by Derek Li Wan Po/Collection Eugen Paravicini, 1929/Vb 7525/Museum der Kulturen BaselCanoe prow figure nguzunguzu, Marovo Lagoon, New Georgia Archipelago, Solomon Islands
The actual canoes displayed, floating against deep blue walls, are objects of strange beauty. A shark-fisher’s canoe from Wuvulu, north of New Guinea, dug from the trunk of a breadfruit tree, has piercing finials echoing the shark’s fins. Nguzunguzu, a figurehead from a nineteenth-century war canoe from the Solomon Islands, stares out into the room, holding a pigeon, valued for its ability to fly straight to other islands over great distances. Weather charms, woven around stingray spines, conjure up the great navigators from the Marshall Islands, whose exquisite stick charts, delicate assemblages of wood and fiber and cowrie shells, were mnemonic devices to help them navigate the swells and currents.
The settlement of the Pacific Islands began around 30,000 years ago, but the origin of their varied yet connected cultures stems from the time of the Lapita peoples, who settled the archipelagos of Melanesia and Polynesia around 1350 BCE, finally reaching Hawai’i in the north, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east, and New Zealand in the south between 800 and 1200 AD. One striking wooden figure from Aitutaki in the Cook Islands represents an ancestor who arrived in the canoe of the navigator Ru. Her head-to-foot tattoos tell of the founding canoes, but also of the birth channel and the ways of learning to be a woman—different forms of beginning.
The Trustees of the British MuseumFeather god (akua hulu manu), Hawaiian Islands, late eighteenth century
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland LibrariesTooi [Tuai], Drawing of Korokoro’s moko, 1818
Ancestral memory and ritual have always been central to island life and, at the opening of this exhibition, representatives from across Oceania joined a procession across London to perform ceremonies blessing the works on display. One room, titled “Making Places,” is filled with emblems rooted in place and community. Decorated beams carry carved birds and fish, while extraordinary gable sculptures cast shadows on the walls, including a slim, painted figure from Lake Sentani in West Papua mounted on a huge fish. In all places, at all seasons, the spirits appear, embodied in dynamic carvings, shields, armor, and ceremonial dance wands, clubs and costumes and dramatic masks, like the huge-eyed Kavat mask of the Baining people from New Britain, Papua New Guinea.
The sense of mana, a spiritual power or force connected with authority, is strong in these pieces, and the gods take many forms. Moai Havas from Rapa Nui, is a black, pock-marked hulk of basalt: the name can mean “dirty,” “rejected,” or “lost,” and it’s hard not to feel that this mournful figure, collected on Easter Island in 1868, should return to join its fellows. Other startling images range from the tubular ’Oro, from the Society Islands, woven in coconut fiber, or the fierce, lavishly carved Ki’i from Hawai’i to the austere, startlingly modernist-looking Tino aitu from the Caroline Islands. One can see how the sight of these figures, then labeled loosely, along with Indigenous African works, as “primitive art,” exercised such a powerful influence on European artists like Picasso, Modigliani, Brancusi, and Henry Moore. Their simplicity and boldness, mask-like faces and robust forms—entirely at odds with Western convention—set these European artists suddenly free, as if launched into an entirely different mode of expression and power.
That potent artistic exchange, leaping between cultures and reworking ancient forms in a new present, is in tune with the dynamic of art within Oceania itself. The exhibition illustrates the long tradition in which families, friends, communities, and islands have exchanged gifts: necklaces in whale ivory, shells, and seeds, patterned and decorated barkcloth, and patchwork quilts. These exchanges brought prestige, eased negotiations, and cemented relationships, and it was in this spirit that islanders lavished gifts on the strangers who arrived in the eighteenth century, including the amazing, baffled-looking images of gods, created of feathers, given to Cook in Hawai’i on his final voyage in 1779. Sadly, such gifts failed to conquer tensions: Cook would die soon afterward in a skirmish at Kealakekua Bay. During his three voyages of “discovery” from 1768 to 1780, forty-five islanders had been killed in violent encounters, while many more died of the new, imported diseases, which continued to taint later gifts of friendship.
In 1824, the Hawai’ian King Kamehameha II brought the blazing ʻAhu ʻula feather cloak to England as a gift to King George IV, hoping to strengthen diplomatic ties, but before they even met, Kamehameha and his queen, Kamāmalu, contracted measles and died. Disease is a theme of Lisa Reihana’s hour-long video panorama, In Pursuit of Venus [Infected] (2015–2017) . Stretching along an entire wall, the installation reworks Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, twenty wallpaper panels of Cook’s voyages designed by the French painter Jean-Gabriel Charvet around 1804–1806. Using haunting sound, the video sets animation and scenes acted out by living islanders against the vivid wallpaper background, overturning any notion of benign encounters that still linger from the Romantic period of the wallpaper.
The years of colonization, entangling Oceania with the politics, commerce, and beliefs of the West, also filtered into its art: in a late-nineteenth-century Ngatu barkcloth from Tonga, the British flag joins stylized birds and traditional markings. Across the room, a Maori Madonna and child from the same period has glinting shell eyes and deeply incised tattoos. Art can cross boundaries of all kinds. Island rituals of mourning commemorated the dead while protecting the living from the lingering shades of the departed. To achieve this, the Pacific islanders created malangan, carved and painted forms that were used in ceremonies, performed sometimes years after a death, to release a soul. A fish malangan from New Ireland shown here, with glowing patterns of ochre and black, has narrow, hooded eyes and backward-curving tusks. A smaller fish swims alongside, and a tiny human figure sits in front, perched on the fish’s long tongue, ready to be launched into the afterlife. Conversely, the recovery of past lives is movingly demonstrated in Fiona Pardington’s The Pressure of Sunlight Falling (2010), a set of huge photographs of mid-nineteenth-century life-masks transformed by a subtle use of light so that one feels surrounded by living forms, emerging from darkness.
The far-flung archipelagos face new threats, as climate change brings rising sea-waters to encroach on their shores. The final room of this stunning exhibition returns us to the twenty-first century with John Pule’s vast painting, Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) (2007), where clouds and vines shower down over drawings of war and gods share in the continuing conflict. “Oceania” is a powerful demonstration of art’s capacity to fight the tide of loss, honoring tradition, reclaiming places, histories, and identities, and opening the way to the future. By celebrating the unnamed artists of the past, and those who continue to make work of strength and beauty, the show carries the freight of the sea-tossed Pacific story.
I never could figure out how I felt about my father’s work. Protective, proud that he was an artist. But did I like the pictures? With some, there was and is no problem: the early portraits. Most of these are pencil drawings, and there is no question but that, from the youngest age, he was uncommonly gifted. They look like the naturalistic renderings of nineteenth-century masters, only, somehow, modern. Few survive—two of his mother, with her square, homely face and glasses, and one of his younger brother Joe, when no one knew he would soon die, at twenty; and a magnificent self-portrait in oils, done at sixteen. It was always my favorite of his paintings.
After that, nothing naturalistic, and no drawings from life from him—not until David was in his late eighties. At sixteen, he assumed the art was over. In the next few years, his second-oldest brother, Louis, developed a cough and night sweats. Go to the doctor, Lou! They all said it; they knew what it was. But Lou wouldn’t go; that was why Lou wouldn’t, as if he could stave it off by not hearing the word pronounced: tuberculosis. The six brothers had a single bedroom, three double beds; my father shared with Lou (it was sometime during this period that they were reduced tofive young men by Joe’s death). When Lou’s diagnosis could no longer be denied, he and Dave went off to a sanitarium run by a Jewish charity, in the New Jersey countryside. It was 1936; my father was twenty.
He expected to die, but the exile was the making of him. David took courses in studio art at the “san,” as he always called it. He was also educated there, less formally, in leftist politics, and that affected the art, too. The style is named Social Realism, but it was rarely realistic in this country. It was figurative but highly stylized and all message, symbolic. Whereas those early works of my father’s were intensely about the individuals, about particularities of light and observation, Social Realism elicited images of the generic: every man was an everyman. David Shapiro could have had the career of the successful Raphael Soyer, or possibly of Alice Neel, who didn’t enjoy success until her seventies (though enjoy it she did). Instead, he was dismissive of that kind of work, sneering even—“life class.” He looked up to Orozco, Diego Rivera, leftist New World muralists. Qua career, the one he aspired to might have been Ben Shahn’s, whose work was popular, and poetic as well as political: even Shahn’s prints of Sacco and Vanzetti (railroaded immigrant anarchists) were more soulful than angry, simple, stylized drawings that became emblematic posters for left-liberal causes. Sometimes my father’s work was bracketed with Shahn’s, the more familiar and famous image-maker. This could seem demeaning, like being an also-ran, or validating.
My father felt so much more ambivalence in all of this than the sneering or admiration might imply. Unpredictably, he’d reverse himself and express a contrary opinion, sometimes in the space of one sentence. I yearned for his work to succeed—for him to have what he needed—and I sometimes thought I could see why it wasn’t being snapped up. Though my heart might bleed for the causes Social Realism represented, in the 1960s, when I came of age, the style was embarrassing. It was unironic. It was square. His pain, as he failed to achieve the career he’d been led to expect by early successes, became mine.
After the san, he had gone to the American Artists School, on 14th Street, founded by members of the John Reed Club, one of those infamous “Communist fronts.” That was in its favor. By no coincidence, it was free—a people’s art school. After art school, he won prizes. He’d won prizes for his art in high school, and even earlier. Just as the US entered the war, he was awarded a national prize for a poster: CIO Organizes Oil for Victory.
Teaching first at Smith College, he then accepted a post at the University of British Columbia, followed by a Fulbright fellowship to Rome. It wasn’t long after the war, 1951, and he fell in with a group of leftist Italian artists camping out in what had been the German Academy in Rome, the Villa Massimo. He and the Villa Massimo artists debated socialism, communism, and art. One of the most prominent among the group was Renato Guttuso, known later to English speakers mostly through illustrations of an Elizabeth David cookbook, but with paintings exhibited widely in Europe.
David’s path in Rome also crossed that of the American Robert Gwathmey, whose color-block-style portraits of beaten-down black people sold sturdily; Bob’s wife, Rosalie, showed with the Photo League, another banner outpost of American communism. David worked out imagery in Rome that would typify his paintings and prints for many years, of Italian hilltowns and resigned women in nunlike headdress carrying sticks of bread.
Back in New York in 1954, he was not a famous artist, not a visiting Fulbright fellow, not a resident of the Villa Massimo but another striving son of immigrants, another Russian-Jewish Brooklyn boy, and a father, with two young children to support. Maybe he was perceived as less up-and-coming, or he’d just been away at a crucial time. The art world was undergoing a transformation, a change in orientation. From the time of the Ashcan painters, if not earlier, the drive had been to make American art, not work derived from Europe. In absolute terms, this was impossible, unless you were Native American and probably not thinking of your totem poles or beadwork as art, but it was a widespread impulse, as responsible for Aaron Copland and Martha Graham as for Thomas Hart Benton or Grant Wood.
From 1948, however, Abstract Expressionism was being presented as the avatar of American freedom and individualism, written about, shown, and supported as no American art ever had been. David had come back to the age of the anticommunist McCarthy campaigns hand in hand with Modernism. It felt like a conspiracy against art of his kind. (As he was to discover, this turned out to be true. My mother had begun to write in the 1970s, and together, they published a groundbreaking essay documenting the links between the CIA and the promotion of Abstract Expressionism. Boosted as propaganda for American freedom, Abstract Expressionism had engulfed the center of the art world, New York, with international opinion to follow.)
Quality of work is not necessarily measured by degree of worldly recognition; the two can be grossly out of whack—in either direction. But it is very hard for artists to believe this, to feel it. My father’s career and his standing, as distinct from his aesthetic achievements, was hugely important to him. His dignity was wounded, even though having work shown in New York’s unforgiving art scene was itself an achievement. He had a one-man show at at a 67th Street gallery just off Fifth, with catalogue essays by writers whose names could cause excitement in the art world. His work was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, and shown in galleries around Europe. By the Seventies, in his teaching career, he’d earned the title of professor, with tenure, teaching studio art and art history, on the basis of his standing as an artist (his art-school certificate was not a college degree).
Moderate success felt like failure to him. This is a phenomenon well known in the arts, fields so brutally competitive, subjective, and judgmental. But could he have been more successful if he’d followed up more closely on the works of his that were most aesthetically satisfying to, for instance, me? When my sister and I were dividing his work after our parents’ deaths, it didn’t seem as if the division would be hard: she preferred the later works, I the earlier. It proved not so simple, in that way: whatever the period or genre, there were certain works that were just better, or best. Certain themes, individual examples of which could be excellent, became oppressive in their repetitiveness, but that’s normal: as an artist, you have your donnée.
As we investigated the racks in the barn he used as a studio, pulling out long-unseen work dating back to before our births, we discovered a gorgeous early city scene, mostly black, of apartment windows lit at night in different yellows and whites. There, he found a perfect match of subject to style. It conveys or engenders pathos, a sense of seeing something unaware of being seen, and there’s a wit or humor to the rhythm of lighted and dark windows—not to mention authenticity and familiarity: he had looked at such scenes all his life, long before he looked with any kind of calculation about what images to make.
His best works almost invariably had what that cityscape had: the fusion or coincidence of the decorative element with an exact correspondence to reality, a place where the schematic becomes naturalistic and the literal takes off into metaphor.(Maybe, in that connection, it means something that his first scholarly book was about a nineteenth-century American painter named Washington Allston, who invented the term “objective correlative.”)
His bestselling print had this fusion, and it was unquestionably the reason for its popularity, a work called Winter Walk. It reflected the oneness he felt with the land in Vermont, where he began spending time in the Sixties and where he and my mother moved in 1979. It was marketed through the Associated American Artists gallery on Fifth Avenue, which sold prints that middle-class people could afford, and by far outsold any of his other graphic art, whether offered through AAA or other galleries.
In it, footprints are pressed indentations in the thick paper, white-on-white intaglio, just as real footprints indent real snow; the trees are black, the human figure is a silhouette; in later variations—he did further editions, with a stream or rocks, to meet demand—he kept to this scheme of white-on-white footprints and black figuration, all of which match the way such things appear in an actual snowscape. It has all the simplicity of abstraction and reduction but offers the pleasures of naturalism. The lone figure could declare alienation, as some of his Sixties paintings bathetically did, but it as easily suggests communion with nature.
Similarly, there’s a painting he did of bare trees, black against stippled greens and turquoises, where the rich, bright colors get darker as they move up the picture plane, exactly the way shadow in woods gathers with distance, giving an effect of deepness without explicitly showing it. There are several variations on this image, but only one painting has the ombré darkening and therefore the implied perspective, and it is wonderfully satisfying.
And then there were works both of us really hated, that could make my sister shriek. I think we both had a No, don’t do it feeling about these, a wish that we could protect him from himself. We could hardly bear anything that would justify a negative verdict. The worst examples suffered not because his style changed but because they followed a too controlling and underlined idea; or they made one squirm because the idea was too grand for the expression. There were the alienation ones and the woe-filled ones, both of which felt like hands being waved in your face.
Alienation as a posture and a pose was a trope by the mid-Sixties. Its oxymoronic clout filtered in by way of Existentialism and had its upshot in the pop-culture mandate of cool. Daddy was trying to be cool, which, by dint of its very effort, is uncool, daddy-o. It was certainly that case that, after the collapse of American communism in the Fifties, he was newly alienated. The trouble was, he illustrated this rather than let it merely manifest.
The nadir, I think my sister and I agree, were these woodcuts set behind a sheet of black paper with flaps like shutters—Advent calendars for the self-dramatizingly morbid. (Though I have to admit, they grow on me with repeated exposure.)
Cringe-inducing rather than laughable is a painting modestly titled Who Am I, which depicts Everyman as an artist standing next to his painting which is of an artist next to his painting which, etc.
A variation on it, however, that I am highly willing to entertain, shows the traditional artist in his studio, also titled Who Am I.
But it’s possible that what seems camp to a veteran of the Sixties will look charmingly of its time to a later generation, as my father’s early work does to me. I have more distance on it; it wasn’t created before my eyes (I have a hard time living with my own old drawings). Maybe my sister and I are reacting to the sheer Sixties-ishness of it all. The era is too close to us and too much part of us.
The alienation strain of that period strongly overlaps with the pictures that seem to ask you to feel sorry for the person depicted and, by implication, the painter who felt moved to render that person. (Or to admire the heroic figure, as with one called The Non-conformist.)
There are paintings of mourners and poor people by others that don’t have this effect, and I may only feel it because I am too close to the painter. He wasn’t a complainer or self-pitier—far from it—but his expressions of fellow feeling for me when he thought I was sad told me how deeply he wanted a companion in his melancholy. There is a sad balloon man, a sad rebbe carrying a Torah scroll (Sixties), an early painting of a pregnant woman keening over a coffin, and so on. The sad balloon man perhaps veers too close to a tearful clown. The sad balloon man, though done very straight, makes a nervous resonance with tearful clown or little match girl.
And there was the less ambitious—and maybe more relaxed—work, radically simplified and almost always pleasing, in posters and in handmade cards sent out at Christmas, made of colored paper cutouts, of a piece with the Valentines he gave to my mother each year. You can see the evolution of his style very clearly by the contrast of one from the 1940s, two years after their marriage, and one from the 1980s. (One year he missed: Valentine’s Day, 2005, the day he breathed his last.)
He also tried to make money illustrating children’s books. Only one saw the light of day—Hidden Animals, a kind of Where’s Waldo? of the natural world. Gouache paintings on illustration board for a story about a twin boy and girl’s first day at school, colorful and fully naturalistic, were hung (by me, because I related to them) above the wooden bed he built for my biggest doll. All this work was wantonly discarded when they moved to Vermont.
The Matisse-like cutouts, their patterns and joie de vivre, I did not appreciate as a child, but I do now. After my father died, I found in his studio a small woodcut proof in this style, brown silhouettes of a man and woman bouncing a baby in their linked arms, and a child with arms upraised joining in the jubilation, with hand-lettering in pencil gone over with ink, announcing my birth. I don’t think it was ever printed or sent out—and I doubt either my mother or sister was so filled with joy at the event—but this template now hangs over my desk.
Artists are affected by their times, some fired up by what’s around them, others merely accommodating it to their own manner, and still others entrenched against the popular or new. Any of these may prove to be an adaptive stance, aesthetically or by way of getting noticed. After the early naturalism of the portraits, my father’s work became highly stylized, netted by black lines (not unlike Shahn’s or those of another contemporary better known than David was, Leonard Baskin), with color that was only sometimes mimetic but mostly indulged for its own sake.
Even as he railed at the hegemony of abstraction, however, David moved toward it. As he advanced through middle age, the black lines grew lighter and were often overpainted by color, and the colors grew lusher and were almost never naturalistic. Like Milton Avery, he abstracted from nature but was unwilling to his core to be a formalist—to make work solely about color, line, shape, medium.
He worked with the color families that had been present from his earliest paintings of city scenes—a couple kissing beyond the cone of light cast by a street lamp, a young man against a wall of peeling posters, pigeons flocking for handouts—but the palettes of related color became more dominant as the figurative elements were downplayed.
The hilltowns he began painting in Italy, for instance, had always been rendered in bright blends of related rather than natural colors, in mottled blocks as if mosaic squares made of stippled oil paint. The colors are almost purely pretty, in a way that asks nothing of a viewer except to enjoy, as he had enjoyed the original that inspired the image, uninflected by politics or human emotion as such, or even ideas.
Eventually, a bifurcation between black-and-white and color took place—between woodcuts and paintings. He did a triptych of giant black-and-white woodcuts depicting the assassinations of the Sixties—Kennedy, King, Kennedy—and large woodcuts of other public, politically modulated events, unashamedly work of social commentary. Meanwhile, his paintings were mainly landscapes—recognizable images of mountains, reflecting summers in Vermont, and of waterfalls, streams, rocks, and trees, sometimes as shapes indicated by color, occasionally with the black lines that remained prominent in his woodcuts. He liked to say he was through with the human figure, fed up with people.
For the vigorous years of his life, from his forties into his eighties, this was what the paintings were. The black lines kept diminishing, colors were lush and closely related but were not the colors of what was represented, and the images were figurative but simplified, abstractions in the root sense of subtraction, with incidental detail reduced to the simplest components. In his early work, color is applied smoothly, often flatly. By the time he was in Italy, he was using short-bristled brushes to stipple, resulting in a stucco-like texture and allowing a borderless blending and changing of color like shadows on water. He painted on shiny brown masonite until, in later years, he started working on white, with the black lines mere wisps, fewer angularities, more curves, everything looser. Among these were paintings my sister and I both coveted—some enormous triptychs of sky, mountains, and forest or field; the moon tangled in trees; a lavender and yellow series of sun after rain, extremely light and free.
Toward the very end, bits of life study came back, but through the accrued style and in the sweet colors—blue-greens, orange-yellows, yellow-white, purple-blue-green, shades of pale green and lavender—and also pencil or ink drawings of flowers. He’d done flowers twice in his prime, in vases: one the Vermont chicory I loved to pick, the other probably bougainvillea from our one summer in Mexico, very recognizably in his style—winning one-offs. The later images were of growing flowers, carefully drawn, in an almost affectless style, when he was debilitated by stroke and age. I see them as tributes to my mother’s gardens. More typically, he was also simplifying and schematizing the landscape near the apartment where they spent winters by then, smaller paintings on thick white paper, of ocean waves and desert rocks in southern California.
I used to beg him as a child to paint the way he had in that adolescent self-portrait. It baffled me that he wouldn’t. Now I understand many reasons he didn’t, yet it still baffles me. For all that he railed against abstraction, he appreciated Malevich, Albers, and others, and he had schooled me in their work; it was the hegemony of formalism that was threatening, the way no room was allowed for anything else, just as he came into his prime. Conceptualism was breaking this chokehold when I was a teenager and art student in 1970; by chance I got to know some of its instigators, and was excited by it. For my father, this was betrayal—conceptual art was barely visual and certainly didn’t involve paint. He was disappointed in me—until I pointed out that at least conceptualism legitimized content.
But it’s not as if these aesthetic choices take place in a vacuum, or are even choices. You are of your time, willy-nilly. My father urgently wished to combine his talents and predilections with his politics, and he had been surrounded by those who did so. In that way, his beautiful early portraits probably looked to him jejune, reminders of an unawakened self—too natural. I can imagine this. He was, in a way, in his developed style, having his cake and eating it too: enjoying the play of color, the textures of paint, the rhythms of pure composition while staying close to his heart, to what he cared about in life. That’s what I saw.
But he was entering his work for competitions and shows to the end, and furious when it came back, repeatedly rejected in favor of the work of less accomplished but younger artists. As with many if not most in the arts, he loved the doing; he needed to make the art. But it was his letter to the world: he wanted it to go out into the world, and it was being sent back unread.
He was a professional. What is more, he always had to be “the best,” and he expected to be best. As a youth, he not only won art prizes but also troubled himself to answer a mere seven out of ten questions on tests, since seventy was the passing grade. He and his brother Irving had both been told they had genius-level IQs. Irving spent his entire working life in sales at an anti-aircraft facility. My father did his war work in such a plant—signing the required loyalty oath that he “was not and had never been a member of the Communist Party” while going to cell meetings—and later earned money as a draftsman in the plant where Irving worked. David disdained to use a ruler, trusting the accuracy of his eye: he only measured his drawings afterward.
Perhaps only rare artists can look coldly at what they do, see what they do best, and just do that. But many just do what sells best.In a brief stint as an art reporter, I was startled when, interviewing a number of up-and-comers, I’d spot a work in their studios that, almost always, I liked better than what they were known for—something quirky, playful—and they would deprecate it and say they couldn’t let people know about these, as if they were a vice. In turn, a few of my old classmates began to have work that sold well, to be prominently shown and written about. One who’d been a gifted draftsman and inventive painter had gotten noticed using media in a way that didn’t manifest those skills at all. When I expressed regret at that, he made it clear that this was what was wanted, this was what the dealers and curators chose. Another had created a stir with a style she eventually outgrew but felt her dealers demanded she stick to. This was before people talked about creating “brands,” but that was what these artists had done, created brands, however inadvertently. If Picasso had felt this pressure, we would have seventy years of Picasso Cubism, or maybe just rose-period Picasso.
I wish my father had more of the worldly success he’d craved and expected. I can’t help but feel that if more of his work had been as good as the best of it, he would have, though I’ve seen over and over how what is rewarded is not necessarily the best. I can’t even say that what is rewarded is what sells: what sells is very much a product of how and where it’s offered. Talent is not crucial, neither is skill; sometimes artwork or an artist just has appeal, though this is useless to invoke as a critical criterion, and it is also evanescent—try reading, for example, the most highly touted novels of twenty or fifty years ago. What does matter is persistence, and confidence. But confidence is not a rock. My father had it and also didn’t. And I’ve seen mediocre artists in various media become quite good ones simply because their mediocre work was hailed as better than it was: almost miraculously, this gives them the assurance to do better.
And there’s luck. The luck of being, having, the right thing at the right time, right place. Not remotely a judgment on who you are or the quality of what you do. But everyone, almost everyone, feels the responses of the world as a judgment on their work. It would be almost sociopathic not to. Status affects your very biological condition.
Once, as a high school student visiting a classmate who lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, I wandered with her into the Springfield Museum. At the top of a broad, grand staircase, and intended to knock you between the eyes, was a big landscape—one of Daddy’s! It was like coming by accident upon an intimate friend in a foreign country. I knew the museum owned his work, but so did lots of museums; this was unexpected and made me laugh out loud. His big gallery opening a few years earlier, on the other hand, had been anticipated by all of us as if it were a make-or-break occasion. It wasn’t as though we didn’t know the paintings inside out and upside down, however magnificently hung in the high-ceilinged rooms. It was the people we focused on, and it was a jittery, brittle affair. My mother’s keening at that week’s art reviews in The New York Times—in which the show outrageously did not appear—made me want to hide.
I remember my mother’s telling me about a Henry James story—one I don’t know the title of—about the family of an artist who conspire in revering his genius but in the end (if I’m remembering correctly), it’s revealed that they secretly felthe was not that good. Clearly, she felt this had some recondite lesson for her—but she “believed in” my father’s work. She felt that in worldly things—contacting gallery owners, soliciting recommendations from the well-placed, making necessary phone calls—he got in his own way, angrily refusing to do any of it.
It is my experience that most people in the arts feel a kind of comfort in lacking worldly success. They fight for success, and suffer over it, but it is so much safer not to have it—safer from envy, judgment, exposure; from the dangers attendant on superseding parents or companions—that, either through the work itself or by way of fumbling their encounters with the world, they ensure success won’t happen. But this need for self-defeat doesn’t seem true of my father. I think he naïvely, to the end, possibly through arrogance, expected the work to be its own ambassador. It had once been enough.
To put one’s work out there and not have it hailed is to feel as if one should never show one’s face again. The shame is incalculable. Attention must be paid.
In my early twenties, I couldn’t imagine wanting to hang my father’s work in my apartment. My sister did, and I marveled at it. I was at the age when you want to get away. You need to find out who you are, separate from your family. When I thought of putting his pictures on my walls, it was as if the weight of a frame dug into the back of my neck.
Now I have as many favorites of my father’s paintings on my walls as will fit. At my sister’s place, I delight in seeing such a plethora of his work looking just right in her large, white, airy rooms; I really hadn’t appreciated these big, more abstract works in our old, smaller spaces. But it is also true that I can’t see his work—any more than I could really see his face. There was never a time I didn’t know these images, and know them as an aspect of him. As it is, even coming across a piece of paper with his handwriting sends pangs through me, a wrenching longing to see him again, to talk to him. I never could figure out how I felt about my father’s work.
René Girard (1923–2015) was one of the last of that race of Titans who dominated the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their grand, synthetic theories about history, society, psychology, and aesthetics. That race has since given way to a more cautious breed of “researchers” who prefer to look at things up close, to see their fine grain rather than their larger patterns. Yet the times certainly seem to attest to the enduring relevance of Girard’s thought to our social and political realities. Not only are his ideas about mimetic desire and human violence as far-reaching as Marx’s theories of political economy or Freud’s claims about the Oedipus complex, but the explosion of social media, the resurgence of populism, and the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence all suggest that the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably “Girardian” in its behavior.
In Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, Cynthia Haven—a literary journalist and the author of books on Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz—offers a lively, well-documented, highly readable account of how Girard built up his grand “mimetic theory,” as it’s sometimes called, over time. Her decision to introduce his thought to a broader public by way of an intellectual biography was a good one. Girard was not a man of action—the most important events of his life took place inside his head—so for the most part she follows the winding path of his academic career, from its beginnings in France, where he studied medieval history at the École des Chartes, to his migration to the United States in 1947, to the various American universities at which he taught over the years: Indiana, Duke, Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, SUNY Buffalo, and finally Stanford, where he retired in 1997.
Girard began and ended his career as a professor of French and comparative literature. That was as it should have been. Although he was never formally trained in literary studies (he received a Ph.D. in history from Indiana University in 1950), he effectively built his theory of mimetic desire, in all its expansive anthropological aspects, on literary foundations. Somewhat like Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the site of ancient Troy by assuming that the Homeric epics contained a substrate of historical truth, Girard approached literary works as coffers containing the most fundamental truths about human desire, conflict, and self-deception.
His first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, published in French in 1961 when he was a professor at Johns Hopkins, treated the novels of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Proust as forensic evidence of the essential structures of desire, not just of literary characters but of those who find themselves reflected in them. The prevailing modern belief that my desires are my own, that they arise from my autonomous inner self, is a “Romantic” falsehood that the novelistic tradition, according to Girard, exposes as a delusion (I’m echoing here the French title of the book: Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, literally “Romantic falsehood and novelistic truth”). Instead, he argues, my desires are mimetic: I want what others seem to want. Whether I am conscious of it or not (mostly not), I imitate their desires to such a degree that the object itself becomes secondary, and in some cases superfluous, to the rivalries that form around it.
Girard postulated that between a desiring subject and its object there is usually a “model” or “mediator,” who can be either “external” or “internal.” External mediators exist outside of my time and place, like Amadís de Gaule’s chivalric heroes, who impel Don Quixote’s desire to become a knight-errant; or Lancelot and Guinevere, whose adulterous kiss is imitated by Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s account in canto 5 of the Inferno; or the celebrities whom advertisers enlist to sell us products. The external mediator often figures as a hero or ego ideal, and there is typically no rivalry involved.
With internal mediators, however, we are in the realm of what Girard calls “interdividuals,” or people who interact with one another in the same social world. The internal mediator is my neighbor, so to speak, and is often a rival who arouses hatred or envy, or both at once. In the novels Girard dealt with, internal mediation often involves “triangulated desire” between three characters, two of whom vie for the other: Mathilde and Mme de Fervacques vying for Julien in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, for instance, or Julien and Valenod vying for Mme de Rênal. Even when a character views the mediator as an enemy, the former often secretly envies and idolizes the latter, as in the case of Proust’s Mme Verdurin, who loathed the Guermantes family until she married into it.
A crucial concept in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel is that of “metaphysical desire,” a somewhat misleading term for a common sentiment. We tend to attribute to the mediator a “fullness of being” that he or she does not in fact enjoy. For Girard there is no such thing as fullness of being among mortals. All of us—including the rich, the famous, the powerful, and the glamorous—have our mimetic models and suffer from a deficiency of being. That deficiency nourishes our desires, physical or metaphysical.
The English translation of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel came out in 1965, two years before V.S. Naipaul published The Mimic Men, which seems like a ringing endorsement of Girard’s claims about deficiency. (I don’t know if he ever read Girard.) In the novel Naipaul probes the psychology of elite ex-colonial “mimic men” who, after decolonization, model their desires on their former British masters. The mimic man will never enjoy the “fullness of being” he ascribes to his model, who, in Girard’s words, “shows the disciple the gate of paradise and forbids him to enter with one and the same gesture.” Naipaul’s narrator, Ralph Singh, knows this, yet such knowledge does not alleviate his unhappy consciousness. “We become what we see of ourselves in the eyes of others,” he declares. Girard would most likely deny Singh his one consolation, namely his belief that he is different from, and superior to, the mimic men who lack his own heightened self-awareness.
Girard might go even further and ask whether Naipaul’s mimic men in fact imitate one another more than the British models they share. The whole business gets altogether murkier—and more Girardian—when one considers that Naipaul himself was the perfect expression of the mimic man he defined and despised. The writer’s bearing, speech, racism, and invectives betray an ex-colonial subject mimicking the habits of his masters and the class to which he desperately wanted to belong. In this Naipaul falls well short of the novelists Girard dealt with in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, all of whom, Girard claims, ended up forswearing the mimetic mechanisms they so insightfully depicted in their work.
The common currency of mimetic desire is envy. Envy is a form of hostile worship. It turns admiration into resentment. Dante considered it radix malorum, the root of all evil, and Girard agreed. He claimed that envy is the one taboo that is alive and well in contemporary society—the vice that few will ever talk about or confess to:
Our supposedly insatiable appetite for the forbidden stops short of envy. Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it; we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant. We no longer prohibit many actions that generate envy, but silently ostracize whatever can remind us of its presence in our midst. Psychic phenomena, we are told, are important in proportion to the resistance they generate toward revelation. If we apply this yardstick to envy as well as to what psychoanalysis designates as repressed, which of the two will make the more plausible candidate for the role of best-defended secret?
These sentences come from the introduction to the only book that Girard wrote in English, A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare (1991), which is full of insights into the envy and imitative behavior of Shakespeare’s characters. Proceeding as incautiously as Schliemann did in his excavations, Girard bores through Shakespeare’s corpus to arrive at the substrate of mediated desire that he believed lies at its foundation. Girard plays by none of the rules of the tradition of commentary on Shakespeare, so it is not surprising that the book remains largely neglected, yet one day A Theater of Envy will likely be acknowledged as one of the most original, illuminating books on Shakespeare of its time, despite its speculative recklessness and relative ignorance of the vast body of secondary literature on Shakespeare’s works.
Speaking of “a theater of envy,” in Evolution and Conversion (in French, Les origines de la culture, 2004; the English translation was recently republished by Bloomsbury)—his conversations with Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha, which took place a couple of years before Facebook launched its website in 2004—Girard made some remarks that seem particularly resonant today:
In the affluent West, we live in a world where there is less and less need therefore and more and more desire…. One has today real possibilities of true autonomy, of individual judgments. However, those possibilities are more commonly sold down the river in favour of false individuality, of negative mimesis…. The only way modernity can be defined is the universalization of internal mediation, for one doesn’t have areas of life that would keep people apart from each other, and that would mean that the construction of our beliefs and identity cannot but have strong mimetic components.
Since then social media has brought “the universalization of internal mediation” to a new level, while at the same time dramatically narrowing the “areas of life that would keep people apart from each other.”
Social media is the miasma of mimetic desire. If you post pictures of your summer vacation in Greece, you can expect your “friends” to post pictures from some other desirable destination. The photos of your dinner party will be matched or outmatched by theirs. If you assure me through social media that you love your life, I will find a way to profess how much I love mine. When I post my pleasures, activities, and family news on a Facebook page, I am seeking to arouse my mediators’ desires. In that sense social media provides a hyperbolic platform for the promiscuous circulation of mediator-oriented desire. As it burrows into every aspect of everyday life, Facebook insinuates itself precisely into those areas of life that would keep people apart.
Certainly the enormous market potential of Facebook was not lost on Girard’s student Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who studied with him at Stanford in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A devoted Girardian who founded and funds an institute called Imitatio, whose goal is to “pursue research and application of mimetic theory across the social sciences and critical areas of human behavior,” Thiel was the first outside investor in Facebook, selling most of his shares in 2012 for over a billion dollars (they cost him $500,000 in 2004). It took a highly intelligent Girardian, well schooled in mimetic theory, to intuit early on that Facebook was about to open a worldwide theater of imitative desire on people’s personal computers.
In 1972, eleven years after Deceit, Desire, and the Novel appeared, Girard published Violence and the Sacred. It came as a shock to those familiar with his previous work. Here the literary critic assumed the mantle of cultural anthropologist, moving from the triangular desire of fictional bourgeois characters to the group behavior of primitive societies. Having immersed himself during the intervening decade in the work of Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Bronisław Malinowski, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Émile Durkheim, Gabriel Tarde, and Walter Burkert, Girard offered in Violence and the Sacred nothing less than an anthropogenic theory of mimetic violence.
I will not attempt to describe the theory in all its speculative complexity. Suffice it to say that the only thing more contagious than desire is violence. Girard postulates that, prior to the establishment of laws, prohibitions, and taboos, prehistoric societies would periodically succumb to “mimetic crises.” Usually brought on by a destabilizing event—be it drought, pestilence, or some other adversity—mimetic crises amount to mass panics in which communities become unnerved, impassioned, and crazed, as people imitate one another’s violence and hysteria rather than responding directly to the event itself. Distinctions disappear, members of the group become identical to one another in their vehemence, and a mob psychology takes over. In such moments the community’s very survival is threated by internecine strife and a Hobbesian war of all against all.
Girard interpreted archaic rituals, sacrifices, and myth as the symbolic traces or aftermath of prehistoric traumas brought on by mimetic crises. Those societies that saved themselves from self-immolation did so through what he called the scapegoat mechanism. Scapegoating begins with accusation and ends in collective murder. Singling out a random individual or subgroup of individuals as being responsible for the crisis, the community turns against the “guilty” victim (guilty in the eyes of the persecutors, that is, since according to Girard the victim is in fact innocent and chosen quite at random, although is frequently slightly different or distinct in some regard). A unanimous act of violence against the scapegoat miraculously restores peace and social cohesion (unum pro multis, “one for the sake of many,” as the Roman saying puts it).
The scapegoat’s murder has such healing power over the community that the victim retroactively assumes an aura of sacredness, and is sometimes even deified. Behind the practice of sacrifice in ancient societies Girard saw the spasmodic, scapegoat-directed violence of communities in the throes of mimetic crises—a primal murder, as it were, for which there exists no hard evidence but plenty of indirect evidence in ancient sacrificial practices, which he viewed as ritualized reenactments of the scapegoat mechanism that everywhere founded the archaic religions of humanity. (“Every observation suggests that, in human culture, sacrificial rites and the immolation of victims come first.”)
Violence and the Sacred deals almost exclusively with archaic religion. Its argument is more hypothetical and abstract, more remote and less intuitive, than what Girard put forward in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. The same can be said for the main claims of his next major book, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978; the title comes from Matthew 13:35). There he argued that the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Gospels expose the “scandal” of the violent foundations of archaic religions. By revealing the inherent innocence of the victim—Jesus—as well as the inherent guilt of those who persecute and put him to death, “Christianity truly demystifies religion because it points out the error on which archaic religion is based.”*
Girard’s anthropological interpretation of Christianity in Things Hidden is as original as it is unorthodox. It views the Crucifixion as a revelation in the profane sense, namely a bringing to light of the arbitrary nature of the scapegoat mechanism that underlies sacrificial religions. After publishing Things Hidden, Girard gained a devoted following among various Christian scholars, some of whom lobbied him hard to open his theory to a more traditional theological interpretation of the Cross as the crux of man’s deliverance from sin. Girard eventually (and somewhat reluctantly) made room for a redemptive understanding of the Crucifixion, yet in principle his theory posits only its revelatory, demystifying, and scandalous aspect.
Orthodox Girardians insist that his corpus—from Deceit, Desire, and the Novel to his last works—forms a coherent, integrated system that must be accepted or rejected as a whole. In my view, that is far from the case. One need not buy into the entire système Girard to recognize that his most fundamental insights can stand on their own.
Some of Girard’s most acute ideas come from his psychology of accusation. He championed legal systems that protect the rights of the accused because he believed that impassioned accusation, especially when it gains momentum by wrapping itself in the mantle of indignation, has a potential for mimetic diffusion that disregards any considered distinction between guilt and innocence. The word “Satan” in Hebrew means “adversary” or “accuser,” and Girard insisted in his later work that there is a distinctly satanic element at work in the zeal for accusation and prosecution.
Girard’s most valuable insight is that rivalry and violence arise from sameness rather than difference. Where conflicts erupt between neighbors or ethnic groups, or even among nations, more often than not it’s because of what they have in common rather than what distinguishes them. In Girard’s words: “The error is always to reason within categories of ‘difference’ when the root of all conflicts is rather ‘competition,’ mimetic rivalry between persons, countries, cultures.” Often we fight or go to war to prove our difference from an enemy who in fact resembles us in ways we are all too eager to deny.
A related insight of equal importance concerns the deadly cycles of revenge and reciprocal violence. Girard taught that retaliation hardly ever limits itself to “an eye for an eye” but almost always escalates the level of violence. Every escalation is imitated in turn by the other party:
Clausewitz sees very clearly that modern wars are as violent as they are only because they are “reciprocal”: mobilization involves more and more people until it is “total,” as Ernst Junger wrote of the 1914 war…. It was because he was “responding” to the humiliations inflicted by the Treaty of Versailles and the occupation of the Rhineland that Hitler was able to mobilize a whole people. Likewise, it was because he was “responding” to the German invasion that Stalin achieved a decisive victory over Hitler. It was because he was “responding” to the United States that Bin Laden planned 9/11…. The one who believes he can control violence by setting up defenses is in fact controlled by violence.
Those remarks come from the last book Girard wrote, Battling to the End (2010). It is in many ways one of his most interesting, for here he leaves behind speculations about archaic origins and turns his attention to modern history. The book’s conversations with Benoît Chantre, an eminent French Girardian, feature a major discussion of the war theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), whose ideas about the “escalation to extremes” in modern warfare converge uncannily with Girard’s ideas about the acceleration of mimetic violence.
Toward the end of his life, Girard did not harbor much hope for history in the short term. In the past, politics was able to restrain mass violence and prevent its tendency to escalate to extremes, but in our time, he believed, politics had lost its power of containment. “Violence is a terrible adversary,” he wrote in Battling to the End, “especially since it always wins.” Yet it is necessary to battle violence with a new “heroic attitude,” for “it alone can link violence and reconciliation…[and] make tangible both the possibility of the end of the world and reconciliation among all members of humanity.” To that statement he felt compelled to add: “More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying.” That meaning has to do with the primacy of violence in human relations. And to that statement, in turn, he added some verses of Friedrich Hölderlin: “But where danger threatens/that which saves from it also grows.”
Girard goes so far as to argue that “Christianity is not only one of the destroyed religions but it is the destroyer of all religions. The death of God is a Christian phenomenon. In its modern sense, atheism is a Christian invention.” The Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo was very drawn to Girard’s understanding of Christianity as a secularizing religion, and the two collaborated on a fine book on the topic, Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith: A Dialogue (Columbia University Press, 2010). ↩