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Hive Mentalities


Sam Droege/USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring LabA sweat bee (Halictus ligatus) coated with pollen, 2013; digital composite photograph from the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab’s catalog of native bees. It appears in the book Animal: Exploring the Zoological World, just published by Phaidon.

According to Thor Hanson’s Buzz, the relationship between bees and the human lineage goes back three million years, to a time when our ancestors shared the African savannah with a small, brownish, robin-sized bird—the first honeyguide. Honeyguides are very good at locating beehives, but they are unable to break into them to feed on the bee larvae and beeswax they eat. So they recruit humans to help, attracting them with a call and leading them to the hive. In return for the service, Africans leave a small gift of honey and wax: not enough that the bird is uninterested in locating another hive, but sufficient to make it feel that its efforts have been worthwhile. Honeyguides may have been critical to our evolution: today, honey contributes about 15 percent of the calories consumed by the Hadza people—Africa’s last hunter-gatherers—and because brains run on glucose, honey located by honeyguides may have helped increase our brain size, and thus intelligence.

Bees evolved from wasp ancestors around 100 million years ago. Most wasps are sleek carnivores, but bees are flower-loving, long-haired, and often social vegetarians (the branched hairs that cover their bodies trap pollen, which, along with nectar, is their principal source of food). Their shift to a vegetarian diet had a profound effect on the evolution of flowering plants. If we want to know what a world without bees looks like, Hanson writes, we should visit the bee-less island of Juan Fernández off the coast of Chile, where, despite varied vegetation, almost all flowers are small, white, and inconspicuous. But it is not just gloriously colored flowers that we owe to bees, for many of our crops rely on them for pollination. Both our world and our brains, it seems, have been profoundly shaped by bees.

There are around 20,000 bee species, classified into seven families. The most familiar are the apids, including bumblebees, carpenter bees, and honeybees. The most primitive bees, largely restricted to Australia, are classified into two families that only experts would recognize. Mining bees, which dig nest tunnels nearly ten feet deep and inhabit arid regions, represent another family; oil-collecting bees and a family including leafcutter bees and mason bees make up two more. Sweat bees comprise the final group. In addition to collecting pollen and nectar from flowers, they drink mammals’ sweat for its moisture and salts: as thousands of tiny bee tongues lick deep inside a person’s ears, nose, and other sensitive parts, they can inflict maddening torture; if brushed away they deliver a sting like an electric shock.

Around one fifth of all bee species are parasites on other bees, prompting some bee researchers to recognize parasitism as one of the major evolutionary adaptations of the lineage. The parasites survive either by stealing honey or wax from other bees, or by tricking them into raising their young, much like cuckoos do with birds. And not all bees are social: many are solitary or are flexible in their degree of sociality, depending on temperature or resource availability.

For all their evolutionary diversity and behavioral flexibility, bees are in trouble. In the fall of 2006, honeybee hives across the US “started winking out en masse,” Hanson writes. Apparently healthy bees that set out on foraging trips never returned, leaving behind neglected combs full of honey and broods that became infected with bacteria and other pathogens. Named Colony Collapse Disorder (and colloquially “the Beepocalypse”), the phenomenon triggered the biggest bee research project in history. To date, no single cause has been identified, but several factors, parsed by researchers as “the four Ps”—parasites, poor nutrition, pesticides, and pathogens—have combined to make bees vulnerable.

Franklin’s bumblebee was once found in southwestern Oregon and California, but it hasn’t been seen since 2006. Robbin Thorp, who observed the species before its disappearance, is employed by the US Forest Service to search for survivors. He acknowledges that his work may be futile and the species extinct, theorizing that it fell victim to a pathogen known as Nosema bombi, which reached the US when bumblebees raised in Belgium were imported to pollinate tomatoes in greenhouses. Nosema prevents male bumblebees from having sex. As their bodies fill with Nosema spores they become so heavy that they can’t fly, and their abdomens swell so much that they can’t touch a female in the right spot to copulate. “When that happens, you’re done,” says research entomologist Jamie Strange. “In a couple of generations, it all falls apart.”

Among the most damaging of parasites to honeybees is the Varroa mite, a vampire that debilitates them by sucking their blood. Originally from Southeast Asia, it has infected bees everywhere except Australia, leaving colonies vulnerable to adverse weather and poor nutrition. Incidentally, we often misunderstand what’s needed to keep a bee well fed. “People look across a park or a golf course and think it’s green and lush, but to a bee it’s like a desert or a petrified forest,” says one researcher. As agriculture intensifies, even flowering weeds—an essential part of a bee’s diet—are becoming scarce.

It is well known that bees pollinate many of our crops, yet somehow that knowledge coexists with a willingness to spend over $65 billion per year on insecticides. These chemicals are having a catastrophic impact on them. Unlike insect pests, which quickly become immune to pesticides, bees remain vulnerable. This may be because most pests have had to cope with plant defenses for millions of years. But the plants want bees to visit their flowers, so they don’t chemically defend their nectar or pollen, leaving bees with no experience of chemical defenses. As Hanson puts it, “For the crop eaters, pesticides amount to a familiar—and usually temporary—chemical setback. For bees they’re just a poison.”

Research has revealed the astonishing persistence of chemicals, including pesticides, in the environment. Chemical analyses of pollen, honey, wax, and bees themselves reveal traces of 118 different pesticides, some of which haven’t been used for decades. And the chemicals synergize: some fungicides, for example, can make some insecticides 1,100 times more potent. China’s Maoxian Valley, which has long been renowned for its apple orchards, offers a sober warning of what happens when bees disappear. Beginning in the 1990s, excessive and reckless pesticide use, combined with poor bee nutrition and a lack of nesting spaces, caused both honeybees and wild bees to vanish. Faced with crop failure, orchardists employed thousands of seasonal workers armed with long sticks topped with chicken feathers to pollinate the apple blossoms. But even the most skilled worker could pollinate no more than ten trees per day. Faced with excessive costs, the industry collapsed, and today the only orchards remaining in the valley are a few adjacent to forests, from which wild bees can visit and pollinate the blossoms.

In the spring of 1868, when John Muir made his first visit to California’s Central Valley, he was filled with wonder, describing it as “the best of all the bee-lands of the world”: “One smooth, continuous bed of honey-bloom, so marvellously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than four hundred miles, your feet would press more than a hundred flowers at every step.” Today the great bee pasture is gone, and in its place is a vast plantation where almond trees grow, supplying 81 percent of the world’s crop. For three weeks of the year, almond blossoms offer bees plenty to eat, but because almond trees must grow on bare ground if the crop is to be mechanically harvested, for forty-nine weeks of the year the plantations are bee deserts.

Like the apple growers in the Maoxian Valley, California’s almond growers faced a crisis as bees declined. Colony Collapse Disorder was making it prohibitively expensive for them to bring domestic bees to their crops, and the wild bees were mostly gone. But the growers are now being helped by the Xerces Society, the only major nonprofit in North America devoted to saving invertebrates. Ditches, roadsides, and other areas not used for almond production are being restored to wildflower meadows, in which not only bees but other wildlife is thriving. So popular is the project with growers that even a farm owned by an international agribusiness conglomerate based in Singapore has joined in. Yet such is the extent of the Beepocalypse that the work of the Xerces Society in California’s Central Valley is nought but a tiny ray of hope in a world facing a full-blown bee crisis. Only a major reorganization of agriculture, so that biodiversity conservation on croplands becomes a reality, can turn that around.

The social insects—bees, ants, and termites—have inspired us since at least biblical times: in them we see a zeal for work, a wisdom in providing for the future, and a sense of order that is often lamentably lacking in our societies. But as Lisa Margonelli so elegantly demonstrates in Underbug, when we look at social insects, all too often we see only what we want to see. William Wheeler, an American entomologist who coined the term “superorganism,” offers a cautionary tale in this regard. In 1919 he penned a comic speech from the perspective of a termite king called Wee-Wee, in which the monarch describes a termite utopia inhabited by a “physically and mentally perfect race.” This perfect society, however, has been created by eliminating old, unproductive, or unfit individuals by gassing them with hydrocyanic acid. By the 1930s hydrocyanic acid was known as Zyklon B, and it was used during World War II by the Nazis to murder millions of individuals whom they had decided were “unworthy of life.”

A very different view of termite society was produced by the South African journalist, poet, and lawyer Eugène Marais. After his wife died in 1905, he wandered into the veldt, where he took morphine and studied termites. His Soul of the White Ant, which Margonelli describes as “part close observation, part poetic riddle, and part thumbnail guide to the universe,” is one of the greatest nature books ever written.

Termites are very different from other social insects like ants and bees. They are specialized cockroaches that have become social and miniaturized, and they share a complex ecosystem of gut microbes that enable them to break down cellulose. These microbes are constantly shared between individual termites through a practice known as “trophallaxis,” which involves sharing food mouth-to-mouth and licking each other’s anuses. With an eye to the human love of sharing food, Wheeler described trophallaxis as, in Margonelli’s words, “the superglue of societies both insect and human.” For termites, however, trophallaxis leads to the creation of a colony-wide biodigester that constitutes a shared stomach, just as the structural elements of the termite mound constitute a shared integument for the individuals inside.

Margonelli’s quest revolves around understanding two important aspects of termite biology: their social organization and their astonishing gut flora. Her tale begins in the Arizona desert, where she accompanies researchers as they collect termites for classification and analysis, but it soon focuses on two laboratories where termite behavior and digestion are being studied. Both of the projects she documents, incidentally, are heavily funded by the US military.

When Margonelli first meets the researchers at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) in Emeryville, California, they are working to produce fuel from plant matter by digesting cellulose using microbes found in termite guts. Their goal is to produce biofuel at a price that is competitive with gasoline derived from fossil fuels. Their approach involves sequencing DNA derived from termite gut extract, a task at which they are so successful that they soon become overwhelmed with data. By the time Margonelli completed the research for her book, the team has reduced the cost of their biofuel from around $100,000 to $30 per liter. But the complexity of the microbe assemblage in the termite digestive system is so great that they are unable to scale up the process and reduce costs further.

Héctor García Martín, a Spanish physicist, is the quixotic hero of the JBEI team. He abhors the seemingly ad hoc methods used by the biologists, as well as their view that life is so complex that it cannot be reduced to simple laws. A condensed matter physicist, he wants to understand metabolism, which he describes as the big underlying system enabling life, so that he can reduce it to definable terms. Ultimately, biology defies reduction, though Martín does achieve a small victory by bringing order to the lab’s procedures and reporting methods.

The scientists investigating Margonelli’s second area of interest—termite sociality—are led by the Harvard-based roboticist Radhika Nagpal. When the group turns up at a research station in Namibia, they seem badly out of place. Tied to their computer screens, they rarely emerge to enjoy the glories of the Namibian desert, and when a local entomologist cooks them a feast of game, local sausages, and stuffed squash and calls them to the table, they don’t even look up.

Margonelli describes their research in Namibia as “incredibly strange.” In their quest to make robotic termites, they set up an experiment in which they observe real termites as they modify molded daisy shapes made of colored earth. The purpose is to enable description of termite movement in terms of “chirps.” Chirps are pulses of sound that engineers feed into “black boxes” (mechanisms whose inner workings are unknown) to observe what comes out. Margonelli describes the exercise as “turning an electronic pulse into a termite playground.” Incredibly, the researcher conducting the experiment sees the living termites as “a distraction”: “In a perfect world he would reconstruct what termites do by ignoring them entirely,” says Margonelli.

The robotics researchers imagine that termites are “‘stateless automata’—memoryless identical machines that only react,” and this is the kind of robot they are attempting to create. Yet arguably the biggest single breakthrough reported in Underbug dramatically upended this view of termites. It was made in 2013, when a member of the robotics team worked out how to track individual termites as they go about their work. Immediately, it became clear that each termite is unique: out of a group of twenty-five termites in one petri dish, for example, only two were devoted to construction (though another four helped occasionally), while nineteen “just ran around.” Far from being mindless automata, the termites “do whatever they felt like: dig, take up soil and clean the dish, sit around.”

The only way to interpret these findings, the researchers concluded, was that “the informed individuals have a purpose. They have an opinion.” Margonelli concludes that the function of “informed individuals” as leaders in animal collectives as diverse as fish, birds, and ants, not to mention some human societies, is profound. The strength of the system is that it does not depend on single leaders, yet it takes advantage of their abilities in ways that “reduce the likelihood of following a really eccentric” individual “with a bad idea, which is something humans might want to look into.”

Though they initially entirely misunderstood termites, the roboticists achieve huge success when they manufacture some tissue-box-sized robotic termites (dubbed TERMES) that cooperate to build walls from plastic blocks by following a simple set of instructions. They are the first robots ever to do this, and so signal was their achievement that in February 2014 they made the cover of the prestigious journal Science, and the robotics team was invited to demonstrate them at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Despite their considerable achievements, the TERMES robots are far from the sophisticated swarms of miniature, insect-like automata that some roboticists think will exist in the future. Stuart Russell, a Berkeley-based roboticist, for example, thinks that the Predator drones of the future will be bee-sized and carry a one-gram charge able to puncture a human cranium—“the perfect assassin,” Margonelli says. As Margonelli contemplates the military funding of the robotics project, those future swarms of miniaturized automata begin to worry her. One night, with time on her hands, she Googles the desert in Arizona where her work on the book began and discovers that Predator drones were flying overhead as she hunted for termites. After being used for years to track and kill people in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan, the drones had, “without any democratic discussion,” come to the US.

Mark Hagerott, a navy captain who has served in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, is deeply concerned about robotic warfare. He thinks that we are about to cross a threshold beyond which human empathy will be removed from armed conflict. He spends his days traveling to conferences and warning governments that they must agree to a treaty on robots in war before they deliver “incredible power” to despots. Yet he sees the technological development of the mini-drones as unstoppable, which raises a series of enormously difficult moral choices for governments deploying the new weapons.

As humans become ever more interconnected, and ever more capable of mimicking the complex chemistry and function of insects, how will our future be influenced? Margonelli says that “right now a termite mound is a thing, a construct of fungus and termites and natural history. Someday we will live in it, with all its symbiotic by-products, its paradoxes of abundance and control, and its peculiar self-organized construction.” Despite falling far short of Marais’s The Soul of the White Ant in clarity and poetry, Underbug is an extraordinary provocation. Those willing to follow its meandering arguments may find intriguing clues to humanity’s fate.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/tpHogrGR5pk/

War Song

1937
Beckett got
stabbed by
pliant spear
of a stranger,
one Paris night.
Just missed
the lungs. He,
lean warrior,
spent two
weeks in hospital,
descended upon by
all the Joyces
(James, Nora, Lucia)
and some Becketts
(mother, brother)
and Suzanne,
the girlfriend nobody
knew about yet
(not even Sam),
whom he would marry
fifty years hence
with a flicker of shyness
still in his eyes—no,
I made that up. But
what he does say,
of the two
ancient (Endgame) enemies:
“that’s Suzanne and me!”
Now don’t you wonder
what remarks passed
from Suzanne to Lucia
or mother to Clov
leaning over the bed
in that battle-bright room?
Well, it isn’t bright
(battle) and
no one is
alive who remembers.
Everything I can tell you
about that room or
those lavish souls
is just my own
fear of death blowing around on the floorboards.
Blowing sand around.
You know,
in the old days,
I, a poet,
would lean back
in my saddle,
recite a poem
of sublime sense,
fill you with ferocity,
then together
we’d ride off
over the black sand,
past moonlit ruins,
to our destination,
with not a thought
of food or drink,
and if I, a poet,
were asked
for details
of battle
I’d quote
‘Antarah Ibn Shaddad*
“the antelopes sprinted right and left”—
wondering could I
smuggle a flicker
of shyness into
antelope eyes
and parley
my own death
one more
mighty
moment.

  1. *

    War Songs by ‘Antarah Ibn Shaddad, translated by James E. Montgomery with Richard Sieburth (NYU Press, 2018). 

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/yLbT_cTKaRA/

American Women of the Far Right

In the run-up to the violence last year around the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a woman named Erika, who is active in the white supremacist group Identity Evropa, was busy posting on Discord, an app originally used by gamers but used at that time by some on the far right. She helped organize transportation and housing for the rally. And after Airbnb cancelled the bookings of known white supremacists, she scrambled and found them, via a different rental site, a spacious house outside the city center.

Her terms for agreeing to an interview with me and photography were that we use only her first name, though it’s not hard to find evidence of her racist activism, online and offline. Identity Evropa has targeted college campuses where its pro-white agenda is visible through banner drops, flyer pasting, and the promotion of an “identitarian” politics that advocates for the oxymoronic concept of a peaceful ethnostate. That Saturday night, on the day that Heather Heyer was killed and many were injured, Erika hosted a party where IE and the other far-right activists could celebrate their “victory.”  

It was early evening, but already a handful of women and about a hundred men, many khaki-clad, had gathered—drinking heavily and eating pizza. In a bedroom upstairs away from the party, I interviewed Erika and another Identity Evropa member, and took their portraits. During the second interview, the “alt-right” activist Richard Spencer, who was meeting privately with IE leaders in the bedroom next door, started yelling maniacally about “kikes” and World War II. Several times, I heard him shout: “I rule this world!”

Spencer was then at the peak of his power, before several failed rallies, domestic violence charges, and a high-profile divorce tarnished his reputation. But like his predecessor David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and Louisiana state representative, these slick ambassadors of white power seem to live many lives and somehow find reincarnation in a new tailored suit.

Around 9 PM, members of the League of the South, the Traditionalist Worker Party, and other white supremacist groups started pulling up to the house. A drunken man asked me, point blank, why Jews shouldn’t be gassed as I stood on the edge of an enclosed porch next to him, Spencer, and a few other men. His friend insisted that he was a good guy, just a little worked up. I left the party.

This week, James Fields, the white supremacist who drove a car into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer and injured others, was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. But for the wider question of culpability for that day’s violence, for the massive uptick in hate crimes in America, for the perpetuation of systemic racism generation to generation, embedded in our families and our institutions—we need more complicated answers.

It is a universal truth that women’s work is seldom recognized. But failing to acknowledge women’s part in sustaining white supremacy is not just sexist; it’s a dangerous mistake. For every media report about a white male terrorist who is portrayed as a “lone wolf” or a “madman,” there are untold stories about the women who provide support for, nurture, and connect these groups and individuals. 

In 2017, I began exploring the topic of women who participate in extremist politics and hate groups because, like many East Coast liberals, I was surprised by the number of white women who had voted for Trump. I wanted to meet not just regular women who supported him, but women at the extreme end of the political spectrum. As I pursued the project, I wanted to understand why anyone—especially women—would embrace white supremacy. 

Over more than a year, I met nearly two dozen women, from Manhattan to Montana: white supremacists and nationalists, conservative extremists, the “alt-right,” militia members, conspiracy mongers, Twitter personalities, so-called sovereign citizens, racists, haters, xenophobes, and Nazis. Some were well known; others not.

Lauren Southern is perhaps the most popular female figure on the far right. A media personality with a Twitter following of nearly 400,000, Southern made a film about “white genocide” in South Africa, a conspiracy theory that was picked up by Tucker Carlson on Fox News and led President Trump to tweet about the subject. I also met activists who were elected officials, such as Theresa Manzella, a member of the Montana House of Representatives, who told me that she had to act before Sharia law takes over and establishes no-go zones in her state—like the ones there were already in Michigan, she believed.

Then there were the others like Elaine Willman, a mid-level player in the Montana pro-white activist scene who claims she simply cares about “water rights” but is widely considered anti-American Indian; she told me that we’d already paid the Native Americans for their land once. Or KrisAnne Hall, who, on her perpetual speaking tour, told lawmakers and citizens in the Michigan Capitol building in Lansing (at the invitation of a gun club) that they are not obliged to follow any laws made by the federal government.

While I was working on this project, I learned to conceal my shock and fear. To get the work done, I deflected the rare questions about me, and said, truthfully, that while I didn’t agree with them, I was interested in learning more about their ideas and why they believed these things. Many assumed I was there to show them in a “positive light,” and were thrilled I had called them up and wanted to interview and photograph them—though this was not always the case. Some people declined to meet me, and early in my reporting, I was ejected from a conference of a neo-Confederate hate group and forcefully escorted out by armed men. The night before the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, I drove through the dark woods to a remote cottage without cellphone service and was “tested” by a group of neo-Nazis by being given a piece of pizza with bacon. 

But mostly I met with people individually—though many of these women insisted that their husbands be present. When women brought their children, as a rule, I did not photograph them. In one case, though, a woman who is a one-star brigadier in a splinter cell of the Three Percenters militia group (so called because they see themselves as the successors of the “only” 3 percent of American colonists who, they believe, took up arms against the British) insisted that I photograph her eight-year-old daughter, to whom she has given the nom de guerre “Smiley,” because she is the “future of the movement.”

“The Movement.” I heard a lot about The Movement.

Online, Ayla Stewart goes by the handle “Wife with a Purpose.” Her Instagram posts are mainly about homemaking and baby-making, but she also includes praise for “Trad” German and European culture, and she sells things in her Etsy shop like a drawing called “American patriarchy,” of a mustachioed man with a gun in front of an American flag.

The day we met in a public park in the southeastern United States, through an introduction from Spencer, one of her sons told me he was very excited to have his picture taken because he had a new haircut: short on the sides, long on the top—“fashy,” one might even say. It was a Wednesday afternoon, just five days after Heyer was killed in Charlottesville.

Stewart’s posts on Gab, a no-holds-barred “free speech” platform, are frequently about such subjects as black crime, Silicon Valley’s enabling pedophilia, Muslim crime, the Proud Boys, Holodomor (Stalin’s 1930s terror-famine in Ukraine). She’s also issued a “white baby challenge” with the explicit goal “To End ‘Black Ghetto Culture.’” But, she insists, she isn’t racist. “There are many Black, Latino, Jewish, Asian, American Indian, etc. women who follow me and participate in the trad life hashtag and meme, some are even my best friends,” she wrote me in an email.

Stewart doesn’t need to be openly racist to get her message across. To her, racism means what she calls the “standard classical” definition of judging people “by the color of their skin”; because she believes that she has no personal malice toward African Americans or other minorities, it is therefore impossible and insulting to imply that she is racist. This allows no room for structural racism, internalized power relations, historical disenfranchisement, or nuance. Anyone who calls her a racist is using the wrong definition. Nazism, on the other hand, has three definitions, which she can elaborate with ease: people who are ironically trolling, people who believe in some form of Holocaust revisionism or denial, and then people who are “legitimate” Nazis. These, she argues, are few and far between.

Stewart hates it when people in The Movement use swastikas. Not because she hates swastikas, but because, in her words, displaying them is “unproductive.” Using the same exasperated tone to try to get her youngest child to stop eating the woodchips on the ground of the play area where we chatted, she exclaimed, “Just, yeah, don’t do it!”

Her online presence is carefully curated to separate a white supremacist aesthetic from the more blatant politics of white supremacy. She had more than 30,000 Twitter followers before her account was deleted, and is a darling of various groups on the far right who share in the lifestyle fantasy of homemaking and raising white children.

Offline, she talked openly about being a part of The Movement. The Movement is as hard to define as its membership is to quantify. Ideologies and member rosters are fluid and overlapping, with attempts at deflection and differentiation among groups as a deliberate strategy to avoid detection. Those who seek to show strength inflate their numbers; those who seek to play down being more than just a Traditional Mama with an online following will try to conceal their ties.

Being part of The Movement is about protecting your family and future from perceived enemies—that is, blacks, immigrants, Jews, feminists, liberals, and a federal government that wants to take away your guns and force you to embrace multiculturalism. Parsing the rhetoric of racial separatism, anti-Semitism, anti-feminism, and anti-government activism reveals shared touchstones: to fight for “white rights” is always a fight against minorities. To fight against the government is to reject laws protecting civil rights. To fight for a “traditional lifestyle” is to fight for a return to a time when those laws did not exist. To fight for “land rights” is to insist that indigenous peoples’ claims to the land are not valid. To fight for “white children” is to follow in the footsteps of the coalitions of white mothers in the 1960s who resisted mandatory school integration.


Glenna GordonSelf-styled National Socialist Matthew Heimbach and his wife, Brooke, Indiana, 2018

In February, I met Matthew Heimbach at a Denny’s in French Lick, Indiana. He wore a T-shirt featuring Oswald Mosley, a British fascist leader of the pre-war period, and ordered a giant omelet. Heimbach is one of the most prominent young leaders of neo-Nazis in America, though he prefers to say that he’s a National Socialist. Before I got there, he told me that I couldn’t meet his wife, Brooke. (Earlier this year, he was arrested on a charge of assaulting her, and another woman in their group, in an alleged domestic violence incident.) But once we met, he changed his mind. After breakfast, we headed to their house in nearby Paoli.

Brooke, baby-faced and sweet, welcomed me kindly to her home. She had a clear conversion narrative. Like many white nationalists, her path to living with a Nazi began at home. Her stepfather made a racist podcast that she used to listen to, and when she was nineteen, he let her accompany him to a conference held annually by American Renaissance, a group led by Jared Taylor that promotes eugenics and other racist theories. She worked at a book stall, where Heimbach purchased a book inspired by Mussolini’s regime. He asked for her phone number, which she wrote in the book.

“There is no way to separate what seems like women’s benign actions and what we see as hate at crimes,” Kathleen Belew, a historian of white supremacy and the author of Bring the War Home, told me. “Without women, they [the men] could not have done so much violence.” And without women’s providing the social glue for The Movement, Heimbach would have neither the personal capital that helps forge links to other groups, nor the veneer of “family values” and legitimacy that Brooke gives him.

The day after I met Ayla Stewart, I drove to North Carolina blasting the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away” on my rental car stereo. The next stop on this roadtrip of hate was to meet Chris and Amanda Barker, the Grand Dragon and Imperial Kommander, respectively, of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Chris may be the Grand Dragon, but it’s Kommander Amanda who gets much of the work done: sewing robes in her spare time, hanging with the klanswomen in the kitchen, baking hams before the rally. Ladies’ Auxiliary units maintain contacts, mail coupons, and send baby baskets year-round—because life is too busy to set crosses on fire every weekend. Amanda spoke of her Klan Family because it’s white women who have always kept the Klan together—from its heyday in the 1920s to the present.

“Women’s suffrage was the catalyst that brought women across the political spectrum together, but once their initial goal was achieved, any sense of unity went out the window,” Vegas Tenold, the author of Everything You Love Will Burn, a book about the recent uptick of white supremacism in America, told me. “White, Protestant women who had discovered their political voice during the suffragette movement now decided to use that voice to maintain white hegemony.” And while the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed white women the right to vote, this wasn’t something black women secured until the 1960s.

To be in the Klan is to believe that you live in an unfair world where you’ve been deprived of what’s rightfully yours and everyone is your enemy except these people who wear the same robes and the same secret Klan words. These people are your friends. When they all dress up together, they perform rituals that make them feel important, remind them of their membership and of their enemies, who are lurking everywhere except for the group encircled around that burning cross. They call their rallies “Lightings,” not burnings. While they’re intended to inspire terror, they’re also opportunities for family picnics.

Several months after our meeting, in August 2017, Amanda sent me an email inviting me to an “Imperial Klonvocation,” offering me journalist access for a $500 fee. She urged me to book soon—“Media slots will be going fast.” I replied that it was a violation of journalistic ethics for me to pay for access. They offered a discount rate, but I never went. After all, I thought, a burning cross picture is a burning cross picture: there are plenty of such images in historical archives and this is how they want to be seen—terrifying, anonymous, powerful.

The reality of Klan living—on a back road in Pelham County, North Carolina, without cell phone service—was neither grand nor imperial. In their shabby living room, months earlier, Amanda had showed me artifacts from a chest filled with antique Klan paraphernalia. The Barkers were broke and planning to auction stuff on eBay.

One Saturday morning in April, which is officially Confederate history month, I drove to a cemetery in Raymond, just outside of Jackson, Mississippi, to meet members of the Order of Confederate Rose, which describes itself as a Southern heritage society. There in the cemetery, a half-dozen women, accompanied by men wearing Confederate soldiers’ uniforms, had dressed up as “Black Roses”—in mourning gear of black hoop skirts, veils, and hats—to lay wreaths on some graves.

Afterward, at lunch, when I tried to push them to acknowledge that they were dressing up as slave owners, they dodged the issue. They insisted that people dress up as Union soldiers, too. When I pointed out that no one dresses up as slaves, one of them said that she wished they would. Another member, a leader of their chapter of the Order, is a public school teacher. She’s not racist either, she said; after all, she has black friends. There have been problems for her at her school when Facebook posts about her Rose activities emerged, but that has nothing to do with the group’s politics, she insists, just problems at her school.

“It’s not that I want to forget [slavery],” another member Tara Bradley told me. “It’s not that I try to pretend it didn’t happen. I don’t. It happened, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Bradley said that only 5 percent of Southerners owned slaves. In fact, in Mississippi in 1860, nearly half of families did.

Bradley brought her twelve-year-old daughter to the cemetery and to lunch. She’s not old enough to formally join the group yet, so she’s still a “Rosebud.”  

For some groups within The Movement, racism is the primary reason for their existence: they believe in myths about persecuted whites, and that genocide and race war are imminent. For others, racism underscores their actions, and is implicit but secondary to their activism. And for women in The Movement, many find meaning in providing the wombs upon which the collective future of the white race depends. Some are maternal archetypes for all the men who didn’t come home from school to milk and cookies; others are beautiful plastic Aryans peddling an illusion of availability.

Women like Amanda and Erika also do the grunt work of pro-white activism. And women like Tara and Ayla follow the time-honored tradition of bringing up racist children—that #trad lifestyle they admire so much that once included taking the family out for a day’s entertainment at public lynchings. These women present outsiders with an “acceptable face” of white supremacy, a soft, palatable point of entry with the nostalgic glow of an idealized, wishfully apolitical past. This attempt to neutralize the stigma of more overt racism makes women of The Movement valuable recruiting tools, far more insidious than skinhead thugs or robed Klansmen. To understand the radicalization of white supremacy in the United States, we need to comprehend its roots as a complex, extensive ecosystem with unexpected hubs of power.

In the aftermath of the violence at Charlottesville, many said, “This isn’t America!” But this is precisely America: from slavery to segregation, the violent reinforcement of hierarchies through lynchings to Jim Crow, mass incarceration to police brutality, nothing is more American than racism. It is built into our institutions and psyches. And nothing ensures the survival of white supremacy like denying white supremacy. This isn’t just about extremists and those whose symbols are more legible as white supremacy: this is about the way America is built on the foundation of white supremacy, and the way those at the farthest ends of the spectrum influence the middle.

It is difficult to look at the painful reality that we share this country with racist extremists. Many argue that we shouldn’t cover the far right, that it gives them oxygen and that we are better-off depriving them of a platform. The problem is they already have a platform—their own—and they aren’t going away. We must look critically at these groups and who holds power and how their ideas enter the mainstream. It’s not just about their performative hoods, but who the people in the robes are, and who is signaling more quietly but just as dangerously.

Much has been said and written about the “toxic masculinity” of the far right and white supremacy, but on the other side is a toxic femininity just as invested in the idea of a whiteness as victimized, at risk, and requiring protection. Not all extremists are equally racist or equally dangerous, but everyone I spoke to contributes to that exclusionary and poisonous discourse. For some I met, their de facto membership in The Movement is a fundamental way of life, an identity, and a set of core beliefs through which everything is filtered. For others, it’s a phase, like joining a sorority during college, cosplay for racists, but with far more menacing consequences.

Fringe extremists like the ultra-violent group Atomwaffen pose a grave risk to public safety, but they are not the ones changing our nation. Women like Ayla Stewart are doing that, one white baby and one white follower at a time.


Glenna GordonMany groups on the far right insist that they are not Nazis and do not publicly use swastikas. Privately, the symbols are rampant. Image provided by the leader of the women’s faction within a group largely involved in organizing the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, 2017, who has since left The Movement

Reporting for this story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the New School Faculty Research Fund.

An earlier version of this article misstated the location of French Lick; the town is in Indiana, not Illinois. The essay has been updated.

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The Pro-Israel Push to Purge US Campus Critics


Said Khatib/AFP/Getty ImagesPalestinians riding a donkey-drawn cart past a mural calling for a boycott of Israel, Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip, 2016

There are signs that we’ve reached a tipping point in US public recognition of Israel’s suppression of the rights of Palestinians as a legitimate human rights concern. Increasingly, students on campuses across the country are calling on their universities to divest from companies that do business in Israel. Newly elected members of Congress are saying what was once unsayable: that perhaps the US should question its unqualified diplomatic and financial support for Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East, and hold it to the same human rights scrutiny we apply to other nations around the globe. Global companies such as Airbnb have recognized that their business practices must reflect international condemnation of the illegality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Natalie Portman, Lorde, and other celebrities have declined appearances in Israel, acknowledging the call to boycott the Israeli government on account of its human rights violations. And The New York Times published a column arguing, with unprecedented forthrightness, that criticism of ethno-nationalism in Israel (for example, defining Israel exclusively as a “Jewish state”) isn’t necessarily anti-Semitic. 

At the same time, discussions on college campuses about the complexities of freedom, history, and belonging in Israel and Palestine are under increasing pressure and potential censorship from right-wing entitiesIn fact, new policies adopted by the US and Israeli governments are intended to eliminate any rigorous discussion of Israeli–Palestinian politics in university settings. Not since the McCarthyite anti-Communist purges have we seen such an aggressive effort to censor teaching and learning on topics the government disfavors. 

Especially chilling, the US Department of Education recently adopted a new definition of anti-Semitism, one that equates any criticism of Israel with a hatred of Jews. This new stance was evident when the Department’s Office for Civil Rights recently reopened an investigation of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University regarding a complaint that had been examined and closed by the Obama administration. The case, which was brought by the Zionist Organization of America, alleged that Rutgers should not permit students to hold events at which the human rights record of the state of Israel is criticized. The ZOA applauded the reopening of the case by Kenneth Marcus, the new head of the Office for Civil Rights and a long-time proponent of the view of that all criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic.

In another recent case, the University of Michigan disciplined a professor who declined to write a letter of recommendation for a student who sought a fellowship in Israel. I would do the same if the situation arose, because I would regard it as ethically inappropriate to recommend students for an educational opportunity for which my other graduate students who are Palestinian or Arab would be prevented from applying. 

Denials of entry to and deportation from Israel are becoming common for those who speak out against the government’s policies. Lara Alqasem, an American student from Florida who planned to do graduate research at Hebrew University, is a salient example. The Israeli government held her for two weeks in a bedbug-ridden detention cell at Tel Aviv airport on the grounds that she has been involved in campus organizing critical of Israel. She sued the Israeli government, challenging the denial of entry and noting that she had already been granted a student visa. The Israeli courts ruled in her favor, but only after she promised not to criticize Israel and disavowed support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement—essentially waiving her free speech rights as the price of entry to “the only democracy in the Middle East,” as pro-Israel supporters like to describe Israel.

Newly disclosed official documents show that the Israeli government prohibited Alqasem from entering the country based on a Google search that found her name on a blacklist of students and faculty members who have raised concerns about Israel’s human rights record. The list is published by Canary Mission, a right-wing website that critics have called “McCarthyesque.” Its intended audience is employers who do a web search of job applicants only to find their names tagged as anti-Semitic. Canary Mission has been funded by the Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco, an organization that has also funded the Tea Party, as well as far-right and Islamophobic groups. 

Like Lara Alqasem, I was detained at Tel Aviv airport last April when I traveled to the region to meet with my Israeli and Palestinian graduate students, and to lead a delegation of civil rights leaders from the US. While I was interrogated at the airport, border control officials yelled at me, “You are here to promote BDS in Palestine—confess!” When I said I wasn’t, the interrogator held up his cell phone, showing an entry about me on the Canary Mission website. I told him that this site trades in ugly and bigoted lies about US academics, yet he just kept yelling at me. I was held in the airport for fourteen hours before being deported and permanently banned from entering either Israel or Palestine.

Two weeks ago, Marc Lamont Hill, the Steve Charles Professor of Media, Cities, and Solutions at Temple University, delivered a speech at the United Nations that laid out in granular detail the ways in which Israeli state policy violates the rights of individual Palestinians and the Palestinian people’s right to freedom and self-determination. In a clear example of what has come to be known as “the Palestine exception to Free Speech,” pro-Israel organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Zionist Organization of America inundated CNN with calls to terminate Professor Hill. The next day, CNN canceled Hill’s contract as a political commentator.

What did Hill say that was so objectionable—indeed, anti-Semitic, according to the ADL and the ZOA? Hill had closed his remarks with a call to action “that will give us what justice requires and that is a free Palestine from the river to the sea.” This last phrase has been misconstrued as a call for destruction of the state of Israel, allegedly signaling Hill’s alignment with Hamas. Yet the phrase is a commonplace in Israeli–Palestinian politics, and is used as a rallying cry by right-wing Zionists and settlers to signal the unification of Eretz Yisrael, or “greater Israel.” Professor Hill’s call amounted simply to a statement of support for a one-state solution, which may be controversial to those who still support the creation of two states, but it certainly isn’t bigoted.

Yet the ZOA’s president denounced Hill’s speech as “Jew-hating, violence-inciting,” and “genocidal,” and the charge of anti-Semitism aimed at Hill swiftly reached beyond his position at CNN. The chair of the Temple University board of trustees joined the furor two days after Hill’s UN speech, commenting that “People wanted to fire him right away… We’re going to look at what remedies we have.” Temple University’s president jumped in, adding that the speech’s “river to the sea” reference was seen by many as a “perceived threat.”

Even when the Temple University board announced on Tuesday that it would not sanction Professor Hill because his remarks to the UN were made as a private citizen and therefore had First Amendment protection, the trustees condemned Hill’s views. This leaves open the question of whether the board would have terminated Hill had he questioned Israel’s human rights record when speaking in his capacity as a Temple University professor.

The effort to vilify, if not blacklist, Marc Lamont Hill should be understood as part of a much larger campaign, so far focused primarily on university campuses, to shut down any discussion of Israel or Palestine that casts a critical light on the state of Israel. Each year, I teach a class to high school and college teachers called “Citizenship and Nationality in Israel–Palestine.” The course provides an introduction to the history of political Zionism, pre-World War II visions of a Jewish state in Palestine, the founding of Israel in 1948 as a “homeland for the Jews,” the competing claims to both dispossession and belonging that are at stake for Jews and Palestinians in Israel–Palestine, and careful consideration of the question of how a state can manage a commitment to being a democracy while also declaring itself a homeland for one ethnic-religious group.

When I taught the course for the first time three years ago, Columbia University received aggressive demands from the Zionist Organization of America that the course be cancelled because the group was certain it would be biased against Israel, even though the ZOA had not seen the syllabus or materials, all of which were Israeli. Its complaint was based primarily on the title of the course, which included reference to a place it claimed did not exist—namely, Palestine. The group threatened to file a charge against me and Columbia under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. The threats from the ZOA escalated to such a degree that I had to hire security to guard the door of the classroom. 

When I teach the course this spring, I now worry that efforts to censor the academic discussion of dispossession and belonging in Israel and Palestine will come not only from a rightwing advocacy organization but from the US Department of Education. Since I taught the course last year, the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) passed the Nation-State Law, which moved the state of Israel further from its secular-democratic tradition and solidified its definition as a Jewish state. Some of the provisions of the new law merely clarify policies that have been in place for many years; others build into the law new provisions that reinforce a two-tiered conception of citizenship.

For instance, the law declares “the right to exercise national self-determination” in IsraelPalestine to be “unique to the Jewish people.” Another provision effectively overrules an Israeli Supreme Court decision that some regard as Israel’s Brown v. Board of Education, Aadel Kaadan v. Israel Lands Administration, which found that the state’s policy of allocating land only to Jews violated a fundamental commitment to equality. The Nation-State Law explicitly repudiates the Kaadan decision, not only permitting the state to establish Jewish-only communities in Israel, but actually prioritizing the building of these settlements as a national value.

I always include the Kaadan case in the materials I use in my “Citizenship and Nationality in Israel–Palestine” course. Under normal circumstances, I would update my syllabus to include the Nation-State Law, which raises serious questions about whether the Israeli Knesset has built a form of discrimination into its Basic Law (its equivalent of the Constitution). Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset, a number of European political leaders, and prominent human rights organizations maintain that the new law formalizes a kind of apartheid in Israel. This is, to be sure, a serious charge. But it seems likely that I might be accused of anti-Semitism under the new Department of Education guidance if I were even to discuss the merits and flaws of this position in my class. 

Watching how Temple University leaders failed to defend Professor Hill when the pro-Zionist right went after him, I wonder: Will Columbia University stand up for the academic freedom of its faculty when these same forces recruit the Department of Education to accuse Columbia’s instructors of anti-Semitism because we teach and write critically about the policies of the Israeli government?

All of these incidents are part of a larger effort by both the US and Israeli governments and their supporters to undermine the university’s civic role as a crucial forum of democratic engagement. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech as well as fundamental principles of academic freedom are violated when governments that profess to be democratic declare certain topics off-limits. The capacity to critically evaluate the way in which state power is exercised—in the US, in Israel, and in other places around the world where human rights are under threat—is vital to responsible citizenship and is central to our mission as educators. The American and Israeli governments alike should stand up for, rather than stand in the way of, open and vibrant academic debate on Israel–Palestine, just as they should for debate about any contentious subject essential to democracy.

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From Sans Culottes to Gilets Jaunes: Macron’s Marie Antoinette Moment


Mehdi Taamallah/NurPhoto/Getty ImagesYellow Vest protesters on the Champs Élysées, Paris, November 24, 2018

In Soviet times, Russia’s Jews told a joke about a man named Rabinovitch who was distributing pamphlets in Red Square. In a matter of minutes, the KGB had found him and taken him to headquarters. Only there did the agents realize that the sheets of paper were completely blank. “But there’s nothing written here,” one of them said. Rabinovitch said: “They know quite well what I mean.” 

For two months, the French government has been unable to make head or tail of the blank sheets of paper handed out by the gilets jaunes, or Yellow Vests, this decentralized, leaderless movement that has no explicit agenda or demand apart from the abolition of a fuel tax. While Emmanuel Macron’s government has blindly concluded that this sudden, violent movement bereft of any clearly articulated purpose has no other goals, movements don’t block major intersections just to protest hikes in gas costs. 

In the time since he’s taken up the presidency, Macron has won out over far more dramatic uprisings with far more clearly defined aims. First, there was the union outcry against the law reforms that enabled labor market deregulation. Then, there was the rail workers’ strike to guarantee new hires the same generous employment benefits staff had enjoyed since World War II. Macron surely wagered that the Yellow Vests would crumble even more quickly than their predecessor protests, each of which had surrendered in the end. Macron’s earlier successes, however, seem to have led to his downfall here.

He and his ministers failed to read what France’s citizens “know quite well.” From the outset, a clear majority of the French supported the Yellow Vests. In Revolution, the plainly titled book he published during his 2016 campaign, Macron announced a set of radical reforms that would pull the country out of the stagnation from which it has suffered for the last thirty-five years. Yet Macron’s actions upon moving into the Élysée Palace have shown his government to be nothing more than a continuation, by more brutal means, of the politics of deregulation and austerity that his predecessors had championed. As it grew clearer that the Macron presidency would not break with the past, the people who found their daily lives worsening, who could no longer count on climbing a social ladder to greater prosperity, and who saw no glimmer of hope for themselves or their children, were primed for a movement of opposition. The fuel tax was the final straw that led them to declare “no more.”

Taxation has often been the primary catalyst for social revolt in the history of modern France, and this time is no exception—although, in this case, its significance is far more ambiguous. As Gérard Noiriel, the esteemed historian of French social struggle, has noted, this rejection of the fuel tax has united two dissimilar groups: those who “reject the tax” in a general sense and those who specifically “reject the injustice of the tax.” What made this coalition possible was both Macron’s actions and his way of imposing them, which has shaped public opinion dramatically. On the one hand, in 2017 he abolished the “wealth tax” known as the ISF, which was levied on only the top 0.9 percent of French society, and even lowered taxes on France’s richest companies and richest individuals. On the other hand, he has rejected every increase, no matter how small, of the minimum wage, and he has practically frozen retirement benefits (nearly half of retirees live on less than €1200 per month, or $1,360, and one quarter of those on less than €800, or about $900), as well as social security benefits. At protests and road blockades, these two themes—frozen wages and diminished retirement benefits—have recurred again and again. 

Macron seems to be reaping what he has sown. He coasted to electoral victory thanks to the breakdown of the institutions that had mediated the people’s relationship with government. The first collapse had been that of the traditional political parties of left and right; after thirty-five years of nearly continuous economic crisis, they still hadn’t found a long-lasting solution. The crisis had been most evident in the unemployment rate, which had held steady between 8 percent and 11 percent for three decades, while income inequality had only worsened. 

As the head of the government, Macron said he favored “consultation,” but he refused any negotiation—most notably with the unions, which themselves had been severely weakened. His proposals had been take-it-or-leave-it—and he seemed to weather every storm more or less unscathed. The result, though, has been that when people realized that his “revolution” merely accelerated financial capitalism’s reign—more insecurity, less collective solidarity, each man for himself—the revolt, similarly, sidestepped all intermediary bodies. Political parties have played almost no role in the Yellow Vests’ marches; the movement’s members, in fact, have resisted attempts at political co-optation. 

The demographics of the Yellow Vests are broad. The movement is rooted mainly in small provincial towns and is chiefly composed of the lower middle class. Shop owners and craftsmen are heavily represented, but there are also laborers and their children. Notably, women make a far higher proportion of the protesters than usual—and they often seem to be the most driven ones. And it is little surprise that retirees have come out in high numbers, because they have the time to do so and because Macron has been especially hard on them. The Yellow Vests movement is also markedly white, a significant detail in an increasingly diverse France. The heavily black and Muslim population from the outer urban banlieues, home to recent immigrants and where high youth unemployment rates set off the 2005 riots, are severely underrepresented among the Yellow Vests, at least for the present moment given that the movement may well expand and encompass other social groups. At the margins, it is already starting to do so, in fact, as high-school and college students have begun rallying, as have farmers and workers in other industries. 

It is a surprise that the Yellow Vests’ attacks have not for the most part been the work of casseurs, a term that refers to essentially anarchist subgroups, as well as to far-right provocateurs. Given the characteristics of the nearly 2,000 people arrested thus far, most are older than typical casseurs, and many of them had, in fact, come out to protest for the first time ever. This might be one explanation for why, despite all attempts to castigate “perpetrators of unacceptable violence,” the government’s ongoing rhetoric about security has been quite ineffective.

Had Macron simply taken some time to think once he was settled into the presidency, he would have recalled that he only received 24 percent of the vote in the first round of the May 2017 presidential election; taking abstentions into account, that was only 18 percent of the electorate. And while he did carry the second round with a comfortable margin, that was because he was running against the far-right candidate, the far worse of two evils. In other words, Macron should have realized that he was, in fact, elected with a weak mandate. But in his clashes over loosening labor-market regulations, with rail workers over their benefits, and with the public over other burning social issues such as deteriorating work conditions in public hospitals or diminishing purchasing power, Macron has opted for inflexibility: he says over and over that he is listening to the other side while showing that there is nothing to negotiate—what he decrees will go through no matter what. 

And so he comes across as arrogant, as a man unconcerned about, perhaps even contemptuous of, the little people. When a trade unionist told Macron that he couldn’t afford nice suits like the president, Macron retorted that all the man had to do was work harder; to a young job-seeker, he shot back, “I can find you a job just by crossing the street,” as if France didn’t have 2.5 million unemployed citizens and as if those people were simply lazy. It is no accident, Noiriel noted, that “the working classes were practically nonexistent” in Macron’s book.

Preferring executive orders to laws, “consultations” to debates, and his hand-picked inner circle to France’s elected officials, Macron is proving to be a president who has scant regard for democratic norms. In July, Le Monde broke the news that a man named Alexandre Benalla, a “security adviser” at the Élysée, had been filmed among police officers attacking civilians during the May 1 demonstrations in Paris. By statute, Benalla should not have been there; it quickly became clear, however, that Benalla held a high-ranking position within the Élysée Palace’s staff, virtually outside the official hierarchy, and that he was very close to Macron, who tried repeatedly to shield Benalla as further details came to light. 

This scandal is working its way through the court system, but it dealt a significant blow to the president’s public image, revealing him to be an isolated leader advised only by a narrow clique. “Combining the classism of France’s best-off with the elitism of France’s best-educated,” wrote Edwy Plenel, the director of the Mediapart news site, “his way of exercising power embodies a politics of inequality where there are haves and have-nots, winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, the lucky and the unlucky.” His assessment has mirrored that of the Yellow Vests.

A photo on the front page of Le Monde sums up their attitude: a group of protesters holding up a banner that reads “Down with Macron—Down with the Government—Down with the System.” Macron’s popularity ratings have been in free fall. In eighteen months, he has gone from the embodiment of a dynamic France benefiting from globalization to a tritely traditional France for the rich. It is no accident that, amid the violence, the most symbolic places to be attacked have been a provincial prefecture, officially representing the centralized state and, in Paris, various banks in more affluent neighborhoods, as well as the Fauchon gourmet food store, which symbolizes all that is fashionable and expensive in cuisine.

Numerous French historians have remarked upon the similarities between the Yellow Vests and earlier protests. For Sophie Wahnich, a specialist on the French Revolution, the organizational method of the Yellow Vests “corresponds to that of the sans culottes,” the commoners in the earliest moments of 1789, “only with more women.” She adds that, as during the revolution, the Yellow Vests have become radicalized because their various outstanding demands for greater social justice have gone unanswered. Mathilde Larrère, another historian of revolutionary periods, argues that the Yellow Vests are a “typical form of mobilization” in French history. That said, “this isn’t a working-class movement, but a consumer movement; these people share the experience of diminished purchase power and consequently hunger. Once, it was the price of bread; now, it’s the price of gas. This situation is far more explosive because it affects an entire category of people who work.” On the whole, historians agree on this point: the Yellow Vests embody a revolutionary gesture. The unspoken message that the Yellow Vests are relaying to the power elites is “No more.” 

“At the same time”—a favorite phrase of Macron’s—what’s happening in France is inevitably linked to a growing phenomenon across Europe: the rise of movements that discount both institutions—the European Union as much as national governments—and the social and economic policies that have been in force for the last few decades. This phenomenon is already visible in Germany and Austria, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, Italy and the United Kingdom, and is intertwined with the advent of political parties in the former Eastern Bloc that are championing authoritarian democracies. But there is a fundamental difference between the Yellow Vests and these European populist parties: the near-total lack of identitarian or xenophobic slogans in the new French movement. There are no placards calling for a “France for Frenchmen,” no cries against an “Islamic invasion” at their protests. Given that Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) appears to be the most heavily represented political party within the purportedly apolitical Yellow Vests, there have been surprisingly few cases of racist statements against immigrants.

At this point, the concessions Macron’s government has granted to placate the Yellow Vests’ demands—a six-month moratorium on fuel-tax hikes, followed by its outright cancellation—seem too little, too late. “Doesn’t anybody up there get that we’re all on anxiety meds because we’re that miserable?” asked one protester. “We’re not asking for the moon, we just want to have decent lives.” The overwhelming majority of the Yellow Vests want, at a minimum, to bolster their purchasing power, to improve low wages, and increase retirement pensions and unemployment benefits. 

The economist Philippe Aghion, a Harvard professor who became Macron’s adviser during his election campaign, has already proposed setting up “a Grenelle for taxes, social benefits, and energy transition.” The rue de Grenelle in Paris, where the Ministry of Social Affairs is headquartered, was where unions, management, and the government brokered a wide-ranging agreement to end the May ’68 strike (which, as many have forgotten, was not simply a student revolt). To evoke Grenelle is to call for a sweeping yet swiftly concluded deal that brings significant social progress. While growth was still steady in those days in France, the May ’68 protests had genuinely terrified employers; the minimum wage was increased by a full 35 percent. Today, though, public finances do not permit such rapidly granted largesse; the improvement in living standards that the Yellow Vests seek can come only by imposing a fairer tax system—and that will mean targeting the wealthy and profits from the financial markets. What a far cry that revolution would be from the original one that Macron, this former business banker, had originally promoted.

Finally, after almost six weeks of silence since the emergence of the Yellow Vests, Macron addressed the nation on Monday night. Describing a “state of economic and social emergency,” he announced various measures to remedy the situation, including a €100 per month increase of the monthly minimum wage (amounting to about €0.60 per hour, less than a dollar) and the cancellation of the tax increase for retirees who get less than €2,000 per month. For the rest, he promoted the idea of an extensive national consultation with the unions, employers, and local mayors—the very “intermediary bodies” he had so neglected before. As for the wider question of taxation, the key driver for the mobilization of the Yellow Vests, Macron refused to reconsider his abolition of the “wealth tax,” while pledging that “the richest must help the nation.” How this would be done, he did not say.

This left most of the Yellow Vests who were questioned on French TV dissatisfied. Some allowed that the president had made an “opening,” but the vast majority rejected the speech as “disappointing.” As one protester told France 2, “No fiscal shock”—meaning that he saw no immediate progress toward tax justice, and no movement on ending the retirement pensions freeze, let alone their revaluation. “You have to stop believing that we do not understand anything,” said another Yellow Vest. Finally, a third argued, “If President Macron is confident in his proposals, he should submit them to a referendum. We’ll see the result.”

As the evening wore on, the idea of a referendum on Macron’s measures swelled, as if the word had gone out: direct democracy, that is all we will accept. The likelihood that the president in this situation will accept such a plebiscite is infinitesimally small. But with this new demand, the Yellow Vests have ratcheted up the pressure on Macron.

—Translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman.

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In the Review Archives: 2005–2009


Vincent van Gogh: Enclosed Wheat Field with Rising Sun, 1889

To celebrate the Review’s fifty-fifth anniversary in 2018, we have been going back into our archives year by year. In this week’s newsletter: John Leonard on Joan Didion, John Updike on van Gogh’s letters, Zadie Smith on speaking in tongues, and a broad range of perspectives on the 2008 election. We also remember founding editor Barbara Epstein. “She possessed one of the greatest minds I’ve ever encountered,” Luc Sante writes, “and she gave all of it to other people’s work.”


2005
The Black Album

John Leonard

On Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

Her conjunctions and abutments—scraps of poetry, cramps of memory, medical terms, body parts, bad dreams, readouts, breakdowns—amount to a kind of liturgical singsong, a whistling in the dark against a “vortex” that would otherwise swallow her whole with a hum. This is how she passes the evil hours of an evil year, with spells and amulets. Her seventy-year-old husband, John Gregory Dunne, has dropped dead of a massive heart attack in their living room in New York City, one month short of their fortieth wedding anniversary.


2006
Barbara Epstein (1928–2006)

John Ashbery, Elizabeth Hardwick, Diane Johnson, Alison Lurie, Larry Mcmurtry, Pankaj Mishra, Edmund S. Morgan, Darryl Pinckney, Luc Sante, Patricia Storace, Gore Vidal

Epstein, a cofounder of the Review and its editor with Robert Silvers for forty-three years, died on June 16, 2006. Some of the writers who knew her best paid tribute to her brilliance, wit, and generosity.


Collection of Helen EpsteinBarbara Epstein, 1980s

2007
The Purest of Styles


Émile Bernard: Breton Women in the Meadow, 1888

John Updike

Updike regularly wrote on art for the Review for more than two decades. Here he visits the exhibition Vincent van Gogh—Painted with Words: The Letters to Émile Bernard at the Morgan Library and Museum.

The letters have, with their interjected sketches, a holy fragility. The cheap stationery, varying in size and quality, has yellowed, and the once-black ink, where based on iron salts rather than carbon, has faded to brown, at places a faint tan. The handwriting varies in size and consistency, often as small and neat as mechanical print, at others enlarged by haste or for emphasis, but nowhere indicating an unbalanced temperament.


2008
A Fateful Election


Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesA debate between 2008 presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, September 26, 2008

Russell Baker, David Bromwich, Mark Danner, Andrew Delbanco, Joan Didion, Ronald Dworkin, Frances FitzGerald, Timothy Garton Ash, Paul Krugman, Joseph Lelyveld, Darryl Pinckney, Thomas Powers, Michael Tomasky, Garry Wills

In October 2008, fifteen contributors outlined what was at stake in the election—and the daunting task ahead, as Thomas Powers put it, of “cleaning up the mess left by the last president.”


2009
Speaking in Tongues

Zadie Smith

In this essay, adapted from a lecture at the New York Public Library, Smith considers “personal multiplicity” from Eliza Doolittle and Cary Grant to Barack Obama.

Hello. This voice I speak with these days, this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place—this is not the voice of my childhood. I picked it up in college, along with the unabridged Clarissa and a taste for port.


Peter Foley/New York Public LibraryZadie Smith

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Prodigal Fathers


Private Collection/Niland Collection/Sotheby’sJohn Butler Yeats: Self-Portrait, New York, 1911–1922; from the exhibition ‘Portrait of a Family,’ on view at the Model, Sligo, Ireland, until December 16, 2018

More than twenty years ago, writing about Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland, Colm Tóibín recalled what it was like to study history in Ireland in the 1970s—to be on the cusp of the revisionist wave, questioning all the old narratives. “Imagine if Irish history were pure fiction,” he wrote, “how free and happy we could be! It seemed at that time a most subversive idea, a new way of killing your father, starting from scratch, creating a new self.” The burden of having relatives has been a constant theme of Tóibín’s stories, essays, and reviews: “A Priest in the Family,” “How to Be a Wife,” “The Brother Problem,” “The Importance of Aunts,” “Mothers and Sons,” and, for equality’s sake, both “New Ways to Kill Your Mother” and “New Ways to Kill Your Father.” And these are just some of the titles. The desire to start from scratch, to worm (or to smash, but mostly to worm) your way out from under the yoke of dull, unavailable, or tyrannical parents figures in most of his fiction.

Irish literature offers a rich history of attempts to kill your parents, from Stephen’s mother in Ulysses, who is “beastly dead” (or Stephen’s attempt to swap Simon Dedalus for Leopold Bloom), to the done-away-with mother at the beginning of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, to John McGahern’s absent mother and the murder by portraiture of the father in his early novels The Barracks and The Dark. But Tóibín has his eye on a wider fictional world of parentless and parent-killing children. He writes, for example, of the motherless heroes and heroines in the novels of Henry James and Jane Austen that “mothers get in the way of fiction; they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality.” Or to put it another way, “The novel is a form ripe for orphans.”

Yet Tóibín rejected patricide in that essay on Modern Ireland, arguing instead for a respect for the past that has made us—an attention, though a skeptical one, to our inheritances, even if they embarrass and annoy us, as parents often do. And so it is fitting that the orphans peopling his own fiction are not quite orphans at all. They don’t get to create a new self from scratch; the past bears down on them despite the absence of parents. In his recent novel Nora Webster, the cranky, inarticulate teenager Donal (a portrait of the artist as a young man) is haunted by the shadowy presence of his dead father; in House of Names Tóibín’s Orestes is left to fend for himself, but he is certainly not free of the burden of relatives. In the beautiful early novel The Heather Blazing, Eamon Redmond, a motherless boy born in the early 1930s and now close to retirement, lives, despite himself, in the past, in a history belonging to the previous generation, and even the one before that:

At times he felt that he had been there, close by, when his grandfather was evicted, and that he had known his father’s Uncle Michael, the old Fenian, who was too sick to be interned after 1916. Or that he had been in the bedroom, the room above where they were now, when his grandfather came back to the house on Easter Monday 1916 and had sat watching him as he pulled up the floorboards under which he had hidden a number of rifles. Or that he had witnessed his grandfather being taken from the house at the end of the Easter Rising. These were things which lived with him, but he could only imagine them.

What fascinates Tóibín in all these stories, and in his new book of essays on the fathers of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce, is the effect of fathers who are absent, but who have not gone away. He quotes Conor Cruise O’Brien:

There is for all of us a twilight zone of time, stretching back for a generation or two before we were born, which never quite belongs to the rest of history. Our elders have talked their memories into our memories until we come to possess some sense of a continuity exceeding and traversing our own individual being.

This is all very well for the creative youngsters, perhaps, who get to do a sum: their own lives plus the memories of the previous generation. But what does it mean for the elders, whose experience becomes the twilight zone for the future?

In Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know Tóibín sketches the lives of three men who talked their memories into their sons’ memories, and so helped father twentieth-century Irish literature. He is explicit about his style of portraiture, beginning with a beautiful passage in the essay on the painter John B. Yeats in which Tóibín reflects on seeing and being seen:

Somewhere in the great, unsteady archive where our souls will be held, there is a special section that records the quality of our gaze. The stacks in this branch of the archive will preserve for posterity the history of those moments when a look or a glance intensified, when watchfulness opened out or narrowed in, due to curiosity or desire or suspicion or fear. Maybe that is what we remember most of each other—the face of the other glancing up, the second when we are held in someone else’s gaze.

The elder Yeats was remembered by the critic Edward Dowden as having a “fluid and attaching” gaze: “every glance at one’s face seems to give him a shock, and through a series of such shocks he progresses.” He said of himself that he could only paint “friendship portraits” and that each portrait survived, if it survived at all and however hard he had worked on it, as a sketch, “something struck off at a first heat.” The idea surely prefigures W.B. Yeats in “Adam’s Curse”: unless a poem seems “a moment’s thought/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

Tóibín seems to have taken this advice to heart in structuring his book. Although a great deal of work has clearly gone into them, the essays have a sketchy, even unfinished quality, perhaps the result of having started out as a series of lectures. They are less biographical studies than Yeatsian portraits, pictures made by looking from different angles rather than analyzing. Tóibín’s refusal to pin his subjects down can be frustrating, but it is not unproductive. Echoes, patterns, and contradictions are left for the reader to assemble, in effect making us each our own impressionist portrait painter, or our own novelist.

Indeed, the final essay on the Joyces, father and son, suggests that the series of portraits James made of his father, from the partial sketches in “Grace” and “The Dead” to the various likenesses of Simon Dedalus in Stephen Hero, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, should be thought of as a composite, impressionist work—John Stanislaus Joyce presented to our gaze in different lights. “Character is created not by statements but by suggestions, not by verdicts but by stray images,” says Tóibín of Joyce. Not only would this make James Joyce—whose alter ego in Ulysses proclaimed, after all, that paternity was a legal fiction—as much John B. Yeats’s son as W.B. was, it also slyly marks out a paternal lineage from Joyce to Tóibín.

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know is in part a book about nineteenth-century Dublin and the kinds of originality it engendered. William Wilde (born in 1815), John B. Yeats (in 1839), and John Stanislaus Joyce (in 1849) came to maturity in the post-famine city. Down-at-heel and politically unstable, it nonetheless offered financial and social opportunities through an exponential growth in professional and clerical jobs, for those who would take them. That didn’t in the end include the elder Yeats, who gave up the law in favor of failing to make money by painting, to the prolonged distress of his wife; nor did it include the elder Joyce, who lost a series of ever-less-distinguished positions in business through drink and irresponsibility; but it did include the elder Wilde, who made a name for himself as the city’s principal eye surgeon.

Yet for Tóibín, Dublin’s real advantage was that it offered “isolation…a sort of gift.” Tracing the social web that connected this paternal trio (and kept them apart) offers a neat way into the cultural, political, and sexual history of Ireland’s eminent Victorians, their fraught and ambiguous sense of themselves, their class, and their relationship to England. “It remained an era of individuals, with writers and painters creating their moral worlds from chaos by themselves, for themselves,” Tóibín writes. In fact he implies that the city itself behaved like an enabling father: creative, idiosyncratic, and not too overbearing.

In arguing that social rank in Dublin came from “words and wit” as much as from, well, social rank, Tóibín takes his cue from Oscar Wilde’s description of himself in De Profundis as “a lord of language.” The comparison between the bogus form of superiority enjoyed by the Marquess of Queensberry and his son Lord Alfred Douglas and the intellectual aristocracy of Wilde’s own parents is first sketched out in his letter to Bosie from Reading Gaol. But it is hard to disagree with this account of the Wilde parents. With their many and varied enthusiasms Sir William and Lady Wilde inhabited “a place of their own invention,” a place “of reading and writing.”

Tóibín’s essay follows Sir William from his early travels in 1837 to Egypt and Algiers, his medical studies in Austria, his involvement (mainly through his wife Jane) with the Young Ireland movement, his folklore-collecting in Meath and the Aran Islands, the gargantuan task he undertook as a census commissioner in 1851, 1861, and 1871, and his work as a statistician and epidemiologist investigating the causes of mortality in Ireland. We eventually find him in the dock. Having refused to settle a libel case, in 1864 Wilde became the subject of a very public sex scandal involving a woman named Mary Travers, the daughter of one of his medical colleagues.

Tóibín stresses the Wildes’ absolute disregard for convention, whether sexual, political, or even hygienic (they were both apparently notoriously filthy): “In the absence of any other aristocracy in residence in Dublin, the Wildes represented a type of grandeur that they had built with their books and their brains, their independence of mind and their high-toned eccentricity.” In this account, Oscar Wilde’s insistence on his own self-creation, his celebration of artifice above nature, and even his cavalier attitude toward putting his sexual history on trial turn out to be natural after all. His originality was inherited from his parents.

The idea of inventing yourself in writing is a familiar one, and it underpins Tóibín’s exploration of all three lives here. Dublin’s freedom from tradition allowed fathers to teach self-invention to their sons, he suggests, and the sons in turn became the “finishers” of their fathers’ incomplete creations. (The notion that, uniquely, late-nineteenth-century Dublin could provide fertile ground for self-invention implies, surely wrongly, that late-nineteenth-century London could not.) But Tóibín’s emphasis seems amiss. What comes across most strongly in these essays is not that these three fathers succeeded at self-invention but the extent to which they failed to do so. These are stories of diminished lives, of men who knew they were living in the twilight zone of time.

Fear, and failure, are the bass notes to Tóibín’s essay on John Butler Yeats, the story of a man who had to contend with not one but two sons out to do away with him, William and his brother Jack B. Yeats. Much of the essay focuses on the last fifteen years of his life, when he lived in a boardinghouse on West 29th Street in Manhattan, endlessly tinkering with his self-portrait (which remained unfinished when he died; see illustration on page 38) and endlessly deferring a return home to Ireland. He was sixty-eight when he moved to New York in 1907, seven years after the death of his wife, Susan Mary Pollexfen. It had not been a happy marriage, though it lasted nearly forty years—Yeats later said that he had married her in order to place himself “under prison rules and learn all the virtues.” But he failed to learn the virtues of industry and sound financial management, and the prison walls closed in further when his disappointed wife fell ill, and he became alternately resentful of her misery and tortured by guilt over his failure to provide for her the kind of life she had wanted.

His son William diagnosed “infirmity of will” as the ailment that prevented him from finishing his pictures: “He even hates the sign of will in others…the qualities which I thought necessary to success in art or in life seemed to him ‘egotism’ or ‘selfishness’ or ‘brutality.’” And it was surely John’s own suspicion of such infirmity that led him not only to choose a marital prison in the first place, but subsequently to distance himself from the woman with whom he experienced “absolute intimacy” after his wife died.

Yeats met Rosa Butt (the daughter of the prominent Home Ruler Isaac Butt, who defended Wilde in the Travers trial) when they were both in their early twenties; they remained friends throughout his marriage, and after Susan’s death they became, briefly, and according to John himself, “something much closer than lovers.” From 1907 until his death in 1922, they conducted a passionate epistolary love affair. Tóibín quotes liberally from Yeats’s letters (Butt’s have not survived), laying bare an extraordinary desire for intimacy and an unabashed celebration of physical love. Yeats writes at length of literature and art and his day-to-day life, and he insists on their marriage of true minds: “I would as it were tell you things that I would not tell to myself. Can you understand this?—so that you are more to me than I am to myself.” He imagines caressing her, and being caressed:

I think of you constantly again and again, put myself to sleep thinking of you, fancying myself married to you, and both of us young, picturing to myself what you would say and do and what we would say to each other.

Tóibín is strangely sentimental when it comes to assessing Yeats’s decision to stay in New York and write letters rather than to love the flesh-and-blood Rosa. He wants to think of the writing as a form of self-creation, and there is truth in the statement that

the foolish, passionate man, with his excited, passionate, fantastical imagination, did not write about the life he had missed, but the life he imagined, and he gave that life a sense of lived reality, as though it were not only almost possible, but somehow present.

He suggests that marriage to Rosa would have “contained” Yeats, and that “he did not wish to be contained”; rather than a conventional relationship Yeats “chose freedom.”

But this is surely the opposite of the case. Yeats’s letters to Rosa are moving because they reveal his need for containment rather than his desire for freedom. The letters did not sketch “the dream of a life he did not have” (another version of making yourself up in writing), but protected him from living, as “again and again” he tried to persuade himself that he was right not to return home, that he had no option but to be parted from Rosa. He couldn’t afford to endanger his self-portrait by moving back to Dublin before it was finished; he couldn’t afford the fare; he couldn’t face Dublin and its ghosts; he couldn’t be sure of Rosa. The letters protest too much. They manifest his fear of his own desire.

The elder Yeats chose not freedom, but a boardinghouse prison from which he could write long letters imagining freedom. Arguably this makes him a spiritual father not only to James Joyce but also to Oscar Wilde. But the spiritual father presiding over the book of essays as a whole is Henry James. Like all good fathers James is enablingly absent, but he makes his presence felt. He appears in one of John B. Yeats’s letters to William: “I have just finished a long novel by Henry James. Much of it made me think of the priest condemned for a long space to confess nuns. James has watched life from a distance.” The lack of sympathy is striking, given how well James articulated the problem of deciding to withhold oneself from the life one might have lived:

What is there in the idea of Too late—of some friendship or passion or bond—some affection long desired and waited for, that is formed too late?—I mean too late in life altogether. Isn’t there something in the idea that 2 persons may meet (as if they had looked for each other for years) only in time to feel how much it might have meant for them if only they had met earlier?… It’s a passion that might have been. I seem to be coinciding simply with the idea of the married person encountering the real mate, etc.; but that is not what I mean. Married or not—the marriage is a detail. Or rather, I fancy, there would have been no marriage conceivable for either. Haven’t they waited too long—till something else has happened? The only other “something else” than marriage must have been, doubtless, the wasting of life.

This note for the story that would become “The Friends of the Friends” is dated February 1895, around the time that the friendship between John B. Yeats and Rosa Butt began to intensify. The tragedy, as James has Lambert Strether realize in The Ambassadors, is of life occurring too late to be lived: “I see it now. I haven’t done so enough before—and now I’m old, too old at any rate for what I see. Oh, I do see, at least; and more than you’d believe or I can express. It’s too late.” Another way of putting this is to say that Strether has arrived too early. His part is to abdicate in favor of the next generation, or so he tells himself, and his painful reward is that he knows it. Like Strether, the role these literary fathers took on themselves was to give way to the young, to accept that their own lives were meaningful insofar as they provided someone else’s inheritance.

John B. Yeats chose to live the last fifteen years of his life communicating from beyond the everyday if not the grave. He chose not to live in order to create (letters in which a relationship that hadn’t begun could not end, and the always unfinished self-portrait). That’s one way of putting it, and Tóibín does put it this way, because he wants to tell a mostly upbeat story about creativity being passed from father to son, and augmented in the process. But surely the truth is far more sobering. It is impossible, when reading the letters to Rosa, not to think of the wasting of life.

The parallels with John Stanislaus Joyce’s last years are also sobering—having lost his livelihood to drink and fecklessness at the age of forty-four, his wife to an early death, and his children to his violent temper, the elder Joyce lived his final twenty years “in a sort of aftermath.” Bloom’s assessment of Simon Dedalus is bleakly apt: “Wore out his wife: now sings.”

Precisely because he sang rather than wrote (whether letters or epidemiological and statistical surveys), John Stanislaus’s portrait in Tóibín’s book depends to a large extent on the sketches of him to be found in the letters, diaries, and fiction written by his sons. Born into a well-to-do family in Cork, John Stanislaus dabbled in medicine and accountancy before moving to Dublin at the age of twenty-four, to work as a secretary in a distillery in which he had bought shares. Within a few years the distillery went into liquidation, and Joyce lost both his job and his investment; for the next twenty years, during which he married and fathered ten children, he tried his hand at accountancy and rate-collecting but remained, according to his third child, Stanislaus, “quite unburdened by any sense of responsibility” toward his family.

He spent his leisure time, and much of the time when he was supposed to be at work, in one of the many pubs on his rate-collecting beat, until he was discharged in his early forties. Thereafter the family lived, as Stanislaus wrote, “gypsy-like,” on his pension, subject to John Stanislaus’s “domineering” and “quarrelsome” behavior, and his “voluble abusiveness” when drunk. In eleven years they lived at nine different addresses, each time “a smaller house in a poorer neighbourhood.”

In comparison with those of his brother Stanislaus, James Joyce’s portraits of his father are more nuanced, and even tender. It is true that he appears as a vomit-soaked and sentimental drunk (in Dubliners) and an unreliable husband and father (in Stephen Hero), but also as a passionate Parnellite (in Portrait) and as a complex character in Ulysses, where he is sociable, witty, and gifted with a voice that has a “glorious tone”: “loud, full, shining, proud.” But he is also vicious—he tells his daughter Dilly that she and her sisters are “an insolent pack of little bitches” when she asks for money. Most of all he appears as a spurned father, consigned to “the shadows,” as Tóibín puts it. None of his children wants anything to do with him, and he knows it.

For the last nineteen years of his life John Stanislaus saw neither of his eldest sons. He died in his early eighties in the Dublin boardinghouse where he spent his last eleven years. Like William Yeats, James Joyce diagnosed in his father a lack of will, though in his case he called it lack of courage: “He had his son’s distaste for responsibility without his son’s courage.” Again, it is hard not to agree that the elder Joyce’s life was blighted by a failure of nerve. None of the Joyce children had much time for their father, but in a rare moment of appreciation the young Stanislaus confided to his diary that John Stanislaus was unusual in accepting with equanimity the idea that his sons would outstrip him: “He wishes and confidently expects that his sons will be different from the sons of other people, even—and this shows a yet higher mind—more distinguished than he, in his own judgment.” Was it a form of generosity, or lack of will? Either way, in effect, John Stanislaus Joyce chose to pass the task of living over to his sons before his time.

It is perhaps no accident that the “aftermath” in which these men spent their old age coincided with Ireland’s youthful beginnings as an independent country. Their own youth had run in parallel with Ireland’s struggle to free itself, and to construct its history as one of self-making rather than serial defeat and acquiescence. As the past generation they were placed in an impossible bind, both preparers and makers of emancipation, and by default those who had failed to secure freedom.

These essays were first given as a series of lectures in honor of Richard Ellmann at Emory University, and Tóibín quotes Ellmann quoting Ivan Karamazov: “Who doesn’t desire his father’s death?” Sir William Wilde died relatively young, when he was sixty-one and Oscar only twenty-one. Perhaps John B. Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce offered a more useful lesson by living on as boardinghouse ghosts, unable to fully grasp the moment of their own lives. It is the lesson Lambert Strether tried to teach: “Do what you like as long as you don’t make my mistake…live!”

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Beastly: The Bad Women of ‘The Favourite’


Element Pictures/Fox Searchlight PicturesEmma Stone as Abigail Masham in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, 2018

As with feminist “leaning in,” equal opportunity villainy often backfires. When a villain is marked as female, her wrongdoing often gets tangled up with stereotypes. The implication is either that she is evil because she is female, or that her evil is itself feminine: trifling, petty, minor, laughable. This doesn’t just reinforce misogyny; it’s also deeply boring. The question of why we do bad things—against our own interests, those of others, of society—is fascinating. Relegating the answer to biology, to the genetic contingency of sex, is dull. It reduces the greatest subject of tragedy to the tautological moral of a beastly fable: A leopard cannot change its spots. “It is my nature,” said the Scorpion. To avoid this vicious circle, many recent women-centered films overcompensate, succumbing to lukewarm tokenism, portentous plots, neutered sexuality, and pulled punches both literal (no catfights) and figurative (no misandry). They manage to skirt the usual stereotypes of cattiness, victimhood, hysteria, sluttiness, and so on, but they miss all the depth and contradiction of genuine vice.

Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite dispenses with this bind altogether. Set in England of the early 1700s, it tells the semi-true story of Queen Anne and the two women, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham, who competed for that titular designation in her court. The film centers these villainous women without making a fuss about it; there are important and powerful men floating about, but they are thrillingly marginal to the action. One can imagine The Favourite being compared to All About Eve or Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Mrs Brown, but this is no melodramatic storm in a teacup, nor is it a satirical restoration comedy about the decadent pranks of the rich, nor a stuffy drama about dignified women making compromises for love. As Lanthimos puts it, “I saw this opportunity of creating these very complex female characters that you rarely see onscreen.” He’s right. I have never seen a film like The Favourite: a story about three bad women—bad in very different, very interesting ways—whose badness both makes and breaks the relationships between them.

Queen Anne is badly behaved. “You’re such a child,” Sarah complains. The Queen sulks, she storms, she kicks. She is easily wounded and just as easily delighted. She giggles, she moans, she weeps. But she isn’t a flibbertigibbet or a hysteric. It’s as if King Lear were a woman, which is to say there is gravitas to her quicksilver changes. At one point, unsure how to deliver a new bill to Parliament, she turns in stuttering increments away from the podium, then plunges facedown to the ground. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she says helplessly. Olivia Colman gives a virtuoso performance. Its more obvious accomplishments—like her commitment to playing the vehement mood swings and physical distortions wrought by the Queen’s gout and, later, her strokes—may obscure its subtler and deeply moving achievements of expression. Lanthimos often zooms in slowly on her eyes, where we glimpse a vast sea of grief brimming. Its seventeen causes are stated outright: “Some were born as blood, some without breath. Some were with me for a very brief time.” Anne keeps seventeen rabbits as pets (fiction), for each of the children she lost to miscarriage and illness (fact). Yet the film does not reduce the Queen to her mourning. She is not broken by these reminders of her dead children but rather by encounters with beauty and joy: watching a dance, listening to music.

Sarah Churchill is bad-tempered. The Queen’s first favorite is cold and critical and cruel. The film opens with the Queen asking Sarah to say hello to “the little ones,” the seventeen rabbits, at this stage innocent of maternal symbolism. “No,” Sarah refuses promptly. “It is macabre.” The Queen protests that Sarah does not love her, to which she replies: “Love has limits.” She shows her true colors when she later tells a group of men: “There is no limit to love of country.” Sarah is a politician—as much as a woman other than the Queen could be in that era—and her machinations are all oriented toward maintaining her purse and her power. She gets her husband, Lord Marlborough, sent to war to be a hero, and procures a tax hike to pay for it by pulling strings with the Queen. While they are lovers—they share the longest on-screen kiss—their childhood friendship is the true cauldron of feeling between them. Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman (their pet names for each other) are like Lenù and Lila of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet (now an HBO miniseries): they are equals who love and hate each other, and who dominate and submit to each other in turn. Cast aside by the Queen, pleading her case through a door, Sarah cries, “I will not lie. That is love!” Rachel Weisz’s chilly, cutting charm is ideal for the role but it pales in comparison to the third bad woman, played by Emma Stone, who seems to crack the screen open with light every time she appears on it.

Abigail Masham has bad intentions. We don’t suspect them right away; we’re too busy pitying and enjoying her. She’s Sarah’s canny, witty, impoverished cousin, whose father lost her in a game of whist to a “balloon-shaped German with a thin cock.” Abigail escapes a life of “whoredom” by procuring a position as a cleaner in the palace. Everyone seems to play tricks on her: she’s shoved more than once into a ditch; she’s sent in to meet lords and ladies while she’s covered in mud; the servants neglect to mention that she needs gloves to handle a bucket of lye (an intentional pun). She rides out to the woods to collect a certain herb—we think it’s for her scalded hands until she bullies her way into the royal bedchambers and applies it to the Queen’s gouty legs. The rubbing of legs becomes a conduit and metaphor for their affair: Abigail is tender and caring and sweetly subservient: “I do not want her to think I wish anything from her.” Through manipulations both physical and emotional, Abigail wins the Queen’s heart and Sarah’s confidence. All her charming pratfalls and antics distract us, but Abigail is not to be underestimated. She is hellbent on usurping Sarah as the Queen’s favorite, on becoming a lady again, on being “safe” from the cruelty of being poor.

The triangle clarifies as it grows taut: Abigail’s love is steeped in sweet lies; Sarah’s in caustic truths; the Queen is simply insatiable for it. But these three bad women are not in thrall to their feelings. “You are enjoying this!” Sarah chides Anne, thinking Abigail merely an instrument of jealousy, “You have made your point.” Anne kisses her happily: “Perhaps I was not making a point.” The Queen wants love and devotion from both her favorites, and the film here hints at a shape, even a balance, of desire beyond binaries. The cousins will not oblige this polyamory, however, or perhaps their respective desires simply cannot be reconciled. Their battle is sometimes literal—books become weapons and there’s even a Chekhov’s gun, which never goes off, or perhaps only obliquely. “Oh my God, you really think you’ve won,” Sarah laughs incredulously. “Haven’t I?” Abigail smirks. But by the film’s final sequence, an exquisitely harrowing bedroom scene between the Queen and her new favorite, we have come to understand Sarah’s parting words: “We were playing very different games.”


Element Pictures/Fox Searchlight PicturesRachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill and Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in Lanthimos’s The Favourite, 2018

As you might have guessed, the film is delightfully cavalier when it comes to the facts of eighteenth-century England—“Some of the things in the film are accurate and a lot aren’t,” Lanthimos says. He emphasizes this willful anachronism with cinematography: fish-eye lenses and spinning cameras tilt and warp the palatial setting, lending claustrophobic and giddy effects to scenes filmed in natural light. While this movement is modern, the film’s palette is old-fashioned, silvery and crystalline in the daytime and as though painted by Rembrandt or Caravaggio at night—gold flames often crackle and glow over the pitch-black screen. There are bustles and bustiers but in metallic and leather and denim fabrics, textured with beads or fur or bows, striated into dizzying geometric patterns. A hilarious dance scene evolves from quaint ballroom circling to lifts and spins to the Soul Train line. Historical events are distorted in similar fashion. The political intrigues of the day—the Whigs and the Tories, the War of the Spanish Succession—appear but only in scattershot fashion, and mostly to set the stakes for the personal intrigues between the women. All three were married to men but there is no attempt in the film to fix their identities as bisexuals or as closeted lesbians. The use of sex to win over the Queen has some historical basis—Sarah wrote a letter disapproving of Anne’s “strange and unaccountable” passion for “such a woman” as Abigail. But it is doubtful that the Queen ever said “Fuck me” to Sarah or “I like the way she puts her tongue inside me” of Abigail. The bracing lack of euphemism doesn’t feel wrong, though: indeed, so rarely is female desire expressed with such frankness on screen that you actually wonder for a moment if they spoke like that back then.

In short, it is pointless to debate whether the portrayal of women in the film is accurate. This is one way Lanthimos escapes that twenty-first century bind of representation: femme fatale versus femme futile. Anachronism creates a kind of speculative space—the alternate history or the counterfactual—where norms of gender and sexuality are not overturned, exactly, but suspended, set into an unpredictable, free-floating dynamic. Take the perennial question of beauty. “A man must look pretty,” one man coaches another in courtship, only for a woman to smear his makeup and snatch his fancy wig. The women barely wear makeup and when they do, it’s chalky and thin, pointedly bad. “You look like a badger,” Sarah tells the Queen, accurately, and opens a mirror to show her. “Badger,” Anne confirms sulkily, near tears, then promptly rages at a pageboy for looking at her.

Or take the transhistorical threat of rape. Lord Masham bursts into Abigail’s quarters at night and finds her lying on the bed. “Are you here to seduce me or to rape me?” she asks drolly. “I am a gentleman!” he protests. “So rape then,” she deadpans and plays dead. Sarah, recovering in a brothel from injuries caused by Abigail’s treachery, sends for a member of Parliament to come and secure her release. “Did they rape you?” he asks, scandalized. “No, they didn’t,” she says matter-of-factly, “but gainful employment is on offer should I need it.” These scenes do not play the “rape card,” but nor do they dismiss fear of rape as hysterical. They suggest instead the reality for women: rape is everywhere; rape is a threat; rape is built into the “gentler” and “business” institutions of society.

The Queen is where these realms overlap, the body politic where flesh and state coincide. She banishes Sarah from the palace, crying out: “They would hurt us, our country, the Queen.” Anne’s hurt is fundamental. It is where the film begins and ends, and out of this seemingly depthless pit comes great pathos but also great humor. And I think this is the other way the film escapes the bind of female villainy: by drawing comic and tragic sensibilities together. The screenplay of The Favourite, by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is funny but uncomfortably so—the audience’s laughter sounded more like gunfire than a rain shower. A sense of tragedy is built into the film’s aesthetics: the sounds or shots of a subsequent scene often play before the current action in the plot has prompted it, so that consequence preempts cause, and events—foreshadowed through formal symmetries—come to feel fated, predetermined. Lanthimos reverses the oft-cited equation that comedy is tragedy plus time. The Favourite feels like a comedy that goes on just long enough that it devolves into tragedy.

One of Lanthimos’s signature techniques for creating this uncanny bleed of emotion is through animals (consider just the titles of his previous films). The Favourite is littered with them: vipers, flies, badgers, pigeons, deer, horses, wolves, lobsters, and a valuable “racing” duck named Horatio are all figured in relation to humans on screen or in speech. Anne’s rabbits, “the little ones,” are especially eerie and important. They are macabre, as Sarah says, but also lovely, as Abigail says. Watching them on screen provokes a strange combination of feelings in us: tenderness, amusement, fear, wonder, curiosity. In other words, they signify the complex, contradictory, and unaccountable feelings we have about real women. Strangely enough, it may be through its beasts that The Favourite makes the strongest case that women are, in fact, humans.


Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite is now in theaters. 

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A Cure for Metaphor-Blindness


Violet Foncé/Fromanger, Gerard/Private Collection/Bridgeman ImagesFrom the series “La Couleur des Villes et la Couleur des Champs,” by Violet Foncé, 1991; click to expand

“We find certain things about seeing puzzling, because we do not find the whole business of seeing puzzling enough.”

—Ludwig Wittgenstein

1

Among the many healings and exorcisms recounted in the Gospel According to Mark is one that is remarkable for taking place in two stages.

And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.

Jesus again puts his hands on the man’s eyes, “and he was restored, and saw every man clearly” (Mark 8:23–25 KJV).

The customary gloss on the passage is that the blind man is only partially healed the first time around, and that it takes two treatments for him to see fully. (The oculist slides another lens into the apparatus: “clearer?”) But this seems to me a misreading of the miracle. The blind man is actually taught to see twice. Or, to put it differently, he is taught to see in two different ways. After Jesus spits on his eyes and puts his hands on him, the man says, “I see men as trees, walking.” After a second laying on of hands (but no additional spitting), he sees “every man clearly.”

What, then, are these two ways of seeing?

2

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein identifies “two uses of the word ‘see.’” He asks us to imagine two men looking at two different faces. One sees a likeness between the two faces; the other does not. “The one man might make an accurate drawing of the two faces, and the other notice in the drawing the likeness which the former did not see.” Wittgenstein calls the experience of seeing a likeness “noticing an aspect.” A drawing of a triangle, Wittgenstein notes, “can be seen as a triangular hole, as a solid… as a mountain, as a wedge, as an arrow or pointer,” and so on. He gives other examples of this distinction between the two ways of seeing. “I suddenly see the solution of a puzzle-picture. Before, there were branches there; now there is a human shape.”

One way of seeing, in Wittgenstein’s formulation, is what we might call accurate seeing. This is how the blind man sees after Jesus touches his eyes for a second time, and he sees “every man clearly.” The other way of seeing is more like seeing men as trees walking. Wittgenstein calls this metaphorical way of seeing “seeing as.” He tells us, for example, that he “may well try to see” the letter F “as a gallows.”

“Could there be human beings lacking in the capacity to see something as something?” Wittgenstein wonders. He suggests that this condition might be called  “aspect-blindness” and compares it to “the lack of a ‘musical ear.’”

3

When Jesus isn’t busy healing the sick, he teaches his disciples. And what he teaches them is almost always, in Mark, expressed in parables. Jesus often seems frustrated that his disciples don’t “get it.” (Frank Kermode writes of the “gloomy ferocity of Mark’s Jesus.”) Jesus tells them about the sower and the seed. They ask for an explanation. “Know ye not this parable?” he answers. “And how then will ye know all parables?” (It is easy to imagine Jesus saying, “You idiots! I didn’t mean the bread was literally my body!”) Notoriously, Jesus tells his disciples that he has to speak in parables so that the rabble won’t know what he’s talking about: “That seeing they may see, and not perceive.” As Robert Frost puts it in “Directive”: “So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.”  

Jesus tries to teach his disciples this other way—this metaphorical way—of talking and seeing. But he fails repeatedly. And he is thrilled when he encounters someone who does know her way around metaphors. Just before the blind man is brought to him, Jesus is accosted by a Greek woman, who asks him to cure her daughter of an unclean spirit. Jesus says to her, “Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.” The woman answers, “Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.” Jesus is delighted with this answer. “For this saying [logos in Greek] go thy way,” he says, “the devil is gone out of thy daughter.”

Why is he so pleased? Because the woman understood the metaphor and, even better, answered him in the terms of the metaphor. She doesn’t ask—like the tiresome disciples—for an explanation. She is, one might say, at home in the metaphor. If the disciples demanded an explanation, Jesus would presumably say something like this: the children are the Jews; the dogs are the Greeks; the Jews should be saved first; but this woman says there is enough salvation for all, Jews and Greeks, children and puppies.

4

“Unless you are at home in the metaphor,” Robert Frost wrote, “you are not safe anywhere.” Frost gives an example of metaphor-blindness in his great poem “Home Burial.” A young couple has lost a child. The wife is in prolonged mourning. The husband thinks it’s time to move on. The wife is outraged that her husband, after burying their child near their house, and with dirt still on his shoes, could speak of “everyday concerns.” “I can repeat the very words you were saying,” she says:

“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor.

The answer she expects to her question (which Frost doesn’t grace with a question mark, since it’s not a real question) is: nothing. The husband can hardly say, in his own self-defense, “I was speaking metaphorically. By the birch fence, I meant our family.”

5

Macbeth offers another version of metaphor-blindness. After he has murdered Duncan to win the Scottish throne, Macbeth seeks the advice of the Weird Sisters, whose previous prophecies have set him on his violent course. They show him three “apparitions”: a helmeted head, a bloody child, and “a Child Crowned, with a tree in his hand.” Each apparition delivers a short speech. The first is “Beware Macduff!” Macbeth interprets the second and third as similarly straightforward. When the Second Apparition announces that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth,” Macbeth assumes he is invulnerable. “Then live, Macduff; what need I fear of thee?”

Macbeth finds the Third Apparition equally reassuring: “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him.” “That will never be,” he concludes, for “Who can impress the forest, bid the tree / Unfix his earthbound root?” Imagine an idiom: “That will happen when trees walk.”

What Macbeth fails to understand is that the second and third apparitions are actually framed as riddles. Like many riddles, they have a double meaning, a trick meaning. What is a man who is not of woman born? Macbeth assumes the answer is no one. But the trick answer, as Macduff reveals to him later, is a man born by Caesarian section, “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.” (Wittgenstein on the riddling nature of the Gospels: “If we want to warn someone of a terrible danger, do we go about it by telling him a riddle whose solution will be the warning?”)

The Third Apparition carries its trick answer openly in its hand—a child Crowned, with a tree in his hand—but Macbeth still fails to get it. How can a tree unfix his earthbound root? Answer: when an army of men is disguised with cut boughs as trees walking.

Why is Macbeth so obtuse? You might say that he is blinded by ambition. He reads the apparitions as he wants to read them, as most of us read the evidence when seeking support for our favored course of action.

6

One of the most influential twentieth-century poems in English appeared in Poetry magazine in April 1913. It is two lines long, or three, if Ezra Pound’s title is counted.  

IN A STATION OF THE METRO
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Yet again, we see people compared in some way to trees. And as in Macbeth, the notion of an “apparition” seems to be doing essential work. It is as though we are being asked to think about appearance, about how faces might be seen as something else. Pound summarized the chain of thought and feeling that went into “In a Station of the Metro”:

Three years ago in Paris I got out of a “metro” train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation.

It is the suddenness of the impression that Pound insists upon: “saw suddenly,” “that sudden emotion,” “I found, suddenly, the expression.” For Wittgenstein, too, suddenness is part of this kind of seeing. “I contemplate a face, and then suddenly notice its likeness to another.” And again: “I suddenly see the solution of a puzzle-picture. Before, there were branches there; now there is a human shape.”

For Pound, suddenness is an essential attribute of the new kind of poetry he is calling for—is, in fact, inventing. It requires an associative virtuosity and lightning wit that recall the speed of the Greek woman’s response to Jesus. It is to be a poetry of “exploration,” Pound writes, a new “sort of knowing.” He compares it to the sudden revelations of Japanese haiku. “The fallen blossom flies back to its branch: A butterfly.” He says of the final version of his poem: “I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”

 7

Imagine Jesus trying to explain his parables to his disciples in similar terms. “I take an outward thing like a sower sowing seed and I compare it to an inward thing, like the kingdom of heaven.” The disciples look confused. Jesus tries another tack. “Think about the ways in which men and trees are alike. They both have limbs. They both have trunks. They both grow upward and die. They can be tall or stunted. Now, try to visualize a tree uprooting itself and taking a few steps. Have you ever thought about how men resemble trees walking?”

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Damn It All


Palazzo Ducale, VeniceHerri met de Bles: Hell, mid-sixteenth century

“I think hell’s a fable,” the famous professor proclaimed—a surprising declaration not only because it was made in the late sixteenth century, when very few people would have dared to say such a thing, but also because he was at that moment in conversation with a devil to whom he was offering to sell his soul. The professor in question was Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s great Elizabethan tragedy. Bored with his mastery of philosophy, medicine, and law, Faustus longs for forbidden knowledge. “Where are you damned?” he asks Mephastophilis, the devil whom he has conjured up. “In hell,” comes the prompt reply, but Faustus remains skeptical: “How comes it then that thou art out of hell?” The devil’s answer is quietly devastating: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.”

Did Marlowe, a notorious freethinker who declared (according to a police report) that “the first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe,” actually believe in the literal existence of hell? Did he imagine that humans would pay for their misdeeds (or be rewarded for their virtues) in the afterlife? Did he think that there was a vast underground realm to which the souls of sinners were hauled off to suffer eternal punishments meted out by fiends? It is difficult to say, but it is clear that hell was good for the theater business in his time, as exorcism has been good for the film industry in our own. In his diary, the Elizabethan entrepreneur Philip Henslowe inventoried the props that were in storage in the Rose Theater. They included one rock, one cage, one tomb, and one hellmouth, the latter perfect for receiving a sinner like Faustus at the end of act 5.

There is evidence that Marlowe’s play produced a powerful effect on his contemporaries. During a performance at the Theatre—London’s first freestanding wooden playhouse—a cracking sound caused a panic in the audience; in the town of Exeter the players bolted when they thought that there was one devil too many on stage; and multiple rumors circulated of “the visible apparition of the Devill” unexpectedly surging up during the conjuring scene. In Doctor Faustus, hell may have been a form of theatrical entertainment; audiences paid their pennies to enter a fictional world. But when the performance was disrupted by a surprise noise, the crowd was prepared instantly to jettison the idea of fiction and grant that it was all too true. This is a familiar story. We humans have a way of turning our wildest imaginations into unquestionable beliefs, the foundations on which we construct some of our most elaborate and enduring institutions. In matters of faith, the boundary between make-believe and reality is porous.

The Penguin Book of Hell, edited by the Fordham history professor Scott Bruce, is an anthology of sadistic fantasies that for millions of people over many centuries laid a claim to sober truth. Not all people in all cultures have embraced such fantasies. Though the ancient Egyptians were obsessively focused on the afterlife, it was not suffering in the Kingdom of the Dead that most frightened them but rather ceasing altogether to exist. At the other extreme, in ancient Greece the Epicureans positively welcomed the idea that when it was over it was over: after death, the atoms that make up body and soul simply come apart, and there is nothing further either to fear or to crave. Epicurus was not alone in thinking that ethical behavior should not have to depend on threats and promises: Aristotle’s great Nicomachean Ethics investigates the sources of moral virtue, happiness, and justice without for a moment invoking the support of postmortem punishments or rewards.

The Hebrews wrote their entire Bible without mentioning hell. They had a realm they called sheol, but it was merely the place of darkness and silence where all the dead—the just as well as the wicked—wound up. For the ancient rabbis, heaven was a place where you could study the Torah all the time. Its opposite was not a place of torture; it was more like a state of depression so deep that you could not even open a book.

In the Odyssey, Homer bequeathed to the world a much more elaborate vision of the afterlife than the Hebrews ever imagined, one in which Sisyphus ceaselessly attempts to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again, and Tantalus, standing in a pool, reaches for fruit that forever eludes his grasp and thirsts for water that he can never drink. Yet notwithstanding these isolated examples of exemplary punishment, the land of the dead visited by Odysseus is notable not for the meting out of just deserts, whether pleasure or pain, but for a general sadness, more akin to sheol than to the Christian hell. “There’s not a man in the world more blest than you,” Odysseus congratulates the ghost of the great Achilles. “Time was, when you were alive, we Argives/honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,/you lord it over the dead in all your power.” But Achilles contemptuously dismisses the facile compliment:

No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.

Though life, as Homer’s great poem shows, can be excruciatingly difficult, it is still preferable to even the most honored place in the underworld.

The Penguin Book of Hell does not offer any explanation of how Christianity, from a contradictory jumble of ancient notions (Egyptian, Hebrew, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman), arrived at the full-fledged nightmare that the editor calls “the most powerful and persuasive construct of the human imagination in the Western tradition.” Plato made an important contribution by imagining graded punishments for sinners, as did Virgil, by giving the underworld a more graphically convincing topography and by urging anyone with a secret crime to atone for it before it’s too late.

But neither of these pagan master builders of Western culture can account for something the anthology lightly skims over: Jesus’s striking insistence on Gehenna, the sinister valley in Jerusalem where in archaic times the followers of Moloch were said to have sacrificed their children. “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell [Gehenna] of fire,” he declared in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:22), and the synoptic gospels attribute this warning to the Savior at least ten more times: “It is better for you to lose one of your members, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell [Gehenna]” (Matt. 5:29); “If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell [Gehenna] of fire” (Matt. 18:9); “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell [Gehenna], to the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43); “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has the authority to cast into hell [Gehenna]” (Luke 12:5); etc., etc. The gospels’ good news is closely conjoined, on the authority of God’s own son, with repeated dire warnings about a place where the worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched, and there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Whether it derived from the Pharisees or the Essenes or some entirely personal vision, Jesus’s emphasis on a fiery place of torment for sinners seems to have licensed the outpouring of texts, many of them translated here by the editor, that constitute most of a volume that would, given the absence of Buddhist and other traditions, have been more accurately titled The Penguin Book of Christian Hell.

The earliest of these texts is a brief excerpt from the third-century apocryphal Apocalypse of Paul, which already contains many of the features so beloved by hell-mongers. The account, as is typical of the genre, professes to be an eyewitness testimony; it is a kind of ghastly travelogue. There are the rivers of fire, insatiable worms, swirling sulfur and pitch, stench, and sharp stones raining like hail on the unprotected bodies of the damned. There are adulterers strung up by their eyebrows and hair; sodomites covered in blood and filth; girls who lost their virginity without their parents’ knowledge shackled in flaming chains; women who had abortions impaled on flaming spits. There are virtuous pagans who “gave alms and yet did not recognize the Lord God” and who are therefore blinded and placed forever in a deep pit.

Demons—here called the “angels of Tartarus”—carry out special tortures designed for particular types of sinners. Hence, for example, a “lector”—a reader of the lessons in church services—who did not follow God’s commandments: “And an angel in charge of his torments arrived with a long flaming knife, with which he sliced the lips of this man and his tongue as well.” The eyewitness’s expressions of horror are answered by the reassurance from his guardian angel that it is all part of God’s plan: “I mourned and groaned for the human race. In response, the angel said to me, ‘Why do you mourn? Are you more merciful than God?’”

That question, though it was meant to be rhetorical, haunts the pages of The Penguin Book of Hell and carries other disturbing questions in its wake. What kind of God inflicts hideous tortures on those whom he does not like? Why did he not prevent the worst from happening? Or why, after some suitable term, doesn’t he at least bring the whole ghastly business of punishment to an end? What good is a penal sentence for all eternity? Does God enjoy the spectacle of so much suffering? If so, are we meant to join in the enjoyment?

I force myself to think of the worst monsters in world history—Hitler immediately comes to mind—and try to consign them to this imaginary penal colony, but I cannot do it. The problem is not tenderness on my part—an impulse to forgive and forget or a hope for the criminal’s repentance and rehabilitation—but an inability to enter into a metaphysical system ruled by an omnipotent creator whose endless love is shadowed by an endless rage. That system is precisely what swept the field for millennia and continues, if the current polling figures are correct, to be an article of faith for a majority of my fellow Americans, 58 percent of whom profess to believe in hell.

Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri; drawing by David Levine

In very early Christian conceptions of the afterlife, the most horrendous punishments were reserved for errors of faith. “Who are these ones, Lord, who are thrown into the pit?” the apostle, looking down into the deepest abyss, asks in The Apocalypse of Paul, and his guide, the angel, replies that “they are people who did not confess that Christ had come in the flesh and that the Virgin Mary bore him and whoever says that the bread and the cup of the blessing of the Eucharist is not the body and blood of Christ.” The policing of doctrinal orthodoxy in this way extended effortlessly to interfaith differences. In the widely circulated apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, probably composed in Greek in the fourth century, Satan boasts that he “stirred up my ancient people the Jews with jealousy and anger” toward the Savior. Jews always had a prominent place in Christian hell; in the celebrated twelfth-century mosaics on the wall of the basilica in Torcello, they boil in a special pot of their own.

They were often joined, of course, by Muslims. “No barrel staved-in/And missing its end-piece,” Dante reports in the Inferno, “ever gaped as wide/As the man I saw split open from his chin//Down to the farting-place.” Dante stares at the grotesque sight—“from the splayed/Trunk the spilled entrails dangled between his thighs”—but in this case he does not have to ask his companion Virgil to name the figure, for the sufferer identifies himself: “He pulled open his chest/With both hands, saying, ‘Look how Mohammed claws/And mangles himself, torn open down the breast!/Look how I tear myself!’”

In the sixteenth century, Catholics eagerly prayed for the day when Martin Luther would join this dubious company, along with other Reformers who were rebelling against the Holy Mother Church. For their part, Protestants consigned the pope and his bishops to the flames. But there was nothing particularly new in doing that: ecclesiastics had long featured prominently in medieval depictions of hell. In the Inferno, Dante sees Pope Nicholas III wriggling upside down in a fiery hole. The pope, roasting in the flames, was guilty of simony—the selling of church offices—an accusation frequently brought against high-ranking churchmen, along with pride, gluttony, and hypocrisy.

Still more often, the charges against the clergy were sexual in nature: for well more than a thousand years, the rule of strict and perfect celibacy, promulgated in the Roman Catholic Church and still officially mandated, has proved to be almost impossible to sustain in practice. Violations were sometimes treated, as in Boccaccio or Chaucer, with a certain wry humor, but they very often provoked disgust and outrage. Hence the visitor to hell in the influential twelfth-century Vision of Tundale stares at a large group of souls who are undergoing a particularly horrific torture: “The genitals of the men and the women were like serpents, which eagerly mangled the lower parts of their stomachs and pulled out their guts.” The angelic guide tells the appalled visitor that these are all monks, nuns, and other clerics who have been guilty of fornication.

Thomas Aquinas, who never shied away from the hardest questions, asked whether the blessed souls in heaven would see the torments or hear the agonized screams of the damned. He understood why such an idea might make some people queasy and seem logically inconsistent with perfect bliss. After all, to pity someone’s suffering is in some sense to participate in it, and in heaven surely there should be no suffering at all. But Thomas concluded that, yes, the blessed would see the miseries of those in hell and that, no, they would feel no pity for those miseries. On the contrary, they would derive satisfaction from what they were witnessing down below: “Therefore, in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render greater thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.”

Something of the satisfaction that the belief in hell evidently offers, helping to explain its continued appeal, is glimpsed in the punishment visited upon the unfortunate lector who gets his tongue cut off or upon the fornicating priests who are attacked by their own genitals. Everywhere in hell, the angel tells Tundale, sinners get exactly what they deserve: “You will see the torment that fits your deeds.” The principle is known as contrapasso—counterpoise, as Longfellow translated it—and Dante was its supreme master. This form of justice can consist in the sinner having to suffer the opposite of whatever it was that led to damnation: hence soothsayers who in life tried to peer into the future are condemned to walk forever with their heads twisted backwards. But the punishment can also be a kind of demonic continuation: the wrathful are condemned for eternity to tear each other limb from limb, usurers crouch in agony with purses around their necks, lovers who were swept away in adulterous passion are now swept away in a ceaseless infernal wind.

Dante’s stupendous poetic achievement is too rich and complex to fit comfortably into The Penguin Book of Hell. In its deep human sympathy, the Inferno resists functioning as a piece of doctrine or grim pedagogy, and the few excerpts that the editor includes seem out of place among the cruder fantasies and dire warnings that dominate the anthology. Though after the Reformation both Catholics and Protestants continued to preach about hell, they pulled, Bruce’s selections indicate, in somewhat different directions. Catholics continued to highlight the physical horrors of the afterlife—think of the stench, wrote the particularly repellent seventeenth-century Jesuit Giovanni Pietro Pinamonti, “that shall be exhaled in that dungeon, where all the whole crowd of tormenting devils and all the bodies of the tormented will be penned up together”—while Protestants tended to emphasize the psychological miseries.

The early-eighteenth-century Anglican William Dawes suggested that, in order to intensify their pain, the damned would be given a brief glimpse of the joys of heaven. How it will gall and wound them to consider that they had such happiness within their reach only to lose it in the pursuit of “mere “gugaws” and trifles.” To make matters worse, he continued, the lust for “gugaws” would not simply disappear. In hell, to their unspeakable torment, the fallen “continually burn with the most raging and vehement desires and longings after these things, which yet at the same time they shall be infallibly assur’d, it shall never in the least be in their power to enjoy.”

Archbishop Dawes professed to believe in the literal existence of the subterranean penal colony, but it is clear from his twisted prose that this formal declaration of faith made him uneasy: “Here I must freely confess that I cannot see any manner of reason, why we should suppose that the fire of Hell will not be a real and material, but only a metaphorical and figurative, fire.” No reason at all except reason itself. He quickly retreats to a more civilized, or at least more social, vision of punishment. Think, he writes, of the devilish company you will have to keep in hell:

Nothing can be expected from such company, but continual jangling, hatred, anger, snarling, and biting at one another, nothing but the most terrible Fears and jealousies of, the most malicious and spiteful bickerings against, each other. And good God! If it be thought so very irksome a thing here, to be oblig’d to spend only a few hours in Company that is disagreeable, how shall we ever be able to bear the thoughts of taking our dwelling among that Hellish Crew, who study nothing else, day and night, than how they may be best able to provoke and exasperate each other to the highest degree possible.

We are less in the world of Dante than of Jane Austen, an eternity spent in the company of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

“Little child,” wrote the English Catholic priest John Furniss, “if you go to Hell, there will be a devil at your side to strike you. He will go on striking you every minute forever and ever, without ever stopping.” Why would anyone want to infect a child’s mind with such a terrible fantasy? The answer, at least in part, has to do with the dream of regulating behavior through fear. Even when they are not being policed, the idea goes, people are more likely to behave themselves if they believe that they will be punished in the afterlife.

But already in the sixth century, one of the first great writers about hell, Pope Gregory the Great, ruefully acknowledged that the warning is not very effective. And the long history of human behavior bears witness to the truth of this acknowledgment. The strictly instrumental use of hell finally boils down to a remark quoted by Voltaire: “My good friend, I no more believe in the eternity of hell than yourself; but recollect that it may be no bad thing, perhaps, for your servant, your tailor, and your lawyer to believe in it.”

Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Father Furniss may have been afraid that the spirit of Voltaire had eroded robust belief in the horrors to come. “Perhaps at this moment, seven o’clock in the evening,” he told his young readers, “a child is just going into Hell. Tomorrow evening at seven o’clock, go and knock at the gates of Hell and ask what the child is doing. The devils will go and look. Then they will come back again and say, the child is burning!” But notwithstanding the hell-monger’s intentions, the burning child leads us away from theology and toward Freud: the words “Father, don’t you see I’m burning?” lie at the center of one of his most famous dream interpretations.*

Freud argued that the words, terrible though they are, allowed the dreamer to continue to sleep. We can perhaps suggest something similar about the texts collected in The Penguin Book of Hell. One of the prime motives of these texts is rage, rage against people occupying positions of exceptional trust and power who lie and cheat and trample on the most basic values and yet who escape the punishment they so manifestly deserve. History is an unending chronicle of such knaves, and it is a chronicle too of frustration and impotence, certainly among the mass of ordinary people but even among those who feel that they are stakeholders in the system. Hell is the last recourse of political impotence. You console yourself—you manage to stay asleep, as Freud might say—by imagining that the loathsome characters you detest will meet their comeuppance in the afterlife.

But Voltaire and the Enlightenment carried a different message: wake up. Throw out the whole hopelessly impotent fantasy; it is, in any case, the tool not only of the victims but also of the victimizers. We must fight the criminals here and now, in the only world where we can hope to see justice.

  1. *

    The Interpretation of Dreams, Chapter 7. The dream lies at the center of a remarkable recent film by Joseph Koerner, The Burning Child (2017). 

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