Месечни архиви: September 2015

A Frisky ‘Figaro’

Michael Brosilow/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Luca Pisaroni as Count Almaviva and Christiane Karg as Susanna in Barbara Gaines’s production of The Marriage of Figaro at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2015

Pierre Beaumarchais wrote three popular plays about Figaro—The Barber of Seville (1775), The Marriage of Figaro (1784), and The Guilty Mother (1784). In them, Figaro appears successively as fixer-upper barber to Count Almaviva, then valet to the Count, then chamberlain of the Count’s household.

Almaviva, the ardent young lover of a flirtatious girl, Rosina, in the first play, becomes the unfaithful husband of a neglected Rosina in the second. While the Countess laments her abandonment, the Count is working on a list of “conquests” to equal that of another Spanish lord, Don Giovanni. But while Don Giovanni finally gets his comeuppance, or rather his comedownance (straight to hell), there seems no way to stop Almaviva in his headlong lecheries. Even though Figaro helped him win Rosina in the past, the Count now wants to exercise his droit du seigneur over Figaro’s fiancé, Susanna.

How to change the Count’s sinful ways (without sending him to hell with Don Giovanni) is a problem for Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which uses librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s adaptation of Beaumarchais. An influential solution—given in Joseph Kerman’s justly famous book, Opera as Drama—is to redeem the Count through the love of a good woman. This conversion takes place, at the end of the opera, in the space of two simple lines. Almaviva, caught in flagrante, kneels down and pleads, “Countess, pardon, pardon,” and she answers, “I am submissive [docile], and say yes.” For Kerman, who is a very teleological critic of opera, this is the telos to which everything else in the opera is aimed. He says, to mark the importance of this exchange, that it begins with “a nervous staccato scale-figure in the violins, a newly serious harmonic progression,” which becomes “hymnlike” and “almost an epiphany.” He assures us that “the music at this section has a seriousness and a new clarity of feeling.”

That is a lot to load into two lines that usually take forty to sixty seconds to sing. If the person behind you coughs at this moment, you might miss part of one or the other line. Kerman admits these magic two lines need preparation to have such an outsize effect, and he finds that preparation in the opening of the second act, where the abandoned Countess, alone on the stage, sings the mournful “Porgi, amor”—“If you will not, Love, bring my husband back, then let me die.” This song, Kerman says, “moves the drama to a new plane.” The opera’s model was Italian opera buffa, and Kerman says even those frothy comedies had their serious moments—but not like this one. “No one before Mozart had been willing to assume the responsibility of this seriousness.” Here, the depth of the Countess’s sorrow reveals her profundity of soul, that store of spirituality that will pour out to change the Count in the work’s final scene: “I am submissive, and I say yes.”

The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s season-opening production of The Marriage of Figaro, directed by Barbara Gaines, the creator of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, opens Act II seemingly in line with Kerman’s expectation of the “Porgi, amor.” The Countess sits all alone in the center of a vast bed (twenty-five feet wide, fifteen feet deep). Such a huge empty bed expresses her desertion. But then, in what must seem almost sacrilegious to a devout Kermanite, she crab-crawls over to the bedside, where there is a tray of sweetmeats, and starts stuffing bonbons into her mouth. When, shortly after, the Countess helps disguise the count’s page, the young boy Cherubino, as a woman, she takes advantage of a moment when no one is looking to swarm all over his body. This Countess has gone too long without sex.

Earlier, when the Count orders Cherubino into the army to get rid of him, Figaro sings of the boy’s new martial life to a stirring march, leading him in military drills. In this production, Susanna’s wide skirt hides what is going on while Figaro calls up a vision of military glory. When she finally moves aside, we see Cherubino bandaged and crippled as a war victim. Linking this and the earlier embrace by the Countess, I thought of Beaumarchais’s third Figaro play, The Guilty Mother, where Susanna is pregnant with Cherubino’s child when she hears of his death in battle. Gaines told me that she knows The Guilty Mother but had formed her concept without considering it. Her Countess is the frisky Rosina of old—Almaviva’s equal partner, not his saintly rescuer. The two even grab a moment for passionate embrace as they argue over his search for an elusive Cherubino.

Michael Brosilow/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Brindley Sherratt as Bartolo, Adam Plachetka as Figaro, and Christiane Karg as Susanna in Gaines’s The Marriage of Figaro, 2015

Gaines lets us know early on that this is going to be a lusty romp, more in the vein of Fielding’s Tom Jones than of Kerman’s imagined play (something like The Sinner Reclaimed). As the overture is playing, a scream is heard from a woman in “naughty maid” costume running down the aisle, pursued by the Count in a long red robe that makes him look like Sargent’s portrait of the womanizing Doctor Pozzi now on display at the Metropolitan Museum. After the two duck under the curtain, the Countess comes after them in frustrated pursuit.

The opera buffa motif is reflected in the costumes (designed by Susan Mickey), which are flamboyant. Marcellina, the housemaid who lent Figaro money on a signed promise that he would marry her if he could not repay the loan, wears a hat that would do Carmen Miranda credit. The Countess herself is as oversequined as any Liberace. Some people resist the idea that such celestially beautiful music can float up from imperfect and lustful little people. But consider the duet of the Countess and Susanna, “Sull’ aria.” In the movie Shawshank Redemption, a prisoner sends that dreamlike moment by loudspeakers into the prison yard. Its aching beauty stops and stuns the inmates milling there. They cannot know that the two women are arranging a trap for the Count, meant to mislead so “He’ll take the hint” (capira).

The plot outlined in that duet is to be worked in a little grove (boschetto), and this last scene of switched identities and misconceptions is usually played in a palace garden with bushes and little pavilions in which the characters can hide from and observe each other in shifting configurations. Gaines stages this scene in a statuary garden, with idealized life-size Greek statues. With inspired mischief, she makes the garishly costumed characters show real life lurking behind sterile ideals. The scene ends with the two lines Kerman thinks are the whole point of the show. The line that redeems the Count is surprisingly meek: “I am submissive [docile] and I say yes.” We should remember here Rossini’s Barber of Seville, in which Rosino’s first aria says, “I am submissive [docile] and deferential [rispettosa], obedient, sweet, loving —BUT [a famous ma] if you cross me I’ll bring you down rather than give in.” In the Gaines conclusion, the Count and Countess splash water on each other from an onstage pond and their water fight ends with them embracing in the pond, playful as young lovers. And yes, Gaines tells me, she was thinking of baptismal water. She says, ‘Water cleanses”—she prefers that to Kerman’s redeeming superiority of the noble woman.

The Lyric Opera’s mainly young singers respond beautifully to the young (forty-year-old) Hungarian director Henrik Nánási. A tiny bundle of energy, he is the music director of the Komische Oper Berlin, so he knows his way around opera buffa. The orchestra is with him through all the hushed sequences of whispered schemings or braying moments of (mainly deceived) triumph. He is given great singing from a Czech Figaro, a German Susanna, an Italian Almaviva, and an Israeli Cherubino. Laughter knows no national boundaries.


Barbara Gaines’s production of The Marriage of Figaro is showing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago through October 24.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/gfLVzC-zh0w/

A Frisky ‘Figaro’

Michael Brosilow/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Luca Pisaroni as Count Almaviva and Christiane Karg as Susanna in Barbara Gaines’s production of The Marriage of Figaro at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2015

Pierre Beaumarchais wrote three popular plays about Figaro—The Barber of Seville (1775), The Marriage of Figaro (1784), and The Guilty Mother (1784). In them, Figaro appears successively as fixer-upper barber to Count Almaviva, then valet to the Count, then chamberlain of the Count’s household.

Almaviva, the ardent young lover of a flirtatious girl, Rosina, in the first play, becomes the unfaithful husband of a neglected Rosina in the second. While the Countess laments her abandonment, the Count is working on a list of “conquests” to equal that of another Spanish lord, Don Giovanni. But while Don Giovanni finally gets his comeuppance, or rather his comedownance (straight to hell), there seems no way to stop Almaviva in his headlong lecheries. Even though Figaro helped him win Rosina in the past, the Count now wants to exercise his droit du seigneur over Figaro’s fiancé, Susanna.

How to change the Count’s sinful ways (without sending him to hell with Don Giovanni) is a problem for Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which uses librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s adaptation of Beaumarchais. An influential solution—given in Joseph Kerman’s justly famous book, Opera as Drama—is to redeem the Count through the love of a good woman. This conversion takes place, at the end of the opera, in the space of two simple lines. Almaviva, caught in flagrante, kneels down and pleads, “Countess, pardon, pardon,” and she answers, “I am submissive [docile], and say yes.” For Kerman, who is a very teleological critic of opera, this is the telos to which everything else in the opera is aimed. He says, to mark the importance of this exchange, that it begins with “a nervous staccato scale-figure in the violins, a newly serious harmonic progression,” which becomes “hymnlike” and “almost an epiphany.” He assures us that “the music at this section has a seriousness and a new clarity of feeling.”

That is a lot to load into two lines that usually take forty to sixty seconds to sing. If the person behind you coughs at this moment, you might miss part of one or the other line. Kerman admits these magic two lines need preparation to have such an outsize effect, and he finds that preparation in the opening of the second act, where the abandoned Countess, alone on the stage, sings the mournful “Porgi, amor”—“If you will not, Love, bring my husband back, then let me die.” This song, Kerman says, “moves the drama to a new plane.” The opera’s model was Italian opera buffa, and Kerman says even those frothy comedies had their serious moments—but not like this one. “No one before Mozart had been willing to assume the responsibility of this seriousness.” Here, the depth of the Countess’s sorrow reveals her profundity of soul, that store of spirituality that will pour out to change the Count in the work’s final scene: “I am submissive, and I say yes.”

The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s season-opening production of The Marriage of Figaro, directed by Barbara Gaines, the creator of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, opens Act II seemingly in line with Kerman’s expectation of the “Porgi, amor.” The Countess sits all alone in the center of a vast bed (twenty-five feet wide, fifteen feet deep). Such a huge empty bed expresses her desertion. But then, in what must seem almost sacrilegious to a devout Kermanite, she crab-crawls over to the bedside, where there is a tray of sweetmeats, and starts stuffing bonbons into her mouth. When, shortly after, the Countess helps disguise the count’s page, the young boy Cherubino, as a woman, she takes advantage of a moment when no one is looking to swarm all over his body. This Countess has gone too long without sex.

Earlier, when the Count orders Cherubino into the army to get rid of him, Figaro sings of the boy’s new martial life to a stirring march, leading him in military drills. In this production, Susanna’s wide skirt hides what is going on while Figaro calls up a vision of military glory. When she finally moves aside, we see Cherubino bandaged and crippled as a war victim. Linking this and the earlier embrace by the Countess, I thought of Beaumarchais’s third Figaro play, The Guilty Mother, where Susanna is pregnant with Cherubino’s child when she hears of his death in battle. Gaines told me that she knows The Guilty Mother but had formed her concept without considering it. Her Countess is the frisky Rosina of old—Almaviva’s equal partner, not his saintly rescuer. The two even grab a moment for passionate embrace as they argue over his search for an elusive Cherubino.

Michael Brosilow/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Brindley Sherratt as Bartolo, Adam Plachetka as Figaro, and Christiane Karg as Susanna in Gaines’s The Marriage of Figaro, 2015

Gaines lets us know early on that this is going to be a lusty romp, more in the vein of Fielding’s Tom Jones than of Kerman’s imagined play (something like The Sinner Reclaimed). As the overture is playing, a scream is heard from a woman in “naughty maid” costume running down the aisle, pursued by the Count in a long red robe that makes him look like Sargent’s portrait of the womanizing Doctor Pozzi now on display at the Metropolitan Museum. After the two duck under the curtain, the Countess comes after them in frustrated pursuit.

The opera buffa motif is reflected in the costumes (designed by Susan Mickey), which are flamboyant. Marcellina, the housemaid who lent Figaro money on a signed promise that he would marry her if he could not repay the loan, wears a hat that would do Carmen Miranda credit. The Countess herself is as oversequined as any Liberace. Some people resist the idea that such celestially beautiful music can float up from imperfect and lustful little people. But consider the duet of the Countess and Susanna, “Sull’ aria.” In the movie Shawshank Redemption, a prisoner sends that dreamlike moment by loudspeakers into the prison yard. Its aching beauty stops and stuns the inmates milling there. They cannot know that the two women are arranging a trap for the Count, meant to mislead so “He’ll take the hint” (capira).

The plot outlined in that duet is to be worked in a little grove (boschetto), and this last scene of switched identities and misconceptions is usually played in a palace garden with bushes and little pavilions in which the characters can hide from and observe each other in shifting configurations. Gaines stages this scene in a statuary garden, with idealized life-size Greek statues. With inspired mischief, she makes the garishly costumed characters show real life lurking behind sterile ideals. The scene ends with the two lines Kerman thinks are the whole point of the show. The line that redeems the Count is surprisingly meek: “I am submissive [docile] and I say yes.” We should remember here Rossini’s Barber of Seville, in which Rosino’s first aria says, “I am submissive [docile] and deferential [rispettosa], obedient, sweet, loving —BUT [a famous ma] if you cross me I’ll bring you down rather than give in.” In the Gaines conclusion, the Count and Countess splash water on each other from an onstage pond and their water fight ends with them embracing in the pond, playful as young lovers. And yes, Gaines tells me, she was thinking of baptismal water. She says, ‘Water cleanses”—she prefers that to Kerman’s redeeming superiority of the noble woman.

The Lyric Opera’s mainly young singers respond beautifully to the young (forty-year-old) Hungarian director Henrik Nánási. A tiny bundle of energy, he is the music director of the Komische Oper Berlin, so he knows his way around opera buffa. The orchestra is with him through all the hushed sequences of whispered schemings or braying moments of (mainly deceived) triumph. He is given great singing from a Czech Figaro, a German Susanna, an Italian Almaviva, and an Israeli Cherubino. Laughter knows no national boundaries.


Barbara Gaines’s production of The Marriage of Figaro is showing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago through October 24.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/gfLVzC-zh0w/

The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals


flannery_1-100815.jpg

Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Elephant herds crossing a lake bed in the sun, Amboseli, Kenya, 2008; photograph by Nick Brandt

The free-living dolphins of the Bahamas had come to know researcher Denise Herzing and her team very well. For decades, at the start of each four-month-long field season, the dolphins would give the returning humans a joyous reception: “a reunion of friends,” as Herzing described it. But one year the creatures behaved differently. They would not approach the research vessel, refusing even invitations to bow-ride. When the boat’s captain slipped into the water to size up the situation, the dolphins remained aloof. Meanwhile on board it was discovered that an expeditioner had died while napping in his bunk. As the vessel headed to port, Herzing said, “the dolphins came to the side of our boat, not riding the bow as usual but instead flanking us fifty feet away in an aquatic escort” that paralleled the boat in an organized manner.

The remarkable incident raises questions that lie at the heart of Carl Safina’s astonishing new book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Can dolphin sonar penetrate the steel hull of a boat—and pinpoint a stilled heart? Can dolphins empathize with human bereavement? Is dolphin society organized enough to permit the formation of a funeral cavalcade? If the answer to these questions is yes, then Beyond Words has profound implications for humans and our worldview.

Beyond Words is gloriously written. Consider this description of elephants:

Their great breaths, rushing in and out, resonant in the halls of their lungs. The skin as they moved, wrinkled with time and wear, batiked with the walk of ages, as if they lived within the creased maps of the lives they’d traveled.

Not since Barry Lopez or Peter Matthiessen were at the height of their powers has the world been treated to such sumptuous descriptions of nature.

Safina would be the first to agree that anecdotes such as Herzing’s lack the rigor of scientific experiments. He tells us that he is “most skeptical of those things I’d most like to believe, precisely because I’d like to believe them. Wanting to believe something can bias one’s view.” Beyond Words is a rigorously scientific work. Yet impeccably documented anecdotes such as Herzing’s have a place in it, because they are the only means we have of comprehending the reactions of intelligent creatures like dolphins to rare and unusual circumstances. The alternative—to capture dolphins or chimpanzees and subject them to an array of human-devised tests in artificial circumstances—often results in nonsense. Take, for example, the oft-cited research demonstrating that wolves cannot follow a human pointing at something, while dogs can. It turns out that the wolves tested were caged: when outside a cage, wolves readily follow human pointing, without any training.

Safina explains how an evolutionary understanding of the emotions helps us to see even humble creatures as individuals. The chemical oxytocin creates feelings of pleasure and a craving for sociality. So widespread is it that it must have originated 700 million or more years ago. Serotonin, a chemical associated with anxiety, is probably equally ancient: crayfish subjected to mild electrical shocks have elevated serotonin levels, and act anxiously. If treated with chlordiazepoxide (a common treatment for humans suffering from anxiety) they resume normal behavior.

The basic repertory of emotions evolved so long ago that even worms exhibit great behavioral sophistication. After a lifetime studying earthworms, Charles Darwin declared that they “deserve to be called intelligent,” for when evaluating materials for plugging their burrows, they “act in nearly in the same manner as a man under similar circumstances.” Emotions are the foundation blocks of relationships and personalities. Driven by the same complex mix of emotion-inducing chemicals as ourselves, every worm, crayfish, and other invertebrate has its own unique response to its fellows and the world at large.

Worms and crayfish may have distinct personalities and emotional responses, but their brains are far simpler than ours. Humans fall within a small group of mammals with exceptionally large brains. All are highly social, and it is upon this group—and specifically the elephants, killer whales, bottlenosed dolphins, and wolves—that Safina concentrates. The last common ancestor of these creatures was a primitive, small-brained, nocturnal, shrew-sized mammal that lived around 100 million years ago. The brains, bodies, and societies of these “animal intelligentsia,” as we might call them, are each very different, making it hard to understand their lives.

Safina sees and describes the behaviors of the animals he’s interested in through the eyes of researchers who have dedicated their lives to the study of their subjects. What is it like to be an elephant? Cynthia Moss, who has lived with the elephants of Amboseli National Park in Kenya for four decades, sums them up as “intelligent, social, emotional, personable, imitative, respectful of ancestors, playful, self-aware, compassionate.” It all sounds impressively human, but elephant societies are very different from our own. Female elephants and their young live separately from males, for example, so they have no conception of romantic love or marriage (though the females can be very interested in sex, enough to fake estrus in order to attract male attention).

Much published behavioral science, incidentally, is phrased in a neutral language that distances us from animals. Safina argues that we should use a common language of grief, joy, friendship, and empathy to describe the equivalent responses of both human and other animals. To this I would add the language of ceremony: What other word but “marriage” should be used to describe the ritual bonding, followed by lifelong commitment to their partners, of creatures like the albatross?

Sometimes it is the small things that best reveal shared life experience. When baby elephants are weaned they throw tantrums that rival those of the wildest two-year-old humans. One youngster became so upset with his mother that he screamed and trumpeted as he poked her with his tiny tusks. Finally, in frustration, he stuck his trunk into her anus, then turned around and kicked her. “You little horror!” thought Cynthia Moss as she watched the tantrum unfold.

Clans of female elephants, led by matriarchs, periodically associate in larger groups. As a result, elephants have excellent memories, and are able to recognize up to one thousand individuals. So strong is elephant empathy that they sometimes bury their dead, and will return repeatedly to the skeleton of a deceased matriarch to fondle her tusks and bones. Indeed, an elephant’s response to death has been called “probably the strangest thing about them.” When the Amboseli matriarch Eleanor was dying, the matriarch Grace approached her, her facial glands streaming with emotion, and tried to lift her to her feet. Grace stayed with the stricken Eleanor through the night of her death, and on the third day Eleanor’s family and closest friend Maya visited the corpse. A week after the death the family returned again to express what can only be called their grief. A researcher once played the recording of a deceased elephant’s voice to its family. The creatures went wild searching for their lost relative, and the dead elephant’s daughter called for days after.

Elephants have been known to extract spears from wounded friends, and to stay with infants born with disabilities. In 1990, the Amboseli female Echo gave birth to a baby who could not straighten his forelegs, and so could hardly nurse. For three days Echo and her eight-year-old daughter Enid stayed with him as he hobbled along on his wrists. On the third day he finally managed to straighten his forelegs and, despite several falls, he was soon walking well. As Safina says, “His family’s persistence—which in humans facing a similar situation we might call faith—had saved him.”

Most of us will never see a wild elephant, much less spend the time observing them that is required to understand them as individuals. But there are animals that share our lives, and whose societies, emotional depth, and intelligence are readily accessible. Dogs are often family to us. And it is astonishing how much of a dog’s behavior is pure wolf.

The Canidae—the family to which wolves and dogs belong—is a uniquely American production, originating and evolving over tens of millions of years in North America before spreading to other continents around five million years ago. The American origins of the wolf family did not save them from frontier violence. By the 1920s they had been all but exterminated from the contiguous forty-eight states of the US. Their reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park in January 1995 offered a unique opportunity to follow the fortunes of wolf families as they made their way in a new world. Yellowstone’s wolf research leader Doug Smith says that wolves do three things: “They travel, they kill, and they are social—very social.” But wolves are also astonishingly like us. They can be ruthless in their pursuit of power, to the extent that some will kill their sister’s cubs if it serves their ends. But they will also at times adopt the litters of rivals.

The best wolves are brilliant leaders that pursue lifelong strategies in order to lead their families to success. According to wolf watchers, the greatest wolf Yellowstone has ever known was Twenty-one (wolf researchers use numbers rather than names for individuals). He was big and brave, once taking on six attacking wolves and routing them all. He never lost a fight, but he was also magnanimous, for he never killed a vanquished enemy. And that made him as unusual among wolves as did his size and strength. He was born into the first litter of Yellowstone pups following the reintroduction of wolves in the park. Twenty-one’s big break came at age two and a half when he left his family and joined a pack whose alpha male had been shot just two days earlier. He adopted the dead wolf’s pups and helped to feed them.

A telling characteristic of Twenty-one was the way he loved to wrestle with the little ones and pretend to lose. The wolf expert Rick McIntyre said, “He’d just fall on his back with his paws in the air. And the triumphant-looking little one would be standing over him with his tail wagging.” “The ability to pretend,” McIntyre said, “shows that you understand how your actions are perceived by others. It indicates high intelligence.” That many humans recognize this in dogs, but have failed to see it in wolves, speaks strongly of the need for Safina’s book. For dogs are wolves that came to live with us.

The similarities between wolves and humans are arguably more extensive than those between humans and any other animal. Tough, flexible in social structure, capable of forming pair bonds and fitting into ever-shifting hierarchies, we were made for each other. And when we out-of-Africa apes met up with the arch-typical American canids a few tens of thousands of years ago, a bond was created that has endured ever since. Just who initiated the interspecies relationship is hotly debated. The traditional view is that humans domesticated dogs, but Safina makes a convincing case that the process was driven as much by the wolves as by the humans. The wolves that were better able to read human tendencies and reactions, and were less skittish of human contact, would have gotten access to more food scraps from human camps. And human clans willing to tolerate the wolves would have obtained valuable warnings of the presence of danger from other animals (and other humans). Eventually, Safina says, “we became like each other.” The partnership, however, has had some puzzling effects. The brains of dogs, as well as humans, have shrunk since we began living together, perhaps because we came to rely on each other rather than solely on our own wits.

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Lisa Denning/Ocean Eyes Photography

An Atlantic spotted dolphin mother and calf, Bimini, Bahamas, 2007

Sperm whales have the largest brains on earth—around six times larger on average than our own—while bottlenosed dolphins have the largest brains relative to body size, with the exception of humans. Along with killer whales, these species have a place beside the elephants, dogs, and great apes in the animal intelligentsia. The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins is a comprehensive academic work by researchers who have devoted their careers to studying sperm and killer whales. Ocean-going and deep diving, sperm whales are difficult to study, and researchers can as yet offer only a bare sketch of their societies. But it’s already clear that their social organization has remarkable parallels with that of elephants. Like elephants, sperm whale females and young often live in “clans” of up to thirty individuals, while adult males, except when mating, live separate lives.

Sperm whale clans possess distinctive “dialects” of sonar clicks. These are passed on by learning, and act as markers of clan identity. They are an important part of the whale’s communication system, which enables the creatures to synchronize their diving, feeding, and other activities. So social are sperm whales that females share the care of the young of their clan, for example by staying at the surface with a young whale while its mother dives for food. Clan members are so closely bonded that they spend extended periods at the surface, nuzzling one another or staying in close body contact. As with elephants, clans can gather in large congregations, so it seems reasonable to assume that sperm whales have the capacity to memorize large social networks.

Killer whales (otherwise known as orcas) have a very different social organization. Without doubt their most unusual characteristic is that all male killer whales are deeply involved with their mother. They never leave their mother’s clan, and despite their enormous size (growing to twice the weight of females), their fates remain deeply intertwined with those of their mothers. If their mothers should die, even fully adult males over thirty years old (they can live to over sixty) face an eight-fold increase in their risk of death. Just how and why the orphaned adult males die remains unclear.

Another striking feature of killer whales and near relatives is the extraordinary length of lactation. Short-finned pilot whales lactate for at least fifteen years after birth, even though puberty occurs at between eight and seventeen years. Sperm whales reach sexual maturity at nine to ten years of age, but traces of milk have been found in the stomachs of thirteen-year-olds. Killer whales and humans are unique in that they experience menopause (for the whales typically at around age forty). Because female killer whales can live up to eighty years, around a quarter of females in any group are postreproductive. Yet they remain sexually active. Grandmothers are evidently very important in killer whale societies, almost certainly because of the wisdom they have gathered over a lifetime.

An equally odd aspect of killer whale culture concerns food taboos and ways that whales observe them. In this they offer an extraordinary parallel with some human cultures. One clan of killer whales eats only a single species of salmon. Another kills only one species of seal. When members of a mammal-eating clan were captured for the aquarium trade in the 1970s, they starved themselves for seventy-eight days before eating the salmon being proffered, and then they ate the fish only after they had performed a strange ceremony. The two whales held gently onto either end of a dead salmon, and swam a single lap around their pool with it in their mouths, before dividing the fish between themselves and consuming it.

Killer whales are strongly xenophobic. Clans of salmon eaters never mix with mammal eaters, for example. Genetic studies show that clans with different food taboos don’t interbreed, leading to slightly different appearances and genetic makeup. Each clan has a distinctive dialect of vocalizations (perhaps we should call them languages), which facilitates coordination of their work, division of their labor, and care of one another.

At times, killer whales have developed special relationships with people. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at Twofold Bay south of Sydney, Australia, killer whales and humans set up a mutually profitable whaling enterprise. The killer whales would notify the whalers of the presence of humpback whales by performing a ritual in the waters of the bay fronting the whaler’s cottagers. The men would harpoon the humpbacks, and the killer whales would hold on to the harpoon ropes to tire the prey.

After a humpback was lanced and killed by the men, they observed the “law of the tongue.” The whalers would leave the humpback body for twenty-four hours so that the killers could feast on the lips and tongue. Remarkable proof of this partnership persists, in the form of the skeleton of “Old Tom”—a killer whale whose teeth were worn flat on one side while holding onto harpoon ropes—which can be seen in the killer whale museum in the town of Eden, Australia.

With the exception of our species, killer whales are earth’s most capable predators. When they evolved ten million years ago, half of earth’s whales, seals, and dugong species became extinct. Because they specialize in a particular food type and are so intelligent, killer whales continue to have a huge impact on their prey. As a result of global warming, killer whales have appeared in Arctic waters. Horrified Inuit describe them as voracious and wasteful killers that have reduced populations of some Arctic mammals by a third.

Safina comes to an unfamiliar but empirically based conclusion: prior to the domestication of plants and the invention of writing, the differences between human societies and those of elephants, dogs, killer whales, and dolphins was a matter of degree, not kind. Why, he asks, has it taken us so long to understand this? Are our egos “threatened by the thought that other animals think and feel? Is it because acknowledging the mind of another makes it harder to abuse them?”

The discovery of nonhuman societies composed of highly intelligent, social, empathetic individuals possessing sophisticated communication systems will force us to reformulate many questions. We have long asked whether we are alone in the universe. But clearly we are not alone on earth. The evolution of intelligence, of empathy and complex societies, is surely more likely than we have hitherto considered. And what is it, exactly, that sets our species apart? We clearly are different, but in light of Beyond Words we need to reevaluate how, and why.

Beyond Words will have a deep impact on many readers, for it elevates our relationships with animals to a higher plane. When your dog looks at you adoringly, even though he or she cannot say it, you can be as sure that love is being expressed as you can when hearing any human declaration of eternal devotion. Most of us already knew that, but have withheld ourselves from a full surrender to its implications. Along with Darwin’s Origin and Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene, Beyond Words marks a major milestone in our evolving understanding of our place in nature. Indeed it has the potential to change our relationship with the natural world.

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The Trotsky Paradox

1.

Why should you read Bernard Wolfe’s The Great Prince Died: A Novel About the Assassination of Trotsky? What is its project, and how does it go about fulfilling it?

Do not expect an accurate relation of Trotsky’s assassination. Wolfe informs us that “this work cannot be called history. It is, rather, a fiction based upon, derived from, dogged by, if you will—history.”

David Levine

Leon Trotsky

Whatever it is, it cannot be called great literature, either.

The Great Prince Died does in fact concern itself with the assassination of Trotsky, but V.R. Rostov—as Wolfe calls the protagonist in his novel—lacks three of Trotsky’s four children and one of his two wives, and even meets his death a year earlier than the historical Trotsky (who was killed in August 1940), so that Wolfe can haunt us with that cynical triumph, the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact: “Idea of agreement with Hitler a jolt. Had to introduce it in stages: first as plot. After that, no novelty or shock power to the idea … Rostov working with Hitler must be in Hitler’s pocket. Stalin working with Hitler must have Hitler in his pocket. All the badness in the idea pinned to Rostovites. Rostovites wiped out—idea remains, minus its badness.”

And here let me pause to temper my earlier criticism: When Wolfe writes in this telegraphic style, he can be quite effective. Moreover, some of his episodes achieve true narrative interest—for instance, the impulsive liaisons and ghastly memories of Rostov’s security guard Paul Teleki, the most fully realized character.

If you have read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia or Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, you will probably remember how the International Brigades of anarchists, Communists, socialists, do-gooders, and fellow travellers were systematically undermined by their supposed ally, J. V. Stalin. The circumstances of Teleki’s initiation into this truth are rather extreme. And just to make things neat—far neater than real life could be—his educators turn out to be some of Rostov’s future assassins.

The assassins, though they bear some similarity to their counterparts in our universe, have likewise been changed. Cándida Baeza de Riviera and Tomás are loosely modeled after Caridad Mercader and her son Ramon. I was sorry not to encounter the Stalinist painter Siqueiros, who led the first assassination attempt with a machine gun. Wolfe’s George Bass, who tortures his victims with lenses of his own manufacture, is a remarkable villain, but still perhaps less fascinating than the real article, Mark Zborowski, who after procuring the death of Trotsky’s son and of various members of the Trotsky circle, then became an anthropologist at two American Ivy League universities.

At any rate, Wolfe has strong feelings; he means to paint a certain picture, and to do so he will not hesitate to alter this or that—which is peculiar, since he informs us that he was Trotsky’s secretary in 1937, so that he must have known the facts pretty well; he could have served them up with a sauce of hyper-realistic local flavor. And yet the closer we look at his tale (or parable, I should better call it), the greater appear his alterations.

Consider the actual mood in Trotsky’s besieged fortress. In the final volume of his great biographical trilogy, Isaac Deutscher, who was not there, conveys a sad and increasingly ominous impression. Joseph Hansen, who was present, having been another Trotsky secretary not long after Wolfe, insists that “Deutscher’s picture of the years in Coyoacán is of virtually unrelieved gloom, life … being overcast by a hopeless battle against the Kremlin’s executioners. This is not the way it was.”—Well, then how was it? Trotsky had hopes and even successes; he sometimes achieved propaganda victories. For instance, regarding the third “great” Moscow show trial of 1938, “Trotsky, the chief defendant, succeeded in turning the tables on Stalin, becoming the chief accuser.” In The Great Prince Died, the picture is more like Deutscher’s than Hansen’s. “Certainly,” Wolfe admits, “the inner agitation, if it was there, did not come out as nakedly as I have suggested.” But in Wolfe’s re-envisioning, Rostov and the entourage are not merely hemmed in; they are waiting for death. And the subtext—distasteful, disturbing to be on Stalin’s side!—is that Rostov might even deserve killing—for we hear a certain name on everyone’s lips: Kronstadt.

2.

The Kronstadt rebellion, an unsuccessful 1921 uprising against the Bolsheviks by sailors at a naval garrison in the Gulf of Finland, is the focus and locus of Wolfe’s fictional project. Rostov says the word with a guilty irritation; Paul Teleki continually needles him about it. Even the wide-eyed young American linguist overcomes his hero-worship enough to make accusations. It is difficult to imagine the real life Trotsky putting up with all this. As Robert Conquest remarked, Trotsky’s “ideas are notable for … a total lack of solicitude for the non-Communist victims of the regime: no sympathy whatever was expended, for example, on the dead of the collectivization famine.” Therefore, “the crushing of the Kronstadt rebellion was as much his personal battle honor as the seizure of power had been.”

In 1917, the Romanov era finally came to an end with the abdication of Nicholas II. The curtain of the February Revolution unsteadily rose upon a Provisional Government whose elements were various and antithetical: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, anarchists, Social Revolutionaries, Tsarists, prospective White Guards—all biding their time under the mercurial leadership of Alexander Kerensky, who thought to bridge the unbridgeable gap between the bourgeoisie and the ultraleftists. According to Trotsky, one of these myriad indissoluble globules was “the independent Kronstadt republic,” the fortress where “the flame of rebellion never went out.”

“The February Revolution was relatively bloodless …,” writes the historian Richard Pipes. “Most of the deaths occurred at the naval bases in Kronshtadt and Helsinki, where anarchist sailors lynched officers, often on suspicion of ‘espionage’ because of their German-sounding surnames.” Or, as Trotsky more romantically tells it: “In Kronstadt the revolution was accompanied by an outbreak of bloody vengeance against the officers, who attempted, as if in horror at their own past, to conceal the revolution from the sailors.” (The Great Prince Died omits this episode entirely, for it is essential to Wolfe’s project to represent the sailors as heroic victims.)

In July 1917, as Kerensky’s coalition continued its inevitable disintegration, there presently arose, “spontaneously” again, the ultrarevolutionary demonstrations of the “July days,” when hordes demanded that Bolsheviks break with the Provisional Government and establish Red rule. Of course five or six thousand Kronstadt sailors took part, raising the banner “All Power to the Soviets.” Lenin, however, hesitated, believing the Bolsheviks too weak to seize power just yet.

Lenin’s caution proved correct, for the “July days” presently burned themselves out—except for one last manifestation: the Peter and Paul fortress remained under the control of Kronstadt sailors and other ultraradicals. Stalin and a Menshevik colleague (or, to hear our hero tell it, Trotsky) finally visited them to negotiate their surrender, which was accomplished without violence and led to no executions.

So it happened that emissaries of the Kronstadt Soviet found themselves able to travel all over Russia, urging peasants to pillage the aristocrats, persuading soldiers to desert from the frontline. Trotsky pays them this tribute: “The sailors far more deeply expressed the demands of historic evolution than the very intelligent professors.”

Later that year, the Bolsheviks finally did seize power in the October Revolution. Of course Kronstadt sailors were there.

Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

A railway station destroyed during the Kronstadt rebellion, 1921

3.

Five years later, with the Soviet Union starved and exhausted by the Civil War, Kronstadt rose up against Bolshevik unilateralism, because, as Wolfe so accurately explains, “the trouble was: the best ingredient in a movement of social revolt was the young spirit of rebellion.” So the sailors demanded a “third revolution”—and with good reason, for the stern measures of “War Communism,” which Lenin, Trotsky & Co. had applied, had grown intolerable. In his autobiography Trotsky nearly admits this: “The question at issue was really one of daily bread, of fuel, of raw material for the industries … the thing that really mattered was the economic catastrophe hanging over the country. The uprisings at Kronstadt and in the province of Tambov broke into the discussion as the last warning.”

It was March 1921. A few weeks earlier the bread ration had been cut by 30 percent. Joined by soldiers, workers, even card-carrying Bolsheviks, the sailors once more established their own provisional revolutionary committee. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn gave them this epitaph: Kronstadt and Tambov marked the last time in forty-one years that the people would speak out.

What the people said in this final declaration was nothing that the new autocrats wished to hear. Let me quote from one Kronstadt manifesto: “The power of the police-gendarme monarchy has gone into the hands of the Communist-usurpers, who instead of freedom offer the toilers the constant fear of falling into the torture-chambers of the Cheka, which in their horrors surpass many times the gendarme administration of the tsarist regime.”

The Cheka were already on the case. They warned Lenin: “The Kronstadt revolutionary committee clearly expects a general uprising in Petrograd any day now.” Lenin advised the Tenth Congress: “Now as to Kronshtadt. The danger there lies in the fact that their slogans are not Socialistic-Revolutionary, but anarchistic. An All-Russian Congress of Producers—this is not a Marxist but a petty bourgeois idea.”

Not coincidentally, I suspect, in this same document Lenin goes on to say: “Trotsky wants to resign … But Trotsky is a temperamental man with military experience. He is in love with the organization, but as for politics, he hasn’t got a clue.” After all, he had loved the Kronstadt fighters. But fortunately for his personal equilibrium, he was practiced at breaking with former allies—and the rupture must have come easier to him when the other Bolsheviks rapidly made up their own steely minds to follow Lenin’s intimations.

The Great Prince Died alludes to what happened next: “Pyramids of Teotihuacán. Pointed tops: rooms of sacrifice there. Where men used to face charges. Charged with being wanted by the boss, the sun god, without delay; hearts pulled out and dropped, still pumping, on fires.” And again, more blatantly (this somewhat recalls the doctrine of the High, the Middle, and the Low in Orwell’s 1984): “Those who rise to the apex can’t see the base … the base will rise up one day, not seen until the last minute, and destroy the apex.” On the subject of Kronstadt, Rostov explains: “We had to stop their premature attack on the pyramid—in the interest of abolishing pyramids altogether.”

So the Cheka arrested two thousand worker sympathizers, after which the military assault on Kronstadt began. “Thousands of people” were killed in the taking of the fortress. This was not enough for the vanguardists at the apex. We read that 2,103 prisoners received capital sentences, and 6,459 were imprisoned. (Considerable numbers of the latter would soon be tied to stones and drowned in the Dvina River.) In 1923, 2,154 civilians were deported from Kronstadt to Siberia, “merely on the grounds that they had stayed in the town through the events.” Meanwhile, as many as possible of the besieged who had escaped into Finnish internment were lured back and likewise dispatched to the Gulag.

“Trotsky,” says Wolfe, “did not participate personally in the military operation against Kronstadt … He and Lenin, however, drew up the ultimatums issued to the sailors.” In The Great Prince Died, Rostov leads the attack, and on “the night it was finally over at Kronstadt,” his fifteen-year-old only son, whom Stalin will eventually assassinate, upbraids him: “They were your best friends … Mine, too … Uncle Anastas let me climb all over the battleships …”

After the rebellion had been crushed, Lenin went easier on the general population while tightening the screws within the Party: from here on, even the most loyal and reasoned disagreement increasingly became labeled as “factionalism,” and received appropriate punishment. In My Life, published in 1930, the freshly exiled Trotsky justifies the practice: “As a rule, solutions had to be found on the spur of the moment, and mistakes were followed by immediate retribution … If we had had more time for discussion, we should probably have made a great deal more mistakes.” But by 1937, with Stalin’s assassins closing in, he writes in The Revolution Betrayed: “This forbidding of factions was again regarded as an exceptional measure to be abandoned at the first serious improvement in the situation … However,” this “proved perfectly suited to the taste of the bureaucracy.”

Accordingly, in the novel we find Paul Teleki worrying that “it,” meaning both bureaucratic centralism and Rostov’s death wish, might have started after Kronstadt.

4.

The Great Prince Died stands or falls by its invocation of Kronstadt. I say it stands. In essence, the novel is a Socratic dialogue with more or less colorful interruptions. If it tends to heavyhandedness, well, so do the conversations in Plato. Wolfe’s own position is clear. He argues first with Trotsky, then with Bolshevism, and eventually with authority itself. As the book progresses, the metaphor of Kronstadt grows and grows, until it stands in for any time and place in which someone employs power upon the weak in the service of a stated good.

Do the ends justify the means? This is one of the great questions of any time. We should consider it deeply and provisionally answer it for ourselves. To help us do so, Wolfe has simplified real life into a parable in order to present us with the following question: If the Kronstadt mutineers were “innocent,” “virtuous” and somehow “correct” in their political line, and if Trotsky were responsible for their suppression, which not only was (“necessary” or not) an atrocity, but also furthered the cause of bureaucratic centralism through which millions, including Trotsky, were liquidated, then how valid would Trotsky’s justifications be?

Paradox: If Trotsky was correct at Kronstadt, then his own murder could also be construed as right. If his murder stinks (as I most certainly believe), then he was wrong at Kronstadt, in which case his murder again becomes justified so long as he supports Kronstadt-like actions. Like most paradoxes, this one ultimately fails to hold together—but only in the “real world.” Rostov is a reduction of a far more interesting and ambiguous man. But the protagonists of parables must be types, emblems, tropes. Rostov represents not who Trotsky was, but a certain principle that Trotsky stood for. If we feel willing to generalize and simplify, then this parable with its paradox does have something to tell us—for the events that haunted Bernard Wolfe reincarnate themselves endlessly.

“Then it amounts to this,” says a Mexican official to the dying Rostov’s wife. “Those who use all means will win, those who reject some means will lose. There is no remedy …” Can it be so? Trotsky believed it. Sometimes, so do I. (That is why I prefer to lose.) Exactly here we come face to face with Wolfe’s defective, unlikely greatness. His formulation must never be forgotten.


Adapted from William T. Vollmann’s afterword to the new University of Chicago Press edition of Bernard Wolfe’s 1959 novel The Great Prince Died: A Novel About the Assassination of Trotsky, which will be published this week.

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Lost Nepal

Kevin Bubriski

Okre village, Nuwakot, Nepal, 1984

Ever since I arrived in Nepal in 1975 as a Peace Corps volunteer, I have been taking photographs of the country. In the 1980s, I traveled the country by foot with a tripod-mounted camera. The photographs I took during this period show village and farm life continuing much as it had for centuries. Nepal has since been transformed by three decades of infusion from foreign development aid; remittances from the millions of Nepalis living abroad in South Asia, the Middle East, and beyond; new motor roads built into the mountains; the 1996-2006 civil war; and finally, the devastating earthquakes of April 25 and May 12, 2015.

Nearly 9,000 Nepalis were killed in the earthquakes, and over 25,000 were injured. Hundreds of thousands are still living in temporary shelters. The United Nations estimates that while 10 percent of the Nepali population—some three million residents—are in dire need of basic resources like food, shelter, and medical care, the Nepali government has made no arrangements to receive and use the $4.1 billion in donations from foreign countries and international agencies.

Through June and July this year, I watched the seasons transition in Nepal, from the blasting sun of the pre-monsoon weeks to the hard rains that come without fail at night and, without warning, during the day. Even then, there were signs of recovery. Schools began to reopen, and groups of young men and women came to Kathmandu and other localities to work, breaking down damaged buildings for the equivalent of seven to ten dollars a day.

The following photos, the first series taken in the 1980s, and the second after the earthquakes, show what has been lost both to time and to natural disaster, and just what an incredible task it will be to rebuild and restore Nepal.


Courtesy of Kevin Bubriski and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Harvard University

Thare village, Nuwakot, Nepal, 1976

A Tamang porter (an ethnic group living in the high middle hills of Nepal) takes a tobacco break at a teashop in the village of Thare during a monsoon downpour. Before the advent of the motorway in the 1980s, Thare was the midpoint in the two-day walk between Trisuli and Dhunche in the Rasuwa district, directly north of Kathmandu, and all goods had to be portered for several days on people’s backs. This area was severely damaged by landslides resulting from the earthquakes and the deluge of monsoon rain that followed. The road north into upper Nuwakot and Rasuwa districts through Thare was hit with heavy landslides and often closed. This porter would now be in his late seventies, and his grandchildren would have no memory of this region of Nepal before the arrival of the motor road.


Kevin Bubriski

Yarsa village, Rasuwa, Nepal, 1984

The shaman Shing Tchor Tamang on the porch of his house, where he and his family live and where he works, healing and performing exorcisms. Here he displays his shaman bells and drum. He uses the drum’s rhythm, the bells, and dance to induce a trance state for his shamanic practice. The village of Yarsa, which had grown immensely over the decades since 1984, was completely destroyed by the first earthquake.


Courtesy of Kevin Bubriski and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Harvard University

Tundikhel, Kathmandu, Nepal, 1989

Barbers await clients in the early morning winter fog on the large open Tundikhel field in the center of Kathmandu city. Thought in mythical times to have been a playground for deities, the Tundikhel has been used for commerce, military parades, political rallies, and even rock concerts. Immediately after the earthquakes struck, the Tundikhel became a sprawling tented camp where Kathmandu residents could take refuge away from their damaged homes, unstable and still dangerous during the countless aftershocks, which continued for several weeks after the first earthquake.


Courtesy of Kevin Bubriski and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Harvard University

Garuda at Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal 1985

The Garuda statue from 1689, as it appeared in 1985. A representation of Vishnu’s mount with a human body and eagle wings, the Garuda kneels in proud silence in front of Kasthamandap temple in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square early on a winter morning at the time of Newar New Year. The original three-story Kasthamandap, reputed to have been built from one large tree in the twelfth century and then credited to Laxmi Narsingh Malla, who ruled from 1621-1641, was one of Nepal’s largest and most noted pagoda temples and the namesake for Kathmandu. It immediately collapsed on April 25, 2015, in the first earthquake.


Kevin Bubriski

Bungamati, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, 2015

Babu Kaji Sarki stands on the ruins of the house where he was born sixty-five years ago in Bungamati town, located in the southwest region of Kathmandu Valley, which includes seven World Heritage Sites—among them Kathmandu Durbar Square, the Buddhist stupas of Swayambhu and Boudha, and the Hindu temples Pshupatinath and Changu Narayan. Babu lived in this house with his wife, their son, and four grandchildren. Though the family survived, all of their belongings and food supplies were buried in the rubble, and they were forced to move to temporary shelter.


Kevin Bubriski

Bungamati, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, 2015

In Bungamati, this Newar woman (the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley) and her husband lost everything except the footprint of where their house stood. They have cleared away most debris and are attempting to make a safe and secure temporary shelter as they prepare for the birth of their first child.


Kevin Bubriski

Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015

The foundation stone and brickwork are all that remain of the Trailokya Mohan Narayan temple (completed in 1680) in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. To the left is the terraced base of the Maju-deval temple (completed in 1690), also destroyed. These two pagoda temples were significant elements of the Kathmandu Durbar Square complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site and focal point for social and cultural daily life in downtown Kathmandu. Large piles of splintered structural and ornamental wood from the three fallen temples in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square are pushed up against the temple foundations; pedestrians and regular traffic now wind through the ruins.


Kevin Bubriski

Charikot Bazaar, Dolakha, Nepal 2015

Young men walk down the main street of Charikot Bazaar, the governmental headquarters for Dolakha district, east of Kathmandu. Charikot sits on a ridge with beautiful mountain views, but its positioning was precarious during the earthquakes, each of which had a different axis of motion that contributed to the severity of damage. Charikot is a popular weekend resort getaway for foreign tourists and Nepali visitors with its striking views of the 23,000-foot Himalayan peak of Gauri Sankar. While most of the tall buildings in town suffered damage from the earthquakes, the town is busy with shops and government offices have reopened.


Kevin Bubriski

Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, 2015

On the road to the Buddhist Boudhanath stupa, people live in a temporary camp of tarpaulin shelters hastily built in a large vacant lot next to the Kathmandu Hyatt Regency luxury hotel. Throughout the mountainous districts of Gorkha, north and east of the capital, most village houses were destroyed or made unsafe for habitation. Of the many thousands of internally displaced villagers who sought refuge in Kathmandu, thousands lived through the monsoon in this temporary camp near the Hyatt Regency.


Kevin Bubriski

Naya Bazaar, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015

In the relatively new urban neighborhood of Naya Bazaar in Kathmandu, young men in flip-flops and shorts work with jackhammers and sledgehammers to break concrete from rebar webbing. Bricks are recycled, as are the pieces of rebar. For over two decades a building boom transformed Kathmandu’s skyline from traditional tile roofs and pagodas to high-rise concrete structures. The earthquakes have halted building and many of the construction workers are now earning money as “building breakers.” One common practice is to punch holes through the floors of the buildings so that debris falls through the holes to the lower levels. The work is risky since the structures, initially dangerous from the earthquake damage, are made ever more perilous during the deconstruction process.


Kevin Bubriski

Naya Bazaar, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015

At mid-morning laborers take a break from their heavy work tearing down buildings. These four young men came to Kathmandu looking for work after the earthquakes. They live in the building that they are tearing down with eight other friends from villages in the southeastern Udayapur district. These workers, numbering in the several thousands across Kathmandu and other affected areas, are paid by the owners of the properties that they deconstruct. Their numbers will likely increase as funding is released and Nepal moves forward into the long-term reconstruction phase.


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The Terrible Flight from the Killing

This article will appear in the Review’s October 22 issue.

eakin_1-102215.jpg

Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos

Syrian families in Horgos, Serbia, walking toward the Hungarian border, August 2015

1.

Armageddon

It is not quite clear when Europeans woke up to the largest movement of refugees on their soil since the upheavals of World War II, but Sunday, August 16, may have been a decisive turning point. In a television interview that day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, returning from her summer vacation, said that the European Union’s single greatest challenge was no longer the Greek debt crisis. It was the wave after wave of Syrians and others now trying to enter Europe’s eastern and southern borders. It is “the next major European project,” she said. It “will preoccupy Europe much, much more than…the stability of the euro.”

In the capitals of Western Europe, Merkel’s words seemed to come as a surprise. And yet across a long corridor of countries, from the Anatolian coast to Greece on up to Hungary and Austria, for anyone who cared to notice there were Syrians waiting to pay human smugglers in back alleys of Turkish beach towns. They were clinging, in the darkness, to hopelessly unseaworthy dinghies in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas; crouching in groups, thirsty and sunbaked, in trash-strewn holding areas on the Greek island of Kos; clamoring to get on rusty trains in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; trudging, in irregular lines, with young children on their shoulders, through the forests of the Serbian–Hungarian border. They were emptying their last savings so they could again pay smugglers to be stuffed into the backs of trucks for a harrowing journey further north to Vienna or even to Munich.

In fact, the new wave had already begun in late spring, when hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans began crossing from Turkey to Greece and continuing, as best they could, into Central Europe. Though it was little noted at the time, by July, well over a thousand people were arriving every day in the Greek islands closest to Turkey, which were woefully ill-equipped to receive them.

International aid workers said that some holding areas had now become the most squalid in the world. At Kara Tepe, a makeshift reception center on the island of Lesbos, the International Rescue Committee, an emergency aid group working in forty countries, reported that there were just two showers for two thousand refugees; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described conditions as “shameful.”

Three days after Merkel’s comments, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière revealed that more than three quarters of a million Syrians and others were now expected to seek asylum in Germany alone this year—a four-fold increase from 2014. (The figure has since been revised to one million.) “It will be the largest influx in the country’s postwar history,” de Maizière said. Nor was this a temporary situation, he said. With a record 60 million people currently uprooted by war and instability around the world—many of them on Europe’s perimeter in the Middle East and Africa—this level of flow was likely to continue for years to come.

In the days and weeks since Merkel’s comments and de Maizière’s press conference, Europe has been transfixed by a problem so vast and so politically charged that it seems to have exposed all the fault lines of the European project. For years, the European Union has struggled to create a uniform system for dealing with people who arrive on its shores seeking a safe haven. Formally, such people are not “refugees” but rather “asylum seekers” who must apply for asylum after arriving in Europe.

According to a flimsy system known as the “Dublin rules,” after the 1990 Dublin Convention on asylum, you are supposed to apply for protection in the first EU country you enter. In practice, because there is free internal movement in the EU and no mandated sharing of responsibilities among member states, these rules are unenforceable.

The poorer Mediterranean countries, such as Greece, where asylum seekers enter the continent, tend to provide as little help as possible and look the other way as the newcomers head further north. Their counterparts in Central and Northern Europe adopt ever more restrictive asylum policies. As a result, the burden has fallen on the very few countries that have been willing to take in large numbers of refugees. In 2014, nearly half of all asylum seekers in the twenty-eight EU countries applied for asylum in Germany and Sweden. This was the situation that this summer’s influx brought precipitously to a breaking point.

Even as Germany said it would continue to open its doors wide, its wealthy neighbor Denmark cut benefits to refugees in half and took out English- and Arab-language ads in newspapers in Lebanon—where there are more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees—telling prospective asylum seekers not to come. Even as Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said, “My Europe takes in refugees. My Europe doesn’t build walls,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said his government was completing just such a wall, a 110-mile razor-wire fence designed to keep out refugees trying to cross the border from Serbia. And while the French government has announced that it would take in 24,000 of those now seeking refuge in Europe to ease the burden of its neighbors, the British government has refused to do likewise, maintaining that any accommodation of asylum seekers would only encourage more to come. (Britain has instead pledged to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years that it will select directly from the Middle East.)

Among European politicians and the media, there has been a perplexing confusion about who the newcomers are. Chancellor Merkel has unambiguously described them as “refugees” (Flüchtlinge), a usage adopted by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that clearly befits the UN refugee agency’s finding that more than 90 percent of the current wave come from Syria and other refugee-producing countries. Yet other European leaders have referred to them as “migrants,” or even “illegal migrants,” a wording that obscures entirely the horrors of war they are trying to escape. For its part, the international press has offered little clarity, with the BBC, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times mostly opting for “migrants,” and the Financial Times using “refugees” and “migrants” interchangeably; The Guardian is one of the few major news organizations to refer consistently to a “refugee crisis.”

Countries in Eastern Europe, especially, have portrayed the influx as a security threat. In the Czech Republic, police have been taking refugees off trains, detaining them, and even, in one case, writing numbers on their arms; in Slovakia, the government has said it would accept only Christian refugees, warning of the dangers posed by “people from the Arab world.” In both Hungary and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which is not a member of the EU but on the main land route to Serbia and Hungary, police have fired tear gas at Syrians trying to cross their frontier. In a speech to the House of Commons on September 7, British Prime Minister David Cameron introduced a further element. Speaking of “the migration crisis” amid a discussion of national security, he referred to “Islamist extremist violence.”

Across the continent, strong humanitarian impulses have competed with growing fears about the absorption of large numbers of Muslims. At train stations and public parks, citizens and municipalities have spontaneously offered food, water, clothes, and shelter; in Scandinavia in late August, I met activists who, dismayed at their own governments’ response, were organizing a kind of underground railway to help refugees get from one country to another—even if it meant breaking the law. And yet anti-immigrant parties have also gained record strength in Sweden and France. Asylum centers have been targeted by arsonists in Germany; and numerous politicians, from Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary to Denmark and the Netherlands, express misgivings about what Dutch populist Geert Wilders, speaking in his national parliament in early September, called an “Islamic invasion.”

The movement to Europe should not have come as a surprise. According to the UN, in 2014 a record 14 million people were newly forced from their homes in armed conflicts worldwide, and much of the staggering increase was owing to the wars in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, more than half of the total pre-war population of 22 million was now uprooted. With the ravages of barrel-bombing by the Assad regime, the terror of the Islamic State, and the growing inability of the international community to deliver aid inside the country, more Syrians than ever before sought refuge abroad.

In the first four months of 2015 alone, another 700,000 fled, many to nearby countries, the highest rate of any time during the war. Meanwhile, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, already overwhelmed with millions of Syrians, have been restricting entry, while the underfunded World Food Program has been drastically reducing food aid.

Other recent developments, though less noticed, had far-reaching effects of their own. Several countries in Africa, including Libya, and also many parts of Afghanistan, traditionally the world’s number one producer of refugees, have become increasingly unstable and violent in the months since international forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014. At the same time, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, which had together absorbed more than five million Afghans in recent years, had begun taking aggressive steps to send them home or prevent them from staying; by this summer, tens of thousands of Afghans were joining the Syrians trying to enter Europe.

For the refugees themselves, the journey to Europe—requiring a series of up-front payments to smugglers of human beings, often amounting to several thousand dollars—is enormously costly and fraught with danger. More than 2,800 people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015 alone. Others have fallen sick or died in encampments in Greece or in the backs of trucks in Central Europe.

On August 27, Austrian police found an abandoned Volvo refrigeration truck packed with the bodies of seventy-one refugees who had paid smugglers to drive them from Hungary to Austria but had suffocated en route; a day later, Austrian police stopped another smuggler’s truck containing twenty-six refugees, including three children who had to be hospitalized for severe dehydration. And yet, every day, thousands more have set out from Turkey for the Greek islands, including the young Syrian boy Aylan, whose lifeless body washed up on shore in Turkey after a failed crossing on September 2, shocking the world.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused Europe of turning the Mediterranean into a giant cemetery; Andreas Kamm, the longtime director of the Danish Refugee Council, said that, without major changes, Europe’s incoherent response was headed toward “Armageddon.” For her part, Chancellor Merkel said that, unless other member states were prepared to step up and share the burden, the very basis of the EU and its Schengen system of open internal borders would be at risk of collapse.

On September 9, EU President Juncker asked member states to adopt a bold plan to distribute 120,000 of the new arrivals as well as 40,000 that had arrived earlier in the year equitably among each of them. This would by no means address the overall numbers arriving, but it would set an important precedent for collective responsibility. By this point, however, the extraordinary numbers of refugees crossing into Bavaria were already moving events in an alarming new direction. Unable to cope, Germany imposed temporary emergency border controls on its Austrian frontier. This radical step, effectively suspending the Schengen system, precipitated similar moves by Austria and Slovakia—and then by Slovenia and Croatia, which had suddenly become alternate routes into the EU. Hungary, meanwhile, which sealed its border with Serbia on September 15, was firing tear gas, water cannons, and pepper spray at refugees, and arresting those who made it across.

Eakin-MigrantCrisis-102215

Mike King

With thousands of people now massed on the EU’s borders, and with fall rains and colder weather approaching, the closures threatened to create a new humanitarian crisis of their own; the UN Refugee Agency accused Hungary of violating the basic protections set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Above all was the deplorable situation of Greek islands like Lesbos, where there were now 20,000 or more refugees, many lacking any form of shelter.

On September 22, against strenuous opposition from Eastern European countries, the EU adopted mandatory quotas for relocating 120,000 refugees now in Italy, Greece, and Hungary. But at an emergency summit the following day, EU heads of state were mainly focused on ways of controlling EU borders.

Why, given the manifestly urgent needs of those now arriving, did European leaders seem so ambivalent about helping them? And why was the political response so closely tied to border security and strong-armed police tactics?

2.

Is It Illegal to Be a Refugee?

At the heart of the current crisis is a fundamental problem: there are virtually no legal ways for a refugee to travel to Europe. You can only apply for asylum once you arrive in a European country, and since the EU imposes strict visa requirements on most non-EU nationals, and since it is often impossible to get a European visa in a Middle Eastern or African country torn apart by war, the rules virtually require those seeking protection to take a clandestine journey, which for most would be impossible without recourse to smugglers. This situation has led to a vast, shadowy human-smuggling industry, based in Turkey, the Balkans, and North Africa, which European officials have recently estimated to be worth as much as $1 billion per year.

Just months before the current refugee crisis erupted this summer, European leaders launched a “war on smugglers,” a controversial plan to crack down on criminal networks in Libya that control what European officials call the “Central Mediterranean” migration route. As Libya descended into growing instability and violence following the 2011 revolution, it became a haven for human smugglers, who specialize in ferrying asylum seekers to Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily. The smugglers are paid upfront and do not themselves navigate the boats; they have every incentive to put as many people as they can onto small, wooden crafts, leaving it to Italian and European naval forces to rescue them when they founder. (According to European security experts, the smugglers offer a “menu” of different levels of service for these terrifying journeys, charging more if you want to have a lifejacket, or to sit near the center of the boat, where you are less likely to wash overboard.)

This is not a new phenomenon: the Missing Migrants Project, a database run by the International Organization of Migration in Switzerland, has recorded more than 22,000 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean since the year 2000. But over the past eighteen months, as demand has gone up and smugglers have grown more reckless, the number of fatalities has increased dramatically, with more than five thousand deaths since the beginning of 2014. This year, in the month of April alone, a record 1,200 people are believed to have drowned off the coast of Libya. “How many more deaths will it take for us to call these guys [i.e., the smugglers] mass murderers?” a migration official for a Northern European government told me. In late September, the UN Security Council was to vote on a draft resolution authorizing European forces to seize and even destroy smugglers’ boats off the coast of Libya.

“It was a mess,” the migration official said. “Here we were trying to deal with smugglers and migrants, and suddenly you had this huge batch of legitimate refugees in Greece.” In fact, a great many of the people on the Libyan boats were also refugees, fleeing conflicts in Eritrea, Sudan, Libya, and elsewhere. But the situation was generally portrayed as a “migrant boat” problem, and in late April the European Council announced a plan for “fighting traffickers.” (In fact, human trafficking is the coercive transfer of people for slavery, forced labor, or exploitation, and there is no evidence that asylum seekers are being brought to Europe against their will.)

The Syrians arriving in Europe in recent weeks have been equally dependent on smuggling networks. In the past, the “Western Balkans” migration route, which since 2008 has been the second most common path to Europe after the Central Mediterranean route, often involved crossing Turkey’s land border with Bulgaria. In 2014, however, the Bulgarian government started building a border fence to keep out growing flows of asylum seekers, and smugglers shifted their attention to sea routes across the Aegean.

In immigrant neighborhoods of Istanbul, and in the backstreets of the resort towns of Izmir and Bodrum, smuggling outfits have been using Syrians and other Arab speakers to promote crossings in inflatable rubber dinghies to one of the Greek islands only a few miles off the Turkish coast. For €1,000 or more, you can buy a spot in a dingy with as many as seventy other people to try to reach Kos or Lesbos; if you make it, you must then join the thousands of Syrians and others vying to get on one of the large car ferries Greek officials have occasionally used to ship refugees from the islands to the Greek mainland. Until the recent border closures, you could then, by paying smugglers, continue through Macedonia and Serbia to Hungary. According to Frontex, the European border control agency, in the second quarter of 2015, the number of people entering Europe this way had risen more than 800 percent since last year.

In a recent investigation, Der Spiegel reported that the smuggling organizations in Turkey tend to be run by Turks and Kurds and often employ “dozens of recruiters, financiers, drivers and guards” of various nationalities. In the Balkans, major smuggling rings have been observed working from a hotel near the train station in Belgrade and from bases in Budapest; many of the drivers, who can earn up to several thousand euros a day, are believed to be Bulgarians. (Three of the five suspects in the deaths of the seventy-one refugees in the truck in Austria were Bulgarian nationals, including one with a Lebanese background; a fourth, who is believed to have been the ringleader, was an Afghan with a Hungarian residency permit.)

Syrians carry lists of smugglers’ phone numbers for use at every stage of the journey; with so much demand, prices have risen rapidly. Earlier in the summer, Der Spiegel reported, the 125-mile trip from Belgrade to the Hungarian border could be arranged for €1,500.

Already anticipating the recent closure of the Hungarian border, smugglers have long been exploring alternative ways to reach Northern Europe. According to the German newspaper Die Welt, one of the pioneers of a bold new strategy is a thirty-five-year-old Syrian smuggler based in Mersin, on the southern Turkish coast near the Syrian border. Last winter, working with two business partners and a staff of fifteen, he began using large container ships to send hundreds of refugees at a time from Mersin all the way to Puglia on the east coast of Italy. In its Annual Risk Report this year, Frontex describes this innovation as a “multi-million-euro business” that is “likely to be replicated in other departure countries”:

The cargo ships, which are often bought as scrap, tend to cost between EUR 150,000 and 400,000. There are often as many as 200–800 migrants on board, each paying EUR 4,500–6,000 for the trip, either in cash a few days before the departure or by Hawala payment after reaching the Italian coast. The cost is high because the modus operandi is viewed as being safe and has been demonstrated as being successful. Hence, the gross income for a single journey can be as high as EUR 2.5 or even 4 million depending on the size of the vessel and the number of migrants on board. In some cases, the profit is likely to be between EUR 1.5 and 3 million….

A tragic aspect of the burgeoning industry is the extent to which it has seemed to taint the refugees themselves. Part of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s rationale for refusing to take part in a European plan to redistribute asylum seekers, for example, was that the new arrivals were associated with a seamy underworld. Elizabeth Collett, the European director of the Migration Policy Institute in Brussels, told me, “The British were saying, ‘We don’t want to reward people who we believe have taken matters into their own hands’” by getting smuggled into Europe.

In fact, because of the costs involved, the bar to setting out to Europe is already high, and many of the Syrians I have met are well-educated doctors, engineers, and urban professionals who no longer see any future in Syria or the surrounding region. For these Syrians, the continual dance between exploitative smugglers and hostile European authorities has often seemed baffling. Here is the account of one thirty-four-year-old Syrian man who recently made the crossing to Lesbos and was interviewed by the International Rescue Committee:

The journey costs $1,125 [USD]. You pay the money to a broker in Izmir. You give him the money and they give you a secret number. You give this number to the smuggler when you reach the boat, so they can collect the money….

I saw the boat was a dinghy. It only seated 40 people but there were 54 of us. The smugglers had lied. They only want to get your money. They don’t care if you die.

We travelled on the sea for an hour. We then came across another boat. We didn’t realise it was the police. We were told by friends not to stop because they will take you back to Turkey. We don’t know the Greek language. We can’t understand what they are saying. They were saying stop the boat.

We held the children and we shouted at the police, “We have children!” …The boat was punctured and we fell in the water. I was in the sea for 45 minutes before they pulled me out….

They helped us ashore. But why are they doing it this way? Don’t help us the hard way. Help us the easy way.

3.

A Worldwide Conflict

Rather than treating Syrians as a security threat or a humanitarian “burden,” some economists, including Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann and the French scholar Thomas Piketty, argue that Europe should simply put them to work. Germany in particular, with the lowest birthrate in the EU, desperately needs workers. In 2014 it launched a program to put migrants and refugees directly into the labor market and German officials hope that the incoming Syrians will quickly find jobs. But David Miliband, the former foreign secretary of Great Britain and the current head of the International Rescue Committee, told me that this approach may be a hard sell in other European countries. “There is certainly not a demographic time bomb [i.e., a threat of dwindling workforce] in the UK,” he said, noting that many Eastern European workers came to Britain in the mid-2000s.

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Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters

A van filled with Syrians stopped by German police on the Austrian border after Germany reimposed border controls, September 2015

Elizabeth Collett, the migration expert, suggested that the economic calculation is a crucial part of Europe’s refugee dilemma. “One of the questions we’ve yet to answer is what is the goal of the asylum process: Is it about giving people an opportunity to a new start in life? Or is it about offering temporary protection during a crisis?”

UN officials and international aid groups say that the EU may have to end the disastrous Dublin rule requiring refugees to apply for asylum in the “country of first entry” and change its visa policies if it is to begin to provide a safe, legal way in for those fleeing war. It will also have to work more closely with the UN refugee agency itself, which has long sought to send refugees most in need directly to Western countries. Though it is a big, lumbering bureaucracy, the UNHCR has already registered more than four million Syrian refugees in the Middle East since 2011; if European nations were to start accepting large numbers of them, fewer Syrians might be tempted to pay smugglers to cross the Aegean. Until now, only a few European countries have been accepting UNHCR refugees, and the process can take years.

For its part, the United States has belatedly said it would take in more Syrians, raising its pledge to 10,000 UN-designated refugees. On September 20, Secretary of State John Kerry said the US would also raise the overall annual cap on the number of refugees it accepts from all countries from 70,000 to 100,000 by 2017. But many, including Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, say the US should be taking in 100,000 Syrians alone; as of September, only about 1,500 had been admitted.

David Miliband, who calls the American contribution “paltry,” said, “How is it that the US has gone from being the world’s leader on this to being outflanked eight-hundred-fold by the Germans?”

No amount of resettlement, however, will mitigate the continued failure of the United States and its European allies to address the refugee crisis at its source. Already in 2013, Syria had produced the largest humanitarian catastrophe of our time. One third of its population had been chased from their homes; as many as half of those taking flight were children. And yet as the war became even more violent, the international community largely turned its back on them. In 2013, 71 percent of the amount needed for humanitarian aid for Syrians was raised; in 2014, the figure fell to 57 percent; this year, it stands at just 37 percent. According to the UN, as many as five million people are now stuck in “hard to reach areas” of Syria and not getting any aid at all.

The refugees now fleeing to Europe, Pope Francis recently said, are the “tip of the iceberg.” A report released by the UNHCR in June suggests he is right. Called World at War, it documents what António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, describes as “an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before.”

For much of the decade before 2011, global figures for displaced people were relatively stable; between 2011 and 2014, they rose 40 percent. 2014 was the highest annual increase on record; 2015 may be even higher. Behind this are a record number of simultaneous civil wars—from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and Afghanistan to South Sudan, Yemen, Ukraine, Central African Republic, and Somalia—many of them now continuing for a decade or more.

Andreas Kamm, the director of the Danish Refugee Council, told me that we are witnessing a “worldwide conflict” in which the main victims are civilians who are no longer able to escape:

For Europe the numbers are not that high. If we had leaders who could work together and say, we will do things better, we can manage it—one million refugees is only 0.2 percent of the European population. But if we do nothing, people will say, it’s out of control. And then it is [out of control]. That’s what scares me.

—September 23, 2015

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‘The Return of Foxy Grandpa’

We publish here for the first time T.S. Eliot’s review of two books by the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947). The following headnote, textual note, and footnotes are by Frances Dickey, Jennifer Formichelli, and Ronald Schuchard, coeditors of Literature, Politics, Belief, 1927–1929, volume 3 of the forthcoming eight-volume edition of The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, in which all essays will appear with scholarly annotation and apparatus. The first two volumes (1905–1926) were published online in September 2014; volumes 3 and 4, English Lion, 1930–1933, edited by Jason Harding and Ronald Schuchard, will be published this fall on Project MUSE by Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber.—The Editors

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot meeting in the US, circa 1925

“The Return of Foxy Grandpa,” T.S. Eliot’s unpublished review of Alfred North Whitehead’s successive Lowell Lectures at Harvard, Science and the Modern World (Macmillan, 1925) and Religion in the Making (Macmillan, 1926), was set in type for The Enemy, edited by Wyndham Lewis, for publication in the third issue, March 1927 (see textual note at end). Foxy Grandpa was the title character of a popular American newspaper comic strip (1900–1918), in which Grandpa consistently outwitted his two trickster grandsons.

Professor Whitehead’s two recent books, Science and the Modern World and Religion in the Making, have been received with acclamation.1 Indeed they deserve it; Dr. Whitehead has a power of lucid exposition of the most difficult subjects, great historical knowledge and ability to generalise his knowledge. He has a rare and remarkable combination of ability. It is remarkable that so eminent a mathematician and physicist should also have an historical mind. It would be still more remarkable to find that he had, in addition, a theological mind. His books have been received with jubilation by liberal Christians, and with great annoyance by atheists. But before we allow ourselves to be gratified or vexed, as the case may be, by Dr. Whitehead’s rehabilitation of religion, it might be well to enquire what sort of religion his writings are likely to further, and whether that sort is intrinsically valuable. It is a matter which all earnest atheists and Christians should take to heart.

Dr. Whitehead belongs to a generation which may be said to include within its limits elder statesmen such as the late William James, and younger statesmen such as Mr. Wells and Mr. Russell. Many of the eminent men of that generation conceal the tender heart of sentiment behind the brilliant emblems of authority. Mr. Shaw, after all his pamphlets, his economics, his Fabianism and mild ferocity, had no better vision to offer us than the earthly paradise of Back to Methuselah, to be staged by perspiring pupils of Miss Margaret Morris.2 Mr. Russell’s lonely Prometheus of thought, the undaunted hero of Liberalism, flourishes smirkingly the instruments of contraception in the faces of the clergy.3 Mr. Wells, with a tremendous machinery of comparative anatomy, evolves a Deity who is merely a celestial captain of industry.4 The disproportion between the elaborateness of the equipment and the mediocrity of the product is still more impressive in the work of Professor Whitehead. In every case the Father Christmas turns out to be merely our Sunday school superintendent in disguise.

We might take warning at the outset from Whitehead’s use of the term “religion.” He says “The conflict between religion and science is what naturally occurs to our minds when we think of this subject.”5 This hoary old notion must have done duty, clothed in practically the same words, in score upon score of sermons in the last seventy-five years. Whether there is such a thing as “science” above the various sciences, is a question which I should not venture to contest with Professor Whitehead; but that there is such a thing as “religion” above the various particular religions, seems to me very doubtful.

For the anthropologist, the student occupied with the “history of religions,” the term “religion” is perfectly valid. It is not sufficiently understood—though it is simple enough—that the point of view of the anthropologist and of the theologian are quite different. They are not opposed: they are merely different; as different, and no more opposed, than the appearance of a house to someone who is inside and to someone who is outside it. The anthropologist is concerned with what has been believed; the theologian is concerned with what is true. So far as you are an anthropologist, you are not, in your professional capacity, the “believer” of any religion; you are occupied only with the phenomena of all.

On the other hand, so far as you are the “believer” of any religion, then “religion” no longer exists for you, or the contrast between “religion and science”; you are concerned only with “conflicts” in the sense of conflicts between particular tenets of your religion and particular theories of science. The sincere Christian, or the sincere Moslem, or the sincere Buddhist, is quite unconcerned with conflicts between religion and science; he can be concerned only with conflicts between particular beliefs which he holds qua Christian or Moslem or Buddhist, and particular scientific theories which also he believes. To the Christian, a conflict between Islam and science, or between Buddhism and science (and reciprocally in respect of the other religious beliefs) can give only a mild satisfaction. The conflict between religion and science is a conflict between two quite unreal phantoms—for I am so sure that “religion” in the abstract is a phantom, that I am inclined to believe that “science” in the abstract is a phantom too.6

This is a mere outline of an argument: but I have said enough to suggest to any intelligent person that if one is to talk about a “conflict,” one must hold a definite religious faith, and must find it in conflict in particulars with certain conclusions of particular sciences. You may be a “fundamentalist” Christian; in that case you may find it difficult to reconcile your Christianity with the beliefs of geology and comparative anatomy. In that event you must choose; you must make up your mind whether the particular beliefs contradicted by geology or comparative anatomy are essential to your faith or no. There you have a real conflict. But Professor Whitehead is wholly occupied with phantom conflicts. He assumes that “science” (a fiction) is in conflict with God (another fiction), and he proceeds to show that science is far from being hostile to God, that on the contrary it requires Him, as the principle of Order.

And Professor Whitehead is so efficient, so hustling and forward-looking, that he has not stopped to consider how much is required for a religion besides God. He has not spent as many years in America as I have, but he has been very quickly adopted into the fraternity of the American Godhead. America is said to be “on the make”; Professor Whitehead’s religion must be “in the making.” Even in America, a motor-car “in the making” is not so much prized as a motor-car which is made and will run; but apparently luxury articles like religion are more valuable “in the making” than when they are made. It is the hopeless belief of a person who knows that when his religion is made, it won’t run; but he enjoys making it.

If Professor Whitehead were a Christian, instead of what he obviously is, merely the descendant of Christians, he would know that there is no such thing as “religion,” and that to prove the existence of God, even to prove that God is the wholehearted supporter of “science,” is to do nothing at all for religion. There was once a time when the terms “Christian,” “atheist” and “agnostic” meant something definite. If they are to continue to mean anything definite, then a fourth term must be invented for that large class of persons which includes Professor Whitehead. They are “religious,” without holding to any religion; they are also “scientific,” in that they believe devoutly in the latest theory of any and every particular science; and they must be cast out by any congregation of Christians, Buddhists, Brahmins, Jews, Mohammedans or Atheists.

For Professor Whitehead seems to think that you can make a perfectly good substitute religion if only you provide a GOD of some kind. He is all in the tradition of the late William James, and of Professor Bergson, with the patronage of one who was, in his time, an admirable political philosopher, but a very feeble-minded theologian—the respected Matthew Arnold. Arnold’s God was a power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness; that was bad enough7; James’s God was a power, one of ourselves (a regular guy and the Captain of the Team) working with us for our own ends, though neither He nor we know quite what these ends are—anyway, we pull all together. Whitehead’s God is slightly more respectable, as He ought to be; He is the Principle of Order.8 But like James’s God, he is wholly incapable of starting a Religion.

God is certainly essential to some religions, as the King is essential in the game of chess. But the most important things in any religion, and certainly the most important ideas in the Christian religion, are not derivative from the notion of God. I commend to the notice of Whitehead and his admirers the following passage from the notes of the late T.E. Hulme, the most remarkable theologian of my generation. And I would remind the admirers of Professor Whitehead that mathematics or mathematical physics is a difficult study, requiring a gradual furnishing of a man’s mind through many years with a special furniture; and that theology is another difficult study, also requiring the furnishing of a mind through many years with special furniture; and that it cannot be expected that one mind should be able to contain both kinds.

What is important, is what nobody seems to realise—the dogmas like that of Original Sin, which are the closest expression of the categories of the religious attitude. That man is in no sense perfect, but a wretched creature, who can yet apprehend perfection. It is not, then, that I put up with the dogma for the sake of the sentiment, but that I may possibly swallow the sentiment for the sake of the dogma. Very few since the Renaissance have really understood the dogma, certainly very few inside the Churches of recent years. If they appear occasionally even fanatical about the very word of the dogma, that is only a secondary result of belief really grounded on sentiment. Certainly no humanist could understand the dogma. They all chatter about matters which are in comparison with this, quite secondary notions—God, Freedom, and Immortality.9

I find that I can subscribe wholly to this view. I also find that it is antithetical to the Whitehead view, which is merely the James view of God, the Bergson view of Freedom, warmed over for a rather more exacting generation. It would be proper at this point to enter upon an explanation of the meaning of dogma, and of epistemology and gegendstandstheorie in relation to dogma.10 That would take a good deal of space. But I may remark that for anyone who is seriously concerned, not with “religion,” that gelded abstraction, but with Christianity, there is far more to be learned from Irving Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership than from Professor Whitehead’s soporific elixirs.11

Textual Note

In late summer 1927, Eliot wrote to Lewis about a contribution to The Enemy: “Would you object to something about Whitehead, from point of view not identical with yours, but I believe pointing the same way?” Lewis had attacked Whitehead’s time-philosophy in chapters 18 and 19 of “The Revolutionary Simpleton” in the first number (February 1927). In the second number (September 1927), it was announced that “The Enemy, No. 3, will containan article by Mr. T. S. Eliot, in which he discusses the nature of Professor Whitehead’s god, and further elucidation of post-relativity philosophy by Mr. Wyndham Lewis” (vii–viii). When the number had not appeared on November 7, Eliot replied to an inquiry from Edmund Wilson of The New Republic: “Thank you for your cable about my note on Whitehead. I have no idea when that is likely to appear as Wyndham Lewis’s Enemy is not a very punctual publication, but I have thought over your suggestion. On the whole I think I should much prefer not to publish this note elsewhere. I am not satisfied with it and if I had time I should already have revised it.” When the third and final number of The Enemy appeared (“First Quarter, 1929”), Eliot’s essay was not included. The proofs remained among Lewis’s papers and are now in the Lewis Collection (Box 102), Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University.


Excerpted with permission from The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Vol. 3: Literature, Politics, Belief, 1927–1929; Eliot prose © Estate of T.S. Eliot; Editorial Apparatus © 2015 Faber and Faber Ltd. and Johns Hopkins University Press. Made possible with generous support from the Hodson Trust.

1
Herbert Read reviewed Science and the Modern World in The Criterion of June 1926, declaring it “the most important book published in the conjoint realms of science and philosophy since Descartes’ Discourse on Method ”; his review of Religion in the Making, which “begins with the concepts of modern science and seeks to deduce from them the nature of a godhead,” appeared in The Criterion of May 1927. 

2
Eliot criticized the “creative evolution” of Shaw’s Back to Methuselah in his “London Letter” of September 1921, together with the dancing school of Margaret Morris, eleven of whose pupils staged the “dance of youths and maidens” in the opening scene of part five of the play at the Court Theatre revival in September 1924. 

3
In What I Believe (London: Kegan, Paul, 1925), Russell attacked the “theological superstitions” of the clergy’s opposition to contraception, asserting that the disease, poverty, and suffering experienced by so many newborns is “deliberately inflicted by Bishops and politicians in the name of morality” (p. 43). Eliot had recently quoted from the work in “John Bramhall,” in critical illustration of Russell’s moral philosophy. 

4
In The World of William Clissold (1926), Wells’s industrialist protagonist aims to redesign the world as a utopia to be managed and saved by men like himself, who place their faith in science, industry, and finance. 

5
Science and the Modern World, p. 259. 

6
See Eliot’s “Religion and Science: A Phantom Dilemma” (1932). 

7
See Literature and Dogma: An Essay Towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible (James R. Osgood, 1873): “an enduring Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness” (p. 172). 

8
In Science and the Modern World, Whitehead states in his chapter on “God”: “In the place of Aristotle’s God as Prime Mover, we require God as the Principle of Concretion” (p. 250). “The general principle of empiricism depends upon the doctrine that there is a principle of concretion which is not discoverable by abstract reason. What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis” (p. 257). 

9
T.E. Hulme’s “The Religious Attitude” ( Speculations, edited by Herbert Read, p. 71). 

10
Gegendstandstheorie : theory of objects; from Alexius Meinong, Über Gegendstandstheorie (1904), frequently cited in Eliot’s dissertation, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley

11
In “The Idea of a Literary Review” (January 1926), Eliot identified Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership (1924) as one of the works exhibiting a “modern tendency” toward “classicism.” On April 29, 1927, he wrote to Roger Chitty, “I have had in suspense in my mind an essay pointing out Babbitt’s (unconscious) relation to orthodox Christianity: his doctrine of Grace, in Democracy and Leadership, is singularly near to Christianity, and in my opinion cannot be made acceptable without Christianity.” 

  1. 1

    Herbert Read reviewed Science and the Modern World in The Criterion of June 1926, declaring it “the most important book published in the conjoint realms of science and philosophy since Descartes’ Discourse on Method ”; his review of Religion in the Making, which “begins with the concepts of modern science and seeks to deduce from them the nature of a godhead,” appeared in The Criterion of May 1927. 

  2. 2

    Eliot criticized the “creative evolution” of Shaw’s Back to Methuselah in his “London Letter” of September 1921, together with the dancing school of Margaret Morris, eleven of whose pupils staged the “dance of youths and maidens” in the opening scene of part five of the play at the Court Theatre revival in September 1924. 

  3. 3

    In What I Believe (London: Kegan, Paul, 1925), Russell attacked the “theological superstitions” of the clergy’s opposition to contraception, asserting that the disease, poverty, and suffering experienced by so many newborns is “deliberately inflicted by Bishops and politicians in the name of morality” (p. 43). Eliot had recently quoted from the work in “John Bramhall,” in critical illustration of Russell’s moral philosophy. 

  4. 4

    In The World of William Clissold (1926), Wells’s industrialist protagonist aims to redesign the world as a utopia to be managed and saved by men like himself, who place their faith in science, industry, and finance. 

  5. 5

    Science and the Modern World, p. 259. 

  6. 6

    See Eliot’s “Religion and Science: A Phantom Dilemma” (1932). 

  7. 7

    See Literature and Dogma: An Essay Towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible (James R. Osgood, 1873): “an enduring Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness” (p. 172). 

  8. 8

    In Science and the Modern World, Whitehead states in his chapter on “God”: “In the place of Aristotle’s God as Prime Mover, we require God as the Principle of Concretion” (p. 250). “The general principle of empiricism depends upon the doctrine that there is a principle of concretion which is not discoverable by abstract reason. What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis” (p. 257). 

  9. 9

    T.E. Hulme’s “The Religious Attitude” ( Speculations, edited by Herbert Read, p. 71). 

  10. 10

    Gegendstandstheorie : theory of objects; from Alexius Meinong, Über Gegendstandstheorie (1904), frequently cited in Eliot’s dissertation, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley

  11. 11

    In “The Idea of a Literary Review” (January 1926), Eliot identified Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership (1924) as one of the works exhibiting a “modern tendency” toward “classicism.” On April 29, 1927, he wrote to Roger Chitty, “I have had in suspense in my mind an essay pointing out Babbitt’s (unconscious) relation to orthodox Christianity: his doctrine of Grace, in Democracy and Leadership, is singularly near to Christianity, and in my opinion cannot be made acceptable without Christianity.” 

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A Prophet in Reverse

Studio Pericoli

Tullio Pericoli: Jorge Luis Borges, 1987

Osvaldo Ferrari: One of your essays, Borges, is called “On the Cult of Books.” It made me think of titles and authors you mention repeatedly.

Jorge Luis Borges: I don’t remember anything at all about that … Do I talk about sacred books, about the fact that each country has a preference for a particular book?

Ferrari: You mention the former, yes, but you also refer to people who have criticized books in favor of oral language. For example, there’s a passage in Plato where he says that excessive reading leads to the neglect of memory and to a dependence on symbols.

Borges: I think that Schopenhauer said that to read is to think with somebody else’s mind. Which is the same idea, no? Well no, it isn’t the same idea but it is hostile to books. Did I mention that?

Ferrari: No.

Borges: Perhaps I talked about the fact that each country chooses, prefers to be represented by a book although that book isn’t usually characteristic of the country. For example, one regards Shakespeare as typically English. However, none of the typical characteristics of the English are found in Shakespeare. The English tend to be reserved, reticent, but Shakespeare flows like a great river, he abounds in hyperbole and metaphor—he’s the complete opposite of an English person. Or, in Goethe’s case, we have the Germans who are easily roused to fanaticism but Goethe turns out to be the very opposite—a tolerant man, a man who greets Napoleon when Napoleon invades Germany. Goethe isn’t a typical German. Now, this seems to be a common occurrence, no?

Ferrari: Especially in the case of the classics.

Borges: Especially in the case of the classics, yes. Well, and the Spain of Cervantes’ time is the Spain of the burnings of the Inquisition, the fanatical Spain. And Cervantes, although he’s Spanish, he’s a cheerful man, one imagines him as tolerant, he didn’t have anything to do with all that. It’s as if each country looks for a form of antidote in the author it chooses. In France’s case, however, it has such a rich literary tradition that it hasn’t chosen one figure, but if one goes for Hugo—clearly, Hugo isn’t like the majority of French people.

Ferrari: As for your personal cult of books, Borges, I recall that your favorites include The Thousand and One Nights, the Bible and, among many others, the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Borges: I think that the encyclopedia, for a leisurely, curious man, is the most pleasing of literary genres. And, besides, it has an illustrious forerunner in Pliny, whose Natural History is an encyclopedia too. There you have information on art, history—it isn’t simply a natural history in the current meaning of the term—and on legends, also on myths. So that when he talks about some animal, he doesn’t simply give factual information but everything recorded by legend—the magical properties attributed to it, even though Pliny probably didn’t believe in them. But, in the end, he did produce that splendid encyclopedia which was also written in a baroque style.

Ferrari: Talking specifically about the Encyclopaedia Britannica, what have you discovered in it over the years?

Borges: Mostly, long articles. Encyclopedias are made for reference now, so there are long articles and extremely short ones. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, however, was made for reading, that is, it was a series of essays—essays by Macaulay, Stevenson, Swinburne. In the later editions there were occasional essays by Shaw as well. Essays by Bertrand Russell, for example, on Zeno of Elea. I must have told you that I used to go to the National Library with my father. I was very shy—I’m still very shy—so I didn’t dare request books. But there were reference works on the shelves, and I would simply take down by chance, for example, a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. One day I was extremely fortunate, because I took down the volume D–R, and I was able to read an excellent biography of Dryden, who Eliot has written a book about. Then, a long article on the druids, and another on the Druzes of Lebanon who believe in the transmigration of souls. There are Chinese Druzes too. Yes, that day I was very lucky: Dryden, druids and Druzes, and all those things in the same volume that went from D to R. At other times, I wasn’t so fortunate. I’d go with my father, my father would look up books on psychology—he was a psychology teacher—while I would read the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Later I’d read Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain in the National Library. And it never occurred to me that, one day, in an improbable future, I’d become director of the library. If someone had told me that, I’d have thought they were joking. Yet that’s what happened. And when I was director I remembered that boy who would visit with his father and timidly take down a volume of the Encyclopaedia from the shelf.

Ferrari: And you were director for almost two decades, I think.

Borges: I don’t know the precise dates, but they appointed me in 1955, until … I don’t know what year Perón came back, because I couldn’t rightly carry on.

Ferrari: In 1973. So eighteen years in the library.

Borges: Well, that’s not bad, is it? Who’s the director now?

Ferrari: Up until quite recently it was Gregorio Weinberg.

Borges: Ah, yes. I think he resigned, didn’t he?

Ferrari: He resigned, and I still don’t know who replaced him.

Borges: I remember that the budget we received was paltry. Maybe that’s not changed. Perhaps that was the reason for Weinberg’s resignation.

Ferrari: As usual. You’d have to manage with the bare minimum then?

Borges: And the Ministry of Education has been the most debilitated, the most vulnerable of all. Perhaps it still is.

Ferrari: In that essay, Borges, you also refer to the eighth book of The Odyssey, where it says that God has given misfortune to men so that they will have something to sing about.

Borges: Yes, I think that it says that they weave misfortunes so that men from generations to come will have something to sing about, no?

Ferrari: Yes.

Borges: Well, that would be enough to prove that The Odyssey comes after The Iliad, because one can’t imagine a reflection like that in The Iliad.

Ferrari: Of course, because Homer gives the idea of beginnings …

Borges: Yes, and as Rubén Darío said: Doubtless Homer had his own Homer. Since literature always presupposes a precursor, or a tradition. One could say that language is itself a tradition—each language offers a range of possibilities and of impossibilities as well, or difficulties. I don’t remember that essay, “The Cult of Books.”

Ferrari: It’s in Other Inquisitions.

Borges: I’m sure it exists, since I don’t think you’ve made it up to test my memory, or my lack of memory.

Ferrari: (laughs) It exists, and it’s also from 1951.

Borges: Ah good, right, in that case I have every right to have forgotten it. It would be very sad to have remembered the year 1951.

Ferrari: But you end with that remark by Stéphane Mallarmé.

Borges: Ah yes, that everything leads to a book, no?

Ferrari: Of course.

Borges: Yes, because I take those lines from Homer and I say that they both say the same thing. But Homer was still thinking about song, about poetry that wells up in a surge of inspiration. In contrast, Mallarmé was already thinking about a book, and, in a sense, about a sacred book. In fact, they’re the same thing—everything exists in order to end up in a book, or everything leads to a book.

Ferrari: That’s to say, events are ultimately literary. But a book you always recommend, even to people who aren’t literary enthusiasts, is the Bible.

Borges: Well, because the Bible is a library. Now, how strange that idea of the Hebrews to attribute such disparate works as Genesis, the Song of Songs, the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, to attribute all of those works to a single author—the Holy Spirit. They are clearly works that correspond to quite different minds and quite different localities and, above all, to different centuries, to diverse periods of thought.

Ferrari: Well, it must have something to do with that other saying in the Bible: “The spirit blows where it will.”

Borges: Yes, which is in the Gospel according to St. John, I think, no? In the first verses.

Ferrari: Yes, if you compare it with that phrase from Whistler, “Art
happens,” in another of our conversations.

Borges: I hadn’t realized, but of course, that’s the same idea, “Art happens,” “The spirit blows where it will.” That is, it’s the opposite of, well, a sociology of poetry, no? Of studying poetry socially, of studying the conditions that have produced poetry… . That reminds me of Heine, who said that the historian is a retrospective prophet, someone who prophesies what has already happened. It amounts to the same idea.

Ferrari: Of course, a prophet in reverse.

Borges: Yes, someone who prophesies what has already happened, and what one already knows has happened, no? “The prophet who looks backwards”—the historian.

Ferrari: Who’s that from, Borges?

Borges: Heine. History would be the art of divining the past, no?

Ferrari: Yes, the art of the historian.

Borges: Yes, once something has happened, one demonstrates that it happened inevitably. But it would be more interesting to apply that to the future.

Ferrari: That’s more difficult than to predict the past—it’s harder to
be a prophet than a historian.

Borges: Well, that’s how literary histories are written. One takes each author, then one demonstrates the influence of his background and, then, how the work must logically stem from that author. But this method doesn’t apply to the future, that is, one doesn’t give the names and works of twenty-first-century Argentine writers, does one?

Ferrari: But in literary histories there isn’t such a demand for correctness as in history proper—one is still allowed to be literary.

Borges: Yes, one would hope so.

Ferrari: Another book that appears frequently in your library is, I think, The Thousand and One Nights.

Borges: Yes, and my ignorance of Arabic has allowed me to read it in many translations, and of course I must have told you that, of all the versions I’ve read, perhaps the most pleasing is by Rafael Cansinos Assens. Although even more pleasing is the earliest one, the one by Antoine Galland who first presented that book to the West.

Ferrari: In your essay, there’s another idea that I find interesting—you say that, for the ancients, the written word was merely a substitute for the spoken word.

Borges: Yes, I think Plato says that books are like living things but that they are also like statues—one talks to them but they can’t talk back.

Ferrari: Ah, of course.

Borges: Then, precisely so that books could talk back, he invented
the dialogue which anticipates the reader’s questions and allows for explanation and a proliferation of thought.

Ferrari: Yes, that applies to oral language, but you add that, towards the fourth century, written language begins to predominate over oral language.

Borges: Ah, and I refer to the anecdote of the person who is astonished at another person reading in silence.

Ferrari: Of course. Saint Augustine is astonished at Saint Ambrose, I think.

Borges: Yes, he’s astonished because he sees something he has never seen before—someone reading quietly to himself. Of course, he had to, because the books were written by hand. You must have experienced it many times—when you receive a letter, and the handwriting in that letter isn’t faultless, let’s say, you read it aloud to make sense of it, no?

Ferrari: Yes.

Borges: And if the books were written by hand, it was only natural that they be read aloud. Aside from that point, I think that if you’re reading silently, and you come to a powerful passage, a passage that moves you, then you tend to read it aloud. I think that a well-written passage demands to be read aloud. In the case of verse, it’s obvious, because the music of verse needs to be expressed even if only in a murmur—it has to be heard. On the other hand, if you’re reading something that’s purely logical, purely abstract, it’s different. In that case, you can do without reading it aloud. But you can’t do without that reading if you’re dealing with a poem.

Ferrari: It’s part of that exaltation, however minimal, that poetry requires.

Borges: Yes, but of course that’s becoming lost now, since people no longer have an ear for it. Unfortunately, everyone is now capable of reading in silence, because they don’t hear what they read—they go directly to the meaning of the text.

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China: The Superpower of Mr. Xi


macfarquhar_2-081315.jpg

Feng Li/Getty Images

President Xi Jinping, Central Discipline Inspection Committee Secretary Wang Qishan, and Premier Li Keqiang, Tiananamen Square, Beijing, September 2014

In the almost one-hundred-year existence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), its current general secretary, Xi Jinping, is only the second leader clearly chosen by his peers. The first was Mao Zedong. Both men beat out the competition, and thus secured a legitimacy their predecessors lacked.1 Why was Xi chosen?

The Beijing rumor mill had long indicated that the outgoing elders were looking for a “princeling” successor, that is the son of a senior first- generation revolutionary. Princelings, it was apparently felt, had a bigger stake in the revolution than most people, and thus would be the most determined to preserve the rule of the CCP.

Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a respected vice-premier and member of the CCP Central Committee known for his moderate views, but he fell afoul of Mao in 1962 and was purged, then was rehabilitated and returned to high office after the Chairman’s death. Xi Jinping thus has the additional legitimation of being “born red,” as Evan Osnos put it recently in The New Yorker.

Doubtless this heritage partly accounts for Xi’s evident self-confidence, but another factor could be the toughening he underwent as a young teenager, fending for himself in the face of hostile Red Guards and thereafter working in the countryside for six years. According to an official biography, “he arrived at the village as a slightly lost teenager and left as a 22-year-old man determined to do something for the people.” Unlike his predecessors Jiang Zemin, who had the benefit of studying in the Soviet bloc and then rising through the relative stability of the industrial bureaucracy, and Hu Jintao, who started in the industrial bureaucracy and then made his way up the ranks of the Communist Youth League, Xi had no such protective carapace in his early years. That background could explain why Xi has been taking far greater risks after becoming general secretary than either Jiang or Hu did. What is widely accepted among China hands is that Xi is the most powerful leader of China since Deng Xiaoping, with a developing personality cult.

Xi is not primus inter pares like Jiang and Hu; he is simply primus. In his recent book, Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping, Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a veteran observer of Chinese elites, explains that since taking over as general secretary in November 2012 and president of China in March 2013, Xi has centralized power under his leadership to an extraordinary degree, creating and chairing the new Central National Security Commission, which has jurisdiction over the army, the police, and all foreign-related and national security agencies, along with chairing the Central Military Commission, which comes with his job as CCP general secretary. In a move that surely undercuts the regime’s second-ranking member, Premier Li Keqiang, supposedly the economic czar, Xi has created and taken the chair of a new Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reforms. Xi has also taken on the leadership of central leading groups on foreign affairs, Internet security, and information technology.

In fact, Xi is arguably even more powerful than Deng was, though Lam does not suggest this. In promoting his reform program, Deng had to bob and weave under pressure from equally senior colleagues who disliked reform.2 The only possible threat to Xi could have been his fellow princeling Bo Xilai, but he had been conveniently purged by Hu Jintao in a lurid case that involved his wife’s murder of a foreigner.3 Xi’s current colleagues in the Politburo and its Standing Committee (PSC), passed over for the top job, seem less of a threat than the charismatic Bo might have been.

The Sisyphean task that Xi has set himself is to stamp out corruption in the CCP. Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had warned about the dangers arising from this pervasive problem. According to Hu, failure to eradicate corruption could “deal a body blow to the Party and even lead to the collapse of the Party and country.” Xi has echoed Jiang and Hu, saying that “upholding integrity and combating corruption are vital for the survival of the Party and the state.” On another occasion he emulated Mao by quoting from an ancient philosopher: “Many worms will disintegrate wood, and a big enough crack will lead to the collapse of a wall.” But in contrast with the efforts of Jiang and Hu to stem corruption, Xi has launched a very high-profile campaign. In his words: “We should fight corruption with strong determination,…persevere in our anticorruption effort till we achieve final success rather than start off full of sound and fury and then taper off in a whimper.” He may come to regret promising not to end with a whimper.

Xi had been preaching the need to fight corruption long before he became Party leader. At an antigraft conference in 2004, he warned officials: “Rein in your spouses, children, relatives, friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain.” Xi knew of what he spoke. His sister and her family were accumulating investments worth hundreds of millions of dollars while he was rising up the ranks of the leadership, though Western investigative reporters found no evidence that Xi’s immediate family was involved in any way. Nor was this an isolated case among the top leadership. Shortly before Wen Jiabao retired as premier in March 2013, it was reported, by another Western news source, that his family, including his mother, wife, children, and siblings, were rich to the tune of $2.7 billion. Such foreign investigative reports require months of painstaking research, but within the top ranks of the CCP, knowledge of the riches of other leaders’ families must be easier to come by.

To deal with corruption, Xi has put Wang Qishan, a trusted, longtime colleague, drawn from the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, in charge of the Party’s Central Discipline Inspection Committee (CDIC). The committee’s remit is to pursue both “tigers” and “flies,” to root out corruption at all levels. In 2014, Wang’s investigators’ work resulted in over 71,000 officials being punished for violating the eight-point anticorruption rules. Many doubtless were guilty only of living high off the hog on the public purse, not confining their banquets to “four dishes and a soup,” the traditional CCP measure of restraint. But dozens of senior officials have been dismissed; in one province, the ranks of the Party have been decimated from top to bottom. Perhaps the CDIC’s biggest achievement last year was to repatriate five hundred fugitive officials from abroad and recover almost $500 million of their ill-gotten gains. Wang hopes to persuade even countries like the US, with which China has no extradition treaty, to assist him in this endeavor.

The prime tiger to be bagged so far is Zhou Yongkang, a member of the ruling Politburo Standing Committee until he had to retire for age reasons in 2012.4 He had been in charge of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, supervising the security apparatus and law enforcement, including the police, paramilitary forces, and domestic intelligence: not the profile of one easily purged even in retirement. So before arresting him, the CDIC cut the ground from under his feet by rounding up his subordinates in the provincial and state organizations he had run. Last month, Zhou was sentenced to life in prison, the most senior official to be purged for corruption in the history of the People’s Republic.

Up till this point, there seemed to have been a comradely agreement that former members of the Politburo Standing Committee were to be allowed to retire in peace, so senior Chinese officials may hope that Zhou has really been arrested for factional reasons rather than corruption, having been a supporter of the purged Bo Xilai, Xi Jinping’s onetime rival princeling. In that case, past and future ex-PSC members could breathe more easily. But if Zhou turns out not to be the last tiger but the first, then existing tensions in the top ranks of the Party will rise. Mao’s colleagues were too afraid of him to unite against him even when they were falling like ninepins in the Cultural Revolution: besides, to have brought down Mao—the Lenin and Stalin of the revolution—would have deprived the CCP of its legitimacy. Xi does not have that stature, so to continue his tiger hunt will require nerve.5

Like Mao before him, Xi relies on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as his last line of defense. A year ago, eighteen leading active-service generals, including the officers commanding central PLA departments and the seven regional commanders, swore their loyalty to Xi as chairman of the CCP’s Military Affairs Commission. But this demonstration that the PLA had his back was a sign of weakness as well as strength. Mao had no need for so public a demonstration of military loyalty. And since the anticorruption campaign has already targeted some senior generals, including a former vice-chairman of the Military Affairs Commission and Politburo member—as high as a soldier can get—these eighteen pledges may have been designed as keep-out-of-jail cards. It remains to be seen how loyal the generals stay if the campaign targets more top brass.

Swatting flies also involves considerable risks. In many ways, it is a more important task than bagging tigers. Chinese citizens may cheer as another tiger is laid low, but it is the flies, the lower-level cadres, whose predatory activities affect their everyday lives. If corruption among the well over 80 million Party members is as widespread as Chinese leaders imply and the Chinese people believe, then tens of millions could be involved.

Suppose that only 10 percent of grassroots Party cadres are corrupt, almost certainly a gross underestimate: that’s 8 million people. Then add in family members, who the Wen Jiabao case suggests may well also be corrupt. With a spouse, the figure becomes 16 million; add in a child, 24 million; add in a sibling, 32 million; and with the sibling’s spouse, one has 40 million people who should be prosecuted. And that’s with only a 10 percent corruption rate. Party morale would crumble along with its organizational strength, as it did during the Cultural Revolution. Already, compulsory visits by officials to incarcerated colleagues must be intimidating.

Indeed, Xi is attempting a cultural revolution of his own. Whereas Mao wanted to make Chinese leaders revolutionary, Xi wants to make them righteous,

because moral purity is essential for Marxist parties to stay pure, and moral integrity is a fundamental trait for officials to remain clean, honest and upright.

In the 1980s, party officials jumped on Deng Xiaoping’s “to get rich is glorious” bandwagon and many used their positions for corruption.

Under Mao, those officials had been told to “serve the people,” but Mao had betrayed them by making them the victims of Red Guard violence during the Cultural Revolution. Corruption, beginning in the Deng era but far worse now, was a payback for what they had endured. Now Xi wants to withdraw that perk of Party membership. Will Party members fall into line or seek to subvert the campaign? What will be the impact on potential Party members?

This problem is exacerbated by Xi’s lack of any persuasive ideology to enthuse Party members. He has conjured up the “Chinese dream,” the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” and according to an official document from the CCP’s Central Committee, “we are…rapidly arousing mass fervor, proclaiming that socialism with Chinese characteristics and the Chinese dream are the main theme of our age.”6 But the Chinese dream is too distant to arouse “mass fervor” among citizens whose personal dream is to be able to afford an urban apartment or their son getting a good job after college. As for “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Deng Xiaoping’s justification for putting Marxism on the shelf, any educated Chinese knows that the nearest facsimile to that can be found only in Singapore. Taiwan could be labeled democracy with Chinese characteristics. Capitalism with Chinese characteristics? Hong Kong. And China? 1.3 billion people with Chinese characteristics. There is no ideological there there.

Xi Jinping; drawing by Pancho

Neither the “Chinese dream” nor “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has the intellectual plausibility of Marxism-Leninism, and certainly does not arouse the mass fervor of Mao Zedong Thought at its height. Marxism- Leninism, like Confucianism, was a philosophy that embraced state and society, that guided officials and prescribed rules for families. It was a doctrine that glued cadres and people together. But however much Chinese leaders proclaim that Marxism-Leninism is still their lodestar, and Xi Jinping proposes the study of Marxism in institutions of higher learning, in practice the works of Paul Samuelson and his successors are far more relevant to officials who seek to engineer the Chinese dream than those of Marx and Engels. Chinese who seek something to fill the spiritual void have turned in their tens of millions to a different Western doctrine, Christianity. The spread of a Western religion is a prime example of the problems that face Xi in his avowed aim to keep out Western doctrines, though the Party seems confident of containing it with a policy of knocking off crosses and knocking down churches.

Without a substantive positive ideology to grip the Chinese people, Xi has been forced to go negative, listing alien doctrines to be extirpated. According to a central Party document, there are six “false ideological trends, positions, and activities” emanating from the West that are advocated by dissident Chinese: constitutional democracy; universal values; civil society; economic neoliberalism; Western-style journalism, challenging China’s principle that the media and the publishing system should be subject to Party discipline; and promoting historical nihilism, trying to undermine the history of the CCP by emphasizing the mistakes of the Maoist period.7

There is nothing particularly surprising about this listing except for its confirmation of the extent to which “opening up” has resulted in the spread of Western values among Chinese citizens. But the sixth concern, “historical nihilism,” is a particular worry of Xi’s, connected with his understandable obsession with preventing the CCP going the way of the Soviet Communist Party. He believes the rot started in the Soviet Union when Party leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s record in 1956, thereby dividing Soviet history into a bad era (Stalin’s) and a good one (post-Stalin).

For Xi, it was historical nihilism to write off the Maoist period, with its Great Leap famine and its Cultural Revolution—“the devastation that Mao left in his wake,” as Andrew Walder puts it in his major new book, China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed
8—as all bad, for he fears that would ultimately mean denigrating Mao, and, as his portrait on Tiananmen demonstrates, the Chairman is still the legitimator of the regime.

According to Xi, an important reason why the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Soviet Communist Party collapsed was that

their ideals and convictions wavered…. Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone…. In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.9

Xi clearly intends that the members of the CCP should have their ideals and convictions strengthened and he will be the “real man” who will lead the resistance to infiltrating Western doctrines.

What Xi did not acknowledge was that when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, his aim was to revive the Party and the country after two decades of corruption and stagnation under Brezhnev. He believed in communism, state ownership, and central planning, probably more deeply than Xi. Like Deng Xiaoping, Gorbachev launched reform (perestroika) and opening up (glasnost). But unlike in China, the Soviet bureaucracy had been in power for many decades and had not been terrorized and undermined by a cultural revolution. Resistance to perestroika was strong, even within the Politburo. Glasnost became the more important route for changing the Soviet system, and authors and journalists exploited their new freedom. Hitherto banned books were published. Informal groups were set up in favor of perestroika. Public opinion became important. The regime came under open attack. And gradually Gorbachev became more radical in his effort to shock his countrymen into change. Ultimately, the Soviet Communist Party was dissolved and the Soviet Union fell apart.

Xi Jinping is as concerned as Gorbachev was to transform the Communist Party that he leads and to prevent the collapse of the People’s Republic. The Soviet example proves to him that glasnost is not the way to go. With an estimated five hundred demonstrations a day across China, 60 percent of them provoked by “land grabs” by local officials, opening the door further must seem imprudent.10 Rather, closing down has been the order of the day. The atmosphere in intellectual circles has become chillier than under Hu Jintao. Even anticorruption whistle-blowers are punished; Xi wants a centrally controlled campaign, not an unpredictable free-for-all.

So Xi has chosen his form of perestroika. In addition to the anticorruption campaign, it comprises thoroughgoing economic reform. But almost forty years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese bureaucrats have recovered their self-confidence. Insofar as economic reform now will hurt their vested interests, including their power over the economy, they drag their feet. Local governments with no hope of increased central subsidies also are recalcitrant.

How foot dragging can work was illustrated in an outburst by China’s premier against ministers in April this year when he upbraided them for allowing cabinet decisions to become mired among their subordinates. A further factor, unmentioned by the premier, is probably a reluctance to take initiatives because of the anticorruption campaign.

If one compares this campaign to Gorbachev’s perestroika, the dangers to the system become apparent. Gorbachev had to use weapons of the weak: volunteer intellectuals from the ranks of journalists, editors, publishers, and academia. Xi, on the other hand, is using a powerful, long-established central party organization that can wreak havoc in any provincial or ministerial organization it selects. In Mao’s Cultural Revolution, victims were often chosen at random. Xi’s “cultural revolution” is anything but random, and since a high proportion of Party cadres are allegedly corrupt, they must all dread the arrival of a CDIC team in their area. In principle, there is nothing to stop the investigators from criticizing, dismissing, or indicting sufficient tigers and flies to paralyze the whole CCP.11

Clearly Xi cannot want that. He has few options. He can gradually reduce the tempo of the anticorruption campaign, allow it to taper off, instruct Wang Qishan to send out fewer investigation teams, and to pursue only the most egregious sinners. Simultaneously he could tell the elite that they can keep what they have, but from now on any new instance of corruption will be punished severely. The tiger shoot would be over and the flies would go unharmed. Xi would have to accept the humiliation of ending the campaign with a “whimper.”

This would hardly be a satisfactory outcome. Citizens would know that the rich and powerful had got away with it again. They would characterize the campaign as simply factional fighting at the top, as they will already have noticed that Xi’s campaign has so far not targeted any princelings. And they would continue to demonstrate against the flies. The “China dream” would be dismissed as a joke.

Alternatively, Xi can pursue the campaign vigorously, if not to the bitter end—which would never be reached—then at least for a few more years. The dangers are clear: a coup against him by fearful tigers; demoralization among the flies, the Party rank and file; the generals refusing to maintain their support as they, too, continue to be besieged by the CDIC.

Or Xi could try to divert attention, either by stoking the fires of nationalism with further provocative moves in the East and South China Seas or by folding anticorruption into a new campaign that would benefit both the people and the country. This would be an attack on the third great disaster that the CCP has visited upon the Chinese people, the degradation of the environment, a tragedy whose impact will be longer lasting than the famine or the Cultural Revolution.12 Since the land grabbed from peasants by officials is often sold to a polluting industry, corruption would still be targeted. And if Xi took the chair of a new National Environmental Protection Committee, finally a serious effort would be made to purify China’s earth, air, and water.

1
Before Mao, leaders were effectively chosen by the Comintern’s agents in China. On the Long March, the Comintern representative was sidelined and Mao emerged as leader-to-be. Thereafter potential successors were chosen by Mao; even Deng, despite being purged twice during the Cultural Revolution, was effectively chosen by Mao, for it was he who was brought back to power by the Chairman when Zhou Enlai was dying, an indication to all that Deng was the only man with the ability to run the country. After Mao, Deng did the picking. Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, was Deng’s last pick. 

2
Men like Chen Yun, Li Xiannian, and Peng Zhen hankered after the command economy and disciplined society that the CCP had put in place by the mid-1950s, before Mao went off the rails in the calamitous Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) and Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). 

3
Bo Xilai, whose father had been senior to Xi’s, was thrown out of the Politburo in 2012, partly because his outsize personality and his seemingly neo-Maoist politics seemed threatening to collective leadership, and partly in connection with the unsavory scandal of his wife allegedly murdering a British citizen; see, for instance, Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang, A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money and an Epic Power Struggle in China (PublicAffairs, 2013). Bo was sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2013 for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power. 

4
To end lifetime tenure, Deng Xiaoping inaugurated the custom of officials retiring so that they were not in office at age seventy. 

5
In a discussion on rooting out corruption in the countryside in 1964, Mao indicated his preference for catching the wolves first and then the foxes; see Miscellany of Mao Tse-tung Thought (1949-1968) ( JPRS 61269, 1974), Vol. 2, p. 418. 

6
See “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere: A Notice from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China’s General Office,” ChinaFile.com, November 8, 2013. 

7
Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere.” The document has a seventh deadly sin, questioning reform and opening up, but this was an attack on Chinese neo-Maoists. 

8
Harvard University Press, 2015. 

9
Chris Buckley, “Vows of Change in China Belie Private Warning,” The New York Times, Febrary, 14, 2013. 

10
See Austin Ramzy, “Simmering Discontent,” Time, June 7, 2012. 

11
Sanctions and dismissal are the only punishments that the CDIC can impose, but it can refer cases for indictment to the formal legal system confident that requisite punishments will be meted out. Some Chinese think the flies, at least, may be replaceable by bright, bushy-tailed young graduates from top universities who will take over the localities. But parachuting inexperienced officials into unfamiliar territory is hardly a recipe for successful governance anywhere, least of all in a vast country like China. When Xi went to the countryside at least he was able to go to his father’s home province, and in the first instance he just worked as a peasant. 

12
Much has been written about pollution in China; see, for instance, Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future (Cornell University Press, 2004) and Judith Shapiro, China’s Environmental Challenges (Polity Press, 2012). 

  1. 1

    Before Mao, leaders were effectively chosen by the Comintern’s agents in China. On the Long March, the Comintern representative was sidelined and Mao emerged as leader-to-be. Thereafter potential successors were chosen by Mao; even Deng, despite being purged twice during the Cultural Revolution, was effectively chosen by Mao, for it was he who was brought back to power by the Chairman when Zhou Enlai was dying, an indication to all that Deng was the only man with the ability to run the country. After Mao, Deng did the picking. Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, was Deng’s last pick. 

  2. 2

    Men like Chen Yun, Li Xiannian, and Peng Zhen hankered after the command economy and disciplined society that the CCP had put in place by the mid-1950s, before Mao went off the rails in the calamitous Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) and Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). 

  3. 3

    Bo Xilai, whose father had been senior to Xi’s, was thrown out of the Politburo in 2012, partly because his outsize personality and his seemingly neo-Maoist politics seemed threatening to collective leadership, and partly in connection with the unsavory scandal of his wife allegedly murdering a British citizen; see, for instance, Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang, A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money and an Epic Power Struggle in China (PublicAffairs, 2013). Bo was sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2013 for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power. 

  4. 4

    To end lifetime tenure, Deng Xiaoping inaugurated the custom of officials retiring so that they were not in office at age seventy. 

  5. 5

    In a discussion on rooting out corruption in the countryside in 1964, Mao indicated his preference for catching the wolves first and then the foxes; see Miscellany of Mao Tse-tung Thought (1949-1968) ( JPRS 61269, 1974), Vol. 2, p. 418. 

  6. 6

    See “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere: A Notice from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China’s General Office,” ChinaFile.com, November 8, 2013. 

  7. 7

    Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere.” The document has a seventh deadly sin, questioning reform and opening up, but this was an attack on Chinese neo-Maoists. 

  8. 8

    Harvard University Press, 2015. 

  9. 9

    Chris Buckley, “Vows of Change in China Belie Private Warning,” The New York Times, Febrary, 14, 2013. 

  10. 10

    See Austin Ramzy, “Simmering Discontent,” Time, June 7, 2012. 

  11. 11

    Sanctions and dismissal are the only punishments that the CDIC can impose, but it can refer cases for indictment to the formal legal system confident that requisite punishments will be meted out. Some Chinese think the flies, at least, may be replaceable by bright, bushy-tailed young graduates from top universities who will take over the localities. But parachuting inexperienced officials into unfamiliar territory is hardly a recipe for successful governance anywhere, least of all in a vast country like China. When Xi went to the countryside at least he was able to go to his father’s home province, and in the first instance he just worked as a peasant. 

  12. 12

    Much has been written about pollution in China; see, for instance, Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future (Cornell University Press, 2004) and Judith Shapiro, China’s Environmental Challenges (Polity Press, 2012). 

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A Garden for Oliver Sacks

Roberto Calasso

Oliver Sacks, New York Botanical Garden

It is not entirely clear why, but my meetings with Oliver Sacks were all marked by an irrational euphoria. The places changed, from the Bronx to Spoleto—but above all Manhattan. We would start to talk and the sense of time would discreetly dissolve. On two occasions it also seemed to me that I could glimpse something of Oliver’s innermost essence. Perhaps we don’t possess an Ego, perhaps we are not even a Subject, but certainly in each of us is recognizable, now and then, something on which our way of being rests—in other words, that eminently fleeting thing which is our quality. And there’s no saying that we ourselves are capable of recognizing it.

Oliver and I were in Florence, in 1989, and one afternoon we happened to go into a bookshop in Via Tornabuoni that was very dear to me—Seeber. Today it is no longer there. It is the first bookshop I recall entering as a little boy. The first thing you saw was a table on the left, all taken up by French books, mostly Gallimard editions. Then, further on, there was the table with the Italian books. Today this would be inconceivable.

That day we went up to the first floor, where there stood a few shelves containing old books. We were alone. I saw right away that Oliver was attracted by those shelves, but not as a collector or a bibliophile. It was instantly clear that he had another reason. I, too, began to leaf through some of those books. They weren’t particularly rare, but they all had a decisive characteristic for Oliver: they belonged to the Victorian period. I turned round and saw him immersed in an illustrated Thackeray. A popular edition, which certainly wasn’t worth much. But, like Cruikshank’s Dickens, those illustrations interspersed throughout the text called up something otherwise irretrievable. Oliver was enchanted—and he tried, almost stammering, to explain the reason for that enchantment. But there was no need.

Another morning, in New York, with Oliver equipped with all his paraphernalia, as if we were leaving on an expedition, we found ourselves in his car, heading for the Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Oliver told me straight away that there was no scientific honor that made him prouder than his induction as a member of the Botanical Society of America. It was one of those holiday mornings, terse and empty, where New York is transformed into a stone ship driven by the breeze. We were talking, as often happened, about the brain. But I felt that there was something more attractive and satisfying in store for us: the ferns. The New York Botanical Garden is one of the wonders of the world, for what it is and for how it is. For its visitors and its curators. For the air you breathe there.

That day I took a few photographs of Oliver that bear witness to his symbiosis with certain plants. And, the deeper we penetrated those avenues and those greenhouses, the clearer became the connection between the Oliver in Florence, enchanted, as he was leafing through the illustrated Thackeray, and the one that now, with his white American Fern Society t-shirt, green New York Botanical Garden baseball cap, and imposing sneakers, was making his way through the ferns. I thought then that, among the many books left for Oliver to write, there was an unforeseen one: the volume parallel to Chesterton’s Victorian Age in Literature, to be titled The Victorian Age in Science. No one has been able to explain this better than Oliver himself, in the preface to the admirable Oaxaca Journal that is the only fragment we have, to this day, of a personal journal of his:

I used to delight in the natural history journals of the nineteenth century, all of them blends of the personal and the scientific—especially Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, Bates’s Naturalist on the River Amazon, and Spruce’s Notes of a Botanist and the work which inspired them all (and Darwin too), Humboldt’s Personal Narrative. …

They were all, in a sense, amateurs—self-educated, self-motivated, not part of a institution—and they lived, it sometimes seemed to me, in a halcyon world, a sort of Eden, not yet turbulent and troubled by the almost murderous rivalries which were soon to mark an increasingly professionalized world (the sort of rivalries so vividly portrayed in H.G. Wells’s story “The Moth”).

This sweet, unspoiled, preprofessional atmosphere, ruled by a sense of adventure and wonder rather than by egotism and a lust for priority and fame, still survives here and there, it seems to me, in certain natural history societies, and amateur societies of astronomers and archaeologists, whose quiet yet essential existences are virtually unknown to the public. It was the sense of such an atmosphere that drew me to the American Fern Society in the first place, and that incited me to go with them on their fern-tour to Oaxaca early in 2000.

Every time I read one of Oliver’s writings I find myself in that “halcyon world” of science.


Adapted from an essay written for Oliver Sacks on his eightieth birthday. Translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen.

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