Месечни архиви: October 2017

The Perfectionist


Toscanini EstateArturo Toscanini conducting his last concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, April 1954

Biographers are understandably tempted by the idea of revisiting their subjects. In the years after a life story is completed, doors open and new details, clarifications, and documents become available. Myths are dispelled and mysteries solved—or deepened. As time and reflection leave their marks, we feel there may be something else to say.

When Harvey Sachs’s Toscanini was published in 1978, it was greeted as the most serious portrait of the conductor that had yet appeared, a judgment that has largely remained unchallenged. But an enormous amount of material about Toscanini has come to light in the past four decades, including roughly 1,500 personal letters as well as numerous tape recordings of him in private conversation with friends and relatives. Previously underexamined archives at La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic—places where he reformed musical standards—have been opened to Sachs, as have the papers of the Mussolini government in Fascist Italy, which recognized the conductor as an implacable enemy early on and kept voluminous notes on him. “In short,” Sachs writes in his preface to Toscanini: Musician of Conscience,

this book is a completely new biography, not a revision or an expanded version of the earlier book. Apart from quotations from other sources, I don’t believe that a single entire sentence from the old book is to be found in this one. I have examined new sources, reexamined old ones, and produced what I hope is a close-to-definitive account of a long life filled with artistic, personal, and political drama….

Toscanini’s was a ninety-year life that began before the invention of the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb and ended at the dawn of the space age; an eighty-year musical immersion that began before Wagner and Verdi had written their final masterpieces and that ended in the era of Boulez and Stockhausen; a sixty-eight-year career, carried out in twenty European, North and South American, and Middle Eastern countries; and a private existence that was torn between love of family and erotic restlessness.

Sachs’s lifelong studies (his fascination with the conductor dates from his teens and he is now in his seventies) have paid off in his gigantic and extraordinary new book. Indeed, I cannot think of another biography of a classical musician to which it can be compared: in its breadth, scope, and encyclopedic command of factual detail it reminds me of nothing so much as Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker. I once described Caro’s book jokingly as “1,366 pages about the man who built the Cross-Bronx Expressway” (among the book’s multiplicity of tales about Robert Moses, the sixty-some pages devoted to that unfortunate construction stand out in their horrible fascination). But The Power Broker attracted a passionate group of readers who never suspected that they were interested in city planning, public transportation, New York politics, or the development of Long Island until Caro transformed these subjects into something epic and thrilling.

Those who read Toscanini: Musician of Conscience will be rewarded in much the same way, with stories about everything from the history of Italy and the rise and fall of fascism to sexual experiences and backstage opera gossip from one hundred years ago. But a master narrator is required to make them come to life, and that is what Sachs has now proven himself to be. For example, here is his description of Toscanini’s first home in New York, a famous building that still stands today:

He was housed, at his own expense, in a suite in the four-year-old Beaux Arts–style Ansonia, one of the newest and most luxurious residential hotels in the world, located on Broadway between West Seventy-Third and West Seventy-Fourth Streets in what was then a relatively quiet section of town. It contained tearooms, restaurants, a ballroom, Turkish baths, and a lobby fountain with live seals. Each apartment was high-ceilinged and elegantly turned out, with bay windows that provided grand views either along Broadway or across the Hudson River. There were several bedrooms, a parlor, a library, and a dining room in every suite and each of the eighteen-story building’s residential floors had a central kitchen with connecting “serving kitchens”: the residents’ personal cooks could use the central kitchen and then serve meals in their bosses’ own apartments.

A page later he writes of Toscanini’s first rehearsal at the Met in 1908:

The players had heard stories about Toscanini’s memory, but there was general astonishment when he began to rehearse Wagner’s gigantic work [the four-hour Götterdämmerung] in detail without consulting the score. And the astonishment grew as the new conductor began to hear and correct errors in the musicians’ printed parts that well-known German conductors had never detected. Still more impressive was the way in which he immersed his co-workers in the very substance of the music; at one point, the orchestra spontaneously broke into applause, bravos and a fanfare.

Sachs seems to know everything about his subject and his times, and there are marvelous, learned asides such as “Nietzsche, who had been living in Turin, would almost certainly have heard Toscanini conduct Carmen there in the spring of 1889 had he not lost his sanity and collapsed on the city’s streets the previous January.” And there is never any doubt that he has chased his stories as far as they will lead. “The [1906–1907 La Scala] season was to have closed with the local premiere of Massenet’s recent Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame; when this project fell through, for reasons no longer known, a remounting of Cavalleria Rusticana was scheduled in its stead.” “For reasons no longer known”—we can be sure that Sachs has looked for them.

Toscanini had been the first cellist of a traveling Italian opera company in 1886; when the group’s conductor suddenly quit, the nineteen-year-old was asked to take over Aida in Rio de Janeiro. He saved the tour: over the next six weeks, he led twenty-six performances of twelve operas, all of them from memory. He returned to Italy, and to the cello, for the world premiere of Verdi’s Otello in 1887. In 1896, he conducted the first performance of Puccini’s La Bohème (he would live to record the work fifty years later) and then became the principal conductor at La Scala, Italy’s leading opera house then as now, where the aesthetic that would guide him for the rest of his life took hold. Sachs sets the scene:

In Toscanini’s youth, opera was hugely popular in Italy: in the northern half of the country and in many parts of the south virtually every town big enough to have a weekly farmers’ market also had a theater. But quality was uneven, to put the matter mildly, and notwithstanding the battles that Verdi and some of his contemporaries had waged to make opera a convincing combination of music, poetry and drama, the form remained, for the general public, essentially an arena for the display of vocal technique. Singers told the conductor how they wanted their arias done, although they might change their interpretations from one performance to another, and the orchestra was rehearsed just enough to ensure that the musicians would stay more or less together and play in the same key, since transpositions were frequent.

And so the young conductor banned virtually all encores, ensuring more unified performances but depriving star singers of additional moments to shine. (He was once challenged to a duel for his trouble.) He insisted that the musicians who played in the rehearsals be the same ones who played the actual performances, and they were paid accordingly. “Toscanini decided that the status quo was not good enough,” Sachs writes.

The more experience he gained, the less willing he was to accept complacency. He could rehearse patiently for hours if he sensed that his musicians and singers were working at maximum capacity, but if he suspected otherwise he would become a fury, breaking batons, screaming obscenities, tearing up scores, knocking over his music stand, and hurling insults at the offenders. Singers sometimes emerged from his coaching sessions in tears, and orchestra players left rehearsals wrung out from tension and exhaustion.

Yet no one could convincingly accuse him of carrying on as he did purely out of self-interest or vanity. Here was a conductor who did not make exaggerated gestures to impress the public, who seemed to want to run away from applause, who spent his days in coaching sessions, staging rehearsals, chorus rehearsals, orchestra rehearsals, and ensemble rehearsals, and who stayed up nights absorbing new scores or trying to penetrate deeper into old ones. Many people resented, even detested, this superdemanding young conductor, but others realized that the tension and exhaustion of the struggle to achieve an artistic goal were far better than the anesthetizing boredom of mediocrity.

Most of the repertory Toscanini conducted was then new, and Sachs explores the works of the “verismo” composers who dominated the Italian opera houses of the time and whose works are still popular today. He remembers that Ruggero Leoncavallo, best known for his Pagliacci, wrote his own La Bohème, too—and he has even listened to it. He speaks knowingly of the obscure operas Mascagni wrote after Cavalleria Rusticana and of the music of Umberto Giordano, Francesco Cilea, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, and Toscanini’s beloved mentor, the short-lived Alfredo Catalani, who is remembered now mostly for a single rapt aria, “Ebben! Ne andrò lontana,” from his opera La Wally.

Arturo Toscanini
Arturo Toscanini; drawing by David Levine

But Toscanini also looked to the past for works that might be revived, thereby helping to establish the present-day repertory. “Turn-of-the-twentieth-century audiences at major Italian theaters like the Regio [in Turin] and La Scala considered themselves too sophisticated for mid-nineteenth-century Verdi standards like Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata,” Sachs explains. “Tunes from the old ‘stock operas’ were played by street-corner hurdy-gurdy grinders, sung by drunks in taverns, and mimicked in vaudeville acts; catchphrases from their stilted libretti were used jokingly in everyday conversation; and forty or fifty years before the Marx Brothers wreaked havoc on Il Trovatore in A Night at the Opera (1935), the work was already an object of satire in Italy.” As the conductor Tullio Serafin put it: “When Toscanini decided to bring Trovatore back to La Scala, where it hadn’t been done for some time, the great concern was to make sure that the audience didn’t laugh.”

Unlike many artists and musicians, Toscanini met the grave political challenges of his day bravely and head-on. He refused to conduct the Fascist anthem “Giovinezza” at a concert in Bologna in 1931, after which he was beaten by some of Mussolini’s thugs and temporarily deprived of his passport. He left Italy in 1938 and did not return until after World War II. Although he had been the first non-German to conduct at the Bayreuth Festival, he broke off all relations with Richard Wagner’s temple of self-worship in 1933 to protest its coziness with the Hitler regime, and he never conducted again at the Salzburg Festival after Germany annexed Austria in 1938.

Toscanini was civil to most of his fellow conductors, even when he did not approve of their methods of making music. One notable exception was Leopold Stokowski, whom he considered a “great charlatan” (one senses that Sachs, too, disapproves). He was generous with younger musicians, including Guido Cantelli, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Leonard Bernstein, the last of whom once had the temerity to suggest that there were irreconcilable tempo differences between Toscanini’s live and recorded versions of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette. The older conductor thought about the question, listened to the performances again, and then agreed with Bernstein, sending him a charming note.*

In the United States, Toscanini was best known for his performances of symphonic music: indeed, he never conducted a staged performance of any opera here after he left the Met in 1915. In 1934, some nine million people—over 7 percent of all American men, women, and children—tuned in to his New York Philharmonic concerts on Saturday nights. After his eight-year tenure with the Philharmonic ended in 1936, he was invited to present concerts on the radio with the newly formed NBC Symphony Orchestra, and these are the source of most of his familiar recordings.

And then, in 1948, he began a series of live TV concerts, where he suffered from the heat and blinding brightness of the floodlights (some of the players wore dark glasses). It was a time when only one in ten Americans had even seen a television set, but the telecasts gave a sense of new possibilities to the medium, and they have been easily available for home viewing since the early 1990s. They are both invigorating and—for anybody who has ever played or sung under any conductor—more than a little discomforting. After a brusque, awkward acknowledgment of the applause, Toscanini sets to work, fiercely attentive. His eyes roam over the musicians incessantly, and are quick to flash disapproval if anything goes awry. The most subtle signal to slow down or play more quietly is reflexively obeyed. We feel his firm control sixty years after his death.

Toscanini has been portrayed as a strict Puritan, ferocious in his fidelity to the score. The word most often used to describe his philosophy of conducting is “literalist”—yet what literalist would invariably summon the entire cello section of any orchestra he conducted to expand the great solo passage that opens Rossini’s William Tell Overture? There was also a legend that he conducted everything briskly, yet as Sachs observes, much of his only recorded performance of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte might almost be described as contemplative, and his Parsifal at Bayreuth was one of the slowest in the festival’s history.

Yet it is true that he was infuriated by indulgences that were not carefully considered—whether that meant a tenor holding a high note longer than requested or a string section slipping and sliding from one note to another. He demanded that scores, whether or not they were always obeyed in every detail, at least be taken seriously and that all their elements be played as part of a larger whole. Toscanini only heard Maria Callas sing at the beginning of her career and was not especially impressed. Still, he would have applauded her didactic response to a hapless student who made a hash of a passage from Il Trovatore and defended her transgression by explaining that the passage was a “cry of despair.” “It’s not a cry of despair,” came the withering reply. “It’s a B-flat.”

Sachs is a passionate advocate of Toscanini’s interpretative philosophy, as one would expect. His criticisms are mostly gentle, but they are perceptive. He rightly acknowledges that Toscanini’s recording of La Traviata is generally too fast, that the casting of some others among his complete operas is curious and sometimes unsatisfying, that the acoustics in NBC’s Studio 8H are dry and unforgiving (the orchestra’s move to Carnegie Hall helped matters enormously), and even that one of his Beethoven recordings has a “breakneck” tempo. (He makes no comment on the Haydn “Surprise” Symphony, in which the third movement is so abrupt and clattering as to be almost comical.)

Some of us will always prefer our Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms conducted in a more spacious and leisurely manner, imbued with what the Germans call Innigkeit (inwardness), than was Toscanini’s norm. So be it: one of the great merits in Sachs’s criticism is its lack of dogmatic insistence. He is not here to win old arguments, but rather to state his considered thoughts, generously and thoroughly, and let the reader take it from there.

“Whatever you may think about Toscanini’s interpretation of a specific work,” the Cleveland Orchestra’s George Szell once observed, “that he changed the whole concept of conducting and that he rectified many, many arbitrary procedures of a generation of conductors before him, is now authentic history.” This is certain, and never before has that history been told so well.

  1. *

    It should be remembered that Toscanini was one of Berlioz’s great champions, at a time when the composer was known almost exclusively for one piece, the Symphonie Fantastique. In fact, Toscanini never performed it in full, though he left meticulously controlled but deeply passionate performances of Roméo and Harold in Italy. One can only imagine what he would have done with Les Troyens

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China’s Silk Road Illusions


National Geographic Creative/Bridgeman ImagesA painting by Hong Nian Zhang showing Ming dynasty mariner Zheng He with his fleet of trading ships, late twentieth century

The singular contribution of the man now vying for a place next to Mao in the pantheon of Chinese leaders, Xi Jinping, is the One Belt, One Road project. It was a public relations triumph: Mao destroyed the old order, Deng Xiaoping laid the foundations of a modern economy, Xi is making China great again.

This plan, now more often known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to use China’s money and know-how to develop relations with a host of developing countries across Eurasia and to the coasts of Africa has proved a political masterstroke at home and abroad. For foreigners, China appears to be extending a hand of friendship, economic development, and trade across half the world. A huge infrastructure investment comes with the promise of commerce, without any of the US-style strings of democracy and human rights attached.

For a domestic audience, it is an expression of new-found pride in the nation’s power and wealth. Here is China remaking the famous Silk Road that connected it to Central Asia and to Europe, and the maritime Silk Road, that linked Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to Arabia, Africa, and beyond. In a speech to a BRI forum earlier this year, Xi hailed the feats of Zheng He, the Ming dynasty commander whose vast fleets sailed the southern and western seas in the early fifteenth century, receiving submission from what are now Indonesia and Malaysia to Somalia and Kenya via Sri Lanka, India, and Yemen. Once again, China is positioning itself as a benign master, receiving tribute from lesser neighbors in return for protection and friendship.

The government’s marketing of the BRI has thus played upon myths and half-remembered facts about China’s past—“the glory of the silk routes,” in Xi’s words. At the same time, the narrative gives credence to the notion that, until the age of Western aggression, China always was the master of the region. From this perspective, its current claims to ownership of almost all the South China Sea is founded on a history of Chinese presence and of tribute to the emperor and the overland Silk Road as a mighty highway of Chinese commerce with the world.

The reality is rather different. Few subjects in history have attracted so much writing about so little as the ancient Silk Road. In The Silk Road: A New History, Valerie Hansen writes that the road was actually “a stretch of shifting, unmarked paths across massive expanses of deserts and mountains.” Travel from China to Samarkand, the biggest hub of Central Asia, was slow and treacherous, and the volume of goods was actually quite small. Much of the traffic was local and silk was just one of several commodities.

The legendary road’s interest today lies partly in the remarkable archaeological finds, but above all, the road owes its reputation to having been the conduit for ideas and technology to travel between China and Central Asia in one direction and the Indus Valley in another. Buddhism in particular went east, paper and silk went west. Trade within Central Asia and between China and India and Persia flourished along roads extending south and west, eventually reaching the eastern Mediterranean or the Black Sea, but little of this involved goods originating in China, let alone Europe, and long-distance trade was always dependent on political conditions.

The first Roman known to visit China, in 166 CE, arrived by sea, landing in what is now northern Vietnam. The beginning of this trade underlined the fact that transport by sea was a fraction (one-seventh, according to the Romans) of the cost of going by land, and was far less subject to wars and frontier taxes. Thus, overland trade was mostly confined to very high-value items. Silk itself was sometimes used as currency.

What does this have to do with China’s promises in the twenty-first century to invest billions in road, rail, and other infrastructure linking it to central Asia, Iran, Turkey, Russia, and Europe? Steam and internal combustion engines have drastically lowered the cost of land transport over the past one hundred and fifty years. The cost gap with water-borne freight has been narrowed—but not by much. Railways between northern China and Western Europe have existed for more than a century, and the Soviets built an extensive network through their Central Asian and Caucasus republics. Still, for most traffic from the eastern heartland of China to Turkey and Iran, let alone Europe, rail is a poor compromise between high-speed air and low-cost sea. Nowadays, long-distance human traffic usually has the option of going by air at a fraction of the time and even cost.

Central Asia itself is less important than it was a thousand years ago and the combined populations of five ex-Soviet “stans” is only about seventy million. Of course, their mineral and oil exports need pipelines and railways, but these resources mostly have limited lives. Rail gauge differences remain a problem, and so do actual or potential border disputes that have shut down at least one international rail link in the Caucasus. As ever, overland trade needs extensive political stability more than sea routes.

Looking at the map, the same argument may not apply to Pakistan. In a straight line, it is only about eleven hundred miles from Kashgar in the far west of China to Karachi and the Indian Ocean. But the road twists and turns up to more than fifteen thousand feet above sea level and down again through almost uninhabited country until it reaches the Indus Valley. The great knot of mountain ranges and deserts that separate China from India and Central Asia is, relatively, as much of a barrier to land transport today as it was to travelers two thousand years ago. Kashgar itself, once the caravanserai where roads to south and west divided, is two and a half thousand miles from Shanghai, half of that distance through very sparsely populated country. It is hard to see China getting anything other than short-term political return from the $57 billion it has promised for this and other infrastructure in Pakistan.

The sea route to global influence has the merit of appealing to Chinese national myth: namely, the Ming dynasty’s fifteenth-century seven-voyage program of Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch of Mongol heritage. His numerous ships with their complement of thousands of soldiers spread knowledge of Chinese power as far as the coast of Africa, changing regimes and forcing numerous rulers to submit to the emperor. The voyages did awake China to its southern seas, with more Chinese settling in the region. Support for Malacca as a major entrepot assisted the gradual spread of Islam. But otherwise, the Chinese did little to develop trade, which was growing fast for other reasons, and contributed nothing to navigational knowledge. The voyages were a triumph of logistics, but they were also inordinately expensive and did nothing to mitigate the security threats to China, which came from the north and west. Sensibly, the voyages were abandoned.

Yet, they have now come back in a new form. Illusions about the size of Zheng He’s ships and the scope of his “peaceful” achievements have become the standard fare of contemporary Chinese nationalism. The Zheng He story speaks to an assumption of Chinese cultural, if not ethnic, supremacy over the darker-skinned inhabitants of the southern seas who were seen as dependent on China’s trade and goodwill. This story fits neatly into the BRI propaganda.

The one advantage that China enjoys now, as in the past, is not so much technology, superior though it was in some ways, but political unity. Southeast Asia was a patchwork of lively but competing states and religions, as was the Indian subcontinent, at least until the establishment of the Mogul empire in the sixteenth century. Then, as now, small states were often trade-dependent, and much of the trade involved China. Thus China came to see these distant neighbors as dependencies of a sort, prospering thanks to China’s favor. Yet this is at odds with the fact that China has had, despite trade, remarkably little cultural impact on Southeast Asia’s predominant maritime region compared to India, Islam, and the West. Its political influence was negligible.

It was outside forces that caused Chinese people, not the state, to play a larger role in the affairs of Southeast Asia. Despite Zheng He’s voyages, China discouraged its citizens from engaging in overseas trade. But trade was growing anyway, thanks to demand from the Ottoman empire and an expanding Europe. More Chinese settled overseas to take advantage of this. Then, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a huge influx of Chinese labor for the mines and plantations that boomed under colonial rule with the demands of Western industrializing economies for raw materials. The basis for ethnic Chinese domination of so much Southeast Asian commerce was laid. But this had nothing to do with the Chinese state, which only now is trying to capitalize on the legacy.

The ethnic Chinese business communities are now seen by China as an important building-block in many BRI countries in Southeast Asia. Yet the perception of China as a would-be hegemon can also be dangerous for these communities, which historically have endured anti-Chinese riots and killings. Xi’s combination of the BRI and the pushing of bogus claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea against a background of latent anti-ethnic Chinese sentiment could end badly. It also makes scant strategic sense. US power in the region will wane naturally. So why incite informal defensive alliances among countries from Japan and India to Indonesia and Vietnam?

Perhaps the time for China to rival the past influence of Indian culture and Western power in the region may now have arrived. More likely, however, China’s dependence on trade, and particularly its interest in Middle East oil, may fall almost as fast as it has risen over the past thirty years. China’s current economic superiority will probably fade as a consequence of its very low fertility rate compared to those of its neighbors to the south. The demographic pressure that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sent Han Chinese to colonize Manchuria and parts of Mongolia, Turkestan, and settle in Southeast Asia, is no more.

Zheng He’s ventures were resisted by Chinese ministers because of their exorbitant cost. Their successors may likewise soon begin to argue that the BRI is not just a vast waste of money, but detracts from challenges elsewhere. Look west and north where, as in the fifteenth century, bigger dangers lurk. The BRI may buy some time by increasing the economic dependence of the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics, but these have no more interest in being servants of Beijing than of Moscow—indeed, less. Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim Turkic peoples in Xinjiang rankles all the way to Istanbul, whatever may be said in public about economic cooperation and fighting terrorism. The colonization of Xinjiang by Han Chinese since 1949 has stalled. The social gap between the Han and indigenous peoples was wide enough a decade ago and has been driven wider by Xi’s oppression. The issue of Tibet, once a nation able to challenge China, will not go away. China’s western frontier has been in flux for more than two millennia, and will remain so.

China’s unnatural Russian friendship may not survive the Putin era. This current miniature replay of the Cold War’s Sino-Soviet alliance, at a time when China has totally changed the world power balance, is puzzling. From a long-term perspective, the Russians should be far more worried about their eastern border than with Ukraine. The Russians are suspicious of the BRI and know that Chinese nationalism could easily see Beijing resurrecting the issue of nineteenth-century so-called “unequal treaties,” by which China surrendered parts of its Manchurian and Turkestan territories to Russia (some of which have been inherited by Kazakhstan).

The US massively overplayed its hand after the collapse of the Soviet Union, engaging in futile wars in the Middle East, an area where it had few long-term interests, and naively underpinning China’s re-emergence as a great power by offering capital, know-how, and markets, and getting nothing in return but failed hopes of liberal democracy. Now it is China’s turn to overplay its hand, encouraged by its sudden wealth, and by a floundering US. Nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles may seem to have made regional relations less important, but the more countries that have these weapons, the more it will be regional, not global, issues that take precedence. China has enough potential problems on its own borders without the BRI and dreams of Zheng He.

Xi Jinping has a grand idea that will buy him space for his domestic agenda and ensure his prominence when the annals of the Communist Party dynasty come to be compiled. But look at the reality of the Zheng He experience, not the myth. Where will the BRI be in 2030?

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Swagger & Pomp: Jamaica’s Dancehall Style


Beth Lesser/Soul Jazz BooksU Brown and Nicodemus at a Stur-Mars soundsystem dance, Kingston, 1986

Jamaica, as island politicians and historians of pop music have grown fond of saying, is a country whose cultural impact has been wildly disproportionate to its size. From the golden era when Bob Marley became the “first third-world superstar” to the fact that many of today’s global hits borrow from Jamaican beats, reggae music and the dancehall subgenre—often described as its raucous younger sibling—have had an outsize influence on popular music and popular culture the world over.

The sound and focus of Jamaican music shifted in the Seventies with advances in technology, economic instability, and the politically motivated violence fostered by the warring conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and social-democratic People’s National Party (PNP). It was a dangerous time, but also a fertile one for experimentation in what would come to be known in the Eighties as “dancehall,” named for the early venues where new popular forms of dance arose with the new forms of music. The photographer and writer Beth Lesser’s recently reissued Dancehall: The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture documents its development—with text and a generous selection of the author’s own photographs—from its inception in the Fifties to its zenith in the Eighties and beyond.

Though not totally distinct from reggae—which developed around Jamaican independence from Britain in 1962, and is now understood to be a catch-all label for Jamaican music—dancehall tends to be faster-paced and sound more machine-produced, with rap-chatting or singing over a danceable beat. Reggae, with its characteristic “skank” guitar on the upbeat, is today more associated with the “roots” sound of artists like Bob Marley and the Wailers, Dennis Brown, and Burning Spear (or some songs by contemporary artists like Chronixx and Protoje). Dancehall by comparison is usually louder and sometimes raunchier or more violent. For this reason it is more often criticized by the self-appointed moral guardians among Jamaica’s upper class and Christian community for the “slackness” of its lyrics and dance moves. Dancehall, sung in patois, is also avowedly local.

Lesser, who is originally from New York and has lived in Canada for forty years, started a reggae magazine with her partner, David Kingston, in 1980. Over the next decade she traveled back and forth to Jamaica, taking the photos in Dancehall. It’s notable that many of the documenters of reggae and reggae culture over the years have been attracted to it from afar. Lesser wrote a number of books, one about the digital revolution in Jamaican music, King Jammy’s (1989), after the influential dub-master and record producer who began his work at the Kingston recording studio of King Tubby, a sound engineer credited as an innovator of dub. 


Beth Lesser/Soul Jazz BooksChineyman and Goldielocks outside Channel One studio, Kingston, 1984; click to enlarge

Because Dancehall is a collection of photographs and not 45s, the book is best at conveying the stars and styles of the day: the heartthrob vocalist Gregory Isaacs in a camel felt hat and tortoise-shell shades, holding out a cup to be filled by a disembodied bottle-in-hand; at a dance, DJ Jah Stitch—immaculate in white, a spliff pinched between two fingers—blows out smoke onto a record as a man with fingers placed carefully on the soundsystem looks on warily; the global hit artist Yellowman, smiling in full camo and yellow-tinted glasses, his arms wrapped around two youths, one looking mischievous, the other bored. The fashion is exquisite. Imports from England and Scotland—three-piece suits, Clarks booties, pinstripes, tweed—were in high demand, no matter the heat of the Caribbean sun. Mix that with the Kangol hat and bling of Eighties hip hop, and finish with a Jamaican touch—an open belt, a partially unbuttoned Arrow shirt, or a mesh tank top—and the look is complete. As the saying goes in Jamaica, Style a style and style cyan’t spoil. Lesser captured a particular fashion moment, one that developed in tandem with the musical movement and has evolved today to include flashy colors and patterns, bright wigs, tattoos, latex, and other bold innovations. Photographs like Ruddy Roye’s—which skillfully capture both brazen physicality and subtle exchanges, and convey a rawness and immediacy through their high contrast—show some of the more recent developments, but the pomp and swagger remain. 

Alongside Lesser’s sharp sartorial survey is a detailed cultural history. Dancehall is organized much like a textbook, with a main chronological narrative and full-page images supplemented by additional subtopics, and an introduction that explains how various strands of Jamaican cultural history fed the flourishing of its music in the Seventies and Eighties. Starting in the late Fifties in Kingston, music rivals would string up soundsystems—turntables mounted on large, custom-made amplifiers powering huge speakers—and battle for the crowd’s approval in a party tradition that came to be called the “sound clash.” 

What had been mainly a live performance music developed, in the late Sixties into the Seventies, into a genre and industry in which vinyl recordings were introduced live by the selector—or MC, who was often also the DJ—who also roused the crowd with storytelling and call-and-response while changing records. (Similar practices applied in early hip hop and evolved further, with multiple turntables mixing records—most notably in the Bronx block parties of the Seventies run by the Jamaican DJ Kool Herc.) “It is not uncommon,” writes Sonjah Stanley Niaah in DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto (2010), “to hear a selector calling his crowd to respond by showing their hands to comments such as ‘from a bwoy nuh badda dan you’ (if you are the baddest), if you ‘have yu owna man’ (if you have your own man).… There is a particular ritual of interaction…[a] dynamic relationship between the patrons, the selector, the music and the dance.”

And the dance, of course, is central. It is a missed opportunity that Dancehall doesn’t focus more on the specific dances of the time—like “the butterfly,” “the pepper seed,” or “the cool and deadly.” Or later, “the Bogle,” named for the dancer who took his name from Jamaican national hero Paul Bogle, leader of the Morant Bay rebellion against colonial injustice. Just as influential as the music, styles of dance originating in Jamaica—and before that, Africa—have infused American popular dancing for decades.

The subtopics that Lesser does explore focus much more on the music, with journalistic details and personal anecdotes delving deeper into subjects like Studio One, one of the original roots-era recording studios, owned by Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd; Sleng Teng, one of the earliest and most recognizable computerized “riddims,” or dancehall instrumentals, over which artists record their individual songs; and Chaka Demus, the DJ and musician who, with the singer Pliers, created the classic “Murder She Wrote” (1992) for Sly and Robbie’s Taxi riddim.


Beth Lesser/Soul Jazz BooksSister Nancy, Toronto, 1982

From artists and producers to early fans, it was a male-dominated industry; the near total absence of women in Lesser’s photographs is striking. (And, as in Jamaican culture more generally, homophobia—undetectable in Lesser’s photos—was and is very much present in dancehall.) Women artists like Sister Nancy—whose brother, Brigadier Jerry, was a well-known DJ—stand out: her catchy, horn-heavy single “Bam Bam” (1982), used in Jay-Z’s latest album4:44, is one of the most sampled dancehall songs of all time. (“I’m a lady, I’m not a man,” she sings. “MC is my ambition. I come fi nice up Jamaica.”) Artists still comment on gendered inequality in dancehall music and culture, in songs like Spice’s “Like a Man” (2014) and Ishawna’s 2017 “Equal Rights and Justice,” which controversially calls for reciprocal sexual pleasure.

Besides the original confluence of dancehall and hip hop in the Seventies and Eighties—and the handfuls of crossover Jamaican hits that played in the US through the Nineties and 2000s—a new wave of Caribbean influence has recently saturated popular music. Artists like Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Busta Rhymes have returned to their Caribbean cultural heritage in their music, while other, non-Caribbean artists like Drake and Justin Bieber have also picked up on the trend. (Bieber’s 2015 “Sorry” and Rihanna’s 2016 “Work” were notoriously described as “tropical house,” to charges of whitewashing and cultural appropriation.)

It is the images in Lesser’s Dancehall that stay with you. Bathed in that nostalgic Kodachrome wash—somehow bright and muted at the same time—they reveal an era vibrating with new life. They also make you realize that the imagery of Jamaican music, not just the sound, has captured the global imagination for decades, since Jimmy Cliff’s yellow hat and pin-striped pants in The Harder They Come and Marley’s iconic image on the cover of Catch a Fire.


Beth Lesser’s Dancehall: The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture, recently reissued by Soul Jazz Books, is distributed by Artbook DAP.

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The Resistance So Far

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders; drawing by Gerald Scarfe

Almost ten months into the Trump administration, how are the Democrats doing as an opposition party? The first instinct of rank-and-file liberals is always to dismiss them as ineffective (just as, not coincidentally, it is the first instinct of conservatives to bemoan Republicans’ congenital lack of spine). And the first instinct of the mainstream press is to feed that narrative with a steady supply of “Democrats in disarray” articles. It’s an old storyline and a mossy one; my friends and I, in e-mails, mockingly use the hashtag #demsindisarray when we note articles that overhype some new Democratic calamity.

Yet there is some truth to both claims. “Disarray” isn’t exactly an unfair adjective for a party that controls no branch of the federal government and only sixteen governors’ mansions and thirteen state legislatures (Republicans control thirty-two, and five are divided). And, I might add, a party still not quite over the shock of that loss last November.

As for effectiveness, in the country’s recent history, the Democrats have never been as united or effective in opposition as the Republicans. This is less a matter of will and backbone than of the Democrats’ loyal voter base, both smaller and less rabidly monolithic than the Republicans’. To take the highest-profile example of the failure of Democratic opposition in recent times, 43 percent of Democrats in both houses of Congress (110 out of 257) voted for the Iraq war resolution of 2002. One can certainly see that as lack of backbone. At the same time, pre-war polls showed that Democratic survey respondents said they supported the war at levels around 40 percent.1 So, like it or not, those congressional Democrats reflected the will of the Democratic rank-and-file pretty closely.

The Republican Party of the past quarter-century, in contrast, would never give a Democratic president 43 percent of its vote on anything of importance. That’s not because it’s tougher or meaner, but because it’s responding to a different and less forgiving political reality—one in which, over the past thirty years, lavishly financed conservative pressure groups and right-wing media outlets have combined to create a base that brooks no compromise or accommodation. For a Daily Beast column back in 2011, I compared opposition-party levels of support in Congress for George W. Bush and Barack Obama on four of each president’s major initiatives.2 The average Democratic support for Bush in both houses on those four bills was 41.1 percent. The average Republican support for Obama on his four bills was 5.75 percent. The two parties are just different species.

However, in the age of Donald Trump, they’re becoming less different. True, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leaders, did make a deal with the president to delay a vote on the debt ceiling for three months, a deal virtually shoved in their faces by Trump at an early September White House parley that the president described to the press as “a very good meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer” (GOP leaders Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan had been in the room, too). That measure, attached to Hurricane Harvey relief, sailed through Congress. The next week Schumer announced that the trio had also reached a deal to protect the so-called Dreamers, people who were brought to the United States as undocumented children. There has been no congressional action on that yet, but in early October the White House announced that it would attach to any Dreamers legislation some harder-line measures like funding for a border wall and 10,000 more immigration agents. Schumer and Pelosi quickly signaled that any deal along those lines was impossible.

On other matters, when it comes to big legislation, congressional Democrats have been consistent in their opposition to the White House. They forced McConnell to invoke the “nuclear option” on Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch’s nomination when it failed to get the sixty votes needed to clear the procedural “cloture” hurdle. Democratic senators have blocked judicial nominees twice by refusing to return to the chairman of the Judiciary Committee a “blue slip” signaling approval of the nominee. This was a practice Republicans used aggressively during the Obama years, though McConnell is now threatening to abolish it.

A unanimous stand has been taken by Senate Democrats on three health care votes. Of course, the Democrats didn’t block health care repeal—the Republicans did that themselves. But it was impressive that not a single Democrat in either house voted for it, especially in the Senate, where nine Democratic senators will be defending their seats next year in states Trump won.

The Democrats are showing more resolve partly because of the extreme nature of this presidency, but mostly because their base is getting a bit—a bit—more like the Republican base. This may be quite a bad thing for the country in the long term, but in the short term it’s very much a good thing. The liberal base is larger and more energized than it’s been for many years. The Indivisible movement, which started after the election when four former congressional staffers wrote a pamphlet that caught fire called Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda, was an immediate success and now boasts nearly six thousand chapters across the country—most in the places you’d expect, but eleven in Idaho, seven in Wyoming, and two in my purple-leaning-red hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia. When Republican members of Congress were strafed at town hall meetings last summer by constituents irate over health care, chances are that one of the local Indivisible chapters helped organize those attacks.

The women’s marches held across the country and the world on January 21 have likewise spurred a sustained engagement on the part of thousands. A Women’s Convention will be held in late October in Detroit, according to its website, “for a weekend of workshops, strategy sessions, inspiring forums, and intersectional movement building to continue the preparation going into the 2018 midterm elections.” Speaking of those midterms, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reports that candidate recruitment is far ahead of where it was in 2016. A staffer at the DCCC told me that it has identified eighty House seats as worth contesting and already has good candidates for seventy of them. The main reason? “A lot of people are finally saying yes,” the staffer said; they see the act of running for office as more of a duty post-Trump, after previous demurrals. Around ten military veterans are running as Democrats, and there’s a group of people motivated by the health care repeal efforts—doctors and people with personal health scares and stories to tell.

All this activity has made Democrats in Congress begin to do something they haven’t done for many years: respond to pressure from the left. Ever since Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Walter Mondale in 1984 and the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council the next year, Washington Democrats have feared being seen as too liberal. Now, they’re more likely to fear being seen as not liberal enough. This creates no friction when it comes to deciding what they’re against. On the Republican health care bills, there wasn’t much space between Senators Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin; both voted no all three times, and there was never any sense that Manchin (whose state, West Virginia, Trump carried by more than forty points) was wavering. West Virginia accepted the Medicaid expansion, which covered about 175,000 residents in that state of very poor health indexes.

The tax bill now working its way through Congress will be a pivotal test of both the Democrats and the resistance and may tell us a lot about the extent to which our politics have really changed. Two arguments have long been used to sell tax cuts, arguments the Democrats have never really won since Ronald Reagan’s time. First, Republicans have always downplayed the enormous benefits going to the wealthy and emphasized the comparatively minuscule savings for the middle class. Consequently, a significant minority (though not a majority) of Democratic lawmakers has always voted for Republican tax cuts. The cuts were popular, and these Democrats felt pressured to support them. Second, Reagan promised that enormous tax cuts would lead to economic growth, and when, following the 1986 Tax Reform Act, the gross domestic product grew at rates above 3.5 percent and the unemployment rate slipped down to near 5 percent, he looked like he was delivering on that promise, so Republicans were able to say, “See? Supply-side economics works.”

That 1986 law was the last major overhaul of the tax code. Thirty years later, what’s changed? On the second point, I think quite a lot. George Bush’s two large tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 did not spur great growth, so Republicans should not be able to make the “supply-side works” argument effectively this time. They’re certainly making it; I’m writing these words a few days after the proposal was introduced, and on my television I hear little else. But I also hear Democrats and liberal commentators firing back with the Bush example. That is an argument the Democrats should be able to win.

On the first point, though, we don’t yet know if the country has changed since 1986. Is a majority of the American middle class willing to give corporations and the rich enormous tax breaks as long as they get a little slice of the pie too? I keep a close watch on the polling on this. In general, majorities are deeply skeptical of large tax cuts for corporations and the rich. There is a broad sense that large businesses (as opposed to small businesses, for which people support relief) don’t pay their share.

Meanwhile, people don’t seem to be consumed with the thought that they’re paying too much in taxes. The last time Gallup, for example, asked this question, in April of this year, 51 percent said their taxes were “too high,” but 42 percent said they were “about right.”3 If Democrats and the energized resistance can persuade middle-income people that the few dollars they stand to net aren’t worth yet another enormous giveaway to the very rich—who will save tens of thousands if the top rate is reduced from 39.6 percent to 35 percent—then an important milestone will have been reached.

All the above is about opposing. As noted, there’s not a whole lot of disagreement among Democrats about what they’re against. What they should be for is another matter. It’s probably a problem that they can put off for a little while. Midterm elections are always referenda on the incumbent president, so until then, Democrats mostly need to keep their base agitated enough about Trump and the Republicans to go vote. Once that bar is cleared, talk will turn to 2020, and presidential candidates, and proposals and ideas.

The big questions are how far left the party will go, and whether the broader American public will follow it. In his new book, Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution, the man who is still, at seventy-six years of age, the junior senator from Vermont (to Patrick Leahy) writes that “on major issue after major issue, the vast majority of Americans support a progressive agenda and widely reject the economic views of the Republican Party.”4 This is certainly true on paper. Poll after poll shows majority (though perhaps not “vast”) support for a higher minimum wage and paid medical leave and more paid vacation time and more reliable scheduling at the workplace and the rest. Polls have generally even shown support for breaking up the big banks, an idea regarded in official Washington as so radical as to be unserious.

Sanders’s Guide is not really a book so much as a campaign pamphlet wedged between hard covers: a compendium of his speeches and tweets with stars and bullet points and pull quotes, photos of the great man striking purposeful poses, and stark illustrations by Jude Buffum. Sanders’s argument here and elsewhere is that if the Democrats cultivate a hard line on these and other matters and stick to it, they will conjure into existence the majority constituency that will enable them to pass this ambitious agenda. “We must move boldly forward to revitalize American democracy and bring millions of young people and working people into an unstoppable political movement that represents all of us, not just the billionaire class,” he writes.

This assertion shouldn’t be dismissed. Polling suggests that nonvoters are heavily Democratic. A Pew survey of nonvoters in 2012 found that 52 percent either identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, while the corresponding number on the Republican side was 27 percent.5 So it’s possible that there’s a dormant constituency out there waiting to be inspired. In addition, engaging previously apathetic citizens creates the kind of momentum and excitement that Sanders built in 2015–2016.

But many Democratic politicians who’ve lived through the last thirty years in this country are skeptical about all this. Some, who came of age in a mostly conservative era and represent states other than very liberal Vermont, don’t believe in their bones that the American public is ready to embrace a Sandersesque agenda. Others surely worry about how some of this sounds to donors, both in New York and out in Silicon Valley, where they’re fine with personal freedom but not so keen on government regulation of the sort Sanders espouses. Still others don’t like the race Sanders ran against Hillary Clinton and believe he developed some attack lines—about her coziness with corporations, say—that Trump picked up and that helped push voters on the left away from her in crucial states. Finally, some point out that while Sanders did energize young people, he performed rather poorly among African-Americans, Latinos, and single women—the three blocs that are the Democrats’ most reliable voters.

Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren; drawing by James Ferguson

Yet there is little doubt that right now, Sanders is driving the action in this party he refuses to join. Schumer and Pelosi lead the opposition to Trump, but Sanders is shaping the future direction of the Democrats. His decision to introduce a “Medicare-for-all” bill in September was both a way to keep him in the spotlight and to force the party’s 2020 presidential aspirants to show their cards. Four possible candidates cosponsored the bill: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Kamala Harris of California. Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, whose name usually appears on 2020 lists, did not join the bill. Nor did Sherrod Brown of Ohio, whose name sometimes appears on such lists. Sanders’s own name, of course, appears on and sometimes tops such lists, although some wonder if he’ll be too old or if he can bottle that lightning a second time.

I would like to have been a fly on the wall as each of these senators discussed with aides whether to cosponsor the bill. Warren must face the voters in 2018, but she has drawn no first-tier declared competition so far, and in Massachusetts, association with Sanders and single-payer carries little risk. Gillibrand is in a nearly identical situation—she’s up for reelection next year, has no serious competition yet, and in New York single-payer also is a nonissue (Governor Andrew Cuomo, by the way, another likely entrant, recently announced his conversion to single-payer). Booker is not up for reelection in 2018, but he is regarded suspiciously by the left, which sees him as too close to Wall Street, so he needs to establish his credentials. Harris, a new senator who also won’t be facing voters in 2018, spent the summer getting attacked on Twitter by “Bernie bros” for being a corporatist hack in the Clinton mold (about one quarter fairly). She signed on surely in response to those criticisms, at least in part.

Klobuchar’s decision not to join the bill is interesting. She does face her state’s voters next year. The only declared Republican challenger is a state legislator, Jim Newberger, the kind of candidate who will have a hard time raising Senate-level money unless he has a breakthrough moment that shows donors he’s a decent bet. But Trump came close to beating Clinton last year in Minnesota, against all expectations; the margin was just 1.4 percent. So that’s a state, unlike Massachusetts or New York, where being at Bernie’s side might be a liability. The same is true for Sherrod Brown, who is locked in a very tough reelection fight in a state Trump carried by eight points.

For most of these senators, signing on to Sanders’s bill is risk-free—for now. But someday, the Congressional Budget Office will score the bill, and it will estimate the taxes needed to pay for it. They will almost surely be quite large. The only state that has tried to implement single-payer is Sanders’s own Vermont, where, in late 2014, the then governor, Peter Shumlin, a Democrat and longtime single-payer advocate, shelved it after releasing a financial report showing that single-payer would instantly double the state’s budget and lead to large tax increases for individuals and businesses.

Sanders has responded to this problem in the past by saying that the program would be easier to implement at the federal level and that most people would actually pay less in increased taxes than they now pay in deductibles and copayments, which he would eliminate entirely. That may be a debate worth having in 2019 and 2020. But there’s probably a reason why Sanders decided not to put specific revenue estimates in his bill, just general suggestions about how revenue might be raised.

That’s the inside baseball. But here, if I may put it this way, is the outside baseball. I hear no one in the Democratic Party addressing the great crisis of our age: the crisis of Western liberalism that has brought us Brexit and Trump and Alternative für Deutschland and the likelihood of Senator Roy Moore of Alabama. What went wrong?

Every Democrat will talk about fighting harder, standing up to Trump, and supporting the policies that will win back just enough white working-class voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Those are the three states that were punches in the gut. I admit that I thought it virtually impossible that Clinton could lose them. They’d voted Democratic since 1992. They seemed settled, but they were not, and a combined 77,744 votes in all three states made the difference. So in one sense, that’s all the Democrats need to do in 2020—flip around 78,000 votes.

That’s to win. But to govern, to lead, to create a coalition of 52, 53 percent (they almost certainly can’t get a larger majority in this polarized age) that has a chance to force a fundamental change in direction, they have to do more. This will not be achieved through any list of policy positions. It’s quite true that Democrats, and not Republicans, support policies that will relieve the various immiserations of the Trump voters. But people don’t listen to that. And in any case, such policies today have become racialized. When a white working-class voter hears a Democrat talk about the minimum wage, he probably hears “handout.”

Some Democrat needs to be able to speak frankly about the postwar liberal order and the world—to defend its triumphs without apology, to note in a spirit of open self-critique where it has failed, and to lay out the corrections that need to be made. Heading into 2020, voters will be sizing up Democrats in the following way: Okay, you people lost to that buffoon. What do you have to say for yourselves? Have you figured it out?

It’s the candidate who can articulate answers to those questions, not the candidate who most insistently backs single-payer or demands a minimum wage two dollars higher than the others do, who has the potential to be the Roosevelt or Kennedy of our time. I get no sense that any Democrat is even thinking like this. Donald Trump, in his shallow and malevolent way, does think like this. The Democrats had better start.

—October 11, 2017

  1. 1

    See, for example, Caroline Smith and James M. Lindsay, “Rally ’Round the Flag: Opinion in the United States Before and After the Iraq War,” the Brookings Institution, June 1, 2003.  

  2. 2

    See my article “Data Show the GOP’s One-Sided War on Democrats,” The Daily Beast, September 9, 2011. The four Bush initiatives I examined were the first tax cut, the “No Child Left Behind” bill, the Iraq war vote, and the Medicare expansion of 2003. The four Obama initiatives were the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial bill, and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal. I think it was fair and accurate to call these at the time each administration’s major legislative actions. 

  3. 3

    See Gallup News, Taxes, at news .gallup.com/poll/1714/taxes.aspx. Gallup has been asking this question frequently (though not quite annually) since 1956. Remarkably, views haven’t changed all that much in sixty years, even though income taxes were substantially higher in the 1950s than today. This year’s nine-point differential is, however, eleven points less than last year’s 57–37 split.  

  4. 4

    Henry Holt, 2017. 

  5. 5

    See “Nonvoters: Who They Are, What They Think,” Pew Research Center, November 1, 2012. 

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Who’s Cheating Kenyan Voters?


Andrew Renneisen/Getty ImagesOpposition candidate Raila Odinga at a rally in Kisumu, Kenya, October 20, 2017

On September 1, after Kenya’s Supreme Court became the first in Africa to nullify a flawed presidential election, Kenyans danced in the streets and some revelers pledged to convert to Seventh Day Adventism, the religion of Kenya’s somber chief justice, David Maraga. Then the mood darkened. President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose dubious victory had been overturned, told supporters that the judges were “crooks” and threatened to “fix” them. Chief Justice Maraga revealed that he and his bench colleagues had received numerous threats; when nearly $5 million mysteriously appeared in his bank account, he instructed the bank to return it at once.

A rerun was scheduled for October 26. but the opposition leader Raila Odinga pulled out two weeks ago, claiming that nothing had been done to remedy the problems that marred the first election. Then, just last week, the election commission’s chairman confirmed that his institution was presently incapable of guaranteeing a credible poll. The previous day, one of his own officials, made the same claim after fleeing to the US in fear of her life. Throughout October, street demonstrations against the electoral commission have taken place across the country, and security forces have killed dozens of people. Meanwhile, the United States and the rest of the international community appear to be looking the other way as this nation, an important US trading and defense partner, dissolves into undemocratic chaos. 

After Odinga withdrew, the State Department issued a brief statement claiming that the US remains committed to supporting a “free, fair, and credible election.” But some Kenyans, including the official who fled, wonder why they have done so little to make this happen.

The original August 2017 election was overseen by hundreds of observers from the US-funded Carter Center, as well as from the National Democratic Institute (which supports numerous Kenyan election-monitoring NGOs). These groups downplayed Odinga’s concerns about rigging, and even accused him of stoking ethnic tensions, when he’d actually urged his supporters to remain calm. When Kenyatta was declared the winner on August 11, with 54 percent of the vote, the opposition called the process “a charade.” Angry street protests followed, and Odinga filed a petition with the Supreme Court claiming that the electronic voting system had been hacked and the results manipulated. The American observer groups claimed that a parallel vote survey they supported shows Kenyatta would have won anyway, but they have not made its methodology public, despite numerous requests from journalists and civil society groups. 

Odinga’s concerns stem from the fact that the electoral commission plans to use the same companies that had printed the ballot papers and supplied the electronic results transmission system that spectacularly failed on election day. When he threatened to drop out of the October rerun, Kenya’s international donors, led by the US, threatened him with sanctions. Withdrawing from an election is a form of nonviolent protest allowed under Kenya’s constitution—and America’s, for that matter—and many Kenyans wondered why the donors were rattling their sabers at Odinga instead of pressuring Kenyatta’s government to mend the flawed electoral system. The donors did threaten to sanction Kenyatta if he rushed through new laws that would weaken legal oversight of elections, but they did not demand that he address the existing problems with the electoral commission and the election services companies that had led to the rigging in the first place. 

The donors claim they fear violence. More than a thousand people were killed after security forces and ethnic gangs unleashed terror following Kenya’s 2007 elections. On that occasion, the unrest was sparked by a double injustice: the blatant rigging of the election, followed by the Bush administration’s rush to congratulate Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent president whose henchmen had done the rigging. By pressuring the opposition to participate in what shows every sign of being another sham on October 26, the donors could once again be abetting injustice, which will inflame, not pacify, the Kenyan population.

The problems raised by Odinga seem serious. Ten days before the election, the electoral commission’s IT chief, Chris Msando, was brutally murdered. This, argue officials from Odinga’s party, the National Super Alliance (NASA), opened the way for all sorts of mischief. Technology experts hired by NASA report that shortly before the August election, thousands of the kits used to transmit results from polling stations disappeared from the electoral commission. On election day, these kits nonetheless transmitted results, raising obvious flags about their validity. All the results were supposed to be sent directly to the electoral commission using a virtual private network, or VPN, but according to NASA’s investigation, the Kenyan telecommunications company Safaricom diverted some of them to a server in Europe under the control of the French multinational firm OT-Morpho, which had supplied the faulty results transmission system. According to NASA’s experts, the election commission’s electronic records show thousands of unauthorized or malicious actions by unidentified users.

The companies in question reject the allegations. OT-Morpho says it is initiating a lawsuit against NASA for defamation. Safaricom also denies the accusations, but NASA has announced its intention to sue six employees of the telecom company for cybercrimes.

On Monday, the US ambassador and other members of the diplomatic community claimed, contrary to Odinga’s assertions, that the electoral commission had “made changes in personnel and procedures that address many of the concerns raised and that strengthen its technical ability to conduct an election.” When I asked the US embassy what those changes were, I was referred to the electoral commission’s Twitter feed. Rather than going through six weeks of tweets, I requested a list of the changes. That it was not forthcoming suggests that the diplomats have done little to ensure that promised changes have been made, or even determine what they are. Meanwhile, one of the main technology companies implicated, OT-Morpho, is to receive payment of about $23 million—three times more than the electoral commission had originally estimated. Washington was mute on this as well.

Why isn’t the US doing more to pressure Kenyatta to address these Odinga’s concerns? Geopolitics could be one reason. Kenyatta’s militaristic approach to the crises in the neighboring countries of Somalia and South Sudan aligns closely with Western security policy. Odinga, however, is more inclined toward a negotiated resolution of these conflicts. If it favors Kenyatta’s strategy, the US may not be as neutral in Kenya’s electoral contest as it claims to be.

Some Kenyan commentators, including the economist and NASA policy adviser David Ndii, have also suggested that the US could have a financial interest in a Kenyatta victory. Kenya’s economy has long been largely controlled by a Tammany Hall-like political machine linked to the Kenyatta family. The country is developing rapidly, breaking ground on numerous roads, railway, oil pipeline and other infrastructure projects, with Chinese, American, and European firms lining up to secure contracts. Given the problems of governance and accountability, corruption is an obvious risk.

On the last day of Obama’s presidency in January, the US greenlighted a $418 million arms deal with Kenya. The supplier, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary named L3, would provide a fleet of armed crop-duster aircraft for patrols in Somalia. But L3 does not make viable versions of these aircraft, but IOMAX, a company based in North Carolina, does—and it would have charged Kenya some $130 million less than L3 for the same planes. In March, the North Carolina congressman Ted Budd cried foul—and the deal is now tied up in a congressional oversight committee.

Then, three days before the August election, the Kenyan government quietly announced that the US construction giant Bechtel would build a $3 billion cross-country highway. This deal should have been subject to competitive bidding, but that did not happen. Kenyan taxpayers will pay Bechtel $1 billion upfront.

If some of these schemes do not pass what Kenya’s famous anticorruption campaigner John Githongo calls “the smell test,” then a bad odor has long surrounded Kenyatta’s relationship with his Western partners. In 2010, when Kenyatta was deputy prime minister, the International Criminal Court announced that it was investigating him for recruiting one of the militias responsible for mass killings following the 2007 election. The case faced numerous obstacles—according to the ICC, key witnesses were intimidated, bribed, or killed—but the chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, also fumbled his questioning of Kenyatta at the charges confirmation hearing in 2011. The prosecution still went ahead, but in the meantime Kenyatta won the 2013 election—though this, too, was marred by rigging allegations (the polling station results have never been made public).

By then, Moreno Ocampo’s ICC term had ended and he’d left the court, but that year he wrote to Kofi Annan, the former UN general secretary who’d mediated a power-sharing agreement between Odinga and Kibaki in 2008, to lobby for “an honorable exit” for Kenyatta from the very ICC prosecution Moreno Ocampo himself had initiated. The case against Kenyatta was already collapsing when Kenyatta joined other African leaders at the Obama White House for a summit to promote American trade on the continent in August 2014. Four months later, all charges were dropped.   

Odinga promotes himself as a reformer, and there may be powerful American and European interests ranged against him for that reason. Back in 2007, a USAID-funded exit poll showing that, contrary to the official results, Odinga had almost certainly beaten the then incumbent, Kibaki, was never released. To dispel any suspicion that it is quietly intervening in Kenyan politics in a similar, if subtle, way now, the US must do all it can to ensure that Kenyans get the “free, fair, and credible election” Washington says it wants.

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Fatal Genes


Vicki ReedVicki Reed: The Nest, 2015; from ‘What We Leave Behind,’ a series of lifesize cyanotype portraits on fabric that Reed made of her parents, in their late eighties and suffering from memory loss and dementia, before their move to a nursing home

In screening for genetic mutations that can cause disease, the line between useful and damaging knowledge is hard to draw. We can in many instances find out who will fall victim to conditions for which no treatment exists. Huntington’s chorea is caused by a single mutation that can easily be identified. So is cystic fibrosis. Everyone who has the mutation will develop the disease unless he or she dies of something else first. No one who does not have the mutation will develop the disease. But though the etiology and development of both these afflictions are well understood, there is no way to prevent either of them.1 Hereditary prion diseases—genetic neural conditions caused by misfolded proteins—are rarer, but likewise play out with grim reliability. No treatment can slow the inexorable progress toward an agonizing death.

Bioethicists disagree on whether diagnoses of such diseases should be postponed until symptoms develop or should be made much earlier, even in infancy. More and more, clinicians argue that diagnosis before the onset of symptoms can benefit patients. It can circumvent an exhausting investigative odyssey; it can inform reproductive decisions; it can help a patient to plan; it can allow him or her to connect with others with the same condition, which is not only reassuring for the patient but also helpful to research scientists. But it can also cause despair. To what extent is information about an unpreventable genetic disease that has not yet caused any symptoms a gift and to what extent is it a burden?

This double-edged sword of genetic testing hangs over Gina Kolata’s Mercies in Disguise. Kolata, a well-known reporter on science and medicine for The New York Times, is a gifted storyteller. Her account of the Baxleys of South Carolina, a family with Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker disease (GSS), is both engrossing and distressing. GSS is a rare hereditary prion disease symptomatically similar to Alzheimer’s mixed with Parkinson’s. All those who test positive for the mutation will develop the disease unless they die younger of other causes. The age of onset is between thirty-five and fifty-five, and once the disease sets in, the average survival period is five years, though some people live longer.

Those affected lose their sense of balance; they develop constant shaking; they become unable to walk and ultimately to control their movement at all; their speech becomes slurred, then incomprehensible; they find themselves unable to chew and swallow food; they cease to recognize their spouses and children; and finally, they become wild-eyed and fully demented. In postmortem examination, the cerebral cortex of a GSS patient is riddled with microscopic holes, making it spongiform, and the sheaths that should protect cerebral nerves are significantly abraded. A few treatments mitigate symptoms temporarily, but none can delay their onset; there is no cure; there is little promising research.

Mercies in Disguise introduces us to the family patriarch, Bill Baxley, and follows his descent into misery, then death; we see two of his children, Billy and Buddy, succumb; and we learn that GSS will affect at least one of Bill’s grandchildren, Amanda, whose story frames Kolata’s account. The book opens with Amanda waiting to find out whether she has tested positive for GSS, and it ends with the story of how her life changes after she finds out that she has the mutant gene. She grapples with the question of whether to have children, and ultimately opts for preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a procedure to test embryos created in vitro so as to select those that are free of the GSS mutation.

The Baxleys are deeply devout Southern Baptists, and Amanda’s choice seems wrong to her sister, Holly, who declines to test for GSS in herself or to consider PGD. She says, “That is not the way I want to live as a Christian…. God has a purpose in not creating us with the ability to know our end. I choose to trust Him.” Kolata explains:

Holly was married and had a son when she learned her father had GSS, but she and her husband decided that Holly’s risk of getting ill herself and of passing on the gene was not going to deter them from having more children…. Instead of dwelling on the uncertainty of GSS, she would concentrate on her children’s relationship with God, on their eternal life.

Nor are Amanda’s parents supportive of PGD. Her doctors want a cheek swab from her father to confirm that she and he share a single mutation, but he refuses to assist her, and her mother will not intervene on Amanda’s behalf. Holly argues, “That idea carries with it the potential to create a medically induced genocide with the murdering of preborn children as a way of manipulating the gene pool and producing a utopia. Humans with too much knowledge are dangerous.” She seems unwilling to consider that God might have created our capacity for such knowledge, that this “unnatural” insight itself comes from our nature. Kolata relates how Holly worries that “in a medical family, science often becomes god instead of God.”

Amanda herself agonizes over the procedure even as she goes forward with it. “She had allowed those embryos to be destroyed as if they were meaningless. It was as if she had pointed to them, one by one, and said, ‘You’re sick. You have to go.’” Yet in choosing PGD, Amanda says firmly of GSS, “It stopped with me.” Mercies in Disguise can be read as a skirmish in the ongoing American conflict between science and faith.

Kolata has been dogged for many years by accusations that her reporting promotes conservative beliefs.2 In Mercies in Disguise she shows sympathy for Holly’s religiosity, writing admiringly:

From the start, Holly had been a light in both her parents’ lives. She was tall and beautiful and could always be counted on to stay out of trouble. She was an exemplary student, too…. In her early twenties, already married for three years to a man she had met in college, Holly had developed what she describes as “a closer relationship with Christ.” …When [her brother] Buddy got that letter [containing his genetic diagnosis], she and her husband already had one child, a baby boy. His life, she trusted, was in God’s hands. She was not going to worry about whether she or her baby had inherited her father’s illness.

Elsewhere, Kolata’s value judgments come through clearly. She explains in relation to PGD: “Whether or not they believe life begins at conception, few can see a human embryo as just a clump of cells, no different in kind than a piece of skin scraped off a knee. And no one—not even people who work in fertility clinics…—finds it easy to discard those balls of cells.” In fact, many people who work in fertility clinics find it deeply meaningful to help a family select for healthy children, and they do not execute their work with ambivalence or regret.

In many of her Times articles and in Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (1999), Kolata has shown herself adept at translating scientific language for inexpert readers, but her prose sometimes grows mawkish and manipulative:

There was a remote chance that Bill had a condition called normal pressure hydrocephalus; they knew about it from their medical studies, but the neurologists they’d consulted had seemed uninterested—it took too much time to test for it and the chance that Bill had it really was remote. But Buddy and Tim had time for the test—Bill was their father, after all. They could make time.

Later, when Tim, one of the Baxley boys, learns that his aunt has troubling symptoms, “his heart began to pound as it had when he heard about his grandfather.” Soon he “felt the cold sweat of certainty…. He barely noticed the sun coming up.” Robert Edwards, a progenitor of IVF, is “flamboyant”; so, a page later, is the Russian geneticist and embryologist Yury Verlinsky. Kolata’s attempts to be colorful can drain her prose of authentic color.

The subtitle of the book is “A Story of Hope, a Family’s Genetic Destiny, and the Science That Rescued Them.” Kolata tends to take an upbeat, even celebratory tone, but Amanda is looking at an early deterioration and horrific death, which doesn’t exactly constitute a story of hope or a rescue by science. And what of Holly and her children, who may well be marching toward a similar agony? Kolata writes that “science presented the Baxley family members with a responsibility they’d never asked for or anticipated—but that each took on in their own daring way.” Yet she does not show that anyone other than Amanda took on the challenge in a particularly daring way. She calls her book “a story of how a horrific disease taught a family forbearance and the ability to find hope even as the daunting circumstances threatened to extinguish it,” but many members of the family don’t seem to have achieved forbearance or hope. “This is the story of disrupting destiny,” Kolata claims, but the destiny to which she refers seems not to have been much disrupted.

Interspersed with the story of the Baxleys is the story of prions. Kolata recounts how the physician Daniel Carleton Gajdusek came to study the neurodegenerative disease kuru, which causes a loss of coordination and control over muscle movements, in the Fore people of Papua New Guinea. Through follow-up work with chimpanzees, he demonstrated that this frightening disease was transmissible, then linked it to the Fore’s rituals of funerary cannibalism. Gajdusek ultimately connected kuru with many other diseases: scrapie (in sheep), Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (CJD), mad cow disease, fatal familial insomnia, and GSS, theorizing that the problem resulted from a “slow virus.” He won a Nobel Prize in 1976 for his work.

Stanley Prusiner proceeded from Gajdusek’s research but rejected the virus theory, observing that none of these related neurodegenerative conditions triggered any immune response. Prusiner knew these diseases were transmissible, but not contagious. In a radical departure from biological norms, he proposed that they were caused by proteins that could replicate themselves. “The idea of a protein that somehow reproduces itself,” Kolata writes, “seemed like asserting that a cup of egg whites—pure protein—on the kitchen counter could somehow start growing, and overflowing the cup, taking over the kitchen like slime in a horror movie.”

But Prusiner persisted, and in the early 1980s he coined the term “prion” for a class of proteins that can misfold. Contact between a normal prion protein and a misfolded one, he hypothesized, causes the normal one to misfold, too. That prion goes on to misfold further proteins. These misfolded proteins bond into dense amyloid plaques somewhat like those that develop in Alzheimer’s and effectively drill little holes in the cerebellum, eventually causing the onset of symptoms.

Prion diseases can be inherited; they can occur through new mutations that may subsequently be passed on to the next generation; they can also be acquired (in less than one percent of cases) if a healthy brain is directly exposed to misfolded prions, as happened among the cannibalistic Fore, or as might happen through surgical contamination. Prusiner’s protein hypothesis, which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1997, is now widely accepted. Kolata clearly admires Prusiner; oddly, however, in her scientific history she does not mention the work of Tikvah Alper and John Stanley Griffith, who had proposed fifteen years before Prusiner that spongiform diseases might be transmitted by proteins, and whose work strongly influenced him.3

The number of illnesses such as GSS that are inevitably caused by a single mutated gene is small. In the debates about genetic testing that now roil bioethics, the primary concern is with genes that confer only an increased risk of developing particular medical conditions. For some of them, the preventative measures are straightforward. Some 5 to 10 percent of colorectal cancers are known to be hereditary. About four out of five people who carry the gene for hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) will go on to develop the disease; even those who do not carry a known cancer-causing gene but have a family history of the disease are encouraged to have regular colonoscopies for early detection and treatment. People at risk for hereditary cardiomyopathies—diseases that affect the heart muscle—can regulate their diet and exercise to significantly reduce the likelihood of early death. It seems like common sense to do so, though research indicates that information from genetic tests is not a powerful motivation for people to change their behavior.4

When the risk conferred by a gene is lower and the preventative measures for the potential condition are more drastic, deciding whether or not to take advantage of them is more difficult. More than fifty hereditary cancer syndromes have been identified. Mutations of the tumor-suppressing genes BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 cause some 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancer, and about 15 percent of all ovarian cancer. While only about one in eight women develops breast cancer, more than half of those with BRCA mutations develop it; while only one of every hundred women develops ovarian cancer, more than one third of those with BRCA mutations do so.

Such statistics help women apprehend the seriousness of the risks, but do not make it easy to decide how to respond. We do not understand genetic and environmental factors well enough to predict who will succumb and who will not. Some women with BRCA mutations have had preemptive double mastectomies, hysterectomies, or both. Such procedures vastly reduce the risk of developing these cancers, but they are extremely invasive responses to a mutation that for many would never result in illness.

This confusion can only escalate as companies such as 23andMe offer, for a modest fee, to analyze genetic information from a cheek swab. Consumers can get information about their vulnerability to a variety of diseases for which the genetics are well understood—in the form of statistical likelihoods rather than definitive outcomes. 23andMe now offers testing for vulnerability to Alzheimer’s through the ApoE4 gene, as well as for the genetic risk of Parkinson’s and celiac diseases. What is someone to do with this knowledge? “People clearly want information about themselves,” said Anne Wojcicki, the chief executive of 23andMe. “There is a demand.”

In a 2016 STAT-Harvard poll, a majority of respondents said they would want to have genetic testing for Alzheimer’s or cancer (for each of which genetic links have been found), and eight out of ten who had had genetic testing were glad to have done so. The same study found that doctors took a much dimmer view of the process. Understanding the results of genetic analysis often requires the assistance of counselors who can interpret probabilities and risks, and there are too few such specialists to go around. As Mildred Z. Solomon, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute, told me, “There is a great chance to introduce enormous confusion among both prospective parents and the public more broadly.”

Both confidentiality and exposure of the results of such testing can be dangerous. The utilitarian argument would calculate burden against benefit for an entire society and acknowledge that mandatory genetic testing best protects public health by providing statistical information on untreatable conditions; enabling PGD for families who carry genes for serious illnesses; and allowing people whose conditions respond to lifestyle changes or medical treatments to access them efficiently. The libertarian argument would propose that individuals have sole jurisdiction over their physical selves and medical information.5 Along with Amanda Baxley’s right to know goes Holly Baxley’s right not to know.

A screening shortly after birth for sickle cell disease, which can be treated, is mandatory in all US states so that affected children can get care. For most other genetic defects, the choice to know rests squarely with the person at risk or, for juveniles, with their parents. 23andMe has a databank of information about a broad range of people—more than a million at this writing—and has made some of it available to researchers working on the demographics of particular diseases. Many Americans have expressed concern that any medical test may enter the public record, and worry that people with certain genetic liabilities would suffer from bias in matters of employment and insurance. Cases alleging such discrimination have already come before the courts, including an ongoing suit brought against the Palo Alto school district by the parents of a boy who, they allege, was removed from his class because a test showed that he had genetic markers associated with cystic fibrosis.

There are instances in which someone has been tested but does not wish to tell family members, some of whom cannot be trusted to maintain confidentiality, about troubling results. Any such circumstance provokes a moral conundrum for a doctor. K.G. Fulda and Kristine Lykens have argued in the Journal of Medical Ethics that “the physician’s decision not to inform family members simply removes any possibility of delaying or ameliorating the onset of symptoms. Consequently, the public policy function of public health may need to resolve these countervailing interests of individuals.” One court has held that a doctor must take “reasonable steps…to assure that the information reaches those likely to be affected or is made available for their benefit.”

In 1983, the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research recommended that disclosure be required when efforts to elicit voluntary disclosure have failed; when there is a high probability of harm, which intervention might avert; and when prospective harm is serious. The commission confirmed that this information should be shared even without the primary patient’s consent if not disclosing the information could lead to harm. Some ethicists advise that physicians should notify patients prior to genetic testing about their own stance on information-sharing—what one writer has called a “genetic Miranda warning.”

Genetic information is pertinent to the person whose genome is being examined but also, as the Baxley story clearly illustrates, to his or her offspring, and the interests of parent and child may not coincide. Soon, scientists will be able to scan a full fetal genome with a simple maternal finger-prick test. This process, an early version of which is already used to diagnose trisomy-21 (the mutation that leads to Down syndrome), will yield a huge amount of information. Prospective parents may feel pressure to abort on the basis of information that reveals their child will be born with a disease that is expensive to manage. Pennsylvania passed Chloe’s Law in 2014, requiring health care providers to give information about treatment and support services to women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of trisomy-21, and several other states have passed similar measures.

These decisions about selective termination are extremely variable; a risk that does not trouble one person may terrify another. Is there any argument for terminating a pregnancy once a BRCA marker is found? What about doing PGD to weed out fetuses that carry a mutated BRCA gene? Some people have made these choices, but the shadow of eugenics always looms over them. Kolata asks what a couple should do if one of them carries a gene that creates a 50 percent chance of a midlife heart attack. What, too, would we do if we were to find gene combinations that increase the likelihood of autism, homosexuality, or deafness? Would we aspire to screen for traits as significant as intelligence or gender, as trivial as hair color, as socially loaded as complexion, as socially stigmatized as obesity? What about selecting for genes that appear to be linked to athletic prowess (which have been extensively but futilely sought)?

We might undertake PGD to cull embryos, for example, with a 50 percent risk for a condition likely to shorten life by more than ten years, or a 75 percent risk for a condition that would cause a lifetime of physical pain. Any attempt to standardize these choices would feel random, a decision about a life we cannot fully imagine. As for-profit companies do scans for a widening range of characteristics for those seeking preimplantation genetic diagnosis, such prenatal knowledge may become something of a luxury commodity. Kolata’s book raises crucial questions about knowledge that can be both vital and fatal, both palliative and dangerous.

  1. 1

    See Heidi Chial, “Huntington’s Disease: The Discovery of the Huntingtin Gene,” Nature Education Vol. 1, No. 1 (2008); and William Guggino and Bruce Stanton, “Mechanisms of Disease: New Insights into Cystic Fibrosis: Molecular Switches That Regulate CFTR,” Nature Reviews: Molecular Cell Biology Vol. 7, No. 6 (June 2006). 

  2. 2

    Kolata’s health reporting for The New York Times is criticized in David Handelman, “Act Up in Anger,” Rolling Stone, March 8, 1990; Mark Dowie, “What’s Wrong with the New York Times’s Science Reporting?,” The Nation, July 6, 1998; Michael Shapiro, “Pushing the ‘Cure’: Where a Big Cancer Story Went Wrong,” Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 1998; Paul Scott, “Diet Wars Turn Family Feud,” Columbia Journalism Review, July 31, 2012; and David Bollier, “Did Commercial Journals Use the NYT to Smear Open Access?,” www.davidbollier.org, April 11, 2013. 

  3. 3

    See, for example, Tikvah Alper et al., “Does the Agent of Scrapie Replicate Without Nucleic Acid?,” Nature, Vol. 214 (May 20, 1967); and John S. Griffith, “Nature of the Scrapie Agent: Self-replication and Scrapie,” Nature, Vol. 215 (September 2, 1967). 

  4. 4

    See Gareth J. Hollands et al., “The Impact of Communicating Genetic Risks of Disease on Risk-Reducing Health Behaviour: Systematic Review with Meta-analysis,” The BMJ, Vol. 352 (March 15, 2016). 

  5. 5

    For comparison of the utilitarian and libertarian perspectives on genetic testing, see K.G. Fulda and K. Lykens, “Ethical Issues in Predictive Genetic Testing: A Public Health Perspective,” Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 32, No. 3 (March 2006). 

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Leave Novelists Out of Fiction


Private Collection/Portal Painters/Bridgeman ImagesJonathan Wolstenholme: Shakespearean Scholar, 2003

Why do we have so many novels and films featuring writers and artists? Films abound—Amadeus, Picasso, Turner, Oscar Wilde, Neruda, Leopardi. In fiction we have, among others, Michael Cunningham’s Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Colm Tóibín’s Henry James in The Master. And now the English novelist Jo Baker has dramatized the war years of Samuel Beckett.

What is the attraction? With intriguing variations, the underlying plot is mostly the same and, in the end, not so unlike Joyce’s autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We savor the artist’s growing awareness of his or her specialness, which becomes one with a particular, always unconventional vision of the world, a peculiar style of thought, an almost mythical superiority to run of the mill experience. And we marvel at society’s obtuseness, its determination to obstruct this special sensitivity, which the reader at once admires and yearns to share, perhaps conceding a little of the same to the author of the new work—Tóibín, perhaps, or Cunningham—who thus borrows some glory from his or her more celebrated subject.

If there is a risk in a project like this, something the straightforward biographer need not worry about, it is the danger of being compared, as an artist, to the artist hero. A poem about Leopardi would very likely invite the reader to reflect that Leopardi was the finer poet. Likewise a novel that took, say, Hemingway as its hero. Always assuming, that is, that contemporary readers are sufficiently familiar with Leopardi’s poetry, or Hemingway’s novels. If they are not, there is the second problem that, unaware of the real achievement of the artist/hero in question, they may simply not appreciate why the subject is worth so much attention. They cannot pick up the allusions that link the great writer with his or her work.

In The Master, Tóibín has James notice a little girl performing an innocence that she doesn’t perhaps truly possess. The reader is presumably supposed to realize, Ah, so that’s where What Maisie Knew came from! If you’ve never read What Maisie Knew it’s hard to see what’s so interesting. If you’ve not only read the novel, but reread it and admired it deeply, this kind of connection might seem simplistic. It’s hard to see how a writer can get around this. Certainly this kind of novel is stronger when it dramatizes a pattern of behavior in line with what we find in the novels, rather than merely image and incident.

Jo Baker’s previous novel, Longbourn, was also a form of benign literary parasitism. Just as Tom Stoppard once focused on two minor figures in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to give us Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Baker dramatized the life of the servants who minister to the main characters of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But while Stoppard offered a sparkling absurdist play, Jo Baker’s work is solid realism, insisting on the physical effort and sheer drudgery of those who served the privileged. Alongside the fun of recognizing events in Austen’s novel, as seen and interpreted by the servants, there was also the satisfaction of agreeing that inequality of opportunity is an ugly thing and feeling mildly superior to the Bennet family and their time.

To move from this charming entertainment to dramatizing the life of the twentieth-century artist who, more than any other, insisted on his apartness, his reticence, and privacy, a man who felt the traditional novel, and indeed language in general, was utterly inadequate to express experience, or, worse than inadequate, mendacious, suggests ambition of a different order. Both Henry James and Virginia Woolf had developed elaborate styles to mimic the unfolding of consciousness, suggesting how their own minds moved. This allowed Tóibín and Cunningham—great talents in their own right—to imitate those styles and achieve a certain authenticity for their imaginings; they seemed close in spirit to their literary heroes, as if their books were a natural continuation of the earlier authors’ endeavours.

But Beckett did no such thing. He did not believe that words could express interiority, or really very much at all, and his work never presents conventional reality in a traditional manner. “It is indeed becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me,” he observed, “to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it.”

To attempt, then, to present this man as the hero of a traditional realist novel with an omniscient narrator who moves effortlessly in and out of the most intimate thoughts of both Beckett and his partner, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, when they’re enjoying or failing to enjoy love-making, fleeing the Germans, or simply drinking with friends, inevitably suggests an abyss between the sensibilities of Baker and her hero. She ably describes a lanky, diffident, disconnected man who looks like the Beckett of the photographs and behaves as Beckett is described as behaving in the biographies, but the moment we become privy to his thoughts, it is very hard to imagine we are reading about Beckett at all. “How easy,” wrote Emil Cioran, “to imagine [Beckett], some centuries back, in a naked cell, undisturbed by the least decoration, not even a crucifix.” How much more difficult to think of him worrying that Suzanne will be upset if he stays out for another whisky or two.

Baker’s title, A Country Road, A Tree recalls the stripped-down stage directions that open Waiting for Godot. The idea of her novel is that it was Beckett’s wartime experiences that took him from being a rather pathetic Joycean acolyte, seeking and failing to reproduce the richness of his mentor’s work, to becoming an independent artist with a clear sense of a quite different project, to present experience in its most basic and irreducible manifestation, something very like the tired, broken, hungry, unwashed body of the many war refugees with whom he would share his life in these years. In reality, in the letter quoted above, written in 1937, Beckett had already remarked that he was headed in a very different direction from Joyce.

Baker begins her story with Beckett deciding to return to Paris and Suzanne after a holiday in Ireland, despite England’s declaration of war on Germany, despite his widowed mother’s desperation, despite having no apparent part to play in the forthcoming conflict. It then tracks the couple’s confused movements first to the South of France, following Joyce and other friends—Joyce was to die shortly after reaching Switzerland—then back to Paris during the occupation. At this point, Beckett gets drawn into the French Resistance, collecting and correlating information passed to him by different agents. It was a major step for one who had always had difficulty involving himself in any kind of collective enterprise. Baker gives us his supposed emotions and thoughts as he types out a message indicating a movement of warships that will very likely cause the British to bomb Brest:

His fingertips peck out the letters, and the letters strike on to the paper, and the letters cluster into words, and the words seethe on the page, and he can’t bear this and yet it must be borne. He swallows down spittle, closes his eyes. All he can see is fire and blood and broken stone.

Eventually betrayed, he and Suzanne take refuge in safe houses, and are then helped to escape, not without various heart-in-mouth vicissitudes, south to Roussillon, in the so-called free zone above Marseilles, where they live in a small community of likeminded exiles and in constant fear of further betrayal. Anxious not to be entirely passive, Beckett again becomes involved in the Resistance, storing explosives and helping to impede the German retreat. Returning to Ireland and his mother at the end of the war, he sees no hope of remaining, but at last experiences the revelation of the path he must pursue. The wild Joycean “hubbub,” as Baker has Beckett imagine it, must be abandoned for the essential profile of a stark figure against the night. He goes back to France to work in a field hospital as part of the process of reconstruction, then finally heads for Paris and Suzanne where, at last, he can sit down in peace and unburden himself of all he must write.

There is much opportunity for action and melodrama here. Hunger, terror, cold, pursuit, gunshots, rationing. Baker tells it in an emphatic, evocative style. Suzanne’s face is “open as a wound.” Beckett feels “a gut-punch of guilt.” British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s voice “spools” from the radio and “tangles” across the floor. Moonlight “kicks off Perspex.” A car “burns through scattered dwellings.” A train “is peeling past.” And so on.

Meanwhile, the images crucial for Beckett’s future work are patiently gathered. A painting by Rouault where “trees stand like gibbets by the roadside” has Beckett raptly gazing; it’s the setting for Godot. Hungry, Beckett sucks a stone, and the knowing reader looks forward to the hilarious sucking-stone routine in the later novel Molloy. During a conversation “soft words accumulate, like sand trickling through an hourglass. They are up to their knees in it and yet still they can’t stop.” One cannot, of course, be up to one’s knees in an hourglass, but the mixed metaphor allows us to look forward to Happy Days, where the lead actress is slowly buried in sand. Feeling “shambolic. A broken-down old tramp. A mummy,” Beckett himself metamorphoses into one of the battered figures in his later fiction.

It’s all admirably earnest, but never convincing. Nor does Baker know what to do with the relationship between Beckett and Suzanne. Alternating between admiring facilitator and exasperated mother figure, adoring or nagging, Suzanne never emerges as the intellectual she was. She is shown despairing over the doodles Beckett made while trying to translate his early novel Murphy into French, but we hear nothing of her reaction to the utterly bizarre and quite wonderful novel, Watt, that Beckett wrote while waiting the war out in Roussillon. It is as if Baker herself had no idea how to put this strange achievement in relation to her hero’s wartime life.

When Beckett and Suzanne are imagined waiting by a tree as night falls for a contact who is to take them across the border into the free zone, and begin to use, when the contact doesn’t show up, almost exactly the words from Godot, the whole strategy is revealed as embarrassingly mechanical. Very likely, the war years did offer Beckett images and experiences that, stripped of context, he would make universally powerful, but speculatively reconstructing the context to then color it with the melodrama Beckett assiduously pared away hardly seems a helpful exercise.

In an afterword, as if to justify her efforts, the author offers an uplifting moral gloss on her story. During the war, in “impossibly difficult situations, [Beckett] consistently turned towards what was most decent and compassionate and courageous… he grew, as a writer and as a man. Afterwards he would go on to write the work that would make him internationally famous, and for which he would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.” What a happy formula: goodness, personal growth through hardship, artistic fame. It is the reductio ad absurdum of this strange form of fiction that would have us consume our literary heroes in a conveniently palatable sauce.

“Work that still resonates powerfully with us today,” Baker goes on to say, using the sort of pat phrase that had Beckett comparing conventional prose with a Victorian bathing suit. Not powerfully enough, one might object, if this is the novel it has led to. Here, by way of decontamination, is Beckett from Watt. Our eponymous hero has been struggling with the feeling that the word “pot” no longer seems quite right to denote, well, the thing he used to call a pot. The mismatch makes him anxious.

Then, when he turned for reassurance to himself… he made the distressing discovery that of himself too he could no longer affirm anything that did not seem as false as if he had affirmed it of a stone. Not that Watt was in the habit of affirming things of himself, for he was not, but he found it a help, from time to time, to be able to say, with some appearance of reason, Watt is a man, all the same, Watt is a man, or, Watt is in the street, with thousands of fellow-creatures within call.… And Watt’s need of semantic succour was at times so great that he would set to trying names on things, and on himself, almost as a woman hats. Thus of the pseudo-pot he would say, after reflection, It is a shield, or, growing bolder, It is a raven, and so on. But the pot proved as little a shield, or a raven, or any other of the things that Watt called it, as a pot. As for himself, though he could no longer call it a man, as he had used to do, with the intuition that he was perhaps not talking nonsense, yet he could not imagine what else to call it, if not a man. But Watt’s imagination had never been a lively one. So he continued to think of himself as a man, as his mother had taught him, when she said, There’s a good little man, or, There’s a bonny little man, or, There’s a clever little man. But for all the relief that this afforded him, he might just as well have thought of himself as a box, or an urn.

Extraordinary how Beckett, taking an axe to the relation between words and things, conveys and entertains so much more than the novelist who confidently puts words to his inner thoughts. We should read our great authors, not mythologize them.

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Uncovering Indonesia’s Act of Killing


AP ImagesSoldiers taking suspects to prison during an anti-Communist crackdown in which some 500,000 Indonesians were killed, Jakarta, October 30, 1965

“My grandfather was a professor in Bali in 1965, and he was killed. We don’t even know which mass grave his body was thrown into,” said one of the volunteers, a college student whose father is from Indonesia. In August, she joined a group of scholars and other volunteers at the National Declassification Center outside of Washington for the unprecedented project of examining some thirty thousand pages of newly-declassified documents from the US Embassy in Jakarta. These records add important details to what happened during the 1965-1966 Indonesian massacre, one of the worst, yet least known, mass killings since World War II, in which an estimated half a million Indonesians suspected of being Communists were murdered by soldiers and paramilitary death squads.

The student jumped at the chance to work on this project not just because of her family connection to this history, but also, she told me, because Indonesians need to know what happened and who is responsible—a point echoed by Bradley R. Simpson, the University of Connecticut historian who led the review of the documents.

“Indonesians should be able to tell their own story, and they have a right to see their own government documents,” he said. “Every time more comes out from the US government side, it should make Indonesians demand more.” 

Much is still unknown. What is known is that six generals were killed in the early morning of October 1, 1965, by a group of junior officers who claimed they were forestalling a takeover by a CIA-backed “Council of Generals.” Their putsch failed, and the Indonesian army and the US government quickly blamed the Communist Party of Indonesia, the PKI, which was then the third largest Communist party in the world and an ally of Sukarno, the autocratic leftist president-for-life.

Within days, the army and local paramilitaries rounded up anyone associated with the PKI. Then, mostly at night, those arrested were taken out and shot, beheaded, or stabbed to death. The army’s militias did most of the killings, and their members ranged from gangsters to young men from the country’s two largest Muslim organizations. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were imprisoned, and their families, as well as the families of the dead, were shunned. 

The US government offered both direct and indirect support to the army during the killings and considered the bloodbath a momentous victory, shifting the balance of power in Southeast Asia. By the time the killings ended, Indonesians were living under the military rule of General Suharto and its founding myth that the army had saved the nation from the atheistic Communists. Any talk about the killings became taboo except for the official version: the PKI had to be exterminated, and Indonesians themselves supported the mass murder, or even joined in with it. 

In 1998, Indonesians rose against Suharto, and in the years since, a fragile democracy has emerged, making Indonesia the world’s third-largest democracy (as well as the largest Muslim-majority nation). The democratic opening also spurred a renewed scrutiny of the official narrative of the Indonesian massacre. Efforts to uncover the past atrocities gathered momentum when Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, was elected president in 2014 after running as a reformer outside the circle of oligarchs and the political elite that flourished both under Suharto and after his ouster. Jokowi promised to bring open, pluralist rule to Indonesia’s 250 million people, and many hoped that he would end the impunity for past human rights abuses, starting with the 1965 massacre. There was talk of a truth commission or even an apology. 

By this time, the Indonesian massacre had come into focus for many Americans through Joshua Oppenheimer’s astonishing films, The Act of Killing (2013) and The Look of Silence (2014), which looked at this dark chapter in the country’s history, first through the eyes of the killers and then of its victims. When Jokowi visited Barack Obama in the Oval Office in 2015, there were Indonesians who hoped that Obama would help Jokowi by releasing the remaining classified US documents. After all, when he was eight, Obama moved with his mother to Jakarta just after the killings; as an adult, he wrote in his memoir of the secrecy and trauma of that time. It was this renewed public interest in the Indonesian massacre that led the director of the National Declassification Center to call for the unusual declassification of the embassy files. 

This week, Simpson and three other historians of the period released a summary of the most important declassified documents. Although the story they tell is already known in outline, these documents offer a chilling account of how American officials closely monitored the extermination of Communists and goaded the Indonesian army to finish the job. According to Simpson, these previously unseen cables, telegrams, letters, and reports “contain damning details that the US was willfully and gleefully pushing for the mass murder of innocent people.”

A cable from the embassy to the State Department on November 20, 1965, for instance, reports that PKI members in Central Java knew nothing about the October 1 coup attempt, yet they were being rounded up and killed. Another report in late November states that General Suharto is behind the mass killings, and that the indiscriminate detention of Communists has created problems of how to feed and house the prisoners. “Many provinces appear to be successfully meeting this problem by executing their PKI prisoners, or by killing them before they are captured, a task in which Moslem youth groups are providing assistance.” 

By December 21, the embassy reports that some one hundred thousand Communists have been killed, including ten thousand in Bali, and goes on to hail the improved relations between the US and Indonesia as a “fantastic switch which has occurred in ten short weeks.” The killings and arrests went on for many more months. By March 1966, Suharto was in charge, the PKI was banned, and Indonesia became a vital cold war ally for America, receiving huge amounts of aid and investments.

For all the new details, these documents reveal nothing about US covert operations in the months leading up to these events. “We are still lacking the most important stuff from the CIA and DIA [the Defense Intelligence Agency],” says Simpson, who wrote a history of US-Indonesian relations from 1960 to 1968, Economists With Guns (2008). The other historians who reviewed the embassy files are: John Roosa, the author of Pretext for a Mass Murder (2006), one of the most comprehensive books to date on the failed coup and the killings; Geoffrey B. Robinson, whose book on the massacre, The Killing Season, will be published next year; and Jessica Melvin, who is also publishing a book next year on the killings based on her 2014 doctoral study, Mechanics of Mass Murder. Relying on previous declassifications in 2001 and 2015, these historians have established that the US approved covert operations in Indonesia in the early 1960s that sought to strengthen American ties with the army and provoke a showdown between the PKI and the Indonesian military. Until the CIA and DIA files are declassified, the details of those covert operations remain unknown. Since declassification requires an order from either the president or Congress to pry loose those files, it seems unlikely to occur during the Trump administration. 

Even so, the revelations in the Jakarta embassy files are likely to be explosive in Indonesia. The story the documents tell challenges the official narrative of Suharto’s New Order, and this declassification comes at a moment when politics in Indonesia have become sharply polarized. A reckoning over 1965 is very much a part of today’s political struggle. Although there is an appetite, especially among young people, to know more about what happened in 1965, there has also been a fierce backlash from army generals and Islamist politicians who warn that any talk of reconciliation or apology is a plot to revive communism. This reactionary move had already begun when Jokowi visited Obama, and it has only grown stronger. 

Hard-line Islamist groups and the army have shut down discussion groups, book openings, and film screenings about the killings. The democratic era has brought contested direct elections and a vibrant free press to Indonesia, but it has failed to dislodge either the immunity from investigation or prosecution enjoyed by the Indonesian army or the determination of elite politicians and Islamists to enforce silence on the killings. When, in 2016, Jokowi’s government supported a symposium in which survivors spoke in public, there was a counterattack from retired generals and a once fringe vigilante group turned political powerbroker, the Islam Defenders’ Front, or FPI, accusing Jokowi of being a Communist himself. This was the opening salvo in a ferocious political skirmish that continues between pluralist democrats and Islamist populists. 

The FPI, together with a wider network of Islamists, used the race for governor of Jakarta earlier this year to forge a new and potent alliance between the Islamist bloc and the political elite that is opposed to Jokowi. They mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to rally in the streets to “defend Islam” against Jakarta’s then governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is Christian and ethnically Chinese, and a close ally of Jokowi. (Purnama, who is commonly known as Ahok, not only lost the election, but was put on trial for “insulting Islam,” and found guilty. He is serving a two-year prison term.) If this alliance holds, Jokowi’s chances of winning reelection in 2019 could be in jeopardy.

After their victory in ousting Purnama, the FPI and its Islamist allies have stoked a campaign, especially on social media, claiming that a Communist revival is underway and that China is attempting to colonize Indonesia. Last month, police had to use tear gas on a mob that rioted outside the Jakarta office of Indonesia’s Legal Aid Institute after rumors spread that a PKI event was being held there. Even though a recent public opinion survey showed that only 12.6 percent of those polled agree there is a Communist revival, Islamists, retired generals, and right-wing politicians keeping pressing their Red-Scare rhetoric.

Their real target is Jokowi—long accused, falsely, of being descended from Communists. In an effort to protect himself, Jokowi has stopped all talk of investigating the past. This week’s release of the embassy files made headlines in Indonesia, but has so far drawn no comment from Jokowi or other government officials.

The declassification coincides with the heating-up of the campaign for the 2019 presidential election. Professor Simpson could be right that the documents will help Indonesians recover parts of their missing history, and may even push the Indonesian government to release its records of the part played in the killings by the army. But it is also possible that the Islamists, the generals, and the holdovers of the Suharto regime will succeed in quashing any new debate. If that is so, then the public-interest effort to bring to light this bloody episode in Indonesia’s past will serve simply as ammunition for the enemies of the country’s hard-won but precarious democracy.

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Blade Runner’s Immaterial Girls


Warner Bros. Home EntertainmentAna de Armas as Joi and Ryan Gosling as K in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, 2017

In Dreaming by the Book (1999), Elaine Scarry offers an account of the workings of the literary imagination, how a fiction’s “erased imperatives” conjure a world as we read. When we open, say, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and read the lines, “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain, / By the false azure in the windowpane; / I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I / Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky,” we are being asked to see the shadow, see the waxwing, see the windowpane with its blue reflection, see the smudge of the bird, and even see the spiritual ascension into two-dimensional heaven after it has flown into the glass, slain by illusion. Scarry argues that the images Nabokov instructs us to see are as vivid as dreams but also dry, thin, two-dimensional, and transparent, as suggested by our tendency to describe “actual mist, actual gauze, filmy curtains, fog, and blurry rain as dreamlike.” This makes them available for a kind of layering:

What can be fully imagined may have riding above it what can only be half imagined, and in turn what can be half imagined will have floating above it what can be one-fourth or one-seventh imagined, so that a latticework or series of moving scrims sail into and out of the mind’s eye, often bringing simultaneously into one another’s company the imaginable, the barely imaginable, and the almost unimaginable. Sometimes… we are asked to picture something; other times we are asked to picture picturing something.

The literary instruction then can become very hazy indeed, as when we have clauses within clauses, or when we are asked to suppose a possibility or an event in the future (the subjunctive mood). I would add that if, as Ian McEwan once put it “every sentence contains a ghostly commentary on its own processes,” then we should also include layers of allusion and metafictional awareness. Older texts hover behind or before the scene we picture, as does its very nature as a representation. In Pale Fire, for instance, there is the “scrim” of the title’s allusion to Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: “The moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.” We enter Nabokov’s novel amid a celestial latticework, veils of sunlight and moonlight, false azure panes, reflections in glass, life and death, substance and illusion, all shot through with the mist of derivation, a pale and purloined fire.

There is an eerie sex scene in the middle of Denis Villeneuve’s new film, Blade Runner 2049. A replicant cop named K, played by an impassive Ryan Gosling, comes home to his avatar girlfriend, who “emanates” as a slightly translucent hologram from a device attached to the ceiling. Joi has a surprise for him. She has hired a sex worker to embody her so they can have physical intercourse. Joi syncs with Mariette, stepping into her from behind and aligning their bodies so that the holographic form conforms to the human one. As K stares, their faces overlay in a shifty coincidence; they are similar but not the same. The layered image is distinct from the weird gloopy CGI facial manipulations we know from that old Michael Jackson video or from that new app that predicts the genetic amalgam of potential parents. K’s two lovers in one, by contrast, are skittery, uncanny. Their stuttered movements as they reach out to caress him at different speeds—a measure, it seems, of the respective urgency of their desires—look like trails from an acid trip. Their arms drift apart, yielding a many-limbed goddess; they caress K with their four hands; they offer up a quadralabial kiss; we cut to a post-coital bed at dawn, ruffled with the aftermath. Villeneuve recently told Vulture that the visual effect took a year to perfect and “used a blend of very, very old techniques and cutting-edge technology.” Its imperfect matching was intentional: “I didn’t want Joi to just envelop Marietta, I didn’t want it to feel magical, I wanted to feel the limit of the technology.”

Perhaps this is why it is not a sexy scene, although given the film’s extended stay in Las Vegas, many read it as a threesome or along the lines of that bizarro Playboy fetish: sex with twin sisters. “I loved the idea that you were feeling both presences of both women at the same time and that sometimes, it was like you were feeling a third woman.” You were feeling—Villeneuve’s words imply that he and the viewer are to identify with K’s male gaze. But Villeneuve notes in the interview that the two actresses “were both mesmerized” when they saw the final cut of the scene. There is something more archetypal than a threeway going on here. A week after I first watched the film, I woke to the realization that it was the closest depiction I’d ever seen of that dream logic whereby a person is more than one, that experience we traduce by saying, the next morning, “It was you but it was also him? It was me but I was also her?”

The scene relies on layering rather than merging, and this is true in both the obvious visual sense and in the imaginative sense of narrative world building that Scarry describes. In her role as Joi, Ana de Armas gives a game performance as a devoted girlfriend experience; Mariette, played by a spunky, punky Mackenzie Davis, is simply another version of a sci-fi love interest. The next morning, she puts on her black zipper boots, and snaps out a smart-aleck farewell to the quivering, grateful avatar: “I’ve been inside you, and there’s not as much there as you like to think.” That their combination does not add dimension to either character suggests how thin and flat and transparent these female roles are in the first place. Merging two manic pixie dreamgirls does not a woman make. As many viewers have noted, hovering over the scene is an earlier filmic moment from Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), where a female OS recruits a real girl to have sex with a forlorn hipster boyfriend. Where that attempt to ventriloquize a flesh marionette ends in disaster, here Joi inhabits Mariette literally and successfully, though it benefits neither woman in the end. As this comparison suggests, we are expected to watch the scene in Blade Runner 2049 through the lens of Her and other versions of that apparently inexorable genre, the nonhuman girlfriend experience: Ex Machina (2015), Lars and the Real Girl (2007, starring none other than Ryan Gosling), and, of course, the original Blade Runner.


Warner Bros.Sean Young as Rachael and Harrison Ford as Deckard in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, 1982

In Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, sex with a replicant sets up the premise of this sequel: What if she got pregnant and gave birth? The possibility of this unnatural (or too natural) reproduction motivates the competing parties in Blade Runner 2049. A group of replicants want to prove that they are human with this “miracle” of birth. The villain—Jared Leto, in an anemic performance as the inventor of a new obedient replicant model—inexplicably believes that biological reproduction offers a more efficient technology to grow an android work force. After K discovers that what he has long assumed to be a dream is a childhood memory, he comes to believe that he is the “born”child of Rachael, Deckard’s replicant lover in the first Blade Runner. This would make him the biological, as well as the cinematic, son to Harrison Ford’s Deckard. And it raises the possibility that the sex he has with Mariette could lead to yet another replicant pregnancy and birth—to be played by Gosling’s son in Blade Runner 2079, perhaps?

If the original movie obsessed over the relative “realness” of humans and replicants, this sequel ramifies that obsession by testing the question against another “being”: an avatar. We are at yet another remove from the real, Joi merely a version—an instantiation—of feminine projection. When we first meet her, the film plays with the consumerist tenor of “reproduction” as she flashes through a series of outfits to suit K’s preferences, and plops the translucent projection of a delicious meal over the pottage on his plate. K then gives her a gift—he uploads her into a portable device that allows him to bring her outside. Joi experiences rain for the first time, the drops landing on her with tiny tangles of lightning on her surface, a scattered glitching over the skin. We all know that sensory wonder: the rain telling us our shape in space. This humanizes Joi and contributes to the idea that she is developing a sense of self, a genuine personality, perhaps in the way our individual iPhones come to recognize our distinctive spelling over time. We see Joi express her dislike for a novel, encourage K’s self-realization as “special,” and even grant him a name, Joe. She requests that K upload her memory (all of the details about her that have accrued over their time together) into a portable device so she can accompany him on his quest. When that device is destroyed by a malicious replicant, Luv, a sinister femme fatale, we gasp—Joi is dead! There is a delectable irony when a little while later, K, disillusioned of the idea that he is human, pauses on a bridge. A giant projected naked holographic advertisement with Joi’s face walks over—the size differential is reminiscent of Avatar. Smoke streaming through her, she kneels before him, points her finger at him. She coyly calls him Joe. Joi’s idiosyncrasy was programmed into her all along, just as, it turns out, K’s childhood memory/dream was programmed into him. His realness collapses as hers does, her manifest translucency standing in for the thinness of their humanness.

The question everyone asks about Blade Runner 2049: “Is it as good as the original?” The film does not shy from this looming shadow of a precursor. Like many recent sci-fi sequels and reboots, it insists on it, digs in. Blade Runner 2049 plays its derivative quality not for laughs à la Star Trek, nor for sentimentality à la Star Wars, but for uncanny effects closer to déjà vu than nostalgia. If the avatar and the replicant are programmed by humans to act in certain ways, the film is itself scripted to play out in lines set by the original, which was itself a derivative work. Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) was based on a co-authored screenplay that underwent several revisions, including lines grafted in by the actors. Its title came from William S. Burroughs’s film treatment of a novel by Alan E. Nourse that bears no relation to Dick’s. Scott used a technique for world building in the film that he called “layering”: “a film is like a seven-hundred-layer layer cake,” he told Paul Sammon, who calls this “a dense, kaleidoscopic accretion of detail within every frame.” Outfits and sets were constructed from previous films: Rachael’s dresses were based on Mildred Pierce (1945); shots from The Shining (1980) were spliced into a happy ending for the theatrical release; neon signs were borrowed from the set of One From the Heart (1982).

Despite all of these layers, Blade Runner maintains the skew gender politics of Dick’s novel—of course, there are “pleasure models” of androids, and, of course, they are either femme fatales or childlike victims. At one point, a woman covered in clear sequins performs on stage, apparently with a live snake. She showers and waltzes around her dressing room topless in front of Deckard. Later, draped in not much more than a clear trench coat, she crashes through an arcade’s worth of glass windows as he hunts her down and shoots her in the back. It’s difficult to watch even the crucial sex scene between the innocent Rachael and Deckard now without seeing coercion and perhaps even rape. (Can a replicant programmed to obey give consent?) Villeneuve’s sequel justifies its perpetuation of sexist representation through its fidelity to Scott’s classic. The screenplay is by the same writer, Hampton Fancher; Scott stayed on the project as a producer. Blade Runner 2049 is not set in our future, but rather in the future of the original—Pan Am still exists, Atari continues to be a dominant company, the Soviet Union is still around. The climate-changed, Asianized Los Angeles extends and decays the neo-noir Cold War milieu of Blade Runner, thirty years on. This is a future where detectives still listen to Frank Sinatra and, like Sherlock Holmes, take up beekeeping after they retire. In another hologrammatic spectacle, Harrison Ford reprises his many roles as grizzled, punch-swinging hero in the midst of a Las Vegas hall that projects iconic performances on stage: Elvis, Marilyn, dancing showgirls blazing up in the dark like the gas flares in Scott’s opening shot of LA in the original.


Warner Bros. Home EntertainmentLoren Peta as Rachael in Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, 2017

This belatedness of the sequel’s future changes its genre. This is not a work of prophetic science fiction. It is an alternative history—tracing out the implications of another timeline, like Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1964). This is perhaps why the layered repetitions in Villeneuve’s film do not build toward a new world, or multiply possibilities forward, but rather double them back, trapping them in an infinite regression of stereotype and allusion. This limits the film’s sense of political possibility—it is hard to float a different kind of future for women if we’re still tangled in the kite strings of 1980s misogyny. Sean Young is resurrected as the replicant Rachael in another visual special effect that also took a year to make, also required a physical stand-in (the actress, Loren Peta), and overlaid “several actresses in order to find the closest thing that sounds like Sean Young, as close as possible.” Unlike the sex scene, this time the meshing of women had to be perfect: “We worked on it until we felt that she looks real,” Villeneuve told GameSpot. “I didn’t want people to think it’s a synthetic performance.” This makes sense plotwise; Rachael is a forever-young replicant, not a human being who ages. Then again, there has long been a theory—lurking in Dick’s novel, touted by fans, affirmed by Scott—that Deckard is a replicant, too. So how do we reconcile that with Ford’s wrinkles and grey hair? It seems as though exact repetition is feminine, a thin pastiche of reflections—and dangerous. In Paradise Lost, Eve, made in Adam’s likeness, falls in love with her own reflection and is associated with the moon. In Blade Runner 2049, this perfect replica of Rachael is trotted out to spark emotion in Deckard (and us) and is then promptly killed. Another replicant is slowly, painstakingly drowned, the camera lingering on her pale face submerged under water; yet another is born out of a plastic bag, subjected to her maker’s portentous speech, cut open across her womb, and left to bleed out. The waxwing is slain only to live on in and as a reflection. 

The novel Joi the avatar dislikes is Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which serves as a rather unmotivated plot point. A stanza from John Shade’s elegy for his daughter, who committed suicide, is used to test K’s psychological “levels.” The lines in the film refer to the crux of Shade’s poem, the vision he saw when he had a heart attack: “blood-black nothingness began to spin / A system of cells interlinked within / Cells interlinked within cells interlinked / Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct / Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.” Shade reads a story in the paper about a woman who had the exact same near-death vision, only to learn later that there was a typo: she saw a mountain not a fountain. He concludes: “Life Everlasting—based on a misprint!” Blade Runner 2049, too, is obsessed with birth and death and error, all of which are offered as possible limit conditions for being human. The film also gives us glimpses of the dreamy, uncanny possibilities of a shifty not-quite coincidence. But, in the end, Villeneuve’s allusion to Nabokov confesses the derivative status of his sequel: the latter half of Pale Fire is made up of fake scholarly annotations to Shade’s poems. Charles Kinbote’s notes on the original, parsing its allusions, echoing its lines, are remarkable in their own right, but they are belated, secondhand, the pale fire of a moon that has no light without the sun.

Here in California, the sky is on fire. It’s a slow burn on the horizon, an endless dawn behind veils of ash. All greys and glows. It’s surely a coincidence that Villeneuve’s film was released in a month that saw rampaging wildfires and the explosion of an oil refinery here; so soon after the death of Hugh Hefner, whose Palms Hotel and Playboy Mansion are models for the giant high-heeled, fellating statues out in the deserts of Blade Runner 2049; a mere week after the mass shooting in Las Vegas that laid out bodies in piles like the replicants mowed down by cops in the film. Science fiction’s prophetic powers have always been disconcerting. How much more terrifying if the future is already here and it looks just like the past.


Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is now in theaters.

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Leave Novelists Out of Fiction


Private Collection/Portal Painters/Bridgeman ImagesJonathan Wolstenholme: Shakespearean Scholar, 2003

Why do we have so many novels and films featuring writers and artists? Films abound—Amadeus, Picasso, Turner, Oscar Wilde, Neruda, Leopardi. In fiction we have, among others, Michael Cunningham’s Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Colm Tóibín’s Henry James in The Master. And now the English novelist Jo Baker has dramatized the war years of Samuel Beckett.

What is the attraction? With intriguing variations, the underlying plot is mostly the same and, in the end, not so unlike Joyce’s autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We savor the artist’s growing awareness of his or her specialness, which becomes one with a particular, always unconventional vision of the world, a peculiar style of thought, an almost mythical superiority to run of the mill experience. And we marvel at society’s obtuseness, its determination to obstruct this special sensitivity, which the reader at once admires and yearns to share, perhaps conceding a little of the same to the author of the new work—Tóibín, perhaps, or Cunningham—who thus borrows some glory from his or her more celebrated subject.

If there is a risk in a project like this, something the straightforward biographer need not worry about, it is the danger of being compared, as an artist, to the artist hero. A poem about Leopardi would very likely invite the reader to reflect that Leopardi was the finer poet. Likewise a novel that took, say, Hemingway as its hero. Always assuming, that is, that contemporary readers are sufficiently familiar with Leopardi’s poetry, or Hemingway’s novels. If they are not, there is the second problem that, unaware of the real achievement of the artist/hero in question, they may simply not appreciate why the subject is worth so much attention. They cannot pick up the allusions that link the great writer with his or her work.

In The Master, Tóibín has James notice a little girl performing an innocence that she doesn’t perhaps truly possess. The reader is presumably supposed to realize, Ah, so that’s where What Maisie Knew came from! If you’ve never read What Maisie Knew it’s hard to see what’s so interesting. If you’ve not only read the novel, but reread it and admired it deeply, this kind of connection might seem simplistic. It’s hard to see how a writer can get around this. Certainly this kind of novel is stronger when it dramatizes a pattern of behavior in line with what we find in the novels, rather than merely image and incident.

Jo Baker’s previous novel, Longbourn, was also a form of benign literary parasitism. Just as Tom Stoppard once focused on two minor figures in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to give us Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Baker dramatized the life of the servants who minister to the main characters of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But while Stoppard offered a sparkling absurdist play, Jo Baker’s work is solid realism, insisting on the physical effort and sheer drudgery of those who served the privileged. Alongside the fun of recognizing events in Austen’s novel, as seen and interpreted by the servants, there was also the satisfaction of agreeing that inequality of opportunity is an ugly thing and feeling mildly superior to the Bennet family and their time.

To move from this charming entertainment to dramatizing the life of the twentieth-century artist who, more than any other, insisted on his apartness, his reticence, and privacy, a man who felt the traditional novel, and indeed language in general, was utterly inadequate to express experience, or, worse than inadequate, mendacious, suggests ambition of a different order. Both Henry James and Virginia Woolf had developed elaborate styles to mimic the unfolding of consciousness, suggesting how their own minds moved. This allowed Tóibín and Cunningham—great talents in their own right—to imitate those styles and achieve a certain authenticity for their imaginings; they seemed close in spirit to their literary heroes, as if their books were a natural continuation of the earlier authors’ endeavours.

But Beckett did no such thing. He did not believe that words could express interiority, or really very much at all, and his work never presents conventional reality in a traditional manner. “It is indeed becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me,” he observed, “to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it.”

To attempt, then, to present this man as the hero of a traditional realist novel with an omniscient narrator who moves effortlessly in and out of the most intimate thoughts of both Beckett and his partner, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, when they’re enjoying or failing to enjoy love-making, fleeing the Germans, or simply drinking with friends, inevitably suggests an abyss between the sensibilities of Baker and her hero. She ably describes a lanky, diffident, disconnected man who looks like the Beckett of the photographs and behaves as Beckett is described as behaving in the biographies, but the moment we become privy to his thoughts, it is very hard to imagine we are reading about Beckett at all. “How easy,” wrote Emil Cioran, “to imagine [Beckett], some centuries back, in a naked cell, undisturbed by the least decoration, not even a crucifix.” How much more difficult to think of him worrying that Suzanne will be upset if he stays out for another whisky or two.

Baker’s title, A Country Road, A Tree recalls the stripped-down stage directions that open Waiting for Godot. The idea of her novel is that it was Beckett’s wartime experiences that took him from being a rather pathetic Joycean acolyte, seeking and failing to reproduce the richness of his mentor’s work, to becoming an independent artist with a clear sense of a quite different project, to present experience in its most basic and irreducible manifestation, something very like the tired, broken, hungry, unwashed body of the many war refugees with whom he would share his life in these years. In reality, in the letter quoted above, written in 1937, Beckett had already remarked that he was headed in a very different direction from Joyce.

Baker begins her story with Beckett deciding to return to Paris and Suzanne after a holiday in Ireland, despite England’s declaration of war on Germany, despite his widowed mother’s desperation, despite having no apparent part to play in the forthcoming conflict. It then tracks the couple’s confused movements first to the South of France, following Joyce and other friends—Joyce was to die shortly after reaching Switzerland—then back to Paris during the occupation. At this point, Beckett gets drawn into the French Resistance, collecting and correlating information passed to him by different agents. It was a major step for one who had always had difficulty involving himself in any kind of collective enterprise. Baker gives us his supposed emotions and thoughts as he types out a message indicating a movement of warships that will very likely cause the British to bomb Brest:

His fingertips peck out the letters, and the letters strike on to the paper, and the letters cluster into words, and the words seethe on the page, and he can’t bear this and yet it must be borne. He swallows down spittle, closes his eyes. All he can see is fire and blood and broken stone.

Eventually betrayed, he and Suzanne take refuge in safe houses, and are then helped to escape, not without various heart-in-mouth vicissitudes, south to Roussillon, in the so-called free zone above Marseilles, where they live in a small community of likeminded exiles and in constant fear of further betrayal. Anxious not to be entirely passive, Beckett again becomes involved in the Resistance, storing explosives and helping to impede the German retreat. Returning to Ireland and his mother at the end of the war, he sees no hope of remaining, but at last experiences the revelation of the path he must pursue. The wild Joycean “hubbub,” as Baker has Beckett imagine it, must be abandoned for the essential profile of a stark figure against the night. He goes back to France to work in a field hospital as part of the process of reconstruction, then finally heads for Paris and Suzanne where, at last, he can sit down in peace and unburden himself of all he must write.

There is much opportunity for action and melodrama here. Hunger, terror, cold, pursuit, gunshots, rationing. Baker tells it in an emphatic, evocative style. Suzanne’s face is “open as a wound.” Beckett feels “a gut-punch of guilt.” British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s voice “spools” from the radio and “tangles” across the floor. Moonlight “kicks off Perspex.” A car “burns through scattered dwellings.” A train “is peeling past.” And so on.

Meanwhile, the images crucial for Beckett’s future work are patiently gathered. A painting by Rouault where “trees stand like gibbets by the roadside” has Beckett raptly gazing; it’s the setting for Godot. Hungry, Beckett sucks a stone, and the knowing reader looks forward to the hilarious sucking-stone routine in the later novel Molloy. During a conversation “soft words accumulate, like sand trickling through an hourglass. They are up to their knees in it and yet still they can’t stop.” One cannot, of course, be up to one’s knees in an hourglass, but the mixed metaphor allows us to look forward to Happy Days, where the lead actress is slowly buried in sand. Feeling “shambolic. A broken-down old tramp. A mummy,” Beckett himself metamorphoses into one of the battered figures in his later fiction.

It’s all admirably earnest, but never convincing. Nor does Baker know what to do with the relationship between Beckett and Suzanne. Alternating between admiring facilitator and exasperated mother figure, adoring or nagging, Suzanne never emerges as the intellectual she was. She is shown despairing over the doodles Beckett made while trying to translate his early novel Murphy into French, but we hear nothing of her reaction to the utterly bizarre and quite wonderful novel, Watt, that Beckett wrote while waiting the war out in Roussillon. It is as if Baker herself had no idea how to put this strange achievement in relation to her hero’s wartime life.

When Beckett and Suzanne are imagined waiting by a tree as night falls for a contact who is to take them across the border into the free zone, and begin to use, when the contact doesn’t show up, almost exactly the words from Godot, the whole strategy is revealed as embarrassingly mechanical. Very likely, the war years did offer Beckett images and experiences that, stripped of context, he would make universally powerful, but speculatively reconstructing the context to then color it with the melodrama Beckett assiduously pared away hardly seems a helpful exercise.

In an afterword, as if to justify her efforts, the author offers an uplifting moral gloss on her story. During the war, in “impossibly difficult situations, [Beckett] consistently turned towards what was most decent and compassionate and courageous… he grew, as a writer and as a man. Afterwards he would go on to write the work that would make him internationally famous, and for which he would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.” What a happy formula: goodness, personal growth through hardship, artistic fame. It is the reductio ad absurdum of this strange form of fiction that would have us consume our literary heroes in a conveniently palatable sauce.

“Work that still resonates powerfully with us today,” Baker goes on to say, using the sort of pat phrase that had Beckett comparing conventional prose with a Victorian bathing suit. Not powerfully enough, one might object, if this is the novel it has led to. Here, by way of decontamination, is Beckett from Watt. Our eponymous hero has been struggling with the feeling that the word “pot” no longer seems quite right to denote, well, the thing he used to call a pot. The mismatch makes him anxious.

Then, when he turned for reassurance to himself… he made the distressing discovery that of himself too he could no longer affirm anything that did not seem as false as if he had affirmed it of a stone. Not that Watt was in the habit of affirming things of himself, for he was not, but he found it a help, from time to time, to be able to say, with some appearance of reason, Watt is a man, all the same, Watt is a man, or, Watt is in the street, with thousands of fellow-creatures within call.… And Watt’s need of semantic succour was at times so great that he would set to trying names on things, and on himself, almost as a woman hats. Thus of the pseudo-pot he would say, after reflection, It is a shield, or, growing bolder, It is a raven, and so on. But the pot proved as little a shield, or a raven, or any other of the things that Watt called it, as a pot. As for himself, though he could no longer call it a man, as he had used to do, with the intuition that he was perhaps not talking nonsense, yet he could not imagine what else to call it, if not a man. But Watt’s imagination had never been a lively one. So he continued to think of himself as a man, as his mother had taught him, when she said, There’s a good little man, or, There’s a bonny little man, or, There’s a clever little man. But for all the relief that this afforded him, he might just as well have thought of himself as a box, or an urn.

Extraordinary how Beckett, taking an axe to the relation between words and things, conveys and entertains so much more than the novelist who confidently puts words to his inner thoughts. We should read our great authors, not mythologize them.

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