Месечни архиви: октомври 2018

Erdoğan’s Flights of Fancy

Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with his wife, Emine, and the presidents of Serbia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, and Kosovo at the opening ceremony of new airport in Istanbul, October 29, 2018

This week, planes began landing at Istanbul’s new airport. At least the guessing game over its name is complete—as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared “Istanbul Airport” open—since this is more than can be said for the airport itself: the additional terminal buildings and runways will not be finished until 2028. Then, finally, the airport’s planned capacity of 200 million passengers per year and its size (7,594 hectares) will make it the world’s largest airport, just as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan desired. It will be far ahead of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta (103 million passengers, 1,902 hectares), Beijing Capital (95 million passengers, 1,480 hectares), Dubai (88 million passengers, 2,900 hectares), and Tokyo Haneda (85 million passengers, 1,214 hectares). A report from Turkey’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation borrows from literature to ennoble the visionary nature of Erdoğan’s signature project: “Terminal buildings resemble vertical towns similar to those imaginary towns which Italo Calvino describes in his unforgettable work Invisible Cities.” Istanbul’s new airport is thus to embody its own Invisible City.

Even as, in recent weeks, the international community and foreign media have been obsessing over the fallout from the Jamal Khashoggi case, Turks are more preoccupied with domestic affairs and, in particular, their president’s grand plans for transforming Turkey into a regional economic powerhouse. The titanic scale of the new airport project that promises to deliver that vision has come, however, at a steep price, $12 billion, and at a time of severe economic crisis. Since January 2018, the Turkish currency has lost nearly 35 percent of its value against the dollar. Many consider the airport and Erdoğan’s two other huge infrastructure projects, a new intercontinental bridge in Istanbul and a canal connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, as irrational endeavors; and it is doubtful that most Turks can afford air travel when the average price of a ticket has risen 106 percent over the past year. But Erdoğan defiantly calls the programs his “crazy projects” and says they will help raise Turkey’s GDP to $2 trillion by 2023, and lift Turkey out of its financial crisis. 


Erdoğan’s recent sharp turns in economic policy have baffled observers. He advocates lowering interest rates as an antidote to inflation, while economists say he misunderstands how interest rates work. He pushes for unassailable control over monetary policy, which analysts say undermines the independence of Turkey’s Central Bank. This summer, as Turkey’s currency value fell dramatically during a dispute with President Trump over an American pastor imprisoned in Turkey, Erdoğan commissioned a new, lakeside presidential summer palace. 

Erdoğan started out as an economic pragmatist back in 2002, when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power, but his response to the financial crisis of 2008 and the recession was to launch a new policy of authoritarian Keynesianism. In 2011, shifting the focus of the Turkish economy to construction projects, he proposed building the canal between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara: project “Canal Istanbul.” On completion in 2023, this waterway—some 500 feet wide, more than 80 feet deep, and thirty miles long—would surpass the Panama and Suez canals in scale, effectively turn Istanbul’s historic center into an island, and reduce oil-tanker traffic through the narrow Bosphorus strait. This transformation would, Erdoğan said, allow the Bosphorus to become “the place it was in the old days, a natural wonder.” 

In the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman, known as “the Lawgiver” by Turks and “the Magnificent” by Europeans, dreamed of something similar. Süleyman’s canal would have allowed ships to carry timber for the Ottoman Navy to expand its Mediterranean fleet and wood to the inhabitants of Constantinople to heat their homes. But the huge technical challenges prevented the realization of this Ottoman dream. Four centuries later, Bülent Ecevit, a left-wing politician known by his supporters as “the Dark Boy” because of his hair color, made a similar proposal. During his campaign for the 1994 local elections, he promoted the canal scheme as his “Mega Project,” but 87 percent of Turkish voters didn’t buy it.  

In the 2011 general elections, however, two months after the announcement of Canal Istanbul, Erdoğan’s AKP received 49 percent of the vote—making it the largest party in parliament and giving Erdoğan himself an unassailable mandate. Erdoğan, hailed as “the Chief” by his followers who applauded his “crazy projects,” soon announced another of them: Istanbul would have the world’s largest airport. A year later, in May 2012, Turkey’s Ministry of Transportation gave its approval for a third bridge in Istanbul. Located a few miles east of the area allocated for the new airport, the new bridge would be the world’s second-tallest and one of the widest. With a budget of $2.5 billion dollars, it would connect the new airport and the canal project to the city, and it would take the name of another Ottoman sultan, Selim I “the Grim,” the first to assume the title “Caliph.” The construction of the bridge began on May 29, 2013, the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.


From the outset, these big infrastructure programs have been interesting for their interaction with democracy: at their best, as with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Interstate program, such projects can be Keynesian expressions of national will. But under an undemocratic form of Keynesianism, as in Erdoğan’s Turkey, they instead became symbols of a slide into illiberalism. Young Turks were the first to notice: the week construction on the bridge began in May 2013, about a hundred Turkish environmentalists, most in their early twenties, occupied Gezi, a public park in central Istanbul. They pitched tents and sprayed environmentalist graffiti on walls against the “crazy projects.”

Gezi was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. With the help of social media, protests expanded to dozens of Turkish cities and the number of protesters increased to around two million in a fortnight. Der Spiegel put Gezi protesters on its cover; the headline was Beugt euch nicht (“Don’t Bow”). A Turkish columnist responded by asking, “Why should I take the side of Germany and Lufthansa and say no to the new Istanbul airport?” Many conservatives considered the uprising as a foreign-backed attempt to hinder new development.

At the same time, in July 2013, the group of Turkish environmentalists at Gezi Park formed the Northern Forests Defense (NFD). In the half-decade since its formation, NFD has issued hundreds of statements about the airport’s potential environmental effects. On its website, NFD published an English language e-book titled The Third Airport Project whose findings make for sad reading. They documented that, according to the government’s own figures, some 650,000 trees would be cut down and more than 1.8 million would be moved during construction. The group also pointed out that the project endangered some 600,000 birds, which pass close to the airport on their spring and fall migrations. Aside from the disruption to the birds’ habitat and migration routes, the airport’s location makes the birds a significant strike-hazard for airliners.

Bulen Kilic/AFP/Getty ImagesTurkish police officers arresting protesters gathered in support of workers that were arrested earlier for protesting labor conditions at Istanbul’s new airport, in Istanbul, September 15, 2018

On November 12, 2013, at the New School in New York, the Turkish artist Burak Arıkan presented a collective data-mapping project that he called Networks of Dispossession. The three-dimensional chart documented the complex relationships among the Turkish government’s many projects and the companies involved in realizing them. It linked more than 600 companies, fifty government institutions, and forty media organizations with 500 projects, including two bridges, three convention centers, nine dams, twenty-two harbors, six highways, ten hospitals, twenty-five hotels, three nuclear power plants, three oil refineries, three religious buildings, sixty shopping malls, and the new Istanbul Airport.

Networks of Dispossession was exhibited at the Istanbul Biennial in 2013, and an updated version displayed on a large wall at the MAXXI museum in Rome from 2015 to 2016. In both versions, the new Istanbul airport appears at the heart of a profit-generating confluence of public projects and private companies: it is the centerpiece of what Erdoğan calls the “New Turkey.”

The airport project in particular revealed overly close ties between the government and the lenders and builders. The airport’s local contractor, a consortium of five builders, won the contract in 2013. To deliver on its bid, it took a loan from six Turkish banks. Bloomberg reported that one bank loaned $1.5 billion to the contractors, while two others chipped in $966 million each. Over the next half-decade, the money dried up; the project’s budget has ballooned, and gone way over. In April 2018, the consortium asked for an additional $1.23 billion to finish work on the airport.

There have also been growing complaints about conditions for workers on the job. In October 2016, Evrensel, a Communist Turkish newspaper, reported that workers were living inside crowded shipping containers and laboring up to sixteen hours a day. A “security coordinator” interviewed by the paper likened the construction site to a prison. Workers have received little instruction about safety, the paper claimed, and there have been numerous fatal accidents; workers have been crushed to death by equipment at the site or have fallen to their deaths. There have been conflicts among the men as well. One death occurred when a thirty-six-year-old man had a fight with a fellow laborer inside a container and was set on fire.

Rumors about the number of deaths soon spiraled out of control. In the Turkish Parliament, an opposition lawmaker filed a formal inquiry about reports that up to 400 workers had died at the construction site. In February 2018, the government announced that twenty-seven, not 400, workers had died over the past three years. The last reported death occurred in July, when the cable of a mobile crane broke, dropping material weighing thirty tons on the crane’s cabin where a fifty-two-year-old operator sat.

Over the past year, the government initiated a media campaign to allay public concern about the airport. The state-run news agency Anadolu published a video filmed at the construction site that featured laborers enjoying a game of snooker, playing musical instruments and dancing, buying coffee at a well-supplied market. But when 537 laborers protesting working conditions inside the airport were detained by police in September 2018, the news agency didn’t report the story. Subsequently, an Istanbul court ordered twenty-four construction workers and union leaders detained during the raid to be held until their trial, a measure Amnesty International called “a blatant attempt by the authorities to silence legitimate protest.” According to Human Rights Watch, at least thirty-eight workers have died in “preventable work-related accidents” at the airport site, “and many more have been badly injured.”


On June 21, three days before this year’s presidential election, Erdoğan’s official plane landed on the airport’s first runway. Earlier, newspapers had run reports of laborers rushing to wrap up the construction in time for the president’s sixty-fourth birthday on February 26, but that deadline was missed. The opening of the subway line connecting the airport to central Istanbul, scheduled for 2018, was also delayed, to 2019. 

Istanbul’s first airport, which opened in 1912 as an airfield and in 1953 as an airport, was named after Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. The second, which opened during a year of debilitating financial crisis in 2001, was named after Turkey’s first female pilot, Sabiha Gökçen, who was Atatürk’s adopted daughter. There is also an airfield, located in a town called Çatalca on the outskirts of Istanbul, named Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi, an Ottoman inventor from the seventeenth century.

In his travelogue, Seyahatname, Ottoman writer Evliya Çelebi claims Hezârfen had flown over the Bosphorus with artificial wings in 1638. Hezârfen, Evliya says, first “practiced by flying over the pulpit of Okmeydanı eight or nine times with eagle wings, using the force of the wind.” Then, as Ottoman Sultan Murad watched from his mansion, Hezârfen “flew from the very top of the Galata Tower and landed in the Doğancılar Square in Üsküdar, with the help of the south-west wind.” His flight made the sultan both proud and afraid: after giving him a sack of golden coins, Evliya claims, the sultan called Hezârfen a scary man “capable of doing anything he wishes,” and exiled the inventor to Algeria.

Evliya, who was born forty-five years after the death of Süleyman “the Magnificent,” had a fanciful approach to his writing; in Seyahatname, his imagination certainly supplied more than he could have remembered. Still, the image of an Istanbul local flying over the Bosphorus with artificial wings, continues to haunt the Turkish imagination. Some columnists demanded that the new airport be named Hezârfen; others preferred the name of his chronicler and asked for an “International Evliya Çelebi Airport.” Most pushed for Atatürk, since the current Atatürk Airport will be closed to commercial aviation at the end of 2018. Conservative Turks started an online petition to have it named “Abdul Hamid II Airport.” This way, they wrote, “Muslims who land in Istanbul can experience the joy of arriving at the center of the caliphate.”

Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty ImagesA worker looking at the control tower of Istanbul’s new airport under construction, April 13, 2018

On a lazy Sunday last month, I attended a family luncheon in Poyrazköy, a northern Istanbul town a few miles from the new airport. On our way to the restaurant, the family sedan climbed through steep hills thick with the pine trees of the Northern Forests. The windows were down, the air was refreshing and unpolluted. As night fell, a breeze came from the Black Sea and the red lights of the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, which stood in the background, glowed. My cousin’s three-year-old son ran to the beach, where he played with his uncles and screamed with joy. Someone had lit a fire nearby. Youngsters savored the view of the sea by its light.

I relished the moment, but knew the serenity would soon fade. On December 30, a convoy of thousands of trucks will rattle the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge as they transport the equipment of Turkey’s national carrier from Atatürk Airport to the unfinished new airport building. The chief executive of Turkish Airlines has compared the operation to the Ottomans’ carrying their ships over land during their conquest of Constantinople in 1453. It is as if the natural landscape of the Northern Forests were enemy territory that has finally been captured. 

In The Red-Haired Woman, the 2016 novel by Turkey’s Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, a middle-aged Turk who makes a fortune as a property developer looks down at Istanbul from his airplane seat. Wracked with guilt over an incident in his youth that involved a man’s death, the businessman imagines seeing the other’s preserved body at the exact place where he thinks the man drew his last breath; but the developer’s guilt also involves what he has done to the city of Istanbul. While international observers have been preoccupied with a man’s death, that of Jamal Khashoggi, and the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of his body, many Turks may in coming days feel more acutely that other burden of guilt the developer carries.

The new Istanbul Airport may have added 225,000 jobs to the economy and increased the GDP by an estimated 5 percent by 2025, and replaced a decaying and inadequate city airport, but this drive for growth and profit has come at the cost of something irreplaceable. As Turkish planes prepare to land on the runways of the world’s largest airport of the future, we may look at the Invisible City, its lights glittering at night, and remember that its dark spaces once abounded with towering trees and wandering birds, with families of foxes and flocks of sheep, with crystalline lakes and endless green fields—with life.

An earlier version of this essay misstated that the new Bosphorus bridge received planning approval in May 2013; this date was when construction began. The article has been updated.

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How Republicans Became Anti-Choice

Reversing Roe

Elliott Landy/Magnum PhotosAbortion rights demonstrators, New York City, 1968

It is impossible to understand American politics of the past half-century without taking abortion into account. The Brett Kavanaugh charade most recently, the machinations of the Republican Party more generally, and the infectious fundamentalism creeping into everyday life: all begin with abortion. Other issues may have been as divisive—civil rights comes to mind—but none has been as definitional. These days, the litmus test for Republicans running for political office or nominated to the judiciary is opposition to abortion. On the Democratic side, it is almost equally crucial to be pro-choice. Yet as the Netflix documentary Reversing Roe ably shows, this was not always the case.

Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision establishing a woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy for any reason in the first two trimesters, and in the third trimester under certain circumstances, was issued in 1973. Seven justices affirmed the decision, with Harry Blackmun, a Nixon appointee, writing for the majority. If that seems strange to us now—a conservative justice on a conservative court invoking a right to privacy on behalf of women—it is because the alliance between the Right to Life movement and the right wing appears to us to be so close as to be preordained. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Republicans were behind efforts to liberalize and even decriminalize abortion; theirs was the party of reproductive choice, while Democrats, with their large Catholic constituency, were the opposition.

Republican governor Ronald Reagan signed the California Therapeutic Abortion Act, one of the most liberal abortion laws in the country, in 1967, legalizing abortion for women whose mental or physical health would be impaired by pregnancy, or whose pregnancies were the result of rape or incest. The same year, the Republican strongholds of North Carolina and Colorado made it easier for women to obtain abortions. New York, under Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican, eliminated all restrictions on women seeking to terminate pregnancies up to twenty-four weeks gestation. (Reversing Roe shows young women in Dallas boarding airplanes headed to these states.) Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush were all pro-choice, and they were not party outliers. In 1972, a Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Republicans believed abortion to be a private matter between a woman and her doctor. The government, they said, should not be involved.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the right to abortion was forcefully supported and advanced by the Protestant clergy. The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCSA), which was established in 1967, not only counseled pregnant women about their choices, it enlisted physicians to perform abortions. One of these, who is featured in the film, was Dr. Curtis Boyd, a gynecologist and Baptist minister now in his eighties. He began his practice in Texas at the behest of the CCSA in 1968, fully aware that he was breaking the law. “Our role is to help [a woman] make a decision in the grace of God that she can live with,” Boyd told the Santa Fe Reporter and NM Political Report last year. He reckons he is the oldest abortion provider in the country. After the Roe decision, the CCSA opened the first legal abortion clinic in the United States, in New York City.

Roe v. Wade originated in Texas. (The named defendant, Henry Wade, was the Dallas district attorney at the time.) In the years after the Supreme Court decision, women were able to obtain abortion services at forty-one clinics across the state. Today that number is down to twenty-two, with clinics so far apart that some women have to travel three hundred miles to reach one. In ten Texas cities with more than 50,000 residents, there isn’t a single abortion clinic. In the country as a whole, 162 abortion clinics or medical facilities that perform abortions have closed since 2011.

So what changed? Why did those pro-choice Republicans repudiate their support for a woman’s right to choose? Why did the 1976 Republican platform support “the efforts” of those calling for a constitutional amendment to protect the “right to life” of the unborn? Why is it, as John Seago, the legislative director of Texas Right to Life, tells the filmmakers, that anyone running for any office in his state must declare their opposition to abortion if they hope to be elected? How is it that between 2011 and 2014, twenty-seven states enacted 231 abortion restrictions? And why did four states—Mississippi, Iowa, Kentucky, and Indiana—pass laws just this year that diminish, if not contravene, the rights established back in 1973?

Reversing Roe does an admirable job of teasing apart how the Republican Party used control of women’s bodies as political capital to shift the balance of power their way. We watch politicians like George H.W. Bush and Reagan disavow their earlier pro-choice positions during their presidential campaigns, and organizations like the National Right to Life Committee in the late 1960s, and Operation Rescue two decades later, insinuate themselves into the Republican Party. We see Catholic bishops in the 1960s politicizing their congregations through exhortations from the pulpit and voter registration drives after Mass designed to get parishioners to switch their affiliation from Democrat to Republican.

What we don’t see is Richard Nixon, under the sway of Pat Buchanan and Charles Colson, plotting an anti-abortion strategy to lure those Catholic voters away from the Democratic Party, or how Gerald Ford and his advisers furthered that strategy, cynically adding pro-life language to the 1976 Republican platform, assuming that it would be a temporary maneuver. Instead, it turned out to be the opening that enabled religious anti-choice advocates to begin to remake the party.

Even more sinister, perhaps, than this ploy by the Republicans were the racist origins of that agenda. As the historian of religion Randall Balmer explains in the film, evangelicals became politically active in the 1970s, when they were thwarted by the courts and the Internal Revenue Service in their efforts to obtain tax-exempt status for “segregation academies” like Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg Christian School and Bob Jones University that heeded what they believed to be a biblical mandate to keep the races separate. Around the same time, Paul Weyrich, a Republican strategist, recognized the potential political power evangelical voters would have if they were to vote as a bloc, and tried to pull them into the fold with issues he thought might appeal to their moralism, such as the proliferation of pornography, the Equal Rights Amendment, and even abortion—which, prior to Roe, they were largely sympathetic toward and considered a Catholic issue.

Instead, as they began to organize against the government’s refusal to support segregated schools, Weyrich, who in the late 1970s was working on behalf of Reagan, saw his chance, though he understood that he—and they—would need an issue that had more popular appeal than outright racism. As Balmer puts it, “Weyrich says in effect, we’ve found our issue. Abortion is going to work for us as a political issue.”

Tanya Melich, a high-level Republican staffer who left the party when it began, as she called her book on the subject, the Republican war against women, explains:

It was a movement that said we were going to win the presidency through bigotry, but we are not going to come right out and say it…. They set out to change the dynamic in the Republican Party…. And they succeeded.

By 2009 only 26 percent of Republicans were pro-choice.

Since 2009, though, the number of Republicans who support abortion has inched up a bit. A Pew survey last year indicated that about 34 percent of Republicans believe abortion should not be illegal “in all or most cases.” Overall, 57 percent of Americans support abortion rights in all or most circumstances, as do 65 percent of people under thirty. These majorities are unlikely to matter, however, when challenges to Roe come before a newly realigned, anti-choice, conservative Supreme Court.

Those challenges, and the hundreds of constraints on abortions that have been enacted in the last few years, are just one part of a very effective strategy by the religious right to undermine Roe. Using the original ruling, which limited abortion as the pregnancy moved into the third trimester, anti-choice activists have underwritten a surfeit of increasingly restrictive laws in states across the country, knowing that eventually cases involving one or more of them will reach a receptive Supreme Court. In the meantime, they have created legal obstacles for women seeking to terminate their pregnancies and for health care providers who offer abortion services. These include, for instance, long wait times, “counseling” that talks about the fetus’s ability to feel pain, and a requirement that a woman look at her fetal sonogram as a doctor points out the fetus’s various developing body parts. A Texas law, now overturned, even dictated the width of clinic hallways. Additionally, the original trimester timetable in Roe has been scrapped in favor of a highly interpretable “fetal viability” standard, and states are now attempting to curtail abortion within a few weeks of conception, often before a woman knows she is pregnant.

“We’ve had a game plan for many years…and I think it’s coming to fruition,” Carol Tobias, the president of National Right to Life, tells the filmmakers. That plan has been to make the barriers to abortion so high that Roe will be nullified by default. For some anti-abortion activists, most notably those affiliated with Operation Rescue, it has also meant raising the stakes for health care providers to the point where it is no longer sensible or feasible for them to perform abortions. They have accomplished this by killing doctors in upstate New York, Florida, and, most famously, in a Kansas church; bombing abortion clinics in Florida, Tacoma, and Atlanta; setting fire to clinics in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Florida, Virginia, and Alabama; and harassing health care providers and their families, often in their homes. (This is an abbreviated list.)

“The weak link in the abortion chain is the person doing the actual abortions,” Troy Newman of Operation Rescue says, standing in front of a map that marks all the clinics his organization has shut down. “We’ve been very effective in targeting particular abortionists. If they don’t have an abortionist, the place closes down…. We have probably closed down hundreds of abortion clinics, and it’s the one thing I’m most proud of.” Indeed, Newman and his cohort have been so effective that there are now seven states that have only one abortion provider each, with a number of Republican governors vying to be the first state with none. It is especially egregious to watch the disgraced former Missouri governor Eric Greitens, an adulterer and alleged sexual predator (although he has denied the allegations), pledging to eliminate abortion services in his state at a special “pro-life” session of the legislature.

It is also galling to watch Mike Pence calling for Planned Parenthood to be defunded—“Why do I have to pay for [abortion]?” he asks a crowd of supporters—since, by law, federal money is already prohibited from paying for abortion services, and to see Donald Trump exclaiming during a presidential debate that Hillary Clinton and her pro-choice minions would allow babies to be “ripp[ed] out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.” “I knew those were Donald Trump’s words,…not the words of some speechwriter,” says Tony Perkins, the president of the evangelical Family Research Council. “When he did that, I believe he sealed the deal with pro-lifers across the country.” This was crucial, Perkins explained, because to win, he estimated, Trump needed the votes of nearly 80 percent of evangelicals.

With those words, too, Trump was upping the ante on a popular and successful anti-choice rhetorical device, the so-called partial-birth abortion. “Partial birth” is a political term, not a medical one, invented to mortify even ardent abortion supporters with graphic language and illustrations of living babies being wrenched from their mother’s bodies and killed, even though 90 percent of abortions occur in the first three months of pregnancy, and only slightly more than one percent happen after twenty-one weeks, the outer edge of viability, typically because of a fetal anomaly. According to a report on National Public Radio back in 2006, when the Supreme Court added the contested Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 to its docket, some members of Congress tried to amend that law to limit the ban solely to viable fetuses, but “abortion opponents complained that would leave most of the abortion procedures legal.” Partial-birth abortion, as a talking point, “took off like wildfire,” Newman says. “We made it an issue. We forced it on America.”

The Supreme Court’s 5–4 decision in 2007 upholding the 2003 “partial-birth” act, along with Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the 1992 ruling that scrapped Roe’s trimester timetable and replaced it with the vague fetal viability standard, has become as foundational as Roe itself, as they circumscribe by law when a woman can terminate a pregnancy. Even so, despite the concerted efforts of the religious right and the Republican Party and their successful campaigns to neuter Roe, abortion remains, if only nominally in some states, a constitutional right.

“We are going to keep plugging away to overturn Roe v. Wade because we believe this country shouldn’t be killing its babies,” Carol Tobias says in Reversing Roe. “Our roadblock has always been the Supreme Court.” Until it no longer is.

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What Thucydides Knew About the US Today

Philipp Foltz: Pericles’s Funeral Oration, 1877

On the morning after the 2016 presidential election I tried to distract myself by reading some pages of Thucydides that I had assigned for a class the next day, and found myself reading the clearest explanation I had seen of the vote that I was trying to forget. In the third book of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides describes the outbreak of civil war on the northern island of Corcyra in 427 BC:

There was the revenge taken in their hour of triumph by those who had in the past been arrogantly oppressed instead of wisely governed; there were the wicked resolutions taken by those who, particularly under the pressure of misfortune, wished to escape from their usual poverty and coveted the property of their neighbors; there were the savage and pitiless actions into which men were carried not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept away into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions.

The closest thing to a consolation that I found in the election was the catastrophic failure of almost every attempt to predict the outcome by using numerical data, instead of interpreting the passions that provoked it, as Thucydides interpreted the conflict in Corcyra. The most confident pre-election pollsters proclaimed themselves 99 percent certain of the result that didn’t happen. Even the least confident predicted exactly what did not occur.

Everyone who reads Thucydides knows him as the most profound and convincing historian of empire, not only in his own age but also in his explicit and implicit predictions of later ages. One of his great themes is Athenian exceptionalism and the moral and military failures that inevitably issued from it. Early in his book, he reconstructs or invents the funeral oration spoken by the Athenian leader Pericles to commemorate those who died in the first year of the Peloponnesian War, with its brilliantly inspiring praise of Athenian democracy in its full flower, prospering and triumphant through its voluntary self-control, its mutual responsibility, its reverence for the law.

Then, three sentences after the end of the oration, Thucydides, without making a point of the devastatingly subversive turn that his history is about to take, refutes almost everything Pericles said, everything that was self-deceiving and hollow. In the summer after the oration, Thucydides reports, Athens was afflicted by the plague, and its democracy collapsed into “a state of unprecedented lawlessness.” Those who survived cared only for “the pleasure of the moment and everything that might conceivably contribute to that pleasure,” and “no fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence.” Self-satisfied virtue is easy in prosperity, less so in crisis. Much of the book takes the form of debates that Thucydides records without explicitly endorsing either side, though it is almost always clear which side is closest to his own habits of thought. Pericles’s funeral oration seems to be a rare instance of a speech left unanswered by an opposing point of view. But the plague itself is the silent response to Pericles’s speech, and the clear victor in an unspoken but unmistakable debate.

Athens, soon after the plague, recovered its confident conviction—voiced by Pericles himself—that its political and technical superiority over lesser states justified its program of imperial expansion. A few years later, ignoring the warnings of its wisest general, Athens launched its expedition against primitive Sicily, anticipating an easy conquest of its ragged and outnumbered opponent. Instead, trapped in remote and unfamiliar territory, incompetent to fight a culture it ignorantly disdained, it suffered total defeat of its armed forces, and faced economic ruin at home.

Thucydides made this claim for his book:

It will be enough for me… if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.

He was proved right when Napoleon and Hitler sent their armies into Russia, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, when the United States sent its forces into Vietnam and Iraq.

Historians argue among themselves whether Thucydides is a moralizing philosopher or, in a common phrase, “the first scientific historian.” What is radical about him, and gives him his unerring clear-sightedness, is that he is both. He understands morals, not as a set of arbitrary rules imposed or wished upon reality, but part of the fabric of reality itself, in the same way that Greek philosophy had begun to understand physical laws as inseparable from reality. Thucydides came to the same insight that Ludwig Wittgenstein recorded centuries later when he wrote that ethics “must be a condition of the world like logic.”

In Thucydides’s morally coherent universe, moral action is also, inevitably, practical action, and immoral action is inevitably impractical, no matter how insistently short-sighted strategists pretend that it isn’t. He records a debate over capital punishment between Cleon, who was “remarkable among the Athenians for the violence of his character,” and the sober-minded Diodotus. Cleon wanted Athens to kill the captives it defeated in rebellious Mytilene. An empire, Cleon said, rules by fear; it must never be moved by pity. Diodotus responded by urging clemency, but insisted that he urged this choice not because it was the moral one, but because it seemed to him “the best thing for the state.” If Athens killed its captives, he said, cities that rebel in the future would have no motive to surrender, and Athens would waste its resources defeating opponents whose only practical choice was to fight to the death. If, however, Athens spared the defeated, they might even find reason to become its allies. After the debate, Athens for once made the moral and practical choice to spare the Mytilenians, though the vote was close—only for Athens, years later, to make its immoral and impractical choice to conquer Sicily.

In the two years since the 2016 US election, it seems ever more clear that Thucydides is the greatest historian not only of empire but also of contemporary politics. This excerpt is his account of civil war in Corcyra, 427 BC—and, equally, of politics in America, AD 2018:

So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime. If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect.

Revenge was more important than self-preservation. And if pacts of mutual security were made, they were entered into by the two parties only in order to meet some temporary difficulty, and remained in force only so long as there was no other weapon available. When the chance came, the one who first seized it boldly, catching his enemy off his guard, enjoyed a revenge that was all the sweeter from having been taken, not openly, but because of a breach of faith. It was safer that way, it was considered, and at the same time a victory won by treachery gave one a title for superior intelligence. And indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simple-mindedness honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second.

Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out. Leaders of parties in the cities had programs which appeared admirable—on one side political equality for the masses, on the other the safe and sound government of the aristocracy—but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves. In their struggles for ascendancy nothing was barred; terrible indeed were the actions to which they committed themselves, and in taking revenge they went farther still. Here they were deterred neither by the claims of justice nor by the interests of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment, and so, either by means of condemning their enemies on an illegal vote or by violently usurping power over them, they were always ready to satisfy the hatreds of the hour. Thus neither side had any use for conscientious motives; more interest was shown in those who could produce attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action. As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.

As the result of these revolutions, there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion. As for ending this state of affairs, no guarantee could be given that would be trusted, no oath sworn that people would fear to break; everyone had come to the conclusion that it was hopeless to expect a permanent settlement and so, instead of being able to feel confident in others, they devoted their energies to providing against being injured themselves. As a rule those who were least remarkable for intelligence showed the greater powers of survival. Such people recognized their own deficiencies and the superior intelligence of their opponents; fearing that they might lose a debate or find themselves out-maneuvered in intrigue by their quick-witted enemies, they boldly launched straight into action; while their opponents, overconfident in the belief that they would see what was happening in advance, and not thinking it necessary to seize by force what they could secure by policy, were the more easily destroyed because they were off their guard.

Certainly it was in Corcyra that there occurred the first examples of the breakdown of law and order. There was the revenge taken in their hour of triumph by those who had in the past been arrogantly oppressed instead of wisely governed; there were the wicked resolutions taken by those who, particularly under the pressure of misfortune, wished to escape from their usual poverty and coveted the property of their neighbors; there were the savage and pitiless actions into which men were carried not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept away into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions. Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself proudly in its true colors, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice, the enemy to anything superior to itself; for, if it had not been for the pernicious power of envy, men would not so have exalted vengeance above innocence and profit above justice. Indeed, it is true that in these acts of revenge on others men take it upon themselves to begin the process of repealing those general laws of humanity which are there to give a hope of salvation to all who are in distress, instead of leaving those laws in existence, remembering that there may come a time when they, too, will be in danger and will need their protection.

— Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner (Penguin, 1972; pp. 242–245)

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Llansol, Poet of the Posthumous

Josef Koudelka/Magnum PhotosPortugal, 1976

Everyone in Maria Gabriela Llansol’s trilogy of novels, Geography of Rebels, is dead. Friedrich Nietzsche died a long time ago; and so did St. John of the Cross; and so did the radical Protestant Thomas Müntzer, decapitated in the sixteenth century. In biography or history—not to mention in our own common understanding—death circumscribes life. But in the plotless world of Geography of Rebels, such seemingly natural ideas dissolve, replaced by a sphere in which death hardly even impinges. Müntzer carries around his severed head while participating fully in whatever “action” can be said to unfold in this book; and John of the Cross remembers his own death as a floating departure, akin to the bodily levitation he has mastered with his spiritual exercises.

“It’s clear I’m not telling the story of your lives,” Llansol writes. “(‘You don’t know how to tell the story of our breath,’ you say)… No one who reads me will be able to imagine what your lives were.” She has abandoned the perspective that a narrative form like the biography—or the sonata, with its exposition, development, and recapitulation—demands. Instead, like the bodies she describes, Llansol’s sentences snap into fragments, and time loses the logic that seems, in her world, to be an artificial, irrelevant imposition.   

These books were composed over a five-year period, from 1974 to 1979. At the time, Llansol was living in a small Belgian town called Jodoigne. She had left Portugal in 1965, at the beginning of the last agonizing decade of António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship. That regime, founded in 1926, predated her birth, in 1931, and proved to be one of the twentieth century’s most tenacious: it succumbed only in 1974, the year Llansol began Geography of Rebels.

Perhaps that was not a coincidence. By then, she was forty-three, but a writer who would become notably prolific had hardly published anything: there was a book of short stories in 1962, The Nails in the Grass, and its sequel, which appeared in 1973. Under the suffocating regime, her silence was typical. Poverty and oppression forced thousands of Portuguese into exile: whole villages of impoverished people left to become concierges in Paris or bakers in Rio. Political dissenters left because they had to; artists and intellectuals left for places where they could work in freedom.

Llansol was one such exile. Her husband, Augusto Joaquim, refused to participate in the cruel colonial wars that Portugal was waging in Africa, and the couple went to Belgium so that he could avoid military service. “I came with great daring,” she wrote, “and also with an enormous thirst for freedom, for novelty, for reaching the core of being. No one can possibly have even a pale image of the thickness of the air that we breathed down there, in the tiny closed cells of our lives. I was trying to escape in order to write.”     

Belgium gave her freedom. There, she discovered an institution peculiar to the Low Countries, the beguinage, medieval hostels that offered a refuge to spiritually inclined laypeople. These cells offered not captivity but freedom; and in the thirteenth-century beguinage of Bruges, Llansol suddenly understood that “several levels of reality were deepening their roots, coexisting without any intervention from time.”

As it happens, this is a good description of Geography of Rebels: of its structure, which abolishes time to merge life and death; and of its cast of mystic seekers, who inhabit the murky borders between apparently incompatible levels of reality. Characters’ names are no more attached to their bodies than those bodies’ parts are attached to each other. In this oneiric world, time loosens its bonds, and lets people who lived centuries apart chat like neighbors bumping into each other on the street. Here, heads split from necks, and hands from arms; sentences snap into fragments, breaking the painstakingly “logical” constructions that, at least in literature, we expect to lead us from one thought to the next.

Alongside this timeless spiritual world, the book also reflects Llansol’s, and Portugal’s, political situation. Under Salazar, Portugal’s ancient culture had been reduced to the “three f’s”—futebol, fado, e Fátima (sports, folk music, and repressive Catholicism). In the thick air of a country like this, an eccentric artist like Llansol could not possibly have had a career.

Yet this was a kind of blessing. Joseph Brodsky once observed that censorship is bad for artists but good for art. This is questionable, and more than a bit romantic. But to read Geography of Rebels is to wonder whether a work such as this, with its severed body parts and abruptly truncated sentences, could have ever been written for a country where it might have conceivably been published.

One can easily imagine the despair that a writer would feel at finding herself exiled and unpublishable in middle age. Literary history offers abundant examples of people in similar situations who gave up on art, and on life. Only a woman of uncommon strength could have made virtues of those necessities, and one is constantly amazed by the courage that it must have taken Llansol to write like this. To do so, she had to give up on writing as a career; to accept that a lifetime of work might be destined for the rubbish-heap—and go ahead anyway.

There is a sense in which the reader of Geography of Rebels apprehends that Llansol, too, is dead—that she had accepted that much of this work would be read only after her death, or not at all. Perhaps this is why her characters are constantly pondering this paradox: “As he became dust, Thomas Müntzer heard the trampling of the horses farther and farther away. He had never died before.”

Living through death while remaining fully alive: the theme appears on nearly every page of these books. To choose a living death is a choice that only a saint could make. The conscious embrace of oblivion is, after all, a spiritual resolution, not an artistic one. And from the spiritual perspective this embrace is not a restriction but—like the freely chosen monastic cell—an opening, a freedom. In the dark of what night, and at what personal cost, did Llansol accept that freedom?   

By the time she began writing these books, Portugal was taking its first steps toward rejoining the circle of democratic nations. Many of Llansol’s books would eventually be published in her homeland, but even today, her archive in Sintra is stuffed with thousands of pages of unpublished writings. A broader readership eluded her until after her death, and it is not hard to understand why. She was not young when she began writing in earnest. She was older still when, in 1985, she finally returned to Portugal. The pact with the posthumous had already been forged. (She actually died in 2008, aged seventy-six.)

Throughout her life, Llansol translated French, German, and English poets, including Hölderlin, Rimbaud, Éluard, and Rilke. One is hardly surprised to find the patroness of posthumous poets, Emily Dickinson, on the list, too. Dickinson, like Llansol, seems to have been writing only for herself—and, perhaps but not necessarily, for some future reader, yet unborn. This gave them the freedom to slash at the language they inherited: Dickinson with her dashes, Llansol with the strange pauses that break expected patterns and create a spooky and addictive rhythm. But unlike Dickinson’s poems, which often require close study to reveal their meanings, Llansol’s writings are musical; their rhythms emerge best when read aloud. Because they were written in exile, these books are full of meditations on displaced language, language in dreams, language from other epochs—a pulsating language beautifully recreated by the translator, Audrey Young, who allows us to follow its river-like flow:

I remember that an official was next to the vine, and the vast memory of these books was scrupulously investigated; I was sitting down studying in the proofreaders’ room, penetrated by the language I am using to write to you; they looked down at me and and I intimated that I came from another realm and that my origin was the origin of the earth. In that language, I asked them the following questions:—Who are you today? Where are you? Why and how did you end up stopping here where you feel like two strangers?

Another writer’s spirit hovers over these writings. This is the ghost of the great Brazilian Clarice Lispector, who was still alive when Llansol began, but who, in 1977, when Llansol was still working on these books, had taken up her place among the legendary dead. Clarice’s witch-like power over her readers is surely unlike that of any other modern writer, and her devotees are more like the votaries of a saint than the admirers of a famous artist.

For a critic to suggest a comparison to a writer who dominates her language as completely as Clarice Lispector dominates modern Portuguese is to diminish that writer, even when the intent is to praise. Yet if anyone could profitably be compared to Clarice, it might be Maria Gabriela Llansol—for the fundamentally mystical impulse that animates them both, their conception of writing as a sacred act, a prayer: their idea that it was through writing that a person can reach “the core of being.” When Llansol says that her writing “is a kind of luminous and generalized communication between all the intermediaries or figures, without any privilege for humans,” she approaches the Spinozistic pantheism that received its most fullest expression in Clarice Lispector’s Passion According to G.H., published in Brazil in 1964.

The authors also share favorite metaphors (the desert, the body, the writer), and a desire to surpass the structure of the traditional novel. This abolition, to which the authors of the nouveau roman also aspired, is one consequence of doing away with linear time—though the French writers mostly lacked the mystical impulse present in Clarice and Llansol.

Llansol’s writings, though, also illustrate the dangers of abolishing the structure of the traditional novel. In a novel, the reader—and she did always have at least some readers, especially after her return to Portugal—needs some way of knowing where he or she is, of knowing who is talking, of understanding why this story is being told, if any story is being told: if, that is, this is a novel at all. But the longer one inhabits Llansol’s world, the more one sees what it might mean to write against the novel, to create prose that could aspire to the status of a living being, one that moves and exists without having some artificial form imposed upon it.

“The new being was also not a book,” she writes in Geography of Rebels. “Ana de Peñalosa did not love books; she loved how they became a visible source of energy when she discovered images and images in a chain of descriptions and concepts.”

And so it is not for plot or character that we read Maria Gabriela Llansol. It is for the source of energy that her books contain. Open them to any page, like a volume of poetry; and listen to these dead people speaking.

This essay is adapted from the introduction to Geography of Rebels, by Maria Gabriela Llansol, translated by Audrey Young and published by Deep Vellum Publishing.

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Sally Mann’s Dark Diary of the South

Sally MannSally Mann: Deep South, Untitled (Scarred Tree), 1998

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
                        —Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”


Do the landscapes that we inhabit have a memory of us after we disappear? Does something of us remain caught in the branches, entangled with the grass? Do faces hold memories of their past and a hint of their future? These are some of the questions raised by a haunting exhibition of photographs by Sally Mann, which demonstrates that beauty can exist in the ruins of a destroyed building, a landscape overgrown with weeds, a familiar body made foreign by illness.

With over a hundred photographs, “Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings” is organized in five sections—Family, The Land, Last Measure, Abide With Me, and What Remains—each series seeming to contain the next hidden within it, and building upon it. Mann’s photographs of the American South move from the individual to the historical and back again, from the landscape to the people who inhabit it, to create a portrait of the fraught, striking, and evocative geography that is Mann’s home.

In a short film accompanying the exhibition, intense concentration lights Mann’s eyes, framed by round metal glasses. She has tied up her mane of gray hair. Like a cook or an alchemist involved in a mysterious process of transformation, she pours collodion, a syrup-like substance, from a beaker onto a rectangle of glass, then coats the glass with silver salts. Since the late 1990s, Mann has revived this nineteenth-century technique used by Civil War photographers. Given her preoccupation with the Southern landscape and the Civil War battlefields, it seems fitting that collodion was also used to treat the Civil War soldiers’ wounds: it is almost as if Mann wanted the collodion to bind her images as well.

Mann embraces the accidental, what she calls the intervention of “the angel of uncertainty.” She does not polish the glass and welcomes its irregularities; she pours the collodion quickly, and before it dries, she lets it pool in irregular waves. Pieces of dust and even insects settle into it, and the camera’s faulty lens lets in streaks of light. On the finished prints, these defects will look like drops of rain, constellations, and shooting stars. The section of glass untouched by the collodion could become a streak with an eerie blue tinge, like a narrow piece of sky between two clouds during a stormy day. One senses that Mann has carefully considered her camera’s placement. Her compositions are classical and strongly anchored, often by a central vanishing point.

This mix of rigor and chance has always been part of Sally Mann’s photographs, as have her honesty and courage, her indifference to trends and the opinions of others. Mann is perhaps most widely known for her 1992 series “Immediate Family,” which included images of her three young children, Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, at their family’s cabin, swimming, dressing up, vamping for the camera, and featured the small incidents of everyday life—nosebleeds, bug bites, cuts, and scrapes. Mostly because the children often appeared naked and vulnerable thanks to these mishaps—for instance, Jesse’s face swollen from insect bites or Virginia’s wet bed—the photographs were met with hostility and even accusations of child abuse. As Mann explained, though, the moments portrayed in the photographs were often reenacted: “These are not my children; they are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time,” she wrote in a 2015 New York Times piece, adding that “even the children understood this distinction. Once, Jessie, who was 9 or 10 at the time, was trying on dresses to wear to a gallery opening of the family pictures in New York. It was spring, and one dress was sleeveless. When Jessie raised her arms, she realized that her chest was visible through the oversize armholes. She tossed that dress aside, and a friend remarked with some perplexity: ‘Jessie, I don’t get it. Why on earth would you care if someone can see your chest through the armholes when you are going to be in a room with a bunch of pictures that show that same bare chest?’ Jessie was perplexed at the friend’s reaction: ‘Yes, but that is not my chest. Those are photographs.’”

Sally MannSally Mann: Cherry Tomatoes, 1991

Mann’s images counter a saccharine, naive notion of childhood and show how children’s lives can be fraught with violence, shame, confusion, and fear, as well as joy and grace. But as Mann’s children grew older, they seemed to become smaller, receding into the distance of her photographs as the landscape grew around them. As she explained in a 1994 letter to a friend:

What has happened is that I have been ambushed by my backgrounds. They beckon me with just the right look of dispossession, the unassertiveness of the peripheral.… I like to think that these are the kind of pictures Eugène Atget would have gotten if he had pivoted his camera away from the monuments and toward the unalluring underbrush.

Born in Lexington, Virginia, Sally Mann had lived in Lexington most of her life and identified as a Southerner. By 1998, she had traveled to Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In a 2016 interview, she explained, “For me, the Deep South was haunted by the souls of the millions of African Americans who built that part of the country with their hands and with the sweat and blood of their backs.” The landscape that Mann observed seemed “both homeland and graveyard, refuge and battleground,” reports the exhibition catalog. The misty, romantic tableaux of the Southern landscape that we might expect—lush forests and rivers, the ruins of grand colonial houses, their columns covered in wild ivy—was only one perspective. Mann seems to indict such images as merely conventional with her photograph of the boat lock and Tallahatchie River near Money, in the Mississippi Delta. Into it, the body of Emmett Till, the boy murdered by white men after he was accused of flirting with a white woman, was thrown in 1955, Mann writes, “naked, blind, beaten, a cotton gin fan lashed with barbed wire to his neck.” The river view would seem banal were it not for the branch that reaches over the water like a twisted hand, and the single shaft of light plunging from the lock like a blade.

In the next room, Mann’s subjects are the sites of Civil War battles: Antietam, Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Cold Harbor, which she started photographing in 2000. Mann used antique, uncoated lenses like those of the Civil War photographers, but her aim was not documentation, and she used soft focus and low exposures. These oversize views—sometimes fifty inches wide—dark as mezzotint etchings, are infused with fog or smoke wafting up into a starry sky; the land’s veined rivers, broken stems of corn, a line of cedar trees, are silhouetted against the last light of day with a black sun sinking into the horizon. These images are almost abstract yet highly evocative, and among the strongest in the exhibition.

In the series “Blackwater” (2008–2012), Mann works with black on black, choosing the small, intimate format of the historical tintype process, which involves creating a direct positive image onto a sheet of aluminum coated with a dark lacquer. With their dull, silvery gleam, these intimate images of swamp waters, broken trees, and overcast skies have a tactile and magical effect, where the distinction between objects and their reflections in water is blurred.

Sally Mann/GagosianSally Mann: The Two Virginias #4, 1991

Blackwater was an area of southwestern Virginia where freed and escaped slaves had sought refuge. In her series “Abide With Me,” Mann leaves behind landscape and returns to portraiture, this time of people to whom she is not closely related; she photographs black men whose ancestors were slaves: Janssen’s crossed fingers, Ronald’s slumbering body, shot with a foreshortened angle, Stephen’s blurry profile or Anton’s silhouette against full sun. Photographs of Gee-Gee, a widowed black woman who helped Mann to raise her children while also raising six children of her own, bring us back to Mann’s family. Gee-Gee’s presence, Mann admits, was taken for granted. As she revisited the centrality of Gee-Gee in the lives of her family members, Mann comes to better understand how racism had shaped Gee-Gee’s experience—but also, as Mann explains in her memoir, Hold Still (2015), “all that I had not seen, had not known, and had not asked.” Especially eloquent is The Two Virginias #3, which shows Gee-Gee’s callused and worn feet juxtaposed with those of six-year-old Virginia, Sally Mann’s daughter—small, white, and dangling on either side of Gee-Gee’s legs.

The exhibition ends with the series “What Remains,” which comprises an extraordinary series of photographs of Mann’s husband, Larry, who was struck with muscular dystrophy at the age of forty-eight. In 2008, she made his portrait as Hephaestus, the blacksmith for the ancient Greek gods, where half his body seems consumed by fire. Larry was “melting,” losing muscle mass in his body, and, like Hephaestus, becoming lame. But the god was a master of fire, while a fire seemed to be destroying Larry from the inside. In Speak, Memory (2008)—the title borrowed from Vladimir Nabokov’s celebrated memoir —a shaft of light seems to impale his head. Both unforgettable images contain a sense of unflinching honesty, tenderness, mystery, and profound sadness. Full-face, frontal collodion portraits of Mann’s children now as adults show their features blurred, almost dissolving in close-up, as if seen in the speckled surface of a very old mirror—no longer the “children in a photograph,” but seeming to refer to the past with a look, a nose that’s been grown into, a smile, an incipient wrinkle.

Mann’s poetic and profound photographs bear the gift to their viewer of traveling the arc of time. Once we have seen these adult faces, we will look again at their portraits as children. But we will see them differently, as precious, singular visions, remembering the words of poet W.S. Merwin, who said that each moment in our lives is “unrepeatable as a cloud.”

Sally MannSally Mann: Triptych, 2004

“Sally Man: A Thousand Crossings” was at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and will be at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles from November 16 through February 10, 2019, followed by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Jeu de Paume in Paris, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. 

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The Bedouins of al-Khan al-Ahmar Halt the Bulldozers of Israel

Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesVillagers and activists facing arrest for protesting the attempted demolition of Bedouin Palestinian dwellings at al-Khan al-Ahmar, West Bank, October 15, 2018

Something extraordinary has happened this week at the Palestinian Bedouin village of al-Khan al-Ahmar, on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem and adjacent to the main road going south toward Jericho and the Dead Sea. First, there is the remarkable fact that the village still exists—after months of waiting, day by day, for the bulldozers of the Israeli army to arrive to demolish it. But even more astonishing is the fact that, for several days, over a hundred activists—Palestinians, Israelis, and a few internationals—faced the heavily armed soldiers and the riot police, not known for their gentle ways, and triumphed, at least for the moment. The imminent demolition of the entire site and the violent expulsion of its inhabitants have now been postponed for some weeks, according to the Israeli cabinet’s decision on October 21.

There is even a chance, however slight, that the Bedouins of al-Khan al-Ahmar will in the end be moved to a site only a few hundred yards from their present place, according to the plan that they themselves proposed, long ago, to the Israeli authorities, who rejected it at the time out of hand. Sometimes, it happens that a certain place, like this rocky hill, becomes a battleground between opposing value systems and opposing forces, each of which recognizes what is at stake. For the Israeli right, the Bedouins of al-Khan al-Ahmar are one of the last obstacles to a far-reaching annexationist program. They also have the incorrigible flaw of not being Jews in a Jewish state now run on exclusionary ethno-nationalist principles.

But the story really begins in 1953, when the Jahalin Bedouins were driven from their home in the Negev desert by soldiers of the newly formed state of Israel. The tribe wandered north into what was then Jordan—specifically, to the sandy hills and rocky wadis just to the east of Jerusalem. They were still there, living in tents and shepherding their sheep and goats, when Israel occupied the whole of the West Bank after the war in June 1967. At first, the Jahalin were left largely to their own devices. But with the establishment of the large Israeli settler suburb of Ma’ale Adumim in the mid-1970s, and later of the satellite settlements of Kfar Adumim (1979), Nofei Prat (1992), and Alon (1990), the Abu Dahouk branch of the Jahalin Bedouins lost access to most of their grazing grounds. They have been at the present site of al-Khan al-Ahmar, which sits mainly on land owned privately and leased to them by Palestinians from the nearby town of Anata, since the late 1970s, at least, as aerial photographs show. Even before that, my wife and I used to see them there every time we drove from Jerusalem to Jericho.

It’s an ancient site—the name means the Red Caravanserai, because of the red stones coloring the hillsides—on the old pilgrimage route from Jerusalem to Mecca and close to the supposed setting of the New Testament tale of the Good Samaritan. The place is mentioned in the Book of Joshua. The monastery of the fifth-century ascetic St. Euthymius is just across the wadi. Like everywhere else in Israel-Palestine, al-Khan al-Ahmar is soaked in the sanctity of rival—or, at better times, complementary—religions. But what has happened there in recent years, under Israeli rule, reeks of sacrilege.

Israeli governments have long wanted to drive off the Jahalin Bedouins and take over their lands for further Israeli settlement. Settlers from Kfar Adumim petitioned the government and the Israeli courts to remove their Palestinian neighbors, whose tents and flocks they consider an eyesore; right-wing Israeli governments were only too happy to pursue this goal. (It is important to note, though, that a small group of Israelis living in Kfar Adumim  and in Ma’ale Adumim have stood by the Bedouin of al-Khan al-Ahmar and publicly opposed their eviction.) The issue lingered in Israeli civil courts for years until this past September 5, when the High Court of Justice, in an act of stark moral cowardice, decided unanimously that there was no legal impediment to expelling these people from their homes—despite private Palestinian ownership of the lands in question, a fact the court irrationally, mercilessly declared to be no longer relevant. The decision affirmed an earlier High Court ruling (from May) allowing the state to demolish the Palestinian Bedouin homes and to forcibly resettle them wherever it wished. It is true that the tents and shacks of al-Khan al-Ahmar were erected without building permits; Palestinians living in Area C of the West Bank, under full Israeli control, have virtually no chance of getting such permits. It is also worth keeping in mind that the Jahalin were living in tents in this area long before it was occupied by Israel.

There is a clear rationale for the planned demolition and expulsion, an aim the present government has hardly tried to disguise. Al-Khan al-Ahmar is the gateway to what is known as Area E1, the large swath of land between Jerusalem and Jericho that the Israeli right wants to annex to Israel, thereby cutting the West Bank in two and precluding even the theoretical possibility of the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Lest anyone think this idea is far-fetched or impractical, settlers from nearby Alon issued a statement on October 9, when it seemed that the Bedouins would soon be gone. These settlers happily envisioned groups of “Hebrew shepherds” grazing their huge flocks of “Hebrew sheep” starting with what they expected to be the newly vacated land and extending as far east as the settlement of Mitzpe Jericho, on the outskirts of Jericho city.

It is crucial to understand the true nature of this campaign, which can only be defined as a transparent attempt at ethnic cleansing. The dwelling of al-Khan al-Ahmar, with its 180 inhabitants, is only the beginning. Another 1,200 or more Jahalin Bedouins live in the general vicinity of this site; you can be certain that they would be next in line. To make matters worse, the Palestinians of al-Khan al-Ahmar were slated to be forcibly resettled at a place called simply al-Jabal, “the hill,” adjacent to the Jerusalem municipal dump. Al-Jabal is an insalubrious environment utterly unsuitable for the traditional Bedouin way of life, which is based on herding. These people are being treated as disposable waste, their entire culture a useless anachronism worthy of destruction.

I’ve gotten to know some of the inhabitants of al-Khan al-Ahmar over the past weeks. They are standing their ground, steadfastly refusing to bow to the government’s threats and demands. They are whole-heartedly committed to a Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance in the face of overwhelming force. They are no less committed to the ideal of educating their children. Some years ago, the villagers built, with help from the Italian Vento di Terra group, an eco-friendly school, made from clay and old tires—the first school the Jahalin have ever had. Even during these tense days, every morning children from the wider catchment area have come to class, including days when the riot police and soldiers were there in force, confronting the protests, preparing roads for the bulldozers, at times attacking the parents and grandparents with Taser guns, pepper spray, and stun grenades. Palestinians, along with Israeli activists and a minister in the Ramallah-based government of the Palestinian Authority, Walid Assaf, placed themselves in the path of the bulldozers. Some were arrested. Many were hurt. The Israeli military operated daily in al-Khan al-Ahmar during the week of October 15; among other things, army engineers laid down infrastructure for the Israeli settlements that are scheduled to be built soon on these same lands.

For what remains of the Israeli peace camp and human-rights organizations, and also for their Palestinian counterparts, al-Khan al-Ahmar is a last redoubt. If it falls, we will be closer to losing what has become, in effect, an existential struggle. So, for the last several weeks, peace campaigners from all over the West Bank, along with activists from Ta’ayush, Torat Tzedek, and various international organizations, have been living day and night at this site, driven by the knowledge that we have to be with these people at the moment of their impending trauma. Since Netanyahu’s bulldozers tend to come at dawn, some of us have slept at al-Khan al-Ahmar, just in case. None of us thought we could prevent the demolitions with our bodies, but all of us knew that, whatever the risk, this crime had to be documented and witnessed for the world.

The word crime is not a rhetorical flourish. A resolution of the European Parliament on September 13 declared that the violent expulsion of the indigenous population of al-Khan al-Ahmar by an occupying power is a grave breach of international humanitarian law, and in a dramatic announcement on October 17, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Fatou Bensouda, called it a war crime. It seems that these interventions have spooked the Israeli government. The credible possibility that cabinet ministers, the prime minister himself, and any officer or soldier filmed while taking part in the demolitions could be arrested on arrival in almost any European country may have acted, for now at least, as a deterrent. Sometimes, international pressure on Israel does work.

One should also not forget the sustained, dedicated work, over years, of individuals and organizations such as the Jahalin Working Group (chaired by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and Bimkom (Planners for Planning Rights), among others. None of this, however, would have been effective without the firm resistance of the al-Khan al-Ahmar people themselves and the support of the activists who were physically present beside them.

At the very last moment, just hours before the final demolitions were to begin, Prime Minister Netanyahu blinked. The government announced that the destruction of al-Khan al-Ahmar would be postponed for some weeks, during which negotiations for an amicable solution would be renewed. According to Tawfiq Jabarin, the Bedouins’ lawyer, the plan originally proposed by the Jahalin themselves, long ago, may now be under consideration again.

No one can say what will happen next. There are powerful voices within the government, and, of course, on the extreme right, calling for blood. No one should doubt that the soldiers and police will act with extreme violence if it comes to expulsion. Right-wing pressure, which, in any case, is perfectly aligned with the government’s natural inclination toward the annexationist agenda, is building up and may yet force the erasure of this entire community. That is the new Israeli style that threatens Susiya in the South Hebron hills and all Palestinian hamlets still hanging on in the Jordan Valley, as well as other Bedouin settlements such as al-Araqib and Umm al-Hiran in the northern Negev.

Predictably, Netanyahu has reaffirmed his commitment to the ultimate destruction of al-Khan al-Ahmar. But already it can be said that a small group of unarmed, ordinary human beings, appalled by the injustice about to be inflicted upon innocents and prepared to face reckless violence without flinching, have achieved a moral victory that cannot be measured in purely instrumental terms. Even a transient victory of this kind has meaning and gives reason for hope. Perhaps al-Khan al-Ahmar will be remembered as the place where the Israeli descent into self-destructive savagery was checked, at least for a crucial moment. More battles lie ahead.

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I Will Not Be an Invisible Trans Woman

Matt Black/Magnum PhotosA transgender woman at home, Birmingham, Alabama, 2017

In 1963, in his lecture “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” James Baldwin reflected on the way that artists—more than anyone—can tell the truth about what it means to survive in the world. “[O]nly an artist can tell,” he said, “and only artists have told since we heard of [humankind], what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it.” Perhaps appositely, two years later, in his momentous debate with the conservative intellectual William F. Buckley at Cambridge, Massachusetts, Baldwin shared another truth, this one a painful, formative epiphany that defined his time on this planet. “It comes as a great surprise,” he said early in the event, “around the age of five, or six, or seven, to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”

Baldwin knew what this betrayal felt like on multiple levels: as a black American, as a gay man. I understand this betrayal of a flag, too, this way that you can live in a country and have the profoundest sense that it wishes you did not live there, that it even wishes, perhaps, you lived in the “undiscovered country,” where no one lives at all. I know it as a person of color, as a woman, as someone who grew up in another country, and, above all, as a transgender person in a moment when I am told—casually, by a leaked memo, which says that the Trump administration wants to create a legal definition of sex as, according to The New York Times, “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth”—that our government believes people like me should not exist. That we are what we are assigned at birth—male or female, as defined solely by our genitals—and that we cannot have a discordant sense of our gender, cannot be intersex, cannot, in other words, be anything beyond a simplistic, fixed binary. The ignorance and ignominy of all this hurts—but it is a pain I am accustomed to, since one cannot live as a trans person in this world without learning to endure many shades of anguish.

The memo presents the dubious, dehumanizing argument that sex and gender are equivalent, which they are not. Every human has a gender identity; transgender people simply are aware of it more acutely because our sense of who we are comes into conflict with our bodies or with what we are called, what roles we are expected to fulfill, how others perceive us.

It is not just humiliating to imagine having to change the “F” I worked hard to get on my identification documents back to an “M”; it is also dangerous, if the wrong people, requesting my ID, decide that the woman before them has somehow deceived them and thus must be punished, pushed aside, pulverized. I am a woman; I have always felt this, as though a light switch set to girl in my head has always been on. Transitioning helped me feel more at home in my own body; it helped my sense of self feel less claustrophobic, helped me hear less of the blue music that would play, on interminable repeat, when I was depressed.

Transitioning, honestly, saved my life. I did not transition on a whim; I had to give up living in the Caribbean island where I had grown up in order to transition, as my home did not accept queer people of any kind. I did not choose the years of agony of living in a cramped closet. And I am not hurting anyone by being myself; if anything, I am helping others like me see that they, too, can be who they are. Only someone bereft of empathy would contemplate barring me from my right to be who I am.

But this is not an administration known for its empathy. The proposed erasure of trans people is a colossal invasion of privacy, all the more egregious for a party that touts the virtues of small government and the sovereignty of the individual. The move claims to be rooted in science, yet science contradicts the memo’s claims; in any case, the Trump administration has shown scant regard for scientific evidence in general, most notably in its repeated refusals to accept the reality of climate change.

To be sure, this is likely all about scapegoating. I am not one for conspiracy theories; all the same, it is hard to believe this memo was not leaked intentionally as a last-ditch effort to shore up conservative support and staunch the projected gains of Democrats in the midterm elections. When this administration desires a quick burst of support from its most ardent advocates, particularly its anti-LGBTQ evangelical base, it trots out transphobia; this, after all, was why, in June 2017, President Trump peremptorily announced the ban on transgender people serving in the military (a measure as yet blocked by court order). Then, as now, it was a cruel attack that came, seemingly, out of nowhere (although the administration had been slowly working to roll back Obama-era guidance on how transgender students should be treated in schools). The still very significant hostility directed at transgender people means that we can be used as a convenient political tool: if the right wishes to divert attention from any failure or scandal of its own making, all it needs is a quick resort to anti-transgender propaganda.

I am tired of being a scapegoat, tired of being burned in effigy over and over—and tired of fearing that one day, I may be burned or beaten in a much more literal way, should a violent person decide that I should not be allowed to use the women’s restroom, or that I should not teach their kids, or that I should not speak up at all. Still, I refuse to become an invisible woman, hiding away, like the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in some underground refuge—even if, in my weaker moments, when I get tired of being so despised simply for existing, I sometimes wish I could indeed become ghost for a while, body and blood and earth discarded, and vanish away.


Desire—in particular, a yearning to be who we are and love freely—is a strange lantern: it wants to be lit bright, but sometimes, to do so is deadly. In the early decades of the twentieth century and up until the twenty-first, some queer writers let that flame burn for all to see, but many more only gave us flickering glimpses of their desires, will-o’-the-wisps to follow through careful, scholarly reading. We need to speak out now, more than ever—and we need to do so in ways both loud and quiet. There is a special power to revealing our desires quietly, yet brightly, on the page or screen.

This is why I find myself reading Amy Lowell’s poems so fondly; unlike some queer poets of the early twentieth century, Lowell wrote with surprising directness about desire, in particular her desire for other women. In contrast to a more private woman-loving female poet like Elizabeth Bishop, Lowell expressed her queer love almost nakedly on the page. Though Lowell knew she could reveal only so much without repercussions—she was treading dangerously enough by living in a so-called “Boston marriage” with her partner of many years, Ada Dwyer Russell—she still could write passionately about women, as in “The Blue Scarf,” in which she described how “[t]he scent of her lingers and drugs me” and “[h]er kisses are sharp buds of fire; and I burn back against her.” It makes me feel a little shudder at its loveliness, but also at the way that, a century later, there is still a courageous resistance in being open about who we are and whom we love (or do not love).

When I first read Janet Mock’s affecting 2014 memoir of coming out as trans, Redefining Realness, I felt a similar frisson. Here was a story about someone like me, told directly, with striking candor, and defiant in its proclamations about both the pains and pleasures of transitioning. Mock’s book was one of the first works I read by an openly trans writer, and it opened my world. That she had also had to navigate the world as a curly-haired, nonwhite woman made Redefining Realness feel all the more essential.

For the poet Kokumo—black, trans, intersex, femme—art works when it is true. “Sometimes the honesty is loud,” she told the nonbinary poet and activist Noa/h Fields in 2017. “Sometimes the honesty has to be heard. Sometimes the honesty can’t sit quiet.” We have more queer narratives than ever, but we always need more; there are still many people who have no idea what it means to be a trans person (be they binary or non-binary), or to be intersex or asexual or aromantic, no idea that, in other words, a liberated identity resists simple, unchanging binaries—as it should, because the multifariousness of identity mirrors the lovely and curious complexity of life.

We have to fight, so that no administration tries to redefine our reality for unearned political points—not just for trans people, but for anyone who has been marginalized. We need, more than ever, stories of what it is like to be us; we cannot be erased if our stories remain. We need to resist, on and off the page, so that, like Baldwin, we survive, and so that we find a way to keep our lanterns lit, just a little longer, illuming both the beauty of our identities and our paths forward.

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The Concrete Jungle

Steve Winter/National Geographic/Getty ImagesLeopard cubs at Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai, India, 2014

In 1965 the great British ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson, then Sterling Professor of Zoology at Yale, published an interesting little book, the very title of which was a good starting point for understanding the dynamics of life on Earth—life in the wild, life in the countryside, life in the city. Hutchinson called it The Ecological Theater and the Evolutionary Play. His title’s point was to distinguish environment from process and immediate interactions from trends of long-term change. Of course, an ecosystem also embodies processes: photosynthesis, herbivory, predation, and competition, among others. As creatures play those ecological roles, they interact, they struggle for survival, they strive to produce offspring, they succeed or they fail, and evolution is the broader result of such challenges, the grand arc of the tale, bending dramatically through time.

Evolution by natural selection, as Darwinians believed then, and had believed ever since Darwin stated it, moved “with extreme slowness.” He had stressed that point repeatedly in On the Origin of Species. “I do believe that natural selection will always act very slowly,” he wrote, and “we see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages.” Slow though evolution may be, with selection working on tiny incremental variations, “I can see no limit to the amount of change,” Darwin added, “which may be effected in the long course of time.” Another influential ecologist and a former student of Hutchinson’s, Lawrence Slobodkin, codified that idea of slowness in his (less poetically titled) book Growth and Regulation of Animal Populations, distinguishing there between “ecological time” (relatively short, reflecting little change in roles or relationships) and “evolutionary time,” measured in hundreds of millennia, time enough for incremental evolutionary change in one species or several to disrupt the ecological status quo.

Menno Schilthuizen is a Dutch biologist based at Leiden University, in a country whose population is more urban than rural. In other words, he inhabits the future. His new book, Darwin Comes to Town, implicitly answers Hutchinson and Slobodkin—and Darwin himself—alerting us to contrary evidence about the pace of evolution. By watching the evolutionary play as it runs in urban theaters, not just wildish ones, Schilthuizen and some colleagues—you might think of them as postmodern biologists, making the best of highly urbanized twenty-first-century landscapes—have noticed that evolution’s tempo can be surprisingly brisk.

Fast evolution in cities is the theme here, unfolding toward a suggestion that perhaps new species are being born in our time, while many older ones are being driven to extinction. For instance, has the Eurasian blackbird (Turdus merula) differentiated sufficiently—in certain urban environments where it enjoys warmer temperatures, abundant food scraps, and freedom from predators—to constitute a new species, which Schilthuizen would like to call Turdus urbanicus? Maybe, almost. “The constellation of European cities has become urban evolution’s Galápagos, and Turdus merula its Darwin’s finch.” He has many other examples, and even calls the phenomenon by an acronym, HIREC, meaning human-induced rapid evolutionary change. This is Schilthuizen’s version of cheerful news in what, for lovers of biological diversity, amid the ongoing trend of habitat destruction and species loss, seems a very dark time.

Why should evolution move more quickly in cities than elsewhere? One answer Schilthuizen offers is the sheer strength of natural selection (in jargon: the selection coefficient) that human environments can exert, giving a mutant (and fortuitously city-suited) form of some species an advantage over the wild form. If the selection pressure is high enough, dramatic changes can take hold in only a hundred generations or so. For many insect and bird lineages, that’s just a century.

Whether fast urban evolution really promises to deliver new species faster than old ones are lost is another question. Speedy adaptation to urban environments, achieved by a relatively short list of animals and plants and other living forms, should not be confused with a regeneration of biological diversity. Evolution has two modes: anagenesis and speciation. In the former, a single lineage changes over time. Without doubt, that’s happening in cities. In the latter, new species arise when one lineage fissions into two.

Although lineages continue to bend, in our time the net trend of species lost versus species gained is still downward. Cities may nurture their own unique rodent faunas and scavenging sparrows and dandelion variants, but they probably won’t ever harbor populations of citified polar bears, tigers, addax, and other big, inconvenient creatures. (The leopards that forage in the streets of Mumbai, just outside Sanjay Gandhi National Park, are an exception. And they’re highly inconvenient, if you happen to be a stray dog.) But let’s set that question, about overall gains or losses of biological diversity, aside for the moment. Schilthuizen’s book is fascinating enough for what it describes, never mind what it might promise.

An intriguing case is a blood-sucking insect (Culex molestus) commonly known as the London Underground mosquito. Its closest relative is the northern house mosquito (Culex pipiens), a widely distributed species that lives aboveground, goes dormant in winter, mates by swarming in open spaces, and takes its blood meals from mammals or birds. The London Underground mosquito has acquired, within decades, not centuries or millennia, a contrasting set of habits: life in the subway tunnels of London and other cities, year-round activity (because it’s warmer down there), mating discreetly in tight spaces, and getting its blood meals mostly or solely from humans. Some of those traits made it notorious during the Blitz of 1940–1941, when many Londoners spent their nights in the Underground, sheltering from German bombs, with biting mosquitoes adding misery to terror.

Schilthuizen mentions a landmark study, done twenty years ago, in which the London geneticist Katharine Byrne collected mosquitoes from above and below the streets of London and showed that their differences in life history characteristics were rooted in genetics. The London Underground mosquito had evolved to its new form. Furthermore the three different tube lines from which Underground mosquitoes were sampled—the Central, the Bakerloo, and the Victoria—contained populations genetically distinct from one another. The only point where those lines cross is at Oxford Circus, one of London’s busiest stations, and the mosquitoes evidently hadn’t been making the transfer.

“The evolution of the London Underground mosquito speaks to our collective imagination,” Schilthuizen writes. It reminds us that evolution is still happening, sometimes briskly, and in response to the single greatest agent of environmental change on the planet: us. “What if our grip on the earth’s ecosystems has become so firm,” he asks, “that life on earth is in the process of evolving ways to adapt to a thoroughly urban planet?”

His other case studies, wrapped genially in anecdote, include the house crows of Singapore, the coyotes of Chicago, the ring-necked parakeets of Paris, the European starlings that began their North American colonization from birds released into Central Park, the dandelion-like hawksbeards blooming yellow amid the pavements of Montpellier, and the 529 species of ichneumonid wasp to be found in the city of Leicester. Schilthuizen’s point about such creatures is not just that they tolerate urban environments but that many such lineages have adapted, by measurable or inferable genetic change, to those environments—the urban theater, the evolutionary play.

One study showed that the wings of American starlings have become more rounded, which has helped them, Schilthuizen speculates, make nimble escapes from “a pouncing cat or a speeding motorcar.” The hawksbeards of Montpellier, growing in small squares of soil around street trees, now produce more seeds that are large and heavy, dropping into the dirt just below, and fewer light seeds with silky parachutes meant to carry them away on the wind. And then there’s a humble little fish called the mummichog (Fundulus heteroclitus), a bottom-wallowing native of brackish waters along the Eastern Seaboard, including big urban ports such as Bridgeport, Connecticut, that are silted up with decades of toxic chemicals such as PCBs and other industrial waste. A genetic study of Bridgeport’s mummichogs, Schilthuizen reports, found genome changes that protect those fish from the effects of PCBs. Who says there’s no good news in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London?

Schilthuizen tells his tales and explicates his concepts in jaunty, conversational language, with an occasional hip turn of phrase or a wink of humor. The sexual quests of the dark-eyed junco, a kind of sparrow, are reimagined as a personal ad for the Campus Newsletter for Birds: “Caring male with almost no white in tail seeks acquaintance with female…,” et cetera. Discussing that emergent species of blackbird, Turdus urbanicus, he mentions that it sings in the dead of night, and he can’t resist otherwise evoking Paul McCartney: “It was only waiting for this moment to arise.” These bits of levity don’t always work, but you can’t fault Schilthuizen for trying.

The most notable story in his catalog of evidence is one you’ll recognize, though some details have recently changed. Remember the peppered moths of nineteenth-century Britain, that textbook case of evolution by natural selection occurring so fast that human memories could record it? The moths (Biston betularia) lived in a forest outside Manchester and had creamy white wings peppered lightly with dark spots—good camouflage against the pale tree trunks—until upwind smokestacks from coal-burning factories blackened the trunks with soot. The pale moths, now against darkened backgrounds, were no longer invisible to predatory birds. The birds ate the pale moths, but missed the few soot-black mutants that had turned up, thereby soon transforming the entire moth population into black-winged forms. So went the classic Darwinian explanation, anyway.

Ralph Steadman‘Liverpool Pigeon,’ 2011; painting by Ralph Steadman from his ‘Extinct Boids’ series

The evidence supporting that scenario was temporarily discredited in the 1990s (to the delight of creationists), but recent work confirms the original version, with a new twist. Sequencing of the peppered moth genome has revealed that the color change from pale to dark occurred not by incremental mutation, as Darwinists would have supposed, but by the sudden insertion of a transposon (a “jumping gene”) into a certain gene known as cortex, which controls wing coloration. The insert was hefty, about 22,000 DNA letters long, and it jumped into its disruptive position around 1819, just when the mills of Manchester were really starting to belch.

The transposon that “wedged into the cortex gene,” Schilthuizen explains, proved to be “a spanner in the works that normally produce the delicate white-and-black speckled wing pattern.” Suddenly there was a lineage of dark-winged moths, and, with birds plucking away their pale-winged competition, they thrived and multiplied. The message here is even broader and more interesting than Darwin coming to town; it’s that genetic innovation, generating the variation within populations upon which natural selection works, can sometimes occur in great leaps, not just by incremental mutation. “Natura non facit saltum,” Darwin wrote in The Origin, quoting the old adage (nature does not make a jump), but as regards the origins of variation, he and the adage were wrong.

That wrongness has been illuminated by important work on the molecular aspects of evolutionary biology in recent decades, to which Schilthuizen’s description of the jumping gene in peppered moths glancingly alludes. Researchers who study deep phylogeny (the patterns of relatedness over hundreds of millions of years) through the evidence of DNA and RNA sequences have announced some other big surprises. Besides transposons bouncing from one position to another within a genome, genes and transposons have also been moving sideways between genomes of unrelated species, carrying whole packets of fresh genetic variation from one species to another. This counterintuitive phenomenon is known as horizontal gene transfer. It was once thought to be impossible (after all, weren’t genes supposed to move only vertically, from parent to offspring, not sideways from, say, kissing bugs to possums?), but it happens, and evolutionary theory in the Darwinian tradition has only just begun absorbing these weird new data.

Schilthuizen, meanwhile, offers all his delightful cases—the moths and the mummichogs and the others—as evidence that biological diversity is higher in urban environments than most of us would expect. He cites four reasons. First, cities are continuously receiving migrant individuals of exotic species from other parts of the world, because of international travel and transport, and many of those migrants establish resident populations. Second, cities tend to arise in places (riverbanks, estuaries, harbors) already rich with diversity. Third, intensively farmed agricultural lands around cities tend to preserve little habitat (unless you consider English hedgerows), and so cities, with their parks and other green spaces, might actually become refuges for local wildlife. Fourth, the partitioning of cities by freeways and other barriers leaves them with a diversity of isolated habitat patches. Did you know that the population of bobcats living east of Interstate 405 and south of Route 101, in Los Angeles, is genetically distinct from the bobcats of Thousand Oaks? Neither did I, but I agree with Schilthuizen that it’s a nifty fact.

Not just southwestern California and Europe but much of the world, of course, is growing inexorably more urban. In 2007, Schilthuizen notes, we passed a benchmark: for the first time in history, more than half of all humans lived in cities. That roughly mirrors the proportion in Schilthuizen’s Netherlands. By the middle of this century, the fraction will rise to two thirds: six billion of the nine billion people on Earth will be urban, with all the concomitant effects, good or ill, on our planet’s biotic richness. “And yet,” he writes, “when we talk about ecology and evolution, about ecosystems and nature, we are stubbornly factoring out humans, myopically focusing our attention on that diminishing fraction of habitats where human influence is still negligible.”

Well, no. That’s a straw man, if not a plain misstatement. The best conservation efforts of which I’m aware, such as the Gorongosa National Park project in Mozambique, are acutely attuned to the need for valuing and assisting humans as legitimate inhabitants of the greater landscape. “It’s time to own up to the fact that human actions are the world’s single most influential ecological force,” Schilthuizen adds. The crucial point there is that he calls our actions “ecological.” They certainly are—in the same sense that a volcanic eruption or an asteroid impact is ecological.

The big question that concerns Schilthuizen—and, one hopes, all of us—is: What is the net effect of our vast “ecological” puissance on biological diversity? Are we headed downward toward a lonely future, largely lacking the spiritual and aesthetic benefits, the ecological services, of various and teeming biological communities? It seems we are, and Schilthuizen doesn’t dispute that. But he argues that citified nature, as continuously refurbished by evolution, will be a great mitigating factor, and that it deserves to be celebrated for that.

There’s a flaw in this optimistic view, and Schilthuizen mentions it himself. Some kinds of creatures, a relatively short list, are much better than others at adapting to city life. The Indian house crow. The rock pigeon. The Eurasian blackbird. The Norway rat. The cellar spider. Even the peregrine falcon can do well in deep urban canyons, if there are pigeons on which to swoop and feed. Schilthuizen also mentions tall fescue grass, “originally from Europe, but now found on any lawn between the two poles (including the south lawn of the White House).” Unfortunately the urban list tends to be the same everywhere—from pole to pole, as he says, and from east to west, from one city to another: “Such global homogenization of urban ecosystems is much more pervasive than these few anecdotal examples suggest.”

One label for such creatures (coined by Jared Diamond back in 1974, when he was a young membrane physiologist with a sideline in bird ecology) is “supertramp species.” These supertramps do get around. Another label is “weeds,” in the sense that animals as well as plants can be weedy. The traits that make them weedy are that they travel well, thrive in a variety of new landscapes, reproduce quickly, and compete effectively against native species, often eliminating the more specialized local forms. Follow our current trajectory a century or two into the future—the trajectory of vanishing wildness, extinction of endemic species, increasing urbanization, easy transport of people and certain other creatures among metropolitan hubs—and what you’ll see eventually is a planet of weeds.

Schilthuizen’s book is a bright, affable addition to this important subject. The drama of urban evolution he depicts may indeed help, in that paved and skyscraping ecological theater, to equip our rats and our pigeons and our spiders and our mosquitoes against final oblivion, and to soothe slightly our starved appetites for the beauty and wonder of nature. It might even transform those bobcat populations living east and west of the 405, eventually, into two discrete species of feline. But don’t count on that. Fast evolution, of the sort he describes, just isn’t fast enough to give gains that keep pace with the losses. Most of nature’s glories, unlike Darwin, will never voluntarily come to town. Alas, if your great-great-granddaughter wants to see a gorilla, given our current sorry trends, she’ll probably need to go to a zoo.

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Communing with Mrs. Gaskell

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty ImagesA séance, circa 1900

Before my publisher’s lawyer would sign off on my new book, she had certain requirements. The book is part memoir of my own love affair and part biographical fiction about the Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell; the attorney, having checked permissions for quoted material and approved my disclaimer, wanted reassurance from the story’s love interest that he was happy with his portrayal. The love interest in question, a man referred to as Max in the book, is a profoundly private individual who at no point during our relationship asked for details of his personal life to be laid bare in a memoir. Knowing this, I had tried in my writing to tread a careful line between honesty and tact. Intellectual and legal debates about privacy, about what of our shared history was my story, and what was his, were suddenly personal.

The process of agreeing on the final text with Max was lengthy and fraught. Drafts were sent back and forth, minutiae disputed, identifying details changed. Our relationship, which had lasted years, weathered a painful breakup, and morphed into a genuine friendship, had never been more strained. He was living in Boston and I in London; we barked at each other across the Atlantic, negotiating the borders of the grounds of our past.

I think we both believed we were being reasonable, though reason had little to do with it. It was a battle for a prize neither of us could win: the right to be right about what had happened between us. For a while it seemed we would never agree, but eventually the process ended: I received a final email from him, in which he gave me his permission to publish, and I have barely heard from him since.

I have never taken this lightly: it is a gift to allow someone to make public their half of a two-sided story. I have accepted it nonetheless—the book is now out in the world—and in the absence of permission from the book’s other subject, which was not mine to take and was not willingly given. That is because my book invades not only the privacy of my former lover, but also that of the writer Elizabeth Gaskell, widely known as Mrs. Gaskell, who died in 1865, 120 years before I was born.

Gaskell was, in her day, as famous as the Brontës, Thackeray, and Trollope—all contemporaries who have, posthumously, gone on to outshine her. Her novels, among them Mary Barton, North and South, and Cranford, are careful depictions of class and place, often deeply and radically political. Her short stories and novellas are Gothic, playful, slippery, populated by witches and ghosts. That Gaskell is less well-known in the twenty-first century than she was in the nineteenth is perhaps owing to a sense that she was not a particularly interesting person. She lived in Manchester with a minister husband; she had four daughters; she went to church on Sundays. She did not roam the Yorkshire moors and die young, like the Brontës; she did not have a spouse in a Parisian asylum, like Thackeray. So disregarded is Mrs. Gaskell today that my American publisher rejected the British title of my memoir, Mrs. Gaskell & Me, because American readers wouldn’t know who she was; they preferred the broader sweep of The Victorian and the Romantic.

I spent several years researching Gaskell for my PhD. I worked my way through her novels and short fiction, and, finally, her letters. It was in her correspondence that I really came to know her: a gossipy, witty, earnest, busy-minded woman who could be funny and snide and sweet and visionary all in the space of a paragraph. I spent so much time alone with her words in silent reading rooms that she became a kind of friend to me. When I finished my dissertation, I found I was not ready to let her go. I embarked on a new Gaskell project: a book about my own life, but also about hers.

I understood her well enough to know that she despised the idea of being a biographer’s subject. She once described the thought of her letters being preserved rather than burned as “like a living nightmare.” Yet I have read and cherished those letters, whose recipients ignored her requests to destroy them. I have dedicated years of my life to writing about her, producing not a biography but something that feels more intimate: an attempt at imagining her fully, an experiment in literary resurrection. The book is about the three months she spent in Rome in 1857, where she lived among a community of expatriate artists and fell in love with an American man. It places her transatlantic love story alongside my own, but mostly, it is a love letter to her, and she would have abhorred it.

If I could summon her spirit to ask for her forgiveness, or even, at a push, her blessing, I would. This is an impulse that Gaskell herself would have recognized. When Charlotte Brontë died, Gaskell, who had been her friend, was asked by Charlotte’s father to write his daughter’s biography. Gaskell embarked on the project seeking “to tell the truth… so that every line should go to its great purpose of making her known & valued.” It was an unachievable goal: the truth, when it came to Brontë, was disputed from all sides. Even Brontë’s husband condemned the biography, describing it as “a project, which in my eyes is little short of desecration.” But Brontë’s father assured Gaskell that she was on the right course: “Could my daughter speak from the tomb I feel certain she would laud our choice.” Gaining the dead’s permission to write about them was a preoccupation of the Victorian age, and, as my book entered the world, it became mine, too.

Could Gaskell speak from the tomb, I am not certain she would laud my choice. It was this anxiety that led me, while I was in the US for the publication of my book last summer, to a darkened room in the Spiritualist Church of New York, where I sat with others in a circle around a medium and waited to receive a message from the ghost of Mrs. Gaskell.


The day after The Life of Charlotte Brontë was published, Gaskell left England for Italy. She hated reading reviews of her work, and had reason to suspect that the reaction to her biography of Brontë would be particularly strong: she had pulled no punches in her depictions of those she considered “villains” of the Brontë story: the master of the school where two of Charlotte’s sisters had become fatally ill, and the married woman with whom Branwell Brontë had had an affair. Rather than stay at home and face her public, she took her two eldest daughters to the house of American sculptor William Wetmore Story in Rome.

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty ImagesAn illustration of Elizabeth Gaskell, circa 1910; click to enlarge

There, Gaskell encountered a community of British and American artists and writers that included the neoclassical sculptors Harriet Hosmer, Emma Stebbins, and John Gibson, and the writers Harriet Beecher Stowe, Grace Greenwood, and Charles Eliot Norton. Norton in particular made an impression upon her: it was Carnival time, and from a balcony overlooking the Corso, Gaskell saw him standing amongst the throng and exclaimed, “Oh look! What a charming face!” He brought her flowers every day that she was in Rome. It was an unconsummated romance that would last until she died: their letters are filled with nostalgia and longing for the time they spent together. With Norton, and among artists and intellectuals who embraced and celebrated her (“Mrs Gaskell and her daughters are ‘all the fashion here’,” observed a fellow British traveler) Gaskell experienced what she would later describe as “the tip-top point of [her] life.”

Gaskell was a lover of ghost stories, and Rome was a city full of ghosts. She told tales of them to the artists who gathered at the Story house, “sitting over a wood-fire and knowing that the Vatican was in sight of the windows behind!” It was a common feature of tourists’ accounts from this period to claim to have heard the roar of Roman crowds at the Colosseum, the sound of legions’ boots on the cobbles of the Appian Way. Sophia Hawthorne, who was in the city with her husband Nathaniel shortly after Gaskell, wrote that “I both feel how it all was, and, strange to say, I am also magnetized with the power that hovers invisibly in this air.” Story described how “the air seems to keep a sort of spiritual scent or trail of these old deeds, and to make them more real here than elsewhere. The Ghosts of History haunt their ancient habitations…. The Past hovers like a subtle aura around the Present.” 

Believing themselves to be surrounded by the spirits of their predecessors in the city, the expatriate artists of mid-nineteenth-century Rome embarked on a very specific project. Not only were they seeking to resurrect the dead in their work—the project of neoclassicists was, after all, to breathe life into the classical form, thereby making it new—but they also sought to resurrect the dead quite literally. Story was a devoted Spiritualist, hosting séances for his friends and discussing his efforts to develop powers as a medium with other devotees, including Harriet Hosmer and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Spiritualism’s central tenet was that the dead were accessible to the living. Mediums claimed they could reach the spirits’ realm and pass messages between them and their surviving loved ones. There are countless Spiritualist texts from the period that read now like grief memoirs: the father who believes his wife is channeling the spirit of their dead son through drawings; the husband who receives messages from his late wife via table-rapping. These narratives are yearning, reaching, and determined. In an age in which steam could power a locomotive, in which electricity could move wires around a magnet to form a motor, in which a telegraph cable could stretch from one side of the Atlantic to the other, was it really so far-fetched to believe that information could travel between the living and the dead?

For the artists around Gaskell in Rome, Spiritualism was not just a way to ease the pain of personal bereavement, but a tool by which they could speak to other artists. Many of them came to Rome in order to follow in the footsteps of the Romantic poets, the Renaissance painters before them, and the Greco-Roman stonemasons before them. They felt the ghosts of former artists all around them in the city, and Spiritualism offered the possibility of conversing with those artists across time. The art critic and Spiritualist James Jackson Jarves claimed in 1855 that precedent for this had been set by Giotto: in 1320, Jarves explained, Giotto had been visited and inspired by the spirit of Dante while painting the frescoes Poverty, Obedience, and Chastity.

In 1864, John Ruskin rejected an offer made by a medium to connect him with his grandparents, preferring instead to speak to the spirit of Veronese. Ruskin had yearned earlier for exactly the conditions a séance could provide, describing in a letter to a friend an imagined meeting with the ghost of Tintoretto, who “would stoop and talk to me there—because I had not understood him.” Of the possibility of interviewing Veronese at a séance, he wrote, “[W]on’t I cross examine him!” In 1853, the Scottish-American Spiritualist Robert Dale Owen published an account of a séance in which he inquired, after communicating with Jefferson and Franklin, “if any other spirit was present; and Shelley, the poet, an old friend of mine, announced his presence and willingness to answer any questions.” Ruskin himself was present at a séance in which Southey dictated a new poem.

The Romantic poets were particularly prone to making appearances to Spiritualists. In 1856, Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge produced their last known work, posthumously and collaboratively, by dictating poetry to a medium named Thomas Lake Harris. Harris, who performed “automatic writing,” a practice in which “the medium writes involuntarily, sometimes in a state of trance, and often [on] matter which he is not thinking about, does not expect, and does not like,” produced a volume of the Romantics’ work called A Lyric of the Golden Age. In Harris’s volume, Byron pours “from out his burning mind / The seething torrents of unresting soul” and Keats stands “beside / The waking figures of his Grecian urn.”

When Elizabeth Gaskell entered the house of William Wetmore Story in Rome, she was entering a world in which the mere fact of someone’s death meant neither the end of their creativity nor the end of their ability to communicate. And while she herself assumed a “half believing, half incredulous” attitude toward Spiritualism, she did nonetheless believe in ghosts. “I SAW a ghost! Yes I did;” she once wrote to a friend, “though in such a matter of fact place as Charlotte St [in London] I should not wonder if you are sceptical.”

I, like the recipient of Gaskell’s letter, am skeptical: I do not believe in ghosts. I don’t even especially like ghost stories. But I find it comforting to know that Gaskell lived in a world of ghosts, in an era when it was widely believed that the dead could speak. It brings her closer to me, despite my own disbelief, to think that she might believe in her own ghost, even if I cannot.


In the Spiritualist Church of New York, the assembled group of séance attendees perched on rickety stackable chairs. There was an urn of coffee in the corner of the room and a Led Zeppelin poster on the wall. We had already sat through a Spiritualist service, during which a speaker had declared that “truth is light,” and volunteer healers had cleansed the auras of those who were in any kind of pain. I had watched from the back of the room as the healers waved their hands around the heads of the afflicted. There was a break after this, and then the medium arrived. She was late, flustered, and British, with a strong Yorkshire accent. The lights were lowered, but only slightly, and in the partial darkness, the Fitbit on the medium’s wrist glowed.

After reading many accounts of Victorian séances over the past several years, I had a very clear idea of what this would be like. The medium would be fey, ethereal, other-worldly, the mood somber; there would be candlelight, and inexplicable thuds and disembodied hands reaching out of the darkness. However, things had changed a lot in the past 150 years. The atmosphere at the Spiritualist Church of New York was akin to that of an AA meeting.

I paid my twenty-dollar fee; I sat through the housekeeping messages about future meetings and conference locations; I nodded when the medium said she would try to get a communication to everyone present, but that she couldn’t guarantee anything. Then the messages started to arrive, and she delivered them in the same matter-of-fact manner, weirder and less meaningful than I could ever have anticipated: I’m hearing that you believe in fairies, the medium told a woman to my left; you believe in big fairies, and that’s okay; you need more green in your apartment. To another she said, Your grandmother is here, in a wheelchair; she wants you to buy new shoes. A man was told he was a woman in a former life. An elderly lady’s late husband appeared, proffering red carnations. Somebody was about to be given a good opportunity at work and their great uncle was anxious that they should take it.

Each time the medium started to speak, I wondered whether it would be to me. I braced myself for an encounter. I was nervous, almost as though I really believed I could come face to face with Elizabeth Gaskell in that strange, dingy room. But each time, the message was for someone else. To a nervous young man, the medium said, Do you know anyone whose name begins with H? They are telling me that in your life you are in a library full of colourful books; you are taking each one down from the shelves, looking for a word. Somebody was instructed to take better care of their teeth.

This was a ragtag group of ghosts, and Mrs. Gaskell was not among them. Naturally, she was not among them: she wouldn’t be seen dead here. Minutes passed. I watched the luminous blue square on the medium’s wrist, and waited for the séance to be over. Afterward, I ate mussels at a nearby French restaurant and watched the traffic outside and realized that I was relieved that Mrs. Gaskell had not come.

I could interpret Gaskell’s silence as rage—at me, at my book, at what I have done to her in writing about her life. I could interpret it as evidence of the phoniness of Spiritualism, in the way it gives false hope to the bereaved and an unjustified sense of authority to artists lucky enough to summon their forebears. I take it as both, and I am glad that the medium gave me no words from Gaskell that I’d have had to grapple with.

I will never get Mrs. Gaskell’s blessing, because she cannot give it, and if she could, she probably wouldn’t. The nearest I will ever get to her—to the ghost of her—is the version I have created in the book she probably would not have allowed.

I have plundered her life to be close to her, and she’ll never be close enough to object. Max, on the other hand, the lover who was so important to me, alive and vital, gave his permission, then slipped out of my life. And perhaps this is the most any writer can ask for: the compliance of the absent living, the silence of the present dead.

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Why Translation Deserves Scrutiny

Benedetto di Bindo/Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania/John G. Johnson Collection, 1917/Bridgeman ImagesDetail of Saint Jerome translating the Gospel of John, circa 1400

Is translation a discipline or a cause? A catalogue sent to me by a small American publisher begins by naming all the translators of the foreign titles the company is offering, inviting the reader to thank and celebrate the people who have made the English versions of these books possible.

I go to a university seminar on translation whose program is headed with a quotation from Paul Auster: “Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments… who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.”

I go to a translation conference where the keynote speaker observes with satisfaction that the period when a speaker might show an example of translation, criticize it, and suggest his or her own supposedly better version—“the time of the ‘Translation Police’”—is thankfully over. Toward the end of the same conference, a revered pioneer of Translation Studies is pleased that “everything we have heard here makes a mockery of pedantic questions of fidelity and the old tendency to hierarchize some translations as good and some as bad.”

When a member of the “Translation Police” does show his face, he is rebuked. I open The New York Times and find an angry letter from a number of well-respected names in the translation community. They are attacking Benjamin Moser’s negative review of Kate Briggs’s recent book on translation, This Little Art. Moser had taken issue with Briggs’s remark that “we need translations. The world, the English-speaking world, needs translations. Clearly and urgently it does; we do.” He felt the claim needed qualification: Which translations, why? He was also unimpressed by Briggs’s enthusiasm for the first translator into English of Thomas Mann’s novels, Helen Lowe-Porter, whose German, it is generally agreed, had shortcomings that lead to there being a large number of mistakes in the English versions. Those writing the letter to the Times deplore Moser’s “simplistic and retrograde… insistence on accuracy.” Translation is a complex subject, they observe, and accuracy not such an easy issue to pin down.

Meanwhile, someone directs me to a translators’ online forum where a certain Tim Gutteridge, a British translator based in Spain, has suggested that criticizing a translation for plain errors is hardly a crime—language competence lies at the core of translation, does it not?—and is being scolded by colleagues who feel this is “unethical”; translators need support, not criticism. Reading the thread, it rather seems that they are policing him, and not vice versa. In any event, the issue is so keenly felt in the translation community these days that the editors of In Other Words, the twice-yearly publication of the British Centre for Literary Translation, have decided to dedicate a major article to the ethics of criticizing translations in their forthcoming January edition.

All this should be heartening, perhaps. Literature in translation has never been a priority in the Anglo-Saxon world. While, in a country like Italy, more than half of fiction titles published will be translated, in the US the share of the market is much smaller, somewhere around three percent. Translators are poorly paid and, for the most part, unsung. How encouraging, then, to see a growing advocacy for translated literature and a spirited defense of those who practice this art. Back in 2010, I wrote these words:

You’ll never know exactly what a translator has done. He [or she] reads with maniacal attention to nuance and cultural implication, conscious of all the books that stand behind this one; then sets out to rewrite this impossibly complex thing in his [or her] own language, re-elaborating everything, changing everything in order that it remain the same, or as close as possible to [the translator’s] own experience of the original. In every sentence the most loyal respect must combine with the most resourceful inventiveness. Imagine shifting the Tower of Pisa into downtown Manhattan and convincing everyone it’s in the right place; that’s the scale of the task.

I concluded that article, however, by suggesting that since literature is indeed so wonderfully rich in nuance and translating it is, consequently, such an arduous task, we “must make sure we get the best translators.”

Let us return to that catalogue thanking the publisher’s translators. It is true, of course, that a translator makes the English version of a foreign novel possible. However, thanks to copyright law, it is also true that a new translation will prevent the appearance of any other translations of the same book for a very long time. Once Don Bartlett has translated Knausgaard, or Ann Goldstein, Ferrante, or Lorin Stein, Houellebecq, English readers are not going to get a chance to read anyone else’s version for decades. If the book in question is to enter into our culture, our collective psyche, it is going to do so, for better or worse, through this first translation.

Even when we come to translations of works long out of copyright, their authors dead seventy years and more, the investment involved may be so considerable that only one shot at the book will be possible. After Farrar, Straus, and Giroux generously undertook to translate and publish all three thousand pages of the nineteenth-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi’s tortuously difficult philosophical diary, the Zibaldone, it is hardly likely that another complete edition will appear in our lifetimes. Each translation is an opportunity, to be taken or missed. Thus a responsibility, for both publisher and translator.

Imagine I am reading a novel for review, something translated from Italian, a language I know well, having lived in the country almost forty years now. I’m enjoying the excellent plot, the characters, the descriptions, and am eager to write positively about the book.

Then I notice something odd. “At this point,” I read, “it was clear that when she’d confessed she’d hardly even considered it.” I’d had the impression that our heroine hadn’t confessed and that she wasn’t the the kind of person who did important things without due consideration. I download the original to my Kindle and find:

A questo punto risultava chiaro che lei a confessare non ci pensava neanche.”

Literally: “At this point, it became clear that she, as for confessing, wasn’t even thinking of it.” More fluently: “At this point, it was clear that she wasn’t even thinking of confessing.”

So here we have a straight mistake, an inversion of the meaning. There is nothing nuanced about it, no question of the translator’s taking a creative decision on a particular interpretation of the text. Just a mistake. We all make them. As much the editor’s fault as the translator’s, perhaps. And who cares, anyway? The book is still enjoyable. Onward.

Only, now that I have been alerted to translation issues—and presumably I was invited to review the book because I know Italian—I begin to notice all kinds of small glitches and irritations.

“Ah, how well he understood me,” the English gives in one place, “my anxiety that experience immediately turned into memory.”

The second part of this sentence doesn’t seem right to me. Going to the Italian, we have: “la mia ansia che l’esperienza diventasse subito memoria.” Which is to say: “my eagerness that experience should turn at once into memory.” In trouble with the flexibility of “ansia” (not always a simple cognate of anxiety), the translator has missed the effect of the subjunctive “diventasse,” and so inverted the sense. We’re not worrying about experience becoming memory; rather, we want it to become memory as soon as possible. Again, there is no question of creative interpretation; what we have is a straightforward misreading. Likewise, later, when the Italian banco, a bench, is mistaken for banca, a bank (in the sense of financial institution).

This goes on. I’m still enjoying the book, which is excellent, and most of it is coming across fine; all the same, there are dozens of these blemishes. What is a reviewer to do? If I mention one or two errors, I’ll be accused of pedantry, seeking to show off my knowledge, ignoring the translator’s larger achievement. And I do want to recommend the book, which is a great read, and, despite these glitches, a profound novel. Nevertheless, it would be a better read if the translator’s Italian had been better, and this seems an important reflection when reviewing a literary translation.

After all, I know a number of translators who would not have made these mistakes and whose English is equally fluent and stylish. Of course, if I say nothing about the quality of the translation in my review and just concentrate on the book, I will be accused of not showing respect to the novel’s “co-writer,” as translators are now sometimes referred to.

Now, let’s suppose I manage to fudge this issue with some superficial remark toward the end of my review—“an effective, if uneven translation”—only to hear, shortly thereafter, that the translation has won a prestigious prize. The recent interest in translated literature has brought with it a plethora of new translation prizes: for translations from specific languages or from any language, for young translators, for women translators, for both book and translation, or for just the translation, and so on. Well, the logic of prizes is that some translators, or translations, are better than others and that not all versions are equal; so what am I to think when this translation—with all its flaws—wins?

Has it won because, in spite of the translation problems, this remains a fine novel, in which case the prize is more the merit of the writer than the translator? Did the judges of the prize not notice the problems I found? Do they know Italian well? Did they have time to read the books entered for the prize properly? Above all, should I say something at this point, should I write something? Or at least drop a note to the publishers, inviting them to correct the mistakes in a later edition? Doesn’t the idea that one can be praised and celebrated for a translation imply that one might be criticized for it, too?

“We are all singing from the same hymn sheet,” remarked the pioneer of Translation Studies at the end of our conference; among young translators particularly, there was a “fervor,” a “zealotry,” that was admirable and encouraging.

This desire for unanimity and solidarity is understandable, and no doubt, at a deep level, we do all share a passion for literary translation and a wish that the practice thrive. This is why we invest so much time in learning our languages and working on our writing—so that our translations will be better. It is the logic behind every course that teaches translation: that one can improve. If someone is not happy with the hymn sheet, or with hymn sheets in general, let’s hear them.

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