Месечни архиви: November 2018

My Father’s Art


David Shapiro: Untitled (self-portrait), 1932

I never could figure out how I felt about my father’s work. Protective, proud that he was an artist. But did I like the pictures? With some, there was and is no problem: the early portraits. Most of these are pencil drawings, and there is no question but that, from the youngest age, he was uncommonly gifted. They look like the naturalistic renderings of nineteenth-century masters, only, somehow, modern. Few survive—two of his mother, with her square, homely face and glasses, and one of his younger brother Joe, when no one knew he would soon die, at twenty; and a magnificent self-portrait in oils, done at sixteen. It was always my favorite of his paintings.

After that, nothing naturalistic, and no drawings from life from him—not until David was in his late eighties. At sixteen, he assumed the art was over. In the next few years, his second-oldest brother, Louis, developed a cough and night sweats. Go to the doctor, Lou! They all said it; they knew what it was. But Lou wouldn’t go; that was why Lou wouldn’t, as if he could stave it off by not hearing the word pronounced: tuberculosis. The six brothers had a single bedroom, three double beds; my father shared with Lou (it was sometime during this period that they were reduced to five young men by Joe’s death). When Lou’s diagnosis could no longer be denied, he and Dave went off to a sanitarium run by a Jewish charity, in the New Jersey countryside. It was 1936; my father was twenty.

He expected to die, but the exile was the making of him. David took courses in studio art at the “san,” as he always called it. He was also educated there, less formally, in leftist politics, and that affected the art, too. The style is named Social Realism, but it was rarely realistic in this country. It was figurative but highly stylized and all message, symbolic. Whereas those early works of my father’s were intensely about the individuals, about particularities of light and observation, Social Realism elicited images of the generic: every man was an everyman. David Shapiro could have had the career of the successful Raphael Soyer, or possibly of Alice Neel, who didn’t enjoy success until her seventies (though enjoy it she did). Instead, he was dismissive of that kind of work, sneering even—“life class.” He looked up to Orozco, Diego Rivera, leftist New World muralists. Qua career, the one he aspired to might have been Ben Shahn’s, whose work was popular, and poetic as well as political: even Shahn’s prints of Sacco and Vanzetti (railroaded immigrant anarchists) were more soulful than angry, simple, stylized drawings that became emblematic posters for left-liberal causes. Sometimes my father’s work was bracketed with Shahn’s, the more familiar and famous image-maker. This could seem demeaning, like being an also-ran, or validating.

My father felt so much more ambivalence in all of this than the sneering or admiration might imply. Unpredictably, he’d reverse himself and express a contrary opinion, sometimes in the space of one sentence. I yearned for his work to succeed—for him to have what he needed—and I sometimes thought I could see why it wasn’t being snapped up. Though my heart might bleed for the causes Social Realism represented, in the 1960s, when I came of age, the style was embarrassing. It was unironic. It was square. His pain, as he failed to achieve the career he’d been led to expect by early successes, became mine.

After the san, he had gone to the American Artists School, on 14th Street, founded by members of the John Reed Club, one of those infamous “Communist fronts.” That was in its favor. By no coincidence, it was free—a people’s art school. After art school, he won prizes. He’d won prizes for his art in high school, and even earlier. Just as the US entered the war, he was awarded a national prize for a poster: CIO Organizes Oil for Victory. 


David Shapiro: CIO Organizes Oil for Victory, 1941

Teaching first at Smith College, he then accepted a post at the University of British Columbia, followed by a Fulbright fellowship to Rome. It wasn’t long after the war, 1951, and he fell in with a group of leftist Italian artists camping out in what had been the German Academy in Rome, the Villa Massimo. He and the Villa Massimo artists debated socialism, communism, and art. One of the most prominent among the group was Renato Guttuso, known later to English speakers mostly through illustrations of an Elizabeth David cookbook, but with paintings exhibited widely in Europe.

David’s path in Rome also crossed that of the American Robert Gwathmey, whose color-block-style portraits of beaten-down black people sold sturdily; Bob’s wife, Rosalie, showed with the Photo League, another banner outpost of American communism. David worked out imagery in Rome that would typify his paintings and prints for many years, of Italian hilltowns and resigned women in nunlike headdress carrying sticks of bread. 


David Shapiro: Hazy Day, 1950s–1970s

Back in New York in 1954, he was not a famous artist, not a visiting Fulbright fellow, not a resident of the Villa Massimo but another striving son of immigrants, another Russian-Jewish Brooklyn boy, and a father, with two young children to support. Maybe he was perceived as less up-and-coming, or he’d just been away at a crucial time. The art world was undergoing a transformation, a change in orientation. From the time of the Ashcan painters, if not earlier, the drive had been to make American art, not work derived from Europe. In absolute terms, this was impossible, unless you were Native American and probably not thinking of your totem poles or beadwork as art, but it was a widespread impulse, as responsible for Aaron Copland and Martha Graham as for Thomas Hart Benton or Grant Wood.

From 1948, however, Abstract Expressionism was being presented as the avatar of American freedom and individualism, written about, shown, and supported as no American art ever had been. David had come back to the age of the anticommunist McCarthy campaigns hand in hand with Modernism. It felt like a conspiracy against art of his kind. (As he was to discover, this turned out to be true. My mother had begun to write in the 1970s, and together, they published a groundbreaking essay documenting the links between the CIA and the promotion of Abstract Expressionism. Boosted as propaganda for American freedom, Abstract Expressionism had engulfed the center of the art world, New York, with international opinion to follow.)

Quality of work is not necessarily measured by degree of worldly recognition; the two can be grossly out of whack—in either direction. But it is very hard for artists to believe this, to feel it. My father’s career and his standing, as distinct from his aesthetic achievements, was hugely important to him. His dignity was wounded, even though having work shown in New York’s unforgiving art scene was itself an achievement. He had a one-man show at at a 67th Street gallery just off Fifth, with catalogue essays by writers whose names could cause excitement in the art world. His work was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, and shown in galleries around Europe. By the Seventies, in his teaching career, he’d earned the title of professor, with tenure, teaching studio art and art history, on the basis of his standing as an artist (his art-school certificate was not a college degree).

Moderate success felt like failure to him. This is a phenomenon well known in the arts, fields so brutally competitive, subjective, and judgmental. But could he have been more successful if he’d followed up more closely on the works of his that were most aesthetically satisfying to, for instance, me? When my sister and I were dividing his work after our parents’ deaths, it didn’t seem as if the division would be hard: she preferred the later works, I the earlier. It proved not so simple, in that way: whatever the period or genre, there were certain works that were just better, or best. Certain themes, individual examples of which could be excellent, became oppressive in their repetitiveness, but that’s normal: as an artist, you have your donnée. 

As we investigated the racks in the barn he used as a studio, pulling out long-unseen work dating back to before our births, we discovered a gorgeous early city scene, mostly black, of apartment windows lit at night in different yellows and whites. There, he found a perfect match of subject to style. It conveys or engenders pathos, a sense of seeing something unaware of being seen, and there’s a wit or humor to the rhythm of lighted and dark windows—not to mention authenticity and familiarity: he had looked at such scenes all his life, long before he looked with any kind of calculation about what images to make.


David Shapiro: City Windows, circa 1940s

His best works almost invariably had what that cityscape had: the fusion or coincidence of the decorative element with an exact correspondence to reality, a place where the schematic becomes naturalistic and the literal takes off into metaphor. (Maybe, in that connection, it means something that his first scholarly book was about a nineteenth-century American painter named Washington Allston, who invented the term “objective correlative.”)

His bestselling print had this fusion, and it was unquestionably the reason for its popularity, a work called Winter Walk. It reflected the oneness he felt with the land in Vermont, where he began spending time in the Sixties and where he and my mother moved in 1979. It was marketed through the Associated American Artists gallery on Fifth Avenue, which sold prints that middle-class people could afford, and by far outsold any of his other graphic art, whether offered through AAA or other galleries.

In it, footprints are pressed indentations in the thick paper, white-on-white intaglio, just as real footprints indent real snow; the trees are black, the human figure is a silhouette; in later variations—he did further editions, with a stream or rocks, to meet demand—he kept to this scheme of white-on-white footprints and black figuration, all of which match the way such things appear in an actual snowscape. It has all the simplicity of abstraction and reduction but offers the pleasures of naturalism. The lone figure could declare alienation, as some of his Sixties paintings bathetically did, but it as easily suggests communion with nature.


David Shapiro: Winter Walk #4, 1970s

Similarly, there’s a painting he did of bare trees, black against stippled greens and turquoises, where the rich, bright colors get darker as they move up the picture plane, exactly the way shadow in woods gathers with distance, giving an effect of deepness without explicitly showing it. There are several variations on this image, but only one painting has the ombré darkening and therefore the implied perspective, and it is wonderfully satisfying.


David Shapiro: Untitled, 1960s–1970s

And then there were works both of us really hated, that could make my sister shriek. I think we both had a No, don’t do it feeling about these, a wish that we could protect him from himself. We could hardly bear anything that would justify a negative verdict. The worst examples suffered not because his style changed but because they followed a too controlling and underlined idea; or they made one squirm because the idea was too grand for the expression. There were the alienation ones and the woe-filled ones, both of which felt like hands being waved in your face.

Alienation as a posture and a pose was a trope by the mid-Sixties. Its oxymoronic clout filtered in by way of Existentialism and had its upshot in the pop-culture mandate of cool. Daddy was trying to be cool, which, by dint of its very effort, is uncool, daddy-o. It was certainly that case that, after the collapse of American communism in the Fifties, he was newly alienated. The trouble was, he illustrated this rather than let it merely manifest. 

The nadir, I think my sister and I agree, were these woodcuts set behind a sheet of black paper with flaps like shutters—Advent calendars for the self-dramatizingly morbid. (Though I have to admit, they grow on me with repeated exposure.)


David Shapiro: Compartments: Troubled People (artist’s proof), 1960s

Cringe-inducing rather than laughable is a painting modestly titled Who Am I, which depicts Everyman as an artist standing next to his painting which is of an artist next to his painting which, etc. 


David Shapiro: Who Am I?, 1960s

A variation on it, however, that I am highly willing to entertain, shows the traditional artist in his studio, also titled Who Am I.

But it’s possible that what seems camp to a veteran of the Sixties will look charmingly of its time to a later generation, as my father’s early work does to me. I have more distance on it; it wasn’t created before my eyes (I have a hard time living with my own old drawings). Maybe my sister and I are reacting to the sheer Sixties-ishness of it all. The era is too close to us and too much part of us.

The alienation strain of that period strongly overlaps with the pictures that seem to ask you to feel sorry for the person depicted and, by implication, the painter who felt moved to render that person. (Or to admire the heroic figure, as with one called The Non-conformist.)


David Shapiro: Non-conformist, 1960s

There are paintings of mourners and poor people by others that don’t have this effect, and I may only feel it because I am too close to the painter. He wasn’t a complainer or self-pitier—far from it—but his expressions of fellow feeling for me when he thought I was sad told me how deeply he wanted a companion in his melancholy. There is a sad balloon man, a sad rebbe carrying a Torah scroll (Sixties), an early painting of a pregnant woman keening over a coffin, and so on. The sad balloon man perhaps veers too close to a tearful clown. The sad balloon man, though done very straight, makes a nervous resonance with tearful clown or little match girl.

And there was the less ambitious—and maybe more relaxed—work, radically simplified and almost always pleasing, in posters and in handmade cards sent out at Christmas, made of colored paper cutouts, of a piece with the Valentines he gave to my mother each year. You can see the evolution of his style very clearly by the contrast of one from the 1940s, two years after their marriage, and one from the 1980s. (One year he missed: Valentine’s Day, 2005, the day he breathed his last.)


David Shapiro: Valentine’s card, 1946

David Shapiro: Valentine’s card, 1989

He also tried to make money illustrating children’s books. Only one saw the light of day—Hidden Animals, a kind of Where’s Waldo? of the natural world. Gouache paintings on illustration board for a story about a twin boy and girl’s first day at school, colorful and fully naturalistic, were hung (by me, because I related to them) above the wooden bed he built for my biggest doll. All this work was wantonly discarded when they moved to Vermont.

The Matisse-like cutouts, their patterns and joie de vivre, I did not appreciate as a child, but I do now. After my father died, I found in his studio a small woodcut proof in this style, brown silhouettes of a man and woman bouncing a baby in their linked arms, and a child with arms upraised joining in the jubilation, with hand-lettering in pencil gone over with ink, announcing my birth. I don’t think it was ever printed or sent out—and I doubt either my mother or sister was so filled with joy at the event—but this template now hangs over my desk.

Artists are affected by their times, some fired up by what’s around them, others merely accommodating it to their own manner, and still others entrenched against the popular or new. Any of these may prove to be an adaptive stance, aesthetically or by way of getting noticed. After the early naturalism of the portraits, my father’s work became highly stylized, netted by black lines (not unlike Shahn’s or those of another contemporary better known than David was, Leonard Baskin), with color that was only sometimes mimetic but mostly indulged for its own sake. 

Even as he railed at the hegemony of abstraction, however, David moved toward it. As he advanced through middle age, the black lines grew lighter and were often overpainted by color, and the colors grew lusher and were almost never naturalistic. Like Milton Avery, he abstracted from nature but was unwilling to his core to be a formalist—to make work solely about color, line, shape, medium.


David Shapiro: Lovers in a Doorway, 1940s

He worked with the color families that had been present from his earliest paintings of city scenes—a couple kissing beyond the cone of light cast by a street lamp, a young man against a wall of peeling posters, pigeons flocking for handouts—but the palettes of related color became more dominant as the figurative elements were downplayed.


David Shapiro: Urban Jungle, 1960s

The hilltowns he began painting in Italy, for instance, had always been rendered in bright blends of related rather than natural colors, in mottled blocks as if mosaic squares made of stippled oil paint. The colors are almost purely pretty, in a way that asks nothing of a viewer except to enjoy, as he had enjoyed the original that inspired the image, uninflected by politics or human emotion as such, or even ideas.

Eventually, a bifurcation between black-and-white and color took place—between woodcuts and paintings. He did a triptych of giant black-and-white woodcuts depicting the assassinations of the Sixties—Kennedy, King, Kennedy—and large woodcuts of other public, politically modulated events, unashamedly work of social commentary. Meanwhile, his paintings were mainly landscapes—recognizable images of mountains, reflecting summers in Vermont, and of waterfalls, streams, rocks, and trees, sometimes as shapes indicated by color, occasionally with the black lines that remained prominent in his woodcuts. He liked to say he was through with the human figure, fed up with people.

For the vigorous years of his life, from his forties into his eighties, this was what the paintings were. The black lines kept diminishing, colors were lush and closely related but were not the colors of what was represented, and the images were figurative but simplified, abstractions in the root sense of subtraction, with incidental detail reduced to the simplest components. In his early work, color is applied smoothly, often flatly. By the time he was in Italy, he was using short-bristled brushes to stipple, resulting in a stucco-like texture and allowing a borderless blending and changing of color like shadows on water. He painted on shiny brown masonite until, in later years, he started working on white, with the black lines mere wisps, fewer angularities, more curves, everything looser. Among these were paintings my sister and I both coveted—some enormous triptychs of sky, mountains, and forest or field; the moon tangled in trees; a lavender and yellow series of sun after rain, extremely light and free.


David Shapiro: Vermont Trees and Mountains Without End (two panels of a triptych), circa 1980s

Toward the very end, bits of life study came back, but through the accrued style and in the sweet colors—blue-greens, orange-yellows, yellow-white, purple-blue-green, shades of pale green and lavender—and also pencil or ink drawings of flowers. He’d done flowers twice in his prime, in vases: one the Vermont chicory I loved to pick, the other probably bougainvillea from our one summer in Mexico, very recognizably in his style—winning one-offs. The later images were of growing flowers, carefully drawn, in an almost affectless style, when he was debilitated by stroke and age. I see them as tributes to my mother’s gardens. More typically, he was also simplifying and schematizing the landscape near the apartment where they spent winters by then, smaller paintings on thick white paper, of ocean waves and desert rocks in southern California.

I used to beg him as a child to paint the way he had in that adolescent self-portrait. It baffled me that he wouldn’t. Now I understand many reasons he didn’t, yet it still baffles me. For all that he railed against abstraction, he appreciated Malevich, Albers, and others, and he had schooled me in their work; it was the hegemony of formalism that was threatening, the way no room was allowed for anything else, just as he came into his prime. Conceptualism was breaking this chokehold when I was a teenager and art student in 1970; by chance I got to know some of its instigators, and was excited by it. For my father, this was betrayal—conceptual art was barely visual and certainly didn’t involve paint. He was disappointed in me—until I pointed out that at least conceptualism legitimized content.

But it’s not as if these aesthetic choices take place in a vacuum, or are even choices. You are of your time, willy-nilly. My father urgently wished to combine his talents and predilections with his politics, and he had been surrounded by those who did so. In that way, his beautiful early portraits probably looked to him jejune, reminders of an unawakened self—too natural. I can imagine this. He was, in a way, in his developed style, having his cake and eating it too: enjoying the play of color, the textures of paint, the rhythms of pure composition while staying close to his heart, to what he cared about in life. That’s what I saw.

But he was entering his work for competitions and shows to the end, and furious when it came back, repeatedly rejected in favor of the work of less accomplished but younger artists. As with many if not most in the arts, he loved the doing; he needed to make the art. But it was his letter to the world: he wanted it to go out into the world, and it was being sent back unread. 

He was a professional. What is more, he always had to be “the best,” and he expected to be best. As a youth, he not only won art prizes but also troubled himself to answer a mere seven out of ten questions on tests, since seventy was the passing grade. He and his brother Irving had both been told they had genius-level IQs. Irving spent his entire working life in sales at an anti-aircraft facility. My father did his war work in such a plant—signing the required loyalty oath that he “was not and had never been a member of the Communist Party” while going to cell meetings—and later earned money as a draftsman in the plant where Irving worked. David disdained to use a ruler, trusting the accuracy of his eye: he only measured his drawings afterward.

Perhaps only rare artists can look coldly at what they do, see what they do best, and just do that. But many just do what sells best. In a brief stint as an art reporter, I was startled when, interviewing a number of up-and-comers, I’d spot a work in their studios that, almost always, I liked better than what they were known for—something quirky, playful—and they would deprecate it and say they couldn’t let people know about these, as if they were a vice. In turn, a few of my old classmates began to have work that sold well, to be prominently shown and written about. One who’d been a gifted draftsman and inventive painter had gotten noticed using media in a way that didn’t manifest those skills at all. When I expressed regret at that, he made it clear that this was what was wanted, this was what the dealers and curators chose. Another had created a stir with a style she eventually outgrew but felt her dealers demanded she stick to. This was before people talked about creating “brands,” but that was what these artists had done, created brands, however inadvertently. If Picasso had felt this pressure, we would have seventy years of Picasso Cubism, or maybe just rose-period Picasso. 

I wish my father had more of the worldly success he’d craved and expected. I can’t help but feel that if more of his work had been as good as the best of it, he would have, though I’ve seen over and over how what is rewarded is not necessarily the best. I can’t even say that what is rewarded is what sells: what sells is very much a product of how and where it’s offered. Talent is not crucial, neither is skill; sometimes artwork or an artist just has appeal, though this is useless to invoke as a critical criterion, and it is also evanescent—try reading, for example, the most highly touted novels of twenty or fifty years ago. What does matter is persistence, and confidence. But confidence is not a rock. My father had it and also didn’t. And I’ve seen mediocre artists in various media become quite good ones simply because their mediocre work was hailed as better than it was: almost miraculously, this gives them the assurance to do better.

And there’s luck. The luck of being, having, the right thing at the right time, right place. Not remotely a judgment on who you are or the quality of what you do. But everyone, almost everyone, feels the responses of the world as a judgment on their work. It would be almost sociopathic not to. Status affects your very biological condition.

Once, as a high school student visiting a classmate who lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, I wandered with her into the Springfield Museum. At the top of a broad, grand staircase, and intended to knock you between the eyes, was a big landscape—one of Daddy’s! It was like coming by accident upon an intimate friend in a foreign country. I knew the museum owned his work, but so did lots of museums; this was unexpected and made me laugh out loud. His big gallery opening a few years earlier, on the other hand, had been anticipated by all of us as if it were a make-or-break occasion. It wasn’t as though we didn’t know the paintings inside out and upside down, however magnificently hung in the high-ceilinged rooms. It was the people we focused on, and it was a jittery, brittle affair. My mother’s keening at that week’s art reviews in The New York Times—in which the show outrageously did not appear—made me want to hide.

I remember my mother’s telling me about a Henry James story—one I don’t know the title of—about the family of an artist who conspire in revering his genius but in the end (if I’m remembering correctly), it’s revealed that they secretly felt he was not that good. Clearly, she felt this had some recondite lesson for her—but she “believed in” my father’s work. She felt that in worldly things—contacting gallery owners, soliciting recommendations from the well-placed, making necessary phone calls—he got in his own way, angrily refusing to do any of it. 

It is my experience that most people in the arts feel a kind of comfort in lacking worldly success. They fight for success, and suffer over it, but it is so much safer not to have it—safer from envy, judgment, exposure; from the dangers attendant on superseding parents or companions—that, either through the work itself or by way of fumbling their encounters with the world, they ensure success won’t happen. But this need for self-defeat doesn’t seem true of my father. I think he naïvely, to the end, possibly through arrogance, expected the work to be its own ambassador. It had once been enough.

To put one’s work out there and not have it hailed is to feel as if one should never show one’s face again. The shame is incalculable. Attention must be paid.

In my early twenties, I couldn’t imagine wanting to hang my father’s work in my apartment. My sister did, and I marveled at it. I was at the age when you want to get away. You need to find out who you are, separate from your family. When I thought of putting his pictures on my walls, it was as if the weight of a frame dug into the back of my neck.

Now I have as many favorites of my father’s paintings on my walls as will fit. At my sister’s place, I delight in seeing such a plethora of his work looking just right in her large, white, airy rooms; I really hadn’t appreciated these big, more abstract works in our old, smaller spaces. But it is also true that I can’t see his work—any more than I could really see his face. There was never a time I didn’t know these images, and know them as an aspect of him. As it is, even coming across a piece of paper with his handwriting sends pangs through me, a wrenching longing to see him again, to talk to him. I never could figure out how I felt about my father’s work.


David Shapiro: Who Am I?, 1960s

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The Prophet of Envy


Basso Cannarsa/Opale/Leemage/Bridgeman ImagesRené Girard, 2000

René Girard (1923–2015) was one of the last of that race of Titans who dominated the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their grand, synthetic theories about history, society, psychology, and aesthetics. That race has since given way to a more cautious breed of “researchers” who prefer to look at things up close, to see their fine grain rather than their larger patterns. Yet the times certainly seem to attest to the enduring relevance of Girard’s thought to our social and political realities. Not only are his ideas about mimetic desire and human violence as far-reaching as Marx’s theories of political economy or Freud’s claims about the Oedipus complex, but the explosion of social media, the resurgence of populism, and the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence all suggest that the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably “Girardian” in its behavior.

In Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, Cynthia Haven—a literary journalist and the author of books on Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz—offers a lively, well-documented, highly readable account of how Girard built up his grand “mimetic theory,” as it’s sometimes called, over time. Her decision to introduce his thought to a broader public by way of an intellectual biography was a good one. Girard was not a man of action—the most important events of his life took place inside his head—so for the most part she follows the winding path of his academic career, from its beginnings in France, where he studied medieval history at the École des Chartes, to his migration to the United States in 1947, to the various American universities at which he taught over the years: Indiana, Duke, Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, SUNY Buffalo, and finally Stanford, where he retired in 1997.

Girard began and ended his career as a professor of French and comparative literature. That was as it should have been. Although he was never formally trained in literary studies (he received a Ph.D. in history from Indiana University in 1950), he effectively built his theory of mimetic desire, in all its expansive anthropological aspects, on literary foundations. Somewhat like Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the site of ancient Troy by assuming that the Homeric epics contained a substrate of historical truth, Girard approached literary works as coffers containing the most fundamental truths about human desire, conflict, and self-deception.

His first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, published in French in 1961 when he was a professor at Johns Hopkins, treated the novels of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Proust as forensic evidence of the essential structures of desire, not just of literary characters but of those who find themselves reflected in them. The prevailing modern belief that my desires are my own, that they arise from my autonomous inner self, is a “Romantic” falsehood that the novelistic tradition, according to Girard, exposes as a delusion (I’m echoing here the French title of the book: Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, literally “Romantic falsehood and novelistic truth”). Instead, he argues, my desires are mimetic: I want what others seem to want. Whether I am conscious of it or not (mostly not), I imitate their desires to such a degree that the object itself becomes secondary, and in some cases superfluous, to the rivalries that form around it.

Girard postulated that between a desiring subject and its object there is usually a “model” or “mediator,” who can be either “external” or “internal.” External mediators exist outside of my time and place, like Amadís de Gaule’s chivalric heroes, who impel Don Quixote’s desire to become a knight-errant; or Lancelot and Guinevere, whose adulterous kiss is imitated by Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s account in canto 5 of the Inferno; or the celebrities whom advertisers enlist to sell us products. The external mediator often figures as a hero or ego ideal, and there is typically no rivalry involved.

With internal mediators, however, we are in the realm of what Girard calls “interdividuals,” or people who interact with one another in the same social world. The internal mediator is my neighbor, so to speak, and is often a rival who arouses hatred or envy, or both at once. In the novels Girard dealt with, internal mediation often involves “triangulated desire” between three characters, two of whom vie for the other: Mathilde and Mme de Fervacques vying for Julien in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, for instance, or Julien and Valenod vying for Mme de Rênal. Even when a character views the mediator as an enemy, the former often secretly envies and idolizes the latter, as in the case of Proust’s Mme Verdurin, who loathed the Guermantes family until she married into it.

A crucial concept in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel is that of “metaphysical desire,” a somewhat misleading term for a common sentiment. We tend to attribute to the mediator a “fullness of being” that he or she does not in fact enjoy. For Girard there is no such thing as fullness of being among mortals. All of us—including the rich, the famous, the powerful, and the glamorous—have our mimetic models and suffer from a deficiency of being. That deficiency nourishes our desires, physical or metaphysical.

The English translation of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel came out in 1965, two years before V.S. Naipaul published The Mimic Men, which seems like a ringing endorsement of Girard’s claims about deficiency. (I don’t know if he ever read Girard.) In the novel Naipaul probes the psychology of elite ex-colonial “mimic men” who, after decolonization, model their desires on their former British masters. The mimic man will never enjoy the “fullness of being” he ascribes to his model, who, in Girard’s words, “shows the disciple the gate of paradise and forbids him to enter with one and the same gesture.” Naipaul’s narrator, Ralph Singh, knows this, yet such knowledge does not alleviate his unhappy consciousness. “We become what we see of ourselves in the eyes of others,” he declares. Girard would most likely deny Singh his one consolation, namely his belief that he is different from, and superior to, the mimic men who lack his own heightened self-awareness.

Girard might go even further and ask whether Naipaul’s mimic men in fact imitate one another more than the British models they share. The whole business gets altogether murkier—and more Girardian—when one considers that Naipaul himself was the perfect expression of the mimic man he defined and despised. The writer’s bearing, speech, racism, and invectives betray an ex-colonial subject mimicking the habits of his masters and the class to which he desperately wanted to belong. In this Naipaul falls well short of the novelists Girard dealt with in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, all of whom, Girard claims, ended up forswearing the mimetic mechanisms they so insightfully depicted in their work.

The common currency of mimetic desire is envy. Envy is a form of hostile worship. It turns admiration into resentment. Dante considered it radix malorum, the root of all evil, and Girard agreed. He claimed that envy is the one taboo that is alive and well in contemporary society—the vice that few will ever talk about or confess to:

Our supposedly insatiable appetite for the forbidden stops short of envy. Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it; we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant. We no longer prohibit many actions that generate envy, but silently ostracize whatever can remind us of its presence in our midst. Psychic phenomena, we are told, are important in proportion to the resistance they generate toward revelation. If we apply this yardstick to envy as well as to what psychoanalysis designates as repressed, which of the two will make the more plausible candidate for the role of best-defended secret?

These sentences come from the introduction to the only book that Girard wrote in English, A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare (1991), which is full of insights into the envy and imitative behavior of Shakespeare’s characters. Proceeding as incautiously as Schliemann did in his excavations, Girard bores through Shakespeare’s corpus to arrive at the substrate of mediated desire that he believed lies at its foundation. Girard plays by none of the rules of the tradition of commentary on Shakespeare, so it is not surprising that the book remains largely neglected, yet one day A Theater of Envy will likely be acknowledged as one of the most original, illuminating books on Shakespeare of its time, despite its speculative recklessness and relative ignorance of the vast body of secondary literature on Shakespeare’s works.

Speaking of “a theater of envy,” in Evolution and Conversion (in French, Les origines de la culture, 2004; the English translation was recently republished by Bloomsbury)—his conversations with Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha, which took place a couple of years before Facebook launched its website in 2004—Girard made some remarks that seem particularly resonant today:

In the affluent West, we live in a world where there is less and less need therefore and more and more desire…. One has today real possibilities of true autonomy, of individual judgments. However, those possibilities are more commonly sold down the river in favour of false individuality, of negative mimesis…. The only way modernity can be defined is the universalization of internal mediation, for one doesn’t have areas of life that would keep people apart from each other, and that would mean that the construction of our beliefs and identity cannot but have strong mimetic components.

Since then social media has brought “the universalization of internal mediation” to a new level, while at the same time dramatically narrowing the “areas of life that would keep people apart from each other.”

Social media is the miasma of mimetic desire. If you post pictures of your summer vacation in Greece, you can expect your “friends” to post pictures from some other desirable destination. The photos of your dinner party will be matched or outmatched by theirs. If you assure me through social media that you love your life, I will find a way to profess how much I love mine. When I post my pleasures, activities, and family news on a Facebook page, I am seeking to arouse my mediators’ desires. In that sense social media provides a hyperbolic platform for the promiscuous circulation of mediator-oriented desire. As it burrows into every aspect of everyday life, Facebook insinuates itself precisely into those areas of life that would keep people apart.

Certainly the enormous market potential of Facebook was not lost on Girard’s student Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who studied with him at Stanford in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A devoted Girardian who founded and funds an institute called Imitatio, whose goal is to “pursue research and application of mimetic theory across the social sciences and critical areas of human behavior,” Thiel was the first outside investor in Facebook, selling most of his shares in 2012 for over a billion dollars (they cost him $500,000 in 2004). It took a highly intelligent Girardian, well schooled in mimetic theory, to intuit early on that Facebook was about to open a worldwide theater of imitative desire on people’s personal computers.

In 1972, eleven years after Deceit, Desire, and the Novel appeared, Girard published Violence and the Sacred. It came as a shock to those familiar with his previous work. Here the literary critic assumed the mantle of cultural anthropologist, moving from the triangular desire of fictional bourgeois characters to the group behavior of primitive societies. Having immersed himself during the intervening decade in the work of Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Bronisław Malinowski, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Émile Durkheim, Gabriel Tarde, and Walter Burkert, Girard offered in Violence and the Sacred nothing less than an anthropogenic theory of mimetic violence.

I will not attempt to describe the theory in all its speculative complexity. Suffice it to say that the only thing more contagious than desire is violence. Girard postulates that, prior to the establishment of laws, prohibitions, and taboos, prehistoric societies would periodically succumb to “mimetic crises.” Usually brought on by a destabilizing event—be it drought, pestilence, or some other adversity—mimetic crises amount to mass panics in which communities become unnerved, impassioned, and crazed, as people imitate one another’s violence and hysteria rather than responding directly to the event itself. Distinctions disappear, members of the group become identical to one another in their vehemence, and a mob psychology takes over. In such moments the community’s very survival is threated by internecine strife and a Hobbesian war of all against all.

Girard interpreted archaic rituals, sacrifices, and myth as the symbolic traces or aftermath of prehistoric traumas brought on by mimetic crises. Those societies that saved themselves from self-immolation did so through what he called the scapegoat mechanism. Scapegoating begins with accusation and ends in collective murder. Singling out a random individual or subgroup of individuals as being responsible for the crisis, the community turns against the “guilty” victim (guilty in the eyes of the persecutors, that is, since according to Girard the victim is in fact innocent and chosen quite at random, although is frequently slightly different or distinct in some regard). A unanimous act of violence against the scapegoat miraculously restores peace and social cohesion (unum pro multis, “one for the sake of many,” as the Roman saying puts it).

The scapegoat’s murder has such healing power over the community that the victim retroactively assumes an aura of sacredness, and is sometimes even deified. Behind the practice of sacrifice in ancient societies Girard saw the spasmodic, scapegoat-directed violence of communities in the throes of mimetic crises—a primal murder, as it were, for which there exists no hard evidence but plenty of indirect evidence in ancient sacrificial practices, which he viewed as ritualized reenactments of the scapegoat mechanism that everywhere founded the archaic religions of humanity. (“Every observation suggests that, in human culture, sacrificial rites and the immolation of victims come first.”)

Violence and the Sacred deals almost exclusively with archaic religion. Its argument is more hypothetical and abstract, more remote and less intuitive, than what Girard put forward in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. The same can be said for the main claims of his next major book, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978; the title comes from Matthew 13:35). There he argued that the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Gospels expose the “scandal” of the violent foundations of archaic religions. By revealing the inherent innocence of the victim—Jesus—as well as the inherent guilt of those who persecute and put him to death, “Christianity truly demystifies religion because it points out the error on which archaic religion is based.”*

Girard’s anthropological interpretation of Christianity in Things Hidden is as original as it is unorthodox. It views the Crucifixion as a revelation in the profane sense, namely a bringing to light of the arbitrary nature of the scapegoat mechanism that underlies sacrificial religions. After publishing Things Hidden, Girard gained a devoted following among various Christian scholars, some of whom lobbied him hard to open his theory to a more traditional theological interpretation of the Cross as the crux of man’s deliverance from sin. Girard eventually (and somewhat reluctantly) made room for a redemptive understanding of the Crucifixion, yet in principle his theory posits only its revelatory, demystifying, and scandalous aspect.

Orthodox Girardians insist that his corpusfrom Deceit, Desire, and the Novel to his last worksforms a coherent, integrated system that must be accepted or rejected as a whole. In my view, that is far from the case. One need not buy into the entire système Girard to recognize that his most fundamental insights can stand on their own.

Some of Girard’s most acute ideas come from his psychology of accusation. He championed legal systems that protect the rights of the accused because he believed that impassioned accusation, especially when it gains momentum by wrapping itself in the mantle of indignation, has a potential for mimetic diffusion that disregards any considered distinction between guilt and innocence. The word “Satan” in Hebrew means “adversary” or “accuser,” and Girard insisted in his later work that there is a distinctly satanic element at work in the zeal for accusation and prosecution.

Girard’s most valuable insight is that rivalry and violence arise from sameness rather than difference. Where conflicts erupt between neighbors or ethnic groups, or even among nations, more often than not it’s because of what they have in common rather than what distinguishes them. In Girard’s words: “The error is always to reason within categories of ‘difference’ when the root of all conflicts is rather ‘competition,’ mimetic rivalry between persons, countries, cultures.” Often we fight or go to war to prove our difference from an enemy who in fact resembles us in ways we are all too eager to deny.

A related insight of equal importance concerns the deadly cycles of revenge and reciprocal violence. Girard taught that retaliation hardly ever limits itself to “an eye for an eye” but almost always escalates the level of violence. Every escalation is imitated in turn by the other party:

Clausewitz sees very clearly that modern wars are as violent as they are only because they are “reciprocal”: mobilization involves more and more people until it is “total,” as Ernst Junger wrote of the 1914 war…. It was because he was “responding” to the humiliations inflicted by the Treaty of Versailles and the occupation of the Rhineland that Hitler was able to mobilize a whole people. Likewise, it was because he was “responding” to the German invasion that Stalin achieved a decisive victory over Hitler. It was because he was “responding” to the United States that Bin Laden planned 9/11…. The one who believes he can control violence by setting up defenses is in fact controlled by violence.

Those remarks come from the last book Girard wrote, Battling to the End (2010). It is in many ways one of his most interesting, for here he leaves behind speculations about archaic origins and turns his attention to modern history. The book’s conversations with Benoît Chantre, an eminent French Girardian, feature a major discussion of the war theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), whose ideas about the “escalation to extremes” in modern warfare converge uncannily with Girard’s ideas about the acceleration of mimetic violence.

Toward the end of his life, Girard did not harbor much hope for history in the short term. In the past, politics was able to restrain mass violence and prevent its tendency to escalate to extremes, but in our time, he believed, politics had lost its power of containment. “Violence is a terrible adversary,” he wrote in Battling to the End, “especially since it always wins.” Yet it is necessary to battle violence with a new “heroic attitude,” for “it alone can link violence and reconciliation…[and] make tangible both the possibility of the end of the world and reconciliation among all members of humanity.” To that statement he felt compelled to add: “More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying.” That meaning has to do with the primacy of violence in human relations. And to that statement, in turn, he added some verses of Friedrich Hölderlin: “But where danger threatens/that which saves from it also grows.”

  1. *

    Girard goes so far as to argue that “Christianity is not only one of the destroyed religions but it is the destroyer of all religions. The death of God is a Christian phenomenon. In its modern sense, atheism is a Christian invention.” The Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo was very drawn to Girard’s understanding of Christianity as a secularizing religion, and the two collaborated on a fine book on the topic, Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith: A Dialogue (Columbia University Press, 2010). 

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Sing, Goddess


Mauro Razani/Bridgeman ImagesAchilles delivering Briseis to Agamemnon’s heralds; bas-relief by Antonio Canova, circa 1787–1790

The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker’s unsentimental and beautiful new novel, tells the story of the Iliad as experienced by women captives, from inside the Greek camp overlooking the walls of the besieged city of Troy. They are the Greek heroes’ prizes, taken from conquered outlying towns and villages to be prostitutes, domestic workers, and, on occasion, wives. Herodotus, in his Histories, tells of the Ionian Greek customs with regard to their captured women: they

married Carian girls, whose parents they had killed. The fact that these women were forced into marriage after the murder of their fathers, husbands, and sons was the origin of the law, established by oath and passed down to their female descendants, forbidding them to sit at table with their husbands or to address them by name.

The novel is told, mostly in the first person, by Briseis, the captive queen awarded to Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest warrior. She becomes the motive for the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek troops, and the resulting destruction their troops suffer, caused by the two men’s personal feud.

Homer’s epic opens as Agamemnon, who had his daughter Iphigenia sacrificed as an offering for good sailing conditions to Troy, encounters another kind of father in the Greek camp, a priest of Apollo, who has taken an unprecedented risk and come to the enemy camp to ask for his beloved daughter, Chryseis, to be released from Agamemnon’s household. Agamemnon refuses. In the coarsest speech of the epic, he insults the priest and gratuitously, pornographically, forces on the father a haunting vision of his daughter’s future as the king’s sex slave and household drone. She will never again be free or safe, since Agamemnon’s impulses are sovereign; she is his to beat or to kill, if he wants. The priest beseeches Apollo to punish the Greeks, and the god responds, sending a devastating plague.

Achilles calls an assembly to find its cause. Under his protection, the divining priest Calchas reveals that the plague is of divine origin, and that Agamemnon’s prize, Chryseis, must be restored to her father in order to appease Apollo. Though Agamemnon is furious with the priest’s assessment (and insults him in the style of Trump’s attack on the CNN reporter Jim Acosta—“Prophet of evil, never yet have you spoken anything good for me”), he has no choice but to assent. However, while Achilles is the Greek’s greatest warrior, Agamemnon is his superior in rank. The command structure is an iron hierarchy, and to restore his prestige, Agamemnon demands Achilles’s own prize, Briseis, as a substitute, humiliating his most valuable war champion. Briseis is taken from Achilles’s tent and led to Agamemnon’s. Achilles then refuses to use his extraordinary martial powers to fight for the Greeks, allowing them to be slaughtered and brought to the brink of destruction over the two men’s struggle for prestige.

This is the scene painted circa 480 BC by an artist known as the Briseis painter on a red-figured kylix, or round two-handled wine cup, exhibited at the British Museum: on one side, Briseis, wearing a gracefully draped chiton and veil, is led by a bearded herald to Agamemnon’s tent. On the other side, Briseis, in the same elegant drapery, is led back to Achilles’s tent. If you look only at the painted figures, you will see nothing but beauty, order, and the timeless rhythms of ceremony—but the vessel is a brilliantly designed image of perpetual captivity. It is a cup with a double life, one story concealed inside the decorations of another, like the design of Pat Barker’s novel.

Barker’s work is inextricably associated with her examinations of the experience of war. She is most famous for her great World War I Regeneration trilogy, a study, among much else, of how states create men as warriors, but her Union Street trilogy, about the lives of working-class women, might also be described as war novels, focused on class warfare and the characters’ endurance of the pervasive violence integral to poverty.

The Silence of the Girls, like the German writer Christa Wolf’s 1984 novel Cassandra, is a fiction that acts as what we might think of as a séance in reverse: these novels do not use the living to summon the dead, but the dead to summon the living. Wolf’s Troy evokes the oppression of East Germany, while Barker’s brings us visions not only of the women captured by ISIS but, for example, of the current situation of the 1.5 million domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Among those workers was Tuti Tursiliwati, who was beheaded in October, the punishment for killing her employer in self-defense during one of his repeated attempts to rape her. While Wolf’s Cassandra is the very archetype of the silenced woman, Barker chooses to incarnate perhaps the most overlooked woman named in Homer.

In the Iliad, Briseis isn’t described as “silent.” She doesn’t need to be. Although we see her in Book 1, she doesn’t speak until Book 19. It is not until then, in her mourning speech for Achilles’s beloved friend Patroclus, that we are told anything about her other than that she has beautiful cheeks and that she leaves unwillingly to be transferred to Agamemnon. At last we learn that she is the prize of the man who killed her husband, her father, and her brothers—and yet her only hope for safety for herself and any children she might have is what Patroclus once promised her: marriage to Achilles. Barker skillfully shows us what active political strategies the women construct in their captivity, protecting one another, sharing useful rumors, shrewdly assessing the men’s characters. Their camp life reminds me of the World War II diary A Woman in Berlin, the anonymous account by a German woman of the Russian army’s mass rapes at the end of the war.* She describes how safety lay in forming an exclusive relationship, so as to be less vulnerable to gang rape. In Barker’s scene of Chryseis’s departure, some of the captive women fantasize about taking her place: “To be Agamemnon’s prize…It didn’t come more comfortable than that.”

In The Silence of the Girls, Briseis lives the full range of meanings of the Greek verb damazo, to tame, to domesticate, to subdue, to overpower, to seduce, to rape, to kill. Homer’s Briseis doesn’t describe Achilles slaughtering her male relatives before her eyes, but Barker’s Briseis does. Her eyewitness account is as detailed as a war correspondent’s dispatches. The novel opens with the women of the outlying Trojan town of Lyrnessus, Briseis’s town, crowded into their citadel, knowing that within hours it will fall. They hear Achilles’s battle cry, “inhuman as the howling of a wolf.” Briseis, remembering those hours, recites some of Achilles’s Homeric epithets: “Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles…How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher.’” To the women waiting in the citadel, he is what rhetoric would call a hero, but his acts are the acts of what we would call a war criminal:

For once, women with sons envied those with daughters, because girls would be allowed to live. Boys, if anywhere near the fighting age, were routinely slaughtered. Even pregnant women were sometimes killed, speared through the belly on the off chance their child would be a boy…. The air was heavy with the foreknowledge of what we would have to face. Mothers put their arms round girls who were growing up fast but not yet ripe for marriage. Girls as young as nine and ten would not be spared.

The women’s situation becomes even more excruciating as Barker develops the account of their lives in captivity; they not only have to serve their captors sexually, but face, with their differing responses, what it’s like to become the mothers of children by their rapists.

Barker establishes her register at the outset: there is beauty as well as terror in her language, in the physical world she creates, in the changing, unpredictable relationships and situations for the captive Briseis, but Barker keeps her Briseis and Achilles alive in time, not in timeless myth. Barker doesn’t want her readers dazzled or deluded, in the position of the Trojans when Patroclus wears Achilles’s armor into battle: “Once they see the armour, they won’t be able to see past it.” Achilles, like Briseis and Patroclus and the rest of the celebrated epic figures, is seen here not only as a series of embodied actions and achievements, but as someone with a lived past, sculpted by childhood as well as poetry. Barker’s portrait of his relationship with his goddess mother, Thetis, has an edge of dark comedy as well as poignancy: she acquires for him a luxe set of armor made by the god Hephaistos (Agamemnon himself carried a Hephaistos-crafted scepter), but is never there when he needs her. To be the son of an immortal is a bit like being the son of a movie star who gives her child the best of everything but remains a remote figure, an object of longing and of resentment.

Briseis could be compared to King Lear’s Cordelia; she is committed to truth, without which she cannot be herself. She heroically—and silently—refuses to concur in the lie Agamemnon tells Achilles, that he never touched her, even though the falsehood would be to her advantage. But unlike Cordelia, she feels compassion without denying her hatred:

Though I sympathized, almost involuntarily, with men having their wounds stitched up or clawing at their bandages in the intolerable heat, I still hated and despised them all….

It would have been easier, in many ways, to slip into thinking we were all in this together, equally imprisoned on this narrow strip of land between the sand dunes and the sea; easier, but false. They were men, and free. I was a woman, and a slave. And that’s a chasm no amount of sentimental chit-chat about shared imprisonment should be allowed to obscure.

Barker keeps us grounded in the physical realities of war, not just the obvious ones, like the dirt and blood of battle, or the bawdy, drunken chants of men who have survived another day of killing, but in the relationships war unveils: the encounters between patients and doctors, who have to cause pain, and who lie about their patients’ chances, or the way mothers are a ghostly presence on the battlefield, as present as the male ancestors the warriors invoke.


Art Gallery of South AustraliaJohn William Waterhouse: Circe Invidiosa, 1892

Barker brilliantly sets against Homer’s list of warriors and the glossary of wounds with which Achilles kills them a catalog of their mothers’ efforts to bear and rear them, the struggle to sustain life that also finishes in the dust with their sons’ bodies, without even the compensation of glory. Nor is there any attempt at romance in the physical relations of captor and captive. The men are not transformed any more by desire than by battle; they remain exactly who they are in their sexuality. Achilles isn’t cruel, but “fucked as quickly as he killed, and for me it was the same thing,” as Briseis says.

When Troy falls, Briseis is sent to the same hut where she was captive, now the holding prison of women of Troy. She looks at Andromache, whose small son has been hurled from the city battlements by Odysseus. She will now be the slave of Achilles’s son—the prostitute of the warrior son of the man who killed her husband. Seeing her, Briseis reflects: “Yes, the death of young men in battle is a tragedy…worthy of any number of laments—but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave, and I thought: We need a new song.”

Herodotus opens his Histories with a brief account of the origins of the Greek and Trojan war:

Abducting young women, in their [the Trojans’] opinion, is not, indeed, a lawful act; but it is stupid after the event to make a fuss about it. The only sensible thing is to take no notice; for it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she does not wish to be.

Barker’s novel has been called a “feminist Iliad”—and, of course, it is, unmistakably; but it cannot be conveniently relegated, as sometimes happens, to a niche of fiction, a genre of retellings by women. It is not only about women’s experience, but about slavery too. And it is also about the nature of knowledge, an exploration of the ways we perceive, and refuse to perceive, reality. The novel deserves to be called an archaeologist’s Iliad: it is as if Barker had found an artifact with an as yet undeciphered alphabet among the glittering grave treasures of Homer’s epic.

Madeline Miller’s novel Circe draws on the Odyssey rather than the Iliad; her book reflects its source. It is a romance, an adventure story, and like the Odyssey, the story of a quest to find a home, this time a woman’s instead of a king’s. Miller’s novel offers a more ample biography of the minor goddess famous in the epic for her love affair with Odysseus, and for her bewitched wine, which transforms the incautious men who visit her island into pigs. In Miller’s story, this is an ironic transformation, since Circe’s power is infused with helplessness: her magic can transform its objects only into their truest selves. Her first effort, with Glaucus, a mortal sailor with whom she falls in love, results in his being revealed as a minor divinity, petty, vindictive, and conceited. Mortals are corrupted by assuming divinity, like mediocre politicians who acquire too much power.

Her second attempt is with her cousin Scylla, who has indifferently stolen Glaucus’s affections. Circe performs this transformation out of jealousy, too inexperienced to understand the consequences. The sexually voracious, amoral Scylla turns into the dreaded sea monster who devours unlucky seamen as they sail the passage between her cavern and the deadly whirlpool Charybdis. But Circe’s own vengeful motivation for Scylla’s metamorphosis means that she shares responsibility for the many men who die to satisfy Scylla’s appetite. By contrast, Circe’s mixture of herbs and wine later finds its mark without guilt when a sea captain and his crew land on her island and violate her sincere hospitality by planning a gang rape of a lone woman they believe to be powerless. It is not Circe who makes them pigs.

Miller’s novel charms like a good bedtime story; she understands our inexhaustible appetite for myths starring our favorite characters, and that we don’t want these stories to end. Her first novel, drawn from the Iliad, was The Song of Achilles, an unabashed celebration of homosexual love whose focus was on the romance of Achilles and Patroclus. She also wrote a delightfully eerie novella about Galatea and Pygmalion, reminiscent of an Edgar Allan Poe tale.

In Circe, she fleshes out familiar and less familiar mythical figures by setting them in fairy-tale situations, giving them domestic lives (we see Daedalus as a devoted family man in thrall to his adorable small son, Icarus, and are introduced to Scylla when she was still a lovely nymph). Miller’s technique echoes Circe’s alchemical powers, as she makes these minor characters more than mere references. She performs a sleight of hand on the gods; instead of figures of ambivalent and shifting grace, favoritism, and destruction in relation to humanity, Miller’s gods for the most part hold human beings in contempt.

The gods are chilling: their immortality makes them incapable of love. They are superhumanly narcissistic, concerned only with being worshiped and satisfying momentary lusts at any expense. The god Hermes explains to Circe that only miserable men give offerings worth having:

Make him shiver, kill his wife, cripple his child, then you will hear from him. He will starve his family for a month to buy you a pure-white yearling calf…. In the end, it’s best to give him something. Then he will be happy again. And you can start over.

Miller has a gift for creating settings that summarize their inhabitants, along with swiftly brushstroked traits and habits that define characters. Circe’s father is the sun, Helios, who lives in an underground palace with obsidian walls. He “liked the way the obsidian reflected his light, the way its slick surfaces caught fire as he passed. Of course, he did not consider how black it would be when he was gone. My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.” Her aunt, Selene, the moon, is a vulgar romantic, roaming the earth at night to spy on lovers and gossiping about them to the gods. Circe, a very low-ranking goddess, is given not a palace but a house on an island that does its own housecleaning and washes its own dishes, a sort of cottage-shaped divinity.

Circe herself is a compound of Cinderella and Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid—she is the scapegoat in her divine household, with her exotic, bird-like eyes and mortal-seeming voice, teased by her radiant siblings for being stupid and backward, never as at home at the gods’ banquets as they are. And like the Little Mermaid, she is fascinated by humanity and the possibility of being human. She is the only divinity we encounter, aside from her uncle Prometheus (punished for teaching men the nature of fire), who has a moral task to accomplish. She must redeem the destruction her transformation of Scylla has caused; she must become a good witch. And in choosing to learn the arts of sorcery, she is separating herself from the gods: sorcery requires patient work; it can be taught to humans. Witchcraft

is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink…. For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease. I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who had loved me a little did not care to stay.

She is banished to her island precisely because the gods disapprove of and fear witchcraft. Circe is that rarity, a restless, discontented immortal who wants time to pass. And she is a goddess on a quest for significant love.

Miller has learned as many lessons from Disney as she has from Homer, and her story pleases in some of the same ways. The cast of divinities and the impressive parade of Circe’s lovers—Hermes, Daedalus, Odysseus, with whom she will have a child—pass through the book on their adventures like animations. We almost imagine which recognizable voice of which celebrity actor might deliver their speeches. They also tend to speak in the Disney fairy-tale dialect. Here is Circe conversing with the fisherman Glaucos:

“Rise,” I told him. “Please. I have not blessed your nets, I have no powers to do so. I am born from Naiads, who govern fresh water only, and even their small gifts I lack.”

“Yet,” he said, “may I return? Will you be here? For I have never known such a wondrous thing in all my life as you.”

The gods don’t fare as well as humans in Miller’s prose; the former are imagined with less energy and engagement. Brilliant metaphor would be the natural idiom for Circe, whose special power is transformation. Yet even when Athena is on stage, Miller misses her opportunity. Athena alights on Circe’s island “like an eagle in her dive…. She smiled like a temple snake over its bowl of cream,” “looked like an eagle who had been diving upon a rabbit.” Thanks in part to such clichés, Athena is a bore, smug, brutal, imperious.

Miller’s work is most keenly alive in her account of Circe’s parenthood. Here the mutual incomprehension embedded within the relationship of adult and child—experience and naiveté, emotional ambivalence and passion, the sheer amount of divination it takes to meet a child’s daily needs and moods, the shocking power of a fragile baby over a powerful adult—translates beautifully into the descriptions of goddess and child: “A thousand years I had lived, but they did not feel so long as Telegonus’ childhood.” There is a suggestion here of something thrillingly new: the relationship explored between mother and child in these pages is epic, and worthy of epic. It is neither merely mundane nor hopelessly tragic, but dynamic, passionate, tender, angry, dangerous, and loving, with an intense, risky, physical drama played out between a vulnerable child and a mother obligated to be protective even when driven mad in a contest of wills.

It is in these pages that Miller transcends her fairy-tale models, though she returns to them at the book’s conclusion, somewhat predictably, but still poignantly. Miller understands that the best fairy tales are not only wish fulfillments but also stories of the denial of wishes. She manages to combine both elements in her finale, creating an ending that is simultaneously happy and unhappy.

Circe is a novel that will surely be read differently by readers of different ages: an adolescent might very well be powerfully affected by this drama of gods and mortals. For others, like me, the book reads as if it were one of the goddess’s conjuring tricks: a hypnotic experience that seems less like a novel when it is finished than an illusion.

  1. *

    The author was later revealed to be the journalist Marta Hillers. 

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The Impersonator

A Very English Scandal


Ian Tyas/Keystone/Getty ImagesFormer Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe leaving the Old Bailey with his wife, Marion, after he was found not guilty of conspiracy to murder, London, June 1979

The major surprise of Jeremy Thorpe’s trial in 1979 for conspiracy to murder was his decision not to take the stand—it seems that his counsel, George Carman, alert to his client’s histrionic tendencies, foresaw the dangers of Oscar Wilde–like showing-off and self-incrimination. No witnesses were called for the defense, and the narrative of events concerning Thorpe was entirely established by the prosecution: his affair, as a young MP in the early 1960s, with a stable hand and model named Norman Scott; Scott’s repeated attempts to go public with the story (all firmly smothered by the police as well as the press); and the subsequent conspiracy to murder Scott, who had become a threat not only to Thorpe but to the Liberal Party of which he was by then the leader. The defense’s case consisted simply of discrediting the prosecution’s witnesses.

This was a high-risk approach, and part of the drama of the trial lay in the clever calculations made by the defense about several matters: the likely attitude of the whimsical and snobbish old judge, the susceptibility of the jury to the status and dignity of Thorpe, and the impression made by the three main prosecution witnesses, Scott, Peter Bessell, once Thorpe’s closest ally, and Andrew Newton, the comic-book incompetent hired to carry out the killing. The calculations paid off, and after the judge’s summing-up, one of the most biased and misleading in British legal history, Thorpe and his three codefendants in the conspiracy were acquitted. No sitting MP had ever been charged with so serious a crime, and there seems no doubt now that he was guilty of it, whatever the verdict.

Thorpe wasn’t tried for homosexual acts, which had been decriminalized twelve years earlier, but without them there would have been no trial. The Thorpe-Scott story, rambling and rumbling on over a period of nineteen years, isn’t easy to summarize. The two men met in 1960, when Thorpe was visiting a businessman friend who kept horses that were groomed by Scott (then called Norman Josiffe). Thorpe gave Scott his card and invited him to get in touch if he ever needed him. Scott did just that, turning up with his dog, Mrs. Tish, at the House of Commons and asking to see him, largely because he needed help getting a new National Insurance card, without which he couldn’t receive benefits or undertake legal employment. (The pursuit of this card became a central motif of his life.)

Thorpe seized his chance, and to double the excitement of risk, took Scott, under a false name and pretending that he was a cameraman, to stay with his formidable widowed mother at her house in Surrey, oddly enough called Stonewalls. Ursula Thorpe wore a monocle, smoked cigars, and in some photos has the disconcerting look of a female impersonator; she favored Jeremy heavily over his two sisters and had high ambitions for him, including a claim on a long-defunct “barony of Thorpe.” (In changing his name to Scott, Josiffe adopted “the family name of the 4th Earl of Eldon, who sired me, I’m convinced,” so both lovers had aristocratic fantasies, among others.) After a frosty dinner and a hectic piano and violin recital by mother and son, Jeremy visited Norman in his bedroom, kissed him, and produced a jar of Vaseline (“every bachelor’s friend” in Russell T. Davies’s screenplay for A Very English Scandal), telling him to keep quiet because his mother was sleeping in the next room.

After this initiation, Scott was installed for a while in a bedsit, where Thorpe would visit him for sex. Scott enjoyed the attention, was given Gieves & Hawkes suits and dinners at the Reform Club, but resented being a kept man. Thorpe, who nicknamed him Bunny for his startled look, wrote him a letter promising that “Bunnies can (and will) go to France” and ending “I miss you”—a letter that was later to be much analyzed and mocked.

But as time went on, the muddle, incompetence, and sheer bad luck that dogged the emotionally volatile Scott caused a chronic problem for Thorpe, who kept trying to pay him off and find him jobs abroad. Other letters he had incautiously written to him were in circulation and were only retrieved by absurd skulduggery. Scott became suicidal and wrote a long and desperate letter to Ursula, telling her about his affair with her son and begging her to intervene. Like all Scott’s claims about Thorpe she treated it as the incredible fantasy of a deranged self-serving freak, though it would be intriguing to know what unexpressed doubts and intuitions also went through her mind.

The interest of Scott is partly his confused and sometimes tormented attitude toward his own sexuality. Both men and women found him attractive, and he them. He had been raised a Catholic and cursed Thorpe for awakening the “vice” of homosexuality in him, but he loved him too. He married, disastrously, and fathered a child, which the mother took away as part of her complex punishment of him for (in Davies’s screenplay) being “queer.” Davies brings out well the pervasive importance of class: Thorpe with his flats, houses, and cars, Scott an unhappy nomad with everything he owns in one battered suitcase. The old-boy network protects and absorbs the mainly gay Thorpe (whose first marriage, blessed by the archbishop of Canterbury, was front-page news), while Scott’s new father-in-law denounces him as a “poofter” at his own wedding reception. Ben Whishaw as Scott mesmerizingly combines the vulnerable and the determined, with a determination born of principle as much as need.

What Davies, with the necessary economy of drama, omits is any sense of the intricate financial deceit in which the showman Thorpe became embroiled. When Scott’s candor became too great a threat, Thorpe made the astonishing decision that he must be killed—of course in a way that couldn’t be traced to him. Jack Hayward, a generous expat British businessman, had already shown himself willing to part with six-figure sums for good causes, and though not a Liberal was persuaded by Thorpe that the Liberals, as a tiny high-minded party with only a rare and romantic chance of holding the balance of power between the much larger Labour and Conservative parties, deserved his support. Huge checks, solicited by Thorpe for election funds but destined to pay Scott’s would-be assassin, were sent via Nadir Dinshaw, a blameless businessman in Jersey, whom Thorpe subsequently pressured, in vain, to lie to the police about them.

Peter Bessell (immaculately played by Alex Jennings)—a former Liberal MP and a businessman as hapless as Scott, though on a larger scale—was a further intermediary in this squalid affair, along with Thorpe’s great friend and best man David Holmes; while two other men, George Deakin, a Welsh trader in gambling machines, and John Le Mesurier, like Holmes a carpet dealer, were involved in securing the services of Andrew “Gino” Newton, who alarmingly was an airline pilot, to shoot (or was it merely to frighten?) Scott. Sent by Holmes to find Scott, Newton phoned to say there was no sign of him in Dunstable, only to be told he was meant to be in Barnstaple, a town on the opposite side of the country.

In the end Newton, posing as his protector from another putative killer, persuaded Scott to come with him by car to Porlock at night. Scott brought with him his landlady’s Great Dane, Rinka. In the rain on a high lonely stretch of Exmoor, they agreed that Scott should take over the driving, and when they got out of the car Newton shot Rinka dead and turned the gun on Scott; it jammed, and Newton panicked and drove off. This was the moment that, in Auberon Waugh’s words, “lifted the Scott affair from being of minority, largely satirical interest, to being a matter of genuine public concern.”

What tone should the filmmaker take with this story forty years later? From the start the ensuing trial was a subject for satirical comedy: Peter Cook’s parody of the judge, Mr. Justice Cantley (“You are now to retire—as indeed should I—carefully to consider your verdict of Not Guilty”), was performed within days of his summing-up; and in his book-length account of the trial, The Last Word, published the following year, Waugh, a Private Eye journalist, presented the bizarreries of both case and trial in varying shades of mockery—now openly hostile to Thorpe, a long-standing bête noire, now casting the participants as characters from Beatrix Potter (“Tale of a Flopsy Bunny” etc.). Private Eye had had a grand time with the case—their cover the week after the acquittal has Thorpe saying “Buggers Can’t Be Losers” to his wife as they greet the crowds—and Waugh, who lived near Thorpe’s North Devon constituency, had stood against him in the general election of May 1979 as a representative of the reproachfully named Dog Lovers’ Party, attracting seventy-nine votes. He had also stridently opposed the large stone monument that Thorpe had erected to his first wife, Caroline, on a beautiful spot in Exmoor, finding it not only “a permanent source of irritation to those of us who live in the region” but by implication an irksome monument to the former MP himself. So The Last Word, vividly readable and amusing for all its undisguised prejudices, set the tone for an understanding of the trial.

Davies’s brilliant screenplay takes its name, as well as much of its manner, from John Preston’s entertainingly novelistic account of the case.1 Anything described as “very English” is being subjected to a subtle form of ridicule, an instant suspicion of stuffiness, hypocrisy, and ineptitude. It’s an idea of Englishness that has been the lifeblood of British film comedy, from the Ealing Studios of the late 1940s and 1950s through the saucier Carry On films of the following three decades, which are knowingly evoked in Stephen Frears’s direction of this richly enjoyable miniseries. Whishaw, with his wiggling walk in revealingly tight jeans, is one moment as camp as the TV comedian Dick Emery, the next as ingenuous as Michael Crawford in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, the popular 1970s sitcom in which Michele Dotrice—here playing Scott’s protector, Mrs. Edna Friendship—was Crawford’s sweetly exasperated wife.

Murray Gold’s score for the miniseries has an endlessly redeployed tune suggestive of risqué capers, futile caution, and looming comeuppance—a minuet danced in heavy boots. It fits with the elements of pastiche in Frears’s direction, but at times foists an overinsistent interpretation on scenes that without it might have been more complex, more like life and less like a miniseries.

Davies, who created Queer as Folk nearly twenty years ago, is justly celebrated as a screen dramatist of gay lives, and at moments he follows Thorpe into undocumented scenes of anonymous sexual pickups, sometimes dangerous ones. In one of numerous clever echoes and foreshadowings, Davies has Thorpe declare early on that if anything came out about him and Scott, he would blow his brains out. He later shows Thorpe smoothly agreeing to support the MP Leo Abse’s bill to decriminalize homosexuality, which would bear fruit in the Sexual Offences Act of 1967; and he has a marvelous scene in the home of “Boofy” Arran, the badger-loving earl who was to pilot the bill through the House of Lords. Arran’s elder brother (“Queer as springtime,” his wife affirms) had indeed shot himself, and David Bamber as Boofy speaks movingly about him and the cruelty of the law: “I don’t think it’s suicide, I think it’s murder.”

In Davies’s screenplay Thorpe’s trial emerges as a conflict between the hopelessly bungled deceit of Thorpe and his cronies and the fearless and relentless truth-telling of Scott, “an open homosexual, a new world blazing,” in the words given to George Carman. In reality much of Scott’s testimony was barely audible, and he broke down completely at one point and had to be coaxed to continue. What Waugh called his “petulant rages” at other times appear here as a heroic stand on behalf of men sexually abused by others in power—“You will not shut me up!” It’s a gay #MeToo moment—Scott emerging from the Old Bailey to pose for the cameras amid a gay rights demonstration, with “Knock on Wood” pounding on the soundtrack. It was a central paradox of the trial that when Bessell and Scott most clearly told the truth they were most expressly disbelieved, but the trial could certainly have been depicted in more detail, with the savage and (in Waugh’s words) “gratuitously offensive” judge’s steering of the whole thing made more evident.


Blueprint PicturesBen Whishaw as Norman Scott with his dog, Mrs. Tish, in A Very English Scandal

Thorpe is played with breathtaking plausibility by Hugh Grant. Only at one moment did I have doubts. Thorpe became “the youngest man to lead a British political party in more than a century” when he gained the Liberal leadership: he was thirty-seven. Grant is fifty-eight, and his age, perfect for the more cadaverous Thorpe of the late 1970s, lends a perhaps misleading color to the flashback scenes in 1960, when he first meets and seduces Scott (“Now I’m going to kiss you, and you will enjoy it”). Thorpe, a well-connected Old Etonian, had all the readily exploitable power and prestige of class and status, but he was only thirty-two, a young man himself, not the late-middle-aged predator we see onscreen. The social dynamics may have been similar, but the personal ones must have been somewhat different. In reality Thorpe was one year younger than Grant was when he played the tousle-haired Charles in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Still, Thorpe is a marvelous subject for an actor with Grant’s experience and background. A lifetime of observation of English manners and psychology informs a performance of sustained subtlety, wit, and sparing but powerful pathos. The fascination of Thorpe as a character study lies partly in the intense self-belief of a man who seems eerily empty, dynamic in self-advancement, impressing others as well as himself with his clarion views on hot topics, but lazy as to detail and easily distracted, powered by ego but used to getting his way through a magnetic exercise of charm—a political type recognizable in all periods. That it worked is shown by the extraordinary loyalty of friends like Bessell and Holmes, who put themselves at serious risk to obey him and save him from himself, and by the hearty support of his constituents, more than 23,000 of whom voted for him five days before he was due to stand trial for conspiracy to murder. They were under his spell and they didn’t believe it.

Michael Bloch, in his 2014 biography of Thorpe, quotes an interview, given when Thorpe was awaiting trial, by the art dealer David Carritt, who had been Thorpe’s lover in the late 1950s before a rancorous breakup. “One of the most self-centered people I’ve ever met,” says Carritt:

Mildly entertaining, slightly sinister. Said to be witty, but his wit consists entirely of impersonations and if one doesn’t care for impersonations, he’s really a bit of a bore. He had a form of ambition so extraordinary it was hard to believe in, because it was ambition in the abstract, an ambition for vulgarities—to be rich, powerful, famous. He took these ambitions so seriously that one really considered him a bit dotty. Cultured? Not by my standards. Can play the violin a bit, that’s all. He was all dressed up like a ham actor…a character out of Disraeli.

Impersonation is a fascinating subject, for original and actor alike. Thorpe had been a noted mimic since childhood, and his years as a politician coincided with the rise of a much better-known figure, the impersonator Mike Yarwood, whose TV shows were among the most popular British light-entertainment programs of all time. Mimicry as commentary was in the air, and affectionate for the most part until the more grotesque turn of Spitting Image in the 1980s and the fiercer TV satire that was to follow. Yarwood’s favorite subject was the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, whose dry Yorkshire tones Davies has Thorpe and Bessell mimicking in an early scene in the Members’ Dining Room of the House of Commons (the demise of Wilson’s government being in question). Thorpe’s ability to “take off” other people—an unsettling means of both mocking and indulging them—was a prominent part of his social performance; he even risked mimicking the strong Devon burr of his own constituents, who seem to have lapped it up.

What Grant brings out is the self-delight, and eventually the perplexity, of a man who is also somehow acting himself, a confected chancer in double-breasted waistcoats, watch chains, and a trilby hat. Thorpe’s manners and habits, his taste for opulent parties and reckless expenditure, were more like those of a Tory grandee than of the leader of a progressive political party (he marked his second marriage by hosting a gala evening at the Royal Opera House). It was a curious act heightened by the necessary pretenses of a gay man who was thirty-eight when his sex life was decriminalized and who, beyond his counsel’s allowance that he had had “homosexual tendencies” when young, never publicly acknowledged his dominant sexuality.

Thorpe’s first marriage, in Preston’s and Davies’s reading, was purely for reasons of political expediency: a married leader of a party was thought to improve its electoral prospects. Caroline Allpass (played by a flawless Alice Orr-Ewing) was nine years younger than Thorpe, lively, loving, and reassuringly inexperienced. Their son Rupert was born in 1969. Caroline was kept in the dark, of course, about her husband’s other life, and the ambivalences of what seems to have been a generally happy marriage are caught in a scene in their Devon cottage where she presses him to dance with her; the socially adept Thorpe deliberately treads on her toes to get out of it. Not long after, Scott, desperate as ever about his National Insurance card, telephones the house and informs Caroline that her husband had been not only his employer but his lover. The idea is so appalling to her that she refuses to contemplate it, telling Thorpe, “We will never discuss this, in any way, ever.” The chance to do so was curtailed a year later by her death in a car accident.

In 1973 he married Marion Stein, three years his senior and the divorced wife of the 7th Earl of Harewood, a first cousin of the queen. Thorpe, who had once had fantasies of marrying Princess Margaret,2 must have been pleased by the high social connection. Marion was the daughter of Erwin Stein, a prominent Viennese musician who had fled with his family to London after the Anschluss. She had briefly met Benjamin Britten as a child when he’d come to Vienna in 1934 in the hope of meeting Alban Berg. When a fire in the Steins’ London flat left them homeless, they lodged for some time with Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, in St John’s Wood. She was a fine pianist, and Britten became a significant figure in her young life, playing duets with her and taking her to rehearsals; after the war he and Pears involved her intimately in the foundation of the Aldeburgh Festival. So, among other things, she was attuned from childhood to the domestic life of a famous gay couple.

In Preston’s account, Marion, with whom Thorpe had warily brought up the matter of his gay dalliances, was not only shocked but disgusted by the thought of them. But in Davies’s film something more complex happens: Marion (exactly and movingly played by Monica Dolan) is a voice not of prudery but of conscience. “I practically grew up with Benjamin Britten,” she says. “There’s no need to protect me.” Thorpe, of course, is really excusing himself: “One word brought me down,” he says, referring to the notorious “Bunnies” letter. “No,” says Marion: “it’s because you lied.” Besides, what had struck her in the letter was not “Bunnies” but the closing phrase, “I miss you”: “I think that’s a wonderful thing for a man to say to his friend.”

This is certainly a wonderful thing for a misled wife to say in a film, but in its quiet clear-sightedness and loyalty it feels true to her character. Of course, the truth of what anyone felt at the time about homosexuality, in principle and in practice, at a distance or close up, is rarely fully knowable. To Marion the trial was a desperately public test of honor—she attended every day and had, Waugh claimed, “a steady, depressing influence over the press benches.” For her it wasn’t satirical at all.

At the close of A Very English Scandal, as the Thorpe family celebrates the acquittal with a quasi-royal appearance on the balcony of their London house, Ursula mutters to her son, “Of course, you’re ruined—you know that, don’t you.” The others go in, but Jeremy, loath to leave the limelight, grins and capers for a minute longer, miming his own reluctance to leave the press and its cameras for the stiffer conclave of mother, wife, and son indoors. Whether he really understood that it was all over for him is unclear—he made various attempts to come back, to find a role, to be useful to the party. He looked with an undimmed sense of entitlement into the ways he might be awarded a peerage. But if not ruined, he was never to be allowed to make much progress.

In the same year as the trial, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease; he survived for thirty-five more years. I used to see him for a few days each summer in the late 1990s, when I stayed at the Red House in Aldeburgh during the festival—the double-breasted figure shrunken, shuffling, bent steeply forward. One year a change of medication had him briefly upright, bolting in and out of rooms at alarming speed; but the voice was an ever-dwindling husk. Everyone fell silent to hear his whispered remarks, his features immobilized but still somehow confident that the often-heard joke would amuse. Marion gave herself entirely to looking after him, her heavy smoking the sole index of tensions otherwise tightly contained. But the concerts at last grew impossible for Thorpe, his unstoppable shaking disturbed those around him, and Marion would be forced to lead him out. The grim life sentence of Parkinson’s must have given him many such involuntary rattlings, even in those places where he had once felt most welcome and secure.

  1. 1

    A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament (Other Press, 2016). 

  2. 2

    On hearing of her engagement to Antony Armstrong-Jones, he wrote, “What a pity about HRH. I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other.” 

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The Nuclear Option

In response to:

A Very Grim Forecast from the November 22, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

In your article “A Very Grim Forecast” [NYR, November 22] about global warming you state that vast quantities of renewable technology have been deployed in China and India. However, you fail to mention that the “vast fleet” of new Chinese electric buses will be powered by electricity generated by nuclear power plants. Fact check: China is now in the process of building nineteen new commercial nuclear power plants, which will exceed the United States’ nuclear electric-generating capacity when completed. Both India and Russia are in the process of building five each. China’s main goals are to achieve energy independence along with reducing the terrible atmospheric pollution that the country now suffers.

Unfortunately, despite nuclear power’s excellent safety record, security, and climatic benefits, here in the United States its detractors now outnumber its advocates. Both the industry itself and government regulators can share the blame for their lack of transparency and past failure to address serious issues like constructing plants in densely populous and geologically unstable areas. Another area of reevaluation should be the so-called nuclear waste stream, which if properly recycled contains, almost magically, over 90 percent of the used energy in the form of plutonium and uranium. In addition there are in fact significant amounts of rare earth elements such as cerium, samarium, gadolinium, and europium that are all presently used in high-technology manufacturing.

Time is running out. The government must establish a national committee of scientific and industry experts and direct a complete and transparent evaluation of nuclear power generation in the United States. The somewhat fantastical notion that intermittent power generation by renewable technology can achieve the gigantic energy needs of our society and rescue us from global warming within a couple of decades is in my humble opinion dangerous mythology.

Lou de Holczer
Bronx, New York

Bill McKibben replies:

A full discussion of nuclear power’s prospects would require another essay; in this case let me just say that when China’s nuclear buildout finishes, it is expected to supply roughly 6 percent of the country’s electricity from reactors. China is also in the process of deploying renewable energy at some of the fastest rates in the world, and one trusts that the electrons produced from the sun and wind will continue to prove nonmythological.

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A True Pogonophile

In response to:

Loving Lips from the September 27, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

I am surely not the only reader who will rush to correct this sentence by Ruth Bernard Yeazell: “Julia Margaret Cameron remains alone among [Kathryn] Hughes’s women in her ‘pogonophilia,’ but she wasn’t living with her bearded subjects, only turning Darwin, Carlyle, Longfellow, and the rest into typical images of masculine greatness” [“Loving Lips,” NYR, September 27]. On the contrary, Mrs. Cameron’s husband was the full and snowy-bearded Charles Hay Cameron, whom she often photographed.

Mark Haworth-Booth
Swimbridge, North Devon, England

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What Men Want

In response to:

Male Trouble from the October 11, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

I read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “Male Trouble” [NYR, October 11] on the plane, flanked by men in their thirties and forties watching Spider-Man and similar action fare. Hochschild’s article recognizes but does not ultimately come to grips with the impact of losing the physical connection to work found, as she describes, in coal mines, assembly lines, oil rigs, and steel mills. Instead she seems to assume that struggling men can be rescued with conventional social welfare programs like unnamed “support for troubled families, school outreach programs, drug recovery centers, reduced incarceration, help with higher education costs.” But surely none of these gets at the “root” alienation and lack of viable livelihood that necessitates these responses in the first place. Nor does retraining for androgynous jobs, like coding, that men supposedly “badly want” (how does she know?). Trump’s promised restoration of jobs in coal, steel, and manufacturing, as illusory as it will prove to be in the face of continued automation, at least speaks to the core problem. Democrats, once the party of the archetypical burly workingman, are strangely silent and largely ignorant of the loss of their historic base. So long as this remains the case, and so long as the Democrats fail to devise plans for place-focused jobs and economic development that can restore stability to communities devastated by decades of deindustrialization, and the men and families living within them, the Democrats are likely to face a continued gender gap of their own.

What were my fellow passengers doing? Attempting through entertainment to in some way inhabit a cultural-gender space that once rested atop a lost world of physical work? Watching these disenfranchised boy-men, you would not know we are in the midst of a democratic crisis. On the other hand, their somnolent not-noticing and seeming disengagement is perhaps the very embodiment of the democratic crisis, simultaneously oblivious to and exemplifying it.

Andrew Ratzkin
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Arlie Russell Hochschild replies:

Mr. Ratzkin illuminates something deep but also ignores something big. He’s surely right that many men yearn to hold he-man jobs and play he-man sports, as well as enjoy he-man fantasy action heroes—perhaps because they work at what he calls “androgynous” jobs both at the office (coding, for example) and—I might add—at home, as sharers of the second shift (childcare and housework) with their working wives. He rightly suggests that many men feel a strong nostalgia for an imagined earlier time in which male strength, daring, and aggression defined a man.

But do men miss he-man jobs? In interviews I’m doing in Appalachia, I’m hearing of men—often the fathers or uncles of those I’m talking to—say they miss the high wages and camaraderie of coal mining. But they don’t miss the back-bending, dirty, and often dangerous work, the black lung or disabling accidents. Similarly, male factory workers may miss the wages but not the autonomy-inhibiting and monotonous nature of assembly-line work.

Ratzkin sees little appeal in retraining for jobs like coding, and questions my assertion that men want to learn to code and to get an IT job. (On that please read my New York Times piece, “The Coders of Kentucky,” September 21, 2018.) In eastern Kentucky’s low-wage economy, far more men want such training than can get it, and the men I talked to told me they were proud to at last “provide for my family”—i.e., fulfill a classically male role.

He also dismisses school outreach programs, drug recovery centers, and reduced incarceration as useless in addressing a man’s “root” alienation. Here he is missing something big. Such programs address poverty, homelessness, and joblessness—problems that by their titles sound gender-neutral. But what robs a man of his manhood more than enforced dependency and confinement in a ten-by-twelve-foot jail cell? What robs an ill-educated man of his manhood more than chronic unemployment? How manly is it to lie in the street comatose on drugs?

So let the male passenger in the next seat over work hard at coding the next cell phone app, and then on his trip home, watch Superman leap from the tallest tower. If the Democrats offer effective programs that help him get that job, they’ll increase their chances of getting his vote. The most determined creator of both manly and “androgynous” jobs, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was more heavily supported by men than women.

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How Trump Fuels the Fascist Right


Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesPresident Donald Trump facing the press outside the White House, Washington, D.C., November 20, 2018

President Trump makes constant use of the language and logic of the “new right,” a toxic blend of antebellum white supremacy, twentieth-century fascism, European far-right movements of the 1970s, and today’s self-identified “alt-right.” And his words and deeds have empowered and enabled an upsurge of white nationalists and extremist organizations—from Atomwaffen to the Proud Boys to the Rise Above Movement—that threatens to push the country into violent social conflict. Amplified by social media, this new right rhetoric is inciting unstable men to violence through pipe-bomb mailings and temple shootings. It is crucial for the American people to identify and oppose this radicalization, in order to steer the country back to a steadier path.

Everything about Trump’s discourse—the words he uses, the things he is willing to say, when he says them, where, how, how many times—is deliberate and intended for consumption by the new right. When Trump repeatedly accuses a reporter of “racism” for questioning him about his embrace of the term “nationalist,” he is deliberately drawing from the toxic well of white supremacist discourse and directly addressing that base. Trump’s increasing use of the term “globalist” in interviews and press conferences—including to describe Jewish advisers such as Gary Cohen or Republican opponents like the Koch brothers—is a knowing use of an anti-Semitic slur, in the words of the Anti-Defamation League, “a code word for Jews.” Trump’s self-identification as a “nationalist,” especially in contrast to “globalists” like George Soros, extends a hand to white nationalists across the country. His pointed use of the term “politically correct,” especially in the context of the Muslim ban, speaks directly to followers of far-right figures such as William Lind, author of “What is ‘Political Correctness’?

Trump is methodically engaging in verbal assaults that throw fuel on his political program of closed borders, nativism, social exclusion, and punitive excess. Even his cultivated silences and failures to condemn right-wing violence, in the fatal aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, for instance, or regarding the pipe-bombing suspect Cesar Sayoc, communicate directly to extremists. We are watching, in real time, a new right discourse come to define the American presidency. The term “alt-right” is too innocuous when the new political formation we face is, in truth, neo-fascist, white-supremacist, ultranationalist, and counterrevolutionary. Too few Americans appear to recognize how extreme President Trump has become—in part because it is so disturbing to encounter the arguments of the American and European new right. But we must—and we must call Trump out for deploying them to gain power. 

Building on the ugly history of white supremacy in this country, and on European far-right movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, a new right has emerged in America. The central tenets of this American new right are that Christian heterosexual whites are endangered, that the traditional nuclear family is in peril, that “Western civilization” is in decline, and that whites need to reassert themselves. George Shaw, an editor at a leading new right publishing house and the editor of A Fair Hearing: The Alt-Right in the Words of Its Members and Leaders (2018)—a collected volume intended to give voice to the self-identified “alt-right,” including well-known figures such as the co-founder of AltRight.com Richard Spencer, the evolutionary psychologist Kevin MacDonald, the founder of American Renaissance Jared Taylor, and a 2018 candidate for the Republican nomination for the US Senate seat in Florida, Augustus Invictusopens his introduction on the race question: “If alt-right ideology can be distilled to one statement, it is that white people, like all other distinct human populations, have legitimate group interests.”

The main goal of the American new right, Shaw explains, is to discuss “the one topic that white conservatives are not allowed to discuss,” namely “race.” All the recent conservative losses, in his words, represent “a transfer of power from white males to one or another nonwhite and/or non-male fringe group.” Spencer, in his contribution to A Fair Hearing, describes the superiority of certain athletes who are “white, and not just white, but Anglo and Germanic,” with clear reference to Aryan supremacy. A main guidepost of the new right, Shaw highlights, is that “Jews not only wield obscene levels of power in Western societies, they use that power to damage native white populations.”

“White genocide is underway,” Shaw warns, and those responsible are Jews, Muslims, leftists, and non-whites. Note how these claims of white genocide and Jewish power resonate in Trump’s discourse. His last campaign ad in 2016 vilified three opponents, all Jewish: George Soros, the former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen, and the CEO of Goldman Sachs Lloyd Blankfein. Last August on Twitter, Trump adopted white nationalist propaganda that the South African government is engaged in a genocidal campaign against white farmers. 

In all this, the American new right draws heavily on European thinkers. Thanks to efforts like Steve Bannon’s European tour and the increasing exchange of ideas and publications, this American new right is beginning to form part of what has been called a “Nationalist International”—though the US arm of this movement remains somewhat distinct because of American exceptionalism on “race.” Shaw’s collected volume includes, tellingly, a chapter by the intellectual leader of the Swedish new right, Daniel Friberg. The European influence is evident.

The French new right thinker Guillaume Faye, author of a leading manifesto of the European new right, Why We Fight: Manifesto of the European Resistance (2001; English trans. 2011), identifies the greatest threats to European civilization as “demographic decline,” “homophilia,” and “xenophilia”—the latter of which, he writes, is “improperly called ‘anti-racism.’” With a doctorate from Sciences Po and a reputation as a founder of the French new right in the late 1960s, Faye now puts forward an extreme geneticism. “A people’s long-term vigour lies in its germen,” Faye writes, “in the maintenance of its biological identity and its demographic renewal, as well as in the health of its mores and in its cultural creativity and personality. On these two foundations a civilization rests.” A civilization or people who ignore this, he warns, “inevitably perishes.” For this reason, Faye constantly cautions against anything that might distract from full frontal resistance.

Similarly, Friberg, in his manifesto, The Real Right Returns: A Handbook for the True Opposition (2015), writes in defense of the “relatively homogenous ethnic composition of the European nations” and against “uncontrolled immigration,” “sexual liberalism,” the “right to birth control,” and radical feminism, as well as “‘humanism,’ ‘liberal democracy,’ ‘tolerance,’ and ‘human rights,’” or to sum up: “equality, feminism, mass immigration, post-colonialism, anti-racism, and LGBT interests.” “Jews, homosexuals, Muslims, or other minorities,” he states, constitute groups who are indifferent to the interests of “Europe’s native populations” and “traditional European values.” When, on a visit to Europe this summer, Trump spoke of Europe “losing its culture,” he was speaking directly to the new political constituency built on the concept of white genocide.

A central strategy of the European new right is to argue that anti-racism, even multiculturalism itself, is actually racist because it encourages “dissolution of European identity” and “the multi-racialization of European society.” As Faye argues, “anti-racists use their fake struggle against racism to destroy the European’s identity, as they advance cosmopolitan and alien interests.” Friberg adds that “to be ‘anti-racist’ is […] to be part of a movement which is directly linked to a reckless hatred for Europe and her history.”

That argument has been incorporated into American new right discourse. This and other new right ideas like the trope of “cultural Marxism,” as the Yale historian Samuel Moyn has documented, circulate back and forth across the Atlantic. Multiculturalism is now racist: “‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ do not ultimately enrich white lives,” Shaw contends, “but rather tend to make white societies poorer, more dangerous, and finally unlivable for whites.” Richard Spencer builds on this line of reasoning. Race becomes, in his words, “a weapon used against [whites] in all aspects of life: affirmative action, the ‘diversity’ racket, white Guilt, white privilege, etc.” To combat this “double standard,” Jared Taylor concludes, it is vital to recognize that white racial pride and preference are not “hate” or “racism,” but on the contrary, “healthy racial/national pride.” Whites must be allowed, in Taylor’s words, “the right to pursue their unique destiny free from the embrace of large numbers of people unlike themselves.”

The white paper “POTUS & Political Warfare,” written by Rich Higgins when he was a member of the strategic planning office of the National Security Council before being fired by H.R. McMaster, advances the same charge against anti-racism and multiculturalism. “Group rights based on sex or ethnicity,” Higgins wrote, “are a direct assault on the very idea of individual human rights and natural law around which the Constitution was framed. ‘Transgender acceptance’ memes attack at the most basic level by denying a person the right to declare the biological fact of one’s sex.” (Last week, the Trump administration pressed the Supreme Court to address its ban on transgender personnel in the military.)

The rise of this American new right discourse has afforded Donald Trump cover to radicalize his long-standing tribalism. Back in the New York City of the 1980s and 1990s, Trump’s interventions as a local race warrior—for instance, taking out full-page ads in not one, but four New York City newspapers, at a cost of $85,000, following the rape of a jogger in Central Park and the arrest of five African-American and Hispanic teenagers, to shout in all caps “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!”—were widely regarded as the quixotic folly of a real-estate magnate. (Despite the DNA exoneration of the five youths in 2002, Trump never apologized, but instead doubled down.) Today, though, Trump has become the new right president, buoyed by a domestic base and increasingly global far-right movement built on white supremacist propaganda.

President Trump is no mere entertainer or buffoon, as many want to believe. Instead, he is carefully, skillfully, and consistently speaking directly to his hardline nationalist supporters in their exact language, making their tropes and memes his own. This is patently clear if you study closely his press conferences, campaign speeches, and tweets. Just this month, for instance, at a White House news conference, Trump rehearsed perfectly the new right’s core argument regarding the racism of anti-racism. The exchange occurred during questioning by Yamiche Alcindor of PBS Newshour, when she asked President Trump whether calling himself a “nationalist” might embolden white nationalists. Here is the exchange:

Alcindor: “On the campaign trail, you called yourself a ‘nationalist.’ Some people saw that as emboldening white nationalists. Now people are also saying…”

Trump: “I don’t know why you say that, that is such a racist question.”

Alcindor: “There are some people who are saying that the Republican Party is now supporting white nationalists because of your rhetoric.”

Trump: “Oh, I don’t believe that, I don’t believe that, I don’t believe that. Why do I have my highest poll numbers ever with African-Americans? Why do I have among the highest poll numbers with African-Americans? That’s such a racist question.”

[Alcindor tries to speak.] 

Trump: “Honestly, I know you have it written down and everything. Let me tell you, that is a racist question.”

It is hard to imagine a more immaculate enactment of the Faye-Friberg conceit of inverting anti-racism into racism. Trump knows exactly what he is doing—as he does when he disparages “globalists” or Soros, mocks “political correctness,” or uses demeaning and dehumanizing expressions such as “infest,” “animals,” “rapists,” and “shithole” countries to describe immigrants and African nations. These are deliberate fodder for his white nationalist base.

Trump shares with the new right a deep consciousness of how important language is. In fact, many of the new right’s cardinal texts work as dictionaries that redefine, recast, and infuse with political meaning ordinary language—what they call “metapolitical” dictionaries. One of their main battles is over words and usage. In Friberg’s words, it is over “shaping people’s thoughts, worldviews, and the very concepts which they use to make sense of and define the world around them.” Essential reading on this, Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works (2018) helps identify semantically how so much of new right discourse functions along fascist lines.

Empowered by President Trump, the new right is being dangerously radicalized. An entire section of Shaw’s A Fair Hearing is titled “Counterrevolution,” and it spells out extreme methods to “rout” the left. This includes a chapter on how to “physically remove” leftists. The language is violent and explicit. “Physically removing leftists has gained so much traction because the idea is instinctively both logical and appealing,” Invictus writes, continuing:

The means of physically removing leftists, however, is not as simple. While throwing commies from helicopters à la Pinochet has become the alt-right’s favorite policy proposal, this is clearly an inefficient solution. The Pinochet regime only executed 120 communists in this manner, and we are faced with many thousands of times this number.

It should not come as a surprise that a “Free Helicopter Rides” meme is growing among far-right extremists, or that there have been sightings of right-wing protesters wearing T-shirts celebrating Pinochet and others bearing the legend “Antifa Removal Unit.” Or that the expression “Right Wing Death Squad,” “RWDS” for short, has entered chatroom discourse. “Civil war is already upon us,” Invictus writes; and this calls for counterinsurgency strategies. In “POTUS & Political Warfare,” Higgins explicitly tied the political struggle to “the Maoist Insurgency model.” The result is a radicalization of the counterrevolutionary politics we have seen since 9/11. “Physical removal and the restoration of order is possible within the bounds of the Constitution,” Invictus concludes. “To delay the ultimate showdown is simply to postpone the inevitable, and to surrender the initiative.”

We have been insufficiently attentive to how carefully crafted and targeted Trump’s new right discourse and politics are, how they deliberately encourage and mobilize extremists, and normalize them as a crucial political constituency. President Trump is enabling extremists through what sociologists refer to as “scripted violence.” We tend to say that Trump is “dog-whistling” to white nationalists and supremacists; but it is far more serious than that. Speaking openly to the new right, Trump is rallying and emboldening a counterrevolutionary politics. If the American people do not act soon, we risk being caught in a downward authoritarian spiral or violent civil strife.

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Is Literary Glory Worth Chasing?


Private Collection/Look and Learn/Bridgeman ImagesKing Darius I (circa 550-486 BC) receiving gifts in one of his palaces, twentieth century

Is writing worth it? Does it make any sense at all to pursue literary glory? Are the writers we praise really the best anyway?

In 1824, the Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi decided to take on the subject in a thirty-page essay, of kinds. In fact, he puts his reflections somewhat playfully in the mouth of Giuseppe Parini, perhaps the finest Italian poet of the eighteenth century, a man from a poor family who spent all his life seeking financial and political protection in the homes of the aristocracy. Leopardi imagines Parini—“one of the very few Italians of our times who combined literary excellence with depth of thought”—responding to an exceptionally talented and ambitious young writer seeking advice. What follows here is nothing more than a brief summary of what he says; I take no responsibility for the ideas expressed. Readers can decide for themselves how much of this rings true today.

*

Young man, literary glory, or the fame that comes from learning and then writing, is one of the very few forms of glory presently available to the commoner. Admittedly, it’s not as impressive or satisfying as the glory that derives from public service, since action is much worthier and nobler than thinking or writing, and more natural. We weren’t made to spend our lives sitting at a table with pen and paper, and doing so can only be detrimental to your health and happiness. All the same, as I said, this is a glory that can be achieved without initial riches and without being part of a large organization.

Theoretically.

In reality, the obstacles are many and daunting. Let’s leave aside the rivalries, envy, calumny, bias, intrigues, and malice you’re bound to come across. And likewise, mere misfortune. The truth is, even without enemies and bad luck, it’s perfectly possible to write wonderful books and be denied glory, while more mediocre authors are universally admired. Here’s why.

First, only a tiny minority of people are able to judge great literature. Since literary achievement depends largely on style, and style is intimately tied to language, anyone who isn’t a native speaker won’t be able to appreciate the immense efforts you’ve put into developing a refined style. So that puts most of mankind out of the picture. Then those who do share your language will have to have put in the same effort that you have if they’re going to enjoy your achievements. Only people who have learned to write well themselves can really judge writing. There are only two or three such experts in Italy today, and don’t imagine the situation is much better in other countries.

Second, perception of literary achievement is very largely a question of celebrity. I am convinced, for example, that the reverence felt for the best writers of the past mostly comes from blind tradition rather than individual judgment. We enjoy the classics in part for

their celebrity as classics, the same way we admire a princess to a degree because she’s a princess. A poem as good as the Iliad, written today, would not give the pleasure of the Iliad. We wouldn’t feel the warmth of its centuries-old celebrity. Similarly, if we were to read a great classic without knowing it was a great classic, it wouldn’t please us so much.

This makes things tough for a new book by a really serious author. Without the assurance that they’re reading a classic, most readers prefer coarse and obvious beauties to real quality, and special effects to substance. So the success of a truly fine new writer, when it does miraculously happen, will be more the result of accident than merit. You need a lucky break to overcome the obstacles.

Because we’ve barely begun.

Obstacle three. It’s not enough to have your work read by the handful of people capable of admiring it. You have to get them on a good day. Literary judgments, alas, depend on the effect of a book on an individual mind, not on any inherent or scien­ti­fically demonstrable quality in the book. So even the best critics may miss the point, especially if you’ve done something new. Even the critics who could get it may simply be in the wrong mood. Perhaps they just read something else that deeply impressed them and took them in a different direction. Or they may be dealing with personal issues that distract them.

Pleasure in art is intermittent. One day, the critic is super receptive, on a high, full of enthusiasm. So he finds himself enjoying, and thus, of course, praising, some­thing entirely mediocre, having mistaken his positive feelings for some quality in the book. Another day, he’s dull and unreceptive; he can’t see your book’s genius; but being in a dull mood won’t stop him judging it! As dull. We all have days when even the best classics seem a great bore. But we don’t write them off because everybody agrees they’re great classics. With a new book, we feel free to be as harsh as we want.

So sound literary judgement is an elusive animal. This without even mentioning the onset of age and mental decline, which is bound at some point to cloud the mind of the famous critic, whose judgments will nevertheless continue to be taken seriously for an awfully long time.

Nor will pessimism and skepticism help, even though nothing could be more reasonable or more grounded in reality than pessimism and skepticism. Readers have to have a certain baseline optimism in order to appreciate a book. They have to believe that greatness and beauty are possible and that what is poetic in the world is not necessarily all fantasy. Otherwise, nothing is going to impress.

Let’s add, in passing, that the buzz of city life is a huge dampener of literary sensibilities; yet, for reasons of convenience and networking, most critics live in the city and therefore in places of maximum distraction where people in general are more susceptible to fashions than real quality.

But onward, now, to the huge problem of obstacle four. Any literary work staking a serious claim to glory is not going to reveal itself entirely on a first reading. It will be better the second time around. And better still on third and even fourth readings. But who has time for this? The ancients could do it because they had so few books to read. These days, a writer’s lucky if his work’s read once. With the mad abundance of books we have today, the only things people will read twice are the things everyone agrees are good. The classics, of course.

To make matters worse, your moderately but not seriously good book tends to work well on first reading. It’s superficial, smart, fun. And when we have as many books coming at us as we do today, this is exactly what most people want: something that leaps to the eye, something right in your face, not the hard-earned subtleties of the dedicated stylist. However, a first reading will already give you everything this kind of book has to offer. Pick it up again and it’s a bore. And this puts readers off second readings in general.

But why do the best books require a second reading? Because fine literature is attached to the notion of accruing deep insight for future application, and this takes effort, study even. The payoff in pleasure comes, eventually. But the vast majority of readers want instant pleasure with no effort, from one superficial book after another. They’re not going to admit this, of course. On the contrary, it’s important for them to believe the books they read are great literature; it increases their pleasure to believe so. The result is a situation in which writers are praised to high heaven for a couple of months, then swept away; if a fine book is appreciated on first reading, it won’t get a second, so can’t put down roots in the culture and soon enough sinks with the rest.

Who stays afloat, you ask, amid this general shipwreck of the moderns? Got it: the classics.

Finally, obstacle five. A work of great literature, like a great work of philo­so­phy, will have something profoundly new about it. Some new insight, new attitude, new position with regard to the human condition, or to present times, the result of deep reflection. But the crowd wants to be confirmed and reassured in the opinions its members collectively hold. They want surface novelty, not revolution, old ideas glossily repackaged. They take refuge in their numbers. Over time, little by little, they may come to change their opinions, and even endorse ideas diametrically opposed to those they held before. But for the most part, they won’t notice this has happened. There won’t be a moment where they say, Hey, I’m wrong, I need to change my position. On the contrary, they will feel a deep suspicion and antipathy toward someone who lives, thinks, and feels differently than they do. Our author seeking glory, for example. They can’t understand. They feel provoked. The more we live in the age of the herd, the less likely great literature, and, above all, the recognition of great literature, becomes.

But enough of the obstacles! Let’s imagine that despite everything, you’ve somehow made it. You’ve achieved literary glory; you’ve done it thanks to the most serious literary achievement; and you’ve done it in your lifetime. Bravo!

What do you actually get out of it?

Well, people will want to see you and know you, to come and admire you in the flesh. Of course, if you live in a big city, they will also be wanting to know and ad­mire all the impostors who have won the same celebrity with quite mediocre works extravagantly overpraised. So you may not be impressed by the company you’re keeping. And if you live out in the provinces, people will very likely have no notion of literary glory at all. Writing? I could have done that perfectly well myself, if I’d had time, if I’d wanted to turn my mind to it. You’ll get a lot of this. Only a handful of people will really appreciate what you’ve done, so that, in general, it’s hard to think of a commodity that comes at a higher price and brings fewer benefits than literary glory.

In response, you’ll withdraw into solitude. You’ll try to believe that the work itself is sufficient reward for your efforts. It isn’t. Then, since we all have to have something to hope for in the future, you’ll start to seek consolation in the notion that posterity will finally give you the true recognition you deserve. I’ll live on in the minds of genera­tions to come, you tell yourself. But honestly, there’s no guarantee of this. Why should those who come after us be any better, or any more receptive and perceptive, than our contemporaries? On the contrary, the world will most likely have moved on and people won’t have any time for you at all.

I’m sorry. I see impatience on your face. You want my final word on this. The decision of a lifetime: Should you give up, or should you go on striving for it? For literary glory. My straightforward opinion?

Well, without wanting to flatter, let me say that I do see who you are and what you might do. Your mind is wonderfully sharp; your heart, your imagination, are young and warm and full of ideas; you’re deeply sensitive, noble even. These qualities can only bring you suffering and pain. But really, there’s nothing you can do about that. You are who you are. So just as some unfortunate people, deformed and handicapped at birth, learn to make the most of their disabilities, using them to arouse pity and generosity, you might as well put your qualities to work and go for the one goal, however uncertain and unrewarding, that they’re possibly good for: literary glory.

After all, most people actually envy these personal qualities of yours. They don’t see that if they had them themselves, they wouldn’t be able to live as sensibly as they do, acting only as the times allow and enjoying themselves as much as they can. A serious writer, on the other hand, will be giving up all kinds of pleasures and living a life that looks like death to most people, all for a supposed life, maybe, after his death, courtesy of some improbable posterity. But there you are, this is the card fate has dealt you. You owe it to yourself to give it all the enthusiasm and courage you have!

*

Such is the advice that, nearly two centuries ago, Leopardi put in the mouth of Giuseppe Parini, addressing a young person of talent who doubtless must have gone away deeply perplexed. One notes in passing that the piece was written a few years too early for the poet to have appreciated the immensely damaging effects of literary promotion, hype, political correctness, creative writing courses, and global publication strategies. In 1862, Victor Hugo was to receive one of the largest advances ever for Les Misérables; it should be sold, he advised his publishers, stressing its championing of the poor and moral goodness, with translations prepared for simultaneous publications in a number of countries and aggressive poster campaigns in all major cities. Such high jinks, no doubt, Leopardi would have put down as obstacle number six. Or six, seven, and eight. Depending on how he parsed it.

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What Cold War Liberalism Can Teach Us Today


Gemma Levine/Getty ImagesIsaiah Berlin, 1980s

Liberalism is in crisis, we’re told, assailed on left and right by rising populists and authoritarians. The center cannot hold, they say. But if liberal democracy itself is under threat of collapse because of this weakened center, why are the great defenders of the “open society” such as Isaiah Berlin, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Karl Popper, and Raymond Aron so little invoked? One would think that liberals today would be pressing back into service these robust thinkers of cold-war liberalism. But while not forgotten, their names are barely cited in contemporary political debates. One curious exception—that almost proves the rule, given its eccentric grounds—was when, last year, an Irish finance minister lauded Berlin for helping him deal with “the demands of corporation tax policy.” That is hardly using Berlin as a buttress against populism.

There remains much to be recovered from cold war liberalism for our historical moment. These thinkers had already learned the hard way that progress in the direction of a more liberal world is not inevitable. In a self-critical vein, they took seriously some of the charges that had been leveled against capitalist democracies in the 1920s and 1930s. But what Schlesinger outlined in an influential 1949 book called The Vital Center was not a matter of mere pragmatism, let alone triangulation between extreme left and right. These thinkers sought to craft a principled politics of freedom for the circumstances of the twentieth century. This was very different from the tendency of today’s disoriented centrists  to pre-emptively enact the agenda of populists—for example, Hillary Clinton’s cynical call for Europe to stop aiding refugees, since, in her view, the migration issue just helps populists. Her underlying idea appears to be that one can defeat one’s political adversaries by imitating them. That is not what cold war liberals thought.     

One obvious reason for cold war liberals’ relative exclusion from conversations today is that the cold war was to a great extent a struggle between grand narratives of warring political ideas (even if it was not just about political ideas). Berlin and Aron famously denounced the totalitarian utopias of the twentieth century as the “opium of the intellectuals.” Populists have no such utopian program, and they do not believe in historical determinism in the way many Communists did. Indeed, populism has no intrinsic ideology or doctrine of either left or right. Rather, populists claim that they, and only they, represent “the real people” or “the silent majority,” as they deny the legitimacy of their political competitors who are declared to be corrupt and “crooked.”

Berlin and Aron’s critique cannot apply here because populists have no use for appealing to intellectuals or the seduction of big ideas. Rather than looking forward to a perfected future, right-wing populists in particular conjure up a fantasized past of a homogeneous, pure volk. In fact, they tend to reduce all political questions to questions of belonging: they insinuate that those citizens who do not share their conception of the people do not properly belong to the people at all; if citizens criticize populists, they are quickly condemned as traitors. This explains why right-wing populists like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán attack “liberal elites” and vulnerable minorities at the same time.

Trump, for his part, declares opponents “treasonous” and “un-American.” In a speech he gave in Warsaw, Trump’s rhetorical question—“Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?”—could be mistaken for a soundbite from the height of the cold war, but tellingly, he followed it with another: “Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?” With this, he conjured a world in which real Americans are constantly threatened by caravans of Middle Eastern terrorists and people from Latin America who can pass for citizens but might be enemies within. 

Facing totalitarianism rather than populism, the cold war liberals always emphasized pluralism. By that they meant not just a pluralism of interests, which was at the basis of conventional mid-twentieth-century defenses of democracy as a system that lets interest groups compete peacefully, but also a pluralism of human values and what Schlesinger called “a genuine cultural pluralism” characteristic of a democratic society. Thinkers like Berlin and Popper stressed that the utopian state cannot realize a blueprint based on set values without riding roughshod over the rights of individuals—for values held by individuals were simply too varied and often incompatible. This principled pluralism, with its call to respect the diversity of individuals and groups, also helps to show why the populist notion of a unitary volk is so dangerous. 

Cold war liberals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. also sought to formulate a “fighting faith” to defend the vital center. They threw themselves into a battle of ideas, a side effect of which, they thought, was greater clarity about their own ideals. As Berlin once put it, “I have always said to myself that I preferred Jesuits to muddled men of good will. At least one knows what one is fighting for and against, and the weapons are kept sharp.” On other occasions, though, Berlin counseled moderation and warned that a political “faith” should not necessarily be answered with a “counter faith,” as though fanaticism required a fanatical response to be defeated.

Both liberal stances—longing for a “good fight” to affirm one’s identity, and a self-conscious espousal of moderation—are problematic today. Since populism offers no coherent creed, there is no Schlesinger-style “counter faith” to be crafted; in any case, liberals should be able to figure out what they stand for without needing enemies to help them define it. And being centrist or moderate is only an attractive position to hold if one can plausibly argue that two extremes are equally dangerous. There is no symmetry between right-wing populism and what is often labeled as left-wing populism in our time. One might not agree with their policy proposals, but neither America’s Bernie Sanders supporters and democratic socialists, nor Britain’s followers of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, are anti-pluralists. They may advocate “for the many, not the few,” but they are hardly operating with a notion of the pure people. (This is not to suggest that an inherently anti-liberal populism cannot be found anywhere on the left: Venezuela’s disastrous “socialism for the twenty-first century” is an obvious example.) 

It is virtually forgotten that Schlesinger’s defense of the center also amounted to strengthening the non-Communist, non-Stalinist left (what Schlesinger called “the free left”), rather than a search for whatever might be the mid-position between left and right, or a studied bipartisanship. Berlin and Popper were effectively social-democrats who argued that a welfare state was indispensable for a decent society. Schlesinger railed against “the tyranny of the irresponsible plutocracy” and called for democratic control of the economy. This stance made cold war liberals very different from figures like Friedrich von Hayek, an avowed enemy of social-democracy and a major inspiration for the conservative movement in the US and Thatcherism in the UK.       

Wanting to bolster a moderate center is no virtue when it is based not on principles but on an implausible equidistance. Populists rage against “globalism” and “open borders.” But who actually advocates completely open borders? Even in the academy today, proponents of truly global justice and the free flow of people are a distinct minority. When Popper defended the “open society,” he opposed both doctrinal intolerance and tribalism as a mind-set; the argument was epistemological, not one about immigration policy: open minds, not freely accessible territory. (Cold war liberals still generally favored the taking in of refugees; theirs was also a liberalism in the older sense of liberality, or generousness.) 

Of all the cold war liberal intellectuals, Isaiah Berlin might seem the most in tune with populism’s culture war over national identity. Berlin, after all, was a life-long committed Zionist, with great sympathy for nationalism. He always emphasized humans’ fundamental need to belong and explained many of the ideological excesses since the eighteenth century with reference to a “state of wounded consciousness.” By this, he meant a sense of not being recognized, of having one’s way of life disrespected, of not being up to the supposed standards of a liberal cosmopolitan culture. In the age of Hillbilly Elegy, Berlin’s sensitive approach to the psychological sources of political discontent might seem especially useful.

Terms like “anger” and “resentment” are used routinely, reflexively, in contemporary commentary on populism, but these long-distance diagnoses can be patronizing. They also risk closing down serious debate by separating emotion from reason when, in fact, the two cannot be kept apart. After all, people are angry for a reason, and looking at their discontents primarily through a psychological lens makes it less likely that we ask them directly about those reasons and how they arrived at them. The other peril here is of excessive empathy, especially in the absence of any real encounters with “the people.” It is one thing to engage with people’s lived experience; it is another to take descriptions of that experience by demagogues, be they politicians or talk-radio figures, at face value. In an effort to understand—what Berlin referred to as Einfühlen, the process of identification with the thoughts and emotions of another—one becomes too understanding: the problem of tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner. The pronouncements of those who claim to have fully understood the message that putative ordinary people themselves want to send—what Germans sometimes call Populismusversteher—can have pernicious long-term consequences. It is simply assumed that populists have revealed the truth of what is happening deep inside our societies, and sooner or later other parties will start to act on the basis of a seeming “truth” such as the supposedly objective dislike of foreigners and immigrants by the working class.

In the quest to reassert its values, today’s liberalism must be more than either a reflexive anti-Trumpism or a mere defense of a conception of the center based on a false equivalence of left and right populism. In the self-critical spirit espoused by Berlin and others, it must rethink its principles for our time, and let go of the illusion, shared by many post-1989 liberals, that historical progress is predetermined. Cold war liberals believed in the legitimacy of conflict contained by democratic procedures. They regarded conflicts, in Schlesinger’s words, as a guarantee of freedom. But conflicts were not just given, so that centrism meant accommodating both sides a little bit; rather, it took imagination to define conflicts on one’s own terms, while remaining faithful to what Schlesinger called “the spirit of human decency.”   

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