the EPOCH JOURNAL
VOLUME V ISSUE II
BRINGING the LIBERAL ARTS to IRAQ by Nathan Goldman the OIL SPILL of KALAMAZOO by Erin Shadowens + ON WIKILEAKS by Tex Pasley + REVIEWS of DANIEL OKRENT’S “LAST CALL” DAVID GROSSMAN’S “TO THE END OF THE LAND” & JONATHAN FRANZEN’S “FREEDOM” WINTER 2010
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the EPOCH JOURNAL winter 2010
volume v, issue ii
editor-in-chief Tex Pasley managing editor Erin Shadowens visual director John Vining layout editor J. Keenan Trotter business managers Shikshya Adhikari Andrew Donders web master Louis Pisha founding editor Zachary Fryer-Biggs © 2010, The Epoch Journal disclaimer The Epoch Journal is produced and distributed in annapolis, maryland. opinions expressed in articles or illustrations are not necessarily those of the editorial board or st. john’s college. advertising please contact business manager shikshya adhikari for information on advertisements at firstname.lastname@example.org. mailing address p.o. box 1495 annapolis, md 21404 website www.epochjournal.org
WINTER 2010 front cover: the kalamazoo spill; photo © kevin martini
Plato on the Tigris Bringing the liberal arts to Iraq.
interviewees Christopher Nelson, President of St. John’s College, Annapolis.
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t was just a call from someone I knew,” says Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s Annapolis campus, explaining the circumstances under which he was asked to travel to Iraq this past summer. That someone he knew would be the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE), an American accrediting organization - the same one that accredits St. John’s. Nelson was being asked to chair the accreditation team for the American University of Iraq, a new liberal arts school in a Kurdish region of northern Iraq. “For the agency to call upon officers and faculty members of colleges they accredit is common,” Nelson explains, because they want accreditation teams that are intimately familiar with the process and have an understanding of the criteria. Initially, Nelson turned the offer down, feeling he had enough on his plate; but his wife immediately reprimanded him and insisted he seize the chance. The American University of Iraq is a private university, initiated in 2006 and opened to students in October of 2007. Its Board of Governors, except for one American (John Agresto, also the former provost, and a former president of St. John’s in Santa Fe), consists entirely of Iraqis – most local, but some from non-Kurdish regions, many with strong political ties. The chancellor, chief operating officer, and provost are all Americans, as are all the teachers. Everyone at the director level is either American or Canadian, though many were from the Middle East originally. So the school is Iraqi-owned and directed at the highest level, but operated primarily by Americans. “The reason they used American
photo courtesy christopher nelson
by nathan goldman
The American University of Iraq â€” Sulaimani sulaimani, iraq
teachers is that they wanted a liberal education,” Nelson says, “and few in Iraq would know what that would mean.” The hope is that, over time, it will pass further into local control. The course of study at the American University of Iraq is based in the liberal arts, but still has an element of specialization. After spending two years studying English (because all classes are taught in English), students engage in a two-year required liberal arts curriculum before going on to specialize in one of four majors. The task assigned to Nelson and the four others on the accreditation team was to assess what they saw of the university against a set of stringent criteria. As an accreditation agency focused on the liberal arts in particular, the AALE has strict standards that have to do with exactly what kind of learning is going on in the classroom. But Nelson’s team was not asked to decide whether or not the university received its accreditation, or even to give a recommendation; their role was simply to report on what they saw. When asked to describe what the classes are like at the American University of Iraq —and how they compared to seminars and tutorials at St. John’s—Nelson reflects, “They reminded me of my best high school classes.” There is not nearly the same degree of uniformity at the American University of Iraq as there is at St. John’s, both be6
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cause the school is in its early days and is still in the process of developing an identity; the school does not yet have a stable faculty, meaning teachers come and go frequently, arriving and leaving with their particular methods and techniques. All the classes Nelson observed consisted of about fifteen students sitting in a circle. In most classes a student was giving some sort of presentation – such as one on architecture in Europe and the Middle East – and then received questions from students in what Nelson called “a healthy show-and-tell.” In other classes, a teacher gave a loose, informal lecture, which students were welcome to interrupt with questions and their own thoughts. But Nelson did not have a sense of just how rare such an opportunity is in the Middle East, and just how disparate the education offered by the American University of Iraq is from that offered elsewhere in the nation, until he got a chance to speak candidly and casually with the university’s students. When asked what their education had been like before the American University of Iraq and how their current education differed, they described the stuff of most Johnnie’s nightmares: sitting in rows with a lecturing teacher at the front of the room, repeating what the teacher said, learning by rote memorization, no questions. As Nelson puts it, “For most of them it was lock-
step, get it from a book. That’s the end of the education.” And according to the students with whom Nelson spoke, the experience of students at other Iraqi universities amounted to more of the same. But, regarding those students who left this behind for an American liberal arts education, Nelson observes, “I don’t think they quite knew what they were getting themselves into.” They knew it was an American university, and that was significant; this was a good school, whatever that meant, exactly. “But,” Nelson says, “they came, I think, because they wanted a degree” —that is, in one of the four available majors: Engineering, Environmental Studies, International Law, and Information Technology Services. “It was after they got in and saw what an education could be like,” Nelson says, “that they were like kids in a candy store.” Nelson’s experience at the American University of Iraq caused him to reexamine the way we in America look at liberal education and, more than anything, it cemented in his mind the necessity of it. As Nelson says, “The US’s rush toward vocationalism is understandable. People want to make sure they’ll have a job.” Nelson sees a similar crisis going on in Iraq, the same panic and uncertainty. The reasons an American seeks vocational training are much the same as the reasons an Iraqi seeks it. Still, Nelson says, those who
developed and support the American University of Iraq recognize what we recognize at St. John’s: “If you want to build a free country, you have to have free citizens, free individuals. And that requires a different kind of education than just work-force training.” If this is true for building a free country, surely it is also true for maintaining one. The need for liberal education is just as true and urgent in an uncertain America as a developing Iraq. After all, whatever the advantages of career-targeted education, it has strict limits:
it prepares you for something, but not for anything. On the other hand, as Nelson asks, whether in America or Iraq, “What can’t you do with a liberal education?” Hopefully, Iraq will soon see what the answer is; the American University of Iraq received a fiveyear accreditation and hopes to become a beacon of hope in redeveloping Iraq. But, of course, the value of an education goes beyond just one can do with it. What Nelson says affected him most about his visit to the American University of Iraq was seeing
one essential similarity between the students there and those at St. John’s, distilling for him the whole notion of a liberal education into its simplest formulation: the love of learning and the freeing effect that has on an individual. Nelson says, “My experience put a punctuation mark—an exclamation point—on that aspect of liberal education.” ■
The Sheen Michigan’s oil spill.
by erin shadowens interviewees Levi Richmond, Gull Lake, Michigan; Heather Keenan and Terri Larson, Enbridge Energy; Michael Dirksen, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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would drive through Galesburg and see some of the boom getting across the river and see the trucks for the clean up,” explains Levi Richmond, a resident of Augusta, Michigan, regarding the Kalamazoo River oil spill in September. The Kalamazoo river is a major water tributary for Lake Michigan. “There was a big uproar. It happened after BP and people were upset.” Richmond refers to the Deepwater Horizon spill, an oil rig belonging to BP (formerly British Petroleum) that exploded last April and damaged an underwater drilling well, allowing approximately five million barrels of oil to spill off the Gulf coast. The well continued to leak throughout summer until cleanup teams could successfully cap the well in September. In July, at the height of the Deepwater debacle, an oil pipeline in Michigan belonging to Canadian company Enbridge Energy began to leak into Talmadge Creek, leading into the Kalamazoo River. Estimates for the spill range from 877,000 to more than a million gallons of oil, the largest oil spill in the history of the midwestern United States. In a written statement to The Epoch, Heather Keenan and Terri Larson of Enbridge Energy explained that for most of the environmental and economic consequences of the spill, “It is too early to know.” Although the clean-up remains ongoing and the damage to the local ecosystem is still unclear, Richmond remarks that the community’s response seems underwhelmed. “Keeping it [water resources] clean is a big deal, so I can see how that would have an effect and having it [the spill] so close to home
would change people’s opinions,” says Richmond; nevertheless, “It was kind of a joke, for the majority of people.” When asked why people considered the spill a “joke,” Richmond explained that the Talmadge creek spill lacked the scope of Deepwater, especially since the national media barely covered it. “I’m sorta of the opinion that media kinda makes up your mind about these things [for you].” At the University of Michigan, where he is currently a student, Richmond observes a lack of response to the environmental disaster happening, for some, right at home. Richmond points to the media as one culprit. Though the local news provides comprehensive coverage on the spill and the clean-up efforts, the national news has consistently failed to cover
domestic oil spills. Besides the Kalamazoo river and Deepwater Horizon spills, four other oil spills have occurred in the domestic US in 2010— from Salt Lake City, Utah to Port Arthur, Texas. According to USA Today, off shore oil rigs averaged 17 spills a year since 2000. While the Enbridge spill was a result of transferring oil underground, Deepwater and Talmadge Creek are just two instances in a long trend of oil related accidents —offshore and otherwise; moreover, the nebulous relationship between the government and oil companies continues to obscure the national dialogue. It is unclear what kind of relationship should exist between government agencies and the companies they regulate. “It’s all about who is responsible. I
would say that Enbridge has most of the responsibility since they are the ones that messed up. But if the government regulations were not strict enough to prevent it, that should be looked into too,” says Richmond. One of the biggest critiques of the Democratic majority in Congress was their failure to tighten regulations and oversight, especially since many companies, like BP, were consistently cutting mechanical corners to protect their profit margins. In February, the U.S. Department of Transportation met with Enbridge representatives and insisted that they repair their infrastructure, including the pipe that leaked. “It should all be about accountability,” says Richmond. “There has to be enough regulation that the public is
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he twin failures of the government and media leading up to the spills should not necessarily overshadow the successes of government organizations leading the clean-up efforts, especially in the case of the Kalamazoo river. And as far as corporate accountability is concerned, Enbridge has proven a shining example by avoiding the same public conviction in the media that BP has experienced. By consistently meeting the benchmarks set by the EPA, Enbridge and community clean up crews have been able to contain the oil and prevent it from reaching Lake Michigan. According to Keenan and Larson, “we [Enbridge] have worked very closely with a number of government agencies,” including the EPA, MDNRE, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and others. Although Enbridge is currently under a National Transportation Safety Board directive that prevents any discussion about specifics relating to the spill, they could outline their aggressive public outreach plan: “Enbridge has undertaken an extensive community outreach plan that includes visits and/or presentations for local stakeholder groups, such as 12
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environmental organizations, civic groups, public officials, neighborhood watch groups and schools. Enbridge is also committed to partnering with local organizations through its community investment program. Enbridge provides contributions to non-profit groups in six priority areas—health and safety, environment, lifelong learning, community leadership, and arts and culture. The company looks for opportunities to partner with organizations who seek to provide projects or services that meet community needs and have a long-term positive impact.” As a company, Enbridge looks to its own future as an energy provider, not simply as a conduit for oil. Keenan and Larson write, “We recently opened North America’s largest solar photovoltaic facility in Sarnia, Ontario, and also recently broke ground on a new wind farm in Colorado (adding to our existing wind farms in Canada).” Enbridge’s commitment includes their “Neutral Footprint” program. “Through this program, we are committed to: Plant a tree for every tree we remove to construct or expand our facilities or rights-of-way. Help conserve an acre of land for every acre of natural habitat we permanently impact. Generate a kilowatt of renewable energy for kilowatt of power our operations consume.” BP has made similar prom-
ises, pledging to invest in “low carbon business.” In many ways, Richmond is correct: the major oil spills of the last few years has shocked the energy industry into action; nevertheless, progress might not necessarily mean less regulation. President Obama has signed three bills since Deepwater; the bills primarily address the clean-up efforts of the spill and holding BP accountable for the costs, but they do include some long term provisions. For instance, off shore drilling rigs must pass strict safety standards in order to avoid penalties, namely mechanical integrity—the breakoff valve that failed and caused the Deepwater explosion was consistently dysfunctional. House environmental legislation would also tax barrels of oil to fund friendly environmental projects, such as green space programs and preserving national parks.
espite Enbridge’s success containing the spilled oil and meeting EPA deadlines, Michigan residents are skeptical what to expect from the oil industry in the long term. When asked if the industry is making a true change, Michael Dirksen, a junior at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, said, “I think on the whole, probably not. I think that the improvements we see right now are simply based on a desire for the media to not pick up on what it has luckily, for them,
photo © mic stolz
kept in mind and they are not affected negatively. There has to be a standard for companies. A lot of times, companies won’t change until an event like this has happened,” referring to Deepwater Horizon.
ignored.” The repercussions of these spills, however, will not consequently yield to changes within the industry. The EPA has determined that the Kalamazoo river will require monitoring for at least five years, in which time we might fully begin to understand the impact on the wildlife. As the Kalamazoo Gazette reported on Nov, 9, oil rigs will continue to stain trees and rocks. While scientists are optimistic that the ecosystem will be restored by 2015, the long term damage done to the community in terms of property values, drinking water, and the overall health of the area is not as easy to see. “On the flip side of things,” says Dirksen, “I think it really does matter if the ecosys-
tem isn’t fully restored before 2015. If there continues to be problems with the ecosystem, or they don’t stay on top of their deadlines, I think that the overall picture could easily shift against the companies, but I honestly think that’s based on the press.” Both Dirksen and Richmond express a similar sentiment: media coverage has determined the dialogue surrounding the spills. The seriousness of any real change in the energy industry might ultimately depend on a great deal of ink. “Just as the press is used as a check on the government, the press can also be used in the same manner against individuals and businesses. In this case, the press seems to continuously choose to pass up an oppor-
tunity to be that check on this business. Enbridge knows that if they do not meet these deadlines, the press will not be able to ignore their environmental atrocities any longer,” asserts Dirksen. “Regarding the press being even more critical if Enbridge doesn’t meet their deadlines, my point is that topics of environmentalism don’t exactly spread like wildfire amongst the average American. Without pressure from the press, there will be no lesson learned from the Kalamazoo oil spill. At this point, the message we’ve sent Enbridge is that if they spill oil, they must clean it up but there are no other repercussions beyond that. This is not a message we can send. That is why this is a failure of the press.” ■
a worker operates an oil boom kalamazoo, michigan
Speaking Easy By John Vining
t was absolutely impossible to get a drink in Detroit unless you walked at least ten feet and told the busy bartender what you wanted in a voice loud enough for him to hear you above the uproar,” writes “newspaperman” Malcolm Bingay. Thanks to its proximity to Canada, Bingay’s state, Michigan, was never thirsty during the 13 years of prohibition. That’s not surprising, since Prohibition in general, Daniel Okrent shows in his new history, LAST CALL: THE RISE AND FALL OF PROHIBITION (Scribner; $30), was almost completely ineffective. Last Call is an expansive, readable history of Prohibition, covering the movement that brought it about, its thirteen years in place, and its eventual repeal. Okrent, work discussed the first ombudsman for the New York Times, has written a cohesive but nuLast Call: The Rise and Fall anced account of an era that was strange, of Prohibition but a period of great change in US hisDaniel Okrent tory. Scribner The most memorable characteristic of 480 pgs. the American prohibition is its failure. Wayne B. Wheeler, one of Last Call’s main characters, thought that that was a sign of its importance: “The very fact that the law is difficult to enforce is the clearest proof of the need of its existence.” Okrent recounts, in a way that is fascinating especially to readers bewildered by its actual passage, the way Prohibition gained support and was finally passed. Prohibition was much more than a 13 year period where it was illegal to buy alcohol. Itself the product of the convergence of a varied collection of interests, it had lasting, myriad effects on large parts of American life. It was the manifestation, in part, of enmity towards foreign and black populations, but also in many cases a result of genuine well-wishing. Because of this, a book like Okrent’s Last
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Call will be happily welcomed; its clear, lively, narrative brings into focus the complexities of prohibition that movies tend to pass over, without being any less entertaining. The most valuable aspect of Okrent’s book is his description of Prohibition’s ratification. Early in the book, Okrent asks the important question: “How did it happen? How did a freedom-loving people decide to give up a private right that had been freely exercised by millions upon millions since the first European colonists arrived in the New World? How did they condemn to extinction what was, at the very moment of its death, the fifthlargest industry in the nation?”
he answer given in Last Call is the combination of a very strong voting core— made up of members and followers of organizations like the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—electoral politics, racism, nativism, and a host of other factors. Okrent writes, “the very same day the citizens of Missouri rejected a dry amendment to the state constitution by a margin of 47 percent dry to 53 percent wet, they elected a legislature that just two months later would ratify the Eighteenth Amendment by a 75 percent to 25 percent margin.” Though prohibitionists benefited greatly from congressional gerrymandering and
the concentration of large, wet cities in only a few states, most of the credit and most of the blame belongs to the real effort and vigilance of an “unspoken coalition.” As Okrent has it, this coalition consisted of “racists, progressives, suffragists, populists (whose ranks also included a small socialist auxiliary), and nativists.” The early chapters of Last Call chronicle how these groups worked to convince congress, and then the state legislatures. Each had their particular reason to outlaw alcohol; progressives like Upton Sinclair hoped to help the poor in banning saloons; nativists saw alcohol as a foreign phenomenon, introduced by the Germans and the Irish, Catholics and Jews. During the late 1910s, the causes of women’s suffrage and Prohibition had almost identical pools of supporters. Prohibitionists knew that if women got the vote, they would vote overwhelmingly in favor of prohibition. In the end, the amendment for Women’s suffrage was ratified in 1920, a year after Prohibition; however, as energies started to mount in favor of its repeal, it was the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform that played a large role. These chapters highlight the sometimes strange character of electoral politics. Looking back, it’s much easier to see how a law (or in this case, an amendment) can be passed even if it would never survive
a direct vote. Last Call, too, shows us how influential small but strong and persistent blocs of voters can be. In many close races, vocal support of Prohibition would win a candidate dry voters, enough to swing the election his way. But Prohibition was politically unfeasible unless some other source could fill the gap in federal revenue it created. Before Prohibition was ratified, taxes on alcohol made up between 20 and 40 percent of federal revenue. The passage of the 16th Amendment – a federal graduated income tax— was necessary for the passage of the 18th —prohibition. Like representative J. Campbell Cantrill of Kentucky said of the Hobson Amendment —a failed proto-prohibition amendment—prohibition was in essence “a resolution legalizing the manufacture of intoxicating liquor without taxation.” And so, unsurprisingly, the potential tax revenue associated with alcohol was one of the strongest forces for the repeal of prohibition. This, like many of the themes brought out in the book, strengthens the analogy between the prohibition of alcohol and of drugs. At yeson19.com, a website supporting California’s Proposition 19, a recent failed attempt at “[controlling] cannabis like alcohol,” “generate billions of dollars in revenue” is among the top three things listed as Proposition 19’s effects. Okrent’s book does little WINTER 2010
overarching analysis, and mentions the modern drug prohibition only once on the last page of the book. The theme is obvious in the events themselves, and will be clear to anyone looking for it. Groups like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition have rooted their opposition to drug prohibition in this parallel (and in their case, experience). LEAP believes that “drug abuse and gang violence flourish in a drug prohibition environment, just as they did during alcohol prohibition.” Police responded in familiar ways: “Once prohibition was in place, judges realized that tight limits on searches crippled the government’s ability to enforce the Volstead Act (the name for the congressional legislation which, when ratified by the states, became the 19th Amendment). Long-honored restraints on police authority soon gave way.” And, of course, it fostered – if not created – organized crime. Okrent’s analysis doesn’t go much further than the sentence that begins his short epilogue: “In almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure.” But, like much of the analysis that one could make of the period, this nearly falls off the pages. The more obvious lessons that have been taken from Prohibition are beautifully, if not sadly, illustrated here—that it is nearly impossible to legislate personal behavior, or that people, whether they are senators or rum run16
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ners, will take advantage of a clear opportunity. If a reader might want to learn about Prohibition for other reasons—to get a glimpse of the culture of the 1920’s, to understand how cul-
ture changed, or just to read choice passages of an old but charming American dialect— Last Call has plenty to offer. It is a deep biography of one of America’s most obvious and prolonged failures. ■
Insignificances By J. Keenan Trotter
n August 12, 2006, in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah troops fired an anti-tank missile at an armored vehicle containing a twenty year-old Israeli soldier named Uri Grossman, who, along with eighteen other soldiers in the Israel Defense Force, died when the rocket exploded on collision. Uri was the youngest son of David Grossman, a prolific Israeli novelist and journalist, who later published, in the London Guardian, an eulogy to Uri, which began, At 20 to three in the morning, between Saturday and Sunday, the doorbell rang. Over the intercom, they said they were from the army. For three days, every thought begins with: ‘He/we won’t.’ He won’t come. We won’t talk. We won’t laugh. He won’t be that kid with the ironic look in his eyes and the amazing sense of humour. He won’t be that young person with understanding deeper than his years.
There won’t be that warm smile and healthy appetite. There won’t be that rare combination of determination and gentleness. There won’t be his common sense and wisdom. We won’t sit down together to watch The Simpsons and Seinfeld, and we won’t listen to Johnny Cash, and we won’t feel the strong embrace. We won’t see you going to talk to your brother, Yonatan, with excited hand movements and we won’t see you hugging your sister, Ruthie, the love of your life.
Grossman’s dirge prefigured the book he published (in Hebrew), in 2008, entitled A Woman Flees Bad News ()הרושבמ תחרוב השיא. More than four years after his young son’s death, English speakers have received, by the efforts of translator Jessica Cohen, Grossman’s gorgeous novel, which has been re-titled TO THE END OF THE LAND (Knopf; $28). To the End of the Land follows a woman named Ora—
wife to her absent husband, and yet so harmful, to nearly Ilan; mother of an enlisted sol- every nation on Earth, includdier, Ofer; and lover and friend ing and perhaps especially to Avram, whom she met when America and Israel. And he she was a young child during an does so by exploring the lies unnamed war of their youth. a family, especially a family’s The Land’s main section opens mother, will tell themselves in at the beginning of the twen- order to remain whole despite ty-first century, when Ofer is the forces of regret, rejec“called back” to his otherwise tion, ambivalence, and—most completed enlistment in the Israeli Defense Force. works discussed Despairing for her son’s safety, Ora sets out to hike To the End of the Land the hills of Galilee. This is David Grossman something of a spiritual Translated by Jessica Cohen quest. It is also an explicit Alfred A. Knopf statement of denial, for 562 pgs. Ora reasons, by way of Grossman’s devastatingly precise language, that, Freedom since the “notifiers”—the Jonathan Franzen military personnel tasked Farrar, Straus, and Giroux with alerting families of 576 pgs. dead soldiers—will not be able to find her at home, Ofer must not, or cannot, die. of all—violence, which is the Grossman dwells on this wage quintessence of Ora’s dissent. with characteristically long, She must deny the truth that dream-like passages, and it’s Ofer might die; that walking to not difficult to feel that Ora is the edge of Israel won’t protect somehow right—that by deny- him. ing the IDF a way of contacting her, they won’t have anything bout a third of the way to contact her about. Yet it can through Ora’s passage be difficult to tell, with Grossinto the Israeli wilderman’s near-perfect emotional ness, she comprehends her survocabulary, whether we should roundings: “Flies, bees, gnats, assent to Ora’s own denial—of grasshoppers, butterflies, and war, of logic—or to summarily beetles hover and crawl and reject it. Either way, it seems leap from the foliage. There is impossible to choose, and this so much life inside every paris the genius of To the End of ticle of the world, Ora thinks, the Land. Grossman succeeds and this profusion sudin his novel’s sincere doubt of denly seems threatening, the myths of nationhood and because why would the abundant, wasteful world war that remain so essential,
care if the life of one fly, or one leaf, or one person, were to end at this very moment?
Ora’s recognition—of both the insignificance of herself and the fact that this same insignificance governs human life—testifies to Grossman’s mastery of the novelistic form. The Land builds and exposes its world through a steady succession of domestic conflict; Ora’s sturdy, if sometimes sentimental, introspection; and a progressively stranger history of Ora, Ilan, and Avram, the troubled, tripartite relationship of whom delivers some of the The Land’s most startling insights. The novel’s success certainly belongs, partly, to Grossman’s effortless, nearly magical assemblage of the flotsam of failed marriages and distant children and unkept secrets into something beautiful: into a novel which reads as lyrically as The Land does. But the greater credit should be given to his insistence on the importance of this insignificance. Grossman is a writer willing to acknowledge the ubiquitous effects of war, and suffering, and loss, without ever being sucked into sentimental denial of their purposes.
was reminded of the importance of littleness by one of the handful of negative reviews granted to Jonathan Franzen’s FREEDOM (FSG; $28). WINTER 2010
In the October 2010 issue of The Atlantic, B.R. Myers, a critic renowned in literary circles for crucifying (sometimes correctly) Cormac McCarthy and E. Annie Proulx and Don DeLillo (among others) for what his book, A Reader’s Manifesto, called their “pretentious” prose, took to Freedom by saying its main personage, a basketball player turned Midwestern mother, “is too stupid to merit reading about.” Here’s his main gripe with Freedom: A suburban comedy-drama about the relationship between cookie-baking Patty, who describes herself as “relatively dumber” than her siblings; red-faced husband Walter, “whose most salient quality [...] was his niceness”; and Walter’s womanizing college friend, Richard, who plays in an indie band called Walnut Surprise, the novel is a 576-page monument to insignificance.
The fulcrum of Myers’ complaint against Freedom is that, well, it’s contemporary; that the language Franzen uses is contemporary; and these two sins mean Freedom, and the characters living therein, do not matter. (It seems, though, that in no way could Franzen have escaped this testimony: in response to several readers’ letters, Myers averred that “reading a contemporary novel is usually but not always a waste of time.” As if that settled the matter.) 18
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Myers is not wrong, though, about Franzen’s devotion to insignificance. As newlyweds transplanted into a gentrifying St. Paul, Minnesota neighborhood, Patty and Walter Berglund assess various concerns: What about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts O.K. politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be?
These concerns, like Ora’s observations, are insignificant; but Myers is mistaken in equating insignificance with meaninglessness. He seems to be under the wrong impression that all literature is constituted by the opposite of insignificance—just significance, I suppose. What “significance” looks like is something Myers is too poor of a critic to bother explaining. (Would he prefer genre fiction, specifically science fiction—the extant saint and creed of which are Orson Scott Card and his Ender’s Game—who overcome the problem of insignificance by explicitly denying littleness to their characters? Is that what he wants? Stuff drained of insignificance makes for fun
reading, of course. But these stories are not inhabited by what we would call humans.) Not much in life is actually significant—even the soldiers in the Iliad are now nothing more than coral for fish to feed on. The proper response to this is not despair, though. Insignificance is the primary mode of living; understanding it means fulfilling, in an incredible way, part of what it means to be alive. Which is to say that novels like To the End of the Land and Freedom, which are the two best novels published this year, succeed not despite their insignificance but because of it.
reedom, like To the End of the Land, focuses on a troubled mother of two children. Instead of fleeing her home for Galilee, Patty Berglund flees her Democratic, liberal East Coast family stead for the University of Minnesota, at which she plays basketball on scholarship. (Her other siblings flee their parents, too, but instead decamp to New York, to take on lives of “Art”.) At Minnesota she meets Richard Katz—a kind of Avram in his artistry and perpetual singledom and brokenness—and Richard’s friend, Walter Berglund, whom she marries. The Berglund’s marriage— much to Myers’ chagrin— forms the primary narrative of Franzen’s novel, the thread strung through their son’s various seedy dealings with South American arms dealers; Patty’s
numerous entanglements with Richard Katz (who is, inconveniently, Walter’s very best friend); Walter’s own mission to save a bird called the Cerulean Warbler by way of colluding with the coal industry, particularly by endorsing to the deprecating “mountaintop removal” method of excavation; and other, more insignificant, adventures. By this time Jessica, their daughter, and Joey have fled to college at what appears to be, for Jessica, Swarthmore (on one of whose buildings Patty notices, engraved, the advice to use well thy freedom); and, for Joey, the University of Virginia, on whose campus he witnesses the hysteria of 9/11. Looking at a novel like this, it’s seems easier to understand the problem Myers is posing— aren’t these people sort of ordinary? Disregarding Joey’s absurd excursions to South America, the main effect of which is slapstick, the Berglunds are the kind of insignificant family that probably each one of us is in some way member to. To the End of the Land functions in nearly the same way. I read Franzen’s novel before I did Grossman’s, and while geographically the families depicted are thousands of miles apart, and religiously on different stratospheres, I was constantly drawn to the similarities between Ora’s and Patty’s particular neuroses, between Ofer’s and Joey’s shifts of personality—especially their
respective battles with their mothers, a kind of relationship about which both Franzen and Grossman find particularly insightful, devastating things to say—and, most of all, the novels’ shared tone, which is a kind of low-level hum of discontent and ordinariness: of insignificance. Both Franzen and Grossman traffic in the daily despairs and uncertainties and unfulfillments of living. True, Grossman must acknowledge the consequences of war up close—for Israel happens to be fighting a conflict whose stage is their own country, indeed a war about what is “their” country—whereas Franzen is only obligated, being an American novelist, to examine the reasons for which America has gone to war. There’s a certain distance in this stance. (There’s something nearly clinical about Freedom’s title.) But such an artistic distance—the manipulation of which is what we call irony—permits Franzen to write honestly about America as it is. Franzen, like Grossman, is an author who reminds us that in order to tell a good story you are required to tell the truth.
week after September 11, 2001, Jonathan Franzen, along with several other writers, reflected, in The New Yorker, upon the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I’ve returned to this essay throughout my reading of Franzen’s novels, especially
the one for which he is most known: 2001’s The Corrections. (Regrettably, this piece, which is untitled, has not been collected in either his book of essays, How to Be Alone, or his memoir, The Discomfort Zone.) Franzen begins by describing a recurring dream in which he is flying a plane in a cityscape reminiscent of Manhattan, only to awaken, “with unspeakable relief, in my ordinary bed.” “Even if you’d believed,” Franzen wrote, as if realizing this for the first time, which he must have, “all along that further terrorism in New York was only a matter of when and not of whether, what you felt on Tuesday morning wasn’t intellectual satisfaction, or simply empathetic horror, but deep grief for the loss of daily life in prosperous, forgetful times.” “The problem,” Franzen stated of the new world inaugurated by the fallen towers, will be to reassert the ordinary, the trivial, and even the ridiculous in the face of instability and dread: to mourn the dead and then try to awaken to our small humanities and our pleasurable daily nothing-much.
Novels are, in a way, nothingmuch. Ink and paper. They recognize, by their presence and their content, our littleness. Which is to say that novels continue to matter on a daily basis; that they may have never mattered more. ■ WINTER 2010
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