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Salmagundi Magazine

Art & the PlAgue During the time of CoronAvirus tAnCrèDe hertzog REMEMBERING GEORGE STEINER Martin Jay • DaviD HerMan • WilliaM logan trumP: A summing uP. AnD After? An exChAnge with toDD gitlin & DAviD mikiCs After the BeheADing fiCtion By steven millhAuser

Jeffrey meyers mAnn & freuD • Jennifer Delton trADe is not A 4-letter worD new work Joyce carol oates • elizabetH beneDict on honor moore FALL 2020 - WINTER 2021

NUMBER 208 - 209

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Salmagundi Magazine

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Editor-in-Chief

ROBERT BOYERS Executive Editor

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Skidmore’s

Salmagundi Magazine #208 - 209

1 A Quarterly FALL 2020 - WINTER 2021

COLUMNS Guest Column: Alternative Facts & Post-Truth Brice Particelli — 3 Guest Column: Abortion, Reproductive Justice, and Political Imagination / Erin Greer— 17 FICTION After the Beheading / Steven Millhauser —37 REMEMBERING GEORGE STEINER After George Steiner: A Personal Recollection Martin Jay — 52 Steiner on Screen / David Herman — 75 George at Chess / William Logan — 89 FICTION Qiechang / Leslie Epstein — 96 ESSAY Plague in the Time of Coronavirus: The Representation of the Black Death in the Arts / Tancrède Hertzog — 129 POEMS Two Poems / Joyce Carol Oates — 151 Needles / Marc Berley — 158 Harvest / Lloyd Schwartz — 159 Two Poems / Christina Hutchins — 161 Lot’s Wife / Claire Scott — 167 Two Poems / Ben Corvo — 169


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Aqueous / Paul Bailey — 173 To Rome / John Poch — 174 Two Poems / Scott Harney — 176 Two Poems / Harry Newman — 180 ESSAYS Must the Father Die? Reading King Lear Over A Lifetime / Margaret Morganroth Gullette —184 Thoman Mann and Sigmund Freud: The Friendship Of Genius / Jeffrey Meyers — 203 Looking for Bucharest / Bonnie Costello — 219 Pepe, LeBron, and Trump: Sports, Literature, and Interpretation / Ronald A. Sharp — 235 BOOKS IN REVIEW Trading Places / Jennifer Delton — 250 The Memoirs of Honor Moore / Elizabeth Benedict — 258 Night and Day—You Are The One / Regina Janes — 265 Mirth and Folly Were The Crop / Paul Delany — 279 AN EXCHANGE Trump: A Summing Up. And After? Todd Gitlin & David Mikics — 284 Notes On Contributors — 296 for additional & on-line only content—including

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The Great American Eclipse

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Guest Column

Alternative Facts, Post Truth & The Great American Eclipse

BY BRICE PARTICELLI History is filled with solar eclipse stories. One is associated with the start of a civil war in England, when an eclipse coincided with the death of King Henry I in 1135. Another is chronicled in the Islamic text Bukhari Sharif, following the death of Muhammad’s infant son in 632. The earliest in written record was in China, 2137 B.C.E., when astrologers Ho and Hsi got drunk and failed to predict one. To miss an eclipse was a bad omen, so the emperor cut off their heads. One of the most famous was in 1919 when Arthur Eddington used an eclipse to provide evidence of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. By comparing how starlight moves past the sun, versus how it travels at night, Eddington offered proof that gravity causes light to bend. It made Einstein a celebrity overnight, and the findings were reproduced again and again until it became an accepted theory. During the 2017 eclipse, I was at the controversial Creation Museum, which uses selective science to claim that our 14-billion-year-old universe is, in fact, only 6,022 years old. I was there in part because I have family nearby, and this place has always intrigued me, but also because as a professor my research in education has increasingly turned toward how we dupe and get duped by misinformation. In a society where phrases like “alternative facts,” “post truth,” and “fake news” abound, the idea of a place that mimics science education—imitating the exhibits, placards, curricula, architecture, and children’s programming of natural history museums—to promote an


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anti-science message was too interesting to ignore. And what better time to visit than when our country’s eyes are focused on a science-explained event—our moon passing between our planet and our star? * * * Built in 2008 with $27 million—a significant amount of money in the rolling hills of Northern Kentucky, the Creation Museum has seen more than three million visitors. With a petting zoo, ropes course, lagoon and gardens, and 75,000-square-feet of stone and glass structures, it bears resemblance to any large natural history museum. Past an armed guard and a brontosaurus statue, the glass doors open to a grand hall with a thirty-foot Chinese paper dragon hanging above. An animatronic display of a child plays next to two velociraptors, and display cases hold imitation scrolls and swords of famous dragon myths, along with a guiding question: “Were Dinosaurs Dragons?” The overwhelming answer is, “Yes.” It’ll cost you $30 to get any further, and $5 to leave, paid to a talkative parking lot attendant. These “Young Earth Creationists,” as they describe themselves, argue for a version of earth history that fits a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible. The earth, sun, stars, and humans were created on October 23rd, 4004 B.C.E. and a global flood killed almost everything in 2348 B.C.E., leaving only two of each kind of animal on a boat with eight people, including 600-year-old Noah. From that starting point, the facility crams in a few selected pieces of scientific discovery. The supercontinent of Pangaea existed, sure, but it broke into seven continents during the one-year flood rather than over 200 million years. And when the boat landed, animals repopulated the earth on rafts of fallen trees—kangaroos to Australia, tigers to India, ocelots to Mexico, dragons to Denmark. Science isn’t denied here, not exactly, but it is drastically manipulated, even putting poetry to work. Along the walls, exhibits explain that one-thousand-year-old children’s stories like Beowulf and St. George and the Dragon are proof that giants and dinosaurs roamed the earth in recent history. And because unicorns are mentioned in the King James Bible,


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they existed too. (Even though “unicorn” is just a creative translation of the Hebrew word re’em, a wild ox.) It’s an exhilarating history built on the imagination of our fictions: The Flintstones, Godzilla, The BFG, Jurassic Park, My Little Pony. In fact, one of the children’s books they publish depicts Noah battling a T-Rex in a Roman-styled coliseum. It is a fascinating bit of acrobatics that forces you to recall childhood lessons. In case you missed it in school (which is surprisingly likely, you’ll see), scientific consensus tells us that the universe is approximately 14 billion-years-old, the Earth 4.5 billion, and dinosaurs went extinct soon after an asteroid strike 65 million years ago. Homo sapiens gradually evolved into our present form around 300,000 years ago, and by 4004 B.C.E. we were domesticating pigs in Europe, growing rice in Japan, farming squash in South America, and making wine in Western Asia. By 2348 B.C.E. there were expansive dynasties in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. To cram 14 billion years into 6,022 creates an exciting story, then, but this place’s power isn’t only in imagination. While it has absolutely no influence on scientific research, its focus on schools and families influences millions. Along with more than three million visitors to the Creation Museum, Answers in Genesis (AiG), the parent organization, puts out a steady stream of public speakers, curriculum, and video content. They’ve published more than 300 books, focused largely on children’s education, as well as a self-described “peer-reviewed technical journal” for their “researchers” to publish in (that no research organization considers peer-reviewed). It’s a brilliant strategy, co-opting the educational and academic genres that scientists and science education professionals use, but using them to undermine those very groups. And their influence is growing. They recently opened a second facility, called “Ark Encounters,” which cost $100 million to build and received land grants and tax credits from the state of Kentucky. It topped a million visitors in their first year and a half. * * *


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The sky is a grayish blue, but it doesn’t look like the moon is anywhere near the sun. I’m on the back patio of the Creation Museum and it’s a few minutes before the height of the eclipse, but the frogs are still singing. The wind rustles the cattails below as if nothing is happening. There is no silence or stillness. It’s barely any darker, to be honest, and it’s easy to see how Ho and Hsi might have missed a partial eclipse if they’d been tipping a few. The sunlight swallows the moon. There are perhaps two hundred people on patios and by the lagoon below and the crowd is growing. On the steps, a mother and her two daughters lie in the middle of the path, elbows down and legs up with their eyes to the sky, glasses on. Other families stand in small clusters, passing glasses back and forth. I flew from New York for this, but I knew that we’d only get 92% eclipse. Other areas, like Western Kentucky, are in the path of totality. I could have just as easily gone there, but I wanted to be here, in this place. While the scene is gray-blue, when I put on the eclipse glasses the world transforms. The sky becomes a backlit geometry project, a kid’s shoebox assignment—blunt shapes made stark by the tinted glasses. It is striking. On a deep gray backdrop, a black sphere sits in front of an orange one. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. Our moon, 220,000 miles away, passing in front of our star, 93 million miles away. It is a simple action on a grand scale—a toddler jumping in front of the camera—made all the more real because our sun gives us light, and life, and it is disappearing in the middle of a clear summer day. For a facility that positions itself as a natural history museum, it’s surprising to see that they don’t have any educational programming. “Our astronomer is in Oregon,” the ticket agent apologized, but there aren’t even any signs, announcements, or special exhibits. There is nothing besides two customer service representatives standing quietly in the corner, handing out glasses as if they don’t have enough. There’s no mention of timing (2:27pm), or percentage (91.9%), let alone its significance, history, or relevance to the institution’s mission. It is the most talked about natural event of the year—dubbed “The Great American Eclipse” because it cuts across the continental United States—but there isn’t even a flyer.


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On the patio next to me there’s an older man in a camo hat who doesn’t have eclipse glasses. I offer mine. He looks through them quickly, hesitantly, before passing them back. He’s from Mississippi, he tells me. He’s retired and he and his wife are passing through in an R.V. “We’re wasting time,” he laughs. “No real rush.” While we’re chatting, his wife comes over and offers him glasses. “They gave them to me inside,” she says, turning around before she’s arrived. “I’m going back in.” “Are you sure?” he says, “Take a look first.” “No, you do it.” “This young gentleman offered me his. You should look.” She looks quickly before handing them back, “I’m going back to the A.C. Take your time.” It’s a sweet moment. Both are trying to do something nice for the other, but neither wants it. After she leaves, the man inspects the glasses. “Oh boy,” he says, “these don’t have the little square thing.” I ask what he means and he shows me the QR code on mine. “I heard that this is how you can tell if they’re fake. They can fake everything else, but not this.” The news was filled with reports of companies selling unsafe glasses, but I don’t have the heart to tell him that there’s nothing difficult about printing a QR code. “They have the right ISO number though,” I tell him, “and they’re made by one of the NASA-approved companies.” He furrows his brow and puts the glasses in his pocket. He doesn’t seem to trust that the Creation Museum has bought the right ones. * * * In 2007, a study published in the journal PLoS Biology found that 60% of high school biology teachers didn’t spend significant time on even basic understandings of evolution. This, despite the fact that the National Academy of Sciences calls evolution “the central concept of biology.” While the study found that community pressures pushed them to minimize evolution, the problem goes deeper. More than one in six biology teachers agreed with the statement that, “God created human beings


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pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” One in six high school biology teachers doesn’t accept the central premise of the field they’re teaching. It should be of little surprise, then, that in a 2017 Gallup poll on human origins, 38% of Americans responded similarly, responding that, “God created man in present form.” Americans have been taught to distrust evolution, despite the fact that it’s been settled science for over a hundred years. This puts the Creation Museum in the odd situation of being a fringe element in the scientific fields it purports to represent, while also fitting securely within a broadly held public view. * * * On the morning of the eclipse I attended one of the Creation Museum’s hour-long lectures, “Noah’s Ark and the Flood” by Georgia Purdom, who has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Ohio State and directs AiG’s educational content and curriculum. Her talk is in the auditorium, just past the bookstore, and there are at least a hundred people in attendance. I settle into a spot in the back as Purdom walks onto the stage slowly, unassumingly, as if walking into a college classroom where her students are on their phones. She is slow to smile, and her voice is nasal but welcoming. She says hello and starts a video promoting “our newest themed attraction,” as she calls it, “Ark Encounters,” a life-sized replica of Noah’s ark. The video is flashy and well-produced, and clearly designed as an advertisement. After suggesting people visit, she sets up the problem, as she sees it, beginning with a poll AiG did of Christians 20 to 29. “Only 51% believe that the global flood and Noah’s ark are real events in history.” This is because the ark is “presented as fairy tale” by most churches, she says. The rest of her lecture is delivered like a fun-laced lecture at a science education conference, but filled with slides designed to mock the concept of evolution and provide anecdotal evidence of creationism. She leads us through AiG’s design of their ark, including arguments over which animals would have made it (and why dinosaurs made the cut),


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and she tells us that “secular South Korean scientists” determined that their ark would have been seaworthy. She shows us a picture of a fossil of one fish with its mouth around another as proof that death was fast for the majority of fossilized animals. Most fossils are from a single event, she argues, from a flood in 2348 B.C.E. (Including fish, apparently….) She then shows us a tyrannosaurus rex bone with soft tissue attached, said to be 68 million-years-old in a study published in Nature, arguably the world’s most respected research journal, before encouraging the crowd to laugh at their conclusions. “No way is this millions of years old,” she says, “Trust me, I’m a molecular biologist.” Purdom then explains the stakes. The “end times” are coming, she tells us, and we want to be on the right side. “It’s not going to happen today during the eclipse, by the way,” she laughs. “And it’s not going to be flood next time. It’s going to be fire. And it could happen any time.” She pauses. “We have to be ready.” But there’s a solution. “We’ve got to stop teaching our kids Bible stories, because they happened. The Bible is history. And we have plenty of resources out there for you,” she says, pointing to the bookstore doors, “so there’s no excuse.” At the end, there’s no Q&A, but she’s available in the bookstore. When I get to her, she’s talking to a college student. He’s just started studying science at a religious university but he’s frustrated by his “Old Earth Creationist” professors. They’re teaching “secular science” alongside the Bible, arguing for Intelligent Design, that God guided the hand of evolution. He’s frustrated, he says. “But it’s inspiring to watch you.” Keep studying, she tells him, and stick to your faith, “We need more good people like you.” She offers her business card. “Call me or email me. I’m always happy to help.” * * * The entrance to the main exhibit at the Creation Museum overwhelms your senses. After walking past the Chinese dragon and the animatronic child with her velociraptor friends, past the fudge station and the Stargazer’s Planetarium, you’re asked to pause for a movie at


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the “Special Effects Theater” (complete with shaking chairs and mist in your face), before walking down a cavernous walkway meant to look like sandstone canyons. The canyon opens up to the first room where there is a replicated, full-sized dig site. A video above shows a Young Earth Creationist and a “secular paleontologist” working at the actual site. The Young Earth Creationist explains that facts can only be seen through two “different starting points,” either “Man’s Word” or “God’s Word.” He argues that science relies on interpretation rather than fact, so we must decide which of these “starting points” to believe. The “secular paleontologist” (who is never really named) quietly nods in agreement. The rest of the exhibits lead visitors through this choice. “Man’s Word” is equated with all of the scientific traditions of archaeology, paleontology, biology, geology, and more, and it leads to suffering and confusion. “God’s Word,” on the other hand, is equated with AiG’s understanding of how science and the Bible mesh, and it leads to salvation. All knowledge is biased, they argue, so you must choose which bias to believe. In their vision, the choice is black and white, Man or God, Science or AiG. There isn’t room for discussion. You can’t consider Intelligent Design; you can’t question how Biblical texts were collected, edited, and translated; and you can’t focus your faith only on the New Testament. Those approaches—the majority of Christianity—lead to a fiery hell. To doubt one word of the Bible is to doubt the entire religion. Scientific studies are presented only to be mocked. Exhibits encourage viewers to use their own powers of observation to come to their own conclusions, rather than listen to “experts.” It’s a method that researcher P.J. Wendel, in the journal Science & Education, calls 19th Century object-based epistemology—an approach to evidence that is based on a time when objects were presented in museums without context, and viewers were asked to wonder. Scientific method, reproducible experiments, and peer review are ignored. It allows AiG to offer a singular vision that researcher Ella Butler, in the journal Ethnos, describes as “conspiracy theory epistemology,” where all data is approached with a conclusion in mind. If the facts don’t match, then they are ignored or belittled.


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When I teach research methods, we talk about this approach as “confirmation bias”—a bias that occurs when we want to confirm what we believe, despite the evidence. It is one of the most common human biases, and it is why scientific method requires a skeptic’s approach that demands reproducible findings. It is also why we encourage hedging phrases like “indicates that” and “need for further study.” Good research is built on the idea that knowledge is endlessly perfectible. The Creation Museum takes advantage of this. Any hedging or adjustment is evidence that people make up their own reality. For instance, an exhibit on the radioactive dating of rocks in the Grand Canyon uses the differences between dating methods on a rock (or perhaps several rocks in a similar area; it is intentionally unclear) to conclude that all dating methods must be wrong. If we can’t decide whether these rocks are 800,000,000 or 1,200,000,000 years old, they argue, then we might as well believe that it’s 6,022. It’s an approach that should sound familiar in our “alternative facts” era. To accept facts that don’t fit your ideology is to show weakness. To embrace complexity is to accept defeat. Even engaging in a discussion that uses these rules can be problematic. AiG earned their biggest boost in 2014 when Ken Ham had a highly-publicized debate with TV personality Bill Nye, titled, “Is Creation a Viable Model of Origins?,” which has had 7 million views on YouTube. The event concerned many researchers who were worried that Nye legitimized creationism by subjecting it to a debate, rather than leaving it to the scientific scrutiny that had negated young earth hypotheses centuries before—that he elevated Young Earth Creationism by fighting it. Nye, after all, was positioned as the representative for scientific consensus on geology, biology, history, archaeology, paleontology—hundreds of thousands of scientists replicating and furthering work across generations and cultures, while Ham represented at best a couple dozen unknown researchers whose work is only published in religious journals. And the debate has become a powerful tool. AiG uses it constantly, picking apart Nye as a representation of all of scientific knowledge. He is mentioned constantly in their materials, and any question or hesitation he has is used to discredit all of science. Any change—even if it’s through new discovery—is used as proof that science is too flawed to trust. AiG’s hand is presented as steady. Strong. Unchanging.


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* * * “I don’t remember learning anything else when I was a kid,” Georgia Purdom tells me. “God created the world in six days.” It is a month after my visit, and Purdom and I are talking on the phone. I’d asked her to talk because I needed to understand how someone goes from a Ph.D. in biology to directing content at an anti-science organization. It’s an easy answer, it seems. She’d been raised a young earther and stuck to her beliefs. Purdom attended public school, she tells me, but she didn’t encounter “the whole millions of years thing” until high school. Even then, “I don’t remember really engaging in it or thinking that much about it.” In fact, she tells me, “it wasn’t taught that much.” It wasn’t until college that she began to engage with ideas of creation and evolution, she says, and she chose to attend Cedarville University, a religious university that teaches Young Earth Creationism. After graduating, she was accepted into a Ph.D. program at Ohio State, where her doctoral studies “focused on genetic regulation of factors important for bone remodeling,” her AiG bio says. Ohio State couldn’t have been a comfortable place for a Young Earth Creationist, I say. “I definitely had friends, and people I worked with every day,” she tells me, “but most of them weren’t Christians so you just didn’t develop those kinds of relationships. But I never really had any issues.” Besides, the research “didn’t have anything to do with how all of that got there,” she says. She isolated herself from the conversations. “That was a separate question. Once in a while, obviously, those types of conversations would come up among the graduate students, and even among professors with the students, but I knew enough not to get involved. I knew that if I stated what I believed there would definitely be prejudice against me, so I typically would just avoid those conversations, and not take part in them because I knew that it wasn’t going to go well for me.” After completing her Ph.D. in 2000, Purdom took a faculty position at Mt. Vernon Nazarene University, another religious school where Young Earth Creationism is embraced. While most tenure-track professors are


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expected to have a vigorous publishing agenda, Purdom’s peer-reviewed work dropped off after Ohio State. The research wasn’t what she loved, she tells me. “The lab science was a way to get where I wanted to be, which was to be a professor at college, and I love teaching.” After six years at Mt. Vernon, she took a position with AiG as they launched the Creation Museum. It allowed her to focus on science education, and she has been prolific since, with 25 books and videos attributed to her in their bookstore, and dozens of articles in Young Earth magazines. “That’s where I’m more at home than in the pure research science,” she says. “You know, I like it, and I can do it, but this is my passion and my love.” Purdom is now focused on developing Young Earth resources for young children. “I really see my role and my expertise, and ministry, in helping them understand that science supports God’s word. It confirms it,” she says, so that as these kids “continue to get older, they don’t doubt, and they stay strong.” While Ken Ham gets the most press, Purdom is at the foundation of their educational outreach. She is Chair of AiG’s Editorial Review Board, which reviews everything they produce—dozens of books and videos each year, and she collects them into curriculum recommendations. She is also a speaker, visiting schools and churches to spread Young Earth Creationism from the perspective of a Ph.D.-holding scientist. She also co-hosts a twice-a-week Facebook Live program where she, Ham, and another AiG speaker discuss “science and cultural news.” As the only Ph.D. on stage, she is the sober one, pivoting when her co-hosts drift too overtly into hate as they mock homosexuality or climate science or universities. Purdom provides an air of legitimacy, acting as a symbolic link between outlandish comments and scientific competence. Her latest project, she tells me, is working with a newly hired education specialist, hired to develop summer camps and science workshops for younger kids. “I work a lot with her,” Purdom says, “trying to bring the museum to a whole other level in educating students.” Their educational programs are expanding rapidly and Purdom talks about the future as open and expansive. She’s excited for the future. * * *


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It is 2:27pm and according to NASA’s tracker we are at exactly 91.9% solar eclipse. A sliver of sun peeks out as a tiny crescent above the moon. I get restless on the patio and decide to walk around. I head to the lagoon path where the crowd has grown. There’s a man with a box-viewing device and I ask if I can take a look. “It’s pretty low tech,” he laughs. It’s an oversized cereal box with two holes on top. One has a piece of tinfoil taped on, with a pinhole to let in light. I put my eye up to the other hole and look where the sunlight hits the cardboard—a fuzzy crescent of light in the dark. A few feet away, a couple stands beside a dog bowl filled with water, staring into it. I offer them my glasses. “You want to try ours?” the man asks. “It’s not as good.” There’s a leaf floating in the bowl. I ask him what they’re doing. “Just stand right here,” he says, holding my shoulders until I’m where he wants me, “and look into the bowl.” I do and I’m immediately blinded. He’s set me up to look at the sun through a reflection. I’m looking at the sun, but magnified through water. I jump away as quickly as I can. “Oh, I see what you’re doing.” “You just have to kind of squint a little,” he says. “I’m not sure that water makes it safer,” I tell them. I know it doesn’t, but I say it softly, and they don’t believe me. They hand me the glasses back and continue on, staring at the sun through squinted eyes. I walk away quickly, in fear of having to witness two people’s public blinding. I imagine others saying, “but you were with them. Why didn’t you stop them?” as the couple gets rushed out, bloody-eyed and screaming. Of course, it wouldn’t be that dramatic. Retinas don’t have pain receptors, so if we aren’t educated beforehand we don’t know that we’re hurting ourselves until it’s too late. In fact, Isaac Newton temporarily blinded himself during an eclipse. He watched it through a mirror and was blind for three days, then suffered from months of afterimage blurs. There wasn’t much literature on eclipse safety at the time, so maybe he didn’t have access, or he simply ignored what he read. Today there are studies, histories, advice columns, newscasts, and warning labels. We live in an age where information access isn’t an issue. We just have to listen to the right people.


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In fact, I can’t help but look at this place and attribute its power to this increasing information access. Purdom was able to isolate herself growing up in a pre-internet age, sure, and her public school teachers clearly failed her, but the opportunity for this place to create that same ideological hardening in a new generation is only growing. The Creation Museum was launched at about the same time as the most popular social media sites, and the same year as the iPhone. Print-on-demand capabilities have sky-rocketed too, allowing anyone to print as many books as they can afford. Information and production access is generally a good thing, but it has also created hardened silos. All an organization needs is funding, and a good sense of the platforms that have cultural power. Mimic the structure and language and you can replace anything with your own ideology. Use the recognizable and symbolic aspects of museums or science education, for instance, and you don’t even need the science. You’ve got a “museum” that schools can fund trips to and buy classroom sets from. Or, of course, use the symbolic forms of “news,” and you can create your own reality. The mother and daughters on the stairs stand up. The eclipse has begun to wane and the mother says, “Let’s see if anyone else wants to see.” She and her daughters walk around, offering their glasses. When she’s thanked, she responds, “God be with you.” It’s a surprising scene. Hundreds of humans are scattered around the walkways, patios, and porches, all standing in tiny circles, looking to the sky. If you didn’t know what was going on, this would look like some strange silent ritual. Descriptions of eclipses before our current understanding vary. In Western Africa, the Batammaliba believed a solar eclipse was the sun and moon fighting. It was people’s job to encourage them to stop by resolving their own conflicts. In Viking lore, an eclipse happened when one of the two wolves who chased the sun across the sky caught it. In China, a dragon ate the sun. And for the Navajo, the sun died and was reborn. The time was spent indoors for prayer and contemplation on the balance of the natural world. It is human nature to explain the unexplainable with story, but today we know what an eclipse is. This knowledge allows us to consider the grandness of our cosmos—planets and stars and galaxies spinning around each other.


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It is to consider our own planet, spinning on an axis every 23 hours and 56 minutes, our moon orbiting our planet every 27.3 days, and our planet orbiting our star every 365.25 days. For an eclipse to happen, these objects must line up perfectly above. But it is also to consider a bigger universe. It is our solar system, sitting on the outskirt arm of a swirling galaxy so wide that it takes 100,000 years for light to cross. It is to consider a universe in which our galaxy is one of 200 billion others within our observable universe. It is to consider the vastness of what we can’t observe, and to wonder how much more we might learn. It is a humbling existence, and an awesome thing to ponder as we watch our moon pass between us and our star. It is an overwhelming idea—our tiny home among such splendor. It is a beauty that is almost unimaginable.


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Guest Column Something That Would Have Been Somebody: Abortion, Reproductive Justice, and Political Imagination BY ERIN GREER

Anne Sexton’s poem “The Abortion” repeats three times the phrase, “Somebody who should have been born / is gone.” My version is clunkier in both grammar and meaning: “Something that would have been somebody / will not.” * * * I did not realize I was pregnant until after more than three weeks of intermittent bleeding, moodiness, nausea and fatigue. My symptoms began at around the same time as Donald Trump’s inauguration, and everyone I knew in Berkeley, California, was moody, nauseated, and fatigued that January. I was busy attending political meetings, trying to finish my doctoral dissertation in English literature, and obsessing about the uncertain futures of my academic career and U.S. politics. For years, attempting to ignore my body has been my primary strategy of resisting the world’s insistence that it is the most important feature of my identity. But the primary reason my pregnancy took me by surprise, and intrigued the various medical personnel who would gather to watch my ultrasounds in the coming days, was that I’d had a copper IUD lodged in my uterus for two and a half years.


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A night of especially hard bleeding finally prompted me to visit the student health center, where a blood test detected hormones suggesting I was six weeks pregnant. There was one OBGYN associated with my university’s student health center and she was on vacation that week, so I traveled to an affluent neighboring suburb for an urgent ultrasound two days later. IUD pregnancies have a heightened risk of miscarrying or being ectopic. I was hoping that I had miscarried – that the fetus had slipped out with the blood in my underwear, and that my partner Dan and I would not need to make a decision that had been a rather abstract and political proposition for me. As an abstract, political proposition, the right to abortion had seemed almost uninterestingly basic. Of course women must have control over this fundamental aspect of our reproductive labor in order to approach having social equality. And yet, I was unable to sleep, or read, or carry on with ordinary life following that first blood test. In my head were images from the Life Magazine “Drama of Life Before Birth” photo-essay, in which serene fetuses float in a uterine sublime. I heard, on a loop, Hillary Clinton’s description of abortion as a “sad, even tragic choice.” Silence shrouds the procedure, which ends close to twenty percent of all pregnancies each year in the US, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The rate of abortion, by the way, declined between 2009 and 2016, most likely due to increased family planning resources—particularly IUDs and other “long-acting reversible contraceptives”—provided through the Affordable Care Act and by organizations such as Planned Parenthood. The political is personal. The waiting room at the suburban clinic increased my anxiety and disorientation. It was bright and cheerful, with coral carpeting, turquois upholstery, tables strewn with pregnancy magazines and a basket of children’s toys in one corner. Stylish receptionists sat behind a concierge desk. A woman wearing some sort of pregnancy yoga outfit sat across from me, tapping on her iPhone and smiling at everyone who passed by. I had dropped in on another life I might have lived. A nurse eventually led me to an examination room, where I was weighed and instructed to remove my pants. Two women entered: the nurse practitioner I was scheduled to see, and an OBGYN, who had a lull between patients and was curious about the IUD pregnancy. They directed a transvaginal ultrasound wand into my vagina and peered together at the


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images it produced on a screen. “Oh yes, there’s the baby,” they said. “You said you were six weeks along? More like ten… And that – that might be the IUD.” Their eyes were bright with interest as they looked at each other and then at me. “Do you want to be pregnant?” one of them asked. “I have an IUD,” I said. “Well, if you don’t want to be pregnant, that makes things easier.” They explained that I could choose to carry the pregnancy to term, but the risks would be higher for me and the baby. I fixated on their use of the word “baby,” instead of “fetus,” waging a silent protest to prevent myself from breaking down in front of them. They told me that their healthcare network’s “scheduler” would book me an appointment for something that sounded like a “DNC.” I didn’t ask any questions, eager for them to leave the room before I lost control of the tears rising with a hot flush into my eyes. Several hours of Googling that night informed me, among other things, that they had said D and C: dilation and curettage, wherein my cervix would be dilated and everything in my uterus scraped out with a curette. The scheduler booked me for a D and C in a hospital, which I learned would cost me between $1500 and $3000, after insurance. This was more than I earned in a month through teaching. I spent a panicked, confused, and lonely day on and off the telephone, trying to learn if it was necessary for me to have the abortion in a hospital (it was not), and whether I could get an appointment at a non-hospital clinic instead. The nearest Planned Parenthoods were overbooked for at least a week and a half, but a local clinic in Oakland would be able to see me early the following week. Dan flew to California from Rhode Island, where he is in graduate school. He bought the ticket the day I called him in tears from the sidewalk outside the suburban clinic, and by the time he arrived, I felt a bit remorseful about the expense. The despair and sorrow I’d initially felt had given way to uneasy impatience, an eagerness to be beyond the period of this “choice.” The abortion clinic had two waiting rooms: the first was large and cramped, lined wall to wall with dingy grey chairs that were filled with young women and a few men. There were no magazines. The receptionist sat behind a protective plastic wall.


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The second waiting room was for patients who had completed paperwork, given more blood, had another ultrasound, and spent some time in a counseling room featuring posters that recommended various forms of birth control, especially IUDs. The room was windowless, dimly lit by two lamps and a boxy television suspended in the center of one wall, on which a VHS of the film Finding Forester played. There was a young woman wrapped in a blanket sitting alone when I arrived; slowly, more women wearing hospital gowns joined us. Someone remarked about how chilly the room was. Someone else articulated the weirdness of the movie selection. Soon the six of us were in conversation. By the time I was called for my abortion, I had learned that two of the women were married, four had children already, and two had been blown off via text message by the men who had impregnated them. The youngest was nineteen, the oldest, probably in her early forties. Two women had had experiences with racist mothers-in-law. A Filipina woman, for instance, had a mother-in-law who had informed the woman’s husband that she didn’t want any “Asian grand-babies.” Filipinos, the mother-in-law believed, were dirty. This was not the only reason she was there awaiting an abortion, but, along with financial insecurity and existing caregiving obligations, it was among the reasons. I was the only white woman. In fact, aside from the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, and a few nurses, Dan and I were the only white people in the clinic that day. * * * The “reproductive rights” movement in the US has a problem with race. Its historical emphasis on “choice” has suppressed not only the correspondences between race and class that contour how freely a person chooses anything in life, but also the deeply racist historical intertwining of abortion, sterilization, and non-whiteness. “Black women have been aborting themselves since the earliest days of slavery,” Angela Davis has reminded us; “most of these women, no doubt, would have expressed their deepest resentment had someone hailed their abortions as a stepping stone toward freedom.”


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The anti-abortion lobby originally arose in order to prevent white women from aborting. Until the late 19th century, abortion was somewhat routine in the U.S., often performed by midwives and considered permissible by religious and legal authorities until the time of “quickening,” or fetal movement. Objections were raised not because of moral concerns about the fates of fetuses, but because of xenophobic concerns about immigrants out-reproducing white people. Here is Dr. Horatio Storer, president of the newly formed American Medical Association, in 1867: “—Shall the [U.S.] be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question that our own women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.” The AMA’s lobby for outlawing abortion is generally viewed as part of a broader effort to gain control over the practice of medicine, restricting the work of midwives, spiritual healers, and quacks. In other words, the reproductive freedom of women in the U.S. has always intersected with financial and racial interests, as well as (for better and worse) the tension between standardizing healthcare and upholding individual autonomy. Its conflict with religious interests began in the 20th century. Historically, mainstream US feminism has underappreciated the thread that traces from self-abortions by slaves, through patriarchal white nationalism, through forced eugenics-inspired sterilizations, through “elective” sterilizations freely provided by a State that would not provide free abortions or childcare. Winthrop Stoddard, a eugenics theorist from Harvard who authored The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, was given a board seat in the activist organization founded by Margaret Sanger, the American Birth Control League. Sanger herself, once a radical socialist inspired by her nursing experience among the working poor to recognize the devastating convergence of economic exploitation and involuntary parenthood, gradually warmed to eugenicist rhetoric of population control: “dishygenic groups,” she said in a radio address—such as “morons, mental defectives, epileptics, illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes and dope fiends”—ought to be offered the “choice of segregation or sterilization.” Even if we temper our appraisal of Sanger with an awareness that such views were common in the early decades of the twentieth century—and considered idealistic and humane—it is worth remembering the historic links between reproductive freedom


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and judgements about which lives are worth reproducing: judgments that in turn help to reproduce the unequal conditions of many lives. Forced or coerced sterilizations occurred throughout the abortion battle years of the 1960s and 1970s, and this reproductive injustice was largely overlooked by national feminist movements, in spite of arguments by women of color. Often, sterilizations against women of color and poor white women were carried out under the auspices of reducing the State’s welfare liabilities. According to estimates drawn from interviews and surveys conducted by Native doctors and judges, between 25-42% of Native American women of childbearing age had been sterilized by the mid-1970s, many of them without fully understanding the permanence of a procedure they were strongly encouraged to undergo. A Government Accountability Office investigation of the Indian Health Service found systemic violations of policies developed to ensure informed consent before sterilization. Sterilization rates remain significantly higher among women of color and poor women of all races; a recent study published in Social Science Research, which attempts to factor in rates at which sterilized women experience regret, offers the tentatively worded assessment that “the higher sterilization rates among some racially marginalized groups may reflect stratified reproduction rather than differential preferences.” Planned Parenthood is the current name of the organization Sanger founded. I unhesitatingly support Planned Parenthood, which continues to provide essential reproductive healthcare and education to millions of women. The history of reproductive injustice does not mean that either abortion or elective sterilization constitutes racial genocide. But as I was sitting in the windowless room awaiting my abortion under the gaze of Sean Connery, I was dismayed by what appeared to be one contemporary face of eugenics. To be sure, my minority status in that room was also a sign of segregation in healthcare; but abortion rates remain notably higher among low-income women and women of color. An individual woman’s decision to abort a pregnancy, like the conditions leading to the involuntary pregnancy itself, is shaped by social inequality that has intensified even as feminism has gone mainstream.


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* * * Back in January 2017, when I didn’t know I was pregnant, I started reading Maggie Nelson’s book about queer family-making and poetry, The Argonauts. Among many things, the book charts Nelson’s experiences of pregnancy via IVF and motherhood in parallel to her partner’s physical and psychological responses to testosterone injections. The book’s narrative trajectory follows a fairly straight course from love, to marriage, to baby carriage, while also producing a lyrical and theoretical surplus, reflections about queerness, desire, poetry, parenting, academia, and politics. I accidentally left the book at Dan’s house in Rhode Island, unfinished, when I returned to California at the beginning of the spring semester. He brought my copy with him when he flew out in late February to be with me during the abortion, and I began reading again from the beginning. Nelson describes pregnancy as “inherently queer,” an experience of “radical intimacy with – and radical alienation from – one’s body.” Alienation I definitely felt. Intimacy – from the Latin intus: within – is not the word I would choose, but in the days between learning I was pregnant and getting the abortion, I certainly felt a new, astounded curiosity about things taking place within me. I looked frequently at my belly in the mirror and held my aching, swollen breasts in my hands, wondering what hidden processes were causing these pains and inflations. I had been feeling crampy and bloated for weeks, but the feelings seemed entirely new after their source was revealed to be a distinct organism growing within my body. Somewhere past the page at which I’d left off in January, I read: “Never in my life have I felt more prochoice than when I was pregnant. And never in my life have I understood more thoroughly, and been more excited about, a life that began at conception. Feminists may never make a bumper sticker that says IT’S A CHOICE AND A CHILD, but of course that’s what it is, and we know it.” I had no such “understanding” while I was pregnant. Here are the things I understood, the thoughts circulating overhead as I stood, and walked, and held office hours with my students, and attended meetings of the university’s student-workers’ union, and stared at my dissertation on my computer screen, and lay in bed without sleeping for hours: Inside


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me was an organism that was not yet capable of surviving independently of me, but which could potentially become so, and more. Inside me was an organism (not, in my view, a “life”) scripted by a remix of my DNA and that of a man I love, who would (or perhaps will) be a generous, loving, caring and liberating father, as he is a partner. Dan, incidentally, has always wanted the opportunity to be such a father, whereas I never even imagined parenthood before we met. Inside me was a possible resolution to this discrepancy in our ideas about the future, an organism—not a child—that could develop into a person who would transform not only our two lives, but also the lives of my parents and step-parents, my aunt, Dan’s parents, his sister, our friends, and countless, fathomless others born and not-yet-born. This could be the conception of so much, I understood. And it might have been, if we’d had more assurance about the future. Nelson continues, about pro-choicers, “We understand the stakes. Sometimes we choose death.” I guess that’s not incorrect. What precisely has died, however, in order that other possibilities may live, will never be known. And every time a heterosexual pair uses a condom or an IUD or a pill, patch, rod, fertility charting app, etc., a similar unknowable transaction takes place. One future is substituted for another. But of course the decision to abort my pregnancy did not feel the same as the decision to have an IUD placed in my uterus. Nor was the choice for the abortion as logistically and financially simple as less controversial forms of birth control, which should perhaps be called pregnancy control. Abortion is birth control, in the form of negation. I don’t know when personhood begins, when an organism with human DNA gains ethical, moral dimensions. Interdisciplinary uncertainty on this question was in fact a rationale cited in Justice Blackmun’s Roe v. Wade decision: “When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus [about when personhood begins], the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.” It is strange that the futures of so many women – or, from another perspective, the negated futures of so many somethings – hang on a lack of consensus among men trained in philosophy, medicine, and theology. In a way, my now-unpregnant body embodies interdisciplinary impasse.


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As Nelson’s reflections indicate, a sort of life begins at conception from the perspective of any person who wants to be a parent and already loves the imagined future child. Women who have miscarried rightly object to certain strands of feminist rhetoric, which can intensify the difficulty of losing a fetus. As Alexandra Kimball has written of coping with her miscarriage, “If a fetus is not meaningfully alive, if it is just a collection of cells – the cornerstone claim of the pro-choice movement – what does it mean to miscarry one? Admitting my grief meant seeing myself as a bereft mother, and my fetus as a dead child – which meant adopting exactly the language that the anti-choice movement uses to claim abortion is murder.” Kimball remains a feminist, although she found that feminist theory had “nothing to say” to help her understand the loss of her unborn child. She also points out that feminist theory and activism have ignored the “socio-sexual crisis” of the ways miscarriages are handled by the medical establishment, such as “the still-standard practice of having untrained ultrasound technicians inform women of their miscarriages, or admitting women who’ve had stillbirths into maternity wards.” Kimball herself had an abortion years before her miscarriage, and in her essay she reaches a conclusion that strikes me as true and appropriately moderate, but still incompatible with the religious views of most who oppose abortion: “the personhood of the prawns we carry is a result of our relationship with our own pregnancies. Unlike the aborted fetus, the miscarried child has been spoken to, fantasized about, maybe even greeted on an ultrasound or named.” * * * Like many feminists, my unease with abortion rhetoric stems more from the language of “choice” than that of “collection of cells,” and not only because choice makes an uninspiring and misleading contrast with “life.” An obsession with individual choice broadly distributed throughout our culture is, in fact, at the roots of my ambivalence about bringing a person into the world at this time. Legal scholar Robin West argues that the logic of privacy and choice, shared by the Roe v. Wade decision and the rhetoric of the pro-


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choice movement, implies parenting itself is a lifestyle “choice” similar to decisions like buying a sailboat or enrolling in graduate school. We assess our individual tastes and desires and resources, and then we choose, living with long-term consequences that quite reasonably fall on us alone. This logic, in other words, legitimizes the U.S.’s uniquely thin provision of public goods, which itself is usually explained as a protection of individual (consumer) choice in realms such as healthcare, education, and housing. “There is no further reason to help a poor mother […] than there is to help a would-be recreational sailor buy a boat that will allow him to sail around the world.” We have, West argues, “render[ed] parenting a market commodity.” The rhetoric of choice implicitly separates the preservation or termination of a pregnancy, as a private decision, from the conditions in which a potential child would grow up. I honestly don’t know if Dan and I would have decided to keep the pregnancy if we had felt more confident about the life the potential child would have had. Undoubtedly, our conversations that difficult week we discovered I was pregnant would have been different had we not both been in school and in debt, or if we’d been certain we’d have sufficient paternity leave and the potential child would have healthcare and a good home, community, and schools. I can imagine us having decided differently, and this act of imagination fills me not with regret, but with a kind of stillness. It’s like a mental shrug in a minor key: an ambivalence hovering between tentative desire and wariness, attachment (or possibly commitment) to the balance of friendship, love, intellectual and political work I’ve struck, reinforced by misgivings about our collective future. I realize, of course, that people in much more difficult situations than ours make it work. But for many people, things work rather badly. A focus on individual choice tends to obscure the series of collective choices that have brought us here. Since the 1990s, activists and scholars led by women of color have supplemented the reproductive rights and health frameworks with that of reproductive justice. Loretta Ross, one of the original women to develop the concept, has explained that a reproductive justice framework moves “beyond a demand for privacy and respect for individual decision making to include the social supports necessary for our individual decisions to be optimally realized.” It encompasses “issues of economic justice, the


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environment, immigrants’ rights, disability rights, discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, and a host of other community-centered concerns.” Legal abortion is absolutely necessary for people with uteruses to claim equal social status. But we have work to do if we want this choice to align with something more like freedom. * * * Two conversations with my dad started running through my head when I learned I was pregnant. One of them took place on the deck at my childhood home in the Midwest, where he and I periodically smoke cigars, drink scotch, and trace the approaches and divergences of our ideas. He told me in this conversation that he would not choose to have children now, were he and my stepmother of the relevant age. Climate catastrophe was the main reason, because he believes most other social issues are solvable with time and effort. But he thinks the cascading effects of climate change make the procreation gamble a bit irresponsible: resource shortages, migration crises as shorelines disappear and new deserts take shape, a likely increase in violence and civil wars… what world might children born today live to see at the end of the century? My dad is a step-grandfather, and he fills the role beautifully. He takes my step-nieces and nephews tromping through the woods near our house, sharing knowledge he’s gained since retirement of the local trees. He tells elaborate stories in which children that resemble them have adventures with animal sidekicks. He told me similar stories when I was young: we would sit together in his velvety, ragged blue reclining chair, my body leaning against his belly, which rocked with his words as he described Erin Greckle, a six-year-old living in the woods in Canada, and her friends Hungry, a mouse, Prince, a pony, and Prickly, a porcupine. During a previous conversation on the deck, my dad had confessed that he sometimes worried he and my mom had raised me in too “gender-neutral” a way. I had been recounting stories that I thought were humorous from my most recent dating misadventures. He said – to put a finer point on the matter than he did at the time – that he was worried he and my mom had failed to socialize me adequately to patriarchy.


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I understood many things along with his words: that he loved me and was not sure how best to prepare a woman for happiness in a sexist society that he could not singlehandedly change; that he understood at least a significant portion of happiness to issue from heterosexual domesticity; that he was happy in his own heterosexual domesticity, a third marriage that had seemed unlikely when he and my mother divorced. He had spent a few years muttering about “old dogs” resistant to the “new tricks” of cohabiting with another person, as well as the lies that (he then maintained) sustain romantic ideology. In his admission, I also heard a hope that I would settle into a lifestyle normatively recognizable as happiness, which I took to mean marriage, property ownership, children, gardening, and a car of my own. I don’t remember what I said in response, but it was probably a cranky retort about accommodationism and complicity. I was thinking, with the hyperbole that still sometimes comes over me when I’m visiting Indiana, that vision of happiness is bogus: it rests on exploitation, conformity, and a false view of love as a scarce and fixed resource. I wanted community, collectivity, love unbounded by state recognition and property rights. And I could not imagine giving birth to, or raising, children. My dad has grown more radical in his retirement. His own bootstraps-autobiography no longer convinces him of absolute American meritocracy, as he sees the significance of his whiteness, his masculinity, and the fact that his childhood poverty was situated amidst middle class prosperity, safe sidewalks, and decent schools. His father died when he was seven years old, and his mother got a low paying job bagging groceries to support herself and her three children. Dad and his siblings wore ill-fitting, threadbare clothes donated by the Pentecostal church that he resentfully attended at least four times a week. But his escape was a library, not a gang, and he now sees that this was more a matter of luck than inherent virtue. So I was interested, but not quite shocked, when he told me that he does not think it makes ethical sense to bring children into the world. Kids don’t consent to being born, he says. And particularly now, parents regardless of class cannot guarantee more than the love evolution seems to ensure. While only partially sharing his reservations about the ethics and politics of bringing children into this world, I was relieved to know


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that if I don’t have children, he will not mourn grandchildren that never came into being. The second conversation running through my head in the days surrounding my abortion took place shortly after Trump’s election, as my father speculated that his sister had voted for Trump because of her strenuous opposition to abortion. My 77-year-old aunt has, for twenty years, hidden from their mother the fact that she has pierced ears, because this is a sin according to my grandmother’s more stringent version of Pentecostalism. My dad suspects that one of the reasons my aunt so frequently turns down his invitations to family celebrations is that she knows people will be drinking alcohol at them: another sin. Church, and the uncompromising God she finds there, have been among the most consistent things in her life across bad marriages, fluctuating employment, and debts incurred thanks in part to the bad marriages. Abortion is one of the primary issues through which the neoconservative-neoliberal alliance of the modern Republican Party has been forged. Both neoliberals and neoconservatives have reasons to resist the breakdown of the “traditional” family. The former could do without the latter’s moralizing, but as political scientist Melinda Cooper has explained, they nonetheless “wish to reestablish the private family as the primary source of economic security and a comprehensive alternative to the welfare state.” The Right has been selective in the religious sentiments it stokes: stern moralism and protestant individualism—within hierarchies—are encouraged, but not the forgiving pseudo-socialism of Jesus Christ. Material prosperity, like salvation, is framed as the result of individual effort and grace. In this alliance, it is less contradictory than sometimes assumed for women like my aunt—working class all her life, and mostly satisfied with what she has earned—to support the Republican Party. * * * The issue of abortion quite dramatically marks the limitations of the ideal of a liberal, deliberative democracy. It is not possible for rational discussion to close the gap between someone who believes that personhood begins at conception and someone who does not. It is not


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possible for evidence-based argumentation to establish the meaning of personhood. But in this moment of deeply fractured U.S. political life, it feels to me as though abortion is more than a sign of democratic liberalism’s limitations—it feels as though the “abortion wars” are a synecdoche of deep problems in the U.S. political project. Liberal philosophy strives to exclude religiously founded views from the “overlapping consensus” that (in the philosopher John Rawls’ words) constitutes the political sphere. But simply excluding such views does not, as we have seen, resolve the disagreement. The exclusion instead makes some who hold these views into extremists, because they realize they are not part of the political community and therefore are not invested in working within it. Why not bomb clinics (or hijack airplanes or drive your car into antifascist protestors), if one is an exile whose point of view is (or is perceived to be) ontologically excluded from the space of political power? Rawls argues that “fundamentalist religious doctrines” are directly in contradiction with “the idea of public reason and deliberative democracy” and must therefore be excluded from liberal politics: “[Such doctrines] assert that the religiously true, or the philosophically true, overrides the politically reasonable. We [liberals] simply say that such a doctrine is politically unreasonable. Within political liberalism nothing more need be said.” Quoting this passage from The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, the political philosopher Linda Zerilli responds with the eminently reasonable observation, “But of course a lot more needs to be said—that is, if we are not to satisfy ourselves with talking publicly to people who are already part of the charmed circle of the reasonable and instead try to engage points of view that trouble our very understanding of the reasonable. And isn’t this the real political challenge that faces us today?” Zerilli turns for guidance to the philosopher who seems to me to provide the best intellectual signposts by which to navigate contemporary politics: Hannah Arendt. With traditional liberal theorists of the “public sphere” like John Stuart Mill, Jürgen Habermas, and John Rawls, Arendt views public life as a collaborative discursive project: we meet with others and talk to each other, and out of this conversation, our shared sense of the world takes shape. But unlike Mill, Habermas, and others of the liberal


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tradition, Arendt does not focus on the “communicative rationality” cultivated by such talk, nor does she structure her account around the concept of a “marketplace of ideas,” in which freedom of speech is governed only by the competitive law of reason. For Arendt, the central ambition of talking with others in public is epistemological, not rational. Through conversation with others, we learn to look at the world from new perspectives, and more fundamentally, we learn that the world is always available to multiple, frequently conflicting, perspectives. When public life is functioning as befits a democracy, our “incessant talk” teaches us “that the world we have in common is usually regarded from an infinite number of different standpoints, to which correspond the most diverse points of view.” Like the ancient Greeks who figuratively model such democratic conversation for Arendt, we learn “to see the same in very different and frequently opposing aspects.” Only after we have established that we share such common ground can we begin the deliberative work of politics. Arendt’s ideal of public life evokes two meanings of the word “conversation.” People gather in public and talk to each other, making conversation in the ordinary sense of the word: they express how their world looks to them, describing the world as it has been filtered by their sets of experiences, their knowledge, desires, assumptions, and habits. In its orientation toward the world seen together yet differently, this “conversation” recalls the original sense of the word, which is compounded of the Latin roots for turning—vertere—and togetherness—com. Turning together, and telling each other what we perceive of the world, a public co-constructs the world in which we meet. The act of perceiving becomes collective and creative when combined with speech. At the end of her life, Arendt turned her focus from the epistemological to the aesthetic constitution of public life. Political judgment, she indicates, is similar to aesthetic judgment. She died before fully articulating her philosophy of political judgment, but lectures and notes from late in her life provide a blueprint that speaks to our present partisan impasses. She argues that a person’s conviction that a thing is “right” or “just” means that she understands it to be universally right or just, just as (according to Immanuel Kant) her conviction that a thing is “beautiful” means that she understands it to be beautiful for everyone. When interacting


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with the world, we distinguish between objects and experiences that are pleasing to our senses, and objects and experiences that seem to evoke a more transcendent response. If I say that I like wearing hiking boots around town, I’m making a modest and uncontroversial claim about my personal preferences. If, however, I say that my hiking boots are beautiful, something seems discordant. It’s as though I’m claiming something about the boots that would encompass other peoples’ responses to them. In Kant’s terminology, I am invoking the sensus communis when I judge the boots to be beautiful: everyone who sees these boots will, I suggest, tap into the same “common sense” and feel equally moved. This “common sense” is what Kant calls “preconceptual,” an impulse of understanding and not the product of deductive reasoning. If you regard me skeptically when I tell you my boots are beautiful, I will not offer you logical proofs, but rather I will show you the boots again and say, don’t you see? When we apply this model of judgment to politics, the impasse of partisan disputation appears to follow less from rational obtuseness than from a more deeply rooted, preconceptual disagreement: an impulsive disagreement we feel more powerfully and prior to logic and reason. Those who disagree over political issues effectively perceive different objects. It is a baby or a fetus; it is murder or autonomy. Discussion alone cannot close the gap, and as long as we insist the other perspective is simply wrong, we have lost touch with the “world we have in common.” Perhaps in this way I must agree with Maggie Nelson, after all: it’s a child and a choice. How does a person recover the world held in common with those whose views are in extreme conflict with her own? Arendt’s recommendation is immediately appealing: “To think with the enlarged mentality”—this phrase recalls Kant’s description of aesthetic judgment—“that means you train your imagination to go visiting.” She is careful to stipulate that this “visiting imagination” is not equivalent to empathy. She describes “an enormously enlarged empathy” as a patchwork of personal feelings and prejudices unhelpful for deliberative politics. It would not be helpful for me to send my imagination into the hypothetical perspective of a person who believes abortion is murder, nor for me to spend a few imaginative hours on Incel Reddit or 4chan. Two years after my abortion, I could stomach the results of a search for the word


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“abortion” in such places, but I doubt this would “enlarge” my mentality. Aesthetic judgment again provides a partial model: our imaginative travel is to be undertaken in a disinterested state of mind, and it should carry us to disinterested positions different from our own. If my hiking boots are beautiful, the aesthetic pleasure I take in them is disinterested in the sense that it is distinct from their usefulness to me on a trail. An anti-feminist, or a person convinced that life begins at conception, is not “disinterested” in the matter of abortion. (But then, who is? I will return to this problem.) In the essay “Truth and Politics,” Arendt explains that I should strive to imagine “being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not.” She argues that I should imagine myself in different “standpoints,” bearing these alternative positions “in my mind while I am pondering a given issue,” which will enable me to “imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place.” This is what she calls “representative thinking,” because imagination enables us to represent the perspectives of others; these perspectives, moreover, should be as disinterested as possible. This act of imaginative projection would undoubtedly improve upon many of our most dysfunctional political debates (and it would reveal political lobbying to be a contradiction in terms). But I see a few problems. Identity markers such as class, gender, and race, in this time and place, deeply influence subjective experience and the formation of judgment. If I were suddenly parachuted into a different position—say that of extreme wealth or extreme poverty—the things I would perceive from that position would most likely be different in significant ways from the things I would perceive had my standpoint been shaped from childhood by extreme wealth or poverty. Another problem—the problem at the heart of the political world in which this essay is written—is the impossibility of imagining myself inhabiting positions that are preconceptually antithetical to my own. Standpoints that I can imagine, however imperfectly, mark differences in wealth and status, geographic and even historical context. But many political standpoints are constituted through preconceptual beliefs like those expressed in theories of “ensoulment,” or views of the biology of race or gender. Differences in these types of standpoints cannot be traveled between with a disinterested yet intact personal identity. I can imagine standing in a church, but without empathetic projection and leaving my


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own identity behind, I cannot imagine believing in the immaculate conception of Jesus Christ. Is empathy necessary after all, in order to regain a common world? This cul de sac may explain Arendt’s dogmatic insistence on the separation between public, private, and social realms, which ends up bearing some resemblance to liberalism’s marking of boundaries via secular reason. On the logic of this separation, Arendt distanced herself from civil rights struggles. For instance, she described schooling as a “social” rather than public (that is, political) issue, which meant that segregation driven by prejudice must be permitted, even if abhorred. Linda Zerilli’s response to Arendt’s strict delineation of realms is one that I share: her schema of public, private, and social life should be evaluated separately from her description of the political mode of judgment, which does not predetermine what we consider to be political. Yet, the question of what an embryo is, so important to abortion debates, cannot be “judged” in the manner she describes, by projecting one’s own mind, stripped of personal interest, into another standpoint. Arendt’s advice that we “train the imagination to go visiting” implies a more robust and responsible notion of citizenship than is implied in an abstract call for “freedom of speech”—we are enjoined to do a particularly rigorous and generous kind of work before speaking in public––but the prescription cannot help resolve certain fundamental political difficulties. Still, I find her account of political “reality” as a composite of perspectives extremely helpful. Even if we cannot vividly imagine each perspective, we can bear them in mind, acknowledge their existence and constitutive power. As a political “object,” for now, abortion is murder and it is freedom; abortion is an ambivalent necessity in the pursuit of gender equality; abortion is birth control; abortion is political leverage; abortion is tragic and abortion is ordinary. To repurpose a famous line by Wittgenstein, the meaning of a political issue is its composite uses in a culture. Meanings change over time. We can try to persuade others to share our sense of an issue’s meaning by describing how we see it, but we are unlikely to compel them via logical proof, and imaginative travel abides certain restrictions. In The Human Condition, Arendt describes another principle of public life that strikes me as a feature both urgently needed in and utterly


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excluded from our contemporary political scene: forgiveness. She writes that speech and action, the components of public and political life, share two crucial characteristics: both lead to unpredictable consequences, and both are irreversible. Therefore, she argues, our political lives require two additional practices: promise-making and forgiving. If we are to live together and bear the risks that go along with speaking and acting in public, we must be able to assure each other of the seriousness of our intentions via promising, and we must also know that our own mistakes—or the unintended consequences of our well-intended actions—can be repaired. Forgiveness is necessary in order for a community to hold together. The hard work of democracy—of exposing your view of the world, being open and responsive to others who challenge it, and acting with them to change the world held in common—will not always go smoothly. There will be disagreements and mistakes, and there will be occasions of starting over again, trying new ways of speaking and acting and building the world together. In addition to helping us take risks and start over again when necessary, forgiveness might help us enter into the presence of those with whom we deeply, preconceptually, disagree. I would not apologize to someone who believes I committed a sin in aborting my unplanned pregnancy, nor would such a person be likely to seek my forgiveness for bullying women on their way to clinics or campaigning to make abortion illegal. Each of us would continue to see the other as dangerous and acting against our understandings of life and justice. I can’t imagine reaching a consensus about the essence of personhood. But I can imagine meeting in public and talking—the first step of founding a world for politics—if I knew that this person would meet me without hatred, and if I believed she, he, or they would acknowledge that abortion can also be viewed from my standpoint. I don’t have sappy hopes that such a face-to-face conversation would end our disagreement and renew democracy. But I also don’t see any better route to take. Forgiveness is different from tolerance, a liberal byword, in that it signifies a much more significant breach and a willingness to attempt political action in spite of this breach. Whereas liberal tolerance would treat the issue of abortion as a private matter—what I do in private, and what you believe in private, are not suited for the public realm—forgiveness


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seeks to enable us to bring these preconceptual and very touchy issues back into public. Whereas I would not ask others to tolerate my abortion, I do ask them to forgive it. Perhaps they will decide that I do not deserve forgiveness, or that it is not worth extending, but if they wish to regain some common ground and capacity to talk about abortion, this may be the necessary step. Many of my friends and family members will learn of my abortion through this essay. In spite of my conviction that it is important for women to share their ordinary stories of abortion and other reproductive health experiences, I’ve remained silent out of worry they will forever see me differently, or attempt to convert me to a view of my act as murder. If forgiveness would enable us to begin a conversation, then I ask for it, from them and from anyone else who thinks I need forgiveness. I am not sorry, but forgive me, and let’s talk.


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After the Beheading

After the Beheading BY STEVEN MILLHAUSER

After the beheading, which took place at 11:14 AM on Saturday, June 1, in the middle of the town green, some of us remained seated in our folding chairs, trying to understand what we had just witnessed; others came forward to look more closely at the guillotine, mounted on its platform splattered with blood. Still others headed home to their families or set out on solitary walks or gathered at the Black Cat Tavern to talk or forget. Parents who had left their children at home tried to imagine what they might say about the morning’s event, while those who had made the decision to bring their children with them wondered whether they’d done the right thing. Whatever our response to the public execution, which for many months had been the subject of heated debate, we all recognized that a turn had taken place in our town, one that we did not yet fully grasp. The idea had evolved gradually and gathered momentum over the past year and a half. A wave of break-ins and robberies, unusual in our quiet town, had made many of us feel unsafe in our tree-lined neighborhoods, and at every town meeting there was talk of strengthening our police presence, increasing the severity of punishment, enforcing the law more rigorously. The turning point had come a few months later, when Dennis Caldwell, thirty-six years old, who lived in a modest neighborhood out by the new mall, quarreled one night with his live-in girlfriend, whom he proceeded to hit in the face with both fists, rape, burn with cigarettes, and beat to death with a hammer. The jury, after a brief deliberation, found the defendant guilty, the judge imposed the death penalty, and within days a movement had arisen to make the death of Dennis Caldwell serve


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as a warning to our town that such acts would not be tolerated. The idea of a public execution was one among many, but it began to attract serious attention as petitioners went door to door soliciting signatures. At a crowded town meeting, the final vote was 39% in favor, 37% opposed, and 24% abstaining. In the weeks that followed, we debated the merits and shortcomings of death by hanging, death by lethal injection, death by electrocution, and death by firing squad, before settling on the guillotine for a number of reasons, chief among them its dramatic swiftness and its power of leaving a lasting impression. Members of our Town Board, acting with uncharacteristic decisiveness, gained permission from the governor and appointed a Special Projects Commission to oversee all arrangements. The work of constructing a guillotine was awarded to a local carpentry firm, Stanford & Sons, noted for innovative designs in porch swings, octagonal gazebos, and backyard arbors with built-in benches and planters. The finished structure, with its fourteen-foot posts, its diagonal blade bolted into a steel weight, and its latched opening for the neck, was transported by truck to the edge of the town green, carried by eight workers across the grass, and set on top of a raised wooden platform with steps going up in front and back. Our green is bordered by a row of sycamores on Beach Street and is overlooked on one side by our town hall, which dates from the seventeenth century, and on another by our Historical Society, originally an eighteenth-century inn. For this occasion, rows of folding chairs were set up to face the front and sides of the guillotine, so that the audience could see the victim’s head clearly, but by dawn of execution day it was evident that the gathering crowd had exceeded all expectations. Additional folding chairs were brought over from the basement of the nearby Presbyterian church and hastily set up in rows that covered the entire green, so that many who attended were forced to sit behind the guillotine and could not directly witness the severing of the head. Some sat on the tops of cars in the two parking lots that bordered the green, some brought towels and blankets and tried to find empty spaces on the grass; others watched through binoculars from the porches of houses across the street. It was a sunny June morning, the kind of day when many of us drove past this very green on our way to the beach a half mile down the road, and in the air you could feel a mood not only of tense anticipation but of festivity, as if we had come out to celebrate the splendor of the blue spring day.


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STEVEN MILLHAUSER


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Shortly before eleven o’clock, three police cars and an ambulance drove into the town hall parking lot. From one of the cars emerged two officers and Dennis Caldwell, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, his hands cuffed behind his back and his ankles shackled. He was led across the lawn to the back steps of the platform, where he was handed over to two assistants who guided him up the steps to the rear of the guillotine. The condemned man’s face, which was difficult to see from my seat near the edge of the green, held no expression, or perhaps what it held was a stern refusal of expression. His eyes looked straight ahead. We watched as he was strapped face down onto a tilted board that was lowered toward the opening. A third assistant unlatched the top of the opening, set the condemned man’s neck in place, and closed the top. The executioner, wearing black pants and a long-sleeved black shirt, stood at the side of one post and silently raised his right hand to a lever. The blade dropped swiftly between the grooves of the posts, blood flew up, the head dropped into the basket with a sound everyone could hear, it was all over quickly. Two men covered the basket and carried it across the green to the ambulance. Two other men placed the headless body in a coffin-like box and carried it to the ambulance, which drove away. I was one of those who sat without moving, trying to take in the meaning of what I had just seen, trying, already, to recall exactly what had happened from the moment the blade struck the neck, while all around me people were standing up, gathering their things, pushing past knees. Had his eyes remained open the whole time? I had faithfully attended all the town meetings, I had argued forcefully against the idea of a public execution, and at the last moment I had voted yes. After a while I stood up and walked over to the platform. Town employees in dark green uniforms were scrubbing away stains of blood and spraying the sides of the platform with hoses. A revulsion came over me, or maybe it was less a revulsion than simply a desire to get away from it all, to breathe fresh air, though in fact I was breathing fresh air on the town green under a blue sky on a warm morning in June. Two acquaintances invited me to join them for lunch in town, but I was in no mood for company. I set off alone. My walk took me along Beach Street to neighborhoods near the shore, where boys were playing basketball on the driveways of two-car garages as sprinklers sprayed arcs of water on green lawns. When I grew


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tired in the heat, I returned to my car and drove to the other side of town, where my house stands on a street of older houses and shady sidewalks. Since the death of my wife I have lived alone, and though I spend much of my free time with friends I was glad to be by myself on this afternoon, to sit without talking in the shade of my porch and to lean back with half-closed eyes, like someone who has been lifting heavy loads for many hours and is entitled to a long rest. I had seen the blade fall, I had watched it slice through the neck, but everything had happened so quickly that I found it difficult to recall things with any precision. Was it possible that for an instant I had shut my eyes? I remembered the head falling into the basket with a small, decisive thump, but my seat was so far from the guillotine that I’d had only a distant sense of the condemned man’s face. What stayed with me was something else. When Dennis Caldwell’s neck was fixed in the opening, one of the assistants on the platform took hold of Caldwell’s hair, evidently in order to steady the head in preparation for the descent of the blade. The assistant had put on a full-length rubber apron to protect his clothes from the burst of blood, and as the blade plunged toward the neck he drew back his own head and bent it to one side, as if to get out of the way of death. In the middle of the night I woke and remembered the expression on Dennis Caldwell’s face. He lay strapped to the board with his neck in the opening and stared out at the crowd. I saw a look of ferocious judgment in his eyes. Even as I reminded myself that I could not possibly have seen the features of Dennis Caldwell’s face from where I sat, that I could see his brown hair falling over his forehead but not the shape or color of his eyes, I saw them now, as the blade dropped like the slash of a sword in an old movie that I had watched as a child. On that first day I obeyed my sharp need to be alone, to hear no talk, to stay away from my phone and laptop and TV, but by Sunday morning I was seized by the desire to hear what people were saying. The phone kept ringing, text messages kept popping up, friends needed to talk, my brother-in-law’s family wanted to know every detail. What was it like? How did it feel to watch something like that? The town was alive with voices. Despite announcements forbidding the use of cameras, many in the audience had used concealed smartphones to capture bits and pieces of the execution and posted them online. Most were blurred


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or shaky images of people’s heads and shoulders, with a glimpse of the top of the guillotine high above, but one six-second sequence posted on YouTube had already been viewed eighty thousand times. It showed the blade, at a distance, clearly plunging down, but just as it was about to strike the neck, someone blocked the view, so that you saw the blade vanish behind a blurry shoulder, followed by a moment when something that might have been dust or pollen or spots of blood appeared in the air. Along with images of this kind, vigorous opinions poured forth freely. Many in our town deplored the beheading as a sickening return to the barbaric past, while others praised it as a long overdue response to the loss of respect for law. On the local radio, a mother with a shaky voice said that her daughter was now afraid to pass the town green on her way to the beach. An air-conditioner repairman said that people got what they deserved, a realtor expressed the fear that property values would fall, and a member of the town planning commission said that the execution was the greatest thing the town had accomplished in his thirty-four years of service. Local news reported that protesters had been gathering at the green since Saturday afternoon, carrying signs with messages like Day of Shame and Execution Is Murder. Several protesters had clashed with police and had been removed from the scene. I suppose it was inevitable that rumors about the event should begin to circulate. At the office the next morning, where I work as an accounts manager for an insurance firm, I was startled by the wide discrepancy in eyewitness reports. One of my colleagues claimed that he’d seen the eyes blink twice, after the head had been severed but before it had dropped into the basket. Another said that she’d heard the sound of a word emerging from the severed head, a word that sounded like “crime” or “climb.” Someone started to explain to us that the brain remains alive for a short time after the head leaves the body; someone else declared that the brain dies but the facial muscles continue to twitch. There was disagreement about how much blood had been spilled, about the look on Dennis Caldwell’s face as the blade began to fall, as the blade struck, as his head separated from his body. I tried to hold on to what I’d seen, I clung to any detail I was able to remember, but already I felt things shifting, growing uncertain, like a landscape dissolving into dusk.


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I made a point of avoiding the town green that day, but dissatisfaction with my evasiveness and a kind of fury of curiosity drew me back the next afternoon. Had there really been a public beheading in our peaceful town? The green had changed. It was now blocked off by yellow-and-black tape attached to steel stanchions. Uniformed police stood guard all around, and on the sidewalk of Beach Street and in the parking lots of the town hall and the Historical Society, angry protesters shouted and pumped their arms. In the middle of the green, the guillotine stood high on its platform, its diagonal blade gleaming in the sun. Two birds sat on the top crossbar and suddenly flew away. A groundskeeper seated in a riding mower rode slowly across the grass, throwing up sprays of green. Across the street, a group of counter-protesters stood holding signs with messages like Death for Death and No Mercy for Murderers. Cars passed slowly, heading out to the beach. A few nights later a troubling incident took place on the green. Shortly after three in the morning, the guillotine burst into flame. The fire department, located a few blocks away, extinguished the flames within minutes, no damage was done apart from minor charring of the platform and one post, the two teenage boys responsible for the act were quickly apprehended, but the attack made its impression and for a while strengthened the hand of the pro-guillotine faction, who argued in favor of broadening the death penalty to include crimes against property. Others insisted that the guillotine had itself been responsible for the incident by the sheer fact of its blood-soaked existence, which was nothing less than a continuous incitement to violence. The result of it all was a stricter patrolling of the green and an increased presence of night guards. Toward the end of the first week, a story began to circulate that left many of us uneasy. Mary Lou Wharton was the eleven-year-old daughter of Charles and Helene Wharton, who lived in an old neighborhood within walking distance of the green. The Whartons had attended the beheading but had chosen to leave their daughter at home. Shaken by what they’d witnessed, they returned to their house before noon and were surprised not to find Mary Lou waiting on the front porch or playing in the yard or reading in her room. Only after a thorough search did they discover her in the basement playroom, sitting quietly on the couch. Before her on the rug stood the oval table around which, at the age of six, she had liked to


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arrange her dolls before serving them imaginary tea and cake. Six of the old dolls were seated neatly on six small chairs around the table. All the dolls were without heads. Some held an arm raised, others rested a hand on the edge of a teacup. Each head sat beside a teaspoon. On the end table beside the couch lay a kitchen knife. The story of Mary Lou Wharton, passed on by a gossiping friend, spread quickly and led to new clashes of opinion. If even one of our daughters could behave in this way, who knew what emotional damage had been inflicted on the children of our town? The beheading had already caused many of us restless nights, but angry voices now urged us to take charge of our lives by voting to make public executions illegal and by removing and destroying the monstrous guillotine, visible reminder of our disastrous mistake. Defenders argued that Mary Lou Wharton’s parents were entirely to blame for their ill-considered decision to spare their daughter instead of taking her to the green. Left to her own devices, she had fallen prey to an imagination that would have been strengthened and disciplined by the experience of the event itself. Others, while acknowledging the unfortunate nature of May Lou Wharton’s behavior, begged to point out that the vicious and drawn-out assaults committed by Dennis Caldwell were in no way similar to the merciful swiftness of his own punishment, and they urged that the guillotine be proudly preserved as a symbol of justice. Although the protests at the green continued, a tapering off was noticeable as June advanced toward summer. A faithful dozen or so, standing about with signs, lingered outside the barrier tape at the edges of the green, mostly ignored by people strolling past on their way to the beach, glancing up for a moment at the guillotine, nodding to a groundskeeper or to one of the few remaining policemen. Now and then a young mother or father would point at the guillotine and say something to an upward-gazing child. Cardinals and sparrows sat in the overhanging branches. A smell of summer was in the air. It was toward the end of June, not long after high school graduation, that we heard reports of a Guillotine Party, held one evening in the backyard of Ray Anderson, a popular senior who was captain of the swim team. Apparently he and a few friends had managed to cobble together a crude guillotine, composed of two upright posts fastened to the sides of a


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wooden crate and connected at the top by a board. On the crate stood an old tire, through which the victim’s head had to pass. A bucket of water was secured by straps to the top of the upper board. When the victim, who had lost a contest of some kind, was tied up and placed face-down on the platform, so that head and neck emerged from the tire, the executioner pulled a rope. The high board tipped forward, water from the bucket poured down onto the victim’s head, cheers and whistles erupted. The game was harmless enough, a way to pass time with friends in a backyard on a summer evening, but I wasn’t the only one disturbed by this travesty of our public execution, for not only did the game tame down the fierce act of beheading, infecting it with an air of playfulness and mockery, but even as it did so you could sense, beneath the shouts and the light-hearted laughter, the memory of a bloody blade drifting through the darkening air with its scent of hedge blossoms and cut grass. Influenced perhaps by their older brothers and sisters, younger children were beginning to behave in odd ways. One afternoon a mother bearing a tray of cookies and lemonade entered the room of her eightyear-old son, only to discover that he and his friends had painted bright red circles of lipstick around their necks and were staggering around in the throes of pretended death. One boy with a splash of red on the back of his neck lay face down on the bed with his head hanging over the side and his arms dangling. In another part of town, a babysitter, checking up on the children, found the five-year-old girl trapped in a window with her neck held down by the bottom pane, while her brother stood next to her wearing a black mask. It was about this time that Angelina’s, the toyshop on Main Street, began selling little guillotines in two sizes, the six-inch and the twelve-inch, supplied with safe plastic blades and gel-necked victim figurines. Sometimes I had the sense that the guillotine on the green was multiplying itself in grotesque forms, in order to demonstrate its power. And yet, for all that, as the hot days of summer settled in, it was clear to most of us that the sway of the guillotine was gradually diminishing. Yes, there were incidents here and there – a red swastika painted one night on the front of a guillotine post and removed by a groundskeeper the next morning, a headless cat nailed to the trunk of a tree beside its severed head – but on the whole, we could feel our world returning to its familiar ways. We went to work, strolled in town, spread out our towels


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on the beach, mowed our lawns, argued about the proposed meters for Main Street parking. A guillotine stood in the middle of our green, but it had grown less visible, obscured by familiarity. It was like the front of the town library, with windows topped by elegant designs of brick and stone that most of us could not visualize with any precision. The day itself, though hardly forgotten, seemed to have taken place long ago, like a childhood visit to a museum. We were shaken out of our apathy by an incident that erupted one day in late July. Richard Penniman, a semi-retired handyman who had worked in many of our homes, was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. A neighbor had discovered him in his backyard at dawn. The story, which emerged gradually, was this. For two months Richard Penniman had spent long hours in his basement workshop, constructing a guillotine. Penniman’s skill as a craftsman was well known to us – he had once built a dollhouse village for a neighbor’s daughter, including a gas station, a grocery store, an elementary school, and three streets of houses – and the construction of a secret guillotine would have seemed less ominous in retrospect if his intention had simply been to display it as an object worthy of our admiration. Whether he had planned from the outset to demonstrate its perfection is unknown. As always, he traveled in his pickup to lumberyards and hardware stores in nearby towns, choosing material carefully. At least part of what compelled him, in my view, was the desire to build a guillotine superior in every way to the one on the town green. Only afterward did a neighbor realize that the shrill whining sound emerging from Penniman’s workshop at night must have been the sharpening of the steel blade. Late one night, Richard Penniman carried up the separate parts – the polished posts with their grooves, the latched opening that allowed the head to pass through, the diagonal blade, the supporting base, the basket lined with oilcloth – and laid them out on his back lawn, which was enclosed by a high wooden fence. In the darkness before dawn he began assembling his masterpiece. It rose sixteen feet into the air. In the pre-dawn light, Penniman stepped onto the base, lay down on his stomach, and opened the top half of the neck-hole. He inserted his head over the bottom half-circle and closed the top over the back of his neck. A lever near his right hand enabled him to release the blade into the grooves of the posts.


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The operation proved flawless except for one thing: the blade, dropping swiftly and smoothly between the posts, failed to cut all the way through the neck. Cries of pain alerted the same neighbor who had heard sounds from the workshop at night and who now rushed outside and made his way through Penniman’s front yard into the back. There he found Richard Penniman’s body thrashing on the platform and the blade sunk into his bloody neck. At the hospital Penniman remained in intensive care for two weeks before beginning his imperfect recovery. But what haunted us was the vision of the guillotine at dawn, maiming but not killing its victim. Even activists most violently opposed to the presence of a guillotine in our town had never imagined its failure. It was the successful beheading itself that was the focus of moral revulsion. The wounded neck, the thrashing body, the face twisted in anguish, seemed far more sinister than the cleanly beheaded body of Dennis Caldwell, as if the guillotine had at last revealed itself to be an instrument of torture, or a creature from outer space whose mission it was to mangle earthlings. Crowds of protesters gathered again at the town green, chanting and raising their fists. Parents took away toy guillotines and threw them in the trash. Despite the revival of outrage and dismay, most of us continued to go about our usual business. Gradually the new protesters drifted back to their customary lives, leaving only a handful of stubborn loyalists, who stood for an hour or two talking quietly among themselves in the warm shade and opening backpacks to remove bottles of water that glistened in the sun. A few sat on the curb, with their signs against their knees, and looked at passersby or glanced at their watches. The possibility of new occasions for protest hung in the air, but we understood that we were in the last weeks of summer and had only a short time in which to savor the lazy peaceful days of backyard barbecues and trips to the beach before being swept up into the rhythms of autumn. A passion for the everyday came over us, as if we’d been confined to bed for months with a debilitating illness and were eager at last to get up and greet the new morning. This embrace of the normal was itself cause for concern, since at its heart lay an acceptance of the guillotine as part of ordinary life. The post office, the library, the high school, the beach club, the guillotine, the bank, the movie theater, the Historical Society, the Presbyterian church, the


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new stop sign out by the hardware store – it was the town we all knew, the town most of us had grown up in, with its familiar monuments, its careful preservation of the past, its openness to reasonable change. A guillotine on the town green was beginning to seem no more remarkable than the new crosswalk between Vincenzo’s Drugstore and the Downtown Diner or the new post-office branch out by the renovated junior high. What really occupied our attention wasn’t the blade and the bloody neck but the new parking meters installed on two downtown blocks and the road repair project that closed off half a dozen streets and produced traffic jams causing ten-minute delays. On the last day of August, the annual end-of-season craft fair opened at 6 AM on the town green. The barrier tapes had been removed, and booths appeared all across the lawn. Soon families were strolling from booth to booth, examining wine bottles decorated with yarn and sea shells, oil paintings of local scenes, hand-made coasters shaped like apples and pears. The three protesters laid their signs against the trunks of sycamores and entered the green, stopping at tables, chatting with friends. The guillotine was surrounded by an orange mesh fence and watched over by a single guard in a dark blue uniform, who sat on the steps of the platform and answered questions put to him by adults and children about how guillotines work. High above, the diagonal blade hung in the morning sun. A woman pushing a stroller bent over and adjusted her daughter’s baseball hat. Scarcely had the fair ended when the town became caught up in Labor Day get-togethers and preparations for the new school year. One afternoon toward the middle of September, when the air was still warm but the first leaves were beginning to turn, I parked near the library and took a walk up Beach Street, as I liked to do at this time of year. I passed the Presbyterian church with its well-kept lawn, strolled past the Historical Society, and came to the town green, which remained free of yellow-and-black tape. I paused on the sidewalk to look across the green at the guillotine. It was cordoned off on all sides by a single rope, attached to black corner posts. A woman in jeans was standing outside the rope, gesturing at the guillotine as she spoke to a man with a jacket slung over his shoulder. Piles of tarpaulin lay on the platform, perhaps in preparation for repairs or bad weather. An aluminum ladder leaned against one of the


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posts. I looked up at the top of the guillotine, where a bright red water bottle sat on the crossbar. I continued on my walk, past the town hall at the other end of the green, past the Revolutionary War graveyard, past the cluster of historic mansions and the newer blocks of ranch houses and split levels down by the beach. I walked through the open gate and up the short path that led to the top of the sand, which stretched away in both directions and sloped down to the water. A few people in bathing suits sat on towels in the mid-September sun, though the lifeguard stands were empty at this time of year. At the water’s edge, low waves breaking, I tried to make sense of it all. We had executed a man in public. We had spilled his blood. Was our town safer than before? I had argued against public execution and voted for it in the end, for reasons I could no longer remember clearly. I tried to recall our green without the guillotine, but the memory was penetrated by a sense of distortion, as if I were deliberately rearranging the actual world in order to escape into a dream of innocence. I had seen a bloody head fall into a basket. I had watched men in dark green uniforms cleaning up the blood. Had we prevented future Dennis Caldwells from committing torture and murder? Had we harmed our children? Would the guillotine be used again? Or was it destined to become a well-preserved artifact visited by sixth-grade classes, like the pillory in the basement of the Historical Society? All I knew was that we were a peaceful town, with a guillotine on the green. After a while I turned back along the sand and walked down Beach Street toward my car. As I passed the green, I glanced over at the guillotine. A squirrel sat on one corner of the platform, scampered in the direction of another corner, and abruptly stopped. Two boys on skateboards came clattering up behind me and swept out of my way. I had two more hours of work to do before picking up a few shirts from the cleaners and meeting a friend in town for dinner. A slight pressure in my sinuses made me wonder whether I had time to stop off at CVS and pick up a packet of decongestant tablets. I watched the skateboards rush into the distance and continued on my way.


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REMEMBERING GEORGE The Enigma of Constancy: The Resilience of Trump’s Base STEINER 51

George Steiner died earlier this year at the age of 90. The author of many influential books, he was for thirty years a principal book critic for The New Yorker, and contributed more than two dozen essays to the pages of Salmagundi. Among his best known books were After Babel, Language & Silence, In Bluebeard’s Castle, Extraterritorial, Antigones, Tolstoy Or Dostoevski, The Death of Tragedy and The Portage To San Cristobal of AH. In 2009 New Directions in New York brought out George Steiner at the New Yorker, edited and with an introduction by Robert Boyers. THE SALMAGUNDI TRIBUTE TO GEORGE STEINER CONTAINS THREE MEMOIRISTIC ESSAYS BY MARTIN JAY, WILLIAM LOGAN AND DAVID HERMAN


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After George Steiner: A Personal Recollection BY MARTIN JAY

It can happen, if rarely, that the day’s mail brings an unexpected bolt of pure joy. On May 30, 1973, my bolt was delivered. Written on the stationery of Churchill College, Cambridge, it read in full: Simply a fan letter. The Dialectical Imagination is a superb work. Do not read anything silly into my remark when I say that it is quite stunning that one of your age and locale should have mastered this complex world of nuance and kept so fine a distance. There are some tiny errors (our mutual friend M.I. Finley is Prof. of Ancient History and not of Classics) and there are central aspects of the Kulturkritik in the end of the Negative Dialektik which you seem to me to slight. But these are cavils about a major book which leaves us all in its debt.1 It was signed “Very sincerely, George Steiner.” Almost half a century later, I still can feel the rush of excitement produced by this unanticipated gift. It was as if my citizen papers for the Republic of Letters had finally been approved, and I was being admitted to a company I had only gawked at from afar. I recall it now, despite the inevitable impression doing so will seem like self-congratulation, for three reasons. First, it provides evidence of the gratuitous generosity of George Steiner, who took the time to contact a young scholar out of the


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blue to praise his work. His enthusiasm was expressed publicly when he named The Dialectical Imagination his book of the year in the Sunday Times of London, but it was this private contact that had the most profound impact. By chance, I was scheduled to visit the UK that summer and he invited me for what turned out to be a memorable meeting in Cambridge in August, the first of many. When he offered to write recommendations on my behalf for fellowships, I consented with alacrity. What in a later letter he called his “perjurious encomia” did, in fact, their trick, and I am sure the Guggenheim that allowed me to spend the following year at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, was due in large measure to his endorsement. The second reason I bring up his “fan letter” is to confess that one of its effects was the preemptive immunization it performed against my ever joining the vituperative chorus of critics who delighted in abusing him and his work. There can, in fact, be few figures who managed to generate as much splenetic derogation as Steiner did over his long years in the public eye. For a welter of reasons, some plausible and many not, he became an inviting target for both established mandarins and climbers on the way up, commentators from all ends of the political spectrum, and random critics offended by his provocative positions on Zionism, America and popular culture. Many of the most consequential voices of the time took the trouble to call him out, sometimes with dismissive concision—Isaiah Berlin’s oft-repeated jibe that he was a “genuine charlatan” being the most notorious example—and sometimes with exorbitant rhetorical flair—as in the case of James Wood’s “gleefully vicious” rant against Steiner’s Real Presences.2 Masters of invective like John Simon and Joseph Epstein reveled in the opportunity to hone their craft by pummeling his work and deflating his person. I was, however, never tempted to follow their example, for in addition to my general distaste for ad hominem polemics, it would have been churlish, to say the least, to turn around and bite a hand that had so amply fed me. Moreover, and this is the third reason I mention the letter, it would also have been impossible to join the company of his detractors because of my genuine gratitude for the vital role George Steiner had played in my intellectual coming of age, and not mine alone. He was one of what I called “the two Georges,” who were the most exuberant transmitters of a vital tradition of thought that had been only a rumor in


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the Anglo-American academy. The first was George Lichtheim, the learned student of European politics and intellectual life, most notably the socialist tradition, who had made his mark outside the academy as a shrewd analyst of the intersection of politics and ideas. He too came from a continental European background, was a secular Jew, fluent in several languages, and lived with some discomfort in British exile. An anti-Communist socialist with a keen interest in the heterodox alternatives of what would come to be called Western Marxism, Lichtheim was one of the ideal readers for whom I intended The Dialectical Imagination, and I remember my selfish dismay when he committed suicide shortly before it appeared.3 The second George was Steiner, which made his generous letter even more meaningful. He was a less learned commentator on political history or acute an observer of current events than Lichtheim, and never evinced any sympathy for socialism as an actual political cause. But he too was able to convey with special vigor the importance of the still mostly dark continent of 20th-century European thought, especially its aesthetic and philosophical legacies. Steiner had already made a splash with two ambitious books of literary criticism, The Death of Tragedy and Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, the latter arousing in equal measure admiration and disdain for his audacity in writing about the giants of the Russian novel without being able to read their work in the original. It was, however, the essay collection called Language and Silence, published in 1967, that had been my eye-opener. What immediately strikes the reader of the book—and still impresses more than fifty years later—is the astounding range of the topics and figures it covers. At a time when a veneer of erudition is only a click away from a Wikipedia page, it may be hard to appreciate the command Steiner showed not only of past literary figures like Homer, Shakespeare, Merimée and Kafka but also present ones like Mann, Durrell, Grass, Plath and Golding. Essays on the Bible and Schoenberg’s opera Moses and Aron jostle for attention with those on contemporary literary and cultural critics like Leavis and McLuhan and anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss. The collection even includes a thundering denunciation of the deleterious effects of pornography on both language and the right to privacy in sexual matters. Of special importance for my own interests were the seven essays on “Marxism and Literature,” which demonstrated a familiarity with figures


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like Lukács, Bloch, Goldmann, Benjamin and Adorno unmatched by anyone writing in English at the time. The earliest, “Marxism and the Literary Critic,” had been first published in Encounter in 1958. To say that it was ahead of the curve does scarce justice to its prescience. If you compare it, for example, with Raymond Williams’ influential Culture and Society, which appeared the same year, the contrast is striking. Williams has a brief discussion of Christopher Caudwell, who died in the Spanish Civil War after writing a few promising, if now mostly forgotten Marxist works, but shows no broader appreciation of anything on the other side of the English Channel. Two decades passed before he tried to make up for it in Marxism and Literature. In 1958, Fredric Jameson’s important Marxism and Form4 was more than a dozen years in the future and Terry Eagleton was still a teenager dreaming of escaping the small city of Salford in Lancashire. In 1958, it bears recalling, there were no major translations into English of the literary or cultural criticism of Adorno, Benjamin, Bloch and Lukács (the latter’s book on The Historical Novel was the first, appearing only in 1962). Ironically, Steiner, who had proudly declared his allegiance to the “old criticism” as opposed to the “new” in Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, and was so quick to lament cultural decline, valued a body of thought that claimed to be the cutting edge of the future. From his description of what he meant by “old criticism,” the reason became clear. It is, he explained, engendered by admiration. It sometimes steps back from the text to look upon moral purpose. It thinks of literature as existing not in isolation but as central to the play of historical and political energies. Above all, the old criticism is philosophical in range and temper….there are numerous examples of art which moves us to performance or conviction through its proposal of ideas. To these modes contemporary critics, with the exception of Marxists, have not always been attentive.5 In the essays on “Marxism and Literature” in Language and Silence, three central arguments stand out. First, Steiner clearly registers the difference between the dogmatic reductionism of orthodox dialectical materialist criticism, with its preferences for uplifting socialist realism and Tenden-


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zliteratur and hostility to modernist experimentation, and what Michel Crouzet had called “para-Marxism.” Proponents of the latter understand that literature has to be understood contextually and reject purist formalism, but also “approach a work of art with respect for its integrity and for the vital center of its being….para-Marxists practice the arts of criticism, not those of censorship.”6 Second, Steiner refuses to dismiss complicated figures, most notably Lukács, who at one time or another in their careers belonged to each camp. Although he acknowledges the costs of the Hungarian Communist’s “devil’s pact” with the Party and bemoans his tone-deafness to writers like Proust, Steiner concludes that “whether or not we share his beliefs, there can be no doubt that he has given to the minor Muse of criticism a notable dignity.”7 Having been bowled over by The Historical Novel when he was still a precocious undergraduate at the University of Chicago—he could still call it a “masterpiece” four decades later8—and bathing in the afterglow of a personal meeting with Lukács in Budapest in 1957, Steiner moves beyond a simplistic Cold War judgment.9 His verdict on Lukacs’ great nemesis Bertolt Brecht is similar: “without Marxism and an eccentric but steadfast adherence to Party ideology, the foremost dramatist of the age, Bertolt Brecht, might not have found his voice and style.”10 The third, and perhaps most provocative conclusion, was his claim that the refusal of Communism to countenance literary or other intellectual insubordination paid perverse tribute to the power of the word, which was absent in the more permissive West, where what Herbert Marcuse was infamously to call “repressive tolerance” prevailed. “Writers were persecuted and killed precisely because literature was recognized as an important and potentially dangerous force. This is a crucial point. Literature was being honored, in however cruel or perverted way, by the very fact of Stalin’s distrust.”11 Steiner’s appreciation for the para-Marxist legacy was perhaps nowhere as apparent as in his early enthusiasm for Walter Benjamin, whose Marxism he characterized as “private and oblique.”12 In a letter he sent shortly after our first meeting, he allowed that his ambitious work on translation, After Babel, was inspired by Benjamin’s essay on “The Task of the Translator”: “My book goes to OUP this week; it is the book Benjamin did not live to write—though no parity of stature is intended!


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But it may be the last ‘Frankfurt’ book.”13 Two years later he reported on his disagreement with Gershom Scholem over Benjamin’s legacy: Scholem has written to me at length concurring with my hunch that the Benjamin [Scholem’s Walter Benjamin: Geschichte einer Freundschaft] is his saddest book, but, characteristically charging me with finding in it the ‘wrong sadness.’ HIS sadness bears on Benjamin’s failure to find a coherent Jewishness and escape to Israel; MINE bears on the misère of that great life (the suicide attempts etc) and on the somewhat acid elegy over the death of European high culture which the book so clearly voices.14 By the time he wrote the introduction to the first English translation of Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic Drama in 1977, his sympathy for the Marxist moment in Benjamin’s work, or at least for those who were intent on drawing on it for current purposes, had waned. He made a point of endorsing Scholem’s judgment that the book was still free of the idiosyncratic Marxism that Benjamin was soon to adopt, and added gratuitously: “Walter Benjamin would doubtless have been skeptical of any ‘New Left’. Like every man committed to abstruse thought and scholarship, he knew that not only the humanities, but humane and critical intelligence itself, resides in the always-threatened keeping of the very few.”15 Although his enthusiasm for Benjamin remained intact—I can recall his palpable excitement when he showed me after a dinner at his house a recently acquired first edition of one of Benjamin’s books (was it Einbahnstrasse?)—his openness to the promise of para-Marxism in the early essays included in Language and Silence had clearly declined. His growing attraction to Heidegger, who is conspicuous by his absence in that book, may have been one of the reasons.16 It was around this time, it seems in retrospect, that Steiner, who had begun his career by challenging many conventional pieties, was beginning to feel out-flanked by a younger generation more radical in political and theoretical terms. In 1978, I found myself at a dinner with him and the venerable Yale comparativist, René Wellek, during a conference on Giambattista Vico in Venice. It was an occasion that vividly brought to life his reading of Scholem’s Benjamin book as an “acid elegy over the death


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of European high culture.” Appropriately, our restaurant overlooked the Grand Canal, and Steiner was able to point out Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, the palazzo across the water where Richard Wagner had died in 1883. When we walked back to our hotel, I remember his explaining the melancholic bitterness radiating from Wellek as a result of his having been unceremoniously tossed aside by his younger colleagues at Yale, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartman, who were besotted with the post-structuralist theories they were importing from France. I also recall thinking there was a certain measure of projection in this explanation, as Steiner himself must have felt increasingly embattled by new trends that challenged his self-understanding as a rebel against conventional wisdom. And yet, despite his shifting placement in the dynamic force field of cultural politics, Steiner resisted turning into a curmudgeonly apologist for a world on the wane or allowing his Kulturpessimismus to sanction a resentful withdrawal from the public arena. In fact, one of the hallmarks of his career was a willingness to remain suspended within paradoxes, never forcing a simple choice between unpalatable options. This attitude was already evident in Language and Silence, which both celebrates humanistic high culture and acknowledges that the Holocaust has disabused us of the naïve illusion that it humanizes those who uphold it. Or as he put it in what is perhaps his most frequently cited sentences: “We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach or Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”17 And yet, Steiner somehow never really faltered in his faith that great art remains the last refuge of meaningfulness in a world from which religious faith has fled. More than merely locating unresolved paradoxes, Steiner performatively embodied them. Lamenting what he called “the retreat from the word,” the crisis of language that engendered silence on the part of many who registered its exhaustion, at the same time he was never himself at a loss for words to comment on everything under the sun. More a loquacious Aron than a stuttering Moses, Steiner was, in fact, besotted with language, devoting what many consider his most consequential book to the mysteries of translation and often writing on questions of style. In Language and Silence, he makes clear his own allegiances. Praising the baroque prose of Lawrence Durrell, he writes


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His style beats against the present wind. Anyone trained on Hemingway will sicken and cloy at it. But perhaps it is we who are at fault, having been long kept on thin gruel. Durrell’s masters are Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, De Quincy, Conrad. He stands in the old tradition of the fullness of prose. He is attempting to make language once again commensurate with the manifold truths of the experienced world. His attempt has entailed excesses; Durrell is often precious, and his vision of conduct is more flimsy and shallow than are the technical resources at his command. But what he is doing is of importance; it is no less than an effort to keep literature literate.18 Far closer to Durrell than Hemingway in his own writing, Steiner also knew its costs. In 1975, I sent him a draft of a piece I was doing on the Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Bible for his comments. After sending me several helpful substantive suggestions and stressing Gershom Scholem’s detestation of Buber, he made a request regarding my characterization of the final paragraph of After Babel: May I ask for a small change. Please eliminate the word “elegant” in regard to your closing quote. That paragraph tries to compact some five years of work and thought. In order to discredit my books and ideas, the establishment always hurls at them the charge of elegance or ornate writing. No one, ranging from Chomsky to the Cambridge English Faculty, will forgive the fact that my stuff is actually written, that it represents a care for the wealth and power of English which they are not able to manifest. No epithet please.19 The charges, of course, never stopped, and virtually every attack on Steiner reveled in condemning his “gaseous,” “bellowing,” “bombastic,” “pretentious,” “pompous,” “overwrought,” “latinate,” “phrase-making,” “name-dropping” prose. Such put-downs were invariably tied to complaints against his mandarin elitism, which were given credence by his unyielding disdain for mass culture and the pervasive mediocrity he located in America. And then added to the mix was the accusation of self-contradiction


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or even hypocrisy solicited by his wholehearted embrace of middle-brow popularization, manifest in his frequent media appearances and innumerable contributions to general interest magazines like The New Yorker.20 Truth be told, the combination of Steiner’s polymathic erudition and avowed elitism with his reveling in the role of public intellectual does at first glance seem jarring. Unlike, say, the German philosopher and intellectual historian Hans Blumenberg, one of few in his generation who could rival his learning, range, and high seriousness but remained cloistered away from the public sphere, he was dedicated to reaching as large an audience as possible. Steiner, it should be remembered, spent several years as a journalist for The Economist before returning to the academy, and had learned to aim for a wide audience. If at times, this led him to rehearse his major themes in ways that could seem self-parodic or reminiscent of a politician’s oft-repeated stump speech, his dedication to spreading the word, as he understood it, never flagged. More often than not, this meant writing in what historians of rhetoric call the “grand or lofty” Ciceronian style, striving for an ornate elegance—however much he may have detested the epithet—that had been driven from popular usage with the triumph in the 19th century, at least in America, of the “plain style” of “democratic eloquence,”21 a style that self-consciously returned to the Anglo-Saxon roots of the language and abjured—oops, forswore—its Latinate overlay. What should, however, be understood is that this was more a mode of speech than of writing, one that, to cite the historian Kenneth Cmiel, “impresses with sound. It delights in the play of words; it hopes to carry an audience with its power. Cicero said its end was to ‘bend’ the audience to the speaker.”22 Steiner could, in fact, be a spell-binding lecturer, whose ability to attract hordes of students may well have contributed to the resentment from other dons that stalled his early career at Cambridge. His television appearances, both in the UK and on the continent, were often electrifying. The dialogues he had with the Catholic conservative Pierre Boutang on the French show Océaniques in 1987, which dealt with “the myth of Antigone” and “Abraham’s sacrifice,” provided a riveting spectacle of passionate intellectual adversaries embodying what one observer called “intelligence in vivo.”23


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Significantly, the grand style was not only at odds with the unadorned, plain alternative that came into fashion in the 19th century, but also with the often neologistic jargon of technocrats and the abstruse, gnomic style of many avant-garde critics. Reluctant to develop a distinct method of literary interpretation rather than relying on his own sensibility meant that he left behind no school of thought to carry on his critical project. Although there were moments when Steiner seemed bent on dazzling his readers with his virtuosity, he was for the most part determined to communicate with them, using the sensuous resources of language, in particular its affinity to music, to make a connection. “To the writer who feels that the condition of language is in question,” he wrote in Language and Silence, “that the word may be losing something of its humane genius, two essential courses are available: he may seek to render his own idiom representative of the general crisis, to convey through it the precariousness and vulnerability of the communicative act; or he may choose the suicidal rhetoric of silence.”24 Not only did Steiner reject silence and refuse to retreat from the public realm, not only did he push back against the prosaic linguistic conventions of his day and reject the jargon of specialists, but he was also never shy about presenting his own life story in memoirs and interviews, often through the mass media.25 Having made abundantly clear his disdain for any boundary between art and life, he intertwined his judgments about the former with confessions about the latter. The main lineaments of his personal story became well-known: a cosmopolitan, tri-lingual upbringing in an upper middle-class, assimilated Jewish household on the move, determination to overcome the disability of a withered arm, precocious academic success culminating in a Rhodes Scholarship, guilt over surviving the Holocaust, resistance from the British academic establishment, and what one skeptical commentator called “his own exemplary status as Last Avatar of European High Culture.”26 In presenting his life story, Steiner spun out competing narratives of privilege and marginality, acclaim and disdain, ambition realized and ambition denied. The last of these tensions was apparent, inter alia, in his confession in one of the earliest essays in Language and Silence: “When he looks back, the critic sees a eunuch’s shadow. Who would be a critic, if he could be a writer?”27 Steiner wrote those words in 1963, shortly


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before he published a collection of his short stories called Anno Domini and almost two decades before the appearance of his controversial novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. Unlike many other critical eunuchs, he couldn’t resist the temptation to try creation. Steiner, of course, was not the first critic to succumb to that temptation nor the last—one of his main detractors, James Wood, in fact, also writes novels—but it is clear that his claim on our attention is not as a creative writer. His attempt to elude the eunuch’s shadow, however mixed the results, reveals traits that motivated much of Steiner’s oeuvre: his impatience for disinterested, neutral, “castrated” observation and urge to enter into the affective cultural experience he was describing. Terry Eagleton once referred to him as an “intellectual hedonist,” while Wood, with less sympathy, spoke of his “air of excited gravity” through which he sought to “synchronize his beating heart with the reader’s.”28 There is, it seems to me, ample evidence that Steiner’s passionate aesthetic enthusiasms were indeed heartfelt. In fact, at times, this meant a willingness to risk inhabiting dubious or even dangerous cultural or political positions in order to understand their sinister allure from within, a risk that Benjamin also took in incorporating insights from right-wing theorists like Ludwig Klages and Carl Schmitt. Watch on You Tube the five-minute video of Steiner analyzing with insight—and undisguised admiration--the seductive appeal of Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, and you will immediately see why Wood could note with alarm that “Steiner seems strangely drawn to the inhumane.”29 This willingness to enter enemy territory was perhaps most explicit in the notorious monologue Steiner puts in Hitler’s mouth at the end of The Portage, which has been read as “the author’s ventriloquated, at times projective, middle-voiced rendering”30 of the monster’s self-justifying interiority. It was also apparent in his sympathetic rendering of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, whose power he sought to shield from its complicity with the philosopher’s endorsement of political evil. Or to put it in Heidegger’s own terms, he took pains to isolate the philosopher’s sublime “thought” from his scurrilous “worldview.” Arguing that Heidegger’s only intolerable sin was the silence into which he fell after 1945, Steiner claimed he was “unable to locate anti-Jewish sentiments or utterances in the works of Heidegger, even in those of a public and political


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nature—a fact, which from the outset isolates him from the mainstream of Nazism.”31 In the wake of the publication of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, which were not available when Steiner composed his apologia, it is clear that he misjudged Heidegger’s unrepentant sympathy for the vile ideology he had publicly promoted during his notorious tenure as rector of Freiburg University in 1934. Here Steiner was close to Hannah Arendt and other defenders of Heidegger who tried to limit the damage. Subsequent disclosures have not been kind to their efforts. But what has to be acknowledged, at least in his case, was that Steiner would have refused to grant such knowledge veto power over the attempt to reach an empathetic understanding of the ways in which a Riefenstahl or a Heidegger—or for that matter, even a Hitler—had exercised their magic. That is, Steiner’s distressing realization that listening to Bach or Schubert didn’t prevent a man from firing up the ovens at a death camp could be dialectically reversed: something in the dangerous appeal of the darkest impulses in Western civilization was also manifest in the most elevated exemplars of high culture. The human and the inhuman were not simple opposites, but dialectically intertwined, or, to turn Benjamin’s famous saying around, “there is no document of barbarism that is not at the same time a document of civilization.” Steiner’s risky venturing into enemy territory also raises another issue, which has haunted his career from the start: his complicated and controversial attitude towards his own Jewish identity, the role of the Jews in Western culture and the causes of anti-Semitism. Although Steiner was among the first to insist on putting the Holocaust in the center of cultural discussions, against the studied indifference of many of his British colleagues, he also echoed the Freud of Moses and Monotheism in speculating that the Jewish invention of monotheism and moral absolutism had something to do with their enduring unpopularity.32 A great deal of heat has already been generated in response to his provocations, with a number of critics predictably denouncing his “Jewish self-hatred” and “identification with the aggressor.” This is not the place to rehearse all of the arguments about the interventions he made over many years or render a judgment about their validity.33 Instead, let me return to Language and Silence and the formative impact it had on my own consideration of these issues.


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To simplify the fundamental alternatives faced by someone of Steiner’s generation and experience, there were four competing ways of being Jewish. First, he could have embraced Judaism as a religious way of life and found meaning in observing its practices and embracing its beliefs. Second, he could have cast his lot with Zionism, whether understood as a realization of messianic hopes or a safe haven for persecuted Jews, and perhaps even moved, as did Scholem, to Palestine/ Israel. His third option was to play down any residual Jewish identity, and follow the well-trodden path towards assimilation, even in the wake of the Nazi exposure of its feeble protection for those who pursued it. A fourth choice was to identify proudly and defiantly with the diasporic Jew, more often secular than not, who turned his exile into a virtue and refused the consolations of religion, nationalism or the suturing of divided identities. Let’s take them in turn. Steiner often voiced his belief that theological issues were still alive in a world that mourned the waning of religious faith. He insisted, for example, that Heidegger’s Sein was a surrogate for God, and added that “such ‘post-theologies’ constitute the most active elements in Modern Western thinking.”34 Likewise, he argued that “there is scarcely a node, or constellation of argument and terminology in Benjamin that is not akin to, or derived from, the theological.”35 Whether his own frequent evocation of the secularized survival of theological motifs was insightful or merely a form of religious fellow-travelling—a claim that fueled Wood’s indignation at his imprecise, metaphoric treatment of the Christian doctrine of “real presence”—Steiner was never tempted to adopt the orthopraxis that a serious commitment to Judaism as a lived religion demands. We were once together at a small family seder at the Cambridge home of the eminent historian of the First World War Jay Winter, and although I can recall Steiner’s moving reading of Haggadah passages, there was no indication that they had a deeper personal meeting. Nor was Steiner driven by the hope that next year we would all literally be in Jerusalem. However much he may have esteemed Scholem, he did not bend when the latter denounced his refusal to affirm the Jewish entry “inside of history.”36 Unlike many on the left, his hostility to Zionism was not motivated by any strong identification with the plight of its Palestinian victims, but rather for its effects on the Jews. Already in 1965 in the essay “A Kind of Survivor,” Steiner could write “the State of Israel


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is, in one sense, a sad miracle. Herzl’s Zionist program bore the obvious marks of the rising nationalism of the late nineteenth century. Sprung of inhumanity and the imminence of massacre, Israel has had to make itself a closed fist... though the survival of the Jewish people may depend on it, the nation-state bristling with arms is a bitter relic, an absurdity in the century of crowded men. And it is alien to some of the most radical, most humane elements in the Jewish spirit.”37 Written before the ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands after the Six Day War, whose consequences need not be belabored, these remarks retain, alas, much of their pungency today. If Zionism was not an option for Steiner, even less attractive was the lure of assimilation. Although some writers of his generation bristled at their designation as “Jewish authors”—think, for example, of the young Saul Bellow—in favor of a more universal identity, Steiner never sought to escape his connection with the Jewish people, which was powerfully reinforced by his guilty status as a “kind of survivor” of the recent attempt to terminate their very existence. In part, this reflected his inability to shed the constant fear that something might happen again to revive that threat. But in part it also was a product of the feeling of proud solidarity Steiner felt with a certain version of being Jewish, which he identified with the European diasporic experience. Turning the insult of “rootless cosmopolitan” into a virtue, celebrating the burdensome role of “wandering Jew,” valuing restless “homelessness” over stable settlement, Steiner continued a minority tradition in Jewish history that stressed the benefits of enduring marginalization over its costs. Heinrich Heine had seen the Torah as the “portable homeland” of the Jews, and the great German neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen identified exile with a heightened moral sensibility that could transcend the narrow parochialism of dominant, homogeneous cultures.38 There was a link, he argued, between the suffering of the Jewish people and their messianic mission, which was short-circuited by the Zionist aspiration to become a nation like all others. Better, in other words, to be a pariah than a parvenu, to borrow the dichotomy Hannah Arendt made famous. Ironically, Steiner’s affinity for “otherness” before it became a buzzword anticipated the similar intuition inspiring the post-structuralism he later scorned (and which ignored or dismissed him). His claim that the only “home” of the Jews was the book, not the soil, also resonated with Derri-


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da’s oft-cited claim that there is nothing outside of the text. So too did his celebration of cultural hybridity, which has also earned him the honor of inheriting the mantle of Moritz Goldman, the author of the controversial 1912 essay “The German-Jewish Parnassus.”39 Such an exaltation of the eternally marginal Jew, to be sure, can have its dangers. Romanticizing the unchosen condition of displacement and homelessness, after all, loses much of its allure when it is taken literally rather than metaphorically. Nor is it the case that its effects are always to produce geniuses, as it may just as easily spawn scoundrels.40 But when I first came upon Steiner’s argument in 1968 in Language and Silence, it powerfully resonated with the understanding of the Frankfurt School I was beginning to formulate in my dissertation. It was clear to me that despite their reluctance to grant any importance to their predominantly Jewish origins, understandable in the light of the characteristic anti-Semitic charge that it explained everything, the experiences they had as Jews played a meaningful role in the development of Critical Theory.41 Steiner’s positive depiction of the virtues of exile and displacement, his argument for the heightened sensibility and empathy for the disempowered produced by marginalization, provided a key to make sense of what their Jewish backgrounds might mean. Not only did their Jewish identities, however attenuated, preclude their ever being fully at home in the hegemonic culture of Europe, but they also experienced two additional exiles when they were forced to leave Germany and grew increasingly alienated from all organized Marxist movements. It would be an exaggeration to say that they found their true “home” in the book or the word, as did Steiner for the Jews in general, because their Marxist sympathies meant they yearned for a fundamental change in social relations. But they did distrust hasty attempts to instrumentalize their theory into a recipe for immediate practical activity in the world and valued art as a placeholder for a utopian future that, against all odds, might still come. While never entirely abandoning their hope that someday their Flaschenpost—the messages in the bottles they metaphorically threw into the sea—would be found and help inspire radical change, they themselves were content with being permanent exiles. Or so it seemed to me when writing my dissertation under the indirect influence of Language and Silence. The short appreciation of


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Adorno I contributed to Midstream after his sudden death in 1969 was, in fact, called “The Permanent Exile of Theodor W. Adorno.”42 But when I sought to turn the dissertation into a book and floated the possible title “Permanent Exiles” to the surviving members of the School, I soon learned that not everyone shared this perspective. As I’ve explained at length elsewhere, both Max Horkheimer and Felix Weil protested against that choice of titles, which they felt inappropriately emphasized the lingering outsider status of the Institute after its return to Germany.43 I had a viable alternative, derived from a phrase I had unconsciously absorbed from Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, so was willing to heed their advice. But in a later volume of essays on the intellectual migration from Germany to America, which included several on the Frankfurt School, I found an opportunity to recycle it and register the appreciation of diasporic marginalization I had absorbed from Language and Silence.44 One of those essays, it might also be noted, was called “The Extraterritorial Life of Siegfried Kracauer,” which echoed not only Kracauer’s frequent use of the term, but also the volume Steiner published in 1971 called Extraterritorial.45 In retrospect, it seems likely that the enthusiasm Steiner generously expressed for The Dialectical Imagination was inspired in part by his recognizing some of his own arguments in my take on the Frankfurt School. Ultimately, I was able to make a small repayment by bringing him together with the last surviving member of the School, Leo Lowenthal, for a meal at my house in the late 1970’s, when he spent a semester at Stanford. Fittingly, our paths crossed in person for the final time at an international conference on Benjamin in Amsterdam in 1997, where he delivered a characteristically impassioned keynote address. In it, Steiner repeated in slightly altered form what he had written to me when his book on translation was in press in 1973: “I’m arrogant enough to hope that After Babel is a tiny footnote to Benjamin’s essay.”46 Steiner’s unflagging admiration for Benjamin, who perhaps embodied as no one else his ideal of European Jewish cosmopolitan genius against the backdrop of civilizational catastrophe, leads me to wonder in conclusion what insight into his legacy might follow from measuring him against the models of Jewish intellectual types I posited in a recent essay comparing Benjamin with Isaiah Berlin.47 The most suggestive in


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capturing the difference between them had been introduced by Susan Sontag in her 1963 essay on Albert Camus: “Great writers are either husbands or lovers. Some writers supply the solid virtues of a husband: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the gifts of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than moral goodness. Notoriously, women tolerate qualities in a lover—moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality—they would never countenance in a husband, in return for excitement, an infusion of intense feeling.” Camus, she argued was “the ideal husband of modern literature,” whereas Sartre was the quintessential “lover.” Where might George Steiner be placed along this metaphoric spectrum, where Berlin was a typical “husband” and Benjamin a quintessential “lover”? Insofar as an answer depends not only on the writer’s work but on his life—or at least what has become part of the public record—Steiner would seem closer to intellectual “husband.” His marriage to Zara Steiner, herself an acclaimed European diplomatic historian, lasted sixty-five years until their deaths only ten days apart in February, 2020. They successfully raised two children, David and Deborah, who became distinguished academics in their own right, the former currently the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, the latter the chair of the Classics Department at Columbia. From my own interactions with the Steiners over the years, I can affirm the observation recently made by one of her former students: “she provided this prickly and mischievous man with the ideal marital and domestic base from which to conduct his sorties into the enemy camps and she softened the impact of his conversational sallies on others.”48 And she did so without apparent resentment. For while Steiner could occasionally indulge in misogynist sentiments of the “why have there been no great women in (fill in the blank)?” variety, he clearly made room in his domestic life for a spouse whose own career could flourish. So unlike Benjamin, whose multiple romantic adventures often began with passion but ended badly, Steiner provided no literal evidence of a lover’s “moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality.” Likewise, while never being as fully accepted into the Establishment as Isaiah Berlin, Steiner also carved out a prominent place in the world of mainstream cultural institutions, both academic and popular, and reveled


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in the many awards and distinctions he earned over the years. Although not in much danger of becoming “Sir George,” he and Berlin, despite their personal animosity, were clearly mandarins who had amassed enormous cultural capital. In 1994, to take one example, the enfant terrible who had failed to land a professorship in Cambridge and was compelled to settle for a chair in Geneva, was honored as Oxford’s first George Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature. The qualities, moreover, that Sontag attributed to the intellectual “husband”-- reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency—were ones Steiner by and large exhibited. And for all his sensitivity to aesthetic form, he broadcast the moral earnestness that is so often exuded by models of connubial fidelity, literal or metaphorical. And yet, in important ways, Steiner’s appeal, at least as it exerted itself on me during my apprentice years, was more that of an intellectual “lover.” Unlike Berlin, who recoiled from what he called “the terrible twisted Mitteleuropa in which nothing is straight, simple, truthful, all human relations and all political attitudes are twisted into ghastly shapes by these awful casualties who, because they are crippled, recognize nothing pure and firm in the world,”49 Steiner defiantly embraced his crippled status—both literal and metaphorical—and refused to run from impurity and instability. Both in life and work, he willingly dwelt in the risky limbo of unresolved paradox. The cultural mandarin who sought to mentor the masses, the unrepentant elitist who appreciated the virtues of para-Marxist critique, the unapologetic Jew who defied the conventional norms of his community, the Kulturpessimist whose default mood was affirmative celebration—Steiner could be forgiven many of his flaws “in return,” as Sontag put it, “for excitement, an infusion of intense feeling.” Perhaps nowhere in his oeuvre did the temperature rise higher than in his incessant belaboring of the troubling question he first posed in Language and Silence: “what are the links, as yet scarcely understood, between the mental, psychological habits of high literacy and the temptations of the inhuman?”50 You can still hear him rehearsing the issue in a talk he gave in 2013 on You Tube called “The Humanities Don’t Humanize.”51 His inability to move beyond this particular obsession was, however, more than just a personal quirk. In a slightly different idiom, it echoed the disturbing contention of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment that civilization and barbarism were inextricably intertwined and


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“the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.”52 The ironic poignancy of Steiner’s love affair with high culture was a result of his acute sensitivity to its dark side, indeed his candid acknowledgment of its attraction. As he put it in the preface to Language and Silence, “my own consciousness is possessed by the eruption of barbarism in modern Europe.”53 Being so possessed, he understood from within that humanist high culture not only failed as a prophylactic against that eruption, but may well be complicit with it. For all his extraordinary learning and analytic acumen, Steiner never found a way to transcend what, to repurpose the famous phrase of Georg Simmel, was “the tragedy of culture.”54 As a dramatic genre, tragedy may have died in the Godless modern age, as Steiner had argued in his first major work, but in the larger cultural sense, it haunted his extraordinary career until the end.

Notes George Steiner to Martin Jay, May 30, 1973, in the author’s personal collection.

1

Berlin’s remark is sometimes remembered as “complete charlatan” or more elaborately as “no greater charlatan in the world than that man whose name rhymed with Heine.” As far as I can tell, it never appeared in print, so it is likely it appeared in several variations in different conversations. For James Wood’s attack, see his “George Steiner’s Unreal Presence,” The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (New York, 2010). “Gleefully vicious” is his own later, rueful description of the review, which he attributed to a “young man’s swinging aggression.” See his August 18, 2015 conversation with Isaac Chotiner in Slate: https://slate.com/culture/2015/08/james-wood-interview-the-new-yorker-writer-onhow-technology-is-changing-reading-how-aging-changes-critics-and-why-he-regrets-beingtoo-hard-on-david-foster-wallace.html. 2

I expressed my dismay in “The Loss of George Lichtheim,” Midstream, XIX, 8 (October, 1973); republished in Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America (New York, 1985). 3

Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton, 1971). It should be noted that the chapter in that book on Adorno first appeared in Salmagundi in 1967. 4

George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky (London, 1967), p. 13-14.

5

George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New York, 1967), p. 310-311. 6


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Ibid., p. 339.

7

George Steiner, Interview, in Eva L. Corredor, Lukács After Communism: Interviews with Contemporary Intellectuals (Durham, 1997), p. 61. 8

Eva Corredor, who interviewed him in 1991, was surprised by this attitude: “You are very forgiving, and forgiving in the sense that you seem to admire in Lukács something beyond good and evil that redeems him.” Steiner responded by pointing to the lesson he had learned when he survived the Holocaust while his schoolmates in Paris perished: “I do not know how I would behave, so I accept nobody’s opinions on these matters who does not know what he would have done.” (p. 71). 9

Ibid., p. 363.

10

11

Ibid., p. 357. Ibid., p. 314.

12

George Steiner to Martin Jay, October 15, 1973, in the author’s personal collection.

13

George Steiner to Martin Jay, November 4, 1975, in the author’s personal collection.

14

George Steiner, “Introduction,” to Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London, 1977), p. 24. When the second translation by Howard Eiland appeared with Harvard U. Press in 2019, Steiner’s introduction was replaced by one by the translator. Whether or not Benjamin would have approved of the New Left, in Germany, his most uncompromising revolutionary ideas were considered an inspiration by members of the militant Red Army Faction. For a judicious assessment of their ambiguous appropriation of his legacy, see Irving Wohlfahrt, “Walter Benjamin and the Red Army Faction,” Radical Philosophy, 152 (November/December, 2008); 153 (January/February 2009) and 154 (March/April, 2009). 15

In the book he contributed to the Modern Masters Series, Martin Heidegger (New York, 1978), Steiner nonetheless acknowledged that “he is closely in tune with the revisionist, partly messianic Marxism of the 1920’s. The echoes are substantial between Sein und Zeit and the writings both of Ernst Bloch and of the ‘meta-Marxists’ of the Frankfurt School.” (p. 148). 16

Steiner, Language and Silence, p. ix.

17

Ibid., p. 33-34.

18

George Steiner to Martin Jay, October 3, 1975, in the author’s collection.

19

Ibid., p. 33-34.

20

George Steiner to Martin Jay, October 3, 1975, in the author’s collection.

21


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Ibid., p. 21. Cmiel also identifies a more middling style, which he identifies with writers like Addison, who sought to strike “a balance between a showy obtrusive prose and the bland, plain style. Cicero said its aim was to please.” 22

Yves Jaigu, cited in Tamara Chaplin, Learning on the Mind: French Philosopers on Television (Chicago, 2007), p. 194. Chaplin provides a vivid account of the impact of these two broadcasts. 23

Steiner, Language and Silence, p. 49-50.

24

See in particular George Steiner, Errata: An Examined Life (New Haven, 1997).

25

Scott McLemee, “The Mind of a Moralist,” Inside Higher Ed, February 2, 2020. https:// www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/02/07/essay-death-george-steiner 26

Ibid., p. 3.

27

James Wood, “Georg Steiner’s Unreal Presences,” The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (New York, 2010), p. 160-161. 28

Ibid., p. 170. The video can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5oKUpuSgwQ

29

Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore, 2001), p. 200.

30

Steiner, Martin Heidegger, p. 125.

31

Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (London, 1939).

32

For some representative examples, see Bryan Cheyette, “Between Repulsion and Attraction: George Steiner’s Post-Holocaust Fiction,” Jewish Social Studies, 5, 3 (Spring/Summer, 1999); Assaf Sagiv, “George Steiner’s Jewish Problem,” Azure (Summer, 2003); Roger W. Smith, “George Steiner and the War Against the Jews: A Study in Misrepresentation,” Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal, 6, 2 (2011). For his own late ruminations on the issue, see the interview he gave Laure Adler in A Long Saturday: Conversations, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago, 2017). 33

Steiner, Martin Heidegger, p. 156. Christian ideas often seemed to predominate in his notion of “post-theological,” but he often drew on Jewish thought, including the Kabbalistic tradition, in his ruminations on language. 34

George Steiner, “To Speak of Walter Benjamin,” Perception and Experience in Modernity. Benjamin Studien, 1 (Amsterdam, 2002), p. 19. 35

According to Scholem, Steiner “is trying to live outside of history, while we in Israel are living responsibly, inside of history.” Cited in David Biale, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History (Cambridge, Mass., 1979), p. 185. Why living “inside of history” only means within a nation-state is, of course, the question. This assumption betrays Scholem’s 36


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embrace of a typically German belief that there are historical and ahistorical peoples, the former achieving statehood and the latter lacking it. Steiner, Language and Silence, p. 154.

37

For a discussion see, David Ohana, Origins of Israeli Mythology: Neither Caananites nor Crusaders, trans. David Maisel (Cambridge, 2012), p. 19. He also mentions Bernard Lazare, Franz Rosenzweig, Edmund Jabès, Hannah Arendt, and Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin as believers in the virtues of exile and the “homeland of the book.” 38

Seyla Benhabib, Exile, Statelessness, and Migration: Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin (Princeton, 2018), p. 19. 39

For a discussion see, David Ohana, Origins of Israeli Mythology: Neither Caananites nor Crusaders, trans. David Maisel (Cambridge, 2012), p. 19. He also mentions Bernard Lazare, Franz Rosenzweig, Edmund Jabès, Hannah Arendt, and Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin as believers in the virtues of exile and the “homeland of the book.” 40

Seyla Benhabib, Exile, Statelessness, and Migration: Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin (Princeton, 2018), p. 19. 41

Martin Jay, “The Permanent Exile of Theodor W. Adorno,” Midstream (December, 1969).

42

Martin Jay, Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations (London, 2020), chapter 2.

43

Martin Jay, Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America (New York, 1985). 44

George Steiner, Extraterritorial: Papers on Literature and the Language Revolution (New York, 1971). My essay first appeared in Salmagundi, 31-32 (Fall, 1975-Winter, 1976). 45

Steiner, “To Speak of Walter Benjamin,” p. 21.

46

Martin Jay, “Walter Benjamin and Isaiah Berlin: Modes of Jewish Intellectual Life in the 20th Century,” Critical Inquiry, 43 (Spring, 2017). 47

Melanie McDonagh, “Zara Steiner Took It for Granted that I Could Do Well – Which Changed Everything,” The Tablet, February 13, 2020. https://www.thetablet.co.uk/columnists/3/17536/ zara-steiner-took-it-for-granted-that-i-could-do-well-which-changed-everything 48

Isaiah Berlin, letter to Jean Floud, August 3, 1969, cited in Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (New York, 1998), p. 253. 49

Steiner, Language and Silence, p. ix.

50

Steiner, “The Humanities Don’t Humanize,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWecwvZZzk 51


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Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jepthcott (Stanford, 2002), p. 1. 52

Steiner, Language and Silence, p. viii.

53

Simmel introduced the phrase to describe “the discrepancy between the objective substance of culture, both concrete and abstract, on the one hand, and, on the other, the subjective culture of individuals who feel this objective culture to be something alien, which does violence to them and with which they cannot keep pace.” “The Future of Culture” (1909) in Georg Simmel: Sociologist and European, ed.. Peter Lawrence (Sunbury-on-Thames, 1976), p. 251. 54


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Steiner on Screen BY DAVID HERMAN

Few critics of his generation had as great an impact as George Steiner. During the forty years between the late 1950s and the end of the 1990s he opened up the insular world of British and American literary culture to European writers and thinkers, especially from central Europe. “A door was flung open on what had been there all the time, at our backs, namely, our European heritage,” said John Banville in an interview in The Guardian Saturday Review in 1991. “He told us not to be cowed by insularity or hidebound by small minds, but to look beyond the border.” In his memoir, Errata, Steiner wrote, “A number of essays introduced to English-speaking readers the Frankfurt School, the writings of Walter Benjamin, of Ernst Bloch, of Adorno, which have, since, become a critical-academic industry.” “I have sought to press on my students and readers … that which is ‘other’, which puts in doubt the primacy of household gods.” The echo of TS Eliot’s After Strange Gods is not an accident. There’s a fascinating story elsewhere in Errata when Steiner describes calling on the Oxford don Humphry House: On his Victorian lectern lay the handsomely printed text of my Chancellor’s English Essay Prize. I waited, I ached for some allusion to it. It came when I was already at the door. ‘Ah yes, yes, your pamphlet. A touch dazzling, wouldn’t you say?’ The epithet fell like mid-winter.


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It’s an intriguing encounter. The image of the door is worth dwelling on. House’s crushing put-down comes when Steiner was “already at the door.” On his way in or on his way out? Or neither? Perhaps just there, never quite welcome inside. And what does that word “dazzling” mean? It’s an image of Steiner that clung to him throughout his career. A little too clever, not reliable when it comes to scholarly detail, but perhaps also a little foreign, maybe too Jewish. Steiner dedicated his first book, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1959), to House. The book is a kind of declaration. Two years later came The Death of Tragedy. Shakespeare and Byron, but also Racine and Corneille, Goethe and Schiller, Ibsen, Hugo and Kleist. And all this time, through the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was writing the essays that were collected as Language and Silence (1967). It was his breakthrough book, full of references to Kafka and Thomas Mann, Broch, Wittgenstein and Brecht, Nietzsche, Rilke and Schoenberg, German-speaking, born around the turn of the twentieth century, a whole culture that had never crossed the White Cliffs of Dover. Perhaps Steiner’s greatest achievement was to introduce these figures to the British mainstream, a new cultural canon. In an essay on Borges in The New Yorker, Steiner wrote of his “disdain of anchor.” Where was Steiner’s “anchor”? One answer comes in Real Presences: “In Kafka’s prose, in the poetry of Paul Celan or of Mandelstam, in the messianic linguistics of Benjamin and in the aesthetics and political sociology of Adorno…” The brilliance of the intellectual and modernist avant-garde in central Europe between the 1880s and 1930s was one of his great subjects. Jewish, urban, from “the inner capitals of the 20th century,” the Budapest of Lukács, the Paris of Lévi-Strauss and Sartre, the Prague of Roman Jakobson and Kafka, the Berlin of Benjamin and Brecht, the Vienna of Freud, Kraus, Mahler and Wittgenstein. For Steiner, the flowering of European culture in the early 20th Century was coterminous with post-emancipation Jewish culture: Marxism, psychoanalysis, and much of modern physics and mathematics, philosophy, modernism and what he called “the language revolution.” What is striking about these names is how many of them are Jewish. Look at the essays in Language and Silence: on Kafka, “Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron,” Claude Lévi-Strauss and Georg Lukács, Steiner himself, “A Kind of Survivor.”


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In British post-war culture, George Steiner broke the silence about the Holocaust. He was the first major critic to do so, both in his fiction, first in Anno Domini in 1964 and later, famously, in The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., and in his books and essays. Think of the Foreword to the 1969 Pelican Edition of Language and Silence. On the first page: Underlying these essays is the belief that literary criticism, if it is to be of any genuine interest at all and other than glorified book-reviewing, … ought to accept as its essential provocation the fact – to me scandalous in the deepest sense – of the coexistence in one time and place of “high culture” and political bestiality. He continues, Implicit in Language and Silence is the legacy, syllabus if you will, of that Central European humanism, c. 1860-1930, which Nazism and Stalinism all but obliterated. In so far as it looks back on a lost world, this book is unashamedly an act of remembrance, an effort, personal and limited, to keep certain names and habits of feeling alive. In particular, his writing is haunted by the relationship between civilisation and barbarism in 20th century Europe. In his book on Heidegger he writes, “I have sought to formulate certain questions about the interactions between, the interpretations of, artistic, philosophic, and scientific achievements on the one hand, and the totalitarian barbarisms of the twentieth century on the other. To ask such questions is to revert, obsessively perhaps, to the relations between German culture and Nazism…” In a book of interviews, A Long Saturday, published late in his career, he tells the interviewer, the death camps, Stalin’s camps, the great massacres, didn’t come from the Gobi desert; they came from the high civilizations of Russia and Europe, from the very center of our greatest artistic and philosophical pride; and the humanities put up no resistance. A new European canon, the role of Jews in modern culture, the relationship between modern barbarism, the Holocaust and Stalinism, and modern


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culture: all of this was Steiner’s legacy and he made these ideas matter to Anglo-American readers. But why was Steiner able to reach such a large audience? Let’s go back to Language and Silence. First published by Faber and Faber in England, then in paperback by Pelican. Most of his influential books were published by Penguin, Faber and Weidenfeld and Nicolson. After Babel (1975), his seventh book, was his first to be published by a university press. He was part of that generation of British intellectuals, along with EJ Hobsbawm and AJP Taylor, who reached a huge audience through paperbacks. Many of the essays in Language and Silence were originally published in “general interest” magazines: Commentary, Encounter, The Listener, The New York Times Book Review and The TLS. His writing was accessible. Old-fashioned, no jargon or Theory. He wrote what some called the higher journalism. It is worth remembering that Steiner began as a journalist, writing for The Economist for “four magnificent years” in the early 1950s. The Economist sent him to Princeton to interview J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. Their meeting led to an invitation to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and the beginning of his academic career. But the years on a magazine staff were always an important source. Later, in the 1960s, Steiner became the leading book reviewer for The New Yorker. 134 articles over more than thirty years, most of them reviews or review-essays. The range was typical: Webern and Vienna, Borges and Beckett, Karl Kraus and Céline. His third main journalistic home was the London Sunday Times, where the range was comparably broad. Part of Steiner’s impact, then, came from the fact that his major books were published in widely circulated and widely read paperbacks and the audience he reached through newspapers and magazines was, for decades, stirred by his learning and his provocative forays into unfamiliar territory. But there was also one other media home for Steiner, television and radio, especially in Britain. He appeared on the best-known British radio programmes: Start the Week, Private Passions and Desert Island Discs. In 1986 he published a short story about Desert Island Discs in Granta, a clever spoof on one of Britain’s most popular radio programmes.


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But it was through television that Steiner reached his largest audience. His first major programmes were The Tongues of Men (1977), a BBC TV series based on his book, After Babel (1975), and then in 1978, Has Truth a Future?, the first annual Bronowski Memorial Lecture for the BBC. These programmes introduced two of Steiner’s great themes: language and science, but, perhaps more important, they also introduced his very distinctive style: provocative, erudite, wide-ranging. His Bronowski lecture was peppered with references to Thales, Archimedes and Plato, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, Clausius and Kelvin. There was that ever so slightly foreign accent, the owlish spectacles, the passionate delivery. Again, the context was important. Steiner was one of a number of Jewish émigré intellectuals who regularly appeared on television and radio after the war, among them Steiner, Isaiah Berlin, Jacob Bronowski and Hans Keller. There was a notable shift in post-war culture from very English dons like Humphrey House and FR Leavis to these new outsiders speaking about all these foreign thinkers and challenging ideas. There was something else about these two early programmes. Both featured Steiner on his own: presenting a two-part documentary and a lecture delivered to camera. But I first heard the authentic Steiner voice in a TV discussion in the early 1980s. Steiner was discussing Art, Repression and Freedom on a Channel 4 programme called Voices with Al Alvarez, Joseph Brodsky and Mary McCarthy. John Naughton, the TV critic for The Observer, later wrote, One evening, I watched, mesmerised, as George fluently extemporised for ten whole minutes – without notes, hesitation or much repetition – on the question of whether an authoritarian political system can produce more artistic creativity than the “free” west. My review included a riff on a literary phenomenon – the Steiner sentence – a formidable expressive work that came, perfectly formed, with an ancillary apparatus of footnotes, subordinate clauses and scholarly asides… Naughton was right. Steiner’s delivery was fascinating. But what was really exciting was the nature of the debate. Steiner’s thesis was typically provocative. He expressed it in a later article in The New Statesman: “Se-


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rious literature, music and thought have the exasperating habit of being productive under tyranny. ‘Censorship is the mother of metaphor,’ said Borges. … Freedom and licence can bestow insignificance (what poem could have shaken the White House as Mandelstam’s epigram shook Stalin?).” Of course in Brodsky he had met his match. Brodsky was passionately opposed to Steiner’s argument. His response was short and devastating: “Yes, but liberty is the greatest masterpiece.” It was all about the contrast in styles, Steiner moving from name to name, anecdote to anecdote, constantly weaving, on the move. Brodsky the greater artist, was rock-solid, his argument grounded in his own experience of Soviet Communism and exile. Both men were at their peak. The Brodsky programme was broadcast in 1983. This was the beginning of a decade and a half when Steiner regularly appeared on latenight television talk programmes. He was enormously popular, his words debated, sometimes resisted, never ignored. British television, radio and newspapers were going through a revolution. They were becoming more relevant, more interested in new European cultural thinking. There was a new audience more receptive to Steiner’s ideas. It wasn’t just the ideas, though. George Steiner brought an incomparable sense of drama to these discussions, a sense of encounter. I first met him over lunch in 1987 at The Three Horseshoes pub in Madingley near Cambridge. We were there to prepare a television discussion about Freud’s legacy I was producing. This time, Steiner would debate with Bruno Bettelheim. Steiner leaned forward over lunch and in hushed, reverent tones he told me that this pub was where IA Richards had supervised William Empson. These tutorials led to Empson’s masterpiece, Seven Types of Ambiguity. What Steiner called “classics of encounter” is one of his great recurring images. The phrase comes from Errata, where he describes RP Blackmur’s “meditations on Henry James” as “classics of encounter.” Repeatedly, he cites Osip Mandelstam’s readings of Dante, Karl Barth glossing Romans, Celan’s meeting with Heidegger. He writes of “the hotel Zum Storchen where Nelly Sachs met with Paul Celan, occasioning, in the shared after-death of the Holocaust, one of the indispensable poems in the German language.” Always for George the thrill of encounters. “Hannah Arendt sought out the disgraced Heidegger [Heidegger, again]


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after the war.” Brod’s friendship with Kafka began with just such an encounter in 1903. Scholem and Benjamin first met in 1915. Benjamin was twenty-three and Scholem was seventeen. In his essay on Scholem, Steiner writes, “What kept the dialogue going through thick and thin, what gives it enduring stature, were the successive discussions of Kafka.” And, of course, there are Steiner’s own encounters. For example, with Gershom Scholem. “We met in Berne at the very café-table which he had frequented with Walter Benjamin.” In Scholem’s study in Zurich, “dark with late afternoon,” “he showed me a photocopy of a tract, newly unearthed in Salonika, proving, as he had boldly conjectured, that a lineage of Sabbatarian heresy had survived covertly almost into modern times.” It is this that makes his memoir Errata and his book, Lessons of the Masters, so fascinating. Both bring this sense of an encounter, between teacher and pupil, sometimes poisonous with envy or race-hatred, to life. All these encounters took place between 1903, when Kafka met Brod, and 1967, when Celan went to Todtnauberg to see Heidegger. When Steiner wrote of coming after, he meant coming after these encounters. For him, what followed was decline. In the 1987 programme Steiner and Bruno Bettelheim were to debate Freud’s legacy. The presenter was Michael Ignatieff, and the format was similar in style to Steiner’s debate with Brodsky. Again, Steiner was constantly on the move, erudite, superficially polite and deferential, but in no doubt that he was the cleverer of the two men. Bettelheim, like Brodsky, was still, impassive, full of an inner certainty, based, again like Brodsky, on experience. Steiner conceded that there was something of value in Freud’s legacy. “The influence is enormous, all-pervasive.” But the reservations are profound. Did Freud over-sexualise the unconscious. “Oh, fantastically. Fantastically.” “How much more do we know about sibling rivalry than was known to the authors of the Old Testament and of Esau and Jacob? How much more do we know about children and parents than was known to Shakespeare when he wrote King Lear?” Through the discussion, Steiner argued that in many ways the whole Western tradition of self-reflection has been curiously diminished by the Freudian contribution, whereas Bettelheim argued that this is the tradition Freud left immeasurably enriched. Steiner drew on literature and cultural reference, Bettelheim on clinical experience.


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Later that summer, we met again. This time we were to discuss a programme about the Holocaust. I was producing a ninety-minute TV discussion to accompany the first British broadcast of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. Again, the presenter was Michael Ignatieff and the guests were Lanzmann, Steiner, the Holocaust historian, Yehuda Bauer, the British writer Frederic Raphael and the Polish historian, Maciej Jachimczyk. The programme began with a lengthy interview with Lanzmann about the film. The subsequent discussion was intense and passionate. There were several reasons. First, the studio air conditioning wasn’t working. It was a very hot September afternoon and tempers rose with the heat in the studio. Secondly, Lanzmann was convinced that Steiner had not seen the film so that there was a current of hostility between the two men throughout. Lanzmann had told me the night before that if he discovered that Steiner had not seen his film, he would walk out. But it was Steiner who erupted during the discussion, provoked by Lanzmann’s criticisms of the Poles during the Holocaust: I find this almost unbearable as a discussion. Forgive me. Almost unbearable… I was from Paris. It was our concierge, who informed the Gestapo first who the Jews were and how to get them. To say that Treblinka could have been only in Poland, God perhaps can say. Jewishness and the Holocaust have always been at the heart of Steiner’s work. For Steiner, the Holocaust is the unspoken secret chamber in European culture, the moment “when European history stood at midnight.” But he was never very interested in film. Susan Sontag had been due to take part in this discussion but had to drop out at short notice. She would have been entirely at home talking about Shoah as cinema. She would have compared Lanzmann as a filmmaker with Syberberg, Ophuls or perhaps even Leni Riefenstahl. But this Steiner was not disposed to do. A year later, in 1988, we met when Steiner appeared on a BBC programme, The Late Show with Clive James, to discuss why so many leading writers and thinkers embraced inhuman ideas. Other participants included the critic, Christopher Ricks, and Sartre’s French biographer, Annie Cohen-Solal. The subject is another of the big questions that runs


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through Steiner’s work. As he wrote about Céline soon after, “Does aesthetic creativity, even of the first order, ever justify the favorable presentation of, let alone, systematic incitement to, inhumanity? Can there be literature worth publication, study, critical esteem which suggests racism, which makes attractive or urges the sexual use of children?” The same problem recurs in George’s work on Heidegger, where he considers “the central paradox of the co-existence in Heidegger of a philosopher of towering stature and of an active partisan in barbarism.” In his essay, Heidegger: In 1991, he listed other examples: Voltaire’s Jew-hatred was rabid. The racism of Frege was of the blackest hue. Sartre not only sought to evade or find apologia for the world of the Gulag; he deliberately falsified what he knew of the insensate savagery of the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China. Steiner returned to a few of these figures again and again. Heidegger, of course. “[I]t is Heidegger’s silence post-1945 rather than the opaque and pathetic rhetoric of 1933-34 which challenges our understanding.” “But the thinker of Being found nothing to say of the Holocaust and the death-camps.” Eliot’s antisemitism, the subject of his exchange with Ricks, led to a fierce exchange with the poet and critic, Craig Raine, in The London Review of Books in June and July 1989. It is worth quoting Steiner’s response to Raine at some length: Notes Towards a Definition of Culture continues to strike me as an often frigid, innerly confused text. To approach the theme of any such redefinition within the immediate wake of the Holocaust without addressing that event, without seeking to elucidate its possible roots within European civilisation and Christendom, without examining the very notion of culture in the light (in the absolute dark) of the new barbarism, remains either frivolous or worse. For Eliot to do so when his earlier sympathies with certain aspects of European reactionary sensibility were fully known, and, by 1948, deeply embarrassing, remains a challenging, saddening puzzle. The footnote in the original version which I


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referred to only makes matters much uglier. … But the issue is not, of course, the footnote or Craig Raine’s little games with it. It is the central silence in Eliot on culture, on European civility, on the future of poetry and thought, in respect of the Auschwitz world. That silence utterly perplexes me and the comparison with Heidegger’s – another man of eminent genius but of the most conservative and ‘masked’ political tenor – is perfectly admissible… Eliot’s distaste for Jews and Judaism is undisguised in his poetry and in such seminal statements as the 1933 lectures at the University of Virginia (not reissued, of course). Eliot’s covering of his tracks when anti-semitism had, via the Holocaust, become inhumanly debasing does invite the adjective ‘feline’ (he was, after all, a virtuoso in regard to cats). For Eliot, the Jew remained an anarchic, opaquely troubling agent of incoherence in what should be the Europe of Virgil, of Dante and of the great Anglo-Catholic poets and thinkers. I have stated time and again that such a view is perfectly legitimate and in need of serious debate. The notorious passages in Eliot’s poetry, the silence in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the truly dismaying attempts by Eliot to suppress his After Strange Gods and to tinker with the footnote which I cited to Professor Ricks, are no contribution to any such discussion. The dynamic was familiar. Steiner was never interested in the presenters, though Al Alvarez, Michael Ignatieff and Clive James were all interesting figures in their own right. It was always clear that his main opponent was the best-known figure on the panel: Brodsky, Bettelheim, Ricks. There was something feline about Steiner’s style: outwardly polite, even respectful, but under the surface he was competitive, out to win. This is what gave these debates their electric charge. He began the discussion by pointing out that because Ricks had just flown in from Boston, he might not have had time to read a devastating review of his new book on TS Eliot. Steiner could be a kind and generous man. But he had a dark side. Malice was his prize-winning essay at Oxford in 1952. One of his


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best essays, Invidia, is on literary envy. The essay was published in My Unwritten Books, in this case unwritten because “it came too near the bone.” “Twice,” he writes, “I have heard the phone-call from Stockholm ring in the office next door.” The office next door, like the doorway in House’s rooms, is a telling image. Earlier this year there was an exchange of letters in The TLS about Steiner. Why was he never made a professor at Cambridge? Why did he remain a lifelong outsider in British academic culture, from that early encounter with House to his retirement? He was a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Geneva for twenty years, awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, invited to give the Norton Lectures at Harvard, though Cambridge never gave him a chair. Was it because of antisemitism? Was he just too Jewish? For others, the issue was simple. Steiner was too difficult, too “unclubbable.” The exchanges with Brodsky, Bettelheim, Lanzmann and Ricks gave a flavour of this. Brilliant and eloquent, but too provocative, too quick to give and take offence. Our next television programmes together were both in 1992 for the BBC’s nightly arts and ideas programme, The Late Show (not to be confused with The Late Show with Clive James). The first was a discussion on the end of Communism, with Jacques Rupnik and Jacques Attali, broadcast on 13 April 1992. It was part of a group of programmes I produced with Michael Ignatieff on the end of Communism, following the fall of the Soviet regime. Others included interviews with Czeslaw Milosz and Isaiah Berlin. This was just the sort of big history Steiner relished. Before we filmed the first programme, he and I met for lunch in Cambridge. The Maastricht Treaty was in the news. “Maastricht,” he said, “where D’Artagnan died.” For Steiner history was always about big dramatic moments. 1789, Dreyfus, the Fall of France, the Fall of the Wall. Moments of great historical crisis. He had just published Proofs and Three Parables, a slim book of short stories. First published in Granta in 1991, Proofs is the story of an old Communist proof reader. In a way, it is a companion piece to B.B., his essay on Brecht in The New Yorker on 10 September 1990. Both are responses to the end of Communism in Europe. Steiner’s response was typically provocative. It is curiously elegiac, a lament for what was best and most civilised about the Communist dream.


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His essay on Brecht begins with “The tumultuous throng,” pouring through the Berlin Wall. It “emptied the supermarkets and the video shops. Within hours there was neither fast food nor deodorants left. West Berlin emporiums were stripped of their ample supplies of soft- and sometimes hard-core porno video cassettes. T-shirts and jeans, a currency across the Wall in the days of the two Germanys, flew off the shelves.” In the next paragraph, Steiner goes on to acknowledge, The gains have been tremendous. Regimes of hideous stupidity, of corrupt despotism, of inefficiency beyond credence have been broken. Slowly, human beings east of Berlin and the Oder-Neisse are regaining their self-respect, their liberty of motion, their sense of a possible future. More slowly, but tangibly nonetheless, the hidden dimensions of the iceberg of past massacres, lies, sadistic charades are surfacing… Not since 1789 has Europe felt so alive, so inebriate with possibility. … The ancient bells of Prague and Kraków can be heard across sombre but living ground. Then another twist, But there are losses. Marxism … felt committed to certain archaic, paternalistic ideals of high literacy, of literary-academic culture. Classic theatre and music, the publication of the classics flourished. … [M]uch of what is shoddiest in modernity in the media, in down-market entertainment was kept (partly) at bay… In the supermarket, Goethe is a lossmaker. Proofs uses almost identical language: Shots of teenagers from the east tumbling into West Berlin supermarkets, rocking in wonder before the shelves, emptying them in a sleep-walker’s sweep. Bright-tinted toothpaste, lacquer for toenails, soft toilet-paper in the hues of the rainbow, deodorants, tights finely meshed and stippled, jeans bleached or mended. … One of the lads mouthed his message straight into the bobbing mike: ‘Horror-films, man. Porno.’


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The story also twists and turns. This movement in Steiner’s essay on Brecht and soon after in Proofs, reflects a larger tension about Communism in his writing. On the one hand, he consistently coupled Soviet terror with Nazism when he wrote about mid-20th century barbarism. He admiringly referred to Akhmatova, Pasternak, and a later generation of dissident writers, especially Solzhenitsyn. Few post-war literary critics wrote as often about Soviet barbarism. On the other hand, Steiner often juxtaposed western, especially American, trash culture –fast food, porn, deodorants – with a sentimental nostalgia for Soviet high culture. Proofs ends with the old Communist rejoining the Party, “coming home.” This raises the question of Steiner’s ambivalence not just about Communism, but about television. On the one hand, few literary critics embraced the medium as he did. He never turned down an invitation to appear. He was a superb broadcaster, at home in the TV studio. Fluent and erudite. The ideas poured out. On the other hand, he had contempt for trash culture. Whenever he wrote about television, he wrote about trash culture, “down-market entertainment,” “porn,” never about the programmes he made, his discussions with intellectuals like Ernest Gellner, Bettelheim and Brodsky, interviews he gave about Kafka and modernism. In these programmes we made together during the 1980s and 1990s, Steiner talked about subjects that mattered to him: Freud and fin de siècle Vienna, the Holocaust, great writers who embraced evil and the end of Communism. By then, British television had caught up with him. A new culture had opened up on both sides of the Atlantic, less insular, more at home with European ideas. Steiner was still an outsider in the Cambridge English department but he was at home in the books pages of The New Yorker and The Sunday Times and the television and radio studios of the BBC. When the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was announced, BBC 2 interviewed Steiner live; when the Berlin Wall came down Granta, Faber and Faber and The Late Show wanted his views. And he delivered, accessibly—and, again, provocatively. George Steiner played a huge part in changing post-war culture: in the breaking of the silence about the Holocaust; in the opening up of Anglophone culture to the culture and ideas of central European humanism; and in facing up to the impact of barbarism in modern Europe on


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our culture. Steiner didn’t change between that encounter with House in 1952 and these programmes in the 1980s and 1990s. It was British culture that changed. It became receptive to his ideas. During these twenty years between his first TV programmes in the late 1970s and the late 1990s, he coincided with a particular moment in British culture. It embraced Steiner and a whole generation of critics and intellectuals: Susan Sontag, John Berger and Edward W. Said, Isaiah Berlin and EJ Hobsbawm. George Steiner, sadly, has died. That larger cultural moment has passed also. At least in Britain. We will never again see a ninety-minute TV discussion about a film like Shoah or debates between figures like Steiner, Brodsky and Ernest Gellner. When I heard that Steiner was desperately ill, I wrote to him. He replied straightaway: “Thank you for the beautiful letter. It means much to me. So many good memories. Too ill to write more.”


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George at Chess BY WILLIAM LOGAN

I met George Steiner at a lawn party. That summer of 1993, Debora and I had begun a long stay in Cambridge, where a few years earlier we’d bought a house in an old working-class neighborhood near the railway station. The row of terrace houses had been built in the 1880s, two parlors with a kitchen to the rear, three bedrooms upstairs, with a w.c. accessible only out the back door and down a little alley beside the house. (One small bedroom was often converted later to a full bath.) The slightly larger terraces offered a bay window, as ours did; about half had doormat-sized gardens in front and all had twenty feet of garden behind. Among late-Victorian occupants were a coachman, a draftsman, a bookbinder, a college servant, a few police constables, and a flautist. The near corners once boasted two groceries and a pub. Further down the street, the houses grew broader and some feet taller, and hard by the station a number had been converted to guest houses. The station stood a long mile from the ancient colleges clustered at the town center. When the railway reached the city in 1845, they demanded that the station be a good distance away to keep the rabble out—so went local myth, and like most myth not untrue but not true, either. The colleges merely refused to sell the necessary land. When we took up life in Cambridge, the old railway hotel was still open. The imposing Victorian flour mill along the tracks, since converted to a tall stack of condominiums, was still grinding grain. There must have been fields where the terrace


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houses rose—fields and a windmill, commemorated by Mill Street and Mill Road. The streets around our house were slowly changing. John, our neighbor, had come to Cambridge from the Ukraine after the war. He raised onions and cut the lawn of his miniature garden with scissors. Those postwar tenants were succumbing to age—indeed, John died two or three years later. Young families were moving in. We’ve now owned the house longer than almost anyone along the street. George was delighted to meet us because his son-in-law had grown up in Gainesville, Florida, where I’ve taught for many years. That August George and Zara invited us over to Barrow Road when their daughter and son-in-law, both classics scholars, came to visit. The Steiner house had been built between the wars on Trinity College land. The road was lined with cherry trees. We sat in the parlor furnished with a teal-blue Danish Modern sofa, two wingback armchairs, a leather club-chair, a large mid-century modernist painting, and the knickknacks and accoutrements common in Anglo-American parlors. On bookshelf and window ledge, however, as well as on a series of narrow wall-shelves, stood chess set after chess set, a dozen or more—English, Irish, Indian. Searching for something to say, I remarked, “You have a remarkable collection of sets.” “Do you play?” George shot back. Our first game was scheduled directly, and there began the quarter-century ritual. At first once a week, soon twice, whenever we were both in the country, I arrived at the house at two p.m. The board and pieces were already arranged on the nineteenth-century sewing table in the parlor. George waved me into one of the armchairs, taking a smaller chair for himself. We’d indulge in a little chat on the politics of the hour, on our reading or writing—and quickly get down to business. I never played chess competitively, and when I did play I relied on housebound logic and native cunning rather than the skills that come from study. In brief, I was a lazy student of the art. (When we were playing badly, George fondly, with only slight disgust, referred to us as patzers.) I was aware after our first afternoon that I was outclassed by his deep knowledge of openings. The games remained entirely informal. We never used a chess clock—I’m not sure George owned one—and never, though this I regret, kept a record of a game. If we refused to lay ourselves under


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the tyranny of time, we still played relatively quickly—not as fast as in blitz, but fast enough that we didn’t tire of ourselves. A minute, perhaps two, in rare cases three might pass between moves; but if a move took longer there might be some uneasy shuffling or throat-clearing. At least once every few months, one us would say, after extended silence, “It’s your move,” and the other would reply, “I thought it was yours!” Then we’d laugh and figure out which patzer had been daydreaming. I was forty-two, George sixty-four, when we began the long match that amounted to more than two thousand games. I’d played chess with only two people after college, the lawyer Leonard Boudin, and that just for a weekend, and the poet Donald Justice for a few weeks one summer at an art colony. I held my own with both, though Justice knew far more than I did about openings. A few years after those summer games, when I joined Don at the University of Florida, we never managed to rekindle that earlier competition. We did play poker on occasion, a game I preferred. I almost always find games boring unless money is on the line. George’s advantage in opening theory remained for the first year we played, though early on I armed myself with a book on the subject, the cheapest I could find. I used the time spent walking the two miles to the Steiners’ on the other side of town to memorize the first eight or ten moves in a number of lines. We were about evenly matched by the time Debora and I returned to Florida the following summer; but a curious withering gradually set into our openings, perhaps inevitably when two opponents play each other frequently. Every few months, George would bring out a different set, made of wood, ivory, or occasionally both. The only set we had to abandon was Irish, turned from two different woods—one dark, one light. Alas, the woods had aged to nearly the same color, and play proved impossible. I didn’t make the obvious political point. Debora and I began to return every summer, largely because chess and the afternoon teas with George and Zara gave us welcome society. The chess remained irregular and charitable. Usually we opened with E4, only occasionally with the Queen’s pawn. We most often played variations on the Ruy Lopez, the Nimzo-Indian, the Najdorf, and occasionally the Queen’s Gambit Declined. It was a dramatic moment when one of us fianchettoed a bishop. I grew too fond of queenside castling—had we been better players, it probably would have been less successful.


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The geniality of the games was proved in our forgiveness for any lapse into inattention or idiocy. If either of us missed the obvious—a distant bishop, say, stealthily guarding the square on which a piece landed—the numbskull was allowed to withdraw the move. Occasionally that might be two moves, but beyond that the chances were that neither of us could remember the previous position well enough to restore the board to status quo ante. We’d collapse into laughter and start another game. The only exception to this amateur softhearted- and softheadedness was that if a piece blundered into a devious trap or long-prepared pitfall, the move would stand. As such a coup was far more infrequent than a move that would have made Morphy scratch his head, geniality was more in evidence than genius. A further sign of our lack of skill was that our games rarely ended in a draw. A grandmaster may look forward to drawing tactically from a seemingly lost position; but winning or losing in Spartan fashion is the chief exercise of the middling player. After we’d spent a couple of hours at chess, Debora would arrive and join us in the kitchen with Zara, who had laid the table for tea. Never an avid tea drinker, George in later years polished off a tumbler of orange juice instead. There was usually a plate of hot croissants (rarely, scones), with chocolate cake as the sweet. The Steiners always used an ancient ceramic teapot. The second or third summer, the handle broke, and Zara asked if I could mend it. I made a new one out of a spoon handle and a length of gardener’s wire wound tightly around it. The teapot with its spatchcock handle lasted as long as the games; and on occasion I was detailed to do some of the handiwork that comes when you own a home, replacing a lightbulb in an awkward ceiling-fixture high above the stairs, puzzling over some problem with the water heater, retuning the buttons on the radio. Once I ordered Zara a refrigerator. (She said wryly, on the earlier purchase of a new freezer, “This should see us out.”) When George retired, he was forced to move out of Churchill College. He called one day in a muddle, and I found him in the middle of an office in a state of furious disorder. George had been one of the founding fellows when Churchill opened in 1960. Built on rolling land in north Cambridge, the college nestled against the backs of Fitzwilliam College and New Hall (now Murray Edwards, of which Zara was acting president for a year), which lie on the ancient Roman Road


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north. Churchill sits on a byway just south of the Georgian observatory. George’s rectangular office, with a bay window and large window seat on the long wall, was furnished with a desk at the far end, a pair of dinky wardrobes, and a table or two. He greeted me amid knee-high stacks of books that covered the floor, ruined pilings in the tidal shoals of literature. The cause of the anarchy was soon apparent. Whenever George published a book or article, the publisher sent copies, as many as a dozen. Pulling one or two from the package, he’d stuff the remainder wherever convenient. The postmarks on the Jiffy bags provided forensic evidence. Some bags dating to the early seventies had never been opened. Early discards had been stored in one of the wardrobes. When that filled, the other became the storehouse, then the floor beneath the nearby tables, then the tabletops, the window seat, and at last the rest of the floor. When I arrived, only a narrow path remained between door and desk. I spent some hours sorting the decades of books and magazines. Eventually a copy of every publication found its way to Boston University. The orphans were sold to a local bookshop. George confessed that just that afternoon he’d thrown decades of correspondence into trash bags and tossed them into the college skip—that is, dumpster. It was one of the few times I argued with him, but he was adamant. He didn’t want those letters from a long list of twentieth-century writers and scholars to end up in a library. He’d replied to the letters, which had therefore served their purpose. All that evening, I thought of returning surreptitiously to the dumpster and rescuing those black bags. I knew he’d have been furious, had he known—and yet a part of him might have understood the compliment paid. When I conceded a game, especially when he’d won from what seemed a hopeless position, his gratification was limited to a small, sly smile. Then tea. George had been born with a withered right arm. He once or twice told the story of his interview for the Rhodes Scholarship, a condition of which was “fondness for and success in sports.” The committee, knowing that George couldn’t play, wondered if he knew anything about football. He said he did, so they asked if he could explain the difference between the T and I formations. George answered immediately and profoundly, drawing diagrams on a nearby blackboard. He received the Rhodes. Though happy to use a typewriter, he stoutly refused to master


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a computer. (I believe he thought the machine slightly demonic, though he claimed his eye doctor said the screen would ruin his eyes.) His IBM daisywheel, a relic of the 1980s, lasted for nearly thirty years; but when it stopped working the local repairmen had all retired, and those in the next town, and the next. I finally found a man in London—the last surviving repairman in southern England—who could recondition the machine. As I was back in the States, I arranged for the typewriter to be freighted down—it was all a little expensive. To ensure that George would have his favorite machine for another decade, I ordered a load of cartridges and correction tapes, which were no longer manufactured. Alas, his writing days were nearing their end. The large lawn behind the Steiner house was laid with beds of roses and other flowers visited by deer agile enough to leap the waist-high fence. After he lost his college office, George and Zara had what was called the Library built in a corner—his new office, every wall covered with bookshelves. When he moved in, the shelves were empty; by the time we suspended our games during his long last illness, they were overflowing, and piles of books filled much of the carpet. Inside the house, he once had a small office off the master bedroom, but that had long silted up past reclamation. I can’t say I don’t know how that happens, and how rapidly. The mock battles of chess conceal real ones—chess is pathology masquerading as psychology. Bishops have long replaced battle elephants in the original ranks, and rooks the chariots. (The armies Alexander faced may have provided the original portrait, though the game evolved later.) Even between friends, such games rely, whatever the open-faced look of the board, on Machiavellian cunning more than accident, though the fog of battle has its place. Most blunders come from a curious blindness rather than defects of logic, the failure to see as well as the failure to foresee. Blunders in poetry require a similar sort of seeing without seeing. The tender diplomacy of those skirmishes on Barrow Road was conducted despite the rough-and-tumble, no holds-barred nature of chess. When the games ran against him, George would say, “Not my day.” Then all was forgotten, even forgiven, over tea. Whenever I returned to the States, I’d receive a letter from George every few weeks. The letters stopped during the last decade of our friendship, replaced by surprise overseas calls. They were never long,


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as George was a child of the Depression, when such calls were difficult and expensive. From time to time we talked of playing a correspondence game; but that never went further than dreamy planning. I kept a record of our wins and losses for the quarter-century we played. Matters did tilt a little in my favor, but I won’t say how much or how far. Even in his late eighties, he could still rise to the occasion and beat the hell out of me. In a note left in the sewing table on which we had played all those years, he gave me a set he’d commissioned fifty years before from the artist Michael Ayrton. We’d long planned to play with it—it had never been used—but somehow we never found the occasion. That was his last gift, after so many others that had no material form. What have I left out? Zara’s profound knowledge of American and English political history. George’s pronouncements on, well, everything. The chess afternoons postponed because a diplomat had come to give George a medal, or a film crew to interview him. The phone calls George answered in German, French, or a version of Italian. The pub dinners, at least until the Steiners were in their eighties. The two Old English sheepdogs, and the smaller mutt that followed. The trip to London so George and I could eat at his club. The driving tour to an ancient church in East Anglia. There was a life with the Steiners beyond chess and tea, but mostly it was chess . . . and tea. Such friendships cannot be compassed in a few words, and my saying that will give only the shadow of the extent, the devastation, of the loss. The first time we returned to the States, George had become so reliant on those chess afternoons that he sought another partner; but when I came back to Cambridge the following summer he admitted that after a few weeks he’d dismissed my replacement. The games, he said, hadn’t quite been the same. That may be the greatest compliment he paid me.


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Qiechang BY LESLIE EPSTEIN

1. To the surprise of all her classmates at the Barker Conservatory of Music, as well as to her teachers there, Cynthia Ang won the Annual Debut Night Competition and would soon play at Symphony Hall. Cynthia was no less surprised herself, which perhaps explained why her talent seemed to go to pieces. The closer the date of her performance grew—only three weeks!—the more notes she missed, the more her own perspiration stung her eyes, the heavier her arms, her hands, her fingers became. Then one night she had a dream. She was sitting next to her old teacher, Ernst Barbakoff, and turning the pages of the score for him while he played as beautifully as she imagined he had in his world-famous youth. Later that day, she told Isaac, whom she was living with, what she could remember. “I stood up to turn the page and then sat again on the piano bench. And when he was done, he lifted his hands—they were beautiful hands, not the way they are now, all twisted, but the white hands of a boy—and the music faded and I sat there applauding like mad. I’m trying to remember what he was playing. Something romantic. Was it Rachmaninoff? Was it Chopin?” Isaac, beside her on the living room couch, said, “That’s really weird. I haven’t thought of him in ages.” “I don’t think I have, either. He wasn’t nice to me when he was teaching English. Even though it was my fault.”


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For a moment they both thought of the coincidence that had brought them together. An entire year had gone by at the Conservatory before they realized that each of them had once studied under the same teacher. Mr. Barbershop! They had shouted that out to each other. You had him, too? That’s when their friendship began. Cynthia said, “You know what it means, don’t you?” “What what means?” “The dream.” “It doesn’t mean anything. You can’t even remember what he was playing. It could have been a jingle for soap.” “It means I’ve got to find him. It means that he’s the one who can help me.” “That’s just crazy, Cin-Cin. He was rotten to you. He mocked you in front of your whole class. Because you had forgotten a poem.” “Because I stole someone else’s poem.” “And he walked out on me. Refused to give me any more lessons. He’s ancient. As moth-eaten as his clothes. I don’t think he’s taught anybody for years.” “I stood in the classroom in front of everyone: Angela and Mid and Q and Nadine and I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed then and Isaac, my Isaac, I am paralyzed now. I think this means that he is the one to free me.” “With what? A magic wand? Like a princess in some fairy tale? Those hands: he can’t teach any more.” “But he did once. You know it yourself. We both learned everything from him. Can’t you admit it?” He ignored the question. Instead he said, “Look, I’ve got a bad feeling about what you are saying. If you really want to find to him, don’t do it by yourself.” “Why not? What do you think is going to happen to me? He’s like a hundred years old.” “I don’t mean that kind of bad feeling. Not physically. I mean nothing good can happen. You’ve moved on, Cin-Cin. You’ve become—you know what you’ve become. An artist. A virtuoso. And everyone is going to know it. I’m afraid he’ll pull you back. To being a schoolgirl again.”


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As it happened, he gave this warning with his hand well up her skirt. He’d already played all he wanted to with her breasts. “Well, I maybe wish I were that schoolgirl.” He laughed. “If you mean your virginity, that’s long gone.” She didn’t mean that, exactly. She meant the way she had once been at the piano: learning, and wanting to learn more, an eager person. And now? A shadow had fallen over her. She jumped at the least sound. She was timid. People would see her. People would hear her. She knew nothing made sense. The schoolgirl should be the shy one. She, the virtuoso, ought to be unafraid. She made up her mind to think this through. But not now. Now she was pulling at the zipper of Isaac’s corduroy pants. She threw a leg over him and watched how his penis sprang up at her like a dog for a treat.

2. A few days later Cynthia, with her little sprig of flowers, the first daisies of the year, got out of the T at Central Square and made her way down Magazine Street. She turned left on Allston and came across a beggar in rags. He was propped against a brick building, his legs pulled up to his chin. She dug into her purse for a dollar and held it out to the bedraggled man. He did not look at her. He did not say, God bless you. That feather, the splinter of good will, did not fall on the scale. In less than a minute the girl arrived at Ernst Barbakoff’s house. She double-checked the address against what the woman at the Pearl Street Library had written on a piece of paper. This, the thin, three story building, had to be the right one. She had no idea—the librarian herself did not know—if her teacher still lived there. Or, indeed, if he were still alive. She had called the number on the paper scrap; the phone was no longer in service. “You’ll be taking a chance,” this Miss Virginia had said, when she wrote down the information. She showed Cynthia the advertisement for lessons that Ernst Barbakoff had once posted there. World Renowned Pianist. But there was no name, no address, no number. Leave replies with librarian was written at the bottom. Isaac had told her that was how,


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years earlier, his mother had contacted the teacher. All Cynthia knew was that he had long-since stopped teaching at her old pilot school and that his wife had died. Angela and Malcolm, her classmates, had gone to the funeral. Miss Virginia was the name spelled out at the reception desk; when she’d finished writing down Mr. Barbakoff’s address and phone number, she’d said, “I am that librarian.” She held out the scrap of paper. “I took a chance, too.” Cynthia walked up the stoop. The warped portal that confronted her there was not fully closed. She pushed through and began to climb the flights of stairs. Twice she stopped, wishing she had accepted Isaac’s offer to come with her. At the top floor, a closed door, no buzzer, no bell. A great pianist would not take the risk of rapping. You could dislocate your knuckles. Graffman, Fleisher, that crazy Glenn Gould: the legends about their injured hands. Nonetheless, she knocked. No answer. Oh, and Schumann, too: but he had syphilis. At that word, not even spoken, she felt her cheeks getting hotter. Isaac had told her what all that blushing was about. He’d read Freud. The excitement a maiden—he actually used that word, maiden—feels in the lips of her vagina and the cheeks of her buttocks when, say, the gentlemen make off-color remarks, she then displaces upward to her other lips and other cheeks. “You see?” Isaac exclaimed. “She gets to enjoy the sexual excitement and assert her innocence all at the same time.” He’d looked at her, his finger at his chin. “You never wear lipstick, do you?” he’d asked. Cynthia knocked again. She heard a noise inside the apartment, and then someone, it was Mr. Barbershop, called out, “Who is it?” “It’s Cynthia, Mr. Barbakoff. Your student. Cynthia Ang.” “Who? What student is this?” “Do you remember me? From the Academy of the Arts? Cynthia? I was a pianist. I’m at the Barker Conservatory now. On a scholarship.” Her teacher had come closer. She thought he was on the other side of the door. “But I stopped teaching the piano. Years ago.” “You came to our Senior Concert. I saw you in the audience. The Franck sonata. The A-major sonata. You frightened me. I did not dare miss a note.” A chain, she thought, dropped. He was fumbling at the lock. The door opened a crack. Half of him was standing there at the jamb. “The


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A-major,” he said. “I remember that. I remember Miss Tillery-Hicks. The one with the mother. Do I remember you?” “I don’t know. I was wearing a white dress.” He stepped back and stared at her. She was wearing, on this cool spring day, jeans and a sweater over her blouse. And a round, off-red woolen cap. “These glasses,” he said. “That’s what I remember. You were a charlatan. You did not write your own poem. You made a substitution. It was an act of—” He broke off. He removed his own glasses, the round black spectacles he wore for reading. Cynthia saw that he had a thick book in the crook of his arm. He put the glasses on again and shook his head. “There is a blockage. On occasions I do not think of the word.” “Plagiarism,” Cynthia said. “You wrote it on the blackboard.” “Very good, Miss Ang. I am glad you have learned that lesson.” “I’m sorry. I apologize. I was petrified because I could not think of anything on my own.” He was a tall man still, though bent. He looked down on this diminutive girl, with her silly hat. It had a pom-pom at the center. “This act, for me, had consequences,” he said. Cynthia said, in little more than a whisper, “I know.” The whole class knew: his outburst at her, the disturbance that day, had cost him his job. What she half-knew, what they had all halfguessed, was the chain of events: the private lessons he had been forced to give; the woman he met—that same librarian who had written out this address; the death of his jealous wife; and so the disheveled man, wildhaired, not shaven, who stood stooped before her. “I’m sorry,” she said once again. But it seemed that her old teacher, Mr. Barbershop, had been following a different train of thought. “The river, you know, had frozen during the course of that night. It was white. The sky blue. The trees were covered in ice. The smallest twigs were encased in little shining pipes, as if they were a certain kind of insect, the pupa of an insect, inside its cocoon. I saw a red scarf, the color of your hat—it is a silly hat, why do you wear such a thing?—blowing down the ice. I felt that I was the one inside that chrysalis, about to be born. I came to you and your fellow students a man who had been renewed by the charm of nature. Then the foolishness. The barbarity. I say barbarity because you were heedless; you were immune to beauty. The boys showed their buttocks.”


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“We weren’t thinking.” “Thoughtlessness is in my opinion a source of much harm. The man who left the classroom that morning was not the man who entered it. A strangulation occurred. I was once more the man I had been. You see the specimen before you now.” The girl took off her cap, revealing the strings of hair that pulled at the skin of her face. “Is that better?” she asked. He did not seem to hear her. “It is perplexing. I thought of the word chrysalis. And that foolish hat is called, I believe, a tam o’shanter. But other words elude me.” “I want to tell you something, Mr. Barbakoff. I’ve been chosen to play at Symphony Hall. The Two-Part Inventions. For the Annual Debut Night. I’ll be on the radio. And maybe television. It’s—well, they say it’s a big deal. I wanted to say this because I know I owe it to you.” His reaction surprised her. “You should step away from my door. I do not want to talk to you. What you have to say—it is a masquerade. I had nothing to do with this—this big deal. I am well aware of my failures as a teacher. It was the wrong step for me to take in life. None of my hundreds of students has had—what do people seek? Fame? Fortune? To attract beautiful women? I did not instruct you, Miss Ang. Lucky for you I did not.” “Why do you say that, Mr. Barbershop? What about Mid? What about Q? And Malcolm? They all say you were their best teacher ever.” “I taught them literature. It was tomfoolery. I could not find in English the proper word, just as I could not at the keyboard find the right note. I was defeated by my disease.” “You remember Angela? Angela is in Cincinnati. With the orchestra there.” “You mention the exception; it proves the rule. Miss Tillery-Hicks played the violin.” “You make me want to stamp my foot, Mr. Barbershop! You did teach me. You talked from across the room. You said—that’s not right: you shouted, No, no, no, no. Miss Ang. Can’t you hear yourself? It is a piano. A piano, not a stove top. Your fingers will not be burnt. Be brave, little bird. Do not be impatient. Patience. Patience. Do not surrender. You don’t remember?”


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“Little bird. How could a man like me say such a thing?” “I am patient. I don’t take my hands off the keys. I am your

He did not, in the seconds that followed, reply. She did her best to keep her eyes on his whiskery face, so that she would not cause embarrassment by taking in the rest of him: the thin, naked ankles in mismatched slippers, the pooled bottoms of his pajamas, the half-opened bathrobe with the yellow stain of what must have been the yolk of an egg. Finally he said, “Why are you here? What is it you want of me?” “I want you to help me, Mr. Barbershop. I am just like what I was before. With the poem. Petrified. The concert is only a week away.” “I can do nothing for you. You see my hands—” He started to raise both of them; at once the thick volume slipped downward. The old man caught it against his hip. Cynthia thought of the illuminated slide they had shown at the Academy. Moses by the sculptor Michelangelo. The art teacher said Moses was angry at the Jewish people. They were misbehaving so he almost dropped the tablets of the law. That’s not what happened when Mid and Q pulled down their pants and Malcolm made his bugling noise. Their teacher, Mr. B, hadn’t been angry He only took out a cigarette. Was that because of the beautiful river? “What’s that book, Mr. Barbershop? It looks so heavy.” “It is heavy. It is the first volume of Gibbon. The Decline and Fall. You know, Miss Ang: of the Roman Empire.” “I don’t know. You did not teach us that.” “I did not know it myself. Now I hope to learn.” Cynthia took a breath, then spoke as rapidly as she could. “I want to learn, too. That’s why I am here. I had a dream about you, Mr. Barbershop. You were playing. I was turning the pages. I can’t go home. My mother says I am a disgrace. I feel so bad. We all slept together because the Steinway completely fills the only other room. You have to edge your way around it to reach the keyboard. It’s second hand. Or third hand. But my father worked a whole year to buy it. I don’t know how old I was. Maybe four. Maybe five. Now I sit there and it is like I am turned to stone. My mother hit me with a rolled up newspaper. She said I had dishonored the family. She screamed it. I had dishonored all Chinese people. You no good! You rotten! I think she wanted to kill me. Qiechâng! That’s what


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she said in our language. Stage fright. And the terrible thing is: I think what she said is true.” “Please, Miss Ang: do not stamp your foot again. Do not be angry. But I cannot help you. If your mother has made the correct diagnosis, you must see a doctor for the mind. I wish you well. But I also wish to say goodbye.” He stepped back and started to close the door. Without thinking, and at some small risk, she thrust her hand with the little bouquet through the opening. “What is this?” “Flowers. Daisies.” “But this you know is foolishness. An apple for the teacher. I am not your teacher.” “I missed the funeral. For Mrs. Barbakoff. Malcolm told me about it. Malcolm Wells? He played the trumpet? He told all of us about it.” “The funeral? That was almost three years ago.” “But I didn’t forget. I still feel bad I wasn’t there. So these are very late, but they are for her.” With his free hand, Mr. Barbakoff took the paper cone. “Thank you. I shall put them in water. Now do not think me rude, but I am asking you to go away.” Cynthia took a step back. He started to close the door. She said, “I am your pupil. I am not going to surrender.” The door closed in her face. But soon it opened again. He said, “This big book. The Gibbon. I have been carrying it about, from table to chair to sofa for a number of days. I have great difficulty reading the pages. I fear that the entire endeavor is quixotic. Don’t you agree? To begin a work you cannot hope to finish? So you see, my dear Miss Ang, I suffer from stage fright, too.” This time the door closed for good.


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There stood Ernst Barbakoff, Edward Gibbon in one hand and premature daisies in the other. Befuddled: that is the word for him. His mind oddly enough was on the young woman’s hat, with its ridiculous little pom-pom, a red one, on top. Not, in truth, the hat but her hair when she took it off. That was when he remembered her: the stuttering girl with the stolen poem. I was wearing a white dress, she had said; with an effort he was able to evoke her entrance at the Academy of the Arts. Then he recalled the music: the left hand accompaniment to the treble notes, D and F-sharp, and how, through all four measures, she had kept her fingers on the keys. He made his way to the kitchen and to the sink, where he intended to throw out the half dozen daisies. He got as far as opening the cupboard; the smell of rotting trash made him pull back. Instead he poured water into a glass and thrust the stems inside. Then he reached above the sink for the box of tea bags: empty. The canister of sugar was nearly empty, too. Mr. Mackay, the beggar on the corner, hadn’t been by in three days. That meant he would have no more bread, no more eggs. Was it warm enough for him to go out himself? Judging by Miss Ang, her flushed cheeks and the way she was dressed, the answer was no. He knew, on this late April day, that warmer weather was coming. But he also knew, in some deeper, hidden part of himself, that he intended never to leave his apartment again. Then he entertained the following thought: perhaps her cheeks were flushed not from the chill but from exertion, the three flights of stairs. What he did not, even fleetingly, entertain: the idea that her cheeks were glowing because of him.

4. Miss Ang, far from surrendering, returned two days later. On this occasion she did not have to knock twice. And on this occasion Mr. Barbershop was not wearing slippers; his feet were inside of shoes. His trousers were drawn into pleats by a belt with a dangling curl at the end. The buttons of his cardigan were in the wrong holes. His chin, though,


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and his cheeks were shaved. Looking at the near-miniature girl beneath him, he saw that she was dressed as before, except that the sweater was a different color, aquamarine. Once more, out of politeness, she removed her comical hat. He noted, again, how her eyebrows were pulled up in astonishment by the ropes of hair that were coiled into something like a winch at the back of her head. But this time he noted the small black mole half lost in her hairline. “So, Miss Ang: my discouragement had no effect. Here you are again.” “Yes,” was all she said. “Then I must give you a failing grade: perhaps in deportment; perhaps in cooperation.” “But an A in perseverance? You said that to all your students: lots of people were talented; to succeed you had to persevere.” Was he, with those long lips—in truth, not that carefully shaven—forming a smile? “Not so many have talent,” he said. The words, of course, pierced her, as did his eyes; they seemed, beneath the impossibly tangled brows, to bore inches in. “That’s my trouble,” she said. “I have begun to doubt my own.” She feared, unaccountably, that he was going to step back into his apartment and shut the door. But he remained motionless. “You succeeded in reminding me of the evening at the Academy. The Senior Concert. The Leonore was played poorly; this was an inappropriate choice for the—let us say for the forces available to perform it. The ballet and the modern dancing. The syncopated music. It has all come back to me. Of course the Franck Sonata. Yes, the white dress. The hardly visible curtsy before the crowd. I have in the past paid the greater part of my attention to Miss Tillery Hicks, to when the violin arrived in the key of B-minor. But over the last two days I have recalled and played in my mind the start of this music: the left hand accompaniment to the treble notes, in D and F-sharp. And I am aware, Miss Ang, of how through all four measures you did not remove your fingers from the keys. Lack of talent is not your difficulty.” In a whisper: “Could you tell me what is?” “No, I cannot. I am not your teacher. As I have told you before. It is a problem of disposition. You are far from the first person to realize that in spite of great gifts it will not be possible to play in front of an audience.


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You may be discovering this trait in yourself, a quirk in your nature, at a young age. With others—” “Did this not happen to you?” She said this without thinking. And without thinking she plunged on. “You never play. You haven’t played in a hundred years.” He was not carrying a heavy volume of Gibbon now. So he was able to hold up both hands. “Have you seen these?” Of course she had. They were frightening, like a pirate’s hooks. But it was not that sight that made her want to turn and flee. It was because the idiot girl had remembered—too late!— what the whole world, the world of music, knew: that Ernst Barbakoff the prodigy had stopped his career at the death of his son. Then a greater fear: that if she did not flee, he would. Instead, with one of those twisted fingers he pointed at the white paper bag in her left hand. “What have you there?” he asked. “Scones. From the bakery.” “This is a kind of muffin?” “I thought you might like them.” “Well, come in and we shall see.” He stepped back, pulling the door wide. Cynthia stepped into the flat. “This way,” said her host, leading her through a living room with a sagging couch and haphazard furniture into a small kitchen. “You will sit there.” He nodded toward a small table whose wooden surface was scored by what must have been a myriad of unattended cigarettes. She lowered herself onto the seat of a bentwood chair. He had turned his back and was reaching high into a cupboard. “I believe I have tea. Ah: I was not wrong. Do you see?” He turned, holding two Lipton satchels by their little tags. “That would be lovely,” she said. “Alas,” he said, “I am out of sugar, and I do not need to look in the ice box: I am out of milk.” “Oh, I like to have my tea black,” she said. “Unless it’s green tea. Then I like to have it green.” As soon as she had made it, she regretted this little joke. It was too forward. All he had known was the tongue-tied girl, the plagiarist. But he did not seem to have heard her. Perhaps because


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the water from the sink was splashing into the kettle. He turned on the blue flame. He addressed her over his shoulder: “Do these scones require butter? Are they best with jam? I can see about jam.” He walked to the refrigerator and bent to look inside. Cynthia saw with dismay that he had forgotten to put the kettle on the stove. Should she get up and put it on herself? She did not dare. He rose eventually with a glass jar. “Success,” he said. “Strawberry.” “Strawberry would be wonderful.” Another bad moment: he was trying with the flat of his hand, just his palm, to open the top. Now she did stand and moved to him. “Let me,” she said. “There’s a trick to it.” She knocked the thing against the side of the sink and twisted it open. Then with a quick movement, she hoped it was invisible, she put the kettle on to boil. He looked at her, a finger under his chin. “Perhaps I am the one who should sit,” he said. “And you should prepare our meal.” “Oh, no!” she declared. “I hope I am not—” But he was already approaching the table. “I mean what I said. It is an honest proposal.” He took a seat. He pointed. “Cups are there.” He pointed again. “The silverware, the spoons are there. And knives, if they are needed.” Was he mocking her? She made up her mind to busy herself: not only cups, but saucers. Not only spoons, but two knives and a white, chipped plate. And the napkins she found in an adjacent drawer. She sawed each scone in half and pushed them open. The tea was ready. In pantomime she held up the bags and the pianist, the former pianist, pointed to the cupboard beneath the sink. The garbage bag there was overflowing, the smell that came from it sharp and oddly metallic. That made her look into the jelly jar; it was coated with a gray film. She shuddered: was everything about her rotting? She scraped away the mold. “You should not have worn it,” said Mr. Barbershop when she came up with the steaming cups. She thought he meant what he had called her foolish hat. “I won’t any more,” she replied. “It was a gift from a friend.” “What are you talking about? I mean the white dress. It is a violin sonata. The accompanist is to wear black. She is to be discrete. So as not


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to draw attention from the soloist. And more: it is the practice to give a bow. A very slight one. You are not before the Queen of England. You do not curtsy.” Cynthia put down the saucers. She gave a little laugh. “Another F. For etiquette.” But she was trying to recall her dream, the one in which she had turned the master’s pages: Was her dress white? Was it black? Or—was this possible? Was she wearing no dress at all? “Miss Ang? Isn’t that your name? Time is going by. Are we going to eat?” She brought the napkins and the plate with the spread-eagled scones. Also the jam. And two knives. She debated whether to give a little curtsy to this king, but decided against it. She said, “I ought to be angry and you should be angry. It’s not fair. I played as many notes as Angela. Why isn’t it called a duet? We pianists should go on strike.” She laughed again, but he did not join her. “If you are willing,” he said. “You might spread the preserves.” She started to perform the task. She left her own scone bare. “Carlotta,” he said. “I believe she brought this jar. From the market on Prospect Street. That was some years ago. By now it must be spoiled. Yes, it was Carlotta.” He took a sip of tea and bit into his scone. He took another bite, then put it down. He looked at the girl sitting across the table. “Why are you here? Why is this happening?” She was made almost dizzy by what rose in her. She reached across the scorched surface of the table and touched one of his hunchbacked hands. “I knocked. You opened the door.” “I know that. It is an obvious fact. I want to know why you are here. Is it to discuss music? I don’t want to talk about music. I don’t listen to it any more. When the piece is over there is nothing to think about. Books are different. I read books now.” “I know,” said Cynthia. “I saw. The volume of—what did you say? Gibbon?” He blew across the tan surface of the tea. He said, “I’ll show you, it is in the living room.” She stood quickly, spilling a little of her brew into the saucer. “I saw it. I’ll get it. On the arm of the sofa.”


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She retrieved the book, trying not to look around at the room, where dust covered the furnishings—table, chairs, lamp shades, carpet, floor—like the mold on top of the jam. She brought it back to the kitchen table. “Turn to page one,” Mr. Barbershop said. “Not the charts or the drawings. Not the introduction. Go to the author’s own first words.” She followed his instructions and smoothed down the right hand page. He tilted his head up, so that he gazed at the dimpled ceiling. He started to recite: “In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. Is that correct?” She was astounded. “Yes. Word for word. I am impressed.” “It is a feat of memory,” he said. “It certainly is. Are you going to memorize the whole book?” She checked: “Eight hundred and forty pages?” He seemed, in his crooked way, to smile again. “The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and—and—” She held her breath, waiting, but he only picked up his cup and took another sip of the cooling tea. A moment went by. He no longer seemed aware that she was there. By association, she recalled the line on the library notice: World Renowned Pianist. And what had Toscanini said? Didn’t he compare him to a god? Mr. Barbakoff seemed to read her mind. “It was my first intention to check out this work from the library. But I had a second thought. There are 2500 pages in total. In order to renew the volumes, I would have to walk to the Pearl Street Branch many times, and as these days pass I go out less and less. There is a person there. Better for her and better for myself if we do not meet.” “Oh, I think I know who that is. Is her name—?” But he had gone from a moment of silence into unstoppable speech. “I bought the edition you see—did you notice the Piranesi etchings?—from the Antiquarian book shop on Church Street. I pulled them behind me in my shopping cart. This, too, belonged to Carlotta. But the stairs! The flights of stairs! I paid Mr. Mackay, he is the man who begs on the corner, a Scotchman, three dollars to carry them to my door. That


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is one dollar for each volume. It is he who brings my groceries. He is not always reliable. That is why I do not have sugar or butter for this excellent muffin. It is why I do not have eggs. Now I must make a confession. I have not read beyond the first page. The first half of the first page, to be exact.” “I remember what you told us in class. That every great book should be read three times. In youth. In middle age—” “Yes, and at the close of the curtain. But I have not read the illustrious Decline and Fall even once. It’s a pity.” “Oh, but you are reading it now. And memorizing the words. That is so brilliant.” “Oh, Miss Ang, do not be fooled by this magician’s trick. It gives me an excuse not to continue reading. And I have another reason for dawdling. In my childhood, which took place during the Pleistocene age, I saw for myself what occurs in the most civilized portion of mankind.” “Do you mean Germany? Do you mean during the war?” He did not answer. He sat with his chin propped on his palm and his elbow propped on the table. His eyes had dropped shut. Cynthia rose to clean up. She made sure that no knife clinked against the fluted porcelain. She thought by the time she rinsed everything in the sink he would wake, but when she turned around, his forearms were crossed and his head lay heavy across them. She retrieved her hat—he was right, it was laughable; in fact, Isaac had laughed when he gave it to her—from where she had placed it on a hook by the door. But she didn’t go out. Instead, tiptoeing past her sleeping teacher, she retraced her steps to the kitchen. She bent to the cupboard beneath the sink and, holding her breath against the stench, hauled up the plastic sack that was overflowing with waste. She had to use both hands to carry it to the door. Mr. Barbershop woke before she could pull it open. “I know why you are here. You are having difficulty with your technique. With the Two-Part Inventions. For your performance at Symphony Hall. Really, Miss Ang, can you not remember any of the things I taught you? First, full acquaintance with the piece. So that you may practice it with the same confidence that with your toothbrush you brush your teeth.


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“And have you forgotten what I said about breathing? You must play the piano as if you were playing the oboe. There is no difference. For a long, complex and demanding passage, a deep breath and then the exhalation as you release your weight onto the keys. Do not think of percussion: you must be a woodwind player. And above all minimal distance between you and your instrument. Imaginary glue: Do you not live with this motto, as I once told you to do? So that you and your instrument are never separated, not only when playing, but when walking on the pavement, as a dog follows on a leash, and even in your sleep. You shall discover that in time you do not play the piano, the piano plays you. The force of gravity will bring you all the way past the aftertouch to the bottom of the key; the repetition lever will bring you back to the light and to the air. Maximum effort from the instrument, minimum effort from you. “What a disappointment you are. These pieces were written for amateurs. For children! They are songs that sing themselves. Cantabile! Cantabile! When you learn them you will have learned everything you need to know about composition. You will be a composer of counterpoint yourself. Remember this: they are the words of Bach. Goodbye, Miss Ang. No, no, wait: when you take your bow—a bow and not a curtsy, as I have explained to you—you may very lightly touch the surface of the piano. Not for graciousness, though it is gracious. Because of the secret: the contact has begun. Why are you standing there? I have nothing more to say to you.”

5. When the young pianist next sat at the kitchen table, her cat was in her lap. Mr. Barbakoff, across from her, was scooping up what was left of the omelet, with onions, cheese, and bits of ham she had made him. She had never seen a man with such an appetite. Quite unlike Catherine, her tabby, who when she snuck a piece of ham under the table, turned up her nose. She had made this breakfast from the groceries she had carried up the stairs. She had carried them by Mr. Mackay as well, but stopped, set both her cat cage and shopping bag down, and gave him the three dollars she feared she had robbed him of. He raised his hand to take the money but, as in their previous encounter, did not say a word.


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Between bites, Mr. Barbershop was telling her how his first piano, a Bechstein baby grand, was too big to fit into their narrow hallway and had to be lifted by a crane and brought in through the window. “When it was in the air, I ran and stood underneath it. I was only a child, you understand. I thought I was a hero. Risking my life. Carlotta did not like me to tell this to anyone. She thought the story belonged to her. That is because she first heard it when she was a child herself. We make much of what happens to us in those years, and in the years of adolescence. I was a child of ten when Toscanini conducted La Boheme on American radio. I had just arrived in Italy. I heard the music coming through the open door of a house. Perhaps it was a broadcast. Perhaps it was a recording. But I have never been able to listen to any other production of that opera. These things become stamped on the unformed brain. Such a lot of trouble from Carlotta. When she learned I had told this—the piano in the air—to Miss Virginia. Yes, that is the name of the woman at the library. I feel what you might call a pang of guilt when I tell it to you.” “Through the window?” said Cynthia. She was smiling at the absurdity of it. “With the legs on? How can a baby grand fit through a window?” The old man looked at her. He started to say something—that he was joking? That it was just an old family myth? That stories from childhood can’t be trusted? But then he looked away and said, to the far wall, not to Miss Ang, “Toscanini conducted the premiere. Puccini was there. He does not play it too fast.” “Mr. Barbershop, do you remember what I said about our used Steinway? The one that takes up a whole room? It used to be above my head, too. That’s because I used to lie underneath it. In the early days when all I could play was Chopsticks and the first three chords of the Chopin Polonaise. And I thought when I was lying there that I could hear in all those tight strings the same notes I had put into them that very morning. It was like an Aeolian harp. From the breath of the wind that came in the window.” A bad sign. He had propped his head on his hand. He was drifting from her. She pushed the words out as quickly as she could: “I thought the pedals were like the golden feet of a princess or a prince. When I slipped my ballet slippers over them, they were a perfect fit. I still have very delicate


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feet. The poor middle pedal was uncovered, so it became my favorite and I pet it and stroked it and said, poor little thing, poor little thing. That was because the other pedals had my silky slippers and because one of them could make the notes longer and the other one could make them softer, but this petal so bare and hard and shiny and straight was left out in the cold with nothing to do. Ha! Ha! Ha! I was a silly girl!” He had not fallen asleep, but he was tilting toward the table edge. She went on: “But then I hated it, the whole piano, because I had to play six hours a day. I was a slave. Like a galley slave rowing and rowing. My mother did not whip me but her words could be like lashes. Stupid girl. Lazy girl. Girl no good. I’ve run away, you know. I don’t live there any more.” Her former teacher was clearly looking under the table, trying, she thought, to look at her pretty little feet. It occurred to her that at the Academy, in the recital room, she had caught him peeking down as well. She thought it was to see if the little doll of a girl could reach the faraway pedals. What was he looking at now? Her pride got the better of her. “Size five,” she said. “The smallest there is!” But he said, “Why have you brought this cat?” “Oh, I had no choice. Mama can’t beat me—and not just with the newspaper. With a pillow. A head of broccoli once. The hard part of her hand. So when I moved out she started to beat Catherine instead. I thought it would be no problem, but it was. Because my boyfriend is allergic to cats.” “Your boyfriend?” “Yes, Isaac.” “Who is this person?” “You know him. He certainly knows you. One of the Isenberg twins.” “But how can this be? You with a boy like that?” “He’s so talented! One time you told him he played like Clara Haskil. Because of his lightness of touch. Because of his Scarlatti.” “It cannot be possible that you know such a person. At the Academy of the Arts there were only the poorest of the poor. The Negroes of the city. The Spanish speaking. A rare Asiatic such as yourself. He was rich. He lived on Longfellow Park. He had a fool of a brother. Ivan. Ivan and Isaac.”


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“We didn’t meet at the Academy. We met at the Conservatory. It was such a coincidence. We still laugh about it now. The funny part was that it took a whole year before—” He broke in on her. “It is all nonsense. I did not have time to teach you or the boy. It takes many years. I had only months.” “But months with Ernst Barbakoff! They made all the difference. For both of us.” “It is false, all false. Clara was the genius. She came to my concert in Basel. We sat in the garden. We walked about the streets of the town. She told me of her life. We had in common not talent: I do not think even in my youth, at my strength, in Brahms, I could compare to her. What we shared was the Germans. It brought us together. This the fools on Longfellow Park mocked as if this friendship were a thing not pure. As if it were sensual. My wife had the same thoughts. She was a jealous woman.” Cynthia and Isaac had exchanged their Barbakoff stories. So she knew about the Isenberg pranks and how they had made fun of the two pianists—the one so young, the other so much older—in the garden. But she had also seen Isaac hunched over the keyboard, like a starving man over a steak, his ponytail crazily flying, his lips back in a snarl; yet the music came out from beneath his arched elbows and spidery hands in a filigree. She always heard, when he played Scarlatti, the master’s harpsichord, buried inside the piano. Was it possible for a hammered string to make such a tender sound? “If he was foolish once, Mr. Barbakoff, he is not any more. He has grown. Everyone at the Conservatory thinks he is the most talented pianist, no, no—the most talented musician they have had in years. A finer artist than any of our teachers. They were shocked that he was not chosen for the Debut Night. I think they were more shocked that they chose me. They all think I’m a squirt. I think I’m a squirt. Maybe in the whole world only my mother wasn’t surprised. And Isaac. The other students didn’t say a word to me. The violinists, the cellists, all the string players: they just walked by me the way they do the custodians, the cleaning people. But Isaac came into the piano room, where I was practicing by myself. Not the Inventions. It was Prokofiev. I jumped up. He came to me. Don’t pay attention to anyone, he said. Don’t pay attention to me after this moment.


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Just listen to what I’m saying now. You deserve it. You understand? You are the best there is. He reached down and with his right hand played the next notes of the sonata, at just the point where I had stopped.” What she didn’t tell Mr. Barbershop, now wiping his rubber lips with a napkin, was how he hadn’t looked down at the keyboard when he played through the measure. He was looking at her blouse and her breasts, dainty as they were. She willed herself, as if such a thing were possible, not to blush. She knew that her lips were trembling. What she had wanted was for him to kiss her. He bent toward her, then bent still lower—she was, after all, only five feet tall. Her cheeks were hot. She feared he would burn his hand if he touched her. He didn’t touch her; but he did grant her wish. “Did I explain about your breathing? Do you remember?” “Of course I do. And my posture. My alignment. Letting my forearm hang down. You told me four years ago. I haven’t forgotten anything.” “Then your difficulties with the concert have been solved. Any teacher is pleased to have such a pupil.” He displayed his tarnished teeth in a smile of such foolish benevolence that she had to clench her own shut in order not to break out in a demented laugh. She felt Catherine stir in her lap, as if the animal sensed the tears that were about to fall. “Don’t mind me, Mr. Barbershop. Don’t look at me. I think I’m about to start crying. Nothing is going right. The posture is correct. Everything is correct. Yes, the bench height, too. I see the next passage is complex. I take in the proper breath. Then the thoughts start whirling in my head: Why am I not playing these notes today as well as I did yesterday? Why am I not saying anything? It is because I have nothing new to offer? Then what am I doing here? It should be Isaac. My hands: why are the fingers cramping? They aren’t large enough to reach the right keys. This piece was written for children. Mr. Barbershop said so. Any child could play it better than I. No one is going to want to listen to me. And on the radio! Thousands of people! And a thousand more at the Symphony. Listening and watching! They will ask for their money back. You said the trick when there is a problem, the key to good practice, is to play it more slowly: so I do, lento, lentando, tardo, rallentando, until I come to a stop. Or I try to cover up my clumsiness with more pedal, and then even


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though I have memorized everything I am sure that in the next measure or the measure after that I am going to forget—and all these thoughts and lots more, that basically everything was a mistake, they meant to choose someone else: they are racing after each other in my mind, and all the time my mother is screaming, as if she were actually sitting beside me on the bench, You rotten girl. Girl no good, no good, no good. And then I am like I was when you caught me with the poem and you said, Proceed, Miss Ang. Enlighten us. And I sit like a block of petrified wood or like the Egyptian statue in the Museum of Fine Arts, a king or a pharaoh with his hands cemented to his knees. I warned you, didn’t I, that the tears were coming and now here they are.” Catherine, from empathy, or was it scorn, jumped from her lap. Cynthia wiped her eyes with one of the linen napkins that Mr. Barbakoff had insisted on laying on the table. With a monogram. “It’s funny, isn’t it? I didn’t cry then. I was a brave little soul. I just pushed up my glasses and said, I think I shall never see a poem as—” She broke off. “Where did my damned cat go?” Mr. Barbershop said, “This Lampenfieber, a sort of hysteria, has not been a problem in my career. Everything I feared has already occurred.” “Yes, your son. Your mother. Your father. The war.” He looked at her through his spectacles, as if she were a text. “What are you doing here, Miss Ang? What is it you want of me?” “I want you to come with me to the Conservatory. I want you to ride in the elevator down to the piano room. I want you to stand in the corner. I want you to shout and to grumble and to wave your arms and then cross your arms and pull on your hair—I could see it all with the eyes in the back of my head; and to now and then nod, yes, yes, that is acceptable. I want you to teach me.” “My dear young woman, this is quite impossible.” “All right. It’s all right. If not at the Conservatory then at my house in Southie. We’ll lock everyone out. Only the sun allowed in. Or if you are scared of my mother—I’m scared of my mother—we can go to the Steinway and Sons on Columbus Avenue. They don’t care. They once gave me a free lesson. It doesn’t matter where we go. There’s a piano on the fourth floor of Hillel at BU. I think it’s a Steinway. That’s the only thing that matters. Not because it’s my piano. But because that’s the piano


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at Symphony Hall. I am supposed to go over there in two days. They are going to show it to me. I’m supposed to try it out. They called me at home. Of course I wasn’t home. But they found me at the Conservatory. The director called me in. He handed me the phone. Two days! It’s terrifying.” Mr. Barbakoff put his misshapen hands, they were like root vegetables, on the table top and pushed himself to his feet. “Be so kind, Miss Ang,” he said, “as to follow me.” He led her out of the kitchen, through the living room, and to a closed door off the hall. He turned the knob and opened it. Cynthia saw it was a bedroom. On the far side of the bed was a window, with Venetian blinds. The floorboards, wide and blond, pine perhaps, were uncovered. Confronted with this, and by the tall man looming over her, she remained unconcerned; as if, for all her adventures with Isaac, the array of their entanglements, and his mockery, she had remained virginal. Her teacher was pointing. “That is the bed where my wife cut her wrists. It is where she died. Too much grief.” “Oh, no. Oh, Mr. Barbershop. I didn’t know. I mean I knew she had died. I knew about the funeral, but—” “You know nothing. Nothing about two people in a marriage. I played on her body. Schumann and Liszt. On her bare back. That is how she helped me learn.” “I don’t know what to say.” “Say nothing. Please, once more, follow me.” They went back through the living room. Cynthia kept her eyes on his back. She did not want to see the broken down couch or the rest of the furniture. They returned to the kitchen. The tortoise shell cat, in her own corner, stared unblinkingly at the intruders. “You can sit down if you wish,” said Mr. Barbakoff. “In the same chair.” She obeyed. He took his own chair and pulled it to the left side of the sink. “Do not rise,” he said. “I need no assistance.” What he meant was that he wanted to stand on the seat without her help. It took him, with one hand on the counter and one hand clutching the wooden loop at the top of the chair, three attempts. She watched as he stretched to a row of cabinets hard up against the nine-foot ceiling. He opened one of them


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and, fumbling a bit, brought out a small box, of brass to judge by its color. Balancing a little frighteningly, he held it toward the young woman. “This is the urn that contains my wife’s ashes. Do you see it?” Cynthia nodded, her eyes on the little casket. “Good. Now I am going to tell you something. I wished to bury this receptacle in Queens, New York, inside the grave of my son. I made inquiries. For a payment, it would be allowed. This was good news. But I promised myself, if there were difficulties, perhaps some legal impediment, I would at least scatter the ashes over the mound of earth that covers the boy’s remains. I told myself this with sincerity. I think for a year or more than a year this was my dearest wish. It is not impossible that it endures until this moment. Yet the dust of my wife remains here, unburied. I have not completed this task.” He fell silent for a moment. Then he turned and with some effort replaced the urn in the cabinet and shut its yellow door. He got down from the chair and dragged it back to the table, where he sat down next to his former pupil. “Now, Miss Ang, I want you to think about what I am going to ask you. If I could not leave this apartment to do this for Carlotta, why in the name of God would I go into the streets of the city for a person who has for me no significance whatsoever?” She did not reel. She did not gasp. They were only words, but they had enough force to propel her to the door. “You are leaving?” he asked, as if he were unprepared for her departure. “You flee from me the way you did your mother?” Cynthia turned in the open door. “Now, Mr. Barbershop, I am going to tell you something. I did not run away from my mother. A rolled up newspaper: that doesn’t hurt. Her words didn’t hurt me, either. She was only telling me what I already knew myself. It was my father. At the end of the day he’d come home to our building. He’d climb the stairs to the second floor. Right away he’d go to the room where I was playing or I should say trying to play the Inventions, making a shambles out of the counterpoint, thinking there’s going to be a better artist in the audience, thinking my arms are getting tight, too tight, I’ll never be able to finish, thinking, thinking. And I could smell the radishes on him before I saw him. The radishes and the soy and the chicken and the marinade from the chicken and the shells of the shrimp and all the other shit he’s spent his


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whole life cooking for other people. I’d look up. He’d be standing in the doorway, sometimes still in his apron. And he’d be beaming! Beaming! He’d say, Very beautiful. Very beautiful music. That’s what I ran away from, Mr. Barbershop. It wasn’t bearable. You’d run away, too.” With that she was gone. Half way down the staircase, she had a thought. Too bad she had not brought him a dog instead of her poor old cat. With a dog he’d have no choice. He’d have to go into the streets.

6. The next time Miss Ang and Ernst Barbakoff had a meal together, it was on a red and white tablecloth with paper plates and paper napkins, plastic utensils, an old fashioned thermos with a screw top, and a wicker basket, from which all these things, and the grilled mango chicken her father had cooked, had been taken. It was the first truly warm spring day, but the checkered fabric had been spread on top of the same table in the same kitchen they had eaten in before. “If you won’t go outside for a picnic,” Cynthia had announced, the minute she came through the door, “then we’re bringing the picnic inside to you.” She wasn’t carrying the basket. Isaac Isenberg, his hair still in the same long braid he had affected years before, was. He had his left arm crooked through the handles. There was a smear of beard on his cheeks and chin. “Hello, Mr. Barbershop!” he half-shouted as he stepped into the room. “It’s been a long time.” The old man was, in his fashion, dressed up. That is to say he had on an ancient Brooks Brothers shirt, frayed at the collar but correctly buttoned from top to bottom, and a cotton vest, not buttoned at all. His pleated pants hung over all but the tips of his shiny oxfords. Water, and perhaps some sort of brilliantine had been rubbed into his hair, which had already, and stiffly, started to rise. He looked down, to where his former pupil was holding out his hand. All three of them might have been having the identical thought: Where the teacher had once stood taller than his pupil, the pupil now loomed over him. “We thought we’d give you a pleasant surprise,” said Cynthia. Mr. Barbakoff took the extended hand. “Such a thing,” he said, “does not exist.”


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The two young pianists began to bustle about, preparing the table for their feast. “You don’t have to do a thing,” said Miss Ang. “Just sit here or on the couch and we’ll call you when everything is ready.” He didn’t sit. He pulled her aside, into the living room. “What is the meaning of this?” he muttered. “It is not a surprise. It is an ambush.” “Be good,” she said. “You mean a lot to him. Because of the past. I want him to see the side of you that has very nice manners. Old world manners. Not the man that likes to play the tyrant, like one of your Roman emperors.” “Nero,” he said. “Caligula. Commodus. I could kill a hundred animals.” “You can’t fool me, Mr. B. I know you still haven’t read past page one. Please. I am showing him off, too. So you’ll understand: he is a serious person.” “Serious? He is a trickster. Shallow of mind. Didn’t I make this clear? He is not the kind of person for you. I fear a calamity.” At that she started to laugh, but stopped when Isaac called out, “Come and get it, people. Luncheon is served.” They went into the kitchen. Mr. Barbakoff took his place at the table, but Cynthia exclaimed, “There she is! My darling!” and ran to take the indifferent cat into her arms. “Careful,” said Isaac. “Don’t let her scratch you. It’s bad enough that I already want to sneeze.” “I wish she would scratch me,” said the girl. “Or bite off my fingers.” The boy beckoned to her and pulled out her chair. “Yes, you’d like that. You’d have the excuse you’re looking for.” She walked to the table while looking significantly at Mr. Barbershop; it was as if she meant to say, See? He is the one with the manners. In truth he stood waiting, then helped push in the bentwood chair. She took on the task of pouring what turned out to be remarkably hot coffee into three paper cups. “Don’t burn yourself, either,” said Isaac. “How he looks after me!” she exclaimed. “I’d be better off back with my mother.”


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He made a show—to Mr. Barbershop it was a show—of kissing her hand. “The hand of a virtuoso,” he said. “Now it’s protected. By a magical kiss.” To this she said nothing. Isaac fell silent as well. For a moment they ate while looking at their plates. “I am it seems the host,” said Mr. Barbakoff. “So it falls on me to make conversation. Not only that, a request has been made that I be nice. Therefore: tell me, Mr. Isenberg. What has happened to your prankster of a brother. In a penitentiary? That much I presume.” “You’re not far off, Mr. Barbershop. He’s a sophomore at Harvard. Like all the gentlemen there he’s majoring in finance. They’ve already turned him into a cold-hearted Republican. We don’t talk a lot. I hardly recognize the goof-off and all his gags.” The piano teacher put down his plastic knife and his plastic fork. He looked at the young man. “I wonder: Do I recognize you? Am I to believe what I am told by your paramour? Concerning your seriousness? Your talent?” “Oh, yes, Mr. Barbershop. Isaac—” “Talent, yes. The day you played for me Scarlatti. In F-minor.” “Kirkpatrick 69,” Cynthia said. “He plays that all the time at—” Again, her teacher ignored her. “But the seriousness. The music was beautiful, yes. Poetic in the style of—” This time it was Isaac who interrupted: “Haskil. The Romanian pianist. You told us about her.” “You possessed something of her finesse, her refinement. In one so young. I thought for a moment—” “I know what you thought,” Isaac said. “That I might in time play like your friend.” “The moment passed. The joke with the flies and Die Rosinen. As you played, your brother, the Wall Street tycoon—he pretended to kill the insects and eat them. Off the palm of his hand. A true Katzenjammer. But you are as they say not off the hook. The two of you. Laughing at my astonishment. Such uncontrollable laughter. With the notes of the great composer still hanging in the air.” “If you would accept my apology now, I would make it. I am ashamed of both of us.”


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“Oh, it was only—what? High jinx. Foolishness. Did I not return a week later?” “Yes. But that lesson stopped as soon as it began. You never came back.” “Come back? Young man, how could I? You mocked a great artist. Frau Haskil. You joked that our relations were impure. That was an instance of true Schweinerei.” “You didn’t have to return. Because I remembered the lesson. I remember it to this day. It wasn’t about playing the piano. It had nothing to do with music. It was about the war. With what you went through. With what the Romanian, Miss Haskil, went through.” “This is your mistake. To separate music from life. You still do not understand. They are one and the same.” “It was a hot day. But you had that crazy muffler around your throat. You turned at the door. You looked at me. You said terrible things: that I was an American child. That I was a Jew without suffering.” Mr. Barbershop said, half under his breath, “I remember those words.” “You are right. You can’t separate music from a life. In that moment something in me was crushed.” By then Mr. Barbershop’s hair had fully risen, as if he were not indoors, in his apartment, but outside, at a real picnic, and in a fitful breeze. For a moment he sat with his chin on the back of both wrists. When he spoke, it was in a low voice, hardly audible: “That is a form of suffering: to have squandered the gift of talent.” Miss Ang heard him. “That’s not right. Isaac is a great talent. Everyone at the Conservatory knows it. The teachers—they practically bow down to him.” Mr. Barbershop addressed the boy. “I am often in the wrong, my young friend. Perhaps I have been so about you. I believe it may be time for me to offer you my hand.” Oddly, Isaac did not move to take it. He said, “Don’t listen to her, Mr. Barbershop. She’s the artist. You should have heard her yesterday morning. On the stage at Symphony Hall. They even put a spotlight on her.”


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“I have not forgotten, Miss Ang, that yesterday you and your instrument became acquainted with each other. But I hesitated to ask, I was too fearful to ask, about whether the meeting was a success.” Cynthia looked toward the corner, where Catherine, her cat, was loitering. But the animal refused to answer for her. “I suppose I have to say something,” she began. “They could not have been nicer. All of them. From the men who rolled out the piano, it was of course a Steinway, to—well to Mr. Nelsons. He was going to conduct that night. He didn’t have to be there. But he was and he smiled so warmly that— I am talking this way because I really don’t want to talk at all. It was a disaster! Mr. Barbershop, it was so terrible. Oh, the piano was wonderful. Well, until I came up close and saw that it was scratched, scratched everywhere, and the reason why was that it was I don’t know maybe a hundred years old. That made everything worse. I sat on the bench. I looked at the keys. And of course I thought of everyone who had been there before me. Rubinstein. Horowitz. I think even Paderewski. What horrible ghosts! I just sat there. I was paralyzed. That’s why you have to help me, Mr. Barbershop. It happened the way Isaac said. The room went dark. And then there was a spotlight. And I thought, this is how it is going to be on Sunday night. Except there will be a thousand people sitting in the dark. And a microphone will be hanging like, I don’t know, like an insect over my head. I could just make out those men I told you about, the stagehands. They were standing. Smiling and waiting. Smiling and waiting and nodding. In overalls! They were old men. Old as Paderewski. So I thought all right I’ll just play for them and make them happy and as you both know the first Invention is in C major and the right hand has this little finger exercise with an upward movement that never stops and the left hand just plods along with a simple melody in the bass. Mr. Barbershop, help! Because my hands—they seemed to belong to two different people. I could concentrate on one, yes, okay, fine; or I could concentrate on the other, just keep trudging, keep trudging, but I could not connect the two. What do they call that, a split personality? Did Rubinstein play with my left hand, Horowitz with my right? I thought I was going crazy. And the worst of it? The very worst? When it was over—not only the two gentlemen, the stagehands, but Mr. Nelsons too, they applauded. I wanted to run out of the room!”


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Isaac Isenberg was the one smiling now. “But you didn’t. You played the second C-minor Invention. And it begins just with the right hand. And I swear to you she was brilliant. That’s why they applauded. And when she was done with this one, and the next one, and all fifteen, they applauded again and if they were wearing hats you better believe me they would have thrown them up in the air.” “No!” Cynthia cried. “Don’t say that!” “Haven’t you figured it out, Mr. Barbershop? It’s all in her head.” “About this, Mr. Isenberg, I fear you are correct.” “And it’s a pretty little head, isn’t it? What do you think of those glasses? Plastic and pink. She never takes them off.” “Yes,” Mr. Barbakoff replied. “She wore them in the classroom many years ago.” Cynthia laughed. “I’ve had them longer than that! Ever since I was diagnosed with myopia when I was twelve. I’m blind without them.” “I can’t make up my mind,” Isaac said. “I’m torn. On the one hand, they are ridiculous, don’t you agree, Mr. Barbershop? I’ve heard her miss notes when she shoves them back up her nose. They make her look like a little girl. And we have to face facts: she’s too old now to be a prodigy.” “We’ve talked about contacts. We’ve talked about laser treatments. And if we could afford—” “No, no, no. There’s the other hand—just like the Two-Part Inventions. The glasses could be a kind of trademark. For after the concert. For when she is famous. And you know, Mr. Barbershop, and I know and you know, too, Cyn, that’s what you are going to be. It’s the real reason you think you are having troubles.” “Stop. Please stop, Isaac. You don’t know what I’m feeling.” “I grew up in Chicago. Until I was ten. I was a Cubs fan. I should explain to Mr. Barbershop that that is a baseball team. Baseball? Our national pastime?” “As it happens,” said the old man, “I know much about that sport.” Isaac hurried on. “Anyway, when you go to Wrigley Field, that’s their stadium, all you see is a big pair of glasses and everyone knows: that’s Harry Caray, their announcer. He’s still alive, even though he’s dead.


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Well, Pink Glasses: they mean Cynthia Ang. It could be your angle, if you’ll excuse the very bad pun.” “Mr. Barbershop doesn’t want to hear this. Neither do I. I think it’s bad luck. The way you put me on a pedestal. I don’t like it.” “Just give me one more minute, Cin-Cin. I have an idea. Stand up, please.” Cynthia did stand, as if he had the ability to control her movements. Isaac looked at her with narrowed eyes. “The hair,” he said. “What can we do with the hair?” Mr. Barbakoff said, “What is happening here, Mr. Isenberg? What are you doing?” But Isaac kept staring at her, while rubbing the black stubble on his chin. “Is there any hope for that old lady’s bun?” Involuntarily Cynthia reached up to the back of her head. In one stride, Isaac was beside her, knocking her hands away. “Let me do it,” he said. He stretched out his long arms and began to fiddle with the coil at the back of her head. Mr. Barbershop could see, and she could feel, how he tugged this way and that, trying to undo the knot. “Mr. Isenberg, I ask you to sit down. This is not what Miss Ang wishes. You are not treating her as an artist. Why do you wish to give her a signature? It is her gifts, her great brilliance, not her glasses or her hair, that will bring her success. Again, you must take your seat.” But at that moment the hair, all the locks and tresses, came loose, plunging in a landslide to her neck, to her cheeks, to her shoulders. Cynthia turned to her teacher. “It’s all right, Mr. Barbershop. Really, it’s all right.” Isaac did not seem to hear either one of them. He took a step back. He shook his head. “No,” he said. “It’s my mistake. It won’t work. That’s the last thing we need in the world of music: another squint-eye.” “It is shameful, Mr. Isenberg, to insult this young woman. I do not mean your vulgar remark. That is perhaps another of your jokes. I mean that you treat her not as an artist but as merchandise.” “Don’t you see, Mr. Barbershop? He’s been humiliated. I forgive him. Forgive him for everything. Won’t you?”


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“I see this: that I was not wrong about him. I say now to this man: please gather your things. On this occasion you will leave my house.” But Isaac was already striding to the door. The girl ran after him. “No, Miss Ang. I would like you to remain. There is no reason we cannot finish this excellent picnic meal. Perhaps then we can have a lesson.” Isaac pulled open the door and then paused, holding it open. It was as if he knew she would come after him. She did. The only thing she said as she stepped through was, “Please. Take care of Catherine.” Isaac said, “It’s true. The way I felt then. I thought my life was over.” He went out after the girl. Mr. Barbershop watched them go. To the closed door he said, “Yes, yes. I have grown fond of this cat. She is indifferent to existence.” The next thing he did was go to the sofa, where the closed volume of Gibbon lay on its side. Miss Ang had been right: he had not read beyond the first page. But he knew his history. He found the chapter that described the reign of the son of Marcus Aurelius. He wanted to make sure that he had, after all, and in the arena, slain one-hundred animals.

7. The next day, Saturday, at dusk, Miss Ang knocked on the door. Mr. Barbershop opened it. Her face was quite pale. She nodded. He turned and, dragging a little, led her into the living room. He was still wearing the vest and the Brooks Brothers shirt. It was wrinkled, as if he had slept in it. He took both garments off. He wore an undershirt. Awkwardly, somewhat like a machine, he removed that as well. Then he lay face down on the couch. She dropped to her knees beside him. She saw what seemed a sea of moss swirling on the skin of his back. She plunged both hands into it and then began, first with one hand, and then the other, to compose in counterpoint.


Qiechang

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Mr. Barbershop spent most of the next day with his spectacles on, reading. Now and then his attention wandered; he did get beyond the first page. In the afternoon he napped, though in truth he had nodded off from time to time in his chair, on the sofa, and once, briefly, while standing. When the sun sank in the late afternoon he turned on a lamp. He thought about eating, but did not. Mostly he paced until eight o’clock. Then he sat down and turned on the radio. Half way through the broadcast he noticed that Catherine, the cat, came into the room. It occurred to him that of course she had heard these same notes before. Nonetheless, she walked in her detached manner from the room. A little after nine o’clock he shut off the radio, an imported Grundig model, and walked from the room himself. Much later, close to midnight in fact, Miss Ang, with a coat thrown over her white formal gown, walked to the edge of the Charles River. Mr. Barbershop was sitting there on a bench. She moved across the sprouting grass until she stood behind him. “I knocked on your door,” she said. “Knocked and knocked. Then I thought you might be here.” “And here I am,” he said. “I’m not alone.” At that he turned. He saw the girl, of course, and behind her, well back, two dark shapes. She motioned and a woman stepped forward. “This is my mother,” she said. This surprised Mr. Barbakoff. He had imagined someone thick, stout, and looming; but this woman was wiry and like her daughter a sort of person in miniature. “And this is my father.” Slowly a man, larger and plumper, came very slowly up to the others. “They wanted to thank you,” Cynthia said. “Yes, we thank you,” said her mother. Her father held a paper bag out to him. “Thank you for beautiful music,” he said.


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Mr. Barbershop took the sack, which was filled with something warm and soft. Buns perhaps. “I knew you would be here,” Cynthia said. “I never forgot what you told us in our last class. About the river and the ice.” “A long time ago,” he said. “But tell us again,” she said. “Tell my parents. About how everything was shining. And the branches and the twigs.” He did what had been requested of him. The little family stood together as he told them about that morning, the frozen white river and the red scarf; and, yes, the twigs, enclosed in pipes and pipettes of ice. The same trees were there now, but in the dark of night the new buds were black against the darker black of the sky.


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Plague in the Time of the Coronavirus: The Representation of the Black Death in the Arts BY TANCRÈDE HERTZOG

Everyone has heard of the Black Death (1347-1352) and of the twenty five million victims it left in its wake throughout Europe. Not many people are aware—these are but a few, randomly chosen examples among hundreds—that there were also epidemics of bubonic plague in London in 1563; in Venice from 1575 to 1577; in Milan in 1576; in Northern Italy from1629 to 1631 (it left a million dead out of four million inhabitants). The 1647 plague in Seville killed 60,000 victims, some 50% of the city’s population; the plague in Naples in 1656 killed 240,000 of a population of 400,000. The plague was in Genoa that same year, and in London in 1665 when it killed 100,000, or about 25% of the population. At least 70,000 died in Vienna in the plague of 1679. The last great plague in western Europe started in Marseilles in 1720, spread throughout Provence and sent 100,000 souls to their grave. The Modern Era is, for the West, the age of pestilence, principally because of the recurrence of the plague from the 14th to 17th centuries, but also marked by the appearance of syphilis, then known as the pox, in the 16th century. The 19th century was a period of recurring cholera epidemics. These incurable maladies were unknown to the Middle Ages. Considered a time of scientific and technical progress with the Renaissance and the scientific revolution, the Modern Era has in fact been a time of fear, a


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fear that the Middle Ages, reputed the Dark Ages par excellence, never experienced in such proportions. This ambient fear did not just involve epidemics. Starting around the end of the 14th century, famines and war, particularly the wars of religion that bloodied Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, spread everywhere across the continent. More than fear alone, the social climate was colored by a latent anguish, a fear without a real object, always present, favoring superstition, the rejection of outsiders, and the retreat into faith. If, prior to the modern era, illness was a social referent shared by all (a simple cold could drop anybody), fear of the plague was the most terrifying of all because plague was a scourge against which absolutely nothing could be done, cutting down thousands in a matter of weeks and wiping entire towns and cities off the map. Plague was the Apocalypse made real. Once the malady had declared itself and had been formally identified by the authorities (this could take some time, since the local powers often refused to acknowledge reality for fear of panic), it brought society to the brink of collapse: helpless populations gave in to a collective stampede, and the otherwise rigid social conventions of the times vanished all at once. The plague dissolved communities, shattered social boundaries and all forms of traditional solidarity. Side by side with the accounts and chronicles describing the disarray and misery of the populations confronting such infections, plagues gave rise to a wealth of artistic representations that constitute a precious record of these critical periods in history. Their images give a face to fear even as they provide information about the beliefs and hopes of the men and women facing the disease. Let us note at the outset that there exist relatively few realistic representations that show the concrete effects of the plague in the towns or countryside: no piles of rotting corpses abandoned to crows in deserted streets, barricaded houses, or carts clumsily dumping lifeless bodies into hastily dug, then quickly refilled mass graves. First, because the cities where plague was detected were generally placed under quarantine, the only known solution for containing the infection but that condemned to certain death those, usually the poorest, who had not been able to flee in time. Consequently, no one went in or out of the city, and there was certainly no hurry to send in some painter to execute a canvas in the


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JACOB JORDAENS, SAINT CHARLES BORROMEO GIVING ASSISTANCE TO THE PLAGUE VICTIMS IN MILAN, 1655, ANTWERP, CHURCH OF SAINT-JACQUES.


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plague-ridden streets. But also and especially because of the preference for transcending the disease by means of large altar pieces rather than paintings showing the reality of the terrible scourge. To the true face of the plague, the preference was for glorious ex-votos where the miracle worker saints reputed to have driven out the plague occupy most of the canvas, under the salutary apparition of the Virgin Mary. In such congratulatory works, painted as thanks for a grace received—namely the end of the plague—the evocation of pestilence is confined to the lower margins of the painting where a few lifeless bodies, flesh intact, are laid out in a noble, Grecian nudity. In such paintings, like those of Jacob Jordaens (Saint Charles Borromeo Giving Assistance to the Plague Victims of Milan, 1655, Antwerp, Church of Saint-Jacques) or of Sebastiano Ricci (Altar of Saint Gregory the Great, imploring the Virgin to Obtain the End of the Plague, 1700, Padua, basilica Santa Giustina), the rare plague victims at the bottom of the canvas become in fact mere attributes of the miracle worker saints, allowing the viewer to identify them and invoke their protection. Specifically, Saint Sebastian, Saint Roch and as of the 17th century, saint Charles Borromeo (an Italian archbishop, canonized after his death, who succored the people of Milan during the plague of 1576) were the principal saints implored alongside the Virgin Mary to protect plague-stricken communities.

The danses macabres of the late Middles Ages It was during the 14th and 15th centuries – the first centuries when after an eight hundred year absence the plague reappeared in Europe– that the most morbid representations emerge, even if they don’t directly depict victims of the plague. During this period, the grimmest fatalism emerges as the 100 Years War rages on in France, famines multiply, and each year the plague runs rampant somewhere on the continent. This context provides fertile terrain for eschatological discourse, which returns emphatically in the preachments of Saint Bernard of Siena, Savonarola and of course Luther. All of them decree that the end of the world is nigh if mankind does not return to the path of righteousness and morality, the plague and the other diseases that decimate populations being invariably interpreted as


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SEBASTIANO RICCI, ALTAR OF SAINT GREGORY THE GREAT, IMPLORING THE VIRGIN TO OBTAIN THE END OF THE PLAGUE, 1700, PADUA, BASILICA SANTA GIUSTINA


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divine punishments castigating the wayward. On church walls a new kind of representation appears, halfway between sacred and profane imagery, the danses macabres. An iconographic theme elaborated in the theater as well as in painting, the danse macabre brings together in a single farandole some forty characters representing all social classes, led in an endless dance by mocking skeletons. From the pope to the plowman, not excepting the emperor, the cardinal, the aristocrat, the priest and even the child, all of society is united in a singular fate: the moral is that death strikes down men and women indiscriminately, without regard for rank or wealth. The appearance of this type of imagery in the societies of the Old Regime, structured as they were in three impermeable social bodies, is the direct consequence of the brutal eruption of the plague in Europe beginning in the mid-14th century. This type of memento mori gave solace to the poor and reminded the privileged that in the face of death their prerogatives were worthless. A famous example is the Danse macabre painted by the German artist Bernt Notke in the church of Saint-Nicolas in Tallinn, Estonia, dating from the end of the fifteenth century : the surviving fragment represents the powerful—from left to right the pope, the emperor, the queen, the cardinal and the king—casting worried looks in their reluctance to enter into the dance of death.

BERNT NOTKE, DANSE MACABRE, TALLINN (ESTONIA), CHURCH OF SAINT-NICOLAS.


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Tintoretto and the true face of the plague in Venice in the 16th Century.

In the following century, a vast composition executed by Tintoretto (1518-94), one of the most original painters of the Renaissance, constitutes a rare exception to the unspoken rule that holds one should not show rotting flesh in a church painting. The 16th century Venetian old master was reputed for his independence and his sometimes irascible character. The most prestigious commission of his long and fruitful career was the conception of the decor for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, the most powerful of Venice’s religious brotherhoods. Made up of the laity – aristocrats, merchants, public officers – it was dedicated to saint Roch, healer of the plague. In effect, its principal charitable activity consisted in helping the sick. Between 1560 and 1580, to decorate the magnificent palazzo that the brothers had constructed for themselves in mid-century, Tintoretto painted a cycle of some thirty immense canvases to line the walls and ceilings of the vast interior rooms. Some ten years earlier, in 1549, at the behest of the brotherhood, he had already painted a six meter wide tableau to embellish the choir of the church dedicated to saint Rocco, located just across from the Scuola. 


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Saint Roch Healing the Plague-Stricken is a work of great originality, one of the artist’s lesser known masterpieces. It perfectly reflects the free, rebellious spirit Tintoretto possessed, an artist courted by the powerful but who knew how to place elements drawn from the observation of real life in the public commissions he received. Framed on a masterful, in-depth oblique extending from left to right that hollows out its center, the painting represents the interior of a lazaretto where the figure of Saint Roch, depicted in the middle and recognizable by his halo, works to heal plague sufferers one after another by the simple laying on of hands. The whole is bathed in an unreal chiaroscuro (the first time in his career that Tintoretto used this ambitious technique), in which shadows symbolically signify sickness and death, and light miraculous healing and salvation. In this virtual hospital that resembles a genuine court of miracles, Tintoretto succeeded in the discrete placement of several representations that were quite unconventional for the period. At the far right, quite prominent and a head higher than all the other characters, the aged mother who holds up her sick daughter is in fact an allegory of the Plague itself: how else to explain her skeletal aspect, her emaciated body, the greenish almost livid color of her flesh, and the white hair that seems to belong to an old witch? The allegory of the plague is on the right, but the reality of the disease is on the left: at the other extremity of the painting, three handsome figures of half-naked young men whose rhetorical gesturing makes them resemble Greco-Roman statues or models posing in the painter’s atelier (we know that Tintoretto would often recopy in his paintings small models

TINTORETTO, SAINT ROCH HEALING THE PLAGUE-STRICKEN, 1549, VENICE, CHURCH OF SAN ROCCO.


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sculpted in wax after statues by Michelangelo, Sansovino or artists from antiquity), could well appear entirely classical and not in the least realistic – after all, does one ever see beautiful young men showing off this way in a hospital? But if we look at them more closely, we notice that what they are showing us by their gestures as much if not more than with their vigorous bodies, are the marks those muscular bodies bear: the upright man, as if perched upon a pedestal, has two red buboes on his left leg; the seated one has a bubo under his armpit and another on his left thigh; the third young man lies on the floor, showing the wound on his upper arm. These are indeed the stigmata of the plague, rare wounds scattered across otherwise healthy bodies but easily identifiable because they are designated by the characters themselves. This is the art of showing while hiding; it is in such subtle “effects of the real” that Tintoretto’s genius resides. Finally, to the left of Saint Roch, we see one of the two dead characters in the painting, a prostrate man represented in a masterful foreshortening of the perspective of receding lines created by the floor tiles. He has succumbed to the plague before the miracle worker could intervene, and to emphasize this fact the painter has judiciously placed him at Saint Roch’s back, in the darkness cast by the Saint’s shadow. The dead man’s head is almost invisible, a sign that there is no longer any hope for him. The greenish hue of his body clearly indicates the cause of his death. Never before nor after had the plague in Venice been given a face so like the truth. By placing Saint Roch in this lugubrious hospital ward, Tintoretto succeeds in showing the illness in its clinical reality without for all that giving in to the macabre or the sordid. His painting is perfectly balanced between two extremes: he succeeds in respecting convention and not shocking the consciences of his day, exalting the strength of divine power by a sufficient idealization of the scene, even as he names and shows clearly the black death that struck Venezia Serenissima so often in the course of its history. As with Tintoretto, in the hundreds of ex-votos placed in churches after epidemics in thanks to one or more saints for having put an end to pestilence, we see the dead victims of the plague directly, but according to a very particular vision. The artists almost never depict the emaciated,


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blackened bodies disfigured by plague bubos; artistic idealization and propriety decreed that the corruption of the flesh had no place within God’s sanctuary. Artists couldn’t, nor did they want to show to communities of the faithful a disease no one knew how to conquer. The dead who are depicted in order to give grace to God for having put an end to the epidemic are half naked corpses represented lying down and at rest, as if asleep. They sometimes even seem to languish in an almost sensual manner. This is the case for the stripped male bodies that figure at the bottom of the great fresco painted by Cesare Nebbia in Pavia from 1603 to 1604 that represents Charles Borromeo during the Plague in Milan in 1576, where the most prominent corpse even gives the impression that he is touching his genitals with his left hand. In most church paintings, to make the viewer comprehend that it is indeed the plague-stricken who are shown in the lower part of these ex-votos, a generally followed convention held that painters depict one or two living characters kneeling next to the lifeless bodies, and holding

CESARE NEBBIA, CHARLES BORROMEO DURING THE PLAGUE OF 1576 IN MILAN, 1603-1604, FRESCO, PAVIA, COLLEGIO BORROMEO.


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their noses to protect themselves from the fetid stench of decomposing corpses. A good example of this is the large picture of the Flemish painter Jacob van Oost the younger, representing Saint Macaire of Ghent, assisting the plague-stricken (1673, Musée du Louvre). The few dead piled up in the lower part of the tableau function as a synecdoche, the part for the whole: there has to be at least one dead man and one dead woman along with a child who is sometimes depicted as dead, sometimes still living.

JACOB VAN OOST II, SAINT MACAIRE OF GHENT ASSISTING THE PLAGUE-STRICKEN 1673, PARIS, MUSÉE DU LOUVRE.


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In the latter case, the child is seen weeping over the breast of its mother, now forever cold and emaciated (nursing was generally understood as an allegory of abundance; its negative image here functions as a symbol of misery and destitution). These few characters of different age and sex serve as a representation of all who have been struck dead by the epidemic. There was another way for artists to evoke the plague in addition to the large church paintings, or in city views of plague devastation, those documentary representations that most painters were reluctant to execute (until the 19th century, and except in the low countries, urban views were considered a minor artistic genre in Europe). Painters instead referenced ancient history. The Bible episode known as “The Plague of Ashdod” from the first book of Samuel, was on several occasions a source for artists. The story recounts how the Philistines conquered the Israelites at Afek and stole the Arc of the Covenant that holds the tablets of the Law. They dared set the Ark in the temple of their god Dagon, which provoked the wrath of Yaweh: his divine anger shattered the statue of Dagon and the Philistines were then struck down and decimated by pestilence.

NICOLAS POUSSIN, THE PLAGUE OF ASHDOD, CA. 1630, PARIS, MUSÉE DU LOUVRE.


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A celebrated example of the subject is the painting by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), the great exponent of classicism. In it we find once more the same expedients used in altar pieces for the depiction of disease: in the foreground lies a dead woman, her two naked children weeping by her side and left completely to their own devices while two men, still alive, hold their hands to their noses because of the stench. Two other men in the background carry a dead man to burial in a pose that recalls the burial of Christ; they represent the monatti: young men charged with ridding the streets of cadavers during the plagues in Italy. The canvas can be interpreted with reference to Stoicism, the philosophical doctrine dear to Poussin, as a reflection on hubris: men are punished by God for their arrogance. But the work, painted by the French artist in Rome around 1630, also refers to the situation of the times: Northern Italy experienced in that very year the most terrible plague epidemic in its history. It is in fact in Italy that we encounter the largest number of representations of plague in the Modern Era. The reasons for this are straight forward : because of the warm Mediterranean climate, epidemics of bubonic plague had a greater chance of arising in Italy than in Northern Europe. Italy also boasted at that time Europe’s largest urban civilization: as of the end of the 16th century many of its cities approached or surpassed populations of 100,000. And the majority of those cities are vast ports, opening onto the sea and the East. They are ports of entry for a thousand riches, but also a thousand diseases, often originating in the Middle East or in Asia. Thus we find Venice struck by the plague in 1575, Milan in 1576-1577, Venice and Milan again and together in 1630, Naples, Genoa and Rome in 1656. As these cities are also great cultural centers, historical or allegorical evocations of the episodes of plague that devastated them abound: altar pieces in the churches that serve both as ex-voto and memento mori, but also highly interesting documentary representations depicting cities in quarantine left to fend for themselves. Micco Spadaro (1609-1675) is a painter of the Neapolitan school whose works relate important events that the city experienced in the 17th century. He has left us one of the very rare contemporary representations of the plague that struck down Naples and Southern Italy in 1656, a bird’s eye view representing the Piazza Mercatello in Naples (known today as the Piazza Dante) during the epidemic. If the painting seems realistic on first


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sight, the truth is that it brings together in the same space a great number of various small scenes that condense all kinds of behavior in a population forcibly confined in the city. The general effect sought is one of confusion and overcrowding: a plastic confusion expressed by the tangling up of the bodies of the dead or still living completely fills the space, which reflects the real disarray that the Plague provoked in the organization of the city. In the painting, representatives of all social classes meet in a jumble; we see aristocrats, bourgeois, commoners; the dying are thrown together with the already dead; children whose parents have been taken by the disease wander aimlessly; thefts are committed, brawls break out, while in the foreground nobles mounted on horseback are trying to flee the scene and pass through city gates that can close at any moment and trap the population within. The canvas is a sort of concentrate of the consequences of the plague and its derangement of the social order. There is but one hopeful note: the apparition—a most discrete one, to be sure—of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in the heavens. Only the cupola of the church on the left rises high enough into the blue sky to escape the miasma. In a time when medicine was notoriously incompetent, religion became the sole refuge.

MICCO SPADARO, PIAZZA MERCATELLO IN NAPLES DURING THE PLAGUE OF 1656, NAPLES, MUSEO SAN MARTINO.


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DOMENICO FIASELLA, THE PLAGUE OF 1656 IN GENOA, 1658.

A similar vision can be found from Domenico Fiasella (15891669), a Genovese painter who left us an image of that same 1656 outbreak of the plague that struck Genoa and felled a significant part of the population. Here the register is hybrid; that is, the painting is at once a realist representation as well as an allegory, since in the middle of the city of which certain monuments like the high lighthouse that dominates the port are recognizable (left background), Death’s chariot crosses the ravaged streets. It is driven by a very rare personification of the plague, depicted here as a livid woman with gaunt breasts. Standing at the rear of the cart a skeletal Death cuts down the dying. The devil hovers over the scene, pouring from his cauldron the lava of hell over the masses: in contrast with Micco Spadaro’s Neapolitan painting, there is no remission here, no divine assistance, no hope whatsoever. Fiasella’s vision is particularly bleak. In the scenes depicted we find expressed the worst of humanity: among the dead and dying we can clearly see on the left edge a man who has stolen a bulging purse who is trying stealthily to make his way out of the image field.


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In a small museum in Florence one can admire what is certainly the most striking representation ever given of the black death. It is not the work of a painter, but a sculptor–and of a most unexpected kind: a sculptor in wax. His name is Gaetano Zumbo (1656-1701). Of Sicilian origin, he had attached himself to the service of the Grand-duke of Tuscany, for whom he produced wax anatomical dioramas whose realism is so striking that his contemporaries thought they were looking at the real thing. Zumbo was so acclaimed in his day for his “inventions” that Louis XIV granted him a monopoly on wax anatomical creations and he settled in France, in Marseilles, where he died in 1701. His diorama entitled The Plague (modelled circa 1690) is a three dimensional work, a kind of intimate theatrical scene full of characters sculpted in relief against a backdrop that serves as a screen. We see here the monatto, or “street cleaner,” a vigorous youth charged with collecting lifeless bodies and piling them on the tumbrils sent off to the mass graves: the sole living character, he is distinguished by his tanned, almost red skin color, which serves to connote his vitality in opposition to the deceased, but also by the cloth mask that protects his nose. The flesh of the stacked bodies, partly or entirely naked, are greenish, livid, brown, jaundiced: the colors merge until the bodies resemble a pile of decomposing garbage in the process of rotting and recombining. You can almost feel the exhalations of rotten flesh, the sticky stench of death mingling with the reek of the mass graves where corpses are being burned because they can no longer be buried in the pits overflowing with the dead. It is a pathetic concentrate of the horrors of the plague, sordid in its overall vision, but anatomically correct in the representation of the bodies, even if the muscles seem too exaggerated. It testifies to Zumbo’s anatomical training and his perfect knowledge of myology. The works of Zumbo held in Florence aroused great curiosity among the writers and intellectuals who discovered them in their chance wanderings around the city of the Medicis, for example the Goncourt brothers who said of them: “their reduced size removes the horror of these horrors, and confers upon them something of the character of toys.” Earlier, the Marquis de Sade described Zumbo’s Plague in his novel Juliette as follows:


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GAETANO ZUMBO, THE PLAGUE, CA. 1690, FLORENCE, MUSEO DE LA SPECOLA

GAETANO ZUMBO, THE PLAGUE, CA. 1690, FLORENCE, MUSEO DE LA SPECOLA (DETAIL).


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We see a sepulcher filled with corpses in various stages of putrefaction, from the moment of death to the total destruction of the individual. This dark work was executed in colored wax imitating the natural so well that nature itself could not be more expressive or more true. Faced with this masterpiece, your senses seem to experience a collective alarm: unconsciously you put your hand to your nose. Wax is so malleable that it allows the sculptor to attain a naturalism and an illusionism that are almost painful to the eye, simultaneously using the three dimensions proper to sculpture and the color habitually reserved to painting. It is because wax is so perfectly mimetic that it disturbs; for this reason and no other, it is the material used for the troubling reconstitutions in the Musée Grévin and Madame Tussaud’s. We close this rapid overview with two works dating from the nineteenth century. At that time, the plague had disappeared from Europe but it still raged in the Middle East, and Bonaparte’s army ran into it in 1799 at Jaffa during the expedition to Egypt. Several French soldiers contracted the disease. To sustain the morale of his troops, the General visited the lazaretto where the dying were sequestered. Bonaparte becomes Napoleon I in 1804, the same year when Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), one of the regime’s official painters, receives a commission for an immense canvas representing the General’s visit to the plague-stricken in Jaffa five years earlier. In this enormous, seven meter wide machine, the future first consul appears in the middle of the composition as a glorious miracle healer, laying his hand upon a sufferer in a clear echo of the belief that held that the kings of France could cure scrofula.1 With this propagandistic image, the new sovereign attempts to position himself in the lineage of the Capetian monarchs and to legitimize his own dynasty, so recently installed on the vacant throne of France. In reality, Bonaparte’s visit to the lazaretto in Jaffa lasted no more than a few moments; it is documented that he did not get anywhere near a plague sufferer.


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ANTOINE-JEAN GROS, BONAPARTE VISITING THE PLAGUE-STRICKEN IN JAFFA, 1804, PARIS, MUSÉE DU LOUVRE.

At the other extreme from this political vision of the plague, and at the other end of the century, the Swiss Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) provides a very personal allegorical vision of the Black Death. The canvas entitled The Plague was painted in 1898 at the end of his life. The artist, who had survived typhoid fever and had lost several of his children to various diseases, seems to cast a jaded, fatalistic eye upon his own existence. The painting takes its place in a very strong artistic tradition (think of Dürer’s apocalyptic engravings). It stands out because of its sober palette in which faded, dull colors dominate. At the entrance to a devastated street that is deployed in depth, a gaunt woman with vacant pupils and greenish skin, dressed in black and carrying the scythe of the Grim Reaper, rides a sort of dragon or bat-winged vulture. This personification of the plague fills most of the image field, closing off perspective, preventing the viewer’s gaze from fleeing. Böcklin informs us in this way that it is impossible to escape the scourge of the Black Death. Beneath the hideous creature we find once more the classical vi-


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sual synecdoche used to condense a whole family into three characters: a young woman, a mature woman and a man with grey hair. The work’s originality resides in the color treatment of its characters, which gives them a symbolic charge: the young woman is dressed in red, a symbol of spilled blood but of vitality as well. She weeps over her dead mother, who is lying in the street dressed entirely in white like the Virgin Mary or an innocent vestal. The elderly father, his back against the wall, his skin tanned by age and disease, gives himself up to the morbid breath of the vulture. Is the figure of the old man ready to allow himself to be carried off by death? Is Böcklin representing himself, broken but more than anything resigned to the end of an existence marked by the successive disappearances of many of his family members? The artist died three years after completing this painting, which was paradoxically executed at a time when medicine had finally learned how to treat this terrible disease. Today, even if it has long since been eradicated, the bubonic plague still remains a powerful reference in our society, present in the collective imagination, a sign of the stigmata it has impressed onto western mentalities through the centuries of its reign over impotent cities. References to the plague persist in our language even though the disease was conquered ages ago. In French, we continue to call an intractable person (often a woman) “une peste”; we say of someone who has been shunned that he is “un pestiféré.” One can even “pester” (rant, rage) against an exasperating individual and curse him saying “peste soit de lui!” (a pox upon him!). Will the coronavirus that is raging now have the same fate as the black death in our collective artistic imagination? Will it be a source of inspiration for artists in whose work we expect to find the reflection of the passions and fears of society? Nothing is less certain. Putting aside its lethality, which is clearly a hundred times lesser, the principal difference between coronavirus and the plague is that the epidemic that has brought the world to a standstill over recent months has no face. In 2020 medical progress has meant that we don’t see the sick; everything takes place in hospitals, in closed rooms, away from our gaze. Once, city streets were just full of corpses; today they’re just empty. The true face of the coronavirus is loneliness, the solitude of confinement and social distancing. A


Plague in the Time of Coronavirus: The Representation of the Black Death 149

ARNOLD BÖCKLIN, THE PLAGUE, 1898, BASEL, KUNSTMUSEUM.


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parenthesis of silence in our busy lives: that, perhaps, is what artists will recount and retain from this abnormal period in the habitus2 of modern humans, who are no longer familiar with the shadow of death—and all the more fearful of its menace. TRANSLATED BY JOHN ANZALONE

Notes 1. Scrofula (écrouelle) is also known in French as “le mal du Roi,” or the “King’s evil,” a reference to the belief in the healing power of the royal touch. (translator’s note). 2. The sense of the term here is derived from the work of Pierre Bourdieu: the locus of cultural capital and how it shapes experience. (translator’s note)


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Two Poems BY JOYCE CAROL OATES

Harlow’s Monkeys Assume that we are not monsters for we mean well. — Harry Harlow (1905-1981) 1. To be a Monkey is to be funny If funny you don’t hurt & if you don’t hurt you don’t cry & if you don’t cry the noise you make is funny & if it is funny people can laugh for it is all right for people to laugh at a Monkey


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& people are happy if people laugh & the one thing they agree is a Monkey is funny 2. Oh! it is not funny to hear a Monkey scream for a Monkey scream is identical to a human scream & a human scream is not funny So in the Monkey Lab to maintain calm Dr. Harlow had no choice but to “surgically remove” Monkey vocal cords so if there is a (Monkey) scream not heard how is it a scream? 3. We were Harlow’s Monkeys & Dr. Harlow was our Daddy in the famous lab at Madison, Wisconsin from which you did not leave alive

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hairless bawling infants taken from our mothers at birth to dwell in Harlow’s hell “social isolation” “maternal deprivation” to be a Monkey is funny nursing the dugs of a bare-wire doll clinging to a towel draped over a bare-wire doll seeking milk, love where there’s none yet: seeking milk, love where there’s none. yet: seeking How could a Monkey be sad, could a Monkey spell the word—“sad”—? In the bottom of the Monkey cage listless & broken when the wire doll too is taken away

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“learned helplessness” “pit of despair” You laugh, for you would never so despair mistaking a wire doll for a Mother or a devil for a Daddy 4. (Look: in any lab you had to be cruel to publish & succeed. As Israel, Harry changed his name to Harlow, Harry to publish & succeed. Just had to be cruel the way today a baby calf in its cage grows slowly to veal.)

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Hometown Waiting for You All these decades we’ve been waiting here for you. Welcome! You do look lonely. No one knows you the way we know you. And you know us. Did you actually (once) tell yourself—I am better than this? One day actually (once) tell yourself—I deserve better than this? Fact is, you couldn’t escape us. And we have been waiting for you. Welcome home! Boasting how a scholarship bore you away like a chariot of the gods except where you are born, your soul remains. We all die young here. Not one of us outlived young here. Check out obituaries in the Lockport Union Sun & Journal. Car crash, overdose. Gunshot, fire. Cancers of breast, ovaries, lung, colon. Heart attack, cirrhosis of liver. Assault, battery. Stroke! And— did I say overdose? Car crash?

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Filling up the cemeteries here. Plastic trash here. Unbiodegradable Styrofoam here. Three-quarters of your seventhgrade class now in urns, ash and what remains in red MAGA hats. Those flashy cars you’d have given your soul to ride in, just once, now eyeless rusting hulks in tall grass. Those eyes you’d wished might crawl upon you like ants, in graveyards of broken glass. Atwater Park where you’d wept in obscure shame and now whatever his name who’d trampled your heart, he’s ash. Proud as hell of you though (we admit) never read a goddam word you’ve written.

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We never forgave you. We hate winners. Still, it’s not too late. Did I say overdose? Why otherwise are you here?

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Needles BY MARC BERLEY The boy who taught you addiction was gone like a rainbow, the lilt of his anxious singing quiet like the night’s sharp noise. At summer camp you swam naked before the sun was up: caught lice, a snake, and a bug for theatrical pauses in your day. History plagues you like the plague. You limp with the pain of facts. Your Achilles heel is torn from sex; you told the doctor you were dancing. Marc Anthony was lame in his way too, as was Cleopatra. You know how to lie to yourself without lying. Ice cream no longer soothes you. A lover barks at you like the dog that died beneath your feet, a bend of blood upon the road, brave car chaser, gospel of your youth. You cease to hope for craven comforts. Acupuncture finds the tiny holes in your soul and renames them as meridians, turning you into a shaken snow globe.


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Harvest BY LLOYD SCHWARTZ A man in a tree, upside-down, hanging by his legs, shaking down pears. A peasant spread-eagled under a tree—mouth open, snoring, his cod-piece loosened, his 400-year-old cap so thinly painted you can see right through it. Also under that tree, eight field workers—male and female, young and old, well-fed and rail-thin—munching, sipping, slurping, guzzling, gobbling their noon repast: cheese, porridge, gruel, wine; with a large knife, one carves off a slice of bread from a loaf in a basket. Mowers. Gleaners. Fruit-gatherers. Scythes sharpened daily. A distant team of oxen hauling into town a wagon heavy with a barn-size load of wheat. Wheat. Fields of wheat. Hills of wheat. Distant wheat.


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Narrow paths in the wheat. Two women bearing sheaves on their shoulders and a third—their heads poking out above a narrow path in the wheat. A man lugging two heavy jugs emerging from a narrow path in the wheat. Endless wheat. Bloody games on the village green. Villagers or field workers swimming—or bathing?—in a pond. Cows grazing. Thatched roofs sloping nearly to the ground. Gables of the village church, uphill from the water’s edge, nearly hidden behind the trees. Matchstick ships entering and leaving the harbor. Gray horizon dissolving into the distance, disappearing into the misty distance. Two birds taking flight, ascending from the wheat. A man hanging upside down from a tree. A peasant spread-eagled under a tree, see-through cap and loosened codpiece—mouth open, snoring. A pitchfork leaning against the tree. Resting against the tree.


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Two Poems BY CHRISTINA HUTCHINS

The Elysian Fields of Point Reyes I was born distinguished by happiness. My limbs curved casually one around the other like a Botticelli baby, & I’m told I smiled at the nurses the nascent hour of my birth, & still I like nurses, their capable hands & tamp-tamp voices. I did not cry at nor after my birth, not through the first plump day, morning to night, & milk-clouded morning again, though many, many days now I have wept. Promises passed to desolation, years of a life bedded down rough & gone to seed. Sometimes there is nothing a gardener can do but watch the plot go wild in a poppy wind. Taken up into my parents’ arms that day, it was they who cried then laughed, I brought them that much joy from the merely possible whence I’d so lately come, wriggling & pointing a single finger:


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Here is the world! Here the meadow blossoms of thistle & the bursting surf, of rockrose & fiddle-head ferns, & here the dust opening its petals around the boots of Patty hiking the Palomarin Trail yesterday afternoon. Her steady steps inscribed me as if I were the fine dust of a new-pleased earth. A fog had lifted, & those two hands that linger & wander my nighttime risings were swinging free in the clear air. It is true there is another birth, unimaginable prior to its press. Two bodies, one opening release beyond the threshold of the other, I have both found & been found, & having passed through a close lintel & jamb, have emerged here at the widening of each meadow in its single moment spending, the wind of some amending heaven taking up the pounded dust.  

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Each Lit Bell Sometimes when I walk briskly across a winter city, Boston or Chicago, I can feel my blood warm into a chaos exactly the shape of my body, joyful inside my clothes. Some aspect of air—maybe pieced light & snow, the cold itself— celebrates the unchambered fields within me. When I finally go indoors, the chill falls from my coat. * * * Once in Cleveland, walking to the train in the first hours of what would be a long storm off Lake Erie, it began to snow. Fast flakes, painting the air with such broad strokes. The sky was like my mother when she had to turn to clay & a potter’s wheel, because she could not get the paint thick enough on her canvas. Then I paused, stopped in my shortcut through a pay-to-park lot mostly empty of cars & leaned my suitcase against my knees. I was on my way to the train to the airport, to a bus in California, to home, & so young was the day, it was still night. I don’t know how long I stood there, as snow hid first the stars & then the curbs & the cars. The parking lot grew more & more beautiful, new & solitary, a wilderness still absent the human. The lampposts disappeared, then even the lamps were gone, just a giant, lit cone where each one had been, swirling & planted at the edge of the known world.


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* * * The first time I walked past the immense kelp exhibit of the Monterey Aquarium, I stopped. Among kelp, platinum clouds shifted shape & direction with the rapidity of shuffled cards, & every school formed a single body & never a single body, always a different constellation. Each a tiny catch of light, the fish became just-poured champagne, effervescing, & the giant column of glass could not keep the iridescence within itself. Each lit bell, snowflakes holding up a lamp, could have been a tank of those sardines, solid & fluxed, never done making shapes of themselves, never still. * * * A long walk awaited me, across the withered, industrial expanse of a middle-aged American city. Cleveland had let itself go, as sometimes I have let my cupboards empty or the laundry pile, or the bills, my confidence run down to a least pulse, no matter of will. In such a city, abandoned warehouses fall in on themselves, & the voice, altered, too, declines, is inaudible even from within. Empty as a lifeguard shack on the north coast when the water is too cold to swim & the sand begins to drift & stays unpocked by human heels, the pay-stand of the parking lot was being subsumed. I had started to make a path, away. Behind me, my tracks were slowly obliterated, or filled, or healed. I carried my suitcase, because I couldn’t pull it; its little wheel-wells jammed with snow. It wasn’t so much heavy, but I’d have dropped the suitcase if that would have helped erase my tracks more quickly.


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* * * Then, it was my own pain I wanted to disappear, but now it’s my dying friend, Maura, I want to abandon my suitcase for, now it is my nephew, Lucas, making the rounds of the living room with kisses. One autumn day, pulling weeds with my sister-in-law, his mother, she & I on two sides of the walkway, she actually uprooting the weeds, & me, sitting cross-legged with eighteen month Luke in my lap now & then leaning out from me as from a boat to grab a small handful of grass, for the sound of the rip of it, the pleasure, I think, of each separate blade breaking, together torn. But Lucas looked up, stood & walked over to his mother, who perhaps had glanced at us or maybe not. He bent over her as she squatted close to the ground concentrating on fine roots, & with the body of an elderly man, he stooped over & patted her shoulder, bent further to look a moment into her face, then he toddled back across the stone walkway & settled in my lap with a sigh. If I could pack a single rolling bag with the ache that awaits that boy or with what this spring will be Maura’s final grind, the last she knows of the world, I’d gladly have left the suitcase there. * * * Maybe if I had dropped it, & it burst, everything would have spilled, & I could’ve left it like that in the gutter, already disappearing in the storm. When almost at the end of that day of two trains, two planes, & a bus, I stood on the platform under the false light of the Oakland station, it was night again,


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& in the grammar of commuters, everyone became a familiar stranger. We were each both singular & the same. When the door slid closed, I was the lucky rider with a seat, with my suitcase pressed tight against my knees, close to the windowed wall where black glass was stained into cathedral glass with the bodies & clothes, hats & knapsacks, all of it in color but muted, a little duller, a little stranger, where in the reflection I could stare without cease at faces as our bodies swayed the lilting & slowing, the pitch & acceleration, & where I could pause as I paused at the snow-lifted torches so solidly swirling, where a genie was trapped in her giant bottle, a spun god, atwirl in her release, a kind of singing, a voice utterly public that only I could hear.

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Lot’s Wife BY CLAIRE SCOTT she who wrapped what little she had in a worn scarf walked for two days and two nights under the glare of the sun the skull of the moon she who loved the city with its red spirals, clay dwellings, its desert dust and grit the spinning wheel where she sang of Sodom while twisting flax and fleece the city of a forever-unnamed woman who prepared a feast for two strangers baked flat bread over a low fire roasted lamb dipped in salt she who lingered and looked back rough hands shading her eyes she who lingered and turned was it to see if her daughters were behind dresses dragging on the bone-dry plain did she forget the angels’ words worn from hours of walking


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did she mean to disobey, tired of men’s orders, tired of a harsh god’s orders no longer caring, perhaps even longing to disappear before her city was destroyed by fire or swallowed by the sea

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Two Poems BY BEN CORVO

Corvid In your experience, it is best to look at wild animals From the corner of the eye. A turn of the head, a direct stare Will be seen as challenge, predation even. Best to make yourself Tucked-in, nugatory, a small stone or egg, but hyper-aware, The way you register, walking, alone, in the woods at night, Minute gradations of motion, light. You are ready to disappear, Make yourself another tiny night-thing, watching the silvered light Fill with what you fear, but you’ve also learned to abdicate fear, Haven’t you, walking home through the woods beyond the back gate Of the university, loose-limbed, silent, half-predator Yourself, lightless, reading ground finding path through boot-soles, duff, twig, ice, Terror is for well-lit rooms, the old persistent scritch-scratch, but here It has become the chilly ichor running through your veins, the face, Yours, ranging like a second moon through the trees, it is best to look At wild animals from the corner of the eye, you’ve learned to seduce


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Crows, snaring them in your peripheral vision, an entire flock Has encircled you, you theatrically place bits of your meal At wide angles, ever closer, the crows eye you, hop forward, jump back, Until you leave one morsel on your extended hand, just behind, feel A dry peck-peck-peck on your palm, you have never been happier, You remain perfectly still, the crows too have stopped their usual Backtalk and shabby strut, when you raise your eyes (just slightly) They are almost solemn, staring, days or weeks later a crow (yours?) Slams into a plate-glass window at the National Library, The security guard cordons off a little space for him (or her?) With the red velvet ropes used for visiting dignitaries Where he (or she) lies semi-rigid, suffering the stares of researchers, And your own, it is best to make yourself tucked-in, nugatory, A small stone or egg, breaking for your usual lunch on the yard, From a distance the crow is a little damp bundle, another Keeps vigil from the parapet, you are watching too, from the corner Of your eye, something like a cry building in you, all hour, all hour.


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Elul Even in the wrong season, the ground must be turned. Even if I've made a late start, even in the day's heat and congestion, even in my more-than-perennial distraction, the ground must be turned. The crows have taken shelter wherever crows take shelter, chameleons scuttle away at the absolute last moment, tiny grass snakes stretch themselves full length in the leaf litter, and the leaf litter itself does not stir. The ground breaks iron tools. Weeds suck uselessly at its paps, and tears roll uselessly away. Here are the tracks they make in the dust, a thin dark line at first then a fossil groove shallow but unmistakable. In this late season, the ground becomes a reliquary of tiny marks, to be read blind, with fingertips, the way a cheek, yours, is caressed in old age.

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My hands know the language of each fold and furrow, rehearse the ancients tracks over hard-baked ground then turn skyward. B’sha-ah tova, the old women say. The rain will come "in a good hour." Even now in this late season (say it!) the ground holds so much and must be turned.

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Aqueous BY PAUL BAILEY I love the mournful beauty of anemones. They’re heavy drinkers. You can almost sense themafter a day or two trapped in a vasegroaning for water. Ranunculi are much the same. They’re brighter than their purple cousinsflauntingly yellow, gayer in spiritbut just as thirsty. Why do these guzzling flowers call to mind past grief? I had their need for water once, Though more dramatically. I craved a final immersion. It wasn’t coming. The rivers I was drawn to— the Thames, the Arno, and the Tiber— all offered invitations I declined. I stared at them beseechingly, and fled.


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To Rome BY JOHN POCH Why now, flying over Italy with the multi-lingual flight attendants who make me lust for my wasted youth, who ignore my shy middle age gaze like high school girls in a museum ignore yet another marble sculpture of a man, why now do I think of the steel-toed boots I wore on the concrete loading dock of Southeastern Freight Lines where in my early 20s I worked my way through college? Finally, I had given up physics for poetry, and one night at work I watched a man drive a three ton forklift off the four foot dock—which was both physics and poetry because he did it on purpose (no skid marks at the edge). For a moment, of course, I think of our plane crashing, the terror of it and the clichÊ, so my thoughts come back to the boots required for the job, the heavy leather worn thin and shiny with a couple years of grease and carbon filth finally ruptured


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over the right toe to reveal the steel protecting me, which had indeed been run over half a dozen times, those shoes heavy as bricks, probably a part of my back pain here, now, on this plane in this discount airline seat which carries me through the sky nevertheless to Rome, where Paul had come in all his torment and faith toward death, but glory, so I meditate on how that steel (the oblivion of that torn upper, the years) shone through the leather leading me step after step night after night away from concrete and freight, toward flight and Rome where they once beheaded Paul, and in the manner of the ancient Hydra, from that absence sprung a double life, the mind of Christ, and multiplied for good.

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Two Poems BY SCOTT HARNEY

Climbing Mount Vesuvius Not the mythic hike you might imagine, nymphs and satyrs flitting about the steamy slopes, a distant hiss of orange lava just about to spill over the crater’s edge. Not the grand tour trip via funicular, ladies fanning off volcanic dust, as the tram groans to the cone. Just a ride by air-conditioned bus, through the slanted suburbs at the base, up through fields of weeds, clotted with tar from a recent eruption, perhaps that spurt in ’44, a fart in the face of packing fascists. Halfway up, we stop at a souvenir shop, where Gregorio, his hair ash-white beneath a black leather cap, explains in several languages that he alone is the Keeper of Vesuvius, and will sell you glossy books of hot red shots. For nothing more, he’ll sign the flyleaf, adding a sketch of his charge, the smoking mountain on the bay, the usual view from Posillipo. The driver checks his watch.


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Perhaps he hears a distant rumble that signals magma rising, enough to melt down half of Naples, or perhaps his stomach says it’s time for lunch. He drops us near the summit for the last ascent, by the parking lot and toilets, snack bar and more stuff for sale, necklaces of lava and a wine called Tears of Christ. I came to see the fires of hell and find instead a rest stop on the way to heaven. But up ahead, a wide path rises, filled with pilgrims streaming toward the rim, and so I follow, the sky spreading wider over my head, and land now falling away-the crater on one side, the sudden sea on the other, the way between forever narrowing. The great abyss today is just a gravel pit, with a few small fissures letting off steam, but still no place for a picnic. Just stay steady for the walk ahead, to a shack on the narrowest edge, where they sell limoncello for a euro a shot, and you sway between the crater and the rest of the world, deciding where to fall.

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The Blood of San Gennaro They come to the cathedral for the miracle of blood shed by San Gennaro, beheaded by pagans when the furnace refused to burn him, and the lion he was fed to bowed instead. Sopped up by a follower and squeezed into a vial, the blood is most days clotted rust, but today the mayor will come, the new Camorra boss, his whore and other dignitaries, escorted by a color guard of dapper Carabinieri, the plumes of their Napoleonic hats perched like preening parrots after a tropical rain. Today, San Gennaro’s blood will boil again, a sign that Mount Vesuvius will not, at least for another year, cholera will not seep up from buried aqueducts, and soccer bets will pay. After the Cardinal’s invocation, the Holy Order of the Aunts of San Gennaro (all in black cardigans, rosaries clutched) chants and begs for blessing and protection, until a sudden gasp, a handkerchief is waved, the congregation claps, and then the Cardinal holds the vial high for all to see. The blood has liquefied, fresh from AD 305. The Aunts begin to sing Te Deum. Bells are rung and guns are shot across the harbor from a castle’s parapets. How many days we wake and wish the rust that was our blood, lost in the minor martyrdoms of our lives, could flow again. Blood that dried and stiffened the gauze of Band-Aids mother peeled from our knees. Blood the bullies drew from our noses. Blood of the first menses

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or the last surgery. Blood of the rose that melts in our dreams. Even if the latest theory calls the blood hydrated iron oxide, quickly liquefied when shaken, the miracle an ancient joke, the faithful file in all afternoon to kiss the reliquary glass. Outside on Via Duomo, the street is closed for the usual carnival, blow-up animals for sale, candy and roasted corn. And San Gennaro smiles from a giant poster, torn and flapping in the wind. Il miracolo è fatto. The miracle is done.

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Two Poems BY HARRY NEWMAN

Reflection two mad women on the subway today one heading into town talking and laughing with the empty seat across from her leaning forward then rocking back nodding with delight again and again on my way home the other stiff with anger cursing and muttering shouting in outbursts shit! so much money then switching to Mandarin and maybe another language one of her own devising before starting again I’m in the seat across this time and I think how close I came to this riding these same cars walking for days through the city folders of poems in a bag their pages fraying until the words wore off stopping at windows of restaurants looking through myself in the glass mouths moving inside me no one seeing I’m there I couldn’t use the word home for years even after I’d found one but would say the place I’m living or where I’m staying


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and even now when you’re asleep I spend the night sometimes walking through the apartment everything dark talking to myself reminding myself until I’m standing at a window looking through my reflection waiting for it to fade

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Midden there is no archaeology of loss memory leaves only the lightest of traces and even lines like these left on paper fade the few marks we have more than our bones to show the path we took here how many words remain for me how much thought to form them when fingers fail as they do now already moving of their own accord as I write adding lines letters changing meaning as if forming a script of their own the secret language of knuckle nail we survive only as long as our words carry us life is a kind of larceny a series of small thefts growing bolder with time and soon enough everything falls through our hands never to be recovered how often do I wake now from sleep without dreams or images or lines blank in the darkness remembering nothing I think then of the middens at archaeological sites

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the dark places of the ground where everything organic has decayed only fragments shards remaining what parts of dreams are left there what marks do they leave behind them the hard shards of hope in dreams forgotten or lost or that never came to be

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Must the Father Die? Reading King Lear Over A Lifetime BY MARGARET MORGANROTH GULLETTE

The Jewish King Lear of 1892 Mrs. Lear, wife and mother, is notoriously absent from Shakespeare’s 1601 tragedy, King Lear. It is thus a shock to find she is the first character we meet in Jacob Gordin’s 1891-92 Yiddish revision, The Jewish King Lear. King Lear is the father-daughter plot of stubborn conflict, blindness, recognition, care-giving, and death—the highest stakes possible—written in the most affecting language. By bringing in a wife and mother, transposing the setting to the Lithuania of his era, and writing in prose, Gordin (himself an immigrant) radically altered Shakespeare’s family dynamics, patriarchal subtext, and genre. But he held on tight to the initiating injustice of the plot, in which an all-powerful old man banishes his favorite daughter. Enormously popular for the next forty years in New York City, Gordin’s revision introduced the Jewish diaspora to the bewildering generational and gender relations of their new country. Today, thanks to the remarkable revival I saw at the Metropolitan Theater in New York in 2018, the play serves as a thread leading deep into father-daughter relations over a century later. Stranger yet, The Jewish King Lear took me some way along the unmapped journey of my feelings for my own father. As Gordin’s play opens, old Mrs. Lear, or rather “Khane Leah,” played by Diane Tyler, an actor of substantial motherly bosom and kindly


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mien, dominated the opening action by bustling about anxiously—as if afraid of criticism—ordering her daughter to fetch and to see if anything else is missing from the crowded table set for eight. The setting is their home in Vilna in 1890, where the women are preparing a banquet for Purim, the feast that celebrates Queen Esther for saving the Jews from genocide under the Persians. The youngest of three daughters, Taybele, the only unmarried one, has cajoled her reluctant mother into inviting a male guest whom her father may not like. Where is “Mrs. Lear”—consort and mother—in Shakespeare’s dark vision? As Coppélia Kahn, a feminist Shakespeare scholar, points out, there was good reason for her to be missing. The aristocratic patriarchal families headed by Gloucester and Lear have, actually and effectively, no mothers. The only source of love, power, and authority is the father—an awesome, demanding presence.1 So a Mrs. Lear, once put onstage, can be an alternative source of love. Khane Leah, empathetic mother rather than traditional submissive wife, disrupts the hostile generational binary between the patriarch and his disobedient youngest child. Blaming his imprudence, she won’t agree to exile the daughter she too favors and depends on. She continues to talk to Taybele and weeps for her before Taybele leaves for Russia. But protest against her husband’s harsh decree is futile, since he rules. Lear, here called Reb Dovidl Moysheles, a rich merchant of high status in the community, barely registers his wife’s presence. When he announces his abdication—“I will go to Palestine to study and pray”—she has to remind him that her whereabouts need to be considered too. She does not want to be left behind in the care of the two hypocritical daughters. The Cordelia of 1892 is trebly offensive to the patriarch. She rejects her father’s gift, the richest jewel, when her two sisters are flagrantly, fulsomely grateful for theirs. On top of this ingratitude and betrayal, as her father sees it, Gordin’s Taybele wants to leave home—to go all the way to St. Petersburg to study to become, of all things, a doctor. Moreover she has shyly but obstinately fallen in love on her own with the reformed and beardless Jew whom she has wheedled her mother into inviting to the feast day.


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These two innovations—adding an older woman who is mother and wife and highlighting the rebellious daughter’s will—signal changes to the original in every aspect. This is no multi-family royal Renaissance court but a domestic circle—in a New Woman plot for Enlightenment Jewry in cosmopolitan New York, intimately aware of the warfare between the generations that was affecting sons as well as daughters; and knowledgeable as well about the divisive currents of Jewish religious culture. (A subplot explaining enmity between the two sons-in-law contrasts the roistering Moyseh Hasid and the austere Misnagid, Avron Harif.) The fresh feminist plot—with its mother-daughter liaison and father-daughter confrontation—may have frightened some immigrant theater-goers in the 1890s and 1900s. Or it may have enlightened and encouraged them. Although Taybele wants to be free to do good work, poor daughters and wives in the New World were often urged or forced by family exigency to go out to work for pay, despite past patriarchal restrictions. All the Lears I have seen start with formal court staging for Shakespeare’s fairy-tale trope of How Not to Discover One Honest Daughter Among Three. Gordin’s plot relinquishes the grandeur of universality intentionally, mostly by specifying so much local social history. Perhaps the literary-historical detail that seems strangest to us today is the fact that the beardless beau, Herr Yaffe, educated not in a local shul but in a German university, has read Shakespeare’s King Lear. Unlike others in the original New York audiences, Yaffe knows the dramatic outcome. Through Yaffe’s explicit creation of suspense, Gordin warns his ignorant audiences that things may not go well from such beginnings. “The old king, like you, divided his kingdom and also like you sent away the loving daughter who told him the truth. Oh! How dearly he paid for that! Yes, you are the Jewish King Lear. May God protect you from such as an end as that to which King Lear came.” Will it be a tragedy? Coming back from Palestine in dismay at not having received any money from the vicious and avaricious daughter whose husband controls the family home, Reb Dovidl and his wife move in with her. Etele puts her mother and the loyal Fool to work, but not her weakened father, who is going blind. She locks the pantry. Her husband, who preaches that food is less necessary to the pious, starves them. Despite his listless hunger and the misery of those who depend on


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him, the father refuses to take back his gift of property—which, Gordin explains, Russian law empowered him to do. Reb Dovidl could also have ordered the miserly daughter-in-charge to hand over the keys—in fact, he does, briefly—but then (the plot must get him out into the cold with his Fool) he gives the keys back to her, in dogged masochistic faithfulness to his original rageful choice. Persistent anger can be a warm cloak when other identities are torn away. As he leaves the house ruled by his miserly son-in-law, he recalls Jaffe’s warning and cries out, “Alms, alms, for the Jewish King Lear.”2 Instead of spending one mad night on the heath, he spends five years homeless, begging in the streets. “Not a play to attend if you’re a Shakespeare purist,” one audience member wrote on the website.3 Ending and genre—elements that could not be more intrinsic—are startlingly different in Gordin’s late-19th century appropriation. We are kept waiting for destruction and vengeance, but no one dies. No one. Not Lear, not Cordelia, not either of the sons-in-law, not either of the two daughters. No tragic revenge plot, no armies, no defeat, no prison, no hanging. Justice is meted out kindly. Mercy rules. New World Jews—whose families had been hunted in pogroms, shunted into exile, separated by oceans— presumably would not have wanted to see family well-being end with deaths—certainly not for a father’s stubbornness. Instead, in this play, the five years of ignoble and unnecessary poverty pass in a flash as Lear wanders with his Fool offstage, begging, going blind, defending his decree. Then, Taybele, not exiled but educated, returns with her medical degree and her husband-to-be, now a surgeon. Dr. Jaffe examines his future father-in-law’s eyes. “This is a ripely mature cataract. We can operate.” They do. Who doesn’t want a son-in-law who can rescue you and your sad bereft wife and save your sight? Our Lear forgives the couple and their modern science. The youngsters have long ago forgiven him, since they got their way—took their way to St. Petersburg—even before he endured his miserable comeuppance. Born too late, the older woman, Khane Leah, bewails her own female lack of opportunity and welcomes her successful doctor-daughter with awe and praise as well as gratitude. “My wise scholar! My jewel of a child!”4 Gordin has Taybele and Jaffe, as doctors and moderns, go on and on about the greatness of their new ideas, with evolved certainty, in so inconsiderate a way that anyone can foretell hurt feelings on the part of


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Placard for a New York Performance of Gordin’s Jewish King Lear, October 1898


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the elderly couple. Hurt feelings for the humbled king, yes, these are in order—but no embittered deaths that a father would have to acknowledge he caused. Indeed, once his cataracts are removed, the Father literally sees better. Rationality and devotion on the part of the good adult children, like the presence of a caring mother, soften the original tragic situation. In tragic conflicts, of course, nobody changes their minds. Pride ruins their hearts-ease and may lead to deaths—their own and those of others. In this 1892 world, modernization means, precisely, better family relations, especially for women. Education transcends stifling religious tradition. Gender relations improve. Dr. Yaffe sues the wicked sister for Taybele’s portion, and sends the bailiff to evict Etele and the arrogant overfed Misnagid. Law functions fairly. Etele turns up cravenly repentant and the other daughter has suffered enough to deserve mercy. Perhaps the recognition scenes come too easily, implausibly. At the end, another party. The extended family is together again in the same room with its eight members intact and children offstage, celebrating a wedding between the two compatible contemporaries. But this happier ending requires more than strangling the concept of paternal authority as a law of nature and providing upward mobility for some in the next generation. The old people return to benign parental roles, receiving most of the respect they deserve. From this “American” point of view—feminist, Jewish, enlightened, sympathetic to both generations —tragedy seems like a series of decisions that every audience member can see were poor choices. The alternatives are meant to feel good. Tragedy—suffering, vengeance, death—can be prevented. Choose better, Lear. Become an American father. Knowing Shakespeare’s doomed version helped Gordin make a “comic” outcome possible. Indeed, the recent paperback translation published by Yale University Press is titled The Jewish King Lear: A Comedy in America.5 Only in America.

“American” Fathers Gordin’s literary-cultural choices—starting with providing a Mrs. Lear, but going on to other changes consistent with this progressive novelty—point


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to historically accurate issues of deep concern to his Eastern-European Jewish immigrant audiences. The audiences were legion. Performed by famous actors on stage, The Jewish King Lear was also made into a movie—a talkie in Yiddish—in 1934, whose emotional renderings (“Meyn kinder, meyn kinder”—my children, my children) can still be heard on YouTube. In its heyday the play was considered innovative in subject matter, progressive in values, and deeply satisfying emotionally. Theater historians consider it one of the greatest of Yiddish domestic dramas. Gordin was known as the Yiddish Ibsen. Sophie Glazer, the daughter of the translator, told us in the talk-back that whenever the play was performed, remittences to parents left behind in the Old World immediately mounted. And by spreading its progressive ideas about gender and age, the popular play may have had even more influence over the beliefs and strivings of the younger new-comers. The world of the play is intimately familiar to me, through my own family’s American experiences. My grandfather, an immigrant who arrived at age twenty in 1899 together with his parents, was a beardless secular socialist Jew who read the Yiddish Forvitz, and belonged to Workmen’s Circle. Even lacking education—he started out working in an iron forge—he was a Herr Yaffe, a modern man. He never struck his children. He never raised his voice to them. My mother Betty, born in Brooklyn in 1914, and her younger sister Florence were daughters who benefited from the waves of the international New Woman movement, the war against patriarchy, and the excellent NYC public education system, which at the time was free through college. Although their mother died young, when Betty was only thirteen, her father wanted both his daughters to go to college, to be emancipated women. They both graduated and in time became respectively a teacher and a librarian. About her father, my Aunt Florie, now 97, tells me that coming home from work on 14th Street, he would sometimes pick up a book in English, a language he did not read, and give it to his younger daughter reverently. When I was a child, my grandpa Herman generously took each of his daughters’ families on summer vacations, all expenses paid. He had two loving daughters. In his nineties, when he needed to move into a nursing home, for the first month my mother drove from East Flatbush in Brooklyn to Yonkers, a trip of over an hour, to see him every day. Filial


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piety was exemplified to me by a woman who had never had to fight her father. What the Metropolitan production showed is that the Jewish version is kinder to The Father than many current productions of Shakespeare’s play. The performance did not tousle a single hair of this modern Lear’s dignity. The evil daughters are given no shadow of excuse—unlike some contemporary versions in which Regan and Goneril are represented as appropriately irritated at their father’s assumption that he deserves the same respect as when he was in power, before he gave them “all.” I saw an Actors’ Shakespeare Project production in Boston where the main point of Lear’s first appearance is that he is keeping his court waiting, and two of the daughters, standing, showed their supposedly righteous annoyance openly, tapping their feet, looking around for him; and Alvin Epstein then came down the stairs jauntily, unconcerned at being so late to his convocation. In the heath scene, Epstein, who was eighty at the time, was costumed in what looked like a diaper. It was an inescapable allusion to the current disposition to see the old as Alzheimer’s victims.6 I saw another production in Brooklyn at the Theater for a New Audience, where Lear’s followers on returning from the hunt stand in, as it were, for a hundred drunk and quarrelsome Animal-House courtiers. The same carousing disfigured the otherwise superb recent National Theatre production with Ian McKellen. Nothing in Shakespeare warrants this representation of knights who, as Lear sees them, are gentlemen like the noble Kent, deserving of respect. In current productions, directors and dramaturges seem intent on flattering or amusing the 18 to 35-year-old demographic by siding with the odious daughters’ complaints. The philosopher Stanley Cavell, in a subtle and beautiful essay, charged the daughters with “spin doctoring. . . [to make] Lear’s indignation look like wildness and senility later. . . when Goneril exaggerates his childishness.”7 It’s as if such directors justify the daughters’ weaseling out of their contractual arrangement to sustain their father’s retinue. “What need one?” Regan inquires acidly after her sister has cut the number to fifty. In fact, Gordin lived in an era when patriarchs were being attacked everywhere: by Ivan Turgenev, Samuel Butler, and Henrik Ibsen, and by Mona Caird, Sarah Grand, and the other New Woman novelists.


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That era’s crisis of gerontocracy came to a head in the decades before and after 1900, as the sons strove to overthrow patriarchal power and Freud helpfully invented a psychic cause—“The Oedipus complex”—to justify the boys’ revolt against the Dads. The New Woman movement took advantage of the revolt and doubled down on it. Killing The Father was a joint enterprise of younger people.8 Yet Gordin spared his audiences the harsher sides of this liberation movement. He didn’t kill Reb Dovidl, and he contributed delicate inventions to the Jewish Lear’s character. In the Purim party scene, the 2018 Lear, Joel Leffert, had a natural loving smile. The Reb possesses forbearance, offering his dearest daughter more chances than Lear does to speak again and speak better, and revealing (as Lear does not) some of his own feelings of painful surprised disappointment. This self-exposure makes Taybele’s dry responses seem tone-deaf and even less warranted than Cordelia’s terseness. Despite his wife’s fear of his temper, Reb Dovidl offers gentle manners toward the stranger and guest, Yaffe, a self-righteous youth who is aggressively rude about folksy Purim parties. The pious paterfamilias invites the heretical hothead back to the table after a disagreement. “Stay here. I’m telling you! Taybele don’t let him go. I don’t want him to go away from here feeling offended.” This Lear does not tempt his third daughter, “our joy,” into competitiveness by asking, as Shakespeare’s Lear does, “what can you say to draw/ A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.” Reb Dovidl has already offered his favorite daughter the richest jewel. In his idiosyncratic revision, Gordin took time to establish this old man’s good character. And it is not the mere shock of his daughter’s dismissive honesty, but her equally implacable decision to go off to Russia with a strange man to learn a profession that changes him into a tyrant toward her. Gordin’s “modern” dramatic decisions were his oblique ways of instructing Jewish fathers, who might have wanted to rely on traditional paternal power in their enclaves, to bend graciously and loosen the reins, as the next generation of girls as well as boys sought its own way in secular, capitalist America. Here was a play that implied that when women in low-income families had no choice but to go out to work, daughters would be lovingly grateful to be free. By softening his patriarch’s charac-


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ter, Gordin also makes Etele’s mistreatment of her father look more vile. The Jewish Lear’s kinder side makes his stubborn hostility, when Taybele comes back pleading for love, less plausible; but it makes his much later compunction and grief more convincing. The Metropolitan’s staging of The Jewish King Lear provided insight into Lower East Side feelings in the decades after 1892—into the sensibilities of the older immigrant parents and their adult offspring, sons like my grandfather. Children were brought to Gordin’s play to learn the lesson of respect. Mothers wrote to the famous star, Jacob Adler, who played Reb Dovidl, to thank him for the lesson.9 In 2018, Joel Leffert’s old handsome face and imperial nose, his regal chest and bearing, his powerful hands and emotive voice, leant beauty to the characterization. Casting Lear is hard, and many directors choosing their Lears often forgo personal beauty, however much tragedy—or, for that matter, Gordin’s hybrid genre—benefits from it.

Feelings: Comedy, Melodrama, Tragedy My husband cried a few tears in the reconciliation scene, and others did too. On the website, one Metropolitan audience member agreed, “there’s deep pathos in the fall of a once-celebrated rabbi [sic] to a life of hunger & wandering in the cold, & great exhilaration at his deeply affecting reconciliation with a beloved daughter.”10 But not for me. I was left tearless, coolly studying effects. Oddly disappointed. Weeping may not be a sign that a play has succeeded as tragedy, because Aristotelian pity, if commingled with terror, may sear tears as flame evaporates water. But in a play where neither father nor daughter dies, there is no terror. What remains at the end of Gordin’s play is the sudden expression of long-extinguished sentiment on the part of the grateful sighted old man. The daughter’s emotional state is not so clear. Her father should eat, yes; her mother too. She weeps, but they are all weeping. She apologizes. “I went my way, totally against your wishes.” Is Taybele’s detachment at the end the fault of the script, the actress, the director? Unlike Cordelia, she has no striking language. And since she doesn’t die, her father has no striking language either. And Taybele is not


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Olivia Killingsworth as Taybele and Joel Leffert as Reb Dovidl Moysheles in the 2018 Metropolitan Playhouse production of The Jewish King Lear (Photo: Emily Hewitt)

the title character (any more than Cordelia is). Both are offstage for most of the narrative. This is not the Daughter’s story. It is not exactly the Father’s, either. No scene on the heath, in the wind and the rain. Instead, five years off-stage and a final family wedding celebration featuring the bride and groom. It is an entire family that falls and then rises, together. If the rise of The Family’s fortunes turns the tragic “comic,” the sentiments so baldly expressed and some of the line-readings mark its genre as melodrama. Melo-


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drama can be moving, as contemporary soap-operas and dramedies show. This “comic” melodrama obviously used to touch huge Yiddish-speaking audiences in lower East Side theaters. Gordin’s avoidance of desperate consequences for a guilty patriarch might be called “Jewish,” in that it responded to the needs of a family-centered immigrant subculture in a United States that was testing family cohesion while weakening the older forms of gerontocracy. Immigrants are often young; they often leave their parents behind or fight their values at home. They often feel guilty. (Given more feminism and more liberalism about religion, there might well have been an Italo-American version of King Lear, an Irish one, a Hungarian one. . . . ) Is it possible to both deconstruct patriarchal power and keep The Father noble—noble enough and doomed enough? By the heath scene, Shakespeare succeeds. Gordin had deconstructed patriarchy and portrayed paternal nobility even before Reb Dovidl abandons his home. Whom would his plot kill? Not knowing the ending, uncertain of the genre, I was waiting to be moved, wanting to be wrung out. Apparently I had been wanting tragedy. As soon as the angry old man leaves while identifying himself as “the Jewish King Lear,” the mood of pity was shattered for me. How can a man intend to suffer and beg and simultaneously make a literary reference to himself that no one in his milieu understands? To be so distant from oneself is ironic; it does not inspire compassion. When the father returns chastened and says, “And as the world grew dark for me and everything vanished before my eyes, there was only one figure that always stood before me,” the language seemed mawkish. One critic noticed that “a ludicrously imposed happy ending elicited audience giggles.” I didn’t hear giggles the day I attended, but many plot moves that heal this family’s wounds—the legal suit to get Taybele’s money, the bailiff, the artificial reconciliations—may have kept audience members from deeper emotional engagement. Avoiding the need for paternal despair by not killing either father or daughter is consistent with a long tradition of bowdlerizing King Lear. Childless Samuel Johnson, writing his prefaces to the plays in 1745, found too painful the death of the virtuous Cordelia, “in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice. . . . And, if my sensations could add any


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thing to the general suffrage, I might relate, that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.”11 As early as 1681, Nahum Tate’s version, responding to “the general suffrage” –the version most often produced in England and America until 1838—let the father and daughter live; had the not-so-old Lear kill two in winning victory; had him designate Cordelia Queen whilst he will retreat to “some cool cell” with his cronies; and, still reigning, give Queen Cordelia to Gloucester’s noble son Edgar, who had rescued her, as a wife.12

Reading King Lear Over a Lifetime It matters when people first read the real King Lear—in 1681, 1892, or before or after the feminist movements of the second wave. Historical contexts overwrite earlier readings of literature, and replace earlier emotional appreciations with different possibilities for feeling. But it is not just unstated “limiting” cultural conjunctures that color views of a text. Readings are far more particular to the person-in-her-era than that. The self that lives in culture is a psyche inhabiting a body, embedded in family relations, over a life time. And age could not matter more. We are not the same person at 18 and 78. Relationships to parents may change drastically, and often do. Dare I suggest that in some contexts a “timeless” psyche may be an outworn idea? Psychoanalytic theory has not developed conceptually to consider changes that arise from growing older in history and one’s life course, and rarely discusses older analysands. And, not coincidentally, a reader’s relations to characters, plots, and/or poetic formulas may also change over the decades. Literary theory has only recently and selectively discovered age, aging, or ageism. I think there is a stronger connection to be made between an individual’s lifecourse events, social change, growing older, and interpretive activity, than either psychoanalysis or criticism has uncovered. Age studies, an emerging field that is sensitive to such conjunctures, can help. My rather simple theory is that we read in a different way a text read first in high school or college, and then returned to, again, in later life. I want to look deeply at


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such changes in my own case, through my readings and viewings of this one play. I read King Lear in college and have gone on to see it rather often for someone who is not a theater scholar but writes occasionally about plays, acting, and the effects of social contexts on writing and directing. I keep seeing this great play in some measure because it is done often with impressive and compelling Lears, but most of all because I was so moved by it as a young woman. But like Dr. Johnson, I couldn’t bear to re-read it. It is hard to say why. When I was young I did not suffer Cordelia’s death as a personal loss—to her or to me. Her subjective feelings about dying so horribly, young, along with her restored father, are not represented. Nor did I read into her death my own death. Not exactly. I still believe that Shakespeare meant us to experience the ending of Lear as he had the King himself do—not primarily as the total loss of a country that had been his responsibility and of a family that he had fathered, but the way I originally read it, when it was almost unbearably painful and sweet to me. The ending is about the loss of the single child the father has misjudged, the monstrous loss he conceivably felt after dreaming of sweet reconciliation, mixed with self-flagellation, the knowledge that her unjust death was the righteous punishment for his transgressions. I felt with the father, the mourning for the not sufficiently appreciated daughter. It all came back to me: I pitied myself as a forgiving daughter, an endlessly loving daughter, a rightly prized daughter, through that other father’s tears and repentance. So if I could not read the play, seeing it was worth the lesser intensity of tragic emotions I would suffer and in some strange sense wanted to feel. All this took place long before my father fell ill with ALS— amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—in 1973. I was then in my early thirties. Helping my mother care for him at their home, I moved from another city to live with them during what turned out to be his last four months. My father and I had not been close as I understood closeness, and he had been mysterious. And now that I understand how I formerly read the play, young, it seems I must have felt that, unlike my mother, he did not value me as I imagined I should be valued by him. His dying prematurely


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was awful and unjust. Caring for him to the best of my ability—which he appreciated—was a small thing and no small thing. I got to know him better then and had good cause to admire his character. My feelings for him have grown even warmer since he died. Year by year I see more of him in myself, in my habits and my politics. I have grown closer to him. Among my age peers, we are all orphans now, men as well as women. One’s father dies, and one’s mother too. Their fates work themselves out in utter indifference to our wishes or the trends of historical time. Lear somehow, as years went by, became less urgent, less painful. A good friend who was a force in the second wave says the same. She had always admired her father; they had been friends; he died quietly in old age; she saw him regularly in his final years. Different as our relations with our fathers were, she makes the same observation: Lear no longer seems so achingly, tragically, compellingly moving. My simple fragment of age autobiography, this focused reflection, moves me toward a hypothesis. Growing up, growing old in our culture, growing into orphanhood, and then living on in the orphaned state, I suggest, change the way we read or see this play about imbalances in power in family generational relations. How can I be so sure what in the play moved me? I know because I recall the exact lines I used to repeat to myself, in the voice of a softened father’s grief. Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. . . What is’t thou say’st? Her voice was ever soft, Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman. (Act V, scene 3) I quoted these lines to others. I melted at the repetitions. I wouldn’t have said I had a soft voice: In my book even then, women needed to have big voices and forceful personalities. I couldn’t have said then that the lines were about me. To me. This speech was precious praise—praise of the daughter’s every littlest quality from a parent who suddenly prizes everything. Nor did it bother me that praise is precious only if said by another—if said not by oneself but by the person from whom one yearns to hear such words.


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That was long ago. Now, I don’t need to repeat those lines. The single line of the play that I quote most often now—as a chapter title, as a cautionary note, as a sign of social consciousness, as a judgment—declares the lamentable but hitherto understated sufferings of all parents. “The oldest hath borne most.” This, nearly the last word of the play, is given to Edgar of Gloucester, the next ruler, who has pitiably lost a father himself. “The oldest”: this is now my generation. I no longer need to hear a stage father speaking, uselessly, to the body of his dead daughter, about the quality he loved best in her. Instead, I want what this penultimate line of Shakespeare’s provides: a voice of compassionate state authority, addressed to people of all ages, speaking publically—making private and social redress possible—about the plight of the old.

Must the Daughter Die? Along the way, as I now can see, the sting of pain and conflict, bitter longing, grief, self-pity and sorrow, gradually leached out of my viewings of King Lear. But I didn’t notice. If a production didn’t move me, I concluded it was the fault of the actors or the director . It was that unorthodox vehicle, The Jewish King Lear—What, neither the father nor the daughter dies?—that led me to reflect on my years of changing emotions toward the Lear-Cordelia story. The Jewish King Lear—with its lower stakes for patriarchal pig-headedness, its generous success for Taybele, its comedy of normal life, its melodrama that fails to be tragic by having something else entirely in mind, its ridiculous specificity (Purim songs, “alms, alms,” the cataract operation)—eventually let me work back into the emotional history of my once-tender feelings. Once too tender to be known by me. These personal changes, first startling to me, also resonate beyond myself. In the United States we now endure a cultural period when the dreaded Age of Alzheimer’s unfairly troubles the eternally longed-for Age of Longevity. Fear of old age may damage family dynamics and intergenerational solidarity. The filial piety I deem humanly essential seems particularly precious and worth holding onto now. King Lear has become a test case. In the theater, younger cohorts, whether directors,


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dramaturges, actors, or audiences—risk a wretched misreading of Lear, as if Shakespeare created a dominating father to show that he got pretty much the ruin he deserved. The need for representing the vast emotional arc of this particular familial tragedy aright, grows, to my way of thinking, precisely because of our confusions about the ageism of this bewildering time. Filial “love” is all about degree. A flame of inward burning but variable heat. The flame is instilled in childhood first of all. In the mid20th century, the intensity of love we who are now old felt in childhood for our fathers was often heightened by fear, fed by respect, magnified by cultural distance and ignorant awe. Not perhaps so super-heated now. History is the broader context out of which new cultures of feeling arise. Many a Mrs. Lear got a voice and an income of her own, and exerted a softening influence. Further feminist revolutions have been changing women’s relationships to fathers. Fathers, or more accurately, parents, now routinely pay for college education for daughters if they can. When daughters work, their fathers want them to get equal pay. In the era of #MeToo, it is not fathers who seem most threatening to young women, but boyfriends and bosses. The late twentieth century also saw improvements in child-rearing, including less inclination on the part of new fathers to exert patriarchal violence. Fathers often used to beat sons. But even those abused boys, once they became fathers, were less likely to use violence on their young. Fathers grew less distant. Youngsters in many American subcultures passed their childhoods with parents, even fathers, to whom they dared to speak freely, which is all to the good; and some even pertly or disdainfully, which may not bode so well. In a climate of increasing gentleness, many fathers who are growing old now want friendship with, not domination over. Given ageism’s demotions, many old fathers appear to have little cultural power. It is possible that even their financial resources, if they have them, do not contain a threat; or perhaps the prospect of losing any future inheritance through incorrect behavior has lessened. Adult children feel less fear, and less gratitude. There are still violent parents, and there are also evil adult offspring—jealous of one another, avid for inheritance. Even “good” children now can be self-righteously or ignorantly dismissive of their old parents’ rights and needs. Yet the losses old parents now suffer in status


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may unconsciously soften their adult children. It’s not that warm love rushes in as the quantum of fear drops, but duty, and warmer feelings than duty—pity or concern—may arise. These may come more easily when an old woman plays Lear. Pity and concern are not loving-kindness, of course. This is the open-hearted, heart-broken feeling Cordelia ends with, when her father doubts her forgiveness because she has “cause” to hate him, and she answers, without hesitation, “No cause, no cause.”13 There: If the young have tears, prepare to shed them there. If I am right about these contradictory cultural changes, then in our own time more benevolent feelings for difficult fathers—and for that matter, for difficult mothers—in their old age, may come more easily. As a tragedy about the oldest, King Lear now needs to be defended, read without bias, produced with respect. But whatever happens on the stage, living daughters and sons may less frequently need to will Dad’s death. A Lear may live and pass away in bed, cared for. And as for Cordelia in our time: the daughter need not die to get her father’s love.

Sources Cavell, Stanley. “The Avoidance of Love, a Reading of King Lear,” Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays. 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, 2015: 246-325. Gordin, Jacob. The Jewish King Lear: A Comedy in America. Translated by Ruth Gay, with notes and essays by Ruth Gay and Sophie Glazer. Yale University Press, 2011. Gullette, Margaret Morganroth. “Losing Lear, Finding Ageism,” Journal of Aging, Humanities, and the Arts I, Issue 1-2 (2007): 61-69. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/ abs/10.1080/19325610701410973 Johnson, Samuel. The Preface to Shakespeare [1765]. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/ johnson/samuel/preface/index.html Kahn, Coppelia, “The Absent Mother in King Lear” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1986: 239-262. Kaplan, Beth. Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse University Press, 2007. Show-Score.com. Member Review 92. https://www.show-score.com/off-off-broadwayshows/the-jewish-king-lear Tate, Nahum. King Lear, adapted by Nahum Tate, edited by Jack Lynch. Rutgers U Press, http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/tatelear.html


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Notes 1. Kahn, “The Absent Mother”: 242. 2. According to the essay by Sophie Glazer, it was not Gordin who wrote this line, “one of the most famous lines of the play,” but the actor Jacob Adler, who played Reb Dovidl for decades (The Jewish King Lear, p. 143). 3. (Emphasis in original.) https://www.show-score.com/off-off-broadway-shows/the-jewish-king-lear?bracket=positive&critic_reviews_sort_order=score_desc 4. Sophie Glazer, who collaborated on the translation with her mother, Ruth Gay, saw the text through the press after her mother died. She writes me, “That audience worked so hard, so bravely in a new world. . . . Why should they be told they would have to pay a price to be Ibsenite New Women? They had already paid so much” (private email communication, August 19, 2018). 5. On the subtitle, “A Comedy in America,” Glazer writes me, “That was my mother's original title: she wanted it for the original (hardcover) edition, but her editors at Yale felt that ‘comedy’ was the wrong word for the title; they used it for the paperback, however, and I was very pleased to see it” (private email communication, August 15, 2018). 6. Gullette, “Losing Lear.” 7. Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love.” 8. Caird, in The Daughters of Danaus, was the rare writer who saw the mother’s soft power as another obstacle to independence for daughters gasping to be free. 9. Kaplan, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: 59-60, quoting from Boaz Young. 10. The comment appears on https://www.show-score.com/off-off-broadway-shows/ the-jewish-king-lear?bracket=positive&critic_reviews_sort_order=score_desc Reb is an honorific: Dovidl is not a rabbi. 11. Johnson, The Preface. 12. Tate, King Lear. 13. I am grateful to John Price for bringing these lines to my attention in this context of reading, ageism, filial love, estrangement, and forgiveness.


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Thomas Mann and Sigmund Freud: The Friendship of Genius BY JEFFREY MEYERS

I Thomas Mann’s international fame as a novelist ran parallel to the equally celebrated career of Sigmund Freud. He respected Freud’s courage and genius, praised Freud (nineteen years his senior) in his public speeches and correspondence, acknowledged Freud’s influence on his work and visited him four times in Vienna. The third occasion, on Freud’s 80th birthday, was a deeply moving experience for both of them. Despite their contrasting personalities—the stiff German and the gemütlich Viennese —they transcended the emotional barriers and became quite close. Mann was strongly attracted to Freud’s theory about the danger of suppressing sexual desires, yet was ambivalent about Freud’s ideas. He was suspicious about psychoanalysis and satirized Freud’s analytic theories in The Magic Mountain. His two essays on Freud emphasized the value of instinct over reason, which reflected his own views rather than Freud’s. They honored each other’s work, and Mann was unusually deferential and flattering, but he disguised his intellectual doubts about Freud. Mann could exploit in his fiction Freud’s concepts of the meaning of dreams, the role of the unconscious and the effects of sexual repression even though he didn’t actually believe in them. Freud’s theories enabled him to write about homosexual feelings, then a taboo subject, and hide his own attraction to handsome young boys and men, including (as we shall see) his own son.


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Most significantly, these friends had two amazingly similar biographical experiences. During the Nazi persecution of the 1930s, both managed to suppress incriminating personal documents that could have destroyed their reputations and ruined their lives. The tragic death of Freud’s beloved young grandson in 1923 and Mann’s fictional portrayal of the horrific death of Adrian Leverkühn’s nephew Nepo in Doctor Faustus revealed that both men had the same emotional response, real and imagined, to that traumatic situation. In a 1925 interview with La Stampa in Turin, Mann told an Italian journalist that Freud had influenced Death in Venice (1912), in which the author Gustav von Aschenbach, infatuated by the beautiful boy Tadzio, lingers in cholera-infested Venice and dies in that city. He said, “The death wish is present in Aschenbach’s consciousness though he’s unaware of it, and the word Ich [Ego] is used in the Freudian way to indicate a part of the personality that makes demands in conflict with instinct.” He gave

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Freud more credit than he deserved by disingenuously claiming, “without Freud I would never have thought of treating this erotic motif; or I would certainly have treated it differently.” But since the novella was closely based on Mann’s actual experience in Venice, he didn’t need Freud to inspire the story. He was intimidated by Freud’s “X-ray” invasion of the artist’s soul and suspicious of probing psychoanalysis. He felt that when an author’s mind is invaded, and all his secrets exposed and wasted in talk, “the source of creativity fritters away.” While Death in Venice uses Freud as a means of articulating Mann’s personal feelings, The Magic Mountain (1924) treats Freud’s ideas with black humor. Dr. Krokowski, who glows with an eerie phosphorescent pallor, advocates the psychoanalytic point of view and probes the unconscious. He suppresses the pathological origins of epilepsy and calls it an “orgasm of the brain.” He believes that organic disease is always a secondary phenomenon, a morbid growth upon the spirit. He argues in a series of lectures on “Love as a force contributing to disease” that illness results from the conflict between the powers of love and of chastity—between instinct and repression, the id and the ego. He thinks that when love is held in chains by purity, fear, morality or aversion, it reappears in the form of illness: “Symptoms of disease are nothing but a disguised manifestation of the power of love; and all disease is only love transformed.” Krokowski’s theories about disease and love suggest that sexual freedom, though discouraged by the medical authorities because of its adverse effect on tubercular lungs, would cure the disease. When Hans Castorp finally makes love to Clavdia Chauchat his fever increases and health deteriorates. Though this decline could be attributed to her sudden departure and his consequent sexual deprivation, the disease is both the expression of and the penalty for love. Castorp’s mentor, the Italian humanist Ludovico Settembrini, opposes Krokowski’s views. He exclaims that psychoanalysis, with the patient recumbent on a couch, is bad in so far as it encourages passivity: “It stands in the way of action, cannot shape the vital forces, maims life at the roots.” Mann’s biographer Anthony Heilbut states that “Mann treats psychoanalysis with skepticism. He captures the moment when it was still regarded as half-quackery, and he makes it a part of commercial history, a tourist’s entertainment along with mountain hikes and afternoon tea. . . .


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Dr. Krokowski conducts a séance, a reminder that psychoanalysis shares its origins with such spurious pursuits as phrenology and clairvoyance.” Mann praised the liberating effects of the instincts in his essays on Freud while portraying their disastrous effects in his fiction. Despite Mann’s satiric and skeptical portrait of Krokowski, he publicly praised Freud during the last decade of the analyst’s life (1929-39), when his leading disciples were still alive and spreading his gospel, and as Mann’s reputation continued to soar. Mann’s rather abstract and repetitive essay, “Freud’s Position in the History of Modern Thought” (1929)—published the year Mann won the Nobel Prize—focused more on his heroes in the German Romantic tradition, Novalis, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, than on the ostensible subject of Freud. Mann rather ponderously described it in a letter of May 3, 1929 (not included in the English edition of his Letters) to the French writer Charles Du Bos: “At this moment I’m thinking about an essay on ‘Freud’s Position in the History of Modern Thought,’ an extensive treatise on the problem of revolution, full of educational purpose and particularly intended for those who recognize psychoanalysis as the only phenomenon of modern anti-rationalism which does not lend itself to reactionary misuse” (my translation). In this subtly autobiographical essay Mann placed Freud in his own literary tradition and described him as the advocate of dark gods. Mann wrote: “As a delver into the depths, a researcher in the psychology of instinct, Freud unquestionably belongs with those writers of the nineteenth century who . . . stand opposed to rationalism, intellectualism, classicism . . . emphasising instead the night side of nature and the soul as the actually life-conditioning and life-giving element.” He represents in the “most revolutionary sense the divinity of earth, the primacy of the unconscious, the pre-mental, the will, the passions, or, as Nietzsche says, the ‘feeling’ above the ‘reason.’ ” Mann exalted the “night side” of man, but the second sentence on the “primacy of the unconscious” does not logically follow from the first, and his evidence from the German Romantics seems to contradict his conclusion. The opposition to reason and intellect, the domination of Nietzsche’s passionate will to power, have not been “life-giving,” but have led straight to the horrors of the twentieth century. Mann’s observations illuminated his own work rather than Freud’s. Mann’s comment, “Schopenhauer humbles the intellect far


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below the will, before ascribing to it a means of moral conversion and self-regeneration,” alluded to Thomas Buddenbrook’s reading the chapter “On Death” in The World as Will and Idea just before he collapses in the gutter and dies. Mann’s observation, “the neurotic symptom . . . is the pathological consequence of suppression,” explained Aschenbach’s illness after he has repressed his love for Tadzio. Mann’s description of Freud as “a psychologist of the depths, an investigator of the unconscious, that makes him understand life through disease,” reprised his portrayal of Krokowski’s ideas in The Magic Mountain. The “mischievous guilelessness, the frightful, equivocal, oracular obscurantism of music” prefigured the diabolical source of Leverkühn’s musical creation in Doctor Faustus. Freud, an astute reader, made an extremely shrewd analysis of the etiology of Mann’s patched-together essay. He saw that when Mann was invited to turn out an encomiastic piece on Freud he reached for the old papers in his bottom drawer. On July 28, 1929 Freud wrote to his devoted follower, the femme fatale Lou Andreas-Salomé, who’d been an intimate friend of Nietzsche: “Thomas Mann’s essay is no doubt quite an honour. He gives me the impression of having just completed an essay on romanticism when he was asked to write about me, and so he applied a veneer, as the cabinetmaker says, of psychoanalysis to the front and back of this essay: the bulk of it is of a different wood.” But he didn’t dispute Mann’s friendly thesis and concluded, “Nevertheless, whenever Mann says something it is pretty sound”—even if Mann was talking about himself. In January 1930, soon after his first essay, Mann effusively wrote to Freud—calling him a courageous genius—and thanked him for an unidentified short work, probably one of Freud’s best books, Civilization and Its Discontents. He was grateful “for the extraordinary gift of your book, whose range so formidably surpasses its outer dimensions. I read it at one sitting, deeply moved by a courageous search for truth which, the older I grow, I see more and more as the source of all genius.” Freud’s biographer Ernest Jones records that in March 1932, between his first and second essays on Freud, Mann paid his first visit to Vienna and they established an immediate rapport, what Goethe called an “elective affinity.” Jones writes, “Freud at once got on to intimate terms with him: ‘what Mann had to say was very understanding; it gave


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the impression of a [cultured] background.’ His wife and her sister, who were enthusiastic readers of Mann, were still more delighted.” In May 1935 Freud told their mutual friend, the German anti-war novelist Arnold Zweig, that he’d followed the suggestion of Mann’s publisher Fischer Verlag, sent Mann in Zurich a customary tribute on his 60th birthday and “into it slipped a warning which I trust will not go unnoticed.” He wrote: “in the name of countless numbers of your contemporaries I wish to express the confidence that you will never do or say anything—an author’s words, after all, are deeds—that is cowardly or base, and that even at a time which blurs judgment you will choose the right way and show it to others.” There was certainly no need to warn the brave and upright Mann not to be cowardly nor compromise with the Nazi regime. But he wanted to continue their mutual flattery and emphasize, as Mann well knew, that Mann was speaking for all the prominent anti-Hitler exiles. In his laudatory speech “Freud and the Future” (1936) Mann again widened the focus to include Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Writing to celebrate Freud’s 80th birthday on May 6—at a time when books by Freud and Mann had been burned in Germany—Mann praised him as a master, great scientist and wise genius. He saw Freud as scientifically validating the philosophical insights of the German Romantics—though there was no scientific basis for psychoanalysis—and dubiously claimed that Freud’s work “shall be the future dwelling of a wiser and freer humanity . . . productive of a riper art than any possible in our neurotic, fear-ridden, hate-ridden world.” But neither Freud’s theories nor Mann’s public approval ever explained how the triumph of instinct over reason would regenerate humankind and lead to a better world. In a letter of January 1944 to the American literary critic Frederick Hoffman, Mann alluded to Plato’s charioteer with the tamed and wild horses and to the Dionysian-Apollonian opposition in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, and stated that Freud “knows well the abyss of the unconscious and the instincts which by far exceed the power and the influence of intellect and reason.” He quoted Freud’s optimistic proclamation in his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, “where Id was, there shall Ego be,” but seemed to reverse it by suggesting where reason was, there shall instinct be. Nevertheless, he generously acknowledged Freud’s powerful influence on his work from


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the sexual humiliation in “Little Herr Friedemann” to Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain and the Joseph novels: “it made me aware . . . of my own latent, preconscious sympathies.” Mann’s Diary described the rapturous reception of his speech on May 8, 1936, which took place less than two years before the German annexation of Austria and Freud’s flight to England: “In the evening the tumultuous success of the Freud lecture in the packed hall of the [Vienna] Konzerthaus. That morning a visit to Freud’s apartment, bringing him the portfolio and the manuscript; deeply moving impressions. After the lecture a banquet at the Imperial [Hotel], I seated between Freud’s son and daughter,” Ernst and Anna. Though Mann was the guest of honor, he felt proud to be placed next to Freud’s children. Max Schur, Freud’s close friend and personal physician during his thirty-three agonizing operations for cancer of the jaw, was delighted to hear Mann’s praise and confirmed that it was indeed a splendid occasion. He agreed that it was a “deeply moving” event, said that Mann gave a poignant performance (which disguised Freud’s dubious ideas) and noted that Freud felt it verified the truth of his controversial theories: Mann’s address was thus a tribute not only to Freud but to the power of the spirit, to the rights of the individual . . . a ringing challenge to the forces of unreason and evil. Mann, who usually was rather detached and distant as a reader or speaker, rose to the occasion in the delivery of his address as well as in its content. It was a deeply moving experience for everyone present, giving us the feeling, which was rare in those days, that all was not yet lost. . . . It was to Freud a summary of his life’s work, a vindication for the years of calumny and misunderstanding he had endured, and a confirmation that it really had been worthwhile to have lived that long. Since Freud was too old and too ill with cancer to attend the festivities, Mann enhanced his tribute by personally repeating his oft-repeated talk in Freud’s holiday house in Grinzing, a wine village outside Vienna. After delivering his lecture in several European cities, he returned to Vienna five weeks later on June 14. Schur recalled that “Freud and


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Mann were poles apart in looks, behavior and even attire. Freud, the Jew who had absorbed the good aspects of Viennese culture and civilization, and Mann, the typical North German, in some ways as stiff as the collar he was wearing.” The contrast in their personalities (which contradicts Jones’ account of their congenial meeting in 1932) was mitigated by Mann’s Jewish wife Katya. Freud was well pleased by the encounter and recalled, “this was a great joy for me and for all my family who were present. A noble goy!” Freud’s son Ernst deleted and Schur restored the last three words, which conceded that Mann, though not Jewish, had a noble character. (Mann had offended Katya’s family by having fictional characters modeled on them using Yiddish words—“We’ve beganeffed him—the goy!”—in the serial version of his story “The Blood of the Walsungs,” which he suppressed.) Mann’s biographer Donald Prater adds that Freud “was near to tears as he listened to his personal reading of the lecture and eagerly discussed his idea of myth constantly relived. . . . He embraced him warmly, and sent to his hotel a bottle of old Tokay with fruit and cakes, which made an excellent lunch for them on the train back” to Zurich. Freud was accustomed to constant veneration from his Jewish admirers. But he was deeply moved by the intellectual endorsement and personal tribute from the gentile Thomas Mann, the greatest living German writer. In “Freud and the Future” Mann remarked, “how often have we not been told that the figure of Napoleon was cast in the antique mould!” Freud took up this idea in a comical tailpiece to their meeting. A few months later, in a letter of November 1936, he retaliated by subjecting Mann to a ridiculous notion: “I keep wondering if there isn’t a figure in history for whom the life of Joseph was a mythical prototype, allowing us to detect the phantasy of Joseph as the secret daemonic motor behind the scenes of his complex life? I am thinking of Napoleon I.” He then launched into a bizarre speculation about the name of Napoleon’s wife, slyly changing en route “probably” to “undoubtedly”: “There were a number of things to be said against her, but what probably decided him [to marry her] was that her name was Josephine. . . . The infatuation for Josephine was undoubtedly brought about by the name.” He then recalled that he’d previously subjected his trapped victim to this fantasy: “My daughter reminds me that I already divulged to you this interpretation of


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the daemonic after you read your essay here.” Poor Mann, too polite to object, had to hear this speculation twice. The patrician Mann, responding to Freud’s letter the following month, quite uncharacteristically continued to bow down before him: “How vividly your letter has recalled to me the afternoon with you, which belongs among the finest memories of my life, when I had the privilege of reading my festival lecture to you.” Ignoring Freud’s repetition of his Napoleon conceit, he continued his flattery: “this letter is a stirring example of your genius, your incredible perspicacity in matters of the unconscious psychic life and the effects produced from its depths, and I take pride in being the recipient.” Though Freud’s 80th birthday jubilatio required undiminished praise, these words—usually reserved for Mann himself—seem insincere and excessive. He did not kowtow in this way to his older brother Heinrich and to such towering friends as Gerhart Hauptmann and Albert Einstein. Mann also put the icing on the cake in 1936. Incited by Freud’s follower Princess Marie Bonaparte (who’d inspired Freud’s free association about her distinguished ancestor) Mann unsuccessfully recommended Freud for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Since Freud had an elegant style and influential ideas, this was not a far-fetched possibility. The historian Theodor Mommsen in 1902 and the philosopher Henri Bergson in 1907 had won the prize; and the non-creative prose writers Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill and Svetlana Alexievich would later win it. Mann’s four Joseph and His Brothers novels (1933-43) and Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (1939) were both completed during their exile from Hitler’s regime. In a letter to Freud in December 1936, Mann wrote that he’d been depressed by recent events. His days were clouded by the retraction of his honorary doctorate from the University of Bonn and “by the Berlin decree pronouncing me an outcast” and depriving him of German citizenship. In “The Theme of the Joseph Novels” Mann observed that the choice of an Old Testament subject was certainly not accidental. It was written during “the growing vulgar anti-semitism which is an essential part of the Fascist mob-myth.” Both Mann and Freud did prodigious research and must have read some of the same books on ancient religion, history and archeology. Mann made two trips to Egypt. Freud, who had a superb collection of Middle Eastern artifacts, longed to go there but was prevented from traveling by old age and illness.


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In Mann’s novel, based on the Bible story and influenced by Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Joseph has amazing premonitions and clairvoyant power, and reveals that the dreams of Potiphar’s wife express her sexual wish-fulfillment. After Joseph demonstrates his ability to interpret dreams and divine the future, he is released from prison and brought to Pharaoh. Recreating Genesis 41, Mann has Pharaoh gratefully declare: “ ‘My king-dreams are now interpreted to me. . . . Now, thanks to this prophetic youth, I know the truth. . . . My majesty has been shown that seven fat years will come in all Egypt and after that seven years of dearth, such that one will quite forget the previous plenty, and famine will consume the land.’ ” In July 1936, a month after Mann’s visit to Grinzing, Arnold Zweig eagerly asked Freud about Mann’s Young Joseph, the second novel in his tetralogy: “What do you think of his Joseph novel? What is your opinion of it as a whole and in parts, as to subject-matter, style and form?” Unfortunately Freud, who may not have read the novel or did not want to disturb the ballet of flattery by expressing a negative opinion, did not answer. Freud’s last book, Moses and Monotheism (1939), concerns the origins of the Jewish religion. His convoluted and unconvincing argument (defended, of course by the faithful Ernest Jones) stated that Moses was not a Jewish patriarch, but an Egyptian who led a small band of Jewish rebels out of Egypt during a civil war. These people killed Moses and their original sin has haunted the tribe of Israel since then. Freud thought the “embryonic experience of the race, the influence of the man Moses and the exodus from Egypt conditioned the entire further development [of the Jews] up to the present day.” Contemporary Jewish readers, however, were not at all pleased by Freud’s denigration of their great hero into an Egyptian nobody. Freud reinterpreted the story of Moses; Mann dramatically retold it after Freud’s death, so he would not compete with or contradict the master. In Mann’s The Tables of the Law (1943) Moses is a heroic Jewish leader, not an Egyptian rebel. Mann related the early life of Moses, his preparations for leading his people out of Egypt, the exodus itself and his engraving of the stone tablets of the law at Sinai. Mann wrote that when Moses broke the tablets before the Golden Calf in Exodus 32:19, “He


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lifted high one of the tables of the law in his mighty arms and smashed it down upon the ridiculous animal until it buckled at the knees; struck again and again with such fury that the tablet itself flew into pieces.”

II The most traumatic personal parallel between Freud and Mann was their attempt to hide their most intimate secrets, which during the Nazi period were in danger of being publicly exposed. Luckily, the potentially damaging papers were rescued by Mann’s son and one of Freud’s disciples. When Mann went into exile after Hitler took power in January 1933, he asked his son Golo to go to his house in Munich, pack his diaries in a suitcase and send them to him in Switzerland. He then warned Golo: “I am counting on you to be discreet and not read any of these things!” Golo naively handed the suitcase over to their chauffeur, who offered to take it to the train station but gave it instead to the Gestapo. Fearing the worst about his homosexual revelations and early love for Paul Ehrenberg, Mann exclaimed that the Nazis would publish excerpts in their newspaper: “they will ruin everything, they will ruin me. My life will never be right again. . . . My fears now revolve first and foremost almost exclusively about this threat to my life’s secrets. They are deeply serious. The consequences could be terrible, even fatal.” The Diary recorded that in May 1918, when Klaus was eleven years old and struggling with the changes of puberty, Mann seemed to possess a precious in-house Tadzio who matched Aschenbach’s idealized adolescent in Death in Venice. Mann rapturously wrote, “I am really pleased to have such a beautiful boy as a son. . . . His naked bronzed body left me unsettled.” Two years later, from May to July 1920, Mann revealed his forbidden feelings for Klaus. The normally undemonstrative Mann described using physical gestures and soothing words about platonic man-to-man love to justify his own rash behavior and persuade his son to accept it: “I made Klaus aware of my inclination with my caresses and by persuading him to be of good cheer.” Using Klaus’s nickname Mann blissfully wrote, “Eissi at the moment enchants me.” Intruding on Klaus when he was naked and washing himself, he noted in an astonishing


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entry, “Am enraptured with Eissi: frighteningly handsome in the bath. Find it very natural that I should be in love with my son. . . . I came upon Eissi totally nude and up to some [masturbation] nonsense in Golo’s bed. Deeply struck by his radiant adolescent body, overwhelming.” In the end, Mann’s lawyer managed to recover the diaries that expressed his incestuous desires; they were finally published in 1977-80. When Golo read them, he learned that the homosexual attraction and longing described in Mann’s fiction were based on his secret feelings. Mann’s three homosexual children—Golo, Erika and Klaus—had much more in common with their father than they had ever realized. Freud’s closest friend from 1887 to 1904 was Wilhelm Fliess, a German-Jewish doctor, two years younger than he, who practiced in Berlin. Freud’s unusually frank letters to Fliess—when he was analyzing

Sigmund Freud & Wilhelm Fliess


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himself and trying to formulate his pioneering ideas—contained grave indiscretions, mentioned his cocaine addiction and revealed his innermost thoughts. When Fliess told Freud that some of his ideas “smacked of magic, not science,” their friendship was traumatically ruptured. A review of Freud’s letters to Fliess in the New York Times of March 17, 1985 said that Freud “held nothing back from Fliess, sharing with him fears so deep he would not tell them to his wife, confessing to Fliess his weaknesses, sexual frustrations, anxieties and hatreds. . . . The man revealed in them is as unabashedly neurotic as he is brilliant.” Fliess’ weird theories about the effect of rhythmical cycles on daily lives and his far-fetched connection between the nose and the genitals have been completely discredited. Frederick Crews declares that “Freud had embraced all of Fliess’ ideas without showing even a flicker of critical judgment. Some of those ideas [later] struck Anna Freud and her colleagues as ridiculous. . . . His letters to Fliess suggested a mind in turmoil, lurching among half-articulated brainstorms without engagement in consecutive reasoning.” In December 1936—the year of Mann’s second essay and his two congenial visits to Freud—Marie Bonaparte announced that she had purchased the 250 letters from Freud to Fliess, from the collector who’d bought them from Fliess’ widow, for $480. Grateful and relieved, Freud poured out his feelings to Marie in two letters of January 1937: Our correspondence was of the most intimate nature, as you can surmise. It would have been most painful to have it fall into the hands of strangers. It is therefore an extraordinary labor of love that you have gotten hold of them and removed them from danger. . . . They indicate all the presentiments and blind alleys of the budding psychoanalysis, and are also quite personal in this case [his self-analysis]. There are also not a few mentions of intimate processes and relationships; things like the reproaches through which the friendship went to pieces are especially distressing in retrospect. When Marie told Freud that she had the letters, he asked her (as Mann had asked Golo) not to read them. He offered to pay half the sale price,


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but she feared he would destroy them and refused payment. They are now with Marie’s papers in the Library of Congress. Freud expressed his deepest feelings about love and death in a cathartic letter to Hungarian medical-psychoanalytic friends on June 11, 1923. His favorite grandson, Heinele Halberstadt (1918-1923) orphaned and in delicate health, had been taken from his aunt and uncle in Hamburg, and sent to Vienna to be cared for by Freud. He described the child’s agonizing death: He was indeed an enchanting little fellow, and I myself was aware of never having loved a human being, certainly never a child, so much. . . . This child fell ill again two weeks ago, temperature between 102 and 104, headaches, no clear local symptoms, for a long time no diagnosis, and finally the slow but sure realisation that he has a miliary [widespread] tuberculosis, in fact that the child is lost. He is now lying in a coma with paresis [paralysis]. . . . I find this loss very hard to bear. I don’t think I have ever experienced such grief; perhaps my own sickness contributes to the shock. Schur added, “afterward he remarked repeatedly that this event had killed something in him, so that he was never able to form new attachments” for fear of suffering another devastating loss. Freud’s emotional pain was intensified by the first symptoms of the cigar-induced cancer of the jaw that would kill him in September 1939. He thought he’d been punished for loving the boy too much, and felt guilty, as a grandfather and doctor, that he’d not been able to protect and save him. He must have bitterly reflected that an old and sick man like himself could live while the young and promising child had to die. In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud wrote that “one day someone will venture to embark upon a pathology of cultural communities,” and Mann did this in his allegory of Nazism in Doctor Faustus (1947). Freud’s letter about the death of his grandson from tuberculosis in June 1923 has an extraordinary resemblance to Mann’s description in that novel of Nepo’s death from spinal meningitis five years later in June 1928. Mann fully dramatizes the episode that Freud briefly recounts. He


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portrays Nepo’s appearance, speech and protracted death in ghastly clinical detail. As with Freud’s favorite grandson, the enchanting and angelic five-year-old is sent to his relative, his Uncle Adrian Leverkühn, in order to improve his frail health, but instead suffers an agonizing death. An “exceptionally beloved child,” like the biblical Joseph, Nepo gives the impression of a fairy princeling, “of a guest from a finer, tinier sphere.” Adrian is profoundly touched by “the sweet depths of that azure upturned smile” and by his delightful speech: “Well, you are glad I did come, yes?” Nepo’s spinal meningitis resembles Adrian’s cerebral meningitis, and Adrian’s cold look glazes the clear blue eyes of Nepo, who cannot bear light and sound and retreats into a darkened room. These warning symptoms are followed by fever, vomiting, skull-splitting headaches, violent convulsions, paralysis of the eye muscles, rigidity of the neck and “twenty-two hours of shrieking, writhing torture”—then by a coma and a gnashing of teeth. Mann’s narrator concludes, “that strangely seraphic little being was taken from this earth . . . in the harshest, the most incomprehensible cruelty I have ever witnessed” and mourns “the almost complete powerlessness of medical science in the face of this fatal onslaught.” Like Freud, Adrian has never loved anyone so much and never experienced such grief. Nepo’s death has also killed a precious feeling inside him and he could never love anyone again. Adrian had agreed, in his Faustian pact with the devil which gave him twenty-four years of musical genius, that he would never form a human attachment or love any human being. So the devil punishes him for loving Nepo and he feels guilty about causing the child’s death. It’s unlikely that Mann ever read Freud’s letter of June 1923. The character of Nepo was based on his own favorite grandson, Frido Mann, who did not suffer and die in real life, and the fictional description of his death horrified the boy’s parents. Mann’s genius as a writer enabled him—in one of the most powerful scenes he ever wrote—to dramatize the child’s illness and death as if he himself, like Freud, had actually experienced them. The meetings of Mann and Freud, during their political exile and personal danger, created one of the great intellectual and emotional friendships of the 1930s. Mann suppressed his doubts about Freud’s fantastic speculations on Napoleon and Moses, abandoned his characteristic irony


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and remained extremely reverential to the older man. Freud graciously welcomed Mann’s heartfelt tributes and admired the inherent nobility of the North German literary genius. Most significantly, Mann’s adoption of Freud’s concepts of sexual repression and instinctual triumphs enabled him to hide the fictional expression of his own homoerotic feelings. Mann’s repressed homosexuality led not to neurosis and death, but to his greatest work: his portrayal of the secret emotions of Tonio and Hans Hansen in “Tonio Kröger,” Aschenbach and Tadzio in Death in Venice, Castorp and Pribislav Hippe in The Magic Mountain, Cipolla and Mario in “Mario and the Magician,” Adrian and Rudi Schwerdtfeger in Doctor Faustus.


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Looking for Bucharest

Looking for Bucharest BY BONNIE COSTELLO

Like any outsider, I came to Bucharest with preconceptions. Growing up in the Cold War, mine had been burned into memory: the scrolled-down map is blue to the west, red to the east. Ninth grade European History. 1964. Mr. Bradley slapping the chart until we jump in our seats. His raspy voice (Normandy, shrapnel in the throat) sharpens the point: A cold war? Communism was spreading like lava, which sets and hardens, crushing all beneath it. But had it? My first actual view of Bucharest was from the top floor balcony of the Athenee Palace Hotel, off the Executive Lounge. 21st century Romania was open for business and my husband had been invited to discuss strategy and sales. Curious about this “other” Europe, I came along. I expected to find it cowering under the brutal legacy of predatory neighbors and a maniacal Stalinist dictatorship. Instead, laid out before me were the Art Nouveau palaces and neo-classical domes of the city once known (like so many others) as “the Paris of the East.” But what is it to be “the something-of-somewhere else”? Actually the guidebooks tended to skim over Bucharest in favor of a feudal Romania of romantic castles and pointed haystacks, gypsy tinkers and farmers in tunics. But in the few obligatory pages on the capital, its fin de siècle flavor was emphasized. Having thrown off Turkish-Ottoman domination, Romania’s new sovereigns had proudly embraced western fashions and hired the best French architects. Across the wide Calea Victoriei I could see the Royal Palace with delicate clamshell awnings, to keep the ladies sheltered from the rain as they awaited their carriages. Across the


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street adjacent to a sweet little park stood the architectural crown jewel, the Romanian Athenaeum, a neo-classical domed concert hall looking like a miniature of the Paris Opera. The Bucharest elite, it seems, dreamed on in this Parisian fantasy even as they were dispossessed. On the plane I had been reading Patrick McGuinness’s novel The Last Hundred Days, set in 1989. His story includes a walk-on character known only as “La Princesse,” who, after a sojourn in Paris during the war, decides to return to her native country and is stranded there. She sustains herself on a peculiar diet of champagne, croissants and chocolates, wearing ragged haute couture gowns and moulting furs, and haunting the soirées of the similarly stranded, mixing with black market dealers and high-level party bureaucrats. There were plenty of French cafes in the neighborhood, but from the balcony the old Princesse was nowhere to be found; it was late spring and the steps of the Atheneum were being used as a background for a fashion shoot, demonstrating that the city has a glamorous Now as well as a glorious Then. All cities are a mixture of old and new, but what I saw from the top of my hotel was more like a clash of old and new, and rival narratives for Bucharest’s renewal. One curious building was a surreal hybrid: the bottom half warm, sculpted terra cotta, the new top half a sleek stack of modernist ice cubes. This turned out, ironically, to be, the Union of Romanian Architects. Built as a mansion, then used as the Austrian Embassy, it had been the headquarters of the Securitate until it was partly destroyed during the revolution. But it was the monuments in the center of the large plaza that really gave me the impression of hodge-podge. Looking down onto Palace Square, Revolution Square since 1989, I had a view of the massive bronze equestrian statue of King Carol I, 19th century founder of the Romanian Dynasty, which ended in 1947. From the balcony he looked like a tin soldier, but from the street, mounted on a high pedestal, he must, I imagined, be a colossus. A few days later on a “Classy Romania” tour, I learned that the monument had been commissioned in 1939, by a mayor who was rather imperious himself. Story goes, the mischievous sculptor had endowed the giant horse with out-sized genitalia. Our guide had the pictures to prove it. The affront was noticed, however, and the proportions corrected. The communists demolished the statue, but a replica was erected in 2007 in the wake of a new nationalist fervor.


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Opposite old King Carol stood another huge monument. This was “The Memorial of Rebirth,” erected just last year to commemorate the thousand-plus who lost their lives in the “revolution” that supposedly brought democracy to Romania. The neo-classical equestrian statue alongside the very modern, abstract obelisk seemed to repeat the competing impulses in the Bucharest of today. But to my eye the obelisk looked contradictory in itself; a soaring white pillar skewers a black oblong shape of woven iron which young Bucharesters refer to as “the potato.” A garish red paint bleeds from the potato down the sides of the white pillar. Even from my perch in the Executive Lounge I could see that the pillar has been an unwitting lure to graffiti artists, latter day Tristan Tzaras. But the red paint, I was assured, was part of the original scheme. What does it all mean? Nobody is sure. Is the woven iron form an image of the dictatorship, which the aspiring nation (the pillar) has transcended, or of solidarity? The dripping red must symbolize sacrifice. But I couldn’t help thinking of the obelisk in Place de la Concord, and of “Vlad the Impaler,” the first ruler of Romania, famous for his method of keeping out invaders. Somebody needs to explain it. Thirty years ago this majestic square was packed with tight rows of military tanks and crowds of peasants brought in to wave flags for Ceaușescu, “the Conducator” (“the Leader”) as he gave his final speech from the terrace of the Central Committee building, a height diagonally across from my hotel lookout. I had seen the photographs, which were just like all the other photographs of maniacal dictators rousing the masses. It was hard to square this picture with my bird’s eye view of “the Paris of the East.” Which was the real Bucharest? Was it the revived, elegant city taking its cues from la belle epoque? Or was it the agonistic city, still writhing from the unhealed wounds of its fascist and communist legacies? I had read a few of the novels of Herta Müller with their bleak depictions of a world of social deceptions and betrayals, of people losing their humanity under an inhuman system. “The ant is carrying a dead fly three times its size. The ant can’t see the way ahead, it flips the fly around and crawls back.” Eviscerations of the private life; victim and perpetrator one Janus face. This was a nightmare vision, not a tragic vision, as Claudio Magris put it about so much modern literature of mitteleuropa. But


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she had left Romania in the 80s and never returned. Then there was the Romanian philosopher, Emil Cioran, one of Susan Sontag’s favorites. He had climbed “the heights of despair,” the title of one of his early books, in 1934. Unsurprisingly, he reached further dismal “heights” through the decades that followed. But then again Cioran, on further study, turned out to be a self-proclaimed “Hitlerist” aligned with the Iron Guard (Romanian fascists), who had left Romania for France in the forties. They had not seen the democratic outpouring just a year before my visit, when crowds had taken to the streets to protest government corruption. The parliament had had the gall to legalize low-level graft and fire the judges who challenged it, but the rallies had shamed them, at least for awhile. (The PSD turned hoses full force on demonstrators, injuring hundreds; but the real news, I want to believe, is that the crowds were back again the next night.) Perhaps something else was emerging out of this mixed history, this crazy quilt behind the iron curtain, something too new to label? I was looking for a literature of sunrise. In recent visits to Prague, Budapest and Cracow I had been impressed by their old world charm and new world vitality. Surely Bucharest, too, was awakening. True, corrupt, backward looking governments were stoking old nationalist fears and hatreds, but a more open-minded, civil society was pushing back, without waiting for Brussels to act. Crowds had taken to the street not to hail the power of the state but to protest government corruption. I wanted to celebrate this rebirth, and from the heights of the Executive Lounge that wasn’t hard. I did eventually find an animated, get-to-work Romania after ten days of looking. Bucharest is not a storybook place like Prague or Budapest or Cracow; it is not charming or glamorous; it is not tourist-ready, despite the proliferating guidebooks. It is still in recovery from the ordeals of the last century. Bucharest is dilapidated, stalled, and riddled with graft and cronyism; unsure of its direction. Yet if the body is prone, it has a quickening pulse that drew me to it. This is not the land of vampires any more; maybe it is Lazarus, still a bit ghastly, but staggering toward health. I was enthralled. The Athenee Palace hotel, anyway, was definitely keeping up its belle epoque veneer. Here at least was that elegant world of yesterday that drew people to Europe. Designed by a French architect in 1914, it


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was Wes Anderson’s Hotel Budapest and Amor Towles’ Hotel Metropol in Moscow. The Athenee Palace featured a receding hall of massive floating chandeliers hung over plump settees with delicate legs and feet, and brocade wall coverings; a grand ballroom, now for conferences and weddings, and an “English bar” with antique polo prints, where you could enjoy brandy and fine cigars. The hotel had been updated several times over the century of its existence, which had seen fires, bombs, communist “modernizations,” earthquakes and revolutions, but retained (or recovered) versions of its original features, toned down to fit Hilton house-style. The lobby exhibited vintage photographs on freestanding plaques showing the hotel in its early days when the flotsam and jetsam of empire, with their thick mustaches, epaulets, and bustled satin skirts, drifted onto the overstuffed furniture. Now the guests were more often exhausted Danube cruisers from Michigan, in shorts and sun visors, or nervous young men in business casual, smoking on a break from the meeting in the ballroom. Whoever turned up, the lobby was a great place for people watching—and for spying—then and now. I had left Herta Müller at home and brought along instead the much more entertaining Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy by the British novelist Olivia Manning, set in Bucharest, 1939. The McGuiness novel is pretty clearly an updating of this work at a later point of crisis. Both books follow an earnest young British expat, a university English teacher trying to make sense of Bucharest as it faces (or ignores) tumultuous pulls between east and west, past and future, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. In both, the Athenee Palace hotel is a frequent setting, depicted as a nest of conspirators, with infiltrators and double agents lurking in its recesses, corrupt officials mixing with international nomads, exploitable Romanian officials, self-preserving aristocrats, black market speculators, anxious Jews, Turkish opportunists, “countesses” of easy virtue—all in a subtle dance of intrigue. Ceaușescu had followed tradition in bugging the rooms when he came to power in the sixties. All this history gave a distinctively noir feel to my stay. Who was that middle-aged woman who had been staring at me in the lobby, where I sat reading Manning, for the past 15 minutes? Probably just another businessman’s wife, like me, waiting out a convention, but her gaze was unsettling. Was that Manning’s Prince Yasimov sipping “truca” in the bar? Or McGuiness’s Cilea, free-spirited


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daughter of a shady high official, taking the light from him? In Bucharest everybody smokes, making it even more the ideal setting for a forties flick. In the Executive Lounge I had listened in on the polyphony of global English accents—plotting real estate deals, not insurrections, but the low voices and jostle of ice cubes suggested conspiracy. But enough of this high-class hotel voyeurism. It was time to step out and find the actual city in all its rich history and gritty complexity. Outside the lobby I found dense, sluggish commuter traffic, with cars of all brands parked on sidewalks or cattycorner, cabs waiting to fleece the tourists (I would learn the hard way), bikes weaving in and out, and toppled motorcycles. No one is enforcing the rules and most people seem to be fine with that. I made my way across the traffic to the Royal Palace, now the National Museum of Art of Romania, starred in the guidebook. “There are no pictures in Bucharest,” complained Manning’s heroine, Harriet Pringle. I found this to be mostly true and left after an hour. But on the sidewalk, installed near the museum was a one story barracks of Plexiglas modules sheltering the headquarters of “Design Week.” While the museums were forgotten, there were plenty of young people gathered at this pop up gallery. These design nomads were hopping on the lime green bicycles provided for their adventure and taking off, site maps in hand, past the stalled traffic, in quest of art installations, fashion previews, displays of folding furniture, impromptu performances, set up around town. And inside the makeshift galleries, too, I could see Bucharest’s millennials huddled intently around work of their peers. As I looked at the exhibitions myself I was struck by how spontaneous, how ephemeral, and even how frivolous, this stuff was—doodles and gadgets, experiments with ideas and impulses more than carefully executed, staid objets d’art or even functional ware. They had grown up with decay and entropy all around them, battered beaux arts mansions and grim, featureless apartment buildings from the Ceaușescu urban “renewal,” and their unrelenting drive was to create and to consume what they created in the moment, leaving no trace. The city ruins were for them the ideal spaces for ad hoc bookstores and cafes, jazz happenings and video screenings. There was nothing Parisian about it except maybe a creative, cosmopolitan spirit reminiscent of 1913. And there was nothing particularly Romanian either. Their parents had been


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denied the right to travel, and they were on the move. It was the messy vitality of global blending, popping up all over the city like mushrooms after the rain. I wasn’t quite ready to forge my own path on a lime bicycle, so I set out along the yellow line marked on the guidebook map, to visit what is left of the Centru Vechi, the Old Town, which dates from medieval and Renaissance times. I was looking for the story of Bucharest. Here was the fifteenth century fortress of Vlad Dracula, known as Vlad the Impaler, viovode of Wallachia. Not much to see: it was still essentially an excavation site. Here was Lipscani, which had been a vibrant trading center in the 18th century. A large Armenian inn and stable with a distinctive wooden roof and sidewalk dating from this period, has been turned into a restaurant booking tour groups. This area had been abandoned to squatters until recently, and even now only one in three of its old buildings looked habitable. But entrepreneurs from Amsterdam had restored a few dilapidated buildings and established boutique hotels named “the Rembrandt” and “the Van Gogh”; these were attracting younger, hipper visitors. Mixed in with official historic sites were the usual souvenir shops, except that these specialized in Dracula teeth and wigs, and elaborately painted Easter eggs, a traditional Romanian folk art now mass-produced for the souvenir market. There are not many foreign visitors in Bucharest, but there are lots of Romanians, finally finding enough money and opportunity to explore their own country. There are even Communist Heritage tours, appealing to a mix of contempt and nostalgia. In the Old Town there were also more than the customary number of nightclubs and massage parlors, it seemed to me, luring the passersby with curvy neon signs, and these gave a sleazy feel to the whole area. It was pleasing to see so much activity in this once desolate neighborhood, but after an hour in the sun with the tawdry souvenirs, the trashy alleys, the vampire window displays, parades of squinting sightseers and carousers spilling out into the street, I had had enough. I spied a patch of green on the map, and headed in that direction for relief from the rush hour chaos. At first I encountered a kind of terrain vague, a grim, weedy concrete ramp with a broken bench and graffiti covered walls. Graffiti seems to be the primary decorative signature in


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contemporary Bucharest, an anarchic release, perhaps, after communist repression. This entrance, which turned out to be the back entrance, a rather more ceremonial entrance at Calea Elizabeta, made me a bit anxious, frankly—thieves, drug addicts, rabid dogs might be lurking. But I could see that there was something down beyond this dismal gate, so I continued. And yes, just around the corner, a lovely system of canals, ponds and fountains revealed itself, and a boathouse, a gingerbread kiosk, a colorful garden, all looking a bit unkempt and even melancholy—weeds in the flower beds, moss on the wooden bridges, peeling paint and loose tiles on the kiosk—but cheerful nonetheless. It was certainly not contemporary—the park would have appealed to Joseph Cornell. Nor was it grand—French-formal in design, but not Versailles or even the Tuileries Gardens. This was Cismigiu Park, a Turkish name for the spring, honoring the Turkish engineer who had built the dreamy canals in 1847. Here in 1939 Olivia Manning’s Harriet Pringle had wandered with various minor characters, confident that she would not be overheard. The park had once hosted a French restaurant. Like the museums of Bucharest, the park was now mostly empty, even of security guards. I bought lemonade and wandered further into the labyrinth, entering the “Romanian Rotunda,” a pantheon of 19th century Romanian writers I had never heard of. There was also an allegorical war monument, commemorating the French soldiers who had died in the horrendous Romanian campaign in WWI. The statues were full of movement-- a lovely allegorical figure of a mother grieving over her daughter, pouring bronze water from a pitcher, and another of a soldier falling backwards into a woman’s arms. How had this little oasis of memory, grace and leisure with its serpentine canals and discrete fountains (mostly dry now) managed to escape the wholesale demolition of old Bucharest under Ceaușescu’s grand scheme? But privately, it turned out, Ceaușescu was as susceptible as anyone to old Europe’s elegance. Those styles, from Renaissance to Rococo, were certainly on view at the Conducator’s home, a sumptuous 40-room villa in the posh embassy neighborhood. While he was blasting old domiciles, theaters and monasteries, and razing a whole neighborhood to build his four million square foot Party fortress, the People’s Palace, he was also


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setting himself up in bourgeois luxury in his private residence, the Primaverii Palace, where he and his wife Elena lived until their execution by firing squad. I took the tour there a few days later, conducted by a young guide who looked eerily like Peter Sellers, in thick black glasses and neat clothes. After dispensing blue hospital sheaths for our shoes, he walked us through these splendors as though they were just exquisite objects, not the spoils of a monstrous ruling couple that had brought little but misery and starvation to the nation. The Ceaușescus, who came from peasant families, had imports and Romanian imitations of French wallpaper, French furniture, French porcelain, French crystal, French sculpture and painting, French landscaping. Without irony or emotion our guide showed us the private screening room, the gold fixtures in the bathroom, the closet full of furs and gowns, the indoor pool walled in lavish mosaic, a suite for each family member, pointing out architectural features and offering lifestyle anecdotes (they had a black lab named Corbu, they enjoyed American detective shows, especially Kojak, etc.). At first I found this young man’s avoidance of politics bizarre—it was a massive elephant in the room. But on the other hand, he couldn’t have been more than 25; he was born well after the execution of the dictator, and this was a nice job that he was doing well, showing off the fineries, now proud state possessions. Why dwell on the shameful past when he had no part in it? Blessedly, the dictator left Cismigiu Park intact when he “modernized” downtown Bucharest. But did he know that he had thus left open a little corner of the public sphere, a place where people could meet without permission? Since the park is really a network of concealed piazzas, perhaps he missed the one I stepped into next. On the other side of a privet wall in this seemingly vacant park I suddenly came across several dozen people, young and old, ordinary people in everyday clothes, mostly men, playing chess, checkers, bocce, other games with which I was not familiar, as if they had been playing them throughout time, as if they lived in this little plaza and nowhere else, telling each other anecdotes of what is past and passing and to come. But if this remnant of the old city was an eternal spring, it was a place of retreat and not, I knew, the heart of Bucharest of today. Much as I might have liked to loll around here drinking lemonade and taking out a rowboat on the little canals, this was not what I had come to see. I was


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more likely to find the pulse of the city in its markets. No markets were mentioned in the guidebook, but on the map provided by the hotel there was something called Piața Matache indicated with a market symbol, so I headed that way, north up Calea Grivitei, in the opposite direction from the Lipscani district. The market would be the best place to witness the resurgence of free enterprise. As I walked away from the tourist district, the impression of entropy was overwhelming at first—the old mansions spanning out from the city center became increasingly decrepit and many were boarded up. Some, I learned, had been returned to absent owners in the vast Romanian diaspora who could not afford, or be bothered with, repairs. They were simply waiting for speculators to buy up the lots. The gaps between houses had been turned into middens—plaster rubble, broken plastic chairs, stray dogs, and occasional limping, ghostly men, who were probably in their 50s though they looked ancient. The streets and sidewalks were clean, though—a team of sweepers in glow-orange vests spanned out across the city, almost all women. The provisional infrastructure was summed up in the wads of wiring hung precariously from the tops of the buildings or from poles. But then I came across a freshly painted, prim Lutheran church with a tidy rose garden, and a trendy coffee shop with a hip young couple sitting at the sidewalk table, chatting and smoking; those who sat alone were not loitering but intent on their computers. Further down the street, near the Military Museum, were shoddy postwar apartment buildings looking like filing cabinets. But on the next block was the National University of the Arts, a homely, dilapidated building with a convex façade covered in graffiti, but lively at its threshold where small groups of students shuffled in and out, carrying big black portfolios. And across from it, an art supply store, ProfiArt Bucaresti, was a cornucopia of new materials. I inquired inside for directions to the old market—one of the young clerks spoke English—but she had never heard of Matache. When I extended the map she acknowledged the location was only a few blocks away. Perhaps the map was out of date. When I finally arrived at the spot, I saw nothing but a raw opening like a shallow strip mine, and a few fancy, but battered 18th century houses staring down at the void of the street. Wide avenues were obvi-


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ously being cut through the neighborhood, but there was no evidence of ongoing work in this construction area. My gaze was drawn upward by a blue glass business tower in international style, completely aloof from its base. This could be Kuala Lumpur for all the difference it made from the 21st floor. Apparently it had arrived before completion of the avenue that would be its address. Had the investment brought the avenue, or the avenue the investment? It was difficult to tell. But somebody from another 21st floor was betting big on Bucharest, not as it was but as it might be in the world of global commerce. I had almost given up the market as a phantom limb when I saw an old sign in tin lettering atop an arch: “Matache,” and made my way across unfinished tram tracks. (I was near “Gare du Nord.”) Beyond the arch was a cluster of makeshift aluminum utility buildings with dirty plastic windows, surrounded by some weedy gravel paths. A dog slept in front of one of the modules while a wrinkled peddler half-heartedly proffered her little pile of embroidered shirts. On the other side, a man had set up a display of shoes and nylons on some plastic chairs. I had noticed apathy in the older Bucharest population when it came to promotion of any kind. The museum staff didn’t seem to care if you visited or not; salespeople were phlegmatic toward the customers. I took it as another legacy of communism; when there is little to sell and everyone has their assigned place, why exert yourself? And here there were no customers; someone should tell the few merchants parked outside the building that the market was gone. There are photographs of the beautiful old Matache Hala, one of the treasures of prewar Bucharest, surrounded by an elegant hotel and stately residences. It had been damaged by the 1970 earthquake and left to rot until it would have to be pulled down. But Matache, it seems, is a frontline battle for the soul of Bucharest. This was now the Bezei-Buzesti Uranus Boulevard, part of a Haussmanization that would give Bucharest its own Étoile. As the Matache demolition began in 2013 it recalled for many the brutal erasures of the totalitarian state. There had been protests and demonstrations—many a Romanian Jane Jacobs had spoken up: “By what right?” What was the future of this city to be and what is its relation to the past? The demolition was filmed, a documentary made, with talking heads on both sides. Social workers worried about the fates of kids in the


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area—photos showed them kicking the rubble and wandering in the desert of asphalt and concrete where a neighborhood had been. Okay, said the authorities, to placate the preservationists more than the social workers, the market would be moved rather than simply bulldozed; it would be rebuilt elsewhere as an upscale mall, using some of the disassembled parts. But like so many wars, this one was neither won nor lost; it lingered in stalemate. I was fed up too—I walked all this way for this wasteland? But around the corner I noticed a line of people—a bakery truck! Doing a robust midmorning business in tarts and croissants. And beyond I saw a door opening into the drab warehouse, and entered, to find a great hall of tables heaped with strawberries, blueberries, cherries, artichokes, apricots, broccoli, spinach--a rainbow gallery. At another booth, eggs, cheese, sausages, meat pies, “placintas” (honeyed pastry). And behind each table stood an aproned attendant, mostly women, busy with customers doing their morning’s shopping. The transactions were brisk, and the supply seemed endless. These venders would have been teenagers in 1989. Maybe in those days their parents ran the black markets, so they were ready to do business when the time came, when the farm goods shipped in rather than out of Romania. There was nothing tourist-worthy about this hall and its wares—no glass atrium, no specialty olive oil, no cappuccinos, and no place to sit. But it was flourishing. I bought a quart of strawberries and watched everyday commerce carrying on organically, while city planners, preservationists, politicians, social workers, international investors, bickered about what the new Bucharest should look like and whose interests it should serve. But a different city revealed itself to me the next day, not stately and elegant, not pop up and profane, but ancient and sacred, and decidedly of the East. This day was Pentecost, a national holiday in Romania, and all the museums were closed. I had walked by a number of Orthodox churches and monasteries during the week, crisp white stucco buildings, or brick, some with interesting ornamentation and frescoes on their facades, some with columns, transepts and courtyards. Many dated from centuries before Romania was a state, but most were not of great historical significance. They were diminutive in size compared to the lofty cathedrals and abbeys of the west, which dominate the landscape. Their modest exteriors did not


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call out to me at first, so, a lifelong atheist, I had passed them by. I knew nothing about eastern orthodox religion, though there are several small domes in my own very diverse neighborhood in Boston, where Greek, Albanian, Syrian and Serbian immigrants have settled. But on this holy day in Bucharest, wandering down the mostly empty streets, and everything closed, I was looking for relief from the late spring glare. Here was a church—not one of the guidebook ones. I opened the door, found all the people, and entered Byzantium. What struck me immediately was the light, which of course is what the church architecture intends. Almost sculptural, the light beamed down into this narrow, vertical space from two invisible windows in the dome base. It gave radiance without disturbing the coolness of the dark space. I held back, in the narthex, the first passage between the worldly and the sacred, out of respect for the tight gathering of worshipers in front, within the nave. Men on the right, head-scarved women on the left; all were standing. The church was lit by sconces, oil lamps, and hanging candelabras that made a kind of second ceiling below the high dome. This division made the space at once intimate and mysterious, communal and otherworldly, close in yet infinite. I had seen lots of Romanian orthodox icons in books and museums. But religious icons are presences, not pictures, I realized. The candle-lit holy faces, saints and apostles, looked out from the eternal; they were manifest, yet not quite conversant with the parishioners. The light gave movement to these motionless forms; the eye hovered like a butterfly from one incandescent face to another around the walls of the nartex and into the nave. The candlelight shimmered on shining brass sconces and a silver relief of the Virgin set in a frame ornamented with rubies, sapphires and emeralds—or perhaps they were glass. Either way they were treasures. The iconic figures spoke of a state beyond the changes of time, beyond the invasions of Turks, the ambitions of dynasties, the promises of Enlightenment, the betrayals of the state. God was coming inside, not a big blazing phenomenon, as in the baroque churches of western Europe, but at once internal and communal. Every corner of this place seemed sanctified. I was entranced, but I felt awkward in my worldliness. In front of the nave stood a man in layman’s clothes, singing out from a huge silver hymnal that was resting on a pedestal in the front of the nave; his voice had an eloquent, nasal pitch as he led the congregation to responsive phrases, words heard in the East since the days of Constantine.


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But where was the altar? The Eastern Orthodox Church, I saw, is a series of thresholds. Only the priest is allowed full entrance into the sanctuary. Everyone else stands behind the wide horizontal screen of the iconostasis, its gate flanked with apostles. I sensed a continuum, stages of holiness, rather than hierarchy in this arrangement. There was no elevated pulpit. Returning on Tuesday I saw the priest sitting between the sanctuary and the nave, as parishioners lined up for a few minutes of counsel, or with a prayer written out for him to read. As they left, they took votive candles and set them in a sand table—one table for the living, another for the dead. Orthodox worship is not a passive or cerebral affair. It involves not just all five senses, but the whole body. On ordinary days, when there is no sermon going on, the supplicant makes her own ritual; she rubs, kisses, even fondles the icons, kneels, bows before them, moving around the room, crossing herself and touching the holy ground in a dance of devotion. I was spellbound. Outside, the profane glare of 21st century Bucharest, covered in graffiti, cars parked helter-skelter, beggars proffering sheaths of wheat. Is there a connection between this intense spirituality and the squalor outside? Is the church perpetuating the famous fatalism of the Romanians? Our business host, Karoly, founder of a highly successful electrical equipment company, feels that, on balance, religion’s hold on the Romanian imagination is a good thing. It teaches moral rectitude and thus offers a counterforce to the widespread theft and bribery that are a lingering effect of the communist disregard for property. But Karoly is ethnically Hungarian and was raised in the minority Lutheran church. As for the Orthodox churches, some of those who are not fondling the icons are cursing them. Another new business acquaintance, the TED-talking Radu (an ancient Romanian name as common as John), does think there is a link between Romania’s failures and its faith. Over dinner at a modish restaurant near the Ceaușescu mansion he observed that the most economically backward of the eastern European countries are those with a strong orthodox presence. Radu has started a consulting business based on the novel concept that “virtue” is good business. The church inculcates fatalism, not virtue, he says. He worships in the house of “Mindfulness.” Some of Romania’s contemporary poets are similarly unequivocal about the paralyzing effect of the church. Angela Marinescu, for instance, laments:


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these things around me still won’t end i won’t tell myself anything anymore i remain still like an imbecile with holy bread stuffed forcefully in my mouth by a priest who is no longer a priest but a pot-bellied roach with thick hair i withdraw into the black fog from the church until no one sees me anymore My enchantment with the church was further discouraged by Tiberieu. He is a computer programmer by day, a poet and translator by night. When I suggest that religion may have sustained people in the darkest times of the war and dictatorship, he enlightens me: “Those guys were informing on everybody. That’s how the church survived.” Furthermore, he says, the church patriarchs are aligned with the current corrupt government, enforcing a national identity based on religion and fear of their neighbors. But how, I wondered, could such piety and quiet transport as I had seen in the Pentecostal worship, be a tool of domination? Weren’t clerics imprisoned, and congregations meeting in the middle of the night, in the communist times? So the next day he took me to see what the patriarchs of the Romanian Orthodox Church are erecting: a colossal “People’s Salvation Cathedral,” which was blessed, though unfinished, just a few months after my visit. Sky-bound cranes guard the site on all sides.


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The church is taller than Ceaușescu’s pentagon-sized People’s Palace, and right next door to it. Heavily subsidized by the state, it will be the largest Orthodox Church in the world. It has a worshipper capacity of 125,000 and will include two hotels, parking for 500, and a restaurant. The soup kitchen in the basement can seat 1,000. I was horrified more than awed by this edifice, which was of course Tiberieu’s intention. Bucharest’s infrastructure was broken, its housing stock in a shambles, its hospitals under stocked, its historic buildings deteriorating, while this lavish “God mall” was rising to dominate the skyline. But somehow this monolith did not cancel my regard for the intimate rituals I had witnessed, the sense of a light in the moral darkness. This construction seemed to be about power, not about faith. There would of course be a big rush, from all over the orthodox realm, to see the splendor when the doors opened. But it seemed to me very likely that within a few years this vast shrine will be as empty and underutilized as Ceaușescu’s “house of the people,” next door, while I had the feeling that in the old orthodox churches, tucked in everywhere around the city, small groups, perhaps diminished, would be gathering around cantors, and gazing at the saints, forever. And as for power, I had seen less monolithic, though equally powerful forces, moving this place toward a cosmopolitan future. How would this modern dynamic coexist with the ancient spirituality that still seemed to me an essential part of Bucharest? Whatever emerges, it won’t resemble Paris, or any other place on earth. A nascent network of creators, entrepreneurs and dreamers, going on their nerve, is building art installations, fruit markets, electrical parts factories, mindfulness workshops, mobile phone games, publishing companies, travel services, linkedin networks, jazz clubs and coffee shops, new laws and independent schools. Radu and Karoly and Raina and Tiberieu and Danil and Carmen, and Alexandra and Angela, the optimistic, resolute men and women we met, some pious believers, others atheists, were young enough in 1989 to imagine, and to bring about, a more amenable world than the one they were born into. I knew I would be back to see the world they were making.


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El Pepe, LeBron, and Trump: Sports, Literature, and Interpretation BY RONALD A. SHARP

As a child, I read very rarely. I was a good student in school but I was not a reader. My passion was sports, which is why the only book report I remember writing in elementary school was about The Babe Ruth Story, and even that I copied mostly from the book flap. I read some of those old biographies of famous people like Abe Lincoln and Daniel Boone that lined the shelves of our school library in their dull orange bindings. But I was too busy playing baseball or memorizing the batting statistics of major league baseball players to spend time reading. In my senior year of high school I had already applied to college and been accepted at Syracuse University’s School of Journalism, where I was planning to get a degree in journalism so I could become a sports writer. But by the time my freshman year rolled around, I had already briefly encountered a whole other world out there: a world of books and films and folk songs — of Salinger, Fellini, and Dylan — and the new world that seemed to be opening with the rise of JFK. I was already questioning whether becoming a sports writer was a worthy aspiration and had started fantasizing about becoming a great poet instead. My freshman year at a large university convinced me that I was in the wrong place for all the wrong reasons. So off I went to Kalamazoo College, a small liberal arts


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college in Michigan, where, although my new interest in literature and ideas continued to deepen, I still hadn’t ruled out the possibility of having a career as a sports writer. So during my sophomore year I jumped at the opportunity of spending spring quarter working as a sports reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer in my hometown. My major responsibility as an intern reporter was covering high school baseball. Occasionally I’d write a feature story, on a local hockey star being courted by the NHL or a swimmer who’d just won four events at the state championships in Columbus. But the main work was the high school baseball beat. During my first week at the Plain Dealer I met with the sports editor, Hal Lebovitz, who in his early forties was already a mythic figure because of his towering 6’6” frame, his fabled athletic past, and the fact that he had recently been assigned a weekly column in what in those days, the 60s, was the undisputed pinnacle of national sports journalism, The Sporting News. When I entered Hal’s office he stuck up a finger asking me to hold on a moment while he finished typing something, and for that minute I witnessed his fingers punching keys so fast that there was nothing but a blur, like the blades of an airplane propeller that could no longer be distinguished once the engine was up to speed. It was like coming upon some natural wonder of the world. My sense of amazement was doubled when I realized that he was using only his two index fingers but it was immediately colored by anxiety about my own typing, in which, unlike Hal’s, the hunting and the pecking were easily distinguishable processes. That night after work – it was a morning paper so my hours were 4 p.m. to midnight – I drove home resolving to work on my typing. I would spend from 1 to 3 in the morning sitting at the kitchen table forcing myself to decrease the interval between my hunting and pecking. But my progress was slow. The writing came easy but not the typing. A week later, as I sat at my desk at work typing up my article about the Parma-Middleburg Heights conference championship game, I felt a tap on my shoulder. When I looked up to see what it was, I saw a man’s midsection, and then, as though viewing the scene through the slowest of slow motion cameras panning upwards, the face of Hal Lebovitz came


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into view just as I heard him uttering these simple words: “You can’t type, can you?” I threw up a volley of verbiage, stuttering and obviously wearing my humiliation on my face. Hal’s response was brief but emphatic: “Learn! Now!” 1 to 3 a.m. turned immediately into 1 to 6 a.m. — every night, or, actually, morning. By the time my three-month internship was over, I still wasn’t even close to Hal’s speed (who was?) but I could actually type pretty well. Fast enough to get the job done. The next year, my junior year in college, I studied abroad, for six months in Madrid, and before I left I asked Hal Lebovitz whether he would be interested in having me write a few stories for The Plain Dealer about bullfighting while I was in Spain. He liked the idea enough to give me an official press pass, which I used to get into several bullfights, where I could watch from close up in the special section reserved for the press. Afterwards I would interview the bullfighters, with the fantasy of meeting someone right out of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, some romantic Pedro Romero-like figure who would provide endless material for my feature stories for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I discovered quickly that the bullfighters I was interviewing were as much like Pedro Romero as the running back of my old high school football team was like Jim Brown, the star running back for the Cleveland Browns. The difference was of course huge at the level of talent but far more importantly for me, the bullfighters I was interviewing had virtually nothing of interest to say about the meaning or ritual of their sport. When I would ask them what it felt like at the moment they actually killed the bull, most of them looked at me blankly and muttered something like, “Well, I dunno. You kill the bull….” But one sunny Saturday my luck changed. That afternoon, in the main bullfight arena in Madrid, Jose Luis Teruel was fighting. Called “El Pepe” on all the colorful bullfight posters, he was, in this autumn of 1965, the leading minor league bullfighter in Spain. Before becoming a fully authorized “matador,” young bullfighters are called “novilleros,” and that year the most promising and heralded novillero in Spain was El Pepe. Watching him perform that afternoon, I could understand why he was so highly touted. He moved beautifully and effortlessly and he was


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fearless. But he slipped at one point and was gored, not badly and in a location – just behind his knee – that was more embarrassing than life threatening. So when I asked to interview him as he left the arena, he told me he had to go get the wound cleaned up and gave me a phone number where I could call him that evening to set up a time and place to meet and do the interview. When I called the number that evening, the person who answered the phone said simply, “Dominguin.” I knew enough about bullfighting to know that Luis Miguel Dominguin was one of the two or three greatest bullfighters ever, but it never occurred to me that this person answering the phone by saying “Dominguin” was in fact, as I learned later, the man himself, the great Luis Miguel Dominguin, who turned out to be El Pepe’s agent at that time. Although my subsequent conversation with El Pepe would turn out to be a major event in my life – and probably the central factor in my decision to become an English professor rather than a sportswriter—the irony was not lost on me that by not seizing the opportunity to interview Dominguin himself, I was like a cub reporter choosing to interview some ultimately unknown minor league outfielder instead of Babe Ruth. When El Pepe, Jose Luis Teruel, came on the phone, we arranged to meet the next night at a bar where bullfight aficionados hung out. I had become fluent enough in Spanish by the time that I walked into the bar that my notes and questions for the interview were all written on my little reporter’s pad in Spanish rather than English. When Jose Luis entered the bar and saw me standing there with a glass of wine, his fans, who had watched his bullfight a couple days before, screamed with adulation and immediately a huge guy put Jose Luis on his shoulders and marched him around the bar while everyone cheered. I knew within minutes that I had finally struck gold. Not only was Jose Luis disarmingly articulate; he was also dramatically more thoughtful than the other bullfighters I’d interviewed about the history and ritualistic significance of the art of bullfighting. I couldn’t write fast enough, even as I was impressed with my own ability to not only speak fluently with him in Spanish but to record his thoughts in Spanish on my pad. It could not have been going better, and I allowed myself a brief fantasy about Hal Lebovitz beaming as he read my story at his editor’s desk at The Cleveland Plain Dealer.


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We talked about every aspect of bullfighting and Jose Luis’s answers were so thoughtful, so subtle and elegantly phrased, that it felt like we were being filmed for a documentary about Hemingway and bullfighting. Going through my list of questions, I next asked whether Jose Luis had ever been gored before or whether the goring I witnessed was his first. “No,” he said. “I’ve been gored three times before. The first in my abdomen and the second in my thigh.” As he spoke, I wrote on my pad “1—abdomen; 2—thigh.” And then there was silence. I was so absorbed in getting my notes down that I did not look up at him when I asked, “And the third?” Silence, this time a much longer silence, and when I finally looked away from my pad and up at his face, he was staring down at the floor. Clueless, I persisted: “And the third?” A few seconds later, still looking down at the floor, he said, “Me han partido en la mitad los huevos,” which literally means, “They have parted for me in half the eggs.” Inconceivably naïve as it sounds in the retelling, despite having become pretty fluent in Spanish, I stood there utterly perplexed about why he was suddenly talking about what I often ate in Spain for breakfast: eggs. And then suddenly I realized that he had just told me that he’d been gored in the balls. I was speechless for a whole host of reasons, most prominently because not only had my Spanish failed me but because it did so at precisely the moment that this man was telling me the most personal thing imaginable, to say nothing of the most unimaginable. I literally could not speak. I could not find the words. But even at that moment it hit me that the way he had told me was even more staggering. The “they” who did this, of course, is nothing less than the gods or the fates. This was not simply something that passively happened to him but something that the world actively thrust upon him. In the half century since that night, I eventually came to see that the fact that I never did write that story for Hal Lebovitz’s Plain Dealer was deeply tied up with my later decision to dedicate myself to literature rather than sports writing. Maybe there was a way to deal with this in a sports article for a newspaper but my inability to do so was deeply linked to my dawning realization of the immensity of the difference between sports reporting and literature. Fifty years later I now understand that the reason I never


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did write a story for The Cleveland Plain Dealer about El Pepe is closely related to my decision to become a professor and literary critic rather than a sports reporter. The sports journalist’s task is to accurately report and explain what happens at a sporting event, or to make sense and some kind of evaluation about either a particular performance or the shape of a career. In a similar fashion the literary critic both interprets and evaluates the novel or play or poem at hand, or the meaning, shape, and value of a whole artistic career. What I sensed when I was in my early twenties, and what I believe led me to choose literature rather than journalism is that poets and novelists were much more likely to be working in a territory where the sum is always larger than the addition of the parts, where meaning is not something that can, as the journalists like to say, be “boiled down” but rather is irreducible. * * * But my love of sports has never waned, a fact partly explained by acknowledging that in addition to sharing many qualities with literature — drama, suspense, fascinating characters, narrative arcs, and lyric moments of sheer beauty, to name only a few — occasionally there are moments in sports, like the story of El Pepe, that play out the same complexities that animate and characterize the best works of art. My hometown Cleveland is probably best known for its Cuyahoga River literally catching fire in the early 70s and, more recently, for the story of LeBron James’s career, before he moved to the Los Angeles Lakers, as the star of Cleveland’s NBA team, the Cavaliers. Growing up in nearby Akron, LeBron played his first season on the Cavs just after graduating from high school. Within a few years, although he was widely considered the best player in the league, it became clear that his team had no shot at winning the NBA championship, and LeBron decided to leave Cleveland and play for the Miami Heat instead, where his team did indeed win the championship for two of the four years that he played in Miami, and at that point, in 2014, he triumphantly returned to the Cleveland Cavs. For the next four years LeBron led his team to the Eastern Conference


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Championship and four finals against the Golden State Warriors, one of which Cleveland won, in 2016. That win was the first championship for any professional sports team in Cleveland since 1964 — a drought of 52 years – and as a result, LeBron’s heroic status moved from stratospheric to epic. In the 2018 playoffs LeBron’s Cavs were defeated by the Warriors in four straight games. But by far the biggest story of this championship series was that, after putting on one of the best individual performances ever seen on a basketball court in game one, LeBron went into the locker room after his team lost the game because of a last-minute lapse by one of his teammates and in frustration smashed his right fist, his shooting hand, against a chalk board and broke his hand. How the TV pundits and sports writers interpreted what LeBron did is now ancient history. But at the risk of making a mountain out of a mole hill, I want to address that question because I am convinced that doing so helps us understand some crucial issues of art and politics, of language and culture and meaning itself. When the sports writer asks what is the meaning or significance of what LeBron James did to his hand, that writer faces the same challenge that any literary critic faces when asked what the meaning of Hamlet’s soliloquy is or Elizabeth Bennett’s response to seeing Darcy’s house in Pride and Prejudice. It will come as no surprise that the pundits had a field day with LeBron: 1. For the best player on a team to give into his frustrations at the cost of disadvantaging his team is inexcusable. 2. For the best player to allow his emotions to lead him to self-destruction is appalling. 3. How could he be so stupid? 4. How could he be so selfish? 5. The lapse of his teammate JR Smith cost them the game but James’s lapse cost them the series. 6. He should have told his teammates after it happened. 7. He should have told the press after it happened rather than walking into his post-game press conference with a cast on, knowing he’d be asked about the cast and accused of providing an excuse in advance for losing the series.


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One could go on. But for me what is missing is what makes this story so powerful, and that is the centrality of anger. The work of literature that addresses the issue of anger most profoundly is Homer’s THE ILIAD. Homer proclaims explicitly, and right from the poem’s first line, that anger is the subject of the long epic he is now beginning: the anger of Achilles. Whenever I teach The Iliad I begin by telling my students how Aristotle defined anger. When I first encountered Aristotle’s explanation, it made no sense to me. Anger, he said, is that impulse towards revenge that a person feels when they have been unjustly slighted. Why talk of revenge? I wondered. What does anger have to do with revenge? But I soon came to understand that an impulse towards revenge is indeed a defining feature of anger. You put money into a Coke machine, you push the button, and nothing comes out. You push the button again and then you jiggle the machine. And next thing you know you are kicking the machine. You have put in your money and now you have been unjustly slighted, and that feeling of being unjustly slighted leads immediately to an impulse to lash out, to get back at something, to get revenge, and since the only thing there to get back at is the Coke machine, you kick it. Hopefully when you kick the machine you don’t break your foot. But you might. If you were angry enough and kicked it hard enough, and had unimaginable strength in the leg you were kicking with, you might well have broken your foot, your ankle, or at least a toe or two. LeBron was angry as hell, and he was angry because he felt he had been unjustly slighted. Despite the fact that his team was completely overmatched against the amazing Warriors, he played one of the greatest games in the long history of basketball, surpassing even the most extravagant expectations and putting his team ahead with less than a minute to go. And then he is called for a foul on a play where the next best player in the league, Kevin Durant, was originally called for charging by another referee whose decision was reversed after the refs looked at the replay and gave Durant two free throws to tie the game that, seconds before, they seemed certain to lose. Unjustly slighted? The refs hardly ever reverse a charging call. But to do so in the final seconds of the game with the most talented and respected player in the game? But wait. If LeBron had reason to be angry for the bad call, how much more reason had he to be angry when, seconds later, one of


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his teammates, JR Smith, missed a foul shot that would have given the Cavs back the lead, and then, even more implausibly, when the rebound from that missed foul shot was retrieved, against all odds, by Cleveland, and the Cav who got it, JR Smith, was just a few feet from the basket and could easily have made the shot to win the game as the clock ran out. But no. Not only does Smith not even attempt a shot; instead, acting as though his team is ahead and all he has to do is dribble the ball away from the basket until the buzzer goes off and the game is over, he does just that, which sends the game into overtime and the whole Cavs team into a state of utter disbelief and shock. And then, to no one’s surprise, they get blown out in the overtime. Against every prediction, the Cavs, based on LeBron’s epic performance, should have won that game. Slighted? Unjustly slighted? Of course LeBron slammed the chalkboard after that. Of course he did. Anyone with the slightest understanding of both basketball and human nature can understand why someone would do such a thing. That is no justification for it but it certainly is a basis for understanding. It was his expression of anger, his version of kicking the Coke machine, and in my view that was simultaneously tragic and completely understandable, which is to say profoundly human, just as Achilles’ anger is simultaneously blameworthy and justifiable. “Should LeBron have done it?” is the wrong question. Like Achilles, the consequences of his action were destructive and lamentable. But this seems to me a case in which the proper response is simultaneously feeling disappointment at Achilles’ response and also the deepest empathy. Feeling empathetic does not preclude judgment but it does not foreground it. Of course LeBron shouldn’t have done it, just as Achilles should not have sulked and refused to fight, which tragically led to the death of his best friend Patroklos. But what a human gesture it was, and understanding that act in its full complexity is not unlike understanding what constitutes a tragic hero, in Hamlet, in Achilles, and in LeBron – in the play Hamlet, the epic The Iliad, and the NBA Finals. All of these require what Keats called “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” For Keats the greatest practitioner of negative capability was Shakespeare. Keats’s point is not to condemn fact and reason but to suggest


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their limitations in the immensely complex task of interpreting meaning. This applies to understanding Hamlet or The Iliad; to grasping the meaning of my encounter with El Pepe; and to making sense of LeBron James breaking his hand by angrily hitting a chalkboard in the NBA Finals. * * * In 1953, when I was eight years old, the most popular program on TV was Disneyland, whose weekly episodes took place in one of its four lands: Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland. Since my elementary school was only a few blocks from where we lived, everyone went home for lunch. On the walk home one day a classmate named Bobby Fein and I started arguing about which was the best of the four lands. I said Adventureland, and he said Tomorrowland. After making our best arguments for why our land was the best, we started citing authorities. I began with my brother, who was three years older than us, and Bobby countered with his sister, who was five years older. After climbing the educational ladder of authority for a while, I ended with my best shot: my cousin Lee, who was in college, agreed with me. I thought I had the deal sealed but Bobby’s response was definitive. He had an uncle who actually knew one of the seven people in the world who understood Einstein’s theory of relativity, and that uncle agreed with him. The discussion was over. Everyone knew that Einstein was the smartest man alive, and although we had no clue what the theory of relativity was, we knew it was the key to understanding the truth. If Bobby’s uncle actually knew one of the seven fabled people in the world who understood this staggeringly complex theory, and if that uncle agreed with Bobby that Tomorrowland was the best of the four lands, then it simply was. End of discussion. It wasn’t until high school in the early sixties that the next life-changing shift occurred in my understanding of the idea of truth. Actually, we came to understand, “Truth is relative,” a view that descended indirectly from Einstein and completely undermined and replaced not only the longstanding assumption that truth was by definition absolute but also our naïve childhood view that truth was what the smartest person in the world said it was. By the time I was in college, anyone with any claim


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to being an intellectual simply assumed that relativity was the last word on the question of truth, even if some of us pointed out the contradiction that the statement “all truth is relative” could not possibly be true since it was itself a statement of absolute truth, and absolute truth was a naïve relic of an earlier time. At some point in discussions about such issues, someone would use the example of Hitler or the Holocaust to establish the unimaginable horror that relativity led to since the truth of the claim that Hitler was evil was not relative in the least. Endless arguments ensued over terminology, and since this was the heyday of the language philosophers, most such debates never got past the call to define one’s terms. Then, a full half-century ago, in the seventies, came the French theorists, especially Derrida, who presented an even more withering critique of any conception of absolute truth. Every so-called truth could be deconstructed endlessly. The very notion of truth was now off the playing field of serious discourse. At the same time scholars in a wide variety of fields were focusing on power relations and arguing that with regard to issues of gender and race, indeed to all matters of culture and history, the task was to unpack and reveal the power relations underlying all claims to truth, which were always constructed based on power relations. For the past half-century, all serious discussions of what truth is have been influenced by these developments. But suddenly, with the presidency of Donald Trump, our culture has been confronted by an even more momentous development on the question of truth. For decades we have used the word “spin” to describe the commonplace practice, not only but especially in politics, of emphasizing certain interpretations of events or realities that better serve our own political purpose. For decades we have assumed that all politicians spin. It is one of the many ways that the issues of meaning and interpretation that we have been discussing play out in politics. But with Trump we have two massively important new developments. The first is the staggering number of straightforward lies and misstatements of fact that the president has proclaimed publically. As I write these words on August 12, 2019, the most recent count from The Washington Post’s Fact Checker’s Database, which tracks this carefully on a daily basis, is that our president has made 12,019 “false or misleading


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claims” during his first 928 days as president – roughly 13 a day. The second new development is Trump’s constant attacks on the press and his promulgation of the term “fake news.” It’s not simply that our president has flaunted dozens of conventions and norms. He has gone so far beyond spinning the truth, he has lied so flagrantly so many thousands of times, that it is now a serious question whether the American public has already been so desensitized to such violations that the claim that “that’s just Trump being Trump” has blinded us to the harsh reality that we have a president for whom the very idea of truth – truth of any kind that goes beyond self-interest—has already been profoundly eroded and undermined, let alone its connection with journalism. Who knows how this will play out? We live in a time when every day brings not only multiple examples of mutually exclusive interpretations of facts but also endless discussions of the very concept of truth and fact. As the theory of relativity began filtering into the general culture decades ago, it was used by some people to justify any position at all. Einstein himself, who was so closely associated with the idea of relativity, was once asked directly about this issue. If you want to represent the shape of a cone, Einstein responded, both a circle and a triangle are accurate representations. Each is relative to its angle of vision. But if you claim that the following shape “&$% “ represents a cone, the theory of relativity cannot help you. You are, Einstein claimed, simply wrong. I hope we keep this story in mind as we evaluate the political events and debates of the coming months. The stakes could not be higher. But in this essay I have been trying to address a closely related issue about meaning and interpretation in both life and art – an issue whose consequences may be much less important for the fate of our nation but have crucial implications for interpreting meaning in every aspect of our lives. By telling a story about how I decided to become an English professor and literary critic rather than a sportswriter, I have tried to establish a framework for understanding both a seminal moment in my early twenties when I was interviewing a Spanish bullfighter and also a more recent incident in the world of sports – namely, when LeBron James, after losing the first game of the NBA Playoffs to the Golden State Warriors, slammed and broke his right hand, his shooting hand, against a chalk board. Sports writers around the world have weighed in on LeBron’s act, doing what


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sports writers always do: reporting both what actually happened and the meaning or significance of what happened. In that crucial regard, after watching a sporting event, sports writers do what literary critics do after reading a book. We are always faced with making sense of the world, whether it is a sporting event or a novel or a statement by a politician. One of the many gifts of art and literature is that they help us understand that doing so is often extremely difficult. In our time we need to remind ourselves of that, especially at a moment in our national political life when just the opposite is true, namely, it is not difficult to see a bald-faced lie as a lie, even if it is told by the president of the United States Interpreting what is actually happening in the world, including the political world, is of course not easy, and this is obviously the case with interpreting both works of art and sporting events. Even as such acts of interpretation can be difficult, we relish and are grateful for the rich complexity in understanding the world that art and politics and literature open up for us. But understanding that complexity provides no license for claiming that it is always just a matter of interpretation; it also compels us to recognize that there are important distinctions to be drawn between one kind of discourse and another. However multi-faceted some objects of interpretation may be, some interpretations are simply wrong: 2 +2 is not 5; the color red is not easily mistaken for blue; Ron Sharp is not a better writer than John Keats or a better basketball player than LeBron James. Issues of interpretation are not only complex and consequential in themselves; they are also hugely consequential in our daily lives. As I look back over the arc of my own life, I have now, like generations before me, come to understand certain past experiences in new ways. Is this not what we mean by education? There is no way of knowing how much self-awareness or intentionality President Trump brings to his complete disregard for any notion of truth or of accuracy in interpretation. The immensely complex and important issues of meaning and interpretation that I have been addressing in this essay have now been kicked into another dimension altogether by a president who is daily eroding, perhaps even intentionally undermining, any legitimate conception of truth at all. Fifty years ago I decided that I was much more likely to be able


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to understand the significance of what happened to El Pepe through the lens of literature than through the lens of sports reporting. I still believe that, but I have now come to see that it might be possible for a genuinely creative sports reporter to have done justice to El Pepe’s story. I now realize that I was not that guy, and that most literary critics are not either. That is why if I were El Pepe or LeBron, I’d be a lot more confident if I had neither a sports writer nor a literary critic telling my story but a novelist or a poet.


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Books in Review

Jennifer Delton on Fred Hochberg’s Trade is not a Four-Letter Word

Elizabeth Benedict on the Memoirs of Honor Moore Jennifer Delton on Fred Hochberg’s Trade is not a Four-Letter Word

Regina Janes on the Letters of Cole Porter

Paul Delaney on a Biography of Anthony Powell


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Trading Places

*

BY JENNIFER DELTON

As the world we know falls apart, as cities burn and a virus kills, as white supremacy and hate nullify our institutions, it may be hard to care very much about trade. But trade and globalization are inextricably bound to the multiple catastrophes engulfing the summer of 2020. The pandemic is international. It is especially prevalent in those nations most economically developed and integrated into the global economy. And its containment will require international cooperation, which is (theoretically) possible due to the institutional infrastructure built up to sustain international trade, foremost the World Health Organization. The virus is least under control in those countries with anti-globalist leaders, including the United States. Moreover, trade and globalization have contributed to increasing inequality in the U.S., exerting a downward pressure on wages and social welfare policies, while increasing investors’ profits, leading to an economic regime sometimes described as neoliberalism. Economic inequality in the U.S. has always had an outsized impact on African Americans. But with the loss of manufacturing jobs, many white people have also “been left behind,” and as numerous books and essays have shown, this has contributed to a rise in “white fragility” and racial resentment that has been exploited by white nationalists and the U.S. president. White racism and *Review of Fred P. Hochberg, Trade Is Not A Four-Letter Word: How Six Everyday Products Make the Case for Trade (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020).


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police killings of unarmed black people in the U.S. is nothing new, but newly emboldened white racial resentments have stifled political solutions to it, while also polarizing the nation. Finally, by encouraging open borders and fostering a new diverse global elite, trade has provoked an anti-global backlash in the form of hyper-nationalist, neo-populist leaders like Bolsonaro in Brazil, Orban in Hungary, Modi in India, and yes, Trump, who play to the prejudices of their anti-liberal bases. Thus, far from being an academic abstraction, trade is deeply implicated in the convulsions we are experiencing today. The question we might ask in this moment of economic and social crisis is, does trade resolve these problems or exacerbate them? Trade policy has ignited passions in the U.S. since even before John C. Calhoun railed against the “Tariff of Abominations” in 1828. Detractors see “free trade” as a con that promises prosperity while destroying national industry, jobs, and communities for mere profit. Trade enthusiasts, in contrast, believe freer trade is not just a universally profitable economic policy, but also —and more so—one that encourages world peace, intercultural understanding, open-mindedness, and human connection. Here is how one attendee at a 1915 international trade conference expressed his pro-trade position: I am filled with the spirit of the export trade. I love to do business with the big importing houses of the world … and I know that when the day comes when we can better understand one another and realize that, after all, the race is one, with fundamental interests identical, we will usher in the millennium. As this quote suggests, trade represents much more than economic policy; it is a concept that defines how Americans see themselves and their nation. In his good-humored and highly readable book, Trade is not a Four-Letter Word, businessman Fred Hochberg embraces the role of trade evangelist, even noting (like the globetrotting salesman quoted above): “For all its economic benefits, the greatest argument for trade is that… it quietly connects us, warms us, and draws us closer to the rest of the human race.” The former chair of the Export-Import Bank under Obama,1 Hochberg seeks to convince readers that if they really understood how


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trade worked and what it can do they too would see that its advantages far outweigh the problems and that the problems themselves could be easily addressed with smarter, more targeted policies. To that end, he writes in a sunny, jokey style that avoids jargon and employs a trove of persuasive anecdotes and personal stories. If there was ever a need for Hochberg’s pro-trade evangelizing it is right now in 2020. Against prevailing economic wisdom and on-theground realities, the Trump Administration has resurrected the tariff, of all things, a regressive tax found mostly, until recently, in history textbooks. Trump’s tariff fetish is partner to the physical wall he seeks to build on the U.S.-Mexican border; what are tariffs but a way to wall in a nation and keep out the world? The Trump Administration pulled the U.S. out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement crafted to counter China’s rising economic dominance. His advisers have blamed corporate greed and China for the shortage of face masks and other protective gear, stoking resentment of “global elites” and “outsiders.” Trump’s anti-trade, anti-globalist, economic nationalist policies propagate an “us vs. them” view of world trade and go hand in hand with his America First isolationism, which, according to Hochberg, wreaks havoc on America’s international economic and political position. Hochberg opens the book with the story of his grandparents’ flight from Nazi Germany, his then eleven-year old mother in tow. Eventually his mother, Lillian, started a mail-order catalogue business from her kitchen table that became Lillian Vernon Corporation, the first woman-founded company to be publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Hochberg got his start in his mother’s company, which was among the first to import Chinese products for the benefit of American consumers. Right there in this little family biography are the recurrent themes of globalization: the opportunities, innovations, and dynamic energy created by open borders and creative people, the specific opportunities for the persecuted or excluded, Jewish refugees and women. The benefits that come from cultural interaction and diversity. Affordable goods. China. Trade is about real people and families, not faceless corporations; it is about exchange, not exploitation, growth, not limits. Hochberg’s arguments are standard pro-trade fare. Trade creates competition, which leads to innovation, higher productivity, and goods


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we never could have imagined but are now central to our economy and lives, such as the iPhone and Google. Trade in the form of imports lowers the cost of all kinds of products, from fruits and veggies to laptops and iPhones, rendering them more affordable for more consumers. Trade creates new industries and jobs. It fuels economic development, which lifts poor countries out of poverty and raises living standards for people around the world. Trade deals might destroy some jobs, but they also create new jobs, better jobs, more creative jobs. All of this means more wealth, more opportunities, and more appreciation for the common interests that tie us together. Much of this is familiar, but Hochberg’s details are fresh and so smartly presented with such good stories and data about products we use and consume (cars, iPhones, avocadoes, higher education, and TV shows) that readers (at least this reader) see anew the beauty of international supply chains, markets, and the global institutions that support them. Hochberg is also just so informative in a how-things-work kind of way; there is a primer of often confusing terms and a curio-cabinet of obscure factoids, like how the corn chip came to be. Even if you remain critical of (or impatient with) his bright neoliberal perspective, there is much to learn here about how the things we consume end up in our graspy little paws. NAFTA looms large in this book, probably because so many of the arguments Hochberg is rebutting were honed in the anti-NAFTA movement of the 1990s that pitted globalists like him against isolationists, union workers, environmentalists, and Ross Perot. Hochberg reminds us that NAFTA did not kill U.S. manufacturing. Manufacturing’s share of nonfarm employment had been in decline since the 1950s, plummeting from a high of 32 percent in 1953 to just over 20 percent by 1974, and continuing downward since then. This was less the result of off-shoring and “trade” than it was automation, technology, and the rise of the service industries. If anything, globalization—that is, “cheap” imports and, yes, trade deals like NAFTA—saved American manufacturing by streamlining it, making it more competitive, and tying it to international supply chains that made it more productive than ever before. So much so that “foreign” companies such as Honda, Volkswagen, and many others opened plants in the U.S., employing almost seven million American workers—which


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is why the most “American car on the road,” in terms of where its various parts are made and assembled, is the Honda Odyssey. For many Americans, of course, all this innovation and dynamism is akin to a death sentence. Hochberg acknowledges trade’s negatives. He understands the pain of a lathe operator whose job disappears and of a community that loses a factory. Here, too, he offers familiar—if under-implemented—solutions: for example, hearkening back to the Kennedy Administration, whose Trade Extension Act provided money to retrain workers affected by imports and aid to communities dealing with factory closings. For a variety of reasons, this kind of aid has been less effective than it might have been, but Hochberg remains open to it. While supporting government aid to communities and people disadvantaged by trade, Hochberg is most interested in what people and communities can do themselves to get on board with new innovations and global trade. Here he tells the story of a former coal miner named Rusty Justice, who saw the writing on the wall and worked with “business partners” to train others in the area in coding, which led to new tech start-ups in Pikesville, Kentucky, now known as “Silicon holler.” The government can help here, but not so much with welfare as with infrastructure, particularly broadband access for rural communities (which incidentally was one of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign promises). He has other remedies too, such as Opportunity Zones, employer-led training programs, and re-imagining higher education. Hochberg wants to disconnect employment from college-degrees, which 70 percent of American adults do not have and don’t actually need. Yes, today’s jobs require special skills, whether they are in manufacturing, service sector, or in cultural production, but those skills can be learned outside a traditional four-year college or university BA or BS program. These are all sound, practical suggestions, but very much dependent on the public’s confidence in, and election of, moderate, centrist Democrats of the Clinton/Obama sort. Otherwise known as neoliberals. Hochberg amicably admits he is a capitalist (as if it’s not obvious). He is also a progressive liberal, who, like most progressive liberals, has a deep appreciation for diversity and difference, cultural, sexual, or otherwise. His best stories are about the fruits of cultural mixing, sharing, exchange. Our worlds grow larger, he says, when creative folks borrow and incorporate different foods, spices, ideas, styles, business practices, to


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create something new and fun and profitable. His metaphors emphasize the free flow of ideas and peoples; he embraces immigration as something that makes us stronger, calling to mind Steve Earle’s wonderful lyric, “Livin’ in a city of immigrants, I don’t need to go travelin’, open my door and the world walks in...” This kind of border-crossing undergirds the original ethos of international institutions that facilitate trade—the United Nations (wherein WHO and the International Court of Justice lie), the World Bank, IMF, OECD, EU, even the WTO—which liberal internationalists like Hochberg regard as progressive institutions that bring peoples together to solve problems and elevate humanity. It is these institutions, which facilitate international cooperation, where real solutions for climate change, poverty, and, perhaps, even a pandemic could be developed. So, while Hochberg wrote this book before the pandemic and current recession, one can surmise that he would advocate a return to a pro-trade agenda, one rededicated to international institutions, cooperation, and human connection and diversity, one that would recalibrate broken supply chains and enact his policy recommendations to make trade work better for all people, not just the rich. The opposite is the case for those on the left who will likely see Hochberg’s arguments as, basically, so much neoliberal claptrap—including, I suspect, some readers of this very publication. For them, U.S. trade policy and the international institutions that support it serve international capitalism and prop up American empire, contributing to record levels of economic inequality, while stifling real solutions to existential threats such as climate change and now a pandemic. The world was already facing disaster before Trump. To continue with more of the same would be a complete and deliberate misunderstanding of our current woes. The left has long condemned trade and globalization as a betrayal of democracy. Galvanized by the Vietnam War, the New Left taught a generation of historians (including myself) that American Empire had its roots in a search for markets, i.e. trade. This is the view of Bernie Sanders, certainly, who has also called for tariffs to preserve American jobs and undercut corporate off-shoring. It was also the view of those protesting the WTO in Seattle in 1999, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and those who see internationalist institutions as the infrastructure of neoliberal capitalism.


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These arguments are very compelling at an intellectual level. The best scholarship on neoliberalism reminds us that “free trade,” like the “free market,” cannot exist without government, laws, and regulations, which means they are not as natural and free as imagined in their legitimating mythologies. It shows how “free trade” is a creature of the state, of ostensibly liberal democratic governments, but in fact under the control of investors, bankers, and multinational corporations. It reminds us that international rules and regulations for streamlining trade impinge on national policies that aim to protect the environment, local economies, and workers’ rights. Scholarship is able to draw upon critical theories of power and race to show how international institutions designed “to bring the world together” actually deepen and exacerbate racial divisions and global inequities, particularly the global north-south division, in which global capitalism has fostered a kind of neo-colonialism. This work on neoliberalism is instructive, eye-opening, and persuasive, but it is also beside the point in the actual world we live in now, where globalists have lost control in ways not predicted by the scholarship. If globalists were as powerful and coordinated as all that, how does Trump get elected? I’m sorry, “elected.” Nor do I see any kind of organized left ready to take advantage of the disruption that has revealed global elites’ contradictions and vulnerabilities. What I see is social and economic chaos that has already been exploited by bad, illiberal actors. The BLM movement is (as I write in August 2020) making gains in the fight against police brutality, and though it has been embraced internationally, it is not a movement designed to deal with the confluence of crises we face this summer, which demand international cooperation. But neither is Hochberg’s high-on-trade perspective the answer here. To be sure, he wrote the book before all of this, so I don’t want to score him on this. But is there a globalist position that can help us? Or do we stand idly by as the world tries to stuff itself back into national economic boxes as it did in the 1930s? Is there a way to embrace the existing institutions of globalization and even America’s outsized role in maintaining them and perhaps point them in a different direction? What if we could refit those institutions so they weren’t so much focused on trade and investments, but rather actually solving problems?


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That is the argument of Dani Rodrik’s recent article in Prospect, “Globalisation after Covid19: My Plan for a Rewired Planet.” A professor of international political economy at Harvard’s JFK School of Government, Rodrik is a globalist, but he is also an academic whose work explores the failures of – and alternatives to – neoliberal economic and trade policy. Rodrik is a policy guy who uses the scholarship on neoliberalism to reimagine the old liberal internationalist dream of a connected, cooperative world, still led by the leaders of the G-7, but committed to, as he says, “public health and the climate” rather than investment and trade efficiencies (that Hochberg celebrated). Had more of globalists’ political capital been dedicated to public health, for instance, we might have limited the scope of the economic shutdowns and would not be facing economic catastrophe and the steepest decline of global income in recent memory. In this article Rodrik reviews how the UN attempted – and failed – to mediate between national policies that protected national industries and environments and the prerogatives of efficiency and easy flow of goods and services (again, that Hochberg celebrates). The capitalists won out, in part for reasons Hochberg shows. Rodrik’s proposals will not likely be embraced by the American Enterprise Institute, but the current crisis creates an opportunity. While recognizing the mythologies of neoliberalism, Rodrik pragmatically outlines how an international infrastructure built for trade might be recalibrated to deal with current emergencies, not unlike how General Motors and Ford Motor Company pivoted to bombers and tanks during the Second World War. But that requires real leadership and authority, such as that once provided by the United States. Rodrik suggests President Macron might be interested. Stay tuned.

Notes 1.The EXIM, as it is known, loans federal money to foreign countries and businesses to buy American exports. It has been a key institution in the globalization of American-style capitalism and people on the right and the left regard it as “corporate welfare” for the likes of Boeing and General Dynamics. However, it also helps smaller companies compete against foreign subsidies.


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Poetry, Prose, and Longing: The Memoirs of Honor Moore

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BY ELIZABETH BENEDICT

One day in 1970, twenty-three-year-old Honor Moore found herself in the downtown Manhattan offices of WITCH (Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell), where she discovered a book of poetry and the voice of a poet. Sonia Sanchez’s “fierce lyrics startled me with their directness and intimacy,” she writes in the introduction to the anthology Poems from the Women’s Movement. Moore had just left the Yale Drama School and moved to New York City, to an apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, where she was inspired by the list of writers who had lived there posted in the lobby — and she could afford the $250 a month rent only because of the inheritance she had come into at twenty-one. Before long, she abandoned her “college sonnets,” and began “writing poems out of my anger and 23-year-old unhappiness,” hoping to find “the audacity and certitude” she found in Sylvia Plath’s work. In consciousness raising groups, she learned that her own experience had legitimacy as material and that there was commonality in women’s stories of motherhood, rape, abortion, and yearnings to be more *Review of Honor Moore, Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury (Norton, 2020). Other books by Honor Moore discussed in this review: —The Bishop’s Daughter: A Memoir (Norton, 2008) —The White Blackbird: A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent by Her Granddaughter (Norton, 1996). Audiobook read by Stockard Channing (2020) —Poems from the Women’s Movement, edited by Honor Moore (The Library of America, 2009)


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than “girlfriend to genius” and the wife of a prominent man. In time, when her boyfriend “ranted and raved about the irrelevance of anything I might write,” she heard echoes of the other women’s boyfriends and husbands who expressed similar sentiments. A new slogan was coming to define the moment: The personal is political. “In those rooms,” she writes, “it seemed completely true.”            Moore became an activist, a poet, and an editor of significant anthologies about the Women’s Movement, and along the way she discovered her gift for biography and memoir. She has managed to be in the right places at the right times, to have chosen the right family, and taken good notes. Her two memoirs, The Bishop’s Daughter (2008) and Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury (2020) are deeply personal investigations and careful histories of the late twentieth century’s social movements that document the fraying of “the intricate social architecture that had held the world of the rich more or less in place since the Civil War.” Her prose, with its exhilarating directness and intimacy, is not afraid of the language of enchantment and not afraid of expressing a lifetime of longing for parents she never got enough of as a child, sharing the stage with eight younger siblings. The stories she tells of her own development and of the public and private lives of her mother and father are riveting without being salacious, and they hold our sympathy even while we understand that the family’s immense inherited wealth made their lives and their life choices quite different from most of ours. Paul Moore and Jenny McKean Moore were ambitious, unconventional figures devoted to doing good in the world while raising nine children, living well on Paul’s inheritance, and keeping a stash of secrets from each other and their children.   I think it was John O’Hara who said we can never know the truth about anyone else’s marriage, but that didn’t stop a daughter of this one, the eldest of nine, from trying. Honor spent about a dozen years researching and writing these two volumes. She began her excavation of her Boston Brahmin family, which included a founder of Radcliffe College, with The White Blackbird (1996), a biography of her mother’s mother, painter and sculptor Margarett Sargent, a distant relative of John Singer Sargent. Ancestors on her father’s side were illustrious in other realms—New York industrialists who created and acquired the Nabisco,


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U.S. Steel, and Bankers Trust fortunes. Scion of these assets, Paul Moore shunned commerce, attended seminary after Yale and the Marines, and became an Episcopal priest. Paul and Jenny married in 1944 and, inspired by the “socially alive work” of Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker, they were moved to fight discrimination well before the Civil Rights Movement. Paul’s first posting, from 1949 to 1957, was in an inner-city parish in Jersey City, where they lived a modified version of “voluntary poverty.” In their case, it meant putting their furniture and monogrammed towels in storage when they moved to the rundown parish house, so that visitors from the church would feel comfortable there. Together they invigorated the community and made deep connections to parishioners. Twenty years later, a man who had been a boy at the time, paid Jenny a visit. “Before you came,” he told her, “we had very little hope. You started a chain of things.… You were the first white people we didn’t hate. There was love and care for a long time.”   Those unexpectedly idyllic years became the subject of Jenny’s first and only book, a well-received memoir, The People on Second Street (1969). Paul’s next post was dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, where he introduced parishioners in this conservative stronghold to inner city activism. In 1964, he was made suffragan (associate) bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, preached at the National Cathedral, and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. As his activism and prominence grew, Jenny came into her own, writing the memoir and becoming friends with members of the city’s liberal intelligentsia. They lived in tony Cleveland Park, on a friendly street with other prosperous writers, journalists and activists. Jenny had been friends with Ben Bradlee as a teenager, and in Washington she got to know Roger Wilkins, the columnist Mary McGrory, and Eugene McCarthy. She volunteered on his campaign and was with him and his wife at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night Robert Kennedy was assassinated. By this time, Honor explains, for her mother “and many Americans, the terrain of moral thinking [had] significantly changed.”   Beneath the couple’s idealism, high spirits, and regular visits to lavish family properties, there lurked infidelity — his — and decades of festering disappointments and disagreements that they must have shared


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with their psychiatrists. Jenny had a temper and fought often with Honor, occasionally slapping her, introducing a thrum of distrust into their relationship that took years to repair. To her husband’s dismay, Jenny insisted on having nine children, all planned and two years apart, while Paul wanted to stop at half that many. Publicly, Paul climbed the clerical ladder to its pinnacle. In 1970, he moved with his family from Washington to New York City to assist the Episcopal Bishop in preparation for his own appointment as Bishop in 1972. He preached at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, continued his activism, and garnered press attention when he opined on the issues of the day. Privately, he indulged in decades of infidelity with men. On Jenny’s side of the secrecy ledger: in 1969, late in their long marriage, she was confronted with his desire for men as she witnessed a revealing public moment between him and another man—but never said anything to him. She confided in her sister and two friends and no doubt re-examined years of their unhappy sex life, which she had blamed on herself. She said nothing but took decisive action that eventually led to their separation, telling him at first that she wanted to sleep apart, a rejection Paul did not understand until an encounter with Honor near the end of his life, thirty years later.   The next phase of the separation: together they decided to see people outside the marriage, and in 1971, after suffering a severe depression and spending two months in a New York psychiatric hospital, Jenny made a firm break and insisted on moving back to Washington with her five younger children—and insisted that Paul buy a house close to where they had lived before. He was not happy about the separation or becoming a part-time father who would visit on weekends. The press release he wrote that the Diocese put out about why the Bishop’s wife was, well, leaving town was another carefully constructed façade. Even Paul did not know the truth. The upheavals in the Moore family mirrored those in the rest of the country in the 1970s. The sexual revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Movement had fractured “the social architecture” that had kept women and men in their prescribed roles since the beginning of time. Though Jenny had trouble talking frankly to her husband, she made overtures of intimacy to her feminist daughter as they shared the radical ideas and publications of the day—Sexual Politics, The Golden Notebook,


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and early issues of Ms. “[Doris] Lessing used the phrase ‘Free Women,’” Honor writes. “And so, my mother and I began to stumble toward new terms of engagement – as free women.” Shortly after confiding in Honor that she was “having some problems in her marriage,” Jenny admitted that she had a lover, which Honor assumed, incorrectly, she was doing on the sly. “Once that fall,” Honor writes in The Bishop’s Daughter, “my mother surprised me by asking when oral sex had come ‘into vogue.’ I had no idea what to say.” Nor did she know what to say when, over lunch around this time, Jenny admitted to her, “‘I didn’t have an orgasm until I was forty, and when I did, Paul said, ‘Jenny, what’s the matter?’” In Our Revolution, Honor writes, “This … was nakedness I did not want to see, my father fumbling and insensitive as a lover, my mother new to pleasure in her forties.” Secrets, lies, and sometimes entirely too much information. Back in Washington on her own, Jenny took writing classes, reveled in being an “I” not a “we,” and though she felt what Honor calls a “significant chill from some of their old friends, women who disapproved of her ‘abandoning’ her husband,” Jenny had a new attitude: “Having always cared too much what ‘people’ thought,” she wrote, “I really don’t give a shit what ‘they’ say about this.” But sassy wasn’t the only note she struck: “My life alone—and relationship with Poppy [Paul] are reconstructed in a way I never dreamed possible—albeit somewhat Jamesian and I feel an inner joy and clarity.” And long-simmering tensions between Jenny and Honor faded as they bonded over the possibilities that feminism — and their new intimacy — promised. In March 1973, that bright promise vanished when Jenny was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. Honor was twenty-seven and the youngest child, Patience, was ten. “Would I ever see my ten-year-old daughter with breasts?” Jenny wrote. “Could anyone else love her as I did?” Jenny bequeathed her cartons of writing to Honor, including an unfinished memoir, with instructions to do with them as she saw fit. It took Honor forty years, and becoming an established writer herself, to open the boxes and examine what was in them. Our Revolution is the story of that investigation and those discoveries, told with Moore’s signature directness and intimacy, her guard down, and her insights as acute as her longing.  


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* * * There are many layers to the Moore family’s secrets, to who knew what and when and how. In a therapy session with her father near the end of his life, Honor told him that Jenny had known his secret, which she knew because of conversations with the women in whom Jenny had confided. In the same session, in response to a question from the therapist, Paul said of his wife, “We didn’t have a very good time in the sack, but we had a great partnership, and all you children.” If the truth about a couple’s marriage is impossible to know, the truth about their sex life is even more of a mystery.   After investigating the matter from every angle and scouring the cartons of Jenny’s writing for any shred of enlightenment — nothing turned up — Honor concludes that it was Jenny’s love and regard for Paul that kept her from confronting him. She wanted, her daughter believes, to spare him the shame he would have felt at being exposed, and she calls her mother “heroic” for never sharing what she knew with their children. It is easy for me to imagine a mother believing, in 1969 or 1970, that revealing this information to nine children — or even the older ones — would have led to chaos. It was shocking enough when all of them learned as adults about their father’s bisexuality twenty years after Jenny died, from their stepmother, who had just discovered it herself. But why didn’t or couldn’t Jenny talk to her husband? Was it only wanting to protect him from shame? Might it have been her own shame, at having taken on so much of the blame for their not having “a very good time in the sack”? Might she have been hurt beyond words at feeling she had never been fully, unambiguously desired? Might she have been so enraged to have been betrayed for so long that she resorted to tit for tat — You never told me so I will never tell you? Or maybe it was simpler: The revelation gave her an easier exit from a marriage she had wanted to leave. She could now navigate a way out with less guilt — and after living in a marriage based on a false premise, she may have felt there was nothing to say. Or she may have felt that merely talking about it would lead too easily to ending the marriage — and there were all those children and their father she didn’t want to hurt. Could it have been all of the above? Or just a few? We’ll


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never know the truth just as we’ll never know the whole truth about our parents’ marriages, and sometimes even our own. Living as we do now deep in the age of the memoir, when we’re not constrained in what we can write and when so much of that heavy social architecture has fallen away from our day-to-day lives, some of the Moore family’s secrets may be powerful reminders of what all that concealment cost and of how far we’ve come. But these are not memoirs with messages. They are a testament to the author’s courage in opening all those boxes and bringing these complicated, remarkable people to life.


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Night and Day—You Are The One

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BY REGINA JANES

“For I have only to hear an opera discussed, I have only to sit in a theatre, hearing the orchestra tuning their instruments—oh, I am quite beside myself.” — Mozart, Letters1 Cole Porter’s letters are a terrific disappointment. Superbly edited by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh, the volume is ravishing. The dust jacket sports deco triangles in blue, maroon, pink, red, and chameleon-green, lizard-green horizontal lines, Porter’s name in a beige diamond, and one blue rectangle at lower right; the inside cover as bright flat white as Jean Harlow’s rugs or robes. Giddy with anticipation, in quest of words out of school, off the stage, behind the scenes, the reader expects incorrigible insouciance, cascading witticisms, clever wordplay, delightful tunes of different kinds, shapes, sizes, and energy that bubble off the page and into the stratosphere. None of that is here, and so Porter sent me to a composer whose letters do all those things, two hundred years earlier. Mozart wrote much better letters, more observant, witty, vulgar, and passionate about music. Cole Porter put it all in his songs, not in his letters to his friends or, as in Mozart’s case, his father. That may be no accident. However tyrannical his father, Mozart’s at least took some interest in his son’s music. Porter’s relation to his father *Review of The Letters of Cole Porter, ed. Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh (New Haven: Yale UP, 2019).


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is one of the many mysteries these beautifully edited letters raise and do not resolve. The editors speak of Porter-père’s “lifelong…animosity” to his son. His antagonism rises to “disgust,” filtered through a headmaster’s reply to Porter’s mother’s account of his father’s attitude. “Disgust” is these days often code for a heterosexual father’s feelings about a homosexual son against an assertive mother. At the time (1909), Porter was eighteen, his mathematics grade had dropped from B- to C, and he had been playing piano during study hours. The head master saw no reason for Porter’s father to be “disgusted” or to bring him home, alternatives evidently mentioned in the mother’s letter. Earlier, in 1906, the Peru Republican reported that Porter’s father, S.F. Porter, set out at once for Portland to bring his son home after he broke his leg, falling through a hay mow to the barn floor on a school-organized vacation camping trip. One letter, the integrity of which the editors question, includes “my papa” in the love sent round to all at the end (February 1927). Father Porter was not only a prosperous druggist, but also a pianist, singer, guitarist, and fond of poetry, especially Browning. He died of meningitis in August 1927. Porter-fils was in Venice, living in the palazzo in which Browning died, and biographers report he arrived in Indiana a week after the funeral. The letters for 1927 and 1928 pass with no reference to Porter’s father or trips to Indiana, though letters in February 1928 (from NYC) and May (from Paris) to Harvey Cole, discuss financial arrangements with his mother, loans, increases in his allowance, and dispositions of royalties. His father does not reappear until Porter revels in the “five mothers. . . and any number of fathers” the studio has picked out for him to choose for the pseudo-biopic Night and Day (1946). Dropped from the picture, father disappears once again, in favor of the rich and tyrannical grandfather, combatted and defeated by his own daughter over their competing plans for her son. Unlike the usual scholarly edition of letters, Eisen and McHugh’s intends to be readable as biography. Rather than the biographer’s smoothing interpretive voice, it adds to Porter’s own words those of friends and reviewers. So the star-studded life unfolds: childhood riches in Peru, Indiana; prep school in Worcester, Mass.; failing first Greek and then algebra on the Yale entrance exams, but Yale nonetheless, where he wrote songs and shows; Harvard Law School, shifting to the study of music; his first New York flop, then World War I and France. There he met Linda Lee


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Thomas, the divorcee eight-years his senior whom he married the next year (1919).2 Bernard Berenson sneered to his art-collecting Boston friend Isabella Gardiner about the “little musical man from the Middle West” that his friend Linda had married; Berenson anticipated “in the blackest terms” what would be a long and happy-enough future. In Venice and Paris, the Porters entertained and were entertained by Spanish dukes, Russian dancers, American writers, and the Prince of Wales. The marriage was enduring and devoted; his gay sex life was active and passionate; her sex life remains obscure. A relationship “bordering on infatuation” is reported with Alice Garrett, art and theatre-collecting ambassador’s wife, whose Evergreen House is now a Johns Hopkins University museum. The Garretts had two portraits of Linda, while the Porters had one of Alice. In 1926 Porter met Richard Rodgers, who claimed to recognize his hidden talent, when he, Noël Coward, and Porter played some of their own music at a Porter fete. By then, three Porter scores had reached Broadway. In 1928 began the string of successes, some more, some less, that saw at least one (and sometimes two or three) new Porter musicals on Broadway or films in the theatres for thirty years from 1928 to 1958. The Paris house given up in 1939, the stars of European royalty blinked out as stars of the silver screen and theatre rose; the dukes give place to Merle Oberon and Fred Astaire, Lauren Bacall and Cary Grant. The only years with no new film or play were 1931, 1945, 1949, 1951, 1952. Since many years saw two or three openings, Porter averaged better than one a year. In 1937, he was left permanently crippled and condemned to scores of surgeries by the riding accident at the Countess di Zoppola’s in Mill Neck, New York (American woman, Italian title), where his horse threw him and then fell on both his legs. Graphic without self-pity, Porter wrote to Monty Woolley of the bones mashed to pulp, blebs forming on his legs like jellied lava, phantom sensations, and illusions under morphine. Inexplicably, parts of the letters are omitted. For twenty years thereafter, work enabled him to forget or overcome pain. Linda died in 1954; he arranged for a rose to be named for her. In 1958, his right leg was amputated, on account of “chronic osteomyelitis,” that is, infection in the bone. The expectation was that the operation would end his pain. Instead, it finished him, slowly. “Phantom pain,” experienced in a limb that is not there, remains very


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imperfectly understood. In Porter’s time, no one yet knew that the more pain associated with a limb before amputation, the worse will be the phantom pain after the limb is cut off. Porter’s leg pain had been enough ten years earlier, in 1948, to make him pass out. A few weeks after the operation, his secretary wrote hopefully, “The osteo-myelitis is all gone, which means that all the pain is also gone.” His editors, too, describe the operation as “successful, ”and Porter initially tried the old “back-to-work” trick. His secretary thought religion would help and regretted his lack of it: “Even a Buddhist…a Jehova’s Witness, anything to take the place of ‘just nothing.’” Amputating a limb to cure pain, however, is a fool’s or sadist’s errand. For the pain worsening after amputation, modern medicine has found some meliorative methods, but no certain cure or prevention. Porter, and his California secretary, knew the name for what ailed him, but that was no relief. Porter used the term in 1962, in a letter to Anita Loos, explaining why he was not interested in a project she had proposed and returning the Bourdet play she had sent, “I am returning it to you as I couldn’t consider working on it at the present as I have too much phantom pain.” His last six years, after the amputation until his death in 1964, are strangely moving. Others worry and flutter around him; Vivien Leigh comes to lunch. He remains polite, grateful, silent about himself, attentive to others. The stoicism of the final letters is extraordinary, though of course it was a stoicism with secretaries, valets, cooks, etc., who saw to his needs even as his entertaining slowed and his letters became as brief as his telegrams had once been. Other sources paint a bleaker picture of self-medication with alcohol, but in writing Porter preserved his dignity and his affections. The contest between Mozart’s vulgarity and Porter’s is probably a draw. Mozart has nothing quite like Porter’s series of requests to a friend that end by advising the friend to stick it up his ass after he has carried out the commissions requested. Porter and his friends shared blithe sexuality and high spirits, as in a joint letter from Porter and Monty Woolley to Charles Shaw. Writes Cole, “Monty and Sturge and I are all lying here together in my lit d’amour. And in spite of the fact that it is very hot and crowded I miss that great giant body of the boy I love.” Monty Woolley adds a postscript five times the length of the letter: “Now that is the letter that Cole just dictated to me for you. Is it by any stretch of the imagi-


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nation a decent letter? Or isn’t that sort of thing prohibited by law from being carried in the mails? Come over here at once. Don’t lag around . . . .’” Monty Woolley, the original Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), Porter’s contemporary at Yale, appears in the pseudo-biopic Night and Day (1946) as a roistering law professor to Cary Grant’s undergraduate Cole. He had stayed on at Yale after Porter left, directing and acting in plays as an assistant professor of English, until he was ousted by a new regime in the theatrical department. Porter credits him with “de-lovely” as climax after others’ “delightful” and “delicious,” in both versions of a twice-told anecdote, one in Rio at dawn, the other in Java with mangosteens. The recipient of Porter’s good advice about not skipping v.d. treatments, Woolley was the first of the men with whom Porter shared the plain, horrific details of his injury and subsequent surgeries from 1937 forward. Such correspondence contrasts handily with Porter’s love letters to Boris Kochno and others. “The Beard” vanishes from these letters in 1947, as Porter shares the praise he has heard for Woolley’s performance in The Bishop’s Wife. Woolley had retired with his lover (who died in 1948) to a modest domicile in his native Saratoga Springs, NY, in 1942, across the Taconic Mountains from the Porters’ cottage and mansion in Williamstown, Mass. Porter is at his most amusing in the Letters not when he writes letters but as he practices a strange narrative dead-pan, often in diary form. The Born to Dance diary, begun in December 1935 running to June 1936, follows an always happy but sometimes mildly concerned protagonist through months of writers who have no story, directors who enthuse over songs, then throw them out, producers who propose a Sonja Henie skating waltz and motorboats full of girls, last minute decisions by the director and dance director that the finale does not work and must go—resisted manfully by the hero. He claims boldly, at last, that in the theatre if the director and dance director say the finale does not work, they get a new director and dance director, not a new finale. But all ends happily when the protagonist signs to make another film for $90,000. The same year, his “Notes after the Opening” for the New York Times runs changes on the banality “I’m feeling fine” as it circulates from producer through stars to press agent on the morning after.


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Porter’s good nature was such that the occasional harsh or unkind remark jars. Ordinarily he finds everyone and thing “swell.” F. Scott Fitzgerald comes in for the most negative personal remark in the volume. Writing in 1949, nine years after Fitzgerald’s death and a year after Zelda’s, Porter sums up, “I knew him first when he was a most attractive cock-teaser. Later I knew him with Zelda. They were both exhibitionist drunkards + when I saw them anywhere in Paris, I always made a quick exit for I knew that if I stayed, this would implicate me in a possible police raid. They were all that is tawdry. And the dégringolade [tumbling down] of Scott was horrible to watch as he had so much talent.” Rejoicing in the success of “Don’t Fence Me In,” he “resent[s] that the Japs sing it too” in May 1945, three months before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Irving Berlin was the contemporary among his peers whom he loved best, and whose ethnicity may explain the secret that Porter whispered to Richard Rodgers, that to succeed he would “write Jewish tunes.” (Critics argue whether Porter’s minor key melodies owe more to Jewish sources or to French cabaret.) But even if he “hate[d] Pal Joey” (Rodgers and Hart, 1940), he wanted his friend Bray to be with “a lady, not a tramp.” The other odd dislike that warrants teasing out is for the Spewacks. Bella Spewack wrote the book for Kiss Me, Kate. As everyone knows, KM,K is the greatest American musical (deny it who will, fans of other contenders, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Carousel, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Show Boat, et al.). At any rate it was the first American musical staged by the Vienna Volksoper (1956). Bella and her husband Sam had written the book for Leave It to Me (1938), but after “A Porter Biopic and Two Flops, 1945-1947” (so the chapter title has it), a Lunt-Fontanne back-stage squabble put a producer in mind of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, and the producer contacted Bella, who recommended Porter as collaborator for what became Kiss Me, Kate. Bella Spewack wrote the book (“your wonderful book” says Cole), and Sam and Bella Spewack are credited with the book. Bella did not play Mary II in this story, refusing to reign alone without her William III; she wanted sole credit, but Porter telegraphed Sam insisting that Sam share the billing. Eisen and McHugh chart the progress of Bella’s book and then credit both Bella and Sam in spite of the absence of evidence for Sam’s participation. To Sam, Porter telegraphed: “IT WILL MAKE


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OUR PUBLIC MUCH HAPPIER TO READ QUOTE BOOK BY SAM AND BELLA SPEWACK UNQUOTE WILL YOU DO THIS GREAT FAVOR FOR ME.” The same day, he wrote to Bella urging her to fly to California to vet the actresses contending for roles and to come to him at once with any book complications, so he could back her up. Changing the credit took a while. At the Philadelphia tryouts the book was still credited to Bella, but eventually Sam was persuaded to put his name to her work. The New York Times had always referred to the Porter-Bella Spewack musical, but they came round to the Sam-and-BellaSpewack musical. Thereafter Porter pined for a new proposal from her and rejected every proposal she sent his way. Work started on Boy Meets Girl for Ray Bolger, but Porter withdrew from the project in December 1951. When Sam and Bella put in for a bigger credit line for a 1956 revival, Porter ruled it out and brushed them off: “NEVER CONCESSIONS TO SPEWACKS.” What happened? The editors say he was still irate over the introduction they had written to the 1953 published script of KM,K, and they quote the Spewacks’ defense: they had not intended to offend and always spoke of Porter with the utmost respect. He continued to object that they should not have published something about him without sharing it with him first. Why should he have taken offence? Why should they have written an account that gave offence? The crediting quandary and other adventures may have had some impact. The producer who thought of the project claimed that at the time of writing Bella was distraught and Sam was shacked up with a ballerina. Bella, everyone agrees, proposed Porter as the composer, against the better judgment of the producers, and she persuaded Porter to participate, against his initial skepticism about Shakespeare on Broadway. (Doing Shakespeare on Broadway, Leonard Bernstein disappeared him [West Side Story 1957, suggested by Jerome Robbins in 1949, the year after Kate]. The failure to disappear Voltaire may lie behind Candide’s troubles.) Thereafter, according to the producer, her drafts were terrible.3 He, and others, credit Sam with the crucial invention of the gangsters, who certainly have no Shakespearean precedent. Porter wrote a show stopper for them, though it had been agreed there would be no songs for the gangsters, and he expected Bella to disapprove—she would cut her throat, he fantasied. Porter also wrote another odd little


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song, that was not used, but that if Bella and Sam were estranged, she might have found grating, viz.”A Woman’s Career.” Some of it recalls Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do” from Annie Get Your Gun (1946): “A woman’s career, ev’rybody agrees, Can equal a man’s with the greatest of ease.” But, it goes on, whatever she achieves, she’s a flop if she can’t hold her man. The final verse runs: “She can write plays for Broadway, acclaimed and adored, /She can win, if they give it, The Critics’ Award, /But alone in her bedroom she’s critically bored/ If she can’t hold her man, / If she can’t hold her man.” (The EMI recording with Josephine Barstow and Thomas Hampson, John McGlinn conducting, includes it.) These are all, of course, just little jokes, like the students at New Jersey’s Marine Academy of Science and Technology who emailed among others their Jewish female fellow student a picture of one of them stretched out smiling above “I H8 Jews” scrawled in the sand.4 But what in Sam and Bella Spewacks’ “we”-written introduction could have given offence? The first image describing collaboration with Porter is strangely violent. Unlike collaborating with a paperback Shakespeare, one cannot cut him up, flatten him, mark him up, and spread him out: ”You can’t attack him with shears and paste, and you can’t spread him out on the bed or the floor.”5 The Spewacks turn Porter into a comic object of precisely the sort Porter delighted in playing in his own writing. He asks naïve and sentimental questions about Lois Lane, “not a bad girl?... she’s really in love….isn’t she? …she really cares for him?” He calls at 2 am to play a song to us in bed; can’t remember who wrote the poem about always being true to you in my fashion (Ernest Dowson, gender-switched by Porter); has to be tempted by song titles from Shakespeare to take on the project. The account veers close to single authorship only twice, when Porter supposes “Bella will probably cut her throat when she gets [‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’].” (The edition has the less evocative “kill herself,” from a copy at the Cole Porter Trust rather than Columbia’s Spewack papers.) Also signaling single authorship, Porter addresses his collaborators as “Bellissima Carissima,” and then complains that trying “to talk sense to Bella . . . is like trying to talk sense to Russia.” Bella quotes her own hurt reply, “Russia will now. . . retreat into Mongolian silence.” This exchange, couched as though it is written down somewhere, does not appear in the edition; it is cited in the McBrien biography as from an


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interview with the producer Saint Subber, rather than from correspondence or even Bella’s essay. For the rest, the introduction’s “we” allows no space to insert a ballerina. The pseudo-biopic Night and Day (1946) becomes especially amusing after these letters. Composers usually have to die to get made into movies, but in Porter’s case the 1937 accident did the trick. The biopic also precedes Kate, by two years, so its subject is not our Porter, but another artist of the same name, famed for scattered songs in nameless musicals (apart from the luckily eponymous Anything Goes). Adam Gopnik describes Porter’s collaboration on the film as “reluctant.”6 Certainly some suggestions proposed by the makers horrified him: “In the Still of the Night” to be sung in church while his mother and grandfather look fondly on and young Porter plays the family-donated organ. Instead, some caroling children sing it outside the Porter mansion bay-window that frosty Christmas, lyrics garbled. For the most part, the project thrilled him: “I can’t tell you how happy I am that Mike Curtiz will direct Night and Day.” Porter got everything he wanted, Cary Grant and technicolor. He wanted to know how soon production would start, to arrange his dates; to gather the stars who had appeared in his musicals, from Fred Astaire to Mary Martin. Ethel Merman was cut loose because she wouldn’t photograph well and was just opening another show. He did jib a bit at having to get stills for his mother of the actress playing her, but “my mother clamor[ed]” for them, so he asked three times. Usually what is remarked about the film is its avoidance of Porter’s homosexuality, but the homosexuality is abundantly, tenderly clear compared to what is done to his wife and his money. With the wife and money, biographical truth vanishes without leaving a trace, swallowed up in enduring, and evidently transparent, American ideology. No one ever objects. The rich older divorcee is traded in for a rich young visiting debutante. The family fortune and maternal allowance vanish as Cole refuses to accept money from his family and works hawking songs and playing piano in a department store. Linda and Cole separate because Cole neglects her for his work composing musicals. (The usual account is that she disliked the energetic sexual style of California.) She goes off to Paris on her own, but returns after the accident (his grandfather’s horse, not a countess’s, does him in), and the film ends


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in their embrace. Porter described it as “the wonderful love story of Linda and Cole” to his lover Nelson Barclift. Surely the film was made for those in the know, with great deliberation. There could scarcely be a better example of John Toland’s exoteric and esoteric readings. In the “Begin the Beguine” production number, that Cole listens to over the phone from his sick bed and we watch, a male dancer in bright white finally dances; a woman in a green bra keeps throwing herself at and across him, but we ignore her, looking past and through her to the lines of the gorgeous boy behind. The hero Cary Grant kisses his beloved only on the cheek, calls his mother (no one else) “Darling” when he phones her, never makes passes at chorines (as they complain), and in the final scene looks beyond his adoring, clinging wife with his expression drawn or agonized, trapped, without joy. Enough gossip, onto music. Richard Rodgers complimented Porter’s knowledge of classical as well as popular music in 1926, but sadly the index to the letters does not share Porter’s interest in classical composers and genres. It is true that he could not spell “coloratura” when he claimed that Kate’s music is “all musical comedy” except for the “colaratura” in the first act and final finales. (In defense of his Yale and Worcester Academy education, Porter does use “whom” correctly, from “tell me whom you select” in 1912 to “the Richard whom I know and for whom I feel great affection” in 1955, while his editors talk about “who he is writing to”: that would not have pleased him.) Porter queried a friend’s allusion to “Klinsor’s [sic] Magic Garden,” and was “most embarrassed not to have known about Klingsor’s Magic Garden” from Wagner’s Parsifal. Neither Wagner nor Parsifal makes it into the index. In 1953 he described his routine as work in the daytime, “a show or an opera or a party at night” and the new Tannhauser at the Met as the “best presentation” he had seen since he “was a child, in Munich.” The New York Times reviewer heard “an occasional suggestion of Puccini” in the music for Kiss Me, Kate; for Can Can, Porter proposed that four boys dance in the studio “as they do in La Boheme.” In 1957 he lifted a “trick” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’or. He was keen on seeing the Met’s 1953 Gounod’s Faust, updated to the nineteenth century with a Mephistopheles in tails, to be followed by supper with the King and Queen of Greece. He saw Maria Callas at La Scala in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, but


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the trip’s highlight was Renata Tebaldi, “magnificent” at Naples’ Teatro San Carlo in Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell. “[B]ut the opera is a dud.” (Good to know, since at the time of writing, April 2020, I will probably miss the performances I booked in Vienna for 7 and 10 May.) On the popular music front, Porter most loved, revered, and envied Irving Berlin, whose “No Business Like Show Business” (Annie Get Your Gun, 1946) inspired “Another Opening, Another Show” two years later. (Berlin’s letter of congratulation on Can Can, 1953, is missing: “Anything I can do, you can do better.”7 These letters are selected, not complete, and one yearns for a catalogue.) Gilbert and Sullivan have their own index entries, one for Gilbert and Sullivan, the other for Sullivan. Porter complained of Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein that their “book” musicals made life harder for people like him. He had to “book hunt” while they made their own, and he also had to find better books, but it changed musical theatre for the better. It is difficult for someone raised on plays, opera, and The Beggar’s Opera (1727) to comprehend how ragtag was the plotting of early twentieth-century American musicals and how random the relationship of song to action and character. Suffice it to say that the movie Anything Goes, first made in 1936 with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman, when remade in 1956 with Bing Crosby and Mitzi Gaynor, changed the plot completely but managed to fit in most of the songs, and some others. Although Linda Porter resented the competition South Pacific created for Kiss Me, Kate, there is no evidence that Porter repined at Rodgers or Hammerstein or Hart, except for Pal Joey, where his dislike of the lizard lothario scamming a rich older woman may have been what was once called “over-determined.” The incidental music from The Third Man he sent to a friend before its U.S. release. Most endearing, however, was Porter’s excitement over My Fair Lady. He had been in Sicily when it opened; in Athens he looked forward to seeing it, and he was thrilled when Lerner secured him a Wednesday night subscription for the first fall season. So for a time in NYC, Cole Porter could be found every Wednesday night applauding My Fair Lady. The pleasure of Porter’s music, like the pleasure of his lyrics, is the confident mix of high and low, and the graceful sliding from major to minor modes and back. The lyricist who rhymed “a symphony by Strauss” and “Mickey Mouse” is the composer who in Kiss me, Kate combined a


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music hall “Bowery waltz” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” with Viennese operetta “Wunderbar,” blues “Why Can’t You Behave,” jazz “Too Darn Hot,” a pavane, a tarantella, a catalog aria (“Where Is the Life That Late I Led?”), and a full-fledged da capo aria, “Were Thine That Special Face.” After the bridge, the same words return in the repeated A section with their meaning transformed and their delivery altered in intensity and color, just like Handel, though admittedly with fewer ornaments. Sadly, the original cast recording omits the Act 1 finale, with its extravagant coloratura, the flute leading the soprano on and up, and then imitating her, just like Donizetti’s Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor), who is mad in a different way. Perhaps Patricia Morison could do the finale in the theatre, but preferred not to have her version preserved for posterity. Or perhaps the producers dropped it because you and I could not sing along to it. Kelli O’Hara does right by that finale in the 2018 revival (Youtube), and it can also be heard on the Josephine Barstow/Thomas Hampson recording, along with “Hattie,” Karla Burns, who opens the show as in the book. (The original cast recording gives male voices, not “Hattie,” the lead in opening “Another Opening.” The EMI recording is brighter and more stirring.) When Dorothy Kirsten was being considered for Kate, Porter noted that the only tunes she really liked were “Were Thine That Special Face” and “I Am Ashamed.” The producer of the Kate album yearned for Helen Traubel to be singing “Were Thine That Special Face,” “but things happen slowly in the world of divas.” We are still waiting for more ornamentation on the repeat. Discussing his own music, Porter thought in genres, “a rather slow polonaise” will be succeeded by “a real polonaise”; “this song is a lively, faintly Viennese, waltz”; dance forms not used lately, “In ‘Born to Dance’. . . . an old-fashioned hornpipe, and in ‘Red, Hot and Blue’ the Szardas. . . [and] always. . . my favorite tempo. . . the paso doble.” Silk Stockings’ overture parodies the Russians. The Strauss of the symphony is of course Richard, not the waltz king Johann: Cole was discovered in his college dorm room studying the score of Der Rosenkavalier before the opera had been produced in the U.S. If Porter did not pride himself as Mozart did on making a song fit a singer as perfectly as a well-made suit of clothes, he was always willing to change a key or a tune to accommodate “the singer we pick.” To David Wayne, for Out of This World, “let me know what key is the best for you


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to sing it in. You must be sure of this because I have to make a transmission [sic] into another key for the soprano who …will sing it after you.” Others orchestrated his tunes, of whom the letters mention only Robert Russell Bennett. Shows constantly rewritten, new songs demanded, old songs recycled, songs written without any place in the book for them: Porter worked. A special category is songs written because they had been forbidden—no song for the gangsters in Kate, it had been agreed; no song that banally praised Paris (and so “I Love Paris”), no song possible on the theme “I Love You.” He wrote songs for the sake of songs, an occasion, or a production whether or not the songs would find a place. Of twenty-five songs written for Kate, seventeen were used. That ebullient generosity extended to his thesauri and rhyming dictionaries—he had them in many languages, and he credited them with his rhymes. He also prided himself on letting a show go once it opened, turning from author into audience, and then going to work on something else. Every gesture towards immortality turns ephemeral, in that eternal starting all over again. It is difficult to imagine another composer who composed nothing the last six years of his life. Rossini, famously, notoriously, wrote no more operas for forty years (1829-1868), once he had his French pension secured, but he still wrote small pieces for amusement and a Stabat Mater. Too many tournedos for Rossini, perhaps. Tunes come into tunesmiths’ heads, unless the body contrives to drive them out with too much other noise of its own. Embarking on Silk Stockings in 1953, Porter wrote, “I have started work on a new show and, as usual, am scared to death.” That terror is inseparable from the excitement that the young Mozart felt thinking about an opera, and that Porter put into a song to share more widely, for theatre people especially and metaphorically for the rest of us: “Another job that you hope, at last, Will make your future forget your past. . . . The overture is about to start, You cross your fingers and hold your heart, It’s curtain time and away we go! Another opening of another show.”


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Notes 1. Munich, 1777, Mozart’s Letters, ed. Eric Blom, trans. Emily Anderson (Baltimore: Pelican, 1968), 45. 2. After running through every old man in Hollywood—William Holden, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Rex Harrison—Audrey Hepburn finally had a co-star “her own age” in perhaps her best film, Two for the Road (1967). She was, however, seven years older than Albert “Tom Jones” Finney, b. 1936 to her 1929. 3. Anne Melissa Potter, “The Taming of ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’” American Theatre, January 2019, recounts Bella’s attempts to make Kate more Rosalind and less punching bag. According to Potter, Bella credited Sam with revising the gangsters; Potter does not specify who invented them. 4. Sharon Otterman, “She Was Excited for a New School. Then the Anti-Semitic ‘Jokes’ Started,” New York Times, March 8, 2020, MB, 1. 5. Sam and Bella Spewack, “How to Write a Musical Comedy,” Kiss Me, Kate (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953), x. 6. ‘From Minor to Major: The pleasure and pain of being Cole Porter,” The New Yorker, 20 January 2020, 70. 7. Quoted in William McBrien, Cole Porter: A Biography (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) 347. Also absent is Monty Woolley’s fulmination against unappreciative critics over the same production, 346.


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Mirth and Folly Were The Crop

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BY PAUL DELANY

Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time may be the most ambitious English roman-à-clef (a novel whose characters resemble people known to the author). Yet the French term has no English equivalent, perhaps because such novels are considered mildly disreputable. Novelists are supposed to create their characters from scratch—to “use their imagination”—rather than take them ready-made from lovers and friends. Not only that: lovers and friends are rarely pleased by their fictional portraits. But as the world of Dance recedes into the past, the aesthetic and ethical issues attached to the roman-à-clef recede with it. If the character of “Pamela Flitton” may have seemed, at the time, a vicious attack on two living women—Barbara Skelton and Sonia Orwell—no one now can be harmed by it. In English law, a claim for libel becomes null after the plaintiff’s death, because “the dead don’t hear.” A roman-à-clef ceases to be a scandal when there is no longer anyone living to take offense. Hilary Spurling’s biography marks the transition from scandal to literary history, by giving names to those in Powell’s circle who provided the raw material for his novels, including the five he wrote in the nineteen-thirties, long before Dance. Novels are valued for re-creating the “look and feel” of past societies better than historians can: ancient people are brought to life again, at least in the mind’s eye of the reader. The English society represented in Powell’s novels is now far enough removed to become historical, even Review of Hilary Spurling, Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time (New York: Knopf, 2018) *


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quaint. The action of Dance covers the period from about 1920 to 1970. Powell died in 2000 at the age of ninety-five, and almost all the people who became models for his twelve-novel sequence are dead also. They are no longer “people like us,” but people like our parents, grandparents, or even further back. One such person might be “Erridge Tolland, Lord Warminster,” who was built on the foundation of Powell’s brother-in-law and fellow-Etonian, the late Lord Longford. Erridge is a woolly-minded upper-class Leftist, though one who takes advantage of his aristocratic privilege and wealth. Lord Longford was indeed an erratic figure, especially in his defense of Myra Hindley, the child-murderer. But he held several ministries under Harold Wilson, and was a generous supporter of prison reform and other causes. For the purpose of Dance, however, he needs to be a figure of fun, reducing high politics to low comedy. Powell called himself a “traditional Tory,” but he was in many ways a Tory anarchist. He was suspicious of anyone who aspired to rule—above all, his anti-hero “Kenneth Widmerpool.” Spurling identifies the original of Widmerpool as Powell’s superior during the War, Major Dennis CapelDunn. He brought Powell into the center of British war-planning, close to Churchill and with access to the deepest secrets, including Enigma. But before long he shuffled Powell out, into a largely ceremonial job of liaison with governments in exile in London. The failure of Powell’s military career was a crushing blow, not least because his father had been a career soldier and a hero of World War I. But it was failure in a noble cause, because Powell had protested against his government’s decision to conceal Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre of some 22,000 Polish army officers, policemen and intellectuals in 1940. When this became known to Churchill in 1943, he decided that it was more important to appease Stalin than to support the Polish government-in-exile. Powell’s conscience could not swallow this; in the sequel, he wrote twelve novels around the central idea that those who seek worldly power usually do so for base motives. The power-seeker lives by the will, and must be inferior to those who live by the imagination. Because power is such a pervasive theme in Dance, it is not enough for a Powell biographer to identify Widmerpool’s prototype with Capel-Dunn and leave the issue there. Capel-Dunn died in a plane crash


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in 1945; but Widmerpool is still alive around 1970, when Dance ends. In various ways—too many to list here—Widmerpool becomes a caricature of C. P. Snow, author of the rival Strangers and Brothers series. In those novels, Snow’s ruling idea was that power-seeking is what makes the world go round. Powell’s target in Dance is not just Snow as an individual, but also all the British people of his type who frequent the “corridors of power.” It is disappointing that Spurling’s biography says nothing about the Snow connection. As he started work on Dance, Powell published John Aubrey and His Friends, about the seventeenth-century author of Brief Lives. Dance might also be seen as a compendium of brief lives: each character is introduced with a thumbnail sketch of their background and peculiarities; they then appear and disappear randomly, rather than possessing a continuous life-history. Brevity also implies caricature, often spiced with cruelty. It is easier to make a character memorable when they are given some tic that makes them ridiculous. Reliance on social stereotypes makes Dance a humor comedy, one populated by self-enclosed “clockwork” figures. Spurling says that Powell wrote in this way for a reason: he believed that “characters who were fully realized in fact left nothing much over for the novelist to do in fiction.” Instead, their actions take place inside an authorial pinball machine, where various eccentrics collide with each other without breaking their external shells. What they do is driven by impulse, and their inner life, if any, seems to have little relevance to how they behave. This worldview is even more extreme in the five comic novels that Powell wrote before World War II. In these books, “bright young people” ricochet around London, driven by sex and money. There is no point in asking whether these novels have a moral purpose, because such characters are no more than the sum of their whims. A common critique of Dance is that it is just a parade of shallow and snobbish characters, while the narrator keeps telling us how fascinating his friends are. Powell’s fans—I admit to being one—have to respond by saying that these people are fascinating, and endlessly amusing too. Much of their interest comes from the way they are embedded in the British upper-class system. Membership in that class requires shared values, but rivalry and coincidence subject individual relationships to the play of


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chance. Driven by their “personal myths,” people seek counterparts who promise to validate their identities. But time constantly shuffles the cards, and the one you fall in love with today may be whirled away, beyond your grasp, tomorrow. In one novel in the sequence, At Lady Molly’s, J. C. Quiggin attacks Nick Jenkins and his friends as “Laodiceans . . . [those who are] neither hot nor cold.” Many readers of Dance may feel that its narrator, Jenkins, lowers the overall temperature of the work by having no strong beliefs or feelings (except for his love affair with Jean Templer in The Acceptance World). Still, it has been argued that Chaucer, Shakespeare and James Joyce are Laodiceans too—rather than “unacknowledged legislators,” as Shelley defined great writers. A novelist needs first of all to observe the world, or perhaps to laugh at it, rather than volunteering to change it. Powell has said that there are two kinds of people: those who are interested in others, and those who are interested in themselves. He put himself in the first category, of course, and implied that any good novelist should be there with him. Dance is a novel about flux, but it still needs a fixed point of observation, which imposes a pattern on otherwise random events. That center is the consciousness of its narrator, Nick Jenkins. To criticise him for being passive and vapid is to miss the point of Powell’s grand scheme. In the early volumes Nick does have ambitions and desires, which culminate in his affair with Jean Templer. He then seems to withdraw from the arena—or, if he is still a slave of passion, he prefers to keep quiet about it. Nonetheless, something is hiding in plain sight: among a cast of clockwork characters whose inner lives are not revealed, Nick is the great exception. The entire novel-sequence is presented to us as an extended monologue. We learn everything that Nick is thinking and feeling, and the philosophical conclusions that he has reached through his life as a spectator. He arrives at a vision of the whole, and in doing so shows that he has a much richer inner life than any of those who circulate on the dance floor. In his own more modest realm, he pursues what Powell most admired in Shakespeare: “an extraordinary grasp of what other people are like.” That raises the question of what Spurling has tried to do as a biographer: to tell us “what Powell was like.” The biography was au-


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thorised by Powell but has only now appeared, eighteen years after his death. Spurling recognises that his reputation has declined in the years since the completion of Dance in 1975. There has been plenty of criticism of him as a pompous right-winger and crashing snob. That might apply more justly to Evelyn Waugh, yet Waugh’s reputation has been helped by his early death, and by his pre-emptively caricaturing himself as an arch-reactionary. Waugh turned his nastiness into a popular brand, while Powell was pilloried for his supposed youthful ambition: to acquire “a house with a drive and a wife with a title.” Spurling deals with Powell’s last phase summarily, covering twenty-five years of his life in a mere twelve pages. She accepts that his creativity was largely exhausted by the completion of Dance, though he still produced scores of book reviews, a novel, and four volumes of memoirs (which did his reputation little good). Earlier in the biography, Spurling does justice to Powell’s long struggle for any kind of success, whether financially or in his personal relations. Before he became an establishment figure, Powell led a rackety existence in the world of upper-class Bohemia, involving sexual anarchy for both women and men, too little money, and too much to drink. He did go to Eton, but unlike Tory fogies of today he had no religion—he refused to attend his son’s christening—travelled constantly outside England, and relentlessly made fun of businessmen. He didn’t think much of politicians, whether of Left or Right, and his most significant political act was to lose his job over Katyn. The great love of his life, before his marriage, was Marion Coates, a member of the British Communist Party. Oswald Mosley boasted that he would “Vote Labour, sleep Conservative”; Powell didn’t mind doing the opposite. Spurling portrays the early Powell as an open-minded and adventurous young man. He was not the first such person to end up being more cautious and conventional, but only his enemies would claim that that was all there was to him. If there is a weakness in Spurling’s biography, it is that she does not say enough about “the crucible,” as Henry James called it: the process whereby the elements of everyday life are refined into art. Powell will remain a polarising figure, and this biography may not change many minds about the value of his work. But Dance to the Music of Time, if read on its own terms, can be the best possible guide to what, in the past century, the English upper classes “were like.”


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Trump: A Summing Up. And After? An Exchange

TODD GITLIN & DAVID MIKICS

I. May 7, 2020 Dear Todd, I liked your Trump voters piece (Part Two)* very much and agree with much of it, especially the relevance of the Arendt and Harry Frankfurt lines and the idea that many Trump voters cling to Trump in a kind of defiant shame, half-knowing they made a mistake but compelled to dig down in order to save face. But it’s exactly that point I would cite to argue that they’re not the monolith you fear they are. The Trump constituencies seem more fractured to me: the rich people who vote Republican for financial reasons, evangelicals who reject the current Democratic absolutism about abortion, opioid-devastated communities who got the correct impression that while Hillary could spend a solid half hour talking about Black Lives Matter in a debate (giving the impression she was walking on eggshells the whole time), she wouldn’t say a word about the opioid epidemic ever.  Plus Trump ran as a moderate, anti-Iraq War Republican who was supposed to give everyone health care. Surely some voters were attracted to these positions. I thought your Part One article was brilliant, with the *In Salmagundi, spring-summer 2020. Part one of Todd Gitlin’s essay appeared in Salmagundi, winter 2020.


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invocations of charisma, ressentiment and the lure of white supremacy—but I do think many of his fans are more mixed and less fanatical than that. Did they fear immigrants because they were fervent white supremacists or because they were afraid their jobs might disappear? You’re absolutely right of course that right wing media traffics in blatant lies much more than the liberal mainstream, which hardly ever lies blatantly. But the liberal mainstream does it differently, by not talking about issues that actually are issues. Remember that a big majority of Americans of all political stripes and all races say that political correctness is a problem—that’s a significant poll result. Most (by far) late term abortions are not the result of detecting severe birth defects, but women who are traumatized by alcohol or drug or sexual abuse, their own or others’. That might be a good reason for the procedure, or it might be a bad one, but why cover it up unless you fear the discussion? The cover up is a form of elitist information control that I do think is widely resented. Leading Democratic Senators, Warren e.g., ARE in favor of decriminalizing border crossing to the US. Some instances of affirmative action DO create injustice. The Obama Biden Title IX regime destroyed students’ lives without any semblance of due process. On this last one, the mainstream has finally shifted so that DeVos’s recent reform was presently fairly in the Times. But in general there is an awful lot of censorship about what liberal social policies actually involve. Remember Obama’s great early speech on race, where he said that he supported affirmative action, but he realized that some whites suffer as a result? (He could have added Asians, of course.) That’s the kind of honesty that people aren’t getting from the mainstream media, and as a result—I think as a result, though you will probably disagree—the right wing extremists take over. The alternative view is that there is simply something white supremacist at the core of the US and we can always go back to that as the central motive behind any opposition to policies endorsed by the liberal establishment (of which I count myself a small part, by the way). I’m not so sure we can really trust that POV as a mode of social analysis, or as a way of understanding the Other...


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David,

II.

TODD GITLIN & DAVID MIKICS

June 6, 2020

I see that it was May 6 when you wrote me, exactly a month ago. Seems like a century, doesn’t it? How time flies when you’re having one bloody crisis after another. But I’m grateful for your attention, and now that I’ve finished a draft, at least, of my memoir, will try to respond in like spirit. First of all, I did not mean to say that all Trump voters share the same mentality. Of course there were several different streams of them. But “many” Trump voters, as you say, have doubled down in the time-dishonored spirit of cognitive dissonance—what I called the core of roughly 40% who stick with him through thick and threadbare, through lies and sneers and viciousness and more lies and sneers and viciousness, for which there is never any intellectual excuse, however one might approve of some of Trump’s views, or criticize HRC’s blind spots (of which there were many). I suppose some of his voters might have been so ignorant and credulous as to expect that he was going to give everyone health care, though. If Hillary never said a word about the opioid epidemic, that would have been shameful of her (and stupid politics to boot). Of course putting the opioid crisis on her long website issue-list was by no means adequate. But I doubt she ever sneered at its victims the way Trump sneered, and worse, at his legions of enemies. I suppose if one were inclined to believe that Trump’s views on the Iraq war in 2016 were what he falsely said they had been, and looked no further, one might be said to be innocent to a fault—but still, I would limit the excuses I extend to Trump voters who took seriously, sometimes with press collusion, that he could be trusted as a reliable narrator of his own history. About opposition to immigration, I’m no expert but am sure the motives are many and often mixed. Polls are tricky to interpret, to be sure, but in poll results from the fall of 2018, for example, I note that “a strong


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majority of respondents (70 percent) said that the idea of being welcoming of people from different cultures was “very important,” while of the same sample, “53 percent” said they thought immigrants “made America better”—so there’s quite a discrepancy right there. (So more than 20% of the welcomers didn’t think “immigrants make America better”?!) “Just 14 percent said they thought immigrants made America worse in the long run”—but again, if you think immigrants damage your job prospects, or your income, you might be less than willing to declare that motive for opposition to a pollster. There’s quite a range of opinion available between fervent white supremacy and fear of losing jobs. About political correctness, I don’t doubt that Americans at large dislike it. They don’t always dislike the same thing, but I don’t want to niggle. I have strong feelings of my own about the habits of cant and dogma, and much sympathy with Bob Boyers’s account in his recent book. For myself, I wrote a whole book (The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars, 1995) on what was valid and what was not in the charge of PC—and took plenty of incoming from the left for saying (as I once put it in a review of D’Souza’s Illiberal Education in the LA Times) that sometimes things are true even if Dinesh D’Souza says so. (Cf. Don Marquis of Archy & Mehitabel fame: “An idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe in it.”) The mainstream press is surely biased pro-choice—if memory serves, Eric Alterman convincingly established as much in his book What Liberal Media? Some straight reporting on reasons (stated and unstated) for late-term abortion would be welcome. (Whether the right-wing press has been more accurate on this score, I doubt, but confess I don’t read much of it.) Surely the mainstream press looked favorably upon same-sex marriage and transgender rights rather early—though whether earlier or later than their educated readership and viewership, I don’t know. Surely a general sort of class tilt is recognizable on the part of the mainstream. Whether, on the other hand, Warren’s or others’ declarations that they favored decriminalizing border crossing characterizes the views of journalists, I doubt. And I seem to remember lots of good, fair reporting on abuses of Title IX throughout the mainstream for a good number of years now. (Here, I detect a significant generation gap, with my vintage of folks, including pioneer feminists, criticizing the trampling of due process while


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some of my strongly feminist students in a class a few years ago couldn’t care less.) As for affirmative action, I don’t know what to think a priori, and would have to look at research on how it (and its abuses) have been treated in the mainstream. That there have been abuses, I don’t doubt (and wrote about some, in fact, in my 1995 book). As for what is probably the nub of the matter, whether “there is simply something white supremacist at the core of the US,” I think there is—as there are also countervailing forces present for centuries during America’s tortured history. (A history that, I should add, is not necessarily more tortured than that of any other nation. As Gary Younge was just yesterday writing in the New York Review, smug Europe exported its victims to the colonial lands, while they were forced to make their home in America long before it was actually America.) We can agree that to find some indiscriminate, unvarying white supremacy across the board to be “the central motive behind any opposition to policies endorsed by the liberal establishment” is intellectual bad faith. You have to ignore huge swaths of American history to ignore the conviction of racial equality that threads throughout. I must say that the huge white as well as African-American turnout in the “I Can’t Breathe” marches of recent days makes me all the more (though still guardedly) optimistic that the torturous American past can be made far more past than it was a year or a decade ago. Looking forward to your reply. All the best, Todd


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June 12, 2020 Dear Todd, We live in interesting times, no, even though we barely leave the house! I’ve delayed replying to your letter until now because I was so eager to see what would happen next, as I observed the heartening mass protest movement that seems to have taken over the country in the wake of the George Floyd murder. What you said to the New York Times reporter Thomas Edsall strikes me as just right: this is a very promising moment. The protestors are demanding some real, attainable reforms, like the banning of chokeholds by police, an end to no-knock warrants, and the repeal of 50a in New York, which shields police officers with disciplinary infractions from public scrutiny. I’d like to say that weakening the power of police unions is an achievable goal, but I’m not so sure. Police have a veto power: if they start doing their jobs half-heartedly and refuse to protect the public, local governments may cave in and give them the budget they want. I hope I’m wrong on this. I haven’t yet read your 1995 book, Todd, but I will now. I have the hunch I would agree with much of it. For me the problem with political correctness is that it alienates people who would otherwise be sympathetic to just causes like, to stick with the subject of the moment, police reform. In the last few weeks we’ve heard many calls to defund or abolish the police. (Defund seems a deliberately ambiguous word, designed to confuse us.) There’s been much naïve reporting on the issue from mainstream journalists. People in Minneapolis armed themselves, we are told, for defensive purposes when the police abandoned their precinct and protestors who set it on fire. They did perfectly well for days without a police force. Hahrie Han’s op-ed on Minneapolis contains this key sentence, suggesting that armed bands of vigilantes will do much better than any police force: “Some groups organizing to protect local businesses had to arm themselves, but their focus was on defense.” 


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Groups of people arming themselves? Include me out on this one. Radically scaling down the role of the police might have potential drawbacks. Underpolicing African American neighborhoods in Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death has led to a large increase in Blackon-Black crime (an issue that seems unmentionable these days, as if to mention it would prove one a racist—see John McWhorter on this. The protests have extended beyond the issue of equal justice and an end to racist policing. They are protests against racism. Anti-racism is, as John McWhorter wrote five years ago, the new American religion. Since anti-racism spurred protests against police brutality in more than 400 American cities, I’m all for it, in that respect. But anti-racism as it’s practiced by the campus left and the media and K-12 education these days is also often (not always) a species of magical thinking. Ritual gestures, involving the mention of certain facts and not others, are taken as self-sufficient warrants for progressivism. “If everyone only knew this…!” But everyone does know. The ones who don’t know don’t want to know, and they never will. (Should I call them the Incorrigibles?) We are reminded over and over that Black families have vastly less inherited wealth than white families, and that a history of redlining has hurt Black net wealth. Actually, the overwhelming share of the household wealth gap can be traced to the difference between the top 1% of Black and the top 1% of white households; the bottom 50% of US households show only a 3% difference between Black and white wealth. (Full disclosure: I am a white person who inherited no property when his parents died, but instead a total of about $15,000.) The rate of Asian American poverty is higher in New York than African American or Latino poverty. There is an unasked question here about how to connect rates of poverty with success or failure in society. We have seen the alarming statistic that a Black male from the top 1% of the American wealth spread is more likely to wind up in jail than a white male from the bottom 30%. This is such a shocking fact that it feels like people are explaining it away, rather than accounting for it, when they once again ritually repeat the one-word nostrum “racism.” One wants to learn much more about those African American youth from the 1%: certainly they have to be called privileged, even though they may suffer from everyday racist slights. Correcting the effects of racism can’t be done simply by calling it out, decrying it. One has to study those effects.


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Magical thinking implies that all one needs is a raised anti-racist consciousness, and since all that stands in the way of progress is racist structures, consciousness will cause them to wither away. All academic institutions have to do is hire minorities in sufficient numbers, we’re told, but they haven’t done so because of institutional racism. But colleges and universities have for many years tried mightily to hire minority faculty. I don’t know of any colleges or schools where this goal is not at the very top of the list. There are simply not enough minority job candidates. Since minority faculty are a top priority everywhere, and since demand far exceeds supply, we have an obvious problem: not the institutions, but the marketplace. But this problem largely goes unmentioned. Instead, we are meant to think that changing people’s consciousness via anti-racism will solve such inequities. I’ll leave it to you, Todd, our best historian of the Sixties, to say whether a comparison with levitating the Pentagon is in order. Yes, it can’t be denied that white supremacy is at the core of American history. Here, though, the exact formulation matters a lot. “At the core of American history” is not the same as “at the core of America”: the latter phrase, to me at least, implies that we are still and always ineradicably racist. And so we are asked to recognize that fact, to achieve, if not absolution, at least some spiritual uplift (McWhorter’s point). The dark forces are out there, busily being stirred by our malicious charlatan of a president. A sizeable chunk of white America responds to such resentments. But the hardcore racists are not enough by themselves. Trump won the election because he was able to put together a coalition of Evangelicals, who were interested in court appointments, along with the anti-immigrant and racist sections of the white middle class and working class, plus the wealthy, who were counting on another Republican tax cut (which they got, of course). These are very different constituencies, and at the moment it doesn’t look like Trump is holding them together. What makes an effective authoritarian, which Trump is not, is the ability to win over different parts of society, including people who have misgivings about the leader, and bring them together. A temporary coalition of the willing, of the kind that brought Trump into office, is not the same thing as a united movement.


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Peter Fritzsche’s new book Hitler’s First Hundred Days is very good on why people reconciled themselves to the early days of Nazi rule. How is Trump unlike Hitler?: let us count the ways. Hitler was able to convince people who had reservations about him to approve of his regime anyway. Many Germans who disliked Nazism and Hitler also liked the Third Reich, at least before the wars started. These people may have balked at sending Communists and Socialists to concentration camps, clamping down on press freedom, or (less commonly) they may not have cared for Hitler’s constant stream of Jew hatred. But they did like the law and order, the social programs, the sense of togetherness and communal purpose. They were being released from chaos, endless street battles and rampant crime. Life had really been transformed, many old Socialists and Communists grudgingly admitted. Hitler appealed to different strata of society: workers, wealthy capitalists, the middle class. A pandemic featuring massive unemployment and radical uncertainty about the future should be an ideal for a wannabe authoritarian. This is Trump’s Weimar Republic! But, and we have to be grateful for this, Trump simply cannot bring himself to unite people and provide order. In the face of pandemic and protests, Trump seems to be hoping for more chaos, because he thinks that chaos provides the best opportunity to blame other people and cast himself as the leader who would have solved these problems, if only governors and mayors and other officials had done what he wanted. The American people would then look to Trump as the strong leader who could rescue them. But since he hasn’t done that up to now, it’s a rather weak case. Trump’s strategy is transparent, and it smacks of desperation. Anything could happen, and prophecy is a mug’s game, but I have the hunch that he will be the underdog through the summer and—fingers crossed—in November. All best, David


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June 16, 2020 Dear David, A sociologist I’ve known since high school, a specialist on race, immigration, and related demographics, congratulated me when I published The Twilight of Common Dreams in 1995 for turning the tide against the hard forms of “identity politics” on campus. (All by myself?!) Even at the time I thought this claim of victory was decidedly premature. For reasons mounting with every passing day, many of which were cited in Bob Boyers’s brave and disturbing The Tyranny of Virtue, the censorious, puritanical streak not only on campus but throughout the culture—in particular, newspapers, journals, museums, and, as you say, K-12 education—has gathered force. And this is all the more tragic at a time when popular sentiment in favor of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo has won the support of huge majorities. I wrote recently about the grievous psychology of sectarianism— its lust for martyrdom, indeed for the righteousness of defeat. Here we go again. All the more apropos in the light of the recent gathering of Twitter mobs to punish the thought crime of circulating research that somebody doesn’t approve. (I won’t go into detail here because I’m quite sure that by the time we go into print there’ll be plenty of later incidents to note and deplore.) To choose an example from 2017, it’s a matter of principle to permit Charles Murray to speak on campus; he is not Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos, he makes arguments; I vividly recall the awful moment when, on my way to hear what Murray had to say at Columbia, not long after he (and the political scientist who’d invited him to speak at Middlebury) were quite literally mobbed, I saw somebody holding a sign on Broadway: “NO FREE SPEECH.” Swear to God, I thought: Now I’ve seen everything. So for me the problem with what I’ll agree to call political correctness (recognizing that the Trumpers like to lump condemnation of Nazis into that category) is twofold: principle and strategy. You write: “For me the problem with political correctness is that it alienates people who would otherwise be sympathetic to just causes like, to stick with the


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subject of the moment, police reform.” I go with John McWhorter too, but would distinguish between sectarian forms of religion (e. g. the moral panic at work on the left) and the more general and defensible forms of devotional feeling that deserve respect. I think it’s bad that racism becomes a loose, omnibus charge—magical thinking, as you say—but desirable that claims of racial superiority are tainted; also good that it’s no longer possible to honestly deny that race-based policies have privileged whites. In particular, the promotion of drastic inequities in wealth through housing discrimination policies can no longer fly through by default, unexamined. (The text that deserves to be canonical on this is Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, on how racial segregation has been enshrined in law and policy for decades; and by the way it’s a delight to see it on the Times bestseller list this week.) I’m not much of a policy person so I can’t comment on proposals by, among others, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden for erasing the race-based disadvantages that were inscribed in granite long ago without convincing the white majority that doing so constitutes yet another unfairness. Indeed, magical thinking cannot erase systematic distortions in institutional policies, let alone, as you rightly insist, a warped marketplace. This is where much damage has been done by the unexamined assumption that “racism” is just a synonym for “prejudice.” In a brief fit of optimism I’ll commit to thinking that such sloppy thinking has been dealt a huge blow by the recent police killings, in particular that of George Floyd, and we’ll see how irreversible this collective learning will prove to be. Conceivably we’ve turned a collective corner to recognize that white supremacy is at the core of American history—which is not to say that there’s nothing else to America, God knows. Frederick Douglass would never have said anything so ignorant. Back to the malevolent forces out there, “stirred by our malicious charlatan of a president,” who will not go quietly. I agree that “the hardcore racists are not enough by themselves. Trump won election because he was able to put together a coalition of Evangelicals, who were interested in court appointments, along with the anti-immigrant and racist sections of the white middle class and working class, plus the wealthy, who were counting on another Republican tax cut (which they got, of course).” If in fact the coalition is coming apart, thanks to the multiple whammy of the


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pandemic, the consequent recession, and Trump’s grotesque ineptitude and contempt for knowledge, we’ll see whether the Republican Party can survive a landslide defeat intact. I can see arguments for both yes and no. But even the 35-to-40 percent chunk of the population that would rather lose with Trump than win with some hypothetically moderate successor to Trump will continue to contaminate our politics for the foreseeable future. They can win states, divert attention from urgent social needs, and use lots of tricks to secure their victories with vote suppression, gerrymandering, and other varieties of fraud. Fortunately, there’s no Hindenburg here to cement Trump’s consolidation of endless victory. The recent revolt of the generals is another hugely welcome sign that Trump’s government is a WWE version of the Third Reich. Not a paper tiger but a spent force. My hunch is yours—that this grotesque caricature of the worst in America is headed for defeat and deserved humiliation. But eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. All best, Todd


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Notes on Contributors PAUL BAILEY's novels include The Prince's Boy, Kitty and Virgil, Chapman's Odyssey, Uncle Rudolf and At the Jerusalem. He lives and works in London ... ELIZABETH BENEDICT is author of a non-fiction book, The Joy of Writing Sex, as well as five novels, including Almost and The Practice of Deceit. She has edited Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, Me, My Hair and I and What My Mother Gave Me. She is also founder of the college essay consulting firm, Don't Sweat the Essay... MARK BERLEY's work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, The Threepenny Review and elsewhere. The author of After the Heavenly Tune, he edits LitMag … BEN CORVO lives in Jerusalem, Israel … BONNIE COSTELLO is William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor of English Emerita at Boston University and the author of numerous scholarly and critical books including The Plural of Us: Poetry and Community in Auden and Others (Princeton University Press, 2017) … PAUL DELANY is Professor of English Emeritus at Simon Fraser University and author of many books including works on D.H. Lawrence, Bill Brandt, George Gissing and the Rupert Brook circle …


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JENNIFER DELTON is author of Making Minnesota Liberal: Civil Rights and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, How Anti-Communism and the Cold War Made America Liberal, Racial Integration in Corporate America: 1940-1990, Rethinking the 1950’s and most recently, The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism. She is a columnist for Salmagundi and a professor in the History Department at Skidmore College … LESLIE EPSTEIN’s works of fiction include P.D. Kimerakov, The Steinway Quintet Plus Four, Regina, Goldkorn Tales, Pinto and Sons, Pandaemonium, Ice Fire Water: A Leib Goldkorn Cocktail, San Remo Drive, The Eighth Wonder of the World, King of the Jews, and most recently, Liebestod. He teaches fiction workshops at Boston University’s MFA program, which he directed for thirty years … TODD GITLIN is Professor of Journalism and Sociology, and Chair of the PhD program in Communications at Columbia University. He has published 16 books of non-fiction, fiction and poetry and recently completed a novel, The Opposition, set in the 1960s ... ERIN GREER is an assistant professor of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She is currently finishing her first book, which is about British fiction, ordinary language philosophy, and democratic forms of life … MARGARET MORGANROTH GULLETTE is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her books include Ending Ageism, Or How Not to Shoot Old People, winner of the MLA Prize for Independent Scholars and the APA’s Florence L. Denmark Award. Declining to Decline received the Emily Toth award as the best feminist book on American popular culture. Many of her essays have been cited as notable in Best American Essays…. SCOTT HARNEY (1955-2019) was a poet who worked as a paralegal. Aside from a few early poems and reviews, he did not publish during his lifetime, but left a significant body of work. He grew up in and around


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Boston, graduating from Charlestown High School and Harvard College. His literary influences include Robert Lowell and Jane Shore, with whom he studied at Harvard in the 1970s. His poems and a prose memoir of growing up in a racially divided Charlestown are being collected in The Blood of San Gennaro (Arrowsmith Press) … DAVID HERMAN is a freelance writer based in London. He is a member of the Jewish Book Council, a contributing editor at Prospect and a frequent contributor to these pages … TANCREDE HERTZOG is a Professor at Ecole Pratique des HautesEtudes in Paris. His essay on the plague in the arts appeared originally in the French magazine La Regle du Jeu in the May 7th, 2020 issue. It is translated here by John Anzalone ... CHRISTINA HUTCHINS’ poetry books include Tender the Maker and The Stranger Dissolves. She has worked as a biochemist, Congregational minister, and professor of philosophy and poetry, and served as Dartmouth Poet in Residence at the Frost Place … REGINA JANES is Professor of English Emerita at Skidmore and author of Losing Our Heads, Edmund Burke on Irish Affairs, 100 Years of Solitude: Modes of Reading, and Gabriel Garcia Márquez: Revolutions in Wonderland ... MARTIN JAY is Sydney Hellmann Ehrmann Professor of History Emeritus at The University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Dialectical Imagination, Adorno, Permanent Exiles, Fin De Siècle Socialism, Downcast Eyes, Forcefields, Marxism and Totality, The Virtues of Mendacity and other books. A recent work is Splinters in Your Eye … WILLIAM LOGAN’s books of poems and criticism include All the Rage, Our Savage Art, Night Battle, Strange Flesh and Deception Island: Selected Early Poems, 1974-1999. He teaches at the University of Florida-Gainesville …


Notes on Contributors

299

JEFFREY MEYERS is author of biographies of Hemingway, Edgar Alan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Johnson, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, John Huston, Modigliani, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost and many others. His most recent study is Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy ... DAVID MIKICS is Moores Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Houston. His books include Slow Reading in a Hurried Age and Bellow’s People. He is a columnist for Tablet magazine and for Salmagundi ... STEVEN MILLHAUSER is author of the Pulitzer prize winning Martin Dressler and several other novels including Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer. His collections of short stories and novellas include In the Barnum Museum, In the Penny Arcade, The Knife Thrower, We Others, Voices in the Night, Little Kingdoms, Enchanted Nights and The King in the Tree.… HARRY NEWMAN is author of Led From A Distance, a book of political poems. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ecotone, Rattle, North Dakota Quarterly, Asheville Poetry Review and other journals ... JOYCE CAROL OATES’ many novels, novellas, plays, short stories, essays and poetry collections include Blonde, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Zombie, We Were the Mulvaneys, Wild Nights!, Dear Husband, Black Water, The Accursed, Carthage, Prison Noir, Tenderness and others. A new book of poems, American Melancholy, is forthcoming next winter. She is Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities Emerita at Princeton University.… BRICE PARTICELLI is a Professor of English at Pace University and the 2020-2021 Steinbeck Fellow in Narrative Non-Fiction at San Jose University. His recent work appears in Harpers, Guernica and The Common. He is co-editor of America Street: A Multicultural Anthology of Stories …


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JOHN POCH’s collections of poetry include Poems (2004), Two Men Fighting with a Knife (2008), Texases, Fix Quiet and Dolls (2009). He teaches at Texas Tech University … LLOYD SCHWARTZ is author of a collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning music criticism entitled Music In— and On— the Air and is the author and editor of numerous books on Elizabeth Bishop. The current Poet Laureate of Somerville, MA, he is author of four books of poems: Goodnight Gracie, These People, Cairo Traffic and, most recently, Little Kisses. He is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English Emeritus of the University of Massachusetts-Boston ... CLAIRE SCOTT is the author of Until I Couldn’t, Waiting To Be Called and co-author of Unfolding In Light: A Sister’s Journey in Photography and Poetry ... RONALD A. SHARP is former Editor of The Kenyon Review, Dean of the Faculty Emeritus and Professor of English Emeritus at Vassar College. He is the author or editor of six books, including Keats, Skepticism, and the Religion of Beauty and, with Eudora Welty, The Norton Book of Friendship.


NEW TRANSLATIONS FROM ABIGAIL Magda Szabó • Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix The most beloved of Szabó’s novels in her home country of Hungary, Abigail is a mystery with a political core. When reckless teenager Gina Vitay is sent away to the bleakest of boarding schools in the midst of WWII, she looks for guidance in Abigail: a mysterious statue on campus who serves as protector to students in need. “Szabó pairs the psychological insights reader[s] will recognize from her novel The Door with action more akin to Harry Potter.” —Publishers Weekly • $16.95 FREE DAY Inès Cagnati Translated from the French and introduced by Liesl Schillinger Free Day, Inès Cagnati’s luminous 1973 debut and first book to appear in English, takes inspiration from her life as the daughter of two impoverished Italian immigrants to southwestern France. Caught between the worlds of her parents’ struggling farm and the prestigious private school she attends on scholarship, her heroine Galla must choose between her family and her future. • $14.95 THE WORD OF THE SPEECHLESS: SELECTED STORIES Julio Ramón Ribeyro • Edited and translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver • Introduction by Alejandro Zambra Julio Ramón Ribeyro is one of the greats of the Latin American literature, a master of the short story who made it his mission to speak for “the marginalized, the forgotten, those condemned to an existence without harmony and without voice.” The Word of the Speechless collects his best of his short fiction. “A magnificent storyteller, one of the best of Latin America and probably of the Spanish language, unjustly not recognized as such.” —Mario Vargas Llosa • $16.95 AGATHE; OR, THE FORGOTTEN SISTER Robert Musil Translated from the German and introduced by Joel Agee Robert Musil’s unfinished opus The Man Without Qualities is a masterpiece of 20th-century fiction. In its oft-overlooked Part Three, the existentially tormented Ulrich reunites with his sister Agathe following the death of their father—and the two are electrified. Agathe collects the published Agathe chapters of the novel as well as previously untranslated pages left in manuscript. • $17.95 All of these books are available in paperback and e-book editions. Available in bookstores, call (646) 215-2500, or visit www.nyrb.com


“Required reading for any American serious about dismantling systemic racism.” —– K I R K U S R E V I E W S

A provocative case for integration as the single most radical, discomfiting idea in America, yet the only enduring solution to the racism that threatens our democracy.

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Hotel London How Victorian Commercial Hospitality Shaped a Nation and Its Stories Barbara Black

HOTEL LONDON explores how London’s grand hotels helped construct a consumer economy that underscored the city’s Internationalism in Victorian literature and culture. BARBARA BLACK is Professor of English at Skidmore College. She is the author of A Room of His Own: A Literary-Cultural Study of Victorian Clubland and On Exhibit: Victorians and Their Museums 2019 printed case $64.95 ebook $29.95


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Funny, touching, and heartrending, Molly Bit explores the high stakes of our culture’s complicated fascination with celebrities and our complicity in their rise and fall. Molly Bit is an ode to the strange magic of moviemaking and a haunting reflection on fame, obsession, and art’s power to redeem loss. It announces a dazzling new voice in contemporary fiction.


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Salmagundi Magazine ALSO IN THIS ISSUE

FICTION & POETRY LESLIE EPSTEIN • LLOYD SCHWARTZ • BEN CORVO MARGARET MORGANROTH GULLETTE READING KING LEAR OVER A LIFETIME BRICE PARTICELLI THE GREAT AMERICAN ECLIPSE RONALD A. SHARP PEPE, LEBRON, AND TRUMP: SPORTS, LITERATURE, AND INTERPRETATION ERIN GREER ABORTION, REPRODUCTIVE JUSTICE, & POLITICAL IMAGINATION

IN FORTHCOMING ISSUES

IS THERE A FUTURE FOR LIBERALISM & DEMOCRACY? WITH

THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS, JAMES MILLER WILLIAM GALSTON, PATRICK DENEEN AKIL BILGRAMI, NADIA URBINATI JEFFREY ISAAC, LYNN HUNT & OTHERS NEW WORK BY MARY GAITSKILL • RICK MOODY • RUTH FRANKLIN REGULAR COLUMNS ON FILM,THE ARTS, POLITICS & CULTURE COVER: DETAIL FROM THE PLAGUE, ARNOLD BÖCKLIN, (1898, BASEL, KUNSTMUSEUM)

Profile for Skidmore College

Salmagundi Magazine, Fall 2020- Winter 2021  

Salmagundi Magazine, Fall 2020- Winter 2021