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Toni Morrison Looks Back in Sorrow

Death Duties: Toni Morrison Looks Back in Sorrow
September 8, 1987

The subject of Toni Morrison’s new nov­el, Beloved, is slavery, and the book staggers under the terror of its material — as so much holocaust writing does and must. Morrison’s other novels teem with people, but in Be­loved half the important characters are dead in the novel’s present, 1873. Though they appear in memory, they have no future. Slavery, says one character, “ain’t a battle; it’s a rout” — with hardly any of what one could confidently call survivors. The mood is woe, depression, horror, a sense of un­bearable loss. Still, those who remain must exorcise the deadly past from their hearts or die themselves; Beloved is the tale of such an exorcism.

In complex narrative loops, Beloved cir­cles around and hints at the different fates of a group of slaves who once lived on a plantation in Kentucky, “Sweet Home” — of course neither “sweet” nor “home”: an old woman called Baby Suggs, her son Halle, Paul A, Paul D, Paul F, Sixo, and the one young woman among them, Sethe. (Here as everywhere in the novel names raise baleful questions. Slaves have a tragically tenuous hold on names, and it is only in their final destinies that the three Pauls are allowed separate lives.)

Halle strikes a bargain with his master to sell his few free hours and use the money to buy his mother’s freedom. Baby Suggs won­ders why he bothers. What can a crippled old woman do with freedom? But when she stands on the northern side of the Ohio River and walks through the streets of Cin­cinnati, “she could not believe that Halle knew what she didn’t; that Halle, who had never drawn one free breath, knew that there was nothing like it in this world.”

Back at Sweet Home the decent master dies. (In slavery, a good master is merely a chance episode, any feeling of autonomy merely a fool’s illusion.) The new boss, “schoolteacher,” beats his slaves and mea­sures them with rulers, keeping pseudo­scholarly lists of their “human and animal characteristics.” He demonstrates that any time the whites want to, they can knock you into the middle of next week, or back into the dependency of childhood. But Sethe now has three babies by the generous-spirit­ed Halle, and the idea that she might never see them grow (like Baby Suggs, who saw seven of her children sold), or that they will grow only into schoolteacher’s eternal chil­dren, strengthens her resolve to join the Sweet Home slaves who plan to run, taking a “train” north. Paul F is long gone — sold, who knows where. During the escape, Paul A gets caught and hanged. Sixo gets caught and burned alive. Paul D gets caught and sold in chains with a bit in his mouth. Sethe manages to get her three children on the train, but is caught herself, assaulted, beat­en. Halle fails to appear at their rendez­vous — lost, mysteriously lost, and never to be found again. Sethe runs anyway, because she can’t forget that hungry baby who’s gone on ahead, and because a new one is waiting to be born.

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Half dead, and saved only by the help of a young white girl, trash almost as exiled as herself, Sethe gives birth to her baby girl, Denver, on the banks of the Ohio and man­ages to get them both across and truly home, to Baby Suggs’s door.

Told flat, the plot of Beloved is the stuff of melodrama, recalling Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But Morrison doesn’t really tell these inci­dents. Bits and pieces of them leak out be­tween the closed eyelids of her characters, or between their clenched fingers. She twists and tortures and fractures events until they are little slivers that cut. She moves the lurid material of melodrama into the minds of her people, where it gets sifted and sort­ed, lived and relived, until it acquires the enlarging outlines of myth and trauma, dream and obsession.

In fact, the intense past hardly manages to emerge at all. It is repressed, just as the facts of slavery are. Instead, in the foreground of the novel, Morrison places a few lonely minds in torment: Sethe, Denver, Paul D. All the drama of past desire and escape has fled to the margins of their con­sciousness, while Morrison’s survivors are living in one extended moment of grief. Slowly, painfully, we learn that in order to keep schoolteacher from recapturing her children, Sethe tried to kill them all, suc­ceeding with the third, a baby girl Morrison leaves nameless. This act lies at the center of the book: incontrovertible, enormous. Sethe explains that she killed the baby be­cause “if I hadn’t killed her she would have died.” Morrison makes us believe in this logic down to the ground.

By 1873, 18 years after Sethe’s fatal act of resistance, slavery is technically over, whether or not the former slaves feel fin­ished with it. Sethe’s eldest two boys have run off, perhaps overfull of the mother love that almost killed them as children. Baby Suggs’s house has become the entire world to Sethe and Denver — now 18. They live there ostracized, proud, and alone — except for the active ghost of the murdered two­-year-old.

This awkward spirit shakes the furniture, puts tiny handprints on the cakes, shatters mirrors, while Sethe and Denver live stolid­ly in the chaos, emotionally frozen. Into this landscape of regret walks Paul D, one of the dear lost comrades from Sweet Home. He has been tramping for these 18 years, and now comes to rest on Sethe’s front porch. Innocent of the secret of the baby’s death, he seems to exorcise her ghost with nothing much more than his warm presence. As it turns out, she is not that easy to dismiss. The bulk of the novel dwells on the ghost’s desperate return as a grown woman who calls herself “Beloved,” the one word she has found on her tombstone.

At first, Beloved seems benign in her new avatar, and Sethe is ecstatic to have her daughter back. But gradually the strange visitor in elegant clothes and mysteriously unscuffed shoes turns into a fearsome fig­ure, seducing Paul D in order to drag him into the wrong and send him packing, eating all the best food until Sethe and Denver begin to starve, ruling the demented household. The whole center of the novel is a projection of Sethe’s longing; Beloved is a snare to catch her anguished, hungry moth­er’s heart and keep her in the prison of guilt forever. She is also memory, the return of the dreadful past. In her, the breathtaking horror of the breakup of Sweet Home lives, sucking up all the air.

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***

And so Toni Morrison has written a novel that’s airless. How could this happen to a writer this skillful, working with material this full and important? In the reading, the novel’s accomplishments seem driven to the periphery by Morrison’s key decision to be literal about her metaphor, to make the dead baby a character whose flesh-and-bone existence takes up a great deal of narrative space. Even Sethe and Denver complain at times about the irritating presence of their ghost. And when she returns as a woman, she is a zombie, animated by abstract ideas. Later those who loved her “realized they couldn’t remember or repeat a single thing she said, and began to believe that, other than what they themselves were thinking, she hadn’t said anything at all.”

Symbolic thinking is one thing, magical thinking quite another. Morrison blurs the distinction in Beloved, stripping the real magic of its potency and the symbols of their poetry. Her undigested insistence on the magical keeps bringing this often beauti­ful novel to earth. Morrison’s last two strange and original books, Song of Solomon and Tar Baby, had some of this unconvinc­ing reliance on the supernatural, too. By contrast, The Bluest Eye, her first, was bit­ten and dry-eyed; the little girl in that novel who thinks she can get blue eyes by magic sinks into the psychosis of wishing. Morri­son’s best magic was in Sula, the novel where it is most elusive, making no more solid a claim for the Unseen than the human spiritual power to move mountains.

This isn’t to say ghosts can’t or shouldn’t be the stuff of fiction. The present genera­tion of South American gothicists often convince us of the living power of ghosts in the worlds they describe. And the literature of disaster is haunted by the noisy dead, clamoring to be remembered as active presences, not cut off from a continuing story. Morrison is working in these traditions when she tries to animate the resistant weight of the slave experience by pouring on magic, lurid visions, fantasies of reconcilia­tion. And why not? In one way, she comes by her magic honestly: It is the lore of folk she loves, a visionary inheritance that makes her people superior to those — black or white — who don’t have any talent for noticing the unseen. She wants to show how the slave past lives on, raising havoc, and to give Sethe, her treasured heroine, a chance to fight it out with the demon of grief. If Beloved is a drag on the narrative, a soul mixed with a great deal of dross, well so be it, Morrison seems to say. When strong, loving women would rather kill their babies than see them hauled back into slavery, the damage to every black who inherits that moment is a literal damage and no meta­phor. The novel is meant to give grief body, to make it palpable.

But I suspect Morrison knows she’s in some trouble here, since she harps so on the­ presence of Beloved, sometimes neglecting the mental life of her other characters. Their vitality is sacrificed to the inert ghost until the very end — a structure that makes thematic sense but leaves the novel hollow in the middle. Beloved is, of course, what’s heavy in all their hearts, but can the ghost of a tragically murdered two-year-old bear this weight of meaning? No matter how she kicks and squalls and screams, the ghost is too light to symbolize the static fact of her own death. She is a distraction from those in the flesh, who must bear the pain of a dead child’s absence. She is dead, which is the only arresting thing about her, and Mor­rison’s prose goes dead when it concerns her.

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***

If Beloved fails in its ambitions, it is still a novel by Toni Morrison, still therefore full of beautiful prose, dialogue as rhythmically satisfying as music, delicious characters with names like Grandma Baby and Stamp Paid, and scenes so clearly etched they’re like hallucinations. Morrison is one of the great, serious writers we have. Who else tries to do what Dickens did: create wild, flamboyant, abstractly symbolic characters who are at the same time not grotesques but sweetly alive, full of deep feeling? Usually in contemporary fiction, the grotesque is mixed with irony or zaniness, not with pas­sion and romance. Morrison rejects irony, a choice that immediately sets her apart. Like Alice Walker (there are several small, friendly allusions to The Color Purple in Beloved), she wants to tend the imagination, search for an expansion of the possible, nur­ture a spiritual richness in the black tradi­tion even after 300 years in the white desert.

From book to book, Morrison’s larger project grows clear. First, she insists that every character bear the weight of responsibility for his or her own life. After she’s measured out each one’s private pain, she adds on to that the shared burden of what the whites did. Then, at last, she tries to find the place where her stories can lighten her readers’ load, lift them up from their own and others’ guilt, carry them to glory.

In her greatest novel so far, Sula, she succeeded amazingly at making this crucial shift in atmosphere. Her characters suffer — from their own limitations and the world’s — but their inner life miraculously expands beyond the narrow law of cause and effect. In Sula, Morrison found a way to offer her people an insight and sense of recovered self so dignified and glowing that no worldly pain could dull the final light. The novel ends with a song which soars over the top of its own last word, “sorrow”:

And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. “We was girls to­gether, ” she said as though explaining some­ thing. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl,girl,girlgirlgirl.”

It was a fine cry — loud and long — but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.

Song of Solomon and Tar Baby, and now Beloved, have writing as beautiful as this, but they are less in control of that delicate turn from fact to wish. Even at her best, Morrison’s techniques are risky, and sometimes, in Beloved, she loses her gamble. Slavery resists her impulse towards the grand summation of romance. The novel revolves and searches, searches and revolves, never getting any closer to these people numbed by their overwhelming grief. Why could they not save those they loved? Nothing moves here; everything is static and in pieces. The fragmentary, the unresolvable are in order in a story about slavery. When Morrison embraces this hid­eous fact, the book is dire and powerful: Halle is never found. Baby Suggs never reas­sembles her scattered children, whose names and faces are now those of strangers. Sethe has collapsed inside, unable to bear what has happened to them all.

Still, for Morrison, it is romance and not the fractured narrative of modernism that is the vehicle of her greatest feeling for her people. Though in their sorrow they resist her, she keeps inviting them to rise up on wings. She can’t bear for them to be lost, finished, routed. The romantic in her longs to fuse what’s broken, to give us something framed, at least one polychromatic image from above. When this works, it’s glorious. And even when it doesn’t, it’s a magnificent intention. But there are moments in Morri­son’s recent novels when the brilliant, rich, and evocative image seems a stylistic tic, a shortcut to intensity. Romance can be a temptation. At the end of Beloved Morrison joins Sethe and Paul D together for good. Their happy union is a device laid on them from without by a solicitous author. It should be possible — why should pain breed only more pain? — but Morrison doesn’t manage to maintain a necessary tension be­tween what she knows and what she desires. She wishes too hard. Something in the novel goes slack.

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Because Morrison is always a tiger story­teller, she struggles against her novel’s ten­dencies to be at war with itself. She keeps writing gorgeous scenes, inventing charac­ters so compelling and clear they carry us with them, back into a novel that seems determined to expel us. The ending in par­ticular pushes Beloved beyond where it seemed capable of going:

Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disre­membered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed. In the place where the long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.

It was not a story to pass on…

By and by all trace is gone… The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremem­bered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.

Beloved.

“Disremembered and unaccounted for.” The Dead may roar, but they are impotent. It is a brave and radical project to center a novel on a dead child ignored by history, cruelly forgotten along with so much else that happened to black people in slavery. A slave baby murdered by its own mother is “not a story to pass on.” Even the slaves who know Sethe’s reasons find them hard to accept. Paul D is so horrified when he final­ly learns about her crime that he leaves her for a time, telling her she has two legs not four. It is beastly to kill a baby, and yet Sethe asks, who was the beast? To keep Beloved out of the hands of an owner who would see her only as an animal, Sethe would rather be wild herself, do her own subduing of the human spirit, if killed it must be. As always in the last pages of her novels, Morrison gathers herself together and sings, here of those who didn’t even leave their names, who died before they had the chance to become the sort of people about whom you could tell real stories.

There are the novelists who try something new in each book (Doris Lessing, say, or Joanna Russ, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Walker) and the novelists who keep on worrying the same material (Saul Bellow, Robert Stone, Philip Roth, and Morrison herself). The first group has all the advantage of surprise, offering the thrill of new territory. Some of these trips come out better than others, but the overall effect is of travel. The second group has a different task, to find the same small door into the same necessary world, to wander the same maze trying to find the way home. Each novel in this group says to its readers, here I am again; do you feel what I always feel — as fully as I want you to? Well, not this time. But Morrison is great even in pieces, and worth waiting for, how­ever long it takes.

This novel deserves to be read as much for what it cannot say as for what it can. It is a book of revelations about slavery, and its seriousness insures that it is just a mat­ter of time before Morrison shakes that bril­liant kaleidoscope of hers again and the sto­ry of pain, endurance, poetry, and power she is born to tell comes out right. ■

BELOVED
By Toni Morrison
Knopf, $18.95

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Toni Morrison’s Language of Love

Harlem on Her Mind: Toni Morrison’s Language of Love
May 12, 1992

Imagine a world in which love never dies, only fades in and out like a musical phrase, varying and deepening with each return. This is the place Toni Morrison has created in her latest novel, Jazz, a supple, sophisticated love story which explores the possibilities of romance as both a natural phenom­enon and a literary form. Filled with the familiar elements of a Morrison book­ — mournful, vivid characters, natural and un­natural disasters, an operatic (occasionally soap-operatic) orchestration of history and myth — Jazz nevertheless takes a different direction from Morrison’s earlier works. Less controlled, more improvisational, it picks up her favorite subject, human free­dom, and spins out of it not only an inven­tive story but also a new way to write. Whereas in her other books she has some­times been too possessive of her characters, hovering over their movements, explicating their every thought, in Jazz she loosens up and lets her inventions soar. She does this in part by giving herself a persona. Half gossip, half visionary, her nameless narra­tor interrupts the story, reimagines whole passages, draws attention to herself one moment, then casually returns to her tale the next. In the process, Morrison realizes her own limits, and sets her characters free.

Jazz tells the story of Violet and Joe Trace, married for over 20 years, residents of Harlem in 1926, “when all the wars are over and there will never be another one.” Violet works as an unlicensed hairdresser, doing ladies’ hair in their own homes, and Joe sells Cleopatra cosmetics door to door. They live in an apartment building on Lenox Avenue “where the sidewalks, snow-­covered or not, are wider than the main roads of the towns where they were born.” When the novel opens, Joe has shot his 18-year-old lover, Dorcas, and Violet has disfigured the dead girl’s body at her funeral in a fit of rage. Joe, who was not caught, is in mourning, crying all day in his darkened apartment, and Violet has taken on the task of finding out whatever she can about Dor­cas. As the narrator says, “Maybe she thought she could solve the mystery of love that way. Good luck and let me know.”

Instead of solving the mystery of love, Violet finds that “not only is she losing Joe to a dead girl, but she wonders if she isn’t falling in love with her too.” She befriends Dorcas’s Aunt Alice and borrows a photograph, which she places on the mantelpiece and visits in the middle of the night. Like Sethe in Beloved, Violet gradually loses her­self to the memory of a dead girl, in this case not actually her daughter, but a substi­tute for the child she and Joe never had. The “private cracks” in Violet’s personality, which had begun to show before Joe’s af­fair, deepen after Dorcas’s death; Violet has been unhappy for a long time, drowning her sorrows in Dr. Dee’s Nerve and Flesh Build­er and the empty I love yous of her domesti­cated parrot. Joe, too, has been searching for something; convinced that he alone re­members the days when he and Violet were happy, he is “hungry for the one thing everybody loses — young loving.” Jazz, which skips around temporally, sometimes send­ing notes drifting through the narrative be­fore we can understand them, basically moves backwards in time, revealing in the history of Violet and Joe’s relationship, and in the relations of their ancestors, how they came to be in the strange predicament of the present, isolated from each other, them­selves, and their dreams.

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The novel’s present is a time of over­whelming energy, confusing to some, enliv­ening to others, a moment in history when blacks, having streamed into New York from the South at the end of the 19th cen­tury, call Harlem their own, and their music has “dropped on down, down to places be­low the sash and the buckled belts.” “Just hearing it,” one of the book’s characters thinks, “was like violating the law.” Every­one in the story is moved by jazz in one way or another; it’s always playing, always pour­ing down from windows or up from night­clubs. It inspires Dorcas’s Aunt Alice to raise her niece with the puritanical stric­tures that later cause her to rebel into the arms of Joe Trace. It moves Dorcas to yearn for the kind of love Joe can’t give her. It is what the girl hears, and what she thinks about, when she dies.

Morrison’s New York embodies the spirit of jazz. Free, but frightening in its freedom, it’s a place where the night sky “can empty itself of surface, and more like the ocean than the ocean itself, go deep, starless”:

A colored man floats down out of the sky blowing a saxophone, and below him, in the space between two buildings, a girl talks earnestly to a man in a straw hat. He touch­es her lip to remove a bit of something there. Suddenly she is quiet. He tilts her chin up. They stand there. Her grip on her purse slackens and her neck makes a nice curve. The man puts his hand on the stone wall above her head. By the way his jaw moves and the turn of his head I know he has a golden tongue. The sun sneaks into the alley behind them. It makes a pretty picture on its way down. 

New York is a character in Jazz, always referred to, respectfully, as “the City,” and it becomes a metaphor for the book itself, a way for Morrison to talk about the novel as she’s writing it: “All you have to do,” she says of the City, “is heed the design — the way it’s laid out for you, considerate, mind­ful of where you want to go and what you might need tomorrow.” New York, like jazz, and like Jazz, has an uncanny way of de­scribing itself in the act of being. I once heard someone say that walking the gridded streets of Manhattan was like walking in­side an architectural drawing. Similarly, Jazz contains stories within stories, and within these, or outside them, “everywhere and nowhere,” is the voice of the nameless narrator, endlessly commenting on her ima­ginings and then disappearing into them herself.

As the novel shifts back in time, Morri­son gives us the stories of Violet and Joe’s childhoods, and even further back, the un­resolved love story of Joe’s mother, Wild, and the white man, Golden Gray, whom Violet’s grandmother raised. Violet and Joe, both born in the South, met picking cotton in Palestine, Virginia, when Joe fell out of a walnut tree in the middle of the night, prac­tically into Violet’s lap. Morrison leads us to believe that there is something inevita­ble, almost mythically necessary in their meeting. Without pressing the point too hard, she makes it clear that strains in their personalities and their pasts determine their dreams, and therefore their tragedies.

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Violet, whose mother, Rose Dear, threw herself into a well, was raised by her grandmother, True Belle, a former slave who moved to Baltimore (leaving Rose Dear be­hind) when her owner, Vera Louise, moved there to have the baby she had conceived with a black man. By the time True Belle entered Violet’s life, she had spent most of her own raising a little boy, half black but white-skinned, named Golden Gray, and she filled Violet’s head with stories of this perfect, unattainable prince. “My own gold­en boy,” Violet later remembers, “who I never saw but who tore up my girlhood as surely as if we’d been the best of lovers.”

At the center of the novel is the story of Golden Gray’s journey to find his black fa­ther. It’s told with the dreamy, fable-like quality of a parable. Morrison has to strain to fit it into the rhythm of the rest of the book, but in the end it reveals so much about her project that it seems essential. On his way to find and kill his father, the spoiled, self-satisfied Golden Gray passes a pregnant black woman collapsed and bleed­ing on the road, and after much delibera­tion, decides to bring her to his father’s house. In Morrison’s description of the event, which she tells from several points of view, including, momentarily, that of the horse Golden Gray is riding, the incident takes on the exalted power of a myth, but it’s a myth told with a certain tentativeness, in a voice that admits its own limitations.

Telling the story of Golden Gray’s en­counter with the woman, the narrator inter­rupts herself several times, remarking on her own unreliability, hesitating to go for­ward, as if the story were too painful to recount. “Now I have to think this through,” she says, “even though I may be doomed to another misunderstanding.” She explains:

Not hating him is not enough; liking, lov­ing him is not useful. I have to alter things. I have to be a shadow who wishes him well, like the smiles of the dead left over from their lives. I want to… [l]ie down next to him, a wrinkle in the sheet, and contem­plate his pain and by doing so ease it, di­minish it. I want to be the language that wishes him well, speaks his name, wakes him when his eyes need to be open. I want him to stand next to a well… and while standing there in shapely light, his finger­tips on the rim of stone… There then… from down in it where the light does not reach… some brief benevolent love rises from the darkness.

This passage expresses a remarkable amount of compassion for a character whose arrogance prevents him from wiping the caked blood from a black woman’s face. The language in which Morrison couches her compassion is subtle: the way “wishes him well” becomes a wishing well, the way the wishing well turns into the page we are reading, and the reader becomes “him,” the rider, looking into the darkness of words and seeing a brief benevolence rise to the surface, wrinkling the sheet of the page. The poetry of this paragraph is shifting; vulnerable, easily overlooked. Jazz, which contains other passages as carefully wrought as this one, can be at times almost painfully exciting to read.

It can also be disjointed, unconvincing, even irritatingly repetitive, but afterwards the poetry of the book stays in the mind, while the rest drifts into the background, like incidental music. Jazz replays the old plot of rupture and reconciliation, and still it surprises, lifting at the end to a moment of beauty. Morrison, who usually tells us at the beginning of her novels what will hap­pen, here lets her characters come into their own, confident enough to surrender them to the mysteries of romance. It’s a novel that you wish you could read for the first time twice, but one that asks for second and third readings, the kind that come from knowing something about the nature of the work. Similarly, Violet and Joe have to ac­cept that they can live their story for the first time only once. Then they will be able to find each other, to be, in the book’s words, “inward toward the other.” In imag­ining Joe and Violet’s adult love, Morrison reaches to find a language that will harmo­nize doubt and desire. The voice she discov­ers is sumptuously incomplete, quavering between happiness and despair. It is enough simply to listen.

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***

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Morrison again reaches for a new language, only here she seeks to expand the vocabulary of literary criticism. This slim volume, consisting of three straightforward, illuminating essays, argues for the expansion of the study of American literature to include an investiga­tion of the ways in which “the major and championed characteristics of our national literature” are “responses to a dark, abid­ing, signing Africanist presence.” Seeking to look at American racism in a new way, to consider its impact not on its victims but on those who perpetuate it, Morrison calls for a criticism that will explore the way Americans have chosen to talk about them­selves through the reflexive use of a fabri­cated Africanist persona. In other words, as Morrison puts it, “The subject of the dream is the dreamer.” The Africanist persona in American literature is a projection, and to investigate it as such reveals a great deal about that literature and the nation that produced it.

Morrison makes two major points in the book, but they are really two ways of saying the same thing. The first, that the championed characteristics of American litera­ture — “individualism, masculinity, social engagement versus historical isolation; acute and ambiguous moral problematics; the thematics of innocence coupled with an obsession with figurations of death and hell” — are responses to an “Africanist pres­ence” which predates our national litera­ture, seems to me useful but limited, be­cause it is impossible to prove. (It is also unclear whether Morrison means to include a Native American presence.) The second point, that “American writers were able to employ an imagined Africanist persona to articulate and imaginatively act out the for­bidden in American culture,” can be dem­onstrated and deepened.

Morrison does this through close read­ings of classic American writers — Cather, Twain, Hemingway — and their texts burst open at her touch. Discussing Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Huckleberry Finn, To Have and Have Not, and others, she explores the ways in which Africanist personas have been used by others to engage in “power without risk,” “a safe participation in loss, in love, in chaos, in justice.” Morrison takes this investigation even further in her sec­ond essay, in which she traces the American romance with romance. Looking at 19th-century American literature, she observes that “for a people who made much of their ‘newness’ — their potential, freedom, and innocence — it is striking how dour, how troubled, how frightened and haunted our early and founding literature truly is.” As Morrison goes on to explain,

Romance… made possible the sometimes safe and other times risky embrace of quite specific, understandably human fears: Americans’ fear of being outcast, of failing, of powerlessness; their fear of boundaryless­ness, of Nature unbridled and crouched for attack; their fear of the absence of so-called civilization; their fear of loneliness; of ag­gression both external and internal. In short, the terror of human freedom — the thing they coveted most of all.

Writers writing about other writers tend to write about themselves, and here Morri­son is no exception. While this explicates the underside of American romanticism, it also describes Morrison’s central concern as a novelist. The terror of human freedom and its consequences — for blacks, whites, men, women, anyone who has been denied it or afraid of it — is as much the subject of Playing in the Dark as it is of Jazz.

Joe and Violet are both trapped in dreams of their past — nightmares, really — ­which cause them to hurt each other and prevent them from believing that they have power over their own lives. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison explores how the temp­tation to enslave others instead of embrac­ing freedom has shaded our national litera­ture, and how an acceptance of this truth will enable us to see that literature’s strug­gles and fears, and so better understand its exuberance. In both works her wisdom is to locate strength in what appears to be weak­ness. She sees in Violet, in Joe, in Huck, and in Jim dangerous and thrilling urges toward surrender and escape, and she loves them as much as she chastises them for this. They are contradictory characters, like people. In subjecting them to her generous attention, she doesn’t so much set them free as acknowledge that they already are. ■

JAZZ
By Toni Morrison
Knopf, $21

PLAYING IN THE DARK: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
By Toni Morrison
Harvard, $14.95

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Herman Melville’s Great Escape

Born to Run

From within his commemorative stamp­ — dyed an appropriate nautical blue — the un­likely hero figure of American literature gazes blankly out. Melville’s shrines and monuments accumulate relentlessly, as if in atonement for past neglect: he becomes a plaque in the Poets’ Corner of St. John the Divine, a three-volume set (all the fiction, with the poetry still to come) from the Li­brary of America, a museum in the Berk­shires, a 90-minute movie full of beaches and sails and waves. Yet all our hagiolatry cannot force the stately mask to wink back at us. We want to make Melville “ours,” have him talk to us as a friend, but he withdraws irrevocably into a muteness like that of the Galapagos Islands, where “no voice, no low, no howl is heard.” It’s a curi­ous communion his work offers: the deeper we wade in it, the more it seems a vast isolation, chill at the core yet capacious as a National Park. He’s our official literary wil­derness, in whose clefts and shadows we come to lose ourselves and thereby find the world again. Where other writers proffer ideas or stories or companionable chat, Melville seems to promise the very stuff of existence: time, space, air. We don’t so much read him as inhale him.

His promise is the impossible promise of language. Melville was mad enough to be­lieve that the groves and harbors the words make are real, that the imagined world opens into actual spaces. He entered those spaces, felt out their recesses — those “won­drous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro”­ — with a blunt boldness that brought on ca­tastrophe. The hazy shores and receding horizons which intoxicated his readers were not enough for him, and he made the fatal error of chasing them to their point of ori­gin: the point where they fade back into the insubstantiality of language, and thought itself collapses inward. It’s a disappearing act mirrored outwardly in his disappear­ance as an author, the distance he gradually established between his writing and any possible reader. To an audience eager for the vibrant clamor of his palm fronds and tattooed bodies and sibilant Pacific bays, he could offer in the end only the silence of matter, the hard dead rock at the root of creation.

The first readers responded to freshness, a sea breeze, deliverance from civilized clut­ter. Typee proposed open spaces in which to relax: clearings, nakedness, calm lagoons, the visible absence of brickwork and ma­chines and arithmetic. Melville’s secret lay in what he left out: families, courtships, marriages, wills and lawsuits, internecine politics and international diplomacy, the maddening knots of kinship and finance and social obligation — everything, in short, that provided material for all the other novelists. For Melville the great cities are dusty, depleting puppet-shows, the hum­ming heart of Wall Street a tomb. As for the warm ties of home, the interweaving of the generations, the delicacies of flirtation: all that stifles him. The book must be a casting off. He’s stimulated most keenly by desert­edness. The emptier the better: plunging into the implications of a word like “blank” or “dim” or “fissure,” he finds sprawling worlds. A flat sea generates infinite linguis­tic expression. The “contents” of that ex­pression — ideas, literature, religions, politi­cal systems — are simply what a sailor invents to keep himself awake on night-­watch, extrapolating them from the pat­terns made by swirling sea-scum.

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He had passed up the chance to write a great realistic novel of life on land: the story of his family. Had Melville been able to write about his people as he wrote of his shipmates, we would know far more not only about him but about the America he venerated, fled, and finally detested. Both his grandfathers were heroes of the Revolu­tion: Major Thomas Melvill flung tea into Boston Harbor and fought at Bunker Hill, while General Peter Gansevoort became legendary as “The Hero of Fort Stanwix,” savior of the Mohawk Valley. Born near the center of power and culture, connected through his uncles and cousins to the world of James Monroe, DeWitt Clinton, James Fenimore Cooper, Melville grew up swathed in an aura of inherited glory. His father, an importer of Parisian silks and gowns, criss­-crossed the Atlantic on business and when at home entertained lavishly in a series of Manhattan mansions, while his mother vigi­lantly kept up the tone of the Hudson Val­ley aristocracy she came from.

He never wrote about that world of patri­cian ease and cosmopolitan brilliance, and the one time it starts to leak out — in Red­burn — he cuts himself short: “But I must not think of those delightful days, before my father became a bankrupt, and died, and we removed from the city; for when I think of those days, something rises up in my throat and almost strangles me.” His father’s business failed suddenly and unex­pectedly in 1830, when Melville was 11, and he learned at once that there was no sine­cure for the descendants of patriotic heroes. The family slid into genteel penury, and two years later, following further financial reverses, Melville saw his father collapse into sickness, madness, and death. The mask was off the world. His schooling cur­tailed, he worked as a bank clerk, a hand on his uncle’s farm, a clerk in his brother’s store (before that too failed), a rural school­teacher. After seven years of inconsequen­tial labor — years during which his relations with his mother were by all accounts suffo­catingly close — he went off to sea.

It was his single decisive gesture, to be repeated as needed: sever connections, withdraw from a complex and rather hope­less situation, take flight. For five years he was in constant motion: to Liverpool as a novice seaman; back home briefly, then some inland roaming along the Erie Canal and down the Mississippi by steamboat; off on a New Bedford whaler; jumped ship six months later, passed the time with canni­bals for a few weeks; escaped to another whaler and, accused of mutiny along with the rest of the crew, was rather half-heart­edly incarcerated in Tahiti; escaped, wan­dered around Tahiti, sailed on yet another whaler, wandered around Honolulu, and fi­nally enlisted in the Navy in order to get passage home. He came back to precisely the same situation he had walked away from, and still had no idea what to do with himself. Logically enough he decided to write a book.

The public never got over that book, to Melville’s eventual sorrow. His image, mist­ed over with adolescent nostalgia, would re­main that of a bright-eyed rover, a compan­ion in the reveries of youth. To his reading of Typee Jack London attributed “the wonder that was to lead me to many lands, and that still leads and never palls. The years passed, but Typee was not forgotten.” For Robert Louis Stevenson as well the discov­ery of Melville’s early books was a rite of initiation. By the time Melville died his books were mostly out of print, and all that lingered of his reputation was a faint after-­image of coral reefs and coconuts. He was an artifact of popular culture, the man who had become an overnight star by bringing home a new flavor of fantasy. That erotic dream of Polynesia soaked into the Ameri­can mind, ultimately finding its way into pop songs and pinball machines and B­-movies like the one Allan Dwan extracted from Typee: Enchanted Island, with Jane Powell posed in sarong against the eternal Technicolor palm trees.

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Melville had kicked off that process with his visions of the nymph Fayaway. Several generations grew up imbued with the implications of phrases like “free pliant figure” and “the easy unstudied graces of a child of nature.” Typee contained all the necessary materials for a P.T. Barnum spectacle of the mind, cannibals and dancing girls pa­rading past at a safe distance. Its subtitle — “A Peep at Polynesian Life” — suggests a picture of Melville narrating a magic lantern show; and indeed the book is very much a public performance. With a show­man’s instincts he spins his yarn in a prose punctuated by sly winks, digs in the ribs, and appeals to warm fellow feeling. The cheerful young adventurer — a humorist, a bit of a scamp, at bottom an ordinary enough fellow — unpacks his sea chest, hauls out his South Seas trophies, and holds the listeners spellbound.

It was all so easy: easy to read, as the reviewers enthusiastically noted, and con­ceptually if not always technically easy for Melville to write. A delicious passivity in­forms the heart of Typee. Among the unex­pectedly tender cannibals, Meville can lie back and be fed and fanned and caressed. In a land where sustenance falls from trees or is scooped from shallows, he indulges in the joy of making no effort whatsoever. Coming home, he finds it’s equally easy to hold his audience’s attention. He need only reiterate certain surefire images: “Naked houris — cannibal banquets — groves of coca­nut — coral reefs — tatooed chiefs — and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with bread-fruit trees — carved canoes danc­ing on the flashing blue waters — savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols — hea­thenish rites and human sacrifices.” These, Melville informs us, were the images in his head before he arrived in the Marquesas; yet oddly they were also the images the average reader retained from Typee. Those who cared to look deeper found considera­bly more — but Melville made sure his mass audience got what it paid for. He was play­ing a double game, writing one book for himself, another for his readers: part of him was back with the Typees, happily bathing in sensual harmonies, while in another as­pect he shrewdly gauged the responses of a flock of prurient Christians.

The contradiction didn’t trouble him yet. As the man in the middle, he could shuttle between worlds without committing himself to either. His very amiability, his effortless gratifying of the readers’ desires, gave him license to slip in all sorts of audacities. It fit his image: a man who had lived with canni­bals was expected to have rough edges. There were limits, of course, and so the digs at missionaries had to be excised from the second edition. But otherwise Melville was free to let off steam about civilized evils: “the heart burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life.” The audience sat willingly though the sermon in order to catch anoth­er glimpse of “the half-immersed figure of a beautiful girl, standing in the transparent water.”

An instinctive escape artist, Melville found a home in the tantalizingly shifting surfaces of language. Writing a book about his escape to the South Seas was a further escape, enabling him to postpone becoming indentured to a respectable profession or a fixed identity. Since the act of writing it had preserved his freedom, naturally the book became a celebration of freedom; and in Typee and its successor Omoo (a garrulous, often slapstick “road novel” of lazy days in the tropics), he hit upon technical tricks that gave him additional liberties. Facts, for one thing, could be altered. His three-week stay among the Typees not be­ing impressive enough, he could expand it to six months. Every accidental event could be transformed into what it ought to have been. He also learned the uses of found material: to make his Polynesia more dense, it was simple enough to lift clumps of detail from another voyager’s account. Tearing a page from a botany text and pasting it in position was a way of incorporating the world into the book. If he couldn’t have actual moss and sand and seawater — and surely he would have loved to — he could at least interpolate ship’s logs and law docu­ments and pedestrian guidebooks, crime stories from the newspapers and rough­-hewn nonliterary memoirs like those of Owen Chase and Amasa Delano and Israel Potter. Such writing influenced him more than anything aside from Shakespeare and the Bible. To his private domain of lan­guage it imparted a distinctly democratic air, the polyglot jokes and curses of the foredeck jostling the kinglike speech of Ahab.

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Prose, he discovers, is a wonderland he can populate as heterogeneously as he likes, meanwhile divesting himself of familial bonds and all the oppressive encroachments of the land-dwellers. Words perpetuate fleeting motions: the exhilarating leap, caught in midair between ship and shore, need never end in a disappointing arrival. In Redburn he recreates the moment when, on his first voyage, the ship left land be­hind: “About sunset we got fairly ‘outside,’ and well may it so be called; for I felt thrust out of the world.” Such is the transfixed Melvillean moment, wide awake and lonely and equally alienated from point of depar­ture and ultimate destination. He wants­ — or wants to want — to live forever in that “outside,” to be permanently in transit, to be away. But language has its obligations as well as its freedoms; the same hooks he’s been avoiding in family and society lurk in words too. His imagined liberty has to con­tend with the structure of imagination it­self. The restlessness that won’t let him stay in one place too long — not even the earthly paradise of the Marquesas — also steers his sentences away from any meaning too fixed or immutable. Language — as codified by polite literature and scholastic logic — frus­trates him because it forces him toward un­desired resolutions. In Typee he sometimes has difficulty completing sentences: caught up in cascading fragments of description­”bold rock-bound coasts, with the surf beat­ing high against the lofty cliffs, and broken here and there into deep inlets, which open to the view thickly-wooded valleys” — his energy runs down as the period approaches, as if grammatical closure were like a harbor he didn’t want to return to.

He’d rather go through language toward a condition of indefinable mineral ecstasy, a coral cuneiform suitable for transcribing what he reads in the waves: “a sort of wide heaving and swelling and sinking all over the ocean.” He wants, quite frankly, the impossible: to revel in the unimpeded de­lights of language while freeing himself, once and for all, of the relations that lan­guage unavoidably implies, the squidlike embrace of interconnectedness. Like the philosopher Babbalanja in Mardi, he ex­empts himself from linguistic rules in order to assert that “there is no place but the universe; no limit but the limitless; no bot­tom but the bottomless.”

In his perception, however, the most cloudily undefined is at one with the most meticulously concrete. His faculty for tech­nical description — for the intricacies of rig­gings and top-gallants and capstans and ca­bles — hinges on the ultimate abstractness of mechanical procedures. Every elaborate, impersonal, morally neutral process fasci­nates him: the fluxing of currents and tides, the slow accretion of coral islands, the inte­rior functioning of whalers and men-of-war. Such systems share the complexity of lan­guage, but unlike language they don’t raise problems of identity or meaning. Melville can get lost in them as in the patterns of a Turkish rug.

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He approaches writing in much the same a spirit, tinkering with clauses, running through possible modes of rhythmic organi­zation in a sentence, slapping down oddly mixed bits of jargon and erudition. If the meanings to which language refers make Melville uneasy, its mechanics liberate him: he finds more freedom of action in grammar than in life. Whereas in life he must make irrevocable decisions — to settle down, get married and raise children, ultimately sacri­fice his writing career for the family’s sake — in writing he can make an eternal refusal to commit himself. Everything can remain unfinished, indefinite, poised for a resolution which never quite arrives: “God keep me from ever completing anything,” he writes in Moby-Dick. “This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught.” Melville’s deliberate hesitation frees us to invent his books as we read them. No one provides more openings. As the second mate of the Pequod remarks, “You books must know your places. You’ll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts.” In vaults piled high with commentary, each stray sentence of Melville’s has formed the basis for more or less arbitrary system-mak­ing. If words are seeds, his have engendered forests upon forests. The commentators, by and large, would like to pin the man down. Yet when we read through Melville, two phrases recur insistently: “sort of’ and “here and there.” They might be emblems of a profoundly fertile imprecision.

Randomness — the accidental quality of whatever the mind finds within itself — be­came his guiding principle. The shapes of his thoughts intrigued him much as strange fish slapping up against a ship’s sides. The ingratiating glibness of Typee and Omoo had no ulterior purpose; it sprang merely from his enjoyment in spinning out the tale. To resemble more truly a voyage, a book must move toward unknown waters: and so, careless of consequences, Melville made his first divergence from his audience. Sabotag­ing his own facility, he dismantled his ex­pectations of what a book should be, or a sentence, or a thought, and called the result Mardi: an immense improvisation, the imagination of a private ocean in which — as in the last shot of Tarkovsky’s Solaris­ — ideas become islands. Melville stages a homemade creation myth, with language serving as his primordial mud.

He starts with a realistic, circumscribed set-up not unlike the beginning of Typee­ — a ship at sea, two discontented sailors absconding in an open boat — but with each link in the narrative chain gets further away from his premise. Every episode erases what went before. It becomes clear that we’ll nev­er return to the starting point: we are just going to keep moving outward. The story is overtaken by its prose: the metaphors usurp control, becoming more powerful than what they represent. A calm at sea sets off apoca­lyptic resonances: “The stillness of the calm is awful. His voice begins to grow strange and portentous . . . His cranium is a dome full of reverberations. The hollows of his very bones are as whispering galleries.” Melville wallows in language with a more innocent exuberance than ever again, and lets the wispy narrative float where it will. The mysterious maiden Yillah, prisoner of an evil priest, is rescued by the hero Taji, only to vanish again. Accompanied by King Media of the island empire Mardi and three philosophical courtiers, Taji searches among Pacific wastes for the lost Yillah, while silent messengers from the sinister enchantress Hautia pelt him with symbolic flowers. The treatment is absurdly perfunc­tory: crucial plot turns occupy a few hasty paragraphs, while Taji and his quest disap­pear altogether for hundreds of pages at a stretch. Yet Mardi‘s fluid disordered struc­ture casts up hundreds of small self-con­tained structures, like the secret residence of King Donjalolo: “The husk-inhusked meat in a nut; the innermost spark in a ruby; the juice-nested seed in a golden-rind­ed orange; the red royal stone in an effemi­nate peach; the insphered sphere of spheres.”

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Melville just wants to write: the uncon­trolled process hypnotizes him, and as he immerses himself in the “world of wonders insphered within the spontaneous con­sciousness,” strange things start happening. The philosopher Babbalanja, a marginal figure, imposes himself ever more insistently, evoking eons of imaginary geology, imag­inary history, imaginary commentaries on imaginary literatures. In Babbalanja the no­tion of personal identity begins to come apart: “Though I have now been upon terms of close companionship with myself for nigh five hundred moons, I have not yet been able to decide who or what I am.” Unforeseen interiors heave into view. A de­mon named Azzageddi lives dormant in Babbalanja, a psyche within a psyche, sometimes speaking through him in wild prose cadenzas. Melville is drawn into pro­gressively more schizoid involutions: “He is locked up in me. In a mask, he dodges me. He prowls about in me, hither and thither; he peers, and I stare . . . So present is he always, that I seem not so much to live of myself, as to be a mere apprehension of the unaccountable being that is in me. Yet all the time, this being is I, myself.” (Later, Ahab will urge: “Strike through the mask!”)

Toward the end, as if suddenly waking to the presence of an audience, Melville ex­claims: “Oh, reader, list! I’ve chartless voy­aged.” The readers had doubtless already reached the same conclusion about a book embracing florid dream sequences, whimsical paeans to wine and tobacco, labored po­litical allegories, and metaphysical disquisi­tions modeled after Sir Thomas Browne, not to mention the first major literary treatment of surfing. Asked at one point for the meaning of his remarks, Babbalanja replies: “It is a polysensuum” — as good a descrip­tion as any for Melville’s concoction. Even Mardi‘s doldrums are part of its effect, cre­ating through boredom a sense of actual distance, actual duration. For the first but not last time, Melville broached the idea of unreadability as an aesthetic value. To treat of an ocean it wasn’t enough to say “and so forth”; the weight and volume of the waters had to be contained between the covers.

At the same time, out in the real world, Melville was meshing after a fashion with the imperatives of his milieu: in 1847, just after the publication of Omoo, he married Elizabeth Shaw, and within 18 months the first of four children was born. Marriage would seem to be a turning outward; but considering that Elizabeth’s father, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of Massachusetts, had been the best friend of Melville’s father, and had passionately loved Melville’s aunt until her early death, the marriage begins to look like an acting out of someone else’s fantasy, a reassertion of the family bonds which Melville had never really been free of. That his mother and sisters were frequent boarders in the new household could only have reinforced that sense. In any event, the marriage was plainly not a happy one. We hear of uncontrolled rages, depres­sions, nervous ailments. Melville evidently felt trapped; what Elizabeth felt only rarely surfaces in her desperately cheerful letters. Whatever Melville may have expected from marriage and children, they became for him only the most intimate emblem of the world and its pressures.

Those pressures were mounting steadily. Mardi having predictably failed, he rushed out with a couple of realistic, eminently salable narratives more in keeping with the Melville brand name: Redburn, a thinly fic­tionalized account of his first voyage, and White-Jacket, a quasijournalistic retailing of his Navy stint. He was working at a kill­ing pace, dashing off Redburn in a few months right on the heels of Mardi, and wrapping up White-Jacket some 14 weeks later. Yet it wasn’t only commercial necessi­ty that kept him focused on his years at sea. They represented a magic zone of libera­tion, whose most ordinary details were charged with radiant energies. He worked determinedly to keep certain sense-impres­sions alive, as if through them he might effect an alchemical wedding between the terms “ocean” and “language.”

Life at sea is so much simpler. You have the ocean and you have the ship: clear boundaries. Not that a sailor’s existence is particularly blissful. Redburn mostly reca­pitulates bitter memories of “vulgar and brutal men lording it over me, as if I were an African in Alabama,” and White-Jack­et‘s man-o-war, with its ritualistic discipline and routine floggings, its Acts of War whose penalty for every infraction is death, is even more violently repressive. For what, pre­cisely, is Melville nostalgic? Does he aspire to the childlike condition of the sailor, who does what he is told and who, after enjoying on shore leave a brief destructive outburst of freedom, returns sheepishly to the paren­tal care of his commander? Doubtless Mel­ville himself puzzled over it. He took liberty as seriously as any American writer has done, and in White-Jacket wrote a precise, thoroughgoing condemnation of the naval mind and its innate authoritarian bias. He detested confinement, restriction of any kind; was anarchist enough to affirm only partly in jest that “a thief in jail is as honor­able a personage as Gen. George Washing­ton”; and in his own time at sea had succes­sively enacted the roles of deserter, mutineer, jailbird, beachcomber.

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On the other hand, a sailor has a few clear advantages. His work is cut out for him, and no one obstructs him from doing it. His intensely structured existence frees him in a curious way for the most abandoned medi­tations. He’s next to the elements, stripped down to his essence: “At sea . . . all men ap­pear as they are . . . The contact of one man with another is too near and constant to favor deceit. You wear your character as loosely as your flowing trowsers.” It meant a great deal to Melville — a bookish lad, none too dexterous, and by his own account easily shocked — to win a degree of accep­tance from his fellows on the Acushnet, the Lucy Ann, the Charles and Henry, and the United States. Certainly his own class, the aristocratic class he had so rudely fallen from, had done him little good. There lay his democratic touchstone: to treat officers as the enemy camp and take his stand reso­lutely on the foredeck. But on shipboard­ — barring mutiny — the will of the crew finds no concrete political expression. Instead it seeps wistfully into songs, tales, riotous fes­tivities, half-inarticulate soul-to-soul con­versations in the riggings. Melville, who could be cold-blooded when it came to reli­gion and patriotism and law and family, reserved his sentimentality for the camara­derie of sailors.

Ultimately nothing counted more for him than a mate to whom he could tell every­thing, “mate” being a term male and nauti­cal rather than female and domestic. All his adventures were undertaken in tandem: Ty­pee with Toby, Omoo with the fantastical Doctor Long Ghost, Mardi with the stolid Norseman Jarl; Redburn with the adored Harry Bolting, whose “eyes were large, black, and womanly,” and whose voice “was as the sound of a harp”; White-Jacket with ­Jack Chase of the “clear open eye” and “fine broad brow,” who fought for Peru’s freedom and bellowed out stanzas of Ca­moens from the maintop. Eventually Mel­ville kept himself going with the memory of such friendships. More importantly, his whole conception of what writing was for revolved increasingly around the hoped-for existence of an isolated sympathetic ear.

He found such an ear, appended to the person of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The moment was crucial. Melville, activated as he would never be again, had bought a proper­ty in the Berkshires and was trying his somewhat dilettantish hand at farming, while working resolutely on yet another potboiler, this one drawing on his whaling experiences. “I write these books of mine almost entirely for ‘lucre,’ — by the job, as a woodsawyer draws wood,” he confided to Richard Henry Dana. “It will be a strange sort of book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber, you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree.” His encounter with Haw­thorne, at a neighborhood picnic, seems to have precipitated something like a religious experience. He had already been reading Mosses from an Old Manse, of which he wrote rhapsodically: “This Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I con­template him; and further, and further, shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul.”

A new sense of urgent purpose animated Melville. Hauling back the whaling book for revision he ended up remaking it altogether: after 18 months — for Melville an unconscio­nably long period of composition — it emerged as Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. He dedicated it to Hawthorne, in whom he had finally met a reader who could replace all other readers. He saw their friendship — a friendship finally wrecked by Melville’s over-demanding fervor — as the communion of two great souls: “Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s,” he wrote, in a letter whose mystical-erotic tenor could only have perturbed the emo­tionally restrained Hawthorne. “I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the supper, and that we are the pie­ces . . . Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.” He fan­tasized about having a paper mill in his house, unrolling an endless sheet of paper upon which “I should write a thousand-a million-billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter-to you. The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds.”

Perhaps Hawthorne only half-guessed the occult role into which he had been thrust: that of spiritual brother to whom — and to no one else — Melville could impart the illu­minations that were sweeping through him. The writing of Moby-Dick had made him feel his separateness. To his family he was already strange, sequestered in his cham­ber, refusing food from morning to night as he gave himself over to writing. Perhaps only with his imagined Hawthorne on the receiving end could Melville have transmit­ted that network of signals which was Moby-Dick. In any event he sensed the pro­cess would somehow kill him: “I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb,” he wrote to Hawthorne, “and that shortly the flower must fall to the mould.” He was only 31.

Each of his books had been literally a voyage, shaped by the movement it enacted, each sentence a smaller voyage mirroring the larger. In Mardi the canoe journey had already declared itself a psychic ritual, while in Redburn and White-Jacket the mi­nutiae of nautical life — sea weather and navigation and the internal structure of sailing vessels — were laid out item by item like a language being readied for use. But despite that work of preparation, the mak­ing of Moby-Dick remains mysterious, like the eruption of one of those “wild talents” the parapsychologists like to talk about. It registers the shock of a sudden, only partly voluntary transformation, accompanied by the acquisition of new powers. All at once Melville knows that he cannot make a false step. The problem of meaning ceases to  trouble him because he can mean every­thing at the same time. As if talking in tongues, he breaks into dozens of different voices, becomes a whole crew of “Feegeeans, Tongatabooans, Erromanggoans, Pannan­gians, and Brighggians.” Inanimate objects squirm with life, colors are magnified, tiny sounds grow thunderous.

A shaping force has seized hold of the book: an entirely novel sense of inevitability surges up under Melville’s relaxed random­ness. The change arises precisely from Mel­ville’s trust in language, his practice — culti­vated in Mardi — of letting syntax simmer and swirl and hatch its multiform offspring. But what surfaces this time is something different in kind, an alien presence, dark and mute: not the whale, I mean, but Ahab. Here was the demon Azzegeddi made mani­fest: and Melville, who had shied from cap­tains, finds himself ventriloquizing dreadful commands. The instant Ahab pops up into daylight the book’s chemistry changes: “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or tak­ing away one particle from their compacted aged robustness.” Really he is already dead: an inert totem gone beyond responsiveness. But his very deadness catalyzes the vitality around him, calling up an atmosphere in which no pebble or syllable can be moved without cosmic consequences.

Although we can see what Ahab is made of — stances, props, adjectives, analogies, a smattering of grandiloquent cadences — nothing short of voodoo adequately ex­plains his power. On the most obvious level we see a stagy figure thundering forth Elizabethanisms: “I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!” Ahab’s eeriness lies not in his outward behavior but in the secret influence he seems to exert over his creator. Like a demon issued fullblown from a hexed pen­tagram, overwhelming his invoker, the char­acter starts telling the author what to do: and Melville, an obedient seaman, obeys his captain. Ahab, a Golem, a Frankenstein monster, uncannily feeds off the energy of mental projection, surviving in an unnatu­ral half-life, not Ahab any longer but “what was Ahab”: “a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself.”

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Yet to have given birth to Ahab was a profound liberation. The horrible dead old man was no longer within Melville but out­side him, sharply etched against empty sky. The externalization of that “tormented spirit” effects an appeasement: like a decoy Ahab absorbs all dark forces, while Melville is freed to exercise his powers with a kind of divine license. Omnipresent, he dives to the bottom of the ocean, enters into whales, learns what it is “to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world.” He speaks with the tongue of Shakespeare and Solo­mon, and his book becomes a proclamation of its own expansive intentions: “Already we are boldly launched upon the deep, but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, har­borless immensities.” Burnt-out Ahab bides his time below, a vacant silhouette, a black hole drawing the whole ship down with him.

In the “oceanic doom” genre — which en­compasses The Rime of the Ancient Mari­ner and The Flying Dutchman and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym — there’s nothing unusual about a great gothic ma­chine of a ship sailing into horror. But while for Coleridge and Poe the ocean mirrored their own paranoia, for Melville it’s a secret home, a slithery womb full of freshets and phosphorescent glimmers. His death-ship may glide ceremonially toward the abyss, heralded by signs and portents, but the ocean on which it floats brims with a slow and ancient bliss. How could it be other­wise, since the idea of ocean infallibly re­leases Melville’s power as a writer? It’s the harsh and impermeable Ahab who is the Other. The ocean, on the contrary, is that innermost resting place in whose depths, says Ishmael, “I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.” Moby Dick‘s vast body — ­mapped out chapter by chapter, in all the amplitude of its “thick walls, and . . . inte­rior spaciousness,”— is analogous to the body of the book. It was in whale form, we are told, that Vishnu swam to “the bottom of the waters” to retrieve the sacred writings: and when Ishmael, momentarily separated from the Pequod, peers down into those same waters, it is to gaze entranced at the “dalliance and delight” of serenely copulat­ing whales.

The impulse to freedom — which in Mel­ville is a form of laziness — seeks the deeps, away from the hypnotic proto-Hitler Ahab, whose “sultanism” becomes “incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship” as he guides his crew toward death. By attaching himself to a single unambiguous meaning, Ahab sacri­fices his freedom of action. His personality narrows down to a sentence: I will kill the whale. It becomes a political slogan: as mas­ter of the Pequod he imposes on the crew an ideology consisting of that sentence alone. The ship, locked into its rigid structure of meaning, sails on an ocean which is all swelling and heaving ambivalence, that “indefiniteness” of which the whale’s white­ness is emblematic. Whiteness appalls be­cause it “shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation.” Yet the mind — Melville’s mind most particularly — keeps coming back to that brink, to “the white depths of the milky way” and the “dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows”: full, not of one specific meaning, but of all meanings blended, “a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink.” Even as he shrinks from it, Melville is stirred by a counter-impulse of desire — or so the temblors of his prose assure us. If there is an eroticism of annihilation, the white whale embodies it.

Although his alter ego Ishmael survives the wreck, it was as if Melville had in truth been swallowed by the whale. He had stum­bled almost accidentally into writing, but once caught up in the process had been pulled ever deeper into the spiraling struc­tures it generated. The timetables of the outside world must have begun to seem re­mote: he was out of sync. There was no money. His great prophetic utterance was received as a rather convoluted sea story. Even in Hawthorne he sensed a nervous withdrawal. As for his family, they were no longer merely worrying about his health, but openly questioning his sanity. Their correspondence shows the conclave of rela­tives sending emergency signals back and forth about Herman’s “condition.” His mother fears that “this constant working of the brain, and excitement of the imagina­tion, is wearing Herman out”; his father-in­-law concurs that Melville “overworks him­self and brings on severe nervous afflic­tions.” All agree that, in sister Augusta’s words, “it is of the utmost importance that something should be done to prevent the necessity of Herman’s writing.” But Her­man, closeted in his room like Ahab in his cabin, plunged straight into the next book as if afraid to stop.

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That book — Pierre, or The Ambigu­ities — brought the crisis to a head: it was not only an abject failure, but a work of unbridled psychological aggression in which Melville undertook the symbolic destruc­tion of his entire family. Until now he had been like a little boy playing in his room, making up stories about his imaginary boat: the world of his books was safely separated by vast tracts of ocean from his real life as son and husband and father. In Pierre the little boy crept into the rest of the house, poking among bedrooms and closets and attics and making some unpleasant discov­eries. The old Melville household  with its dominating mother, dead father, and oppressively legendary grandfather — was played back in the distorted light of re­awakened childhood memory.

Pierre‘s plot resembles the garish fantasy of a morbidly precocious child: Noble young Pierre lives alone with his still beautiful mother, on whom he lavishes a “courteous lover-like adoration.” (Mother and son playfully “call each other brother and sis­ter.”) Otherwise Pierre spends his time ven­erating a portrait of his father and strolling through gardens with his virginal fiancee Lucy. Into this petrified bower of bliss comes the dark Isabel, who reveals herself in secret to Pierre as his illegitimate half-­sister. Horrified at this exposure of parental hypocrisy and determined to do the right thing by Isabel, Pierre abruptly burns his father’s portrait, vacates the family man­sion, breaks off with Lucy, and unites — for, motives too complexly self-contradictory to explain — in a mock marriage with Isabel. His mother dies of grief; Lucy, in a bizarre fit of self-sacrifice, comes to live with Pierre and Isabel as their servant; and Glen, Pierre’s cousin (and, it is suggested, his one­time lover), publicly insults him, in re­sponse to which Pierre shoots him down in the street. Imprisoned, Pierre is joined by Lucy and Isabel, and all three — in a kind of small-scale Jonestown — expire together.

So much for Melville’s effort to write a commercial novel: now not only his relatives but the critics were calling him insane. Pierre hasn’t fared well with critics in our day either, having been variously described as a “disaster” (Charles Olson), “grindingly, ludicrously bad” (John Updike), and “one of the most painfully ill-conditioned books ever to be produced by a first-rate mind” (Newton Arvin). It is indeed a suicidal book, undermining its own structure, chok­ing off the emotions to which it appeals, and exploding into arbitrary violence which shatters any remaining framework of sym­pathy. Melville cannibalizes himself: in the same way that he had turned his sea voy­ages into books, he attempts to patch his rawest traumas and rages into a gothic ro­mance. Charged with the residue of Moby­-Dick‘s energies, he directs them against his own precarious sense of wholeness, with bloody results. Small wonder that many have recoiled from a book where, in a typi­cal instance, the hero angrily smashes his head against a wall and falls down “dab­bling in the vomit of his loathed identity.”

Yet in its way Pierre is as ambitious and original as Moby-Dick. The whole first half is a sustained trance in which, against the droning background created by the repeti­tion of “dim” and “vague” and “mysteri­ous” and “indefinite,” Melville lets shadows leak into the cozy family nest. The process by which familiar associations turn menac­ing, as the hero’s consciousness gives way to engulfment, is described with obsessive pre­cision: “He felt that what he had always before considered the solid land of veritable reality, was now being audaciously en­croached upon by bannered armies of hood­ed phantoms, disembarking in his soul, as from flotillas of specter-boats.” In short lu­rid bursts, Pierre’s states of mind are lit up like cavernous Thomas Cole landscapes. These sudden vistas of mental recesses jan­gle with voluptuous negativity: meanings deny themselves and coil inward to reveal further meanings likewise receding into shadow. An anguished unresolved probing extends itself in tortuously prolonged sen­tences, like the one in which Pierre contem­plates his dead father’s portrait, “ever watching the strangely concealed lights of the meanings that so mysteriously moved to and fro within . . . unconsciously throwing himself open to all those ineffable hints and ambiguities, and undefined half-sugges­tions, which now and then people the soul’s atmosphere, as thickly as in a soft, steady snow-storm, the snow-flakes people the air.”

In Moby-Dick Melville had written that “those far mysteries we dream of,” if pur­sued, “either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.” His trail had led him into a maze poisonous with “dark persuadings” and “horrible haunting toads and scorpions,” and his companion this time was no hearty fellow sailor but the spectral sickly Isabel, Melville’s feminine twin at last bodied forth. Her speeches have  a hollow, somnolent ring, like an emanation at a seance. In that alien voice we seem to hear the controlling spirit of Melville’s writing speaking for itself: “I never affect any thoughts, and I never adulterate any thoughts; but when I speak, think forth from the tongue, speech being sometimes  before the thought; so, often, my own tongue teaches me new things.” If Pierre starts to cave in somewhere past its mid­point, it’s perhaps because Melville, sud­denly aware of what he was perpetrating, tried to escape from the process he had initiated. Living in poverty with Isabel, Pierre writes a book — a book plainly identi­cal to the one we are reading. Pierre’s book collapses too: he is overwhelmed by “the primitive elementalizing of the strange stuff, which in the act of attempting that book, has upheaved and upgushed in his soul.” Finally there’s no way out but a murderous showdown: so in 1852, by default, Melville invented the genre of James Cain’s Serenade and Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.

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He would never let himself go like that again. After Pierre he reined in the sponta­neity which had led him so wildly astray. A new mistrust surfaces in his prose: he masks himself. The scrupulous impersonality of “Benito Cereno” extends even to its weath­er patterns: “Everything was mute and calm; everything gray.” Structurally a de­tective story, “Benito Cereno” shares that genre’s flatness of characterization. Its com­panion piece, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” eliminates characterization altogether in its portrait of a human degree zero, defined exclusively in negative terms. Beyond the rotted lushness of Pierre we emerge into a bone-white dessication, perfect and empty: “I placed his desk close up to a small side­-window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back-yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erection, com­manded at present no view at all, though it gave some light.” Having advanced so far into the nonhuman, he even wrote a novella-like set of sketches, “The Encantadas,” whose “characters” are clumps of volcanic rock and huge primeval tortoises, and where such humans as appear function as bits of rubble littering the landscape. In the deso­lation of those lava slopes, in the barrenness of the Chilean coast off which “Benito Cer­eno” unfolds, in the blankness of Bartleby, Melville found his new field of action: the desert. But if his ocean had been full of noises, his desert was to be mostly silent.

Israel Potter, the miserably unlucky hero of Bunker Hill, was condemned by fate to 50 years of beggarly exile. Melville’s own exile was internal: a separation from lan­guage as he had loved it, primordial and generous, and in its place a hair-splitting intellectual paranoia, a remorseless jabbing at words to find out their hidden enmities. Pierre had already revealed to him “the universal lurking insincerity of even the greatest and purest written thoughts,” and The Confidence-Man, that queasiest of books, states the case to the point of ex­haustion. The enthusiastic, hyperbolic lan­guage which had once been Melville’s now belongs to the Confidence-Man, grinning emissary of the great American bilking ma­chine, chameleonic trickster and archetypal glad-hander, with his bluff cries of “Good fellowship forever!” and his ravenous eye for human vulnerability. Like any salesman his implicit motto is: “If you don’t trust me, there must be something wrong with you.”

For us, with its impeccable foreshadowing of the style and methodology of a Spiro Agnew or Jerry Falwell, The Confidence­ Man looks prophetic: and like many anoth­er prophetic book, it borders on the unread­able. As airless and badly lit as the Mississippi steamer aboard which it’s set, the novel pits a faceless malevolent pres­ence — we recognize him only by the insinu­ating thrust of his discourse — against a se­ries of lumpish grotesques, ultimate materialists characterized solely by the clothes they wear and the money they spend: “From an old buckskin pouch, tremulously dragged forth, ten hoarded ea­gles, tarnished into the appearance of ten old horn-buttons, were taken, and half-ea­gerly, half-reluctantly, offered.” All affir­mations being suspect, Melville undercuts his own writing: the words recoil from themselves, and the book trails off into a choking darkness. With a cryptic gesture of farewell ± “Something further may follow of this Masquerade” — the novelist steals away into silence.

He published no more prose. In 1856, just after finishing The Confidence-Man, he went — or was packed off — across the ocean again, at his father-in-law’s expense: a hag­gard convalescent on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Stopping off in England he paid his respects to Hawthorne, talking endlessly of religion and the life after death, and ac­knowledging that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated.” The sacred places of Jerusalem and Judea, duti­fully though he wrote them up in his note­book, imparted no spiritual healing. He seems to have come home resigned to a muffled, depleted existence. Admitting that he was finished as a professional writer, he lectured unsuccessfully for a few seasons on topics like “Roman Statuary” and “Travel: Its Pleasures, Pains, and Profits”; made vain efforts to parlay his family’s Demo­cratic connections into a diplomatic ap­pointment; and in 1866 — having by now sold the farm and settled into an apartment on East 26th Street — he accepted a job as Inspector of Customs, at $4 a day, on the New York docks. He remained there until his retirement 20 years later.

The record of those years is a round of barren drudgery and family occasions. Mel­ville evolved into a diffident functionary, notoriously honest amid a nest of bureau­cratic corruption, who in off hours indulged his taste for books and fine prints while complying dutifully with the rituals of domestic life. A few blinding tragedies inter­rupted the surface monotony. Soon after Melville went to work in the customs office, his teenaged son Malcolm — who slept with a gun under his pillow and had often quarreled with his father — blew his brains out for no clear reason. A year later the other son, Stanwix, set sail for China to begin a downward spiral of indecisive drifting, modeled perhaps on Typee and Omoo, and terminated by an early death in far-off Cali­fornia. Melville himself disappeared from literary society, and by the mid-’80s was being written of in these terms: “Herman Melville exemplifies the transiency of liter­ary reputation . . . Although his early works are still popular, the author is generally supposed to be dead.”

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In fact he had not even stopped writing; he had simply stopped addressing an audi­ence. Melville’s particular silence took the form of poetry. He may have nursed a brief hope that the Civil War poems of Battle­-Pieces would elevate him to the rank of public bard; but no one noticed and few would have appreciated his subtle modifica­tion of military rhetoric through images of “the parched ones stretched in pain” or “the rusted gun,/Green shoes full of bones, the mouldering coat/And cuddled-up skel­eton.” Battle-Pieces is Melville’s least per­sonal book (his own tumult for once sub­sides into a larger civic solemnity) and the mode of formal recitative in which it’s cast has become remote to us. It does contain at least one idiosyncratic masterpiece, “The House-‘Top,” a “night piece” registering in Jacobean tones the shock of New York’s draft riots:

No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And binds the brain-a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades, Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya.

Melville’s democratic enthusiasm curdles, confronted with an anarchy in which “All civil charms/And priestly spells which late held hearts in sway/. . . like a dream dis­solve,/ And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.” It feels like a poem of the next century, and the poet’s grim applause for the forces of martial law is only too premon­itory: “Wise Draco comes, deep in the mid­night roll/ Of black artillery.”

After the critical failure of Battle-Pieces, Melville was free to be indifferent. The ap­plause, rewards, laurel wreaths and honor­ary appointments would be distributed elsewhere: he was left as his own audience of one. Out of that solitude he constructed Clarel, an immensely long poem drawing on his trip to Palestine. Apparently begun in the wake of his son’s suicide, it was pub­lished 10 years later at his uncle’s expense, and was greeted — as might be anticipated­ — with dead silence. Melville later cavalierly described Clarel as “eminently adapted for unpopularity”; yet his wife provides a more anguished glimpse of what it meant to him: “Herman, poor fellow, is in such a frightful­ly nervous state . . . that I am actually afraid to have any one here for fear that he will be upset. entirely . . . If ever this dread­ful incubus of a book (I call it so because it has undermined all our happiness) gets off Herman’s shoulders I do hope he may be in better mental health.”

Clarel has almost the air of a self-im­posed penance, as Melville meticulously re­constructs his failure to find any trace of God in the Holy Land. This 18,000-line work, with its dozens of characters and dense layers of Bible lore and Orientalia, was the most labored, the most consciously artistic thing Melville ever did: yet its very elaboration seems designed to stave off an overwhelming feeling of hollowness. The narrative line is stark: An American divinity student has undergone a crisis of faith. Hoping for spiritual renewal he wanders through Jerusalem and across the Judean desert to Bethlehem, in company with a band of pilgrims representing every shade of credence: sincere piety, fanaticism, mod­ern liberalism, scientific scepticism, with a few taciturn Moslems and Druses thrown in for contrast. The debate moves back and forth, while in counterpoint the sacred sites roll by. We might be in the midst of one of those 19th century paintings depicting a group of travelers dwarfed by the surround­ing crags and ruins. Young Clarel wavers from one side to another, only to sink deep­er in uncertainty and self-doubt: and, re­turning to Jerusalem to find his chaste be­loved dead of fever, he slumps into a perhaps unredeemable despair. Melville systematically frustrates the desire for a transcendent resolution. Despite the for­mality of its trappings — a ceremonial order­ing of calendrical and geographic compo­nents, a constricting metrical scheme (rhymed tetrameters), a Dantean inter­weaving of symbols — Clarel remains stub­bornly open-ended, dislocated, a monument to unappeasable vacillation. It prays for meaning and no meaning appears.

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Had Melville’s skill at versification been equal to a work of such length, Clarel would be the great poem which it obliquely im­plies but only fitfully becomes. The techni­cal constraints too often weigh him down, and we feel trapped in the thudding move­ments of some monstrously cumbersome machine. Yet Clarel has its fascinations. The meter’s choked, clotted gait induces claustrophobia. Amid incessant images of aridity and death, the poem’s dry and ab­stract talk mirrors the desert’s barrenness: ” ‘Tis horror absolute — severe,/ Dead, livid, honeycombed, dumb, fell — / A caked depopulated hell.”

Suffocating as it often is, Clarel works beautifully as concrete poetry. The short lines, unrolling like a scroll through empty space, heighten the physical presence of Melville’s heterogeneous, always surprising vocabulary; the placement of words on the page is often more significant than symbolic patterns or intellectual arguments. The lay­out’s dizzying verticality, combined with a persistent staccato of enjambment, estab­lishes a jagged topography:

Overlooked, the houses sloped from him — 
Terraced or domed, unchimnied, gray,
All stone — a moor of roofs. No play
Of life; no smoke went up, no sound
Except low hum, and that half drowned. 

Clarel might be described as a symbolic poem about the failure of symbolism. The great unifying Biblical images are reduced to empty forms: just a hill, just a rock, just a tomb. The result of “that vast eclipse” is to make all actions arbitrary. The randomness which once delighted Melville now horrifies him: “No shape astir/Except at whiles a shadow falls/Athwart the way, and key in hand/Noiseless applies it, enters so/And vanishes.” The world is all mask, a grainy surface crisscrossed by accidental comings and goings.

In Clarel, that cipher of a hero, Melville had come to rest in an image of ultimate passivity. Tormented by religious doubt, by premonitions of political cataclysm, by nag­ging sexual uncertainties, the student with­draws from action altogether. Like Clarel, Melville had never really decided which sex he was drawn to, or whether he didn’t pre­fer a solitary asceticism; as for what kind of government to support, or what God to be­lieve or not believe in, his judgments flut­tered and plunged and reared up with remorseless unpredictability. Writing served as a refuge from that crisis, as Melville discovered how contradictory possibilities could be fused together in imaginary linguistic structures. In that paradise he could defer what were for him impossible decisions. Moments of flight or procrastination or dead calm — when a ship cannot move even if it wants to — became pockets of eternity.

Perhaps in the end he felt that all his choices had been forced upon him. His last poems brim with nostalgia for a life only half lived: he conjures up the ghosts of dead sailors (“Where’s Commander All-a­-Tanto?/ Where’s Orlop Bob singing up from below?/ Where’s Rhyming Ned? has he spun his last canto?/ Where’s Jewsharp Jim? Where’s Rigadoon Joe?”) and recalls “The Typee-truants under stars/Unknown to Shakespeare’s Midsummer-Night.” The final years seem to have been more tranquil than what went before. He could even write: “Healed of my hurt, I laud the inhuman sea.” The best of these late poems, “Billy in the Darbies,” formed the seed of his last story, the almost-finished Billy Budd. There a whole drama of wrongful hurt, and warped desire turned hateful, dissolved into a reconciliation between the condemned in­nocent and the father-figure who must kill him. The scene is bathed in a resolutely unrevealing luminosity: “There is no telling the sacrament . . . wherever under circum­stances at all akin to those here attempted to be set forth two of great Nature’s nobler order embrace. There is privacy at the time, inviolable to the survivor; the holy oblivion, the sequel to each diviner magnanimity, providentially covers all at last.” The desire to particularize at last surrenders to the desire to sink, to be embraced, to submit to the disciplinary prerogatives of silence: “I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.” ■

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Feodor’s Guide: Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky

The citizen secures himself against genius by icon worship. By the touch of Circe’s wand, the divine troublemakers are translated into porcine embroidery.
— Edward Dahlberg, “Can These Bones Live?”

“At the present time, negation is the most use­ful of all — and we deny — “
“Everything?”
“Everything!”
“What, not only art and poetry… but even… horrible to say…” 
“Everything,” repeated Bazarov, with indescribable composure. 
— Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground and its narrator are just about impossible really to understand without some knowledge of the intellectual climate of Russia in the 1860s, particularly the frisson of utopian socialism and atheistic utilitarianism then in vogue among the radical Russian intelligentsia, an ideology that Dostoevsky loathed with the sort of passion only Dostoevsky could loathe with.

In 1957, Joseph Frank, as he was wading through some of this particular-context background so that he could give his Princeton comp-lit students a halfway comprehensive reading of Notes, started to get interested in the fiction of Dostoevsky as a kind of bridge between two distinct ways of coming at text, a purely formal aesthetic approach v. a social-dash-ideological criticism that cares only about the thematics and the philosophical assumptions that lie behind them. That interest — plus 40 years of what must have been skull-crunching scholarly la­bor — has yielded the first four volumes of a projected five­-book study of Dostoevsky’s life and times and writing. Proba­bly all serious scholars of Dos­toevsky are waiting bated to see if Frank can hang on long enough to bring his encyclopedic study all the way up to the early 1880s, when Dosto­evsky finished the fourth of his great novels, gave his famous Pushkin speech, and died. Even if the fifth volume doesn’t get written, though, the ap­pearance now of the fourth ensures Frank’s own status as the definitive biographer of one of the best fiction writers ever.

** Am I a good person? Do I even, deep down, really wish to be a good person? Or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people will approve me? Is there a differ­ence? **

Frank persuades us that Dostoevsky’s ma­ture works were fundamentally ideologi­cal novels and simply cannot be read un­less one understands the polemical agendas that inform them and to which they were directed. Thus the concatena­tion of universal and particular that char­acterizes Notes From Underground (1) in fact characterizes all of the best work of FMD, a writer whose “evident desire,” Frank says, is “to dramatize his moral-spiritual themes against the background of Russian history.”

A nonstandard feature of Frank’s projects is the amount of straightforward critical attention he pays to the actual books Dostoevsky wrote. “It is the production of such masterpieces that makes Dostoevsky’s life worth recounting at all,” his preface to The Miraculous Years goes, “and my purpose, as in the previous volumes, is to keep them constantly in the foreground rather than treating them as accessory to the life per se.” At least a third of this latest volume is given over to close readings of the stuff Dostoevsky produced in this — Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, The Idiot, The Eternal Husband, and Demons. These readings aim to be explicative rather than argumentative or theory-driven — i.e., their aim is to articulate as fully as possible what exactly Dostoevsky himself wanted the books to mean. While this approach seems to act as if there’s no such thing as the Intentional Fallacy (2), it seems prima facie justified by Frank’s own project, which is always to trace and explain the novels’ genesis out of Dostoevsky’s own ideological engagement with Russian culture.

** What does “faith” mean? Isn’t it crazy to believe in something there’s no hard proof of? Is there any difference between “faith” and a bunch of nose-pierced natives sacrificing virgins to volcanoes because they believe it’ll produce good weather? How can somebody have faith before they’re pre­sented with a sufficient reason to have faith? Is somehow needing to have faith a sufficient reason for having faith? **

To appreciate Joseph Frank’s achieve­ment, it seems important to emphasize how many different approaches to biog­raphy and criticism he’s trying to marry. Standard literary biographies spotlight an author and his personal life — especially the seamy or neurotic stuff —and pretty much ignore the specific historical context in which he wrote. Other studies — especially those with a theoretical agenda — focus almost exclu­sively on context and treat an author and his books as mathematical exponents of the prejudices, power dynamics, and metaphysical delusions of his age. Some biographies act as if their subject’s own works have already been all figured out, and they treat a personal life’s relation to meanings the biographers assume are al­ready fixed and inarguable; whereas most of this century’s “critical studies” treat an author’s books hermetically, ignoring facts about the writer’s circumstances and be­liefs that can help explain not only what the work is about but why it has the par­ticular individual magic of a certain writer’s own unique voice and vision. (3)

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** But if I decide to decide there’s a different, less selfish, less lonely point to my life, isn’t the reason for this decision my desire to be less lone­ly, meaning to suffer less pain? So can the de­cision to be less selfish be anything other than a selfish decision? **

Frank’s four volumes compose an ex­tremely detailed and demanding work on an extremely complex and demanding au­thor, a fiction writer whose time and cul­ture and language are alien to us. Russian, a non-Latinate language, is extraordinar­ily hard to translate into English, and when you add to this the archaism of a language 100-plus years old (4), Dosto­evsky’s prose and dialogue can come off stilted and pleonastic and silly (5). Then there’s the kind of soppy-seeming formal­ity of the 19th-century culture Dosto­evsky’s characters inhabit. These are char­acters who, e.g., when they’re absolutely furious at each other, do stuff like “shake their fists” and call each other “scoundrels” and “fly at” each other (6). Speakers use exclamation points in quan­tities now seen only in comic strips. So­cial etiquette is stiff to the point of absur­dity. People are always “calling” on each other and either “being received” or “not being received” and obeying rococo con­ventions of politeness even when they’re insulting each other (7). Plus obscure military ranks and bureaucratic hierarchies abound; plus rigid and totally weird class distinctions that are hard to keep straight and understand the implications of, espe­cially because the economic realities of old Russian society are so strange (see, e.g., the way even a destitute “former student” like Raskolnikov or an unemployed bu­reaucrat like the Underground Man can somehow afford a servant and a cook).

The point is that there is real and alienating stuff besides just the death-by­-canonization that stands in the way. But Dostoevsky is worth the work despite his place astride the Western canon. One thing that canonization and course assignments (8) obscure is that Dostoevsky is­n’t just great, he’s fun. His novels almost always have just ripping good plots, lurid and involved and thoroughly dramatic. There are murders and attempted mur­ders and police and dysfunctional-family feuding and spies and tough guys and beautiful fallen women and unctuous con men and inheritances and silky villains and scheming and whores. Of course the fact that Dostoevsky can tell a really good story isn’t alone enough to make him great — if it were, Judith Krantz and John Grisham would be great fiction writers, and as matters stand they’re not even very good. What keeps them and lots of other seriously gifted plot-weavers from being very good is that they don’t have much talent for (or interest in) characteriza­tion — their plots are usually inhabited by undeveloped or broadly drawn stick fig­ures. (In fairness, too, there are writers who are great at making complex and ful­ly realized human characters but who don’t seem able to insert those characters into a believable and interesting dramatic plot. Plus others — usually the type re­garded as most “literary”  — who seem able/interested in neither plot nor charac­ter, whose books’ movement and appeal depends entirely on rarefied aesthetic or meta-aesthetic agendas.)

The thing about Dostoevsky’s char­acters is that they live. And by this I don’t mean just that they’re successfully realized and believable and “round.” The best of them live inside us, forever, once we’ve met them. Recall, e.g., the proud and pa­thetic Raskolnikov, the naive Devushkin, the beautiful and damned Nastasya of The Idiot (9), the unctuous Lebedyev and spi­derish Ippolit of the same novel; Stavro­gin; C&P‘s ingenious maverick detective Porfiry Petrovich (without whom there would be no commercial detective stories and eccentrically brilliant cops); Marme­ladov, the hideous and pitiful alcoholic; or the vain and noble roulette addict Alek­sey Ivanovich of The Gambler; the gold-­hearted whores Sonya and Liza; the beautiful stone-hearted Aglaya; or the unbelievably repellent Smerdyakov, that living engine of slimy resentment in whom I see parts of myself I can barely stand to look at; or the child- and Christ-like, idealized and all-too-human Myshkin and Alyosha (the doomed human Christ and tri­umphant child-pilgrim, respectively). These — many more — live, and not be­cause they’re just accurately drawn types or facets of human beings, but because, acting within plausible and ripping good plots, they dramatize the profoundest parts of all human beings, the parts most conflicted, most serious: the ones with the most at stake. Dostoevsky’s characters also — and without ever ceasing to be hu­man and real — represent ideologies and philosophies of life: Raskolnikov the “ra­tional egoism” of the 1860s left, Myshkin mystical Christian love, the Underground Man the influence of European posi­tivism on the Russian character, Ippolit the raging human will confronted by death, Aleksey the perversion of Slavophilic pride in the face of European perfidy… on and on.

FMD’s concern was always what it is to be a human being — i.e., how a person, in the particular social and philosophical circumstances of 19th-century Russia, could be a real human being, a person whose life was informed by love and values and prin­ciples, instead of being just a very shrewd species of self-preserving animal.

** Is it possible really to love somebody? If I’m lonely, empty inside, everybody outside me is potential relief: I need them. But is it possible to love what you need? Does love have to be vol­untary to be love? Does it have to not even be in my own best interests, the love, to count as love? **

It’s a famous irony that Dostoevsky, whose fiction is famous for its wisdom and compassion and moral rigor, was in many ways kind of a prick in real life — vain, self-­absorbed, arrogant, spiteful, selfish. A fel­low with a pretty serious gambling problem, he was almost always broke, whined constantly about his poverty, was always badgering his friends and colleagues for emergency loans that he never repaid, held grudges, and pawned his young wife’s coat in cold weather so he could gamble, etc. (10) But it’s also well-known that Dostoevsky’s own life was full of incredible suffering and tragedy. His Moscow childhood was so miserable that never once in any of his books does Dostoevsky set or even men­tion any action in Moscow (11). His remote and neurasthenic father was murdered by his own serfs when FMD was 17. Seven years later, the publication of his first nov­el, (12) and its endorsement by critics like Belinsky and Herzen, made Dostoevsky an instant superstar at the same time that he was starting to get involved with the Petrashevsky circle, a group of revolutionary intellectuals who plotted to incite a peasant uprising against the tsar. In 1849 FMD, the Mclnerney of his era, was arrested as a conspirator, convicted, sentenced to death, and underwent the “mock execution of the Petrashevtsy,” in which the conspirators were blindfolded and tied to stakes and at the “Aim!” stage of the firing-squad process when an imperial messenger rode up with a supposed “last-minute” reprieve from the merciful tsar.

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His sentence commuted to impris­onment and exile, the epileptic Dosto­evsky ended up spending almost a decade in balmy Siberia, returning to St. Peters­burg in 1859 to find that the Russian lit­erary world had all but forgotten him. Then his wife died — unpleasantly — then his beloved brother Mikhail died, then his literary journal Epoch went under, then his epilepsy started getting so much worse that he was constantly terrified that he’d die or go permanently crazy from the seizures (13). Hiring a 22-year-old stenogra­pher to help him complete The Gambler in time to satisfy a publisher with whom he’d signed an insane deliver-or-forfeit-all-roy­alties-for-everything-you-ever-wrote con­tract, Dostoevsky married his amanuensis four months later, just in time to flee Epoch‘s creditors with her, wander unhap­pily through a Europe whose influence on Russia he despised (14), have a daughter who died of pneumonia almost right away, writing constantly, penniless, often literal­ly hungry, often clinically depressed in the aftermath of tooth-rattling grand mal seizures, going through cycles of roulette binges and then crushing self-hatred. Vol­ume IV details a lot of Dostoevsky’s Eu­ropean tribulations via the journals of his young new wife, Anna Snitkin (15), by all ac­counts a really nice and patient person whose emotional martyrdom as the Spouse of this guy ought to qualify her as patron saint of the codependency recovery movement or something (16).

** What is “an American”? Do we have something in common, as Americans? Or do we all just happen to live inside the same arbitrary boundaries? How is America different from other countries? Is there something spe­cial about it? Forget about special privileges that go with being an American — are there special responsibilities that go with being an American? If so, responsibilities to whom? **

Frank doesn’t try to whitewash the icky parts (17), but he takes great care to relate Dostoevsky’s personal and psychological life to his fictions and the ideologies that inform them. That FMD is first and final­ly an ideological writer (18) makes him an es­pecially congenial subject for Frank’s con­textual approach to biography. And the four volumes of Dostoevsky make it clear that no personal event was as important to the genesis of the “mature” FMD than the mock execution, a period of several min­utes when the frail and neurotic 28-year-­old aesthete believed his life was over. The result was some sort of very deep “conver­sion experience,” though it gets compli­cated, because the Christian convictions that inform Dostoevsky’s writings there­after are not those of any organized church, really, and are also bound up with a kind of mystical Russian nationalism and a political conservatism (19) that led the next century’s Soviets to suppress FMD’s work and any evidence of its influence (20).

** Does this guy Jesus Christ’s life have any­thing to teach me even if he wasn’t “divine”? What are the implications that somebody who was supposed to be God’s relative and so could have turned the cross into a planter or some­thing with just a look still voluntarily let them nail him up there, and died? And did he know? Did he know he could break the cross with just a look? — Speaking of knowing: did he know in advance that the death’d just be temporary? Had God clued him in? I bet I could climb up there, too, if l knew an eternity of right-handed bliss lay on the other side of six hours of pain — Does any of this even matter? Can I still believe in JC or Muhammad or Buddha or whomever even if I don’t “believe” they were relatives of God? Plus what would that even mean, anyway: “believe in”? **

What seems most important is that FMD’s near-death experience changed a typically vain and trendy young writer — a very talented one, true, but still somebody whose basic ambitions were for his own literary glory (21) — into somebody who be­lieved deeply in moral/spiritual values (22), more, into somebody who believed that a life lived without moral/spiritual values was not just incomplete but depraved (23).

So, for me anyway, what makes Dos­toevsky invaluable is that he possessed a passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we, here, today, cannot or do not allow ourselves. And on finishing Frank’s books, I think any seri­ous American reader/writer will find him­self driven to think hard about what ex­actly it is that makes so many of the novelists of our own time look so themat­ically shallow and lightweight, so impov­erished in comparison to Gogol, Dosto­evsky, even lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev. To inquire of ourselves why we — under our own nihilist spell — seem to require of our writers an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate ques­tions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of profound issues or else try somehow to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextu­al quotation or incongruous juxtaposi­tion, sticking them inside asterisks as part of some surreal, defamiliarization-of-the-­reading-experience flourish.

Part of the answer to questions about our own art’s thematic poverty obviously involves our era’s postindustrial condition and postmodern culture. The Modernists, among other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of metaphysics, and “Great Novels” since Joyce tend to be judged largely on their formal ingenuity; we presume as a matter of course that se­rious literature will be aesthetically dis­tanced from real lived life. Add to this the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism, and it’s fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free from certain cultural expectations that constrain our own novelists’ freedom to be “serious.”

But it’s just as fair to observe that Dostoevsky operated under some serious cultural constraints of his own: a repressive government, state censorship, and above all the popularity of post-Enlight­enment European thought, much of which went directly against beliefs he held dear and wanted to write about. The thing is that Dostoevsky wasn’t just a genius­ — he was, finally, brave. He never stopped worrying about his literary reputation, but he also never stopped promulgating ideas in which he believed. And he did so not by ignoring the unfriendly cultural circum­stances in which he was writing, but by confronting them, engaging them, specif­ically and by name (24).

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Maybe it’s not true that we today are nihilists. At the very least we have devils we believe in. These include sentimentali­ty, naivety, archaism, fanaticism. Maybe it’d be better to call our art’s culture one of congenital skepticism. Our intelligentsia (us) distrust strong belief, open convic­tion. Material passion is one thing, but ideological passion disgusts us. We believe that ideology is now the province of the rival SIGs and PACs all trying to get their slice of the big green pie — and, looking around us, we see that it is indeed so. But the Dostoevsky one sees in Frank’s biog­raphy would point out — more like hop up and down and shake his fist and fly at us and scream — that if this is so it is because we have abandoned the field.

Take a look at just a snippet from the famous “Necessary Explanation” of Ip­polit in The Idiot:

“Anyone who attacks individual charity,” I be­gan, “attacks human nature and casts contempt on personal dignity. But the organiza­tion of ‘public charity’ and the problem of in­dividual freedom are two distinct questions, and not mutually exclusive. Individual kind­ness will always remain, because it is an indi­vidual impulse, the living impulse of one per­sonality to exert a direct influence upon another… How can you tell, Bahmutuv, what significance such an association of one personality with another may have on the des­tiny of those associated?”

Can you imagine any of our impor­tant contemporary novelists allowing a character to say things like this? — not, mind you, just as hypocritical bombast so that some ironic hero can put a pin in it, but as part of a 10-page monologue by somebody trying to decide whether to commit suicide. The obvious response to the question is also a true one: such a con­temporary novelist would be ridiculous. Such a speech in our art would provoke, not outrage or invective, but worse: one raised eyebrow and a very slight smile. (Maybe — if it was a really major novelist — ­a very subtle deadpan line in a Letterman monologue.) The novelist would be — and this is our own age’s truest vision of hell — ­laughed out of town.

So he — we, fiction writers — won’t­ — ever — dare try to use serious art to ad­vance ideologies (25). The project would be as culturally inappropriate as Menard’s Quixote. We’d be laughed out of town. Given this — and it is a given — who is to blame for the philosophical passionless­ness of our own Dostoevskys? The cul­ture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t — ­could not — laugh if a piece of passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction was also ingenious and radiantly transcen­dent fiction. But how to do that — how even, for a writer, even a very talented writer, to get up the guts to even try? There are no formulae or guarantees. But there are models. Frank’s books present a hologram of one of them. ❖

David Foster Wallace is the author of, most recently, Infinite Jest (Little Brown)

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1) Volume III, The Stir of Liberation, con­tains I bet as fine an explicative reading of Notes as has ever been done, tracing its gen­esis as a reply to the “rational egoism” made fashionable in Chernyshevsky’s 1863 nov­el What Is To Be Done?, and identifying the Underground Man’s intended function for Dostoevsky as basically a parodic caricature. Frank’s persuasive explanation for the frequent misreading of Notes (a lot of critics don’t read the book as a serious Hamlet-grade archetype) also helps explain why Dostoevsky’s master­pieces are often read and admired even without any real appreciation of their ideological agendas: “the parodistic function of [the Underground Man’s] character has al­ways been obscured by the immense vital­ity of its artistic embodiment” — that is, in certain ways, Dostoevsky was too good for his own good.

2) Frank never in four volumes mentions the Intentional Fallacy or tries to head off the objection that his biography commits it all over the place. This is real interesting to me. In a way it’s understandable, because the tone Frank maintains through all his readings is one of maximum restraint and objectivity: he’s not about imposing a cer­tain theory or way of decoding Dostoevsky, and he steers way clear of arguing with oth­er critics who’ve applied various axes’ edges to FMD’s stuff. When Frank does want to criticize or refute a certain reading (as in oc­casional attacks on Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, or in a really brilliant refutation of Freud’s 1928 “Dostoevsky and Patricide” in the Appendix to Volume I), he always does so simply by pointing out that the historical facts and/or Dosto­evsky’s own notes and letters contradict cer­tain assumptions a critic has made. His ar­gument is never that somebody else is wrong, just that they don’t have all the facts… which again gives implicit au­thority to Frank’s agenda of providing completely exhaustive and comprehensive context, The Whole Story.

3) It is the loss of an ability to counte­nance and discuss the particularity of works of literary genius that is maybe most to be loathed about the theory in­dustry’s rise to power in contemporary fic­tion-criticism. A lot of poststructural the­ory is fascinating in its own right, but when it comes to actually reading some piece of fiction, most theoretical readings consist in just running it through a kind of powerful philosophical machine. This is in all meaningful ways equivalent to dis­secting a flower instead of looking at it or smelling it. Dissection has its place, as do systems and general applications of method, but so does appreciation, and so does countenancing the singularity of something beautiful. It is Professor Frank’s determination to treat both the ideological forces at work around Dosto­evsky’s fictions and the completely dis­tinctive and unabstractable way in which FMD transforms those forces that makes his biography so valuable, I think.

4) How familiar — I mean emotionally fa­miliar, resonant — does the syntax of Hawthome and Poe and Bierce seem to you?

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5) Especially in the excruciatingly Victorianish translations of Ms. Constance Garrett, who, in the ’30s and ’40s cornered the FMD/Tolstoy translation market, and whose 1935 rendering of The Idiot has stuff like (I’m scanning almost at random):

“Nastasya Filippovna!” General Ep­anchin articulated reproachfully. “I am very glad I’ve met you here, Kolya,” said Myshkin to him. “Can’t you help me? I must be at Nas­tasya Filippovna’s. I asked Ardelion Alexan­drovitch to take me there, but you see he is asleep. Will you take me there, forI don’t know the streets, nor the way?”

“The phrase flattered and touched and greatly pleased General Ivolgin: he suddenly melted, instantly changed his tone, and went into a long, enthusiastic explanation.” And even in the acclaimed new Knopf translations of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the prose (in, e.g., Crime and Punishment) is still like:

“Enough!” he said resolutely and solemnly. “Away with mirages, away with mirages, away with false fears, away with specters!… There is life! Was I not alive just now? My life hasn’t died with the old crone! May the Lord remember her in His kingdom and — enough, my dear, it’s time to go! Now is the kingdom of reason and light and… and will and strength…and now we shall see! Now we shall cross swords!” he added presumptuously, as if addressing some dark force and challenging it… Umm, why not just “as if addressing some dark force”? Umm, can you challenge a dark force without addressing it? Or is there, in the Russian, something that keeps the above from being redundant, stilted, bad? If so, why not recognize that in English it’s bad, and clean it up in an acclaimed new Knopf translation? I just don’t get it.

6) What on earth does it mean to “fly at” somebody? It happens dozens of times in every FMD novel. What, “fly at” them in order to beat them up? To get in their face? Why not say that, if you’re translating?

7) Q.v., from Pevear and Volokhonsky’s acclaimed rendering of Notes:

“Mr. Ferfichkin, tomorrow you will give me satisfaction for your present words!” I said loudly, pompously addressing Ferfichkin.

“You mean a duel, sir? At you pleasure,” the man answered…

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8) Somebody has only to spend one term trying to teach literature in school to realize that the quickest way to kill a writer’s vitality for potential readers is to present that writer ahead of time as “great” or “classic.” Because then the author becomes for the students like medicine or vegetable, something that the authorities have declared “good for them” that they “ought to like,” and then the students’ nictitating membranes come down, and everybody’s dead. Should this surprise anybody? We could learn a lot from bored students who hate to read, in my opinion.

9) Who was, like Faulkner’s Caddie, “doomed and knew it,” and whose heroism consists in her haughty defiance of a doom she also courts — FMD seems like the first fiction writer really to understand that some people love their own suffering. Nietzsche would take Dostoevsky’s insight and make it a cornerstone of his own devastating attack on Christianity, and this is vastly ironic: in our own age and culture of enlightened atheism we are very much Nietzsche’s children, his ideological heirs; and without Dostoevsky there would have been no Nietzsche; and yet Dostoevsky is among the most deeply religious of all writers…

10) Frank doesn’t blink this sort of stuff, but in his account we learn that Dostoevsky’s character was paradoxical: insufferably vain about his literary reputation, FMD was also tormented his whole life by what he saw as his inadequacies as a writer; a leech and a spendthrift, he also did stuff like voluntarily assume financial responsibility for his stepson, for the unbelievably nasty family of his dead brother, and for the debts of the famous journal Epoch that he and that brother and coedited. Frank’s fourth volume makes it clear that it was these honorable debts, not general dead-beatism, that sent Mr. and Mrs. FMD into exile in Europe to avoid debtor’s prison, and that it was only at the gambling spas of Europe that Dostoevsky’s gambling mania kicked in.

11) Sometimes this allergy to Moscow is awkwardly striking: q.v. the start of Part Two of The Idiot, when Prince Myshkin — the novel’s protagonist — has left St. Petersburg for six full months in Moscow: “Of Myshkin’s adventures during his absence from Petersburg we can give little information.” Frank doesn’t mention much about this Moscophobia that I could find.

12) Poor Folk, a regulation ” social novel” that frames kind of a goopy little love story with depictions of urban poverty sufficiently ghastly to elicit the approval of a socialist left that in 1840s Russia more or less equalled the literary episcopate.

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13) It’s true that FMD’s epilepsy, including the mystical illuminations that attended preseizure auras, gets no more than cursory attention from Frank, and a reviewer like the Times of London’s James L. Rice (himself the author of a weird book on epilepsy and Dostoevsky) complains that Frank “gives no idea of the malady’s chronic impact” on Dostoevsky’s religious ideals and representation in his books. Other critics who complain that Frank doesn’t pay enough attention to FMD’s pathology include Stephen Jan Parker of the NYTBR, who spends a third of his Volume III making arguments like: “It seems to me that Dostoevsky’s behavior does conform fully to the diagnosis criteria for pathological gambling as set forth in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual.” As much as anything, it’s reviews like this that ought to make us appreciate Frank’s own even-handed breadth and absence of specific axes to grind.

14) I don’t want to neglect the observation that Frank’s biography often provides good and interesting dirt. W/r/t FMD’s adventures in Europe, we learn in Volume IV that his famous 1867 fight with Turgenev (whom Frank clearly doesn’t like, and portrays as a kind of yuppie with a monocle) had offended Dostoevsky’s passionate nationalism by attacking Russia in print and moving to Germany and declaring himself a German, was also partly over the fact that Dostoevsky had years earlier borrowed 50 thalers from Turgenev and promised to pay him back right away and never did. Frank is too restrained to point out that it’s much easier to live with stiffing somebody if you decide that person’s an asshole.

15) An unexpected bonus is that Frank’s volumes are full of marvelous and funny and tongue-rolling names — Snitkin, Dubolyobov, Appolinaria, Strakhov, Golubov, von Voght, Katkov, Nekrasov, Pisarev. You can see why Russian writers like Gogol and Dostoevsky raise to fine art the employment of epithetic names.

16) Q.v.: “Poor Feodor, he does suffer so much… and is always so irritable, and liable to fly out about trifles… It’s of no consequence, because the other days are very good, when he is so sweet and gentle. Besides, I can see that when he screams at me it is from illness, not from bad temper.” Frank quotes large amounts of this sort of stuff without much evident awareness that the Dostoevskys’ relationship was in certain ways pretty sick, at least by 1996 standards: “Anna’s forbearance, whatever prodigies of self-command it may have cost her, was amply compensated for (at least in her eyes) by Dostoevsky’s immense gratitude and growing sense of attachment.” Beattie, Bradshaw, et al. would have a field day with this.

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17) See also, e.g., Dostoevsky’s disastrous passion for the utter bitch-goddess Appolinaria Suslova, or the mental gymnastics he performs to justify his roulette, or the fact, amply documented by Frank, that FMD really was an active part of the Petrashevsky circle and as a matter of fact did deserve to be arrested, pace a lot of biographers who’ve tried to claim that FMD was just at the wrong radical meeting at the wrong time.

18) I guess you could argue that Tolstoy and Hugo and Zola and the 19th-century titans were ideological writers. But the thing about Dostoevsky’s gift for character and for rendering the psychological and moral and spiritual conflicts within (not just between) people is that it let him dramatize extremely heavy and serious moral themes without ever seeming preachy or reductive, that is, without ever blinking the difficulties or moral and spiritual conflicts or making goodness or redemption seem simpler than they really are. You need only compare the protagonists’ final conversions in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and FMD’s Crime and Punishment to appreciate Dostoevsky’s ability to be moral without being moralistic.

19) Here’s another thing Frank discusses brilliantly in Vol. III’s chapter on House of the Dead — part of the reason why FMD abandoned the fashionable socialist principles of his twenties is that years of imprisonment in Siberia with the absolute bottom-feeders of society taught him that the peasants and urban poor of Russia totally hated the upper-class intellectuals who wanted to “liberate” them, and that they were kind of right for hating them. If you want to get some idea of how Dostoevskian irony might translate into modern U.S. culture, try reading House of the Dead and Tom Wolfe’s “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” at the same time.

20) This state of affairs is one reason why Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, published under Stalin, had to seriously downplay FMD’s ideological involvement with his characters: a lot of Bakhtin’s praise for Dostoevsky’s “polyphonic” characterizations and the “dialogic imagination” that allowed Dostoevsky to refrain from injecting his own values into his books is the natural result of a Soviet critic trying to discuss an author whose reactionary views the State wanted forgotten. Frank, who takes out after Bakhtin at a number of points, doesn’t really make clear the constraints Bakhtin was operating under.

21) Should I find it depressing that the young Dostoevsky was just like young U.S. writers today, or kind of a relief! Docs anything ever change?

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22) Not surprisingly, FMD’s exact beliefs are idiosyncratic and complicated, and Frank does a good job of tracing them out as they’re dramatized in the novels (the effect of egoistic atheism on the Russian character in Notes and C&P; the deformation of Russian passion by worldly Europe in The Gambler; and, in The Idiot‘s Myshkin and The Brothers Karamazov’s Zosima, the implications of a Christ literal­ly subjected to nature’s scientific forces, an idea central to every­thing Dostoevsky wrote after he saw Holbein the Younger’s Dead Christ at the Basel Museum in 1867).

But what Prank has done phenomenally well is distill the enormous amounts of archival material that exist by and about FMD, helping make it comprehensive instead of just using parts of it to bolster a particular critical stance. E.g., near the end of Vol. III, Frank finds and cites obscure notes for “Socialism and Christianity,” an unfin­ished essay, that give a reason­ably succinct picture of Dostoevsky’s beliefs. Q.v.:

Christ’s incarnation… provided a new ideal for mankind, one that has retained its validity ever since: “N.B. Not one atheist who has disputed the divine origin of Christ has denied the fact that He is the ideal of humanity. The latest on this — Renan. This is very remarkable!” And the law of this new ideal, according to Dostoevsky, consists of the return to spontaneity, to the masses, but freely.… Not forcibly, but on the contrary, in the highest degree willfully and consciously. It is clear that this higher willfulness is at the same time a higher renunciation of the will.

23) PMD’s particular foes were the Nihilists, the radical progeny of the ’40s socialists, whose name comes from a speech in Tur­genev’s Fathers and Sons. But the real battle was wider. It is no acci­dent that Joseph Frank’s big epigram for Vol IV is from Kolakowski’s classic Modernity on Endless Trial, for Dostoevsky’s abandonment of utilitarian so­cialism for an idiosyncratic moral conservatism can be seen in the same light as Kant’s awakening from “dogmatic slumber” into a radical Pietist deontology nearly a century earlier: “By turning against the popular utilitarianism of the Enlightenment, [Kant] al­so knew exactly what what was at stake was not any particular moral code, but rather a question of the existence or nonexistence of the distinction between good and evil and, consequently, a question of the fate of mankind?’

24) Ploughing through the his­torical and linguistic impediments actually to read this author makes it very clear why Dostoevsky deserves his canonical spot. In his novels, great and profound issues simultaneously transcend and are rooted in the particularities of place, time, history, character. The irony of his now being abstracted by canonization is that he is almost unequalled in his ability to make abstractions concrete and bare ideas alive and vital.

25) We will, of course, without hesitation use art to parody, ridicule, debunk, or protest ide­ologies. But there is a difference.

 

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OVERLOOK, 432 PP., $26.95

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It begins with a stage-slap, witnessed by a man named Daley, then spirals into cul-de-sacs of memory, ruminations on love and aging, ever returning to the linear narrative—the coupling of the actress and the man—before setting out again. Imbued with the peripatetic rhythms of consciousness, Actress‘s dazzling syntax configures language as the tension between repression and discovery, coaxed forward by McElroy’s tantalizingly patient hand.


American Woman

By Susan Choi

HARPERCOLLINS, 369 PP., $24.95

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Choi’s second novel fictionalizes Patty Hearst’s stint as a fugitive, winding a hypnotic route through the scorched landscape of 1974. At the start, Hearst’s fictional alter ego, Pauline, and two of her former captors seek shelter at an East Coast farm. There she meets Jenny Shimada, a young Japanese American woman who becomes infatuated with the cadre’s “lofty ideals.” The intense friendship between these two women rises through the novel’s sophisticated, drifting structure, resulting in a brief Thelma and Louise-style lost weekend before reality intrudes on their exile, and they’re forced to pay their debt to society.


Any Human Heart

By William Boyd

KNOPF, 498 PP., $24.95

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Excise the title page, ditch the jacket, and hope that a century hence, someone will pull a copy of Boyd’s book from the stacks, turn to the index, and figure she’s stumbled upon the vast, entertaining, melancholy journals of one Logan Mountstuart, a minor writer and gallerist who knew everyone. Intimate with ambitions and infidelities, it’s very funny, monstrously sad, and amazingly vivid. Any Human Heart, for all its titular generality, is that rare thing: a book so good that one foolishly hopes—as one does with life—it will never end.


The Book of Salt

By Monique Truong

HOUGHTON MIFFLIN, 261 PP., $24

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This sumptuous debut weaves cooking, language, cravings, and cruelty around a pseudo-historical figure: the mysterious Vietnamese chef, Binh, who worked for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and recounts his life in deliciously acid tones. For over three years, Binh lives with the Mesdames, viewing them with a queasy mix of awe and resentment. Truong leaps between scenes of Binh’s pleasure and humiliation, using the language of gastronomy to communicate the daily indignities of servitude and colonialism.


Brick Lane

By Monica Ali

SCRIBNER, 369 PP., $25

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Nazneen, 18, leaves Bangladesh for London to become the dutiful wife of a hapless striver, and by the adroit hand of first-time novelist Ali, the door to Nazneen’s home soon opens onto intergenerational strife, community racial chafings, and nettlesome questions of how immigrant Islam and olde England can get along like cordial in-laws. Brick Lane effortlessly dissolves the gendered false barrier between the social-political and domestic novel, often without ranging far from Nazneen’s cluttered flat and the pangs of her increasingly adventurous mind.


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Mark Haddon

DOUBLEDAY, 226 PP., $22.95

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A radical experiment in empathy, Haddon’s canine murder mystery filters the confusion of adolescence and family betrayal through an autistic point of view. Or unfilters, as the case may be. The sleuthing narrator, Christopher, is a 15-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome, and Incident meticulously imagines the frustrations of an autistic’s world, where sensory intake is heightened but the capacity to process information diminished. The hero’s brain chemistry is the book’s best safeguard against cuteness. He keeps his distance because he has no other option, an unwitting hardass to the end.


Elizabeth Costello

By J.M. Coetzee

VIKING, 230 PP., $21.95

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Poor Elizabeth C., old and tired of traveling from one conference to another to lecture on topics which call for reassuring pieties. Heroic Elizabeth C. for staking her ground at the very edge of the speakable—and sometimes past it. Through arguments sometimes muddled and occasionally of piercing authority, the reader enters a dialogue that gives the lie to any suspicion that the novel of ideas is a thing reeking of chalk and formaldehyde. The questions it asks bring us relentlessly back to fundamental difficulties of being in the world, and incidentally remind us of the unique power of fiction—even while extending its borders to “the far territory, where we want to be.”


The Fatalist

By Lyn Hejinian

OMNIDAWN, 84 PP., $12.95

Hejinian distinguishes her own other tradition (“Language writing rejects the notion of genius and the New York School embraces it”)—yet she returns with an Ashbery blurb and a book that constellates brightly with his epic, Flow Chart. Characters and memories bear concepts toward a devastatingly patient understanding: that philosophy isn’t an abstract empyrean, but the daily act of language. The Fatalist may be a poem; it’s certainly a phenomenological daybook wherein attention alters the world utterly, so that one might watch “a crow/becoming something else/in this case/a crow.”


Fathom

By Andrew Joron

BLACK SQUARE, 115 PP., $12.95

What does one expect of a book that titles itself after a forgotten meaning (“outstretched arms”), gives a section over to gravestone tracings of the relationship between Yvan Goll and Paul Celan, and then a couple pages to a poem called “Dolphy at Delphi”? Everything or nothing—and one isn’t disappointed. Joron’s second book is a startling series of language games and meditations, committed to the political possibilities of new poetry and the terrors of a long fall where “the last line listens to its endlessness.” Hermetic as in Hermes, of the swift and mysterious messages.


Final Girl

By Daphne Gottlieb

SOFT SKULL, 120 PP., $12

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In this topsy-turvy de-con of the splatter-flick ethos, slam poet Gottlieb pegs familiar feminist themes on an inspired B-movie framework. Taking her title from an influential essay by film theorist Carol J. Clover, Gottlieb posits an ambivalent frenzy that infects all human intimacy, and whose violence informs sexual identity even while negating it. Evoking such disparate characters as colonial American exile Anne Hutchinson and celluloid über-stalker Freddy Krueger, Gottlieb underscores the threat inherent in female representation. It’s a heart-wrenching reckoning with carnality.


The Fixer: A Story From Sarajevo

By Joe Sacco

DRAWN AND QUARTERLY, 105 PP., $24.95

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In 1995, journalistic cartoonist Sacco covered the Balkan conflict, and told the stories of the people around him in his remarkable graphic novel Safe Area Gorazde. In 2001, he returned to Sarajevo to meet up with his old “fixer,” an army veteran named Neven who could set up anything for the right palm-greasing. This shorter, darker book concentrates on Neven and his stories—which Sacco notes he can’t always believe—but puts them in the keenly observed (and drawn) context of smashed-up post-war Bosnia, the brutal territorialism of its local warlords, and old and young Sarajevans hustling to get by .


The Fortress of Solitude

By Jonathan Lethem

DOUBLEDAY, 511 PP., $26

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Lethem’s first four novels confused the watchdogs of seriousness by refusing to distinguish between literature and genre fiction—detective and sci-fi. Far less experimental, Fortress is a literary genre novel: a bildungsroman. Lethem reconfigures his own autobiography in a book as deep into race as Invisible Man, as deep into the sidewalks of New York as Call It Sleep, and as deep into pop—comics, sci-fi again, and especially music—as everybody but the watchdogs of seriousness. Except for short-person-turned-rock-critic Dylan Ebdus, the novel’s richest character is faded r&b star Barrett Rude. Since a Pulitzer is unlikely, give Ebdus’s essay on Rude a Deems Taylor.


The Frank Book

By Jim Woodring

FANTAGRAPHICS, 351 PP., $39.95

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The only important statements about reality are arguably the ones that can be explained in children’s picture fables, which makes this collection of 10 years’ worth of Woodring’s wordless comics about an anthropomorphic cat a first-rate grimoire. Utterly charming even when they’re gruesome, populated by whirling “conditioned souls” and grinning demons, and set in a landscape of blobby minarets and tufted hillocks, the “Frank” stories (including the freakishly haunting “Frank in the River”) lay out an intricate cosmology with the goofy grace of a Chuck Jones cartoon.


From the Atelier Tovar

By Guy Maddin

COACH HOUSE, 231 PP., $19.95

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Maddin, meticulous forger of ready-decayed cinematic artifacts, is no day-tripper in the realms of literature. He writes with an ornate elegance, humor, and (reportedly, disgustingly) ease that makes this one of the happiest book events of the year. Along with pieces commissioned by periodicals (including the Voice) you get brilliant treatments for films made and not, and the amazing, stupefyingly personal journals. Quake as Guy is taken captive by Chicago toughs! Marvel at his attempt to deflect a bat’s flight through flatulence! Try to untangle the skein of his convoluted romantic relations! Fail! And obsessively return with him to the house of childhood, where ghosts walk and mysteries linger even as the wrecking ball strikes in the last entry.


Hey Nostradamus!

By Douglas Coupland

BLOOMSBURY, 244 PP., $21.95

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Forget the tin-eared Booker-nabber Vernon God Little: Coupland’s latest novel, which also has a Columbine-like shooting at the heart of its story, is the more accomplished book. Coupland dares to extrapolate from the central event, allowing his characters—or the impressions they leave on memory—to develop after the aftermath, and to contemplate seriously the spiritual repercussions of the trauma. He does it all with his usual gift for dialogue and sleek description—who else would evoke an antisocial late-’80s teen by having him copy out Skinny Puppy lyrics?


Living To Tell the Tale

By Gabriel García Márquez

KNOPF, 484 PP., $26.95

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Ostensibly a memoir, this tall Tale is also a political coming-of-age story, a Baedeker of Gabo-land cataloging people and events and the fictions inspired by them, and a master class in the art of writing, as well as the art of living a writer’s life, which isn’t always the same thing. García Márquez lets readers peek behind the curtain to see the wizard at work, and reveals how little magic there actually is in magic realism.


Magic Circles

By Devin McKinney

HARVARD, 420 PP., $27.95

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With a white-hot prose style and a poet’s instinct for metaphor, independent scholar McKinney exhumes, interrogates, and otherwise energizes the Fab Four in all their musical glory and mythic resonance. Born too late (1966) for phase one Beatlemania, he brings to the job a necessary detachment, a willingness to puncture pieties, and finally a script-flipping thesis: The Beatles were the ’60s. If he gets surprising mileage out of the most lurid artifacts of that collective dream—the butcher cover, the Paul-is-dead rumor—he’s also terrific at maximizing the excitement of a Reeperbahn stand or a mysterious bootleg, and always renders the music in three dimensions.


P

By Andrew Lewis Conn

SOFT SKULL, 365 PP., $15

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Do you know how to spell audaciously? Conn’s pornosophical debut anatomizes a skin-flick veteran’s day-in-the-life, life-in-a-day odyssey via the narrative conceits of Ulysses. P‘s pull-out-the-stops set piece turns Disney’s Times Square store into an X-rated funhouse—a stage-directed trawl akin to Joyce’s rendering of Dublin’s Nighttown.


Pattern Recognition

By William Gibson

PUTNAM, 356 PP., $25.95

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An anthropological study of Internet life, a technofantasy that impels the century-old dream of movies into a future of filmless film, and, most indelibly, an achingly sad psychic chronicle of the liminal season that was summer 2002, the original VR jockey’s first contemporary novel follows trademark-allergic heroine Cayce on a transnational expedition to find the maker of phantom, cult-spawning Internet video clips. Pattern recognition, Gibson makes clear, is not just the coolhunter’s job description but a survival tactic within the context of no context—dowsing for meaning, and sometimes settling for the illusion of meaning, as our accelerating now leaves us ever further behind.


Politics

By Adam Thirlwell

4TH ESTATE, 279 PP., $22.95

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The thrills in this story of a London ménage à trois lie outside the bedroom. Tracking the nervous Moshe and his cerebral girlfriend as they stumble into a cumbersome threesome, Thirlwell’s debut drowns passion in the stammering minutiae of sexual politics. But in feats of delicious incongruity, he relates this awkward bacchanalia to the functionality of architecture, the sexual stamina of surrealists, and the comparative nobility of Soviet dissidents. Bad sex has never been such fun.


Random Family

By Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

SCRIBNER, 408 PP., $25

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Tracing the shifting fortunes of two young Puerto Rican women in the Bronx, LeBlanc offers a profound, multigenerational portrait of the daily toils of urban poverty. This is the work of an extraordinary journalist who, despite 10 consuming years reporting on desperate prison visits, ill-conceived pregnancies, and the excruciating bureaucracies of welfare, never lost her appreciation for the ordinary. In her hand, the bewildering otherness of poverty disappears.


Revelations

By Diane Arbus

RANDOM HOUSE, 352 PP., $100

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“I see divineness in ordinary things,” Arbus wrote, as a Fieldston School senior. This announcement might surprise those who think she saw only freakishness, but the photographs in Revelations prove that Arbus embraced the world in all its variety, absurdity, and pain. Although her portraits were sometimes satirical, they were never contemptuous; her subjects were the focus of a fascination that bordered on love. Revelations‘ broad view is deepened by its extraordinary central text, a detailed chronology, based primarily on the artist’s own letters and notebooks, that her daughter Doon calls “a kind of autobiography.”


River of Shadows

By Rebecca Solnit

VIKING, 297 PP., $25.95

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Besides working as a bookseller and documenting the government’s war on the Modoc Indians, Eadweard Muybridge made the first record, on film, of a moving animal, and it changed everything: An age of images had begun. Shadows could be a biography, but interspersed between the Muybridge sections is an argument about how capital transformed not only the American West, but the entire fabric of the modern world, from a place where place mattered to an environment without space or time. It is the measure of Solnit’s graceful, thoughtful book that she finds in cinema a “breach in the wall between the past and the present” where machines and desires are reconciled.


Swann’s Way

By Marcel Proust, Translated by Lydia Davis

VIKING, 468 PP., $27.95

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As you read Davis’s Swann’s Way, an entirely new Proust seems to hover behind the page, a Proust who liked commas as much as semicolons, and plain words more than fancy ones—a fussy, tired, neurotic Proust, driven by the desire to get it right. Or is this how he’s been all along? Self-absorption (who could be more self-absorbed than Proust?) and selflessness (who is more selfless than a translator?) meet up, in their tacit acknowledgment that the hidden reality of things lies neither in the self nor outside of it, but only in words. When the words are right, as they are in this book, author and translator alike fall aside, and what you have is a world.


Who Sleeps With Katz

By Todd McEwen

GRANTA, 279 PP., $18.95

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—begins mid-rant, apropos for this year’s quintessential New York novel: the city revealed in all its luscious public babble, “that old mental capital” constructed over years of urban wanderings. The doomy premise—radio announcer MacK spends the day walking to a downtown rendezvous, where he’ll reveal his just-learned terminal lung-cancer diagnosis to bosom friend Isidor—is borne aloft by McEwen’s comic genius. Who Sleeps With Katz expounds on the snacks, smokes, and streets of this our town—an endlessly inventive entertainment for those of us fatally in the know.

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ART ARCHIVES BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Beach Reads

Summer’s here—at last! Time to pack a picnic basket, sit in traffic, and stake out a few yards on the beach, where you can sip tepid mojitos and fry yourself to a crisp. As a diversion from that unmistakable slow-cook odor, the Voice presents enough chess thrillers, plague porn, and Rummie versifying to keep you busy for the next two months. For poolside use, we recommend laminating this page. Then indicate to your servant which title you want by simply pointing with a barbecue drumstick. —Ed Park


LIVERPOOL FANTASY

By Larry Kirwan

Thunder’s Mouth, 310 pp., $14.95

Paul croons in Vegas, George is a priest, Ringo loiters while wife Maureen brings in the hair-salon moolah, and John? He’s known as “Looney Lennon,” on the dole in 1987 Liverpool—the awful epilogue to his heated decision to dissolve the Beatles after “Please Please Me.” Subtle as a blunderbuss, Kirwan’s alternate history is The Man in the High Castle for those who can parse the importance of “How Do You Do It,” and he takes such liberties with half-lives which never were that one fears a lawsuit-wielding Yoko materializing on the horizon. With a fine feel for the tactile minutiae of performance and a reckless disregard for Beatlemaniac pieties (halfway through, we learn that Paul’s trying to divorce Cher), Liverpool Fantasy is more than a clever coda to one’s marathon viewing of the recent Anthology DVD release: Within its covers, the dead come roaring back to life. —E.P.


A LOVE NOIRE

By Erica Simone Turnipseed

Amistad/HarperCollins, 305 pp., $19.95

Star-crossed lovers Noire, an artsy Ph.D. candidate with a flair for languages, and Innocent, an investment banker from Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, meet at a book signing, where the featured author lectures on how to build a strong black nation through diversifying stock portfolios. Despite clashing sensibilities, and a hilarious host of homies and homegirls, whose meddling threatens to derail their romance, Noire and Innocent embark on an amorous odyssey that hits black boho haunts from New Orleans and the South Sea Islands to Paris and Abidjan. Along the way, with deliciously and responsibly rendered love scenes (condoms abound), Turnipseed explores not only the much hyped quest of Gen X brothers and sisters getting, and trying to stay, together amid a growing class divide and collapsing global boundaries, but gay love, bi love, interracial love, and good, old-fashioned self-love. It’s an update of poet Nikki Giovanni’s ’60s lyric: “Black love is Black wealth.” —Angela Ards


ORYX AND CRAKE

By Margaret Atwood

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 376 pp., $26

In Atwood’s first dystopic excursion since The Handmaid’s Tale, a worldwide plague leaves a lone human holdout (he calls himself Snowman) to play exasperated messiah to a test-tube race of childlike “Crakers” (not unlike H.G. Wells’s Eloi). Scenes from the post-doomsday badlands alternate with flashbacks to the scarcely idyllic buildup, when Snowman was Jimmy, growing up with mad-scientist-to-be Crake in Brave New World pharmaceutical colonies (segregated from seedy Blade Runner “pleeblands”). Hinging haphazardly on the romantic triangle that emerges when Oryx, the boys’ third-world cyberfantasy, materializes as inscrutable temptress, O&C‘s scenario factorizes down to tidy ironies—the most resonant one in this Genesis 2.0 being that even after religion is genetically eliminated, primitive belief systems regerminate like weeds. The best bits detail the indignities that await the scientifically inept in a Merck-antile future. Jimmy the wordsmith wanders the ravaged earth, haunted by the imminent extinction of his vocabulary, all too aware of his morbidly comic role in this cosmic disaster—the copywriter for the apocalypse, condemned to sell the end of the world, and then survive it. —Dennis Lim


THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT

By Walter Tevis

Vintage, 243 pp., $18

Even pawn-pushing patzers need to read the late Tevis’s knuckle-biting wonder, in which eight-year-old Beth Harmon learns chess from the janitor at her Kentucky orphanage and proceeds on a knight’s tour into the deepest ranks of world competition. Tevis shows how the game fills in every gap left by the deprivations of her childhood, and his marvelous blow-by-blow descriptions channel the heat from reams of chess-journal ?s and !s. It’s an American rejoinder to Nabokov’s The Defense, and as in that novel, the excruciatingly focused life of the mind begins to seem like life itself: I move, therefore I am. With intense grace, Tevis finds the art to describe art. —E.P.


TO RUHLEBEN—AND BACK

By Geoffrey Pyke

Collins Library/McSweeney’s, 217 pp., $18

Geoffrey Pyke was a shiftless Cambridge student who, on assignment for a London newspaper in WW I, penetrated Germany’s closed borders armed only with a fake passport, a decent command of the language, and a keen eye for personal and national peculiarity. (His eye could be pretty peculiar itself, as with his repeated claim that the standard Prussian “has no back to his head.”) Arrested shortly thereafter, Pyke was offered an uncomfortably close look at the systemic rigors of Prussian punishment in a series of prisons, before being transferred to Ruhleben, a racetrack turned makeshift colony for Brits caught in the country after the clampdown. The prankish spirit that led Pyke to undertake the trip, goaded by “above all things the colossal humour of the idea,” finally led him to discover a means of escape. How, I won’t tell, except to note that it involved adopting the mentality of French master criminal Arsene Lupin—who Pyke judged to be infinitely more baffling to the German mind than “somewhat bourgeois Englishman” Sherlock Holmes. In the end, the insights into Pyke’s own mentality prove as fascinating as his adventure. —B. Kite


LOST IN A GOOD BOOK

By Jasper Fforde

Penguin, 399 pp., $24.95

In my recipe book Great British Dishes (yes, such an animal exists), there is a pudding I would attempt, did it not require such terrifying amounts of Golden Syrup. Until I work up the courage, Lost in a Good Book provides all the tooth-numbing sweetness of treacle tart, but likely proves considerably less sticky. This swirl of science fiction, crime novel, and English-major in-jokes follows the adventures of literary detective Thursday Next, last glimpsed in 2002’s The Eyre Affair. Like the extra fricative in Fforde’s name, the book does not stint on lagniappe. Thursday inhabits an overstuffed parallel 1985 in which 19th-century British novels enjoy totemic power and stratospheric Q ratings. While attempting to rescue her husband from chronological eradication, she must authenticate a copy of Shakespeare’s Cardenio, protect her pet dodo, Pickwick, and survive the driving habits of Miss Havisham, on loan from Great Expectations. Piffle? Absolutely. Meta? Unbearably. Readable? Emphatically. —Alexis Soloski


THE LOCKLEAR LETTERS

By Michael Kun

MacAdam/Cage, 341 pp., $19.95

This comic semi-epistolary novel, embracing office memos, job queries, florist cards, poetry, and, above all, plaintive letters to Heather Locklear, traces the path of Sid Straw, a middle-aged software salesman whose life collapses over the course of several anxiety-ridden months. This Baltimorean sad-sack begins the chronicle as a groveling, depressive Microserf whose life clearly peaked during his undergrad years at UCLA, where he was classmates but not quite pals with the future Melrose Place hottie. Grievously pass-agg and oblivious to his own unctuous neediness, Straw spills his guts to this virtual stranger before a series of disasters forces him to confront his essential aimlessness. If the book’s skeletal structure sometimes seems as fleeting as a TV diva’s season of fame, its air of droll desperation and sweetly uplifting finale are perfect for those sweltering days when tackling anything more substantial would bring up a sweat.—Mark Holcomb


P.G. WODEHOUSE: IN HIS OWN WORDS

By Barry Day and Tony Ring

Overlook, 300 pp., $19.95

Comments might not be literature, as Gertie Stein averred, but one might think twice before choosing that War and Peace thingummy over this delectable compendium of quotes from Bertie Wooster’s creator. Evelyn Waugh dubbed Wodehouse a master who could “produce on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes to every page,” and this companion volume to Overlook’s laudable reprint project ups even that charmed quota, assembling a breezy bio from books, letters, interviews, and musicals. On the Bard: “Shakespeare’s stuff was different from mine, but that is not to say it is inferior.” On people with fishy aspects: “He looked like a halibut that has just been asked by another halibut to lend it a couple of quid till next Wednesday.” Oh, I say! —E.P.


BRIARPATCH

By Ross Thomas

Minotaur/St. Martin’s, 338 pp., $13.95

This crime mini-epic’s two-pronged storyline brings political consultant Benjamin Dill back to his unnamed and beastly hot native city to solve the murder of his detective sister and try to nail a very bad ex-foreign op or two. Thomas, who died in 1996, hard-boils his sentences to perfection (“He stood, staring down, carefully remembering the lies he had told Spivey”) and infuses the labyrinthine plot with hair-trigger violence; the noir can get downright lovely, as in this description of police at a funeral, reacting to a sniping: “Dozens of pistols . . . blossomed in big fists.” As impressive as the pacing and the body count is the full-scale imagining of the municipal machinery—press, police, plutocrats—that roils in its own obscure greasings. Better get Thomas’s newly reissued Out on a Rim while you’re at it—I predict an addiction. —E.P.


CHASING SHAKESPEARES

By Sarah Smith

Atria, 337 pp., $24

Inside this Elizabethan mystery hides a graduate thesis. Joe, the Shakespearean scholar and narrator, unearths a musty, conceivably forged letter that could prove lethal to his profession. It reads: “Those that are given out as the children of my brain are begot of his wit.” Signed: William Shakespeare. In other words, I didn’t write all those plays. What makes the book such a page-turner (especially for those readers who prefer gray, British days at school to sunshine by the pool) is that much here isn’t fictional at all—as attested to by the 13-page bibliography. But disguised as fiction, Smith’s mystery can court the academically unpopular thesis that Shakespeare the glover’s son from Stratford is not Shakespeare the playwright at all. The ample evidence propping up this claim winds its way through arabesque regicide plots, intra-sibling espionage, the archives of the British Library, as well as the mad rush of construction in millennial London, and proves to be quite compelling—and even convincing. —Samantha Hunt


PIECES OF INTELLIGENCE: THE EXISTENTIAL POETRY OF DONALD H. RUMSFELD Compiled and edited by Hart Seely

Free Press, 118 pp., $12.95

As devotees of American lit and C-SPAN know, our current defense secretary is also one of our most gifted wordsmiths. Reinventing the briefing as poetry slam, D.H. Rumsfeld is an oral bard who stands in a tradition from Homer to hip-hop, a lineage of those impelled to transgress the boundaries of received language because “the standard words/Jangle in my head when I hear them.” He ranges nimbly from Zen haiku (“I’m working my way/Over to figuring out/How I won’t answer”) to bleak Beckettry (“How does it end?/It ends,/That’s all”). And in his troubling “The Unknown,” Rumsfeld limns an epistemology of the mysterious qua mysterious: “[T]here are also unknown unknowns,/the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Faced with such enigmas, the poet feels like a “piece of meat,” albeit an exquisitely “concepty” piece of meat. D.H. is a modern master—though he doesn’t quite rise to the level of a Quayle. —Richard Polt


ASHES

By Kenzo Kitakata

Translated by Emi Shimokawa

Vertical, 219 pp., $23.95

This yakuza fable reads like a treatment for a Takeshi Kitano film, and its aging mobster Tanaka evokes Beat’s sullen screen ennui. Terse sentences evoke everyday Tokyo life, as Tanaka, farmed out to a splinter group for past infractions, glides expressionless through the antiseptic city. In his forays to seedy dives and upscale French restaurants, Western signifiers take on an Eastern feel: bourbon and soda, billiards and jazz, foie gras and Château Margaux. Kitakata delineates yakuza rituals, where the traditional hacking off of one finger is no longer sufficient punishment. As his boss nears death, an incompetent sycophant is poised to take over, and Tanaka enters a battle royal to wrest control. His philosophy: “If they don’t crush me, I’ll crush them.” —Mary Jacobi


FANCIES AND GOODNIGHTS

By John Collier

New York Review Books, 418 pp., $14.95

Roald Dahl ranked Collier one of the great modern short-story writers (along with Cheever and Salinger), and those with a penchant for Dahl’s darker fancies will devour these direct transmissions from the Twilight Zone. Indeed, Collier wrote for that show (and The New Yorker), and his deft, crepuscular fiction raids a generous catalog of the uncanny: the outer limits of taxidermy, mannequins and mousetraps, murder and walking spirits. His writing generates metaphors for itself—it’s akin to the ingenious, lethal device known as the Steel Cat, or the lovely fungus of Amanita phalloides, “rich in vitamins D, E, A, T, and H.” Bring it to the dilapidated beach house of your choice—and be sure to lock the doors. —E.P.

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Washington, D.C.

It’s Alive! Our Richard Nixon Problem… and His

It’s Alive! Our Nixon Problem… and His
September 1987

Richard Nixon represents the dark side of the American spirit.
—Bobby Kennedy

A face is raining across the border
The pride of history, the same as murder
Is this living?
He’s been careering…
—Public Image Ltd., The Metal Box

Shades of the ad campaign for Poltergeist II: “He’s Back.” Newsweek, in that halcyon time between the ’84 election and the mo­ment when Ed Meese, turgid Pillsbury doughboy turned ashen, appeared on TV to announce the contra slush fund. On the cov­er, the most painfully tweaked smile in U.S. politics still seems jerked into motion with pliers. But there’s something foreign, too, hard to pin down — a willingness to let the eyes’ slitted shrewdness gleam true, unfettered by earnestness.

The look isn’t victory. Nixon was forever in sick transit then, apprehensive that the real star’s broken leg would heal, the under­study get yanked back into the shadows. This face is fulfillment. There had been cravings in him only Watergate could satis­fy. Now he’s won on his imperative to be, in some unique sense incompletely understood by himself, the politician as modernist — to lay bare his own process, apostrophize the drama of his self-enactment, and then to rub everybody’s nose in his outraged conviction that there was nothing in his character he had not been driven to. (If Nixon is the politician as modernist, he is also, peculiar­ly, the modernist as fatalist.) The point isn’t that we now approve, or even forgive him; the point is that we haven’t been able to deny him. The artificial man has finally been ratified as authentic.

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The public rehabilitation of Richard Nix­on has so far proceeded on two separate but related tracks. The first, which the Iran­-contra scandal has accelerated, boils down to the argument that while the man may have been a real scum-blob at everything else, he was a master in foreign affairs. “Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, ­in their day,” writes William Pfaff in a recent L.A. Times op-ed piece, “had coherent ideas about where they wanted the country to go. You might not have liked the ideas but there was an intelligence at work.”

The second track, more oblique, derives from the conventionalizing impulse of history. It’s possible now to see the Nixon years discretely, as an era. With that has come permission, in both the media and academia, to tot up his achievements, impact, and so on, in neutral tones, while treating the Nixon persona and the contemporary re­sponse to it as happily no longer at issue. It’s the final “new Nixon,” the first to get rid of the one element that always gummed up the others — his damnable present-tense thereness, his ineluctable Nixon-ness.

This has understandably confused some people. Nixon himself, meantime, with his superbly expedient sense of the moment — he has always treated all his opportunities as necessities, all his talents as survival skills — seized at once on Reagan’s stumble and his own new dispensation, writing an op-ed encyclical on foreign affairs (remem­ber my competence) in collaboration with Kissinger (and people still wait for a Beatles reunion? Sheesh) which had none of the edgy tone characterizing his public utter­ances since The Accident. Suddenly, he had the loftiness of Marlon Brando addressing Superman from beyond the grave — it was the closest he’d ever come to enjoying him­self in public. Nixon’s hope has been that history would vindicate him; now, seeing that the vindication might not be posthu­mous, he’s acting out all the serene sagacity he was never able to simulate convincingly as President, hoping that, by reverse osmo­sis, his image now will become his image then. He’s a go-getter about posterity.

Rating Nixon’s foreign-policy skills as brilliant isn’t completely unfounded. He studied hard and certainly had the best in­tellectual equipment of any recent Presi­dent. But it’s still a staggering overestima­tion, confused by the sonorities of Nixon and Kissinger’s methodology — both men flexed the language of Realpolitik with the witless relish of schoolboys who’ve just heard about Machiavelli — into ignoring that the method was valueless outside of a few carefully chosen set-piece applications. Meantime, it let the rest of the world go hang.

The problem with the larger convention­alizing of Nixon, his reinterpretation into historical normality, is that it underesti­mates him — in a special sense that illus­trates the gap between factual and figurative significance. This country has always had a genius for shying away from its more telling self-images. Our leaders, like our culture, have the job of dissimulating not only about what we do but also about what we’re like. Something cracked with Nixon, though; the most notorious liar to occupy the White House was the one who most helplessly acted out the truth.

Stephen Ambrose, in Nixon: The Educa­tion of a Politician, stops short of the Presi­dential years, which are to be covered in a second ‘volume.’ But he’s got more than enough on his hands in the story on Nixon’s [illegible], his self-armoring as the total political cyborg, and his rise to prominence as the bizarre, homily-mouth­ing Iago of the schizo ’50s. While Ambrose’s previous subject Eisenhower was securing his grip on the national lack of imagination, the Nixon counter-myth congealed, to re­main remarkably unchanged for two de­cades — Tricky Dick, Uriah Heep, the man you wouldn’t buy used cars from, inspiring a loathing more inchoate, and a loyalty more grudging, than shambling, unabashed Joe McCarthy ever called forth.

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Ambrose, it’s clear, felt the Republican substitute for the loathing: distaste. But in the interest of a middlebrow conception of historical objectivity, he’s put that aside, adopting what he doubtless considers a more judicious perspective on the man. You can almost feel his relief at discovering that one can put together a plausible Nixon by treating the facts and events of his career at face value, ignoring the obsessive subtext. At times, Ambrose’s reticence can be useful. If he’s unable to appreciate, much less con­vey, the full, magnificent ghastliness of the Checkers speech, The Honeymooners on tri­al for its life, he’s good at detailing the grind of conjecture and strategy that went into it — for Nixon, even trauma has to be one-­tenth inspiration, nine-tenths perspiration.

Ambrose performs a disservice to literal-­minded history, however, when he fails to address the documentable fact that Nixon, throughout his career, made people feel different about him than they did about any other politician. Concluding (with much regretful throat-clearing) that Nixon’s elec­tions to Congress and Senate were, well, yes, “dirty” campaigns, Ambrose remains head-bangingly unaware that they were dirty as a kind of impersonal, implacable given, which was what nobody had ever seen before. More fundamentally, Ambrose lacks any gift for presenting Nixon as a talismanic, poetic figure — which he assuredly is, for all that his soul is prose. Nixon in power, mouthing obscenities which came stuffily to him, chumming around with Bebe Rebozo, un­able to have faith he was President, is one of the great native parables, right up there with fat Elvis on drugs and Howard Hughes spooning down vats of ice cream while end­lessly rerunning Ice Station Zebra.

We acknowledged this at the time — at least to the extent that our relationship with him was always ironic. We never stopped being aware that the content of his presence in our lives was unrelated to the formulas in which it was presented to us. Not hypocrisy, exactly — more the permanent consciousness that even what was sincere in him would perforce come out willed, impersonated, made specious in its expression even if it hadn’t been in intent. Nixon made knowing­ness about him take precedence over know­ing him. What stayed secret was that, even though disbelieving him as an organic hu­man being, we felt ours was the greater intimacy.

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Still, the compulsion to scorn or despise Nixon, at one point the single most reflexive act for a big part of the U.S. electorate, had a quality of protesting too much, because it denied that intimacy its suggestiveness. We recognized him and didn’t want to; repre­hensible as his actions were, they weren’t the basis for people’s feelings about him, only the occasion. Both the pro-Nixon books and the neutral ones seem fundamen­tally uncomprehending, but anti-Nixon lit­erature — except for the books on Vietnam and Watergate, in which outrage turns grim­ly solemn — have traditionally been shrill and equally inept at grasping him. The classic text is still Fawn Brodie’s Richard Nix­on: The Shaping of His Character, hell-bent on insuring that Nixon remains not only a grotesque — which she didn’t have to worry about — but an absolutely sui generis one.

In almost any work that deals with it, the startlingly barren California of Nixon’s rear­ing — by parents so mired at the shabby­-genteel level that even the Depression made no visible impact on their fortunes — sounds a lot like Dorothy’s Kansas, except that no one ever thought of it as home. There’s a fascination in the Quakerism of Whittier, so inapplicably transplanted from its pastoral certainties to the hardscrabble of the part of the country where one’s place in the scheme of things is always most unsettled. In its inability to broach worldly topics, Whittier Quakerism might almost have been calculat­ed to instill in a young man (a) an impres­sion that spiritual matters were supposed to be non sequiturs in relation to the rest of life, (b) a sense of an oppressiveness that could nonetheless not be made to seem ma­lignant, and (c) a conviction that ambition provides no freedom of action but must be channeled into serving the status quo.

The family life, too, is thick with rich indicators, available for pulpy or elegant use, as the writer chooses: the polarities of cantankerous father and “saintly” mother, the trauma of two brothers — one a family pet, the other a family hero — dying before Nixon was out of college, the hints that father Frank was a dreamer too inhibited to realize he was one.

Brodie picks up on most of the obvious stuff — notably the famous “good dog” letter, written when Nixon was 10, which in its relentless, hostile self-abnegation (“one of the boys triped and fell on me. I lost my temper and bit him. He kiked me in the side and we started on”) has entered folklore as the first smoking gun of his career. She goes wrong by having her hypothesized Nixon, whenever faced with a choice between doing good and doing smarmy, coolly and con­sciously choose villainy every time, for no other reason than that’s the kind of son-of-bitch he is. All the evidence pushes toward the far more horrifying conclusion that Nix­on honestly believed himself more acted upon than acting, indeed that, by his own lights, the way of things never allowed him any choice at all. It doesn’t really matter whether he’d have done differently if the world had been arranged otherwise; in his character, “otherwise” never had room to exist.

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Garry Wills, whose Nixon Agonistes, de­spite its attempts to sound more systematic than it is, contains the best and most per­ceptive writing on Nixon, has remarked that he was probably a fairly decent sort until Murry Chotiner and his Orange County ilk got hold of him. As far as it goes, this may be true, but it doesn’t feel quite right — largely because there was never a time in Nixon’s life when he felt someone or something hadn’t gotten hold of him.

The only emotion he has ever been able to express credibly in public is resentment. It energizes his tone into uncharacteristic viv­idness, with the live-wire twitch of true jammed-up fervor: “If the American people understood the real character of Alger Hiss, they would boil him in oil.” Invariably, the feeling is tied to privilege, even when privi­lege doesn’t seem like the relevant provoca­tion. You can track Nixon starting from an unexceptionable generality, then suddenly rounding toward home, in his comments to Ken Clawson after the resignation: “What starts the process, really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid… [But] if you are reasonably intelligent and your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut perfor­mance, while those who have everything are sitting around on their fat butts.”

You have to wonder how “those who have everything” got into the scheme, since Whittier wasn’t exactly one of their play­grounds. But substituting elites in general for rich kids in particular clarifies things­ — and also suggests the element of self-deny­ing convolution in Nixon’s truculence, be­cause he had good reason to feel that his merits included him in an elite, too.

Ambrose, who’s often helpful on this level, reminds us that Nixon was a highly endowed, unusual child from early on — articulate, prodigiously retentive, mentally alert. (He won a scholarship to Harvard, no mean trick in 1930, and only his family’s strait­ened finances sent him down the street to Whittier College instead. A Harvard Nixon conjures up might-have-beens that boggle the mind.) But his upbringing and circum­stances, girded about with relentlessly level­ing, increasingly hollow imperatives of duty, service, and obligation, offered no special dispensations for the exceptional. Nor — al­though he was later to describe his decision­-making process as “creative” — does Nixon seem to have had the kind of imagination which would let him look past that blocked­-in horizon and invent a role for himself.

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Instead, he would invent a self to fit the roles others defined — travestying even what elements of the genuine article he did use by bending them to expedient ends. In the opening of Nixon Agonistes, it’s startling to read of a reflective, almost professorial Nix­on, contentedly discussing manifest destiny and Woodrow Wilson with Wills. But the point — though Wills, usually astute in such things, doesn’t comment on it — is that Nix­on simply had Wills’s number and was serv­ing him exactly the dish he’d ordered. Material independence, which Nixon characterized as the freedom to do nothing, honestly does not seem to have excited his envy very much. But intellectual independence, the ability to think as one liked, for its own sake, and to follow a course determined only by that, must have struck him as an unfair exemption from the rules. He had to have sensed that he was extraordinary given his awkwardness and unsociability, there was little else for him to forge an ego from. But as far as he could see, the only way for the extraordinary to assert itself was by signing up for service to the ordinary.

He brought a perverse energy — with Nix­on, you can never quite say “relish” — to the job of turning the constrictions on his char­acter into the substance of his character. But he never believed it; believing it was another luxury. He claimed to have faith in the U.S. piety that honest hard work alone can bring you the world, yet his defense for everything he did was that his rivals held all the cards — he had to take unfair advantage just to keep even.

More than he realized, he exposed the lie in capitalist democracy, the myth of self­-determination — don’t hate those above you; next year, you’ll be one of them — that has kept both the middle and the working class­es denying their identity and traducing their own interests. On the one hand, in Nixon’s logic, the decent, modest, hard-working folk — the “little people,” the silent major­ity — are bound by the rules; on the other, because they’re underdogs, they can justifi­ably break the rules. He himself was to be­come the mythic concentration of every small businessman and office striver who frantically cuts corners, diddles the books, baits-and-switches his colleagues, all the while thinking — often with self-pity, some­times with honest rue — of what fair and decent fellows they could be, if only their backs weren’t pressed to the wall. They won’t even have to cheat on their taxes, once they’re big guns like those rich, morally inferior bastards who have accountants to do it legit.

The greatest service that U.S. democracy provided for the class system was to leave it unacknowledged. Back in bad old Europe, class distinctions forged class consciousness; those at the bottom knew exactly where, and with whom and against whom, their interests lay. But tell them the hierarchy doesn’t exist, that everything’s up for grabs and my God, what a quandary that puts them in; just look at them all milling around. Rebellion gets diverted into envy, and yet the scheme of things won’t give even that any tangible buttress of validity — the most pervasive emotion in the country, it’s also an emotion forever in blind search of its own cause, which may explain de Tocque­ville’s remark that he found more unaccountable personal unhappiness here than anywhere he knew. What gives the envy spectrum its final bizarre touch is that of course the genuinely rich and powerful, fall­ing for their own platitudes, feel it too; Nel­son Rockefeller’s public career was one long exercise in it, which — given the circum­stances — could only baffle him and us both.

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At the same time, the purest conformity often manifests itself as rebellion, rebellion into conformity, against a usually miscon­strued, at times flat-out fantastic “they.” All that frustration has to go somewhere, and just as the competitive ethic demands rivals, its ideological dimension requires enemies. One of Nixon’s first public speeches, when he was in his teens, was for a Kiwanis Club oratory contest on the theme of the Consti­tution. Others had spoken in praise of its benefits; Nixon warned darkly against those who misused its privileges, seeking to under­mine it. Even Ambrose, looking around Whittier in vain for the bomb-throwers, wonders what his grounds were. But it isn’t peculiar that Nixon’s speech won.

Still, his own relation to the values he lived by was never harmonious. Much in Nixon’s make-up, with minor changes in its angle of deflection, could suggest the forma­tion of a great nay-sayer. But in the U.S.A., those most obstructed by the system be­come its greatest boosters, to keep their san­ity — if its values weren’t omnipotent, how could they have been made to suffer so? Nobody had to co-opt Elvis; he was there first. Nixon the unwitting potential radical grew up to be Nixon the patsy, Nixon the stooge, and by so doing joined the majority. Ambrose, seeking to dispute the myth that Nixon was invented, politically speaking, by a cabal of Orange County millionaires, points out that the committee which solicit­ed him to run for Congress was in fact com­posed of anti–New Deal businessmen, “men who really hated FDR, far more than the corporate heads, who after all had cut their own deals.…” But the millionaires, or cor­porate heads, didn’t have to go hunt out a Nixon. The undergrowth would toss one up to them, ready for use.

The distinctively modern aspect of Nixon is that he can’t help betraying an awareness of the artifice in himself. He’s fascinated by it, always seeking to make explicit how the thing was put together, as if sensing that this fabrication is the real subject of his life, the experience corresponding to what in more traditional heroes’ lives would have been the formation of their character. Ambrose quotes a Tom Wicker review of Six Crises (“the book’s great lack… is any significant, disclosures about Nixon the man — what he really felt, thought, believed, what he really was”) before indignantly marshal­ing a covey of dissenting voices to claim that, on the contrary, the book “revealed a veritable passion for self-analysis” (Fawn Brodie). But Wicker and Ambrose are both right, because Nixon’s self-analysis, while indeed obsessive, is invariably, of a persona, not a person — out of a conviction that, “Nix­on the man” has always been irrelevant.

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For all Nixon’s unseemly pride in manipu­lating the contraption that was himself (reading him on the subject of his mental mastery is like listening to a gun nut exhibit his collection), his intense self-alienation re­calls Greil Marcus’s description of the dehumanized Professor Unrat, at the end of The Blue Angel, “holding his body as if it were one enormous clubfoot.” Physically, it came through less in clumsiness (he let Spiro bounce the golf balls off bystanders’ heads) than in a compulsion to second-guess and calibrate his own moment-to-moment presence. The habit became a national joke, and writers never tired of describing it (“SMILE, said his brain; FLASH, went the teeth” — Mailer, in Miami and the Siege of Chicago). He could hardly walk into a room without experiencing the paralyzing sensation that he was on camera. Nixon looked peculiar only because he was the first to express that condition and all too painfully embodied it.

Most of us make Checkers speeches, to the brain’s fourth wall, every day of our lives, but we would shudder at making them in public. It isn’t professional; we aren’t ca­reering. In a sense, those who insisted that “it didn’t start with Watergate” had a point. But they went back to Johnson, Roosevelt, when they should have gone back to Kafka, and Nausea, and maybe the moment when Al Jolson, in The Jazz Singer, cemented the last brick into the modern age by turning to the camera and exclaiming, “You ain’t seen nothing yet, folks.”

Nixon struggled — not entirely dishonor­ably, despite the Roadrunner collapse at the end — against yielding to outright nihilism. But he could never make a dent in the ano­mie that had been his birthright. He was the first political representative of the newly widespread, post-World War II rootlessness: if Whittier qualifies as roots, then we’re all natives. Every politician, and certainly any President, claims dozens of associations, sentimental attachments, bondings, which they don’t authentically feel in themselves; Nixon, I think, was the first who could claim none, except for maybe football, that he did feel. By the time of the invasion of Cambo­dia, he was turning for sustenance to Pat­ton — the movie, not the general.

By now, of course, rootlessness has been rationalized, assimilated as the norm. Most of us take it for granted that we have to pick and choose what we identify with, and that most of it is synthetic. The old organizing entities — religion, family, community — are either debilitated, or suspect, or just not comprehensive enough to define anybody’s world. Among Presidents, you can trace a direct development from Johnson (bluffing his roots into more than they had been, and then trying to sham his way out of them, but all as the occasion warranted), to Nixon (able to make nothing from nothing), to Reagan, for whom synthetic identifications are authentic. But Nixon didn’t know that; when the old continuities cracked, all that was in him was the fracture.

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The subordination motif in Nixon’s ca­reer — never making any autonomous choice but forcing the fluids of his ambition through the coils wound by larger forces, other authorities — continues up to and beyond his election as President. During his near-decade as Eisenhower’s veep, the sub­ordination was literal — and, in terms of Eisenhower’s handling of him, an apotheosis. Wills’s chapter on Eisenhower, among the best things in his book, is still an eye-opener to one in the habit of thinking of Ike as a befuddled caretaker, a less destructive Rea­gan. Eisenhower knew exactly what he wanted from Nixon — to act as a lightning rod, be the Republican Party partisan that Ike neither was nor wished to be, and gener­ally do all the rough-and-tumble political dirty work Ike took care to avoid. (Which is incidentally a more useful role for a vice-­president than any of his successors have come up with.) He also knew the measure of his man: Johnson humiliated Hubert Humphrey for kicks, but Eisenhower humiliated Nixon pragmatically. Only management of a masterfully wily order could sustain a prom­inent and active lieutenant without allowing him even the dream of an independent pow­er base.

It was the paradigmatic relationship of Nixon’s career. Ike always made it clear that Nixon was pigeonholed: he kept him dangling after the Checkers speech and again when it came time for the 1956 vice-presi­dential nomination, with the suggestion “Chart your own course.” (Nixon’s refusal to chart anything seems to have been what quietly decided Eisenhower that he lacked presidential mettle.) Years later, on what should have been the most fulfilled night of Nixon’s life, he felt compelled to tell the 1968 Republican convention, “Let’s win this one for Ike.” (And who knows? Nixon may even have been conventional enough to feel sure, more sure, he’d made it on the day his daughter married the boss’s grandson than on the day he moved into the White House.)

While Nixon got elected with relatively few political IOUs — though the one to Strom Thurmond pretty much cleaned out the pot — no one has entered the office so literally less his own man. Luckily, constric­tion — the constriction that let him rational­ize himself — hemmed him in on all sides. He inherited a morass of a war; no one could blame him for starting it, and if he just hung in there long enough, no one could blame him for losing it, either (25,000 more U.S. casualties, untold Vietnamese, and all of Cambodia paid the premium for his blame­lessness). The economy was so far off the tracks that he could justify even his most cynical proposals as emergency measures, reluctantly taken. Domestic dissent and black rebellion were so widespread that his need for a “they,” for enemies who would compel him to strike back, righteously and underhandedly at once, was finally sated and gratified beyond his wildest dreams. In a sense, Watergate’s predominance in Nix­on’s second term, after the last ’60s fires had sputtered out, was the only thing that could have prevented his Administration from lapsing into inertia, because the prerequisite for his approach and abilities, the one set­ting in which he knew how to operate, was a trap.

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The final constriction, driving him from political life for good, turned out to be Con­gress and the will of the citizenry. This would sound like a line from the hoariest civics speech if it weren’t being resurrected by Nixon’s defenders, and of course Nixon himself, as a means of exculpating him — ­creating the ultimate Nixonian stab-in-the-­back theory to make large claims for, and explain the brevity of, his successes in for­eign policy, the one field in which he was supposed to have had the freedom to act as he wished. At the most basic level, the argu­ment runs that he started wonderful things, and would have completed them, if we only hadn’t used that flimsy Watergate pretext to bring him down in his prime. The argu­ment’s advocates usually leave unsaid that Nixon preferred foreign policy because there the Executive can often act unilaterally, un­burdened by the strictures of democracy.

The most recent book to take up this gauntlet is C.L. Sulzberger’s slender, wide-­margined, wide-eyed tome The World and Richard Nixon, which might be worth note only as a curiosity if it didn’t contain some of the most deliciously inadvertent high comedy I’ve ever read. Sulzberger is a vora­cious power groupie, a Plaster Caster of statesmen’s skulls; he makes Arthur Schlesinger look like a nun. Peaking early, in “Lunch With the World”; (not the chapter’s real title, unfortunately), C.L. breaks bread and chats about Nixon with various foreign luminaries, culling such gems as Hirohito’s admission, with an “admiring chuckle,” that he sees the “connection” between Nixon’s Russia and China overtures. Sulzberger chuckles, too, even when snacking alone. He quotes in full a ponderous memo he wrote Nixon on what our next move should be in Chile; his own account makes clear to every­one but him that his suggestions got used, if at all, as wallpaper. His pontifical urge is simply dazzling. He quotes Nixon on Kent State: “When dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.” This is delirious on its own, but Sulzberger continues: “And one might add: When tragedy got out of hand it invited disaster.”

I don’t know which is better — tragedy unwilling to act responsibly, or that “And one might add.” If this is the Establishment that Richard Nixon kowtowed to, craved approv­al from, resented, and worked for as butcher’s boy all his public life, there are elements of pathos and burlesque in his story, and ours, far beyond what we suspected.

Sulzberger and his ilk praise Nixon’s di­plomacy as pragmatic, experienced, and flexible. But it was determinedly “conceptu­al” — pure mental flexings and superstruc­tures, impervious or grudging to whatever did not fit the grand design he’d drawn for the history books. Nixon’s insecurities, which only let him believe his own stature when he was dealing with the very largest issues, negotiating with the biggest opposite numbers, found a perfect complement in Kissinger’s grandiose theoretical frame­works, the academic’s version of hubris, which ruthlessly jammed the world into his vessels, leaving him fuming when it wouldn’t stay put: “I don’t see why we should stand by and let a country go Communist just because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”

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The Nixon-Kissinger foreign-policy blue­print was brilliant, if you accepted that there were only five countries in the world: the U.S., Russia, China, at times a shiny gadget store known as Japan, and a hazy, intermittent Brigadoon yclept “Europe.” The other 120-odd nations were dispens­able, obstreperous annoyances at best. And, because Nixon and Kissinger’s vanities compelled them to concentrate all conduct of diplomacy in their persons, there was no U.S. policy, even at the monitoring or care­taker level, toward those areas of the world they had no personal brief for. Even at their favored great-power level, they insistently cast things in terms of tour-de-force “his­toric initiatives,” tableau effects, seldom the unglamorous, patient, day-to-day continu­ities and receptivities involved in developing long-term relations.

If the high points of the Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy tend to all thunderclap and no rain, their record in the Third World is one of ignorance and indifference, compounded by hasty and incompetent rushings-in after the unwatched pots, to their aggrieved sur­prise, boiled over. Their trademark is a sudd­en and brutal assertion of U.S. predominance in countries they had not previously shown the remotest interest in: thuggishly in Chile, with squalid ineptitude in Angola and Cyprus, hysterically in Portugal (Kis­singer, always more in love with his ability to make analogies than with their aptness, denouncing Mario Soares on the spot as a “Kerensky”), with incalculable short-sight­edness in the “tilt” toward Pakistan, which alienated India, the region’s giant, for the sake of ensuring a friendly halfway house for Kissinger’s China trip. After four years of near-total silence, in 1973 Nixon-Kissin­ger abruptly declared a “Year of Europe,” announcing their conclusion that it was time for the U.S. to step back in and decide everything; they couldn’t understand the European fury at both the tokenism and the presumption. Even Europhile-Nixophile Sulzberger has to confess that the NATO alliance was left in a shambles at the end of the Nixon presidency, and has not yet recovered.

Of the triumphs, Kissinger’s years of well­-publicized shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East now look the most suspect — particu­larly since they culminated in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which Sadat had decided he would have to fight anyway. More damag­ingly, their intent never went beyond the tactical — to make sure that the U.S. main­tained its influential position in the area. The actual issue was never addressed, even though the Israeli grip on the territories occupied in 1967 was considerably less adamant than it is now. Especially given Nix­on’s leverage over the Israelis after Yom Kippur, a great opportunity was squandered without ever having been recognized. The China opening still looks impressive, though more for removing a festering sore from U.S. domestic politics than for any great advantages that have accrued abroad. Like the once-celebrated détente with the Sovi­ets, it seems to have been engineered with an eye more for the history books than for anything that might occur before they’re written.

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What you end up with in Nixon the diplo­mat is the same as with Nixon the everything else: not a statesman; but an incredi­ble simulation. He mimicked his own conception of what a world leader should be like. Today, he’s still mimicking, turning his status as a historical figure into a new ca­reer, new strivings — though he seems at long last grown accustomed to the prospect that the past is his only future. (It wasn’t always so; among the most curious products of his retirement is a book called Leaders, which is supposed to be a chattily Ei­senhowerian reminiscence of the great statesmen he has known. But at every op­portunity, discussing Adenauer, De Gaulle, whoever, Nixon diffidently, and almost touchingly, inserts a mention that they all came back from what seemed complete po­litical oblivion and made their greatest con­tributions when in their seventies — why, even their eighties. You have to shake your head: not only because he just never gives up, but because nothing in him is not strate­gy.) Of course, “accustomed” does not mean “reconciled,” never with Nixon; that’s just another role that’s been forced on him, one that took longer to suss out than most, and somewhere deep inside him is this ticking: Bush will falter. Kemp’s as dumb as Rom­ney. Dole…

Which doesn’t mean we have to take it seriously. But what one has to understand is that for Nixon, exposure — even when it’s as total as Watergate — has always been a purification rite. The dismantling that begins renewal. He did it first in ’52, when he put what little residue of private life he had on public show in the Checkers speech, and dared anyone to say that he had not sacri­ficed his all to us; he did it again a decade later, letting his accumulated bitterness and hostility — not just toward “the media,” but toward Eisenhower, Whittier, life — show with “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” thus clearing the decks to make the next campaign seem a heroic comeback, not a lame reprise. Nixon’s best-hidden yearning is that, knowing we will never like him, he hopes that he will excite our pity and be saved. To stand with all his fabrica­tion of himself revealed is the closest he can come to making a case for himself — to say, but look at what they have done to me, imagine my agony at being forced to wear this mask. He wants us to see the pain in his charade. I suspect that the reason he would not, could not, destroy the Watergate tapes was that to him they were precious testimo­ny to the pain: he honestly thought that, hearing the inflictions on him, the corners he’d been forced into, we’d feel the awed compassion that we do for Job.

Salesman Job. The criminal as victim, as disbelieving witness to himself. The hyena in the mirror, asking you to feel sorry for him. Nixon’s mistake was believing that identifying with him would bring compas­sion; we identified with him all along, and that was why we’ve done our best to vomit him out. He deserves the epitaph that Va­lery once gave Stendhal: we will never be done with him. But until — well, never, the most demanding, difficult acknowledgment his fellow citizens, who elected him President twice, could make of him is a comment that completes the Bobby Kennedy line I started with — the half that Bobby was wise­ly demagogic enough to leave unsaid. It’s the quotation from Lord Jim that was once ap­plied to Nixon by Tom Wicker, certainly no fan: “He was one of us.” ■

Fun With Dick

NIXON: The Education of a Politician. By Stephen Ambrose. Simon & Schuster, $22.95.

RICHARD NIXON: The Shaping of His Character. By Fawn Brodie. Simon & Schuster, $8.95 paper.

NIXON AGONISTES. By Garry Wills. Men­tor/New American Library, $5.95 paper.

THE WORLD AND RICHARD NIXON. By C.L. Sulzberger. Prentice Hall, $18.95.

LEADERS. By Richard Nixon. Warner Books, $17.50; $3.95 paper.

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Rosa Luxemburg’s Theory of Revolution

Rosa Luxemburg’s Theory of Revolution
March 1987

When I was a child, and Rosa Luxem­burg’s name was spoken, I heard a thrill of awe in the speaker’s voice. Who was she? I asked. A great socialist, I was told. She criti­cized Lenin, she was assassinated. For years I thought the Soviets had murdered her. I wasn’t so far off. The German Social Demo­crats shot her in 1919, but Joseph Stalin had her “excommunicated” in 1931. Rosa Luxemburg was destined, come any revolu­tion, to be killed by the authorities or de­nounced early as a counter-revolutionary.

Much has been written about Luxemburg, almost all of it by historians or political scientists out to attack or defend her criti­cisms of the Bolsheviks; the woman herself remains shadowy, abstract. Now Elzbieta Ettinger has written a biography rich in psychological insight and sexual perceptive­ness. Rosa Luxemburg: A Life allows us to see politics emerging from the influences and predilections that shaped a remarkable personality. Ettinger has lived long and inti­mately with her subject; she persuades us that she knows her well and loves her even better. We come to believe in Rosa because Ettinger neither apologizes for her nor whitewashes her. She lets Rosa speak for herself.

She was born Rozalia Luksenburg in 1870, in a small city in Russian-occupied Poland, to a family of secular Jews. The father did business in Yiddish, but Polish was spoken at home. The Jewish holidays were observed, but the mother read Polish and German literature. Town life was domi­nated by Jewish Orthodoxy and Polish ha­tred, but the Luksenburgs wanted an educa­tion for the children. When Rosa was three years old the family moved to Warsaw, and the education of the children began in earnest.

In 1873 the Poles were a humiliated peo­ple, their country split up among Russians, Prussians, and Austrians, their language outlawed, their aristocracy impoverished, their intelligentsia scattered. In Warsaw, the Poles hated the Russians, the Russians hated the Poles, and everybody hated the Jews. Ten years before, the Luksenburgs would have been forced to live in the Jewish quarter. Now, they were free to live outside the quarter but only in certain neighbor­hoods, and only on certain streets. There were other restrictions: Jews could do busi­ness, but not enter the professions; their children could attend school, but only under a rigid quota system. The Luksenburgs set­tled in, though little Rosa was apprehensive: She felt the excitement and anger of the big city. When she was five years old, it was discovered she had a congenital hip disloca­tion (a common occurrence among female infants). She was put to bed for a year with her leg in a cast. When she got up, one leg was shorter than the other.

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So there she was, among the Russians and the Poles: a cripple, a Jew, a girl, with a mind that ran ahead like the wind, a defen­sively arrogant tongue, and a hunger for the world. She went looking for what she need­ed, and she found it among the illegal stu­dent socialists of Warsaw. Here, in the so­cialist underground, she opened her mouth to speak (she was 16 years old) and, sudden­ly, thought and feeling were hers to com­mand. Just as the one who will become an artist or a scientist discovers a live connec­tion with the inner life or the physical world, so Rosa discovered in socialism her own expressive self. The experience was exhilarating. More than exhilarating, it was clarifying. The discovery centered her, and the clarity became addictive.

She was sent to Zurich to study when she was 19, and she never went home again. Zurich was crawling with socialist exiles from all over Europe. She registered as a student in natural science, but the German socialist club — with its library, reading room, and lecture hall — became her true university. In the autumn of 1890 she met Leo Jogiches, a Lithuanian Jew three years her elder and already a famous revolution­ary. To Rosa, Jogiches seemed straight out of Dostoevsky — brooding, angry, unreach­able; given to secrecy and conspiracy; bril­liant at politics, hopeless at love; devoted to Bakunin’s definition of the revolutionary as a lost man: “He has no interests of his own, no cause of his own, no feelings, no habits, no belongings, not even a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion — ­the revolution.” Rosa was enraptured and, in his own depressed way, so was Leo. Intellectually matched, each recognized in the other the missing half. Rosa had passion and eloquence, Leo a genius for strategy. She could talk and write, he could think and plan. The deal was this: They would make the revolution together late at night in a furnished room, then she’d go out and deliver it while he directed her performance from headquarters (that is, the room); between the two of them they’d make one fantastic socialist.

The 23-year-old Rosa climbed up on a chair at the Congress of the Second Socialist International and appealed for recogni­tion of the anti-nationalist Polish Marxist Party she and Leo Jogiches had just found­ed. This is how she was remembered at the meeting: “Small, with a disproportionately large head, she had a fleshy nose in a typically Jewish face.… [S]he walked with a pronounced limp, heavily, haltingly. At first glance she didn’t make an agreeable impres­sion, but after a short while one saw a wom­an bursting with life and spirit, endowed with a remarkable intellect.… She de­fended her cause with such magnetism in her eyes and in such fiery words that the majority of delegates, captivated and spell­bound, voted in favor of accepting her mandate.”

When she was 28, Rosa and Leo decided that she would move to Berlin to be close to the center of European socialism, the pow­erful German Social Democratic party. He would remain behind and direct her prog­ress from Zurich. Three weeks after her ar­rival, she addressed Polish-speaking, workers in Upper Silesia. Speaking more eloquently than ever before, Luxemburg made the workers feel that they lived on a grand scale of deprivation and injustice, history and heartbreak. They cheered and ap­plauded her, covered her with flowers, and spread the news about the astonishing wom­an from Poland. She knew then — and for the rest of her life — she had the power to hold a crowd. She returned to Berlin in a blaze of personal victory, the darling of the party elite. Karl and Luise Kautsky became her family, Clara Zetkin her best friend, Au­gust Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht her respectful colleagues.

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This early success in the German party was a joy to her. When she’d first arrived in Berlin, she’d written Leo of her determina­tion to be brave and courageous, but she also kept reporting migraine headaches and stomach cramps. Now, after Upper Silesia, she was exultant, felt sexually desirable and gloriously intelligent. Also bold and funny. When Karl Kautsky suggested that she help him edit the fourth volume of Das Kapital, she refused and wrote to Leo: “Knowing full well that neither our contemporaries nor posterity would ever learn of my silent contribution to Marxism, I told him straight out, I’m nobody’s fool! Of course, I put it in an elegant form… I advised him to buy a Remington typewriter and teach his wife to type.”

Leo, meanwhile, sitting in Zurich, fainting with hope and ambition for her progress, was not impressed (he never was). He re­sponded only with letters of criticism, correction, and instruction. (“You missed some spelling errors,” she replied scornfully. “You also missed the point.”) But the letters flew back and forth, an endless attempt by each of them to control and manipulate, seduce and provoke.

She and Leo had become lovers in the summer of 1891, and they were to remain locked in an extraordinary symbiosis for the rest of their comparatively short lives. She wanted everything: sex and literature, marriage and children, walks on a summer eve­ning and the revolution. He hated daylight, sociability, and sex. He lay on the bed in the furnished room, chain-smoking, depressed for weeks and months on end, waiting for the revolutionary structure to form itself so he could exercise power behind the scenes. She accused him of coldness and rigidity, he accused her of frivolity and lack of disci­pline. She said personal happiness and the revolution were not mutually exclusive. He told her sternly this was nonsense.

He shut her out of his inner life, and Ettinger shows beautifully how the longing for intimacy with Leo held Rosa’s attention with the same unwavering power as did the revolution. Had he denied her consistently, she would have left him, but he didn’t: He gave her just enough to keep her coming back for more. He feared losing control over her, she feared losing contact with him. Each wanted from the other what the other could never give, but neither stopped want­ing it.

Thousands of letters passed between them. These letters are the relationship. He sends political analysis, she sends a demand for love. He sends advice, criticism, instruc­tion, she sends a storm of abuse over his emotional stinginess. “Your letters contain nothing but nothing except for The Work­ers’ Cause,” she rails at him early in their relationship. “Say something nice to me!” Ten years later she is writing: “When I open your letters and see six sheets covered with debates about the Polish Socialist Party, and not a single word about ordinary life, I feel faint.” This goes on letter after letter, year after year. She couldn’t believe that Leo would not finally respond to her request that they “shape a human being out of each other other,” live a regular life of mutual work and open love, devoted in harmony to the task before them. They remained as they were for 25 years: he depressed and withholding, she hungry and demanding.

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In 1897, Eduard Bernstein delivered the first severe blow of revisionism to Marx. Rosa determined to answer it. She and Leo worked feverishly (in it together, then as ever) to clarify their ideas and her writing. (“Speed is essential… Help!” she had written him, and he did.) “Social Reform or Revolution” appeared in seven newspaper installments in September 1898, and was immediately declared a comprehensive refutation. Rosa was elected editor-in-chief of one of the major socialist papers in Berlin.

She settled down in Berlin, taught at the party school, wrote and lectured endlessly for socialism and the revolution. Her writing is distinguished by a knowledge of art, histo­ry, and literature, her speech made vivid by strength and immediacy of feeling. Her criticism of party writing is amazing. “I think that with every new article,” she advises her comrades back in Poland, putting out The Workers’ Cause, “one should experience the subject matter through and through, get emotionally involved, every single time, every single day. Only then will the old, familiar truths, expressed in words new and bright, go from the writer’s heart to the reader’s heart… The goal I set for myself is never to forget to reach deep into my own self, to be enthusiastic, inspired every time I put pen to paper.”

Because she never failed to “reach deep into her own self,” Luxemburg’s sense of the revolution remained remarkably whole and alive to the touch. She never lost sight of what she was fighting for, what socialism meant to her, what price she was willing to pay for it. Her position was often lonely but always independent. She thrived on the independence. Then suddenly it turned to isolation.

Her faith in international socialism grew desperate as Europe drifted toward war in 1914, and the mental paralysis of the theoretical socialists became apparent. Once the war broke out, German, French, and Austrian Social Democrats, one and all, abandoned the idea of the international working class and supported their own countries. ­Luxemburg remained adamantly opposed to the war — any war. She broke with the German party and helped found the Spartacus League, the self-declared only true Left. (Later, Clara Zetkin said that at the time Rosa had been on the verge of suicide.)

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All was in chaos, the left plunged in disaster like the whole of Europe, everyone scattered and running. Rosa was arrested for the third time and sent to prison in 1915, where she remained until the end of World War I. Always before, prison had been something of a lark — visitors, books, good food, fur­nished cells — but now it was different. The party, in more ways than one, was over. Slowly, she was worn down. Her hair turned gray, and she began to grow confused in spirit and will. Her letters from prison are still filled with her changing moods, but beneath the life-giving excitement over nature, art, and history, a current of despair had begun to flow. Nevertheless, she read and wrote incessantly (Rosa Luxemburg depressed is like a thousand others operating on all cylinders), and in the summer of 1918, while still in prison, she completed a 60-page pamphlet called The Russian Revolution that has insured her place in modern political thought.

She knew Lenin well, and from the beginning was immensely drawn to him. She loved his fierce intellect, his fantastic will­power, his shrewd grasp of Russian reality. She felt more at home with him than with the urbane and theoretical Germans. But early on she sensed that if he could make a revolution, it would be a troubling one. In 1904, she wrote a paper on the Russian Social Democrats in which she said no to glori­fication of the proletariat and distrust of the intelligentsia, and above all no to the gath­ered authority of the party. Lenin “concen­trates mostly on controlling the party, not on fertilizing it,” she wrote, “on narrowing it down, not on developing it, on regiment­ing and not on unifying it.” This, she thought, did not bode well. When the revo­lution came, and the Bolsheviks assumed power, how she suffered. Those close to her begged her to remain silent, but she could not. A year after Lenin had taken control, and only six months before her death, she wrote from her prison cell:

[Lenin] is completely mistaken in the means he employs: decree, the dictatorial power of a factory overseer, Draconian penalties, rule by terror… Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free exchange of opinions, life dies out in every public institution and only bureaucracy remains active… [Lenin and his comrades] have contributed to the cause of international socialism whatever could possibly have been contributed under such fiendishly difficult conditions. The danger begins, when they make a virtue of necessity… Freedom only for the supporters of the government… only for the members of the one Party, no matter how numerous is no freedom. Freedom is always for the one who thinks differently.

Now, indeed, she was alone.

Luxemburg was released from prison on November 10, 1918, and went immediately to Berlin. The city was in chaos: armed citizens, drunken soldiers, fighting everywhere, Germany’s defeat a rage and a confu­sion from which the people could not emerge. In a desperate attempt to save the failing monarchy, a Social Democrat had been named chancellor, but Friedrich Ebert was like no Social Democrat any of them had ever known. Luxemburg felt she was staring into space. With Jogiches and Karl Liebknecht at her side, she struggled to make the fledgling Spartacus League into the revolutionary group she yearned for, thinking it would assert socialist authority peacefully. Her efforts were doomed. Ebert had made a deal with the army to rid Germany of the ultra Left, and then the young Spartacists themselves had turned rancid. They wanted power now, and they wanted it violently. Day by day, Luxemburg watched control slip from her grasp, along with every hope of a democratic Left. On January 15 the police came for her. She thought she was being returned to prison and was actually relieved; the last two months had been a waking nightmare. She got into the car without a protest. She was taken to army headquarters for identification, then re­turned to the car, where she was shot in the head. Her body was dumped in a Berlin canal. Two months later, on the trail of her murderers, Leo Jogiches was beaten to death in an army barracks on the edge of the city. The men who killed them both were members of the Freikorps. Fourteen years later they became the Nazi police.

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Ettinger focuses with skill and intelli­gence on Luxemburg’s relationship with Jo­giches, returning again and again to their unceasing struggle. She persuades us that here, in the letters Rosa wrote to Leo over 25 years, the power and originality of Luxemburg’s political spirit are to be found, maturing and taking shape. Ettinger em­phasizes — and rightly — Luxemburg’s sense of displacement, the depth of homelessness that made her believe “home” was to be found in a great cause, one that would allow world and self to merge, and emerge. She also tries to explain why, for Luxemburg, the cause had to be socialism.

Rosa’s early life had made her violently anti-nationalist and she was, I think it safe to say, a self-hating Jew and a self-hating woman as well. She carried her lack of sym­pathy for the Jews into more than one polit­ical battle, and her distaste for Clara Zet­kin’s feminism was notorious. She takes her place beside Karl Marx and Simone Weil, whose hatred of their own Jewishness is startling to read of now but understandable when taken in the context of its moment. These were people who longed to stand on the stage of the world. Jewishness dragged them down into the provincialism of a de­spised social reality without a movement of protest grand enough to satisfy large emo­tional ambitions. And if Jewishness was the ghetto of social protest, imagine how wom­en’s rights must have struck Luxemburg. Only if she’d been born 50 years earlier (or later), and on the other side of the Atlantic, might feminism have inspired her with a sufficient sense of grandeur.

So she made the socialist movement her home. As they all did. Everyone who came to Marxist revolution felt the same urgent stirrings driving them on. Luxemburg, how­ever, was one of the few who understood early (Kollontai was was another, Bukharin an­other) that it was home they were looking for. Socialism was to be the home human beings had been denied, the civilized and civilizing atmosphere where the brutishness of life would be dissolved, where defensive behaviors would cease and unresponsiveness die out.

She understood also that socialism had to be made from the inside out. She knew that if the socialists gave up sex and literature while they were making the revolution, there would be no home to occupy when they got there. What she wanted with Leo, in the here and now, was that they make a socialist home within themselves, for each other, to keep alive the promise of a new world. She knew that if they went under­ground inside themselves, they’d end up making police-state socialism.

This was Luxemburg’s single most impor­tant insight: The revolutionaries must re­main human throughout their struggle. Oth­erwise, what kind of revolution would these angry, repressed people make? Whom would it serve? And how would life be better after­wards? These thoughts never left her. They are there, year after year, in her letters to Leo, in the reasons she gives for wanting them to be close and to love each other freely. Out of these thoughts comes her op­position to war, her criticism of Lenin, her description of why she reads Tolstoy instead of Marx in prison. In Rosa Luxemburg, the line between emotion and intelligence re­mained strong and direct. All her life it was the task of her intellect to explain what her gut told her was true.

Perhaps Jogiches did her a favor. He kept her lonely throughout all the years of politi­cal tumult. In her loneliness she never stopped being hungry for life. She equated her hunger with the life force of democracy, the spiritual value of the revolution. If she had “come home” with Leo, she might have grown fat and contented and, her hunger abated, not felt it necessarilry to keep feeding knowledge that grew like a weed inside her. Then again, perhaps not. It’s hard to imagine Rosa inert. She was born to respond to the world and to make it respond to her.■

ROSA LUXEMBURG: A Life By Elzbieta Ettinger Beacon Press, $24.95

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

John Reed and the Greenwich Village Revolutionaries

To Russia With Love
February 1982

1. High spirits — that is what stands out from the Greenwich Village renaissance. Reds captures some of this by showing bohemian leftists yapping energetically at the lunch table and dancing to victrolas in dingy apartments. These scenes get the idea across, but I wish Warren Beatty had also shown the Paterson Pageant of 1913, which he could have recreated for a mere $10 million extra. The Paterson Pageant was a pep rally and benefit for the silk workers of Paterson, New Jersey, who were waging a magnificent strike led by the IWW. John Reed and a committee of radicals rented Madison Square Garden and got 1200 silk workers and an IWW brass band to dramatize the events of this strike. First the 1200 performers marched up the aisle through the audience to demonstrate how they went to work. Next they disappeared behind a huge set of life­-sized silk mills and shouted “Strike!” Then they showed how the police killed a picketer, and what the funeral was like. Big Bill Haywood and the IWW leaders orated in favor of the eight-hour day. And all the while everyone belted out militant labor songs to the conducting of John Reed, who knew how to conduct from his days as chief cheerleader at Harvard; among the songs he got the workers to sing was “Harvard, Old Harvard,” with IWW lyrics. The whole performance was so thrilling that the audience of 15,000 stood up for most of the evening, the better to sing along.

As things turned out, the pageant lost money and damaged unity in the strike, since some workers resented being left out of the show. Ultimately the strike went down to calamitous defeat. But the pageant certainly was spirited.

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The most spirited Village institution of all, to modern eyes, was The Masses magazine, where Reed, the magazine’s editor Max Eastman, and a list of other lively writers filled the news and literary columns, and John Sloan and the rest of the Ash Can School did the covers and illustrations. The Masses made a great contribution to American hu­mor: it perfected the art of the cartoon with a one-line caption. (“My dear, I’ll be econom­ically independent if I have to borrow every cent!”) Of course it wasn’t really a humor magazine but, like the Paterson Pageant, an organ of serious social protest, championing the cause of radical labor and the working class. Whether the magazine did this cause any more practical good than the pageant was a matter for debate. As some overly cynical person once wrote:

They draw fat women for The Masses,
Denuded, fat, ungainly lasses —
How does that help the working classes?

But hell, Village radicalism wasn’t a worker’s movement, anyway, not really. It was a bohe­mian movement with working-class sympathies. The Masses propounded Marxism, syndicalism, and other proletarian philosophies, but in truth it had its own ideology, a species of radical bohemianism that ought to be called, after its finest ex­positor, John Reedism.

John Reedism had three great ideas, which you can see almost leaping from his early book, Insurgent Mexico (1914). Idea Number One was an appreciation that intellectuals could be morally serious, personally re­bellious, and wildly adventurous at the same time. That was more or less what Reed had been at Madison Square Garden. In Insurgent Mexico he followed the Jack London example of rebel writer on the road, and pursued adventure to an extreme. The book was about a trip with notebook and camera to the front lines of the Mexican Revolution. The Mexicans were nervous about American intervention, and the front lines were no place for a gringo. Everywhere Reed went, his presence sparked a discussion about Ameri­can spies and whether the one at hand ought to be shot. A drunken officer stormed up to his hotel room determined to pull the trigger but was too maudlin and confused to go through with it. On another occasion Reed risked getting shot for making contacts with generals in the revolutionary Constitu­tionalist army. And those were merely the dangers that preceded battle. Having estab­lished himself with the Constitutionalists, he accompanied an advance troop into a ghastly massacre and escaped death only by shed­ding his coat, throwing away the camera, and heading for the hills. Warren Beatty liked this scene so much he stuck what looks like a piece of it at the beginning of Reds.

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Idea Number Two was about the pro­letariat. Walter Lippmann once remarked that in the view of Reed and The Masses, the working class isn’t “composed of miners, plumbers, and working men generally, but is a fine statuesque giant who stands on a high hill facing the sun.” That was a witty descrip­tion of Masses propaganda, but beneath the propaganda were other images of the working class, one of which was quite exotic. These bohemians had a cult of the primitive. They were appalled by sophistication, by the hy­pocrisy of the middle class and all those constructs of civilization that obscure the realities of life and death. They wanted to dig down to the profundities of existence, they wanted to touch the natural, and they thought the oppressed toilers had a head start in that direction.

Reed saw the peons of Mexico in this light. He kept an eye out for barbarism. Going around the Constitutionalist army asking sol­diers why they were fighting, he found one who told him, “Why, it is good, fighting. You don’t have to work in the mines,” and who was disturbed to learn there was no war going on in the United States. “No war at all? How do you pass the time, then?” These soldiers were plenty violent, too. They could hardly have a dance or party without fingering their guns and edging up to the brink of a shootout.

And all this was enthralling. Watching the ritualized flirtations of boys and girls in the villages, Reed felt sure their sexuality was spontaneous and open. Attending a medieval miracle play in a poor Durango town, he found an example of art and drama fully integrated into proletarian existence. He was moved above all by the stark simplicity of the peons’ revolutionary ideals. They wanted to get rid of feudal estates, the Church, and the army, and establish Libertad. It seemed so much simpler and better than the ideals of his own countrymen.

Reed asked a soldier:

“ ‘What do you mean by Libertad?’

“ ‘Libertad is when I can do what I want!’ the soldier replied.

“ ‘But suppose it hurts somebody else?’

“He shot back at me Benito Juarez’s great sentence:

“ ‘Peace is the respect for the rights of others!’

“I wasn’t prepared for that. It startled me, this barefooted meztizo’s conception of Liberty. I submit that it is the only correct definition of Liberty — to do what I want to! Americans quote it to me triumphantly as an instance of Mexican irresponsibility. But I think it is a better definition than ours — Liberty is the right to do what the Courts want.”

He loved the peon leaders. Back in Green­wich Village the radical bohemians stood in awe of anyone who could stir the masses. Their own local revolutionary hero was Big Bill Haywood, the one-eyed Western miner who led the Paterson strike and who was once described as Greenwich Village’s football star. But in Mexico Reed found a revolu­tionary leader who made Big Bill look like white bread: Pancho Villa, the ferocious ban­dit, whom Reed once saw wandering along the front of a major battle encouraging his men, cigar in one hand, bomb in the other, ready to light the fuse and let go.

Incredibly, Reed managed to befriend Villa, who called Reed “pug-nose” and gave him free run of the revolutionary army. Reed pictured Villa as a kind of perfect primitive king: abysmally, even comically, ignorant, de­pendent on the suggestions of his educated followers, but able to weigh and choose among these suggestions with the trueness of his emotions and the simplicity of his moral sense. A man with two wives, just and reasonable in his deeds, undeserving of his reputation for wanton murder and rape. A man of physical courage, barely literate, yet a mili­tary genius on the scale of a Napoleon.

The portrait laid it on so thick that Reed’s coolness and judgment were called into ques­tion. He did seem to have been flamboozled by the brutal bandit leader. Yet the portrait suggested a powerful idea. At the center of revolutionary events, Reed seemed to be say­ing, stands a heroic figure — in this case a primitive himself and spokesman for a primitive class, a man of will, no bohemian dilettante or trade union piecard corrupted by ties to the middle class, but a violent doer, a bandit, by God, a man so strong he could put his shoulder to history and butt it forward few feet. This was an immensely satisfying image. It was Idea Number Three — bloody-minded hero worship, the complement to left-wing romantic adventure ­and the cult of the primitive.

— 2 —

All right — maybe John Reedism was less than a brilliant doctrine, maybe it occupied no great place in the history of politics and political thought. But there was so much color and feeling in the doctrine, so much pep, moral passion, rebelliousness — you could write with these ideas, you could paint and draw. Dos Passos said of Reed, “Pancho Villa taught him to write.” The place Reed’s doctrine occupied was in the history of liter­ature — to be specific, right after Stephen Crane and Jack London, right before Lawrence and Hemingway.

And yet five years later, in Ten Days That Shook the World, Reed produced a book that does indeed occupy a place in the history of politics, America’s one great contribution to the classics of international Communism. How was he able to do this? The question was first asked by N.K. Krupskaya, the Bolshevik leader who also happened to be Lenin’s wife, in her preface to the first Russian edition in 1923. The Russians themselves don’t write this way about the October Revolution, she observed. Reed was a foreigner who hardly knew the customs of Russia, could barely speak the language. And yet he had grasped the meaning of the revolution and had writ­ten an “epochal” book. He did this, she ex­plained, by being a revolutionary in spirit, a true Communist.

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The structure of Ten Days suggests that Reed had changed considerably since In­surgent Mexico. He had grown up some (he was 32 when he wrote Ten Days) and no longer doted quite so boyishly on swashbuckles. He had always had a sense of economy in drawing scenes, but now speeded up to the pace of a teletype machine. By no means did he give up on self-conscious literary techniques; he still threw in Whitmanesque flourishes about the “terrible dawn gray-rising over Russia” or the “world, red-tide,” some of which were, in combina­tion with the teletype pace, very effective. But Insurgent Mexico was organized around these techniques, and the new book wasn’t. Stephen Crane lay behind him. Instead he filled Ten Days with facts, dozens of documents, speeches, placards, debates, some­ times reproduced in full. He included copies of leaflets, Cyrillic letters staring up from the page. The mass of material is confusing, fatiguing, almost too breathless to get through. Reading it is like deciphering one of those walls covered with a thousand posters. Then again, it has extraordinary energy, and a sense of extraordinary fidelity. Insurgent Mexico read like a novel. Ten Days That Shook the World was a report from the front.

Underneath these appearances, though, how different was Ten Days from the earlier book? Wasn’t it just John Reedism in heightened form, the Three Great Ideas raised to the level of what Hegel would call the world-historical? Maybe there was no mystery to Reed’s achievement at all­ — maybe it was the same old Village sensibility applied to spectacular new circumstances.

Again there was the tale of the author’s own adventures, less prominently boasted about this time, but more remarkable. He arrived in Petrograd with his wife, Louise Bryant, also a journalist, in the summer of 1917, after the Tsar had been overthrown but while the Provisional Government still hung on. He interviewed Kerensky, Trotsky, and the Bolshevik leaders, who welcomed him as the correspondent for The Masses and the New York socialist paper, The Call. He watched while the Bolsheviks began their October seizure of power. He and Bryant and a party of three other Americans more or less helped capture the Winter Palace: “Carried along by the eager wave of men we were swept into the right hand entrance.…” Inside they were seized by illiterate Red Guards who studied their passes upside-down and might well have shot them as bourgeois agents, except that a literate officer came by and looked at the passes right-side up. Reed went through the streets of Petrograd in a truck distributing a leaflet he hadn’t even read, which turned out to be Lenin’s proclamation that the Provisional Government was over­thrown. He witnessed the famous speeches by Lenin and Trotsky, though of course it was largely Reed who made famous the par­ticulars of these speeches.

Ten Days indulged no fantasies of free love among the Petrograd workers, and left un­discussed his concern with art and the proletariat. But in other respects Reed looked at the Russian working class with the same eye that he had looked at the Mexican peons. He was not interested in seeing how sophisti­cated the Petrograd proletariat was, how capably it organized factory production with­out the bourgeois managers, for instance. He paid no great attention to the remarkable democratic know-how of the workers, their ability to throw together grass-roots institu­tions of democratic self-government like the revolutionary factory committees and soviets (workers’ councils). He was not interested in what was advanced about the Petrograd workers. He was interested in their glorious simplicity, their almost primitive zeal, the gruffness of their class consciousness.

He contrasted this gruff simplicity to the convoluted knowledge of the educated class, and found that gruff simplicity was the greater wisdom. Indeed gruff simplicity was the stick that beat history forward, that drove the revolution into the streets and brought the Bolsheviks to power. His de­scription of this was mythic: “The Central Committee of the Bolshevik party was con­sidering the question of insurrection. All night long the 23rd they met. There were present all the party intellectuals, the lead­ers — and delegates of the Petrograd workers and garrison. Alone of the intellectuals Lenin and Trotsky stood for insurrection. Even the military men opposed it. A vote was taken. Insurrection was defeated!

“Then arose a rough workman, his face convulsed with rage. ‘I speak for the Petrograd proletariat,’ ” he cried, harshly. “We are in favor of insurrection. Have it your own way, but I tell you now that if you allow the Soviets to be destroyed, we’re through with you!’ Some soldiers joined him.… And after that they voted again — insurrection won.”

This scene turns out to have been mythic in both senses of the word. It is true that the Petrograd workers were spoiling for an uprising, and that the party was hesitant. But the Bolsheviks slid into their decision. There was no single meeting where the crucial vote was reversed, no rough workman who stood up and swayed the Central Committee. There was only Lenin, waging a protracted one-man campaign for insurrection. Reed made his story up out of excess enthusiasm, or maybe failed to look closely into some rumor he heard. It was bad journalism, but first-rate John Reedism.

Only in the portraits of Lenin and Trotsky did Ten Days depart from Reed’s earlier ideas, and even here the departure was not obvious. Lenin and Trotsky stand at the cen­ter of Ten Days just as Villa stood at the center of Insurgent Mexico. Like Villa, they radiate fierceness and strength. Within the party they are relentless against conciliators like Kamenev and Riazanov, who oppose the insurrection. After the insurrection they are just as relentless. The conciliators propose a coalition government of all the popular left­wing parties, instead of a one-party Bolshevik dictatorship. Lenin is outraged: “Shame upon those who are of little faith, who doubt, who allow themselves to be frightened by the bourgeoisie, or who suc­cumb before the cries of that latter’s direct or indirect accomplices!” Lenin is not Mr. Civil Liberties. The question of freedom of the press arises, and several of the Bolsheviks favor a policy of tolerance. Lenin: “To toler­ate the bourgeois newspapers would mean to cease being a Socialist.”

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But the difference between Villa and the Bolsheviks is that the Bolsheviks don’t lug bombs to the front, they lug a theory of history, and at each little step in the Petro­grad struggle detonate a new assertion about how history is moving along. The Bolsheviks can hardly open their mouths without saying something momentous. Thus Trotsky, in his interview with Reed (during which Reed discovered that it was not necessary to ask ques­tions — Trotsky just talked), announces: “It is the lutte finale.” Proclaiming the Bolshevik victory from the podium of the soviet, he says: “We the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies, are going to try an experiment unique in history.” Denouncing those who walk out of the hall in protest against the Bolshevik action, he asserts: “They are just so much refuse which will be swept into the garbage-heap of history!”

Lenin is the same. Addressing his famous first words to the Soviet after the insurrec­tion, he says: “We shall now proceed to con­struct the Socialist order!” — words which, incidentally, Reed was the only person to record, since the official recording secretary of the Soviet was a Menshevik who had just joined the garbage-heap of history by walking out.

Statements like these meant that John Reedism was at an end. Big Bill Haywood had never talked like this. Pancho Villa never said anything this eloquent. The greatest thing Villa ever said in Reed’s hearing was, “The tortillas of the poor are better than the bread of the rich.” These Bolsheviks were intellectuals, more intellectual even than Reed and the bohemian writers. There was nothing romantic about them in Reed’s old sense. He described Lenin as physically “un­impressive,” “colorless,” “without pic­turesque idiosyncrasies.” But this Lenin had fashioned an altogether new notion of what intellectuals could do. He and the Bolsheviks had shouldered aside the natural leaders of the working class and put themselves at the head of the proletariat, and in doing so they had made the revolution. This was not the same as having wild adventures, Reed-style, or being a writer for The Masses and hoping vaguely that one’s literary labors would help the proletariat. The Bolshevik example was far more serious, far grander, and there was no room in it for the old bohemian gaiety.

— 3 —

Some on the left saw that Bolshevism was going to be a disaster — or rather, some rushed into sympathy for Bolshevism, and rushed right out again. Reds portrays this by showing Emma Goldman’s quarrel with Reed over how Russia was doing in 1920. The only thing wrong with Maureen Stapleton’s per­formance in these scenes was the character­less accent she used. The real-life Emma Goldman was an immigrant and had to teach herself English; but she taught herself right. She acquired an upper-class accent. She sounded like George Plimpton. Maybe a cultured accent would have bothered film au­diences: we like our immigrants to sound humble. But the decision to show Goldman’s quarrel with Reed was a good one, his­torically as well as dramatically. Goldman was the first distinguished radical in Reed’s world to condemn the Bolsheviks, which is interesting, and it is especially interesting that she made this condemnation on the basis of values she, too, had brought with her from old bohemian days in New York.

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Goldman’s bohemia, however, was not ex­actly the same as Reed’s. She published her own magazine, Mother Earth, in competition with The Masses, and her magazine was duller, more rigid, and more radical. The comrades in her neck of the woods, which was the Lower East Side and East Harlem, tended to be poorer, angrier, more desperate, more violent. Not all of them were pro­fessional intellectuals. She herself started out with a sewing machine in the shirtwaist industry; her comrade Alexander Berkman started out as a factory hand. And the ten­dency in her circle was to know something about the insides of jail. Goldman at 24 did a year in Blackwell’s Island for having ad­vocated a hunger riot at a rally in Union Square. Berkman did 14 years for shooting and stabbing Henry Clay Frick, the anti-labor steel baron.

The ideas held by this Anarchist bohemia tended to be different, too. In cultural mat­ters, Goldman and her circle were more sophisticated than The Masses group. They were Europeans themselves, and more in touch with the European avant-garde. Eugene O’Neill learned about Ibsen and Strindberg from Goldman and Mother Earth, not from his pals at The Masses. Naturally, she and her circle also had different views of the working class. They had started out back in the 1890s with a Narodnik-like worship of the mystic People, but by the 1910s they had grown heartily sick of working-class ignoramuses and were less inclined to romanticize the primitive. They were champions of the class struggle; needless to say, they took the hardest line possible. But they tended to sneer, good Nietzscheans that they were, at proletarian backwardness. Nor did they fawn quite so easily over revolutionary leaders. Perhaps that was because in their own view they themselves were hot-shot revolutionary leaders. In any case, the ideas in Insurgent Mexico were not really theirs.

Politically these Anarchists were rigid to the point of immobility. They could not con­ceive of government doing anything on behalf of the workers, and therefore did their best not to acknowledge government’s existence. They would never vote, not even for Social­ists, not even in emergencies. Radical bomb­ings and attentats they could abide, and abided them even when innocent people were accidentally killed; but voting was anathema.

Yet they had their insights, lots of them, and in the case of Russia, insights of great clarity and originality precisely because of these doctrinaire ideas. No surprise in this: Anarchism was largely a Russian invention to begin with, courtesy of Bakunin and Kropotkin, and if it had any value at all it would surely yield truths about Russia. Gold­man was deported from the United States at the end of 1919, along with Berkman, and lasted two years in Russia before fleeing to Western Europe. She yielded her truths in My Disillusionment in Russia (1923). This volume had the honor of being the first book-­length denunciation of the Bolsheviks by a revolutionary of international renown. Later she reworked most of what she had written into her autobiography, Living My Life. This snooty, contentious, energetic, splendid two-volume fanfare for herself is the great classic of New York’s Anarchist underworld, a story of proletarian radicalism, the artistic avant­-garde, and the free womanhood for which Goldman so stalwartly stood. The account of her despair at Bolshevism in Living My Life is doubly interesting because of how natu­rally it flows from the values she had campaigned for in the United States. But Gold­man’s was not the only New York Anarchist portrait of revolutionary Russia — perhaps not even the best or the most convincing. There was also Berkman’s Russian diary of 1920–21, which was published as The Bolshevik Myth.

Berkman grew up in Petrograd and at age 11 saw his schoolroom windows shattered by the force of the Narodnik bomb that killed Tsar Alexander. Berkman’s uncle Nathanson became a revolutionary peasant leader and was instrumental in swinging the peasants behind the October Revolution in 1917; Un­cle Nathanson makes a cameo appearance in Ten Days, though Reed seems not to have known of his relation to Berkman. Berkman himself never shed his Narodnik-terrorist roots, even after he emigrated to the United States. His Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist shows that in preparing to assassinate Frick, his mind was full of Russian revolutionary deeds, even Russian literature. His heart beat at the word Nihilist. Nor did he ever fully change his way of thinking. When he got out of prison he announced that terrorism was behind him, that attentats were an inappro­priate means of class struggle in the United States. But he may not have believed this, at least not in moments of intense emotion. Paul Avrich has recently discovered that Berkman was probably leader of a benighted 1914 bomb plot against Rockefeller.

Berkman managed to play a role in the 1917 Petrograd uprising even while still in the United States. He had been accused of participating in a San Francisco bombing and was in considerable danger of extradition from New York and possible execution. Word of this reached the Petrograd proletariat­ — via an urgent telegram in code from Emma Goldman — and the Petrograd workers added Berkman’s defense to the thousand other global issues they were campaigning for. The Kronstadt sailors and workers held a monster rally for Berkman, among other American political prisoners, and on one occasion a group of revolutionary sailors threatened the life of the American ambassador on Berkman’s behalf. The ambassador cabled Washington; Woodrow Wilson got concerned over the international ramifications; and the case against Berkman was dropped. Mean­while he had become celebrated all over Rus­sia as a heroic victim of political persecution in the United States.

His book on the Russian Revolution began with a genuine instance of that persecution. In December 1919, following two years in the Georgia State Prison for antiwar agitation, he was jailed again at Ellis Island and then smuggled out to the U.S. Transport Buford for deportation, along with Goldman and 247 other immigrant radicals, mostly Russian Anarchists. The Buford steamed for Russia under a guard of U.S. soldiers. Almost imme­diately Berkman’s personality asserted itself. He became a kind of militant labor leader of the deportees, who backed him up in tough negotiations about shipboard conditions with the official in charge. Then the soldiers and sailors began to fall under his sway. When they reached Europe a group of them offered to turn the ship over to him, if he was interested. But he didn’t want a ship.

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Berkman kissed the Russian ground when he arrived and declared it to be the “most sublime” day of his life He was still thrilled by the progress of events in Russia and thought the Bolsheviks were splendid. The fact that the Bolsheviks had established a new government with Lenin as head of state, Trotsky (whom he knew from New York) as foreign minister, etc. etc. was an embarrass­ment to Anarchist ideology. But in his esti­mation the Bolsheviks were merely presiding over the “real” revolution — the seizure of the land by the peasants, the factories by the workers, and the creation of peasant and worker cooperatives as the basis for the new socialist society.

Gradually he learned that he was wrong. The “real” revolution had certainly taken place, and the workers and peasants had seized control over their own affairs for the first time in history. But the Bolsheviks were not presiding over this; they were dismantling it. They were actively suppressing peasant and worker control in favor of cen­tralizing all affairs in the hands of the state. From the Anarchist perspective, this was a disaster — a disaster for the social ideals of the Revolution, also a disaster for the economy, since the Anarchists were convinced that only a decentralized self-managed sys­tem of production could be efficient.

Berkman traveled around Russia with Goldman, collecting information for the new Museum of the Revolution, and everywhere he went left-wing oppositionists told him of political persecutions by the secret police, the Cheka. The harshest suppressions were of the Ukrainian Anarchists, who had been crucial in liberating that region from the counter-­revolutionary Whites, and briefly there was the chance that the Ukraine might be allowed to develop along Anarchist lines. But Trotsky put an end to this. In Moscow, the Anarchist club was machine-gunned. Anarchists, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries found themselves in jail. Executions began. Berkman increasingly got the impression of a police state.

Meanwhile his own standing with the Bolsheviks began to decline. At first he was welcomed as a hero. Lenin sent a car to bring him to the Kremlin for a chat. Zinoviev was friendly and stood next to him on a May Day reviewing stand. Then Radek called with an urgent request. Lenin had just written Left-­Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, and needed Berkman to translate it into Eng­lish. Berkman explained that he was too busy. Radek said, working for Lenin takes precedence over everything else. So Berkman examined the pamphlet and announced that he would be happy to translate it, but only if he could add a preface explaining why Lenin was wrong. “This is no joking matter, Berkman,” Radek said. After that the Bolsheviks took a dimmer view of him.

The climax was the Kronstadt uprising, when the revolutionary sailors demanded the right of free elections to the Soviet and free­dom of speech for non-Bolshevik leftists. Berkman and Goldman offered to mediate the dispute: they still hoped some sort of reconciliation between the Bolsheviks and the more democratic and libertarian tenden­cies on the left could be worked out. Instead Trotsky sent the Red Army.

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Berkman was a Dostoevskian figure, swept by gusts of depression and outrage, his whole life spent teetering on the line between fanat­ical idealism and suicide (ultimately he did commit suicide, in 1936). He hated op­pression with a physical passion; he was the kind of man whose muscles stiffen at the sight of the police. It might be said that his extreme emotionalism was a psychological problem, peculiar to him, except that he belonged to a movement that itself teetered constantly between vast dreams and bitter calamities. Better to say he was an old-style Romantic, a man with the heightened emo­tions of 19th century revolutionism. Fortunately he was also possessed of literary talent and could get these emotions down on the page. His finest work was Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, every page of which is drenched with his mixture of idealism and torment. But he was also able to capture his feelings in The Bolshevik Myth, a book that recorded what was, after all, a far huger tragedy than his own failed attentat and long imprisonment.

“Gray are the passing days,” he wrote at the end of The Bolshevik Myth. “One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in Octo­ber. The slogans of the Revolution are fore­sworn, its ideals stifled in the blood of the people.” He concluded: “The Bolshevik myth must be destroyed.” That was in 1921.

Berkman didn’t even dent that myth. His book was published in 1925 by Boni and Liveright, the firm which had brought out Ten Days That Shook the World six years earlier. But in Berkman’s book Boni and Liveright did not have another big seller. American radicalism was not going in Berkman’s direction. It was going in Reed’s, toward Communism.

— 4 —

Was Reed himself going in Reed’s direc­tion at the time of his death? Or was he coming to agree with Berkman and Gold­man — not with their Anarchist philosophy, but with their left-wing condemnation of the Bolsheviks? This became an urgent question 10 or 15 years after his death.

Certainly Reed’s last years were devoted to Bolshevism. He organized a Bolshevik fac­tion in the United States, the Communist Labor Party. He edited an agitational paper, The Communist. Then he returned to Russia and became intimate with Lenin, who would have him over for late-night talks and pull up his chair so close their knees touched. He was appointed a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist Interna­tional — but some time in the summer of 1920 he resigned the position. Possibly he was upset at the Executive Committee’s labor stance. Possibly it was because the commit­tee refused to dump his political rival, Louis Fraina, from leadership. Either way, he soon withdrew the resignation — only to fall out with Zinoviev in August at a conference of “Toiling Peoples of the East” at Baku.

Soon afterwards, he died of typhus. Berkman and Goldman happened to be in Moscow and were the only friends of Louise Bryant’s to attend the funeral. And in a talk with Bryant, Goldman got the first wind that Reed’s upset at the Bolsheviks may have been substantial, indeed may have begun to resemble her own. There was not a great deal of evidence for this — only a few ambiguous words from Bryant, whose reliability could be questioned. At the funeral she was hysterical. When the coffin was lowered, she clutched at it, threw herself on the rain-covered ground, and stayed there through six speeches by Communist worthies, until Berkman picked her up and took her to the car. The hysteria was no passing thing, either, but may well have been the beginning of her long decline, which ended with her death many years later as an alcoholic in Paris. She certainly wasn’t held in high regard by Goldman, who wrote to Berkman:

“The last time I saw her was at the Sélect when two drunken Corsican soldiers carried her out of the café. What a horrible end. More and more I come to think it is criminal for young middle-class American or English girls to enter radical ranks. They go to pieces. And even when they do not reach the gutter, as Louise did, their lives are empty.… Of course Lincoln Steffens was right when he said about Louise [that] she was never a communist, she only slept with a communist.”

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Nevertheless Goldman felt confident enough of what Bryant had told her about Reed’s questioning of the Bolsheviks to write it up. Over the years Bryant talked to a number of people about the final state of Reed’s soul, and they all felt confident about what she said — but each person seemed to get a different story: that Reed was beginning to be disappointed in the Bolsheviks; that he was indignant and through with them; that he was a stalwart Communist to the end; that he was a United States agent (this last no one has taken seriously). These various remarks of Bryant’s, plus some chatter from other people who remembered Reed in Russia, provided the only basis for the debate that arose over Reed’s final position. It wasn’t a very good debate — not enough hard facts. But then, this debate wasn’t really about facts. It was about something bigger — myths.

The John Reed myth began while he was still alive. Reed’s death made him seem more mythic still. In the 1930s, when the debate began in earnest, the John Reed myth took on yet another aspect. The ’30s was the “Red Decade”; yet even then it was obvious that the golden age of radicalism in America was the 1910s, certainly for the bohemian left — a great age because of its gaiety, romance, hu­mor, above all because of the optimism that allowed these things to clasp hands with the cause of socialism and the working class.

Reed was the symbol of this. He repre­sented the grand bohemian possibility, the possibility that art and revolution might come together, that the adventurousness of the individual rebel and the cause of social progress might cohere, that the work of The Masses might help the working classes after all. The debate over his last days, then, was a debate over who was the true heir of the 1910s bohemian left.

Naturally the Communists nominated themselves. They bedecked themselves with signs of their legitimacy. They called their magazine New Masses, indicating direct de­scent. They called their literary organizations in the early ’30s the John Reed Clubs. And they had grounds for their claim. A Com­munist writer like Mike Gold could hardly have existed without the example of Reed before him. Gold wrote articles in New Masses with such titles as “John Reed: He Loved the People,” proving what a true he­roic Communist Reed was, and surely felt no worry about distorting Reed’s legacy. For Gold had Reed in his bones; he himself was Reed’s legacy; and he knew from his own emotions that he had the right to claim Reed for the Communist Party. So of course Gold and the Communists argued that Reed had never wavered, not even during his typhoid delirium.

The anti-Stalinist left claimed Reed and the bohemian legacy just as vehemently, and no one felt this more strongly than Max Eastman, the old Masses editor. The charac­ter of Max Eastman, incidentally, is another place where historical accuracy in Reds falls short. The real-life Eastman was not merely an attractive fellow, as in the movie, but stupendously beautiful. And not only that, a nudist. The real-life John Reed, on the other hand, had a face like a potato, according to Eastman. Even Pancho Villa, it will be recalled, was not impressed by Reed’s good looks. I hate to make this objection since by and large the historical sense in Reds is magnificent, down to the tiniest details, and ought to prompt Hollywood to give Beatty and his researchers an Academy Award for scholarship. And I’m sure that if Beatty had only received accurate information on Reed’s looks, he would have happily gotten himself up like a potato.

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Eastman’s claim to the legacy of Reed was based on their years of work together. The two men hadn’t always agreed, but they respected, even loved, each other’s idealism. Reed wrote a poem about Max’s nobility of soul and used it to dedicate a volume of poetry. (“A vision of new splendor in the human scheme— /A god-like dream—”). Eastman wrote a novel called Venture, based in part on Reed and the Paterson strike. Eastman threw himself into Bolshevism just as Reed did, only while Reed turned into an agitator and politico, Eastman remained an editor and publisher. The Masses was sup­pressed by the government in 1917, but East­man founded a new magazine, The Liberator. Lenin’s “Letter to the American Workers” was smuggled from Scandinavia by Carl Sandburg and appeared in the magazine. It was in the pages of Eastman’s magazine that Antonio Gramsci, in Italy, first read the writ­ings of Lenin. And like Reed, Eastman also took the bold step of going to Russia.

Eastman’s two-and-a-half-year experience in Russia, however, was not encouraging. He attached himself to Trotsky, no doubt as Reed would have done after Lenin died, and began to work with Trotsky on an authorized biography. And from this vantage point he watched Stalin’s consolidation of power — in fact, tried to stop the dreadful event from occurring. It was Eastman who published the sensational Testament, in which Lenin stated that he didn’t like Stalin and wanted Trotsky to become head of state. Then Stalin completed his victory and Eastman was plunged into utter political isolation.

Eastman’s position in the American Left in the 1930s was not a happy one. To the bulk of the left and a good many liberals, he looked like a man who had lost his bearings — he had nothing but accusations against the Soviet Union, he seemed to have lent himself to the capitalist campaign of anti-Communist vil­ification. But this was not how it seemed to Eastman. Like the Anarchists before him, he did not feel that his objections to the Russian Revolution were made on the basis of picayune political purism. He knew for a fact that things were horrendous over there. All his old acquaintances were executed. He knew that thousands, and more than thousands, were going off to the terrible prison labor camps.

Imagine, then, how he felt seeing John Reed’s name waving as a banner over the Stalinist enterprise in America. It was gall­ing. It was galling enough to see New Masses claim to be the heir of the old Masses. So Eastman issued his own counterclaims about Reed. Reed at his death had turned against communism, he announced. Louise Bryant had more or less told him so! Reed would never have become a Stalinist. He would have been a left-wing anti-Stalinist — just like Max Eastman. And Eastman knew this, just as Gold knew his own interpretation, in his bones.

The tragedy of Max Eastman is that he drifted further and further from the values of his brilliant youth. The personal situation he faced as a result of his denunciations of Stalin was too difficult. It was hard to call oneself a revolutionary leftist, and find that all one’s energy went into denouncing the rest of the revolutionary leftists, who in turn denounced him in the vilest language. Eventually his strength for this sort of thing gave out, and he defected to the extreme right — militarism, capitalism, nationalism, the whole bit, minus religion, which he still couldn’t abide. He wasn’t even a first-rate right-winger: he had nothing to say in his capacity as conservative dinosaur. Fortunately he found a magazine that specialized in this — the Reader’s Digest. That was where the editor of The Masses wound up.

Would Reed, if he had lived, have followed Eastman to an equally dreary end? Would he have followed Mike Gold into the dead end of American Stalinism, finishing his days writ­ing ridiculous copy for The Daily Worker? Would he have found a better alternative?

Foolish questions. Reed died at age 32. The terrible course of the modern era had only begun. He had neither lost his ideals nor bent them into some depressing shape. We re­member him for that. ■