Francois Mitterrand – Man of Action, Man of Words – Review of Philip Short’s, A Taste For Intrigue.
R. L. Wallace November 8, 2015
Sitting up late one evening at Latche, I hear, all around me, talk of life and death, the origins of the world and the existence of God, the beyond and nothingness. The battle rages in both camps. What certainties on either side! They demonstrate, decide definitely, assert authoritatively. I listen and think that though I like those who ask themselves questions. I am wary of those who find answers.”
Francois Mitterrand – The Wheat and the Chaff
A man who lives the myths of his country is valued by its citizens because he shows through his actions and words what life is about, what its culture is.
The concept of country in France is as rich and fierce as any on earth, embodying Greek polis, the rule of monarchs, pagan cults, Roman poetry and oration, and Christianity in all of its beauty and beastiality.
Mitterrand, given his unique character, provided this composite for citizens to project upon, and to see themselves and to take in correspondences.
He stirred the thinking of the people. He defined causes worthy of engagement. He was fortunate in that human events were presented that allowed for the full expression of human action in the present.
He echoed de Gaulle, Napoleon, Robespierre and Louis XIV the sun king: strength, tolerance and justice for all people, leadership in the world community, the rule of law.
His actions as president strengthened the democracy, rebuilt the architecture of learning and created paths to adjust France to the new globalism and a European union. He knew where he wanted to take the people, a socialism that created equality for its citizens, a culture that blended Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance with the pragmatism of the American William James.
Mitterrand was a complex individual. He was highly mannered, a mesmerizing orator, a friend’s friend and a fierce opponent. These characteristics were honed in a rich family life. He grew up in the provinces, raised Catholic in a large family where books and learning were held in high regard and where the perception of money was devalued. He learned the rules of class from commerce (cognac vs vinegar) and religion (protestant vs Catholic). Entering Catholic boarding school at ten, he left the provinces for Paris at eighteen to enroll in two French colleges where he studied law, literature and politics with honors. He engaged in literary work beginning in the Catholic school through college and into the military and beyond. He was a strong writer and editor and applied the knowledge of literature and culture in most of his endeavors. Mitterrand developed a rigorous use of logic that is uniquely French – highly rational, academic and just.
He was a front line participant in losing his country and winning it back.
“In six weeks, four fifths of the French army deployed against Germany was taken prisoner….1.8 million soldiers were captured. … they were sent to POW camps inside Germany.” 1.
“Mitterrand was wounded on June 14, 1940, near the village of Stenay, by an exploding shell fragment that lodged in his back.” 2.
As an infantryman (colonial soldier) he fought hard, was wounded in battle, was captured, became a leader in the detention camp, escaped from German incarceration (after two failed attempts), and became a leader in the resistance that finally toppled the German occupation.
After WWII Mitterrand entered civilian life and joined the French political establishment where he operated for decades before his election to president in 1981. It is this period that Short spends most of the book describing in excruciating detail.
Philip Short has made an important contribution to Mitterrand works available in English. His reportorial style is fact based and walks the reader through Mitterrand’s chronological life steps. Mr Short reported on Mitterrand and other French issues for the BBC for several years in the 1980’s thus giving him a base of experience for the book.
Today there is an ongoing literary renaissance of French books, essays and films that celebrate Mitterrand’s life. It is hoped that more books will be translated into English. It is unfortunate for Americans that France is largely lost through the veil of language as it is the central host of the culture most important to the founding of America and the structure of its culture.
1. Philip Short, A Taste For Intrigue – The Multiple Lives Of Francois Mitterrand (Henry Holt and Company (New York 2014) p. 47.
2. Ronald Tiersky, Francois Mitterrand – The Last French President, (St. Martins Press June 2000), p 49.
I have provided three pieces on Svetlana Alexievich’s recent Nobel Prize in Literature award:
1) from The New Yorker
2) from The New York Review of Books
3) from the Nobel Organization
Readers will note Ms Alexievich’s simalarity to Alexandar Solzinitzen in chronicling their respective times.
OCTOBER 8, 2015
Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Win
BY MASHA GESSEN
Alexievich has consistently chronicled that which has been intentionally forgotten: the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Chernobyl, the post-Soviet nineteen-nineties. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY ISOLDE OHLBAUM/LAIF/REDUX
Svetlana Alexievich’s book “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” begins with a woman’s account of watching her husband, a firefighter, physically disintegrating in a hospital bed in the days following the April, 1986, nuclear-plant explosion. “It’s as good as Shakespeare,” she said of the quality of the woman’s words when I asked her about that part of the book, years ago. “But do you know how long it took to get her to produce those two pages of text?” The first hours—and subsequent hours and hours—of an interview, Alexievich explained, are always taken up by the rehearsing of received memories: newspaper accounts, other people’s stories, and whatever else corresponds to a public narrative that has inevitably already taken hold. Only beneath all those layers is personal memory found.
The Swedish Academy, which announced today that Alexievich will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, cited the writer for inventing “a new kind of literary genre.” The permanent secretary of the Academy, Sara Danius, described Alexievich’s work as “a history of emotions—a history of the soul, if you wish.” Her work might also be described as oral history by excavation. The Academy mentioned two Russian-language writers who have most influenced Alexievich: Sofia Fedorchenko, a nurse who left an account of the experiences of soldiers during the First World War, and Ales Adamovich, who co-authored an oral history of the Siege of Leningrad. Adamovich and his co-author, Daniil Granin, once described a similar process to that of Alexievich. They sifted through layer upon layer of words, which could have come from newspaper clippings or patriotic songs, to unearth personal recollections of the Siege.
Alexievich’s job has perhaps been even more difficult than that of those older writers: she has consistently chronicled that which has been intentionally forgotten, from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to Chernobyl and the post-Soviet nineteen-nineties (the subject of her most recent book). Her first book, “War’s Unwomanly Face,” documented the experiences of Soviet women during the Second World War, but in all of her subsequent books she has written about events that had just occurred when she began investigating, when the work of un-remembering is arguably most active.
I first met Alexievich about twenty years ago. I called her after reading an excerpt from the just written “Voices from Chernobyl” which had appeared in Izvestia, the highest-circulation Russian daily at the time. Alexievich explained to me that she had been going to the “exclusion zone” and the “estrangement zone”—the contaminated lands around the nuclear reactor—for a decade. This means that she started visiting the “zones” almost immediately after the explosion. She confessed that the process of researching the book had made her physically ill.
Only in the nineties would an excerpt from Alexievich’s new book have appeared in Russia’s largest newspaper. In the decades since, her name has become almost obscure in the country of the language in which she writes. As a magazine editor in Moscow, I often introduced younger colleagues who had never heard of Alexievich to her books. On the eve of the Nobel announcement, Russia’s leading highbrow culture publication, Colta.ru, published a piece titled “Why You Should Know Who Svetlana Alexievich Is.”
Alexievich, whose native language is Russian and who has never written in another language, was born sixty-seven years ago in Soviet Ukraine and grew up in Soviet Belarus. For most of her adult life, she has lived in a nine-story concrete apartment bloc in central Minsk. Its standard-size kitchen—which is to say, quite small—is outfitted with a couch, because it’s the room where, in keeping with the Soviet intelligentsia tradition, all the important conversations happen. When Alexievich is there, her kitchen is indeed the site of many important conversations.
In the early aughts, Alexievich left Minsk and spent about a dozen years in Europe, living by turns in different countries where she could find writing fellowships: in Italy, Germany, France, and Sweden. She finally returned to Minsk a couple of years ago, admitting that her plan to wait out the reign of the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, had failed. This project proved too long, even for her.
At around the time of her return, Alexievich published “Second-Hand Time,” her longest and most ambitious project to date: an effort to use an oral history of the nineties to understand Soviet and post-Soviet identity. In the meantime, she has seen her own identity change profoundly. She is a Russian-language writer who has never lived in Russia, but only now, nearly a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has this separation between Russia and its neighbors become clear. A Belarusian-language literature has been developing, and Alexievich has expressed regret that she cannot write in the language of her country. At the same time, she has spoken about feeling increasingly alienated from what used to be her intellectual community inside Russia, which has now, she says, thrown itself into that country’s new imperial project. Through her books and her life itself, Alexievich has gained probably the world’s deepest, most eloquent understanding of the post-Soviet condition—and the Swedish Academy has just amplified the voice of that experience immeasurably.
Svetlana Alexievich: The Truth in Many Voices
It is right, but also not quite right, to celebrate the journalist and contemporary historian, Svetlana Alexievich, this year’s laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, as a Belarusian writer. The force of her work, the source of its power and plausibility, is the choice of a generation (her own) as a major subject and the close attention to its major inflection point, which was the end of the Soviet Union. She is connected to Russia and Ukraine as well as Belarus and is a writer of all three nations; the passage from Soviet state to national state was experienced by them all, and her life has been divided among them. Her method is the close interrogation of the past through the collection of individual voices; patient in overcoming cliché, attentive to the unexpected, and restrained in the exposition, her writing reaches those far beyond her own experiences and preoccupations, far beyond her generation, and far beyond the lands of the former Soviet Union. Polish has a nice term for this approach, literatura faktu, “the literature of fact.” Her central attainment, the recovery of experience from myth, has made her an acute critic of the nostalgic dictatorships in Belarus and Russia.
To say that Alexievich was born in Soviet Ukraine in 1948 is already to indulge in the kind of simplification she has sought to expose from the beginning. Her home city, Stanislaviv, was in a region known as Galicia, which had been part of Poland from the fourteenth century, part of the Habsburg monarchy in the nineteenth, and part of the Second Polish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. It fell under Soviet rule in 1939 when the Soviet Union invaded Poland following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and then under German power in 1941 when Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. Jews were the largest population in Stanislaviv before the war; almost every single one was murdered in the Holocaust. Many of the city’s Poles and Ukrainians were killed or deported by either the Germans or the Soviets during the war, and others were drafted into service in the Red Army and died in combat. The Stanislaviv where Alexievich spent the first few years of her life was thus a new Soviet city, both in its administration and its population.
Perhaps it mattered that essentially everything about the city of her birth was a suppression but also an invocation of an unremembered past, and that her family was involved on both sides in disputes that could never be fully articulated. Her Belarusian father had fought against Ukrainian nationalists who were trying to win Galicia for an independent Ukraine. Her Ukrainian maternal grandmother told her about what Ukrainians call the “Holodomor,” Stalin’s political famine, which had killed more than three million people in Soviet Ukraine in 1932 and 1933. That was crucial knowledge, because the collectivization of agriculture, whose purported success was a central myth of Soviet history, was one of the causes of the famine. Ukrainians were blamed for the misery and subjected to harsh requisitions and reprisals that channeled starvation on to their territory, whereas Soviet citizens as a whole were told that collectivization was a grand success hindered only by nationalists and saboteurs.
It was collectivization, along with World War II (known as the “Great Fatherland War”), that created the Soviet Union that people of Alexievich’s generation experienced. Both were calamities that were covered in beautiful myths, myths that worked in part because people wanted individual suffering and death to have meaning. Collectivization was said, in retrospect, to have been necessary for victory in war, and victory in war was taken to demonstrate the legitimacy of the system as such. Collectivization was the founding stone of a new kind of society, which after the war could be brought to new places such as Stanislaviv. Alexievich’s family moved from Stanislaviv in Soviet Ukraine to the Polesian region of southern Belarus in the 1950s, a land known for the ambiguous national identity of its inhabitants. As a very young woman Alexievich taught school and worked at a local newspaper in these provinces; in the late 1960s, she went to Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus, to study journalism, but returned again to the provinces when she finished, working in Biaroza in the southwest, in another town that had been in Poland before the war. In the meantime, the name of her hometown, Stanislaviv, was changed to the one it still bears now, in independent Ukraine: Ivano-Frankivsk.
Svetlana Alexievich in Minsk, Belarus, 2014
Three constitutive elements of the Soviet identity of Alexievich’s generation were movement from one part of the USSR to another, the Russian language that made such movement possible, and the official Soviet nostalgia that slowly replaced Marxist ideology in the 1970s. Leaving Soviet Ukraine for Soviet Belarus, as her family did, would have made an overall Soviet loyalty more plausible than any local one; although neither of her parents was Russian by origin, Russian was the language of the family, and the only language in which Alexievich has published. People of her generation, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin (born in 1952) and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (born in 1954), did not take part in the great transformations and cataclysms of the 1930s and 1940s, but were nourished on the quasi-Marxist idea that all the suffering had a purpose, and the neo-provincial idea that this purpose was the continuation of the exemplary Soviet state in which they happened to have been born. When Leonid Brezhnev proclaimed that the Soviet Union exemplified “really existing socialism,” he deprived the future of its utopia, insisted on the adequacy of the present, and thereby located the legitimacy of the system in its past. When we confront, today, the myth of the Great Fatherland War and of Stalin as a good manager, we are hearing not the echoes of the events themselves, but of the memory campaign of the 1970s. The generation that grew up in this era is today in power in Russia and in Belarus—although no longer in Ukraine.
What was unusual about Alexievich as a Soviet journalist in the 1970s and early 1980s, in Biaroza and then in Minsk, is that she sought to halt the Soviet time machine as it switched gears from forward to reverse. What was almost unique was that she found a way to do so: an investigative journalism that began from the assumption that truth was accessible but that its excavation was a matter of hard individual work with an interlocutor who was probably already yielding the past of his or her own life to the collective Soviet story. Her first manuscript, which could not be published, was about the archetypical Soviet experience of leaving the village for the city, the basic form of social advance which also meant, in the Soviet Union as of course everywhere, the exchange of local memories for the rougher tropes of urban life.
In the towns of the western Soviet Union that Alexievich knew best, urban life was not simply a novelty for some, but a novelty for almost everyone, since prewar urban classes had been destroyed by war, Holocaust, and deportation. Empty cities were settled by new people, not only from the local countryside, but from throughout the USSR. Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus, was perhaps the extreme of a postwar city of the Soviet Union, having lost under German occupation, not only its large Jewish population, but a significant fraction of the Belarusian-speaking hinterland. Alexievich herself, working in Minsk for a Belarusian cultural journal that was published in the Russian language, was taking part in the linguistic russification of the region that was enabled by the war. Minsk was (and remains) a capital of Soviet nostalgia, where the straw of wartime suffering is spun into the gold of political meaning. No Soviet republic suffered more from the war than Belarus, and its partisans and its “hero cities” became the loci of the cult of remembrance.
This process was early on challenged by the outstanding Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, whose novel Khatyn (1971) began with an acceptable subject—the village of Khatyn, which had been selected for official commemoration of the Soviet partisan war against the German occupation of Belarus. But it immediately turned into a quite challenging retelling of the very events that were being monumentalized. The story begins with the narrator on a bus ride to Khatyn; blinded during combat, he can now only hear the voices of his former comrades, which call forth memories of war as it was. Although Khatyn was a work of fiction and Alexievich was a journalist, the method of closing one’s eyes to monument and listening to voices until the ruins underneath begin to move was the one that she made her own. Adamovich, whose novel is now available in an excellent English translation, was a major literary and intellectual influence upon Alexievich.
Alexievich’s second book, completed in 1983, was about the experiences of Soviet women soldiers in World War II, whom she traveled the Soviet Union to meet, without support from her employers at the cultural journal in Minsk, on her own time and at her own expense. This book too could not be published. But in 1985 came perestroika, the reform program of Mikhail Gorbachev, and with it the ability to publish about the past. Her book was published under the title War’s Unwomanly Face, and sold extremely well in the last years of the USSR. Even after thirty years of gender studies in Europe and the United States it remains a landmark in the study of female soldiers.
The end of the Soviet Union did not much change Alexievich’s subjects, nor indeed her political position. It is not quite right to speak of her as a dissident or an oppositionist, since she was not really politically active, either in the late Soviet Union or in the independent Belarus that succeeded it in 1991. Instead she began to write about the experiences of the 1970s and 1980s, those of her own generation, resisting both the official interpretations (and silences) of the time as well as the attempts of nationalists (whether Belarusian, Russian, or any other) to use the Soviet past as the raw material for another story about a bright future.
Alexievich’s fourth book, published in 1989, was about the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), the disaster that perhaps more than anything brought down the Soviet Union. At first the Soviet press was silent about the presence of the Red Army in Afghanistan, then portraying the mission as one of keeping peace rather than supporting a particular (and doomed) regime. In an age of television, the typical Soviet press image was of a soldier planting a tree. Alexievich once again sought out veterans and the women, the young soldiers and their mothers. The result was a masterpiece of reportage, probably her best book, in which the problems (what we might now call post-traumatic stress) of the young men emerge through the words of their mothers as well as their own, and then the typical experiences slowly emerge through the individual memories. The book was published in English as Zinky Boys, which is awkward; the “zinc” is a reference to the coffins of soldiers.
Unkel/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Minsk, Belarus, 1995
For Alexievich, the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 was not a radical new beginning, since, she seemed to be saying, the present cannot move into the past when the normal process of considering the past has been disrupted. When official nostalgia has filled the space needed for individual reconsideration, change can be literally fatal. Alexievich’s next book was about people of her parents’ generation, often heroes of the Second World War II, who committed suicide in the 1990s.
In the following book, about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, she brought together her technique of registering voices with a more explicit allegory about the meaning of the Soviet past. On the one hand, she more than anyone else made the victims into distinct individuals surrounded by a particular Soviet context, making sense of what happened in haste the best they could with the references they had:
They told us a bunch of nonsense. You’ll die. You need to leave. Evacuate. People got scared. They got filled up with fear. At night people started packing up their things. I also got my clothes, folded them up. My red badges for my honest labor, and my lucky kopeika that I had. Such sadness! It filled my heart. Let me be struck down right here if I’m lying. And then I hear about how the soldiers were evacuating one village, and this old man and woman stayed. Until then, when people were roused up and put on buses, they’d take their cow and go into the forest. They’d wait there. Like during the war, when they were burning down the villages. Why would our soldiers chase us?
At the same time, the subject of radiation poisoning made Alexievich’s specific approach to past, present, and future painfully explicit. When the reactor at Chernobyl exploded in April 1986, Soviet authorities were very slow to inform the local populations and were never clear about the scale of the disaster. Inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine were affected first, but the entirety of Soviet Belarus soon fell under the cloud of radiation. That Soviet authorities chose silence meant that the harm was all the more durable. Once exposed to radiation, there was little that people could do. The combination of disaster and mendacity was illness and death.
One way to consider Alexievich’s successive investigations of durable catastrophes is to contrast them with some of the shortcuts of a popular and kindred genre, the post-catastrophist fiction of the former Soviet space and around the world. In the United States the literary type is familiar from such works as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), in which North America has been transformed by an insanely ambitious attempt to reverse pollution; and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2011), in which the backdrop is the collapse of the United States under Chinese debt. Haruki Murakami, whose name often arises in conversations about the Nobel Prize, frequently asks the reader to assemble clues about the true nature of a future calamity. A striking Russian variant is Mikhail Yuriev’s The Third Empire: The Russia that Ought to Be (2006), in which a global war brings Russian power to the shores of the Atlantic. What is common to the American and Russian examples of the genre is that they offer a form of consolation: either the gentle one of comedy, or the fiercer one of power. People find solace in the drugs and love in Wallace and Shteyngart and Murakami, and exult in power reading Yuriev.
In Belarus, the gifted Victor Martinovich offers catastrophe without either of these consolations: in Mova 墨瓦 (2014), he imagines a future Belarus that is part of Russia which is itself enclosed by a Chinese empire. In this realm the legitimate form of public activity is shopping and the permitted local language is Russian. There is no comic relief, indeed not much relief at all. Power brings no redemption to the provinces. The object of addiction are scraps of paper with words in Belarusian—mova is the Belarusian word for “language.” If we get as far as this fictional Belarusian perspective on post-catastrophe, we approach Alexievich from another side. In her work there is no redemption from catastrophe because it is behind us and within us. The search for bits of the authentic past is individual and dangerous and disruptive, but there is nothing else to be done. Some of Alexieivich’s critics in Belarus today wish she would use the Belarusian language, seeing in the national culture a crucial missing element of authenticity, or an opportunity to create something fresh. It is interesting, for example, that Martinovich wrote his first novel in Russian but his second in Belarusian.
Alexievich in Kabul, Afghanistan, 1988
Alexievich’s sad chronicles—about women soldiers in World War II, veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, victims of the Chernobyl disaster, among other subjects—are thus the opposite of escapism. She does not allow herself to jump ahead with the toolkit of fiction and then look back for meaning, redemption, or distraction. She instead rescues the recent past from the patterns of collective forgetting by the hard work of speaking to thousands of people, and then arranging their voices in a way that rescues experience without imposing narrative. Alexievich is sometimes compared to Ryszard Kapuściński, the great Polish international journalist. But unlike him she resists the charms of constructing appealing characters from composites. She has no characters; only voices.
Alexievich is one of very few winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature associated primarily with non-fiction, a tiny group that includes Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Winston Churchill, and the German historian Theodor Mommsen. That juxtaposition reveals a crucial difference: whether writing of the Roman Empire (Mommsen), World War II (Churchill), or the Gulag (Solzhenitsyn), the three men in question were striving for coherent master interpretations of major historical events. By contrast Alexievich might seem less ambitious, in that she seeks not to give shape to any one event. But what she has done, and here of the three she is closest to the younger Solzhenitsyn, is to work indirectly against an overweening master narrative that already exists. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, however, who sought to recapitulate all of Soviet history in later life, Alexievich has remained close to the experiences and memories of her own generation, which by their nature are constantly changing.
In her most recent work Alexievich identifies explicitly (“we”) with her own generation, simultaneously Soviet and post-Soviet. In Second-Hand Time, composed during a decade in political exile and published shortly after her return to Belarus in 2013, she treats the Soviet personality as a subject in and of itself, open to interpretation and reinterpretation, to be sure, but not admitting of any new beginning. This work is perhaps more open to criticism than previous books, since Alexievich’s method depends upon direct contact with her sources, and in emigration she might not have been able to see the variety of ways Belarusians and others confronted the past in the 2000s, when she was abroad. That said, it is precisely Alexievich’s relentlessly consistent interrogation of the formative experiences of the 1970s and 1980s that made hers such a precise critique of the abuse of memory in contemporary Belarus and especially contemporary Russia. Her non-fiction works as a kind of anti-fiction, and alternative to the alternative realities which, in both Russia and Belarus, arise behind the blindfold of a double nostalgia: of today’s ruling elite for the 1970s and 1980s, which were themselves a time of manufactured nostalgia for the Soviet 1930s and 1940s.
It is in this light that Alexievich’s criticism of the current Russian war in Ukraine should be understood. It would be easy enough to place her in the tradition of courageous Russian investigative reporters, many of them female, some of these assassinated, who resisted the narrative of Russia’s wars under Putin by writing what they saw. One of the most impressive of these, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered on October 7, 2006; the ninth anniversary of her death was the day before Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize. But since Alexievich made it her life’s work to replace the mythmaking of the 1970s and 1980s with a kind of investigative contemporary history, she also brings to bear a more fundamental critique of wars that are grounded in invented historical tropes. What we experience in the west as Russian propaganda is in part an earnest claim that past war ennobles current war and justifies future war. When the Great Patriotic War is seen as a faultlessly virtuous victory rather than the bloodiest struggle in human history, war can seem more inviting and virtuous; when the dreadful and lost war in Afghanistan is blurred into a narrative of unmanly Soviet weakness, the real suffering of veterans seems irrelevant; when Chernobyl is repressed in official memory it becomes possible to speak on Russian television about turning countries to radioactive ash. Alexievich reacted quickly, instinctively, to all of this; and paid a price.
Alexievich has been unremembered in the country, Russia, where her work has perhaps the most contemporary relevance. She writes only in Russian and her themes are those with which Russians, at least of her generation, could in principle identify. Her book on women in war sold two million copies in the Soviet Union, which suggests that it should now rest on a million or so bookshelves in Russia. This summer she was subjected to a press campaign in Russian media in which she was branded as “anti-Russian.” The reason given for this claim was her criticism of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Here Alexievich’s response was revealing. Standing on the Maidan, she said, she looked at the photographs of the men who were killed by snipers during the Ukrainian revolution. This, the site of the Ukrainian revolution of 2013-2014, brought tears to her eyes. Weeping at the fate of others, she said, “is not hatred.” And then: “It is hard to be an honest person in our times.”
But for Alexievich, after her return to Minsk two years ago, it has certainly been easier than for others. She had no trouble explaining to westerners, far more quickly than they themselves could usually grasp, that Russia had in fact invaded Ukraine. She also very quickly explained that the fault lay not with one man but with the experiences of Soviet generations, now reworked for new wars. When she listed the fake descriptions of events in Ukraine in the Russian media, she spoke of Russian society as a “collective Putin.” As she put it, “Putin placed his bet on the basest instincts and won. Even if he disappeared tomorrow, we would remain as we are.”
“We” is the telling word, since Alexievich, when speaking of Russians, might just as easily say “they.” But she does not. She clearly identifies with Russians as well as with Belarusians and Ukrainians, as the three new nations move through the uncharted difficulties of sovereignty. The fact that today not only Ukrainians but also Belarusians belong to an unmistakably different political society than Russians does not mean that they have been separated from Soviet history, since, suggests Alexievich, no such separation is actually possible. Sometimes she sounds optimistic and sometimes less so. She makes clear that generational turnover does not automatically bring change; speaking of travels through contemporary Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, she finds “rather servile” young people. But she also seems to regard the Ukrainian revolution as a rupture, and imagines for Belarus the possibility of becoming a “normal European country.” Russia, she says, has a problem with “nationalism”; perhaps that, too, can be overcome. One must again remember that all of these writings, and all of these statements, are in the Russian language.
What would a Russian world be like without nationalism? One of the Kremlin’s justifications of the present war in Ukraine was the idea of defending a “Russian world.” In the understanding of this phrase promoted by Putin and the Russian leadership, the “Russian world” is a specific place where people speak Russian, and therefore deserve protection by the Russian army. This version of a “Russian world” is inherently totalitarian, since it confuses individual linguistic practices with causes de guerre and allows leaders thousands of miles away to decide who requires their protection.
Yet the idea of a “Russian world,” of an international exchange of ideas in the Russian language, does of course make another kind of sense, just as an “English world” or a “Spanish world” or a “Chinese world” might. The “Russian world” can also be, as Alexievich has said, universal and “humanistic.” In this sense she is certainly a Russian writer, as well as a Belarusian writer, and a writer of Ukrainian origin. If the Russian language is not simply a source of ethnic provincialism but a means of universalism, her “we” (spoken in Russian) is a larger one than those who remember the Soviet Union and speak the Russian language.
Indeed, her Nobel Prize will expand the Russian world of letters, since her prose is accessible not only to those who share her background and concerns but to younger people who can learn from her what the Soviet Union was and what its legacy means. As a Ukrainian university instructor in Texas put it, reacting to the news about the Nobel: “my students do not weep when they read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, but when they read Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl—then they do.”
October 12, 2015, 5:18 p.m.
The Nobel Prize in Literature 2015
Svetlana Alexievich was born 31 May 1948 in the Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk, as the daughter of a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother. When the father had completed his military service, the family moved to Belarus, where both parents worked as teachers. After finishing school, Alexievich worked as a teacher and as a journalist, and she studied journalism at the University of Minsk between 1967 and 1972.
After her graduation she was referred to a local newspaper in Brest near the Polish border, because of her oppositional views. She later returned to Minsk and began an employment at the newspaper Sel’skaja Gazeta. For many years, she collected materials for her first book U vojny ne ženskoe lico (1985; War’s Unwomanly Face, 1988), which is based on interviews with hundreds of women who participated in the Second World War. This work is the first in Alexievich’s grand cycle of books, “Voices of Utopia”, where life in the Soviet Union is depicted from the perspective of the individual.
By means of her extraordinary method – a carefully composed collage of human voices – Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era. The consequences of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl 1986 is the topic of Černobyl’skaja molitva (1997; Voices from Chernobyl – Chronicle of the Future, 1999). Cinkovye mal’čiki(1990; Zinky Boys – Soviet voices from a forgotten war, 1992) is a portrayal of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan 1979–89, and her work Vremja second chènd (2013; “Second-hand Time: The Demise of the Red (Wo)man”) is the latest in “Voices of Utopia”. Another early book that also belongs in this lifelong project is Poslednie svideteli (1985; “Last witnesses”).
Important influences on Alexievich’s work are the notes by the nurse and author Sofia Fedorchenko (1888–1959) of soldiers’ experiences in the First World War, and the documentary reports by the Belarusian author Ales Adamovich (1927–1994) from the Second World War. Because of her criticism of the regime, Alexievich has periodically lived abroad, in Italy, France, Germany, and Sweden, among other places.
Bibliography – a selection
Works in Russian
У войны не женское лицо. Минск: Мастацкая литература 1985
2-е изд.: Москва: Время 2015
U vojny ne ženskoe lico. – Minsk : Mastackaja litaratura, 1985.
Rev. ed.: – Moskva : Vremja, 2015
Последние свидетели: книга недетских рассказов. Москва: Молодая гвардия 1985.
2-е изд.: Последние свидетели: соло для детского голоса. Москва: Время 2013
Poslednie svideteli: kniga nedetskich rasskazov. – Moskva : Molodaja gvardija, 1985
Rev. ed.: Poslednie svideteli : solo dlja detskogo golosa. – Moskva : Vremja, 2013
Цинковые мальчики. Москва: Молодая гврадия 1990
2-е изд. Москва: Время 2013
Cinkovye mal’čiki. – Moskva : Molodaja gvardija, 1990
Rev. ed.: – Moskva : Vremja, 2013
Зачарованные смертью. Москва: Слово 1994
Белорусское изд. Минск [б. м.] 1993
Začarovannye smert’ju. – Moskva : Slovo, 1994
Belarusian ed.: – Minsk : [s.l.], 1993
Чернобыльская молитва: Хроника будущего. Москва: Остожье 1997; Москва: Время 2013
Černobyl’skaja molitva: Chronika buduščego. – Moskva : Ostož’e, 1997 ; Moskva: Vremja, 2013
У войны не женское лицо, Последние свидетели, Цинковые мальчики, Зачарованные смертью, Чернобыльская молитва: Хроника будущего (2 тома). Москва: Остожье 1998
U vojny ne ženskoe lico, Poslednie svideteli, Cinkovye mal’čiki, Začarovannye smert’ju, Černobyl’skaja molitva: Chronika buduščego. (Volume 1-2). – Moskva : Ostož’e, 1998
Время секонд хэнд. Москва: Время 2013
Vremja second chènd. – Moskva : Vremja, 2013
Works in English
War’s Unwomanly Face / translated by Keith Hammond and Lyudmila Lezhneva. – Moscow : Progress Publishers, 1988. – Translation of U vojny ne ženskoe lico
Zinky Boys : Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War / translated by Julia and Robin Whitby. – London : Chatto & Windus, 1992. – Translation of Cinkovye mal’čiki
Zinky Boys : Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War / translated by Julia and Robin Whitby ; introduction by Larry Heinemann. – New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 1992.– Translation of Cinkovye mal’čiki
Voices from Chernobyl : Chronicle of the Future / translated by Antonina W. Bouis. – London : Aurum Press, 1999. – Translation of Černobyl’skaja molitva
Voices from Chernobyl : the Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster / translation and preface by Keith Gessen. – Normal : Dalkey Archive Press, 2005. – Translation of Černobyl’skaja molitva
Works in French
Les cercueils de zinc / traduit du russe par Wladimir Berelowitch avec la collaboration d’Elisabeth Mouravieff. – Paris : C. Bourgois, 1990. – Traduction de: Cinkovye mal’čiki
Ensorcelés par la mort : récits / traduit du russe par Sophie Benech. – Paris : Plon, 1995. – Traduction de: Začarovannye smert’ju
La Supplication : Tchernobyl, chroniques du monde après l’apocalypse / traduit du russe par Galia Ackerman et Pierre Lorrain. – Paris : France loisirs, 1998. – Traduction de: Černobyl’skaja molitva
Les cercueils de zinc / témoignages réunis et présentés par Svetlana Alexievitch ; traduit du russe par Wladimir Berelowitch et Bernadette du Crest ; avec la collaboration d’Elisabeth Mouravieff ; preface de Dimitri Savitski. – Paris : C. Bourgois, 2002. – Traduction de: Cinkovye mal’čiki
La guerre n’a pas un visage de femme / traduit du russe par Galia Ackerman et Paul Lequesne. – Paris : Presses de la Renaissance, 2004. – Traduction de: U vojny ne ženskoelico
Derniers témoins / traduit du russe par Anne Coldefy-Faucard. – Paris : Presses de la Renaissance, 2005. – Traduction de: Poslednie svideteli
La Fin de l’homme rouge : ou Le temps du désenchantement / traduit du russe par Sophie Benech et Michèle Kahn. – Paris : Actes Sud ; Paris : le Grand livre du mois, 2013. – Traduction de: Vremja second chènd
Works in Spanish
La plegaria de Chernóbyl : crónica del futuro / traducción de Ricardo San Vicente. – Barcelona : Casiopea, 2002. – Título original: Černobyl’skaja molitva
Voces de Chernóbil : crónica del futuro / traducción de Ricardo San Vicente. – Madrid : Siglo XXI, 2006. – Título original: Černobyl’skaja molitva
Works in Swedish
Bön för Tjernobyl : en framtidskrönika / översättning av Hans Björkegren ; förord av Stig Hansén & Clas Thor. – Stockholm : Ordfront, 1997. – Originalets titel: Černobyl’skaja molitva
Förförda av döden : ryska reportage / urval och intervju av Stig Hansén & Clas Thor ; översättning av Stefan Lindgren. – Stockholm : Ordfront, 1998.
Kriget har inget kvinnligt ansikte : en utopis röster / översättning av Kajsa Öberg Lindsten. – Stockholm : Ersatz, 2012. – Originalets titel: U vojny ne ženskoe lico
Tiden second hand : slutet för den röda människan / översättning av Kajsa Öberg Lindsten. – Stockholm : Ersatz, 2013. – Originalets titel: Vremja second chènd
Bön för Tjernobyl : krönika över framtiden / översättning av Hans Björkegren. – Stockholm : Ersatz, 2013. – Originalets titel: Černobyl’skaja molitva
Zinkpojkar : Utopins röster / översättning av Hans Björkegren. – Stockholm : Ersatz, 2014. – Originalets titel: Cinkovye mal’čiki
De sista vittnena : solo för barnröst / översättning av Kajsa Öberg Lindsten. – Stockholm : Ersatz, 2015. – Originalets titel: Poslednie svideteli
Works in German
Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht / übersetzt von Johann Warkentin. – Berlin : Henschel, 1987. – Originaltitel: U vojny ne ženskoe lico
Die letzten Zeugen : Kinder im Zweiten Weltkrieg / übersetzt von Gisela Frankenberg. – Berlin : Neues Leben, 1989. – Originaltitel: Poslednie svideteli
Zinkjungen : Afghanistan und die Folgen / übersetzt von Ingeborg Kolinko. – Frankfurt am Main : S. Fischer, 1992. – Originaltitel: Cinkovye mal’čiki
Im Banne des Todes : Geschichten russischer Selbstmörder / übersetzt von Ingeborg Kolinko. – Frankfurt am Main : S. Fischer, 1994. – Originaltitel: Začarovannye smert’ju
Tschernobyl : Eine Chronik der Zukunft / übersetzt von Ingeborg Kolinko. – Berlin : Berlin-Verl., 1997. – Originaltitel: Černobyl’skaja molitva
Seht mal, wie ihr lebt : Russische Schicksale nach dem Umbruch. / übersetzt von Ingeborg Kolinko – Berlin : Aufbau, 1999. – Originaltitel: Začarovannye smert’ju
Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. – Berlin : Berliner Taschenbuch-Verlag, 2004. – Originaltitel: U vojny ne ženskoe lico
Die letzten Zeugen : Kinder im Zweiten Weltkrieg / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. – Berlin : Aufbau, 2005. – Originaltitel: Poslednie svideteli
Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. Erw., aktualisierte Neuausg. – München : Hanser Berlin, 2013. – Originaltitel: U vojny ne ženskoe lico
Secondhand-Zeit : Leben auf den Trümmern des Sozialismus / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. – München : Hanser Berlin, 2013. – Originaltitel: Vremja second chènd
Die letzten Zeugen : Kinder im Zweiten Weltkrieg / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. Überarb., aktualisierte Neuausg. – München : Hanser Berlin 2014. – Originaltitel: Poslednie svideteli
Zinkjungen : Afghanistan und die Folgen / übersetzt von Ingeborg Kolinko und Ganna-Maria Braungardt. Erw., aktualisierte Neuausg. – München : Hanser Berlin, 2014. – Originaltitel: Cinkovye mal’čiki
Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. – Berlin : Suhrkamp, 2015. – Originaltitel: U vojny ne ženskoe lico
Secondhand-Zeit : Leben auf den Trümmern des Sozialismus / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. – Berlin : Suhrkamp, 2015. – Originaltitel: Vremja second chènd
Tschernobyl : Eine Chronik der Zukunft / übersetzt von Ingeborg Kolinko. – München : Piper, 2015. – Originaltitel: Černobyl’skaja molitva
Aleksijevitj, Svetlana, “När katterna slutade äta döda möss : Svetlana Aleksijevitj om Tjernobyl, katastrofen som förändrade allt” / översättning av Hans Björkegren. Aftonbladet, 2006.04.23.
Alexijewitsch, Swetlana, Ansprachen aus Anlass der Verleihung des Friedenspreises des deutschen Buchhandels 2013 / red. Martin Schult ; übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt und The Hagedorn Group.. – Frankfurt/M. : Mvb (Börsenverein des deutschen Buchhandels), 2013
Beier, Elena, “Zeugen des Krieges”. Deutsche Welle, 2005.03.21.
Brunswic, Anne, “Ecrire la petite histoire d’une grande utopie” / illustré par Richard Yeend. Propos, Janvier/ Février/ Mars, 2010: 21
Fremde Heimat : Texte aus dem Exil / im Auftr. des PEN-Zentrums Deutschland ; hrsg. von Christa Schuenke und Brigitte Struzyk. – Berlin : Matthes & Seitz, 2013
Fria ord på flykt / red. Per Bergström och Oskar Ekström ; Svetlana Aleksijevitj… – Malmö : Rámus, 2012
Fröberg Idling, Peter, “Svetlana Aleksijevitj : ‘Jag står i opposition till mitt eget folk'”. Vi läser, 2015:1
Gloger, Katja, “Wir haben rote Seelen”. Interview. Stern, 2014.02.13
Hielscher, Karla: “Vom Opfermythos zum Ich-Gewinn : Die dokumentarische Prosa der Swetlana Alexijewitsch”. Die Neue Gesellschaft, Frankfurter Hefte 1997:10
Hielscher, Karla, “Svetlana Aleksievič”. Kritisches Lexikon zur fremdsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur – KLfG – 10/14.
Ingvarsson, Stefan, “Tron på utopin ledde kvinnor i krig”. Sydsvenskan, 2012.11.18
Lehmann, Barbara, “Durch die dunklen Stollen der Erinnerung. Ein Porträt der Minsker Autorin Swetlana Alexijewitsch”. Frankfurter Rundschau, 1998.05.19
Mühling, Jens, “Wir brauchen eine Perestroika”. Der Tagesspiegel, 2011.04.17
Nine of Russia’s foremost women writers / Svetlana Alexiyevich et al. – Moscow : Glas publishers ; Chicago IL : Northwestern University Press, 2003
Schröder, Elke, “Apokalypse : Teil heutiger Kultur”. Interview. Kunst & Kultur, 2001:6
Schueler, Kaj, “Det litterära reportaget gör historien samtida”. Svenska Dagbladet, 2011.04.23
Swedenmark, John, “I lära hos Aleksijevitj”. Arbetet, 2013.11.10
Swetlana Alexijewitsch : Ansprachen aus Anlass der Verleihung des Friedenspreises des deutschen Buchhandels 2013 / texte, red. Martin Schult ; übers. Ganna-Maria Braungardt und The Hagedorn Group. Börsenverein des deutschen Buchhandels. – Frankfurt/M. : Verl. Mvb, 2013
Thadden, Elisabeth von, “Planet Tschernobyl : Die Schriftstellerin Swetlana Alexijewitsch wird geehrt”. Die Zeit, 2001.06.21
Trepper, Hartmute, “Die Kunst erfordert, daß du bis zum Äußersten gehst”. Interview. Neue Rundschau, 1991:2
Walz, Annette, “Penible Chronistin menschlichen Leids : Swetlana Alexijewitsch – ihre Recherchen werden zu bedrückender und beeindruckender Literatur”. Süddeutsche Zeitung, 1997.03.03
The Swedish Academy
I do not recall if Abbey studied zen. It appears to me that inherent in his craft is the idea that what he does not say is as important as what he does. Each sentence zigs and zags around, over and under so many norms of American society, and he does so with nary a collision. However, it is his intent to speak his mind and cause the collisions at his place and time: ( “Aside from the modest prevention the book is fairly plain and straight. Certain faults will be obvious to the general reader, of course, and for these I wish to apologize. I quite agree that much of the book will seem course, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, constructive – even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely; at least I hope so. To others I can only say that if the book has virtues they cannot be disentangles from the faults; that there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.)
“It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I.
For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces – in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or a lover, the wild of a girls thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear watering a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there?. What else do we need?”
This piece was written by Wallace for the 2007 issue of “The Best American Essays” by Houghton Mifflin publishers. For anyone who reads that publication and or is interested in essays this piece reads as fresh today as it did then.
I feel free to state an emergent truth that I maybe wouldn’t if I thought that the book’s sales could really be hurt or its essays’ audience scared away. This truth is that just about every important word on The Best American Essays 2007’s front cover turns out to be vague, debatable, slippery, disingenuous, or else ‘true’ only in certain contexts that are themselves slippery and hard to sort out or make sense of—and that in general the whole project of an anthology like this requires a degree of credulity and submission on the part of the reader that might appear, at first, to be almost un-American.
… Whereupon, after that graceless burst of bad news, I’m betting that most of whichever readers thought that maybe this year they’d try starting out linearly with the editor’s intro have now decided to stop or just flip ahead to Jo Ann Beard’s ‘Werner,’ the collection’s first essay. This is actually fine for them to do, because Beard’s is an unambiguously great piece—exquisitely written and suffused with a sort of merciless compassion. It’s a narrative
essay, I think the subgenre’s called, although the truth is that I don’t believe I would have loved the piece any less or differently if it had been classed as a short story, which is to say not an essay at all but fiction.
Thus one constituent of the truth about the front cover is that your guest editor isn’t sure what an essay even is. Not that this is unusual. Most literary readers take a position on the meaning of ‘essay’ rather like the famous one that U.S.S.C. Justice Potter Stewart took on ‘obscene’: we feel that we pretty much know an essay when we see one, and that that’s enough, regardless of all the noodling and complication involved in actually trying to define the term ‘essay.’ I don’t know whether gut certainty is really enough here or not, though. I think I personally prefer the term ‘literary nonfiction.’ Pieces like ‘Werner ’ and Daniel Orozco’s ‘Shakers’ seem so remote from the sort of thing that Montaigne and Chesterton were doing when the essay was being codified that to call these pieces essays seems to make the term too broad to really signify. And yet Beard’s and Orozco’s pieces are so arresting and alive and good that they end up being salient even if one is working as a guest essay editor and sitting there reading a dozen Xeroxed pieces in a row before them and then another dozen in a row after them—essays on everything from memory and surfing and Esperanto to childhood and mortality and Wikipedia, on depression and translation and emptiness and James Brown, Mozart, prison, poker, trees, anorgasmia, color, homelessness, stalking, fellatio, ferns, fathers, grandmothers, falconry, grief, film comedy—a rate of consumption which tends to level everything out into an undifferentiated mass of high-quality description and trenchant reflection that be- comes both numbing and euphoric, a kind of Total Noise that’s also the sound of our U.S. culture right now, a culture and volume of info
and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even ab- sorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value. Such basic absorption, organization, and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, a.k.a. an informed citizen—at least that’s what I got taught. Suffice it here to say that the requirements now seem different.
A corollary to the above bad news is that I’m not really even all that confident or concerned about the differences between nonfiction and fiction, with ‘differences’ here meaning formal or definitive, and ‘I’ referring to me as a reader.1 There are, as it happens, intergenre differences that I know and care about as a writer, though these differences are hard to talk about in a way that someone who doesn’t try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand. I’m worried that they’ll sound cheesy and melodramatic. Although maybe they won’t. Maybe, given the ambient volume of your own life’s noise, the main difference will make sense to you. Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re
1A subcorollary here is that it’s a bit odd that Houghton Mifflin and the Best American series tend to pick professional writers to be their guest editors. There are, after all, highly expert professional readers among the industry’s editors, critics, scholars, etc., and the guest editor’s job here is really 95 percent readerly. Underlying the series’ preference for writers appears to be one or both of the following: (a) the belief that some- one’s being a good writer makes her eo ipso a good reader—which is the same reasoning that undergirds most blurbs and MFA programs, and is both logically invalid and empirically false (trust me); or (b) the fact that the writers the series pick tend to have comparatively high name recognition, which the publisher figures will translate into wider attention and better sales. Premise (b) involves marketing and revenue and is thus probably backed up by hard data and thought in a way that (a) is not.
executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.
There’s a rather more concrete problem with the cover’s word ‘editor,’ and it may be the real reason why these editorial introductions are the least appealing candy in the box. The Best American Essays 2007’s pieces are arranged alphabetically, by author, and they’re essentially reprints from magazines and journals; whatever (light) copyediting they receive is done in-house by Houghton Mifflin. So what the cover calls your editor isn’t really doing any editing. My real function is best described by an epithet that may, in future years, sum up 2006 with the same grim efficiency that terms like ‘Peace with Honor,’ ‘Iran-Contra,’ ‘Florida Recount,’ and ‘Shock and Awe’ now comprise and evoke other years. What your editor really is here is: the Decider.
Being the Decider for a Best American anthology is part honor and part service, with ‘service’ here not as in ‘public service’ but rather as in ‘service industry.’ That is, in return for some pay and intangible assets, I am acting as an evaluative filter, winnowing a very large field of possibilities down to a manageable, absorbable Best for your delectation. Thinking about this kind of Decidering2 is interesting in all kinds of different ways;3 but the general point is that professional filtering/winnowing
2(usage sic, in honor of the term’s source)
3For example, from the perspective of Information Theory, the bulk of the Decider’s labor actually consists of excluding nominees from the final prize collection, which puts the Decider in exactly the position of Maxwell’s Demon or any other kind of entropy- reducing info processor, since the really expensive, energy-intensive part of such processing is always deleting/discarding/resetting.
is a type of service that we citizens and consumers now depend on more and more, and in ever-increasing ways, as the quantity of available information and products and art and opinions and choices and all the compli- cations and ramifications thereof expands at roughly the rate of Moore’s Law.
The immediate point, on the other hand, is obvious. Unless you are both a shut-in and independently wealthy, there is no way you can sit there and read all the contents of all the 2006 issues of all the hundreds of U.S. periodicals that publish literary nonfiction. So you subcontract this job—not to me directly, but to a publishing company whom you trust (for whatever reasons) to then subsubcontract the job to someone whom they trust (or more like believe you’ll trust [for whatever reasons]) not to be insane or capricious or overtly ‘biased’ in his Decidering.
‘Biased’ is, of course, the really front-loaded term here, the one that I expect Houghton Mifflin winces at and would prefer not to see uttered in the editor’s intro even in the most reassuring context, since the rhetoric of such reassurances can be self-nullifying (as in, say, running a classified ad for oneself as a babysitter and putting ‘don’t worry—not a pedophile!’ at the bottom of the ad). I suspect that part of why ‘bias’ is so loaded and dicey a word just now—and why it’s so much- invoked and potent in cultural disputes—is that we are starting to become more aware of just how much subcontracting and outsourcing and submitting to other Deciders we’re all now forced to do, which is threatening (the inchoate awareness is) to our sense of ourselves as intelligent free agents. And yet there is no clear alternative to this outsourcing and submission. It may possibly be that acuity and taste in choosing which Deciders one submits to is now the real measure of informed adulthood. Since I was raised with more traditional, Enlightenment-era criteria, this possibility strikes me as consumerist and scary . . . to which the counterargument would be, again, that the alternatives are literally abysmal.
Speaking of submission, there was a bad bit of oversimplification two paragraphs above, since your guest editor is not really even the main sub-subcontractor on this job. The real Decider, in terms of processing info and reducing entropy, is Mr. Robert Atwan, the BAE series editor. Think of it this way. My job is to choose the twenty-odd so-called Best from roughly 100 finalists the series editor sends me. 4 Mr ̇ Atwan, though, has distilled these finalists from a vast pool of ’06 nonfiction— every issue of hundreds of periodicals, plus submissions from his network of contacts all over the U.S.—meaning that he’s really the one doing the full-time reading and culling that you and I can’t do; and he’s been doing it since 1985. I have never met Mr. Atwan, but I—probably like most fans of BAE—envision him as by now scarcely more than a vestigial support system for an eye-brain assembly, maybe like 5’8” and 590 lbs., living full-time in
4It’s true that I got to lobby for essays that weren’t in his 100, but there ended up being only one such outside piece in the final collection. A couple of others that I’d suggested were nixed by Mr. Atwan—well, not nixed so much as counseled against, for what emerged as good reasons. In general, though, you can see who had the real power. However much I strutted around in my aviator suit and codpiece calling myself the Decider for BAE ’07, I knew that it was Mr. Atwan who delimited the field of possibilities from which I was choosing . . . in rather the same way that many Americans are worried that what appears to be the reality we’re experiencing and making choices about is maybe actually just a small, skewed section of reality that’s been pre-chosen for us by shadowy entities and forces, whether these be left-leaning media, corporate cabals, government disinformers, our own unconscious prejudices, etc. At least Mr. Atwan was explicit about the whole pre-selection thing, though, and appeared to be fair and balanced, and of course he’d had years of hard experience on the front lines of Decidering; and in general I found my- self trusting him and his judgments more and more throughout the whole long process, and there were finally only maybe about 10 percent of his forwarded choices where I just had no idea what he might have been thinking when he picked them.
some kind of high-tech medical chair that automatically gimbals around at various angles to help prevent skin ulcers, nourishment and wastes ferried by tubes, surrounded by full- spectrum lamps and stacks of magazines and journals, a special emergency beeper Velcroed to his arm in case he falls out of the chair, etc.
Given the amount of quiet, behind-the-scenes power he wields over these prize collections, you’re entitled to ask about Mr. Atwan’s standards for inclusion and forwarding;5 but he’s far too experienced and cagey to encourage these sorts of questions. If his foreword to this edition is like those of recent years, he’ll describe what he’s looking for so generally—‘essays of literary achievement that show an awareness of craft and forceful- ness of thought’—that his criteria look reasonable while at the same time being vague and bland enough that we aren’t induced to stop and think about what they might actually mean, or to ask just what principles Mr. Atwan uses to determine ‘achievement’ and ‘awareness’ and ‘forcefulness’ (not to mention ‘literary’). He is wise to avoid this, since such specific questions would entail specific answers that then would raise more questions, and so on; and if this process is allowed to go on long enough, a point will be reached at which any Decider is going to look either (a) arrogant and arbitrary (‘It’s literary because I say so’) or else (b) weak and incoherent (as he thrashes around in endless little definitions and exceptions and qualifications and apparent flip-flops). It’s true. Press R. Atwan or D. Wallace hard enough on any of our criteria or reasons—what they mean or where they come from—and you’ll eventually get either paralyzed silence or the abysmal, Legionish babble of every last perceived fact and value. And Mr. Atwan cannot afford this; he’s permanent BAE staff.
5I believe this is what is known in the nonfiction industry as a transition. We are now starting to poke tentatively at ‘Best,’ which is the most obviously fraught and bias-prone word on the cover.
I, on the other hand, have a strict term limit. After this, I go forever back to being an ordinary civilian and BAE reader (except for the introductions). I therefore feel free here to try for at least partial transparency about my Decidering criteria, some of which are obviously—let’s be grownups and just admit it—subjective, and therefore in some ways biased.6 Plus I have no real problem, emotionally or politically, with stopping at any given point in any theoretical Q & A & Q and simply shrugging and saying that I hear the caviling voices but am, this year, for whatever reasons (possibly including divine will— who knows?), the Decider, and that this year I get to define and decide what’s Best, at least within the limited purview of Mr. Atwan’s 104 finalists, and that if you don’t like it then basically tough titty.
Because of the fact that my Decidering function is antientropic and therefore mostly exclusionary, I first owe some account of why certain types of essays were maybe easier for me to exclude than others. I’ll try to combine candor with maximum tact. Memoirs, for example. With a few big exceptions, I don’t much care for abreactive or confessional memoirs. I’m not sure how to explain this. There is probably a sound, serious argument to be made about the popularity of confessional memoirs as a symptom of something especially sick and narcissistic/voyeuristic about U.S. culture right now. About certain deep connections between narcissism and voyeurism in the mediated psyche. But this isn’t it. I think the real reason is that I just don’t trust them. Memoirs/confessions, I mean. Not so much their
6May I assume that some readers are as tired as I am of this word as a kneejerk derogative? Or, rather, tired of the legerdemain of collapsing the word’s neutral meaning—‘preference, inclination’—into the pejorative one of ‘unfairness stemming from prejudice’? It’s the same thing that’s happened with ‘discrimination,’ which started as a good and valuable word, but now no one can even hear it without seeming to lose their mind.
factual truth as their agenda. The sense I get from a lot of contemporary memoirs is that they have an unconscious and unacknowledged project, which is to make the memoirists seem as endlessly fascinating and important to the reader as they are to them- selves. I find most of them sad in a way that I don’t think their authors intend. There are, to be sure, some memoirish-type pieces in this year’s BAE—although these tend either to be about hair-raisingly unusual circumstances or else to use the confessional stuff as part of a larger and (to me) much richer scheme or story.
Another acknowledged prejudice: no celebrity profiles. Some sort of personal quota was exceeded at around age thirty-five. I now actually want to know less than I know about most celebrities.
The only other intrinsic bias I’m aware of is one that a clinician would probably find easy to diagnose in terms of projection or displacement. As someone who has a lot of felt trouble being clear, concise, and/or cogent, I tend to be allergic to academic writing, most of which seems to me willfully opaque and pretentious. There are, again, some notable exceptions, and by ‘academic writing’ I mean a particular cloistered dialect and mode; I do not just mean any piece written by somebody who teaches college.7
7Example: Roger Scruton is an academic, and his ‘A Carnivore’s Credo’ is a model of limpid and all- business compression, which is actually one reason why his argument is so valuable and prizeworthy, even though parts of that argument strike me as either odd
or just plain wrong (e.g., just how much humane and bucolic ‘traditional livestock farming’ does Scruton be- lieve still goes on in this country?). Out on the other end
of the ethicopolitical spectrum, there’s a weirdly simi- larexampleinProf P ̇eterSinger’s ‘WhatShouldaBillionaire Give?,’ which is not exactly belletristic but certainly isn’t written in aureate academese, and is salient and unforgettable and unexcludable not despite but in some ways because of the questions and criticisms it invites. May I assume that you’ve already read it? If not, please return to the main text. If you have, though, do
The other side to this bias is that I tend, as a reader, to prize and admire clarity, precision, plainness, lucidity, and the sort of mag- ical compression that enriches instead of vitiates. Someone’s ability to write this way, especially in nonfiction, fills me with envy and awe. That might help explain why a fair number of BAE ’07’s pieces tend to be short, terse, and informal in usage/syntax. Readers who enjoy noodling about genre might welcome the news that several of this year’s Best Es- says are arguably more like causeries or pro- pos than like essays per se, although one could counter argue that these pieces tend, in their essential pithiness, to be closer to what’s historically been meant by ‘essay.’ Personally, I find taxonomic arguments like this dull and some of Singer’s summaries and obligation-formulas seem unrealistically simple? What if a person in the top 10 percent of U.S. earners already gives 10 percent of his income to different, non-UN-type charities—does this reduce his moral obligation, for Singer? Should it? Exactly which charities and forms of giving have the most efficacy and/or moral value—and how does one find out which these are? Should a family of nine making $132,000 a year really have the same 10 percent moral obligation as the childless bachelor making 132K a year? What about a 132K family where one family member has cancer and their health insurance has a 20 percent deductible—is this family’s failure to cough up 10 percent after spending $40,000 on medical bills really still the moral equivalent of valuing one’s new shoes over the life of a drowning child? Is Singer’s whole analogy of the drowning kid(s) too simple, or at least too simple in some cases? Umm, might my own case be one of the ones where the analogy and giving-formula are too simple or inflexible? Is it OK that I think it might be, or am I just trying to rationalize my way out of dis- comfort and obligation as so many of us (according to Singer) are wont to do? And so on … but of course you’ll notice meanwhile how hard the reader’s induced to think about all these questions. Can you see why a Decider might regard Singer’s essay as brilliant and valuable precisely because its prose is so mainstream and its formulas so (arguably) crude or harsh? Or is this kind of ‘value’ as stupid, PC-ish criterion to use in Decidering about essays’ literary worth? What exactly are the connections between literary aesthetics and moral value supposed to be? Whose moral values ought to get used in determining what those connections should be? Does anyone even read Tolstoy’s What Is Art any more?
irrelevant. What does seem relevant is to as- sure you that none of the shorter essays in the collection were included merely because they were short. Limpidity, compactness, and an absence of verbal methane were simply part of what made these pieces valuable; and I think I tried, as the Decider, to use overall value as the prime triage- and filtering mechanism in selecting this year’s top essays.
… Which, yes, all right, entitles you to ask what ‘value’ means here and whether it’s any kind of improvement, in specificity and traction, over the cover’s ‘Best.’ I’m not sure that it’s finally better or less slippery than ‘Best,’ but I do know it’s different. ‘Value’ sidesteps some of the metaphysics that makes pure aesthetics such a headache, for one thing. It’s also more openly, candidly subjective: since things have value only to people, the idea of some limited, subjective human doing the valuing is sort of built right into the term. That all seems tidy and uncontroversial so far— although there’s still the question of just what this limited human actually means by ‘value’ as a criterion.
One thing I’m sure it means is that this year’s BAE does not necessarily comprise the twenty-two very best-written or most beautiful essays published in 2006. Some of the book’s essays are quite beautiful indeed, and most are extremely well written and/or show a masterly awareness of craft (what- ever exactly that is). But others aren’t, don’t, especially—but they have other virtues that make them valuable. And I know that many of these virtues have to do with the ways in which the pieces handle and respond to the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective that constitutes Total Noise. This claim might itself look slippery, because of course any published essay is a burst of information and context that is by definition part of 2007’s overall roar of info and context. But it is possible for something to be both a quantum of information and a vector of meaning.
Think, for instance, of the two distinct but related senses of ‘informative.’ Several of this year ’s most valuable essays are informative in both senses; they are at once informational and instructive. That is, they serve as mod- els and guides for how large or complex sets of facts can be sifted, culled, and arranged in meaningful ways—ways that yield and illuminate truth instead of just adding more noise to the overall roar.
That all may sound too abstract. Let’s do a concrete example, which happens also to involve the term ‘American’ on the front cover. In your 2007 guest editor’s opinion, we are in a state of three-alarm emergency—‘we’ basically meaning America as a polity and culture. Only part of this emergency has to do with what is currently called partisan politics, but it’s a significant part. Don’t worry that I’m preparing to make any kind of specific argument about the Bush administration or the disastrous harm I believe it’s done in almost every area of federal law, policy, and governance. Such an argument would be just noise here—redundant for those readers who feel and believe as I do, biased crap for those who believe differently. Who’s right is not the point. The point is to try to explain part of what I mean by ‘valuable.’ It is totally possible that, prior to 2004—when the reelection of George W. Bush rendered me, as part of the U.S. electorate, historically complicit in his administration’s policies and conduct—this BAE Decider would have selected more memoirs or descriptive pieces on ferns and geese, some of which this year were quite lovely and fine. In the current emergency, though, such essays simply didn’t seem as valuable to me as pieces like, say, Mark Danner’s ‘Iraq: The War of the Imagination’ or Elaine Scarry’s ‘Rules of Engagement.’
Here is an overt premise. There is just no way that 2004’s reelection could have taken place—not to mention extraordinary renditions, legalized torture, FISA-flouting, or the
passage of the Military Commissions Act— if we had been paying attention and handling information in a competent grown-up way. ‘We’ meaning as a polity and culture. The premise does not entail specific blame— or rather the problems here are too entangled and systemic for good old-fashioned finger- pointing. It is, for one example, simplistic and wrong to blame the for-profit media for somehow failing to make clear to us the moral and practical hazards of trashing the Geneva Conventions. The for-profit media is highly at- tuned to what we want and the amount of detail we’ll sit still for. And a ninety-second news piece on the question of whether and how the Geneva Conventions ought to apply in an era of asymmetrical warfare is not going to explain anything; the relevant questions are too numerous and complicated, too fraught with contexts in everything from civil law and military history to ethics and game theory. One could spend a hard month just learning the history of the Conventions’ translation into actual codes of conduct for the U.S. military … and that’s not counting the dramatic changes in those codes since 2002, or the question of just what new practices violate (or don’t) just which Geneva provisions, and ac- cording to whom. Or let’s not even mention the amount of research, background, cross- checking, corroboration, and rhetorical pars- ing required to understand the cataclysm of Iraq, the collapse of congressional oversight, the ideology of neoconservatism, the legal status of presidential signing statements, the political marriage of evangelical Protestantism and corporatist laissez-faire . . . There’s no way. You’d simply drown. We all would. It’s amazing to me that no one much talks about this—about the fact that whatever our founders and framers thought of as a literate, informed citizenry can no longer exist, at least not without a whole new modern degree of subcontracting and dependence packed into what we mean by ‘informed.’8
In the context of our Total Noise, a piece like Mark Danner ’s ‘Iraq: . . . Imagination’ exemplifies a special subgenre I’ve come to think of as the service essay, with ‘service’ here referring to both professionalism and virtue. In what is loosely framed as a group book review, Danner has processed and arranged an immense quantity of fact, opinion, confirmation, testimony, and on-site experience in order to offer an explanation of the Iraq debacle that is clear without being simplistic, comprehensive without being overwhelming, and critical without being shrill. It is a brilliant, disciplined, pricelessly informative piece.
There are several other such service essays among this year’s proffered Best. Some, like Danner’s, are literary journalism; others are more classically argumentative, or editorial, or personal. Some are quite short. All are smart and well written, but what renders them most valuable to me is a special kind of integrity in their handling of fact. An absence of dogmatic cant. Not that service essayists don’t have opinions or make arguments. But you never sense, from this year’s Best, that facts are being specially cherry-picked or ar- ranged in order to advance a pre-set agenda. They are utterly different from the party-line pundits and propagandists who now are in such vogue, for whom writing is not think- ing or service but more like the silky courtier’s manipulation of an enfeebled king.
. . . In which scenario we, like diminished kings or rigidly insecure presidents, are reduced to being overwhelmed by info and
dogma. You can drown in dogmatism now, too— radio, Internet, cable, commercial and scholarly print— but this kind of drowning is more like sweet release. Whether hard right or new left or whatever, the seduction and mentality are the same. You don’t have to feel confused or inundated or ignorant. You don’t even have to think, for you already Know, and whatever you choose to learn confirms what you Know. This dogmatic lockstep is not the kind of inevitable dependence I’m talking about—or rather it’s only the most extreme
8Hence, by the way, the seduction of partisan dogma. You can drown in dogmatism now, too – radio internet, cable, commercial and scholarly print – but his kind of drowning is more like sweet release. whether hard right or new left or whatever, the seduction and mentality are the same. You don’t have to feel confused or inundated or ignorant. You don’t even have to think,for you already Know, and whatever you choose to learn confirms what you Know. This dogmatic lockstep is not the kind of inevitable dependance I’m talking about – or rather its only the most extreme and frightened form of that dependence.
interpretation, or else paralyzed by cynicism and anomie, or else—worst—seduced by some particular set of dogmatic talking- points, whether these be PC or NRA, rationalist or evangelical, ‘Cut and Run’ or ‘No Blood for Oil.’ The whole thing is (once again) way too complicated to do justice to in a guest intro, but one last, unabashed bias/preference in BAE ’07 is for pieces that undercut reflexive dogma, that essay to do their own Decidering in good faith and full measure, that eschew the deletion of all parts of reality that do not fit the narrow aperture of, say for instance, those cretinous fundamentalists who insist that creationism should be taught alongside science in public schools, or those sneering materialists who insist that all serious Christians are as cretinous as the fundamentalists.
Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the ‘moral clarity’ of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high- entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and liter- ate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help. That’s about as clearly as I can put it. I’m aware that some of the collection’s writers could spell all this out better and in much less space. At any rate, the service part of what I mean by ‘value’ refers to all this stuff, and extends as well to essays that have nothing to do with politics or wedge issues. Many are valuable simply as exhibits of what a first-rate artistic mind can make of particular fact sets—whether these involve the 17-kHz ring tones of some kids’ cell phones, the language of movement as parsed by dogs, the near-infinity of ways to experience and describe an earthquake, the existential synecdoche of stage-fright, or the revelation that most of what you’ve believed and revered turns out to be self-indulgent crap.
That last one’s9 of especial value, I think. As exquisite verbal art, yes, but also as a model for what free, informed adulthood might look like in the context of Total Noise: not just the intelligence to discern one’s own error or stupidity, but the humility to address it, ab- sorb it, and move on and out there from, bravely, toward the next revealed error. This is probably the sincerest, most biased account of ‘Best’ your Decider can give: these pieces are models—not templates, but models—of ways I wish I could think and live in what seems to me this world.
David Foster Wallace
Copyright c 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Introduction copyright c 2007 by David Foster Wallace.
9You probably know which essay I’m referring to, assuming you’re reading this guest intro last as is SOP. If you’re not, and so don’t, then you have a brutal little treat in store.
photos: PHILIPPE MERLE/AFP/GETTYIMAGES
Writers Can Do Anything
William T. Vollmann, author of Last Stories and Other Stories, explains why he works by an assassin’s credo: “Nothing is true; all is permissible.”
JOE FASSLER JUL 16, 2014
By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.
William T. Vollmann surely takes artistic freedom as seriously as any living writer. His books—sometimes to the dismay of his publishers—routinely compare length-wise with the King James Bible and Infinite Jest. His three most recent books include a series of trangender self-portraits, an investigative report on nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japan, and this month, a whopping collection of what he calls “ghost stories.” Through it all, he deploys writing styles that range as widely as the broad topics he covers—war, economic inequality, fetishists, prostitution.
Vollmann, in other words, always writes the book he wants to write.
In our interview for this series, Vollmann discussed a short, paradoxical aphorism from the 11th-century cult figure, Hassan-i Shabbah, a mystic and religious leader who retained power using a stable of trained killers. In his unpacking of the maxim’s many paradoxical layers, Vollmann explored how freedom—in art, governance, and life—must be protected, and yet must have its limits.
Last Stories and Other Stories is a sprawling, enchanting casket of curiosities. Over 600 pages long, and copiously epigraphed, these stories range from novella-length to just a single paragraph. In their elegant, elegiac meditations on death and the afterlife, we cross broad terrain, including geishas in ancient Japan, vampires in preindustrial Bohemia, and bombings in modern-day Sarajevo.
Vollmann’s previous book of fiction, Europe Central (2005), won the National Book Award for Fiction. He spoke to me from his writer’s studio in Sacramento, where he lives.
William T. Vollmann: Hassan the Assassin, also known as the Old Man of the Mountain, was a legendary figure from 11th and 12th century Persia. He lived in a mountain fortress with a gang of young men he’d hired to be assassins, guys who were prepared to kill and die for him. He’d reward them for their work by drugging them with hashish—the words assassin and hashish actually have the same Arabic root—and they’d wake up in a cave filled with wine and beautiful women. He had brought them to paradise, he’d tell them. If they did his bidding, they would end up there forever.
Hassan the Assassin lived by a proverb that’s long been an object of contemplation for me:
Nothing is true; all is permissible.
I haven’t followed this line as any kind of guiding principle. These aren’t necessarily words to live by. But it’s a deeply resonant maxim, one that contains within it many layers of meaning, and there’s a great deal to be learned by looking at its two parts and turning them around. As a credo, it can be inspirational—or alarming—on many different levels.
If we apply “nothing is true; all is permissible” in its most immediate, literal meaning, it appears to be a horrible, dangerous idea—though perhaps perfect for an assassin. Saying “Nothing is true” is the same as saying “Everything is true,” as far as I’m concerned. Because if nothing is true, don’t all claims to truth have equal weight? If all is true, any form of human behavior becomes valid. Who can say it’s wrong to kill another person for money—or merely for hashish? All is permissible. You might read these lines as an insistence on the relativity of ethics, and they could even be applied to excuse a kind of moral nihilism.
At the same time, I see a kind of freedom in these words. In my book The Rainbow Stories, I spent time writing about communities in San Francisco where there’s a lot of BDSM stuff. The people in that world love to pretend all kinds of fantastic or preposterous or sometimes very frightening-sounding things—but none of it’s true, and so all of it’s permissible. Viewed one way, the Assassin’s maxim could be used to excuse terrible, harmful behavior—but it also could be instructive for role-players, gamers, and others who want to live out their fantasies on their own terms. It’s a reminder that the fictional aspect of the fantasy makes it permissible.
In fact, when we’re working in solely in the realm of the imagination, the assassin’s proverb becomes a very uplifting idea. For me, as an artist, it’s been a great help. While I’m working on a book, it’s a reminder that I don’t have to worry about making a mistake, about writing “poorly,” or about taking on a difficult or ambitious project. I try to remain open, reminding myself that all is permissible as I work. Of course, that doesn’t let me off the hook later—ultimately, I have to live with any work I publish and make public. But it’s a very freeing feeling during the composition process, when I try to keep in mind that nothing is off-limits.
Sometimes, this is very difficult. There have been times when I’m writing about things that are personally embarrassing. Like any human being, sometimes I can’t help but wonder—what are the people I know going to think about this? So I have to remind myself that all is permissible. Art has to be a free space. Language has to be a free space. And I just shouldn’t worry about that kind of thing while I’m working. I might pay the consequences later, but that’s not my problem while I’m doing the writing.
I feel the same way about the publishing marketplace. I’ve always thought the exchange of words for money is no more and no less problematic than any other kind of prostitution—and it’s important that we prostitutes control a certain amount of our production (and reproduction, for that matter). If I’m writing a book and I’m warned, “Oh, this is unsaleable, you need to make it shorter,” or, “It has to be this, or that,” I’m proud to say I don’t pay attention.
When we’re working in solely the realm of the imagination, the assassin’s proverb is a very uplifting idea.
Though this is becoming more difficult. As large publishers turn into monopolies, and the MBAs who are running them—maybe editors used to run them before—are steadily tightening the screws, they feel more and more that they get to call the shots. The last couple books I’ve written have had maximum-length provisions in the contracts. This had never happened before, but I couldn’t get them stricken from the contracts. So did the only thing I could: I just ignored them. This could mean that my book will be rejected, and I’ll have to pay my advance back, and a very unfortunate situation might develop. But I can’t let that outcome dictate what I want to do.
At the end of the day, when I’m dying, I want to think I did what I felt was best for the words I was writing. This may mean, at any time, that I won’t be publishable anymore. There’s all kinds of pressure on people to do this and that, and not this and the other thing—but I think I would feel ashamed, and despondent, if I let others dictate the terms of my work. If I let others tell me that nothing I wrote was true, and every demand of theirs was permissible.
This Assassin’s maxim was especially useful to me as I wrote the latest of my Seven Dreams series, called The Dying Grass, about the Nez Perce War of 1877. It was a very challenging project because I decided to invent what’s essentially a new form. You don’t read this book like other books: instead, as you read from left to right, the page works like a stage. The left-hand part of the page works like the forefront of the stage, and the right edge of the paper is the backdrop. And so, there might be conversations on the left hand on the page—and what people are actually thinking might occur in the center, and perhaps landscape descriptions appear in the back, or occasionally when they really strike somebody, they appear in the front. This approach gives the page a kind of dimensionality, multiple layers of foreground and background.
An example: In one scene, my protagonist, General Howard, and his aide-de-camp walk through a battlefield—and there are all kinds of wounded, lying there, calling for help. There’s a cacophony of voices, spread across the page. One wounded confederate solider in particular is crying for help, way on the right hand side of the page, lost among all these other voices. But gradually, this voice moves farther and father to the left—and suddenly, it’s in the same column as the main characters’ dialogue. So the reader can see right away they’re engaging with this guy.
It took years to figure this out and make it work. It’s just a very weird-looking thing. But it turns out to be very easy to read. There’s so much white space, that it’s almost like reading a play or a movie script or something like that. Much less dense than my books usually are. But I had to overcome my own resistance and fear when I started it. I thought it would be too difficult. I worried I’d put a couple of hundred pages into it, and no one would be able to make sense of it. Then I’ll have lost years, I told myself. But I ended up being proud of it, and very fulfilled by the experience. It was a wonderful experiment. And it helped me to remind myself that nothing is true, that reading in strict left-to-right rows of text is not necessarily the only true way, and all is permissible in art.
Of course, the same freedoms extend to science. It’s in part because nothing is true scientifically: No scientific observation can be proven true forever and ever, and great, widely accepted theories fall and will continue to. It’s crucial for the health of science that any thought experiment is permissible, that we’re always allowed to question even the most entrenched ideas. To the extent that science is like art, you want it to be a free space. No scientist should be told what to think, or what not to think. We’re all hoping that as a result of this freedom, scientists will get closer and closer to amazing new discoveries about the nature of reality.
But the difference is that art is mostly powerless to hurt people. When you extend “all is permissible” into the real world, it can become dangerous. It can encourage a certain lack of conscience—the unnerving side of the scientific method, which underlies so much of our culture today. Science doesn’t ask what is right—it just asks what is true. And a wonderful discovery that a scientist makes could lead to something that destroys life on earth.
Does evil exist in an artistic context? In other words, should some things not be permissible in art? I would say no. There have been people who think that it does. Plato thought certain kinds of music should be banned from the Republic because they were too effeminate, or voluptuous, or whatever, and would weaken the body politic. I prefer to think that all should be allowed in art. And that, in a way, comes down to my political belief about the right of the self. The First Amendment: What a great idea! Why not universalize that, and say we all have the right to express ourselves. Even if we hate what other people are saying—all the more reason to cherish the freedom that we are giving ourselves by giving those other people the right to make bad art, or to be Nazis marching down the streets of Skokie—whatever it is.
When looked at this way, “nothing is true” is a great, democratizing idea: If there is no objective truth, no person or entity should have the right to impose ideas on anyone else. In this sense, “nothing is true” leads naturally to the conclusion that “all is permissible”—if all ideas have an equal right to exist, people should not be given more or less freedom on the basis of their ideas.
But once we leave the world of art and ideas, and start talking about actions and behavior, it seems important to say that only some things are true. Extended to the realm of politics, the Assassin’s proverb quickly takes on troubling significance. I think of George W. Bush with the Iraq War: no weapons of mass destruction, no link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, nation building was another fraud, none of the proposed justifications were true. It was all bullshit. And how many thousands have we killed? So, we can say, he acted as if nothing was true, but all was permissible—including torture. That’s the definition of an unjust war. If political leaders are applying “Nothing is true; all is permissible,” we can be sure they’re going to be doing evil things. It’s the same thing as saying the ends justify the means.
Some of the more frightening people I’ve encountered insist only some things are true, but feel all things are permissible.
You see this with environmental issues as well. About a year ago I started working on a nonfiction book about coal versus nuclear power. Not so much about which is better or worse—they’re probably both awful—but what ordinary people think about them. I’ve found that so many Americans, especially in the coal counties of West Virginia, really don’t believe in global warming. But I suspect that a lot of the political leaders who say that they don’t believe in it, actually might think that it’s possible. They’re acting like nothing is true, and all is permissible. To take this stance, and behave as though all forms of rhetoric are justified in the pursuit of power, is harmful and irresponsible.
Some of the more frightening people I’ve encountered are the ones who insist only some things are true, but also feel that all things are permissible. I remember one time I was interviewing a Russian special forces guy in Belgrade during the Bosnian War. He really liked to kill people. He wanted me to join him. He told me that if I would just give him my passport right then, he would burn it, and then I would be completely dependent on him. He’d make me into a new man. He’d give me food and cigarettes. I wouldn’t get much sleep. He’s teach me how to jump out of airplanes, and rape muslim women and slit people’s throats, and I would become a real man like him. At some point, when he was making this very enticing offer, he took a bayonet and put it to my throat, pressing it almost hard enough to cut into my skin. My interpreter was quite afraid that the guy was going to cut my throat. And I was afraid, too. There wasn’t a lot I could do about it either, except try to be calm and accepting of whatever was going to happen. Every war journalist, I suppose, has moments like that. But that was definitely a moment that it seemed that he felt nothing I believed was true, and he felt that all was permissible, including killing me. He felt his point of view was truer than mine, and he had the latitude to do whatever he wanted about it.
He was creating, in his mind, this new order. He’d been with the Russian special forces in Afghanistan, and he conceded that they shouldn’t have been there. That was their place, and the Russians should have stayed out. And now the Muslims needed to be quiet, as he put in, in Serbia and in Bosnia because that wasn’t their place. He was a big believer in ethnic cleansing. I believe anyone has the right to any opinion, no matter how deranged. The problem is, it went beyond that. This stuff, which was just a sick fantasy, was something that he and a lot of other violent people were busy making into something true. Every day, they were going out there and removing the Muslims, so that it would not be a Muslim place anymore.
If only some things are true—then it holds that only some things are permissible, because there can be right and wrong. Once you’re willing to say that only some things are true, but all is permissible in the attainment of that truth, you are on very dangerous ground.
When I worked out my moral calculus in Rising Up and Rising Down, I began with the assumption that maybe is not too controversial: The self has certain rights. The self has the right to defend itself—violently, if need be, or not. And it has the right to defend others, or not; violently, or not. To the extent that we infringe on those rights, unless there are other compelling considerations, considerations of proportionality or discrimination, I would say we are committing evil.
So it seems to me the only just political credo would be: “Some things are true, and some things are permissible.” Anyone who says anything different, and has political power or a gun, needs to be watched carefully.
But if a writer says that only some things are true—saying only these aesthetic rules are true, and these things are never permissible, for all time—then I’m inclined to say, screw you.
I think that for an artist, certainly, it’s good to remember that nothing is true for all time—and therefore, that all is permissible. You shouldn’t get struck in any one truth. Every idea, every identity is doomed to die, just as we are. I think that’s one reason I try so many different approaches in my books—I don’t want to limit myself to one approach, one artistic self.
The last couple books I’ve written had maximum-length provisions in the contracts. I did the only thing I could: ignore them.
And why shouldn’t ideas continually change, when there’s so much we can never know—will never know? Death, for instance, will always escape us. I just finished writing a book of ghost stories, though I don’t really believe in ghosts. I can’t say there’s not an afterlife—nothing is true, after all, and there might be—and though I’m not holding my breath, I have to admit we can’t really know what death is! That’s why we’re always engaging with it, trying to understand death by animating and personifing it, by giving it some sort of life and face. And death, of course, is nothingness—so we’re always doomed to fail. And yet, it’s this effort itself that forms our only possible relationship to death. I like to think that creating these quite absurd characters—ghouls and ghosts, dead people, scenarios in the grave—was actually my way of trying to imagine something that helps me prepare myself for death. And maybe readers will feel something of the same.
With death, we know for sure that nothing we imagine is true—and so it might be that nothing is permissible, nothing will be permissible after we die, very likely. In the meantime, all is permissible in trying to understand death, because whatever we understand won’t be true anyway—so it doesn’t matter. We can only project ourselves onto it.
So this saying of Hassan the Assassin’s holds many things at once: it is nihilistic, it is democratic, it is brutal, it is fair. For me, in the end, it’s a reminder of the shifting terrain of self-knowledge—how nothing is true for long in our hearts, how anything can change in us, and how often one transforms in one’s attempts to know oneself. I am continually surprised in my autobiographical writing at how much my understanding of myself has changed. I recently put out a book of transgender self-portraits, and when I put on a wig and photographed myself, or drew watercolor pictures of myself as a woman, I thought: Who is this person? It’s not really me—this person, this woman, doesn’t exist. In another hour I’m going to take off the wig and the breast forms and wash off the lipstick. Yet I’m staring at this person in the mirror who is alive and looking back at me, and I don’t know this person at all. It’s very eerie. I couldn’t really have believed the strangeness of it if I hadn’t done it. Who was that person, looking back? It’s a reminder that everything we think about ourselves can change, our very notions of ourselves can change, and even the notions we’re surest of still change and die, they always will, like us.
JOE FASSLER is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.
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Susan Sontag – A Biography
Translated from the German by David Dollenmayer
Daniel Schreiber has created a wonderfully written, well organized short biography on Susan Sontag. The book is fluid in pace and provides an ample well of historical context to enable the reader to see the many connections and subtleties of Sontag’s life and thought. The book is very unacademic as was Ms Sontag.
Mr Schreiber is a German journalist based in Berlin and is a writer for various European periodicals.
Daniel’s German nationality helps to crystalize and give perspective to Sontag’s Americanness. This is no easy feat given Sontag’s closely developed alliance with Europe both in thinking and in culture as she spent a great deal of her adult life working on literary pieces in Germany, France, England and Spain. Mr Schreiber’s execution of this careful articulation with simple yet elegant prose is a very rare accomplishment especially given the complex task.
Ms Sontag’s journey in developing herself as a public intellectual begins as a young girl in New York and later in Arizona and Los Angeles before she moves to Chicago and then New York as an adult to fulfill her education and to develop the network of supporters who are so important to her success. Her contacts from the University of Chicago, including Kenneth Burke; and from Harvard, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Tillich and Michael Taubes were important throughout her professional life. Mr. Schreiber shows clearly that her key supporters are in the publishing sphere: Roger Straus of Farrar, Straus, Giroux and the literary agent Andrew Wylie spent considerable time and resources to aid in positioning Sontag.
While Ms. Sontag wrote both fiction and essays, it is clear that she will be remembered for her critical thinking abilities targeting literature, film, theater, art and political behaviour.
America lost an important voice of clarity and intellectual passion with her passing in 2004. Her radical predilection allowed her to unfold many ways of perceiving that were uncomfortable if not unconscious in the American public and their political representatives.
She demonstrated the importance of literature in life, the paths of nations and the fact that literature is a source of prophecy in the world – a singular contribution to the way of the world.
Mr. Schreiber was able to take advantage of the wealth of public interviews, in addition to traditional biographical sources, that documented her thinking and positions throughout Ms Sontag’s life.
Close relationships with both sexes, Philip Rieff, Maria Fornes, Nicole Stephane, and Anne Leibovitz were strong forces in her life and she used them to enrich her intellectual and cultural perspectives. Her son, David Rieff has also been a key advocate for Ms. Sontag’s books and articles.