Neri Oxman, head of the Mediated Matter research group; Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, curator of the MIT Solve Arts and Culture Mentorship Prize; and MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle speak at the 2017 Concordia Annual Summit in New York City on September 18, 2017.
Neri Oxman, head of the Mediated Matter research group; Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, curator of the MIT Solve Arts and Culture Mentorship Prize; and MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle speak at the 2017 Concordia Annual Summit in New York City on September 18, 2017.
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.
It is not a surprise that literature aids all countries in showing a human face in the midst of hard-edge politics and ideology.This piece is from The New York Times. Follwing the NYT piece is aninterview with Putin and Tolstoy concerning the culture policy document.
By RACHEL DONADIO, MARCH 20, 2015
YASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — On a sunny winter afternoon here, Vladimir Tolstoy, a great-great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy and an adviser on cultural affairs to President Vladimir V. Putin, strode up the birch-lined path that leads to the bucolic family compound where his forebear wrote “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” It is now a state museum. At each step, he was greeted by staff members heading home for the day.
“Good evening,” Mr. Tolstoy said with a warm smile. “Good evening,” the museum employees, mostly women, responded. “Please send our best regards to our czar and tell him we respect him very much,” one woman told Mr. Tolstoy, who nodded cheerfully.
At once friendly and feudal, the scene at this estate some 125 miles south of Moscow captured something of the mood in Russia today, where Mr. Putin is regarded as a czar, especially outside the big cities, even as the liberal intelligentsia reviles him and laments his popularity. It also reflects the benefits for Mr. Putin of enlisting the support of a member of an illustrious family as he continues to strike notes of national pride.
Since being tapped by Mr. Putin in 2012, Mr. Tolstoy, 52, has emerged as the more conciliatory, highbrow and Western-friendly face of Kremlin cultural policy. He works with, but is temperamentally different from, Russia’s more combative culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, who is known for aggressive assertions of Russian superiority and conservative values.
Mr. Tolstoy said he had worked to remove language from a ministry policy draft that was leaked last year stating that “Russia is not Europe.” But, like most Russians, Mr. Tolstoy is full-throated in his support of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, a territory that many Russians believe should not have been ceded to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954.
“Leo Tolstoy was a Russian officer who defended Russia in the Fourth Bastion in Sevastopol,” he said, speaking through a translator over tea in a cafe near the museum. “For us, in our mind, this has always been Russia.”
He was referring to the siege of Sevastopol in 1854-55 in the Crimean War, in which Russia fought the allied forces of France, Britain, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire and ultimately lost control of the city. “Of course, as a descendant of the Russian officer Leo Tolstoy, I cannot have any other attitude toward that,” he added.
Mr. Tolstoy was raised in a middle-class family in the Moscow region and trained as a journalist. In 1994, he was named director of Yasnaya Polyana, which is centered on the house where the novelist wrote and has been preserved as it was at the time of his death, in 1910. There are also a working farm and orchards, and Tolstoy’s grave is in a wooded glen that the writer associated with his beloved older brother, who died young.
Mr. Tolstoy improved the quality and range of activities at the museum, adding lectures, a literary prize and Russian-language classes. His wife, Ekaterina Tolstaya, took over as director after he became an adviser to Mr. Putin.
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Mr. Tolstoy said that Mr. Putin had offered him the post after a meeting of museum directors in April 2012 at which Mr. Tolstoy criticized the government’s cultural strategy and the president’s advisory council for culture as ineffective. “When the meeting was over, the president asked me to stay for a bit and asked if I was so critical, could I do this job better?” Mr. Tolstoy said. Now, he briefs Mr. Putin on cultural issues and acts a bridge between Russia’s cultural world and the Kremlin.
On a recent afternoon, he was fielding calls from Irkutsk, Siberia, for help with funeral arrangements for the writer Valentin Rasputin, who died last week at 77 and had expressed a preference to be buried in Irkutsk, his birthplace. Mr. Tolstoy said he regarded Mr. Rasputin as the best writer of the past half-century. He was known for his vivid portrayals of the environmental devastation caused by industrialization in rural Russia and also for his conservatism: He called for prosecuting the punk activist group Pussy Riot after its provocative performance in a Moscow church and inveighed against perestroika, the liberalization initiated under Mikhail S. Gorbachev before the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Not long ago, the sense that Russia had somehow lost its way after the fall of the Soviet Union was pervasive here, but Mr. Tolstoy and other Putin loyalists have succeeded in reviving a sense of national pride expressly through cultural policy.
Guided by Mr. Tolstoy, a committee of leading cultural figures and state officials ultimately produced an 18-page policy document that defines culture broadly, saying it is as valuable to Russia as its natural resources. It also touches on moral precepts, the importance of religion in shaping values and the place of the Russian language in uniting a country of more than 140 million people and diverse ethnicities. The document also highlights Russia’s distinctiveness “as a country which unites two worlds, East and West.”
Some cultural figures have criticized the document for not addressing the pervasive influence of Russian state television, which operates as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. Many didn’t pay it much attention. “It’s abstract, like a biblical text,” said Kirill Razlogov, a prominent film historian.
Far more concrete is the impact of laws that ban obscene words in the theater, films and public performances and that criminalize giving offense to religious believers, both of which were passed after Pussy Riot’s members were jailed in 2012.
While Mr. Tolstoy may agree with the general direction, his approach is more tolerant. “I believe everything has a right to exist unless it’s a provocation,” he said. “I think art shouldn’t be offensive.” As for Pussy Riot, he said: “I don’t support them, but on the other hand I also believe the reaction was inappropriate. An artist shouldn’t be punished in court.”
He described himself as a moderate who could “find balance” between traditionalists and liberals looking Westward. “On the one hand, Russia is open for cooperation,” he said. “And on the other hand, we have our own perspective on good and evil.”
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Mr. Tolstoy seems to be generally respected by the intelligentsia. Victor Erofeyev, a writer who has been critical of Mr. Putin, said he thought Mr. Tolstoy was “a smart guy” who also reflects a growing tendency since Mr. Putin’s re-election in 2012 to see Russia as somehow purer than the West.
“They really believe in it,” Mr. Erofeyev said. “It’s not like during Communist times under Brezhnev” when “people say, ‘I love Communism,’ but we never believe in it. Here they play with a notion of Russia in a more delicate way. They say, ‘You know, Russia is still is a country of big culture, it’s a country of big human relationships, friendship, love affairs and so on, and that’s why we are more interesting than the West.’ ”
Back at the cafe, Mr. Tolstoy grew animated in talking about Russian pride. “Today’s Russia cannot be forced to do what it doesn’t want to,” he said. “It’s impossible to achieve either by sanctions, or even by an overt attack. Russia respects itself, and it wants only justice, nothing else.”
On that wintry afternoon, dozens of visitors flocked to Yasnaya Polyana. There was snow on the ground and gray ice on the pond, and the birch trees caught the afternoon light. The spirit of the novelist’s former home “is love,” Mr. Tolstoy reflected.
In Tolstoy’s novels, “there are no characters who are complete villains,” his great-great-grandson said. “All of his characters are real people.”
Correction: March 21, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of a Russian writer who died last week. He is Valentin Rasputin, not Vladimir.
April 23, 2014, 15:45 The Kremlin, Moscow
photo: The Presidential Press and Information Office.
Mr Tolstoy presented to Vladimir Putin the draft Basic Principles of State Culture Policy.
PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA VLADIMIR PUTIN: Mr Tolstoy, is the concept document for developing the culture sector ready now?
PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: Yes. Above all, thank you for entrusting us with its drafting. The result is an unprecedented and very interesting piece of work.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: As far as I know, it has aroused a lot of debate.
VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: Yes, it is the subject of active public debate right now, though what is being discussed is not the document itself, but the preliminary materials that made their way via various sources to the press and have indeed sparked a huge public discussion. This shows that the time is indeed ripe to address the various issues in the culture sector, and that the public wants a serious debate at the national level on this matter.
A working group headed by [Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office] Sergei Ivanov was established. We held two meetings, which produced the Basic Principles of State Culture Policy. The draft document, if approved, will then be presented for broad public discussion at various forums such as the Public Council, the State Duma, the Federation Council and youth forums, and the results of these discussions will then be taken into account in drawing up the final text. We will be ready to ask you to approve the Basic Principles of State Culture Policy in autumn, perhaps with its presentation for joint discussion by the Presidential Council for Culture and the State Council, as it is also extremely important to take regional aspects into account too, since the next stage of the work will involve these finer points. This is a national-level document and naturally it outlines the general framework.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: What are the main points, as you see them?
VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: I think the most important point is that we need to see culture in much broader terms than just the sector covered by the Culture Ministry: theatres, archives and libraries. Culture is a basic concept, a fundamental part of a person’s identity and the foundation of the national character and even of the state. It includes moral values, broader public education, youth policy issues, and the kinds of cities and villages we live in. We have tried to take an all-encompassing approach to culture. We realise at the same time that managing this process requires a special approach, and this will all be the subject of further discussion.
Culture has a particularly important historical role to play at this moment in our country’s life when we face a complicated foreign policy situation and special circumstances at home. Culture should play a consolidating and unifying role in this situation. Appeals – what I would call inflammatory appeals – that would lead to isolation are very dangerous in this context. We cannot allow internal divisions to emerge. We have a common cultural space, and we have talented people, who perhaps do not all share the same points of view, but it is important that the Basic Principles of State Culture Policy should unify the nation. This is what the document aims to do.
As far as foreign policy goes, you have probably heard from Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Spivakov and many of our other cultural figures about how many provocations take place before their concerts in the West, but how when the concerts are over, audiences of thousands of people give them standing ovations. This is exactly the kind of soft power that should be one of the state’s biggest priorities today, and this is the role that our national culture can play. This will send an important signal to our country and the world that Russia is a nation famed for its great culture and will continue to look for and encourage new talent, especially creative talent.
It is very important for us to keep producing talented composers, writers and directors. This requires a state support system. Talented people develop in their own right of course, but if we do not notice them in time and give them the support they need, we could be losing a national genius who would bring the country fame.
It is very important to educate viewers and readers. People are reading less these days, but Russian literature is a foundation for our moral qualities. We need not just talented performers but also talented listeners and viewers, who know and love music, theatre and film. Perhaps only one in 10,000 people accepted to arts schools will go on to become a real creator, but the other 9,999 people will be talented viewers and will fill up our concert halls.
We have just shown the whole world that we know how to build magnificent, outstanding sports facilities. We have shown that we know how to nurture and develop exceptional athletes who become Olympic champions. I think it is important that the world also see our ability to build equally magnificent theatres. This is already happening. We have the Mariinsky Theatre and the Bolshoi Theatre, theatres in Astrakhan and other cities. It is important that other regions should also become home to strong cultural venues of this kind. We can show the whole world that the flow of creative talent in Russia will never dry up and will always delight the world with new works.
I think the document reflects all of this. At least, it contains the premises that could help our country’s culture to flourish.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: I agree with you that culture is our main, unifying national substance. What is important is not people’s official ethnic identities, but how they perceive themselves, who they consider themselves to be, which basic cultural principles were instilled in them from childhood, what kind of environment they were raised in, and what moral and ethical references they follow.
In this sense it is very important to create a common cultural space. I expect that this is the document’s basic aim, but we also need to put in place good conditions for developing cultural institutions and ensuring timely financing for priority areas. This is very important for developing culture as a sector. I hope the document will cover these matters too.
VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: Yes, of course. The document is also concerned with the importance of the information space and the content of television programmes and the Internet. Young people spend more and more time on the Internet today, and what they find there is very important. This is also the concern of culture policy.
We hope very much that these principles will be supported. This is a long-term programme, of course. You are right to note that it addresses primarily children and young people. We can expect to see some substantial results. Some say it will take a generation – 20-25 years – to really get results, but I am not convinced. I think that we could start seeing the first tangible results within 5-6 years or 10-12 years.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Let’s take a more detailed look. As I said, this is the main component and main substance for our self-perception and sense of identity as a nation. This is why it is so important that the document be balanced, and I hope it will be. Let’s take a closer look at it now.
April 23, 2014, 15:45The Kremlin, Moscow