In a previous book published in 1985 as Thinkers of the New Left, I brought together a series of articles from The Salisbury Review. I have reworked the original articles, cutting out writers like R. D. Laing and Rudolf Bahro who have nothing to say to us today, and including substantial new material devoted to developments that are increasingly influential – for example the stunning ‘nonsense machine’ invented by Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, the scorched-earth attack on our ‘colonial’ inheritance by Edward Said, and the recent revival of ‘the communist hypothesis’ by Badiou and Žižek.
My previous book was published at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s reign of terror, at a time when I was still teaching in a university, and known among British left-wing intellectuals as a prominent opponent of their cause, which was the cause of decent people everywhere. The book was therefore greeted with derision and outrage, reviewers falling over each other for the chance to spit on the corpse. Its publication was the beginning of the end for my university career, the reviewers raising serious doubts about my intellectual competence as well as my moral character. This sudden loss of status led to attacks on all my writings, whether or not they touched on politics.
One academic philosopher wrote to Longman, the original publisher, saying, ‘I may tell you with dismay that many colleagues here [i.e. in Oxford] feel that the Longman imprint – a respected one – has been tarnished by association with Scruton’s work.’ He went on in a menacing manner, expressing the hope that ‘the negative reactions generated by this particular publishing venture may make Longman think more carefully about its policy in the future’. One of Longman’s best-selling educational writers threatened to take his products elsewhere if the book stayed in print and, sure enough, the remaining copies of Thinkers of the New Left were soon withdrawn from the bookshops and transferred to my garden shed.
I have naturally been reluctant to return to the scene of such a disaster. Gradually, however, in the wake of 1989, a measure of hesitation has entered the left-wing vision. It is now common to accept that not everything said, thought or done in the name of socialism has been intellectually respectable or morally right. I was perhaps more than normally alert to this possibility on account of my involvement, at the time of writing, with the underground networks in communist Europe. That involvement had brought me face to face with destruction, and it was obvious to most people who troubled to expose themselves to this destruction that leftist ways of thinking were the ultimate cause of it. Thinkers of the New Left appeared in samizdat editions in Polish and Czech, and was subsequently translated into Chinese, Korean and Portuguese. Gradually, and especially after 1989, it became easier for me to express my vision, and I have allowed my publisher, Robin Baird-Smith, to persuade me that a new book might bring relief to students compelled to chew on the glutinous prose of Deleuze, to treat seriously the mad incantations of Žižek, or to believe that there is more to Habermas’s theory of communicative action than his inability to communicate it.
The reader will understand from the above paragraphs that this is not a word-mincing book. I would describe it rather as a provocation. However, I make every effort to explain what is good in the authors I review as well as what is bad. My hope is that the result can be read with profit by people of all political persuasions.
In preparing this book for the press I have been greatly helped by comments and criticisms from Mark Dooley, Sebastian Gardner, Robert Grant and Wilfrid Hodges, all of whom are innocent of the crimes committed in the following pages.
The modern use of the term ‘left’ derives from the French Estates General of 1789, when the nobility sat on the king’s right, and the ‘third estate’ on his left. It might have been the other way round. Indeed, it was the other way round for everyone but the king. However, the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ remain with us, and are now applied to factions and opinions within every political order. The resulting picture, of political opinions spread in a single dimension, can be fully understood only locally, and only in conditions of contested and adversarial government. Moreover, even where it captures the outlines of a political process, the picture can hardly do justice to the theories influencing that process, which form the climate of political opinion. Why, therefore, use the word ‘left’ to describe the writers considered in this book? Why use a single term to cover anarchists like Foucault, Marxist dogmatists like Althusser, exuberant nihilists like Žižek and American-style liberals like Dworkin and Rorty?
The reason is twofold: first the thinkers I discuss have identified themselves by that very term. Second, they illustrate an enduring outlook on the world, and one that has been a permanent feature of Western civilization at least since the Enlightenment, nourished by the elaborate social and political theories that I shall have occasion to discuss in what follows. Many of my subjects have been associated with the New Left, which rose to prominence during the 1960s and 70s. Others form part of the broad ground of post-war political thinking, according to which the state is or ought to be in charge of society and empowered to distribute its goods.
Thinkers of the New Left was published before the collapse of the Soviet Union, before the emergence of the European Union as an imperial power and before the transformation of China into an aggressive exponent of gangland capitalism. Thinkers on the left have naturally had to accommodate those developments. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the weakness of socialist economies elsewhere gave a brief credibility to the economic policies of the ‘new right’, and even the British Labour Party climbed on to the bandwagon, dropping Clause IV (the commitment to state ownership) from its constitution and accepting that industry is no longer the direct responsibility of government.
For a while it even looked as though there might be an apology forthcoming, from those who had devoted their intellectual and political efforts to whitewashing the Soviet Union or praising the ‘people’s republics’ of China and Vietnam. But the moment of doubt was short-lived. Within a decade the left establishment was back in the driving seat, with Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn renewing their intemperate denunciations of America, the European left regrouped against ‘neo-liberalism’, as though this had been the trouble all along, Dworkin and Habermas collecting prestigious prizes for their barely readable but impeccably orthodox books, and the veteran communist Eric Hobsbawm rewarded for a lifetime of unswerving loyalty to the Soviet Union by his appointment as ‘Companion of Honour’ to the Queen.
True, the enemy was no longer described as before: the Marxist template did not easily fit the new conditions, and it seemed a trifle foolish to champion the cause of the working class, when its last members were joining the ranks of the unemployable or the self-employed. But then came the financial crisis, with people all around the world thrown into comparative poverty while the seeming culprits – the bankers, the financiers, and the speculators – escaped with their bonuses intact. As a result, books critical of market economics began to enjoy a new popularity, whether reminding us that real goods are not exchangeable (Michael Sandel: What Money Can’t Buy) or arguing that markets, in current conditions, cause a massive transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest (Joseph Stiglitz: The Price of Inequality, and Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-first Century). And from the ever-fertile source of Marxist humanism thinkers extracted new arguments to describe the moral and spiritual degradation of humanity in the condition of free exchange (Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy, L’esthétisation du monde: vivre à l’âge du capitalisme artiste; Naomi Klein, No Logo; Philip Roscoe, I Spend, Therefore I Am).
Thinkers and writers on the left therefore soon returned to equilibrium, assured the world that they had never really been taken in by communist propaganda, and renewed their attacks on Western civilization and its ‘neo-liberal’ economics as the principal threat to humanity in a globalized world. ‘right-wing’ has remained as much a term of abuse today as it was before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the attitudes described in this book have adapted themselves to the new conditions with very little moderation of their oppositional zeal. This curious fact is one of many puzzles that I consider in what follows.
The left-wing position was already clearly defined at the time when the distinction between left and right was invented. Leftists believe, with the Jacobins of the French Revolution, that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed, and that the fault lies not in human nature but in usurpations practised by a dominant class. They define themselves in opposition to established power, the champions of a new order that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed.
Two attributes of the new order justify the pursuit of it: liberation and ‘social justice’. These correspond roughly to the liberty and equality advocated at the French Revolution, but only roughly. The liberation advocated by left-wing movements today does not mean simply freedom from political oppression or the right to go about one’s business undisturbed. It means emancipation from the ‘structures’: from the institutions, customs and conventions that shaped the ‘bourgeois’ order, and which established a shared system of norms and values at the heart of Western society. Even those left-wingers who eschew the libertarianism of the 1960s regard liberty as a form of release from social constraints. Much of their literature is devoted to deconstructing such institutions as the family, the school, the law and the nation state through which the inheritance of Western civilization has been passed down to us. This literature, seen at its most fertile in the writings of Foucault, represents as ‘structures of domination’ what others see merely as the instruments of civil order.
Liberation of the victim is a restless cause, since new victims always appear over the horizon as the last ones escape into the void. The liberation of women from male oppression, of animals from human abuse, of homosexuals and transsexuals from ‘homophobia’, even of Muslims from ‘Islamophobia’ – all these have been absorbed into the more recent leftist agendas, to be enshrined in laws and committees overseen by a censorious officialdom. Gradually the old norms of social order have been marginalized, or even penalized as violations of ‘human rights’. Indeed, the cause of ‘liberation’ has seen the proliferation of more laws than were ever invented to suppress it – just think of what is now ordained in the cause of ‘non-discrimination’.
Likewise the goal of ‘social justice’ is no longer equality before the law, or the equal claim to the rights of citizenship, as these were advocated at the Enlightenment. The goal is a comprehensive rearrangement of society, so that privileges, hierarchies, and even the unequal distribution of goods are either overcome or challenged. The more radical egalitarianism of the nineteenth-century Marxists and anarchists, who sought for the abolition of private property, perhaps no longer has widespread appeal. But behind the goal of ‘social justice’ there marches another and more dogged egalitarian mentality, which believes that inequality in whatever sphere – property, leisure, legal privilege, social rank, educational opportunities, or whatever else we might wish for ourselves and our children – is unjust until proven otherwise. In every sphere in which the social position of individuals might be compared, equality is the default position.
Built into the mild-mannered prose of John Rawls that assumption might pass unnoticed. In Dworkin’s more agitated calls for ‘respect as an equal’, as opposed to ‘equal respect’, it might cause people to wonder where the argument is going. But the most important point to notice is that it is an argument that allows nothing to stand in its way. No existing custom, institution, law or hierarchy; no tradition, distinction, rule or piety can trump equality, if it cannot provide itself with independent credentials. Everything that does not conform to the egalitarian goal must be pulled down and built again, and the mere fact that some custom or institution has been handed down and accepted is no argument in its favour. In this way ‘social justice’ becomes a barely concealed demand for the ‘clean sweep’ of history that revolutionaries have always attempted.
The two goals of liberation and social justice are not obviously compatible, any more than were the liberty and equality advocated at the French Revolution. If liberation involves the liberation of individual potential, how do we stop the ambitious, the energetic, the intelligent, the good-looking and the strong from getting ahead, and what should we allow ourselves by way of constraining them? Best not to confront that impossible question. Best to summon the old resentments rather than to examine what would follow from expressing them. By declaring war on traditional hierarchies and institutions in the name of its two ideals, therefore, the left is able to obscure the conflict between them. Moreover, ‘social justice’ is a goal so overwhelmingly important, so unquestionably superior to the established interests that stand against it, as to purify every action done in its name.
It is important to take note of this purifying potential. Many people on the left are sceptical towards utopian impulses; at the same time, having allied themselves beneath a moralizing banner, they inevitably find themselves galvanized, inspired and eventually governed by the most fervent members of their sect. For politics on the left is politics with a goal: your place within the alliance is judged by the lengths you are prepared to go to on behalf of ‘social justice’, however defined. Conservatism – at least, conservatism in the British tradition – is a politics of custom, compromise and settled indecision. For the conservative, political association should be seen in the same way as friendship: it has no overriding purpose, but changes from day to day, in accordance with the unforeseeable logic of a conversation. Extremists within the conservative alliance, therefore, are isolated, eccentric and even dangerous. Far from being more deeply committed partners in a common enterprise, they are separated by their very purposefulness from those whom they seek to lead.1
Marx dismissed the various socialisms current in his day as ‘utopian’, contrasting ‘utopian socialism’ with his own ‘scientific socialism’ that promised ‘full communism’ as its predictable outcome. The ‘historical inevitability’ of this condition relieved Marx of the necessity to describe it. The ‘science’ consists in the ‘laws of historical motion’ set out in Das Kapital and elsewhere, according to which economic development brings about successive changes in the economic infrastructure of society, enabling us to predict that private property will one day disappear. After a period of socialist guardianship – a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – the state will ‘wither away’, there will be neither law nor the need for it, and everything will be owned in common. There will be no division of labour and each person will live out the full range of his needs and desires, ‘hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, tending cattle in the evening and engaging in literary criticism after dinner’, as we are told in The German Ideology.
To say that this is ‘scientific’ rather than utopian is, in retrospect, little more than a joke. Marx’s remark about hunting, fishing, hobby farming and lit. crit. is the only attempt he makes to describe what life will be like without private property – and if you ask who gives you the gun or the fishing rod, who organizes the pack of hounds, who maintains the coverts and the waterways, who disposes of the milk and the calves and who publishes the lit. crit., such questions will be dismissed as ‘beside the point’, and as matters to be settled by a future that is none of your business. And as to whether the immense amount of organization required for these leisure activities of the universal upper class will be possible, in a condition in which there is no law, no property, and therefore no chain of command, such questions are too trivial to be noticed. Or rather, they are too serious to be considered, and therefore go unnoticed. For it requires but the slightest critical address, to recognize that Marx’s ‘full communism’ embodies a contradiction: it is a state in which all the benefits of legal order are still present, even though there is no law; in which all the products of social cooperation are still in existence, even though nobody enjoys the property rights which hitherto have provided the sole motive for producing them.
The contradictory nature of the socialist utopias is one explanation of the violence involved in the attempt to impose them: it takes infinite force to make people do what is impossible. And the memory of the utopias has weighed heavily on both the New Left thinkers of the 1960s, and on the American left liberals who adopted their agenda. It is no longer possible to take refuge in the airy speculations that contented Marx. Real thinking is needed if we are to believe that history either tends or ought to tend in a socialist direction. Hence the emergence of socialist historians, who systematically downplay the atrocities committed in the name of socialism, and blame the disasters on the ‘reactionary’ forces that impeded socialism’s advance. Rather than attempting to define the goals of liberation and equality, thinkers of the New Left instead created a mythopoeic narrative of the modern world, in which the wars and genocides were attributed to those who have resisted the righteous ‘struggle’ for social justice. History was rewritten as a conflict between good and evil, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And, however nuanced and embellished by its many brilliant exponents, this Manichean vision remains with us, enshrined in the school curriculum and in the media.
The moral asymmetry, which attributes to the left a monopoly of moral virtue, and uses ‘right’ always as a term of abuse, accompanies a logical asymmetry, namely, an assumption that the onus of proof lies always on the other side. Nor can this onus be discharged. Thus in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the theories of Marx were being recycled as the true account of the sufferings of humanity under ‘capitalist’ regimes, it was rare to find any mention in the left-wing journals of the criticisms that Marx’s writings had encountered during the previous century. Marx’s theory of history had been put in question by Maitland, Weber and Sombart;2 his labour theory of value by Böhm-Bawerk, Mises, and many more;3 his theories of false consciousness, alienation and class struggle by a whole range of thinkers, from Mallock and Sombart to Popper, Hayek and Aron.4 Not all those critics could be placed on the right of the political spectrum, nor had they all been hostile to the idea of ‘social justice’. Yet none of them, so far as I could discover when I came to write this book, had been answered by the New Left with anything more than a sneer.
That said, we must recognize that the Marxist spectacles are no longer on the left-wing nose. Why they were removed, and by whom, it is hard to say. But for whatever cause, left-wing politics has discarded the revolutionary paradigm advanced by the New Left, in favour of bureaucratic routines and the institutionalization of the welfare culture. The two goals of liberation and social justice remain in place: but they are promoted by legislation, committees and government commissions empowered to root out the sources of discrimination. Liberation and social justice have been bureaucratized. In looking back at the left intellectuals in the decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union, therefore, I am observing a culture that now survives largely in its academic redoubts, feeding from the jargon-ridden prose that it amassed in university libraries, in the days when universities were part of the anti-capitalist ‘struggle’.
But note that word. It belongs to an enclosed vocabulary, one that entered the language with Marxism and which was gradually simplified and regimented in the years when socialists were occupying the intellectual high ground. From its earliest days the communist movement had fought over language, and esteemed the theories of Marx partly because they provided convenient labels with which to brand both friend and enemy and to dramatize the conflict between them. And this habit proved contagious, so that all subsequent leftist movements were to some extent tainted by it. Indeed, the transformation of the language of politics has been the principal legacy of the Left, and it is one aim of this book to rescue that language from socialist Newspeak.
We owe the term ‘Newspeak’ to George Orwell’s chilling portrait of a fictitious totalitarian state. But the capture of language by the left is far older, beginning with the French Revolution and its slogans. When it took the turn that fascinated Orwell it was with the Socialist International and the eager engagement of the Russian intelligentsia. Those who emerged triumphant from the Second International in 1889 had been granted a vision of a transformed world. This Gnostic revelation was so clear that no argument was necessary, and no argument possible, that would provide it with a justifying proof. All that mattered was to distinguish those who shared the vision from those who dissented. And the most dangerous were those who dissented by so small a margin that they threatened to mingle their energies with yours, and so to pollute the pure stream of action.
From the beginning, therefore, labels were required that would stigmatize the enemies within and justify their expulsion: they were revisionists, deviationists, infantile leftists, utopian socialists, social fascists, and so on. The division between Menshevik and Bolshevik following the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1904 epitomized this process: those peculiar fabricated words, which were themselves crystallized lies, since the Mensheviks (minority) in fact composed the majority, were thereafter graven in the language of politics and in the motives of the communist elite.
The success of those labels in marginalizing and condemning the opponent fortified the communist conviction that you could change reality by changing words. You could create a proletarian culture, just by inventing the word ‘proletcult’. You could bring about the downfall of the free economy, simply by shouting ‘crisis of capitalism’ every time the subject arose. You could combine the absolute power of the Communist Party with the free consent of the people, by announcing communist rule as ‘democratic centralism’ and describing the countries where it was imposed as ‘people’s democracies’. Newspeak reassembles the political landscape, dividing it in unfamiliar ways, and creating the impression that, like the anatomist’s description of the human body, it reveals the hidden frame on which the superficial unities are hung. In that way it makes it easy to dismiss as illusions the realities by which we live.
Newspeak occurs whenever the primary purpose of language – which is to describe reality – is replaced by the rival purpose of asserting power over it. The fundamental speech-act is only superficially represented by the assertoric grammar. Newspeak sentences sound like assertions, but their underlying logic is that of the spell. They conjure the triumph of words over things, the futility of rational argument, and also the danger of resistance. As a result Newspeak developed its own special syntax, which – while closely related to the syntax deployed in ordinary descriptions – carefully avoids any encounter with reality or any exposure to the logic of rational argument. Françoise Thom has argued this in her brilliant study La langue de bois.5 The purpose of communist Newspeak, in Thom’s ironical words, has been ‘to protect ideology from the malicious attacks of real things’.
Human individuals are the most important of those real things, the obstacles that all revolutionary systems must overcome, and which all ideologies must destroy. Their attachment to particulars and contingencies; their embarrassing tendency to reject what has been devised for their betterment; their freedom of choice and the rights and duties through which they exercise it – all these are obstacles to the conscientious revolutionaries, as they strive to implement their five-year plan. Hence the need to phrase political choice in such a way that individuals have no part in it. Newspeak prefers to speak of forces, classes and the march of history, and regards the actions of Great Men as acceptable subjects for discussion only because Great Men, like Napoleon, Lenin and Hitler, are really the expression of abstract forces, such as imperialism, revolutionary socialism and fascism.6 The ‘isms’ that govern political change work through people, but not from them.
Connected with the relentless use of abstractions is the feature that Thom describes as ‘pan-dynamism’. The world of Newspeak is a world of abstract forces, in which individuals are merely local embodiments of the ‘isms’ that are revealed in them. Hence it is a world without action. But it is not a world without movement. On the contrary, everything is in constant motion, swept onwards by the forces of progress, or impeded by the forces of reaction. There is no equilibrium, no stasis and no rest in the world of Newspeak. All stillness is a deception, the quietus of a volcano that could erupt at any time. Peace never appears in Newspeak as a condition of rest and normality. It is always something to ‘fight for’, and ‘Fight for Peace!’, ‘Struggle for Peace!’ took their place among the official slogans of the Communist Party.
From the same source comes the penchant for ‘irreversible’ changes. Since everything is in motion and the ‘struggle’ between the forces of progress and the forces of reaction is always and everywhere, it is important that the triumph of ideology over reality be constantly recorded and endorsed. Hence progressive forces always achieve ‘irreversible changes’, while reactionary forces are wrong-footed by their contradictory and merely ‘nostalgic’ attempts to defend a doomed social order.
Many words with respectable origins end up as Newspeak, used to denounce, exhort and condemn without regard for observable realities. Of no word has this been more true than the term ‘capitalism’, when used to condemn free economies as forms of slavery and exploitation. We can disagree with the central argument put forward by Marx in Das Kapital, while accepting that there is such a thing as economic capital. And we might describe an economy in which substantial capital is in the hands of private individuals as capitalist, meaning that term as a neutral description that may or may not, in due course, form part of an explanatory theory. But that is not how the term is used in such phrases as ‘the crisis of capitalism’, ‘capitalist exploitation’, ‘capitalist ideology’, and so on, where it functions again as a spell, the equivalent in economic theory of Khrushchev’s great scream from the rostrum of the United Nations: ‘We will bury you!’ By describing free economies with this term, we cast the spell that extinguishes them. The reality of the free economy disappears behind the description, to be replaced by a strange baroque edifice, constantly falling to the ground in a dream-sequence of ruin.
The concepts that arise in normal dialogue arise from the need to compromise, to reach agreements, to establish peaceful coordination with people who do not share our projects or our affections, but who are as much in need of space as we are. Such concepts have little or nothing to do with the schemes and plans of the revolutionary left, since they permit those who use them to change course, to drop one goal and pick up another, to amend their ways and to show the kind of flexibility on which lasting peace always, in the end, depends.
Hence, although I, the intellectual in my garret, can contemplate with satisfaction and a clear conscience the ‘liquidation of the bourgeoisie’, when I enter the shop downstairs I must speak another language. Only in the most distant sense is this woman behind the counter a member of the bourgeoisie. If I choose nevertheless so to see her it is because I am conjuring with the word ‘bourgeois’ – I am trying to gain power over this person through labelling her. In confronting the shopkeeper as a human being I must renounce this presumptuous bid for power, and accord to her a voice of her own. My language must make room for her voice, and that means it must be shaped to permit the resolution of conflict, the forging of agreement, including the agreement to differ. I make remarks about the weather, grumble about politics, ‘pass the time of day’ – and my language has the effect of softening reality, of making it pliable and serviceable. Newspeak, which denies reality, also hardens it, by turning it into something alien and resistant, a thing to be ‘struggled with’ and triumphed over.
I may have come down from my garret with a plan in view, intending the first move towards the liquidation of the bourgeoisie about which I had read in my Marxist textbook. But this plan will not survive the first exchange of words with my chosen victim, and the attempt to impose it or to speak the language that announces it will have the same effect as the wind in Aesop’s fable, competing with the sun to remove the coat of a traveller. Ordinary language warms and softens; Newspeak freezes and hardens. And ordinary discourse generates out of its own resources the concepts that Newspeak forbids: fair/unfair; just/unjust; right/duty; honest/dishonest; legal/illegal; yours/mine. Such distinctions, which belong to the free exchange of feelings, opinions and goods, also, when freely expressed and acted upon, create a society in which order is spontaneous and not planned, and in which the unequal distribution of assets arises ‘by an invisible hand’.
Newspeak does not merely impose a plan; it also eliminates the discourse through which human beings can live without one. If justice is referred to in Newspeak, it is not the justice of individual dealings, but ‘social justice’, the kind of ‘justice’ imposed by a plan, which invariably involves depriving individuals of things that they have acquired by fair dealing in the market. In the opinion of almost all the thinkers whom I discuss in what follows, government is the art of seizing and then redistributing the things to which all citizens are supposedly entitled. It is not the expression of a pre-existing social order shaped by our free agreements and our natural disposition to hold ourselves and our neighbours to account. It is the creator and manager of a social order framed according to an idea of ‘social justice’ and imposed on the people by a series of top-down decrees.
Intellectuals are naturally attracted by the idea of a planned society, in the belief that they will be in charge of it. As a result they tend to lose sight of the fact that real social discourse is part of day-to-day problem solving and the minute search for agreement. Real social discourse veers away from ‘irreversible changes’, regards all arrangements as adjustable, and allows a voice to those whose agreement it needs. From just the same source stems the English common law and the parliamentary institutions that have embodied the sovereignty of the British people.
Repeatedly in what follows we will encounter the Newspeak of left-leaning thinkers. Where conservatives and old-fashioned liberals speak of authority, government and institutions, those on the left refer to power and domination. Laws and offices play only a marginal part in the left-wing vision of political life, while classes, powers and the forms of control are invoked as the root phenomena of the civil order, together with the ‘ideology’ that mystifies those things and rescues them from judgement. Newspeak represents the political process as a constant ‘struggle’ concealed by fictions of legitimacy and allegiance. Peel away the ideology, and the ‘truth’ of politics is revealed. The truth is power, and the hope of deposing it.
Hence almost nothing of political life as we know it finds a place in the thinking of those whom I describe in these pages. Institutions like Parliament and the common law courts; spiritual callings associated with churches, chapels, synagogues and mosques; schools and professional bodies; private charities, clubs, and societies; Scouts, Guides and village tournaments; football teams, brass bands and orchestras; choirs, theatre-groups and philately groups – in short all the ways in which people associate, and create from their consensual intermingling the patterns of authority and obedience through which they live, all the ‘little platoons’ of Burke and Tocqueville – are missing from the leftist worldview or, if present (as they are present in Gramsci and E. P. Thompson, for example), both sentimentalized and politicized, so as to become part of the ‘struggle’ of the working class.
We should not be surprised that, when the communists seized power in Eastern Europe, their first task was to decapitate the little platoons – so that Kádár, when Minister of the Interior in the 1948 government in Hungary, managed to destroy five thousand in a single year. Newspeak, which sees the world in terms of power and struggle, encourages the view that all associations not controlled by the righteous leaders are a danger to the state. And by acting on this view you make it true. When the seminar, the troop or the choir can meet only with the permission of the Party, the Party automatically becomes their enemy.
In this way, it seems to me, it is not an accident that the triumph of leftist ways of thinking has so often led to totalitarian government. The pursuit of abstract social justice goes hand in hand with the view that power struggles and relations of domination express the truth of our social condition, and that the consensual customs, inherited institutions and systems of law that have brought peace to real communities are merely the disguises worn by power. The goal is to seize that power, and to use it to liberate the oppressed, distributing all the assets of society according to the just requirements of the plan.
Intellectuals who think that way are already ruling out the possibility of compromise. Their totalitarian language does not set out a path of negotiation but instead divides human beings into innocent and guilty groups. Behind the impassioned rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto, behind the pseudo-science of Marx’s labour theory of value, and behind the class analysis of human history, lies a single emotional source – resentment of those who control things. This resentment is both rationalized and amplified by the proof that property owners form a ‘class’. According to the theory, the ‘bourgeois’ class has a shared moral identity, a shared and systematic access to the levers of power, and a shared body of privileges. Moreover all those good things are acquired and retained through the ‘exploitation’ of the proletariat, which has nothing to part with except its labour, and which will therefore always be cheated of its just deserts.
That theory has been effective not merely because it serves the function of amplifying and legitimizing resentment, but also because it is able to expose its rivals as ‘mere ideology’. Here, I believe, is the most cunning feature of Marxism: that it has been able to pass itself off as a science. Having hit on the distinction between ideology and science, Marx set out to prove that his own ideology was in itself a science. Moreover, Marx’s alleged science undermined the beliefs of his opponents. The theories of the rule of law, the separation of powers, the right of property, and so on, as these had been expounded by ‘bourgeois’ thinkers like Montesquieu and Hegel, were shown, by the Marxian class analysis, to be not truth-seeking but power-seeking devices: ways of hanging on to the privileges conferred by the bourgeois order. By exposing this ideology as a self-serving pretence the class-theory vindicated its own claims to scientific objectivity.
There is a kind of theological cunning in this aspect of Marxist thought, a cunning that we find also in Foucault’s conception of the episteme, which is an updated version of Marx’s theory of ideology. Since the class-theory is a genuine science, bourgeois political thought is ideology. And since the class-theory exposes bourgeois thought as ideology, it must be science. We have entered the magic circle of a creation myth. Moreover, by dressing up the theory in scientific language Marx has endowed it with the character of a badge of initiation. Not everybody can speak this language. A scientific theory defines the elite that can understand and apply it. It offers proof of the elite’s enlightened knowledge and therefore of its title to govern. It is this feature that justifies the charge made by Eric Voegelin, Alain Besançon and others, that Marxism is a kind of Gnosticism, a title to ‘government through knowledge’.7
Looked at with the superman superciliousness of Nietzsche, resentment may seem like the bitter dregs of the ‘slave morality’, the impoverished loss of spirit that comes about when people take more pleasure in bringing others down than in raising themselves up. But that is the wrong way to look at it. Resentment is not a good thing to feel, either for its subject or its object. But the business of society is to conduct our social life so that resentment does not occur: to live by mutual aid and fellowship, not so as to be all alike and inoffensively mediocre, but so as to gain others’ cooperation in our small successes. Living in this way we create the channels through which resentment drains away of its own accord: channels like custom, gift, hospitality, shared worship, penitence, forgiveness and the common law, all of which are instantly stopped up when the totalitarians come to power. Resentment is to the body politic what pain is to the body: it is bad to feel it, but good to be capable of feeling it, since without the ability to feel it we will not survive. Hence we should not resent the fact that we resent, but accept it, as a part of the human condition, something to be managed along with all our other joys and afflictions. However, resentment can be transformed into a governing emotion and a social cause, and thereby gain release from the constraints that normally contain it. This happens when resentment loses the specificity of its target, and becomes directed to society as a whole. That, it seems to me, is what happens when left-wing movements take over. In such cases resentment ceases to be a response to another’s unmerited success and becomes instead an existential posture: the posture of the one whom the world has betrayed. Such a person does not seek to negotiate within existing structures, but to gain total power, so as to abolish the structures themselves. He will set himself against all forms of mediation, compromise and debate, and against the legal and moral norms that give a voice to the dissenter and sovereignty to the ordinary person. He will set about destroying the enemy, whom he will conceive in collective terms, as the class, group or race that hitherto controlled the world and which must now in turn be controlled. And all institutions that grant protection to that class or a voice in the political process will be targets for his destructive rage.
That posture is, in my view, the core of a serious social disorder. Our civilization has lived through this disorder, not once or twice but half a dozen times since the Reformation. In considering the thinkers whom I discuss in this book we will, I believe, understand this disorder in a new way – not merely as a misplaced religion or a form of Gnosticism, as other commentators have seen it, but also as a repudiation of what we, the inheritors of Western civilization, have received as our historical bequest. I call to mind the words of Goethe’s Mephistopheles, when called upon to explain himself: Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint – I am the spirit who always denies, the one who reduces Something to Nothing, and who thereby undoes the work of creation.
This essential negativity can be perceived in many of the writers whom I discuss. Theirs is an oppositional voice, a cry against the actual on behalf of the unknowable. The generation of the 1960s was not disposed to ask the fundamental question how social justice and liberation could be reconciled. It wished only for the theories, however opaque and unintelligible, that would authorize its opposition to the existing order.8 It had identified the rewards of intellectual life through an imagined unity between the intellectuals and the working class, and had sought for a language that would expose and delegitimize the ‘powers’ that maintained the ‘bourgeois’ order in being. Newspeak was essential to its programme, reducing what others saw as authority, legality and legitimacy to power, struggle and domination. And when, in the works of Lacan, Deleuze and Althusser, the nonsense machine began to crank out its impenetrable sentences, of which nothing could be understood except that they all had ‘capitalism’ as their target, it looked as though Nothing had at last found its voice. Henceforth the bourgeois order would be vaporized and mankind would march victorious into the Void. (…)
1 The argument here is spelled out at length in my book, How to be a Conservative, London, Bloomsbury, 2014. See also Chapter 10 below.
2 F. W. Maitland, The Constitutional History of England, London, 1908; W. Sombart, Der Moderne Kapitalismus, Berlin, 1902, 1916, 1927, and Socialism and the Social Movement, tr. M. Epstein, London, 1909; Max Weber, Economy and Society, tr. E. Fischoff et al., ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, vol. 1, New York, 1968.
3 Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Karl Marx and the Close of his System, Clifton, NJ, 1949; Ludwig von Mises, Socialism, 2nd edn, New Haven, 1953.
4 W. H. Mallock, A Critical examination of Socialism, London, 1909; W. Sombart, op. cit.; Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 5th edn, London, 1966; F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, London, 1945; Raymond Aron, Main Currents of Sociological Thought, vol. 1, tr. Richard Howard and Helen Weaver, London, 1968.
5 Françoise Thom, La langue de bois, Paris, 1984, tr. C. Janson, Newspeak, London, 1985.
6 See the famous letter from Engels to Borgius, translated Sidney Hook, New International 1 (3) (September–October 1934), pp. 81–5.
7 See Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism, Washington, 1968; Alain Besançon, The Intellectual Origins of Leninism, tr. Sarah Matthews, Oxford, 1981.
8 See Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts about the Sixties, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Many Americans say that they are conservative.1 They support limited government with fewer regulations, free enterprise, and lower taxes; they oppose affirmative action and “welfare” programs for the poor. But many of these people also support prayer and religious instruction in public schools; seek prohibitions on abortion, marijuana, pornography, and same-sex relations and marriage; and endorse stop-and-frisk policies, warrantless intrusion into electronic communications, and other forms of state interference with and disruptions of individuals’ lives.
Two different strands of conservatism are at work here. First, there is the traditional conservatism of a strong, active state that maintains social order and allegiance to itself, enforces personal morality, and supports established social institutions of the family, religion, and education. Second, there is the modern conservatism of robust property rights and laissez-faire economic liberties.
Modern conservatism originates in the free-market liberalism of Adam Smith and nineteenth-century classical economists. The meaning of the term “liberalism” varies across cultures. In Europe it denotes support for a largely unregulated free market. In the US “liberalism” is associated with left-of-center progressivism that supports greater personal and political freedoms, the regulation of economic liberties with qualified property rights, and redistributions of income and wealth to support welfare state programs.
Roger Scruton is a British philosopher who was professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College, London, from 1971 to 1992. Since then he has held positions at Boston University, the American Enterprise Institute, the University of St. Andrews, Oxford University, and the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is, after Richard Wollheim, the most significant British philosopher of aesthetics of the past fifty years. His works in the field focus especially on architecture and music, and are influenced by Kant and Wittgenstein.
Although Scruton has written nearly fifty books spanning many subjects and fields, he is best known for his writings on political conservatism.2 His book The Meaning of Conservatism (1980) is a major statement, defending traditional conservatism and distinguishing it from the political turn the Conservative Party took under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose policies were heavily influenced by the free-market liberalism of Friedrich Hayek. Scruton argued that true conservatism seeks to maintain the authority of and public allegiance to the state and its laws. It encourages respect for the customs and institutions of “civil society,” including marriage and the family, religion, private property, and private associations. A strong state is needed to enforce personal morality and protect these institutions from compromise.
Conservatism does not, according to Scruton, require unthinking commitment to the status quo. But “allegiance to what is established is…a given, from which social criticism departs. It is…a form of immersion in the institutions to which one’s identity is owed.” Liberalism, by contrast, whether free market or progressive, regards individual freedom and individuality as fundamental values, he says, and thereby threatens to undermine the institutions that are the source of individuals’ identity as well as the bonds of their community. Scruton’s argument is shaped by the ideas of Hegel and Edmund Burke along with those of Hobbes, Adam Smith, Joseph de Maistre, and others.
In recent years, Scruton has moderated his criticisms of classical economic liberalism and the destructive effects its policies can have on traditional institutions. In A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (2006), How to Be a Conservative (2014), and now Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, he endorses Hayek’s classical liberal defense of nearly unregulated capitalist markets and market distributions of income while also advocating constitutional limits on legislative power to regulate the economy and redistribute wealth. Scruton supports parliamentary government. But like Hayek, he argues that the primary source of law, especially the “private law” of property, tort, contract, and consensual transfers, should not be legislation but rather judge-made common law. The proper role of courts is to “discover” and articulate legal rules that are already implicit within our habits of thought, consensual dealings, and social customs and conventions. Courts should refine these as needed, on a case-by-case basis.
This slow evolution of the common law warrants the label “conservative” since, like the free market, it is “a network woven by an invisible hand” and not the product of anyone’s intention. Legal rules and institutions arise from innumerable actions and decisions that individuals and courts make, and, like free market outcomes, form a beneficial “spontaneous order” that is not the product of government planning. The gradual evolution of common law, which eventually takes on the form of legislated law, preserves individual liberty, which otherwise is threatened by “social engineering” by activist democratic legislatures.
These views also underpin Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, in which Scruton reworks and adds new chapters to his Thinkers of the New Left (1985), a book consisting of articles he had written for The Salisbury Review, a conservative British journal he founded and edited for eighteen years. Scruton describes that book as having been greeted by so much “derision and outrage” from academics and journalists on the left that its publisher withdrew it. He claims that this “was the beginning of the end” of his university career.
The target of Scruton’s criticisms is primarily the radical or “New Left” thinkers who, in the period after World War II, taught in humanities and social science departments in universities in Britain, Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe. Until recently, most of these thinkers endorsed communism or radical socialism. There are chapters, for example, on the British Marxist historians Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson; on Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault in France; and on the Hungarian Georg Lukács and the Frankfurt School philosophers Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Jürgen Habermas. “Culture Wars Worldwide” discusses the Italian Antonio Gramsci, the British writers Raymond Williams and Perry Anderson of New Left Review, and, briefly, the Americans Richard Rorty and Edward Said. The penultimate chapter examines the ideas of the Frenchman Alain Badiou and the Slovenian Slavoj Žižek. Two framing chapters—“What is Right?” and “What is Left?”—summarize the main features of the positions Scruton argues for and against.
There is in addition a chapter on the American “soft left” liberals John Kenneth Galbraith and Ronald Dworkin. Both rejected socialism and endorsed a free-market economy but also were strong advocates of the welfare state. Scruton’s conception of the left is quite broad; it joins liberal democrats who support the capitalist welfare state and constitutional democracy with Communists and socialists who reject private ownership of productive resources, the market economy, and constitutional democracy. His view of conservatism, however, is narrow. Scruton strongly resists any parallel comparison of conservatism with fascism or dictatorship since in his reckoning conservatism endorses free markets and the rule of law. One of the great canards propagated by the radical left, he claims, is to associate fascism with capitalism; in fact, fascism is identical with communism since both eliminate private associations and lawlessly exercise totalitarian control over social and political life.
Scruton says that since the French Revolution, the left has held that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed because of usurpation by a dominant class. The left’s two defining ideas are “liberation” and “social justice.” By “liberation” is meant “emancipation” from what Foucault called the “structures of domination.” These are the customs, conventions, and private and public institutions that shape the “bourgeois order” and that conservatives consider the foundation of civilized life. Whereas conservatives regard liberty as implicit in the rule of law, for the left, liberty is a release from the constraints of law and traditional morals.
According to Scruton, for conservatives, justice addresses individuals’ dealings and their adherence to the rule of law, with all receiving what they legally deserve. The left’s illusory idea of “social justice,” by contrast, ignores existing law, disregards historic rights, duties, and deserts, and seeks “equality at all costs.” The left rejects all inequalities of privilege, rank, leisure, educational opportunities, property, and wealth “until proven otherwise.” But equality so conceived “can be pursued only at the cost of liberty.” Scruton echoes Hayek’s refrain that the pursuit of equality and social justice leads to totalitarianism.
The radical left, Scruton asserts, once had hoped to upend capitalist societies through violent revolution by a fictional “proletariat.” But working people—who always showed greater allegiance to their nation than to their social class—are generally satisfied with their circumstances. Accordingly, since World War II, radical leftists have retreated to universities, forgotten about the “proletariat,” and adopted a different strategy. Rather than seeking to overthrow the capitalist economy and redistribute its wealth, the radical left now seeks to undermine confidence in and allegiance to all “bourgeois” social institutions. Its aim has been to intellectually “deconstruct” and destroy our confidence in the traditional institutions of “the family, the school, the law and the nation state through which the inheritance of Western civilization has been passed down to us.” Its method is to foster a “bleak relativism” that casts doubt on all our conscientious convictions and, in the hands of the Parisian “nonsense machine,” casts doubt even on the possibility of factual beliefs. “The effect was to destroy the conversation on which civil society depends.”
The radical left accomplished its goal not by logical argument but by meaningless rhetoric and the free association of ideas, designed to undermine our confidence in all we believe in. The intent is to discredit the objectivity of our judgments, the truth of all statements, even the meaning of language and logic itself. Never mind the self-contradictory nature of such a twisted intellectual exercise and the obvious challenge to it: If nothing is true, then why should we believe this academic nonsense? By design, the radical left has no answer, for its “single and absolute cause” is that we come to believe “nothing.”
Scruton’s book is not the dispassionate examination and measured assessment of philosophical arguments typical of analytic philosophers. It is a polemical dissection and indictment of the perceived destructive aims and tactics of the left. Earlier chapters on Sartre and Foucault, and on members of the Frankfurt School, particularly Adorno, are the most engaging. Scruton clearly respects their philosophical acumen even if he finds their political views abhorrent. But his criticisms and reproaches of the radical left since the 1970s, especially for the “logorrhea” of the “nonsense machine” of Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Badiou, Žižek, and others, are impatient and contemptuous, even if imaginative and persuasive (for anyone already inclined to dismiss postmodernists’ tortuous prose).
Given Scruton’s charge that the left has sought to undermine the basic social institutions on which Western civilization rests, readers may be puzzled by his inclusion in this book of a chapter focused on American liberals such as Dworkin and Galbraith. Both endorsed, as all liberals do, the rule of law, a constitutional democracy, basic rights and liberties, private ownership, and a free market that is moderately regulated even if not the freest possible. Unlike conservatives, Dworkin and Galbraith advocated economic redistribution to fund social insurance and the welfare state; but neither argued for economic equality or any other “pattern of distribution” once individuals’ basic needs are adequately met. Even the conservatives Hayek and Milton Friedman endorsed a social “safety net,” if not for reasons of justice then at least for public prudence and charity. So why do American and other “soft left” liberal democrats warrant Scruton’s condemnation?
The idea of liberation that Scruton says is central to leftist thought has not had a major part in American liberalism, other than its brief appearance in the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, many of whose aims are now widely accepted, even by most conservatives, and in “gay liberation,” which is now far more tolerated than in the past. Rather than liberation from oppression and domination, liberals argue for constitutionally expanding personal rights and liberties such as freedom of expression, association, and rights of privacy, including abortion, a right to die with dignity, and same-sex relations. Liberals also call for increasing educational opportunities for historically disadvantaged minorities through affirmative action programs. Dworkin argued for all of these in this journal for forty-five years, which seems a primary reason Scruton includes him as a target.
Another reason for Scruton’s disdain of progressive liberals is that philosophers such as Dworkin, John Rawls, and others have developed philosophical accounts of social justice and related ideas—social equality, equal rights, distributive justice, and “treating others as equals,” as Dworkin put it. They have then used these arguments to criticize conservative social institutions and arrangements that Scruton apparently regards as the foundation of society—especially extensive private property rights, vast accumulations of wealth, and social and political hierarchies. But left-liberals seek to reform, not destroy, basic social institutions of the family, property, the market economy, and the political constitution. This has been the primary purpose of the idea of social justice developed by left-liberals in the twentieth century.
As for the radical left, the Marxist thinkers Scruton so delights in excoriating do not embrace the idea of social justice. Indeed, Marx (much like Hayek and Scruton, though for very different reasons) rejected “‘equal right’ and ‘fair distribution’” as “dogmas…obsolete verbal rubbish,”3 since they do not address what he regarded as the crucial problem of capitalist ownership and control of means of production. Moreover, the radical Marxists Scruton discusses put no weight on the moral aspects of social justice. Their interests, after all, allegedly lie in trying to destroy our confidence in all ideas of justice and other moral concepts, as well as in dominant social institutions.
Scruton’s dismissal of the ideas of social justice developed by left-liberal thinkers raises problems for his own position. In celebrating the common law as the source of liberty and a free society, Scruton, like Hayek, idealizes a messy historical process that long conferred on many socially unjust practices the unassailable authority of law. For example, common law judges discovered, articulated, and with few exceptions reaffirmed the legality of owning and trafficking slaves in Britain for centuries until Parliament abolished the practice in 1833.4 The justice of adherence to the common law can be no greater than the justice of the customs, rules, and conventions that it embodies. The fact that legal institutions express established ways of doing things does not make these customs just.
The problem with the conservative idea of justice Scruton endorses is that it can be applied only to assess individuals’ actions and their conformity to existing law. It cannot be applied to critically evaluate the justice of states of affairs or laws themselves, except insofar as these states and laws are incompatible with existing legal institutions. This limitation cripples conservatives’ ability to critically assess injustices inherent in the status quo or to recognize the unjust consequences laws can create.
A second weakness in Scruton’s position reveals itself in his agreement with both liberals and modern conservatives that citizens in a democratic society should be regarded as civic equals, with formally equal political and civil rights and liberties such as freedom of speech, religion, association, occupation, and so on. Scruton endorses legal prohibitions (similar to those enumerated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act) against private discrimination on grounds of race or class in contracts of employment and admissions to schools and colleges. He says that “it is part of true civil liberty to prohibit the divisive forms of it,” such as racial discrimination in public places.5 But if so, then “true civil liberty” must incorporate into the modern conservative position some idea of social justice, social equality, and “treating others as equals.”
Scruton’s difference with liberals then becomes largely a matter of degree. The major source of disagreement concerns the specific rights and liberties that are required by social justice and the degree of legitimate inequality, if any, that is permissible with each of them. The real dispute between conservatives and liberals is not whether there is such a thing as social justice but how we are to understand what it requires. Scruton’s argument that the very ideas of social justice and social equality are illusory is a distraction, belied by his own position.
Finally, rather than economic equality, progressive liberals advocate mitigating vast inequalities of income and wealth to reduce their distortions of democratic lawmaking and inequalities of political influence, and to significantly improve the position of the unfortunate and less advantaged. As liberals, progressives endorse free markets instead of social planning, in order to efficiently allocate productive resources, including labor. But in recognizing that free markets inevitably result in economic disparities, progressives also distinguish between permissible and impermissible economic inequalities. For conservatives, any degree of inequality is justifiable.
In Dworkin, Rawls, and other progressive liberals, the role of principles of distributive justice is to eliminate the socially destructive effects of gross economic inequalities, mitigate the effects of misfortune, guarantee all citizens the worth of their liberties, and insure individuals’ economic independence. Market distributions and large gifts and bequests of wealth are often the product of pure luck or other fortuitous events such as family lineage, rather than individuals’ efforts or comparable productive contributions.
This leads progressives to differ from conservatives in their understanding of property rights and what people deserve from market and other consensual transfers. Progressives advocate taxation of market income and accrued wealth not simply to maintain government and pay for public goods and services, but also to meet citizens’ basic needs and enable them, for example through publicly provided education, to effectively exercise their freedoms, take advantage of society’s opportunities, and achieve independence. Scruton does not take serious account of this idea of distributive justice. But it is what underlies the welfare state and is the major source of disagreement between progressive liberals and modern conservatives.
Another reason Scruton conflates the liberal with the radical left is his contention that, for over a century, the left has sought “to take possession of the culture, by defining the intellectual life as an exclusively left-wing preserve.” He views the recent “culture wars” as having ended with a near-universal victory for the left. He claims that the left now controls intellectual debate and discourse within universities, which are obsessed with “political correctness,” and this has spilled over into the press and popular culture.
Further, Scruton alleges that for over fifty years, The New York Review has been the primary agent of the liberal left, contributing to a “bleak relativism” and “repudiation” of Western culture. The Review’s “disdainful overview of the American cultural wilderness has been such a powerful force in shaping the oppositional stance of university teachers and journalists.” Scruton cites Galbraith, Dworkin, and Edward Said as the most entrenched critics of the establishment.
It is difficult to determine what or even whom Scruton is talking about in condemning The New York Review for fostering bleak relativism and the repudiation of Western culture. Said had little opportunity to do so since he wrote only one book review for the Review—an appreciation of the novelist Naguib Mahfouz—late in his career, and published an excerpt from his memoir6; and the few letters he submitted earlier were primarily responses to scathing criticism that his work received from two reviewers in these pages.7 Works by Badiou and Žižek also have been ruthlessly criticized in this journal for their nihilism and indifference, in terms very similar to Scruton’s own attacks.8
Galbraith and Dworkin were regular contributors,9 but neither was a relativist or repudiator of Western culture. Indeed Dworkin is widely known among philosophers as one of the most ardent defenders of moral truth and the objectivity of values.10 What both men repudiated was the social and economic conservatism that Scruton endorses and that typifies the Republican Party, not on grounds of cultural relativism but because these positions are false.11
Finally, the dominance of deconstructionism and postmodernism in the humanities has diminished in recent years. They were always concentrated mainly in literature departments and never gained a foothold in fields such as philosophy and history in the US. (In fact, although Scruton ignores it, one of the most devastating criticisms of Derrida’s idea of deconstruction was written by the philosopher John Searle in these pages.) Moreover, very few academics today teach or openly advocate communism or socialism. By contrast, free-market thinking and the advocacy of capitalism have long been dominant in business schools and departments, while subjects related to business make up by far the largest field of study in both undergraduate and masters programs.12 And even if “political correctness” remains an issue, as recent incidents at Yale indicate, liberals are divided, with at least as many supporting freedom of expression on campuses as those supporting regulation of speech.13
In combining traditional with modern conservatism, Scruton rejects both the libertarian advocacy of maximizing personal and economic liberty and the classical economists’ utilitarian maximization of aggregate wealth. He does so in order to preserve a sense of national community and the values and institutions that, he believes, sustain Western culture. Surely he is correct in arguing that there have to be individual and social values in addition to individual liberty, the satisfaction of preferences, and economic gain. Missing from his and others’ conservative vision is any political guarantee of the effective freedom, genuinely equal opportunities, and economic well-being of all members of society.
1Whereas in 2009, 42 percent of Americans said they were social conservatives, with 25 percent identifying as liberals and the remainder as moderates, a 2015 Gallup poll shows that self-professed social conservatives and liberals are now tied at 31 percent each, with 38 percent moderates. More people still identify with “economic conservatism” (i.e., classical free-market liberalism): 51 percent in 2010 and 39 percent in 2015, compared to 15 percent who claimed to be progressive “economic liberals” in 2010 and 19 percent in 2015. ↩
2Scruton has written books in philosophy on aesthetics, the history of philosophy (including Kant and Spinoza), and moral and political philosophy, as well as on environmental conservatism, sexual desire, pop culture, the Anglican Church, God, the sacred, hunting, wine, and Tristan and Isolde, among other subjects. He has written three novels and composed two operas. ↩
3See “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, edited by David McLellan (Oxford University Press, 2000), second edition, p. 516. ↩
4For example, in Butts v. Penny (1677), an action was brought to recover possession of one hundred slaves. The court held that slavery was legal in England in relation to infidels and that an action for “trover” or recovery “would lie” or be legally valid. See “English Common Law, Slavery and,” Encyclopedia of Blacks in European History and Culture (Greenwood, 2009), Vol. I, pp. 200–203. ↩
5Scruton, How to Be a Conservative (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 121. ↩
8In a July 12, 2012, review in these pages of two Žižek books, John Gray—himself a moderate conservative—concluded, much as Scruton does, that “Žižek’s work…amounts in the end to less than nothing.” Also Mark Lilla critically reviewed several of Badiou’s books in these pages (October 23, 2008), accusing him of “cold-bloodedness” and indifference to the millions of deaths caused by the Holocaust and by Communist revolutions in Russia, China, and Cambodia. ↩
9Galbraith wrote over twenty-five reviews and several letters and exchanges from 1973 to 1990. Dworkin wrote over eighty-five reviews and many letters and exchanges from 1968 to his death in 2013. ↩
10See Dworkin, “Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Spring 1996). Dworkin particularly arouses Scruton’s ire for his many contributions to the Review on Supreme Court cases concerning personal liberties and affirmative action. On the other hand, Scruton pays a backhanded compliment to Dworkin’s legal theory, “Law as Integrity,” saying that it is not original with him but encapsulates methods of common law adjudication. ↩
11Another leftist Scruton condemns who has been interviewed in this journal is Jürgen Habermas, who developed a theory of democracy as public deliberation on justice and the common good. Scruton makes little effort to distinguish Habermas from his radical predecessors in the Frankfurt School, except to say that he is “soft left” and not a “passionate revolutionary.” He does not mention that essential to Habermas’s account is a liberal constitution. Instead he ridicules Habermas for prescribing endless “chatter as the true goal of politics,” and criticizes him for advocating a Eurocentric politics that supports the welfare state rather than the free market—as if the two were incompatible. The historical significance of Habermas’s work (as John Rawls once said) is that he is the first major German philosopher since Kant to endorse liberal constitutionalism and individuals’ basic rights and liberties. This was not true of Scruton’s favorite German philosophers, Hegel and Nietzsche. Given Germany’s history and the influence that philosophers have in German culture, these facts are of great historical consequence. ↩
12According to the National Center for Education Statistics, of the 1.84 million bachelor degrees conferred in 2012–2013 (the most recent year assessed), 360,823 degrees were awarded to students who majored in “business, management, marketing, and personal and culinary services.” Of the 751,751 MA degrees conferred, 188,625 were in these business fields. ↩
Elif Batuman has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010.
For much of my adult life, I believed, inaccurately, that I knew the story of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”—that I remembered it from childhood. It was about a miser called Ebenezer Scrooge who, when wished a “Merry Christmas,” always said, “Bah, humbug.” Then three ghosts came, from the Past, Present, and Future, and showed him how he was, and had previously been, an asshole. Then he saw his own grave and understood that Christmas was real, so he finally spent some of his money and bought a giant turkey for a disabled child.
I might never have realized how much was missing from my recollection had I not read in a “Christmas Carol” marathon at the Housing Works Bookstore earlier this month. My assigned passage was the one in which the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to revisit a scene from his childhood. I was totally unprepared for how sad it was. The two of them fly out a window in London and arrive at the underheated country schoolroom where Scrooge, as a little boy, has been left alone for Christmas, after all the other boys have gone away on ponies. Scrooge weeps “to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be,” reading alone in a corner. Then the Ghost shows him some of his favorite literary characters, the ones who kept him company as a child, and he laughs with delight. This is also depressing, because the characters include Robinson Crusoe’s parrot and Friday, and what could be sadder than an abandoned kid reading Robinson Crusoe alone over Christmas? As if realizing this himself, adult Scrooge, “with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character,” feels a new wave of pity for his child self—and, with it, regret for how, the previous day, he had chased away a child who was singing Christmas carols at his door.
Something about the passage seemed so familiar and emotional as I read it in the bookstore: the sad, repetitive nature of Scrooge’s early memories; his rapid transition from tears to laughter and back; his conviction, as each scene rises magically before him, that “it was all quite correct; that everything had happened so.” The Ghost in particular reminded me of someone, with his kindness and spookiness, the way he said almost nothing, except to repeat back to Scrooge his own remarks. A few days later, I figured it out, and told my therapist: the Ghost reminded me of him. He didn’t reply, only smiled gently, in a way that I interpreted to mean, “I’m an Israeli Freudian, please don’t make me talk about ‘A Christmas Carol.’ ”
That night, I decided to read the full text. Thanks to my robust personal experience with depression of both the normal and the holiday variety, I immediately recognized Scrooge’s condition, in a way that I had been unable to as a child. (Dickens himself was depressive, and probably bipolar.) I realized that I had misremembered Scrooge as gleeful in his miserliness, a human version of Scrooge McDuck, whose exuberance is eternally preserved in the cultural imagination by the image of the “money dive.” In fact, Scrooge takes no joy in anything. His London is a dystopian hellscape riddled by sickness, injustice, cold, and want. Money is the only protection—frail and inadequate—against these horrors, and Scrooge’s only thought is to work as hard as he can, every day, to store up as much money as possible.
Christmas, in such a mental state, makes no sense. Suddenly, in the dead of winter, all these crazed zombies start insisting that it’s a holiday; they actually want to stop working—to stop doing the one thing any human can do to ward off chaos. (“My clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas,” Scrooge mutters: “I’ll retire to Bedlam.”) “Bah, humbug” isn’t an exclamation of glee; it’s an indictment. “What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry?” Scrooge demands of his nephew, whose debts exceed his income. How is it possible that everyone on Earth suffers from the delusion that life isn’t a giant vale of sorrow?
All of Scrooge’s thought processes, especially the miserly ones, follow the “logic” of depression. Scrooge is outraged to think that his clerk will feel “ill-used” if he has to work on Christmas, but that nobody considers him, Scrooge, ill-used when he has to “pay a day’s wages for no work.” When asked to donate to the poor, he argues that his job is to work and pay taxes, while the job of the poor is to go to prison or to the workhouse, or simply to die and “decrease the surplus population.” In the depths of depression, the idea of a “gift” loses its meaning. We’re all in a deadlock, corpses passing the same things around and around and calling them “gifts.” In this mental state, just think how Scrooge must feel when some starving urchin shows up on his doorstep, singing, “God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!” Is he kidding? “You just dismayed me!” I imagined Scrooge shouting. “You just did it!”
How is the Ghost of Christmas Past able to change Scrooge’s mind—to make him feel affection and pity for the carolling urchin? What magic happens when they revisit his childhood? I avoided talk therapy for many years, largely because I didn’t see how talking to a stranger about my childhood could possibly change my experience of being alive as an adult. I was particularly repelled by the idea of feeling pity for my childhood self. One of the worst, most boring parts of depression is self-pity, and the prospect of paying someone an hourly rate to help me experience more of it was too dire to contemplate. Then, at some point, I did it anyway. I talked about my childhood, and I even managed to feel some pity for tiny nineteen-eighties Elif, with all her books—and something changed.
At the beginning of “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge embodies one of the central tenets of depression: that one has always been this way, and always will be. The Ghost shows him that, in fact, he, like every other adult, was at one point a physically much smaller person, who dressed, walked, and spoke differently, and whose defenses and carapaces hadn’t been built up yet; a person who later built up those defenses and carapaces for a reason. If change happened once, under certain circumstances—if everything wasn’t always inevitably like this—then further change is possible. When the Ghost of Christmas Future points at the writing on the tombstone, Scrooge understands for the first time that it can be erased and written differently: what seems to be etched in stone isn’t.
When I consulted Google, I found that the similarity between Scrooge’s experience and talk therapy has been remarked upon by numerous clinicians (see here, here, and here), as well as by literary critics. At first, it seemed strange to me that such a Jewish discourse should be anticipated so plainly by a Christmas story—one written a decade before Freud was born. But when I thought about it more, it started to seem less strange. Freud read and admired Dickens; his first gift to his fiancée, in 1882, was a copy of “David Copperfield.” Why wouldn’t he have read “A Christmas Carol,” which is so much shorter? O.K., he was Jewish, but he was secular. He had a Christmas tree. When I was little, my parents also bought a tree every year, and we would put presents under it, and it was a little bit magical, even though we weren’t Christian. Wasn’t that a big part of Freudianism: that magic is often displaced, but never destroyed? In the old days, people saw ghosts and had visions, and then Freud came and said that everything was actually memory and imagination: nothing was coming from God or the dead. But that didn’t mean the magic was gone. Maybe it had just been somewhere else all along.
Tim Parks’s engaging review of The Complete Works of Primo Levi [NYR, November 5] is satisfying on a number of levels, but I was disheartened to see the piece bookended by the “suicide.” Parks’s phrase that Levi “threw himself down the stairwell to his death” is not, in any case, an accurate way to describe a tumble over a railing. But the larger issue is that thoughtful and important people close to Levi, who first thought it was a suicide, have reconsidered the event. These people include his cardiologist and friend David Mendel, his lifelong friend Nobel laureate Rita Levi Montalcini, and Fernando Camon. Levi was in a whirl of activities—he’d scheduled an interview for the following Monday, he was considering the presidency of the publishing house Einaudi, he’d just submitted a novel, and that very morning he mailed a plan-filled letter. Add to that the tight dimensions of the stairwell, a railing lower than his waist, recovery from surgery (lowered blood pressure), the number of people who survived Auschwitz and did not kill themselves, and a number of other factors, and the suicide doesn’t make sense.
It has been a useful symbol for critics and other writers to hold on to as they imagine the why and how, but it is grossly unfair to the man and to his work. If this crutch is removed, his material can be examined in fresh light—an examination that he deserves.
I hope the editors of The New York Review will help discourage the story, which, in the cycling of Internet sites, already holds a terrifically strong grip. I would strongly urge you to see this 1999 essay, “Primo Levi’s Last Moments” by Diego Gambetta.
Tim Parks replies:
“1987—April 11: Levi dies, a suicide, in his apartment building in Turin.”
I quote not from a rogue website but from the author chronology provided in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, the book under review. These words, in turn, are a translation of the chronology prepared by Il Centro Internazionale di Studi Primo Levi in Turin, the most authoritative source of information on Levi; they were actually written by Ernesto Ferrero, for many years Levi’s editor at Einaudi, a close friend who knew the author well and spoke to him regularly right through to the end.
The three biographers—Ian Thomson, Carole Angiers, and Myriam Annissimov—who worked intensely on Levi’s life, interviewing most of those who knew him, all speak of his suicide as fact. The police on the scene concluded that the death could only have been suicide, this for the simple reason that one does not take a “tumble over a railing” in a Turin apartment block. The Turin law court that heard the evidence surrounding the death agreed and gave its verdict accordingly. In any event it is unthinkable that Levi, a cautious man, would have brought up children and maintained his infirm mother in a building where one could simply tumble over bannisters.
Diego Gambetta’s Boston Review article, to which Carolyn Lieberg refers me, is an extended exercise in wishful thinking, sometimes disingenuous (as when it claims, for example, that the biographies do not back up their claim that the death was suicide, or omits to mention the family’s immediate acceptance of the suicide verdict, or suggests that the height of the railing was abnormally low), sometimes plain wrong, as when it claims that Levi never wrote in favor of suicide. In the story “Heading West” (published in 1971, but interestingly republished shortly before the suicide in 1987), he sympathetically describes a remote tribe who refuse a drug that will put an end to an epidemic of suicides. The chief of the tribe writes, and they are the final words of the story, that the tribe’s members “prefer freedom to drugs, and death to illusion.” Freedom is always a positive word for Levi.
As early as 1959 Levi had written to his German translator, Heinz Reidt, that “suicide is an act of will, a free decision.” In 1981 when Levi’s German teacher, Hanns Engert, hanged himself, Levi was asked to sign a petition claiming it was murder. But the evidence was so overwhelming that he refused: “Hanns killed himself,” he said. “Suicide is a right we all have.”
This brings us to the moral issue at stake here. Levi was a sworn enemy of denial in all its forms. In If This Is a Man he is dismayed when at Auschwitz his friend Alberto convinces himself that his father, just “selected,” will not actually be sent to the gas chambers. It is a renunciation of reality, of sanity. Later, he would be equally dismayed that Alberto’s parents continued to deny the obvious truth that their son had died in the march away from Auschwitz, preferring to believe that he was somehow safe and well in Russia. In The Drowned and the Saved Levi attacks all attempts to find solace in pieties and “convenient truths,” in particular the notion that Auschwitz victims, himself included, were somehow sanctified by their experience, their courage and goodness becoming almost a consolation for the awfulness of what had happened: “It is disingenuous, absurd and historically false,” he writes, “to argue that a hellish system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims.”
Given that Levi’s instinct was always to encourage the reader to confront the hardest of facts and not take refuge in any comfort zone, we owe it to him to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of the way he died. His suicide does not diminish his work or his dignity. He was not obliged to his readers to behave in a reassuring way or protect the illusions they had built around his person. “In my work I have portrayed myself…as…well-balanced,” he remarked. “However, I’m not well-balanced at all. I go through long periods of imbalance.”
Whatever his reasons for doing what he did, and clearly in the last months of his life he oscillated between deep depression and rare moments of enthusiasm for new projects, Levi was a free man, exercising “a right we all have.” “He’s done what he’d always said he’d do” were reportedly his wife’s words on returning home to discover what had happened.
Take the delicate case of Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor who combined the careers of writer and professional chemist. Until recently I had only read Levi’s three most renowned works, his two great war memoirs, If This Is a Man and The Truce, and then The Periodic Table, a series of autobiographical pieces exploring the author’s relationships in the light of his work as a chemist. My response—many years ago—was in line with that of most of the articles I had read on the author, which tend to hagiography. The story of Auschwitz in If This Is a Man is so overwhelming, Levi’s humanity and healthy bewilderment in the face of the surreal collective cruelty of the Nazi camps so resolute and right that one cannot help but admire the book. The Truce, in contrast, is full of positive energy and optimism, describing Levi’s experiences in Russian refugee camps after Auschwitz and up to the moment of his repatriation and return to his home town of Turin, while The Periodic Table is clearly the work of an older, more determinedly sophisticated writer. Neal Ascherson’s 1985 review in The New York Review sets out the typical reader reaction: “a wonderful store of irony, of humor and observation,” Ascherson calls it, coming out of Levi’s work not as “a supervisor … in some enormous multi-national concern, but a struggling freelance chemist….a sort of packman-chemist, an alchemist on the road.
How different things begin to look when one tackles the almost three thousand pages of The Collected Works and browses the long chronology of Levi’s life offered in the first of these three hefty volumes, as I have just done for a review essay.
The first surprise is the dates: If This Is a Man (1947), The Truce (1963), The Periodic Table (1975). What was Levi doing in the years in between? On the road with his chemistry? No, from 1948 to 1975 he worked for the same locally-based paint and chemical company, first as a chemist, then as technical director and later (when he was writing The Periodic Table) as general manager. So Ascherson had got an entirely skewed and romanticized view of Levi’s working life. But this was hardly his fault. It’s the view The Periodic Table suggests. So was Levi unhappy, one wonders, with his long managerial career?
The next curiosity is that while there are no publications in the eighteen years between the first two books, between The Truce and The Periodic Table there are two collections of short stories that no one ever mentions: Natural Histories (1966) and Flaw of Form (1975). Reading through them, I’m astonished at the fall-off in performance. It’s not that they are badly written, but there is a frivolity, a childishness almost, that strives for but never quite achieves comedy. Essentially, these are science fiction pieces in which the twin fears of sexual experience and invasive impersonal power structures play out in a wide variety of paranoid fantasies, but without the urgency or commitment that might really involve us. They are, as it were, at once frightened and complacent. “Little transgressions,” Levi called them. Why was he writing this stuff?
The question pushed me to look at a proper biography. Obscurely, I felt that if I could understand the inspiration behind the short stories, I might learn something new about the memoirs. Here again there were surprises. Ian Thomson’s Primo Levi: A Life (2003) offers a wealth of facts, some of the most important of which are not in the chronology offered by the new Collected Works. For example, a number of the details in the three auto¬biographical works are distorted or invented. Thomson lists these details and I pondered them. It seemed that Levi tended to make his close companions less cultured and educated, but more vital and enterprising, than they actually were, such that they become foils for the cautious and highly educated Levi; they are not as smart as he is, but admirably courageous, and above all free. However, doing this involved inventing details that the people in question found insulting, or just plain false.
What is most surprising in the biography, though, and barely hinted at in The Collected Works, is the intense monotony and eventually chronic unhappiness of Levi’s domestic life, his deep depressions and profound pessimism. Aside from the two-year parenthesis that was Auschwitz and the Russian refugee camps, he spent his whole life in the same Turin apartment in the company of his mother, to whom he was intensely attached. After the war, the still virgin Levi married in very short order the virgin Lucia Morpurgo, but rather than set her up in a new home, Levi brought her, against her wishes, into the apartment with his mother and sister, bringing up two children in an atmosphere fraught with frustration and resentment. Meantime, Levi, who desperately wished to leave his office job for a literary career but feared he wouldn’t make it, spent much of his free time corresponding with Auschwitz survivors and establishing intimate but non-sexual relations with other women, and in general, stayed out of his home absolutely as much as possible.
But is this information “important” or even useful when we read a great book like If This Is a Man? Though his mother was absolutely central to Levi’s life, she barely gets a mention in his autobiographical work, nor is there any projection of her that one can see in the fiction. Surely the book is the book is the book and that’s that. The rest, gossip.
None of us can read a story without relating it to the knowledge and experience we bring to it. When we read Levi’s memoir our reaction is conditioned by what we already know about the Holocaust, about fascism, about Judaism. The story stands in relation to the things we know. That, after all, is the main reason for including a life chronology at the beginning of The Collected Works; the facts of the life condition, or inform, our response. Returning to the celebrated works equipped with the rich context of the extended biography, I began to notice things I hadn’t really seen before. “If, from inside the Lager,” Levi writes at one point of If This Is a Man, “a message could have seeped out to free men, it would have been this: Be sure not to tolerate in your own homes what is inflicted on us here.”
What can Levi mean? Surely not that there may be beatings and gas chambers and forced labor in our homes. The comment comes immediately after a reflection that the deprivations of Auschwitz have forced him to acknowledge how little he really lived when he was a free man. Is Levi suggesting that one’s manhood can be challenged as profoundly in the domestic environment as in the camps? Toward the end of The Truce, with Levi now in sight of home after his long travels, he offers a reflection that at once explains the book’s curious title and throws the whole narrative into a new perspective:
We knew that on the thresholds of our homes, for good or for ill, a trial awaited us, and we anticipated it with fear. … Soon, even tomorrow, we would have to join battle, against still unknown enemies, within and outside us. … Although the months just passed, of wandering at the edge of civilization, were harsh, they now seemed to us a truce, an interlude of unlimited openness, a providential gift of destiny, never to be repeated.
Never to be repeated! Writing almost twenty years after that truce, Levi appears to be telling us that this had been his one experience of real freedom. A page later the book ends with the author safely home, but dreaming that he is again back “in the Lager, and nothing outside the Lager was true.” Home and the camps are bizarrely superimposed.
Realizing only now how frequently notions of freedom and imprisonment occur throughout Levi’s work, I began to suspect that the small changes to the facts that Levi makes in his memoirs are driven by a desire for freedom. His commitment to bearing witness to the truth of Auschwitz was becoming a kind of straitjacket, something people expected of him, imposed almost. He was also expected to behave in a proper fashion, receiving warnings from the Turin synagogue when it became known he was flirting with a woman journalist. Was writing about the imprisonment of Auschwitz becoming itself a kind of prison? The short stories are largely frivolous perhaps because Levi yearned for the freedom of frivolity; many of those who knew him report his occasionally infantile behavior (“My impression was of a child trapped in a man’s body,” said one close associate). But the short stories did not bring him the respect that the memoirs did and Levi wanted both the freedom and the respect.
In the later works it’s easy to see Levi searching in every way for a freedom of expression that will nevertheless carry the weight of the memoir; the books, that is, become part of his search for a modus vivendi, one that will allow him both to stay home with mother and feel courageous and free and be respected and admired. This is particularly the case with If Not Now, When? Levi’s only novel, where an alter ego in the guise of a Russian Jew becomes an anti-Nazi partisan, successfully fighting and killing and seducing women, being simultaneously, as it were, free and good, committed to the right cause but not trapped in it. This is wishful thinking and in fact the story is unconvincing from start to finish.
The picture of this man deeply conflicted between the imperatives of freedom and the fear of disappointing his nearest and dearest inevitably influences the way I come to his last book, written in the early Eighties. Levi’s mother was now an invalid. His wife’s mother was blind. Whenever he left home for a day or two he was extremely anxious about them. He was on anti-depressants. Philip Roth, the writer Fulvio Tomizza, and the great German publisher Michael Kruger all found Levi “pathetic,” even “excruciatingly pathetic.”
It was in this miserable atmosphere, in his sixties now, that Levi turned away from the freedoms he had been looking for in fiction and went back to Auschwitz, this time in a moral essay of ferocious reflection, without any suspect details. The book is called The Drowned and the Saved and is remarkable for its sense of exasperation, its masochism almost. As I note in my review, Levi sometimes seems more determined to insist that Auschwitz survivors were degraded and contaminated and that all “the best” inevitably died, than to explore the psyche of the Nazi torturers. He seeks, that is, in every way to break down the consoling image of the sanctified survivor, the image he himself had become trapped in.
It is hard not to feel how this stands in relation to Levi’s domestic situation and general feeling of entrapment. He goes back to Auschwitz as so many of his readers wanted, but claims the freedom to tell them things they don’t want to hear. Meanwhile he was frequently referring to his mother and mother in law as “the drowned” and “like Auschwitz victims,” a comparison that made any “betrayal” (putting his mother in a home, for example) unthinkable, while simultaneously confirming that Levi himself felt he was somehow still in prison.
Nothing of what I said here diminishes Levi or his writing. Great works come out of great psychological intensity, in his case great suffering, great frustration. Why insist, then, in offering a sanitized, optimistic version of an author’s life, as if his work might be the less if we acknowledged his difficulties? Isn’t this, in the end, precisely the kind of denial that Levi fought against? Even the way the chronology of The Collected Works acknowledges Levi’s suicide is anodyne and vague, as if hoping the fact might go away: “April 11  Levi dies, a suicide, in his apartment building in Turin.”
In fact, Levi threw himself down the stairwell of the building he had lived in all his life. “Suicide is an act of will, a free decision,” he had written years before to his German translator. “Either you die or your mother dies,” the editor Agnese Incisa, a Jewish female friend of Levi’s, put it to him a few days before his death. In any work of fiction the symbolism of Levi’s suicide would be clear enough and amply commented. The household becomes the instrument of death; using it to kill himself he simultaneously frees himself from its imprisoning grip. It was the drama he had never quite put in his books.
edited by Ann Goldstein, with an introduction by Toni Morrison
Liveright, three volumes, 2,910 pp., $100.00
Primo Levi was born in 1919 on the fourth floor of an “undistinguished” apartment block in Turin and aside from “involuntary interruptions” continued to live there in the company of his mother until in 1987 he threw himself down the stairwell to his death. The longest interruption was from September 1943 to October 1945 and would provide Levi with the core material for his writing career: it involved three months on the fringe of the partisan resistance to the German occupation, two months in a Fascist internment camp, eleven months in Auschwitz, and a further nine in various Russian refugee camps.
In 1946, aged twenty-seven, despite working full-time as a chemist, Levi completed his account of his time in a concentration camp. Now widely considered a masterpiece, If This Is a Man was turned down by Turin’s main publishing house, Einaudi, in the person of Natalia Ginzburg, herself a Jew whose husband had died in a Fascist prison. It was also rejected by five other publishers. Why?
Even before his return, Levi had been overwhelmed by the need to tell what had happened. Prior to Auschwitz he had not felt that Jewishness was central to his identity. Like most Italian Jews, the Levis had long been assimilated with little to distinguish them from other Italians. The introduction of the Race Laws in 1938, which discriminated against Jews in public education and excluded them from regular employment, thus created a predicament for Levi that went far beyond the problem of completing his degree in chemistry and finding a job. It was a threat to his identity. Who was he if not an ordinary Italian like his fellow students? The question “what is a man?” that would echo throughout his work was never an abstract consideration but a matter of personal urgency.
Until September 1943 it had been possible for Levi to live in “willful blindness,” to get around the rules, graduate, and find work unofficially; but with the Italian capitulation to the Allies and the German occupation of Italy this was no longer an option. Jews were being rounded up. Many were fleeing to the Americas. Levi’s insecurity at this time was compounded by the death of his father in 1942, making Primo, at twenty-three, responsible for the well-being of his mother and younger sister. His father had been something of a womanizer whose betrayals of their mother were common knowledge.
Here too there was a question of manhood: Levi himself had yet to have anything more than “bloodless female friendships,” was believed by his companions to be terrified of women, and feared that he was “condemned to a perpetual male solitude.” He nursed his self-esteem with adventurous chemistry experiments and arduous mountain climbing in the Alps above Turin, and it was to the mountains that he fled in September 1943, taking his mother and sister with him and renting rooms in a small resort hotel near the Swiss border.
Was he a Jew on the run or a partisan? The Swiss border was closed. German forces were approaching. The would-be rebels with whom Levi eventually associated were poorly organized and quickly infiltrated by a Fascist spy; the only shots fired in anger were those that served to execute two younger members of the band who had gone on a drinking and looting spree that put the safety of the others at risk. How far Levi was involved in this killing is largely the subject of Sergio Luzzatto’s mistitled new book, Primo Levi’s Resistance.1 There was no resistance. To Levi’s dismay his sister had taken his mother from the hotel on December 1 to find refuge back in Piedmont. On December 9 the two undisciplined band members were dispatched with shots to the back. By the time Levi was arrested on December 13 he was utterly demoralized and disoriented. Warned that to confess to being a partisan would mean certain death, he opted for the lesser evil of admitting his Jewishness.
The reader coming to If This Is a Man today brings with him a great deal of knowledge about the Holocaust and in most cases is free of any direct personal involvement in the war. Readers in Turin in 1947 were not so well informed and their own intense war experiences were very much on their minds. The book opens, in first person, with a curious mixture of coolness and portentousness. “I cultivated a moderate and abstract sense of rebellion,” Levi remarks, and declares that given his half-heartedness as a partisan the “sequence of events” leading to his arrest were “justified.” The tone changes abruptly when he talks about the collective experience, in the internment camp, of being told that all Jews were to be dispatched to Germany the following day:
Night came, and it was such a night one knew that human eyes would not witness it and survive…. Many things were then said and done among us; but of these it is better that no memory remain.
Today it is easy to imagine the young Levi searching for a voice, a manner, that would allow him to tell his tale without being overwhelmed by it and at the same time compel the reader’s attention. Prior to studying chemistry he had been educated at a prestigious liceo classico in Turin; he knew his Dante and Manzoni and brought frequent references from them to his text, to enrich it, to get across a sense of extremity and profundity. But having lived through twenty years of fascism the literary establishment in postwar Turin were sworn enemies of all grandiloquence, which they tended to associate with inauthenticity; in their defense it has to be said that If This Is a Man is most powerful when it is most straightforward.
The difficulty in finding a voice for what had happened was intimately linked to the experience itself and the question of what it means to be human. Many inmates of Auschwitz, Levi tells us, experienced the same dream: they would be back home trying to tell their story—the hunger, the cold, the beatings, the selections—but all too soon they would realize that their loved ones were not listening. “They are completely indifferent…as if I were not there.”
Why this refusal to listen? The worst aspect of the camp, Levi tells us, was that it “was a great machine to reduce us to beasts.” The victim was systematically brought down morally to the level of his torturers. Prisoners were encouraged to fight one another, for the possession of a spoon, for sufficient space to sleep, to get the easier jobs, to avoid emptying the slop cans:
One had to…strangle all dignity and kill all conscience, to enter the arena as a beast against other beasts…. Many were the ways devised and put into practice by us in order not to die…. All implied a grueling struggle of one against all….
To give up this struggle was to become an obvious candidate for the gas chamber, one of
an anonymous mass…of non-men who march and labor in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to truly suffer. One hesitates to call them living; one hesitates to call their death death….
In her introduction to this three-volume collection of Levi’s works, Toni Morrison remarks how “the triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction glows virtually everywhere in Levi’s writing.” These are heartening words but they are not true. Rather Levi tells us about human identity crushed and corrupted by unspeakable evil; his work is powerful because it squares up to that reality. “The personages in these pages are not men,” he tells us; everybody in the camp, torturers and tortured alike, was “paradoxically united in a common inner desolation.”
To tell this harrowing story was to confess to one’s own degradation. It wasn’t attractive. This anguish explains the strange shifts of tone throughout If This Is a Man, in particular the moments when Levi addresses us defensively with the didactic “we”:
We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words “good” and “evil,” “just” and “unjust”; let each judge,…how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire.
The rejections of his book must have come to Levi as confirmation of his recurrent nightmares. Fortunately in the meantime there was love. Levi had started dating Lucia Morpurgo in early 1946. She was a year younger than he; both were virgins. Crucially, Lucia was happy to listen to Levi’s story in all its terrible detail. “I felt myself become a man again,” he later wrote. Eventually his memoir was published by a tiny publishing house in October 1947, a month after Levi and Lucia had married.
Levi had been cautious, diligent, and prone to depression before his deportation and continued to be so after his return. Anxious about money, he quickly found a job as a chemist, briefly allowed himself to be seduced away from it into a freelance enterprise with a fearless friend, then in 1948, with his wife pregnant, he knuckled down to serious long-term employment with SIVA, a paint and chemical factory. Whether out of genuine financial difficulties or because he was in thrall to his mother, he did not move out of the family home but brought his wife to live there, against her will. Arguments, incomprehension, and resentments ensued.
On the other hand, Levi was quite changed. Auschwitz had humiliated and degraded him, but it had taught him a great deal; he was “more mature and stronger.” After the Germans had abandoned the camp he and other inmates had behaved with great resourcefulness to stay alive until the Russians arrived. During the long return through various refugee camps he had practiced all his newly learned survival skills. So if the experience had initially stripped him of his manhood, it eventually led to a new confidence.
Writing about Auschwitz he had published a book; talking about Auschwitz he had found a wife. His identity was now inextricably bound up with Auschwitz and for the remainder of his life Levi would spend a great deal of time tracking down people he had known there and corresponding at length with survivors. His children Lisa Lorenza and Renzo were both named after the Italian worker Lorenzo Perrone, who had regularly brought Levi food at Auschwitz and thus helped to save his life. It was “our finest hour,” he would say of the last days at the camp. He referred to Auschwitz as his “university,” an “adventure,” a “rite of passage.”
It was in this more positive mood in 1961, with recognition now growing for his first book, that Levi at last began to write a sequel. The Truce thus opens with the last days in Auschwitz, then tells of the confusion and vitality of refugee camps in Poland and the Ukraine, followed by an interminably roundabout return to Italy by train. The tone is immediately more literary than If This Is a Man:
In those days and in those places…a high wind blew over the face of the Earth: the world around us seemed to have returned to a primal Chaos, and was swarming with deformed, defective, abnormal human examples; and each of them was tossing about, in blind or deliberate motion, anxiously searching for his own place, his own sphere, as the cosmogonies of the ancients say, poetically, of the particles of the four elements.
The pleasure of The Truce lies in Levi’s account of his returning health and the dramatis personae of idiosyncratic companions and extravagant Russian soldiers involved in every kind of ruse, scam, and jam. In particular there is Cesare,
a child of the sun, a friend of the whole world. He didn’t know hatred or scorn, he was as varying as the sky, joyful, sly, and ingenuous, reckless and cautious, very ignorant, very innocent, and very civilized.
Supremely shrewd, Cesare will buy, “fix,” and resell absolutely anything—broken pens, ragged shirts, fish bloated with injections of water—always at a profit, and make love to any woman who crosses his path. However, the tone of The Truce is so charmingly literary and some of the stories so far-fetched that the reader begins to wonder how much is documentary and how much fiction. In fact, though recognizably based on a certain Lello Perugia, Cesare’s antics are very much inflated, sometimes invented, and Perugia was furious with the way he had been presented. It would have been a “much more important” book, Perugia protested, if Levi had “got [his] facts right.”
Why did Levi do this? There had already been some curious fact-twisting in If This Is a Man. Here a close friend, Alberto Dalla Volta, is described as having no German, a crucial factor in the struggle for survival at Auschwitz, when in fact his German was excellent, far better than Levi’s. In his meticulously researched biography Ian Thomson glosses this with the remark that “Levi, like most writers, made life seem more interesting than it is.”2 Leaving aside whether we agree with this, it’s hard to see how describing Alberto as less well educated than he was or, in a later book, speaking of another dead friend as coming from a “peasant” family when he didn’t could enhance our interest in works that command our attention above all for their documentary status.
Two impulses seem to be at work. Thomson notes Levi’s tendency to form friendships with men less intellectual than himself, but also less fearful, more energetic, and extrovert. There was a tradeoff: the timid Levi could enjoy mountaineering adventures and female company beside his lively companions while they benefited from his superior knowledge. Many of the “changes” in these books shift the relationships described toward this preferred model, Levi’s close associates becoming at once more animated and less cultured than perhaps they were. Throughout The Truce, Levi seems to be the only sober figure hanging back from a wild postwar promiscuity, at one point declining an invitation to indulge himself with “twenty large girls…blond, rosy creatures, with…placid, bovine faces.”
Related to these descriptions of joyously uninhibited companions was Levi’s lifelong thirst for freedom and difficulty achieving it. Work at SIVA soon became a prison. With the constant tension between wife and mother, home was also a prison. The Truce takes its title from the reflection, in the closing pages, that the interlude between Auschwitz and the return to responsible life in Turin had been, for all its harshness, a period of respite and freedom, of “unlimited openness,” before the need once again “to join battle, against still unknown enemies, within and outside us.” The memoir closes with Levi at home but dreaming that he is back in Auschwitz and that nothing is real outside the oppression of imprisonment.
Levi was committed to bearing witness, but lifelong adhesion to the same appalling story is constricting. In a later work he speaks of a man who pesters him with a manifestly fabricated version of his war heroics; but Levi admits to envying the “boundless freedom of invention, of one who has broken down the barriers and is now master of constructing the past that most pleases him.”
After completing The Truce Levi allowed himself the liberty of writing Natural Histories, a series of lighthearted sci-fi stories published to general critical disappointment in 1966. Each piece offers a smart idea, ironic and potentially alarmist—a society duped into believing that people need to wear heavy armor to avoid a deadly virus, a telephone network that develops its own intelligence and makes and interrupts calls as it pleases, a country where the duties of literary censorship are assigned to barnyard hens.
What is striking about all Levi’s fiction is that despite the frequent references to sexual problems—a female spider discussing her consumption of males, a wise centaur torn apart by sexual desire who experiences “in the form of anxiety and tremulous tension” any sexual encounter that occurs in his vicinity—there is no attempt to dramatize however obliquely or discreetly what might have been the reality of Levi’s domestic life, or to explore the many intimate but sexless friendships he was now in the habit of forming with women. To one of these friends, the German Hety Schmitt-Maas, Levi would confess his frustration with marriage and sense of entrapment, but nothing of this emerges in the fiction. The better stories in the later and looser collections are always returns to the wartime period and Auschwitz.
Another story collection, Flaw of Form, followed Natural Histories, before Levi returned to memoir in 1975 with The Periodic Table. The breakthrough here was to use his experience and knowledge as a chemist to provide the frame or cover for intriguing explorations of earlier relationships. Each chapter recalls some episode that features a different chemical substance whose qualities are allowed to take on a quiet symbolism. In a Fascist jail Levi speaks to a man who worked panning for gold, not just in order to sell it, but for the love of engraving and hammering it, and above all “to live free”; a job that involves extracting phosphorous from plants brings Levi into contact with the charming Giulia, who despite her imminent marriage may or may not be a possible lover; a problem with a paint that won’t dry due to defective materials from a German supplier brings Levi into contact with the chemist who supervised his work in Auschwitz.
Crucial to The Periodic Table is that Levi knows everything about chemistry and we know very little. Many of the situations are presented as puzzles that Levi solves or sometimes fails to solve, but always with a wry panache. Again and again the material world appears as a canny guardian of secrets, requiring patience, caution, practicality, and knowledge, but not in the end intractable. By comparison human relationships are even more mysterious and definitely less susceptible to the qualities Levi displays. He is unable to challenge the flirtatious Giulia, afraid of meeting the Auschwitz chemist and disturbed that the man seems to be asking him for a forgiveness he is not ready to grant.
Levi had been concerned that his books might be admired more for their wartime witness than their literary achievement. The brilliance of The Periodic Table settled any doubts about his writerly credentials, though again there were complaints of distortion. In particular, it was not true that Levi had come into contact with the German chemist through his work; he had tracked his man down through Hety Schmitt-Maas, who was upset by how negatively Levi presented him in his book, since the German had been one of the few to give him some help at the camp.
With the success of The Periodic Table, Levi finally felt sufficiently confident to resign from SIVA. He was fifty-eight. Free from routine responsibilities, he produced in quick succession The Wrench (1978) and If Not Now, When? (1982). Both draw on the writer’s special knowledge for their authority and both present themselves as fiction, free from the constraints of bearing witness. In the short stories of The Wrench Tino Faussone, a hugely energetic, incorrigibly womanizing engineer, intensely familiar with pylons, rigs, boilers, and the like, tells the more intellectual narrator of his adventures around the globe with every kind of dramatic technical problem. Having complained of his own thirty years of “forced labor,” Levi now celebrated work, or at least work as experienced by one of his typical foils, a man of boundless energy and freedom who basks in the sure knowledge of his immense practical competence.
If Not Now, When?, Levi’s only novel, covers the same time period and territory as The Truce, telling the story of a Russian Jew who joins a band of Jewish partisans to fight the Germans; they make their way to Italy whence they hope to move on to Palestine and the nascent state of Israel. In Primo Levi’s Resistance Sergio Luzzatto observes how much this novel draws on Levi’s own unhappy partisan experience, transforming it into something effective and triumphant. The hero, Mendel, a watchmaker, a man who can mend a radio and is prone to philosophic reflection (“Mendel is me,” Levi said in an interview), boldly bears arms, engages in any number of skirmishes, finds himself a woman, then betrays her with another (though he now immediately feels trapped and threatened by her), and even executes a spy:
Ulybin handed the rifle to Mendel, without a word.
“You want me to…?” Mendel stammered.
“Go on, yeshiva bocher,” Ulybin said. “He can’t walk, and if they find him, he’ll talk….”
Mendel felt bitter saliva fill his mouth. He took a few steps back, aimed carefully, and fired.
Levi had spent much time researching Yiddish Eastern Europe and the exploits of Jewish resistance fighters whose war efforts he wished to celebrate. “It’s important that there be Jewish partisans,” Mendel observes: “only if I kill a German will I manage to persuade other Germans that I am a man.” However, the novel’s dialogue comes across as wooden, the action is hardly credible, and those who knew Levi’s previous work could not fail to see elements of fantasy and wishful thinking. Shortly after the book was published, Israel invaded Lebanon and Levi found himself alternately praised and criticized for promoting militant Zionism, something that could not have been further from his mind.
Constantly afraid that he would run out of subject matter or succumb to Alzheimer’s, Levi stepped up production in his later years. Some two thirds of the almost three thousand pages of The Complete Works were written after he left his managerial job. Most of the writing was made up of articles and stories published in the Turin newspaper La Stampa and then poems that plumb Levi’s darker moods: spared the duty of providing narrative content, the poems make for stronger reading than the stories. On the occasion of his wife’s sixtieth birthday he wrote her this gloomy message:
Be patient, my impatient lady,
Pulverized and macerated, flayed,
Who flay yourself a little every day…
Please, accept these fourteen lines;
They’re my rough way of telling you you’re loved,
And that I wouldn’t be in the world without you.
A year later he wrote “Arachne,” spoken by a female spider who weaves a web from “a thousand spinning teats”:
I’ll sit in the center
And wait for a male to come,
Suspicious but drunk with desire,
To fill my stomach and my womb…
Terrified of spiders since earliest childhood, Levi made a huge copper spider and hung it on his balcony. Warned by the Jewish community that people were gossiping about his relationship with a certain woman journalist, he immediately refrained from seeing her. He visited hundreds of schools to talk about Auschwitz yet protested that he didn’t want to be labeled as a Jewish writer. Yearning to travel, he complained that his women prevented him from “going anywhere.” His mother had never given him a “single kiss or caress,” he confided to a journalist in 1982. “I’ve known some Jewish sons,” remarked Philip Roth after meeting him, “but Levi’s filial duty and devotion was stronger than anything I’d ever seen. There was a pathetic edge to it.” Levi was on antidepressants.
It was in this unhappy state that Levi chose to return to his core material in The Drowned and the Saved (1986), a book that must rank as one of the most powerful and upsetting attempts at moral analysis ever undertaken. The story of Auschwitz, Levi begins, “has been written almost exclusively by people who, like me, did not plumb the depths. The ones who did never returned, or if they did their capacity for observation was paralyzed by pain and incomprehension.” “Those who were ‘saved’ in the camps were not the best of us”; rather they “were the worst: the egotists, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators…. The best all died.”
In unsparing detail Levi draws on other concentration camp memoirs to consider the facts in all their complexity and awfulness. The Sonderkommandos, he remarks, were “an extreme case of collaboration,” Jews induced to lead other Jews into the gas chambers, “remove the corpses…extract gold teeth from their jaws; shear off the women’s hair.” Again and again the surreal collective cruelty of the Nazi regime is examined in relation to its effect on its victims; the constant denuding of victims, the crazy obsession with bed-making and roll calls, the habit of forcing inmates to defecate in the open and very close to each other, and so on.
At every point, Levi’s enemy is denial in all its forms. “The intrinsic horror of this human condition…has imposed a kind of constraint on all testimony,” he warns. On both sides of the divide people don’t want to remember, they exploit slippages in memory to establish a comfort zone, and artists offer portrayals that aestheticize or indulge in consolatory pieties. The whole book conveys a sense of the enormity of the task of keeping alive the truth of just how evil Auschwitz was.
No sooner had Levi committed suicide in 1987 than attempts were being made to defend his work from his life, his death rather, as if admirers were afraid that by killing himself he might have undermined the positive side of his witness. This is largely the subject of Berel Lang’s Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life,3 which considers the interminable speculation about whether Levi’s motives for suicide had more to do with Auschwitz or his chronic domestic unhappiness.
Whatever the truth, the views Lang records tell us more about the speculators’ own anxieties than about Levi. Levi’s best writing was about his life, about questions of freedom and survival, so it is inevitable that once we are aware of his suicide, it will always be there when we read him. On the other hand it is hard to see why this should detract from his remarkable achievement, if only because there is no place in his writing, at least that I can find, where Levi suggests that life is likely to end well, nothing that his suicide, as it were, contradicts. If anything the contrary.
I would like to call attention to two mistakes made by Mr. Tony Judt in his long review of my biography of Primo Levi [NYR, May 29].
The Italian translation of my book has not yet been published. It is planned for next fall, and so cannot have been the subject of mixed reviews, as Mr. Judt claimed in his article. Several articles have been written in Italy on the French version of my book (among others by Cesare Cases, René de Ceccatty, Hector Bianciotti, and Fabio Gambaro in L’Espresso) and they were favorable, except the one in La Rivista dei Libri, co-published by The New York Review. Contrary to what Mr. Judt wrote, the French critics have been unanimously favorable (in Le Monde, L’Express, Le Figaro, Télérama, Le Nouvel Observateur, Libération).
Much of the information in the article that you published was taken from my book, as well the drawing of Primo Levi by his friend Mr. Eugenio Gentili Tedeschi, who kindly loaned it to me.
In fact, some Italian critics have reproached me for revealing that Natalia Ginzburg gave a negative opinion of Levi’s first manuscript when she was adviser to the publishing house of Einaudi and also for revealing that her successors turned the manuscript down for more than eleven years, during which time they published Robert Antelme’s The Human Race. Unfortunately this is the truth. At the time, Levi’s text was not considered important in literary circles but only as testimony.
These Italian critics and Tony Judt have taken advantage of the small mistakes (in names and dates) appearing in the original French edition of my book in order to deny me (“a stranger to the Italian world”) the right to write about Levi. These mistakes were the publisher’s who, despite my many warnings, prepared the manuscript too hastily. It was reprinted within two weeks, and many of the mistakes were corrected, and Livre de Poche’s paperback version has almost no mistakes.
I should point out that the English and American versions are much shorter than the original, and that the forthcoming translations in German, Italian, and Japanese will present the full, original text of my book.
Tony Judt: replies:
The Italian edition of Myriam Anissimov’s book has yet to appear; I stand corrected. But Ms. Anissimov protests too much. Since she concedes in her letter that her book was full of mistakes, and even warns us that the new paperback edition is not entirely free of them (which I didn’t know), I don’t understand why she takes such offense at my allusion to the matter. And if, as she claims, Italian critics have exploited these mistakes to “deny” her the right to write about Levi, she can hardly be surprised to find me describing their response as “mixed.” As it happens I have not seen any critic so much as hint that Levi was privileged terrain, off-limits to outsiders; but I do recall at least one utterly devastating review (Domenico Scarpa, in La Rivista dei Libri, April 1997, pp. 41-43) that called attention to Anissimov’s many, many errors.
Ms. Anissimov did not “reveal” that it was Natalia Ginzburg who recommended rejection of Levi’s first book; this was quite widely known, not least to Levi himself. (See Opere, Vol. 1 [Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1997], p. lxxxiii, where Ginzburg is cited by Levi in this connection.) Einaudi’s long hesitation before finally publishing Levi in 1958 has also been discussed in print (I cited the accounts by Giulio Einaudi and Levi in my review). What Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist does reveal is the author’s uncertain grasp of its subject and his context—perhaps that is why some doubt has been expressed as to Ms. Anissimov’s suitability as a biographer of Levi. If Ms. Anissimov is so very sensitive to such criticism it may be that French reviewing practice has accustomed her to an easier ride—though she should know that the welcome accorded her book in Paris represented belated amends for previous French neglect of Primo Levi himself; she thus benefited from the reflected glow of her subject’s improved local standing. As to my part in all this, Ms. Anissimov may rest assured that I have no wish to deny her access to Levi or anything else—I’m an outsider here myself. But I can read Anissimov, I can read Levi, and I can see for myself that the one does not do the other justice. That’s just my opinion, of course, but I’m confirmed in it by Ms. Anissimov’s letter.
by Myriam Anissimov, Translated from the French by Steve Cox
Overlook, 452 pp., $37.95
Primo Levi was born in Turin in 1919, in the apartment where he would live for most of his life and where he killed himself in April 1987. 1 Like many Jewish families in the region, the Levis had moved from the Piedmontese countryside to Turin in the previous generation, and were culturally assimilated. Primo grew up under Fascism, but it was only with the imposition of the Race Laws, in 1938, that this had any direct impact upon him. He studied chemistry at the university in Turin, with the help of a sympathetic professor who took him on notwithstanding the regulations excluding Jews, and afterward found work of a sort in various establishments willing to take on a Jewish chemist in spite of his “race.”
With the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, everything changed. For a brief, confusing interlude Italy lay suspended between the Allies, who had occupied Sicily and the far south, and the Germans, who had not yet invaded from the north. But in September the Italian occupying army in France straggled back through Turin, “a defeated flock” in Levi’s words, followed shortly after by the inevitable Germans, “the gray-green serpent of Nazi divisions on the streets of Milan and Turin.” Many of Levi’s Jewish contemporaries from Turin were already involved in the resistance movement Giustizia e Libertà (whose local leadership, until his arrest, had included “my illustrious namesake” Carlo Levi, the future author of Christ Stopped at Eboli), and after the German invasion Primo Levi joined them. He spent three months with the armed resistance in the foothills of the Alps before his group was betrayed to the Fascist militia and captured on December 13, 1943.2
Levi, who declared his Jewish identity, was sent to the transit camp at Fossoli di Carpi and thence, on February 22, 1944, he was transported to Auschwitz with 649 other Jews, of whom twenty-three would survive. Upon arrival Levi was stamped number 174517 and selected for Auschwitz III-Monowitz, where he worked at the synthetic rubber plant owned by I.G. Farben and operated for them by the SS. He stayed at Auschwitz until the camp was abandoned by the Germans in January 1945 and liberated by the advancing Red Army on January 27. For the next nine months he was swept from Katowice, in Galicia, through Byelorussia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and finally home to Turin in a picaresque, involuntary odyssey described in La tregua (The Reawakening).
Once back in Turin he took up the reins of his “monochrome” life, following the twenty-month “Technicolor” interlude of Auschwitz and after. Driven by an “absolute, pathological narrative charge”3 he wrote Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man), a record of his experiences in Auschwitz. The book found hardly any readers when it appeared in 1947. Primo Levi then abandoned writing, married, and began work for SIVA, a local paint company where he became a specialist, and international authority, on synthetic wire enamels. In 1958 the prestigious Turin publishing house Einaudi republished his book, and—encouraged by its relative success—Levi wrote La tregua, its sequel, which appeared in 1963. Over the next decades Levi gained increasing success and visibility as a writer, publishing Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table) and La chiave a stella (The Monkey’s Wrench), two collections of short pieces; Se non ora, quando? (If Not Now, When?), a novel about Jewish resistance in wartime Europe; Lilit e altri racconti (Moments of Reprieve), further recollections and vignettes of his camp experience; a variety of essays and poems; and regular contributions to the culture pages of La Stampa, the Turin daily. In 1975 he left SIVA and devoted himself to writing full-time. His last book, I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved), was published in 1986, the year before his death. A small esplanade in front of the Turin synagogue on Via Pio V was named after him in April 1996.4
The fate of Levi’s books, in Italian and in translation, is instructive. When he took Se questo è un uomo to Einaudi in 1946 it was rejected out of hand by the publisher’s (anonymous) reader, Natalia Ginzburg, herself from a prominent Turinese Jewish family. Many years later Giulio Einaudi claimed to have no knowledge of the reasons for the book’s rejection; Levi himself laconically ascribed it to “an inattentive reader.”5 At that time, and for some years to come, it was Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, not Auschwitz, that stood for the horror of Nazism; the emphasis on political deportees rather than racial ones conformed better to reassuring postwar accounts of wartime national resistance. Levi’s book was published in just 2,500 copies by a small press, owned by a former local resistance leader (ironically, in a series dedicated to the Jewish resistance hero and martyr Leone Ginzburg, Natalia Ginzburg’s husband). Many copies of the book were remaindered in a warehouse in Florence and destroyed in the great flood there twenty years later.
La tregua did better. Published in April 1963, it came in third in the national Strega Prize competition that year (behind Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico famigliare…), brought renewed attention to his first book, and began Levi’s rise to national prominence and, eventually, critical acclaim. But his foreign audience was slow in coming. Stuart Woolf’s translation of Se questo è un uomo was published in Britain in 1959 as If This Is a Man, but sold only a few hundred copies. The US version, with the title Survival in Auschwitz (which captures the subject but misses the point), did not begin to sell well until the success of The Periodic Table twenty years later. La tregua was published here under the misleadingly optimistic title The Reawakening, whereas the original Italian suggests “Truce” or “Respite”; it is clear as the book ends that for Levi his months of wandering in the eastern marches of Europe were a kind of “time out” between Auschwitz-as-experience and Auschwitz-as-memory. The book closes with the dawn command of Auschwitz, “Get up!”—“Wstawach!”
German translations followed in time, and Levi eventually gained an audience in the Federal Republic. French publishers, however, avoided Levi for many years. When Les Temps Modernes published extracts from Se questo è un uomo, in May 1961, it was under the title “J’étais un homme” (“I was a man”), which comes close to inverting the sense of the book. Gallimard, the most prestigious of the French publishing houses, for a long time resisted buying anything by Levi; only after his death did his work, and his significance, begin to gain recognition in France. There, as elsewhere, the importance of Levi’s first book only came clearly into focus with the (in some countries posthumous) appearance of his last, The Drowned and the Saved. Like his subject, Primo Levi remained at least partially inaudible for many years.
In one sense, Primo Levi has little to offer a biographer. He lived an unremarkable professional and private life, save for twenty months, and he used his many books and essays to narrate and depict the life that he did lead. If you want to know what he did, what he thought, and how he felt, you have only to read him. As a result, any retelling of his “life and works” risks ending in a self-defeating effort to reorder and paraphrase Levi’s own writings. And that is just what Myriam Anissimov has done in her new account of Levi, which has already appeared in French and Italian to mixed reviews. Some mistakes of fact in the Italian and French editions have been cleared up, and the English translation, while unexciting, is readable and contains much information. But Anissimov’s prose is uninspired and mechanical. Her lengthy narrative of his life is a choppy mix of long excerpts and rewordings from Levi himself interspersed with clunky and inadequate summaries of “context”: Italian Jewry, Fascist race laws, the postwar Italian boom, 1968 in Turin, and the publishing history of his books. Some of the background material seems to have been inserted at random, as though the author had come upon a misplaced file card and inserted its contents, then and there, into the text.
Worse, the author somehow fails to explain to the reader just why Primo Levi is so very interesting. She alludes to the distinctive quality of his prose style and is rightly critical of reviewers and specialists for their failure to appreciate him; but she has little feel for just those features of Levi’s writings that make him stand out, both in contemporary Italian literature and in Holocaust memoirs. An ironist and a humorist who travels playfully back and forward across an extended keyboard of themes, tones, and topics, Primo Levi is presented in this account as an optimistic, assimilated Italian Jew brought low by the tragedy of Auschwitz. This is roughly comparable to describing Ulysses, Levi’s favorite literary figure and alter ego, as an old soldier on his way back from the wars who encounters a few problems en route. Not false, but hopelessly inadequate.6
Primo Levi had various identities and allegiances. Their overlapping multiplicity did not trouble him—though it frustrated his Italian critics and perplexes some of his readers in the American Jewish community—and he felt no conflict among them. In the first place, he was Italian, and proud of it. Despite the country’s embarrassing faults, he took pride in it:
It often happens these days that you hear people say they’re ashamed of being Italian. In fact we have good reasons to be ashamed: first and foremost, of not having been able to produce a political class that represents us and, on the contrary, tolerating for thirty years one that does not. On the other hand, we have virtues of which we are unaware, and we do not realize how rare they are in Europe and in the world.7
Like most Italians, though, Levi was first of all from somewhere more circumscribed—in his case, Piedmont. This is a curious place, a small corner of northwest Italy squeezed up against the Alps; the homeland of the Savoy royal family, Italian laicism, and, in Turin, its austere, serious capital city, the headquarters of Fiat. Parts of what used to be Piedmontese territory are now French, and the local dialect is permeated with French or almost-French words and phrases. Levi, like most Piedmontese, was immensely proud of his region of origin, and that sentiment suffuses his writings. The “dazzling beauty” of its mountains, lakes, and woods is referred to more than once—for Levi was an enthusiastic amateur climber and much of Piedmont is Alpine or pre-Alpine terrain. The distinctive dialect of the region plays a part in Levi’s writing—as it did in his life, for Lorenzo Perrone, the bricklayer from Fossano who saved him in Auschwitz, was recognized there by Levi thanks to his Piedmontese speech. A number of the characters in Levi’s writings use local dialect, and in both The Monkey’s Wrench and The Periodic Table he apologizes for the difficulty of capturing the cadences of their conversation in the written word.8
The Piedmontese are famously reserved, restrained, private: in short, “un-Italian.” Italo Calvino wrote of the “Piedmontese eccentricity” in Levi’s “science fiction” tales; Levi, who thought that he was credited with altogether too much wisdom by his readers, was nonetheless willing to concede that he did possess the distinctive quality of “moderation…that is a Piedmontese virtue.” And his roots in Turin, “a mysterious city for the rest of Italy,” played a part in his fate, too. The Turinese, he writes, don’t leave: “It is well known that people from Turin transplanted to Milan do not strike root, or at least do it badly.” Should his family have got away while they could—to somewhere else in Italy, to Switzerland, to the Americas? Not only would it have been difficult and expensive, and required more initiative than he or his family possessed, but the very idea of leaving home did not cross their minds: “Piedmont was our true country, the one in which we recognized ourselves.”9
The constraint and correctness of Primo Levi’s Piedmont are duplicated and reinforced by his vocation, the “sober rigor” of chemistry. The decision to study science was shaped in part, under Fascism, by the fact that it “smelled” good—in contrast to history or literary criticism, warped and degraded by ideological or nationalist pressure. But Levi the student was also drawn to the chemist’s calling:
The nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter…. I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility.
Moreover, the chemist must perforce describe the world as it is, and the precision and simplicity of this requirement seems to have conformed closely to Levi’s own distaste for gloss, for commentary, for excess of any kind. “I still remember Professor Ponzio’s first chemistry lesson, from which I got clear, precise, verifiable information, without useless words, expressed in a language that I liked enormously, also from a literary point of view: a definite language, essential.”10
In chemistry, moreover (as in climbing), a mistake matters—a point made with casual emphasis in the story “Potassium,” where the young apprentice chemist Levi mistakes potassium for its near neighbor sodium and sets off an unexpected reaction:
One must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is almost the same as potassium but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small but they lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch points; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade” [emphasis added].11
Chemicals appear frequently in Levi’s writing, and not just in The Periodic Table. Sometimes they are subjects in their own right, sometimes they serve as metaphors for human behavior, occasionally as illuminating analogies. Dr. Gottlieb, in The Reawakening, is described as emanating intelligence and cunning “like energy from radium.” But the impact of his training upon his writing is most obvious in Levi’s distinctive style. It has a taut, tight, distilled quality; contrasted with the florid, experimental, syntactically involuted writing of some of his contemporaries and commentators, it has the appeal of medieval plainsong. This was no accident—“I have always made an effort to move from dark to clear, like a filtration pump that sucks in cloudy water and expels it clarified, if not sterile.”12
In an essay “On Obscure Writing,” Levi castigates those who can’t write in a straightforward way: “It is not true that disorder is required in order to describe disorder; it is not true that chaos on the written page is the best symbol of the extreme chaos to which we are fated: I hold this to be a characteristic error of our insecure century.” And in an open letter, “To a Young Reader,” Levi reminds his audience that textual clarity should never be mistaken for unsophisticated thinking. Levi’s style did not endear him to professional critics; until the late Seventies “in the eyes of critics he remained an appealing, worthy, but uninfluential outsider in the world of literature.”13
Levi’s style is not just simple, it is unerringly precise; he modeled Survival in Auschwitz on the weekly production report used in factories. All of that book and some of his other writing is in an urgent, imperative present tense, telling the reader what must be known: “It has to be realized that cloth is lacking in the Lager.” The force of Levi’s testimony, like the appeal of his stories, comes from this earthy, concrete specificity. When men left Ka-Be (the “infirmary” of Auschwitz III) their pants fell down, they had no buttons, their shoes hurt: “Death begins with the shoes….” The very density of the detail, the point-by-point reconstruction of how men worked and how they died—this is what gives the narrative its power and its credibility.14
The same is true of Levi’s many accounts of individuals, which glide imperceptibly forward from description to analogy, from analogy to juxtaposition and thence to judgment. Of “the Moor,” one of the Italians at Auschwitz, he writes: “It was quite clear that he was possessed by a desperate senile madness; but there was a greatness in his madness, a force and a barbaric dignity, the trampled dignity of beasts in a cage, the dignity that redeemed Capaneus and Caliban.” Of ruined Munich, where Levi wandered the streets when his train stopped on its interminable journey back to Italy: “I felt I was moving among throngs of insolvent debtors, as if everybody owed me something, and refused to pay.” Of “Cesare” (Lello Perugia, his Italian companion on the journey home): “Very ignorant, very innocent and very civilized.” In The Periodic Table Levi writes that “today I know that it is a hopeless task to try to dress a man in words, make him live again on the printed page.” But he does.15
It is the detail in Levi’s writing that is doing the narrative work, and the moral work too. Like Albert Camus, he has a feel for the “thingness” of experience. He was well aware that this could cause discomfort to some modern readers. In The Monkey’s Wrench he is gently ironic as he heaps on the technical description: since there just are no synonyms, the reader “must be brave, use his imagination or consult a dictionary. It may be useful for him anyway, since we live in a world of molecules and ball-bearings.” The emphasis on work in many of his stories was no accident—a number of the writers and novels he most admired deal explicitly with the honor and autonomy that come from skilled labor; “Faussone,” the composite protagonist of The Monkey’s Wrench, is a Conradian character drawn in part on Renaud, the skipper in Roger Vercel’s novel Remorques, which Levi openly acknowledged as one of his influences. Levi himself identified with skilled work, saying “I’ve always been a rigger-chemist.” In “The Bridge” he goes further and explicitly states that being good at your job and taking pleasure from it constitutes if not the highest, then at least “the most accessible form of freedom.”16 The cynical inscription over the gates of Auschwitz held a special resonance for Primo Levi: he truly believed that work makes you free.
Primo Levi was Piedmontese, a chemist, a writer—and a Jew. Were it not for Hitler, this last would have been a matter of near indifference to him. Jews in Italy had been present since before the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70 AD); and with the exception of the Roman Jews, whose ghetto had only been abolished upon the liberation of Rome in 1870, they were virtually assimilated into the general population. Even the Sephardic Jews of Piedmont, relatively “recent” arrivals, could trace their origins to the fifteenth-century expulsions from Spain (as their names, often drawn from the towns in France where they had lived en route to Italy, suggest), while the earliest recorded permission for Jews to settle in Turin dates from 1424. There had indeed been a ghetto system in Piedmont, established in the early eighteenth century (rather late by European standards), and the Savoyard monarchy was not always benevolent toward the Jews. But following the emancipation decrees of March 1848 their situation rapidly improved, and with the coming of liberal Italy Jews entered without difficulty into the mainstream of Turinese and Italian life. The country had a Jewish prime minister, and Rome a Jewish mayor, before 1914. There were Jewish generals in the army, fifty of them during World War I. Even the Fascist Party had a significant share of the Jewish population among its members (and a Jewish finance minister as late as 1932).
To be sure, there was anti-Semitism—especially in Trieste, where it was inherited from Austrian rule. And however cynical or even ambivalent Mussolini himself felt about the Race Laws, these cut deep into the self-confidence of the Italian Jews. But the significant Jewish presence in the Italian anti-Fascist resistance owed more to deep traditions of free-thinking liberalism than to any sense of Jewish victimhood. In any case, there were not many Jews. Even by West European standards the Jewish population of Italy was small: just 33,000 in a population of nearly 35 million in 1911, increased to 57,000 by 1938, thanks to the annexation of Trieste, new “racial” definitions, and the presence of some 10,000 foreign Jewish refugees from Nazism. The largest concentration of Jews was to be found in Rome (about 12,000 in the 1931 census); there were fewer than 4,000 in Turin, where they made up about 0.5 percent of the local population. 17
The Jews of Italy suffered badly during the eighteen months of German occupation, though not as badly as Jews elsewhere. Nearly seven thousand Italian Jews died in deportation; but the rest survived the war, a better rate than in most of the rest of Europe. In part this is because the Holocaust came late to Italy (not that this helped the Jews of Hungary); in part because the Jews of Italy were so scattered and well integrated; and in some measure because they found support and sustenance among their fellow Italians, with the usual dishonorable exceptions. From Turin, just 245 Jews were deported, most to Auschwitz: twenty-one returned after the war, Primo Levi among them.18
Thanks to the war, Primo Levi’s Jewishness moved to the center of his being: “This dual experience, the racial laws and the extermination camp, stamped me the way you stamp a steel plate. At this point I’m a Jew, they’ve sewn the star of David on me and not only on my clothes.” This was in part a result of his encounter for the first time with other Jews—the Libyan Jews at Fossoli (exhibiting “a grief that was new for us”) and the Ashkenazim in Auschwitz. Jewishness posed difficulties for Levi, and not just because he had no religion; his concern with work, with Homo faber—man the maker—made him peculiarly sensitive to the etiolated, overintellectual qualities of Jewish life: “If man is a maker, we were not men: we knew this and suffered from it.” It also explains his initial enthusiasm for the Zionist project in its innocent, agrarian incarnation. But the very difference of Jews was also their virtue. In “Zinc” he sang the praises of “impurity,” in metals and in life, the impurity which the Fascists so abhor with their longing for sameness, that impurity “which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life…. I too am Jewish…. I am the impurity that makes the zinc react.”19
Levi found it embarrassing and constricting to be treated “just as a Jew,” as he was by many in the US; predictably he has been criticized by some in the American Jewish community for the insufficiencies and partial quality of his Jewish identity.20 But he was not inhibited about writing and speaking as a survivor, bearing witness and obeying the distinctively Jewish exhortation to remember. All of his writing is shadowed by his experience in Auschwitz—you cannot read anything by Levi without prior knowledge of that experience, for he assumes it in the reader and expects it. His first and last books are devoted to it. In The Periodic Table it is omnipresent, even in stories unrelated to that past, but which at unexpected moments suddenly twist back to it. In The Monkey’s Wrench the point is made explicitly, following his explanation to Faussone of the story of Tiresias: “In distant times I, too, had got involved with Gods quarreling among themselves; I, too, had encountered snakes in my path, and that encounter had changed my condition, giving me a strange power of speech.”21
As a survivor, Levi’s trajectory was quite representative. At first, people didn’t want to listen to him—Italians “felt purified by the great wave of the anti-Fascist crusade, by participation in the Resistance and its victorious outcome.”22 Giuliana Tedeschi, another Italian survivor of Auschwitz, had a comparable experience—
I encountered people who didn’t want to know anything, because the Italians, too, had suffered, after all, even those who didn’t go to the camps…. They used to say, “For heaven’s sake, it’s all over,” and so I remained quiet for a long time.
In 1955 Levi noted that it had become “indelicate” to speak of the camps—“One risks being accused of setting up as a victim, or of indecent exposure.” Thus was confirmed the terrible, anticipatory dream of the victims, during and after the camps: that no one would listen, and if they listened they wouldn’t believe.23
Once people did start to listen, and believe, the other obsession of the survivor began to eat away at Levi—the shame, and guilt, of survival itself, made worse in his case by the embarrassment of fame. Why should he, Levi, have survived? Had he made compromises that others had refused? Had others died in his place? The questions are absurd, but they crowd in upon Levi’s later writings, obscurely at first, openly toward the end. In the poem “Il superstite” (“The Survivor,” February 1984), their implications are explicit:
Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people,
Go away. I haven’t dispossessed anyone, Haven’t usurped anyone’s bread. No one died in my place. No one. Go back into your mist. It’s not my fault if I live and breathe, Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.
The guilt of the survivor—for surviving, for failing to convey the depths of others’ suffering, for not devoting every waking hour to testimony and recall—is the triumphant legacy of the SS, the reason why, in Nedo Fiano’s words, “At bottom I would say that I never completely left the camp.”24
The shame of not being dead, “thanks to a privilege you haven’t earned,” is tied to Levi’s central concern and the title of his first book: What does it mean to reduce a person to “an emaciated man, with head drooped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen”? Levi, like other surviving witnesses, was ashamed of what he had seen, of what others had done; he felt “the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist….” That, too, is how he explained the death of Lorenzo Perrone, the bricklayer working outside Auschwitz who had saved him but had been unable to live, as the years passed, with the memory of what he had seen: “He, who was not a survivor, had died of the survivors’ disease.”25
As a survivor, then, Levi was tragically typical; as a witness to the Holocaust he was not. Like all such witnesses, of course, he wrote both to record what had happened and to free himself from it (and was driven forward by the sense that he was doomed to fail on both counts). And like all survivors, his testimony is by definition partial: “We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses…. We are…an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications, or their attributes or their good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it, or they returned mute.”26 In Levi’s case he survived Auschwitz through good health (until the end, when his fortuitous sickness kept him in the infirmary and off the final death march), some knowledge of German, his qualifications as a chemist, which gave him indoor work during the final winter, and simple luck. Others have similar stories.
Levi knew little of the political organization among some of the prisoners. He did not benefit from protekcja, privileges and favor from other prisoners. His view of the camp as an accumulation of isolated “monads,” rather than a community of victims, is contested by others (though not by all). But it is not for these reasons that Levi is a distinctive and unique witness to the Holocaust, perhaps the most important. It is because he writes in a different key from the rest; his testimony has a fourth dimension lacking in anything else I have read on this subject. Tadeusz Borowski is cynical, despairing. Jean Améry is angry, vengeful. Elie Wiesel is spiritual and reflective. Jorge Semprun is alternately analytical and literary. Levi’s account is complex, sensitive, composed. It is usually “cooler” than the other memoirs—which is why, when it does suddenly grow warm and glow with the energy of suppressed anger, it is the most devastating of them all.27
Where some have tried to draw meaning from the Holocaust, and others have denied there is any, Levi is more subtle. On the one hand, he saw no special “meaning” in the camps, no lesson to be learned, no moral to be drawn. He was revolted at the notion, suggested to him by a friend, that he had survived for some transcendental purpose, been “chosen” to testify. The romantic idea that suffering ennobles, that the very extremeness of the camp experience casts light on quotidian existence by stripping away illusion and convention, struck him as an empty obscenity; he was too clearheaded to be seduced by the thought that the Final Solution represented the logical or necessary outcome of modernity, or rationality, or technology.
Indeed, he was increasingly drawn to pessimism. The revival of “revisionism,” the denial of the gas chambers, depressed him intensely and toward the end of his life he began to doubt the use of testimony, feeling the “weariness of a man who kept on having to repeat the same thing.” The near-pornographic exploitation of human suffering—in Liliana Cavani’s film The Night Porter, for example—brought him close to despair. His only resource to ward off the enemies of memory was words. But “the trade of clothing facts in words,” he wrote, “is bound by its very nature to fail.”28
And yet there was something to be gleaned from the camps: “No human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis….” The offense against humanity was ineradicable and could return—indeed, it is never absent. But in his first book and his last, Levi has something—not redemptive, but essential—to say about the human condition. In “The Gray Zone,” the most important chapter of The Drowned and the Saved, Levi brings into focus a theme he has intimated in various earlier works: the infinite gradations of responsibility, human weakness, and moral ambivalence that have to be understood if we are to avoid the pitfall of dividing everything and everybody into tidy poles: resisters and collaborators, guilty and innocent, good and evil. Chaim Rumkowski, the “king” of the Lodz ghetto, was part of “a vast zone of gray consciences that stands between the great men of evil and the pure victims.” So was “Dr. Müller,” Levi’s overseer in the Auschwitz chemical laboratory and future correspondent: “Neither infamous nor a hero: after filtering off the rhetoric and the lies in good or bad faith there remained a typically gray human specimen, one of the not so few one-eyed men in the kingdom of the blind.”29
Just as it is too reassuringly simple to treat the camps as a metaphor for life, thereby according to the SS a posthumous victory, so we should not compartmentalize Auschwitz as a black hole from which no human light can emerge. The importance of language—that we can communicate and we must communicate, that language is vital to humanity and the deprivation of language the first step to the destruction of a man—was enforced within the camp (words were replaced by blows—“that was how we knew we were no longer men”); but it can be applied outside. For life outside is beautiful, as Levi notes in Survival in Auschwitz, and human identity is multifold, and evil does exist and goodness too, and much in between. There is no meaning in all this, but it is true and has to be known and made known.30
Levi’s dispassionate capacity to contain and acknowledge apparently contradictory propositions frustrated some of his critics, who accused him of failing to condemn his tormentors, of remaining altogether too detached and composed. And the idea of a “gray zone” worried some who saw in it a failure to exercise judgment, to draw an absolute moral distinction between the murderers and their victims. Levi resisted this criticism. It is true that his early writings were deliberately cool and analytical, avoiding the worst horrors lest readers prove incredulous—“I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional.” And Levi certainly preferred the role of witness to that of judge, as he would write many years later. But the judgments, albeit implicit, are always there.31
To Jean Améry, who suggested that Levi was a “forgiver,” he replied that “forgiveness is not a word of mine.” But then, as he acknowledged, his experience had been different from that of Améry, an Austrian Jew in the Belgian resistance who was captured and tortured before being sent to Auschwitz (and who would take his own life in 1978). Levi was no less obsessed with the Germans, but sought, he insisted, to understand them, to ask how they could do what they had done. Yet Améry’s suggestion was pertinent, and it speaks to the astonishing exercise of self-control in Levi’s writings; for there can be no doubt that he had very, very strong feelings indeed about Germans, and these began to come out toward the end of his life. In Survival in Auschwitz there are already references to “the curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger.” Germans are addressed in the vocative—“You Germans you have succeeded.” And there are hints of collective condemnation: “What else could they do? They are Germans. This way of behaviour is not meditated and deliberate, but follows from their nature and from the destiny they have chosen.”32
By the time he came to write The Drowned and the Saved, Levi was less inhibited. Survival achieved its goal, he claims, when it was finally translated into German. “Its true recipients, those against whom the book was aimed like a gun, were they, the Germans. Now the gun was loaded.” Later he writes that the “true crime, the collective, general crime of almost all Germans of that time, was that of lacking the courage to speak.” And the book ends with an unambiguous accusation of collective responsibility against those Germans, “the great majority” who followed Hitler, were swept away in his defeat, and have “been rehabilitated a few years later as the result of an unprincipled political game.” And while he was careful to insist that blanket stereotyping of Germans both was unjust and explained nothing, Levi took pains to emphasize again and again the specificity of the Holocaust, even when compared to the crimes of other dictators or the Soviet camps.33
Primo Levi, then, could judge and he could hate. But he resisted both temptations; the very space that he preserved between the horrors he had witnessed and the tone he used to describe them substitutes for moral evaluation. And, as Czeslaw Milosz wrote of Albert Camus, “he had the courage to make the elementary points.” The clarity with which he stripped down his account of the essence of Evil, and the reasons why that account will endure and why, in spite of Levi’s fears, the SS will not be the ones to dictate the history of the Lagers, are exemplified in this excerpt from The Reawakening, where Levi is describing the last days of a child who had somehow survived in Auschwitz until the Russians arrived:
Hurbinek was a nobody, a child of death, a child of Auschwitz. He looked about three years old, no one knew anything of him, he could not speak and he had no name; that curious name, Hurbinek, had been given to him by us, perhaps by one of the women who had interpreted with those syllables one of the inarticulate sounds that the baby let out now and again. He was paralysed from the waist down, with atrophied legs, thin as sticks; but his eyes, lost in his triangular and wasted face, flashed terribly alive, full of demand, assertion, of the will to break loose, to shatter the tomb of his dumbness. The speech he lacked, which no one had bothered to teach him, the need of speech charged his stare with explosive urgency: it was a stare both savage and human, even mature, a judgement, which none of us could support, so heavy was it with force and anguish….
During the night we listened carefully: …from Hurbinek’s corner there occasionally came a sound, a word. It was not, admittedly, always exactly the same word, but it was certainly an articulated word; or better, several slightly different articulated words, experimental variations on a theme, on a root, perhaps on a name.
Hurbinek, who was three years old and perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm—even his—bore the tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first days of March 1945, free but not redeemed. Nothing remains of him: he bears witness through these words of mine.34
“Look at my hands,” her mother had said. “If you practice, you can learn to tell a woman’s age by her hands.”
And so—for the first time, it seemed—Pip had looked at her mother’s hands. The skin on the back of them wasn’t pink and opaque like her own skin. It was as if the bones and veins were working their way to the surface; as if the skin were water receding to expose shapes at the bottom of a harbor. Although her hair was thick and very long, there were dry-looking strands of gray in it, and the skin at the base of her throat was like a peach a day past ripe. That night, Pip lay awake in bed and worried that her mother might die soon. It was her first premonition of the granite block.
She’d since come fervently to wish that her mother had a man in her life, or really just one other person of any description, to love her. Potential candidates over the years had included their next-door neighbor Linda, who was likewise a single mom and likewise a student of Sanskrit, and the New Leaf butcher, Ernie, who was likewise a vegan, and the pediatrician Vanessa Tong, whose powerful crush on Pip’s mother had taken the form of trying to interest her in birdwatching, and the mountain-bearded handyman Sonny, for whom no maintenance job was too small to occasion a discourse on ancient Pueblo ways of being. All these good-hearted San Lorenzo Valley types had glimpsed in Pip’s mother what Pip herself, in her early teens, had seen and felt proud of: an ineffable sort of greatness. You didn’t have to write to be a poet, you didn’t have to create things to be an artist. Her mother’s spiritual Endeavor was itself a kind of art—an art of invisibility. There was never a television in their cabin and no computer before Pip turned twelve; her mother’s main source of news was the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which she read for the small daily pleasure of being appalled by the world. In itself, this was not so uncommon in the Valley. The trouble was that Pip’s mother herself exuded a shy belief in her greatness, or at least carried herself as if she’d once been great, back in a pre-Pip past that she categorically refused to talk about. She wasn’t so much offended as mortified that their neighbor Linda could compare her frog-catching, mouth-breathing son, Damian, to her own singular and perfect Pip. She imagined that the butcher would be permanently shattered if she told him that he smelled to her like meat, even after a shower; she made herself miserable dodging Vanessa Tong’s invitations rather than just admit she was afraid of birds; and whenever Sonny’s high-clearance pickup rolled into their driveway she made Pip go to the door while she fled out the back way and into the redwoods. What gave her the luxury of being impossibly choosy was Pip. Over and over, she’d made it clear: Pip was the only person who passed muster, the only person she loved.
This all became a source of searing embarrassment, of course, when Pip hit adolescence. And by then she was too busy hating and punishing her mother to clock the damage that her mother’s unworldliness was doing to her own life prospects. Nobody was there to tell her that it might not be the best idea, if she wanted to set about doing good in the world, to graduate from college with $130,000 in student debt. Nobody had warned her that the figure to pay attention to when she was being interviewed by Igor, the head of consumer outreach at Renewable Solutions, was not the “thirty or forty thousand dollars” in commissions that he foresaw her earning in her very first year but the $21,000 base salary he was offering, or that a salesman as persuasive as Igor might also be skilled at selling shit jobs to unsuspecting twenty-one-year-olds. (…)
Admirers of Jonathan Franzen’s witty, brilliantly observed novels of contemporary American family life—The Corrections and Freedom—will find that his new novel, Purity, departs from his previous allegiance to comic realism; it’s a complex narrative of fates intertwined and twinned, international crimes, dark secrets, a whirl of events unfolding at fairy-tale or comic-book speed. There is the tale of Pip, whose quest is to learn the identity of her father; and that of Andreas, a world-famous Internet leaker operating from Bolivia after a childhood under communism in East Berlin; of Tom and Leila, journalists in Denver uncovering a Strangelovean plot to steal a nuclear bomb; a reclusive woman who won’t tell her daughter her real name; and much more.
In one of his essays (“Mr. Difficult”), Franzen distinguishes between one kind of novel, “Status” novels, like those written by Flaubert, Proust, Kafka, and especially William Gaddis, that invite a “discourse of genius and art-historical importance”; and the kind of novel he likes to read and believes in, “Contract” novels, referring to the compact between writer and reader, who both expect novels to be enjoyed, to be inspiring, to sell. Purity makes a stab at having “Status” qualities in its complicated chronology and ambitious array of moral concerns, but in its page-turning sequence of events and hot sex scenes it also tries to fulfill the “Contract.”
As with opera synopses, any narrative, reduced to its plot details, can sound ridiculous, so the reader may find it helpful to think of the melodramatic Purity as conforming more closely to the familiar genre of the folk tale than to the sort of lyrical/realistic fiction we have had from Franzen before. In a structuralist view, it follows archetypal patterns: there’s the Heroine, Pip. (The Dickensian allusion of her name will become clear as the narrative moves along.) Her reclusive mother (who is either the Princess or the Witch) refuses to tell Pip who her father (the King) is or her real last name. As in a fairy tale, Pip must embark on a Journey of discovery, she meets the Villain disguised as a friend, and so on. This basic paradigm is of course given a contemporary cloak: Pip is a penniless university student living in a sort of Oakland squat; her mother is a loving but depressed single woman who has attempted to bring Pip up in virtuous simplicity and near poverty in a cottage. There will be gold at the end of the quest.
The narrative is broken into seven sections out of chronological order, each focusing on a different character, some written in the first person, with many flashbacks. A précis may help illuminate some of the observations to follow. It’s worth noting that there is very little description of the material world except where it is necessary to get the characters in and out of rooms, or to Denver or Belize, where they can continue their ruminations and reproaches; the fast-moving events are recounted in serviceable and self-effacing language.
In Part One, at her Oakland squat, Pip meets a German woman, Annagret, who puts her on to an Internet guru, a charismatic Julian Assange figure, and plants the idea that his command of the Internet may help her discover her father’s identity, along with allowing her to do good in the world by bringing hidden wrongs to light, a mission that accords with Pip’s idealistic upbringing. Andreas Wolf, the Assange figure, is a German who heads a cultish organization, located in Bolivia, of hackers and leakers ostensibly bringing transparency to the world—the Sunlight Project. We meet Andreas in Part Two. His is the most interesting of the intertwined stories for its details about his upbringing in East Berlin as the child of privileged Communist Party intellectuals. We are told quite a bit about Andreas’s psychosexual development, arriving at an ambitious portrait of a charismatic, lecherous, puritanical, and conflicted idealist as viewed through the lenses of Freud and Sophocles.
It’s Wolf’s mind that is most thoroughly examined and best understood, even though it is the most deranged. His torment arises from a crime: when he was about twenty, Andreas conspired with a beautiful girl he loved (Annagret) to kill her stepfather, who was molesting her. This dark deed will shadow his conscience from then on, and drive him to confess it to one or two people, eventually to a young American he meets in Berlin, Tom Aberant. Tom is his doppelgänger, though it would be too simple to say that Tom is the superego and Andreas the id; they are mirrored characters, as are Annagret and Anabel, their wives.
In Purity, we don’t often venture into the female consciousness, not even Pip’s, so Annagret and Anabel may have a side we haven’t heard, but as seen by Franzen, wives, mothers, and women in general are a problem; they are almost uniformly nattering, tiresome, self-involved, and not very bright, when they’re not actual monsters like Anabel. At any rate, the male characters see them this way. Oedipus and Hamlet notwithstanding, we never do quite understand Andreas’s resentment of his mother; her having affairs, or being a Party official, or him seeing her naked hardly seems enough to explain his powerful rage, an emotion Franzen has elsewhere claimed as an important wellspring of his own work.
Men trapped in marriage: whereas in The Corrections, Franzen viewed his characters with Olympian sympathy (for instance in his treatment of the marriage of the mother and the father with Alzheimer’s disease), it is in Purity that he comes closest to less sympathetic things he has written about his own life and marriage, his moral concerns and aversions, his overdeveloped sense of guilt, some past rather obsessive and strange ideas about sex, and so on. Probably people will differ about whether he has made too great a sacrifice of a high comedic perspective for the satisfactions of confession or revenge, or whether this new direction comes from some misunderstanding of the Contract. In any case, his candid autobiographical writings allow us to infer that aspects of Andreas and Tom may come close to Franzen’s own experiences, especially Andreas the antihero in the banal part of husband of Annagret:
During the day, when they were apart, he kept picturing [Annagret’s] solemn gaze, but when he came home he found a person with no resemblance to the object he’d desired. She was tired, had cramps, had evening plans…. He had only to call home and hear her voice for two minutes to be bored with her.
This is nearly interchangeable with Tom Aberant’s account of his marriage to Anabel:
My life had become a nightmare of exactly the female reproach I’d dedicated it to avoiding. To avoid it from my mother was to invite it from Anabel, and vice versa; there was no way out.
It goes without saying that both Tom and Andreas hate and/or resent their mothers too. However melodramatic the main story, when it comes to marriage, the two main male characters appear in archetypal, almost sitcom detail in painful passages whose intensely felt quality exudes faintly autobiographical whiffs. To continue with Andreas and Annagret:
But the problem with sex as an idea was that ideas could change. By and by, Annagret developed a different and much drearier idea, of total honesty in bed, with heavy emphasis on discussion. [But] endless discussion with a humorless twenty-three-year-old bored him…. Even worse, [she] wanted to discuss her feelings. Or, worst of all, wanted to discuss his feelings.
When it comes to Tom’s experience of an impossible woman, there’s Anabel’s fierce feminism. She complains about everything, for instance:
“I have to sit down,” she said finally. “Why shouldn’t you sit down? I can’t not see where you spatter, and every time I see it I think how unfair it is to be a woman.”
In Part Three we have more detail about Tom and a new woman, Leila, a nice journalist, now Tom’s longtime partner, though she is still married to a paraplegic writer, Charles Blenheim. Charles was once a promising novelist, still hoping to be important; The New York Times Book Review had praised the “twinned muscularity and febrility” of his style. Franzen’s comic riffs are at their best in the world of letters, when he gets going on writers like Charles, or journalists like Leila and Tom:
After she won a prize for her reporting (Colorado State Fair mismanagement), she dared to excuse herself from the dinners that Charles was obliged to host for visiting writers. Oh, the drinking at those ghastly dinners, the inevitable slighting of Charles, the addition of yet another name to his hate list. Practically the only living American writers Charles didn’t hate now were his students and former students, and if any of the latter had some success it was only a matter of time before they slighted him, betrayed him, and he added them to the list.
Leila would have liked a baby, but it would discomfort Charles’s art. To compensate for her childlessness and paraplegic husband, she has taken up with Tom, though Leila suspects he is still stuck on his ex-wife, with whom he had no children—the impossible Anabel, daughter of a fabulously rich tycoon. Having denied Anabel children, he doesn’t feel entitled to have a baby with Leila, even though Anabel hadn’t been heard from in years.
In Denver, we rejoin Pip, an intern with Tom’s newspaper, sent there by the spellbinding, now world-famous Andreas after her sojourn with him in Bolivia. Guessing that she is his old friend Tom’s daughter, Andreas has ordered her to Colorado to learn journalism, and actually to find out whether Tom is likely to reveal Andreas’s dark secret. Still broke, she’s befriended by Leila, and moves in with her and Tom.
Leila and Pip are covering a story about a plot to steal a nuke, a typical Franzenian digression that can sometimes come as a welcome distraction, though that is not necessarily the case here. In fact, in the welter of journalism-speak, the reader’s attention may be wandering, despite the lively nuke story, worth mentioning, though, for it sounds a note of the lively former Franzen in a sort of DeLillo (Status novelist) mode:
Pip was on the phone with a Sonic Drive-In manager, trying to reach Phyllisha Babcock, whose tale of death-bomb sex had squeaked into the article in one-graf form, when the office IT manager, Ken Warmbold, came by her desk. He waited while she wrote down the hours of Phyllisha’s shift….
Leila has misgivings about having an attractive young woman in the house with Tom, who seems worryingly drawn to their new tenant. But in an opera-worthy coincidence scene, the mysterious attraction is explained: Tom, having glimpsed a picture of Pip’s mother on her cell phone, confesses to Leila that he believes Pip is Anabel’s daughter and he himself probably her father:
“I’m sorry,” Tom said. “I know it’s a lot to hear.”
“A lot to hear? You have a child. You have a daughter you didn’t know about for twenty-five years…. I’d say, yes, that’s quite a lot for me to hear.”
The fourth part is a flashback to Pip’s arrival in South America to work on the Sunlight Project, which she found was pretty much staffed by women Andreas Wolf had slept with. This looks like where she’s heading too, but Pip can’t seem to go through with making love to people. Eventually she submits to the “negocitos he was expertly transacting with his mouth” but fails to do “the polite thing” in return. There’s another scene like this a few weeks later. Never mind, he tells her, it only increases her desirability, though it’s unclear throughout what Pip’s desirability can possibly be, as she’s not given beauty or cleverness, and often screws things up.
Part Five is Tom’s first-person account of his marriage, twenty-five years before, to the neurotic, difficult Anabel. He tells of an occasion when they made love after their divorce. Then he digresses into the story of his German parents’ meeting and coming to America. Then how he met Anabel in college. Each story is absorbing and often funny, but the connections come to seem too driven by the objective correlatives. Tom was shy about sex because of his first experience with Mary Ellen Stahlstrom, who let out a shriek when he “accidentally delivered a sharp masculine poke to the very most sensitive and off-limits part of Mary Ellen.”
Mary Ellen’s anally violated shriek was ringing in my ears when I matriculated at Penn. My father had suggested that I choose a smaller college, but Penn had offered me a scholarship…
Tom’s funny, sympathetic confession is a novella of 125 pages and concludes with his version of meeting Andreas Wolf in East Berlin, all those years ago, and being entrusted with the secret of Andreas’s past; he recollects how, as an act of friendship, he had helped Andreas rebury the victim’s bones. His account then returns to his last scenes with Anabel, her father’s death, the mystery of her disappearance:
I’ve never stopped wondering where Anabel is and whether she’s alive…. I remain convinced that I’ll see her again…. I couldn’t go on and have children with anyone else, because I’d prevented her from having them.
By now the reader has guessed many of the answers to the questions he’s raised—where is Anabel? what is the connection to Pip? The more interesting question is, why has Franzen chosen this complicated chronology?
In Part Six we’re once again with Andreas Wolf in Bolivia, entering his Jim Jones phase, morphing into a dictator of the New Regime, the Sunlight Project, which “now functioned mainly as an extension of his ego. A fame factory masquerading as a secrets factory.” His dreams of global influence through the power of the Internet are all subjects that have interested Franzen elsewhere:
There were a lot of could-be Snowdens inside the New Regime, employees with access to the algorithms that Facebook used to monetize its users’ privacy and Twitter to manipulate memes that were supposedly self-generating. But smart people were actually more terrified of the New Regime than of what the regime had persuaded less-smart people to be afraid of, the NSA, the CIA….
There are allusions to current events and montages of celebrity names we recognize, as when Andreas visits Tad Milliken,
the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who’d retired to Belize to avoid the inconvenience of a statutory-rape charge pending against him in California. He was certifiably insane, an Ayn Rander…, but he was surprisingly good company if you kept him on topics like fishing and tennis.
Despite these new friends, and the echoes of Ted Turner, Michael Milken, and Roman Polanski, the guilt and egotism raging in Andreas are soon to spin out of control:
He was at once the man he’d killed and the man who’d killed him, and since another dark hallway existed in his memory, the dark hallway between his childhood bedroom and his mother’s, there was a further twisting of chronology whereby his mother had given birth to the monster who was Annagret’s stepfather, he was that monster, and he’d killed him in order to become him….
Now come many more pages of exposition of Andreas’s guilty deterioration, his rage at his mother, at women:
He was prone to Killer-sponsored fantasies, some of them so offensive to his self-image (for example, the fantasy of coming on Annagret while she was sleeping) that it took a huge exertion of honesty to clock them before he suppressed them.
Gothic depiction of madness is not perhaps Franzen’s best vein; it is better pursued by people who are actual geniuses at it, like Stephen King. Andreas
began to cry. The Killer stirred in him again, sensing opportunity in his tears, his regression. The Killer liked regression. The Killer liked it when he was four and Annagret fifteen. Blindly, with his eyes squeezed shut, he sought her lips with his.
Next, the account suddenly shifts from a picture of his “titanic rage,” back to his earlier life with Annagret, the young woman whose stepfather he’d killed to save her from molestation, when, after some harmonious years, their relationship deteriorates and boredom sets in—boredom is another Franzen preoccupation. The picture of a deteriorating, guilt-ridden, and depressed man soon to commit suicide is replaced by a generic, resentful husband who might have equally been Tom:
He saw that he’d trapped himself. He’d set up house less with a woman than with a wishful concept of himself as a man who could live happily ever after with a woman. And now he was bored with the concept…. He behaved like a jerk and paid a price for it in self-regard, but he persisted in it, hoping that she would recognize it as a well-known sign of trouble in a relationship, and that maybe, eventually, he would be able to escape the trap.
The writer rushes us through this domestic crisis by “telling” it, as writing students are instructed not to do. There are only flashes of the sort of engaging sentences found in The Corrections, with their precise distinctions and witty metaphors. In Purity the prose is serviceably workaday, and by the end of Andreas’s section, it dissolves into pages and pages of exposition, as if it were Soap Opera Digest, or as if the writer had become bored with Andreas and Tom, or was worried his readers might be, and is observing the Contract by considerately shortening scenes he would normally dramatize. Too bad—as readers, five hundred pages in, we would have stuck with our investment for the fun of hearing what Andreas and Annagret say when they are finally frank with each other.
Referring to his marital boredom, Andreas again calls attention to the “disparity between the nighttime object he desired and the daytime actuality of Annagret.” This is the disparity that troubles the entire novel: the tension between a writer confident of his daylight powers—the daylight of domestic realism is exemplified by Tom’s section—and a writer pushing himself into darker places and different registers with less success.
Andreas will perish in a dramatic suicide fall over a cliff, as in a comic book, aaaargh. Despite his villain’s fate, he is the character we know best and most regret. For all his ostensible ruthlessness, his youthful crime harrows him the way it wouldn’t the taciturn Pip, who has no affect whatever, challenged social skills, and who one can see is well on the way to turning into her mother, the controlling Anabel. At the end, a boy she’s attracted to, Jason, invites her to hit tennis balls:
“If you didn’t have a girlfriend, I’d be happy to hit with you. But you do, so.”
“You’re telling me I have to break up with my girlfriend before you’ll hit with me? It’s a pretty substantial upfront investment for just hitting a tennis ball.”
Pip will discover that she is to inherit a trust fund worth $1 billion—such is the factor of inflation that a billion is needed for a fairy-tale pot of gold to be worthwhile these days. Like her mother, Pip wants to be Good. She bails her Oakland friends out of their eviction problems by buying their squat, and takes up with Jason the tennis player. There is no trace of transcendence, no possibility she won’t end up the mess her mother was. But a billion dollars! We shouldn’t underrate the satisfactions of fairy tales, after all an enduring form, as we’ve seen with, say, Donna Tartt’s recent success.
Despite the superficially happy ending, readers will be struck finally by the real subjects of the novel, anxiety and that preoccupying modern subject, the search for identity. Despite the ostensible devotion to good works, feminist causes, governmental transparency, and so on, at bottom the characters all, like Andreas, have “no interest at all in doing the right thing if the wrong thing would save [them] from public shame” or give psychic gratification. Each character tries on several selves, and is uncomfortable in all of them.
As a novel about inauthenticity and intense self-consciousness, and as a portrait of the modern world, it’s convincing enough, if depressing. Franzen, from whom so much is expected, seems, like Andreas, on a sort of (literary) mountaintop, with several paths down, the one he came up just now, mined with melodrama and misstep; or there’s the Status flag planted a little higher up the slope, if he has the energy for climbing with his already heavy backpack of Contract books, and if he takes some time to contemplate the view before getting back to work.
In the past few weeks, I’ve read some astonishing books: Lucia Berlin’s “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” a story collection that’s raw and funny and breathtakingly great; “The Visiting Privilege,” by the bright-bleak grand master of short stories, Joy Williams; and Álvaro Enrigue’s brilliant “Sudden Death,” which will be out in February and is about a tennis match between the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Quevedo, wherein they use a ball made out of Marie Antoinette’s hair. (It’s also about colonialism, utopias, and sex.) And I’ve been so distraught that there are no more Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante to come after the fourth, “The Story of the Lost Child,” that I’ve re-read the entire grand novel project.
People might expect that, as a copy editor, I’d be absorbed in the new usage manual by Frank L. Cioffi, “One Day in the Life of the English Language,” or the latest book on punctuation by David Crystal, “Making a Point.” They wouldn’t be that far off. As it happens, I have a sudden rage to read a work of fiction about a proofreader: “The History of the Siege of Lisbon,” by José Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero. It’s been on my shelf, approximately, since 1998, when Saramago won the Nobel Prize. The first sentence begins, “The proof-reader said, Yes,” and it goes on for five pages. The other book I’m eager to read is something I acquired more recently, at Parnassus Books, in Nashville: a novella titled “Parnassus on Wheels,” by Christopher Morley, first published in 1917 and reissued by Melville House in 2010, in a beautiful little paperback. The Library of Congress has it catalogued under the following subjects: booksellers and bookselling, travelling sales personnel, single women, women farmers, brothers and sisters, women booksellers, and tramps. What a progression!
If I’m being honest, most of the non-work-related books I actually manage to finish these days are the ones I read aloud, to my five-year-old. I’m enjoying “The BFG.” (He finds it a little scary.) I cried at the end of “Charlotte’s Web.” (He didn’t, and was alarmed at the idea that his father might be the kind of emotional basket case who gets weepy over a kids book about farm animals.) Lately we’ve graduated to Tintin. On my own, I’ve been re-reading Peter Robb’s extraordinary book about corruption and rot (and food and art and beauty), ”Midnight in Sicily,” and I just started Benedict Kiely’s “Proxopera,” a slim, haunting novel about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I’m very much looking forward to my colleague Larissa MacFarquhar’s “Strangers Drowning,” which has just come out. And, on a plane some time later this month, I will officially become the last person on earth to read Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch.”
—Patrick Radden Keefe
My current subway book, which I’m just about to finish, is “The Long Loneliness,” the autobiography of Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement. I started it before Pope Francis mentioned Day in his speech to Congress—a fact I’m mentioning here out of a twinge of pride, although reading a book called “The Long Loneliness” on the train can be a miniature lesson in the “poverty of spirit” that carried Day through the “tireless work” that the Pope mentioned. The book may not be the most thorough account of Day’s life; she leaves out some formative events—such as the abortion she had as a young woman—and, in her enthusiasm for writing about her fellow-travellers, it sometimes becomes unclear what she did, exactly. She notes in the introduction that writing such a book, like going to confession, is hard, “because you are ‘giving yourself away.’ ” But she’s generous with her memories and feelings. She provides a front-row seat to the early-twentieth-century social-justice movements and to the scene in New York City, and she writes plainly and frankly about her own dealings with the despair, sadness, and, especially, the loneliness that she sees at the core of the basic human struggle.
Sternberg Press’s “On the Table” series, edited by the culinary historian Charlotte Birnbaum, combines exquisite design with the most delightfully esoteric subject matter: the art of napkin-folding, Bernini’s set design for the feasts held at the Vatican in 1668 in honor of Her Most Serene Majesty Christina Queen of Sweden, and a recipe for peacock-testicle pie. The most recent addition is a new translation of the Italian artist F. T. Marinetti’s “Futurist Cookbook,” originally published in 1932. As New York City inches toward winter, I will resist the siren song of pasta, which Marinetti calls “a passéist food,” responsible for making its consumers “heavy” and “brutish,” and dine instead on the Sant’Elia Architectural Meal, the Futurist Aeropoetic Meal, and, if I dare, the White Desire Dinner.
On another note, a friend, the writer Robin Sloan, recommended the New York Public Library’s @NYPLRecommends service to me: on Fridays at 10 A.M., you tweet at them with a book or two that you liked, and a librarian responds with two or three more recommendations. I have already read and loved one of the novels they chose for me (Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings”), so I have high hopes for the other two: “The Autobiography of Us,” by Aria Beth Sloss, and “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald,” by Therese Anne Fowler.
All of the Elena Ferrante books have now sent me on to finally read the so-often-recommended to me Elsa Morante; I’m starting with “History” and “Arturo’s Island.”
I’ve just read Tom McCarthy’s ”Remainder,” which is a sort of anti-novel. Technically, it has characters and a plot, but the characters are what E.M. Forster would call “flat”—in fact, they’re practically cardboard cut-outs, which is appropriate in a book about superficiality—and it’s often difficult to distinguish what is “actually” happening from what is merely a fantasy in the narrator’s brain. In the end, it doesn’t much matter. It’s a novel of ideas, but one refreshingly devoid of windbaggery.
I’m planning to re-read Orwell, especially “Down and Out in Paris and London,” which was given to me years ago one Christmas by George Trow, when I was trying to be a writer. He also gave me “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” by James Agee. Both books are written in the first person, and George was providing me with a model of how I might do that. Agee is ornate, and Orwell is not, and I could see from their books that what mattered, and it seemed to be all, was to get the thing down right on the page, if I could. Reading him again, I hope to recover parts of someone I remember being.
I’m reading Mary Karr’s new book, “The Art of Memoir,” for a second time (I saw an earlier version in manuscript). Karr is such fun to read—who else would combine the name Nabokov and the phrase “out the wazoo” on her very first page?—that it’s hard to resist getting drawn into it again. She takes you on a brilliant literary tour of great memoirs, and launches a two-fisted defense of truth in the form, and talks about the sometimes excruciating conversations a memoirist has to have with her family.
My reading habits are improvisational, mainly governed by the accidents of ownership and inclination, rather than by the schedule of new releases. But there’s a new biography of Orson Welles coming in November, “Young Orson,” by Patrick McGilligan, which takes the directorial hero from his birth to the threshold of “Citizen Kane.” I’ve only just started it and can so far confess to fascination and pleasure; the wealth of detail and the measured tempo are up to the Shakespearean complexity of Welles’s character.
Meanwhile, the New York Film Festival will be screening “Miles Ahead,” a bio-pic about Miles Davis, that stars and is directed by Don Cheadle. Advance reports indicate that it’s anchored in the second half of the nineteen-seventies, the time of Davis’s withdrawal from public performance, and that it dramatizes his friendship with a journalist (played by Ewan McGregor) who helps to coax him back to the stage. There is at least one journalist, the late Eric Nisenson, who was in fact befriended by Davis in just that interregnum; Nisenson wrote a book, “ ’Round About Midnight: A Portrait of Miles Davis,” which I’ve started to read. It’s both a biography and a view of Davis’s life in a sort of self-imposed exile. Whether it maps onto the movie or just coincidentally coincides with it, we shall see.