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Tag Archives: Books
Expedition (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
“There was everywhere the sweet-smelling scrub, and thickets of oleander, and the grey-blue swords of aloes; and on the lower slopes were olive terraces and lines of cypresses, spurting up with a vitality strange to see in what is black and not green.”
REBECCA WEST TRAVELS by road from Dubrovnik along the Adriatic Coast through Cavtat, Perast, and Kotor before returning via Gruda. A glance at a modern map produces some confusion: Perast and Kotor are in neighboring Montenegro, which West visits and documents later in the book. But in the mid-1930s, Perast and Kotor were part of Dalmatia. Not incidentally, both towns were occupied by Italy during World War II.
In Cavtat West recounts the story of Cadmus from Greek mythology, quoting Ovid’s account of the transformation of Cadmus and his wife into harmless snakes. Herpetological legend aside Cadmus is purported to have been buried here. Cadmus was the original Greek hero before Heracles, the founder of Thebes, and father of the Phoenician alphabet. As a result of his export of literacy, West argues, Cadmus was the nemesis of Pan who was once the subject of a cult here.
West was a much better linguist than she is credited for. She studied Latin in secondary school (not Greek, she notes in her interview with Marina Warner in The Paris Review, “in case [we] fell into the toils of the heretical Eastern Orthodox Church…”). Latin provides a solid foundation for learning the Romance languages, including French and Italian, both of which West spoke. But studying a formal, dead language also taught her to learn other languages on her own, including German and Serbo-Croatian, which she applies to certain characters later in the book.
In Greek mythology, Cadmus is the father of Illyrius, the King Arthur of the Western Balkans. It is from his son that we have the ancient state of Illyria which was, in effect, the first union of southern Slavs, a Canaanite Yugoslavia. For himself, Cadmus is best known as a dragon-slayer. St. Jerome narrates how Cadmus coaxed a monster from its cave to Epidaurus where it burned to death on a pyre. Epidaurus later became Cavtat, likely the Slavic homonym of the Latin civitas.
In Perast West describes a valley, “which cannot be true, which are an obvious Munchausen”. She is seeing the karst lake valleys created by the soluble sandstone foundation of the entire area. The lakes are cryptodepressions, that is, lower than sea level. The formations (and spelunking) are spectacular. But she also notes the lake valleys go through a seasonal transformation as they are full during winter but drain during the spring to produce very rich bottomland for cultivation. “In spring,” she writes, “an invisible presence pulls out a plug, and the water runs away through the limestone and out to sea.” It is invisible but not unknown: there is a subterranean tunnel, hewn by hand during the Austro-Hungarian regency, that empties the valley into the sea.
She also describes the islands in the Bay of Kotor, including the inspiration for a piece of gothic Symbolist art, the Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin. The island of St. George itself, West discovers, is not nearly the camp melodrama seen in the painting. “It is a chaste, almost mathematical arrangement of austerely shaped stones and trees,” she writes.
Another minor drama unfolds as the boatman brings them to another island where they are greeted by his emotional dog with which West spends a little too much time sympathizing. But the dog’s spectacle allows West to tee up a cut about cats and canines, leaving no question with which she identifies most: “I blushed a little for the dog’s abandonment, and was glad that no cat was by the sneer.”
Returning to Dubrovnik they stop in Gruda to admire a trio of young girls, “lovely as primroses in a wood.” “‘Pennies, pennies!’ they cried, laughing while we stared at them and adored them,” West recounts. She gets into an argument with her driver after asking him for a few tenpence to give the girls. He is reluctant and finds the begging disgraceful. West writes:
“There was much to be said for his point of view. Indeed, he was entirely right and we were wrong. But they were so beautiful, and in spite of their beauty they would be poor all their lives long, and that is an injustice I never can bear. It is the flat violation of a promise. Women are told from the day they are born that they must be beautiful, and if they are ugly everything is withheld from them, and the reason scarcely disguised. It follows therefore that women who are beautiful should want for nothing.”
This is not as straightforward and retrograde an evaluation of gender as it may appear at first glance. The social conditioning West describes is a fact in most societies and her admiration for the girls’ beauty is entirely genuine and consistent with her attitudes. Physical beauty as a yardstick of human worth is an uncomfortable idea. But West is arguing that poverty, as inescapable by the individual, is by far the greater injustice. (How tenpence could possibly alter the girls’ fate is left undiscussed.) And their driver’s comment as they leave the girls is even more revealing of their subordinate position in society. “[If] they are encouraged to be impudent when they are so young,” he says, “what will they be like when they are old?”
Working Titles (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
“I write books to find out about things.” (Paris Review, 1981)
FOR THIS PROJECT I have four individual editions of Black Lamb separated in publication by 80 years. More than 25 years ago I started reading the 1994 Penguin Books single-volume paperback. It was published without an introduction. I don’t recall purchasing this book, but I had likely read Balkan Ghosts (1993) around this time. This was author Robert Kaplan’s paean to “Dame Rebecca” and her life-defining tome, which he considered more valuable than his passport. That same year my first article for the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student paper, was about European attempts to end the war in the former Yugoslavia.
I started reading this edition in 1997 with my coffee at five o’clock in the morning. I got about 300 pages into it (according to the book darts I left in the pages, I appear to have gotten as far as Sarajevo) before abandoning the effort. I really was not equipped to make sense of the book. A mere undergraduate education (more than what Dame Rebecca managed, which is all the more telling) and an undisciplined interest in Yugoslavia were insufficient. I knew none of the region’s histories, languages, or literature. I didn’t even know anyone from Yugoslavia. Consequently, each page I turned was an isometric effort: laborious but unproductive.
After graduate school – where I watched Allied aircraft pummel Serbia in 1999, televised havoc I would later see with my own eyes visiting Belgrade as a NATO official – I moved to Europe and eventually to Brussels and the North Atlantic Alliance itself. When I joined in 2005, Kosovo was NATO’s largest out-of-area deployment with about 15,000 troops. Catching up on this important Allied theater of operations, I schooled myself on the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia and began visiting the region as the new republics aligned themselves with NATO and the European Union. As a result, I met people across the region trying to build a new regional politics, liberal, internationalist, and Western-leaning.
My Penguin paperback with a homemade cardstock cover protecting it accompanied me during my trips. I found it easier to approach the book by sections that corresponded to where I was visiting. West described places and history I could visit and see and touch. The more I read, and the more I traveled, the more I could connect the parts of the books into a coherent regional narrative. It was a productive re-introduction to the book.
That led to criticism and commentary of West, including Geoff Dyer, Brian Hall, and Larry Wolff. Richard Holbrooke and Lord David Owen, policy-makers, followed. Holbrooke coined the pejorative “bad history, or the Rebecca West Factor” – a line Christopher Hitchens would parrot – and piled on Hall’s allegations that West was a pro-Serb crypto-nationalist and Islamophobe. That verdict perfectly but inaccurately explained what had just happened in Bosnia as Serb-dominated Yugoslav federal forces reinforcing Bosnian Serb irregulars “cleansed” Muslim-majority cities through siege and massacre. Never mind that West’s intended destination was Macedonia, not Serbia, and she visited Montenegro, Croatia, Dalmatia, and Herzegovina as part of her research. Only in retrospect – actually a narrative heuristic similar to post hoc fallacy – does Kaplan and, by extension, West appear to be prophetic. Robert Kaplan felt the need to defend himself and his West-derived “bad history” in later editions of Balkan Ghosts (in Yugoslavia, he visited only Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia and spent the other three-quarters of his book in Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania). His main thesis was the best way to understand contemporary politics is through history, which Rebecca West well understood. The past is prologue to what follows but it is not necessarily the provocateur.
There began my initial intuition that these critics, writers and statesmen (they were all men), with the exception of Kaplan, had got something fundamentally wrong about Dame Rebecca. My sporadic reading of Black Lamb, while incomplete, did not fit the accusation of an ethnic polemic. Racist screeds usually burn themselves out well before 1,100 pages. So I returned to the book looking for bias with an eye toward writing an apologia in the old style.
That opportunity came in 2016 as the 75th anniversary of the publication approached. West originally serialized what became the book in The Atlantic and Harper’s Bazaar in early 1941. The first two-volume editions were published by The Viking Press in the United States and Macmillan in the United Kingdom later that same year. To my surprise nobody noted the anniversary date given how much-discussed the book had been just 20 years earlier. NATO was still on the ground in Kosovo and so was a European Union peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.
Augmenting my research was a Kindle version of the Penguin 2007 edition published with Christopher Hitchens’ introduction, which he unsurprisingly handled like an dull mattock. Irritation aside, the Kindle edition features searchable text, bookmarking, highlighting, and a dictionary. This facilitated certain research. For example, the easy exenteration of Hitchens’ claim that “the most repeatedly pejorative word in [West’s] lexicon is ‘impotent’”—a word that appears just six times in the entire book. Likewise “Greater Serbia”—which, like Hall, Hitchens uses to bind West in a chain of causality leading to Serb ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina and specifically the Srebrenica genocide in 1995—West mentions twice. (More Hitchens gralloch in a future post.)
I published my article in the Los Angeles Review of Books in July 2017. It had an immediate and thoroughly unexpected result: the executor of West’s literary estate read my article and ordered up a new edition in time for the book’s 80th anniversary. Coincidentally, the global COVID19 pandemic gave claustrophobic adventurers reason to travel virtually the old-fashioned way. So Black Lamb has enjoyed a minor renaissance as more readers with more time rediscover it for an ambitious long read.
With this turn of events, I had to possess the alpha and the omega. Working with Capitol Hill Books in Washington, D.C., I bought the two-volume US first edition. These volumes include photographs and maps. The endleaves feature a visual log of West’s travels. The photos are not terribly good, not even qualifying as postcards. Occasionally, however, they provide insight, such as illustrating West’s astonished description of covered Muslim women’s dress in Mostar “consist[ing] of a man’s coat, made in black or blue cloth, immensely too large for the woman who is going to wear it.” The photo confirms her power of description.
Finally, I ordered the new Canongate edition which at this time is only available for sale from the UK. It was delivered with the satisfaction of seeing my original LARB article prominently blurbed in the front leaf.
Belief from the inside out
Carla Power’s Pulitizer Prize-shortlisted If the Oceans Were Ink, an outsider’s meditation on The Holy Qur’an with the help of a learned Islamic scholar, signals a subtle but seismic shift in our intellectual world. It joins other unmistakable indications that mostly secular Western thinkers now realize they have allowed the belief of a billion people to be defined by a clique and that the popular understanding of Islam has been warped and obverted to the point that the exception has replaced the rule.
I imagine especially for Muslims it is as if everyone thought they were doctors because a friend had a rash, or physicists because they’d seen a car accident. While they understand something from the inside out, everyone else seems to be just peering in from the outside.
I was reminded of this when listening to an interview on San Francisco public radio recently. The host of The Forum on KQED, Michael Krasny, was interviewing Qamar Adamjee, curator of a new exhibition of Islamic Art at the Asian Art Museum. (The relevant portion begins at about the 13:00 minute mark.) Krasny does not so much ask a question as state the cultural and human destruction wrought by the Taliban and the Islamic State. As she struggles to express herself, Adamjee’s response is telling. Those who attack art are doing so for political, not religious, reasons, she says. “It’s easy to pick on religion, it’s easy to pick on the other,” which of course cuts in two directions. She changes the subject: “[The exhibit] allows us to see Islamic culture as a much broader thing than the undifferentiated monolithic mass that comes across to us today.” What she is trying to say is: I want to talk about art and Islamic culture. This art has nothing to do with violence.
The larger point, perhaps missed in a discussion of art, is that the art and culture and belief of Muslims are what is really important. That is a difficult thing to say while a coalition of nations is trying to destroy the Islamic State. But as this recent NPR story by Tom Gjelten also argues, understanding that larger point is also essential to defeat our enemies and to make friends as well.
Carla Power’s honor may be a landmark of that dawning realization but it is not the only example. Another can be found in Garry Wills’ recent essay, “My Koran Problem” in The New York Review of Books in which he admits that only very recently had he read The Holy Qur’an. This is an extraordinary confession. How could a public intellectual and powerful liberal polemic of such range, virtuosity and experience go so long without understanding one of human civilization’s great texts? “It was ridiculous that I would remain completely ignorant of what a quarter of the world’s people not only believe in but live by (in different ways),” he writes. Beginning sometime after 2003, he continues to struggle with this text “unaided”. Surely Wills could find somebody willing to help him?
On a smaller scale but in more sympathetic vein, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy recently wrote about a visit to the Masjid Muhammad, “The Nation’s Mosque” located in northeast Washington, D.C. “If you see nothing suspicious, maybe that’s normal,” his article was headlined. At the mosque he met the imam, a retired U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant. A member of the mosque is a retired U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major. “We should be America’s allies in the fight against extremism,” another member of the mosque told Milloy. Muslims are by far the greatest victims of terrorism around the world. “Instead, we’re on the defensive, always being asked to respond to somebody’s claim that Islam promotes violence.” Again, in Milloy we hear somebody trying to change the subject, to focus on what’s important, which is what is normal.
How did so many overlook this pacific ordinariness, this everydayness, this normality that we all can recognize? Wills writes that he has spent most of his career studying Christian and Jewish theology. Herein is the heart of the problem. I discovered myself how self-limiting one’s own provincial interests can be. Even well-intentioned attempts to learn more lead to a contained circle of works, all cross-referencing each other, each self-delimiting any knowledge beyond the circle. It takes an extraordinary mind or experience to force oneself out and beyond. I am the grateful beneficiary of such an extraordinary experience and extraordinary minds when it comes to Islam.
Wills struggles from this insulating defect, unfortunately comparing the Qur’an to The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, as if the holy text were an operational manual for our enemies. This is exactly wrong. Studying and understanding The Holy Qur’an and Islamic thought is how we understand and know our friends. Western secularists don’t understand what Muslims really believe and how their belief animates their lives. What is normal is important because it is what we have in common to defend against intolerance and barbarism.
But like Wills, we have to start at the beginning. At the beginning is the realization Wills alludes to: that understanding Islam on its own terms is more important than its present political context. When a billion people believe some thing, we have a duty to understand that from the inside out.
If Carla Power’s book suffers a flaw, like any other similar book written by a secular Westerner, it is that she addresses the belief from the outside. But she is studying the Qur’an, which as any Muslim understands is the place to start to understand Islam. There are several excellent guides (in English) to the Qur’an, including Introduction to the Qur’an by M.A. Draz and The Story of the Qur’an by Ingrid Mattson. These both benefit from the authors being Muslim. Additionally, several translations of The Holy Qur’an (also in English) can be found online. I am less familiar with the Sunnah and the Hadith, the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and a major source of Islamic theology and moral philosophy, but translations are also available online.
Like Wills, I admit that these ancient texts are indeed challenging to read unaided and barring a community college or divinity school course most of us must avail ourselves to what we can find in the public domain. To understand what Muslims really believe we have to break out of the confining circle of Western scholarship and read what Muslims write about themselves. Fortunately several books do this and don’t require the assistance of a scholar. The journey is rewarding from the first step.
The gift of a friend, Muhammad Asad’s The Road to Mecca (1947) is a good place to start. The book is at once a philosophic meditation, spiritual quest, and ripping adventure yarn in the old Islamic tradition. Asad was an Austrian convert from Judaism who began his career as a journalist in the Near East. His adventures, which included advising King Saud and the nascent government of Pakistan, rival or exceed those of T.H. Lawrence, Robert Burton and Gertrude Bell. Asad very nearly died of thirst while lost in the desert and was interned as an enemy alien by British authorities even though his entire family perished in the Holocaust. His greatest contribution was a defining contemporary translation, The Message of the Qur’an (1980), into English.
The story of Asad’s conversion is moving. He has returned to interwar Berlin from his latest journalistic exploits in the Near East and he is riding the Berlin U-Bahn with his wife. They note the devastated expressions of their fellow citizens, the deep unhappiness of their lives etched on their faces. There they decide to convert to a system of belief that appeared so much more humane and logical than what they had been raised in.
Who Speaks for Islam (2008) is a misleading title since this book, produced by Gallup and written by Dahlia Mogahed and John L. Esposito, is a very literal survey of what Muslims around the world think about belief, politics, and culture. It is a study of a complex and plural community, but many clear common threads show through: the central importance of family, the rejection of political violence, the concerns about the erosion of traditional cultural norms, the necessity of belief guiding political choices and personal behavior. These findings are not particularly dramatic and indeed could be mistaken for similar surveys in Europe and the United States. But they are critical to understanding the community on its own terms rather than those forced on it by barbarians and xenophobes.
Memories of Muhammad (2008) by Omid Safi, is a kaleidoscopic examination of the legacy of the founder of Islam. Safi argues it is impossible to understand the belief without understanding the man who promulgated it – much as Protestant Christians closely examine the life of Jesus Christ, he notes – in addition to how Muslims remember and honor the Prophet around the world. In the clearest way I have read, Safi illuminates the history of Islam, the Sunni-Shia schism, Sufi mysticism, and even contemporary politics. Born to Iranian parents in Florida, he displays in his home a devotional portrait of the prophet popular in Persian-speaking countries but considered taboo elsewhere – demonstrating the plural and dynamic nature of the community.
Safi by necessity acknowledges contemporary challenges – here he writes against the conventional orthodoxies of the “clash of civilizations” as well as Muslim Occidentalism – but significantly argues that the best way to combat religious strife is to argue for the alternative. Like Adamjee, he wants to change the subject to what’s really important: what real people believe and what belief means to them. And by doing so, he is convinced that it is necessary to talk about and gain a better understanding of Islam and what Muslims believe, which is what the rest of us are just now coming around to.
Joan Didion, Californian
Joan Didion seized my attention early, before I wrote for myself. Assigned “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” in high school, I read with amazement her cool, detached descriptions of things I recognized growing up in California. I graduated quickly to “The White Album” and it was there she was the first to suggest my life had literary merit: her description of my hometown as being some place she passed through, from the North Bay to the East Bay, because there was no place there to return a rental car as she suffered an emotional breakdown. This implied to me, at age 18, everything and more than I wanted to know about growing up.
Her acute sensitivity to detail connected directly with the skeptical eye of the adolescent. I admired her method of careful observation, finding revealed truth in the everyday that we adults take for granted, unchanging, and immutable. But her method as it appealed to me when I was young marked me: the often passive but meticulous attention to the obvious or overlooked that other people in their haste or misdirection miss is useful (and lacking) in adulthood. “Didionesque” became both a description and a model to emulate for my friends and me in our writing.
Her sensibility as a Californian and Westerner also endured. After reading the great American writers of the South and the East (which from our perspective took in everything east of the Rockies), it was always pleasurable to return and read something that reflected my own surroundings and upbringing. (For example, only a Northern Californian can truly appreciate her revelation that Huey Newton was “a Kaiser,” that is, a member of the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization. Who knew that the Black Panthers had a group medical plan?)
Only later did it occur to me that Didion’s public acclaim but lack of establishment laurels – she never won a Pulitzer Prize – suggested that her voice and regionalism could seem alien, even bizarre, to anyone not raised in my home state. I am no doubt proved right in my intuition that Didion’s late memoir about the death and illness of her husband John Gregory Dunne and Quintana Roo, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” was her first to win a National Book Award. In her straightforward, literal and full-disclosure accounting of the trauma and dislocation of that year, it is her least Didionesque book.
The new biography of Didion, “The Last Love Song” by Tracy Daughtery, is haunted by death from the last pages. We know, if we know Joan Didion, how the story ends. But the most powerful and quietly devastating real-life manifestation of Didion’s flattening fear of catastrophe comes about half-way through the book, accounted for and tossed away. Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, hired a young girl from Central America to look after their daughter. The girl had a baby, who was then raised in the Dunnes’ house, which was kept obsessively clean to protect their own daughter. When the mother and baby returned home to visit relatives, the infant’s unpracticed immune system collapsed, she contracted a fever, and died.
Didion feared not just the prospect of immediate disaster – the fatal illness, the heart attack, the life changed in the instant – but would have recognized the crushing, tragic irony of protecting a child so well that it kills her. That this story is simply mentioned in passing in the first comprehensive biography of Joan Didion is just one of its many flaws but by no means its least. (Like others, I’ve been annoyed by the author’s attempt to mimic Didion’s fictional style.) Still, it’s important to note that we now have a fully developed narrative of Didion’s life to better understand her influences and her impact on American culture.
Death stalked Didion as the mysterious stranger killed acquaintances, friends, and loved ones as he closes in on those closest to her: her daughter and husband. She is surrounded by horror which more than accounts for her desiccated dread. Her niece was murdered, her agent died in his 50s, leukemia killed her sister-in-law, suicide claimed her brother-in-law, and some of the Manson victims she numbered among her friends. Indeed, given how many people died in her life it is strange to realize that her memoir of her upbringing, “Where I Was From,” was written after her mother died around the turn of the millennium.
That memoir achieved a pinnacle in a theme she has explored since the 1960s. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion wrote at the beginning of “The White Album”. This may seem like overstatement until we recognize that we understand our own experience, history and public life through a series of stories rather than the longer, infinitely more voluminous series of details and events of our actual experience. Storytelling saturates every aspect of adult consciousness, from the explanations we tell our children to the 30-second spots on television. Storytelling is so pervasive that we mistake it for reality because there is no other, easily graspable way to communicate our experience. But narrative, or story-telling, is not the same thing as experience. Narrative is not reality: it is a way of picking out the most important and relevant details of our life and finding a common sentient thread to string through them in a way that makes sense. Without this organizing principle, our lives would be incoherent.
For non-writers, and even for many writers, there is something spooky and slippery about narrative. Some stories work themselves at a deep, almost subconscious level – the endurance of the gothic and Grimm fairy tales goes far to explain this and so does the “heroic journey”. But what makes a “good” or “compelling” story is not something easily taught and takes some time for even professionals to learn. Any newspaper cub reporter can tell you what it’s like to finally come up with a “great story” in a budget meeting, but she might be hard-pressed to explain why beyond a series of compelling elements lacking elsewhere.
Nonetheless the self-critical writer recognizes at some point that narrative can distort reality beyond recognition. Didion’s dry, scathing views of San Francisco hippies, or young marrying couples in Las Vegas, or even those running the California aquaduct and Los Angeles freeway system, would not recognize themselves in her reporting. They tell themselves different stories. A good story can lead to the narrative version of sample bias, where we mistake the compelling exception for the rule. And I’ve always worried that the drive for the “good story” means we may miss the profundity in the mundane. Didion hammers at this, most tragically, in her reporting on the Central Park Jogger case: what makes the story of a lone, white, “attractive” victim so much more compelling than any of the other 3,254 reported cases of rape in New York City in 1989? To the tabloid journalist – indeed, all of New York, it seemed at the time – the answer is obvious, beyond explanation. But Didion shifted that spotlight to expose the even darker corners of New York – as well as our own bias and indifference – in one of her best essays.
Didion never goes so far as to explain explicitly what she means by story-telling or narrative. At the beginning of “The White Album” she uses some peculiar analogies: “The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which”. That can seem unintelligible to even the most sophisticated reader.
This question is the foundation for virtually all of her future reporting, from presidential races and the Central Park Jogger to her own background in “Where I Was From”. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Daughtery meticulously accounts, the narratives of public life irremediably fractured. She no longer could recognize or understand events – her account of the five-year-old girl found clinging to a fence on Interstate 5 is one searing example – as she had traditionally. These commonly accepted narratives, she wrote, were replaced by the sheer insanity of Vietnam, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and almost inevitably, the Manson murders.
Narrative had a particular relevance to Didion’s writing about politics, which she turned to in the 1980s and 1990s. As I began to work in politics I found this writing less and less compelling, but her idea that narrative drives politics remains one of the most useful and penetrating critiques as it is practiced today. Nevertheless I found Didion’s flat, skeptical ear when turned to the professional vocabulary of politics – always in quotes: “trade-offs” and “programs” and “policy” and “play” – could be easily turned to any other profession. (Indeed, I can imply the same cynicism very easily with Daughtery’s writing about the Dunne-Didion health crises which he unhelpfully leaves unexplained in layman’s terms: “hemodynamically significant lesion,” and “angioplasty,” and “congential defect of the aortic valve” and “radio-frequency ablation of the atrial-ventricular node”.)
Instead of revealing systemic cynicism, she has exposed the technical vocabulary of a committed if exotic profession. It wouldn’t have made sense for her to explain it, since the exclusionary vocabulary was the point. But what she found to be exclusive I found to be a specialist’s way to describe the work I did. All professions are this way. Perhaps she was yearning for a purer, amateur politics as reflective of the kind of fundamental American innocence we all seek in our political life. But that doesn’t make her insight particularly extraordinary.
But in the beginning and the end, Joan Didion is a Californian. It’s hard to overstate, as a native Californian, how much she writes for and about California and Californians. The state’s uniqueness – climatological, social, cultural – has been plumbed for generations. But Didion was raised in its heart and writes about this state of mind from within. She was born in Sacramento to fourth-generation Californians who can track their lineage back to and through the Donner Party that perished in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1847. Indeed, both Didion and Daughtery use this oft-told warning fable of hubris, tragedy and anthropophagia as a sort of talisman, the root of all fatal human folly.
But for the later arrivals – which includes most of the state and me – the settler narrative does not resound as profoundly as Didion’s depiction of an Eden whose compact with the snake in the garden includes the hot winds, the fires, the droughts and earthquakes, and a culture that seems unhinged, prone to murder. Californians understand what it means to bear the Santa Ana, to watch the incinerated oak leaves fall from the sky, to dive under school desks when the building begins to shake. The cults and random madness seem to be less immediate concerns.
Unlike observers from elsewhere, who write about these phenomena as freakish, exotic events, Didion wrote about them for what they were: permanent features of the landscape, an inescapable part of life in the garden.
Some Dreamers of the Impossible Dream
With nods to George Kennan, Joan Didion, and Cervantes, enjoy this excerpt from my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy about an extraordinary visit I made to Macedonia in 2006 published in The Foreign Service Journal.
Although I wrote this many months (even years) ago, the article is particularly apropos given very recent events in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It documents the activities many young people in the region are making to turn toward each other and articulate a new future for themselves and their countries.
Once again I send my sincere thanks to the editors of The Foreign Service Journal for agreeing to publish this article.
John Steinbeck, Californian
From The Log from the Sea of Cortez:
I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room in New Monterey, hoping the dentist had died. I had a badly aching tooth and not enough money to have a good job done on it. My main hope was that the dentist could stop the ache without charging too much and without finding too many other things wrong.
The door to the slaughterhouse opened and a slight man with a beard came out. I didn’t look at him closely because of what he held in his hand, a bloody molar with a surprisingly large piece of jawbone sticking to it. He was cursing gently as he came through the door. He held the reeking relic out to me and said, “Look at that god-damned thing.” I was already looking at it. “That came out of me,” he said.
“Seems to be more jaw than tooth,” I said.
“He got impatient, I guess. I’m Ed Ricketts.”
“I’m John Steinbeck. Does it hurt?”
“Not much. I’ve heard of you.”
“I’ve heard of you, too. Let’s have a drink.”
That was the first time I ever saw him.
Punk Is Not Dead
Today my review essay of Masha Gessen’s latest book, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
The book is a testament to the courage of the members of the group who used creative means to attack the regime and status quo of Vladimir Putin’s Russia — currently enjoying the world’s attention in Sochi during the winter Olympics.
I send my sincere thanks to the editors at the L.A. Review of Books for publishing my review.
I found an error in Table 7.2 on page 124 relating to languages spoken in the United States. All of the numbers are from the U.S. Census Bureau and are accurate. But French (including dialects) at 1,358,816 inexplicably appears as the sixth-most spoken language in the United States after English. It should be fourth after Tagalog. (Jan. 1, 2014)
From a friend working for an independent observer mission in Tblisi, Georgia, come the first corrections to my book The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy.
She notes on page 147 that during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia Russia sent forces into South Ossetia, not North Ossetia, and Carl Bildt is the Foreign Minister of Sweden, not Finland (apologies to Mr. Bildt!).
I am very happy to make factual corrections such as these as well as engage in debate about the more subjective policy proposals in the book and on this site. Feel free to contact me here. (Dec. 31, 2013)
The Last Three Feet
Hear my interview with The Public Diplomat’s PDCast, courtesy of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications and its Master’s Program in Public Diplomacy. I talk about working at NATO, my new book, and effective public diplomacy. Many thanks to Michael Ardaiolo for conducting the interview!