Saturday, June 18, 2005

Consumer Vertigo

A new wave of social critics claim that freedom’s just another word for way too much to choose. Here’s why they’re wrong.

Virginia Postrel

When customers enter the Ralphs supermarket near UCLA, they see a sign announcing how many different fruits and vegetables the produce department has on hand: “724 produce varieties available today,” it says, including 93 organic selections.

Sixty dozen varieties is a mind-boggling number. And that’s just in the produce department. Over in the cheese section, this pretty run-of-the-mill supermarket offers 14 types of feta alone. Not so long ago, finding feta of any type required a trip to a specialty shop.

During the last couple of decades, the American economy has undergone a variety revolution. Instead of simply offering mass-market goods, businesses of all sorts increasingly compete to give consumers more personalized products, more varied experiences, and more choice.

Average Americans order nonfat decaf iced vanilla lattes at Starbucks and choose from 1,500 drawer pulls at The Great Indoors. Amazon gives every town a bookstore with 2 million titles, while Netflix promises 35,000 different movies on DVD. Choice is everywhere, liberating to some but to others a new source of stress. “Stand in the corner of the toothpaste aisle with your eyes wide open and—I swear—it will make you dizzy,” writes design critic Karrie Jacobs. Maybe the sign in Ralphs is not an enticement but a warning.

The proliferation of choices goes well beyond groceries to our most significant personal decisions. Young, well-educated adults in particular have unprecedented freedom to make whatever they want of their lives: to decide where to live, what to do, whom to befriend, whom (or whether) to marry.

“Since graduation, we’ve struggled to make our own happiness,” Jenny Norenberg, a young lawyer, writes in Newsweek. “It seems that having so many choices has sometimes overwhelmed us. In the seven years since I left home for college, I’ve had 13 addresses and lived in six cities. How can I stay with one person, at one job, in one city, when I have the world at my fingertips?”

It’s all too much, declares the latest line of social criticism. Americans are facing a crisis of choice. We’re increasingly unhappy, riddled with anxiety and regret, because we have so much freedom to decide what to do with our money and our lives. Some choice may be good, but we’ve gone over the limit. The result is The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, the title of Yale political scientist Robert Lane’s 2000 book on the subject.

To these critics, providing too many choices is the latest way liberal societies in general, and markets in particular, make people miserable. “Choices proliferate beyond our pleasure in choosing and our capacity to handle the choices,” writes Lane. Like cheap food and sedentary labor, the argument goes, abundant choice is not something human beings are biologically evolved to cope with. We’d be better off with fewer decisions to make.

“As the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear,” writes Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice, published in January 2004. “As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

Schwartz’s book has become a touchstone, not just for social critics but for self-help gurus and marketing professionals looking for the Next Big Thing. Its argument also offers a scientific-seeming alternative to public policies that expand choice, notably in health care and retirement accounts.

Schwartz, writes Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby in an article on private Social Security accounts, “shows how a certain measure of choice can be liberating but how too much is a treadmill—sometimes even triggering depression. Freedom and choice are wonderful things that allow us to realize our human potential. But there’s a limit to how many choices each of us has time to make, and most people in the rich world are pretty much maxed out already.”

In his opening chapter, Schwartz recounts his troubles buying jeans at The Gap. What used to be a five-minute task requiring no more information than a waist size and length now demands multiple decisions and an unnerving amount of self-awareness. What leg shape and denim wash say “Barry Schwartz”? What shape is his body really? “Finally, I chose the easy fit, because a ‘relaxed fit’ implied that I was getting soft in the middle and needed to cover it up,” he writes.

Schwartz acknowledges that offering more styles and fits is good “for customers with varied tastes and body types,” but he discounts their interests. Ill-fitting jeans are a small price to pay for simplicity, he suggests. The Gap’s many choices, he says, have made buying jeans “a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread.” In the words of a Glamour editorial that cites Schwartz, “It’s enough to give even the most pro-choice girl one big headache.”

Like most culturally successful social criticism, the anti-choice critique starts with what strikes most people as an obvious truth: Too many options can be overwhelming. At some point, most shoppers have experienced Karrie Jacobs’ consumer vertigo.

People are in fact less likely to make a decision when they face too many alternatives. In a now-famous experiment, recounted in Schwartz’s book, researchers set up a table at a specialty food store, offering samples of jam. Customers could try as many flavors as they wanted. After tasting the jam, they got a coupon for $1.00 off a jar of any flavor. Half the time the sample table offered six flavors, and half the time it offered 24.

Neither selection included extremely common flavors such as strawberry and raspberry, and the smaller groups also eliminated unpopular jams such as lemon curd and red currant. “Careful attention was given to selecting a product with which most consumers would be familiar, yet not so familiar that preferences would already be firmly established,” write researchers Sheena S. Iyengar of Columbia and Mark R. Lepper of Stanford.

The results were striking: Thirty percent of the customers who tasted jams from the small selection later bought a jar, compared to only 3 percent of those who sampled from 24 different flavors. “Having ‘too much’ choice seems…to have hampered their later motivation to buy,” report Iyengar and Lepper. More sample choices made the jams less appealing.

It’s possible, of course, that a large display attracted a different sort of customer: people like me who never buy jam but were intrigued by the huge variety. And the 24 samples did in fact attract more tasters. Sixty percent of the shoppers who saw that display stopped for a sample, compared to 40 percent with the smaller layout.

But that difference alone can’t explain a tenfold difference in jam buying. Something important seems to be missing from the simple social science model that says that since we’re always free to ignore some alternatives, expanding options inevitably makes us better off.

Human minds aren’t that rational. We don’t ignore or forget forgone alternatives. We often fret over them. And knowing we may regret any particular decision, sometimes we simply won’t choose.

In another study by the same researchers, also recounted by Schwartz, subjects were shown a group of Godiva chocolates and asked which chocolate they would buy for themselves, based on the name and look of each. Half chose from six chocolates and half chose from 30. (The experiment limited its subjects to people who liked chocolate but didn’t regularly buy Godiva.)

Those who selected from the larger group took longer to make a decision. In a survey after the experiment, they were more likely to say there were “too many” chocolates to choose from and that choosing was frustrating and difficult. But they were also more likely to say that choosing was enjoyable—a result Schwartz omits from his book. People don’t dislike choice, even overwhelming choice. They have mixed feelings about it. And in the real world, especially the real marketplace, they often have help making decisions.

It’s true that human minds cannot evaluate an infinite number of choices, and that we’re prone to feel regret when we think about the alternatives we’ve forgone. But human beings aren’t biologically evolved to live in subzero temperatures or keep their teeth much beyond the age of 40 either. Culture and technology matter as much as biology.

For good scientific reasons, psychology experiments systematically screen out the habits and business practices that make real-life choices, especially shopping decisions, manageable. The experiments are designed to understand the mind, not the market.

Ralphs shoppers aren’t overwhelmed by 724 kinds of produce because they don’t experience every variety as a separate choice. The exotic fruits are grouped together, as are the potatoes and yams, the lettuce bags, and the apples. Godiva sells its chocolates in selections—nuts and caramels in one box, dark chocolates in another, truffles in another—not piece by piece. Businesses have strong incentives not just to offer options but to help customers navigate those choices.

Outside the artificial constraints of a psychology experiment, people adapt pretty effectively to proliferating choices. We go back to our favorite restaurant and order the same dish because we know we’ll like it. We find a toothpaste that suits us and stick to it. We don’t always choose anew.

“Consumers tend to return to the products they usually buy, not even noticing 75% of the items competing for their attention and their dollars,” writes Schwartz. “Who but a professor doing research would even stop to consider that there are almost 300 different cookie options to choose among?”

And who but a polemicist pursuing an argument would completely ignore what these habits tell us about the world? In a familiar environment, people aren’t overwhelmed by choice. With experience, we learn to negotiate the alternatives. Schwartz may have trouble in The Gap, but a teenager who owns nine pairs of jeans doesn’t. As Schwartz himself notes, “A small-town resident who visits Manhattan is overwhelmed by all that is going on. A New Yorker, thoroughly adapted to the city’s hyperstimulation, is oblivious to it.”

Schwartz treats this habituation as entirely negative, since it’s why we lose our appreciation of once-new pleasures. “When it first became possible to get a wide variety of fruits and vegetables at all times of year, I thought I’d found heaven,” he writes. “Now I take this year-round bounty for granted and get annoyed if the nectarines from Israel or Peru that I can buy in February aren’t sweet and juicy.”

Habituation is indeed a fact of human psychology. That’s one reason we like novelty, including different cuts of jeans. But grumpy social critics like Schwartz never consider the obvious thought experiment: Would you like to go back to the world with fewer options? Granted, dealing with lots of choices causes frustration and regret. But would you really be happier, once you’d become accustomed to them, if those abundant choices disappeared?

Schwartz also treats self-imposed limits on choice—or on shopping around—as evidence that choice doesn’t really make people better off. He gripes, for instance, that “phone service has become a decision to weigh and contemplate” but, on the very next page, writes that “twenty years after phone deregulation, AT&T still has 60 percent of the market, and half of its customers pay the basic rates. Most folks don’t even shop around for calling plans within the company.”

This inertia is perfectly reasonable, and not at all a rejection of choice in general. It perfectly fits the conventional social science model. Thanks to competition, long-distance service is cheap. So people who don’t make a lot of calls have no particular reason to switch companies. They can stick with what’s familiar, ignore the rest, and still pay less than they would have 20 years ago. But those who care about phone service can shop around.

If something important is missing from the social scientist’s standard model, something equally important is missing from the simplistic argument that people would be happier if we went back to the good old days of one-cut-fits-all jeans. That something is pluralism.

People are different—in size and shape, in personality, in tastes, in values. Ergonomics experts say the average body doesn’t actually exist. Neither does the average mind.

Abundant choice accommodates this variation. A world of few choices, whether in jeans or mates, is a world in which individual differences become sources of alienation, unhappiness, even self-loathing. If no jeans fit, you’ll feel uncomfortable or inferior. If no housing developments reflect your taste for unique architecture, you’ll write screeds against philistine mass culture. If no one in the village shares your interests or turn of mind, you’ll never have intimate friends.

Given the variety of human beings, we need abundant choice even to live as Schwartz recommends. Unlike some of Schwartz’s earlier work, or his recent opinion articles, The Paradox of Choice is a book about psychology, not politics. It offers practical, personal advice. It tells readers to set standards and look for “good enough,” rather than holding out for the very best conceivable choice: to “satisfice,” in the jargon of social scientists, rather than “maximize.”

When you satisfice, you don’t let an impossible quest for the perfect destroy your enjoyment of the good. You look for a red cotton crewneck sweater that fits well and costs less than $50. When you find one, you buy it. You don’t run all over town trying to find a better, or cheaper, sweater. You don’t lie awake at night wondering if your sweater is the best of all sweaters. Your purchase is rational in the normal, colloquial sense of the word but not necessarily in the social science meaning. (Some social scientists argue that satisficing is, in fact, rational in the narrow sense because it includes all the costs of the search.)

As long as you want something average, satisficing doesn’t require much variety. The old Holiday Inn slogan, “The Best Surprise Is No Surprise,” is all you need—minimum standards of not-bad quality, the old mass-market, one-size-fits-all formula. But nobody is average all the time. Maybe you’re looking for that red cotton sweater because even the softest wool makes your hypersensitive skin itch. You’d be much worse off in a world where sweaters only came in wool, while many other people, those with “normal” skin, would be perfectly happy. They might even argue that shoppers were better off with fewer fiber choices.

Since different people care intensely about different things, only a society where choice is abundant everywhere can truly accommodate the variety of human beings. Abundant choice doesn’t force us to look for the absolute best of everything. It allows us to find the extremes in those things we really care about, whether that means great coffee, jeans cut wide across the hips, or a spouse who shares your zeal for mountaineering, Zen meditation, and science fiction.

Schwartz writes that “the proliferation of choice in our lives robs us of the opportunity to decide for ourselves just how important any given decision is.” To the contrary, only the proliferation of choice gives us the opportunity to make the decisions we individually deem most important.

Of course, the idea that meaningful choice means actively contemplating every alternative isn’t unique to anti-choice critics. Libertarians sometimes talk as though the act of choosing is a good in and of itself and treat any limitation on choice as some kind of weakness, irrationality, or tyranny. Yet free individuals voluntarily limit their options all the time. They decide to be vegan, to write strictly metered poetry, to wear natural fibers, to date born-again Christians, to buy Japanese cars. They happily shop at boutiques, use blogs to guide their reading, and hire interior designers. They let expert gatekeepers narrow down their alternatives.

These choices about what and how to choose are not only voluntary but meaningful. They help define who we are. And they preserve the essential value of abundant choice. Most people, most of the time, are less interested in choice per se than they are in the benefits of variety. They want to find what truly suits them.

Hiring an interior designer or wedding consultant is not, as The Washington Post’s Mallaby suggests, a way of “deliberately avoiding choice.” To
the contrary, these specialists are valuable because they don’t simply limit the number of options. They limit those options to ones you’re likely to like. They do not hand you a one-size-fits-all solution à la Social Security. Unlike the Schwartz prescription for “less choice” overall, these gatekeepers do not reduce your chance of finding what’s right for you. They increase it.

At the heart of the anti-choice argument is a false dichotomy: We can have a narrow range of standardized choices, or we can live with options that are infinite, dizzying, and always open.

Schwartz treats commitment as the opposite of choice rather than its complement. By this logic, a market without contracts is freer than one in which contracts are enforced. After all, what if I sell you my car and then change my mind and want it back?

“Social ties actually decrease freedom, choice, and autonomy,” he writes. “Marriage, for example, is a commitment to a particular other person that curtails freedom of choice in sexual and even emotional partners.” So gays who cannot legally marry their partners are somehow freer than heterosexuals who can? There’s something deeply wrong with this understanding of choice. Freedom to choose must include the freedom to commit.

Ultimately, the debate about choice is not about markets but about character. Liberty and responsibility really do go together; it’s not just a platitude. The more freedom we have to control our lives, the more responsibility we have for how they turn out. In a world of constraints, learning to be happy with what you’re given is a virtue. In a world of choices, virtue comes from learning to make commitments without regrets. And commitment, in turn, requires self-confidence and self-knowledge.

“We are free to be the authors of our lives,” says Schwartz, “but we don’t know exactly what kind of lives we want to ‘write.’” Maturity lies in deciding just that.

Virginia Postrel, former editor of reason, is the author of The Substance of Style (HarperCollins) and The Future and Its Enemies (Free Press). Her Web site,, includes further articles on choice and variety.

“How would you like to be attached to the Red Army?”

A cameraman at Yalta tells what it was like to spend a few days in claustrophobic luxury with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt—and to be offered a job by Joseph Stalin

By Robert Hopkins

Robert Hopkins was 15 years old when he first met Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the inauguration of New York’s Triborough Bridge in 1936. His father, Harry Hopkins, ran the WPA, which had built the bridge. Of course Hopkins remained FDR’s close lieutenant throughout the war, and once, as a newly minted GI, Robert was able to return late to Fort Dix bearing this note:

November 30, 1941
Private Robert Hopkins is to be excused from reveille. He has been in consultation with the Commander-in-Chief.
Franklin D. Roosevelt

Few soldiers can have had a more varied wartime career than Hopkins, who became a photographer and divided his time between being under fire on the front lines and breakfasting on caviar with the highest of High Commanders. So it was that early in 1945 he went from the German front to Malta, where he met his father. “Dad told me we would be taking off to fly to the Crimea that night and to be sure I had all my equipment with me.” He was heading toward the Yalta Conference, where, for the last time, the three main leaders of the Allied effort met to begin shaping the postwar world.

We were flying over the Black Sea when I woke up at seven o’clock on the morning of February 3. I learned that we would be landing at Saki in the Crimea and would continue by car to Yalta, 90 miles away.

When our plane touched down, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov was there to meet us. He remembered me from the Teheran Conference and greeted me in a friendly fashion. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already landed. The President and my father arrived a few minutes later in the President’s plane, The Sacred Cow. Also on the plane were his daughter, Anna Boettiger, Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. Averell Harriman and his daughter, Kathy, and Maj. Gen. Edwin M. (“Pa”) Watson, the President’s military aide.

Soviet soldiers in dress uniforms lined both sides of the runway. They snapped to attention as the President’s plane landed, and a Russian military band struck up. When the President was installed in a jeep and was talking to my father, I used some of my small supply of precious four-by-five-inch color film to photograph them. The result proved to be my favorite photograph of President Roosevelt and my father together.

President Roosevelt reviewed the honor guard with Prime Minister Churchill walking alongside his jeep. Then we boarded a convoy of cars and set out on the bone-jarring drive to Yalta. It took us five hours on that battle-pitted road, through the stark, scorched earth landscape, to reach our destination. The entire route was guarded by Soviet soldiers, most of them women, posted within sight of one another. That 90-mile drive from Saki to Yalta took almost as much time as our 1,400-mile flight from Malta to Saki.

Camouflage paint dimmed the splendor of Livadia Palace when it loomed out of the trees. The Nazi High Command, which had occupied the palace, had vacated it only months before we arrived.

My father went straight to bed to recuperate from the grueling journey. He had a private room near the President’s quarters on the main floor of the palace. Anna Boettiger, Adm. William Leahy, Gen. George Marshall, and Adm. Ernest King also had private rooms, but just about everyone else had to share. I recall that there were 16 Army colonels jammed, dormitory-style, in one room. Miraculously, I found a tiny room up under the eaves of the palace, furnished with a cot, a straight-back chair, and a small table. I immediately claimed it, enormously pleased at having found a room to myself. That night I had no sooner closed my eyes than I became aware that I was in fact sharing my room with a horde of Russian bedbugs that emerged from under the torn wallpaper in battalions. U.S. Navy personnel, responsible for the logistics of the conference, came to my rescue with aerosol insecticides. Russian bedbugs, however, proved impervious to the spray, and they bedeviled me and everyone else in the palace for the remainder of the conference. (Years later Anna Boettiger told me that Admiral Leahy was convinced that I had brought the bedbugs with me from the German front.)

Shortly after we had settled in, we received a mimeographed description of the palace and its surroundings. I have no idea who wrote it, nor have I seen another copy save my own since the conference. The portion concerning the palace is worth reproducing here to set the scene for the conference.

Livadia, the former summer palace of Tsar Nicholas II, is situated 11/2 miles from Yalta. The new, or large palace was finished in 1911. Most of the frescoes, panelling, carved doors, etc., were prepared in St. Petersburg. The palace grounds formerly belonged to Count Potocki who presented them to the Romanov family in the 19th century… .

The first floor of the palace was used by Nicholas and his son, Alexai, for living quarters. The left wing, facing the sea, contained the Tsar’s study and bedroom. The President’s private dining room was formerly a billiard room. The large conference room was the ballroom-banquet hall. The Tsar had many bedrooms on the first floor and was wont to sleep in a different room every night, even at times changing his room during the night for fear of assassination… .

The second floor was used principally by the Tsarina and her four daughters. General Marshall is occupying the Imperial bedroom and Admiral King the Tsarina’s boudoir. The private outside staircase is said to have been used by Rasputin. The large rooms on the left wing were used by the Tsarevnas (daughters) as classrooms. The second floor conference room was a private reception room of the Tsarina. The second floor dining room was a private sitting room used only by the Tsar’s family.

The architect of the palace, Krasnov, often had to give way to the whims of the Tsar to the detriment, so he thought, of the palace. To avenge himself, he used lion head caricatures of the Tsar as armrests on the two marble benches outside the main door. The similarity becomes striking when a cap is placed atop the lion’s head.

In the afternoon of February 4, 1945, the day after President Roosevelt arrived at Livadia Palace, Marshal Stalin presented himself for an informal visit. There was no time to alert Prime Minister Churchill, who was at his quarters in the Vorontsov Villa, miles away, or to summon the main body of U.S. Army photographers billeted aboard the USS Catoctin, which was anchored off Sevastopol, 80 miles away. (The Catoctin was used as the communications link to Washington, and many members of the support staff lived aboard her during the conference. She was the first U.S. warship to enter the Black Sea since the Russian Revolution.)

When I received word of Stalin’s arrival, I scrambled downstairs with my Speed Graphic in time to photograph the President chatting with Stalin in a small anteroom just off the main entrance hall of the palace. They were seated on a plush couch with an inlaid table in front of them. Stalin’s interpreter, Pavlov, sat to one side, making notes and translating.

The meeting was cordial and consisted primarily of Stalin’s welcoming the President to Yalta and making sure that he was comfortably settled. Since it was about cocktail hour, the President repeated a ritual he regularly performed at the White House: He made a pitcher of dry martinis. As he passed a glass to Stalin, he said apologetically that a good martini really should have a twist of lemon.

At six o’clock the following morning, when I came down to the main entrance hall, I was astonished to find, just outside the door to the anteroom, a huge lemon tree—I counted some 200 pieces of fruit on it—which Stalin had ordered flown in from his native Georgia so the President could serve his martinis with a twist.

The first plenary meeting of the Yalta Conference convened shortly after Stalin’s informal call on Roosevelt. By this time the entire American, British, and Russian contingents of official photographers had arrived. There were 16 U.S. Army still photographers and motion-picture cameramen, 2 British photographers, and at least 30 Russians; there were no civilian press photographers.

The main entrance hall of Livadia Palace was jammed; we were jostled from all sides, and taking pictures was difficult. I managed to photograph the arrivals of Churchill and of Stalin and their greetings to the other notables present. Outnumbered as we were by Russian photographers, it seemed to me that every time I raised my camera to take a picture, one of them would pop up in front of me, blocking my view. This became increasingly frustrating when the principals moved into the conference room and took their places around the table. The photographers were not allowed inside and tried to shoulder one another out of the way as they struggled to get their pictures from the doorway.

When the double doors closed and the principals began their deliberations, the American and British photographers complained that their Russian counterparts were running interference to hamper the efforts of the rest of us.

Although I was outranked by almost everyone there, I called a meeting, using a Russian interpreter named “Mike”—a former Columbia University student—to translate. When we all were assembled, I spoke, saying this was surely the most historic meeting of the war, and it was our responsibility to record it. But all we had done so far was take pictures of one another’s backs. The only solution I could see was to reduce the number of photographers.

After some discussion, the Russians agreed to cut their contingent to the one still photographer and two motion-picture cameramen, provided the Americans did the same.

(I said that there should be two motion-picture cameramen for each contingent because changing motion-picture film in 1945 was a lengthy process that involved putting the entire camera and a fresh roll of film into a light-tight changing bag. The camera operator would then slip his arms into elastic sleeves and, by touch alone, open the camera, remove the exposed film, and seal it into a can, then open a fresh can of film and thread it into the camera.)

To my surprise, everyone agreed, and the problem was solved. Because President Roosevelt had specifically asked me to cover the conference, I was the only American still photographer to record it for the rest of the time we were there.

I did not see all my own photographs until after the war.

When my father returned to Washington, he sent one complete set of prints to my mother to hold for me until I returned; another set went to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, and the third is, I understand, in the National Archives.

Before the second plenary meeting, I gave my father a Soviet 10-ruble banknote on which I wrote my name and “Short-Snorter—Yalta—5 February 1945.” I asked him if he could arrange to get Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin to sign it for me as a souvenir of the conference.

I watched him take it into the conference room. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill signed it without hesitation. Marshal Stalin balked, however, obviously baffled. Later my father told me that Roosevelt explained to Stalin that the Short Snorter Club had been formed by American pilots who ferried bombers across the Atlantic to England and that anyone who flew across the Atlantic was eligible to join, provided he was brought into the fellowship by two members. Stalin pointed out that he had never flown across the Atlantic Ocean and therefore was not eligible. Roosevelt said that he was taking it upon himself to waive that requirement in this instance. With obvious reluctance, Stalin signed.

That evening President Roosevelt was the host at a dinner for Churchill and Stalin and their immediate staffs, including my father. When I photographed the guests around the dinner table, one seat at the end of the table was empty because Major A. H. Birse, Churchill’s interpreter, had not yet sat down. This picture was featured on a full page in Paris-Match magazine with the caption “The empty chair was General de Gaulle’s,” reflecting French bitterness at his exclusion from the Yalta deliberations.

There was an abundance of beluga caviar at Livadia Palace. In fact, a heaping saucer of caviar for each person was the first course at breakfast every day, followed by herring, bread, fruit, and tea. The menu never varied. I longed for orange juice, fried eggs, toast and coffee, and I knew that the President’s entourage included the Filipino mess boys who staffed the presidential yacht Potomac. I discovered they had brought with them enough food to feed the entire U.S. delegation of 258 people and that there were whole cases of fresh eggs among their supplies.

But the Russians insisted on cooking every meal. Two headwaiters recruited from the Hotel Metropole in Moscow served us all. They were an unsmiling pair who spoke no English. I usually had breakfast with my father in his bedroom because there was no other time for us to be alone together. He was amused as I vainly tried with gestures and sketches to describe to the waiters the breakfast I preferred. Finally, after several days, they triumphantly brought me a platter of one dozen fried pullet eggs, preceded by a saucer of caviar and followed by herring, bread, fruit, and tea.

Generally, I had lunch and dinner in the second-floor dining room with members of the Secret Service and the Navy staff responsible for communications and logistics. The meals were copious, but the menu, which was the same for both lunch and dinner, never varied. As with breakfast, the first course was caviar, followed by roast pheasant, string beans, cabbage, and potatoes, all accompanied by excellent Georgian wine.

My father was weak and bedridden for most of the conference, but he attended all eight of the meetings at which Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin were present, seated directly behind the President. Many of the lower-echelon meetings were held with him in his bedroom. There he would advise members of the American delegation on positions to take with their British and Russian counterparts at a ministerial or military level.

On the few occasions when dad was up and dressed but not involved in a meeting, I took pictures of him with other members of the U.S. delegation, including Ed Flynn, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who had no role to play at the conference but whom the President invited along as a courtesy; with Charles (Chip) Bohlen, an assistant to the Secretary of State who would act as FDR’s translator; and with Stephen Early, the President’s press secretary. After I took Steve’s picture with Dad, I turned my Speed Graphic over to him so he could photograph my father and me together on the balcony of Livadia Palace, with the Black Sea in the background.

When conferences were in session, i was free to photograph the palace and gardens. On one occasion Anna Boettiger, Kathy Harriman, and I took a walk through the grounds and down into the town of Yalta. We were followed at about 20 paces by a Russian soldier. On our way we encountered a child of about four. We stopped to talk to him, with Kathy interpreting. Anna offered him a Hershey bar, which he accepted. At that point the Russian soldier rushed up to us, snatched the candy bar from the child, and forced it back into Anna’s hand, saying, “Russian children don’t need food!” Our protests were to no avail, and the frightened child ran back to his house, empty-handed.

Yalta was a charming town, and I could understand why it had been such a popular resort. We entered a church where a Russian Orthodox mass was in progress and found it filled to capacity with very old women and young children; all men and women of military age were away in the armed forces. There were no pews or chairs, and at prayers the worshipers prostrated themselves on the smooth stone floor. I had understood that religion was stifled in the Soviet Union. But here, at least, it continued to thrive.

The final plenary session of the Yalta Conference was held on February 11, and Steve Early set up a photo session in the courtyard of the palace that afternoon. The sky was slightly overcast, providing good, even light for our pictures.

The courtyard was surrounded on all four sides by an arcade, and there was a well in the center. Oriental rugs were spread over what had been gardens, and three chairs were placed in front of the well for Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin.

When the photographers were admitted, President Roosevelt and Marshal Stalin were already seated. Prime Minister Churchill arrived shortly after, wearing a Russian fur hat, to the amusement of both Roosevelt and Stalin. Their military and diplomatic staffs were milling around in the background. Dad was too ill to attend.

I sensed a kind of euphoria among the principals and members of all three delegations for what had been accomplished during the conference. Their faces reflected relief from the strain of negotiations, and there was laughter and good-natured banter.

Of particular importance were agreement on the partition of Germany after its defeat; Stalin’s acceptance of free elections in Poland with the participation of Polish exiles in London; Stalin’s agreement to join American and British forces in the Far East to defeat Japan; and, most of all, the three-power agreement on the terms for the establishment of the United Nations as a means for ensuring world peace.

“How do you want to handle this, Robert?” asked the President.

“First, Mr. President, I’d like to have Mr. Stettinius stand behind you, with Mr. Molotov behind Marshal Stalin, and Mr. Eden behind Prime Minister Churchill. Then I would like the others who participated in the deliberations to move in so that they will be included in the photographic record of the conference.”

The three senior diplomats took their places as I requested, but the others did not move out of the way, as I had hoped. It didn’t really matter because each individual there had made an important contribution to the discussions.

As I was taking a picture of Stalin and Molotov under the arcade, Stalin motioned me to approach. He smiled and shook my hand and asked me what I had been doing since we last met. Molotov acted as our interpreter as we talked.

I told him that I had just returned from filming action on the German front.

“What are your plans now?” he asked.

“Well, I want to be the first American photographer in Berlin, but this seems unlikely, since your troops are on the outskirts of the city, and we’re 125 miles away.”

“How would you like to be attached to the Red Army?” he said. “Then you could be the first American to film the fall of Berlin.”

This proposal took my breath away. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Could you arrange that?,” momentarily forgetting that he could arrange anything in the Soviet orbit.

“You take care of it from your end, and I’ll take care of it from ours,” said Stalin.

I thanked him, shook hands with him and with Molotov, then raced down the corridor of Livadia Palace, encountering General Marshall on the way. I told him of my conversation with Stalin and asked if he could arrange for me to be placed on temporary duty with the Russian Army so I could film the fall of Berlin.

“Yes,” he said, “I can arrange that.”

Thrilled, I hurried to my father’s bedroom and told him about my conversations with Stalin and General Marshall.

“You can’t go,” he said flatly.

“What do you mean, I can’t go? It’s all arranged! This will be the biggest story of the war!”

“I mean you can’t go. Think about it. If you were attached to the Russian Army, they’d never let you near the front. Even if you got to the front, they wouldn’t let you take pictures. And if you were clever enough to take pictures, they’d never let them out of the country. You go into Berlin with the American Army.”

There was no persuading him. He was adamant, and I had to admit to myself that he knew the Russians better than I.

“What will I tell Marshall? What will I tell Stalin?”

“That’s your problem,” he said.

Deflated, I visited General Marshall in his room and told him what my father had said and withdrew my request for temporary duty with the Russians.

Then I went to Stalin and told him I could not go but thanked him for his offer.

Stalin merely shrugged.

Not long after, we got aboard a luxurious old train—Dad slept in the Tsar’s bedroom on it—and when I awoke the next morning we were on a siding next to the Saki airfield.

After Yalta, the entourage went to Egypt to meet with King Farouk, and then Robert Hopkins left FDR and such high councils to travel to Belgium and Holland to make a documentary film about the destruction caused by German flying bombs and V-2 rockets. After the war he produced documentary radio programs about the Marshall Plan and later was active in Europe and South America with the CIA. He is currently president of the Harry Hopkins Public Service Institute and recently published a memoir of his war years called, accurately enough, Witness to History (Castle Pacific Publishing).

American Heritage June/July 2005

Kushner on Miller

Kushner on Miller

[from the June 13, 2005 issue]

Tony Kushner delivered these remarks at a memorial service for Arthur Miller held at the Majestic Theater in New York City.

Arthur Miller died on Bertolt Brecht's birthday. There are two ways in which this means nothing at all: I'm sure Arthur didn't plan it, and the two playwrights, apart from being universally described, and self-identified, as "political writers," don't have all that much in common. But their difference is interesting. Arthur Miller's was a great voice, one of the principal voices, raised in opposition, calling for resistance, offering critical scrutiny and lamentation--in other words, he was politically progressive, as politically progressive is best defined in these dark times. He demanded that we must be able to answer, on behalf of our plays, our endeavors, our lives, a really tough question, one that Arthur wrote was the chief and, in a sense, only reason for writing and speaking: "What is its relevancy," he asks, "to the survival of the race? Not," he stipulates, "the American race, or the Jewish race, or the German race, but the human race." He demanded that our work and our lives have some relevance to human survival. The question implies anxiety about that survival, a refusal of complacency, an acknowledgment that there is a human community for which each of us bears responsibility and a warning that we are in danger. Miller tells us that what we do, the things we choose to struggle with in art and elsewhere, can have some effect on the outcome. There is, in other words, reason to hope, and change is possible. Arthur was a grieving pessimist, but what truly progressive person isn't?

He was one of those political people who refused an identification with a specific race or nation or movement or party. He certainly wasn't a communist, and he wasn't a socialist. During the Depression, his grandfather, whom Arthur described as "a Republican all his life...[with] bags under his eyes like von Hindenburg," shocked the family by turning to his unemployed grandson one night after dinner and saying, "You know what you ought to do? You ought to go to Russia."

"The silence that fell" in the dining room, Arthur wrote, "is better described as a vacuum so powerful it threatened to suck the walls in. Even my father woke up on the couch. I asked [my grandfather] why I should go to Russia.

"Because [he answered] in Russia they haven't got anything. Here they got too much. You can't sell anything anymore. You go to Russia and open a chain of clothing stores; you could do a big business. That's a new country, Russia."

"'But,' I said, 'you can't do that there.'

'Why not?' he said, disbelieving.

'The government owns the stores there.' His face would have put fears into Karl Marx himself. 'Them bastards,' he said, and went back to his paper."

The grandson was a great believer in democracy and self-reliance and in anything conducive to and supportive of individual human dignity and integrity. His drama was the drama of individual integrity, individual wholeness or completeness or repleteness versus unaccountable power--or perhaps one could say of the individual versus history. And one way Arthur Miller's theater and politics differ from a writer like Brecht's is that Arthur focused his critical gaze, and located his sense of political struggle, within the arena of an individual consciousness, in an important sense his own individual consciousness. Would it be correct to say that he was not a joiner of parties or group identities because, a loyalist only to the human race, he manifested that loyalty by being true to himself? Though he was clearly interested in history, he was uncomfortable writing about it. The Crucible and Incident at Vichy are not, finally, historical plays. Each sets its scene in the midst of a historical crime in progress, but soon the great dramatist that Arthur Miller was has turned his unsparing, unblinking, loving intelligence away from the grand-scale horror to demand of a single human being: Never mind all that out there, as overwhelming as it is. Even in the face of horror you must still ask yourself, and hard as it is, you are capable of asking it: What do you mean to yourself, what do you know yourself to be? What, in other words, is your relevance to the survival of the race?

He wasn't interested in the examination of history as the opportunity to illuminate metatheories about the ultimate direction the human community was taking. Arthur Miller was one of those very rare people whose politics were inseparable from the drama of his personal integrity. He was his own proving ground; he felt his successes and his failures as a human being were consequential to something greater than himself, and so they were publicly examined and, in a sense, the only thing worth talking about. He wasn't certain that a single individual has relevance to our collective survival, but he saw no other question worth pursuing.

He once wrote that he stopped studying economics as an undergraduate because economics, as it was and is taught, can "measure the giant's footsteps but not look into his eyes." His observation reflects his indebtedness to left political analysis--a central tenet of which is the critical consideration of the human, ethical and political meanings of money, rather than the mere prognostication of its tides and currents--and it also reflects his conviction, or perhaps predilection, or natural inclination, even when considering the giant, to look for truth by looking into his eyes, the windows of the soul. Arthur Miller had the curse of empathy, even for the enemy. Humans justify themselves to themselves, even bad humans, and Arthur the playwright always wanted to know how and why. Look into his eyes.

He made it clear in his plays and his essays that his critical thinking and social consciousness had their genesis in the red politics that were pervasive when he was growing up, a politics catalyzed by the suffering he witnessed and experienced in the Great Depression, a politics shaped in response to the toxic, obnoxious valorization of greed always, always re-emerging in American history as a bedrock tenet of the political right. Although he refused the mechanical determinism of the unthinking Marxist left, he created in his greatest play a drama in which it is impossible to avoid thinking about economics--money--in any attempt to render coherent the human tragedy unfolding before you. Consider the Lomans: What has brought darkness down upon this family? Their flaws are part of their tragedy, but only a part--every flaw is magnified, distorted, made fatal by, well, alienation, by the market, where the pressure is inhuman and the human is expendable. Consider the moment when the Nothing of tragedy is enunciated, and annunciated, in Death of a Salesman, Biff and Willy's final fight ("Pop, I'm nothing! I'm nothing, Pop! Can't you understand that? There's no spite in it anymore. I'm just what I am, that's all. Will you let me go, for Christ's sake?"). It's tragic negation, vast and shatteringly intimate; everything is annihilated, and at the same time something new is being born. It's "nothing" of the tragedies of Euripides and Shakespeare, and in Miller's postwar, marketplace masterpiece, one hears an echo of another "nothing," tragic but also political--namely, "You have nothing to lose but your chains."

If Arthur's Emersonian temperament saved him from the terrible mistakes of the doctrinaire left of his time, if his habits of scrupulousness and independence carried him into a healthy, immensely vital skepticism, if he refused partisanship, he also never ceased reminding us of his indebtedness to, indeed his affinity with, the left, with progressive thought. He never became a cynic, or a nihilist, or an ego-anarchist, or a despoiler of humanist utopian dreams, or a neocon. His great personal courage and his graceful confidence in his stature and talents made it unnecessary for him to cuddle up to power elites, allowed him to retain his sympathy, his affinity for the disinherited, the marginal and the powerless. He never wanted us to forget that without economic justice, the concept of social justice is an absurdity and, worse, a lie.

I first saw Arthur Miller in person at the 1994 Tony Awards, when I sat behind him, too unnerved to introduce myself; for the whole evening I stared at the back of his head, which was far, far more interesting to me than anything transpiring onstage. Inside this impressive cranium, inside this dome, I thought to myself, Willy Loman was conceived--for an American playwright, a place comparable in sacrosanctity to the Ark of the Covenant or the Bodhi Tree or the Manger in Bethlehem. I wanted to touch the head, but I worried its owner might object. The ceremonies ended, and I'd missed my opportunity to make contact with the quarry whence came one of the postwar pillars upon which the stature of serious American playwriting rests.

Thanks to my friend Oskar Eustis I got to meet Arthur several years later, in Providence, Rhode Island, when I presented him with an award. On that occasion I had the chance to thank him personally. I said, "Mr. Miller, yours is a career and a body of work every playwright envies and wishes were her or his own; yours is the difficult standard against which we are measured and measure ourselves. For many sleepless nights and days of despair, I want to say thanks a lot; and for making my heart break, and burst into flames, time and time again, since the night, when I was 6 years old, I saw my mother play Linda Loman in a Louisiana community theater production of Salesman, and I think at that moment secretly deciding I wanted to be a playwright. Seeing Incident at Vichy on TV a few years later, I admitted to myself the decision I'd made. Watching splendid recent revivals of View From the Bridge, Salesman, The Crucible, I have gone home, chastened, to re-question all my assumptions about what playwriting is and how one ought to do it. And for always being there, on my bookshelf, when people say that real art can't be political, or that a real artist can't also be a political activist; your life and work are there to remind me what preposterous canards those are--for all this, I want to say thanks a lot."

For American playwrights who come after Arthur Miller, there is of course an unpayable debt. Those of us who seek mastery of dramatic realist narrative have his plays to try to emulate. Scene after scene, they are perhaps our best constructed plays, works of a master carpenter/builder. Those of us who seek not mastery but new ways of making theater have to emulate his refusal to sit comfortably where Salesman enthroned him. Arthur once praised Tennessee Williams for a "restless inconsolability with his solutions which is inevitable in a genuine writer," for making "an assault upon his own viewpoint in an attempt to break it up and reform it on a wider circumference."

American playwrights have most to learn from the sound of Arthur Miller's voice: Humility, decency, generosity are its trademarks. Turn down the braying of ego, it says to us, turn down the chatter of entertainment, the whine of pornographic sensuality and prurience, abandon the practice of rendering judgment as an expression of isolation, superstition and terror, and reach for a deeper judgment, the kind of judgment that pulls a person beyond his expected reach toward something more than any single human animal ought to be capable of--toward something shared, communal, maybe even toward something universal, maybe even toward God. It's a path to knowing that is the birthright of dramatists and "genuine writers." It seems to me difficult because it's a lonely path, and Jewish in its demanding interiority. It's Jewish also in its faith that words have an awesome, almost sacred, power, force, weight. God, or the world, is listening, Arthur Miller reminds us, and when you speak, when you write, God, or the world, is also speaking and writing. "A great drama is a great jurisprudence," Arthur wrote. "Balance is all. It will evade us until we can once again see man as a whole, until sensitivity and power, justice and necessity are utterly face to face, until authority's justifications and rebellion's too are tracked even to those heights where the breath fails, where--because the largest point of view as well as the smaller has spoken--truly, the rest is silence."

The Nation

Friday, June 17, 2005

Dropping the Atomic Bomb

Dropping the Atomic Bomb

Deborah Sinclaire

While US President Harry Truman was meeting with Allied leaders in Germany in July 1945, he received an important message from a small town in the middle of the New Mexico desert: "Babies satisfactorily born." These codewords indicated that American scientists had detonated the first atom bomb. Now, Truman had to decide what to do with his terrible "babies."

The stage was set for an invasion of the Japanese mainland, and US military planners expected the Japanese to defend their homes with even more determination than they had defended islands like Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. That was a grim prospect considering that almost 13,000 Americans had died at Okinawa alone. More than 200,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians had died in that battle, many in suicidal attacks. US War Secretary Henry Stimson therefore envisioned the invasion of Japan, codenamed Operation Downfall, as "a score of bloody Iwo Jimas and Okinawas." American casualties during the operation were projected at one million or more. For Japan, the figures would be staggering, possibly in excess of 10 million.

For Allied leaders like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the atom bomb held the hope that the war could be ended "in one or two violent shocks." Truman agreed, believing the bomb would save many more lives than it would cost. For the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that cost was 200,000 people who died within minutes, and thousands more who died of injuries and radiation sickness in the coming months. Japan, not knowing that the US had used its only two atom bombs, surrendered. The war was over, but the atomic age--and the many new and complex problems that came with it--was born.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


The Wall Street Journal / Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Great Dane
Hans Christian Andersen wrote dark, timeless fairytales--for children and grown-ups.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005 12:01 a.m.

Did Michael Jackson read as a boy, or have read to him, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen? One is tempted to ask that question as the many dimensions of Mr. Jackson's real and imagined childhood are raised in public trial. Many Americans still read Andersen's tales, whether as children or to their children, but tend to confound him with the amiable dreamer played by Danny Kaye in a not very adequate film biography. The actual Andersen composed an extraordinary range of stories, as much addressed to older readers as to children.
The 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth was very recently upon us. He was born in Odense, then a poor town. His family was of the humblest, his putative father a cobbler, and his mother a washerwoman compelled by hard circumstances to something like prostitution.

Though Andersen was a grand original in his fairy tales, he eagerly accepted from folklore its stoic acceptance of fate. Nietzsche argued that, for the sake of life, origin and aim had to be kept apart. In Andersen, there was no desire to separate the two. It cost his life much fulfillment: He never had a home of his own or a lasting love, but he achieved an extraordinary literary art.

Like Walt Whitman's, Andersen's authentic sexual orientation was homoerotic, though his longings for women were more poignant than Whitman's largely literary gestures towards heterosexuality. But Whitman was a poet-prophet, who offered salvation, hardly Christian. Andersen professed a rather sentimental devotion to the Christ child, but his art is pagan in nature. His compatriot, Kierkegaard, sensed this early on. From the perspective of the 21st century, Andersen and Kierkegaard strangely divide between them the aesthetic eminence of Danish literature. What is it about Andersen's stories that make them so imperishable? Kierkegaard rightly analyzed his own project as showing how difficult it is to be a Christian in an ostensibly Christian society. Andersen had a rather different project: how to remain a child in an ostensibly adult world.

I myself see no distinction between children's literature and good or great writing for extremely intelligent children of all ages. J.K. Rowling and Stephen King are equally bad writers, appropriate titans of our new Dark Age of the Screens: computer, motion pictures, TV. One goes on urging children of all ages to read and reread Andersen and Dickens, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, rather than Ms. Rowling and Mr. King. Sometimes when I say that in public I am asked: Is it not better to read Ms. Rowling and Mr. King, and then go on to Andersen, Dickens, Carroll and Lear? The answer is pragmatic: Our time here is limited. You necessarily read and reread at the expense of other books.

Andersen called one of his memoirs "The Fairy Tale of My Life." It makes clear how painful his emergence was from the working class of Denmark in the early 19th century. The driving purpose of his career was to win fame and honor while not forgetting how hard the way up had been. His memories of being read to by his father from "The Arabian Nights" seem stronger than any other. Absorbing the biographies of Andersen is a curious process, and I have the impression of a remarkably direct teenager, marching into Copenhagen and collapsing upon the kindness of strangers. This peculiar directness lasted all his life: He went throughout Europe introducing himself to Heine, Hugo, Lamartine, Vigny, Mendelsohn, Schumann, Dickens, the Brownings, and others. A hunter of big names, he hungered to become one himself, and won through the invention of his fairy tales.

Anderson was outrageously prolific in every genre: novels, travelogues, poetry, plays, but he mattered, and always will, entirely because of his unique fairy tales, which he transmuted into a creation of his own, fusing the supernatural and the common life in ways that continue to surprise me, more even than the tales of Hoffmann, Gogol, and Kleist, setting aside the sublimely dreadful but inescapable Poe.

Sexual frustration is Anderson's pervasive though hidden obsession, embodied in his witches and icy temptresses, and in his androgynous princes. D.H. Lawrence bequeathed us a superb critical motto: "Trust the tale, not the artist." Andersen told us that his stories were the history of his life, and his critics and biographers largely follow him, yet I am skeptical. Like Whitman, Andersen's work seems easy but proves difficult. What allies them most are their mutual evasions of their own apparent projects. Whitman proclaimed himself the poet of democracy, yet his poetry is hermetic and elitist. Andersen invented what the last two centuries have called "children's literature," but after some early stories he is no more available just to children than are Kafka and Gogol. Rather, Andersen wrote for extraordinarily intelligent children of all ages, from nine to 90.

Sometimes I find that, for a moment anyway, my favorite Andersen story is "The Collar," an apparent trifle of just two pages, but these are as rammed with life and meaning as a fragment of parable of Kafka's, like "the Bucket Rider" or "The Hunter Gracchus." Composed in 1848 after an English visit, "The Collar" ironizes both Andersen himself, an obsessive self-promoter, and the Danish newspapers, intensely annoyed by the playing abroad of this one-man band.

One of Andersen's weirdest and greatest gifts is that his stories live in an animistic cosmos, in which there are no mere objects whatsoever. Every tree, bush, animal, artifact, or item of clothing has an anxious soul, a voice, sexual desires, need for status, and a terror at the prospect of annihilation. Andersen's episodes of alternating grandiosity and depression are very much at variance with this created world, where mermaids and ice maidens, swans and storks, ducklings and fir trees, collars and garters, snowmen and wood nymphs, witches and toothaches, all possess consciousness as capacious, cruel, and desperate for survival as our own.

Ostensibly a Christian, Andersen from the start was a narcissistic pagan who worshipped Fate, she being for him a sadistic goddess we could name as Nemesis. His genius is deeply founded upon an ancient animism, older than "The Arabian Nights." Shakespeare, most universal of geniuses, doubtless influenced him with "A Midsummer Night's Dream," where charming fairies become Bottom's retainers, the wonderful fourfold of Mustardseed, Moth, Cobweb, and Peaseblossom. So Andersenian are these little fellows that we might think that, reversing time, Shakespeare took them from the Dane, except that they would be darker beings in the Odense storyteller. Andersen's universe is totally vitalistic, but more malign than not.

Andersen was like Blake and Whitman, who lived in realities that had no inanimate objects, only sensibilities in every pebble and weed, every scab on a stone fence. But these were prophets of apocalypse, urging all things to reassume the forms of the human. Andersen, like his fellow-Dane Hamlet, is a prophet of annihilation. A tiny story like "The Collar" is as much a self-study as a Hamlet soliloquy. Like Andersen, the collar keeps proposing marriage, and is turned down by a garter, a hot iron, a scissors, a comb. All goes merrily along until the collar ends up in the rag-bin of a paper mill, resignedly saying: "It's about time I was turned into white paper." By then, I have become fond of the collar, and so am shocked by the story's final paragraph:

And that's what happened. All the rags were turned into white paper but the collar turned into this very piece of white paper that we're looking at now, the one on which this story is printed. That's because he boasted so terribly afterward about things that had never happened. That's something we should remember, so we don't behave the same way, because we never can tell whether we too might one day end up in the rag bin and be turned into white paper and have our whole story printed on it, even our innermost secrets, and then have to run around talking about them, just like the collar.

Among his contemporaries, Andersen can be situated between Dickens, who dropped the Dane after he overstayed his welcome on what became a five-week visit, and Tolstoy, who loved the simplicity and directness of Andersen's narrative mode. To be located between Dickens and Tolstoy ought to destroy any composer of short fictions, but Andersen survives, as blithely insouciant as the indestructible soldier of "The Tinderbox." And yet neither Dickens nor Tolstoy is cruel, except insofar as nature and history are cruel. Andersenian daydreams, being largely free of history and nature, frequently are cruel, even sadistic, perhaps because of androgynous drives. In Freud's project, the labor is to free thinking of its sexual past, or the sexual curiosity of children. Andersen, whose project was to remain childlike, tapped into the energies of the sexual past and received the verve of his art.

All his biographers stress that there were two of him, the Dane in Denmark, vulnerable and obsessed by supposed underappreciation, and the showman abroad, the wunderkind of Weimar and London, the endlessly wandering Dane sailing to Byzantium. Childlike in Denmark, Andersen was childish abroad, living his daydreams, as much an international celebrity as Byron before him and Hemingway later. Byron and Hemingway, we know, were as androgynous as Andersen, though much more sexually active than the reluctant Dane, who attended bordellos only to pay for a gazing upon the wares, while never touching. Andersen's real analogue was Whitman, whose sexual career, bar an encounter or two, was altogether with himself.

Andersen was both an international and domestic flirt, and like Kierkegaard a theorist of seduction, yet actually a monument of narcissism. Denmark's two major writers of its Golden Age were self-obsessed monomaniacs, Captain Ahabs pursuing a White Whale, but unlike the American protagonist of Moby-Dick, both Danes were too shrewd to attempt harpooning what each rightly understood was their own solipsistic vision. This is to commend the twin Danes: Kierkegaard's subtle intellect rivals the insights of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Freud, while an ancient wisdom out of the folk abides in Andersen, who will say and imagine anything, while evading or obliterating the pragmatic consequences of his own narrations.

Mr. Bloom is an emeritus professor at Yale.

Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Parents Mourn Loss of Children in Flash Flood


Parents Mourn Loss of Children in Flash Flood

Residents of the Chinese town of Shalan estimate that 200 students died while at school Friday. Negligence may have set the stage for tragedy.

By Ching-Ching Ni
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

June 14, 2005

BEIJING — It was about 2 in the afternoon when Sun Shixiang and his wife saw the river water suddenly rise and rush toward the elementary school.

Sun dashed over and found his only son trapped in his third-grade classroom. The water reached the farmer's waist and was still rising. For the next three hours, father and son clung to a window frame and waited for the deluge to recede.

By the time they got out, more than half the school's 352 children had drowned, said villagers in Shalan, in northeastern China's Heilongjiang province.

"When we forced our way in, there were little bodies floating everywhere. It was unwatchable," Sun's wife, Sun Xiuqin, said by phone from her home. Although her 10-year-old son was saved, her 8-year-old nephew and 9-year-old niece were not. "The parents went mad. Everyone was crying."

Chinese authorities have attributed Friday's tragedy to torrential rains that caused the area's worst flash flood and mudslide in 200 years. They put the death toll at 92, of which 88 were children. But parents say the numbers are at least twice that.

At the local morgue, most of the 100 refrigerators contained not one but two bodies, villagers said. Other children were missing or had been buried by parents.

"We think at least 200 children died," said Ning Xuebin, 32, whose niece drowned in her classroom. "They are saying it's fewer than that because they don't want the truth to get out."

In China, deadly floods are an annual plague. This year's rainy season, which began in May, claimed more than 200 lives in southern China and affected millions before the school tragedy. Now, citizens in Shalan and elsewhere are questioning whether the government has taken adequate precautions.

According to an editorial in the China Daily newspaper, more than 30,000 reservoirs built in the 1950s and 1970s are in poor condition, verging on dangerous. Antiquated warning systems relying on bonfires or gunshots desperately need upgrading.

The parents in Shalan say that nature is only part of the problem.

"This is not just a natural disaster, this is also a man-made disaster," Ning said. "All it takes is a few minutes to evacuate the school, and all the children would be alive today."

Parents interviewed by phone said that about 40 minutes before the water hit the school, someone in a village upriver had tried to call and warn Shalan of the impending flood. But no one answered the phone at the school. The person who picked up at the town office said he was too busy to do anything about it. Another call went to the local police station. The officers were out on duty.

"The teacher, the principal, everybody has a cellphone. They could have easily warned the children," said a 36-year-old woman who gave only her surname, Zeng. Her 11-year-old son survived by running out of the classroom and wading in the river until his parents came. Three of their neighbors' sons didn't make it.

"Why didn't they do anything?" she asked. "Are these people human?"

By the time help arrived, most of the parents had fished their children out of the blackened water. Angry villagers said local officials had not only failed to lend a hand, they had stood in the way.

As parents raced to the school on motorbikes, police officers stopped some to issue fines for permit violations.

"If they didn't block the motorbikes, more parents could have gotten to the school on time to help the teachers save the children," Zeng said.

When the police chief came, he just stood there and watched, said Zeng's father-in-law, who gave only his surname, Zhang.

"He wore a life jacket," Zhang said. "One parent asked if he could borrow it. He said no. The parent jumped into the water without it."

According to the official New China News Agency, the town's Communist Party and police chiefs are under investigation for allegedly failing to organize a timely rescue.

What really shocked parents was that while some teachers risked their lives to help their students, others climbed to higher ground and abandoned the young.

"There is only one little girl left in the first grade," said Sun Xiuqin, the mother of the 10-year-old boy who survived. "When we got there, we saw their teachers standing on the roof. Those were 7- and 8-year-olds. How could they have fended for themselves?"

In some ways, the parents had known this was a disaster waiting to happen. The school sits on low ground. When the campus was reconstructed several years ago, it was supposed to be a two-story structure, but only one floor was built. Villagers believe officials pocketed the rest of the money.

When the local reservoir overflowed, the water rushed down the river toward the school. It filled up like a tank. The original playground might have been large enough to hold the excess water, but it had shrunk after teachers built new homes on the plot. They stood like a wall and helped trap the floodwater.

"It's like the school sat at the bottom of a wok. There's no way for the water to get out," Sun said. "The parents are devastated. Most of us have only one child. The police, government officials, if they cared enough, so many children wouldn't have to die."



















Is it too hard to be a human? or simply an animal with a heart?

It's easy to get rich. But to be respected, it's much harder, if possible.

I do feel ashamed.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Beethoven was a narcissistic hooligan

Beethoven was a narcissistic hooligan

The composer was certainly a genius, but he diverted music from elegant universality into tortured self-obsession

Dylan EvansTuesday June 7, 2005 The Guardian / Comment

It's Beethoven week on the BBC. By midnight on Friday Radio 3 will have filled six days of airtime with every single note the composer wrote - every symphony, every quartet, every sonata and lots more besides. This coincides with a series of three films on BBC2 in which the conductor Charles Hazlewood tells us about the composer's life, and three programmes of musical analysis on BBC4.

It's good to see classical music getting some coverage on primetime TV, but the relentless focus on Beethoven is dire. Not all fans of classical music are members of the Beethoven cult. Some of us even think he did more harm than good to classical music.

Beethoven certainly changed the way that people thought about music, but this change was a change for the worse. From the speculations of Pythagoras about the "music of the spheres" in ancient Greece onwards, most western musicians had agreed that musical beauty was based on a mysterious connection between sound and mathematics, and that this provided music with an objective goal, something that transcended the individual composer's idiosyncrasies and aspired to the universal. Beethoven managed to put an end to this noble tradition by inaugurating a barbaric U-turn away from an other-directed music to an inward-directed, narcissistic focus on the composer himself and his own tortured soul.

This was a ghastly inversion that led slowly but inevitably to the awful atonal music of Schoenberg and Webern. In other words, almost everything that went wrong with music in the 19th and 20th centuries is ultimately Beethoven's fault. Poor old Schoenberg was simply taking Beethoven's original mistake to its ultimate, monstrous logical conclusion.

This is not to deny Beethoven's genius, but simply to claim that he employed his genius in the service of a fundamentally flawed idea. If Beethoven had dedicated his obvious talents to serving the noble Pythagorean view of music, he might well have gone on to compose music even greater than that of Mozart. You can hear this potential in his early string quartets, where the movements often have neat conclusions and there is a playfulness reminiscent of Mozart or Haydn. If only Beethoven had nourished these tender shoots instead of the darker elements that one can also hear. For the darkness is already evident in the early quartets too, in their sombre harmonies and sudden key changes. As it was, however, his darker side won out; compare, for example, the late string quartets. Here the youthful humour has completely vanished; the occasional signs of optimism quickly die out moments after they appear and the movements sometimes end in uncomfortably inconclusive cadences.

It's instructive to compare Beethoven's morbid self-obsession with the unselfconscious vivacity of Mozart. Like Bach's perfectly formed fugues and Vivaldi's sparkling concertos, Mozart's music epitomises the baroque and classical ideals of formal elegance and functional harmony; his compositions "unfold with every harmonic turn placed at the right moment, to leave, at the end, a sense of perfect finish and unity", as the music critic Paul Griffiths puts it. Above all, Mozart's music shares with that of Bach an exuberant commitment to the Enlightenment values of clarity, reason, optimism and wit.

With Beethoven, however, we leave behind the lofty aspirations of the Enlightenment and begin the descent into the narcissistic inwardness of Romanticism. Mozart gives you music that asks to be appreciated for its own sake, and you don't need to know anything about the composer's life to enjoy it. Beethoven's music, on the other hand, is all about himself - it is simply a vehicle for a self-indulgent display of bizarre mood swings and personal difficulties.

Hazlewood claims, in his BBC2 series, that music "grew up" with Beethoven; but it would be more accurate to say that it regressed back into a state of sullen adolescence. Even when he uses older forms, such as the fugue, Beethoven twists them into cruel and angry parodies. The result is often fiercely dissonant, with abrupt changes in style occurring from one movement to another, or even in the same movement. Hazlewood is right to describe Beethoven as a "hooligan", but this is hardly a virtue. In A Clockwork Orange it is the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that echoes in the mind of Alex whenever he indulges in one of his orgies of violence. Alex's reaction may be rather extreme, but he is responding to something that is already there in this dark and frenzied setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy; the joy it invites one to feel is the joy of madness, bloodlust and megalomania. It is glorious music, and seductive, but the passions it stirs up are dark and menacing.

I won't be able to resist tuning in to Beethoven at times this week, but I'll need to cheer myself up with something more optimistic and life-affirming afterwards.

· Dylan Evans is a senior lecturer in intelligent autonomous systems at the University of the West of England

Regarding Cervantes, Multicultural Dreamer

NYT / June 13, 2005
Regarding Cervantes, Multicultural Dreamer
Why was "Don Quixote" originally written in Arabic? Or rather, why does Cervantes, who wrote the book in Spanish, claim that it was translated from the Arabic?
Much is being said this year about "Don Quixote," in celebration of the 400th anniversary of its publication. And indeed, much has always been said about this extraordinary epic, narrating the misadventures of a half-mad hidalgo who seeks to re-establish the traditions of knight errantry. Faulkner reread it annually; Lionel Trilling said all prose fiction was a variation on its themes.
But aside from its literary achievements, "Don Quixote" sheds oblique light on an era when Spain's Islamic culture forcibly came to an end. Just consider Cervantes's playful account of the book's origins. One day in the Toledo marketplace, he writes, a young boy was trying to sell old notebooks and worn scraps of paper covered with Arabic script. Cervantes recounts how he acquired a book and then looked around for a Moor to translate it. "It was not very difficult" to find such a Moor, he writes. In fact, he says, he could have even found a translator of Hebrew.
The Arabic manuscript, the Moor tells him, is the "History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian." Cervantes brings the Moor to the cloister of a church and commissions a translation.
We know this is all a jest, as is the very name of the historian: "Cide" is an honorific, "Hamete" is a version of the Arab name Hamid, and "Benengeli" means eggplant.
But this eggplantish historian is no more a jest than anything else in the novel, whether it is Don Quixote tilting at windmills or Sancho Panza governing an island not surrounded by water. Benengeli is, apparently, just as earnest as Don Quixote, just as peculiar and just as important to understanding what this novel is about.
At the time when Cervantes was writing this novel, nothing about this jest was possible. Neither an Arabic-speaking Moor nor a Hebrew-speaking Jew would have been readily found in the Toledo marketplace. And no Moor would have translated Arabic in the cloister of a church.
The Jews had been expelled from Spain in 1492; only converts remained. Books in Arabic had been burned with all the ferocity that the priest applies to Don Quixote's library of chivalric narratives. And while the Muslims hadn't yet been expelled from Spain (that would happen in the years just after the first part of "Don Quixote" was published), they too had to convert. So Spain was full of New Christians: converts from Islam (called moriscos) and Judaism (called conversos), some continuing to secretly practice their religion (like the Jewish marranos). One reason that pork became such a popular Spanish dish was that eating it was a way to publicly prove one was not following the dietary rules of Islam or Judaism. Eggplant, however, was associated with Muslim and Jewish tastes back when Toledo was home to a flourishing Jewish community.
So Cervantes is up to a bit of mischief with these allusions. And they could not have been missed. L. P. Harvey's important new book, "Muslims in Spain: 1500 to 1614" (University of Chicago Press), soberly recounts the ways in which Muslim culture and religion, which had been part of Spanish life for eight centuries, was forcibly suppressed, until Muslims were completely expelled from Spain, between 1609 and 1614. There was much trauma and bloodshed, much secrecy and much dissimulation.
Don Quixote could hardly have wandered around La Mancha without coming upon traces of this trauma; Moors and moriscos were part of the landscape. "A Moor she is in costume and in body," is how one character is described, "but in her soul she is thoroughly Christian." And the Moors of Spain are almost catalogued: "Tagarinos is the name given in Barbary to the Moors of Aragón, while those of Granada are called Mudéjares; but in the kingdom of Fez the Mudéjares are termed Elches."
In the novel's second part (published in 1615, after the Muslim expulsion), Sancho sees a Moorish shopkeeper from his hometown, in disguise. "Who the devil would ever have known you, Ricote, in that clown suit you are wearing?" Sancho asks. "Tell me, who has made a Frenchman out of you?" Ricote mentions Spain's forced exile of Muslims and its unavoidable sorrows: "Wherever we may be it is for Spain that we weep; for, when all is said, we were born here and it is our native land."
Cervantes also had firsthand experience with such confrontations. In 1571, he fought at Lepanto, an epochal battle against the Turks and a major victory for the Christian West against Islam; he lost the use of his left arm. A few years later, returning to Spain, he was captured by Barbary pirates - Muslims who were themselves engaged in a kind of guerilla war against the Christian West - and was imprisoned for five years, surviving four escape attempts until finally, his freedom was ransomed. When Cervantes wrote "Don Quixote" a quarter century later, this experience led to an extensive story about Moors and Christians involving kidnapping, conversion and betrayal. He wrote, though, not as warrior but as a philosopher. His empathy for the Moors is cautious but unmistakable. Recent scholarship suggests that Cervantes himself might have from a family of conversos; that could help explain why he was regularly denied the official appointments he sought. Other scholars have suggested that the novel itself is full of coded allusions to Judaism.
There is no need, though, to accept that hypothesis to sense how, by the end, Spain's triumph turns ambiguous. All pieties inspire melancholy. Even Sancho is not to be fully trusted. He, too, easily dons the mantle of an Old Christian, at one point declaring that since he believes firmly in "all that the holy Roman Catholic Church holds and believes," and since he "a mortal enemy of the Jews," historians should treat him well.
But Quixote rejects the notions of caste and of blood purity that characterized 16th-century Spain. Benengeli's manuscript is partly a ghost story about a lost world. Quixote is born of ideas latent in extinct, condemned texts, whether Arabic or chivalric. He has unswerving principles, but even they are inadequate to a world of disguise, enchantment, illusion and delusion. In her book "The Ornament of the World," the scholar María Rosa Menocal compares Quixote's mental universe with the world of the Toledo marketplace, with its conversos, marranos and moriscos: "Who in this world ever says that he is what he seems to be? And who seems to be what he no doubt really is?"
So Don Quixote's Spain, instead of displaying triumphant absolutism, is a world of shifting appearances. "Don Quixote" is a resigned acknowledgment of a new kind of terrain that defined modernity: in it, very little is certain and much is lost. The book's power, though, also comes from Quixote's stubborn quest: he won't entirely let us accept that something else isn't possible.
Connections, a critic's perspective on arts and ideas, appears every other Monday.

Monday, June 13, 2005


2004年04月 《中国青年》杂志