“Making It”: The Book That Scandalized the New York Intellectuals


April 26, 2017

May 1, 2017 Issue

“Making It”: The Book That Scandalized the New York Intellectuals

With “Making It,” Norman Podhoretz attempted to craft a sociology of his set—and ended up ostracized from it.

He should have known the book was loaded. Norman Podhoretz started writing “Making It” in 1964. He was thirty-four years old and the editor of Commentary. His idea was to write a book about how people in his world, literary intellectuals, were secretly motivated by a desire for success—money, power, and fame—and were also secretly ashamed of it. He offered himself as Exhibit A. By confessing to his own ambition, he would make it safe for others to confess to theirs, and thereby enjoy without guilt the worldly goods their strivings had brought them. As he put it, he would do for ambition what D. H. Lawrence had done for sex. He would make the case for Mammon.

Image result for Making It--Norman Podhoretz

Norman Podhoretz

Podhoretz was a young man, but he had been in the business for a while. He had published his first piece in Commentary when he was twenty-three, his first piece in Partisan Review when he was twenty-four, and his first piece in The New Yorker when he was twenty-six. He had even published a piece in Scrutiny, the British quarterly edited by F. R. Leavis, a critical Gorgon few could hope to please, when he was just twenty-one. He had been named editor of Commentary at twenty-nine. He was invited to cocktail parties with all the smart people. He hung around with Norman Mailer. Jackie Kennedy was a friend.

Those pieces were all book reviews, actually, and Commentary was a nonprofit monthly, owned by the American Jewish Committee, with a circulation of around forty thousand. But Podhoretz assumed—as, in our own cases, we all tend to assume—that since his accomplishments were supremely gratifying to him, they must rank high in the world’s estimation as well. He suspected—he was certain—that others were envious of his precocity and success, and he was writing the book to explain why he had no reason to pretend humility.

When he finished, he showed the manuscript to mentors, colleagues, and friends. Almost all of them advised him not to publish it. Lionel Trilling told him that it would take ten years for his reputation to recover. Diana Trilling told him that the book was “crudely boastful” and humorless. Daniel Bell told him that it lacked “irony and self-distancing” (cardinal virtues in New York intellectual life back then), and recommended adding three or four pages at the end in which he took it back. His close friend Jason Epstein, an editor at Random House, begged him to throw it out. “If I were God,” Epstein is supposed to have said, “I’d drown it in the river.”

Those who read the manuscript felt little compunction about sharing their reactions with others, and the word of mouth quickly became toxic. Friends of Podhoretz’s started wondering if he had lost his mind. Nearly a year before the book came out, Edmund Wilson noted in his diary that it was one of “the principal subjects of conversation” in New York. “Everyone I saw who had read it thought that it was awful,” he wrote.

Podhoretz’s publisher, Roger Straus, of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, refused to promote the book. Podhoretz’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, said she would no longer represent it. Podhoretz withdrew the book from FSG (handing back the advance) and retained a new agent, Candida Donadio, who managed to sell it to Random House. (Epstein was not involved in the acquisition; it was enthusiastically approved by the head of the company, Bennett Cerf, no stranger to chutzpah.) “Making It” came out at the very end of 1967; a reprint has just been issued by New York Review Books. Trilling was wrong about one thing: ten years was not enough.

With a couple of exceptions, it wasn’t the reviews that hurt the most. The one in the Times was quite positive; the reviewer, Frederic Raphael, called the book “frank and honest . . . a warning and a model.” What hurt the most was the parties. “Parties,” Podhoretz had explained in the book, “always served as a barometer of the progress of my career.” Friends took note, and the invitations stopped coming. Podhoretz underwent what amounted to a ritual shunning. He might as well have worn a scarlet “A,” for “ambition.”

The experience was crushing, and he never got over it. “When I talked to Norman, it was almost as if the whole thing had happened yesterday afternoon,” a reporter for the Times wrote, four years after the book’s publication. “None of the sores had scabbed over.” Four years after that, Podhoretz still sounded dazed. “I was raised intellectually to believe there was something admirable in taking risks . . . but the people who raised me, in effect, punished me whenever I did what I was raised to do,” he complained to another interviewer. “I’ve never quite understood why.”

In 1979, he published a second memoir, “Breaking Ranks,” and devoted several pages to the reception of “Making It.” In 1999, now retired as the editor of Commentary, he published a third memoir, called “Ex-Friends,” and devoted many more pages to the subject. “Making It” was the pivotal episode in Podhoretz’s career.

It also appeared at a pivotal moment in American intellectual life. Intended, naïvely or not, as a celebration of a little-magazine world created largely by the children of immigrants, some of whom had, by 1967, risen triumphantly to a place at the national table—“Jews were culturally all the rage in America,” as Podhoretz put it in the book—“Making It” marked a fissure that would never be healed. It was the end of more than Podhoretz’s social life.

Podhoretz told his story as a combination of Exodus and “Saturday Night Fever”: gifted youth escapes an ethnic cul-de-sac in the outer boroughs and makes it to cosmopolitan Manhattan. In Podhoretz’s case, the promised land was a big apartment on West End Avenue. He called crossing the East River “one of the longest journeys in the world,” and he believed, correctly, that his story was also, more or less, the story of many of the people he hoped would admire the book—people like Bell, the Trillings, and the writers and editors at places like Dissent, The New Leader, Partisan Review, and The New York Review of Books. What he did not imagine was that his version might not be one they wished to be identified with.

As Thomas Jeffers tells us in a scholarly and sympathetic biography, “Norman Podhoretz,” published in 2010, Podhoretz grew up in Brownsville, a neighborhood of Brooklyn that was then equal parts Italians, Jews, and African-Americans recently arrived from the South. Podhoretz’s parents were immigrants from Galicia; his father, Julius, spoke Yiddish and drove a horse-drawn milk truck. Podhoretz went to P.S. 28, where, one day, a teacher asked him what he was doing. “I goink op de stez,” he explained, and was immediately placed in a remedial-speech class. His assimilation had begun.

Little Norman was a natural student—“everyone knew I was the smartest kid in the class,” he says in “Making It”—but he also had an active street life as a member of a “social athletic club” (i.e., gang) called the Cherokees, whose red satin jacket he wore everywhere. (In the book, he is boyishly proud of this part of his past.) At Brooklyn’s Boys High School, where Mailer had also been a student, he was plucked out by a teacher he calls, in “Making It,” Mrs. K. Her real name was Mrs. Haft, and she took on Norman as a Pygmalion project. Her goal was to gentrify him sufficiently to win him a scholarship to Harvard. One of the best bits in “Making It” is Podhoretz’s description of Mrs. K’s disastrous attempt to introduce her teen-age protégé to genteel manners by taking him to lunch in a (non-kosher) restaurant in Manhattan, where he is confronted with some sort of dish involving duck.

Podhoretz did get into Harvard (as did Mailer, who went there), but he also won a Pulitzer scholarship, which was awarded to graduates of New York public schools and covered the costs of attending Columbia. He entered the college at the age of sixteen (commuting from Brooklyn) and took the required great-books course, Literature Humanities. “Possessed,” as he explains, “by something like total recall and a great gift for intellectual mimicry,” he quickly became a star student in Columbia’s famous English Department.

There he attached himself to Trilling, whose major book, “The Liberal Imagination,” came out in 1950, the year Podhoretz graduated. He took away from his Columbia education the belief that being a serious literary critic meant holding in contempt the things that belong to Caesar. “It was at Columbia,” he writes, “that I was introduced to the ethos—destined to grow more and more powerful in the ensuing years—in which success was replacing sex as the major ‘dirty little secret’ of the age.”

Podhoretz was awarded a Kellett, a postgraduate fellowship that, at Columbia, is almost as prestigious as the Rhodes. John Hollander, who graduated from Columbia in the same year, later said that Podhoretz had had his eye on the Kellett even as a freshman. Podhoretz was amazed by his classmates’ reaction. “It was the first time I had ever experienced the poisoning of success by envy,” he says in “Making It.”

He went to Cambridge. He loved it, especially the perks that students there then enjoyed. “There are few things in the world easier to get used to than having lots of space to live in and being called ‘Sir,’ ” he writes. It was at Cambridge that he sought out Leavis. “Soon he was inviting me . . . to the indoctrination sessions, thinly disguised as tea parties, which he and his wife Queenie, a famous critic in her own right, would hold on the lawn of their home every Saturday afternoon,” and it was not long before he scored his big Scrutiny assignment. It was to review “The Liberal Imagination.” In his piece, Podhoretz called Trilling “the most significant American critic now writing.” The “American” was a judicious sop to Leavis.

Podhoretz did some travelling while he was on the fellowship, and, after a visit to Israel, he wrote to Trilling to report his impressions. “They are, despite their really extraordinary accomplishments, a very unattractive people, the Israelis,” he confided. “They’re gratuitously surly and boorish. . . . They are too arrogant and too anxious to become a real honest-to-goodness New York of the East.” Trilling typed these words out and sent them to the editor of Commentary, Elliot Cohen. Cohen had another editor, Irving Kristol, contact Podhoretz about writing a piece, and the connection was made.

This might not seem the obvious way to recommend a new writer to a magazine published by an organization dedicated to the welfare of Jews, and, in “Making It,” Podhoretz leaves out the part about his letter to Trilling. He possibly felt that it suggested a calculation a shade too subtle. For in fact, as Benjamin Balint explains in his history of the magazine, “Running Commentary” (2010), the people around Commentary and the A.J.C. in those days were cool to Zionism. (By the time “Making It” came out, of course, this had changed.)

It is easy to believe that Podhoretz would not have characterized Israeli Jews in quite those terms if he had not guessed that his observations would meet Trilling’s preconceptions, and if he had not also guessed that a bright young diaspora Jew comfortable in America and skeptical of Zionism might be just the kind of writer Commentary was looking for. If so, he guessed right. His first piece was a review of Bernard Malamud’s novel “The Natural.”

Podhoretz had thoughts about continuing at Cambridge for a Ph.D., and even went back, but an article he submitted to Leavis on Benjamin Disraeli was returned with a classic rejection (mentioned, though not quoted, in “Making It”). “We couldn’t print anything that did so little more than a hundred or two readers of Scrutiny could do impromptu,” Leavis told him. Podhoretz read this, not inaccurately, as “You don’t belong,” and he returned to the United States, where he was duly drafted. He served two years. (Interestingly, in the light of his later views, he is completely contemptuous of military life and culture in “Making It.”) When he was discharged, in December, 1955, he started working as an editor at Commentary.

Elliot Cohen was hospitalized with severe depression, and the magazine was being run by two men referred to in “Making It” only as The Boss. In real life, they were the art critic Clement Greenberg and his brother Martin. The Greenbergs belittled and abused Podhoretz. He had a hard time managing his resentment, and, by 1958, he was out. He got involved in a couple of short-lived publishing ventures with Epstein that didn’t pay off. The New Yorker had dropped him, without explanation, but he had become known as a fearless young critic—“I came to be held by some in almost priestly regard” is his description—and he was able to survive as a freelancer. Then, in 1959, Cohen committed suicide, and the A.J.C. offered Podhoretz the job.

Friends advised him not to accept, some of them making disparaging remarks about the magazine which he unwisely printed, with attribution, in “Making It.” But Podhoretz had few doubts; this was what he had been waiting for. “I’m . . . exhilarated by the possibilities that may now open up for me, and by the power (which is something you can understand as my high-minded friends can’t), and by the money (my income will be more than doubled),” he wrote to the English novelist C. P. Snow, Balint reports.

Podhoretz had spent a decade observing the little-magazine business; he knew what worked and what didn’t; and he transformed Commentary. He fired most of the staff, expanded the letters section (which, for readers of intellectual journalism, can be as addictive as crossword puzzles or cartoons), stopped publishing poetry, and got rid of the remnants of Yiddishkeit. As one contributor put it, he removed the mezuzahs from all the doors. He made Commentary what Cohen and the Greenbergs had tried but failed to make it: a magazine for every educated reader, run by Jews.

Podhoretz understood how magazine writing works—his account in “Making It” of what it is like to write a magazine piece, and not only for magazines like Commentary, is the best that I have ever read—and he was a talented editor. He turned down the seminal document of the New Left, the Port Huron Statement, but he serialized Paul Goodman’s “Growing Up Absurd,” which is now almost unreadable but which at the time was received as an important diagnosis of contemporary life. Podhoretz’s own politics were liberal. He loved Kennedy; he opposed the war in Vietnam. He was in synch with the highbrow readership of the day.

He was invited to be co-editor, with Jason Epstein’s wife, Barbara, of The New York Review of Books when it was launched, in 1963, but he told them the salary was too low. (“Thank God,” Barbara later said.) He continued to write, and he was disappointed when critical praise for a collection of his pieces, “Doings and Undoings,” published in 1964, was not unmitigated. “I had been dreaming that the appearance of the book would become the occasion for a general proclamation of my appointment to the office of ‘leading young critic in America,’ ” he admits in “Making It”; “instead it became the occasion for several people to present me with the first installments of the bill for all those glorious years when everyone had been on my side.” But the nineteen-sixties was a boom time for magazines, and Commentary thrived. By 1968, its circulation was up to sixty-four thousand. That was the year the bomb went off.

There are two ways to understand the reaction to “Making It.” One has to do with the politics (small “p”), and the other has to do with the merits. Politically, Podhoretz did an unfathomably stupid thing. The reason that people like Jason Epstein and Lionel Trilling argued so strenuously against publishing the book—Diana Trilling reported taking Podhoretz and his wife out to dinner on a trip to Berlin in 1967 to make one final plea—was not, or not only, that they were concerned for the reputation of their friend and protégé. It was that their own names appear all through it.

It seems not to have dawned on Podhoretz that he was not only writing about himself; he was telling stories about people he worked and socialized with. People do not like to read about themselves in someone else’s book, and this goes double for writers. Writers are control freaks engaged in what is, among other things, a business of self-presentation. If they are in a story, they want to be the ones to tell that story. No one would have understood this better than Podhoretz, but somehow it failed to register when he was showing his book around.

Image result for lionel trillingLionel Trilling

Even worse, at the same time that he was confessing to his own ambition, he was implicitly accusing his friends and colleagues of hiding theirs. In the brief acknowledgments section, Podhoretz thanks Lionel Trilling, who, he says, “has taught me more than he or I ever realized—though not, I fear, precisely what he would have wanted me to learn.” This reads pretty clearly as a suggestion that Trilling, too, was a suck-up who wrote literary criticism in the hope of getting invited to a party with Jackie Kennedy. You can see why Trilling was not eager for Podhoretz’s memoir to see the light of day.

And not only Trilling. “Making It” is a book about what Podhoretz, borrowing the term from Murray Kempton, calls the Family—the writers and editors, mostly but not exclusively Jewish, who dominated the New York intellectual scene in the decades after the war. It is as their proud product that Podhoretz presents himself, and he obviously hoped to retain the approval of these people, as he had done so often in the past, by daring to write something they were afraid to write. He believed that they would admire his courage, recognize the justice of his account, forgive any indiscretions he may have committed, and, freed at last from a stifling hypocrisy, embrace him and the book. Many writers have tried this kind of thing. It never works.

On the merits, the idea that English professors, magazine writers, and intellectuals generally are consciously competing for various types of worldly recognition, and that success in those lines of work requires some awareness of the contours of the playing field, is noncontroversial today. As with members of any profession—rock stars, concert pianists, Olympic athletes, even politicians—there is an implicitly observed and tacitly enforced distinction between what counts as success and what counts as selling out. (In no profession does owning an apartment on West End Avenue constitute selling out.) There is a sociology of intellectual life. Podhoretz’s mistake was to overgeneralize from his own experience.

This is often the flaw in his writing. His most talked-about early piece, “My Negro Problem––and Ours,” published in 1963, an essay about coming to terms with “the hatred I still feel for Negroes,” is based entirely on observations of the young African-American men he encountered as a teen-ager on the streets of Brooklyn or, later, on the sidewalks of the Upper West Side. From these experiences, he is able to conclude that African-Americans are characterized by “superior physical grace and beauty . . . They are on the kind of terms with their own bodies that I should like to be on with mine.” As usual, the root of the problem is envy. The solution? Intermarriage: “I believe that the wholesale merging of the two races is the most desirable alternative for everyone concerned.”

As a personal reflection, “My Negro Problem” is compelling. As a take on the problem of race in the United States, it is ridiculous. For Podhoretz, though, as he confesses in “Making It,” the real significance of the essay was that, by publishing it, he was putting the reputation he had struggled to achieve on the line—and his reputation only got better! (Goodman, however, did tell him he needed to see a therapist.) He called the essay “certainly the best piece of writing I had ever done.” Something like this was his hope for “Making It”: that it would be received as “my ambition problem—and ours.”

The reaction to the book changed Podhoretz’s life. He started looking for academic positions, and he began drinking when he was at home alone, almost a fifth of Jack Daniel’s a day, his stepdaughter later told Jeffers. He had a contract to write a book on the nineteen-sixties—he had hated the Beats, and he regarded the counterculture as the legacy of the Beats—and he went to Yaddo, the writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, where he had written much of “Making It,” to work on it. Writers’ colonies are not where you ideally want to be if you have a drinking problem. One day, a fellow-colonist, the critic Kenneth Burke, told Podhoretz that he needed to straighten out. So Podhoretz got in his car and drove, a little under the influence, to a farmhouse he had bought in Delaware County, and it was there, in the early spring of 1970, that he had a vision.

As he told the story to Jeffers, he had finished his writing for the day. He was walking outside, carrying a Martini and feeling content, when it happened. “I saw physically, in the sky, though it was obviously in my head, a kind of diagram that resembled a family tree. And it was instantly clear to me that this diagram contained the secret of life and existence and knowledge: that you start with this, and you follow to that. It all had a logic of interconnectedness.” Not quite Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” but strangely close. The vision lasted thirty seconds, and when it was over Podhoretz realized what the diagram was telling him: “Judaism was true.” He did not mean the ethical teachings of Judaism; he meant Judaic law. He vowed to change his life.

To all appearances, he did. He stopped drinking, he began interrogating friends about their spiritual condition, and he transformed Commentary again, this time into the scourge of left-wing permissivism and progressivism. The magazine attacked feminism; it attacked homosexuality; it attacked affirmative action. In 1972, Podhoretz wrote a column that effectively announced the new editorial policy. Its title was “Is It Good for the Jews?” He did not mean it ironically. It was exactly the mentality that Cohen and his successors, including Podhoretz I, had been trying to get away from.

Old friends stopped speaking to Podhoretz and old contributors dropped away. They were replaced by a new stable of hawks and neoconservatives: Joseph Epstein, Edward Luttwak, Michael Ledeen, William Bennett, Elliott Abrams (who married one of Podhoretz’s stepdaughters). Podhoretz adopted a new test of his own importance: the celebrity of the people he was no longer speaking to. “It’s important to have enemies,” he once told Cynthia Ozick, “because everything depends on the kind of enemies you have.” (Ozick was a little taken aback.)

In 1972, Podhoretz voted for Richard Nixon in the Presidential election. He voted for Jimmy Carter four years later, but called it “the worst political mistake of my life.” Ronald Reagan was his political messiah, and he believed that Commentary had something to do with his election. “People like us made Reagan’s victory,” he proclaimed in 1983. By 1990, subscriptions were down to twenty-nine thousand, and the magazine was obliged to raise money in order to keep going. It was legally separated from the A.J.C. in 2007.

Podhoretz developed his own interpretation of the reaction to “Making It”: he decided that he was praising the pleasures of success in America, and that his critics were America haters. This doesn’t correspond to what most of the reviewers actually said, but the book did appear at a politically fractious moment, during the height of agitation against the war in Vietnam. Although Podhoretz had been an early opponent of the war, he feared and despised the main active ingredient in the antiwar movement, the New Left.

Image result for the new york intellectuals

The New Left was a problem for the Family. The Family was Old Left turned liberal anti-Communist. The New Left was cavalier about Communism, it was hostile to liberalism, and it was hugely disrespectful of the engine of social mobility that had carried so many members of the Family out of Egypt, the university. And the identity-based movements that emerged after 1965—the women’s movement and black separatist movements like the Panthers—seemed to threaten a crucial value for diaspora Jews, cosmopolitanism. After 1965, if you were a white, male, anti-Communist, and integrationist liberal, Jew or Gentile, whose side were you on? The question split what used to be called the liberal left, and that political-intellectual coalition has never been put back together. The fact that the Podhoretzes stopped being invited to Manhattan cocktail parties was not the cause of the split. But it was a symptom.

The New York intellectual community Podhoretz grew up in was compulsively internecine. Its members were like cats in a bag. They thrived on—they got off on—the narcissism of small differences. People at a magazine with a circulation of ten thousand were more interested in what people at a magazine with a circulation of twenty thousand were saying about Communism than they were in what the President of the United States was saying about it. Life with the Family was like a Thanksgiving dinner from hell. This is why little magazines are little.

In this tiny cosmos, Podhoretz was therefore in the awkward position of being reviewed by people he knew in magazines run by people he knew. Two reviews of “Making It” were especially galling. One was in The New York Review of Books. The reviewer was Edgar Z. Friedenberg, a sociologist, whose piece was not exactly a strike at the jugular; it was mainly focussed on sounding dismissive. Podhoretz was annoyed by it because he had reason to believe that he had “discovered” Friedenberg for Commentary, and now his own writer was condescending to him in someone else’s pages.

Podhoretz assumed that Jason Epstein was behind that review, and he made sure that Epstein’s (rather good) book on the trial of the Chicago Seven, “The Great Conspiracy Trial,” published in 1970, was solemnly lacerated in Commentary by a professor at Yale Law School. The New York Review became a regular punching bag at Commentary, and Podhoretz and Epstein began a feud that was soon made the subject of a long article in the Times Magazine and that is not over yet. (Both men are still with us. It’s amusing that the reprint of “Making It” is from the publishing arm of the Review.)

Podhoretz had better reason to resent the piece that ran in Partisan Review. Mailer was the critic. He had read some of the manuscript and had told Podhoretz how much he admired it, but the piece in Partisan Review was a put-down. Most of the reviews had already come out, and Mailer did his readers a favor by quoting several of the nastiest. (The New Leader had called the book “a career expressed as a matchless 360-page ejaculation,” a phrase Mailer liked so much he quoted it twice.) He summed the book up as “a blunder of self-assertion, self-exposure, and self-denigration.” It failed, Mailer said, because it didn’t go far enough. Podhoretz had pulled his punches. He should have called out the Family as a bunch of second-raters who were terrified of being exposed. But he was nice to everyone.

Podhoretz was right to rank this as a betrayal. He had known Mailer since 1957, when they met at a party at Lillian Hellman’s, and they had been close friends. He had stood by Mailer through many difficult times. In 1960, after Mailer stabbed and nearly killed his wife during a party in their apartment, Podhoretz was one of the first people he sought out, and he accompanied Mailer to the police station for booking.

Podhoretz had even paid homage to Mailer in the final pages of “Making It.” Mailer had already written a book like “Making It,” Podhoretz admitted; this was “Advertisements for Myself.” That book had come out in 1959, when Mailer was at a low point; it attacked, by name and with Mailer’s special gift for invective, several prominent book publishers and many of Mailer’s contemporaries; and it relaunched Mailer’s career. Podhoretz called it “one of the great works of confessional autobiography in American literature,” and concluded his book by saying he hoped that “Making It” would be appreciated as a similarly bold literary act.

Image result for Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

By 1968, when Mailer wrote his review of “Making It,” his career was at its peak. He had just finished “The Armies of the Night,” which was published in May and which won him his first Pulitzer Prize. That book, a nonfiction account of Mailer’s participation in an antiwar march in Washington, was serialized in two magazines. The first half was published in Harper’s, where Mailer’s editor was Midge Decter, who happens to be Mrs. Norman Podhoretz. The second half was published in Commentary.

Many years later, Mailer was asked why he had turned on his friend. He said that he thought that the rest of the book didn’t live up to the promise of the pages he had read in manuscript. Then why hadn’t he recused himself? The reason, Mailer said, was that he was angry at Podhoretz for not inviting him to a party that Jackie Kennedy was expected to attend. Not the classiest excuse, but at least the punishment fit the crime. 

Doctor Chekhov, Writer


April 16, 2017

The following text is adapted from a keynote address given to the recipients of the 2017 Whiting Awards for emerging writers.

When my mother’s mother began to die of a mysterious, undiagnosable neurological illness, the first thing she lost was her sense of taste. For most families, perhaps, this would be a rather inconsequential loss, but this had severe repercussions for us. As the matriarch of our heaving, multi-generational family, she had always helmed the kitchen with an efficient, if somewhat despotic, hand. Because all the food in that household was cooked by her—years earlier, an attempted takeover by one of the uncle’s wives had been swiftly and tyrannically rebuffed—my grandmother was, in fact, the ultimate arbiter of taste. For decades, this had been a relatively stable and blissful arrangement: she was an acutely talented cook. But as her taste buds numbed, week by week, the food turned from mild to well-seasoned to intolerably spicy. It was, perhaps, a kind of neural compensation for her—the way people with early hearing loss often begin to speak more loudly—but the fish curry now went off on the palate like a thermonuclear bomb. The lentils exfoliated the tongue. The fried spinach was an incinerating terror; the okra, an endurance sport. When even the white rice, the final refuge of the Asian tongue, began to arrive at the table with halved Thai bird peppers on top, the seeds squinting above it, we squirmed in terror. But we steeled ourselves and kept eating: numbness begetting numbness.

I want to talk to you today about desensitization. In my other life, I am an oncologist. Numbness, you might say, is my occupational hazard. Over the past month or so, I have watched twelve of my patients die from or relapse with cancer. Yesterday, I heard that a friend who ran my favorite restaurant, the place I went for daily refuge while I was writing my last book, passed away from tongue cancer that had colonized her brain and bones. When interviewers ask me how I carry on carrying on, I speak about the startling successes with some of my patients, about hope and the future. But I do not—I cannot—tell them that a certain kind of numbness must be a part of it. I come home from the bone-marrow-transplant wards on a January morning and play with my dog, rearrange the furniture, and practice polynomial factorization with my daughter. I celebrate a recent laboratory paper with a glass of champagne. I return to the wards the next morning and look down a microscope to find a marrow choked up with leukemia cells after a heroic attempt at salvage chemotherapy. And this cycle repeats. You might say that I have an advanced degree in desensitization.

But, of course, I am not here to describe the numbness that accompanies medical practice. There is a different form of desensitization that surrounds us today. When I was asked to give this talk to a roomful of aspiring writers, I had to confront the elephant-in-the-room question: How shall we continue to write in these numbing times?

On April 21, 1890, a thirty-year-old doctor turned writer named Anton Chekhov travelled to Sakhalin Island, a penal colony, in the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan. The journey took three months. To get to Sakhalin, Chekhov had to cross, by train, the wind-blown steppes of northern Russia and the still-frozen Siberian tundra. He boarded a horse-drawn carriage, then a steamer across the Amur River, and then a small trawler ship across the Okhotsk Sea.

Why, you might ask, did an unusually sensitive and mild-mannered man—delicate of physical and mental constitution—choose to travel to a hostile, faraway island inhabited by thieves, hustlers, and murderers? Chekhov told some of his friends that he was going to Sakhalin to run a census (and indeed he did run a census, although he didn’t seem to care particularly about the data). He told others that he was doing some sort of ethnographic project on the prisoners and settlers as part of his medical studies. But the census and the medical project were half-lies, each merely an excuse—a “device,” to use his word—to bring him to the island.

So what was the real reason that drove the journey? Chekhov’s medical training had left him spiritually depleted. He had honed his observational skills and matured into an astute diagnostician. But the extraordinary quality of suffering that he had witnessed, and the inscrutable arbitrariness of sickness and death, benumbed him. Much of this anguish would find eventual voice in his later works—particularly in the story “Ward No. 6”—but he wrote virtually nothing about it at the time. We also know that his health was declining. Chekhov’s brother had died, of tuberculosis, in 1889, a year prior to Chekhov’s departure, and Chekhov himself, having spit up blood just before the arduous journey, also knew that he was infected with the bacillus, and that the illness would likely kill him. Perhaps he thought that the island would offer a kind of medical or mental sanatorium.

But as much as he was encumbered by the diseased state of his body, Chekhov was repulsed by the diseased state around him—by the sickness of the body politic. “To a certain extent,” his biographer Ernest Simmons writes, “his anxieties mirrored those of all thinking people of the Eighties, this ‘epoch of social stagnation.’ “ Tsarist Russia in the eighteen-eighties was suffused with moral and economic depravity. It was a society overrun by corruption, bribery, and nepotism. Censorship abounded. The news was frequently manipulated and false. Political dissidents were kidnapped, assassinated, or packed off to prison. The élites ensconced themselves in grotesquely opulent homes while poverty, violence, illness, and incipient famine haunted parts of the land.

It wasn’t just disease or death that Chekhov was trying to escape; it was deadliness. “There is a sort of stagnation in my soul,” he wrote to a friend. Chekhov, then, was looking to resensitize himself—to un-numb the numbness. He sought a place where he might inoculate himself against the ennui that was slowly destroying his soul.

Sakhalin Island, to put it mildly, was not a place for the faint-hearted. What Chekhov found there was a community even more depraved than the one he had left behind—an island society on the edge of sanity, law, and self-discipline. The men on this island hunted each other for sport. Women were routinely sold into prostitution. The children were malnourished and enslaved by adults. The prisoners bribed the guards, and the guards beat the convicts nearly to death.

Two examples from Chekhov’s writings about Sakhalin Island serve as conduits or portals to a deeper point. One is an encounter on the ferry across the Amur River:

On the Amur steamer going to Sakhalin, there was a convict who had murdered his wife and wore fetters on his legs. His daughter, a little girl of six, was with him. I noticed wherever the convict moved the little girl scrambled after him, holding on to his fetters. At night the child slept with the convicts and soldiers all in a heap together.

The second describes a meeting with a woman on the island:

An old woman called Miss Ulyana cohabits with a prosperous old peasant in exile. Once, a very long time ago, she had killed her baby and buried it in the ground; at the trial, she said that she had not killed the child but buried it alive—she thought that she would stand a better chance of being acquitted that way. The court sentenced her to twenty years. Telling me about this, Ulyana wept bitterly, but then she wiped her eyes and asked, “Fancy buying a nice little bit o’ pickled cabbage?

In Plato’s Republic, Leontius, the soldier, forced to confront a glut of decaying human corpses, turns his eyes away in horror and shame. But the appetite to look overtakes him; he rushes toward the bodies, forcing his eyes open and shouting, “Look for yourselves, you evil wretches.” Chekhov, the writer, neither turns away in disgust nor rushes forward to satisfy a sadistic curiosity. He simply looks, and looks again. The gaze is unsparing and penetrating, clear-eyed, clinical—a word used often in association with Chekhov. You cannot see if your eyes are clouded with tears, he seems to tell us: a weeping doctor is a useless doctor. He cuts away the artifice. He cauterizes our indulgences in pity or piety: it is impossible, he reminds us, to feel pity for the self-pitying.

But Chekhov, importantly, does not only cauterize. If the nerve ends were left seared, dead, and blunted—numbed—then he would be a lesser writer. In Chekhov, the clinical detachment—that cool, unsparing, astringent gaze—gives way to tenderness, to a sensitivity that is precisely the opposite of dispassion. The dissecting lamps must be turned on and left on, he realizes, but the patient cannot be left to wither under the mercury bulbs. She must be tended and resuscitated, made whole again. It is easy for the doctor to express moral outrage or indignation at the patient’s illness, but there is narcissism in that revulsion. It is easy, too, to concoct a moral fable out of sickness—“this is a punishment that the patient brought on himself”—but there is sadism in that confabulation. It is vastly more difficult, and more courageous, to observe, describe, diagnose, empathize, and heal. “Six principles that make for a good story,” Chekhov would later write, “are: 1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality . . . and; 6. compassion.” The first five principles cleanse and desensitize our wounds. But it is the last—compassion—that moves us beyond numbness toward healing.

Chekhov, in short, invented a new kind of literature at Sakhalin. It was a literature inflected with clinical humanity—a literature of keen, nearly medical observation about human nature and its imperfections and perversions, but also a literature of expansive sensitivity and tenderness. “These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognize,” Virginia Woolf would later write about Chekhov. “In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic—lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed—as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong. But where the tune is unfamiliar . . . as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.”

It was this world—arbitrary and strange, not unjust but simply lacking justice, without moral or spiritual tidiness, with no simple harmonies, no hum-along tunes—that would find its full-throated voice in Chekhov’s most powerful later works. This world would be actualized in the plays and stories that he crafted after 1890, which would define his oeuvre and establish his reputation: “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya,” “The Cherry Orchard,” and “Ward No. 6.” These works indubitably define modern writing. But, perhaps more significantly, they launch modern writing. Indeed, we might argue that Chekhov invented the modern novel—and, for that matter, contemporary narrative nonfiction—along the way. If the immensity of that achievement escapes us today, it’s because the fundamental elements of Chekhov’s writing—its clinical humanism, its keen compassion, its steadfast rejection of the narcissism of moral outrage and the sadism of moral fables—have become so familiar in the greatest of our literature that, like the air we breathe, they escape notice. We want to see Chekhov through the lens of the modern novel, but it’s the novel that must be seen through the lens of Chekhov.

I hesitate to make this story into a parable—its protagonist would have protested—but this, after all, is a keynote address. What—how—shall we write during this time of numbness? One temptation, perhaps, is to succumb to Leontius’ first urge: to turn our eyes away. Numbness begets numbness, and it’s easy to steel ourselves to our times, or to withdraw from engagement altogether. There’s a more insidious and seductive temptation: to indulge in self-pity and piety. Anger, like false news, is cheap and easily digestible; it is the fast food of the indignant.

Chekhov used Sakhalin as an antidote. It may not have restored his health, but it restored his sensitivity. He moved beyond his own numbness and found a new means of engagement with his world—and, in doing so, invented a new kind of writing. Today, and especially today, as the threat of desensitization—and the accompanying seductions of detachment, outrage, revulsion, indignation, piety, and narcissism—looms over all our lives, we might need to ask ourselves the question that Chekhov asked himself in the spring of 1890: What will move me beyond this state of anesthesia? How will I counteract the lassitude that creeps over my soul?

Each of us will find individual answers to these questions. There is no formula that describes what your solution might be (although Chekhov’s six principles of storytelling certainly come close to such a formula). But it is humbling to recall the breadth and depth of our literary debt to a thirty-year-old physician who set out to cure his anesthesia. The opposite of “anesthetic,” we might recall, is “aesthetic”—a word that originally referred to whatever could be perceived or felt but that came to refer to the nature of beauty. Beauty, in all its myriad forms, can only be created in opposition to numbness. That, at least for me, serves as a quiet manifesto for our times.

Siddhartha Mukherjee has published three books, including “The Emperor of All Maladies,” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, and, most recently, “The Gene: An Intimate History.”

The Iconic Shakespeare and Company, Paris–Book Review


November 22, 2016

The iconic Shakespeare and Company@ Kilometer Zero , Paris review – the famous bookshop with beds

Sylvia Beach’s store, where Hemingway, Joyce and others gathered, was closed down by the Nazis. A new incarnation has welcomed readers for more than 50 years.

The over-painting of a fascia board bearing the name Shakespeare and Company, in Paris in 1941, remains a significant moment in the history of bookshops. Two weeks earlier, a German officer had walked in and tried to buy Finnegans Wake. The shop’s creator and owner Sylvia Beach had refused to sell it to him, claiming she had only one copy and it was her own. Two weeks later he returned to inform her that all her goods were about to be confiscated and within a couple of hours every shelf had been emptied. Books, photographs and furniture had all been carried to an upstairs apartment and a house painter had obliterated the shop’s title. The Anglo-American bookshop in the rue de l’Odéon, which had been the rendezvous for famous writers and where early purchasers of Ulysses, published by Beach, sometimes found themselves being served by its author, was no more.

There might its story have ended. But Beach lived on, and after the war ended, the GI Bill brought Americans to Paris. One of these was George Whitman. He may or may not have been related to his namesake, but he was certainly a great admirer of Walt. Having gained a degree in journalism from Boston University, this bookish vagabond hitchhiked and train-hopped across Mexico, Central America and the United States, then served in the American army during the second world war, ending up in Taunton, Massachusetts, where, briefly, he ran a small bookshop. Arriving in Paris, in the autumn of 1946, he enrolled at the Sorbonne and began swapping his GI food vouchers for other veterans’ book allowances. In this way he acquired a good enough book collection to set up a lending library in his hotel room.

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The Iconic Shakespeare and Company @Kilometre Zero, Paris, France.

Three years later, he was convinced that with his limited capital and specialist knowledge, his goal should be a significant lending library with a free reading room. But one of his regular visitors, the young Lawrence Ferlinghetti (later owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco), upset his plans by telling him he had to get out of his book-cluttered hole and run a proper shop.

A year later Whitman wrote: “I live for the day when I’ll have a bookstore to embellish this workaday world. I now own one of the best private libraries in the Latin Quarter and, living as I do on less than a dollar a day, I have accumulated a small capital … I’ve talked with Sylvia Beach … There is a possibility that she would consent to go into business with me – although I’ve been avoiding offers of partnership, it would be an honour and a privilege to work with Sylvia Beach, should she decide to reopen Shakespeare and Company. Either way I hope finally to have a niche where I can safely look upon the world’s horrors and beauty.”

George Whitman, proprietor of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, Paris, in 2009. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian.

The partnership with Beach never happened, but she regularly frequented the Mistral bookshop that Whitman opened at 37 rue de la Bûcherie in 1951, whence she departed with almost more books than she could carry. Eventually she gave him permission to use the title of her former shop. It was a few years before he actually did so but, even before the name went up, Shakespeare and Company’s second life, the subject of this new book, had effectively begun.

It was not a normal shop, and this is not a conventional book. Rightly so, but there is some irritation in having to turn it sideways every time you want to read a caption to an illustration. It is fast and fun, historically slapdash and occasionally repetitious. The main text is regularly disrupted by poems, short memoirs and photographs, but what holds it together is the extraordinary character and behaviour of George, as Whitman is referred to throughout.

His premises initially consisted of only three rooms, running like a series of railway carriages into an increasingly dark recess, offering a labyrinth of alcoves and cubby holes. But he soon expanded into the apartment upstairs, which made possible a reading room and a continuation of his lending library.

His girlfriend at the time commented on the abounding energy within the shop. Whitman himself constructed the shelves and make-shift divans. A socialist entrepreneur as well as an ardent bibliophile, he not only aimed to stock his shop with the finest English language collection of books outside Britain and America, but also hosted free seminars at which visitors could learn Russian, engage in Italian conversation or discuss new topics of socio-psychological research. He had not forgotten the hospitality freely given him in the course of his early travels and encouraged those in need of a bed or a floor for the night (“Tumbleweeds”, he called them) to sleep in the shop. “I believe we’re all homeless wanderers in a way,” he would say.

Generosity lay at the heart of this quixotic enterprise, in small ways and large. George made ice-cream on Sundays for homesick compatriots and baked American pies in the stove in the hall. Among the established authors who frequented the shop were Lawrence Durrell and the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. William Burroughs often attended the Sunday afternoon tea parties, and African-American writers sought refuge from the racism they had experienced in the States. Richard Wright did his book signings there. When Anaïs Nin called Whitman “a saint among books” it was almost certainly the hospitality he offered the young and needy that she had in mind.

One of the bedrooms in the bookshop. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian.

Numerous famous writers frequented the shop or gave readings there, and to this day Jeanette Winterson, who has written this book’s preface, remains one of its “Tumbleweeds”. At one point Whitman’s eccentricity and the government’s bureaucracy nearly brought the shop to a close. Certainly the absence, as late as 2002, of any form of modern technology, even a computer or telephone, caused problems.

But a second Sylvia, namely Whitman’s daughter, and her partner have stepped in and, after an inevitable degree of internecine warfare, the bookshop has been expanded on the ground and in cyberspace. It now has a cafe, occupies six floors and has also taken over two premises around the corner. George’s ideals live on. He died aged 98, in his bedroom above the bookshop. “I’m tired of people saying they don’t have time to read,” he said. “I don’t have time for anything else.”

These “empires of the spirit”, in Whitman’s phrase, call for further attention in another book recently published, Browse: The World of Bookshops, edited by Henry Hitchings (Pushkin, £12.99). Sixteen contemporary authors, from 11 countries around the world, recount the role bookshops have played in their own lives, as well as the stories, habits and treasure associated with particular examples. Ali Smith, who works a stint for a few hours each week in her local Amnesty International second-hand bookshop, is fascinated by the way books become unexpected repositories for inscriptions and detritus that indicate something about the lives of those who once owned them. But all these writers convey the magic of bookshops, while also making their vulnerability in recent times a recurrent theme.

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, edited by Krista Halverson, is available from Thames & Hudson

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/12/shakespeare-and-company-paris-review

Bob Dylan and The Nobel Prize–What’s UP


October 26, 2016

Bob Dylan and The Nobel Prize–What’s Up?

by Adam Kirsch

www. nytimes.com

In the summer of 1964, Bob Dylan released his fourth album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” which includes the track “It Ain’t Me Babe.” “Go ’way from my window/Leave at your own chosen speed,” it begins. “I’m not the one you want, babe/I’m not the one you need.”

That fall, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre played a variation on the same tune in a public statement explaining why, despite having been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he would not accept it. “The writer,” he insisted, must “refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances.” Mr. Dylan was talking to an imaginary lover, Sartre to an actual Swedish Academy, but the message was similar: If you love me for what I am, don’t make me be what I am not.

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We don’t know whether Mr. Dylan was paying attention to l’affaire Sartre that fall 52 years ago. But now that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he seems to be following in Sartre’s footsteps. Indeed, Mr. Dylan has done the philosopher one better: Instead of declining the prize, he has simply declined to acknowledge its existence. He hasn’t issued a statement or even returned the Swedish Academy’s phone calls. A reference to the award briefly popped up on the official Bob Dylan website and then was deleted — at his instruction or not, nobody knows. And the Swedes, who are used to a lot more gratitude from their laureates, appear to be losing their patience: One member of the Academy has called Mr. Dylan’s behavior “impolite and arrogant.”☺ There is a good deal of poetic justice in this turn of events.

For almost a quarter of a century, ever since Toni Morrison won the Nobel in 1993, the Nobel committee acted as if American literature did not exist — and now an American is acting as if the Nobel committee doesn’t exist. Giving the award to Mr. Dylan was an insult to all the great American novelists and poets who are frequently proposed as candidates for the prize.

The all-but-explicit message was that American literature, as traditionally defined, was simply not good enough. This is an absurd notion, but one that the Swedes have embraced: In 2008, the Academy’s permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, declared that American writers “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature” and are limited by that “ignorance.”

Still, it’s doubtful that Mr. Dylan intends his silence to be a defense of the honor of American literature. (He did, after all, accept the Pulitzer Prize for “lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”) No one knows what he intends — Mr. Dylan has always been hard to interpret, both as a person and as a lyricist, which is one reason people love him. But perhaps the best way to understand his silence, and to praise it, is to go back to Sartre, and in particular to Sartre’s concept of “bad faith.”

Bad faith, Sartre explains in “Being and Nothingness,” is the opposite of authenticity. Bad faith becomes possible because a human being cannot simply be what he or she is, in the way that an inkwell simply is an inkwell.

Rather, because we are free, we must “make ourselves what we are.” In a famous passage, Sartre uses as an example a cafe waiter who performs every part of his job a little too correctly, eagerly, unctuously. He is a waiter playing the role of waiter. But this “being what one is not” is an abdication of freedom; it involves turning oneself into an object, a role, meant for other people. To remain free, to act in good faith, is to remain the undefined, free, protean creatures we actually are, even if this is an anxious way to live.

This way of thinking is what used to be called existentialism, and Mr. Dylan is one of its great products. Living like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone, is living in Sartrean good faith, and much of the strangeness of Mr. Dylan’s life can be understood as a desperate attempt to retain this freedom in the face of the terrific pressure of fame. In a profile in The New Yorker in that same year of 1964, Mr. Dylan was quoted as saying that he didn’t “want to write for people anymore” but rather wanted to “write from inside me.”

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To be a Nobel laureate, however, is to allow “people” to define who one is, to become an object and a public figure rather than a free individual. The Nobel Prize is in fact the ultimate example of bad faith: A small group of Swedish critics pretend to be the voice of God, and the public pretends that the Nobel winner is Literature incarnate. All this pretending is the opposite of the true spirit of literature, which lives only in personal encounters between reader and writer. Mr. Dylan may yet accept the prize, but so far, his refusal to accept the authority of the Swedish Academy has been a wonderful demonstration of what real artistic and philosophical freedom looks like.

Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize for Literature


October 16, 2016

Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize for Literature

by Dean Johns

http://www.malaysiakini.com

The awarding of a richly deserved Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan has shocked and dismayed some of the non-musical writing fraternity around the world.

Though it is hard to think of any other writer in recent times whose work has so poetically and powerfully, let alone so memorably and enjoyably, inspired and encouraged the causes of peace, love, freedom and justice.

In fact there was a time when those of us who grew up with early Dylan classics as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’ were so naive as to believe that they were compelling enough to help us literally change the world.

We were completely kidding ourselves, of course, as subsequent events have all-too-clearly revealed. But the spirit of the sentiments that Dylan expressed lives on, and continues to give us heart and hope.

Thus by extension his anthems remain anathema to the war-mongers, whore-mongers and just plain mongrels who still misrule so many countries and rob and miserably mislead their citizens.

So I see Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize as not just a fitting reward for him personally, and for the common people everywhere, but also as a poke in the eye for the members and accomplices of every rotten ruling regime on the planet, from China and Russia to Syria and Zimbabwe.

And, of course, along with almost countless others, Malaysia, for whose Islamic-supremacist and viciously anti-Semitic UMNO-BN regime the Swedish Academy’s honouring of Bob Dylan must be an especially bitter pill to swallow, as Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman of Jewish parents.

Then there’s the jealousy factor. Dylan has been actually given his Prize, whereas the members and cronies of UMNO-BN have to allegedly buy their awards and titles either by selling their souls in the service of royalty or the regime, or else by handing-over wads of hard cash.

But of course they’ll try to ignore Dylan’s achievement, or else try and diminish or outright dismiss it among themselves with such typically self-serving sentiments as “Dylan may well be an icon, but UMNO-BN is a far bigger ‘I con’,” or “he might have more gold albums than us, but we’ve got far more actual gold”.

Or else, “one single, solitary Nobel Prize is nothing compared with the numerous ignoble prizes we’ve awarded ourselves in all our decades of nobbling Malaysia and fobbing the Malaysian people off with a pack of lies.”

Deserving the Nobble Prize for Lieterature

In short, the members and accomplices of UMNO-BN can console themselves in the face of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature with the thought that each and every one of them deserves the Nobble Prize for Lieterature.

They can take heart too, if they like, from the fact that, to judge from the titles of many of the songs for which Bob Dylan has been so highly honoured for writing, he could well have created them for UMNO-BN.

I’m joking, of course, as there’s no evidence in Bob Dylan’s life or work, as far as I know, that he’s ever so much as heard of Malaysia or its malevolent ruling regime.

However, it is tempting to observe that such titles as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Idiot Wind’ and ‘Talkin’ Devil’ could well be intended as descriptions of any of the public speeches or press-statements made by UMNO-BN ministers or minions in the past half-century or so.

Similarly, titles like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Rattled’, ‘Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence’, ‘Wanted Man’ and ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ seem to be uncannily apt descriptions of how Prime (but let’s be honest here) Crime Minister Najib Abdul Razak must be feeling and doing as he anxiously awaits the results of international investigations into his alleged 1MDB embezzlement and money-laundering project.

Certainly the 2006 Dylan title ‘Ain’t Talkin’’ pretty accurately sums-up Najib’s attitude in the face of all the allegations he and his accomplices and accessories in this and many other scams are facing, and ‘Disease of Conceit’ aptly describes the attitude that got them into this fix in the first place.

No matter what he does to try and take ‘Shelter from the Storm’, however, let’s hope that other Dylan titles like ‘Seven Curses’, ‘Pay in Blood’, ‘End of the Line’, ‘Everything is Broken’, ‘Going Going Gone’ and above all ‘Steel Bars’ are accurate predictors of what’s in store for him and his entire UMNO-BN band of blunderers, plunderers and pathological liars.

So that, after so many decades of ‘Long and Wasted Years’ in which ‘The Devil’s Been Busy’ despite UMNO-BN’s false mantra of ‘With God On Our Side’, Malaysians will finally get to hear the ‘Chimes of Freedom’.


DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practises as a writing therapist. Published books of his columns for Malaysiakini include ‘Mad about Malaysia’, ‘Even Madder about Malaysia’, ‘Missing Malaysia’, ‘1Malaysia.con’ and ‘Malaysia Mania’.

 

The Class Politics of Decluttering


July 18, 2016

The Class Politics of Decluttering

Missoula, Mont. — SUDDENLY, decluttering is everywhere. It may have started with Marie Kondo and her mega-best seller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” but it has exploded into a mass movement, anchored in websites, seminars and — ironically — a small library’s worth of books about how to get rid of stuff.

To its advocates, decluttering, or “minimalism,” is about more than just maximizing space: “By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth and contribution,” say Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, hosts of “The Minimalists” podcast.

But minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice, and it’s telling that its fan base is clustered in the well-off middle class. For people who are not so well off, the idea of opting to have even less is not really an option.

I understand why people with a lot of stuff feel burdened by it, and the contrasting appeal of having less of it. I cleaned houses to put myself through college as a single mother. I spent my days in expensive homes, full of large televisions and stereo systems, fully furnished rooms that collected dust. I was alone and isolated most days, and at night, I concentrated on the three or four online classes I took through a local community college. My daughter and I had about $50 in spending money a month.

Over the course of a year, and after seeing how the other half lived, I started to recognize that by having less, by trying to find joy in what little things life brings — like a 25-cent puzzle we found at a garage sale — we were living a somewhat happier life. Or, I assumed we were, after noticing while cleaning bathrooms that my clients tended to be on several medications for depression, pain and sleeplessness.In some ways, I was practicing what minimalism preaches. But it didn’t make me happy. And I imagine for millions of other working-class Americans who struggle to get by, minimalism’s principles don’t sit well either. Buddhist belief says happiness is the freedom from want, and yet, what if your life is streamlined out of necessity, and not choice?

I had to downsize severely several years ago when my daughter and I moved into a 400-square-foot studio. I had no usable wall space, and although my boss gave me temporary storage space in her garage over the summer, I had to sort through and get rid of carloads of clothes, my childhood toys, school papers, books, movies and artwork. I couldn’t afford to store all of these items, which had value to me only as a record of my history — including mementos from my parents.

 My stuff wasn’t just stuff, but a reminder that I had a foundation of support of people who had loved me growing up: a painting I’d done as a child that my mom had carefully framed and hung in our house, a set of antique Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls my ferret once chewed an eye out of when I was 15, artwork my mom had collected over the decade we lived in Alaska. Things I grew up with that brought me back to a time of living a carefree life.

I’ve grown to appreciate living in a small space over the last decade, even after having another child. I now keep a 667-square-foot apartment clean, and can’t imagine the responsibility of doing the same to two or three times the space. But it would be nice for my girls to have their own rooms, and a yard to run around in. It would be nice to have a real couch that isn’t a futon I’ve held on to for several years. I hunt for deals, and hurry to Walmart whenever there’s a sale.

And that’s the other class element lurking behind minimalism’s facade. In a new documentary about the movement, “bad” consumption is portrayed by masses of people swarming into big box stores on Black Friday, rushing over one another for the best deals. They are, we’re led to understand, slaves to material goods, whereas the people who stay away from mass consumption are independent thinkers, free to enjoy the higher planes of life.

But those people flocking to Walmart and other stores don’t necessarily see things that way. To go out and purchase furniture, or an entertainment set, or a television bigger than an average computer monitor — let alone decide that I can afford to get rid of such things — are all beyond my means. That those major sales bring the unattainable items to a level of affordability is what drives all of those people to line up and storm through doors on Black Friday.

Those aren’t wealthy people who have a house full of expensive items they don’t need. Those are people teetering on or even below the poverty level, desperate for comfort in their homes. To point to them as a reason to start an anti-consumerism movement is just another form of social shaming. Those aren’t the people who would benefit from a minimalist life. They can’t afford to do with less.

Stephanie Land is a writing fellow at the Center for Community Change. This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.