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La Recoleta

Convinced of impermanence
by these noble declarations of dust,
we stop and quiet our voices
among the rows of mausoleums,
their rhetoric of shadow and marble
a promise of what we desire:
the dignity of death.
Beautiful are the graves,
the naked inscriptions and death dates,
the interplay of flowers and stone,
the courtyards, cool and reposed,
and the many yesterdays of the past
today fixed and unique.
We confuse this peace with death,
longing for the end,
when what we truly desire is sleep and indifference.
Vibrant in arms and in passions
and slumbering in the ivy,
only life exists.
Its forms are space and time,
magic instruments of the soul,
and when it ceases to exist,
space, time, and death will also cease,
just as the darkness of midnight
annihilates the mirror's simulacrum,
which the dusk had already begun to erode.
In the benign shade of the trees,
the wind alive with birds and rustling branches,
souls pass into other souls,
impossible that they should cease to be,
an incomprehensible miracle,
and yet its repetition
insults our days with horror.
Such were my thoughts in la Recoleta,
in the final place of my ashes.

Translated from the Spanish of Jorge Luis Borges.

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Transversal Ecology and V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

V.S. Naipaul’s autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival is a nervous text. Its unnamed narrator (almost always read as Naipaul himself, as I will refer to him here) repeatedly confesses to suffering from a “rawness of nerves” as he migrates from Trinidad to England, where he settles in a small cottage on the grounds of a derelict Wiltshire manor (123). He attributes his nervous temperament to his self-consciousness as a postcolonial subject who lives on a hereditary estate established and long sustained by colonial plantations such as the one his grandparents worked as indentured laborers. But the estate also offers Naipaul the time and space to develop a critical intimacy with the Wiltshire countryside, an intimacy that revolutionizes his understanding of imperial England and its cultural legacy. He spends large portions of the novel walking the droveways of this ancient landscape, carefully observing the spatial and temporal dimensions of what is, at first glance, an idyllic environment. But as he comes to know the land more intimately, he develops an increasingly critical perspective, experiencing what he calls a “second childhood of seeing and learning” (93). Observing how the passage of time inscribes itself on the manor’s built and natural environments, as well as on its human community, Naipaul arrives at an understanding of England that diverges in significant ways from the one passed down to him in the literary and artistic representations that formed such an integral part of his colonial education. This “second childhood” is thus a process of disillusionment with the cultural ideal of England. It is also a reorientation of how Naipaul understands the relationship between natural ecology, social history, and his own subjectivity, an “awakening to the natural world” that ultimately empowers him to reassess his place within a post-imperial England, which is characterized in the novel by the grandson of indentured laborers roving the iconic landscape of the Salisbury Plain (105).

What Naipaul sees and learns as he explores the derelict Wiltshire estate is the subject of much critical commentary. Virtually all of this commentary focuses on issues of postcolonial identity, and much of it is critical of what Pascale Casanova refers to as the novel’s “colonial nostalgia for British power” (212). Casanova joins Rob Nixon, Ann Lora Stoler, Ian Baucom, and Derek Walcott, to name just a few of Naipaul’s many detractors, in reading The Enigma of Arrival as the apotheosis of Naipaul’s “unmistakably English view of the world, his almost provocative determination to prove himself more English than the English, more nostalgic than his neighbors for the Empire and England’s lost power” (Casanova 211). Others are more sympathetic. For example, Shirley Chew, Lucienne Loh, Sanjay Krishnan, and Anna Jörngården offer more nuanced readings of the novel that see in Naipaul’s fixation on England’s imperial decline a challenge to what Chew calls (quoting Naipaul) “the colonial fantasy of ‘security,’ that is, the notion of a ‘fixed world’ comprising, on the one hand, the timeless perfection of England, and, on the other, the disorder of ‘half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made’” (137). I too am interesting in how The Enigma of Arrival represents postcolonial identity, but I want to approach this question by exploring how the landscape itself—the natural ecology that contributes so mightily to the novel’s setting—functions as a means of framing and reorienting Naipaul’s struggle to understand his place within post-imperial England. In what follows, I will offer an ecocritical reading that draws on theories developed in Félix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies to argue that Naipaul’s “second childhood of seeing and learning” is, in ways germane to the question of postcolonial subjectivity, an awakening to the multiplicity of ecological registers.

Before considering how discrete passages from the text engage in an ecocritical approach to postcolonial identity, it may be fruitful to consider why The Enigma of Arrival is not read more often as a work of nature writing. Perhaps the reason why more critics do not address Naipaul’s interest in the natural world as such is because that intersects with a larger postcolonial critique. Naipaul himself admits as much when, in his preface to the novel’s reissue, he writes: “I knew there was a long tradition of nature writing and I knew that I was not equipped to add to it. My concern as someone from the colonies was the use of the land, nature pushed to its limits by a repeated crop” (v-vi). Naipaul’s emphasis on “nature pushed to its limits” works against the norms of mainstream nature writing, which have their roots in the pastoral. Although major literary figures such as Salman Rushdie have identified The Enigma of Arrival with “pastoral England, an England of manor and stream,” the novel does not, in fact, belong to a tradition that emphasizes the natural environment as a benevolent, contemplative, spiritually rejuvenating space. If anything, the evidence of material ruin and decay that Naipaul discovers embedded in the landscape as he walks and re-walks the Wiltshire countryside exposes the conventional pastoral as an illusion, if not an outright deception. Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin attest to this when they call The Enigma of Arrival an “anti-pastoral,” arguing that “Naipaul’s work is no haven for the literary nature-lover. His despoiled landscapes tell of centuries of human cruelty, greed and plunder” (128). The fact that Naipaul’s landscapes seem to insist that “land is not land alone, something that simply is itself,” but rather that it “partakes of what we breathe into it,” shifts attention away from his work as nature writing and toward his work as pure social or cultural critique (Huggan and Tiffin 366). Yet the novel does not support this division. Indeed, The Enigma of Arrival represents environmental, social, and subjective experiences as mutually embedded phenomena.

In his essay The Three Ecologies, Félix Guattari refuses the distinction between nature and culture in ways I find productive for thinking through Naipaul’s claim that “land is not land alone.” Guattari writes, “Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the interactions between ecosystems, the mechanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference, we must learn to think ‘transversally’” (28). To think transversally is to develop the critical capacity to address three overlapping ecological registers at once: environmental ecology, social ecology, and mental ecology (Guattari 18). Recognizing the interdependence of these ecological registers complicates Naipaul’s concern with “nature pushed to its limits” because transversality demands that we incorporate social and subjective dynamics into those limits (v). Naipaul models this in The Enigma of Arrival’s representation of Trinidad as the site of such extensive environmental exploitation that the near-total transformation of the land has left its occupants estranged from their own history. In fact, it is only in researching the history of Trinidad for a book he had been commissioned to write that Naipaul recognizes the artificiality of what he had always assumed to be his native island’s natural condition. He explains, “As a schoolboy I had assumed [Trinidad’s] torpor to be a constant, something connected with the geographical location of the island, the climate, the quality of the light. It had never occurred to me that the drabness I knew had been man-made, that it had causes, that there had been other visions and indeed other landscapes there” (170). This is the torpor of a colonial plantation society at the waning of the British Empire, which is altogether different from post-imperial Trinidad, where the landscape is again transformed, this time by the discovery of oil and natural gas. Naipaul bemoans the fact that the fossil fuel industry “ravaged and remade the landscape where we had had our beginnings in the New World,” and he does so in explicit transversal terms, noting that the shift from sugar cane to oil and natural gas “altered our landscape, our population, our mood” (384 and 385). There is a keen recognition in his bringing together landscape, population, and mood—terms that mirror Guattari’s emphasis on the three ecological registers of the environmental, the social, and the mental—that a change in one ecological register has the potential to transform all the ecological registers.   

A transversal consciousness is also active in Naipaul’s representation of the Salisbury Plain. What at first appears to be a timeless landscape emanating from the pages of Sir Gawain and the Green Night or William Wordsworth’s The Prelude gradually reveals itself to be shaped by spatiotemporal historical processes. For example, Naipaul recognizes in the seeming emptiness of the plain subtle traces of social activity: “Daily I walked in the wide grassy way—perhaps in the old days a processional way. Daily I climbed from the bottom of the valley to the crest of the way and the view … A vast sacred burial ground, bounded by the sky—of what activity those barrows and tumuli spoke, what numbers, what organization, what busyness in these now virtually empty downs!” (19). His ability to discern traces of ancient social activity in the shape of the land gradually opens his eyes to how contemporary social activities are also reshaping what may seem, at first glance, to be wholly natural. Musing on the absurdity of the fact that the Royal School of Artillery at Larkhill’s luminous targets stand out more dramatically on the Salisbury Plain than Stonehenge, both of which are visible in the same vista, Naipaul notes that “because of the purely military uses to which the land had been put for so long, and contrary to what one might expect after the explosions and mock warfare, there survived on the plain some kinds of butterflies that had vanished in more populated parts” (14). As with the previous example, the different ecological registers are intertwined: beneath the surface of what appears to be untouched nature are the traces of frenzied social activity; within the center of explosive social activity is the most unexpected and unlikely trace of untouched nature. It is precisely in recognizing this transversal quality that Naipaul can see through the so-called “timeless perfection of England” to something that is altogether more temporal (Chew 137).

I will conclude with one final example of transversal ecology in The Enigma of Arrival, an example that shows how the reach of what Guattari calls “the mechanosphere” into the heart of rural England degrades both corporeal nature and communal bonds. Although the territory over which Naipaul ranges throughout the novel bears subtle traces of pre-industrial social activity, that ancient landscape is also in the process of being transformed by large-scale industrial agriculture. Naipaul writes of “Change! New ideas, new efficiency,” an ironic exclamation that soon takes on a dystopian tone. Where once was “a wooden platform where the milk churns were placed” now stands a modern, prefabricated milking barn. He notes that “this milking building or milking ‘parlour’ (quaint word) was a mechanical-looking affair”—what he calls “a little factory at the top of the hill”—that was full of “pipes and meters and gauges; and the men who worked the parlour, who corralled the dung-stained cattle into the pens or channels, had something of the grimness of industrial workers” (58). This description of industrial-scale animal agriculture stands in marked contrast to the ideal of “pastoral England” with which Rushdie associates the novel, in part because it acknowledges the ecological registers that Guattari identifies in The Three Ecologies. This is made explicit in the passage’s concluding description, in which Naipaul writes: “The brightly-coloured cars, the hum and hiss of the milking machine (the cows, even with their dung, reduced to machine-managed objects), the tense young men, their moustaches and cars—they were all aspects of the new, exaggerated thing that had come upon us” (58). As had befallen Trinidad with the discovery of oil and natural gas, the introduction of industrial agricultural practices into the rural Wiltshire economy has a powerfully estranging effect, distancing the landscape and its occupants from the ideal that Naipaul had internalized as a postcolonial subject whose sole experience of England came through art and literature.

The disillusionment that Naipaul experiences as he observes the technological transformation of the dairy industry allows him to see through the supposed authenticity and historical continuity of agrarian England. For example, he fondly recalls the illustrated cows that graced the labels of the condensed milk he consumed as a child in Trinidad, an image that he describes as “the very heart of romance, a child’s fantasy of the beautiful other place” (90). But what he finds in reality refuses any such romantic ideal. Walking the droveways, he encounters a “ruined, abandoned, dungy, mossy farmyard” in which are penned a group of deformed milk cows:

The breeding of these cattle had become so mechanical that the malformation appeared mechanical too, the mistakes of an industrial process. Curious additional lumps of flesh had grown at various places on the animals, as though these animals had been cast in a mould, a mould divided into two sections, and as though, at the joining of the moulds, the cattle-material, the mixture out of which the cattle were being cast, had leaked; and had hardened, matured into flesh, and had then developed hair with the black-and-white Frisian pattern of the rest of the cattle. (9)

The radical incongruity of this reality with the fantasy Naipaul brought with him when he migrated to England extends to the larger social register as well. For example, he initially assumes that the people he encounters on his walks have ancestral connections to the land, that they are—as he says of one of his neighbors—“emanations” of “literature and antiquity and the landscape” (21). But as with the distressed, hideously deformed cattle, they too are soon exposed as something other than Naipaul first assumed: “So much that had looked traditional, natural, emanations of the landscape … now turned out not to have been traditional or instinctive at all” (49). Indeed, with the exception of the reclusive owner of the manor, none of the residents have an authentic connection with the land. They are temporary residents of the estate, and those social bonds that do exist between the neighbors lack depth and stability. When one of the longest surviving residents dies, nobody notices. The children are discourteous to their elderly neighbors. And an itinerant laborer, come to work the mechanized milking machines, murders his wife in a jealous rage.

This social fragmentation is coterminous with the deformed cows, and together they powerfully reorient Naipaul’s perspective on his own place within post-imperial England. But his disillusionment is also an awakening to a new way of seeing England that challenges and ultimately transcends the ideological representations he encountered as a schoolboy. As Anna Jörngården argues in a recent article, “Rather than a cause for nostalgia and regret, this shift from seeing the valley as replete with living history to seeing it as a field of ruins opens up alternative histories that destabilize fantasies of the valley as the authentic home to rooted, authentic people” (217). It is precisely in this destabilization that the subjective register of Guattari’s transversal ecology intersects with the environmental and social registers. If The Enigma of Arrival is, at its core, a novel of postcolonial identity—as the critical consensus suggests—then one way to achieve a deeper understanding of such an identity is through a transversal ecocritical approach. Read transversally, the novel’s mutually embedded ecological registers redefine who can legitimately claim the Wiltshire estate as their own. If socioeconomic and environmental transformations have emptied the Salisbury Plain of its meaning as “the authentic home to rooted, authentic people,” then it can now be the authentic home of the rootless, the postcolonial, the transnational. The Enigma of Arrival thus emerges as a critique of how social and environmental transformations shape the mental ecologies of all who exist within changing spatial and temporal contexts, including both the localized English countryside and the globalized, postcolonial setting within which Naipaul’s work is so often understood.

Note: I presented a version of this paper at the “Conceptions and Perceptions of Time and Space” conference at the London Center for Interdisciplinary Research in London, England on February 17, 2019.

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Holocaust Literature: A Bibliography

January 27th was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A lot has happened since then, most notably a winter storm that left millions of people in Texas, including my family and me, without electricity, heat, and water for more than 100 hours in sub-freezing temperatures. In the days running up to the storm, I had been grappling with how little attention I have given the Holocaust in my scholarship and teaching, and I was intending to gather some resources to post here—mostly for my own reference, but also for the benefit of others—when my plans were derailed by the utilities failure. I did, however, manage to re-read the few works of Holocaust Literature that I own, including both volumes of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Elie Wiesel’s The Night Trilogy, which includes the novels Night, Dawn, and The Accident. These are important works, but they are also among the most widely read accounts of the Holocaust, second only to Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, and I’m a little embarrassed that these are the only works of Holocaust Literature that I’ve read.

I know there is a massive body of Holocaust Literature, including many published and unpublished survivors’ accounts. When I worked as an intern at Stockton University’s Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center, I saw full-time staff members help Holocaust survivors record their experiences living under European fascism, and I recall frequent discussions about the importance memoirs, novels, and other literary texts to the remembrance of the Holocaust. Stockton launched its Holocaust & Genocide Studies program just a few years before my internship, so I was also well aware that Holocaust Literature fit within a clearly delineated field of academic study. But my interests at the time were in creative writing, so I didn’t explore what the university had to offer by way of Holocaust Studies as much as I now wish that I had. Fortunately, there are some great online resources, including some good bibliographies of Holocaust Literature, that point the way toward further independent study.

Many of the works in the following bibliography are taken from bibliographies published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Jewish Women’s Archive, though I have also added a fair number of titles that I discovered through my own research. Additionally, I used WORLDCAT to correct and complete the citations. This bibliography is not comprehensive and only includes books available in English. It also excludes individual stories, poems, and articles, of which there are many. If there are book-length works missing from the list, please leave a note in the comments and I will add them. I will also expand the list as I become aware of additional titles.

Note: The following bibliography is under construction. New titles are added daily.

Holocaust Literature

Aarons, Victoria, and Phyllis Lassner, eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Holocaust Literature and Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

Aichinger, Ilse. Herod’s Children. 1960. Translated by Cornelia Schaeffer. New York: Atheneum, 1964.

Aizenberg, Edna. On the Edge of the Holocaust: The Shoah in Latin American Literature and Culture. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2015.

Alexander, Edward. The Resonance of Dust: Essays on Holocaust Literature and Jewish Fate. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979.

Apitz, Bruno. Naked Among Wolves. 1958. Translated by Edith Anderson. Berlin: Seven Seas Books, 1960.

Appelfeld, Aharon. Badenheim 1939. 1975. Translated by Dalya Bilu. Boston: D.R. Godine, 2009.

Appelfeld, Aharon. The Immortal Bartfuss. 1988. Translated by Jeffrey M. Green. New York: Grove Press, 1994.

Arieti, Silvano. The Parnas: A Scene from the Holocaust. 1979. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2000.

Becker, Jurek. Bronstein’s Children. 1986. Translated by Leila Vennewitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Becker, Jurek. Jacob the Liar. 1969. Translated by Leila Vennewitz. New York: W.W. Norton, 2020.

Begley, Louis. Wartime Lies. 1991. Ballantine Books, 2004.

Berger, Alan L. Children of Job: American Second-Generation Witnesses to the Holocaust. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Berger, Alan L., and Gloria L. Cronin, editors. Jewish American and Holocaust Literature: Representation in the Postmodern World. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Bigsby, Christopher. Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust: The Chain of Memory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Bitton-Jackson, Livia. Elli: Coming of Age in the Holocaust. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980.

Bitton-Jackson, Livia. I Have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing Up in the Holocaust. London: Pocket Books, 2000.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Literature of the Holocaust. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. 1946. Translated by Barbara Vedder. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Bos, Pascale R. German-Jewish Literature in the Wake of the Holocaust: Grete Weil, Ruth Kluger, and the Politics of Address. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Bosmajian, Hamida. Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1979.

Brenner, Rachel Feldhay. Writing as Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust: Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Brett, Lily. The Auschwitz Poems. Brunswick, Australia: Scribe, 1986.

Brown, Jean C., Elaine C. Stephens, and Janet R. Rubin, eds. Images from the Holocaust: A Literary Anthology. Lincolnwood, IL: NTC Publishing Group, 1997.

Bryks, Rachmil. A Cat in the Ghetto: Four Novelettes. 1952. Translated by S. Morris Engel. New York: Perseus Books, 2008.

Chapman, Fern Schumer. Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust: A Daughter’s Journey to Reclaim the Past. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Delbo, Charlotte. Auschwitz and After. 1965. Translated by Rosette C. Lamont. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Epstein, Helen. Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s Story. 1997. New York: Holmes & Meier, 2005.

Epstein, Julia, and Lori Lefkovitz, editors. Shaping Losses: Cultural Memory and the Holocaust. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Epstein, Leslie. King of the Jews: A Novel of the Holocaust. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979.

Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. 1992. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Felstiner, Mary Lowenthal. To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Solomon in the Nazi Era. 1994. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Fine, Ellen S. Legacy of Night: The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.

Fink, Ida. The Journey. 1990. Translated by Joanna Weschler and Francine Prose. London: Penguin, 1994.

Fink, Ida. A Scrap of Time and Other Stories. 1983. Translated by Madeline Levine and Francine Prose. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998.

Fink, Ida. Traces. 1996. Translated by Philip Boehm and Francine Prose. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.

Fishman, Charles Adés, editor. Blood to Remember: American Poets and the Holocaust. St. Louis: Time Being Books, 2007.

Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. 1947. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Friedman, Saul S., ed. Holocaust Literature: A Handbook of Critical, Historical, and Literary Writings. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Friedlander, Albert H., ed. Out of the Whirlwind: A Reader of Holocaust Literature. 1976. New York: UAHC Press, 1999.

Friedman, Carl. Nightfather. 1991. Translated by Arnold Pomerans and Erica Pomerans. New York: Perseus Books, 2004.

Fuchs, Elinor, editor. Plays of the Holocaust: An International Anthology. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1987.

Fuks, Ladislav. Mr. Theodore Mundstock. 1963. Translated by Iris Urwin. London: Jonathan Cape, 1969.

Gouri, Haim. The Chocolate Deal. 1964. Translated by Seymour Simckes. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999.

Grynberg, Henryk. Child of the Shadows. 1965. Translated by Celina Winiewska. London: Vellentine Mitchell, 1969.

Gwyer, Kirstin. Encrypting the Past: The German-Jewish Holocaust Novel of the First Generation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Habe, Hans. The Mission. 1965. Translated by Michael Bullock. London: Panther Books, 1967.

Hartman, Geoffrey H., editor. Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Hersey, John. The Wall. 1950. New York: Vintage, 1988.

Hilsenrath, Edgar. Night. 1964. Translated by Michael Roloff. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966.

Hilsenrath, Edgar. The Nazi Who Lived as a Jew. 1971. Translated by Andrew White. New York: Manor Books, 1977.

Hungerford, Amy. The Holocaust of Texts: Genocide, Literature, and Personification. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Halperin, Irving. Messengers from the Dead: Literature of the Holocaust. London: Westminster Press, 1970.

Horowitz, Sara R. Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Ka-tzetnik 135633. House of Dolls. 1953. Translated by Moshe M. Kohn. London: Senate Publishing, 1997.

Ka-tzetnik 135633. Atrocity. 1961. Translated by Moshe M. Kohn. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1963.

Ka-tzetnik 135633. Star Eternal. 1966. Translated by Nina DeNur. London: W.H. Allen, 1972.

Ka-tzetnik 135633. Sunrise Over Hell. 1977. Translated by Nina DeNur. London: Corgi Books, 1978.

Kaniuk, Yoram. Adam Resurrected. 1969. Translated by Seymour Simckes. New York: Grove Atlantic, 2008.

Katz, Steven T., and Alan Rosen, eds. Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2013.

Keneally, Thomas. Schindler’s List. 1982. New York: Washington Square Press/Atria, 2020.

Kertész, Imre. Fateless. 1975. Translated by Tim Wilkinson. New York: Vintage International, 2004.

Kosinski, Jerzy. The Painted Bird. 1965. New York: Bantam Book, 1998.

Kosinski, Jerzy. Steps. 1968. New York: Grove Atlantic, 1999.

Kremer, S. Lillian. Witness Through the Imagination: Ozick, Elman, Cohen, Potok, Singer, Epstein, Bellow, Steiner, Wallant, Malamud: Jewish-American Holocaust Literature. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989.

Kremer, S. Lillian, editor. Holocaust Literature: An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Krimmer, Elisabeth. German Women’s Life Writing and the Holocaust: Complicity and Gender in the Second World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Kuznetsov, A. Anatoli. Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel. 1967. Translated by David Floyd. New York: Farra, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Lang, Berel, editor. Writing and the Holocaust. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1988.

Langer, Lawrence L. The Holocaust the and Literary Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.

Langer, Lawrence L. Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Langer, Lawrence L., editor. Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Leak, Andrew, and George Paizis, editors. The Holocaust and the Text: Speaking the Unspeakable. St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Levi, Primo. If Not Now, When? 1982. Translated by William Weaver. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Levin, Meyer. Eva: A Novel of the Holocaust. 1959. New York: Behrman House, 1979.

Lewitt, Maria. Come Spring: An Autobiographical Novel. 1980. Melbourne: Scribe Publications, 2002.

Lustig, Arnošt. Diamonds of the Night. 1958. Translated by Jeanne Nĕmcová. London: Quartet Books, 1989.

Lustig, Arnošt. A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova. 1964. Translated by Jeanne Nĕmcová. London: Quartet Books, 1990.

Lustig, Arnošt. Night and Hope. 1958. Translated by George Theiner. London: Quartet Books, 1989.

Lustig, Arnošt. Darkness Casts No Shadow. 1976. Translated by Jeanne Nĕmcová. London: Quartet Books, 1989.

Lustig, Arnošt. The Unloved: From the Diary of Perla S. 1979. Translated by Vera Kalina-Levine. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006.

McGlothlin, Erin. Second-Generation Holocaust Literature: Legacies of Survival and Perpetration. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2006.

Minco, Marga. Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle. 1957. Translated by Roy Edwards. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Modiano, Patrick. Ring Roads. 1972. Translated by Caroline Hillier. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Modiano, Patrick. Night Rounds. 1969. Translated by Caroline Hillier. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Modiano, Patrick. La Place de l’Etoile. 1968. Translated by Caroline Hillier. London, Bloomsbury, 2016.

Morgan, Glyn. Imagining the Unimaginable: Speculative Fiction and the Holocaust. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

Nałkowska, Zofia. Medallions. 1946. Translated by Diana Kuprel. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2000.

Nèmirovsky, Iréne. Suite Française. 2004. Translated by Sandra Smith. London: Vintage, 2006.

Ozick, Cynthia. The Shawl: A Story and Novella. London: Jonathan Cape, 1991.

Patterson, David. The Shriek of Silence: A Phenomenology of the Holocaust Novel. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992.

Patterson, David, Alan L. Berger, and Sarita Cargas, editors. Encyclopedia of Holocaust Literature. London: Oryx Press, 2002.

Popescu, Diana, and Tanja Schult, eds. Revisiting Holocaust Representation in the Post-Witness Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Potok, Chaim. The Chosen.1967. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Presser, Jacques. Night of the Girondists. 1958. London: Harvill Press, 1992.

Raphael, Linda Schermer, and Marc Lee Raphael, editors. When Night Fell: An Anthology of Holocaust Short Stories. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Rawicz, Piotr. Blood from the Sky. 1961. Translated by Peter Wiles. London: Elliott & Thompson, 2004.

Reinhart, Robert C. Walk the Night: A Novel of Gays in the Holocaust. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1994.

Riggs, Thomas, editor. Reference Guide to Holocaust Literature. Detroit: St. James Press, 2002.

Rittner, Carol, and John K. Roth, eds. Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust. New York: Paragon House, 1993.

Rochman, Hazel, and Darlene Z. McCampbell, eds. Bearing Witness: Stories of the Holocaust. New York: Orchard Books, 1995.

Rosen, Philip, and Nina Apfelbaum, editors. Bearing Witness: A Resource Guide to Literature, Poetry, Art, Music, and Videos by Holocaust Victims and Survivors. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Rosenfeld, Alvin H. A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Roskies, David, editor. The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe. Philadelphia: 1989.

Roth, John K., editor. Holocaust Literature. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2008.

Rybakov, Anatolii Naumovich. Heavy Sand. 1978. Translated by Harold Shukman. London: Penguin, 1988.

Schiff, Hilda, ed. Holocaust Poetry. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995.

Schlant, Ernestine. The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust. London: Routledge, 1999.

Schwarz, Daniel R. Imagining the Holocaust. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Sebald, Winfried Georg. Austerlitz. 2001. Translated by Anthea Bell. London: Penguin, 2010.

Semprun, Jorge. The Cattle Truck. 1963. Translated by Richard Seaver. London: Serif Books, 2005.

Sherman, Joseph. Writers in Yiddish. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007.

Sicher, Efraim, editor. Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory after Auschwitz. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Sicher, Efraim, editor. Holocaust Novelists. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2004.

Sicher, Efraim. The Holocaust Novel. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. Enemies: A Love Story. 1966. Translated by Aliza Shevrin and Elizabeth Shrub. London: Penguin, 2012.

Solomon, Michel. The Struma Incident: A Novel of the Holocaust. Translated by Carol Dunlop-Hébert. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979.

Striar, Marguerite M., editor. Beyond Lament: Poets of the World Bearing Witness to the Holocaust. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998.

Teichman, Milton, and Sharon Leder, editors. Truth and Lamentations: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Uris, Leon. Mila 18. 1961. New York: Bantam Books, 2001.

Vice, Sue. Holocaust Fiction. London: Routledge, 2000.

Wallant, Edward Lewis. The Pawnbroker. 1961. Bedford, NY: Fig Tree Books, 2015.

Weil, Jiří. Life With a Star. 1949. Translated by Rita Klímová with Roslyn Schloss. London: Daunt Books, 2012.

Wiechert, Ernst. Forest of the Dead. 1945. Translated by Ursula Stechow. New York: Greenberg, 1947.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. 1958. Translated by Stella Rodway. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.

Wiesel, Elie. Dawn. 1960. Translated by Frances Frenaye. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.

Wiesel, Elie. The Accident. 1961. Translated by Anne Borchardt. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.

Wiesel, Elie. The Gates of the Forest. 1964. Translated by Frances Frenaye. New York: Schocken Books, 1996.

Wiesel, Elie. The Forgotten. 1989. Translated by Stephen Becker. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.

Wilhelm, Thorsten. Holocaust Narratives: Trauma, Memory and Identity Across Generations. New York: Routledge, 2020.

Wojdowski, Bogdan. Bread for the Departed. 1971. Translated by Madeline G. Levine. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998.

Young, James E. Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

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Yudkin, Leon L. Literature in the Wake of the Holocaust. Saint-Denis: Suger Press, 2003.

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Unemployed Fragments

Footbridge over creek, pond-formed dam.
No. The reverse---
turned inside out again.

Wait to hear what can be heard.

An ice-cream truck roving distant neighborhood,
the tack tack tack of beak on bark, and then
sudden snort of a dog ("adda boy!") eating dust.
Late morning with the boy (the elder)
"Fifth and Seventieth" just read, he's digging
animal facts---what they eat
the size of their teeth.

Last day for freedom. Tomorrow knowledge.
Diamond painting the marvel
universe---table top & tools of the trade.

The boy (the younger) in panic:
"Oh no! they didn't give me enough bags!"

Window open breeze
flushing strong
incense through the room.
Impossible not to see (these streets
sleeping rough under Congress w/ neon
crowd out for weekend run and I
a saunter) the bright sigh of earth---
Mid-morning speech
sleeping bats, dreaming of flight and insect
feast--- drainage from street to Colorado.

Somewhere
in the darkness
they.

A squeal.
A squeak.
Hours left to sleep---
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Elise Partridge’s Hyper-Realism and Naming the Unknown

To read Elise Partridge’s 2002 collection Fielder’s Choice is to enter a highly-tuned world of memory and perception. The poems are precise, guided by observational skills and a lifetime’s worth of knowledge that transform even distant memories of childhood into something much more certain and accessible than what many readers may experience when recalling their own childhoods. Similarly, Partridge’s observations of nature are encyclopedic in their attention to detail and naming. The natural world that Partridge represents in these poems is not impressionistic, but is instead rendered scientific, knowable, able to be mastered. Even the collection’s opening poem, “Everglades,” which trains its attention on the submerged, fleeting things of the wetlands, ends with an appeal to the practice of naming: “A bird swaying on a coral bean / sang two notes that might have been ‘Name me’ ” (ll. 14-15). Yet what I find most interesting about these lines is not the poet’s knowledge, which extends to the coral bean, nor her desire to know the name of the bird, which she cleverly suggests is the bird’s desire to be named, but rather the subtle anxiety she seems to experience when confronted with something that resists identification. It’s as if these extraordinarily detailed, taxonomic poems carry within themselves an awareness that every experience contains an element of the unknown and the unknowable. Even the most observant poets must, in the final analysis, stand before a horizon beyond which they cannot see.

A good example of this tension between mastery over nature and the impossible horizon of knowledge comes in the collection’s second poem, “Plague.” Following immediately after “Everglades,” with its explicit appeal to naming, “Plague” begins with a catalogue of medicinal herbs: “Heal-all, yarrow, alum root, / sweet annie, angelica, hazel shoots” (ll. 1-2). To this list are added “Lemon verbena, spearmint beds, / feverfew blooms nodding heads,” “a spray of Solomon’s seal,” and “magenta balm, white chamomile” (ll. 7-8, 18, and 26). In all, Partridge names nineteen specific plant species, telling us that they are “herbs renowned for healing power” (l. 6). The herbs’ medicinal properties compliment the poem’s title, which emphasizes illness and suffering, and the poet’s ability to recognize each plant species—even if only by their common names—suggests that she knows something about how to use them against the plague. And she does indeed understand the practical use of at least one of the plants, as she makes clear when she writes: “Medicinal ferns were brewed for tea / to soothe sore throats, cure pleurisy” (ll. 29-30). The impression this encyclopedic approach gives is of a poet who moves through the natural world as an omniscient observer. She knows the names of every plant she sees, and she knows how to transform these wild things into wholesome teas, medicines, and cures.

But “Plague” is not a poem about what ails the body, for the poet’s attention is drawn to a mass of caterpillars as they crawl through this abundance of medicinal herbs, their jaws hard at work consuming lambs-ears, red root, and jewelweed. Driven by hunger and eating everything in sight, the caterpillars occupy a menacing place in the poem, yet the care with which Partridge observes their eating renders them beautiful:

Two pinks caught my eye. I bent down.
Caterpillars were going to town
on a faltering stem, bodies slung
underneath like sloths'. The feet clung;
the heads chewed. Four gnashed a meal
under a spray of Solomon's seal
whose white drops quivered. Paired prongs,
the front legs worked like icemen's tongs
curving to stab. Rear-guard pylons,
flat-soled, gray, dutiful cousins,
helped shiver along the elegant back,
blue-and-red pustules edged with black. (ll. 13-24)

How are we meant to feel about these creatures as they consume a landscape full of life-giving herbs? One way to read the caterpillars is as the very plague the title references, a plague with the potential to destroy the plants altogether. Partridge makes this point clear when, at the poem’s conclusion, she anticipates their metamorphosis into fully-developed butterflies who will “alight on fewer, finer legs / and discharge an arsenal of eggs” (ll. 49-50). The implication is that this spray of eggs—figured here as “an arsenal”—will spell ruin for the herbs catalogued in the poem. They will multiply the number of larva, which will in turn eat their fill until the landscape is left barren. And yet, for all the potential destruction the eggs represent, the caterpillars are doing exactly what they evolved to do. They consume the herbs, and in so doing, they transform themselves into butterflies. There is great mystery and beauty in this process, and the fact that the garden itself is an integral part of the metamorphosis serves to complicate the disgust one may feel toward the poem’s “plague.”

The extent of Partridge’s ambivalence toward the caterpillars is thrown into relief by “Phoenixville Farm,” the poem that follows directly after “Plague” in Fielder’s Choice. Partridge uses “Phoenixville Farm” to align her sympathies with one side of a starkly-drawn contrast between the artificiality of the subdivision where she grew up and the more rustic, natural setting of her friend Anne’s farm. Her sympathies are clearly with the farm over and against the controlled, disciplined, and supremely boring subdivision where “the change of seasons was marked by switching off / or on the central AC’s monotone thrum” (ll. 17-18). The farm provides her with access to a much more diverse and exciting environment, where the presence of foxes, hornets, spiders, bats, raccoons, and other critters stir within her a desire to escape the constraints of suburban life. When her parents come to pick her up after a sleepover at Anne’s farm, Partridge imagines herself undergoing the very sort of metamorphosis that threatens the medicinal herbs in “Plague”:

Some day, some day---we'd each spin sleeping bags,
doze for six weeks, thrust, gnaw, unkink striped wings,
try out our newborn feelers, lurch to Anne's farm,
bathe in dust puddles, lay eggs, and worship weeds. (ll. 50-53)

This closing metaphor bears a striking resemblance to the metamorphosis described in “Plague.” Not only does Partridge figure her escape from the suburbs as a transition from larva to pupa to imago, but one of the central acts she will commit after emerging from her chrysalis is to follow the example of the butterflies in “Plague” and deposit her eggs among the weeds. Her desire for liberation is very much tied up in questions of seasonality, transformation, renewal, and reproduction, all of which are given a positive gloss within the context of the poem. Yet read alongside “Plague,” the metaphor that concludes “Phoenixville Farm” unsettles any easy interpretation of the “arsenal of eggs” that the former poem’s butterflies will discharge throughout the herbs. If the caterpillars are symbols of destruction in “Plague,” they represent the potential for freedom in “Phoenixville Farm,” and it is in the contradiction between the way these two poems represent metamorphosis that the horizon of Partridge’s knowledge appears.

The plants and animals that demand so much attention in “Plague” and “Phoenixville Farm” may be named and described, their life cycles and practical uses understood, but the larger questions of interdependence, metamorphosis, liberation, death, and beauty are left unanswered, perhaps because they are unanswerable. And perhaps this is the point of Partridge’s hyper-realistic poetics. By training her eye on the fine details of her surroundings, and then expressing those details with clinical precision, Partridge exhausts the mundane and positions her readers before the ineffable. It’s almost as if every meticulous description—every act of naming—moves us one step closer to what can never be ultimately known. And it is the stubborn presence of the unknown that makes her poems worth returning to. Like the bird that cries, “Name me,” at the conclusion of “Everglades,” Partridge invites us to name the unknown in her poems, knowing full well that no mastery and no knowledge will ever empower us to do so with finality. Yet the attempt yields its rewards, training our attention as it does on those qualities of being that transcend certainty and give rise to what must always be rediscovered anew.

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Unemployed Fragments

Feelings of exhaustion
passed person to person

ears clogged and Advil PM
a condition
only lying prone can fix
New vision --- a hawk
still, asleep in the tree

a truck idles nearby

no movement, no hawk
my eye - it misunderstands the shape it sees

And then a dove, as if from mist . . .
Gnats amuck in my keyboard
seeking refuge, a place to nest

in this tangle of silicone & light
A cardinal, confident in the brown of its feathers
leaps from mirror to mirror

A moment, a fraction ---
and then up and out and back
again
The water black at dawn, a diadem:
stars die in the light.

The chirp of the frog. The hiss of the owl.

Open your mouth.
Take in a breath --- and out
of all things gold.
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It’s Best to Die in a Warm Bed

You have to ask yourself, what’s the point of killing? What’s at stake?

They sat behind mirrored glass, watching pedestrians scuttle by through faded brush-stroke letters. They sat, legs crossed, drinking a strong blend.

Ask yourself, how will your life change?

Life.

Or death. Consider how your death will change.

He flipped a cigarette onto his lip and struck his lighter. It was tarnished brass, descended from a grandfather killed in war. He refilled it every month. Wiped it clean, but never polished. He touched the end of the cigarette to the bouncing flame.

Aren’t you planning your death yet?

No.

Sure you are. Think. Smoke curled around his swollen, dimpled nose. Everything you’re about is gearing up for the end. You wanna lay peaceful and warm when you die. Maybe nibble at a little soup. You know that. There’s nothing romantic about getting shot down.

Nobody is going to shoot me down. I don’t even own a gun.

You don’t need a gun to be shot down. Think for a minute.

Well, the other said, leaning into his coffee. He slurped. Nobody is going to shoot me. And I’m not planning my death yet.

There’s no glory in dying bloody. You know that. It’s best to die in a warm bed. Somewhere familiar. Somewhere private. You don’t want strangers watching.

They sat a moment and peered out at the street. People rushed along, their faces blurred by rain. The storm had been rolling in for days, in off the ocean.

He was hungry, but it wasn’t time. He would wait until dark, and then he would gorge himself. Cantonese noodles, pepperoni calzones, fish and chips, steaming meats from sidewalk vendors, meatball subs, corned beef and sour kraut on rye, mixed plates from the international buffet, olives and cheese and wine, hotdogs and hamburgers, lamb skewers, spinach pie, curried chicken, California rolls, jerked pork, falafel, stuffed grape leaves, Korean barbecue, double fudge brownies and ice cream. Maybe even a couple of Romeo y Julieta’s and a bottle of Colt 45.

But now, with the storm draped across the afternoon, it was unfiltered cigarettes and strong coffee.

He nudged the other and grinned. I know what you’re thinking. When I was young, before things were so good, I used to ride the rails with a man who killed.

I’m not going to kill. I don’t even own a gun.

You don’t need a gun. You know that. He beat them. He choked them dead.

The other crossed his arms and stared out at the rain.

He would sneak up on them and beat them so they couldn’t get up. I remember it so well. And then he’d choke them.

I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve got nothing to do with that.

Yes you do. Because like you, he wasn’t planning either.

Nobody plans for death. It just gets you.

Not so. We’re all planning. It’s just that people like you don’t know what they’re planning for.

He took a final drag on his cigarette and dropped it into his coffee. Ain’t that something? He’d choke them dead.

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The Streets

The streets of Buenos Aires
run through my heart.
Not the greedy streets,
troubled by crowds and bustling drudgery,
but the indolent streets of the outer quarters,
nearly invisible now, as always, 
in the half-light of the gloaming,
and those even further out,
beyond the trees,
where only austere little houses dare venture,
overwhelmed by endless distances,
lost in the immense expanse
of sky and plains.
They offer a promise to the loner
for a thousand lonely souls live within them,
unique before the divine and in time
precious beyond question.
To the West, the North and the South
they unfold---another possible homeland---the streets:
may their colors fly
within the verses that I write.

Translated from the Spanish of Jorge Luis Borges.

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Power and the Harper’s Letter on Justice and Open Debate

Yesterday afternoon, Harper’s Magazine published an online letter, signed by 150 prominent journalists, novelists, academics, and other public intellectuals, condemning what they call “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” This comes less than a month after Matt Taibbi published an essay detailing how a number of editors, journalists, and academics have lost their jobs or been censured for sharing controversial views in recent months, even when those views were not necessarily their own. The Harper’s letter makes oblique reference to almost all of the examples Taibbi cites, including the resignation of James Bennet as editor of the New York Times editorial page after being criticized for publishing an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) that advocates for deploying the U.S. military against its own citizens; The Intercept‘s censuring of Lee Fang for tweeting an interview with an African American man who accused the media of only expressing outrage when Black people are killed by White people, but not when they are killed by other Black people; and Civis Analytics’ firing of David Shore, a progressive data analyst who tweeted a peer-reviewed article by Omar Wasow showing the electoral benefits to Democrats of peaceful rather than violent protests. The letter is careful to applaud the mass movement for racial and social justice that has gained so much momentum in recent weeks, but its raison d’être is to criticize what its signatories perceive to be an ascendant illiberalism in American culture, with special attention to illiberalism on the progressive Left.

Free expression has been on my mind lately, in part because I have been reading about the Free Speech Movement, but also because I am active on Twitter and have seen first-hand how some users attempt to advance rigid orthodoxies around questions of politics and culture. I sometimes agree with those orthodoxies, but not always, and I often don’t care one way or the other, so online ideologues don’t really bother me that much. They can say whatever they want. I am, however, sometimes discomfited by the self-righteous, bullying tone some people use against others for expressing views with which they disagree. Just yesterday, within moments of the Harper’s letter hitting social media, progressives on Twitter were out in force condemning Noam Chomsky for signing it, often in terms that mocked his advanced age, as if ageism isn’t itself a form of bigotry, while ignoring his decades-long commitment to free speech, including free speech for those with whom he most vociferously disagrees. It is all too easy to point to these attacks on Chomsky as evidence for one of the letter’s central premises, which is that a creeping dogmatism now pervades public discourse, and that too many people are poised to shame anyone who fails to conform to a particular brand of progressive moralism. I am not enamored of the letter, for reasons outlined below, but I do sympathize with its central claim that dogmatism, orthodoxy, and ideological purity pose a threat to freedom of thought and expression. This is true, whether it occurs on the Right or the Left, and those who value free speech would be wise to root out censorious, illiberal tendencies wherever they appear.

That being said, I have a few issues with the way the Harper’s letter is framed. The first has to do with how it elides the differences between various forms of censorship and social pressure. For example, in its concluding paragraph, the letter states: “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.” This strikes me as both needlessly reductive and inaccurate, in large part because it draws a false equivalency between repressive governments and intolerant societies, while also exaggerating the extent to which intolerance holds sway in American society. The overt illiberalism that exists in many countries today, backed by force of law and state-sanctioned violence, is in no way equivalent to the sorts of discursive struggles that we see playing out on social media, in university classrooms, and in the popular press. I agree that repressive governments hurt the powerless and corrupt democracy, but what is happening on platforms such as Twitter is, in many ways, the opposite of that. Thanks to advances in digital media, and especially social media, a much greater number of people are able to express themselves in far-reaching, public ways than ever before. The vast majority of these people do not hold positions of institutional power, and many of them belong to groups that have long been denied both power and equality within American society. That people who have traditionally had little access to public platforms are now able to express themselves does not constitute a harm to the powerless, nor is it evidence that democratic participation is in decline. This is true even when those people are intolerant or promote conformity. What it does constitute, however, is a shift in power away from those institutions that have long controlled public discourse and toward a public that is clamoring to talk back and finally has the tools to do so.

This brings me to my second point. The fact that people who have long been excluded from public discourse are now able to publish their views and thus gain greater social influence seems to have made media outlets (but also many other entities) much more sensitive to public opinion. This sensitivity is often motivated by economic concerns, as most publications cannot afford to alienate their subscribers, let alone lose advertisers. As a result, “institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments” against those who invite unwanted controversy. Or so the letter says, though I think this conclusion is too broadly drawn. The examples detailed in Taibbi’s essay, all of which are alluded to in the Harper’s letter as instances of panicked damage control, very well may constitute injustices to the people whose livelihoods were affected, but it is important to remember that every publication has its own standards, norms, and culture, and to extrapolate a general conclusion about freedom of thought and expression from, say, Bennet’s resignation at the New York Times is a mistake. There are many publications that could have published Cotton’s op-ed without internal or public controversy. Indeed, there are publications that would have been celebrated for doing so, though not necessarily by readers of the New York Times. Ideological differences abound in the American press, and the actions of a single publication do not necessarily represent a general trend in the culture industry. It is also worth noting that there were extenuating circumstances that influenced Bennet’s decision to resign. For example, he apparently chose to run the piece without reading it, which sounds like extraordinarily hasty and careless editing. One result of this breakdown in editing procedures is that Bennet lost the confidence of his colleagues. I mention this only to say that the context of Bennet’s resignation is not just public backlash, but also the unique institutional culture and standards of the New York Times. I support Bennet’s right to free thought and expression, just as I support the New York Times‘ right to choose its editors and set its own standards. But I also support the public’s right to criticize the New York Times in whatever terms it wants. Just because such criticism may lead to a resignation or a firing or censure does not necessarily mean that the criticism, or even the process, was illiberal. We need to attend to multiple contexts and specific circumstances to make that determination.

Finally, the timing of this letter strikes me as problematic. As I mentioned earlier, the Harper’s letter comes less than a month after Taibbi’s essay on the same topic, which was—to be fair—written in response to a recent surge in incidents involving speech-related issues. But it is important to remember that most of these incidents touched on issues of race and racism, and they occurred in the context of a mass struggle against racism. The Harper’s letter is thus implicitly about the proper way to wage that struggle, and its message on this count is clear: Assuming an overly aggressive posture against illiberal bigotry is itself illiberal. What I find problematic about this is that it is being said at a time when powerful forces in this country are trying to convince the public that anti-racists are actually racists, that anti-fascists are actually fascists, that radical anarchists are erasing history, that educators are teaching young people to hate their own country, and that the free press in an enemy of the people. Lest we forget, just days before the Harper’s letter appeared online, the president of the United States delivered a major speech attacking so-called cancel culture and blaming social unrest on “years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism and other cultural institutions.” Like the movement for racial justice, this is also one of the letter’s contexts, and it is within this particular context that its argument against illiberalism—an argument that is aimed directly at those who are speaking out most forcefully against bigotry and social injustice—strikes me as a troubling concession to the current administration’s view that the real threat to democracy is to be found not only on the progressive Left, but even among the ranks of the mainstream liberal establishment.

So why did Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Todd Gitlin, Zephyr Teachout, and other notable progressives sign the letter? I have been giving this some careful thought, and while I don’t have an answer I’m completely comfortable with, two major reasons do come to mind. The most obvious reason is that the letter offers a clear defense of open dialogue over and against what it calls “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism,” and Chomsky, Atwood, Gitlin, Teachout, and others want to make their support for free expression known. I give all of the letter’s signatories the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their belief in this principle. And yet there is something else at work in the letter, something that lurks within its paternalistic tone, within the very grammar in which it is written. Consider this: The letter assumes the first-person plural point of view, which is explicitly contrasted with “the radical right,” but also—oddly enough—with “the public” and “the state.” I’m not sure what to make of this, except to say that the letter is clearly written by and addressed to the elites within the culture industry, while at the same time attempting to chasten the general public for its intolerant excesses. The letter’s collective yet exclusive first-person plural goes a long way toward explaining why its signatories feel compelled to speak out about this issue in this particular way. It seems to me that, to a significant degree, they do not consider themselves to be part of the public. On the contrary, they consider themselves to be thought-leaders and taste-makers, and they would like to be free to shape public opinion without actually having to be accountable to the public. In other words, the Harper’s letter is bound up in defending the freedom and prestige of a privileged class of intellectuals against raucous counter-speech on social media and university campuses, all while ignoring the state-sanctioned violence that all too many Americans have experienced while exercising their 1st Amendment rights in recent weeks.

None of this is to discount the potential chilling effect that public shaming and professional retribution may have on writers, artists, educators, and others who work in the culture industry, nor is it to chide the letter writers for publishing the letter. As I stated earlier, my sympathies are with the letter’s sentiments insofar as they challenge censorious, illiberal tendencies wherever they may be found. However, I also recognize that there are norms governing social behavior, including standards of acceptable speech, and that those norms are always being contested. What was socially acceptable fifty years ago may not pass muster today. As Percy Shelley wrote: “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; / Nought may endure but mutability.” Speech is, in many regards, much freer now than it was fifty years ago, and where there are strong social pressures against certain types of speech, they often exist to ensure greater justice and equality within the social contract. We should recognize that these social pressures are categorically different than the sort of repressive censorship that led, say, the San Francisco police to arrest Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, just as they are categorically different from the sort of social control and enforced conformity that led J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to ruin the careers of so many people in the entertainment, education, and government sectors. We have come a long way since the repressive 1950s. To suggest that the current discursive struggle is akin to Cold War blacklists, or even that it constitutes an emerging social crisis—as the Harper’s letter so clearly does—strikes me as an unfortunate and misleading exaggeration. If the letter’s signatories are sincere in their call for more “exposure, argument, and persuasion” as opposed to “public shaming and ostracism,” then they can begin by rejecting false equivalencies, embracing nuance and context, and being much more honest about the power dynamics that are so often at play in debates over free speech.

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Hot Damn! Vietnam!

Here is something that offended LBJ: The Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) insisted on using his image—presented upside down—on its promotional materials in the days leading up to their attempted march on the Oakland Army Terminal in 1965. These materials clearly intended to mock Johnson by displaying his portrait in a topsy-turvy manner, but what may be less obvious is that turning the president upside down can also be understood as casting a hex on him. The practice of symbolically turning someone upside down as part of a curse can be traced at least as far back as late-antiquity. For example, Christopher A. Faraone and Amina Cropp have shown evidence of Romans using an incantation against their enemies that included an inscription meaning, “turn upside-down!” Similar language is evident in the fourth-century curse that states, in part, “turn him, turn him upside-down!” In this way, VDC activists engaged in the sort of satirical practice outlined in Robert C. Elliott’s foundational study The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art and exemplified most hilariously in Ishmael Reed’s “D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful,” which is anthologized in the aptly titled 19 Necromancers from Now, and Philip Roth’s Our Gang, two texts that satirically hex Richard Nixon.

The story of how the VDC came to deploy this particular strategy is interesting, especially insofar as it reveals something about the influence of postwar American writers on the symbols that the Anti-War Movement adopted during the mid- to late-Sixties. It is also very funny. Here is what happened . . .

Over a two-day period in May of 1965, the VDC hosted one of the nation’s first and largest teach-ins at the University of California, Berkeley. The event was organized by Jerry Rubin, Barbara Gullahorn, and Stephen Smale, and it featured a range of speakers and entertainers, including Norman Mailer, I. F. Stone, Benjamin Spock, Mario Savio, Robert Moses, Dick Gregory, Paul Krassner, Kenneth Rexroth, Phil Ochs, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Attendance at the event is estimated to have ranged between ten and thirty thousand people, depending on which source you consult, but the one thing that is certain is that the gathering ultimately proved to be a defining moment in the Vietnam-era Anti-War Movement.

Mailer’s speech—which he punctuated with the refrain, “Hot damn! Vietnam!”—was an irreverent attack on the president and his advisors. It was full of derision and mockery, but it also included a stark warning:

Listen, Lyndon Johnson, you’ve gone too far this time. You are a bully with an Air Force, and since you will not call off your Air Force, there are young people who will persecute you back. It is a little thing, but it will hound you into nightmares and endless corridors of night without sleep. It will hound you. For listen, this is only one of the thousand things they will do. They will go on marches and they will make demonstrations, and they will begin a war of public protest against you which will never cease. It will go on and on and it will get stronger and stronger.

Prophetic as Mailer may have been, his remarks were, up to this point, relatively mundane. Threatening marches and demonstrations was hardly a novel proposition, after all. But as Mailer’s speech develops, it takes an altogether more creative, zany, and downright funny turn:

But listen to just one of the thousand things that they could do. Just listen to this little thing, which is one. These young people are, I think, going to print up little picture of you, Lyndon Johnson, the size of post-cards, the size of stamps. And some of them will glue these pictures to walls and posters and telephone booths and bill-boards. I don’t advise it. I would tell these students not to do it to you, but they will. They will find places to put these pictures. They will want to paste your picture, Lyndon Johnson, on a post-card and send it to you. Some will send it to your advisors. Some will send these pictures to men and women in other schools. These pictures will be sent everywhere. These pictures will be pasted up everywhere—upside down! Silently, without a word, Lyndon Johnson, that photograph of you is going to start appearing everywhere. Your head will speak out, even to the peasant in Asia. It will say that not all Americans are unaware of your monstrous vanity, overweening piety and doubtful motive. It will tell them that we trust our President so little and think so little of him that we send his picture everywhere upside down. Vietnam! Hot Damn! You, Lyndon Johnson will see those pictures up everywhere—upside down. Four inches high and forty feet high. You, Lyndon Baines Johnson, are going to be coming up for air, everywhere, upside down. Everywhere, upside down! Upside down!

Tongue-in-cheek disclaimers about not advising students to engage in this sort of tactic aside, Mailer was clearly planting a subversive idea in his audience’s mind. He was showing the tens of thousands of young people at Berkeley that day how to use a form of symbolic violence to degrade and humiliate a national leader who was rapidly losing credibility among the American Left.

The young activists listened, and they would not disappoint.

Over the coming weeks, the VDC produced and distributed flyers, buttons, and other materials that prominently featured LBJ’s topsy-turvy face. The button pictured below is one such item. It is a striking example of how the Anti-War Movement appropriated LBJ’s image and presented it in a visually arresting manner to mock and discredit his authority as president and commander in chief. But it is also evidence of the direct influence Mailer had on the movement. Not only does the button turn LBJ upside down, as Mailer had warned that activists would do, but it incorporates his famous refrain—“Hot Damn Viet Namn!” The button is, in this regard, an iconic symbol of the relationship between Mailer and the radical activist base of the Anti-War Movement. Perhaps only Allen Ginsberg had a more direct influence on the Sixties protest movement.

But what is perhaps most remarkable about this satirical hexing is that news of the tactic made its way to the Oval Office. In his excellent history of the radical student movement in Berkeley, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, Seth Rosenfeld recounts how the FBI attempted to interrupt the VDC’s distribution of LBJ’s upside down portrait. This involved federal agents harassing the small business owner who had agreed to produce thousands of buttons like the one pictured above. Rosenfeld writes, “The buttons were of particular interest, according to an agent’s report, because ‘President Johnson has now become aware that his picture has been displayed in VDC demonstrations in an upside down manner. He is provoked about this'” (273). Amazingly, Mailer and the VDC had succeeded in vexing, if not hexing, the president.

There can be little question that irritating LBJ, even to the point of causing him to suffer “endless corridors of night without sleep,” was one desired aim of symbolically turning him upside down. Another would be to materially damage his reputation. There is ample evidence of Vietnam-era satirists—literary and extra-literary alike—targeting political figures, including sitting presidents, with vicious representations that often approached the legal definitions of slander and libel. The aim of these satirists was to make fun of powerful men and thus galvanizing energy against them, but they also sought to damage their targets with symbolic violence. By using ironic, derogatory language and visual representations to symbolically damage their enemies, postwar American satirists drew on the deep connection between satire and ritual magic to affect social change. They vexed and they hexed, and in so doing they helped develop radical sentiment against the war.

Mailer is a problematic figure in all sorts of ways, but I admire the principled stand he took against the Vietnam War. He was a steadfast anti-war activist and a leader among writers in organizing resistance to the reckless foreign policy that led to this most unpopular war. Mailer is also responsible for two books that masterfully capture the mentality of America during the Vietnam War. The first is his extraordinary journalistic account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, for which he was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The second is his satirical novel Why Are We in Vietnam?, which captures something of the insanity of the war without even mentioning it until the last page of the book. Both are excellent and remain powerful reads even today.

You can hear Mailer’s speech on the 1966 Folkways Records recording of the teach-in, Berkeley Teach-In: Vietnam, which is available for streaming here. In addition to Mailer, the recording includes speeches by Robert Scheer, Paul Krassner, Benjamin Spock, I. F. Stone, Mario Savio, Dick Gregory, and others. It’s a wonderful bit of history that gives voice to the event that inspired a hex on LBJ. Hot damn!

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