Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and LettersThe Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.
—Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972)

This 1999 book by British journalist Saunders is the classic account of the CIA’s semi-secret mid-20th-century sponsorship of cultural organizations, literary and political journals, artistic movements, and related ventures (including films and political campaigns) throughout the world to combat the influence of communism.

Taking the form of a narrative history, The Cultural Cold War focuses on three men who were the relays between seemingly independent artists and intellectuals and the American (as well as British) intelligence services.

Saunders’s stars are Melvin Lasky, a Bronx-born and City-College-educated militant anti-communist who became a prominent editor in Germany after World War II; Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to the more famous novelist Vladimir, a White Russian émigré and flamboyant composer who would go on to be at the center of the artists and writers knowingly or unknowingly recruited to fight communism; and Michael Josselson, descended from an Estonian Jewish family exiled after the Russian Revolution, who became an American citizen and then an intelligence and psychological warfare expert  overseeing the Agency’s domination of arts and letters.

This trio’s travails are the emotional spine of the book, and Saunders treats them with sympathy, especially Josselson, whom she seems to regard as a tragic figure, a man of cultivation and passion caught in world-historical circumstances well beyond his control. At times, I felt I was reading a sequel to Gravity’s Rainbow, another vast and complex story about humanists compromised by the domineering services to which the masters of war inevitably wish to put humanism.

While The Cultural Cold War is a dispassionate book with a minimum of editorializing, Saunders seems to reserve most of her judgment not for the intelligence officers, but for the artists and intellectuals themselves. They either cynically or naively accepted CIA money laundered through philanthropic foundations (many of which were simply fronts, little more than mail drops for the transfer of funds) even as they nevertheless congratulated themselves for being on the side of a free society where the government did not interfere with cultural life.

The CIA was instituted in 1947, an outgrowth of the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and it became a tentacular and autonomous bureaucracy operating unaccountably worldwide. Its motivation in waging a cultural Cold War was to recruit a “non-communist left.” Understanding the appeal of dissidence to artists and thinkers, and understanding too the pre-war attractions of communism during the 1930s, the CIA grasped that keeping rebellious intellectuals in the fold of liberalism would be crucial to ensure the success of “the American century.”

To that end, they funded a European organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the famous British liberal literary journal Encounter (edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol), and art and music exhibitions meant to emphasize the progressive side of American culture to European audiences skeptical that America had a culture at all. Exemplary here are the CIA’s covert promotion of Abstract Expressionist painting as an individualist and apolitical antidote to socialist realism and of jazz and other African-American arts as a riposte to the Soviet Union’s charges of American hypocrisy in complaining about communism’s civil unfreedom.

Saunders emphasizes that the CIA really did represent the liberal side of the internal American debate over how to handle the Cold War, referring to “many romantic myths about the CIA as an extension of the American liberal literary tradition.” The men she writes about were generally horrified by the know-nothing populism of Joseph McCarthy, while a number of presidents, including Truman and Johnson (but excluding the suave would-be Pericles Kennedy), resented intellectuals, distrusted modernist art, and would have preferred a more populist cultural ethos of God and country.

The American intelligence service, she notes, was staffed by the country’s traditional Anglo-Protestant elite, an educated class who felt the responsibility of national stewardship: “Many of them hailed from a concentration in Washington, D.C., of a hundred or so wealthy families…who stood for the preservation of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian values that had guided their ancestors.” Yet their waging of the Cold War would result, ironically, in that elite’s and those values’ cultural dispossession.

Part of this book’s sly comedy comes in the intelligence elite’s sometimes uncomprehending interaction with the “new class,” primarily Jewish intellectuals, but in the background there is also the emergence of Catholic writers and black artists and postcolonial talents, all of whom the CIA recruited as a bludgeon against communism. If the literary-sociological headline of midcentury American writing is the rise of Jewish, Catholic, and African-American authors to unprecedented prominence, Saunders implies that this was in a way a project of the WASP elite, a move in the Great Game against Russian communism and for western values.

But for Saunders, this new class, particularly the New York Intellectuals, did not acquit itself well, especially those who would go on to fill the ranks of the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol seems more or less to be the book’s villain. He represents for Saunders a type of pseudo-thinker who possesses an essentially militarized mind, a man who cannot conceive of intellectual life outside of polarizing combat and enemies to slay. Saunders tends to portray Sidney Hook, Diana Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler in the same unflattering light.

Quoted throughout the book as moral authorities, by contrast, are more independent-minded figures devoted to a nuanced conception of the literary and political life: Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein.

Saunders tentatively concludes that when American intellectuals, even those who had gone along with the cultural Cold War, turned against Johnson over Vietnam, he ordered the plug to be pulled on the operation, judging that “‘liberals, intellectuals, Communists—they’re all the same.'” The CIA’s cultural activities were exposed in a California-based radical magazine called Ramparts, and later reported in the New York Times. But Saunders implies that the Agency could probably have squashed Ramparts‘s reporting or at least effectively replied to it. But they did not; they allowed their own exposure, perhaps out of a sense that the cultural Cold War had run its course. If this is true, it makes the radical magazine’s exposure of liberal intellectuals’ collaboration with the CIA itself an instrument of the Agency’s will, a familiar hall-of-mirrors effect from spy thrillers: is there anything the CIA doesn’t control?

This problem of mirroring is the thesis, ultimately, of Saunders’s book. She writes of the irony in combatting totalitarianism by exercising (or participating in) in the state’s total control over intellectual and artistic life. American and British writers and artists, in trying to fight the Soviet Union, became far too much its counterpart. This comes out, for instance, in passages where Saunders records how the Agency attempted to quash art that reflected too negatively on the U.S., recalling nothing so much as the strictures of socialist realism:

Echoing Sidney Hook’s complaints of 1949 that Southern writers reinforced negative perceptions of America, with their “novels of social protest and revolt” and “American degeneracy and inanity,” the American Committee now resolved to “steer clear of incestuous Southerners. Their work gives an exceedingly partial and psychologically colored account of our manners and morals.” […] Sales of books by Caldwell, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Richard Wright…slumped in this period.

Near the conclusion of the book, Saunders suggests that collaboration with state power, even in an ostensibly good political cause, is an abdication of the intellectual’s responsibility to tell the truth:

[E]thics were subject to politics. They confused their role, pursuing their aims by acting on people’s states of mind, choosing to slant things one way rather than another in the hope of achieving a particular result. That should have been the job of politicians. The task of the intellectual should have been to expose the politician’s economy with the truth, his parsimonious distribution of fact, his defense of the status quo.

Furthermore, in a preface to the 2013 edition, Saunders offers an argument against any excessive political conviction, any use of propaganda:

My sympathies are with Voltaire, who argued that anyone who is certain ought to be certified. I believe that Milan Kundera’s “wisdom of uncertainty” is a touchstone for intellectual inquiry. The Cultural Cold War could be described as a polemic against conviction (which can be distinguished from faith or belief or values) and the strategies used to mobilize one conviction against another. In the highly politicized context of the cultural cold war, this refusal to take sides was designated, pejoratively, as relativism or neutralism. It was not a position or sensibility tolerated by either side—both the Soviet Union and the United States were committed to undermining the case for neutralism, and in the theater of operations which is the focus of this book, Western Europe, that campaign devolved from very similar tactics.

The Cultural Cold War, then, argues for a rather unfashionable thesis: the autonomy of art and intellect from politics. The authority of artists and intellectuals to scrutinize and criticize their societies is based on their disinterested distance from its governing institutions. This distance is a modern phenomenon and is ever in danger of being compromised. The idea that artists do not exist to serve the church, the state, or any other collective or constituency hardly existed before the 19th century, though there are hints of it in Greek literature’s famous moments of even-handedness (The Persians, for instance) or in Shakespeare’s constitutive ambiguities.

Materially, the distance of intellectuals from power can rarely be total, especially today when so many of us are gathered under the aegis of the university. (I myself am paid in part with taxpayer funds.) Nevertheless, we give up this ideal of artistic and intellectual independence, the true meaning of “cultural freedom” betrayed in practice by the Cold Warriors, at the risk of relinquishing whatever social power we still have.

Saunders’s old-fashioned idealism, like the blurbs on the back of the book from Edward Said and Lewis Lapham, wistfully calls to mind an  “ideological formation” (to use the comrades’ jargon) that scarcely exists in this country any longer, a non-communist left worth supporting—non-communist not because it represents Cold War managerial liberalism (the “snivelling, mealy-mouthed tyranny of bureaucrats, social workers, psychiatrists and union officials” Saunders quotes William S. Burroughs as denouncing) but because its exponents were civil and cultural libertarians.

And what of today? What intellectual and artistic organs are being moved as we speak by the hidden hand of the deep state? I suppose we all have our suspicions, and “none” would be an absurdly naive answer. But who knows for sure? I imagine we’ll learn more about what is really going on right now in about 30-50 years. In the meantime, to get an idea of how paranoid you should be, you should read The Cultural Cold War.


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Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent

Seduction of the InnocentSeduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I was younger—say in the late 1980s, early 1990s—the concept of free artistic expression was associated with the social and political left. The totalitarian states of international communism were discredited and second-wave feminism had clearly overreached in its anti-porn crusades; meanwhile, tirades against the objectionable character of both elite and popular culture were coming from the religious and racial right, with its crusades against alleged Satanism and against queer and black arts. I am thinking of the controversies over heavy metal, NEA funding, and “Cop Killer,” for example.

But when I was a kid, I didn’t listen to rap or heavy metal and I didn’t attend elite art exhibitions; instead I avidly read comic books. In those pre-Internet days, the folk memory of comic-book readers tended to elide the 1950s public outcry against comics—which led to their being tried in the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency Hearings and to the self-imposition by the industry of the absurdly censorious comics code—with the ‘80s/‘90s posturing of the religious right (and of certain New Democrat or blue dog allies, such as Tipper Gore). I had certainly heard of Fredric Wertham by the time I was 11 or 12, but, lacking good information, I pictured him as a Pat Robertson or Pat Buchanan or Bill Bennett type.

As comics have over the last generation come under increased academic jurisdiction, though, readers have noticed that Wertham was in fact far more like the type of person who would today profess comics studies: a leftist less enamored of free speech than prior generations. (See, for instance, Chris Bishop’s very engaging and informative lecture.) In the introduction to the most recent edition of Wertham’s 1954 anti-comics polemic, Seduction of the Innocent, James E. Reibman sets the record straight: “Of course, the irony in all this is that Fredric Wertham, a traditional left-wing European intellectual and product of the Enlightenment tradition, continues to be both castigated and characterized as a reactionary.”

Seduction of the Innocent, then, is in a very different genre from the Chick-tract-type screed; it is, rather, a lament over the demise of high bourgeois culture sung by an impeccably cultured exile of that culture’s European calamity. (Wertham was brought up within the humanistic milieu of the assimilated German-Jewish bourgeoisie.) It is more like Theodor Adorno than Jesse Helms.

When read with the above understanding, Seduction of the Innocent is an almost sympathetic book. The psychiatrist Wetham was a crusader for racial equality who opened a clinic in Harlem (named after Paul Lafargue) for indigent black youth; he collaborated with or earned the praise of Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, Ralph Ellison and Thurgood Marshall. That comics promote racial hatred was, not at all unreasonably, one of his chief complaints:

If I were to make the briefest summary of what children have told us about how different peoples are represented to them in the lore of crime comics, it would be that there are two kinds of people: on the one hand is the tall, blond, regular-featured man sometimes disguised as a superman (or superman disguised as a man) and the pretty young blonde girl with the super-breast. On the other hand are the inferior people: natives, primitives, savages, “ape men,” Negroes, Jews, Indians, Italians, Slavs, Chinese and Japanese, immigrants of every description, people with irregular features, swarthy skins, physical deformities, Oriental features.

He also charged comics with misogyny and the promotion of sadism. While psychoanalytically informed, he rejected Freud’s pessimism about human nature; a devoted reader of Dickens, he was a Rousseauist who did not believe in innate human aggression. No death drives or wills-to-power for him. He is at his most attractive in Seduction of the Innocent when fighting the almost eugenic contempt with which the judicial system and society at large treated young criminal offenders and their parents. He saw ordinary children and their parents as preyed upon by much larger social forces, which made it difficult for them to negotiate normative social life. As aware as he was of such oppressive forces as poverty and racism, though, he became convinced that comic books—and the industry behind them, which he viewed as a rapacious and amoral capitalist force—were an autonomous vector for cultural damage. Hence, his long and rather unfocused polemic against them.

Besides racism, misogyny, and sadism, Wetham also charged comics with poor aesthetic standards in everything from printing materials to spelling; with the promotion of crime and violence; with inspiring children to undertake all sorts of dangerous acts (jumping off the roof to try to fly like Superman, etc.); with numbing children’s sensibilities so that they could not appreciate great literature and art; and with being produced by an industry that mistreated its creators, strong-armed its distributors, and bought off off “experts” and politicians (he never states outright, but carefully implies, what we now know to be true of the early comics’ mafia connections, as elaborated by Chris Bishop in the lecture linked above).

Despite Wertham’s left-wing credentials, he shared the midcentury left’s dim view of homosexuality, seeing it as a lamentable form of maladjustment brought about by a corrupt society. For this reason, he is perhaps best remembered for his actually rather perceptive, if undeniably homophobic, attack on Batman as homoerotic text (this is another reason, I believe, that he was misremembered as right-wing by the time of my adolescence):

In the Batman type of comic book such a relationship is depicted to children before they can even read. Batman and Robin, the “dynamic duo,” also known as the “daring duo,” go into action in their special uniforms. They constantly rescue each other from violent attacks by an unending number of enemies. The feeling is conveyed that that we men must stick together because there are so many villainous creatures who have to be exterminated. They lurk not only under every bed but also behind every star in the sky. Either Batman or his young boy friend or both are captured, threatened with every imaginable weapon, almost blown to bits, almost crushed to death, almost annihilated. Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and “Dick” Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a “socialite” and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: “Something’s wrong with Bruce. He hasn’t been himself these past few days.” It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.

Unfortunately for his credibility, he was also convinced that there were subliminal images in comics art, finding women’s pudenda and the like in the cross-hatching on a well-muscled hero’s shoulder; this is bizarre, because Wertham’s perfectly correct assessment of comics’ wretched business practices should have told him that nobody got paid enough to bother with such minutia!

And Wertham, to be fair, was not much of a totalitarian censor. His proposal was to ban the sale of “crime comics” to children under 15 (though “crime” was a pretty all-encompassing generic designation to him; he thought Donald Duck was, for all practical purposes, a crime comic). He was not for any kind of outright ban—and he was at pains to emphasize that he did not advocate any restriction on what adults could purchase and read. In his defense, one might note that the comics of the time really were wild and that today we accept without objection things like rating systems, which inform consumers without much interfering with free expression. On a more personal note, I might add that I agree with his defense of the subtler pleasures and greater intellectual demands of high culture against sensationalist mass-produced pop culture—but this, for me, is on grounds of aesthetics, not ethics or politics.

It is well and good to re-assess Wertham’s book with a greater understanding of his not totally unsympathetic intellectual position, but Seduction of the Innocent is still the product of a faulty worldview. For one thing, Wertham was in a sense not socialist enough; even if we accept that cultural objects can do mental harm to vulnerable children (and this remains an “if,” as far as I know), why blame cultural objects themselves and not the structural forces that create vulnerability in the first place? Furthermore, his Rouseauist/Dickensian picture of the unsullied innocent coming into the world to be snatched from the virtuous hands of his mother by greedy capitalists peddling smut may have been a welcome correction to some elitist and racist opinions of the innate inferiority of the poor; but even so, I don’t believe it does anyone any good in the long run to deny some of the harder truths of existence. Throughout the book, Wertham complains of Superman’s Nietzschean lineage (and if he grasped the irony that superheroes were created not by Aryan fascists but by assimilationist Jewish working-class immigrants’ sons, he does not mention it):

As our work went on we established the basic ingredients of the most numerous and widely read comic books: violence; sadism and cruelty; the superman philosophy, an offshoot of Nietzsche’s superman who said, “When you go to women, don’t forget the whip.” We also found that what seemed at first like a problem in child psychology had much wider implications. Why does our civilization give to the child not its best but its worst, in paper, in language, in art, in ideas? What is the social meaning of these supermen, superwomen, super-lovers, superboys, supergirls, super-ducks, super-mice, super-magicians, super-safecrackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery?

But Nietzsche is already in the nursery, as is Freud. I have no desire to let theory obliterate common sense: it is surely better not to rear children exclusively on texts and images that are poor in quality and utterly cynical about sex and violence. Still, we are born with the full panoply of human potential, including the potential for aggression, greed, hate, sadism, masochism, and all the rest; as these are ineradicable, they are best confronted. Wertham spends a lot of time attacking what I believe is, even now, a consensus position among educators and psychologists: that some fantasy violence is not terrible for children and can even be an inoculation against the real thing.

As for Nietzsche, while he certainly wrote some disturbing sentences and was obviously taken up by some worse-than-dubious admirers, one fails to learns the lessons of The Genealogy of Morals at one’s peril. Just as Wertham’s polemic against sensationalism is amazingly sensationalist (seduction! of the innocent!), so too is his moral crusade no less an exercise in power-seeking than the actions of his opponents.

While Nietzsche may slight some of our nobler drives, I accept his argument that no human pursuit, not the most artistic or the most holy or the most egalitarian, is totally free from the quest to dominate or from impulses of aggression. To deny this is to leave oneself open to dangerous delusions of righteousness. Such delusions, it seems to me, have done more damage than violent comic books or pornography. The books that have proved most corrupting have been books like the Bible, the Koran, and The Communist Manifesto; surely, more people have been slaughtered for the ideals of Rousseau than for the anti-ideals of Sade.

A final word against censorship—and censoriousness, which I also dislike. The imposition of the restrictive comics code was the end result of Wertham’s activism. And the end result of the comics code was to put EC Comics out of business. EC’s company of superb writers and artists—Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, Wally Wood, Bernard Krigstein, among others—were making thoughtful, humane, literary, beautiful comics that went some way toward correcting the flaws of comics that Wertham was most reasonable in pointing out, such as their simplistic worldview, their illiteracy, their racism, their intellectual poverty, and their low artistic standards. It would take almost thirty years for the promise of EC to begin to be realized, as the code eased off, and mainstream American comics could again pursue the creation of serious artistic work.

In short, Wertham did more damage to the artists who might have been his allies than he did to the crass and mobbed-up money-men of the industry itself, who simply adjusted, as such people always do. Feel free to take this as a parable directed at the Werthamites of today.


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James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next TimeThe Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The two essays collected in this book—both structured as letters, one to Baldwin’s nephew and one “from a Region in [His] Mind”—assess the racial situation in America at midcentury. The second is the more historically interesting, as it is built around Baldwin’s meeting with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. This confrontation inspires Baldwin’s reflection on his own background as a preacher and on how his adult rejection of religion informs his commitment to “the transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars,” even as his experience of racism leads him to sympathize with the men and women drawn to the Nation of Islam’s manichean mythos.

As a number of Goodreads reviewers have pointed out, The Fire Next Time is dated, in the sense that its polemical targets have waned in power and new political configurations have replaced them. Religion in general is slowly declining in influence in the United States; neither Christianity nor the Nation of Islam are the forces they were in the 1950s and early 1960s. The Cold War is over (not that Baldwin takes it very seriously as an ideological conflict—his relative lack of engagement with Marxism separates him from his peers, Wright and Ellison). And America is less and less an “Anglo-Teutonic” and Protestant nation; and “Anglo-Teutonic” and Protestant are more or less what Baldwin means by “white” in this book, since that ethno-religious descriptor connotes the fear of death and aversion to sensuality to which Baldwin attributes anti-black racism. This book’s polemic against WASP frigidity above all marks it as a document of its time; its defense of a life lived through sensual engagement with existential reality will find a purely aesthetic expression, for instance, in Sontag’s Against Interpretation, published three years after The Fire Next Time, but many writers of the postwar period made a similar case. Such oracular pronouncements as “white Americans do not believe in death” seem to belong to a different emotional world from that of the present, with its Beyoncé-besotted bourgeoisie.

Baldwin’s reputation has risen in the last decade to unassailable heights. And I wonder if some of his popularity is due to less than creditable reasons, as evidenced by this book, the overall effect of which is to flatter the reader—the black reader because Baldwin asserts that African-Americans are “the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced” (due to their creative endurance of unimaginable adversity) and the white reader because Baldwin promises that they will be liberated from their self-imposed childishness (he says they are regarded by African-Americans as “slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing,” rather than as, say, willful bigots or tyrants) when they acknowledge their need for love. And there is a kind of African-American exceptionalism in this book (“[The Negro] is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his”) that resolves itself finally into full-blown American exceptionalism of the old city-on-the-hill variety:

Anyway, the point here is that we are living in an age of revolution, whether we will or no, and that America is the only Western nation with both the power and, as I hope to suggest, the experience that may help to make these revolutions real and minimize the human damage.

Baldwin opposes love to power; by “love” he seems to mean agape—Christian love, charity—as reinterpreted by Existentialism to suggest constant self-transformation in the face of the other. This is the residue of the Christianity he otherwise renounces. But I wonder if they are so opposed (Baldwin parenthetically notes that some forms of love are only achievable via power), and if it is not important to grasp how what calls itself love is sometimes power too. Here I think Baldwin suffers from his focus on religion; as a meditation on the route from oppression to totalitarianism and violence, I think Richard Wright’s “How Bigger Was Born,” though older, is somewhat more cogent than The Fire Next Time, because it is more global in its implication and accounts for larger currents of twentieth-century ideology (fascism, communism) that Baldwin tends to neglect.

The perfectly unimpeachable reason for Baldwin’s eminence is his style. In a contemporary review of this book, F. W. Dupee wrote, somewhat condescendingly and in the context of disparaging Baldwin’s political “prophecy,” “He is in love…with syntax, with sentences that mount through clearly articulated stages to a resounding and clarifying climax and then gracefully subside…Nobody else in democratic America writes sentences like this anymore. It suggests the ideal prose of an ideal literary community, some aristocratic France of one’s dreams.” As with all great literary works, the style is the evidence for the vision, the enticement inspiring the reader to act on the “You must change your life.” In Baldwin’s wished-for utopia, the world transfigured by the struggle to love and the confrontation with death, where race and religion have fallen away as irrelevant to the existential agon, we will all express ourselves with the languidly intelligent and seen-it-all grace, the cultivated anger and desire, of his sentences:

Time catches up with kingdoms and crushes them, gets its teeth into doctrines and rends them; time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests, and eats at those foundations, and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue.

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Jonathan Spence, Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong: A Penguin LifeMao Zedong: A Penguin Life by Jonathan D. Spence

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like the old Penguin Lives series of brief biographies; they were published between 1999 and 2002 and then abruptly discontinued. I used to read or peruse them back then—I remember reading the one on Woolf in full and maybe Austen too, as well as looking through the Joyce and Melville. So I decided to revisit the series with this volume on Chairman Mao by the distinguished historian Jonathan Spence. It has convinced me that the brief biography format works better for writers than for politicians, since the lives of the latter are so crowded with incident and action and personality.

Moreover, this book is rather oddly structured, leaving for its last third the narrative of Mao’s actual rule over China and providing less detail about that period than about Mao’s earlier life. This creates a certain “balance,” but it neglects the obvious fact that readers, especially those coming to Mao for the first time, will probably be most interested in his leadership. Spence, who rarely editorializes, seems to need this narrative structure to make his argument, though: he casts Mao’s life as a tragedy in which the thoughtful, humane, gifted, idealistic young man from the rural provinces rises to world prominence and is then undone by his own hubris. People who know more than I do about modern China will have to decide if this is plausible.

Spence also emphasizes Mao’s intellectual ambitions and inadequacies, a motif that climaxes in the Cultural Revolution. In this ghastly episode (though one that will no doubt find more and more defenders today), Mao revenged himself on party leaders for the failures of his own highly ideological plans to modernize China in the Great Leap Forward. Calling on the populace—especially the young—to revolt against their teachers, parents, and other authorities, to “attack the headquarters,” in Mao’s words, he consolidated his own authority since his ideology was the guide to the revolution. Spence attributes to Mao a resentment for intellectuals with roots in his rural background and in his own failure to become a genuine scholar or thinker himself:

Mao had also grown more hostile to intellectuals as the years went by—perhaps because he knew he would never really be one, not even at the level of his own secretaries, whom he would commission to go to the libraries to track down classical sources for him and help with historical references. Mao knew, too, that scholars of the old school like Deng Tuo, the man he had summarily ousted from the People’s Daily, had their own erudite circles of friends with whom the [sic] pursued leisurely hours of classical connoisseurship, which was scarcely different from the lives they might have enjoyed under the old society. They wrote elegant and amusing essays, which were printed in various literary newspapers, that used allegory and analogy to tease the kind of “commandism” that had been so present in the Great Leap, and indeed in the Communist leadership as a whole. It was surely of such men that Mao was thinking when he wrote: “All wisdom comes from the masses. I’ve always said that intellectuals are the most lacking in intellect. The intellectuals cock their tails in the air, and they think, ‘If I don’t rank number one in all the world, then I’m at least number two.'”

Here Spence’s insistence on going into detail about Mao’s early studies, his attraction to the classics, his love of poetry, pays off. One is even tempted, if one has known a lot of literary intellectuals, to laugh ruefully along with Mao’s insult. (And I am even tempted to suggest an analogy along these lines between Mao and Nixon, both of whom built policy around their and their constituencies’ resentments, justified and unjustified, against academic and cultural elites.) The Mao who made the Cultural Revolution, though, was living in comfort and luxury beyond even most scholars, traveling around the country in his specially outfitted train and dallying with his mistresses.

And Spence’s clear, factual, and even decorous prose can have a quality of euphemism about what actually went on in the Cultural Revolution, leading readers to believe that it might be an example of some regrettable but necessary excess in the birth of a modern nation rather than a top-down pogrom against civilization itself by a despot preaching self-criticism even as he was immured in the appurtenances of authority. Spence does mention torture as the Revolution’s method, and he holds up some Red Guard rhetoric for implied mockery, but the New York Times review of the biography, written by a penitent journalist taken in at the time by Maoist propaganda, gives a more vivid sense of the actual atrocities involved than the biography itself does:

For a year or more, I wrote uncritically, even enthusiastically, about dreadful things — nuclear scientists shoveling out pigpens who insisted they had been ignorant until ”educated” by the peasants; classical musicians with fingers smashed by the Red Guards who described their past work as ”poisonous weeds”; acupuncture as the sole ”anesthetic” for deep-brain surgery in operations that, as we learned years later, few patients survived. Only when the rationalizations became too great to bear did I revert to my instincts.

To understand is not to excuse. One can see, reading this book, how a man of Mao’s intelligence and sensibility could nevertheless proceed by degrees into tyranny by the extremity of the circumstances in which he had to maneuver: decades of war and deprivation. And it is useless, also obnoxious, to airily insist on liberalism as bromide and panacea to historical actors born far away and long ago. I don’t fault Spence for avoiding such rhetoric in 1999, when it was so fashionable. All the same, the lessons for us in Mao’s life, especially its final third, should not be avoided: theory must subject itself to observable reality; what looks like popular activity is often manipulated by elites; populist rhetoric is usually promoted by elites themselves for their own purposes; the arts and sciences may be open to all in terms of opportunity, but considered in themselves they are inegalitarian insofar as not everyone is talented enough—perhaps only a few are—to attain great achievements within them. Spence makes the pattern of Mao’s policies clear: he destroyed wealth, whether economic or cultural, in the guise of distributing it equally.

Of course, it is more difficult to evaluate Mao than, say, Hitler: many of his goals seem laudable—the elimination of poverty, the reform of unjust hierarchies, the resistance to imperialism. All the more reason, then, to be clear about the lies and cruelty and stupidity into which such goals may be corrupted.

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Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life

Narrative of the Life of Frederick DouglassNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Revisiting this for the American literature survey I’m teaching; it’s been about a decade. Upon rereading, what stands out is Douglass’s careful attention to the social dimension of slave resistance, a theme of the book that can be overshadowed by its individualistic narrative structure, its rising to the climax of a hero’s life:

It is impossible for me to describe my feelings as the time of my contemplated start drew near. I had a number of warmhearted friends in Baltimore,—friends that I loved almost as I did my life,—and the thought of being separated from them forever was painful beyond expression. It is my opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends. The thought of leaving my friends was decidedly the most painful thought with which I had to contend. The love of them was my tender point, and shook my decision more than all things else.

In fact, I would describe the chief tension of Douglass’s Narrative as that between two literary modes, which he has cannily joined to oppose the ideology of slavery but which nevertheless coexist uneasily with each other. The first is the Franklinian/Emersonian insistence on individual autonomy as the sine qua non of the fully emancipated individual. This is easy, far too easy in fact, to mock today as the rarefied bloviation of elite white males, but people like Frederick Douglass and Margaret Fuller did not take it that way. This vision of self-reliance inspires some of the most nuanced and compelling writing in Douglass’s Narrative, writing that seems to bring the entire Enlightenment to a climax in its conviction that rational self-consciousness is the apogee of individual attainment and totally incompatible with the acceptance of arbitrary authority:

The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men. As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.

On the other hand, Douglass—a longtime feminist—demonstrates clear awareness of the importance of communal, domestic, and affective bonds to individual flourising, and he writes at times in (or in subtle subversion of) the gendered idiom of sentimental fiction to make his case against slavery (cf. Harriet Jacobs):

My mistress was, as I have said, a kind and tender-hearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practise her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman; and a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other.

Also, in the same vein of the domestic sentimental, is his striking fictionalized and almost stream-of-consciousness portrait of his cruelly abandoned grandmother’s last days:

The hearth is desolate. The children, the unconscious children, who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone. She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water. Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl. All is gloom. The grave is at the door. And now, when weighed down by the pains and aches of old age, when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together—at this time, this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise towards a declining parent—my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

Like some other famous slave narratives (Jacobs again, also Equiano), Douglass ends with a praise of capitalism for its implicitly abolitionist conception of individual self-ownership and ownership of labor’s reward :

In the afternoon of the day when I reached New Bedford, I visited the wharves, to take a view of the shipping. Here I found myself surrounded with the strongest proofs of wealth. Lying at the wharves, and riding in the stream, I saw many ships of the finest model, in the best order, and of the largest size. Upon the right and left, I was walled in by granite warehouses of the widest dimensions, stowed to their utmost capacity with the necessaries and comforts of life. Added to this, almost every body seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore. There were no loud songs heard from those engaged in loading and unloading ships. I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer. I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on. Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man. To me this looked exceedingly strange. From the wharves I strolled around and over the town, gazing with wonder and admiration at the splendid churches, beautiful dwellings, and finely-cultivated gardens; evincing an amount of wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement, such as I had never seen in any part of slaveholding Maryland.

One less comforting or maybe just less politically correct of Douglass’s observations concerns the relation between slavery and social class among whites; he never states outright a belief in natural aristocracy, as it would contradict his preponderantly Christian egalitarianism, but the Narrative sometimes implies that slavery is wrong because it gives worthless white parvenus and plebes authority over all black people, including those who ought to be first among men and women:

Bad as all slaveholders are, we seldom meet one destitute of every element of character commanding respect. My master was one of this rare sort. I do not know of one single noble act ever performed by him. The leading trait in his character was meanness; and if there were any other element in his nature, it was made subject to this. He was mean; and, like most other mean men, he lacked the ability to conceal his meanness. Captain Auld was not born a slaveholder. He had been a poor man, master only of a Bay craft. He came into possession of all his slaves by marriage; and of all men, adopted slaveholders are the worst. He was cruel, but cowardly. He commanded without firmness. In the enforcement of his rules, he was at times rigid, and at times lax. At times, he spoke to his slaves with the firmness of Napoleon and the fury of a demon; at other times, he might well be mistaken for an inquirer who had lost his way. He did nothing of himself. He might have passed for a lion, but for his ears. In all things noble which he attempted, his own meanness shone most conspicuous. His airs, words, and actions, were the airs, words, and actions of born slaveholders, and, being assumed, were awkward enough. He was not even a good imitator. He possessed all the disposition to deceive, but wanted the power. Having no resources within himself, he was compelled to be the copyist of many, and being such, he was forever the victim of inconsistency; and of consequence he was an object of contempt, and was held as such even by his slaves.

All in all, you don’t need me to tell you that the Narrative is a complex braiding of autobiography, social observation, and political and religious polemic, a masterpiece of American literature.

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