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Writing Life: The Universal in the Particular


ISSUE:  Fall 2004

Let me begin with two stories about the bad behavior of two world leaders—or, a world leader and the wife of another world leader—in art museums.

The first concerns Hitler’s visit to Berlin’s National Gallery in the 1920s. Enraged to discover that Germany did not possess any work by Michelangelo, his favorite artist, Hitler was mildly consoled to find a painting by Caravaggio—Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio—whom Hitler thought was the same person as Michelangelo Buonarroti. Next, he became enchanted by Correggio’s erotic depiction of Leda and the Swan, though when his guide discovered him, transfixed before the painting, Hitler insisted he was only admiring the subtle play of light and shadow. Finally, and most revealingly, he sought out Rembrandt’s Man in a Golden Helmet, an image which, Hitler claimed, proved that Rembrandt was a true Aryan and that, despite the many works he’d done in the Jewish Quarter, he had had no real interest in the Jews, after all.

The second, more recent story concerns the visit of the wife of an American president to a new museum of modern art in a great European city. The museum director was assigned to show the First Lady around. The director shepherded the First Lady through the museum for forty minutes, during which the president’s wife said nothing. Finally, she stopped in front of a great work of modern art and said, “How much does that cost?” The director replied that it was not for sale, that she did not know, that selling art was not her business. Another forty minutes went by; again the First Lady said nothing. Finally, the director showed her one of the museum’s finest works, her own favorite piece, a work of great passion, originality, and intensity. The First Lady was silent for a moment. Then she said, “How much would I have to pay for that?”

On the surface, both stories are about ignorance and vulgarity, and about the fact that political power is rarely conducive to art appreciation. But they are not the same story, and what makes them interesting and useful to us is not their similarities so much as their differences, which I’ll return to in a moment.

As a child, before I’d learned to distinguish between high and low art, between great and popular literature, one of my favorite novels was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Its subject is book burning—451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which books catch fire—but I knew that the novel was science fiction. And when I heard about the burning of books by the Nazis, and about the ruthless, systematic suppression of freedom of speech in other countries, all that too seemed to me to be, in a way, science fiction. That is, it might as well have been happening on another planet. I believed that nothing like that could happen on our planet, because we had those beautiful documents, the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights, to protect our basic freedoms of speech and expression.

America is a young country, and so it has taken us longer to learn the painful adult lessons that older countries learned decades and even centuries ago. Now at last we are old enough to discover what it is like to have an administration with little interest in safeguarding the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, in protecting our freedoms of speech and expression. In fact, it is against their economic and political interests to do so. The word patriotism is increasingly being used as a bludgeon with which to attack critics of the shameful war in Iraq, as a gag to silence dissenters accused of being unpatriotic. There is no need, as it turns out, to censor the press—throwing journalists into jail is an ugly and potentially unpopular business—since the corporations who own our newspapers and television stations are the same as those that finance our administration, and the news anchorman about to attend a dinner party with our secretary of defense is unlikely to ask him embarrassing questions.

Meanwhile, laws have been passed designed to have what we call a “chilling effect” on our determination to exert our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. For example, the USA PATRIOT Act contains provisions requiring librarians and booksellers to respond to FBI requests for information about what ordinary American citizens are reading.

It’s become increasingly clear to many American writers and indeed to many American people that something has to be done to resist and counteract this. But the question is, as always, what to do, and how to do it.

Last fall, I attended a reading by the great Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai. He is a controversial figure, often accused, in his own country, of being pro-Palestinian, when in fact he is simply pro-human. I admire his work, his courage, his willingness to face the criticism and contempt of his countrymen to stand up for what he believes is right, and what, indeed, is right. There was only one thing he said during his reading that troubled me. He said that his generation had grown up steeped in French philosophy, first Sartre, then Derrida, grown up believing in fine distinctions. But the need to make such distinctions had become paralyzing, incapacitating. The only distinction that mattered now, he said, was the one between good and evil.

I suppose I know what he meant, but still it made me uneasy, and, in fact, I disagree. So let’s return, for a moment, to those stories about Hitler and the First Lady in the art museums. As I said earlier, it seems to me that the most significant things about these stories are not the similarities but the differences, because these differences, if we look closely, are keys—cautionary, analytical, predictive clues—to the culture, the methods, and the deepest beliefs of two very different regimes. Hitler’s response to art was entirely about nationalism, repression, and anti-Semitism. Whereas the First Lady’s reflected the heartfelt conviction that the world is a store in which everything—art, culture, passion, human life, if necessary—can be bought and sold and converted into profit.

As writers, we are inclined by sensibility to look beneath the surface, to analyze and make distinctions. And even as we insist on preserving our liberties, wherever they are threatened, we need to be conscious of, and hold on to, the freedom to make crucial distinctions, to see clearly, to think intelligently and logically, to avoid the siren songs of prejudice, ideology, nationalism, and sectarianism, of simplistic and reductive rhetoric and propaganda, regardless of their source. As writers, as citizens of the world, we need to remember—as Samuel Beckett said, echoing Chekhov, a century before—”in the particular is contained the universal.” This seems especially important as political extremists encourage us to think about one other not as human beings but in categories that grow, daily, at once broader and more narrow, coarser, more ignorant, heartless, and brutal. As writers, trained to observe, we need to stay exquisitely attuned to the chasm between our own observations of reality and the lies we are being told. And as lovers and producers of literature, we cannot forget what literature continues to teach us: that each of us is a unique entity with something—that mystery called human nature—in common that should be, for us, a bottomless well of empathy and compassion.

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