When I say that I thank you for asking me here to speak to you, that I thank you I am here, I have to confess that I am flying in the face of the latest status ritual practiced by many of my colleagues in the scribbling professions. The latest thing, as you may already have learned (I am a slow learner and also somewhat out of touch), is to prove your high place in the hierarchy of contemporary American writers by not showing up for scheduled and promised appearances and events. The greater luminaries simply don’t arrive. At the next aspiring level, the basic idea is to cancel out, offering no good reason or proposing an obviously implausible one, about 24 hours prior to the event. And now that the word is out, there are many places, particularly in the status-conscious groves of Academe, where their disappointment and shame and contempt are clearly visible, as if etched, if and when you actually arrive at the right place at more or less the right time. It means they have been snookered one more time into wasting some of their limited resources on an obvious second-rater.
Of course, in the literary world other coincidental funny things have been happening lately—interesting mix-ups, for example. My Charlottesville neighbor Ann Beattie swears to me that she was recently flown out to a school in Ohio for a visit and a reading (and good money) and realized, after she got there, and no joke, that everybody thought she was Ann Tyler. The name on the posters and the programs was Ann Tyler. The name on the check proved to be Ann Tyler. She was introduced as Ann Tyler. Ann Beattie grinned and went through with it, although for some reason she chickened out and read from her own work and not Ms. Tyler’s.
In another recent incident—every chairman and toastmaster’s recurring nightmare—novelist Nicholas Delbanco, professor at Michigan and one of the most elegant and eloquent of introducers, was asked, on about 10 minutes’ notice, to fill in for a colleague (who had been taken suddenly ill) by introducing Margaret Atwood to an expectant audience. Or so he understood his assignment. Quickly he prepared a few notes. Then he ran across campus to Rackham Hall, rushed on stage and up to the podium where he offered up a fulsome, deep-voiced, and impeccably suave introduction of the life and works of Ms. Atwood. Turned then, smiling, to greet her as she came to the podium. Only to discover, to his almost unspeakable dismay, that he was looking directly into the familiar and glowering face of Margaret Drabble. . . .
Anyway, for better and for worse, here I am. I am not, however, completely alone. I have brought along with me my invisible and fictional companion, a character named John Towne, out of a novel of mine called Poison Pen. Not because I want to inflict him upon you. Not at all. But mainly because I can’t trust him, left alone and behind in the pages of his home. Better I should keep an eye on him.
For those of you—the overwhelming majority no doubt—who don’t know him and never heard of him, let me just quote a few (honest to God) journalistic descriptions of the fellow:
Publisher’s Weekly: “a vulgar scapegrace”
New York Times Book Review: “a low life crank”
National Review: “a coke-befuddled redneck”
The Washington Times: “a man of unsavory character”
Charlottesville Daily Progress: “a character of exquisite vulgarity”
Village Voice: ” . . . an academic charlatan of the lowest order”
Book World: “a full-time con artist, misanthrope and lecher”
Chicago Tribune: “a lecherous, misanthropic, failed academic”
Village Voice: “an exceptionally sleazy picaro”
They didn’t even like him much down home in my native Southland. Here’s the Greensboro News: “a loathsome, racist, crude and gruesome creep.”
Well, you get the idea. An interesting consensus of reactions.
One thing about Towne, he’s got a lot of advice to offer. For instance, true to character and form, he wanted me to build this little talk around something that interested him, namely the truth and consequences of a headline and story in the Charlottesville Daily Progress (Oct. 25, 1987): “Aging Sexpot Van Doren Tells All.” Towne finds it especially exemplary of the inward and spiritual truth of our times. He is particularly fond of the following paragraph, which he takes to be a better than average example of the fine-tuned complexity and subtlety of contemporary morality: “Was the casting couch a Hollywood fixture in those days?”
“‘Yes. I found myself on it—but I only did it because I wanted to,’ she said. ‘I never went to bed with anyone I didn’t want to. I had opportunities, but I didn’t do it. Had I done so, I might have had better parts.'”
Well. Towne has got a point. It is pertinent. I mean if Joe Biden had been an actress instead of a U.S. Senator, he might have sounded exactly like that. . . .
“Surely you don’t plan to talk about literature and the (pardon the expression) literary life,” Towne argued.
I agreed. Partly because in one aspect of one thing I find myself more or less in agreement with him. Towne’s hydraulic law of uniform corruption—that is, that corruption everywhere seeks its own level and that, thus, all aspects of our life and world, at any given instant, are equally corrupt—seems to have some real truth to it. A corollary to the law, however, is that it doesn’t apply to the literary world, which is unquestionably on a completely different level of corruption. Indeed, sad experience teaches me that it is hard to imagine any social unit as riddled with corruption as the American literary scene. My own personal opinion, on the basis of anecdotal evidence, is that next to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Court of the Emperor Caligula would look like an early session of the Council of Trent.
More serious, however, is the fact that to the mundane practices of misinformation and disinformation, as widely practiced by our press, which at least has the general goal of national destabilization to justify its ways and means, the literary folk (whose mostly unspoken consensus is so ironbound as to ignore all political differences and cross the boundaries of social class) are dedicated to rhetorical games played at the expense of the full dimensions of the truth.
For example, although there have been some debates concerning matters of form, aesthetic arguments, in the world of poetry, serious questioning or discussion of any of the serious issues of our time have been almost completely absent in American poetry since the deaths of Pound and Eliot and Frost and most recently John Ciardi.
Saddest of all, nobody seems to miss this. Or them, very much.
I collect whole notebooks of splendid little examples, of which here is only one, only a typical and very recent one. Here is John Gregory Dunne in his piece “This Year in Jerusalem,” in the December issue of Esquire: “Surrounded by soldiers as I waited to pass through the metal detectors and security check, I was struck once again by the way the Israeli military was woven into the country’s social fabric. In the United States, soldiers are those weird looking young men we usually see only in airports, this one with his hair too short, that one with the tattoo and the mottled complexion and the flat hill accent, the black lance corporal here, the Hispanic Pfc. over there; in other words, no one we know. At the trial that morning the soldiers had the sentient mainstream faces so rarely seen in the contemporary American services.” Of course, all this is layered in appropriate and protective kinds of irony. A baklava of clever observation. He doesn’t really mean all that. Forced to a final wall, he can always admit that he really doesn’t mean anything. Meantime, however, in the form of an entirely typical piece of contemporary literary rhetoric, you have an aside, passing as an observation, a matter of opinion told as a fact as it were. And which is, in fact, a very lightly encoded cryptogram, a cheerful little message sent to other true believers, slightly disguised as a commonplace, unexceptional stereotypical comment about our volunteer armed services, offering a gesture of gratuitous, if relative, contempt for our country and its people, paid for by a little tip, a shrug and a pourboire of self-contempt . . . “in other words no one we know.”
I sometimes honestly think that a certain kind of liberal, equally the literary liberal, uses the overt profession of personal guilt as justification for an almost murderous contempt of fellow man.
All the assumptions behind Dunne’s deft little aside are so familiar to us as to be more or less harmless if we notice them at all. They stand like crumbling statues in a weedy overgrown public park or garden. Not neutral, mind you, but more or less harmless . . . unless and until you allow yourself to consider the possibility that the relentless and largely unquestioned documentation and consumption of such distortions of reality can add up sooner or later to what constitutes a killing dose of poison. Meanwhile, though, it all has a certain sly charm. Even the little instances of pure and simple ignorance are socially if not rhetorically redeeming.
I said largely unquestioned. Not completely. We are here on this occasion to celebrate the existence and survival of Chronicles, which asks some questions and answers others which would otherwise be ignored.
And that is what I really should be talking about and what we should be thinking about: questions and answers in the unceasing search for the truth.
Whenever I go to work in the morning and go through the entrance of old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia, I pass under some words of Thomas Jefferson: “Here we are not afraid to follow Truth wherever it may lead nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Some words of Jefferson ought to be my theme.
Here Towne butted in and argued.
“Don’t talk Jefferson at them,” he said. “You give them Jefferson, they’ll give you Sally Hemmings.”
“Hey, I said. “I am not speaking at a Norman Lear testimonial.”
“Lucky you,” says he. “But it’s all pretty much the same old thing.”
“Well,” he said. “If you have to talk about Mr. Jefferson, go for it. Don’t give them the sweet violins.”
I tried my best to explain to him that in my own Episcopal Church even the hard sayings of Jesus Christ have now been put on the back burner, if not actually banned. How can I give them the iron fist of Thomas Jefferson?
“Here’s how,” he said. “As an example of exactly the kind of thought or idea which ought to be part of any full and free discussion or debate about ourselves, but which is not, because we are these days so concerned about monitoring our thoughts, even as we permit ourselves the crudest possible luxury and license by using the worst words our language allows.”
“Look,” I said. “Here we are living at a time when everything you can think of has been weighted with political symbolism and significance. Even baseball teams (it was racist to wish for the Minnesota Twins’ win in the Series); musical instruments—if you listen at all to what might accurately be called Radio, Daniel Schorr, I mean National Public Radio, you know that the flute and the acoustic guitar are the instruments of compassion and that compassion is a virtue exclusively reserved for the left and especially for those who most publicly assert that they have compassion; even the care and cure of dread diseases are politically weighted. Fabrics, clothing, and hair styles, bottles of beer and soda pop—it’s a political mine field out there. How can I possibly say anything that will catch attention and mean anything?”
“You want me to attract their attention?” Towne asked.
In the end we compromised. From radically different points of view we both agreed that if our way of selfgoverning were to survive much longer—and by the way, we even in our absolute privacy allowed ourselves to consider whether survival of our ways and means of self-government is a hopeful or a baleful prospect; for ourselves, I mean; never mind the multitudes outside of our particular traditions and history, for whom all democratic forms are at the least exotic; anyway—we compromised on the choice of a single passage, one example among many, from the words of Thomas Jefferson, one which carries the imperative necessity of the full and free debate of issues and assumptions to a logical, if honorable extreme. . . .
Here, then, are his words, taken from a letter written in Paris and dated November 13, 1787 (a wink or two beyond two centuries ago). You probably remember them well enough: “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, wellinformed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to public liberty. . . . “
(I skip a little)
“What country before ever existed a century and a half without rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if the rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” No question but that is a hard saying.
No question, either, but that it is complex, thorny with prescience and pertinence, and I think eminently relevant to our very times and this very occasion tonight.
But before we go into some of those things, try to imagine, for a moment, the uproar and outrage which would follow if any contemporary public figure, at any point in life, early or late, and in any form from letter to the editor to a diary note, had ever said such a thing.
The only one I can think of who could get away with it is Joe Biden. Because everybody would correctly assume it was just plagiarism, anyway.
Thomas Jefferson said it and seems to have meant it, too, though some of the terms he used meant different things then than now. Take tyrant, the concept of tyranny, for example. For somewhat more than 2,000 years, on up through and including the times of Thomas Jefferson, tyranny was defined and equally applied to the overzealous exercise of rigorous justice without mercy and to the squandered blessing of reflexive and thoughtless mercy without the context or foundation of rigorous justice. Thus any leader or statesman, from the citizens of the Greek city states, through every kind of emperor and monarch, absolute or benevolent, on through the rebellious generation of Jefferson, would surely and easily define our contemporary American social situation, with its elaborately formulated indeed codified, absence of any system protecting the rights of the law-abiding citizens and their civilization from predatory assaults, as clearly, unequivocably tyrannical.
And, as such, it was always deemed worthy of the strongest possible kind of resistance.
The most usual and immediate response to this passage that I have received from reasonably thoughtful and thoughtfully reasonable people is that we must consider the relativity of historical context. That in the period (brief or long, depending on your own historical scheme) since Jefferson we have come to value the sanctity of human life, have come to view life, in and of itself, as precious. Certainly more precious than our ancestors viewed at least the lives of others.
This is an answer, a position which might be regarded as simply and brutally laughable, coming as it does out of this bloody, bloody century, this century whose appropriate image is of rivers, Amazons, Mississippis, Congos of human blood. Century in which even the Holocaust, defined by both intent and execution, can only be claimed to be one enormous genocidal example among many, first among many parts. . . .
It is certainly not becoming, it ill behooves anyone from this 20th century to regard Jefferson’s statement as evidence of a more bloody-minded disposition or blithe disregard for the lives of others than our words and acts.
Indeed, once the idea of hypocrisy has been introduced, a good strong case can be made that Jefferson’s approach, even taken by a literal mind, is closest to that of a good general, Patton, for example, whose own casualties (and the casualties he inflicted) were always minimal precisely because his tactics were sudden, ruthless, and anything but tentative.
Thus I can see that it can be decently and honorably maintained that certain complex and confusing issues troubling us in these times probably should have been settled in the streets, sealed in the blood of patriots and tyrants, rather than vaguely resolved in legislatures, courts, or in the press.
As to the sanctity of human life in our own country, we must never allow ourselves to forget that in fact a good many years ago we settled for the deaths of roughly 65,000 people—men, women, and children—on our highways as statistically acceptable per year. Sixty-five thousand is a number our society has somehow agreed to live with. I don’t need to remind you that that is, of course, more than the total number of American dead in all the years of the Vietnam War.
Do you suppose they would consider putting up a series of black walls in honor and memory of all the dead drivers, drunk and sober alike, of America?
A possibly more plausible argument, one that is frequently heard from intellectual sources, is that (with perhaps the exception of Israeli preemptive and retaliatory strikes on terrorist targets) warfare as an instrument or extension of national policy, even the policy of self-defense is no longer really feasible.
Unthinkable is, I believe, the correct adjective. That there are wars going on, here and now, within and between most of the nations of the earth is a fact beyond the interest of most of these advanced thinkers.
I am reminded of the celebrated 60’s, when rape seemed statistically likely to become a new national pastime and women were advised not under any circumstances ever to resist a rapist. Exactly the opposite advice is freely given in courses and seminars nowadays. I am reminded of the Navy Shark Repellent in World War II, a colorful dye which, while it evidently had no effect on sharks one way or the other, at least allowed a brief feeling of safety and security before the jaws clamped down.
Let us return to text. To Jefferson.
Clearly, despite all his good wishes and even high hopes for some measure of domestic tranquillity, he envisioned the quality which he conceived of and called liberty as enduring only in a state of constant, unrelenting testing. Interrogation by means of full debate and argument where facts are assembled and known and where reason, itself, is allowed to be and run free. Absent those conditions, he likewise clearly believed (at least on this occasion) that it was meet and right that genuinely significant issues should be sealed and settled in blood.
That, if need be—no, more accurately, when need be for he simply assumed that, come what may, ignorance and misconception were inevitable companions—that when need be we should be ready, willing, and able to die for and kill for our principles.
But let us be pragmatic and try to get at the heart of what he was saying as it may possibly apply to us.
One cannot (to use that lovely media word) rule out the possibility, now or ever, of bloody acts of resistance and rebellion (in whatever form) in the United States. What, after all, was the seizure of federal prisons and hostages in Atlanta and Louisiana but a clumsy act of rebellion? One cannot ever rule out the possibility. But since the race riots of the late 1940’s and the late 1960’s, although we have had plenty of violent events and incidents, large and small, we have witnessed no full-scale, real and honest rebellion. And for the present such a thing seems highly unlikely.
Which may well mean that, in Jefferson’s own terms, we live at a time when the love of lethargy has at last replaced even the hope of preserving liberty. Maybe . . .
Or it may mean that, for the time being, resistance and rebellion must take place on the other fields where our great life and death issues are being settled.
Settled, for better and worse. Not well or deeply discussed. Many things are discussed, if only lightly debated, but next to none of the great and deep questions are being asked.
This whole problem, which ought to have attracted our attention and, at the very least, aroused the passion of intellectual anger, has been most passionately discussed not by any American thinker of any persuasion, but by the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and only on one occasion—his baccalaureate address at Harvard in 1978.
You will remember it. And I hope you will refresh your memory of his words by seeking them out again. . . .
His observations are remarkable, subtle, profound, and, I think, as accurate and prescient as they are controversial. May I quote from a couple of paragraphs?
“There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East, where the press is rigorously unified; one gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment and there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership, because newspapers mostly give emphasis to those opinions that do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.
“Without any censorship, in the West, fashionable trends of thought are carefully separated from those that are not fashionable.
“Nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. . . . “
It continues . . .
It earned Solzhenitsyn immediate and rabid denunciation by the press he criticized. Gentle and wimpish liberals suddenly discovered the “America-Love-It-or-Leave-It” standard and applied it directly to him.
Time has only allowed the uniform derogation of Solzhenitsyn by the press to slack off a little bit. One week ago the Washington Post ran a lengthy feature: “Solzhenitsyn and His Message of Silence.” If you were to read the article, you would have discovered that his silence, in this case, means that he turned down an opportunity to be interviewed by the Washington Post. They don’t suggest that he is crazy up there in Vermont. But they do at least imply that he is keeping a low profile for a self-serving reason:
“It has even been suggested that, if Gorbachev means what he says, the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn might be published in the Soviet Union for the first time in more than two decades. Some of his fellow emigres believe Solzhenitsyn is silent for that purpose too: that he not jeopardize the best chance for his return to the motherland, in word if not in deed.”
A bullet wound would, of course, be considerably more painful. But I doubt if firing a bullet at him could be a more hateful act than writing those words.
As long as they can kill their opposition with words, why waste bullets on any of us?
World of words, that’s where the battle—the ceaseless war of rebellion and resistance against intellectual and spiritual lethargy, and for the sake of liberty—is going on.
Things have not improved much, if at all, since Solzhenitsyn spoke. Indeed the stereotypes he noted—the sculptural museum of modern group-thinks—have acquired the patina of dignity since then. Whole topics have been declared to be off limits, beyond all legitimate discussion or even historical reconsideration. In history and the so-called social sciences, and even (alas) in the stricter sciences, especially medicine and biology, it is now widely accepted and understood that evidence which weighs against fashionable contemporary political and social positions is to be suppressed, or at least modified and limited so as not to offer any ammunition to the skeptical opposition. I can recall that once upon a time we laughed at science under Stalin, never dreaming that most of its practices, if not all of its excesses, would come to pass here.
In literature there are such inhibitions as the prevalent critical notion that even for the sake of verisimilitude, fictional characters must not be allowed to maintain views, prejudices, or, indeed, use words which offered stereotypical contemporary standards. Or if they do so, they must be known to be unredeemably wicked and must be punished for their sins. . . .
Even the exalted arena of Shakespearean criticism is not safe from this kind of agitprop scrutiny.
If I may be so bold as to second Solzhenitsyn’s proposition, I would have to tell you that I have only recently returned to the 20th century from a couple of decades spent living as an expatriate, an alien, in the 16th century. And it is my best and considered judgment that then and there, in Tudor England, when the consequences—and legal consequences—of asking certain questions, voiced opinions, even (at times) thoughts and intentions, were deadly serious, there was probably more honest, deep-digging, and far-reaching debate and dissent than we have experienced in this free society for more than a quarter of a century.
Even under the rigors of almost absolute monarchy they were not afraid to debate not only current issues but also, maybe more important, first principles.
Of course, they had at least some of the same problems and concerns. Here, for example, is Sir Walter Ralegh writing in his History of the World: “How shall the upright and impartial judgment of man give a sentence, where opposition and examination are not admitted to give in evidence?” He then quotes from Lactantius. “They neglect their own wisdom who, without any judgment, approve the invention of those that forewent them; and suffer themselves, after the manner of beasts, to be led by them.”
To which Ralegh adds his own observation, coming amazingly close to the words and views of Jefferson: “By the advantage of which sloth, dullness and ignorance is now become so powerful a tyrant, that it hath set true philosophy, psychic, and divinity in a pillory.”
We are gathered to honor not the voice, but the various and sundry voices of Chronicles. Which, as it happens, is one of the very few and very precious forces actively engaged in the war against lethargy.
It is with words, with ideas, with facts, with questions, and, God willing, with passion that the good fight is being fought.
We are much beleaguered, more so than we would like to admit, if only for the sake of sanity. We need each other. And I am proud to be here and to be a part of all this and all that.
John Towne’s cynical laughter echoes in my inner ear like a car horn in a tunnel.
“You’ll be sorry. You and your big mouth!” he says. “One thing about the American Establishment, regardless of race, creed, color, country of origin, gender, or sexual preference, they will never forget and forgive.”
“So what?” I say. “I never wanted to be on the Supreme Court, anyway.”