Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Babatha's Orchard: The Yadin Papyri and an Ancient Jewish Family Tale Retold 1st Edition by Philip F. Esler (Oxford University Press)

On March 5 2017, Gloucestershire Live published an article about an "Indiana Jones" biblical scholar who made a great discovery. Usually that’s a warning to count the spoons and brace for impact. But the scholar in question is Philip Esler — just about the last name you would associate with crackpot archaeology. So what is Babatha’s Orchard about?

In the first pages of this Esler assures us: "There are no Arks of the Covenant, hidden temple vessels, Holy Grails, lost Gospels or Mary Magdalens here. Instead this is a tale of domestic life. It is the story of how, around 99 CE, Shim’on, Babatha’s father, unexpectedly came to acquire an irrigated date-palm orchard in his village of Maoza, on the southern shore of the Dead Sea, in the kingdom of Nabatea."

Babatha’s Orchard is exciting to read because it’s real. It offers a window onto everyday life in antiquity, unencumbered by sensationalism. That window is provided by the Babatha collection, discovered in 1961 by a team of archaeologists, which are the possessions of a second-century Jewish woman including sandals, balls of yarn, key-rings, knives, bowls, waterskins, and other items — and also a pouch containing 35 legal documents. These documents are dated between 94 and 132 AD, and consist of various contracts for purchase of property, loans, weddings, and the registration of land.

Esler is concerned with the earliest four documents, Papyri Yadin 1-4, the first of which dates to 94, the other three to 99. P. Yadin 2 and 3 describe the purchase of a date-palm orchard, first by a Nabatean high-ranking official named Archelaus, second by a Judean (Jew) named Shim’on (the future father of Babatha) only a month later — but purchased both times from the same woman. Esler not only reconstructs what went on between P. Yadin 2 and 3, he also argues that P. Yadin 1 and 4 bear on the same issue. "No one seems to have asked," says Esler, "why the first and fourth documents were found in the archive in the first place." Why did Babatha, years later, keep copies of these legal documents? They presumably had some relevance to the orchard acquired by her father and should help make sense of that event.

The mystery of P. Yadin 1

P. Yadin 1 describes a transaction in 94 AD that at first blush seems to have nothing to do with the orchard sale (and resale) in 99. Basically a Nabatean named Muqima borrowed money from his wife’s dowry to purchase a lease of property, and to share the investment risk enlisted a partner whose name was Abad-Amanu. What no one seems to have realized before Esler is that the Abad-Amanu of P. Yadi 1 is none other than the father of Archelaus, the buyer of the orchard in P. Yadin 2 — a link that proves of “critical importance in unlocking the mystery behind these documents” (p 111).

The mystery is how Abi-adan (the woman who owned the orchard) sold the orchard to Archelaus (P. Yadin 2) and then only a month later sold it to Shim’on (P. Yadin 3). Scholars have suggested that Abi-adan annulled her agreement with Archelaus when Shim’on offered a better deal, but Esler refutes this, for there is no way Abi-adan could simply have reneged on her deal which gave Archelaus legal rights. Not to mention the extreme unlikelihood that a non-elite woman would act in such a capricious way towards a strategos (a government official charged with both civil and military duties, as Archelaus was) (p 140). No, it must have been that Archelaus himself backed out of the agreement, requesting that Abi-adan annul the contract and refund his money. But why?

Esler spots the reason under our noses in P. Yadin 1 — and the reason for which that seemingly unrelated document is in the Babatha collection to begin with. The partner of that earlier transaction, Abad-Amanu, died soon after Archelaus bought the orchard in 99, and he was Archelaus’ father. At this point the woman (Amat-Isi) was still owed money under the loan agreement with her husband Muqima and Abad-Amanu. Esler argues that Nabatean law provided for universal succession (like the legal systems of Mesopotomia, Rome, and certain Judean provinces), which means that an heir (like Archelaus) received the entire estate of the deceased (Abad-Amanu), benefits and debt included. Amat-Isi would have been calling on Archelaus to pay Abad-Amanu’s debt, and his honor as a strategos was at stake. So he appealed to Abi-adan to rescind the bargain of P. Yadin 2. That turn of fate immensely benefited the Judean (Jewish) Shim’on, who was probably passed over the first go-around in favor of the strategos, and was now waiting in the wings to buy the orchard.

The mystery of P. Yadin 4

That triggers the second mystery, the one of P. Yadin 4, which survives as a fragmentary document without any legible names, but which Esler believes to allow more restoration than scholars have realized. Through brilliant detective work he shows that P. Yadin 4 is a grant (a cross between a gift and a sale, or a transfer of property where the return wasn’t necessarily a purchase price), and indeed the very grant mentioned in P. Yadin 3. Shim’on wanted to buy a larger portion of the orchard than Archelaus did, and Abi-adan was apparently planning to acquire that extra piece of orchard from a certain “son of Lutay”, who would give it to her as a grant. In P. Yadin 4 we have exactly that: someone saying that he will grant an orchard to a female.

More sleuthing on Esler’s part makes everything fall into place, as this "son of Lutay" emerges as the likely husband of Abi-adan. He acknowledges that he is debt to her in P. Yadin 4, and that he will reduce his debt by transferring the extra piece of orchard to her (which he was currently leasing to someone else, to expire in a few months). Esler points out that when men are indebted to women, it’s almost invariably the case of husbands indebted to their wives for having drawn on the wife’s dowry. Also, back in P. Yadin 3, Abi-adan and the son of Lutay are referred to together solely by their first names, which is a familiar manner of designation suggesting a married pair.

The relevance of Nabatean culture

Like any Philip Esler book, Babatha’s Orchard is prefaced by chapters of background history and cultural cues. I hadn’t realized how egalitarian the Nabateans were compared to their contemporaries, and that the ethic apparently pervaded all the way up to the kingship. Esler cites Strabo who describes the Nabatean king as a "man of the people" who served them at banquets, and who accounted for himself at popular assemblies where his means and methods were scrutinized. That’s a humble model of kingship hard to find elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean.

Esler accounts for this in terms of the nomadic mindset. From their earliest days (in the fourth century BC) the Nabateans jealously guarded their independence and freedom. They were able to take refuge in the desert when forces invaded, and were hard for enemies to overcome because of secret wells they could access. Fredrik Barth has explained how nomadic household leaders had a freedom that was incompatible with the hierarchical structures of agrarian societies.

“Unlike a sedentary community, which persists unless the members abandon their house and land and depart, a camp community of nomads can only persist through a continuous re-affirmation by all its members. Every day the members of the camp must agree in their decision on the vital question of whether to move on, or to stay camped, and if they move, by which route and how far they should move. Every household head has an opinion, and the prosperity of the household is dependent on his decision.” (p 38)

Even after the emergence of a sedentary lifestyle and the kingship (in the second century BC), the Nabateans retained a nomadic dimension to their existence right up into the second century AD. The king and the elites were in sync with this.

This becomes relevant when Esler is able to illuminate things in surprising ways. For example, in his reconstruction, Amat-Isi (the woman of P. Yadin 1) called on Archelaus to collect the debt his father owed her. But Archelaus was a strategos, and in most places in the Mediterranean, it would have been a bold if not suicidal move on the part of a woman (or non-elite man, for that matter) to risk affronting an elite. As a rule, however, the Nabateans disdained elitist superiority and didn’t go out of their way to make life difficult for “presumptuous” commoners:

“Influenced by the nomadic traditions still operative among the Nabatean elite, Archelaus was not someone filled with his own sense of importance and was not likely to hold it against Amat-Isi in the future that she had asked him for the money his father had owed.” (p 224)

Not exactly how things worked in Judea and Galilee.

The Upshot

If I could write a book like Babatha’s Orchard, I’d be very proud. Rarely can scholars piece together missing and obscured information so compellingly, and in a way that allows us to read it as a story. Esler writes that story in the final chapter — how a Jew living in Nabatea bought a date-palm orchard from a woman after a high-ranking official failed to do so — bringing to life a complex web of events, personal motives, and social relations. It’s a story one could easily get a novel from. The book is also impressive as a study for its own sake and not as a means to an end. "I am not concerned," says Esler, “to interpret New Testament texts against a social context known from the Nabatean legal papyri. Rather, I am seeking to understand better that context itself.” That’s fresh air, and the kind of thing I’d love to see more from our New Testament scholars.

The post-script to Babatha’s story is a tragic one. In the Jewish revolt of 135 AD, she was captured by the Romans and in all likelihood killed or enslaved. But not before hiding her collection in a cave by the Dead Sea, to await discovery in 1961. Esler’s book honors her in the best possible way

Condoleezza Rice Decade of Influence ......Condoleezza Rice: An American Life by Elisabeth Bumiller (Random House), 400 pp., $27.95 Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush by Robert Draper (Free Press), 463 pp., $15.00 (paper) The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy by Glenn Kessler (St. Martin's), 288 pp., $25.95

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American foreign policy had still not recovered from its victory over communism when George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice took over at the White House in 2001. The incomparable American war machine, deprived of the enemy it had been designed to fight, was a colossus without a mission, and the foreign policy it served had become a profusion of high moral impulses in search of an idea. The new president did not have one, nor did Rice.

Bush’s interest in foreign affairs was slight; Rice’s, though considerable, centered on Russia and the cold war, now ten years in the past, the last generation’s thing. They were not a team prepared to cope with the shock of the new, which had already begun to explode out of Asia in waves of murderous religious fury.

If there was a lack of intellectual energy at the White House, however, there was a plentiful supply elsewhere in the Bush government, most notably among its neoconservatives, who were itching to give Iraq a taste of American power, and in what might be called the Cheney-Rumsfeld faction, built around two masterful old Washington manipulators.

It would be wrong to think of Bush and Rice as Hansel and Gretel lost in the forest, for neither was a complete stranger to political guile. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neocons, however, were all blooded veterans of the Washington wars. In 1976, as chief of staff to President Ford, Rumsfeld had engineered the removal of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller as Ford’s running mate; Cheney, assigned in 2000 to select a good vice-presidential candidate for the Bush ticket, ended by becoming Bush’s choice. These were people who had long fumed about the White House tendency since the Reagan years to use American power discreetly. What they wanted was a new, aggressively muscular approach to the world.

As the only superpower left, the United States was entitled to act like it: so went their theory. Old cautions about “the limits of power,” which dated back to the Vietnam era, went on the intellectual trash heap, and arrogance once again became power’s prerogative. With a president who had no broad vision of international affairs but personal grievances of his own against Iraq, their moment was ripe and they were quick to prevail.

As the President’s in-house adviser on national security, Condoleezza Rice apparently neglected to point out that startling changes in foreign policy always have large, lasting, and sometimes unhappy consequences. In any event, she went along placidly and apparently agreeably as policy underwent radical change. As the months passed, American diplomacy became increasingly interventionist and morally fervent, first with the announcement of a bellicose new policy of “preemption” asserting an American right to attack nations that were “evil.” Four years and two wars later, in a speech that might have startled even Woodrow Wilson, Bush declared an “ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

For her passivity as national security adviser, Rice has been widely and justly criticized. Her failure to act vigorously on intelligence warnings that preceded September 11 was even stronger evidence that she was not ready for the high position in which Bush had placed her. Elisabeth Bumiller’s fine, evenhanded biography is never cruel, but her book makes it clear that Rice was elevated to a job far beyond her competence through an extraordinary succession of powerful men who were invariably impressed by her poise, intelligence, discipline, and charm.

Among them were Gerhard Casper, the president of Stanford University, who made her the youngest provost in the school’s history; George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s former secretary of state, who introduced her to leaders of the corporate world, including the chairman of Chevron Oil, which made her a board member; Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush; the elder Bush himself; and finally his son. By the time the younger Bush brought her into the White House she was close to being part of the family. Bumiller describes her sharing quiet family evenings with George and Laura Bush vacationing in Wyoming.

Rice’s introduction into the elite world of national security diplomacy was managed by Scowcroft. He had been national security adviser to Gerald Ford before returning for a second tour under the elder George Bush. The job requires coordinating foreign and defense policy and the often conflicting views of the Pentagon, State Department, and Treasury, among others. Scowcroft was attending a gathering of arms control experts in 1985 at Stanford when he first saw Rice.

She was only thirty and looked like an undergraduate, he recalled for Bumiller, but he liked the way she spoke up. “She was respectful but assertive and stood her ground. And it really impressed me. I thought, I ought to introduce her into the national security community and get her more widely known…. I sort of launched her.”

In 1989, returning to the White House with Bush Senior, Scowcroft made her his Soviet expert on the National Security Council staff. Inevitably, this brought her into contact with the President. Another staff member, R. Nicholas Burns, described to Bumiller how such things work:

Brent would say, “Well, Mr. President, today we’re going to talk about the Gorbachev-Yeltsin problem, you know, how do we handle both of them?” …And he would turn to Condi, and Condi would brief.

In this way, says Bumiller, Rice

forged a personal bond with George H.W. Bush that went beyond the usual relationship of a president to a staff member, and that would later help pave her way into the administration of the son. The senior Bush, Burns said, “was captivated by her.”

He would later introduce her to Mikhail Gorbachev as the person “who tells me everything I know about the Soviet Union.”

After two years with Scowcroft, she had to return to Stanford or risk losing tenure, and there she was taken up by George Shultz, the Republican elder statesman who had settled at the Hoover Institution. “I was impressed with her,” Shultz told Bumiller. He included her in a “luncheon club” of Palo Alto intellectuals who met for conversation every few weeks. Then, Shultz said,

She came in to see me one day, and she said, “I feel as if I ought to learn more about management and how it operates, because that’s such a big part of how the United States operates….”

So I said to Condi, “How about a big, bad oil company?” …And she said, “Well, I think oil companies are very interesting companies because they have a global viewpoint.”

Shultz, who was on the board of Chevron, introduced her to Chevron’s chairman and CEO, who took her to lunch and, Shultz said, “inside of fifteen minutes concluded that she would make a terrific board member.” She was a good choice. Chevron was engaged in a $10 billion oil-field development project with Kazakhstan, and Rice, who happened to know its president, traveled to Kazakhstan for Chevron in 1992. She turned thirty-eight years old that year. In the following year Chevron named a 129,000-ton supertanker the SS Condoleezza Rice.

Bumiller notes that in the spring of 2001 the company “quietly renamed the tanker” the Altair Voyager “in the face of criticism” of Bush family ties to the oil industry and charges against Chevron of human rights abuses in Nigeria. Rice resigned from the board six days before becoming national security adviser.

Bumiller suggests that Rice profited quite well from her study of management and how it operates. In addition to Chevron, she also joined the boards of the San Francisco insurance giant Transamerica in 1991 and the Hewlett- Packard Corporation in 1992. In 1994 she joined J.P. Morgan’s International Council in a paid advisory position and became a board member of the Charles Schwab Corporation in 1999. When Rice became national security adviser she had annual Chevron board fees of $60,000 and over $250,000 in stock, in addition to a Stanford faculty salary of about $125,000.

Bumiller thinks that Rice’s most important move during the Stanford years was joining the search committee for a new university president. There were about ten people in the search group, but “in keeping with what had now become a pattern,” she writes, Rice was the one who made the biggest impression on Gerhard Casper, their ultimate choice.

One of his first duties was to select a provost, his top aide. He chose Rice. It was a shock to the campus. “At thirty-eight, Rice was not only the first black, the first woman, and the youngest person to be named Stanford provost,” Bumiller notes, “she also had never been a dean or a department head, the normal route for advancement, and was still only an associate professor.” After the appointment the university quickly made her a full professor, “a move that drew criticism from other women faculty members who said that Rice had not published enough for such a promotion.”

Her first big assignment was to cut $25 million from the university’s annual $1.2 billion budget, and in doing the job Rice was so effective that she left a trail of hostility that would probably make her unwelcome at Stanford to the present day. “Stories circulated on campus about how Rice would lose her temper and publicly berate faculty members who opposed her,” Bumiller writes. Budget battles became fights about curriculum and confrontations with women, blacks, and Chicanos about affirmative action.

“The end result was bewilderment on a campus that thought of itself as a community, and not, as Rice saw it, a corporation that needed shaping up.” She cut the $25 million, though, and became “the darling of the board of trustees.” Casper found her “extremely loyal” to him, as she would later be to George W. Bush.

“She will never stab anybody in the back, including her enemies,” he told Bumiller. “She will diminish her enemies, cut them down, do whatever. But she will not stab them in the back.”

Her relationship with the younger Bush began in April 1998 when, as governor of Texas, he visited San Francisco for a fund-raiser and Shultz invited him down to Stanford to meet with some of the Hoover scholars. Bush was then thinking of running for president and probably looking for potential advisers from academia. Rice was the only woman and only black in Shultz’s sitting room that day, and he remembered that she and Bush “connected.”

“Particularly when foreign policy things came up, Condi had a lot to say,” Shultz recalled. “And you can tell when people click. And he was interesting, I thought, because he pitched into the discussion. He seemed to like the give-and-take.”

Three months later she was in a small group he invited to Austin in order to announce that he was thinking of running for president and wanted their help. The following month she was invited to the Bush summer home at Kennebunkport for a meeting that the father seemed to have arranged for the son. They spent two days talking about foreign affairs and sweating side by side on a variety of exercise machines. Bumiller has a plausible explanation of why he liked her:

[He] had never met anyone like Rice. She could talk baseball, football, and foreign policy all at the same time, but she did not sound like an intellectual and she never made him feel inadequate or ignorant. On the contrary, Rice made Bush feel sharper, particularly when she complimented him on his questions. Bush did not know many black people well, and it made him feel good about himself that he got along so easily with Rice. It was hard not to see that she was also attractive, athletic, and competitive, and, like him, underestimated for much of her adult life.

That Rice might ever have felt underestimated seems preposterous. As a child growing up in the Ku Klux Klan culture of Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s, she had been taught that to succeed in the white world she would have to be “twice as good” as the kids in the all-white schools, and almost everything in her life leading to that visit to Kennebunkport should have persuaded her that she was.

The Kennebunkport visit may help explain Rice’s inept performance at the time of September 11 and the approach to the Iraq war. She had come to the job as, in some sense, a pal who understood the young new president, and while president’s pal ought to be an important job in every White House, confusing it with national security adviser is a certain route to trouble. One job calls for improving the president’s day; the other calls for spoiling it by confronting him with news he would rather not hear, exposing him to ideas he would rather not think about, and presenting him with decisions he would rather not make.

At its very best, this might mean articulating a coherent philosophy about foreign affairs with which the president is instinctually comfortable. In no case is it work for someone who feels obliged to make the president feel good about himself. Rice’s failure to force Bush to focus attention on the now famous warnings of an imminent al-Qaeda attack illustrates the problem.

When the intelligence people are as insistent as they had become about an al-Qaeda threat in the summer of 2001, the national security adviser is supposed to do something about it, upsetting though it might be to a president in vacation mode. Rice didn’t. Nor, when Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neocons were flooding the White House with specious justifications for attacking Iraq, did she give a White House airing to different opinions from the State Department and CIA. Instead, performing as presidential pal, she did what a pal would do: she became Bush’s enabler, encouraging him to follow his impulses.

War came in “a series of incremental steps, each one making the next more inevitable,” Bumiller writes.

Many of the major developments, from the battle plan to the demand that Saddam disarm to the decision to begin a massive troop buildup in Iraq, were laid out by Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush. Yet in each case Rice facilitated them as a logical consequence of what had already been decided. In not challenging the moves toward war, she saw herself as carrying out Bush’s wishes…. Inside the White House she did not so much prod the process as get drawn along in its wake.

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s views, whatever they might have been, were treated as irrelevant. In the summer of 2002, with Washington full of war talk, Richard Haass, State Department director of policy planning, found it hard to believe what he was hearing and in one of their regularly scheduled meetings raised concerns about a war. “Rice immediately cut him off,” Bumiller writes.

“Save your breath,” she told him, in Haass’s recollection. “The president has made up his mind.” Haass, taken aback, asked Rice if she was sure and if she had thought about the consequences, but Rice made clear that she wanted no more talk on the subject. “The tone of it was, this is not a productive use of our time,” Haass recalled.

Perhaps the most important dissent that summer came from Rice’s old mentor, Brent Scowcroft, the man who had “launched” her career among the national security elite. In an Op-Ed article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Don’t Attack Saddam,” he warned that invading Iraq would lead to a long, bloody, costly occupation and divert the United States from the war on terrorism, then concentrated in Afghanistan.

Because Scowcroft had been national security adviser to the President’s father, Rice knew that all of Washington would read the article as advice from father to son. (Which it probably was; Scowcroft had sent an advance copy to the elder Bush and heard no objections back.) Rice and the President were both “furious.” She phoned Scowcroft. There were sharp words. “Her loyalty,” Bumiller writes, “was to her current boss, not her old one, no matter how much the old one had done for her.”

Rice’s failure in this period is so blatant that we tend to ignore the President’s enthusiasm for war. This was so embedded in a remarkably stubborn mind that it is doubtful whether anyone urging caution could have influenced him. Colin Powell certainly couldn’t. We now know that the President had been thinking warlike thoughts about Saddam Hussein long before the al-Qaeda attacks. Eighteen months before September 11, interviewed by Jim Lehrer of PBS during the 2000 presidential campaign, he spoke about Saddam in a threatening vein. In Dead Certain, his valuable portrait of Bush as campaigner and president, Robert Draper quotes from that interview:

“I’m just as frustrated as many Americans are that Saddam Hussein still lives,” he told Lehrer. “I will tell you this: If we catch him developing weapons of mass destruction in any way, shape, or form, I’ll deal with him in a way that he won’t like.”

By bombing? asked Lehrer.

“Well, it could be one option. He just needs to know that he’ll be dealt with in a firm way,” Bush replied.

Draper believes Bush was motivated by a “familial hatred” of Saddam. In 1991 his father had put together an international coalition and driven Saddam’s invading army out of Kuwait. Two years later when Bush Senior, then retired from the presidency, paid a visit to Kuwait, sixteen people were arrested on charges of planning to assassinate him. The weapon was to be a car bomb said to have been assembled by Saddam’s intelligence agents.

This history made for a bizarre relationship between Iraq and the Bush family, which may help explain the younger Bush’s zeal for war, especially since everybody assured him it would be an easy triumph. His father’s decision to withdraw his armies from Iraq after driving Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991 was also a factor. Many thought he should have marched to Baghdad and ended the Saddam dictatorship.

Young Bush, speaking to a friend in 1998, said, “Dad made a mistake not going into Iraq when he had an approval rating in the nineties,” Draper recalls. “If I’m ever in that situation, I’ll use it—I’ll spend my political capital.”

The fact seems to be that Bush already had Saddam’s removal on his mind when he came to the White House and that it would have taken a far more inspired adviser than Condoleezza Rice to change the course of history after al-Qaeda struck on September 11. Iraq had no demonstrable relations with al-Qaeda except mutual hostility, but by providing good reason for Bush to put American troops in the Middle East, al-Qaeda had put Iraq in American gun sights.

Draper likens Washington’s desire for war to a contagious fever that had been long breeding in certain host bodies until it was finally released by September 11, whereupon it “swept through the Beltway and insinuated itself into the minds of many,” including both Rice and Bush. The “communicable agent,” he writes, was a conviction that Saddam posed an imminent threat which had to be forcibly removed. Draper’s list of the contagion’s “host bodies” includes Cheney; his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby; Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz; and Douglas J. Feith, a Pentagon undersecretary for policy, all of whom had been carrying the “virus” well before September 11.

Bush was clearly ready to act on such evidence of malign Iraqi intent as the Cheney-Rumsfeld-neocon operation could supply from the special intelligence agency they had installed at the Pentagon, and Rice seems to have been just as ready to cheer him on. Thus we had the stories of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be false, but not before they had served their purpose of getting the Iraq war underway. It did not matter that the UN chief inspector told the Security Council that verifying Iraq’s disarmament would “not take years, nor weeks, but months.” Rice’s contribution was to argue that too much time wasted by investigating might be catastrophic. Or, as she put it in the memorable and chilling line devised by White House speechwriters, and also used by the President, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Failure often seemed to be the high road to success in the Bush administration, but no one has failed so gloriously upward as Condoleezza Rice, whose prize was the State Department. Bush made her secretary of state at the start of his second term, and though it is much too soon to judge whether she can end her Washington career with a success, the outlook cannot be encouraging.

Glenn Kessler’s up-close reporting of her incomplete career at State finds no important change from the woman who declined to try to take a vigorous intellectual lead in Bush’s first term. His book title, The Confidante, contains his judgment. It is not so different from “pal.”

“As President Bush’s confidante for more than seven years, Rice has failed to provide him with a coherent foreign policy vision,” he writes. It seems that the President is now the one who generates ideas. A great deal of the diplomatic activity in the second term has been aimed at undoing the disasters of the first term. In the favorite old Washington metaphor, Rice is trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

The recovery work includes trying to restore civility with traditional allies like France and Germany, which Rumsfeld contemptuously dismissed as “old Europe,” and trying to restore the Israeli-Palestinian problem to the merely intractable status that existed before the first Bush term made it simply impossible. This has been high on the Rice-Bush agenda, since anything resembling movement toward improvement seems so unlikely that, should it occur, it might help rescue their “legacy” from Iraq. There is a lot of talk about “legacy” among administration people just now. It is a sure sign that all hands realize they have made a thorough mess of things and hope a miracle might come along.

Condoleezza, who prefers being called Condi, was the only child of two remarkable people and a number of remarkable families. John Rice, her father, was a Presbyterian minister, a schoolteacher, and a football coach. Her mother was also a teacher. She taught music and science, played piano, and was trained in classical music. Both parents had attended college, no small thing in their time, especially for black people in Alabama, and there had been college-trained forbears in earlier generations too.

There was an Italian ancestor named Alto in the family of Condi’s mother, and the family honored that in the naming of their children. Some of the males were named Alto, Condi’s mother was Angelena, and she had an aunt named Genoa. Angelena created Condi’s name from the Italian musical notation con dolcezza, meaning “with sweetness.” (“My God, why are you going to name her Condoleezza?” Aunt Genoa asked. “She’ll never learn how to spell it!”)

The Rices lived in an upscale black section of Birmingham where parents tried hard to shelter the children from contact with the ugly realities of segregation. It was a conservative, proud culture in which parents sought to protect the young from growing up thinking of themselves as second-class citizens. When they went out they avoided places where blacks had to go in through the back door. When children wanted a drink of water or to use a toilet, they were taught to wait until they got home. It was that kind of world in Birmingham in the 1960s, when so many black homes were being dynamited on behalf of white supremacy that the city was known as “Bombingham.”

A child can be sheltered only so long from reality, and the Rices, who doted on Condi, and must have spoiled her, moved to Colorado. The spoiling did not extend to leaving her idle. Her parents drove her to excel in class and work tirelessly at the piano. Angelena pressed school principals to let Condi skip a grade here and there. She was good and her parents taught her to succeed, and she did. She was a natural overachiever.

With eighteen months remaining to Rice as secretary of state, Bumiller writes:

It was obvious from Rice’s many metamorphoses that her real ideology was not idealism or realism or defending the citadels of freedom, although she displayed elements of all of them. Her real ideology was succeeding.

This judgment is reinforced by Rice’s story of the piano career that never was. After devoting years of her childhood to studying and practicing piano because her parents thought she might some day master the concert stage, she suddenly abandoned it at the age of seventeen after attending a summer music camp for child prodigies from across the country. There she heard much younger children play, realized that they already played better than she ever would, and knew that she would never become a great pianist.

Choosing not to settle for a life giving piano lessons, as she put it to Bumiller, she stunned her parents by announcing that her music career was over. Before graduating from high school she was studying political science, and two years later was studying international affairs, with special attention to Soviet history, at the University of Denver. She had been attracted to the field by a professor named Josef Korbel, who, like other important men to come, was much impressed by her.

Korbel was a Czech refugee destined to cast a long shadow in State Department history, and in the annals of feminism. Mentor of Condoleezza Rice, the first black woman to be secretary of state, he was also the father of Madeleine Albright, the first woman to hold the office. Albright was appointed in 1996 by President Clinton. Neither woman knew of the other before Korbel’s death in 1977.

By 1987, when both women moved in the foreign-policy world, Madeleine asked Condi to work in a Democratic presidential campaign. “Madeleine, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m a Republican,” Rice replied.

“Albright was astonished,” Bumiller writes. “‘Condi, how could that be?’ she asked. ‘We had the same father.'”

Since then their differences on policy matters have been deep. Albright told Bumiller that she was “very unhappy about what has happened to the term ‘democracy’ under this administration, where it has now been militarized.” Her father, she said, would have been upset about the Iraq war because it had “ruined America’s reputation in the world” and there was no “forward thinking” in its planning.

In response, Rice told Bumiller, “Let’s not try to put thoughts and words into dead people’s mouths.”

The Chile Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Elizabeth Quay Hutchison, Thomas Miller Klubock, Nara B. Milanich and Peter Winn(eds.). Duke University Press. January .

This is a timely moment to be getting to grips with Chile. With the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 coup just passed and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the return to democratic governance next year, Chileans are asking important questions about their constitution, environment, and socio-economic model. The Chile Reader is a highly recommended, illuminating, and thought-provoking read, featuring interviews, travel diaries, letters, diplomatic cables, cartoons, photographs, and song lyrics. This collection is recommended to students wanting to gain a clear understanding of issues that are being debated in the country today.
For those who have never visited Chile or do not know a great deal about the country, this Reader is an impressive and accessible introduction to it. The editors and all those that have translated documents offer a thoughtful window onto Chile’s history, culture and politics. Through written texts, photographs of archaeological ruins, art, poetry, song lyrics, and transcribed interviews spanning over 500 years, the reader is immersed in the complexities of the country and given the opportunity to navigate between the constructed myths and realities that shape Chile today. There are obvious recognisable voices in the volume, such as Pablo Neruda’s prize-winning poetry and that of Chile’s democratically elected ex-president, Salvador Allende, who sought to lead his country along a peaceful democratic road to socialism before a military coup toppled his government on 11 September 1973. However, these are contextualised within a rich tapestry of diverse perspectives that capture the nation’s multi-layered and distinctive character; we hear from Spanish colonial elites, conservationists, clergy, workers, landowners, miners, peasants, politicians, economists, lawyers and human rights activists. The result is a full and rounded picture of Chile’s past, present, and future that provides those new to the country with tools to recognise and understand it.
For those who are more familiar with Chile, there is also a lot to reflect on and rethink in a new light. They will recognise the mountains, the earthquakes, the inequality, the the Mapuche’s long standing struggle for recognition and land, the legacies of colonialism, Santiago’s pollution and the country’s peculiar mix of authoritarianism and democracy, conservatism and radicalism. But what is particularly useful about this latest volume from Duke University Press’ Latin America Reader Series is that these features of Chile’s history, culture, and politics are laid out side by side in a way that encourages us to examine the linkages between them. The inherent contradictions that exist within Chile that are prominent in this volume also challenge preconceived stereotypes or generalizations. Through primary documents, we explore Chile’s bountiful yet tragic landscape, its promising yet destructive modernization process, and tensions between its isolation and interaction with the outside world.
The recurring nature of themes that have underpinned Chilean history and society are brought to light clearly and effectively in the choice of documents. Together, they challenge us to think in broad terms about continuities and long-term trajectories. As the editors state in their introduction, their document selection is “neither comprehensive nor exhaustive” but it is specifically designed to “speak to themes such as democracy, social inequality, economic development, the environment, and ethnicity”. The “persistent narrative of Chilean exceptionalism” within a Latin American context and what it meant to different Chileans to be Chilean are particularly prominent themes explored through the documents. Another is the search for and questioning of “modernity” in Chile – along with its “recurring nemesis, socioeconomic inequality” (p.3). Ultimately, no single vision or portrayal is put forward. As the editors state, they want readers to have the tools to “judge for themselves” (p.8). But the questions that frame volume are enormously helpful in directing the reader’s attention to important ideas and concepts that define Chile.

Images from a protest against the funeral of Augusto Pinochet, dictator of Chile between 1973 and 1990. The poster on the left reads “You cannot honour a murderer”, followed by one of Pinochet’s most famous quotes: “Lies are discovered through the eyes, and I lied often”. 
The Chile Reader will have a very practical purpose for students of Chilean and Latin American history in providing them with direct access to Chilean perspectives that not always easily accessible in academic monographs and articles. With helpful introductions to each document and chapter, the volume begins by looking at Chile’s environment and landscape before moving chronologically on to examine indigenous peoples, conquest, and colonial society; early independence and nation building; the growth of export led trade and the “social question” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; depression, development, and the “politics of compromise” from the 1920s onwards; reform, revolution, and Chile’s thwarted road to socialism; the Pinochet dictatorship, military rule, and neoliberal economics; and the return to democracy.
This is a timely moment to be getting to grips with Chile. With the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 coup just passed and the twentieth-fifth anniversary of the return to democratic governance next year, Chileans are asking important questions about their constitution, environment and socio-economic model. Earthquakes and natural disasters have recently bedevilled the country and the consequences of mining are becoming ever more pressing. There has also been a surge in the level of social mobilisation throughout the country in recent years led by students, workers, environmentalists, and Mapuche communities. And for anyone wanting to comprehend these phenomena and the choices that are being debated in the country today, an understanding of its past is imperative. In this respect, The Chile Reader is a highly recommended, illuminating and thought-provoking read.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The First World War in the Middle East 1st Edition by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen (Hurst)

Published on the centenary of the Great War, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen's study, "The First World War in the Middle East" (2014), offers a relatively rare perspective in thinking about WW I and presents important historical background to current events in the Middle East. It is well-researched and thoughtfully written on both counts. Individual events in the WW I Middle East have been studied extensively, but, as Ulrichsen points out, there have been no prior single-volume histories of the Middle Eastern theater in its entirety. Actions in the Middle East may not have impacted the ultimate result of the War, but Ulrichesen shows that they do not deserve to be considered, as is frequently the case, as a sideshow. Ulrichsen, the author of an earlier Middle East study, "Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era", is a research fellow in Public Policy at Rice University and an associate fellow on the Middle East North Africa Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London.

Ulrichsen describes how WW I led at last to the end of the Ottoman Empire, which fought on the side of Germany, and to the creation of independent nation-states in the Middle East. The author writes: "[t]he entire political landscape of the region was reshaped as the legacy of the war sapped the ability of imperial 'outsiders' to dominate and influence events and nationalist groups succeeded in mobilising mass movements around distinctly national identities. Yet, this occurred just as the actual and potential value of Middle Eastern oil became a permanent feature of a new set of Western geostrategic considerations." The book examines critical war events in what became contemporary Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel; and it shows the continued legacy of military and political actions during the Great War.

The book is in three parts. In the opening part, Ulrich examines the Ottoman Empire, Britain, France, and Germany as they stood prior to the outbreak of the War. He also offers an insightful overview of the fighting in the Middle East which emphasizes the backwardness of the region in terms of economic development and infrastructure and the difficult logistics involved in fighting a large-scale war on treacherous terrain far from a governmental base and from a secure source of supplies. Large-scale famine was an immediate result in many places of the Middle East conflict.

The central part of the book studies the military campaigns. From a military perspective, the most significant were the campaigns involving Russia and the Ottoman Empire early in the war which resulted in the bulk of the Ottoman Empire's casualties and diverted its soldiers and resources away from other theaters. Ulrichsen offers a good discussion of the disputed Armenian Massacre by the Ottoman Empire in the context of this early fighting.

The book describes the long fighting at Gallipoli which is the best-remembered part of the Middle East war and its impact on the growth of national identity in Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey. Further broad sections of the book examine the conflict in Egypt and in Gaza which led ultimately to Great Britain's capture of Jerusalem and to the Balfour Declaration. The book then discusses the war in Mesopotamia which led to its disastrous surrender of a garrison at Kut in 1916 prior to the taking of Baghdad. Ulrichsen's account of the Mesopotanian War shows eerie similarities to the American and British experience in the early 21st Century invasion of Iraq.

The final section of the book shows the complex political situation that resulted from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Western imperialism and Arab nationalism formed a volatile mix which set the stage for the continued instability of the Middle East.

The most glaring ommission of the book is the lack of maps which makes the military accounts difficult to follow for readers without an excellent prior knowledge of the region's geography. The two maps on the frontice-piece are crude and inadequate and include the embarassing misspelling of "Ottomon" Empire. The writing style of the book is frequently turgid. Regardless of these flaws, Ulrichsen has written an important and valuable book which explains WW I in the Middle East and its continued importance. I learned a great deal from this study. It will be of value to readers with an interest in the contemporary Middle East or in WW I.

A Life with books from Winnie the Pooh to William Empson

My mother taught me to read in the summer of 1945, between VE Day and VJ Day, when I was turning three. Time lay on her hands: my father, a major in the Territorials, was away in Palestine, battling Irgun and the Stern Gang in the latter days of the British Mandate, and wasn’t due to be demobilised from the army until the end of the year; and I was a pushover for her deck of home-made flash cards and a game I found more fun than our previous sessions of Animal Snap. In the cluttered, narrow-windowed living-room of our house in the village of Hempton Green in Norfolk, my mother and I progressed from letters to words to sentences, stopping the game at intervals to listen to the BBC news crackling from the wireless, its fretwork grill sawn to represent an inappropriately Japanese-style rising sun. By the time we reached sentences, and the cards had given way to headlines from the day’s Times, Japan had surrendered to the Allies, and the wireless was reporting that our troops in the Far East were fighting ‘pockets of gorillas’ – an idea that excited me much more than anything in my father’s letters home from Transjordan. Gorilla warfare was something that any three-year-old could warm to in his imagination: I sought out coloured pictures of gorillas to feed my understanding of the conflict, and it was years before I realised that I was the victim of a deceiving homophone – an early case of the linguistic misunderstanding to which I’ve been prone all my life.

I squandered my mother’s gift to me of so much time and patience. I was proud of my new skill, which I showed off to anyone who’d listen: my grandmother, an indulgent aunt, an illiterate woman called Mrs Atherton who was my mother’s ‘daily’, and, most unwisely, to my few contemporaries in the village, who beat me up for my intolerable conceit. But the capacity to read brought with it no corresponding advance in intellectual curiosity. I rested lazily on my laurels, taking as long as anyone else of my age to venture beyond the conventional diet of Beatrix Potter, Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows and the Famous Five. By the early 1950s, I was tearing at speed through the middlebrow bestsellers of the time: John Creasey, Nevil Shute, the wartime adventures of British officers who’d escaped, or tried to escape, from German POW camps, like The Wooden Horse and The Colditz Story, along with a stream of books about fishing. The nearest I came to reading ‘literature’ for pleasure, aside from an early passion for Huckleberry Finn, was my discovery, at 11 or 12, of H.E. Bates, whose Fair Stood the Wind for FranceThe Jacaranda Tree and Love for Lydia seemed to me unsurpassably fine in their emotional eloquence and the transporting power of their natural descriptions. For a long time, I couldn’t imagine the existence of a greater novelist than Bates.
In adolescence, my reading predictably widened in its range, but it hardly deepened. Joyce, Hardy, Dickens, Camus, George Eliot, Hemingway, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, D.H. Lawrence, Scott Fitzgerald, Keats, Byron, Auden, Pound, T.S. Eliot … At 16 I was a chain-reader, on a steady three library books a day when not in school, but my style of reading remained much as it was in my Enid Blyton period. I sucked and sucked at books for the juice of vicarious experience they contained, and as soon as they were finished, I discarded them like squeezed-out grapefruit skins. In the course of 24 hours, I might be Nick Adams, Paul Morel, and sitting in one of the dives on 52nd Street, uncertain and afraid, as the clever hopes expired of a low dishonest decade; but these were less acts of serious reading than experiments in identity, made by somebody who very much feared that he lacked an identity of his own and hoped that he might find a suitable off-the-peg identity in a book.
As it turned out, I eventually found one on a bus – a green double-decker owned by the Hants and Dorset company. On my first summer vacation from university, in 1961, I got a temporary job as a conductor, ringing the bell and issuing tickets on various routes through the New Forest between Bournemouth and Southampton. I was kitted out with a serge uniform, to which age had given a bluebottle sheen, a heavy silver ticket machine to wear around my neck and a blackened leather satchel to hold small change: halfpennies, pennies, threepenny bits, sixpences, shillings and half-crowns.
Except in the early mornings and late afternoons, business was generally slow. Often, I was second in command of an empty bus, sprawled on the triple back seat, with ample time to read. My favourite run was the 2 p.m. back-country route from Lymington to Southampton, by way of East End, East Boldre, Beaulieu, Dibden Purlieu, Hythe, Marchwood, Eling and Millbrook, on which the only passengers might be two or three elderly women from Lymington and a couple of Gypsies from an encampment near Hatchet Gate. The jolting bus ambled along the B-roads, resting at intervals at deserted stops, and made a sleepy epic of the round trip, which was little more than 40 miles. I begrudged even the very few passengers we picked up on these slow trawls through the Hampshire countryside, because they interrupted my reading of Seven Types of Ambiguity, in its blue-barred Peregrine paperback edition, which lived for weeks inside the leather satchel, becoming steadily more grimy from the stash of greasily fingered old coins whose company it kept.
The book was a revelation to me. It made me learn to read all over again. Looking at the book now still brings back the old-bus smell of cigarettes, fish and chips, sweat, Polo mints and ineffectual disinfectant, and the excitement with which I first heard Empson’s voice speaking from the page. It was a voice utterly unlike that of any of the literary critics whom I’d begun to read in my first year as an English undergraduate (F.R. Leavis, L.C. Knights, A.C. Bradley, E.M.W. Tillyard): plain-spoken, peppery, disputatious; now talking in cheerful, offhand slang, now rising to lyrical and unforgettable descriptions of the passages he most admired. In almost every paragraph, there was a joke or an arresting surprise.
Briskly disposing of the woolly idea of poetry as the beauty of Pure Sound, Empson made me giggle when he quoted Virgil’s line in the sixth book of the Aeneid, ‘Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore,’ as ‘the stock line to try on the dog’, but went on to make a subtle analysis of its sound, before dismissing the general theory as bunkum.* The line, he wrote,
is beautiful because ulterioris, the word of their banishment, is long, and so shows that they have been waiting a long time; and because the repeated vowel-sound (itself the moan of helpless sorrow) in oris amore connects the two words as if of their own natures, and makes desire belong necessarily to the unattainable. This I think quite true, but it is no use deducing from it Tennyson’s simple and laborious cult of onomatopoeia.
In territory more familiar to me than Latin poetry, Empson brought his inspired common sense to bear on poems that I knew by heart, yet had never properly read. Keats’s ‘No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist …’ took on a startling new life when Empson gruffly pointed out that it ‘tells you that somebody, or some force in the poet’s mind, must have wanted to go to Lethe very much, if it took four negatives in the first line to stop them’. Of course! It was obvious – but it took Empson to bring the obvious to light.
In what has become the single most famous passage in Seven Types of Ambiguity, he anatomised the fourth line of Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet, which begins:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
Of the comparison between the lover in the autumn of his life and those bare ruined choirs, Empson wrote that ‘There is no pun, double syntax, or dubiety of feeling.’
Because ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest, and coloured with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves, because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls coloured like the skies of winter, because the cold and Narcissistic charm suggested by choirboys suits well with Shakespeare’s feeling for the object of the Sonnets, and for various sociological and historical reasons (the Protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of Puritanism), which it would be hard now to trace out in their proportions; these reasons, and many more relating the simile to its place in the Sonnet, must all combine to give the line its beauty, and there is a sort of ambiguity in not knowing which of them to hold most clearly in mind. Clearly this is involved in all such richness and heightening of effect, and the machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry.
The temporary bus conductor read this paragraph over and over again, ravished by its intelligence and simplicity. Of course! again. After all, Shakespeare was born in 1564, barely 20 years after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, whose fresh ruins were scattered around the landscape, as raw and brutal as the bombsites of my own childhood. The totalitarian vandalism of the mad king, as he tried to erase Catholicism from the land, was in plain view, and echoes of the sweet birds’ singing still remained in the ears of the elderly when Shakespeare wrote his sonnet. The jostle of meanings that Empson exposed in the line made me giddy with a sense of extraordinary discovery: not only of the deeper implications of Sonnet 73, but of what reading, realreading, might be if one could only learn how. If a new passenger got on the bus then, I doubt that I gave her a chance to pay for her ticket.
The first lesson Empson taught was to slow down drastically; to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, question, ponder, think. This was easy because his own writing enforced it. A single paragraph in Seven Types of Ambiguity was like a street closely punctuated with traffic-calming sleeping policemen: you had to study the relationship between one sentence and the next – and often one clause and the next – to see the logic that connected them, and if I tried to read them in my usual skimming style, I instantly lost the thread.
The second, more general lesson required one to greatly enlarge one’s understanding of what writing is and does (all writing, not just poetry; Empson illustrated his arguments with sentences from novels, book titles, newspaper headlines that had caught his eye and so on). On this, Empson was inexplicit except by inference, but as a fisherman, I saw it in angling terms. Every piece of writing was like a pond, sunlit, overhung by willows, with clustering water lilies, and, perhaps, the rippling circle made by a fish rising to snatch a dying fly. This much could be seen and appreciated by any passing hiker. But the true life of the pond lay below the surface, in deep water where only the attentive and experienced eye would detect the suspended cloud of midge larvae, the submarine shadow of the cruising pike, the exploding shoal of bug-eyed small fry. It was with the subaquatic life of literature that Empson – a scientist by early inclination, whose interest in science is a recurrent feature of his writing – was concerned.
Beneath the clean line of type on the page lay the muddy depths of the living and changing language, a world of stubborn historic associations, swarming puns, suggestive likenesses and connections (as between trees and carved choir stalls), meanings that were in a continuous process of evolution and decay, sometimes enriching the word in print, but as often subverting it. (Spare a thought for Coleridge when he wrote the line ‘As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing’. In 1797, he wasn’t to know that shortly after his death pants would become an abbreviated version of pantaloons, and by 1880 a word for men’s drawers.)
Empson’s preternaturally sensitive ear and eye for the deepwater workings of the language enabled him to share with his readers a myriad subtleties, shades of meaning, richnesses, in lines they might otherwise have skated over. He was equally alert to the way in which language so often betrays the writer, revealing what is really at the back of the writer’s mind when he tries to assert its opposite. (In Some Versions of Pastoral, he unmasked the complacent and reactionary political conservatism that lies just beneath the surface of Gray’s ‘Elegy’, and in Milton’s God he demonstrated how, in the course of writing Paradise Lost, Milton came to detest the God whose ways he was devoutly trying to justify to Man.)
Seven Types made it clear that my supposed skill at reading had never progressed much beyond primary school level. Embarrassment mixed with wonder when I faced up to the fact that Empson’s astounding book had been written when he was 22, and had begun as an undergraduate essay, written for his Cambridge supervisor, I.A. Richards.
Cats may look at kings. It was certainly possible to learn from Empson (‘Kill Your Speed,’ as the traffic signs say). But it would be fatal to make any attempt to mimic his precocious scholarship, his eccentric brilliance, or his quirky and quick-witted, table-talking prose style. After my Empson summer on the buses, my reading measurably improved, with my own fortnightly essays no longer coming back with the Betas, plus and minus, that had been standard in my first year. Had I been at all religious, I might have lit candles in Empson’s honour (something that would have greatly annoyed him, for he was a militant atheist). Since then, I’ve made a living out of reading, one way or another. For reading, of the kind that Empson preached and practised, doesn’t stop at books, but makes the larger world legible.
Trying to understand the habitat in which we live requires an ability to read it – and not just in a loose metaphorical sense. Every inhabited landscape is a palimpsest, its original parchment nearly blackened with the cross-hatching of successive generations of authors, claiming the place as their own, and imposing their designs on it, as if their temporary interpretations would stand for ever. Later over-writing has obscured all but a few, incompletely erased fragments of the earliest entries, but one can still pick out a phrase here, a word there, and see how the most recently dried layer of scribble is already being partially effaced by fresh ink. From the embanked, bullet-path road through the valley, relic of Roman occupation, to the new 50-turbine windfarm on the hill, every feature of the landscape belongs to an identifiable phase of sensibility, politics and language.
We’re somewhere in southern England, on the same hill as the windfarm. In the far distance is the grey smudge of a cathedral city whose housing developments have spread untidily beyond its 1960s ring-road, and whose office parks contain dozens of small companies in the ‘knowledge-based industries’. The course of a narrow, crooked river, marked by a double line of trees, diagonally connects the city to the village at the foot of the hill. This village lost its post office in the 1990s, and its only surviving commercial enterprise, beside the pub and the shop selling ‘gifts and country antiques’, is a Shell station mini-supermarket. Old farm workers’ cottages, built from the nearest and cheapest materials to hand – rocks, pieces of old timber, plaster made from mud – and roofed with bundles of wheatstraw or reeds from the local swamp, have long been prized as weekenders’ second homes. The weekenders, who dearly love ancient brick windmills with skeletal sails, but not their modern descendants, mounted the Stop the Turbines campaign of 2001, and continue to grouse vengefully over their defeat. Sixty or so permanent residents live on ‘the estate’ of semi-detached council houses, which is itself semi-detached from the village, on the main road. The 15th-century church gets half a page to itself in Pevsner’s The Buildings of England, but has been locked against vandals for years, though a communion service, spoken, not sung, is held there on the fourth Sunday of every month, and it’s still used for weddings and funerals (after which the corpses are transported by undertaker-led motorcades to the crematorium on the city’s edge).
Between the village and the city are fields, vastly enlarged since mechanised farming came in after the Second World War, mostly arable (wheat, barley, oilseed rape), with one big dairy farm, a member of an organic milk co-operative that is under contract to Dairy Crest PLC. The redundant farmhouses, stripped of all their surrounding land except pony-sized paddocks, are owned by commuters. The tree-shrouded Georgian hall in the middle distance is now a combined hotel, restaurant, golf club and health spa. Twin lines of pylons, erected in the 1930s, carry high-voltage cables across the landscape, and were a flight hazard when the wartime airfield, used by the US Army Air Forces, was working. After the airfield was decommissioned, its runway drainage systems left it too barren for agriculture; following a brief period as a refugee camp, it became a motor-racing circuit, then a road-haulage vehicle maintenance centre, and is now in the early stages of deciduous broadleaf afforestation.
These are just a few of the changes to the landscape on which the ink is still drying, on the uppermost layer of the palimpsest. Beneath them, the ink colour alters slowly from blue or black to sepia, and the handwriting to copperplate, then italic, then Gothic black-letter, as it registers how use and ownership of this stretch of land has been continuously contested. The windfarm dispute, in which the quarrel spread to include the district council, a multinational power company, a farm corporation, the Ministry of Defence, English Nature, the National Farmers’ Union and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, echoed, in a minor key, the great battles of the past: from the hopeless fight put up by landless peasant farmers against landowners at the time of the enclosure acts, to the long war between the church, the crown, the landed aristocracy and the wool merchants. In our collective rural nostalgia, we like to think of the countryside as settled and placid, not as the scene of perpetual conflict involving class, power and money, but there’s hardly a feature of any real landscape that doesn’t stand for somebody’s triumph, concession or defeat.
Landscape historians can read the palimpsest more skilfully than me, but to begin to see it like this is to go some way towards rescuing oneself from the brain-curdling effects of degraded late Romanticism, which still shapes the way most of us instinctively think about landscape and place. In Britain, it’s led to the cult of the antique-picturesque, in the United States to the parallel cult of ‘pristine’ wilderness. Devotees of both practise a highly selective, self-induced blindness, cancelling from their view, and all claims to their sympathy, everything that intrudes on their preconceived pictures of how landscape ought to be. This sort of mental bulldozing tends to bring real bulldozing in its wake, in fits of Cromwellian zeal to erase from the land whatever offends the eye and taste of the temporary beholder. Better by far to learn to value the landscape, as a reader, for its long accumulation of contradictions and ambiguities – an accumulation to which we’re constantly adding by our presence here.
I moved from London to Seattle on impulse, for casual and disreputable reasons. I met someone … the usual story. A writer’s working life is dangerously easy to transport from one place to another, and in 1990 I thought that possession of a fax machine would be enough to bridge the inconvenient distance between the two cities. As for anxiety about displacement and culture shock, I had none: I cockily thought America was my oyster. I’d taught its literature at two British universities, and was about to begin the last chapter of my second book of American travels. I confidently began to make myself at home in my new surroundings in the only way I knew how, by reading them. More than a year went by before it began to dawn on me that I was floundering out of my depth.
The first time I went sailing on Puget Sound, with a copy of Vancouver’s account of his 1792 voyage through these parts open, face-down, on the cockpit seat, I was taking in the landscape of low, built-over hills, rising fir forest and mountains white with glacial ice and snow in June, when I glanced at the electronic depth sounder. It showed a steady 11 feet of water, though we were more than a mile from the shore and I’d seen no shallows when I’d checked our course against the chart. I immediately brought the boat’s head through the wind, sails clattering, and started to sail back in the direction from which we’d come. From 11 feet, the digital read-out on the depth sounder went to 10, 9.6, and abruptly down to 6 – giving us just 18 inches of clearance between the keel and the sea floor. Starting to panic, I grabbed the chart and guessed at our most likely position, a patch of white paper (a reassuring sign, since shallows are coloured blue or tan) marked with three-figure numbers: 114, 125, 103 … Fathoms, not feet. The water beneath the boat was as deep as it is at the abrupt cliff-edge of the Continental Shelf.
The depth sounder was lost. Programmed to read accurately down to 50 fathoms, or 300 feet, it was hunting for the bottom, and, finding none, was seizing on false echoes and familiarities – drifting kelp fronds? shoaling salmon? plankton? – in a vain effort to regain its footing in the world and make itself at home again.
Its owner was doing the same. On one level, my new city and its hinterland felt deceptively homely. Their similar latitude gave them the angular light and lingering evenings I was used to. Their damp marine weather, blowing in from the south-west, came from the right direction. When the mountains are hidden under a low sky, one might almost imagine oneself to be in Britain.
At first glance, too, the palimpsest appeared to be a lot more easily legible, with many fewer layers of script running at cross-purposes to one another. The first white settlers had arrived here in 1851, and were of the same generation as my great-great-grandfather. Between Henry Yesler, who showed up in 1852 and saw the fortune to be made from cutting down the stands of gigantic Douglas firs on the neighbouring hills and feeding them to his steam mill, and the founders of Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon, lay a stretch of time little longer than one old person’s range of memory. There must have been people around in 1960 who could remember Yesler (d. 1892) from their teens and had bounced the infant Bill Gates (b. 1955) on their arthritic knees. After living here for 20 years, I’ve already experienced at first hand one eighth of Seattle’s history since the whites drove the Indians from their tribal land and forced them into a reservation on the far side of Puget Sound.
What I saw on arrival was a disorderly free-for-all: tract housing and industrial parks swarming over farmland, farms established on logged-over forest, loggers shaving mountainsides bare of trees, dead and dying mill towns, environmental organisations litigating to save what was left of nature and, everywhere, barbed-wire fences marking out the fronts between the contending armies. The mounting acrimony between the city and its rural hinterland was coming to the boil, as urban-based conservation groups like the Sierra Club and liberal city and county governments confronted the newly formed Wise Use coalition of free-marketeers, property owners, timber and mining interests, farmers and the construction industries.
I’m still a trespasser on this battlefield of old resentments and fresh indignations, whose inequities glare more obviously than they do from any landscape I can think of in Western Europe. It’s a hard place in which to feel at home. From its designated ‘wilderness areas’ (themselves the result of much human ingenuity, conflict, legislation and policing, and so not wilderness at all, but cultural artefacts) to the latest crop of shopping malls and condo blocks, newly sprouting from behind screens of trees, it feels provisional and volatile, as if its entire character might drastically alter with the next shift in the political or economic wind.
For an English-born reader, America is written in a language deceptively similar to one’s own and full of pitfalls and ‘false friends’. The word nature, for instance, means something different here – so do communityclassfriendtraditionhome (think of the implications beneath the surface of the peculiarly American phrase ‘He makes his home in …’). These I’ve learned to recognise, but the longer I stay here the more conscious I am of nuances to which I must still remain deaf. The altered meanings and associations of American English, as it has parted company from its parent language over 400 years, reflect as great a difference in experience of the world as that between, say, the Germans and the French, but in this case the words are identical in form and so the difference is largely lost to sight.
Reading an American novel, I can usually persuade myself that I’m a native speaker of the language in which it’s written. But reading a western landscape, or an American political campaign, I hanker for a dictionary that would explain the difference between nature and naturehome and home, and chart their separate paths of evolution from their common roots. Talking with Americans, I still battle with the static interference, as on a bad long-distance line, caused by the build-up of slight differences of definition and assumption between our two national vocabularies. My grasp of American is a thousand times better than my lousy French, but there are moments over dinner in Seattle that remind me of trying to follow street directions offered by a voluble stranger in a Calais bar-tabac.
Still, it’s always the business of the patient reader to learn to live in a language not – or not quite – his own. Empson made himself extraordinarily fluent in 17th-century English by immersing himself in controversies – social, political and theological – that had long been lost to view, and by digging deep into the private lives of writers who excited him, like Donne, Marvell and Milton. His visits to England in the 1600s were made not in the spirit of conventional historical or literary scholarship but as a fierce partisan. He took sides. He relished battles. In a tribute to I.A. Richards, he wrote that ‘the main purpose of reading imaginative literature is to grasp a wide variety of experience, imagining people with codes and customs very unlike our own.’ He treated the writing of the past as a foreign country – as foreign in its way as Japan or China, where he taught in the 1930s and 1940s. He established himself as a model traveller, acquiring the local dialect, adapting himself to the local codes and customs, and returned with fresh and invigorating news of a world three hundred years distant from his own (as in ‘Donne the Space Man’, his great 1957 essay on Donne, Renaissance cosmology, Giordano Bruno, spheres, life on distant planets, Anglican theology and much else).
In 1971, ten years after first reading Seven Types, I met Empson in London. He’d recently retired from his chair at the University of Sheffield and was living with his wife, Hetta, at Studio House, Hampstead Hill Gardens – in a set-up described by Robert Lowell as a ‘household [that] had a weird, sordid nobility that made other Englishmen seem like a veneer’. Empson’s idea of making lunch was to place an assortment of unpunctured cans of Chinese vegetables on the gas cooker, where they tended to explode. Ancient rashers of fried bacon served as bookmarks in his disintegrating copy of Marvell’s Collected Poems. He stirred his tea with the sole remaining earpiece of his glasses. After an alarming lunch, he and I would set off in my car to raid the Wallace Collection, the Sir John Soane Museum, or some unsuspecting country house in Buckinghamshire or Hertfordshire, where he had found out that a family portrait of an ancestor, distantly connected with Marvell, hung on the walls. Doorstepping a secluded mansion, deep in its landscaped park, at the end of a long and gated drive, Empson displayed an imperious persistence, refused to take no for an answer, and forced his way inside past nonplussed butlers and feebly protesting dowagers. I delighted in the disquiet that he gave such people. During the time I knew him, his silver moustache varied in cut from Fu Manchu to Colonel Blimp; he was, always, legendarily scruffy, but his commanding, high-pitched voice announced his lapsed membership of the landowning classes, and the dowager and butler were clearly uncertain as to whether they were confronting Lord Emsworth in his cups, or an unusually determined Kleeneze brush salesman.
At this time, he was engaged in a campaign to prove that, late in his life, Marvell had married his London landlady, Mary Palmer. This was a question that has interested nobody very much, before or since. But it greatly concerned Empson, who needed to know the full character of the author of ‘The Garden’ and ‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’: not knowing would be to leave Marvell’s moral identity in a state of ambiguous incompletion, and Empson meant to get to the bottom of the matter. Delving into the knotted tangle of Marvell’s legal, sexual and financial affairs in the 1670s – and freely speculating and imagining whenever documentary evidence was lacking – Empson was simply continuing his reading of the poems into a larger reading of the man, the times and the language in which Marvell lived and spoke. He was the best close reader of literature alive, but his definition of ‘reading’ was infinitely more generous and catholic than that of the New Critics who were his immediate contemporaries.
Twenty-five years after his death, he remains a touchstone figure, whose example taunts and teases. Faced with an unfamiliar stretch of countryside, or the language of a political campaign, as with a painting, a movie, or a book for review, I still wonder ‘How would Empson have read this?’ and try to guess – admittedly to no great effect – at how much he might have uncovered in it.
[*] Empson flattered his readers with unexplained allusions, expecting them to be as well read as he was. The line from Virgil translates roughly as ‘each stretching out his hand in longing for the far shore’, and describes the dead souls in the underworld awaiting transport across the Styx. It had been cited by A.C. Bradley in his 1901 lecture ‘Poetry for Poetry’s Sake’, for the untranslatable beauty of its sound (hence, ‘the stock line to try on the dog’). I hasten to add that I found all this out in 2009, 48 years after reading it on the bus, when my O-Level Latin wasn’t up to more than dim guesswork about hands and riverbanks and love.