As a critic, Milan Kundera is a master of the “little scenario,” the terse thought experiment that explains on a grand scale. In this passage, he illustrates very briefly how one’s experience of art is conditioned by historical consciousness:
“Let us imagine a contemporary composer writing a sonata that in its form, its harmonies, its melodies resembles Beethoven’s. Let’s even imagine that this sonata is so masterfully made that, if it had actually been by Beethoven, it would count among his greatest works. And yet, no matter how magnificent, signed by a contemporary composer, it would be laughable. At best its author would be applauded as a virtuoso of pastiche.”
Notice what Kundera is not criticizing: he is not saying the sonata’s lack of originality—a mere technicality—is the thing that would make its author ridiculous. He stipulates that the artistry is “masterful.” Kundera‘s real argument is that art, good or bad, is only authentic to its time. It is embedded in history. A literary masterpiece produced in, say, 1904, might therefore project only a parallax view of its greatness today.
And so I come to The Golden Bowl, which was published in 1904, by Henry James. Some (but not all) critics call it James’s greatest novel. Set in rural England, it is a finely drawn portrait of two marriages: that of an American millionaire’s daughter to a bankrupt but charming Italian prince, and that of the millionaire himself to a penniless American girl who happens to be the Prince’s ex-lover and his daughter’s longtime friend.
Yes, there is trouble on the horizon. But it never builds to a thunderclap. The story’s tension develops through the characters‘ extended, internal ruminations or artful parlor talk.
But first: Why did reading The Golden Bowl put me in mind of Kundera and his “Beethoven” scenario? Because, as I invested the 20-odd hours it took to read James, I had two recurrent thoughts: (1) that I was beholding a masterpiece of psychological realism, and (2) that I was bored to desperation by it. And so I asked myself, in the spirit of Kundera, Would I stick with a contemporary author venturing the same project, in the same “ingenius” register James used? Or would I send it cartwheeling across the room, a ridiculous pastiche?
I stuck with James, mostly because I wanted to see, as I always do with novels, how much the characters were like myself, whether their lives offered any instruction for my own.
And so I felt my way through the cobweb whisps of James’s plot, ever hoping they might thicken into a cord, or even a thread. Maggie, the heroine, and her father, Adam Verver, spend hours in dialogue, examining and impugning their own motives for acts of even the slightest moral significance. Is it wrong, they wonder, to invite Maggie’s friend Charlotte for an “improving” stay? After all, “being improved” by Charlotte’s wit and charm would be a form of using and objectifying her. Such airy concerns are further rarified as supporting characters take them up into calculations about whether to intervene in the main characters’ lives. Helping a friend find bliss can shade imperceptibly into meddling. Anyone seeking to make a romantic match, we are reminded, feels a heavy burden of responsibility if the result is misery.
As Chopin tinkles away in the background of The Golden Bowl’s endless longeur, James does manage to build to a solid point. Maggie’s husband, the poor Prince Amerigo, and her friend Charlotte (who “improved” Maggie’s father Adam by marrying him) have an affair. On the surface, the adulterers exhibit all the marks of conventional moral corruption. Amerigo, who intimated before his marriage that he would need another woman to be his guide, seems to be reverting to type as the Italian philanderer. He should have never been trusted. Charlotte married for money, not love, and now her passions are betraying her. Another typical story, but one I will come back to in a moment.
The basic “argument” put forth in The Golden Bowl is that we can only achieve imperfect knowledge of other people’s states of mind, and that this primary difficulty is compounded by its recurring secondarily in others’ relationships (If I can’t know what Maggie is up to despite a wealth of information about her, I can even less know what Maggie and Adam—mysteries to each other—are up to together.) Logicians and mathematicians even have a name for this mode of stacking calulations up inside one another: recursivity. In math, recursive expressions work because they are precise; in psychology, however, they are foggy. Our mental approximations of facts about others, recurring in ever more complex scenarios, render our understanding of the social world—of our fellow humans, even intimates—radically untrustworthy.
As Maggie and her father tried to reason through the delicate skein of their routine daily conduct, a rather whopping moral fact escaped their notice. They had both bought and paid for their spouses and then relegated them to a secondary tier of intimacy. After their marriages, Maggie and Adam went right back to their mutual solipsism. Amerigo and Charlotte, meanwhile, were left alone together to go to parties and that sort of thing. And their creeping, mutual discovery, as this sad connubial story played out, was that they were being fucked with, and on a fundamental level.
Were they wrong to fall into each other’s arms? I suppose they were, but the greater betrayal of human dignity belonged to Maggie and her father. For all their apparent moral seriousness, they were blindly corrupted by power. Their money gave them the power to treat others as less than human, and so they did it. Amerigo and Charlotte, for their part, were rebelling against a clear outrage on their dignity. So was their adultery a “typical” story? Not in the usual sense. But I think it was highly typical in showing there is only so much fucking about that alienated humans will take. Kant and Hegel said plainly what James illustrates gauzily in The Golden Bowl: People demand to be recognized as ends, not means, and any moral system that misses this point misses the whole point.
To be honest, I’m not sure I’m up to this task. But it’s been forced on me. I’ve had a vision. And like most prophets fresh back from desert revelations, I’ve been incapacitated by what I’ve seen. I will likely babble and ramble, murmur and ululate.
But here’s the thing: Underworld, by Don Delillo, is an American masterpiece. It is on par with Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and The Adventures of Augie March. Of that last work, Martin Amis said, peremptorily, that it ended the quest for the Great American Novel; the search could be called off. Strong words, from a literary genius no less. Am I proposing a challenger?
Not really. Do you remember a college professor who could duck any question by reframing it? Maddening, but that’s what I’m going to do now. If you look at the competitors for the title of the Great American Novel, they all speak truths of fundamental human importance, but from the time-bound perspective of American history. Each one has its epoch.
Huckleberry Finn explores the human condition of freedom-seeking from a perspective that could have only arisen in late antebellum America. Gatsby ponders why the good life could not necessarily be pried from the great life of the Roaring Twenties. Augie March diagnoses the vertigo America felt as mass immigration created the world’s greatest-ever experiment in personal identity choice. A whole country drunk and dizzy with Nietzsche’s terrible freedom to choose. Come to think of it, Augie was a sort of counterpoint to Huckleberry Finn.
And so there is no Great American Novel, as such, only great novels born of our epochal upheavals that say something new and pungent about what Gore vidal called the “fact of being human.”
Which brings me back to my task at hand, Underworld. It opens with an extended cinematic scene of jarring contrasts, whirling colors, historical events and death hovering above all. It is October 3rd, 1951, and a truant kid from the Bronx is jumping the gate to get into the Polo Grounds, “an old rust hulk of a structure, . . . [a] metropolis of steel and concrete and flaky paint and cropped grass and enormous Chesterfield packs aslant on the scorebords.”
A great novel must project epic proportions from local details; it must see into the depths of humanity’s inner being, but through the particulars of individual characters. Many novelists mince their way toward these challenges. Some, like Henry James, do so with coreographed delicacy. Delillo leads with the right cross. Here is the scene, mental and physical, as the truant takes a running leap and the crowd pours into the stadium to watch the come-from-behind underdogs, the New York Giants, play the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant in 1951:
“Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning, but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous, thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day—men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts, going to a game. The sky is low and gray, the roily gray of sliding surf.”
For 60 dense pages, Delillo spins this omniscient commentary on human longing. It is a profound but antic meditation on the kaleidoscope of American passions and loyalties. And by the end of the chapter, we find Delillo has actually undersold the action: there is a “vast shaking of the soul” going on. Giants third baseman Bobby Thomson hits his famous three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth, winning the pennant for the underdogs and catapulting the Giants-Dodgers cross-town rivalry into worldwide fame. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, in town to watch the game, furtively takes a message that the Russians have just exploded their first nuclear bomb at a test site in Kazakhstan. Jackie Gleason, glistening with sweat and overfilled to tautness with hotdogs and beer, pukes violently on Frank Sinatra’s shoes. Paper scrap in all forms rains down as the crowd reaches for any means available to hail the Giants‘ wild victory. A magazine page alighting on Hoover’s head entrances the FBI chief. It is an offprint of Bruegels‘ painting, “The Triumph of Death,” which catalogues the variegated ways death’s agents carry mortals off the field of life, tearing us away from our defining passions and fleeting pleasures even as we pursue them.
And that truant who jumped the turnstile? He snatched the ball that Thomson hit out of the park. The ball will become the focal point of the novel as it is passed down from one character to another and ends up a holy relic on the shelf of Nick Shay, the story’s main character.
What is Underworld about? It is about America’s post-World War Two journey from the ecstatic to the mundane. It is about the bookends of the opening scene, dense with magic, the so-called Shot Heard Round the World, and the vague anomie of anyman Nick Shay at the close of the novel in the dissipated 1990s, educated, cuckolded, recovered, moved to Arizona, doesn’t even watch baseball anymore. Most of all, it is about “the unseen something that haunts the day,” as Delillo put it in the passage quoted above—the invisible connections that link nobodies one to another and to famous people and to to the spirit of their time. And to the defining horizon of death.
Nick is a rough boy, Catholic, lower middle class from the Bronx. When he is 17 he shoots and kills an acqaintance. It is a bizarre accident, in which the victim, Delillo hints, may have been courting death as an escape from creeping meaninglessness. Shay spends his rehabilitation among Jesuits in Minnesota. He learns Latin and an appreciation for minute, atomistic facts. He becomes a school teacher. Later, offscene, he marries and becomes an executive in waste disposal. His specialty is bomb waste.
But the reader must assemble Nick’s story, along with the rest of Delillo‘s sprawling plot, from scenes shattered jaggedly out of temporal sequence. From the opening scene, which is an indelible part of the 1950s, we jump to 1992, in which Nick re-unites with an old lover from the Bronx. She’s in the New Mexico desert now, turning derelict bombers into art. One of the bombers reappears, hundreds of pages later, in a bomb run over Viet Nam in 1969. Its targets have been chosen, we learn, based on the analysis of aerial photography by Nick’s brother Matt, in a basement somewhere behind the front line. Later, Matt will become a weapons designer; he will mention to Nick that the core of an atom bomb is the size of a baseball. A connection that occurs below all our thresholds.
If the novel’s connections are muted, that is because Delillo uses a vast network of symbols and metaphors to argue that American consciousness was driven underground by the threat of nuclear extinction from the 1950s onward. It was not just the bomb test sites, the nuclear command posts, missile silos, and toxic waste dumps that went subterranean. Our entire lives did. The Cold War was an era in which it became natural to wish to live inside, underground.
A case in point: After the Giants win in the opening scene, Delillo ruminates on the public celebration that followed, men coming down from the rooftops where they had listened to the game on transistor radios, people clapping their cheap lawnchairs and flooding the streets to join the spectacle. The game, we learn, was the first one ever televised nationwide. Although a raucous public pageant, it also heralded the death of a certain kind of communal instinct. As TVs began to turn on, Americans stayed home, where they could tune in and tune out. Nick’s friend and colleague comments, in the 1980s:
“‘When JFK was shot, people went inside. We watched TV in dark rooms and talked on the phone with friends and relatives. We were all separate and alone. But when Thomson hit the homer, people rushed outside. People wanted to be together. Maybe it was the last time people spontaneously went out of their houses for something.”
By the time Shay is living in Arizona 40 years later, no one goes outside. Everyone stays in to avoid the sun’s radiation.
Atoms are not the only particles that bewitch Delillo. The novel’s pivot is a section called “Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry.” In it, Delillo interweaves a retelling of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Lenny Bruce with an anthem to the chemical acceleration of America’s overpowering consumer drive. At the same time Americans feared the rain of nuclear death particles from above, we were lulled and sated by the compensations of TV dinners, Saran Wrap, lawn fertilizer and Valium. A minor character does “things with Jell-O that took people’s breath away.” Her husband, “out in the breezeway, . . . was simonizing their two-tone Ford Fairlane.” All things quotidian were getting better. They were also changing us, as chemicals do, by means of invisible processes, things happening unnoticed, under our skin.
Meanwhile Lenny Bruce guides the perplexed through the missile crisis in real time; he is on tour as events unfold. Although his complex, beat-poet riffs on geopolitics are surprisingly insightful for a junkie, his go-to line, which keeps the crowds in thrall, is a simple, high-pitched, “We’re all going to die.” Death is triumphant, as Breugel and Delillo’s opening scene, and now Bruce’s schtick remind us.
In the end, as we know, the missile crisis was resolved. But America’s consumerism reached escape velocity and became fixed in our stars. By the time Underworld‘s plot reaches the 1990s we cannot even see that the human hopes and desires that are supposed to define us have been colonized by commercial brands. This loss of personal integrity is, like so many things in Delillo’s novel, something that happened in the underworld, below our consicous threshold—a national tragedy we didn’t even see coming because our faces were turned upward with fear.
In what is arguably the best novel of the twentieth century, The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann situates his hero, Hans Castorp in a Swiss tuberculosis sanitarium high in the mountains. Entranced by the quiet allure of the contemplative life, Castorp stays for seven years, reflecting on everything from the fabric of time to the fragile balance of military power among Europe’s rival nations. In the rarified mountain air, Castorp is slowly sapped of raw humanity, even rendered unable to flirt with the pretty girl who likes him. At the novel’s famous and abrupt end, Castorp leaves the sanitarium—escapes, we almost feel—and charges into the trenches of World War One. The closing scene is his war face. Seven years of quiet contemplation, and then a face agape with rage.
And now, to my main claim: Delillo has, whether he intended it or not, written the American Magic Mountain, a novel of epochal lineaments and searing insight. At the close of Mann’s novel, Europe is on the verge of war, and it is about to lose, big time. Its civilization—the most advanced on earth—will very nearly destroy itself. The cataclysmic extent of the moral and physical ruin of Eruope‘s two wars need not be recounted. For a novelist, they were the action that defined the century.
At the close of Underworld, in a reversal of Mann’s political tableau, America has won the Cold War. An open-ended peace is at hand. So what of Nick Shay, our modern-day Hans Castorp, on the cusp of this new era? He has, in American parlance, achieved closure. Over the years retold in Underworld, he reformed from his youthful rough days on the streets of the Bronx, left behind his senseless homicide, married, learned to love his child in ways that seemed impossible at first, overcame the betrayal of his wife’s affair. He has a personal library in the den, which he habitually straightens and reorganizes.
Oh, yes, and he owns the ball that Bobby Thomson hit out of the park in 1951, on the last day when Americans went outside to be together. What does Delillo report of Shay, at this juncture where no war looms to summon his rage, and, anyway, he is almost retired in Arizona and all his loose ends have been tied up?
“I long for the days of disorder. I want them back, the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real. I was dumb-muscled and angry and real. This is what I long for, the breach of peace, the days of disarray when I walked the streets and did things slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself.”
This is a man who knows exactly where death’s sting is, how its triumph discloses itself. He is haunted not just by his own death, but the extinction of a kind of life his countrymen once had and which now seems to have been taken from us by a billion unseen choices and chemical reactions. No one goes quietly into a twilight kind of life—what Walker Percy called death-in-life—least of all a novelist. And so Nick Shay closes his story, like Hans Castorp, baring his war face at the sordidness of peace. Like Castorp’s, his contortion of rage is an omen of violence to come, and of whole nations that will be redefined by it. And as Günter Grass observed of the cycle of violence and grieving that defines nations: “It doesn’t end. Never will it end.”
If journalists write the first draft of history, all Americans should read Bob Woodward’s Bush at War (2002), Plan of Attack (2004), and State of Denial (2006)—the so-called “Bush at War” series, which describes the decisions made by the 43rd president and his closest advisors in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. There is no doubt that 9/11 was a defining moment for U.S. policy, and Woodward lets us look straight at the things it set in motion from Washington, an exercise that still requires considerable nerve even more than ten years on.
Civic obligation is, of course, not the only reason to read Woodward. First, the books are a great bargain. I picked up all three for less than a dollar. You can read them for free from the library, of course, but I feel it is a bracing thing to have my own copies on hand for reference, as Bush’s wars continue to spin off such an abundance of plagues.
Second, Woodward offers that haunting glimpse into the recent past that reminds us that our personal memories are already connected to a lapidary history. This feeling is what inspired Thomas Mann to write in The Magic Mountain, “Is not the pastness of the past the more profound, the more legendary, the more immediately it falls before the present?” Reading recent history gives us the gripping sense of involvement in great events, of recalling, “I was there when, . . . .”
Third, Woodward admirably repels the criticism that he writes to serve the establishment. Whatever deals Woodward has made with the rich and powerful to get the the access he does, he remains journalistically independent, and as such cannot be called an ally of the power elite. He did blow the lid off Watergate, right? Indeed, Woodward‘s writing seems to me a model of tough, penetrating journalism. After so many decades in the profession, his method is now well known: he identifies the principle figure in the story and offers him first crack at a series of interviews. The offer implies a threat to give others others, often the principle’s rivals, first say if the principle refuses. The principle usually seizes his chance. Thus, in the “Bush at War” series, Woodward delivers the profuse recollections of not just George W. Bush, but also those of Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, George Tenet, Tommy Franks, and a dozen other key players.
Fourth, Woodward is a surprisingly breezy stylist, given his chosen topic of Beltway politics. I never felt I was laboring as I read the 1,100-page series over the course of three weeks.
The main reason to read Woodward, though, is to face the unpleasant fact, as Orwell would put it, of one of the worst strategic decisions ever made by a U.S. president—the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, fatally diluting the focus of the war on terrorism, overcommitting U.S. military power abroad, and igniting an already unstable Middle East in a series of ruinous wars that continue today.
Bush at War tells the story of an unlikely—in fact, barely legally elected—president who came to office with an exceptionally modest agenda of tax breaks and education reform. On foreign policy, Bush was a babe in the woods. When he wanted to bone up on world affairs as a candidate, Bush called in, not a preeminent U.S. panel, but an old family friend from the House of Saud, Prince Bandar. Woodward recalls in telling detail how Bandar walked Bush through everything from the Middle East to Vatican politics to North Korea. It is fair to say that when Bush took office, his worldview was at least in part a Saudi one.
Bush’s worldview would determine the shape of the war on terrorism. The 9/11 attacks called him, he believed, to shed the modesty of his original agenda and fulfill the role of a wartime president. The enduring story of his presidency, Woodward brings out, was prefigured in the leadership style Bush evolved immediately after 9/11.
At the outset of his first term, Bush had surrounded himself with secretaries and staffers who believed military force, when used, should be used decisively. This was one of the pillars of the doctrine attributed to Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Bush’s Secretary of State. When forming the first response to 9/11, virtually all of Bush’s advisors favored large-scale military action over precision attacks on select “nodes” of the al-Qaeda network, a half-measure they associated with the Clinton administration’s failed attempts to get Bin Laden with cruise missiles in the 1990s. So, the size and footprint of the U.S. deployment to Afghanistan would be robust, biasing the U.S. mission from the beginning strongly toward occupation and nation-building rather than a narrower counterterrorism mandate. One of the reasons U.S. forces are still in Afghanistan today is because Bush’s desire not to play “small ball” in 2001 committed us to overambitious war aims from the beginning.
If the invasion of Afghanistan was overambitious, this was perhaps because Bush incorporated overreach directly into his counterterrorism doctrine. The United States, he said in his first speech after 9/11, would “make no distinction between those who planned these attacks and those who harbor them.” Crucially, Woodward reveals, Bush had chosen this fateful phrase, with its vast strategic implications, without consulting his vice president, secretary of state, or secretary of defense. It was a unilateral, in fact personal, commitment to a war that threatened to span the globe.
Bush’s tendency to make policy through speeches became a standard feature of his leadership style, a habit that often left his advisors playing catchup and dissimulating the facts to stay on message. After 9/11, the next time Bush’s rhetoric shaped a major policy decision was in Septembeer 2002, when he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a joint press conference on their budding partnership on Iraq war planning. Asked about the timeline for an invasion, Bush demurred but implied the intention to invade was real, based on the unqualified assertion that “Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction.” What the public didn’t know at the time was that the U.S. intelligence community had no idea yet whether Saddam had WMD, and some of Bush‘s key advisors, most notably Secretary of State Powell, were deeply skeptical of the United States’ ability to find out. But there it was on the public record: the president had seized on his casus belli, well ahead of any facts in which to ground it, and he was taking America’s closest ally along into the murk.
Plan of Attack tells the gripping story of Rumsfeld relentlessly driving General Tommy Franks toward an ever faster, leaner war plan for Iraq and of the U.S. intelligence community’s rush to keep up with the political pretexts on which the plan was built. Woodward does an admirably objective job of profiling the Iraq hawks in Bush’s camp, who longed to invade before 9/11, but without indulging in conspiracy theories. In fact, what the American people can discover from Woodward is that Cheney, Wolfowitz, et al., were perfectly open about their dreams of conquest from the first day of Bush’s presidency. There was no “deep state” skullduggery on that question.
Bush was often called a cowboy during his command of the war on terrorism. Woodward notes in several places that the charicature aptly reflected the president’s refusal to walk back any factual claim or commitment to action. (Does anyone remember “Bring it on?”) So it was that Bush’s off-the-cuff remark on Saddam possessing WMD in September 2002 led, step by dreadful step, to Colin Powell’s loyal but meretricious speech to the UN in February 2003, in which the Secretary of State sacrificed his credibility for Bush’s determination to go to war.
Many of us who recall Bush’s unsteady grappling with the English language, even to form simple phrases, might wilt to think that he, of all presidents, made policy through his choice of words. But he was not on his own in this enterprise. One of Woodward’s greatest services in the “Bush at War” series is to illuminate the role played by Bush’s senior speech writer, Michael Gerson, throughout both of Bush’s terms.
A graduate of Bill Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College, Gerson was part of a circle of evangelical Christian advisors and senior officials who habitually joined Bush for prayer meetings and generally put their religious outlook at the service of his policy decisions. (Incidentally, one would have paid many times the cover price of Woodward’s books to hear how Bush’s generals or hardboiled, secular cabinet members coped with all the West Wing’s earnest pieties, but it is not forthcoming. Tommy Franks, a good soldier, could not give an order without embroidering it with several conjugations of “fuck.”)
Bush’s habit of speechifying first and ajusting policy afterward put Gerson the in the driver’s seat much of time. So, although Gerson was “just” a speechwriter, his role of being the first person to put words in the president’s mouth gave him significant power, especially when we recall Bush’s cowboy tendency to stick to his word.
It is hard to say whether Gerson had a finest moment, but certainly some of his phrases proved more fateful than others in shaping Bush’s wars. The Bush doctrine of attacking states that harbor terrorists sprang from Gerson‘s phrasing. So did the Axis of Evil.
In one case, it must be said, Gerson put a momentous lie in the president’s mouth. Speaking at West Point in June 2002, Bush was at pains to argue for expanding the war on terrorism to include an invasion of Iraq. The public would have been familiar with Bush’s main rationale for such an invasion, that Iraq harbored terrorists or „supported“ them by keeping poorly guarded WMD. But perhaps sensing that a new war front called for fresh motivation, Bush (Gerson) raised his rhetoric a notch. “Our nation’s cause has always been larger than our nation’s defense,” he intoned. “We have a great opportunity to extend a just peace by replacing poverty, repression and resentment around the world with hope of a better day.” So, the conquest of Iraq was to be a liberation campaign, not just the elimination of a strategic threat.
The first sentence of Bush’s assertion is true only in a trivial sense: our government is committed, by the consitution, to provide for more than the common defense. It also makes laws, builds roads, etc. But this is not what Bush/Gerson meant when they said our “cause” was larger than self-defense. What they meant was that our actions are sanctified by a mission to the rest of the world, specifically, to spread liberal democratic values. This is one of those propositions whose meaning is apparently so noble and whose rhetoric is so purple that it comes across poorly to point out that it is flatly false. Although we like to think we are a light to the world, that is something we do in our spare time. Our republic’s reason for existing is to achieve a more perfect union within our borders, not to help others breathe freely abroad. Scour the consitution, and you will find no such missionary vision in our blueprint. Survey the founders‘ writings—even those of Thomas Paine, who famoulsy hopped back and forth between France’s revolution and our own—and you will find positive horror at the prospect of foreign entanglements, even in the service of noble ideals.
Apropos of horrors, Bush, Gerson, and Condoleeza Rice, Bush’s first-term National Security Advisor and second-term Secretary of State, apparently shared an evangelical faith in the purifying power of upheaval and collapse—the idea that one can emerge from catastrophic trauma remade and transformed. A born-agian Christian and veteran of addiction recovery, Bush believed the abjection of rock bottom was a necessary prelude to purifying one’s life. Could the personal prove political? Bush thought so. Tragically, though, he was wrong. While the “rock bottom” experience can be a useful construction of events when applied to one’s own misspent youth, as a basis of foreign policy, it seems to guarantee war and calamity.
It is worth recalling just how far Bush was able to take this delusion. In a meeting with a group of Iraqi dissidents in January 2003, Bush posed some impressionistic questions to the Iraqis about post-invasion nation-building but quickly reverted to his role as commander-in-chief. His only job, he told the Iraqis, was to win the war against Saddam. Military victory, he said, was the main thing; it would enable a cascade of political accomplishments, even some that had eluded decades of diplomacy and ordinary politics. With no logical entree whatsoever, Bush told the Iraqis, “I truly believe out of [the coming invasion] will come peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Maybe one year from now we will be toasting victory and talking about the transition to freedom.” Bush would shatter the Middle East and bring forth a region re-born. It is hard not to see his delusion as messianic in scale.
Once Saddam was discovered to have only a handful of WMD, though, Bush’s messianic ideas came in handy for propping up a war whose explicit goal had evaporated. Condoleeza Rice joined Bush‘s chorus on promoting democracy shortly after the Iraq Survey Group reported, in October 2003, it had failed to find stocks of weapons. With anti-U.S. insurgents starting to stream out of Syria into western Iraq around this time, the Bush administration found it useful to play up speculation in the region about Bashar al-Asad’s regime being the next one targeted fro removal.
As the administration shifted war aims from preemptive defense to regional “democratization,” Rice would provide one of the more infelicitous phrases of post-Iraq U.S. foreign policy, when she described the pointless war in 2006 between Israel and Lebanese Hizballah as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.” The other foreign ministers of the world were calling for a stop to the violence, but the Bush administration was advocating for the transformative power of war.
So Washington’s abject failure to foster democracy, or even basic order, in Iraq gave way to an even more delusional goal, which became known as the “Freedom Agenda.” Backed by the implicit threat of a large military presence in the region, the United States now appeared to advocate widespread regime change and direct military confrontation with regional militias.
Woodward’s State of Denial records, among other things, how the Bush administration imrovised its way into a catastropic failure in Iraq, with baleful consequences for the surrounding region. Although the situation in and around Iraq overtaxes the idea of a crying shame—there are too many to go into—the most important sin that Woodward sets down for posterity to contemplate is the horrible insouciance of Bush’s post-invasion decisions compared with the precision and meticulousness of the pre-war planning. After giving its all to break Iraq, the administration openly and consciously took its hands off the steering wheel. (Try to recall, without wrath, Bush’s “comedic” skit about not finding the WMD.) We should recall that the good guy riding off, unencumbered, into the sunset after winning a gunfight is also a part of the cowboy mystique.
The chaotic denouement of Bush‘s Freedom Agenda is, I believe, one of the world’s underreported news stories. It was, after all Bush’s naive, reckless messianism that sparked the intractable violence and instability that still convulses the Middle East today.
The Middle East was no pleasure park before Bush arrived on the scene, but it was a theater of manageable seurity problems, whose human suffering could not be traced to Washington. Today it is a nightmare, and virtually all its fresh evils, from increased terrorism, to the exodus, under etreme duress, of tens of millions of refugees, to the destruction of basic state capacities such as healthcare and education, can be traced to Bush’s buccaneering. If we are to retain any sense of moral responsibility for our country’s actions, we must face the unpleasant fact of owning Bush’s wars. But more importantly, we must bear in mind something Woodward does not clearly draw out. Bush’s wars are most of all their wars—they belong foremost to the people of the Middle east, the bombed, the dead on the beach, the sick, the homeless, the desolate, the outraged, the inheritors of freedom.
In his short story “The Immortal,” Jorge Luis Borges offers one of the most arresting comments ever made on the human longing for eternal life. It’s a wish whose fulfillment would drive us mad and deplete life of meaning.
The story’s main character is a nameless Roman soldier serving under the emperor Diocletian. He has just returned to Thebes from the Egyptian Uprising in 298. Classically educated, he is an officer, second in commmand of a legion of 5,000 soldiers. Although his unit has acquitted itself well in several campaigns, the narrator has not tasted combat himself.
Aggrieved by missing the chance of proving himself in war—the peak of masculinity—the narrator sets himself an even higher quest, to find the mythical City of the Immortals. All the exotic cultures he has encountered in warfare over the years believe such a city exists, just over the horizon of what is humanly known. Our soldier sets out to find it, traversing “vagrant and terrible deserts,” getting lost “among whirlwinds of sand and the vast night.”
After bloody travails, the soldier finds the city. It is a wonder–a brilliantly lit profusion of “columns, triangular pediments and vaults, confused glories carved in granite and marble.” But, strangely, the place is empty of all life.
Free to explore the city’s vaults and staircases, “cautiously at first, with indifference as time went on, desperately toward the end,” the soldiers forms a series of disquieting conclusions about his destination:
“This palace is the work of the gods, was my first thought. I explored the uninhabited spaces, and I corrected myself: The gods that built this place have died. Then I reflected upon its peculiarites, and I told myself: The gods that built this place were mad.”
The soldier is even more right than he knows. On the wild approaches to the City he had encountered a country of troglodytes, low, barbaric men without language or culture. He assumed they were cursed occupants of a mythical landscape, men barred from heaven for their sins or ignorance.
But that’s not who the troglodytes are. Long ago, they spoke the most refined language; they built the immortal city and were its distinguished occupants. But living forever, or at least long enough to glimpse eternity, they discovered that, “over an infinitely long span of time, all things happen to all men.” Their shocking discovery? Life endlessly drawn out loses its moral aspect. Borges captures this paradox in haunting terms:
“Everything in the world of mortals has the value of the irrecoverable and the contingent. Among the Immortals, on the other hand, every act (every thought) is the echo of others that preceded it in the past, with no visible beginning, and the faithful presage of others that will repeat it in the future, ad vertiginem.”
Unlike in traditional versions of heaven, though, Borges’ immortals are free to leave, which is precisely what they do, renouncing the glories of immortality. In fact they recoil even further from glory, withdrawing to caves, divesting themselves of language and culture.
Although “The Immortal” is a work of art, not an attack on religion, Borges does draw his main argument to a rather sharp point against faith, which is this: the moral calculus by which the “traditional” religions bar and open the gates of Heaven is insanely out of proportion to eternity. We live our laughably brief lives, during which everything we do is of immense and decisive moral consequence. Our slightest mortal acts will, we believe, determine our destiny for all time. Think of Augustine worrying himself half to death over stealing pears.
Then we get to “all time,” a phrase we fail to treat with the slightest mathematical seriousness. Borges helps correct this error by pointing out that almost no one really believes in immortality when push comes to shove:
“I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to ones own immortality is extraordinarily rare. Jews, Christians and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those first hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.”
This observation is true, as we say these days, on so many levels. First, the abstract. Contemplate life in the traditional Heaven. It would be an existence with absolutely no moral conseqences; our actions would have no rightness or wrongness to them. This loss of moral content would be disorienting, to say the least, since we lead lives that are entirely filled out by moral consequences. We are, so to speak, addicted to morality.
Think of it: everything you do in the here and now matters; some of it surpassingly—how you treat others (especially the vulnerable or those less lucky than you), what you do with your money, what you choose as a profession, how and whether you participate in politics, and so forth. If you’re lucky, you will die still engaged in some of those things, and with an assurance that they matter to someone who survives you. As Borges points out, they mean everything. But doesn’t this reveal the ridiculousness of the traditional formulation of Heaven? Wouldn’t such an arrangement lack all proportion? An unquantifiably small sample of our conduct will determine our metaphysical status for all eternity, an unquantifiably large span of time? It’s inconceivable. And, in fact, people do not conceive of life in those (deeply incoherent) terms.
To prove this, take a practical approach to the question. Find someone who is dying (not hard: we are all moribund) and congratulate them sincerely on their imminent passage to Heaven. And you must mean it.
Well, there seem to be ever fewer things that credit the human race with decency, but one of them is that virtually no one is obscene enough to take this exercise seriously. Our animal genes are alive to the real and permanent loss that death portends, and we experience this loss in solidarity with those who die before us. No one is actually boorish enough to tell the dying they are in for a good thing. Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that the sincerely religious would have to take this level of indeceny a step higher (if that is the right word) and tell the dying that what awaits them in heaven is unimaginably good, beyond our capacity to understand it or praise its author. This is a tawdry obscenity. Borges rejects it, and I reject it with him.
The Immortals flee Heaven in Borges’ story because eternity mocks their lives, it abolishes what they most treasure, the irrevocability of experience. In the Immortal City, everything repeats on a loop: “Nothing [there] can occur but once, nothing is preciously in peril of being lost.” I can think of no better phrase for what it means to be human: we face each day with things that are ultimately precious to us, in peril of being lost. The gods that would build another kind of life for us would truly be mad.