RSA Journal 13



RSA Journal 13
Special Issue: The Theme of Destruction in American Culture
Editor’s Note
Federico Siniscalco, From Glory to Destruction: John Huston’s
Non-fictional Depictions of War
Special Issue
The Theme of Destruction in American Culture
Roberto Serrai, Landscapes of Destruction: Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s
Breakfast of Champions with an Eye to Walt Whitman
Umberto Rossi, The Great National Disaster: The Destruction of
Imperial America in Philip K. Dick’s The Simulacra
Alessandro Clericuzio, The Destruction of Happiness in American
Cinema in the 1990s: Altman, Anderson, Solondz
Mario Del Pero, “Present at the Destruction”? George Bush,
the Neocons and the Traditions of U.S. Foreign Policy
From No Pleasant Memories by
Romaine Brooks
Introduced by Bianca Maria Tedeschini Lalli
Paola Zaccaria, Narration, Figuration and Disfiguration
in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Jazz
Francesca Bisutti De Riz, “Walking Walls”: Figures of the Limit,
Figures of the Border
Ugo Rubeo, An Interview with Agostino Lombardo
Notes on Contributors
Journal of AISNA / Italian Association for North American Studies
Journal of AISNA / Italian Association for North American Studies
Rivista annuale della Associazione Italiana di Studi Nord Americani
Aut. del Tribunale di Venezia n. 686 del 24/7/1981
Direttore responsabile Sergio Perosa
Rosella Mamoli Zorzi editor
Marina Coslovi assistant editor
Gregory Dowling editorial consultant
Editorial Board
Gianfranca Balestra
Antonio Donno
Bianca Maria Pisapia
Tiziano Bonazzi
Mario Maffi
Ugo Rubeo
Editorial Office
Dipartimento di Studi Anglo-Americani
e Ibero-Americani
Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia 30124
Palazzo Garzoni Moro, San Marco 3417, 30124 Venezia
Tel. 041-2349482 - e-mail: [email protected]
RSA Journal is sent free to AISNA members.
AISNA members are encouraged to submit essays, sending their article
to all members of the Editorial Board.
Typescripts should conform to the MLA Style Manual.
Call for Papers
RSA 16
Special Issue
“American Spaces – Horizontal and Vertical”
I am vertical
But I would rather be horizontal
Sylvia Plath (1961)
From the very beginning, concepts of space are deeply embedded in American culture – and this is especially true of
such concepts as “verticality” and “horizontality,” which often take on complex and contradictory ideological meanings
and implications. This issue of RSA plans to explore such
meanings and implications, with a wide range of points of
view (literary, historical, sociological, artistic). The deadline
for submitting proposals is now postponed to December 19th,
2004. Write to:
Special Issue: The Theme of Destruction in American Culture
Editor’s Note
Federico Siniscalco, From Glory to Destruction: John Huston’s
Non-fictional Depictions of War
Roberto Serrai, Landscapes of Destruction: Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s
Breakfast of Champions with an Eye to Walt Whitman
Umberto Rossi, The Great National Disaster: The Destruction of
Imperial America in Philip K. Dick’s The Simulacra
Alessandro Clericuzio, The Destruction of Happiness in American
Cinema in the 1990s: Altman, Anderson, Solondz
Mario Del Pero, “Present at the Destruction”? George Bush,
the Neocons and the Traditions of U.S. Foreign Policy
From No Pleasant Memories by
Romaine Brooks
Introduced by Bianca Maria Tedeschini Lalli
Paola Zaccaria, Narration, Figuration and Disfiguration
in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Jazz
Francesca Bisutti De Riz, “Walking Walls”: Figures of the Limit,
Figures of the Border
Ugo Rubeo, An Interview with Agostino Lombardo
Notes on Contributors
RSA Journal 13
Editor’s Note
This number inaugurates a new development in the life of RSAJournal,
the Journal of AISNA, the Italian Association for North American Studies. The
journal has a new editorial board, and new decisions have been taken as regards
its contents: each issue will have a thematic part, in addition to essays on different
subjects, by our members. The theme of this issue, “The theme of destruction in
American culture” was indeed chosen after 9 /11, but, perhaps not amazingly, at a
three year distance period from that tragic event, it has kept all of its relevance. In
the year 2004, when the war in Iraq has left a wake of continuous and continuing
destruction and terrorism has not abated, the theme of destruction appears tragically relevant as does any meditation on the American writers’ and artists’ coming
to terms with destruction in their works.
In the five essays focussing on this theme, the authors deal with movies and
novels. Movies include “combat films,” such as those by John Huston pertaining to
World War II discussed by Federico Siniscalco, with special emphasis on one, San
Pietro, that stands out as a non-propaganda war documentary, denouncing the
horrors of war. Movies discussed include those by great film directors of the 1990s,
Altman, Anderson and Solondz: Alessandro Clericuzio shows how these movies
have transformed the “catastrophic trend of commercial blockbusters” into an
even more anguishing threat to everyday life. Novels include the “classics” by Kurt
Vonnegut, in particular a novel of the 1970s, Breakfast of Champions, analyzed
by Roberto Serrai in its representation of destruction, in relation to the celebrative
rhetoric of the Whitman tradition. A SF novel, The Simulacra, dating back to the
1960s, but prefiguring many of the mass-mediatic culture elements of our time, is
discussed by Umberto Rossi as an example of a disaster novel, where catastrophe is
not caused by nature but by “a series of deliberate political decisions.” These four
essays seem to lead up to the present time, where the position of the Bush administration towards the tradition of American foreign policy is analyzed by Mario
Del Pero, with a careful observation of historical and political interpretations pro
and contra this administration.
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Two essays on different subjects complete this issue: Paola Zaccaria’s discussion
of two central novels by Toni Morrison, and Francesca Bisutti De Riz’s presentation
of a “walking wall” by land artist Andy Goldsworthy, and its American implications as regards the fundamental concept of the frontier and America’s “nomadic
and colonizing soul.”
The editorial board is grateful to Bianca Maria Tedeschini Lalli, who generously allowed us to use an excerpt, from Romaine Brooks’s unpublished autobiography, No Pleasant Memories, a typescript on which Tedeschini Lalli is working,
within the major project “Reti di donne: soggetti, luoghi, nodi di incontro EuropaAmerica 1890-1950,” directed by Marina Camboni.
Finally, the editorial board would like to thank Agostino Lombardo for the
interview with Ugo Rubeo. With its publication, the editors and AISNA would
like to pay homage to Professor Lombardo, as to the principal founder of American
Studies in Italy. His final remarks tie in, not haphazardly, with the general theme
of this special issue, thus underlining its resonance and importance in American
Rosella Mamoli Zorzi
RSA Journal 13
federico siniscalco
From Glory to Destruction: John Huston’s Non-fictional
Depictions of War
During the second World War John Huston became involved, together
with other famous Hollywood filmmakers, in the U.S. Government propaganda film production. This paper argues that whereas Report from the Aleutians,
Huston’s first war documentary, may be incorporated within the propaganda
genre, and depicts war as an instance where men may aspire to glory, his
second non-fiction film, San Pietro, breaks free of this label and takes a clear,
autonomous stand on the ultimate tragedy of war, and on the destruction
which it brings about.
John Huston established his reputation as an important Hollywood
personality in 1941 following his debut as a film director with the now classic Maltese Falcon. The following year, as the United States became more
engaged in the world conflict, he joined the Signal Corps, a body of the U.S.
Army specialized in film and photographic documentation of war. In his autobiography, written several years later, Huston admitted that he did not pay
much attention to the enlisting papers given to him by his friend Sy Bartlett.
Therefore, when the call came from the Army to report to duty he was rather
surprised (Huston 111-2). At the time Huston was a 37-year old man with
a promising career in front of him. Busily working on his next film, Across
the Pacific, a sequel of sorts to the successful Maltese Falcon, the prospect of
direct involvement in the war must have seemed quite foreign to him. Yet, the
Japanese affront at Pearl Harbor, the spread of Fascism and Nazism in Europe,
and the growing threat of the Axis power spurred him to join the list of other
famous Hollywood directors, as John Ford, William Wyler, and Frank Capra,
who were actively documenting the conflict.
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huston’s first war documentary
Huston’s initial duties within the Signal Corps was of a clerical nature in
Washington. This disappointed his expectations of seeing action and made
him fear that he would have to follow the war from behind a desk. This was
a prospect that contrasted with his adventurous spirit and, as he writes in his
autobiography, made him quite depressed (112). However, after a few weeks,
his first real assignment arrived: he was to report to the Aleutian Islands where
he would cover the war activity against the Japanese in the Pacific.
Huston collected large amounts of footage during the four months spent
on the island of Adak, where a U.S. military base had been set up. Together
with his crew of five U.S. Army Signal corps personnel, he covered every
kind of situation from moments of leisure at the encampment to bombing
missions and air battles, without sparing himself, and often risking his own
life and that of his crew.1 Report from the Aleutians was the film that resulted
from his first effort as a combat filmmaker. It is a work that fits well within
the main pattern of war documentaries. It reflects the “Bugle Call” attitude
the Army expected from these kinds of films without giving in to the most
explicit forms of propaganda. The film did not seek the support of the audience through enemy bashing, but rather from muscle flexing. The story line
stresses the readiness and efficiency of the air squadrons that were guarding
America’s back door and protecting it from the Japanese. In this respect, even
the inside look at life on the base, which the film offers, seems finalized to
convey a sense of self-confidence and strength possessed by the U.S. Air Force
pilots and their support crews. When we see the pilots merrily making music
and singing together or, in contrast, participating in the funeral of one of
their companions with total self-control and pride, we understand that this is
a message both for the folks back home, who should feel secure, and for the
enemy, who should be aware of the fearlessness and self-control of American
fighters. Huston admitted, many years later, in a video interview on his war
documentaries, that in this film “there was a little bit of a ‘Hurrah’ in it” and
that he was “cheering our boys on, as it were.”2
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This is not to say that Report from the Aleutians is not an important film,
or that its images are not engaging. The use of Technicolor, for example, enhances the magnificent quality of the aerial shots. Today, after decades of air
travel, we tend to underestimate the spectacular nature of aviation; in the 1940s
the relative novelty of flight, with its continuous technical innovations, still
exercised a major attraction for the viewing public. Report from the Aleutians
dwells extensively on takeoffs and landings of the small fighter planes (used in
air combat against the Japanese “Zero” planes) and of the “flying fortresses”
(big four-engine, propeller planes that were an innovation at the time) and
offers many examples of bombing missions and combat. Possibly for these
reasons the film was quite successful both with the military and with the general public. Civilians got a real “report from the front,” showing them what
war in the Pacific was like, whereas it provided the military with descriptions
accurate enough to be able to use the film for training recruits. Following the
success of this film Huston was promoted in rank to Captain.
reenacting war
Upon his return to the continental U.S., traveling between Los Angeles,
New York, and Washington while editing his film, Huston found civilian
life rather unbearable and longed for more action. His next assignment,
however, exposed him to another, less honorable side of war documentaries:
the production of reenactments. Certainly, as a Hollywood director, Huston
was aware of the powerful ability of movies to represent the real world, but in
fictional films no one was asked to believe that real life was being presented.
The documentary genre, however, was a different entity which, by definition,
solicits the viewer’s trust in its authenticity.
In the beginning of November 1942, shortly before Huston’s return from
the Aleutian Islands, the Allies landed in North Africa. In his autobiography
Huston comments on how it was of crucial importance for the Pictorial
Service of the Signal Corps to produce a film that would illustrate this event.
Unfortunately, the footage that covered the North African landing was lost
in a shipwreck. Thus, Frank Capra and John Huston were assigned the task
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of reenacting as much of the action as feasible, in the shortest possible time.
Huston gives us a detailed account of how they reenacted combat in the
Mojave Desert and on the Florida coastline that were used as the settings for
the bombing of North African fortifications (129-30). However, this was not
what he had in mind upon joining the Signal Corps and he managed to play
a less significant role in the project, which eventually became a joint production between the U.S. and Great Britain. With the addition of authentic
British footage the film was released as Tunisian Victory (1944), and acquired
considerable fame.3
Huston did not have to wait long for another opportunity to return to
a real war front. In the fall of 1943, after a few weeks in London (in connection with the British-American film co-production) he was asked to report
to Southern Italy. According to Signal Corps superiors he was to cover what
seemed the imminent Allied liberation of Rome. He was happy to comply
and convinced his new friend, Eric Ambler (the British detective novel writer,
also involved in documenting the war scene in Europe), to join him on the
mission. Upon their arrival in Italy, it became clear that the liberation of
Rome was not as near as they had been led to believe. The new objective was
to create a film that would explain to the American civilian population why
the war on the Italian front was lingering on. Huston set out to do the job,
though his account of the situation was probably much more realistic than
what the War Department had expected. This time Huston’s film turned out
to be more than a report from the front; it became a clear statement about
the ultimate tragedy of war and the finality of death and destruction which
war carries with it.
propaganda films and the world war
San Pietro’s uniqueness among war documentaries derives from its resistance to comply with the propaganda objectives of the U.S. Government.
Even though Huston did not refrain from propaganda in his documentary on
the Aleutian Islands, it should be remembered that this film was made shortly
after the attack on Pearl Harbor. During that time there was a general effort
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within the country to encourage both the civilian population and military
recruits as to the hopeful prospects of being victorious in the conflict. Shortly
thereafter, however, Huston’s attitude towards propaganda films appeared
deeply altered.
The U.S. government’s use of documentary film for propaganda precedes
the war by several years. It goes back to the New Deal, and more specifically to
the attempt by the first Roosevelt administration to win support for its agricultural and public works policies. The person in charge of this effort was Pare
Lorentz, a firm believer in the New Deal. The two documentaries for which
he is best known, The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938),
achieved wide visibility (the latter film won the 1938 Venice film festival bestdocumentary award.) Earlier production efforts by the government had been
limited to internal usage and documentation (such as the U.S. Army Signal
Corps footage shot during the first world conflict.) With Lorentz, however,
the full potential of the medium as a way to influence public opinion became
apparent. Instrumental to this end was the example given by John Grierson,
the founder of the British Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, who had understood the remarkable possibilities linked to documentary film. In 1938,
following the success of two of his own films, Lorentz convinced Roosevelt
to promote legislation for the creation of the U.S. Film Service. However, the
official sanctioning of the government’s film producing role was destined to
backfire. All those opposing the New Deal and its administration saw it as
a dangerous manipulation of public funds and opinion, and the Hollywood
film industry saw it as a form of unfair competition in an area traditionally
left to the private sector.4
Notwithstanding the final demise of the U.S. Film Service, which was
dissolved in 1940, its experience proved valuable in view of the American
involvement in the war. Documentaries produced in Nazi Germany, such as
Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (1935), on the 1934 National Socialist
party rally in Nuremberg, sufficiently demonstrated to the world the power of
propaganda films. In Great Britain (where the Empire Marketing Board Film
Unit gave way to the General Post Office Film Unit, and then to the Crown
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Film Unit) a group of Grierson’s disciples, among whom Humphrey Jennings,
started producing documentaries such as London Can Take It (1940) which
aimed to boost the morale of the population and to instill hope for a final victory (Barnouw 139, 144). The United States Government followed suit, and
established appropriate agencies and facilities to coordinate the production
of documentary films designed to ease the way for a greater American role in
the world conflict. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941
precipitated this process.
In 1942 President Roosevelt decided to reunite all of the agencies and
committees dealing with film and war propaganda under the O.W.I. (Office of
War Information), to be directed by Lowell Mellett. Its function was to liaise
with Hollywood and overview film production relating in any way to war issues.
This, of course, was also meant for fiction films whose stories dealt always more
frequently with the conflict and the crises in the international political scene.5
Initially the non-fiction films dealt with the training and the preparation of
the recruits for the necessities of war. At first, these films were produced by
Hollywood, which offered its collaboration. Later on, as the need increased,
the War Department and the Army set up its own production facilities. The
most important among these was the Signal Corps Photographic Center, in
Astoria, New York, created in March 1942 in the old Paramount studios.
As the war developed, simple training films such as Safeguarding Military
Information, Sex Hygiene, and Personal Hygiene, gave way to more complex and
ambitious documentaries capable of instilling pride and hope in the soldiers
who where heading to the front (MacCann, World 213-15). To achieve this
objective the Signal Corps engaged Frank Capra, then at the height of his
career and one of the most popular Hollywood directors. General George C.
Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, met with Capra in the newly built
Pentagon, and explained the type of films that were needed (Barnouw 155-7).
Shortly thereafter Capra started producing the celebrated Why We Fight series,
whose first title, Prelude to War obtained the Oscar for Best Documentary at
the 1942 Academy Awards.6 These were true “bugle call” and propaganda
films, which explained, with the use of extensive off-screen narration, special
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animation (often provided by Disney Studios) and various types of footage (at
times produced by the enemy itself ) the reasons for fighting against the Axis
forces. They were required viewing for any training soldier, and were largely
circulated among the civilian population.
Besides Capra and Huston, other well-known Hollywood film directors
were also involved in the U.S. Government effort to document the war. John
Ford and William Wyler were among them and both contributed significant
works to the war documentary genre. Ford’s The Battle of Midway (1942) tells
of the first important victory against the Japanese naval forces in the Pacific.
The film combines impressive air and naval combat footage with short, staged
scenes from the U.S., depicting a pair of idealized parents who are both proud
of their children’s mission and concerned for their safety. Wyler’s role as a war
documentarian was particularly dear to Huston who comments on his bravery
as a combat filmmaker.7 In Memphis Bell (1944), his most famous war documentary, Wyler describes with accuracy and pride the U.S. bombing missions
over Germany. In his second film, Thunderbolt (1945), which he co-directed
with John Sturges, the attention shifts to the air war in Italy.
These films were morale boosters: they told of a particularly well-done
job by the U.S. military; of a victory which would be inevitable because of
the strength and efficiency of the Allied forces; and of the nobility of a war
in defense of democracy and against tyranny.8 Huston was unwilling to give
such a simple and straightforward message in San Pietro. His major concern
here seems to be that of being truthful; and the truth about war is one of
death and destruction. It is fair to say that among the Hollywood filmmakers
who turned to non-fiction films during the war years, Huston distinguished
himself as the one who carried to the very end the obligation of telling those
who stayed home the way things really were.9
reporting the real thing
San Pietro is also referred to as The Battle of San Pietro, but the shorter
title was used for the movie’s first release and it was the way Huston himself
generally referred to the film.10 When present the term “battle” seems to place
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the film more firmly within the war genre. On the other hand, the shorter and
– from my point of view more appropriate title underlines the crucial distance
between this work and other war documentaries. Besides being the name of a
town, situated a few miles south of the more renowned Cassino, in southern
Italy, San Pietro is also the Italian name for Christ’s disciple and founder of
the Roman Catholic Church (and by extension, the name of the Cathedral
in Rome that symbolizes the center of that religion.) Thus, ironically, one of
the most distressful non-fiction films about warfare is named after a saint.
Interestingly, Huston’s later war documentary on the recovery of shell-shocked
soldiers in a New Jersey mental clinic uses as its title one of the opening lines
from the Bible “Let There Be Light.”
From what we know, Huston was not a particularly religious person,11
thus it would be excessive to give special meaning to this fact; nonetheless,
one could argue that the two titles were yet another way for Huston to stress,
through an ironic contrast, the violence and destruction of war. This hypothesis
is further substantiated by the fact that one of the first images of the Italian film
shows a damaged statue of St. Peter precariously leaning to one side among a
mass of rubble that was once the town’s church. Surrounding the church is the
dilapidated village and beyond the wounded countryside shown to us through
panoramic shots that reveal shattered olive trees and vines and the numerous
craters left by the bombs and the artillery.
Not surprisingly the Army’s initial reaction to San Pietro was mostly
negative. In fact, during the first showing at the Pentagon the attending officers, including a three-star general, polemically abandoned the projection
room when the film was barely one-third over. Shortly afterward Huston was
accused, among other things, of having made a movie that was against war
(to which he replied that he surely ought to be shot if he ever was to make a
movie in favor of war.) Notwithstanding the official banning, the film soon
acquired, however, a reputation among many officers for being extremely
accurate on combat scenarios. The Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army himself,
George C. Marshall, became curious and demanded to see San Pietro. His
reaction was extremely positive and determined the reversal of the previous
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negative judgment. According to General Marshall the film, with some further
editing and the addition of an explicatory prologue, could offer a very effective
introduction to the hardships of war to the new recruits (Huston 149-150).
From being the target of widespread criticism Huston was now promoted to
major and complimented for his work (though his film would still be kept
from public view until the end of the war.)
The corrective function of the two minute prologue, meant to re-conduct
the film within the main tradition of war documentaries, appears, however,
quite ineffective. Here Fifth Army General Mark Clark explains the importance
of the Italian front (diversion of German forces from the Russian front and
French costal areas), the reasons for the slow advancing of the Allies through
Italy (relocation of forces to England, in preparation for the Normandy
landing), and the strategic relevance of the battle that the film portrays. As
a closing note Clark affirms in a matter of fact way that the losses were not
disproportionate to the end:
… San Pietro, in the 5th Army sector, was the key to the Liri Valley. We knew it,
and the enemy knew it. We had to take it, even though the immediate cost would be
high. We took it and the cost, in relation to the later advance, was not excessive.
The contrast between this dubious assertion, delivered with an unclenching and impassive expression, and the images of death and destruction that
follow, is one of the most striking and unforgettable aspects of this film. It is
difficult to ascertain with certainty how much of this is planned or whether it
is just the result of fortuitous circumstances. Ironically, the final result of this
addition was to strengthen the anti-war message of this film and to remove it
even further from the category of propaganda material.
In analyzing war documentaries and combat films it is important to remember the degree of involvement in actual warfare experienced by the people
who made them. A battleground had very little in common with a Hollywood
set. MacCann rightly points out how very little planning could be done on the
part of the filmmakers and how they “could not direct the shows they photographed.” (World 213-14). The cameramen not only operated their equipment,
but were active soldiers and several of them lost their lives on the front (ibid.).
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The sense of fear and fatigue, the determination to be victorious in battle, and
the solidarity and grief for fellow-soldiers and officers who lost their lives or
became wounded and mangled was deeply felt by Huston and his crew, and
validates even further the anti-war stance acknowledged in San Pietro.12
Besides being the director of a film on the Italian front, Huston was also
the officer of the U.S. Army actively engaged in a war. Upon his arrival at
Allied Headquarters in Caserta, in the late fall of 1943, he worked on setting
up his film unit which comprised himself, his British friend, Captain Eric
Ambler, and five combat-trained cameramen from the Astoria Signal Corps
studios in New York (among these was Jules Buck, who later would distinguish
himself in Hollywood and in England as a successful producer.) The unit
was to operate with the 143rd Infantry regiment of the 36th Texas Infantry
Division, itself part of General Clark’s 5th Army. Huston proudly notes in
his autobiography how the 143rd distinguished itself at the Salerno landing
(suffering numerous casualties), how it was the first regiment to enter Naples
and to pass the Volturno river and how it was among the first to fight in the
Liri valley (137-8). The film commentary, written and spoken by Huston
himself, sadly notes how during the battle of San Pietro the 143rd regiment
alone suffered over 1100 casualties.
The reasons for this carnage are explained in detail in San Pietro (in the
commentary rather than in Clark’s prologue): the unexpected tenacity of the
German resistance, the torrential rains and the resulting mud which made
it impossible for vehicles to function properly; the extremely rugged terrain,
made of rivers, ravines, hills, and mountains (which hindered the advance of
the Allied armies and offered good protection to the Germans); and the fatigue
of the troops, used to their maximum capabilities (due to the under-sizing
which resulted from the relocation of forces to the Northern European front.)
In studying the film’s images and the spoken commentary one cannot help
noticing a rather critical attitude towards the military leadership responsible
for certain strategic decisions.
In Huston’s autobiography, written many years after the end of the war, this
criticism becomes, for obvious reasons, much more explicit. Here the filmmaker
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clearly states that expert field officers declared that the enemy positions would
not be conquered with a frontal attack, and yet, these were the orders given to
the officers and the men of the 143rd regiment. The implicit criticism of the
military leadership that may be discerned in the film, however, does not overshadow the praise spoken in favor of the Allied troops. Through commentary
and detailed footage San Pietro does not refrain from underlining noteworthy
acts of heroism: soldiers who continue fighting even after their officers have
succumbed to the enemy, or who attempt single-handedly to neutralize German strongholds by throwing hand grenades through fire openings, with the
likelihood or certainty of losing their lives to snipers.
The actual battle is explained in detail by the documentary. More than
once the frame is filled with a map of the area surrounding the village of San
Pietro. With the aid of a pointer the off-screen narrator (Huston himself )
points to the German and Allied positions, and argues the difficulty of making a breakthrough because of the strategically ideal location of the enemy
strongholds (which included the village.) The relentless Allied attacks, in the
valley and on mountains slopes, are illustrated in detail together with the
unceasing German counter-attacks. The ten-day-long battle, which started on
December 8, 1943 with the ill-fated attempt by an Italian regiment to expunge
the German stronghold on Mount Lungo, is shown in all of its major phases:
from the more successful attack against the German stronghold on Mount
Sammucro to the slow progression of the infantry; from the hopeless use of
tanks which became easy targets for enemy artillery to the final victorious
assault on Mount Lungo which caused the enemy’s retreat from the area and
village within two days.
The different phases of the battle are also documented with extreme
realism through the sharp black and white images of the film. The explosions
are so close that often the earth shakes and the film jolts in the camera. Cannons and machineguns fire relentlessly and the incandescent fragments of
exploding shells streak the twilight without pause. Soldiers are seen crawling
among the shrubs in desperate search for cover or charging against the enemy
heedless of exploding mines and bullets. As Nichols notes in his work on the
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representation of reality in documentary cinema, this type of footage, and the
way it is arranged, would indeed place San Pietro within the tradition of war
documentary (Reality 26-7); however, what Nichols omits to point out is the
relevance of a different kind of footage which places this documentary in a
position of its own within the genre.
In his analysis of the film Nichols also maintains that Huston is careful in
showing us only the faces of the enemy dead, whereas the shots of the Allied
casualties never reveal their faces. This is undeniably the case in the 32 minute
long version of San Pietro that exists today. Yet, it is known (and surprisingly
Nichols does not acknowledge this) that in order to comply with the military
censorship Huston edited out about 20 minutes from an earlier version of his
film. This footage surfaced in recent years, when it lost its “classified” label.
In Italy, for example, it was shown as part of a television program on combat
film.13 Unfortunately, to date, a directors-cut version of San Pietro has not been
released, and it is hard to know whether it ever will be; however, by viewing
the extra footage in conjunction with the available version one can mentally
envision how the film would have appeared had the military refrained from
censuring it. Needless to say, its anti-war stance would have been even stronger
than what it appears today.
The censured footage portrays, in much greater detail, instances that are
already present in the film: the burial of the dead soldiers at the end of the
battle’s end; the shattered appearance of the village just freed from the Germans;
the resurfacing of the villagers from the caves where they were hiding; and the
hope-inspiring faces of the children. In a hypothetical uncut edition of San
Pietro these parts could swing the balance towards themselves and away from
the combat scenes (which instead prevail in the existing version of the film.)
The burial of the dead scene, in particular, was initially conceived by
Huston to emphasize to a maximum degree the tragic and abrupt ending of
so many young and vigorous lives. In the film as it appears today we see only
a few seconds of the bodies of dead soldiers as they are put into white mattress covers that will be used as shrouds for the burial. In the censured version,
instead, this scene is considerably longer and includes close-ups of several dead
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soldiers’ faces. According to Huston’s original conceit previously recorded
interviews with these men (referring to their future expectations) were to be
played over their now lifeless bodies. Years later, in his autobiography, Huston
conceded to having perhaps exaggerated with this idea which would have been
too painful for the families of those soldiers and too demoralizing. Likewise,
he admitted that the original presence in the film of scenes with scattered
body parts and other atrocities left behind by the ferocious battle would have
been too hard to take at the time.14 This may be true, though it is undeniable
that such scenes would have carried Huston’s commendable de-glorification
of warfare even further.
Scenes of death and destruction were not the only way by which Huston
denounced the inhumanity of war. Not surprisingly, the other footage that the
military leaders wanted removed, and which evidently disturbed their belligerent sensibilities, referred to the children and the rest of the civilian population.
The film as it now stands contains several scenes at the end that depict life
in San Pietro in the aftermath of the battle. The beauty and strength of these
shots is such that it would be hard to imagine them any different than what
they already are. Possibly, the only benefit of including the censured footage
in this case would lie in changing, as mentioned earlier, the overall balance
between combat and non-combat footage.
San Pietro ends by returning to the countryside present at the beginning
of the film. This time, however, the land appears restored to its luxuriant and
fertile state. Like the children, it communicates the hope of regeneration. In
the film’s final moments Huston seems to imply that notwithstanding the
tragedy of war, notwithstanding the death and suffering of endless numbers
of people, and the destruction of hundreds of villages and towns, life prevails.
The children regain their smiles, the land bears its fruits, and the people begin to hope for a less troublesome future. Perhaps this may appear as a rather
naïve, simplistic message, but in the midst of the war, and at the end of a film
which so accurately described it, it was the message which the public was
waiting to hear.
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1. In his autobiography Huston describes several such instances; in one of them he stays behind
to film a damaged plane in flames on the runway, well aware that the bombs it contained could
have easily exploded (114-5).
2. Cf. John Huston-War Stories, produced and directed by Midge Mackenzie; cinematography
by Richard Leacock. London, 1998.
3. The film was directed by Roy Boulting, the British filmmaker who also directed Desert
Victory (1943) on the African campaign that chased Rommel’s Afrika Korps from El Alamein
to Tripoli (Barnouw 147-8).
4. Richard Dyer MacCann offers a detailed analysis of the difficulties encountered by the U.S.
Film Unit after its instatement (People’s 87-117).
5. For a good review of the issues involved in fictional films and the World War see Giuliana
Muscio’s essay “Hollywood va in guerra,” where there is also valuable information on the
documentary film production of the period.
6. The other titles in the series were: The Nazi Strike (1942), Divide and Conquer (1943), The
Battle of Britain (1943), The Battle of Russia (1943), The Battle of China (1944), and War Comes
to America (1945). Most of these films were compilation documentaries made from previously
shot footage, including the one produced by the enemy forces. A lot of the off-screen narration
for these films was done by Huston’s famous actor father, Walter Huston. For a detailed description of this series see Barnouw (158-62); for a stimulating analysis see Bazin, (20-27).
7. See the documentary John Huston-War Stories, cit.
8. In his detailed history of Non-Fiction film Barsam stresses the propaganda element of these
films (230-31).
9. In this sense it is interesting to compare Huston’s documentary with the writing of war reporters (particularly Homar Bigart and Ernie Pyle) who were writing about the different campaigns
for American newspapers. The critical judgments on San Pietro have all been extremely positive.
Representative of them all is Ellis’ evaluation of the film: “Many think The Battle of San Pietro
is the finest of the American wartime documentaries; I think it is among the finest films yet
made about men in battle.” (139).
10. Both in his autobiography and in the previously mentioned interview Huston refers to the
film exclusively as San Pietro.
11. See Morandini’s chapter “Un ateo per la Bibbia” (93-98), where he discusses Huston and
the making of The Bible…In the Beginning (1966).
12. This is the impression one gets in reading the pages in the autobiography where Huston
describes in detail his experience while filming the battle of San Pietro (135-148).
13. Combat Film, directed by Italo Moscati and Roberto Olla, RAI Uno; distributed as a VHS
cassette by RaiTrade.
14. See Huston’s autobiography (139) and John Huston-War Stories.
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works cited
Barnouw, Eric. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. 2nd rev. ed. London: Oxford
UP, 1993.
Barsam, Richard Meran. Nonfiction Film. A Critical History. Rev. exp. ed. Bloomington: Indiana
UP, 1992.
Bazin, Andrè. Che cosa è il cinema?. Milan: Garzanti, 1986.
Bigart, Homer. “San Pietro a Village of the Dead; Victory Costs Americans Dearly” in Reporting
World War II. New York: The Library of America, 1995, pp. 738-745.
Ellis, Jack C. The Documentary Idea. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1989.
Huston, John. Cinque mogli e sessanta film. Roma: Editori Riuniti, 1982.
Jacobs, Lewis, ed. The Documentary Tradition. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1979.
MacCann, Richard Dyer. “World War II: Armed Forces Documentary” in Lewis Jacobs The
Documentary Tradition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979, pp. 213-222.
MacCann, Richard Dyer. The People’s Films. New York: Hastings House, 1973.
Morandini, Morando. John Huston. Perugia: Editrice Il Castoro, 1996.
Muscio, Giuliana. “Hollywood va in Guerra” in Gian Piero Brunetta, ed. Storia del cinema
mondiale. Vol. 2nd. Torino: Einaudi, 2000.
Nicols, Bill. “The Voice of Documentary” in Alan Rosenthal, ed. New Challenges for Documentary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, pp. 48-63.
Nicols, Bill. Ideology and the Image. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.
Nicols, Bill. Representing Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Pyle, Ernie. “The Italian Campaign: ‘Slow Progress’ December 1943 – January 1944” in Reporting
World War II. New York: The Library of America, 1995, pp. 728-737.
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roberto serrai
Landscapes of Destruction: Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s
Breakfast of Champions with an Eye to Walt Whitman
In heart, I am an American artist,
and I have no guilt…
Patti Smith, Babel (1978)
Breakfast of Champions, first published in 1973, is probably one of Kurt
Vonnegut’s most destructive, pessimistic and nihilistic works. Even if we chose
to label it a comedy, or a farce, its humor would still be of a very black quality.1 Thus, maybe, the book would be more accurately described as a satire
verging on tragedy. Vonnegut was not new to the theme of destruction; where
the earlier novel Cat’s Cradle (1963) is a long allegory on power and authority which ends in catastrophe, Mother Night (1961) and Slaughterhouse-Five
(1969) unfold as chronicles of private vicissitudes set against the tragic backdrop of a major historical event, World War II. Along with a deep reflection
on identity, ambiguity, and the thorny issue of distinguishing innocence from
guilt, both share an outright condemnation of war’s useless folly and of all the
mystifications often concocted to disguise it. In the latter work, remarkably,
the horror of the chosen exemplum – the allied firebombing of the German
city of Dresden, which in three days (2/13-15/1945) killed more than 135.000
harmless civilians – is so immense to prove basically impossible to represent.
Billy Pilgrim, the young American POW most of the book focuses on, takes
shelter in a deep underground meat locker “hollowed in living rock” (S5 209)
and so is only able to witness the bomb runs’ aftermath, the morning when
Dresden suddenly “was like the moon” (S5 229). This narrative choice, in
passing, formally connects the book to classic Greek tragedy, where the most
heinous deeds could only be hinted at off-stage.2
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In Breakfast of Champions, on the contrary, crimes and assorted mischiefs
turn out to be even too openly represented (thus our allusion to the linguistic excesses of satire.) Scattered among the short passages that make up the
twenty-four chapters of the book are 119 line drawings – Vonnegut’s own
hand – of objects and verbal expressions, a few repeated more than once; now
and again, as with the American flag (8), these images appear to be drawn to
embody something which has drifted too far from its original and/or idealized
meaning, to end up blurred, tainted and somehow betrayed. In times when
images as communicative devices often prevail over spoken or written words,
the book’s expected audience seems to need a symbolic, pictorial rendering of
the concepts and ideas it has, knowingly or not, forgotten.3
Here, Vonnegut’s declared blueprint is to write a book similar to a “sidewalk strewn with junk” (5); littered with trash he throws over his shoulder to
“make [his] head as empty as it was when [he] was born onto this damaged
planet” (5). The result is a never-ending catalogue of cultural monstrosities,
either contemporary or, which is worse, proven by now to be timeless. At the
end of this kind of subtractive process, dotted with final statements where,
for instance, it is “high time” (18) for the world to end, American culture is
ostensibly reduced to a tabula rasa. Nothing seems to be salvageable; all that is
left at the end is a character’s distressed longing to “[be made] young [again]”
(302, last passage) and the author’s teary-eyed profile (303, last drawing).
Through this insistence on a narrative structure where a weak story line
– the chronicle, narrated by the author himself, of car salesman Dwayne
Hoover’s gradual and violent nervous breakdown – is only an excuse for a
lengthy, bitter cahier de doléances, Vonnegut gives the impression of running
an opposite course to the one Walt Whitman laid out in many of his poems in
the different editions of Leaves of Grass. While developing a new literature for
a new country, the “good gray poet” (as he often referred to himself ) uses the
former to celebrate the latter, and weaves together long lists of things and human types, as if he planned to compile a comprehensive inventory of America’s
gifts, virtues and assets. Instead of a disillusioned and continuous reduction,
Whitman stages a jubilant and enthusiastic buildup, where even destruction
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plays a positive role. In a poem like “Song of the Broad-Axe,” as an example,
the weapon mentioned in the title initially belongs, among the others, to the
“antique European warrior” (Whitman 334) and to the – European, again
– headsman. A harbinger of death and destruction, as we can read in the few
lines recalling the “old city’s” sack,4 when through the centuries it is eventually
handed down to the American, the axe changes into the symbol of a peculiar
brand of progress that stems from tearing down and rebuilding rather than
from improving or mending. Just as it sacked the old city, the blade enables its
latest wielder to “found a new city.” (Whitman 331, emphasis added)
Even the Civil War, the most tragic historical event in Whitman’s lifetime,
with all its ruthless and fratricidal bloodshed nonetheless “save[s] the Union”
against “the foulest crime in history” – slavery.5 Slightly more than 600.000 total
casualties amount to a painful but necessary step on the path leading to that
“democracy total, results of centuries” (Whitman 341) the poet advocates as
America’s manifest destiny.6 At the very beginning of Democratic Vistas (1871),
published less than a decade after the Confederate surrender, “America” and
“democracy” are advertised as “convertible terms.” (Whitman 954) Almost
on the same page, though, the poet somehow concedes that “America […]
counts, I reckon, for her justification and success (for who, as yet, dare claim
success?) almost entirely on the future. […] For our New World I consider far
less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come.”
(Whitman 953) The want of a national literature is a serious drawback for this
success plan, because it slows down the process of building a shared, original
spirit; it is with the new class of the “literati” that rests all responsibility for
defining, chanting and celebrating the “Soul” of America. Again, this is a mission left to be fully accomplished in some vague future:
Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Arouse! for you must justify me.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness
Expecting the main things from you. (“Poets to come,” Whitman 175)
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A century after these words, Breakfast of Champions focuses on what
these “results to come” have been, and on which kind of “literatus” now sings
America. This happens from a severely biased standpoint, but one could argue
that it was also true of the “good gray poet” – directly evoked in the text when
one of the main characters, writer Kilgore Trout, enters Philadelphia crossing
a bridge “named in honor of […] Walt Whitman” and which is significantly
“veiled in smoke.” (105)7
In Vonnegut’s novel, to begin with, destruction takes on a planetary scale;
its terms, also, are much more real than in Cat’s Cradle, where apocalypse
is triggered by the awkward handling of a fictional, government-sponsored
substance called Ice-Nine.8 Here, “Humanity [has] behaved so cruelly and
wastefully on a planet so sweet” (18) and so it deserves to be annihilated; those
who wanted to harness and shape nature ended up wasting it away, whether
consciously or not. As casual exposure to athlete’s foot led the Bermuda erns
to extinction (30-31), reckless recourse to strip mining (123) – duly favored
by a handy interpretation of private property rights (129) – resulted in “the
demolition of West Virginia.” (123) The obtained coal, on a side note, was fed
into the same “choo-choo trains and steamboats and factories” (125) Whitman so highly revered (as with mines themselves, for that matter) as symbols
of progress. Now, at least if we listen to one of the novel’s minor characters,
the truck driver, “manufacturing processes” are destroying the planet, and for
good measure “what [is] being manufactured [is] lousy, by and large.” (86) If
West Virginia is little more than a bleak, barren land, and New Jersey is just
a land of “poisoned marshes and meadows” (86), elsewhere it seems quite
hard to encounter some scenery which is not cemented over. Looking out of
the Quality Motor Court’s motel window in his hometown of Midland City,
Alabama, Dwayne Hoover’s unquiet gaze only meets “an iron railing and a
concrete terrace […] and then Route 103, and then the wall and the rooftop
of [the jail] beyond that.” (158)
Man’s exploitative attitude towards nature is, of course, just one of the
many landmarks in Vonnegut’s American landscape of destruction, together
with its bastard son, pollution: to cross “the concrete trough containing Sugar
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Creek” means getting “coated at once with a clear plastic substance from the
surface of the [water].” (229) These two evils are effectively joined, then, by war
in its latest (for 1973) embodiment, Vietnam. Void of all old Whitmanesque
heroics, it ushers in “new invention[s]”: the body bag (32) for corpses and
toxic Agent Orange for chemical defoliation (88); it shatters identities and
allegiances: Kilgore Trout’s son Leo “desert[s] from his division” and “join[s]
the Viet Cong” (114); it gives way to painful and stubborn forms of denial:
the POW-MIA bracelets (253) as a last resort to defer the acknowledgment of
casualties.9 Violent crimes, also, mirror war’s cruelty. The whole of New York
City is rather quickly dismissed as “dangerous” (71), and quite distant from
Whitman’s hectic, intoxicating positive energy. Fairchild Park, Midland City’s
“skid row” (189) where people have to stay “and not bother anybody anywhere
else – until they [are] murdered for thrills” (188), witnesses fifty-six murders
in two years (187). All this is encouraged by easy access to firearms: “anybody
who wanted [a gun] could get one at his local hardware store. Policemen all
had them. So did the criminals. So did the people caught in between.” (49)
A crucial factor in Dwayne’s breakdown is definitely his isolation, that
makes him unable to vent or simply voice his deep discomfort. If we leave
out the customary array of non-places like a Holiday Inn or some fast food
joints, the forced intimacy of the jail, and the thickly populated ghettoes of
Fairchild Park and of “the Nigger part of town” (41), what’s left is a scattering
of secluded, walled-in houses where everyone is totally “screened from the
neighbors.” (52) We learn that each message “sent and received in this country,
even the telepathic ones, [has] to do with buying or selling some damn thing.”
(53) In Midland City, in particular, the only possible subjects of conversation are “money or structures or travel or machinery – or other measurable
things” (146, emphasis added) along with “lines from television shows.” (236)
Everybody has a “part to play” which entails “living up to [someone else’s]
expectations.” (146) Truth, there, is “some crazy thing my neighbor believes”
and which one pretends to agree with “to make friends with him.” (214) In
such a context, no wonder if art (and culture at large) is just another commodity, another luxury item to be bought, sold or even borrowed – as with
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millionaire Eliot Rosewater’s El Greco, loaned to the Midland City Festival of
the Arts – but never really understood or otherwise internalized. It is as well the
case of a “minimal paint[ing]” (201) by a Rabo Karabekian, The Temptation of
Saint Anthony, introduced in the text as the “first purchase for the permanent
collection of the [Midland City] Center for the Arts.” Consisting only of a
vertical stripe of “dayglo orange reflecting tape” on a huge green (or, better,
“Hawaiian Avocado”) background, the painting, priced at fifty thousand dollars,
leaves everybody “outraged” (213) and forces its author to unveil its meaning
in public. Regardless of Karabekian’s superciliousness, we must acknowledge
his good faith; the dayglo stripe allegedly stands for “the immaterial core of
every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent,” because each and
every one of us is “one vertical, unwavering band of light.” (226) We could say
we’re not that far from just another celebration of the individual, the “self,”
the “body electric” so broadly sung by Whitman – although now it all falls
on deaf ears and closed eyes.
Literature, in Breakfast of Champions’ America, comes handy just as a filler
for pornography – when not as toilet paper, as in the Libertyville recycling
plants (131). It is in smutty magazines like Black Garterbelt (56), in fact, or in
books with altered title, cover and (obviously) illustrations, that Kilgore Trout’s
two hundred and nine between novels and short stories reach the public. Trout
is a recurring character in Vonnegut’s works – we could say he is his version of
Whitman’s “literatus”; the frequent references to his writings usually build up
a true parallel text, where the same issues debated in the “primary” novel(s) are
re-presented using metaphors and a fantasy (usually science-fiction) setting,
and more often than not engendering a strong and sometimes bothersome
redundancy effect. In this specific novel, for example, the text refers the reader
to works like Plague on Wheels (55), which condemns the effects of pollution,
or “The Dancing Fool” (58), focused on communication failure.10 Other Trout
works echoing already mentioned sections of the novel are Now it Can Be Told
(55), about the influence of determinism on people’s life, “This Means You”
(74), on the evils of private property, and The Barring-gaffner of Bagnialto
(132), where art’s value is assessed by chance, using a fortune wheel – which,
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for good measure, turns out to be rigged. Again, Vonnegut here seems to be
going against Whitman’s intent – or stressing its failure. One could argue if
the old poet’s purpose was “[to] bring order to chaos” (215), with his insisted
celebration of a nature-shaping humanity and its ideal pull to democracy.
Vonnegut, instead, writes to “bring chaos to order,” in opposition to “oldfashioned writers [who made] people believe that life had leading characters,
minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to
be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.” (215)
Thus, his chaotic catalogue of horrors continues.11
It is quite hard, for instance, to find a hint of the vital, almost unrestrained
– hetero and homoerotic – sensuality so often chanted throughout Leaves of
Grass. In Midland City, pleasure is never enjoyed in a healthy way, so to speak.
Leaving aside the abuses suffered in jail by weaker inmates, sex is either a companion to violence, through rape (as for young Patty Keene, 143), or otherwise
repressed and forced into hiding. Harry LeSabre, an employee of Dwayne’s,
is a “secret transvestite” who “could be arrested for what he did on weekends.
He could be fined up to three thousand dollars and sentenced to as much as
five years at hard labor.” (48) Dwayne’s son Bunny is sent to Prairie Military
Academy at age ten (and subjected to “eight years of uninterrupted sports,
buggery and Fascism,” 185) just for saying that “he wished he were a woman,”
because “what men did was so often cruel and ugly.” (184) Sexuality, of course,
can be just another facet of isolation and loneliness; “penis extender[s]” and
“rubber vagina[s]” are widely available through mail order (151), and there’s
always the pornography that accompanies Trout’s writings and which, after all,
shouldn’t be too despised, at least because it “fills such a need .” (69)
Many passages are devoted to several other sins like greed, over-population
(45), mindless encouragement to consumption (91), sheer lack of solidarity
(“one of the most expensive things a person could do was get sick,” 139), death
penalty (159), whether or not inflicted on (black) teen-agers (268), and the
potentially dangerous influence media can have on people’s perception of reality (the “Pluto Gang” episode, 77-78). The exhausted topic of lost innocence,
also, is indirectly – and not without some elegance – tackled, in a passing
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reference to the lamb, “a young animal which was legendary for sleeping well
on the planet Earth.” (83)
The worst fault of our doomed planet, in any case, lies in the fact that
“there was no immunity to cuckoo ideas [on it]” (27), and one of these ideas
is racism. Just as Leaves of Grass was teeming with mentions of slavery’s defeat (as in “By Blue Ontario’s Shore,” for instance, Whitman 473) and of its
optimistic dismissal as a relic of the past (as in “Turn O Libertad,” Whitman
457), Breakfast of Champions swarms with examples of how persistent and
culturally embedded racial prejudices still are. Choosing to set the novel in
Alabama, Vonnegut probably lessens the impact of this statement, allowing
some readers to assume that elsewhere things are obviously different, even
if the text clearly warns that “[cities] are all the same.” (171)12 On the other
hand, we could argue that a deep South setting adds some likelihood to the
disturbing normality of certain attitudes and assumptions – among the others,
“philosophical[ly] ” accepting as a sign that “times change” the fact that one may
end up “staying at a place where black men stayed” (79, emphasis added), or
defining slaves “machines made out of meat.” (150) A fleeting reference to
Kilgore Trout’s high school days gives the author an easy, sarcastic cue, since
the institute is “named after [Thomas Jefferson,] a slave owner who was also
one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty” (34);
in Midland City, instead, Jefferson Street marks “the edge of the Nigger part
of town.” (41) Just as predictable, but also less caustic, is Vonnegut’s mention
of Whitman’s “Captain,” President Lincoln, “a man who had the courage
and imagination to make human slavery against the law in the United States
America.” (85) Jefferson and Lincoln are historical figures, and so is Crispus
Attucks, “a black man who was shot by British troops in Boston in 1770” (255),
one of the very first to fall in the Revolutionary War. All the same, almost in a
Brechtian sense, it is from the voices of the nameless, fameless multitudes that
most highly resonates, in the text, the condemnation of racism. It could be a
catalogue within a catalogue. Old Mary Young, “daughter of slaves” (63), who
silently took care of Dwayne’s family laundry, and then Lottie Davis, his current “servant” (17); all the slaves long since dead, the already cited “machines
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made out of meat” (also 73, and passim);13 those – grim statistics, numbers
before names – crammed into Shepherdstown jail, where “all inmates are black
and [all] the guards are white” (159); those who are referred to as “reindeer,”
just because the local police keeps its armory well stocked with assault rifles,
“for an open season […] which was bound to come” (168); last, those who
expose themselves to harm and humiliation in the “African dodger booth” at
the local carnival (269).
One of the most effective black non-historical characters in Breakfast of
Champions is Wayne Hoobler, the “young […] jailbird.” (100) He “had been
in orphanages and youth shelters and prisons of one sort or another […] since
he was nine years old. He was now twenty-six.” (99) Absolutely clueless about
the world at large, and subject to all kinds of abuse and mistreatment until,
eventually, the parole board released him, he somehow still hopes “for a better
world” (99) which he secretly calls “Fairyland” (100, drawing) and where he
would “live happily ever after.” (101) He believes that the only, very simple
thing he needs to get to Fairyland is a chance to work at Dwayne’s Pontiac
agency. Of course he won’t get it, but what is more important is the way he
convinced himself he could count on it. He had been persuaded by the ads
Hoover ran in the local paper, the Bugle-Observer, and which he used to paste
on the walls of his cell. Each ad sported the same motto: “ASK ANYBODY
This consideration allows us to finally introduce another central subject in
the novel: fabrication. By itself, the title of the book – “a registered trademark
of General Mills, Inc., for use on a cereal product” (1, then repeated verbatim
on 199) – should hint at the importance of advertising within this work; more
subtly, Vonnegut’s spontaneous and unrequested disclaimer, where he states
that “the use of [such an] expression […] is not intended […] to disparage
their fine products” (1), could refer the reader to advertisements’ intrinsic
manipulation of reality and truth for commercial purposes. Leaving aside the
fact that some characters (Dwayne Hoover or Harry LeSabre, for instance)
are even named after brands or products, textual allusions to advertising are
usually associated to a negatively connoted idea of scheming; this applies to
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the “Hawaiian Week” (46) at the Pontiac agency, or to Colonel Sanders KFC
franchises, “a scheme for selling fried chicken” (160) – but also to the Sacred
Miracle Cave, a heavily polluted “tourist trap” advertised throughout the
book (117, 154, 177, 191, to list just the drawings) which boasts, among its
attractions, “Jesse James,” the skeleton of “some railroad robber” that, we learn
later, “Dwayne’s stepfather had [actually] bought from the estate of a doctor
back during the Great Depression.” (120)
All these communicative instances share the characteristic of presenting
their public with a self-interested, mystified view of reality that also aims to
hide, as the case may be, that reality’s negative aspects. The trademark of the
“Queen of the Prairies,” a prison-run dairy farm, for example “[doesn’t] mention prison.” (195)14 In a long section at the beginning of the book, Vonnegut
extends this reflection to those he sees as seminal contradictions in the birth
and history of the United States (“America for short,” 7). He starts from 1492,
a date which does not mark the moment when the continent was “discovered
by human beings,” as “teachers told the children,” but “simply the year in
which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill” the “millions of human beings” who already lived there. Afterwards, they “created a government which
became a beacon of freedom to human beings everywhere else” – but it was
just “another piece of evil nonsense” (10) because, again, “[those] who had the
most to do with the creation of the new government owned human slaves.”
(11) In the novel’s nihilistic and destructive context, we’re led to believe that
from the very beginning America’s promise was a kind of a fraud, and, why not,
that Whitman’s work, too, was just a long redundant piece of advertisement
ante litteram. After all, according to the General Electric motto, even “progress” can become a “product [to sell].” (298) The whole novel seems aimed at
demonstrating that “nobody believes anymore in a new American paradise” as
the one promised ever since the Great Depression (2). Nothing is spared: not
the national anthem, quoted in full, and dismissed as “pure balderdash” (7), or
“gibberish sprinkled with question marks” (8); not the flag to which it refers,
that the author initially describes as a true symbol of arrogance never to be
“dipped to any person or thing,” not even as “a form of friendly and respectful
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salute.” (8)5 According to Vonnegut, America’s citizens by now are “so ignored
and cheated and insulted that they [think] they might be in the wrong country,
or even in the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake [has] been made.” (9)
Looking for clues, they resort to studying banknotes to try and understand
“what their country was all about,” why everyday life is so different from what
it’s supposed (and advertised) to be, but they only find obscure symbols like a
“truncated pyramid with a radiant eye on top.” (9) They would require symbols
“of wholeness and harmony and nourishment,” which are “richly colored and
three-dimensional and juicy” (300-1), but those are nowhere to be found.16
Most of all, they “hunger for symbols which have not been poisoned by great
sins [their] nation has committed, such as slavery and genocide and criminal
neglect, or by tinhorn commercial greed and cunning.” (301)
We have already pointed out how, according to the text, and leaving
America aside for a moment, it seems like it is the whole planet that actually
deserves to be destroyed. A few passages directly deal with the issue of conservationism; talking to the truck driver, Kilgore Trout uses a series of allusions
to “[God’s] volcanoes or tornadoes or tidal waves” and to “the Ice Ages [God]
arranges for every half-million years” to wonder why man should worry so much
about “[getting] our rivers cleaned up.” In the meantime, at the Almighty’s
whim, “the whole galaxy [could] go up like a celluloid collar.” (87) Earth’s
history, from this standpoint, has been a process of subsequent destruction (or
extinction, as with the dinosaurs, 126), but that always happened for the sake
of transformation – as with coal, which was “a highly compressed mixture of
rotten trees and flowers and bushes and so on.” (126) Now, as we have seen
with reference to West Virginia’s strip mines, manufacturing processes have
transformed coal and other fossil fuels into heat and energy that, once used,
basically “fled into outer space” (127); thus, through consumption without renewal, as energy sources they will soon be gone for good.17 Nevertheless, “there
was only one way for the Earth to be, he thought: the way it was.” (106)
At this point, it would seem reasonable to conclude that Breakfast of
Champions is a desperate novel that describes a helpless world – and country,
coming back to America. I believe that it is not completely correct. Trout’s
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downbeat critique of conservationism, after all, ends with a biblical exception:
“the story about the Flood” (87), a proof that even on that occasion there had
been something worthy of being saved. It is true that sometimes life can be
quite similar to the General Motors Pontiac “destructive testing” area, “where
parts of automobiles and even entire automobiles were destroyed” or abused in
every possible way to check their sturdiness (169). After all, it is during that trip
to Michigan that Dwayne Hoover, three months into widowhood, comparing
himself to Job “[began] wondering if that was what God put [him] on Earth
for – to find out how much a man could take without breaking.” (170) The
book, also, offers a strange kind of consolatory explanation to all this suffering
and wickedness: human beings are actually machines, “programmed” to act
one way or another. If they behave badly, or senselessly, it is just “because of
faulty wiring, or because of microscopic amounts of chemicals which [they]
ate or failed to eat on that particular day.” (4) Lacking in free will, they are
consequently not responsible for their actions. War, slavery, diseases, even
the death penalty are not “a shame” (270) anymore, since they don’t involve
sentient beings. But if the novel offers this sort of twisted escapist, deterministic fantasy, it also denies it when Vonnegut, as the narrator, dismisses it as
just “a great temptation.” (4) It is much better to rely on a simpler, but truer,
knowledge. Tenacious, enduring characters like the young black parolee, who
“adapted to what there was to adapt to” (194, drawing), demonstrate that
more often than not, as a “common combination on planet Earth,” “a life not
worth living” goes hand in hand with “an iron will to live” (72) of an almost
Whitmanesque magnitude.
Also, near the end of the story, we discover that there is even an old symbol which, after all, could be still deemed viable. Speaking – either literally or
metaphorically – of destroyed, levelled-out, thus horizontal landscapes, it is no
surprise that it is a vertical (and un-dippable, we could say) symbol: the American flag, returning after almost three hundred pages. It is the same “Emblem”
that appears so many times in Leaves of Grass: “draped in black muslin” or
“dense-starred […] at the head of the regiments” in “Song of Myself ” (Whitman 214 and 221); “savagely struggled for” through the whole ninth section of
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“Song of the Exposition” (Whitman 349-50); “baptized […] in many a young
man’s bloody wounds” in “The Centenarian” (Whitman 434); “sacred […]
mother” in “Delicate Cluster” (Whitman 455); “flung” for “cold and dead”
President Lincoln in “O Captain! My Captain!” (Whitman 467); “warlike”
and “angry” in the eleventh section of “By Blue Ontario’s Shore” (Whitman
476) and, eventually, “fateful” in “Thick-Sprinkled Bunting.” (Whitman 593)18
Again, Vonnegut’s citation of the flag is far more low-keyed, if certainly more
genuine, and without denying all the previous bitterness.
Behind the wheel of the disaster vehicle moving in to rescue the victims
of Dwayne’s rampage, in fact, there’s young Eddie Key, who turns out to be
– although he is black – a descendant of Francis Scott Key, “the white American patriot who wrote the National Anthem.” (278) He has an American flag
(probably a sticker) “stuck to the windshield.” On the “off-chance that Key
might now be having a look at what had become of the United States of
America so far,” Eddie answers one of the “question marks” that “sprinkled”
his ancestor’s lyrics, the last lines that worried about the flag’s destiny, and he
says, “very quietly: ‘[It is] still wavin’, man’” (279).19
*When not specifically stated otherwise, all parenthetical references belong to the cited edition
of Breakfast of Champions, with the sole exceptions of two quotations from Slaughterhouse-Five
(abbreviated as S5) and one from Hocus Pocus (abbreviated as HP.) Patti Smith’s quotation from
Babel is on page 193 of the cited edition, and also reprinted in the liner notes to her Easter
LP, Arista 1978.
1. On comedy, satire and black humor in Vonnegut, see Will Kaufman, “Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions: A Comedian’s Primer,” Thalia 13.1-2 (1993): 22-33; Charles Berryman,
“Vonnegut’s Comic Persona in Breakfast of Champions,” in Merrill 1990, pp. 162-70; Robert
Scholes, “‘Mithridates, he died old’: Black Humor and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,” The Hollins Critic
3.4 (1966): 1-12 and Lyn Buck, “Vonnegut’s World of Comic Futility,” Studies in American
Fiction 3 (1975): 181-98. A number of critics, also, have suggested that all of Vonnegut’s
novels are actually fables. See, for example, Robert Scholes, The Fabulators (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1967), pp. 35-55, and Raymond M. Olderman, Beyond the Waste Land (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), pp. 189-219.
2. In 1972, George Roy Hill directed a film version of Slaughterhouse-Five, starring Michael
Sacks as Billy Pilgrim. While in the novel Billy and the other prisoners leave the meat locker
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and walk around the now leveled-out city in silence, the movie uses J. S. Bach’s Concert N. 5
BWV 1056 as a soundtrack, thus enhancing the already harsh contrast between the lively and
crowded place of the night before and the morning’s view of death and total destruction. See
Joyce Nelson, “Slaughterhouse-Five: Novel and Film,” Literature/Film Quarterly 1 (1973): 14953 and Jerry Holt, “Vonnegut on Film” in Reed 2000, pp. 101-6. See also, on the movie’s
soundtrack, Rocco Carbone, “I trucchi di Vonnegut,” l’Unità 17 June 2003: 27.
3. References to spoken word and oral tradition at large are introduced in this novel, as in many
other Vonnegut works, by frequently inviting the reader to “listen” (7, 42, 193, 206, 231, 273,
293). On Vonnegut’s use of drawings, see Peter Reed, “The Graphics of Kurt Vonnegut” in Reed
1996, pp. 205-22 and “More Graphics by Kurt Vonnegut” in Reed 2000, pp. 171-80.
4. Roar, flames, blood, drunkenness, madness,
Goods freely rifled from houses and temples, screams of
women in the gripes of brigands,
Craft and thievery of camp-followers, men running, old
persons despairing,
The hell of war, the cruelties of creeds […] (Whitman 334).
5. Part of a line from Whitman’s “This Dust Was Once the Man,” included in Memories of
President Lincoln (Whitman 468).
6. This casualties’ figure, albeit approximate, is confirmed by various online sources; among
the most comprehensive and authoritative is the Unites States Civil War Center maintained by
the Louisiana State University ( Here are Vonnegut’s
comments about the war: “I think that the end of the Civil War in my country frustrated the
white people in the North, who won it, in a way which has never been acknowledged before.
[…] The victors in that war were cheated out of the most desirable spoils of that war, which
were human slaves” (251-2).
7. Every once in awhile, however, even Whitman’s optimism faltered: “The depravity of the
business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The
official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments,
except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the
judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery
and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or
no aims at all, only to kill time. In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the
one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. […] Confess that everywhere, in shop, street,
church, theatre, barroom, official chair, are pervading flippancy and vulgarity, low cunning,
infidelity – everywhere the youth, puny, impudent, foppish, prematurely ripe – everywhere an
abnormal libidinousness, unhealthy forms, male, female, painted, padded, dyed, chignon’d,
muddy complexions, bad blood, the capacity for good motherhood deceasing or deceas’d,
shallow notions of beauty, with a range of manners, or rather lack of manners […] probably
the meanest to be seen in the world” (Democratic Vistas, Whitman 961-3).
8. On the theme of destruction (and survival) in Vonnegut’s work, see Peter Freese, “Surviving the End: Apocalypse, Evolution, and Entropy in Bernard Malamud, Kurt Vonnegut, and
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Thomas Pynchon,” Critique 36.3 (1995): 163-76 and Hearron, Tom, “The Theme of Guilt in
Vonnegut’s Cataclysmic Novels,” in Nancy Anisfield, ed., The Nightmare Considered: Critical
Essays on Nuclear War Literature (Bowling Green: Popular, 1991), pp. 186-92.
9. In a more recent novel, Hocus Pocus (1990), “Vietnam” comes back in a haunting, albeit less
effective way: as a single word written by the main character, Eugene Debs Hartke, on a small
piece of paper (HP 61). Its evocative power is supposed to be so great to prevent the need of
adding anything else. “POW/MIA” bracelets are made out of aluminum, brightly colored, and
each one is inscribed with data relating to a U.S. serviceman who went missing in action during
the Vietnam war. The bracelet is supposed to be worn as a remembrance and support sign, until
that particular soldier, sailor or pilot is released from detention or his death is ascertained.
10. See, on Kilgore Trout and other recurring characters, William Godshalk, “The Recurring
Characters of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,” Notes on Contemporary Literature 3.1 (1973): 2-3 and Peter
Reed, “Kurt Vonnegut’s Bitter Fool: Kilgore Trout,” in Leeds 2000, pp. 67-80. On Vonnegut and
science fiction, see Carlo Pagetti, “Kurt Vonnegut, tra fantascienza e utopia,” Studi Americani 12
(1966): 301-22; Benyei Tamas, “Leakings: Reappropriating Science Fiction – The Case of Kurt
Vonnegut,” JFA 11.4.44 (2001): 395-408 and Willis E. McNelly, “Kurt Vonnegut as ScienceFiction Writer,” in J. Klinkowitz, ed., and D. Lawler, ed., Vonnegut in America: An Introduction
to the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut (New York: Dell, 1977), pp. 87-96.
11. A stylistic device common to many of Vonnegut’s works is the presence throughout the text
of recurring expressions, somehow akin to an actual tag-line: “So it goes,” in SlaughterhouseFive, or “Cough, cough” in Hocus Pocus. Here, the words of choice are “and so on,” presented
also as the drawing of an over-sized “ETC.” (234, 288 and 302) and also quite fitting a refrain,
for a list or a catalogue. On the subject of chaos, see Mary S. Schriber, “Bringing Chaos to
Order: The Novel Tradition and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,” Genre 10.2 (1977): 283-97 and Donald
E. Morse, “Bringing Chaos to Order: Vonnegut Criticism at Century’s End,” JFA 10.4.40
(1999): 395-408.
12. The town’s name, Mid-land City, might suggest its identification with the “average” (mid-dle)
community, too.
13. One of the most poignant collateral occurrences of this concept of a human being reduced
to a mere tool is doubtlessly the “Hundred-Nigger Machine,” a nickname for “a tremendous
earth-moving [apparatus],” reminiscent of “a time when black men had done most of the heavy
digging” (150).
14. In the novel’s preface, Vonnegut writes about his direct experience of “advertisement
scheme[s]” (46). The whole book is dedicated to Mrs. Phoebe Hurty, who “wrote ads for the
William H. Block Company” (1-2), an Indianapolis department store incidentally designed
by Vonnegut’s father, and now a residential complex. She hired young author to “write copy,”
and taught him to “be impolite […] about American history and famous heroes, about the
distribution of wealth, about school, about everything” (2).
15. Flags are the subject of several drawings throughout the book: America (8), Bermuda (31),
Nazi Germany (137), and Germany “after they got well again” (138). Curiously enough, es-
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pecially if we consider Vonnegut’s German descent, this last is incorrectly drawn, with vertical
instead of horizontal bands. On a side note, it is true that the vertical design, along with several others, was briefly considered for adoption in 1948 (see!1949.
html). On the same page, another mistake places the Volkswagen “Beetle” ’s first production
after WWII, while it had already started being manufactured in the 1930s.
16. Vonnegut’s personal suggestion is an apple, “a popular fruit” (127) that seems to meet all
these requirements (127, 206, 301).
17. Another crucial issue the book rather pessimistically deals with is determinism – or, rather,
Social Darwinism; again, the allusion is disguised as a joke, a play on words between Trout
and the truck driver. According to the former, “[getting laid] would [only] depend on how
determined you were.” The driver sighs, and concludes: “Yeah, God […], that’s probably the
story of my life: not enough determination” (110).
18. It is, indeed, quite an aggressive kind of imagery; well fitting, on the other hand, for a “republic” that “must soon […] outstrip all examples hitherto afforded, and dominate the world”
(Democratic Vistas, Whitman 954).
19. Coming right after so many pages of harsh, critical exposure of America’s misdeeds, this may
look like a rather weak sign of redemption, or a very cheap consolation prize. I believe, instead,
that this can be read as just another example of how even the most negative constructions and
critiques of America seem unable to disown and repudiate it completely. On this crucial issue
see, for example, Sara Antonelli, Dai Sixties a Bush Jr.: la cultura USA contemporanea (Roma:
Carocci, 2001). The book effectively points out the somewhat ambiguous nature of most of
the dissent groups active between the Fifties and the Seventies, all inspired in some degree by
a clean nostalgia for the “American dream” (and, in the case of writers like Ken Kesey, for the
Frontier values.) Counterculture itself, in works like Philip Slater’s The Pursuit of Loneliness
(1970), has been presented as “a kind of reform movement, trying to revive a decayed tradition
once important to our civilization” (73). If this is probably not true for every Vonnegut novel,
the painful awareness of such a “decay” can be a factor contributing to Breakfast of Champions’
(most likely one of his most “countercultural” works) sustained, unrelenting anger. From this
point of view, we could say that Vonnegut attacks the American myth as a disillusioned believer,
and with the ardor of a betrayed lover. See also, on this topic, James R. Tunnell, “Kesey and
Vonnegut: Preachers of Redemption,” in George Searles, ed., A Casebook on Ken Kesey’s One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992), pp. 127-33,
and Robert Merrill, “Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions: The Conversion of Heliogabalus,”
Critique 18.3 (1977): 99-109.
works cited
Merrill, Robert, ed. Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. Boston: Chelsea House, 1990.
Reed, Peter J., ed.; Leeds, Marc, ed. The Vonnegut Chronicles: Interviews and Essays. Westport:
Greenwood, 1996.
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—, Kurt Vonnegut: Images and Representations. Westport: Greenwood, 2000.
Slater, Philip. The Pursuit of Loneliness [1970]. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.
Smith, Patti. Babel. New York: Putnam, 1978.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions [1969]. New York: Delta, 1999.
—, Cat’s Cradle. New York: Rinehart and Winston, 1963.
—, Hocus Pocus [1990]. New York: Berkley, 1991.
—, Mother Night. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.
—, Slaughterhouse-Five [1969]. New York: Delta, 1999.
Whitman, Walt. Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America College Edition, 1996.
Slaughterhouse-Five. Screenplay by Stephen Geller. Dir. George Roy Hill. Perf. Michael Sacks,
Ron Leibman and Valerie Perrine. Universal Pictures, 1972.
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umberto rossi
The Great National Disaster:
The Destruction of Imperial America in Philip K. Dick’s
The Simulacra
Considered as a literary theme or motif, destruction is maybe too common
an element to discriminate among texts (even if we limit ourselves to U.S.
literature.) Yet there is at least one specific field of fiction where the extreme
form of destruction, i.e. the disaster, has delimited a specific subgenre: the field
is Science-Fiction (or SF), the subgenre catastrophic SF. In Clute and Nicholl’s
Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction we have a disaster entry which reassuringly tells
us that “Cataclysm, natural or man-made, is one of the most popular themes
in sf ” (Clute-Nicholls, 337); and cataclysms are undoubtedly the festivals of
destruction. But the fascination of U.S. culture with disasters/catastrophes is
represented more by SF films1 than by books. David Pringle and Peter Nicholls,
the authors of the entry, tell us that U.S. disaster novels are fewer in number
(Clute-Nicholls, 338) than those written by U.K. authors; when it comes to
the printed word, the British tradition is much older and stronger than the
American, and we should not forget that it includes two of the greatest poets
of catastrophe: John Wyndham and James G. Ballard.
The list of U.S. SF disaster novels is shorter, and shows a distinct obsession with disease (Clute-Nicholls, 338). From Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague
(1915) to Stephen King’s The Stand (1978, but re-published in a larger version
in 1990) the most prestigious American SF writers – including Algis Budrys,
Richard Matheson, and Michael Crichton – have dealt with disastrous epidemics, leaving other kinds of disasters to less famous practitioners, with the only
exceptions of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963), a masterpiece in its own
right, and Thomas M. Disch’s bleak and masterful The Genocides (1965).2
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However, I think Pringle and Nicholls have neglected a very interesting
example of U.S. disaster novel, maybe an atypical one, but worth reading
and discussing at length: The Simulacra, by Philip K. Dick. The reason for
this omission is, I suspect, the fact that the catastrophic component of the
novel is not in the foreground, but lies in its background. Dick’s narrative
technique always focuses on a single character or a group of characters, and
whatever happens around him/her, or them, is always filtered through brilliantly
crafted, powerfully subjective points of view (a fine specimen of this process
is the description of nuclear holocaust as experienced by Bruno Bluthgeld
in Dr. Bloodmoney.) Readers are thus struck more by Dick’s characters3 than
by collective events – and the science-fictional disasters listed by Pringle and
Nicholls are always collective.
But there might be a more important reason for omitting Dick’s novel
from the disaster entry: while the cataclysms depicted by Ballard or Wyndham, or their U.S. counterparts, are more or less natural, the disaster Dick
told in The Simulacra is political; it belongs to the realm of human history,
not to the field of meteorology, astronomy, or biology. It does not even belong
to that vast group of SF works which deal with nuclear wars/disasters, where
politics, biology and physics intermingle. And it might be argued that nuclear
war stories, though based on a man-produced destruction (nuclear weapons
can’t obviously be said to be natural), are often based on a weak version of
human agency: in those books and films the holocaust is often triggered by
casual events (mistakes, malfunctions, misunderstandings, etc.), not by deliberate (or rather pondered) decisions. As in purely natural disasters, nuclear
destruction is not started by human agency, but simply happens (and this is
arguably suspect from a political point of view.) In Dick’s novel, as we shall
see, it is a series of deliberate actions (most of them purely political) which
triggers an entropic process of destruction which gradually gets out of control.
Consequently, the stress on human agency distinguishes The Simulacra from
other disaster stories.
There is a third aspect of the novel which may have led readers and critics to overlook its catastrophic nature: there are vast differences between the
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world depicted in the first part of the novel and the world that Dick’s readers
inhabited in 1964 (and inhabit today.) Typically disaster novels and films are
set in a world which is as close to ours as possible: the characters of those stories
are usually ordinary people living in an ordinary world, and that heightens
the impact of the extraordinary event (the disaster) thus making the ensuing
destruction more shocking and heart-rending. Being shown the destruction
of a world which is so similar to ours we may easily believe it is immediately
our world (thus forgetting it is a fictional world); so we may easily identify
with the protagonists, which should lead us to think that what menaces the
people in the book or on the screen menaces us too.
However, the world devised by Dick is not our world, and this means we
shall start the analysis of the text by describing the political and sociological
features of the country The Simulacra is set in, that is, the USEA, the United
States of Europe and America.
It should be noticed that the basic idea behind Dick’s act of fictional
creation had already been expressed by somebody else, that is Robert Ley
(1890-1945), one of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials. Ley is not a very
famous Nazi leader, surely not so famous as Himmler or Goebbels; nonetheless
he was the Minister of Labor of the Nazi regime. He also created the Deutsches
Arbeitsfront, a corporative organization which included employers and employees, and the Kraft durch Freude (lit. “power through joy”), the institution
which organized workers’ free-time activities (after the fashion of the Fascist
dopolavoro in Italy.) But what is more important is his third creation, which
still survives: Volkswagenwerk AG, the producer of Volkswagen cars, founded
in 1937 by Ley, with the cooperation of Ferdinand Porsche.
The “grandfather”4 of the VW Beetle (the best-selling car ever made and
first car to outsell Ford’s Model T) hanged himself in his cell in October 1945,
but before committing suicide he sent a letter to President Truman where he
foresaw the annexation of defeated Germany to the United States under an
American National Socialist regime. He also sent a letter to Henry Ford, asking to be employed in the motor corporation because of his experience as the
creator of Volkswagen AG (Mayda, 111).
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Ley was an alcoholic (though forced to forsake liquor after his capture
in May 1945), and mentally disturbed to boot. Yet the clarity with which his
letters anticipate the fictional world of The Simulacra is surprising. But the
relationship between Ley’s delirious letters and Dick’s novel might be turned
upside down: we know for sure that the American novelist had read several
histories of Nazi Germany and Word War II before writing his most famous
novel, The Man in the High Castle; classics of Nazism historiography, such as
William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, can be found in the
Acknowledgements (Dick 1962, 7). Shirer mentions Ley’s suicide in a footnote
to the Epilogue (Shirer, 1481), though he does not talk about the letters; but
Dick might have found them (or a description of their content) in other texts
he may have consulted.
It is anyway remarkable that in The Simulacra we find the two concepts
Ley expressed in his letters: a political union between the USA and Germany,
and a transfer of Nazi know-how (technical and political) from Germany to
the USA. In fact the novel is set in the (then) remote future of 2040, at which
point Germany has entered the Union as its 53rd State (25). As previously
stated, in 1994 the name of the nation changed to “United States of Europe
and America.” The President of the USEA at the beginning of the novel is
a German, worn and colorless Rudolf Kalbfleisch, called der Alte (“The Old
One”) due to his advanced age; he is the successor of the first President of the
USEA, Konrad Adenauer (47). Dick connected Germany and the USA in two
other novels, The Man in the High Castle, written two or three years before
The Simulacra, and The Penultimate Truth, written soon after it; but the connection is much stronger in The Simulacra. In High Castle a counterhistorical
victory of Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II leads to the division of
the USA into three puppet states: one of them is strictly controlled by the
German Reich, though formally independent. In Penultimate Truth both
the USA and Germany belong to the Wes-Dem (Western Democracies), an
international organization born when the U.N. split. But in The Simulacra
we have the entrance of Germany into “‘our tent’, our federal union” (26), as
one of the characters muses.
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There are several consequences of this apparent annexation. Some of them
are quite superficial, such as the adoption of a few German expressions in
U.S. English: Dick didn’t devise a whole German-American language similar
to other fictional creations, such as Orwell’s Newspeak or Anthony Burgess’s
“Russian” English in A Clockwork Orange. He just dropped a few German
words here and there to add an exotic spice to his text. But when it comes to
the description of the relationship between the two components of the USEA,
Dick’s insights are more interesting. Vince Strikerock, one of the characters,
remarks: “The tail wags the dog, he said to himself (…). We in Nord Amerika
are the dog; the Reich is the tail. What a life” (28). What Dick is suggesting
through Vince’s thoughts is the Germanization of the USA.
Such a process is not very different from the Japanization of the West
Coast Dick had already described in High Castle (where California and other
western-seaboard states, called Pacific States of America, are under the influence of victorious Japan.) Both novels, by means of the narrative devices
proper to science-fiction, stage an alternat(iv)e history which enables Dick to
present readers with the loss of identity of American society, with an alienification (which is a typically science-fictional form of alienation) of the nation.
The difference between High Castle and The Simulacra is that the former is a
counter-historical novel (also called counterfactual, alternative/alternate world,
or parallel universe novel), while the latter may respect our version of world
history and stage the Germanized USA in a more or less remote future.
The strong connection of the USA and Germany should not surprise us
if we take into account the fascination with Germany of several post-World
War II U.S. novelists: one might mention such (post)modern classics as John
Hawkes’s The Cannibal (1962) and Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963);5 it can be also
noted that when The Simulacra was published Vonnegut and Pynchon were
busy writing Slaughterhouse 5 (1969) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) respectively.
In 1964 however, nobody had gone as far as Dick, and we might wonder
whether Vonnegut’s and Pynchon’s subsequent exploits are not indebted to
Dick’s “German” works.6 Such a fascination is probably more or less loosely
based on a parallel between Nazism and the U.S. segregation system. The Nazi
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totalitarian regime based on pseudoscientific racist theories had waged a ruthless racial war against other European countries; the U.S. segregation system,
a political racist structure still active in Southern States in the 50s and the
60s, survived in the background of widespread racial prejudices (and practical
discriminations) which haunted the whole nation while it was proposing itself
as a world-wide model of democracy.
The ethical foundation of the American Empire (in Dick’s times and today)
is the exportation of an efficient and morally sound socio-political system; but
if at the heart of the “Land of the Free” there exists an irrational inequality so
similar to the principles of the racist state theorized and founded by Hitler,
the American Empire becomes just a matter of power and money, like Milo
Minderbinder’s “syndicate” in Heller’s Catch-22.
Such a deep and disquieting connection between U.S. segregation and
Nazi racial warfare has not anyway been suggested only by a bunch of more
or less iconoclastic avant-garde writers:
Among the U.S. troops who liberated the Jewish prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp were some black soldiers. One of them recalled the sickening
sensation he experienced as he scanned the horror – the survivors looking like
ghosts, the ovens still warm. “Why Jews?” Paul Parks [one of the Afro-American soldiers] asked. “It doesn’t make sense. Why were they killed?” A prisoner
explained: “They were killed because they were Jews.” Parks commented: “I
understand that.” Then he added: “I understand that because I’ve seen people
lynched just because they were black.” (Takaki, 376)
The comparison between the two forms of racism/inequality was a very
important turning point in the history of interethnic relations and desegregation in the USA, and it is discussed at length in Ronald Takaki’s history of
multicultural America (Takaki, 375-7), which also focuses on the discrimination of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II. And
the Germanization of the USA in The Simulacra is fundamentally a matter of
carefully planned and enforced inequality (though, as we shall see, it is based
on knowledge rather than ethnicity), which may be easily grasped if we out-
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line the socio-political structure of the USEA, as it can be inferred from the
elements Dick offers us in his novel.
The basis of the USEA society is the discrimination between those who
own the truth and those who do not. The population is divided into two
formally-defined groups: the Ge élite, i.e. the Geheimnisträger, lit. “bearers of
the secret,” and a vast majority of citizens who lack the “exoteric” knowledge
of state secrets and are thus mere “bearers of orders” (from the ruling élite):
Befehlträger, shortened as Be.
Those who do not belong to the privileged élite are aware that the Ges
share very important secrets. They would like to access those forbidden truths,
whatever they may be, and this leads to grotesque scenes such as this:
‘Must be a change in govpol,’ the woman on Ian’s left said.
‘ “Govpol,”’ the man echoed, puzzled.
‘A Ge term,’ the woman said haughtily. ‘Government policy.’ (…)
‘I knew a Ge term once,’ Ian said (…) ‘The term I knew (…) was allost.’
‘What’s “allost” mean?’ the man beside him asked.
‘All’s lost,’ Ian said. (145)
Obviously, if “govpol” or “allost” really were “Ge terms,” neither the
woman nor Ian Duncan, low-level employee of a big multinational cartel (54),
would be aware of their meaning, indeed, of their existence. The Bes know that
there is a secret; but they naively identify it with this fantastic jargon, arguably
derived from Orwell’s linguistic inventions in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The overall
result is highly ironic, because the reader is told what the fundamental secret
is at the end of Chapter 3 (and is informed of the second, accessory secret
before half of the story has been told.) The desperate attempts by the Bes to
“be like the Ges” link this novel to the earlier production of Dick, rooted in
the sociological science-fiction of the Fifties,7 where the theme of status and
status-symbols was pre-eminent. In The Simulacra, knowledge determines
everybody’s status and secrets (real or bogus) are status-symbols.
The two secrets pertain to the vertex of the USEA, that is, the President
and the First Lady, Nicole Thibodeaux. Their marriage is purely formal: Nicole
has been the wife of all the Presidents of the USEA (and will be the wife of the
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next), and is unnaturally young and gorgeous, while the Presidents (all of them
German) are elderly and decrepit. Nicole represents the real power, in that she
is endowed with a crushing, subjugating charisma which relegates her husbands
to an almost ancillary role. Nicole is beautiful, sophisticated, fascinating, and
– above all – eternally young. Presidents change, she is always the same: USEA
citizens “voted, each four years, for a new Der Alte − for the man they thought
Nicole would like best” (19). This is the result of a gradual process started in
1990: “Each year der Alte became more obscure, the First Lady became better
known, more liked, by the public which brought it about” (20).
Besides, a vast majority of the population – notwithstanding the entry of
Germany into the federal union – feels der Alte is a stranger; this is confirmed
by these thoughts of Vince Strikerock, another character of the novel, an
ambitious young employee of a big German corporation, Karp und Sohnen
(27): “You Prussian bastards, (…). We never should have admitted you into
what I like to phrase as ‘our tent’, our federal union, which should have been
confined to the Western hemisphere” (26-7).
But the fundamental reason why Nicole is the actual ruler (and this is
the first state secret owned by the Ges) is that president Kalbfleisch, der Alte
– like Hempel before him, like his designed successor Dieter Hogben – is not
a human being, but a programmed android, or simulacrum.
Curtly, in his usual brisk tone, Garth McRae said, ‘Shut it off.’
The Kalbfleisch simulacrum stopped. Its arms struck out rigid in their
final gesture, the withered face vacuous. The simulacrum said nothing and automatically the TV cameras also shut off, one by one; there
was no longer anything for them to transmit, and the technicians behind them, all of them Ges, knew it. They looked to Garth McRae.
‘We got the message across,’ McRae informed Anton Karp. (35)
We might now quote Hazel Pierce and say that “the secret which they
[i.e. the Ges] bear is power and the tools with which to sustain that power”
(Pierce, 125): because der Alte is just a tool, under the control of Nicole and
the Ges. Kalbfleisch, like its predecessor Hempel and his successor Hogben, is
a simulacrum, that is, as dictionaries explain, an image or a representation: a
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mass-mediatic entity that lives only when it is on air (as soon as the simulacrum
is turned off, the TV cameras are shut off too.) TV rules.
This should help us to understand the sources of Nicole’s ascendancy over
Americans, which is more powerful than the charisma of any traditional politician. We are told in the text that the young woman embodies an archetypal
figure, “the image (…) of the Bad Mother. Overpowering and cosmic” (98).
Since Nicole is thus described by a psychoanalyst, Dr Egon Superb (another of
Dick’s onomastic puns), Dick seems to hint at a psychoanalytical interpretation
of the “national neurosis” (98), the psychological weakness felt by males in
the novel in relation to Nicole: “I’m terrified of her and that’s why I’m scared
of Julie, I guess in fact of all women (…) It’s because of weak-fibred men like
me that Nicole can rule (…) I’m the reason why we’ve got matriarchal society”
(98), says Chick Strikerock, Vince’s brother and a patient of Dr Superb.
The phrase used by Dick through the psychoanalyst, “Bad Mother,” is
connected to another expression subsequently used by him, when he explains
the feelings of another patient – psi-empowered, schizoid pianist Richard
Kongrosian – towards Nicole. “She’s a Magna Mater figure to him. As she is
to all of us. (…) The great primordial mother” (184). The Magna Mater was
a nature goddess of ancient Phrygia, one of the many embodiments of this
Mediterranean divinity: her counterparts include Greek Rhea, mother of Zeus,
and Roman Ops, sometimes considered a goddess of plenty. The Magna Mater
was also called Cybele, Dindymene, Great Mother, and Mater Turrita. Such a
mythical figure was recycled by Carl Jung as one of his archetypes, and that is
probably where Dick, an avid reader of psychoanalytical literature in the 50s
and the 60s, took it from.8 And this might explain the power structure of the
USEA and Nicole’s ascendancy: something imported from Nazi Germany,
where the dominating figure was the Führer, surely a fatherly authority figure,
while in the USEA there is a totalitarian matriarchy which requires “spiritualmoral emasculation (…) a present day pre-requisite for participation in the
Ge class, in the ruling circles” (36).
The society of the USEA is imprisoned by this Great Mother figure, which
is Dick’s ironical reading of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four,9 inasmuch as she
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lectures Americans via TV and is the actual holder of power. But this figure
should not be read on a psychoanalytical basis only. We might for example
connect her to Dick’s real mother, Dorothy Hudner, described by Dick’s
biographers (Lawrence Sutin first and foremost) as a harsh, castrating figure
who often accused young Phil of being weak (and a potential homosexual.)
Nicole might then belong to a series of several other negative, aggressive
female characters, which Andrew M. Butler labelled with the – maybe politically incorrect, but rather effective – term “Bitch wife” in his guide to Dick’s
oeuvre (which also carries out a lightweight, albeit useful, thematic analysis.)
Another possible reading of the First Lady is historiographical, since we
might read her as a satirical portrait of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis,
John F. Kennedy’s widow, who was the First Lady while Dick was writing the
novel (completed by August 28, 1963, before JFK’s assassination.) Nicole and
Jacqueline Kennedy have much in common, e.g. beauty, a French surname
(Nicole’s is Thibodeaux), upper class background, sophistication, high education (Jacqueline attended the Sorbonne, in Paris), interest in the arts (when
John F. Kennedy met Jacqueline, she was a photographer and a pen-and-ink
artist for a Washington, D.C., newspaper; one should not forget that she was
a tireless patron of the arts and launched a program to redecorate part of the
White House, appointing a Fine Arts Committee to assist her.) We might
describe at length Nicole’s activity as the main national promoter of arts and
entertainment in the USEA, but what I think is really interesting is her role
as a premier TV star.
Carlo Pagetti suggests that Nicole is a “figura televisiva osannata dai cittadini inconsapevoli” [a TV figure worshiped by unaware citizens] (Pagetti
2002, 8). And if we read this presentation of a TV program hosted by Nicole,
we can understand what the real roots of her charisma are:
Have you even wondered what it would be like to descend to the bottom of the
Pacific Ocean? Nicole has, and to answer that question she has assembled here
in the Tulip Room of the White House three of the world’s foremost oceanographers. Tonight she will ask them for their stories, and you will hear them too, as
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they were taped live, just a short while ago through the facilities of the Unified
Triadic Network’s Public Affairs Bureau. (20-1)
As I said before, Nicole lectures Americans, and seems determined to
improve their education by means of cultural programs, as we can see in her
introductory speech for a bizarre concert:
…and at our musical tonight (…) we will have a saxophone quartet which will
play themes from Wagner’s operas, in particular my favourite, die Meistersinger. I
believe we will all find that a deeply rewarding and certainly an enriching experience to cherish. And, after that, I have arranged to bring you once again an old
favourite of yours, the world-renowned cellist, Henri LeClerc, in a programme
of Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. (168)
This grotesque mix of highbrow and lowbrow culture is typical of Nicole’s
artistic events and programs.10 It is well represented by Ian Duncan and Al
Miller’s jug duo, which uses a typically popular musical instrument11 to play
Beethoven’s late sonatas and Bach’s Goldberg Variations (22), and strives to be
selected for the White House musicals hosted by Nicole; but we might also
say “emceed,” and I think this is the keyword.
Nicole is an archetypal mother figure, a political figure, but more than
anything else she is a TV emcee, an entertainer of a very peculiar kind, a TV
star whose charisma relies on her beauty more than anything else. That is
what makes all male USEA citizens fall in love – consciously or unconsciously
– with the First Lady. That is what happens to Kongrosian (97), but also to
Ian Duncan, since there are remarkable amorous undertones in Ian’s inner
monologue upon meeting Nicole at the White House (161). And this mix
of good looks, charm, media and politics may reflect the Kennedy age, but it
is so interesting to us because it foreshadows more recent figures on the U.S.
scene – one cannot help thinking that Nicole Thibodeaux is a prefiguration
of, say, Hilary Rodham Clinton.
Yet this “overpowering and cosmic” presence, who dominates USEA male
– albeit “emasculated” – citizens such as Chick Strikerock, Richard Kongrosian,
or Ian Duncan, is no less an artifact than der Alte (and this is the second secret
of Ges.) This is what she reveals to dumbfounded Ian Duncan e Al Miller:
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“I’m not Nicole. (…) I’m Kate Rupert, the fourth one to take her place. I’m
just an actress who looks enough like the original Nicole to be able to keep
this job, (…). I have no real authority, in the ultimate sense” (166). This is the
solution to a riddle previously introduced by Loony Luke, the owner of the
used-spaceship marketing chain who is also one of Nicole’s main opponents
(Luke thrives on people who emigrate to Mars, while Nicole strives to stop
emigration to other planets, see the scene on pp. 144-50):
She’s been in office for seventy-three years; didn’t you know that? (…) She’s a
really old woman, now. Must be. A grandmother. But she still looks good, I
guess. You’ll know when you see her. (…) On TV she looks around twenty. But
go to the history books… except of course they are banned to everyone except
Ges. I mean the real history texts; not the ones they give you (…) Once you
look it up you can figure it out for yourself. The facts are all there. Buried down
somewhere. (117)
Orwellian manipulation of history books12 goes here hand in hand with
(post-modern?) manipulation of massmediatic events (we might also talk of
“production of events,” a concept which is definitely not science-fictional any
more), and this explains why people in the novel can believe they have been
unofficially ruled for 70 years by the same unaging woman, hosting unexciting
TV shows.13 The key word is here “TV host,” because Nicole’s role is that of a
political emcee who presents a variety of “entertaining” materials: the fact that
the educational aspect is stressed14 is actually not so important, since we have
seen that highbrow “products” – e.g. Wagner – are adapted to pop combos
– the sax quartet – and that “serious” musicians must play Jerome Kern and
Cole Porter, and even scientific programs – dealing with oceanography – are
turned into talk shows. And the First Lady, the woman who should manage
the massmedia apparatus, the Oprah Winfrey of the USEA, is an actress
impersonating a dead celebrity, a replica, like a Marilyn Monroe or an Elvis
double. Again, TV rules.
We may now outline a sort of progression of the simulacra, because the
denouements of der Alte and Nicole are not the only ones which take place
in the complex plot of this not-so-long novel. When Nicole tells the truth
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to Al and Ian15 she also informs them that “there’s a council that governs… I
never see them” (166). The secret council summons Kate/Nicole at a critical
moment (195), that is, when both the state secrets are disclosed in the hectic
finale and the people of the USEA learn that its rulers (der Alte and Nicole)
are bogus. Kate then finds out that the chairman (and puppeteer) of the secret
council is Bertold Goltz (196), the leader of a paramilitary militia, the Sons
of Job,16 which has championed the cause of Bes against the privileges of the
Ges throughout the novel (one might consider what Goltz tells Nat Flieger
earlier in the story, 75-6).
What we have is a semiotic process. We can formalize it by means of a
simple scheme:
In this progression (or ladder) of the simulacra each stage hides what is
immediately above; at the same time it might be seen as standing for it. It is a
semiotic relation in its own right: each simulacrum is a mask and a spokesperson for the person or group it represents. From the point of view of characters
in the novel and readers of the novel, each rung of the ladder is first a power
figure, an agent in the complex political game of the novel, where conspiracies, revelations, and secrets abound; then we readers and/or the characters
understand that the power figure is just a simulacrum, a mere mouthpiece of
the real power figure which is above (or behind) it (or her, or them.) We thus
have a theatrical structure of the novel, where every major political figure is
no more than an actor who plays a part somebody else has written; the only
exception being Goltz, who seems to be an opponent of the regime, but is in
fact the chief puppeteer, the ultimate ringmaster of this massmediatic circus.
One cannot deny that Goltz plays the part of the Be who wants to destroy
the privileges of the Ge élite and unveil the secrets the structural inequality
of the USEA is pivoted upon, so we might think that he is an actor just like
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Kate Rupert; but he is at the same time actor and playwright, and is the only
simulacrum who is able to decide what he says and does.
However, once we have discovered that the real policymaker, so to speak,
is Bertold Goltz (196-9), we have not discovered a political bedrock of sorts
that may sustain all the system of power depicted by the novel. Just when we
readers are finally told that the real ruler of the USEA is Bertold Goltz – so
that we have the political Ascension (in the Christian sense of the term) of a
character who seemed to be one of the oppressed17 – Goltz is abruptly slaughtered by Wilder Pembroke, the ambitious and ruthless NP executive; and this
is not just one of those plot twists Dick happily placed in his novel every given
number of words.18 Goltz’s elimination is Dick’s fictional way to tell us that
we will not be given any political (and narrative) ubi consistam; that Goltz, the
simulacra manipulator, is a simulacrum himself, somebody who only believed
he could control the massmediatic state. An actor who has suddenly ceased
to strut and fret his hour upon the political stage.
And since we are talking of simulacra here one cannot avoid discussing,
however briefly, Jean Baudrillard’s appreciation of Dick’s oeuvre: first because
he adopted the term “simulacra” in his sociological analysis of post-modern
society and culture, then because he mentioned Dick in a short essay whose
title is “Simulacra and Science-Fiction.” I think many postmodernist readings
of Dick’s works might have been caused by the title of the novel we are dealing
with, that is, The Simulacra: resisting the temptation to couple that novel with
Baudrillard’s seminal essay Simulacre et simulation (1981) is quite difficult.
Then we should not forget that the U.S. edition of that essay, Simulacra and
Simulation (1994), became immensely famous because a copy of the book
appeared in Andy and Larry Wachowsky’s blockbuster The Matrix (1999);
and here we have a sort of massmediatic loop, since many have read the film
by the Wachowsky Bros. as inspired by Dick or loosely based on Dick’s oeuvre, thus strengthening the connection between the American writer and the
French sociologist.
Besides, Baudrillard’s essay explicitly mentions the novel we are dealing
with: “Like the Civil War in Philip K. Dick’s The Simulacra; like a gigantic
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hologram in three dimensions, where fiction will never again be a mirror held
to the future, but rather a desperate rehallucinating of the past” (Baudrillard,
310). What should strike anybody who has read Dick’s novel is the fact that
the Civil War with capital C and W (1861-1865), or War Between the States,
is not dealt with in The Simulacra,19 but is a quite important issue in Dick’s
We Can Build You (1972, but already completed in 1962), where we have
android replicas of President Lincoln and Edwin Stanton, plus plans for the
reproduction of Gettysburg with armies of androids.
Here we might simply reprove Baudrillard for his careless quotation,
though it should be said that the mistake is partly justified by Dick’s use of the
term “simulacrum” in We Can Build You, a lexical peculiarity which connects
the two novels (in other texts he talks about androids or robots) – besides, we
must forgive the author of such a brilliant sentence as “fiction will never again
be a mirror held to the future, but rather a desperate rehallucinating of the
past,” which captures the spirit of We Can Build You (and The Man in the High
Castle and several other Dickian novels and stories as well) much better than
other po-mo critical nonsense – and manages to quote Shakespeare to boot.
Moreover, there are quite interesting ideas in the essay that we should take
into account in our analysis. When Baudrillard posits the idea of “simulation
simulacra: based on information, the model, cybernetic play,” and adds that
“their aim is maximum operationality, hyperreality, total control” (Baudrillard,
309) he is (maybe unawares) describing the political/massmediatic system of
the USEA. The total control of TV networks – that’s what the bureaucratic
expression “Unified Triadic Network’s Public Affairs Bureau” (21) probably
alludes to – allows the control of information that the simulation simulacra
are based upon; simulacra such as Nicole/Kate, who is not just the reproduction of a lost original (the “historical” Nicole Thibodeaux), but more than
anything else a hyperreal (an adjective Baudrillard obsessively uses in his essay)
entity endowed with a power and a fascination (we might also say “seduction,”
and here is another typically Baudrillardian term) potential which does not
relate to the lost original, but is explained by the position she occupies in the
massmediatic system, by her being the “hyper-emcee” of the USEA – plus
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her glamorous beauty which is not tied to anything else, but can be seen as a
televisional immanence of sorts. So most of what Baudrillard says in his article
applies to Nicole and even more to der Alte, the “real” android, who isn’t a copy
of some human politician, but is designed and built according to the political
needs of the moment. This is why Nicole can describe the new der Alte, Dieter
Hogben, before it is completed: “Old and tired, she thought to herself. A worn
out stringbean, stiff and formal, full of moralizing speeches; a real leader type
who can drum obedience into the Be masses” (143). In Baudrillard’s terms
“to put in place “decentered” situations, models of simulation, and then to
strive to give them the colors of the real, the banal, the lived” (Baudrillard,
311). Which is the rationale of the android presidency in The Simulacra: to
use socio-political models to build a President which is then given the colors
of the real.
Baudrillard’s idea of models of simulation also applies to the famnexdos,
one of Dick’s wildest ideas in the novel. People who emigrate to Mars may feel
terribly lonely in such a desert place; but they may buy a group of simulacra
which reproduce a typical American family – and that’s the meaning of the
term famnexdo: family next-door.
Four simulacra seated in silence, a group: one in adult male form, its female
mate and two children. This was a major item of the firm’s catalogue; this was
a famnexdo. (…) A man, when he emigrated, could buy neighbours, buy the
simulated presence of life, the sound and motion of human activity − or at least
its mechanical near-substitute − to bolster his morale in the new environment of
unfamiliar stimuli and perhaps, god forbid, no stimuli at all. (57-8)
Any comment is superfluous. I might as well quote Baudrillard again:
“Models no longer constitute an imaginary domain with reference to the real,
and thus leave no room for any kind of transcendentalism” (Baudrillard, 310).
The journey to Mars does not carry the USEA citizens Elsewhere, perhaps
to meet some unthinkable Other; it takes them to a hyperreal neighbourhood where their neighbours have surely been given “the colors of the real,
the banal, the lived.” They go to another planet just to get exactly what they
had at home, nuisances included (58). Baudrillard again: “SF of this sort is
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no longer an elsewhere, it is an everywhere: in the circulation of the models
here and now, in the very axiomatic nature of our simulated environment”
(Baudrillard, 312). Dick: “Communication with them [i.e. the simulacra of
the famnexdo] was in essence a circular dialogue with oneself; the famnexdo
(…) picked up the covert hopes and dreams of the settler and detailed them
back in an articulated fashion” (59).
The interaction of the Martian settlers with the famnexdos might be read
as a sort of small-size, comedic mirror image of the greater interaction of the
citizens with simulacra such as der Alte or Nicole. Isn’t that a circular dialogue?
While decisions are made in secret places, people are given what they want via
TV: a fascinating maternal figure that may interact with the incestuous drives
of male citizens, a figure which is at the same time overpowering and reassuring.
Nicole is a perfect emcee also because she is (obviously) an object of sexual
desire. This is why she must be periodically replaced: she must be always young
and attractive. Today’s TV stars partially achieve this with plastic surgery and
beauty farms. Anyway, what is at stake is always the same force: seduction.
We might also say that, by imagining that an “almost grotesquely, unnaturally beautiful” (219) young woman might be the appropriate leader of the
USA once they – having been contaminated by Nazi politics – have lost their
inbred democratic character, Dick foresaw the massmediatic state. But the verb
“foresee” might be out of place in a Baudrillardian perspective: Dick simply
assembled whatever massmediatic materials that were within reach – Konrad
Adenauer, Jacqueline Kennedy, the popularity of the Kennedy clan, TV’s increasing power to grant substantiality to collective imagery, pop Americana,
quiz shows, everyday life in suburbia, cabals against the young and charismatic
President, advertising, whatever. The result of this hyperrealistic assemblage is
the USEA, the inequalitarian United States based on lies, fakery, unconscious
manipulation, ruthless plotting, and demented hi-tech military projects.
Since the traditional U.S. parties have been merged in the DemocraticRepublican Party (19), thus voiding the official elections of any meaning, it is
then no surprise that in such a TV-based state the only form of representation
is the selections of performers held in every conapt. Those amateur talents
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hope to be noticed by White House talent scouts and sent to Washington to
be auditioned by Nicole herself (like Ian Duncan and Al Miller, though their
audition ends in tears, 160-7). Ultimately, if the First Lady likes them, they
might be hosted in one of her TV programs. That is the only viable form of
representation in the USEA, the only one which may grant a temporary and
partial access to the space of real power: not the White House in its physical solidity, but Nicole’s TV spaces, the Presidential entertainment (the term
“edutainment” might better describe her shows.)
This is why the story of Al and Ian, these post-modern jug-playing Bouvard
and Pécuchet, had to be included in this polyphonic novel, maybe the most
crowded that Dick ever wrote. It is the story of two ordinary men who strive
to achieve success, to be elected (in the etymological sense of the verb, from
Latin eligere, “to select”), to be chosen not by other citizens but by the charismatic First Lady, the TV goddess – but fail. When they are finally auditioned
by Nicole, the android papoola (another simulacra, faithfully reproducing an
extinct Martian species) attacks her (164) and the two jug players discover (1)
that their access to the White House had been masterminded by Loony Luke,
in an attempt to kill Nicole, and (2) that Nicole is an actress, thus a fake goddess. These two twists utterly void their achievement of any meaning.
The destruction of Ian Duncan’s and Al Miller’s memories of their unlucky audition is a harbinger of a much greater destruction that closes the
novel. It is now time to get back to our initial hypothesis, i.e. that we should
read The Simulacra as a SF disaster novel, and prove it. In order to do that
we should focus on another thread in the texture of this multiple plot, that
is, the demented hi-tech military project of the von Lessinger time machine.
This highly Sfnal device should allow the Ge élite to correct such historical
mistakes as the extermination of the Jews in Nazi Germany, a stain on the
apparently spotless façade of the USEA. “Days of Barbarism − that was the
sweet-talk for the Nazi period of the middle part of the previous century,
now gone nearly a century but still vividly, if distortedly, recalled” (27); once
Germany has been phagocytized by the U.S., the ruling élite feels that those
(not presentable) days must be erased by changing the course of history. The
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time machine brings Hermann Goering back from the past, so that the Ges
may put a “simple enough proposition to him” (45): the USEA will exchange
the military technology of 2050 – which will allow the Nazi armies to defeat
the Allies – for the life of all the Jews imprisoned in the extermination camps
(48). If the operation succeeds, the Ge will add a total control on the past to
the total control on reality assured by the massmedia technology (the management of simulacra such as der Alte or Nicole.)
Obviously this is a fictional embodiment of a famous slogan from a famous
novel, one whose influence on Dick has not been fully measured yet: George
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Party slogan there was: “Who controls the
past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell,
197). In Dick’s novel the control of the past is not enforced by means of the
daily, painstaking editing of historical sources by the Minitrue; it is to be achieved
through a daring negotiation between Hermann Goering and the First Lady
(121-4), a science-fictional chronological short circuit (or shortcut.)
The operation is opposed by Bertold Goltz, the leader of the Sons of Job,
who, as we know, is a Jew. We know that Goltz is the mastermind behind
Nicole, who receives orders from him through the secret council; but the assassination of Goltz tells us that before the final disaster there are competing
conspiracies well inside the White House and the Ge oligarchy (one of which
is led by Wilder Pembroke, the man who will kill Goltz.) Goltz opposes the
deal between the USEA and Nazi Germany because he thinks that the Nazis
will exterminate the Jews anyway. One cannot negotiate the life of the Jews
with the creators of Auschwitz, because “(…) the objective in the war for the
Nazis was the extermination of World Jewry; it was not merely a by-product”
(124). The irrational element in Nazism is not a secondary aspect; it is deeply
ingrained in Hitler’s Reich. The Ge oligarchy cannot understand this because
it has been infected from the start by inegalitarianism, authoritarianism, and
an intellectual arrogance preventing it from perceiving the deep nature of
Nazism, something Dick had already captured in another novel.
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One cannot omit here the searing illumination that strikes Mr Tagomi, one
of the protagonists of Dick’s most successful “German” novel, The Man in the
High Castle, after listening to a detailed description of Nazi nomenklatura:
There is evil! It’s actual, like cement.
I can’t believe it. I can’t stand it. Evil is not a view. (…) All our religion is wrong.
It’s an ingredient in us. In the world. Poured over us, filtering into our bodies,
minds, hearts, into the pavement itself. (Dick 1962, 97)
But Ges like Wilder Pembroke or Nicole cannot see this “elemental” evil
because they have accepted it when they entered the simulacra management.
They cannot see it because it is business-as-usual to them; because they have
accepted the basic tenets of Nazism, which are a radical form of inequality and
collective manipulation. Actually they are manipulated as well as manipulators, and that is the fundamental reason why they cannot see the irrationality
at the heart of Nazism. They do not operate their system of simulacra, but are
operated by it. The system is out of control. The attempt to strike a bargain
with Goering and the Nazi hierarchy proves this: its real purpose is to make the
German part of the USEA presentable by removing its past atrocities – as we
can infer from Nicole’s conversation with the Prime Minister of Israel (44-50)
– rather than saving the victims of the Holocaust. And its final result would
be the triumph of the Nazi Reich.
The USEA and the Reich are specular images. Both states discriminate
among their citizens, both states are based on a massmediatic manipulation
which soon engulfs everything and everybody in the progression of simulacra,
which knows no time and space limits (we have seen that Mars and the past
are no real “elsewhere” but, thanks to technology, can be reduced to easilyreachable “peripheries” of the USEA); both states aim at world domination,
both states are utterly corrupt and out of control; both states are doomed to
destruction. We might also suspect that the USEA and Nazi Germany are the
two “visible” vertices of a triangle which includes another state, another nation:
the historical USA of 1964. That is what Carlo Pagetti suggested more than
20 years ago in the first Introduction he wrote to this novel:
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Lo stato apparentemente utopico sorto dalle ceneri dell’olocausto atomico,
“una società stabile e pacifica” a cui “ognuno, per legge, apparteneva” è, infatti,
l’America dei portenti tecnologici e delle grandi concentrazioni monopolistiche,
rese ancora più forti dalla fusione politica dei due centri del capitalismo mondiale
− gli antichi U.S.A. e la Germania occidentale −, ma anche l’America degli intrighi
politici e della violenza che avrebbe travolto lo stesso presidente Kennedy e i suoi
sogni di rinnovamento, l’America che è diventata addirittura erede della cultura
nazista, tanto da trattare direttamente con un Goering redivivo e da invocarne i
metodi criminali di lotta politica. L’America del futuro è l’America del passato,
un’immagine metaforica (…) dell’America del presente e della società del presente,
vista sotto forma di un melodramma televisivo (…) (Pagetti 1980, v)20
The negotiation with Goering triggers the disaster, notwithstanding
the warning the Ge oligarchy had received: “Von Lessinger was right in his
final summation: no one should go near the Third Reich. When you deal with
psychotics you’re drawn in; you become mentally ill yourself ” (46). In fact
the Ge oligarchs are drawn in: competing conspiracies struggle to take over
the massmediatic state, the Karp family (great German industrialists) against
Nicole, Pembroke against Goltz – the destructive forces which tore Nazi
Germany apart 21 are unleashed again. Consequently, the ominous contact
with Nazi hierarchy via Goering is at the same time the highest technological
achievement of the USEA and their point of no return.
Pembroke reveals the secret of Nicole (184), Karp und Sohnen Werke
reveal the other (186). Here begins the dismantling of the chain of simulacra,
a crescendo of what had been defined “Nazi thuggery” in The Man in the High
Castle: Goltz is killed by Pembroke, who has the other members of the council
hastily executed by his NP henchmen (200); Pembroke is telekinetically sentenced to death by Kongrosian, who shuts off one of his vital organs (202);
and Kongrosian dismembers himself by introjecting external objects (such as
Pembroke’s gun) and expelling parts of his body (202-3).
This gruesome scene reveals the madness which has taken hold of the Ge
intelligentsia. In fact Kongrosian, who is one of the most sophisticated and
accomplished pianists in the world, telekinetically capable of playing Brahms
and Schumann piano music, a superman in his own right, is first psychically
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and then physically destroyed by his own madness, an almost metaphysical inability to distinguish between I and non-I. One might wonder if Scott Durham
was right when he read this scene as the staging of a post-modern “death of the
subject” (Durham, 189-90); maybe we might also read it by means of classic
German idealism, the Fichtian dialectic of I and non-I (explicitly recalled in
the passage: “You’re part of the I-world, not the non I” says Kongrosian to
the piece of his lungs he telekinetically expelled, 203), or consider the whole
schizophrenic process that affects the pianist as a fictional embodiment of
Hegelian/Marxian alienation. Whatever reading we may adopt, Kongrosian’s
self-dismemberment does not seem to lead to Durham’s purported “attempt
at reconstruction [of subjectivity] on a new basis” (Durham, 189); it is a personal disaster mirroring the “great national disaster” (216) surrounding him,
the self-destructive struggle which is tearing apart the USEA.
What should be noticed is one of Kongrosian’s final statements before
he uses his psi powers to move Nicole away form the White House: “As Mr
Pembroke said, I haven’t really learned the political uses of my ability, even
after all these years. But anyhow now I’m in politics” (203). Since these are
the words of a madman, we might ask ourselves what their political value really is; but in the final part of the novel the actions of other characters are not
psychologically sounder than Kongrosian’s. Here are Goltz’s last instructions
for Nicole:
A number of army generals, three or four at least, should be sent to the main Karp
installations in Berlin; they should arrest the Karp family personally. Have the
Karps taken to the nearest military base, have them tried by a military tribunal
and executed immediately, also before tonight. Now, as to Pembroke. I think it
would be better if the Sons of Job sent commando assassins to get Pembroke;
we’ll leave the military out of this aspect of the situation. (198)
Though Goltz has rejected the accusations of being a neo-Nazi, he has
learned Nazi political tactics quite well. In the quoted passage what he is ordering is a classic putsch, with subsequent liquidation of his political opponents.
Goltz, though, is not much worse than Pembroke. When Nicole finds the
corpse of her secretary and go-between Janet Raimer, who has just been killed
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by the NP executive himself, Pembroke comments: “We found ourselves in a
position where we were coerced into doing that (…) Or rather − let’s face it −
we wanted to do it. Let’s be honest with each other, finally. No, I don’t have
to. Taking care of Miss Raimer was an act of pure, enjoyable volition” (200).
This cold-blooded, unnecessary murder could also be labelled “Nazi thuggery.”
A frantic lust for slaughter takes hold of the conspirators; one by one they kill
– or plan to kill – and then are killed.22
Even the great industrial cartels are destroyed, in a most catastrophic way:
In the sky, to the north, an immense, grey, mushroom-like cloud all at once
formed. And a rumble stirred through the earth, jarring Chick and making him
jump. (…) An explosion, perhaps a small, tactical A-bomb. Now he inhaled the
reek of ashes and knew definitely what it was.
A soldier, striding past him, said over his shouder, ‘The local branch of Karp und
Sohnen Werke.’ (…)
Maury said in a soft voice, ‘They blew it up. The army blew up Karp.’ (209)
Shortly after another nuclear bomb annihilates the A.G. Chemie plant.
Here is the dissolution of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex. The wellordered structure of the massmediatic state collapses once its foundation (the
system of secrets, the progression of simulacra) has been shattered. What is left
is not a new order, but sheer chaos, broadcast live on all TV sets in the nation:
“The set showed a street scene, downtown Reno; an army barricade had been
hastily erected, and police snipers were firing at it from the windows of the
nearby buildings” (214). Survivors are unable to make sense of the events: “I
can’t make out exactly what’s going on, what the issues are or who’s fighting
whom” (219), says Nat Flieger.
At the end of The Simulacra we are left with the ongoing destruction of
the civil war (with lowercase initials) and a handful of bewildered characters:
Kate Rupert (who has lost her charisma, thus becoming a small young woman
who needs to be protected by her former subjects, 219) and the three EME
employees (once Bes), stranded in a bar in Jenner, CA. The TV shows “a
smoking, virtually disintegrated ruin, the remains of buildings, an industrial
installation of great magnitude that had been all but obliterated. It was (…)
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unrecognizable” (213). Such a bleak view depresses the humans, but it cheers
the chuppers.
The chuppers are probably one of Dick’s most impressive achievements
in this novel. They are the result of a previous war of the USEA against communist China: deformed semi-human beings born of genetic mutation.
A hunched man with a huge deformed jaw and teeth faced him (…). The man,
elderly, mumbled, ‘Hig, hig, hig.’
Or so it sounded to Nat. (…) And Nat, at last, thought he made out real words;
he strained to understand, (…) while the great-jawed old man mumbled on,
anxiously, still gesturing. (…)
‘I can eat vegetables pretty good (…) I can’t eat meat (…) I am a chupper’ the
elderly man said. (102)
These strange creatures are protected by a specific association; one of them
is the son of Richard Kongrosian. Apparently they are unfit for life:
The chuppers (…) looked weighed down, and by an impossible task, that of
survival itself. Jim was absolutely correct; they just were not equipped for that
task. Meek, small and hunched, apologetic, shuffling and mumbling, they lurched
along their meagre life-track, getting nearer each moment to the end. (211)
The reasons for this inability to cope with survival probably derives from
their being out of their time. This is what Jim Planck understands when he
recognises them: “Neanderthal. They’re not radiation freaks; they’re throwbacks” (105). The chuppers are the return of an immemorial past, or rather
a form of the “supremacy of the past” (104) which is the hidden meaning of
the whole novel. The ultimate evolution of human society collapses, and the
pre-humans, the Neanderthals, are ready to come back, so that in the last pages
the few survivors cannot say if they are “forefathers” or “progeny” (220); what
is sure is that the chuppers “dance their monotonous dance” (220). This is
their way to celebrate the self-destruction of the USEA, the most advanced
and evolved society on Earth; a self-destruction which, in the ending of Dick’s
novel, does look like a world catastrophe, humankind’s apocalypse. Once
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Homo Sapiens has committed suicide, it will be the time of the chuppers.
Neanderthal strikes back.
We might now ask ourselves what Dick was aiming at. Is this simply
another chapter of the American jeremiad? Was Dick satirizing the Kennedy
administration and its myth of a new Frontier, so that now this novel can be
said to be a bit obsolescent, maybe in need of footnotes that tell readers who
and what Dick is poking fun at? My personal hypothesis is that this novel is
indeed deeply rooted in the historical moment Dick found himself in. And
Baudrillard’s small mistake might be a felix culpa, after all, because Chick
Strikerock’s words might be revealing of the not-so-hidden source of The Simulacra: “The destruction, the great national disaster, was still there. That was the
terrible thing about civil war; no matter how it came out it was still bad. Still
a catastrophe. And for everyone” (216). Can we downplay the importance of
the Civil War centenary (1961-1965) which took place while Dick was busy
writing The Simulacra and We Can Build You? While the latter overtly staged
Baudrillard’s desperate rehallucinating of the past (the simulacra of Lincoln
and Stanton), the former resurrected the war itself, the great national disaster,
in a bewildered and bewildering science-fictional remake of the most rending
conflict in the history of the United States.
But Dick achieved more than this. His deranged rendering of the Civil
War creates a short circuit between racism and Nazism, between the limits
of American democracy and the manipulation of the mass unconscious, between Goebbels’ scientific propaganda and PR in the age of TV politics; and,
last but not least, it connects the past of the United States with its imminent
future. The Simulacra was published in 1964; can one pretend not to foresee
the Watts race riot that would blow up just a year later? The racist bombing
in Birmingham, Alabama, had occurred in September 1963. Vietnam was
raging, year after year, sending more and more images of destruction to the
screens of American TV sets. Those were, to quote Todd Gitlin’s history of the
Sixties, years of discord. Before the ghettos of major U.S. metropolises blew
up, before Vietnam became a national emergency, before political figures such
as Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy (and his elder brother)
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were slaughtered, before Chicago and four dead students in Ohio, before the
conspiracies and counter-conspiracies of the Nixon era, Dick perceived the
oncoming destruction, the great national disaster ahead.
We might also ask ourselves whether TV and simulacra had a role in
preventing that disaster, or rather, in rebuilding Imperial America after the
disaster. One might notice that the idea of Kate Rupert impersonating Nicole is, after all, a cautious version of what actually happened when an actor
became Governor of California and then President of the United States. In
fact Ronald Reagan never hid his past career, though his limited success as a
western movie actor cannot be said to have paved his way to the White House;
his acting experience may instead have been crucial in winning the TV war
of presidential elections (it has surely helped him to stay afloat during his
two terms of Presidency.) But Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new political career
might be a case of reality surpassing (science-)fiction, if Baudrillard hadn’t
admonished us that “the real could never surpass the model, for the real is
only a pretext of the model” (Baudrillard, 310). Governor Schwarzenegger is
in fact a German (we might perhaps consider Austria today as a periphery of
Germany) who rules Americans, like der Alte – and I wonder whether Dick’s
(and Baudrillard’s) deconstruction of simulacra in a massmediatic society
couldn’t be applied to him.
1. Such as Soylent Green, 1973; The Towering Inferno, 1974; Airport 1975, 1974; Earthquake,
1975, but a remake is under way; The Day After, 1983; Jurassic Park, 1993; Dante’s Peak, 1997;
Armageddon, 1998. And this is just a tentative, far-from-complete list.
2. Another novel by Disch with a very important catastrophic component (which, being based
on ecology, is closer to the British catastrophic tradition) is On Wings of Song (1979), a text I
analysed in depth in my article “On a Background, Catastrophic, the Story, Ironic.” It is one of the
few U.S. science-fiction novels Harold Bloom included in his idiosyncratic Western Canon.
3. We might quote Mr Nobosuke Tagomi, one of the protagonists of The Man in the High
Castle, praised by Ursula K. LeGuin.
4. The “real” father of the Beetle was Heinz Nordhoff, who led Volkswagen after World War II
and distanced it from former Nazi associations.
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5. The theme of identification with Nazi Germany can also be detected in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22
(1961), though it is more clearly expressed in the film based on the novel (Catch-22, dir. Mike
Nichols, 1970), where there is a deliberate, ironic imitation of Nazi cinema (especially the
political documentaries by Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will and Victory of the Faith.)
6. A question I have explored in my essay “The Harmless Yank Hobby,” on the relations between
Dick and Pynchon.
7. There are at least four novels by Dick that may be included in the current of sociological SF:
Solar Lottery (1955), the first novel he managed to sell, based on the idea of a lottery which
selects the President of the Solar System (called Quizmaster in the novel); The Man Who Japed
(1956), which satirizes the conformism and the moralism of the Fifties; The World Jones Made
(1956, but already completed in 1954), a bitter satire of Cold War xenophobia and paranoia;
Vulcan’s Hammer (1960, but based on a homonymous novella published in 1956), depicting
a computer-controlled society.
8. When Ian meets Nicole in the White House he is evidently starstruck, but also subtly scared
by the First Lady, whose semi-divine status is revealed by an involuntary pun by Ian, who – after
hearing Al Miller say “We ate, Mrs Thibodeaux” – thinks “We ate Mrs Thibodeaux,” thus hinting
at the Christian Eucharist, where believers eat God. But then he adds “Doesn’t she, sitting here
in her blue-cotton pants and shirt, doesn’t she devour us? Strange thought…” (162). Not so
strange if we think that there were human sacrifices to pagan gods, so that those deities might
well be seen as devouring gods. Once again, Nicole is seen as a voracious Magna Mater.
9. The connection between these novels has been noticed also by Carlo Pagetti, who mentions
“la tradizione anti-utopica di Orwell, recuperata parodicamente (al posto di Big Brother c’è
il mummificato Der Alte (…))” [Orwell’s anti-utpian tradition, recovered in a parodic way
(Big Brother being replaced by mummified Der Alte)] (Pagetti 2002, 8). Such a mummified,
devitalized paternal figure is just an ironic reminder of Orwell’s dictator: the real power figure
is the Big Mother, that is, Nicole.
10. Kern is the U.S. composer who wrote the musical comedy Show Boat (1927) with Oscar
Hammerstein II.
11. Jug band music flourished in Louisville, Kentucky, at the beginning of the 20th century.
Though derivative of Appalachian country music it was performed mostly by African-Americans
in urban areas. Jug bands united Appalachian folk with blues, ragtime, and very early jazz; they
are best known, of course, for their novel, do-it-yourself instrumentation. The jug in question
was usually a whiskey jug, and a player blew across the mouth of the jug to produce pitches
in the bass register.
12. Which includes banning subversive texts, e.g. those “by the twentieth-century sociologist
C. Wright Mills” (40).
13. This is an answer to Christopher Palmer’s objection that “Dick is a writer who challenges
the reader’s capacity for belief ” (Palmer, 272), and that “readers and characters undergo a similar
severe test of their powers of belief in the course of the novel, and readers may note here that the
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author is (to exaggerate only a little) himself embroiled, risking disorientation, if not humiliation” (Palmer, 272). Like other critics, here Palmer seemingly aims at pointing out “internal”
inconsistencies in Dick’s plots, thus proving his aesthetic limits: “neither reader not author is set
at aesthetic distance,” Palmer goes on to say. But there is a question Palmer does not ask, one
which I believe is the fundamental question Dick’s readers and critics should ask themselves:
how much do the massmedia system and its operators challenge our capacity for belief? This is
a question Dick’s characters ask themselves and each other, as we can see in Loony Luke’s challenging Ian and Al’s powers of belief. Dick’s aim in endlessly staging simulation and forgeries
is not just the author’s wish to see how far he can go with his narrative confidence game; it is
his own way to fictionally depict an age of mediatic confidence games in a nation where the
con man is a national hero (one should then reconsider Melville’s The Confidence-Man as the
foundation act of a typically North-American aesthetics of fakery which culminates in Orson
Welles’ F for Fake and in Dick’s oeuvre.)
14. One of the characters thinks that “the TV had become educational, not entertaining” (17),
but the descriptions of the programs emceed by Nicole render doubtful the meaning of the
adjective educational in that sentence.
15. A harmless truth from her point of view, since she knows their memories of the meeting can
and will be erased by a surgical intervention; so Dick may introduce one of his favourite themes,
i.e. artificial amnesia, which is central in such novels as Time Out of Joint and A Maze of Death.
16. There is a denouement also in the first appearance of the Sons of Job. Nat Flieger, a Jewish
sound engineer, thinks that the Sons of Job are neo-Nazis who, “like the Nazis of the past,
[feed] on disappointment” (72); but when he meets Goltz during a street demonstration, the
leader of the movement tells him “I’m a Jew, too, Mr Flieger. Or more properly, an Israeli”
(75). Nat’s misconception about Goltz may just be Dick’s way to prepare a small coup de théâtre
when Goltz discloses his Jewish descent, or may hint at disinformation campaigns organized
by the Ge ruling élite.
17. Goltz had told Nat Flieger: “You’re not a Ge (…) You’re like me, (…) me and my people.
You’re forever on the outside” (76); yet in chapter 14 we discover that Goltz is well inside;
indeed, he occupies the center of the Ge system.
18. Here I refer to John Huntington’s hypothesis of Dick following Van Vogt’s alleged technique
of a new idea every 800 words (Huntington, 172).
19. There is a slight mention – but only as a historical reference point – when a minor character
talks about “jug bands surviving the U.S. Civil War” (160).
20. [The apparently utopian state which rose from the ashes of nuclear holocaust, was typified
as being “a stable and peaceful society (…) everyone, by law, belonged to.” It was, in fact, the
America of technological portents and great monopolistic cartels, which was strengthened by
the political fusion of the two centers of world capitalism – the old U.S.A. and West Germany.
It was also the America of political conspiracies and violence that would overwhelm President
Kennedy and his dreams of renewal. This America becomes an heir to Nazi culture, so much so
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that it negotiates with Goering once he has been brought back to life, and invokes his criminal
methods of political struggle. The America of the future is the America of the past, a metaphoric
image of present-day America and present-day society, seen as a form of soap opera].
21. A dismal picture of the Nazi leaders can be found in The Man in the High Castle, where Mr
Tagomi takes part in a meeting where the “contending factions in German political life” (Dick
1962, 93) are described in detail (Dick 1962, 93-6). Tagomi’s moral/physical reaction is so
strong that he feels sick and must leave the room. The contending factions in USEA’s political
life are not very different.
22. This process of (beguiling) triumph and subsequent destruction has already been noticed
by Carlo Pagetti, who divided it into three phases of apparent powerlessness, revelation of one’s
real power, and sudden fall (Pagetti 1980, viii-ix). The scheme applies perfectly to Pembroke
and Goltz, but it doesn’t seem to fit Nicole; one might also wonder why it was not applied to
other figures of power in the novel: for example, the Karp family, or Kongrosian, considered
as a “wild card” by Pagetti, though its diegetic trajectory in the novel is remarkably similar to
that of other conspirators.
works cited
Baudrillard, Jean, “Simulacra and Science-Fiction,” tr. Arthur B. Evans, Science-Fiction Studies,
55, 18:3, November 1991, pp. 309-313.
Blum, John Morton, Years of Discord: American Policy and Society, 1961-1974, 1991, rpt. New
York, Norton, 1992.
Butler, Andrew M., The Pocket Essential Philip K. Dick, Harpenden, Pocket Essentials, 2000.
Clute, John and Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction, New York, St. Martin’s
Griffin, 1995.
Dick, P.K., The Man in the High Castle, 1962, rpt. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1987.
—, The Penultimate Truth, 1964, rpt. London, Granada, 1984
—, The Simulacra, 1964, rpt. London, Methuen, 1983.
Durham, Scott, “P.K. Dick: From the Death of the Subject to a Theology of Late Capitalism,”
in Mullen et al. 1992, 188-99.
Huntington, John, “Philip K. Dick: Authenticity and Insincerity,” in Mullen et al. 1992,
pp. 170-7.
Mayda, Giuseppe (ed.), Il processo di Norimberga, Milan, Mondadori, 1972.
Mullen, R.D. and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, Arthur B. Evans and Veronica Hollinger (eds.), On Philip
K. Dick: 40 Articles from Science-Fiction Studies, Terre Haute & Greencastle, Sf-TH Inc., 1992.
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Olander, Joseph D. and Martin Harry Greenberg (eds.), Philip K. Dick, New York,
Taplinger, 1983.
Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949, rpt. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1987.
Pagetti, Carlo, “Introduzione,” in Philip K. Dick, I simulacri, tr. R. Rambelli, Milano, Nord,
1980, pp. i-ix.
—, “Simulacri e marionette,” in Philip K. Dick, I simulacri, tr. M. Nati, Rome, Fanucci,
2002, pp. 7-14.
Palmer, Christopher, “Postmodernism and the Birth of the Author in VALIS ,” in Mullen et
al., pp. 265-274.
Pierce, Hazel, “Philip K. Dick’s Political Dreams,” in Olander-Greenberg, pp. 105-36.
Rossi, Umberto, “On a Background, Catastrophic, the Story, Ironic: Ecological Awareness
and Capitalist Shortsightedness in Thomas M. Disch’s On Wings of Song,” Foundation 31:85,
Summer 2002, pp. 89-105.
—, “The Harmless Yank Hobby. Mappe, giochi, missili e altre paranoie in Tempo fuori luogo di
Philip Kindred Dick e L’arcobaleno della gravità di Thomas Ruggles Pynchon,” La dissoluzione
onesta: Scritti su Thomas Pynchon, eds. Giancarlo Alfano and Mattia Carratello, Napoli, Cronopio,
2003, pp. 107-18.
Shirer, William L., The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, 1950, rpt.
New York, Fawcett Crest, 1989.
Sutin, Lawrence, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, New York, Harmony Books, 1989.
Takaki, Ronald, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, Boston, Little, Brown
and Company, 1993.
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alessandro clericuzio
The Destruction of Happiness in American Cinema
in the 1990s: Altman, Anderson, Solondz
Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia
(1999) sort of bookend the decade of the 1990s in terms of American auteur
film.1 I am not going to show how “altmanesque” Anderson’s movie is, for
this has been widely recognized (Denby 102; Ebert 680; Hillier 179; Jones
37; Meslin 15). Leonard Maltin goes so far as to say that Altman’s 2000 film
Doctor T. and the Women owes its ending to Magnolia (387). Taking the intertextual connections for granted, I will try to point out how these two movies
– together with the 1998 most disturbing Happiness by Todd Solondz – have
taken up the catastrophic trend of commercial blockbusters,2 transforming it
into a subtler, subterranean impulse informing and threatening the average
American’s daily life.
As Solondz’s title ironically shows, one of the tenets of the American
Dream, the pursuit of happiness, is the main target of this destructive undercurrent. Happiness opens with the alternate close-up of two characters: one is
Joy, the other is Andy. They are at a restaurant and the tension between the
two is justified when he produces a valuable gift for her. We are witnessing
the signs of a love bonding. We think. And so does Joy, but right after that,
he takes the gift from her hands, telling her he only wanted to show her what
she’s missing in dumping him. He insults her in the crudest manner and then,
off-screen, he commits suicide. The woman falls into a shivering, whimpering
depression, which will not leave her until the end of the movie and which will
be the counterpart to her dramatically wrong name. Whereas Short Cuts and
Magnolia concentrate on the destruction theme in a catastrophic event at the
end of both movies, Happiness disparages the spectator in a very early scene.
Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, walks out in a city park and at the sight of
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a happy couple strolling hand in hand, produces a gun and shoots as many
people as he can.
“I don’t kill myself at the end,”3 Bill tells his own psychiatrist. The carnage
is only a dream and the tension of the viewer lowers, only to be raised again in
the director’s cruel but effective games with audience expectations, stereotypes
and macabre irony. The story, again in an Altman-mosaic manner, follows the
lives of three sisters: Joy, whose every attempt at happiness is destroyed by the
wrong men she chooses or by her own sisters; Trish, the oldest of the three,
whose husband is not too secretly a pedophile who is fast heading down a path
of self-destruction; and Helen, a much-admired, extremely beautiful writer
who despises her own writing. Two of her poems, “Rape at 11” and “Rape at
12,” lead her to ultimately wish she had been raped at that age, only so her
work could be authentic. Bill’s just-turned-adolescent kid, obsessed by the idea
of orgasm, is the other side of the story. He is the “pure” element threatened
by a disturbed father who molests his school friend, and his are the last words
spoken in the film, “I came.” Sex is potentially an agent of destruction, in this
and the other two films, and love seems to be no real cure for it.
Happiness closes on a family assembled for lunch: the parents are about to
separate, Joy is laughed at, Trish has left her husband; Helen, the man-eating
beauty, tries to find companions for the others, acting as detached as ever. She
wants to introduce her sister Joy to her clumsy, telephone-maniac overweight
neighbor Allen. Earlier in the film, receiving obscene phone-calls from this
anonymous guy, Helen got extremely excited, showing more and more her
sado-masochistic nature. Insulted by this young man, she feeds her fantasies
of rape and abuse, which are destroyed when she finally meets him. Most of
these characters act as links in a chain of strangers that the director slowly calls
upstage to bring out their own visions of life. Thus Allen is in turn suited by
even clumsier and obese Kristina, who smashes him while trying to help him
out of his drunken stupor. This elephant woman lives alone in a small flat and
sleeps in a doll-like bedroom where the flowers of the lampshades match the
design of the bed cover and sheets. She behaves like a teen-ager, rolling her
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eyes while telling her stories, but harbors a terrible secret: she has killed the
doorman who, according to her, had tried to kiss her and make love to her.
In one of the final scenes, Allen is refused by Helen, who prefers fantasies
to his reality, and looks for shelter in Kristina’s bedroom, where she silently and
humbly lets him in. The two go to sleep in the same bed without touching and
turning their backs to one another. The image is highly visual and significant:
in this apocalyptic setting, where all human relations collapse under the surge
of mismatched feelings and emotions, the only pure space left is shared by a
sex maniac and a serial killer. In the background, the stories of the pedophile,
of Joy robbed by her latest beau, of her mother wishing to be able to kill what
she thinks is her rival, unravel in a comic tableau which aims directly at the
heart of American darkness. Far from having religious tones, the apocalyptic
strain informing this movie is what has been called “the most American of all:
a comic Apocalypse” (La Polla 93).4
“The police came and looked in her freezer,” Helen tells her family around
the table, to summarize the story, “and found baggies filled with the doorman’s
genitals.” “I use baggies,” says the mother. “Me too,” goes Joy. “Everyone uses
baggies,” explains ice-cold Helen: “That’s why we can all relate to this crime,
don’t you see?”
Frozen in this sarcasm is the director’s warning that we all should relate
to the “pluses and minuses” of these people, as Allen undramatically says to
Kristina after she has admitted to her killing. As a director’s warning comes
also Altman’s final earthquake scene in Short Cuts. It happens immediately after
another overweight young man who likes to make obscene phone calls5 has hit
a stranger with a rock in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, causing her death.
Altman’s world too, in this film, is constantly threatened by a subterranean
sense of impending doom. At the beginning of the frame the director creates to
turn Raymond Carver’s short stories into a film, the menace is external; at the
end, pushing through the man’s suppressed sexual life and taking the shape of
the earthquake which involves all the protagonists, it turns out to be internal,
and strongly related to inner human emotions and connections.
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As is widely known, Altman connects six of Carver’s short stories, plus
one poem (“Lemonade”),6 by setting them in a common quarantined area
threatened by the invasion of the medfly. Huge, noisy helicopters like big,
mechanical flies, spreading disinfectant, swarm towards the camera in the
opening of the film: the defense takes the shape of the agent of destruction
and the threat seems to be everywhere.7
Death and the sense of catastrophe are more explicit in Altman’s and
Anderson’s movies, in respect to Happiness. Whereas the psychiatrist’s son in
Solondz’s film – notwithstanding the director’s irony – 8 is safe from the destructive forces of adulthood, a boy of the same age, in Short Cuts becomes the
epitome of the disruption awaiting the community. Thirteen-year old Chasey,
hit by a car while walking to school, is the son of the television editorialist
whose voice over the noise of the helicopters opens the film.
“Time has come to go to war again,” he declares, “not with Iraq, international terrorists or what was once Yugoslavia, but with the medfly, a potentially
devastating insect.” This man, alerted to fight off an insinuating enemy, will
directly witness and experience the annihilating force of fate at work in the streets
of Southern California. The setting is the same as Anderson’s Magnolia, and
offers one of the most apocalyptically connoted loci of American geography.9
The most widely known threat, that of the “big one,” the earthquake
that is expected to devastate California, is only the most evident and scientific
symbol for a sense of catastrophe that enshrouds both real and imaginary L.A.
From Nathaniel West to David Lynch, L.A.’s most glittering icon, Hollywood,
breeds a nightmare made of mass destruction or personal loss. Down Sunset
Boulevard or Mulholland Drive10 life can turn into its opposite without seemingly changing the status quo. It is a city of angels simply because it is a city
of the dead.11
Driving through the San Fernando valley, an area comprising parts of
Orange, L.A. and San Bernardino Counties, Joan Didion writes of an unnatural landscape:
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The lemon groves are sunken, down a three- or four-foot retaining wall, so
that one looks directly into their dense foliage, too lush, unsettingly glossy, the
greenery of nightmare; the fallen eucalyptus bark is too dusty, a place for snakes
to breed. The stones look not like natural stones but like the rubble of some
unmentioned catastrophe.12
Used to the complaint of not having seasons in the tropical Southern
California climate, inhabitants of the area, especially after the infamous 1992
Rodney King trial, have forged a saying, according to which the state does
have four seasons: the earthquake, the fires, the landslides and the riots. It is a
huge landslide that closes T. Coraghessan Boyle’s 1995 The Tortilla Curtain. A
novel of rich gated communities trying to fence off the invasion of Mexicans,
it ends with this natural catastrophe that reunites its severed humanity.
The unsettling gloss Didion sees in the Southern Californian landscape
brings to mind the alluring façade of Hollywood representations of reality,
which Altman had attacked in his former movie of 1992, The Players. In Short
Cuts, the virtual reality of the movie industry appears only tangentially: a
make-up student for monster and catastrophe films is turned on when he feigns
wounds and sores on his girlfriend’s skin with professional make-up. Some
such pictures, confused with those of a real dead woman some fishermen have
found in the wilderness, will be a destabilizing force at the end of the film.
The tv set (and the recording studio) is a recurring presence in this film,
from the journalist’s home through to the home of Stormy Weather’s (one of
the copter pilots) wife and child. It is very revealing that mother and child
come back home to find a turned-on television in an empty apartment that
has been completely destroyed, piece by piece, with an electric saw, by Stormy
Weather, out of revenge.
But it is in Magnolia that television really has a determining role in the
destruction of people’s lives and hopes for happiness. After the prologue made
of dazzling stories apparently disconnected with the film plot, in fact, Anderson
uses a blaring television to announce the beginning of the story proper: no
wonder the room it is in is empty and stays so. Through the cathode-ray tube
comes an annihilating, invisible poison.
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All of Magnolia’s dying or suicidal characters13 are at least peripherally
connected with the television trade. Game show producer Earl Partridge is afflicted with terminal cancer, as is Jimmy Gator, the emcee of his most popular
show, “What Do Kids Know?”. A host of the show is the adolescent champion
Stanley, on the verge of a breakdown because of his father’s pressure. Some of
the talk among the kids during rehearsals of the program is about an extremely
violent film, Destruction High, a sort of Bowling for Columbine ante litteram,
with a massacre in a high school. This is the way in which Anderson hides his
real catastrophic undercurrent until he feels the timing is fit to let it all out.
His technique, too, is at work to subtly convey a sense of disintegration.
Zamora (97-119) has pointed out, referring to John Barth’s prose, that his style
is more apocalyptic than his contents. She quotes Barth himself as saying that
his style “deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its possibilities and borders
upon its own caricature” (5). Anderson’s film language actually borders upon
caricature, being the weird mixture of some masters’ style, namely Altman’s
and Mamet’s, as he himself suggests (Kornbluth 22), but also Martin Scorsese’s,
with the repeated choice of dissolving within a camera move, and Oliver
Stone’s, who pointed out coincidences in rapid-fire succession to suggest the
doubt that they may or may not be coincidences.14 These two techniques, in
particular, tend to disavow the authoritativeness of film language. “Magnolia
self-destruct[s] spectacularly,” writes Maslin (15), whose lack of insight lets her
consider this a negative feature. But because the self-destruction, the splintering
of the language, comes after the coming together of all the main characters
in a group sing-along, it is simply the entropic clash of all the elements, both
stylistic and thematic.
The great uh-oh moment in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia occurs about
two-thirds of the way through this artfully orchestrated symphony of L.A. stories.
A song bursts out: it is heard first from one character, then from another, until
all the film’s assorted lost souls are brought together by a single anxiety-ridden
refrain. “It’s not going to stop,” each one sings resignedly, signaling the approach
of an impending group meltdown.15
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The typology of apocalypse drawn by May (229) distinguishes a traditional, an Antichristian and a secular apocalypse. The latter has two possibilities: the apocalypse of despair and the humorous apocalypse, both having in
common the warning sign of the con-man. With these three authors we are
clearly in the secular field, though Anderson’s movie has the most outward
signs of religion. Con-men occur in Happiness (the taxi-driver who robs Joy’s
flat) and in Magnolia (Frank Mackey’s fake public image.) The column marked
“New Life” suggests this new life is cyclic in the primitive form and linear in the
Judaeo-Christian form of “Traditional” apocalypse. It is illusory in Antichristian, and “linear potential” in the humorous, secular apocalypse. The space is
crossed out in the Apocalypse of Despair. I believe all three films fall into the
area of humorous apocalypse, for the new life promised by the events is not
illusory, simply humorous, more so in Altman’s and Solondz’s films. In the
first, after the quake, the doctor played by Matthew Modine, his face painted
white like a clown’s, comes out of the waters (a jacuzzi tub) as if rising from
the dead. In Happiness, having survived the ordeal of a potentially incestuous
father, the kid reaches a seemingly happier puberty. At the end of Magnolia,
the last scene is between Claudia and the cop, who is determined not to lose
her. Will they manage?16 The ending is open and, for all its religious symbols,
the movie seems to me to fall into the Antichristian category, whose promise
of new life is simply illusory. “I was ready for some sort of weird religion experience,” says Anderson about the symbols in his film (207).
Wunderkids winning a golden future, a sex guru promising all sexual
happiness, a journalist revealing the truth about an icon, an emcee bestowing
money: all promises, in this film, go through television. But the only power
the media have, here, is to destroy families and individuals: there is no trace of
happiness in Earl’s marriage to Linda, his present wife who has married him
for money and now, at his deathbed, refuses that money because she finds out
she loves him. No joy in Earl’s former life, his first wife having died of cancer
alone, assisted by their child Frank. Frank, a popular, misogynist sex guru,
holding seminars for frustrated males, has disavowed his past and his father.
If apocalypse has to do with the role of history in contemporary times, its
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apt reminder is a quotation often repeated by Donnie Smith, Jimmy Gator
and Frank J. Mackey: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t
through with us.”
Jimmy Gator has to face the truth of having molested his daughter
Claudia when she was little, while now she is a drug addict whose sexual and
sentimental life is completely destroyed. These characters are all incapable of
dealing with life, namely with love. The image of Bill’s shooting in Happiness
can apply to all three movies as the image of love splintered and misdirected,
severed from sex, turned into bullets causing the real, imaginary or metaphorical destruction of other people.
Another armed man, this time a cop, is attracted to Claudia, but loses his
chance to sexual happiness just as he loses his gun and is too ashamed of it not
to see in it an explicit metaphor. Claudia can’t cope with sex and feelings, and
in a highly strung scene, on their first date, she asks Jim, “Now that I’ve met
you, would you object to never seeing me again?” (Anderson 175).
As Hepola has pointed out, these words are out of Aimee Mann’s song
“Deathly.” Nine of her songs compose the soundtrack. Another song, though,
gives us the exact sensation of how it feels to experience life in this film as delusion, disillusionment, loss of innocence and destruction. It is the Supertramp’s
“The Logical Song,” its words accompanying Donnie Smith’s (himself a former
quiz-show champion) pining for a bartender turned gigolo. While the guy is
flirting with “an old-freaky looking Thurston Howell-Truman Capote-Dorothy Parker type guy (60s)” (Anderson 69), the only way Donnie thinks fit to
connect with him, is to have his teeth braced the way the guy has. In the background, the Supertramp sing their 1980s hit: “When I was young, it seemed
that life was so wonderful, a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical, with all the
birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily, joyfully, but then they sent
me away....” Donnie’s preadolescent world had been golden and happy, but
then all his tv-earned money was stolen by his family, thus Donnie miserably
ends up working in an electricity shop, surrounded by tv-screens.
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Everybody here is estranged from a life of innocence and happiness. The
impending catastrophe, in Magnolia, is signalled by a little kid’s enigmatic
Check that ego – come off it –
I’m the profit – the professor
Ima teach you ‘bout the Worm,
Who eventually turned to catch wreck
With the neck of a long time oppressor
And he’s runnin from the devil, but the
Debt is always gaining
And if he’s worth being hurt, he’s worth
Bringin’ pain in
When the sunshine don’t work, the Good Lord
Bring the rain in. (Anderson 56)
Talking in riddles, this biblical (black) angel tries to give Jim, the crucifixadoring Christian cop, the solution to a case of murder.
In Happiness, Trish and Bill’s younger child only loves his Tamagochi,
the famous Japanese toy with human feelings, symptom of a dehumanized
world. In Magnolia and Short Cuts life and love are deadly. In Altman’s film the
hospital where Chasey eventually dies – and where his father is visited by his
own twenty-years estranged father – is the place we’re constantly taken back to,
to experience loss, sorrow and death. In Magnolia sickness is everywhere, (“I
have sickness all around me,” screams Linda in the pharmacy, “HAVE YOU
SEEN DEATH IN YOUR BED IN YOUR HOUSE?” [Anderson 92]) if not
in the souls, in the bodies of the characters. Anderson’s camera goes as far into
the depths of destruction, as to graphically show us in detail the cancerous
cells in Earl’s throat.
But it is with the unsettling, frightening and apparently unexpected rain
of frogs that Anderson’s technique reaches the highest point of audience disorientation. First on the Christian cop’s car, then in the garden of Claudia’s
condo, thousands, millions of slimy, bloody frogs fall from the sky. The image
is clearly out of the Bible, more specifically from Exodus 8.2: “I will smite all
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thy borders with frogs”; 8.3: “And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly”
and, finally, 8.6: “And Aron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt;
and the frogs came up, and covered the land of Egypt.”
During this “apocalyptic interlude” (Stephens 32), Claudia’s mother arrives at the home of her lonely child. Mother and daughter reunite in a single,
extremely brief shot highly reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. As
those animals had typified Hitchcock’s sexual morbidity and signified the
female forces kept at bay in the Californian community,17 so the frogs sort of
explode from within this senseless humanity and become the epitome of their
slimy, bloody, guilty sexuality. “In Happiness orgasm is a crime scene, to be
fled at once,” writes critic Stuart Klawans (34), but Anderson’s camera does
exactly the same, with hysterically fast movements, with two couples having
sex at the very beginning of the movie. Love is a menace, in Anderson’s movie,
and sex, no matter which way it is related to it, adds to the tragedy. “[W]hen
Claudia kisses Jim Kurring it becomes a curse,” he says, and “being in love
is the hardest fucking thing in the world, and you don’t want to put yourself
through the tragedy of trying to be in love [...]” (203-4). After all, the blaring
television that opens the film and which is in the background of these sex scenes,
is tuned to the most revealing of Magnolia’s authorial comments, voiced by
Tom Cruise, alias Frank J. Mackey. The title of his sex-seminar programme is
“Seduce and Destroy.” This is the phrase that is most often repeated by Frank
all through the movie, and it is what these directors do with their work: seduce
the audience and then slowly destroy the myth of happiness.
1. Quentin Tarantino begins his artistic production in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs, which falls
in the “heist movie” sub-genre, that will reach the highest level in 1995 with Bryan Singer’s
The Usual Suspects. The peculiar violence of these two heist films falls out of the scope of this
brief essay.
2. I am referring to such movies as John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. (1996) with its apocalyptic
ending; Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day of the same year; not to mention Emmerich’s
Godzilla (1998) and similar destructive monster-movies.
3. Todd Solodz, Happiness, 1998. There is no script in print: all quotations are directly from
the movie.
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4. “La sua Apocalisse, sia chiaro, non ha molto di quella tradizionale, e non tanto perché essa
non presenta alcuna esemplificazione escatologica tradizionale, quanto perché sceglie di essere
tale nel modo piú americano di tutti: un’Apocalisse comica,” writes La Polla in his essay on
Altman’s filmmaking.
5. In the age of AIDS, phone sex seems to be the only antidote. Nicholson Baker’s best-selling
Vox (New York, Vintage, 1992) is a perfect example of virtual encounters through the phone.
6. See Raymond Carver, Short Cuts, New York, Vintage, 1993, with an introduction by
Robert Altman.
7. “Black helicopters flying in formations more like the Valkyrie assault in Apocalypse Now than
like the hovering med-evacs in MASH “, writes Geng 66.
8. The kid’s dog enacts, in a comic and inverse way, the incest that had threatened Bill’s child.
9. “I hope this is a true Los Angeles Movie,” writes Anderson in his introduction to the
script (vii).
10. I am referring to Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, 1939 and David Lynch’s Mulholland
Drive, 2002. Note that also Magnolia is the name of a street, namely where the frog rain starts.
11. As Bodei maintains, the Apocalypse has already taken place in the souls of Altman’s
characters and of the average real life losangeleno. Remo Bodei, “La California di Altman,” in
Salvadori, 190.
12. Quoted in Davis, 375.
13. There are two attempted suicides, by Linda and by Jimmy Gator, shortly before the frog
rain, as if to point out that free will has gone too far. I am also including in the list of attempted
suicides the young man in the prologue, this part of the film being not at all unrelated to the
rest. Apart from a trial by fire and by water for one of the three prologue characters, another
one commits suicide shooting himself. In a split second we see his head shot through and all
his blood staining a picture of a flower on the wall behind him. So much so, for the apparently
missing connection between prologue and film.
14. Other derivative camera uses include influences from Jonathan Demme, Stephen
Spielberg, Orson Welles, Brian De Palma, Robert Downey, jr., Alex Cox. See the website:
15. Maslin 15. Anderson himself has never wanted to explain the meaning of the title of his
film (see Kornbluth 22). My idea is that, just like the ivory colored magnolia is instantly turned
brown and “bruised” when handled with, so are his characters. It should be noted that Anderson
puts the picture of a flower in almost all his locales. Furthermore, as a flower is opened petal
by petal (an image the director superimposes on the opening scene of the film) it is revealed
and destroyed. So is the film.
16. The director himself has clearly stated the ambivalence of the ending in an interview published
at the end of the shooting script: “The problem is, in traditional movies, it’s usually one way
or the other. And for the people for whom the sort of resolution is important, then Claudia’s
smile in that last shot is about, yes, it’s all going to work out, I am going to be happy. But for
the people who are comfortable going a little deeper, hopefully what it’s really saying is, yes, I
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do lean toward the side of happiness, but there’s just too much in life to go straight to the point
of okay, we’re getting married and living happily ever after. It’s not that simple. And finally, my
goal is [...] to write the saddest happy ending I possibly can. (Anderson 208)
17. See Camille Paglia, The Birds, London, BFI, 1998, for a thorough investigation of the sexual
connotations in the film.
works cited
Anderson, P. T., Magnolia. The Shooting Script, New York, New Market Press, 2000.
Davis, Mike, City of Quartz, New York, Vintage, 1992 (1990).
Denby, David, “San Fernando Aria,” The New Yorker, December 20th, 1999, pp. 102-3.
Ebert, Roger, Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2003, New York, Andrew McMeel, 2003
Geng, Veronica, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” The New York Review, November
18, 1993, pp. 66-7.
Hepola, Sarah, Magnolia, www.austinchronicle//videoreviews
Hillier, Jim, American Independent Cinema. A Sight and Sound Reader, London, BFI, 2001.
Jones, Kent, “Magnolia,” Film Comment 36, Jan/Feb 2000, pp. 37-9.
Klawans, Stewart, “Beyond the Dollhouse,” The Nation, November 9, 1998, pp. 34-6.
Kornbluth Jess, “Chutzpah,” Madison Magazine, 1, January/February 2000, pp. 20-2.
La Polla, Franco, “Entropia e Apocalisse: Robert Altman e la cultura americana,” in Roberto
Salvadori, ed., Robert Altman. Un acrobata nel circo americano, Firenze, Loggia de’ Lanzi,
1997, pp. 84-94.
Maltin, Leonard, Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide 2002, New York, Plume, 2001.
Maslin, Janet, “Entangled Lives on the Cusp of the Millennium,” The New York Times, December 17th, 1999, p. E15.
May, John, Toward a New Earth: Apocalypse in the American Novel, Notre Dame and London,
U. of Notre Dame P., 1972.
Paglia, Camille, The Birds, London, BFI, 1998
Stephens, Chuck, “P. T. Anderson Lets It All Hang Out,” The Village Voice 12, 1999, p. 32.
Zamora, Lois Parkinson, Writing the Apocalypse. Historical Vision in Contemporary U.S. and
Latin American Fiction, Cambridge, C.U.P., 1993 (1989).
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mario del pero
“Present at the Destruction”? George Bush, the Neocons
and the Traditions of U.S. Foreign Policy
As remarked in the title of his memoirs, Truman’s second secretary of State,
Dean Acheson (1948-52), was present at the creation of a new era. What was
created then was an “international liberal order.” The U.S. presided over an
effort to achieve an “active ‘ordering’ of relations through sets of mechanisms
and institutions that organize international relations and transactions.” The
process was U.S.-centered; its original universalism, in fact, rapidly faded once
it became clear the Soviet Union could challenge the order then in construction or at least “affect the definition process.” “Exclusionary elements” had
therefore to be activated, while the USSR was transformed from “a threatening state into a full-fledged strategic opponent, wholly externalized from the
liberal order.”1
That order, and the establishment of the Atlantic communitas that followed
it, were therefore based on exclusion and externalization. The negative but
powerful glue was offered by the presence of an absolute and total enemy as
the Soviet Union was. Absolute, because no compromise with it was possible:
for American leaders “there could be no real peace in the world as such, unless the Soviet Union ceased being the Soviet Union and communism ended.”
Total, because it offered a potent counter-universalism to that projected by
the United States and by the West.
However, the post-war international liberal order and the Atlantic community were also based on a significant amount of compromise between the
United States and its Western European partners. On several concessions
made by Washington in order to assure the allegiance of its lesser allies, and
their participation in the worldwide struggle against Moscow. Influence was
not unidirectional, despite the power gap between the post-war flourishing
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United States and the war-devastated Western Europe. The empire originally
established by the United States in Europe was probably not an “empire by
invitation,” in Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad’s immensely fortunate,
as well as simplistic slogan. But it was a hegemony built upon a consistent
amount of consensus on the part of the weaker side, which provided Western
European countries with a considerable diplomatic leverage.
According to many, critics and supporters alike, George Bush Jr. is now
deliberately destroying and dismantling that order. We are present – it is
claimed – at the destruction of that order so laboriously constructed. Acheson’s
diplomacy, which played a crucial role in shaping and creating the post-war
order, had been based first and foremost upon the “lawyerly instinct” of the
Secretary of State. Such an instinct, historian John Harper reminds us, “was
to take the particular interests and agendas of his various European clients as
the starting point of action and to find a common formula.”
This “forensic diplomacy” – it is argued – is now replaced by an open
disregard for the needs, the requests and the interests of the traditional allies
of the U.S. By frequent and arrogant reminders of Europe’s irrelevance in
the new unipolar world. The multilateralism that had been so convenient for
Washington during the Cold War is now rejected in favour of an approach
that targets those very “self-imposed limits that had apparently been imposed
upon America by the ‘international community’ ” proper.
According to this interpretation, the Bush administration is stepping
outside the wise road defined by the tradition(s) of United States foreign
policy; and, by doing so, it is destroying the set of arrangements, formal
and informal, assembled during the Cold War. The recent “robust rebirth
of American unilateralism” – historian James Chace argues – “reverses the
American internationalist commitment that came out of the Second World
War and that lasted throughout the 45 years of the Cold War.” For political
scientist Stanley Hoffmann, the “wrecking operation” undertaken by the United
States in Iraq is determining “the destruction of some of the main schemes of
cooperation that have been established since 1945” with the aim of introducing “some order and moderation into the jungle of traditional international
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conflicts.” The Bush administration – Hoffman claims – “may want to return
to pre-1914 conditions.”
Similarly, Clinton’s second Secretary of State and ardent “humanitarian
interventionist,” Madeleine Albright, criticized Bush for his post 9/11 decision
“to depart in fundamental ways, from the approach that has characterized U.S.
foreign policy for more than half a century.” Albright denounced how “reliance
on alliance had been replaced by redemption through preemption; the shock of
force trumped the hard work of diplomacy, and long-time relationships were
redefined.” Much of the world saw therefore the war in Iraq not as “a way to
put muscle into accepted rules, but rather as the inauguration of a new set of
rules, written and applied solely by the United States.”
These arguments were incisively abridged by an icon of American liberalism, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., according to whom “President George
W. Bush has made a fatal change in the foreign policy of the United States.
He has repudiated the strategy that won the Cold War – the combination of
containment and deterrence carried out through such multilateral agencies as
the UN, NATO, and the Organization of American States.”
However, similar arguments (i.e.: the discontinuity between the foreign
policy of George Bush and those of its predecessors, Bill Clinton’s in particular) are also made by many supporters of the Bush administration. Some of
them accused Clinton for the excessive prudence of his foreign policy and its
disproportionate reliance (and faith) upon economic instruments. That, according to Clinton’s critics, contributed to a passive and status quo-oriented
policy, which was insufficiently ambitious, immoral and dangerous. Insufficiently ambitious, because it sacrificed, in the name of multilateralism and
interdependence, the unique possibility the 1990s offered to create a U.S.
empire. “What’s the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the
world and not having an imperial role?” – asked rhetorically neoconservative
intellectual Irving Kristol. “It’s unheard of in human history. The most power8
ful nation always had an imperial role.” Immoral, because it renounced the
possibility to spread American vision and values abroad, “expand[ing] liberty”
and the “benefits of freedom,” as stated in Bush’s National Security Strategy of
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September 2002 [hereinafter NSS]. Dangerous, finally, because it permitted
the continuation of a status quo where powerful anti-American forces were at
loose. As neoconservative Kenneth Aldeman put it, “the starting point is that
conservatives now are for radical change and the progressives – the establishment foreign policy makers – are for the status quo … the old conservative
belief that stability is good doesn’t apply to the Middle East. The status quo
in the Middle East has been breeding terrorists.”
Clinton’s supposedly apolitical (and a-moral) approach has thus been subjected to harsh rebukes. To many conservatives, it appeared at most as a form
of limited and “economicistic … hegemonic rule.” “Talk of the ‘indispensable
nation’ notwithstanding” with Clinton “there was no attempt at messianic
redemption of the world nor insistence on any absolute difference between the
United States and the rest of the world. The United States was in the world,
leading the world chiefly by market liberalization.” The U.S. had become an
empire by default, more than by design, many critics of Clinton argued. By
doing so, the United States was giving up its mission and its claim to moral
superiority. Neoconservatives bitterly commented upon this state of affairs.
“The world has never seen an imperium” such as the one represented by the U.S.
after the demise of the Soviet Union, neoconservative founding father Irving
Kristol maintained in the Wall Street Journal. “It lacks the brute coercion that
characterized European imperialism. But it also lacks the authentic missionary
spirit of that older imperialism, which aimed to establish the rule of law while
spreading Christianity.” Instead, Kristol argued, what America’s post Cold War
global dominance offers to the world is “a growth economy, a ‘consumerist’
society, popular elections and a dominant secular-hedonistic ethos. It is a
combination that is hard to resist – and equally hard to respect in its populist
vulgarity. It is an imperium with a minimum of moral substance.”
Fair enough. Right or wrong, the new and grand strategy of Bush seems
indeed to be new and grand. But, as historian Melvin Leffler has recently
emphasized, “all the elements of the strategy have antecedents, some of which
are old, some of more recent vintage.”
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Humanitarian interventionism is certainly of recent vintage. A post-Cold
War, and indeed acerbic, wine nouveau, much appreciated by Clintonites, liberal hawks, and neoconservatives. It is based on what the pro-democrat political
magazine The New Republic (TNR) has called “faith in the moral potential
of U.S. power.” No less a person than TNR’s senior editor and Bush-basher
Jonathan Chait, a man who declared he hated even the “way” the current
president “walks” (“shoulders flexed, elbows splayed out from his sides like a
teenage boy feigning machismo”), urged liberals to support the wars in Iraq
and against global terrorism. “The case for war in Iraq was most clearly made
not by Republican President George W. Bush but by Democratic President
Bill Clinton,” Chait argued more than one year ago. According to Chait,
the war in Iraq should “promote liberal foreign policy principles,” not least
because “American global dominance cannot last unless it operates on behalf
of the broader good and on the basis of principles more elevated than ‘might
makes right.’ ” Harvard human rights’ scholar, Michael Ignatieff, made this
connection even broader: “to see what is really unfolding in Iraq,” he argued
“we need to place it in the long history of American overseas interventions.”
For all the risks, “Americans by and large, still think of intervening as a noble
act in which the new world comes to the rescue of the old.” Many liberals
followed suit, doubts and second thoughts surfacing only in the troubled
aftermath of the war.
A comparison between Bush’s much discussed National Security Strategy
and similar documents from the Clinton era reveal indeed striking rhetorical
similarities. Clinton’s strategy of engagement and enlargement, first laid out by
National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, referred to imperatives and defined
interests in a way not so dissimilar from Bush’s 2002 NSS. Clinton’s 1995
NSS, for instance, made an explicit connection between the defense of human
rights, the expansion of democracy and the promotion of free market values:
“Thus, working with new democratic states to help preserve them as democracies committed to free markets and respect for human rights” – the 1995
NSS proclaimed – “is a key part of our national security strategy.” For radical
political scientist James Der Derian that shows that when it comes to so-called
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“nonnegotiable” rights and the possibility to resort to war “President Bush’s
NSS is a continuation rather than a repudiation” of Clinton’s strategy.
Many scholars, pro and anti-Clinton, have agreed. Liberal International
Relations scholar David Calleo finds much to condemn in Bush’s unilateralism,
but is willing to admit that when compared to Bush’s triumphalism, Clinton’s
“merely took a more economic than a military form.” The Clinton administration was therefore “no less ‘unipolar’ than either Bush administration.” Others
stress instead Bush’s idealism, which is leading him to pursue “institutionalist
and liberal ends in a manner more aggressive and, at times, more unilateral
than foreign policy liberals can support.” In purely Wilsonian (or, if you prefer,
Clintonian) terms, democracy has become again the primary “security tool”
of Washington’s global strategy.
But even from opposite perspectives – realist, neo-materialist, post-Marxist, you can often choose the brand – continuity between Clinton and Bush
is heavily emphasized. According to some, Bill Clinton presided over an era
of “rhetorical and institutional consolidation of the imperatives of nationstate acquiescence to the needs of global capital.” It was during this era that
“the inevitability and morality of global open doors to trade, and attendant
globalization” was finally articulated. Historian Perry Anderson, in particular, has excoriated those in Europe who are now “in mourning” for Clinton,
stressing how the “execration of Bush in wide swathes of West European
media and public opinion bears no relation to the actual differences between
the two parties in the United States.” Both – Bush Jr. and Clinton – adhere,
just like their predecessors, to a “comprehensive doctrine, linking free markets
(the ark of neoliberalism since the Reagan-Thatcher period) to free elections
(the leitmotif of liberation in Central-Eastern Europe) to human rights (the
battle-cry in Kurdistan and the Balkans.)” The latter – human rights – soon
proved to be “the jemmy in the door of national sovereignty”: the premise of
what Anderson calls a new “military humanism,” which came again to the fore
when a pretext for removing Saddam was needed.
In a scathing and widely praised denunciation of Clinton’s foreign policy,
somehow artificially prolonged to include also the era of George Bush Jr.,
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conservative scholar Andrew Bacevich also detected a continuum in U.S.
post-Cold War behaviour: current America’s policy – Bacevich claims – is “a
coherent grand strategy conceived many decades earlier and now adapted to
the” new “circumstances.” This strategy combined global interventionism,
U.S. unchallenged military primacy, economic liberalism and a commitment
to what Bacevich calls “global openness.” Its “ultimate objective is the creation of an open and integrated international order based on the principles
of democratic capitalism, with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of
order and enforcer of norms.” Not only, then, is Bush Jr. not proceeding to
the dismantlement of the international order America contributed to shape
and build after World War II. He is on the contrary vigorously implementing
principles and practices elaborated during the Cold War. “Rather than marking the culmination of U.S. strategy” – Bacevich stresses – “the collapse of the
Berlin Wall simply inaugurates its latest phase.” U.S. global interventionism
does not stem out of philanthropy or compassion; nor out of concern for human rights or messianic belief in America’s redemptive role. “The creation of an
open world was not in the first instance a program of global uplift,” Bacevich
states bluntly. “Globalization is not social work. The pursuit of openness is
first of all about Americans’ doing well; that an open world might also benefit
others qualifies at best as incidental. An open global order in which American
enterprise enjoys free rein and in which American values, tastes, and lifestyle
enjoy pride of place is a world in which the United States remains preeminent.” Realist Italian scholar Marco Cesa’s analysis is not very dissimilar. “In
reality” – Cesa states in a recent article – “the ‘war on terrorism’ is just the last
chapter of a process already begun in the previous years, a process which finds
its origin in the position of unchallenged dominion of the United States in
the unipolar system.”
Much refused by Hoffmann, Schlesinger Jr., Ikenberry and others, the
connection between U.S. Cold War strategy, Clinton’s foreign policy and Bush’s
aggressive unilateralism is thus vigorously affirmed by Bacevich and Cesa.
A closer look at Bush’s 2002 NSS seems to confirm this interpretation. The
Cold War nuclear stalemate – it is often argued – constrained the superpowers’
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military sovereignty. Nuclear deterrence, upon which the post-World War II
“long peace” between the superpowers rested, imposed strategic restraint; it
forced U.S. and USSR Strangeloves to limit their fantasies to war games and
to the convenient creation of new academic disciplines. For historian John
Gaddis, “the development of nuclear weapons has had, on balance, a stabilizing
effect on the postwar international system,” obliging “national leaders, every
day, to confront the reality of what war is really like, indeed to confront the
prospect of their own mortality.”
Pre-emptive war, vigorously affirmed by Bush’s NSS, and the recent popular re-infatuation with U.S. military action – past, present and future – seem
to signal the end of deterrence as we have known it. Dreams of immortality
appear to be on the rise again. In the Cold War the U.S. “faced a generally
status-quo risk-averse adversary,” the 2002 NSS claims (in a laudable act of
historical revisionism and self-criticism, that reverses what neoconservative
intellectuals and cold warriors have always maintained.) During the Cold War
deterrence was therefore “an effective defense.” Now, however, “deterrence based
only upon the threat of retaliation is less likely to work against leaders of rogue
states more willing to take risks, gambling with the lives of their people, and
the wealth of their nations.”
But Cold War deterrence was indeed based upon the very willingness to
promote war (nuclear if necessary) unilaterally and pre-emptively. Washington
never renounced the possibility to strike first. Doing otherwise would have
been strategically suicidal: how could you deter your enemy (and protect your
non-nuclear allies) without showing credible intention to act pre-emptively if
threatened? The notion of risk-taking was therefore “inherent” to the “logic”
of deterrence and containment. For Leffler “Eisenhower’s deployment of forces
to Lebanon, Johnson’s military intervention in the Dominican republic and
Reagan’s attack on Lybia, as well as Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba and Nixon’s
bombing of Cambodia and Laos, all possessed unilateral, pre-emptive qualities.” The frequent travels of Rand corporation experts into the cuckoo’s nest
of nuclear war planning, and the Warsaw Pact’s plan to nuke and erase the city
of Romeo and Juliet, responded both to this logic. Pre-emption as a form of
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“anticipatory self-defense” is therefore nothing new, having on the contrary a
“long tradition in American history.”
Just as there is little new in the explicit quest of 2002 NSS for military
superiority. During the Cold War, American statesmen never derogated from
the objective to create, preserve and expand a situation of “preponderance of
power.” Cold War bipolarism was from its inception imperfect and asymmetrical, militarily and not. American superiority vis-à-vis the Soviet Union was
never in question. Despite Khruschev’s bravados, Brezhnev’s intense rearmament, and Russians’ privations, Moscow was able to achieve a fictitious and
useless strategic parity only for a short span of time in the 1970s. Up to the early
1960s, the U.S. disposed almost of a first-strike capability (i.e.: the capability
to destroy in a first, decisive hit the entire nuclear arsenal of the enemy, thus
zeroing its capacity to retaliate.) Neoconservative current calls for military
primacy build upon solid historic foundations, or so it appears. An “ideology
of national preparedness” long predates Bush’s calls to get ready for a “new
condition of life” where the U.S.’s “vulnerability will persist long after” those
responsible for the 9/11 attacks have been brought to justice. A willingness to
achieve full-spectrum dominance anticipated recent neoconservative calls to
preserve American primacy and institutionalize unipolarity.
For Washington, unilateralism, pre-emption and the search for unchallenged military superiority are not new goals. 9/11 and the response of the Bush
administration only intensify the quest for absolute security and invulnerability
that has characterized United States history from its inception. Such a quest
has, among other things, contributed to give form to “a politics dominated
by the rhetoric, symbols, and issues of national security.”
But continuities between the Cold War and the post-September 11 period
can be found also in the rhetorical and discursive realm. Cold War Manichean
discourse is experiencing a second youth nowadays, and many born-again cold
warriors are undergoing a rejuvenating experience. This “Cold War Redux”
has found its paradigmatic manifestation in the return of “totalitarianism” as
the dominating catchall analytical and historical category. As a conceptual
(and in many ways geo-political) tool, offering a old/new “agonizing script
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and defining drama” for international affairs. As an instrument used once
more to depluralize and homogenize “global space.” Not by accident, liberal pro-war journalist Paul Berman continues to justify the war in Iraq as a
struggle against a new totalitarianism. In a recent roundtable organized by
the on-line magazine, Slate, Berman used repeatedly the words totalitarianism and totalitarian. The war in Iraq was therefore justified by the necessity
to “discourage and defeat” the “mass totalitarian movement of the Muslim
world”; “the totalitarian movement that, in its radical Islamist and Baathist
wings, had fostered a cult of indiscriminate killing and suicide.” Defeating
“totalitarianism” was (and is) a necessary step to promote the global cause of
“liberalism,” because, in a purely Cold War discursive frame, “the opposite of
totalitarianism is liberalism.” “In Iraq as in Afghanistan, a liberal war is going
on” – Berman stated – “liberal in the philosophical sense, meaning liberty.”
This historical connection is made even more explicit by Berman’s reference
to the brave Polish division fighting in Iraq alongside the U.S. army. A fact
that, in Berman’s eyes, is “hugely inspiring,” since “no country on Earth has
fought harder over the decades against totalitarianism than Poland.” They, the
captive people hold hostage behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, are
now again the first “enemies of totalitarianism.”
Totalitarianism, historian Abbot Gleason reminds us, was “the great
mobilizing and unifying concept of the Cold War.” It “provide[d] a plausible
and frightening vision of a Manichean, radically bifurcated world, in which
the leaders of the free world would have to struggle (until victory was won)
or perish.” Totalitarianism, a term that by the 1950s had “become coin of the
realm for official government publications,” was highly prized for its ubiquity
and transferability: a portable label, greatly simplifying reality, stickable to
different phenomena, according to necessities and convenience. Adapted to
the current situation, it can even provide, as in Berman’s analysis, the missing
link between Islamists and Baathists, Saddam and Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and
Arab nationalism.
According to historian Nikhil Pal Singh “Terrorism now occupies the
place and function that fascism held in World War II and that communism
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held within the discourse of the cold war.” Totalitarianism is, now as then, the
catchall, a-historical concept which makes it possible to reduce complexity. To
mesh enemies into one single (and horrific) category: the total (and totalitarian)
enemy. To de-historicize, de-contextualize and de-humanize the adversary. The
“theoretical anchor” of the Cold War (and of the liberal historical reading of
the 20th century) is resurrected once again, proving how supposedly epochal
changes fit instead into traditional and immutable patterns.
George Bush himself repeatedly tried to connect his strategy to those of
some of the most celebrated and popular U.S. presidents. His plans to extend
democracy and freedom in the Middle East have been often accompanied by
historical references to the American historical “mission to promote liberty
around the world.” By doing so he lumped together Woodrow Wilson, Franklin
Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, in a quite incongruous combination. But before dismissing out of hand Bush’s distortions of American political traditions,
one should pay more attention again to the effective elements of continuity
between Bush’s current foreign policy and those traditions.
Particularly with Roosevelt, the search for absolute security I previously
mentioned, acquired a new meaning. A meaning Bush is now taking to its
extreme consequences. It was in fact the “slippery” and often contradictory
Roosevelt who “established in a Wilsonian vein that security for the United
States could only be achieved when the world accepted its progressive values.”
Roosevelt’s “manner of preparing and executing the U.S. entry into the Second
World War” created a “formidable legacy for his followers.” One that even
post 9/11 America could not entirely set itself free of. Various elements form
this legacy. One of them, Bush rightly claims, is the inescapable connection
established from then on between the security of the United States and the
course of global history. Or, better, between the survival of the United States as
it is and the spread and diffusion of its core values and beliefs. As Stephanson
noticed, it was Roosevelt who most clearly articulated a notion of “real peace”
that justified, then as now, wars promoted in the name of “regime change.”
Such peace was based first and foremost upon a “maximalistic concept of liberal, positive values,” which “paid no respect to classical sovereignty or state
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borders,” thus making the “domestic structure and behaviour” of other states
“the central criterion of legitimacy.” Consequently, “what any given regime
was actually doing by way of foreign policy was not decisive.” “Legitimacy was
a matter of domestic adherence to the timeless values of humankind.” There
could be no real peace with a certain power (whatever its size and capacity to
inflict damage), because of specific “qualities in [its] domestic makeup.” These
qualities could make such power illegitimate, and therefore threatening and
dangerous to the United States (and by extension to the world.)
Roosevelt thus crucially contributed to the “globalization” and “totalization” of the concept of national security. From World War II onwards the world
(and the United States) could only “be either free or slave”; and that was a
“prescription for limitless war, indeed the reinvention of war as civil war on a
global scale in the name of total victory and the principle of universal right.” The
wartime division of the globe “into free and enslaved worlds” (totalitarianism
again) was destined to last, sedimenting in the cultural and political collective
consciousness of the U.S. FDR’s successors moved further in this direction.
When appealing to the expansion of freedom, democracy and free markets as
the best safeguards for American security, Bush Jr. is walking within wide and
deep historical footprints. As political scientist Edward Rhodes has argued,
“in the Bush’s administration’s thinking, a global house divided against itself
cannot stand. A world order cannot endure permanently half illiberal and half
free … the absence of freedom, even in places as remote as Afghanistan, poses
a danger to the rest of humanity.”
The messianic vision of America’s role in the world Bush is embracing is
directly connected to this. A missionary belief in the special and providential
role history has assigned to the United States. Whatever one might think of
current U.S. foreign policy, it is difficult not to see in it another powerful
expression of America’s ideology of “Manifest Destiny.” “America is a nation
with a mission and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs … this great
republic will lead the cause of freedom,” George Bush proclaimed in his 2004
State of the Union Speech. Mission and leadership are the two intertwined
elements that form the idea the U.S. has a manifest destiny: to create an “ex-
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emplary” and separate state, a “promised land,” which could be emulated by
others, in a modest and minimalistic approach; to “push the world along by
means of regenerative intervention,” leading it to “new and better things,” in a
more aggressive and maximalistic understanding, which has often transformed
the U.S. into a “crusader state.” In the latter sense, Manifest destiny has always
provided ideological ammunition and powerful rationalization for American
global interventionism. Bush’s belief in America’s mission proves once again
the long durée and the political sacredness of the idea the United States has a
manifest destiny to fulfil. An historical assignment to accomplish.
Historians Anders Stephanson and Walter McDougall, while differing
radically in their interpretations, concur on one point: that the ideology of
Manifest Destiny is somehow connected to the nature of the “sacred-secular
project” the U.S. was. To the “particular (and particularly powerful) nationalism” of the United States, based on an idea of “providential and historical
chosenness” and on “claims to prophecy, messianism, and historical transcendence,” according to Stephanson. To America’s unique “liberty” and to her
political, geographic and religious “exceptionalism,” for Mc Dougall.
The peculiar nationalism that originated the ideology of Manifest Destiny
has a distinctive religious overtone; it is a “Christian nationalism,” that – from
John Winthrop to Thomas Jefferson, from John O’Sullivan to Josiah Strong,
from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan (and now George Bush Jr.) – has
qualified America’s uniqueness and validated her claims to expansion and
intervention. Again, it is hard not to see a powerful strand of “Christian
nationalism” in the attitude to world problems of the current administration.
And again, this connects even more the policy of the Bush administration
to the history and the traditions of United States foreign policy, providing a
compelling rebuttal to those who argue otherwise. The current President is
often prone to express his strong religious beliefs, to adopt policies supported
by the Christian Right of the Republican Party, and to express in religious
terms his “Manichean-messianic world view.” Bush’s reaction to the capture
of Saddam Hussein was in this regard emblematic: “I truly believe – Bush
stated – that freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every person – every man and
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woman who lives in the world. That’s what I believe. And the arrest of Saddam
Hussein changed the equation in Iraq. Justice was being delivered to a man
who defied that gift from the Almighty to the people of Iraq.” “Which – according to New Yorker journalist Mark Singer – was to say that the formalities
and codified procedures of the new Iraq’s criminal-justice system might be all
well and good, but Old Testament justice, through the agency of an American
prosecuted preemptive war, was far more satisfying.” Some members of Bush’s
cabinet went even further, unearthing their belief there is a divine design in
America’s ascendancy to global power and in Bush’s aggressive unilateralism.
Vice-president Dick Cheney and Attorney General Richard Ashcroft gave
vent to these convictions in a way that would have been un-thinkable a few
years ago. The former by quoting (and misinterpreting) in a Christmas card a
phrase of a speech given by Benjamin Franklin at the constitutional convention in 1787 (“And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice,
is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”) The latter, the most
important representative of the Christian Right in the Bush administration
and a member of the Congressional Singing Quartet, by going public with a
“gutsy rendition” of the song Let the Eagle Soar, a tribute to America’s virtues
and imperial destiny. As New York Times editorialist Nicholas Kristof argued
“it’s hard not to see” all of this “as a boast that the U.S. has become the global
superpower because God is on our side.”
In short, it is possible to find a cultural, political, ideological, if you
like religious, lineage to Bush’s unilateral, ambitious and visionary agenda.
Bush’s foreign policy is peculiarly (and Christianly) nationalist. It adheres to
the conviction the United States has a manifest destiny (to lead the world)
and a special mission (to redeem and reshape the globe, this time beginning
from the Middle East.) It defines national security in a maximalist way, linking it to the global expansion of American values, Western freedom and free
markets. It employs the Manichean category of totalitarianism to divide the
world into friends (freedom-loving countries) and enemies (countries run
by freedom-hating, totalitarian dictators who subdue their freedom-loving
people.) Just like during the Cold War, it relies upon military supremacy and
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aims at consolidating and extending a strategic superiority nobody will ever be
willing to challenge. Just as in the Clinton era, it adheres to the new doctrine
of military humanism, which justifies interventions and violations of national
sovereignty to defend and protect non-negotiable (i.e.: human) rights. Again,
just as in the Clinton era it pursues a strategy of “global openness,” which,
incidentally, guarantees the commercial and economic opening of new and
previously inaccessible regions. The Bush administration is certainly not presiding over the destruction of the traditions of foreign policy it has inherited.
It is instead trying to keep them all together. We are currently present not at
the destruction of American internationalism, as Chace argued. Nor are we
present at the demolition of venerable U.S. diplomatic traditions, particularly
containment, as Schlesinger claimed. What we are present at is the attempted
(and impossible) re-composition of those traditions. Which is not less dangerous or less problematic, for the U.S. and for the world.
It is dangerous because it leads to contradictions and conceptual shortcircuits, as shown by Bush’s diplomatic zigzagging of the past few months. And
it is problematic because it pretends to deal with an objective novel situation
– the post 9/11, but also the post Soviet era – through very antiquated and
inadequate conceptual (totalitarianism) and operational (preponderance of
power, preemption) instruments.
How did we get to this? What are the origins of this “Wilsonianism with
a vengeance” that aims, quite contradictorily, at a “transformation of world
politics, domestic as well as international, using American power – military as
well as economic and political – to build liberal societies and polities”?
I believe and have argued elsewhere that much has to do with those
intellectuals, mainly neoconservatives, who influence (though not entirely
shape) Bush’s approach to world affairs. Neoconservatism, as an intellectual
and political movement, aimed originally at reaffirming the validity of the
precepts of Cold War liberalism. It constituted a reaction to the crisis the U.S.
underwent in the late 1960s /early 1970s. Which was a political, diplomatic,
economic and even cultural crisis, but most of all a crisis of identity. To many
disaffected liberals it seemed to shake the very foundations of America’s de-
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mocracy. Neoconservatives were thus liberal cold warriors, who longed for
the relaunching of the dichotomies of Cold War discourse and for the moral
clarity they provided.
However, during the process neoconservatives came to construct an identity and a political project of their own. An oppositional project and identity,
though, negatively defined by the outright rejection of the other powerful
political and intellectual trends of the period; of the other attempts to find
a response to the “American malaise” of the late 1960s. Cold War liberalism
transformed into something new – i.e.: neoconservatism – by opposing: a)
Nixon’s and Kissinger’s realism, and its main diplomatic achievement: detente
with the Soviet Union; b) New Left radicalism and its infatuation with “thirdworldism”; c) Old liberalism’s fascination for theories of interdependence,
emphasizing the objective limitations – economic, strategic, and political – the
international system now posed to national sovereignty (a consequence of the
end of the “age of territoriality,” in Charles Maier’s brilliant analysis.)
Neoconservatives denounced the immorality of the realpolitik ardently
advocated and practiced by Kissinger, but also of the unjustifiably critical
self-introspection undertaken by U.S. mainstream liberalism. Against these
useless and self-defeating diplomatic and intellectual exercises, they reaffirmed
the validity of Cold War liberal precepts and goals. But they also attacked the
utopianism and lack of realism of those who believed the nation-state (and
the importance of power) was on the wane. Consequently, neoconservatives
brandished morality and liberal values against Kissinger, arch-realists, and
“interdependentists.” But they also brandished realism and anti-utopianism
against liberals and radicals who had fallen prey to a new appeasement syndrome, which underplayed the importance and transformational capacity of
America’s power.
What connected these dual, and contradictory, criticisms (which were
simultaneously realist and anti-realist, messianic and anti-utopian) was a
nationalist belief in America’s uniqueness. That is to say, a belief in America’s
exceptionalism; in the special mission Providence and history has assigned to
her; in her Manifest Destiny. Such a belief was explicitly rejected: by Kissinger’s
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realism (all countries are equal and have to respect the perpetual laws of international politics); by theories of interdependence (all countries are systemically
interdependent, and nobody, not even the exceptional nations can escape the
constraints imposed by this situation); finally, by anti-imperialist radicalism
(all countries are unequal and the United States bear much responsibility for
the injustice such inequality determines.)
The neoconservative identity and political project were thus constructed in
oppositional terms. The result was inevitably contradictory. The very syncretism
of the neoconservative message was what qualified it. It was its main strength,
as we have seen with Bush, but also its main weakness. Neoconservatism, in
fact, tried to recompose the traditional ideological pair of U.S. foreign policy
– power and freedom – that Cold War mistakes, military interventionism, covert
meddling in other countries’ affairs, and domestic turmoil had finally dissociated.
Power and freedom had instead to be reunited. Power for freedom (America’s
goal.) And power through freedom (America’s innate and unique strength.)
What distinguished (and distinguishes) neoconservatism was (and is) this
faith in America’s power as the catalyst of a transformation of the world for
the better. Current American primacy and unchallenged superiority can and
must be used, because the U.S. had not been provided with them by chance
(“if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice….”) As Rhodes
emphasizes, “the achievement of a peaceful, liberal world order requires not
simply American power, and not simply American military power, but a global
military hegemony . . . It is America’s unchallengeable military power that pro42
vides the aegis under which peace and freedom can be built.”
The rejection of deterrence – explicitly affirmed in the 2002 NSS – follows logically: U.S. power must not be deterrable, otherwise it will lose its
effectiveness; its transformational capacity. Nationalist exceptionalism requires the liberation of the country from the ultimate, unacceptable form of
(inter)dependence: the strategic one. Deterrence, in fact, guaranteed America’s
destruction in the case of war, thus potentially pre-empting preemption.
Overwhelming power and anti-nuclear defense should set the country free
once more. Hence the relaunching, albeit in a much more modest form, of
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Reagan’s most ambitious and expensive chimera: to create a shield, protecting
the country from ballistic missiles (then Soviet, now rogue states’.) The now
experimented National Missile Defense promises therefore to re-liberate the
country. To re-make it exceptional.
Power and freedom, then. The apparently incongruous duo which, combined, gives form to the most potent (and again contradictory) rhetorical
formula of the 2002 NSS. A formula frequently reiterated by Bush and his
collaborators in the past few months: America’s desire and interest to “create
a balance of power that favors human freedom.”
Can the cause of freedom be advanced through power? Can peace be
achieved through war? Can bombs spread liberty? History say yes, many
Bushites claim, citing the cases of post-world war II Japan and Germany (other
credible historical references being not available as of today.) It is hard, however, not to see in this combination of power and freedom a not so updated
replica of late 19th century Britain’s liberal imperialism. And references to
empire abound not only in writings criticizing Bush’s foreign policy, but also
in those of scholars and political thinkers who support it. Witness the recent
apologias of American (and Western) benevolent imperialism of Blair’s foreign
policy adviser, Robert Cooper, and of immensely popular, “civilized American
neoconservative,” Robert Kagan.
The logical and conceptual problem resides however in this association
and juxtaposition of power and freedom. Or, rather, of balances of power and
freedom. That is to say the association of a realistic quintessential model – a
situation in which overwhelming power cannot last, because power balancing is
the inevitable (and intrinsic) fate of the international system – and of a typically
messianic and idealistic goal – spreading a preponderant and universal freedom,
which by itself cannot be balanced. The former envisions equilibrium, the
latter aspires instead to hegemony. The temptation to mock the inconsistency
of this bizarre slogan is frankly too hard to resist. Leffler rightly stresses how
a “balance of power favouring freedom is a confused” and “even meaningless
concept.” The “balance of power vocabulary . . . trivializes the very dilemmas”
brought about by 9/11. As Der Derian underlined, “the classical sense of the
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balance of power is effectively inverted in principle by the NSS document and
in practice by the go-it-alone statecraft of the United States. Balance of power
is global suzerainty, and war is peace. . .. The NSS leaves the world with two
options: peace on U.S. terms, or the perpetual peace of the grave. The evangelical seeps through the prose of global realpolitik and mitigates its harshest
pronouncements with the solace of a better life to come.”
Inconsistent and illogical as it is, Bush’s foreign policy has many explanations. The attempted, impossible reconciliation I referred to is electorally very
convenient. It offers an effective amalgamator of the very different positions
present within the heterogeneous and multifaceted U.S. conservative archipelago. Furthermore, the model of the “balance of power that favors freedom”
represents an attempt, albeit inescapably flawed and unsound, to deal with
the objectively (and dramatically) novel situation produced by 9/11. That
manifestation of vulnerability has generated in the U.S. an existential sense of
insecurity and precariousness, and a consequent request to do something; to
find an answer (and Europeans, whatever their rights in complaining of Bush’s
behaviour are, could and should have shown more sympathy and understanding for such feeling.) The “present at re-composition” concept of the United
States foreign policy can thus be interpreted as a new form of what historian
Frank Ninkovich has called “crisis internationalism.” The need, frequently
felt by America in the twentieth century, “to develop new rules for navigating
through a turbulent and unpredictable modern international environment,”
when the “traditional system collapse[d], rendering the old rules of the game
and foreign policy traditions out of date.”
Such a re-composition is, however, logically and practically impossible.
Bush’s “crisis internationalism” in not just unfit to deal with this epochal crisis.
It is, in itself, a catalyst of the crisis; a multiplier of its original magnitude. In
particular, the Bush administration has not just undermined the set of rules,
norms and practices created over the years to discipline and regulate, albeit in
a limited and selective fashion, the international system. Those rules and those
practices were often antiquated, witness the fate of “Atlanticism,” the lingua
franca of U.S-Western European relations during the Cold War. What Bush
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has really damaged is the idea that interdependence requires rules, norms and
institutions even the only superpower left must abide by. Here, the destructive
nature of Bush’s foreign policy has revealed its full strength. Institutionalized
interdependence has been dealt a series of blows, which began well before 9/11
(the Kyoto Protocol, the abandonment of the ABM treaty and the decision
to create an antiballistic defense system, the rejection of the International
Criminal Court, etc.)
This deliberate attack on interdependence has produced a realistic revival
in the anti-Bush camp. Many, particularly in Europe, wish now what realistic
scholars tend to consider inevitable: the emergence of an alternative power,
able to challenge, balance, or at least resist America’s supremacy. Some see the
coming “balancer” in China, currently engaged in a fast-fast-forward rush to
capitalist modernity. Others still believe that Europe, or at least its Carolingian
core, will rise up, not least because of the multidimensional (i.e.: economic,
cultural, and in prospect even military) nature of European power, current and
future. Some neo-Marxian visions, not particularly interested in irrelevant intracapitalist quarrels, see in a loosely defined “multitude” the “political subject”
able to “live and organize its political space against Empire.”
Interdependence, as a concept and as a political project, appears indeed
to be on the defensive. Recent events, and the Iraq imbroglio over all, seem
to demonstrate however that even the benevolent, exceptional, unique superpower of this unprecedented unipolar world is, in the end, constrainable
by the inescapable web of mutual and global dependencies that has come to
characterize the international system. Even the United States, even this United
States, cannot go alone. The point, thus, is not to embrace “multipolar fantasies” that pertained to a different age, and search for a “balancer” which is
not on the horizon. The objective must now be to collect the bits and pieces
of the international institutions left by Bush’s cyclone and to try to get them
together again; to recompose the institutions that have managed and disciplined
interdependence in the past; to reform them, making them more just and fair,
in order to stop the reprehensible common behavior the United States and
the European Union often assume when dealing with third world problems,
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as shown by the recent WTO summit in Cancun. In other words there is a
new recomposition we will have to be present at. The recomposition and the
necessary updating of what Bush really destroyed.
1. Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department, New York, Norton,
1969; Robert Latham, The Liberal Moment. Modernity, Security, and the Making of Postwar
International Order, New York, Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 34 (“active ordering”),
104 (“affect . . . process”), 128 (“exclusionary elements”), and 131 (“threatening state.”) See
also Simon Dalby, Geopolitical discourse: the Soviet Union as other, “Alternatives,” n. 4, October
1988, pp. 415-442.
2. Anders Stephanson, Fourteen Notes on the Very Concept of the Cold War, in Gearoid Ó Tuathail
and Simon Dalby (eds.), Rethinking Geopolitics, London, Routledge, 1998, p. 82 [“ real
peace…”]; Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe. The Coming of Mass Utopia in East
and West, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2000.
3. Geir Lundestad, Empire by Invitation? The United States and Western Europe, 1945-52, “Journal
of Peace Research,” 23, 2 (1986), pp. 263-277; Ivi, The American Empire, Oslo/Oxford, Oxford
University Press/Norwegian University Press, 1990. “Consensual Hegemony” is instead the
definition used by Charles Maier in Alliance and Autonomy: European Identity and United States
Foreign Policy Objectives in the Truman years, in Michael J. Lacey (ed.), The Truman Presidency,
New York/Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 273-298.
4. James Chace, Present at the Destruction: the Death of American Internationalism, “World Policy
Journal,” 20, 1 (Spring 2003), pp. 1-5.
5. John L. Harper, American Visions of Europe: Franklin D. Roosevelt, George F. Kennan, and
Dean G. Acheson, Cambridge/New York, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 280. See also
James Chace, Acheson: the Secretary of State who created the American World, New York, Simon
& Schuster, 1998.
6. Michael Cox, Martians and Venusians in the New World Order, “International Affairs,” 79,
3 (2003), p. 526.
7. James Chace, Present at the Destruction, cit., p. 1; Stanley Hoffmann, America Goes Backward, “The New York Review of Books,” 50, 10 (June 12, 2003) and Ivi, America Alone in the
World, “The American Prospect,” September 23, 2002; Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Eyeless in Iraq,
“The New York Review of Books,” 50, 16 (October 23, 2003); Madeleine K. Albright, Bridges,
Bombs, or Bluster? “Foreign Affairs,” 82, 5 (September/October 2003), pp. 2-18. Of the same
tone are the considerations in John Ikenberry, America’s Imperial Ambition, “Foreign Affairs,”
81, 5 (September/October 2002), pp. 44-60.
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8. Quoted in Corey Robin, Remembrance of the Empires Past: 9/11 and the End of the Cold War,
International Center for Advanced Studies (ICAS), Working Paper, April 2002, p. 1 (http://www. A revised and updated version of this essay is to be published in Ellen
Schrecker (ed.), Cold War Triumphalism, New York, New Press, forthcoming. I wish to thank
Corey Robin for allowing me to quote his yet unpublished paper.
9. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002, p. 3 (“liberty)
and p. 4 (“freedom”) (
10. Quoted in Elizabeth Drew, The Neocons in Power, “The New York Review of Books,” 50,
10 (June 12, 2003).
11. Anders Stephanson, Tales of the Transatlantic, unpublished paper [courtesy of the author].
12. Irving Kristol, The Emerging American Imperium, “The Wall Street Journal,” August 18, 1997.
13. Melvin Leffler, 9/11 and the Past and Future of American Foreign Policy, “International Affairs,” 79, 5 (2003), pp. 1045-1063.
14. John Margolis, Center Stage. Party Infighting and Why 2004 is very Different from 1972, “The
American Prospect,” January 13, 2004 [“…moral potential”]; Jonathan Chait, Mad About You.
The Case for Bush Hatred, “The New Republic,” September 29, 2003 [“…walk…”]; Ivi, False
Alarm. Why Liberals Should Support the War, “The New Republic,” October 21, 2002; [“case
for war. . . Clinton”]; Michael Ignatieff, Why We Are in Iraq, “The New York Times Magazine,”
September 7, 2003; Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War. Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman,
Christopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, George Packer, Kenneth M. Pollack, Jacob Weisberg, and
Fareed Zakaria, “Slate” (, January 13, 2004.
15. Anthony Lake, From Containment to Enlargement, Speech at The Johns Hopkins University,
September 21 1993 (text available at:;
A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement, February 1995 (text available at: ); James Der Derian, Decoding the
National Security Strategy of the United States of America, “Boundary,” 30, 3 (2003), p. 22.
16. David P. Calleo, Power, Wealth and Wisdom: the United States and Europe after Iraq, “The
National Interest,” Summer 2003, p. 9 [“triumphalism”]; Michael J. Mazarr, George W. Bush,
Idealist, “International Affairs,” 79, 3 (2003), p. 508 [“…institutionalist …ends”] and p. 511
[“security tool”].
17. Perry Anderson, Casuistries of Peace and War, “London Review of Books,” March 6, 2003
(“execration… United States”); Ivi, Force and Consent, “New Left Review,” 17, 5 (September/
October 2002), p. 9 (“free markets… sovereignty”) and p. 10 (“military humanism.”) On human
rights and the international system see, however, the compelling argument made by Michael
Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001.
18. John D. Kelly, U.S. Power, After 9/11 and Before It: If Not an Empire Then What?, “Public
Culture,” 15, 2 (2003), p. 361 [“rhetorical and institutional consolidation”]; Andrew J. Bacevich,
American Empire. The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy, Cambridge, Harvard
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University Press, 2002, p. ix [“coherent… strategy”], p. 3 [“…global openness… Berlin Wall”],
and p. 102 [“…globalization… preminent”]; Marco Cesa, Gli Stati Uniti nel Sistema Unipolare,
“Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica,” 10, 2 (2003), p. 232 [“war on terrorism”]; Ivi, Le Vecchie
Novità della Globalizzazione, “Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica,” 9, 3 (2002), pp. 389-423.
19. John L. Gaddis, The Long Peace. Inquiries into the History of the Cold War, Oxford/New York,
Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 231; on the Cold War and military sovereignty see also the
considerations in John Ikenberry, After Victory, Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding
of Order after Major Wars, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001.
20. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, p. 19. As historian Michael S.
Sherry underlined “Imagining future wars, Americans also continue[d] to plumb the meaning
of past ones.” Michael S. Sherry, In the Shadow of War. The United States since the 1930s, New
Haven/London, Yale University Press, 1995, p. 3.
21. Melvin P. Leffler, 9/11 and the Past and Future of American Foreign Policy, cit., p. 1052-53. A
1965 nuclear offensive plan of the Warsaw Pact included the city of Verona among its principal
targets. The document is available on the web site of the Zurich – based Parallel History Project
on NATO and the Warsaw Pact (PHP) ( On U.S. (and Rand’s)
nuclear strategy see Marc Trachtenberg, History and Strategy, Princeton, Princeton University
Press, 1991.
22. Melvin P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration,
and the Cold War, Stanford University Press, 1991; Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace.
The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963, Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1999; Raymond L. Garthoff, Detente and confrontation: American-Soviet relations from Nixon
to Reagan, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994, II ed.; John Gaddis, Strategies of
Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1982.
23. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, p. 35 [“new condition of
life… vulnerability]; Michael S. Sherry, In the Shadow of War, cit., p. 142 [“ideology of national
preparedness”]; Thomas Donnelly, Preserving American Primacy, Institutionalizing Unipolarity,
On-Line publication of the American Enterprise Institute (,
May 1, 2003.
24. James Chace e Caleb Carr, America Invulnerable: the Quest for Absolute Security from 1812
to Star Wars, New York, Summit Books, 1988; James Chace, Imperial America and the Common
Interest, “World Policy Journal,” Spring 2002, pp. 1-9; Michael S. Sherry, In the Shadow of War,
cit., p. 175 [“rhetorics… symbols”].
25. Geraróid Ó Tuathail, Critical Geopolitics. The Politics of Writing Global Space, London,
Routledge, 1996, p. 225 [“…agonizing script”] and p. 245 [“global space”].
26. Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War, cit.
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27. Abbot Gleason, Totalitarianism. The Inner History of the Cold War, Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1995, p. 1 [“…mobilizing concept”] and p. 87 [“…coin of the realm”]; Thomas Paterson
e Les Adler, Red Fascism. The Merger of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the American Image of
Totalitarianism, 1930s-1950s, “American Historical Review,” 75, 2 (April 1970), pp. 1046-1064;
Mario Del Pero, L’Antifascismo nella Politica Estera Statunitense, in Alberto De Bernardi e Paolo
Ferrari (a cura di), L’Antifascismo nella costruzione dell’Europa, Roma, Carocci, 2004.
28. Nikhil Pal Singh, Cold War Redux: on the “New Totalitarianism,” “Radical History Review,”
85, 1 (Winter 2003), p. 173.
29. Paul Starr, The President’s New Crusade, “The American Prospect,” December 1, 2003;
Remarks by the President at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy,
speech at the United States Chamber of Commerce, Washington, DC, November 6, 2003
( [“mission… world”].
Thomas Donnelly, Iraqi Freedom and American History, January 1, 2004, On-Line publication
of the American Enterprise Institute (
30. Anders Stephanson, Law and Messianic Counterwar from FDR to George W. Bush, unpublished
paper [courtesy of the Author] [“maximalistic… legitimacy”]; Ivi, Liberty or Death: the Cold War
as U.S. ideology, in Odd Arne Westad (ed.), Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretations,
Theory, London, Frank Cass, 2000, pp. 82-100 [“qualities in [its] domestic makeup”]. On the
connection established by Wilson between U.S. security and a specific course of global (and
modern) history see Frank Ninkovich, Modernity and Power. A History of the Domino Theory
in the Twentieth Century, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994, and Ivi, The Wilsonian
Century. U.S. Foreign Policy since 1900, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1998.
31. Anders Stephanson, Fourteen Notes, cit., pp. 78 [“either free or slave”]; Eric Foner, The Story
of American Freedom, New York, Norton, 1998, p. 253 [“free and enslaved worlds”]; Edward
Rhodes, The Imperial Logic of Bush’s Liberal Agenda, “Survival,” 45, 1 (Spring 2003), p. 136
[“…global house divided …”].
32. Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny. American Expansion and the Empire of Right, New York,
Hill & Wang, 1995, p. xii [“push the world… better things”]; Walter Mc Dougall, Promised
Land, Crusader State. The American Encounter with the World since 1776, Boston, Houghton
Mifflin, 1997. See also the brilliant study of Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny: a Study of
Nationalist Expansionism in American History, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press,
1935. An explicit, though quite superficial, connection between manifest destiny and the Bush
doctrine is made in John A. Wickam, September 11 and America’s War on Terrorism. A New
Manifest Destiny?, “American Indian Quarterly,” 26, 1 (Winter 2002), pp. 116-144.
33. Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny, cit, p. 28 [“sacred-secular project”] and p. xii [“providential…and historical trascendence”]; Walter Mc Dougall, Promised Land, Crusader, cit.,
Ch. 1: “Liberty or Exceptionalism,” pp. 15-38. On United States’ exceptionalism see Ian Tyrrel,
American Exceptionalism in the Age of International History, “American Historical Review,” 96, 4
(October 1991), pp. 1031-1055; Daniel Rodgers, Exceptionalism, in Anthony Molho e Gordon
Woods (eds.), Imagined Histories. American Historians Interpret the Past, Princeton, Princeton
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University Press, 1998, pp. 21-40. In 1997, neoconservative journalists William Kristol and
David Brooks denounced the absence in 1990s U.S. conservatism of an “appeal to American
greatness,” willing to embrace “a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of national strength and moral
assertiveness abroad.” William Kristol and David Brooks, What Ails Conservatism, “The Wall
Street Journal,” September 15, 1997.
34. Here I’m obviously simplifying a much more complex and differentiated historical process. My point is that a religious component has always qualified U.S. nationalism, and often
explained its peculiarity.
35. Mark Singer, Running on Instinct, “The New Yorker,” January 12, 2004. Bush’s quote is
also taken from this article.
36. “Let the eagle soar, Like she’s never soared before. From rocky coast to golden shore, Let
the mighty eagle soar. Soar with healing in her wings, As the land beneath her sings: “Only
God, no other kings.” This country’s far too young to die. We’ve still got a lot of climbing to
do, And we can make it if we try. Built by toils and struggles God has led us through.” Katty
Kay, Ashcroft rallies troops with song, BBC News, March 4, 2002 (
americas/1854922.stm). [“gutsy rendition”].
37. Nicholas D. Kristof, The God Gulf, “The New York Times,” January 7, 2004.
38. Edward Rhodes, The Imperial Logic, cit. p. 133.
39. Mario Del Pero, “I neoconservatori e l’Europa in prospettiva storica” in Giuseppe Vacca
(ed.), L’Unità dell’Europa. Rapporto 2004 sull’integrazione europea, Bari, Dedalo, forthcoming
and Ivi, “A Balance of Power that Favors Freedom”: The Influence of Neoconservative Discourse
on Current U.S. Foreign Policy, paper presented at the seminar Debating the Unipolar World.
American Power and Anti-Americanism, Scuola di Studi Internazionali, Università di Trento,
June 16 2003.
40. John Ehrmann, The Rise of Neoconservatism. Intellectual and Foreign Affairs, New Haven/
London, Yale University Press, 1995; Irving Kristol and Arving Kristol, Neoconservatism: the
Autobiography of an Idea, New York, Free Press, 1999; William C. Berman, America’s Right
Turn. From Nixon to Bush, Baltimora, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994; Alan Brinkley,
The Problem of American Conservatism, “American Historical Review,” 99, 2 (April 1994),
pp. 409-429.
41. Dana H. Allin, Cold War Illusions. America, Europe, and Soviet Power, 1969-1989, New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995; Charles Maier, Consigning the Twentieth Century to History:
Alternative Narratives for the Modern Era, “American Historical Review,” 105, 3 (June 2000),
pp. 807-831; On the relations between U.S. identity and national security see David Campbell,
Writing Security. United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, Minneapolis, University
of Minnesota Press, 1998, II ed.; Ido Oren, Is Culture Independent of National Security? How
America’s National Security Shaped “Political Culture” Research, “European Journal of International
Relations,” 6, 4 (2000), pp. 543-573.
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42. Edward Rhodes, The Imperial Logic, cit. p. 134. A partially different analysis is that of sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, one of the most ardent and sophisticated believers in America’s
inevitable decline. Wallerstein identifies in Bush’s foreign policy not a drive to military hegemony
per se, but the expression of an illusory belief the use of force will restore U.S. unquestioned
hegemony. See Immanuel Wallerstein, The Decline of Power. The U.S. in a Chaotic World, New
York, New Press, 2003.
43. The phrase recurs five times in the 2002 NSS. See The National Security Strategy of the
United States of America, cit., p. 3, 5, 7, 28, 32. See also Condoleeza Rice, A Balance of Power
that Favors Freedom, October 1, 2002 (
44. Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations. Order and Chaos in the Twenty-first Century, London, Atlantic Books, 2003; Ivi, The Postmodern State and the World Order, London, Demos,
The Foreign Policy Centre, 2000, II ed.; Ivi, The New Liberal Imperialism, “The Observer,”
April 7, 2002; Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World
Order, New York, Knopf, 2003; David Calleo, Power, Wealth and Wisdom, cit., p. 5 [“civilized
45. James Der Derian, Decoding the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, p.
21 [“classical sense of balance of power”] and p. 24 [“…perpetual peace …”]. Melvin Leffler,
9/11 and the Past and Future of American Foreign Policy, cit., p. 1057 [“confused… meaningless”] and p. 1063 [“trivializes”].
46. Frank Ninkovich, The Wilsonian Century, cit., p. 10.
47. On China as a future superpower competing with the United States see John J. Mearsheimer,
The Tragedy of Great Power Politics; New York: Norton, 2001; on Europe see Charles A. Kupchan, The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First
Century, Knopf, New York, 2002, but also, from different perspectives, David Calleo, Power,
Wealth and Wisdom, cit.; Ivi, Rethinking Europe’s future; Princeton, Princeton University Press,
2001; Will Hutton, The World We’re In, Londra, Abacus, 2003, II ed; Robert Kagan, Of Paradise
and Power. On the power of the “multitude,” see the immensely popular but historically very
weak analysis of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire, Cambridge/London, Harvard
University Press, 2000.
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L’inedito della pittrice Romaine Brooks fa parte di un dattiloscritto autobiografico intitolato No Pleasant Memories ed attualmente conservato presso la
Smithsonian Institution National Collection of Fine Arts di Washington.
Il reperimento del dattiloscritto ed il lavoro sulla pittrice fanno parte del
progetto nazionale di ricerca coordinato dalla prof. Camboni dell’Università
di Macerata intitolato Reti di donne: soggetti, luoghi, nodi d’incontro EuropaAmerica 1890-1950 (per una riscrittura della Storia culturale.)
Brooks nasce come Beatrice Romaine Goddard nel 1874 a Roma. E morirà a Nizza il 7 dicembre 1970. Il nome d’arte le è suggerito, in parte, dalla
circostanza del luogo di nascita, in parte, ed ironicamente, dal cognome di
John Brooks, intellettuale inglese omosessuale sposato a Capri. Matrimonio
di brevissima durata.
La parte che Brooks ha nella mia personale ricerca è legata alla sua lunga
consuetudine, a Parigi, con tre donne di cui mi occupo distintamente (Gertrude
Stein, Natalie Clifford Barney e Marie Laurencin) e, in particolare, alla sua
pluridecennale relazione con Barney che è l’animatrice di uno dei due salotti
letterari su cui mi concentro come luoghi privilegiati di incontro, scambio,
No Pleasant Memories risale al 1938 e si riferisce, come indica il sottotitolo,
agli anni di primissimo apprendistato a Roma.
Bianca Maria Tedeschini Lalli
We thank Richard Shattuck, of New York, for granting us permission to reproduce this unpublished text.
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An affinity, to the soil
of Rome, ruins, roots and hard
earth from which emerges a
sturdy Roman tree.
The artist is an active dreamer; his dreams are ever seeking their affinity to
the outer world. To those who have no such tendencies he seems unreasonable:
his moods strange, his decisions incomprehensible. It is quite evident that I
belong to this artist order of human beings for in the course of my life I have
never done what is commonly called a wise thing. This is perhaps the reason
why it was impossible for me to remain for any length of time preoccupied
with the uncertainties of the future, and why the dreamer within me suddenly
decided that the Odyssey of my artist’s life should begin in Rome.
The long melancholy stretches of an Appian Way; the ruins whose death
throes are prolonged by the fall of each crumbling stone; the earth thick-set
with sharp, bone-like relics of its unburied past, brushing the pilgrim’s feet; all
these, in some unevolved and uncomfortable way found their affinity within
the structure of my mind.
Objectively, Rome meant only a name to me. One day, without preliminary plans, but with a third class ticket, a valise, and very little money in my
pocket, I found myself bound for that city.
I had never travelled third class before. The crowded compartment; the
long, sleepless night; my thin self on the hard benches; all form part of an experience I shall never forget. My fatigue was such that long before the end of the
journey I had lost all sense of direction, and what was far worse, my ticket.
Arriving late at night in Rome, I was surrounded only by angry and
vociferous railroad officials demanding my ticket. They all searched for it in
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vain. Finally they allowed me to enter an hotel omnibus, which was, as by
some miracle, still waiting for me at the station. Already seated inside was an
angry English lady. In my excitement I explained to her in French that I had
lost my ticket. She snapped back that I ought to have known better.
On arriving at the hotel the manager, finding that his visitor was a young
girl travelling alone, began making advances. He was so persistent that it was
only by menacing him with a small mother-of-pearl handled pistol which had
been given to me by my brother’s doctor, that I got him to leave the room.
When he retreated I found that there was no key to the door; for the rest of
the night I sat up in order to watch it.
Finally the morning came bringing reassurance and I decided to undress
and take a much needed rest. On opening my valise, strange articles of toilet
fell out. There had been an exchange of bags when the omnibus was unloaded.
Unable to stand more I flung myself fully dressed on the bed and fell asleep.
A few hours later I was wakened by the cameriera who came to bring me back
not only my valise but also the lost ticket.
I then decided to leave the hotel at once and seek out a “Pension.” As I
passed through the corridor the English lady came up to me and apologized
for having been so unsympathetic the night before. She had taken me for a
French girl, but having found out her mistake she wanted to offer any help I
might need. I thanked her, but I knew that in the future there would be no
asking for help whatever happened -- it was not my way.
I stayed at the Pension until I had chosen -- and not too judiciously -- a
studio in the Via Sistina. It was on the ground floor at the end of a very dark
corridor which for no apparent reason smelt of roses. When I agreed to take
the place I was unaware that the passage was left unlighted at night; the long
walk through its vault-like dampness, guided only by the flicker of a small wax
taper, subsequently proved no pleasant experience.
The studio itself was the usual bare room; and opening into it was a kind
of alcove where wedged in between high, windowless walls, was a large bed that
looked dirty. I always used to hesitate before getting into it, and then curl myself
up in order to escape as much as possible the disagreeable surroundings.
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On the day I chose the studio I visited the manager in his office. He was
young and most obliging, but as I was about to leave the room he got up, and
to my surprise, began expressing in passionate terms the pleasure he felt at my
having chosen the studio on the ground floor. His own rooms, he explained,
gave on to the same garden, and he could easily manage to climb into my
room at night to visit me.
I left the office without showing any signs of having understood him but
later, although the studio was often hot and stuffy, I carefully kept my window
closed at night.
Judging Italian men silly I carefully avoided making friends with them.
Yet I was entirely free from prejudice and had none of the hypocrisy of the
Anglo-Saxons who generally show strong antagonism to all sins other than their
own. But it was one thing to be unprejudiced and another to be the object of
attention of a seemingly sex-starved population. The importunate guide or
beggar was a pleasant person indeed compared to the hungry male who sidled
up to one on the streets, and with steel-like fingers tried to pinch what ought
to have been the fat part of the body, but which was, in my case, as thin as the
rest. But fat or thin one was young and that was sufficient. I soon learned that
a pleasant walk alone was impossible. The male was always present, following
or waiting. If one happened to stand still an instant.
All this, however, is but a sidelight on what was merely disagreeable. The
real struggles of my artist’s life were yet to come.
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paola zaccaria
Narration, Figuration and Disfiguration inToni Morrison’s
Beloved and Jazz
Mysteriously united, the face and the voice. Is it possible to conceive of a
face without a voice or a voice without a face? In poetic works, voice and face
are the most frequent images of the body. Painting and music, portraits and
songs are the true stories of the face and voice and of their complex relationship. A mask or a bare face, melopoeia or a cry: the modality of representing
a face or a voice challenges consciousness, blending opacity and transparency.
To lose one’s voice or face, to become mute, aphasic or disfigured, are experienced as a loss of self. In moments of passage or metamorphosis, it can seem
that the voice and the face change, that we speak with a different voice, say
something never said: we are faced with a different self who is heard differently, seen differently.
Without going back to the classic distinction between phoné and logos,
or to the effects of a de-contextualization which lead to a discovery of voice,
another voice in another discourse, or which risk losing the voice to the deterritorialized subject, questions can be asked about the exchange of glances,
about how they affect the self ’s sense of possession or dispossession; how the
eye (and the brain) can capture the emotions registered in the face of another,
in the voice of another.
The concept “voice,” understood as a linguistic construct of social beings,
introduces the problem of “who speaks?” and, by implication, of “who listens?”,
i.e. “who speaks to who?”1
The voice has to do with the oral and the physical, is apparently the
opposite of the writing and abstraction that connote text: whatever type of
text – literary, visual, cinematographic or even a simple notice, text is always
graphing. However, in order to reflect on texts, in literature as in cinema or art,
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we use terms like narrating voice, character’s voice, lyrical voice, poetic voice;
terms like authoriality, which is related to authority and plays on oral/aural.
The dichotomy voice/writing has been in state of crisis for a long time now as
Bachtin (1986) and Derrida (1967) underline.2
Many of the features we normally associate with writing also belong to
the domain of speaking, and the term “in-scription” covers both oral and
writing practices. The literary text, for example, is usually analyzed according
to oral linguistic acts, contextualizing them, and the con-text often consists of
supplementary readings of other information capable of co-textualizing/contextualizing the text we are in the process of reading. Our literary reading
practices, when teaching, are nothing if not the staging of the orality of a text.
The voice of the teacher or of the student reading, gives voice to the characters
or the narrator. Equally, writing can preserve its orality through an excessively
paratactic style, or a repetitive style, or by using the device of asking us, as
in an oral tale, to listen: “Listen,” the incipit of many works asks us. “Hush,
now”: silence, the narrator of Jazz asks us in the incipit.
Searching for the driving forces of the writing process, in a study on
the forms of repetition, I moved towards the hypothesis that writing, among
other features, assumes the figure of a line, a string which has the function of
putting in touch two distant bodies-beings who can touch each other through
the graphos.3 Is this not true for the voice, too? Is speech not directed towards
reaching another? Reaching and even touching, for better or for worse? Even
a cross, conflictual word, in reality wants to strike the other, to reach him/her,
even hit violently. Words are like stones, as the saying goes. The idea of writing
as a way to “touch” the other, is consonant with one of the most touching and
most meta-narrative passages in Jazz by Toni Morrison. Let’s read it right now,
so that it can accompany us as a sort of indispensable subtext. It can be read
as the incarnation, not the conceptualization, of the reading process:
…I have loved only you, surrendered my whole self reckless to you and nobody
else. That I want you to love me back and show it to me. That I love the way
you hold me, how close you let me be to you. I like your fingers on and on,
lifting, turning. I have watched your face for a long time now, and missed your
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eyes when you went away from me. Talking to you and hearing your answer
– that’ s the kick.
But I can’t say that aloud; I can’t tell anyone that I have been waiting for this all
my life and that being chosen to wait is the reason I can. If I were able I’d say it.
Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because
look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.4
I prefer not to make any comment for the time being, but to leave it to
Morrison to take us back to this point.
Literature has, it is well-known, already per sé a doubling function: the
narrator assumes the voice of a character or, vice versa, projects, mirrors and
castrates himself in the other.5 In the field of diegesis, a doubling is staged,
which re-doubles (duplicates) the division author/narrator. I don’t intend to
linger on the well-known distinctions between author/narrator/character, nor
on the distinctions between a homo – or hetero – diegetic narrative, given that
Toni Morrison herself, author of Beloved (1987) and Jazz (1992), the works I
have chosen, abandons any such neat genre type definitions, narrative schemes
and the rest, constructed from text books of rhetorics or stylistics, narratology, criticism and literary theory, from Wellek and Warren to structuralists
like Genette.
As a young woman in a pre-Cultural Studies epoch, Morrison studied
at college, like all American students, modernism, critical categories and narrative modes, later elaborating them according to an awareness of cultural
pluralism: although she had been taught the Cartesian “I think therefore I
am,” fundamental to the hegemonic reality of “white, capitalist, suprematist”
America,6 later on she – as other African American artists – moved towards
the re-elaboration of the West African proverb “I am because we are; we are
because I am. I am we.” Morrison was able, as another Africanist well-known
proposition affirms, to “dismantle the master’s house with his own tools,” that
is, to deconstruct, contaminate, review and (re)construct. Let us see how.
Literature, it is often said, is a duplication of voices; this can be intended
as an echo, sound projected into a cave, voices without origins, replicating
voices (in this case underlining the separate nature of the speaker from other
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bodies; this echo manifests itself as the opposite of the game “call-and-response”
of the musical duo or trio.) It can also stage the split description/narration,
seeing/hearing, eye/ear. Analyzing the first elements in these pairs – description, seeing, eye – we are taken directly onto the visual plane: the face, the
“figuration.” In reality, any narrative needs both parts of the pair: it needs to
blend the semantic field and significance of the ear (voice, narration: listening)
with the semantic field and significance of the eye (face, description-figuration:
sight.) If the eye were separated from the listening function in a narration, it
would work like a fixed camera, reducing the story to a silent film. A story is
born from and of the fusion of these two elements. In order to proceed, a narration must create characters, that is “assume a figure.” In order to give a sense
of direction to this paper, I have selected from the dictionary entries some of
the possible meanings of “figure” that can inform a careful textual analysis of
the narrative ‘nodes’ mentioned in the title.
“Figure” can mean: 1. the external shape or outline of a thing, in particular, the appearance of the human body; 2. an illustration, drawn, sculpted or
painted image; historical character or character in a work of art; 3. an image
given the dignity of or connoted as a symbol. (“the dove as a figure of peace”);
4. appearance; 5. rhetorical figure; figure of speech: an expression that moves
away from the everyday, in order to achieve greater expressive power. From
Latin: figura, from fingere, to shape, to mould.
A narrative proceeds: 1) by giving form to or creating an outline for things
and bodies; 2) sculpting and drawing images and characters with words 3)
which can become a symbol or exist quite simply as decoration. All of this
occurs through the use of rhetorical figures (5).
From the etymology of the word, it is possible to discover the sememe of
“figure”: it is connected to construction, to shaping, sculpting, representing
and modeling. It is plastic, non-mimetic (the Latin ‘fingere’ is connected to
‘fiction’), belonging to the field of aesthetics (verbal representation or iconic
visualization), iconology above all. The etymological root of the word is connected directly to the world of fictionality, to creative modalities, to narration
and “figuration.”
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In recent times, much has been written about the figure and “figuration”:
Rosi Braidotti, in her introduction to the translation of Manifesto Cyborg by
Donna Haraway, speaks of “figuration,” taking the lead from Haraway herself
and from Thomas Khun’s notion of the paradigm in “The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions” (1962), defining it as a fundamental myth, a shared narrative.7
This means that figuration is not simply a figure of speech, or a rhetorical device,
an image raised to the status of a symbol,8 but it is both something around
which the life-narrative partnership hinges (shared narrative – shared, that is,
by a community), and a construct, a working image-thought-action.
Thus, we can say that “figuration” is the performative impulse of the
figure. Iconic figuration gives movement and performativity to the (verbal)
figure, which then can attain the status of an imaginative construction-narration so different from canonical models as to become the transmitter of
de-stabilizing, alter-native political proposals. It can thus be posited that all
that is figurative, fictional, concerned with mental constructions, can become
political figur(e)action, the incarnation of a powerfully anti-hegemonic, political poetic imagination.
This is what I believe occurs to figures like Beloved and Sethe, or like
Denver and Paul D in Beloved, or to the figures, or characters if you prefer,
(although they are not just simple characters) in Jazz.
I wish to concentrate here on one particularly symbolic figure, who is also
highly historicized and politicized: Beloved in the novel Beloved, and Wild,
a re-apparition of the same figure, complete with new, but equally explosive
significance, in Jazz.
Going back to the dictionary that I am trying to create here, I resume
again the term “figuration” as a concept-figure in which the idea-action of
representation, narration (fiction) and performativity intersect: this joining,
this meeting, produces new possibilities, new fictions-actions. These “figurations” are narratives that, utilizing the performative functions of language,
express the power of the agency inside the created subject, producing the reply
agency of the receiver: figurations are imagin-a(c)tions, capable of activating
new paths and new processes.
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The moment in which Morrison, (an expert not only of western traditions
of intertextuality but of African oral narratives structured around recall and
repetition, as well as the pattern of call and response), took the figure of Beloved
into Jazz, giving her, like in the first novel, not a real name but an appellative,
a nickname – Wild – she did so both to re-trace the forgotten story, that can
neither be forgotten by passing it on (“It was not a story to pass on”),9 and to
create an historicized link between the two novels, in order to play with the
idea of ‘trace’ in the sense Derrida gives to it, to the point that “Trace” becomes
Joe’s surname (Joe Trace) as if it were the title of his project to re-trace his
origins, to find traces of his mother, traces of slavery (and of the cancellation
of any traces of origins performed by the slave trade) – the Africanist traces.
Playing with the white view of Africans, and slave-descendents, as primitive
and closer to nature than culture, the probable, lost mother is “wild,” this
name/lack of name indicating primitiveness: a wild, animal-like vagabond,
just as the whites tend to describe women of African origins. In spite of all
this, the indescribable, unportrayable, unreachable origin, which Joe tries to
trace like a bloodhound, like an inconsolable lover, like an abandoned son,
becomes a figure and a name: Wild is the “figuration” of the trace and the
naming of it(self ).
“I am because we are; we are because I am. I am we.”10
The African proverb cited by Johnnella Butler, encapsulates the significant interrelations in African American artistic theory and practice, between
individual subjectivity and the community, between narrating voice, or soloist,
and the voice of the characters, or the band. Considering musical rhythms
as a structuring framework in both novels (the first set in the years between
slavery and Abolition, thus structured according to the patterns or canons of
the work song and the blues; the second set in Harlem in the ’20s, informed
by jazz rhythms), Toni Morrison underlines the need to narrate in order to
create a past and a future, as well as to live in the present, and the impossibility
of assuming a definite voice.
In the two novels, the voices, those of the characters and those of the
narrator, create figures; they are voices that are able to call up the dead, to
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transform the invisible (a ghost, that which is never seen and thus unutterable;
that which is excluded; or quite simply the figure for slavery; or everything
that we wish it were, or that the other characters wish it were: sister, daughter,
Sethe young again…) into a figure. These figures become huge, omnivorous,
they encompass all the “us” that meet to feed the “I” (Beloved). This is why the
community, the “us,” must chase out the ghost back into the world of shadows,
giving voice to the storyteller. But in the following story, the storyteller is aware
that the author has lost control of the characters, they become something else
to such an extent that the chased-out ghost Beloved can become reincarnated
in Jazz as the wild woman with no voice.
These novels raise theoretical issues that cannot be resolved by Western
literary theory. They are novels that question even the stimulus of the older to
cure the skin imperfections of the younger generation (the adolescent killed
for jealousy in Jazz) or to disfigure the face. Like Beloved and Wild, Dorcas,
Joe’s young lover, has a sweet tooth and her skin is imperfect. Joe, in one of
the refrains around which the jazz narrative revolves, believes that only by not
eating sweets and by drinking more water, will this be cured. In the same way
that the sweet tooth is a common element linking the three women, water
is a recurrent figure in the narration-obsession of Beloved, who comes from
water, the maternal waters, the water of the middle passage – Beloved’s tomb
is associated with the Ocean, full of the corpses of dead Africans, suicides or
victims of violence during the deportation from Africa to America.
But let us start from the beginning: in a house on the edge of Cincinnati, immediately after Abolition, outside the freed-slave community, where
Sethe lives, after having escaped from slavery while pregnant with her fourth
child Denver. This house, from where her two sons run away and where her
mother-in-law dies, is inhabited, from the very beginning of the novel, by a
voice-less and face-less presence, a (non)figure in the sense established by the
dictionary: 1) the appearance of the human body and 2) illustration; drawn,
painted or sculpted image, but also an existent figure in the sense of 3) image
raised to the level of symbol and 5) a rhetorical figure. The house is home to
this presence that terrorizes the children, worries Baby Suggs, the grandmother,
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and represents the mother’s sense of guilt. The house is so full of this presence
that “there was no room for any other thing or body” (39). This invisible one,
faceless and voiceless, is already a figure, in the sense that its invisibility and
its power attract the evocative power of words, symbolizing the unspeakable/
invisible, not yet ready to take shape, or in narrative terms, “to assume human
shape” or to become a character. How is it possible that something invisible can
occupy the living space and the narrative space? The ghost makes the narrative
into a ghost story; the past, violent and violated, cancelled out, inhabits Sethe’s
every pore, as it does every corner of the house. When the past suddenly erupts
into the present through a reunion with Paul D, an old friend from the days of
slavery, when a stranger arrives on the scene of the crime, when the male tries
to take away her maternal self, the ghost assumes a form, and just like before,
when it was not a shaped figure, either for the narrative voice or for the eyes
of the reader, when it still had no external shape or figure, it occupies all the
maternal/domestic/narrative space: “Beloved swallows everything, absorbing
them into her ever larger body.”11
In the most rhythmical part of the novel, in a series of monologues by
mother, daughter and sister, each of the three female voices has her own poetic
and dramatic space to rebuild, like everyone involved in the tragedy. Differently
from the tight sequence of words which structures the monologues of Denver and
Sethe, Beloved’s monologue unravels, takes time and breathes, fails to recompose
the fractures, separations and violence, looks for words, looks for memories, looks
for a place, a face, a smile, until it finds that face, celebrates the arrival on solid
ground after the journey, and perhaps even death by water. It is the rediscovery
of the first face ever seen, the mother or perhaps the nanny who brought up the
slaves’ children, “her smiling face is the place for me, it is the face I lost” and
invites us to a reunion: “now we can join a hot thing.” (213)
This counterpoint of blues voices ends with the interlacing of monologuing voices, intertwined in such a way as to cancel out the distinctions between
the “I” and the “other,” between the soloist and the trio – a monologue that
stages the apotheosis of the desire for fusion, introjection and possession: the
beating, drumming repetition of the blues “you are mine, you are mine, you
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are mine,” and the elimination of the reply in an apotheosis of affirmations,
blur the difference between figures, eliminating both the concept of otherness
and the African “I am because we are, I am we.” Mother, daughter and sister
become a single voice and face, superimposed and absorbed into the ghost of the
past, which takes the form of the woman taken on by the strangled child.
The passage ends in fusion, the indecisiveness of identity, exchange, the
unrestrained necessity, after a long abstinence, to possess another, acting out the
drive of the baby still unable to recognize itself as separate from the mother, but
also the introjection of the slave owner’s concept of ownership of the slaves:
You are mine
You are mine
You are mine
It is the voices from the past – those of Stamp Paid that saved Denver
from Beloved’s destiny, and those from the newspaper article that Paid gives
Paul D – that re-shape, that give an assassin’s face to Sethe. It is the voices from
the past, the history of a bloody crime involving a certain Margaret Garner
who killed her three-year old daughter in 1856, rather than hand her over to
slavery, that led Morrison to write this novel. It is the history of the enormous
loss that took place in those Ocean crossings that led Morrison to represent
those devastated lives – not just voices, traces.
Denver suffers because her mother seldom looks at her, and thus never
helps her feel different from the ghost of her sister, and it is Denver who, on
those rare occasions when she is “looked at” by Sethe, feels the beatitude of being accepted for what she is (118), and it is Denver who, after trying to acquire
a face for herself, goes dumb when she hears that her face is not human, but
resembles that of an animal – Denver, made dumb by the traumatic realization
that white children see her as inhuman; it is Denver, the child who has known
the horrors of race discrimination who begins a process of re-integration, differentiating herself from her mother and her sister inside the house, and thus
accomplishes the re-integration of an “I” hereto indistinguishable from the
community of “we.” Through the entrance of Denver in the outside world, the
individual traits that distinguish one figure from another are defined, the ghost
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is chased out of the house, with the help of the community. But the narrator
leaves us with some clues: perhaps Beloved, once again disappeared, was not
the ghost of the murdered child, which continued to haunt the mother sixteen
years later (as would emerge from a supernatural reading), but is symbolically
the ghost of Black America, forgotten as much by the whites as by the slavedescendents themselves; and supposing she was a girl escaping from a slave
owner-rapist (as would emerge from a realistic reading of her presence in the
narrative, supported by the phrase “he hurts where I sleep he puts his finger
there,” 212), and was really pregnant, not symbolically or hysterically, but
really carrying a child with her when she was rejected and ostracized by the
community, becoming an outcast, wild, closer to nature than culture, “gone
primitive,” just as the consciousness and representation of white modernism
liked to portray the black mother as mother Africa. Then it is possible to
imagine that the baby she carried was Joe Trace, the male character in Jazz.
Paternity, as black history shows, is uncertain. Is the father of the child born
of Beloved-Wild Paul D? And what of the man who kept her in the hut?
This other story, that those who have only read Beloved cannot appreciate,
is discussed by Martha C. Cutter in her fascinating essay “The Story must Go on
and on: The Fantastic, Narration and Intertextuality in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
and Jazz” by examining all the clues or traces that connect the two novels.12
These traces add something more to the interest, excellence and intricacy of
the novels of this writer and are designed for the most attentive of her readers.
Those who love Toni Morrison must love re-reading the novels, love picking
up the traces or following the trail, with eyes like those of an African hunter,
the native hunter and the American trapper; they must be disciples of Hunters
Hunter or Henry Lestory (the narrator hybridizes the figure of the African
Griot, with western traits) or of Les Troy (a pun on the French for “the stories,”
“les histories”: read together in French, LesTroy sounds like “lestuar,” which
recalls the African habit of eating and shortening words), the black hunter, or
the Africanist presence of black hunters in America. Finally, Lestory is one of
the characters in one of the many subplots in the novel. Only by re-reading,
listening again to the improvisation at the base of this jazz performance, is it
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possible in the second novel in the trilogy, to recognize the traces left by figures
from the past (the co-text) which in the new text appear as new “figure-actions”
who recount and re-enact the story of African Americans in a different way,
giving the reader the possibility of figuring, of shaping new visions that form
the rizomatic texture of black American history, a weaving together of voices
that give a face to one of the faces that no one wanted to see.
Morrison has never liked the closed-ending in her narratives nor uni(vocal)
interpretations or single voices. Cutter maintains that Morrison, constructing
figuration in movement, complex identities and plural significances, rejects the
concept of literature-as-consumerism (from “to consume” which means both
to devoure and to use up), of the book-object to be read and thrown away
once read, and of objective interpretation; she embraces instead a search for
narrative modes that “resist the totalizing impulse of narrator and of readers
themselves.” This, Cutter asserts, is certainly connected with Morrison’s “investment in an oral, African American tradition of storytelling, of the Griot.” The
reader in search of a single meaning fails to see the open interpretations that
Beloved (text) implies, interpretations which derive from the novel’s blending
of realism and fantasy, novel and romance, and risks in this way formulating an
interpretation that ignores the narrating voice of the work, busy sowing doubts
about who Beloved (figure) is: a survivor of the Middle Passage (she shows
a certain knowledge of the conditions on these slave ships: hunger, violence,
death, corpses jettisoned into the sea), or a young woman held in slavery by a
man who rapes and abuses her – the narrator says that a white man called her
“Beloved in the dark and bitch in the light” (215) and that Stamp Paid himself
has heard “voices” about a whiteman from around Deer Creek keeping a girl
locked up. Later this man is found dead and “the girl gone.” (235)
Beloved (novel) is a composite narrative, a song for many voices, at times
involved in monologues, at times dialogues, voices moving autonomously
(narrative devices of monologue or stream of consciousness) or together with
another (dialogue): from separation to connection to interconnection. In our
reading, these voices are dressed in figures, en-visioned in the mind, in our
imagination, in our being, in that we are perceptive subjects able to trans-
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form words into faces, figures, tired of hearing the history of slavery from the
white point of view, as if the slaves had no voice, no face. The extraordinary
nature of this narrator is that s/he creates texts made of figures who become
“figura(c)tions,” figures that stir up and agitate the story, History and the reader:
texts constructed to fit in with a multiplicity of intra-texts, tales within tales;
texts capable of going beyond themselves, beyond the end of a text, re-forming inter-textually (in other texts.) We can see how, in the first book, a certain
figure is just a pretext or a rough draft to be re-figured in the second book.
Starting from this generative quality the works have, found in the novels
not only of Toni Morrison but also Ishmael Reed, Johnnella E. Butler develops
a scheme that clarifies the implications inherent in the differences between
African American literary theory, based on Nommo, which “generative,
multiple, changing, interactive, unfixed but connected.” (Butler, 268) and an
American literary theory based on a western Logos, outlining “the fundamental
dimension of the African American double consciousness and the battle for
integrity.” (269). “Nommo” is the word that sets the vital energy free: saying
the word is a creative act, and the word is power; tangible things are not the
only real things but, once said, narrated, every expression of thought is real,
in the sense that it has been conceived. Moreover, the word has the power to
change and transform reality, says Butler quoting J. Jahn: “there is no ‘harmless’, noncommittal word, Every word has consequences.”13
Butler’s theoretical reflections on African American literary works and
criticism, aimed at challenging the binary oppositions of Logos, continue
affirming “There is no such thing as literary work or artistic work that ‘fixed’
since the word interacts with the reader. One’s identity is only fixed when forces
outside the self prevent or distort the expression of its agency and multiplicity,
and then it is only fixed from the perspective of those outside the self who
view it as fixed.” (271)
This theory illuminates our understanding of the narrative structure and
of vision in works by authors like Toni Morrison.14 Glancing quickly at the
fascinating notion that identities are “fixed” by pressure exerted from external
forces, we can read Sethe as trapped in her solitude, in her sense of separa-
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tion and repression, not only because of the psychological trauma she has
undergone, but because of the pressure exerted on her by the ‘normalizing’
forces outside, from the freed slave community on one hand and from white
society on the other.
Using Butler’s first proposition – that the literary work is mobile and fluid
because it is transformed by its meeting with the reader – an examination of
the inter-textual relationship between Beloved and Jazz can be undertaken,
especially the treatment of the narrating voice and its relationship with the
reading subject in Jazz. Cutter reconstructs all the details that connect the
many-sided figure of Beloved with the traces of the figure of Wild: Beloved
disappears into the woods, naked, with leaves in her hair/ Wild lives in the
woods with leaves in her hair; Beloved, greedy for honey and sugar sandwiches,
sucks sugar cane/ Wild loves honey, which she steals from the bees, and lives
in a sugar plantation; when Beloved disappears in 1873, she is probably pregnant/ Wild gives birth to a boy, probably Joe (Trace) in 1873. As Cutter says,
“Joe’s name is the trace of Beloved in Jazz, the remainder of a presence that
could not be contained.” Joe chooses the surname ‘Trace’ for himself. “Trace”
is a clue, a trace for the reader to follow Wild, to read her inter-textually with
Beloved (novel and figure.) In Beloved, Beloved is the ghost of the daughter;
in Jazz she is the ghost of the mother – actually in Beloved there is a ghost of
a mother who has left her traces on Sethe, an identification mark. In Jazz, the
repetition of the words “traces,” “stitches,” “seams,” “prints,” “trails,” “tracks”
and “marks,” all of them plural, appears to alert us to Morrison’s intention
of scattering clues and traces, until the reader, following the narrating voice,
encounters a figure that remains invisible, with the exception of the meeting
with Golden Grey: Wild appears as a trace herself, a presence-absence even in
the moment in which Joe finds her cave and discovers the signs – “A green dress.
A rocking chair without an arm. A circle of stones for cooking. Jars, baskets,
pots; a doll, a spindle, earrings, a photograph, a stack of sticks, a set of silver
brushes and a silver cigar case,” but no face: “But where is she?” (184)
This narrative construction repeats a similar one used to describe the
house in Bluestone Road, haunted by the presence-absence of the ghost baby.
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By following the narrating voice, as it were the music of a jazz performance,
we too can create, by stitching together the narrative threads, suturing the
infra-textual seams, (or intra-diegetic, if within the same text), the intertextual
stitches (between texts by the same author, also defined as ‘auto-textual’) and
the metatextual traces – picking up, for example, in the description of the
earrings found in the cave, inter-diegetic traces leading to the earrings so dear
to Beloved, which in turn are traces of her past – the reincarnation or ghost
of a young woman escaping from slavery; or they can recall Sethe’s glass earrings, pressed closed to her face when she was breast-feeding. Or else, African
jewelry that survived the crossing, considered as valueless knick-knacks by
the unscrupulous slave traders. The silver brushes and cigarette case and the
cream-colour silk shirt, recall the presence of the mulatto Golden Grey, who,
looking at Wild’s body, covered in mud, experiences a moment of ethnic
epiphany: Wild incarnates the great, black woman, the beauty of the colour
black and she reveals to him his own, concealed negritude. Beloved-Wild is,
however, attracted by the blonde hair, the yellow shirt and the silver brushes,
attracted to the apparent racial otherness of Golden Grey, the golden-grey
boy, the mulatto, the half and half, unable to come to terms with, or better ‘to
give a face to’ his blackness until that meeting with Wild who, significantly,
is a receptacle of blackness: “a naked berry-black woman. She is covered with
mud and leaves are in her hair. Her eyes are large and terrible” (144). Helping
her in the delivery, Golden Grey himself gives birth to the blackness within
him; looking into her large and terrible eyes, the boy who didn’t know to be
‘golden-grey’, that is, a bastard, worse perhaps than being a black, is forced to
come to terms with his racial diversity, different from that which his mother
with her lace, silk and silver, tried to construct.
Golden Grey’s identity, Golden Grey’s face, is fixed by/towards whiteness, “by external forces” (Butler). Interestingly, the narrative voice itself, the
voice constructing the “figur(narr)action” of Golden Grey, becomes aware
of the narrative fixity, that is, her identification with the African American
discursive, identity-creating constructs. The narrator is irritated by this spoilt
child but, getting to know Golden Grey’s point of view while ‘figuring’ him,
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she changes perspective, challenging the fixed identities existing within the
black/white polarity, feeling the hurt of the other, ‘other’ both for his whiteness and for his blackness. The narrator picks up on the complexity of the
figure she has created:
How could I have imagined him so poorly? Not noticed the hurt that was not
linked to the color of his skin…. But to some other thing that longed for authenticity, for a right to be in his place, effortlessly without the need to acquire
a false face… I have been careless and stupid and it infuriates me to discover
(again) how unreliable I am. (160)
She was not aware that Golden Grey exists in the narrative not simply
as a figure, the symbol of a pre-constructed idea, but after the meeting with
Wild, he has moved into figuration: he incarnates the identity of the other; in
the American whitened context, he is other even to himself, as “otherness is
determined by perspective, position, and power relationships, and not simply
assumed as the essential condition of African Americans. Likewise, otherness
is not the assumed condition of the dominator.” (Butler, 272) Carrying within
him traces of the dominator (white mother) and dominated (black father),
of the white-gold and of the black, Golden Grey problematizes simple binary
oppositions. The narrative voice moves towards a dia-nnomic narration that
“accepts difference and identity as inter-agents,” no longer avoiding contradictions and dissonance, but working from within a position of consciousnessawareness, capable of mending wounds, stitching seams or leaving them open,
to avoid clear distinctions between identity, culture and race. The narrative
voice “takes care” of Golden, wanting him to become someone who can “alter
things,” using “the language that wishes him well, speaks his name.” (161)
The narrating voice on several occasions admits that with characters, like
with people, mistakes can be made: “So I missed it altogether” (220); she too
is forced to re-read her own pre-constructed, assumed positions, including
those ‘whitened’ narrative models that find their way into the text. As one
familiar with modernist/post-modernist strategies, she explicitly re-writes
them, deconstructing the certainties of self and those of the reading subject
used to certain reassuring and identifiable models. Certainties in narrative lead
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to the construction of stereotypes, the perpetuation of the same, while here
the characters in the story spurn the narrator’s certainties, becoming “figureactions,” “busy being original, complicated, changeable – human” (p. 220),
capable of challenging the reality around them, challenging the laziness of
the writer who can be more predictable than the characters, “confused in my
solitude into arrogance, thinking my space, my view was the only one that
was or mattered.” (ibid.)15
This continual breaking of focus and re-focusing of the narrator’s voice/
gaze is one of the most unsettling narrative strategies that I have ever come
across in my career of “consummate reader”: within the narrative, during the
narrative process-progress, Morrison explores racial space in order to reveal its
inherent heterogeneity, underling the impossibility of drawing a black-white
line; in the same way she plays with gender differences, refusing a gender line,
leaving the reader uncertain as to the narrating voice – is it male or female? In
this way the narrative resists simple generalizations or the taking of positions
or even the identification with a single sex (narrator and reader might risk
taking sides only with Joe or only with Violet, blurring the complexity of the
situation.) Morrison explores gender differences in order to remind us that
there are women and women, women and men, grieving women and grieving
men, young women, still traumatized, who break down, and older women,
traumatized by slavery, who don’t break down.
The shift in the narrative away from Logos towards Nommo produces
figurations in the text and raises destabilizing questions about our consumeristic and escapist ways of reading. The reader is obliged to follow the story,
the “figuration,” and to create his/her own story, re-making the text, giving a
voice, and a face, to the text (“make me, remake me.”)
One of the possible interpretive readings or deducible stories in Jazz,
which can be traced back to Beloved, relates to Dorcas, another young woman,
portrayed between adolescence and youth – like Beloved, like Denver, like
Amy in Beloved – a kind of jazz age Beloved, transferred into another time,
another story, another face.
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Joe uses Dorcas in his desire to re-trace his mother, and ends up shooting
her after convincing himself that loosing Dorcas implies loosing every trace
of his mother. Shooting Dorcas, he is finally able to do what he was not able
to do with the shadow of Wild. The reader must then ask whether Dorcas
is not a re-figuration of the mother, essential to Joe’s erotics and essential to
“re-memory” the mother, to use a Morrison term. Violet, another woman
with a terrible maternal history (she died in a fire), is cut off from her past in
the moment in which Joe does not tell her about Wild: she is so traumatized
by her own experience as a child that she refuses the idea of having children.
Canceling any trace of her past, she is gradually cut off from the community,
from the future, from the “I am because we are.” Confined by the solitude
of the present, alone in a room, she “silences” the bird she says she loves and
thus, unknowingly “silences” Joe, who in order to open his mouth/beak, finds
another. Joe finds a lover who puts him in touch with the present, with the
city, with the 20’s: she represents the Jazz Age (she loves clothes and dancing
and gives way to the yearnings of “life below the sash.”) She also manifests
similarities with, or traces of, Wild and Beloved: she loves sweets, so much so
that her skin is blemished, “dirty,” a skin that Joe wishes were perfect while
continuing to give her presents of sweets. The isolation from the community
is another trace which connects her with Beloved: just as Beloved, although
pregnant, is rejected by the society of Sethe and Denver, no one tries to save
Dorcas from death. And while Joe actually only wounds her, she leaves herself
to bleed to death while the community stands by and lets it happen. Why? As
a result of the general violence and promiscuity of the period? Because of her
role as a catalyst for the events narrated at the beginning of the novel – a kind of
liberation from the restrictions of the plot? A young woman in Harlem is shot
by her 50-year old lover when he thinks she is leaving him. She is left to bleed
to death. His wife, Violet-Violent, then tries to disfigure the young woman’s face
in the church, “trying to do something bluesy,” as she herself admits. (114)
Disfiguration: could this be the trace that as a reader I have to follow?
The very nature of disfiguration suggests a violent action. Violet goes into the
church with a knife. On a literal level, the betrayed woman wants to slash the
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face of the young woman: she wants to kill the young woman, who is already
dead, again; she wants to strike out against the younger generation, the generation that, 60 years after the abolition of slavery (a slavery which implicated
the abolition of freedom and rights, the abolition-cancellation-disfiguration
of motherhood) still has no mother (neither father.) The mothers and fathers,
even of those born into freedom, are dead, have run away, burnt in their own
houses, or have no children (Violet, Alice Manfred, Dorcas) and are still unable to recount the story of themselves, their history, so oppressed are they by
the pain of the un-said.
So who is Dorcas? The face of a beautiful girl who loves dancing, already
spoilt by the effects of urbanization, by the lascivious and transgressive atmosphere of Harlem, portrayed as a painting by Chagall, where all the windows
are open, letting the rooms fill up with the rhythms of saxophones, trumpets
and drums, making everybody, even religious Alice Manfred, “aware of flesh
and something so free she could smell its bloodsmell.” (58)
Who is Dorcas? A narrative projection of all those who “thought the lifebelow-the-sash as all the life there was” (60), a black woman who can indulge
in her own sexuality after centuries in which the only conceivable form of
sensuality for black people was copulation linked to procreation, reproduction
aimed at the production of new slaves; or sexual abuse from the slave owners,
plantation managers or white farm hands.
Perhaps Joe kills her without really wanting to kill her, but only because
he feels he cannot lose the woman who has led him towards the discovery of
his mother, or towards what as Roberta Rubinstein describes, is “the radically
unavailable embodiment of a primary emotional attachment, whose absence
persists as a haunting, idealized presence.”16 Perhaps Violet desires to kill her
again, to disfigure her face, rendering her unrecognizable, with “no figure,”
because, within the inter-textual web between Beloved and Jazz, she represents
the continuation or re-figuring of Wild-Beloved. Conceived in this way Dorcas
incarnates: (a) the past that Violet cannot come to terms with and which Joe
wants to bring back to life, ‘transfusing’ Wild into Dorcas (who, when she
hears music, goes ‘wild’); (b) the present in which no dialogue between the
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married couple exists, a present they share physically (they love the city, the
music of the trains) but not emotionally, even choosing discontinuation by
refusing to have children.
Violet’s insistence on having a photo of Dorcas, on staring at her, interpreting her face, reveals perhaps a desire to repair, understand, “interpret” and
recompose her features after the effacement, the cancellation of her face (and her
voice) first by Joe and then, with the attempted disfiguration, by Violet herself.
A new narrative evolves and revolves around the photo of Dorcas, emanating
from those first ten lines of the novel. The photo of Dorcas functions as the
mise en abyme of the narrative mystery. The narrating voice puts into words,
creates figures and figurations, stimulated by a single snapshot, a fleeting glance,
a news article in a paper. Characters in Jazz attain the status of figurations by
looking and re-looking at the face of Dorcas, making and re-making their own
histories by interweaving them with the stories of other characters, met in the
city or from the countryside. Moreover, through the character of Golden Grey
who encompasses both the story of Violet (whose grandmother, True Belle, was
Golden Grey’s nanny) and the story of Joe, (probably Wild’s son, who reveals
Golden Grey’s African origins, forcing him to recognize his own blackness),
we are brought back to the origin, incarnated in Wild, who is both (a) the exslave, saved from slavery by her mother’s violent act (Beloved, the murdered
child) and (b) the reincarnation of that child – Beloved aged 18 – who is one
of the survivors of the Middle Passage, and the maternal space (that essential
emotional bonding denied to the children of slaves and ex-slaves) and, finally,
(c) that “wild space” that exists in all women of African descent. She is also the
ghost of slavery who has never been shut out of the American house.
Looking at Dorcas with the psychological, de-racialized, culturally-aware
gaze of the narrator or with the gaze of characters, like Joe, searching for their
origins or with the hermeneutic gaze of the reader – is to re-make her, it is a
form of therapy to counteract the desire to cancel the other, to empty her of
a meaning; it is a way of not looking at oneself, or a way of going beyond the
belief that in her, someone else – the mother – can be found. The gaze cast
on Dorcas is cast on the wound of slavery, still open, bleeding, unwritten,
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un-figured, unaided just like Dorcas. Looking at her implies narrating and renarrating ad infinitum that simple but dramatic story contained in the initial
ten lines; to weave together the threads, strands and filaments that form the
history of an African American narrative. Disfiguring her implies a refusal to
recognize any trace of Wild and Beloved, any trace of one’s own mother, of
one’s own history. It is a radical attempt to stop memory, to create a distance
and, at the same time, quite simply an act of hatred “in the face of ” the woman
who stole her man.
During the promotional tour for Paradise, the last volume in the trilogy,
Morrison spoke about the relation between her characters and memory or,
as she prefers to call it, “rememory.” She spoke about how when the past, in
the form of memory, bursts into the present, no amount of energy spent in
the attempt to ‘not see’ will suffice. Something simply has to be done with
that memory: re-memory, which is not “simply memory or remembering, but
the process of learning what to do once you’ve remembered.”17 These words
cast light not only upon the Joe-Violet dynamic, with the bursting of a past
previously kept at bay into the present, but also illuminates the intention of
the writer in telling this tale.
Dorcas, in her re-narrated, re-figured form at the end of the work (Felice’s
story), is instrumental both in generating the impulse towards re-memory
that lays bare the inter-textual dynamics of the text(s), and at the same time
reveals the connection between reading and writing, a read book and a written book, interpretive voices and narrating voices. In the final act of closure,
a new opening is created (“make me, remake me.”) It is not only possible to
read the love relationship that joins writer and reader, narrator and figuration,
narration and interpretation, but to read the syntax of desire, the vocabulary
of the erotic, that forms the ending, that per-forms or “figures” the novel, and
the interpretation of it, as a body (the body of Dorcas.)
Through the assassination/suicide of Dorcas, her re-elaboration, in the
work is a reciprocal collaboration between narrator and character, between
narrator and reader. It is here that the shift from invisible to visible occurs
– from the cancellation, the disfiguration of the history of black America to
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its transcription into jazz and in Jazz. The voice in love of the woman or man
who narrates the story, seems to come from the body of Dorcas, from this
woman so in love with the life-below-the-sash, a prototype of that first generation of African American women free to choose whether and with whom they
had sex. But even this affirmation is only partly true, given that Dorcas is left
to die, abandoned by the brothers and sisters of her community. And here is
another story: the violence of slavery gives way to a new kind of violence, sex
against sex, generation against generation, the unresolved trauma of African
Americans – unresolution due to a lack of courage to re-read the traces of
origins, or to go beyond reductive schemes that create opposition and conflict;
or lack of courage to mend the fragmentation and separation and alienation of
“the past, of other human beings” formed initially by the experience of slavery
and later perpetuated in the space of logos. The healing comes from the shift
through the Nommo, that word that generates vital energy – towards the space
of consciousness, inter-connections and integrity, where “individuality exists
within the context of communality.” (Butler, 269)
1. Keane, Webb. “Voce/Voice,” in Culture e Discorso, A. Duranti ed., Roma: Meltemi, 2001, 407.
2. Bachtin, M., “The Problem of Speech Genres,” in Speech Genres and other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986 [1979]. Italian translation: L’autore e l’eroe: teoria letteraria
e scienze umane. Torino: Einaudi, 1988; Derrida, J., De la grammatologie, Paris: Editions de
minuit, 1967; and Derrida, J., La voix et le phénomène, Paris: PUF, 1967.
3. On this, Zaccaria, P. Forme della ripetizione. Le ipertrofie di E.A. Poe, i deficit di S. Beckett,
Torino: Tirrenia Stampatori, 1992, p. 57.
4. Morrison, T., Jazz, London: Picador, p. 229. From now on, the pages from this book will
be directly written after the citations. The italics are in the text.
5. Zaccaria, cit., p. 63.
6. Expression used by bell hooks, particularly in Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics,
Boston: South End Press, 1990, and Outlaw Culture. Resisting Representations, New York:
Routledge, 1994.
7. In her new book, In metamorfosi. Verso una teoria materialista del divenire, (Milano, Feltrinelli,
2003), Braidotti moves the concept of figuration towards cartographic analysis, which is not
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central to my discussion, whereas what is interesting for my enquiry into Morrisson’s texts is
the hypothesis that figurations “try to draw a carthography of the relationship of power which
define the mutual positions… in this way they [figurations] can contribute to identify possible
sites and strategies of resistence.” (11)
8. Definition 3 of the reported dictionary entries for “figure.”
9. Morrison, T., Beloved, London: Picador, 1987, pp. 274-5. From now on, the pages from this
book will be directly written after the citations.
10. West-African proverb quoted in: Johnnella E. Butler, “Mumbo Jumbo, teoria ed estetica
dell’integrità nella letteratura Africana-americana,” in Estetica e differenza (P. Zaccaria ed.), Bari:
Palomar, 2002, pp. 261-274.
11. Nancy Jesser, “Violence, home, and community in Tony Morrison’s Beloved ,” p. 19.
12. In African American Review, Spring, 2000 (available online
cf_0/m2838/1_34/62258906/p1/article.jhtml, copyright 2000 African American Review and
The Gale Group.) As I have downloaded this text from the web, I cannot refer to pages.
13. Jahn, J., “ Mantu. The new African culture,” New York: Grove Press, 1961, pp. 132-3.
14. Butler does not limit this vision to the implications of a dia-nommic theory of African
American literature, but extends it to all the literatures in America, making reference to Leslie
Marmon Silko, native American, Maxine Hong Kingston, Asian American, Rudolpho Anaya,
chican and others. (274)
15. Lack of space prevents us from reflecting here on the narrator’s choice to renounce the role
of God-like creator of plot and characters, to avoid omniscience and even narratorial reliability
and to escape from identification with either a particular character or with a precise or univocal
position. In this, Morrison takes her inspiration from jazz music where there is no score for
the musicians, just points of departure. Jazz frees the musician from the score (written page),
from a known beginning and return, and for this reason a jazz piece is always different, even if
played by the same musicians or the same band. (On this, see Calefato, P. “ ‘Hush now, don’t
explain”: su Jazz di Toni Morrison, in Europa fenicia, Franco Angeli, 1994) The jazz performance derives from the dynamic interplay between the musicians and the audience, in the
same way that the novel Jazz re-creates itself anew with each new relationship reader/writer,
or, referring to the last lines in Jazz, quoted at the beginning of this study, the novel resurrects
with the caress of the reader’s hands on the novel; is seen again by the eye-face of the reader
who peruses at and responds to the page/body of the text/writer who, for the duration of the
reading, feels “gazed at.”
16. In “History and Story, Sign and Design: Faulknerian and Postmodern Voices in Jazz,” in:
Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner Re-Envisioned (C. Kolmerten, S. M. Roos and J. Bryant Wittenbers eds.), Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1997, 161).
17. Reported in the “Points for Discussion of Beloved ” in the website of the University of
Warwick, © 2001.
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works cited
Eckard, Paula Gallant. “The Interplay of Music, Language, and Narrative in Toni Morrison’s
Jazz.” College Language Association Journal 28.1 (1994): 11-19.
Mbalia, Doreatha D. “Women Who Run with Wild: The Need for Sisterhoods in Jazz.” Modern
Fiction Studies 39.3-4 (1993): 623-646.
Rice, Alan J. “Jazzing It Up A Storm: The Execution and Meaning of Toni Morrison’s Jazzy
Prose Style.” Journal of American Studies (UK) 28.3 (1994): 423-32.
Waegner, Cathy C., “From Faulkner to Morrison: “Jazzing Up” the American Nobel Prize Heritage,” published in Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik (LiLi), 27: 107 (September
1997), 68-91. Available online:
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francesca bisutti de riz
“Walking Walls”: Figures of the Limit, Figures
of the Border
Have you not been as an inclosed garden to me,
and I a wall of fire round about you?
Thomas Shepard
On either hand thee, there are squadrons pitch’d,
To wall thee from the liberty of flight.
William Shakespeare
Figure 1
Andy Goldsworthy. A Wall Went for a Walk. 1990. Grizedale forest sculpture. Cumbria.
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A Land Art work by Andy Goldsworthy called A Wall Went for a Walk
(figure 1) attracts our attention because of its paradoxical nature. The title,
resonant in implications, light-heartedly and yet resolutely (with that fine past
tense) tells us that one day a certain wall rebelled against its age-old role and
freed itself from the strongest epistemological constraints. Now a flâneur in
the wilderness, the strolling wall renounces its traditional office of closing in,
of separating, and even discards its prime function of being there, fixed to one
spot. It tends instead to become a thread that we can follow, a “promenade
architecturale/naturelle,” a path along which we are invited to wander.
A wall wandering in the forest: could this be a graphic representation of
the American soul, nomadic and colonizing at the same time? The wall in the
wood is both construction and path. More, it is a road in the wood, which
occupies nature while adapting itself to nature and measuring itself against
nature. In turn, the wood with the wall inside appears surprisingly original:
not a sacred grove, nor a utilitarian wood; not the magic wood of elves and
pixies, nor the forbidden garden of the Selfish Giant. Not even the disturbing
metaphor of Shakespeare’s moving forest can help describe it. If anything, this
“hortus inconclusus” recalls the philosophic wood of Henry David Thoreau.
We know that Andy Goldsworthy is not American1, and yet there is so much
of the author of Walden in the artist’s digressive, sauntering and inconclusive
wall: Thoreau, the Excursionist, would certainly have liked this extravagant
wall and would have welcomed it into his landscape and perhaps described it
as one “fit to entertain a travelling god, and where a goddess might trail her
garments.” (Walden 62) This cheekily oxymoronic wall, which negates the idea
of wall, would have received a better treatment than that which Thoreau, as
naturalist and rhetor, reserved, for example, for fences:
I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part
of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples
only. Why, the owner does not know it for many years when a poet has put his
farm in rhyme, the most admirable kind of invisible fence, has fairly impounded
it, milked it, skimmed it, and got all the cream, and left the farmer only the
skimmed milk. (Walden 60, my emphasis)
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Not even a lark or an oriole, those mild plantation birds, ever visited my clearing.
No cockerels to crow nor hens to cackle in the yard. No yard! But unfenced Nature
reaching up to your very sills. […] Instead of a scuttle or a blind blown off in
the gale, a pine tree snapped off or torn up by the roots behind your house for
fuel. Instead of no path to the front-yard gate in the Great Snow – no gate – no
front-yard – and no path to the civilized world! (Walden 93, my emphasis)
Figure 2
Thomas Jefferson. Serpentine Wall. Detail. University of Virginia.
Now, the question is whether the concept of the wall (and of closure in
general) is really alien to American culture. Let’s ask the stones themselves with
the help of Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect:
The cave dweller was the ancient conservative. But probably he was more brutal
with his heavy club, if not more ferocious, than the wanderer with his spear.
The cave dweller became the cliff dweller and began to build cities. Establishment was his. His God was a statue more terrible than himself, a murderer, and
hidden in a cave. This statue he erected into a covenant.
His swifter, more mobile brother devised a more adaptable and elusive dwelling
place, the folding tent.
From place to place over the earth following the law of change, natural law to
him, he went in changing seasons.
An adventurer.
His god was a spirit, a wind devastating or beneficient as himself.
[…] But I imagine that the ideal of freedom that keeps breaking through our
establishments setting their features aside or obliterating them is due in some
degree to the original instinct of the adventurer. He who lived by his freedom
and his prowess beneath the stars rather than he who lived by his obedience and
labour in the shadow of the wall. (3, 71-72)
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Wright’s story of binary oppositions enacts the drama of conceptual contradictions in the new world. To stay in the shadow of the wall or to go out into
the wind? Dwelling in the wind, to be sure, means “dwelling in possibility,”
as Emily Dickinson’s line beautifully goes. That’s the genuine American way,
Wright suggests. The wind “that keeps breaking through our establishments”
is the American Ariel who does not care for barriers and is intolerant of their
shadows. Nonetheless, establishments are being built, from which the conservative inhabitant of the wall continues, with atavistic ferocity, to assert its
centripetal (centralizing) force against the centrifugal (dispersive) force of the
adventurer. Thus, as is implied in Wright’s allegory of proto-social types, not
only was it for obvious chronological reasons that the ancient archetype of the
stone wall never took root in the American soil, where there was no historical
time and no ideological room for Hadrian’s Wall, for the Great Wall of China,
for the Walls of Troy, or for the Berlin Wall.2 The very idea of wall (symbol of
limitation and separation, of interrupted communication, rivaling in all human contexts the purely functional symbol of defense and protection) couldn’t
possibly exist “in the American grain” owing to the powerful counterthrust
that Wright tells us about in his capacity as anthropologist. As a mythographer,
Thoreau had already told us that the history of America can only be told on
foot, “walking out” of the title pages of historiography:
I walk out into a Nature such as the old prophets and poets […] walked in.
You may name it America, but it is not America: neither Americus Vespucius,
nor Columbus, nor the rest were the discoverers of it. There is a truer account
of it in mythology than in any history of America, so called, that I have seen.
(Collected Essays 231)
And indeed from early times the mythological method has shaped historiography. In his Theopolis Americana, Cotton Mather himself, the first urban
planner of America, one might say, had powerfully indicated by way of biblical
metaphors that walls were not needed. Roads and streets3 were needed instead,
it didn’t matter whether they were imaginary or spiritual:
PEOPLE OF GOD, May these be your Cares. Then there will be fulfilled
unto us that Word, Isa. I: 26: Thou shalt be called, The City of Righteousness, The
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Faithful City. A CITY of such a GOLDEN STREET, will be a Strong City; God
will appoint Salvation for Walls and bulwarks unto it; while none but a Righteous
Nation, which keeps the Truth, inhabits it. […] Our Coast will be under His
Protection. There will none dare go up against the Land of Unwalled Villages.
(Mather 278)
It may be that Mather took his inspiration, as well as from the Old
Testament, from the legend of that other unwalled city, Sparta, which was
invincible because it was protected by the breastplates of its warriors. The
fact is, as cultural observers know very well, that Americans have always been
engaged in and troubled by questions and controversies about limits (from
fixing physical boundaries to regulating private property, from establishing
Reservations for the Indians and the wildlife4 to defining social appropriateness
itself.) Literature is full of stories about the exploration of limits, as we read
in Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry in which, for example, in a farcical legal
act the sphere of competence and destination of two preachers is decided: the
one who has the lawful qualifications and is versed in biblical philology will
work in the town, the other who is a fraud but is energetic and persuasive
will work in the territory! Less amusing and more patriotic are the anecdotes
which have been handed down recounting episodes concerned with the theme
of limits. In 1693, the people of Connecticut protested against the authority
of the Crown by beating their drums. When they were ordered to stop, their
elected executive is reported to have taken hold of the hilt of his sword and to
have told the royal governor of New York, newly appointed by King William
III, “If my drummers are again interrupted, I’ll make sunlight shine through
you. We deny and defy your authority.” (qtd. in Kammen 31) Apart from the
authenticity of the episode, in the gruesome threat to sweep aside an authority which is not recognized as legitimate (making sunlight shine through the
body/barrier of the King’s representative) one can clearly perceive the temptation to topple barriers, to sweep aside limits.
The “City on a Hill” has always been an “unwalled village.” The memory
of Cotton Mather’s “unwalledness” has never faded and continually reappears,
as does the Melvillian “landlessness,” in all artistic contexts, from Ansel Adams’ unframed landscapes, to Tennessee Williams’ transparent screen walls, to
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John Ford’s long shots, to Robert Hahn’s indictment of “stockades.”5 It most
famously resurfaced in Thoreau’s celebration of “unfencedness,” almost two
hundred years later and with similar messianic overtones:
A people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forest stand! I saw
the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and some
worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken
place around him, and he did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise. I looked again, and saw him
standing in the middle of a boggy stygian fen, surrounded by devils, and he had
found his bounds without a doubt, three little stones, where a stake had been
driven, and looking nearer, I saw that the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor.
(Collected Essays 230)
A powerful description of the fields of Paradise, which are open to harmonious movement, and of the pit of Hell, which is condemned to stillness
and confinement. The visionary impact of “the shadow of the fence” is the
same as that of “the shadow of the wall,” although Thoreau’s narrative is more
Miltonian in tone and Wright’s more ethnographic and scientific in character. Both authors, indeed, seem to echo Dante’s infernal journey “tra ’l muro
della terra e li martìri” (“between the wall of the earth and torments.”) And
it is interesting to note how Yi-Fu Tuan, one of the most influential contemporary human geographers, uses the same symbolic repertory and even the
same scenario:
We owe our sense of being not only to supportive forces but also to those that
pose a threat. Being has a centre and an edge: supportive forces nurture the centre
while threatening force strengthen the edge. In theological language, hell bristles
with places that have sharply drawn – indeed fortified – boundaries but no center
worthy of defence; heaven is full of glowing centres with the vaguest boundaries;
earth is an uneasy compromise of the two realms. (243-44)
America can be seen precisely as this “uneasy compromise of the two
realms” and its history can be epitomized in the story of its physical limits to
the west, where the wall (the political line of confine) turned into the frontier
(the mythical zone of surpassment), a magical and violent short-circuit between
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the medieval, if not barbaric, invasion and the advance of progress, where the
sense of what is “within” and what is “without” the boundary is continually
superseded by the sense of what is “farther on.” The perception of boundlessness transforms historical space into homogeneous space, similar to mythical or
sacred space, characterized by the indistinctness of the temporal co-ordinates.
It is no wonder that Kant and the Kantians, who devoted particular attention
to themes connected with space, proved so successful in America, where the
need to comprehend, contain and reduce immensity and the very incalculability of future time was so urgent.
Deep loneliness is sublime, but in a way that stirs terror. Hence great far-reaching solitudes, like the colossal Komul Desert in Tartary, have always given us
occasion for peopling them with fearful spirits […] A long duration is sublime.
If it is of the past, then it is noble. If it is projected into an incalculable future,
then it has something of the fearsome in it. (Kant 48-50)
Barry Smith’s recent stimulating discussion of borders as “bona fide” or
genuine, and as “fiat” or the fruit of a deliberation (61-62), makes yet more
problematic the already difficult phenomenon of the frontier, but does not
help us to describe it: does a “mala fide” border exist? Just what sort of faith
was it by which the genuine rim of the Pacific could be made to coincide with
the willed (and imperialistic) “fiat”? We know that, in the first puritan frontier,
Faith was enough: “Sola fides.” Thus the “fiat” border was nothing more than
the “genuine” consequence of a border perceived from the very beginning in
good faith. When Smith suggests that even by merely turning our gaze towards
the landscape we create a “fiat” border which coincides with the horizon (62),
we think of the gaze of the pioneer, or of the cowboy, or of the cavalryman
as of the gesture of a hand reaching out. The pioneers’ extendible frontier6
challenges the traditional typologies which describe the border as natural or
diplomatic/military or yet again as “antecedent,” or “subsequent” or “superimposed,” according to whether “it had been established before, during or after
the population had organized the main features of the humanized landscape.”
(Raffestin 420) The United States have been all three of these things, in the
full span of their development, from “the turbulent Atlantic” to the “mighty
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Pacific,” to use the political language of mid-nineteenth-century propaganda:
“Make way […] for the young American Buffalo […]. Well, he shall have the
use of the two oceans” (qtd. in Flannery 287), exclaimed a Democratic delegate
in 1844, undoubtedly taking his cue from Emerson’s speech entitled “The
Young American,” and adding a touch that was intended to be picturesque
but which strikes us as ominous for the inevitable association it evokes with
extermination, and not only of animals… .
Now, the house is one of the “main features of the humanized landscape”
that is needed to stabilize the frontier, to make it a frontier of the “subsequent”
type as quickly as possible. But what sort of house do we find in the frontier?
A traditional house? Of course not. A “child of necessity,” the “balloon-frame”
house was widely used because of it was so easy to build, thanks to the use of
a skeleton of standard thinly sawn planks and the abolition of slotted joints,
substituted by machine-made nails. Initially mocked by master-carpenters
for its crudeness and later called “balloon” both as a term of derision and also
in reference to its lightness, this kind of portable house marked the triumph
of industry over craftsmanship (Giedion 338-43). And since modernity and
myth are not incompatible on the prairie, one can say that, together with the
train, the “prefabricated” house took the pioneers out of time and into space.
But it is a house destined to last only as long as required, not to survive its
inhabitant, a house in light armor that by its very existence refutes the idea
of the house as it has been cultivated over the centuries, and it is closer to
the portable tent to which Wright refers. The home on the range is the child
of movement, like its most meaningful accessory, the rocking chair that can
never remain still.
In the ways I have sketched, the Americans tried to divest themselves of
walls, which represent the architectural element that we most tend to associate
with the concept of time and duration. Time, inhuman as it is, is neither under
our control nor adjustable, nor can it be dictated to, whereas wide open spaces
can be dominated, even if they are non-human in their vastness and enormity.
To conquer the “irrimediabile tempus,” that is, to fully and radically “make
it new,” as the first Puritan Commandment had it, one had to incorporate
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movement in space, or rather, to “temporalize space,”7 as Bruno Zevi puts it
in another context: “Temporalizing means ceaselessly shifting one’s point of
view.” (53) The most formidable architectural icon in this sense is Frank Lloyd’s
Wright’s “Kaufmann House,” the house on the waterfall and of the waterfall, as
fluid and mobile as the water. The walls seem to have just set off on a journey,
free explorers in all directions. The floors slide among themselves parallel to the
ground and thus, wherever they go, they always remain connected to it. The
vertical axis of the chimney/obelisk (authority principle)8 counterbalances the
adventurous horizontal development of the plan (pleasure principle.) Vincent
Scully has very efficaciously written that “two deep-seated compulsions – both
very apparent in America – one seeking rootedness and protection, the other
demanding freedom and mobility, are here woven together in a calm and
expansive unity.” (121) In this dwelling-place there is a wholly human sacredness that Donal W. Hoppen has expressed with poetic intuition: “In a forest
glen, a fire upon a rock.” (99) Intimacy and meditation (a cinematographic
memory of the camp?) can live alongside unconventionality and wild abandon
(a memory of free horse-riding?) by virtue of Wright’s radical undermining of
the traditional wall: “My sense of the ‘wall’ was no longer the side of the box.”
Rather, it was “to bring the outside world into the house and let the inside
of the house go outside.” (Wright 2, 200) Most importantly, “[t]here was the
sense of a vital, ever-changing order as elements and context shifted into new
relationships.” (qtd. in Secrest 424) These words take us back to Thoreau’s
works, regulated/deregulated by movement and modulated on the journey
and on change; but they also take us forwards, to the experience of the Land
Artists, who took these modes of perception to extremes, making transience
and impermanence the essential qualities of their works.
It may be useful to recollect, from Walden, the scene where Thoreau, as a
playful hygienist, invites his readers to participate in a ritual cleaning en-pleinair of all the household furnishings in the spirit of what we might now call a
Land Art performance . This little exercise in Verfremdung, defamiliarization,
this game of swapping the inside with the outside, the narrator says , “will not
fail to show you a fresh prospect” (82):
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It was pleasant to see my whole household effects out on the grass, making a little
pile like a gipsy’s pack, and my three-legged table, from which I did not remove
the books and pen and ink, standing amid the pines and the hickories. (82)
Thoreau decontextualizes his household objects, and “translates” them
It was worth the while to see the sun shine on these things, and hear the free
wind blow on them; so much more interesting most familiar objects look out of
doors than in the house. (82)
This provides an apt definition of the artifice of defamiliarization that
Thoreau exemplifies “extra moenia” instead of “intra moenia,” much as Wright
will do with his interior wall “septi,” which extend out of the house, causing
the interior to dwell happily in the exterior. It is always a pleasure to read
Thoreau while thinking of Wright’s houses:
A bird sits on the next bough, life-everlasting grows under the table, and
blackberry vines run round its legs; pine cones, chestnut burrs, and strawberry
leaves are strewn about. It looked as if this was the way these forms came to be
transferred to our furniture, to tables, chairs, and bedsteads, – because they once
stood in their midst. (83)
Fascinating alchemy becomes possible when objects are released from the
confinement of walls! What initially seemed a “displacement” procedure, one
of putting things out of place, and thus separating forms from functions – the
game of transgression and eccentricity, of leading beyond the limits and far
from the center – appears now as an obligatory stage, that of necessary disorder.
Disorder and confusion (thus combining elements and categories that are nonhomogeneous and incongruous, like what is made and what is natural, closed
and open, inside and outside) allow “displacement” to take on the character
– at once bold and philosophical – of “replacement,” a reconnecting of the
object with its primary idea and primary life: Thoreau’s objects “seemed glad
to get out themselves, and as if unwilling to be brought in.” (82) A bit like the
beans that the author grew nonchalantly – as we might say – and which were
“cheerfully returning to their wild and primitive state.” (115)
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Less cheerful and romantically transgressive than Thoreau, yet still in tune
with him, is the postmodern architect John Hejduck, when he writes about
his Wall Houses (figure 3):
The wall is the most present condition possible. Life has to do with walls, in the
sense that we are continuously going in and out, back and forth, and through
them: a wall is ‘the quickest’ and ‘the thinnest’, the thing we are always transgressing, and that is why I see it as the present, the most surface condition. (Qtd. in
Tafuri 19)
Figure 3
John Heiduck. Bye House – Wall House 2. Drawing. 1973. Ridgefield, Connecticut.
And that indeed “life has to do with walls” is the lesson of Bartleby, the
most human and the most metaphysical of characters, who is “always there”
(26) and always beyond, allegorically inhabiting the modern frontier “tra ’l
muro della terra e li martìri,” even more alone than the unredeemable Gatsby,
fatally isolated by invisible walls:
We both looked down at the grass – there was a sharp line where my ragged lawn
ended and the darker, well-kept expanse of his began. (Fitzgerald 89)
The aftertaste of the wall has thus never totally disappeared and the
America that renounced walls, or liberated them, or weakened them, or even
sent them for a walk, at a certain point needed one. 1982 saw the building of
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, known and recognized as The
Wall (figure 4.) Like a sort of nemesis it blocks energy and movement. The
real closing of Turner’s open frontier took place here, against this memorialplaque in the form of a trench, which is a reminder and a restraint, a necessary
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leash, a blind wall where the possibility of happiness is not inscribed but where
names (many names) are given up to memory and to the pain of loss. It does
not stand as a partition to keep an enemy out and to protect those within, as
the Paternal “wall of fire” of puritan sermons defended the “inclosed garden”;
it is not a shield against the outsider and in no way does it represent division
or separation, difference or distance. Rather, Vallum Maternale, terrible and
pitiful like the archetypical mother, a surface on which life and death touch and
comfort one another, it is a genuine mending wall,9 mysteriously embodying
proximity and the act of embracing.
Figure 4
Maya Lin. Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 1982. Washington.
1. Born in Great Britain in 1956, Andy Goldsworthy creates his works outdoors and from
natural materials. In 1997-98 he built a winding stone wall at Storm King Art Center, a sculpture park on the Hudson river in Mountainville, New York. Interestingly, the prototype of
Goldsworthy’s walls is to be found in America, in Jefferson’s Serpentine Wall at the University
of Virginia (figure 2.)
2. On the Berlin Wall and its American literary versions, see Roberto Cagliero’s essay.
3. William Boelhower gives a stimulating analysis of the theme of the road in the second chapter
of his Through a Glass Darkly: Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature.
4. On the conflict between “Land Ethic” and the “Abrahamic concept of land” see Rosella Mamoli
Zorzi’s essay highlighting Aldo Leopolds’s and William Faulkner’s vision of the wilderness.
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5. “A stockade for Rebel prisoners, in the rolling hills / Of New York, had a staircase outside
the wall / Ladies could climb, to see them, roasting or freezing, / And always starving, these
elegant sons of the South / Whose ululations had terrified. / Frederick Olmsted / Labored in
that decade, to show us open spaces / As art. […]” (“In the Open,” No Messages, 121) For the
Italian translation of Hahn’s poem and for a comment on it as a contemporary meditatio, see
Massimo Bacigalupo.
6. For a perspective on the American frontier “from the other side,” from the point of view of
the French, see Marie-Jeanne Rossignol.
7. On the relationship space/movement/time in the frontier, see my “Arcangeli a duello.”
8. A passage from Melville’s tale “I and My Chimney” strikes me as apt here; it serves as a curious ironic counterpoint to the strong and authoritative intentionality that has been attributed
to Wright’s chimney and it contains sharp vernacular observations on the sedentary spirit of
the settlement and the nomadic spirit of the territory:
“I and my chimney, two grey-headed old smokers, reside in the country. We are, I may say, old settlers here;
particularly my old chimney, which settles more and more every day […].
My chimney is grand seignior here – the one great domineering object, not more of the landscape than
of the house […].
What care I, if, unaware that my chimney, as a free citizen of this free land, stands upon an independent
basis of its own, people passing it, wonder how such a brick-kiln, as they call it, is supported upon mere
joists and rafters? […].
But stately as is the chimney – yea, grand high altar as it is, right worthy for the celebration of the mass
before the Pope of Rome, and all his cardinals – yet what is there perfect in this world?” (352-359)
9. On Frost’s poem see the analysis by Gregory Dowling in the fourth chapter of his Someone’s
Road Home: Questions of Home and Exile in American Narrative Poetry.
works cited
Bacigalupo, Massimo. “Robert Hahn.” Quaderni di lingue e letterature (Univ. Genova), 12
(2003): 155-161.
Bisutti De Riz, Francesca. “Arcangeli a duello: educazione e mito nelle rappresentazioni del
West.” America Today: Highways and Labyrinths. Ed. Gigliola Nocera. Siracusa: Grafià Editrice,
2003, pp. 322-334.
Boelhower, William. Through a Glass Darkly: Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature. Venezia:
Edizioni Helvetia, 1984.
Brackenridge, Hugh Henry. Modern Chivalry. Ed. Claude M. Newlin. New York: Hafner, 1962.
Cagliero, Roberto. “Panorami del muro.” Il piccolo Hans 83-84 (1994): 63-80.
Dowling, Gregory. Someone’s Road Home: Questions of Home and Exile in American Narrative
Poetry. Udine: Campanotto Editore, 2003.
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Fitzgerald, Francis Scott. The Great Gatsby. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.
Flannery, Tim. The Eternal Frontier. New York: Grove Press, 2001.
Giedion, Sigfried. Spazio, tempo ed architettura. Milano: Hoepli, 1995.
Hahn, Robert. No Messages. South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.
Hoppen, Donald W. The Seven Ages of Frank Lloyd Wright. Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1993.
Kammen, Michael. People of Paradox. New York: Random House, 1973.
Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Trans. John T. Goldthwait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.
Mamoli Zorzi, Rosella. “William Faulkner’s and Aldo Leopold’s Theories of the Land in ‘The
Bear’. A Coincidence?” Études Faulknériennes 3 (2002): 115-121.
Mather, Cotton. Theopolis Americana. The Harper American Literature. Vol. 1. Gen. Ed. Donald
McQuade. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.
Melville, Herman. The Writings of Herman Melville. Vol. 9. Gen. Ed. Harrison Hayford. Evanston: Northwestern U.P. and The Newberry Library, 1987.
Raffestin, Claude. “Frontières.” Cartes et figures de la terre. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980.
Rossignol, Marie-Jeanne. “Frontières d’empires: vers une nouvelle historiographie de la ‘frontière’
nord-américaine avant 1848.” Revue Française d’Études Américaines 72 (1997): 91-102.
Scully, Vincent. American Architecture and Urbanism. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.
Secrest, Meryle. Frank Lloyd Wright. A Biography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,
Smith, Barry. “Oggetti Fiat.” Rivista di estetica 20/2 (2002): 58-86. [Topoi. 20 (2001): 131-148.]
Tafuri, Manfredo. “Les bijoux indiscrets.” Five Architects NY. Eds. Camillo Gubitosi and Alberto
Izzo. Roma: Officina Edizioni, 1976.
Thoreau, Henry David. Collected Essays and Poems. Ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell. New York:
The Library of America, 2001.
—, Walden, Or Life in the Woods. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective.” Progress in Geography 6 (1974): 211-252.
Weilacher, Udo. Between Landscape Architecture and Land Art. Basel: Birkhauser, 1996.
Wright, Frank Lloyd. The Collected Writings of Frank Lloyd Wright. Vols 3. Ed. Bruce Brooks
Pfeiffer. Intro. Kenneth Frampton. Rizzoli: NewYork, 1993.
Zevi, Bruno. Il linguaggio moderno dell’architettura. Torino: Einaudi, 1973.
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ugo rubeo
An Interview with Agostino Lombardo
Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Humanistic Sciences at the University of Rome “La Sapienza,” Agostino Lombardo was the first scholar to hold
a chair of American Literature in an Italian academic institution, starting in
the 1950s. Since then he has been an active interpreter of the American literary scene – a field of studies whose growth he has constantly promoted as a
professor, critic, essayist, and editor of Studi Americani, the first Italian literary
journal devoted to criticism of American literature. In the following interview,
recorded in July 2003 – on the 30th anniversary of the Italian Association
for North American Studies – Lombardo expands on several subjects, from
his early experience within the newly-born Association, to the present state
of the art of American Studies in Italy, to personal considerations on cultural
studies and on the contemporary literary scene in the United States. In the
final paragraph, centered on the psychological impact of the tragedy of 9/11,
Lombardo contends that American literature had repeatedly anticipated the
sense of anguish and displacement that the event provoked, confirming its
capacity to capture the inner, tragic sense of the human experience.
D. Il 2003 è l’anno in cui l’Associazione Italiana di Studi Nord Americani
celebra ufficialmente i suoi trent’anni di vita. Penso potremmo partire proprio
da questo dato per tracciare un bilancio relativo al percorso fatto fin qui sia
dall’Associazione, sia dall’americanistica italiana in genere, di cui Lei è stato,
anche a livello accademico, uno dei fondatori.
R. Non è facile per me fare il bilancio di una storia che mi riguarda
molto da vicino, dal momento che ricordo ancora le lettere che ho mandato
la prima volta ai colleghi per creare questa Associazione, appunto trent’anni fa.
In qualche modo quindi sono coinvolto in questa storia, anche se negli ultimi
dieci-quindici anni non mi sono più occupato direttamente di letteratura ame-
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ricana e quindi il mio coinvolgimento è stato in qualche modo minore di quello
degli specialisti puri di americano. Anche se in questi trent’anni ho seguitato
ampiamente a occuparmene, non so se dal punto di vista istituzionale dello
sviluppo dell’Associazione io ho molto da dire, proprio perché, dopo gli inizi
e la sua prima fase, sono stato man mano più distaccato. Certo, questo lungo
periodo è stato molto importante: da un lato, lo sviluppo dell’Associazione,
dall’altro gli studi di letteratura americana sono diventati sempre più seri, secondo le linee di sviluppo che ho cercato di indicare in altre interviste, sia in
Mal d’America, sia in uno dei primi numeri di Ácoma. Naturalmente, le nostre
conoscenze, in questi trent’anni, si sono fatte molto più approfondite, anche
perché è stato molto più facile avere accesso a tutta una serie di possibilità e
di strumenti che hanno reso la realtà americana molto più vicina e tangibile
di quanto non fosse vero prima.
Su questo piano, dunque, io credo che ci si stato uno sviluppo assolutamente positivo di questi studi: in Italia tutti gli autori maggiori sono stati
tradotti o studiati, e non solo quelli, tanto che non credo forse esista un autore
che non abbia avuto un contributo italiano. La ricerca c’è stata e continua ad
esserci, sia sulla narrativa, sia sulla poesia, sia in molti altri settori che indubbiamente hanno avuto un grande sviluppo: alludo, ad esempio, alla grande
apertura che c’è stata nei confronti delle varie etnie, così come in quelli di altri
importanti fenomeni di trasformazione.
D. Quali Le sembrano essere, tra questi fenomeni di trasformazione,
quelli di maggior peso?
R. Ecco, a proposito di trasformazioni, certamente la “nuova lingua” è
uno degli aspetti più interessanti e al tempo stesso davvero cruciali, da un punto
di vista critico, tra questi fenomeni. Già da molto tempo mi sono convinto
che la questione dell’inglese costituisca, sia per i letterati sia per i linguisti, il
terreno di confronto privilegiato per verificare non solo lo sviluppo di una
letteratura, ma dell’intera cultura statunitense. E non c’è dubbio che l’inglese
non solo è cambiato radicalmente nel corso di questi ultimi trent’anni, ma
direi che si è enormemente arricchito, aprendo agli studiosi, ma anche a chi
più semplicemente legge quella letteratura, una serie di squarci nuovi su una
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realtà che si è fatta molto più variegata, articolata e anche contraddittoria.
Alcuni conflitti, o se si vuole “traumi,” che si registrano a livello linguistico
riflettono direttamente – vuoi in forma di risultato o spesso addirittura di
anticipazione – conflitti e traumi che scuotono la cultura americana nel suo
complesso. Si tratta di una spia, di enorme importanza e significato, per chi
si occupa professionalmente di studi americani e mi pare che anche da questo
punto di vista parecchi studiosi italiani abbiano colto il senso profondo di
questo fenomeno.
C’è poi l’altro nodo, anch’esso particolarmente rilevante, della grande
presenza della storia nella letteratura americana: una presenza costante già fin
dall’Ottocento e che, naturalmente, si è andata progressivamente intensificando, tanto da costituirne uno dei tratti distintivi. Anche in questo ambito
la letteratura ha funzionato, e non credo ci possano essere dubbi sul fatto che
continui a funzionare, come grande cassa di risonanza di ciò su cui la storia
ufficiale è stata tradizionalmente più reticente. Il fatto interessante è che su
questo terreno mi pare che l’indagine degli storici e quella dei letterati tenda
necessariamente a convergere, abbandonando i metodi più tradizionali e
muovendosi verso una “contaminazione” reciproca – penso, ad esempio all’uso
sempre più mirato che si fa di documenti per lungo tempo considerati “minori” – che ha già dato e che continua a dare risultati molto stimolanti.
D. Mi pare che questo ci porti direttamente al centro di uno dei grandi
nodi del dibattito contemporaneo: quello dei cosiddetti “cultural studies.” So
che Lei non ama particolarmente questa definizione, anche se d’altra parte ha
sempre sostenuto che la gran parte degli americanisti italiani non si è mai riconosciuta in un modello di letterato “puro,” proprio perché sempre impegnata
a ricondurre la propria analisi nell’ambito di coordinate culturali più ampie.
R. Che non ami particolarmente la definizione, ormai invalsa, di studi
culturali è vero: non mi pare si possa parlare, in questo senso, di un vero e
proprio genere, anche se è indubbio che, come in parte accennavo, c’è stato
uno sviluppo degli studi storici abbastanza significativo, e in cui rientrano vari
aspetti culturali. Mi pare si possa dire, con una certa sicurezza, che per quanto
riguarda l’Italia questo tipo di approccio sia in qualche modo non dico “pre-
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gresso” – che forse sarebbe dir troppo – ma almeno nell’ordine delle cose: per
come la letteratura americana è stata scoperta fin dagli anni del Risorgimento,
per come è entrata a far parte della nostra cultura, per come ha stimolato il
nostro immaginario, appunto con forti sollecitazioni extra-testuali. Voglio dire
che, in quanto italiani – e Vittorini, Pavese e gli altri di quella generazione ne
sono un esempio concreto – siamo storicamente inclini a mettere a fuoco il
legame tra fatto letterario e realtà sociale americana. Da questo punto di vista,
dunque, lo studio degli aspetti culturali è già parte integrante della nostra
visione critica, senza contare che questa disposizione ha anche contribuito in
gran parte ad evitare, o quantomeno a limitare, il rischio di chiudersi all’interno di una visione improntata a un formalismo eccessivo, di un approccio
che avrebbe finito per togliere linfa e energie alla letteratura stessa.
Detto questo, però, permane il rischio di una marginalizzazione dell’esperienza letteraria che, pure, secondo me, è altrettanto inaccettabile, proprio
perché è quello il terreno specifico sul quale il letterato non può non misurarsi, non può, data la natura stessa della sua preparazione, non dare il suo
apporto migliore. In altre parole, rimango sostanzialmente dell’idea, peraltro
già espressa altre volte, che un modello tuttora da seguire sia quello delineato
dalla Storia di De Sanctis – che fu poi in gran parte quello cui si ispirò lo
stesso Matthiessen – capace di preservare alla letteratura la sua centralità, ma
sempre ricostruendone i legami che essa intrattiene, ai diversi livelli, con la
storia. Un modello, insomma, in cui la cultura nel suo insieme è non solo
astrattamente presente, ma anche direttamente influente rispetto alle scelte
di chi si occupa di letteratura, ma che al tempo stesso non si propone come
l’unico terreno d’indagine – questo, sì, talvolta un po’ vago e sfuggente – del
critico letterario.
D. Il titolo del nostro convegno, “Ambassadors: American Studies in
a Changing World,” pone in rilievo, partendo dal centenario del romanzo
jamesiano, la figura del mediatore tra paesi e culture diverse in un mondo
che cambia, a volte anche rapidamente. Quali Le sembrano, in questa chiave,
le figure letterarie americane di maggior peso in questa fase? Diciamo pure
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i personaggi più autorevoli e in certo modo rappresentativi in un momento
indubbiamente carico di ansia come l’attuale?
R. La cosidetta “globalizzazione,” anche in ambito culturale, rischia
naturalmente di rendere la figura dell’ambasciatore in qualche modo sbiadita,
meno centrale di una volta. Pure, io credo che anche davanti a fenomeni di
massificazione che rendono obiettivamente più arduo il compito di orientarsi
nell’ambito di un’offerta di informazione sempre più ampia e specializzata, ci
siano comunque delle voci capaci di dare un segnale più forte e più significativo
di altre. Un segnale che poi proviene sostanzialmente dall’impegno con cui si
concepisce il proprio ruolo di letterato, oltre che, naturalmente, da altre facoltà
personali. Quello dell’ambasciatore culturale, specie in tempi come i nostri,
è un mestiere particolarmente difficile, forse soprattutto per gli intellettuali e
gli scrittori americani. E questo, sostanzialmente perché, come sappiamo, lo
scrittore americano, più d’altri, ha sempre occupato una posizione scomoda, è
sempre stato in qualche modo la coscienza critica di quel paese e di quella cultura,
magari pagandone le conseguenze con l’isolamento o, talvolta, col silenzio.
Tra coloro che, oggi, mi sembrano ancora in grado di rivestire quel ruolo
io metterei, senz’altro un autore come Thomas Pynchon, che con la sua grande
metafora dell’entropia mi sembra abbia espresso come pochi altri la capacità
di cogliere quella che è l’essenza, in larga parte autodistruttiva, del mondo
contemporaneo, senza per questo rinunciare a una ricerca anche linguistica
autonoma e in qualche modo rischiosa. Quel suo mondo sconnesso e sconclusionato, quelle atmosfere di catastrofe quotidiana, quelle discariche inquietanti
e in mutazione, mi paiono davvero illuminanti sulla condizione contemporanea che, dagli Stati Uniti, si allarga progressivamente a tutto il mondo. Un
altro nome che farei, poi, è quello di Don DeLillo, uno scrittore anche lui
profondamente calato nel contemporaneo, ma, mi pare, con un grande senso
della storia e una grande preoccupazione per l’indipendenza dello scrittore,
non ostante tutto. Il suo rivendicare apertamente una posizione conflittuale
nei confronti dell’establishment e dell’amministrazione statunitense; una collocazione “marginale” per lo scrittore come fondamento irrinunciabile della sua
etica mi sembra una scelta importante, la quale peraltro si inserisce nel solco di
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quella che è la tradizione dei grandi letterati americani. Infine, farei anche un
altro nome: quello di Paul Auster, forse il più classico dei tre, quello in cui la
presenza, e anche il peso, della tradizione letteraria sia americana sia europea
è più visibile. L’attenzione maniacale alla composizione, il lavoro capillare che
Auster fa sul linguaggio, la stessa rilevanza del problema dell’identità dello
scrittore e dell’artista, che costituisce uno dei grandi nodi tematici ricorrenti
della sua scrittura, mi sembra lo pongano, al pari dei suoi colleghi di cui ho
già parlato, al centro dell’attenzione della critica.
D. Un’ultima domanda, già in parte prefigurata da quanto lei diceva
circa le responsabilità dello scrittore rispetto alla realtà politica in cui si trova a
operare, e che mi sembra uno spunto di riflessione inevitabile, ha a che vedere
con l’11 settembre. In che modo le sembra che quella tragedia abbia segnato
il panorama culturale americano?
R. Al di là di quanto è stato detto e continua a esser detto e scritto rispetto a quella tragedia, mi sembra si possano trarre due dati significativi su cui
riflettere. Da un lato, naturalmente, c’è da dire che questo fatto è simbolico
del crollo dei valori e della precarietà del mondo contemporaneo, ma aggiungerei, per rimanere nell’ambito del discorso fin qui seguito, che occorre anche
sottolineare come la letteratura si era resa interprete proprio di questo stato
d’animo, di questa visione del mondo, aveva in qualche modo già prefigurato
non tanto la tragedia in sé, quanto le conseguenze psicologiche, la grande fragilità che tutti sentiamo e che quell’episodio ha contribuito a rendere ancora
più evidente. Quindi, per certi versi, direi che non è tanto l’11 settembre a
produrre una letteratura della catastrofe umana, quanto piuttosto che la letteratura ha intuito gli elementi negativi che possono esserci in questa nostra
condizione; direi che nel suo insieme la letteratura postmoderna ha appunto
anticipato questa situazione.
Dall’altro lato, visto che si parlava di ambasciatori, mi pare si possa dire
che sia gli scrittori modernisti che hanno percepito questa qualità del mondo,
sia i postmoderni, in particolare quelli di cui si parlava, hanno confermato
questa loro scelta di essere “contro.” Come sappiamo, del resto, questo è tratto
caratteristico già dell’Ottocento, in cui di fatto non c’è mai una visione che
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si possa definire ottimistica. Questo è proprio dovuto al fatto che si tratta di
una letteratura che è nata moderna: non avendo un passato, i problemi della
modernità diventano oggettivamente i problemi stessi della letteratura americana. E questo, alla fine, spiega anche questa posizione sempre negativa dello
scrittore americano che, ancora oggi, dice sempre “No, con voce di tuono.”
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Notes on Contributors
FRANCESCA BISUTTI DE RIZ teaches American Literature at the
University of Venice, Ca’ Foscari. She has worked on 19th and 20th century
American writers, in particular H.D. Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Edith Wharton,
Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker. She very recently edited a special number of
Quaderni di Insula, on Foreign Travellers in Venice (April 2004.)
ALESSANDRO CLERICUZIO holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from
the University of Roma Tre, where he also had a post-doctoral grant. He has
studied in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He is the author of the first booklength study of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction to be published in Italian and
has written essays on 20th century American cinema and theatre, as well as on
contemporary fiction. He has taken part in an ongoing research about clothes
and identity, directed by Cristina Giorcelli, in two AISNA conferences and a
research project on modern American myths directed by Caterina Ricciardi.
He has written about Tennessee Williams, Charles Vidor, David Leavitt, John
Guare, Sam Shepard, Truman Capote, David Lynch, Cathy Song, Edward
Albee, Billy Wilder.
MARIO DEL PERO teaches International History and United States
History at the Faculty of Political Science “Roberto Ruffilli” of Forlì, University
of Bologna. He was Mellon Fellow at the International Center for Advanced
Studies of New York University and Fulbright Visiting Fellow at the Department of History of Columbia University. He is the author of L’alleato scomodo.
Gli Stati Uniti e la Democrazia Cristiana negli anni del centrismo, 1948-1955
[The Inconvenient Ally. The United States and Italian Christian Democracy in
the Age of Centrism, 1948-1955] Rome, 2001, La Guerra Fredda [The Cold
War] Rome, 2001, “The United States and Psychological Warfare in Italy,
1948-1955,” Journal of American History (2001), and “American Pressures
and their Containment in Italy during the Ambassadorship of Clare Boothe
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Luce,” Diplomatic History (2004). He is currently working on a new research
on détente and the American reaction to the 1974 Portuguese revolution.
UMBERTO ROSSI is an independent critic and the translator of novels
and short stories by Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, Harlan Ellison, and Joe
R. Lansdale; he has published several essays, both in Italian and in English, in
international academic journals, on Philip K. Dick, Jonathan Lethem, Thomas
Pynchon, and war literature. His doctoral dissertation in comparative literature
deals with Word War I narratives, some of which American.
UGO RUBEO is associate professor of American Literature at the University of Rome “La Sapienza.” He has published widely on African American
poetry, both in Europe and in the U.S., and his book, L’uomo visibile, Rome,
1990, was the first comprehensive study on the subject to appear in Italy. He
has devoted a number of essays to E. A. Poe’s literary production, one of the
main objects of his research work, and a book, centered on The Narrative of
A. Gordon Pym, published in 2000. Other publications include a study on the
cultural relationship between the U.S. and Italy, Mal d’America, 1987, and a
number of essays on such authors as Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Bellow and Auster,
among others. He has repeatedly dedicated critical attention to the works of
Henry James, whose The American Scene he has edited and translated into
Italian, Milan, 2001.
ROBERTO SERRAI holds a research fellowship at the University of
Firenze and a teaching assignment at the University of Siena. He is currently
working on William Bonney (Billy the Kid) seen as a mythical figure, on Tim
O’Brien’s Vietnam novels and on Virginia W. Johnson’s Italian travel books.
FEDERICO SINISCALCO teaches North American Cultures at the
School of Humanities of the University of Siena, in Arezzo. His research interests are centered on the relationship between visual images (film and video)
and cultural discourse, and more specifically on the documentary film genre
and the representation of the culture of the United States. He has written on the
history of American documentary, on cultural studies, and on literary theory.
PAOLA ZACCARIA is Professor of American Literature and History of
American Culture at the University of Bari; former President of the Italian
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Society of Literary Women (SIL); coordinator of the Bari unit of a research
project co-funded by MURST (“Networking Women: Subjects, Places, Links
Europe-America. Towards a Re-writing of Cultural History, 1890-1950”);
head of the Master Course in Cultural Studies, Communication and Visual
Culture. Fields of research: 20th-century American and English avant-gardes,
semiotics, poetry, Anglo-American feminist criticism, border and diaspora
studies, the relationships between literature and visual technologies. Among
her works: Forme della ripetizione: le ipertrofie di E. A. Poe, I deficit di S. Beckett
(1992); Segni eretici. Scritture di donne fra autobiografia, etica e mito (1993,
co-edited with P. Calefato); A lettere scarlatte. Poesia come stregoneria (1995);
Mappe senza frontiere. Cartografie letterarie dal modernismo al transnazionalismo
(1999); (ed.) Close up. Antologia della prima rivista internazionale di cinema
(2002). In 2000 she has translated Gloria Anzaldúà Borderlands /La frontera
and written about border texts in several essays. Forthcoming in fall 2004 a
book on art and the politics of transformation.
RSA Journal 13
FRANCESCA BISUTTI DE RIZ, “Walking Walls”: Figures of the limit, Figures
of the border.
A land-art work by Andy Goldworthy presents interesting oximoronic
features that apply to American culture. A “walking wall,” “flaneur in the wilderness,” symbolizes the American soul, nomadic and colonizing at the same
time. An analysis of this concept, through some of America’s great writers and
artists, from the Puritans to Frank L. Wright, leads up to the “mending wall”
represented by the 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, recognized as “The Wall,” a surface where life and death comfort one another.
ALESSANDRO CLERICUZIO, The Destruction of Happiness in American
Cinema in the 1990s: Altman, Anderson, Solonds.
This essay focusses on three American films of the 1990s and on the theme
of psychological and emotional destruction. In Anderson’s Magnolia, Solondz’s
Happiness and Altman’s Short Cuts, American society is shown as deeply disturbed and forlorn. The archetypal pursuit of happiness still holds true, but
it takes place in an environment that in all possible ways destroys human
happiness. These movies pick up an apocalyptic trend that had characterized
disaster blockbusters, and which is thus taken into the heart of everyday life
with an apocalyptic effect.
MARIO DEL PERO, “Present at Destruction”? George Bush, the Neocons,
and the Traditions of U.S. Foreign Policy.
The article analyses from an historical perspective the foreign policy of
the current Republican administration. Contrary to common wisdom, it
maintains that the approach to international politics of George Bush Jr. does
not fundamentally depart from the most venerable diplomatic traditions
of the United States. It argues that it is possible to find a cultural, political,
ideological, and even religious, lineage to Bush’s unilateralism, as it was most
famously expressed in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States
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(NSS). What really characterizes current U.S. foreign policy is the attempt to
recompose and synthesize different traditions and approaches. This attempted
synthesis, however, has produced a confused and ultimately incoherent policy,
whose limits and inconsistencies are quintessentially epitomized by a phrase
that recurs five times in the 2002 NSS: the need for America to create “a balance of power that favors human freedom.”
UMBERTO ROSSI, The Great National Disaster: The Destruction of Imperial America in Philip K. Dick’s The Simulacra.
My article aims at reading a well-known SF novel by Philip K. Dick,
The Simulacra (1964), as a disaster novel. While SF literature usually depicts
natural disasters, be they abrupt climate change that may lead to floods or
desertification, or the fall of meteorites, or earthquakes, etc., Dick’s novel is
closer to the subgenre of Nuclear Holocaust SF, in that the disaster he stages in
his novel is not caused by natural phenomenons, but by a series of deliberate
political decisions that lead to the destruction of the USEA, a SFnal version
of the USA. What is particularly interesting is that the issue of destruction is
tightly interwoven with the question of a postmodern society where politics is
radically spectacularized, and where mass-mediatic manipulation of minds has
transformed entertainment in a powerful tool of consensus-making. Thus the
character of Nicole Thibodeaux – a SFnal First Lady who is also a TV celebrity
and the real ruler of the USEA – arguably foreshadows contemporary political
figures – both in the USA and in Italy – that derive their prestige more from
their massmediatic appeal than from any traditional political legitimation.
ROBERTO SERRAI, Landscapes of Destruction: Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s
Breakfast of Champions with an Eye to Walt Whitman.
Breakfast of Champions, first published in 1973, is probably one of Kurt
Vonnegut’s most destructive and nihilistic works. Its declared blueprint is to
present the reader with an endless catalogue of cultural monstrosities, either
contemporary or proven by now to be timeless. At the end of this subtractive
process American culture is reduced to a tabula rasa where nothing seems to
be salvageable. Here, Vonnegut gives the impression of running an opposite
course to the one Walt Whitman laid out in Leaves of Grass. While developing
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a new literature for a new country, the “good gray poet” used the former to
celebrate the latter, and wove together long lists of things and human types, as if
he planned to compile a comprehensive inventory of all America’s gifts, virtues
and assets. In Breakfast of Champions’ destructive context we’re led to believe
that from the very beginning America’s promise was a kind of a fraud, and, why
not, that Whitman’s work was just a long redundant piece of advertisement
ante litteram. Although Breakfast of Champions may seem like a desperate novel
on a helpless country, I believe that it is not entirely correct. It can be read, on
the contrary, as another example of how even the most negative constructions
and critiques of America seem unable to disown and repudiate it completely.
Most of the dissent groups active between the Fifties and the Seventies were
inspired in different degrees by a clean nostalgia for the “American dream.”
Counterculture itself has been presented as “a kind of reform movement, trying
to revive a decayed tradition once important to our civilization.” The painful
awareness of such a “decay” is a factor contributing to Breakfast of Champions’
sustained, unrelenting anger. Vonnegut attacks the American myth as a disillusioned believer, and with the ardor of a betrayed lover.
FEDERICO SINISCALCO, From Glory to Destruction: John Huston’s
Non-fictional Depictions of War.
During the World War II John Huston became involved, together with
other well-known Hollywood filmmakers, in the U.S. government propaganda
film production. The essay contrasts Huston’s war documentaries with other
propaganda films produced during the conflict, and argues that whereas Report
from the Aleutians, Huston’s first non-fiction film, may be incorporated within
the propaganda genre and depicts war as an instance where officers and soldiers
may aspire to glory, his second documentary, San Pietro, breaks free of this
label and shows the ultimate destruction which war brings about. The paper
also details the predictably unfavorable reaction of the War Department to
Huston’s anti-war stance, and the reasons why many years would have to pass
before San Pietro and Let There be Light, his subsequent war documentary,
would be released for general viewing.
RSA Journal 13
PAOLA ZACCARIA, Narration, Figuration and Disfiguration in Toni
Morrison’s Beloved and Jazz.
In poetic works, voice and face are the most frequent images of the body,
and the modality of representing a face or a voice challenges consciousness,
blending opacity and transparency. To lose one’s voice or face, to become mute,
aphasic or disfigured, are experienced as a loss of self. In moments of passage or
metamorphosis, it can seem that the voice and the face change, that we speak
with a different voice, say something never said: we are faced with a different
self who is heard differently, seen differently. In order to go on, narration must
create characters, that is ‘assume a Figure’. After the semantic analysis of the
meanings of ‘figure’ and ‘figuration’, the essay proceeds to concentrate on a
particularly symbolic figure, which is also highly historicized and politicized:
Beloved in the novel Beloved, and Wild, a re-apparition of the same figure,
complete with new, but equally explosive significance, in Jazz. The moment
in which Morrison (an expert not only of western traditions of intertextuality
but of African oral narratives structured around recall and repetition, as well
as the pattern of call and response) took the figure of Beloved into Jazz, giving her not a real name but an appellative, a nickname Wild she did so both
to re-trace the forgotten story, that can neither be forgotten by passing it on
(‘It was not a story to pass on’), and to create an historicized link between the
two novels, in order to play with the idea of ‘Trace’, to the point that ‘Trace’
becomes Joe’s surname (Joe Trace) as if it were the title of his project to re-trace
his origins, to find traces of his mother, traces of slavery (and of the cancellation of any traces of origins performed by the slave trade) the Africanist traces.
Wild is the ‘figuration’ of the trace and the naming of it(self ). The essay tries
to show how Morrison creates figurations which become imagin-a(c)tions
capable of activating new paths and new processes in American consciousness
and culture.
©2004, OTTO editore – Torino
[email protected]
È vietata la riproduzione, anche parziale, con qualsiasi mezzo effettuato, compresa la fotocopia, anche ad uso interno o didattico, non autorizzato.
Journal of AISNA / Italian Association for North American Studies
Rivista annuale della Associazione Italiana di Studi Nord Americani
Aut. del Tribunale di Venezia n. 686 del 24/7/1981
Direttore responsabile Sergio Perosa
Rosella Mamoli Zorzi editor
Marina Coslovi assistant editor
Gregory Dowling editorial consultant
Editorial Board
Gianfranca Balestra
Antonio Donno
Bianca Maria Pisapia
Tiziano Bonazzi
Mario Maffi
Ugo Rubeo
Editorial Office
Dipartimento di Studi Anglo-Americani
e Ibero-Americani
Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia 30124
Palazzo Garzoni Moro, San Marco 3417, 30124 Venezia
Tel. 041-2349482 - e-mail: [email protected]
RSA Journal is sent free to AISNA members.
AISNA members are encouraged to submit essays, sending their article
to all members of the Editorial Board.
Typescripts should conform to the MLA Style Manual.
Call for Papers
RSA 16
Special Issue
“American Spaces – Horizontal and Vertical”
I am vertical
But I would rather be horizontal
Sylvia Plath (1961)
From the very beginning, concepts of space are deeply embedded in American culture – and this is especially true of
such concepts as “verticality” and “horizontality,” which often take on complex and contradictory ideological meanings
and implications. This issue of RSA plans to explore such
meanings and implications, with a wide range of points of
view (literary, historical, sociological, artistic). The deadline
for submitting proposals is now postponed to December 19th,
2004. Write to:
Special Issue: The Theme of Destruction in American Culture
Editor’s Note
Federico Siniscalco, From Glory to Destruction: John Huston’s
Non-fictional Depictions of War
Special Issue
The Theme of Destruction in American Culture
Roberto Serrai, Landscapes of Destruction: Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s
Breakfast of Champions with an Eye to Walt Whitman
Umberto Rossi, The Great National Disaster: The Destruction of
Imperial America in Philip K. Dick’s The Simulacra
Alessandro Clericuzio, The Destruction of Happiness in American
Cinema in the 1990s: Altman, Anderson, Solondz
Mario Del Pero, “Present at the Destruction”? George Bush,
the Neocons and the Traditions of U.S. Foreign Policy
From No Pleasant Memories by
Romaine Brooks
Introduced by Bianca Maria Tedeschini Lalli
Paola Zaccaria, Narration, Figuration and Disfiguration
in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Jazz
Francesca Bisutti De Riz, “Walking Walls”: Figures of the Limit,
Figures of the Border
Ugo Rubeo, An Interview with Agostino Lombardo
Notes on Contributors
Journal of AISNA / Italian Association for North American Studies