Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 31, 2007

Terry Teachout, Take Two

In our second interview with him, Terry Teachout talks about “Selling Classical Music” (his article in the September issue of COMMENTARY), the status of “middlebrow” culture, the recent musical Xanadu, bossa nova crooner Luciana Souza, and more.

In our second interview with him, Terry Teachout talks about “Selling Classical Music” (his article in the September issue of COMMENTARY), the status of “middlebrow” culture, the recent musical Xanadu, bossa nova crooner Luciana Souza, and more.

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Book Review: Two Lives

There is a long roll call of artists with ethics that range from the questionable to the monstrous. In Janet Malcolm’s fascinating new study of the writer Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, Malcolm explores the question of whether or not Stein ought to be added to that list. Combining biography with literary exegesis, Two Lives asks how two elderly Jewish American women survived the Nazi occupation of France. The answers that Malcolm uncovers, and the further questions those answers provoke, are troubling, absorbing, and ultimately ambiguous.

Stein, born in 1874 in Pennsylvania, was an exceptional woman and self-styled genius. Malcolm writes that Stein was captivated by “the issue of superiority–of who was a genius, as she put it, and who wasn’t.” Despite this passion for superiority, or perhaps partly because of it, Stein and Toklas never lacked for friends. Stein’s charm was “as conspicuous as her fatness,” says Malcolm, and accounted for “the way people were always practically lining up to be of service to her.” In “thin, plain, tense, sour” Alice B. Toklas, whom she met in Paris, Stein found her ideal helpmeet, one who cooked, made calls, took care of household chores, and so on, providing a lifelong service that was “unending and evidently ungrudging.” Toklas’s labors enabled Stein to focus on her art. As Stein wrote in Everybody’s Autobiography, not quite jokingly, “it takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” Other key friends also took on caretaking roles. Carl Van Vechten, a writer and photographer and eventually Stein’s literary executor, was one such friend; in letters, he dubbed Stein “Baby Woojums,” himself “Papa Woojums,” and Toklas “Mama Woojums.” Strangers, too, often popped up to offer their help if and when Stein was in need.

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There is a long roll call of artists with ethics that range from the questionable to the monstrous. In Janet Malcolm’s fascinating new study of the writer Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, Malcolm explores the question of whether or not Stein ought to be added to that list. Combining biography with literary exegesis, Two Lives asks how two elderly Jewish American women survived the Nazi occupation of France. The answers that Malcolm uncovers, and the further questions those answers provoke, are troubling, absorbing, and ultimately ambiguous.

Stein, born in 1874 in Pennsylvania, was an exceptional woman and self-styled genius. Malcolm writes that Stein was captivated by “the issue of superiority–of who was a genius, as she put it, and who wasn’t.” Despite this passion for superiority, or perhaps partly because of it, Stein and Toklas never lacked for friends. Stein’s charm was “as conspicuous as her fatness,” says Malcolm, and accounted for “the way people were always practically lining up to be of service to her.” In “thin, plain, tense, sour” Alice B. Toklas, whom she met in Paris, Stein found her ideal helpmeet, one who cooked, made calls, took care of household chores, and so on, providing a lifelong service that was “unending and evidently ungrudging.” Toklas’s labors enabled Stein to focus on her art. As Stein wrote in Everybody’s Autobiography, not quite jokingly, “it takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” Other key friends also took on caretaking roles. Carl Van Vechten, a writer and photographer and eventually Stein’s literary executor, was one such friend; in letters, he dubbed Stein “Baby Woojums,” himself “Papa Woojums,” and Toklas “Mama Woojums.” Strangers, too, often popped up to offer their help if and when Stein was in need.

That Stein’s, and by extension Toklas’s, good fortune continued through the Nazi occupation is less easily explained by charm and reputation. Friends strongly recommended that the two women smuggle themselves out of France and into Switzerland, but they stayed, and, despite everything, remained safe. Such behavior is consistent with Stein’s “long-standing way of handling all serious unpleasantness”—that is, to “pretend it isn’t there.”

What is even more baffling than their decision to remain in France is the notion that they understood almost nothing—or behaved during the war and to the ends of their lives as if they understood nothing—of the person most responsible for keeping them safe. Bernard Faÿ, a Frenchman who was the wartime head of the Bibliothèque Nationale and an adviser to Marshal Pétain, was a longtime friend and admirer of Stein, despite his anti-Semitism. His devotion to Stein was vigorous, nearly abject; before the war, he helped Stein find lecturing posts, he translated and promoted her writing, and he wrote her letters that emitted “an almost palpable odor of oily flattery.” During the occupation, he played an instrumental role in protecting and providing for Stein and Toklas. He interceded repeatedly with authorities to help the two women survive, making sure that they were kept fed and warmed. And when Stein was required to wear a yellow star, he walked at her side. (Meanwhile, he was responsible for sending hundreds to their deaths, and thousands more to jail; after the liberation, he was sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor for his zeal as a collaborator.)

It remains unclear whether or not the two women knew of his activities during this time. What is perfectly clear is that, after the war, Stein and Toklas made concerted efforts to help Faÿ during his trial, throughout his imprisonment, and, quite possibly, in his escape from a prison hospital. They wrote letters, tried to interest others in his cause, and may have sold a Picasso to help raise funds for Faÿ. In a characteristic letter, Toklas argued on Faÿ’s behalf to Carl Van Vechten: “He has been in Fresnes prison since the liberation accused of hating communists (who doesn’t) acting against the masons (who wouldn’t in France) hating the English (the large majority of Frenchman do) hating the Jews (is he alone?).”

Were Stein and Toklas really so unaware? It’s hard to imagine they were. Stein translated Pétain’s wartime speeches into English, and, startlingly, continued this work even after his edicts were issued and deportations begun. In Wars I Have Seen, Stein remembers her surprise and fear at hearing, from the liberating American armies, “what had been happening to others” (in the concentration and extermination camps). Her language here is extraordinarily vague, considering the circumstances. Malcolm leaves ambiguous exactly what Stein and Toklas did and did not know, and by the end of Two Lives, it is not clear how genuine their self-professed innocence is, or to what degree they can be held culpable for aiding and abetting Faÿ. But, to any serious observer of the situation, the idea that Stein and Toklas bear at least a modicum of guilt must seem unavoidable.

There is a famous (if possibly apocryphal) story that, before Gertrude Stein was taken into the operating room for the stomach cancer that would kill her, she asked Toklas, “What is the answer?” When Toklas didn’t answer, Stein asked, “In that case, what is the question?” Stein was one of the tutelary spirits of modernism, and almost all of her unique and probing sensibility is reflected in that question. It’s doubly shameful, then, that she proved unwilling and unable to acknowledge the moral condition of her own life. Surely, even for a “genius,” that is not a proscribed avenue of inquiry.

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Up the MNC-I!

A new press release from Multi-National Corps-Iraq—the operational command with direct responsibility for U.S. forces in Iraq—reports some pretty impressive news that hasn’t received any stateside coverage that I’ve seen. The command has not only met but exceeded its retention quota, meaning the number of soldiers who enlist for another tour: “The theater-wide goal was 16,510, but MNC-I career counselor reenlisted 18,721 Soldiers.”

Cynics will note that reenlistment bonuses in theater are tax-free; if soldiers waited until they got back home to receive them, they would have to pay taxes. But while that consideration may determine the timing of reenlistment, a few thousand dollars is hardly enough to make a soldier risk his neck if he doesn’t believe he’s doing something worthwhile. The press release quotes MNC-I’s commander, General Ray Odierno, as saying, “Meeting and exceeding re-enlistment goals is a powerful message about the commitment of today’s force and how our soldiers feel about the army and their mission.”

He’s right. In an all-volunteer army, the troops have a vote on whatever mission they’re on. If they don’t want to serve, they don’t have to (although, admittedly, their efforts to quit could be stymied temporarily by a stop-loss order). In the case of Iraq, the evidence suggests that most of our troops want to serve. In some ways, that’s a more powerful indicator of whether we can continue to maintain our present military commitment than a poll measuring civilian sentiment.

A new press release from Multi-National Corps-Iraq—the operational command with direct responsibility for U.S. forces in Iraq—reports some pretty impressive news that hasn’t received any stateside coverage that I’ve seen. The command has not only met but exceeded its retention quota, meaning the number of soldiers who enlist for another tour: “The theater-wide goal was 16,510, but MNC-I career counselor reenlisted 18,721 Soldiers.”

Cynics will note that reenlistment bonuses in theater are tax-free; if soldiers waited until they got back home to receive them, they would have to pay taxes. But while that consideration may determine the timing of reenlistment, a few thousand dollars is hardly enough to make a soldier risk his neck if he doesn’t believe he’s doing something worthwhile. The press release quotes MNC-I’s commander, General Ray Odierno, as saying, “Meeting and exceeding re-enlistment goals is a powerful message about the commitment of today’s force and how our soldiers feel about the army and their mission.”

He’s right. In an all-volunteer army, the troops have a vote on whatever mission they’re on. If they don’t want to serve, they don’t have to (although, admittedly, their efforts to quit could be stymied temporarily by a stop-loss order). In the case of Iraq, the evidence suggests that most of our troops want to serve. In some ways, that’s a more powerful indicator of whether we can continue to maintain our present military commitment than a poll measuring civilian sentiment.

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Osama bin Laden’s Schwab Account?

Not long before September 11, 2001, someone placed large bets on Wall Street—buying “put” contracts—on the possibility that the shares of airline stocks would decline. After the attacks, the shares did fall sharply and a great deal of speculation ensued that the trades were placed by parties who had advance knowledge of the attack.

This theorizing was knocked down by the 9/11 Commission, which noted in a footnote in its report that there was an entirely innocuous explanation for the trading. Alexander Rose of National Review did an even more thorough job of explaining the irregular-appearing transactions and knocking down the rumors.

The same story has now resurfaced interestingly again with rumors circulating that a number of recent and odd Wall Street bets suggest that a September 11 reprise is on its way. Details, and another persuasive knock-down of the rumors, can be found on TheStreet.com. Read More

Not long before September 11, 2001, someone placed large bets on Wall Street—buying “put” contracts—on the possibility that the shares of airline stocks would decline. After the attacks, the shares did fall sharply and a great deal of speculation ensued that the trades were placed by parties who had advance knowledge of the attack.

This theorizing was knocked down by the 9/11 Commission, which noted in a footnote in its report that there was an entirely innocuous explanation for the trading. Alexander Rose of National Review did an even more thorough job of explaining the irregular-appearing transactions and knocking down the rumors.

The same story has now resurfaced interestingly again with rumors circulating that a number of recent and odd Wall Street bets suggest that a September 11 reprise is on its way. Details, and another persuasive knock-down of the rumors, can be found on TheStreet.com.

But let’s assume for a moment that Osama bin Laden, logging on to a laptop in his cave, decided to make his portfolio grow via terrorism. Would he risk operational security by placing the trades or having a proxy place the trades?

That always seemed unlikely, and is especially unlikely now because the CIA and the Treasury Department are able to monitor all sorts of transactions through SWIFT, the European financial clearinghouse. The New York Times compromised the program when it tipped off bin Laden, and the whole world, to the existence of the highly classified monitoring program in June 2006.

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Giuliani Realism

At a campaign event in Los Angeles last week, Rudy Giuliani restated some principles regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he originally articulated in his Foreign Affairs piece.

I think there has been a kind of movement within our State Department that was best reflected during the Clinton Administration—but you can see a little of this in Bush I, and it is still there in Bush II—and it is to create a Palestinian state for the purpose of creating a Palestinian state, to say that we have achieved peace.

Well, that could be extremely dangerous. We want to create, not necessarily a Palestinian state for the purpose of creating a Palestinian state—we want to create a state that is now particularly going to help us in the Islamic terrorist war against us, not become another breeding ground for terrorism. . . .

So if we are going to create a Palestinian state that assists us, and doesn’t become a terrorist state, here’s what they have to do: they have to first renounce terrorism. . . . Secondly, they have to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. If they do that, we can then begin a process of trying to create a Palestinian state. But we shouldn’t do it until we are sure that those two things are real, and we’re not getting fooled, because we’ve gotten fooled in the past.

. . . And I say a third thing is, they have to show that they can sustain that for at least some safe period of time, that it isn’t just a statement for the purpose of lulling people into a negotiation. Then we won’t give people false expectations of being able to achieve something. We won’t give the Israeli people false expectations; we won’t give the Palestinian people false expectations; we won’t give the rest of the world false expectations, when the United States will get blamed for why it’s not working.

The reason we have not been able to create a Palestinian state to date is not because the United States and Israel have not tried. It is because of the Palestinians.

Rick Richman, on the blog Jewish Current Issues, calls this “Giuliani Realism,” and he has the rest of the candidate’s talk, plus video.

At a campaign event in Los Angeles last week, Rudy Giuliani restated some principles regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he originally articulated in his Foreign Affairs piece.

I think there has been a kind of movement within our State Department that was best reflected during the Clinton Administration—but you can see a little of this in Bush I, and it is still there in Bush II—and it is to create a Palestinian state for the purpose of creating a Palestinian state, to say that we have achieved peace.

Well, that could be extremely dangerous. We want to create, not necessarily a Palestinian state for the purpose of creating a Palestinian state—we want to create a state that is now particularly going to help us in the Islamic terrorist war against us, not become another breeding ground for terrorism. . . .

So if we are going to create a Palestinian state that assists us, and doesn’t become a terrorist state, here’s what they have to do: they have to first renounce terrorism. . . . Secondly, they have to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. If they do that, we can then begin a process of trying to create a Palestinian state. But we shouldn’t do it until we are sure that those two things are real, and we’re not getting fooled, because we’ve gotten fooled in the past.

. . . And I say a third thing is, they have to show that they can sustain that for at least some safe period of time, that it isn’t just a statement for the purpose of lulling people into a negotiation. Then we won’t give people false expectations of being able to achieve something. We won’t give the Israeli people false expectations; we won’t give the Palestinian people false expectations; we won’t give the rest of the world false expectations, when the United States will get blamed for why it’s not working.

The reason we have not been able to create a Palestinian state to date is not because the United States and Israel have not tried. It is because of the Palestinians.

Rick Richman, on the blog Jewish Current Issues, calls this “Giuliani Realism,” and he has the rest of the candidate’s talk, plus video.

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