It all began with outbreaks of discontent in the villages.
Day by day bad omens began to appear in the poorer areas. An old farmer of Galenne saw the form of a fiery chariot in the sky. In Sareaux an ignorant old woman croaked out oracles couched in the purest Latin. Rumors went around of a cross in an out-of-the-way church which burned for three days with a green flame and was not consumed. Our Lady appeared to a blind peasant beside a fountain one night, and when the priests fed him wine he described the vision in scriptural language.
The faithful seemed to detect a kind of malicious joy fermenting throughout the winter in the dwellings of the accursed Jews.
Strange things happened. Bands of dark wanderers, huge and black as bears, appeared simultaneously in several places. Even educated folk could sense at times a murmur gnawing inside them. There was no peace to be had.
In Clermont, in the year of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ 1095, Pope Urban II summoned the flocks of God to an expedition to liberate the Holy Land from the hands of the infidel, and to expiate their sins through the hardships of the journey—for spiritual joy is achieved through suffering.
Early in the autumn of the following year, four days after the end of the grape harvest, the noble Count Guillaume of Touron set out at the head of a small troop of peasants, serfs, and outlaws from his estate near Avignon and headed toward the Holy Land, to take part in its deliverance and so to find peace of mind.
Besides the blight which had afflicted the vines and the shriveling of the grapes, and besides gigantic debts, there were other, more immediate reasons which moved the noble Count to set out on his journey. We are informed of these in the chronicle of an extraordinary young man who himself took part in the expedition, Claude, nicknamed “Crookback.” He was a distant relative of the Count and had grown up on his estate.
This Claude was perhaps the adoptive heir of the childless Count, perhaps a mere hanger-on. He was literate and almost cultivated, though prone to alternating violently between fits of depression and enthusiasm. He would give himself over by turns, restlessly and without any real satisfaction, to ascetic practices and to the delights of the flesh. He was a great believer in the power of the supernatural: he kept company with half-wits, fancying he found in them a holy spark, and much-thumbed books and peasant women alike fired him with a wild desire. His excesses of religious fervor and gloomy melancholy inspired feelings of contempt and loathing in others and consumed his very flesh from off his bones, kindling an evil flame in his eye.
As for the Count, the Count treated Claude Crookback with sullen toleration and ill-suppressed rudeness. Some uncertainty, in fact, prevailed at court about the status and privileges of this young but silver-haired fellow who had, apart from everything else, a violent and ridiculous love of cats and who was a passionate collector of women’s jewelry.
Claude mentions in his chronicle, among the factors which prompted the Count to set out on his journey, certain events which occurred in swift succession in the course of the preceding year.
“At the beginning of the autumn,” he writes, “in the year of Our Lord’s Incarnation 1096, the sin of arrogance raised its head among the peasantry. There occurred on our estate several cases of insolence and insubordination, such as the destruction of part of the meager crop, motivated by anger at its very meagerness; daggers were stolen, the river flooded, barns were fired, falling stars were seen, sorcery was practiced, and mischievous pranks were played. All this within the confines of our domains, apart from numerous crimes in the neighboring districts and even across the river. Indeed, it was found necessary to oil the torture-wheel once again, and to put to the test several rebellious serfs, so as to quell the rising fever of violence, for suffering begets love. On our estate seven peasants and four witches were put to death. In the course of their torture their crimes came to light, and light purges all sin.
“In addition during the autumn our young mistress Louise of Beaumont showed the first signs of falling sickness, the very disease which had carried off her predecessor, two years earlier.
“On Easter Day the Count carried his drinking beyond all reasonable limits, and on this occasion he did not succeed in soaring above the state of tipsy rage to the heights of drunken joy. There occurred episodes,” continues the chronicler in a rather veiled tone, “such as what happened that night, when the Count smashed six valuable drinking-vessels, family heirlooms; he hurled these gorgeous objects at the serving-men in reprisal for some fault whose nature was not clear. Injuries were done; blood was spilled. The Count made reparation for his error with constant silent prayers and fasting, but the fragments of the shattered goblets could not be pieced together—I have them all in my keeping still. What is done is done, and there is no going back.”
Claude also writes as follows:
In the early days of the summer, in the course of the barley harvest, the Jewish agent fell under suspicion. He was put to death in consequence of his fervent protestations of innocence. The spectacle of the burning of the Jew might have served to dispel somewhat the anxiety and depression which had caught hold of us since the autumn, but it so happened that the Jew, as he was being burned, succeeded in upsetting everything by pronouncing a violent Jewish curse on Count Guillaume from the pyre. This terrible event occurred in the presence of the whole household, from the ailing lady down to the most ignorant servant girls. Obviously it was impossible to punish the wretch for his curses: It is in the nature of these Jews only to burn once.
In the course of the summer our lady’s condition grew worse and her life was in danger. Without grace even love is of no avail. It was a pitiful spectacle. So grievous were her agonies, so loud her screams in the night, that the Count was finally compelled to shut up in the tower the most delicate of the flowers of his garden. Therefore was the Son of God meek and mild when He bore our sufferings upon Himself, that we might know and remember that the finest harvest of all is when the hardest blade cleaves the softest earth in God’s world and this was a sign for us. By night, by day and by night, the Count gave orders for vigils of prayer at the cell of our ailing lady.
Our lady was young in years and her pale face seemed ever filled with wonder. Her limbs were delicate and she seemed completely transparent, as if made of spirit, not of base matter. She floated away downstream from us before our very eyes. Sometimes we could hear her voice raised in song; sometimes we secretly gathered up her tear-soaked handkerchief, and in the small hours of the morning we heard her cry out to the Blessed Virgin. Then her silence would rend the air. These days saw a severe deterioration in the affairs of the estate. The creditors were arming themselves, and even the peasantry nursed a muttering rebelliousness.
All speech was hushed in our halls. So frail and white-faced did our lady appear that kneeling at the foot of the cross, she seemed to us like Our Lady Herself. She was flickering and dying away. Meanwhile the Count withdrew into silence, and merely kept on buying more and more fine horses—far in excess of the needs of the fields and vineyards. He paid for them with parcels of woodland and orchards, since the money he had was being steadily eaten up.
Early one morning our lady suddenly heard the gentle sound of the bells of the village church. She put her golden head out through the lattice, and when the sun rose she was found gathered into the bosom of the Saviour. Her sandals are still kept in the chest in our hall, together with two tiny bracelets and a green cross of pearls which she wore round her neck, exceedingly fair.
The chronicle of this relative of the Count also contains some turbid musings, fraught with confusions, written in troubled and disconnected Latin. Some of them may be quoted here:
There is a secret sign-language which weaves a net between inanimate objects. Not a leaf falls to the ground without the action of some design. A man of the brooding type, such as my noble lord Guillaume de Touron, if he is but cut off for a while from the sphere of action, is immediately liable to come under the influence of the supernatural. If he is not found worthy of grace, it enters into his vitals like a gnawing poison, unseen, unfelt but lethal. Like the anguish of vast plains scorched by the noonday sun, without a single man to cast a shadow. Scents borne on the breeze. Woods, restful yet menacing. Perhaps the allure of the ocean. Or the tender, bitter silence of distant mountains. So a man of the finer breed, in the middle of his life, toward evening, as the wind drops, may suddenly pause and shrink back, shrink back listening with all his might, and as he listens he gnaws incessantly at his soul. For all these reasons, then, and for others which cannot be put into words, Guillaume de Touron set out for the Holy Land, bent on taking part in its deliverance and thereby also on finding inner peace.
Slumped in his saddle like a weary hunter, his features hewn of granite, his skull big and broad, the Count led his company up through the Rhone lands toward the town of St.-Étienne. There, at St.-Étienne, he meant to break the journey and stay for a day or two. Claude Crookback supposes that he wanted to spend some time at the Cathedral in solitary prayer, to ask the bishop’s blessing for the expedition and to buy fodder and arms. Perhaps he also intended to take on a few knights as mercenaries. The roads are fraught with danger outside the city walls; the sword must hew out a path for the forces of grace.
The Count rode his mare Mistral. His pace was still leisurely. This was not due to hesitancy, nor to that calm which follows the moment of self-dedication; there was simply a gradual gathering of momentum. The mare Mistral was a massive, broad-built creature, just like her master. At first sight she seemed like a work-horse. She could never be roused to the point of anger, thanks to a kind of feigned modesty which extended over all her movements, like a sort of inner deliberation—placid, ruminative, almost sanctimonious. But at a second, more penetrating glance—when one noticed, for instance, her capricious manner while being harnessed or unharnessed—one could see quite clearly that just as it was impassible to arouse her, so it was completely and utterly impossible to enforce total submission on this mare Mistral.
And everywhere could be felt the creeping, fawning intensification of the forces of autumn on the plains and in the hills. The odors of the vintage everywhere accompanied the expedition on its way. It was like a constant melody, soft yet at the same time penetrating and persistent.
The signs of the drought and the blight on the vines were everywhere plain to see. The faces of the peasants bore expressions of muted, ill-suppressed malice.
Even in times of plenty these districts ever gaze up to the gray sky with a tight-lipped look: mudspattered peasants, rotting roofs of thatch, clumsy crosses like the very faith of the region—blunt and strong, row upon row of black haystacks, and at dawn and at dusk there comes rolling from afar the sound of rustic bells, calling to the Saviour out of the depths.
At these twilight hours one could also make out the taut lines of powerful birds in flight—and the sudden screeching of these birds. In everything could be seen the mounting evidence of a heavy, thick reality—or, at a second glance, the slight impulse of some abstract purpose.
Everything, even the silent, baffled docility of the plump peasant girls who paused to gaze from a safe distance at the company of men on horse-back—everything was somehow open to several interpretations.
Had Guillaume de Touron considered the possible interpretations? If so, he did not show it on the surface. His few, brief words of command bore witness to an inner remoteness. It was as if he were sunk deep in a problem of logic or preoccupied in the checking of books which would not balance. Our chronicler, Claude, who frequently noticed his lord’s silences, was sometimes inclined to attribute to him abstract speculations or spiritual exercises. In short, it was sometimes felt that the Count omitted to answer questions, or answered without being asked. “Come here!” he would say, or “Leave it!” “Now!” “Fetch it!” “Forward!”
Those who heard these orders might easily have imagined they were uttered by someone who was about to fall asleep, or who was struggling to rouse himself from a deep slumber.
Nevertheless, the man surrounded himself with a cool ring of lordliness, which needed neither effort nor stress; a strong, inborn quality, compelling fear and silence even while he slept, a crouching wolf.
An inborn quality. In Claude’s chronicle one can read a short description of the appearance and bearing of the Count at the start of the expedition, and also a comparison which—after the manner of the chronicler—is rather fulsome:
Truth to tell, the bearing of Count Guillaume de Touron was not only extremely natural and composed, but entirely free from doubts and excitements. It was like a gentle stream, which wends its way calmly among the meadows of a plain. Placid and leisurely it flows, never tearing at its banks or throwing up waves or spray, but everything which falls into the current is swept constantly on by a force which is neither friendly nor yet timid—a peaceful, inexorable stream.
At dusk on the third day of their journey the band of believers reached the gates of St.-Étienne. They handed over their weapons to the officer of the gate, they paid all the dues, sacred and secular, they submitted to a personal inspection at the hands of the guards, lest there should be found among them an invalid or a Jew, and finally the Count and his men were permitted to enter the city. The ignorant folk stroked and chewed their beards at the sight of such plenty of women, priests, traders, and merchandise.
In the square behind the Hospice of the Sacred Heart, Guillaume de Touron reviewed his men. He gave orders for the horses to be well fed, set guards over the baggage and animals, distributed two pieces of silver per head, and gave the men leave to disperse around the town until daybreak the next day, “so that they might satisfy their needs with women and drink, and also purify their souls with prayer.”
The Count himself, after a slight hesitation, chose in the first place to make his way to the Cathedral. Above all he sought peace of mind. As often happens to men who are looking for something the nature of which is unknown to them, he felt a kind of vague physical unrest, as if his body were rebelling against his soul and defiling it with evil vapors. His body was tough, massive, and compact, his head held slightly forward, as if the weight of the world hung more heavily upon him than upon the mass of ordinary believers.
On his way to the Cathedral there passed through his mind the forms of the death of his two wives, the second and also the first. He contemplated the forms which death had taken like a man looking at the shapes of icicles in the winter. He felt no sorrow for these women, the second or the first, because neither had presented him with a son and heir. But he saw quite vividly that their death was the beginning of his own death. He visualized his death as a far-off place to which one must go, climbing perhaps or breaking through by force, and he joined together with a blind and stubborn bond the words “to redeem,” “to be redeemed,” “to set fire,” “to go up in flames.” Summer by summer, almost day by day, he felt his blood running colder. He did not know the reason, but he silently yearned for simple elements—light, warmth, sands, fire, wind.
Meanwhile Claude Crookback went down to a house of ill-repute on the edge of the town. He found a woman of easy virtue, dressed her up in his clothes and put his cloak around her, and handed her his knife. Then he stretched out on the ground for her to trample on him and begged to be tortured. While writhing with her, drenched with sweat, Claude screamed and laughed, cried and talked continuously. In the confused account which he composed that same night in his cell in the Hospice of the Sacred Heart he does not wallow in the details of his sin but limits himself to an enthusiastic description of the eternal power of grace. Does not the sun deign to be reflected even in pools of mire without withdrawing its reflection?
The worthy bishop of St.-Étienne, a small, rotund, simple man, was sitting motionless in his study, contemplating his hands stretched out before him on the table, or perhaps contemplating the table itself, and cautiously digesting his dinner. Guillaume de Touron’s expression as he suddenly entered the study, half-blocking the doorway with his bulk, was—as the bishop himself later described it in his diary—“clouded in a manner which implied either abstraction or concentration, two states of mind which are far harder to distinguish by their outward indications than is commonly supposed.”
After Mass the bishop and his guest sat down to a meal. They permitted each other a small drink, after which they closeted themselves together in the library. The light of ten great candles in copper candlesticks wove intricate patterns on their faces, on the curved outlines of the objects in the room. It exaggerated every movement and translated it into a language of gloomy shadows. Here the bishop and his guest conducted a brief conversation which touched on the subjects of the quality of humility, the City of God, horses and hunting dogs, the hardships of the journey and its chances of success, the Jews, the price of woodland, and the varieties of signs and wonders.
The knight soon fell silent and let the bishop of St.-Étienne talk on alone. The bishop, as we read in the studied Latin of his diary, “was delighted by the intelligent and thoroughly polite, yet extraordinarily restrained attentiveness” of his guest.
Finally, well after midnight, by the failing light of the candles, Count Guillaume de Touron requested and received from the bishop of St.-Étienne a general and absolute remission of sins. The bishop also bestowed on his guest some useful information on the state of the roads, the subtlety of the Devil and the stratagems by which he can be circumvented, the sources of the sacred river Jordan and the Sea of Galilee, the gold of the Jews, the abominable acts of the Greeks and the means of preserving oneself from them. It was an hour of shadowy silence. Out of the depths of the silence came a slight rustling, as if there were someone else in the Cathedral, nursing a different intention.
The guest entrusted to the servant of God a donation for the use of the church. Then he took his leave. He walked out into the warm darkness, into the realm of the night.
Before retiring to his chaste bed, the bishop made a point of adding a few lines to his diary, which took the form of a rather remarkable observation, even allowing for the late hour.
“I am prepared to swear on oath now,” writes the pious cleric, “that the man did not utter more than a hundred words in the course of the four hours which he spent with me in this holy place. It is amazing, almost uncanny, that we did not remark this extreme silence until after the man had taken his leave and departed. His silence succeeded in disguising itself completely. This is the first time since we entered on our vocation,” the bishop writes in astonishment, “that we have granted remission of sins to a believer and even blessed his journey without his having felt himself obliged to confess to us even one slight sin of the many sins of which this world is so regrettably full. Worse still, the very strange and suspicious secretiveness with which Count Guillaume de Touron treated us remained concealed from us until after the man had left our presence. Naturally we could not chase after him and bring him back out of the darkness. We are obliged, then, even post eventum, to exercise to the full the faculty of strict justice, and to conclude here that it is likely that we have for once been deceived in a sly, calculating, distinctly un-Christian way.
“On the other hand, we are equally obliged to exercise the quality of mercy, and to record herein that his silence, in common with certain other signs of suffering which we fancied we observed on the countenance of Guillaume de Touron, may be interpreted as indications of humility and of spiritual suffering. And are not these two, humility and suffering, outstanding Christian virtues? May God have mercy upon us.”
The expedition set out from St.-Étienne and turned eastward toward Grenoble. It crossed the river and streamed through dense autumnal forests. For the autumn was cautiously gathering strength, as though first testing the powers of resistance of the river, of the hills, and of the forest before falling on them.
At the outskirts of the villages stood rugged, bowed peasants, gazing motionless from afar at the passing procession. The Jews, as though forewarned, abandoned their hovels and disappeared into the undergrowth before the approach of the expedition. Out of the darkness of the woods they seemed to be rousing the forces of evil against us by muttering spells and incantations.
How unaware we are, mere creatures of flesh and humors and blood, of the unseen, powerful web of God’s actions around us!
Guillaume de Touron knew this, and so he told Claude in camp one night: Sometimes the curse of God comes like the caress of a woman’s hand, and sometimes His blessing comes like a knife in the flesh. The appearance of a thing or its effect is not its essence. Take the curse and the wrath which God unleashed against the Jews. See how God’s curse has refined this tribe. These people are fine and subtle; even our own language when it comes from their mouths is somehow suddenly turned to wine.
The thought of the Jews excited an inner panting in Count Guillaume de Touron—a strong, dark purpose, gloomy and filled with cold joy.
Claude Crookback, for his part, was idly musing about the wives of these Jews—warm, moist, brown velvet bitches.
The Jews, thought Guillaume de Touron, are stealthily nibbling away at us, like water eating away iron. This is the soothing touch, which melts unseen. Even the sword—our sword—passes through them as through a mass of turbid water which will slowly consume it. Gracious Lord, have pity on Thy flock, for the forces of defilement rage enflamed all around us, and temptation encircles us, trying to break in. And the faith in our hearts is upright and cold, barren and very sad. Is it possible perhaps that a Jew has insinuated himself into our ranks by stealth?
Guillaume de Touron was suddenly overpowered by this suspicion, and he found himself waking out of his slumber. A warm thaw started to move inside him, and made him feel better. Perhaps he had been granted a sign or a hint. In his heart he seemed to say “here,” “there,” “now.”
The appearance of the expedition was distorted when reflected upside down in the streams, or when seen from afar. Water and distance had the quality of turning any movement to utter mockery.
Along the lines of hills whose green grew ever darker appeared first of all three knights on horseback, wrapped in white cloaks. A rough black cross was embroidered on their cloaks in front and behind, as if they had been run through with swords and the wounds had long since turned black. They rode on tall, brown horses. From a distance it seemed as if the hooves of the horses hardly touched the ground.
Behind them rode the Count, surrounded by his retinue, mounted and clad in helmets and coats of mail. The Count himself was dressed in hunting-gear and leaned in the saddle on his mare Mistral as though he found it exhausting to ride. Was he, as Claude says, already somewhat ill at this stage of the expedition? The question is a foolish one. Almost everyone knows that illness is a configuration of inner possibilities too numerous to count.
Claude, by contrast, was easily recognizable, both by his deformity and by his flashy yellow shield, glinting like false gold.
Behind the Count’s retinue hurried some three-dozen men on foot. In the rear guard trudged mules laden with provisions, wagons rolling on wooden wheels, slaves and camp-followers, a few women who had attached themselves to the expedition, two cows plundered from farmers along the way, some goats, and at the tail end of the procession and on both its flanks dozens of dogs, skinny, misshapen, malicious mongrels, aimlessly darting hither and thither.
The motley cavalcade flowed past mournful autumn fields as if irresistibly drawn by some invisible lodestone.
The autumn was folding everything into the embrace of a thick mist. The gathering dampness spread over everything. It seemed as though the autumn were being malevolently formed according to a careful plan: a damp, dark condensation in the woods; a gray vapor in the valleys; a tense calm projecting quivering forms on the horizon. And still the rains held back.
The days, the nights, the hours of twilight in between, were like a dream-journey in which the distance becomes a malleable substance, always prone to be distorted. Even the wild shouts of joy of the rough good-for-nothings around the camp-fire at night were immediately absorbed into the distance and reflected back purged by the alchemy of autumn and melancholy, far slower and deeper sounds than when they left the mouths of those base fellows.
Sometimes toward dawn, before the camp was woken out of its slumber by the clatter of iron pots, by the jangling of spurs and the neighing of horses, Claude would be flooded with piety and would rouse his lord for matins. Then, at the hour of prayer, the world would show itself and would overpower everything with its unbelievable peace. This was a gloomy peace, the sadness of barren hills which are no longer hills but the very soul of the hills, the earth arching up in longing to the clouds in a seductive gesture which no satisfaction will ever eradicate.
And in the depths of the silence, the body itself began suddenly to yearn for its own extinction. Fine vapor, it was felt, was the proper consistency. And the prayer struck home to the man at prayer.
A few times it happened that darkness fell while they were still in the depth of the forest. Then they would light a great fire in the middle and surround the camp with a close circle of small bonfires for fear of vampires, wolves, and demons.
If one looked upward one could see how the light of the fire was broken by the thick ceiling of leaves. Round about wolves howled, foxes’ eyes glinted, an evil bird screeched and shrieked. Or was it the wind? Or sinister imitations of the sound of fox, bird, and wind? Even the rustling of fallen leaves hinted perpetually at the certainty of another, a hostile camp whispering round about, encircling. The forces of grace were being besieged.
The first signs of an approaching conflict were concrete enough. Dogs would go mad now and again and have to be put down with an arrow or a spear-thrust. A horse suddenly broke its halter in the night and galloped off into the wild darkness as if it had chosen to turn wolf. One of the whores who had attached themselves to the army burst into shrieks and did not stop screaming for two days and three nights, under the influence of some spell or incubus. In the end they were compelled to abandon her to the devil who had seized hold of her. One day the Christians came to a spring, and, being parched, they drank and let their horses and servants drink, not realizing that the water was tainted. The water inflicted humiliating agonies on man and beast alike. Surely a Jew had mingled with the Christians in disguise, was walking along the way with us, and cursing us.
Even the villagers received them grimly. The travelers were compelled to extract provisions, women, and drink from the stubborn peasants by force of arms. Once or twice stiff skirmishes broke out in the villages and Christian blood was spilled in vain. The parsimony of these districts was coarse and sullen. Even for an expedition of knights traveling in the name of Jesus Christ to deliver the Holy Land, the villagers would not open their fists without a stroke of the sword to extract charity by force from their clenched grasp.
And yet in several villages there were women who came of their own volition after dark and silently offered their bodies. These village women were huge and strong as horses. Their silence during the act, their stiff and solid submission, was open to several interpretations—pride or modesty, dullness or rebellion. Claude, assailed by glimmerings of fevered fanaticism, would try his strength by admonishing these peasant women. He would get up and stand in front of them and speak with ecstatic piety of the Kingdom of Heaven, the corrupt nature of the flesh, of the happiness in store for those who give all with a cheerful spirit, “for to him that giveth shall it be given, and compassion shall be shown to him that hath compassion on others.”
Who can tell the number of those scattered villages on the fringes of the forest, in valleys without so much as a name, in great gorges swathed in mist, in the winding courses of forgotten brooks and streams? “It is God’s will,” writes Claude in his chronicle of the journey, “to scatter His flock to the ends of the earth so as to gather to His bosom once more on the day of judgment the few, the elect, the truly deserving.”
As for the Count, he drove his men just as he drove his mare Mistral. He did not give them his attention, yet his presence could not be forgotten for a moment. In his heart he was lonely. Remote from his fellow men. Remote from his surroundings, a stranger to the forest, ice-cold. And now, in its remoteness, this soul would converse with itself on the necessity of love. To love, to be loved, to belong, to be—Guillaume de Touron felt a wild desire to overpower or crush some obstacle whose nature was hidden from him until the day when he would be permitted to be born anew. His shattered thoughts played with various images of death, of alienation, breaking through. Like a drowning man struggling with his last reserves of strength to free himself from the grip of the water. But he did not know what the water was or how far the water stretched.
Outwardly he merely seemed silent and watchful. Straining his senses to the utmost, in the hope of hearing a voice. Afraid to open his mouth and speak, lest he should miss the voice: one cannot speak and listen at the same time. And yet Guillaume de Touron was endowed with a strange power over others. Despite his silence, he overran and choked everyone around him like a great creeper. Without intending to, he grasped and clung to everything, leaned on it with all his weight. It was a false impression that Count Guillaume de Touron, as often happens to men of his class, was a withdrawn and hesitant master, showing no reaction when his servants ran wild. A second glance would show that the reeds on which he leaned bent beneath him, while he, by the mere force of his character, twisted and crushed them unawares.
From time to time he would conjure up an image of Jerusalem, drawing ever closer, but he would dismiss these inner visions, for they did not satisfy him.
In camp, at prayer, as they drank from the cask or from mountain streams, Guillaume de Touron would cast a gloomy eye over each man in turn, trying to detect the hidden Jew.
By now his first suspicions had turned to utter certainty, as happens sometimes to a man who seems to hear in the distance a vague, menacing tune which makes him wonder whether or not it is really there. After a while, from the effort of listening, the tune begins to lead the listener astray, to come suddenly from inside him, from his very innards.
He surveyed his men, every single one of them, their expressions and gestures, eating, at play, in sleep, and on horseback. Is there any reason in looking for signs in the sensible sphere? And what is Jewish in a Jew?—surely not any outward shape or form but some abstract quality. The contrast does not lie even in the affections of the soul. Simply this: a terrible, a malignant presence. Is not this the essence of treachery: to penetrate, to be within, to interfuse, to put out roots and to flourish in what is most delicate. Like love, like carnal union. There is a Jew in our midst. Perhaps the Jew has divided himself up, and insinuated himself partly here, partly there, so that not a man of us has escaped contagion.
Once, when the army had halted toward evening beside a Roman ruin whose remains were being eaten away by decay and strong roots, the Count turned to Claude Crookback with a question: Is it not written in one of those books that a wolf can insinuate himself so successfully into a flock of sheep that even a hunter cannot recognize him?
Claude’s reply, perhaps in a slightly improved version, appears in his chronicle:
I replied to this question from my lord the Count by means of a simple parable or allegory, in the spirit of the ancient wisdom. The sweetest apple is always the first to turn rotten. A wolf in sheep’s clothing would naturally exaggerate his disguise. This is a sign for us: Who was it who embraced our Saviour and kissed His cheek and reveled in honeyed words and signs of love, if not he who had sold Him for thirty pieces of silver, the traitor Judas Iscariot? The Devil is cunning, my lord, cunning and insidious, and we Christians are men of innocence. Without the grace of heaven we are trapped, every one of us, in the snare set at our feet.
Among them there was a piper, Andrés Alvárez by name. He was devoted to the slaves and outcasts and harlots and believed in the power of his music to soften even the most unruly spirit. He even experimented with the horses and dogs. He had forsworn meat and wine, and wore a heavy stone on a chain around his neck to humble himself to the dust, for he thought of himself as “meek and lowly.” Perhaps he was trying to purge his body of some sin he had committed or had intended to commit a long time before. He called himself “worthy of death,” and wanted to be killed on the road to Jerusalem. Suspicion fell on this man. He was ordered to pass his hand through the fire so that it could be ascertained what he was. Because of his terror, and perhaps indeed out of joy at the purifying ordeal which lay ahead, he was seized with great excitement and was bathed in sweat. When he passed his hand through the fire, it was as wet as if it had been soaked in water, so that he was only slightly scorched and the verdicts were divided. But, seeing that this Andrés pleaded with the Count to have him put to death because he was tainted with impurity, they spared him and let him live so that he could be kept under further observation.
There were also three Celts who were half-brothers. They were the sons of one woman by three different fathers. These three displayed an unwholesome disposition to burst into horrifying laughter at things which were no laughing matter, such as a dead fox, the stump of an oak struck by lightning, or a sobbing woman. They were also in the habit of lighting a small fire of their own at night and huddling around it secretively, talking all the time in an unknown language, full of harsh consonants.
Every Sunday the three half-brothers would celebrate an esoteric rite. Piling up heaps of stones, they would wring the neck of a bird and pour out its blood into a fire which they had lit in the hollow of the stones. Perhaps they used to conjure up by this means the soul of their mother.
The Celtic brothers were also gifted with extraordinary powers of marksmanship, which did more than anything else to attract to them the icy glances of the Count. Expertly they would amuse themselves by firing an arrow into the air and piercing it with another in mid-flight. Several times they hurled a stone in the dark and brought down a night bird in pitch darkness, guided by the sound of its wing-beats alone.
One evening Claude Crookback was sent to tell them to moderate their laughter, as befits men on a holy mission, to stop talking among themselves in their pagan tongue, and to allow him to inspect their baggage. In addition, Claude resolved inwardly to find a suitable opportunity to examine each of them while they were passing water so as to make certain that none of them was circumcised.
Claude, it must be admitted, loved these errands, because he felt himself humiliated by them. For the humble shall be exalted and the lowly of spirit shall be raised up.
From Grenoble the expedition continued to move slowly eastward.
The Count chose to keep away from the main roads. He was attracted to forgotten regions. Sometimes he even decided to abandon the lanes and to cut across the heathland and forest. It was not the shortest route that he preferred, but the most forsaken. In practice, Guillaume de Touron set his course afresh every morning: he simply rode in the direction of the sunrise, and continued riding until the rays of the setting sun struck his helmet from behind. He put a simple explanation on the laws of nature: Whoever moves toward the light moves toward the Holy City. Insofar as it was granted to this weary soul to feel love, he loved Jerusalem. He firmly believed that in Jerusalem it is possible to die and be born again pure.
And so, while the autumn beat on their backs with fists soft as a caress, the travelers crossed the foothills of the mountains, felt their way through misty glens, and gradually advanced down the slopes toward the valley of the River Po. There was not a man among them who had ever seen the sea. Perhaps they imagined that the sea would appear to them as an exceedingly broad river, that if they strained their eyes they would see the opposite shore and discern the suggested outlines of towers, walls, lofty steeples, a high halo of light, a holy brightness hovering over the City of God on the other side.
Meanwhile, all along the way, they sustained themselves on what the villagers offered them at the sight of the sword. They made detours around the towns and the estates of noblemen, as if they were constantly avoiding an outstretched net.
Several times on the way they met other companies of knights also making their way to the Holy Land. The Count was not willing to join those who were greater than himself and would not condescend to annex to his band those who were smaller. As they had set out from their own land, so he wanted them to arrive at the Holy City: few but pure.
One day they were almost compelled to hew their way by force of arms. Near a small village by the name of Argentera, beside the well on the way into the village, Guillaume de Touron was surprised to come across a heavy force of crusaders, at least three times as large as his own band. These were Teutonic knights with a large crowd of followers, and at their head was a young knight, beautiful in appearance and haughty of mien, Albrecht of Brunswick by name.
This was a magnificent expedition: respectable matrons borne in litters curtained with silk, a company of elderly lords in costumes of scarlet, gold-buttoned, a company of, young lords wearing long, pointed helmets tipped with a silver cross, attendants decked out in velvet liveries, banners and standards borne by scar-faced standard-bearers. There were also crowds of priests, jesters and easy women, beasts and animals. All this great abundance was carried in broad wagons the like of which has not been seen in our country. The sides of the wagons were painted all around with detailed scenes from the lives of our Lord and His Apostles, all of whom the artist had chosen to portray with stern expressions.
Albrecht of Brunswick deigned to dismount first and present himself to the lesser lord. He delivered himself of a long succession of greetings in florid Latin. He also uttered words of enticement. It was clear that he proposed to take this smaller party which had crossed his path under his wing. But when, after the formulas of greeting were finished, Guillaume de Touron maintained a frigid reserve, and refrained from fulfilling the obligations of Christian fellowship, even responding to the greetings as though they were also farewells, the German smiled a faint smile and gave orders to unseat the stranger from his horse and to annex his band by force.
Before he had finished issuing the order there was a clatter as every sword was drawn. Horses began to rear and neigh and their skins rippled like pools of water in a breeze. A great movement took hold of the men, and glittered on spears and helmets. Instantly the band raised their instruments and started to play with fierce joy. Wild yet spectacular was the sudden melee of horses, banners, and accoutrements, dust, shouts, and war-cries, as if a colorful dance had suddenly broken loose on those gloomy plains. Even the cries of the first casualties of battle resembled from a distance the clamor of reveling merrymakers. Everyone, even the dying men, clung faithfully to a certain style and would not depart from it by a hair’s-breadth.
And so, quite soon, the knight from Brunswick said, “Stay,” and the herald called, “Stay.”
At once Guillaume de Touron, too, raised his visor. The music stopped and the fighting died down. The men stood where they were, breathing heavily, trying to calm their quaking mounts. Soon they began to drink, and to offer one another German ale and Avignon wine from hairy flasks. The musicians, of their own accord, immediately began to play a different tune. While the officers were still busy separating the last hot-blooded skirmishers, laughter had spread all around, the warriors blasphemed and laughed.
Among the Germans there was a holy physician. He and his assistants went through the battlefield and picked out the wounded from the dead. He tended the wounded on both sides and the dead were cast all together into the well, after sufficient water had been drawn for everyone’s needs. The casualties numbered fewer than a dozen dead, all from the lower elements on both sides, and their death did not mar the feelings of brotherhood which quickly sprang up of their own accord around common campfires. To those who forgive shall it be forgiven. As evening fell the priests celebrated a great mass, and in the night both sides together slaughtered cattle, said grace, ate, and drank. Toward dawn they exchanged women servants.
And so, toward dawn, Claude Crookback, drunk and foam-flecked, was sent to appease the knight from Brunswick with fifty pieces of silver as a toll and the price of peace, since Guillaume de Touron and his men were the smaller party.
Later, as the sun rose, Christian knight saluted Christian knight and both groups went their separate ways, holding high their banners and waving adieu. If sins had been committed, surely blood, prayer, and silver had made atonement. And the rain which came late in the morning, a very light and gentle rain, wiped away everything with its transparent fingers.
Next day they came upon a Jewish peddler by the wayside. He had a pair of goats with him and on his back was a knapsack. As the horsemen came downhill toward him he made no attempt to hide. He doffed his cap, smiled with all his might, and bowed three times, each time lower than the last. The procession drew to a halt. The Jew, too, stopped and laid his sack on the ground. The Christians were silent. The wayfarer, too, kept silent and did not dare utter a word. So he stood, by the side of the road, prepared to buy or to sell, to be slain or to deliver a polite reply to any remark which might be addressed to him. And he smiled with extreme concentration.
Claude Crookback said: “Jew.”
The Jew said: “Greetings, travelers. May your journey be blessed with success.” And immediately he tried again in another dialect and in another language, for he did not know which was their tongue.
Claude Crookback said: “Jew, where are you going?”
And without waiting for a reply, he added in a honeyed whisper: “The sack. Open that sack.”
Before he had stopped speaking the three Celtic half-brothers suddenly burst into shrill, loud laughter, very wild but entirely free from malice, as if they were being tickled under the armpits. The peddler opened his sack, bent down, and drew out an armful of knicknacks and gewgaws of the kind which are made to amuse small children, and said very happily: “Everything cheap. Everything for coppers. Or we can arrange an exchange, for things no one wants anymore.”
Claude asked: “Why are you traveling, Jew? What makes you go from place to place?”
The Jew said: “Are we alone in the world, gracious knight? Can a man choose for himself to go or not to go?”
Thereupon there was a silence. Even the Celtic brothers fell quiet. As if of her own accord, the mare Mistral moved forward and carried the Count into the center of the ring of horsemen. The smell of the horses’ sweat spread around, pungent and menacing. The silence became more and more intense. A secret terror suddenly seized hold of the two goats, which were held by the Jew on a rope in his hand. Perhaps the stench of the horses brought them a premonition of evil, and the goats were alarmed. A twin bleating broke out, piercing and shrill as the ripping of cloth, as if a baby were being scorched by flames.
At this, restraint was shattered. The Jew kicked one of the goats sharply and Claude kicked the Jew. The peddler suddenly began giggling with all his might, his mouth gaping open from cheek to cheek. Then, radiating a politeness which was not of this world, he wiped his eyes dry with his sleeve and entreated the knights to accept everything, the goats and the merchandise, as a free gift in perpetuity, because men of every faith are ordered to love their fellow men, and there is one God over all of us. So he spoke, and his smile beneath his beard showed red as a wound. Count Guillaume de Touron made a sign with his finger that the gift should be accepted. The goats were taken, the sack was taken, and silence fell once more. Claude slowly raised his eyes toward the Count. The Count was gazing at the treetops, or through them to the patches of sky beyond. A whisper passed through the trees, thought better of it, and instantly fell quiet. Suddenly the Jew thrust his hand into the folds of his clothing and brought out a small packet.
“Take the money, too,” said the Jew, and held the packet out toward the Count. The knight took the packet with a weary gesture, closed his hand around it and concentrated his gaze as if trying hard to discover what hint the shabby cloth held for him. There was a remote sadness at that moment in Guillaume de Touron’s gaze. It was as if he were searching for something in the depths of his soul while being gradually shrouded in darkness. Perhaps he was filled with sorrow for himself. Finally he spoke, and he said with suppressed pain verging on warmth: “Claude.”
Claude said: “This is a Jew.”
The peddler said: “I have given you everything and now I shall go happily on my way and bless you.”
Claude said: “Now you shall not go and you shall not bless us.”
The peddler said: “You are going to kill me.”
He said this without fear and without surprise, but rather like a man who has been searching in vain for a complicated solution to a complicated problem and suddenly discovers a simple solution. And Claude Crookback replied softly: “Thou sayest.”
Once again silence filled the air. In the silence birds sang. Infected with the autumn the land stretched to the furthest distance, quiet and broad, quiet and cold. The Jew moved his head up and down a few times, concentrating, contemplating, looking as if he wanted to ask a question. And finally he asked: “How?”
“Go,” said Guillaume de Touron.
A moment later, as if mistrusting his voice, he wearily repeated: “Go.”
The Jewish peddler stood as if he had not heard. He began to speak, and thought better of it. He raised his arms wide, and let them drop. He turned. He walked slowly downhill as though he still carried the heavy sack on his back. He did not look around. Then he cautiously quickened his pace. Then, as he neared a bend in the road, he began to run, slowly, cunningly, bent. forward, dragging his feet like a sick man about to stumble and fall.
But when he reached the bend he gave a sudden bound and redoubled his pace, disappearing now with amazing speed, tracing with great care a zigzag course, and he did not stop running in zigzags even after the arrow hit him and lodged in his back between the shoulders. Then he stopped, twisted his arm around behind him, drew the arrow out of his flesh, and stood rocking backward and forward, holding the arrow before his eyes with both hands, as if a careful inspection were demanded of him. He stood staring at it until a second arrow dislodged the first from his grasp and pierced his forehead. Even now he stood where he was, and the arrow in his head stuck out in front, so that he looked like a stubborn ram, lowering his head to butt, his feet set firmly in the dust. Then the Jew uttered a single cry, not long and not very loud, and, as though he had finally decided to give in, he collapsed and fell on his back. He lay there without a tremor or a shudder.
The procession began to move on. Andrés Alvárez, the piper, traced a large cross with his finger over the fields and the forest and the expanse of sky. The women who followed the expedition stood for a moment beside the body, now growing cold, and one of them bent down and covered his face with the hem of his robe. Blood clung to the palms of her hands and the woman began to sob. Claude Crookback, who had moved for once to the rear of the procession, was overcome with a terrible compassion and walked behind the woman, comforting her in a soft voice with pious phrases, and so the two of them found some peace. In addition, that night they opened the peddler’s sack and among a mass of old rags they discovered bracelets and earrings and women’s sandals the like of which had never been seen in the region of Avignon, extraordinarily beautiful, which could be fastened and unfastened by means of a perfectly charming and fascinating yet simple little catch.
Autumn, a gray and patient monk, sent out silent, icy fingers and smoothed the face of the land. Cold winds began to blow down from the mountains to the north. They penetrated every covering, and the flesh stiffened at their touch. In several places toward dawn a fine, clear crust of ice had already begun to coat the surface of the water. The men’s breath froze; their lips turned blue and cracked.
But the heavy rains of winter still held back, and the Count still hoped to reach the coast before all the roads became waterlogged. The sea held out the promise of a change, of some kind of break. He looked forward to beholding in the sea the reflection of the Holy City, bristling with tall, insubstantial towers, glowing white as warm snow, ringed around with rocky crags and deserts, bathed in bright sunlight—and behind this light another light.
And yet sometimes the heart is smitten by a strange hesitation: Does Jerusalem really exist on the face of the earth, or is she perhaps nothing but a pure idea, which anyone who sets out to find in the substance will lose altogether?
They were passing through a monotonous gray landscape, like a long, low corridor. The melancholy of the frozen orchards around the villages was silent and terrible. To the outward eye all these plains stood open on every side as far as the horizon. And yet it was all blindly shuttered, and the travelers traveled on and on, and there was no way out.
Everything was overpowered by the fall. Sometimes the expedition marched for hours and hours on a moldering carpet of dead leaves. A venomous gloom took hold of men and beasts alike, a hidden, desperate gloom from which death itself would have come as a blessed relief. This soft, foul carpet, made up of rotting apple leaves and decomposing fodder, rustled crisply underfoot, producing a dull, monotonous melody which, after a few hours, imposed on knight and peasant alike a mood of silent madness.
So, like an inexorable nightmare, a silent procession advanced day after day over vast tracts of imaginary desert which at every gust of wind and every footstep sighed and murmured. The soul’s life-blood was on the point of shriveling and disintegrating.
No one now doubted the hidden presence of a Jew in the company. In camp at night servants and knights alike kept watch on one another, feigning sleep, starting at each footfall, craning to catch every sigh or whisper, crying out in their sleep, striving to decipher the cries of other sleepers. There were occasional brawls, and some took the precaution of sleeping with a knife clutched in their hand. Secret conspiracies were formed, allegations were made, and everyone girded himself with silence. A few vanished in the night and never reappeared. A servant slit the throat of another servant, was betrayed and beaten to death. Andrés Alvárez played on his pipe, but even his cheerful tunes tore at the heart and heightened the mood of despair.
All along the way there rose the stench of squalid villages. The cloying scent of a horse’s rotting carcass or the tainted odor of a man’s corpse decomposing in a field. Overhead stretched low, thick skies whose grayish hues strained toward a deeper shade of black.
In this envenomed world even the echo of distant bells was turned to keening. Such solitary birds as still remained stood motionless on the tips of wet branches, as if being gradually absorbed into the realm of the inanimate.
They crossed overgrown graveyards, trampling over gravestones coated with moss and lichen, sunk into the embrace of the heavy earth. At the head of these stones stood rough, crooked crosses, two sticks of wood held together by a wooden rivet. These moldy crosses would crumble at a slight touch.
When the expedition halted by water-holes to draw water, those who peered into the depths of the water might have caught sight of an element which was not water.
Far, far away on the steep mountain slopes one could see, for an instant, between patches of streaming mist, the vague outlines of stone-built castles—lingering monasteries, perhaps, or the remains of ancient fortifications ruined even before the coming of the faith. Below them the river and its tributaries rushed furiously in their tangled courses, as if they too were desperately trying to escape.
Over everything there came at dusk a desolate, sinister power of incredible malignity, the screeching of birds of prey or wildcats. These regions were gradually being coated in rust, rotting with it to the point of death. And so Jerusalem ceased to be regarded as a destination, as the arena of glorious deeds. A change took place. Men would break the long silence to say, “In Jerusalem.”
And one man among them began to realize, with the gradual dawning of an inner illumination, that the Jerusalem they were seeking was not a city but the last buttress of a guttering vitality.
This chapter of Claude’s chronicle bears unambiguous witness to the force of the destructive powers which continuously emanated from the hidden presence of a malicious element that had insinuated itself among the crusaders. No longer content with an external watch, they now appointed an internal watch as well. A few knights were detailed to eavesdrop unobtrusively. Other knights were instructed to keep watch on these. Claude Crookback was in a position to keep those whom he mistrusted away from the Count’s presence and to surround him with those who met with his favor. Conspiracies, false accusations, and secret intrigues were rampant. In this thick, dank atmosphere of suspicion and malignant terror Claude blossomed and flourished like some swamp plant. And yet he too was infected by the thickening fear.
There is a stranger in our midst. Every night as we all call on the name of Jesus Christ one of us calls with a false voice and that man is Christ’s enemy. One night in the third watch a hidden hand extinguished all the fires, and in the darkness there came a shout in a language which was not the language of Christian men. An enemy of Christ is concealed among us, a wolf among God’s flock. That same hand which put out the fires in the night is also killing our horses, which are dying in agony one after another from an ailment which is completely unknown where we come from. As we approach the villages the villagers are warned in advance to conceal their provisions, their women, and their horses in the forest. The Jews everywhere sense our approach, and the countryside, which is hostile to us, shelters them. There is an evil in our midst. Someone among us is not one of us. He has been sent to deliver us up to the forces of defilement. O God, have mercy upon us, grant us a sign before we all perish, body and soul. Is it not for Thy sake that we walk this path of hardship and suffering? Is it not to Thy city that we are journeying—and if we do not end there, where shall we end?
The spirit of our men is already weakened by fear of the intrigue which is being fomented in our midst, and there are some on the fringes of our contingent who seek to turn back the remaining horses and return home empty-handed. Our lord Guillaume de Touron now rides all alone some way ahead of the party and no longer looks around, as if it is all one to him whether the others are still following him or not, as if he is traveling on alone to Jerusalem.
Three mornings ago the Count drew up all the travelers in a row, beginning with the knights and concluding with the servants, the hangers-on, and the women, and subjected everyone to a penetrating scrutiny. He ended by suddenly calling on the Jew to fall to his knees at that instant, in that very spot, whoever he might be. Then, in total silence, he turned his back on the men and mounted his mare, slowly, as if he were ill. At first light the next day one of the women was found with her throat cut and with the point of the cross which she wore round her neck buried in her breast. It was I myself who closed her eyes and drew the pointed cross out of her flesh, without wiping the blood off it. O God, where are You leading Your flock, and what will become of us tomorrow and the day after?
And again Claude writes in his chronicle, in a spirit of humility and submission to divine judgment:
In the course of this morning my lord the Count summoned me to follow him to the other side of the hill. When we were out of sight of eavesdroppers my lord said to me, ‘Claude, you know; why do you keep quiet?’ And I swore in the name of Christ, and in the name of my lord’s late sister, who was my father’s wife before he married my mother, I swore that I did not know, and that I was very much afraid. Then my lord the Count continued in a voice at whose memory my heart is rent with love and terror, ‘Claude—are you really Claude?’
I record here the words with which I have cried out to God all day: O God, behold us: We are being consumed by evil. Deliver us, O Lord; Thou hearest and Thou canst prevail. Sinners though we be, have compassion upon us. Are we not journeying toward Thee day and night?
Happy is the man who pours his heart out in his prayer: Even if he cry out of the depths his prayer is answered.
A few days later, when the expedition had made a detour around the walls of Tortona and was pressing on eastward, the plague left the horses and even the weather grew slightly warmer. The farmers yielded large numbers of horses which sufficed for riding until better ones could be found. In one of the villages the three Celts succeeded in sniffing out great hoards of good provisions, cheeses and rye and fodder, all in one cellar, with hardly any bloodshed. Along the way we came upon two mule drivers carrying casks of wine, and we enjoyed the wine for several days. We also met a mendicant monk who sprinkled us with holy water and renewed the blessings of the Church.
And so it seemed as if our fortunes had taken a turn for the better. We did not stint our prayers and thanksgivings. Even the winter rains did not only continue to hold off, but even receded into the distance; for four days a benevolent sun shone down upon us. The Count distributed silver coins. The sound of singing was heard again as we set out in the morning, and Andrés Alvárez, the piper, played us merry tunes on his pipe. And at the same time we began to draw nearer to communities of Jews.
We began to draw nearer to communities of Jews, and our days grew brighter. Activity brought with it a new spirit: Discipline improved, and industry and inventiveness reappeared among us. Some of the blazes we lit fired our hearts with joy, and the thrill of the hunt roused our slumbering senses.
We were not too ambitious. We left the Jews of the towns to stronger contingents. Count Guillaume de Touron merely passed through the remoter districts, clearing, as it were, the outer extremities of the ground—the Jews of a forgotten village or a wayside inn, or a mill hidden in a valley. Thus there fell into his hands small bands of Jews of the runaway or wandering variety. Even so, the expedition did not interrupt its eastward progress, and did not turn aside to track down fugitives or to scent out booty. They ploughed a single, straight furrow, not too broad. They did not even pause to look back and see what had been accomplished and what remained to be done. The Count imposed a strict discipline on his men, and refrained from bloodlust. That is not to say that they avoided plunder, only that the Count forbade his men to take pleasure in it—and the suppressed pleasure whispered seductively.
Claude mentions in his narrative one Jewish woman, resembling a she-wolf, who, with her baby, was rooted out of her lair in the depths of a haystack. She snarled, and her fangs were whiter and sharper than human teeth. She hissed violently, as if she meant to bite or spit venom. Her breast heaved under her brown dress with a turbulence such as Claude had witnessed before only in the throes of physical ecstasy or in women who had seen a vision of a saint demanding that they throw themselves on the fire.
This Jewess even managed to keep at bay the ring of Christians which had closed around her. Not a man dared to approach within reach of claw or tooth. She stood alone in the center, and her face wore an expression which resembled a yawn. A second glance showed that this was no yawn.
She began to wheel around slowly, bent over, the baby clutched in the claws of one hand, the other held out in front, the fingers hooked like the talons of a bird of prey. Her movement suggested that of a scorpion or a crab. Even if Claude imagined that this Jewess was about to pounce and tear out their eyes with her nails, she did not do so. Instead, she suddenly hurled her screaming child into the arms of the youngest of the three Celts, and threw herself down, rolling in the dust as if she had already been slaughtered. She did all this in complete silence, without pleading or crying, but in a fierce convulsion. Claude Crookback struggled with all his might to suppress the sobs rising in his throat. A blind, feverish urge almost forced him to fall to the ground and roll in the dust like her and kiss the soles of her feet and be trampled on by the soles of her feet. This urge burned in his veins like a flaming fury, and yet it was not fury. Hot tears ran down his beard as he put this she-wolf out of her misery with a short, sharp blow, thus sparing her the agonies of a long drawn-out death and relieving her of the ugly sight of the crushing of the child’s head, a sight both sordid and distasteful to a sensitive soul.
The region was dotted with Jewish communities. There were some towns here which had opened their doors wide to them, in defiance of the ancient curse. These Jews had put down deep roots to drink the innermost sap, and were flourishing vigorously. They were endowed with prodigious powers of suckling and growing. In these villages numerous families of Jews had spread, buying and selling, hiring and letting. They had a total monopoly of the oil and flax. Slowly, calculating and relentless, they were expanding into wool and wax, putting out feelers toward perfumes and ales, timber and spices.
Outwardly they were calm, but a closer inspection would have betrayed a nervous muscular spasm in their faces, like the ripples on the skin of a deer standing in feigned repose, poised for flight. Our language flowed from the mouths of these Jews as smooth as oil. Our silver seemed to pass into their hands of its own accord, following the natural tendency of things to roll downhill.
Thus the Jews were past masters at gathering and hoarding, exchanging one thing for another at a favorable moment and concealing one thing inside another in times of apprehension. They seemed devilishly dexterous, evasive by the very nature of their breed. The very ground seemed to become pliant under their feet, and they exuded over everything around them a kind of sticky, transparent resin. They could arouse sympathy or confidence, terror or amusement in the Christians at their will. They were the pipers and we were the pipe in their hands, we were the dancing bear.
Many peasants in these regions put their faith in the Jews. Knights enticed followers to accompany them to Jerusalem with silver borrowed from the Jews. The wounds of our Lord and Saviour opened anew at the sight, and His blood spilled afresh. Even great lords, even priests and bishops were accustomed in these parts to invite Jews into their very hearths, and unawares they slowly sold their souls. Some even trusted the Jews with power. So it happened that hereabouts certain Jews had risen to such heights as to be able to exercise power behind the scenes, and to pass on moral contagion to the Christians. Twice Guillaume de Touron’s band was met on the way by armed guards or even tainted priests, their swords raised as a barrier between him and the Jews, setting at nought God’s curse.
In short, these Jews had raised up a shadow-Judea at the foot of the Cross, spreading all around, extending the reign of hostile forces into Christian lands. To borrow a simile which reappears several times in Claude Crookback’s chronicle, the Jews were like a band of strange minstrels wandering noisily through a primeval forest. Undoubtedly there was some sweet and desolate enchantment in their music, but the forest had a music of its own, deep and dim, and it would not tolerate for long another tune.
One day Guillaume de Touron rode at the head of his men into a group of hovels, on the edge of a small village called Ariogolo, which were inhabited by Jews.
As often happened, they had scented what was coming and had escaped into the forest. A single spokesman came to meet the knights, to negotiate a ransom, and to obtain sympathy. He also wanted to rescue from the fire a house full of old books, some of which, he claimed, were a thousand years old. Jewish books, written backward.
This man was lean and lanky; his beard was fair and his shoulders strong. Even in his manner there was nothing to suggest his base origin. His movements were few and economical, he seemed calm, and he spoke in the measured tone of one who loves words and is their master. He came out of the house toward the leading horsemen and inquired who was in command. Before they had time to speak or move his glance rested on the Count and he said, “He is the one.” Then he strode boldly between the horses, almost brushing them with his shoulders, took up his stand in front of our lord Guillaume de Touron and said: “I was looking for you, my lord. This is your expedition.”
The Knight squinted, weighing with his glance the figure before him, and immediately perceived the strength of his determination. He twisted his lips and said: “You were looking for me.”
“I was looking for you, my lord.”
“What are you offering, Jew, and what do you want to take?”
“A houseful of holy books. And if you are in great need of money then all the rest of our houses. Payment in cash.”
A faint smile, grim and rare, passed over Guillaume de Touron’s face and vanished. For an instant a peasant-like expression, full of greed and loathing, played around his lips. Then his glance froze. Coldly he said: “Gold. Copper coin has no currency in the places to which I am going.”
The man said: “Great quantities of gold.”
Guillaume de Touron said: “You, Jew, stand on the house which you want to save from the fire, and the fire, by God’s grace, will choose what to consume and what to leave untouched.”
The Jew said: “Very well. You set fire to the southern side. The wind is blowing from the north. By God’s grace there is a broad stream in between. The fire, as you say, will choose, by God’s grace, what to consume and what to leave untouched.”
The Count paused. Once again a dry smile flitted across his face. Then, twice as stern, he said: “My dear Jew, you are not afraid. Why are you not afraid of me?”
As though in sudden sympathy the Jew uttered a short, bright, laugh, carefully modulated by a deep insight, and answered: “I give, my lord, and you want to take.”
“And if I take and then kill and burn.”
“But you will swear, my lord, in the name of your Saviour. Before you swear you shall not see the gold.”
“And if I take by force, Jew?”
“You and I, my lord, are in the hands of a power which is greater than you or me.”
“Well then,” said Guillaume de Touron, in a dark tone of voice. “Well then, give me the gold. Right away. You have spoken long enough. Give it to me now.”
As the Count uttered these words the nearest horsemen began to touch the Jew lightly with the tips of their lances, as if testing the thickness of the bark on a tree trunk.
The man said: “The gold is buried in the field and the spot is buried in my heart.”
Guillaume de Touron said: “Then get up and go to the place. Now.”
The Jew shook his head in resignation, as if disappointed at the clumsy narrow-mindedness displayed by his interlocutor. He said with exaggerated deliberateness, in the tone one would use with a stubborn peasant: “But my lord, I have not yet had your lordship’s oath. Your time is short and your way is long.”
“Go,” said the Count. “Go and lead me to the house you spoke of.”
The handsome Jew motioned with his chin.
“That is the one. The books are there.”
The knight raised his voice slightly, and calling to Claude Crookback he said: “Claude, have the house and all the houses burned, and see that the Jew is not killed quickly, but slowly and patiently, and meanwhile tell them to turn the horses out into the field to graze and to send the servants down to the river to wash themselves before Mass—yesterday they stank to high heaven.”
They began to beat the Jew at noon. Toward evening they branded him with red-hot irons. Then they soused him in salt water and asked him about Judas and Pontius and Caiaphas. They took him out of the salt water and crushed his testicles, as Claude had read in one of the books when he was a boy, and as it was written in the same book they made him drink the salty water in which he had been immersed. Later, when they were dealing with his fingers, they questioned him on the subject of the types and allegories of Jesus Christ of which the Old Testament is full. As the twilight came on they put out both his eyes, and then, finally, he opened his mouth and asked them whether if he showed them the place where the treasure was buried, they would promise to kill him instantly, and Claude Crookback gave his word.
In the dark the treasure was dug up, and it turned out that the Jew had not lied and the treasure was very rich indeed. Then the Count told Claude to carry out his promise. The hour, he said, was advanced and it was not fitting to delay any longer the time of evening prayer, because the fire, which had burned right through the village, was dying down and the smoke was interfering with their breathing and making their eyes smart. And so they thrust a lance through the tortured body from back to chest. But the Jew went on crawling blindly hither and thither, and his blood spurted out, and he continued murmuring. So they beat him over the head with an ax-haft and called him dead. The Jew, however, was not dead. He sighed deeply through the hole in his lungs and large pink bubbles came out of him and burst. Then they stabbed him again in the chest, but apparently they missed his heart. The broken relic of a man raised a leg in the air and kicked about furiously. The people who were crowded around him wiped the sweat from their brows and consulted with one another, then ordered the servants to throw the tortured body onto the smoldering fire.
But the ignorant serfs were already seized with superstitious panic, suspecting witchcraft or portents, and stubbornly refused to touch it.
Finally Andrés Alvárez, the piper, drew near, he who carried always a heavy stone tied around his neck to mortify his flesh. Alvárez fetched a long beam and pushed and rolled the remains of the palpitating body into a shallow pool. The spokesman of the Jews lay in the water gasping out bubbles. Even after the evening prayers he had not given up the ghost.
The Count gave orders to put off halting for the night and to ride on by the light of the moon, for the moon had come out, yellow and round and of enormous size. I gave my word, thought Claude, and I did not keep it, because the task did not lie within human power, and if it was the hand of the Almighty, then who am I? Not a leaf falls to the ground without the action of a purpose, and it is not for us to know what the purpose is. So it was by God’s purpose that our Saviour died on the Cross, for it was God’s will that the traitor should betray Christ so that the Saviour should bear our sin and carry our afflictions.
For four days more Guillaume de Touron and his men continued to plow the wild earth with their faith and to root out the hostile forces from the world. And at the end of four days, with fists of ice fury, the great rains of winter began to beat down.
The great rains of winter beat down violently and smote the earth. The vault of heaven itself seemed to collapse as the gray fragments of lead came down. The storm howled wildly in the forest, uprooting ancient trees, shattering roofs, and whipping the surface of the lakes into a frenzy.
So furious was the gale that it caught up wild ducks and hurled them against the mountainside. The water, usually a mild and submissive element, suddenly clenched into a fist and rose up against the massive rocks, toppling them with a single blow. All the rivers ran riot, seething and storming their banks.
Lightning flashed frenziedly from horizon to horizon, drawing dazzling, drunken designs over the whole width of the heavens. The thunder, in its turn, responded with its weird and menacing amen.
Now the wind would wrest the steeple from a village church and sport with it, carrying it off entire. The airborne bell flew swiftly past, ringing high and forlorn above hills, rivers, and forests until it was lost in the distance.
In the midst of the maelstrom at least one sign of order or design could be dimly discerned: All these tormenting forces worked with one accord toward rendering everything round, eliminating and exterminating anything which was pointed with all the violence of their stream, bending mercilessly everything upright or projecting, tearing at whatever was angular and forcing it to become a curve.
The tempest eroded and rounded off the heaps of dust, the breakers on the lakes, the backs of men scurrying with their last strength to find shelter.
Those wild powers which had burst forth to subdue the whole land were totally hostile to cross, steeple, and lance, horse and man.
In the afternoon the wind veered round. The air was filled with large snowflakes. After the snow came the hail. By dusk the earth shone white. All night long the lightning played on the surface of the snow with a dazzling flame of blue. Next morning the snow continued to fall and piled up deeper still. Whatever the storm had left standing the snow rounded and curved. The whole land was silently subdued and transformed. Nothing could stand in the way of the hostile forces. A new power reigned over the earth.
In that pallid glare the whole battered company fell to its knees in the snow and prayed to the Saviour. Lost as they were in that luminous wilderness, shrouded in banks of gray clouds swept by the wind, perhaps there took shape in some of their minds a fleeting vision of Jerusalem.
They went on walking till dusk, seeking shelter from those simple elements which buffeted the flesh and penetrated deeper to conquer the sensitive soul: The pouring rain, the knife-edged wind, the blinding light, the silence. Everything was stripped bare. A handful of wandering fugitives. A long flight. A trap.
In the afternoon the wanderers found a roof to shelter them. This was a broken-down abandoned monastery, a stone fortress on the rocks of a remote mountain slope. Many years before, perhaps in times of plague, the last monks had fled to die elsewhere.
The building was constructed on an absurd, melancholy plan. A steeply-inclined wall, enclosing no other building but simply closing in on itself, in whose thickness were dug myriad low cells and warrens of winding passages, spiral staircases, recesses, doorways, underground vaults lost in darkness. There was also a gloomy chapel, disproportionately long, like a narrow, curved corridor leading nowhere but to its own end. The very form of the place was consumed with contradiction.
Neglect had eaten away at everything, at the crude stone walls and the Latin inscriptions, broken by cracks and crevices, which spoke darkly of the resurrection of the dead and the delusion of earthly delights.
On the door of the monastery one could make out a notice written in the local dialect addressed to would-be invaders, appealing to their religious feelings, cursing them violently and warning of the danger of plague. The writing was being eaten away by mold and rust.
Guillaume de Touron and his men broke down the door and went inside. The Count gave orders to unload, light a fire, and shelter here until the roads became passable. He was troubled or distracted as he issued his instructions, interspersing orders to ration provisions, take good care of the horses, and clean the tackle, with vague reflections on the subject of walking on water, urgent messages to the Greeks, remarks about sleep as a simple escape from space and time, adding an obscure comment on the blight which had affected the vines and the rotting of the lower layers of earth underneath the top-soil.
The men did not speak, but the walls began to make their voices heard. While the Count was talking, the passages, doorways, and recesses sent back a hollow echo. They re-echoed and amplified a word here and there to a suspicious degree. When Guillaume de Touron finished speaking, the building intensified the silence.
The walls were all in the grip of a gradual decay. Weeds burrowed in the crevices of the stone, nibbling greedily at the rot, their bloated growth forcing up the flagstones, and as they burrowed they almost seemed to squelch noisily, as if the building were composed of marrow bones at which the plants were lustily sucking.
And the smells. A pungent stench of ancient incense lingering in the cracks in the stones came and went by turns.
The servants dispersed into the recesses and passageways, not searching, not finding, startled by meeting each other suddenly in the twists of the tunnels, trying the echo and being filled with terror at the result, lighting fires in the hollows. The smoke spread out along the ground, disturbing scurrying insects and night birds or monstrous bats. At the end of several days it was impossible to count the men or keep them in order. One or two were stricken with silent madness, wandering in the dark passages without a torch until their shouts died down and they were forgotten. All count was lost of the days.
Outside the loopholes the realm of winter stretched to the far distance, endless tracts of snow on which the howling wind played a melody of darkness. The torrents of water had broken down all the bridges. Clearly there was no hope of escape until some change took place.
All day the men played dice. When it grew dark they lit a fire, which they fed by tearing off the doors and hacking away the framework with their axes. After that they burned the furniture and fittings of the chapel. Finally, they even began to break down the roof-beams to make a bigger fire to ward off the cold draughts which blew in through the roof that they were progressively demolishing.
These roof-beams were damp and musty. The fire drew out of them a venomous, gnawing effervescence, as if people were being roasted alive each night.
And so, subjected to the influence of idleness and boredom, the servants began to go to pieces. They began to degenerate at first from excess of ale, and when supplies of ale ran out they degenerated twice as fast from want of it. In the absence of farmers’ wives it soon became evident that the women who accompanied the expedition were too few. They were squabbled over and squabbled with until some of them were killed and the rest fled into the snow. One of them killed three of her companions before they found her hiding in an alcove and slit her throat.
Even after the women had left the men did not mend their ways. The sooty walls were covered with obscene drawings. Here and there, when no one was watching, a man would desecrate one of the crosses, until they had to make do with the crosses of iron and feed the flames with the remains of the wooden ones.
Only the divine office was observed by everyone with an enthusiasm bordering on the fanatical. Morning and evening they would emerge from their various hiding-places and gather together to pray ecstatically. On the days which they considered, according to their halting reckoning, to be Sundays they prayed devoutly half the day. The lower elements burst into noisy weeping as they prayed. Sometimes Guillaume de Touron would deliver a feverish, rambling address, exhorting his men to love him, to love one another, to love the horses which were perishing from the cold, to love their own flesh and their own blood, since their flesh was not their flesh, nor their blood their blood. Claude Crookback, for his part, was steadily amassing a power of his own. He encouraged some of the servants to come to him and confess their old sins, all of which occasioned him lunatic delight. His chronicle bears witness to a morbid fascination with the nature of the body and its peculiarities.
Days and weeks went by. The last of the better elements in the party were disappearing into the snow to find their own way home. Those who remained battled with hordes of ravens which had also taken refuge there from the cold. They brought them down with arrows and stones, but others kept coming until the soul grew weary with them.
Outside, day after day, the soft, slushy snow piled up on the ground, and at night the wind beat relentlessly at the walls, dislodging loose stones and beams.
Worst of all, the Count was changing. Compassion took hold of him day by day. Something strange, a kind of hesitancy, tenderness almost, suddenly came over him.
He would wake from a long sleep (he dozed for long periods of the day and night), get up, and begin to perform acts of kindness. In the first place, he shook off all his old suspicions and seemed to take pride in the handful of men who were accompanying him to Jerusalem. Secondly, he sought opportunities of exercising forgiveness. If he saw one of the men weakening, he would lay a hand on his shoulder and speak briefly and softly against sin. He began to address some of the more despicable characters as “my brother.” From time to time he would pay frenzied visits to his mare Mistral, give her water to drink from his own cupped palms, and groom her with his fingers. On one occasion he assembled everybody in the broken-down chapel, held a kind of Mass, and solemnly adopted Claude Crookback as his son. If Claude had not restrained him, he would have gone on to adopt several more of those present. To judge by his appearance he was a sick man, but in terms of physical strength he was stronger than any man there, the three Celts included. It occurred to him to erect a sort of dais at one end of the chapel, and for several days he moved stones and fetched heavy planks. Then he suddenly stopped, and instead tried to induce the most ignorant men to learn Latin, and give up speaking “those Jewish languages.” Once he fell to his knees, took off his shirt, and wrapped it around the foot of the oldest of the three Celts, a remarkable action, since the foot, though naturally unwashed, was in no way injured.
He demanded the constant companionship of Claude Crookback. At first he implored Claude to regale him with extracts from the writings of the ancient sages. After a time, he would wake up in a panic and call for Claude, and eventually he was unable to fall asleep without resting his head in Claude’s lap. Claude, as was his wont, would talk on and on, and since he met with no rebuke he talked even more than usual. Day by day, authority passed from the Count to his adopted son, so that soon he could starve or flog men at his own discretion as the fancy took him. In his chronicle he wrote: “Earth, men, snow, suffering, death, all of these are but an allegory of the Kingdom of Heaven, toward which I am going, in a straight path, turning aside neither to right nor to left, and with a joyful spirit.”
Then the snow stopped, and once more the winter rain fell day and night, in a tedious, unrelenting downpour. The snow began to melt on the hilltops. Thick mud covered the countryside. The cold became damper, a fetid, poisonous frost. Here and there traces of the road reappeared, winding among the hills. The road was waterlogged. Even in moments of despair, it was impossible to consider resuming the journey.
Within the ruined monastery supplies of food began to fail. Once or twice knives were drawn when the rotten rations were distributed. A humiliating disease broke out, causing all of them unbearable sufferings and torments.
One night a pack of wolves stole in, wild with hunger. Silently the wolves swarmed through the dark and winding passages, broke into the cellars, and tore the last remaining horses limb from limb. If the scent of the wolves had not roused the three Celts from their slumber, we should all have been in danger of our lives. The Celts leaped to their feet and fell on the beasts of prey with lances, torches, shouts, knives, and stones. In the firelight even the men’s expression seemed wolflike.
After this incident Claude Crookback instituted a night watch. The men would gather together at night to sleep surrounded by heaps of glowing embers. The guards prevented the wolves from creeping in again, but they were powerless to prevent the terror caused by the howling which was borne in on the night wind, piercing the very marrow of the soul. And the soul contracted and responded with an inner howling of its own.
Early one morning, they caught sight in the distance of a dim form moving across the snow. It was a traveler, moving past slowly on the horizon, holding himself erect, feeling his way, a tall man wrapped in a black cloak, his head hidden by a black cowl. A wandering ascetic, perhaps, or a mendicant monk. The form did not respond to our cries and did not alter its course. The stranger passed before our gaze, pressing on slowly through the soft snow toward the opposite horizon. Perhaps he was deaf, or bound by a vow of silence. Besides him no human form appeared all through the winter.
The cold grew more and more intense, stretching to the very limits of its strength. The men’s bodies were covered with chilblains. Those horses which had been rescued from the fangs of the wolves perished in one day. Their flesh was eaten half-raw, because there was hardly any fuel left to feed the fire.
A spirit of rebelliousness gradually reared its head, restrained as yet but menacing. Servants, their eyes inflamed, whispered together in corners. If Claude Crookback walked past they would suddenly fall silent or hasten to roll their dice. Whispers stalked about in the night darkness.
One day Andrés Alvárez risked his life climbing to the top of the crumbling belfry. He succeeded in setting the great bells to rights and in fitting them with new ropes. He believed in the power of the bells to drive out the spirit of defilement and to put new heart into the men. But when Andrés slithered down from the belfry and pulled on the ropes, the chimes which rang out were broken, ailing, blood-chilling. And from every corner of the tumble-down monastery arose waves of echoes, hoarse and pitiless.
And so they abandoned the bells and bade Andrés Alvárez, the piper, pipe away and still the murmurs of the silence.
Andrés’s playing could stir the heartstrings. His melodies caressed his hearers like a hand. Something stirred and softened within them. The firelight flickered gloomily on the circle of shadowy faces, coarse-featured and shaggy. As the notes rang out, a kind of spasm or passing shudder played round those cracked lips. The tenderness was almost more than they could bear. Like stones frozen in a sheet of ice, the slightest touch of warmth would shatter them. Andrés Alvárez roused in them a kind of craving, a repressed yearning. Suddenly someone in the circle of listeners would burst out screaming as if he had been stabbed. It was the scream of a wounded man who recovers consciousness and all of a sudden becomes aware of his pain.
His tunes were simple ones, such as one hears in the country in summertime, and from time to time Andrés would break into a soft, warm song, like the songs which peasant girls sing when they fancy that no one is listening. Some of the men joined in and sang with Andrés as if their lives had reopened with the song. Even Guillaume de Touron was stirred. This dwindling man sank his chin on his chest, and a last light passed through him.
He remembered his wife, not the lady Louise of Beaumont, who had died that summer of falling sickness, but his first wife, Anna Maria. She was only a child when she was brought and presented to him, and he too was a mere lad. She was beautiful but silent as he first saw her standing in the gateway, he looking at her, she looking down at her slippers or at the ground. And he recalled now, in this twilight, how he took her hand and led her out onto the estate, to the orchards and vineyards and pastures, and then into the woods, as his forefathers before him had been accustomed to lead their brides on their arrival. He recalled her dress, the color of oleander, and the startled look in her eyes, and the ripples of panic racing over her skin as over that of a quiet young filly. He recalled her prolonged silence, and his own silence, and the singing of the birds, the tree tops dyed by the rays of the sinking sun, the blossoms in the orchards with their scents, for it was spring, and the tranquility of the streams was caressed by the scents of evening. Anna Maria walked behind him, and he let go of her hand, which was trembling. Then, in a frenzy, he suddenly determined to make her laugh. He started neighing like a horse and howling like a jackal, went down on all fours and imitated a deer in flight and a bear in pursuit, then suddenly threw himself from a high rock into the stream below, emerged dripping wet, and fell panting at her feet, giving a perfect imitation of a dog begging to be petted. How pure was that distant silence! Then, giving in, she laughed and touched his hand with her fingertips, and he, a wet, fawning dog, nuzzled her hand with his face. As his lips touched her fingers it happened, and Anna Maria said, “You, you, you.”
Guillaume de Touron closed both his eyes and gazed blindly at Andrés Alvárez, the piper. His heart told him that this place was strange and that even Jerusalem was not the goal of this journey but of another journey, no journey at all, no City of God, and perhaps Andrés is the hidden Jew, or perhaps not Andrés but he himself, for truth is so pure and only the eyes are blind, fire is not fire, snow is not snow, stones are thoughts and the wind is wine and wine is silence, prayers are fingers, pain is a bridge and death is home, is the touch, is the warm tinkling song “You, you, you.”
Outside, as a counterpoint to Andrés’s melody, snow and despair once more fell softly, smothering everything with a kiss of unbelievable tenderness. So it was that Count Guillaume de Touron stopped the music and said:
“Claude, this piper is not one of us.”
“Father, have you not known Andrés from his youth? Did his grandfather not dandle you on his knee when you were a child?”
The Count said:
“Claude, why do you insist on shielding this Jew from me? He is hounding us, and it is his fault that we are lost.”
The Count, deep in thought, said sorrowfully, as if from a distance:
“Andrés, you are dear to me, you are a dearly-beloved Jew Andrés, and I must kill you so that you die.”
Andrés Alvárez did not plead for his life, but curled up with his head between his knees and did not move. The Count rose, took up his spear, and stood beside Andrés. He leaned on the spear, his eyes closed. He was pondering or hesitating. He leaned harder on the spear, and a sigh escaped from his throat. He leaned harder still, the spear passed through his body and, as if clasped in an invisible embrace, he collapsed and lay still.
After the Count’s death there were two more flights into the snow. Most of the servants vanished, taking with them what little food was left. Claude Crookback, leader of a party of nine crusaders, wrote, with a trembling hand, his eyes blazing out of a beard smeared with saliva: “The miracle is delayed. Claude is humbled to the dust, the saintly Claude is plunged into the depths of the abyss, but beyond the mire there shines a light, and I am steadily making my way toward it, to be purged in it till the very flesh perishes.”
The horror of those last nights. The faces of men whose teeth are rotted, whose lips are eaten away by the cold. They shone white as skulls in the light of the night. The screaming. The laughter. They were turned to beasts, mauling their flesh with their teeth, falling to emaciated knees to worship the lightning which flashed across the night sky. And the visions. A luminous procession above their heads, figures of pallid ghosts, glimmering from the furthermost frozen distance.
On the last night there was a sign. Through the holes in the roof the dark clouds were seen to part slightly, revealing faint stars, and beyond the stars, a halo.
And so, finally, without horses, without clothes or provisions, without women and without wine, the cold tearing at their bare feet, to rise up and go to Jerusalem. Surely it was thus that they should have set out at the start.
Nine quivering silhouettes, Claude Crookback, trudging in front, Andrés, the three brothers, four servants whose minds were long since unhinged, through meadows shining white from horizon to horizon, walking over the white earth and under a white sky, on and on.
Not turning homeward—they had given up all thought of human habitations. Not even toward Jerusalem, which is not a place but disembodied love. Shedding their bodies, they made their way, growing ever purer, into the heart of the music of the bells and beyond to the choirs of angels and yet further, leaving behind their loathsome flesh and streaming onward, a jet of whiteness on a white canvas, an abstract purpose, a fleeting vapor, perhaps peace.
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Must-Reads from Magazine
Sex and Work in an Age Without Norms
In the Beginning Was the ‘Hostile Work Environment’
In 1979, the feminist legal thinker Catharine MacKinnon published a book called Sexual Harassment of Working Women. Her goal was to convince the public (especially the courts) that harassment was a serious problem affecting all women whether or not they had been harassed, and that it was discriminatory. “The factors that explain and comprise the experience of sexual harassment characterize all women’s situation in one way or another, not only that of direct victims of the practice,” MacKinnon wrote. “It is this level of commonality that makes sexual harassment a women’s experience, not merely an experience of a series of individuals who happen to be of the female sex.” MacKinnon was not only making a case against clear-cut instances of harassment, but also arguing that the ordinary social dynamic between men and women itself created what she called “hostile work environments.”
The culture was ripe for such arguments. Bourgeois norms of sexual behavior had been eroding for at least a decade, a fact many on the left hailed as evidence of the dawn of a new age of sexual and social freedom. At the same time, however, a Redbook magazine survey published a few years before MacKinnon’s book found that nearly 90 percent of the female respondents had experienced some form of harassment on the job.
MacKinnon’s views might have been radical—she argued for a Marxist feminist jurisprudence reflecting her belief that sexual relations are hopelessly mired in male dominance and female submission—but she wasn’t entirely wrong. The postwar America in which women like MacKinnon came of age offered few opportunities for female agency, and the popular culture of the day reinforced the idea that women were all but incapable of it.
It wasn’t just the perfect housewives in the midcentury mold of Donna Reed and June Cleaver who “donned their domestic harness,” as the historian Elaine Tyler May wrote in her social history Homeward Bound. Popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and Redbook reinforced the message; so did their advertisers. A 1955 issue of Family Circle featured an advertisement for Tide detergent that depicted a woman with a rapturous expression on her face actually hugging a box of Tide under the line: “No wonder you women buy more Tide than any other washday product! Tide’s got what women want!” Other advertisements infantilized women by suggesting they were incapable of making basic decisions. “You mean a -woman can open it?” ran one for Alcoa aluminum bottle caps. It is almost impossible to read the articles or view the ads without thinking they were some kind of put-on.
The competing view of women in the postwar era was equally pernicious: the objectified pinup or sexpot. Marilyn Monroe’s hypersexualized character in The Seven Year Itch from 1955 doesn’t even have a name—she’s simply called The Girl. The 1956 film introducing the pulchritudinous Jayne Mansfield to the world was called The Girl Can’t Help It. The behavior of Rat Pack–era men has now been so airbrushed and glamorized that we’ve forgotten just how thoroughly debased their treatment of women was. Even as we thrill to Frank Sinatra’s “nice ’n’ easy” style, we overlook the classic Sinatra movie character’s enjoying an endless stream of showgirls and (barely disguised) prostitutes until forced to settle down with a killjoy ball-and-chain girlfriend. The depiction of women either as childish wives living under the protection of their husbands or brainless sirens sexually available to the first taker was undoubtedly vulgar, but it reflected a reality about the domestic arrangements of Americans after 1945 that was due for a profound revision when the 1960s came along.
And change they did, with a vengeance. The sexual revolution broke down the barriers between the sexes as the women’s-liberation movement insisted that bourgeois domesticity was a prison. The rules melted away, but attitudes don’t melt so readily; Sinatra’s ball-and-chain may have disappeared by common consent, but for a long time it seemed that the kooky sexpot of the most chauvinistic fantasy had simply become the ideal American woman. The distinction between the workplaces of the upper middle class and the singles bars where they sought companionship was pretty blurred.
Which is where MacKinnon came in—although if we look back at it, her objection seems not Marxist in orientation but almost Victorian. She described a workplace in which women were unprotected by old-fashioned social norms against adultery and general caddishness and found themselves mired in a “hostile environment.” She named the problem; it fell to the feminist movement as a whole to enshrine protections against it. They had some success. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court embraced elements of MacKinnon’s reasoning when it ruled unanimously in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that harassment that was “sufficiently severe or pervasive” enough to create “a hostile or abusive work environment” was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued rules advising employers to create procedures to combat harassment, and employers followed suit by establishing sexual-harassment policies. Human-resource departments spent countless hours and many millions of dollars on sexual-harassment-awareness training for employees.
With new regulations and enforcement mechanisms, the argument went, the final, fusty traces of patriarchal, protective norms and bad behavior would be swept away in favor of rational legal rules that would ensure equal protection for women in the workplace. The culture might still objectify women, but our legal and employment systems would, in fits and starts, erect scaffolding upon which women who were harassed could seek justice.
But as the growing list of present-day harassers and predators attests—Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Michael Oreskes, Glenn Thrush, Mark Halperin, John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, et al.—the system appears to have failed the people it was meant to protect. There were searing moments that raised popular awareness about sexual harassment: (Anita Hill’s testimony about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991; Senator Bob Packwood’s ouster for serial groping in 1995). There was, however, still plenty of space for men who harassed and assaulted women (and, in Kevin Spacey’s case, men) to shelter in place.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Why did it?
Sex and Training
What makes sexual harassment so unnerving is not the harassment. It’s the sex—a subject, even a half-century into our so-called sexual revolution, about which we remain deeply confused.
The challenge going forward, now that the Hollywood honcho Weinstein and other notoriously lascivious beneficiaries of the liberation era have been removed, is how to negotiate the rules of attraction and punish predators in a culture that no longer embraces accepted norms for sexual behavior. Who sets the rules, and how do we enforce them? The self-appointed guardians of that galaxy used to be the feminist movement, but it is in no position to play that role today as it reckons not only with the gropers in its midst (Franken) but the ghosts of gropers past (Bill Clinton).
The feminist movement long ago traded MacKinnon’s radical feminism for political expedience. In 1992 and 1998, when her husband was a presidential candidate and then president, Hillary Clinton covered for Bill, enthusiastically slut-shaming his accusers. Her sin was and is at least understandable, if not excusable, given that the two are married. But what about America’s most glamorous early feminist, Gloria Steinem? In 1998, Steinem wrote of Clinton accuser Kathleen Willey: “The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” As for Monica Lewinsky, Steinem didn’t even consider the president’s behavior with a young intern to be harassment: “Welcome sexual behavior is about as relevant to sexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one.”
The consequences of applying to Clinton what Steinem herself called the “one-free-grope” rule are only now becoming fully visible. Even in the case of a predator as malevolent as Weinstein, it’s clear that feminists no longer have a shared moral language or the credibility with which to condemn such behavior. Having tied their movement’s fortunes to political power, especially the Democratic Party, it is difficult to take seriously their injunctions about male behavior on either side of the aisle now (just as it was difficult to take seriously partisans on the right who defended the Alabama Senate candidate and credibly accused child sexual predator Roy Moore). Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s initial hemming and hawing about denouncing accused sexual harasser Representative John Conyers was disappointing but not surprising. As for Steinem, she’s gone from posing undercover as a Playboy bunny in order to expose male vice to sitting on the board of Playboy’s true heir, VICE Media, an organization whose bro-culture has spawned many sexual-harassment complaints. She’s been honored by Rutgers University, which created the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies. One of the chair’s major endowers? Harvey Weinstein.
In place of older accepted norms or trusted moral arbiters, we have weaponized gossip. “S—-y Media Men” is a Google spreadsheet created by a woman who works in media and who, in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, wanted to encourage other women to name the gropers among us. At first a well-intentioned effort to warn women informally about men who had behaved badly, it quickly devolved into an anonymous unverified online litany of horribles devoid of context. The men named on the list were accused of everything from sending clumsy text messages to rape; Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker confessed that she didn’t believe the charges lodged against a male friend of hers who appeared on the list.
Others have found sisterhood and catharsis on social media, where, on Twitter, the phrase #MeToo quickly became the symbol for women’s shared experiences of harassment or assault. Like the consciousness-raising sessions of earlier eras, the hashtag supposedly demonstrated the strength of women supporting other women. But unlike in earlier eras, it led not to group hugs over readings of The Feminine Mystique, but to a brutally efficient form of insta-justice meted out on an almost daily basis against the accused. Writing in the Guardian, Jessica Valenti praised #MeToo for encouraging women to tell their stories but added, “Why have a list of victims when a list of perpetrators could be so much more useful?” Valenti encouraged women to start using the hashtag as a way to out predators, not merely to bond with one another. Even the New York Times has gone all-in on the assumption that the reckoning will continue: The newspaper’s “gender editor,” Jessica Bennett, launched a newsletter, The #MeToo Moment, described as “the latest news and insights on the sexual harassment and misconduct scandals roiling our society.”
As the also-popular hashtag #OpenSecret suggests, this #MeToo moment has brought with it troubling questions about who knew what and when—and a great deal of anger at gatekeepers and institutions that might have turned a blind eye to predators. The backlash against the Metropolitan Opera in New York is only the most recent example. Reports of conductor James Levine’s molestation of teenagers have evidently been widespread in the classical-music world for decades. And, as many social-media users hinted with their use of the hashtag #itscoming, Levine is not the only one who will face a reckoning.
To be sure, questioning and catharsis are welcome if they spark reforms such as crackdowns on the court-approved payoffs and nondisclosure agreements that allowed sexual predators like Weinstein to roam free for so long. And they have also brought a long-overdue recognition of the ineffectiveness of so much of what passes for sexual-harassment-prevention training in the workplace. As the law professor Lauren Edelman noted in the Washington Post, “There have been only a handful of empirical studies of sexual-harassment training, and the research has not established that such training is effective. Some studies suggest that training may in fact backfire, reinforcing gendered stereotypes that place women at a disadvantage.” One specific survey at a university found that “men who participated in the training were less likely to view coercion of a subordinate as sexual harassment, less willing to report harassment and more inclined to blame the victim than were women or men who had not gone through the training.”
Realistic Change vs. Impossible Revolution
Because harassment lies at the intersection of law, politics, ideology, and culture, attempts to re-regulate behavior, either by returning to older, more traditional norms, or by weaponizing women’s potential victimhood via Twitter, won’t work. America is throwing the book at foul old violators like Weinstein and Levine, but aside from warning future violators that they may be subject to horrible public humiliation and ruination, how is all this going to fix the problem?
We are a long way from Phyllis Schlafly’s ridiculous remark, made years ago during a U.S. Senate committee hearing, that “virtuous women are seldom accosted,” but Vice President Mike Pence’s rule about avoiding one-on-one social interactions with women who aren’t his wife doesn’t really scale up in terms of effective policy in the workplace, either. The Pence Rule, like corporate H.R. policies about sexual harassment, really exists to protect Pence from liability, not to protect women.
Indeed, the possibility of realistic change is made almost moot by the hysterical ambitions of those who believe they are on the verge of bringing down the edifice of American masculinity the way the Germans brought down the Berlin wall. Bennett of the Times spoke for many when she wrote in her description of the #MeToo newsletter: “The new conversation goes way beyond the workplace to sweep in street harassment, rape culture, and ‘toxic masculinity’—terminology that would have been confined to gender studies classes, not found in mainstream newspapers, not so long ago.”
Do women need protection? Since the rise of the feminist movement, it has been considered unacceptable to declare that women are weaker than men (even physically), yet, as many of these recent assault cases make clear, this is a plain fact. Men are, on average, physically larger and more aggressive than women; this is why for centuries social codes existed to protect women who were, by and large, less powerful, more vulnerable members of society.
MacKinnon’s definition of harassment at first seemed to acknowledge such differences; she described harassment as “dominance eroticized.” But like all good feminist theorists, she claimed this dominance was socially constructed rather than biological—“the legally relevant content of the term sex, understood as gender difference, should focus upon its social meaning more than upon any biological givens,” she wrote. As such, the reasoning went, men’s socially constructed dominance could be socially deconstructed through reeducation, training, and the like.
Culturally, this is the view that now prevails, which is why we pinball between arguing that women can do anything men can do and worrying that women are all the potential victims of predatory, toxic men. So which is it? Girl Power or the Fainting Couch?
Regardless, when harassment or assault claims arise, the cultural assumptions that feminism has successfully cultivated demand we accept that women are right and men are wrong (hence the insistence that we must believe every woman’s claim about harassment and assault, and the calling out of those who question a woman’s accusation). This gives women—who are, after all, flawed human beings just like men—too much accusatory power in situations where context is often crucial for understanding what transpired. Feminists with a historical memory should recall how they embraced this view after mandatory-arrest laws for partner violence that were passed in the 1990s netted many women for physically assaulting their partners. Many feminist legal scholars at the time argued that such laws were unfair to women precisely because they neglected context. (“By following the letter of the law… law enforcement officers often disregard the context in which victims of violence resort to using violence themselves,” wrote Susan L. Miller in the Violence Against Women journal in 2001.)
Worse, the unquestioned valorization of women’s claims leaves men in the position of being presumed guilty unless proven innocent. Consider a recent tweet by Washington Post reporter and young-adult author Monica Hesse in response to New York Times reporter Farhad Manjoo’s self-indulgent lament. Manjoo: “I am at the point where i seriously, sincerely wonder how all women don’t regard all men as monsters to be constantly feared. the real world turns out to be a legit horror movie that I inhabited and knew nothing about.”
Hesse’s answer: “Surprise! The answer is that we do, and we must, regard all men as potential monsters to be feared. That’s why we cross to the other side of the street at night, and why we sometimes obey when men say ‘Smile, honey!’ We are always aware the alternative could be death.” This isn’t hyperbole in her case; Hesse has so thoroughly internalized the message that men are to be feared, not trusted, that she thinks one might kill her on the street if she doesn’t smile at him. Such illogic makes the Victorian neurasthenics look like the Valkyrie.
But while most reasonable people agree that women and men both need to take responsibility for themselves and exercise good judgment, what this looks like in practice is not going to be perfectly fair, given the differences between men and women when it comes to sexual behavior. In her book, MacKinnon observed of sexual harassment, “Tacitly, it has been both acceptable and taboo; acceptable for men to do, taboo for women to confront, even to themselves.”
That’s one thing we can say for certain is no longer true. Nevertheless, if you begin with the assumption that every sexual invitation is a power play or the prelude to an assault, you are likely to find enemies lurking everywhere. As Hesse wrote in the Washington Post about male behavior: “It’s about the rot that we didn’t want to see, that we shoveled into the garbage disposal of America for years. Some of the rot might have once been a carrot and some it might have once been a moldy piece of rape-steak, but it’s all fetid and horrific and now, and it’s all coming up at once. How do we deal with it? Prison for everyone? Firing for some? …We’re only asking for the entire universe to change. That’s all.”
But women are part of that “entire universe,” too, and it is incumbent on them to make it clear when someone has crossed the line. Both women and men would be better served if they adopted the same rule—“If you see something, say something”—when it comes to harassment. Among the many details that emerged from the recent exposé at Vox about New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush was the setting for the supposedly egregious behavior: It was always after work and after several drinks at a bar. In all of the interactions described, one or usually both of the parties was tipsy or drunk; the women always agreed to go with Thrush to another location. The women also stayed on good terms with Thrush after he made his often-sloppy passes at them, in one case sending friendly text messages and ensuring him he didn’t need to apologize for his behavior. The Vox writer, who herself claims to have been victimized by Thrush, argues, “Thrush, just by his stature, put women in a position of feeling they had to suck up and move on from an uncomfortable encounter.” Perhaps. But he didn’t put them in the position of getting drunk after work with him. They put themselves in that position.
Also, as the Thrush story reveals, women sometimes use sexual appeal and banter for their own benefit in the workplace. If we want to clarify the blurred lines that exist around workplace relationships, then we will have to reckon with the women who have successfully exploited them for their own advantage.
None of this means women should be held responsible when men behave badly or illegally. But it puts male behavior in the proper context. Sometimes, things really are just about sex, not power. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat bluntly noted in a recent debate in New York magazine with feminist Rebecca Traister, “I think women shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which male sexual desire is distinctive and strange and (to women) irrational-seeming. Saying ‘It’s power, not sex’ excludes too much.”
Social-Media Justice or Restorative Justice?
What do we want to happen? Do we want social-media justice or restorative justice for harassers and predators? The first is immediate, cathartic, and brutal, with little consideration for nuance or presumed innocence for the accused. The second is more painstaking because it requires reaching some kind of consensus about the allegations, but it is also ultimately less destructive of the community and culture as a whole.
Social-media justice deploys the powerful force of shame at the mere whiff of transgression, so as to create a regime of prevention. The thing is, Americans don’t really like shame (the sexual revolution taught us that). Our therapeutic age doesn’t think that suppressing emotions and inhibiting feelings—especially about sex—is “healthy.” So either we will have to embrace the instant and unreflective emotiveness of #MeToo culture and accept that its rough justice is better than no justice at all—or we will have to stop overreacting every time a man does something that is untoward—like sending a single, creepy text message—but not actually illegal (like assault or constant harassment).
After all, it’s not all bad news from the land of masculinity. Rates of sexual violence have fallen 63 percent since 1993, according to statistics from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, and as scholar Steven Pinker recently observed: “Despite recent attention, workplace sexual harassment has declined over time: from 6.1 percent of GSS [General Social Survey] respondents in 2002 to 3.6 percent in 2014. Too high, but there’s been progress, which can continue.”
Still, many men have taken this cultural moment as an opportunity to reflect on their own understanding of masculinity. In the New York Times, essayist Stephen Marche fretted about the “unexamined brutality of the male libido” and echoed Catharine MacKinnon when he asked, “How can healthy sexuality ever occur in conditions in which men and women are not equal?” He would have done better to ask how we can raise boys who will become men who behave honorably toward women. And how do we even raise boys to become honorable men in a culture that no longer recognizes and rewards honor?
The answers to those questions aren’t immediately clear. But one thing that will make answering them even harder is the promotion of the idea of “toxic masculinity.” New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently argued that “we have to re-examine our toxic, privileged, encroaching masculinity itself. And yes, that also means on some level reimagining the rules of attraction.” But the whole point of the phrase “rules of attraction” is to highlight that there aren’t any and never have been (if you have any doubts, read the 1987 Bret Easton Ellis novel that popularized the phrase). Blow’s lectures about “toxic masculinity” are meant to sow self-doubt in men and thus encourage some enlightened form of masculinity, but that won’t end sexual harassment any more than Lysistrata-style refusal by women to have sex will end war.
Parents should be teaching their sons about personal boundaries and consent from a young age, just as they teach their daughters, and unequivocally condemn raunchy and threatening remarks about women, whether they are uttered by a talk-radio host or by the president of the United States. The phrase “that isn’t how decent men behave” should be something every parent utters.
But such efforts are made more difficult by a liberal culture that has decided to equate caddish behavior with assault precisely because it has rejected the strict norms that used to hold sway—the old conservative norms that regarded any transgression against them as a seriousviolation and punished it accordingly. Instead, in an effort to be a kinder, gentler, more “woke” society that’s understanding of everyone’s differences, we’ve ended up arbitrarily picking and choosing among the various forms of questionable behavior for which we will have no tolerance, all the while failing to come to terms with the costs of living in such a society. A culture that hangs the accused first and asks questions later might have its virtues, but psychological understanding is not one of them.
And so we come back to sex and our muddled understanding of its place in society. Is it a meaningless pleasure you’re supposed to enjoy with as many people as possible before settling down and marrying? Or is it something more important than that? Is it something that you feel empowered to handle in Riot Grrrl fashion, or is getting groped once by a pervy co-worker something that prompts decades of nightmares and declarations that you will “never be the same”? How can we condemn people like Senator Al Franken, whose implicit self-defense is that it’s no big deal to cop a feel every so often, when our culture constantly offers up women like comedian Amy Schumer or Abbi and Ilana of the sketch show Broad City, who argue that women can and should be as filthy and degenerate as the most degenerate guy?
Perhaps it’s progress that the downfall of powerful men who engage in inappropriate sexual behavior is no longer called a “bimbo eruption,” as it was in the days of Bill Clinton, and that the men who harassed or assaulted women are facing the end of their careers and, in some cases, prison. But this is not the great awakening that so many observers have claimed it is. Awakenings need tent preachers to inspire and eager audiences to participate; our #MeToo moment has plenty of those. What it doesn’t have, unless we can agree on new norms for sexual behavior both inside and outside the workplace, is a functional theology that might cultivate believers who will actually practice what they preach.
That functional theology is out of our reach. Which means this moment is just that—a moment. It will die down, impossible though it seems at present. And every 10 or 15 years a new harassment scandal will spark widespread outrage, and we will declare that a new moment of reckoning and realization has emerged. After which the stories will again die down and very little will have changed.
No one wants to admit this. It’s much more satisfying to see the felling of so many powerful men as a tectonic cultural shift, another great leap forward toward equality between the sexes. But it isn’t, because the kind of asexual equality between the genders imagined by those most eager to celebrate our #MeToo moment has never been one most people embrace. It’s one that willfully overlooks significant differences between the sexes and assumes that thoughtful people can still agree on norms of sexual behavior.
They can’t. And they won’t.
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The U.S. will endanger itself if it accedes to Russian and Chinese efforts to change the international system to their liking
A “sphere of influence” is traditionally understood as a geographical zone within which the most powerful actor can impose its will. And nearly three decades after the close of the superpower struggle that Churchill’s speech heralded, spheres of influence are back. At both ends of the Eurasian landmass, the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia are carving out areas of privileged influence—geographic buffer zones in which they exercise diplomatic, economic, and military primacy. China and Russia are seeking to coerce and overawe their neighbors. They are endeavoring to weaken the international rules and norms—and the influence of opposing powers—that stand athwart their ambitions in their respective “near abroads.” Chinese island-building and maritime expansionism in the South China Sea and Russian aggression in Ukraine and intimidation of the Baltic states are part and parcel of the quasi-imperial projects these revisionist regional powers are now pursuing.
Historically speaking, a world made up of rival spheres is more the norm than the exception. Yet such a world is in sharp tension with many of the key tenets of the American foreign-policy tradition—and with the international order that the United States has labored to construct and maintain since the end of World War II.
To be sure, Washington carved out its own spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere beginning in the 19th century, and America’s myriad alliance blocs in key overseas regions are effectively spheres by another name. And today, some international-relations observers have welcomed the return of what the foreign-policy analyst Michael Lind has recently called “blocpolitik,” hoping that it might lead to a more peaceful age of multilateral equilibrium.
But for more than two centuries, American leaders have generally opposed the idea of a world divided into rival spheres of influence and have worked hard to deny other powers their own. And a reversion to a world dominated by great powers and their spheres of influence would thus undo some of the strongest traditions in American foreign policy and take the international system back to a darker, more dangerous era.I n an extreme form, a sphere of influence can take the shape of direct imperial or colonial control. Yet there are also versions in which a leading power forgoes direct military or administrative domination of its neighbors but nonetheless exerts geopolitical, economic, and ideological influence. Whatever their form, spheres of influence reflect two dominant imperatives of great-power politics in an anarchic world: the need for security vis-à-vis rival powers and the desire to shape a nation’s immediate environment to its benefit. Indeed, great powers have throughout history pursued spheres of influence to provide a buffer against the encroachment of other hostile actors and to foster the conditions conducive to their own security and well-being.
The Persian Empire, Athens and Sparta, and Rome all carved out domains of dominance. The Chinese tribute system—which combined geopolitical control with the spread of Chinese norms and ideas—profoundly shaped the trajectory of East Asia for hundreds of years. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the British Empire, Japan’s East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the Soviet bloc.
America, too, has played the spheres-of-influence game. From the early-19th century onward, American officials strove for preeminence in the Western Hemisphere—first by running other European powers off much of the North American continent and then by pushing them out of Latin America. With the Monroe Doctrine, first enunciated in 1823, America staked its claim to geopolitical primacy from Canada to the Southern Cone. Over the succeeding generations, Washington worked to achieve military dominance in that area, to tie the countries of the Western Hemisphere to America geopolitically and economically, and even to help pick the rulers of countries from Mexico to Brazil.
If this wasn’t a sphere of influence, nothing was. In 1895, Secretary of State Richard Olney declared that “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” After World War II, moreover, a globally predominant United States steadily expanded its influence into Europe through NATO, into East Asia through various military alliances, and into the Middle East through a web of defense, diplomatic, and political arrangements. The story of global politics over the past 200 years has, in large part, been the story of expanding U.S. influence.
Nonetheless, there has always been something ambivalent—critics would say hypocritical—about American views of this matter. For as energetic as Washington has been in constructing its geopolitical domain, a “spheres-of-influence world” is in perpetual tension with four strong intellectual traditions in U.S. strategy. These are hegemony, liberty, openness, and exceptionalism.
First, hegemony. The myth of America as an innocent isolationist country during its first 170 years is powerful and enduring; it’s also wrong. From the outset, American statesmen understood that the country’s favorable geography, expanding population, and enviable resource endowments gave it the potential to rival, and ultimately overtake, the European states that dominated world politics. America might be a fledgling republic, George Washington said, but it would one day attain “the strength of a giant.” From the revolution onward, American officials worried, with good reason, that France, Spain, and the United Kingdom would use their North American territories to strangle or contain the young republic. Much of early American diplomacy was therefore geared toward depriving the European powers of their North American possessions, using measures from coercive diplomacy to outright wars of conquest. “The world shall have to be familiarized with the idea of considering our proper dominion to be the continent of North America,” wrote John Quincy Adams in 1819. The only regional sphere of influence that Americans would accept as legitimate was their own.
By the late-19th century, the same considerations were pushing Americans to target spheres of influence further abroad. As the industrial revolution progressed, it became clear that geography alone might not protect the nation. Aggressive powers could now generate sufficient military strength to dominate large swaths of Europe or East Asia and then harness the accumulated resources to threaten the United States. Moreover, as America itself became an increasingly mighty country that sought to project its influence overseas, its leaders naturally objected to its rivals’ efforts to establish their own preserves from which Washington would be excluded. If much of America’s 19th-century diplomacy was dedicated to denying other powers spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere, much of the country’s 20th-century diplomacy was an effort to break up or deny rival spheres of influence in Europe and East Asia.
From the Open Door policy, which sought to prevent imperial powers from carving up China, to U.S. intervention in the world wars, to the confrontation with the Soviet Empire in the Cold War, the United States repeatedly acted on the belief that it could be neither as secure nor influential as it desired in a world divided up and dominated by rival nations. The American geopolitical tradition, in other words, has long contained a built-in hostility to other countries’ spheres of influence.
The American ideological tradition shares this sense of preeminence, as reflected in the second key tenet: liberty. America’s founding generation did not see the revolution merely as the birth of a future superpower; they saw it as a catalyst for spreading political liberty far and wide. Thomas Paine proclaimed in 1775 that Americans could “begin the world anew”; John Quincy Adams predicted, several decades later, that America’s liberal ideology was “destined to cover the surface of the globe.” Here, too, the new nation was not cursed with excessive modesty—and here, too, the existence of rival spheres of influence threatened this ambition.
Rival spheres of influence—particularly within the Western Hemisphere—imperiled the survival of liberty at home. If the United States were merely one great power among many on the North American continent, the founding generation worried, it would be forced to maintain a large standing military establishment and erect a sort of 18th-century “garrison state.” Living in perpetual conflict and vigilance, in turn, would corrode the very freedoms for which the revolution had been fought. “No nation,” wrote James Madison, “can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Just as Madison argued, in Federalist No. 10, that “extending the sphere”—expanding the republic—was a way of safeguarding republicanism at home, expanding America’s geopolitical domain was essential to providing the external security that a liberal polity required to survive.
Rival spheres of influence also constrained the prospects for liberty abroad. Although the question of whether the United States should actively support democratic revolutions overseas has been a source of unending controversy, virtually all American strategists have agreed that the country would be more secure and influential in a world where democracy was widespread. Given this mindset, Americans could hardly be desirous of foreign powers—particularly authoritarian powers—establishing formidable spheres of influence that would allow them to dominate the international system or suppress liberal ideals. The Monroe Doctrine was a response to the geopolitical dangers inherent in renewed imperial control of South America; it was also a response to the ideological danger posed by European nations that would “extend the political system to any portion” of the Western Hemisphere. Similar concerns have been at the heart of American opposition to the British Empire and the Soviet bloc.
Economic openness, the third core dynamic of American policy, has long served as a commercial counterpart to America’s ideological proselytism. Influenced as much by Adam Smith as by Alexander Hamilton, early American statecraft promoted free trade, neutral rights, and open markets, both to safeguard liberty and enrich a growing nation. This mission has depended on access to the world’s seas and markets. When that access was circumscribed—by the British in 1812 and by the Germans in 1917—Americans went to war to preserve it. It is unsurprising, then, that Americans also looked askance at efforts by other powers to establish areas that might be walled off from U.S. trade and investment—and from the spread of America’s capitalist ideology.
A brief list of robust policy endeavors underscores the persistent U.S. hostility to an economically closed, spheres-of-influence world: the Model Treaty of 1776, designed to promote free and reciprocal trade; John Hay’s Open Door policy of 1899, designed to prevent any outside power from dominating trade with China; Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy in his “14 Points” speech of 1918 for the removal “of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all nations”; and the focus of the 1941 Atlantic Charter on reducing trade restrictions while promoting international economic cooperation (assuming the allies would emerge triumphant from World War II).
Fourth and finally, there’s exceptionalism. Americans have long believed that their nation was created not simply to replicate the practices of the Old World, but to revolutionize how states and peoples interact with one another. The United States, in this view, was not merely another great power out for its own self-interest. It was a country that, by virtue of its republican ideals, stood for the advancement of universal rights, and one that rejected the back-alley methods of monarchical diplomacy in favor of a more principled statecraft. When Abraham Lincoln said America represented “the last best hope of earth,” or when Woodrow Wilson scorned secret agreements in favor of “open covenants arrived at openly,” they demonstrated this exceptionalist strain in American thinking. There is some hypocrisy here, of course, for the United States has often acted in precisely the self-interested, cutthroat manner its statesmen deplored. Nonetheless, American exceptionalism has had a pronounced effect on American conduct.
Compare how Washington led its Western European allies during the Cold War—the extent to which NATO rested on the authentic consent of its members, the way the United States consistently sought to empower rather than dominate its partners—with how Moscow managed its empire in Eastern Europe. In the same way, Americans have often recoiled from arrangements that reeked of the old diplomacy. Franklin Roosevelt might have tolerated a Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe after World War II, for instance, but he knew he could not admit this publicly. Likewise, the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which required Washington to acknowledge the diplomatic legitimacy of the Soviet sphere, proved controversial inside the United States because they seemed to represent just the sort of cynical, old-school geopolitics that American exceptionalism abhors.
To be clear, U.S. hostility to a spheres-of-influence world has always been leavened with a dose of pragmatism; American leaders have pursued that hostility only so far as power and prudence allowed. The Monroe Doctrine warned European powers to stay out of the Americas, but the quid pro quo was that a young and relatively weak United States would accept, for a time, a sphere of monarchical dominance within Europe. Even during the Cold War, U.S. policymakers generally accepted that Washington could not break up the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe without risking nuclear war.
But these were concessions to expediency. As America gained greater global power, it more actively resisted the acquisition or preservation of spheres by others. From gradually pushing the Old World out of the New, to helping vanquish the German and Japanese Empires by force of arms, to assisting the liquidation of the British Empire after World War II, to containing and ultimately defeating the Soviet bloc, the United States was present at the destruction of spheres of influence possessed by adversaries and allies alike.
The acme of this project came in the quarter-century that followed the Cold War. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself, it was possible to envision a world in which what Thomas Jefferson called America’s “empire of liberty” could attain global dimensions, and traditional spheres of influence would be consigned to history. The goal, as George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy proclaimed, was to “create a balance of power that favors human freedom.” This meant an international environment in which the United States and its values were dominant and there was no balance of power whatsoever.
Under presidents from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama, this project entailed working to spread democracy and economic liberalism farther than ever before. It involved pushing American influence and U.S.-led institutions into regions—such as Eastern Europe—that were previously dominated by other powers. It meant maintaining the military primacy necessary to stop regional powers from establishing new spheres of influence, as Washington did by rolling back Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait in 1990 and by deterring China from coercing Taiwan in 1995–96. Not least, this American project involved seeking to integrate potential rivals—foremost Russia and China—into the post–Cold War order, in hopes of depriving them of even the desire to challenge it. This multifaceted effort reflected the optimism of the post-Cold War era, as well as the influence of tendencies with deep roots in the American past. Yet try as Washington might to permanently leave behind a spheres-of-influence world, that prospect is once again upon us.B egin with China’s actions in the Asia-Pacific region. The sources of Chinese conduct are diverse, ranging from domestic insecurity to the country’s confidence as a rising power to its sense of historical destiny as “the Middle Kingdom.” All these influences animate China’s bid to establish regional mastery. China is working, first, to create a power vacuum by driving the United States out of the Western Pacific, and second, to fill that vacuum with its own influence. A Chinese admiral made this ambition clear when he remarked—supposedly in jest—to an American counterpart that, in the future, the two powers should simply split the Pacific with Hawaii as the dividing line. Yang Jiechi, then China’s foreign minister, echoed this sentiment in a moment of frustration by lecturing the nations of Southeast Asia. “China is a big country,” he said, “and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
Policy has followed rhetoric. To undercut America’s position, Beijing has harassed American ships and planes operating in international waters and airspace. The Chinese have warned U.S. allies they may be caught in the crossfire of a Sino-American war unless Washington accommodates China or the allies cut loose from the United States. China has simultaneously worked to undermine the credibility of U.S. alliance guarantees by using strategies designed to shift the regional status quo in ways even the mighty U.S. Navy finds difficult to counter. Through a mixture of economic aid and diplomatic coercion, Beijing has also successfully divided international bodies, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, through which the United States has sought to rally opposition to Chinese assertiveness. And in the background, China has been steadily building, over the course of more than two decades, formidable military tools designed to keep the United States out of the region and give Beijing a free hand in dealing with its weaker neighbors. As America’s sun sets in the Asia-Pacific, Chinese leaders calculate, the shadow China casts over the region will only grow longer.
To that end, China has claimed, dubiously, nearly all of the South China Sea as its own and constructed artificial islands as staging points for the projection of military power. Military and paramilitary forces have teased, confronted, and violated the sovereignty of countries from Vietnam to the Philippines; China is likewise intensifying the pressure on Japan in the East China Sea. Economically, Beijing uses its muscle to reward those who comply with China’s policies and punish those not willing to bow to its demands. It is simultaneously advancing geoeconomic projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Project (RCEP) that are designed to bring the region into its orbit.
Strikingly, China has also moved away from its long-professed principle of noninterference in other countries’ domestic politics by extending the reach of Chinese propaganda organs and using investment and even bribery to co-opt regional elites. Payoffs to Australian politicians are as critical to China’s regional project as development of “carrier-killer” missiles. Finally, far from subscribing to liberal concepts of democracy and human rights, Beijing emphasizes its rejection of these values and its desire to create “Asia for Asians.” In sum, China is pursuing a classic spheres-of-influence project. By blending intimidation with inducement, Beijing aims to sunder its neighbors’ bonds with America and force them to accept a Sino-centric order—a new Chinese tribute system for the 21st century.A t the other end of Eurasia, Russia is playing geopolitical hardball of a different sort. The idea that Moscow should dominate its “near abroad” is as natural to many Russians as American regional primacy is to Americans. The loss of the Kremlin’s traditional buffer zone was, therefore, one of the most painful legacies of the Cold War’s end. And so it is hardly surprising that, as Russia has regained a degree of strength in recent years, it has sought to reassert its supremacy.
It has done so, in fact, through more overtly aggressive means than those employed by China. Moscow has twice seized opportunities to humiliate and dismember former Soviet republics that committed the sin of tilting toward the West or throwing out pro-Russian leaders, first in Georgia in 2008 and then in Ukraine in 2014. It has regularly reminded its neighbors that they live on Russia’s doorstep, through coercive activities such as conducting cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007 and holding aggressive military exercises on the frontiers of the Baltic states. In the same vein, the Kremlin has essentially claimed a veto over the geopolitical alignments of neighbors from the Caucasus to Scandinavia, whether by creating frozen conflicts on their territory or threatening to target them militarily—perhaps with nuclear weapons—should they join NATO.
Military muscle is not Moscow’s only tool. Russia has simultaneously used energy exports to keep the states on its periphery economically dependent, and it has exported corruption and illiberalism to non-aligned states in the former Warsaw Pact area to prevent further encroachment of liberal values. Not least, the Kremlin has worked to undermine NATO and the European Union through political subversion and intervention in Western electoral processes. And while Russia’s activities are most concentrated in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it’s also projecting its influence farther afield. Russian forces intervened successfully in Syria in 2015 to prop up Bashar al-Assad, preserve access to warm-water ports on the Mediterranean, and demonstrate the improved accuracy and lethality of Russian arms. Moscow continues to make inroads in the Middle East, often in cooperation with another American adversary: Iran.
To be sure, the projects that China and Russia are pursuing today are vastly different from each other, but the core logic is indisputably the same. Authoritarian powers are re-staking their claim to privileged influence in key geostrategic areas.S o what does this mean for American interests? Some observers have argued that the United States should make a virtue of necessity and accept the return of such arrangements. By this logic, spheres of influence create buffer zones between contending great powers; they diffuse responsibility for enforcing order in key areas. Indeed, for those who think that U.S. policy has left the country exhausted and overextended, a return to a world in which America no longer has the burden of being the dominant power in every region may seem attractive. The great sin of American policy after the Cold War, many realist scholars argue, was the failure to recognize that even a weakened Russia would demand privileged influence along its frontiers and thus be unalterably opposed to NATO expansion. Similarly, they lament the failure to understand that China would not forever tolerate U.S. dominance along its own periphery. It is not surprising, then, to hear analysts such as Australia’s Hugh White or America’s John Mearsheimer argue that the United States should learn to “share power” with China in the Pacific, or that it must yield ground in Eastern Europe in order to avoid war with Russia.
Such claims are not meritless; there are instances in which spheres of influence led to a degree of stability. The division of Europe into rival blocs fostered an ugly sort of stasis during the Cold War; closer to home, America’s dominance in the Western Hemisphere has long muted geopolitical competition in our own neighborhood. For all the problems associated with European empires, they often partially succeeded in limiting scourges such as communal violence.
And yet the allure of a spheres-of-influence world is largely an illusion, for such a world would threaten U.S. interests, traditions, and values in several ways.
First, basic human rights and democratic values would be less respected. China and Russia are not liberal democracies; they are illiberal autocracies that see the spread of democratic values as profoundly corrosive to their own authority and security. Just as the United States has long sought to create a world congenial to its own ideological predilections, Beijing and Moscow would certainly do likewise within their spheres of dominance.
They would, presumably, bring their influence to bear in support of friendly authoritarian regimes. And they would surely undermine democratic governments seen to pose a threat of ideological contagion or insubordination to Russian or Chinese prerogatives. Russia has taken steps to prevent the emergence of a Western-facing democracy in Ukraine and to undermine liberal democracies in Europe and elsewhere; China is snuffing out political freedoms in Hong Kong. Such actions offer a preview of what we will see when these countries are indisputably dominant along their peripheries. Further aggressions, in turn, would not simply be offensive to America’s ideological sensibilities. For given that the spread of democracy has been central to the absence of major interstate war in recent decades, and that the spread of American values has made the U.S. more secure and influential, a less democratic world will also be a more dangerous world.
Second, a spheres-of-influence world would be less open to American commerce and investment. After all, the United States itself saw geoeconomic dominance in Latin America as the necessary counterpart to geopolitical dominance. Why would China take a less self-interested approach? China already reaps the advantages of an open global economy even as it embraces protectionism and mercantilism. In a Chinese-dominated East Asia, all economic roads will surely lead to Beijing, as Chinese officials will be able to use their leverage to ensure that trade and investment flows are oriented toward China and geopolitical competitors like the United States are left on the outside. Beijing’s current geoeconomic projects—namely, RCEP and the Belt and Road Initiative—offer insight into a regional economic future in which flows of commerce and investment are subject to heavy Chinese influence.
Third, as spheres of influence reemerge, the United States will be less able to shape critical geopolitical events in crucial regions. The reason Washington has long taken an interest in events in faraway places is that East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East are the areas from which major security challenges have emerged in the past. Since World War II, America’s forward military presence has been intended to suppress incipient threats and instability; that presence has gone hand in glove with energetic diplomacy that amplifies America’s voice and protects U.S. interests. In a spheres-of-influence world, Washington would no longer enjoy the ability to act with decisive effect in these regions; it would find itself reacting to global events rather than molding them.
This leads to a final, and crucial, issue. America would be more likely to find its core security interests challenged because world orders based on rival spheres of influence have rarely been as peaceful and settled as one might imagine.
To see this, just work backward from the present. During the Cold War, a bipolar balance did help avert actual war between Moscow and Washington. But even in Europe—where the spheres of influence were best defined—there were continual tensions and crises as Moscow tested the Western bloc. And outside Europe, violence and proxy wars were common as the superpowers competed to extend their reach into the Third World. In the 1930s, the emergence of German and Japanese spheres of influence led to the most catastrophic war in global history. The empires of the 19th century—spheres of influence in their own right—continually jostled one another, leading to wars and near-wars over the course of decades; the Peace of Amiens between England and Napoleonic France lasted a mere 14 months. And looking back to the ancient world, there were not one, but three Punic Wars fought between Rome and Carthage as two expanding empires came into conflict. A world defined by spheres of influence is often a world characterized by tensions, wars, and competition.
The reasons for this are simple. As the political scientist William Wohlforth observed, unipolar systems—such as the U.S.-dominated post–Cold War order—are anchored by a hegemonic power that can act decisively to maintain the peace. In a unipolar system, Wohlforth writes, there are few incentives for revisionist powers to incur the “focused enmity” of the leading state. Truly multipolar systems, by contrast, have often been volatile. When the major powers are more evenly matched, there is a greater temptation to aggression by those who seek to change the existing order of things. And seek to change things they undoubtedly will.
The idea that spheres of influence are stabilizing holds only if one assumes that the major powers are motivated only by insecurity and that concessions to the revisionists will therefore lead to peace. Churchill described this as the idea that if one “feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.”
Unfortunately, today’s rising or resurgent powers are also motivated—as is America—by honor, ambition, and the timeless desire to make their international habitats reflect their own interests and ideals. It is a risky gamble indeed, then, to think that ceding Russia or China an uncontested sphere of influence would turn a revisionist authoritarian regime into a satisfied power. The result, as Robert Kagan has noted, might be to embolden those actors all the more, by giving them freer rein to bring their near-abroads under control, greater latitude and resources to pursue their ambitions, and enhanced confidence that the U.S.-led order is fracturing at its foundations. For China, dominance over the first island chain might simply intensify desires to achieve primacy in the second island chain and beyond; for Russia, renewed mastery in the former Soviet space could lead to desires to bring parts of the former Warsaw Pact to heel, as well. To observe how China is developing ever longer-range anti-access/area denial capabilities, or how Russia has been projecting military power ever farther afield, is to see this process in action.T he reemergence of a spheres-of-influence world would thus undercut one of the great historical achievements of U.S. foreign policy: the creation of a system in which America is the dominant power in each major geopolitical region and can act decisively to shape events and protect its interests. It would foster an environment in which democratic values are less prominent, authoritarian models are ascendant, and mercantilism advances as economic openness recedes. And rather than leading to multipolar stability, this change could simply encourage greater revisionism on the part of powers whose appetite grows with the eating. This would lead the world away from the relative stability of the post–Cold War era and back into the darker environment it seemed to have relegated to history a quarter-century ago. The phrase “spheres of influence” may sound vaguely theoretical and benign, but its real-world effects are likely to be tangible and pernicious.
Fortunately, the return of a spheres-of-influence world is not yet inevitable. Even as some nations will accept incorporation into a Chinese or Russian sphere of influence as the price of avoiding conflict, or maintaining access to critical markets and resources, others will resist because they see their own well-being as dependent on the preservation of the world order that Washington has long worked to create. The Philippines and Cambodia seem increasingly to fall into the former group; Poland and Japan, among many others, make up the latter. The willingness of even this latter group to take actions that risk incurring Beijing and Moscow’s wrath, however, will be constantly calibrated against an assessment of America’s own ability to continue leading the resistance to a spheres-of-influence world. Averting that outcome is becoming steadily harder, as the relative power and ambition of America’s authoritarian rivals rise and U.S. leadership seems to falter.
Harder, but not impossible. The United States and its allies still command a significant preponderance of global wealth and power. And the political, economic, and military weaknesses of its challengers are legion. It is far from fated, then, that the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe will slip into China’s and Russia’s respective orbits. With sufficient creativity and determination, Washington and its partners might still be able to resist the return of a dangerous global system. Doing so will require difficult policy work in the military, economic, and diplomatic realms. But ideas precede policy, and so simply rediscovering the venerable tradition of American hostility to spheres of influence—and no less, the powerful logic on which that tradition is based—would be a good start.
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What does the man with the baton actually do?
Why, then, are virtually all modern professional orchestras led by well-paid conductors instead of performing on their own? It’s an interesting question. After all, while many celebrity conductors are highly trained and knowledgeable, there have been others, some of them legendary, whose musical abilities were and are far more limited. It was no secret in the world of classical music that Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony from 1924 to 1949, found it difficult to read full orchestral scores and sometimes learned how to lead them in public by first practicing with a pair of rehearsal pianists whom he “conducted” in private.
Yet recordings show that Koussevitzky’s interpretations of such complicated pieces of music as Aaron Copland’s El Salón México and Maurice Ravel’s orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (both of which he premiered and championed) were immensely characterful and distinctive. What made them so? Was it the virtuosic playing of the Boston Symphony alone? Or did Koussevitzky also bring something special to these performances—and if so, what was it?
Part of what makes this question so tricky to answer is that scarcely any well-known conductors have spoken or written in detail about what they do. Only two conductors of the first rank, Thomas Beecham and Bruno Walter, have left behind full-length autobiographies, and neither one features a discussion of its author’s technical methods. For this reason, the publication of John Mauceri’s Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting will be of special interest to those who, like my friend, wonder exactly what it is that conductors contribute to the performances that they lead.1
An impeccable musical journeyman best known for his lively performances of film music with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Mauceri has led most of the world’s top orchestras. He writes illuminatingly about his work in Maestros and Their Music, leavening his discussions of such matters as the foibles of opera directors and music critics with sharply pointed, sometimes gossipy anecdotes. Most interesting of all, though, are the chapters in which he talks about what conductors do on the podium. To read Maestros and Their Music is to come away with a much clearer understanding of what its author calls the “strange and lawless world” of conducting—and to understand how conductors whose technique is deficient to the point of seeming incompetence can still give exciting performances.P rior to the 19th century, conductors of the modern kind did not exist. Orchestras were smaller then—most of the ensembles that performed Mozart’s symphonies and operas contained anywhere from two to three dozen players—and their concerts were “conducted” either by the leader of the first violins or by the orchestra’s keyboard player.
As orchestras grew larger in response to the increasing complexity of 19th-century music, however, it became necessary for a full-time conductor both to rehearse them and to control their public performances, normally by standing on a podium placed in front of the musicians and beating time in the air with a baton. Most of the first men to do so were composers, including Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Wagner. By the end of the century, however, it was becoming increasingly common for musicians to specialize in conducting, and some of them, notably Arthur Nikisch and Arturo Toscanini, came to be regarded as virtuosos in their own right. Since then, only three important composers—Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, and Pierre Boulez—have also pursued parallel careers as world-class conductors. Every other major conductor of the 20th century was a specialist.
What did these men do in front of an orchestra? Mauceri’s description of the basic physical process of conducting is admirably straightforward:
The right hand beats time; that is, it sets the tempo or pulse of the music. It can hold a baton. The left hand turns pages [in the orchestral score], cues instrumentalists with an invitational or pointing gesture, and generally indicates the quality of the notes (percussive, smoothly linked, sustained, etc.).
Beyond these elements, though, all bets are off. Most of the major conductors of the 20th century were filmed in performance, and what one sees in these films is so widely varied that it is impossible to generalize about what constitutes a good conducting technique.2 Most of them used batons, but several, including Boulez and Leopold Stokowski, conducted with their bare hands. Bernstein and Beecham gestured extravagantly, even wildly, while others, most famously Fritz Reiner, restricted themselves to tightly controlled hand movements. Toscanini beat time in a flowing, beautifully expressive way that made his musical intentions self-evident, but Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan often conducted so unclearly that it is hard to see how the orchestras they led were able to follow them. (One exasperated member of the London Philharmonic claimed, partly in jest, that Furtwängler’s baton signaled the start of a piece “only after the thirteenth preliminary wiggle.”) Conductors of the Furtwängler sort tend to be at their best in front of orchestras with which they have worked for many years and whose members have learned from experience to “speak” their gestural language fluently.
Nevertheless, all of these men were pursuing the same musical goals. Beyond stopping and starting a given piece, it is the job of a conductor to decide how it will be interpreted. How loud should the middle section of the first movement be—and ought the violins to be playing a bit softer so as not to drown out the flutes? Someone must answer questions such as these if a performance is not to sound indecisive or chaotic, and it is far easier for one person to do so than for 100 people to vote on each decision.
Above all, a conductor controls the tempo of a performance, varying it from moment to moment as he sees fit. It is impossible for a full-sized symphony orchestra to play a piece with any degree of rhythmic flexibility unless a conductor is controlling the performance from the podium. Bernstein put it well when he observed in a 1955 TV special that “the conductor is a kind of sculptor whose element is time instead of marble.” These “sculptural” decisions are subjective, since traditional musical notation cannot be matched with exactitude. As Mauceri reminds us, Toscanini and Beecham both recorded La Bohème, having previously discussed their interpretations with Giacomo Puccini, the opera’s composer, and Toscanini conducted its 1896 premiere. Yet Beecham’s performance is 14 minutes longer than Toscanini’s. Who is “right”? It is purely a matter of individual taste, since both interpretations are powerfully persuasive.
Beyond the not-so-basic task of setting, maintaining, and varying tempos, it is the job of a conductor to inspire an orchestra—to make its members play with a charged precision that transcends mere unanimity. The first step in doing so is to persuade the players of his musical competence. If he cannot run a rehearsal efficiently, they will soon grow bored and lose interest; if he does not know the score in detail, they will not take him seriously. This requires extensive preparation on the part of the conductor, and an orchestra can tell within seconds of the downbeat whether he is adequately prepared—a fact that every conductor knows. “I’m extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do,” Bernstein once told an interviewer. “I work extremely hard and all the time.”
All things being equal, it is better than not for a conductor to have a clear technique, if only because it simplifies and streamlines the process of rehearsing an orchestra. Fritz Reiner, who taught Bernstein among others, did not exaggerate when he claimed that he and his pupils could “stand up [in front of] an orchestra they have never seen before and conduct correctly a new piece at first sight without verbal explanation and by means only of manual technique.”
While orchestra players prefer this kind of conducting, a conductor need not have a technique as fully developed as that of a Reiner or Bernstein if he knows how to rehearse effectively. Given sufficient rehearsal time, decisive and unambiguous verbal instructions will produce the same results as a virtuoso stick technique. This was how Willem Mengelberg and George Szell distinguished themselves on the podium. Their techniques were no better than adequate, but they rehearsed so meticulously that their performances were always brilliant and exact.
It also helps to supply the members of the orchestra with carefully marked orchestra parts. Beecham’s manual technique was notoriously messy, but he marked his musical intentions into each player’s part so clearly and precisely that simply reading the music on the stand would produce most of the effects that he desired.
What players do not like is to be lectured. They want to be told what to do and, if absolutely necessary, how to do it, at which point the wise conductor will stop talking and start conducting. Mauceri recalls the advice given to a group of student conductors by Joseph Silverstein, the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony: “Don’t talk to us about blue skies. Just tell us ‘longer-shorter,’ ‘faster-slower,’ ‘higher-lower.’” Professional musicians cannot abide flowery speeches about the inner meaning of a piece of music, though they will readily respond to a well-turned metaphor. Mauceri makes this point with a Toscanini anecdote:
One of Toscanini’s musicians told me of a moment in a rehearsal when the sound the NBC Symphony was giving him was too heavy. … In this case, without saying a word, he reached into his pocket and took out his silk handkerchief, tossed it into the air, and everyone watched it slowly glide to earth. After seeing that, the orchestra played the same passage exactly as Toscanini wanted.
Conducting, like all acts of leadership, is in large part a function of character. The violinist Carl Flesch went so far as to call it “the only musical activity in which a dash of charlatanism is not only harmless, but positively necessary.” While that is putting it too cynically, Flesch was on to something. I did a fair amount of conducting in college, but even though I practiced endlessly in front of a mirror and spent hours poring over my scores, I lacked the personal magnetism without which no conductor can hope to be more than merely competent at best.
On the other hand, a talented musician with a sufficiently compelling personality can turn himself into a conductor more or less overnight. Toscanini had never conducted an orchestra before making his unrehearsed debut in a performance of Verdi’s Aida at the age of 19, yet the players hastened to do his musical bidding. I once saw the modern-dance choreographer Mark Morris, whose knowledge of classical music is profound, lead a chorus and orchestra in the score to Gloria, a dance he had made in 1981 to a piece by Vivaldi. It was no stunt: Morris used a baton and a score and controlled the performance with the assurance of a seasoned pro. Not only did he have a strong personality, but he had also done his musical homework, and he knew that one was as important as the other.
The reverse, however, is no less true: The success of conductors like Serge Koussevitzky is at least as much a function of their personalities as of their preparation. To be sure, Koussevitzky had been an instrumental virtuoso (he played the double bass) before taking up conducting, but everyone who worked with him in later years was aware of his musical limitations. Yet he was still capable of imposing his larger-than-life personality on players who might well have responded indifferently to his conducting had he been less charismatic. Leopold Stokowski functioned in much the same way. He was widely thought by his peers to have been far more a showman than an artist, to the point that Toscanini contemptuously dismissed him as a “clown.” But he had, like Koussevitzky, a richly romantic musical imagination coupled with the showmanship of a stage actor, and so the orchestras that he led, however skeptical they might be about his musical seriousness, did whatever he wanted.
All great conductors share this same ability to impose their will on an orchestra—and that, after all, is the heart of the matter. A conductor can be effective only if the orchestra does what he wants. It is not like a piano, whose notes automatically sound when the keys are pressed, but a living organism with a will of its own. Conducting, then, is first and foremost an act of persuasion, as Mauceri acknowledges:
The person who stands before a symphony orchestra is charged with something both impossible and improbable. The impossible part is herding a hundred musicians to agree on something, and the improbable part is that one does it by waving one’s hands in the air.
This is why so many famous conductors have claimed that the art of conducting cannot be taught. In the deepest sense, they are right. To be sure, it is perfectly possible, as Reiner did, to teach the rudiments of clear stick technique and effective rehearsal practice. But the mystery at the heart of conducting is, indeed, unteachable: One cannot tell a budding young conductor how to cultivate a magnetic personality, any more than an actor can be taught how to have star quality. What sets the Bernsteins and Bogarts of the world apart from the rest of us is very much like what James M. Barrie said of feminine charm in What Every Woman Knows: “If you have it, you don’t need to have anything else; and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t much matter what else you have.”
2 Excerpts from many of these films were woven together into a two-part BBC documentary, The Art of Conducting, which is available on home video and can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube
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Not that he tries. What was remarkable about the condescension in this instance was that Franken directed it at women who accused him of behaving “inappropriately” toward them. (In an era of strictly enforced relativism, we struggle to find our footing in judging misbehavior, so we borrow words from the prissy language of etiquette. The mildest and most common rebuke is unfortunate, followed by the slightly more serious inappropriate, followed by the ultimate reproach: unacceptable, which, depending on the context, can include both attempted rape and blowing your nose into your dinner napkin.) Franken’s inappropriateness entailed, so to speak, squeezing the bottoms of complete strangers, and cupping the occasional breast.
Franken himself did not use the word “inappropriate.” By his account, he had done nothing to earn the title. His earlier vague denials of the allegations, he told his fellow senators, “gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done.” How could he have confused people about such an important matter? Doggone it, it’s that damn sensitivity of his. The nation was beginning a conversation about sexual harassment—squeezing strangers’ bottoms, stuff like that—and “I wanted to be respectful of that broader conversation because all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.”
Well, not all women. The women with those bottoms and breasts he supposedly manhandled, for example—their experiences don’t deserve to be taken seriously. We’ve got Al’s word on it. “Some of the allegations against me are not true,” he said. “Others, I remember very differently.” His accusers, in other words, fall into one of two camps: the liars and the befuddled. You know how women can be sometimes. It might be a hormonal thing.
But enough about them, Al seemed to be saying: Let’s get back to Al. “I know the work I’ve been able to do has improved people’s lives,” Franken said, but he didn’t want to get into any specifics. “I have used my power to be a champion of women.” He has faith in his “proud legacy of progressive advocacy.” He’s been passionate and worked hard—not for himself, mind you, but for his home state of Minnesota, by which he’s “blown away.” And yes, he would get tired or discouraged or frustrated once in a while. But then that big heart of his would well up: “I would think about the people I was doing this for, and it would get me back on my feet.” Franken recently published a book about himself: Giant of the Senate. I had assumed the title was ironic. Now I’m not sure.
Yet even in his flights of self-love, the problem that has ever attended Senator Franken was still there. You can’t take him seriously. He looks as though God made him to be a figure of fun. Try as he might, his aspect is that of a man who is going to try to make you laugh, and who is built for that purpose and no other—a close cousin to Bert Lahr or Chris Farley. And for years, of course, that’s the part he played in public life, as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live. When he announced nine years ago that he would return to Minnesota and run for the Senate—when he came out of the closet and tried to present himself as a man of substance—the effect was so disorienting that I, and probably many others, never quite recovered. As a comedian-turned-politician, he was no longer the one and could never quite become the other.
The chubby cheeks and the perpetual pucker, the slightly crossed eyes behind Coke-bottle glasses, the rounded, diminutive torso straining to stay upright under the weight of an enormous head—he was the very picture of Comedy Boy, and suddenly he wanted to be something else: Politics Boy. I have never seen the famously tasteless tearjerker The Day the Clown Cried, in which Jerry Lewis stars as a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, but I’m sure watching it would be a lot like watching the ex-funnyman Franken deliver a speech about farm price supports.
Then he came to Washington and slipped right into place. His career is testament to a dreary fact of life here: Taken in the mass, senators are pretty much interchangeable. Party discipline determines nearly every vote they cast. Only at the margins is one Democrat or Republican different in a practical sense from another Democrat or Republican. Some of us held out hope, despite the premonitory evidence, that Franken might use his professional gifts in service of his new job. Yet so desperate was he to be taken seriously that he quickly passed serious and swung straight into obnoxious. It was a natural fit. In no time at all, he mastered the senatorial art of asking pointless or showy questions in committee hearings, looming from his riser over fumbling witnesses and hollering “Answer the question!” when they didn’t respond properly.
It’s not hard to be a good senator, if you have the kind of personality that frees you to simulate chumminess with people you scarcely know or have never met and will probably never see again. There’s not much to it. A senator has a huge staff to satisfy his every need. There are experts to give him brief, personal tutorials on any subject he will be asked about, writers to write his questions for his committee hearings and an occasional op-ed if an idea strikes him, staffers to arrange his travel and drive him here or there, political aides to guard his reputation with the folks back home, press aides to regulate his dealings with reporters, and legislative aides to write the bills should he ever want to introduce any. The rest is show biz.
Oddly, Franken was at his worst precisely when he was handling the show-biz aspects of his job. While his inquisitions in committee hearings often showed the obligatory ferocity and indignation, he could also appear baffled and aimless. His speeches weren’t much good, and he didn’t deliver them well. As if to prove the point, he published a collection of them earlier this year, Speaking Franken. Until Pearl Harbor, he’d been showing signs of wanting to run for president. Liberal pundits were talking him up as a national candidate. Speaking Franken was likely intended to do for him what Profiles in Courage did for John Kennedy, another middling senator with presidential longings. Unfortunately for Franken, Ted Sorensen is still dead.
The final question raised by Franken’s resignation is why so many fellow Democrats urged him to give up his seat so suddenly, once his last accuser came forward. The consensus view involved Roy Moore, in those dark days when he was favored to win Alabama’s special election. With the impending arrival of an accused pedophile on the Republican side of the aisle, Democrats didn’t want an accused sexual harasser in their own ranks to deflect what promised to be a relentless focus on the GOP’s newest senator. This is bad news for any legacy Franken once hoped for himself. None of his work as a senator will commend him to history. He will be remembered instead for two things: as a minor TV star, and as Roy Moore’s oldest victim.
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Review of 'Lioness' By Francine Klagsbrun
Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister, moved to Palestine from America in 1921, at the age of 22, to pursue Socialist Zionism. She was instrumental in transforming the Jewish people into a state; signed that state’s Declaration of Independence; served as its first ambassador to the Soviet Union, as labor minister for seven years, and as foreign minister for a decade. In 1969, she became the first female head of state in the Western world, serving from the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War and through the nearly catastrophic but ultimately victorious 1973 Yom Kippur War. She resigned in 1974 at the age of 76, after five years as prime minister. Her involvement at the forefront of Zionism and the leadership of Israel thus extended more than half a century.
This is the second major biography of Golda Meir in the last decade, after Elinor Burkett’s excellent Golda in 2008. Klagsbrun’s portrait is even grander in scope. Her epigraph comes from Ezekiel’s lamentation for Israel: What a lioness was your mother / Among the lions! / Crouching among the great beasts / She reared her cubs. The “mother” was Israel; the “cubs,” her many ancient kings; the “great beasts,” the hostile nations surrounding her. One finishes Klagsbrun’s monumental volume, which is both a biography of Golda and a biography of Israel in her time, with a deepened sense that modern Israel, its prime ministers, and its survival is a story of biblical proportions.Golda Meir’s story spans three countries—Russia, America, and Israel. Before she was Golda Meir, she was Golda Meyerson; and before that, she was Golda Mabovitch, born in 1898 in Kiev in the Russian Empire. Her father left for America after the horrific Kishinev pogrom in 1903, found work in Milwaukee as a carpenter, and in 1906 sent for his wife and three daughters, who escaped using false identities and border bribes. Golda said later that what she took from Russia was “fear, hunger and fear.” It was an existential fear that she never forgot.
In Milwaukee, Golda found socialism in the air: The city had both a socialist mayor and a socialist congressman, and she was enthralled by news from Palestine, where Jews were living out socialist ideals in kibbutzim. She immersed herself in Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), a movement synthesizing Zionism and socialism, and in 1917 married a fellow socialist, Morris Meyerson. As soon as conditions permitted, they moved to Palestine, where the marriage ultimately failed—a casualty of the extended periods she spent away from home working for Socialist Zionism and her admission that the cause was more important to her than her husband and children. Klagsbrun writes that Meir might appear to be the consummate feminist: She asserted her independence from her husband, traveled continually and extensively on her own, left her husband and children for months to pursue her work, and demanded respect as an individual rather than on special standards based on her gender. But she never considered herself a feminist and indeed denigrated women’s organizations as reducing issues to women’s interests only, and she gave minimal assistance to other women. Klagsbrun concludes that questions about Meir as a feminist figure ultimately “hang in the air.”
Her American connection and her unaccented American English became strategic assets for Zionism. She understood American Jews, spoke their language, and conducted many fundraising trips to the United States, tirelessly raising tens of millions of dollars of critically needed funds. David Ben-Gurion called her the “woman who got the money which made the state possible.” Klagsbrun provides the schedule of her 1932 trip as an example of her efforts: Over the course of a single month, the 34-year-old Zionist pioneer traveled to Kansas City, Tulsa, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and three cities in Canada. She became the face of Zionism in America—“The First Lady,” in the words of a huge banner at a later Chicago event, “of the Jewish People.” She connected with American Jews in a way no other Zionist leader had done before her.
In her own straightforward way, she mobilized the English language and sent it into battle for Zionism. While Abba Eban denigrated her poor Hebrew—“She has a vocabulary of two thousand words, okay, but why doesn’t she use them?”—she had a way of crystallizing issues in plainspoken English. Of British attempts to prevent the growth of the Jewish community in Palestine, she said Britain “should remember that Jews were here 2,000 years before the British came.” Of expressions of sympathy for Israel: “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die, and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.” And perhaps her most famous saying: “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”
Once she moved to the Israeli foreign ministry, she changed her name from Meyerson to Meir, in response to Ben-Gurion’s insistence that ministers assume Israeli names. She began a decade-long tenure there as the voice and face of Israel in the world. At a Madison Square Garden rally after the 1967 Six-Day War, she observed sardonically that the world called Israelis “a wonderful people,” complimented them for having prevailed “against such odds,” and yet wanted Israel to give up what it needed for its self-defense:
“Now that they have won this battle, let them go back where they came from, so that the hills of Syria will again be open for Syrian guns; so that Jordanian Legionnaires, who shoot and shell at will, can again stand on the towers of the Old City of Jerusalem; so that the Gaza Strip will again become a place from which infiltrators are sent to kill and ambush.” … Is there anybody who has the boldness to say to the Israelis: “Go home! Begin preparing your nine and ten year olds for the next war, perhaps in ten years.”
The next war would come not in ten years, but in six, and while Meir was prime minister.
Klagsbrun’s extended discussion of Meir’s leadership before, during, and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War is one of the most valuable parts of her book, enabling readers to make informed judgments about that war and assess Meir’s ultimate place in Israeli history. The book makes a convincing case that there was no pre-war “peace option” that could have prevented the conflict. Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat, was insisting on a complete Israeli withdrawal before negotiations could even begin, and Meir’s view was, “We had no peace with the old boundaries. How can we have peace by returning to them?” She considered the demand part of a plan to push Israel back to the ’67 lines “and then bring the Palestinians back, which means no more Israel.”
A half-century later, after three Israeli offers of a Palestinian state on substantially all the disputed territories—with the Palestinians rejecting each offer, insisting instead on an Israeli retreat to indefensible lines and recognition of an alleged Palestinian “right of return”—Meir’s view looks prescient.
Klagsbrun’s day-by-day description of the ensuing war is largely favorable to Meir, who relied on assurances from her defense minister, Moshe Dayan, that the Arabs would not attack, and assurances from her intelligence community that, even if they did, Israel would have a 48-hour notice—enough time to mobilize the reserves that constituted more than 75 percent of its military force. Both sets of assurances proved false, and the joint Egyptian-Syrian attack took virtually everyone in Israel by surprise. Dayan had something close to a mental breakdown, but Meir remained calm and in control after the initial shock, making key military decisions. She was able to rely on the excellent personal relationships she had established with President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, and the critical resupply of American arms that enabled Israel—once its reserves were called into action—to take the war into Egyptian and Syrian territories, with Israeli forces camped in both countries by its end.
Meir had resisted the option of a preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria when it suddenly became clear, 12 hours before the war started, that coordinated Egyptian and Syrian attacks were coming. On the second day of the war, she told her war cabinet that she regretted not having authorized the IDF to act, and she sent a message to Kissinger that Israel’s “failure to take such action is the reason for our situation now.” After the war, however, she testified that, had Israel begun the war, the U.S. would not have sent the crucial assistance that Israel needed (a point on which Kissinger agreed), and that she therefore believed she had done the right thing. A preemptive response, however, or a massive call-up of the reserves in the days before the attacks, might have avoided a war in which Israel lost 2,600 soldiers—the demographic equivalent of all the American losses in the Vietnam War.
It is hard to fault Meir’s decision, given the erroneous information and advice she was uniformly receiving from all her defense and intelligence subordinates, but it is a reminder that for Israeli prime ministers (such as Levi Eshkol in the Six-Day War, Menachem Begin with the Iraq nuclear reactor in 1981, and Ehud Olmert with the Syrian one in 2007), the potential necessity of taking preemptive action always hangs in the air. Klagsbrun’s extensive discussion of the Yom Kippur War is a case study of that question, and an Israeli prime minister may yet again face that situation.
The Meir story is also a tale of the limits of socialism as an organizing principle for the modern state. Klagsbrun writes about “Golda’s persistent—and hopelessly utopian—vision of how a socialist society should be conducted,” exemplified by her dream of instituting commune-like living arrangements for urban families, comparable to those in the kibbutzim, where all adults would share common kitchens and all the children would eat at school. She also tried to institute a family wage system, in which people would be paid according to their needs rather than their talents, a battle she lost when the unionized nurses insisted on being paid as professionals, based on their education and experience, and not the sizes of their families.
Socialism foundered not only on the laws of economics and human nature but also in the realm of foreign relations. In 1973, enraged that the socialist governments and leaders in Europe had refused to come to Israel’s aid during the Yom Kippur War, Meir convened a special London conference of the Socialist International, attended by eight heads of state and a dozen other socialist-party leaders. Before the conference, she told Willy Brandt, Germany’s socialist chancellor, that she wanted “to hear for myself, with my own ears, what it was that kept the heads of these socialist governments from helping us.”
In her speech at the conference, she criticized the Europeans for not even permitting “refueling the [American] planes that saved us from destruction.” Then she told them, “I just want to understand …what socialism is really about today”:
We are all old comrades, long-standing friends. … Believe me, I am the last person to belittle the fact that we are only one tiny Jewish state and that there are over twenty Arab states with vast territories, endless oil, and billions of dollars. But what I want to know from you today is whether these things are the decisive factors in Socialist thinking, too?
After she concluded her speech, the chairman asked whether anyone wanted to reply. No one did, and she thus effectively received her answer.
One wonders what Meir would think of the Socialist International today. On the centenary of the Balfour Declaration last year, the World Socialist website called it “a sordid deal” that launched “a nakedly colonial project.” Socialism was part of the cause for which she went to Palestine in 1921, and it has not fared well in history’s judgment. But the other half—
Zionism—became one of the great successes of the 20th century, in significant part because of the lifelong efforts of individuals such as she.
Golda Meir has long been a popular figure in the American imagination, particularly among American Jews. Her ghostwritten autobiography was a bestseller; Ingrid Bergman played her in a well-received TV film; Anne Bancroft played her on the Broadway stage. But her image as the “71-year old grandmother,” as the press frequently referred to her when she became prime minister, has always obscured the historic leader beneath that façade. She was a woman with strengths and weaknesses who willed herself into half a century of history. Francine Klagsbrun has given us a magisterial portrait of a lioness in full.
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Back in 2016, then–deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes gave an extraordinary interview to the New York Times Magazine in which he revealed how President Obama exploited a clueless and deracinated press to steamroll opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal. “We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes told journalist David Samuels. “They”—writers and bloggers and pundits—“were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
Rhodes went on to explain that his job was made easier by structural changes in the media, such as the closing of foreign bureaus, the retirement of experienced editors and correspondents, and the shift from investigative reporting to aggregation. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” he said. “That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
And they haven’t learned much. It was dispiriting to watch in December as journalists repeated arguments against the Jerusalem decision presented by Rhodes on Twitter. On December 5, quoting Mahmoud Abbas’s threat that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would have “dangerous consequences,” Rhodes tweeted, “Trump seems to view all foreign policy as an extension of a patchwork of domestic policy positions, with no regard for the consequences of his actions.” He seemed blissfully unaware that the same could be said of his old boss.
The following day, Rhodes tweeted, “In addition to making goal of peace even less possible, Trump is risking huge blowback against the U.S. and Americans. For no reason other than a political promise he doesn’t even understand.” On December 8, quoting from a report that the construction of a new American Embassy would take some time, Rhodes asked, “Then why cause an international crisis by announcing it?”
Rhodes made clear his talking points for the millions of people inclined to criticize President Trump: Acknowledging Israel’s right to name its own capital is unnecessary and self-destructive. Rhodes’s former assistant, Ned Price, condensed the potential lines of attack in a single tweet on December 5. “In order to cater to his political base,” Price wrote, “Trump appears willing to: put U.S. personnel at great risk; risk C-ISIL [counter-ISIL] momentum; destabilize a regional ally; strain global alliances; put Israeli-Palestinian peace farther out of reach.”
Prominent media figures happily reprised their roles in the echo chamber. Susan Glasser of Politico: “Just got this in my in box from Ayman Odeh, leading Arab Israeli member of parliament: ‘Trump is a pyromaniac who could set the entire region on fire with his madness.’” BBC reporter Julia Merryfarlane: “Whether related or not, everything that happens from now on in Israel and the Pal territories will be examined in the context of Trump signaling to move the embassy to Jerusalem.” Neither Rhodes nor Price could have asked for more.
Network news broadcasts described the president’s decision as “controversial” but only reported on the views of one side in the controversy. Guess which one. “There have already been some demonstrations,” reported NBC’s Richard Engel. “They are expected to intensify, with Palestinians calling for three days of rage if President Trump goes through with it.” Left unmentioned was the fact that Hamas calls for days of rage like you and I call for pizza.
Throughout Engel’s segment, the chyron read: “Controversial decision could lead to upheaval.” On ABC, George Stephanopoulos said, “World leaders call the decision dangerous.” On CBS, Gayle King chimed in: “U.S. allies and leaders around the world say it’s a big mistake that will torpedo any chance of Middle East peace.” Oh? What were the chances of Middle East peace prior to Trump’s speech?
On CNN, longtime peace processor Aaron David Miller likened recognizing Jerusalem to hitting “somebody over the head with a hammer.” On MSNBC, Chris Matthews fumed: “Deaths are coming.” That same network featured foreign-policy gadfly Steven Clemons of the Atlantic, who said Trump “stuck a knife in the back of the two-state process.” Price and former Obama official Joel Rubin also appeared on the network to denounce Trump. “American credibility is shot, and in diplomacy, credibility relies on your word, and our word is, at this moment, not to be trusted from a peace-process perspective, certainly,” Rubin said. This from the administration that gave new meaning to the words “red line.”
Some journalists were so devoted to Rhodes’s tendentious narrative of Trump’s selfishness and heedlessness that they mangled the actual story. “He had promised this day would come, but to hear these words from the White House was jaw-dropping,” said Martha Raddatz of ABC. “Not only signing a proclamation reversing nearly 70 years of U.S. policy, but starting plans to move the embassy to Jerusalem. No one else on earth has an embassy there!” How dare America take a brave stand for a small and threatened democracy!
In fact, Trump was following U.S. policy as legislated by the Congress in 1995, reaffirmed in the Senate by a 90–0 vote just last June, and supported (in word if not in deed) by his three most recent predecessors as well as the last four Democratic party platforms. Most remarkable, the debate surrounding the Jerusalem policy ignored a crucial section of the president’s address. “We are not taking a position on any final-status issues,” he said, “including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” What we did then was simply accept the reality that the city that houses the Knesset and where the head of government receives foreign dignitaries is the capital of Israel.
However, just as had happened during the debate over the Iran deal, the facts were far less important to Rhodes than the overarching strategic goal. In this case, the objective was to discredit and undermine President Trump’s policy while isolating the conservative government of Israel. Yet there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical toward the disingenuous duo of Rhodes and Price. Trump’s announcement was bold, for sure, but the tepid protests from Arab capitals more worried about the rise of Iran, which Rhodes and Price facilitated, than the Palestinian issue suggested that the “Arab street” would sit this one out.
Which is what happened. Moreover, verbal disagreement aside, there is no evidence that the Atlantic alliance is in jeopardy. Nor has the war on ISIS lost momentum. As for putting “Israeli–Palestinian peace farther out of reach,” if third-party recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital forecloses a deal, perhaps no deal was ever possible. Rhodes and Price would like us to overlook the fact that the two sides weren’t even negotiating during the Obama administration—an administration that did as much as possible to harm relations between Israel and the United States.
This most recent episode of the Trump show was a reminder that some things never change. Jerusalem was, is, and will be the capital of the Jewish state. President Trump routinely ignores conventional wisdom and expert opinion. And whatever nonsense President Obama and his allies say today, the press will echo tomorrow.