Wolves, Actors, Jihadis, Abelard and Heloise

By Benjamin Schwarz

September 2004 ATLANTIC

A Wolf Had Not Been Seen at Salem for Thirty Years

Vicious, by Jon T. Coleman (Yale).  This is a sick-making book. It chronicles and interprets Americans’ relations with wolves by following a single European immigration path from southern New England in the 1620s to Colorado in the early twentieth century, by which time hundreds of thousands of the animals had been slaughtered, rendering them all but extinct in the United States. (By the way, not a single case of a wolf’s killing a human being has been recorded in North America. ) But Coleman, a Notre Dame historian who evinces impatience bordering on contempt for those who sentimentalize animals, isn’t concerned with this environmental catastrophe—which, as he makes clear, was explicable if not inevitable, given wolves’ peculiar vulnerabilities and the insatiable demands of modern settlement and agriculture. Rather, he seeks to fathom the 300-year history of limitless sadism that attended the wolves’ extermination. These canids were not merely annihilated: they were dragged behind horses until they ripped apart; they were set on fire; they were hamstrung; their backs were broken; they were captured alive to be released with their mouths or penises wired shut; their intestines were torn open by hooks hidden in balls of tallow left for them to eat. And as the abundant historical record shows, wolves responded to capture (they were regularly caught in traps or in their dens) not by lashing out but by submission; human beings as a matter of course ignored “a frightened creature’s obvious pleas for mercy” and proceeded to torture. Coleman asserts that what he euphemistically calls “agricultural pacification” demands no explanation; but “why,” he asks,”was death not enough?” The formal and informal campaigns to terrorize and exterminate wolves because of their ubiquity and the menace they posed to open-range livestock (the most concentrated form of wealth for most Americans for most of the country’s history) are well documented, and Coleman proves an indefatigable researcher as he traces this orgy of brutality. But the very evidence he reveals renders the answers he offers to his central question unconvincing—which makes his study all the more disturbing. Coleman asserts that since humanbeings aren’t “intrinsically sinister,” their behavior toward wolves has to be understood in its cultural and historical context. He thus looks to folklore and to the specific challenges that beset Euro-Americans. To be sure, killing and torturing wolves to some degree represented a desire to “bring order to a rambunctious natural environment” and were “expressions of revenge, anger, and dominion,” as Coleman avers. But that doesn’t make the behavior any more understandable or, for that matter, any less “sinister”—after all, many instances of, say, sexual violence are for the perpetrator also expressions of revenge, anger, and dominion; and the lynching of African-American men in the South could be described in precisely the same terms Coleman employs to explain the torture of wolves: “conservative brutality”; “atrocities committed in the name of order, authority, and decorum.” Although wolves plainly carried a great deal of folkloric baggage for Euro-Americans, they were hardly the only animals to suffer sadistic treatment; a variety of creatures “fell victim to an animal whose behavior mocked the rules of predation.” “Human hunters not only attacked without constraint, they often expended more calories killing beasts than they gained digesting them. ” And Coleman offhandedly notes,”Many rural Americans considered brutalizing wild creatures amusing. They recounted instances of stabbing, hacking, and pitchforking animals with fondness.” The capture and torture of wolves was often recorded, but, for instance, raccoons (often treed for sport) probably suffered a no less atrocious fate. Despite his prodigious research, the author seems to be groping for answers to his intelligently and originally framed question, because ultimately cruelty isn’t subject to the “historical analysis” he promises. That analysis can partially explain why cruelty was directed at certain targets at certain times, but it can’t explain the cruelty itself; Coleman can’t in fact tell us why death was not enough. As E. L. Godkin wrote in 1893, when trying to explain lynching,”We venture to assert that seven-eighths of every lynching party is composed of pure, sporting mob, which goes … just as it goes to a cockfight … for the gratification of the lowest and most degraded instincts of humanity. ” The terrible truth (obvious in the photographs of the broken and mutilated victims in this book), the only explanation for the history Coleman records, is that given half a chance, too many men will behave viciously. (This is one of two sweeping and ambitious scholarly studies of animal-human relations in American history to be published this season. The other is Oxford’s Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, by Virginia DeJohn Anderson. Also being published, by North Point, is Mark Derr’s at times perceptive but somewhat cobbled-together popular history, A Dog’s History of America. )

Who the Hell’s in Itby Peter Bogdanovich (Knopf). Nearly a decade before he became a boy-genius movie director (The Last Picture ShowWhat’s Up, Doc?,  Paper Moon: boom, boom, boom), Bogdanovich was a boy-genius film scholar. His elegant, groundbreaking studies of Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Orson Welles remain among the most penetrating appraisals of those directors; and his later This Is Orson Welles is easily the smartest and most endearing portrait of that über boy genius. But even before he wrote about movies, Bogdanovich was a boy-genius actor (he studied with Stella tumblr_m6swprEDCM1qf7r5lo1_500Adler in the afternoons after his high school classes let out, and he was an understudy with John Houseman’s American Shakespeare Festival before he was eighteen; he now plays Dr. Melfi’s shrink on The Sopranos). His 1997 book, Who the Devil Made It (an egregious title, even if it comes from a phrase of Hawks’s), collected decades’ worth of his interviews with and portraits and reminiscences of directors. Now he’s done the same for actors. His modus operandi for both topics was identical, and reveals his obsessive love of the movies: In Hollywood (from New York) to write for Esquire, he’d seek out and interrogate—pester, really—his heroes, beguiling them with his encyclopedic knowledge of their work. (He includes a hilariously self-deprecating account of finding himself on a plane from L. A. to Denver with an icy Marlene Dietrich, desperately trying to win her over with recondite questions about her performance in Morocco, more than forty years earlier. She seems to have thawed somewhere above Pasadena. ) They’d talk; he’d write his piece; subject and interviewer would become friends and would go to, say, a Dodgers game, where he’d ask more questions. He’d interview the actor friend’s former director and ask the director about a scene he’d shot with the actor thirty-two years before; then he’d tell the actor what his director had said, and ask him about the scene. After nearly half a century of such pestering, this endearing vampire now knows practically everything about the pictures. Although it reads as if it were too hastily assembled, this book is among the richest and most delightful ever written about Hollywood. His subjects range from John Cassavetes (one of his best friends) to John Wayne (although they were politically opposed, they shared a reverence for John Ford, and Wayne’s appreciation of Bogdanovich’s minute understanding of Wayne’s work with Ford brought them close) to Jimmy Stewart (they were friends for thirty years, having met when Bogdanovich interviewed Stewart for his profile of Ford; Bogdanovich’s profile of Stewart, written two years later and liberally quoted here, is the most inventively written piece on an actor I’ve encountered) to River Phoenix (whose talent clearly stunned Bogdanovich when he directed Phoenix’s last movie). But the very best reason to read the book is Bogdanovich’s portrait of the very best actor in the history of the movies: Cary Grant. They met when Bogdanovich was twenty-one, and were friends for twenty-five years. Bogdanovich plainly adored Grant, and here he captures Grant’s easy charm along with his essential unapproachability, his “sparkle of joy mixed with mischievousness,” and his cadences (Grant on the Oscars: “You know, there is something a little embarrassing about all these wealthy people publicly congratulating each other … ‘we know you’re making a million dollars—now come on up and get your little medal for it!'”). Bogdanovich is a clear-eyed observer, but what emerges from these portraits (as from those inWho the Devil) is his admiration for the professionalism of his subjects, each of whom, he writes,”felt an unspoiled, selfless love for the work and the medium itself. ” This is a deeply elegiac book.

Imperial Hubrisby Anonymous (Brassey’s). The best book on al-Qaeda, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, was written before September 11, 2001. Published by a house specializing in military and intelligence titles, it failed to win a review in The New York Times and most other major newspapers and magazines (including this one). Written anonymously by the former head of the CIA unit devoted to assessing and tracking Osama bin Laden (the author remains a high-level counterterrorism officer at the Agency), the book is as penetrating as it is unknown. I learned of it last year, when a friend and former colleague, Bruce Hoffman (a terrorism specialist at the RAND Corporation, who now writes regularly for this magazine), assured me that it was unmatched. It appears that the anonymous author’s new book will gain the attention that eluded his first. It should. Although he’s repetitive and often intemperate, Anonymous presents overwhelmingly persuasive evidence to buttress a host of significant and controversial arguments. He demonstrates that by dithering in the period immediately after 9/11, Washington missed its best opportunity to destroy al-Qaeda’s leadership and a significant number of its rank and file; that when the Pentagon finally did launch military operations in Afghanistan, those actions were so misconceived, and built on such faulty assumptions, that they failed to kill or capture the vast bulk of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters (Anonymous estimates the number of al-Qaeda—trained fighters throughout the world to be at least 100, 000); that America’s current political and military strategy in Afghanistan has permitted al-Qaeda and the Taliban to regroup and to wage “an insurgency that gradually will increase in intensity, lethality, and popular support, and ultimately force Washington to massively escalate its military presence or evacuate”; and that the war in Iraq not only distracted the United States from its urgent task in Afghanistan but, even more important, has intensely mobilized anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world and has created a new base for al-Qaeda and organizations similar to it. (Anonymous sees the Iraq War as Washington’s “gift” to bin Laden, which “will haunt, hurt, and hound Americans for years to come. “)

Although harshly critical of the current Administration, Anonymous offers no succor to Democrats. He characterizes the Clinton Administration’s counterterrorism policy as a “sordid blend of moral cowardice and political calculation”; he’s scornful of liberal notions that the campaign against al-Qaeda should be pursued as a law-enforcement problem (he argues persuasively that al-Qaeda is a worldwide Islamic insurgency, not simply a terrorist organization, and that America must pursue a “savage” military policy against it); he disdains what he regards as misguided and dangerous efforts to implant American values abroad (such as the Clinton Administration’s nebulous policy of “democratic enlargement”); and he favors a less multilateral approach to national-security policy and a far more ruthless use of military power than the Bush Administration embraces. Anonymous is even more provocative in his meticulous, nuanced, and dispassionate analysis of bin Laden’s leadership, ideology, and tactics, from which he concludes that the terrorist leader is a “talented and personally courageous Muslim who is blessed with sound strategic and tactical judgment, able lieutenants, a reluctant but indispensable bloody-mindedness, and extraordinary patience,” and who has articulated a consistent and compelling case, which resonates throughout the Muslim world, that America is attacking Islam.

But Anonymous will draw the most fire for his cogent arguments—contrary to both Democratic and Republican leaders who orate that Islamist terrorists hate America because of its freedom and values—that al-Qaeda and the Islamic world hate this country because of its specific policies and actions, and that bin Laden’s war against America (which, Anonymous asserts, has made him the Muslims’ most admired figure) isn’t an act of rage; rather, it aims to alter those policies. Accordingly, Anonymous advocates a combination of stronger military action against Islamist terrorists and insurgents (although he understands the grievances that fuel al-Qaeda, he’s convinced that “we are in a fight to the death” with it) and—crucially—”dramatic foreign policy change. ” This change would include a strenuous effort to achieve energy self-sufficiency; the adoption of a far more modest global role based on an amoral pursuit of discrete and concrete national interests; and the re-examination of America’s backing of Israel (he holds that, contrary to ill-informed assertions, the elimination of Israel has long been a cynosure of bin Laden’s rhetoric, ideology, and strategy) and of the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. (Here Anonymous is uncharacteristically gingerly and disingenuous: although he calls explicitly only for rethinking that support, in fact the only logical conclusion to be reached from his arguments is that we should end it. ) Anonymous’s position that in foreign policy less is more—that America’s security will be enhanced if Washington forsakes its hegemonic ambitions and many of its attendant foreign commitments—is, I should acknowledge, very similar to arguments I’ve made in this magazine (see “Why America Thinks It Has to Run the World,” June 1996, and “A New Grand Strategy,” January 2002) and elsewhere. But whether one agrees with this book or not, Anonymous’s unsentimental critique deserves rigorous scrutiny and debate. Those looking for forceful dissent and a genuine alternative to the foreign-policy status quo should eschew the intellectually slippery Noam Chomsky, the sadly muddled Gore Vidal, and (most of all) the partisan hack Michael Moore—and instead examine the tough-minded neo-isolationism espoused in this book.

Heloise & Abelardby James Burge (HarperSanFrancisco). The terrible love story that this book illuminates is (alas, for oneabelard writing a short column) also highly convoluted. Among the most renowned medieval philosophers, Abelard began an affair with his brilliant student Heloise in 1115. Soon pregnant, Heloise married Abelard, though he insisted that the union be kept secret lest it imperil his ecclesiastical career. Following the birth of their son (weirdly christened Astralabe—”To call one’s child after a scientific instrument must have been a sort of joint declaration of uniqueness by the couple,” Burge dryly notes), she returned to live with her uncle Fulbert. But after the couple bridled at Fulbert’s restrictions and Abelard moved Heloise to a convent, Fulbert—for reasons open to varying interpretations—had some thugs take Abelard from his bed and castrate him. Abelard—for reasons also open to varying interpretations—instructed Heloise to give Astralabe to his family and to become a nun; he forsook her and became a monk, albeit a famous and intellectually contentious one. After fifteen years without contact she came upon his autobiography, which he’d addressed to an unnamed monk. Heloise wrote to Abelard, declaring unashamedly that despite her vows (and his abandonment), her love for him was undiminished. Five of his letters, along with his autobiography, were found a century later, together with three of her letters—which for nearly 800 years represented her entire literary output. Few pre-modern records give us so exquisite a view of a personality. Fierce and exact, they’re astonishing for the self-awareness they reveal; for their reconciliation of piety and passion; for their depiction of a combination of intense devotion for and reproachful candor toward a beloved (Heloise’s was a persona consumed but not subsumed by romantic love); and for the clarity and frankness with which they dissect sexuality. In 1980 the scholar Constant J. Mews, while reading a modern edition of a fifteenth-century instruction manual for letter writing, discerned that fragments of 113 letters “From … Two Lovers”were actually taken from missives exchanged by Heloise and Abelard during their affair. Burge is the first biographer fully to exploit this trove, and although the letters reveal nothing dramatically new (“It is a paradox born of the convincing nature of the new letters that they do not substantively affect the main points of the story,” as he nicely puts it), he uses them to explore the striking blend of intense intellectuality and eroticism that characterized Heloise and Abelard’s relationship. Heloise, a supremely elegant writer, emerges as by far the more appealing character, but one very difficult for modern readers to define: she’s ingenuous but astute, submissive (even in the couple’s somewhat sadomasochistic sex) but courageous. (Abelard the cocky, ambitious logician comes across as emotionally oblivious and withdrawn. ) At times Burge indulges in psychological speculation that lurches between the obvious and the fanciful, and his writing tends toward the overwrought; so some readers may want to turn to Mews’s intricate but narrower scholarly study, The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard. Nevertheless, this is a great tale, which Burge tells vividly and economically

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