The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker or the Accidental Superstar

Joël Dicker  The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

 Translated by Sam Taylor

Penguin Books, 641pp.

Reviewed by Yaëlle Azagury

What makes literary celebrity?

A few months ago, I attended a reading and book signing by 28-year-old Swiss author Joël Dicker at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in New York. Baby-faced and candid, Mr. Dicker exuded the accidental charm of a neophyte, unencumbered by sophistication or pedantry. Seeming almost surprised to be questioned, as though whatever he had written was entirely coincidental, he was gracious and modest., And I thought his success was in no small way due to this alluring cocktail of innocence and craft, and the way in which he invokes tradition in novel and disconcerting ways. In fact, all good literature is perhaps about unsettling expectations, the transformative encounter between modernity and tradition. It unnerves our habits as reader, unveiling multiple layers and levels of reading.

His 641-page novel The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair (adeptly translated from the French by Sam Taylor, Penguin Books, 641pp., May 27,2014)) was a literary sensation in France when the novel was published in 2013, with almost one million copies sold. It was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina, two prestigious literary prizes, and awarded the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens (a less re-knowned Goncourt bestowed by high school students). And it is, precisely, about unsettling expectations. Both a thriller and a parody of one, a novel about America, and a thoroughly un-American novel, it is chiefly a Bildungsroman – a tale about coming-of-age , and a reflection in disguise on writing and literary fame — most fittingly for a bestselling first novel.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is the story of Marcus Goldman, a young and successful New York writer who becomes afflicted with writer’s block when faced with the looming deadline for his second novel. When his friend and mentor, Professor Harry Quebert, also one of the most respected writers in the country and the author of a famous novel enigmatically entitled The Origins of Evil, is accused of murder, Marcus starts investigating the case to clear his friend’s name, but also, to make a book out of it. Professor Quebert is accused of having killed the 15-year-old Nola Kellergan – whose unsolved murder in New Hampshire dates back 33 years. Marcus is a good friend, a do-gooder. But he is looking out for his own interests, as well . Innocence and calculation are inextricable in Dicker’s universe.

This refreshing and imaginative first novel, written in Mr. Dicker’s effortless and elegant prose, toys with the reader’s sense of anticipation, planting clues for elucidation – both of the mystery of the girl’s death and of the meaning of the book itself – that will eventually turn out to be red herrings.

It is a polyphonic creation wherein the truth is revisited, reversed, polished and fine-tuned as multiple versions of the fateful events of the summer of 1975 are woven into the narrative and various characters each provide a possible but partial version of the truth.  The story grows like a tree with ramifications and multiple branchings out – a fitting metaphor for the Internet age — but also trimmings and cuttings, all leading to the intentional effect of destabilizing the truth.

For instance, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is set in America, and has been hailed as a critique of across-the-Atlantic ways. But at the FIAF signing, Mr. Dicker told the audience the following rather funny anecdote: when the book first came out in France, he was immediately invited to his first Foire du Livre (book fair), a literary event which establishes a writer’s reputation in France. He was automatically placed on a panel with André Kaspi, the eminent French expert on the United States. Surprised, yet ever inclined to embody the ironic misrepresentation, Dicker played along, but he rejects all claims to being an Alexis de Tocqueville for the 21st-century. Having spent all of his summers in Maine as a child, he says he simply enjoyed writing about a place of which he is fond.

In fact, a close reading shows the characters are more universal archetypes than in-depth explorations of an American “essence.” There is the greedy Roy Barnaski, Marcus’ New York publisher, Benjamin Roth, the sharky lawyer, Srgt. Perry Gahalowood, the rough policeman with a golden heart who will help Marcus in the investigation, Jenny Quinn, the blond and voluptuous waitress who is secretly in love with Harry Quebert, her matter-of-fact mother Tamara Quinn, owner of the Clark’s Diner, bossy and relentless; Luther Caleb, an underdog and Quasimodo of sorts whose ominous name and monstrous deformities naturally designate him as the bad guy. Even their appellations sound more foreign than genuinely American. They represent a postcard America rather than America itself.

At times even, characters, especially secondary ones, seem as though they have sprung from the pages of a comic book: There is the starlet Lydia Gloor whose delightful name might also be found in People magazine. Or Marcus Goldman’s mother, a stereotype of the Jewish mother — overprotective, neurotic and eager to find her son a wife. Or Tamara Quinn, another devouring Medea who overshadows her daughter Jenny.

In general, mothers are rather absent in the novel or, as above, caricatured (this is a novel about fathers as I will show later). Yet, caricature often alternates with surprise along the way, and a relative complexity: Luther Caleb is not, it turns out, who we thought he was, neither is the millionaire Elijah Stern, who appears to have had an affair with Nola, nor is Harry Quebert himself, whose many facets slowly unfold over the course of the novel. As for Nola, is she angelic muse or diabolical seductress, as her name, whose quasi-homonymity with Nabokov’s Lolita, seems to suggest? Narrative reversals, volte-faces, impasses and traps are in abundance. Mr. Dicker uses literary tradition (in interviews, he speaks, for instance, of the influence Russian literature had on him when growing up), yet he updates tradition in contemporary ways. Nola is Lolita but she is also the girl next door.

The story, as previously noted, is a thriller, but the writer as detective also becomes a key metaphor for novelistic craft. Dicker’s book is thus a painstaking construction where the novelist’s task is the patient placement of clues leading to a discovery, the slow unveiling of the truth, but also, and perhaps, primarily, of the meaning of literary endeavors. It is a reflection on the architecture of a novel, on foreground and background and, with Goldman himself a writer within the wider framework of the novel, it is essentially a myse en abyme on the art of writing.

The telling of the narrative, for instance, alternates with chapters of advice to the aspiring writer, reminiscent of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write. See whether it has spread roots into the very depths of your heart.” Letter 1).

And here is Harry Quebert’s advice to Marcus Goldman:

“The gift of writing is a gift not because you are an adequate writer, but rather because you are giving meaning to your life. (…) Writers live life more intensely then others, I think. Do not write in the name of our friendship, Marcus. Write because it is the only way for you to make of this minuscule and insignificant thing called life a valuable and gratifying experience.” (my translation)

Because this is a Proustian exploration on how to become a writer, the Truth is also a delving into the notion of fraud. Who is a true writer? Is Harry Quebert a master or a murderer? Both? Neither? Is Marcus Goldman the real thing, even though he seems unable to write a second novel? Significantly, his character is construed to be an impostor early on. We learn for instance how he cheated his way through high school sports, inventing himself as the Formidable, an athletic superstar. Yet, as he overcomes successive hurdles and failures, Marcus’ efforts are crowned at book’s end, with the receiving of advice from his mentor Harry Quebert, who is an obvious father figure. Here is, for instance, what Harry tells Marcus in the book’s final pages: “I have loved you like a son, more than like a friend, Marcus.” Harry gives his talented pupil all the necessary clues to eventually bring about his very own demise, much as a father would do. The novel is about learning how to write and learning how to become an adult. For The Truth is about debunking the teacher, the Father. The mystery revealed at the end may be less about the solving of a murder than simply about learning to grow up. That is perhaps why the Truth resonates better with a younger audience (and may be why it won the Goncourt des Lycéens): there is still both a playfulness and lightness to it that makes it different from say, Donna Tartt’s the Goldfinch, the other thriller of the season, and a much darker and complex work. In some ways, the Truth is still reveling in the marvelous mechanics of writing, showing off meta-narratives and lessons learned. It is didactic, as a first novel often is.

Perhaps the book’s convoluted denouement is its only weakness: We learn who killed Nola –I won’t tell you-, but I wished here complexity had not defaulted to mere complication. I was left somehow with the feeling that a simpler ending is often more satisfying than a labyrinthine resolution. Age and experience often teach you that, but I guess, this is a lesson Mr. Dicker still has time to learn.

The Israeli Paradox

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My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
Ari Shavit
Spiegel and Grau
464 pages; $28

The Israeli paradox
Yaëlle Azagury

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 9.27.48 PM Ari Shavit is a journalist for the liberal newspaper Haaretz, and was once part of the Left’s Peace movement.  But there is little political correctness in this independently-minded and non-partisan look at Israel in his new book “My Promised land”.

Shavit’s greatest achievement in his anatomy of Zionism is to transcend the oversimplified and repetitive clichés of Left and Right.

The author captures in penetrating language the tragic poignancy of the Israeli predicament: “On the one hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people.  On the other hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened.  Intimidation and occupation are the two pillars of our condition”.

Using archival documents, testimonials and interviews, he argues that this duality (“occupation-intimidation”) was at the heart of Zionism from its outset. But while the issue of appropriation of Palestinian land (sometimes conquered, often purchased) was handled with uncanny tact and dexterity prior to the creation of the State of Israel and during the subsequent 25 years, the delicate balance between one people’s imperative need and another people’s indigenous land was shattered in 1973 after the Yom Kippur war.  What happened?

First let me note Shavit is an ardent Zionist.  The most powerful and well-known arguments in favor of Zionism are anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. As Shavit ponders the fate of European Jewry standing on the brink of destruction just before World War II, he notes:  “in 1935, Zionist justice is an absolute justice that cannot be refuted”.

But there is also another argument holding true today more than ever.  Shavit is the great-grandson of Herbert Bentwich, a British Jew and well-to-do lawyer who realized that his tranquil Anglo-Jewish life was endangered, in the process of being softly killed by the dominant culture.  So he decided to forego the comforts of civilized London to set off for Palestine in 1897 for a transformative twelve-day visit.  From that point on he lived in continual dialogue with the Land of Israel until he made aliya three years before his death in 1932.

As Shavit notes, demography speaks louder than words.  Between 1950 and 2000, the Anglo-Jewish community shrinks by a third: “The communities of such cities as Brighton and Bournemouth will dwindle. The rate of intermarriage will increase to well over 50 percent.  Young non-Orthodox Jews will wonder why they should be Jewish.  What’s the point?”

Furthermore, notes the author, a look at American Jewry today should persuade most skeptics.  Given the high rate of intermarriage in 2010, non-Orthodox Jews are drifting away from the center of gravity of Jewish identity. They are evaporating into the non-Jewish space. He concludes: “Benign Western civilization destroys non-Orthodox Judaism.”  In other words, it is death by the kiss.

The Zionist endeavor is the subject of the first half of the book, which borrows in its style and breadth from the noble genre of the epic.  Shavit’s prose is taut and stripped down like Zionism itself, but its rhythms are generous and embracing.

There is a quiet lyricism.  When describing one of the first Zionist experiments carried out in Mandatory Palestine in the valley of Harod in 1921 by the orphans of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 in Bessarabia (now Moldova), there is a sense of awe at all they have accomplished: “The blades of the sun catch the blades of the plow as they turn the valley’s soil, penetrating the crust of the ancient valley’s deep earth.  And as the plows begin to do their work, the Jews return to history and regain their masculinity: as they take on the physical labor of tilling the earth, they transform themselves from object to subject, from passive to active, from victims to sovereigns.”

The community of Ein Harod is, for Shavit, kibbutz socialism at its best and most inspiring.  He praises its communal effort, Spartan determination, and revolutionary spirit transformative of soul and body.

Examining how these men and women conquered a wasteland, crafting an entire country out of nothing, Shavit’s writing has Biblical accents, even though he is himself secular.  It describes the end of the Jew of the Diaspora, feeble and submissive, and with the return to Zion, the birth of a new man.  There is a symbolic moment in the book when the settlement of Rehovot southeast of Jaffa, which struggled against the odds to grow oranges, starts shipping the famous Jaffa citrus to Buckingham Palace in the 1930’s.  The old subordinate condition of the court Jew is rendered obsolete by Zionism’s successes.  Jews will no longer lower their heads in front of foreign kings. From now on they will trade with them.

Zionism got almost everything right in those crucial years leading to the creation of the state.  There were certainly frictions with the Arabs, but they were limited: overall there was yet no Palestinian identity in the modern sense.  Because up until 1917 Palestine was a backward province of the Ottoman Empire, Arabs were often grateful to Zionist immigrants who taught them hygiene, and brought with them medicines and modernizing techniques to cultivate the land.

Later on, in the days before 1967, Israel displayed in Shavit’s words, “a security-mindedness that was not imperialistic.  A patriotism that was not chauvinistic.”  This was exemplified in the building of a nuclear reactor near Dimona to be used solely as a psychological deterrent.  The Jewish State’s nuclear doctrine is both modest and successful: Israel will be a nuclear power but act as if it were not.

The Yom Kippur war of 1973 caught Israel by surprise and caused panic. While Israel ultimately gained the upper hand, it brought to the surface the country’s fear of annihilation, triggering a profound existential crisis that led to the accelerated building of settlements in the territories around Jerusalem and the Golan, which Shavit views as “a futile, anachronistic colonialist project.”

In fact, concludes Shavit, the origin of the crisis is rooted in Zionism’s dual nature, as unmasked most flagrantly by the massacre carried out in the Arab village of Lydda. In the summer of 1948, during the War of Independence, Zionists realize a Jewish State is endangered by the Arab city of Lydda: so 200 people are killed and tens of thousands of Palestinians are forced to leave.  Herein lies what Shavit views as Zionism’s “black box”, its darkest secret.

From 1973 onwards, Shavit chronicles a major shift in Zionism.  Having lost its social glue, it is adrift, incapable of producing a renewed social contract, or of striking that perfect balance of responsibility, audacity and cunning it had fine-tuned until then.  Zionism’s inherent paradox and Janus-faced nature-on the one hand idealistic, on the other, pragmatic, if not belligerent – is blatantly exposed. Consequently, Israel has become a collection of multiple interests with little common ground.

From novelist and peace activist Amos Oz to Sephardi political leader Aryeh Deri to Jewish terrorist Yehuda Etzion, Shavit interviews the protagonists of Israeli life with infinite reserves of sympathy.  They all have their flaws and claims, yet Shavit understands them intimately.  He is kind, generous, a consummate interviewer.

He finds the settlements anachronistic and imperialistic, but he realizes his own Zionism shares more than a few genes with the Zionism of the settlers of Ofra (home of Yehuda Etzion), which he sees in a sense as “Ein Harod’s grandchild.” He considers Shas’ Aryeh Deri inscrutable, lost in a faraway place between identities, but he likes him and understands his plight as a Sephardi whose history was delegitimized by, in Shavit’s phrase, the WASPs (White Ashkenazi Supporters of Peace). He is close to the Palestinian-Israeli attorney Mohammed Dahla [SIC] who co-founded in 1995 the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah), but he knows there are great differences in their worldviews.

So if the first half of the book that chronicles Zionism’s rise reads like an epic, heroic and grand, the second half – which traces its unraveling – is like a novel, sympathetic, intimate, but also a testimony to a shattered reality.   Zionism’s post-1973 phase has myriad yearnings and projects, but as an ideology it has become fragmented, and has forsaken its prior cohesiveness.

For Shavit, Israel is on the edge of the abyss.  Because too many fires are burning, Israel has lost sight of its greatest threat:  Iran’s nuclear program. Hardly a hawk, Shavit warns us, however, that this is the state’s most frightening challenge.  We’ve come full circle: the book started with existential fear, and closes with existential fear.

Complex, intricate, sophisticated, Shavit’s reflections are steeped in a love for truth and genuine humanism.  I disagree however with some of them.  For instance, I find his analogy of a Gaza detention camp with a Nazi concentration camp a vexed one.  While I understand his thought process, influenced by Hannah Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil – evil preys upon us in banal ways – I believe he creates a flawed moral equivalence.

But Shavit’s historical and theoretical perspective is insightful, compelling.  Here is how he defines the Israeli condition:

First, it is based on denial: denial of the Palestinian past and denial of the Jewish past.  He argues this amnesia was necessary to function, to build, to live in the first decades of the State. But now Israel must retreat from the West Bank, despite the dangers, because if it doesn’t it will be politically and morally doomed: “The need to end occupation is greater than ever, but so are the risks.”

Second, it is based on paradox: Israelis are utopians and pragmatists, “jailers and jailed”.  Even more confusing, their strengths are often their weaknesses: “The secret of Israeli high-tech is bucking authority, ignoring conventional wisdom, and flouting the rules of the game.  The weakness of the Israeli state is bucking authority, ignoring conventional wisdom and flouting the rules of the game.”

We feel somewhat claustrophobic at book’s end: is there no exit? Will this be Israel’s end?  Shavit’s capacity to argue one point from diverging perspectives is maddening, but so are Israel’s choices.

It is the lot of democracies to get caught in the very contradictions they are so desperately striving to resolve.  France, for instance, must always strike a fine balance between its equalizing and its centralizing tendencies. America, as Alexis de Tocqueville once noted with great insight, is pulled apart between its individualism and its conformism.

The greatest test faced by democracies – and the issue is central for Israel because its survival depends on it – lies in their ability to overcome those contradictions.

Yaëlle Azagury is a free-lance reporter who writes about contemporary literature and culture.

Un Prince à Casablanca by Ralph Toledano (in French)

9791091416047FSD’Elissa Rhais à Albert Memmi, La littérature coloniale et post-coloniale des juifs d’Afrique du Nord dessine souvent une opposition simpliste entre l’Orient et l’Occident, le corps et l’esprit, les émotions et l’intellect.  On y trouve un univers exotique à la limite de la caricature, où l’Orient en ressort invariablement lésé, en dépit  de descriptions pittoresques, mais somme toute dévalorisantes.  Le premier roman de l’historien d’art Ralph Toledano, Un prince à Casablanca, évite élégamment ces écueils.

Un prince à Casablanca raconte l’histoire de Semtob, un riche bourgeois juif marocain, et de sa famille au début des années 70, au lendemain de la sanglante tentative de coup d’état de Skhirat .  Au coeur du roman est la question de l’identité: non tiraillement insoluble entre nature et culture, instinct et raison, vulgarité et raffinement,  comme dans le cas des romans orientalistes d’antan, mais substrat multiple, complexe, fait de strates successives que Ralph Toledano saisit avec nuance et subtilité.  Il y a d’abord Semtob, le héro du roman, raffiné, cultivé, d’une grande noblesse de coeur, sorte de pater familias de la communauté juive, dont la famille maternelle vient de Mogador, l’ancien nom d’Essaouira.   Le modèle dominant de ces juifs anglicisés commerçant souvent avec Manchester est l’Angleterre.  Ils se prénomment George, Edouard et Victoria; Par son père, Semtob est l’héritier des juifs d’Espagne, et des grands rabbins érudits chassés par l’Inquisition au 15e siècle.  Nouvelle strate, autre couche.  Ils parlent le haquetia, ce dialecte judéo-espagnol fécondé par l’arabe en terre marocaine.  Leur culture, leur musique, sont riches tout comme leur gastronomie.   Emilie, la femme de Semtob, est algérienne, et incarne pour sa part ces juifs d’Algerie éblouis par la metropole depuis leur naturalisation par le decret Crémieux.

Gilbert, Annie et Betty, les 3 enfants de Semtob et d’Emilie, représentent à leur tour une destinée particulière:  Gilbert, séduit par le projet d’ordre et d’efficacité occidental, qui tombe amoureux de Louise Legrand (dont le patronyme en dit long), la fille d’aristocrates français établis au Maroc.  Elle est la froide amazone au tempérament victorieux, la matérialisation du fantasme blond et lumineux de l’Oriental.

Annie, gaie et superficielle, qui cèdera au rêve americain et a son versant matérialiste en établissant une chaîne de restaurants en Floride.

Puis Betty l’idealiste, peu soucieuse des apparences et de la beauté extérieure, qui s’installera en terre sainte, munie du projet sioniste.

Enfin et surtout, Semtob lui-même, enchanté par Casablanca, la ville blanche, “ce parfait dosage entre l’Orient et l’Occident” qu’il sent disparaître.

Semtob se sent profondément enraciné dans un Maroc immemorial, “a la même odeur de graisse de mouton, de laine lavée, de beurre rance, d’olives, de braises consummées”. Semtob, dont l’ attachement à la monarchie Cherifienne va jusqu’à investir Sa Majesté d’une “pellicule sacrée”, quasi mystique. L’affection de ces juifs marocains  pour leur roi est sincère, réel, respectueux, soutenu par les fondations d’un long passé judéo-islamique commun.   Ainsi, George, le cousin de Semtob, se sent si proche de L’Islam qu’il en rêve de se convertir.

Chacun de ces personages est une projection de ce kaléidoscope d’identités , versatilité caméléonesque propre aux juifs marocains. L’onomastique savoureuse reflète cette diversité jusque dans la parodie, comme en ce qui concerne les Sebaoun, parvenus ridicules qui firent fortune á Paris et changèrent leur nom en Sebond.

Cet edifice sous-tendu par un équilibre délicat évoque l’univers du Guépard de Lampedusa ou Le  jardin des Finzi-Contini de Bassani.  C’est un monde entre-deux-mondes, hors du temps, et appelé á disparaitre.  La vision est en apparence nostalgique, surannée, d’aucuns diront passéiste.

Juillet 1971: un evenement vient cependant bousculer cette tension délicate s’échouant dans les cahots de l’histoire.  C’est la tentative de coup d’Etat de Skhirat, lors de la célébration de l’anniversaire du roi Hassan II, auquel est convié Semtob en tant que notable de la communauté juive. Le roi y échappa miraculeusement indemne. Semtob aussi, mais ces certitudes en furent soudain ébranlées à jamais.

Il comprit que l’identité juive auparavant faite d’une élégante mosaïque, tissée de fils multiples mais au fond tous exogènes, devait accomplir sa destinée dans son propre héritage, dans le Pentateuque ou les Psaumes de David, non chez Chateaubriand ou Daudet. Tel le prophète Moise guidant son peuple en terre promise, Semtob meurt a l’orée de cette épiphanie vers laquelle s’achemine délicatement mais inéluctablement le texte. Vision dynamique transcendant la nostalgie.

“Cultivez votre jardin”, la maxime voltairienne est proclamée énigmatiquement dans Candide et semble ici de circonstance. Car les jardins sont precisement l’un des leitmotifs du texte de Toledano , et la métaphore horticole traverse en sourdine son roman.  Lieux d’harmonie, de calme et d’équilibre, les divers jardins jalonnant le roman sont chacun investis d’ une symbolique particulière:

Du jardin figé et conventionnel d’Emilie, au jardin poétique de la cousine Phoebe, au jardin mystique du grand-père de Ruth la future epouse de Gilbert, au jardin de l’harmonie universelle établi en terre sainte par Gilbert et son epouse , le narrateur nous somme d’ explorer le mystère de l’être, de notre etre. La noblesse authentique, decrète le héro, se situe dans la tradition, dans notre propre jardin, dans l’énigme de soi.

La sagesse est a trouver non dans des poursuites passageres refletees dans les aleas de l’histoire et de la politique, interessant  l’auteur peu ou prou , mais dans le règne de l’eternel transcendant l’ici et maintenant.

Certes, Toledano est historien d’art de formation, et il connait la valeur du detail temporel.  Son ecriture minutieuse et precise sert paradoxalement a liberer la matiere du materiel, et a creuser la realite ad infinitum, en allant de l’apparence a l’essence.

Dans cet emploi du detail, se revele une connaissance intime de Balzac et de Proust, ces maitres jamais demodes du 19 et du 20e siecles, parce que c’est de la nature humaine jamais demodee qu’ils discourent. L’exigence pointilleuse, quasi maniaque du lexique redevient sous sa plume rafraichissante.

Ralph Toledano se situe sans conteste a contre-courant dans notre 21e siècle faits d’instatannés ephemeres, ou l’ideologie et la politique nous sollicitent inlassablement, nous forcant a nous determiner, et ou l’on recule devant la généralisation.  D’ou le charme au parfum parfois désuet mais de toute necessite de son ecriture.

C’est dans cet eloge de la tradition, a la fois litteraire et spirituelle, qu’il faut situer l’anti-conformisme de Ralph Toledano.

James Turrell, Gatsby and America’s idealism

James Turrell, Gatsby and America’s idealism

By Yaëlle Azagury

Great art often starts with the experience of disappointment, with thwarted expectations.  Contemporary art is even more intent in its use of irony.Upon the first minutes of my visit to James Turrell’s light installations at the Guggenheim Museum on view until September 25, I wondered what the hype was about.  As one of the security guards pointed out to a perplexed tourist in front of the second floor installation titled “Ronin” while he was scrutinizing the vertical light at the corner of the room: “this is it, there is nothing else to look for beyond it.”

Yet, as I sat in Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda transformed by “Aten Reign”, Turrell’s latest installation, and shed my urban armor while mentally extricating myself from the crowd’s chatter, I begun to feel subtle transformations running through my veins as the lights’ colors started to shift above my head ( I sat there for a good 10 minutes).  The sensations are not easy to describe, and each of us will probably have a different experience.  My own glided from feelings of oppressiveness, to enveloping warmth, exhilarating freedom, uplifting soaring and finally, detached coolness.

Aside from the sensorial shifts in perception, the experience is also spiritual, and transports the viewer to a meditative realm (admittedly, that state of meditation is sometimes hard to attain these days given how crowded museums have become…).  Light is a quintessentially American element, both literally -in nature, in the American wilderness, light is plentiful, even in winter-, and as a metaphor: light as a lofty ideal bestowed upon the American people by God, or even more directly as a metaphor for God.  Take for instance the Transcendentalist movement in the 19th century, a philosophical movement that advocated a direct access to the divine through nature, which was believed to be a kind of perfect spiritual state.  The Luminist painters (1850-1870), whose paintings are a visualization of Transcendentalist philosophy, depict landscapes bathed in sublime light: Albert Bierstadt’s lofty canvasses are a good example. In contrast, the use of light in English landscape painting for instance in the same period is more dull- take Gainsborough, Constable, or even Turner -, and it is only with French Impressionism and its subsequent migration to southern and sunnier locales that landscape painting start to incorporate more light, but there is none of the religious undertone found in Luminism.

Fast forward a bit later in American history, in the early years of the 20th-century, to The Great Gatsby: the iconic American hero stands every night outside of his West Egg home looking anxiously at the mysterious green light at the end of his beloved Daisy’s East End dock.  The light is both a metaphor for Daisy, and for some higher, unattainable spiritual yearning of sorts.  It is a lofty aspiration to soar, the quintessential American dream.

James Turrell, who is part of the Light and Space movement of the 60s is in my view a direct heir to the Transcendantalist tradition which invests light with a spiritual, even religious significance.  Turrell grew up as a Quaker, and the Transcendentalists were Unitarians, but both religions have in common the belief that every person has direct access to the divine without any mediation from priesthood.  There are other differences too:  the Transcendentalists were awed by Nature, and open spaces, Turrell’s installations are indoors and incorporate both natural and artificial light as well as the latest technologies.  There is also, it seems to me, a playful dimension in Turrell’s installations missing in the 19th-century movement: light cubes placed alternately in different spots of given installations alter our perception of the space, and invests it with meaning. Ultimately, however, a light is just that.

Nineteenth-century French painter and art historian Maurice Denis wrote very matter-of-fact in 1890: “Let us remember that a painting, before being a battle horse, a nude, or any other sort of anecdote, is essentially a plane surface covered with colors and assembled in a certain order.” To paraphrase the Guggenheim’s security guard mentioned earlier on: “what you see is what you get”.  The spiritual dimension of his work is the result of a manipulation of light projection, so it is fair to say the solemnity of Turrell’s art is inseparable from its inherent irony.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in: a new Feminist Path?

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in: A New Feminist Path?

Reviewed by Yaëlle Azagury, Ph.D

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I started Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean in with a negative bias.  I had heard about it in the media, where it was frequently hailed as a new feminist manifesto.  Slightly incredulous, I wondered: how could a businessperson (Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer), no matter how smart or successful, be qualified to give advice, lessons or for that matter craft a theory with something to contribute to feminism?   That requires a thinker, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a philosopher, in other words an observer and analyst of social mores, not someone immersed in the business of making money.

Sandberg’s own coquettishness about the book’s identity did not help her case, but rather added to the confusion:

“this book is not a memoir, although I have included stories about my life.  It is not a self-help, although I truly hope it helps.  It is not a book about career management, although I offer advice in that area.  It is not a feminist manifesto-okay, it is sort of a feminist manifesto…”

Denial being just a crafty form of affirmation, the book’s genre is basically stated in this paragraph’s literary game of hide-and-seek: it is an ambitious project that wants to be all of that.  But by blurring the lines between genres, we are basically getting all of them together, which is another way of getting neither… Its obvious self-help and career management aspects dilute the feminist manifesto side of it.

Collusion between politics and philosophy is frequent throughout history, but not of commerce and philosophy.  They are the antithesis of one another.  Blame it on my elitism, but I do not know of many thinkers who were also tradesmen… And her lessons, precisely because she is so earnest, so intent in presenting herself as humble and down-to-earth (qualities that are often appealing in self-help or career advice books, and valued in memoirs), are at times pedestrian, trivial, sketchy. Her book is a case study for a Harvard Business School M.B.A student turned into a defense and illustration of feminism in the 21st century .  She is selling the cause of feminism.

At the same time, the Lean In phenomenon attests to tectonic shifts in our society, and most notably to the glaring disappearance of the figure of the public intellectual and the simultaneous emergence of a newly found legitimacy for businesspeople to speak up on societal changes.  It is the celebrity factor. Obsolete are the likes of Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan-philosophers and journalists-whose job was to remain above the fray.  Globalization took down frontiers between nations.  Similarly, and perhaps courtesy of the Internet with the subsequent dilution of knowledge it brought with it, we must now live with a new porosity between fields traditionally separate.  It is no coincidence Sandberg comes from Facebook, with its culture of self-proclaimed stardom.

Yet, despite the cause of business somehow obscuring the cause of philosophy, I found several aspects of Sandberg’s book instructive, edifying and even illuminating.

In a nutshell, Sandberg believes (I agree with her) women are often their worst enemies.   I disagree though with a frequent critique taxing her of “having it all easy” thanks to perfect studies, a perfect mentor (Larry Summers), a perfect husband.  She wasn’t always rich and famous.  She had to work hard for her gains, and must be applauded for that.

So here are a few essential observations she makes women should remind themselves when building a career:

-the impostor syndrom: recent studies have demonstrated that women with high academic degrees often feel plagued by self-doubt: “Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are-impostors with limited skills or abilities.”  Given the same assignment than men, women will systematically underestimate themselves.

– negative stereotypes about women in the workplace as illustrated by the Heidi and Howard experiment: a 2003 study shows how given identical data, perceptions will differ vastly if it’s a man (Howard) or a woman (Heidi): “when a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women.  When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.”  These negative impressions end up holding a woman back because she doesn’t conform to social stereotypes of male and female.

-the tiara syndrom: women will be more reluctant than men to ask for a raise or apply for a promotion, because they tend to believe that their good work will be naturally rewarded, and “a tiara will be placed on their heads”.  Sandberg argues we must fend for ourselves rather than wait for an accolade.

-Finally, Sandberg’s device is : “done is better than perfect”.  A working woman who wants to have a meaningful career, a nice house, a caring husband, freshly made food for her family, perfectly organized linen closets, and impeccable children, is doomed to fail, and often-studies show-drops out of the workforce.  Instead, we should aim for “good enough”, rather than perfection.

These crucial points are part of the first half of the book (aside from the fourth point appearing towards the end), which brings in more theoretical aspects than the rest.  The second half unfortunately slips often into cliché talk.  For instance, Sandberg explains how Ariana Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, believes learning to withstand criticism is a necessity for women, and advices them “to let ourselves react emotionally and feel whatever anger or sadness being criticized evokes for us”.  Sandberg reinforces this view by adding in rather unexciting fashion: “allowing myself to feel upset, even really upset, and then move on-that’s something I can do.”

Really? Is this all we are learning from this?

At times, we feel as in a therapy session, as Sandberg advocates for instance a new-agey-meets third-wave-feminism-sort-of-vision: she says for instance it should become okay for women to show their emotions, to cry in the workplace.  She believes this shows their compassion and sensitivity, and argues those will be the qualities of future leaders. She calls for a naturalism of sorts, praising authenticity and idiosyncracies.

Cliches also abound in sections that read more as plain, run-of-the mill business advice: “take risks, it often pays off”, or “grab opportunities when you see them”.

Others are mere life-coaching (which is our modern name for good old-fashioned wisdom of nations): “when looking for a life partner, my advice to women is date all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys.  But do not marry them. (…) Find someone who is an equal partner.”

At times, she is so well-meaning and sympathetic to fellow women, it becomes slightly condescending, and falsely modest: “Sometimes high-potential women have a difficult time asking for help because they don’t want to appear stumped.  Being unsure how to proceed is the most natural feeling in the world.  I feel that way all the time.”

But beyond frequent redundancy and some talk that is often more common sense for the modern world than a new feminist manifesto, my final criticism is we run the risk of injecting gender in every discussion, or reduce everything to an issue of minority.  Bias and discrimination will be detected everywhere.

It is a defining American trait to create communities and sub-communities (Tocqueville observed this more than two hundred years ago) as a counterpoint to its intimidating size but also to its fierce economic individualism, and the subsequent loosening of social and family ties.  But an individual is not only the product of an ethnic or sociological entity, it is also a universal transcending differences in gender, color or race.

At the same time, we should also acknowledge women are different from men, if only because of an important biological difference:  they have the ability to give birth and ensure human reproduction.  So women in the 21st century still face the Sisyphean task of caring for their children and trying to have a meaningful career.

The dream of a fifty-fifty split between men and women in the workplace is a virtuous and unattainable ideal- Sandberg argues eventually men and women should be equally divided at home and in the workplace-but perhaps the seamless interchangeability of roles between genders is a mere utopian (even tedious) fantasy.

Despite a complacent rhetoric at times, Sheryl Sandberg’s book sheds a fresh and surprisingly invigorating light on women in the workplace who should be grateful someone with first-hand experience is voicing legitimate concerns.

The answers should certainly come from women themselves who need to internalize the feminist revolution in deeper ways, but we should also start asking for better social policies and government-based institutions allowing women to better dovetail family and work, rather than imposed by an artificial and imposed equality with its desire to even out gender differences.

The Traje de Berberisca: an Encoded Dress

An Ethnological Study of the Bridal Dress of Moroccan Jews also called Keswa el K’bira (Arabic)  or Traje de Berberisca (Spanish), this article first appeared in http://www.vocesdehaketia.com.  It is an exploration of Moroccan Jewish bridal customs and of the signs and symbols of this traditional dress.

Traje_de_Berberisca

Nature and its Discontents

France-America and the Culture Wars (not the Mommy Wars): What the Reactions to Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women can Teach us

By Yaëlle Azagury

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, by Elisabeth Badinter, Metropolitan Books, 169pp. $25
 

On a popular radio station, the talk show host recently railed against the hypocrisy of our society which looked at public breastfeeding as slightly awkward, if not downright inappropriate, while most magazines routinely exhibit voluptuous half-naked women showcasing their attributes as nobody seems to complain.  “Why”, he asked in outrage, “ are we so shocked by this most “natural” of practices: a mother breast-feeding her child?”

This is Tartuffe in reverse.  “Cover that bosom that I must not see”, said Moliere’s famous bigot who demanded Elmire cover her cleavage in the name of religious propriety.  While Moliere denounced the hypocrisy of 17th century French society that paled at a décolletage-Tartuffe is in fact secretly lusting after Elmire-, the talk show’s outcry is instead directed towards a society where décolletages are all but too common, a society so relaxed, so degenerate, so “libertine” as Moliere would say that breastfeeding-  the purest of gestures- is now under fire.  In other words, he is urging us to rekindle our original purity.

It is precisely this pedestal elevated for a newly re-anointed “naturalist” ideology that is Elisabeth Badinter’s target in a book that has been wildly misunderstood since its English publication in April.

In a nutshell, the argument is that modern motherhood has become increasingly demanding on women, as a new ecological model has emerged: natural birth is seen as desirable, a new yearning for pain in childbirth has surfaced, and doulas more common than one would think, breastfeeding for as long as one can is viewed as a plus, co-sleeping with your baby a sound practice for mother and baby, organic food and cloth diapers a desirable goal -anything with “chemicals” is frowned upon.

“Attachment parenting” is the idiom coined everywhere in the media as the epicenter of Badinter’s ire.  Never mind the concept is only used once in Badinter’s book, and as part of a more complex argument.  “The Conflict” has been systematically and single-mindedly analyzed in light of the recent trend of “parenting” books such as Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, or Pamela Druckerman “Bringing up Bebe” : good parenting versus bad parenting. “The Mommy wars have flared up once again”, writes for instance Amy Allen in The New York Times Opinionator column.  This is not entirely wrong. But it is too sketchy to reduce Badinter’s book to a self-help study.

This view is covering up a more profound issue in Badinter’s thesis about the divide between Nature and Culture, and our societies’ shifting thermometer on both.  In fact, the book has been the subject of 2 different kinds of misunderstandings; a cultural/political one and a philosophical one.

The cultural one concerns both the fascination and scorn French and American cultures have mutually honed for each other.  Misperceptions about Frenchness abound everywhere in the assessment of Badinter’s thesis as her ideas are caricatured and the two intellectual cultures (French and American) conflate against each other.

To oversimplify the issue, Badinter’s book has been so poorly received in the United States mainly because she is French.  Here are a few reactions in the press:  Melissa Fay Greene in the Huffington Post condescendingly writes for instance that her analysis is “amusing and insightful”, but “dated” (“it was right 30 years ago”), a widespread cliché on the French who are often dismissed as somehow not “serious” thinkers.  She sets herself as an example of how one can “have it all”, including nine children and four books, as if that wasn’t the exception versus the rule.  Note also that a balance between building a home with children and a career is exactly what Badinter advocates.

In the New York Times Book review, Judith Warner oversimplifies Badinter’s argument against breastfeeding with trite clichés on the French: they are emotionally stunted when it comes to their children and only interested in seduction.  She pins down a few quotes from Badinter’s, but they are out of context or part of a more complex argument: “ a nursing mother is not necessarily an object of desire for the father watching her”, or the practice (of breastfeeding) “may well obliterate the woman-as-lover and endanger the couple”. Never mind Badinter is right when observing that modern women are constantly under pressure to live up to estheticized ideals of physical perfection.  More than ever, our hedonistic society emphasizes this self-consciousness.  So vane thoughts like these would certainly be on their minds.

At the same time, Badinter’s argument also goes further.  Shouldn’t we at least give her the benefit of a serious debate?

She traces the resurgence of the nursing ideology to the late 50s and the creation of La Leche League, her bête noire: created in 1956 by seven Catholic mothers members of the Christian Family movement, known for its traditionalist views, the organization thrives on four major themes: “the moral authority of nature, the advantages of breastfeeding, the superior status of the mother, and her essential role in the moral reform of society”.  For Badinter, these themes rest on an “essentialist” and “deterministic” view of women (mothers should nurse because Nature made them this way), which is ultimately conservative.  Instead, Badinter sees feminism-and civilization by and large- as a relentless war waged against biology.

To date, there are certainly still areas of uncertainty on the advantages of breastfeeding, as Badinter reminds us using the results of a report by the Society of French Pediatrics: for instance, the claim that mother’s milk is superior for the child’s intellectual development is unfounded.  Other advantages, however, are well-known. In the United States, it is hard to find a doctor who doesn’t encourage the practice.

Among direct benefits, American studies are unanimous:  Breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life not only provides enhanced immunity, but is better for gastrointestinal function and prevention of acute illnesses (e.g. acute otitis media).

Although Badinter admits there are advantages to breastfeeding for at least the first six months (especially enhanced immunity), she is rather brief on the matter, lumping together La Leche League’s biased long list of benefits (she construes the League’s ideology as an unrealistic desire to create a “perfect mother”) and serious medical studies. In other words, her ideas, as the French daily newspaper le Monde pointed out, at times come across as “heavy artillery”.

However, her argument is hardly “outdated”, as it has often been called in the American press, especially by Jane Kramer, the first one to use that word in a profile in the New Yorker of June 2011.  Kramer’s article is full of cultural clichés: she presents Badinter as a “made-in-France intellectual” (other than being a stereotype, the expression is all but specific), a quaint “extravagantly entitled philosophe”, frozen in the eighteenth-century (“armed with the precepts of a candlelit past”) her area of expertise along with feminism- she wrote a famous book about maternal instinct arguing it doesn’t exist.  Kramer weaves her narrative with a tinge of scorn, amusement, even slight disrespect: in her words, Badinter likes to shuttle between her house in the French countryside where she has all her eighteenth-century research, and her bourgeois Parisian apartment where she keeps her feminist papers “in boxes”, like commuting between two centuries, and attends brainstorming sessions in an “old Renault hatchback” (how “French”, shall I add), deciding on major intellectual debates dividing the country like the Parity Law which aims at promoting the participation of women in politics in her bathtub.  Kramer obviously sees this as a sign of imbecility.  She also does not fail to remind us, that as the daughter of Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, an advertising magnate who built the Publicis Group in France, Badinter acts “from the cool remove of money, family and uncommon privilege”.  The same cliché is often applied to Bernard Henri-Levy, for instance, another French intellectual with a large fortune, as if sitting on a sizable bank account impaired one’s ability to think, or made it frivolous.

Far from being out of touch with the realities of contemporary mothers (she has been called “anecdotal”), Badinter is in fact voicing an entire generation of women born in the 1970s who have recently come to motherhood and stumbled on the new demands weighing on it:  writers Eliette Abécassis, Nathalie Azoulai, Marie Darrieusecq, Pascale Kramer, who all say they only realized the requirements of the job after the fact (“No one warned us” is a common theme).  These are all household names in France, but may not be known by the American public.  Anne Enright, an Irish author whose 2004 memoir “Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood” (Norton and Company) has just been published in the United States, makes a similar argument as Badinter yet has avoided literary execution.  She speaks for instance of “the womb police” who makes us believe we are doing everything wrong: “ They keep on preaching to the converted, and now that we are all eating our lamb’s lettuce and getting our folic acid, they have homed in on those most prevalent of middle-class vices, a cup of coffee and the occasional glass of chardonnay.”  Enright is refreshing when deriding the jittery mothers many of us have morphed into: “You must always check a silence”, she writes “not because the baby might have choked, but because it is in the middle of destroying something, thoroughly and slowly, with great and secret pleasure. It is important to remember this.”

Badinter, like Enright, plays agent provocateur, lifting taboos about motherhood.  She notes for instance that many women may not be cut for a job that is more depressing than exalting on a daily basis (the writer Judith Newman speaks of the “mind-numbing boredom that constitutes 95 percent of child rearing”) and the model of an “exclusive” or “intensive” mother may not work for them. That model however is insidiously more prevalent according to the author.  Although Badinter often proceeds by gross exaggeration, she puts her finger on a real issue.

The problem is the political disconnect between French and American intellectual cultures.  Elisabeth Badinter is considered in France as an intellectual from the Left.  Yet her American detractors criticize her from the same end of the political spectrum.  Why has she been so poorly received?

French and American democracies are based on radically different models.  The ideals of the French left are rooted in the “Declaration universelle des droits de l’homme” of 1789 (the equivalent of the Bill of Rights), and in the fundamental notion of “universalism”.  Universalism means that the right of men supersede cultural differences. American feminist philosopher Joan Scott calls it “the principle of the abstract individual”.

Universalism translates in the public arena as a centralizing movement, erasing (or at least putting on hold), not enhancing, cultural, ethnic or religious differences.  French democracy, or the French Republic, as it is called, is then a res publica, as is emphasized by its latin root, meaning a public matter.  In the public space, every individual is leveled with another.  An exception or a difference is publicly unacceptable (relegated to the private space) because it could potentially alter the neutrality of the space.  That is why the principle of laïcité, or secularism is so crucial to French democracy. For instance, the Burqa ban passed in France because the veil was ultimately perceived as disruptive in the transparency of the public space.  Gender difference is viewed in much the same way.  So the idea that women may have a special vocation just because they are women is equally unacceptable.

American democracy on the other hand rests on a de-centralizing movement –the country’s size playing no small role in that.  Differentialism (the celebration of differences) is at its core, due in part to the country’s immigrant history.  Minorities are viewed as enhancing the public space, rather than disrupting it and the difference between public and private less marked.

Furthermore, the French Left, shaped by the country’s staunch cartesianism ( “I think, therefore I am”, with the ensuing divide between mind and body) is by essence culturalist (roughly put, thought or artefact operates for the betterment of humanity), whereas the notion of natural belongs to the progressive imagination of America.  The discovery and exploration of the country’s natural majesty is inherent to the country’s beginnings as a new nation.  Thinkers such as Emerson and the Transcendentalists believed for instance in the inherent goodness of nature: Nature is God’s immanent presence in the world.

Furthermore, Badinter is spiritual heiress to Simone de Beauvoir’s assimilationist feminism.  De Beauvoir urged “ that the similarities of the sexes called for politics of equality and integration” : what united them was greater than what set them apart).  Contemporary American feminists are more prone to embrace the ideas of a feminist approach that emerged between the 70s and the 80s, which viewed the devalued qualities traditionally associated with femininity as strengths rather than weaknesses (menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth for instance are glorified).

All of this may explain why one of the central and most interesting contentions of Badinter’s book has been so flagrantly obscured and overlooked.  Here comes the philosophical misunderstanding.

She argues that the new model of motherhood discussed above has been propelled to the limelight thanks the resurgence of an old ideology, namely naturalism.

In the last forty years, naturalism, a forgotten ideology which “had at its core a belief that the world is governed by natural principles” (Badinter), or as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, “the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes”, has sprung back, prompted by an increasing wariness towards science and scientific discourse.  Badinter, like the overwhelming majority of the French left, is a culturalist.  For all the follies and hiccups of scientific progress, she believes that science has translated into astonishing medical achievements.  We owe to it Promethean conquests, longer life expectancy not the least of them.

And what is often viewed in America as progressive practices (breastfeeding, natural childbirth, organic diapers, organic baby food…) is in fact for Badinter, a step backwards, eating up at women’s hard-won freedoms, and propelling us into a regressive worldview whereby “natural” is always deemed better than “artificial”.

Take for instance modern attitudes towards the contraceptive pill.  The main grievances of women in their thirties are, as noted by Badinter: “fear of weight gain, rejection of chemical products.”  The risk of cancer, possible hormone imbalance, and the fear of sterility are also among the reasons given.   Dr Erin DuPree, an Obstetrician/Gynecologist and The Mount Sinai’s Medical Center in New York Chief Medical Officer, confirms the trend on a recent interview.  She also pointed out to me that taking the pill raises a woman’s hormone  levels, thereby mimicking the most “natural” state of women in their reproductive years, namely pregnancy.  So ironically, what is viewed as “artificial” is the closest those women will get to “natural”.

This vilification of chemicals, “linked as they are to poison and death” (Badinter) is what New Yorker journalist Michael Specter calls in a recent book our current fear of science and leads to what he offers to name “denialism”, a trend he also identifies as wishful or “magical” thinking.  According to Specter in a book entitled precisely “Denialism”, Americans mistrust science more today than ever before, often believing that serious health issues can be solved in more “natural” ways, taking medicine into their own hands (partly because for so long medicine was in the hands of unquestionable authorities, partly because the Internet fosters a sense of entitlement and expertise on all matters) or plainly rejecting it.  General wariness towards “evil” pharmaceutical laboratories suspected of being in for the money is also a common theme detected both by Badinter and Specter.

Similar attitudes towards childbirth are examined by Badinter.  She notes that a growing number of women opt for natural childbirth, claiming that epidurals, Caesarean sections and medicated births dispossess them of the uniqueness of the experience.

A recent article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “Mommy wars: the Prequel” by Samantha M. Shapiro confirms the diagnosis.  The article is about Ina May Gaskin, a midwife and home-birth evangelist from Tennessee who is, according to the article’s subtitle, “ finally winning converts in the mainstream”.  Shapiro shows not only that Gaskin’s books  -“Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth” or “Spiritual Midwifery”- are “a standard part of the pregnancy canon” in her well-read Brooklyn neighborhood, but that she is also winning more followers among a growing minority of white women (Between 2004 and 2009, “giving birth at home increased 29 percent”).  Gaskin is a vocal critic of American maternity care.  She claims for instance that C-sections are often unnecessary, and that many women and babies die due to post-operative infections or hospital errors.  She believes that giving birth is a natural life experience, not a medical or surgical event.  The Farm -the property where Gaskin delivers babies, whose very name stresses the “natural” features inherent to the place – is more than an hour away from a top-level N.I.C.U ward in Nashville. Childbirth is the ultimate means towards female empowerment and should occur while “laughing joyously”, not whining or under sedation.   She belongs to the trend in feminism that views female idiosyncrasies as strengths rather than weaknesses: vaginal, unmedicated births are opportunities for transcendence and communion.

Although many of Gaskin’s ideas are inherently rational, they are also the symptoms of a utopian yearning, a desire to view nature as a pristine state of perfection whereof no evil could arise. Many of Gaskin’s followers, attempting to escape the anaesthetized comforts of modern society long to feel pain again. Viewing it as a regressive fantasy, it is precisely this idealization of nature Badinter finds so disturbing. Could we have forgotten Nature’s double edge, both nurturing and unsparingly destructive?

Since the Industrial Revolution the idea of progress has been synonymous with the exploitation of nature.  It is generally associated with liberal ideas. Conversely, ideologies valuing nature have often been channeled by conservative discourses such as Fascism: closeness to nature, physical work, deep-rootedness in the land, wholesomeness of the earth, idealization of a pristine past are some of its most common themes.

The crucial ambiguity of the new ecological movement hinges on the following:  it presents traditionally conservative themes like the idealization of Nature under the guise of a new progressive ideology.  It blurs the lines between Left and Right because it borrows themes and ideas both from Left and Right.  It denounces our society’s selfish, amoral, pleasure-seeking consumerism.  Industrialization, science and technology are viewed as man’s worst enemies.  Nature is admired for its simplicity and wisdom.   In “The Conflict”, Badinter is essentially alerting us to a complete reversal of values operated by ecology as a political doctrine: “rather than mastering and using nature to address human needs and wants, humans are instead called to submit to the laws of nature.” And what appears as a benign, fundamentally decent, politically correct discourse, may well be one of our future’s veiled threats, as it destabilizes the very foundations on which our world is built.  Our society, says Badinter in other words, is focused on unmasking the evil done by science and industrialization, but it is that very focus that may be the real threat.

So any calls to purity, to Nature and its “simple” laws, including the seemingly innocent one proclaimed by the talk show’s host mentioned in the beginning should be examined with prudence or circumspection, at the very least, as politically correct discourses of the sort could potentially morph into devious forms of conservatisms long vanquished by contemporary societies.  Elizabeth Badinter’s book should then serve as a wake-up signal alerting us to these disturbing deviations threatening to blur the lines between progressive discourses and reactionary ones.

Merci, Madame Badinter, for your intellectual integrity.