Sunday, 16th May, 2004

NYT: The Springs of Fate

May 16, 2004


blivious of the consequences, the impetuous black sheep of a ruling family starts a war triggered by a personal grudge.

The father, a respected veteran of his own wars, suppresses his unease and graciously supports his son, even though it will end up destroying his legacy and the world order he envisioned.

The ferocious battle in the far-off sands spirals out of control, with many brave soldiers killed, with symbols of divinity damaged, with graphic scenes showing physical abuse of the conquered, and with devastatingly surreptitious guerrilla tactics.

Aside from dishing up a gilded Brad Pitt with a leather miniskirt and a Heathrow duty-free accent as he tosses about ancient insults, such as calling someone a "sack of wine," "Troy" also dishes up some gilded lessons on the Aeschylating cost of imperial ambitions and personal vendettas.

The Greek warriors question their sovereign's reasons for war, knowing that he has taken an incendiary pretext (Paris' stealing Helen from Sparta) to provide emotional acceleration to his real reasons — to settle old scores and forge an empire through war.

When Mars rushes into Achilles' soul in his battle with Hector, as Alexander Pope wrote in his translation of Homer's "Iliad," "the springs of fate snap every lock tight."

But Barbara Tuchman, in her book "The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam," observes that while the Trojans reject advice to keep that dagnab nag, as Rummy might put it, out of the walled city, "the feasible alternative — that of destroying the Horse — is always open."

Cassandra and others warned them. (The always ignored Cassandra is left out of the movie, but she must have sensed that was coming.)

"Notwithstanding the frequent references in the epic to the fall of Troy being ordained, it was not fate but free choice that took the Horse within the walls," Ms. Tuchman writes. " `Fate' as a character in legend represents the fulfillment of man's expectation of himself."

A State Department official noted last week that if any of the Bush hawks had read Ms. Tuchman's dissection of war follies, her warning about leaders who get an "addiction to the counterproductive," they might have been less rash.

"The folly" in Vietnam, she writes, "consisted not in pursuit of a goal in ignorance of the obstacles but in persistence in the pursuit despite accumulating evidence that the goal was unattainable, and the effect disproportionate to the American interest and eventually damaging to American society, reputation and disposable power in the world."

The Bush team, working on divine right, doesn't bother checking human precedent.

The president and secretary of defense boast about not reading newspapers, presumably because they don't want any contrary opinion or fact to shake their faith in the essential excellence of their policies.

It's astonishing the amount of stuff these guys don't bother to read, preferring to filter their information through their ideology. They certainly didn't read enough Iraqi history. They delayed looking at photos and reports on Americans abusing Iraqi prisoners. Paul Wolfowitz clearly wasn't bothering to read updated casualty reports.

The deputy defense secretary got cuffed around at a Senate hearing on Thursday when he admitted that he had first read a document that morning detailing questionable rules of engagement for confronting Iraqi prisoners.

As Ms. Tuchman notes, wooden heads are as dangerous as wooden horses: "Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs."

President Bush's Achilles' heel is his fear of wimpiness, and Dick Cheney and Rummy played on that, making him think he had to go to war once the war machine was revved up, or he would lose face and no longer be "The Man."

Maybe the president and vice president will catch "Troy" on their planes as they jet around to fund-raisers. But the antiwar message will probably be lost, except on the official who is both a snubbed Cassandra and a sulking Achilles, Colin Powell. "Wooden-headedness," Ms. Tuchman said, "is also the refusal to benefit from experience."

NYT: The Springs of Fate
logged by alf at 19:47, Sunday, 16th May, 2004

Tuesday, 4th May, 2004

Vain, self-pitying, arrogant: now the truth about writers

Amelia Hill

Sunday May 2, 2004
The Observer

Vain, self-dramatising, self-pitying, arrogant, callous, foolish, censorious and just plain selfish. Graham Greene claimed that every writer must have a chip of ice in his or her heart and, according to a new book, this is disturbingly close to the truth.
For the first time, spouses, children and parents of writers have collaborated in compiling their experiences of living with a scribe, remembrances which reveal the frustrations, irritations and sheer madness of sharing a roof with an ink-stained genius.

Judy Carver, daughter of William Golding, recounts how Ann, her intelligent and glamorous mother, subsumed her life into her father's, only to find herself ignored and sidelined as his fame grew.

'To begin with, my mother was the admired, successful one and my father was considered to be lucky to have won her and, by his own judgment, rather a dull figure by comparison,' Carver writes in Living With A Writer, to be published in August.

'But by the 1960s, my father was famous and successful. She had merged her life and her ambition with his, and she had relinquished her own occupation.

'His increasing status sometimes angered my mother. She became an adjunct to him in the eyes of strangers and had to stand by while journalists, readers and academics showered down more flattery on my father than was good for him.'

John Updike admits that, although working at home meant he had more time to spend with his own children, he feared his writer's imaginary life nevertheless created an unbridgeable distance between them.

'I had more free time with my sons than other fathers, though I wonder now when I was with them, was I entirely free?' he ponders. 'A writer's working day is a strange, diffuse thing that never really ends and gives him a double focus much of the time.'

His son, David, a successful author in his own right, agrees. 'You do not write a 400- or 500-page book every year by being easily distracted,' he said. 'I think my father would agree that his primary focus in life is his writing.'

Before she became a writer in her own right, Betty Fussell found her role as a wife to the writer Paul Fussell a thankless and confidence-sapping task.

'I married Paul partly because he was a writer. His talent was evident,' she said. 'The books came first, outweighing comfort, pleasure or family. And I had to agree. The work came first.' It was, however, when Betty became a writer herself that the relationship crumbled, unable to sustain the demands of two writers in one marriage.

'Finally, I violated the closed door of the sacred room reserved for writing,' she said. 'It was a betrayal that I now put my needs first.

'There was only room for one pudding at a time in our particular mould. I would have to break the mould if I wanted to continue to write, so I did and am sorry, then and now, that this was so.'

Not all relationships between two writers are doomed, however. Margaret Drabble and Michael Holroyd write warmly of their marriage, although they accept that such pairings walk a tight rope above disaster.

'Marriage, for writers married to other writers, poses particular challenges,' said Drabble. 'It has been noted that it seems easier to stay married to a writer who works in a different genre, thus avoiding the problem of competition or the fear of imitation.'

Drabble, whose marriage to Holroyd in 1982 was considered highly unusual after they chose to continue living in separate houses, believes that couplings composed of biographers and novelists, or biographers and playwrights, are least destined for implosion.

'I think biographers tend to be less moody and difficult to live with than novelists and playwrights, and more sympathetic to the moods of others,' she said, pointing to the successful partnerships between Richard Holmes and Rose Tremain, Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin, Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter.

Holroyd credits the public reaction to his early unusual living arrangements as proof that non-writers can never understand the needs and desires of the writer.

'Though we share much, the secret part of ourselves remains our writing,' he said. 'Each understands the despair of the other and we understand that a writer's life is essentially untidy. We shall never be able to organise those tables covered with paper, those bulging drawers.'

Vain, self-pitying, arrogant: now the truth about writers
logged by alf at 11:43, Tuesday, 4th May, 2004