Nazis, Nuremberg, and Gold-Digging Women

Harry Evans, David Foster Wallace, Jean Baudrillard, George Clooney, Michael Moore, Virginia Woolf, Evan Marriott, Corey Feldman, John Updike, Martin Heidegger, Tariq Aziz, Albert Speer, Martin Amis, Adolf Hitler, George Steiner, W.H. Auden

Nazis, Nuremberg, and Gold-Digging Women

Tom Bissell
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In 1993 (remember 1993? William Jefferson Clinton was inaugurated, Jurassic Park became the biggest movie of all time, Harry Evans admitted the twenty-nine Random House books that made the New York Times’s “Notable Books” list that year collectively lost $600,000, Brutus Beefcake wrestled Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship belt, and the first wholly graphical interface for the World Wide Web was created) David Foster Wallace published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction an essay entitled “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” It would prove a piece of criticism as influential as it was habitually quoted. Wallace argued, among other things, that television (“an incredible gauge of the generic”) had become one of the prime source materials for young fiction writers in search of “what Americans want to regard as normal.” Without simplemindedly demonizing television, Wallace made a fearsomely intelligent case that television, “a syncretic, homogenizing force that… both fears irony’s capacity to expose, and needs it,” has had an interesting but ultimately solipsistic effect on many American fiction writers. If, Wallace argued, we all watch, on average, six hours of television a day, then it followed that “how human beings who absorb such high doses understand themselves will naturally change, become vastly more spectatorial, self-conscious… We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching. Pretty soon we start to ‘feel’ ourselves feeling, yearn to experience experiences.’”

The most widely consulted reality dispenser the world has yet known, television has altered if not forever scrambled our reality-processing machinery. Indeed, considering the distinct ways television has affected human interaction, what many of us regard as reality might as well be called Reality™. But since “E Unibus Pluram” was written, certain developments have made the reality-television dialectic even more complicated. Most prominent among them has been the phenomenon of reality television, or, as I am going to call it, Reality Television, which, like interim government and friendly fire, is one of the language’s more hideously modern contradictions in terms. To an extent scarcely conceivable even ten years ago, Reality Television allows its subjects and audience alike to watch themselves watching, “feel” themselves feeling, and “experience” all manner of experiences. Everything that is happening onscreen is happening to “real people.” (The con here is mild, but the “real people” angle explains why so many reality shows insist on constantly specifying people’s occupations. We are not simply looking at Jeanne from North Attleboro, Massachusetts; this is Jeanne, Director of Marketing, from North Attleboro, Massachusetts.) Dismissed are the actors who, as Wallace noted, are “absolute geniuses at seeming unwatched.” Seeming watched is now the point. That lithe young woman mountain biking over a ladder planked between two buildings in downtown Los Angeles or that grizzled man gathering firewood along some deserted rind of beach in Oceania might as well be you. Could be you. After all, it is real.

But what is reality? Better put, what is American reality? Jean Baudrillard once wrote that American reality is “a hyperreality… Americans, for their part, have no sense of simulation. They are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it, since they themselves are the model.” Baudrillard wrote that—he also wrote, “America is a giant hologram”—in the late 1980s. Baudrillard seems to have foreseen some of the possibilities of simulation that would one day be available to Americans, but even he could not have guessed how weirdly, literally correct he would one day be. Reality Television works on exactly Baudrillard’s assumption: We are all simulated people now.

It’s difficult to figure out what to make of such an insight. The intellectual mileage one gets from statements such as “Americans are all simulations” is fairly low. Fine, we are simulations. Then what? (Tenure, one supposes.) A plainer but vastly more useful way of looking at American reality is as the time we spend when we are not actively thinking about what is happening to us. The time, in other words, when we are not watching. Reality could be considered nothing more than a series of unreflective moments when we are simply alive in our lives. When we do notice ourselves it is often to become self-conscious in the itchy televisual way Wallace laments. We freak out, convincing ourselves that we are not attractive or successful. We grieve that our friends are neither quick-minded nor tightly knit, that the score accompanying our lives is not powerful enough. It has no Wagnerian oomph, no trumpety neo-Rocky fanfare. The mode through which many people understand their lives is the same mode through which they understand visual entertainment. In some this cognitive sickness is more pronounced than in others. Such people often become famous.

Not surprising, then, that the nature of reality is a point often confused. The truth is, during the vast majority of reality virtually nothing happens save for the familiar reverberations of eating, sleeping, and work. As anyone who has read Baudrillard can attest, it is extremely difficult even to make the concept of reality interesting. Good or strange things that happen are often considered “unreal.” “You have to deal with reality,” one is occasionally told, as though it were somehow obvious that reality amounts to difficulty. Equally pervasive is the sense that reality is more intense than most of what happens in the course of a normal life. This is doubtless what the hip-hop generation is talking about when it speaks of “reality” and “keeping it real.” (Incidentally: “keeping it real.” Could there be a dumber phrase? When is reality not real?) But strangeness and excitement and difficulty are no realer than anything else. They are only parts of reality. What people who want it “kept real” are actually saying is this: Do not surpass my expectations. Do not overrule my reality.

Why Reality Television is so popular is by all accounts an extremely complicated question. The new George Clooney film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind attempts to sell its audience the bill of goods that its hero, Chuck Barris, single-handedly created the Reality Television trend in the late 1960s. Others enlist bizarro survey shows such as That’s Incredible! as primary influences. Others go to the beautifully restrained PBS series An American Family from the 1970s. Others yet credit shows such as Love Connection for keeping Reality Television’s torch burning during the genre’s dark ages. My own shaky opinion on the matter is that Reality Television has, in one form or another, always played a crucial role in the history of television. It did so in the form of the game show. Most of today’s Reality Television is, in fact, some foaming, rabies-ridden version of the game show. Initially game shows were based on what people knew. Then, on what people would admit. Now, of course, they seem based on what people will do. This evolution has not always been a happy one.

One thing of which I am more certain is that the simultaneity of the rise of our current brand of Reality Television with that of some frightening geopolitics is no coincidence. When “reality” is forcing us to ponder what brand of duct tape we will use to seal our windows when a batch of aerosolized ricin is released in midtown Manhattan, switching on Fear Factor to watch a bathukopian blond chow down on grub worms seems comparatively appealing. Reality has lately achieved a higher, sharper key than any it has seen for some time. If one chooses, reality today can be basically experienced as a state of unending low-frequency terror. If one chooses: reality, to a large extent, is selected. In what may or may not be a relevant side note, I have yet to see any footage from the September 11 attacks. Not once have I willfully seen the planes collide, the buildings fall, the people jump. The lone glimpse I did get was against my will. This occurred during the Michael Moore film Bowling for Columbine, which shows handheld footage of one of the planes hitting Tower Two. Thankfully I turned away in time. Not seeing the footage was and remains a conscious decision on my part, akin to a kind of visual vegetarianism. A few have told me that until I see with my own eyes the reality of the attacks I will never be able to deal with them. I counter that I have dealt with the attacks superbly. Their reality is, for me, well established. Once, during foliage-stripping winter months, I could see the Twin Towers from my apartment’s front window. Now I cannot. It is not that the attacks are real that bothers me. What bothers me is how horrible they were. In other words, the collapse of the Twin Towers wildly surpassed my expectations. Mohammed Atta and his fell company most certainly did not keep it real for me.


One of the few contexts in which one can expound upon the nature of reality and not sound like a braying Baudrillardian ass is when discussing works of art. (Any use of “art” throughout this essay is intended to refer to forms of it that rely upon traditional narrative.) This is because everything outside art’s dominion is real: boredom, suicide, death, birth, ingrown hair, tooth decay, betrayal, happiness, warmth, basketball, grass, sponge cake. Reality has rules. Even warfare, one of reality’s more awesomely unreal manifestations, has rules. But art has no rules, only guiding ideals and proven principles. These ideals and principles have varying degrees of utility, all of them dependent upon an amazing number of variables within the artist him- or herself. What, then, do the majority of artists again and again choose to explore in their new unbound freedom from reality? They choose to explore reality. At the frayed ends of physics and religion and emotion and politics, reality is finally all we have, as unreal as it sometimes seems, and as frightening as it often is.

Reality is differently captured by each medium that attempts to recreate it, and in each medium reality suffers in an especial way. But this is a commonplace. It is also barking up a tree that Virginia Woolf, for one, found herself sitting in as long ago as 1926. Not surprisingly, Woolf considered the moving pictures of her time a “parasite” form of art. However, she was far-seeing enough to go on to say:

[I]f so much of our thinking and feeling is connected with seeing, some residue of visual emotion which is of no use either to painter or poet may still await the cinema… The exactitude of reality and its surprising power of suggestion are to be had for the asking. Annas and Vronskys—there they are in the flesh. If into this reality [the film-maker] could breathe emotion, could animate the perfect form with thought, then his booty could be hauled in hand over hand.

Some would say that Woolf’s hope has been fulfilled, some that it has been squandered and perhaps even destroyed. Others would prefer to forget the whole thing and keep reading books. Whatever one’s feeling, there is no question that the evolution of film has left it reaching far, far too often into its quiver of effects to achieve the sublime state of total communication of which Woolf believed it capable. In Norman Rush’s 1991 novel Mating, a character claims, memorably, not to watch film because it relies to an emotionally fascistic extent on music. (Try watching a scored film without its music sometime; the point is hard to argue.) Television, with the sly ways it goes about making almost everything appear as though it were being broadcast live, promises an experience most congruent with reality. In fact, it offers what is by far the most unreal experience, unless anyone’s life happens to occur in eight-and-a-half to ten-minute chunks of time, each ending with its own expertly realized dramatic bottleneck and bracketed by commercials for Hyundai and Target. Thus one returns to Woolf’s gambit and, perhaps, sighs. We sigh because the literature she is defending is such a tired old soldier, its best campaigns long behind it. The form literature takes is, furthermore, impossibly dissimilar from how reality is actually experienced. It is just a plain white piece of paper, for Christ’s sake, and decoding the marks upon it requires a patently asinine amount of work. (There are adults who cannot read. Have you ever heard of an adult who cannot watch? I am not talking about blindness.) And words have nothing like the immediacy of images. They are an abstraction of an abstraction. So here literature is, throwing up one interpretive roadblock after another, boasting what is easily the largest number of boundaries between it and visceral reality. Why on earth do people keep reading? Why are words—what William Burroughs once called “an around-the-world, ox-cart way of doing things”—still used by any artist to give shape to his or her reality? Should not all of us be making pictures?

The answer is simple. Literature offers its audience the most exhilarating and profound understanding of reality of any form of art. As Forster has it in Aspects of the Novel, literature is the only form of art that allows effortless access to the inner lives of its subjects. Films can hint at inner lives (via gesture, dialogue, or, at their more ambitious, production design) but they cannot deliver inner lives with anywhere near the steaming placental vividness of literature. Television, mostly, does not bother. I use “literature” here as a term to fairly encompass poetry and nonfiction, but realizing the inner life and its connections to outer reality is a noble flag that fiction carries particularly well. This goes a long way toward explaining why novelists have consistently understood their duty as re-creating their reality with at least as much fidelity as they experience it. (Whether we respond to that reality is, of course, another, far sadder question.) It also clarifies why even mediocre fiction leaves one feeling better about oneself than mediocre film or television. This is not some cobwebbed vestige of elitism. Fiction simply forces one to dig deeper into oneself. None of this is to claim that fiction does not have serious and, perhaps, insurmountable disadvantages when compared to other forms of art, and it may be that the novel, like epic poetry, is doomed to appeal most to a specific audience over an equally specific historical era that we are now seeing come to a close.


What of Reality Television, then? Over the last two years we have all heard various champions make a case for Reality Television as a new thing altogether. It possesses, these cheerleaders maintain, the traditional immediacy of film, the communal lure of television, and, at its best, the intimate emotional impact of something very much like literature. Thus I began to watch it. Quite a lot of it. I can now say that Reality Television is pretty much regular television starring actors who cannot act. Reality Television may not be manipulated in the same leadenly proficient way as, say, a typical episode of 24, but one can be sure it is manipulated as energetically. Nevertheless, Reality Television has its appeal. For one, it is embarrassingly engrossing and often a lot of fun. It also reminds us that the real things we do see happen on Reality Television are, however staged, so much fucking weirder than anything one is bound to find in fiction or real life.

Now that we have clearly drawn a thick red conceptual line between the reality that most of us understand as existing all around us (concrete is hard, snow is cold, gamma rays are deadly) and the heightened, even farcical reality of literature, film, and television (villains will, if given the chance, gladly provide a bullet-point outline of their plans; even if a very funny joke is told no one will laugh), we need to draw a virtual circle of containment around the reality that Reality Television attempts to portray as real. For the world within Reality Television is, for me at least, basically unrecognizable. Women, connivers virtually all, are typically dim and good-looking, while the men, most too impenetrable to connive, are a striking mixture of dim and good-looking. Money is the objective correlative in this world, and people will do virtually anything for what are not always large amounts of it. (“That show is the most purely degrading thing on TV,” one Reality Television producer recently said of a rival show. “They’re eating a horse’s ass for only $50,000.” The most viciously gifted satirist could not have conjured a more perfect prepositional qualifier than that for only $50,000.) In recent months, though, enough has surfaced about the bad-faith practices of the genre’s producers to earn the “Reality” in Reality Television not only ironic capitalization but permanent quotation marks. (Some within the industry have taken to the more neutral term “nonscripted television.”) In the Reality show High School Reunion, several young men and women from the 1992 graduating class of Oak Park and River Forest High School in Illinois are brought together for a six-week trip to Hawaii. Except that not all of them graduated together. And that most of them do not, in fact, fit the severely constrictive molds—Nerd, Jock, Popular Girl—they were assigned for the show. (The halogenically lit building shown during the show’s opening credits is not even Oak Park and River Forest High School. That, friends, takes balls.) One prospective High School Reunion cast member, now a track coach at Cornell University, up and quit the show when he was pressured by the producers to play a Nerd. “I was just so struck during the interview process over how simplistic the clichés were they were looking for,” the tense-challenged coach told Entertainment Weekly.

More notorious yet is Joe Millionaire. Evan Marriott, the construction-working blue-collar exemplar plucked from supposed poverty by the show’s producers, has since been revealed to have spent his days of pre-Joe penury living in a two-million-dollar home in Venice, California. He also apparently did not know what the show’s premise was until the eleventh hour: “The day before I left for France, I signed confidentiality papers which said what the show was about,” Marriott told Time magazine. “At that point, could I really back out?” Though I hesitate to venture an opinion without consulting a lawyer, I believe the answer to that question is actually a profoundly emphatic yes.

Joe Millionaire, which recently broadcast its last episode, became one of the few Reality shows at which even board-certified anti-television intellectuals admitted to stealing a weekly look. The show’s premise had an amoebic simplicity: Would a man sell his soul for poontang and publicity, and would a menagerie of women sell theirs for a big pile of dough? Admittedly, the lures were considerable. Marriott possessed a ripped body, a head of dark floppy hair, and a face that looked a little as though someone had polished and perfected James Carville’s against a whetstone. The women, for their part, were led to believe that this handsome prole in shining blue jeans had recently inherited $50 million.

Although Joe Millionaire had the shrill, trashy exuberance of an aging drag queen, it remains difficult to isolate what made it so appealing to so many. (In this, too, it is like an aging drag queen.) The show’s ideas about wealth were roughly as current as the XYZ Affair, its ideas about gender strictly late Cretaceous. Joe Millionaire was actually an Iditarod of false starts, its rethinks and fudges apparent with every episode. During the show’s premiere, a scarily authoritative voice-over narrated that Marriott “will lavish [the twenty women] with riches in order to find the woman who will love him for who he is.” But Marriott was not actually rich, remember, and was engaged in a contest to find out which woman would love him for who he was not. The one thing that would have gone some distance in exculpating Joe Millionaire—knowingness—was nowhere in evidence. Instead we had a show with the internal consistency of plutonium.

My feeling is that not a few viewers used Joe Millionaire the way many of us sometimes use talk radio. That is, to provide a terrifying little reminder of how dumb, misled, and wrongheaded 75 percent of the American public routinely appears to be. This is helpful to remember when one finds oneself counting on one’s countrymen to see through the cheap populism of various elected officials or to reject the tacitly impossible conspiracy theories of the Right and Left. It is not that Americans are stupid. All of us are stupid about some things, and Americans are probably the most educated people on the planet (terrifying thought!). But the America reliably on talk-radio display is so unbelievably strident about the things it is stupid about. It is an America with a profound disinterest in everything yet an America that still manages to have an opinion about everything, an America plagued with a shallow shitty cynicism, and above all an America with an evangelical determination never to have its mind changed. As I say, these things are helpfully remembered whenever one wishes to avoid disappointment. Joe Millionaire had a similar kind of effect, but what one was being reminded of was the basic cultural impossibility of large numbers of either sex ever managing to understand one another.

In Joe Millionaire’s first episode, for instance, we see that all twenty of Marriott’s potential life partners really, really love the quiet, Gracelandic elegance of his phony French chateau. Marriott, meanwhile, is shown boning up on the finer points of wealth—wine, horses, the tango. Many of the ladies variously profess to feeling like a princess in a fairy tale or, in a slightly more fantastical trope, a fairy princess. “I am so a real-life princess right now!” one shouts. But fairy tales end. At the close of the episode Marriott sends packing several princesses for failing to be appealing. The “winners” are presented with a pendant. (“A pendant is a necklace, right?” one woman asks.) Soon Marriott is down to a more manageable number of gold-digging cows, at which point the show inadvertently becomes a kind of whistle-blowing exposé of the failure of American public education. Marriott is given a nice snifter of wine, for instance, and with evident approval announces that it tastes like wine coolers. (Adventures in wine became one of the show’s most reliably appalling gags. In another episode one of Marriott’s dates asked for a wine that was not “grapey.”) When Marriott inquires of one woman what she would do if she came into 50 million big ones, she tells him she would go to a Third World country and “bathe their children.” Marriott does not blink. “But that’s me,” the woman goes on. “I’m a mercenary kind of person.” He does not blink again. (She meant, of course, “missionary.” Maybe. Who can know!) Another woman—actually, the same woman—rhapsodizes in an on-camera interview that, during her date with Marriott, “the sun setted.” One woman claims to like Marriott because he does not seem to have a lot on his mind, and another claims to like Marriott because he is not “extraneously intellectual.” This is not even to address the show’s other achievements, among them the flagrant dishonesties all but admitted to by the show’s editing. Outfits change in mid-date, conversations are poorly superimposed onto unrelated faraway footage, and sex is always implied with a shot of a closed bedroom door regardless of what is actually happening.

And sex does seem to be what Reality Television is more or less about. Reality shows such as Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People suggest that television, its options rapidly dwindling now for decades, is slowly but surely pushing toward 250 channels of full-penetration pornography, with occasional news broadcasts updating viewers on the lives of those who make and star in full-penetration pornography. If this seems like an overstatement, a recent episode of Hot? provided American viewers with a crouching, laser-pointer-wielding judge headily investigating whether a woman contestant’s inner thighs brushed together when she walked.

Hot?’s producer, Mike Fleiss, who also created The Bachelor, one of the genre’s more popular shows, shared with Entertainment Weekly his view that “If you took this stuff off the air, viewers would freak out.” (Fleiss has also offered what he clearly believes is a watertight response to the criticism that Reality Television is not even remotely real: “What you’re doing is setting up a ridiculous, contrived situation and then setting that in motion. Then what happens after that is, hopefully, real.” One wonders if during his readings Fleiss has ever come upon the name Schrödinger.) How the nation would react to the wholesale cancellation of Reality Television remains to be seen. The purpose of television is of course to rivet an audience to its collective seat in order to charge advertisers huge amounts of money for commercial airtime. Reality Television is often riveting, so Fleiss may be right about widespread panic resulting in the termination of Reality shows. He may be wrong. More and more in the television industry are reportedly falling out of grimy love with Reality shows precisely because networks are not able to bill advertisers the same high rates they can expect for a reasonably intelligent, well-produced sitcom or drama. (The success of Reality shows has especially embittered the creative minds in the traditional television industry. Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of the popular Gilmore Girls, recently lamented, “Rather than solely focusing on convincing the Olsen twins to allow themselves to be eaten by bears in prime time, I wish [Reality Television producers] would focus on something that would really last.”) Simply put, the captains of network television are growing disillusioned with Reality Television because of its core audience. This core audience, widely believed by advertisers to be unsophisticated and mendicant, is making it increasingly difficult for networks to fill the average Reality show’s commercial breaks with profitable ads. (The larger, more successful Reality shows, such as Joe Millionaire, are not the issue here, as they are sequel-less “event” shows that are at least as old as Evel Knievel jumping the fountain in Vegas.) Reality Television’s very realness, its appeal to brain-dead mouth-breathers who do not care for stuff that is “made up,” will be what ultimately destroys it. The crisis here is so superbly contrived that we are probably doomed to a successful Reality Television show about the making of a successful Reality Television show.

One of the odder Reality shows to have debuted in the last year does not even attempt to honor the putatively organic riggings upon which Reality shows have traditionally hung their enticing premises. The Surreal Life’s basis—seven celebrities, purged from the Elysium of higher fame, living together for ten on-camera days in a mansion that once belonged to Glen (“Rhinestone Cowboy”) Campbell—is about as real as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Each episode quickly becomes a dogged interpretive chore, since so much of the interactive meat and potatoes taking place between these celebrities is clearly elided from the show’s final cut. It is hard to believe, in other words, that former Tiger Beat staple Corey (Dream a Little Dream) Feldman is truly the monument of disgusting fraudulence he appears to be here, or that Brande Roderick, a former Playboy playmate, could live so functionally upon the boundary between idiocy and mental retardation. (When told that the Campbell mansion has only three bedrooms, Roderick says, “If it only has three bedrooms, I’d better hurry up and pee!”) One of The Surreal Life’s most surreal moments occurs when none of the celebrities recognize fellow cast member Jerri Manthey, a woman who became notorious for her devilry during the second season of the Reality show Survivor. But Manthey is arguably the most famous person on The Surreal Life, having seen more career exposure over the last few years than all of her housemates combined. Yet her fellow cast members do not recognize her, and even (initially, at least) reject her—because she became famous on Reality Television, the mode they have all been driven to in order to engage in what Feldman calls “image repair.” It should be noted that The Surreal Life is basically impossible not to watch, less like the proverbial train wreck and more like observing a fleet of UFOs as they collide in mid-air. And yet sitting through The Surreal Life, to say nothing of Joe Millionaire or Fear Factor or Big Brother or Meet My Parents or (my favorite) Blind Date, very often leaves one awash in a sallow stupor several times more intense than the typical post-TV self-esteem crash. I defy any honest consumer of Reality Television to refute this. The form itself leaves one feeling sullied.

In a recent Time magazine essay entitled “Why Reality TV Is Good for Us,” the television critic James Poniewozik cheerily admits that “there’s little reality in reality TV: those ‘intimate’ dates, for instance, are staged in front of banks of cameras and sweltering floodlights.” Still, Poniewozik wonders, “When was the last time CSI made you call your best friend or holler back at your TV?” Poniewozik spends the majority of the essay fawing over the idea of Reality Television: “[R]eality TV is… the best thing to happen to television in several years. It has given the networks water-cooler buzz again; it has reminded viewers jaded by sitcoms and dramas why TV can be exciting; and at its best, it is teaching TV a new way to tell involving stories.” One is tempted to assume, here, that Poniewozik is searching less for the cultural temperature of America and more for some way to justify to himself why he enjoys watching what is at best fun but indefensible crap. The fact that a lot of people—“tens of millions,” Poniewozik maintains—are watching Reality Television does not mean it is good for us. And the fact that James Poniewozik thinks Reality Television is saving our nation one water cooler at a time does not mean it is good for us either. To his credit, Poniewozik allows for a few half-hearted codicils: “[T]he case against reality TV is mainly moral—and there’s a point to it.” He writes, “But wallowing in the weakness and failings of humanity is a trademark of satire—people accused Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain of being misanthropes too—and much reality TV is really satire boiled down to one extreme gesture.” Wow. Where to begin?

Swift and Twain seem a little far afield of defending a genre that most often resorts to depicting some moussed goon attempting to score cooter on national television. And satire is artifice, a ground-up construction. Satire takes any number of recognizable elements of a given reality and jiggers a few of them, oftentimes taking them to their logical (though not necessarily realistic) conclusion. Satire is satire when the audience recognizes the exaggeration and the characters within the satire do not. The people in Reality Television are not, strictly speaking, characters. They are people playing roles, to be sure, but human nature would dictate that not one of them is trying to be anything but admired by his or her audience. This even applies to the self-styled “Bitches” and “Players” Reality Television heaves at us by the dozen. Bitches and Players want, respectively, to be feared and envied. If one is a Bitch or a Player, this is the form admiration takes.

Poniewozik confuses the matter even further by noting that when “a reality show depicts bad behavior, it’s immoral, misanthropic, sexist or sick. When The Sopranos does the same thing, it’s nuanced storytelling.” Of course, The Sopranos is fiction. It exists in a moral universe presided over by the gods of authorial (not to mention actorly) intent. All art is moral, since virtually every decision one makes as an artist is at its core a moral decision. As the novelist Robert Stone once noted, even laughter is a moral response. Conversely, Reality Television has no inner geometry and no authorial intent. It has, at best, editorial intent. It is amoral or, worse yet, assumes the quick, reactionary morals of mass-audience rule. A work of fiction can take us into the mind of a wife-beater and, if the writer is especially skilled and sensitive, allow its readers some measure of human insight, even though it may be unsettling. By Poniewozik’s logic, a man who beats the shit out of his wife and kids, provided he is watched by a large enough number of people, can be great entertainment. It is a dodgy form of entertainment indeed when its victims are literal, and Reality Television is filled with victims, however willing they often are. This sense is, I believe, precisely what fills one with unease about Reality Television. The whole genre leaves one both vaguely unnerved and completely dissatisfied, for it does not even attempt to explain why anyone would want to do to him- or herself what Reality Television so often asks people to do. Maybe I am naive, but money is not answer enough. Neither is the dark black asterisked sort of fame one garners from appearing on a Reality show. The scales do not balance. Reality Television asks everything of its subjects and nothing of its audience but that it watch. This makes it identical to, among other things, pornography. That what Reality Television depicts is basically real, that it happened, is finally not compelling enough. Things “happen” all the time: the banality of reality.



What, one might ask, is the big deal? Say that a steady cultural diet of Reality Television is leaching away important strata of consciousness among a significant number of Americans. This is not happening to everyone. The people most affected by Reality Television are not likely to have known what to do with their consciousnesses in the first place. Plenty of people do not even watch television, much less Reality Television. Our culture moves along. All of this is very true. But it is not, strictly speaking, Reality Television that so troubles me. Troubling is the larger cultural sense that the documentary impulse somehow trumps that of the imagination. I do not mean to suggest that Documentary Films—a genre I admire so much I am capitalizing it—are not themselves imaginative or hugely worthwhile. The point is that our culture seems less and less inclined to give any meaningful credence to an experience with something purely imaginative. What if books such as David Gates’s Jernigan or Richard Price’s Clockers were simply straight, unreflective portraits of self-loathing, human stupidity, and criminality? Their brutal “reality” would be unendurably repellant. The pleasures of consciousness and imagination both works undeniably provide their readers would be lost. It seems that Reality Television is doing to everything what television did to movies and what movies did to literature. It is lowering the reality exchange rate of anything short of the sensationalistic and, thus, its cultural value.

Let us take, for example, the events of 11 September, 2001. There have been many nonfiction books about the event, some of them goodhearted, the majority thoroughly worthless. The day’s most significant book, William Langewiesche’s American Ground, is a tremendous, perhaps even peerless achievement of empathy and reporting. Yet when I finished it, I did not feel I understood what happened any more than I did before turning its first page. All I knew was more about what happened. The kind of insight I was craving, I knew, I was only going to get from fiction. And yet our fiction writers have mustered an even more miserable response to the attacks. Most prominent among them is John Updike, a writer, let it be made clear, I love and admire. Updike’s story, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” which was published in The Atlantic Monthly, steals into the minds of the various actors (a stewardess, a hijacker, and so on) doomed to play a role in the morning’s gory dramas. Updike’s story is, in the kindest possible terms, a mistake. In less kind terms, it is an unforgivable piece of shit. Updike was not alone. Magazine-editor friends have described for me the numerous 9/11 short stories they received from well-known writers after the attacks, all of which, they said, were at their most successful merely embarrassing. I remember, during the fall and winter of 2001, scores of fiction writers coming forward to admit how difficult it was to convince themselves that their work had the slightest ounce of meaning anymore. I did not understand the feeling then and understand it less now. During World War I, Wilfred Owen was writing poems through mustard-gassed eyes. Prisoners in the Soviet Gulag wrote tiny-print essays on bars of soap. If one’s work as an artist does not sustain one in the face of the unspeakable, then why bother being an artist? If those fiction writers’ work seemed pointless after the towers came down, my hunch is that it was fairly pointless while they were still standing.

Nevertheless, atrocity is difficult to illuminate. To admit as much can seem like an endorsement of the reverse-philistine position of Claude Lanzmann, director of the nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah, who has repeatedly gone on the record to say that the Holocaust cannot be addressed in fictional terms. It is a subject for reality only. But surely it is not that atrocity cannot be fictionally illuminated, only that it is extremely (and appropriately) difficult to figure out how to address atrocity in fictional terms. Here we find ourselves staring into the imperious face of another well-known Holocaust axiom: the banality of evil.

It is well known that the originator of the phrase, Hannah Arendt, attempted to obscure the extent of her boyfriend Martin Heidegger’s collaboration with the Nazis, and once wrote a staunchly Prussian essay defending American segregation. Less well known, as Shlomo Avineri wrote recently in The New Republic, is the unappetizing fact that Arendt’s editor on Eichmann in Jerusalem, the book in which the phrase “the banality of evil” is coined, was one Hans Rössner, an SS member and a colleague of Adolf Eichmann’s at the Main Office of Reich Security. Clearly, evil is not banal, though to believe so is by now quite possibly the definition of banal. For evil to be banal would, by definition, make it ordinary. Eichmann himself, with his accountant’s soul, was many things, but the enormity of his crime ensures that he was anything but banal. Repeat it often enough, and “the banality of evil” gradually tranquilizes one’s sense of outrage, allowing those on speaking terms with evil to move guilelessly about the world. For instance, the current Iraqi regime. And not only Saddam Hussein but monsters such as Iraq’s foreign minister Tariq Aziz—a Catholic, oddly, whose own son was arrested by Hussein—who explained that the eradication of 200,000 Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s was not genocide but “a reorganization of the urban situation,” and defense minister Adnan Khairallah, who explained that since all Kurds look alike who can possibly bother with sorting the good Kurds from the bad. These men today live their banal lives freely and unpunished. Tariq Aziz, as I read in this morning’s paper, was just received in Rome. This is not banality. This is sickening reality.

This may seem an ill-advisedly tardy admission, but Nazis, totalitarianism, and death were what first moved me to reflect upon the curious feeling of personal depletion that watching Reality Television unfailingly leaves me with. In the end I cannot fault writers for their artistic stoppages in taking on September 11, 2001. Short of God, who could? The event is too close. Nazis are a different story. For most Americans, at least, Nazis are not too real, not the way 9/11 is, still, too real. They goosestep in some black-and-white gloaming just beyond the reach of our reality. They do not speak clearly to us anymore. They are a bad dream from which the world has, thankfully, long been roused. The accrued comforts of our contemporary reality, combined with the cushion of time, provide one enough distance to approach Nazism with a horrified determination. As a concept, at least, Nazism and its crimes are seemingly unlockable.

One of the darker secrets of male adolescence is the extremely freaky phase of fascination with Nazis that many of us go through. It is not that we believe in Nazism. Far from it. We simply wind up reading everything about them we can, from popular histories such as William H. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to more scholarly tomes such as Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny to slickly sensationalistic studies such as the fifteen gargantuan volumes of Time/Life’s mail-order “The World at War” series. (Many of us even make a brief run at Mein Kampf. A brief run is all that can be made at Mein Kampf. Anything else is a kamikaze mission.) Reading these books, I learned to recoil from the finely sinister filigree of an SS-Obergruppenführer’s uniform and to fear the evil elegance of the swastika. Nazis fascinate adolescent boys, I believe, because it is one of the first times a boy realizes what men are capable of. Evil for many boys is only a fantasy best represented by Grishnákh and Lugbúrz the Orcs or General Veers from The Empire Strikes Back. With Nazis, however, a boy is discovering the virtual template for every Orc and Imperial officer. Good God, these people are not imaginary. They were real.

I continue to read books about Nazis and Nazism. I do so because most have, in the stream of their passing, left me with a dissatisfaction as frustratingly indeterminate as it is strong—a sensation, I was shocked to recognize, eerily similar to the personal depletion I felt after having watched weeks of Reality Television. Important questions had not been answered and every motive remained inaccessible, buried deep in the silt of the subconscious. Never had this feeling been as prominent as when I recently finished Richard Overy’s Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in Allied Hands, 1945, a book largely composed of transcripts of conversations, many never before published, between the Allies and their Nazi captives in the months before the Nuremberg trials in November of 1945. The strange thing about my dissatisfaction with Interrogations is that the book is little short of a masterpiece of commentary and arrangement. Every page gripped and fascinated me, and I came away from it feeling as though I had new insight into the sinking terror every Nazi must have felt in 1945. Their satanic revelry was over, and the Allied angels were holding swords of fire.

It is no surprise how instructive reading a book such as Interrogations is, especially in the days (I write this in early March of 2003) before the dogs of war are again released from their kennel. Not purposefully instructive but rather incidentally so. In light of masterminding the reconstruction of a defeated nation, we all know, for instance, how “different” 1945 Germany is when compared to 2003 Iraq. The former had a tradition of representative government and was central to European culture. The latter has no historical experience with democracy and is plagued by Mohammed-era tribal loyalties. Germany, the logic goes, was a much easier place to restore to sanity than a modern post-war Iraq would be. In Interrogations we learn that even these unified, highly civilized Germans had to undergo a lengthy process of de-Nazification and “moral rehabilitation.” Thousands upon thousands of ordinary Germans were forced to walk past the extermination camps. It turns out that Germany was not at all easy to restore. Thus does the likelihood of a halcyon, gratefully liberated Iraq recede even further in one’s freshly panicked mind. We learn that, before the war, Hitler was, in the eyes of Reich architect Albert Speer, calm in his evil and relatively sane, and that war caused Hitler’s problems to accumulate and his personality to unravel. “He forced himself to become a diligent, methodical worker,” Speer explains, “and that neither suited his personality, nor benefited his decisions.” After reading this, I said a small prayer for President Bush, a man known even now to enjoy a relatively lackadaisical schedule. Worse yet, we learn that “Hitler himself had seen nothing of the world and had no first-hand knowledge of foreign countries,” about which the fewer connections made with Bush—who has been to fewer countries than I have—the better we will all feel. We also learn that Winston Churchill, now popularly regarded as the patron saint of the Second World War, wanted for the captured Nazi elite a quick appearance before a kangaroo court and then summary execution “without reference to higher authority.” Here, of course, we hear echoes of the Bush administration’s scuttling of the International Criminal Court and ethically sketchy use of unmanned Predator planes to turn terrorists (and everyone around them) into reddish blots of flesh. But England received no privilege to vengeance; Joseph Stalin, of all people, insisted on trying the Nazis. Stalin had in mind for the Nazis less a proper trial than a gavel-cracking Stalinist trial, but, after taking their initial cue from the Soviets, a small number of Americans soon convinced the numerous skeptics the necessity of proceeding with an actual trial in which the Nazis’ guilt would not be predetermined—“one which is keeping with our tradition,” as President Truman a little later put it, “of fairness toward those accused of crime.” (Despite this high-mindedness, a fair amount of selective morality was conducted during the Nuremberg trials. The crime of willfully bombing civilians, one of the more important charges faced by the Nazi elite, was quietly dropped from the prosecution’s final list on account of the Allied firestorm that consumed Dresden and the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) Twenty-two Nazis were eventually tried at Nuremberg, where Hitler had once foreseen a thousand years of Aryan glory beneath a night sky famously swooping with searchlights. Twelve of them were sentenced to death by hanging. Hermann Goering spared himself the rope and ate cyanide the night of his execution, while Julius Streicher, a Nazi propagandist and the Michael Jordan of anti-Semitism, shouted “Heil Hitler!” from the gallows. Of the survivors, seven were sentenced to long prison terms and three were acquitted.

Reich Marshall Goering, the largest fry of the captured Nazis, comes most terrifyingly alive in Interrogations. “Captain,” Goering tells an interrogator who offers him a cigarette, “you don’t do this right. If we’d won, we wouldn’t have done it this way—you’d be standing up… and there would be two SS men standing behind you, sticking you in the butt with bayonets… That’s the way you ought to treat us.” A small number of the captured Nazis remained as unrepentant as Goering. Some had the affect of plywood, and some went clearly insane, one going so far as to write long, wigged-out letters to his deceased wife: “You are entering my cell again. You want to talk to me. I am willing. What is life—you ask me—didn’t I give it voluntarily… You were right, my girl, and yet it isn’t always so.” Others affected cases of hysterical amnesia. Rudolf Hess—the Nazi who, under no orders but his own, flew a plane from Germany to Scotland in mid-war to single-handedly convince the British that the real world menace was the Soviet Union, thus making him one of the first Cold Warriors—had the most pronounced case of stress-induced memory loss. Hess’s transcripts have the wacky feel of something not unlike Abbot and Costello meet Josef Mengele. Here, Goering has been brought in by the Allies to jog Hess’s memory:

GOERING: Don’t you know me? You don’t recognize me?

HESS: Not personally, but I remember your name.

GOERING : But we talked a lot together.

HESS: We were together; that must have been the case. That must have been so… I must have met the other high personalities like you, but I cannot remember anyone…

GOERING: Listen, Hess, I was the Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe, and you flew to England in one of my planes. Don’t you remember that I was Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe. First I was a Field Marshall, and later a Reichsmarshal; don’t you remember?


Such was the indelibly surreal scene. The Nuremberg Nazis knew what this non-real realness reminded them of, too. Of his captivity, one wrote, “Everything is so unreal and sounds like a novel.”

At issue most intensely here is the “Final Disposition”—“Solution,” which is now the usual translation of Endlösung, was not yet in wide use—and these Nazis’ desperate attempts to talk their way around it. Or their refusal to talk their way around it. As Overy notes, “The defendants were, for the most part, distant from the apparatus of terror and race, and genuinely ill-informed about its practices”—no doubt by design. But as unreal as the Holocaust may seem to so many of us, the transcripts published in Interrogations allow one to break down its unthinkable gruesomeness to a recognizable reality possessing its own gnarled logic. Whether one wishes to recognize this as reality is altogether another matter. When Otto Ohlendorf, an SS commander, was asked why individual executions were forbidden, he answered with a calm clarity that would not be out of place in a Survivor Tribal Council: “Because this type of execution caused a serious emotion, not only on the part of those who were carrying out the executions, but also on the part of those who were shot… Such persons who had to carry out such [individual] shootings lost any feeling and respect for human life.” The commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rudolf Hoess, scoffed at the psychiatrist sent to profile him: “I suppose you want to know… if my thoughts and habits are normal. I am entirely normal.” When asked why he often personally supervised the burning of bodies, Hoess replied, “To see that everything was carried out in an orderly manner.” A moment later he quibbles about whether babies were thrown into the ovens alive. As it turns out, they were. Initially more shocking is how “routine” and “passionless” (these are Overy’s words) the interrogators became while discussing the Holocaust with their captors. One suspects this numbness is willed, and only once in Interrogations does an interrogator lose his bearings. It happens not with a human crocodile such as Goering or Hoess but with Hitler’s hapless foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, a former champagne dealer to whom Hitler had, for some reason, taken a shine. During his interrogation Ribbentrop goes so luridly to pieces that, when asked about the aims of Hitler’s foreign policy, of which he was in charge, Ribbentrop can only say he does not know. You don’t know? his inquisitor asks. “I am sorry,” Ribbentrop sputters. “I must say so. I am very sorry.” When asked how many Jews were killed by the Nazis, Ribbentrop claims, “I have not the slightest idea.” Ribbentrop is asked if it would surprise him to learn that more than four and a half million Jews were exterminated. “That is not possible,” he answers. Why, he is asked, is that not possible? “That is not possible,” Ribbentrop answers again. He goes on, pathetically, “We have held that Geneva Convention up as much as we possibly could.” It is here that his interrogator’s composure ruptures: “Ribbentrop, I am sorry to disagree with you because I would rather be pleasant than disagreeable, but unless all of the proof in this case, coming from your own people, is not to be believed, the Geneva Convention was flagrantly violated.” Ribbentrop’s response? He has none. Reality has out-realed him. No doubt he, too, felt as though he were suddenly in a novel. Then, perhaps, he might have known what to make of himself. He hanged in any case.

There is also the matter of Herr Hitler, the unknowable abyss who nearly pulled into his immense blackness the whole of the world. Albert Speer, one of the few intelligent Nazis to have survived the last days of the war, noted, hauntingly, that “being in [Hitler’s] presence for any length of time made me tired, exhausted, and void.” It is Speer who gives us the clearest glimpse of Hitler, a glimpse so rife with quotidian antics, evasions, and confusion that one catches oneself imagining Hitler as the manager of, say, a Prudential hub office: “When [Hitler’s] relationship with any one of his collaborators reached the state when Hitler lost his temper, one could be sure that a speedy dismissal or side-tracking was on the way. He seldom gave clear orders. His decisions in the military sphere too were roughly outlined and often given as ‘an opinion’ only. Yet he expected them to be executed as orders.” And this: “Outwardly there was no apparent system. But there was hardly a field which was not divided into two or three parts. He liked going over the heads of his immediate collaborators and conferring with their subordinates himself, giving them directions without their superior’s knowledge.” Speer finally notes that, by the end of the war, Hitler “often reminded me of a senile man.”

Hitler’s many biographers have pulped entire forests attempting to account for this person who, away from his microphones and podiums, emitted such feeble personal magnetism that he had no close friends. How could such a friendless second-rate corporal, a hobo from Vienna, have ensorcelled an entire nation (“There will probably never again be a man,” Hitler once said, “with more authority than I have”) and gone on to lead it into a military and moral catastrophe unparalleled in modern history? Ian Kershaw, commonly regarded as Hitler’s most distinguished biographer, argues that Hitler was less a person than a construct created by the German people, a process he calls “working toward the Führer.” One is prepared to believe Kershaw. His two-volume study of the man is colossal, and it would be hard to imagine a single historian who knows more about Hitler than he. And yet one is left with the buzzingly bothersome sense that “working toward the Führer” is not enough. I am not saying this in a scholarly or historical sense. If history were all that needed answering, “working toward the Führer” would be perfectly satisfying. What needs answering and, thus, treatment, is the real sense of what Martin Amis has, in a similar context, diagnosed as “species shame.”

The new German documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary offers a version of the Hitler one would need to conceivably cleanse oneself of species shame. The film’s subject, Traudl Junge, was eighty-one years old when she sat down to give what was apparently her first interview on the matter of her youthful stint as Hitler’s secretary. (Junge died hours after the film’s premiere in Berlin, a turn of events at which even Dickens would have rolled his eyes.) It should be said, first, that Frau Junge makes a brief appearance in Interrogations, in a memo written for the Allies by a Nazi doctor about “Hitler’s women”: “Frau Junge, a native of Munich, who was very young to find herself in this privileged position, at once blossomed forth in her new surroundings. With her amiability and charm she found the right thing to say to everyone… She combined a naivety—possibly assumed—with the freshness and unaffectedness of youth.”

The then-apolitical Junge did not turn down a job in Hitler’s chancellery because she was naive and, she admits, “curious.” She explains that what lay behind her long silence was the plain old guilt of complicity. Yet in the first few years after the war, she felt no guilt at all. Not until Germany progressed to the point that its authorities erected statues in honor of those who resisted the Nazis did Junge’s conscience awaken. Near the end of the film, she describes seeing a statue of a young girl murdered for defying Hitler. Junge is stunned to realize that the girl was killed at the same age she was when she went to work in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. “It is no excuse,” she concedes, “to be young.”

The interview is mesmerizing. The film contains no footage other than Junge’s face, virtually no dialogue other than her voice. She pauses often, less to weigh her words—she knows she is too old for that, one senses—than to suck from them one last pulpy bit of amazed regret. She bristles and, occasionally, trembles. The only time she ever breaks down is while talking about the “sad eyes” of Hannah Goebbels. Hannah, at ten the oldest of the six Goebbels children, all of whom were murdered by their parents in the Führer bunker, was old enough, Junge believes, to have understood what was happening. “It was a nightmare,” she says, shuddering, as her own eyes fill with sad, watery light.

As for Hitler, he seemed a “kindly old gentleman” when Junge first met him in the early 1940s. He was, somewhat improbably, interviewing the winners of a typing competition, of whom Junge was one. Once Junge went to work for him, she and her fellow secretaries often took lunch with Hitler, who had tired of listening to his gossipy adjutants. Hitler sighed to Junge that he got “far too little fresh air and exercise,” and worried over the paleness of his legs. He was, he admitted, no sportsman. He had a Bavarian courtliness and used Austrian words no German would ever use, his voice utterly unlike that of the film-reel psychopath known to the world’s remainder. He loved holistic medicine. He could not stand the sight of dead flowers. He had many digestive problems. He stayed unmarried for the sake of his female voters. He loved his Alsatian, Blondie, and considered petting her “a whole night’s entertainment.” Is that enough? Feel better? “He didn’t think in human dimensions,” Junge says. “The individual never mattered to him.” Near the end of the war, he traveled through bombed-out areas with the blinds of his train down so he did not have to see any actual destruction. “I would have preferred to give you a nicer farewell gift,” Hitler told Junge, while handing her cyanide pills, the Nazi wafer, at the end. She then took Hitler’s last will, and in doing so hoped for some explanation for the sudden nightmare that was her young life. As Junge tells it, all that Hitler’s last recorded words amounted to were that the Jews were to blame—nostrums and perfidies from a hundred biliously rehearsed speeches. “It was incredible,” she says, leaning forward, still mystified. “It made no sense at all.”

“All these little stories seem so banal,” Junge says at one point, seemingly amazed at what is not coming across, what she cannot explain. But it is not banal. It is reality. The reality is banal. Hitler did not take baths in blood. He was not birthed of jackals. He was a human being. Remembering his human side seemed so important to her afterwards, Junge says, but instantly clamps down: she would rather not talk about it. She cannot talk about it. It is too close to her, still. Reality is too powerful. She needs something. She needs it explained to her. She needs to know what it means. As I stare out my front window at the hole in lower Manhattan’s skyline, I believe I know the feeling.


What one can learn about life—whether its beauties or its terrors—from documentary sources can be incomparably fascinating, uniquely moving, or unviewably intense, but there are finally places where fiction alone can go. Or rather, places where fiction alone can go and return. Reality drives you into the middle of the woods and leaves you there; you have to find your own way back. But with great fiction every tree is named, every path detailed. Has not fiction, especially in the form of that fact-fiction centaur the memoir, taken us into the very freezing mud of the ghettos and into the ovens of the extermination camps? What if not fiction will take us into the sewers of Hitler’s consciousness? Celebrated Holocaust novels are legion, though, understandably, fictional treatments of Hitler do not have a distinguished history. There is Ron Hansen’s Hitler’s Niece, which is an extremely good writer’s extremely bad book, Paul West’s wonderful The Dry Danube, and a hundred subliterate potboilers. In Robert Harris’s well-regarded thriller Fatherland (a what if? novel that imagines an early-1960s world that has seen the Reich triumphant) Hitler does not even make an appearance. And then there is George Steiner’s The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H., the infamous and bizarrely convincing 1981 novel that imagines a captured Hitler brought to primitive jungle trial in South America circa 1977. One does not learn much about Hitler the man in the novel; rather, one learns about Steiner’s conception of Hitler. Whether the ranting, defensive, self-justifying Hitler of Steiner’s imagination is convincing as Hitler is not really the point. Nor is the point a plea for more Hitler novels. The plea is for an acknowledgment of the unique sanctity of fiction. The point is, is Steiner’s Hitler convincing in the instantaneous manner that reality is convincing? He is. For me, at least, he is. My understanding has grown and my species shame is, however slightly, diminished. The “real” Hitler has passed uselessly from reality. We cannot be expected to understand how the forgetful, lousy administrator of Interrogations and Blind Spot did what he did. We can only hope to understand the world that exists because Hitler lived in it. But what Hitler feels like—that is what Steiner is giving us. Books such as Interrogations educate, often brilliantly. They have an awful necessity. (Speer says, “The possibility of a repetition of the absolute rule by one man, surrounded by weaklings, must be prevented for all time to come.” Fiction simply cannot profitably pause to make such points.) But there are journeys that documentary depictions of reality cannot make, not even with the highest intentions. What, then, of those depictions with the lowest intention? That is a short journey, indeed. It ends a millimeter into the eyeball.

Poetry, Auden said, makes nothing happen. There are those who read this as an admission. But Auden did not mean it that way. No, for Auden poetry “flows on south / From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, / Raw towns that we believe and die in.” For those unable to understand literature, reading and writing it will probably forever remain an indefensible vice. And maybe, now, we are learning to leave it behind. The serpent in the tree, promising an easier way, is now the television in the living room. Reality Television is whispering to us. Some of what it has to say is entertaining. Of course, entertaining. But it is not reality, it has nothing human to give, and it is taking more than we know. In every raw town it is stealing our time and imaginations and pretending to have allowed us insight. Shut it up, dig the canal. Let us allow poetry to flow south once again.

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