It wasn’t exactly on purpose that, in the wake of the catastrophe that was Election Day, 2016, I started reading a book about the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Equating these two disasters may sound absurdly melodramatic to some; we’ll see how it seems in a couple of years. I was living abroad on that terrible day fifteen years ago, and for a long time I’d thought that my distance from the experience of it had somehow separated me definitively from the city that’s been home for most of my life — a feeling that eventually faded away. But more than one person who was there at the time has remarked to me that the pall that fell over the city when Donald Trump became president-elect was similar to what they experienced after 9/11. Not human beings but something abstract died that November day — an ideal, perhaps, a faith in democracy. For Scott L. Malcomson, one of the immediate consequences of George Bush’s response to the 9/11 attacks was that the United States lost its dignity in the eyes of the world. To the extent that it salvaged something of that regard under the Obama presidency, Trump’s election surely lost it again. I picked up Malcomson’s book, published nearly a decade after the events it describes, because I retain indelible memories of his earlier Empire’s Edge: Travels in South Eastern Europe, Turkey and Central Asia (1994), a vivid and often moving report of travels through the lands on Europe’s east and Asia’s west. Its rich mixture of reportage and historical reflection set a standard by which Generation’s Edge had inevitably, perhaps, to disappoint. The two books are opposites in many ways. Empire’s Edge is a young man’s book — emotionally raw in its empathy and scorn. Generation’s End, though pervaded by a palpable sadness, is as measured in its expression as you’d expect from a man who is no longer plunging into the unknown as he wanders among peoples who have long been on the receiving end of history, but a husband and father who’s found himself a safe haven inside the respectable gray bubble of TheNew York Times, where on 9/11 he was employed as an editor. The loner has become an organization man, albeit one who’s not quite comfortable in that role. To the extent that the book is really the “personal memoir of American power” promised by its subtitle, it’s that of a spectator rather than an actor, though his post at the Times — and then, toward the end of the book, a new one at the UN — gives him a ringside seat. The perspective from which he writes is one close to that of the great and the good — ordinary people seem very distant from this book, unlike Empire’s Edge — though always with a dose of skepticism and analytical independence to offset his evident fascination with the world of power. “What forms would memory take — or should memory take?” — that’s the essential question Malcomson asks himself in the course of Generation’s End. “I didn’t want to leave the question up to the official storytellers, with their mixture of revenge and desperation.” He sees through Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld well enough — through Giuliani too, who’s so recently and unexpectedly reclaimed a place in the spotlight — as they strut and fret, but hasn’t he become a kind of official storyteller himself? Almost, but not quite. I’d still like to read what this observer of what he calls “the last American era” will say about the (post-American?) pass in which we find ourselves today.
This week, the National Gallery of Art finally acquired a major work by Faith Ringgold, the director of The Velvet Underground talks film, North America’s Hindu Nationalist problem, canceling legacy admissions, and more.
Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...
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