4.26.2017 Doc of the Day

1. David Hume, 1742.
2. Bernard Malamud, 1975.
3. Jim Hickey, 2014
[The pier, Southend-on-Sea, England]  (LOC)
Numero Uno“The material facts in Hume’s life are to be found in the autobiography which he prefixed to his History of EnglandMy Own Life, as he calls it, is but a brief exposition, but it is sufficient for its purpose, and the longer biographies of him do little more than amplify the information which he gives us himself.  The Humes, it appears, were a remote branch of the family of Lord Hume of Douglas.  Hume’s father was Joseph Hume, of Ninewells, a minor Scotch laird, who died when his son was an infant.  David Hume was born at Edinburgh on April 26th, 1711, during a visit of his parents to the Scotch capital.  Hume tells us that his father passed for a man of parts, and that his mother, who herself came of good Scottish family, ‘was a woman of singular merit; though young and handsome, she devoted herself entirely to the rearing and educating of her children.’  At school Hume won no special distinction.  He matriculated in the class of Greek at the Edinburgh University when he was twelve years old, and, he says ‘passed through the ordinary course of education with success;’ but ‘our college education in Scotland,’ he remarks in one of his works, ‘extending little further than the languages, ends commonly when we are about fourteen or fifteen years of age.’  During his youth, Mrs. Hume does not appear to have maintained any too flattering opinion of her son’s abilities; she considered him a good-natured but ‘uncommon weak-minded’ creature.  Possibly her judgment underwent a change in course of time, since she lived to see the beginnings of his literary fame; but his worldly success was long in the making, and he was a middle-aged man before his meagre fortune was converted into anything like a decent maintenance.It may have been Hume’s apparent vacillation in choosing a career that made this “shrewd Scots wife” hold her son in such small esteem. At first the family tried to launch him into the profession of the law, but “while they fancied I was poring over Voet and Vinnius, Cicero and Virgil were the authors I was secretly devouring.” For six years Hume remained at Ninewells and then made “a feeble trial for entering on a more active scene of life.” Commerce, this time, was the chosen instrument, but the result was not more successful. “In 1734 I went to Bristol with some recommendations to eminent merchants, but in a few months found that scene totally unsuitable for me.” At length—in the middle of 1736 when Hume was twenty-three years of age and without any profession or means of earning a livelihood—he went over to France. He settled first at Rheims, and afterwards at La Flêche in Anjou, and “there I laid that plan of life which I have steadily and successfully pursued. I resolved to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible except the improvement of my talents in literature.” At La Flêche Hume lived in frequent intercourse with the Jesuits at the famous college in which Descartes was educated, and he composed his first book, the Treatise of Human Nature. According to himself “it fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.” But this work which was planned before the author was twenty-one and written before he was twenty-five, in the opinion of Professor Huxley, is probably the most remarkable philosophical work, both intrinsically and in its effects upon the course of thought, that has ever been written. Three years later Hume published anonymously, at Edinburgh, the first volume of Essays, Moral and Political, which was followed in 1742 by the second volume. The Essays, he says, were favourably received and soon made me entirely forget my former disappointments.

In 1745 Hume became tutor to a young nobleman, the Marquis of Annandale, who was mentally affected, but he did not endure the engagement for long. Next year General St. Clair, who had been appointed to command an expedition in the War of the Pragmatic Sanction, invited him to be his secretary, an office to which that of judge-advocate was afterwards added. The expedition was a failure, but General St. Clair, who was afterwards entrusted with embassies to Turin and Vienna, and upon whom Hume seems to have created a favourable impression, insisted that he should accompany him in the same capacity as secretary; he further made him one of his aides-de-camp. Thus Hume had to attire his portly figure in a “scarlet military uniform,” and Lord Charlemont who met him in Turin says that he wore his uniform “like a grocer of the train-bands.” At Vienna the Empress-Dowager excused him on ceremonial occasions from walking backwards, a concession which was much appreciated by “my companions who were desperately afraid of my falling on them and crushing them.” Hume returned to London in 1749. “These years,” he says, “were almost the only interruptions my studies have received during the course of my life. I passed them agreeably and in good company, and my appointments, with my frugality, had made me reach a fortune which I called independent, though most of my friends were inclined to smile when I said so; in short, I was now master of near a thousand pounds.”

While Hume was away with General St. Clair his Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding was published, but it was not more successful than the original Treatise of a portion of which it was a recasting. A new edition of Moral and Political Essays met with no better fate, but these disappointments, he says, “made little or no impression” on him. In 1749 Hume returned to Ninewells, and lived for a while with his brothers. Afterwards he took a flat of his own at Edinburgh, with his sister to keep house for him. At this period the Political Discourses and the Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals were published. Of the Inquiry Hume held the opinion, an opinion, however, which was not shared by the critics, that “it is of all my writings—historical, philosophical, or literary incomparably the best.” Slowly and surely his publications were growing in reputation. In 1752 the Faculty of Advocates elected Hume their librarian, an office which was valuable to him, not so much for the emolument as for the extensive library which enabled him to pursue the historical studies upon which he had for some time been engaged. For the next nine years he was occupied with his History of England. The first volume was published in 1754, and the second volume, which met with a better reception than the first, in 1756. Only forty-five copies of the first volume were sold in a twelvemonth; but the subsequent volumes made rapid headway, and raised a great clamour, for in the words of Macaulay, Hume’s historical picture, though drawn by a master hand, has all the lights Tory and all the shades Whig. In 1757 one of his most remarkable works, the Natural History of Religion, appeared. The book was attacked—not wholly to Hume’s dissatisfaction, for he appreciated fame as well as success—”with all the illiberal petulance, arrogance, and scurrility which distinguish the Warburtonian school.”

Hume remained in Edinburgh superintending the publication of the Historyuntil 1763 when Lord Hertford, who had been appointed ambassador to France, offered him office in the embassy, with the promise of the secretaryship later on. The appointment was the more honourable, inasmuch as Hume was not personally acquainted with Lord Hertford, who had a reputation for virtue and piety, whilst Hume’s views about religion had rendered him one of the best abused men of his time. In France Hume’s reputation stood higher than it was in England; several of his works had been translated into French; and he had corresponded with Montesquieu, Helvetius and Rousseau. Thus he was received in French society with every mark of distinction. In a letter to Adam Smith in October 1763, he wrote: “I have been three days at Paris and two at Fontainebleau, and have everywhere met with the most extraordinary honours, which the most exorbitant vanity could wish or desire.” Great nobles fêted him, and great ladies struggled for the presence of the “gros David” at their receptions or in their boxes at the theatre. “At the opera his broad unmeaning face was usually to be seen entre deux joli minois,” says Lord Charlemont. Hume took his honours with satisfaction, but with becoming good sense, and he did not allow these flatteries to turn his head.

In 1767 Hume was back in London, and for the next two years held office as Under-Secretary of State. It is not necessary to dwell upon this period of his life, or to go into the details of his quarrel with Rousseau. In 1769 he returned to Edinburgh “very opulent” in the possession of £1,000 a year, and determined to take the rest of his life easily and pleasantly. He built himself a house in Edinburgh, and for the next six years it was the centre of the most accomplished society in the city. In 1755 Hume’s health began to fail, and he knew that his illness must be fatal. Thus he made his will and wrote My Own Life, which ends simply in these words:

‘I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution.  I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of spirits; insomuch that were I to name the period of my life which I should most choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point to this later period.  I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company; I consider, besides, that a man of sixty-five, by dying, cuts off only a few years of infirmities; and though I see many symptoms of my literary reputation’s breaking out at last with additional lustre, I know that I could have but few years to enjoy it.  It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present.

To conclude historically with my own character, I am, or rather was (for that is the style I must now use in speaking of myself); I was, I say, a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.  Even my love of literary fame, my ruling passion, never soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments.  My company was not unacceptable to the young and careless, as well as to the studious and literary; and as I took a particular pleasure in the company of modest women, I had no reason to be displeased with the reception I met with from them.  In a word, though most men any wise eminent, have found reason to complain of calumny, I never was touched or even attacked by her baleful tooth; and though I wantonly exposed myself to the rage of both civil and religious factions, they seemed to be disarmed in my behalf of their wonted fury.  My friends never had occasion to vindicate any one circumstance of my character and conduct; not but that the zealots, we may well suppose, would have been glad to invent and propagate any story to my disadvantage, but they could never find any which they thought would wear the face of probability.  I cannot say there is no vanity in making this funeral oration of myself, but I hope it is not a misplaced one; and this is a matter of fact which is easily cleared and ascertained.’

Hume died in Edinburgh on August 25th, 1776, and a few days later was buried in a spot selected by himself on the Carlton Hill.


Nothing is more apt to surprise a foreigner, than the extreme liberty which we enjoy in this country of communicating whatever we please to the public and of openly censuring every measure entered into by the king or his ministers.  If the administration resolve upon war, it is affirmed, that, either wilfully or ignorantly, they mistake the interests of the nation; and that peace, in the present situation of affairs, is infinitely preferable.  If the passion of the ministers lie towards peace, our political writers breathe nothing but war and devastation, and represent the specific conduct of the government as mean and pusillanimous.  As this liberty is not indulged in any other government, either republican or monarchical; in Holland and Venice, more than in France or Spain; it may very naturally give occasion to the question, How it happens that Great Britain alone enjoys this peculiar privilege?

The reason why the laws indulge us in such a liberty, seems to be derived from our mixed form of government, which is neither wholly monarchical, nor wholly republican. It will be found, if I mistake not, a true observation in politics, that the two extremes in government, liberty and slavery, commonly approach nearest to each other; and that, as you depart from the extremes, and mix a little of monarchy with liberty, the government becomes always the more free; and, on the other hand, when you mix a little of liberty with monarchy, the yoke becomes always the more grievous and intolerable. In a government, such as that of France, which is absolute, and where law, custom, and religion concur, all of them, to make the people fully satisfied with their condition, the monarch cannot entertain any jealousy against his subjects, and therefore is apt to indulge them in great liberties, both of speech and action. In a government altogether republican, such as that of Holland, where there is no magistrate so eminent as to give jealousy to the state, there is no danger in intrusting the magistrates with large discretionary powers; and though many advantages result from such powers, in preserving peace and order, yet they lay a considerable restraint on men’s actions, and make every private citizen pay a great respect to the government. Thus it seems evident, that the two extremes of absolute monarchy and of a republic, approach near to each other in some material circumstances. In the first, the magistrate has no jealousy of the people; in the second, the people have none of the magistrate: which want of jealousy begets a mutual confidence and trust in both cases, and produces a species of liberty in monarchies, and of arbitrary power in republics.

To justify the other part of the foregoing observation, that, in every government, the means are most wide of each other, and that the mixtures of monarchy and liberty render the yoke either more grievous; I must take notice of a remark in Tacitus with regard to the Romans under the Emperors, that they neither could bear total slavery nor total liberty, Nec totam servitutem, nec totam libertatem pati possunt. This remark a celebrated poet has translated and applied to the English, in his lively description of Queen Elizabeth’s policy and government.

Et fit aimer son joug à l’Anglois indompté,
Qui ne peut ni servir, ni vivre en liberté.
HENRIADE, liv. i.

According to these remarks, we are to consider the Roman government under the Emperors as a mixture of despotism and liberty, where the despotism prevailed; and the English government as a mixture of the same kind, where the liberty predominates.  The consequences are conformable to the foregoing observation, and such as may be expected from those mixed forms of government, which beget a mutual watchfulness and jealousy.  The Roman emperors were, many of them, the most frightful tyrants that ever disgraced human nature; and it is evident, that their cruelty was chiefly excited by their jealousy, and by their observing that all the great men of Rome bore with impatience the dominion of a family, which, but a little before, was nowise superior to their own.  On the other hand, as the republican part of the government prevails in England, though with a great mixture of monarchy, it is obliged, for its own preservation, to maintain a watchful jealousy over the magistrates, to remove all discretionary powers, and to secure every one’s life and fortune by general and inflexible laws.  No action must be deemed a crime but what the law has plainly determined to be such: no crime must be imputed to a man but from a legal proof before his judges; and even these judges must be his fellow-subjects, who are obliged, by their own interest, to have a watchful eye over the encroachments and violence of the ministers.  From these causes it proceeds, that there is as much liberty, and even perhaps licentiousness, in Great Britain, as there were formerly slavery and tyranny in Rome.

These principles account for the great liberty of the press in these kingdoms, beyond what is indulged in any other government. It is apprehended that arbitrary power would steal in upon us, were we not careful to prevent its progress, and were there not any easy method of conveying the alarm from one end of the kingdom to the other.  The spirit of the people must frequently be roused, in order to curb the ambition of the court; and the dread of rousing this spirit must be employed to prevent that ambition.  Nothing so effectual to this purpose as the liberty of the press; by which all the learning, wit, and genius of the nation, may be employed on the side of freedom, and every one be animated to its defence.  As long, therefore, as the republican part of our government can maintain itself against the monarchical, it will naturally be careful to keep the press open, as of importance to its own preservation.

It must however be allowed, that the unbounded liberty of the press, though it be difficult, perhaps impossible, to propose a suitable remedy for it, is one of the evils attending those mixed forms of government. …

It is a question with several, whether there be any essential difference between one form of government and another? and, whether every form may not become good or bad, according as it is well or ill administered?  Were it once admitted, that all governments are alike, and that the only difference consists in the character and conduct of the governors, most political disputes would be at an end, and all Zeal for one constitution above another must be esteemed mere bigotry and folly.  But, though a friend to moderation, I cannot forbear condemning this sentiment, and should be sorry to think, that human affairs admit of no greater stability, than what they receive from the casual humours and characters of particular men.

It is true, those who maintain that the goodness of all government consists in the goodness of the administration, may cite many particular instances in history, where the very same government, in different hands, has varied suddenly into the two opposite extremes of good and bad.  Compare the French government under Henry III and under Henry IV.  Oppression, levity, artifice, on the part of the rulers; faction, sedition, treachery, rebellion, disloyalty on the part of the subjects: these compose the character of the former miserable era.  But when the patriot and heroic prince, who succeeded, was once firmly seated on the throne, the government, the people, every thing, seemed to be totally changed; and all from the difference of the temper and conduct of these two sovereigns.  Instances of this kind may be multiplied, almost without number, from ancient as well as modern history, foreign as well as domestic.

But here it may be proper to make a distinction. All absolute governments must very much depend on the administration; and this is one of the great inconveniences attending that form of government. But a republican and free government would be an obvious absurdity, if the particular checks and controls, provided by the constitution had really no influence, and made it not the interest, even of bad men, to act for the public good. Such is the intention of these forms of government, and such is their real effect, where they are wisely constituted: as, on the other hand, they are the source of all disorder, and of the blackest crimes, where either skill or honesty has been wanting in their original frame and institution.

So great is the force of laws, and of particular forms of government, and so little dependence have they on the humours and tempers of men, that consequences almost as general and certain may sometimes be deduced from them, as any which the mathematical sciences afford us.

The constitution of the Roman republic gave the whole legislative power to the people, without allowing a negative voice either to the nobility or consuls. This unbounded power they possessed in a collective, not in a representative body. The consequences were: when the people, by success and conquest, had become very numerous, and had spread themselves to a great distance from the capital, the city tribes, though the most contemptible, carried almost every vote: they were, therefore, most cajoled by every one that affected popularity: they were supported in idleness by the general distribution of corn, and by particular bribes, which they received from almost every candidate: by this means, they became every day more licentious, and the Campus Martius was a perpetual scene of tumult and sedition: armed slaves were introduced among these rascally citizens, so that the whole government fell into anarchy; and the greatest happiness which the Romans could look for, was the despotic power of the Cæsars. Such are the effects of democracy without a representative.

A Nobility may possess the whole, or any part of the legislative power of a state, in two different ways. Either every nobleman shares the power as a part of the whole body, or the whole body enjoys the power as composed of parts, which have each a distinct power and authority. The Venetian aristocracy is an instance of the first kind of government; the Polish, of the second. In the Venetian government the whole body of nobility possesses the whole power, and no nobleman has any authority which he receives not from the whole. In the Polish government every nobleman, by means of his fiefs, has a distinct hereditary authority over his vassals, and the whole body has no authority but what it receives from the concurrence of its parts. The different operations and tendencies of these two species of government might be made apparent even a priori. A Venetian nobility is preferable to a Polish, let the humours and education of men be ever so much varied. A nobility, who possess their power in common, will preserve peace and order, both among themselves, and their subjects; and no member can have authority enough to control the laws for a moment. The nobles will preserve their authority over the people, but without any grievous tyranny, or any breach of private property; because such a tyrannical government promotes not the interests of the whole body, however it may that of some individuals. There will be a distinction of rank between the nobility and people, but this will be the only distinction in the state. The whole nobility will form one body, and the whole people another, without any of those private feuds and animosities, which spread ruin and desolation everywhere. It is easy to see the disadvantages of a Polish nobility in every one of these particulars.

It is possible so to constitute a free government, as that a single person, call him a doge, prince, or king, shall possess a large share of power, and shall form a proper balance or counterpoise to the other parts of the legislature. This chief magistrate may be either elective or hereditary, and though the former institution may, to a superficial view, appear the most advantageous; yet a more accurate inspection will discover in it greater inconveniences than in the latter, and such as are founded on causes and principles eternal and immutable. The filling of the throne, in such a government, is a point of too great and too general interest, not to divide the whole people into factions, whence a civil war, the greatest of ills, may be apprehended, almost with certainty, upon every vacancy. The prince elected must be either a Foreigner or a Native: the former will be ignorant of the people whom he is to govern; suspicious of his new subjects, and suspected by them; giving his confidence entirely to strangers, who will have no other care but of enriching themselves in the quickest manner, while their master’s favour and authority are able to support them. A native will carry into the throne all his private animosities and friendships, and will never be viewed in his elevation without exciting the sentiment of envy in those who formerly considered him as their equal. Not to mention that a crown is too high a reward ever to be given to merit alone, and will always induce the candidates to employ force, or money, or intrigue, to procure the votes of the electors: so that such an election will give no better chance for superior merit in the prince, than if the state had trusted to birth alone for determining the sovereign.

It may, therefore, be pronounced as an universal axiom in politics, That an hereditary prince, a nobility without vassals, and a people voting by their representatives, form the best MONARCHY, ARISTOCRACY, andDEMOCRACY. But in order to prove more fully, that politics admit of general truths, which are invariable by the humour or education either of subject or sovereign, it may not be amiss to observe some other principles of this science, which may seem to deserve that character.

It may easily be observed, that though free governments have been commonly the most happy for those who partake of their freedom; yet are they the most ruinous and oppressive to their provinces: and this observation may, I believe, be fixed as a maxim of the kind we are here speaking of. When a monarch extends his dominions by conquest, he soon learns to consider his old and his new subjects as on the same footing; because, in reality, all his subjects are to him the same, except the few friends and favourites with whom he is personally acquainted. He does not, therefore, make any distinction between them in his general laws; and, at the same time, is careful to prevent all particular acts of oppression on the one as well as the other. But a free state necessarily makes a great distinction, and must always do so till men learn to love their neighbours as well as themselves. The conquerors, in such a government, are all legislators, and will be sure to contrive matters, by restrictions on trade, and by taxes, so as to draw some private, as well as public advantage from their conquests. Provincial governors have also a better chance, in a republic, to escape with their plunder, by means of bribery or intrigue; and their fellow-citizens, who find their own state to be enriched by the spoils of the subject provinces, will be the more inclined to tolerate such abuses. Not to mention, that it is a necessary precaution in a free state to change the governors frequently, which obliges these temporary tyrants to be more expeditious and rapacious, that they may accumulate sufficient wealth before they give place to their successors. What cruel tyrants were the Romans over the world during the time of their commonwealth! It is true, they had laws to prevent oppression in their provincial magistrates; but Cicero informs us, that the Romans could not better consult the interests of the provinces than by repealing these very laws. For, in that case, says he, our magistrates, having entire impunity, would plunder no more than would satisfy their own rapaciousness; whereas, at present, they must also satisfy that of their judges, and of all the great men in Rome, of whose protection they stand in need. Who can read of the cruelties and oppressions of Verres without horror and astonishment? And who is not touched with indignation to hear, that, after Cicero had exhausted on that abandoned criminal all the thunders of his eloquence, and had prevailed so far as to get him condemned to the utmost extent of the laws, yet that cruel tyrant lived peaceably to old age, in opulence and ease, and, thirty years afterwards, was put into the proscription by Mark Antony, on account of his exorbitant wealth, where he fell with Cicero himself, and all the most virtuous men of Rome? After the dissolution of the commonwealth, the Roman yoke became easier upon the provinces, as Tacitus informs us; and it may be observed, that many of the worst emperors, Domitian, for instance, were careful to prevent all oppression on the provinces. In Tiberius’s time, Gaul was esteemed richer than Italy itself: nor do I find, during the whole time of the Roman monarchy, that the empire became less rich or populous in any of its provinces; though indeed its valour and military discipline were always upon the decline. The oppression and tyranny of the Carthaginians over their subject states in Africa went so far, as we learn from Polybius, that, not content with exacting the half of all the produce of the land, which of itself was a very high rent, they also loaded them with many other taxes. If we pass from ancient to modern times, we shall still find the observation to hold. The provinces of absolute monarchies are always better treated than those of free states. Compare the Pais conquis of France with Ireland, and you will be convinced of this truth; though this latter kingdom, being in a good measure peopled from England, possesses so many rights and privileges as should naturally make it challenge better treatment than that of a conquered province. Corsica is also an obvious instance to the same purpose.

There is an observation of Machiavel, with regard to the conquests of Alexander the Great, which, I think, may be regarded as one of those eternal political truths, which no time nor accidents can vary. It may seem strange, says that politician, that such sudden conquests, as those of Alexander, should be possessed so peaceably by his successors, and that the Persians, during all the confusions and civil wars among the Greeks, never made the smallest effort towards the recovery of their former independent government. To satisfy us concerning the cause of this remarkable event, we may consider, that a monarch may govern his subjects in two different ways. He may either follow the maxims of the Eastern princes, and stretch his authority so far as to leave no distinction of rank among his subjects, but what proceeds immediately from himself; no advantages of birth; no hereditary honours and possessions; and, in a word, no credit among the people, except from his commission alone. Or a monarch may exert his power after a milder manner, like other European princes; and leave other sources of honour, beside his smile and favour; birth, titles, possessions, valour, integrity, knowledge, or great and fortunate achievements. In the former species of government, after a conquest, it is impossible ever to shake off the yoke; since no one possesses, among the people, so much personal credit and authority as to begin such an enterprise: whereas, in the latter, the least misfortune, or discord among the victors, will encourage the vanquished to take arms, who have leaders ready to prompt and conduct them in every undertaking.[3]

Such is the reasoning of Machiavel, which seems solid and conclusive; though I wish he had not mixed falsehood with truth, in asserting that monarchies, governed according to Eastern policy, though more easily kept when once subdued, yet are the most difficult to subdue; since they cannot contain any powerful subject, whose discontent and faction may facilitate the enterprises of an enemy. For, besides, that such a tyrannical government enervates the courage of men, and renders them indifferent towards the fortunes of their sovereigns; besides this, I say, we find by experience, that even the temporary and delegated authority of the generals and magistrates, being always, in such governments, as absolute within its sphere as that of the prince himself, is able, with barbarians accustomed to a blind submission, to produce the most dangerous and fatal revolutions. So that in every respect, a gentle government is preferable, and gives the greatest security to the sovereign as well as to the subject.

Legislators, therefore, ought not to trust the future government of a state entirely to chance, but ought to provide a system of laws to regulate the administration of public affairs to the latest posterity. Effects will always correspond to causes; and wise regulations, in any commonwealth, are the most valuable legacy that can be left to future ages. In the smallest court or office, the stated forms and methods by which business must be conducted, are found to be a considerable check on the natural depravity of mankind. Why should not the case be the same in public affairs? Can we ascribe the stability and wisdom of the Venetian government, through so many ages, to any thing but the form of government? And is it not easy to point out those defects in the original constitution, which produced the tumultuous governments of Athens and Rome, and ended at last in the ruin of these two famous republics? And so little dependence has this affair on the humours and education of particular men, that one part of the same republic may be wisely conducted, and another weakly, by the very same men, merely on account of the differences of the forms and institutions by which these parts are regulated. Historians inform us that this was actually the case with Genoa. For while the state was always full of sedition, and tumult, and disorder, the bank of St. George, which had become a considerable part of the people, was conducted, for several ages, with the utmost integrity and wisdom.

The ages of greatest public spirit are not always most eminent for private virtue. Good laws may beget order and moderation in the government, where the manners and customs have instilled little humanity or justice into the tempers of men. The most illustrious period of the Roman history, considered in a political view, is that between the beginning of the first and end of the last Punic war; the due balance between the nobility and people being then fixed by the contests of the tribunes, and not being yet lost by the extent of conquests. Yet at this very time, the horrid practice of poisoning was so common, that, during part of the season, a Prætor punished capitally for this crime above three thousand persons in a part of Italy; and found informations of this nature still multiplying upon him. There is a similar, or rather a worse instance, in the more early times of the commonwealth; so depraved in private life were that people, whom in their histories we so much admire. I doubt not but they were really more virtuous during the time of the two Triumvirates, when they were tearing their common country to pieces, and spreading slaughter and desolation over the face of the earth, merely for the choice of tyrants.

Here, then, is a sufficient inducement to maintain, with the utmost zeal, in every free state, those forms and institutions by which liberty is secured, the public good consulted, and the avarice or ambition of particular men restrained and punished. Nothing does more honour to human nature, than to see it susceptible of so noble a passion; as nothing can be a greater indication of meanness of heart in any man than to see him destitute of it. A man who loves only himself, without regard to friendship and desert, merits the severest blame; and a man, who is only susceptible of friendship, without public spirit, or a regard to the community, is deficient in the most material part of virtue.

But this is a subject which needs not be longer insisted on at present. There are enow of zealots on both sides, who kindle up the passions of their partisans, and, under pretence of public good, pursue the interests and ends of their particular faction. For my part, I shall always be more fond of promoting moderation than zeal; though perhaps the surest way of producing moderation in every party is to increase our zeal for the public. Let us therefore try, if it be possible, from the foregoing doctrine, to draw a lesson of moderation with regard to the parties into which our country is at present divided; at the same time, that we allow not this moderation to abate the industry and passion, with which every individual is bound to pursue the good of his country.

Those who either attack or defend a minister in such a government as ours, where the utmost liberty is allowed, always carry matters to an extreme, and exaggerate his merit or demerit with regard to the public. His enemies are sure to charge him with the greatest enormities, both in domestic and foreign management; and there is no meanness or crime, of which, in their account, he is not capable. Unnecessary wars, scandalous treaties, profusion of public treasure, oppressive taxes, every kind of maladministration is ascribed to him. To aggravate the charge, his pernicious conduct, it is said, will extend its baneful influence even to posterity, by undermining the best constitution in the world, and disordering that wise system of laws, institutions, and customs, by which our ancestors, during so many centuries, have been so happily governed. He is not only a wicked minister in himself, but has removed every security provided against wicked ministers for the future.

On the other hand, the partisans of the minister make his panegyric run as high as the accusation against him, and celebrate his wise, steady, and moderate conduct in every part of his administration. The honour and interest of the nation supported abroad, public credit maintained at home, persecution restrained, faction subdued; the merit of all these blessings is ascribed solely to the minister. At the same time, he crowns all his other merits by a religious care of the best constitution in the world, which he has preserved in all its parts, and has transmitted entire, to be the happiness and security of the latest posterity.

When this accusation and panegyric are received by the partisans of each party, no wonder they beget an extraordinary ferment on both sides, and fill the nation with violent animosities. But I would fain persuade these party zealots, that there is a flat contradiction both in the accusation and panegyric, and that it were impossible for either of them to run so high, were it not for this contradiction. If our constitution be really that noble fabric, the pride of Britain, the envy of our neighbours, raised by the labour of so many centuries, repaired at the expense of so many millions, and cemented by such a profusion of blood;[4] I say, if our constitution does in any degree deserve these eulogies, it would never have suffered a wicked and weak minister to govern triumphantly for a course of twenty years, when opposed by the greatest geniuses in the nation, who exercised the utmost liberty of tongue and pen, in parliament, and in their frequent appeals to the people. But, if the minister be wicked and weak, to the degree so strenuously insisted on, the constitution must be faulty in its original principles, and he cannot consistently be charged with undermining the best form of government in the world. A constitution is only so far good, as it provides a remedy against maladministration; and if the British, when in its greatest vigour, and repaired by two such remarkable events as the Revolution and Accession, by which our ancient royal family was sacrificed to it; if our constitution, I say, with so great advantages, does not, in fact, provide any such remedy, we are rather beholden to any minister who undermines it, and affords us an opportunity of erecting a better in its place.

I would employ the same topics to moderate the zeal of those who defend the minister.  Is our constitution so excellent?  Then a change of ministry can be no such dreadful event; since it is essential to such a constitution, in every ministry, both to preserve itself from violation, and to prevent all enormities in the administration.  Is our constitution very bad?  Then so extraordinary a jealousy and apprehension, on account of changes, is ill placed; and a man should no more be anxious in this case, than a husband, who had married a woman from the stews, should be watchful to prevent her infidelity.  Public affairs, in such a government, must necessarily go to confusion, by whatever hands they are conducted; and the zeal of patriots is in that case much less requisite than the patience and submission ofphilosophers.  The virtue and good intention of Cato and Brutus are highly laudable; but to what purpose did their zeal serve?  Only to hasten the fatal period of the Roman government, and render its convulsions and dying agonies more violent and painful.

I would not be understood to mean, that public affairs deserve no care and attention at all.  Would men be moderate and consistent, their claims might be admitted; at least might be examined.  The country party might still assert, that our constitution, though excellent, will admit of maladministration to a certain degree; and therefore, if the minister be bad, it is proper to oppose him with a suitable degree of zeal.  And, on the other hand, the court party may be allowed, upon the supposition that the minister were good, to defend, and with some zeal too, his administration.  I would only persuade men not to contend, as if they were fighting pro aris et focis, and change a good constitution into a bad one, by the violence of their factions.

I have not here considered any thing that is personal in the present controversy.  In the best civil constitutions, where every man is restrained by the most rigid laws, it is easy to discover either the good or bad intentions of a minister, and to judge whether his personal character deserve love or hatred.  But such questions are of little importance to the public, and lay those who employ their pens upon them, under a just suspicion either of malevolence or of flattery.”     David Hume, Essays; “Biographical Introduction,” “Of the Liberty of the Press,” “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science,” 1742

Numero Dos“Bernard Malamud lives in a white clapboard house in Bennington, Vermont.  Spacious and comfortable, it sits on a gentle downward slope, behind it the rise of the Green Mountains.  To this house on April 26, 1974, came friends, family, colleagues, and the children of friends to celebrate Malamud’s sixtieth birthday.  It was a sunny weekend, the weather and ambience benign, friendly.There were about a half-dozen young people taking their rest in sleeping bags in various bedrooms and in a home volunteered by a friend and neighbor.  Three of them, from nearby universities, were children of friends who were on the faculty of Oregon State University more than a dozen years ago.

On Saturday night there was a birthday party, with champagne, birthday cake, and dancing.  At the end of the evening the young people drummed up a show of slides: scenes of past travels; in particular, scenes of Corvallis, Oregon, where Malamud had lived and taught for twelve years before returning East.

Bernard Malamud is a slender man with a graying mustache and inquisitive brown eyes that search and hide a little at the same time.  He is a quiet man who listens a lot and responds freely.  His wife, Ann, an attractive, articulate woman of Italian descent, had planned the party, assisted by the young people from Oregon and the Malamuds’ son, Paul, and daughter, Janna.

The taping of the interview began late Friday morning, on the back porch, which overlooks a long, descending sweep of lawn and, in the distance, the encircling mountains.  It was continued later in the book-filled study where Malamud writes.  (He also writes in his office at Bennington College.)  At first he was conscious of the tape recorder, but grew less so as the session—and the weekend—continued.  He has a quick laugh and found it easy to discourse on the questions asked.  An ironic humor would seem to be his mother tongue.

INTERVIEWER

Why sixty?  I understand that when the Paris Review asked you to do an interview after the publication of The Fixer, you suggested doing it when you hit sixty?

BERNARD MALAMUD

Right.  It’s a respectable round number, and when it becomes your age you look at it with both eyes.  It’s a good time to see from.  In the past I sometimes resisted interviews because I had no desire to talk about myself in relation to my fiction.  There are people who always want to make you a character in your stories and want you to confirm it.  Of course there’s some truth to it: Every character you invent takes his essence from you; therefore you’re in them as Flaubert was in Emma—but, peace to him, you are not those you imagine.  They are your fictions.  And I don’t like questions of explication: What did I mean by this or that?  I want the books to speak for themselves.  You can read?  All right, tell me what my books mean.  Astonish me.

INTERVIEWER

What about a little personal history?  There’s been little written about your life.

MALAMUD

That’s how I wanted it—I like privacy, and as much as possible to stay out of my books.  I know that’s disadvantageous to certain legitimate kinds of criticism of literature, but my needs come first.  Still, I have here and there talked a little about my life: My father was a grocer; my mother, who helped him, after a long illness, died young.  I had a younger brother who lived a hard and lonely life and died in his fifties.  My mother and father were gentle, honest, kindly people, and who they were and their affection for me to some degree made up for the cultural deprivation I felt as a child.  They weren’t educated, but their values were stable.  Though my father always managed to make a living, they were comparatively poor, especially in the Depression, and yet I never heard a word in praise of the buck.  On the other hand, there were no books that I remember in the house, no records, music, pictures on the wall.  On Sundays I listened to somebody’s piano through the window.  At nine I caught pneumonia, and when I was convalescing my father bought me The Book of Knowledge, twenty volumes where there had been none.  That was, considering the circumstances, an act of great generosity.  When I was in high school he bought a radio.  As a kid, for entertainment I turned to the movies and dime novels.  Maybe The Natural derives from Frank Merriwell as well as the adventures of the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field.  Anyway, my parents stayed close to the store.  Once in a while, on Jewish holidays, we went visiting, or saw a Jewish play—Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, and others.  My mother’s brother, Charles Fidelman, and their cousin, Isidore Cashier, were in the Yiddish theatre.

Around the neighborhood the kids played Chase the White Horse, Ringolevio, Buck-Buck, punchball, and one o’cat.  Occasionally we stole tomatoes from the Italian dirt farmers, gypped the El to ride to Coney Island, smoked in cellars, and played blackjack.  I wore sneakers every summer.  My education at home derived mostly from the presence and example of good, feelingful, hard-working people.  They were worriers, with other faults I wasn’t much conscious of until I recognized them in myself.  I learned from books, in the public schools.  I had some fine teachers in grammar school, Erasmus Hall High School, and later at City College, in New York.  I took to literature and early wanted to be a writer.

INTERVIEWER

How early?

MALAMUD

At eight or nine I was writing little stories in school and feeling the glow.  To anyone of my friends who’d listen I’d recapitulate at tedious length the story of the last movie I’d seen.  The movies tickled my imagination.  As a writer I learned from Charlie Chaplin.

INTERVIEWER

What in particular?

MALAMUD

Let’s say the rhythm, the snap of comedy; the reserved comic presence—that beautiful distancing; the funny with sad; the surprise of surprise.

INTERVIEWER

Please go on about your life.

MALAMUD

Schools meant a lot to me, those I went to and taught at. You learn what you teach and you learn from those you teach. In 1942 I met my wife, and we were married in 1945. We have two children and have lived in Oregon, Rome, Bennington, Cambridge, London, New York, and have traveled a fair amount. In sum, once I was twenty and not so young, now I’m sixty inclined on the young side.

INTERVIEWER

Which means?

MALAMUD

Largely, the life of imagination, and doing pretty much what I set out to do. I made my mistakes, took my lumps, learned. I resisted my ignorance, limitations, obsessions. I’m freer than I was. I’d rather write it than talk. I love the privileges of form.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve taught during the time you were a professional writer?

MALAMUD

Thirty-five years—

INTERVIEWER

There are some who say teaching doesn’t do the writer much good; in fact it restricts life and homogenizes experience. Isn’t a writer better off on the staff of The New Yorker, or working for the BBC? Faulkner fed a furnace and wrote for the movies.

MALAMUD

Doesn’t it depend on the writer? People experience similar things differently. Sometimes I’ve regretted the time I’ve given to teaching, but not teaching itself. And a community of serious readers is a miraculous thing. Some of the most extraordinary people I’ve met were students of mine, or colleagues. Still, I ought to say I teach only a single class of prose fiction, one term a year. I’ve taught since I was twenty-five, and though I need more time for reading and writing, I also want to keep on doing what I can do well and enjoy doing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you teach literature?

MALAMUD

If you teach prose fiction, you are teaching literature. You teach those who want to write to read fiction, even their own work, with greater understanding. Sometimes they’re surprised to find out how much they’ve said or not said that they didn’t know they had.

INTERVIEWER

Can one, indeed, teach writing?

MALAMUD

You teach writers—assuming a talent. At the beginning young writers pour it out without much knowing the nature of their talent. What you try to do is hold a mirror up to their fiction so, in a sense, they can see what they’re showing. Not all who come forth are fully armed. Some are gifted in narrative, some shun it. Some show a richness of metaphor, some have to dig for it. Some writers think language is all they need; they mistake it for subject matter. Some rely on whimsy. Some on gut feeling. Some of them don’t make the effort to create a significant form. They do automatic writing and think they’re probing themselves. The odd thing is, most young writers write traditional narrative until you introduce them to the experimental writers—not for experiment’s sake, but to try something for size. Let the writer attempt whatever he can. There’s no telling where he will come out stronger than before. Art is in life, but the realm is endless.

INTERVIEWER

Experiment at the beginning?

MALAMUD

Sometimes a new technique excites a flood of fictional ideas. Some, after experimenting, realize their strength is in traditional modes. Some, after trying several things, may give up the thought of writing fiction—not a bad thing. Writing—the problems, the commitment, the effort, scares them. Some may decide to try poetry or criticism. Some turn to painting—why not? I have no kick against those who use writing, or another art, to test themselves, to find themselves. Sometimes I have to tell them their talents are thin—not to waste their lives writing third-rate fiction.

INTERVIEWER

Fidelman as a painter? The doubtful talent?

MALAMUD

Yes. Among other things, it is a book about finding a vocation. Forgive the soft impeachment.

INTERVIEWER

In Pictures of Fidelman and The Tenants you deal with artists who can’t produce, or produce badly. Why does the subject interest you so much? Have you ever been blocked?

MALAMUD

Never. Even in anxiety I’ve written, though anxiety, because it is monochromatic, may limit effects. I like the drama of nonproductivity, especially where there may be talent. It’s an interesting ambiguity: the force of the creative versus the paralysis caused by the insults, the confusions of life.

INTERVIEWER

What about work habits? Some writers, especially at the beginning, have problems settling how to do it.

MALAMUD

There’s no one way—there’s so much drivel about this subject. You’re who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time or place—you suit yourself, your nature. How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help. The trick is to make time—not steal it—and produce the fiction. If the stories come, you get them written, you’re on the right track. Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you.

INTERVIEWER

What about the number of drafts? Some writers write only one.

MALAMUD

They’re cheating themselves. First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it. D. H. Lawrence, for instance, did seven or eight drafts of The Rainbow. The first draft of a book is the most uncertain—where you need guts, the ability to accept the imperfect until it is better. Revision is one of the true pleasures of writing. “The men and things of today are wont to lie fairer and truer in tomorrow’s memory,” Thoreau said.

INTERVIEWER

Do you teach your own writing?

MALAMUD

No, I teach what I know about writing.

INTERVIEWER

What specific piece of advice would you give to young writers?

MALAMUD

Write your heart out.

INTERVIEWER

Anything else?

MALAMUD

Watch out for self-deceit in fiction. Write truthfully but with cunning.

INTERVIEWER

Anything special to more experienced types?

MALAMUD

To any writer: Teach yourself to work in uncertainty. Many writers are anxious when they begin, or try something new. Even Matisse painted some of his Fauvist pictures in anxiety. Maybe that helped him to simplify. Character, discipline, negative capability count. Write, complete, revise. If it doesn’t work, begin something else.

INTERVIEWER

And if it doesn’t work twenty or thirty times?

MALAMUD

You live your life as best you can.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard you talk about the importance of subject matter?

MALAMUD

It’s always a problem. Very young writers who don’t know themselves obviously often don’t know what they have to say. Sometimes by staying with it they write themselves into a fairly rich vein. Some, by the time they find what they’re capable of writing about, no longer want to write. Some go through psychoanalysis or a job in a paint factory and begin to write again. One hopes they then have something worth saying. Nothing is guaranteed. Some writers have problems with subject matter not in their first book, which may mine childhood experience, or an obsession, or fantasy, or the story they’ve carried in their minds and imagination to this point, but after that—after this first yield—often they run into trouble with their next few books. Especially if the first book is unfortunately a best seller. And some writers run into difficulties at the end, particularly if they exclude important areas of personal experience from their writing. Hemingway would not touch his family beyond glimpses in short stories, mostly the Nick Adams pieces. He once wrote his brother that their mother was a bitch and father a suicide—who’d want to read about them? Obviously not all his experience is available to a writer for purposes of fiction, but I feel that if Hemingway had tried during his last five years, let’s say, to write about his father rather than the bulls once more, or the big fish, he mightn’t have committed suicide. Mailer, after The Naked and the Dead, ran into trouble he couldn’t resolve until he invented his mirror image: Aquarius, prisoner of Sex, doppelgänger, without whom he can’t write. After he had invented “Norman Mailer” he produced The Armies of the Night, a beautiful feat of prestidigitation, if not fiction. He has still to write, Richard Poirier says, his Moby Dick. To write a good big novel he will have to invent other selves, richly felt selves. Roth, since Portnoy, has been hunting for a fruitful subject. He’s tried various strategies to defeat the obsession of the hated wife he almost never ceases to write about. He’ll have at last to bury her to come up with a new comedy.

INTERVIEWER

What about yourself?

MALAMUD

I say the same thing in different worlds.

INTERVIEWER

Anything else to say to writers—basic stuff?

MALAMUD

Take chances. “Dare to do,” Eudora Welty says. She’s right. One drags around a bag of fears he has to throw to the winds every so often if he expects to take off in his writing. I’m glad Virginia Woolf did Orlando, though it isn’t my favorite of her books, and in essence she was avoiding a subject. Still, you don’t have to tell everything you know. I like Updike’s Centaur, Bellow’s Henderson. Genius, after it has got itself together, may give out with a Ulysses or Remembrance of Things Past. One doesn’t have to imitate the devices of Joyce or Proust, but if you’re not a genius, imitate the daring. If you are a genius, assert yourself, in art and humanity.

INTERVIEWER

Humanity? Are you suggesting art is moral?

MALAMUD

It tends toward morality. It values life. Even when it doesn’t, it tends to. My former colleague, Stanley Edgar Hyman, used to say that even the act of creating a form is a moral act. That leaves out something, but I understand and like what he was driving at. It’s close to Frost’s definition of a poem as “a momentary stay against confusion.” Morality begins with an awareness of the sanctity of one’s life, hence the lives of others—even Hitler’s, to begin with—the sheer privilege of being, in this miraculous cosmos, and trying to figure out why. Art, in essence, celebrates life and gives us our measure.

INTERVIEWER

It changes the world?

MALAMUD

It changes me. It affirms me.

INTERVIEWER

Really?

MALAMUD

(laughs) It helps.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s get to your books. In The Natural, why the baseball-mythology combination?

MALAMUD

Baseball flat is baseball flat. I had to do something else to enrich the subject. I love metaphor. It provides two loaves where there seems to be one. Sometimes it throws in a load of fish. The mythological analogy is a system of metaphor. It enriches the vision without resorting to montage. This guy gets up with his baseball bat and all at once he is, through the ages, a knight—somewhat battered—with a lance; not to mention a guy with a blackjack, or someone attempting murder with a flower. You relate to the past and predict the future. I’m not talented as a conceptual thinker but I am in the uses of metaphor. The mythological and symbolic excite my imagination. Incidentally, Keats said, “I am not a conceptual thinker, I am a man of ideas.”

INTERVIEWER

Is The Assistant mythological?

MALAMUD

Some, I understand, find it so.

INTERVIEWER

Did you set it up as a mythology?

MALAMUD

No. If it’s mythological to some readers I have no objection. You read the book and write your ticket. I can’t tell you how the words fall, though I know what I mean. Your interpretation—pace S. Sontag—may enrich the book or denude it. All I ask is that it be consistent and make sense.

INTERVIEWER

Is it a moral allegory?

MALAMUD

You have to squeeze your brain to come up with that. The spirit is more than moral, and by the same token there’s more than morality in a good man. One must make room in those he creates. So far as range is concerned, ultimately a writer’s mind and heart, if any, are revealed in his fiction.

INTERVIEWER

What is the source of The Assistant?

MALAMUD

Source questions are piddling but you’re my friend, so I’ll tell you. Mostly my father’s life as a grocer, though not necessarily my father. Plus three short stories, sort of annealed in a single narrative: “The Cost of Living” and “The First Seven Years”—both in The Magic Barrel. And a story I wrote in the forties, “The Place is Different Now,” which I’ve not included in my story collections.

INTERVIEWER

Is The Fixer also related to your father’s life?

MALAMUD

Indirectly. My father told me the Mendel Beilis story when I was a kid. I carried it around almost forty years and decided to use it after I gave up the idea of a Sacco and Vanzetti novel. When I began to read for the Sacco and Vanzetti it had all the quality of a structured fiction, all the necessary elements of theme and narrative. I couldn’t see any way of re-forming it. I was very much interested in the idea of prison as a source of the self’s freedom and thought of Dreyfus next, but he was a dullish man, and though he endured well he did not suffer well. Neither did Beilis, for that matter, but his drama was more interesting—his experiences; so I invented Yakov Bok, with perhaps the thought of him as a potential Vanzetti. Beilis, incidentally, died a bitter man, in New York—after leaving Palestine, because he thought he hadn’t been adequately reimbursed for his suffering.

INTERVIEWER

Some critics have commented on this prison motif in your work.

MALAMUD

Perhaps I use it as a metaphor for the dilemma of all men: necessity, whose bars we look through and try not to see. Social injustice, apathy, ignorance. The personal prison of entrapment in past experience, guilt, obsession—the somewhat blind or blinded self, in other words. A man has to construct, invent, his freedom. Imagination helps. A truly great man or woman extends it for others in the process of creating his or her own.

INTERVIEWER

Does this idea or theme, as you call it, come out of your experience as a Jew?

MALAMUD

That’s probably in it—a heightened sense of prisoner of history, but there’s more to it than that. I conceive this as the major battle in life, to transcend the self—extend one’s realm of freedom.

INTERVIEWER

Not all your characters do.

MALAMUD

Obviously. But they’re all more or less engaged in the enterprise.

INTERVIEWER

Humor is so much a part of your work. Is this an easy quality to deal with? Is one problem that the response to humor is so much a question of individual taste?

MALAMUD

The funny bone is universal. I doubt humorists think of individual taste when they’re enticing the laugh. With me humor comes unexpectedly, usually in defense of a character, sometimes because I need cheering up. When something starts funny I can feel my imagination eating and running. I love the distancing—the guise of invention—that humor gives fiction. Comedy, I imagine, is harder to do consistently than tragedy, but I like it spiced in the wine of sadness.

INTERVIEWER

What about suffering? It’s a subject much in your early work.

MALAMUD

I’m against it, but when it occurs, why waste the experience?

INTERVIEWER

Are you a Jewish writer?

MALAMUD

What is the question asking?

INTERVIEWER

One hears various definitions and insistences, for instance, that one is primarily a writer and any subject matter is secondary; or that one is an American-Jewish writer. There are qualifications, by Bellow, Roth, others.

MALAMUD

I’m an American, I’m a Jew, and I write for all men. A novelist has to, or he’s built himself a cage. I write about Jews, when I write about Jews, because they set my imagination going. I know something about their history, the quality of their experience and belief, and of their literature, though not as much as I would like. Like many writers I’m influenced especially by the Bible, both Testaments. I respond in particular to the East European immigrants of my father’s and mother’s generation; many of them were Jews of the Pale as described by the classic Yiddish writers. And of course I’ve been deeply moved by the Jews of the concentration camps, and the refugees wandering from nowhere to nowhere. I’m concerned about Israel. Nevertheless, Jews like rabbis Kahane and Korff set my teeth on edge. Sometimes I make characters Jewish because I think I will understand them better as people, not because I am out to prove anything. That’s a qualification. Still another is that I know that, as a writer, I’ve been influenced by Hawthorne, James, Mark Twain, Hemingway, more than I have been by Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz, whom I read with pleasure. Of course I admire and have been moved by other writers, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, for instance, but the point I’m making is that I was born in America and respond, in American life, to more than Jewish experience. I wrote for those who read.

INTERVIEWER

Thus S. Levin is Jewish and not much is made of it?

MALAMUD

He was a gent who interested me in a place that interested me. He was out to be educated.

INTERVIEWER

Occasionally I see a remark to the effect that he has more than a spoonful of you in him.

MALAMUD

So have Roy Hobbs, Helen Bober, Willie Spearmint, and Talking Horse. More to the point—I prefer autobiographical essence to autobiographical history. Events from life may creep into the narrative, but it isn’t necessarily my life history.

INTERVIEWER

How much of a book is set in your mind when you begin? Do you begin at the beginning? Does its course ever change markedly from what you had in the original concept?

MALAMUD

When I start I have a pretty well-developed idea what the book is about and how it ought to go, because generally I’ve been thinking about it and making notes for months, if not years. Generally I have the ending in mind, usually the last paragraph almost verbatim. I begin at the beginning and stay close to the track, if it is a track and not a whale path. If it turns out I’m in the open sea, my compass is my narrative instinct, with an assist by that astrolabe, theme. The destination, wherever it is, is, as I said, already defined. If I go astray it’s not a long excursis, good for getting to know the ocean, if not the world. The original idea, altered but recognizable, on the whole remains.

INTERVIEWER

Do characters ever run away from you and take on identities you hadn’t expected?

MALAMUD

My characters run away, but not far. Their guise is surprises.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s go to Fidelman. You seem to like to write about painters.

MALAMUD

I know a few. I love painting.

INTERVIEWER

Rembrandt and who else?

MALAMUD

Too many to name, but Cézanne, Monet, and Matisse, very much, among modernists.

INTERVIEWER

Chagall?

MALAMUD

Not that much. He rides his nostalgic nag to death.

INTERVIEWER

Some have called you a Chagallean writer.

MALAMUD

Their problem. I used Chagallean imagery intentionally in one story, “The Magic Barrel,” and that’s it. My quality is not much like his.

INTERVIEWER

Fidelman first appears in “Last Mohican,” a short story. Did you already have in mind that there would be an extended work on him?

MALAMUD

After I wrote the story in Rome I jotted down ideas for several incidents in the form of a picaresque novel. I was out to loosen up—experiment a little—with narrative structure. And I wanted to see, if I wrote it at intervals—as I did from 1957 to 1968—whether the passing of time and mores would influence his life. I did not think of the narrative as merely a series of related stories, because almost at once I had the structure of a novel in mind and each part had to fit that form. Robert Scholes in The Saturday Review has best explained what I was up to in Fidelman.

INTERVIEWER

Did you use all the incidents you jotted down?

MALAMUD

No.

INTERVIEWER

Can you give me an example of one you left out?

MALAMUD

Yes, Fidelman administering to the dying Keats in Rome—doing Severn’s job, one of the few times in his life our boy is engaged in a purely unselfish act, or acts. But I felt I had no need to predict a change in him, especially in a sort of dream sequence, so I dropped the idea. The painting element was to come in via some feverish watercolors of John Keats, dying.

INTERVIEWER

Fidelman is characterized by some critics as a schlemiel.

MALAMUD

Not accurately. Peter Schlemiel lost his shadow and suffered the consequences for all time. Not Fidelman. He does better. He escapes his worst fate. I dislike the schlemiel characterization as a taxonomical device. I said somewhere that it reduces to stereotypes people of complex motivations and fates. One can often behave like a schlemiel without being one.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read criticism of your work?

MALAMUD

When it hits me in the eye; even some reviews.

INTERVIEWER

Does it affect you?

MALAMUD

Some of it must. Not the crap, the self-serving pieces, but an occasional insightful criticism, favorable or unfavorable, that confirms my judgment of my work. While I’m on the subject, I dislike particularly those critics who preach their aesthetic or ideological doctrines at you. What’s important to them is not what the writer has done but how it fits, or doesn’t fit, the thesis they want to develop. Nobody can tell a writer what can or ought to be done, or not done, in his fiction. A living death if you fall for it.

INTERVIEWER

That narration, for instance, is dead or dying?

MALAMUD

It’ll be dead when the penis is.

INTERVIEWER

What about the death of the novel?

MALAMUD

The novel could disappear, but it won’t die.

INTERVIEWER

How does that go?

MALAMUD

I’m not saying it will disappear, just entertaining the idea. Assume it does; then someday a talented writer writes himself a long, heartfelt letter, and the form reappears. The human race needs the novel. We need all the experience we can get. Those who say the novel is dead can’t write them.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve done two short stories and a novel about blacks. Where do you get your material?

MALAMUD

Experience and books. I lived on the edge of a black neighborhood in Brooklyn when I was a boy. I played with blacks in the Flatbush Boys Club. I had a friend—Buster; we used to go to his house every so often. I swiped dimes so we could go to the movies together on a couple of Saturdayafternoons. After I was married I taught for a year in a black evening high school in Harlem. The short stories derive from that period. I also read black fiction and history.

INTERVIEWER

What set off The Tenants?

MALAMUD

Jews and blacks, the period of the troubles in New York City; the teachers strike, the rise of black activism, the mix-up of cause and effect. I thought I’d say a word.

INTERVIEWER

Why the three endings?

MALAMUD

Because one wouldn’t do.

INTERVIEWER

Will you predict how it will be between blacks and Jews in the future?

MALAMUD

How can one? All I know is that American blacks have been badly treated. We, as a society, have to redress the balance. Those who want for others must expect to give up something. What we get in return is the affirmation of what we believe in.

INTERVIEWER

You give a sense in your fiction that you try not to repeat yourself.

MALAMUD

Good. In my books I go along the same paths in different worlds.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the path—theme?

MALAMUD

Derived from one’s sense of values, it’s a vision of life, a feeling for people—real qualities in imaginary worlds.

INTERVIEWER

Do you like writing short stories more than you do novels?

MALAMUD

Just as much, though the short story has its own pleasures. I like packing a self or two into a few pages, predicating lifetimes. The drama is terse, happens faster, and is often outlandish. A short story is a way of indicating the complexity of life in a few pages, producing the surprise and effect of a profound knowledge in a short time. There’s, among other things, a drama, a resonance, of the reconciliation of opposites: much to say, little time to say it, something like the effect of a poem.

INTERVIEWER

You write them between novels?

MALAMUD

Yes, to breathe, and give myself time to think what’s in the next book.  Sometimes I’ll try out a character or situation similar to that in a new novel.

INTERVIEWER

How many drafts do you usually do of a novel?

MALAMUD

Many more than I call three.  Usually the last of the first puts it in place.  The second focuses, develops, subtilizes.  By the third most of the dross is gone.  I work with language.  I love the flowers of afterthought.

INTERVIEWER

Your style has always seemed so individual, so recognizable.  Is this a natural gift, or is it contrived and honed?

MALAMUD

My style flows from the fingers.  The eye and ear approve or amend.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s wind up.  Are you optimistic about the future?

MALAMUD

My nature is optimistic but not the evidence—population misery, famine, politics of desperation, the proliferation of the atom bomb.  My Lai, one minute after Hiroshima in history, was ordained.  We’re going through long, involved transformations of world society, ongoing upheavals of colonialism, old modes of distribution, mores, overthrowing the slave mentality.  With luck we may end up in a society with a larger share of the world’s goods, opportunities for education, freedom going to the presently underprivileged.  Without luck there may be a vast economic redistribution without political freedom.  In the Soviet Union, as it is presently constituted, that’s meant the kiss of death to freedom in art and literature.  I worry that democracy, which has protected us from this indignity, especially in the United States, suffers from a terrifying inadequacy of leadership, and the apathy, unimaginativeness, and hard-core selfishness of too many of us.  I worry about technology rampant.  I fear those who are by nature beastly.

INTERVIEWER

What does one write novels about nowadays?

MALAMUD

Whatever wants to be written.

INTERVIEWER

Is there something I haven’t asked you that you might want to comment on?

MALAMUD

No.

INTERVIEWER

For instance, what writing has meant to you?

MALAMUD

I’d be too moved to say.”     Bernard Malamud, “The Art of Fiction, No. 52;” Paris Review, 1975

 

Numero Tres“None other than William Blackstone, storied British jurist and intellectual progenitor of much of the contemporary nexus of ownership and production, had a very astute insight.

‘There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.’

book sq5In few places in the contemporary arena is ‘Sir William’s’ notion so resonant as in matters of ‘intellectual property’ and copyright.  Unfortunately, this ‘exercise of despotic dominion’ has for some time been having the opposite effect as the proponents of authorial ownership propound—creators are making less, or less than nothing; information monopolies in such areas as textbooks and science preclude public access and the ‘flowering of the arts’ that copyright exists to induce; only very well-heeled ‘owners’ end up availing themselves of either registration or remedies.  These anomalous, or perfectly routine, results effect serious economic, social, and political detriments, which ought to cause an organization of writers to discuss matters of so-called intellectual property with open minds and not assume that established practices and protocols are beneficial to working writers.

book sq1The economic nightmare associated with contemporary copyright is also a windfall of course.  I.P. has for some time been the prime source of exports for the oligopolistic media-and-technology establishments.  However, for law students and other such strivers; for high school pupils in less-than-prosperous neighborhoods; for writers and creators who don’t have sixty-five bucks—now only $35 through the new eco portal–to invest every time they write something and thus will never be able to ‘remedy’ infringement; for communities here and elsewhere who desperately need access to information that they can only obtain in a legally ‘monopolized market’ of often exorbitant prices; and for many others, both scribes and citizens, the operation of the current copyright regime is, at best, suboptimal and at worst a disaster.  Of course, these policies do encourage the rich to get even richer, but why should any grassroots group back rules that help big business and harm a substantial proportion, perhaps the vast majority, of everyday wordsmiths?  Inquiring minds might want to consider such queries, even as I and every other W.O.W. member absolutely commit to fight like fiends for writer-members’ legitimate copyright claims.  The point is, that commitment is not nearly enough.

book sq5The social impact of today’s copyright morass represents a complex and multifaceted mess that largely elicits negative consequences.  One need only consider that a substantial majority of the planet’s teenaged-and-older inhabitants, were a strict enforcement regime in place, would at least technically and potentially be felons under today’s copyright rubric.  Moreover, rather than fostering creative congruence and generosity, copyright now operates to cause everyone to hide ingenuity away, to treat the potential for cooperation and sharing with disdain or suspicion.  In a networked world that absolutely requires joint, multidisciplinary, cross-border, intergenerational, multicultural ventures to solve a host of hideous problems, fostering a psychology of “it’s-mine-and-you-can’t-have-it” is likely suicidal.

The political outcome of the legal thicket in place today is equally insidious.  An invasive police apparatus has to be legitimate if ‘sacred property-rights’ are at stake.  The further polarization between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ means that electoral democracy becomes a charade and participatory democracy becomes either a crime or an impossibility.  At the very least, the plutocrats’ lobbyists write the legal caveats that further ratchet up the rapine of the present process; ordinary citizens become cynical, ripe for the latest divide-and-conquer scheme or, perish the thought, ready to find some ‘strong man’ who will always end up being a straw-man and a puppet for the forces that originated and gained from the system as it is.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat should be the World Organization of Writers stance in such a pass?  One answer would be to foster a lot more dialog, call for the equivalent of a ‘Writers Constitutional Convention on Copyright,’ and generally to dig deep into the archives of government and the annals of history to facilitate a nuanced and rich comprehension of these matters.  Amelia Andersdotter, a member of Sweden’s Piratpartiet and member of the European Parliament, summed up simply when she said, ‘Copyleft and Copymore Instead of Copyright and Copyless.’  Her analysis is at least persuasive, deserving a lot more attention at all levels among actual scribes than it is currently receiving.

The current legislation is adapted for, and even wants to promote, scarcity of information.  You won’t find users of information services or indeed any citizens at all who have a relationship with information corresponding to a scarcity model.  When thinking carefully about it, you will probably find that having such users and citizens isn’t even desirable. So our information management laws need to change.  Essentially, legislators and lobbyists all over the world will have to abandon the idea that restricting access to individual pieces of, or copies of pieces of, information is good.  It’s not.  We need laws that encourage abundance of each piece of information, and make use of the wealth derived from the fast spread of those pieces.”    Jim Hickey, “If Copying Is Wrong, What’s a Copyright?” 2014