Reading Journal — November 27, 2013, 2:03 pm

Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone

On the first full translation of a masterwork by Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837)

 

Zibaldone, by Giacomo Leopardi8/20

So here it is, the Zibaldone, one of the greatest blogs of the nineteenth century, of any century, for that matter — and what matter it is! 2,584 pages! Translated, edited, printed, bound, shipped, and received from the tattooed hands of my Monday/ Wednesday/ Friday UPS guy, Phil — a process that required seven years and the efforts of seven translators, two editors, more than two dozen “specialist consultants,” in German, French, Hebrew, Mongolian/Tibetan, philosophy, the history of science, etc., a partridge, a pear tree, and Phil, not to mention Il Cavaliere himself, Silvio Berlusconi, who took a break from his women and media companies and the media company that is Italy to arrange partial funding and take a tax break on art. Then there were also the daily emails and phone calls from Important Editors to get Farrar, Straus and Giroux to send the galleys to me. Unpacking the paperback stack, I understood FSG’s hesitation. Sending out copies, even review copies, of Leopardi’s masterwork must get expensive — sort of like sending out review models of the Roman Coliseum — but still, why invest what must’ve been hundreds of thousands of strong euros or weak dollars to prepare a book for publication only to stint on crucial freebies? Why work so intensely to put together a diary so intensely of and about the page, and then try to placate a critic — who, in order to read the entirety and write anything even remotely coherent by deadline, will have to put off all other paying assignments, sex assignations, sleep, and laundry — with an e-book version? These, rather similar concerns about human folly, are Leopardi’s subjects.

8/21

Online time is comprised of all the times of all the texts we click. Each session, then, is a history of sessions, a temporality salad, a chronological Zibaldone, which is apparently a slang term for a meal or dish slapped together out of available ingredients. I’m downtown, at a café featuring B&W photos of Naples on the walls and accordion renditions of ’O Sole Mio on the stereo and a menu that insists on the proper adjective, “Italian,” before every section heading — Italian Appetizers, Italian Sandwiches, Italian Coffee — the list of Italian Desserts lacking for nothing but zabaglione, that concoction of egg yolks, sugar, and sweet wine, intended to be scooped or sipped, or both.

The time of print is different — if I have to continue the metaphor, print is best read like a recipe: one line, then another, unidirectionally, in order. Reading backward is like using flour as garnish. 

Online reading becomes writing with interactivity: blogs and feeds compel constant update and continuous response. Leopardi was faithful to his journals, but he was never their slave. He wrote only when he had something to write about (no deadlines!), and only for himself (no editors!). As for me, I’m trying to remember — since I don’t have a smartphone, just a stupidphone, I still have to remember — which author it was who once claimed that, regardless of how blasphemous a book might appear, all books were essentially moral, because while reading and writing you’re not doing anything active, like looting, or bombmaking. When I first read that sentiment I was impressed, but now — in this break from a dead poet’s prose in the middle of a Wednesday — I’m not. Passivity has its morality too: while reading and writing I’m not, for example, calling my uncle in the hospital, or my sister in L.A., both of which I have to do before the weekend. Leopardi, who was an ugly hunchback, lived at his family’s estate in Recanati for much of his life, and hardly ever left its library, which was stocked with anthologies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and manuscripts in every major and a few minor and even defunct languages, many of which he mastered. The first page of the Zibaldone bears the nondate “July or August 1817,” which captures his spirit exactly, especially because, according to the editors’ introduction, it was appended to the work in 1820. The last entries arrive in 1832, written in Rome, and Florence, to which Leopardi, age thirty-four, had fled to experience the world unprinted. He died at thirty-eight, of cholera, in Naples.

The tables all around me are full of laptops, which should be called “I’m a freelancer with a studio apartment and don’t have anywhere else to work but heretops.” The marble is fake, but in the context of that fakeness the veins might be “real.” I should’ve gone to the library. The line to order ends where the line for the bathroom begins.

8/23

Zibaldone #3: “A plant or animal seen in real life should give us more delight than when it is painted or imitated in some other way, because it is impossible for an imitation not to leave something to be desired. But the contrary is clearly true: from which it appears that the source of delight in the arts is not beauty but imitation.”

I’m not sure — though maybe this only applies to plants and animals. What about literature — the differences between an original and a translation? What about experience? Because if I had the choice between another day in this café or going on an all-expenses trip to Italy, I’d take the ticket, no question.

#29: “Everything is or can be happy, except man, which goes to show that his existence is not limited to this world, as is that of other things.”

Another grumble. I can imagine inverting, or negating, that statement: “Everything is or can be happy, except man, which goes to show that his existence IS limited to this world, UNLIKE that of other things.” Which is to say, I’m fairly convinced it’s our consciousness (of death) that prevents our happiness. But what’s especially troubling about that statement is “everything” — “other things.” What does Leopardi mean? What else does he regard as not just being capable of happiness, but actually seriously happy? Animals? Can animals be happy? Maybe. But, come on, plants? How can a brainless root be called “happy,” as opposed to just “alive”? Maybe Leopardi’s point is that for some things, for some dimidiate things, “happiness” is plain “living”?  What then to make of this cheap ceramic cup and saucer and this cheap metal spoon I can twist and bend without it shrieking? Leopardi must’ve been insane, not least because he expected a next life, and expected it to be glad. I’d settle for a $4 latte.

8/24

“Boredom.” Leopardi uses the word a lot — noia, apparently — which doesn’t seem bored in italics. Baudelaire has his ennui (1857); Durkheim, his anomie (1893); but before them both, Leopardi — who has the concern for the individuality of spirit of a Baudelaire, and the concern for the social body of a Durkheim — is predisposed to noia, “the passion most contrary to and farthest from nature,” “the feeling of nothingness, and of the nullity of what exists, and of the very one who conceives and feels it, and in whom it subsists” (Leopardi’s italics). Nonetheless the translators of this volume have decided to keep noia out of the text, and rely, instead, on “boredom.”

The repetitions. Again.

#2: “Passions, deaths, storms, etc., give us great pleasure in spite of their ugliness for the simple reason that they are well imitated, and if what Parini says in his Oration on poetry is true, this is because man hates nothing more than he does boredom, and therefore he enjoys seeing something new, however ugly.”

#s 89-90: “Rather, I would say that the unknown gives us more pain than the known and, since that object frightens us or saddens us or makes us shudder, we do not know how to leave it alone. And even if it disgusts us, we still find a certain desire to put it into some perspective so that we can understand it better. Perhaps also, and so I believe, it comes from a love of the extraordinary, and the natural hatred of monotony and boredom that is innate in all men, and if an object presents itself that breaks this monotony and steps out of the common run of things, however much more burdensome it seems to us than boredom (but perhaps, at that moment, we do not notice or think about this), we still find a certain pleasure in the shock and agitation that the fleeting glimpse of that object produces in us.”

#239: “Hatred of boredom is the only reason that today we see gatherings of people eager to watch bloody spectacles, such as public executions and the like, which have nothing pleasurable in themselves (unlike the contest, display, etc., of gladiators and wild animals in the circus) but only insofar as they provide a vivid contrast with the monotony of living. The same is true of anything that appeals simply by being extraordinary, even though, far from being pleasurable, it is in itself deeply unpleasurable.”

#s 345–346: “When a person proposes purpose to himself either for action or indeed for inaction, he will find delight in things that are not delightful, even in things that are unpleasant, almost indeed in boredom itself.”

Leopardi, official interpreter of Leopardi.

Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837)

Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837)

9/1

So, experiencing the emptiness of the world (noia) leads us to seek the nearest salvation, which is, expectedly, the ugliest. What are we to do? What salvation should we seek? Not the easiest, but the simplest, the apt. We should become a bit like a child. Or like “the ancients,” who had “negligence, certainty, carelessness, and I would even say ignorant confidence.” What happened to us that we’re so careful now? What defeat made us this timid, and witting? Naturalness — an “illusion” last sustainable during the reign of Augustus — crumbled when the Imperium crumbled, into barbarity, modernity. We were left to the void, and denatured by noia. Unable to return to our illusion, we engineered “reason,” and followed its dictates to corruption. Philosophies, religions — artificialities perpetrated by system.

Leopardi regards paganism’s lapses as purer than Christianity’s because at least pagans who act unethically are acting naturally, not contradictorily. At least the Greek and Roman gods were humane, he maintains, in that they felt human passions, even to the point of meddling in our affairs; they patronized, and were influenced by, our art. If you died as a Greek or Roman you took your memories and emotions with you into a sort of exile. This was infinitely preferable to the Christian heaven, which cast life on earth as the exile, from which redemption was a calculation, or a transaction. In the Roman Catholic rite Hell became avoidable via a formalized penance, the sacrament of confession. Each dead person’s soul, however, had to be judged for assignation — this suggested a Purgatory: an amorphous transitional state, until the Medieval Church deemed it a locatable space or place because the fate of dead unbaptized newborns required the accommodation of a Limbo, located adjacent. The next logical provision was time, and though each sin earned its sinner a designated wait, the popes offered swifter passage for a price: indulgences. To Leopardi, each innovation merely distanced humanity farther from the true religion, which wasn’t the one Constantine adopted, or the one Jesus bled for, or even Olympus’s — but “certainty,” “negligence,” unicity.

Leopardi’s lifetime was marked by a great Europe-wide cyclicity; a return to Vico and his Scienza Nuova: the idea of history as recurrent. Political history organized into a cycle, from an age of myth to an age of epic heroes or iconic rule, to an age of egalitarian populism destroying itself into myth again. Later, biogenetics — via Lamarck, Haeckel — would conform: embryos matured into adulthood through a recapitulation of the evolutionary progressions of their ancestors. Both ideas were clever — writerly clever — but wrong. Leopardi was never wrong. He couldn’t be; not with a talent that transmuted every theme to literature. The ultimate in circuitousness: addressing the world as a way of addressing style.

Culture’s martyrdom was congruent with religion’s, but later — coinciding with Spanish–Habsburg rule (1559–1713). The Seicento (as Italy would call the 1600s) wasn’t quite the Quattrocento, but still: the piano, invented in Florence, the violin, perfected in Cremona; Monteverdi, Vivaldi; Caravaggio, Tiepolo, Bernini, Borromini. Not to mention Galileo. What about its literature? Gabriello Chiabrera, anyone? Fulvio Testi, yes/no? Manfredi? Zappi? Filicaia? Guidi? Leopardi praises their originality, only to qualify that originality as “small in scale”; he allies them and groups them into schools, then assails them as imitators of Dante and Petrarch; Guidi can never be called “inconsistent,” because his every poem demonstrates a “formal mediocrity and frigidity.” “Most of Chiabrera’s finest canzoni are no more than very beautiful sketches.” Boccaccio wouldn’t have written any better about this lot: sentimentalists, hyperbolists, academicians peddling sham erudition. Their refinements were technicalities: Latin and Greek borrowings, compoundwords, confounding puns; resulting in a verse that read like zealous Bible commentaries not to circulate outside the cloister; an abstruse fanatic math. Leopardi’s just recording what he’s seen and heard, of course, which is his inheritance of a tradition that’s forgotten how to see and hear for itself. Italy’s near past fashioned poems out of its far past, but its future will source them from feeling directly. The only way to share a feeling is to share how it was evoked (the sight and sound): the lesson Leopardi found in Homer. This can still be done, if not “effortlessly,” then with “concealment”: the lesson Leopardi found in Virgil. His emotions will be his senses. His self will be his nature.

Homer and Virgil both practiced prosopopoeia: inventing voices for objects and landscapes; But Leopardi provides “his own” voice. To skies, celestial bodies, Italy, friends, above all “to himself.” With it, he addresses a you, singular, plural, specific, ambiguous, everything, nothing. Personality, the birth of fallacies.

Leopardi’s prose personifies nature, though it does so chiefly by personifying its indifference.

What is a rhyme? The illusion of reason. What is an image? “A part of the world oppressed by fog / and sullen Jupiter.”

9/6

Happy/sad birthday to me. One year younger than Leopardi was when he’d finish with this book. When he’d leave it unfinished. Completion, being the hope, being impossible. To Leopardi, the struggle is to keep proportional, balanced. Another issue of translation. The translators admit that “translating noia by ‘boredom’ is a kind of reverse anachronism,” but claim that “the concept is addressed continuously in the Zibaldone, and to avoid confusion can only be translated by a single word, even if noia and ‘boredom’ are not exactly the same thing.” They go on to note the challenge they faced with convenienza and its adjective conveniente: “There is a sense of convenienza that has to do with wholeness, or the perceived relation between the whole and the parts, or the parts with each other (proportion, harmony, agreement), and another that has to do with belonging (appropriateness, fitness, rightness, suitability, becomingness, and so on). In the end, the English ‘propriety” and “proper’ seem to fit both semantic areas best, as well as having a certain gravitas about them, and in spite of their linkage to ‘proper behavior,’ which is not usually the issue in the Zibaldone.”

I hate the word gravitas. It reminds me of testicles — it’s a term for “balls,” which has “no balls” — I’m aware that recording this isn’t proper behavior. But I’d like to imagine that the ancients, whoever they are, would’ve mentioned it. Only because to refrain from doing so would’ve felt, meaning “been,” unnatural. This is my problem. This is our problem, today. To restrain, or not to restrain — we’re not sure what feels unnatural; I’m not even sure what “is.”

9/8

#1307: “If I may be permitted an observation regarding a trifling matter that might seem ridiculous to spell out, and hardly deserving of being written down. There are some really minute parts of the human body that man is only able to observe with difficulty, very rarely, and only by chance, in others, and which he is only used to observing in himself.”

9/10

But is convenienza naturally derived? Or just our own artificial construction? I thought about this, then realized I wouldn’t be able to think about it. We/I believe in wholes, but live in parts. Not even in parts (fragments, shards), but in the nullities between them, the cracks that comprise our shattering.

Proportion, harmony — to be relevated, or yearned for. Who doesn’t want repletion, completion — Concinnity Now? But who wants the culture that is its complement?

Total Leopardian roundedness of character requires total consciousness: of self-frustration, self-sabotage, perversion. Leopardi wants me to be aware of my failings; I want that too, but I also want to hang onto my cigs, my rye, my humor.

For Leopardi, “weakness” evokes a “compassion,” which he calls “the only human quality or passion that has nothing to do with self-love. The only one because even self-sacrifice for heroism, patriotism, virtue, or a beloved […] always comes about because on that occasion the sacrifice is more satisfying to our mind than anything we might gain.” The implication being that “weakness” can’t be assuaged, or changed into strength; it can only be made mutual. I just wish that Leopardi would be more explicit about the form of pity he preferred: an eye, an ear, a word, a heart, a sack of scudi; an insomniac reader nearly two hundred years after his death. He died a virgin (according to his friend and unrequited gay crush, the writer and statesman Antonio Ranieri).

9/12

#1979: “There’s nothing to be said. Man’s present condition, in obliging him to live and think and act according to reason, and in forbidding him to kill himself, is contradictory. Either suicide is not against morality, though it is against nature, or our life, being against nature, is against morality. Since the latter is not so, neither is the former.”

9/14

I’ve been skipping the philology. But I stop at #2053: “The vast has to be distinguished from the vague or indefinite. They please the mind for the same reasons, or for reasons of the same type. But the vast is not necessarily vague, and the vague is not necessarily vast. Nonetheless, these qualities are always similar in terms of the effect they have on the mind.”

9/16

It’s back again, the we-like-that-which-destroys-us thing, #2118: “It is pleasurable to be the spectator of vigorous, etc. etc., actions of any sort, not only those relative to man. Thunder, storm, hail, a strong wind, seen or heard, and its effects, etc. Every keen sensation in man brings with it a vein of pleasure, however unpleasurable it is in itself, however terrible, or painful, etc. I heard a farmer whose land was often severely damaged by a nearby river say that nonetheless the sight of the flood was a pleasure as it advanced, rushing swiftly toward his fields, with a thunderous noise, and carrying with it a great mass of rocks, mud, etc. And such images, while ugly in themselves, always turn out to be beautiful in poetry, in painting, in eloquence, etc.”

Entries on politics (nations evolve along with their citizens), and on the politics of language: all contemporaries of Hegel were Hegelian, it seems, whether they liked it or not (Leopardi didn’t). He criticizes German — for lack of rigor? and criticizes French — for being incapable of the sublime? Languages evolve too, I guess. Which means there’s still a chance for the Italian novel.

From #2136: “What is the derivation of the verb aptare [to adapt], from which our attare, adattare, and the French, etc.? From aptus. And what do we think this is? A participle of the very old verb apere. And what is the original meaning of aptare? That of the verb apere, that is, to bind.”

As poets to meter, mortals to death. And prosateurs to pretension.

9/20

On a bus to Atlantic City, to my family — unflushable shit in the chemical toilet, piss in the aisle, expired buffet vouchers wedged between seats. Leopardi says that every living being loves itself equally, because it loves itself infinitely. Regard is comparable only in degree, and only in infinity. Absolute. I Heart New York. Jersey Strong. I want to copy down another quotation about “boredom,” but then I want to copy down so much, so many contradictions: #4175. “Not only individual men, but the whole human race was and always will be necessarily unhappy. Not only the human race but the whole animal world. Not only animals but all other beings in their way. Not only individuals, but species, genera, realms, spheres, systems, worlds. Go into a garden of plants, grass, flowers. No matter how lovely it seems. Even in the mildest season of the year. You will not be able to look anywhere and not find suffering.”

Changing trains, for home, at Trenton. Leopardi in accidental palinode-mode: bestowing the unhappiness he’d already ordained for humanity on the rest of the biota. But not just that: he’s also asserting that each weed and seed and class of beast feels its own despair, as if despair were the substance of diversity. What about #29, though, “Everything is or can be happy”? What’s become of the diarist who damned himself, and yet remained sanguine about the prospects for joy among “other things”? The world’s suddenly suffering, “evil.” Leopardi is, in our lexicon, “depressed.” This is because of a frustrated love (for Ranieri? for his cousin Geltrude Cassi?), or infirmity: biography.

A purposeful contradiction is not a contradiction. It’s change. An accidental contradiction is not a contradiction. It’s growth. Still. There is such a thing as a contradiction.

Perversato for perverso”: Leopardi notes the substitution of “raging,” or “fury,” for “perverse,” or “depraved” — a word must have a body, a motion, emotion, intelligence. The world’s monstrous incoherence demands a victim but will get a witness.

“These are things that we do not know, nor can we know; that none of those that we do know make even likely, still less do they authorize us to believe them. Let us therefore admire this order, this universe. I admire it more than anyone. I admire it for its perversity and deformity, which seem to me extreme. But before praising it, let us at least wait until we know with certainty that it is not the worst of all possible worlds.”

Tu dormi: lo questo ciel, che sì benigno
Yes, you sleep, while I come to my window
appare in vista, a salutary m’affaccio,
to salute this sky that seems so kind,
e l’antica natura onnipossente,
and eternal, all-commanding nature
che mi fece all’affanno.
who created me for suffering.

Share
Single Page

More from Joshua Cohen:

From the July 2018 issue

Hat Tips

From the December 2015 issue

New Books

From the October 2015 issue

New Books

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2018

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Article
There Will Always Be Fires·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
Article
The End of Eden·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
Article
How to Start a Nuclear War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Price of a potted four-leaf clover, from 1-800-BIG-LUCK:

$22.95

A 2,000-year-old brain was found in the mud in York, England.

Flooding in Japan, Scott Pruitt resigns, and Weibo users cheer on a shipment of soybeans

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today