We are living in an era of demented self-censorship. The old private matters—the functions of the body, the chase after love and money, the unhappiness of the family—are now the commonest stuff of public life. We are rotten with confession. But try saying that the act we call “war” would more properly be termed a massacre, and that the state we call “occupation” would more properly be termed a war; that the conspiracy theories, here and abroad, which have not yet been proved true by Seymour Hersh or the General Accounting Office are probably, nonetheless, true; or that the political freedoms so cherished and, really, so necessary, are also the mask of a more pervasive, insidious repression—try saying all this, or any of it, and see how far you get. Then try saying it in a complex way, at some length, expressing as you do so an actual human personality.
We are living in a time when Nabokov and Henry James are read in Tehran but we have pornography and publicity at home; a time when serious writing about culture has become the exclusive province of bullies, reactionaries, and Englishmen; a time when journalists can refer to Vladimir Sorokin, a towering figure of Russian postmodernism, as a “shocking” writer who became a “best seller” after his books were trampled in public by a neo-fascist youth group; a time when a magazine like Lingua Franca can’t publish, but Zagat prospers. In the future, it will be seen as the time when some of the best people in our intellectual class gave their “critical support” to a hubristic, suicidal adventure in Iraq.
The problem is hardly a lack of magazines, even literary magazines. Culture can expand now to fill the superstore. But civilization is the dream of advance—to find the new, or take what we know from the past and say it with the care that only the living can claim. “One must have been in exile and in the wilds to appreciate a new periodical,” said Alexander Herzen, founder of the mighty Bell. Perhaps you live in the city or the town, and in the safety of your own country. But you have known the exile, and are acquainted with the wilds.