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In her relentless pursuit of the truth she's left a few bodies in her wake, but isn't that part of a journalist's job?

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By Craig Seligman

Feb. 29, 2000 | The public pillorying of Janet Malcolm is one of the scandals of American letters. The world of journalism teems with hacks who will go to their graves never having written one sparkling or honest or incisive sentence; why is it Malcolm, a virtuoso stylist and a subtle, exciting thinker, who drives critics into a rage? What journalist of her caliber is as widely disliked or as often accused of bad faith? And why did so few of her colleagues stand up for her during the circus of a libel trial that scarred her career? In the animus toward her there is something almost personal.

Yet I can't deny that she brings some of it on herself, with the harshness -- the mellifluous harshness -- of her work. Malcolm is hard on her subjects. As she sees it, being hard on them is her job; "putting a person's feelings above a text's necessities" is, in her arid and damning formulation, a "journalistic solecism." Like Sylvia Plath, whose not-niceness she has laid open with surgical skill, she discovered her vocation in not-niceness. Dryden famously noted the "vast difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body, and leaves it standing in its place." Malcolm's blade gleams with a razor edge. Her critics tend to go after her with broken bottles.

Not that she relishes shredding her subjects in the service of truth. It troubles her -- she has confessed to the "journalistic solecism" herself -- and that discomfort is what led to "The Journalist and the Murderer," the masterpiece in which she permanently tied the noose around her neck. This lucid and levelheaded essay, with its truculent opening allegation (doubtless headed for Bartlett's) that "every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible," is one of those remarkable works that trusts the reader to meet it with all the sly intelligence that has gone into its composition.

That's what you get for trusting the reader.

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Malcolm was born in prewar Prague, one of two daughters (the other is the writer Marie Winn) of secular Jews; the family got out of Europe just in time, in 1939. Her father was, not surprisingly, a psychiatrist. She attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan (she is one of the last heirs of the Partisan Review seriousness of New York in the 1940s), then the University of Michigan; there she met her first husband, Donald Malcolm, a writer who contributed theater and book criticism to the New Yorker from the late '50s until his early death in 1975, and from whom she eventually separated. In the 1960s she began writing for the magazine herself, mainly on interior decoration and design; in the mid-'70s she married her editor at the magazine, Gardner Botsford, a well-to-do member of the family that had funded Harold Ross' original New Yorker.

By then she was writing about photography for the magazine, and she had found her mature voice, a strange and delicious combination of aesthetic passion, intellectual dispassion, cold candor and exuberant, extravagant metaphor. ("Innocently opening the book 'Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait,' by Alfred Stieglitz ... is like taking a little drive in the country and suddenly coming upon Stonehenge.") Malcolm's often protracted flights of metaphor are always enchanting, and the element of fun they contribute to her somewhat dry and serious prose almost single-handedly raises it from the flatlands of knotty meditation to the high plains of literature.

In the light of her later work, her comments on two photographers are of special interest. She devotes two of the 12 articles collected in her first book, "Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography" (1980), to Richard Avedon's startlingly frank portraits. "Avedon does not try to make people look bad," she writes; "he simply doesn't do anything to make them look good ... Avedon's pictures of men without props present an unpalatable truth. They show us that we are ugly creatures." If that passage weren't dated 1975 -- several years before Malcolm began her own series of great, cruel portraits -- she might have been writing about herself.

Stieglitz, the pioneering American photographer and gallery owner, also gets two essays; what excites her about him is his hardness. She savors a 1931 letter in which Stieglitz's obdurate purism leads him to refuse a publisher permission to reprint his work: "In the reproduction, it would become extinct -- dead. My interest is in the living."

Malcolm loves purists. Her heroes, Freud not least among them, rigidly refuse compromise, sometimes badly to their own detriment. Her fascination with psychoanalysis centers on the weirdly immaculate analyst-patient relationship, with "its purposeful renunciation of the niceties and decencies of ordinary human intercourse, its awesome abnormality, contradictoriness, and strain."

The hero of her 1981 "Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession," Aaron Green, was such a purist regarding analytic neutrality that he still blamed himself for having apologized once when he showed up late for a session -- "I put my own interests," he fretted, "before those of the patient." (After calling Green a "remarkable and lovable man" in her acknowledgements, Malcolm then painted him as so ambitious, narcissistic, gossipy and even venal that I've always wondered if he wanted to throttle her when he saw his portrait. Since "Aaron Green" was a pseudonym, I'll never know.)

The book sounds the major themes of Malcolm's work: the elusiveness of truth; the paucity of the means (therapeutic, journalistic, etc.) we pursue it with; and the unreliability of narrative -- the stories we tell to pin it down, which are always incomplete and (consciously or otherwise) self-serving. From Green she also learned the surprising information that the analyst's behavior doesn't ultimately matter. "In the popular imagination," he told her, "the analyst is an authoritarian, dominating figure who has rigid control over a malleable, vulnerable patient. [But] it is the patient who controls what is happening, and the analyst who is a puny, weak figure. Patients go where the hell they please."

. Next page | The first of the victims: Jeffrey Masson

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