Wednesday, October 31, 2007

All Souls (by Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker)

Note to the Caputure: “Me and My Parrots” (“Yo y Mis Pericos”)/1941/Oil on canvas. © 2007 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av. Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc 06059, México, D.F.

The Art World
All Souls
The Frida Kahlo cult.
by Peter Schjeldahl November 5, 2007

There are so many ways to be interested in Frida Kahlo, who was born a hundred years ago and died forty-seven years later, in 1954, that simply to look at and judge her paintings, as paintings, may seem narrow-minded. No one need appreciate art to justify being a Kahlo fan or even a Kahlo cultist. (Why not? The world will have cults, and who better merits one?) In Mexico, Kahlo’s ubiquitous image has become the counter-Guadalupe, complementing the numinous Virgin as a deathless icon of Mexicanidad. Kahlo’s ascension, since the late nineteen-seventies, to feminist sainthood is ineluctable, though a mite strained. (Kahlo struggled not in common cause with women but, single-handedly, for herself.) And her pansexual charisma, shadowed by tales of ghastly physical and emotional suffering, makes her an avatar of liberty and guts. However, Kahlo’s eminence wobbles unless her work holds up. A retrospective at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, proves that it does, and then some. She made some iffy symbological pictures and a few perfectly awful ones—forgivably, given their service to her always imperilled morale—but her self-portraits cannot be overpraised. They are sui generis in art while collegial with great portraiture of every age. Kahlo is among the winnowed elect of twentieth-century painters who will never be absent for long from the mental museums of future artists.

She was born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón in the house where she would die, in Coyoacán, then a prosperous suburb and later a district of Mexico City. She was the third child of a Hungarian-German immigrant photographer, who was an atheist Jew, and a pious mestiza from Oaxaca. Polio, at age six, withered her right leg and foot. She was among the rare girls admitted to the sterling National Preparatory School, in Mexico City, where she grew from an effervescent tomboy into a brilliant young woman, during the creative tumult of the nineteen-twenties. When she was eighteen, a bus crash left her with spinal and pelvic damage that would entail many surgeries, some of them probably unnecessary. (Was she masochistic? Anyone doomed to a lifetime of pain will find veins of sweetness in it.) While convalescing, she began to paint, depicting herself, in styles influenced by Renaissance and Mannerist masters, with the aid of a mirror set in the canopy of her bed. In 1928, she took up with Mexico’s chief artist, Diego Rivera, who was twenty years her senior. They married in 1929, divorced for a year in 1939, then remarried. They were the loves of each others’ lives, though with innumerable supplements. Their semi-public affairs (her amours included Leon Trotsky and numerous women); their dealings with famous figures in America and Europe, from John D. Rockefeller to Pablo Picasso; and their political adventures, as Communists subject to sectarian pushes and pulls, make Hayden Herrera’s hugely consequential biography, “Frida” (1983), a delirious read. (Herrera is a co-curator, with Elizabeth Carpenter, of the Walker show.) Kahlo died, probably of a complication of pneumonia, the last in a cascade of deteriorative maladies, a year after the opening of her first solo exhibition in Mexico.

Rivera often remarked, correctly, that Kahlo was a better painter than he was. Picasso confessed himself incapable “of painting a head like those of Frida Kahlo.” André Breton praised her art—with enthusiasm marked by condescension—as “a ribbon around a bomb.” In point of fact, the ribbons and other feminine adornments that she renders are, themselves, rhetorically explosive. Breton also claimed her as an exemplar of international Surrealism. Wrong again. At her best, she is a better artist than any of the Surrealists except Salvador Dali at his best, unless early Giorgio de Chirico may be deemed Surrealist before the letter. Besides, the avant-garde most germane to Kahlo’s development in the twenties is that of German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which mined heightened realism for psychological drama. To this, she added fecund inspirations from Mexican pre-Columbian and folk art and Spanish-colonial and Creole portraiture. No swoons into the supposed unconscious—even most of her dream pictures are wide awake. She was terrific at still-lifes of fruit and flowers and at picturing animals—she intermittently maintained a menagerie of dogs, cats, parrots, and monkeys—all of which channel her consciousness. Kahlo’s self-portraits are about her gaze, as subject matter, technique, and content. They dramatize sheer attentiveness. They tell us exactly what it’s like to be Frida Kahlo, with, I believe, a superbly indifferent confidence that we will not understand. She confides, but she won’t plead. She makes eye contact not with the viewer but with herself—watching herself watch herself, in an extended but closed loop. T. S. Eliot articulated the truth, regarding all successful art, of a dissociation of “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Make the man a woman, and Kahlo becomes singular for having engaged both parties at once—and only them. Looking at the pictures, you’re not there.

The meaning of Kahlo’s art comes across in reproductions, but not its full dynamic, which involves brooding subtleties of surface and color. The reproduced images are shiny and bright. The paintings are matte and grayish, drinking and withholding light. (Their display calls for intense illumination—that of the Mexican sun, say. They should not be hung on white walls, as they are at the Walker, where the contrast makes them look like holes in a snowbank.) The lovely, highly varied, blushing colors (even Kahlo’s browns and greens blush) don’t radiate. Fused with represented flesh, foliage, fabrics, and, yes, ribbons and jewelry, they turn their backs to us. The payoff of this reticence is an absorption in the artist’s touch. It’s easy to fantasize that Kahlo’s brushes were fingertips, able to mold her own more than familiar features in the dark. The tactility of certain self-portraits is, among other things, staggeringly sexy. In “Me and My Parrots” (1941), it combines with sharp tonal contrasts of warm color to convey invisible moistness, as of a summertime, full-body, delicate sweat. Elsewhere, the felt oneness of sight and touch stirs harrowing empathy, as in “The Broken Column” (1944). Kahlo’s nude body is split open to reveal a crumbling pillar, nails penetrating her flesh everywhere. Tears flow from her eyes, but her face is dispassionate, as always. Her pain is not her. It just won’t let her mind stray to anything else, for the moment. The work belongs to a category of images with which Kahlo confronted and endured episodes of agony, including heartbreak and rage. (Most piercing are laments of her disastrous pregnancies; she longed for children but physically could not bring a baby to term.) They aren’t great art, but they are moving testaments of a great artist.

Blisteringly scornful of self-importance—in a letter from Paris, in English, she lauded Marcel Duchamp as “the only one who has his feet on the earth, among all this bunch of coocoo lunatic sons of bitches of the surrealists”—Kahlo would surely raise her prodigious eyebrow to behold what has been made of her. But immortal fame rarely meshes with the temperament of those it befalls. It is about the wishes of others. In Kahlo’s case, the ways that she has been used by feminists, multiculturalists, bisexualists, and whatnot are readily defensible. Each catches the glint from one of her facets. Most of all, Kahlo is authentically a national treasure of Mexico, a country that her work expresses not merely as a culture but as a complete civilization, with profound roots in several pasts and with proper styles of modernity. She didn’t accomplish this by trying to, as Rivera did. She simply did it. For confirmation, visit her house, the Casa Azul, in Coyoacán, whose contents and décor are as vibrant with her presence as if she had just stepped outside. I should disclose that I’m nearly a Kahlo cultist, myself. Much that is hurt and disappointed in me feels momentarily allayed, and almost healed, when I am in the spell of her art. Like the serene Madonnas of Giovanni Bellini, with their hints of the coming Crucifixion, her self-portraits assure me of two things: first, that things are worse than I know, and, second, that they’re all right.

Where do you stand in the new culture wars? (by Sarah Baxter, the Times)

Note to the Capture: Apparently, Aleida Guevara, Che Guevara’s daughter was silenced in Tehran. Related news came from the infamous New York Post. Reference: Link

From The Sunday Times
October 21, 2007
Where do you stand in the new culture wars?

As the rise of Islamism challenges the old assumptions of left and right, new cultural fault lines are emerging. Take our quiz to see which side you are on

by Sarah Baxter

Where do you stand in the culture wars debate? Post your views in the feedback box at the bottom of this story

Take our culture wars quiz

A glorious culture clash took place in Iran recently that made me laugh out loud. The children of Che Guevara, the revolutionary pin-up, had been invited to Tehran University to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their father’s death and celebrate the growing solidarity between “the left and revolutionary Islam” at a conference partly paid for by Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president.

There were fraternal greetings and smiles all round as America’s “earth-devouring ambitions” were denounced. But then one of the speakers, Hajj Saeed Qassemi, the co-ordinator of the Association of Volunteers for Suicide-Martyrdom (who presumably remains selflessly alive for the cause), revealed that Che was a “truly religious man who believed in God and hated communism and the Soviet Union”.

Che’s daughter Aleida wondered if something might have been lost in translation. “My father never mentioned God,” she said, to the consternation of the audience. “He never met God.” During the commotion, Aleida and her brother were led swiftly out of the hall and escorted back to their hotel. “By the end of the day, the two Guevaras had become non-persons. The state-controlled media suddenly forgot their existence,” the Iranian writer Amir Taheri noted.

After their departure, Qassemi went on to claim that Fidel Castro, the “supreme guide” of Guevara, was also a man of God. “The Soviet Union is gone,” he affirmed. “The leadership of the downtrodden has passed to our Islamic republic. Those who wish to destroy America must understand the reality and not be clever with words.”

Don’t say you haven’t been warned, comrade, when you flirt with “revolutionary Islam” as if it were a mild form of liberation theology. But it is time, too, for Che to lose his secular halo. If he were still living, the chances are he would be another dictator like Castro, who has ruled Cuba with an iron fist for half a century but gets a pass from liberals because he provides a modest health service.

There used to be a clear dividing line between conservatives and liberals. It defined the culture wars of the late 20th century, which pitted reactionary fuddy-duddies against tolerant, enlightened types, who believed in equal rights for women, minorities and gays. That fault line is becoming as dated as the flower power of the 1960s.

By the time Terry Eagleton, a Marxist professor of literature – how quaint and old-fashioned that sounds – is laying into Martin Amis, the Mr Cool of British fiction, for remarks on Islam that supposedly make the son as racist as his father, Kingsley, “an antisemitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals”, it is obvious we are into a wholly different culture war, between phoney and real progressives.

Wasn’t one of Amis fils’s main complaints about Islamic militants that they were “antisemites, psychotic misogynists and homophobes”? Confused? You are not the only one.

My own test for spotting a phoney liberal is as follows. If you think Bush is a fascist and Castro is a progressive, you are not a democrat. If you think cultural traditions can trump women’s rights, you are not a feminist. And if you think antisemitic rants are simply an expression of frustration with American and Israeli policy, you have learnt nothing from history.

It is no longer possible to tell at a glance which side people are on. My husband, a photographer, has long hair and wears T-shirts and cargo pants. We live in stuffy Washington, where almost everybody wears a suit and tie but secretly longs to be artistic and hip. On the school run, nice lawyers confide to him that they hate George Bush, despise the Iraq war and are not as reactionary as they look. They are completely thrown if he tells them he dislikes Islamo-fascism more than Bush, is glad to see the back of Saddam Hussein, supports Nato against the Taliban and thinks the Iranian mullahs should never be trusted with a nuclear bomb. He considers himself an antifascist who believes in the secular values of the Enlightenment and human rights. There is nothing radical about being tolerant of the intolerant, he says.

On the other side of the looking glass, jeans-clad leftists are horrified that one of their own could possibly have anything in common with the dreaded neocons. Christopher Hitchens is a rock star among atheists, most of whom oppose the Iraq war. Last weekend, he travelled to Wisconsin to receive an award from the Freedom from Religion conference for his book God Is Not Great.

“In my acceptance speech I upbraided the audience by saying I could easily have got the impression that they thought the only threat to our society came from the Christian Coalition and possibly the odd Israeli settler,” he says. “You would not have known from anything on sale, any T-shirt, any peaked cap, any book or pamphlet, that there was such a thing as Islamic fundamentalism.”

They didn’t like it. “I got the usual lame and bleating replies that, to the extent that if there was such a thing, it’s been created by us,” Hitchens says. One of the most indulgent forms of western narcissism is that everything is “all about me” – or, in this case, the West. Myopic liberals find it impossible to believe that radical Islam may have a dynamic of its own that threatens their values. “You cannot stand for multiculturalism if you represent a group that wants to kill all the Jews and Hindus. Shouldn’t that be obvious?” Hitchens asks. “Martin [Amis] was saying, ‘Look, there’s a real problem here’, and good for him.

“The name of the problem is religion, and there is only one religion that threatens us with this kind of thing . . . There is a reason people look askance at a mosque in their neighbourhood, and they are not mad or cruel or stupid or selfish or bigoted to worry about it.”

Nick Cohen, whose book What’s Left? has just been published in paperback, identifies progressives as antitotalitarian internationalists who subscribe to “some kind of universal values”, as he puts it.

“The left are like old-style Tory imperialists, who believe rights are all very well for western Europe but not for Johnny Foreigner, and that the liberation of women is essentially for white-skinned women, not brown-skinned women,” Cohen says.

A case in point is the treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalia-born author of Infidel, who has received an astounding lack of support from liberals and the left. An article in Newsweek described her as a “bomb-thrower”, when it is Hirsi Ali who faces death threats from real bomb-throwers merely for speaking her mind and has had to rush back to the Netherlands because its government will no longer pay for her bodyguards while she is abroad.

Natasha Walter, reviewing her book in The Guardian, wrote blithely: “What sticks in the throats of many of her readers is not her feminism, but her antiIslamism” - as if the two could be separated. It was Hirsi Ali’s culture that led her to be genitally mutilated as a girl, and it was her Muslim former co-religionists who murdered her friend Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film-maker. Why should she remain quiet?

Irshad Manji, the Canadian Muslim feminist, is about to become director of the new Moral Courage Project at New York University. “It’s about developing leaders who speak truth to power within their own community,” she says. “Ultimately it is about defeating self-censorship.

“Human beings are born equal but cultures are not,” she believes. “They are human-made and for the most part man-made. There is nothing sacred about cultures and nothing blasphemous about reforming them.”

When Amis said something a little more forceful along those lines at the Cheltenham literary festival, he set off a new firestorm. “Some societies are just more evolved than others,” he said. Then last week on Channel 4 News, he said: “I feel morally superior to Islamists.”

Note that he is not saying he feels morally superior to Islam - but to Islamists. Is it wrong to make such a judgment, when there is nothing immutable about culture and society?

Manji says: “I absolutely defend his right to believe that certain civilisations are superior to others,” but adds the important rider: “In contemporary times he may be right, but in the past Islam gave birth to the Renaissance.”

To my mind, Manji is a “moderate” Muslim, in that she still describes herself as a person of faith, but to many of her Islamic brethren, she is off the scale. Liberals have been too quick to accept as moderates Muslims who are nothing of the kind – except in comparison with the suicide bombers and theologians of Al-Qaeda.

“It’s not a waste of time to search for the moderate Muslim, because there is a civil war within Islam between people who do and don’t want to live under sharia,” says Hitchens, “but there are a lot of counterfeits who are being seized on in our cultural cringe moment.”

The chief cringers, he might have added, are the phoney liberals. The new culture war looks set to run and run.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Greenspan Shrugged (by Michael Kinsley, the New York Times)

Note to the Illustration: Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

October 14, 2007
Greenspan Shrugged

So the suspense is over: Alan Greenspan is able to express himself in clear English prose. This is not entirely a compliment. For 18 years as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Greenspan was known for his inscrutable Congressional testimony. That joke had long become tired, and now he is exposed as a fraud. It seems from “The Age of Turbulence” that Greenspan enjoyed the obfuscation game: as a frank antipopulist, he thought and still thinks that an air of mystery around the Fed is a good thing.

Wait. It gets worse. Not only can Greenspan discourse lucidly on economic matters, but he has also written the most unexpectedly charming Washington insider memoir since Katharine Graham’s a decade ago. The books are very different. The charm of Graham’s was its frankness. The publisher of The Washington Post dished and dissed, starting with her mother. Greenspan is the soul of tact. Far too many people are labeled as his “friend.” Even the mildest criticism is prefaced by a statement of high regard and/or followed by an expression of regret. He doesn’t lay a glove on his mother.

The charm of Greenspan’s book is its self-portrait. The author may have put as much art into the self as into the portrait, but the result is one of the more interesting characters in the history of our democracy: a saxophone-playing math dweeb who became not just powerful but glamorous, while remaining a dweeb. He writes, in reference to one of his early published articles, “I declared, with all the enthusiasm of youth, ‘Since small business may act as a barometer of cyclical movements, a survey of both the immediate and long-term trends in small corporate manufacturing is of particular interest.’ ” You gotta love a guy whose idea of an important life lesson is: “I have always argued that an up-to-date set of the most detailed estimates for the latest available quarter is far more useful for forecasting accuracy than a more sophisticated model structure.” Words to live by.

Greenspan resists all opportunities to portray himself as cool. He races past his early career as a professional jazz sideman, noting hastily that his saxophone teacher paired him up with “a 15-year-old by the name of Stanley Getz,” and that the band he played with included the pop artist Larry Rivers as well as the future Nixon lawyer Leonard Garment and the future composer of the “theme music for M*A*S*H.” He dismisses all popular music since (and including) Elvis as “on the edge of noise.” (Note the characteristic qualification.) He dwells on his boyhood love of Morse code. He brags that while his fellow musicians were smoking pot, he was doing their income taxes. He declares unnecessarily that in the 1960s, “I didn’t relate to flower power,” adding with strange dignity: “I had the freedom not to participate, and I didn’t.”

Freedom. For this proud square, this eager conformist and joiner of the establishment, freedom is nevertheless the supreme value of his life. Freedom and, he would add, rationality. In the early 1950s he joined the inner circle of Ayn Rand, the author of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” whose philosophy, known as Objectivism, was an extreme form of libertarianism that actually celebrated selfishness and greed. Many young brainiacs of dorkish tendencies go through an Ayn Rand period (her books are very popular at Microsoft). But Greenspan credits Rand as “a stabilizing force in my life” and was “a regular at the weekly gatherings at her apartment” through the early 1960s. She stood at his side when he was sworn in as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in 1974, and they “remained close until she died in 1982.”

Those weekly meetings sound like the famous “Beyond the Fringe” comedy routine about Bertrand Russell trying to “trap the then young, and somewhat beautiful, G. E. Moore into a logical falsehood by means of a cunning semantic subterfuge” involving apples in a basket. Before he met Rand, Greenspan was a logical positivist. He refused to accept the reality of anything that could not be verified by “significant empirical evidence.” His own existence, for example. Rand started calling him “the undertaker” and would ask friends, “Has the undertaker decided he exists yet?”

Rand, Greenspan explains deadpan, was “a devoted Aristotelian” and believed in “an objective reality that is separate from consciousness and capable of being known.” It is hard to imagine any other Washington power figure — one thinks of Henry Kissinger — raising the question of whether he exists in his own autobiography. (Penguin Press, the publisher that reportedly paid Greenspan $8.5 million for this book, must have thought he damn well better exist for that kind of money.)

As for an objective reality apart from consciousness — in this age of spin, the less said about that, the better. Greenspan ultimately concluded that these basic issues didn’t actually have to be settled before breakfast in order to make it through the day. Democracy implies disagreement, and “compromise on public issues is the price of civilization, not an abrogation of principle.” He credits Rand with broadening his outlook and making him more tolerant of new ideas — not qualities she is often associated with.

Rand’s inner circle was a cauldron of politics and sex, but Greenspan (he says) participated only in the former. He was married for less than a year to Joan Mitchell, whose best friend’s husband was Rand’s lover (got that?). Discreet as always, Greenspan says only that “I’d made an intellectual choice, not an emotional one.” He and Joan are “friends to this day.”

He also remains good friends with Barbara Walters, who took him up after he became C.E.A. chairman. Or at least they were friends until this book. Walters took him to parties and introduced him to the beautiful people. Greenspan comments, in a rare lapse of tact: “I usually thought the food was good but the conversation dull.” Soon he became one of the beautiful people himself. For years after Walters, Greenspan was seen around with Andrea Mitchell of NBC News. His intentions about marriage were as hard to fathom and as eagerly speculated upon as his intentions about interest rates. They finally wed in 1997.

Today, Greenspan and Mitchell are at the pinnacle of society in Washington and New York, invited everywhere and actually showing up more often than most people in their position would bother. Even in his 80s, Greenspan is a happy and energetic socializer. But he still gives every appearance of enjoying the food more than the company. He remains an unapologetic dweeb. His discussions of the high life in this book are perfunctory — except for one bizarre reference to “a cut-velvet burgundy and black Badgley Mischka” (it’s a dress) in which his wife looked especially fetching — while a discourse on the economics of the tin can brims with the excitement of discovery.

Although the “Alan Greenspan” of this book is a self-conscious creation of the author, even he may not realize how truly awful he is at telling a joke. “I am only half joking,” he says about what is at most a quarter of a joke about forbidding people who want to be president from becoming one. He says “only an economist could appreciate” a joke about the size of the Mobil Oil company compared with that of the federal government, which he then proceeds to demonstrate.

The hostesses who invite Greenspan to their dinner parties presumably have only the slightest clue of why he is, or was, or actually still is, so important, and the business executives who pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars for speeches don’t know much more. Television pundits bring vast mountains of expertise and wisdom to a discussion of the Iowa caucuses. But throw a cut in the discount rate at them and you can see fear in their eyes as they blather toward the next commercial.

The chairman of the Federal Reserve Board has always been a big deal. Greenspan’s predecessors include William McChesney Martin, whose sonorous name alone lent dignity to paper currency. And there was Arthur Burns, who cut exactly the right image with his omnipresent pipe, but who sold his soul to Richard Nixon by engineering a phony boom for the 1972 election. And then there was Paul Volcker, Greenspan’s immediate predecessor, also with a pipe and 10 or 11 feet tall to boot. But Greenspan owns the role of Fed chairman the way Zero Mostel owned the role of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Milton Friedman deserves some of the credit. Greenspan became Fed chairman just as Friedman’s theory of monetarism — that the money supply determines the inflation rate — became more or less universally accepted, and just after we peered over the hyperinflation precipice and pulled back. Friedman actually believed that expansion of the money supply should be put on automatic pilot. He did not favor someone pulling levers and twisting dials like the man behind the curtain in “The Wizard of Oz.” Nevertheless, Greenspan took the newfound importance of monetary policy, mixed in his number-crunching talents on the one hand and his social and business prestige on the other, topped it off with his soon-to-become-legendary mumbo jumbo at hearings, stirred the mixture, drank it and turned into a wizard.

Why did Guess What Greenspan Is Thinking become such a serious sport during his tenure at the Fed? Why can his word move markets even now? The answer to the second question is that people are nuts. The answer to the first is that Greenspan’s predictions about the economy may not have been better than anyone else’s — but he was in a position to do something about them. To put it in terms Greenspan the data lover might appreciate, his opinions as Fed chairman weren’t important as a view of the data: they were data.

Most of the bad publicity Greenspan has gotten since this book was published concerns the early years of the second Bush administration. That’s when Greenspan gave every appearance of endorsing the president’s grossly irresponsible tax-cut proposal. Greenspan said at the time that he was concerned about the danger of the huge surpluses that seemed to loom ahead for about five minutes. In the book he says he was “wrong to abandon my skepticism” about the reality of these surpluses and maintains that it’s not his fault if people missed the part about canceling the cuts if the surplus didn’t materialize. (“I can’t be in charge of people’s perceptions. I don’t function that way. I can’t function that way,” he quotes himself saying piously to Robert Rubin, a former Clinton Treasury secretary, who begged him not to support the cuts.)

This was an eccentric episode in several ways. According to his book, Greenspan — whose Senate confirmation hearing was the same day Nixon went on television to resign — dreamed that George W. Bush would be a reincarnation of Gerald Ford, whom he idealizes as the kind of man who could restore economic sanity to the nation through the combination of principled conservatism and bipartisan civility. Greenspan was deeply disappointed when this didn’t happen. He says that “behind the scenes” he begged Bush to veto a few spending measures and was told that the president was afraid of antagonizing Dennis Hastert, of all people. Never before or since has anyone expressed fear of this already-forgotten figure who, as House speaker, was just a front man for the authentically scary Tom DeLay. When Congress passed Bush’s tax cut in May 2001, Greenspan writes, “I knew how Cassandra must have felt.” It’s a self-serving analogy. When Cassandra warned you, you knew you’d been warned. She didn’t say, “I can’t be in charge of people’s perceptions.”

Although Greenspan was the best at inhabiting the role, the greatest Fed chairman of our time was Volcker. Greenspan would agree, I think. He writes of his immediate predecessor: “What he masterminded ... was arguably the most important change in economic policy in 50 years.” The Fed decided “that it would no longer try to fine-tune the economy by focusing on short-term interest rates; instead it would clamp down on the amount of money available to the economy.”

A wonderful thing about monetary policy is the way it disguises political or even moral decisions as theoretical or technical ones. You could describe what Volcker did as officially accepting the theory of monetarism, or as contracting the supply of M1. Whatever. But put bluntly, what he did was to purposely engineer the deepest decline since the Great Depression in order to wring inflation — and the expectation of future inflation — out of the economy. This set the stage for the generation of prosperity that Greenspan presided over.

Greenspan deserves enormous credit for staying the course. And yet — as he himself tells it in this book — he also helped Ronald Reagan in 1980 to demagogue economic policy as a way of attacking Jimmy Carter. He wrote a speech for Reagan blaming Carter for “one of the major economic contractions in the last 50 years.” Reagan changed that to “a new depression — the Carter depression.” Within a week, this had turned into: “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his!” Greenspan says, “What attracted me to Reagan was the clarity of his conservatism.”

As Greenspan surely knows but doesn’t admit, Reagan achieved this appealing clarity by ignoring the “objective reality separate from consciousness” that Greenspan used to treasure. And Greenspan does the same. Early in Reagan’s administration, as a member of the president’s economic advisory board, he supported Reagan’s tax cuts “if spending was restrained” and if the Fed kept money tight. Volcker’s Fed continued to do its bit but Reagan, famously, did not, leading to enormous deficits. Greenspan says, “Congress shied away from the necessary restraints on spending.” But the data — those good old data — show that the budgets Reagan proposed were only slightly smaller than the budgets Congress eventually passed.

The data also show that George W. Bush has done a better job than Reagan did at controlling government spending. Spending has averaged 19.7 percent of G.D.P. during Bush’s first six years — Iraq war and all — while it was 22.4 percent during Reagan’s eight years. (If you assume a year’s lag between policy and result, it’s 22.3 percent.)

Half this book — the half that is getting no attention — isn’t memoir: it’s what Greenspan calls “detective stories”: just Alan riding the data wherever it takes him, having the time of his life, trying to solve all the world’s economic puzzles, like why it took so long for computers to affect productivity, why incomes are becoming more unequal and what to do about it, the energy crisis, immigration, entitlements and so on. Not all of this is wildly original, but there are great nuggets and aperçus. And it is all written in English and fully comprehensible.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for Time magazine.