“Her exemplary effort to swallow the world”: Wasserman on Sontag, yesterday in Berlin

January 30th, 2015
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“For Steve, who was there, then; with love, as always – Susan.”

My sole face-to-face encounter with Susan Sontag occurred at Stanford, when she was a visiting star sometime in the 1990s. She was dressed in the slightly dowdy “prison matron” threads that were her trademark, alleviated with a colorful scarf, another trademark. I had expected her to be physically towering; she was not. Obviously, that was the impression her books left on my psyche. I’m pretty certain she would say that had been the real encounter.

Steve Wasserman, editor at large for Yale University Press (and my former editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review) got the double exposure of her books and her friendship. He recounted both yesterday in Berlin, in his keynote address, “Susan Sontag: Critic and Crusader” at a symposium at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry (Steve called it a “secular monastery”). He spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the “Susan Sontag Revisited” symposium honoring the legendary cultural critic and author ten years after her death. He gave was a knockout address – one that should become the defining retrospective on the impact Susan Sontag has had on an entire generation.

His comments on her writing:

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Steve, in color.

“Sontag’s style is her subject. For it is the way she thinks, how she goes about it, how she offers her readers the chance, as it were, to eavesdrop on a mind thinking as hard and as nimbly as it can that is most compelling about her work. Or, to put it another way, it is not so much her opinions that matter—though of course they do—but rather how she goes about arriving at them, how she renders them, the very warp and woof of her sentences. Wayne Koestenbaum, in his appreciation written soon after her death, understood this well, observing that she ‘is usually cited for her content rather than her form or style, and yet her paragraphs and sentences bear close and admiring scrutiny as exemplars of … prose forms that would permit maximum drift and detour.’ He marveled at what he called ‘her prose’s Mercurochrome aesthetic, her stern, self-conscious, tense sentences.’ He saw that ‘Her essays behave like fictions (disguised, arch, upholstered with attitudes), while her fictions behave like essays (pontificating, pedagogic, discursive).’ Koestenbaum writes that ‘The ends of her novels are the best parts.’ Often the same is true of her essays. He offers a number of examples: ‘The last three sentences of The Volcano Lover: ‘They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.’ The last two sentences of Death Kit: ‘Diddy has made his final chart; drawn up his last map. Diddy has perceived the inventory of the world.’ The last sentence of The Benefactor: ‘You may imagine me in a bare room, my feet near the stove, bundled up in many sweaters, my black hair turned grey, enjoying the waning tribulations of subjectivity and the repose of a privacy that is genuine.’

‘And, of course, the famous end of her essay on Riefenstahl and Nazi aesthetics: ‘The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.’”

Koestenbaum’s appraisal is insightful, but the best words yesterday came from Steve himself:

“Writers, Sontag had long felt, if they are any good at all, are obliged to try to understand the forces that shape us. They seek to give us a more truthful sense of things, a more nuanced sense of the world we inhabit. They oppose simplification and mystification. They are interested in complex readings informed by history. They write to help us understand what, for many, eludes understanding.

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Avant le déluge… (Photo: Kyra Meyer)

“Sontag in all her political essays and public statements and interviews and deeds tried valiantly to marshal her exceptional combination of erudition, intelligence, and empathy yoked to an abiding commitment to democratic values, in order to illuminate the present in a time of dizzying transformations, cynical manipulations and malleable geopolitical realities. She wanted to apprehend the forces that have given rise to murderous anger and to excavate the specific policies and alliances that have gone awry. She tried to articulate a coruscating and lucid analysis of the underlying conflict of our times: religious and tribal fundamentalism versus secular consumerist capitalism, or, in Benjamin Barber’s succinct formulation, Jihad versus McWorld. That conflict has birthed a world that is simultaneously coming together and falling apart. On the one hand, warp-speed capitalism is steadily weaving the globe into a single international market, challenging traditional notions of national sovereignty. On the other hand, the world is increasingly riven by fratricide, civil war, identity politics, and the breakup of nations. What capitalism and fundamentalism have in common is a distaste for democracy.

“Americans, Sontag long recognized, suffer from a persistent collective historical amnesia. Our politics are hobbled by our refusal to understand the manifold ways in which history, as was once so famously said, weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Americans have cleaved to the conceit that history, insofar as it was deemed important at all, was more hindrance than help in our presumed march to the munificent future. Optimistic, pragmatic, impatient, inventive, generous, Americans refused to be held hostage to history, believing that America had burst its bounds and that it could remake the entire planet in its own image. More: that the peoples of the world yearned to be Americans. The cost, as Sontag knew, of such myopia is large. It enfeebles understanding, promotes nostrums of all kinds, licenses the infantilization of public debate.”

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At the podium… (Photo: Kyra Meyer)

“For too long, Americans have let our romance with distance and escape and denial define our culture and our politics. Susan understood this in her gut and in her head. For her, as she often said, California was America’s America, where you went to reinvent yourself. Her voluntary migration to New York was an effort to make her home in the one city she thought least American, if by “American” we mean deliberately provincial, uninterested in the rest of the world, anti-cosmopolitan. Similarly, for Sontag, New York was America’s Europe. And indeed, for many years, she divided her time between America and Europe, traveling incessantly. She both championed the American Dream of self-invention and was herself a successful example of such a project, and, as her critics rightly suspected, its fervent opponent, if by American Dream one means a country devoted, as Michael Wood suggested in his useful book, America in the Movies, to ‘a dream of freedom which appears in many places and many forms, which lies somewhere at the back of several varieties of isolationism. . .It is a dream of freedom from others; it is a fear … of entanglement. It is what we mean when we say, in our familiar phrase, that we don’t want to get involved.” There is, however, as 9/11 made clear and as the grotesque assault on Charlie Hebdo in Paris made plain, no hiatus from history, no reprieve from reality, no retreat from engagement.

“Sontag endeavored to live as Einstein enjoined us: to ‘remember your humanity and forget the rest.’ She sought assiduously to affirm—and to reaffirm—the ideas of secularism, reason, libertarianism, internationalism, and solidarity.

“In an interview for the Paris Review, published in 1995, Sontag was asked what she thought was the purpose of literature:

‘A novel worth reading,’ she replied, ‘is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.’ She was the cartographer of her own literary explorations. Henry James once remarked that ‘Nothing is my last word on anything.’ For Sontag, as for James, there was always more to be said, more to be felt. Alas, these ten years since her death, there is only silence from her grave at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, alongside Baudelaire and Beckett and Sartre.

Sontag_06“And yet and yet: the sound of Susan’s voice is still in my head. Her lust for life, her avidity, her pursuit of aesthetic bliss, her detestation of philistinism, her love of learning, her opposition to ethical and aesthetic shallowness, her insistence on being a grown-up, her passion for justice and capacity for outrage, and, always, her hatred of suffering and death, are everywhere to be found in her sentences, in her essays and in her stories. Her exemplary effort to swallow the world, as she concludes her revelatory short story, ‘Unguided Tour,’ tells the tale: ‘If I go this fast, I won’t see anything. If I slow down—Everything. –then I won’t have seen everything before it disappears. Everywhere. I’ve been everywhere. I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list. Land’s end. But there’s water, O my heart. And salt on my tongue. The end of the world. This is not the end of the world.’

I hear most of all her cri de coeur, given to the narrator of her story, “Debriefing,” – it could be her epitaph, her final aria, as she ends her story with the defiant throbbing declaration: ‘Sisyphus, I. I cling to my rock, you don’t have to chain me. Stand back! I roll it up – up, up. And. . .down we go. I knew that would happen. See, I’m on my feet again. See, I’m starting to roll it up again. Don’t try to talk me out of it. Nothing, nothing could tear me away from this rock.’”

Synchronicity: the words with which Steve ended his talk are the very same words with which Sontag ended her talk and reading at Stanford. I never forgot them.

 

What are the odds that this is the grave of Cervantes?

January 28th, 2015
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What are the odds that we’ve found the grave of Miguel de Cervantes? Pretty good, I’d say. The author of Don Quixote (1547-1616) asked to be buried at this Trinitarian convent, and sure enough, with ground-penetrating radar, the researchers have found a crumbling wooden coffin with the initials “M.C.” spelled out in metal tacks. It’s one of the half-dozen graves identified in the graveyard of the brick-walled convent in the heart of Madrid, which is a pretty nice city to be lost in.

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Maybe Cervantes, maybe not.

It’s not his first wandering, by a longshot. In 1569, he traveled to Rome where he was the chamber assistant to a cardinal. By 1570, Cervantes had enlisted as a soldier in the Spanish Navy Marines, and the following year participated in the pivotal Battle of Lepanto, in which the Holy League defeated the Ottoman Empire. Though taken with a fever, he insisted on taking part, saying he would rather die for his God and his king than keep under cover. He almost did: he received three gunshot wounds, one which rendered his left arm useless. In Journey to Parnassus he was to say that he “had lost the movement of the left hand for the glory of the right” (thinking of his career as a right-handed author). And that’s how we may be able to identify him.

According to The Guardian:

Experts said his bones should be easy to identify as they would bear the marks of wounds suffered during the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Cervantes received wounds to his chest and arms during a battle which saw a Spanish-led fleet defeat their Ottoman enemies in the Gulf of Patras off western Greece.

“He received a blast from a harquebus in the chest and another wound that left him unable to use one hand,” [historian Fernando] Prado said. “Those two things will have left some imprint on his bones.”

Cervantes was buried in the convent after dying at his home nearby in 1616. … Cervantes’ bones went missing in 1673 when building work was done at the convent. They are known to have been taken to a different convent and were returned later.

So what are the chances? The Book Haven puts down its bet for “yes,” although the experts are advising caution. And who knows? Scientists may be able to tell whether he did indeed die of complications from cirrhosis of the liver, and so was the tippler he was rumored to be. I’m more interested in whether his DNA will show whether he was a converso, that is, of Jewish descent. Just about everybody brilliant in Spain seemed to be, including the leading Spanish poet (and mystic) of all time, his contemporary Juan de la Cruz. Forensic archaeologists may even be able to reconstruct the face of a man only known from a picture painted by artist Juan de Jáuregui a couple decades after his death (see above).  Current scholarship does not accept this, or any other graphic representation of Cervantes, to be authentic.

Susan Sontag, Berlin, 10 years later: “Thinking is a form of feeling, feeling is a form of thinking”

January 25th, 2015
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Sontag_06The Institute for Cultural Literacy in Berlin is having a retrospective on cultural icon and author Susan Sontag ten years after her death, to discuss the continuing relevance of her work. The reason I know about this distant event: my former editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Steve Wasserman, will be giving the keynote address. Steve, a friend of the late author and cultural critic, is now editor-at-large for Yale University Press, which under his guidance recently released Jonathan Cott‘s Complete Rolling Stone InterviewSontag was also one of the contributors of the late lamented LATBR, so I was in good company.

“Susan Sontag Revisited” will take place January 29-30 at Christinenstrasse 18/19. Apparently, the organizers are apparently expecting a crowd, for the website warns: “For safety reasons, venue doors will be closed when capacity limits are reached. We apologize for any inconvenience.” Get there early, or you will be pushed away by gendarmes.

In addition to Steve, other speakers include: Andrea Braidt, Carolin Emcke, Jörn Glasenapp, Erika and Ulrich Gregor, E. Ann Kaplan, Nihad Kresevljakovic, Michael Krüger, Juliane Lorenz, Christina Pareigis, Anne Ratte-Polle, Laurence Rickels, Hanna Schygulla, with Christina Tilmann moderating the proceedings, in English and German.

An excerpt from Steve’s blogpost about his friendship with Sontag:

I would repair, at her invitation, to Sontag’s penthouse, Jasper Johns’ former studio, located on the Upper West Side at 340 Riverside Drive.

sontagI remember the apartment well.  Flooded with sunlight, surrounded by a generous terrace overlooking the Hudson, it was spartan: hardwood floors, white walls, high ceilings; in the living room a single Eames chair, an original Andy Warhol of Chairman Mao, and in the dining room a long monk’s table made of oak with a brace of long benches on either side; in the kitchen’s cupboards a stack of plates, a few glasses, and row after row of back issues of Partisan Review; leaning against one wall of Susan’s bedroom a curious stained-glass window from Italy of a spooky Death’s Head, a kind of memento mori and, perhaps most impressive, by her bedside a 24-hour clock featuring time zones spanning the globe.  Most important, of course, were the walls which bore the weight of her 8,000 books, a library which Susan would later call her “personal retrieval system.”

I spent the summer nearly getting a crick in my neck from perusing the books and I remember thinking that, while I had just finished four years of college, my real education was only beginning.  I discovered scores of writers I had never heard of as well as writers I distantly knew but had never read.  For reasons wholly mysterious I found myself drawn to four blue-backed volumes: the journals of André Gide.  These, like others in Susan’s library, were filled with her pencil underlinings and marginal notes.  One such passage by Gide made a deep impression: “When I cease getting angry, I shall have already begun my old age.”

I think Gide is wrong on that one – but I think Sontag is right when she declares, according to Steve, “what amounts to a credo, asserting that ‘thinking is a form of feeling and that feeling is a form of thinking.’” Check out Steve’s post and voice recording of Sontag here.

René Girard on terrorism: “We have to radically change the way we think.” Have we?

January 22nd, 2015
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Police at the Charlie Hebdo offices, January 7, 2015. (Photo Thierry Caro)

The events in Paris and elsewhere have brought René Girard‘s prescient Battling to the End front and center, at least for me. Keep in mind this book was first published in Paris in 2007, long before the current cycle of events. Hence, he reflected on the devastation of September 11, 2001, but his suggestions are even more pertinent today, “as history has accelerated and politics has lost importance.” He called for a deeper understanding and a radical rethinking of our current assumptions, understandings, and strategies. “The work to be done is immense,” he wrote. Has that happened? I don’t think so. I reviewed this book for the San Francisco Chronicle here, and wrote an article about him here – which included part of the excerpt below:

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Work to be done.

Atta, the leader of the September 11 group who piloted one of the two airplanes, was the son of a middle class Egyptian family. It is staggering to think that during the three last days before the attack, he spent his nights in bars with his accomplices. There is something mysterious and intriguing in this. Who asks about the souls of those men? Who were they and what were their motivations? What did Islam mean to them? What does it mean to kill themselves for the cause? The growing number of attacks in Iraq is impressive. I think it is strange that there is so little interest in the logic of these events, which dominate the world just as the Cold War once did. Since when? We are not really sure. No one could have imagined that we would be in this situation barely 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell. This disturbs our vision of history as it has been written since the American and French revolutions. Our vision of history does not take into account the fact that the entire West is challenged and threatened by this. We have to say “this” because we do not know what it is. …

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“People were shaken, but they quickly calmed down.”

On September 11, people were shaken, but they quickly calmed down. There was a flash of awareness, which lasted a few fractions of a second. People could feel that something was happening. Then a blanket of silence covered up the crack in our certainty of safety. Western rationalism operates like a myth: we always work harder to avoid seeing the catastrophe. We neither can nor want to see violence as it is. The only way we will be able to meet the terrorist challenge is by radically changing the way we think. Yet the clearer it is what is happening, the stronger our refusal to acknowledge it. This historical configuration is so new that we do not know how to deal with it. It is precisely a modality of what Pascal saw: the war between violence and truth. Think about the inadequacy of our recent avant-gardes that preached the non-existence of the real. …

If we had said in the 1980s that Islamism would play the role it plays today, people would have thought we were crazy. Yet the ideology promoted by Stalin already contained para-religious components that foreshadowed the increasingly radical contamination that has occurred over time. Europe was less malleable in Napoleons time. After Communism, its vulnerability has returned to that of a medieval village facing the Vikings. The Arab conquest was a shock, while the French Revolution was slowed by the nationalism that it provoked across Europe. In its first historical deployment, Islam conquered religiously. This was its strength and it also explains the solidity of its roots. The revolutionary impetus accelerated by the Napoleonic era was checked by the equilibrium among nations. However, nations became inflamed in turn, and destroyed the only possible means of stopping revolutions from happening.

We therefore have to radically change the way we think, and try to understand the situation without any presuppositions and using all the resources available from the study of Islam. The work to be done is immense. …

battling to end_webOf course, there is resentment in its attitude to Judeo-Christianity and the West, but it is also a new religion. This cannot be denied. Historians of religion, and even anthropologists, have to show how and why it emerged. Indeed, some aspects of this religion contain a relationship to violence that we do not understand and that are all the more worrying for that reason. For us, it makes no sense to be ready to pay with one’s life for the pleasure of seeing the other die. We do not know whether such phenomena belong to a special psychology or not. We are thus facing complete failure; we cannot talk about it and also we cannot document the situation because terrorism is something new that exploits Islamic codes, but does not at all belong to classical Islamic theory. Today’s terrorism is new, even from an Islamic point of view. It is a modern effort to counter the most powerful and refined tool of the Western world: technology. It counters technology in a way that we do not understand, and that classical Islam may not understand either.

Thus, it is not enough to simply condemn the attacks. The defensive thought by which we oppose the phenomenon does not necessarily embody a desire to understand. Often it even reveals a desire to not understand, or an intention to comfort oneself. Clausewitz is easier to integrate into a historical development. He gives us the intellectual tools to understand the violent escalation. However, where do we find such ideas in Islam? Modern resentment never leads all the way to suicide. Thus we do not have the analogical structures that could help us to understand. I am not saying that they are not possible, that they will not appear, but I admit my inability to grasp them. This is why our explanations often belong to the province of fraudulent propaganda against Muslims.

Vico: “Man becomes all things by not understanding them.”

January 20th, 2015
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GiambattistaVicoI ran across this quotation from the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668 – 1744) in Robert Pogue Harrison‘s new book Juvenescence – and I have been thinking about it ever since. I hope to give the book a fuller discussion later (although we included it briefly in a discussion here). Meanwhile, consider these provocative words from Vico a sort of down payment in a busy week:

So that, as rational metaphysics teaches that man becomes all things by understanding them … this imaginative metaphysics [of early humans] shows that man becomes all things by not understanding them … and perhaps the latter proposition is truer than the former, for when man understands he extends his mind and takes in the things, but when he does not understand he makes the things out of himself and becomes them by transforming himself into them.

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Translating Orhan Pamuk: “I was, without knowing it, putting myself into a trance.”

January 18th, 2015
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Cahier’s illustrations by Rie Iwatake.

“Translators, like editors, are the lieutenants of culture,” my friend and former publisher David Sanders recently reminded me. I wrote about one of these lieutenants in my most recent post here. Perhaps that’s what inspired me to finally open Angry in Piraeus, the most recent offering from the Cahiers Series (we’ve written about it here and here, among other places). It had long languished in a pile of books and periodicals waiting for my attention. The excellent Cahiers Series is a project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and despite the international kudos, is still too little known.

Museum-of-InnocenceMaureen Freely, the author of this 37-page essay, is known for her translations of the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, but she is also a novelist in her own right. Her family moved to Turkey when she was a child, and Pamuk was a school chum – hence, the second career in translation. According to the Sylph Editions website, which publishes the Cahiers Series: “Angry in Piraeus is the story of the creation of a translator. In this cahier, Maureen Freely explores what it was in her childhood that led her to become a traveler across the spaces that exist between countries, languages, and forms. She offers rich descriptions of her itinerant upbringing in America, Turkey, and Greece, vividly evoking what it means to be constantly commuting between worlds – geographical, conceptual, linguistic, and literary – in search of a home, or a self, that is proving elusive.”

In Angry in Piraeus, she writes the delicate tightrope act between her stories and the stories of others, and the different worlds translation creates.”When I am questioned about my ‘fidelity’ to the text I live to serve, what I can never quite manage to explain is this: if I am to be faithful to anything in the opening passage of a novel, or a short story, or a memoir, it will be to its mood. It will be to the trance it sets up, the sız sız sız, the magic trick that takes the reader through the page and into the secret realm beyond.”

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Author under fire.

Translation, she writes, is the “slowest, deepest, and most intimate form of reading.” Her relationship with her the childhood friend becomes strained as she translates from his Istanbul and into her own, and then back again – and as he becomes a controversial figure, widely hated in Turkey for his outspoken remarks about the Armenian genocide.

An Excerpt:

By the time I embarked on our fifth and last collaboration. The Museum of Innocence, I had been wandering through the labyrinths of his mind long enough to know their every twist and turn. I had come to accept that everything he wrote had to be anchored in some way in the streets of his childhood. I had also come to understand that, as good as he was at capturing voices, his stories came to him in images. In The Museum of Innocence these images are highly detailed, and meticulously positioned. That order is reflected, and at times even replicated, in his Turkish sentences. I can only imagine the delight he found in creating a text that embedded the conceits of the narrative at the molecular level. At a time in his life when the newspapers printed a new lie about him almost every day, narrative might also have offered some semblance of order. He was not, I think, surprised when I told him he could not exert the same sort of control over a translation. That did not stop him from trying. By that time, he had a lot of clout. I do not think I could have made it through that hellish year, had it not been for the daydream that was always waiting for me, every time I came up for air.

This was the Istanbul that I was slowly beginning to see again, if only to keep breathing. It wasn’t drained of colour, like Orhan’s city. It was golden, and the troubled bourgeoisie that I’d been translating for seven years was nowhere in sight. There were only the wild and beautiful bohemians who had brought me up. Their real-world counterparts were mostly dead and gone, or sacrificed to their bad habits, but in the 1962 of my daydream, they were still living recklessly and getting away with it, beautifully.

When at last I had sent Orhan’s museum off to the publisher, I went back into my own head for what felt at first like a luxury vacation. Little by little, I translated myself out of Orhan’s Istanbul and back into my own. And when I look back on what happened next, I can only think that I must have been using words differently after all those years in translation. I was no longer using the clipped, cut-glass language I had always trusted most. I was letting myself loop and curve across the page. I was, without knowing it, putting myself into a trance. Word by word, I conjured up Istanbul circa 1962. And when I had succeeded in putting myself back there, it turned out not to be the paradise I remembered: the gold was laced with jealousy, confusion, and terror.

 Do yourself a favor and order it here. You’ll even find out what the sız sız sız is.

Slavic scholar and translator George Kline (1921-2014): memorial reading in NYC on Saturday

January 15th, 2015
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In 1974...

In 1974…

His death was as quiet and unassuming as his life. I learned within a few days that preeminent Slavic scholar George Kline of Bryn Mawr died on October 21 in Anderson, South Carolina, but was hesitant to say anything, not wanting to be the one to break the news to common friends and colleagues, and wishing to defer to the family to make the first announcement. Perhaps everyone else felt the same, for the news seemed to spread very slowly. I sensed, perhaps mistakenly, that he wouldn’t have wanted to make a fuss.

I had known of George for many years – his translation of Joseph Brodsky‘s Selected Poems, with its distinctively artsy purple-and-green portrait on Penguin’s “Modern European Poets” cover, was the book that made the Russian poet’s reputation in English. George was among those early champions who had smuggled his poems out of the U.S.S.R., and helped bring the future Nobel prizewinner to the West after the Soviet Union booted the poet out in 1972.

I met George sometime during my work on Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. George was ruthlessly meticulous and ceaselessly patient and helpful. And when my book came out, I received congratulations, praise, and a precise list of minor errors and typos in the final volume, for correction in a second edition. I learned that anyone who wrote about Joseph Brodsky anywhere in the world could expect a such a letter. It was George’s trademark, and I don’t recall a time when he wasn’t right.

brodskybookI spoke with him a few weeks before his death, and suspected he hadn’t long to live – his beloved wife Ginny had died in April, and he seemed unenthusiastic about the task of living without her. We had some work to finish together, but both of us had other pressing deadlines – after his death, I learned how extensive his commitments, at 93, were. I knew him primarily in his work as translator, but he is, perhaps, better known as the patriarch of Russian philosophy scholarship in the U.S., and widely published on Spinoza and Hegel as well. He continued his encyclopedia entries, his revisions, his collaborations, his articles, his mentoring. Many speak of his generosity, kindness, and fundamental decency – I had a chance to experience all firsthand.

He had frequently mentioned Irina Mashinski as a colleague and friend. After his death I was pleased to find her on Facebook, and she told me of the welter of projects they were working on together that, like mine, would be interrupted by his passing. Everyone seems to have a similar story – he was working tirelessly until the last few weeks. What will we do without him?

brodsky7Anyway, here’s one show that will go on, thanks to Irina and others: at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 17, the fourth annual Compass Award Ceremony, as well as the launch of the Volume 4 of the Cardinal Points Journal, will take place at the the Elizabeth Kray Hall of Poets’ House in New York City (10 River Terrace in New York City – fond memories of the Zbigniew Herbert evening there four years ago).  The evening will be dedicated to to the memory of George and also poet Nina Cassian (1924-2014), both “esteemed Cardinal Points friends and authors.” George is still listed on the panel of judges for the Compass Translation Award website here.

StoSvet Literary Project, MadHat Press and Russian-American Cultural Center are sponsoring the evening, which will be hosted by Irina, as well as Alexander Veytsman and Alex Cigale. The readings will include Polina Barskova, Alexander Cigale, Sibelan Forrester, Andrey Gritsman, Betsy Hulick, Slava Polishchuk, Larissa Shmailo, Alla Steinber, Alexei Tsvetkov, and Alexander Veytsman.

cardinalThe winners of the 4th Competition – the last competition in which George was a judge – include Laurence Bogoslaw (Minnesota, 1st Prize); Igor Mazin (Virginia, 3rd Prize); and Eugene Serebryany (Cambridge, Massachusetts) and Misha Semenov (Princeton, New Jersey), sharing honorable mention.

Before the degrees from Columbia, the years at Bryn Mawr, before the hundreds of articles and reviews, George served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II as a navigator and bombardier in B-24s, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. Below is the photo of the young couple, looking forward to their lives together after the war – George sent it to me a few weeks after Ginny’s death. The wartime hero was one aspect of George’s otherwise scholarly life that fascinated Joseph Brodsky, who had been an infant during the terrible Siege of Leningrad. So he asked George about his wartime experiences and liked to wear his air corps hat, for fun. …

Even now I wonder, what would George think of what I am writing right here, at this moment? Part of me will wait for the letter that will never come, the prompt correspondence in the tight, cramped handwriting, offering thanks, praise, and errata.

Klines

 

René Girard and the roots of terrorism

January 12th, 2015
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“The French Revolution was thus such a huge event that some of its consequences are still being played out in the escalation to the extremes, of which Clausewitz was one of the first great military analysts. Thus, terrorism would have its roots in the Revolutionary Wars, of which Napoleon’s ‘regular’ army was the ultimate transformation.”


René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre (2010)

(my San Francisco Chronicle review of this book is here – and thanks to Artur Rosman for the quotation.)

We’ll always have Paris: 100 reasons to go back, right away

January 10th, 2015
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Time to go back, for sure.

Time to go back, for sure.

We are all thinking about Paris this week, but I prefer not to let terrorists shape my thoughts about the city. I miss it terribly, so I turned again to Marcia de Sanctis‘s excellent new guide, 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go.

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Best person evah? Twain thought so.

I say “turned again,” because I had to put it away rather abruptly after she sent it to me last fall. After a quick glance through, I began scribbling notes, picking quarrels, marking passages with stars or brackets or exclamation points in the margins. The book is addictive, like crack, and I could see I wasn’t going to get much done unless I hid it somewhere in the midst of my piles of books and papers. And so it waited.

Marcia is a former television news producer for ABC, NBC and CBS News and an accomplished journalist (we’ve also written about her here), and she hardly needed a boost from me: the book quickly hit the New York Times Travel Best Seller list shortly after its release last November. Not bad, considering it was published by a small, off-the-beaten-track house. Coincidentally, the publisher is in Palo Alto – Travelers’ Tales, an imprint of Solas House.

The book abounds with solid advice on where to shop, where to go for a long afternoon walk, where to find the best wines, and where to eat, eat, eat. Typical of her advice on the latter: “Some of the best meals I’ve ever had in France have been haphazard affairs, slapped together with a quick trip to the Marché d’Aligre near the Bastille – ripe Rocamadour cheese and saucisson aux noix, bread, and a salad of mâche trucked in that morning from the Loire Valley. It’s important to dine like this in France … while uncorking a decent Beaujolais from the corner store…

There’s also plenty of amusing, and sometimes poignant, stories about women (including the “Veuve” of Veuve Clicquot in Reims). Here’s one about a teenager who has become an obsession, at least once, in every girl’s childhood – but in this case, Joan of Arc also attracted an adult monomaniac,  and a male one at that. Marcia writes:

Mark Twains inspired book on Joan of Arc stands above the rest. He became fascinated with her when he was a teenager himself in Hannibal, Missouri, after picking up a sheet of paper in the street that turned out to be from a book about Joan of Arc. Many years later, he spent fourteen years researching and writing Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, her life story as told to a fictitious childhood friend who traveled with her as page and secretary. The author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn believed this to be his greatest work. His near-worship for her was boundless – for her magnanimity, convictions, faith in God, intellect and the sheer unbridled strength of body and purpose. ‘There is no blemish in that rounded and beautiful character,’ he writes in a later essay. ‘She is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.’”

Another girl story: the scandalous and powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine (1137 – 1204), wife of England’s Henry II. As queen of France, she had accompanied King Louis VII on the Second Crusade. As the wife of Henry II, she led a rebellion against her husband with three of her sons in 1173 – and lost. Henry imprisoned his 50-year-old wife  for fifteen years – more like a house arrest, really. Well, we’ve all seen The Lion in Winter, haven’t we? Marcia continues:

A Book Haven kind of gal.

A Book Haven kind of gal.

“And then, upon Henry’s death and Richard’s ascension to the English throne, she rose again. The dowager queen defended the kingdom while he was away on the Third Crusade (and imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor), even against her machinating youngest son John, who had been Henry’s favorite. ‘We can learn a lot about perseverance and hope from Eleanor,” says [colleague] Sue Morris. “She started a full second life after seventeen years in prison.’ And she rode until the end of her days, even in her early eighties, seeking wise political matches for her children and grandchildren.

“By then, she was already installed at the convent at Fontevraud. It is believed she had a hand in designing her gisant – the tomb effigy that bears her likeness – and here is where the story of Eleanor ends with a breathtaking statement. Usually the tomb of a queen shows her in sweet repose, the bible laid peacefully upon her chest. Eleanor, however, is actively reading her prayer book. Alive, for eternity.”

veuve_clicquot

The “veuve” was real.

For this concluding image of the enormously rich Eleanor, quietly reading a book into the next world, I can forgive Marcia for bringing Dan Brown‘s The Da Vinci Code into her account of Vézelay, and for all the little villages and people I wish she’d mentioned. Isn’t a hundred stories enough?

Tonight, we’ve roamed Auvergne, Languedoc-Roussillon, and the French Pyrénées. Let’s end with Normandy, and Mont-Saint-Michel, which I’ve never ever seen (so far): “It is arrogant, aloof, arrestingly dignified … The abbey might be just a lovely relic if not for the milky expanse of the bay in which it sits. Each can only be understood in relation to the other – the ocean’s perilous strength against the architectural beauty and vice versa.”

Francophile (Photo: Ron Haviv)

Francophile (Photo: Ron Haviv)

“I stopped at the West Terrace, where I looked down and saw the angry sea and clouds like waves of steel wool, Brittany to the west, Normandy to the east. I gazed up at the spire. There was Archangel Michael, brandishing his sword skyward, hip thrust to one side, looking dull in the mist. I walked in near solitude around the colonnades of the cloister, whose boxwood hedges seemed impossibly green. I strolled back down to town on the outside steps and turned back to see the Merveille. Two hundred thirty-five feet of sheer verticality and simple lines, walls thrown up in some fit of ancient genius. I ate dinner at La Mère Poulard, whose pricy omelet was nevertheless perfection. … The rain had ended, the remaining clouds lapped the full moon. I descended the hill to see the abbey from sea level, blazing like a fireball. The delicate spire looked blue, and Michael was gold again. I walked back up to the church to take in those walls that seemed to spring straight up from the rock I stood on.

“I was completely alone. The sound of my boots on the stone path resounded in the night. There was no crowd, the Breton biscuit stands and T-shirt shops, locked up. The air was frosty. ‘One looks back on it all as a picture; a symbol of unity; an assertion of God and Man, in a bolder, stronger, closer union than ever was expressed,’ wrote the American writer Henry Adams in 1905 about Mont-Saint-Michel. More than any other cathedral or abbey in France, I get a sense here of what fragile, earthly creatures we are, but also how optimistic, and how unstoppable. If ever I need reminding of the latter, I will make my way there again some rainy winter night.”

(Photo: David Iliff)

“Arrogant, aloof, arrestingly dignified …” (Photo: David Iliff)

Higher ed: “we’ve reduced what it means to be human to market terms, to getting and spending.”

January 8th, 2015
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sheepI wrote some weeks ago about the demise of The New Republic, our culture of “juvenescence,” and the difficulty of faking cultural heft. At least William Deresiewicz is on the same wave-length. Kind of. In case you missed it, the aptly named Michael Schulson has recently published a Salon Q&A with Deresiewicz – he indirectly called Chris Hughes, the youngster whose mismanagement trashed the century-old institution, an “entitled little shit,” so naturally that phrase made it into the headline. Deresiewicz was a contributing editor to the ill-fated magazine, and says that Hughes missed the point: that The New Republic has never made money. “The Nation loses money now, Harper’s loses money now, and they’ve been reliant on benevolent plutocrats who recognize that there are more important things than the market and are willing to run them not as profit-making institutions but as institutions that have value for other reasons.”

But the real subject of the interview is his new book called Excellent Sheep, which discusses how our best universities have succumbed to the marketplace, and what it’s done to kids. (He wrote a controversial article about the topic, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” in the July issue of The New Republic here.) A couple excerpts from the interview:

It’s been a rough year for higher education, with athletic and sexual assault scandals at UNC, Florida State, and, of course, the University of Virginia. Does your takedown of elite colleges apply, more broadly, to the culture of higher education in the United States?

Yes and no. I certainly think a lot of what I’m saying applies beyond selective colleges. This is a more general trend in the way we understand education around the world, which is that we understand it in purely practical market-oriented terms. My feeling is that this reflects a wider understanding of what life and society are for. We’ve basically reduced what it means to be human to market terms, to getting and spending. So education, which is about preparing you to be human, has also been reduced to those terms.

The specific things you’re talking about, I don’t know that they’re really directly connected to what I’m talking about. They are connected in this sense: because colleges for several decades have been forced by specific changes in government policy to treat their students as customers, schools have focused on everything except instruction in core liberal arts fields. That also includes a lot of spending on athletics, and on the kind of culture that athletics and fraternity life create. …

Chris_Hughes

Can’t buy heft.

I’m thinking of Joshua Rothman’s response to your book, over at The New Yorker. He argues that the problem isn’t with higher education, but with a contemporary world that pushes us to live accelerated, anxious, market-oriented lives. In Rothman’s view, there’s a nostalgia for the premodern in “Excellent Sheep.”

If you can point to a single passage in the book that expresses that kind of nostalgia I’d be very interested to see it. I don’t feel it and I don’t say it.

The notion of higher education as involving not only vocational preparation and intellectual development, but something that used to be called character or moral development, has been foundational to American higher education from the beginning. I’m not looking back nostalgically at some golden age; what I’m pointing out is that there has always been this higher idea in higher education, and it’s only in the last 40 years that we’ve lost it.

Modernity created a new idea about what it means to be young. To be young [in modernity] is to step outside of your own life. It’s a phase between childhood and adult life where you get to look at the world and think about it and question it and decide what you want the world to look like. This was, in many ways, the engine of revolutionary energy during modernity for about 200 years. When college became the norm, at in least certain circles, that notion of youth as the time where you step outside of the world and you become a little rebellious and critical and you think about what you want the world to look like, that was also central to college. Rothman wants to talk about modernity, but he really didn’t talk about the modern idea of youth, which is not about acceleration. It’s about dissent.

I’m talking about the switch from modernity to postmodernity. Postmodernity, as I’m understanding it, is the time of neoliberalism or Reaganomics or market fundamentalism, where the only thing that matters about you is your function in the marketplace, your ability to make money and spend it. It’s postmodernity that is destroying the modern concept of youth, and creating a new concept of youth where you go to college not to step outside the world and question it but simply to prepare yourself for the kinds of acceleration that Rothman talks about as belonging to adult life. …

diploma

You don’t feel like MOOCs can feed thinkers and intellectual culture?

I think they have a role to play, but at a very much lower intellectual level. Listen, real learning happens dialectically, right? Where did you go to college?

Yale.

You went to Yale, and you probably took lots of seminars where you had really great discussions and lots of interactions with fellow students and teachers. That’s where education happens; it doesn’t happen by learning how to program computer code online. It’s great that people can do that, but that’s not the same thing. That’s a technical education.

Read the whole thing here.


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