Seamus Heaney, Zbigniew Herbert, and Apollo in one evening…

September 15th, 2014

In English, s’il vous plaît…

A Polish friend and blogger, Artur Sebastian Rosman, sent me this youtube clip of the Irish Nobel poet Seamus Heaney reading the poems of Zbigniew Herbert. We’ve written about Seamus here and here and here, and Herbert here and here and here – and my visit with Herbert’s cat Szu-Szu in Warsaw is discussed here.

Artur considers Herbert’s satirical poem about labor conditions in Poland during the 1960s, “Report from Paradise” here, along with a few theological peregrinations. Poet and translator Stanisław Barańczak noted that in Herbert’s poem, even heaven has been “degraded into a social utopia, a sort of fairy-tale socialism,” in which the only solution, in Herbert’s words, is “to mix a grain of the absolute with a grain of clay.”



This reading, however, begins with Herbert’s famous and devastating (to me) poem, “Apollo and Marsyas,” and ends his Seamus’s own sonnet on the Polish poet’s death, in which Apollo also figures. Frankly, I’ve never been able to think of Apollo in quite the same way after reading Herbert’s poem. A bit of a brute…well, more than a bit.

Anyway, here’s Seamus’s 2008 reading at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin. Like it? There’s more: Part One of the reading is here and Part Two is here.


Robert Harrison under a hail of cyber-bullets: “Children of Silicon Valley” revisited

September 14th, 2014

Ready, aim …

Robert Pogue Harrison‘s “Children of Silicon Valley” is still making waves, as I rather suspected it would when I wrote about his New York Review of Books piece in “Robert Pogue Harrison socks it to Silicon Valley” over here. But now his Silicon Valley critique has leapt across the Atlantic, and is stirring things up in Germany, where it was published in translation by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (here) and in Italy’s Corriere della Sera (alas, no link, just paper). The two newspapers sometimes called the New York Times of their respective nations.

So what did people have to say? Not much at NYRB, to my surprise; the responses were verbose and not particularly insightful. On the whole, the techie world seemed to come up with the most informed responses, even when one mischaracterized Robert this way: “Those people are really angry, they are frustrated and angry and pissed off that nobody told them that when the nerds reshaped the tools of the world into something they liked better, there [sic] choice to ignore nerds would leave them badly under equipped to live in that world.” Don’t worry, Chuck McM, whoever you are, Robert has just returned from an extended trip to Italy, has a new book coming out soon, and is doing just fine!

Another reply over at Hacker News from dkarapetyan: “Silicon Valley is no longer changing anything. I don’t know if this was ever the case but the reason I started learning about computers and the theory of computation in general was because I saw it as a way of empowering people and giving them a means of achieving their own goals. This is no longer the case. I see very few companies that are using technology with that intention or building something with that goal in mind. All I see are ways of tricking people into clicking on ads or tricking them into doing free work by giving them tokens, e.g. Yelp. This isn’t to say that technologists are entirely to blame but they played a large role in disempowering an entire generation by giving them gimped tools that were meant more for control than empowerment. Why the hell do I need to know what ‘rooting’ a device means if I want to fully utilize all its capabilities. What is the point of locking down a general purpose computing machine if not for control.”


Are we becoming … boring?

Countering one reader’s claim that “Universal mobile connectivity is huge. Instant access to the world’s information is huge. Instant access to each other is huge,” dkarapetyan wrote again: “Instant access to each other we’ve basically had since email and text messaging and that hasn’t changed. What has changed is business capitalizing on those connections to make money, i.e. Zuckerberg repackaging the internet as Facebook. I don’t really know why you say geolocation is huge. I like my GPS but I can get around just fine without it. It might be huge in terms of government’s ability to spy on me though. Maybe I’m a little too cynical but none of what you brought up changes the fact that all the tools and services we make available to people are more a means of oppression and control than they are as a lever that they can use to move the world. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, etc. are all toys for teenagers. Google and other mega corps are information silos with secretive operations and basically black boxes that print money.”

“Technology should be used to distribute power and wealth but instead it is used more and more every day to concentrate it in fewer and fewer hands. Financial sector you mentioned being an excellent example of such use.”

Over at Union Square Ventures, Nick Grossman considered Robert’s remark, “Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption…” He wrote: “That one makes me think. On the one hand, it’s true – disruptive innovation is about abandoning the idea of fixing/maintenance in favor of building new. On the other hand, the ‘architecture of the internet’ is extraordinarily maintenance-friendly – layering and open protocols make it possible to swap out/fix/improve the components of the network like never before.” He doesn’t get it. He is thinking of software, not civilization, and thinking in terms of months and not years, let alone decades and centuries.

Is it a good witch, or a bad witch?

Is it a good witch, or a bad witch?

Robert had written, “Becoming a boring human being is the fate of most people who keep the tech economy’s lights burning deep into the night. These industries may be among the most vibrant and dynamic in the world, yet those inside the hive are among the most tedious people in the room, endlessly plugging into their prosthetic devices.” The responses from people who countered that they knew “lively,” “articulate,” “interesting” computer folks with “hobbies” are disquieting. I was struck by the lack of metaphysical aspiration.

Many no longer seem to know what a profound person looks and sounds like. I’ve been honored to know a handful, but from the responses I’ve read, I get the feeling that most people haven’t met any. By which I mean the people who have changed the course of my life, not merely entertained me. I hesitate to elaborate, because I feel like I’m speaking in an ancient tongue, as if I were typing these thoughts out in WordStar 3.0 and not in WordPress, or responding to a TV gameshow in archaic Greek. How to define? (“Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,/The light less public and the meaning of life/Something more than a mad camp…”) Let’s start with a quality of being, not merely a lists of accomplishments or degrees, and consider wisdom rather than knowledge. Then add a varied mixture of suffering, conscience, self-knowledge, choices and the enduring payment for those choices, all fermented over time, time, time. But that’s only the starter kit. It gets deeper. You won’t find anything like it in the internet chatter.


Belly of the Beast.


Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz’s life in Gdańsk remembered in photos

September 10th, 2014
Gdansk/Motlawa. Aug, 2014

Gdańsk at nightfall, overlooking the Motława River. (All photos by Zygmunt Malinowski)

The Book Haven’s roving photojournalist Zygmunt Malinowski was far, far away from his New York City digs last month, and back in his native land – in particular, he visited Gdańsk. I didn’t remember how strongly the Baltic port is linked with Czesław Miłosz. Fortunately, Zygmunt did, and he took plenty of photos, with Gdańsk writer Stefan Chwin and Krystyna Chwin‘s book, Czesław Miłosz: Gdańsk and Vicinity, as a guide.

1foto ©Zygmunt malinowski

“The words are written down, the deed, the date.”

He writes: “I was invited for the opening of European Solidarity Center on August 30 – an imposing newly built museum dedicated to preserving the history of Solidarity, as well as an international institution ‘to ensure the ideals of Solidarność – democracy, an open solidarity society, and culture of dialogue – maintain a modern perspective and appeal.’ It is situated close to the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers where Miłosz’s poem, ‘The Poet Remembers’ is engraved in bronze.”

The lines on the monument at right (the whole poem, “You Who Wronged,” is worth a read here): “Do not feel safe. The poet remembers./You can kill one, but another is born./The words are written down, the deed, the date.”

He is one of three people represented on the Solidarity monument, along with Nobel peace laureate Lech Wałęsa and Pope John Paul II. Miłosz visited Gdańsk the year after his 1980 Nobel to meet with Wałęsa. The Solidarity movement was in full swing, and the exiled Polish poet, returning to his homeland for the first time in three decades, was greeted enthusiastically by crowds of shipyard workers. He would come again in subsequent years (other than the years of martial law, which was imposed in 1984 and lifted in 1989), returning both as a private person and a public figure. He made a permanent return to Poland in 2000. Each visit was closely followed by local and international press.

Gdańsk had sad memories for Miłosz, too, as well as happy ones: His family, including cousins as well as parents and brother were displaced by the ravages of World War II, and moved into a house in nearby Sopot. His mother Weronika Kunat Miłosz died in the nearby village of Drewnica, during a wartime typhus epidemic in 1945; she is buried in the nearby Sopot Catholic Cemetery.

“Gdańsk and Sopot, a resort town, both situated on the Baltic Sea, provide a festive atmosphere for visitors and tourists during the summer who admire its unique architecture and relax in its many friendly cafes and restaurants, entertained by street musicians and performers,” Zygmunt wrote. “Gdańsk University, School of Fine Arts, and Academy of Music add to a sense of culture.”

“During his visits in the 1980s and 1990s,  Miłosz gave several poetry readings, met with readers and students, was hosted by city officials, and gave press interviews. He stayed in the majestic Grand Hotel in Sopot overlooking Baltic Sea, and Hanza Hotel by river Motlawa in Gdańsk. He visited his cousins and the family grave where his mother is buried. While in the Pod Holendrem café on Mariacka Street, considered to be one of the most beautiful with elaborately carved portals, street musicians fêted him with a song for his 85th birthday [that would be 1996 – ED]. In Sopot, he was hosted at City Hall and town officials named one of the city’s green spaces in his honor.”

There’s some good news for Zygmunt in all of this, too:  “My photographs of the New York demonstrations supporting Solidarity were acquired by the European Solidarity Center for their archives. Some are being used in the museum multimedia presentation, and one was even chosen to be reproduced in large format for the permanent exhibition. Concurrent with the the center opening in Gdańsk, Sabine Weier, a known curator based in Berlin, included some of my photos in a collection for an online exhibition titled ‘Strajk.’” We’ll include the link when we have it.

More photos below.  Thanks and congratulations, Zygmunt! (All photos copyright Zygmunt Malinowski.)

3foto © Zygmunt Malinowski

The grave of Miłosz’s mother, who died in a wartime typhus epidemic, in the Sopot cemetery.

Czeslaw Milosz Square. Stone monument close up. Sopot. Aug 2014

Stone marker on Czesław Miłosz Square with his words: “For me, the most important moment is at dusk”

5foto ©Zygmunt Malinowski

Mariacka Street in Gdańsk.

Milosz family house/contemporary view, ul Generala Wybickiego 23. Aug 2014

The former Miłosz family home during WWII on 23 Wibicki Street in Sopot. The house seems recently renovated.

Geand Hotel/Sopot. Aug 2014

The Sopot hotel where Miłosz stayed during one of his visits.


The new Czesław Miłosz Square.

Steve Sotloff’s letter to Qatar University: “I want to spend a large part of my life in this part of the world”

September 7th, 2014

“Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.”

Some have reproached the media for the comparatively scant coverage of the murder of journalist Steve Sotloff on September 2, after the outpouring for death of photojournalist James Foley only a few weeks ago (we wrote about that here).

I plead guilty. I was so revolted by the endless cycle of atrocities coming out of the Middle East, that I couldn’t bring myself to read the news for several days, nor listen to his mother’s desperate plea for mercy on a youtube video. Let me make amends now. Sotloff’s memorial service was on Friday, September 5  – but the mourning will continue for some time to come. Kaddish, I understand, is said for 30 days after the death.

Sotloff had worked for the news magazine Time, as well as Christian Science Monitor, The National Interest, Media Line, World Affairs, and Foreign Policy, and has appeared on CNN and Fox News. A list of his Time articles is here. A list of his Foreign Policy articles is here.

Sotloff was also a practicing Jew – something he hid from his ISIS captors over the last year, for good reason. He pretended to be ill on Yom Kippur, to keep the Jewish fast. He held dual citizenship with Israel, and his maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors. His friends worked diligently to keep any mention of his Israeli ties off the internet – you can read about that effort in the Los Angeles Times here.

“He said it was scary over there; it was dangerous. It wasn’t safe to be over there – he knew it. He kept going back,” said Emerson Lotzia Jr., Sotloff’s former roommate at the University of Central Florida, told the Central Florida Future. “A million people could have told him what he was doing was foolish, it seemed like it to us [as] outsiders looking in, but to him it was what he loved to do and you weren’t going to stop him.”

ISIS thugs had him read his “last words,” denouncing America, etc., etc., but his real last words were read at his memorial, one of two letters that were smuggled to his family while he was in captivity: “Everyone has two lives,” Sotloff wrote. “The second one begins when you realize you only have one.”


“Stay positive and patient.”

“Do what makes you happy. Be where you are happy … Love and respect each other. Don’t fight over nonsense … hug each other every day. Eat dinner together … live your lives to the fullest. Stay positive and patient. God rewards those who are patient. … If we’re not together again, perhaps God will be merciful enough to reunite us in Heaven.”

He loved his work in the Middle East, and he lived its culture, so much so that he applied to Qatar University to study Arabic. Al Jazeera retrieved a draft of the letter:

May 29, 2010

Dear ANNS Faculty of Qatar University,

I have been aware of the mysterious and romantic qualities of the Arab world since I was a child. Hollywood and cartoons have reinforced such an image of the East for over 100 years. This stereotype has been replaced by another in recent decades, one which portrays this part of the world as dangerous and backwards. In both narratives, the environment is forbidding, and perhaps this is what lured me to the Arab world in the first place.

I had to see this far-away land for myself, and it has been one of the most influential choices in my life. I spent weeks in Lebanon, soaking up the rich, if not delicate diversity that sews that land together. The social tension is so thick there you can cut it with a butter knife, yet my heart is there forever with a love of those people. The feel of turning the corner from a Shia neighborhood to a Christian one is an incredible experience I do not think I will find elsewhere.


Krak de Chevalier

Syria offered more surprises, for in America we are told that Syrians hate us, and it is a rogue nation. Yet, the people are just as kind, if not more so, than the Lebanese. The rich history of peoples that have conquered the area, from Byzantine to French is apparent as you leave Damascus to the rich countryside and visit magnificent sites like the Krak de Chevalier.

From the tripartite power sharing democracy of Lebanon, to the minority led Syria, to the Jordanian monarchy that claims lineage to The Prophet, peace be upon Him, the Arab world has broken each stereotype the West holds of it and has shown me it is not entirely monolithic, but culturally rich and diverse. To be able to use one language to explore so many different varieties of a culture in so many different countries is a blessing and a gift. However, one can only truly appreciate this gift if he has the ability to speak this language.

I now find myself in Qatar, enjoying a stopover before my several month stay in Yemen to learn Arabic. Yemen is an ideal place for me at the moment because very little English is spoken there, and it will force me to practice in the souks and beyond. It also offers an Arab culture that has been largely untouched by the modern world, and perhaps this can give me a better understanding of the Arab people.

I have tried to learn Arabic in the past, but taking a language course that offers only several hours of instruction each week, and having no native speakers to practice with can only develop one’s skills so far. I believe that a year of university level Arabic in Doha will offer me the ideal atmosphere with great instructors and peers as committed as myself to learn, as well as the ever important social environment to take what I learn in the classroom to my everyday life.

I have decided I want to spend a large part of my life in this part of the world, and I can only do that successfully with the proper skills. Doha amalgamates Qataris with their gracefully flowing white thobes with businessmen from all over the world. This growing hub of the business world makes for a perfect environment to master Arabic and build lifelong networks that will help me succeed. I look forward to the opportunity to study at Qatar University under the Arab hospitality I have grown to love.

As for the snuff video that was made of his beheading, I couldn’t agree more with William Saletan at Slate: “Don’t watch them. Go read about the dead boys, the raped girls, and the captive villagers gunned down for refusing to renounce their faith. Those are the people who die every day at the hands of ISIS. They’re the people whose countrymen we can still save, as we did on Mount Sinjar and in Amerli, by defying the message in the videos. Foley and Sotloff risked their lives, and ultimately gave them, to tell the world about these people. Don’t let it be in vain.” Read the whole thing here.


She’s a winner! Solmaz Sharif bags $30,000 Rona Jaffe prize.

September 5th, 2014
Solmaz Sharif

Lots of prizes lately. (Photo: Arash Saedinia)

Poet Solmaz Sharif, Stegner Fellow and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford, will receive a 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, given annually to six women writers who demonstrate excellence and promise in the early stages of their careers. The awards have helped many women build successful writing careers by offering encouragement and financial support at a critical time. The $30,000 awards will be presented to the six recipients in New York City on September 18.

Born in Istanbul to Iranian parents, Solmaz holds a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied with June Jordan  and taught with Jordan’s Poetry for the People, and an M.F.A. from New York University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, jubilat, Gulf Coast, Boston ReviewWitness, and others.  She is a former managing director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Her work has been recognized with  a “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, scholarships from NYU and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a winter fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, a 2014 NEA fellowship, and a Stegner Fellowship. In addition to her newest honor, she has recently been awarded a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship.

She is finishing her first collection of poems, Look.  According to the letter that nominated her work, “Look is envisioned as a poetic rewriting of the Department of Defense dictionary. The DOD dictionary does, in fact, exist as a supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, and Sharif’s undertaking not only rights the military’s Orwellian misappropriation of language, but uses those very misappropriations to locate the hauntingly personal and specific endpoints of policies. These poems wrestle with dual concerns: the violence against people that is sanitized through language, and the violence against language itself.” She hopes to begin a second collection, “a longer documentary lyric,” about revolution. She will also use her writer’s award to travel to Iran to interview and translate current poets working in the country.

Previous winners of the 20-year-old award, established by the celebrated novelist Rona Jaffe (1931-2005), have been written about in the Book Haven before – Elif Batuman, Tracy Smith, ZZ Packer, and Rivka Galchen. For more about the award, go here.

Tobias Wolff: “Literature is a theater of choices, values”

September 4th, 2014

TobiasWolffOver at The Boston Review, Stanford student Quyen Nguyen has a fascinating interview with award-winning author Tobias Wolff on vocation and morality – I kept wanting to yell “right on!” as I was reading it, but as I was alone in my house, the impulse seemed rather silly. (We’ve written about Toby before, here and here and here and here, as well as a zillion other places.)  Read Quyen’s interview over here – meanwhile, a few excerpts below:

TW: There’s a certain kind of book that when I read it, I feel like I have company in the world. I wish I had had, when I was younger, a book like This Boy’s Life to read, to know that there were other kids living the kind of life I lived, this oddball existence. So there is a way in which writing can become a companion for people. It has been for me, and I hope that my work does that for others. There’s no doubt that if you parse out my motives, there’s probably a great deal of pure ambition, vanity, competitiveness, all that sort of thing, which does not mean the effects cannot be positive.

He didn't mean to do it.

He didn’t mean to do it.

You used an expression in your email, “conscience-laundering,” and I thought about that. I don’t want to award a kind of nobility to the decisions I’ve made because they’ve probably, in some way or other, been self-serving. But let’s take the case of somebody like Mozart. He probably didn’t intend to change the world, yet can you imagine the world without that music? Can you imagine the world without Chekhov‘s short stories? …

QN: The phrase “conscience laundering” was taken from Peter Buffet’s article, “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.” He defined “conscience laundering” as “feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.” Do motives behind this sort of feel-good charity matter?

TW: If you are talking about a single human being rather than a corporation, I don’t think that it’s possible for a human being to be disinterested. But we have to try, obviously. Have you heard of Joyce Maynard? Joyce Maynard is a novelist. When she was seventeen or eighteen, a freshman at Yale, she wrote a brief memoir in the New York Times Magazine. Precocious, one might think, looking backwards so early. J. D. Salinger read it and wrote her a fan letter. He ended up moving her in with him, persuaded her to give up a scholarship at Yale, used her, discarded her, all with this great theater of purity. He considered himself a very “pure” soul who believed that if you do good, you’re really doing it just to flatter yourself. So he did no good, certainly safe from that sin. You might read a recent Times article by Joyce Maynard, “Was Salinger Too Pure For this World?” in which she writes about this continual exercise, this question of “Is this good thing you’re doing really for yourself?” “Can you escape self-flattery in doing what others would conventionally call a good thing?”


“All manner of things shall be well.”

It is a political act to force someone to enter the mind, the spirit, the perspective of another human being.

And I would suggest that if you give food to someone who’s hungry, they don’t give a shit whether you’re doing it for yourself or them. But if Carnegie is working kids at ten cents per hour and then building libraries, well, though the libraries are a good thing we still have to hold him accountable for the exploitation of children.

But it’s a complicated issue and I think we have to live with a little conscience-laundering if that’s what it takes to try to do something that benefits other people. If there’s a sense of self-congratulation for some good we do for others, then we have to live with that. This idea has obviously vexed people forever, this tension between the deed and the motive. In the Four Quartets, Eliot writes, “And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / By the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching.” So he’s obviously grilling himself in this way too. I don’t know if it ever goes away.



“It is a political act to force someone to enter the mind, the spirit, the perspective of another human being.” (Photo: Sonia Lee)

TW: …Mozart, in what way is he useful? In measurable terms, he is not useful. You can’t even say music uplifts or purifies the soul. As we know, the officers at Auschwitz and other concentration camps liked to make the inmates play Beethoven to them and they would weep while the music was being performed. So you can’t even say that music is necessarily transformative, though it can be.

What I do think is that it’s hard for us to live with ourselves if we don’t feel useful in some way or another. Have you seen that movie The Hurt Locker? There’s a guy who disarms bombs, a highly dangerous job. When he comes home, there is a striking scene of him standing in an American super market, looking at this dazzling array of goods, and he just wants to go back to Iraq. He reads about a bomb going off in the newspaper and he thinks, “I could have saved those people.” He has experienced actually being useful. People like him have this rare experience of having their usefulness made dramatically apparent to them, so they keep going back to give support to others even in this violent, terrible context. We all have a hunger for that sensation of usefulness. It’s a little harder to experience that as a writer, maybe a little easier as a teacher. No doubt society and the cultures we grow up in all elicit this need to be useful, but it’s also something that’s hardwired in us. It’s not necessarily a divinely inspired thing, it may well be an evolutionary adaptation, but it’s there.


QN: We are reading bell hooks’ chapter about “Engaged Pedagogy.” What is your pedagogy?

TW: I certainly wouldn’t keep teaching if it’s just recitation of what I know. It’s a cooperative process. When I’m lecturing in the Thinking Matters course, I don’t allow laptops in my class, so people have to look at me. They can write things down. But I’m not giving out information. It’s a conceptual exercise. I’m really trying to get people to challenge me and question me. And I do that sort of thing because I care. I don’t teach literature as a collection of movements, “okay, now we move to the Augustan age.” Literature is a theater of choices, values, and the way in which one’s character takes shape and in turn shapes one’s life. Those are the questions that literature brings to dramatic life, and, I hope, awakens something in my students. Again, I don’t want to award myself a merit badge. It seems natural enough to want to have a kind of communion with others, challenge other people and have them challenge you. It’s more fun to live that way.


TW: If this makes any sense, we’re called to different things, in different ways. By saying that, I guess I’m implying a caller. Nature, if you will, calls us to different kinds of things.

Again, read the whole thing here.

Susan Sontag: “A freshly typed manuscript begins to stink.”

September 2nd, 2014

Asontag2 new biography of Susan Sontag  has just hit the shelves. The Wall Street Journal has one of the first MSM reviews on Daniel Schreiber‘s book, translated from the German. Clearly, the writer Micah Mattix didn’t like Sontag, and says Schreiber felt the same:

When it comes to Susan Sontag, there are those who dislike both the woman and the work and those who just dislike the woman. In the preface to his biography of Sontag—the first since the essayist and novelist died in 2004— Daniel Schreiber reluctantly puts himself in the latter group. Writing on Sontag, the German critic tells us, was both wonderful and difficult: “Wonderful because I had the chance to immerse myself in almost everything Sontag had ever written or said. . . . Difficult, also, because Sontag’s character made it impossible for me to adopt the tone of unbridled admiration authors of literary biographies usually adopt.”

Even readers who have never opened the New York Review of Books, where so many of her essays appeared, know the name Susan Sontag. Even those who never puzzled their way through “Notes on Camp,” her provocative 1964 article in Partisan Review that helped define a certain ironic intellectual pose, will recall she was one of America’s most celebrated public intellectuals. Sontag was famous for writings on film, photography and philosophy, as well as for the striking photographs of her that appeared in publications like Vogue and Mademoiselle, which once led Mary Ellmann to call her the “Chanel of the arts.” Mr. Schreiber’s book, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, presents an opportunity to ask what it adds up to—aside from a sort of intellectual glamour. And, not least, how did Susan Sontag become “Susan Sontag”?

Apparently, Schreiber points out the inconsistencies in Sontag’s descriptions of herself. “She claimed, for example, that she had no idea where her family was from, even though she knew her grandparents had emigrated from Lodz. She would later claim that she was born in Poland herself. Mr. Schreiber is also rightly skeptical of Sontag’s claims about her own youthful brilliance. Her idealization of her childhood, Mr. Schreiber writes, would ‘serve above all to promote the aura of genius in which Sontag consciously wrapped herself later in life.’” Well, of course. Is there anyone who doubted that her accounts of reading Immanuel Kant shortly out of the womb were anything but hyperbolic? Read the WSJ review here.

Flavorwire has a lengthy excerpt from the book, describing how she became “Susan Sontag.” Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt, to remind you that even this famous writer had hard times, a lot of them, in fact:

“After The Benefactor was published, the contradiction between Sontag’s academic career and her literary ambitions became more acute. The fact that she had not completed her dissertation, instead becoming more and more involved with the literary world, led to difficulties with Columbia University. Roger Straus, who had recommended his author for fellowships from the Rockefeller and Merrill foundations, discreetly but urgently told his friend Harry Ford at the latter foundation, ‘As you may know, she is a member of the Philosophy faculty at Columbia, where her writing efforts have been greeted most unphilosophically by her senior colleagues. As a result of this stupid attitude, she is now in financial need.’


Also recently published

“Sontag’s academic mentor and promoter Jacob Taubes was at this time negotiating his return to Germany to take up a post at the Free University in Berlin, so she could expect no more support from him. Her job would be at risk once he was gone. Finally, however, her publisher’s efforts on her behalf bore fruit. On the basis of her literary and critical publications, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded her a post as writer in residence at Rutgers University during the academic year 1964–1965, and for 1965, she also received a fellowship from the Merrill Foundation. These awards put her in a position to leave her unloved instructorship in Columbia’s Department of Philosophy.

“Sontag’s friend Annette Michelson seemed very surprised by this turn of events. The art historian was pursuing an academic career in film studies, at the time still a completely obscure discipline, and could not understand why Sontag would so cavalierly abandon her university career in favor of a highly insecure existence as a freelance writer, apparently without a backward glance. But Sontag’s departure from academia was not quite as straightforward as that. Three years later, she still regretted not having finished her dissertation and even planned to complete it after all—probably on recent French philosophy—and earn her PhD from Harvard. But she never carried out this plan. The numerous teaching positions, honorary doctorates, and professorships that were later offered to her she mostly also turned down, often with the flippant justification that she had too much respect for a real PhD to accept an honorary one. Although she kept abreast of scholarly publications in the areas of literature, film studies, and cultural history, her essayistic approach remained basically antiacademic. She repeatedly stressed that the life of a writer and that of an academic were mutually exclusive. She had, after all, seen “academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.” It is not difficult to discern behind this remark a pose of wounded vanity. Herself one of the best authors of her generation, Sontag’s failure in academia was due not only to her wish for an antiacademic life but also to the fact that she was a woman in the still strongly patriarchal world of the universities.

“At the end of the spring semester in 1964, Sontag left her teaching position at Columbia and began life as a freelance author and essayist. After early difficulties earning enough to get by, she increasingly was able to support herself with her writing.

“In the few published journal entries from that year, Sontag’s personal problems sometimes shade into self-loathing. With great clarity she mounts attacks against herself, criticizing her tendency “to censor [sic] others for my own vices, to make my friendships into love affairs, to ask that love include (and exclude) all.” What fell victim to her new notoriety was her literary output. After finishing The Benefactor in 1962, Sontag wrote essays almost exclusively. A second novel she had already begun proved too short of breath and appeared as a short story titled ‘The Dummy’ in the September 1963 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.Otherwise, journalism and essays predominated until the fall of 1965, and for good reasons. For one thing, the intense life Sontag led in New York was expensive and her essays, reviews, and articles paid much more than novels or short stories. The Atlantic Monthly, for example, paid $500 for a 3,000–3,500 word article, as much as FSG paid her for the completed manuscript of her entire novel. For another thing, her extraordinary articles appeared to gain her more—and more immediate—recognition from colleagues and friends than her fiction.

“Yet as her journal shows, writing at this time became a real challenge and even a torture for Sontag. ‘A freshly typed manuscript, the moment it’s completed, begins to stink. It’s a dead body—it must be buried—embalmed, in print,” she said. By her own admission, she needed to build up pressure to write. Her work got done in intense bursts: “I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down.’”

Read the rest here. Or read an excerpt from Jonathan Cott’s The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, also recently published, here.

Does “September 1″ ring any bells? It should.

September 1st, 2014


September 1, 1939.  The day has peculiar resonances if you are Polish, for reasons obvious in the 1939 headline above. The anniversary of the Nazi blitzkrieg almost slipped by me, were it not for my Polish friend Artur Sebastian Rosman‘s interesting and controversial post on the subject over at his blog, Cosmos the in Lost, in which the Czeslaw Milosz scholar discusses Timothy Snyders internationally acclaimed Bloodlands, which we’ve discussed before here and here and here and here. While Artur acknowledges that the Holocaust has become almost a “metaphysical measuring stick of humanity’s capacity for radical evil,” he reminds us that Hitler had even bigger plans in mind:

snyderBloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin puts the Holocaust within its Central European context. What’s frequently lost is how Snyder’s international bestseller suggests the Holocaust is not some ahistorical transcendent metaphysical essence, but rather a contingent historical event. First of all, Snyder’s book puts the Holocaust within the context of the genocides perpetrated against other populations stuck between Germany and the Soviet Union. Second, Bloodlands gives a thorough account of the Generalplan Ost: the secret German plan to exterminate the Slavs so that Germans could repopulate their lands and take advantage of the Ukrainian breadbasket.

The extermination of the Slavs was Germany’s main plan. What they did not anticipate was the strength of the Soviet resistance and how the herding of Jewish populations would cause the Nazis logistical problems. The rapid accumulation of large populations in ghettos led the Germans to send them to preexisting concentration camps. These camps were first used to systematically kill Catholic clergy, Polish resistance fighters, and Communists.

Read the whole thing here.  Of course, we couldn’t let the day go by without a mention of W.H. Audens September 1, 1939 (we’re glad that Artur didn’t forget it, either), which begins:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Right again

Sock it to us, Wystan.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

I’ve thought a lot of the last two lines of this excerpt in recent days – there’s plenty in the international news to remind us. What remedy? What remedy? How about the man who insisted that goodness properly understood is not passive, but active – that the world requires individuals who not only refrain from harming others, but energetically seek out those in need of help? Sir Nicholas Winton saved 669 Czech children from certain death in the Holocaust – about 6,000 people are alive today because of his efforts. He turned 105 years old last May, with an international celebration at London’s Czech Embassy; The Guardian wrote about that event here. “I am always surprised every time I come here to see all kinds of people who have come really very great distances to say hello,” Winton said. “As far as I am concerned, it is only Anno Domini that I am fighting – I am not ill, I am just old and doddery.”

wintonHis daughter has just published a book about her father – The Guardian wrote about that over the summer too, here. “Like her father, Barbara Winton is not sentimental; she lets the story tell itself,” writes Emma Howard. “Both father and daughter resist hero worship. The book’s title is a nod to his often-repeated motto: ‘If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.’” An excerpt that tells the story:

“Nearly 6,000 people in the world today are alive because Winton responded to a phone call from Prague in December 1938. The call was from his friend Martin Blake, who was engaged in helping Jewish refugees and was asking for Winton’s assistance. On arrival in Prague, Winton immediately took action, setting up an office in his hotel in Wenceslas Square. He persuaded the German authorities to let a number of Jewish children leave, and identified British foster families who would open their homes to them. (In November 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, parliament approved a measure that would allow the entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, if they had a place to stay and provided that £50 was deposited to pay for their eventual return to their own country.) He then organised eight evacuations on the Czech Kindertransport train from Prague to London’s Liverpool Street station. He spent only three weeks in Prague – the maximum length of time he could get off from his job as a stockbroker in the City – though he worked in the evenings during the following eight months to complete the mission.

“For half a century, Winton knew nothing of the nearly 700 people who now call themselves ‘Nicky’s children’. He did not seek them out after the war and rarely spoke of the episode. But the details were waiting to be found – in a scrapbook crammed with documents, photographs and a list of every child he saved. It was not until the BBC got hold of the scrapbook in 1988 that the story came to light. Invited by Esther Rantzen to sit in the audience of her show That’s Life!, Winton was overwhelmed when she announced live on air that the people in the audience around him were the children he had saved.”

Here’s how he found out he’d become a hero. It’s an awwwww video, for a little hope on a grim anniversary:

What matters: reflections on a 9-year-old girl with an Uzi

August 30th, 2014


Earlier this week, an instructor was training a nine-year-old girl to shoot with an Uzi, aiming at the image of a man some yards away. She inadvertently killed a real one, her instructor. A terrible occurrence on so many levels, but for the moment let’s consider the video that was inadvertently taken of what turned out to be a slaughter. It went viral. In other words, the accidental video of a man being killed functioned on some level as some sort of lurid entertainment (I can’t see any other purpose in watching such a video – and no, I won’t even reproduce the photo).

On a Facebook thread, as my friends and acquaintances expressed horror of the popularity of the video, I pointed out that this was perhaps not so surprising in a culture where a contemporary idol such as Kim Kardashian rose to fame with a video of herself engaged in sexual intercourse – or was that Paris Hilton? Or both? The femmes du jour become interchangeable at this point. The common point of reference is that sex and death have become casual entertainment for voyeurs, which is all of us. (One can include, I suppose, simulated sex and death in movies and TV shows, since part of the brain does not distinguish between reality and the filmed recreation of it – if you experience horror or arousal at either, you prove my point.)

The idea that the human person has any kind of innate dignity, that we draw a veil over at least sex and death (as well as bowel movements), that any kind of human activity might be private or intimate – increasingly strikes people as arbitrary and an anachronism, especially if sex, death, or a marriage proposal are click-bait. We are losing a language to even discuss such matters in a culture where the greatest fear is boredom and becoming fat. People are feeling increasingly uncomfortable at any kind of depth, any view of their roles as something other than a consumers of videos, electronics, sports, as “seekers” of the most shallow and transient kind of “happiness.” We’re a long, long way from Antigone, who sacrificed her life to honor and bury her slain brother – she disappeared in the rear-view mirror decades ago.


Zen-inspired Dutchman

Here’s where I’m going: a few days ago I said the maiden name of ISIS is nihilism, and a few readers quibbled with me. The ISIS murderers have religious beliefs that impel them, and therefore they have “values” – of course, I responded that the religious beliefs are the merest fig leaves for mayhem. As William James wrote, “for all sorts of cruelty, piety is the mask.” Few people will express absolutely no value for anything – and such masquerades can easily be disproved. Hold a man’s head under water for a minute and he gets real pretty fast. (I love telling that to my non-dualist friends and others who deny the existence of the real.)

A few years ago, back when I imagined I still had room somewhere in my home for another book or two, I was rummaging through the $1 bin at the Stanford Bookstore and I ran across this quote in a small book:

“A much abridged symptomatology of modern Nihilism would include: disregard and detachment of all values except the immediate satisfaction of the narcissistic individual and herd impulses … atrophy of all notions of relatedness and responsibility to other humans, to animals, plants, the earth … degeneracy of the sense of beauty, truth, goodness, hence total mistrust of disinterested service … degradation of all fellow beings to the status of Things … progressive debility of all the higher functions by unrelenting and total bedevilment by electronic noise and imagery, media trivia, spectator sports, laugh shows, quizzes, commercials, propaganda for whiskeys, presidents, celebrities, gadgets, space trips…. Unavoidable consequences: alientation from self and environment – consumer addiction – identity crisis – existential vacuum – depression – mass psychosis – violence – sexual depravity – drug and alcohol addiction – teenage and all other categories of suicide, including our own’s collective incubation.”


Out of Africa

The book out of Woodstock, Vermont – What Matters – was written by a guy I’d never heard of, Frederick Frank (1909-2006), a Dutchman who served as a doctor on Nobel peace laureate Albert Schweitzer‘s staff in Africa, and was also an artist. He went on to publish 30 books about Buddhism, especially focusing on the Zen variety, and also a memoir, Days with Albert Schweitzer. Not normally my thing, but I thought he was dead-on about our times.

Here’s more:

“All consistent egocentricity is insane. Nihilism is the collective and endemic form of this insanity.

Whosoever, by ineffable grace, or sheer good luck, has survived this century of insanity, of Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Papa Doc, Pinochet, of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, of Bhopals and Love Canals, yet still underestimates the contagious virus of Nihilism as Absolute Evil, hardly merits his survival.”


“In our nihilistic chaos every national, every ideological collectivity has dishonored itself utterly. Gulag, gas chamber, torture cellar, apartheid, induced famine, nuclear holocaust, have routinely been justified with an ad hoc gnosis of ideological twaddle and demonic hypocrisy.”


“The difference between ‘democratic’ and ‘totalitarian’ Nihilism is the difference in semantics, in ritual, in rhetoric and in categories of victims.”



Guess who?

So I wonder … René Girard writes that opponents come to resemble each other more and more, all the while insisting on their differences. “They” cover their women in body bags, “we” think “freedom” is putting them in string bikinis and encouraging them to starve themselves to death so they fit into them. Same disease, different symptom. We both have a fascination with weaponry, used in a way that devalues human life and responsibility. I’m not going to belabor the equivalence with a terrorist, genocidal, wannabe state that beheads children and crucifies those it dislikes – it would be obscene to do so. While you may not have full-blown leprosy … what’s that funny spot on your back? How long has it been there? Maybe you want to check it out.

Nihilism? Maybe we ought to look in a mirror.

Robert Hass, Tracy K. Smith win big prizes – very big

August 29th, 2014

What to do with all the money?

It’s always fun when friends win prizes. So with great pleasure I announce what you may already know (I just found out): former poet laureate Robert Hass has just won the $100,000 Wallace Stevens prize for “outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry” from the Academy of American Poets. We’ve written about him here and here and here, and for San Francisco Magazine here, and for Stanford Magazine here. It’s been a good year for the Hass family – Bob’s wife Brenda Hillman won the Griffin Award in Canada earlier this summer (we wrote about that here).

Bob is a MacArthur Fellow, and won a National Book Award in 2007, and a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, and two National Book Critics Circle Awards, among other prizes. (Read two of his poems here.) We met over a common interest: Czesław Miłosz. Bob, who met the Polish poet at Berkeley in 1978, became his foremost translator into English, and diverted much of his own creative energies to collaborate with the elderly poet laureate. “So by accident, in the course of this, at an age when I was really too old to have a master anymore, I got to apprentice myself to this amazing body of poetry,” he told me.

When I received his manuscript for Time and Materials, I predicted it would go on to win every possible national prize, and it did. In the 2008 San Francisco Magazine piece, I ask: “Hass’s latest poems remind us that to be fully human is itself an act of political subversion. What could be more Californian?”

From my piece:

VermeerAll morality is banal. To write that war is bad, honesty is the best policy, death imminent for us all is to court cliché. It’s all true, but to make it felt? The art of poetry is making the obvious become lovely and new again, coaxing it into memorable speech. Robert Hass’s poems, especially in his long-awaited fifth collection, Time and Materials: Poems 1997–2005, can have just that effect.

“Art and Life,” for instance, an extended riff on Vermeer’s “Woman Pouring Milk,” explores art, restoration, light, paint, and rebirth—almost in one long, miraculous breath. Hass, who teaches at UC Berkeley, resists the quick quote or easy quip: the wonder of this remarkable poem is how it quietly circles round and round back into itself over three-plus pages.

What’s rarer still is the quiet moral authority that speaks through the new poems, the assuredness of a voice that can take on the horrors of war and the huckleberries of Inverness in the same measured way, without hysteria or hyperbole. Each poem resists the obvious showstopper line, instead incorporating slow effects that build momentum over the whole collection, measuring our actions and choices against a backdrop of silence and death. Hass has always attempted to link the historical moment with the intimate, but here the fusion is close to perfect. The voice that speaks through these poems is wiser, more seasoned, more certain of itself and its terrain.


More champers, please.


Tracy K. Smith, who in 2012 won the Pulitzer Prize for “Life On Mars,” is also a winner in the same award cycle. The Academy of American Poets also announced the winners of six other awards, including Tracy K. Smith, who won the $25,000 Academy of American Poets Fellowship.  Rigoberto González, who won the $25,000 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Read about other awarded poets here.

When I interviewed her after her Pulitzer, she was bubbly and courteous.  She had celebrated the Pulitzer on her 40th birthday, with champagne.  She talked about her upbringing and her father, who had been one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Science and space infuse and inform her poetry.  From her oft-quoted “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” in which the universe is:


Our great error (Photo: NASA/ESA)

. . . sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.

Or this, from the same poem:

Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,

Award winners will be honored at a ceremony on Oct. 17 at the New School in New York City.

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