Were the 1950s really that bad?

November 21st, 2014

eisenhowerThe 1950s have taken a bum rap for years. You remember the 1950s: women were locked in their houses and forced to bake apple crumble and change diapers while men took their hats and briefcases to the office. Everyone was repressed, and unable to express their Innermost Selves. No one had any fun at all.

People forget how close the West came to losing it all. Had Hitler avoided a few military blunders, we might all be speaking German right now. Believe it or not, many men and women were happy to beat their swords into ploughshares and devote themselves to the virtues of peace. Being a riveter, though doubtless empowering, was not that much of a career enhancer. For kids, especially, it wasn’t a half-bad era. You had a pretty good chance of growing up in an intact home with the same parents, and children could walk to school and attend classes without gunfire. W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Frost were still alive and writing poems, and the Partisan Review was in its prime. Was it that much worse than the 1930s, the 1910s?

Two recent reviews over at Books Inq seem to reinforce my sense that the era has been much maligned. The book at hand is Paul Johnson‘s Eisenhower: A Life  – a biography that’s 134 pages long, including the index. The Times Literary Supplement review said of Johnson: “His zesty, irreverent narratives teach more history to more people than all the post-modernist theorists, highbrow critics, and dons put together.”

My colleague Frank Wilson reviewed the book here, in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“As recounted in Eisenhower: A Life, a new brief biography by the British writer Paul Johnson, the life of Dwight David Eisenhower was one of steady, uninterrupted success – five-star general, supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, 34th president of the United States, elected twice, both times by landslides, and still popular when he left office. Heck, just a year before he died, he hit a hole-in-one on the golf course.

“Yet one feels sad when one finishes Johnson’s book. Not for Eisenhower, but for the country he served so well.

“A joke making the rounds as his presidency neared its end told of the Eisenhower doll: You wound it up and it did nothing for eight years. But we could use plenty of that nothing these days. As Johnson points out, Eisenhower gave America nearly ‘a decade of unexampled prosperity and calm. The country had emerged from the Korean War and the excesses of McCarthyism. Inflation was low. Budgets were in balance or with manageable deficits. The military-industrial complex was kept under control. . . . Thanks to Ike’s fiscal restraint, prices remained stable and unemployment only a little more than 4 percent. …’

General Eisenhower Behind the Wheel of a Jeep

Maybe not such a loser, after all.

“Had he heard the joke about the doll, Eisenhower probably would have laughed, at least to himself. ‘He seems to have found it convenient and useful,’ Johnson writes, ‘for people to get him wrong. He chuckled within himself.’

“So, at the time, the all-too-conventional wisdom had it that he was inarticulate, not too bright, lacking in cunning, and lazy, preferring to hit the links and leave the business of government to subordinates. His critics, Johnson writes, got things exactly wrong: “Ike was highly intelligent, knew exactly how to use the English language, was extremely hardworking, and very crafty. In practice, he made all the key decisions, and everyone had to report to him on what they were doing and why.” Like any genuine leader, Eisenhower did not insinuate. He issued commands. He led from above. … One in particular might find it interesting to learn that during six of Eisenhower’s eight years in office, both houses of Congress were controlled by the opposition party.”

Another one here by reviewer John Derbyshire, who seems to have suffered a sort of crush on the biographer once:

“In his 1983 book Modern Times, Paul Johnson made a point of talking up U.S. presidents then regarded by orthodox historians as second-rate or worse: Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower. He wrote:

Eisenhower was the most successful of America’s twentieth-century presidents, and the decade when he ruled (1953-61) the most prosperous in American, and indeed world, history.

“The goal of political leadership is to secure for one’s country, so far as circumstances will allow, the things that most ordinary citizens wish for: prosperity and peace.

“On that score, Ike did superbly well. America’s 1950s prosperity glows golden in the memory of us who witnessed it, if only from afar. Peace? Paul Johnson draws a withering comparison between Ike’s masterly 1958 deployment to Lebanon—’the only American military operation abroad that Ike initiated in the whole of his eight years at the White House’—and the Bay of Pigs misadventure of the vain, shallow John F. Kennedy in the following administration.

“Discounting as best I can my partiality to P.J.’s prose, I’m convinced:  This was our best modern President.”

“Learning is as natural as walking.” The world loses a terrific educator: Robert Calfee, 1933-2014

November 20th, 2014

“Why teach them to march, when they can learn to fly?” Bob reading to an Escondido Elementary kindergarten class in 1985 (Photos: Ed Souza)

I traveled with Robert Calfee to schools in New York City, Pittsburgh, and around the Bay Area, when we were conducting research for the 1995 book we co-authored, Teach Our Children Well (Portable Stanford Series). The second chapter of the text was published as a Washington Post op-ed, and won a national award.

That was back in my days as the news director for Stanford’s School of Education – and before that, I had worked with a project called “Stanford and the Schools.” Bob was my first boss at Stanford, and I coauthored (with Stanford University President Donald Kennedy and Education Dean Myron Atkin) the book that came out of the project, Inside Schools. Then Bob and I tackled this second book together.  He was an amazing educator and an easygoing travel chum. I was greatly saddened to hear of his death by cancer on October 24 – I hadn’t even known he was ill.  You can read more about it here and at the UC-Riverside website, where he was dean, here.

Bob was a passionate champion for ‘the rhetoric,’ the formal use of language to reason, persuade, and argue – whether its getting kids to talk the administration into getting new lockers for the school, or whether they think the novel they’re reading is a good one. He believed in writing. He said students can read a book without comprehending it, but it’s hard to compose an essay passively.

calfee1He emphasized “critical literacy” – that is, learning to use all forms of language for thinking, for problem-solving, and for communications. He said it was the way he had been taught in Kentucky, during a rather hardscrabble childhood, partly spent in an orphanage.

To that end, Bob created Project REA/Inquiring School, an educational endeavor that emphasized making schools “communities of inquiry.” As I recall, Project READ was for the classroom, Inquiring School was for the school as a whole. Rather than focusing on students who were branded as ‘defective,’ he focused on professional development for teachers. He wanted to steer instructors away from teachers’ guides that, he said, read like the IRS tax manuals. He tried to wean them away from follow-the-recipe teaching. He was undaunted by low-achieving, multilingual classrooms in poor neighborhoods with histories of low achievement. Those were the ones he was looking for.

This is from our book together: “We have repeatedly found that most students, including those identified as low-achieving, have sharper academic value and pedagogical potential, but they don’t know what they know. They cannot recognize and use their background experience until someone – a teacher – offers the cognitive tools for expressing themselves and participating in group problem-solving.” Our conclusion? “Children walking into their first classrooms vary widely in experience and temperament; but for virtually each one of them, learning is as natural as walking. Why teach them to march, when they can learn to fly?”

calfee2It wasn’t just talk; I watched him to it. For example, he walked into a boisterous classroom of elementary students within minutes – coming in cold, with no preparation, he’d have them in his hand within minutes. He’d start with a question – how would they explain where they lived to a man from Mars? – and follow up their suggestions with ‘Tell me more’ or ‘Why?’ And from that he would teach. Not only did he learn a great deal about the students that way, but he engaged them where they were right then, right there, instead of beginning with abstractions far away from their daily lives.

I recall him talking about a student whose difficult family background was such that he had a better working knowledge of how government works than many adults do – but that knowledge didn’t get tapped in the classroom.

He wanted to see classrooms brimming with life, and walls covered with students’ writing, webs and weaves and story graphs. Silent classrooms bothered him more than noisy ones.

We were often on a tight schedule, and after visiting one school, a teacher said she wanted to discuss matters with him as we waited for our taxi. It was a frigid winter morning – I think it was in the Bronx. He turned up his collar against the wind, and said gently, “Let’s talk here.” And they did. That was sooooo Bob.


FROM TEACH OUR CHILDREN WELL: Robert Calfee was a guest teacher for a lunch-hour economics class in Yerba Buena High School east of San Jose, in a poor neighborhood and a port of entry for new arrivals from around the world. Here’s his impromptu instruction:


In recent years (Photo: Smart Ants, Inc.)

Calfee: What do you guys think economics is all about? What words come to your mind when I say ‘economics’?

Students: Money. Scarcity. Products. Profit. Services.

Calfee: Why do you think we need to know about economics? What’s the value? [Silence. Teachers frown.] Have you got an economic system at home? Is your family an economic system? [More silence.]

Brendan: Yeah, I think so.

Calfee: Say more. [Silence.] How do you handle money? Do you guys have anything do with money at home? [Someone mumbles about money and “decision-makers.”]

Calfee: Who decides?

Ngo: Parents.

Calfee: Do you have a job?

Ngo: No.

Calfee: Ever had a job?

Ngo: No.

Calfee: You get an allowance?

Ngo: No. I just ask.

Calfee: Tell me a little more about how that happens.

Read the rest of this entry »

Oxford does it right: The Merton Record arrives on our doorstep

November 17th, 2014

IMG_20141111_145704We shouldn’t have been surprised. When we were contacted by the Merton College at Oxford about republishing our obituary on the late great Milton scholar, Martin Evans in The Merton Record, we offered our enthusiastic  support. The Welshman was an amazing man and an amazing Miltonist, and it was a privilege to study Paradise Lost with him.

We made Editor Helen Morley promise to send the finished product.

When the envelope arrived from Oxford, we were pleased to find a model of this kind of academic publishing: 200 perfect-bound pages with writing that matches high production values  – and it was delightful to be a small part of it. (Also noted: it has a review of Stuart D. Lee‘s A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a professor at Merton for many years.)

From my republished piece on Martin:

Evans coined the phrase “Miltonic moment” to describe the point of crisis just before the action changes dramatically, looking at once backward to a past that is about to be transcended or repudiated, and forward to a future that immediately begins to unfold.

His first reading of Milton marked a Miltonic moment of his own: “I fell hopelessly in love with the poetry. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever read,” Evans said.

Yet Evans is remembered for being a powerful mentor as well as a revered scholar.

IMG_20141111_145734The poet and scholar Linda Gregerson of the University of Michigan, his student in the late 1970s, recalled, “He was immensely generous, both personally and intellectually, able to convey deep learning with extraordinary clarity. He always took a deep delight in ideas, and was just opinionated enough to make things fun.” She recalled him as “impish, with a brilliant, irreverent sense of humor.”

“He converted many of us to a lifelong inhabitation in the world of Milton studies. It’s a formidable world in many respects, not nearly so genial as the world of Shakespeare studies, for example. But Martin imbued it, and us, with a durable sense of joy.”

You can read an earlier Book Haven post on Martin here – or about his 400th birthday party for Milton here. Or here’s a treat: go here and you can listen the the Milton scholar himself, at Milton’s birthday party (which was also a celebration of his own anniversary at Stanford). Hearing him read the last words of Paradise Lost is absolutely delicious.

(See? “Lycidas” is evidently still on my mind after my post yesterday about Derek Walcott.)

lovesongsPostscript on 9/19: Martin Evans’s influence was wide indeed. I just received this note from music scholar and author Ted Gioia: “I spent a lot of time with Martin Evans, both inside and outside the classroom, and learned a tremendous amount from him. My next book (on the history of love songs) is a better book because of what Martin taught me about Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio, Castiglione, etc. Because of him, I read The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus, The Allegory of Love by C.S. Lewis and a number of other books that prepared me (in ways I never could have anticipated at the time) to write a study of the evolution of the love song.”


“It was the most exciting thing I’d ever read.” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)


Poet Melissa Green: Virgil would still be proud

November 16th, 2014

Father, I’m drowsy in April’s humming sun and think
A girl the color of autumn kneels at the Squanicook’s bank,
Who is the river’s daughter, dressed in driven skins,
Who knows a cedar wind at Nissequassick brings
The school of alewife, herring, yellow perch ashore.

– from the Squanicook Eclogues



In 1991, Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky was asked what American poets he admired. Of the two or three he shortlisted, he mentioned Melissa Green for “tremendous intensity and tremendous intelligence.” He continued: “In the case of Ms. Green, I think it’s a tremendous facility. She’s a tremendous rhymer. There’s a collection of hers called Squanicook Eclogues, wonderful eclogues, I think. Virgil would be proud of those. Tremendous rhyming, tremendous texture.”

Then she disappeared. Her 1987 Squanicook Eclogues, which received awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets, looked to be a solo product of a brilliant woman. Then, a decade later, a memoir of mental illness, Color Is the Suffering of Light, then, a decade after that, another collection of poems, Fifty-Two (try finding it anywhere, just try), and now, the next installment of her memoirs, The Linen Way, excerpted in the current Parnassus.


… and now.

For my money, my favorite passage is a description of her Boston University class with Nobel poet Derek Walcott, which, in fact, brings back memories of his Russian friend’s classes. Walcott made his students memorize “Lycidas” – a suggestion that was met with “tittering and mumbled derision – most of the students seemed to resent having to memorize such a long, boring poem.” Here’s a sample of Walcott’s classroom style:

“His first class was held at 236 Bay State Road, in a shabby second-floor room with an unvarnished floor, empty bookshelves, and a dozen wooden armchairs crowded into it. Though bleak, this was also the room where Robert Lowell had taught Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck. Walcott walked in wearing a casual sport coat, without books or papers, and sat down. Cordially, he spoke about how the workshop was going to be run. He wanted us to read a lot, and we would look at our own poems only part of the time. He then gave us five minutes to write down the names of ten of our favorite poems. I quickly made a list: the Iliad, the Odyssey, ‘The Seafarer,’ DanteInferno [why not the Purgatorio? or Paradiso? – ED.], Paradise Lost, all of Shakespeare‘s sonnets, all of Donne, Herbert, Keats, John Clare, and Robert Browning. Finally, I added ‘The Schooner Flight.’”

linenway“When I lifted my head, the other students were looking puzzled, chewing the ends of their pens in some combination of aggravation and disbelief. Walcott went around the room and asked us to read our lists aloud. Most of the students said nothing – it seemed they couldn’t call to mind a single poem. When Walcott came to me, my heart sank into my shoes. By naming ‘The Schooner Flight’ among my favorite poems, I would look like the biggest kiss-up ever born. I read my list, and when I looked up I saw that a line had been drawn in the sand between me and the other students.

“On the occasion of our first student-teacher conference, Walcott sat behind a large, empty desk. When I entered the room he looked me up and down with an exaggerated leer, which seemed more of a friendly joke than an insult. I sat and handed him my poems, my heart thumping so loudly I thought he could surely hear it. He set the poems aside and smiled at me, his sea-green eyes bright and congenial.

‘What can I do for you?’ he asked.

I cleared my throat and blurted out, surprising myself, ‘I want you to teach me everything you know.’

His eyes widened, and he grinned. ‘You’re hungry, aren’t you, Emily?” he said. “Or should I call you Sylvia?’”

squanicook“Illness married me,” she later wrote. Soon after the publication of her first collection – “I could say ‘my head spun,’ but the world also spun around me; my sense of self became frangible, and I felt my mind and body crumble. I spent the next eleven months in the locked ward of a psychiatric hospital, shattered and suicidal. I remember the sound of the long key chains the staff all wore, clinking and turning locks.”

Her memories of her friendship with Joseph Brodsky, who befriended her during the difficult years, shows a more tender, caring side of the exiled poet: “As a lifelong insomniac, I am often awake in the middle of the night, and Joseph sometimes called at an ungodly hour to read an English-language poem he’d just written. … At other times, he called just to talk. He would ask what I was doing or reading or working on, and I would find myself sitting on the kitchen floor, twisting the telephone cord, chain-smoking, and talking into the wee hours. He never said goodbye, but rather, ‘Tender kisses on both your cheeks.’ I’d sign off just as Jimmy Durante did, but substituting the name of Joseph’s lovely cat for Mrs. Calabash: ‘Good night, Mississippi, wherever you are!’”

An interview with her at Rosa Mira Books here. Hear her read her poems at the Ottoman Estate here. And about twenty of her poems over at Agni here.

I’ve already ordered a copy of Squanicook Eclogues. And if anyone knows where I can find a copy of Fifty-Two, please drop a line. Meanwhile, I’ve a sudden urge to memorize “Lycidas.” All of it.

“A writer of extremes”: Dan Gunn on Marguerite Duras in the TLS

November 15th, 2014

Busy man in Paris.

I met Dan Gunn several years ago. He’s a professor of comp lit at the American University in Paris, and one of the editors of Samuel Beckett‘s letters – an excellent mind and an excellent scholar; I wrote about him here. (He’s also editor of the superb Cahiers Series – which I’ve written about here and here, so he’s a very busy man). Fortunately, he’s been able to pull away from the Irish maestro long enough to write a masterful retrospective on Marguerite Duras in the current Times Literary Supplement, in time (but barely) for the French writer’s centenary. Dan Gunn takes on the question on every reader’s  mind as she explored the genre of “autofiction”: “But … but… but…did it really happen?” (As you may recall, Duras was the featured author at one of last year’s “Another Look” events – here.

He concludes:”Duras was a writer of extremes: extreme tensions, extreme conflicts, extreme non-resolutions; extremely fine texts, and some – fortunately much rarer – extremely embarrassing ones.” Astonishing technique, rather than truth, is why we turn to her novels: “Duras’s works often operate by way of incantation, by repetition of key terms, names, phrases, gestures,” he writes. Besides the centenary as an occasion for writing, Open Letter Books are republishing Duras for a new generation of readers, and Gunn points out some of the pitfalls of translation.

A few excerpts, the first on the novel featured last year at Stanford, The Lover:


Iconic self-portrait

“Few Duras enthusiasts would place L’Amant quite at the centre of the canon. Yet it is hard to imagine the degree of attention Duras is currently commanding in France, or the fascination with every detail of her biography, without it. Three pages into L’Amant, the narrator announces: ‘L’histoire de ma vie n’existe pas. Ça n’existe pas’. The remaining pages serve to qualify this assertion, establishing a life recollected not as a continuum but as a series of pulsations, with crucial moments vividly returning, almost like the snapshots which Duras claims were the novel’s instigation. The intervals between the moments disappear, as does continuity, allowing the early experience to spurt back into the present. By 1984, when L’Amant was published, the elements of that life were already well known, not least through the first of Duras’s great autobiographical fictions, Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (1950): the colonial childhood in French Indochina; the early death of the father with the consequent indigence of his wife and children; the hopeless attempt to revive the family fortunes through purchase of a disastrously infertile piece of land; the two brothers, the elder of whom was violent and criminal, the younger of whom needed protecting; above all the stark emotional unavailability of the mother, wrapped up as she was in her financial woes, her loss of social status, her infatuation with her abusive first-born son.”


“Also included is a hitherto unpublished piece in which Duras writes of the intoxication of believing herself to be watched by so many. ‘On a su’, she writes, ‘que ça écoutait bien, les millions.’ Duras seems to have become entranced by her fantasy of the ‘millions’. … It is the autobiographical impulse, when combined with successive blurrings of the autobiographical lines, that has stimulated an insatiable public appetite for ostensibly objective corroborations of the life.”


Lamour-front“Yet she too, opening the first of her five biographical sketches, admits, ‘Je ne sais plus qui est Marguerite Duras’. … In an article reprinted in La Vie matérielle (1987) and included in the Pléiade Volume IV, Duras alludes to her own loquacity – a loquacity henceforth enshrined by the thoroughness of her editors and biographers: ‘Dans le train’, she writes, ‘je parle pour parler avec des inconnus, je parle de ce qu’on voit, du paysage, du temps. J’ai souvent un désir de parler, très vif, très fort’. Though we are much more familiar today than we were thirty years ago with the way that celebrity sanctions surfeit, there remains a sense, for this reader at least, of disappointment that so wonderful a writer could have been encouraged to talk so much and to commit to print so much tosh; writing so embarrassingly pretentious that it justified Patrick Rambaud’s cruel parody, Virginie Q (1988), which contains, for example, a hilarious interview between “Marguerite Duraille” and an imaginary middleweight boxer.”

Read the whole essay here.


Botero’s visit in NYC: and here’s how he got away!

November 13th, 2014
Fernando Botero's Rolls, NYC 10/16/2014

Book Haven’s photographer caught his chauffeur-driven car. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Yesterday, we wrote about Colombian artist Fernando Botero‘s book launch in New York City – here. However, our roving reporter-photographer Zygmunt Malinowski forgot to send a photo of this part of the event: the getaway car. “His chauffeured car, which looked like an antique Rolls Royce, was parked in front  of the Americas Society,” he wrote. Then he added, “Well isn’t that Rolls really nice?” We think so, and are ready for a spin whenever Mr. Botero is. (Who says there’s no money in art?)


Colombian artist Fernando Botero launches book in NYC

November 12th, 2014
2Foto © Zygmunt Malinowski.JPG

Adriana LaRota and Fernando Botero in NYC (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

A report from our roving photographer in New York City, Zygmunt Malinowski:

Does an art book sell well in a digital age? Yes, if you are Colombian artist Fernando Botero.

A month ago I received an intriguing email for a book launch of Bullfight: Paintings and Works on Paper (Glitterati, $125) by Fernando Botero, one of the most recognized living artists of Latin America. The event included a press conference followed by a book-signing. The artist is best known for his voluptuous sculptures and paintings.botero1

I recalled that in the 1990s his large generous sculptures standing in the median of Park Avenue caused a sensation. Since the artist is known mostly for his sculpture and paintings, not books, I didn’t know when an opportunity to meet him face-to-face would occur again, so I decided to attend.

The launch took place on October 16 at the Americas Society. Waiting in the light wood-paneled Mexican Room with other journalists for the beginning of the press conference, I was startled to hear a greeting in Spanish. I turned around and was facing the man himself, a well-dressed, good-natured gentleman accompanied by media director Adriana LaRota. With his black round horn-rimmed glasses, he could have passed for a distinguished professor, a scholar, or an eminent doctor. He looked exceptionally well for his 82 years. Botero calmly answered questions and smiled from time to time. The press conference was in Spanish with optional English, but the following session for the general audience was to be in English.

The artist later spoke about studying in Medellin, Paris, Spain, and Italy. He explained that one of his influences was the Quattrocento,  along with 15th century art and Latin colonial paintings. He established a style of his own – Boterisimo – and  answered questions about his characteristically exaggerated proportions and powerful, rotund people and figures.

3Foto © Zygmunt Malinowski.JPG

Botero’s “Gato” – a small version. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Maya Jimenez, an art history scholar, told us that Botero painted the spectacle of the bullring rather than the fight itself – that is, he portrayed the ceremony of dressed-up colorful matadors, picadors, and the audience. Botero was fascinated with bullfighting ever since he was a young boy and even attended a bullfighting school for a few months. She also discussed individual works of art – how the backward-looking figure on one of his drawings drew us into the painting, or how, in another painting, the composition with a few figures was circular and animated, and that “the scale and proportion, his trademark, is relevant to importance.”

The public’s interest in book signing was not surprising given the stature of the artist – like having Picasso visit for a day. There was a long line of well-heeled fans that stretched through the Mexican room and the entire corridor leading into the room, each person holding the large, newly purchased book and waiting to have it signed by the famous artist.

I passed the only known outdoor sculpture by Botero in New York City, a monumental and amusing cat, “Gato,” several times in the past but alas, when I went to see it again this time it was gone, sold to a client in Germany. However a statuette remains in a nearby apartment building, which I was able to photograph. It’s above right.



Dave Eggers, Tobias Wolff on “privacy, and whether it’s possible to have it anymore”

November 9th, 2014

An optimist against the odds: Dave Eggers talks to Tobias Wolff. (Photo: Rod Searcey)

Imagine you send someone a letter. You are eager to know your recipient’s reaction to your correspondence. So you drive over to his house, park, crouch in the bushes so that you have a view of his living room window, so you can see the moment when he opens the envelope, and …

Wait a minute. It’s not so far from the truth. Author Dave Eggers, founder of McSweeney’s, recalled an incident a dozen years ago when he received an email. A few days later, his correspondent asked him what he thought about it. Eggers said he’d been buried in work, and hadn’t had a chance to read it yet. Not true, his correspondent said. He’d opened it at 4:27 p.m. a day earlier. The fellow had the ability to get a receipt when someone opened his email. For Eggers, it was a moment when “a friend crosses what would have once been a boundary” and “your right to know what happens to your letter exceeds my right to privacy.” While it’s commonplace today, Eggers felt the the friend had “stepped way outside the behavior I want in a friend.”


“You can’t go back, you can only go further.” (Photo: Rod Searcey)

His newest novel, The Circle, studies our hunger for constant communication. The eponymous center of the book is a Bay Area high tech giant that feeds on our privacy as it creates a utopian culture for its employees. Sound familiar? “Some of the most idealistic people I know are working at these companies,” said Eggers.

He was in conversation with author Tobias Wolff last month, during a packed event at Encina Hall on “privacy, and whether it’s possible to have it anymore,” in Wolff’s words. The occasion, sponsored by the Stanford Creative Writing Program, the Stanford McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, and the Stanford Humanities Center, may have been a record-breaker for attendance, or at least among the Top 10. Staff hurriedly tried to put up an extra simulcast screen in the lobby to accommodate the hordes. I arrived late, having spent 40 minutes looking for parking, before finally abandoning my car across campus and sprinting to the event. I squatted in a corner in the simulcast room upstairs, and peered at the conversation on a big screen. The event had already started…

“An insatiable hunger to know drives everybody,” said Eggers, and it’s enabled by technological gimcracks and software that make information-gathering – or spying, in some cases – easy. For example, a father can track the movements of his daughter, whether she’s in another state or in her boyfriend’s car. “It’s cheap, it’s easy, you don’t have to get up or hire anybody.”

“Why trust when you can track? It gets scary.”

Wolff said his horror at the NSA revelations “will tell you where I am on the technological scale.” Although he was “shocked to learn all our emails and phone calls are vacuumed up by the government,” he got another jolt when, in a conversation, he learned that one of his bright young students “doesn’t see anything wrong.”

“How used to being under surveillance this generation is!” said Wolff. We’ve all heard the commonplace rejoinder – if you weren’t doing anything wrong in the first place, what’s the problem? Said Wolff: “Who decides what is ‘wrong’? It could be a political stand you have taken.”

“We’re so marinated in the custom of being surveilled that we have grown a thick skin to it.”

We live in a world where “your license plate is photographed sixty times a day,” said Eggers. Moreover, “if it can be collected and stored, it can be abused.”

“It’s hard to stop. All of these things have never been that easy. You can’t go back, you can only go further.”

Go further to what? Utter transparency, 24/7. A world where we swim in ever vaster oceans of information. A world where knowledge of everything, all the time, is an inherent good. Everything that everyone is doing is known to everyone all of the time. “Accumulated shared knowledge” is the new community, and it’s considered “selfish” to hold back anything, to have secrets, to want to be left alone. “That philosophy is expounded in a lot of places,” said Eggers.

In such a world, shame is futile, because inescapable. Besides, you can see what everyone else is doing, too, and it’s just as bad. Maybe worse. But, but, but … isn’t shame an aspect of conscience, and isn’t it part of being fully human?  “It’s considered suspicious if you do want to hide anything,” said Eggers, and “deleting anything is inherently sinful.”

But what about the right to be a nobody, an inconnu, a nonentity? What about the right to be forgotten, to be invisible?

index“By the time you ask to get the right to be forgotten, it’s already too late to be forgotten,” said Wolff. He recalled the case of a Columbia student accused of rape. The assailant’s name has been publicized, but the case has never been tried. Guilty or innocent, “that crime attaches to that person’s name forever.”

“The right of individuals to control their identity and narrative … should trump our right to know a person,” said Eggers. He called for a Center for Digital Ethics, perhaps at a place like Stanford, “to codify some do’s and don’t's.” He said much of what’s happening now “is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment – the unspecified collection of data on citizens without a warrant or a specific crime.”

“The original sin where we got to this is that everything had to be free.” Stewart Brand famously said, “Information wants to be free.” It came true: “It is free, but in a “non-transparent, creepy way,” said Eggers. It’s like all those “terms and conditions” you have to check online before agreeing to things – or the endless supply of mail for you to review with revisions to your terms and conditions. Who does all that? “Keeping up terms and conditions is a full-time job,” he said.

Not everyone is as unconcerned as the student Wolff described, as we slide towards a technological dystopia. Eggers was on hand when The Circle came out three weeks earlier in Germany. “Their memory of Stasi is very fresh,” he said – especially thanks to movies like The Lives of Others. In America, however, we are speaking of a generation that was in diapers when East Germany’s Stasi was dissolved.

Are you depressed yet? Apparently Eggers isn’t. “People will do the right thing when there are laws and when there are parameters which we have discussed,” he said. “I’m optimistic about the good of human nature.”


Signing books afterwards. (Photo: Rod Searcey)

The “last superstition”? We think not…

November 7th, 2014
(Photo: Erling Mandelmann)

(Photo: Erling Mandelmann)

I’ve known Dwight Green over at Common Reader for several years. Like so many cyberspace friendships, however, we’d never actually met face-to-face. That situation ended Wednesday night, when the book-loving fellow blogger made the trek all the way up from Morgan Hill to hear Roberto Calasso‘s lecture on “The Last Superstition.”

He blogged about it yesterday. An excerpt:

“During the lecture Calasso delved into several topics (sources, trends, implications, and blindness resulting) centered on his argument that society has become the last superstition…replacing the role of the gods with a belief in ‘society.’ This could have been a depressing talk, but Calasso’s approach provided a light touch on weighty subjects. He didn’t let sacred societies off the hook, either, noting they have been most dangerous when they attempt to be organic. It was here that he quoted Jacob Burckhardt’s analysis on Spartan power:

Power can have a great mission on earth; for perhaps it is only on power, on a world protected by power, that superior civilizations can develop. But the power of Sparta seems to have come into being almost entirely for itself and for its own self-assertion, and its constant pathos was the enslavement of subject peoples and the extension of its own dominion as an end unto itself.

“So does the sacred society believe in something beside itself? Unasked, but not necessary given the rest of his talk, was the question if the non-sacred (or experimental, as Calasso termed it) society believes in something beside itself.”

TinkerbellThe question-and-answer session was remarkable. One questioner, after a long, adrenalin-fueled rap about neuroscience, asked Calasso if he “believed” in science. Is this, rather than society, truly the last superstition? I thought the whole point of the sciences is that they didn’t require faith or belief, but rather proof. Is it like Tinkerbell – you have to clap to show you believe, or Tinkerbell dies? I’ll take my superstitions without water, thank you very much. Oh well, clearly I’m out of touch with the spirit of the times.

Read Dwight’s whole post here.

A cause for celebration: it’s America’s name day!

November 5th, 2014


Blogging makes for some interesting penpals. Two years at about this time, I wrote about the Saint Imre in a post titled “America’s Birth Certificate” here.  The gist of the post was the 1507 map that first recognized “America” by name. It was, of course, in honor of its Florentine explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, the first explorer to decide that the Americas were not the eastern tip of Asia, but a whole different continent – or, put another way, he saw the Pacific as a separate body of water.

Ah … but there the story only begins. Where did the name “Amerigo” come from? It’s the Italian form of St. Emeric, to non-Hungarians, or Saint Imre, crown prince of Hungary, to those of us with Hungarian blood. He had taken a vow of chastity (that’s why he holds a lily; see left) and was a hero to newly converted Hungary. He was gored by a boar in a hunting mishap, and died in 1031 A.D. That’s what I wrote in my post.

Some time later I received an email from Sándor Balogh, who told me that there is a campaign afoot to make today a holiday (he’s written more on the subject here and here). After all, in many countries birthdays aren’t celebrated, but rather “name days” – that is, one celebrates the feast day of the saint one was named after (think of all those Tolstoy novels, if you don’t believe me). Balogh had more info on how the Italian explorer came to be named after a Hungarian saint. Apparently he was named after his grandfather, another Amerigo, but that just takes the question back two generations.

Here’s the missing link, showing the connection between the Italian Amerigo and the Hungarian Imre:

imre2Msgr. György Pap published in the December, 1968 issue of the Magyar Kultúra a photograph of the triptych of the main altar of the Settignano St. Martino, a Mensola chapel near Florence, which was painted in 1391.  On it can be seen a man, holding a white lily, the symbol of virginity, representing Amerigo D’Ungueria. I was later successful in obtaining a photograph of the altar-piece, thanks to Maria Prokopp, an art historian. This shows the Virgin Mary, with the baby Jesus on her arm, surrounded by two saints, with the patron of the chapel, the creator of the painting, Amerigo Zati, kneeling in front of her.

The inscription at the bottom of the picture in its entirety:



Thus it is obvious that the businessman inserted his own name-giver and patron-saint into the painting, so the connection between the names Amerigo and Imre (Emeric) is undeniable. The other saint, Guiliano, is the patron-saint of Amerigo Zati’s brother Julian.

From this it is clear that it was not the altar-piece that caused the name Amerigo to become widespread, but independently of this, the name had been used for a long time and it was well-known who Saint Imre was, at least in the environs of Florence, and so this explains the triptych.

That said, I like the original image of St. Imre I used two years ago, preferring its faded, Giotto-like austerity to this more gaudy Florentine one. I don’t know where this image came from, other than Wikipedia. I also like celebrating something besides Guy Fawkes‘ Day, the rather nasty ending of what may have been a government sting operation.

The idea of recognizing November 5 is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Mayor Kathy Sheehan of Albany has already made the leap, declaring November 5 to be Amerigo Vespucci Day in the city. And Balogh will be speaking there today. Read about it in the Times Union here.

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