The “future of the past” – and a small victory in Hannibal, Missouri

February 9th, 2016
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fisherfishkinTwo months ago, I wrote about Shelley Fisher Fishkin‘s newest book, Writing America, and her presentation at the Stanford University Libraries. Read about it here. She gave a great talk, and she revisits many of the same themes in “The Future of the Past,” in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. The Twain scholar makes a passionate argument for literature as a doorway to the past, and the necessity of understanding the past in the first place (not to be assumed as a “given,” nowadays).

An excerpt:

In hindsight, history often looks inevitable. But it rarely is. It is shaped by the choices individuals make as events are unfolding, by their distinctive perspectives and understandings of their world. Literature can help us enter into those moments when choices must be made and can help us grasp the consequences of those choices. Coming to terms with a past shaped by human actors, in all their messy complexity, can influence how our own words and actions shape the future.

And she returns to the subject of her talk in December, centering on Hannibal, Missouri, and her beloved Mark Twain:

huck_finn“An assignment I was given in high school prompted me to re-examine the past myself, and it changed my life: Write a paper on how  used irony to attack racism in Huckleberry Finn. That paper ignited a lifelong engagement with issues of race and racism in America’s past as well as with the work of Mark Twain.

“It led me, in Lighting Out for the Territory, to excoriate the powers-that-be in Hannibal, Mo., a town that runs on Twain tourism, for its failure to acknowledge the role of slavery and racism in its past and in Twain’s work, and for its erasure of African-American life in Hannibal during the century and a half after emancipation. Hannibal may have been keen about historic preservation, but the history it chose to preserve involved little white boys playing marbles, not little black boys sold from their mothers.

huckjim“Faye Dant, a fifth-generation Hannibal resident whose ancestors had been enslaved there, said that book, and my earlier book Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices, had inspired her to work to recover and preserve for future generations the history that the town had ignored. Her efforts culminated, in September 2013, with the grand opening of Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center. The black-history museum is now the first building visitors encounter when they turn off the highway en route to the Mark Twain Historic District.”

 

Read the whole thing here.

Wallace Stegner, Czesław Miłosz, and what they had to say to each other

February 7th, 2016
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Stegner got used to the barbs.

I discovered this offbeat and little-known treasure on Youtube – a rare treat for fans of American Pulitzer prizewinning author Wallace Stegner and Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. The interview was filmed sometime in the 1980s, and has less than 1,450 views to date.

It is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable “friendly” interviews I’ve ever watched, with only occasional flashes of smiles and laughter. The unedited raw footage comes to us via Stephen Fisher Productions – with the cameramen periodically stopping the filming, interjecting questions, and restarting with calls of “Rolling!” Stegner gamely keeps trying to draw Miłosz out, as they stand on a breezy hilltop in Berkeley’s Tilden Park. They both look like they’d rather be indoors.

A happenstance Californian.

A reluctant Californian

The topic at hand: the effect of landscape on a writer’s spirit. “I lived through rebellion against California landscape,” Miłosz admits in his heavy Polish accent. It’s a rebellion, he said, that lasted twenty years. (I write about Miłosz as a California poet here.) Stegner agrees that California “offends a lot of people by being so dry and barren and prickly. Everything in it has barbs.” Naturally, the subject of poet Robinson Jeffers comes up on a couple occasions.

Miłosz said he missed the “cosiness” of the Lithuanian valley where he grew up – when he wasn’t traipsing about the vast expanses of Russia with his family during pre-revolutionary years (his father was an engineer of the empire). Miłosz does say that he was intrigued by the number of species he found in California  – species of pines and birds and everything else. Plenty of jays in Europe, he said, but not so many as here. “I was intrigued by the essence of being a jay,” he said. Well we know what happened with that, with his poem “Magpiety.”

Watch it for yourself:

Leo Tolstoy: The Movie

February 5th, 2016
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tolstoyWe are still recovering from the Werner Herzog‘s visit to Stanford, and will have more to say on this later. My mode of recovery will be to go to the home of friends and watch End of the Tour again, a film that was greatly overlooked in this year’s round of film awards, despite Jason Segels top-notch performance.

What can I offer my readers? How about this short film clip of Leo Tolstoy, taken during his last days, before his death in 1910? At the age of 82, he made the unusual decision to leave his wife. Not content with traveling 26 hours to his sister Marya’s house in Sharmardino, where he had planned to retire to a small hut for his remaining days, he pushed on to the Caucasus, where he died at a train station at Astapovo.

Elif Batuman wrote about this curious demise over at Harper’s here. The topic came about during her Stanford years:

Once, when I was a graduate student, a paper of mine was accepted at the conference. At the time, my department awarded two kinds of travel grants: $1,000 for presenting a paper at an international conference or $2,500 for international field research. My needs clearly fell into the first category, but with an extra $1,500 on the line, I decided to have a go at writing a field-research proposal. Surely there was some mystery that could only be solved at Tolstoy’s house?

I rode my bicycle through blinding summer sunshine to the library and spent several hours shut up in my refrigerated, fluorescent-lit carrel, with a copy of Henri Troyat’s 700-page biography Tolstoy. I read with particular interest the final chapters, “Last Will and Testament” and “Flight.” Then I checked out a treatise on poisonous plants and skimmed through it outside at the coffee stand. Finally, I went back inside and plugged in my laptop.

“Tolstoy died in November 1910 at the provincial train station of Astapovo, under what can only be described as strange circumstances,” I typed. “But the strangeness of these circumstances was immediately assimilated into the broader context of Tolstoy’s life and work. After all, had anyone really expected the author of The Death of Ivan Ilyich to drop dead quietly, in some dark corner? And so a death was taken for granted that in fact merited closer examination.”

Read the rest here.

Film clip from the 1969 BBC series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark,

Werner Herzog tonight!

February 2nd, 2016
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First-ever major exhibition on Hemingway – and it even has his wartime “Dear John” letter.

January 30th, 2016
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Ernest Hemingway: Between Two wars. Entrance to the exhibit. Morgan Library & Museum. Jan/ 2016

Entrance to the exhibition. (Photograph: Zygmunt Malinowski)

From our roving New York City correspondent, photographer Zygmunt Malinowski filing from … Hawaii! You can read more of his posts here and here and here and here. Meanwhile:

When he was nineteen, young Ernest Hemingway enlisted as a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War I. Within a month, he was severely injured with shrapnel wounds to his legs. Notwithstanding his trauma, he helped other soldiers to safety first and so was awarded medal for bravery.

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In Milan, 1918. (Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

The story behind the exhibition “Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars” begins about then. His personal letters (including his 1920s Paris letters correspondence with Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sylvia Beach), partial drafts of manuscripts, first edition books, and photographs can be found at New York City’s Morgan Library and Museum, located near Grand Central Station. It is in the first major exhibition ever for Hemingway (1899–1961), one of the major American writers of the twentieth century.

The war was not all suffering. While convalescing in the hospital, he fell in love and became engaged. Nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, seven years his senior, was the daughter of Polish-Russian-German émigré. However, she broke off the engagement with a Dear John letter – and that, too, is featured in the exhibition.

The romantic setback was only one episode during his war experience. He left a more enduring record with his successful wartime short stories and novels, including Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway later wrote to Fitzgerald, who read and commented on some of his drafts: “war is best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.” And so it was with him.

The exhibition is a treasure trove of his written records, handwritten and printed, included in annotated notebooks, single pages, and letters. I felt I was standing over this literary giant’s shoulder, watching a work in progress (he received Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954). Some of his handwritten pages in pencil give the impression that he was in a hurry to jot down his thoughts – his quick and careless handwriting runs slantwise on unlined pages.

The exhibition includes the drafts of Farewell to Arms, in which he rewrote the ending again and again. During an interview George Plimpton asked him why he reconfigured the ending so many times. Hemingway replied: “To get the words right.”

The exhibition, organized in collaboration with John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Library in Boston, ends its New York run on Jan. 31, and then continues to Boston where it will reopen in the spring at the JFK museum. (Read about it in the lower lefthand corner here.)

Tibet’s Tenzin Seldon and the slow “silencing of our cause.”

January 27th, 2016
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Tenzin Seldon is now in Bangkok, working with the U.N.

Tenzin Seldon was Stanford’s first undergraduate from Dharmsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The recent Ozy article that calls her the Dalai Lama’s righthand woman overstates the case (she’s met him “more than 10 times”), but I knew when I met her that she would be a powerful spokeswoman for Tibet and the decades-long “silencing of our cause.” After a stint at Oxford, the 26-year-old is now in Bangkok, working with the U.N.

I didn’t know much about her backstory, however. Like so many Tibetans, it’s a somewhat chopped-up history:

From her apartment in Bangkok, Seldon tells me about her refugee-kid days. An Indian-born child, she first attended boarding schools on the subcontinent before finding herself in the U.S. as a preteen. Here, she encountered her mother, who’d left her in India a decade earlier. Seldon says she “never quite fit in” anywhere and “always felt confused.” …

Seldon’s father — who remained in India as the minister of education — took her to vigils and protests as a 5-year-old, before she could even spell “nonviolence.” She attended a small public school in Minnesota, moved to California in high school and then headed to a local community college for two years before starting at Stanford. Seldon has “the sensibilities of the West, of America,” says Tenzin Tethong, the president of the Dalai Lama Foundation and former prime minister of Tibet.

Chinese hackers have infiltrated her computer and intercepted her emails – that’s to be expected – but they aren’t slowing her down. That’s to be expected, too:

You can find Seldon’s version of the nation in dignified protest around the world: She’s gathered 100-plus Tibetan and Chinese students to debate censorship and suppression under the moderating hand of His Holiness himself; she speaks out at multilateral delegations. She appears as the young, fresh face of Tibet in documentaries. And, of course, at the endless protests in the U.S. and the U.K., which find her quietly presiding — no megaphones or pickets here.

Seldon’s is perhaps the most high-profile political marketing job in the world, grander than the work of an average press secretary — when you don’t have a physical country with borders to protect and defend, your job becomes defining those borders. For decades, the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government’s strategy has been a kind of public evangelism for the Tibetan cause. Their success depends on world leaders acceding to their pressure. And if you’re not self-immolating, the next most important task is to present a face of peace and tranquility as an unofficial diplomat of sorts.

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“Resolution, resolution!” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I met Tenzin during the visit of the Dalai Lama to Stanford back in 2010. She was organizing a private meeting with the Dalai Lama and Bay Area Chinese students and leaders. Here’s what I wrote then:

During his official Stanford events on Thursday, the Dalai Lama constantly stressed the importance of dialogue in resolving conflict – and he meant what he said.

At a late-afternoon private gathering at the Stanford Park Hotel, he spoke to nearly 100 Chinese university students from Stanford and Berkeley, as well as faculty, artists and a dozen Tibetan students from around the Bay Area.

Unlike his public talk at Maples Pavilion or the address to students in Memorial Church, this event was not sponsored by Stanford. The private event was organized by Tenzin Seldon, president of Stanford Friends of Tibet and the university’s first student from Dharamsala, where the spiritual leader’s government-in-exile is based. Seldon said of the Chinese students gathered in the courtyard, “These are the change-makers of the future.”

Perhaps the most moving query was by Fang Zheng, a wheelchair-bound young man who lost both his legs when he was crushed by tanks in Tiananmen Square. In a Chinese exchange that evoked applause and laughter, he asked the Tibetan leader where he anticipated meeting this year’s imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, the writer Liu Xiaobo. Tibet’s Nobel Peace laureate answered, to more laughter, that it was hard to anticipate the future, but the likeliest spot was Beijing.

His advice to those fighting for more freedom in China showed less levity and more steel: “Resolution, resolution – persist to the end.”

Read the article about Tenzin here.

An autographed copy of Canterbury Tales? I believe him.

January 24th, 2016
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Personal-library-of-Richard-A-Macksey

We’ve written about this library before, and the man behind it. Behold the 70,000-volume personal library of retired Humanities professor Richard Macksey of Johns Hopkins University. He has sometimes claimed that his collection includes an autographed copy of Canterbury Tales and a presentation copy of the Ten Commandments. Unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out. More demonstrably, he has Marcel Proust‘s copy of Swann’s Way, and many first editions of William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and others.

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At home.

Dick Macksey’s library is featured this week in Robaroundbooks’s “Bookshelf of the Week” here. In the combox, one former student, Bill Benzon, chimed in with a memory of his own: “I was a student of Macksey’s back in the 1960s and was in that library shortly after it was constructed (out of a garage). It wasn’t so cluttered then, but the shelves were full. Macksey was a film buff and would have people over to his place regularly to discuss films. He lived a couple blocks away from campus so it was easy to see a film on campus and then go over to Macksey’s for the discussion.”

Check out my own post from a few years ago, “He lived on three hours of sleep and pipe smoke” – here.

Their crime? Persian sonnets. Now they’ve escaped Iran.

January 22nd, 2016
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Two Iranian poets fled their country this week. Their crime? Persian sonnets. Iran is cracking down on freedom of expression – and the poets, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Moosavi, were facing floggings and long prison terms. According to the Associated Press:

Mousavi-Ekhtesari

Free at last.

Ekhtesari, a practicing obstetrician, told The Associated Press on Monday that both she and Mousavi, a trained doctor who teaches literature and poetry, escaped from Iran in recent days and made it to another country. She declined to elaborate out of continuing concerns about their safety.

Ekhtesari faced an 11½-year prison sentence, while Mousavi faced nine years on charges ranging from propaganda against the state to “insulting sanctities.” Each also was sentenced to 99 lashings for shaking hands with members of the opposite sex. They likely were targeted because their work is known abroad. Both are self-described “postmodern Ghazal” poets who seek to revive the traditional Persian love sonnet by applying it to contemporary political and social issues.

Hard-liners in the police, judiciary and military view any rapprochement with the West as a threat to the Islamic Republic and a sign of moral decay. That fear saw authorities arrest a group of young Iranian men and women in May 2014 for making a video, showing them dancing to Pharrell Williams‘ song “Happy.”

Those arrested more recently, rights groups and analysts say, serve as pawns in the hard-liners’ struggle with moderates ahead of February’s parliamentary elections.

Among those targeted are 19 reporters imprisoned in Iran, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a December survey, making the Islamic Republic the world’s third-worst jailer of journalists behind China and Egypt. Among the four Iranian-Americans freed in the swap this weekend was Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian. A fifth American held in Iran, student Matthew Trevithick, also was released.

The convictions in the two poets’ case were based on forced false confessions, a routine practice in Iran in politically motivated cases in which there is no evidence against the defendant.

iranpoets

Good luck to you both!

“These sentences show that repression in Iran is intensifying,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “Hardliners aren’t just going after political activists, they are determined to stamp out any social or cultural expression with which they disagree.”

The rights group recently learned that filmmaker Keywan Karimi was sentenced to 6 years in prison and 223 lashes on similar charges.

“The Iranian Judiciary is signaling it will brook no dissent, and appears intent to instill fear in the citizenry through these harsh sentences,” said Ghaemi. “Not only are the prosecutions of these poets a violation of Iran’s own laws and its international obligations regarding freedom of expression, lashing has been designated by the UN as tantamount to torture.”

(Photos courtesy International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.)

What was the most important moment in René Girard’s life? “Coming to America,” he said.

January 20th, 2016
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Rene Girard (1)

Outside the Stanford Faculty Club. (Photo: Ewa Domanska)

René Girard‘s biographer – that’s me – chats with blogger Artur Sebastian Rosman over at Cosmos the in Lost. We did the interview about the important French theorist and immortel of the Académie Française shortly after his death on November 4. I was pleased Artur decided to run it yesterday, on the day of René’s memorial service. Read the whole thing here. Excerpts below:

Artur Rosman: Were you familiar with Professor Girard’s theories before you met him? What did you think of them?

Cynthia Haven: His name was familiar to me as an important French theorist, but that was about all.

The more I learned and read, the more I was surprised that more hadn’t been written about him in the American mainstream media. After all, he’d made his home in the U.S. since 1947.

Many felt his ideas were abstruse and difficult. On the contrary, I found the ideas to be pretty straightforward, and not hard to explain – although some of the applications of his ideas, and the research he uses to support them from the fields of, say, anthropology, can be challenging. I began writing a series of articles about him. He told me afterwards that this was the first time ordinary people understood what he was doing, although I think he was being overly generous. He signed my copy of Mimesis and Theory, “To Cynthia, with all my thanks for her splendid contribution to my scholarly reputation.”

I find his ideas have enormous explanatory power not only for the world we see around us – but the world we find within us. People may question his reading of archaic societies or historical events, but the place to verify his theories is within oneself. We imitate each other. We are driven by competition and rivalry with the real or imagined “other.” We struggle to acquire status symbols, which we fantasize will make us more like the one we idolize . We join in Twitter mobs, or Facebook mobs, that castigate and vilify the person or group we think is responsible for all our ills, and whose elimination will bring peace at last. The Democrats. The Republicans. Donald Trump. …

I recently ran across this quote from René’s The Scapegoat: “Each person must ask what his relationship is to the scapegoat. I am not aware of my own, and I am persuaded that the same holds true for my readers. We only have legitimate enmities. And yet the entire universe swarms with scapegoats.” True for us all, still.

***

AR: What were the most formative experiences in Girard’s life? How did they shape his thought?

CH: I once asked René what the most pivotal experience of his life was, and he replied that the major events were in his head. That’s what everyone else said about him, too. However, events in our heads are put there by the things we see around us. Events in our head tend not to stay with us unless they explain what we see around us. Otherwise they’d be no use.

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Another important decision in his life: with his wife Martha outside his Stanford home.

I pressed harder, and he responded emphatically, “Coming to America.” That event in 1947, he said, made everything else possible. René is an American phenomenon, as much as a French one. Without America and the bigger vision it offered after the war, there would have been no books, no theories, and no academic career.

He had been trained as an archiviste-paléographe at one of France’s grandes écoles, the École des Chartes in Paris. It was the same school his father had attended. It was a training ground for archivists, librarians, paleographers. The suit didn’t exactly fit him. In the rigid French professional hierarchies at the time, the opportunities it provided were narrow.

And of course America led to other things. An exceptionally happy marriage, for example. Martha McCullough was in one of his first classes at Indiana University. The name stumped him midway through roll call. “I’ll never be able to pronounce this name,” he said. They met again a year or so later, when she was no longer his student. And he fixed the name problem for her in 1951, when they married. The stability and contentment of that 64-year marriage cannot be underestimated in supporting his very long, very fruitful career.

Let me add two more. Another formative experience was the “strange defeat” of France in 1940. Franco-German relations fascinated him throughout his life. It’s a straight line from the toy soldiers he played with as a child, reenacting the Battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo, to his final book, Battling to the End. Certainly the topic frequently recurred in my own talks with him. Clearly he was pondering the real nature of the struggle for much of his life. It would be the centerpiece in Battling to the End.

And finally, of course, his conversion experience. “Conversion experience” is a mysterious, much-misunderstood term. He didn’t say much about it – he said the subject was difficult to explain, and counterproductive to his work in advancing his mimetic theory. But one time he discussed it was in the book I mentioned earlier,When These Things Begin. Here’s what he said about that period in autumn 1958, when he was working on his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which discusses Cervantes, Proust, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky: “on the twelfth and last chapter that’s entitled ‘Conclusion.’ I was thinking about the analogies between religious experience and the experience of a novelist who discovers that he’s been consistently lying, lying for the benefit of his Ego, which in fact is made up of nothing but a thousand lies that have accumulated over a long period, sometimes built up over an entire lifetime.”

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Au revoir.

“I ended up understanding that I was going through an experience of the kind that I was describing. The religious symbolism was present in the novelists in embryonic form, but in my case it started to work all by itself and caught fire spontaneously. I could no longer have any illusions about what was happening to me, and I was thrown for a loop, because I was proud of being a skeptic. It was very hard for me to imagine myself going to church, praying, and so on. I was all puffed up, full of what the old catechisms used to call ‘human respect.’”

Read the whole thing here.

bookUpdate on 1/23: Some nice pick-up over at the World Literature Today blog hereWe’ve been longstanding friends with the eminent WLT – even before our profile of leading Polish poet Julia Hartwig. “Invisible, you reign over the visible: Julia Hartwig’s reality mysticism” was republished by the Milena Jesenská Blog here.

Memorial service and reception for René Girard on Tuesday, Jan. 19. Be there.

January 16th, 2016
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Martha and René Girard in 2008. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A memorial service will be held Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 2 p.m. in Stanford Memorial Church for the renowned French theorist René Girard, who died in November at age 91. We have written about him so many places on the Book Haven, it is hard to know where to begin, but you might try here and here and here and here. We’ve even written about the memorial service before, a month ago here. Consider this a final reminder.

Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Peter Thiel, and René’s son Martin Girard will be among those speaking at the service.

A reception will follow at the McCaw Hall at Arrillaga Alumni Center at 326 Galvez on the Stanford campus, from 3 to 5:30 p.m.

The renowned Stanford French professor was one of the 40 immortels of the prestigious Académie Française. René Girard joined the Stanford faculty in 1981.

He is the author of nearly thirty acclaimed books, including the provocative and seminal Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), Violence and the Sacred (1972), and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978). His last major work was Battling to the End (2007).

He died at his Stanford home on Nov. 4 at the age of 91, after long illness.

Read the full obituary here.

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Reception at the Alumni Center (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The Stanford Memorial Church is one of the easiest places to find on the Stanford campus – you can see it as you drive down the campus’s landmark Palm Drive. The century-old building has been called “the University’s architectural crown jewel.” The Arrillaga Alumni Center is a few minutes away on foot, and I’ve been promised there will be signage (plus a lot of other people heading in the same direction).

Arrive early to find parking. And bring an umbrella. It looks like rain.

 


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