Is our anger an addiction?

August 19th, 2017
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David’s “Wrath of Achilles” – but he doesn’t look nearly as angry as my friends.

Rage is contagious and addictive. I didn’t need the recent article in Time to tell me that. All you have to do is look at the social media, with all the shrill ridicule, the belligerent invective, the hectoring denunciation, the flared nostrils, the strong statements to one’s friends about how this or that cannot be tolerated, in the name of tolerance. These posts are immediately endorsed by other angry friends. No persuasion is occurring – it’s the far safer practice of preaching to the converted.

But the Time article about the (scientifically proven) nature of anger sure helps, and I hope it finds an audience. From Susanna Schrobsdorff’s “The Rage Flu: Why All This Anger Is Contagious and Making us Sick”:

Modern role model?

If we’re always ready for battle, any bit of breaking news can bolster the fear that things are out of control. And judging by the rise in violence at political rallies, some things are getting a bit out of control. But as Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, points out, our fears often don’t match actual risk. … “In a very fearful and tribalistic society, we run on emotion, which is the currency of social media. It’s emotive first,” says Levin. But all the sharing and venting we do has toxic side effects. One of those effects is the increased acceptability of crude or violent insults. They are now so commonplace that they fail to shock, whether they’re coming from the man in the Oval Office or a late-night comedian. And that ups the ante so that those trying get our attention have to go a little further each time.

Anger is particularly contagious on social media. Researchers at Beihang University in Beijing mapped four basic emotions in more than 70 million posts and found that anger is more influential than other emotions like sadness and joy–it spreads faster and more broadly. This is as much a physical phenomenon as a mental one. Anger gives us a burst of adrenaline and sparks a fight-or-flight response in our nervous system.

No wonder it feels as if the nation is a little sick. It’s as if we all have a virus and some of us are more vulnerable to it than others. That is in fact how some social scientists are describing the spread of rage and division. Violence and violent speech meet the criteria of disease, says Dr. Gary Slutkin, founder of Cure Violence and faculty of the University of Illinois, Chicago. Like a virus, violence makes more of itself. Rage begets more rage. And it spreads because we humans are wired to follow our peers.

The article was brought to my attention by a friend who lives in Charlottesville, John Murphy, who wrote: “As René Girard and others have pointed out, imitation leads to competition and competition leads to imitation. When we enter into tit-for-tat conflict with rage-filled people who say and do outrageous things, we end up eventually as rage-filled people who say and do outrageous things ourselves. It’s a moralistic arms race that can’t be won, with mutually assured self-destruction at the finish line.”

Schrobsdorff concludes:

More recently, big societal shifts, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage or the election of Donald Trump, have left segments of the population feeling profoundly destabilized. “People are experiencing a shock because they thought they knew who we are. Now they don’t. They think, Does that mean I don’t belong, or does it mean that I have to get rid of these other people?” says [author David] Berreby. “This becomes a big source of fear, and people get angry when they’re fearful.”

And if policy disagreements are described as existential threats to our identity, issues like immigration, climate change or GMO foods can feel like a clash of civilizations. Once it reaches that level, says Berreby, it’s no longer about the facts or the data. “It becomes a sacred conflict,” says Berreby. “If you don’t believe in this, then you’re not a good person.” Then it doesn’t matter what you say, no one’s changing camps. “At that point, it’s more important for you to stay with your team than it is for you to be persuaded,” says Berreby.

Tim

And therein may lie the problem. We don’t seem to have anyone capable of reminding us that we play for the same team.

One of the best antidotes is a poem by another friend, Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele.

It’s written in “sapphics,” named for the Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, 7th-6th century B.C.

Sapphics Against Anger

Angered, may I be near a glass of water;
May my first impulse be to think of Silence,
Its deities (who are they? do, in fact, they
Exist? etc.).

May I recall what Aristotle says of
The subject: to give vent to rage is not to
Release it but to be increasingly prone
To its incursions.

May I imagine being in the Inferno,
Hearing it asked: “Virgilio mio, who’s
That sulking with Achilles there?” and hearing
Virgil say: “Dante,

That fellow, at the slightest provocation,
Slammed phone receivers down, and waved his arms like
A madman. What Attila did to Europe,
What Genghis Khan did

To Asia, that poor dope did to his marriage.”
May I, that is, put learning to good purpose,
Mindful that melancholy is a sin, though
Stylish at present.

Better than rage is the post-dinner quiet,
The sink’s warm turbulence, the streaming platters,
The suds rehearsing down the drain in spirals
In the last rinsing.

For what is, after all, the good life save that
Conducted thoughtfully, and what is passion
If not the holiest of powers, sustaining
Only if mastered.

The dangerous ideas of Hans Abendroth

August 17th, 2017
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Ryan Ruby: exploring dark places

A month ago, I received a package from Berlin with a note from Ryan Ruby, author of The Zero and the One. Our point of connection was the French theorist René Girard: “In a pivotal scene, one character discusses an interpretation of DostoevskyDemons in terms that were largely influenced by Girard’s reading of that book in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.” According to the book jacket, Ruby’s novel about a friendship at Oxford that takes a dark turn, and considers “the power of dangerous ideas.” From the book itself:

From the earliest days of our friendship, Zach and I sought out philosophers whose names would never have appeared on the reading lists we received before the beginning of each term. To our tutors, such thinkers did not merit serious consideration. Our tutors were training us to weigh evidence, parse logic, and refuse counter-examples; they encouraged us to but more stock in the rule than the exception and to put our trust in modest truths that could be easily verified and plainly expressed. Whereas the philosophers who interested us were the ones who would step right to the edge of the abyss – and jump to conclusions; the ones who wagered their sanity when they spun the wheel of thought; the ones, in short, who wrote in blood. In counter-intuitiveness we saw profundity and in obfuscation, poetry. With wide eyes, we plucked paperback after paperback from the shelves at Reservoir, the used bookshop opposite the entrance to Christ Church Meadow, our own personal Nag Hammadi, hunting for insights into the hermetic nature of the universe and ourselves.

I used to frequent that bookshop, though my visits were too brief to consider the place a hotbed of a “dangerous ideas.” And I’m not sure that René’s ideas can be considered “dangerous” ones – we’ll see what you think next spring when my Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is out with Michigan State University Press. But Hans Abendroth?

The Zero and the One was widely (and positively) reviewed, but one of its perhaps unexpected consequences is that Ruby has singlehandedly rescued Hans Abendroth from obscurity – at least in the English-speaking world, and if the German google is to be believed, pretty much any other. The German philosopher’s words are included as epigraphs to each chapter.

Not surprisingly, then, the foremost article on the subject (at least in Google rankings) is Paris Review piece by Ryan Ruby himself. Abendroth, born in Frankfurt in 1909, was among the students of Martin Heidegger, part of a cohort that included Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Löwith, and Hans Jonas. He moved to Berlin in 1935, participated in a research group at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, where he translated a German edition of the Akhmim Codex, a recently discovered 5th century Gnostic manuscript. He taught Greek philosophy, early Christian theology, and Hellenistic literature at the University of Berlin.

He retired early in 1949, and wrote the only book he published, The Zero and the One (Null und Eins). It was widely criticized for “quietism and irrationalism,” but found a fan in Paris, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. According to Ruby: “An unsystematic collection of aphorisms in the style of Nietzsche, Cioran, and the later WittgensteinNull und Eins contains reflections on a diverse number of subjects, from the philosophy of mathematics to the ethics of suicide. Obviously marked by Abendroth’s study of Gnosticism, The Zero and the One was critical of religion, but also of secular attempts to replace God with nature; it was particularly hostile to all forms of morality, politics, and economics that justified themselves in terms of materialist accounts of the human. Abendroth’s was a truly “tragic sense of life”: to him, the problems of morality and politics were intractable. The preservation of human freedom did not depend on solving these problems but to escape them entirely by fleeing into thought.”

Abendroth was something of a recluse in a quiet corner of Berlin, and died in 2001. Ruby writes: “according to the obituary written for Die Zeit by his publisher and executor Wilhelm von Nothung, Abendroth had continued his philosophical work in the decades of his absence from public life. In fact, he had left behind a sizeable Nachlaß, including what appeared at first glance to be the notes for a several-hundred page metaphysical treatise. Unfortunately, von Nothung himself died shortly thereafter; the existence of the treatise he alluded to cannot be confirmed because the whereabouts of Abendroth’s papers remains unknown.”

I can find no photo of him online, nor any image of his book. A few of his thoughts from the book and Paris Review piece:

WORD MADE FLESH.— The relationship between thought and language is the relationship between a wound and its scar.

FREEDOM TO, FREEDOM FROM, FREEDOM FOR.– The use people make of their freedom is the best argument against allowing them to have any.

ET IN ARCADIA EGO.— It’s a terrible thing, at any age, to be able to point to some period of your past and say, Those were the best days of my life. For it means that when you divide what is to come by what has already been, the remainder will be the same decimal repeating repeating repeating to infinity. Happiness, when ill timed, can maim a life just as thoroughly as sorrow.

SELF-CONJUGATION.— Living for today, living in the moment: the wisdom of fools. A man must at every moment be able to conjugate himself in every tense—past, present, and future, but also subjunctive and conditional. There is only one moment when it is appropriate to live entirely in the present tense.

THE CRIMINAL AND HIS AUDIENCE.–Not only is every great crime a secret confession, but the most exquisite pleasure of committing a crime ultimately lies in getting caught. Only a true ascetic would deny himself this pleasure by actually getting away with it.

MALE FRIENDSHIP.–The shortest distance between the hearts of two men is the body of a woman.

NOSTALGIA FOR THE FUTURE.— There will come a time when we will be nostalgic for the future, that is, for how we used to think the future would look.

A WARNING TO THE CRITICS OF HUMANISM.— The two ideas that will survive the dissolution of the concept of the human are races and robots.

METAPHYSICAL CONFLICT.— It is in the metaphysical interests of the young not to identify with one’s actions but to remain protean, able to ceaselessly revise oneself, without worrying overmuch about the frequency of one’s revisions, nor of any consistency between them, to think of oneself in terms of what one has not yet done and could yet do rather than what one has already done and can never undo. At some point, however, the young realize that should it continue too long, this indetermination will leave them, when they come to die, undefined, with nothing to call their own, nothing to call themselves. So they come to identify with what they have done, they begin to say, This is who I am instead of This is who I will be. With each such identification they carve a wrinkle into the undifferentiated smoothness of their brows. They become old. And it is in the metaphysical interests of the old, who are, after all, closer to the moment of defining dissolution, to protect themselves—and their selves—against the youthful siege of ceaseless revision by drawing continuities between one’s revisions, which still occur, if at a slower rate and more laboriously than before, and insisting that all revisions are vetted by the logic of consistency. The old are not wiser than the young because they have experienced both youth and age; wisdom is merely the name given to the sense of self that is required to defend the interests of age. As with all metaphysical battles, all are defeated when either party wins.

Warsaw poet Julia Fiedorczuk and “the only solid ground for empathy”

August 15th, 2017
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“The vulnerability of bodies” (Photo: Radek Kobierski)

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Yesterday was the anniversary of Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz‘s death. What better way to celebrate his legacy than to note the influence he’s had on a younger generation?

In his later years, the Polish maestro worked on translating the Psalms into Polish – he even taught himself Hebrew for the task. The result became a classic in the Polish language. And the endeavor bore fruit in his own poetry. His last poems are redolent with the cadences of the Psalms, along with their timeless spirit of grief and hope.

His psalms, and the effort to recreate them, have inspired others – notably the Warsaw poet Julia Fiedorczuk. “I gradually started studying the Hebrew originals with the help of a friend who knows Hebrew. I also looked at other translations into Polish – many Polish poets have translated the Psalms.”

“I’m attracted to Psalms because they express an attitude of gratitude and trust, even though some of them are written from the depth of despair,” she wrote me. “It is a desperate moment for the world right now, and in my Psalms I focus on contemporary problems. I also attempt to articulate a kind of post-religious metaphysics rooted in the experience of the vulnerability of bodies (human and non-human), which I believe to be the only solid ground for empathy.”

“My Psalms do relate to the originals, some very loosely, some a bit more closely. Sometimes they contain quotes (the Polish versions will allude to Miłosz’s versions). My Psalm 25 is a kind of ‘translation.’ Sometimes the allusion is only thematic, sometimes there is irony and distance (where Psalms of David glorify violence and anthropocentrism). It is an on-going experiment and I have no idea where it will take me.”

Psalm 31 was my favorite among the ones I’ve seen. Now it’s included in her new collection in English, Oxygen (translated by the inestimable Bill Johnston), published by Zephyr Press. The connection with its majestic prototype is indeed loose – it’s more a meditation on it. I see the homage, however, in the “mesh of branches,” which recalls the fourth verse of the psalm: “Pull me out of the net that they have laid privily for me: for thou art my strength.”

 

Psalm XXXI

for K.K.

a chickadee had perched on the windowsill like a message
generated by the mist, October
was turning into November in the birches oaks alders,
in the frost-resistant flowers, in the cemeteries
where our fathers wrote no memoirs,
where they would not recognize our children, our
poems, ourselves. The television was showing Poland
that had perished, and then had not perished, and then
again had perished, and then not, and then the sun
flung up a mesh of branches, all at once
the chickadee was absorbed by sky before I could say
remember, remember me –

Trans. Bill Johnston

Bengt Jangfeldt and the bad boy of Russian poetry

August 12th, 2017
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She picked up the pieces. Lili Brik and Mayakovsky in happier times, 1915.

Bengt Jangfeldt wrote me a note to say he will be coming to town this autumn on Stanford-related business. We’re lucky to have him. The leading Swedish author, twice a winner of the August Prize and also a recipient of the Swedish Academy’s biography prize (and also a dear friend), is the author of biographies of Axel Munthe: The Road to San Michele (2003), Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Biography (2007), and also Язык есть Бог [Language is God], a biography of Joseph Brodsky (2010), and The Hero of Budapest: The Triumph and Tragedy of Raoul Wallenberg (2012). He is also the editor of Love is the Heart of Everything: Correspondence Between Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lili Brik 1915-1930. He is the Swedish translator the poetry of Mayakovsky (with Gunnar Harding), as well as the poetry and prose of Osip Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky.

Master biographer

In anticipation of the visit from one of my favorite people, I wondered how his book on Mayakovsky, poet of the Russian Revolution, had fared since he gave me a copy in Stockholm last year. (I discussed his talk about it here.) To my surprise, I ran across “The Bad Boy of Russian Poetry” in the New York Review of Bookswritten by yet another friend, Michael Scammell:

When Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide on April 14, 1930, the news sent shock waves through the Soviet Union. Ilya Ehrenburg, who knew of Mayakovsky’s notorious gambling habit, thought he might have been playing Russian roulette with his beloved Mauser pistol and lost his bet. But Mayakovsky’s suicide note, written two days before his death, suggested otherwise. Asking his mother and sisters to forgive him and sardonically asking for there to be no gossip (“the deceased hated gossip”), Mayakovsky had appended a few lines from an unfinished poem:

The game, as they say,
Is over.
The love-boat has come to grief
On the reefs of convention.
Life and I are quits
And there’s no point
In nursing grievances.

The word “love-boat” suggested romantic reasons, but also created a mystery, for Mayakovsky’s tangled love life was mostly unknown to the general public. At the time of his death he was simultaneously involved with three different women: his longtime mistress, Lili Brik, with whom he had spent most of his adult life in a bohemian ménage à trois (together with her husband, Osip Brik), but who was just then involved with a movie director; Tatyana Yakovleva, a striking young White Russian whom Mayakovsky had met in Paris and asked to marry him, but who had just married a Frenchman instead; and Veronika Polonskaya, a sultry young stage actress, also married, to whom he had also proposed marriage. Emotionally he was a wreck, and his death might have been precipitated by his relations with any one of his paramours.

But that wasn’t the only mystery. In the tightly controlled Soviet Union, suicide was seen as a crime and an act of defiance, an assertion of personal freedom that contradicted the image of the state as a workers’ paradise. Why would someone as famous and popular as Mayakovsky have killed himself, even under provocation? What most of his readers didn’t know was that for the first time since the October Revolution, Mayakovsky was seriously disaffected. Stalin had started to purge his regime of “Trotskyists” and other perceived enemies, and two recent satirical plays of Mayakovsky, The Bedbug and The Bathhouse, had aroused official anger with their frank criticisms of government leaders and corrupt bureaucrats. His enemies whispered that he, too, was a secret Trotskyist and an elitist, out of touch with his proletarian base.

He was already being shadowed by the OGPU (the secret police), and its agents swarmed through his apartment the moment his death became known. They had long since penetrated Mayakovsky’s inner circle. Osip Brik had been an agent of the secret police in the early 1920s and he and Lili still maintained close contact with them; and the official death notice was signed by no fewer than three secret agents, in addition to a couple of Mayakovsky’s literary allies.

Michael Scammell and I had met, briefly and intermittently, during my years in London, where I volunteered my humble editorial services at the journal where he was editor and founder, Index on Censorship. He was already a bigshot and, as I recall, already working on his biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. We’ve corresponded in the years since.

He doesn’t stint on the passages about an important source for the Bengt’s book, the legendary Lili Brik herself:

Solzhenitsyn’s biographer

Jangfeldt introduces her in chapter two of his book, and she almost runs away with it, in part because she is such an arresting character herself. “I saw right away that Volodya was a poet of genius,” Jangdfeldt quotes her as saying in her unpublished autobiography,

but I didn’t like him. I didn’t like loud-mouthed people…. I didn’t like the fact that he was so big that people turned to look at him in the street, I didn’t like the fact that he listened to his own voice, I didn’t even like his name—Mayakovsky—so noisy and so like a pseudonym, vulgar one at that.

Nevertheless, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Lili would have an affair with the brawny young poet. When told about it, Brik allegedly said, “How could you refuse anything to that man!” But this was more serious than her earlier liaisons. Mayakovsky was an enormously persistent and demanding (and jealous) lover … Lili was happy to sleep with Mayakovsky, but held him at a certain length for nearly three years before suggesting he move in with herself and Osip, an arrangement that lasted on and off for the rest of his life. Meanwhile she lost no time in persuading her protégé to cut his hair and throw away his yellow blouse. She arranged for a dentist to make new teeth for him and bought him fancy new clothes to wear, so that he began to look more like an English dandy than the bohemian of old (though remaining just as wild in temperament).

I’ll likely be writing more about Lili Brik, one of Russia’s great literary widows – we have another mutual friend, Ellendea Proffer. The NYRB review concludes: “Jangfeldt devotes several chapters to his last agonizing months, tracking the events of his last fateful week day by day, until the poet concluded there was no other way to resolve both his emotional and his political dilemmas. Jangfeldt marshals the huge variety of sources he has amassed to create a gripping account of the poet’s tumultuous life and tragic death. …  this book restores Mayakovsky to his rightful place in the pantheon of Russian letters and does him full justice.” Read the whole thing here.

A very cold August in Stockholm: Bengt, Humble Moi, Alexander Deriev, and Igor Pomerantsev (Photo: Liana Pomerantsev)

August 12th, 2017
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California poet laureate Dana Gioia vowed to visit every county: 14 more to go!

August 11th, 2017
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When Dana Gioia became California poet laureate a year ago this week, he vowed to visit all 58 counties of California during his tenure. From my own emails and conversations with him, I know that’s taken a lot of miles – out of him as well as his car. But he’s done it. Or is close to doing it. He’s visited 44 of California’s 58 counties. Only 14 to go in his second year. What will he do then? He’ll start all over again. Why? He replied, “because it is important to visit the large counties several times to reach different communities.”

“Los Angeles County has nearly 10 million people. That requires lots of events. The same goes for the Bay Area. When I was asked to read a poem at the Memorial Day ceremony at the Presidio’s National Cemetery, I immediately accepted because the gathering served a different audience from the venues I had already visited in San Francisco,” he said in a California Arts Council interview. “I also knew that poetry was important for the troops, veterans, and families on such a solemn occasion.”

Obviously, he hasn’t just been catering to the big cities. I attended his event last spring in Nevada County, which held it’s first-ever poetry festival, where he gave a terrific talk, one of his best:

At first-ever Sierra Poetry Festival. (Photo: Radu Sava)

“We bear a certain kind of spiritual wisdom,” he said. “It’s something that happened to all of us. We saw and experienced, at a really very early age, the transformation that beauty affords. We encountered things that changed who we were.”

“You have this beauty, which leads to joy, which becomes wisdom, which becomes a kind of helpful humility about what you can possess, and where and what you are. That has happened to everyone in this room repeatedly. Once you experience that, you want more. You will bring yourself at great expense and great difficulty” to those places that provide such occasions, whether Yosemite, the National Gallery of Art, or a small poetry celebration in the Sierra Foothills.

“It awakens you to the full possibilities of your own humanity,” he said. “What we are sold by society are generic, prepackaged versions of what our lives should be and how we should experience them– and what it’s going to cost us to have those predictable experiences,” he said. “Apple, Amazon, Netflex: they don’t want beauty, they want to own beauty. They ‘like’ art, they want to own art – and turn it into entertainment.”

“They want to take all the unknowns and pre-package them, and sell them as a predictable product that they can own as a kind of property. We’re rather helpless and hopeless in front of this enormous global power which is trying to narrow and define our lives in ways that are not the way we want to live. It’s not the kind of mystery that has to unfold unpredictably and personally,” he said. “Joy is something I cannot own.”

“We don’t lead global lives. We don’t lead generic lives.”

Well, read the whole thing here.

But let’s go back to the California Arts Council interview: “We got big audiences in the smallest towns. There was also a wonderful mix of people. There were, of course, the local poets, musicians, and teachers we expected. But we also got mayors, ranchers, shopkeepers, accountants, almond farmers, veterans and veterinarians. The ages ranged from newborn to near centenarians.”

From an interview with the California Arts Council:

You’re a native Californian. Having traveled to some lesser known and less populated parts of the state, have you gained new perspective on the state and what it means to be a Californian?

Absolutely! I thought I knew the state pretty well, but these trips have been a continuous discovery. I now realize how little I knew about the eastern half of the state, especially up in the Sierra Nevadas. Those counties are not only spectacularly beautiful, they are also central to the state’s history. There were also a lot of towns I knew only from driving through them on the way to somewhere else. How different it is to meet local people and spend a day or two there.

I just finished spending two weeks with BBC, which is doing a documentary on the statewide tour. I asked that the show only be partially about me. I wanted it to be mostly about the California that the British don’t know—the mountains, the Central Valley, the desert, and the north coast.

One last question, just for fun. If you were hosting an intimate dinner party, and could invite any three people, living or dead, who would they be, and why?

Honestly, I’d invite my mom, my dad, and my late Uncle Ted, because I miss them. But if I had to exclude family, I’d ask William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Oscar Wilde. I’d open up a bottle of good California wine and then listen to the conversation.

And we’d join him. Make it a BYOB. Meanwhile, read the whole interview here. Congratulations, Dana!

See? Almost everybody is reading Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René Girard

August 9th, 2017
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From Dwight Green on Facebook, with his son Nate:

Nate: “So according to René Girard, a great work of art is possible through an author’s existential downfall. How does that work again?”

Me: “I think Cynthia Haven at The Book Haven goes into more detail. Let’s see what she says…”

You, too, can find out about the author’s existential downfall, and how it comes about. Get your own copy of Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René GirardOrder it here. And stay tuned for my magnum opus, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, out next spring with Michigan State University Press.

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Thoreau on his bicentennial: did a “truer American” ever exist?

August 8th, 2017
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One of two photos we have of him, from 1856

When Henry David Thoreau was near death, a friend at his bedside asked, “You seem so near the dark river, that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” Thoreau’s reply: “One world at a time.”

And what a world it was. According to Robert Pogue Harrison, writing in the current New York Review of Books,  “Thoreau was almost superhumanly awake to the flora and fauna of his surrounding environment.” Trees, turtles, huckleberries, or wildflowers would send him into ecstasies.

Robert’s article, “The True American,” reviews ten – that’s right, ten – new books on Thoreau during the Saint of Walden Pond’s bicentennial year. The title of the article borrows from Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s funeral eulogy that “no truer American existed.” But the word “true” requires some parsing. According to Robert:

These days the question of what it means to be a “true” American resists rational analysis. Whatever one can say about Americans that is true, the opposite is equally true. We are the most godless and most religious, the most puritanical and most libertine, the most charitable and most heartless of societies. We espouse the maxim “that government is best which governs least,” yet look to government to address our every problem. Our environmental conscientiousness is outmatched only by our environmental recklessness. We are outlaws obsessed by the rule of law, individualists devoted to communitarian values, a nation of fat people with anorexic standards of beauty. The only things we love more than nature’s wilderness are our cars, malls, and digital technology. The paradoxes of the American psyche go back at least as far as our Declaration of Independence, in which slave owners proclaimed that all men are endowed by their creator with an unalienable right to liberty.

Another contradiction then: Thoreau was ethereal and sensual, unworldly and deeply incarnate – “we occupy the heaven of the gods without knowing it,” he claimed. “I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound,” Thoreau wrote in his journal. “Daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!… Contact! Contact!

Elsewhere, “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” And the dawn is right here, right now. At least potentially. Thoreau declares: “Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.”

Robert concludes:

Robert Harrison hosting “Entitled Opinions” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Among Americans nothing has more authority than facts. Of course the contrary is also true (a quarter of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth; more than three quarters believe there is indisputable evidence that aliens have visited our planet). Is it true that we crave reality? Yes, but we crave irreality just as much if not more. Our addiction to our television, computer, and cell phone screens confirms as much. As for death, it does not seem that today we have a knack for concluding our mortal careers “happily.” …

The other equally important lesson is how to touch the hard matter of the world, how to see the world again in its full range of detail, diversity, and infinite reach. Nothing has suffered greater impoverishment in our era than our ability to see the visible world. It has become increasingly invisible to us as we succumb to the sorcery of our digital screens. It will take the likes of Henry David Thoreau, the most keen-sighted American of all, to teach us how to discover America again and see it for what it is.

Read the whole thing here. It’s terrific.

Starving writers: you are not alone! Here’s Edna St. Vincent Millay’s letter to her editor.

August 6th, 2017
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Starving writers: you are not alone! Have you ever wondered how to plea with your editor for payment tout de suite? American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay did it the classy way. Here’s her letter for an advance from the editor of Poetry magazine, in 1918 – about the time the photo above was taken. (And if you’d like to see her rather fancy shoes, try here. and if you’d like to hear about her plummy vowels, try here.)

Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson on Derek Walcott: “West Indian literature had arrived on two words.”

August 4th, 2017
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“’Blown canes.’ Those were his first words to mark me,” recalls the Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson in the current New York Times Book ReviewHe continues:

“Like any true discovery, they came tangled in myth. I was about 16, a sixth former at Titchfield, my high school on a peninsula in Port Antonio, a town on the northeastern coast of Jamaica. Almost daily, for my last thing after school, I went to the town’s library. Once inside, I was at sea, isolated, but not alone.”

Son of Jamaica

The myth of evening: porous light aslant a single bookshelf labeled West Indian Literature. Was it new? I had never, impossibly, seen it before. I picked up the first book at hand, the soft-covered, fading Caribbean Writers Series Heinemann of Derek Walcott’s “Selected Poetry,” edited by Wayne Brown, a Trinidadian poet and critic. I opened to the lines, “Where you are rigidly anchored, / the groundswell of blue foothills, the blown canes.” A sort of force triggered in me at “blown canes” that fogged my eyes. I stood, rigidly anchored. West Indian literature had arrived on two words.

With a backlog of work on my desk, Hutchison’s tribute for the Nobel poet of Saint Lucia, who died last March, struck a familiar chord. In moments  of panic, hurry, confusion, and deadlines, I often think of the beauty of the Caribbean, and my long absence from its white sand and sapphire sea, and the dead quiet of a long empty coastline of Ocho Rios I remember.

Hutchinson eventually got to know the poet whose lines that mesmerized him as a teenager. He quotes a dozen lines from Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight,” then adds:

Son of Saint Lucia

The lines are not the most famous. Yet I hear in them the sonic, somber complement to the credo Walcott makes in his Nobel lecture: “Poetry is an island that breaks away from the main.” The vernacular of the lines shelters me into a manifold self. It is the cadence of experience that performs the gathering, a healing, to use a line from “The Bounty,” of “our blown tribes dispersing over the islands.”

Blown tribes. Schoolchildren in uniform, market people, the posh dignitaries, friends from distant countries, daughters, granddaughters, even the wandering tourists — they were all there, the disparate tribes all gathered on the day of his funeral. Where else? Everywhere else. In every nook of private homes pierced by his poetry.

Read the whole thing here.


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