Roberto Calasso’s Ardor: the Vedas, the mind, and the “inescapable role of violence”

December 21st, 2014
Share
Calasso2

Super-compressed cores exerting an unseen unifying gravitation…

Roberto Calasso, one of Europe’s leading intellectuals and founder of Italy’s premier publishing house, Adelphi, frequently mentioned the Vedas was he was in town last month (I wrote about his visit here). No surprise, since the ancient Sanskrit texts have held a long held a fascination for him. Its verses and hymns are also the subject of his most recent book Ardor, which is reviewed by Pankaj Mishra in today’s New York Times Book Review and by Steven Donoghue in Open Letters Monthly. Donoghue offers a warning:

This author’s books are rhetorical equivalents of gas giants: their nominal subjects are the super-compressed cores exerting an unseen unifying gravitation, and the author’s enormous erudition, wide reading, and kitten-like distractibility form the layers and layers of roiling, chaotic, atmosphere extending for huge distances in all directions around the core. Outside the farthest reaches of that atmosphere, in the hard vacuum of space, wait the critics, their laser canons primed and ready – for the simple reason that Calasso’s scattershot, sometimes hysterical, and (kudos to [translator Richard] Dixon) frequently untranslatable scholarly woolgathering fails as often as it succeeds in, to further the planetary analogy, supporting life.

Calasso tosses Talleyrand and Tiepolo, Proust and Prajapati into his polymathic salad, along with many, many others (Kafka, for example). His guiding preoccupations: “the power and sovereignty of the mind and its relationship to the world, the basis of political and social order and the inescapable role of violence.”

An excerpt from Mishra’s review:

The Vedic Indians did not build great empires or monuments. Rather they sought an intense “state of awareness” that “became the pivot around which turned thousands and thousands of meticulously codified ritual acts.” Calasso is aware that most of his readers would regard the ritual of sacrifice as barbarous. But he sees in this contemporary recoiling an uneasy confession: that “this world of today is detached from and, at the same time, dependent on all that has preceded it.” Sacrifice was the means to acknowledge and contain violence through religious ritual and practice. But secular society with its frenzied worship of the new gods of money and power still consumes many victims without being aware of its sacrificial nature.

Calasso’s prose … demands familiarity with a very different intellectual tradition than the one manifest today in the pieties of radical, liberal and conservative thought. It assumes that the modern world can no longer explain its extraordinary violence and disorder in its own terms, and that we ought to understand the supposedly primitive customs and institutions, such as sacrifice, that linger invisibly in even postmodern societies.

ardor-coverOne of Calasso’s many interlocutors in Ardor is the religious anthropologist René Girard, who believes that mimetic desire — the desire to own what others possess — or envy, rather than transcendental authority, now underpins social order in secularized societies. But the mutual hatred and possibility of an “all against all” war it seeds is still defused by periodic scapegoating, the identification of internal or external enemies, whose violent suppression releases the tension built up by frustrated desire and unappeasable envy.

As Calasso sees it, modern warfare cannot rid itself, even despite a sophisticated machinery of killing and high death tolls, of the “lexical legacy of sacrifice,” which now includes words like “victim, self-denial, consecration, redemption, trial by fire.” The closing pages of Ardor echo the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen’s belief that “the submission of the individual to society — to the people — to humanity — to the idea — is a continuation of human sacrifice.” This has been continuously reflected in the catastrophic programs of social re-engineering from imperialism’s civilizing missions to Stalin and Mao’s socialist utopianism, and the more recent attempt to bomb whole countries into democracy, or shock-therapy them into free-market capitalism.

Today, the nation-states of Asia and Africa re-enact, in their pursuit of Western-­style modernity, human sacrifice on a vast scale and more pathological form. Calasso anticipates his reader wondering, “What can be the relevance of all we read in the Veda?” He is right to answer that such “microphysics of the mind” can bring about an “abrupt and disorientating shift of perspective” and, perhaps, snap us out of both naïve reverence for and smug disenchantment with the modern world. It is “now high time,” Goethe wrote in the early 19th century, “to envisage a humane global philosophy with no regard for nationality and creed.” Ardor outlines, in its own quirky way, that long-overdue and genuine intellectual cosmopolitanism.

Read the whole thing here. Or check out the Open Letters Monthly piece here. Or both.

Wigilia, Part II: Small favors yield big payoffs

December 19th, 2014
Share

IMG_20141219_191456

Several days ago, I received word that a big package was waiting for me at the Stanford English Department, Priority Mail. I couldn’t imagine what it was, except more unrequested books from publishers when I can’t even get to the requested ones. I didn’t get back to campus to collect the package till today.

Imagine my surprise when it contained the second installment of the Wigilia season! I had done a small research errand at the Stanford Libraries for one of my favorite medievalists, Jeff Sypeck, blogger at Quid Plura – something to do with a big, obscure tome in German.

becoming-charlemagne-coverThis was his small seasonal way of saying “Danke!” To which I return with a “Dziękuję”! Jeff had apparently read my Wigilia post (it’s here), and headed for his neighborhood Polish shop in Washington, D.C., I can’t help but think this is destiny calling me to do another book about Polish literature. (My most recent one, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, I’ve written about here and here and here and here – endlessly, really.)

Jeff will be familiar to Book Haven readers as an occasional correspondent, and also the author of a book on Charlemagne, and another book, a short collection of witty poems on the unusual subject of gargoyles, to benefit the restoration of National Cathedral in D.C., where he strolls through the gardens on his walks (more about that here). The book is available on Amazon here (a great holiday gift!) – or pick one up in the National Cathedral gift shop, if you’re in D.C.

lookingup-coverI put my Polish cache on my Warsaw tablecloth above. The thing about Polish, is that it’s not too hard to figure out if you have a few pronunciation keys: “czekoladki marcepanowe” is chocolate marzipan. “Jabłko z cynamonem” is cinnamon tea. All but the heavily initiated will be lost with “borowików,” which is a porcini mushroom, but the “koncentrat” with the photo shows that this may be a good addition to a mushroom lasagna. Meanwhile, I have a zillion Christmas cookies to make tonight, so…

The packages will wait long past Wigilia, for the annual family Twelfth Night gathering at my house – though I did cheat with the marzipan, for which I have a pronounced weakness. No Shakespeare this year, but perhaps we could read a poem or two. We might start with the lines on the card from Jeff, from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s “Christmas Bells”:

The world revolved from night to day,
.   A voice, a chime,
.   A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

.

Wigilia, or, how to have a Polish Christmas

December 16th, 2014
Share
wigilia

Bells and beads and little Polish flags. Photo and centerpiece courtesy Caria Tomczykowska.

I tried doing Wigilia on my own a few years back – but it’s not for the faint-hearted. There are a dozen courses in the traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal, which is largely vegetarian (they don’t count fish, apparently; as a vegetarian, I do). I thought it was time I went to the experts, so I accepted a Wigilia invitation from Caria Tomczykowska of the Polish Arts and Culture Foundation last weekend in Walnut Creek.  With about fifty happy Poles, or Polish wannabes, we had course after course, including creamed herring, cheese pierogi and sauerkraut and potato pierogi, barszcz with uszka, a dried fruit compote, and a poppyseed roll. That’s all I can remember – except for more fish.  Oh yes, and a California Chardonnay … Stag’s Leap, I think … and vodka.

oplatki

We’ll have to practice, Maureen.

That was just the beginning … or rather, the beginning was earlier before we even sat down. A traditional Wigilia begins with the youngest child in the household being sent outside to spot the first star. Then it begins – with opłatki. We skipped the kid (the star came out anyway, on its own) and moved directly to the opłatki. According to Sarah Zielinski on NPR, writing about opłatki here:

Nothing says “I love you,” at least in my Polish-American family, quite like the sharing of a thin, flat, tasteless wafer called an opłatek at Christmas.

We’re not alone. Before sitting down to Christmas Eve dinner, many families with roots in Poland and other Eastern European countries will take part in this tradition, which has roots dating back hundreds of years.

“For us, Polish Americans, the opłatek, that wafer, is Christmas Eve,” says Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, author of the book Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore

At the start of dinner, just after grace, the male head of the household takes the wafer and expresses his hopes for his wife in the new year. He might wish her good health, or ask for forgiveness for some fault.

milosz

He loved them, too.

“My father used to say, ‘OK, I’m not the best, but I’ll try harder,’ ” Knab says. “My mother would always say, ‘You work so hard and I appreciate you for that.’ “

The wife breaks off a piece of the opłatek and eats it. She then reciprocates the good wishes and shares the wafer with her husband. And the ceremonial sharing of wafer and good wishes continues with older relatives, guests and children, starting with the oldest.

“The sharing of this unleavened bread with another person is sharing all that is good with life,” says Knab. “It’s a time to tell each other, ‘I love you, I care about you.’ And you do it in an open area, where everyone else can see you.”

legs3According to one of my dinner companions, the charming Maureen Mroczek Morris, Americans don’t know how to do it right. We just break off a piece, smile, and say, “Merry Christmas!” Like we’re in a forced gift exchange at the office. We don’t get all warm and squishy, or even very sincere. In Poland, she says, it’s a very moving experience. Well, I had no one to ask forgiveness of, since I was surrounded by strangers. Perhaps I should have asked Maureen to forgive me, for being so Americanski. (She is Californian born and reared, so she’d understand.)

pierogi2And of course there were Christmas carols – and Polish Christmas carols really are lovely. Czesław Miłosz fostered my enthusiasm, ending his book A Year of the Hunter with a story about attending the Pastorałka: “Without a doubt, Polish carols possess a particular charm, freshness, sincerity, good humor, that simply cannot be found in such proportions in any other Christmas songs, and perhaps one ought to look at them for the essence of Polish poetry,” he wrote. “My susceptibility to that performance can be explained by my having listened to carols from childhood, but also because only the theater has such an impact, appealing to what is most our own, most deeply rooted in the rhythms of our language.” More on that here. Or watch the short clip below of a “Bóg sie rodzi,” a mazurka, which is to say a Polish folk dance in triple meter.

And there was a little poetry, too. I was asked to read Miłosz’s “Winter” – I had to read it from Caria’s smartphone, but I brought the inspiration with me. After all, I was wearing my amazing Miłosz legs. I wrote about them here.

To each and everyone, “Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia!”

Vasily Grossman recalls a bleak Christmas in wartime Russia

December 13th, 2014
Share

nyrbSara Kramer of the NYRB Classics dropped me a line yesterday to let me know that my submission for “A Different Stripe” had worked its way to the top of the “Coffee and Classics” stack (that must be some backlog; it’s been five months); see it online here. (And send your own submissions to this address.) The book I featured is Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate. Helen Pinkerton sent us a mini-review here, calling it “possibly the greatest novel I have ever read”. The wartime book was judged so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only the manuscript but the ribbons on which it had been typed were confiscated by the the state. Many readers are coming to share Helen’s opinion about its greatness. Author Martin Amis, for example, said that “Vasily Grossman is the Tolstoy of the U.S.S.R.”

Meanwhile, the submission gave Sara a chance to reread the bleak Christmas scenes from the book:

The soldiers … dragged another crate up to the stove, prised open the lid with their bayonets and began taking out tiny Christmas trees wrapped in cellophane. Each tree, only a few inches long, was decorated with gold tinsel, beads and tiny fruit-drops.

The general watched as the soldiers unwrapped the cellophane, then beckoned the lieutenant towards him and mumbled a few words in his ear. The lieutenant announced in a loud voice:

“The lieutenant-general would like you to know that this Christmas present from Germany was flown in by a pilot who was mortally wounded over Stalingrad itself. The plane landed in Pitomnik and he was found dead in the cabin.”

—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, translated by Robert Chandler

Bob Calfee: remembering each kid is a miracle, every minute

December 12th, 2014
Share
calfee

“Big picture” kind of guy

I arrived a half-hour late to master-educator’s Robert Calfee‘s memorial service on Dec. 6, thanks to a perennially confused sense of direction (I wrote about the Stanford professor who died in October here). As I entered, Prof. Roger Bruning of University of Nebraska was just beginning his eulogy. I pulled out my notebook and began scribbling – although it was somewhat distracting to see familiar School of Education faces from, in some cases, three decades ago. Educators from all over the country sat in the pews, many of them trained by Bob.

“Bob was always ahead of his time,” Roger said, and praised his “humility and respect for what other people knew.” I can certainly testify to the latter; I wish I had Bob’s ability to listen.

“Bob knew an awfully lot about a very large number of things. His career began in experimental psychology, and the first page of his vita shows publication of sophisticated studies of animal learning, mathematical learning models, and methods for analyzing research data,” said Roger. “Bob didn’t lack for understanding of the craft of psychological research. Very soon, though, Bob’s vita shows his true loves emerging—language, literacy, teaching, learning—topics that would engage him throughout his career.”

Here’s what I didn’t know … or didn’t remember: Stanford psychologist Gordon Bower described how Bob loved fixing stuff – he had repaired jet engines in the air force. Apparently, he had rewired a number of Stanford offices.

The Presbyterian minister who presided over the memorial, Mark Goodman-Morris spoke of the miracle of giving baptisms, looking down at each infant he held (even the weeping ones), and sensing a whole undiscovered world glowing in each of the new faces, and the sense of lightness and profundity that realization gave him. “Bob understood the blessing that comes with children,” he said, and Bob certainly seemed to keep the sense of wonder. I remember that, too. He always seemed thrilled to be around schoolkids. All of them.

Here are a few of Roger’s remarks:

“Bob never lost sight of his mission—making classrooms and schools better. Bob once told me that a quick check of whether things were going well in a classroom is to walk up to any student and ask a couple of questions— one, ‘what are you working on?’ and two, ‘why are you learning that?’ If the student could tell you both of these, Bob said, that was a good sign. It meant that they not only understood what they were learning but what it was for.”

“From Bob’s perspective, effective classrooms students are using their thinking and language skills to do meaningful work. They will be talking, reading, writing, discussing, changing their minds, creating new products, revising them. Bob worried a lot about our current emphasis on narrow-gauge testing, seeing it potentially damaging to these kinds of productive classroom processes.”

 ***

calfee1

Never lost the wonder. (Photo: Ed Souza)

“Bob’s professional life clearly was a labor of love, leading him to delve very deeply into things. Many folks are interested in phonics instruction and so was he, but Bob could get excited and love to share intricacies of what he knew about things like the Great Vowel Shift in English that started around 1400 and which is why we now say ‘boat’ instead of ‘boot’ and ‘foot’ instead of ‘foose.’”

“Bob also understood that alphabets like the Roman one couldn’t be neatly pasted on another language like English, which make some pine for a more ‘regular’ alphabet. He understood how successions of rulers, clans, clergy, and civil administrators all left their mark on the English we speak today. He knew that languages and things having to do with them were…well… complicated. But he also knew that complicated things can be understood. It’s like carving a turkey, he said, in one of his favorite illustrations. If you just start carving, you’ll end up with hash. But if you know where the joints are—if you can see the hidden framework, the big picture—you can do a beautiful job.”

teach“Bob did ‘big picture’ work and the world is the better for it. He didn’t need to ask us what to do. He just did what he knew needed to be done—using his understanding of language, literacy, teaching, and learning to create schools and classrooms where students love learning.”

***

Oh, and here’s one of the best parts: one of the professors attending the event said the book I coauthored with Bob, Teach Our Children Well (Portable Stanford, 1995), is “a classic.” That’s it. “A classic.”

 

Swedish author Jangfeldt: Russia must deal with its past to face its future.

December 9th, 2014
Share
bengt

Biographer Bengt

Bengt Jangfeldt – the eminent Swedish author of recent books on Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, World War II Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg, and Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky – talks to Russia about Russians in a great interview for Novaya Gazeta a week ago here. We’ve written about Bengt before here and here and here. The only problem is: the new interview is in Russian. With trepidation, I offer a translation of a few excerpts below:

***

“Friendship with China – it’s perfect for Russia, but … this is not the past of Russian culture nor its future. Russia and the West have  interconnected cultural values. This relationship is inevitable.”

***

jangfeldt“Russia, unlike in Germany, did not deal with its past. Wallenberg is just one of the many victims of the Stalinist terror and the Soviet regime. To understand this fact today is not very easy: the archives are still not readily available, and because of this, these books are always relevant. I think that Russia will have difficulty moving forward without such proceedings. It’s like a stone that pulls downward. For example, the recent history with ‘Memorial’ suggests that this problem still affects the life of the country.”

***

“I once had a conversation with Brodsky about Russia, we often talked about it. It was in the 90s. And Brodsky made the following statement: ‘Do not underestimate the inferiority complex of my former fellow citizens.’”

***

Mayakovsky_1929

He took the bait.

Jangfeldt: “To take one striking example of his [Mayakovsky's] life, when he changed his attitude to the Soviet regime and the Soviet regime to him. It happened in the winter of 1922, when Lenin said of his poem ‘Prozasedavshiesya’: ‘As for poetry, I do not know, but from a political point of view, it’s good’ – and Mayakovsky was very happy. It would be impossible for us. If someone said to me: ‘You know, the Prime Minister is very fond of your book, and so now we are going to print large runs of it’ – that would be terrible!

Inteviewer: Why is that awful?

Jangfeldt: Because he should not play any role either in my life or in the life of the publisher.”

***

Read the rest – either in Russian or with Google Translate – here. (And a hat tip to Andrius Katilius for the article.)

He broke shit.

December 6th, 2014
Share
Chris_Hughes

The 31-year-old owner of TNR

He wanted to “break shit.”

And so he did. Now everyone knows what Guy Vidra meant when he referred to himself as a “wartime CEO” at The New Republic and what, exactly, he wanted to break:  The New Republic is not likely to recover from the sacking of top editor Franklin Foer and literary editor Leon Wiesieltier, followed within hours by the resignations of Ryan Lizza, Adam Kirsch, Julia Ioffe, and six more of the dozen editors, with contributing editors Anne Applebaum, Paul Berman, , Helen Vendler, and others asking to be dropped from the masthead – altogether 55 exoduses, at last count. The debacle was accompanied by lamentations all across the political spectrum, for although the New Republic has a reputation as a “progressive” magazine, it was one of the few that gave a podium to intelligent voices of all ideological ilk, a truly needed service in an increasingly acrimonious and divisive society.

The New Republic is moving to New York, although it will continue to maintain a Washington, D.C., office. It will also cut its publication frequency in half, publishing just 10 print issues a year. Vidra’s announcement of the changes was thick with jargon and clichés: “re-imagining The New Republic as a vertically integrated digital media company,” among them. Vidra, formerly general manager of Yahoo News, has the support of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who acquired TNR in 2012 at the age of 28. They both talk about about “content” and “platforms” and “brands,” and have taken the magazine in a more clearly ideological direction, designed to boost page views.

wieseltier

Wieseltier … gone.

“Assuming Chris really does plan to dumb it down in the name of clicks, what’s maddening is the way he has betrayed the premise on which he bought it. It’s like buying a historic Victorian mansion with the promise of preserving it — and then carving it into condos two years later,” one former longtime TNR staffer told Politico. “I hope Chris realizes how much intellectual firepower he’s losing here — and how hard it is to fake intellectual substance,” the former staffer said. “It makes no sense to publish clickbait under the TNR name (again, if that’s really his plan), you might as well just build a new thing from scratch.”

At this point, saving TNR will not be done by will alone. It takes more than ideology and snark to produce something that endures. You cannot buy gravitas, any more than you can buy reputation. What’s missing is what Czesław Miłosz used to call “piety” – a feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature – or perhaps what Susan Sontag called “an education of the heart.”

It has less to do with education and more with a certain amount of living, suffering, patience, tenacity, endurance, wisdom, and the willingness to pay, pay, pay (and I don’t mean with cash). My concern is that people such as Hughes and Vidra have no idea what it means to be caretakers of a century-old literary institution. It would take them a good deal of effort to get to the cultural level they already think they inhabit. Meanwhile, people being imitative creatures, the cheesy values spread and will accelerate a rush to the bottom.

Our culture is being taken over by children. While the young have always given the heave-ho to their elders, usually the elders held the purse-strings. The world has never been short of wealthy, arrogant youth, of course, but usually it was inherited, and depended on parental approval and generosity. With our technological era, the checks and balances are gone: an unimaginable wealth has shifted to kids who understand the weight and price of many things, but the value of nothing. A younger generation tests the limits, because historically, the guardrails have held. They don’t always. If you’re old enough, you’ve seen that, too.

juvenescenceRight now I’m reading Robert Pogue Harrison‘s Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age,” but before I began reading, my eye caught this passage in the epilogue:

“This is also why I believe that our juvenescent age is not just another stage of cultural development in the unfolding of modern civilization but represents a momentous, yet chaotic event in the evolution of humanity itself. The future that this event holds in store for us is one that remains incomprehensible from the perspective of the cultural history that precedes it. That future may well be upon us already, for as each day passes our present confounds historical understanding. If wisdom serves to create a living memory by synthesizing past and present with a view to the future, wisdom in our age has been thrown for a loss.”

Some have challenged whether this is a notable juncture in America’s cultural and literary history: Clive Crook over at the Bloomberg View writes in “Without the New Republic, I have No Reason to Live“: “You might say, the New Republic was a great and storied title. Why buy it in order to destroy it? Yes, in its day, it was indeed an indispensable magazine, but that was a long time ago. It’s years since it was required reading, even for people (such as myself) who are paid to take an interest in the things it writes about. Fact is, very little any longer is required reading: Choices have expanded in such a way as to make that idea anachronistic.

“It’s no act of disrespect to the achievements of the past to change – or even to shut down, if it comes to that – a publication that’s lost its way. Even if money doesn’t come into it, titles ought to be living things, not monuments to what they were. The same goes, only more so, for writers and editors.”

And there is a truth in that point of view, too. But I sense many people waiting in the wings to break things. Not so many who know how to put them together again.

The president of forgetting

December 4th, 2014
Share
kundera

Milan Kundera remembers, anyway.

“If Franz Kafka was the prophet of a world without memory, Gustáv Husák is its creator. After T.G. Masaryk, who is known as the liberator-president (all his monuments without exception have been demolished) … Husák, the seventh president of my country, is known as the president of forgetting.

“The Russians brought him into power in 1969. Not since 1621 has the history of the Czech people experienced such a massacre of culture and thought. Everybody everywhere assumes that Husák simply tracked down his political opponents. In fact, however, the struggle with the political opposition was merely an excuse, a welcome opportunity the Russians took to use their intermediary for something more substantial.

“I find it highly significant in this connection that Husák dismissed some 145 Czech historians from universities and research institutes. (Rumor has it that for each of them – secretly, as in a fairy tale – a new monument to Lenin sprang up.) One of those historians, my all but blind friend Milan Hübl, came to visit me one day in 1971 in my tiny apartment on Bartolomejska Street. We looked out the window at the spires of the Castle and were sad.

Gustáv_Husák_-_oříznuto

That’s him. The prez.

“‘The first step in liquidating a people,’ said Hübl, ‘is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.’

‘What about language?’

‘Why would anyone bother to take it from us? It will soon be a matter of folklore and die a natural death.’

Was that hyperbole dictated by utter despair?

Or is it true that a nation cannot cross a desert of organized forgetting?

None of us knows what will be. One thing, however, is certain: in moments of clairvoyance the Czech nation can glimpse its own death at close range. Not as an accomplished fact, not as the inevitable future, but as a perfectly concrete possibility. Its death is at its side.”

– From Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

St Charles Bridge Prague

“We looked out the window at the spires of the Castle and were sad.” (Photo: Jorge Royan)

 

 

The man who was “the soul of the Czech nation”

December 1st, 2014
Share

havel5In an era that is so cynical about its politicians and leaders, it’s nice to know that Václav Havel even existed (we’ve written about him here and here). So we can be grateful to a new biography by Michael Žantovsky, Havel’s former press secretary, advisor, and longtime friend, for reminding us in his new biography Havel: A Life. Publishers Weekly called it “a vivid and intimate biography of the playwright-turned-statesman who came to embody the soul of the Czech nation.” The review continues:

“Though Žantovský claims to have relied on his “dispassionate notes” and training as a clinical psychologist while writing, the unfettered access he enjoyed to Havel during his presidency’s most eventful years undoubtedly accounts for much of the book’s insight into his personality—equal parts self-doubt, stubbornness, and vision. After covering Havel’s riches-to-rags childhood (his family lost its wealth in the 1948 Communist takeover, when Havel was 12 years old) the book focuses on his achievements as a dissident, highlighting the qualities that made him the ideal person to peacefully negotiate an end to Communist rule during the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Žantovský evokes the heady excitement of Havel’s early days as Czechoslovakia’s first popularly elected president, assembling a government of fellow artists and philosophers and pursuing a “continent-wide” agenda to bring his country back into Western Europe. Žantovský lends a more impartial eye to Havel’s subsequent 10-year term as president of the newly formed Czech Republic, when he was no longer at Havel’s side, and to the travails of his last years. This moving, perceptive chronicle succeeds in showing the many dimensions of a towering 20th-century figure.

It also gets high marks in an article by Daniel Johnson in the current issue of Standpoint (hat tip to Dave Lull for this), who remembers the Velvet Revolution:

It happened because Havel understood that those who overthrow a system have a responsibility to prove that they are morally superior to those they have ousted. He was magnanimous in victory: “Those who have for many years engaged in a violent and bloody vengefulness against their opponents are now afraid of us. They should rest easy. We are not like them.”

For journalists who were there — watching and listening to the street theatre in Wenceslas Square, or taking notes at the press conferences held by the Civic Forum in an actual theatre, the Magic Lantern — the pathos of Havel’s performance was unforgettable. Nobody else — not even Alexander Dubček, who had seen the Prague Spring crushed by Russian tanks 20 years before, and who also stood on the balcony in the square — could have brought this drama to its climax. Havel was the Bohemian who personified la Bohème.

Revolutions are often betrayed and end in blood. Since 1989, we have seen the use and abuse of people power many times — most recently in the Arab Spring. Yet the Velvet Revolution remains as an unsurpassed model of peaceful change.

How did Havel do it? Tension had been rising since the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9. On November 17, 1989, the riot police crushed a demonstration in Prague and a student was (falsely) reported killed. Three days later, having set up the “Civic Forum”, Havel appeared before a sea of 150,000 people in Wenceslas Square. Once he had drawn a critical mass of people to the square, the old fear of the secret police vanished. The atmosphere was festive, never menacing, with speakers appealing to the crowds, who answered spontaneously but in unison. They dared to mock Miloš Jakeš, the general secretary of the Communist Party, who had hitherto been a much-feared bogeyman. “Miloš, it’s over,” they chanted.

And it was. Four days later, Jakeš and the rest of the party leadership fell on their swords and resigned. I recall the mood in Wenceslas Square when the news was announced. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth, but the French Revolution was violent from the start. What happened in Prague in 1989 was nothing like Paris in 1789. The peaceful vigils in Wenceslas Square could not have been more different from the storming of the Bastille, let alone the Terror.

Read the whole thing here. And below, Wenceslas Square, just because I love it and miss it and want to go back. (Photo: Andreas Praefcke)

WenceslasSquare

 

Why the world needs proofreaders

November 28th, 2014
Share

An unusually candid assessment appeared in the journal Ethology recently:

.
.

Gabor-paper

.

Read more about how this particular gaffe happened (along with a few other doozies) over at Slate here. The author got 4,247 retweets with this goof – probably more attention than the original article received.

.

.


Next Series of Posts >>>