Archive for June, 2011

Happy 100th birthday, Czesław Miłosz!

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

“The River Neman, not far from its mouth on the Baltic Sea, is fed by several smaller tributaries flowing from the north, out of the very heart of the peninsula. It was on the banks of one of these tributaries, the Niewiaża, that all my adventures began…”

Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz (6/30/1911-8/14/2004), Native Realm

I had the great good fortune in May to visit Czesław Miłosz's birthplace in the rural Lithuanian village of Šeteniai. And yes, it is as idyllic as he said it was. I took this photo with my Droid on the former family estate, overlooking the river. The fishers called out to ask if we had permission to photograph them. Yes, one of us shouted back, there was a journalist in the group. They laughed, thinking it was a joke.

Quick! Steve Silberman needs help. Authors please advise.

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011


Steve Silberman just signed a book contract.  That’s the good news.  The bad news:  “It’s one thing to work up a 4000-word magazine feature and another to sit down and write a 100,000-word book,” he wrote.

Silberman said he was “scared out of my wits that the two decades of journalism that have led up to this project have not prepared me to write a good book. I wake up at 3 a.m. staring into the darkness, wondering if I’ll have the skills, discipline, and inner resources to pull it off.”

The obvious answer:  write another article.  And he’s done it, on PLoS Blogs here.

He asked 23 fellow writers a question: “What do you wish you’d known about the process of writing a book that you didn’t know before you did it?”

From John Tarrant:  “Ideas don’t come from anywhere identifiable, so I’ve come to trust that they will be given. This is along the lines of not whipping the donkey.”

Seth Mnookin wrote:  “I tried, not always successfully, to start each day with some discrete goal I wanted to accomplish: write 200 words, or get through a certain amount of research, or conduct two interviews, or whatever. If I set out to spend a day “writing,” that would be so overwhelming I’d end up just farting around online all day instead of starting the climb the mountain.”

I liked three from Cory Doctorow:

·  “Write when the book sucks and it isn’t going anywhere. Just keep writing. It doesn’t suck. Your conscious is having a panic attack because it doesn’t believe your subconscious knows what it’s doing.”

·  “Stop in the middle of a sentence, leaving a rough edge for you to start from the next day — that way, you can write three or five words without being “creative” and before you know it, you’re writing.”

· “Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement.”

Basil Wasik offered praised outlines:  “This is a basic piece of advice, but it can’t be overstated when you’re trying to go from magazine-length to book-length writing: hone your outline and then cling to it as a lifeline. You can adjust it in mid-stream, but don’t try to just write your way into a better structure: think about the right structure and then write to it. Your outline will get you through those periods when you can’t possibly imagining ever finishing the damn thing — at those times, your outline will let you see it as a sequence of manageable 1,000 word sections.”

And this one, from Paula Span, is actually true: “You already know what you need to know to do this.  The fact is, my 60,000-plus-word book was pretty much like writing 8 to 10 long-form pieces.  I didn’t do it differently, in terms of research or writing or rewriting.  My existing skills were perfectly adequate to the task; yours will be too.  It took me 2.5 years but then, I was teaching and freelancing at the same time; had I focused solely on the book, it probably would’ve taken 18 months.  So you will make your deadline, even if your book is longer and more complex.

Finally, from August Kleinzahler:  “When my self-disgust reaches critical mass I seem to be ready to go.”

Read the rest here.

And if any of you authors have some thoughts to add, I’d love to hear them.

Bei Dao: “Each language keeps the secret code of a culture”

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Reading at St. Catherine's Church, Kraków (Photo: Droid)

In an early poem, Bei Dao wrote, “freedom is nothing but the distance/between the hunter and the hunted.”

All too true, as he soon found out.

Protesters once shouted his poems in Tiananmen Square, and after his exile (he had been in Berlin during the 1989 uprising), he continued to write in Scandinavia, the U.S., and France.  He now teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, since the government allowed his return to the PRC a few years ago.

At last month’s Czesław Miłosz Festival in Kraków, he participated in a panel called “Place of Birth” with Lithuanian Egidijus Aleksandravičius, English Timothy Garton Ash, and Polish Irena Grudzińska Gross, hosted by Italian Francesco Cataluccio.  Although some of the estrangements from native realms were more voluntary than others, the team discussed their sense of displacement from homeland.

But the most haunting words of the evening belonged to Bei Dao:  “It’s mysterious. Why do we think about birthplace, mother tongue, the origin of life?” he asked.  And then he gave his answer.

“Each language keeps the secret code of a culture,” he said.

“China is unified by a written language,” he said.  “The local accent keeps their secret, keeps their code.”  That’s what he cherishes, and that is what the world is most at risk of losing.

His words returned to me today as I read an unusually eloquent McClatchy Newspapers article, “Silenced Voices,” by Tim Johnson:

Some linguists say that languages are disappearing at the rate of two a month. Half of the world’s remaining 7,000 or so languages may be gone by the end of this century, pushed into disuse by English, Spanish and other dominating languages.The die-off has parallels to the extinction of animals. The death of a language, linguists say, robs humanity of ideas, belief systems and knowledge of the natural world. Languages are repositories of human experience that have evolved over centuries, even millennia.

“Languages are definitely more endangered than species, and are going extinct at a faster rate,” said K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and the author of the book When Languages Die. “There are many hundreds of languages that have fewer than 50 speakers.”

Language is an invisible triumph of humanity, and its disappearance brings only silence.”It’s not as flashy as a pyramid, but it represents enormous human achievement in terms of the thought and effort that went into it,” said Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist at Indiana University…

Miłosz knew this:  This is why Miłosz wrote in Polish throughout his 40 years of exile in California, said the Chinese poet.

In 1999 at Stanford (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Bei Dao was born in 1949 in Beijing.  “As Chairman Mao declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China from the rostrum in Tiananmen Square, I was lying in my cradle no more than a housand yards away. My fate seems to have been intertwined with China ever since,” he wrote in the festival’s 100-page companion book. “I received a privileged, but brief, education. I was a student at the best high school in Beijing, until the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966.  All the schools were closed, and three years later I was assigned to work in the state-run construction industry.”

In those harsh circumstances, at the age of 20, the young construction worker began to write at a site in the mountains more than 200 miles from Beijing.

During the conference session, he recalled visiting his dying father in a brief respite from exile, but Beijing was a disappointment:  “It was not my city anymore.”

“The Chinese people do not know how to rebuild,” he said, praising the preservation of Venice and Florence.  The Chinese, by contrast, “build like Las Vegas – very, very ugly buildings.”

Left to right: Francesco Cataluccio, Bei Dao, Timothy Garton Ash, Egidijus Aleksandravičius, Irena Grudzińska Gross (Photo: my Droid)

“We were drawn by the concept of progress from the West and from Marxism.  Progress became the canon for Chinese people. There was more attention on GDP and new buildings.  Materialism and consumption destroyed Chinese culture.”

At Stanford over a decade ago, he remarked, “I don’t have a motherland now.”

“Someone recently said to me that I am like a man to whom the whole world has become a foreign country, and I like that.”

But things change, in our heads as well as in the world.

Detroit, the notorious city of my birth, is now as much a gutted ruin if it had been destroyed by enemy mayhem – which in a sense it had been.  And as some of the speakers mourned their lost homes, I wondered if they were actually mourning the passage of time as much as they were exile and upheaval.

Political exile is poignant, but disguises a more inexorable reality: We are exiles in time as well as in space.  Both are excruciatingly transient.

Eavan Boland’s new book: “her brilliance justifies the journey”

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

I’ve only met the eminent Irish poet Eavan Boland a handful of times, but we have one unexpected thing in common:  both our books – her A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet and my  An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz – were named in Publisher’s Weekly top ten books for the spring, in the “Belles Lettres and Reflections” category.  (You can read my euphoria here.)

I was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement in May, and on June 10, so was she.  High praise from Abigail Deutsch:

“Delightfully surprising critiques spring from her analysis. The bland poet Speranza, Boland writes, subjected her poems to a ‘word-bath of acid, in which details and subtleties are dissolved”. Of Charlotte Mew, Boland notes: ‘There is a sort of salt and spray about reading Mew for the first time: her poems are not like anything else’. This formulation conveys the reader’s proximity to something at once thrilling and perhaps threatening. Boland has a rare gift for providing critical evaluations so compressed and illustrative that they approach poetry themselves.

That control sometimes slips. Boland takes a roundabout route through this volume; before introducing her ideas, she will often explain why we might dismiss them and point out why we shouldn’t. Her terms can be vague, and her organization tortuous. She loops about the concept of the ‘domestic poem’, for instance, several times. But when she finally homes in – using the concept of the sublime to explain the disparagement of the domestic – her brilliance justifies the journey.”

A Poetry Foundation interview with Eavan, “Of Antibiotics and iPods,” is here.

Meeting cyber-friends in Kraków: George Gömöri and Miłosz’s “Antigone”

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

Working on an edited volume is a lonely business.  One’s “relationships” with contributors are often no more than characters on a screen, as you work through the cycles of cyber-fights and cyber-calms, editing and proofreading back and forth in what passes for “together” online.

Inevitably, I developed imaginary pictures of the objects of my ether-relationships while working on An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.  For example, I imagined my Hungarian contributor, George Gömöri of Cambridge, as a slightly crotchety curmudgeon, set in his ways and writing on an antique Mac with an enlarged screen for the sight-impaired (with a thick Hungarian accent). Nothing in his writing style or our correspondence suggested such a portrait, it was cut out of whole cloth, probably based on something as random as someone from my distant past with a similar name.

Travel always brings surprises, and one of mine on my trip to Kraków in May was meeting contributor George, the author of many books on Polish and Hungarian literature (Miłosz maintained there is a particular affinity between the two peoples), at the Jagiellonian University conference where we both spoke.  He was hardly a creaky recluse. He was charming, good looking, and cosmopolitan (with a pronounced English accent).  And he had a lovely wife, Mari, by his side – she is the dedicatee, it turns out, of many of his poems.

He also had a letter in the most recent Times Literary Supplement, which now I read through his wit and affability:

A Hungarian traveller

Sir, – Julian Evans mentions a Hungarian traveller, in his review of three books about travel (June 3), whose “erudition” according to him “is not to be trusted”, for he mixed up Cambridge (Cantabrigia in Latin) with Canterbury (Cantuaria). This error was made by Márton Szepsi Csombor, the author of the first great Hungarian travelogue, Europica varietas, who visited London in May 1618 and whose description of most foreign lands is usually accurate and rich in verifiable detail. Mixing up the Latin names of two towns in England does not mean that Szepsi Csombor was not erudite. He had certainly wanted to visit, as he puts it, “the famous academy where Whitaker and Perkins taught” and when, reaching Canterbury, he realized his mistake, the only reason why he did not make his way back to Cambridge was his lack of money – he found England too costly for his purse. Yet some weeks later, our Hungarian spent a whole day at the Sorbonne, listening to an immensely long academic discussion in Latin and enjoying it fully. Perhaps his erudition was after all in better shape than his finances.

Darwin College, Cambridge.

Anyway, one of the pleasures of An Invisible Rope was the chance to publish George’s (and Richard Berengarten‘s) translation of Miłosz’s “Antigone,”  that had not appeared in previous collections in English, but was published in The Hungarian Quarterly in 2001:

To accept what happens just as one accepts
Seasons piling pell-mell on one another,
And on our human world to cast the same
Indifference as on mute Nature’s transformations?
So long as I shall breathe I shall say—No.
Do you hear me, Ismene? I shall say—No.

That passage, as well as this one, are vintage Miłosz, touching on themes haunting his poetry:

Fools alone believe they can live easy
By relegating Memory to the past.
Fools alone believe one city falling
Will bring no judgement down on other cities.

Meanwhile, my clumsy Droid photos above right – they are among my first, taken in the the Miłosz Pavilion set up in Szczepanski Square. But you get an idea of the hustle and bustle of the setting – you can see better photos of it here.

Orwell Watch #11: One man’s lonely war against cliché

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

“The internet is not destroying the language after all, then, but giving us new ways of shaming its most prominent practitioners into using it better. Let us set politicians a quiz. What are guarantees always made from? Cast iron. And with what are their bottoms made? Copper. And what are they not worth? The paper they are written on. (Or, alternatively, the paper that they are not written on.) For whom do politicians speak? The silent majority. Or hard-working families. Especially the ones who work hard and play by the rules.

Well, it turns out that the silent majority want to read and hear fresh, clear and original language. So go to and nominate your suggestions for inclusion. I’d say we should crowd-source this project, but I’ve put crowd-source and project on the Banned List.”

A man after my own heart (whoops! another one!)

These are the … dare I say it? … fighting words from John Rentoul of the Independent, and I’ve just discovered his cliché column.

The phrases that make him grind his teeth don’t necessarily make me grind mine – apparently, “any time soon” is the one kicked him over the edge – but he’s fingered “progressive” as an empty bit of self-congratulation, a charge that earned me some brickbats when I wrote about it here.  But how did he miss “heads up”?  Or “take responsibility for” when referring to those who will do nothing of the kind (I wrote about that one here)?

From the top 100  (check them out for yourself here:

1. Celebrating diversity.
2. Inclusive.
3. Black hole (in a financial context).
4. The elephant in the room.
5. Perfect storm.
6. IMO, IMHO, LOL, ROFL and so on. I mean, whose opinion is it going to be? Genuinely witty abbreviations, however, are permitted, for example, QTWTAIN, YYSSW, IICRS (Questions to Which the Answer is No; Yeah, Yeah, Sure, Sure, Whatever; Iraq Inquiry Coverage Rebuttal Service).  [Shall we add WTF? – Ed.]
7. Vibrant (when used to mean lots of non-English people).
8. It’s in his/her/their DNA.
9. Let’s be clear.
10. “The truth is…” before the peddling of an opinion.
11. Any journey not describing travel from A to B.
12. A no-brainer.
13. What’s not to like?
14. Max out (in relation to credit cards only).
15. Coffee, the waking up and smelling thereof.
16. Out of the box (especially thinking).
17. Radar, to be on someone’s, or to be under the.
18. “All the evidence tells us” to mean “I’ve read something about this somewhere that confirms my prejudices”.
19. Stakeholder.
20. Who knew?
21. “And yet, and yet …”
22. The suffix -gate added to any news theme supposedly embarrassing to a government.

I shudder to think how many of these I have used – and not in the distant past, but recently. Sometimes hourly.

Also banned this month:

“What a difference a day makes”, which was used on Newsnight to mean: “Yesterday we reported something and today the Government has done something about it.” It is a bit like “a week is a long time in politics”, which is as hard to eradicate as cockroaches.

Rentoul ends with George Orwell‘s six rules from “Politics and the English Language.”  Great comments section, too.  What’s not to like?

Postscript on 6/25: Some interesting feedback from Jeff Sypeck in the comments section:

I’d like to see pundits, commentators, etc., stop saying “You want fries with that?” when they talk about college kids majoring in unmarketable subjects. Not only is it unoriginal–Google News shows 27 news outlets using the phrase this month alone–but no one at a fast food joint has even asked a customer this question since the late 1980s! For 25 years, we’ve been ordering complete fast-food meals, with fries, by number. (I also question whatever truth supposedly underlies this cliche, because class distinctions generally mean that the recent college grad with an English or Sociology degree is more likely to be doing filing or photocopying in an office or perhaps working in retail. He’s not the most common sight in the fast-food biz.)

Go to the comments section for the rest of his remarks (about the use of “urban” to mean “black”) and also, Dave Lull directs you to the clichés of love.

More on the Stegner studio: a Stanford colleague passes the hat

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Stegner in the hills off Page Mill Road (Photo: Leo Holub)

In many ways, South Fork Lane in Los Altos Hills looks much as it did when author Wallace Stegner walked it, according to Deborah Petersen in yesterday’s San Jose Mercury:

Except now, beyond a “No Trespassing” sign, are the markings of a future that excludes the Stegner home, and the study where he wrote most of his great works. Orange banners mark the outline of a plan for a gigantic 7,337-square-foot mansion, to replace the 2,200-square-foot former home of the late Wallace and Mary Stegner.

Les Earnest, a former Stanford research scientist who used to run the artificial intelligence lab, was a friend of the late Pulitzer prizewinning author.  Now he’s collecting donations to move and preserve Stegner’s detached study.

Les ... with 3D drawing of 6D hyper-cube

“It is part of his legacy, and many people have great admiration for his writings. And since most of the writings were done in his studio, it seems important to make it a museum or something,” Earnest said.  The Book Haven wrote about it here and here.

Petersen concludes:  “Too often when today’s Silicon Valley wealth collides with remnants of yesterday, a bulldozer is involved.”

Earnest agreed:  “That’s the way it is in the hills,” Earnest said. “When I pass away, my house will be a scraper too.”

The rest of the San Jose Mercury article is here.

Update on 6/30:  The homeowners who plan to raze the studio have hired an attorney to evaluate whether the structure requires a historical assessment prior to demolition, as urged by a national preservation group. Read more here.

“Only silence is innocent”: Zagajewski on Rilke, irony, and the future of poetry

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

they warm themselves...

Kraków sustains a steady descant through the pages of Adam Zagajewski‘s new collection, Unseen Hand – most often, it’s Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter where I stayed in May:

In the Church of Corpus Christi I lit candles for my dead,
who live far off – I don’t know where
– and I sense they warm themselves in the red flame too
like the homeless by a fire when the first snow falls.

That’s Corpus Christi, outside my window in Wolnica Square.  And one poem for St. Catherine’s Church, and at least three references to Jozef Street, catty-corner to Wolnica Square.  “Joseph Street in Winter,” is dedicated to Joachim Russek, the head of the Judaica Foundation, a tutelary spirit for my first trip several years ago:

In winter Joseph Street is dark,
a few pilgrims flounder through wet snow
and don’t know where they’re going, to which star,

And two references to pigeons – charitable, because I know Adam finds them contemptible.  It was the subject of our first discussion when we met in Rynek Główny, which was swarmed with pigeons.

He didn't like the pigeons.

I actually “met” Adam during an online interview six or seven years ago for an article that was published Poetry Foundation article).  But much of the short interview never made it to the final piece.  For example, I asked him what gave rise, to a generation of giants:

“Good question. I have many contradictory explanations. One of the main ones is that the attention given to the meaning of human life in radical circumstances  (as opposed to the hermetic direction, or to a purely formal quest) in Polish poetry after the WWII catastrophe was a very important move: it gave the dying Modernism a new energy. It ‘rehumanized’ a highly sophisticated but a bit empty palace of modern poetry.”

On irony:

“Well, the disease of irony seems to be well identified. I adore irony as a part of our rich rhetorical and mental apparatus but not when it assumes the position of a spiritual guidance. How to cure it? I wish I knew.”

"We'll be living in small ghettos..."

He has earned my own fealty, not only for his poetry, but for his many kindnesses.  So I was pleased when I read on Ann Kjellbergs website for her journal Little Star, a lengthy excerpt from his introduction to Edward Snow’s translations of Rainer Maria Rilke. (It was also excerpted by Poetry Daily here.) Adam is much in demand for introductions, blurbs, reviews, and essays.  This introduction is one of his best (I excerpt from Ann’s excerpts – and by the way, thank you, David Sanders, for pointing out the piece in Poetry News in Review):

“We have a new sorrow today: after the terrible catastrophes of the twentieth century, after the disasters that entered both our memory and imagination, we tread gingerly at the point where poetry meets society; “Don’t walk beyond this line,” as the sign on every jetliner’s wing warns us. And yet the central issue for us is probably the question of whether the mystery at the heart of poetry (and of art in general) can be kept safe against the assaults of an omnipresent talkative and soulless journalism and an equally omnipresent popular science—or pseudo-science. It also has a lot to do with the weighing of the advantages and vices of mass culture, with the influence of mass media, and with a difficult search for genuine expression inside the commercial framework that has replaced older, less vulgar traditions and institutions in our societies. In this respect, it’s true, poets have less to fear than their friends the painters, especially the successful ones, who, because of the absurd prices their works can now command, will never see their canvases in the houses of their fellow artists, in the apartments of people like themselves, only in vaults belonging to oil or television moguls who don’t even have time to look at them. Still, the stakes of the debate and its seriousness are not very different and not less important than a hundred years ago.

We know that the main domain of poetry is contemplation, through the riches of language, of human and nonhuman realities, in their separateness and in their numerous encounters, tragic or joyful. Rilke’s powerful Angel standing at the gates of the Elegies, timeless as he is, is there to guard something that the modern era—which gave us so much in other fields—took away from us or only concealed: ecstatic moments, for instance, moments of wonder, hours of mystical ignorance, days of leisure, sweet slowness of reading and meditating. Ecstatic moments—aren’t they one of the main reasons why poetry readers cannot live without Rilke’s work? I mean here readers of contemporary poetry who otherwise are mostly kept on a rather meager diet of irony. The Angel is timeless, and yet his timelessness is directed against the deficiencies of a certain epoch. So is Rilke: timeless and deeply immersed in his own historic time. Not innocent, though: only silence is innocent, and he still speaks to us.”

From my interview (I had cited this in an earlier post last fall, when Adam’s name came up again for a Nobel), when I asked him about the future of poetry and poetry-lovers in the world of tweets and sound bites he said this:

“We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.”

By the by,  Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence has a review of Unseen Hand here.

King Ludd himself: Nicholas Carr on little bits of information flying across a screen

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Tiny bits of data zinging into your brain

I posted a couple weeks ago on Nicholas Carr‘s newest takedown of technology.  That was a few days after I wrote about Bill Keller‘s apparently unpopular column, “The Twitter Trap.”

James Temple’s dot.commentary over at the San Francisco Chronicle acknowledged the buzz: “The general take was that he was an old-media Luddite threatened by things he couldn’t understand. If Keller is a Luddite within these circles, Nicholas Carr is King Ludd himself, ready to smash the machines to preserve a world long ago lost.”

Well that’s not quite true.  Carr, when Temple tracked him down last week for a Q&A: said: “There are all sorts of benefits, intellectual or cognitive, that we get from the Internet. The most obvious is the fact that it’s much easier to find information than it was in the past, and that’s obviously a huge benefit in many instances. It’s also much easier to communicate very quickly with lots of people, and that can help a lot, particularly when you’re trying to solve particular problems.”

However, he added, “I think you really have no choice but to try to restrict the amount of time and the amount of mental energy that goes into watching information fly by on the screen.”

That’s kind of tame.  Then he was asked about the buzz he and Keller stirred:

Is contemplative thought expendable?

Q: There seems to be a reflexive reaction to your ideas in the tech world. When Bill Keller raised questions about Twitter in his recent column, some said dismissively that he was channeling Nicholas Carr, like it was an obvious insult. What do you think drives that kind of response?

A: One is that a lot of people, particularly people in the tech world, are deeply invested in technology. I mean economically invested, although they are also ideologically invested. Central to their thinking is that progress in computers equates to progress of humanity and society.

If you’re working in this area, that assumption makes you feel good about yourself and so you want to defend it when you hear someone making basic criticisms. Your natural reaction is to paint a caricature of nostalgia or Ludditism. That seems to be a completely normal reaction.

And second, I think there are simply people who don’t share my belief that more contemplative thought is important. They think getting as much information and processing it as quickly as possible, is really the height of their intellectual life. If you don’t care about quiet or more contemplative thought, then obviously you’re not going to even understand where I’m coming from.

Now that‘s scary.  Read the whole thing here.  Meanwhile, cheer up!  According to ReadWriteWeb, websites – including this one – will disappear within the next few years.  Boy, will that be a whole bunch of time down the toilet.

Meanwhile, Sara Barbour over at the Los Angeles Times thinks Kindle is way overrated – here.

A good man is hard to find: Carl Weber, Tony Kushner, and Bertolt Brecht onstage in Texas

Saturday, June 18th, 2011

Jane Horrocks as Shen Teh in 2008

What, exactly, is the title of the play? In the dark years between 1939 and 1941,  Bertolt Brecht wrote  The Good Woman of Szechuan – or sometimes its Szechwan. More commonly nowadays, the play is called The Good Person of Szechwan – or Szechuan. I’ve even found the occasional The Good Soul of Szechuan.

The original is “mensch” – a word that has more slangy connotations today. Elena Danielson, who said it’s one of her favorite plays, agrees that “person” doesn’t quite work, “a bit too sterile for ‘der gute Mensch.'”

On the other hand, without de-gendering the noun, how else would you keep the link to Genesis, where God promises to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if Abraham can find a handful of good men?  I also felt unexpected Job-like resonances in the play, when the gods come down to test the prostitute Shen Teh, known for her love for her neighbors, and someone who (again like Abraham) entertains angels unawares. Despite the gods’ insistence, Shen Teh says she’s not good, and learns after many trials, “To be good and to live splits me in two like lightning.”

Carl Weber with Florentina Mocanu (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The three gods who visit the impoverished Szechuan claim,  “Many, even among the gods, doubted that there were any good people here.” Is it true, the gods wonder, that “good deeds destroy the doer”?

In any case, last week I finally got a chance to watch last year’s Trinity University production directed by Carl Weber, a protégé of Brecht and a veteran of the Berliner Ensemble. Carl loaned me the DVD after his return from Austen.

Charles Spencer, writing in The Telegraph about a production at the Young Vic in 2008, called the play “an utter stinker” with “glib Marxist sermonising.” Obviously, I don’t agree, though I think Brecht sets up a straw man of goodness – a “Saint Never-to-Be,” as one of one of the characters sings.  Goodness is more than being a patsy.

Tony Kushner's translation of Brecht

Nevertheless, only a few minutes into the DVD, I found myself scrawling down lines from the play.  No surprise – the translator is Carl’s former student and protégé, Tony Kushner, of Angels in America fame (he’s interviewed in my article on Carl here).

According to the gods, “This world can be redeemed if one person can be found who has over come this world – just one.”

The human characters in the play protest, “The world is too cold!” to sustain human charity, to which the gods offer their intransigent reply, “Because people are too weak!”

As for the Sodom-and-Gomorrah link – aha! I’m on to something.  According to an obscure footnote in Wikipedia:

Mallika Sarabhai in Indian adaptation

In Munich in 1924 Brecht had begun referring to some of the stranger aspects of life in post-putsch Bavaria under the codename ‘Mahagonny’. The Amerikanismus imagery appears in his first three ‘Mahagonny Songs’, with their Wild West references. With that, however, the project stalled for two and a half years. With Hauptmann, who wrote the two English-language ‘Mahagonny Songs’, Brecht had begun work on an opera to be called  Sodom and Gomorrah or The Man from Manhattan and a radio play called The Flood or ‘The Collapse of Miami, the Paradise City’, both of which came to underlie the new scheme with [Kurt] Weill.

I was prepared for didacticism, and I got it.  But I threaded through  Helen M. Whall‘s online “The Case is Altered: Brecht’s Use of Shakespeare” and found this: “In many ways the story of Szechwan is a parodic version of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Within that frame Brecht mocks many other Old and New Testament parables, including Elijah’s visit to a poor woman and Christ’s miracle at Cana.”

Well, call me thick – but I didn’t see it as parody or snark. Perhaps it was Tony Kushner’s luminous translation, or perhaps it was Carl’s skilled direction, even with amateur performers, that gave the play a sense of the miraculous as the gods come down among us, looking for a good man – or in this case, woman. Or maybe it was Brecht’s searching for new answers to very old questions:  What is goodness?  And can it survive uncorrupted in a world where “the hand you extend to the poor is torn from you,” as Shen Teh says? “The world cannot go on as it is.  No one can stay good here.”

I may have come up with different answers, but Brecht’s play, in Carl’s direction, for a few hours renewed my sense of wonder at this strange and tragic world.