Archive for October, 2011

Future of humanities? “Death,” says Michel Serres, and pauses. “Maybe.”

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Resident Socrates (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A few days ago I wrote about Michel Serres new book Malfeasance.  But I didn’t have a chance to post the video, on that post or an earlier one.  Now I can.  It’s below.

He is a member of the Académie Française, one of its 40 immortels, and he is one of the most recognized public intellectuals in France.  Not here.  Why?  He’s not comfortable in English, and teaches his Stanford classes in French.  This video is one of the rare opportunities to hear him in English.

He comes to the sunny California for only a couple quarters a year, and has been doing so for decades – he’s here now, in fact. I had a chance to drop in on a class recently, the German Library is crowded, and not with the usual student types.

As I wrote in 2009:

His class attracts an eclectic and loyal coterie beyond its enrolled students—three decades is time enough to accumulate a following. A typical class might include a Silicon Valley mogul and his wife, a prominent publisher from Paris, a Stanford physics professor emeritus.

“Michel Serres presents his lectures in the form of fascinating questions, which he gradually answers and makes you feel as if you were participating in the thought process. His thinking is innovative and dynamic,” said Hélène Laroche-Davis, professor of French and film studies at Notre Dame de Namur University.

Alix Marduel, a former internist at Stanford and now a Palo Alto-based venture capitalist, said that Serres brings one thing that is AWOL in most philosophical discussions: passion….

“They are very well known as writers, but they have problems in France because they are unclassifiable. These kinds of people are disappearing. They don’t exist anymore—people who have encyclopedic knowledge, people who know civics, math, communication, science, anthropology. They are the rare and last humanists—what humanists used to be in the 16th century,” said Audrey Calefas, a doctoral candidate who has been Serres’ personal assistant for several years at Stanford (“out of friendship, really,” she added).

Enjoy the video (that’s Humble Moi in the red sweater in the opening shot):

Shakespeare or the Earl of Oxford? “It’s a shame sometimes that dead men can’t sue.”

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare ... or is it the Earl of Oxford?

Anyone who has attempted a novel, play, or screenplay based on real people, or a real event, has faced the difficult question: How much do you make up?  Do you make two people fall in love because it tidies up the script nicely – even though there’s no historical evidence for it?  Do you vilify a nice-man composer like Antonio Salieri because of a few rumors that started decades after his death – even for a top-notch script like Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, which was further cemented in the public mind by a couple remarkable screen performances?  At what point are you simply defaming the dead?

Screenwriter John Orloff feels completely comfortable making stuff up for Anonymous, a new movie about the eternal Shakespeare authorship question.

Spoiler alert: Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford did it, and William Shakespeare was merely the front man in this version, which the New York Times called the “cold-blooded murder of the truth.” David Riggs told me the only reason the gullible seek out alternative authorship for the plays and poems is that people are generally unaware of what top-notch grammar schools the Elizabethans had – he wrote about it in The World of Christopher Marlowe.

Here’s another story that should discredit the theory: I actually knew of someone who had gone through the Earl of Oxford’s letters.  The man couldn’t write to save his life.

Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere ... or is it Shakespeare?

Orloff is not a deep thinker, and the Wall Street Journal should be ashamed of printing platitudinous, clichéd passages like this:  “But I also wanted to tell a rocking good story and to express a theme that matters to me a great deal: that the pen is mightier than the sword.”

It gets worse.

The truth is, there is no truth in film—in any film. Even the films that we think are true, about real people in real places, actually aren’t.

This might seem obvious, but the emotions of a movie often overwhelm our intellect, blurring the line between fact and drama. We walk away feeling as if we have witnessed history.

But does this make a historical drama inferior to a history book or a documentary based on the same subject matter? Not necessarily.

Whatever a film might lack in literal truth, it can be far better at expressing the emotional truth of an event. [You don’t say! – ED]  In a movie, an audience can become connected to characters in a way that they often can’t in a straight historical account.

And this: “And, as I said, the film is not really about the Essex Rebellion. It is about showing that ideas are stronger than brute force. So how to make that point without wasting 20 minutes of the audience’s time?”  If the audience isn’t prepared to waste time, they shouldn’t be in the movie theater in the first place.

Then Orloff compares his historical liberties with those of Shakespeare himself.

This is a case where the comment section probes the issues more closely than the author of the article appears to have:


From Bill Wood:  “Nothing justifies outright lying to an audience. It’s one thing to present the argument that Shakespeare didn’t right [sic] his own work. It’s an idea that is baloney … It might make good drama. But it is also a lie. And most people will never bother to read the works which demonstrate what bunk it is.”

From David Brown: “One possible answer to Orloff’s question of how to make a point without wasting the audience’s time is to write your own story. If the history doesn’t support the story you want to tell, pick a different history that does fit – or just write your story without the crutch of misrepresenting great names and events.

From John Tufts: “Yes, stories exist to tell deeper truths, but Mr. Orloff is kidding himself if he thinks his movie is in the pursuit of truth. Neither movies nor theater, nor music, nor poetry, nor any art form has ever been very good at presenting what is real, but the history of all art has existed and been very successful at showing us what is true. That’s what makes Richard III great. Ultimately, it’s not about the real Richard III, it’s about the power of language, and the seduction of evil. Henry V isn’t about the real Henry Monmouth, it’s about the cost of war, and the challenges of leadership. These plays bend what was real to arrive at an essential truth. But for Mr. Orloff to say that he’s doing the same is nonsense. He’s bending what was real to arrive not an essential truth about the human experience, but instead to arrive right back where he started – a claim about what was real. He bends history to write not a great nor true screenplay, but a bad, and very unreal melodrama.”

Donald Forbes: “To aver that there is ‘no truth’ makes impossible any attempt to understand anything. There are no such things as facts, merely assertions of points of view. Relativism as usual morphs into nihilism and destructiveness. …”

As Thomas Conway, Jr., wrote, ” it’s a shame sometimes that dead men can’t sue.”

Was the blogosphere born in the French Enlightenment?

Friday, October 28th, 2011


My friend, Anaïs Saint-Jude, sent me the link for this short piece, which brings the noble trade of blogging into disrepute.

Robert Darnton compares today’s blogging with what he considers an early-modern precursor, the “nouvelliste“:  “Gossip mongers who worked oral circuits of communication were known as ‘nouvellistes de bouche.’ When they reduced news to written anecdotes and strung the anecdotes together in manuscript “gazetins”, they graduated into the ranks of ‘nouvellistes à la main.”’

A couple samples of the genre:

The prince de Conti was knocked out of commission by a girl known as the Little F…..He blames it on Guerin, his medical advisor.

The duc de … surprised his wife in the arms of his son’s tutor. She said to him with an impudence worthy of a courtier, “Why weren’t you there, Monsieur? When I don’t have my esquire, I take the arm of my lackey.”

Well, of course I’d argue that not all blogging is of the scalding political kind, and not all of us are boiling scurrility and celebrity into one nasty soup.  Some of us politely exchange views about Tolstoy or Stendhal over our Limoges teacups.

Still, it’s reassuring that the much-ballyhooed breakdown of civility did not begin last year, despite the sanctimonious pronouncements of politicians.

The aptly named Amanda French, commenting on Darnton’s article, did her own research on the salon and journal culture of early 19th-century Paris – a bit later than the nouvellistes, admittedly – and was struck by this comment from the noted saloniste Delphine de Girardin, which she translates for us:

Finally, they say, “It’s hard to make a name for yourself in Paris.” Lie! Nothing is easier today. Published every morning, printed every week are a hundred enemy journals and twenty rival reviews that do nothing but talk, and which esteem themselves only too happy when you want to furnish them with some amusing pages for nothing, giving them the chance to say something a little malicious about their enemy while you show off. Nothing is easier for a young man of talent than to make a name in the journals. Ask rather about these old journalists without talent who are so celebrated.

“Boy, did that remind me of the blogosphere,” she writes.

But Darnton implies that these pre-bloggers were more than lazy gossip mongers. They may have lit the match that sparked the revolution:

“The anecdotes constituted the early-modern equivalent of a blogosphere, one laced with explosives; for on the eve of the Revolution, French readers were consuming as much smut about the private lives of the great as they were reading treatises about the abuse of power. In fact, the anecdotes and the political discourse reinforced each other. I would therefore argue that the early-modern blog played an important part in the collapse of the Old Regime and in the politics of the French Revolution. …

“I don’t believe that history teaches lessons, at least not in a direct, easily applied manner, but it does raise questions. Are blogs disrupting traditional politics today just as ‘libelles‘ did in eighteenth-century France?”

Over our teacups, we might point out – delicately of course – that Darnton himself is writing on a blog, denouncing the art of the blog from the blogosphere.  In fact, he himself realizes the irony as he pens his piece on the New York Review of Books blog.

Read more in his book,  The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon.

And we’ll have more to say on this topic at the Book Haven in a few days.

Postscript on 10/30:  Dave Lull sent me this link from 2Blowhards on the coffeehouse culture: “I’m not the first observer of the web and of blogdom to be reminded of the 17th and 18th century coffee-house. ‘It’s open! And everyone is having a say!’ – the parallels between now and then are striking. Even so, I haven’t yet run across a brief blog-intro to coffee-house culture. What was this coffee-house phenomenon about anyway?”  Check it out.

Rick Banks and his controversial question: “Is Marriage for White People?”

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Provocative author (Photo: Natalie Glatzel)

My friend Elaine Ray has an interesting recent post on Rick BanksIs Marriage for White People?, a book that, with a title like that, has obviously gotten a lot of attention.  She did a short Q&A with him here.

These days, “black women are about half as likely to be married as their 1950s counterparts,” he writes. “Marriage has also declined among black men, fewer than half of whom are husbands.”

Elaine’s interesting blog, My Father’s Posts, honors the journalism of her father, Ebenezer Ray, who emigrated to the New York from Barbados.  He died when she was 13.  Last month would have marked her parents’ 63rd wedding anniversary.  She describes her parents’ courtship and marriage this way:

I don’t know if my parents had planned to get married anyway or if the pregnancy [with Elaine’s older sister] forced their hand. There also is the possibility that my mother’s father, John Henry Brown, a  piano mover who is said to have been around 6’4″ with a shoe size in the vicinity of a 13 EEE, might have offered a bit of “encouragement.” My dad was 5’4”.

My father was a printer by trade; and though he was quite erudite, I don’t think he had a college degree. My mother, a social worker and teacher, did.  Until my dad’s death, their 19-year marriage seemed sturdy and stable. For most of their life together, before my father took ill, they were able to live on his salary. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, an arrangement my father preferred.

Faced with the same set of circumstances today, would my parents’ marriage have survived?  Would they have even gotten married in the first place?

Her own story is a quick review of some of the social dynamics within the African American communities decades ago.

Banks says he is offering no advice in his book, but he does conclude that black women might find their professional and intellectuals equals in other races.  Hence, the uproar. I guess I don’t quite understand.  Hasn’t interracial marriage been happening for some time now, in both directions?

One excerpt from Elaine’s interview:

ER: What kind of reactions have you gotten from black men to your book?

Ebenezer's daughter (Photo: Photo by Rachael Behrens)

RB: The reactions range from very positive – Kirkus Reviews described the book as “Triumphant”– to very negative. I’ve been called a “racial pimp” who is trying to “profiteer” off black women’s difficulties with “sensationalized bullcrap”  In addition to my “reprehensible title” I have been told that the book “relies on haphazard, shabby research and unsubstantiated theories wrapped in hollow, sophisticated rhetoric to make you give it a good look.” Of course, these comments are all from people who I know for certain haven’t read the book. 
 Those people who have read the book are struck by its candor, insight, and writing. My favorite response is from a New York Times editor who told me it was “unputdownable.”  One of my aims with the book is to promote a national discussion about the obligations of black women to black men.  The issues are complicated and emotionally fraught, and are perhaps best captured in the question of one CNN viewer: Do black women deserve better than what black men have to offer?

Aside from Kirkus, I think the reviewers were black men. Others are supportive, even if they don’t like, as my brother-in-law put it, “giving the white man a hunting license to take the black man’s woman from him.” “Brothers done lost so much,” he said, “now the woman going to be taken away too!”

I bristle a bit that men still talk about women this way,  as if women were objects without agency, to be passed or ceded from one party to another.  I know, I know, he’s only quoting.  Still I bristle.

Vladimir Sorokin “can eliminate one’s taste for lovemaking for a lifetime”

Monday, October 24th, 2011

The silver hair is lost in black & white (Elke Wetzig / Creative Commons)

Cannibalism, kinky violence, and scatology don’t normal fall within my range of reading material, but it’s always interesting and instructive to meet the author.

In this case, one of Russia’s most celebrated writers, Vladimir Sorokin, is a gentle, soft-spoken man, awkward in English and speaking with a slight stutter.  He’s hard to miss on campus, where he has started his one-month Stanford residency:  His flowing silver hair cascades to his shoulders.

As for the butcherings and bestiality in his writing – well, I guess he’s considered kind of a sci-fi writer. The protests against his books reached a crescendo in 2002, when protesters threw copies of his book into a huge papier-mâché toilet outside Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater.  (A notorious passage described sex between clones of Stalin and Khrushchev.)

During his pornography trial that year, one of his peers defended him, claiming “pornography is something that provokes indecency, yet reading Sorokin’s works can eliminate one’s taste for lovemaking for a lifetime.”

You can’t buy that kind of publicity.

From my short piece on him:

“According to [scholar Nariman] Skakov, many readers miss the point: “The beauty is not the shocking narrative, but what he does conceptually with the text.” For example, in one book, The Queue, it’s not entirely clear what commodity the characters are lining up for, and the lines of dialogue, including snatches of conversation, roll calls, jokes, howls of rage and amorous moans, are unattributed. Still the people in line wait patiently, doggedly, with several dozen blank pages representing the times when everyone is asleep on benches.

Sorokin’s dystopian science fiction books turn our mild anxieties and worst nightmares into art. His imagined future may include a Sinified Russian language or psychopathic cults, biomodification or hallucinogenic drugs, giant carrier pigeons the size of vultures and a cloned Dostoevsky or Pasternak, with characters and narrative lines that morph into others.”

The reading, with his translator Jamey Gambrell (I reviewed her translation of Marina Tsvetaea‘s Earthly Signs in the Los Angeles Times  here), began with Day of the Oprichnik, a book that opens in a futuristic Russia where czars are back and men in narrow beards wear kaftans and carry ray guns.  The narrator has “always the same dream” …  a white horse, “the stallion of all stallions, dazzling, a sorcerer…”

It all seemed sedate enough – but I ducked out after 45 minutes for a quick dinner with Mira Rosenthal, a current Stegner fellow and translator of poet Tomasz Różycki.

Ben Jonson: Not just another pretty face

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

You don’t know the half of Ben Jonson.

In this case, a half would be about 140 pounds, for he tipped the scales at 280.  Ugly little sucker, too: his chum Thomas Dekker described him as “a staring Leviathan” with “a terrible mouth” and “a parboiled face … punched full of oilet holes, like the cover of a warming pan.”

He’s not nearly so bad looking on the cover of Ian Donaldson‘s new Ben Johnson: A Life.  See right.

The Spectator reviews it here.  An excerpt:

“What a piece of work was Ben Jonson! If you lived in Elizabethan England and had just narrowly escaped the gallows after stabbing a man to death in an illegal duel, wouldn’t you want to keep your head down for a bit? Not Jonson. He converted to Catholicism.

A few months after the bishops of Canterbury and London, in 1599, declared the writing of satire illegal, what did Jonson produce? Every Man out of his Humour, a self-declared ‘comical satire’. The writing of history was also proscribed — Tacitean history being a particular sore point. So in 1603 Jonson produced Sejanus, a history play based on Tacitus. Epigrams were banned too. By 1612, Jonson got round to publishing some.

“Anyone would think he didn’t want to get on. Yet get on (despite the odd spell in chokey, and a fusillade of letters begging for forgiveness) is exactly what he did. He was the stepson of a bricklayer, with a criminal conviction for manslaughter, and a serial writer of plays that gave offence to court favourites — yet he became the pre-eminent dramatist and deviser of court entertainments of his era.”

Inevitably, the comparisons with William Shakespeare: “Though Shakespeare proved (in Jonson’s words) ‘for all time’, Jonson himself was eclipsed. What happened? He was classical, where Shakespeare was romantic.”  My goodness.  What on earth does those distinctions mean in the context of the 16th and 17th centuries?  The anonymous reviewer doesn’t quite figure this out.

The brush with murder is hardly a shocker, if you know how Christopher Marlowe was done in.  I wrote about that here (though the portrait that accompanies the story is almost certainly not Marlowe)  following the publication of David Riggs’s bio of Shakespeare’s rival poet, who may have been offed on orders of Queen Elizabeth I.  Moreover, Marlowe had tried his own hand at murder, or at least manslaughter:

“At the time of his death, Marlowe was a more prominent playwright than Shakespeare,” Riggs notes. By then, “Shakespeare had written Henry VI and Titus Andronicus, and they aren’t as good as Tambourlaine or Doctor Faustus.

In addition to being a revolutionary playwright, Marlowe was a blasphemer, a homosexual, a secret agent, “someone involved with a wide range of criminal activities,” Riggs says. In all probability, he wasn’t killed in a brawl but in a political hit, very likely on orders of Queen Elizabeth. …

Even in this unusual company, Marlowe stood out and was himself a subject for surveillance. He was a notorious brawler—in one case, the brawl resulted in a murder. Marlowe was held in Newgate, a “gloomy, rat-infested hold” for part of the time before he was discharged at trial.

By the way, David Riggs has his own 1989 biography of Jonson. See right.

Among these unsavory characters, the hardworking Shakespeare appears positively clean-cut, doesn’t he?