It’s the sixth day of Christmas, by my count, and my friend Elaine Ray has sent me a post from her blog, entitled “Langston Hughes, my father, Joseph Stalin and Jesus”, discussing a rather anti-Christmas poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, and a 1940 article objecting to the poem written by her own father, the New York Age columnist Ebenezer Ray.
In an article in Poetry magazine, Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad noted that during the most difficult days of the Great Depression, Hughes “had composed some of the harshest political verse ever penned by an American. These pieces include Good Morning Revolution and Columbia, but above all, Goodbye Christ. Here the speaker of the poem ridicules the legend of Jesus in favor of the radical reality of Marx, Lenin, ‘worker,’ ‘peasant,’ ‘me.’”
What struck me about the poem was … hadn’t I read this before? It sounded awfully familiar. My search for the poems Vladimir Mayakovsky, the gifted and misguided bard of the Bolshevik Revolution, in my ancient edition published by the USSR’s Progress Books, led to an unsuccessful household excavation.
So I tried google instead.
My nose hadn’t led me astray. In fact, Hughes translated Mayakovsky. The Communist writer Louis Aragon had offered his guidance to the American poet, and give an indication of how Hughes may have interpreted the Russian’s legacy.
Hughes’s choice of a literal translation for Mayakovsky was, in part, the result of his decision to heed Aragon on how to translate the peculiarities of the Russian master.
... Ebenezer Ray
Aragon most likely hand-delivered his advice for explicitly Western translators to Hughes when the two crossed paths in Paris. His advice offers both a justification for Aragon’s own literal translation of Mayakovsky, and a prescription for future translators. He urges that they forsake the reproduction of the formal elements of Russian poetry in the interest of preserving the totality of Mayakovsky’s revolutionary message and spirit for the purpose of its infusion into Western Europe:
Oui, le poèmes de Maiakovsky sont rimes. Mais allez comparer la rime française, et je ne dirais pas la rime russe, mais la soviétique! Tout un nouveau langage, le langage d’une nouvelle vie, des mots qui n’ont jamais été usés par les rabacheurs poétiques, jetés du jour au lendemain à la disposition du lyrisme. [....] De plus, la rime de Maiakovsky toujours imprévisible, souvent complex, faites de plusiers mots, tient peut-etre advantage du jeu de mots que de la rime.
Yes, Mayakovsky’s poetry rhymes. But let’s compare French rhyme, and not Russian rhyme, with Soviet rhyme. An entirely new language, the language of a new life, composed of words that were never used by old, tired poetics, which should not be thrown out because of a thirst for lyricism. [....] Moreover, Mayakovsky’s rhyme, always unexpected, often complex, is perhaps more concerned with word play than rhyme.
The photo: During the historic 1957 desegregation of a Little Rock high school, a journalist Will Counts took a photograph that captured the moment – young black student Elizabeth Eckford headed for school, and her tormentor, Hazel Bryan.
David can’t recall how old he was when he first saw the iconic photograph. “I could no more tell you than I could when I first saw the picture of the little boy in the Warsaw ghetto with his hands up. You just know you’re changed once you see it,” he told CNN. “These are images that haunt you for the rest of your life.”
David, actually, had his beginnings as a Michigan Daily photographer rather than a journalist, back in the days when I was a cub reporter (and before he went on to Stanford Law School). He was a gifted photographer himself, so it’s no surprise he was so deeply affected by the photo. Then he saw another.
When he visited the Arkansas high school over a decade ago, he saw a picture of the two women reconciled. “I realized this was the same Elizabeth and Hazel, only they were grown up and they were friendly. … I thought, as any journalist would, how did we get from the first picture to the second? And why didn’t I know anything about it? How had these two archetypal racial antagonists buried the hatchet? How could that be? So that’s what made me curious enough to start looking into it.”
The reconciliation between the women wasn’t permanent – they are no longer speaking – but their complex bond endures.
Somehow on my travels I missed the launch of David’s book, so I’m coming a bit late on the scene. Of course I’d read his earlier story, “Through a Lens, Darkly,” which was published in Vanity Fair in 2007.
Giving the book a plug now is a bit like rolling a rock downhill. When you’ve gotten blurbed Bill Clinton, you don’t need a boost from me: “The iconic image of Elizabeth and Hazel at age fifteen showed us the terrible burden that nine young Americans had to shoulder to claim our nation”s promise of equal opportunity. The pain it caused was deeply personal. … We all need to know about Elizabeth and Hazel.”
There’s an idiom about how the first person through the wall always get hurt most. Does this kind of oversimplification help us understand Elizabeth Eckford?
I think she was the most vulnerable of the Nine [African-American students], and it is a great pity that she was the one who happened to show up there first. She had a certain predisposition, a certain kind of sensitivity, that some of the other of the Nine didn’t have. She’s an absolutely extraordinary woman, and her sensitivity is part of her extraordinariness.
Did it really take seven years for Hazel to even speak with you?
Hazel got bad vibrations from me that first time we met. She thought that I was paying more attention to Elizabeth than I was to her. And Hazel had read up on the history of the civil-rights movement, particularly the origins of the N.A.A.C.P., and she knew that historically Jews and blacks had been allies. From what I said and how I acted, she thought that Elizabeth and I would become natural partners at her expense. It had never occurred to me that Hazel might react this way. I had thought, quite naïvely, that the white woman would feel more comfortable with me than the black woman would.
Over those seven years, this was still becoming an article?
Yes. I made several more trips to Little Rock, realizing that Elizabeth’s story was plenty complex. When the story appeared on Vanity Fair’s Web site, in September 2007, to coincide with the 40th anniversary, Hazel read it and I think she was touched by some of the things Elizabeth said about her. And she could see that I wasn’t yet another writer who’d come along either to ignore her or trash her—that, even though she hadn’t cooperated with me, I still tried to be fair to her. From that moment on, Hazel made herself available to me.
That day in 1957 defined Elizabeth and Hazel in drastic ways. Which of these two women did it define more?
Hazel. I think that Elizabeth had a kind of stoicism, a kind of depression, a kind of sensitivity that was exacerbated by what happened to her. But Elizabeth’s life was going to be troubled no matter what. As I say in the book, that picture is really more of Hazel than it was of Elizabeth: she is the dominant figure in it, literally at its center. Hazel is the one who will go to the grave knowing that the image will be part of civilization as long as civilization endures. Hazel hasn’t gotten over the fact that, despite all the good deeds she has done, her plea for forgiveness wasn’t granted and her sincerity was doubted. Hazel got it from all sides. So she’s retreated, and it will be very hard to coax her out of her shell, though I hope that for her sake, and Elizabeth’s, it happens someday.
People want so badly for this story to have something like a happy ending. What does it say about America that this happy ending never materialized?
I think it says something about American naïveté that we think it should have materialized, and about American impatience over the fact that it hadn’t. This would be a much bigger story, a more newsworthy story, if it had materialized. Then Oprah would be talking about it again. And the fact that it hasn’t yet makes it less interesting to people, when that fact is, it should make it more interesting to people because it’s real.
So it’s very stirring – movies get made of unrealistic, completely implausible situations like The Help, but not vexing real-world situations like this one. And that’s very sad. Revisionism is much more popular, much more marketable, than reality. You can walk out of the theater eating your popcorn and feeling happy. I wanted there to be a happy ending to this story, but I felt it wasn’t my role to stage manage a happy ending when there wasn’t. …
What did writing this book teach you about racism and race relations?
It just reminded me of how complex they are, I guess, and how heavy the hand of history is on us still, and how omnipresent America’s racial legacy remains. There’s no such thing as ‘post-racial,’ and all these problems are still lurking. They’ve just gone a bit beneath the surface. They’re not as bad as they once were, but there’s still a long way to go. I write all my books trying to figure out the kind of person I am, how I would behave in those circumstances and these books give me a chance to ponder that.
When Christopher Hitchens died this month, I thought immediately of Robert Conquest and his wife, Elizabeth, who were close friends of the renowned journalist and author. Believe it or not, Hitchens used to spend a good deal of time in Palo Alto – his wife’s family, as I recall.
No, Bob did not have anything he wanted to share publicly in memoriam; he is not of the “sharing” generation who tweets his thoughts. But there’s plenty else that is public.
Britain’s Standpoint is printing ten poems from Bob’s new book of light verse: Blokesongs and Blokelore from Old Fred, which will be out from the U.K.’s Waywiser Press in May. You can read them here.
Here’s the nasty truth: I’ve never been attracted to “light verse.” Limericks are lost on me. I’ve never, really, seen the point. But Bob Conquest has devoted years to them, and it occurred to me that the silly poems are a necessary release from his groundbreaking historical work on the effects of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe – the work that earned him an Order of Merit from Poland in 2009.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, at almost the same moment Standpoint published the new poems, theDaily Beast published Bob’s analysis of the current crisis with the Russian anti-Putin protests following the Dec. 4 elections.
The upshot of the article: “The present regime may have abandoned the compulsive economic ideologies of the Communist past, but it has not developed anything like an open society.” It comes down to a peculiar relationship to truth:
Honored in 2009
After the disaster of collectivization [1929–33], the leadership had two options: either to admit failure and change policy—perhaps even to relinquish total power—or to pretend that success had been achieved. Falsification took place on a barely credible scale, in every sphere. Real facts, honest statistics, disappeared. History, especially that of the Communist Party, was rewritten. Unpersons vanished from the official record. A spurious past and a fictitious present were imposed on the captive minds of the Soviet people. To focus solely on the physical manifestations of the Communist terror—the killings, the deportations, the people who were driven to suicide—would be to overlook the larger context: what Boris Pasternak called “the inhuman reign of the lie.” Until Gorbachev came to power, the country lived a double existence—an official world of fantasy, grand achievements, wonderful statistics, liberty, democracy, all juxtaposed with a reality of gloom, suffering, terror, denunciation, and apparatchik degeneration.
When lies become part of the national fabric, the result was a thoroughly corrupted society:
Sakharov nailed it. (Photo: RIA Novosti)
Sakharov described the problem in the late 1970s: “A deeply cynical caste has come into being, one which I consider dangerous (to itself as well as to all mankind)—a sick society ruled by two principles: blat [a little slang word meaning ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’], and the popular saw: ‘No use banging your head against the wall.’ But beneath the petrified surface of our society exist cruelty on a mass scale, lawlessness, the absence of civil rights protecting the average man against the authorities, and the latter’s total unaccountability toward their own people or the whole world.”
The Soviet bureaucracy’s reaction to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster demonstrated what Sakharov had been talking about. As David Remnick later noted in The New Yorker, it was typical of the regime that plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, on being told that the reactor’s radiation was millions of times higher than normal, replied that the meter was obviously defective and must be thrown away. Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina rejected a suggestion to order a mass evacuation. “Panic is worse than radiation,” he said.
So what’s changed in 2011? As everywhere, technology makes certain lies untenable:
Russians are used to electoral fraud. There were never any expectations that the Dec. 4 elections would be carried out with complete honesty, any more than Russia’s past votes were. But this time, instances of ballot irregularity were recorded by mobile devices and then posted on the Internet, to which more than 40 percent of Russians now have access. Outrage—and calls to protest—flashed from computer to computer. Political discourse is thriving in blogs, tweets, posts to Facebook, uploads to YouTube—challenging the regime’s old-media monopoly on news and opinion.
In the far north of Israel, in a stone church tucked onto a remote hillside, Christmas Mass will be recited, as it is every year, in the language Jesus Christ spoke. Aramaic remains the liturgical language of the Maronite Christians in the Galilee, where Christ grew up and a resilient congregation struggles to revive the language in everyday life.
“Two thousand years ago it was very known,” says Father Bshara Suleiman, pastor of the St. Maroun Church, named for the 5th century monk who inspired the movement in the Aramean region in what is today Syria. By then Aramaic had been the lingua franca from Egypt to Afghanistan for perhaps 1,000 years, though few Americans had heard of it before The Passion of the Christ. The controversial 2004 feature directed by Mel Gibson was the top-grossing non-English film in history.
I spent some time in Los Angeles, oh, about eight years ago, trying to find William Fulco, the Loyola Marymount professor who translated Gibson’s script. I had in mind an article exploring the controversy surrounding the Aramaic used in the film – how much is guesswork, and how much of a dying, boutique language can be reasonably reconstructed. Never found him, never happened.
Clearly, I was in the wrong place. I should have headed for the town of Jish in Israel, where the language is still spoken. I’m fascinated by these dead and dying languages – you might have guessed that from my post here from David Harrison‘s talk at the Modern Language Association convention in Scottsdale last fall – and Christmas brings thoughts of Aramaic, the tongue that first described it.
So read Karl Vick‘s Time Magazine article on the Aramaic here.
As for Gibson’s movie? “It was very easy to understand, for me,” says Shadi Khalloul, who saw the movie in the U.S. and promotes Aramaic education at the Aramean Center in the town of Jish. “It was almost correct. They tried.”
Tonight, on Christmas Eve, the Stanford Theater on University Avenue is showing Frank Capra‘s It’s a Wonderful Life, as usual.
I will not be going. You have to book ages in advance, long before you have sorted your plans out – or had any thoughts about Christmas at all – otherwise it is sold out before you arrive at the ticket counter. After all, it is an annual ritual, a “heart-warming Christmas film,” “a sentimental favorite” … or is it?
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.
Jamieson has it wrong on some points: relinquishing dreams is an inevitable part of growing up. You can’t be a brain surgeon, a stand-up comedian and a playboy with a yacht. You won’t be 6’4″ if you’re destined to be 5’5,” and you can’t marry all the handsome men who ask you out. Making one choice necessarily means sacrificing others, and there are worse choices than George Bailey’s marrying a pretty, adoring girl, keeping his dad’s business going, and dutifully being a kind father and a good citizen.
Jamieson’s general theme seems to be catching on, however. In a critique of modern Christmas films, “Too Many Turkeys from Tinseltown,” Mike Shaw in London’s Independent also discusses “the ‘feel-good family favourite’ and regular winner of polls to find the public’s favourite Christmas film”:
Picture the scene: It’s a wild and snowy night. A man stands on a bridge, staring into the icy river rushing below him and contemplating his life. We have already been witness to extortion, fraud and domestic abuse. Over the next hour, this man’s little brother will drown, and our character will plunge into depression, assault a police officer and crash his car while drunk. …
The fact that It’s a Wonderful Life is a tad downbeat is nothing new. For decades, the film has attracted as many humbugs as it has admirers, by virtue of it being “too depressing”. Love it or hate though, there is no denying that by the end of Frank Capra’s film that elusive warm fuzzy feeling is well and truly kindled.
"Business! Mankind was my business! Their common welfare was my business!"
However, if a good Christmas movie can be judged by how Christmassy it makes you feel (Christmassy being a complex scientific measurement best described to the layman as “happy, hopeful and harmonious with a slight tinge of sadness”), then modern festive films fail on almost every count, and I know why.
Simply put, they’re just not miserable enough. By playing it safe and desperately trying to not upset or offend anyone, Christmas films today miss the key element required for success: despair and salvation – the light at the end of the tunnel.
Maybe. But this week’s Yahoo poll on the favorite Christmas film of all time has me questioning public taste. 137,444 voted, and came out with It’s a Wonderful Life pulling 44 percent of the votes, Miracle on 34th Street with 30 percent, and A Christmas Carol coming out with a mere 26 percent. Perhaps no surprise, considering the crappy screen versions of the Charles Dickens classic.
For all-out scariness, I’ll still plump for A Christmas Carol, the (admittedly stagey) 1951 English version, with Alastair Sim as Scrooge and a very young Michael Hordern as a Marley. Hordern’s eerie howling and chain-shaking will frighten the bejeebers out of any smarmy kid. And Sim is the best Scrooge yet.
Better yet, try the book.
Postscript: CNN has an op-ed on the Capra film today, here.
I remember reading about an university art student who, on a test, was asked to describe a painting of the Adoration of the Magi. The painting, she replied, was of a mother and newborn child in an ancient era. The men are bringing gifts, because everyone is happy at the birth of a child.
Nothing to indicate that she recognized that this was a particular birth, and a particular child.
Archaeologist Patrick Hunt is out to change all that. Last week at the Stanford Bookstore he gave a talk on his newly published Puer Natus Est: Art of Christmas, a book “deciphers the many layers of formula and accumulation of stories added to Christmas.”
“It doesn’t matter what one’s faith is – it’s a talk about art,” he told the group. “It’s a religious story, but also a story about continuing life, great hope, and great expectations. This story has something that we all need, regardless of our religion, something that is central to all human experience – hope.”
As he writes in his preface:
“Art is often the voice of the people rather than the voice of the powerful. Christmas art is no exception. Even if the subject of Christmas Art appears a sacred cow with a hands-off label, it is not above scrutiny. The life and death of Jesus continues to elicit deep and even explosive reaction—no matter how often it is reinterpreted by each generation, running the gamut from skeptical reflection and scorn to reverence and worship. What many call the greatest story ever told—always able to stir up emotions and controversy—has as much raw appeal in its beginning as in its ending. Dogma is not fond of real examination. But art can be looked at from almost an infinite variety of angles, and is in no way lessened by multiple reference points or interpretive approaches.”
Fra Angelico: "while magpies joke and peacocks preen"
According to Patrick, the texts of Luke and Matthew are merely starting points:
“Apocryphal texts added color and vigor, folklore, popular themes, puns, and sometimes magical details to the bare skeleton provided in the scriptures. Talking beasts; exotic and extravagant tapestries of costumes, crowns, and turbans; fragrant spices; and all the language of miracle and medieval allegories augment the text. Countless bright angels dressed in every silken damask and wing hue hang above frightened shepherds or rickety stable rafters to signal heaven and earth are momentarily one. Wicked, bloodthirsty tyrants like King Herod compete with Joseph’s peasant cunning. Bridled camels and pet leopards plod along in unusually mobile starlight while magpies joke and peacocks preen. Even humble plants like chamomile give off their allegorical fragrance, symbolic of Christ when trampled by all the retinue of this huge Christmas cast. … Yet, each participant in this Christmas pageant has at least one meaning to be fleshed out, and no symbol is too shadowy for the microscope and the zoom lens of this project.”
It all rather reminds me of the exchange between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh‘s Brideshead Revisited:
“But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That’s how I believe.”
in a 16th century edition of Chaucer‘s works, a Florida professor has discovered a naughty poem in Latin, written by Elizabeth Leyburne, Duchess of Norfolk (1536–1567) to her former tutor, Sir Anthony Cooke (1504–1576). She was 17, he was in his 40s when their paths crossed. He was a hard-core Protestant; she was from a family of Catholic recusants.
Nothing interesting ever pops out of the books I open, except for the occasional shopping list, train ticket stub, or unpaid bill. Still … the articles that have been written about this long-lost, lovelorn poem in Latin have mostly grabbed the wrong end of the stick.
Press attention has focused on the sole risqué line in the entire, rather plaintive poem. Huffington Post rather prudishly calls it a “crude love poem” and “raunchy love poem” on the basis of this single line. Yet the line in question is not even an original – it’s pinched from Martial. Apparently, it still strikes modern people as a surprise that their forbears were not celibates, although our very existence would seem to argue to the contrary.
Cooke, the recipient of the letter, went on to become a mentor to Edward VI, the kid brother of Queen Elizabeth and also a Protestant hard-liner with a puritanical streak.
Elizabeth Leyburne went on to marry twice – at the age of 19 to Thomas Dacre, 4th Baron Dacre of Gilsland, and shortly after his death over a decade later, to the queen’s cousin, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. The poem was apparently written when she was a young mother and wife of Dacre, perhaps glancing back at what never was.
More warm-blooded than he seems?
The articles seem to take no particular interest in who these people are, beyond the simplest outlines of their lives, and blithely wonder why she did not divorce to get it on with Cooke.
What is missed is a far more subtle, and nuanced tragedy of the terrible English Counter-Reformation. While I was reviewing Peter Ackroyd‘s Shakespeare: The Biography for the Washington Post, I noted the author’s confusion over Shakespeare’s Protestant and Catholic pals, as he tried to draw conclusions over the playwright’s religious affiliation. He overlooked the obvious conclusion: the government cared a lot more about theological distinctions and church affiliations than the people did.
For example, although he was a Protestant reformer, Cooke’s daughter Margaret became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary, the Catholic sister who succeeded Edward VI (the epithet “Bloody Mary” is not entirely fair, and could just as easily been bestowed on her half-siblings). Meanwhile, Cooke was exiled during Mary’s reign – he had backed the doomed nine-day reign of King Edward’s childhood pal, the scholarly Lady Jane Gray.
Cooke’s memorial at the Romford parish church notes his “exceptional learning, prudence and piety.” However, his recent biographer Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, describes him as “a strong protestant of a dark and unforgiving colour.”
Just the kind of glowering, older Heathcliff a young 17-year-old girl might want to die for.
The article goes quickly to cite what the professor calls Howard’s “cruelty” in not calling for a priest as his wife was dying in childbirth: “the Duchesse . . . desir’d to have been reconciled by a Priest, who for that end was conducted into the garden, yet could not have access unto her, either by reason of the Duke’s vigilance to hinder it, or at least of his continual presence in the chamber at that time.”
The man she married...
Not so fast. The Howard family was a prominent recusant family. Or was it? The line between “Protestant” and “Catholic” was much more fluid and complex than we assume it to be today. The nature of the Great Elizabethan Compromise was the queen’s promise to leave her subjects’ beliefs alone, as long as they attended her Church each Sunday. It was a subtle maneuver: How long can you keep your beliefs unaffected by your daily actions? Those who complied with her requirements, over the years, or over generations, became Protestant in their hearts. What you do is as important as what you think.
The battle was won, but the debt is being paid centuries later: A 2006 New Yorker article described how Elizabeth’s machinations led to a church which, founded on compromise, is now compelled to compromise itself out of existence in the 21st century.
The Great Compromise also set loose a network of government spies, headed by Walsingham. For the government knew that a man’s thoughts, not his compliance, were the true indicator of his allegiance, so thoughts became the enemy. Perhaps that’s why, in Shakespeare’s plays, there’s always someone behind a bush or arras, eavesdropping on a private conversation.
How, after all, could you find out what was in a man’s heart? However, only those who insisted on an outward fidelity, rather than merely an inward one, could be executed. So Howard’s reluctance to invite a priest in for last rites was probably mortal terror rather than religious scruples or hard-heartedness. Harboring priests could get you killed.
He got killed in any case, and for reasons mixed up with religion. As Elizabeth’s widower, would meet his own death after trying to negotiate (yet another) marriage with the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots, a rallying force for the Catholics in England and a fervent Catholic herself. The Scottish queen’s plotted alliance with a kinsman of Queen Elizabeth, and the richest man in the kingdom, would have further solidified her claims to the throne. The queen’s beloved coz was beheaded in 1572.
Her son-in-law, in the Tower
His son, Philip Howard, previously an aristocratic wastrel, converted to Catholicism and died a prisoner of conscience – and after long neglect of his wife, he became a devoted husband to boot.
As he lay dying in the Tower of London, he asked the queen if he could have a final visit with his wife and son, who was born during his imprisonment. The Queen responded, “If he will but once attend the Protestant Service, he shall not only see his wife and children, but be restored to his honors and estates with every mark of my royal favor.”
He replied: “Tell Her Majesty, if my religion be the cause for which I suffer, sorry I am that I have but one life to lose.”
Elizabeth Leyburne would have taken note with a motherly pride: The wife to her stepson was her own stalwart daughter, Anne Dacre, who has also been mentioned as a candidate for sainthood.
All of which makes a far more interesting story than one overheated line, recalling a love that was likely unrequited. Cooke seems rather a cold fish. One never knows, however. Even cold fish get fried.
Read the rest here or here or here. You’ll even see a photo of her precise Latin penmanship.
The college library, whether ornate or modern, digital or dusty, is in many ways the epicenter of the college experience — at least for some students. It is at once a shining emblem of vast, acquirable knowledge, a place for deep discussions and meetings of the mind, and of course, a big building full of books, which, as far as we’re concerned, is exciting enough. Colleges and universities are understandably quite proud of their libraries, which can be a selling point for prospective students and donating alumni alike, and they often become the most well-designed and beautifully adorned buildings on campus.
OK, this isn’t a Ten Best, but a 25 best. It also cheats a bit – Oxford’s many colleges are treated separately, so it gets to hog a few extra places. Cambridge claims awards for both St. John’s and Trinity; Oxford bags honors for Queen’s College, All Souls’, and the Bodleian. Commenter Ravi notes that 13 of the 25 libraries are in the U.S., and five in England – which hardly seems a global perspective, anyway.
But two of the top spots (#1 and #3) go to the Iberian peninsula, and libraries I’d never heard of: the University of Coimbra General Library in Portugal and the University of Salamanca Library in Spain. We can’t resist these photos. We can’t resist have the photos in Flavorwire‘s collection.
Closer to home ... Green Library
Among the comments: “Looks like the only criteria is a high ceiling,” grumbled Kevin. A commenter called “H” noted that “Many of the American ones look like dining halls.” Jonathan Miller commented truly: “The most beautiful library is one filled with readers. Too many of these photographs are of empty libraries.”
California gets a few of the honors: Doe Library at Berkeley gets a mention. So does UCLA’s Powell Library … but, but, but … may we make our own nomination? (One commenter, Maggie, noted the same omission).
Stanford’s Green Library is splendid, but then I’m prejudiced. I’ve spent more hours in its nooks and crannies than any other library on the planet. I used to have fantasies of the “Big One” happening while I was buried in the stacks of West 7, leaving my body forever unrecoverable beneath the books. But perhaps I would have gotten in a few quiet reading hours in the meantime.
Havel: "warm, intense, a concentration of nervous energy"
Václav Havelis dead. All the talk about the man as activist, leader, the Czech Republic’s first democratically elected president, tends to overlook the playwright and writer, renowned in the Cold War for his 145 published prison letters to his wife, Letters to Olga.
So I turned to the only Havel book in my library, Living in Truth, a collection of 22 essays by and about him, published on the occasion of the award of the Erasmus Prize in 1986.
In “Prague – A Poem not Disappearing,” Timothy Garton Ash recalls that, during the 1980s, he was “determined to visit Václav Havel.” This is what he found:
“Havel is a short, stocky man with curly blond hair; his moustache and lower face remind me of a friendly walrus. … He is warm, intense, a concentration of nervous energy. …
He talks about the nervous strain of writing under these conditions, when at any moment the police might walk in and confiscate a year’s work. How he has crept out into the woods at night and buried parts of his typescript in the hole of a tree. How as a manuscript piles up he writes faster and faster: the fear of a house search concentrates the mind wonderfully. Far more effective than any publisher’s deadline. Just yesterday he was writing about this nervous tension. Then his wife came in and said ‘The police are outside again. I’m afraid they aren’t our usual ones.’ …
Determined to visit
This is nothing compared with the conditions under which he wrote in prison. There he was not allowed to write at all, except for one letter a week to his wife – maximum four sides, and only about ‘personal matters’, as the prison regulations specify. This was his only opportunity to express himself as a writer, over a period of almost four years. If any part of a letter was unacceptable, the whole letter would be confiscated. The commandant of the prison camp at Hermanice took a sadistic delight in enforcing this instructions. … His particular delight was censoring the writer’s letters. Havel started writing a ‘cycle’ of letters about his philosophical views. He mentioned the ‘order of being’. ‘The only order you can write about’, declared the commandant, ‘is the prison order’. Then he decided Havel should not write about philosophy at all. ‘Only about yourself.’ So Havel designed another cycle of letters on the subject of his moods: sixteen of them, two to each letter, one good, one bad. And he numbered them. After eight, the commandant called him in: ‘Stop numbering your moods!’ ‘No foreign words!’ he ordered one week. ‘No underlining!’ the next. ‘No exclamation marks!!’”
"an end to the finite"
A chapter earlier, Nobel writer Heinrich Böll, in “A Courtesy Towards God,” quotes Czech politician Jiří Dienstbier that “Václav Havel was a particular target for persecution.’ His overall manner of courtesy, of having been ‘well brought up’, gave the impression that he was ‘soft and easily broken’. It was seductive. ‘Those around him reacted all the more excitedly to Havel’s unyieldingness, to this “inaccessible systematist”, who even tidied up his prison cell in so precise and presentable a fashion that it could have served as the model for the graduates of an officers’ training school.’” Then Böll adds:
“Havel nevertheless managed, in spite of the censorship, to smuggle out a scale of his moods … he devotes himself at great length to the ‘dejectedness of Sunday’, to what he calls this ‘problem of civilization bearing the name Sunday’. These moods, in particular those on Sundays, are to him ‘the typical cracks through which nothingness finds its way to man, this modern face of the Devil’. He does not shrink from calling it by name. …
‘The global wonder of existence’, that peace of mind which ‘Christians call mercy’, was also allowed through. One would have had to be a censor in order to review these letters. Is not so much metaphysics more dangerous than many a direct message? The following resulted from a particularly beautiful moment in the prison yard: ‘The more beautiful the moment, the more distinct is the growth of the eerie question: What else? What more? What now? What next? What am I to do, and what will I achieve? I would describe this as the feeling of having arrived at a kind of end to the finite.’”
The holiday season is upon us, bringing eggnog, fruitcake, plenty of brandy – and a lot of stress. Time to take a break, light up, have a smoke, and postpone that “quit” pledge till 2012…
Stop! Consider this post a Public Service Announcement. My article from earlier this week, from a new book about smoking, is perhaps the best Christmas present I can give to the readers of The Book Haven:
The cigarette industry is not dying. It continues to reap unimaginable profits. It’s still winning lawsuits. And cigarettes still kill millions every year.
Proctor, the first historian to testify in court against the tobacco industry (in 1998), warns that the worst of the health catastrophe is still ahead of us: Thanks to the long-term effects of cigarettes, “If everyone stopped smoking today, there would still be millions of deaths a year for decades to come.”
“Low-tar” cigarettes? “Light” cigarettes? Better filters? Forget it, he said. They don’t work. Today’s cigarettes are deadlier even than those made 60 years ago, gram for gram.
Half the people who smoke will die from their habit. A surprising number will die from stroke and heart attacks, not cancer.
Moreover, he asks, “How many people know that tobacco is a major cause of blindness, baldness and bladder cancer, not to mention cataracts, ankle fractures, early onset menopause, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion and erectile dysfunction?”
Six trillion cigarettes are smoked every year – that’s 6,000,000,000,000. Proctor said that’s “enough to make a continuous chain from Earth to the sun and back, with enough left over for a couple of round trips to Mars.”
His 750-page book, a decade in the making, has already earned high praise, with terms like “a real page-turner,” “a must-read,” “the most important book on smoking in 50 years.”
“This book is a remarkable compendium of evil,” wrote Columbia’s David Rosner, an author of Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. “It will keep you spinning from page one through the last. … It is the type of book that makes you wonder how, in God’s name, this could have happened.”
According to Donald Kennedy, Stanford president emeritus and former editor of the journal Science, the book “unpacks the sad history of an industrial fraud. [Proctor's] tightly reasoned exploration touches on all topics on which the tobacco makers lied repeatedly to Congress and the public.”
The hefty book has not only won him accolades, but it’s personally cost Proctor $50,000 in legal fees to defend himself against the industry, which subpoenaed his email and unpublished manuscript.
According to an article in The Nation last year, Proctor is one of only two historians who currently testify on behalf of smokers injured by tobacco products; 50 have testified on behalf of the industry. Academics from virtually every discipline have been collaborating with the Marlboro Men – and made big money doing so.
“This is the biggest breach of academic integrity since the Nazis,” he said, and “certainly the most deadly.”
Such language is typical for Proctor. When it comes to cigarettes, he speaks in provocative superlatives, pulling no punches.
Cigarettes are “the deadliest artifact in the history of civilization” – more than bullets, more than atom bombs, more than traffic accidents or wars or heroin addiction combined. They are also among “the most carefully and most craftily devised small objects on the planet.”
“The industry has spent tens of billions designing cigarettes since the 1940s – that’s from the industry’s own documents,” he said.
He also marshals evidence to show that smoking contributes substantially to environmental damage, even global warming: “When we finally decide to take seriously the problem of global climate change, cigarettes will come under increasing scrutiny. Tobacco agriculture and cigarette manufacturing have heavy carbon footprints – think deforestation and petrochemical pesticides – and cigarettes are leading causes of fires and industrial accidents. There’s not much room for cigarettes in an environmentally conscious world.”
For the industry, though, the cigarette represents the perfect business model. “It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive,” says investment guru Warren Buffett. Proctor notes that “by artfully crafting its physical character and chemistry, industry scientists have managed to create an optimally addictive drug delivery device, one that virtually sells itself.”
“There’s hundreds of things people don’t know about smoking,” said Proctor. Myths have instead lulled the public into complacency. He listed a few of the most common:
Myth #1.Nobody smokes anymore. If you read the media, smoking sounds like a dying habit in California. That’s far from true, said Proctor. Californians still smoke about 28 billion cigarettes per year, a per capita rate only slightly below the global average.
So why do we have this illusion? “We don’t count the people who don’t count. It’s not the educated or the rich who smoke anymore, it’s the poor,” said Proctor.
Also, look at popular social trends – the recent trendiness of cigars, for example. Or the current fad for hookah parties. He recalled one such event at Stanford: “They would never have a Marlboro party. But hookah is just as addictive, and just as deadly.”
Myth #2. The tobacco industry has turned over a new leaf. “The fact is that the industry has never admitted they’ve lied to the public or marketed to children or manipulated the potency of their project to create and sustain addiction,” Proctor said. “A U.S. Federal Court in 2006 found the American companies in violation of RICO racketeering laws, and nothing has changed since then. And the same techniques used in the past in the U.S. are now being pushed onto vulnerable populations abroad.”
Myth #3.Everyone knows that smoking is bad for you. Proctor pointed out that most people begin smoking at the age of 12 or 13, or even younger in some parts of the world. “Do they know everything?” Proctor asked rhetorically. “And how many people know that cigarettes contain radioactive isotopes, or cyanide, or free-basing agents like ammonia, added to juice up the potency of nicotine?”
Myth #4.Smokers like smoking, and so should be free to do it. And the industry has a right to manufacture cigarettes, even if defective. Proctor called this “the libertarian argument.”
“It is wrong to think about tobacco as a struggle between liberty and longevity; that tips the scales in favor of the industry. People will always choose liberty, as in ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ What people don’t realize is that most smokers dislike the fact they smoke, and wish they could quit. Cigarettes are actually destroyers of freedom.”
There are tobacco industry documents, he noted, in which smoking is compared not to drinking but rather to being an alcoholic. Proctor also points to how we handle other forms of toxic pollution: “We don’t allow kids to play with toys coated with lead paint. We don’t drive cars that don’t meet safety standards.”
The upshot: “People should be free to smoke wherever it harms no one else, but cigarettes as now designed are too dangerous to be produced or sold.”
Myth #5. The tobacco industry is here to stay. Global tobacco use would be declining were it not for China, where 40 percent of the world’s cigarettes are made and smoked. Proctor has a bet with a colleague, though, that China will be among the first to bar the sale of cigarettes, once their financial costs are recognized. Governments throughout the world have benefited from tobacco taxes, which he calls “the second addiction.” The costs of paying for diseases caused by smoking are high, however – especially when you count lost productivity – and governments will start winding down on tobacco, he says, once this is taken seriously.
Proctor also said that in the United States, a “Kafkaesque world” divides smokers and non-smokers. The industry has computerized databases of virtually all smokers and spends over $400 per smoker per year on special offers, coupons, sign-ups and other direct mail approaches – an unseen world to non-smokers. “This is precisely how the industry wants it; a fungus always grows best in the dark,” he writes.
Proctor admits to a personal motivation for his research. Three of his grandparents died from smoking – one from emphysema, another from lung cancer and a third from a heart attack in his mid-50s. The family blamed the last death on eating too many eggs. “That’s the story,” said Proctor, “but he smoked nonstop.”
For Proctor, then, his engagement with Big Tobacco is more than just research: “It’s part of my sense of what it means to be an ethical human being, using my expertise to do what’s right for humanity on the planet.”