Archive for September, 2012

Want to be a writer? Buy a pen.

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Want to be a writer?  Please stay out of the Paris cafés.  The French are sick of seeing you there.

Ever since Hemingway, this has been the literary equivalent of what in mountain climbing is called the “tech weenie” (that is, someone who cannot get a foot off the ground but is weighed down with $10,000’s worth of equipment). Literary skill, much less greatness, cannot be had with a pose, and exhibitionism extorts the price of failure. Also, have pity on the weary Parisians who have wanted only a citron pressé but have been unable to find a café where every single seat is not occupied by an American publicly carrying on a torrid affair with his moleskin.

This is author Mark Helprin‘s free advice in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. He sincerely wants to help out all those who are “insane enough to want to make a living in this cultural climate by writing fiction that is neither politicized, confessional, nihilistic, sexualized, sensationalist, nor crafted with the vocabulary and syntax of Dick and Jane…”  Well that leaves me out.  Perhaps he’s feeling full of himself, as he’s about to publish In Sunlight and Shadow on Tuesday (read a review here).

Forget it.

He does advise you to buy a pen.  He insists that “there’s magic in writing by hand.”  That’s where he and I part company.  I don’t see why writers wax sentimental over pens.  They are much, much slower than thought, and careful penmanship can unduly sway you about how good your writing is. An elegant hand can disguise inelegant thought more than a scribble on an envelope can. I prefer computers.  Seeing the bald words in mutable Times New Roman quickly unmasks the mediocrity of your ideas. And there’s nothing like an empty screen to intimidate you out of your torpor.

He continues joyfully:  “More valuable than speed or being struck by what you think is lightning (and others usually do not) is concentration. When asked how he managed to come up with the calculus, surely one of the greatest achievements possible for the mortal mind, Newton replied, ‘I thought of nothing else.'”

I fail again!  I think of everything else.  I think about checking my inbox, on all my accounts.  I think of checking CNN every few minutes to see if anything has exploded.  I think about how I should be concentrating more.  I think about dark chocolate – a lot.

Clearly, I’ll never be a writer.  I should just abandon decades and find another way of making a living.

Only seven readers commented to the piece so far – several are advertising pens to buy.  And Jean-Pierre Cauvin takes Helprin to task for his comment that Voltaire “wrote “Phèdre” in six days flat.”  It was Racine, of course.


Bookplate Mania, once again! Candidates for the best bookplate evah.

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

The Book Haven received a note from Jim Lewis (that’s all we know about him),  who doesn’t see why we should stop a good thing.

We’ve written about bookplate mania hereand here and here and here and here and here.   Now Jim has submitted his own candidates for the best bookplate evah. He wrote:

“I came across your blog and have enjoyed your comments about bookplates. I have collected these little gems for years and I am attaching to this e-mail, four examples of a theme that I enjoy – books/reading/library. I especially like the mood of Old Europe found in the Charlotte Wamroth plate; a book-laden table next to the open window with a view of the town’s cathedral in the distance. And then there is Florence Baird’s plate showing little angels bringing books into her library, and demons removing them.”

I have to admit a certain fondness for the little cherubs bringing the books, and the demons taking them away – but what does it all mean?

Thank you Jim, and thank you Florence Baird, Charlotte Wamroth, harpsichordist Marie Hay, and Levi W. Eaton, who seems to have a sort of UFO portrayed on his carpet.  Thank you,  whoever you are!


The writer’s life. It’s not what you think.

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Skip the therapy. Write books instead. (Photo: Sonia Lee)

Two troubled childhoods.  Two men who grew up absent the parental care all children need.  One homeless child spent time living in an urban sewer system, the other boy bounced from city to city, state to state.

A recipe for lifelong failure and therapy, yes?

Nope.  Both grew up to be award-winning writers:  one is Tobias Wolff, author of Old School, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, the other is  Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer-awarded author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and, more recently, the acclaimed Hedy’s Folly.  The two friends  spoke at a private, invitation-only only event in the Bender Room in Green Library on the evening of Sept. 17 about what it takes to become a writer.  It’s not what you think.

Both talks were so good I can do no better than share my notes with you.

Richard Rhodes: “Urban Hucky Finns”

Rhodes was born in 1937, and his mother committed suicide the following year.  He lived in a series of boarding houses in Kansas City, Missouri.

From sewers to Mars in one lifetime

Could it get worse?  It did.

His father remarried and his stepmother was abusive, not allowing the brothers in the house during the daytime.  At some point, he and his older brother Stanley did what so many abused children do:  they took to the streets of Kansas City.

Rhodes recalled “I think of us as urban Hucky Finns,” he said.  Far from feeling sorry for himself, he recalled it as an adventure.

“The big city junkyard wasn’t fenced off from the world. I could wander around there and discover pieces of the world,” he said.  “The vacuum tubes smelled of hot varnish.  Baby strollers and tricycles and all those wheels.  Pieces of automobiles.”

At one point, he took apart a sewing machine he found and put it back together again – and had two extra pieces leftover.  “I felt that I had made a breakthrough.”

“It doesn’t surprise me I became interested in science and technology,” he said.

The brothers went through the dumpsters for food.  A half-eaten hamburger was something to be prized: “To brush off the cigarette ash, was to have something really wonderful.”

Ethical robots

Sewers were for the summers.  He remembers tunnels that were 12 feet in diameter. “They didn’t have sewage in them, they just had water in them … and a healthy population of rats.”

The brothers would pop up for fresh air at various points in the city through the manhole covers in the street, “no doubt scaring people.”  At that time – he was about 10 or 11 – he remembers reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  It matched his life.

“It was so wonderful … it was still the first big novel I ever read,” he said.

“By the time I got to adolescence, I was really fascinated by science fiction.”  In particular, he was impressed by Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, exploring the ethics of being a robot.”

“Trivial as it sounds, it was my first encounter with philosophy and ethics.”  Then Albert Schweitzer’s My Life and Thought showed him “a way to think of moral issue of world.”

In 1949, his older brother went to the police.  The brothers were told that they were “obviously starved.” Stanley Rhodes was  5’ 4” and weighed 98 pounds.

The boys went to a farm – a “very empowering business,” Rhodes recalled.  Then, the miracle, or as he put it, “I got lucky.”  He was offered a four-year, all-expenses-paid scholarship to Yale.

Yale was not exactly like home.  “I was feeling as if landing on Mars.”

Tobias Wolff – call him “Jack”

“My folks separated and quickly divorced when I about 5,” Tobias Wolff said. “My father was not good about support.” His mother worked at the Dairy Queen during the day, while she took nighttime secretarial classes.

"Books seemed to come from another planet."

The local library was his babysitter. “I found myself going to the library a lot.”

“I spent a lot of time in those libraries, feeling safe.” Palo Alto’s cozy College Terrace branch library is akin to the libraries he remembers.

Although he is “not at all nostalgic for world grew up with” in the 1950s, “there’s an intimacy about that world I remember fondly. It’s one of the things that stayed with me.”

He developed an addiction for the novels of Albert Payson Terhune, who wrote such immortal classics as The Faith of a Collie.  “I read all those books, one after another.”

“He wrote about Collie dogs. That’s all he wrote about. He had no other subject,” he said.  “He did his best to stay within bounds of Collie psychology,” said Toby – even to the edges of canine ESP.  In one novel, “the Master joins up in the great effort of World War I.” Back home, the dog suffers, knowing his Master has fallen in Belgium.  “This dog gets himself to Belgium, finds the man and pulls him to safety.”

Relief was on the way.  When he was 10 or 11, one prescient librarian asked him read the works of Jack London.  She pulled White Fang off the shelf for him. “Then I read everything by Jack London.”

He changed his name to Jack Wolff.  “My mother agreed to let me change my name on condition I was baptized at the Church of the Madeleine.” In Salt Lake City, where they lived, he was one of two children in his school who was not Mormon. “She was terrified I would become a Mormon.”  Baptism was a fair trade for a name like Jack.

Inspiration ... where you can find it.

“I was beginning to write imitations. To build a fire,” he said. “Books seemed to come from another planet. I really did it out of love, and for the pleasure of writing down stories that were read only by my mother for years.”

If being a “professional writer” means making a profit on one’s writing, he made it early, giving copies of stories to his friends to turn in for extra credit.

When his memoir This Boy’s Life came out, he got a call from one of his boyhood pals from Washington state, who was living in Alaska. “I hear there’s this book and I’m in it,” he said.

The pal had turned in for extra credit the far-fetched story of a family of Italian acrobats and domineering patriarch. In the finale, he dives  into pool of water from great height.  The family had taken out insurance on his life, drained pool, and painted it blue.  The End.

“What grade did she give you?” he asked.  “She gave me a ‘C’,” he replied.

“I thought it was an ‘A’ story,” Toby replied thoughtfully.  Apparently, the teacher agreed. “I think it’s an ‘A’ story,” she told the budding plagiarist.  “But you didn’t write that. Jack Wolff wrote that.”

His attendance at Pennsylvania’s Hill School changed his life.  The school emphasized literature, and writers like Robert Frost, William Golding were treasured.

The rest of that story is told in his memoirs.  He lost his scholarship for repeated failures in mathematics. He went into the army, and then to Vietnam.  “Even in army kept writing. I was conscious of myself as someone who wanted to be writing.”

“A very Saroyan thing to do…”

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

The man from Moscow

Last week, an awards ceremony fêted the two winners in the fifth William Saroyan International Prize for Writing at Stanford’s Green Library. Each of the two winners takes $5,000, as well as a nifty little crystal book engraved with a Saroyan self-portrait and the particulars of the event, which is  sponsored by Stanford University Libraries and the William Saroyan Foundation.  (Alas! I cannot find a photo of the glass books anywhere!)

The event was informal and, for fiction winner Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories (Faber and Faber, 2011), it was a triumphal return to campus, where (in a pleasant coincidence) he had been a Jones lecturer and a Wallace Stegner fellow in the Stanford English Department’s Creative Writing Program. He now teaches way up north at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho.  Yes, he is as charming and affable as his photo (at left) suggests.

For non-fiction winner Elisabeth Tova Bailey, a visit to Stanford was not an option.  As she describes in her book, travel is somewhat difficult for the author, who has been waylaid by the illness she describes in The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010).  But she delivered these words, which were read at the reception:

“Could I really write a whole book about a snail? It’s the questions that haunt us that take us on the most interesting journeys. Imagine the startled and dubious looks I received when confessing that I was not only writing a book about an individual snail, but it was an adult book! The minuteness of my topic was a conversation stopper.

“Yes, there is mystery and grace in the life of a snail, even romance and sometimes humor! Having chosen my main character I realized I was in a sticky situation, I was going to have to write an entire chapter on slime and another on the strange rituals of gastropod courtship. I thought of all the writers who would love to dip their pens into such topics, but my subject had clearly chosen me.

“When a specific snail came into my life unexpectedly it captured my attention by going about its life. As I observed its nightly adventures I learned that my snail had an epicurean appetite, an opinion on the most comfortable places to sleep, a love life, a memory, complex defense mechanisms, and enviable natural abilities, all of which put human limits into perspective, and that was humbling.

He ought to know.

“At an early age, I fell in love with sentences and the places they took me. Writing a book has allowed me to travel even further. Why write a sentence unless it can take one on a journey both literary and interesting? Thank you for recognizing these aspects of my small book about a humble mollusk.”

Orozco, however, wasn’t expecting to speak at all, and had to ad lib for the occasion – he delivered his intentional gibberish with improvised brio: “I don’t have any prepared remarks to make.  I’m hoping to spend most of this time. I don’t have any prepared remarks, but I don’t have any time.  Good reviews, bad reviews – it’s a surprise, and it’s wonderful.”

I’m not sure I got that quite right.  I’m not sure anyone could.

But Hank Saroyan, the author’s nephew and one of the judges for the contest, seemed pleased with Orozco’s response to his crisis.  “It’s a very Saroyan thing to do,” he said.


Hannah Arendt on times “when there was only wrong and no outrage”

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Light-seeking missile

One of the joys of having office space in a major university library is that, well, you never have to go to the library.  You are already there.

On my way to the stairs I passed a book I had seen footnoted or recommended, somewhere – Hannah Arendt‘s Men in Dark Times.  It seemed to jump out at me from the shelves – so I grabbed the volume and continued on my way.

To posterity

Arendt lived in the long afterglow of the German Enlightenment, so it’s no surprise that this collection of essays, written from about 1955 to 1968 for various publications and occasions, should favor Germans – Lessing, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht.  But there are some surprises, too – her friend Randall Jarrell, Isak Dineson, and Pope John XXIII, among others.

Why the title with its reference to “dark times”? She explains:

“I borrow the term from Brecht’s famous poem ‘To Posterity,’ which mentions the disorder and the hunger, the massacres and the slaughterers, the outrage over injustice and the despair ‘when there was only wrong and no outrage,’ the legitimate hatred that makes you ugly nevertheless, the well-founded wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse. All this was real enough as it took place in public; there was nothing secret or mysterious about it. And still, it was by no means visible to all, nor was it at all easy to perceive it; for until the very moment when catastrophe overtook everything and everybody, it was covered up not by realities but by the highly efficient talk and double-talk of nearly all official representatives who, without interruption and in many ingenious variations, explained away unpleasant facts and justified concerns.

No surprise.

When we think of dark times and of people living and moving in them, we have to take this camouflage, emanating from and spread by ‘the establishment’ – or ‘the system,’ as it was then called – also into account. If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Let there be light.

…even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth – this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn.  Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of the blazing sun. But such objective evaluation seems to me a matter or secondary importance which can be safely left to posterity.”


Philip Gourevitch: “Memory can be a kind of disease.”

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

Gourevitch: Telling stories

On July 25, I wrote about the New Yorker‘s Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, and his talk that night at Stanford – it’s here.  It was standard hit-and-run coverage: you go to a talk, take copious notes, write it up and – bam! – it’s on a blog within hours.  Not the same experience as sitting down with someone, one on one, for several hours of  conversation.

Cécile Alduy got that privilege the same day, before his talk.  The results of her interview have been published in the current issue of the Boston Review.  Here’s an excerpt.  You can read the whole 5,500-word interview here.

Cécile Alduy: In your writing, you always find a balance between bringing in the long history to understand the way things develop over time and the very detailed hour-to-hour reporting on how it happened. How is your job different from that of an historian?

Philip Gourevitch: Above all, I suppose, to be a good historian you don’t necessarily have to be a good storyteller. You can be a good historian by virtue of making a contribution to the field without making a direct contribution to literature or public understanding. What historians, or anthropologists, or political scientists are interested in can overlap considerably with my interests, but the methodology, discipline, and long-term purpose are really different. I mean, I’m first and last a writer. If I weren’t writing about Rwanda right now, I’d be writing about something else entirely; and if I weren’t writing reportage, I would be writing fiction or plays. That’s not true of most historians who are going to write about Rwanda. They’re going to be coming at it as Rwandanologists. They’re going to be Africanists. They’re going to be Genocide Studies people. They’re going to be legal scholars or professors of postcolonial studies. And their frame of reference will be largely prescribed by that academic discipline—which is, I guess, as it should be.


Cécile Alduy:  … In an oral tradition, it might be even more apparent that history is all those little myths that you recombine to carry yourself forward as a collective. I sense that throughout the material that you write about, you’re interested in showing that fluctuating relationship of a people with its own story and that we’re not going to have a neat little package at the end—

Philip Gourevitch: Yes. But I do think that mixed in with what you call myths there’s such a thing as the truth. There are solid truths and demonstrable falsehoods in there. We may not always be able to get to know them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And the history that interests me most is the history we’re in the midst of—and that means it’s hotly contested history. In Rwanda, where there has been so much killing, it’s also very raw, very open. Questions of crime and punishment hover over so many of the stories there, which means that the people involved are also thinking about their relationship to accountability, what they want from the telling. There’s a lot of accusation and defense—and whether trials and judgments are anticipated, or feared, or in progress, or have been concluded, is always something you have to factor in.

But what really interests me ultimately is not to record the past, so much as how people live with the past and get on with it. There’s a kind of fetishization of memory in our culture. Some of it comes from the experience and the memorial culture of the Holocaust—the injunction to remember. And it also comes from the strange collision of Freud and human rights thinking—the belief that anything that is not exposed and addressed and dealt with is festering and going to come back to destroy you. This is obviously not true. Memory is not such a cure-all. On the contrary, many of the great political crimes of recent history were committed in large part in the name of memory. The difference between memory and grudge is not always clean. Memories can hold you back, they can be a terrible burden, even an illness. Yes, memory—hallowed memory—can be a kind of disease. That’s one of the reasons that in every culture we have memorial structures and memorial days, whether for personal grief or for collective historical traumas. Because you need to get on with life the rest of the time and not feel the past too badly. I’m not talking about letting memory go. The thing is to contain memory, and then, on those days, or in those places, you can turn on the tap and really touch and feel it. The idea is not oblivion or even denial of memory. It’s about not poisoning ourselves with memory.

I think that people live many story lines at once, and that we make choices within them, without always being aware how our decisions will be balanced or thrown off balance by the big ideas and the big forces that organize our time and place. We’re none of us free of larger powers, but no larger power is free of us either. And, to me, in many places that I’ve looked at (Abu Ghraib as much as Rwanda) what’s interesting is that accordion relationship between ordinary lives and state power. That’s where historical experience happens—at that intersection of private and public dramas. That’s the crossroads where I like to report and to write.

Salman Rushdie: “I’ve got a house, I’m going home. Protect me.”

Friday, September 21st, 2012


Breyten Breytenbach, an unnamed editor, Philip Gourevitch, and the man himself (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Bright spots  in dark times: My photographer friend Zygmunt Malinowski dropped a note to say he enjoyed the Tom Lehrer video in my post a few days ago, about First Amendment freedoms and  Iranian crazies raising the bounty on Salman Rushdie‘s head.  Then he asked me if I’d see the New York Times‘ Q&A with Rushdie, who has just published a book, Joseph Anton, describing his time in hiding after the 1989 Valentine’s Day fatwa.

Rushdie’s response to the news of $3.3 million for his death:  “I’m not inclined to magnify this ugly bit of headline grabbing by paying it much attention.” In his interview with Charles McGrath, he recalled the imposition of the fatwa, and the day “my picture of the world got broken”:

“We all have that — we all have a picture of the world we live in and we think we know what shape it has and where we are in it. Another word for that would be sanity. And then suddenly it was very difficult to know what shape the world was and where I stood in it and how to act. All these decisions we make and suddenly I didn’t know anything. Another name for that is insanity. I do think there was a period there when my sanity was under intense pressure and I didn’t know what to say or do or how to act. I was literally living from day to day.”

Rushdie unevenly occupies the momentous role that has been given him. He has always struck a disheartening pose, seesawing between cerebral heroism and the uncharitable dig at an ex-wife, between high-mindedness and silliest self-serving vanity – he’s too small for the historic chair he sits in.  So let’s pick out the best.  Here are a couple highlights from the interview (you can read the whole thing here):

Q. … the book also has a bigger agenda. It’s meant to document something important?

A. I found myself caught up in what you could call a world historical event. You could say it’s a great political and intellectual event of our time, even a moral event. Not the fatwa, but the battle against radical Islam, of which this was one skirmish. There have been arguments made even by liberal-minded people, which seem to me very dangerous, which are basically cultural relativist arguments: We’ve got to let them do this because it’s their culture. My view is no. … Killing people because you don’t like their ideas — it’s a bad thing. We have to be able to have a sense of right and wrong which is not diluted by this kind of relativistic argument. And if we don’t we really have stopped living in a moral universe.

Q. What advice do you have for someone who might find himself under a similar threat?

A. Two bits of advice, really. One has to do with the head and the other is practical. The thing in the head is: Don’t compromise. It’s a question of self-knowledge, knowing who you are And why you did what you did. Stand up for it. The other thing is that if I were to do it again, I would refuse the hiding. I’d say: “I’ve got a house, I’m going home. Protect me.”

“I felt at home,” said Arthur Miller. Now his home will be ripped down.

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

The young Hopwood winner

Pulitzer prizewinning playwright Arthur Miller was born and reared in New York City – but he loved Ann Arbor, where he attended university.  Go figure.

It would be swell if Ann Arbor returned the love, but it appears the city is about to tear down his digs at 439 South Division Street.  The street holds memories for me – I lived at 701 South Division.  For one academic year, I lived even closer to his ghost, around the corner on Thompson Street, somewhere in the 500 block.

So how did he wind up so far away from the endless pavements of Manhattan?  “Miller’s father, a practical-minded businessman, was amazed to hear of a faraway school called Michigan that would actually pay students money for writing.  His son told him about the prestigious Avery Hopwood Awards, built from a legacy given by  another MIchigan alumnus who had made a fortune on Broadway with such slight bedroom farces as Getting Gertie’s Garter and Up in Mabel’s Room … Miller’s father was impressed, but he reminded his son that he had to make some money first – before trying his hand at the Hopwoods.” Elnora Nelson writes in Arthur Miller’s America: Theater and Culture in a Time of Change: “He arrived in Ann Arbor after a circuitous bus ride and a hitchhike, he said, quite simply, ‘I felt at home.”

From Ryan Stanton at

A house where famous playwright Arthur Miller once lived when he attended the University of Michigan could be demolished if no one steps forward to buy it and relocate it.

That’s what U-M officials indicated at a neighborhood meeting Thursday night as they gave an update on the $29 million expansion of U-M’s Institute for Social Research building.

The 3,210-square-foot wooden house at 439 S. Division St. stands next to the ISR building, a block south of downtown Ann Arbor, and was Miller’s first residence when he attended U-M in 1934.

“I just think it should be known, before it is demolished, what it is,” said Ann Arbor resident Marilyn Bigelow, a self-described informal historian who showed up to Thursday’s meeting to let U-M officials know she’ll be fighting to preserve the house, which dates back to the late 1800s.

420 Maynard, home of the 5-cent Cokes.

Of course the article includes photos:  The homely wooden buildings of an earlier era, the soulless dark-glass facade of the Institute for Social Research, which needs ever more space, ever more parking.  (The new $29 million expansion will have a “green roof,” of course.)  The relics of Ann Arbor’s most eminent writers – Arthur Miller during the 1930s, Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky in the immediate years after his exile, briefly Robert Frost and W.H. Auden – don’t stand a chance.  Not even a plaque to commemorate the building I must have walked past hundreds of times.

“Although most Miller studies trace the beginning of his literary career at Michigan to his undergraduate submissions to the Hopwood Awards Committee, he first made his mark in Ann Arbor as a writer for the Michigan Daily.”  It was then, and is still, at 420 Maynard Street, a few convenient blocks away from our homes on South Division (and Thompson).  I expect the 5-cent Cokes that formed the main of our diet in the 1970s were much the same as he had swallowed – and the hot-type presses were already pleasantly passé in my time.  In my era, Tom Hayden had cut a greater swath in the Daily‘s consciousness – I remember Hayden on a return visit to the offices, to talk to the editors about Indochina.  But Miller’s influence has proved the deeper and more lasting one.  And we both got two Hopwoods in the end.

In his autobiography Timebends, Miller reflects much on the radical legacy of Ann Arbor and the Daily.  But I liked this paragraph the best:

“In the thirties, one of Ann Arbor’s small-town charms for me was its reassuring contrast with dog-eat-dog New York, where a man could lie dying on Fifth Avenue in the middle of an afternoon and it would take a long time before anybody stopped to see what was the matter with him. A short ten or twenty years later people were looking back at the thirties nostalgically, as a time and caring and mutuality.”


Who’s next? One by one, we fall off the “free speech” bandwagon…

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Many nonsensical things have been written about First Amendment rights since a completely obscure schleppe made an anti-Islam  Youtube video that sparked riots across the Islam world.

Salman Rushdie has come out on cue with a disappointing statement, and in “Does ‘Innocence of Muslims’ meet the free-speech test?Sarah Chayes at the Los Angeles Times discusses actions that might fall outside protected speech, arguing that First Amendment freedoms distinguish between speech that is simply offensive and speech that deliberately aims to put lives at immediate risk. She concludes:


“Finally, much 1st Amendment jurisprudence concerns speech explicitly advocating violence, such as calls to resist arrest, or videos explaining bomb-making techniques. But words don’t have to urge people to commit violence in order to be subject to limits, says [First Amendment authority Anthony] Lewis. ‘If the result is violence, and that violence was intended, then it meets the standard.’

“Indeed, Justice Holmes’ original example, shouting ‘fire’ in a theater, is not a call to arms. Steve Klein, an outspoken anti-Islamic activist who said he helped with the film, told Al Jazeera television that it was ‘supposed to be provocative.’ The egregiousness of its smears, the apparent deception of cast and crew as to its contents and the deliberate effort to raise its profile in the Arab world a week before 9/11 all suggest intentionality.

You can read the rest here – but don’t skip the comments.  Problem is, the vague wish to be  “provocative” doesn’t necessarily anticipate torched embassies, murdered people, and riots in 20-or-so nations.

For myself, I wish we were called upon more often to defend heroic, brilliant, artistically accomplished efforts at free speech, and less often called to defend idiotic, immature, and deliberately offensive expressions of free speech. But on the other hand, someone may find my statements fit into exactly that category.  In fact, I believe someone said so just the other day.

Hence, the most eminently sane comment came, as it often does, from my colleague medievalist Jeff Sypeck over at Quid Plura?  An excerpt:

… I wrote a book in which Muslims guzzle wine, Jews own slaves, and Christians kill in the name of religion—so even when the spotlight is on some inept, ne’er-do-well “filmmaker” and a loony pastor, I don’t find it hard to imagine myself in their shoes. As I wrote in 2010:“If doodles can incite worldwide riots, how can I know that my 20-page depiction of a liberal, even libertine, Baghdad won’t light a madman’s fuse?”

Should that happen, I hope I won’t be condemned by diplomats, denounced by the Secretary of State, investigated by the Department of Justice, or blamed by the White House. I hope the government won’t ask publishers and distributors of my work to consider shutting me down. I hope my supporters won’t get phone calls from generals. I hope I won’t be encouraged to hide. I hope artists, writers, and scholars will realize it could be them next.

Read the whole thing here.  It’s short, readable, and to-the-point.

So who’s next?  Tom Lehrer’s tune from the 1960s was running through my head as I wrote… I checked it out on Youtube, and though it’s on a different subject entirely, what the hey…I include it for the fun of it…

Christopher Plummer playing Vladimir Nabokov talking about Franz Kafka.

Monday, September 17th, 2012

The genuine article.

It’s not quite Vladimir Nabokov (witness the video of the real thing on video here), but rather the actor Christopher Plummer takes a shot at performing the Russian author, who taught at Cornell University  from 1948 to 1959.

There doesn’t appear to be much online about Peter Medak‘s short television film from 1989, Nabokov on Kafka, which dramatizes Nabokov’s lectures on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.  Despite NEH funding and TV airing, this film seems to have pretty much disappeared from public awareness.  Certainly I had never heard of it before.  Anyone know anything about this quirky show?

Thanks to 3quarksdaily for pointing it out.