Archive for June, 2013

Czesław Miłosz: “Literature is a great vanity fair.”

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

rubensIt’s Czesław Miłosz‘s birthday today.  He would have been 103.  Somehow it didn’t seem right to write of anything else on this anniversary.  A friend, Artur Sebastian Rosman, asked me about a passage in the Nobel poet’s Native Realm.  Naturally, I couldn’t find it – somewhere in the house there is a monster who has eaten all the books I cannot find.  But I did find A Year of the Hunter, his 1987-88 diary that is addictive and easily digestible in small chunks – I have penciled passages and post-its all through the volume.

Here’s a page on vanity – no particular reason, except it was a theme he returned to more than once, and was marked in my book by a thick Verizon bill:


I have always thought that consciousness is therapeutic. That is, that it avoids repetition of what has once been assimilated, even to the extent that it is possible to ward off death, since we are conscious of the repetitive nature of death. This proves that my mind was mythologizing and childlike. How many printed pages have been devoted, for example, to human vanity! It has been analyzed this way and that, and to no avail; those who are most conscious of its subterfuges yield to it and lay themselves open to the mockery of their fellows who are clever at tracking down the faults of others, but not their own.

miloszVanity is one of the chief comic seasonings of the human spectacle; if one were to take away vanity and take away sex, not much would be left of natural, so to speak, humor. Maybe Eros is vain, and all vanity is erotic? Now my imagination suggests a treatise on mirrors. On a vast number, thousands, of mirrors, and on the faces that have looked at themselves in those mirrors. Teenage girls and mature women, the combing of hair, hour-long sessions thinking about noses, chins, curls, necklaces, and earrings, how I look today, how will he see me today, whether this dress is sufficiently flattering. Mirrors ought to retain at least a storehouse of glances left behind by all those beings, but there is not a trace. And then men! Predatory – conquering nostrils, overpowering sideburns, a look of irresistable male power, the preening of roosters.  It is easy to laugh; only we ourselves were once him and her.

hunterOther types of vanity; for example, authorial vanity … In old age, vanity seeks confirmation of our existence. That is, an intelligent essay or a book about our poetry reminds us that we did exist; after all, we did write – the consciousness of which, despite what one might think, is definitely not present at all times.

birthday cakeLiterature is a great vanity fair; just the sight of it evokes empty laughter and dread. The ranks of people who write poems, novels, plays grow with every year, but hte hopes of those who aspire to the profession are mostly deceptive, and among those who are published, the majority strut about in vain. What do they want? To be liked. Eros, just as in front of the mirror.


Party hats for Big Brother: Utrecht celebrates Orwell’s birthday

Friday, June 28th, 2013

Party games! Where’s Waldo? Can you find the hat?


The city of Utrecht celebrated George Orwell‘s 110th birthday on Tuesday, the 25th, with unusual panache, thanks to two guys over at FRONT404, who decorated the surveillance cameras at the city center.  What better way to celebrate the author of ‘1984’, which describes a dystopian future society where the populace is constantly watched by the surveillance state of Big Brother? Kind of like ours. 

utrecht3“By putting these happy party hats on the surveillance cameras, we don’t just celebrate Orwell’s birthday. By making these inconspicuous cameras that we ignore in our daily lives catch the eye again, we also create awareness of how many cameras really watch us nowadays, and that the surveillance state described by Orwell is getting closer and closer to reality,” Thomas voor Hekke and Bas van Oerle wrote on the project’s website.

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.” – George Orwell, 1984

See the rest of the photos at Front404 here.  And a hat tip to Jim Erwin for turning me on to this celebration.



Are there better ways to defend the humanities? Peter Wood thinks so.

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

If a petal falls in the forest, does anyone hear?

The disses continue to roll in for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Heart of the Matter, a 61-page report, plus appendices, defending the humanities, and attempting to cajole Congress into opening its wallet.

I just watched the video (it’s below). I agree with Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, over at Minding the Campus, that the beautifully produced video is … well, a bit lightweight.  He writes:  “I have to wonder how carefully thought-out The Heart of the Matter is.  If the goal was merely to perform some old songs from the songbook, or to twirl the lasso around in lasso tricks, I guess these bland formulations will do.  But it would have been nice to see an intellectually more serious effort.  The humanities haven’t existed forever.  They are a division of human inquiry and teaching that grew out of a particular tradition.  Humanistic learning was, for many generations, deemed essential for the man who sought to enter public life, and it was also taken as the indispensable grounding for the worthy life of a free individual.”

Here’s my own gripe: the film opens with  actor John Lithgow explaining that the humanities are the “beautiful flower” at the end of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).  Huh?  Is, say, the history of the Stalinist purges somehow secondary and subsidiary to the newest widget?  This does nothing to challenge the notion of the humanities as the poor, slightly dotty cousin of the “real” sciences.  You know, the ones that get you a “real” job.

Wood takes on both the written report and the accompanying video:


He wants more.

With a piano softly playing Christian Sinding‘s Rustles of Spring in the background and a camera exploring the petals of a yellow gerbera, Lithgow continues, “Without the blossom, the stem is completely useless.”  Cut to George Lucas, Rustling Spring pianissimo: “The sciences are the how and the humanities are the why.” Cut to the Milky Way with Lucas’s voiceover, segueing to architect Billie Tsien, “The measurable is what we know and the immeasurable is what the heart searches for.”

The video portion of the Heart of the Matter is beautifully produced, as I suppose one might expect from a commission that included Ken Burns as well as George Lucas.  But it is, I suspect, not terribly persuasive.  It comes across as the high-minded extolling high-mindedness and perhaps thinking a little too well of themselves for their act of generosity.

After enumerating several other problems with the report, he concludes.

But that’s just a petal falling from the “beautiful flower.”  The video, with Rustles of Spring tinkling underneath the somber voices of Yo-Yo Ma, Earl Lewis, David Brooks, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Sandra Day O’Connor, etc. is little more than a parade of balloons but it has the charm of well-picked metaphors.  The report, alas, has not even that.

Is there a better way to promote the humanities?  I am inclined to think the humanities thrive when the humanists are self-evidently offering good and important work.  The humanities decline when they descend into triviality.  The answer to a nation skeptical of these disciplines is not more balloons, nor better metaphors, or even better-crafted reports.  It is better work.

See what you think of Wood’s argument here.  And don’t forget to watch the video below:


Orwell Watch #24: And the prize goes to … Stanley Fish!

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

stanley-fishAm I the only one dispirited by current conversation about “defending” the humanities?  Apparently, Stanley Fish feels exactly the same way – he talks about it in the New York Times here.  He takes aim at a report recently published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences titled “The Heart of the Matter.”  He starts his attack with some of the fluffy verbiage surrounding the claims the report makes for the humanities:

“The humanities and social sciences provide an intellectual framework and context for understanding and thriving in a complex world.”

“A thorough grounding in these subjects allows citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.”

The humanities and social sciences “enable us to participate in a global economy that requires understanding of diverse cultures and sensitivity to different perspectives.”

No wonder I get depressed.  Fish does, too:

In each of these sentences, and many others that might be instanced, the key words — “framework,” “context,” “complex,” “meaningfully,” “understanding,” “diverse,” “sensitivity,” “perspectives” — are spectacularly empty; just where specificity is needed, sonorous abstraction blunts the edge of what is being asserted, rendering it unexceptionable (no one’s against understanding, complexity and meaningfulness) and without bite.

Then the Milton scholar tackles the equally empty recommendations:

The eternal skeptic on the side of the...

The eternal skeptic on the side of the…

“Increase NEH funding.” Fine idea, but only political efforts of a kind not mentioned here will do that trick. College teachers should “reach out” to their colleagues in K-12. Sure, let’s have a joint bake sale or a dance. “Embrace the chance to connect with the larger community.” What exactly does “connect with” mean and where does the “chance” reside? “Deepen knowledge of other cultures.” Add “deepen” to the list of words that say nothing. Develop “intercultural skills.” First tell me what they are and how they differ from mono-cultural skills. “Expand the pool of qualified teachers.” Wait a moment while I wave my magic wand. “Promote Language Learning.” Yes, that’s something we could and should do, but it will take money, and money has systematically been withdrawn from public higher education for decades.

The report alludes to this unhappy fact, but doesn’t take it up. Nor does it take up the converging factors that accelerate the rush to vocationalism and short-term payoffs — the mania for online education, unsupportable student debt, rising costs in every area of a college’s operation, the Internet’s preference for chunked-up bits of information, the elimination or radical downsizing of French, Russian, German, religious studies, theater and other programs because they cannot be justified under zero-based budgeting assumptions.

Da Man

Somewhere he’s smiling.

The wish to make humanities “relevant,” and apply it to “the great challenges of the era” is part of the problem, he thinks, turning away from the notion of the humanities “as a cloistered and separate area in which inquiry is engaged in for its own sake and not because it yields useful results,” he writes. “It is the rejection of this contemplative ideal in favor of various forms of instrumentalism that underlies the turn away from the humanist curriculum. The rhetoric of the report puts its authors on the side of that ideal, but when push comes to shove, they are all too ready to dilute it in the name of some large abstraction — democracy, culture, social progress, whatever. They are, in short, all too ready to depart from the heart of the matter.”

Might we add that a central concern of the humanities is the use of language itself – for truth, understanding, or simply pleasure?  As opposed to language used to muddy, distract, and hide.  The way our gummint uses it, for example.  Somehow, language has been taken hostage by the marketing and public relations people, as well as government bureaucracies, and we have to get it back.

birthday cakeRead the rest of Fish’s piece here.  Fish has had a chunk of my own heart since, during a lonely wander through the Stanford Bookstore, I stumbled upon one of his hefty volumes on John Milton, and bought it.  It fit the moment perfectly.

Postscript:  Apologies, Mr. Orwell!  We didn’t realize that today is your 110th b’day!  No wonder he’s smiling.  Here’s a cake we baked.


“The fiercest poet of our time”: Anne Stevenson on Sylvia Plath

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013
Anne Stevenson

Beleaguered biographer

The fur is already flying after the publication of Terry Castle‘s controversial New York Review of Books piece on Sylvia Plathas I predicted when I wrote about it hereElaine Showalter tweeted that it was “hatchet job of the year,” among other tweets. And Joyce Carol Oates weighed in with her own angry tweets.  The mysterious Jackson-area blogger known as “Thus Blogged Anderson” has a post here. There’s more to come.

Terry mentioned a friend of mine,  Anne Stevenson, in passing.  Ted Hughes’ sister, Terry writes, “has been a polarizing figure in Plath studies—not least (according to her enemies) for having browbeaten Anne Stevenson, who wrote the only ‘authorized’ Plath biography, Bitter Fame: The Life of Sylvia Plath (1989), into promoting mainly the Hughes family view of Plath. (Stevenson, to be sure, emphasized Sylvia’s mania and shrewishness and, yes, presented Ted Hughes as perhaps more sinned against than sinning.)”

The New Yorker‘s Janet Malcolm, author of Silent Woman, the highly acclaimed study of the Plath estate and scholarship about Plath, had a slightly different opinion. Malcolm lauded Stevenson, saying hers was “by far the most intelligent and the only aesthetically satisfying” Plath biography.

I had a long interview with Anne in Durham over a dozen years ago, before she was the inaugural winner of the Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award and bagged a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award and the Neglected Masters Award from the Poetry Foundation of America. The interview was published online in The Cortland Review here

Said Anne:

“But I will say this about Sylvia Plath: she always tucked that pocket of air between herself and her poems. Her poems are powerful because she was essentially an artist before she was a woman or an American or anything else. When she wrote, she had this wonderful hard-headed objectivity. It was when she wasn’t writing that she betrayed herself. But we can agree with Olwyn Hughes [Ted’s sister and Plath’s longtime literary executor] that as an artist, she’s unassailable. That’s why her poems are so powerful; they are much more, very much more, than self-expression. They express the agony of betrayal as well as any poems I’ve ever read. They are wonderful, but the gap between the girl and the artist was enormous. To me, her talent was so much bigger than her personality, it must have been very difficult to carry all this power of language and yet, in the end, realize it couldn’t save her.”

Then this exchange:


“the pure gold honey bee”

AS: Yes.

CH: And Lucas Myers‘ is so anti-American.

AS: No, I don’t think he was, really.

CH: Oh, he says some pretty offensive things.

AS: Yes, maybe he was trying to be more English than the English.

CH: T.S. Eliot had already won that prize. But I think those accounts gave Bitter Fame a flavor. It gave an inevitability to Sylvia Plath’s story—she does seem a sort of Daisy Miller through it all. Even Hughes’s Birthday Letters reveals a remarkable amount of national stereotyping: “You were a new world. My new world. So this is America,” “long, perfect American legs,” “your exaggerated American grin,” “an American girl, being so American.” One wonders: Did he see her?

AS: Of course, he wasn’t in any way a stereotype of southern England. He was very, very much a product of Yorkshire, and that’s another complication. I’ve always had the highest respect for Ted as a poet and a man because he never kowtowed to the establishment. He didn’t become an academic; he wasn’t ambitious, except to write poetry; he wasn’t ambitious for position. I think he was pleased to be asked to be poet laureate, but he wasn’t working at it. He certainly didn’t work at literary politics at all; he had nothing to do with that; he was horrified by it. And I’d have to say Sylvia, too, was of a mind with Ted. They both were dedicated—seriously dedicated—artists, but, of course, their very dedication and their lack of self-knowledge… I don’t think Ted knew himself at all in those early days, and Sylvia seems to have absorbed advice from everybody: from Ted, from [Plath’s therapist] Ruth Beuscher as a young child, from her mother, so it was awfully hard for her to find herself, and I think she did have a—how do you put it now? A weak sense of identity? I did, too, when I came to England. So you go to everybody for advice and take it from everybody you respect, and then they betray you. How very Henry James. It is Henry James. It struck me right away that Sylvia’s was a Jamesian story.

CH: You wrote three poems for Sylvia Plath. Were they written at the time you were writing the biography?

AS: Yes. Yes.

CH: So those poems are your own say?

AS: That was my own say. I think they more or less say what I had to say.

CH: They’re wonderful. …  The one where you call Plath “the pure gold honey bee” and “the fiercest poet of our time”? …

AS: I don’t know. Oh dear, every time I think about Sylvia Plath I groan. I’m so tired of the whole saga!

CH: I’ll bet you are. It will all be coming out again with the new journals, the revelations from Emory University [where Hughes’s papers are archived], and with the biographies of Ted Hughes, by Elaine Feinstein and Diane Middlebrook.

AS: They’re welcome to do what they do. I’ll never write another biography about a living person.

CH: And yet, you yourself have written: “Writing a biography of Sylvia Plath convinced me that poetry today is at a turning point. Nostalgic wistfulness, individual self-pity, political idealism, angst, fury, vindictiveness, all the emotional magnets of the Romantics, are, in the last analysis, fictions. They have been replaced in poetry, in the twentieth century, chiefly by abstract experiment with language, which, of course, is starvation fare for poets.” So where is the balance between subjectivity and objectivity?

AS: One has to maintain a distance, an air pocket between the poet and the poem—a pocket of objectivity. The poem isn’t an expression of what you could say better in ordinary language, or in theoretical language.


A morbid anniversary: two new books mark the half-century since Sylvia Plath’s suicide

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

plath6Gosh, Terry Castle is a brave writer.  And a bracing one.  She is still recovering from the bashing over her Susan Sontag piece of oh, a decade ago, and here she leaps into the fray with a fire-eating piece on the Sylvia Plath morass in this week’s New York Review of Books. The avalanche of letters she’s triggered may never, ever stop.  She begins:

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), and as one might expect given the sensational details of her short and appalling life, both her US and UK publishers are celebrating the occasion with a kind of vulpine festivity. Faber has just issued an “anniversary” edition of The Bell Jar (1963)—the harrowing autobiographical novel Plath had just published at the time of her death—and has been marketing it, distastefully enough, as “chick lit” avant la lettre. A clutch of new biographies … are likewise among the morbid tie-ins. “Sylvia Plath may be the most fascinating literary figure of the twentieth century”—so the publisher’s copy for one of them gushes. “Even now, fifty years after her death, writers, students, and critics alike are enthralled by the details of her 1963 suicide and her volatile relationship with Ted Hughes.” Such ambulance-chasing fans no doubt also dote on Frida Kahlo’s near-fatal impaling by the tram rail.

Given this opening, it’s not hard to figure out that Terry is not a Plath fan, given the poet’s “shocking necrophilia and refusal of life.”  She claims “Plath’s verse lacks wisdom and humor and the power to console. She invariably scours away anything sane or good-natured.”  I wrote last year (here) about underestimating Plath’s over-the-top sense of the ridiculous – and that her “Daddy” was meant to be dark and above all fun, anticipating Mel Brooks‘s The Producers by five years.

I’m glad April Bernard took up the cry earlier this month in the New York Review of Books:

Plath can cause embarrassment through overstatement—going a little too far is her signature move. (One line from “Elm,” another late poem, that best captures her veer towards overstatement is, “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.”) But if we consider embarrassment as an aesthetic strategy rather than as a mistake, we begin to see how funny Plath often is. I confess I had read and admired Plath for several years before her humor struck me full-force—the first time I heard a now-famous BBC radio recording in which she reads “Daddy” with a discernible wave of laughter in her voice. (And yes, there is also rage, and profound sorrow.) I re-read the poem, and realized for the first time that her exaggerations and preposterous claims, which link the Holocaust with an American middle-class “family romance,” were meant to be an elaborate joke, one in extreme bad taste, right on the edge of kitsch.


Not a fan.

Terry’s task at hand is two new additions to the Plath library:  Carl Rollysons “diverting, gossipy” American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, which “bounces along, jalopy-like, at a madcap pace. No slack metaphor, shameless cliché, or laughable anachronism can slow the authorial juggernaut.”  Curiously enough, she doesn’t mention that one of Rollyson’s more controversial efforts was a biography of Terry’s own bête noir, Sontag.) Andrew Wilson‘s more judicious work, Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, turns over a few new stones – he even had the partial cooperation of Plath’s so-far-silent lover Richard Sassoon.

Could it all have been different?  Counterfactuals abound. A chance meeting at a party Ted Hughes hadn’t planned on attending, interrupting a serious affair in Paris with Sassoon.  Terry writes:

plath5A striking effect of the chronology is to take away some of the fatal glamour one associates with Hughes. He seems less the craggy, carnal bogeyman of Plath mythology here and more just another contender for Plath’s widely broadcast sexual charms. It all could have gone a different way. “Plath’s feelings for Sassoon were so intense,” Wilson argues, “that, had Richard decided to stay in Paris, it’s highly probable that [Plath] would never have returned to England to marry Hughes. It was his rejection that catapulted Sylvia into Ted’s arms.” Waiting in vain for Sassoon to return to Paris, she wrote to a friend, “If he would come today I would stay here with him.”

And here once again, the fancy that Wilson’s book—a study at once stately and strange—so often elicits: how easily the “life before Ted” might have become the “life without Ted.” Would such a tweak in the course of destiny have meant more years—with or without poems—for Sylvia? Sanity, self-possession, and an escape from the prescribed doom? Or merely some other kind of agony and mental collapse?

She tips her hat to a former colleague: with about fifteen Plath biographies in English to date — “some adversarial in tone, others less so” – then rates Diane Middlebrook’s elegiac Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath—A Marriage as “one of the more balanced and sensible.”  She also credits Eavan Boland for her kindly assessment of Plath’s legacy.  But she has limits to her charity.

At times, Terry seems to be judging the person rather than the poet, even blaming Plath for “creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave,” with the suicide of her son a few years ago, after a largely lonely life.  She hints that he lacked a mother’s love.  It is a great misfortune to lose one’s mother so young.  But … didn’t he also have a dad somewhere?

Read all of Terry Castle’s piece here. It’s better than coffee for a jolt.  Really.

Rejected! Advice to writers everywhere.

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

She tried. Lots.

You might easily overlook this website with rejection advice for writers everywhere.  You shouldn’t.  It’s really good stuff over at Aerogramme Studio.

A sampling:

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.” – Barbara Kingsolver

“I got a rejection letter from an editor at HarperCollins, who included a report from his professional reader. This report shredded my first-born novel, laughed at my phrasing, twirled my lacy pretensions around and gobbed into the seething mosh pit of my stolen clichés. As I read the report, the world became very quiet and stopped rotating. What poisoned me was the fact that the report’s criticisms were all absolutely true. The sound of my landlady digging in the garden got the world moving again. I slipped the letter into the trash…knowing I’d remember every word.”David Mitchell

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”Sylvia Plath

Read the rest here.

San Francisco cheesecake and the Golden Gate Bridge

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

brogan3A few days ago, we wrote about The Golden Gate Vikram Seth‘s novel and Conrad Cummings‘s opera.

Now John McMurtrie of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s book section has sent us a heads-up about a Sunday feature on his cyberpages.  It seems that the beloved backdrop to our Bay Area lives has surfaced as a setting for a lot of book covers, too.

Some of them, he promised us, would be hilarious.  We think the cover at left for Jim Brogan‘s A Time to Live takes the biscuit.  If it’s really “a time to live,” we’d suggest this fellow get his knickers on.  As Mark Twain observed, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”  There’s too many of them.  It’s an overcrowded market – especially in San Francisco.  Besides, it’s chilly on those rocks, year-round.

We’re also intrigued by the subtitle of John Payne‘s Three and Out – “The Saga of a San Francisco Apartment Manager.”  We didn’t know it could be that exciting.  And what does it have to do with the famous bridge?

One commenter noted that there’s a lot of death in the titles – A Pointed Death, No Rest for the Dead, Murder on the Waterfront, Madness and Murder, Dead Midnight (with a poor, luckless fellow falling off the bridge). Someone is jumping off in Blind Leap, too – and is that blood stain designed to look like a brassiere, or does it merely indicate the mind of the artist?  Or this reader?  A lot of mystery and detective novels, too.  Sex, death, mystery … all of an existential oneness in the everyday lives of San Franciscans.

As for naked people in San Francisco, somebody better tell Mark Abramson that he might want to suggest a different cover  for his next book, or perhaps a different designer.  Oh, I get it … one’s day, one’s night…

See them all here – clothed and nekkid.

abramson1 abramson2three_and_out_SF

Job advice from Casanova … with a few diet tips, too.

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

CasanovaI had no idea that Giacomo Casanova was so interesting – he was, by turns (sometimes very quick turns), a wannabe priest, a military man,  a cardplayer, a diplomat, a gambler, a courtier, a musician, a spy, a con man, and a development officer in Paris.  Above all, he is remembered as a writer. His memoirs stretch over a dozen volumes.  Who’s up for that?

Thanks to James Marcus, you don’t have to be.  During a recent conversation over coffee in New York City, James slipped me his riveting new translation of The Duel, a 70-page autobiographical account from the Venetian’s memoirs about his imbroglio with Franciszek Ksawery Branicki, over a ballerina Casanova didn’t really care much about. Both were wounded, neither fatally.

duelIt’s the development work  that took Casanova on an intensive tour around Europe.  He was promoting a lottery system for government fundraising.  It had succeeded in Paris but… Frederick the Great wasn’t interested, and Catherine the Great turned him down flat.

He landed in Warsaw, among other places.  I thumbed through to see if he included any descriptions of the city, its squares and architecture.  But no, it’s all about people and gossip.  The 18th century was like that. Here’s some advice on his job search in Russia:


Don’t mess with him. He’s Polish.

Those who visit Russia out of simple curiosity should not aspire to make a fortune there. ‘What has he come here for?’ is the phrase endlessly pronounced and repeated. The only way to assure a job and a a fat salary is to present oneself beforehand to the Russian ambassadors at various European courts. If these worthies are persuaded of a person’s merits, they will speak up on his behalf to the Empress, who will send for the individual and pay for his journey. At this point the supplicant is assured of a fortune, since nobody wants to throw away the travel expenses on a person of meager talents: this would suggest that the minister who spoke up on his behalf had been hoodwinked, and this is not acceptable, since ministers are supposed to be shrewd judges of their fellow men. The worst possible job candidate is a decent man who has traveled to Russia at his own expense.

There’s an awful lot about eating – including an account at Fontainebleau, “among the circle that dines with the Queen of France – or to put it more accurately, watches the Queen of France eat.” He also offers a few diet tips, just before the famous duel:

…people who eat and drink to excess end up with both mind and body in a drugged and drowsy state. What comes next is the lethargy known as sleep – the inevitable outcome of excessive, crude, and badly prepared food. (French cuisine, which enjoys universal praise, generates neither untimely sleep nor indigestion nor regrets, at least in those who moderate their consumption.) There is no man and no woman who is not more attractive, more eloquent, more animated, more courteous, more judicious, and more self-possessed after a fine meal.  Such a person will experience a wealth of splendid thoughts and singular inspirations, bringing real pleasure to miserable humanity, which, if left to its own devices, is a bottomless font of wretchedness, boredom, and frantic discord.

Given that a healthy body is derived from good food, there can be no doubt that a tranquil spirit comes from the same source, since it is a product of nothing but physical sensations. Pity the gluttons, then. Very few of them know how to eat well.


Leon Wieseltier: “Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.”

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

Birthday boy.

“Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?” asked Leon Wieseltier. The literary editor of the The New Republic spoke to the 2013 commencement crowd at Brandeis last month.  He called the commitment to the humanities “nothing less than an act of intellectual defiance, of cultural dissidence.”

“There is no greater bulwark against the twittering acceleration of American consciousness than the encounter with a work of art, and the experience of a text or an image. You are the representatives, the saving remnants, of that encounter and that experience, and of the serious study of that encounter and that experience – which is to say, you are the counterculture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.”

He deplored the dominance of technology in our society:  “The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. … There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. … This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.”


He also decried the descent of science into ideology: “Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles  certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic…”

So how did the crowd like it?  We weren’t there, but there are a mixed back of comments below the talk, which published, of course, in The New Republic (read the whole thing here).  Here are a few of them:

Polcereal complained that it was an “anti-technology screed.” Jack R. sniped, “Leon annoys me even when he might be onto something. Why he would imagine that a pompous, self-aggrandizing prose style would garner him adherents, much less a standing ovation, is a mystery to me. His main point that in today’s increasingly technocratic and digital world, humanistic values and pursuits are getting eclipsed is pretty much irrefutable. But surely one can advance this concern without the heavy air of condescension that Leon adopts to cloak the majesty of his thoughts.”

birthday cakeTo which W.K. Dawson replied, “Some people objected to Wieseltier’s style. It was a graduation speach. Should he have said ‘You people in the humanities should always be sure that your head is under the boot of science!’?”

What does the Book Haven say?  We say: “Happy birthday, Leon Wieseltier!”  June 14 is his big day.