Archive for February, 2014

Voilà! The French Revolution online – in an avalanche of archives and images

Thursday, February 27th, 2014


Way back in 2006, Prof. Dan Edelstein was having dinner with Michel Serres and Sarah Sussman, curator of the French and Italian collections at Stanford Libraries. The prominent French intellectual and member of the Académie française had just given a talk that mentioned digitalization, and so the topic came up later over wine.  Said Dan, “I was working on my book on The Terror, and mentioned how incredibly useful it would be to have the minutes of French revolutionary parliamentary debates – in French known as the Archives parlementaires – available in full-text, searchable form.”  Together, the three fantasized about bringing online the stunning collection of images that the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) had compiled in 1989 – at that point, the images were gathering dust on useless laser disks.

APVoilà!  By dessert, they had decided to pitch a proposal to the BnF. Michel Serres, who served on the BnF board, would deliver it when he returned to Paris. A month or so later, they got an enthusiastic reply from the then-director of the library, Agnès Saal, and the collaboration with Stanford took off. (She went on to become the director of the Pompidou Museum, and the project was subsequently adopted by the current president, Bruno Racine).  It’s featured on the pages of the Smithsonian, here.

To understand what this resource represents, it helps to realize that the Archives parlementaires is a multi-volume collection (102 and counting) of primary source documents, mostly newspapers and official publications, that provide blow-by-blow accounts of the debates that took place in the National Assembly, and then, from September 1792 onward, the National Convention. “They make for gripping reading: not only do you have access to the speeches themselves, but also the shouted interruptions from other deputies, and even a general sense of how the assembly was reacting – applaudissements, murmures, bruits,” said Dan. (The Russian Revolution had its own equivalent – we wrote about it here.)

AP2One problem: the Archives parlementaires is a rather difficult source to use. Who can read it from start to finish to find a passage of interest? “If you’re interested in a particular theme, problem, or law, there’s no obvious way to find all the relevant debates within the hundred and two volumes. So this is why I was so eager to have a digitized version,” said Dan. “Instead of fishing around, somewhat blindly, for interesting passages, keyword searches allow you to jump right in wherever the topic you’re interested in might be addressed. It also enables more sophisticated text mining: for instance, counting the number of times certain names or words are used in different periods; or even, identifying all of the times when deputies cite a passage from Rousseau’s Social Contract.”

And what of us who are unlikely to think of the Archives parlementaires at all?  Dan says all of us “will probably be even more blown away by the amazing work that the BnF did re-digitizing over 14,000 images dating from the time of the French Revolution. These images bring back the baroque and often pornographic flavor of political culture at the end of the 18th century. They reveal the hatreds, hopes, fears, anxieties, and fantasies of French men and women during this ‘heady’ time – no pun intended. Because the BnF marked up the images with a remarkable degree of metadata, it’s fairly easy to find images relating to any individual, revolutionary moment, theme, or place might be interested and, simply by entering a search term.”

So go for it.  The French Revolutionary Digital Archive is here.

(All images from the French Revolutionary Digital Archives.)


Tonight. Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer. Be there.

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

More on tonight’s event here and here.


David Mason and the quest for “necessary poems”

Monday, February 24th, 2014

Colorado’s poet laureate

A zillion or two zillion years ago, I reviewed a volume of essays by poet David Mason for the San Francisco Chronicle – but I haven’t read a single essay of his since then (though I have read some of his poetry, which I’ll save for a separate post). Then – bam! – this Hudson Review essay on “Levels of Ambition,” reviewing the new edition of W.H. Auden‘s For the Time Being, as well as collections by Franz Wright, William Logan, Debora Greger, David Lehman, and Stephanos Papadopoulos. It’s a pleasurable read with a refreshing p.o.v.

He begins:

“The more I read, the more it seems a complete investment of one’s entire being is a necessity for greatness in the arts. Even to speak of greatness in our time invites derision. Who needs greatness when you can have tenure? Yet we’ve all seen it, haven’t we? Not in our contemporaries, the blur of smaller talents, but in the dead. Generalizations never stand up to scrutiny, but I will risk a few. Most contemporary poets I read seem too concerned with avoiding ridicule, trying to be the smartest kid in the workshop, rather than plumbing what Eliot called “the inexplicable mystery of sound”—bodying forth a whole charged expression of living. Much of our poetry seems denatured, flat. Intelligence abounds, cleverness is everywhere, but vitality is hard to find.

“One experiment I frequently conduct is to open a contemporary journal and read only the first lines of poems. Usually the exercise proves soporific in the extreme. No novelist worth his salt would assume he deserved to be read without grabbing the reader by the throat, yet our poets are so often complacent, too comfortable in the expectation that someone will read them, even if only assigned to do so in a classroom. A low-affect sort of lineated prose has swept the field. The answer is not a return to received forms—any form is valid if used by a real poet. The answer, I propose, is to write with more than technique, more than intelligence, more than heart, more than music. The answer is to write necessary poems.

timebeing“Greatness, exhibit A: The poetry of W. H. Auden compels reading—at least for me. He could not do everything. He was not a great dramatist, not a creator of characters beyond certain allegorical bounds. But he could write unforgettable lyrics and charge massive intellectual structures with vital thinking and feeling. Even his more antipoetic sentences arise apparently from a fully developed human being. He could step into the public squares of politics and religion without losing the sense of a private, suffering person. And he left more wonderful lines behind than just about anybody this side of the Bard. It is very good to have a new edition of Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, as a reminder of both ambition and accomplishment.”


Holy foolishness

I’m less impressed with some of the other poets he praises, at least from the snippets he cites, but then, starting his essay with Auden sets a high bar. That said, I love it when he recalls the spat between Wright and Logan (Wright had threatened to sock Logan for a bad review), and, after listing both poets strengths and shortcomings, asks:  “What would happen if Wright could borrow some of Logan’s coldness and Logan could crack open a bottle of Wright’s holy foolishness? Grafting the two of them to some new root would make a remarkable poet, even a great one.”

Read the whole thing here.


Terry Castle: “Austen’s characters know nothing of date rape, unwanted pregnancies, hip-hop bitches”

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Essayist, memoirist, critic Terry Castle (we’ve written about her here and here and here) gives a feminist take on Jane Austen over at The Lumière Reader. It’s offered with Terry’s usual tossed salad of brio, wit, and insight. An excerpt:

jane-austenWhat Austen activates in ardent fans then would be something like a kind of ‘Upwardly-Mobile-Hetero-Girl-Love-Fantasy’. I’d describe it as a vision of living life as a ‘woman’ (i.e., in a female body) without suffering the abuses and humiliations visited on real-world women, alas, even today, in what is a still-violent, deeply misogynistic global order. My female students—the ones who claim to be besotted by Austen and her books—tell me that even now, in 2014, they read her and watch the movies not for the social comedy or the brilliant style or the moral themes, but for the ‘love stories’. Getting to kiss the hero. Or not.

Such readerly euphoria can maybe seem regressive or childish but probably has everything to do, I’m thinking, with the so-called ‘post-feminist’ world we are all now said to inhabit. In some saddening, hugely entropic sense, feminism appears to be ‘gone’ or ‘over’ for these young women—or else never really existed for them. If they think about feminism at all, it’s merely as a sentimental vestige some long-ago-concluded sociopolitical readjustment carried out by no doubt distinguished but nameless female worthies.

castle2[So] bizarre though it sounds, I think reading Austen’s fiction acts for them as a displaced surrogate for a feminist point of view—a more wholesome way of rebelling and resisting than bulimia or cutting yourself with a razor blade. A novel such as Emma or Pride and Prejudice represents an imaginary realm in which, however inchoately or metaphorically, female rage and desire—ongoing longings for power, physical safety, intellectual and moral authority, social acceptance, emotional freedom and fulfillment—can all be dramatized at once. My students don’t ‘get’ feminism, but they sure do ‘get’ Jane Austen.  She’s like swallowing a happy pill for them. The spectacular pop-culture fetishisation of Austen’s fiction in print and on film in recent decades may reflect what feminism itself has become in the early 21st century—a sort of amnesiac, occluded, teacup-filled, muslin-skirted version of itself.

The curiously sexless-seeming love-relationships in Austen’s novels, one would speculate in turn, exert their appeal because they intimate an idealised human scene so radically (and refreshingly) unlike our own: one in which young women do not face a daily barrage of demeaning or obscene images of themselves or feel obliged to put up with the appalling carnal vulgarity of contemporary culture—the grotesque tedium of human sexual activity as it is caricatured in advertising, the mass entertainment industry, and now on the internet. Austen’s characters know nothing of date rape, unwanted pregnancies, hip-hop bitches, or ‘reality’ shows about brainless self-obsessed housewives.  Her fiction could almost be said to work as a sort of crypto-ideology. She articulates fantasies about being beloved, attractive yet undefiled, emphatically abuse-resistant, and adored by a gentle, generous, and charming man. Sexuality hasn’t started for Austen’s heroines. And it never really does.

Read the rest here.

Writing as profession: torture, a Mayan curse, or a profoundly luxurious act?

Friday, February 21st, 2014

Here’s the good news: the Book Haven has gone international again! Our interview with Philip Roth, whose book The Ghost Writer is the focus of next Tuesday’s Another Look book club event, was published in London’s Guardian here and in the Los Angeles Times here. French speakers might want to read Le Monde‘s republication here – and an excerpted version of the interview also appeared in Germany’s Die Welt here (although Die Welt is a little cheesy in tricking it out to look like its own interview, with a tiny anonymous little credit to Stanford at the bottom).


A waiter no more…

Meanwhile, while we were gloating, a controversy about Roth was swirling softly ’round our dreaming head. It started at the Paris Review Daily, when Julian Tepper published an article describing an encounter with Roth at an Upper West Side deli. Tepper, a waiter, nervously presented Roth with his newly published first novel, Balls. Did he receive writerly encouragement from the elder, much-honored writer? Yes and no. Roth warmly congratulated Tepper on his achievement. Then he told him to quit writing.  His words: “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”  Roth took his own advice. He quit writing shortly afterwards – and according to my interview, he hasn’t had a change of heart since.

The controversy:  Is it really that dreadful to be a writer? Compared to, oh, say a coal miner working 12 hours a day underground in dangerous conditions for a pittance to feed his family of twelve? Or worse than taxi driving, installing drywall, or working at the receiving end of a diaper service? Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the popular Eat, Pray, Love, entered the fray, over at Bookish:


“Just torture.” (Photo: N. Crampton)

“I’m going to go out on a limb here and share a little secret about the writing life that nobody likes to admit: Compared to almost every other occupation on earth, it’s f*cking great. I say this as somebody who spent years earning exactly zero dollars for my writing (while waiting tables, like Mr. Tepper) and who now makes many dollars at it. But zero dollars or many dollars, I can honestly say it’s the best life there is, because you get to live within the realm of your own mind, and that is a profoundly rare human privilege. What’s more, you have no boss to speak of. You’re not exposed to any sexual abuse or toxic chemicals on the job site (unless you’re sexually abusing yourself, or eating Doritos while you type). You don’t have to wear a nametag, and – unless you are exceptionally clumsy – you rarely run the risk of cutting off your hand in the machinery. Writing, I tell you, has everything to recommend it over real work.”

She continues: “To choose to be a mere writer in this tearful world, then (either for pleasure, or for a living) is a profoundly luxurious act. Because let’s keep it in perspective, writers: Our books don’t exactly feed the hungry. We ain’t saving the planet here, people. But even more than being a luxurious act, writing is a voluntary act. Becoming a novelist, then, is not some sort of dreadful Mayan curse, or dark martyrdom that only a chosen few can withstand for the betterment of humanity.”

Then Avi Steinberg weighed in over at the New Yorker:

I’m trying to agree with Gilbert when she celebrates writing for the way it allows you “get to live within the realm of your own mind.” But I know plenty of writers for whom living in their own mind is a far from pleasant experience. Writers are very often miserable people: some thrive on unhappiness, others don’t. But few are immune from feelings of deep and avid dissatisfaction. We write because we are constantly discontented with almost everything, and need to use words to rearrange it, all of it, and set the record straight. That is why, for instance, Elizabeth Gilbert herself sat down to write her Roth call-out, and it’s why I’m writing this. … And it’s why Roth, like a recovering addict, is taking it day by day, trying hard not to write anything at all. Like Saul Bellow’s Herzog—reclining on a couch at the end of that book, finally recovering from his fiendish letter-writing addiction—Roth has “no messages for anyone.” Except that he does.


“It’s f*cking great.” (Photo: Erik Charlton)

Why was Roth so cranky? According to Steinberg, “maybe Roth sized up this waiter-writer as someone who might publish a creepily detailed account of his breakfast order on the blog of the Paris Review, as he indeed did. Roth was being cagey with the guy.” Tepper took all this to heart. He wrote a hand-wringing apology to Roth over at the Daily Beast:

“In the two weeks that followed our exchange, I’ve mentally replayed the moment again and again. And the conclusion I’ve most often drawn was that if I hadn’t been drugged…by the fact that he was actually engaging me in a conversation about writing, I would have asked him not whether he would have traded in all the celebrity, the money, and the sex to have lived the more plain existence of, say, an insurance agent. No, I would have asked him about boredom. And though I have only one novel published—and experienced none of the success of Roth—I still feel strongly that the one thing a writer has above all else, the reward which is bigger than anything that may come to him after huge advances and Hollywood adaptations, is the weapon against boredom. The question of how to spend his time, what to do today, tomorrow, and during all the other pockets of time in between when some doing is required: this is not applicable to the writer. For he can always lose himself in the act of writing and make time vanish. After which, he actually has something to show for his efforts. Not bad. Very good, in fact.”


“Constantly discontented.”

Tepper wrote an article, Gilbert riffed on the article, Tepper apologized for the article, Steinberg riffed on the controversy – all of them are worth a read. And now I’m riffing on all of them.  As for Humble Moi, I side with Gilbert in content, Steinberg in style – and I suspect only a writer would make that distinction. All my life, I’ve earned a living – sometimes threadbare, sometimes decent – with my ten fingers on a keyboard. On days when an editor does more harm than good, when a payment doesn’t come through because the magazine has gone belly-up, when you haven’t seen friends for weeks and you are still in your pajamas, still facing another half-filled screen against a tight deadline (and when you’re convinced most of what you’ve written so far – for your whole life, really – is crap), when I tell myself I could have had a successful career as a dog trainer or a Verizon sales rep … I remind myself that most of the world would love to do what I do for a living, and get paid for it.

The world of a writer offers infinite possibilities for the vice of all vices, envy.  What other profession offers you the exquisite torture of reading, say, J.M. Coetzee, or Krzysztof Michalski, and being filled simultaneously with perfect delight at a breathtaking passage or line, while at the same time you want to die and die and die again because you didn’t write it yourself? Every time you see a thoughtful phrase or a brilliant metaphor, or read all those people you know you’ll never come close to matching, but you know you’ll keep trying to, again and again…even the self-deprecation involved in writing a mere blog post, as you rush off to do necessary errands. Then you read folks like Steinberg, Tepper, and others coming up behind, a generation later.  Yes, for all the uncertainty, and for all the envy, both giving and receiving (and the latter can be especially deadly) … even on my worst days, I know I’m a luckiest girl in the world.

And now, must fetch more Tramadol for the dog…


Robert Harrison: Literature is “the living voice of our inner lives.”

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014
A different kind of thinking  (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Just like a natural man. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Literature is “the living voice of our inner lives.” That’s one reason why, according to Stanford author Robert Pogue Harrison, “when everyone is stumped, invariably we turn to the poets.”

He addressed a small evening crowd at Piggott Hall as part of the “How I Think About Literature” series last week (Stanford prez John Hennessy was the previous speaker; we wrote about his visit here). Though we’ve written about Robert before (oh, here and here and here, among other places), the pleasure never palls. He always presents stuff we didn’t know before and a p.o.v. we hadn’t previously considered.

For example, his discussion this time hinged on the “deponent verb” of ancient Greek, which Robert described as “a verb with an active meaning that takes a passive form.”  Hence, the speaker “is not the author or generator of thought.”

“A text like Ovid‘s Metamorphosis thinks me,” he said. The Dante scholar, referring to the Divine Comedy, said that “the whole poem may seem bizarre, medieval, superannuated” even after you study its historical and philological roots. The key is that deponent verb again: “you have to allow it to think you, to recognize yourself in it. … Let the poem do the thinking through me.”

Much of the talk was enjoyably digressive: He added that students must understand the theology of the poem. “I will not be able to read the Divine Comedy in a way that renders it pertinent if I don’t know it’s theology. That’s different than subscribing to the theology that subtends the poem.” Here’s the fun part: he cited Eric Auerbach‘s insistence that, despite its title, The Divine Comedy is a poem of the secular world. Robert noted that “historical individuals pervade it. He’s always on earth – he can’t let it go. Even Paradiso is filled with despair about the state of the secular world.” So true. Robert thought modern readers would have a natural affinity with Paradiso, “if there’s anything most present in the world, it is religious intensity.” (Funny, he said to a class a few years ago that “we live in the Infernal City.” Robert must be having a good year – here’s one reason why.)


He’ll do the thinking, thank you very much.

Back to deponent verbs: No surprise that the author of Forests: The Shadow of Civilization and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition says that “nature does most of my deep thinking,” and that this particular muse is understandably gagged and silent in a place like New York City (except for Central Park).  Nevertheless, “literature thinks me in a way that nature doesn’t.”

“Literature is a response to the injunction of the Delphi oracle, ‘Know thyself,’” he said. Literature is a “crusade of self-knowledge.”  A book such as Emma Bovary, he said, teaches us “how much more in us than circumscribed by egos or identities.”

“Philosophers do not illuminate much, but literary authors do,” said Robert, who is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books. “I believe that literature knows what philosophy attempts,” and reveals it “in a compelling and full-bodied way.”

He ought to know. He has deep roots not only in literature but in philosophy, since he says he was steeped in Martin Heidegger as a student. He also had a chance to see firsthand the inhibiting effect of philosophy as as a student at a “very Derridian” Cornell in the 1980s, as fans of the French philosopher duked it out with the aficionados of the school of hermaneutics. The domination of Derridian discourse gave him a sense of “claustrophobia … a closed indoor room where verbal games were being staged. … The verbal choreography did not excite me as much as it excited my peers and professors.”

He said that the movement Jacques Derrida fostered was “the quintessential academic enterprise,” an observation confirmed “by the fierce determination and lengths it went to secure and hold onto institutional power, especially in the U.S.”



“For me, I wanted literature to remain an adventure … new encounters that were utterly singular.” For that reason among others, he said, “I don’t practice literary theory – I always resisted it as a graduate student.” He said you won’t find a literary theory promulgated in his books. “Where it fails is that it does not provide a model for emulation. That can do students a disservice” because he offers no tools to apply or replicate his line of thought.

The problem with literary theory, he said, is that literary theorists know in advance what they’re going to find, even though “animosity toward theory can blind you.” He added that “there’s a lot of confusion in graduate schools that doing theory is a way of doing philosophy … it’s a very sorry way of doing philosophy, because it’s not embedded in the discipline.”

Most of the talks in the “How I Think About Literature” series have been monologues. But Robert sat on a stool and chatted with grad student Dylan Montanari, who doubles as Robert’s production manager for his popular radio show, “Entitled Opinions.”  We always complain about boringness of lecture format, he said, but we still deal in “deadening monologues” most of the time.  “The dialogical format liberates thinking,” he said.  “It takes it out of the straitjacket.”

Jacques Derrida 1982 Return To Prague

Derridian games

Robert also told us a little about his forthcoming book, Juvenescence, slated for release later this year by the University of Chicago Press. “The book poses a simple question that has no simple answer: How old are we?”  While our cultural age is “the ground of time,” for each of us as individuals, “aging changes perception.” He cited another philosopher, Immanuel Kant, adding that “time is not the same form of intuition in youth as in age.”

Giacomo Leopardi, too, wrote about how things appear differently to perception with age.  Youth perceives the  “infinite promise in nature – but nature is unspeakably cruel,” said Robert. Hence, Leopardi lamented to nature: “Why do you deceive your children so?”

“Literature defines the laws of chronology,” he added, which gives us a chance to get our own back. “Where does the future reside in a text? What is still unspoken and unthought?” he asked. “Literature is much more pregnant with the unspoken than philosophy” which “doesn’t have and many pockets of futurity.”

“The whole history of poetry is about age, but not about inhabited age,” Robert said. “Poetry offers an abundance of phenomenological insight.” The child is father to the man – a cliché – but Wordsworth took it to an offbeat conclusion: that the adult is dependent upon, and answerable to, the child that accompanies it throughout life.

He used Gerard Manley Hopkins poem to a young child, “Spring and Fall” as illustration. And just because it’s public domain (and also because it’s beautiful), we’ll use it to conclude this loosely strung concatenation of quotes and thoughts from one of our favorite Stanford maestros.


Long light from a short wick.

Spring and Fall

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.


On writing: chocolate smoothies and ships in a bottle

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

A weekend that was supposed to be dedicated to writing, but largely spent this way: bathed the elderly dog; washed, boiled and sterilized dog beds; cleared mountain of books, papers, office equipment from my desk a.k.a. bed (California King); then washed, boiled and sterilized my bed; persuaded daughter to change light bulb in ceiling I couldn’t reach myself; did several loads of laundry; pruned roses (a little); pruned olive trees (well… persuaded a friend to prune olive trees, I did the cheerleading); washed a giant rug in the bathtub; dinner with the friend who did the pruning. Then, writing.

smoothieAll the tasks were necessary … in fact, long overdue. But I do wonder why it takes so long to get to writing. Fortunately, Megan McArdle over at The Atlantic explains it all. She describes the drearily familiar habit of a writer’s procrastination:  “In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.”

My personal favorite is “googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.” I actually do that often. It kind of helps.

Why are we so easily distracted?  According to McCardle, “As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.”

Hmmmm… read the rest here.  But be warned, the piece on “Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators” takes a weird twist in the middle, and turns into another article entirely. Bad case of cut-and-paste to meet a deadline crunch?

On a more positive note: Carl Zimmer is a science columnist for the New York Times and the author your Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea.  Over here, he has some useful tips on writing.  Here’s what he said when he was asked: What’s the one thing you’ve learned over time that you wish you knew when you started out?

The writer’s progress… (Photo: Werner Willmann)

“I wish someone told me I shouldn’t be making ships in a bottle.

“To write about anything well, you have to do a lot of research. Even just trying to work out the chronology of a few years of one person’s life can take hours of interviews. If you’re writing about a scientific debate, you may have to trace it back 100 years through papers and books. To understand how someone sequenced 400,000 year old DNA, you may need to become excruciatingly well acquainted with the latest DNA sequencing technology.

“Once you’ve done all that, you will feel a sense of victory. You get it. You see how all the pieces fit together. And you can’t wait to make your readers also see that entire network of knowledge as clearly as you do right now.

“That’s a recipe for disaster. When I was starting out, I’d try to convey everything I knew about a subject in a story, and I ended up spending days or weeks in painful contortions. There isn’t enough room in an article to present a full story. Even a book is not space enough. It’s like trying to build a ship in a bottle. You end up spending all your time squeezing down all the things you’ve learned into miniaturized story bits. And the result will be unreadable.

“It took me a long time to learn that all that research is indeed necessary, but only to enable you to figure out the story you want to tell. That story will be a shadow of reality—a low-dimensional representation of it. But it will make sense in the format of a story. It’s hard to take this step, largely because you look at the heap of information you’ve gathered and absorbed, and you can’t bear to abandon any of it. But that’s not being a good writer. That’s being selfish. I wish someone had told me to just let go.”

Kind of scary. I better go make a chocolate smoothie…

Ken Fields: “On empty air, alone”

Friday, February 14th, 2014

fieldsWe’ve written about poet Ken Fields before – here and here.  His collections of poetry include: The Other WalkerSunbellySmokeThe Odysseus Manuscripts, and Anemographia: A Treatise on the Wind.

When he published “Black Coffee at Noon” in Tikkun last summer, we republished the poem  here.  He’s done it again, with “Empty Air” in the current Tikkun, online here. This one has a local angle: he was inspired by a recent show at the Cantor Arts Center.  Even if you didn’t catch the exhibition, those familiar with Cantor will recognize “Stone River,” Andy Goldsworthy 320-foot sculpture on the campus of Stanford University, constructed of sandstone from university buildings destroyed in the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes. And of course, we’ve written about Stanford’s Auguste Rodin collection herethe sculptor’s remarkable “Gates of Hell” is arguably the best thing at Stanford.

It’s not the usual Valentine’s Day offering, I’ll admit, but for the slow pleasure of reading and rereading again, it matches the spirit of the day. Ken has kindly given us permission to republish it. (Thanks, Ken!)


Empty Air


For a show at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center

Well, I’m standing next to a mountain,
Chop it down with the edge of my hand.
.                                                   – Jimi Hendrix


Here in this empty air we reckon ink,
Color and volume as a way of life,
Leibniz’s chain across the galaxy,
A string and a spiral.  China and Japan
Whirled to our coasts millennia ago,
And Hockney brought Matisse to West Hollywood,
Bright slanted bars and palms.  Everything’s possible.
We move the universe.
.                                                   Rain or shine
We rain destruction on the world. Kabul,
Hiroshima.   With elegies on canvas:
“Black is death, anxiety; white
Is life, éclat.”  But there is a light we’ll see,
If it ever comes, right through our eyelids. The Delta,
Watered in rhombs and rows, reflective, calm,
Will slide away; likewise, Potrero Hill,
Whose trees and poles and shadows, upright against
The downward slope, will disappear, while the fire
Takes the shape it wants.
.                                                 These are fragile
Treasures we walk among, our memory,
Children holding hands against the glare,
Clouds of blossoms on a stream.  Du Fu,
His world falling about him, said he wrote
On empty air, alone.  This worthless paper
Trembles in the room of beauty.  What
Will survive, I wonder, at the very end?
Stone River, outside, in the drying grasses,
The bronzes, maybe, the gate of agonies—
No bigger than a hand, regretfully
A mother kisses her child, on the edge of doom,
Just above your head, on the left side.
Fat man in a hungry world, I read these lines,
The glowing page effacing the hand that made it.
Last night an old man slept across the street
From the Gates of Hell, snoring on muscatel.

A short walk from my house, a Jim Dine bathrobe
Hangs in a living room.  My dog and I
Pause in the darkness often, feeling the glow,
The rich red wonder of it, wishing the warmth
Pouring from that beauty were enough.


Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“How to be a public intellectual”? How a t-shirt totally changed my mind. Really.

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

It makes a kind of intuitive sense.

When I heard that Stanford was offering a course called “How to Be a Public Intellectual,” I was skeptical, to put it mildly. What presumption!  It reminded me of  all those leadership courses, which conceal the eternal quest for followers. Besides, how do you even begin to train people to be Susan Sontag or Michel Serres?

The t-shirt at right totally changed my mind.  Although I usually don’t go for the wittily self-ironic, this time I fell hard. I saw it and I had to have one. That brought me to the figurative doorstep of Prof. Dan Edelstein and lecturer Ruth Starkman, the powerhouses behind the course.

Dan explained to me the title of the course is meant to be “aspirational” only: “At heart, the goal of the class is to explore ways in which a liberal education can be used not only to pursue scholarly goals, but also to contribute in a knowledgeable fashion to public debates. We read a series of programmatic texts, starting with Montaigne, about what a liberal education should consist of; we also considered institutional factors – how can the University be designed to best deliver said education?” The course includes “reading some examples of public interventions by very well educated writers.”

Like?  Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s Emile, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Julien Benda‘s Treason of the Intellectuals,  Allan Bloom‘s Closing of the American Mind, Clark Kerr‘s The Uses of the University, with Emerson and Adam Gopnik somewhere in the mix, too.

Here’s what the syllabus says: “Can education impart more than bookish learning? This is the question that critics have posed since the Renaissance. Through their reflections, these critics posited an alternative ideal of education that prepared the student for life outside the academy. Over the centuries, this ideal would evolve into what we would today call an ‘intellectual’ – but this modern concept only captures a part of what earlier writers thought learning could achieve. In this course, we will focus on how education can prepare students to engage in public debates, and the role that the university can play in public learning.”

Class over. Ruth seems pleased with the students: “They were a very interesting group, many first-generation Americans, all of whom want to pursue public policy and write for a larger public on a variety of issues like middle east politics, healthcare, the environment, education, minority outreach,” she said.

You are my inspiration.

You are my inspiration.

Oh, and the inspiration for the t-shirt image?  Dan told me it is the family dog, Teddy; the tiara belonged to his young daughter. “I didn’t had any role in designing the t-shirts, so I’m not sure how a tiara-ed keeshond came to stand for public intellectuals,” he confessed. I dunno. I think it makes an intuitive sort of sense. In any case, he brought Teddy to class a few times, so she’s part of the program. Kind of.

Ruth explained that the course was part of a program called “Education as Self-Fashioning” (I have issues with that title, too…), but what better way to “self-fashion” than, well, fashion. Naturally the students wanted a t-shirt, “so I made them one, but no one could agree which quote from Dan to include or if we should have one from the reading, so they left it a blank white slate. I gave a shirt to my student Rob Fischer, who’s at the New Yorker. We talked a lot about journalists as public intellectuals, which is why it’s an honor to give a literary journalist like you one, too.” I got the very last t-shirt. Size medium.

If Teddy makes the cut, who knows? I already have the t-shirt. Maybe someday I’ll be a public intellectual, too. Sontag, move over.

Little Star lauds the Cahiers Series

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

Ann the Fan

Ann Kjellberg and I have something in common – besides being devotees of Joseph Brodsky‘s oeuvre.  For the last dozen years, I have corresponded with Ann, the literary executor for the Brodsky estate, concerning matters relating to the Nobel poet. We finally met at a Westchester party following the Columbia University launch for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz in 2011. By that time she had acquired another hat: she’s also the editor of Little Star, a high-caliber annual print magazine for prose.

She dropped me a line last week to let me know about Little Star‘s newest venture, a weekly online mini-magazine – which, this week, contains yet more praise for the Cahiers Series (we’ve written about it here and here). The Cahiers Series is the high-caliber collection of beautifully produced booklets that aims “to make available new explorations in writing, in translating, and in the areas linking these two activities,” according to the American University of Paris’ Center for Writers and Translators, which sponsors the project.  Apparently, Ann has joined the fan club, too.  Here’s what she wrote:


Latest Cahier features Paul Griffiths’ Noh stories.

“I admit to having been puzzled, when I first saw them, as to what they were. Is this new work or old? Writing in English published in Paris? Book or magazine? Now, to me, this evasion of our decreasingly relevant publishing categories is among the Cahiers’ charms. They land in that lovely territory between books and ephemera that is being reclaimed in such interesting ways in our not-so-virtual-as-all-that era. Another fascinating feature of the Cahiers is that they are the work of a growing culture of young international critics and writers who are reviving the legacy of international modernism for English. As our commercial literary culture shelters in literary safety, this crowd is ferreting out exciting, genre-defying work beyond our borders, mostly in Latin America and on the European peripheries, but also in the middle and far east, Africa, and beyond. The same names pop up in the Cahiers and its associated projects at the American University as we see, for example, in The Quarterly ConversationThe White ReviewMusic & LiteratureDalkey ArchiveOpen LetterTwo Lines Press, San Francisco’s Center for the Art of TranslationFrisch & Co., and New Vessel Press. Freed by the unraveled economies of electronic publishing, these critic-writer-editors are creating a dynamic new border-crossing literary world.

littlestar“The Cahier authors are testimony to this. How often do we think of Lydia Davis and Paul Muldoon as cohorts in translation, and what that means about their place in literature in English? Elfrieda Jelinek writes a play about Walser, indeed librettist Paul Griffiths transcribes, as it were, Noh drama as stories in English. What I love about the Cahiers way of thinking is that it’s not eat-your-vegetables advocacy for literature in translation but a bold, invigorating vision for literature in all languages, a hungry aesthetic engine for our time.”

You can read her encomium for the Cahiers series in her Little Star weekly blog here. And check out Little Star, which Bookslut‘s Jessa Crispin called “a sophisticated, wise and fierce little magazine. Filled with works in translation, painfully underrated writers like the brilliant Kathryn Davis and lovingly put together…”  And check out the Cahiers series here. Maybe even order a couple.