Archive for June, 2014

Happy 103rd birthday, Czesław Miłosz!

Monday, June 30th, 2014
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"An omnium-gatherum of chaos..."

“Evil grows and bears fruit, which is understandable, because it has logic and probability on its side and also, of course, strength. The resistance of tiny kernels of good, to which no one grants the power of causing far-reaching consequences, is entirely mysterious, however. Such seeming nothingness not only lasts but contains within itself enormous energy which is revealed gradually.”

 

Ida Lubenstein’s redemption

Monday, June 30th, 2014
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ida

The novice Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) comforts her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza).

Paweł Pawlikowski‘s Ida has bagged a zillion awards this year – but I hadn’t heard of the film until Marilyn Yalom, fresh from a trip to Poland, told me I must see it. It’s been called a grim “road movie” about two women – one an 18-year-old girl about to take her vows in a convent; the other her aunt, a judge and former state prosecutor called “Red Wanda,” who sent “enemies of the people” to their deaths during the show trials of the Stalin era. The two meet for the first time, and Wanda Gruz tells the convent-reared girl that she is in fact Jewish, born Ida Lubenstein, the daughter of her sister. It’s 1962, and the two take off into the drab Communist era towns to find out what became of Ida’s family during the war. The answer is not a happy one (spoiler alert): the German occupation inspired many murderous atrocities among the occupied; the Lebensteins were butchered by the people who were sheltering them, and their property seized. The baby Ida was dropped off at a convent doorstep.

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Family reunion.

I won’t recap the many reviews, except to note a few Polish nuances that are likely to be missed by the Western audience. One viewer was surprised that the disillusioned commie Wanda’s taste for music extended to Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony” – but that’s no surprise in Eastern Europe. It’s more interesting to me that jazz played such a big role in Communist Poland  – there’s a lot of John Coltrane. American jazz was also big in occupied France, as a defiant symbol of resistance and freedom. Props to jazz-lovers everywhere.

More subtext: few in the West know how those who had resisted the Nazis, the Polish patriots, were harrassed and persecuted by the Communist government – hence Wanda’s social isolation, both Jewish and Communist. There are other distinctively Polish cues in the film – during a flashback to one of courtroom a man who protested the social state by whacking down with a saber the red tulips planted by social scouts. The saber had belonged to his grandfather, who had served with the out-of-favor Polish patriot and statesman of the interwar period, Józef Piłsudski. One Pole told me that every erstwhile Polish aristocrat has a plot of land, a title, and a sword under his bed. Well, here’s the sword.

ida3Some critics have taken issue with the film’s ending. So do I, but for entirely different reasons. It seemed to me a modern solution plopped onto an earlier era – one I happened to have lived through, so I have some firsthand memories.  The idea of a virginal 18-year-old novice dropping her drawers (literally) to have a one-night-stand with a saxophonist in a band is as likely as her twerking her way to Silicon Valley and making a killing in a start-up.  Many critics have also spoken about Ida’s return to the city need to “find herself,” live a little, daring to imagine another future, and experiencing a “fuller life” – all the usual clichés. They forget she has a funeral to go to. In any case, the sex scene hardly represents passionate abandon – it’s pretty joyless, tentative, and rote. Others have deplored Ida’s eventual rejection of romantic love – they are the true idealists, thinking that a traveling young jazz musician would have had an enduring fascination with the inexperienced teenager.

Others comment that both women’s are psychologically shaken by their experiences together, and that Ida begins to question her faith. I didn’t even see it touched, let alone bruised. Was I watching a different movie? Alright, alright – I’ll give you one suppressed giggle at the solemn and silent convent dinner, but otherwise it seems so much wishful thinking and projection on the part of Western viewers who don’t understand Ida’s choices. Wanda is a different case. Brittle and about to break, despite her apparent toughness, she jumps to her death.

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Now we know.

Let me offer an alternative interpretation, perhaps just as fanciful: with the suicide of her aunt, the only relative she has ever met, she decides, for a day or two, to re-inhabit that lost, abandoned life – not just to accompany Wanda on her solitary path to death, to immerse herself in it, to revivify the life and to redeem it.  She wears her aunt’s clothes, stays in her apartment, plays her music (very like the redemptive “substitutions” in Inkling Charles Williams‘s writings.) Wanda’s taunt to Ida, vis à vis sex, has been frequently cited in the write-ups about the film: “You should try. Otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?” Perhaps Ida took it to heart on a far deeper level than Wanda had intended. She experiences it, so that she can renounce it consciously, rather than blindly. (This, of course, reduces the saxophonist to a mere object or symbol, but there’s really not much way around that in any reading of the film.)

Oh yes, and one more thing Western viewers are likely to miss. When Wanda deals the photographs of her family like cards on a table – Director Pawlikowski includes one photo that would not have been a family member, someone who was almost totally unknown in Poland at the time because, as a Polish patriot, she was persecuted by the Polish government and her reputation suppressed. Irena Sendler, with her team of women in Żegota, the underground council to save Jews, saved 2,500 Jewish babies and children in the Warsaw Ghetto. Every Pole knows that. The women of Żegota said not one convent refused to shelter a child.

Psssttt!!! Check out the comment selection below. Pretty interesting stuff about the woman who may have been the prototype for Wanda.

Robert Musil: “If one wants to prevent revolutions, one must encourage the writing of literature”

Saturday, June 28th, 2014
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Musil

Real writer

It’s the 100th anniversary of the assassination that triggered World War I. On this day in 1914, the 19-year-old Serbian Gavrilo Princip shot the Austrian  Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The assassin was one of those nobodies who pops up occasionally in history, rather like John Wilkes Booth, but the Austrian writer Robert Musil has another take on the schoolboy, who was secretly a poet – as well as French leader Georges Clémenceau, who “obviously had a poet living inside him,” and Italian novelist/playwright Benito Mussolini. In this passage taken from his notebooks in late 1935 or early 1936:

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Writer wannabe

“In a word, one must remind those irredeemably blind people who despise literature that even Nero set Rome on fire once, and this not just because he was mentally ill, as is maintained, but above all because he was a writer. Their respect for writing will increase if they notice that not only amateur writers, writing dilettantes, but also writers who for one reason or another never fully managed to devote themselves to writing, have set the world on fire.

“Compared to them, the real or fully developed writers are not dangerous in any way and, aside from spiritual theft, bourgeois bankruptcy, and offences against public decency, have never done anything serious at all. The source of restlessness in the kind of people who destroy worlds is transformed in these writers to a quietly burning and nourishing hearth-flame and they make a well-ordered export business out of the adventures of their fantasy…”

Read the rest at the blog on Musil, Attempts to Find Another Human Being,  here. As I recall, Joseph Stalin was an aspiring writer, too, and Mao Tse-Tung was a poet of note. I suppose it could be flipped around to be an argument for killing all of us early… Some sort of fireworks exploding outside as I write. I find it rather chilling on a warm summer night.

Jenny Davidson is hooked on sentences

Thursday, June 26th, 2014
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davidsonJenny Davidson likes sentences.  More than that.  She says that “sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child…” She wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.  And she has. The Columbia University Press blog has an interview with her about her new book, Reading Style: A Life in Sentences.

An excerpt:

Q: You’re a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature, a novelist, and a blogger; how did these three hats you wear inform your approach to writing Reading Style?

Jenny Davidson: From my point of view, those three hats—scholarship, fiction-writing, blogging—are part of a single fully integrated set of activities, and I wrote this book partly to show what that means for me as a reader and writer. The separation between scholarship and fiction-writing has always seemed to me largely artificial—I will write a novel because there’s a problem or topic that I’ve pursued as far as I can by scholarly means and want to think about further in a different medium, and the same thing goes in the other direction. Blogging is something I took up about ten years ago: it was largely for my own enjoyment, with some minor self-promotional aspect I suppose, but I found as I continued to do it that it became an excellent way to develop and refine an easy, fluent critical voice that I could then take back into the more formal kinds of criticism I also write.

***

Q: Chapter 2 is intriguingly titled “Lord Leighton, Liberace, and the Advantages of Bad Writing,” so what are some of these advantages?

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Many hats.

JD: The names in the title are drawn not directly from life but from one of my favorite novels, Helen DeWittThe Last Samurai, which among other things is a brilliant and profound examination of the relationship between morality and prose style. The kinds of bad writing DeWitt’s protagonist attributes to the characters she dubs “Lord Leighton” and “Liberace” are not redeemable. But other kinds of bad writing are, or at least that’s what I want to argue. George Eliot is a good bad writer, and so is Lionel Shriver: in the case of each of these authors, there is a kind of muscular intellectual force that bludgeons you and impresses itself on you at one and the same time. The sentences are often slightly cringe-worthy, but it is in aid of a greater good. Harry Stephen Keeler is another writer I single out for praise—the supposed “badness” of his writing really strikes me as a kind of imaginative strangeness that amounts at times to genius. If we always restrict ourselves to books written in the best possible taste, we risk losing a whole continuum of aesthetic and moral effects.

She also has a blog called Light Reading.  “For me, blogging has not been a form of personal revelation,” she said to Columbia News. “Light Reading mostly gives me a way to comment on what I’m reading, watching or otherwise thinking about in a mode that’s at once less formal and more flexible than a conventional book review or an academic article. The personal voice of the blogger is part of what draws us to a given blog, but I don’t find myself drawn—either as a reader or a writer—to very personal blogs.

 

Simone Weil and “the mark of slavery”

Monday, June 23rd, 2014
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George Bernard Shaw famously wrote, “Only fine arts and torture changes a man.”

Simone Weil focused on the “torture” part. Malheur is usually translated as “affliction” – best option, perhaps, for describing the conditions necessary so that, as she wrote, “the human creature may un-create itself.” “Unhappiness” is too subjective and mild; though “affliction” doesn’t quite convey the inevitability and doom of “malheur.” In his introduction to the piece, which was pulled together from her notebooks, George Panichas wrote about affliction: “Along with beauty, it is the only thing piercing and devastating enough to penetrate the soul.”

I sent this to an ailing friend, not knowing what he’ll make of it. I’m having a Job-like day today, so I need to reread it, too:

weil2In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery. Slavery as practiced by ancient Rome is only an extreme form of affliction. The men of antiquity, who knew all about this question, used to say: “A man loses half his soul the day he becomes a slave.”

Affliction is inseparable from physical suffering and yet quite distinct. With suffering, all that is not bound up with physical pain or something analogous is artificial, imaginary, and can be eliminated by a suitable adjustment of the mind. Even in the case of the absence or death of someone we love, the irreducible part of the sorrow is akin to physical pain, a difficulty in breathing, a constriction of the heart, an unsatisfied need, hunger, or the almost biological disorder caused by the brutal liberation of some energy, hitherto directed by an attachment and now left without a guide. A sorrow that is not centered around an irreducible core of such a nature is mere romanticism or literature. Humiliation is also a violent condition of the whole corporal being, which longs to surge up under the outrage but is forced, by impotence or fear, to hold itself in check.

On the other hand pain that is only physical is a very unimportant matter and leaves no trace in the soul. Toothache is an example. An hour or two of violent pain caused by a decayed tooth is nothing once it is over.

It is another matter if the physical suffering is very prolonged or frequent, but in such a case we are dealing with something quite different from an attack of pain; it is often an affliction.

Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain. If there is complete absence of physical pain there is no affliction for the soul, because our thoughts can turn to any object. Thought flies from affliction as promptly and irresistibly as an animal flies from death. Here below, physical pain, and that alone, has the power to chain down our thoughts; on condition that we count as physical pain certain phenomena that, though difficult to describe, are bodily and exactly equivalent to it. Fear of physical pain is a notable example.

When thought is obliged by an attack of physical pain, however slight, to recognize the presence of affliction, a state of mind is brought about, as acute as that of a condemned man who is forced to look for hours at the guillotine the that is going to cut off his head. Human beings can live for twenty or fifty years in this acute state. …

Read more here.

“Apocalypse as fate”: high-powered panel talks nuclear deterrence

Friday, June 20th, 2014
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dupuyIs nuclear holocaust inevitable?  Can we back away from the cliff we have been anxiously gazing over for 70 years – or in many cases, simply trying to ignore? Some say there’s no turning back. The German philosopher Günther Anders noted, after his visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1958: “Now that humanity is is capable of destroying itself, nothing will ever cause it to lose this ‘negative all-powerfulness,’ not even a total denuclearization of the world’s arsenals. Now that apocalypse has been inscribed in our future as fate, the best we can do is to indefinitely postpone the final moment. We are living under a suspended sentence, as it were, a stay of execution – a reprieve.”

Not everyone is so pessimistic. California Governor Jerry Brown joined Stanford historian David Holloway, who studies atomic energy during the Cold War years; Stanford cryptologist Martin Hellman, known for his risk analysis studies on nuclear threats; environmentalist and historian Jon Christensen, and Stanford philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who writes about the nexus of ethics and technology, for a conversation on “The Nuclear Menace” this week. Jean-Pierre was the principal reason I accepted the invitation to the event in Stanford Libraries’ Bender Room. He credited the man he called his mentor, René Girard, for some of his insights, which were also drawn from his recent book, The Mark of the Sacred, from Stanford University Press.

It was a dynamite panel all round, and Jerry Brown’s presence was enormously cheering. Why a California governor on a panel discussing nuclear deterrence? Brown reminded the group that, decades ago during his first stint as governor, he had been nicknamed “Governor Moonbeam” for his tendency to roam outside “the very narrow range of permissible topics. … The end of humanity ought to be a permissible topic.”

Back to the “Mark of the Sacred”: Jean-Pierre described how, in our world, “rationality appears to have relegated all remnants of the religious mind to the past” and yet is still greatly influenced by it. “The problem is not to reconcile reason and faith. It is to recognize the marks of the sacred in the most outstanding and the most terrifying achievements of the rational mind.”

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French author

Wait a minute. That’s where René Girard’s influence comes in. “The sacred” is a term that carries a lot of baggage, but it’s used here in a very precise Girardian way. “The sacred” is the way archaic societies bonded through rituals of sacrifice and violence. Jean-Pierre reminded us that the Latin root of sacred is sacer, which gives two faces to the sacred: a saint on one hand, the accursed on the other; the veneration on one, an abomination on the other. “One of the marks of the sacred is radical ambivalence. It is infinitely good, as it protects us from our own violence; it is infinitely evil, as it is intrinsically violent.” Elements of the archaic persist into our postmodern era for, as Hellman noted, we have powers that were once considered godlike. “Only God could destroy a city; we can do that now,” he said – but would anyone consider the human race godlike in its maturity? he asked. Crickets.

Our attitude towards nuclear weapons matches this ancient pattern: “Their only usefulness today is said to be the fact that they protect us from others using them against us. In Biblical terms: Satan casts out Satan, and he is the only one capable of casting out Satan, that is, himself,” said Jean-Pierre.

While our nuclear arsenals are said to protect us against nuclear war, their absence would arguably be an even greater deterrent – a modern paradox. Dupuy cited military strategist Bernard Brodie: “one of the foremost factors making deterrence really work and work well is the lurking fear that in some massive confrontation crisis it may fail. Under these circumstances one does not tempt fate.” Jean-Pierre considered the interplay of accident and fate in our nuclear future – Oedipus’s fate required an “accident” at the crossroads for fulfilment, said Jean-Pierre. We are now dealing with “blind mechanisms, which make human passions, moral categories, intentions and strategic planning obsolete,” he said. In today’s world, “it may be rational to pretend to be irrational.” For example, Putin seems to prefer a chaotic, dangerous Ukraine rather than a democratic one that tilts towards European integration. “Putin’s behavior is a powerful generator of unpredictability. Strategic or not, this card may trump all the others.”

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Cold War historian (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

According to Dupuy, a nuclear holocaust could occur even without hatreds or passions. He reminded us of the dozens of times we were on the brink of nuclear war during the Cold War. Anders anticipated a “paradise inhabited by murderers without malice and victims without hatred. … No war in history will have been more devoid of hatred than the war by tele-murder that is to come … this absence of hatred will be the most inhuman absence of hatred that has ever existed; absence of hatred and absence of scruples will henceforth be one and the same.” (Sounds like warfare by drones, doesn’t it?)

A nuclear holocaust can occur even if no one wills it, given the automatic human tendency of escalation to extremes, as military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted, and as Girard elaborated in Battling to the End. The stakes that trigger such reactions can be ridiculously small – witness our entry into World War II, or the bickering between China and Japan over small islands in the Pacific. “All of this points to a new regime of violence in which human intentionality and human agency have become irrelevant.”

Martin-Hellman

Savvy cryptologist

Dupuy noted,”Linking Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Hannah Arendt and Günther Anders probed the scandalous reality that immense harm may be caused by a complete absence of malignity; that a monstrous responsibility may go hand in hand with an utter absence of malice. Our moral categories, they discovered, are powerless to describe and judge evil when it exceeds the inconceivable.”

Philosopher David K. Lewis summarized the situation this way: “You don’t tangle with tigers – it’s that simple.” The “tigers” are our own violent tendencies. Luck, chance, fate, and the tiger “point to a world in which humanity itself has become irrelevant and miscalculation can carry the day.”

Another Girardian note during the question-and-answer period: Jean-Pierre suggested that not all nations, even belligerent ones, aim for the annihilation of the other – for example, Iran may not be nuking up to destroy Israel, but rather because, in mimetic fashion, nations imitate each other, and “to be taken seriously on the world scene, you have to be nuclear.” He recommended that we “sever the link between prestige and nuclear possession.”

Someone quoted Whole Earth Catalog’s Stewart Brand, who updated his comment from 40 years ago, “we are as gods, we might as well get good at it” to the more imperative “what I’m saying now is we are as gods and have to get good at it.” Jerry Brown offered what might be considered an “action point” for the afternoon: “Techno-optimism is a view that leaves out the virtue of humility. Optimism can be as lethal as pessimism,” he said, recalling the Tower of Babel. “Humility is in short supply among scientists and politicians and others as well.”  Well, that’s something we can start working on today.

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The guv’na with René Girard’s grandson, David Girard Brown of American University (Photo: Cynthia Hartley)

Happy birthday, Tobias Wolff! A few of his words on writing…

Thursday, June 19th, 2014
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toby

Birthday boy.

birthday cakeHappy birthday to one of our favorite people, the award-winning novelist and short story writer Tobias Wolff:

“Writers are superstitious. I don’t mean knock on wood, throw salt over the shoulder—let me try to explain. I began this whole writing enterprise with the idea that you go to work in the morning like a banker, then the work gets done. John Cheever used to tell how when he was a young man, living in New York with his wife, Mary, he’d put on his suit and hat every morning and get in the elevator with the other married men in his apartment building. These guys would all get out in the lobby but Cheever’d keep going down into the basement, where the super had let him set up a card table. It was so hot down there he had to strip to his underwear. So he’d sit in his boxers and write all morning, and at lunchtime he’d put his suit back on and take the elevator up with the other husbands—men used to come home for lunch in those days—and then he’d go back to the basement in his suit and strip down for the afternoon’s work. This was an important idea for me—that an artist was someone who worked, not some special being exempt from the claims of ordinary life. But I have also learned that you can be patient and diligent and sometimes it just doesn’t strike sparks. After a while you begin to understand that writing well is not a promised reward for being virtuous. No, every time you do it you’re stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light. You can be faithful, work hard, not waste your talents in drink, and still not have it happen. That’s what makes writers nervous—the sense of the thing being given, day by day. You might have been writing good stories for years, then for some reason the stories aren’t so good. Anything that seems able to jinx you, to invite trouble, writers avoid. And one of the things that writers very quickly learn to avoid is talking their work away. Talking about your work hardens it prematurely, and weakens the charge. You need to keep a fluid sense of the work in hand—it has to be able to change almost without your being aware that it’s changing.”

From “Tobias Wolff: The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, no. 183. (See him on the Colbert Report here.)

Is it possible to collapse from too much love?

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014
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Pont_de_l'Archevêché

At the Pont de l”Archevêché, “a forest of glittering objects…” (Photo: Francis Hannaway)

Some months ago we posted this, from Marilyn Yalom‘s How the French Invented Love:

During the summer of the [Dominique] Strauss-Kahn affair, I found myself walking behind the Cathedral of Notre Dame and wondering how I could finish this book. Had love in France become little more than a myth?  Were the French abandoning the ideal of “the great love” in favor of serial affairs?  Had seduction won out over sentiment? And then my eye was drawn to a strange sight. I saw, attached to the grille on the Pont de l”Archevêché crossing the Seine, a forest of glittering objects, small padlocks with initials or names on them, sometimes with dates or hearts: C and K, Agnes & René, Barbara & Christian, Luni & Leo, Paul & Laura, 16–6–10. There must be at least two or three thousand. And already, on the other side of the bridge, a few similar locks were clinging to the grille.  How long before that side would also be completely covered?

I hung around, enchanted by the spectacle, and was rewarded by the sight of two youthful lovers, who came across the bridge arm in arm, affixed a lock to the grille, drank from each other’s lips, and threw the key into the Seine.

how-the-french-invented-loveWe wondered at the time … can love sometimes be too much? Could the burden of love be lighter?  Is it possible to collapse from too much love? Yes! And that’s exactly what happened:

… the celebrated bridge had to be evacuated at the weekend after part of the railing collapsed under the weight of love locks attached to it.

Police ordered visitors to leave and closed the footbridge after a 2.4-metre section of railing broke loose.

Since the phenomenon began in 2008 it has become a headache for city officials. Not only is the full 150-metre Pont des Arts covered in locks, but visiting lovebirds have targeted other bridges in the French capital. Forty locks are reported to have been removed from the Eiffel tower. …

Protesters who say the thousands of locks are an eyesore and vandalism have long warned they are also a risk to the iron bridge, which is a listed monument, and launched a petition to have them removed. There are also campaigns on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

The protesters wrote an open letter to the Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, saying the locks were “like a plague on our city’s historic bridges and sites.” They complained: “This is most apparent on the Pont des Arts, which has been terribly degraded, both visually and structurally In a few short years, the heart of Paris has been made ugly, robbing Parisians of quality of life and the ability to safely enjoy their own public spaces along the Seine, which has itself been polluted by thousands of discarded keys. The time has come to enact a ban on ‘love locks’ in order to return our bridges to their original beauty and purpose.”

The Guardian article is here. Or the BBC article here. One reader worried: “Does this mean that thousands of innocent tourists have now fallen out of love? Their dreams consigned to the watery depths of the Seine?” Another sniped: “Nothing says I love you like putting a padlock on a bridge in Paris.” I’d settle for a trip to Paris and a 7th floor walk-up on the Rue des Petits Champs.

Plain on the outside, music on the inside. What’s not to like?

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014
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mockingbird

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“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

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A few days ago we mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird as excellent summer reading for book-loving cats. As I write, I’m also enjoying the mockingbirds, going crazy with song as the world teeters towards the solstice. Plain on the outside, music on the inside. What’s not to like? Hope you’re enjoying the long summer days, too. (Hat tip to Elizabeth Amrien for the quote.)

Prospero’s island: not monarchy, but despotism

Monday, June 16th, 2014
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piotrbookPhilosopher Piotr Nowak was already installed at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen by the time I arrived for my stay as a fellow in 2008 – alas, an all-too-brief a sojourn! I had just returned from six weeks of research in Poland, and he was the only Polish fellow at IWM below the rank of rector.  He was hunkered on the floor below mine in the lavish white suites that we called offices, overlooking the canal. So Piotr and I visited and chatted between floors, or at the communal lunches provided for the fellows.

At the time, he was working on something about Hannah Arendt‘s notion of radical evil, and recommended some reading on that subject. He also introduced me to the works of Leszek Kołakowski.  The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote of Piotr: “His writings usually contain a challenge: so many mysterious voids of ignorance still lurk in the familiar sphere of our acquired knowledge; and also extend an invitation: so many virgin lands, omitted on our overcrowded map of knowledge, are still waiting to be explored …”

So naturally, I was interested to read that he had just written a book in English on an unexpected subject, The Ancients and Shakespeare on Time, published by the intriguing Value Inquiry Book Series. He ponders a range of questions. What kind of place is Prospero’s island? I remember one Stanford professor – was it David Riggs? – who suggested Shakespeare’s inspiration was another verdant island – Ireland, with its strong tradition of household bards and music. Or perhaps the New World, a place that had a near-mythical status in Jacobean England.

Piotr’s Central European perspective is evident in the darker version of the island he offers on Prospero’s domain (he translated from the Polish himself):

It’s climate is warm and humid, which favours decay and decomposition. However, this is not of primary importance. The first thing that comes to mind in this respect is that it is a place where anything can be done to a fellow human being, including killing, inducing insanity, sentencing to forced labour, as well as arranging relationships and dissolving them. This can hardly be called monarchy – it is rather a sphere of arbitrary absolutism.

nowak

He, too, contains islands.

On Prospero’s island, even the laws of physics work back to front. A supposed God, Prospero plays with nature – he creates and destroys as he pleases, as well as strikes with lightning and uproots pines or cedar trees. He affects other people’s perception of the reality which he himself shapes according to his will. “Poor souls, they perished,” Miranda worries, bewailing the shipwrecked. “Not a hair perished,” we soon learn from Ariel. It is only Prospero who knows the truth. What is more important and terrifying, however, is that the magician wields power over the dead, whom he can resurrect at will, though we never learn what he does with them later on – perhaps he even kills them again. Finally, he gathers both his old and new adversaries. If Prospero encourages revolt among the latter, it is only for one purpose: so that they could witness in the nearest future the consequences of political freedom that was granted to the working classes. Two drunkards and one monster, liberated from all authority, fall victim to their own unbridled passions and bad habits. … However, he does not kill them, bcause he has already grasped that all power and knowledge, if it wants to be what it is, must have its limits. This is the moment we learn about the remarkable wisdom of Prospero. …

At the same time, he becomes aware that his wisdom cannot be inherited. … The young do not wish to remember other people’s stories, because they want to create their own – there is nothing strange or surprising about it. Meanwhile, old age – which mercilessly threatens everyone, accompanied by an invariable softening in the head – takes Prospero’s imperiousness by storm. He gradually moves into the shadow and is inclined to write down the story of his youth. Thus, he prepares a book-long interview, asking for applause, which he finally receives. But then he freezes into a monument. For some time, the young light candles for him and bring him flowers. Later, however, they simply forget.

In his memory…

Sounds like he is remembering a particular production of The Tempest – I don’t remember anything like the final scene he describes in any production I have seen. I also didn’t remember this lovely excerpt he includes from W.H. Auden‘s “The Sea and the Mirror”:

If age, which is certainly
Just as wicked as youth, look any wiser,
It is only that youth is still able to believe
It will get away with anything, while age
Knows only too well that it has got away with nothing.

The book is dedicated to the memory of the man he encouraged me to meet at IWM, one reason among several to be grateful to Piotr: the institute’s rector and one of Poland’s leading scholars,  Krzysztof Michalski.