Archive for January, 2017

William Shakespeare in China: he’s not too “bourgeois” or “patriotic” anymore

Sunday, January 29th, 2017
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Not exactly the Globe Theater, but still…

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the plays of William Shakespeare were considered too “bourgeois” and “patriotic” for attention. Times have changed.

“The development of Shakespeare studies and Shakespearean performance across China since 1984 (when an official Chinese Shakespeare Society was established) has been very remarkable,” said Michael Dobson, the director of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon. So a partnership was formed between Birmingham, Nanjing University and the Phoenix Publishing & Media Group, a leading publisher of Western literature and criticism in translation, to establish the new Shakespeare Centre in Nanjing. The story is in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Harumph.

In Mandarin, presumably.

Dobson continued: “In some ways, it has resembled the rapid development of academic and theatrical interest in Shakespeare in Japan in the immediate post-war years, but it has been faster and on a bigger scale. Chinese university administrations have clearly felt that the country’s emergence on to the world stage demands a corresponding engagement with world literature, and at the same time a two-way traffic has developed between anglophone theatre companies taking Shakespearean productions to China and Chinese companies showing off their Shakespeares in the West.” His institute has also found itself “playing host to more and more visiting scholars from China.”

Dobson noted that Nanjing had the only English department in China to stage a festival in honor of Shakespeare’s 400th birthday in 1964.

“When the Cultural Revolution began two years later, some of the students involved turned on the professors who had organised it,” he added, pointing out that one of his Chinese counterparts on the Shakespeare project had “written about the whole thing, even interviewing some of the surviving (and unrepentant) zealots who decided that an interest in Shakespeare was bourgeois and unpatriotic.”

Read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, if you want to know what Shakespeare might have said about the refugee crisis in the news this weekend – go here.

Robert Pinsky: “The arts are not ornamental. They are at the center of human intelligence.”

Thursday, January 26th, 2017
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Stanford’s handsome civic poet (Photo: Jared C. Benedict)

Robert Pinsky, former U.S. poet laureate, has returned to Stanford as a Mohr Visiting Poet for a few months. It’s a familiar habitat for him: as a Stegner Fellow years ago, he studied with the legendary poet-critic Yvor Winters and poet Ken Fields.

Robert has been called the last of the “civic” or public poets – something Irish poet Eavan Boland noted when introducing him at last night’s reading: “Through his work and his example he has made a compelling shape that has restructured the sense of the personal and public poem – and the personal and public poet – connecting and reinvigorating them in new ways.”

She continued: “As a poet he has always been of his moment and has wanted to be. In an interview he said: ‘Maybe everyone is sort of chauvinistic about their own era. I am.’ He was born on the threshold of war, at the gateway of a modern era. The enticing new American world of sports, music, vernacular energy and popular culture was to become part and parcel of his poems and his approach to poetry.”

Louise Glück, also visiting this quarter, speaks of his poems as having “dexterity combined with worldliness, the magician’s dazzling quickness fused with subtle intelligence, a taste for tasks and assignments to which he devises ingenious solutions.”

Eavan praised his newest book, At The Foundling Hospital: Poems, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, saying, “The poems in it are at once a catalog of causes for pessimism but finally an inventory of reasons for optimism. The poetry is deeply concerned with ancestors, with the mysteries of culture but finally most of all with the intimate details of what survives history or is not recorded in it, and yet makes an important angle to our human story. In the title poem of the book “At the Foundling Hospital,” comes the phrase ‘Fragment of a tune or a rhyme or name /mumbled from memory.’ It carries much of the book’s meaning.”

His own commitment to the art he practices has been stated this way: “We have this great treasure that we got from our figurative grandparents, and it would be very sad if we failed to hand it on to our figurative grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities

One of Ireland’s leading poets.

During the question-and-answer period, he was asked about last week’s inauguration ceremony, which omitted the traditional inaugural poem. “I personally don’t think it’s a great loss,” he said. “Most of them are not very good.” He pointed out that the tradition is a fairly recent one, anyway.

However, he had his own inaugural poem for this month, “Exile and Lightning,” published on CNN as an “opinion,” with a disclaimer: “The views expressed here are his.” The first two lines:

You choose your ancestors our
Ancestor Ralph Ellison wrote.

You can read it all here.  One of the ancestors he claims in the poem is our Polish grandfather Czesław Miłosz. Since he’s my grandfather, too, that means we are related. In fact, that is how we met. He contributed an essay to my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and communicated by phone and by email years before we finally met face-to-face last night.

Another comment might be interpreted as a response to the proposed cuts to government arts funding: “The arts are not ornamental. They are at the center of human intelligence.

Stanford remembers director extraordinaire Carl Weber: “the rigor of thought, the rigor of deep, sustained attention, and the rigor of history”

Monday, January 23rd, 2017
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Harry Elam, Marina Lewis, and Florentina Mocanu. (Photo: David Schendel)

 

Last week, Stanford friends, colleagues, students, and former students gathered at the Roble Studio for the memorial of the eminent German director Carl Weber, a former protégé of Bertolt Brecht and emeritus professor of drama, who died on Dec. 25 at 91 (we wrote obituaries here and here). The occasion followed the Carl Weber lecture, an annual event that began about five years ago. Plenty of pinot noir (Carl’s favorite varietal) was tipped to commemorate the passing of one of Stanford’s internationally renowned giants – thanks to Branislav Jakovljevic, chair of Stanford’s Department of Theater and Performance Studies, who organized the event.

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Branislav Jakovljevic with pinot noir. (Photo: David Schendel)

“Professor Carl Weber was a humanist whose exquisite knowledge of life, theatre and history was inspiring and daunting at the same time,” said the Romanian director and actress Florentina Mocanu-Schendel, a close friend and former student. “He lived, learned, told and retold stories with the enthusiasm of a beginner, generous, kind, and discreet – never betraying his immense experience – he encouraged us to live, practice, write with courage and humor, and always challenged us to express our vision. His question reverberates: What do you see? We know that Carl saw the world with his entire being.”

At the request of Carl’s daughter Sabine Gewinner-Feucht, she read a 1938 Brecht poem, “Legend of the Origin of the Book of Tao Te Ching on Lao Tsu’s Road into Exile.”

A statement from Stephan Dörschel, head of Berlin’s Archive of Performing Arts, also lauded the late director. Here it is:

“In April 2012, I met this man, small in stature but with an enormous  past – director, professor, dramaturge Carl Weber.  We spent four days at Stanford University researching his artistic-scholarly and biographical archive, preparing all the documents for the transport to the Archive of Performing Arts – Academy of Arts, Berlin. These were four intense, activity packed days, in which I found out about his theatre beginnings in the POW camp with Klaus Naschinsky, later famously known as Klaus Kinski. I learned about Carl’s work with Bertolt Brecht and his rehearsal methods, about his response to the Berlin Wall and GDR in 1961, and his exile to the USA, where he became the ambassador of German theater in New York. With his professorship at New York University and Stanford University, Carl was able to share his knowledge but also discover and promote young talents: he was incredibly proud of [his former student] Tony Kushner. Professor Carl Maria Weber was remarkable and his work will be immeasurably influential  in the future. I bow with great admiration and affection before him!”

(The Carl M. Weber-Archive can be accessed at the Academy of Arts, Berlin, here.)

Others shared their memories of this extraordinary man. Here are a few of them:

Harry Elam recently appointed vice president for the arts and senior vice provost for education, is a scholar of theater and performance studies. He recalled the moment Carl spat and playfully shouted, “Toi! Toi! Toi” – “which I first didn’t understand at all what we was doing and seeing my confusion, he explained that it was the German version of ‘break a leg.’” An excerpt of his remarks:

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Harry Elam and Aleta Hayes, dance lecturer (Photo: David Schendel)

Carl Weber epitomized the conjunction of theory and practice that has come to serve as the central conception of the Theatre and Performance Studies at Stanford. Carl not only understood but exemplified how the study and analysis of theatre and performance informs and is informed by the practice of theatre. Carl embodied what it meant to be a scholar/artist. An esteemed scholar and translator, one of the foremost interpreters of Bertolt Brecht, credited with bringing the work of the Great East German playwright Heiner Muller to English speaking audiences, Carl exercised and promoted the critical import of intellectual engagement with the dramatic text. …

Yet the Carl Weber who came to be towering presence in this department, whose powerful shadow and profound accomplishments still fill our hallways, was never self-promoting but always self-confident. He was at times strong willed and yet was also always open to the differing perspectives. He gave generously of his time and his artistry but also remained guarded in his criticism, finding the right time and productive ways to express concerns. Carl was indeed a special soul that has made an indelible impression on this department, on this institution, and on our theatrical world. … there was no playwright he didn’t know or play he hadn’t read, directed, or seen. So, when I talked within him about contemporary playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, he knew the work, and brought deep insight and analysis to our discussion. …

Carl kept teaching well until his eighties, because he loved it, because it kept him young and Carl always had a young and inquisitive soul. And he influenced so many, from the undergrads who took his sophomore seminars on Brecht, to many of those in this room who where his grad students, to the famous story of Tony Kushner and how he thanked Carl for his impact on his career and the list goes on. Last November, Stanford parent, film star and Bay Area native son, Tom Hanks came to Stanford and performed in a benefit along with wife Rita Wilson for Stanford. Afterward, he talked about what influenced him to go into acting … and he mentioned as a student coming across the bay on a class trip to see a production of Brecht over at Stanford. He vividly described the production and confided that was so moved by the production, so impacted by the theatrical experience that he determined then and there that this is what he wanted to do, to act. Of course, the play he saw was staged by Carl Weber. Indeed, there was no one like Carl Weber. Rest in peace, Carl.

Michael Hunter (co-founding artistic director of San Francisco’s new theater company Collected Works) is a director, performance curator, and adjunct professor at Stanford University, where he received his PhD in Drama and Directing. Excerpts from his remarks: 

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Carl in his Stanford office, 2004 (Photo: Daniel Sack)

His commitment to passing on knowledge was so deep, and he was so tireless in his energy and willingness to support and critique our work – and the two things go hand in hand: one of the main reasons his critiques were so helpful was because he was also so present and steadfast in his support of his students.

I think one of the biggest things Carl taught me has to do with the seriousness of theatre, as a tool that can shape the world. One of the reasons I came to Stanford was to work with Carl: as an undergraduate, I was very seduced by Brecht, and by the idea of theatre as a political tool, and also by the notion of the director-scholar. I remember reading Carl’s conversation with Tony Kushner about Brecht while I was flying from Edinburgh to Texas, and feeling strongly that I wanted to work with, and learn from, this man.

I also remember starting to take directing classes with Carl shortly after I arrived, and like many of us, being kind of frustrated because we spent all of our time talking about what we saw, in such intense detail. I found it a little pedantic – I was in a PhD program at Stanford! Where was the meat? And like many of Carl’s students, I look back on that training as one of the most important things that happened in my development. Carl taught me to look in a way I had never done before, in a completely patient, tireless way. That man could sit and look at something for hours and hours and his attention would not flag – and he would probably tell you later that it was too long, but that would never stop him from watching it with his full attention.

I guess another word for this would be rigor – the rigor of thought, the rigor of deep, sustained attention, and the rigor of history. Of course the undergrad in me agreed that theatre could be a tool to make change, but it wasn’t until I saw how seriously Carl treated theatre – treated dramaturgy, treated casting, treated rehearsals – that I understood that immensely hard work was required to make it a tool. It didn’t just happen; in fact, 95% of the time it doesn’t happen. But Carl taught us all not to cut corners, to work and work and work until we had reached precision, and to know our history.

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Michael Hunter (Photo: Marina Lewis)

Of course I’ve never met anyone who knew, and remembered, his history like Carl. Even the last time I visited with him, he was discussing the origins of the First World War, and he never lost that historical memory. In his dramaturgy class, when I flirted with the idea of using Brecht’s The Days of the Commune for my quarter long project, I was daunted by the double task of researching both the period of the commune itself and the post-War context in which Brecht wrote it – knowing that Carl would not let me by with short-changing either history. He was baffled that I would shirk form the challenge – for him, there was no more exciting project than one in which two historical periods would be held in tension, looked at from the third vantage of the contemporary. …

I ended up helping Carl take care of was going through his home library, and figuring out where his incredible and eclectic library – of novels and plays and history books, and the theatre journals he had collected for decades – should go. I spent weeks in that library, and I was struck initially, and most obviously, by the range of Carl’s erudition. But his collection of plays in manuscript form also brought home to me how much he had been a champion of the experimental language playwrights of the 1970s and 80s – Mac Wellman and Peter Handke especially. I remembered that this side of Carl had seemed remote to me when I first started taking classes with him – how could a man who seemed attached to concrete detail in such a literal way also have made it his work to produce these wild, anarchic assaults on logic and convention? And the lesson really came home for me that it was precisely his rigorous attention to the concrete that made it possible for him to produce this kind of work – that creating worlds that are not merely a mirror of our own requires even more effort to be precise about what people are seeing. And that in order for true experiment in the theatre to “work,” as Carl would put it, abstraction always has to be undergirded by a great commitment to the detail.

Marina Lewis was a Stanford neighbor and friend for nearly thirty years. She offered some remarks on the private side of Carl:

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Harry Elam and Marina Lewis (Photo: David Schendel)

He usually did the shopping – and time and again, at least once a week, I saw him bringing home a bouquet of flowers to Marianne, whom he adored. He was a very romantic fellow. They frequently traveled to France where they had a – so I have heard – lovely home in the countryside.

After Marianne suddenly passed away in France about ten years ago, he came back a broken man. All he could think about was Marianne and that she did not come home with him.

Then, as usually happens, time has a way of healing wounds. He had resumed contact with many of his colleagues and friends in Germany especially after the Fall of the Wall, and after one such trip I saw him coming back with a very attractive woman accompanying him. Of course I was curious and looked forward to meeting her. Her name is Inge [Heym] and she was, as I heard later, the mother of Charlie’s son Stefan. It was a passionate but brief courtship, but at the time, circumstances did not permit for them to stay together. Now, later in life, each having lived their own separate lives, they rekindled that once upon a time love affair which lasted to the day Charlie died.”

Marina Lewis, who is Austrian, has continued her friendship with Inge Heym and with Carl’s daughter Sabine, who lives in Austria. She shared this message from Inge Heym with the gathering:

Professor Carl Weber, a true friend, a good human being, has recently left us. To his many friends in Berlin, Charlie, as he was known, will remain a fond memory. Those friends shared with him the good times in the 1950s when he was an assistant of Bertolt Brecht in the Berliner Ensemble.

He had come to East Berlin from Heidelberg and was quickly drawn into the literary and artistic Boheme in the GDR. In 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, Charlie stayed on the other side and our contact grew infrequent. And soon after he left for New York.

Our contact never ceased totally, however. His friends knew and valued his work and missed his presence.

Think Big: President Jimmy Carter’s letter to extraterrestrials

Thursday, January 19th, 2017
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Billet doux to the universe, courtesy NASA

We live in a petty and vindictive time, and it’s shrinking every moment. As our nation’s history turns another suspenseful page, perhaps we should be thinking big rather than small, and open some windows onto wider vistas. At the very least, we’ll get some fresh air.

So what better time to revisit President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 letter to E.T.? It is the first letter in history to reach extrasolar space.

Carter’s three-paragraph letter accompanied the Voyager spacecraft. The probe made history in 2013 when it finally, officially ventured beyond our solar system and entered interstellar space: “Even if Voyager’s distance traveled is not even a gnat’s eyelash when considered against the unfathomable scale of our universe, it was still an exciting landmark, one that reminds us that our species is capable of great accomplishments when we’re not so facedown in the mud that we lose sight of the stars.”  Today, that letter is spinning beyond our Solar System at eleven miles a second.

Carter was not the only human to send a message on Voyager. The so-called “Golden Records” included on the Voyager craft contained tons of images, sounds, and information about our species and our world – a sort of time capsule of the State of the Planet.

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Love, Jimmy

According to the website Giant Freakin Robot: “A NASA committee headed by the late Carl Sagan decided on what information should be put on the so-called ‘Golden Records.’ They include greetings in 55 different languages, various “sounds of Earth,” a 90-minute selection of music from all around the globe, many different images, and even recordings of brainwaves. Sadly, Sagan’s pick of the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’ was vetoed by EMI at the time. Turning your nose up at possible interstellar publicity? Poor form.”

According to David Reneke‘s astronomy blog, the “Golden Record” stowed onboard contained greetings in languages from Sumerian to Welsh, as well as short speeches from UN delegates interwoven with whale sounds.

“My dear friends in outer space,” one delegate intones over a collage of cetacean murmurs, “as you probably know, my country is situated on the west coast of the continent of Africa, a land mass more or less in the shape of a question mark.” But how are extraterrestrials to know what a question mark is?

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The year is already off to a great start for Ewa Domanska

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017
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2017 got off to a great start for one of our favorite people – the Poznan-based Stanford scholar Ewa Domanska. (We’ve written about her here.) She just got a big promotion from the President of Poland – with a big celebration at the Polish equivalent of the “White House” in Warsaw. The chic scholar is now a full professor of the human sciences. She teaches most of the year at the Department of History in the Adam Mickiewicz University at Poznan. Her teaching and research interests include comparative theory of the human and social sciences, history and theory of historiography, posthumanities and ecological humanities. She’s into “posthumanism,” too.

We met over our mutual interest in a mutual friend, the late French theorist René Girard. She’s told me of his influence in Poland during the Solidarity years, when his theories about violence were daily realities for the Poles, who were reading The Scapegoat in their classrooms.

From her letter:

Ewa Domanska 2011Just before Christmas I received an official letter from the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland that he granted me the title of full professor (so-called “Belweder”) of the human sciences. In Poland, the procedure is long and takes two to three years. You have five independent reviewers who evaluate your academic achievements and the book that is presented as your main “opus,” and one super-reviewer who evaluates the work of reviewers (formal procedure) and also summarizes all what was said about the achievements. Last Wednesday, there was a big celebration in Warsaw in the Presidential Palace, where I received an official document. It was a very nice event, where fifty-nine new professor got their promotion from hands of the President, Wojciech Duda. We came with families and friends.”

And one of them snapped the photo above.

Ewa teaches at Stanford every spring. It looks like we’ll celebrate with a little champagne when she comes back to California in March.

Another Look spotlights Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude on Feb. 6: “a 98-page, lightning strike of a novel”

Friday, January 13th, 2017
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“If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.” (Photo: Hana Hamplová)

Over the years, Bohumil Hrabal‘s Too Loud a Solitude has had its fans. Peter Orner is one of them. Writing in “Night Train to Split” in Guernica (an excerpt from his new book Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live (Catapult):
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“The first time I finished Too Loud a Solitude, I was up in Letná Park, and I remember leaping off the bench and running around in circles, holding the book above my head and shouting because I believed I’d experienced some religious illumination. A brief, ninety-eight-page, lightning strike of a novel, the book is about a man named Haňťa who has been crushing paper beneath a street in Prague for the last thirty-five years. People throw paper and books, books by the barrelful, down Haňťa’s hole in the pavement. Before he crushes them, Haňťa reads. The book of Ecclesiastes, the Talmud, Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant’s Theory of the Heavens. Kant, who argues that the heavens are not humane, nor is life above or below.”
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.At 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 6, at the Bechtel Conference Center, the Another Look book club will discuss Czech author Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, a dystopian novella on the indestructibility of the written word.
Too Loud a Solitude is an elegy for literacy. It is also about how worship of unfettered technological progress invariably results in a trouncing of the human spirit. And it is about how only individual human memory has the unique power to redeem us,” Orner writes (read the whole thing here).
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Hrabal’s novella was published in a samizdat edition in Prague in 1976, and later published more widely after Communist rule ended in 1989. Its aging narrator runs a hydraulic press that crushes books and paper into bales. He rescues the best volumes for himself, and over time his thoughts and feelings merge with the treasures from the past – Hegel and the Talmud, Lao-Tze and Kant. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Hrabal’s is a cry of expiring humanism, and Too Loud a Solitude is a book to salvage from the deadly indifference that is more effective in killing the letter than the most sophisticated compacting machine.” You can read the New York Times review here.
Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by Stanford Prof. Hans Ulrich “Sepp” Gumbrecht, a European public intellectual and a prolific author, and German Prof. Karen Feldman of the University of California, Berkeley, whose research explores the nexus between literature and philosophy.
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Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books are Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces you may not have read before. The events are free and open to the public.

Too Loud a Solitude is available at Stanford Bookstore, and also will stocked at Kepler’s in Menlo Park and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.
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Zygmunt Bauman goes “to liquid eternity.”

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017
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“There is beauty, and there are the humiliated.” In Wrocław, 2011 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish sociologist and a major public intellectual, is dead at 91 – or, as his widow put it, he has changed his place of residence “to liquid eternity.”

According to The New York Times“The Polish-born left-wing thinker’s works explored the fluidity of identity in the modern world, the Holocaust, consumerism and globalization.” The article continued:

Renowned for an approach that incorporated philosophy and other disciplines, Bauman was a strong moral voice for the poor and dispossessed in a world upended by globalization. Whether he was writing about the Holocaust or globalization, his focus remained on how humans can create a dignified life through ethical decisions.

He wrote more than 50 books, notably “Modernity and the Holocaust,” a 1989 release in which he differed with many other thinkers who saw the barbarism of the Holocaust as a breakdown in modernity. Bauman viewed the mass exterminations of Jews as the very outcome of such pillars of modernity as industrialization and rationalized bureaucracy.

“It was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust thinkable,” Bauman wrote.

In the 1990s, Bauman coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe a contemporary world in such flux that individuals are left rootless and bereft of any predictable frames of reference.

In books including “Liquid Times” and “Liquid Modernity” he explored the frailty of human connection in such times and the insecurity that a constantly changing world creates.

Read the NYT obituary here. Or, from a more insightful Polish perspective, you might try this piece by Polish scholar Artur Sebastian Rosman over at his blog, Cosmos the in Lost:

His Liquid Modernity might be the single best description of the world we inhabit where all that is solid melts into thin air. The center does not hold, but Bauman is a sure guide to understanding what all that means. What Liquid Modernity describes, and it is something I’ve briefly discussed before, is not an academic exercise, but something that affects not only the present, but also the collective future. I cannot recommend this work highly enough if you feel confused about the world we inhabit and where it is heading. If you can’t relate to this feeling of vertigo then you probably have some bigger problems.

But I don’t want to dwell on psychoanalyzing you, nor on the details of liquid modernity (which you can explore here); nor on Bauman’s period of zealous Stalinism (I believe in Kołakowski’s dictum from Metaphysical Horror, “A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.”); instead, a couple days after Bauman’s death (I’m not a fan of the euphemism “passing,” because it lacks substance), I’d like to share the following passage from Of God and Man, since it hopes for a more humane future: “You are right (and deserve credit) when observing that, one way or the other, we somehow possess this world, and, from time to time, here and there, are even able to change at least a small part of it for the better. Given that this world of ours is still in the making, the act of its creation yet incomplete, and the work of continuing the creation and its completion has (to recall our earlier conversations) fallen to us, then it is right for us – as for any responsible host – to care for its well-being and attend to its goodness and beauty. I will repeat again Camus’ credo: there is beauty, and there are the humiliated. God grant that I never be unfaithful to the one or the other.”

Read the whole thing here. Or watch the video, “No one is in control. That is the major source of contemporary fear,” below:

“A writer to watch”: Elaine Ray wins prize for her first published fiction

Saturday, January 7th, 2017
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New prize for new voice. (Photo: Photo by Rachael Behrens)

One of the finest people at Stanford just won a substantial literary prize –the $1000 Gival Press Short Story Award. We couldn’t be more chuffed.

The Book Haven was one of the first to know about the short story and the prize. Elaine Ray sent her story “Pidgin” to us some time ago. We hesitate to read anything by friends and colleagues – hard to weigh in with a thumbs-down, and the diplomacy in such cases can take as long as the reading (or longer, depending on the ego of the writer).

Our immediate verdict: “Terrific! Go for it!”

We were surprised that the former director of the Stanford News Service, and one of the most beloved people at Stanford for her generosity and kindness, had emerged in fiction with an utterly new voice. We agree with the judge who called it “mercilessly exposed and utterly enigmatic,” throwing light on a lost world that as foreign to most of us as the Incas.

We we’ve written before about Elaine and her blog,  “My Father’s Posts,” named in honor of her father, the journalist Ebenezer Ray, who died when she was thirteen: “What I knew was that  my father had been a newspaper man. He had worked in the composing room of the Pittsburgh Courier before he was disabled  by Parkinson’s disease. I also knew that he had dabbled in photography: There was an abandoned darkroom in our basement, and there were  lots of photos around our house, including my baby picture, which earned Honorable Mention in the Carnation Healthy Baby contest in 1955. …I knew he was born in 1897, immigrated to the United States from Barbados, and had lived in New York  for many years before settling in Pittsburgh.” His story is the fictionalized backdrop of ‘Pidgin.'”

ebenezerHer reaction to the $1000 award? “Blown away and humbled. The first piece of fiction I’ve ever gotten published wins an award.” According to one of the judges, Thomas McNeely, author of Ghost Horse: “In fewer than twenty pages, Pidgin sketches a world of its narrator of color’s post-colonial migration, political activism, and imprisonment within the choices offered him by history. At the same time, it’s a narrative that seems shaped by mysteries that transcend and yet throw into sharp relief its political moment, the chief one being the brilliant voice of its narrator, who is at once mercilessly exposed and utterly enigmatic. Elaine Ray is a writer who plays by her own rules, and is a writer to watch.”

An excerpt, in the voice of her “father”:

My plan was to land a job at one of those big Negro newspapers. But first I had to put in some time with Oliver and Olivia Burns, a couple with ties to the printer I had worked for back home. Mr. and Mrs. Burns owned an establishment that printed invitations, birth announcements and funeral programs. They had clients who fell into three categories: The well-heeled customers they received in the front parlor of their shop with the curtains open— most of them were white or Negroes who could pass for white, like the Burnses themselves. In the second tier were those who were welcomed in the shop, but with the curtains drawn. They were mostly prominent, but browner-skinned Negroes. At the bottom rung of the Burnses’ pecking order were those who brought in most of the money. They tended toward the darkest hues, were working class or poor, and were not welcomed in the shop at all. Those are the ones I was hired to call on.

That’s how I met Lucille Braithwaite, an enterprising Trinidadian who had worked her way into a comfortable living in the ten or so years that she’d been in New York. By night, she toiled in a government factory in Tarrytown. By day and on weekends, she made extra money doing hair, managing a rooming house and hosting gatherings ý rent parties, recitals and receptions— in the upstairs parlor of her Harlem brownstone. She was known to pack a shotgun, lest anyone bring trouble or think about coming between her and her money. She was unmarried and had no children, but kept a parrot named Scarlet whose first language was Pidgin English.

Scarlet was a master of impersonation, picking up accents, inflections and languages with impressive precision.

“Who did you say sent, you?” Lucille asked the day I knocked on her door. At first glance it was hard to tell who was talking: the woman or the bird that stared from atop her head. Both gave me the once over.

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“Mr. and Mrs. Burns. You wanted to order some leaflets?” I tipped my hat—a straw cross between a pith helmet and a fedora. The bird snatched it.

“Don’t be rude, Scarlet,” Lucille reprimanded, a touch of amusement around her eyes. She opened the door wider and handed my hat back.

Had it not been for Scarlet’s antics, Lucille, whose hair was wrapped in a brightly colored scarf, would have looked like she was wearing a piece of intricately constructed millinery festooned with bright red, blue and yellow feathers.

“Where are you from, Mr. Clark?” Lucille asked.

I did not realize how ridiculous I looked until I was reflected in Scarlet’s marble eyes— a dark, diminutive, bespectacled figure in navy shorts, a starched white shirt, navy blazer, knee socks and leather sandals.

Lucille was tall, slender, and the color of strong tea. She had a beaklike nose and full lips. When she listened, she stood with her torso thrust forward and her hands on her hips, her elbows taking on the shape of wings.

“Barbados,” I said.

“That must be how you know the Burnses,” Lucille warmed. “Come in.” She led me into a spacious sitting room with two matching upholstered chairs, also bright with color, with a coffee table in between. There was a card table with four folding chairs in one corner and a large wicker birdcage in the other. The place was neat as a pin.

 You can read the whole thing here at the Arlington Literary Journal.

What we’ll need for 2017: a little “elbow grease”

Monday, January 2nd, 2017
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He started it.

I don’t know about all of you New Year’s revelers, but I’ve been working steadily through the winter break, and feeling mightily miffed about missing so many opportunities to party. What will I need to make it through 2017? A little more elbow grease, I expect, which the U.K.’s “Phrase Finder” website (and thanks, Okla Elliot, for pointing it out to us) defines as “energetic labour.” I always assumed “elbow grease” was an American colloquialism. Not so, says Phrase Finder. In fact, it appears to have been coined by the poet Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678). The concept is pretty universal, though. Knofedt, anyone?

From the website: 

It has long been said that the best sort of furniture polish is ‘elbow-grease’, that is, there is no substitute for hard rubbing to create a lustrous shine. The term itself is older than might be imagined and dates back to at least the 17th century when it was used in print by the English metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell in Rehearsal Transpros’d, 1672:

Two or three brawny Fellows in a Corner, with meer Ink and Elbow-grease, do more
Harm than an Hundred systematical Divines with their sweaty Preaching.

Marvell was suggesting that, although religious meetings could be disrupted or broken up by the speakers’ opponents, printed material could be circulated unhindered. Of course, Marvell was alluding to writing when he used the figurative expression ‘elbow-grease’. It was also used later in the same century, as it is used now, just to mean sweat or effort. An example of that usage is found in the 1699 New Dictionary of the Canting Crew:

Elbow-grease, a derisory Term for Sweat.

The expression’s inclusion in that dictionary, which itemises the language of the streets, suggests that it was a lower-class term.

Other countries have expression that are near-enough identical. In French we have ‘huile de bras’ or ‘l’huile de coude’, which translate as ‘elbow-grease’ and in Danish we find ‘knofedt’, which translates as ‘knuckle fat’.

Ramble through the whole website and look up your favorite hackneyed phrases here. Meanwhile, I hear a deadline whip cracking. Back to work!