Archive for December, 2017

Evolution of Desire – the excerpt: “Haven’t read anything on the internet in a while that has given me so much pleasure.”

Monday, December 11th, 2017
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Up at Quarterly Conversation, an excerpt from my Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard – to serve as appertifThe book will be officially out in April, and our kindly friends over at QC wanted to run an excerpt. Instead it became a whole chapter! “The French Invasion” describes a few wild days at Johns Hopkins University in 1966:

The conference has been called “epochal,” “a watershed,” “a major reorientation in literary studies,” “the French invasion of America,” the “96-gun French dispute,” the equivalent of the Big Bang in American thought.

To hear the superlatives, one would have thought that “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium held at Johns Hopkins for a few frantic days from 18 to 21 October 1966 was the first gathering of its kind ever held. It wasn’t, but it did accomplish a feat that changed the intellectual landscape of the nation: it brought avant-garde French theory to America. In the years that followed, René Girard would champion a system of thought that was both a child of this new era and an orphan within it. He was at once proud of his role in launching the symposium, and troubled by some of its consequences.

René Girard was one corner of the triumvirate that instigated the conference, and the senior member of the trio. The others were his Johns Hopkins colleagues Richard Macksey  (well, he will be familiar to Book Haven readers. We’ve written about him here) and Eugenio Donato. Donato was one of those rare birds in academia who “had a nose,” according to a French expression Dick Macksey borrowed. “He knew where the cooking was taking place.”

A chevalier moderne: Cécile Alduy raised to glory!

Saturday, December 9th, 2017
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An intimate winter gathering at the home of the French consul. (Photo: Anaïs Saint-Jude)

On Thursday night, Cécile Alduy was raised to glory (we’ve written about her here and here). She was admitted to what the French Consul Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens called “one of the most select clubs on earth.” Its ranks include René Girard, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Salman Rushdie, Peter Brook, Jeanne Moreau, and many others – and more recently, Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison (we wrote about the occasion here) and Marie-Pierre Ulloa. In short, at the San Francisco hilltop home of the French consul general, Cécile became the most recent “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres,” one of the highest cultural honors France offers.

Consul General Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, Cécile Alduy, and cultural attaché Juliette Donadieu (Photo: Anaïs Saint-Jude)

Lebrun-Damiens noted that the order was created in 1957, and strongly supported by André Malraux when General de Gaulle created a Ministry of Culture for France in 1959. Then he praised Cécile.

“At the core of your work, you specialized in analyzing and deconstructing the notion and origins of the myth of national identity,” he told her. “You have used your exceptional artistic, aesthetic, and analytical sensitivity towards expanding artistic, political, and cultural horizons.”

“As a young researcher at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, you decided to dedicate your thesis to great Renaissance French poets and to study how they shaped the notion of national identity through their creative writing. Following that path, you eventually exceeded your original academic discipline – literature – and shifted towards contemporary political analysis, with a particular interest for the ideology and rhetoric of the French extreme right,” he continued, acknowledging her articles in The Atlantic, The Nation, The New York Times, Le Monde, and others.

Cécile’s children also attended the celebration, and gamboled with a few others in the room where she received the small green-and0white striped ribbon and medal. Their participation was fitting and significant: it highlighted the theme of generations that informed both her remarks and those of the General Consul: Lebrun-Damiens noted the role of both her grandmothers. Her paternal grandmother, Jacqueline Alduy, was the mayor of a little town Amelie-les-Bains in the Pyrénées-Orientales, holding the office for 42 years until age 77. “As a woman of convictions, she was especially proud of your work on the extreme right and the analysis of Jean Marie and Marine Le Pen’s discourse,” he added.

Her maternal grandmother figured not only in his remarks, but in hers.  Excerpt below:

Three Stanford chevaliers: Marie-Pierre Ulloa, Robert Harrison, Cécile Alduy. (Photo: Anaïs Saint-Jude)

My first thoughts go to those who instilled in me the sense that literature matters, that beauty matters, that the arts matter, more maybe than anything else. That they are not just the salt of life, a little extra spice or pastime, but rather the soul of the human experience, what makes us uniquely, truly human, what keeps us alive, that by which we might be redeemed as a species, and as individuals.

You named already some of the benevolent figures who imparted on me a love for words: my maternal grand-mother, Madeleine Daumas, a bookseller at one point, a typist who copy-edited the numerous books of her husband, but mostly an avid, yet quiet, composed reader. She read and re-read start to finish all the works by Racine, Montaigne, Balzac, Stendhal, Perec, Butor, Claude Simon, Steinbeck, Nabokov, Faulkner, Julien Greene, Kundera, Philippe Labro, Sollers, Yourcenar, de Beauvoir, John Le Carré, Simenon, Michel Serre. Each Christmas, we counted not the gifts, but the number of pages to read she had received. She was the first to read my first poems, short stories, essays, thesis… (and knowing she was made me pay scrupulous attention to spelling) …

In her family, her parents made “arts and literature and cinema the normal thing we do as a family, like going outdoors or watching the news. Yes, I have to admit that I was not always a happy camper after hours walking through the Pompidou museum staring at contemporary art installations, or visiting Greek ruins under a 110 degrees sun in the Summer. But thanks to them I learnt how to see: colors, and light and shadows; I learnt the shape and tastes of cultures close and far.”

An added bonus: the tree…

Then she spoke of the mission of the chevalier: “enriching French culture is not a matter of celebrating ‘roots’ and ‘land’ as the nationalist rhetoric goes, that culture defies borders and fructifies anywhere, everywhere, that arts and letters and the values they embody not only travel but flourishes by contact, migration, pollination.”

“If anything, this medal and this city rewards the work of bridging, of crossing boundaries (national boundaries but also the boundaries of academic disciplines and methodologies), of traveling across cultures and languages, of being on the move and in several places and cultures at once.

“At a time when borders and walls are erected, I am extremely proud to declare myself a migrant, an immigrant, a bi-national, and a citizen of the world.”

It was, she said, not an achievement as much as a beginning: “a peaceful military draft of sorts, a call to arms to resist the spoliation of our common right to a world where words mean what they say, where principles apply, where cultures are respected and humanistic values upheld.”

…and the flowers

“Being called to become a Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters is less a recognition of past works than an invitation, a request really, to fight for the arts and literature: it’s a call to arms to defend with the means of sharp thinking, and eloquence, and sensitivity, and aesthetic form the value of artistic creation, which is another word for the work of being human.”

With the beautiful decorations for holidays, there was plenty to please everyone. Only one expressed mild disappointment. Her four-year-old daughter asked a thoughtful question: if her mother was now a chevalier – where was her sword?

The only way up is down: Rachel Jacoff and Robert Harrison discuss Dante’s Inferno

Thursday, December 7th, 2017
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The fatal kiss of Francesco da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, as portrayed by William Dyce in1837.

The world of Dante scholars is a small and close-knit one, and Rachel Jacoff is one of its leading luminaries. In this Entitled Opinions conversation, she discusses The Divine Comedy, and more particularly The Inferno, with her former student, our Entitled Opinions host Robert Pogue Harrison, himself a major Dante scholar. It’s over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here. (It’s part one of a three-part series – but don’t worry; each operates as a stand-alone interview.)

They begin with the setting of the Divine Comedy, and the spiritual, existential, biographical, and political crisis in which it is born. The epic poem takes place in the Jubilee year 1300, when the Florentine was 35 years old, at the midpoint of his life. He was in the middle of two prose works he couldn’t finish, Convivio and De Vulgari Eloquentia. Instead, he undertakes the major work for which he is most remembered, The Divine Comedy.

Da man.

Entitled Opinions host and guest discuss the great poem’s background, the spiritual crisis that gave birth to it, the mysterious role of Virgil as Dante’s guide, and the role of women in the drama (both as mediators to Dante’s spiritual climb, and as sexual sinners in the Inferno). And, inevitably, they discuss the renowned Canto V, with the adulterous lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta. (More about the doomed couple from two other Stanford scholars, René Girard and John Freccero here.)

The discussion begins with the First Canto, and Harrison’s comments on the Florentine’s immortal opening to his Divine Comedy. Dante has hit an impasse, and the only way up is down:

“There’s always a before, and always an after, to the beginning. Every beginning starts in the middle of something. That’s what the ancients meant by in media res. For Dante, in medias res meant in the middle of a forest: ‘In the middle of our life’s way, I found myself in a dark wood, where the straight way was lost.’ What kind of middle of the way is this, where forward motion hits a dead end, where life’s vital energies come to a terrifying standstill, where every step you take could be your last step? This is the midpoint, a strange and uncanny place. It’s not the halfway point on a straight finite line. It’s not equidistant from beginning and the end. No, it’s a sentiero interrotti – a path without issue. It’s a place where all footing is lost, and where, if there’s to be any resumption of motion, it will have to be on a different footing altogether. That’s what it means to begin in the middle of the way. To find a new footing, and in so doing, to undergo a turn, a swerve, a clinamen, rather than continue on the same rectilinear course. The midpoint represents a turning point. … The only way up is down.”

Potent quotes:

Jacoff @Stanford

Rachel Jacoff:

“If we only had only the first canto, we wouldn’t know anything about the political crisis, we wouldn’t know about the exile, we wouldn’t even know Dante was a Florentine. … The language is deliberately vague enough so that almost everyone can find their own mid-life crisis in this language.”

Rachel Jacoff:

“People have read this as a poem about depression, they have read it as a poem about many different things, because they’re able to connect with the sense of a dead-end.”

“It has collective epic community, but also lyric individuality. It becomes a first-person epic, which distinguishes it. There is an ambiguousness about its autobiographical nature … and yet it is generic. There is a way in which Dante has to be an everyman.”

“Reading Virgil might have given him the idea that maybe he was writing the wrong book. He shouldn’t be writing a philosophical book, he should be writing a poem – and a poem informed on many levels by The Aeneid, in particular, the journey to the other world.”

“It is a very Christian poem; Virgil is a pagan. This is a primary, extraordinary fact. Unlike other texts with visions of the journey to the other world, in which the guides are angels or saints, Dante chooses a poet, and perhaps the most important thing to Dante, a poet of Rome and of the Roman Empire.”

Go to the new Entitled Opinions channel at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

Robert Harrison:

“In Dante’s age, there was no analysis or psychotherapy, no prozac. Help took a different form – the form of a literary ghost, the ghost of Virgil who comes on the scene.”

“Wouldn’t it also be fair to say that Dante was also chosen by Virgil? … He had been rereading Virgil’s Aeneid massively. Something changed in rereading of that poem about the founding of the Roman Empire. He landed in a dead-end as a result of reading Virgil, and so perhaps only Virgil could get him out.”

“Sometimes the living adopt their ancestors, but sometimes the dead have a way of adopting the living.”

“Dante was primarily a lyric poet before he wrote The Divine Comedy. Virgil perhaps provided a model for how he might go from being a lyric poet to writing a Christian epic.”

Hemingway on war: “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice…”

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017
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The author just before another war, in 1939

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During World War I, the 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway drove an ambulance in Italy for two months. Then he was wounded.”When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you,” he wrote. “Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you.” He went to the Spanish Civil War as a journalist in 1937. Here’s what he had to say about war in A Farewell to Arms:.

“‘We won’t talk about losing. There is enough talk about losing. What has been done this summer cannot have been done in vain.’ I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. … Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or allow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”

Richard Wilbur’s heresy: “elegance, wit, and declaration of faith in the cosmic order”

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017
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A poet of “wit and wakefulness”

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Booksthe matchless Patrick Kurp (who blogs Anecdotal Evidence) writes of the late Richard Wilbur, a poet who favored “wit and wakefulness.”

From “’The Exceptional Man’: Rereading Richard Wilbur”:

Like his mentor, model, and friend Robert Frost, Wilbur has been routinely misunderstood by admirers and detractors alike. To some among the former, he is safe and wholesome, like oatmeal. To his more emphatic critics, Wilbur commits heresy with every act of elegance, wit, and declaration of faith in the cosmic order. In this sense he was a well-mannered outsider, a fugitive from fashion. If Wilbur, who died October 14 at age 96, ever wrote a mediocre poem — one that is perfunctory, careless, egocentric, or empty — I couldn’t remember having read it.

Taking on the “Collected” in one go.

On his death, Patrick decided to take on the poet’s 600+-page Collected Poems 1943–2004 (there have been several small volumes since 2004), cover to cover. “After all, reading a writer attentively is the truest, most respectful act of criticism.” His goal: “to avoid the chestnuts and pay attention to the poems less well remembered.”

He paused at this passage from Wilbur: “The presence of potential rhymes sets the imagination working with the same briskness and license with which a patient’s mind responds to the psychologist’s word-association tests. When a poet is fishing among rhymes, he may and must reject most of the spontaneous reconciliations (and all of the hackneyed ones) produced by trial combinations of rhyming words, and keep in mind the preconceived direction and object of his poem; but the suggestions of rhyme are so nimble and so many that it is an invaluable means to the discovery of poetic raw material which is, in the very best sense, far-fetched.”

Patrick writes:

Note the order in which Wilbur describes composition: “fishing” for rhymes, sorting them, winnowing, rejecting most, all the while remembering the “direction and object” of the poem. A good rhyme isn’t the snap of a lock but a key to open the imagination. The ability to write first-rate poetry, like the gifts for mathematics and music (composition and performance), is a freakishly rare combination of rigor and openness. Few have been so lavishly gifted as Wilbur. Tin-eared critics will dismiss rhyme as handcuffs, something artificial to bind the imagination. On the contrary. When Wilbur likens rhyme to a psychologist’s parlor game, he’s not suggesting repressed memories and the unleashing of buried anguish and guilt. Music goes deeper than that. So melodic are some of Wilbur’s poems, so gracefully arranged, one might be tempted not merely to read his lines but intone them, as in these from “A Black Birch in Winter” (The Mind-Reader: New Poems, 1976): “Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth, / New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth.” Ella Fitzgerald would sing this bouncily, allegro moderato, with light stress on the nouns.

Wilbur once wrote that poems “should include every resource which can be made to work,” and in his best poems, no motion is wasted. They resemble happy athletes: the flab has been trimmed, the muscles are limber. They move with confidence and strength, and they make it look effortless.

Read the whole thing here. It will reward the effort.  So will his blog Anecdotal EvidenceMy favorite in recent days, his excellent mini-essay on historian and poet Robert Conquest is here.

A postscript on Dick Wilbur from the poet R.S. Gwynn: “Being an ‘exceptional man’ is part of Wilbur’s exceptional quality as a poet. Frost had “a lover’s quarrel with the world’; Wilbur had a lifelong lover’s quarrel with the words that make it up. Lovers quarrel to bring their best, sometimes hidden qualities to the fore. Wilbur did the same thing with language.

 

Partying with Walcott, Heaney, Brodsky: “I wished I could have brought it all home in a jar.”

Friday, December 1st, 2017
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Could he have found a big enough jar?

I never met Nobel poet Derek Walcott – but Sven Birkerts did, and he writes a marvelous, ebullient essay about Walcott and his sidekicks and fellow Nobel poet laureates, Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky, “Long Tables, Open Bottles, and Smoke” over at Lithub.

Sven Birkerts met the Caribbean poet in 1981 at Boston University. Walcott was allowing non-students to audit his poetry seminar, and Birkerts jumped at the opportunity. It sounds a lot like Joseph Brodsky’s class back in Ann Arbor, except for the locale with its associations:

“We met in #222, the same second-floor room on Bay State road where Robert Lowell had taught his now-legendary seminar that included, among others, young poets George Starbuck, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Derek was pleased by the association and often invoked his old mentor “Cal.” Our class, which I audited for two years, had a loose free-associational format, like nothing I’d experienced—at least not before I met Joseph back in Ann Arbor. Was this how poets did it? It seemed radical and right, such a change from the syllabus-driven proceedings I’d known as an undergrad. In these sessions, a poem would be passed around—a ballad, something by Thomas Hardy or Elizabeth Bishop, say—like a specimen we could study, or, more flatteringly, like a melody handed off to a group of musicians to see what might happen. Meanings were not at issue—not in any conventional way. The conversations turned on rhythm, rhyme, cadence: the elements we came to see as primary to meaning.”

And the parties were unforgettable:

A judicious, sardonic rejoinder…

What a delight it was to see these three utterly distinctive looking individuals together at a party! And it seems, looking back, that there were parties all the time. Long tables, open bottles, and smoke. God, how people smoked in 1981—Joseph with his L&M’s (“Wystan smoked these”), Derek with filterless Pall Malls, Seamus with his Dunhills. And everyone gathered around them doing the same. If the reader now expects accounts of high literary seriousness, however, she will be disappointed. These gatherings were about play. They were exercises in comic brinksmanship. Who would pull off the night’s best line, the funniest story; which of the three would most quickly reduce the other two to convulsions? Those of us lucky enough to be at the table barely got a word in. If we had any function, it was to keep things going, to prompt. A question, a compliment—it didn’t matter, anything could be a trigger. Joseph was usually first out of the box with some dark jibe, which would inevitably set Derek into volatile contortions, releasing his extraordinary laugh, a full-body explosion. It would then fall to Seamus to offer the judicious sardonic rejoinder. I wished I could have brought it all home in a jar. My stomach hurt from laughing. I lay in bed, my head spinning from combined excesses, but also with the feeling that the world was, as Frost had it, “the right place for love.”

A full-body explosion

So much life – and all three are dead now. One poet mentioned in the article is most happily alive. I was pleased that Walcott loved Adam Zagajewski‘s “Going to Lvov,” and in a paragraph that makes me envious (I would not have put it this way, but I wish I had), he writes: “Derek’s reasons for adoring it are immediately clear. Zagajewski is writing directly in what I think of as the key of Walcott—and Brodsky—moving forward by the same logic of transformations, assuming the same coded equivalences between the things of the world and the words with which they are transmitted. Here the poet plays with such likeness directly, joining in our minds the visual punctuation of the Russian ‘soft sign’ and the sibilance that calls up the movement of water.”

And I couldn’t agree with him more when he reaches this conclusion: “These, I think, were the best years—before the Nobel Prizes. Say what you will, the feeling in a room changes when a certified Nobelist is present, never mind two or three. There is, of course, the overt or conspicuously concealed regard of the non-Nobelists present; and then the deft but still obvious efforts of the laureates not to be acting as eminences. It’s true, of course, that the poets were already known and honored before then, but somehow their earlier celebrity energized much more than it constrained.”

Read the whole exuberant essay here. Oh, and before I forget, check out his two-hour conversation on technology, books, and life over at the “Virtual Memories Show” here. Sample quote: “When I was your age, I discovered the doubling over of one’s own experience. . . . Themes, recurrences and motifs in my life began to manifest. Then as if on command, the whole sunken continent of memory began to detach from the sea-floor.”