Archive for August, 2018

The Orwell Watch #28: Taking on “who I really am” and “evolve”

Sunday, August 19th, 2018
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We owe you a great debt, sir.

The Orwell Watch is not dead, though it hath slept… and here’s what woke it up again: Regularly on the social media and on the internet more generally, I see people advertising some particular activity or predilection because “that is who I really am.”

What? Are they facing death or exile for holding to a long-cherished principle or loyalty? Or, more in the spirit of vanitas, they are bragging about a virtue (“I gave $5 to a down-and-outer, because that’s who I really am“)? Not generally. More often they are talking about selecting a outfit for a party or justifying some aggressive behavior on Twitter. From what I can tell, it takes them years to discover “who I really am.” It involves naval-gazing, apparently, distancing ourselves from the others who challenge our notion of self. Often it’s an attempt to sway how others see us. (Maybe it would help if we simply think about ourselves less.)

“Who I really am” is neither that trivial nor that hard to discern. Here’s how you go about it.

Keep doing what you regularly do. Look at the history of your choices – because our “values” aren’t something we decide in our heads. They are formed by the choices that we make over time. We are what we do. Think about your decisions and actions over the last year, especially the important forks in the road. Which way did you veer?

Bingo! That’s who you really are. See? There’s no big reveal. It’s not something you need an extensive course in therapy or a Facebook group to figure out. It’s more fundamental than the sum of the items we pick on a restaurant menu or whether we wear Jimmy Choo shoes. (Are they still in fashion?)

If you are anxious to tell people what you prefer do in bed because that’s who you “really are,” please reconsider. We really don’t want to know that you are into leather or flesh-colored underwear. If such a thing were of interest to us, we would go to bed with you. (To borrow a thought from the inimitable Fran Lebowitz,“If your sexual fantasies were truly of interest to others, they would no longer be fantasies.” Or this one, on clock/radios: “If I wished to be awakened by Stevie Wonder, I would sleep with Stevie Wonder.”)

If you want to come to my dinner party dressed in your sweats or beach shorts, because that’s who you “really are,” please think again. Take a shower, comb your hair, and put on a pair of long pants. I am no more who I “really am” when I tumble out of bed than I am when I’m in dressed to the nines. In fact, I like to imagine that a little discipline and grooming is who I am really am – but hey, I could be kidding myself.

Fran is right. (Photo: Christopher Macsurak)

I know, I know… you’ll “evolve” your thinking on this. That’s another one.

People who claim to believe in “science” (don’t get us going) seem not to know what “evolve” means. It does not mean “getting better and better.” This is wrong in two ways: From a UC-Berkeley science website:

MISCONCEPTION: Evolution results in progress; organisms are always getting better through evolution.

CORRECTION: One important mechanism of evolution, natural selection, does result in the evolution of improved abilities to survive and reproduce; however, this does not mean that evolution is progressive — for several reasons. First, as described in a misconception below (link to “Natural selection produces organisms perfectly suited to their environments”), natural selection does not produce organisms perfectly suited to their environments. It often allows the survival of individuals with a range of traits — individuals that are “good enough” to survive. Hence, evolutionary change is not always necessary for species to persist. Many taxa (like some mosses, fungi, sharks, opossums, and crayfish) have changed little physically over great expanses of time. Second, there are other mechanisms of evolution that don’t cause adaptive change. Mutation, migration, and genetic drift may cause populations to evolve in ways that are actually harmful overall or make them less suitable for their environments. For example, the Afrikaner population of South Africa has an unusually high frequency of the gene responsible for Huntington’s disease because the gene version drifted to high frequency as the population grew from a small starting population. Finally, the whole idea of “progress” doesn’t make sense when it comes to evolution. Climates change, rivers shift course, new competitors invade — and an organism with traits that are beneficial in one situation may be poorly equipped for survival when the environment changes. And even if we focus on a single environment and habitat, the idea of how to measure “progress” is skewed by the perspective of the observer. From a plant’s perspective, the best measure of progress might be photosynthetic ability; from a spider’s it might be the efficiency of a venom delivery system; from a human’s, cognitive ability. It is tempting to see evolution as a grand progressive ladder with Homo sapiens emerging at the top. But evolution produces a tree, not a ladder — and we are just one of many twigs on the tree.

MISCONCEPTION: Individual organisms can evolve during a single lifespan.

CORRECTION: Evolutionary change is based on changes in the genetic makeup of populations over time. Populations, not individual organisms, evolve. Changes in an individual over the course of its lifetime may be developmental (e.g., a male bird growing more colorful plumage as it reaches sexual maturity) or may be caused by how the environment affects an organism (e.g., a bird losing feathers because it is infected with many parasites); however, these shifts are not caused by changes in its genes. While it would be handy if there were a way for environmental changes to cause adaptive changes in our genes — who wouldn’t want a gene for malaria resistance to come along with a vacation to Mozambique? — evolution just doesn’t work that way. New gene variants (i.e., alleles) are produced by random mutation, and over the course of many generations, natural selection may favor advantageous variants, causing them to become more common in the population.

What we mean when we say a politician has “evolved” on an point of view is closer to “conform to the herd,” usually to attract votes.  A better synonym would be “saving myself” or “looking out for Number One.” They had an opinion that was problematic or controversial, but nevertheless their own, and now they see there will be a price tag if they continue to hold it, so they “evolve” towards their own safety and reelection. It’s sort of an adaption to local coloration…

On the other hand, maybe that is a kind of evolution…

What happens when Joshua Cohen meets Harold Bloom? “The function of criticism now is to abandon politics.”

Thursday, August 16th, 2018
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“Rusticating mentor.”

Novelist Joshua Cohen took a train to Connecticut to interview legendary litcritic Harold Bloom: “As my train dragged its way through Bloom’s native Bronx — and continued upriver through the rising heat of Westchester and into that great humid smog-cloud that covers all of Connecticut beyond the stockbroker coast — I had the unsettling feeling that I’d been cast in some straight-to-YouTube adaptation of one those classic scenes of literary visitation, wherein a young bookish type makes a pilgrimage from the stifling city to pay homage to a rusticating mentor.” 

Here’s how the interview began:

Joshua Cohen: It’s an honor to meet you, Harold. You’re being very generous and kind and —

Harold Bloom: Okay, okay, enough. Sit down.

Cohen: I’m sitting.

“Young bookish type.”

Bloom: I was thinking all day, what questions will you ask? You’re recording?

Cohen: I am. I’m recording on my phone — and we might as well begin with that, because one of the things I wanted to speak with you about was memory. Everyone calls this “a phone,” but my generation in particular considers it as something more like an external brain. It stores our sounds, our images, our books. I need this extra storage space, this extra memory, to compensate for my own. But, famously, you don’t. You remember everything.

Bloom: Our backgrounds are similar, Joshua, but remember: We’ve lived half a century apart. So I can’t speak of technology. But my memory is a freak — this is true. I had it from when I was a little one, growing up in the Bronx, and going to the Sholem Aleichem schools. My first language was Yiddish. There was no English in our house, or even really in our part of the Bronx.

Puzzling.

It continued: 

Bloom: Kafka is the ultimate Jewish puzzle.

Cohen : I’ve always been troubled by his story “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse-Folk” — which was the last story he ever wrote. And it famously ends with a line that says, in essence, to be forgotten is to be redeemed. I know you’ve written about this line: in your interpretation, it’s not a melancholy statement. Because though the singer might be forgotten, her song will be remembered: in fact, the more the song will be remembered, the more the singer can be forgotten, because her art remains secure. I agree with your interpretation, though I’d point out that when I reread this story last year, I found myself baffled and touched by the faith that Kafka has in “the community”: the “mouse-folk” who will preserve Josephine’s song. What do you make of Kafka’s belief in a “community” that doesn’t just preserve its culture, but incarnates it?

Bloom: It makes me unhappy. Whatever Jewish culture is, or is not, it will vanish with the last Jew. And who knows when that will be?

It ended: 

Cohen: And what about criticism — what is its relationship to the preservation, or survival, of our culture? If criticism becomes solely concerned with the political — the here and now — will there be no world-to-come?

Bloom: The function of criticism now is to abandon politics. Whatever the voice that is great in us is, it relates to perception and knowledge.

That’s the preview. Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books here

One of the top six writers of the 20th century? Stalin didn’t think so.

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018
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The Soviet FD locomotive, featured in “Immortality” (Photo: LHOO/Peter van den Bossche)

Who was the greatest writer of the 20th century? Not many would put Andrey Platonov in the top half-dozen. But Nobel prizewinning poet Joseph Brodsky did.

“I squint back on our century and I see six writers I think it will be remembered for.  They are Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, William Faulkner, Andrey Platonov and Samuel Beckett…. They are summits in the literary landscape of our century … What’s more, they don’t lose an inch of their status when compared to the giants of fiction from the previous century,” he said. Gorky, Bulgakov, and Pasternak might have seconded the vote for Platonov. Unfortunately, Stalin called him scum.

He ended his days sweeping streets.

According to The Irish Times literary critic Eileen Battersby writing eight years ago: “The poet Joseph Brodsky divided the world into those who had read Platonov, and so merited the title of readers, and those who had not, and thus were dismissed outright as lesser mortals. For Brodsky, Platonov ‘simply had a tendency to see his words to their logical – that is absurd, that is totally paralysing – end. In other words, like no other Russian writer before or after him, Platonov was able to reveal a self-destructive, eschatological element within the language itself.’”

At the time I first heard about him, however, I don’t think The Foundation Pit had been published in English yet. But now you can read Platonov’s short story “Immortality,” which Platonov published in 1936, breaking years of silence and official censure. (This short story was published an editorial saying the author had overcome his “grave, creative errors.”) The story is an experiment in social realism, but perhaps the best of that misguided genre had to offer – and, as the son of a railway worker, it perhaps borrows a bit of his own history.

It begins:

After midnight, on the approach to Red Peregon station, the FD locomotive began to shout and weep.1 It sang in the winter darkness with the deep strength of its hot belly and then began to change to a gentle, weeping human breathing, addressing someone who was not replying. After falling briefly silent, the FD again complained into the air: human words could already be discerned in this signal, and whoever now heard them must have felt pressure on his own conscience because of the engine’s torment—helpless, heavy rolling stock hung on the maternal hook of her tender and the station’s approach signal was signaling red. The driver closed the last steam cutoff—the signal was still an obstinate red—and gave the three toots of a complete stop. He took out a red handkerchief and wiped his face, which the winter night’s wind was covering all the time with tears out of his eyes. The man’s vision had begun to weaken and his heart had become sensitive: the driver had lived some time in the world and travelled some distance over the earth. He did not curse into the darkness at the fools in the station, though he was going to have to take two thousand tons, from a standstill, up the incline, and the friction of the locomotive’s metal wheel rims would draw fire from the frozen rails.

The selfless hero of the story is the station chief Emmanuil Semyonovich Levin. His housekeeper approaches his room to wake him up:

The telephone above her boss’s bed was silent; her boss also slept and his body, accustomed to brief rest, was gathering strength, quickly, hurriedly—his heart had stilled in the depth of his chest, his breathing had shortened, supporting only a small watchful flame of life, each muscle and each tendon was secretly tugging, struggling against monstrosity and the creases of daytime tension. But in the darkness of a mind abundantly irrigated with blood, one quivering spot still gleamed, shining through the half-dark of eyes half-shuttered by lids: it was as if a lamp was burning on a distant post, by the entry switch of the main track coming out from real life, and this meek light could be transformed at any moment into a vast radiance of all consciousness and so set the heart to run at full speed.

The translators are Lisa Hayden and the matchless Robert Chandler. (And read Chandler’s fascinating discussion of Platonov in The Guardian here.) Read Platonov’s “Immortality” in its entirety over at E-flux here.

“Gelassenheit”: what the world needs now

Sunday, August 12th, 2018
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Brazil’s João Cezar de Castro Rocha: an interpreter of “Gelassenheit”

I know what you’re thinking. Back at at the “Sepp Fest” last February for Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (a.k.a. Sepp), I promised a third installment after “Public intellectuals, private intellectuals, and a professor of football” and  “’My weight is my love’: on Augustine, Calvino, and Sepp Gumbrecht”.  But what did you get from me? Silence.

Until now.

Sepp: More intense ’cause he’s more serene? (Photo: Reto Klar)

Here is the third post on the celebration from two-day retirement party for Sepp, and it comes all the way from Brazil. João Cezar de Castro Rocha of the State University of Rio de Janeiro gave a talk in February on “Gelassenheit.” The term became an important analytic tool for Sepp as he studied the life of Erich Auerbach, the author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western LiteratureBut the term has a long history, not only in Martin Heidegger but going all the way back to Meister Eckhart. When I interviewed Sepp, he used the term to describe René Girard, and defined it as a “Let-It-Be-ness,” or as I eventually described in Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, “accepting things in their uncertainty and their mystery.” But it isn’t that simple.

João notes that Sepp’s initial translation of the world was composure:

On the one hand, it signals Sepp’s initial engagement with Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. To put it more precisely: with an intense reading of Sein und Zeit; as a matter of fact and above all with Heidegger’s phenomenological descriptions of everyday life. Sepp’s 1998 book In 1926. Living on the Edge of Time is a first and robust outcome of this specific concern, which is related to lived experience as such, attributing to it, let us say, an intellectual dignity, which resembles Auerbach’s reconstruction of Western literary experience, and its serious and potentially tragic understanding of ordinary, everyday life.

On the other hand, it should be highlighted that from the very beginning of his engagement with the concept, and even in its translation as composure, Gelassenheit never meant to Sepp acceptance, resignation, in one word: quietude. Rather, I propose the following rendering of Sepp’s translation: composure implies a particularly active relationship with current events, in which the present is projected into a much wider chain of events, and going back and forth different historical periods is the trademark of Gelassenheit understood as composure – a trademark also of Erich Auerbach’s masterpiece, Mimesis.

Auerbach’s Mimesis, he pointed out, is “an impressive narrative of a failure” of Western culture, and can even be read as a powerful anti-Nazi statement.  “You see my point: composure has nothing to do with acceptance of a present filled with tragic happenings, but rather it entails an active withdrawal from the, let us say, tyranny of the present; withdrawal which enlightens the relativity of any given historical time.”

Then João cut to the chase: “I’ll now propose that from 1995 onwards Sepp’s understanding of Gelassenheit started to change slowly but steadily, and as time went by the change became so radical that it opened up a new path in Sepp’s work.”

Then he told a story:

In 1995 Sepp Gumbrecht, along with Jeffrey Schnapp, Ted Leland, Bill Egginton and Rich Schavone, organized what, with hindsight, can be seen as a breakthrough event, bringing together athletes and academics. I’m referring to the conference “The Athletes’s Body.”

In the Q&A session, the three-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer Pablo Morales was asked what he missed the most of his life as a top athlete. Morales’s answer was in itself eventful. He did not exactly miss the exhaustive training routine, although the discipline required by it can be fully appreciated. Indeed, almost all top athletes have impose on their bodies such stress throughout their careers that the most common outcome is a series of injuries they have to endure their entire lives. Nor even gold medals and world records were what Morales missed the most; after all a top athlete is obsessed with improving her performance, therefore, any victory may be clouded by the seemingly inescapable question: could I have done it any better?

So what was it that Morales really missed from his athlete’s life?

Pablo Morales told us that above all he longed for the moment immediately before jumping into the swimming pool in a day of an important competition just like the Olympic Games. Then, Morales felt the world to be a blank page, an untouched canvas, where everything is possible, and the best performance ever is at hand. In his own words, in this very moment he felt “lost in focused intensity”.

Being lost in focused intensity, I propose, has triggered Sepp’s new understanding of Gelassenheit, and it is not a coincidence that at the same time Sepp was engaging ever more intensely with a highly personal reading of Heidegger’s philosophy. The process was not without hindrances, and in 2003 Sepp published Production of Presence. What Meaning Cannot Convey, providing the basis for a theoretical framework of his own, which enabled him to turn intensity, that is, his new translation of Gelassenheit into a form of thinking. Intensity as a special form of Gelassenheit has become not only Sepp’s own Gedankenexperiment but also an everyday aesthetics – as you already know, no ethics should be attached to Sepp’s works.

After all, what is a seminar taught by Sepp if not an immersion in Gelassenheit? It is not the case with Sepp’s wrap-up of a panel – be it surprisingly good or merely mediocre? In both cases, while rendering more complex the ideas espoused by the speakers, Sepp is creating an environment where it becomes possible, almost at hand, to find themselves lost in focused intensity.

João concluded that Sepp’s most recent work redefines Gelassenheit, and perhaps we should, too. “I suggest that we move from composure to serenity.” He continued:

However, as we did with the notion of composure, we have to enrich our understanding of serenity. It should not be seen either as calmness or as quietude. I propose we equate serenity with stillness, but only insofar as the absence of motion, implied in the meaning of stillness, resonates Pablo Morales’s experience of being lost in focused intensity. In other words, in Sepp’s work, stillness means to be in absolute concentration immediately before jumping into the swimming pool in an Olympic Game or, for that matter, immediately before delivering a thought-provoking lecture. After all, academics also perform their intellect, even if they are not aware of it.

Then, to conclude I believe that we can pinpoint two or three definitions of Gelassenheit that may enlighten Sepp’s current work.

First: Gelassenheit demands a Messianic time, in the sense put forward by Walter Benjamin, but as long as the Messiah is not expected to come, so time remains open to the openness of time.

Second: Gelassenheit as serenity is the form of emergence, in the sense developed by Umberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, notion that along with autopoiesis were important in the unfolding of the theoretical framework of the materialities of communication paradigm.

Finally, as serenity, Gelassenheit is the emergence of form; form, in the sense developed by George Spencer Brown, as the difference between in and out, interior and exterior, propitiating what could be called the aesthetics of Sepp’s thought experiments.

If the ideas I proposed here are good to think with – as the myths are for Claude Lévi-Strauss – I may now conclude by suggesting that, as time goes by, Sepp becomes ever more intense because at last he has learned to be a bit more serene.

Well, I lost whatever small measure of Gelassenheit I have when João told me the eminent house É Realizações Editora in São Paulo would be translating and publishing Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard in Portuguese for a Brazilian translation. Wheee! Uncork the champagne!

Johns Hopkins interviews me on “René Girard and the Mysterious Nature of Desire.”

Friday, August 10th, 2018
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A little mysterious himself.

Bret McCabe makes a brief appearance in the pages of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. The humanities writer for Johns Hopkins University, where René Girard spent some of the most important years of his life, was interviewing JHU legendary Prof. Richard Macksey a few years ago. They had been discussing the renowned 1966 Baltimore conference, organized by Girard, Macksey, and Eugenio Donato, which brought French thought to America. Then Bret McCabe finds a Davidoff matchbox nestled among Macksey’s papers. As a madeleine famously recalls Proust to his past, so the matchbox stirs distant memories in Dick Macksey: “I haven’t had Davidoff since Jacques Derrida was here.”

Last spring, Bret did a Q&A with me for Johns Hopkins University about “René Girard and the Mysterious Nature of Desire.” It went up on the Johns Hopkins website this week. An excerpt:

While Evolution of Desire is written for a general reader, I imagine that general reader is probably going to have some interest in and familiarity with literary criticism. How would you describe Girard’s theory of mimetic desire for a layperson, and why it has such lasting significance?

I’d start this way: We want what others want. We want it because they want it. These desires are shaped by our restless imitation of others. When the coveted goods are scarce, these desires pit us against one another—on an individual level, on a community level, and on a global scale as well. It causes divorces and it causes international wars. It causes children to fight over a five-buck toy in the sandbox.

Legendary Dick Macksey at JHU

René Girard wrote: “All desire is a desire for being.” It’s a phrase I use often because this imitated desire is powered by the wish to be the person who models our desire for us. We think that this person possesses metaphysical qualities we do not. We imagine the idolized individual has the power, charisma, cool, wisdom, equanimity. So we want that person’s job, shirt, car, spouse. The relationship, as he wrote, is that of the relic to the saint.

The nature of desire is mysterious. René said: “Desire is not of this world. That is what Proust shows us at his best: it is in order to penetrate into another world that one desires, it is in order to be initiated into a radically foreign existence.” No wonder he was such a devotee of Proust!

Follow him on Twitter: @BretMcBret

That passage succinctly answers the second part of your question as well. Our most fundamental longings—throughout the centuries—are addressed in his corpus. That is why it is important, and always will be important.

The final question from Bret: 

Finally, I know it’s a bit of folly to ask such things, but as you point out in both your introduction and postscript, Girard is actually somebody who might have something to tell us about right now. He died in 2015, prior to the elections in 2016 and 2017 in Europe and the U.S. What do you think Girard has to tell us about our current time and the highly polarized world in which we currently live?

Want to know what I answered? Check it out here.

Congratulations to me! I’m a 2018 National Endowment for the Humanities “Public Scholar”!

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018
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The news is out! I’m a brand-new 2018 National Endowment for the Humanities “Public Scholar.” It is obviously a great honor, and I am thrilled beyond words. The letter of announcement is here and list of recipients is here. The Washington Post story is here. As for the project I will be undertaking as an NEH Public Scholar:

“I did not choose California. It was given to me,” wrote Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. His attempt to come to grips with California was a lifelong psychological journey, and one that changed America as well as the poet himself. This story will be told in “The Spirit of the Place”: Czesław Miłosz in California, a book that was born in a British Academy talk I gave in London, 2012. It is the first book-length study to consider the Lithuanian-born Polish poet as an American.

The Berkeley poet.

It all started at a Christmas party, a year-and-a-half ago, when I was still knee-deep in bringing Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard to press (Wall Street Journal review is here).  Steve Wasserman, my former editor at the Los Angeles Time Book Review when it was the best in the nation, and more recently editor-at-large for Yale University Press, was returning to his rodina, Berkeley. He had just taken the helm at Heyday Books – in his words, “a unique cultural institution that promotes awareness and celebration of California’s many cultures and boundary-breaking ideas. Through well-crafted books, public events, and innovative outreach programs, Heyday seeks to build a vibrant community of readers, writers, and thinkers.”

We had spoken on the phone, we had emailed each other, but we had never actually met face to face until that chilly night on December 17, 2016.

The setting was Heyday’s cozy offices on University Avenue, only a mile from Chez Panisse, the legendary restaurant that is Steve’s second home. Heyday was a rabbit warren of booklined walls and dark wood paneling. Old Berkeley at its best. (It’s since had to move house, alas.)

That night, the corridors were crowded with chattering people and the tables laden with a lavish spread of potluck offerings. The band performing by the entryway made conversation improbable. Nevertheless, Steve and I found a quiet room to chat, and he told me about his new publishing initiative at Heyday called “California Lives.”

In his words again: “The series will consist of book-length biographical essays on the men and women who, taken singly and together, have built a state which is a source of relentless reinvention, a magnet for peoples the world over who have sought an escape from history and a new identity in a land of seemingly endless possibility.” He wondered if I had any ideas.

“Yeah, what about Czesław Miłosz?” I suggested. But … he’s Polish, he answered. “Well, we’re all from somewhere else, aren’t we?” I answered – it’s especially true in California. And, after all, the Nobel poet was a U.S. citizen – UC Berkeley’s first and only Nobelist in the humanities. Steve’s brow furrowed. But didn’t he dislike the U.S.?  And California, for that matter? Consider his arguments about Robinson Jeffers. “What could be more American than opposition?” I answered. “We’re all protesting something.” He loved Walt Whitman, quarreled with the spirit of Jeffers, and he engaged American culture – while always remaining ambivalent about it. I had the expertise to advance the argument: I’ve written a welter of articles about Miłosz, and have two volumes about him to my credit, Czesław Miłosz: Conversations and An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław MiłoszAnd I’m a longstanding Californian – though across the Bay from Miłosz’s (and Steve’s) Berkeley.

Steve was won over. Here’s what he wrote about the poet in a publisher’s statement for the NEH: “He is emblematic of a host of mid-century émigrés who sought refuge from the calamities of the twentieth century in California. It is a state that is both a place and a state of mind whose literature reflects a range of affection and unease. Miłosz’s contribution to that literature is a red thread that runs through some of his most important work, but is curiously neglected in most of the critical commentary. Heyday aims to correct that omission.”

Steve has another reason to be drawn to the subject: “I confess a personal stake in his story. I grew up in Berkeley and went to high school with his two sons. I spent time in his home on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Later, when I was deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times opinion section I was among the first to interview him when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.”

Steve has also been a longstanding champion of the proposed author of the book, too. Let me conclude with some praise for my humble self:

Thank you, Steve.

“Cynthia Haven’s writing on East European and Central European writers is superb, as I know from my years publishing her reviews in the Los Angeles Times. Moreover, as a longtime resident of California, she brings to bear a deep understanding of the state and its paradoxes. She is alive to irony and knows the virtues of a short declarative sentence. She is remarkably clear without neglecting nuance. She embraces the Eros of the difficult and translates it into terms that can be grasped by ordinary readers. Her perspicacity, diligence, and acute intelligence are ideal for this necessary book on Miłosz. She will help Californians in particular, and Americans more generally, enter Miłosz’s mostly unfamiliar but remarkably influential and important world. Her gifts as a researcher and writer—indeed, as a cultural journalist—are very nearly unrivaled in this arena.”

Steve was almost as pleased as I was by the NEH honor. And of course he suggested we celebrate at Chez Panisse soon, soon…

Stanford’s loss is Iowa’s gain: We look forward to your novel, Elaine Ray!

Sunday, August 5th, 2018
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Elaine with another Stanford legend, choreographer Aleta Hayes

This week, one of the most magnificent women ever to grace the Stanford org charts leaves for the harsher climate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, where she will be a resident fellow. (In fairness, any weather would necessarily be harsher than idyllic Palo Alto’s.)

Elaine Ray was the director of the Stanford News Service when I returned to Stanford as the humanities and arts writer for the university over a decade ago. It was an award-winning and nationally recognized institution, with plaques at the entryway signaling its many honors to all visitors. Elaine, a former Boston Globe journalist, was one reason why it was exemplary.

It was also one of the happiest workplaces I have ever known (and had a Stanford-wide reputation for being so). Elaine was a big reason for that, too. Said News Service staffer Pamela Moreland at one of her farewell parties a fortnight ago:

She is a wonderfully demanding editor who allows you to have your own voice and try new things while still adhering to the stylebook and expectations. She sees the big picture while at the same time, she will sweat every detail that you sweat and then some. She knows things before they happen. She never gave me bad advice.

In preparing for this event, I asked a few people to tell me a few things about Elaine. The superlatives came tumbling down:

Best confidante ever
Most considerate person ever
Kindest
Compassionate
No-nonsense in the best way
Best friend a person could have
Consistent
Best running buddy ever

So why is this remarkable woman leaving? The technical reason is “retirement.” But the real reason is that she’s been admitted to the Iowa Writers Workshop, the preeminent training ground for the nation’s best writers. It’s a creative and surprising way to spend a so-called “retirement.”

Elaine and daughter Zuri Adele, actress of “Good Trouble” fame

I wrote about the inspiring turning point to her story on the Book Haven some time ago, and at the party, former News Service videographer Jack Hubbard gave a shout out to me and the Book Haven for my post, “A writer to watch: Elaine Ray wins prize for her first published fiction.”

That was in January 2017, when I wrote: “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.” More:

Her 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.”

You can read the entire post here.

“Elaine gets her chutzpah from her mom, who raised the family after Elaine’s father died when she was 13,” said Lisa Trei, the former social science writer at the News Service. “Elaine knew that her dad had worked in the composing room of the Pittsburg Courier but she didn’t know that he had also written a weekly column for The New York Age focusing on racial injustice. In 2010, quite by chance, Elaine stumbled upon the columns and created a blog about them. The fact that she wrote for Essence and The Boston Globe before she ever knew about her family legacy shows that printer’s ink is in her blood, for sure.”

Godspeed! We look forward to your novel, Ms. Ray.

“I have my freedom of speech,” he said – and then the cops dragged him away.

Saturday, August 4th, 2018
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The octogenarian dissident in China speaks out. Now one knows where he is. (Photo: Youtube)

Here’s the news you probably didn’t hear this week: 84-year-old professor and activist Sun Wenguang in China was speaking on Voice of America when the Chinese authorities burst into the room and dragged him away. His final words to the world: “I have my freedom of speech.”

He hasn’t been seen since. Is he dead? Is he beaten? We don’t know. From the Washington Post:

Viewers listened as Sun recounted his ordeal live on air. “Here they come again, the police are here to interrupt again,” Sun said in Chinese. “Four, five, six of them.”

Sun asked what the men were doing in his home and threatened to get a knife. “It is illegal for you to come to my home,” he said. He defended his VOA interview and called on the security officials to respect his rights.

They didn’t, of course.  According to Hu Jia, a prominent human rights activist in Beijing,  “They did that on air, and they didn’t care if it was in front of the whole world. This is an attack on press freedom, too. It just shows that they are willing to pay any price” to silence him.

At the time of his … shall we call it arrest? … he was criticizing China’s foreign investments: “People [in China] are poor. Let’s not throw our money in Africa. Throwing money like this is of no good to our country.”

Who is Sun Wenguang? He retired physics professor from Shandong University, he spent more than a decade in and out of prison at various times from the 1960s to the 1980s for criticising communist leader Mao Zedong. According to the BBC:

The long-time government critic is one of the original signatories of “Charter 08”, a manifesto which called for political change in China.

In 2009, Prof Sun was beaten while visiting the grave of Zhao Ziyang, a communist leader who was purged for supporting the Tiananmen protests of 1989.

The then 75-year-old said at the time he had suffered three broken ribs and injuries to his hands and legs. He was later admitted into hospital.

Prof Sun has also been denied a passport, according to the New York Times, and so is unable to leave the country.

Perhaps it’s time for Google to reconsider its confidential plan to release a censored version of its search engine for China. It’s own employees are furious. Read about it at The Intercept  here. Meanwhile, you can hear the Voice of America recording of his abduction below.

Two plays, two very different women: Euripides stars at the Stanford Repertory Theater

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018
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Doomed Polyxena (Lea Claire Zawada) mourns the life she will never have. (Photo: Frank Chen)

Euripides‘s play Helen is the most lyrical and tender of the playwright’s canon, and the most surprising as well. Here’s the story: Helen was never carried off to Troy by Paris; she was whisked away by the gods to Egypt to cool her heels while the Trojan War raged. (She is, after all, the daughter of Zeus … or maybe Tyndareus.) In her place, an eidolon – a specter, a lookalike, a double – went to the doomed city. Now the war is over. Menelaus is presumed dead. And the King of Egypt wants to marry Helen, twenty years older but still a humdinger. She’s clinging to a sacred shrine that offers sanctuary against his unwanted advances. What’s a queen to do?

Joe Estlack as Odysseus, Polymnestor, Menelaus (Photo: Zachary Dammann)

The story has its precedents. Herodotus advanced the same tale in his Histories. And the poet Stesichorus said the same in his Palinode. But Helen – almost a romantic comedy, really, but too tinged by tragedy to make it so – is most memorably told by Euripides. Too bad it’s not told often enough. So that’s one reason to see the Stanford Repertory Theater’s current production, Hecuba/Helen, in the Roble Studio Theater.  It opened last weekend and runs through August 19.

“Like the Odyssey and, even more, like the late Shakespearean romances, Helen has in some ways ‘got back to the fairy tale again,’ with its sunlit clarifications, reunions, and happy ending,” wrote poet Rachel Hadas about the play. “But its brightness is porous; plenty of suffering makes its way through. The enormous and tragic waste of the war, the pain of exile, isolation, and blame – the beauty of Helen shines through these elements without ever avoiding or denying them.”

The play is ingenuously paired with a very different offering from Euripides, Hecuba. Like the tragedian’s Trojan Women, it’s a rending,  agonized lament from the female denizens of Troy, now orphaned and widowed and childless, as they are about to be hauled into slavery and worse. The threnody is interrupted occasionally by men, kings, soldiers, messengers, coming to relate the latest disastrous news or murderous decision. It’s one steady momentum downward, to Hecuba’s final revenge against her betrayer, before the Trojan queen’s descent into becoming, as prophesied, a howling dog.

African American poet Marilyn Nelson describes Hecuba as “the distillation of the pain described in the slave narratives” – “Her children dead or stolen, her husband slain, her homeland lost forever, her nobility reduced to rags: again and again, I read Hecuba’s stories in the slave narratives. Children torn from their arms and sold, lovers beaten and sold or murdered, no place to run, no place to hide, their very bodies a badge of inferiority.” And so it is.

Courtney Walsh as Hecuba, Doug Nolan as Agamemnon. (Photo: Zachary Dammann)

All the roles are doubled up, or trebled up. Stanford Rep regular Courtney Walsh revels in the exhausting challenge of playing both Helen and Hecuba – though I think her touch is made for the dark-edged comedy of Helen more.

Two men in particular give an array of arresting performances  – Doug Nolan as Agamemnon a hardened soldier softened by the surprise of love. Less than an hour later he is the bullying Theoclymenus, the duped King of Egypt, alternately petulant and belligerent. Joe Estlack is the stalwart yet doubting Spartan king Menelaus – and also the oleaginous traitor Polymnestor. (He won me over when he inventively and energetically portrayed an entire shipwreck all by himself, with gurgling, coughing, spitting, and sputtering.) Props to Jennie Brick as the chorus leader and also the lippy portress-cum-bouncer at the Egyptian palace. And Stanford undergraduate student Lea Claire Zawada makes a moving and anguished Polyxena, whose life is sacrificed to the ghost of Achilles.

Thank you, sir.

The epigrammatic Greek Chorus is always a challenging convention in modern drama. Aleta Hayes‘s choreography updates the concept while hewing to its origins. It’s effective, though my own preferences run towards a plainer, less stylized interpretation, where the chorus women deliver their lines simply, singly, as lookers-on and occasional participants. The projections on the screen were more distracting than helpful, and opened the drama outward when it needed intimacy and tension.

The doubling and trebling of roles, as we watch very different characters and emotions shine through the same faces we saw minutes before, remind all of us how we each take so many roles in a lifetime – all but the best and worst of us swing from hero to villain, buffoon to sage, and back again. During Hecuba/Helen, a killer becomes lover and then a killer again, the powerful are humbled, a betrayer becomes the betrayed … and the smart-mouthed portress who kicks Menelaus away from the threshhold morphs into the benevolent prophetess Theonoe.

As the “Nevertheless, She Persisted” theme of the double show demonstrates, Euripides was an early champion of women. He was also deeply horrified by war, having lived through the long and bitter struggle between Sparta and Athens. Euripides shows both in the case of the Trojan women of Hecuba, and in Helen, which showcases a woman who been scapegoated for a war she never caused, and just wants to go home to Sparta.

Artistic director Rush Rehm translated these texts from the Greek for this production, and the final piece is stageworthy, more so, perhaps, than the more lyrical rendering of poets who have tried their hands at the task:

The gods reveal themselves in many ways,
bring many matters to surprising ends.
The things we thought would happen do not happen.
The unexpected gods make possible,
and that is what has happened here today.

Courtney Walsh (Hecuba), Lea Claire Zawada (Polyxena), and in the chorus Emma Rothenberg, Jennie Brick, Brenna McCulloch, Gianna Clark, Regan Lavin, Amber Levine. (Photo: Zachary Dammann)

Voices from the chorus: Brenna McCulloch, Amber Levine, Regan Lavin (Photo: Zachary Dammann)