Archive for October, 2018

Buffalo’s “French Connection” with René Girard

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

Albert Cook and René Girard at a party at Arts & Sciences Provost John Sullivan’s home, 1974. (Photo: Bruce Jackson)

René Girard makes an appearance at Buffalo – and so does my Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.  Jeff Klein’s article in the current issue of  the university’s newspaper, Mixed Media, recounts  “when Girard, Foucault and a coterie of intellectuals revolutionized the American academy” at the State University of New York at Buffalo. That was where René wrote Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World with Jean-Michel Oughourlian. (The short piece is linked to this Thursday’s conference on “Transatlantic Crossroads of a Critical Insurrection.” Read about it here.)

An excerpt:

A generation ago, an intellectual revolution challenged traditional assumptions about Western culture, transforming academia. That revolution was sparked by a vanguard of deep-thinking French scholars— and UB was on the front lines.

A new book, “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard,” recounts the career of one of those thinkers, a historian, critic and philosopher of social science who taught at UB from 1968 to 1976. Girard wrote exclusively in French [he later wrote Theater of Envy and some of his essays in English – CH], producing more than two dozen works delineating his theories on the origins of violence and ritual in human behavior. One of his most influential, written largely while at UB, is “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.” It has the odd distinction of resulting from a series of profound philosophical dialogues conducted at a hotel in Cheektowaga.

Buffalo Prof. Bruce Jackson documented the era with a number of terrific photos. Something not to be taken lightly. I find that René looked uncomfortable in most of his pictures – academics often do. They’re not fashion models, after all. In many of his photos, he looks like he’s following the photographer’s instructions – “You want me to stand a little to the left?” Bruce caught him “at ease” among his colleagues, as in the photo above with Al Cook. Bruce generously allowed me to use a few of his images in my book. It’s a valuable record, and so are his articles, which I quote in Evolution of Desire:

“For at least a decade, the UB English department was the most interesting English department in the country,” recalled Bruce Jackson, who joined the faculty in 1967. “Other universities had the best English departments for history or criticism or philology or whatever. But UB was the only place where it all went on at once: hot-center and cutting-edge scholarship and creative writing, literary and film criticism, poem and play and novel writing, deep history and magazine journalism.” A constant flow of visitors guaranteed intellectual circulation and fresh air, whether the guests stayed for a day or a year. The department had seventy-five full-time faculty teaching everything from literature and philosophy to film and art and folklore. “Looking back on it from the end of the century, knowing what I now know about other English departments in other universities in those years, I can say there was not a better place to be.”

The legendary architect behind the effort was Prof. Albert Cook, who was determined to create a department of leading stars and critics. Jackson described him as “a man in constant motion, forever talking or reading or writing. . . . He was a presence . . . He never seemed to change. Other people got older, paunchier, balder, slower, but Al Cook was always Al Cook. He transcended the physical. He was medium height, big in the chest, always scheming. Al was my idea of what Odysseus looked like.” By the time he recruited Girard, he had already finished his three-year term as department chair but was still a guiding hand and go-between in recruiting academic luminaries. Few places could have been as ideal for Girard.

Thank you, Bruce.

Vassily Grossman: “What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested?”

Monday, October 15th, 2018

Grossman as a reporter for the Red Star. In Germany, 1945.


It is the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of a magnificent and too little-known masterpiece, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, who, as a reporter for the Soviet Red Star, witnessed the apocalyptic Battle of Stalingrad. A Russian Jew, he also witnessed the opening of the Nazi extermination camp, Treblinka and wrote about it.

Elizabeth Conquest once again alerted us to a very interesting piece in The New Criterion this month, “Totalitarian Physics & Moral Threshing.”  Here’s what Jacob Howland has to say about the book:

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the first publication in the Soviet Union of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a nine-hundred-page novel of life under Stalin. This was a small posthumous triumph for the author. The KGB had confiscated the manuscript in 1961, and Grossman—who wrote to Khrushchev asking, “What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested?”—was told that it could not be published in the USSR for another two hundred years. Depressed and suffering from stomach cancer, he died in 1964.

We’ve written about Life and Fate, translated by the wonderful Robert Chandler, here and here and here and here, among other places.

Howland continues:

Life and Fate is a massive literary fusion of poetry and mathematics, narrative and scientific observation. Multiple stories of struggle and suffering—a rich accumulation of significant data about the human condition in the age of ideology—are punctuated by Tolstoyan passages of philosophical reflection on the inner meaning of these imaginatively generated phenomena. The book centers on Hitler’s invasion of the USSR and the smashing of “two hammers . . . each composed of millions of tons of metal and flesh” at the Battle of Stalingrad, events whose shock waves the narrative registers with seismographic sensitivity as they disrupt and volatilize hundreds of interconnected lives across an entire continent.

In one of the book’s first chapters, Grossman describes a firestorm unleashed by the Luftwaffe bombing of fuel tanks: “The life that had reigned hundreds of millions of years before, the terrible life of the primeval monsters, had broken out of its deep tombs; howling and roaring, stamping its huge feet, it was devouring everything round about. The fire rose thousands of feet, carrying with it clouds of vaporized oil that exploded into flame only high in the sky. The mass of flame was so vast that the surrounding whirlwind was unable to bring enough oxygen to the burning molecules of hydrocarbon; a black, swaying vault separated the starry sky of autumn from the burning earth. It was terrible to look up and see a black firmament streaming with oil.

“The columns of flame and smoke looked at one moment like living beings seized by horror and fury, at another moment like quivering poplars and aspens. Like women with long, streaming hair, the black clouds and red flames joined together in a wild dance.”

Only an eyewitness—Grossman reported from Stalingrad for the newspaper Red Star—could provide such particular details. Only a great writer could compose such an intensely lyrical apocalypsis: Life, chemically transformed inside the earth into combustible matter, rages and consumes itself in a vast, murderous vortex. Tens of millions of souls haunt these flames, including Grossman’s mother, shot over a pit with the other Jews of Berdichev, Ukraine. Here is the deep mystery at the heart of Life and Fate, and of our time: how the industrial lethality of totalitarianism gestated within, and broke free from, the soil and sediment of human life.

Read the whole thing here.  (And an excerpt from the book here.)

W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions on October 30. Be there!

Friday, October 12th, 2018

Most valuable writer? Galsworthy thought so.

Join us for the Tuesday, October 30, Another Look book club discussion of W.H. Hudson‘s Green Mansions. The event will take place at 7:30 p.m. in the Bechtel Conference Center of Encina Hall.

First published in 1904, Green Mansions seamlessly blends nineteenth-century romanticism with the ecological imperatives that would come to the forefront in the twentieth century. Discussants will include Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, director of Another Look, Prof. Laura Wittman, and the Dean of Continuing Studies, Charles Junkerman.

The plot: Abel Guevez de Argensola, flees to the Venezuelan interior after launching a failed coup in Caracas with his friends. In the remote jungles and savannas, he lives among the native people, learning their language and their ways. While exploring the terrain, he hears strange bird-like singing and discovers a young woman with a mysterious story. His love for her desolates and transfigures his life.

According to novelist and playwright John Galsworthy, writing a decade after the publication of Green Mansions, “All Hudson’s books breathe this spirit of revolt against our new enslavement by towns and machinery, and are true oases in an age so dreadfully resigned to the ‘pale mechanician.” … A very great writer; and – to my thinking – the most valuable our age possesses.”

Great minds wonder: What’s the connection between T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and Beethoven’s Opus 132?

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

He wanted to get “beyond poetry.”

“Many critics and students have come dangerously close to subscribing to the tenuous proposition that a nearly exact formal analogy exists between the structure of T.S. Eliot‘s Four Quartets and that of Beethoven‘s late string quartets,” wrote Thomas R. Rees in “The Orchestration of Meaning in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets” in 1969.

As if the idea had ever crossed our minds.

However, I’ve since learned that the association of my all-time favorite Eliot piece and the Beethoven late string quartets really is a thing. And not only from Rees. I discovered this article written by Katie Mitchell on the subject way back in 2005, when she and a colleague were developing a performance of Eliot’s masterpiece:

It was only by chance that we discovered – in Lyndall Gordon‘s book on Eliot’s later career, Eliot’s New Life – that the poem was inspired by one of Beethoven’s late string quartets. Once the initial connection had been made between the two pieces, I started to research them both, with a view to working out how to put them together. The idea of an evening that somehow combined a reading of the poem with a performance of the string quartet was born. …

Beethoven composed his string quartet, Opus 132 in A minor, in the winter of 1824-52. He was 54 and recovering from a serious bowel condition from which he had nearly died. As a result, he entitled the central movement “a song of thanksgiving … offered to the divinity by a convalescent”, and the second section of this movement bears the inscription: “Feeling new strength.”

“Feeling new strength.”

Over 100 years later, in March 1931, TS Eliot, aged 47, wrote to Stephen Spender: “I have the A minor Quartet on the gramophone, and I find it quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety, about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.”

Eliot began the Four Quartets in 1935 and worked on it for years, finishing it in 1941. Whereas the composer wrote one quartet, with five movements, the poet wrote four pieces, each divided into five sections. Like Beethoven’s work, Eliot’s poem was triggered by personal suffering, although not of a physical nature. It was probably connected to his separation from his wife, Vivienne, in 1932; her mental illness; and the rekindling of a platonic relationship with his first love, the American university teacher Emily Hale. …

In 1933 Eliot said he wanted to get “beyond poetry, as Beethoven in his later works, strove to get beyond music”.

Intrigued as I was? Read the whole thing here. Rees’s piece is here. Or listen to the A Minor String Quartet here.

Postscript on 10/14: Faithful Book Haven reader Henry Gould alerted us to his own 2009 post at “HG Poetics” on this very subject, here.

TLS readers respond: Hölderlin’s Greece, and René Girard on pacifism

Saturday, October 6th, 2018

Watchful Book Haven readers alerted me to letters that have been published at the Times Literary Supplement, touching on subjects we have written about in the past. Two are in the September 28 letters column of the eminent weekly!

The first, forwarded to us by Elizabeth Conquest, concerns the recent TLS piece on my Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Read about it here.) Was René Girard a pacifist? It’s a subject I tackle in the postscript of my book:

René Girard is not a pacifist. That was the word I received from Paul Caringella, a friend and longtime visiting fellow at Stanford, who had been the first reader for this book. He had sent me a quick note of correction to an early draft of this manuscript, which he thought might lead readers to that erroneous conclusion.

I had not put Girard in quite those terms, but once the issue came up, I realized I had made certain assumptions. Given Girard’s emphasis on the renunciation of violence and his warnings about the “escalation to extremes,” it stands to reason that he would advocate disarmament and pacifism. How could one sanction any participation in the calamity of war, the inevitable atrocities and injustices, the destruction of cities, the “collateral damage” as
civilians are pulled into the slaughter, the unstable and temporary peace that follows? “René doesn’t belong to any ‘ism.’ He’s not an ‘ism’ man,” Paul later explained. “People of his stature are not going to be put in classifications like that.”

David Martin of Woking, Surrey, takes on the question with his own example of the complicated relationship between pacifism and violence. Many thanks, once again, to Liddie for the heads-up.


We had also written about Elizabeth Powers, concerning her review of  Friedrich Hölderlin’s Life, Poetry and Madness, which has just been republished by Hesperus Press (translated by Will Stone).

She had written:

Although the inspiration came from the Greece-drenched enthusiasm of Winckelmann and Goethe, the ancient divinities were not, for Hölderlin, allegories or personifications, to be converted in art. Rather, prophet-like, he sought to bring them back to life in order to regenerate a world that, he felt, had grown old and lost its way. His earliest poems, from 1791, express the darkness of the world without such rejuvenation. “Half of Life,” however, published in 1804, without any Greek poetic apparatus, intimated where his own life was heading:

But oh, where shall I find
When winter comes, the flowers, and where
The Sunshine and shade of the earth?
The walls loom
Speechless and cold, in the wind
Weathercocks clatter

(Michael Hamburger’s translation)

Kyriaco Nikias of the University of Adelaide wrote a letter about the various rewritings of the Greeks – also included at right. Thanks to Elizabeth Powers for passing this along!

Farewell Prof. Herbert Lindenberger (1929-2018), a mentor of “animation and intensity”

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018

He gave “electrifying” lectures.

Herbert Lindenberger  died on October 1 at 89, of multiple myeloma. He was active till a few weeks ago, visiting museums and attending operas.

I met the Stanford professor of English and comparative literature … well, “met” Herbert Lindenberger.. eighteen years ago when I contacted him for a profile of Dana Gioia (you can read it here). He commented on his former student. We’ve spoken by phone more recently, and was a warm and lively presence, but we never got the face-to-face we’d discussed.

He was born in Los Angeles on April 4, 1929. He was a recipient Fulbright Fellowship to the University of Vienna (1952-53), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1968-69), two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships (1975-76, 1982-83), a  Stanford Humanities Center Fellowship (1982-83), a resident fellow at the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, Italy (1996), named a “Distinguished Alumnus in the Humanities” at the University of Washington (2006), and a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (elected 2008).

His most recent books are Aesthetics of Discomfort: Conversations on Disquieting Artwith Frederick Luis Aldama (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016) and One Family’s Shoah: Victimization, Resistance, Survival in Nazi Europe (New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Previous books include:  On Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963; Princeton paperback edition, 1966); Georg Büchner, in Crosscurrents/Modern Critiques series (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964); Georg Trakl, in Twayne World Authors Series (New York: Twayne [now G.K. Hall], 1971); Historical Drama: The Relation of Literature and Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, l975; Phoenix paperback edition, 1978); Saul’s Fall: A Critical Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979); Opera: The Extravagant Art (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984; Cornell paperback edition, 1986); The History in Literature: On Value, Genre, Institutions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990); Opera in History: From Monteverdi to Cage (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998); Dogstory: A Memoir in HypertextStanford University, April, 1999; Situating Opera: Period, Genre, Reception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Years ago he commented on Dana. Now it’s time for his former student to comment on him. I sent the news to Dana half an hour ago, and got this reply: “Terrible news. I knew Herbie for nearly half a century. He was a wonderful man.” Dana has known him for half-a-century.

“Herbie Lindenberger was my mentor at Stanford, and we became lifelong friends.  His famous course on Modernism was an intellectual milestone in my life. He was one of the finest teachers I’ve ever known. He brought a level of animation and intensity to the classroom that electrified his students. What good fortune to have known him as a teacher and friend.”

His son Michael Lindenberger posted this: “We recently went through a document he had given us regarding action items to take upon his death. (He was unbelievably organized and prepared for virtually any eventuality.) Regarding communicating with the Stanford English department, where he was a professor for many years, he had written to us, ‘Tell them that when the chair announces my death not to say “passed away” as the last chair did, but simply to use the word “died” and say that if this order is not followed I shall place a hex on the chair from wherever I am.’ That was our dad – candid and humorous even about death. And, as is evidenced by people who have reached out to us over the past 48 hours, it’s clear that his enthusiasm, warmth, humor, and intense intellectual energy were truly infectious. Not a moment of his 89 years was wasted.”

A René Girard twofer in the LRB: Evolution of Desire and Battling to the End

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

A pleasant vision on my return to California: both Elizabeth Conquest and Ronald Meyer of the Harriman Institute sent me a jpeg of the back page of the current edition of the London Review of Books. 

Couldn’t be more pleased to share space with Benoît Chantre‘s excellent Battling to the End, which I discuss at length in Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardMake it a twofer and order both books at once.