Archive for November, 2018

Why We Want What We Want: René Girard and Robert Harrison in conversation

Friday, November 30th, 2018
Share

“I THINK THE REASON WE TALK SO MUCH ABOUT SEX IS THAT WE DON’T DARE TALK ABOUT ENVY. THE REAL REPRESSION IS THE REPRESSION OF ENVY.” –RENÉ GIRARD

“Know thyself.” It’s not an easy proposition. As Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison says, “To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire. Desires are what lurk at the heart of our behavior. It’s what determines our motivations. It’s what organizes our social relations. It’s what informs our politics, religions, ideologies, and above all, our conflicts.”

René in a video interview…

In this conversation and podcast, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here, Harrison talks with Stanford’s expert on human desire, René Girard, whose work on the subject was rooted in literary criticism, but eventually reached across disciplines to embrace anthropology, sociology, history, religions, and even the hard sciences.

Girard began his work in the 1960s with a new concept of human desire: our desires are not our own, he said, we are social creatures, and we learn what to want from each other. He has been called “the new Darwin of the human sciences” and was one of the immortels of the prestigious Académie Française.

… Robert Harrison as radio host

Their 2005 interview discusses envy and desire in literature — in Canto V of the Inferno, in Cervantes, Balzac, and Flaubert, but most of all in the plays of Shakespeare. They also discuss the role of vengeance as an act of mimetic rivalry, “snobbery” as a form of imitation, and the “sacramental” nature of advertising today. “If you consume Coca-Cola, maybe if you consume a lot of it, you will become a little bit like these people you would like to be. It’s a kind of Eucharist that will turn you into the person you really admire.”

Ultimately, they talk about the mimetic escalation of warfare, Girard’s late-life fascination with the war theoretician Clausewitz, and the need to renounce violence.

This is Part 1 of a two-part discussion – you can listen to it over at the Los Angeles Review of Books “Entitled Opinions” channel here. Meanwhile, Robert Harrison writes about René Girard in the Dec. 20, 2018, issue of the New York Review of Books here.

Potent quotes:

From RENÉ GIRARD

Envy is the emotion which plays the greatest role in our society.”

Mimetic desire is an absolute monarch.”

If you have a rivalry, your vanity is involved and you want to win at all cost.”

The institution that is most mimetic of all is the greatest capitalist institution – the stock market.”

Clausewitz constantly shows you the mimetic nature of war.”

From ROBERT HARRISON

Nothing is more mysterious, evasive, or perverse than human desire.”

We are far from overcoming the behavior that has characterized human history.”

Why is it that human behavior is so resistant to adapting itself to what the mind knows?”

To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire.”

It’s amazing that our governments invests billions of dollars in scientific research every year in order to better understand the world of nature, yet commits only a tiny fraction of that to advance the cause of self-knowledge in order to better understand ourselves.”

Join me for a talk with Eric Karpeles on his new Czapski biography: Thursday night at San Francisco’s City Lights!

Monday, November 26th, 2018
Share

Czapski by Czapski

I’d love to see all of you at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 29 at the legendary City Lights Booksellers, on 261 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco. And here’s why.

The subject of evening will be a man too little known in the West: Józef Czapski, painter, writer, critic, war hero and prisoner of war, and above all a great humanitarian (the word somehow seems too small for him). We’ve written about him before, here and here. (His self-portrait is at right – he was 6’6″ and the long, narrow canvas demonstrates that.)

And now I will have a “public conversation” about Czapski with his biographer Eric Karpeles.

The occasion is the publication of several books by New York Review Books. First and foremost, Karpeles’s new biography of Czapski: Almost Nothing: The 20th Century Art and Life of Jósef CzapskiSecond, his translation from the French of Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (with Karpeles’s introduction), and finally Czapski’s Inhuman LandSearching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941-1942, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, with an introduction by Timothy Snyder.

From the City Lights website:

Biographer and painter, too.

Józef Czapski (1896–1993) was a writer and artist, as well as an officer in the Polish army. In 1918, he enrolled in the Warsaw School of Fine Arts, but shortly thereafter he suspended his studies in order to travel to Russia at the request of military authorities to search for officers in his division who had disappeared in action. At the end of the Russian Civil War, he went back to his studies, this time at Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts, and soon relocated to Paris with some fellow students, thus founding the Komitet Paryski (Paris Committee), later known as the Kapist movement.

That height thing, again.

Czapski was drafted into the army at the beginning of World War II, soon after landing in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp. Once free, he was assigned to investigate another disappearance of officers, who he would discover were victims of the Katyń Massacre, the subject of Inhuman Land. Czapski spent the rest of his years painting and writing.

Eric Karpeles is a painter, writer, and translator. His comprehensive guide, Paintings in Proust, considers the intersection of literary and visual aesthetics in the work of the great French novelist. He has written about the paintings of the poet Elizabeth Bishop and about the end of life as seen through the works of Emily Dickinson, Gustav Mahler, and Mark Rothko. The painter of The Sanctuary and of the Mary and Laurance Rockefeller Chapel, he is the also the translator of Józef Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp and Lorenza Foschini‘s Proust’s Overcoat. He lives in Northern California.

Hero, writer, painter: it will be his night.

Cynthia Haven is a 2018/19 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar. She writes regularly for The Times Literary Supplement, and has also contributed to The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and World Literature Today. Her newest book is Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, which was published by Michigan State University Press in spring 2018 and reviewed in the Times Literary SupplementThe Wall Street JournalSan Francisco Chronicle, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her work has also appeared in Le Monde, La Repubblica, Die Welt, Zvezda, Colta, Zeszyty Literackie, The Kenyon Review, Quarterly Conversation, The Georgia Review, and Civilization. She has been a Milena Jesenská Journalism Fellow with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, as well as a visiting writer and scholar at Stanford’s Division of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures and a Voegelin Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven was published in London, 2005. Her Czesław Miłosz: Conversations was published in 2006; Joseph Brodsky: Conversations in 2003; An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz was published in 2011 with Ohio University Press / Swallow Press.

Whew! That’s all a lot of words, and there will be a lot more Thursday night, but please do join us! There will be lots of books for signing – and a few of mine, too!

A chance to meet the man who “invented San Francisco”: Armistead Maupin at Stanford on Wednesday, Nov. 28

Sunday, November 25th, 2018
Share

Adrian Daub

On Wednesday, Nov. 28, author Armistead Maupin will be visiting Stanford – first signing books in the Bishop Auditorium lobby at 5:30 and then joining us for a screening of The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. At 7:15 p.m., Stanford’s Prof. Adrian Daub will engage him in an onstage conversation with filmmaker Jennifer Kroot.

A few words from Adrian below (some of you might remember his lively presence during the Another Look discussion of J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself):

For an entire generation of Bay Area residents, the Tales of the City, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in serialized form from 1976 to 1989, was appointment reading, but since then readers have largely encountered the Tales and their sequels in novel-form and in an HBO miniseries starring Laura Linney (and due to be revived next year). Which means, maybe he hasn’t been part of the fabric of their lives as much as he was for their elders. Nevertheless, they have lived in the world he created. Quentin Crisp once joked that in Tales, Maupin “invented San Francisco” — and the stories of various residents unknown, famous, and infamous indeed explained and dramatized tumultuous decades of San Francisco history as they were unfolding.

The Tales were also crucial in making LGBT culture mainstream — he was among the first novelists to feature a serious, fleshed out and sympathetic trans character, he was among the very first writers to tackle AIDS. But he never tackled them as issues, as challenges — they wove themselves into the Tales almost by necessity. The Tales are a spell he has woven around San Francisco for more than forty years, a spell that allowed the city to see itself for what it was, is, and could be. It therefore feels so appropriate that we get to host Armistead Maupin at Stanford on Nov. 28 — 40 years and a day after the murder of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. The forty years are about reflecting what that turbulent time meant, and how our own present would measure up before its fears and promises. And the day is about writing and thinking about the next step.

King Lear: a ruler who thinks power is more important than love

Friday, November 23rd, 2018
Share

Hopkins as Lear, Florence Pugh as Cordelia

A few weeks ago we wrote about Anthony Hopkins‘s mesmerizing performance in a BBC production that squanders a lot of opportunities. We’ve been thinking about the play since.

So has the Wall Street Journal‘s Terry Teachout, who seems to be an expert on King Lear, at least from the number of recent productions he references in his article in Commentary magazine (thanks for the heads-up Frank Wilson). Glenda Jackson‘s performance of the role is coming to Broadway next April – according to him, that will be the third Broadway production of William Shakespeare‘s masterpiece in the last six decades. “Why were American versions of King Lear so uncommon for so long? Because it is to theater what Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is to music, an all-encompassing super-drama fraught with complexities that pose challenges of understanding to the playgoer.” Regional performances have more than filled the gap, however, making it one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays.

Here’s where the BBC production with Hopkins comes in: “Too often, however, the quest for ‘relatability’ results in modern-dress stagings whose every element seems to have been determined in advance by an arbitrary concept superimposed on the text by the director rather than arising organically from it. Some, such as the Eyre/Hopkins TV Lear, work reasonably well on their own restrictive terms, but others have been unconvincing, on occasion even preposterous. The worst Lear I have ever reviewed, directed by Robert Falls at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2006, turned the play into a tale of Eastern European gangsters whose opening scene was set in a men’s room with a working urinal.” I would argue the same for the Eyre/Hopkins chop suey production, which mangles the text.

He argues “Shakespeare’s plays work best when performed without scene breaks in open-stage productions that employ a bare minimum of props and scenery” – a contention that was made by Prof. Peter Styron at the University of Michigan, during my own undergraduate days.

Is King Lear petty? Not in many of the performances: “He is a ruler of towering stature who makes the fatal mistake of supposing that power is more important than love, then discovers the world as it really is, cold and hostile to the vanity of human wishes. ‘Is man no more than this?’ Lear cries at the piteous spectacle of the half-naked Edgar trembling in the storm, and in an instant he is invaded and conquered by self-doubt. To ‘humanize’ such a titan by playing him naturalistically is to diminish the pathos of his brutal humiliation.”

He concludes:

Have a scapegoat for Thanksgiving! “It’s a ritual sacrifice, with pie.”

Wednesday, November 21st, 2018
Share

Peas, the 2018 National Thanksgiving Turkey, prepares to be pardoned by President Donald J. Trump (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

I’ve always been ashamed of the annual White House ritual: the turkey pardoned for a crime it did not commit. Mock laughter accompanies the mock crime. Meanwhile, while thousands upon thousands of other helpless animals are slaughtered across the nation.

All across America, fractious families unite for the day over the real carcass of a dead bird – it is the very symbol of a national and familial unity. Is the Thanksgiving turkey a classic scapegoat? I figured I couldn’t be alone in my hunch, and I wasn’t. René Girard, who died in 2015 , is much on my mind this Thanksgiving, and he helps us get a handle on the strange ceremony, with a little help from his friends:

truman-turkey

Harry Truman started it in 1947.

Karen Davis writes in More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality (Lantern Books, 2001):

“The idea of a Thanksgiving turkey as a scapegoat may seem like a parody of scapegoating, but what is the scapegoat phenomenon but a parody of reason and justice? The scapegoat, after all, is a goat. Animals have been scapegoats in storytelling, myth, and history every bit as much as humans and probably more, as the scholar of myth and ritual, René Girard observes in Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation (Stanford University Press, 1988). Social animals especially have been scapegoated since time immemorial. ‘[I]n all parts of the world,’ Girard says, ‘animals living in herds, schools, packs – all animals with gregarious habits, even if completely harmless to each other and to man,’ have been vilified.

“This is not simply a matter of other cultures and ancient history. Evans shows how the belief that ‘everything must be “well-thought, well-said and well-done,” not ethically, but ritually, contributed to the fact that until quite recently, European societies hauled birds and other creatures before the bar in legal ceremonies as absurd as any scene in Dickens. ‘[E]xtending from the beginning of the twelfth to the middle of the eighteenth century,’ he tells us, the culprits were ‘a miscellaneous crew, consisting chiefly of caterpillars, flies, locusts, leeches, snails, slugs, worms, weevils, rats, mice, moles, turtle-doves, pigs, bulls, cows, cocks, dogs, asses, mules, mares and goats.”

Jared Christman explores another angle of the ritual, writing in Grave Pawns: Civilization’s Animal Victims: “The pardon therefore performs the same basic function as the scapegoating sacrifice theorized by Girard in Violence and the Sacred, although instead of one special victim being scapegoated, every animal except for one special non-victim is scapegoated.”

eisenhower-turkey

Eisenhower kept it up.

“Around the Thanksgiving table, the cultural relations of the nation merge with the blood relations of the family. Through the carcass of the sacrificial victim, the family becomes a microcosm of the nation and the nation becomes a macrocosm of the family. The size of the culinary victim is key: the entire turkey can be dismembered and consumed at a household gathering. This creates a ritual symmetry between the dimensions of the victim’s body and the dimensions of the cultural building block of the family. …

“This sovereign ‘pardon’ of a token animal has become ritually necessary because the industrialized scale of Thanksgiving creates a pressing need for expiation and the shifting of blame from the victimizers to the victims. Against the holiday’s backdrop of rampant factory farming, the pardon of the “innocent” bird scapegoats every other “criminal” turkey for advanced civilization’s sins against nature. …

“With each passing year, the comforting illusions of the Thanksgiving feast, its New World mythology, conceal less and less the industrialized context of the sacrament. Any serious pretense of the new Eden is long gone. The bird upon today’s Thanksgiving table is a bloated, assembly-line caricature of the wild turkey of the 17th-century American woods. Of soupcourse, even the mythology of the original Thanksgiving of the Plymouth pilgrims was a bright shining lie. The cagier fowl of yesteryear’s table was the victim of a ritual protocol of nation-building about as new as the Old World hills.”

Well, there you have it. History has it that the real Thanksgiving was celebrated in St. Augustine, Florida, some years earlier in 1565, when the Spaniards shared a communal meal with the local Timucuans. What was on the menu? Bean soup. Read about it here.

Update: NPR is onto the story here.

Update on 11/20/18: A comment from George Dunn: “It’s a ritual sacrifice, with pie.” ~ Anya on Buffy the Vampire Slayer

President Barack Obama, National Turkey Federation Chairman Gary Cooper; and son Cole Cooper participate in the annual National Thanksgiving Turkey pardon ceremony in the Grand Foyer of the White House, Nov. 26, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Obama, National Turkey Federation’s Gary Cooper, and Cole Cooper in last year’s “pardon” at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

And speaking of Proust … another wonderful quotation on the anniversary of his death

Monday, November 19th, 2018
Share

Luftmensch Paul Holdengräber is on a roll with Marcel Proust, and we posted his quote on the anniversary of the French author’s 1922 death yesterday. He followed up with this one today, and we couldn’t resist reposting it (see below). The reason: we use the same citation from Proust at the tail-end of the introduction to Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard:

Why? Why? Why?

I had a more modest view of my book and it would be incorrect to say even that I was thinking of those who might read it as ‘my readers.’ For, to my mind, they would not be my readers but the very readers of themselves, my book serving only as a sort of magnifying glass, such as the optician of Combray used to off er to a customer; my book might supply the means by which they could read themselves. So that I would not ask them to praise me or to speak ill of me, but only to tell me that it is as I say,if the words which they read within themselves are, indeed, those which I have written.

The translation I used was by the matchless Richard Macksey, a colleague of René Girard’s at Johns Hopkins University.

Incidentally, the whole introduction to Evolution of Desire was published in America Magazine over the weekend here. Notre Dame published it earlier, and it was linked in Hacker News, here. (Several people wondered why Artur Sebastian Rosman picked a golden image for the article, entitled “Golden Thoughts for a Nuclear Age” – you might note that it’s the “Mask of Agamemnon,” one of the findings of Heinrich Schliemann at the Troy excavation, an archaeological adventure described in the first paragraph of my intro.)

Remembering Marcel Proust, on the anniversary of his death…

Sunday, November 18th, 2018
Share

We’ve been awfully busy in Denver for several days talking about Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girardand it’s time for bed, but we didn’t want to let the weekend pass without observing that this is the day Marcel Proust died in 1922. Luftmensch Paul Holdengräber helped us remember with the quote below:


A night for W.H. Hudson and Green Mansions: his love for animals was deep and his opinions were fierce

Thursday, November 15th, 2018
Share

About 150 devoted book fans braved the campus-wide construction at Stanford to attend our Another Look fall event on William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions on Tuesday, October 30, at 7:30 p.m. in the Bechtel Conference Center of Encina Hall. The event launched Another Look’s seventh season.

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 included Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, director of Another Look, Prof. Laura Wittman, and the Dean of Continuing Studies, Charles Junkerman.

Harrison at the podium.

The book had more fame back then than it does now – despite a 1959 film with Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins. Said novelist Ford Madox Ford of the novel: “There was no one – no writer – who did not acknowledge without question that Hudson was the greatest living writer of English … I have never heard a writer speak of him with anything but reverence that was given to no other human being. For as a writer he was a magician.” According to Joseph Conrad, “Hudson’s writing is like grass that the good God made to grow, and when it is there you cannot tell how it came.”

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.

Hudson was better known as a naturalist and ornithologist, and his opinions were fierce, particularly about cruelty to animals. On his grave is written: “He loved birds and green places, and the wind on the hearth, and saw the brightness of the skirts of God.”

But his opinion of his fellow man could be harsh. In 1915, he wrote to a friend, “You think it is a ‘cursed’ war. I think it is a blessed war. And it is quite time we had our purification from the degeneration, the rottenness that comes with everlasting peace. The blood that is being spilled will purge us of many hateful qualities – of our caste feeling, or our detestable partisanship, our gross selfishness and a hundred more. Let us thank the gods for a Wilhelm and a whole nation insane with hatred of England to restore us to health.”

Photos of the event, as always, by Another Look aficionado David Schwartz. And the podcast for the event is here.

Jill Lepore: “The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril.”

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018
Share

Writer and historian

Evan Goldstein interviews the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore for The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Lepore, an historian, is the author of These Truths (W.W. Norton), a new history of America.

She insists “facts come from the realm of humanities.” Do they? We don’t know what kind of facts you can find in Li Po or Euripides or Anna Karenina, but she nevertheless has some interesting observations about the state of the humanities in America, always an important subject at the Book Haven. A few excerpts below:

A. That transformation, from facts to numbers to data, traces something else: the shifting prestige placed on different ways of knowing. Facts come from the realm of the humanities, numbers represent the social sciences, and data the natural sciences. When people talk about the decline of the humanities, they are actually talking about the rise and fall of the fact, as well as other factors. When people try to re-establish the prestige of the humanities with the digital humanities and large data sets, that is no longer the humanities. What humanists do comes from a different epistemological scale of a unit of knowledge.

Q. How is the academy implicated in or imperiled by this moment of epistemological crisis?

A. The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

Congratulations in order? (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.

***

Q. You did your graduate work at Yale in the early ’90s in a post-structuralist American-studies department. You read a lot of Derrida and Foucault. You’ve said that you grew uncomfortable with how you were trained versus how you wanted to write.

A. I should say that I happened to land at a place where there were people writing in their own way. John Demos was my adviser. I also worked with Bill Cronon, who’s a tremendous writer. And Jon Butler. All of whom read my dissertation prospectus and said, OK, this is not a dissertation prospectus but we’re going to pass it because we love it. They were the exception.

Like any Ph.D. program, what you’re being trained to do is employ a jargon that instantiates your authority in the abstruseness of your prose. You display what you know by writing in a way that other people can’t understand. That’s not how I understand writing. Writing is about sharing what you know with storybook clarity, even and especially if you’re writing about something that’s complicated or morally ambiguous. Also, I like to write about people who are characters, who have limbs and fingers and toes and loves and desires and agonies and triumphs and ages and hair colors. But that’s not how historical writing is taught in a Ph.D. program.

***

Last of a kind. (Photo: Bernard Gotfryd)

Q. In your 2010 book, The Whites of Their Eyes, about the rise of the Tea Party, you note that Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970, was one of the last academic historians to reach readers outside the academy “with sweeping interpretations both of the past and of his own time.” You seem to occupy a Hofstadter-like space in American life. How do you see your role?

A. You can see in Hofstadter’s life why so many academics from his generation and the generation that followed retreated. Hofstadter was stricken by student protests at Columbia. Something had gone wrong in American political life, which had become zealous. It would be best for historians to therefore not be part of it.

Since serious academic historians have to a large degree retreated, that space is taken up by other people. Again, generally by presidential historians, most of them journalists. That’s not to say they’re not excellent journalists and brilliant biographers. But what they write is presidential history, and what they offer is political punditry that emphasizes the power of the presidency. Just this week I was frantically reading about the attempted assassinations, possibly, of Trump critics, and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and I just knew I was going to see Michael Beschloss tell a story about LBJ. That’s the casting call for the historian. I’m not convinced that it’s a great contribution, especially when you think of the incredible work scholars do studying patterns of political expression, social movements, the history of political violence; none of that is gathered up in a one-clause quote from Michael Beschloss. What I’ve tried to do in The New Yorker is figure out a different way for a historian to offer a contribution. It doesn’t refuse to engage with what’s going on in the present, but it also doesn’t offer up the comforting anecdote or the disquieting anecdote.

There’s lots more to be said on all this, and so much I want to question in what she says. You can read the whole article here.

“He never returned”: on the centenary of the end of World War I

Sunday, November 11th, 2018
Share

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. Out of all the rivers of words I’ve read and pictures I’ve seen, I found this image especially poignant today, from Catherine Lambert on Facebook:

“I lived in a tiny village called Essendon in England for a few years. We had a neighbor who had a tree in the front garden with a big knot – as you can see below. The story she told was that her grandfather tied the knot in the tree when he left to fight in World War I, telling his young bride that he would untie it on his return from the war. He never returned.”

“The tree died while we lived in Essendon and our neighbor actually gave us this knot – which I’ve had ever since as it makes me remember the forgotten lives of that painful war.”