Archive for November, 2018

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

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

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

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

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.”

L’art pour l’art in Paradise Lost

Sunday, November 11th, 2018

He’s got his priorities straight. (Screenshot from news footage)

Paradise has been destroyed – the city leveled to smoke and ashes, with 25 killed so far. We’ve been breathing the smoke in Palo Alto all weekend. “Three fires began Thursday — the largest in Northern California, where a Sierra Nevada town of 27,000 was destroyed by a fast moving-fire that quickly grew into the state’s most destructive on record. In Southern California, two fires were burning in the drought-stricken canyons and hills north and west of downtown Los Angeles,” according to the Associated Press today.

During my decade living in the Sierra foothills, I fled three wildfires before walls of flame. The first, which came within blocks of my home, was the year’s most destructive wildfire. I remember returning, several days later, not knowing if I’d have a home or merely cinders. The third and smallest started on my front lawn, when an old car backfired sparks onto the dry grass as it passed. Within a few hours, scores of helicopters were circling overhead, dropping chemical retardants and water.  (I made a post about those wildfire years here.)

I recall the process of sorting through what to take with our family (which then included two or three cats and a dog). My laptop first, of course. But after that … a Dali, a Chagall, and a few other original works of art. Family heirlooms. Clothes, of course, clothes. But I was living to live in my skivvies to save the my art and my labor and my history.

So I fully understand John Mescall, a cellist for the Paradise Symphony Orchestra. As the town was burning, he tried to flee by car. But his car wouldn’t start. So he grabbed his bike and pedaled to safety with his cello on his back. He’s headed for Chico.

He tells the story on Chico’s KCRA in the clip below. (You can read his story here.)

René Girard, meet the techies: Evolution of Desire climbs the charts at Hacker News.

Saturday, November 10th, 2018

Even though the Book Haven lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, we generally avoid the sphere of computer nerds and techies, except when we need our Macbook Pro repaired or have to figure out why we are getting spammed. But every so often, we get something that sends us into this brave new world.  So it was with yesterday’s news on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

Artur gave me the heads-up.

It began when I received a Facebook message from Artur Rosman at 6 a.m.: “Happy news, a techie link picked up your book excerpt that we ran earlier this year. It has 1,700 hits today so far. You’re going to crash our site!”

He was referring to the introduction to Evolution of Desire, which was excerpted on a Notre Dame University journal as “Golden Thoughts from a Nuclear Age” here. The techie link was an unknown website to both of us, but that’s what Wikipedia is for. I looked up Hacker News there:

Hacker News is a social news website focusing on computer science and entrepreneurship. It is run by Paul Graham‘s investment fund and startup incubator, Y Combinator. In general, content that can be submitted is defined as “anything that gratifies one’s intellectual curiosity”.

The site was created by Paul Graham in February 2007. Initially it was called Startup News or occasionally News.YC. On August 14, 2007, it became known by its current name. It developed as a project of his company Y Combinator, functioning as a real-world application of the Arc programming language which Graham co-developed.

Paul Graham turns out to be kind of a big deal. Computer scientist, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, author and essayist.

But meanwhile, back in Indiana, Artur was beginning to panic. The numbers kept climbing minute by minute. He was pondering whether he should take the page down quickly so the server wouldn’t go boom. It didn’t, but meanwhile it quickly racked up 2,700 visits in a few short hours.

Paul gave us the lift-off.

Faithful Book Haven reader George Jansen, who runs a terrific blog 20011 (we’ve added it to our blogroll), also saw us on Hacker News. “I was going to post about this on my own blog, but then figured that you should get first dibs.” We let him go first.

From his blogpost: “I often check the Hacker News to see what topics interest the tech world. Perhaps 60% of the linked items have to do with computing, science, or mathematics, another 20% to do with politics or economics, and the remainder can be curiously assorted. Over the last couple of days a link to an article about whether Nero killed Agrippina has been in the first few pages.

“Though I do now and then see them, I don’t go to Hacker News looking for links to pieces about the humanities. I was surprised, then, today to see what was evidently an item by Cynthia Haven about René Girard on the first page… A sometime co-worker has made it to the first page of Hacker News a few times. However, his blog mostly has to do with old computer hardware, which suits what I take to be the interests of most of the Hacker News readership. I am interested to see that the techies find mimetic desire so well worth reading and arguing about.”

In the Hacker News comment section, Oliver Jones urged people to read the article over at Notre Dame: “Our trade is strongly influenced by René Girard’s understanding of competitive mimetic desire and its violence. Why? The people who organize the ad-driven internet know all about Girard. Peter Thiel invested in Facebook because he saw its potential for harnessing mimetic desire to drive engagement. (reference:…)

“Facebook-style social media is addictive precisely because of the fear of not being as good as ‘friends.’ Mimetic desire is the the human yearning behind the Fear of Missing Out. Driving engagement is most effective when it exploits that fear. It works very well indeed. Other attempts at building social media networks (Stack Overflow, Linked In, Slack, for example) try to avoid that exploitation. They try to use other motivators than FOMO [“Fear of Missing Out” to the rest of us. – CH] to drive engagement. Can they be successful without overusing mimetic desire? It’s the key question they must answer to be successful. The obligatory panel of customer logos just below the fold on SaaS landing pages engages mimetic desire in IT buyers. ‘Wow! Schwab uses this! I want to be like Schwab!’ It’s benign in these cases.

“Girard offers a good unifying framework for understanding the human nature behind all sorts of marketing work. Convincing people their hair is ablaze and offering them ways to put it out is the heart of building new businesses. Getting people to set each others’ hair on fire, then putting it out, is the holy grail of new businesses.

“It’s no accident that Silicon Valley employs that framework in lots of ways: he was a scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. [He wasn’t – CH.] It can be a hard slog to learn about him. But it’s worth your trouble.”

I hope I’ve made the job a little easier for Oliver and the others with Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Meanwhile, read the whole discussion here. It includes the best quote ever from Peter Thiel, who studied with René at Stanford: “To believe yourself invested with divine self-sufficiency is not the mark of a strong individual, but of a person who has mistaken the crowd’s worship – or jeering – for the truth. The single greatest danger for a founder is to become so certain of his own myth that he loses his mind. But an equally insidious danger for every business is to lose all sense of myth and mistake disenchantment for wisdom.”

The excerpted introduction to Evolution of Desire, “Golden Thoughts for a Nuclear Age” is here.

Postscript: Speaking of signal honors, I received this Facebook comment, from another gentle reader, Marianne Bacon: “Cynthia, we are re-reading your book. Aloud. I am absorbing much more deeply and we are both loving it!”

Pushkin shows us how to write a government report in a single quatrain.

Wednesday, November 7th, 2018

Russia’s ur-poet Alexander Pushkin was among the literary radicals of the czarist regime, but politics and poetry don’t often mesh. The government was anxious to sideline him. In 1820, he was exiled to the imperial backwaters to cool his heels.

And that’s where I found his lovely little abode in Kishinev (see above). My post a few days ago about homes of famous writers returned my thoughts to Moldova, among his many other homes as he traipsed the empire. But the Kishinev hideaway was particularly cozy and I have fond memories of it. He stayed there till 1823 – a rather long sojourn, given his peripatetic life.

Pushkin was then sent to Odessa, where he became entangled with Eliza Vorontsova. Bad move: she was the wife of the city’s governor. The cuckolded Vorontsov decided that Pushkin should be given an official project far away from Odessa. He was sent eastward to the Dnieper area to study the habits of locusts, so that the government might develop a plan for their eradication.

Pushkin’s response was in immortal verse, and perhaps should be a model for all government reports:

The locusts flew and flew over the plain.
They landed on the ground.
Ate everything they found.
And then the locusts flew and flew away again.

A wise and timely note from Gandhi on election day…

Monday, November 5th, 2018

A note from my friend George Dunn, via Facebook, writing all the way from Ningbo, China:

Here’s a new New Yorker essay from Age of Anger author Pankaj Mishra, in which he argues for the contemporary relevance of Mahatma Gandhi. His importance, according to Mishra, lies not just in his elevation of non-violence as political tactic, but also in his critique of modern liberalism. He saw self-restraint and the imposition of ethical limits, rather than the celebration of individual liberty and the emancipation of human desire, as the foundations of a healthy political community. He clearly saw that a society predicated on self-exaltation and the perpetual manufacturing of new desires was courting disaster.

“At every point,” writes Mishra, “Gandhi still upends modern assumptions, insisting on the primacy of self-sacrifice over self-interest, individual obligations over individual rights, renunciation over consumption, and dying over killing.”

Like René Girard, he believed that the alternative to self-sacrifice was sacrificing others. And, like Girard, his principle teachers were the Western religious tradition and contemporary thinkers who had been deeply shaped by it.

But what makes Gandhi’s thought especially timely is the understanding of truth and dialogue contained in his doctrine of Satyagraha. In addition to encouraging humility and obliging us always to remain open to the possibility that we may be wrong and our adversaries right, it entails the recognition that “we shall always see truth in fragments and from different angles of vision.” Understood in this way, Satyagraha leaves no room whatsoever for moral or political dogmatism. Can we imagine a world where our progressive activists and devoted conservatives take that lesson to heart?

Read the article here.

Philip Larkin declared, “He is a genius”: the unpublished poems of Robert Conquest

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

Conquest at work at his Stanford home (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

To say someone is “irreplaceable” is clichéd and self-evident. But there’s really no one quite like the late Robert Conquest – famous as the courageous and groundbreaking historian who exposed the horrors of Stalinism, and also as the poet who launched the influential “Movement” poets in England during the 1950s (a circle that included Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, Elizabeth Jennings, and others). He ran  a powerful sideline in light verse and limericks that tended to eclipse his elegant, serious lyrics.

Liddie Conquest extends the legacy.

The current issue of Britain’s Standpoint features some of his unpublished poems, with an excellent article by Elizabeth Conquest, his widow and executor – and a scholar in her own right. Thanks to her labors, The Collected Poems of Robert Conquest will be published by Waywiser Press on October 15, 2019. The 50th-anniversary edition of The Great Terror has just been published by Bodley Head. (Book Haven readers will remember that Standpoint also published his last great poem, “Getting On.”)

“Liddie” Conquest reflects on her husband’s long, productive life until his death in 2015, at age 98:

“Why do some creative people continue to write, while others retire from the field? Part of the reason is simply that people age at different rates. Kingsley Amis, complaining to Philip Larkin that he was getting ugly, old, and fat, wrote: ‘What was that quote about free from care? Certainly applies to ole Bob. He just goes on and on, as if nothing has happened.’ And so he did, possessing characteristics of successful people noted by Diane Coutu in her Harvard Business Review article ‘How Resilience Works’: a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly-held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise.” …

Receiving Poland’s Order of Merit in 2009 (with Radosław Sikorski)

“Seven years later, the week before he died Bob was hard at work editing final chapters of Two Muses — his memoirs — and also writing a poem. At the same time, with the aim of publishing a final collection of his verse, he’d been going through his earlier collections correcting misprints, and in some cases making minor alterations. After his death, as his literary executor I was tasked with sorting through his papers (a vast undertaking with an inventory running more than 120 pages); editing a comprehensive volume of Bob’s poetry; pulling together the last chapters of his memoirs from the bits he’d written (but not put in final order); and editing a selection of his letters. ”

Bob took his light verse seriously, though some lament that his reputation for light verse tended to push aside his “serious” work:

“[Critic Clive James] himself has often expressed regret that there were not more of the ‘fastidiously chiselled poems which proved his point that cool reason was not necessarily lyricism’s enemy’. I share that view, but remember the opening remarks of Bob’s 1997 address to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, when he said that of all the various awards for histories and serious verse he’d received over the years, he was ‘particularly touched and delighted to receive the Michael Braude Award for Light Verse — which honours those who are often thought of as skirmishers and sharpshooters rather than solid citizens of the world of arts and letters’.”

Read the whole article here.