Archive for 2019

William Jay Smith was the first Native American poet laureate – and we’re still waiting for the Library of Congress to acknowledge it.

Sunday, December 29th, 2019
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The late Choctaw poet William Jay Smith: why is he being disrespected?

Last July, the Book Haven questioned the announcement that Joy Harjo is the first Native American poet laureate. But the blogpost was soon forgotten in the general acclamation on Harjo’s appointment.

The problem is the truth: William Jay Smith, a poet of note, claimed Choctaw heritage, and wrote about his Native American heritage, including long poem on the Trail of Tears. It didn’t seem right, however worthy Harjo is as a successor to the poet laureate title, for her predecessor’s eminent reputation be thrown into the dustbin so that we could falsely claim yet another “first.” (Apparently, there was a time when even the Library of Congress acknowledged and honored Smith’s heritage, as we pointed out with some screenshots in our own post. But the Library of Congress changed its mind. Why? They won’t tell us.)

Forgotten first

Poet and translator A.M. Juster took the matter farther, and he’s written about the experience this month in the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

He briefly wondered if he had made a mistake in writing of Smith as a Choctaw poet:

… I checked two reliable sources known for their fact checking, the Poetry Foundation and The New York Times, which both identified Smith as Native American. I became even calmer when I discovered, with some help from friends at Eratosphere, an online poetry workshop and discussion group, that the Library of Congress had itself identified Smith as “of European and Choctaw ancestry.”

I felt an obligation to notify the Library promptly, which I did. The first contact person had never heard of Smith and transferred me to another person who had not heard of Smith. That person took my name and number, but did not call back.

I too read some of the social media talk and the Eratosphere posts, and was dismayed by the tendency to dismiss or downplay Smith’s heritage, posthumously. After all, he died in 2015 and can hardly defend himself.

Juster got no answers.

Juster wrote a letter to the Library of Congress, asking: 1) had it decided that Smith is not a Native American; 2) if so, what was the standard for this decision, the evidence that supported it, and who made the decision; 3) was this decision made before the Harjo announcement or afterwards? And finally, he asked: 4) is the Library of Congress aware that its website has described Smith as being “of European and Choctaw ancestry” for 15 years?

In the LARB, he writes:

Almost surely the communications department believed that it could tough its way out of the mess it created based on the fact that so many Americans believe — falsely, but in good faith — that they have Native American heritage. Such issues are often resolvable, though, and I decided to try to resolve the question of William Jay Smith’s heritage by hiring an expert in Native American genealogy, Dr. William T. Cross.

Dr. Cross’s research confirmed that everything William Jay Smith claimed about his Choctaw heritage was correct. Rebecca Moshulatubbee King was the oldest daughter of Chief Moshulatubbee and married Samuel Jake Williams. One of their seven daughters, Catherine Permilia Williams, married Samuel Roswell Campster in 1850, and then gave birth to George Washington Campster in 1863. In 1913 George Washington Campster’s daughter, Georgia Ella Campster, married William Jay Smith Sr., the father of our Poet Laureate.

Harjo (Photo: Creative Commons)

Standards for tribal nation membership vary, but the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma simply requires lineal descent for membership, so William Jay Smith would have been fully eligible for membership if he had applied. There can be no doubt about Smith’s good faith in claiming that he was part Choctaw; at that time the benefits of such a claim would not offset the prejudices that it would generate. Nonetheless, the future Poet Laureate enthusiastically embraced his Choctaw heritage at an early age; it filtered into his poetry at least as early as the 1950s, when in “A Trip Across America” he repeated these lines:

Riding the powerful polished rails
Over abandoned Indian trails…

More than four decades later, he would do much more.

In the article, Juster wisely suggests that Harjo organize a conference to honor Smith’s legacy (and, we might add, by doing so honor her own). So what have we heard from the Library of Congress? Crickets.

Kind of disgraceful if you ask me.

What? “La Pastorela” has moved from the San Juan Bautista Mission? Relax. It’s terrific.

Wednesday, December 25th, 2019
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Perhaps the most exciting show in the Bay Area  this season took place not in the famed City, but about 60 miles south of it, in the remote little burg of San Juan Bautista. I say that not because I have been a regular aficionado of the local theater scene this busy year, but because this year’s La Pastorela was one of the best shows I’ve seen ever.

I had my misgivings. I had been invited to make the trek to the annual Christmas show by a stepson and his wife, with their 10-year-old in tow. The effort is the seasonal offering of the town’s El Teatro Campesino, founded by the legendary Luís Valdez and born in the grape boycotts and agitprop of the 1960s.

The Christmas show (which alternates with La Virgen del Tepeyac) has graced the great San Juan Bautista mission, founded in 1797 (and best known as the setting of Hitchcock’s Vertigo) … until now.

As Valdez explains, “We began performing La Pastorela in the streets of San Juan Bautista in 1977. The cold winter nights had always put our audience and actors through an ordeal, but the steady rain of December 1980 finally washed us out completely.” Miraculously, it seemed to them, the Old Basilica welcomed them, allowing the shepherds to come inside. After nearly half a century, that arrangement came to an end.

I looked at the website a week ago and realized there had been a switcheroo: as of this year, the show will be performed in a nearby playhouse on Fourth Street. I briefly wondered if we could get a refund. After all, the big draw was seeing a centuries-old play in the centuries-old mission, with its heavy dark-wood pews, stucco walls, and  saints-in-niches. I had my doubts: the playhouse is less than half the size, a theater in the round (or rather polygon) with effects amplified by several screens.

Luís Valdez: the father of Chicano theater

I read in the program that, with this move, El Teatro Campesino was returning to the cradle that gave them birth: a humble packing-shed playhouse, “with all the creativity, vibrancy and cariño that our 54 year old El Teatro Campesino family can provide,” according to Valdez, in “a gesture of spirit, tradition, and faith by and for our community.”

Briefly, the story of La Pastorela: a group of pilgrims are en route to visit the Baby Jesus at Belém (a.k.a. Bethlehem), but are diverted and rerouted by a group of devils, eventually finding themselves caught in a  titanic battle between good and evil, Lucifer and San Miguel.

The drama has been entirely reimagined and restaged for its new setting, under the imaginative direction of Kinan Valdez. The play packs a bigger punch in the smaller space. The singing, dancing, and fighting almost bursts through the walls. San Miguel and his angels – a spray of white feathers for wings on their shoulders to show their celestial affiliation – were outfitted in military uniforms and Che Guevara style berets to fight for the forces of heaven. At the ultimate match-up they wrestle down Lucifer with … doves. That’s right, white feather doves like the kind you see on Christmas trees, only about the size of an arm.

Lucifer and sidekick (Photo: Robert Eliason)

San Miguel has usually been cast as a woman (Linda Ronstadt for the Masterpiece Theater production years ago; Primavera Cabibi for this one). But two of roles have had sex changes: the role of Bartolo has become Bartola (Sylvia Gonzalez), the mother rather than the father of the high-spirited and accomplished Gila (Xochitl Rios-Ellis). However, the most daring change was that Lucifer has become Luzbel – Jessica Osegueda as the demonic generalissimo gives a bravura performance that rocked the theater and stole the show.

Something magical began to happen early in the performance: at the appearance of the devils,  one small child began wailing and had to be removed. More events followed. I tried to exercise charity as the tall mother in front of me was constantly leaning over to whisper to her daughter; each hissing remark blocked the stage as effectively as a curtain fall. Then I looked around, and realized that mothers throughout the theater were whispering to children – that, in fact, there was a steady undertow of whispering. The children were whispering because they were engaged, they wanted answers, the wanted to know more about what they were seeing. (The girl with our small party even wanted to join the child actors who were the mini-devils.)

This is what theater is supposed to do but so rarely does, especially for kids who haven’t been much exposed to it. Open worlds. Shift points of view. Expand possibilities. Change lives. Invite engagement. Enchant. And for the children in the theater that day, it hooks them into theater, stories, myths, melodies, Latino culture – impressing on them the foundations of our civilization. If future shows are as good, I would suggest that whole truckfuls of children be carted to future Pastorelas. This one ended far too soon. We attended the very last sold-out performance on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Stanford inventor Ge Wang goes to the movies: a review of “Cats” in 11 tweets. “It’s awful and awesome!”

Monday, December 23rd, 2019
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It’s not exactly haiku, but Twitter is kind of a cyberspace equivalent. Stanford inventor Ge Wang (we’ve written about him here and here), has gone to see the new film of Andrew Lloyd Weber‘s Cats (based on T.S. Eliot‘s poems) so we won’t have to. His review in 11 tweets is more nuanced than you might expect, however. He says the experience is … well, rather like a cat.

For those who don’t know Ge Wang already (and please, it’s pronounced with a hard “g” – G’wang – not hard), the Stanford professor has created the Stanford Laptop Orchestra as well as the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra. He is the designer of the Ocarina and Magic Piano iPhone apps. He is the author of Artful Design: Technology in Search of the Sublime (A MusiComic Manifesto), a book on design and technology, art and life, created entirely in the format of a photo comic book and published by Stanford University Press.

Now, for the review… As Shakespeare wrote, “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was.”

A postscript from Ge Wang: “I never expected so many reactions — this movie is really bringing it out in people. For me I still don’t know if I am desperately trying to save people from it or lobbying people to see it. The answer, I think, is not somewhere in between, but both.”

The astonishing productivity of Roberto Bolaño: he knew that the clock was running out fast

Friday, December 20th, 2019
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Ann Kjellberg‘s The Book Post is sharing some of its subscriber material as a special Christmas present for all of us. Here’s an excerpt from one, by novelist Àlvaro Enrigue, on the astonishing productivity of Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) whose works are still being discovered, uncovered, with no end in sight.

It begins:

Not long after the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño died unexpectedly of kidney failure in 2003—an illness only he and his close relatives and friends knew about—his editor, the legendary Catalonian publisher Jorge Herralde, made public that the author had left in his custody five finished interlinked novels as a sort of life insurance for his child. Those novels became the monumental volume, published as 2666, that cemented his international recognition as the alpha writer of Latin America—even if this recognition arrived only as a literary afterlife. As the years went by, it emerged that those were not the only works he had left unpublished. Nine posthumous books later—some still missing from English—I wonder if we are any closer to seeing Roberto Bolaño’s computer drive run dry. Considering the literary quality of The Spirit of Science Fiction, now coming to American bookstores, it seems we are still far from the moment when Bolaño’s emails and grocery lists hit the market. …

The Mexican writer Juan Villoro, who was close friends with Bolaño, has written about the delirious and very late phone calls he received when they were both living in Catalonia: Bolaño would report, to Villoro’s disbelief, on having spent the night writing another novel. Bolaño knew that his clock was counting down faster than the others’, and he wrote with the same rush and desperation with which his characters experience their youth.

Read the rest here. The Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your inbox. As a subscriber you can read the full archive at bookpostusa.com. And subscribe to the Book Post here. Meanwhile, some available offerings during the holiday season:

• Joy Williams on Meister Eckhart
• John Banville on Robert Macfarlane
• Marina Warner on Margaret Atwood
• Calvin Baker on David Blight
• April Bernard on Dreyer’s English
• Geoffrey O’Brien on Marvin Gaye
• Robert Cottrell on John McPhee
• Elaine Blair on Sally Rooney
• Padgett Powell on William Trevor
• Your humble editor on Susan Sontag

 

 

Dana Gioia on the late Scott Timberg: a bitter symbol for those who have been marginalized by our “creative culture.”

Monday, December 16th, 2019
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A society-assisted suicide. He leaves behind a wife and son.

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a long piece on gifted cultural journalist Scott Timberg, who killed himself last week. He was 50. I wrote about it here, and my supposition was correct. He was killed by the “gig economy” he deplored in his 2015 book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, which discussed how digital technology and economic polarization were damaging American cultural life.

The LARB piece ends with a range of tributes, one of them from from a close friend, Dana Gioia, California poet laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts:

I knew Scott Timberg for over 25 years. He was not only a close friend and colleague — he was a constant presence in my life. For many years he emailed or phoned me nearly every day to discuss what he was reading or writing. In 2003 we edited a book together on the new literary Los Angeles for which Scott came up with the perfect title, The Misread City.

Scott was determined to give Los Angeles the careful reading that it deserved. I don’t think anyone covered LA culture so prolifically or omnivorously. He wrote about everything happening in the Southland — rock, poetry, fiction, film, theater, jazz, classical music, and the visual arts. He produced hundreds of articles, which had the special Timberg quality of being simultaneously open-minded and opinionated.

Dana Gioia: “something wrong with our culture”

In an age of cultural specialization, Scott’s range was invaluable. His commentary reflected the needs of the general reader who explores the arts with curiosity but finds little intelligent guidance in the media. Scott provided this animated coverage for nearly thirty years at a variety of publications, mostly notably The Day in New London, New Times LALos Angeles Times, and Salon.

Thousands of musicians, artists, writers, publishers, and presenters profited from Scott’s meticulous attention and advocacy. He was not so fortunate.  His professional career was slowly eroded by the economic and technological changes that transformed the contemporary media. Despite his immense productivity, he struggled to earn a living for himself and his family.

Scott combined his difficult personal experiences with his capacious knowledge of the arts and media to create a brilliant study, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (2015). This underrated volume remains the best diagnosis of our current cultural dilemma in a society where “information” corporations have become as large as nation states while the writers and artists whose work they exploit can no longer make a living.

Scott’s suicide was a tragic act. He was so greatly loved and so conspicuously talented. No one can truly know what despair or temporary madness motivated it. But his death makes at least one thing obvious to any attentive observer. There is something wrong with our culture when Los Angeles, which now has more artists than any other city in North America, including New York, cannot provide a living wage for such a hard-working and gifted critic.

In his death, Scott Timberg becomes a representative figure, a bitter symbol for thousands of other writers and artists who have been marginalized by our much-touted “creative culture.” I mourn him personally and publicly. His passing diminishes the California culture he did so much to honor.

Read the whole thing here.

A postscript from Dana’s brother, the jazz scholar Ted Gioia, on his Facebook page (we also quoted him in our earlier post here):

Los Angeles Review of Books has published a collection of heartfelt tributes (from me and 18 others, including my brother Dana) to our friend Scott Timberg, a brilliant arts & culture journalist who took his own life last week, leaving behind his wife Sara and 13-year-old son Ian.

I feel compelled to add a few more comments here—because Scott seemed like surrogate member of my family at times, and his passing has left such a mark on me (as it has on so many others—I note that around 600 people have donated to the GoFundMe campaign for his family).

When someone you know commits suicide, the first reaction is disbelief. More than almost any other human act, suicide resists attempts to find meaning in it. Even so, in this case a kind of larger significance has been attached to Scott’s death by many who knew him well—and it started happening almost within hours of his passing. To many of us, his death seemed to have uncanny and disturbing connections with his professional life over the last decade, when he emerged as our leading chronicler and champion of the many people who have lost their bearings in the “culture business”—a group that, for Scott, included everyone from artists and arts journalists like himself all the way to the film lover who once worked at the local video rental store (before it closed) or the minimum-wage clerk at the indie bookstore.

Scott had lost his job at the Los Angeles Times shortly before he turned 40. As an outsider, I was mystified by this turn of events, because Scott was one of the finest arts and culture writers in the country, smart and passionate and capable of delivering insightful articles at short notice on almost any subject. He never recovered his bearings after leaving the Times. Thrust into the turbulent freelance economy, he continued to do outstanding work, but with fewer opportunities and smaller rewards.

He increasingly focused his attention on others like himself who had been squeezed and displaced in the shrinking arts economy. He drew on his own experiences in writing a book on the subject, the harrowing (even more so after his death) Culture Crash, published by Yale University Press.

A different person with Scott’s talents would have reinvented himself in a different career or setting. But Scott loved journalism—he believed it was the highest possible profession, almost a kind of priesthood—and he loved Los Angeles too. He loved them too much perhaps. It may seem like a gross simplification to say that losing his position at the L.A. Times caused his death, but there’s some truth in that. I believe he would still be alive today if he had been able to do the work he was destined to pursue in his adopted hometown.

The narrative that has emerged in the last few days presents Scott as a martyr to the cause he chronicled in his writing. From this perspective, he is the patron saint of the suffering culture professional in the gig economy—and his own death has turned into a commentary on his life. It’s easy to criticize this way of packaging a tragedy that (for me and others) will never lose its sting. But there’s a large dose of truth in it too. All the pieces fit together, almost too well.

More to the point, it gives some small circumference of meaning to something otherwise so meaningless. And, frankly, I suspect Scott would have no disagreement with such a framing of his life and death. He saw the challenges he faced echoed in the lives of so many others, and he cared deeply about all those who suffered in this way. The notion that his abbreviated life might serve as potent symbol for the compassion owed to those squeezed by the shift in our culture, would have given Scott a small bit of gratification. I know it gives me some consolation.

Intellect, critic, provocateur Scott Timberg: “His death is a casualty in the fight for the soul of the city.”

Saturday, December 14th, 2019
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I didn’t know Los Angeles cultural journalist and author Scott Timberg, but it seemed all my friends did. The Los Angeles Times obituary called him “a ferocious listener and reader whose cultural appetites fueled his career as an author and journalist in Los Angeles and led him to question the future of the arts in the internet age.” Timberg died on Tuesday. He was 50.

“His death by suicide shocked us all while also silencing a voice of tremendous insight and eloquence about so, so many things that he loved,” wrote the writer’s brother, Craig Timberg, in a message to friends.

The Palo Alto-born journalist wrote Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, which discussed how digital technology and economic polarization were damaging American cultural life. The acclaimed book was published in 2015 by Yale University Press.

Ted Gioia recalls “earnestness and enthusiasm”

“You could talk to him about virtually any subject,” wrote friend and author Ted Goia. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who combined earnestness and enthusiasm (typically opposed traits) in such a high degree.”

An excerpt from the obituary:

Timberg’s cultural explorations continued after The Times laid him off amid budget cuts in 2008, and the Timberg family had to relinquish their home. Timberg began to question conventional wisdom about the internet boosting opportunities for writers, artists, musicians and others.

Between freelance assignments for clients including the New York Times, Timberg gradually assembled the manuscript that became Culture Crash and took it to Steve Wasserman, who edited the book for Yale University Press and now serves as publisher and executive director of Heyday.

The book, wrote reviewer Richard Brody in the New Yorker, is “a quietly radical rethinking of the very nature of art in modern life.”

Timberg’s lament for the creative class “seemed to have been written with a pen dipped into the inkwell of his own blood,” Wasserman said Friday. He called Timberg a man of “exquisite, promiscuous curiosities” whose death “is the moral equivalent of a book-burning.”

“A pen dipped into the inkwell of his own blood”

“He could write about music better than any other literary journalist, and he could write about literature better than any other music journalist,” said David Kipen, a friend, editor and founder of the nonprofit Boyle Heights lending library Libros Schmibros.

Said his friend and editor Joe Donnelly, “His death is a casualty in the fight for the soul of the city.”

After discussing his book, the L.A. Times says: “The sting of those disappointments, friends and family said, never seemed to fade.” It wasn’t clear whether it was the disappointment in  the digital technology and economic polarization, or being laid off and losing one’s home. I know what it is like to live as a free-lancer in the “gig economy.”

I look forward to reading his book. He will be missed.

Read the whole thing here. Tweets from NBC news journalist Dennis Romero, Ted Gioia, and the Los Angeles Times‘s Tom Curwen.

Nobel-winning author Olga Tokarczuk’s big week in Stockholm!

Thursday, December 12th, 2019
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It was a magic week in Stockholm, especially for the woman of the year, Nobel prizewinning author Olga Tokarczuk! The Polish literati, and many of the literary star-watchers in the West, have been raving about her for years. Now everyone else is, too. Let’s follow her to the Nobel awards, with thanks to Bo Persson for providing Joanna Helander‘s lively photos of the occasion.

But first, let’s be with her as she met Swedish children at Stockholm’s Rinkeby Library in Stockholm. The kids had studied her writing for weeks beforehand, and were happy to chat with the writer who was generous with her time. The event was organized by the Library’s Gunilla Lundgren and her colleagues. (Photos: Joanna Helander)

Then, the Grand Hotel Stockholm for the award ceremony. First, chaps with top hats came to sweep off the carpet. Then, actor and writer Irek Grin masterminds the selfies, with filmmaker Agnieszka Holland and Michał Rusinek, the former secretary for another Nobelist, Wisława Szymborska (he now runs her foundation). Below that, Polish journalist Justyna Sobolewska beams at the camera.  Next, Tokarczuk with her husband, Grzegorz Zygadło, joined by a friend. And finally, the Queen of the Nobel ceremonies herself. (Photos, merci, Joanna Helander)

Happy Birthday, Milton! Here’s how you can support him – no, no, not with another civil war, but by preserving his cottage.

Monday, December 9th, 2019
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Milton makes whoopee.

Happy 411th birthday to John Milton! You can see him at the party today at left. He celebrated – where else? – at his cottage in Chalfont St. Giles, his refuge while he was out of royal favor after the defeat of Oliver Cromwell. We’ve written about it here and here.

Milton’s Cottage is the only surviving home of the poet and parliamentarian who wrote Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Lycidas, Comus, Areopagitica, and so much more. Today, his birthday, is a good way to think of how we can all help preserve this chunk of 17th century literary history.

Why? Let one of the trustees, Stanford alum John Bradley, tell you: “Here in 1666, he completed his epic work Paradise Lost.”

“During his lifetime in the 17th century he laid the groundwork for the democratic way of life we enjoy today. He championed the four basic freedoms of thought, of speech, of religious following, and of freedom of publication, which we are still hotly debating today. This legacy provides an anchor for the civilized world as we know it. His influence on founding father Thomas Jefferson and John Adams is fully apparent in the wording of both the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, which enshrines theses freedoms.”

Americans can make tax-deductible donations via the British Schools & Universities Foundation and Network for Good here, noting Milton’s Cottage Trust as a preference. And if you’re in Britain, you have a chance to make donations that will be quadrupled here for “Darkness Visible,” to support a program at the Cottage for the visually impaired (as Milton was). But you must move quick! quick! quick! Donations must be received by midday tomorrow – London time.

Update:  John Bradley wrote this morning to tell me that all U.S. donations will be doubled until the end January 2020 (at least). Go to the Milton Cottage website here and scroll down to the section on “U.S. Donors.” Do it for Father Christmas.

Want to see the Milton Cottage yourself? Try the video below.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel lecture: “Literature is one of the few spheres that try to keep us close to the hard facts of the world.”

Sunday, December 8th, 2019
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Today at the Swedish PEN-club (Photo: Joanna Helander)

This weekend Olga Tokarczuk gave her Nobel lecture, a much-anticipated event in literary world. Her topic: “The Tender Narrator.” It was a knock-out.

Her explanation of the title:

Tenderness is spontaneous and disinterested; it goes far beyond empathetic fellow feeling. Instead it is the conscious, though perhaps slightly melancholy, common sharing of fate. Tenderness is deep emotional concern about another being, its fragility, its unique nature, and its lack of immunity to suffering and the effects of time. Tenderness perceives the bonds that connect us, the similarities and sameness between us. It is a way of looking that shows the world as being alive, living, interconnected, cooperating with, and codependent on itself.

Literature is built on tenderness toward any being other than ourselves. It is the basic psychological mechanism of the novel. Thanks to this miraculous tool, the most sophisticated means of human communication, our experience can travel through time, reaching those who have not yet been born, but who will one day turn to what we have written, the stories we told about ourselves and our world.

A few excerpts:

The category of fake news raises new questions about what fiction is. Readers who have been repeatedly deceived, misinformed or misled have begun to slowly acquire a specific neurotic idiosyncrasy. The reaction to such exhaustion with fiction could be the enormous success of non-fiction, which in this great informational chaos screams over our heads: “I will tell you the truth, nothing but the truth,” and “My story is based on facts!”

Fiction has lost the readers’ trust since lying has become a dangerous weapon of mass destruction, even if it is still a primitive tool. I am often asked this incredulous question: “Is this thing you wrote really true?” And every time I feel this question bodes the end of literature.

***

Reading in Yonkers last year, in the home of Izabela Barry.

I have never been particularly excited about any straight distinction between fiction and non-fiction, unless we understand such a distinction to be declarative and discretionary. In a sea of many definitions of fiction, the one I like the best is also the oldest, and it comes from Aristotle. Fiction is always a kind of truth.

I am also convinced by the distinction between true story and plot made by the writer and essayist E.M. Forster. He said that when we say, “The king died and then the queen died,” it’s a story. But when we say, “The king died, and then the queen died of grief,” that is a plot. Every fictionalization involves a transition from the question “What happened next?” to an attempt at understanding it based on our human experience: “Why did it happen that way?”

Literature begins with that “why,” even if we were to answer that question over and over with an ordinary “I don’t know.”

***

Humanity has come a long way in its ways of communicating and sharing personal experience, from orality, relying on the living word and human memory, through the Gutenberg Revolution, when stories began to be widely mediated by writing and in this way fixed and codified as well as possible to reproduce without alteration. The major attainment of this change was that we came to identify thinking with language, with writing. Today we are facing a revolution on a similar scale, when experience can be transmitted directly, without recourse to the printed word.

There is no longer any need to keep a travel diary when you can simply take pictures and send those pictures via social networking sites straight into the world, at once and to all. There is no need to write letters, since it is easier to call. Why write fat novels, when you can just get into a television series instead? Instead of going out on the town with friends, it would be better to play a game. Reach for an autobiography? There’s no point, since I am following the lives of celebrities on Instagram and know everything about them.

It is not even the image that is the greatest opponent of text today, as we thought back in the twentieth century, worrying about the influence of television and film. It is instead a completely different dimension of the world—acting directly on our senses.

***

With translator Jennifer Croft, after winning the Man Booker Prize in 2018 (Photo: Janie Airey/Man Booker Prize)

The flood of stupidity, cruelty, hate speech and images of violence are desperately counterbalanced by all sorts of “good news,” but it hasn’t the capacity to rein in the painful impression, which I find hard to verbalize, that there is something wrong with the world. Nowadays this feeling, once the sole preserve of neurotic poets, is like an epidemic of lack of definition, a form of anxiety oozing from all directions.

Literature is one of the few spheres that try to keep us close to the hard facts of the world, because by its very nature it is always psychological, because it focuses on the internal reasoning and motives of the characters, reveals their otherwise inaccessible experience to another person, or simply provokes the reader into a psychological interpretation of their conduct. Only literature is capable of letting us go deep into the life of another being, understand their reasons, share their emotions and experience their fate.

A story always turns circles around meaning.

***

In Doctor Faustus Thomas Mann wrote about a composer who devised a new form of absolute music capable of changing human thinking. But Mann did not describe what this music would depend on, he merely created the imaginary idea of how it might sound. Perhaps that is what the role of an artist relies on―giving a foretaste of something that could exist, and thus causing it to become imaginable. And being imagined is the first stage of existence.

Read the whole thing here.

The first case of real forgiveness ever? Maybe so. My talk on René Girard at Notre Dame.

Thursday, December 5th, 2019
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Giovanni Maria Bottala’s “Joseph Sold by His Brothers,” circa 1636-42

On September 23, I was honored to be invited to Notre Dame to deliver the inaugural Church Life Journal lecture on “René Girard and the Present Moment.” The talk is now up here

An excerpt:

Roughly 200 billion tweets appear every year. And 100 million hours of videos are watched on Facebook daily, and more than 250 billion photos have been uploaded to Facebook. Reaction time gets faster and faster, and we are free to vent our worst side, our unconsidered selves, on more and more platforms. We excuse our daily defamation as harmless, but it is not. It changes us.

In this environment, how difficult to hold to Girard’s injunction of total non-retaliation! …

We have some good precedents: Girard often described the story of the Old Testament Joseph, son of Jacob, bound and sold into slavery by his mob of ten envious and resentful half-brothers. He called it a counter-mythical story, because in myth, the lynchers are always satisfied with their lynching. But here, the story takes a different twist. Initially, the brothers plan to kill Joseph, but one of them, Judah, has the idea to sell him into slavery instead. However, Joseph reestablishes himself as one of the leaders of Egypt and then tearfully forgives his brothers in a dramatic reconciliation. Its full description of forgiveness is, Girard claimed, the first in all of history, in its sophistication and nuance. I haven’t been able to disprove him yet.

I recommend Robert Alter‘s magnificent retelling, with annotation, of the story in his Genesis. The read is absolutely gripping, a page-turner, with very careful breakdown of the dialogue. Before his self-revelation, Joseph tries his half-brothers with several ordeals, and demands that they bring him their youngest brother, Benjamin. He is cautiously testing his half-brothers with Benjamin, the only other child of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, born of the rivalry that poisoned the family. After all, he does not know whether they have killed Benjamin, too. Why would they not?

But the figure who is at least as riveting, to me, is Judah—the very brother who had the idea to monetize the elimination of his brother. During the dialogue, he is transformed. He says his father’s heart would break with the loss of Benjamin—he who had maliciously, recklessly shredded his father’s heart before, accepts the bitter pill of his father’s outrageous favoritism, and begs to offer himself as a slave instead.

The wailing of Joseph in the recognition scene is so loud and unrestrained that, as it is written, “the Egyptians heard and the house of Pharoah heard.” We all admire Joseph, we imagine we would like to be like him – but who wants to be Judah in his culpability, in his callousness, in his repentance, and his anguish? Yet the Jewish people are named for him.

 

Read the rest here.