Archive for January, 2019

More praise for “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard” – was he “the last of the structuralists”? A poet speaks.

Saturday, January 19th, 2019
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My on-camera interview with René Girard (screenshot from youtube)

 

Somehow in the crush of events and the daily momentums, we haven’t yet mentioned “The Last Structuralist,” poet James Matthew Wilson’s lovely and thoughtful review of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard over at the Claremont Review of Books. Let us make amends, with appreciation!

He opens the piece this way:

Beginning in the early 1980s Stanford University’s Cynthia Haven would occasionally spy a remarkable man walking across that bright tropical campus. He caught her attention on account of his “large, totemic head, with its dark, deep-set eyes and shock of thick, wavy, salt-and-pepper hair.” Only in 2007 was she introduced to this man and learned that he was René Girard, the legendary French “theorist,” and, by then, emeritus Chair of French language and literature. Within a year, Haven was paying regular visits to Girard at his home. She could not have known then where these visits would lead.

Evolution of Desire is the first biography of Girard to appear, and I would venture to say it will be the last. Girard was a quiet, passive man who repeatedly stated he lived mostly inside his own head. His outward life was placid and uneventful, even though he came of age during the Nazi occupation of France and presided over at least one key episode in the intellectual tumult that overtook universities in the 1960s.

To this scarcity of dramatic detail, Haven brings a sympathetic reading of Girard’s books in all their towering ambition, along with a journalist’s first-person narration as she goes in search of clues to the intellectual origins of her elusive subject. Her candor humanizes a man known for his forbidding and assertive prose, for books that seemed to cast a cold, sometimes naïve, eye on all opposition as he pursued the articulation of what he deemed his one great idea, his one grand theory of human nature and history.

He concludes:

In her account of the last decades of Girard’s life, Haven interviews many who taught alongside him or sought to continue his work. But the real wealth lies in her frequently bemused account of Girard, the laconic theorist of Christian self-renunciation, in the hyper and ambitious tropical paradise of Stanford. It is a place, Haven observes, where everyone “would really rather be robots.” While Thiel and other Silicon Valley magnates sank billions into dodging death, Girard sat at home working on still another book, Achever Clausewitz (in English, Battling to the End, 2010). Its subject is a Prussian general of the Napoleonic age whose reflections on the psychology of war serve as a basis for modern theories of total warfare.

“A rage of mimetic desire…”

Girard’s study comprehended not just the cause and dimensions of the great wars of the twentieth century but also the intricate mimetic dimensions of the new age that opened with 9/11. His seems the right viewpoint, for instance, from which to understand the fact that Mohamed Atta spent the last three days before hijacking American Airlines Flight 11 “drinking vodka and playing video games.” In a rage of mimetic desire, he and his accomplices felt compelled “to destroy the thing that they crave and loathe at once.”

In our contemporary cult of victimhood, we see supposed victims of oppression routinely set out on self-righteous crusades to humiliate and punish their former persecutors. Persecution “is pursued in the name of anti-persecution.” The former persecutors become the new scapegoats who must be sacrificed to eliminate social violence and allow peace to reign. That so many of the causes whose advocates now seek to “punish the wicked” are morally inimical to Christianity is incidental in comparison with Girard’s chief insight about them. Modern scapegoating resuscitates archaic religious sacrifice; the post-Christian world is also a pagan world redivivus, as it refuses to learn the lesson of Christ on the cross fixed at the center of history.

Haven’s story conveys how beloved Girard, a warm but withdrawn man, was to those who knew him; how fruitfully his ideas have influenced others; and how powerful his thought proves in explaining the structures of violence and desire in history. Girard was, in a sense, the last of the structuralists. He shows us the possibility of a post-structuralism that does not reduce the life of the mind to a light, meaningless play of “discourse,” but which digs down into the hidden depths of reality in hopes of understanding the “contagion” of mimetic violence and glimpses the possibility of redemption through a renunciation of our deeply ingrained desire to make a sacrifice.

Read the whole thing here

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Ah yes! It’s also time to mention some of the grateful letters we’ve received from readers recently. Here are two:

From Bill Schaberg at Athena Rare Books in Fairfield, Connecticut: “… A book that could have been a dreadfully dreary read was, instead, lively, well organized (I loved the way you masterfully wove so many narrative threads together) and a literal pleasure to pick up each night.

Both René as the subject and you as the concerned author just jump off the page. (I make my way though about a book a week – half non-fiction – and I can’t tell you how absolutely rare that it.)

So, THANK YOU! It really was an enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking book. 

From Dr. John F. Gilligan of Peoria, Ill.: In my life of 80 years, I have never read as good a biography as you have written.  Over the years I have read many of the bestseller biographies.  I put your book above them.  I say this as a general reader; mostly science and history and a smattering of literature captures my interests.  I did read most of Dostoevsky’s novels while working as a business consultant in Russia for several years, but that was back in the 90s.  And I was a student for 4 years in Europe (France and Italy) after graduating from college.  …  I came across your book and thought it might be a good entrée because French writers and critics are typically quite abstract, at least for me.  But you have made him an engaging albeit a complex person and his insightful thoughts on the human condition quite clear and concise.

When I was in Greece, my wife and I visited Delphi.  We wanted to see where the Delphic Oracle did her work.  Her sage advice: γνῶθι σεαυτόν, has been greatly aided by Girard and your introduction to him.  I thank you for writing that biography.  It has helped me to know myself better.  I guess old dogs can indeed learn new tricks.

“Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard” goes into its third printing – and sparks some reflections in Zürich’s “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”

Thursday, January 17th, 2019
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Some good news! Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is going into its third printing in its first year! Here’s some more good news: an article in Zürich’s Neue Zürich Zeitungone of Europe’s most highly regarded newspapers. The piece is by one of the continent’s leading intellectuals, Stanford’s own Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

The first few paragraphs in a rough, off-the-cuff translation by a German-speaking friend of ours. An excerpt from: “Equality, Desire, Violence and the Restrained Presence of René Girard”:

A few weeks ago the French magazine Le Point invited Peter Sloterdijk to a conversation about the protest movement of the yellow jackets and their relationship to President Macron. With his learned and yet very decisive point of view, the philosopher activated an unconventional line of intellectual positions: in addition to  Mikhail Bakhtin‘s thesis on the transformation of Carnival moments into violence, and to Alain Peyrefitte‘s identification of social immobility as the heritage of absolutism, and to Elias Canetti’s theory on the dynamics of people in masses, he also referenced–most of all–the vision of the French-American anthropologist René Girard, who is rarely cited in his own homeland, a vision of working out  collective tensions through the attack and murder of a “scape goat.” Sloterkijk’s interlocutor could only with difficulty hide his outrage over this application of an analysis of the present situation.

Sepp Gumbrecht (Photo: Reto Klar)

With his left-liberal aligned reaction, the news would have no doubt fit well, to hear that the Silicon Valley billionaire and original Facebook investor Peter Thiel offered, for the coming Winter quarter at Stanford, a seminar on the conflict between “Statehood and Global Technology,” a course that was supposed to be derived from Girard’s theory and a course with such unusual resonance among the students that the university had to implement conditions for acceptance into the class.  Around 1990 Thiel had in fact taken several Girard Seminars, and to this day Thiel likes to amaze his interlocutors with the comment that he owes his life-changing engagement with  Facebook to these Girard seminars. In view of Sloterdijk, Thiel and their antagonists, it is  increasingly evident that there is a  pattern of tension between the way eccentric thinkers trust Girard’s intuitions and a mostly unfounded refusal to even acknowledge them. Against this blockade, in a new biography which is widely celebrated in many websites in Silicon Valley, Cynthia Haven has described how Girard distanced himself from all political positions, and described his shock at his own insights, a shock he shared with his most vehement opponents.

Haven’s conclusions and the peculiar ambivalence that she references confirm my memories from the 1990s, when I met with René Girard as a colleague at Stanford almost daily. Despite the warning brought from Germany by an eminent literary scholar that Girard’s dark theory corresponds to a powerful sense of character engraved in his face, I learned to know a professor who fascinated the youngest students in particular, and who consistently avoided competitive situations. Not from a feeling of uncertainty or self-doubt at all, but rather because as a prophet he was convinced of the truth of his insights. He in fact felt called to point out these insights repeatedly, and yet expected no personal admiration, never courted agreement, and never held it against me for instance, when I reacted with skeptical commentary. Already in 2005, when he was accepted into the forty “Immortals” of the Académie Française, Girard heard from afar the powerful encomium of his friend Michel Serres and reacted to our congratulations with a rumpled brow. Nonetheless, he seemed to want to say, no one could avoid the evidence of what he had to say.

The articles goes on to discuss Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Prophet of Envy” in the New York Review of Books (“the central organ of the American East Coast intellectuals”), the intensification of internet envy with FaceBook, and more. Read it here.

Not enough good news for you? The Claremont Review of Books article is up. Did we mention we’re getting lovely letters? Enough! We’ll share more tomorrow.
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Oscar endorsement for Women of the Gulag: “To go through such suffering without going mad is a spiritual feat.”

Monday, January 14th, 2019
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She made a movie on the “slaves of the slaves.”

Russian American filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya sent me a short note after she read the earlier Book Haven post on her new film Women of the Gulag, based on the research and book by Paul Gregory. The film is now up for an Oscar next month in the “short documentary” category. 

Her email included an endorsement from Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet dissident who spent a dozen years in the psychiatric hospitals, prisons and labor camps of the USSR. In December 1976 he was deported from the USSR and exchanged at Zürich airport by the Soviet government for the imprisoned general secretary of the Communist Party of Chile, Luis Corvalán. Bukovsky now lives in the UK.

So he knows what he’s talking about. Here’s what he had to say about Women of the Gulag – consider it an endorsement from the depths of hell:

The film Women of the Gulag is an important document of the era.

The U.S.S.R. was a huge zone of human suffering.

Inside that zone there was also a hell that contained its powerless slaves—the GULAG.

But within that hell, there was an even more terrible hell.

Varlam Shalamov, the great writer who lived through the GULAG hell, said the women in the camps were slaves of the slaves.

Gulag survivor Shalamov, author of “Kolyma Stories”

Their experience was so horrific that eyewitnesses were afraid to describe it in detail.

I could not understand how you can make a film about “what a person should not know, should not see, and if he has, he is better off dead,” as Shalamov wrote.

Marianna Yarovskaya has managed to do it. Her heroines, who survived the GULAG, say almost nothing about their suffering. But I could hear their desperate screams during their silences.

To go through such suffering without going mad is a spiritual feat.

To make such a film is a moral feat.

I would compare the appearance of Women of the Gulag with the appearance of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

The Gulag Archipelago was awarded the Nobel Prize. [Editor’s note: Solzhenitsyn was awarded, rather than his masterpiece.]

I am glad that there is the opportunity to award an Oscar to Women of the Gulag.

Freedom at last: Bukovsky at the 1987 Sakharov Conference, the Netherlands: (l. to r.) Prime Minister Lubbers, Vladimir Bukovsky, Prof. Jan Willem Bezemer, Stanford historian Robert Conquest (Photo: Creative Commons)

Will Women of the Gulag get an Oscar next month? Please vote yes. Putin won’t like it.

Saturday, January 12th, 2019
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Marianna Yarovskaya filming on location in Russia

Everyone nowadays is terrified of Russia, talking about Russia, condemning Russia – but comparatively few make any attempt to find out what Russia is really about, culturally, socially, politically. Relatively few make an effort to know its history, other than the comic-book version. Author Paul Gregory, an economist and Russia expert, has gone some way towards alleviating our myopia with Women of the Gulag, teaming up with Russian-American filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya. We’ve written about the Women of the Gulag here and here and here. (We’ve written about Paul’s book on Nikolai Bukharin here, and his curious and complicated tale of Lenin‘s brain here.) Although he’s one of the movers-and-shakers at the Hoover Institution, he’s had to use public fundraising platforms to get the film made.

Marianna Yarovskaya

Now Women of the Gulag is up for an Academy Award, and we couldn’t be more pleased. Women of the Gulag is a story that’s still untold, even in Russia. 

According to Paul, the film “drives home the point that Russia has yet to come to terms with the Gulag and the Great Terror. Consider the striking images of a Stalin look-alike selling photos on Red Square and older men and women sobbing at Stalin’s burial place. There has never been a big event, like Nuremberg or the Truth Commission in South Africa, that wipes the slate clean.  The Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot deny that the Gulag happened, but he needs the Russian people to want a leader with a firm hand. The strategy of admitting Stalin’s ‘harshness’ while emphasizing his presumed contributions has paid off. The Russian people name Stalin as the most significant figure in history!”

The Academy Awards are notoriously whimsical in their choices, but if there’s any justice, I hope Women of the Gulag takes home the statuette in the “short documentary” category. (The Academy finalists are listed in Variety here.) He’s competing against shorts like My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes, which was featured in The New York Times here .

Women of the Gulag was first screened last September in Santa Monica. The John Batchelor radio show featured an episode on the film, and in 2013, Gregory talked about his research, which drew a lot from the phenomenal Hoover Library & Archives, on CSPAN BOOKTV.

Paul says in a Hoover interview here:

My first surprise was that I could gather enough information from the above sources to breathe life into the five remarkable women whose lives I was chronicling. I was also surprised (although I had encountered this in the statistics) by the fine line between executioner and condemned. The two women in my book who married executioners lost their husbands to execution and one was forced into suicide

My second surprise (and this led to the documentary film with Marianna Yarovskaya) was that three of my characters were still alive in their upper 80s and lower 90s. They readily agreed to be filmed. The others were long gone and had no adult children to tell their story first-hand. Therefore, Marianna and I used networking and the good services of Memorial Moscow to identify three additional Women of the Gulag, who told their remarkable stories on camera. We called our subjects “last witnesses” while making our documentary. Indeed, two of the main characters died shortly after their interviews.

My third surprise was that no one had written this book or made this documentary before us. Hollywood has been remarkably absent in the coverage of Stalinist crimes against humanity. Perhaps Women of the Gulag will be a turning point.

Let’s hope so.

You think I’m imagining the international ignorance? Paul writes on his blog earlier this week about a Gulag denier: “A writer viewed the film and concluded that the five female Gulag survivors, telling their story on camera were lying. Such things that they describe – the arbitrary sentences, the beatings, and arrest of innocent fathers and husbands – were made-up fantastic stories. … Surely viewers will not be taken in by such nonsense. Besides, director Yarovskaya is incompetent – a dupe of faux human-rights organizations, like Memorial. In the same edition, another Gulag-denier writes that the much-authenticated order 00447 that initiated the Great Terror is a fabrication of Russian human-rights organizations. So far, Russian mainstream media is waiting and watching, asking should Yarovskaya’s Women of the Gulag be treated as an accomplishment of Russian film makers or an attempt to sully the greatness of Russian history?”

According to Paul, “Stalin is purported to have said that one death is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic. We believe that by giving the Gulag and the Great Terror human faces and human stories, we will cause viewers everywhere to think of the tragedy and not the statistic.”

Postscript on 1/14: Women of the Gulag gets a resounding endorsement from one of the former Soviet Union’s foremost dissidents, Vladimir Bukovsky. Read it here

Dana Gioia goes to hell…

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019
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Previous visitors sent back a few postcards…

Dana Gioia is going to hell. And it’s not his first trip, either. Some earlier visits include Dana Gioia‘s blank verse poem Descent to the Underworld:

At first the way is not
Entirely dark. Some daylight filters down
And gives the cave that same bleak iridescence
The sun shows in eclipse. But gradually
The path descends into unending twilight.

And in another, later poem, “Finding a Box of Family Letters,” he wonders:

What does it cost to send a postcard
to the underworld?

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It’s verging on preoccupation. This time, however, the former National Endowment for the Arts chairman (and more recently, California Poet Laureate) has written a poem of seventeen stanzas – also blank verse. It’s in the current Hudson Review, and begins:

The Underworld

Facilis descensus Averno.
(Descending into Hell is easy.)
—Virgil

I. The Trip

It isn’t difficult to visit Hell,
As long as you can follow the instructions.
Get on the Underground, the Western Line.
Go to the final car. Sit by yourself
In the last row. Don’t talk to anyone.
Don’t exit when you reach the outmost station.
Don’t move—not even when the lights go off.
 

II. The Fare

When the conductor comes to hand out tickets,
There’s a small charge. No money changes hands,
But you must offer something of your own—
Your book, your fountain pen, a lock of hair,
Your smile, perhaps the memory of your mother.
He’ll always notice something that he needs.
Each trade is final. There are no returns.
 

III. The Passengers

There will be other passengers onboard.
Don’t talk to them. They know much less than you.
There’s nothing notable about the damned,
Except how commonplace they seem—a clerk,
An engineer, a carpenter, a thief.
And frankly, they aren’t interested in you.
Sit quietly. Remember why you’ve come.

Read the rest here.

“My dear, my dear, it is not so dreadful here.” (Photo: Starr Black)

The biz side of Les Miz: it was the first international book launch in publishing history

Sunday, January 6th, 2019
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Dominic West as Jean Valjean in BBC production (Photo: BBC)

Are you all ready? Are you braced for the new version of Les Misérables …. it’s coming … it’s coming … it’s here!!! See trailer below. The BBC has a new all-go-to-hell production, and The Financial Times is contributing to its glory.  

The BBC production premiered on December 31st in the UK. When will it be available for those of us in the colonies? Who knows. But meanwhile, an article from the Financial Timeswhich (appropriate to its purview) discusses the biz side of Les Miz. “That hulking monument of French literature, Les Misérables owes a heavy debt to Queen Victoria’s Royal Mail.”

It was the first planned international book launch in publishing history: “Cutting-edge technology helped speed the birth and broadcast the fame of Les Misérables,” writes Boyd Tonkin. “Steam-driven printers that cranked out high-volume, low-cost editions; regular mail-carrying steamers; expanding railway and telegraph networks: all came together to ease the book’s passage.” 

The book that was meant to touch everyone has touched some unexpected, flinty hearts: a production opened last month in Tehran, of all places: “It turns out that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is an avid Hugo fan who once praised Les Misérables as “a book of wisdom” that everyone should read. Somewhere in the non-denominational hereafter envisaged by Hugo’s cranky personal religion, the old man must be enjoying a very long, and very hearty, last laugh.”

A few excerpts:.

As David Bellos records in his study of the book, The Novel of the Century, the Parisian daily La Presse could claim that, in this work nobody had yet read, “all the raw issues of the nineteenth century are compressed into . . . characters who will enter universal memory and never leave it”. Pre-release blurbs hardly come more gushing — or more true.

Dominic West with David Oyelowo as Javert.

Hugo cannily boosted his new product with brash announcements that proclaimed his novel to be “the social and historical drama of the nineteenth century”.

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No book had ever debuted with this multi-platform fanfare. It hardly mattered that Hugo’s rivals sneered: that Alexandre Dumas likened it to “wading through mud”, or that those catty diarists the Goncourt brothers bitched that Hugo had made a pile “for taking pity on the suffering masses”. The first two volumes sold out in two days. Queues clogged the narrow streets of Paris when new volumes arrived. In workers’ clubs, members banded together to buy volumes. Across the Atlantic, the polymath Charles Wilbour had completed his five-volume translation by December 1862. It sold in its hundreds of thousands. Shorn of Hugo’s denunciation of slavery, censored pamphlets of Wilbour’s translation became the favoured campfire reading of weary Confederate soldiers in the American civil war. They took to calling themselves (Robert E.) “Lee’s Miserables”. In politics, Hugo backed well-managed change. His novel pleas for “progress that has a gentle incline”. As a worldwide cultural phenomenon, however, Les Misérables looks like a wholly revolutionary coup. No French novel, not even Dumas’s all-conquering The Count of Monte Cristo in 1844, had ever earned so much so quickly, moved so fast, spread so far — or made such a planet-spanning noise. For Hugo and his entourage, soaring idealism went hand in hand with commercial nous. The former mandated the latter.

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His novel moved the masses because its author and his crew drew on every smart weapon in the armoury of 19th-century industrial society — its financial instruments; its media networks; its transport infrastructure. Hugo’s ultimate message, of integrity, loyalty and solidarity, may be simple. “To love or to have loved is enough,” we learn when Valjean’s ward Cosette marries the student Marius: “Don’t ask for anything more.” The method of its delivery, though, was as strategically artful and complex as his age allowed. It worked then. It works now. From London to Tehran, Les Misérables still manufactures outrage and uplifts with the same steam-hammer force as in 1862.

Postscript on 1/7: I should add that the all-time highest ranking post ever in the Book Haven is: “Enjoy Les Misérables. But Please Get the History Straight.” – it’s here.

Happy Twelfth Night, everyone! From the Book Haven!

Saturday, January 5th, 2019
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America’s most underrated poet? Maybe so…

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019
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Obviously, this poet is a she, not he. That’s one strike against her in the poetic sweepstakes for the “greats.”  Moreover, her poetry smacks more of the nineteenth century than the twentieth, with its formal diction and meticulous (yet seemingly breezy, offhand) iambic pentameter lines – but not, surely not, in their crazy amorous abandon.

The pages below were brought to my attention by poet and translator A.M. Juster on Twitter. Most educated poetry-lovers will know the graceful, sensual sonnets below, and recognize the poet who made her reputation and hit her stride in the 1920s and died, far too young, in the 1950s.

I will not say who it is, but let you guess. That will give you now the chance to explore her poems as I did, beginning at age sixteen, rolling luscious lines like these over my tongue as I wandered through Michigan’s wintertime woods, thinking I wished a larger life than the one I had. Nor will I post her picture … but her slippers are at right. You can read more about her here.

Postscripted thought: I think I like poems #2 and #3 the best – in retrospect should have put them on top! But perhaps in this sequence – the sequence of the collection – they tell a story…

 

Best New Year’s resolution for 2019 – from the third monkey on Noah’s Ark

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019
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The best resolution of the incoming 2019 may be the one that appeared on my Facebook newsfeed, by author and former bank robber Joe Loya, who served Lompoc Federal Penitentiary, with two years in solitary for violent behavior.

Why do I like it? Perhaps it’s because I, too, feel like the third monkey on the ramp of Noah’s Ark. Joe was profiled in the movie Protagonist, directed by Jessica Yu. He worked closely with director Edgar Wright on the 2017 film Baby Driver, which received three Academy nominations.

What’s he doing in 2019? Right now, he told me, he’s in the Bay Area producing a podcast about his recovery from childhood abuse, crime, prison and “an overall violent way of being.”

“I’m script consulting on films. Like Baby Driver 2″ – I consulted on the first Baby Driver film and even had a cameo in which I played a bank guard who was dispatched by bank robber Jamie Foxx. Ironies still abound in my life.”

And below his resolution, my own favorite New Year’s Eve Facebook post from Henry Venema. And below that, a photo from my own solitary (and curiously pleasing) New Year’s Eve over my laptop, with a fine single malt in my mother’s Waterford crystal, Józef Czapski‘s Inhuman Land, and The New York Review of Books holiday issue, which has a review of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. As Maria Adle Besson put it, “un reveillon d’intellectuelle.” Doesn’t get better than that.

It’s going to be a busy year – and I hope one as miraculous as 2018 has been. Thank you all for sharing it.


The sentence “People are afraid that all people are equal” is one of the chapter epigraphs and in the text of Evolution of Desire – it’s from a conversation with Stanford’s Dantista, Prof. John Frecceroa lifelong friend of René Girard.

Happy New Year everyone, from The Book Haven!

Postscript on Jan. 2: Well, Joe, it appears there’s a precedent for a stowaway on the Ark, so we’re in luck. From an illustration of Beatus of Liébana‘s commentary, The ‘Silos Apocalypse’; 1091-1109. Thanks to Ennius (@red_loeb) for the find on Twitter. Ennius asks: “Can you spot the stowaway on Noah’s Ark?” (Elisha ben Abuya @Elishabenabuya adds: “There is a Midrash that Noah had to take two of every living thing, so that included demons as well. – Midrash Rabbah Berashit 31:13)