Archive for February, 2019

Bergen holds its first-ever international literary festival – and we’re in Norway for it!

Thursday, February 14th, 2019
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Bryggen Hanseatic Wharf. Norway 2012 (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The Book Haven has just arrived in Norway for the first-ever Bergen Literary Festival – tired and hungry and footsore and jetlagged, but delighted with the lovely city. For example, the Bryggen Hanseatic Wharf pictured above which dates back to Middle Ages is on UNESCO world heritage list.

We just returned from listening to a riveting onstage conversation between award-winning Juan Gabriel Vásquez, author of The Sound of Things Falling (2011), about the Colombian drug wars, and now The Shape of the Ruins (2018), about two defining political murders in Bogotá’s past, and Spanish writer Edurne Portela. “Memory is a moral act,” said the Columbian author who spoke about the way we manipulate memory and history so we can go on. “History lies.”

“The truth of the novel is that there is no truth,” he said.

There will be more news on the inaugural festival, but meanwhile – Happy Valentine’s Day!

Bergen, the view from Mount Floyen (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Talking Shakespeare with Albert Finney

Monday, February 11th, 2019
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They met at the Old Vic (Youtube screenshot)

Actor Albert Finney is dead. Writer David Kirby on Facebook shared this memory, of a long-ago meeting in London:

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In 1976, I saw Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth at the Young Vic. When it was over, I felt as though I’d been electrocuted. I rose in a daze and turned to the man in the row behind me. It was Albert Finney, who died Thursday at the age of 82. He looked much as he did in this photo, impossibly handsome and seemingly unaware of it. He also appeared as stunned by what he had just seen as I was. I told him my name and held out my hand, and as he took it, he inclined his head toward me politely and said, ”Mr. Kirby.”

I don’t recall a word of our conversation, but I do remember that his voice flowed like warm syrup. People shuffled past us as we talked, but nobody made anything of him. We were just a couple of guys talking about Shakespeare. The articles that have appeared since his death say that he didn’t care that much about celebrity (he refused to attend the Oscars and turned down a knighthood), and he certainly came across that way to me. What a night: seeing McKellen and Dench throw themselves around the stage was a life changer already, and then I’d talked to Albert Finney the way you do when you run into somebody at the grocery store. “Macbeth shall sleep no more,” says the would-be king in Act 2, Scene 2, and that night I walked the streets of London for hours.

Evolution of Desire: “as absorbing as a very good novel – I could not put it down.”

Sunday, February 10th, 2019
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Bill Cain at Wellesley

A lovely letter from William Cain, Mary Jewett Gaiser Professor of English at Wellesley College, who has just finished reading Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard: “I am writing to congratulate you, and to thank you, for your brilliant and beautiful biography of René Girard. It is so interesting and enlightening about his life and career. You did a wonderful piece of work from start to finish: it was as absorbing to me as a very good novel – I could not put it down.

“You did a great job on this book … Thank you again for this superb biography.”

He had some firsthand experience with the subject: he knew René Girard when he was a grad student in the English department at Johns Hopkins University, 1974-1978. “I especially remember his great enthusiasm about Shakespeare,” he writes.

Below, that’s one of my tribe of bros, posting on Facebook from Barnes & Noble in Rochester Hills: “Look what’s on the shelves in southeastern Michigan!” There’s Aristotle, and there’s me … or rather there’s René Girard and Evolution of Desire.

Postscript on February 18Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard in Ann Arbor, too!

On being cool, or, “I Hope You Don’t Know That I Hope You Care That I Don’t Care What You Think About Me”

Friday, February 8th, 2019
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The Doors … does cool stay cool?

“Hot is momentary. It quickly turns to ashes. But cool stays cool,” said Robert Pogue Harrison, discussing Jim Morrison, the Doors, and the “ethos of cool” last year. He saw it as the triumph of Apollo over Dionysus.

Former Stanford fellow Chris Fleming has undertaken a study of  “Theoretical Cool,” in the current Sydney Review of Books. As an associate professor of philosophy at the Western Sydney University, he had “a dawning realization that would take many years to coalesce: cool in the humanities isn’t that different from cool in other areas of cultural life, like planking, hotdog-legs photography, mason jar rehabilitation, and novels whose main character is a city.” It’s funny … and deadly serious, too, and surfaced in my Facebook feed. As he explained, “I wrote this, using only words.”

As for the photos below from his Facebook page, the author takes a shot at “cool” himself, in its various guises, some we might recognize.

In his words, then:

“The great Romantic injunction offered by the Aspiring Cool of Instagram to their potential audience is watch me not caring about whether or not you watch me (but please do watch me). The double imperative isn’t just a product of social media; the mating call of almost every VCP (Very Cool Person) – and every aspiring rebel – walking the street is: Look at me – I’m amazing! / Don’t you look at me – I don’t fucking care what you think! Which brings us necessarily to Andy Warhol, that erstwhile king of Union Square Weltschmerz, who gave us one of the clearest renderings of this double injunction. As far as I can recall, the only time Warhol ever looked like he had an elevated heartrate was when an interviewer suggested that he courted attention. In 1980 Warhol toured Miami Beach for his exhibition ‘Jews of the 20th Century’ at the Lowe Art Museum, when a reporter makes this statement:

Interviewer: Your work tends to be … I don’t want to use the word ‘sensational,’ because that connotes something bad, but you want attention…

WarholOh noNo, that’s not true! I just work most of the time and … well, they make me do this … so …

The story of “Maurice Wu” demonstrates the perils and micromeasurements of cool. The lad  arrived in Sydney via Hong Kong and was introduced to Fleming’s high school class. In the parochial school, “Brother Anianus put his arm around the new boy and announced to all of us: ‘This is Maurice Wu – and I bet he can breakdance better than any of you!'”

“The problem was that breakdancing had been very popular at our school, like that groovy Saturday Night Fever dancing before it (or so my older brother swears, although one can never tell with him), but that time had passed and breakdancing was now something of a joke. Unaware, Brother Anianus pushed on: ‘Go on, Maurice, show them your moves!’ Maurice stepped to the side of the podium and proceeded to chainwave, robot, and donkey – all a capella – for about a minute. At the conclusion there was just the creak and whoosh of the fans above our heads – and then the whole year erupted in hysterical, ironic cheers, clapping, whooping, screaming ersatz approval. The year meeting ended. Unaware, Brother Anianus and Maurice Wu thought they’d done very well. It was, in fact, catastrophic (which is why I’ve used the pseudonym ‘Maurice Wu’).”

“Brother Anianus was really saying to us ‘Hey, listen up, funky town inhabitants – this guy is cool to the max.’ But it could only have the opposite effect – for a number of reasons. One is temporal. The historical miss here was very small; it had probably only been about one or two years since break dancing was at peak cool, at least at my Sydney suburban Catholic (ie. uncool) school. But something having-been-recently-cool is often not a mere approximation of being cool, only slightly less so. Despite the resurgence of vinyl, cool’s movement is often digital, not analogue. Although there are gradations of cool, at its peak, a near miss of cool is not like a near miss of a hole in golf or a near miss in a game of darts, where points decrease relative to the distance of the miss. No. In certain very delicate situations, trying to hit cool and missing it by a little is like hitting the wrong note on piano by a semi-tone: the smallest error will affect the biggest dissonance. (It didn’t help in this instance, of course, that the advocate here was a middle-aged man in a long white robe with a huge crucifix hanging from his neck – and whose name was pronounced, at least by us, as ‘any anus.’)”

Fleming describes “normcore” as “a cyborg word combining ‘normal’ and ‘hardcore.’” He continues, “Apart from being It, what exactly was normcore? To the outsider, normcore basically looks like what your uncle might wear to an engagement party at Sizzler: white Reeboks, a polo shirt, and Lowes sourced, bad-fitting jeans. Except, of course, it’s not like that at all; that’s just your uncle. Normcore only looks like that to, well, almost everyone. But ‘radical’ culture is often just like that.”

As he explains, “a music video director wearing Hush Puppies and mum jeans in a Manhattan bar isn’t the same as … someone who isn’t a music video director wearing Hush Puppies and mum jeans in … a bar somewhere else. Again, normcore only looks like a loaned collection from Jerry Seinfeld’s wardrobe. To those in the know, it’s nothing of the sort. Just as an airport beagle can tell the difference between bowel cancer, a land mine, and MDMA residue at 100 metres, the truly cool can tell the difference between, say, K-Mart’s ‘Active’ running shoe line and Cristóbal Balenciaga’s Triple S trainers. (Apparently such a distinction exists, although it is lost on me.)”

King of Cool … for awhile.

He concludes: “Cool, of course, is one of taste’s dynamics, a silent, unavowable face of fashion. We can’t reliably predict its path because it never announces its itinerary. Its minimal requirement is simply to not be where it has just been; as such, the only rigorous science we can apply to it is hindsight. As Walter Benjamin reminded us many years ago, fashion more generally, articulates ‘the eternal recurrence of the new’.  Cool is one antidote to the tendency for people’s taste to reify at a particular historical moment. We are familiar enough with the opposite: we see a person sitting on a train wrapped in a stonewash denim jacket, fluorescent parachute pants, and a hairspray-frozen bouffant which looks like a half-deflated basketball, and think quietly to ourselves ‘1983 was a pretty big year for you, huh?’ The idea is that at some point in our lives, for whatever reason, we became incredibly sensitive to the world around us; we might have had – to paraphrase lyrics from Dirty Dancing – the time of our lives – and as a result, we were dropped into a kind of temporal amber which preserved us like some insect from the Cretaceous period. 1983 passed but the uniform remained. This isn’t cool; the only amber the truly cool person is interested in is craft beer. They will not be frozen. (Of course, if the person on the train is 23, then all bets are off; along with the stonewash, this person is also sporting invisible inverted commas: they are quoting the 80s. To confuse this with the genuinely uncool is like believing, on the basis of her name and plethora of crucifixes, that Madonna was a nun.)”

Read the whole thing here.

Stalin loses at the Academy Awards … again.

Tuesday, February 5th, 2019
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Women of the Gulag was a last-chance attempt to record he memories of the women who had faced arrest, torture, incarceration, hard labor, and abuse during the Soviet years – an untold story kept by the octogenarian and nonagenarian survivors, some who died during the making of the film. So I was  pleased it was shortlisted for the Academy Awards “documentary shorts” category. I wrote about it here and here and here. And film clip above.)

Filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya was the first Russian woman to be shortlisted or nominated for an Oscar since the founding of the Russian Federation, and the second Russian female director to be shortlisted for an Academy Award in any category in 91 years.

Groundbreaker

According to Paul Gregory, the Hoover Russianist who was author of the book and producer of the film: “Requests for interviews flooded in from Russia’s scrappy liberal press, and from Voice of America, Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe, Echo of Moscow, Moscow Times, and Kyiv Post. John Batchelor hosted Marianna and me on his syndicated radio show (watch it here). John was enthused but skeptical that Hollywood would give its highest award to a film about Stalin’s genocides. Marianna informed the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Culture and received back a formal statement that the film is not a ‘national film’ of the Russian Federation. There was a sudden awakening of interest on the part of film distributors.”

Then the bad news last week:  it didn’t make the nominations, despite golden predictions. So Stalin loses at the Academy – again. “We can agree to disagree, but it is true that filmmakers have largely ignored the mass executions, Gulag camps, and repressions for ‘political’ crimes that took place in the Stalin years. International awards for Stalin themes have been rare,” Gregory wrote in Defining Ideas, a Hoover Institution journal.

“As Jan. 22 approached, we were buoyed by some good news. All seven major prognosticators (including Variety, The Wrap, Indiewire, LA Times, and Hollywood Reporter’s Feinberg Forecasts) predicted we would make the final five. These were the professionals, we thought. Surely, they know what they are doing. Bookies placed our odds of winning the whole shebang at 6/1.”

Looking forward

But Stalin has not been as interesting as Hitler, the focus of many acclaimed and awarded films – despite Stalin’s record that makes him one of the greatest genocidaires of modern times. “Societies that do not come to terms with such genocides suffer, each in their own way,” said Gregory. And so it has been with post-Soviet Russia, lost to memory and drawn to Putin like a moth to the flame.

But 2019 was a surprising year for the Oscars: the most expensive campaign in its history. The small, independently funded was kneecapped against professional publicity campaigns.

The indefatigable Paul Gregory is still optimistic and looking forward: “There is still the Emmys, if we can find a suitable TV venue. We have a premiere in London on  April 23 at the Barbican Centre.  Universities and museums are requesting showings and panel discussions. Most interesting is going to be the reaction of Russian media. Will they allow a showing on a major network? We’ll wait and see.”

Read Paul Gregory’s article here.

Happy 110th birthday, Simone Weil! What she said.

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019
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Happy birthday to French thinker Simone Weil (1909- 1943), who was born in Paris 110 years ago today. We wouldn’t offer her anything as gauche as a birthday cake. 

We’ve written about here, here, and here and here. Do you want to know what she meant when she said, “Distance is the soul of beauty?” We have you covered, here.

Thought for this birthday:

“Evil, when we are in its power, is not felt as evil, but as a necessity, even a duty.” 

Her gnosticism was evident when she said, “Creation: good broken up into pieces and scattered throughout evil.” But she also said: “Evil is limitless, but it is not infinite.  Only the infinite limits the limitless.”

Happy birthday, Mademoiselle Weil! You are missed!