Archive for May, 2019

Do the French take their literature seriously? The furor over “La Princesse de Clèves”!

Friday, May 31st, 2019

Another Look turned its attention to an earlier century on May 1, with Madame de LaFayette’s landmark 1678 novella, The Princesse de Clèves. The Another Look director, Robert Pogue Harrison, led the panel, joined by Chloe Edmondson, a Stanford PhD candidate studying French literary and cultural history, and very special guest, Yale’s Prof. Pierre Saint-Amand, the author of The Pursuit of Laziness: An Idle Interpretation of the Enlightenment. Mostly the participants spoke off-the-cuff, but Edmondson’s opening remarks were an excellent introduction to this short and compelling work:

“Many of you may be familiar with French classics like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, yet you may not have ever heard of Madame de Lafayette, not to mention the book she wrote in 1678. To the French though, it is as much of a national treasure and classic, as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The book in fact had a huge resurgence of popularity in 2009 after President Sarkozy publicly disparaged the book.

He said, “Non”!

He was talking about the entrance exam for public sector workers and how it included questions about Lafayette’s work. He suggested it would be absurd to ask a metro ticket clerk what he or she thought about the Princesse de Clèves, that it was useless that candidates must have a knowledge of the Princesse de Clèves.  He added, too, that he “suffered greatly by the princess” in school.

These comments triggered a full-blown scandal, and the French people took to defending the work as a pillar of their national and cultural heritage, a work they felt should be read and appreciated by everyone, not mocked as irrelevant. University strikes that year gave rise to marathon public readings throughout the country of La Princesse de Clèves as a form of protest. Publishers saw sales of the book double within a year. Even a book fair in Paris that year sold, in mere hours, more than 2,000 pins that said “I read The Princess of Clèves” and “This year, the Princess will vote!”

Edmondson also retraced the history of the book for the audience:  “Born 18 March 1634 to a family of minor but wealthy nobility, Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, became a maid of honor to Queen Anne of Austria in 1651, which initiated her entrée into the world of high society. It is during this time that she first became a part of the literary world of 17th-century France, frequenting the salons of Madame de Rambouillet and Madame de Scudéry, as well as becoming friends with Madame de Sévigné.

But the people said, “Oui!”  Vive la France!

“She married François Motier, Comte de LaFayette in 1655, and with him had two sons. She lived with him in the countryside until her return to Paris in 1660, when she started her own literary salon, regularly receiving in her home some of the most important men of letters of her time, like the Duc de La Rochefoucauld who introduced her to the great playwright Racine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she starts to write as well.

“In 1678, La Princesse de Clèves was published anonymously, though it is quickly attributed to Lafayette. At the time of its publication, it was the source of literary scandal. It was a question of genre – people weren’t sure how to categorize what seemed to be a unique text, combining elements of two of the most popular genres at the time – the romance and the historical novella.

“Romances were generally set in a time and place distant from the author’s, with implausible heroic plots and fantastical events, whereas novellas – short novels – were generally set in recent history, with historical characters behaving according to social conventions. La Princesse de Clèves, set in the court of Henri II in the mid-16th century would seem to favor realism, but readers believed that the characters did not conform to the ways that people “really” would behave, because of what seemed to be exceptionally strange behavior of the heroine, such as the Princess’ confession to her husband of her feelings for another man.

“Today, one of the big scholarly debates surrounding the book also has to do with genre – namely whether or not it really did mark the birth of the modern novel. Regardless, I think we can appreciate that it holds qualities that will become characteristic of the types of books we consider novels, works that give readers access to the inner thoughts and emotions of the main characters over an extended period of time.

“Indeed, if we look at the history of the work’s reception, what no one seems to contest, even in the 17th century, is that it captured – to quote her contemporary critic Jean-Baptiste Valincour – the expression of “what happens in the depths of our hearts,” the “expression” of things that all have experienced.”

In English at last: Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad,” and how nations can be both victims and perps

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

Grossman as a reporter for the Red Star. In Germany, 1945.


A few days ago, Vasily Grossman‘s 1952 Stalingrad arrived at my Stanford mailbox – a surprise for me, and an absolute miracle for Russian literature. It’s the first-ever translation of the “prequel” to Life and Fate (we’ve written about that book here and here and here). Both books have been considered a twentieth century update of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But there’s a significant difference: while Count Tolstoy tended to focus on the stories of aristocrats, Grossman, a Ukrainian Jewish journalist and soldier who had written about the opening of Treblinka (he was there), “accords a proper humanity to his subsidiary cast of steelworkers, factory chemists and Red Army soldiers, who battle against the odds from their ice-bound dugouts and foxholes,” according to Ian Thomson, writing in the London’s Weekly Standard. But there was another big difference: the Soviet Union didn’t want Grossman’s stories told, and did its best to suppress and destroy the manuscript. Evans tells that story, too, in London’s The Telegraph. 

Chandler and his wife and co-translator for Stalingrad, Elizabeth Chandler, are already getting the reviews most writers dream of. According to Robert Chandler, “Vasily Grossman was a man of unusual courage, both physically and morally. He spent longer than any other Soviet journalist in the thick of the fighting on the right bank of the Volga, in the ruins being fought over building by building and even room by room. And then, within months of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, he was writing some of the first articles and stories published in any language about the Shoah.”

From Evans in The Telegraph:

“I read Life and Fate on a trip to Moscow during the post-Soviet badland years, at the very end of the last century. Its vividness and power were so extraordinary that I felt my understanding both of that century, and of human love and fragility, shift on their foundations.

“The appearance of Stalingrad, Grossman’s prequel to Life and Fate written a decade earlier, is then a cause for excitement. Why do we so admire him? If you haven’t read him, you may be surprised that he does not feel ‘new’. His prose is plain, rugged, nearly old-fashioned. He has none of the bravura of Bulgakov, Olesha or Platonov, not much of the refinement of Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn. He is Hemingway without the modernism (and exalted masculinity).” [Solzhenitsyn … refined? – B.H.]

“But a choice of detail, a descriptive lovingness in his sentences (he revels in lists as much as a panning movie camera), and a tireless curiosity about people under stress from tectonic events, enable him to articulate with an arresting empathy how it feels to be alive and human under such pressure. His minute and compulsive interest in his characters might feel intrusive, if his understanding were not so true. When, at Stalingrad’s start, Pyotr Vavilov, a middle-aged kolkhoz [collective farm] worker, receives his call-up papers in the summer of 1942, his first worry is that he cannot leave his family enough wheat and firewood to see them through the winter:

That night Vavilov stood in the moonlight, chopping up the tree stumps stacked under an awning behind the shed… Marya – tall, broad-shouldered and dark-skinned like her husband – was standing nearby. Now and again she bent down to pick up stray pieces of wood and occasionally she gave her husband a sideways look… Neither was speaking, which was their way of saying farewell. All around was silence. Like soft linseed oil, the moonlight covered the ground, the grass, the broad fields of young rye and the roofs of the huts, dissolving in the puddles and little windows…

“That’ll do,” said his wife. “You’re not going to lay in enough firewood for the whole of the war.”

According to Thomson in The Evening Standard, “For good or ill, no definitive version of Stalingrad exists. The ‘official’ version published in Moscow in 1954, one year after Stalin died, was heavily cut by the Central Committee and contained drearily propagandist overtures to collective farm output. Thanks to the editorial endeavours of Grossman’s superb translators, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Stalingrad has now been restored to the version that Grossman himself might have wanted.”

According to Evans in The Telegraph:  “Stalingrad (flawlessly translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler), beyond its breathtaking fictional panorama, is, I think, even more moving because it also tells the story of a liminal moment, a moment that is briefly innocent both of the full hell of the Holocaust that Grossman would go on to document in Life and Fate, and of the knowledge we now have, that nations can be both victims and perpetrators.”

Read The Telegraph review here. Read The Evening Standard review here.

Mass murderer Lavrentiy Beria: Moscow’s comeback kid? What’s selling in Russian bookstores today…

Sunday, May 26th, 2019

Marianna Yarovskaya

Think you have it bad here? When you see what’s selling in Russian bookstores, you’ll be grateful for Filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya was presenting her Women of the Gulag at Cannes International Film Market, and was en route to Chisnau in Moldova, where the film about the last surviving women of the Soviet gulag system will be getting an award.

But she took a moment to write to me from Cannes: “Moscow friends occasionally send me snapshots from local and big bookstores. Here are a few more. Photos of ‘wonderful’ legally sold books in Moscow stores that have been sent to me: Beria: The Best Manager of the Twentieth Century (left), The Genius of Stalin, The Genius in Power.” This was photographed at the newspaper stand near Kazansky train station in Moscow this morning.”

Joseph Stalin is infamous and renowned. But Lavrentiy Beria? Not so much. Yet he engineered the Katyń massacres, which destroyed a generation of Poland’s leadership, about 22,000 officers and civilians.

He administered and expanded the vast gulag system, the subject of Marianna’s film. He also oversaw secret detention facilities for Soviet scientists and engineers, and the Communist takeover of the nations in Central and Eastern Europe, along with the repression of the people in those countries. He even supervised the development of a Soviet atomic bomb project.

But some of you will remember him from The Death of Stalin. Simon Russell Beale portrays the unsavory Beria in the film clip below, with Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov (in white), who briefly assumed power after Stalin’s death, and Steve Buscemi as the wily Nikita Khrushchev, who launched a successful coup d’état.

Theatrical distribution of the film was banned in Russia, but pirated copies circulated.

Bibliophile and oenophile alert: rare 16th-century German winemaking book on the auction block!

Saturday, May 25th, 2019

A rare copy of an early German winemaking book is on the auction block. It’s expected to fetch £2000-3000. The unusual offering comes to us courtesy the Rare Books & Works on Paper sale at Chiswick Auctions. The bidding ends on May 29.

Here’s the cool part: the beautiful woodcuts are by Hans Schäufelein, one of Albrecht Dürer‘s most gifted pupils. Schäufelein, born sometime between 1480 and 1485, was one of Dürer’s first journeymen. He developed his own style, yet never lost Dürer’s friendship and confidence along the way.

The illustrations, which show a winemaker at his labors, were originally planned for the Heinrich Steiner’s edition of the Liber Ruralium Commodorum by Petrus de Crescentiis, a work that was never printed.

This extremely rare copy on the production, storage, and improvement of wines, as well as beer, vinegar, mead, wormwood, and brandies, was reprinted eleven times until 1560, often bound together with Kuchenmeysterey, the first German cookbook.

According to Carmen Donia of Chiswick Auctions, interest in wine books, as well as an increase in their prices, has been a trend for the last few decades, thanks to the explosion of interest in food and wine in our wider culture. Among the earliest and most desirable titles is a work by Bartolomeo Plantina, the first printed cookbook from the late 15th century, the 1514 First Aldine Edition of Libri de re rustica (Book of Country Affairs), including works by Columella, Cato, Varro and Palladius, as well as Paulo Mini’s Discorso della natura del vino (1596), one of earliest books on wine.

“The author, not surprisingly a physician, considering the role wine played in health and wellbeing, tries to analyze tasting notes from different regions around Italy,” she says.

“Large collections of rare and first edition wine books have typically been amassed by wine estates, but equally academic institutions and wealthy individuals, especially traders and passionate oenophiles, have taken an interest. All early printed books (15th-16th century) on wine making, or on the culture surrounding wine, are very rare. We are therefore delighted to be able to offer this unique edition in our upcoming sale.”

Interested? Place your bids here.

Maxim Osipov: “You write a poem and a window breaks—such is the strength of your word.”

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

Translator Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk alerted me to Joshua Yaffa‘s “A Doctor’s Literary Calling,” in the New Yorker this month. The article is a profile of Russian writer and cardiologist Maxim Osipov. Boris’s enthusiasm is understandable: he is one of the early champions of Osipov’s  writing, and his translator as well. Osipov’s rueful reaction to his newfound fame and the controversy it’s caused in Tarusa, the small provincial town that is his home: “It’s any author’s dream … You write a poem and a window breaks—such is the strength of your word.”

According to Yaffa, “Osipov’s legend grew, and so did the inevitable comparisons to Chekhov, who, in the eighteen-nineties, at his estate outside Moscow, often treated peasants for free and helped contain a cholera outbreak. ‘Both anatomy and belles-lettres are of equally noble descent,’ Chekhov once wrote to his publisher, adding that they share ‘identical goals and an identical enemy—the Devil.’ Osipov bristles at the comparison. ‘All it illustrates is the inclination to typecast people,’ he said. But it is hard not to find something Chekhovian in Osipov’s precision and pitiless honesty.”

“Precision and pitiless honesty.”

More praise: “In the past two decades, Russian literature has been dominated by surreal, dystopian tales—an appropriate genre, perhaps, to describe the convulsions that followed the Soviet collapse. Osipov’s stories, by contrast, are quiet, almost documentary. ‘There’s something of the late nineteenth century in Osipov,’ Anna Narinskaya, one of Russia’s leading literary critics, told me. ‘He allows himself a certain moral judgment. He knows what’s right, in life and in literature.’”

Varya Gornostaeva, who has published Osipov’s books with Moscow’s Corpus Books, told Yaffa: “Russian society is sadly marked by a certain infantilism. Maxim isn’t so much a liberal—though he’s that, too—as he is an adult, a person who can answer for himself. He’s one of the few grownups.”

“A year and a half after his first essay appeared in Znamya, he published an elegiac follow-up called “Complaining Is a Sin,” in which he describes receiving an early-morning summons from the hospital. “Cold, fog,” he writes. “Ten minutes later, you run into the office, shove the plug into the socket, everything is noisy, you put on a robe, look at the canvas-colored twilight outside the window, and say to yourself, ‘One, it won’t get any better, and, two, this is happiness.’ ”

Yaffa’s profile includes the fascinating history of Tarusa, a city 101 kilometers outside Moscow, the nearest former prisoners were allowed to get near the capital. It became a refuge for dissidents:

“As the camps emptied out after Stalin’s death, in 1953, Tarusa became increasingly populated with former prisoners. In 1955, Konstantin Paustovsky, a mid-century Soviet Thoreau, who was an officially recognized writer and was not a dissident himself, sought to escape the distractions of the capital and settled in Tarusa. In his small blue house at the end of a dirt lane, he began hosting the kinds of cultural figures who were treated with varying degrees of suspicion by the Soviet authorities—among them Arkady Steinberg, a poet and a translator who spent eleven years in the gulag, and Bulat Okudzhava, a talented folksinger whose parents had been arrested as ‘enemies of the people,’ in the thirties.”

The town became a sort of “sanctuary city” for those out of favor, “including, in 1959, Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam, one of the great lyricists of the twentieth century, who disappeared into the gulag in the thirties. Nadezhda had spent years evading arrest, moving from one provincial town to the next. In Tarusa, she found a place of refuge. ‘It’s Heaven,’ she wrote in a letter inviting another poet to visit her. ‘It’s wonderful here. I live well.’”

“It was in Tarusa where she began to work on her memoir, which circulated in samizdat copies in the Soviet Union and was first published in the West in the nineteen-seventies. ‘I knew she was writing something,’ [translator] Viktor Golyshev … who is now in his eighties, recently recalled. ‘But at the time I was honestly far more interested in lying on the beach by the Oka and getting a suntan.” …

“A young, relatively unknown Joseph Brodsky came to visit; so did his fellow future Nobel recipient Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the chronicler of the gulag. Rumor had it that as many as eleven K.G.B. agents were assigned to the town to keep track of all the political undesirables.”

Read the whole thing here.

Ukraine’s national poet Serhiy Zhadan: “I believe in a people’s right to decide its future.”

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

Reading from “Lives of Maria” in Wrocław, Poland (Photo: Rafał Komorowski)

Just back from a busy day in Berkeley, but not too tired to share an article I just discoverd on Serhiy Zhadan in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Steadfast Book Haven readers will remember me writing about Ukraine’s leading writer (poet, novelist, essayist, translator), who visited Stanford a year or so ago, here and here and, in a piece titled “They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag, then he told them to…” here.

An excerpt from Amelia Glaser’s article, “Poems for an Uncertain World: On Serhiy Zhadan’s “What We Live For, What We Die For”:

…with the beginning of the war in Donbas in 2014, the present grew grimmer, and Zhadan’s verse grew more urgent. He has remained in close contact with many who still live in the region, and has written a series of poems in versions of their voices. “Headphones,” from 2015, describes a “quiet drunk” who has stopped watching the news. Instead,

He walks around the city with headphones on,
listening to golden oldies,
as he stumbles into burned-out cars,
blown-up bodies.

The poet in a café…

In addition to writing, Zhadan fronts a rock band, The Space Dogs (Sobaki v Kosmose), which has recently been renamed Zhadan and the Dogs (Zhadan i Sobaki), reflecting the poet’s new status as a household name. Phipps and Tkacz did not include his songs in this volume, but the fact that Zhadan is a public figure, immersed in the contemporary culture he writes about, is very much a part of his poetic persona. Rejecting the ivory tower, the 44-year-old Zhadan — whose boyish face is framed by a punky crew cut — articulates the voices of the crowd.

Much has been written about Zhadan’s street-level activism, about his involvement in the Kharkiv protests during the 2014 Euromaidan standoff. The poet made international news when he was badly beaten by a pro-Kremlin “Titushka,” or rabble-rouser, that spring. But what is striking about Zhadan — who read his work at my home institution, UCSD, two years ago — is his ability to connect with individuals on a personal level. He is direct, engaging, and remarkably patient. As a small group of us shared dinner after the event, a woman at the next table overheard our Russian-language conversation and, when we introduced Zhadan as a Ukrainian poet, asked whether he was a nationalist. Zhadan, who had recently been listed by the Russian government as a nationalist terrorist and arrested for attempting to attend a poetry festival in Belarus, shook his head, then added, “But I believe in a people’s right to decide its future.” He agreed to send the woman some of his writing electronically. I was stunned by his empathy and generosity. But Zhadan, a native speaker of both Ukrainian and Russian who has always written in Ukrainian, has a long relationship with Russian readers, and one that has not always been confrontational. In Russia, his books have been shortlisted for the Andrei Belyi Prize, the “National Bestseller” award, and the “Book of the Year”; he was nominated in 2010 for Russian GQ’s “Man of the Year” for literature, and his work remains important to the Russian literary counterculture.

Read the whole thing here.

James Baldwin: “No writer can judge his work. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to judge mine.”

Sunday, May 19th, 2019

We’ve written about author James Baldwin before – here and here and here. He’s one of the most remarkable voices in American lit. So we were pleased when LitHub recently republished his 1986 interview with David C. Estes. He begins with questions about James Baldwin’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which had just been published the year before. The book examines the Atlanta child murders that took place over a period of twenty-two months in 1979 and 1980. Says Baldwin:

JB: No writer can judge his work. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to judge mine. You just have to trust it. I’ve not been able to read the book, but I remember some of the moments when I wrote this or that. So in some ways, it’s a kind of melancholy inventory, not so much about myself as a writer (I’m not melancholy about that), but I think that what I found hard to decipher is to what extent or in what way my ostensible subject has changed. Nothing in the book could be written that way today.

Estes retraces his career, and Baldwin recalls his early days as a writer. Another excerpt: 

JB: Later, at Commentary, I had a marvelous relationship with one of the editors—Robert Warshow, my first real editor. He asked me to do an essay about the Harlem ghetto. When I turned it in, Robert said, “Do it over.” He didn’t say anything more. So I did. And then he said, “You know more than that.” I began to be aware of what he was doing. When he saw me come close to what I was afraid of, he circled it and said, “Tell me more about that.” What I was afraid of was the relationship between Negroes and Jews in Harlem—afraid on many levels. I’d never consciously thought about it before, but then it began to hit me on a profound and private level because many of my friends were Jews, although they had nothing to do with the Jewish landlords and pawnbrokers in the ghetto. So I had been blotting it out. It was with Robert that I began to be able to talk about it, and that was a kind of liberation for me. I’m in his debt forever because after that I was clear in my own mind. I suddenly realized that perhaps I had been afraid to talk about it because I was a closet anti-Semite myself. One always has that terror. And then I realized that I wasn’t. So something else was opened.

DCE: What major artistic problems have you had to confront in your nonfiction?

JB: I was a black kid and was expected to write from that perspective. Yet I had to realize the black perspective was dictated by the white imagination. Since I wouldn’t write from the perspective, essentially, of the victim, I had to find what my own perspective was and then use it. I couldn’t talk about “them” and “us.” So I had to use “we” and let the reader figure out who “we” is. That was the only possible choice of pronoun. It had to be “we.” And we had to figure out who “we” was, or who “we” is. That was very liberating for me.

I was going through a whole lot of shit in New York because I was black, because I was always in the wrong neighborhood, because I was small. It was dangerous, and I was in a difficult position because I couldn’t find a place to live. I was always being thrown out, fighting landlords. My best friend committed suicide when I was twenty-two, and I could see that I was with him on that road. I knew exactly what happened to him—everything that happened to me. The great battle was not to interiorize the world’s condemnation, not to see yourself as the world saw you, and also not to depend on your skill. I was very skillful—much more skillful than my friend, much more ruthless, too. In my own mind, I had my family to save. I could not go under; I could not afford to. Yet I knew that I was going under. And at the very same moment, I was writing myself up to a wall. I knew I couldn’t continue. It was too confining. I wrote my first two short stories, and then I split.

Read the whole thing here.

My interview on René Girard and Evolution of Desire: “If you don’t howl with the wolves, the wolves will howl for you.”

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

“…no possible compromise between killing and being killed.”

My interview with author Scott Beauchamp is up at Full-Stop, a tony literary venue Full-Stop, which focuses on debuts, works in translation, small press works, and the broader landscape of arts and ideas that need a champion more than ever. Scott’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Rolling Stone, and the Washington Post, among other places. The subject, as always, is Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardYou can read the whole interview here.

Meanwhile, an excerpt:

The basic idea animating Girard’s breakout book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, is, as you write, that “[w]e live derivative lives. We envy and imitate others obsessively, unendingly, often ridiculously…We wish to conceal our metaphysical emptiness from others, in any case, and from ourselves most of all.” As Girard himself explained, “All desire is a desire for being.” I think most people who have heard of Girard are familiar with this basic, simple, and profound insight.

It pegs the true source of desire. In a panel discussion of Evolution of Desire at the American Academy of Religion earlier last fall in Denver, one panelist described it as Girard’s koan. And it rather is.

Some have taken issue with it, since “being” has so much baggage in philosophical circles, but I think it has a valuable role in taking us away from those triangles of desire – instead of searching for objects and mediators, we must take a step back and ask instead “who do I worship?”

Interviewer Scott Beauchamp

“All desire is a desire for being” is a single line mentioned in passing during the long conversation that is When These Things Begin, a book-length Q&A with Michel Treguer. Far from being overly familiar, in fact I plucked it out of the book and now it seems to be contagious – in a good way! I expect to see it on tote bags and t-shirts soon.

But something that you take pains to explain in your book is that Girard didn’t consider all mimetic desire a necessarily bad thing, right?

Of course it isn’t. Imitation is not only inevitable, it’s how we learn language, or how to tell a joke, or how to run a business, or anything else. It’s how we learn to navigate human exchanges, how to give and receive affection, how to nurture friendships.

Ultimately, imitation has another dimension altogether. Virgil speaks of it in Purgatorio, and it’s worth repeating: “And the more souls there are who love on high, the more there is to love, the more of loving, for like a mirror each returns it to the other.” That is the evolution of desire, its final destination.

Girard built on the notion of mimetic desire in his subsequent books. Violence and the Sacred, which was in many ways a more radical book than its predecessor, explores the meaning of sacrifice and the scapegoat – the complicated ways in which we assign guilt and perpetuate violence. I was struck by the refreshingly pre- or even para-political reasoning at work. It seems to elevate itself above the Manichean moral dead ends of an “us vs. them” mentality and instead implicates everyone. Where do you most sense the need for this sort of analysis in contemporary American society?

Everywhere. Increasingly our public discourse is descending into two warring tribes, who resemble each other more and more the longer they fight. Are you a Democrat or Republican? Did you vote for Trump or Clinton? Left-left, or center-left, or left behind. Independent thinkers are hectored and threatened into falling in line. The mob requires unanimity. If you are not part of it they turn against you, and you are, if you are lucky, driven from the flock. We’ve seen reputations destroyed, jobs lost, fortunes demolished, but that’s not the worst. Look at what the murderous mob tried to do to Asia Bibi in Pakistan. Now she and her family must live in under a new name at an undisclosed location in faraway Canada.

It’s serious stuff, and is dangerous. If you don’t howl with the wolves, the wolves will howl for you. As René wrote: “…we must see that there is no possible compromise between killing and being killed. … For all violence to be destroyed, it would be sufficient for all mankind to decide to abide by this rule. If all mankind offered the other cheek, no cheek would be struck. … If all men loved their enemies, there would be no more enemies. But if they drop away at the decisive moment, what is going to happen to the one person who does not drop away? For him the word of life will be changed into the word of death.”

“It is absolute fidelity to the principle defined in his own preaching that condemns Jesus. There is no other cause for his death than the love of one’s neighbour lived to the very end, with an infinitely intelligent grasp of the constraints it imposes.”

Read the rest here.

Did Marcus Aurelius feel too little – or too much? Hmmmm…

Monday, May 13th, 2019

“Keep calm and carry on.” He invented it.

Last month, on the 26th, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius celebrated his 1,898th birthday somewhere. I know, I know… you forgot to send a card to the stoic author of the Meditations. But it’s not too late to think about him. I do, regularly, when I need to keep my emotions in check, when I am frustrated  by what I cannot change, or going crazy with impatience on something that needs time to work out, or ready to abandon hope on a knotty situation.

Did he feel too little, as is generally supposed – or too much? Over at the iai website, author Massimo Pigliucci, argues the latter (and thanks, as always, to our friends at 3quarksdaily for the heads-up.) An excerpt:

‘When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that the corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of mucus.’ (VI.13)

These don’t exactly sound like the musings of someone who delights in gourmet food or drinks (Falernian was the best wine an ancient Roman could buy), not to mention someone with a romantic bent. But Marcus was deploying a technique that modern psychologists call ‘reframing,’ and a good case can be made that he wrote the above precisely in order to help himself temper his own far too emotional attachment to things that are best seen in a slightly cooler light. Do not get so overexcited about your dinner courses — he tells himself — remember that food is for nutrition, and that one doesn’t need exotic fauna to enjoy a savoury meal. When you get too cocky about being the emperor, just bring back to mind that the purple of which you are so proud is derived from crustacean blood. And try not to go overboard with this sex thing; after all, you’ve already had 14 children!

So the most famous philosopher-king in history was not attempting to suppress emotions (which the Stoics, good psychologists that they were, recognised is both impossible and undesirable), but rather to question them when they take a disruptive form. In fact, one overall goal of Stoic training was to shift out emotional spectrum, so to speak, from negative ‘passions’ like fear, anger and hatred to positive ones, like love, joy and a sense of justice.

Read the rest here.

Werner Herzog’s short talk about a long walk from Munich to Paris

Thursday, May 9th, 2019


Legendary film director Werner Herzog during an earlier visit to Stanford. (Photo: L.A. Cicero).

Filmmaker Werner Herzog came to Stanford on Tuesday, to discuss his book, Of Walking in Iceduring a Q&A with Amir Eshel, Robert Harrison, and a small invited audience at the Stanford Humanities Center. The discussion was characteristically iconoclastic. Martian colonies? “The idea is obscene,” he said. “The universe is not harmony of the spheres, but chaotic and murderous and it’s not a good place out there.”

The 20th century saw the demise of political utopias, he observed – the Communist, the Nazi dreams were dashed to pieces. The 21st century will see the “bankruptcy of technological utopias,” he continued. “It is baloney – we’ll see in this century.”

“My consolation, my anchor,” he said, is the Psalms and the Book of Job. And he reiterated, as he did on a former visit, that it was for his books, not his films, that he will be remembered.

Before we adjourned for dinner at a restaurant in Menlo Park, he took about a dozen questions about his book. Of Walking in Ice is the publication of his diaries describing his three-week journey on foot from Munich to Paris in the winter of 1974. He believed his wild trek would throw a lifeline to his dying friend and mentor, Lotte Eisner. And it worked. An excerpt:

No, not a soul, intimidating stillness. Uncannily, though, in the midst of all this, a fire is blazing, lit, in fact with petrol. It’s flickering, a ghostly fire, wind. On the orange-colored plain below I can see sheets of rain, and the annunciation of the end of the world is glowing on the horizon, glimmering there. A train races through the land and penetrates the mountain range. Its wheels are glowing. One car erupts in flames. The train stops, men try to extinguish it, but the car can no longer be extinguished. They decide to move on, to hasten to race. The train moves, it moves into fathomless space, unwavering. In the pitch-blackness of the universe the wheels are glowing, the lone car is glowing. Unimaginable stellar catastrophes take place, entire worlds collapse into a single point. Light can no longer escape, even the profoundest blackness would seem like light and the silence would seem like thunder. The universe is filled with Nothing, it is the Yawning Black Void. Systems of Milky Ways have condensed into Un-stars. Utter blissfulness is spreading, and out of utter blissfulness now springs the Absurdity. This is the situation.

And a sampling of his conversation, during an earlier visit to Stanford for the Another Look book club, is below: