Archive for July, 2019

Stanford Repertory Theater showcases a trio of works on the environment and social justice

Sunday, July 14th, 2019

The Stanford Repertory Theater (SRT) has launched its annual summer festival with “Voices of the Earth: From Sophocles to Rachel Carson and Beyond.” The polished reading from nearly a hundred writers, thinkers, scientists, and politicians, compiled by the Artistic Director Rush Rehm and Charles Junkerman, Stanford’s dean (emeritus) for Continuing Studies, ends tonight, alas! But other shows on this year’s theme, “The Environment and Social Justice,” will debut in the coming weeks. Go here to read about two new plays, Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids, by Vincent Terrell Durham, and Anna Considers Mars, by Ruben Grijalva. SRT also hosts a popular film series.

“Voice of the Earth” was a moving tribute to our planet. However, the first quarter-hour made me wonder if the seven performers/readers could keep the show together for 90 minutes, entirely on snippets from the 7th century B.C. to now. Yet they did!

I had some quibbles about the tendentiousness – Reagan, Bush, Nixon, and inevitably Trump were excoriated, with satisfied groans from the liberal audience. But what about Obama‘s complicated relationship with fracking? And were the Native Americans really all peace and love and Great Spirit? (One quote referred to whispering to the bears, rather than killing them. Do not try that at home.)  There’s always a danger of sentimentalizing, even kitschifying nature, extracting the roughness and toughness of our familiar earth – it’s radical foreign-ness.

I was happy to see a number of Stanford “Another Look” book club author’s featured: J.A. Baker, Joseph Conrad, W.H. Hudson. And a few personal friends and favorites – Richard Wilbur, too.

Kudos to cast members Gianna Clark, Thomas Freeland, Jake Harrison, Sequoiah Hippolyte, Brenna McCulloch, Emma Rothenberg, Gabe Wieder.

I picked out a few quotes from the evening. Here they are:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste . . . ”

– Wallace Stegner (from a letter)

Rilke, in a painting by Leonid Pasternak

Do you still remember: falling stars,
how they leapt slantwise through the sky
like horses over suddenly held-out hurdles
of our wishes—did we have so many?—
for stars, innumerable, leapt everywhere;
almost every gaze upward became
wedded to the swift hazard of their play,
and our heart felt like a single thing
beneath that vast disintegration of their brilliance—
and was whole, as if it would survive them!

Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Edward Snow

“… I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of man, to life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way. Then another time, on the American Line, when I was lookout on the crow’s nest in the dawn watch. A calm sea, that time. Only a lazy groundswell and a slow, drowsy roll of the ship. The passengers asleep and none of the crew in sight. No sound of man. Black smoke pouring from the funnels behind and beneath me. Dreaming, not keeping lookout, feeling alone, and above, and apart, watching the dawn creep like a painted dream over the sky and sea which slept together. Then the moment of ecstatic freedom came. The peace, the end of the quest, the last harbor, the joy of belonging to a fulfillment beyond men’s lousy, pitiful, greedy fears and hopes and dreams! And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on a beach, I have had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again.”

Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey Into Night

“No proven Communist should hold a position at Stanford.” Yet Victor Arnautoff did, and scored a victory for academic freedom.

Wednesday, July 10th, 2019

Much has been written about the proposed destruction of the remarkable murals at San Francisco’s George Washington High School, painted by a prominent student of Diego Rivera in the 1930s. The Book Haven doesn’t need to recap the controversy. You can look here and here, if you need help. Or just google.

But the Stanford side of the story has been generally overlooked: Victor Mikhail Arnautoff was an art professor here for almost a quarter of a century, from 1938 until his retirement in 1962. Stanford’s president, Wallace Sterling, had announced “no proven Communist should hold a position at Stanford.” And yet he did. He was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and investigated by Stanford advisory boards. And the outcome of his Stanford struggle redefined academic freedom.

Arnautoff’s legacy in the Bay Area area is notable: He made several murals at the Palo Alto Medical Clinic in 1932. (You can see some of his local artwork in this Art and Architecture article here.) One of the murals, visible at 300 Homer Avenue, caused traffic problems. “The Exam,” with a half-nude woman, was apparently outré at the time. He made more buon fresco works at Coit Tower, and then, at last, his largest project for the George Washington High School, murals that challenged the received wisdom about American history, though his perspective on slavery and genocide is generally accepted  today. Why has the San Francisco School Board unanimously voted to tear down this legacy? Apparently, students are upset by them, and students of color feel unwelcome in their own school. Apparently, they “trigger” some of the students.

Here’s why San Francisco School Board should be sacked, every single one of them: They have failed their students. They district has failed to “educate” them, in a way that should be part of any sound humanities curriculum.The cliché is that the humanities are to “teach you how to think” … well, so does mathematics. What is unique to the humanities is that it teaches you how to feel. Facing complicated emotions and objectionable ideas is part of it. Learning to empathize with others is part of what history and great literature teaches – especially literature which, in the end, is an education of the heart.

In short, kids can learn to shape their emotions – an important life skill. However, the operating paradigm here seems to be  that the students’ feelings are objective and immutable, and that art, along with the effort and skill and time of the artist, must give way before them.

In the Russian subway stations, students put flowers at the feet of the statue of Pushkin. Suppose the kids, instead of complaining to their teachers, honored Arnautoff’s fallen Native Americans by placing flowers beneath the mural? Imagine if, instead of crying, they left letters and messages of solidarity before the portrayed slaves?  The whole point of education, or one of its points, is that you can change the way you look at things. It takes a little discipline and fortitude at first, but you eventually get the hang of it.

Arnautoff also had troubles before with the political correctness brigade, back when it was on the other side of the political fence.

When he was called before HUAC in 1956, he refused to answer questions about his membership in the Communist Party and other organizations. He declined to answer questions about a political cartoon he had made. Here’s what he wrote to his fellow citizens:

“The Exam” in P.A.

“The Un-American Sub-Committee knew very well that I had not committed any crime. After all, an artist has as much right to make a political cartoon as any other citizen has to express a political opinion or viewpoint….

“Members of the Un-American Committee said I am a most dangerous man for the security of the United States [an accurate quotation]….

“Do they consider an artist’s colors, brushes, crayons and pencils as murderous tools? If they do, it is a new low in right-wing thinking, and it is time for the American people—and especially for American artists—to be concerned with a threat that affects everyone as fully as it does me. I value my freedoms, and I intend to defend my rights as a citizen and as an artist, and to express my belief in American principles in the future as I have in the past.

Stanford and its alumni were alarmed about having a “Fifth-Amendment Communist” in their ranks. Administrators worried that they had no means to “get rid of a known Communist who merely remained silent when asked whether he were a Communist … if a man won’t talk, we are stuck with him.” The Advisory Board met – not for the first time – to discuss the Arnautoff case.

Three years earlier, Arnautoff had already been a subject of discussion. Sterling had appointed a special university committee to clarify “what we mean by academic freedom and academic responsibility” and to address “the problem posed by the possibility of investigation by a government committee.” The special committee was undecided on “whether membership in the Communist Party should be regarded alone as sufficient basis for the removal of a faculty member” and “the freedom and responsibilities of the faculty member with regard to his activities of a nonprofessional character.” They decided to kick that can down the road. And here they were.

The upshot: the board found no fault with his teaching or competence – all agreed that he was a distinguished artist and able teacher. The board “concluded that, while there was reason to question Professor Arnautoff’s judgment about political matters, there was no evidence that he had permitted his political beliefs to affect his teaching of art at Stanford.”

“There is no such evidence in the case of Professor Arnautoff, although there is no question but what he is intensely interested in Russia and its problems. This, however, is not illegal. Nor are views which are unorthodox or unpopular.

“The right of free speech and free thought is a very important part of a strong democracy; it is easy to lose this privilege if we do not defend the right of people to hold views which differ radically from those held by most of us. And I am sure that we can leave up to the government the job which is properly theirs of identifying and prosecuting those whose actions threaten the security of the nation.”

And so it redefined academic freedom here, and likely farther afield as well.

Read the whole thing here, in a Stanford Sandstone & Tile article by Robert W. Cherny, who also wrote an Art & Architecture article about the Washington murals here.

Joy Harjo the first Native American poet laureate? Not so fast. On the Choctaw legacy of William Jay Smith.

Saturday, July 6th, 2019

Reading “Cried the Fox”

A few months ago, Joy Harjo was named the first Native American U.S. poet laureate, and there was universal rejoicing in the land. According to the press release: “Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden appointed Joy Harjo as the 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress on June 19, 2019. Joy Harjo is the first Native American poet to serve in the position—she is an enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation.”

But wait! Isn’t the Library of Congress overlooking someone rather important? From 1968-70, the position was held by William Jay Smith, a poet who was well known, but he died in his 90s, perhaps outliving his renown (insofar as poets every, really, have renown). On the other hand, his death is not ancient history – he died fairly recently, in 2015 (we wrote about it here; conscientious Book Haven readers will also remember an earlier post here.) He was in the news; his obituary was even in the New York Times, not a given for poets. He was so well known that Princess Grace of Monaco invited him to represent the United States at a Monaco poetry celebration.

His Choctaw heritage was hardly a secret – he was proud of it, and mentioned it at readings. He also wrote about it in perhaps his best-known book, The Cherokee Lotterywhich recounts the 1828 “Trail of Tears,” which forcibly relocated his ancestors, along with a total of 18,000 Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Creeks as well, to Oklahoma from their native northern Georgia, where gold had been discovered and greed unleashed.

I remember him reading from this sequence of poems at the West Chester poetry conference, some years ago. That was the same conference where I met Richard Wilbur and his wife Charlee. The conjunction was not a coincidence, in fact the two poets were close friends, and lived near each other in Cummington, Massachusetts. So near that they picked up their Sunday New York Times editions from the same village shop. In fact, they had a tradition – whoever picked up their newspaper first would write scurrilous doggerel on the other’s. It was a tradition that continued for years.

He also wrote the matchless poem “Note on the Vanity Dresser” above. It’s been called the most perfect symbolist poem in the English language. Only eight lines, and it’s endless.

So given this history, why the omission? Is it because, as some have suggested when I floated the subject on Twitter, they hoped to make a politically correct splash, and make it sound like poetry has crashed some sort of intersectional sound barrier? Or what? He is included in the Library of Congress’ own record of the laureate history, Poetry’s Catbird Seat: The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987. Weirdly, the book, which should be a public record, is not searchable on Google Books. We include the relevant pages below.

All congratulations to Joy Harjo – but let’s set the record straight.

Postscript:  Since posting, I’ve learned that others have noticed this omission as well – Kay Day wrote about it here. Also, A.M. Juster raised the issue almost immediately on Twitter and directly with the Library of Congress. He is working on an article about it, forthcoming later this summer with Los Angeles Review of Books.

Post-postscript from Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and former California Poet Laureate: “It does Joy Harjo no dishonor to acknowledge that one of her predecessors, William Jay Smith, had some Choctaw ancestry. Smith was proud of his background at a time – the 1930s – when the association gained him no advantage, especially in the racist milieu of his childhood. He did considerable genealogical research to establish a ancestry many generations back. It was a remote connection, though Smith plausibly felt it had manifested itself in his physical appearance, but it hardly seems unlikely. Many Americans have mixed and complicated ancestry, which should rightly be a source of pride.” See combox below. Incidentally, Dana describes himself as “100% non-Anglo” – Sicilian on his father’s side, and mixed Mexican and Native American ancestry on his mother’s side. So he knows a thing or two about “complicated ancestry.”

Chris Fleming on the tyranny of trendy ideas

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

A few months ago Chris Fleming expounded on “cool” here. Now the Western Sydney University professor has an article in the current Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Tyranny of Trendy Ideas.” Chris, a former fellow beneath our palms, cites Stanford’s own “rich history of chasing trendy, meaningless causes.” Who can forget, he asked, our fling with MOOCs, the brief rise of the micro-Master’s degree, or farther afield, the University of Texas at Austin’s infamous “Project 2021”? “The susceptibility to fashionableness is revealed by a single oft-heard campus word: innovation.’ It’s a word we need to at least be wary of; it may one day be proved that even uttering it shuts down those parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and rational deliberation.”

A few excerpts:

Those of us who work in higher education consider ourselves above anything as ostensibly “cheap” and trivial as the whims of fashion. Our labor, including our research and contributions to university governance, is a serious endeavor marked by painfully obvious similarities to, say, those solemn 13th-century monks grinding out transcriptions of Aristotle’s Poetics at the University of Paris. … Behold our integrity to those who doubt it: We hath Latin mottos, Greek fraternities, and convocations that resembleth wizard conventions. (Not that we aren’t amenable to change: The maces carried by presidents and chancellors, for instance, are now purely symbolic; we have opted for other, more effective weapons, like restructures.) But by and large, we believe ourselves to be beyond the ephemeral. As every freshman course in “critical thinking” reminds us, the dull, unhappy burden of the rational mind is to follow the evidence where it leads, not the bandwagon.

And yet not. While we do understand this as an ideal, most of us know — at least during broken sleep or after the fourth beer — that ideals are unreliable witnesses. In fact, it may well be the university’s self-serious insistence on being above the whims of fashion that makes it so vulnerable to it. Like anti-vaxxers, we become entirely more susceptible to something precisely because we think we’re not.


Fleming demonstrates fashion…

Your choice of theorist was to be German, French, or Italian, not Spanish, Iranian, or Turkish. (Spanish, Turkish, or Iranian novels were great, though. If you wanted to stay with English you needed to look at either Dallas, soft porn, or the oeuvre of Roger Hargreaves.) You should have been familiar enough in the language of your favored theorists to be able to say “world-historical import,” “discursive formation,” and “being-toward-death,” but incapable of “My name is Simone,” “I’d like a cheese sandwich,” or “Which way to the Louvre?”

But to say that “fashion” influences us might seem to offer us little — even if true, it’s not particularly helpful. Maybe we can be clearer by saying that academics need to balance two opposing imperatives: the implicit demand to follow a herd and the requirement to appear trailblazing. Like all moderns, we disdain slavish imitation at the same time as desiring the security of the crowd. Fashion exists, if nothing else, to allow for precisely that possibility; it permits us to speak out of both sides of that consummately modern mouth.

In this context, one version of a good article — one that has a good chance of getting published — is one that implicitly spouts an orthodoxy at the same time as screaming about something minor. You agree, for instance, with everything Foucault says, except for the fact that he continually ignores Brazil, or the periodic table, or your supervisor’s criminally unsung trilogy. It’s a sure-fire formula in which much of the paper is able to write itself. All disciplines are, to a greater or lesser extent, faddish, even if any particular fad is later shown to be inadequate or myopic, or perhaps — as my undergraduate students might put it — just really lame.


This is not to say that the way fashion operates within the university is identical to any form outside of it. Unlike the fickle — and, from the outside, reassuringly absurd — shifts seen on the catwalk, fashion inside the university appeals to more than just a change in aesthetic allegiance — it invariably invokes images of rationality and progress. (Of course, the mere fact that rationality and progress are invoked doesn’t mean they manifest themselves any more than invoking a dead aunt will result in her attending Thanksgiving.)

Read the whole thing here.