Archive for June, 2020

Joseph Brodsky’s 80th birthday, and the day he arrived late for his talk at the Commonwealth Club

Monday, June 29th, 2020

On California Street, San Francisco (Photo by Grisha Freidin on

On May 24, Joseph Brodsky would have turned 80 years old. You know that. I wrote about it already, here. But someone else beat us all to it: Grisha Freidin, Stanford Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures emeritus, made his eightieth birthday post in January on his blog The Noise of Time. The month of death was momentarily confused with the month of birth. Perhaps this post will be the final word. He writes:

On the way back to his room, I asked him to pose for me and my new Pentax camera, with my favorite wide-angle lens. The son of a photographer, he appreciated the camera, played with it a little and took a few shots (none came out well). He and I loved the quirky fog city, traversed it on foot on many occasions, and had a warm spot for its jerky cable car, especially for the fact that it was totally legit to ride on its footboard. An unquestioned taboo in Russia, it gave us a frisson to avail ourselves of a harmless San Franciscan libertinism. I was able to take this shot just as a cable car was crossing behind him.

Then they realized he was half an hour late leaving for the Commonwealth Club – and that’s not counting traffic. No one arrives late at the August Commonwealth Club – not if you’re scheduled to speak. The Russian poet arrived forty minutes late. Everyone had waited. 

This year Joseph would have turned 80. I miss him as much as a quarter century ago when I first learned of his death. I had recently mailed him a pair of Soviet Navy undershirts — they were all the rage among boys in our childhood — wishing him and his wife happy sailing together. He was touched and sent me a post-card with a poem, in English. The verse was addressed to me and invoked my book about our other favorite Joseph, Osip Mandelstam (A Coat of Many Colors). The very language of the poem alluded to an underlying motif in our friendship: the love of English we shared and our life-long dedication to the cause of making it our own. Our friendship, in fact, may have begun back in the 1960s in Moscow over a discussion of Auden’s poetry. He began reciting “Memory of W. B. Yeats” in his vatic baritone, and I finished it for him in my own Muscovite high-pitched voice.

Read the whole thing here. Bonus prize: you get to see the post card with the poem Joseph Brodsky wrote to him on it.

Can birdsong heal the soul? One writer thought so.

Wednesday, June 24th, 2020

Hudson had 240 bird calls in his mind.

We know about W.H. Hudson‘s adventures in the jungles of South America – Stanford discussed them during its Another Look evening on the author’s Green Mansions. I remember the prominence of exotic birdsong in the featured novel.

But who would have guessed that birdsong would be the very thing that we would need two years later, facing a global pandemic? On my daily walks, I’ve suddenly become aware of the birds around us, and especially their chirping and trilling and singing that gives me a momentary thrill, a sense of  a wilder world coexisting with the desk-bound life I live.

“To sit and listen to any birdsong is to meditate on the wildness of birds,” Jason Wilson writes in the current issue of Britain’s StandpointAlthough Hudson was reared in Argentina, he spent a number of winters cooped up in Paddington with his wife, an opera singer and his former landlady. Paddington took a toll on his spirits, as it has for many others. What restored him? Birdsong, in part. “Hudson teaches us that bird song is a medicine that restores freedom and wildness to our minds,” Wilson writes.

An excerpt:

In one of its essays on sparrows, which for Hudson stood for wild nature in an urban wasteland, he wrote, “it is always possible to find something fresh to say of a bird of so versatile a mind”. When I first read this, I was surprised not only by that word “fresh” but by the notion that a sparrow has a “mind”. Hudson praises this humble little bird for “its greater intelligence” and “individual character”. He found that, despite their ubiquity, “the individual sparrow is little known to us”. Here was Hudson looking at a common bird as if for the first time.

“A bird of so versatile a mind…” (Photo: Thorsten Denhard)

He was especially interested in the gatherings of the birds that Londoners then called “a sparrows’ chapel”. They congregate in a tree or hedge after a rain shower or at sunset and “their chorus of ringing chirruping sounds has an exceedingly pleasant effect; for although compared with the warblers’ singing it may be a somewhat rude music, by contrast with the noise of traffic and raucous cries from human throats it is very bright and glad and even beautiful, voicing a wild, happy life”.

All passerines—the order includes more than half of the different species of birds—have a habit of concert singing at sunset and expressing that “overflowing” of life that Hudson sought. There is no need to hanker for the exotic—the common birds around you can provide the thrill of untamed wilderness. Hudson suggests that really listening is to escape your worrying mind by concentrating on the emotion you feel when a bird sings. It is to range beyond yourself and self-absorption. When he was writing about the birds he knew as a young man in Argentina, he could hear over 240 bird calls in his mind. Bird music seemed lodged in a different area of his brain. Each time he heard a bird sing, it renewed his store of primitive bird song.

He described a starling’s song thus: “the airy whistle, the various chirp, the clink-clink as of a cracked bell, the low chatter of mixed harsh and musical sounds, the kissing and finger-cracking and those long metallic notes”. He said that however familiar one may be with the starlings, “you cannot listen to one of their choirs without hearing some new sound”. I have listened carefully to the rich variety of sounds they make and it is as if the songs of ten birds come out of a single throat.

Read the whole article here.  It’s delightful. And read our previous post on starlings here. (And by the way, while looking for a photo of a sparrow, I found this rather remarkable story about one.)

What future for literature? Thinking fondly of “The Book People” in Farenheit 451

Saturday, June 20th, 2020

Oskar Werner meets with The Book People in “Farenheit 451”

I don’t go to movies often, but at some point in a few decades ago I saw François Truffaut‘s Farenheit 451, based on Ray Bradbury‘s dystopian novel of a future where books are banned and “firemen” destroy any they find.

I don’t remember much of it (lots of it seemed fairly incoherent), but the final scene was remarkable to me. And, perhaps, prophetic. We couldn’t anticipate then an era where books could be burned or banned again – now we can. The world where they are little regarded outside academia is already here. Joseph Brodsky, as always, put it well: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

Truffaut’s ending for Farenheit 451 puzzled many people when it came out in 1966. It doesn’t for many people who remember the Cold War world, when Anna Akhmatova had her friends memorize her poems, and then burn them. Memorizing allows you to become what is memorized; it becomes so internalized that it is forever a part of you.

Adam as always…

What is the answer? Adam Zagajewski told me years ago, when I asked him about a world that now longer turns to great literature, and specifically poetry, as it attempts to come to grips with the world and the self. What future for literature? “We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.”

In his introduction to Edward Snow’s translations of Rainer Maria Rilke. he elaborated:

“We have a new sorrow today: after the terrible catastrophes of the twentieth century, after the disasters that entered both our memory and imagination, we tread gingerly at the point where poetry meets society; “Don’t walk beyond this line,” as the sign on every jetliner’s wing warns us. And yet the central issue for us is probably the question of whether the mystery at the heart of poetry (and of art in general) can be kept safe against the assaults of an omnipresent talkative and soulless journalism and an equally omnipresent popular science—or pseudo-science. It also has a lot to do with the weighing of the advantages and vices of mass culture, with the influence of mass media, and with a difficult search for genuine expression inside the commercial framework that has replaced older, less vulgar traditions and institutions in our societies. In this respect, it’s true, poets have less to fear than their friends the painters, especially the successful ones, who, because of the absurd prices their works can now command, will never see their canvases in the houses of their fellow artists, in the apartments of people like themselves, only in vaults belonging to oil or television moguls who don’t even have time to look at them. Still, the stakes of the debate and its seriousness are not very different and not less important than a hundred years ago.”

There will be a future, for books and for reading them. See Ray Bradbury’s notion of it in his 1953 novel, Farenheit 451. Or watch Truffaut’s ending in the video clip below. (And let me know which book you would become… I’m curious…)


Happy Bloomsday to James Joyce! We celebrate “a book in love with its own language.”

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020

Joyce scholar and friend (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

On this day in 1904, the young 24-year-old author James Joyce had his first date with Nora Barnacle. Now the day is fixed in literary history, and celebrated the world over as Bloomsday. How many other days do set aside to celebrate a single work of literature? I can’t think of any.

Certainly Joyce himself didn’t forget the day. He couldn’t: The single day forms the setting for his Ulysses, when Leopold Bloom takes a long rambling walk around Dublin on June 16.

Carol Shloss, author of Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, calls it “A rollicking book, in love with its own language, with ever word enjoined in the effort of living through everyday hardships with equanimity.” Her latest effort was published last year in a volume edited by Kim Devlin, Finnegans Wake Chapter by Chapter.

She has traveled the world sharing her work and meeting fellow Joyceans in Dublin, Joyce’s city, and in many others – but not today, in the COVID era. Today she will be celebrating via Zoom at the University of Buffalo, which has the world’s largest collection of Joyceana. (Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, who taught at Stanford, will be reading, too.) Carol adds that “Joyce’s deep humanity draws people from disparate parts of the world together even during the pandemic that keeps us physically apart.”

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” (Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy, the last words of James Joyce’s Ulysses)


Roberto Calasso: “Society itself has become the major superstition of our times.”

Monday, June 15th, 2020

Weapon of choice: Lettera 22

“I write with this pen. I have always written with a fountain pen. Always in longhand,” says Adelphi publisher Roberto Calasso, one of the world’s leading minds.

I for one didn’t know that anyone still worked with manual typewriters: “For many years I used to copy the final text on a Lettera 22. By now I have three Lettera 22s. One is mine, one Bazlen’s, and the other one is Brodsky’s, with a Cyrillic keyboard. We were the closest friends. I treasure it.” What color is his ink? “Usually it’s black. Red for corrections. Then I hand the pages to my assistant, Federica, and she transcribes them on the computer.”

Calasso was the inaugural speaker for the René Girard Lecture Series several years ago – we wrote about that here. (I am also happy to say he is my publisher for the Italian edition of Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. Read about that here.)

Meanwhile, over at A Common Reader, my colleague and fellow blogger Dwight Green wrote about it way back then, too. He excerpted Calasso’s 2012 Paris Review interview with Lila Azam Zanganeh – lots of it is online here, but even more of it is behind a paywall. Fortunately, Dwight included excerpts from the whole, so I’m lifting his excerpts from 2014 below:

It’s strange, this desire to turn Adelphi—and yourself—into a political machine. In fact, you are far more interested in transcendence than in politics.

Not so much transcendence, but the perception of the powers in us and around us. People talk a lot about religion, but they might as well be talking about huge political parties. The most delicate point to grasp is that society itself has become the major superstition of our times. This is the pivot of the last section of L’ardore. What I mean is that the belief in society as the ultimate crucible of progress creates a vast amount of bigotry even in the so-called secular world. So in actual fact it’s difficult to find an intellectually rigorous atheist. Though I have met many secular bigots.

The notion of sacrifice lies behind almost everything in your work. The other striking theme is ebbrezza, which seems difficult to translate, as the word is polysemous in Italian.

All of my books have to do with possession. Ebbrezza, rapture, is a word connected with possession. In Greek the word is mania, madness. For Plato it was the main path to knowledge. For us it’s become the main path to the lunatic asylum. So you see that from Schreber up to La folie Baudelaire, the theme runs through my work. Even in my last book, L’ardore, of course. The Vedic people developed the most rivetingly complex theories and rituals about soma, the mysterious plant that provoked rapture.


“There is no life without surplus.”

Here is a photo of you and your late friend Brodsky. He wrote a wonderful essay on The Marriage where he talks about self-projection. He draws a parallel between mythology and television. The scales and parameters are different, but myth and TV are both ultimately about self-projection. The seat of both is one’s mind. The altar in both cases is a box. Sacrifice is the remote control.

That’s highly Brodskian. The point is, man has a surplus of energy which he has to dispose of. That surplus is simply life. There is no life without surplus. Whatever one does with that surplus, that decides the shape of a culture, of a life, of a mind. There were certain cultures that decided they had to offer it in some way. It is not clear to whom, why, and how, but that was the idea. There are other cultures, like ours, where all this is considered entirely useless and obsolete. In the secular world, sacrifice shouldn’t have any meaning at all. At the same time, you realize that it does, because the word has remained very much in use. In discussions of the economy, analysts speak all the time of sacrifices, without realizing what is inside the word. Even in psychological terms, sacrifice is a most usual word. It is considered illegal—for instance, if one celebrated a sacrificial ritual in the middle of London or New York, he would do something illegal, he would be put in jail. Sacrifice is connected to destruction—that is an important thing and the most mysterious one. Why, in order to offer something, you must destroy it. These are the themes of the last part of L’ardore. …

I think it [sacrifice] is also central for you. Why is sacrifice so important?

Maybe it’s simply because sacrifice brings us into dealings with the unknown. In the act of sacrifice, you establish a relation with something that you recognize as enigmatic and powerful. Our collective psyche seems to have lost touch with it, although science is providing countless motives for being overwhelmed by the unknown. The unknown itself is in our own mind as well—our mind is in its largest part totally unknown to us. Therefore, it is not only a relation to the exterior world, it is a relation to ourselves. We establish a connection with the unknown through the act of giving something and, paradoxically, the act of destroying something. That is what is behind sacrifice. What you offer and what you destroy, it is that surplus which is life itself. …

After The Marriage, with Ka, you moved from Western myth to Indian thought. How did this come about?

To me, very early on, the Vedic texts seemed to go beyond whatever else one may read on certain points. If you want to have an inkling about two essential words like consciousness and mind, you must look into these texts. You never find anything as enlightening anywhere else. … Everything hinges on consciousness. They brought consciousness to the center way before our scientists thirty years ago hailed it as a great new scientific theme.

Morgan Meis doesn’t give a crap about COVID. And then takes on Auden’s (arguably) most famous line.

Friday, June 12th, 2020

Morgan Meis, a contributor to The New Yorker, doesn’t want to hear what you have to say about coronavirus. (We wrote last week about his new book here.) His latest, “Assist One Another,” from Close Reading, the Slant Books blog:

“You may have noticed that there are a lot of writers writing a lot about the coronavirus. As every day passes, I want to read these pieces less and less. I don’t care about the subtleties of your daily experience under lockdown, Sensitive Writer Person. I don’t care about your analysis of how everything is going to change or about how everything is actually not really going to change, Journalist. I am indifferent as to your recommendations, Pundit. I give not a crap about your brilliant reading of Camus in light of COVID-19, Essayist. I’m in a boycott, a deep boycott. I will read nothing about coronavirus until 2030; this is my current and most solemn pledge.”

Then he breaks his word immediately by taking on the soggy thinking of Princeton’s Jan-Werner Müller, a political science prof, in a March 19 opinion The New York Times, who wrote, “But apart from sheer destruction, crises could lead to something more constructive: a commitment to mutual aid, a sense, to paraphrase W.H. Auden, that we must assist one another or die.”

That’s quite a drift from Auden’s original “we must love one another or die,” or the poet’s later correction, “we must love one another and die.”

He reconsidered…and rewrote.

“Müller, however, wasn’t especially comfortable with the word ‘love’ in that beyond-famous line by Auden, and decided that Auden’s point would be improved if he permitted himself some off-the-cuff paraphrasing and changed the word “love” to the word “assist.” Assist one another. People helping one another step down from the bus and whatnot, I suppose. A nice thing to do. I mean, I’m not sure anyone is really going to die if they don’t get some assistance with whatever task is at hand. We must assist one another getting our luggage into the overhead compartments—or die! We must pick up the pencil that someone in line at the DMV just dropped—or die! We must hold the door open at the supermarket. Or die!”

I disagree with the revision from Auden’s original, for reasons I’ve discussed here. Morgan favors the revision, “We must love one another and die.” But he has a lively riff on love I thought I’d share here:

“One loves because one loves. Love itself is the reward for love. Pain is also the reward. And suffering. And the gnawing ever-present, if generally repressed knowledge, that whatever and whoever one loves will ultimately die, be lost in the overwhelming flow of time, and that we too will die. The point of loving is to be exposed to all of this. The point of loving is to be raw to all that will never be controlled or understood or managed, but which must be what it is, and in so being, in being the utterly unaccountable reality that is so very real and true and beautiful and terrifying and insurmountable, in being in love with all of this we will somehow also be adequate to it, right there with the big swirling beautiful mess of the world, and only insofar as we allow ourselves to receive it, all of it. We must, in other words, love one another and die.”

Read the whole thing here. It’s short, and worth it.

“Eliot did not merely reflect his times, but showed a way out of them.”

Wednesday, June 10th, 2020

A lot depends on “Four Quartets”

Does T.S. Eliot still matter, and matter in a big way? Novelist Douglas Murraargues just thats: “He is the modern poet whose lines come to mind most often. The one we reach for when we wish to find sense in things. And certainly the first non-scriptural place we call when we consider the purpose or end of life.”

It’s a bold claim, but I prefer bold claims to timid ones. I would take strong exception to some of his assertions, like this one: “W.H. Auden has perhaps three-quarters of his reputation still.” Also take issue (minorly) with his point that if English-speakers know Dante today, it’s probably because of Eliot. That certainly wasn’t the case for me. Dante is rather, well, basic.

But his central contention is interesting: “The more letters emerge, the clearer we see how Eliot did more than stare into, or balance over the abyss. The extremity of his knowledge of personal and cultural breakdown meant that he learned not just how a person or culture can be shattered, but how also they might be put back together.”

It may be why he wanted, as he wrote to his brother in 1930, he wanted “to leave as little biography as possible.” A fascinating excerpt the dense crowding of references that are an Eliot trademark:

Still fundamental…

In early Eliot this already seems to be more than a quirk, or mere attempt to jolt the reader. Already it seems something that is possible, though with no attempt to explain how that might be so. A reader might take this as simply one more demonstration of the breakdown of everything, so that characters even wander in and out of time, so much have things fallen apart. It is only once Eliot meditates on the nature of time in Four Quartets that he fully finds, and expands, a Christian metaphysics that justifies this early intuition of his about the potential recoverability of time: that all time might be eternally present, and redeemable.

There is a practical consequence of this view of time, and a practical utility which follows on from it that I have often seen in readers of Eliot. First-time readers, especially of his early work, often feel battered by the number of references packed into “The Waste Land” in particular. It is possible that—like the third movement of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia—this could all be seen as a skilful waste-tip of a culture: what has been left over after everything has come apart. But Eliot does not just present the jumble, he causes the reader to dig and wish to know more. He invites—in fact shows—people how to take things from the ruins. …

While other artists showed how culture could be either shown off, strewn about or destroyed utterly, Eliot demonstrated how it could be reclaimed. He showed how the remnants could become seedlings and sprout again, in another time or place. While repeatedly proving that he had a great artist’s ability to innovate, he also performed that second function of the great artist and demonstrated how culture can be transmitted. He didn’t just show the fire; he showed his readers how things could be saved from it.

He concludes that “through the course of his poetic career Eliot did not merely reflect his times, but showed a way out of them. Indeed a way out of all time.”

Read the whole thing over at the U.K.’s Standpoint here.

Greek tragedy is a nasty, bawdy business

Thursday, June 4th, 2020

The paunchy Silenus, “part hostage, part acolyte” of Dionysus, in Rubens’s painting

Peter Paul Rubens had a minor obsession with Silenus, and plucked him from a bit player in Titian’s painting and made him a sordid star in his own right. Now Morgan Meis (we’ve written about him here and here) has just published The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality with Slant Books. The book’s genesis: Morgan, a contributor to The New Yorker, found himself living in Antwerp, Rubens’s town. He had absolutely no interest in him at all. “I didn’t even care about him enough to dislike him. My next thought was, ‘I’ll write a book about Rubens.'” From there he spirals into a meditation on Silenus (“part hostage, part acolyte” of Dionysus), Nietzsche, God, life and death.

An excerpt from Chapter 5:

Nietzsche did something very simple when he wrote The Birth of Tragedy. He asked himself a clear question, “What is the Dionysian?” and then he attempted to answer that question. His answer was that the Dionysian is a feeling of ecstatic oneness with the surrounding universe. That is why it is drunken and orgiastic. It is a losing of oneself. With Dionysus, you merge with the one pure life force. This is ecstasy. It is also a source of profound depression when you come back. You realize, after an orgiastic ecstasy, that your particular individuality does not matter. You would rather be erased in the complete cosmic overabundance. That’s what happened with Silenus. He had a taste of this drunken dissolution in the One. It made him stop caring. It made him say to King Midas that the best thing for any man is not to have been born at all. The second best thing would be to die quickly. Never living at at all means never facing the profound disappointment of being. It means never experiencing the pain of being an individual when all that matters is the whole.

Titian gave Silenus a bit part (at left, with ass)

The Greeks gave an entire art form to that thought, to that feeling of root despair that comes along with the embrace of real life. That’s the way Nietzsche saw it. Tragedy – the particular form of Greek tragedy – starts with the bleating of the goats and the wild shit going on in the Dionysian forest.

It’s all there in the satyr plays. Jaunty numbers, the satyr plays were like festival entertainment. People would dress up like goats and tell dirty stories and run around the stage making lewd jokes. These festivals go back to the beginning, the harvest, the celebrations around another season of life. The Greek tragedies go back there. The satyr plays were part of the overall entertainment. The Greeks would set up scenarios where everybody was screwing everybody else and the whole lot of them would be very drunk.

There’s no point putting a fine veneer on any of this. It was rough and it was nasty. It all came from the secret rites and the cultic behavior around Dionysus. These were harvest celebrations and they smelled of the earth. If you want to get a sense of what the satyr plays were all about the first thing you should do is take off all your clothes and then go outside into the country somewhere and roll around in the dirt screaming and crying. Then you’ll be getting into the proper mood. Drink a liter of rot-gut whisky, foul stuff, the stuff that comes in plastic containers and has the word “OI” in its brand name. Drink a liter of that while you are rolling around in the dirt and then get a few of your friends to punch you in the face while everyone chants the same phrase, whatever phrase you like, over and over again for about an hour. Then drink some more whisky and piss on yourself. Now you are ready to to fuck the bare earth. Just hump away in the dirt. Try to fuck the actual earth, the core of her.

Now you’re in the mood to understand a satyr play. Now you’re in the mood to hang around with Silenus. Indeed, if you actually go through with this whole plan he may show up. If anything could actually bring Silenus, today, out of his hiding and into the fields of Pennsylvania, or wherever you are going to do this, it would be the above-described behavior. I do believe you’d have a chance at meeting the man/demigod in the flesh, the illustrious and wretched Silenus.

Read more here.

Author Morgan Meis was footloose in Antwerp … this book is what happened.