Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers”: a story for the era of doxxing, “outing,” and our right to be left alone – Zoom discussion on Monday, August 24.

Monday, August 10th, 2020
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James: “the canals assume to the eye the importance of a stage…”

It’s two weeks to our special Zoom discussion of Henry James‘s short 1888 classic, The Aspern Papers. The Another Look book club will be hosting the event, in partnership with Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute, on Monday, August 24, 3-4:30 p.m. (Register for the event here.) If you haven’t read the short novel, you should – you really should. Those of you who associate Henry James with sentences that go on relentlessly for pages will be pleasantly surprised by this tight, yet psychologically insightful work.

The Aspern Papers was inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s correspondence with Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. (Shelley’s novel was featured in a January 2017 Another Look event.) Clairmont cherished the letters until her death. Of course, James transposes that into fiction – but it’s a lively and insightful read, and those daunted by James’s three-page-long sentences needn’t be afraid. The plot keeps a good pace in this psychologically insightful work, while treating us to the wonder that is Venice.

Himself

The story: an elderly invalid who once was the beloved of a renowned American poet, Jeffrey Aspern, lives in seclusion with her spinster niece in a Venetian palazzo. The unnamed narrator goes through elaborate machinations to gain access to her private papers and literary relics from the long-ago romance.

The story has new relevance for us today. “What James delivered, in 1888, was not some dusty antiquarian fable but a warning call against the cult of celebrity that was already on the rise, and against the modern insistence that artists and writers can – or should – be prized out of their work like cockles from a shell, for public consumption,” critic Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker. In the era of doxxing and “outing,” the story explores our right to be left alone, and our right to have secrets. At the heart of the book is the rapacious desire of one man to reach through time to possess another.

Tobias Wolff and Robert Pogue Harrison will lead the discussion. Acclaimed author Robert Harrison, professor of French and Italian, writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. Wolff, a Stanford professor emeritus of English, is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts.

Elena Danielson, director emerita of the Hoover Library & Archives, will offer a few remarks as the author of The Ethical Archivist. And yours truly will have a few words to say on the occasion, too, as the author of the biography, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

Again, register here. We’d love to see you!

“Poets form each other”: Hollis Robbins on the African-American sonnet

Friday, August 7th, 2020
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Sonnet fan Robbins.

We’ve written about Hollis Robbins before, here and here, but only in her connection with the late great Prof. Richard Macksey of Johns Hopkins University, who died last year. Now we have a chance to blow our ever-so-tiny horn about her new book, Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition, published this summer with the University of Georgia Press. 

Robbins, the Dean of Arts and Humanities at Sonoma State University, writes in her introduction about this intriguing subject:

Ralph Ellison argues, “while one can do nothing about choosing one’s relatives, one can, as an artist, choose one’s ‘ancestors.’ African American sonnet writers have clearly seen in the sonnet tradition a literary past that speaks to the black experience, a past involving shackles, desire, protest, memorial, the possibility of play and subversion, and a long genealogy of practitioners… Few scholars ask why white poets write in the sonnet form; the answer comes best from sonnet-writers themselves: the sonnet is the valued coin; the sonnet is permanence; the dead leaves of the past are ever present to be overwritten, signified upon, contended with.

She notes that Harold Bloom, scholar of influence, claims that every poem “is a misinterpretation of a parent poem.” “Poets form each other, which means, in practical terms, that strong young poets must ‘wrestle’ with their poetic forebears in order to ‘clear imaginative space’ for fresh new poetry.”

Robert Hayden knew a thing or two about sonnets.

Here’s one example from the Jamaican poet Edward Baugh. He shares an ancestor with James Baldwin. Remember Shakespeare’s sonnet 127?

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.

Here’s Baugh’s rejoinder, in his 1965 poem, “There’s a Brown Girl in the Ring”:

When I speak of this woman I do not mean
To indicate the Muse or abstract queen
But to record the brown fact of her being,
The undiluted blackness of her hair
And that I lightly kissed her knee
And how her feet were shy before my stare.
It may be that I praise her memory here
Because she is indeed but allegory
Of meanings greater than herself or me
Of which I am instinctively aware;
But may such meanings never be a care
For that fine head, and may my glory be
That blood and brain responded well to slim
Shy feet and smoothest knees and most black hair.

Another indispensible sonneteer and his poem: Robert Hayden’s sonnet “Frederick Douglass,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1947:

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to our children,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered—oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the needful, beautiful thing.

Wynton Marsalis on race: “the solution can only be found outside of the game itself”

Monday, August 3rd, 2020
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Portrait of the artist, from the artist. (Photo courtesy Wynton Marsalis)

Jazz virtuoso Wynton Marsalis, a trumpeter, composer, teacher, and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, discusses racial injustice in the current July/August issue of Stanford Live. An excerpt from his essay, “All Rise: Wynton Marsalis’s Response to Racial Injustice”:

Just yesterday, I was walking with my 11-year-old daughter, and she asked me, “Did you see the video of the man in Minneapolis?” “Yes,” I said. I always talk to her about history and slavery and all kinds of stuff that she is not interested in—and probably overdo it for that reason.

She asked, “Why did the man just kneel on him and kill him like that in front of everybody?” Instead of answering, I asked her a question back. “If I went out of my way to squash something that was harmless to me, and stomped on it repeatedly and deliberately to make sure I had killed every drop of life in it, and then looked defiantly at you, as if triumphant, why would I do that?”

She said, “You hate bugs.” I laughed and said, “Let’s say it’s not necessarily a bug, just whatever I go out of my way to utterly destroy. Why would I?” She said, “Because you can.” “Yes,” and I further asked, “Why else?”

“Because you want to.” And then I said, “Yes, but can you think of another more basic reason?” She thought for a while and just couldn’t come up with it. I kept it going, saying and aggravating her, “It’s one of the most important ones.”

After a few minutes, she rolled her eyes and said, “Just tell me.” I debated with myself about telling her this last reason since it’s almost always left out of the national discussions when these types of repeated crimes by our peace officers are committed, but I figured, it’s never too early to consider the obvious. So I said, “Because he enjoyed it. For him, and for many others, that type of thing is fun. Like them good ole boys in Georgia chasing that brother through the neighborhood to defend themselves.” It’s no more complex than that.

She said, “Hmmmmm…,” unconvinced. And I said, “This type of fun is much older even than America itself.” I considered how different her understanding is of these things, if only just because of time, place, and experience.

During my childhood, raw racism and pure absolute ignorance was just a fact, but so was enlightened protest and determined resistance. It was the times, the 1960s going into the 1970s. With our Afros and the consciousness music of James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder, younger brothers were determined not to put up with any bullshit at all, unlike our ancestors, who we felt had willfully endured and accepted disrespect. And it was so easy to believe they were acquiescent in their own degradation because we didn’t know anything about the deep, deep sorrow and pains of their lives because they bore it all in silence and disquieting shame. Now, those old folks are long gone, and each passing day reveals the naïveté of our underestimation of the power and stubbornness of our opponent. Now, our ancestors loom much larger albeit as shadowy premonitions in the background of a blinding mirror that is exposing us all, Black and white.

He continues: “The whole construct of blackness and whiteness as identity is fake anyway. It is a labyrinth of bullshit designed to keep you lost and running around and around in search of a solution that can only be found outside of the game itself. Our form of democracy affords us the opportunity to mine a collective intelligence, a collective creativity, and a collective human heritage. But the game keeps us focused on beating people we should be helping. And the more helpless the target, the more vicious the beating. Like I was trying to explain to my daughter, something just feels good about abusing another person when you feel bad about yourself.”

Read the whole thing here.

Warsaw poet Julia Hartwig: “You never know when you need to pull out your pen and stop being silent.”

Saturday, August 1st, 2020
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“If humanistic values ​​cease to be important to us, the future of the world is fragile.” Photo: Mariusz Kubik/Wikipedia

Czesław Miłosz called her “the grande dame of Polish poetry.” Celebrated journalist Ryszard Kapusciński called her “one of the foremost poets of the twentieth century.” Yet Julia Hartwig (1921-2017) is too little known in the United States, where she spent some years. (I’ve written about her before, here and here and here and more.)

It’s three years since she died. New York librarian and salonnière extraordinaire Izabela Barry remembers her by publishing a 2006 interview she did with the poet, which was published in Polish here. A few excerpts in English below:

Is it easier for a poet to translate other poets?

I am deeply convinced that poetry should not be translated by anyone except poets. This is a task for poets because only a poet can penetrate into the structure of a poem, enter its atmosphere, read the second intentions of the poem. The poet has richer access to the poem. I believe that the most successful translations are made by poets. Therefore, I boldly started translating poems, because I believed that I have a greater right to do so, and at the same time I stick to the principle of translating only poets that I like or love.  I’ve managed to continue this way until today, with the possible exception of when we were preparing an anthology of American poetry with my husband, Artur Międzyrzecki. That book was the result of several years of work and is almost entirely translated by us. In that case, it was necessary to translate many poets.

I have the impression that in your poetry you distance yourself from the political situation, you do not touch current events. It seems that since martial law, you have abandoned this sphere in favor of writing about events not directly related to our political lives.

Her 2008 book in English.

Not necessarily. Recently, a few of my poems have appeared in which I “deal with” great poets who turned out to be anti-Semites. Besides, I had some issues with that and called Miłosz, who said: “We need to expand the space of poetry.” These poems are included in my last volume of poetry, which is about great American and English poets who are not very famous in this respect. It amazes me, because I have always thought that great minds should be great in every way. Of course, I am very interested in the situation in Poland, I never run away from it. I maniacally read daily newspapers and know perfectly well what I don’t like, and mostly I don’t like what is happening at the moment. Poetry, on the other hand, is never a direct response to topicality. If I take part in the internal discourse that bothers the nation, I am looking for something that is really deep and important. And I hope that what is happening in Poland at the moment is temporary. But, of course, I can be wrong. You never know when you need to pull out your pen and stop being silent.

In your memoirs, you write a lot about Zbigniew Herbert, about your friendship with him. You probably noticed that there are many larger and small political groups in Poland that try to appropriate Herbert and make his work a banner for their own activities, which Herbert – it seems to me – would not necessarily have supported or accepted.

He was our great friend. We knew him back when he was a very charming young man. He was a frequent guest in our home. When we were in America, the Herberts had just come back and they lived in our house. There was even a very funny situation when television reporters came to interview Herbert, and he was talking with them in our apartment, sitting at our table, and our friends were surprised to recognize this interior. So you can see that our relationship was really close.

As for his views, there has been a great deal of misunderstanding, because Herbert was surrounded by people who should not have had access to him in difficult times. This happened when he was weak and sick, at a time when he tried to cut himself off from his former friends, declaring that they had political views that were too leftist. It was very sad for all of us. We never anticipated such a situation. In this, Herbert’s wife, Katarzyna Herbert, who brought a lot of order to these matters, was of great help. She gave an extensive interview to Jacek Żakowski in Gazeta Wyborcza and assessed the condition of Herbert and the people around him very fairly. She was very upset that his friends had been hurt by being in such a painful situation.

With Szymborska in 2011, Kraków

In an essay about Herbert, I wrote that the most terrible thing is that the “directives” in his poetry began to sicken me. It’s terrible to say that, because “The Message of Mr. Cogito” is a very beautiful poem, but I can’t really read it anymore, mainly because it is used so much by the right, and in the most extreme, very unpleasant way. I do not think that Herbert would be pleased that the contents of his poems were placed under every banner. This is the danger that awaits the poet: trivialization. This poem is difficult to listen to, because everyone recites it and everyone refers to it. Poetry is lost and the poet himself is lost. After all, poetry is an absolute reflection of personality, and certain interpretations work to its detriment.

There are many moments in your American poems that touch me personally as an immigrant. Yet you have never had the status of a full immigrant, someone who does not intend to return to his or her homeland.

Four years of absence from the country is a particular experience, naturally limited in some ways, and incomparable compared with the feeling of a man who does not intend or cannot return home. We left because of a difficult situation, but when our friends pressed us to come back, we did immediately and were very happy to do so. Our best work was created after we returned from America, because it took on new horizons, it became more rounded. America entered our consciousness, but also Poland through it.

My own 2011 interview with her in “World Literature Today”

I regret that my volume American Poems (2002) is relatively unknown. I don’t know why this is, because my other books have been much discussed, and this one has been left a bit aside. Perhaps I’m wrong, because during one of my last meetings at the PEN Club I read a few poems from it and the listeners bought out the stock immediately. American Poems amused them, because there is a lot of humor, light, greenery, the city, and at the same time a some healthy nostalgia. It describes people, Americans, who interested me immensely. This collection expresses all my affection for America.

A volume of your poems translated into English is being prepared here in America…

Yes, Bogdana and John Carpenter, who are translators, have already sent me the texts of a new book that will appear here, I hope. I have looked through the whole thing and I think that they are very good translations. Of course, the poet will always find something small, and the Carpenters were grateful to me for my comments. I believe that this is a great opportunity if the poet has the opportunity to check the language of the translation. Miłosz always co-translated his poetry, he had a very good eye and hearing, he always claimed that he was happy to be able to participate in the translation process. Virtually all of his poems published in English are translated under his supervision. Sometimes you can destroy a poem in translation and we won’t even know it.

And can poetry – I ask naively – save the world?

This is not a naive question. Miłosz talked about it in [his 1945 volume] Ocalenie. I, too, have tried to ask myself what poetry is worth if it cannot save anything. But … we don’t know whether or not it can. Joseph Brodsky believed that it could. He was so convinced that I could only admire his faith. After all, he saw, perhaps even more deeply than others, what was happening and what the modern world is like. He was not a naive man, he closely watched the present day, yet he believed that poetry had a great task ahead of it. He even said such things that if a nation does not read poetry, it is in danger of totalitarianism. These are very harsh words, and vague of course, but you’d have to dig into what it really means. And it means that if humanistic values ​​cease to be important to us, the future of the world is fragile.

Read the whole thing in Polish here.

Aeschylus’s “The Persians” flipped expectations – but not everyone found it an eye-opening show.

Monday, July 27th, 2020
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As Athens-based poet A.E. Stallings noted, last weekend’s production of Aeschylus‘s The Persians at Epidaurus flipped ancient expectations: the cast did not wear masks, but the audience did. We wrote about the production here, and it should be available online soon. Highly recommended, But please note: not everyone found it an eye-opening performance. See above.

Below, Alicia Stallings’s looking fashionable with mask. Both photos by her husband, the eminent Greek journalist John Psaropoulos.

First time ever on July 25: Aeschylus’s “The Persians” will be livestreamed from Epidaurus’ ancient theater! Be there!

Friday, July 24th, 2020
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For the first time ever, an classic ancient Greek drama will be live-streamed from the ancient theater of Epidaurus. On Saturday, July 25, Aeschylus’ The Persians will be performed by actors of the Greek National Theater.

The play is Aeschylus’s The Persians, circa 472 B.C., about the Persian-Greek war. The playwright himself had participated in the crucial battle it describes, so he knew what he was talking about. It is not only the oldest surviving Greek play, but Aeschylus’s most powerful antiwar statement, praising the freedom of the individual and the wisdom of democratic norms.

Don’t speak Greek? Relax. The 90-minute performance will have English subtitles. The livestream will take place here. The livestream begins at 10 a.m., and the performance at 11 a.m., California time (again, go here for the countdown).

The “storyline,” such as it is, consists of one long lament about the defeat of Xerxes and the Persians at the hands of the Greeks in the Battle of Salamis (480 BC). You might say that this is the Greeks, rubbing it in. They did the same thing with Euripides’s The Trojan Women.

So here’s what happens: the play takes place in Susa, one of the capitals of the Persian Empire. Xerxes’s mother, Atossa, waits for the news of the expedition against the Greeks.  She laments in what is may be he first dream sequence in the Western theater history.  A messenger arrives, and describes the Persians’ defeat at the Battle of Salamis. 

Atossa beckons the spirit of her late husband, the Persian leader Darius. He appears, and condemns his son’s hubris, and prophesies another defeat. The play ends with the king leading engaging the chorus in a long lament about Persia’s defeat. He particularly notes the folly of building pontoon bridges over the Hellespont strait to attack. Of course, the Persians destroyed the bridges, which provided access for retreat. It was a disaster. Xerxes beheaded those who built the bridges, and punished the strait, too, by throwing fetters into it, having his soldiers shout at it, branding it with red-hot irons, and giving it three hundred lashes. (Herodotus noted it was a “highly presumptuous way to address the Hellespont,” but totally in character for Xerxes.)

The ancient theater at Epidaurus is known for its excellent acoustics. It normally seats 14,000, in non-COVID times.

The drama will be live-streamed at 9 p.m. Athens time (GMT +2) through livefromepidaurus.gr . It will also be available at the websites of the National Theatre of Greece, the Athens and Epidaurus Festival and the Ministry of Culture and Sports, as well as the National Theatre of Greece’s YouTube channel.

Morgan Meis’s “The Drunken Silenus” and the way the mind works – and sometimes doesn’t

Monday, July 20th, 2020
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To understand Silenus, Rubens first had to make a moral of him.

A review of Morgan Meis‘s The Drunken Silenus appeared in Art in America, and it’s so much fun – lively and insulting and laudatory at once (in the spirit of the book) – that I thought it would be a great way to wind up a very long Monday. Here’s how Jackson Arn’s piece ends, by comparing Morgan Meis with Nietzsche: 

If there’s a progenitor for this kind of writing, it’s Nietzsche. This is a strange thing to point out, since Meis spends much of The Drunken Silenus insulting Nietzsche. He says The Birth of Tragedy was the only totally worthwhile book Nietzsche ever wrote. He says Nietzsche was full of shit. Mostly, he says Nietzsche was crazy. He calls Nietzsche crazy, or insane, or stark-raving mad at least a dozen times in the book, until it becomes a kind of gangster nickname, like Fat Tony or One-Ball Riley, at once a put-down and a term of endearment.

Name-calling, of course, was a Nietzsche trademark, and Meis is never more Nietzschean than when he’s slinging mud at a dead man. He has Nietzsche’s skepticism of progress, on both a historical and an expository level, as well as Nietzsche’s gift for making arguments in brief, brilliant flashes. His ideal form is the compressed, Nietzschean aphorism. Some of these will change your perception of Rubens so utterly that they are likely to seem perfectly obvious in hindsight, like Meis’s observation that in order to understand Silenus, Rubens first had to make a mortal out of him. Other aphorisms work the opposite way, flirting with obviousness from the outset—for instance, “A terrible father can produce a great son or daughter. A great father will produce terrible offspring just as often as not.” To borrow from the comedian John Mulaney, someone else who tells stories in spirals, “Well . . . yeah, that’s how all of life works.”

He specialized in name-calling.

Loose, strange, essayistic books live or die on a single question: are their various parts connected because they actually have something to say to each other, or because the author has forced them together? The clutter of ideas and subjects doesn’t necessarily have to cohere into a thesis, but at some point it should gain enough momentum to turn of its own accord, suggesting something more than what the author uses it to show. Meis achieves this tricky feat, and does so in large part because his book is really about, per Mulaney, how all of life works.

How humiliating, to write that last sentence—how pretentious, how arrogant! I can’t even imagine writing a whole book like The Drunken Silenus, but I’m glad Meis did. He’s willing to risk redundancy and pretentiousness, because he knows he has something worth risking them for. For all his casual displays of brilliance, his goal isn’t to introduce readers to stunning new ideas but to remind them of a depressing old idea: existence is long, painful, and pointless, and while art can do a lot to lessen the load, it can’t carry all of it. An unsexy point, which he makes very sexily.

Read the whole thing here. It’s fun.

René Girard: “The economic, biological, or racial criterion that is responsible for discrimination will never be found, because it’s actually spiritual.”

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
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An excerpt from my new volume for my Book Haven readers:  Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, just out with Bloomsbury. I have so many favorite bits in the book, the first-ever collection of his media interviews. What to choose?

I can do no better than give you a potpourri of his thought – though the whole volume is a potpourri, really – from the chapter called, “Revelation Is Dangerous. It’s the Spiritual Equivalent of Nuclear Power.”

The interviewer is French journalist Michel Treguer, whose wide-ranging Q&As with the French thinker are lively and punchy and capture René in conversation. As Treguer explains in the introduction: “I got into some lively arguments with him over the airwaves of France Culture. But there was something very strange about even these debates—the tit-for-tat and the aggressive verbal sparring that would have led any other thinker to sever ties with me once and for all left René Girard as serenely benevolent, interested, curious, amicable, and affectionate as ever. Not at all like the others, that one.”

Here goes:

Marx

MT: We’ve already spoken a little about this, there are no doubt similarities in form if not in content between Marxist and Christian eschatology: the idea of a paradise to come.

RG: Unlike Nazism, Marxism wants of course to save victims, but it thinks that the process that makes victims is fundamentally economic. Marxism says: “Let’s give up the consolations of religion, let’s get down to serious business, let’s talk about caloric intake and standards of living, and so on.”

He missed the point.

Once the Soviet state is created, the Marxists see first of all that the wealth is drying up and then that economic equality doesn’t stop the various kinds of discrimination, which are much more deeply ingrained. Then, because they’re utopians, they say: “There are traitors who are keeping the system from functioning properly”; and they look for scapegoats. In other words,
the principle of discrimination is stronger than economics. It’s not enough to put people on the same social level because they’ll always find new ways of excluding one another. In the final analysis, the economic, biological, or racial criterion that is responsible for discrimination will never be found, because it’s actually spiritual. Denying the spiritual dimension of Evil is as
wrong as denying the spiritual dimension of Good.

Sartre (and Virginia Woolf)

RG: What makes Sartre seem a little ridiculous today, though it’s also touching and even worthy of admiration, is his desire to have a philosophical “system.” Like Descartes. I myself have been accused of building a system, but it isn’t true. I’m not just saying that to seem up-to-date, I’m too old for that sort of thing.

She shows the agonizing struggle.

I find the analyses of the other’s role in what Sartre calls “the project” – the café waiter in Being and Nothingness—the analyses of bad faith, and of coquetry, to be marvelous. It’s all very close to mimetic desire. He even invented a metaphysical category that he calls “for the other,” “for others.”

But, strangely, for him, desire belongs solely to the category of the “poursoi,” “for itself.” He doesn’t see that the subject is torn between the Self and the Other. And yet he admires Virginia Woolf, who shows this agonizing struggle in admirable fashion, notably in The Waves. This is another example of the superiority of the novel over philosophy. Deep down, Sartre
was very comfortably petit bourgeois, a lover of tourism, and too even-keeled to become a true genius.

The Structuralists

RG: Modern structuralism is floating in a void because it doesn’t have a reality principle. It’s a kind of idealism of culture. You’re not supposed to speak of things, but of “referents”: the real is conceived in linguistic terms, instead of
bringing language back down to reality, as was done back when the real was real. This way of thinking knows nothing but difference. It cannot comprehend that the same, the insistently identical, correspond to something real.

From the structuralist point of view, there is no difference between a class of real objects and a class of monstrous objects, which in my opinion are a trace left by the disorder of mimetic crisis, without which the genesis of myth cannot occur. Structuralism studies sequences with real women and real jaguars, on the one hand, and, on the other, sequences with jaguar-women, and it puts them all on the same level.

Durkheim, at least, was able to say: “How curious, there are real differences in mythical thinking – human intelligence is beginning to function – but there are also false categories. Primitive thought is sometimes based on divisions that are similar to our own, and sometimes on totally meaningless categories.” Structuralism does an admirable job of highlighting differences.

But if you study the development of human thought, you have to come right out and admit that modern rationalism isn’t the equivalent of myth, because it has done away with the jaguar-women. If there were dragons in the user’s manuals of Toyotas and Nissans, it’s unlikely that the Japanese auto industry would have succeeded in spreading its products all over the world.

After Darwin

MT: What do you think of the “creationists” who take the Bible literally?

RG: They’re wrong, of course, but I don’t want to speak ill of them because today they are the scapegoats of American culture. The media distorts everything they say and treats them like the lowest of the low.

MT: But if they’re wrong, why not? You speak of scapegoats, but, as far as I know, nobody’s putting the creationists to death, are they?

RG: They’re ostracized from society. It’s said that Americans can’t resist peer pressure, and it’s generally true. Just look at academia, that vast herd of sheep-like individualists: they think they’re persecuted, but they’re not. The creationists are. They’re resisting peer pressure. I take my hat off to them.

What next?

 

MT: But what if they’re absolutely wrong? For someone who places such emphasis on the truth, whatever the cost, I suddenly find you very indulgent.

RG: And what do you do with freedom of religion? In America, as elsewhere, fundamentalism results from the breakdown of an age-old compromise between religion and anti-religious humanism. And it’s anti-religious humanism that is responsible for the breakdown. It espouses doctrines that start with abortion, that continue with genetic manipulation, and that tomorrow will undoubtedly lead to hyperefficient forms of euthanasia. In at most a few decades we’ll have transformed man into a repugnant little pleasure-machine, forever liberated from pain and even from death, which is to say from everything that, paradoxically, encourages us to pursue any sort of noble human aim, and not only religious transcendence.

MT: So there’s nothing worse than trying to avert real dangers by means of false beliefs?

RG: Mankind has never done anything else.

MT: That’s no reason to continue.

RG: The fundamentalists often defend ideas that I deplore, but a remnant of spiritual health makes them foresee the horror of the warm and fuzzy concentration camp that our benevolent bureaucracies are preparing for us, and their revolt looks more respectable to me than our somnolence. In an era where everyone boasts of being a marginal dissident even as they display
a stupefying mimetic docility, the fundamentalists are authentic dissidents.

I recently refused to participate in a supposedly scientific study that treats them like guinea pigs, without the researchers ever asking themselves about the role of their own academic ideology in a phenomenon that they think they’re studying objectively, with complete and utter detachment.

Want a copy of the book for your very own? Go here

“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” Happy birthday, E.B. White!

Saturday, July 11th, 2020
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Oh, and he loved animals, too.

E.B. White penned what is arguably the greatest children’s book of all time, Charlotte’s Web. He also wrote a classic handbook for writers everywhere, The Elements of Style. But he was also a great promoter of mankind in general and an indefatigable letter-writer.

Today is his 121st birthday (he died in 1985). We celebrate with a letter he wrote on March 30, 1973, to a despondent man who had lost hope in humanity:

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,

E. B. White

Oh, and the White quotation that forms the headline for this story in Kate DiCamillo‘s foreword to Charlotte’s Web.

There goes a Johns Hopkins landmark: Dick Macksey’s magnificent home for sale!

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020
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His personal library. Part of it.

Hollis Robbins, Dean of the School of Arts & Humanities at Sonoma State University, tweeted a sad tweet last night. What a loss for Johns Hopkins University! We’ve written about the legendary Johns Hopkins polymath, Richard Macksey, Professor of Everything, here and here and here and here, and, well in Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardThe French theorist and Macksey were longtime colleagues.

Dick Macksey died last July, and now his home has been stripped of its magnificent personal library and its future is in the hands of realtors. Weep for it! Weep! Weep! Weep!

The library was a marvel for Johns Hopkins students, and Dick Macksey invited them into his home to teach and share his books. As I wrote about the photo above:

Behold the 70,000-volume personal library of retired Humanities professor Richard Macksey of Johns Hopkins University. He has sometimes claimed that his collection includes an autographed copy of Canterbury Tales and a presentation copy of the Ten Commandments. Unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out. More demonstrably, he has Marcel Proust‘s copy of Swann’s Way, and many first editions of William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and others.

But what is a home without it’s heart? I’ll tell you what it is:

Dick Macksey at home with friends.

“This stately Italianate Renaissance residence is situated on a well landscaped double lot boasting a private walled courtyard and secluded walled garden. Exquisite detail and proportions abound throughout. Lovely 30 foot entrance hall with distinctive “double-staircase” and palladian door to terrace, 36 foot living room with fireplace, handsome built ins, and access to terrace. Inviting dining room with fireplace and access to terrace. 12 sets of stylish arched french doors on first floor, 5-6 bedrooms, 3.5 baths. 26 foot library with fireplace and 14 foot ceiling. Take advantage of this rare urbane opportunity slip away.”

Well, as Hollis Robbins says, without the books, it’s just a house. But what a beauty it is nevertheless. You can look at more photos of it here. No price is listed. Are you surprised?

Below, the video of the home. Close your eyes, and imagine the books. Imagine it crammed with books.

Postscript on 7/9: It seems that everyone has a Dick Macksey story. Here’s one from Steve McKenna: “I actually attended a grad class in that house. I was 22. If you hadn’t read everything, he could be…hard to follow. So when I got lost, I would just scan book spines. He was a bit like Borges’ Funes the Memorious. Macksay held court in his library. He would begin by asking us what we’d just read, and would launch into a two-and-a-half hour disquisition that might go from Borges to Derrida to Catullus to Goethe to Hart Crane and always to … Proust (to which all roads returned for him, and from whom all roads also departed) … you didn’t come away with the sense that it was madness, just that he was moving on a level so stratospherically above us that we were idiots. But the shelves were amazing.”  Martha Reineke added: “Reflecting on what that home was, with the amazing books and conversations over so many years, makes the realtor video even more poignant. A house is never emptier than when its shelves are bereft of books.”