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“Gelassenheit”: what the world needs now

Sunday, August 12th, 2018
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Brazil’s João Cezar de Castro Rocha: an interpreter of “Gelassenheit”

I know what you’re thinking. Back at at the “Sepp Fest” last February for Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (a.k.a. Sepp), I promised a third installment after “Public intellectuals, private intellectuals, and a professor of football” and  “’My weight is my love’: on Augustine, Calvino, and Sepp Gumbrecht”.  But what did you get from me? Silence.

Until now.

Sepp: More intense ’cause he’s more serene? (Photo: Reto Klar)

Here is the third post on the celebration from two-day retirement party for Sepp, and it comes all the way from Brazil. João Cezar de Castro Rocha of the State University of Rio de Janeiro gave a talk in February on “Gelassenheit.” The term became an important analytic tool for Sepp as he studied the life of Erich Auerbach, the author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western LiteratureBut the term has a long history, not only in Martin Heidegger but going all the way back to Meister Eckhart. When I interviewed Sepp, he used the term to describe René Girard, and defined it as a “Let-It-Be-ness,” or as I eventually described in Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, “accepting things in their uncertainty and their mystery.” But it isn’t that simple.

João notes that Sepp’s initial translation of the world was composure:

On the one hand, it signals Sepp’s initial engagement with Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. To put it more precisely: with an intense reading of Sein und Zeit; as a matter of fact and above all with Heidegger’s phenomenological descriptions of everyday life. Sepp’s 1998 book In 1926. Living on the Edge of Time is a first and robust outcome of this specific concern, which is related to lived experience as such, attributing to it, let us say, an intellectual dignity, which resembles Auerbach’s reconstruction of Western literary experience, and its serious and potentially tragic understanding of ordinary, everyday life.

On the other hand, it should be highlighted that from the very beginning of his engagement with the concept, and even in its translation as composure, Gelassenheit never meant to Sepp acceptance, resignation, in one word: quietude. Rather, I propose the following rendering of Sepp’s translation: composure implies a particularly active relationship with current events, in which the present is projected into a much wider chain of events, and going back and forth different historical periods is the trademark of Gelassenheit understood as composure – a trademark also of Erich Auerbach’s masterpiece, Mimesis.

Auerbach’s Mimesis, he pointed out, is “an impressive narrative of a failure” of Western culture, and can even be read as a powerful anti-Nazi statement.  “You see my point: composure has nothing to do with acceptance of a present filled with tragic happenings, but rather it entails an active withdrawal from the, let us say, tyranny of the present; withdrawal which enlightens the relativity of any given historical time.”

Then João cut to the chase: “I’ll now propose that from 1995 onwards Sepp’s understanding of Gelassenheit started to change slowly but steadily, and as time went by the change became so radical that it opened up a new path in Sepp’s work.”

Then he told a story:

In 1995 Sepp Gumbrecht, along with Jeffrey Schnapp, Ted Leland, Bill Egginton and Rich Schavone, organized what, with hindsight, can be seen as a breakthrough event, bringing together athletes and academics. I’m referring to the conference “The Athletes’s Body.”

In the Q&A session, the three-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer Pablo Morales was asked what he missed the most of his life as a top athlete. Morales’s answer was in itself eventful. He did not exactly miss the exhaustive training routine, although the discipline required by it can be fully appreciated. Indeed, almost all top athletes have impose on their bodies such stress throughout their careers that the most common outcome is a series of injuries they have to endure their entire lives. Nor even gold medals and world records were what Morales missed the most; after all a top athlete is obsessed with improving her performance, therefore, any victory may be clouded by the seemingly inescapable question: could I have done it any better?

So what was it that Morales really missed from his athlete’s life?

Pablo Morales told us that above all he longed for the moment immediately before jumping into the swimming pool in a day of an important competition just like the Olympic Games. Then, Morales felt the world to be a blank page, an untouched canvas, where everything is possible, and the best performance ever is at hand. In his own words, in this very moment he felt “lost in focused intensity”.

Being lost in focused intensity, I propose, has triggered Sepp’s new understanding of Gelassenheit, and it is not a coincidence that at the same time Sepp was engaging ever more intensely with a highly personal reading of Heidegger’s philosophy. The process was not without hindrances, and in 2003 Sepp published Production of Presence. What Meaning Cannot Convey, providing the basis for a theoretical framework of his own, which enabled him to turn intensity, that is, his new translation of Gelassenheit into a form of thinking. Intensity as a special form of Gelassenheit has become not only Sepp’s own Gedankenexperiment but also an everyday aesthetics – as you already know, no ethics should be attached to Sepp’s works.

After all, what is a seminar taught by Sepp if not an immersion in Gelassenheit? It is not the case with Sepp’s wrap-up of a panel – be it surprisingly good or merely mediocre? In both cases, while rendering more complex the ideas espoused by the speakers, Sepp is creating an environment where it becomes possible, almost at hand, to find themselves lost in focused intensity.

João concluded that Sepp’s most recent work redefines Gelassenheit, and perhaps we should, too. “I suggest that we move from composure to serenity.” He continued:

However, as we did with the notion of composure, we have to enrich our understanding of serenity. It should not be seen either as calmness or as quietude. I propose we equate serenity with stillness, but only insofar as the absence of motion, implied in the meaning of stillness, resonates Pablo Morales’s experience of being lost in focused intensity. In other words, in Sepp’s work, stillness means to be in absolute concentration immediately before jumping into the swimming pool in an Olympic Game or, for that matter, immediately before delivering a thought-provoking lecture. After all, academics also perform their intellect, even if they are not aware of it.

Then, to conclude I believe that we can pinpoint two or three definitions of Gelassenheit that may enlighten Sepp’s current work.

First: Gelassenheit demands a Messianic time, in the sense put forward by Walter Benjamin, but as long as the Messiah is not expected to come, so time remains open to the openness of time.

Second: Gelassenheit as serenity is the form of emergence, in the sense developed by Umberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, notion that along with autopoiesis were important in the unfolding of the theoretical framework of the materialities of communication paradigm.

Finally, as serenity, Gelassenheit is the emergence of form; form, in the sense developed by George Spencer Brown, as the difference between in and out, interior and exterior, propitiating what could be called the aesthetics of Sepp’s thought experiments.

If the ideas I proposed here are good to think with – as the myths are for Claude Lévi-Strauss – I may now conclude by suggesting that, as time goes by, Sepp becomes ever more intense because at last he has learned to be a bit more serene.

Well, I lost whatever small measure of Gelassenheit I have when João told me the eminent house É Realizações Editora in São Paulo would be translating and publishing Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard in Portuguese for a Brazilian translation. Wheee! Uncork the champagne!

Johns Hopkins interviews me on “René Girard and the Mysterious Nature of Desire.”

Friday, August 10th, 2018
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A little mysterious himself.

Bret McCabe makes a brief appearance in the pages of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. The humanities writer for Johns Hopkins University, where René Girard spent some of the most important years of his life, was interviewing JHU legendary Prof. Richard Macksey a few years ago. They had been discussing the renowned 1966 Baltimore conference, organized by Girard, Macksey, and Eugenio Donato, which brought French thought to America. Then Bret McCabe finds a Davidoff matchbox nestled among Macksey’s papers. As a madeleine famously recalls Proust to his past, so the matchbox stirs distant memories in Dick Macksey: “I haven’t had Davidoff since Jacques Derrida was here.”

Last spring, Bret did a Q&A with me for Johns Hopkins University about “René Girard and the Mysterious Nature of Desire.” It went up on the Johns Hopkins website this week. An excerpt:

While Evolution of Desire is written for a general reader, I imagine that general reader is probably going to have some interest in and familiarity with literary criticism. How would you describe Girard’s theory of mimetic desire for a layperson, and why it has such lasting significance?

I’d start this way: We want what others want. We want it because they want it. These desires are shaped by our restless imitation of others. When the coveted goods are scarce, these desires pit us against one another—on an individual level, on a community level, and on a global scale as well. It causes divorces and it causes international wars. It causes children to fight over a five-buck toy in the sandbox.

Legendary Dick Macksey at JHU

René Girard wrote: “All desire is a desire for being.” It’s a phrase I use often because this imitated desire is powered by the wish to be the person who models our desire for us. We think that this person possesses metaphysical qualities we do not. We imagine the idolized individual has the power, charisma, cool, wisdom, equanimity. So we want that person’s job, shirt, car, spouse. The relationship, as he wrote, is that of the relic to the saint.

The nature of desire is mysterious. René said: “Desire is not of this world. That is what Proust shows us at his best: it is in order to penetrate into another world that one desires, it is in order to be initiated into a radically foreign existence.” No wonder he was such a devotee of Proust!

Follow him on Twitter: @BretMcBret

That passage succinctly answers the second part of your question as well. Our most fundamental longings—throughout the centuries—are addressed in his corpus. That is why it is important, and always will be important.

The final question from Bret: 

Finally, I know it’s a bit of folly to ask such things, but as you point out in both your introduction and postscript, Girard is actually somebody who might have something to tell us about right now. He died in 2015, prior to the elections in 2016 and 2017 in Europe and the U.S. What do you think Girard has to tell us about our current time and the highly polarized world in which we currently live?

Want to know what I answered? Check it out here.

Congratulations to me! I’m a 2018 National Endowment for the Humanities “Public Scholar”!

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018
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The news is out! I’m a brand-new 2018 National Endowment for the Humanities “Public Scholar.” It is obviously a great honor, and I am thrilled beyond words. The letter of announcement is here and list of recipients is here. The Washington Post story is here. As for the project I will be undertaking as an NEH Public Scholar:

“I did not choose California. It was given to me,” wrote Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. His attempt to come to grips with California was a lifelong psychological journey, and one that changed America as well as the poet himself. This story will be told in “The Spirit of the Place”: Czesław Miłosz in California, a book that was born in a British Academy talk I gave in London, 2012. It is the first book-length study to consider the Lithuanian-born Polish poet as an American.

The Berkeley poet.

It all started at a Christmas party, a year-and-a-half ago, when I was still knee-deep in bringing Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard to press (Wall Street Journal review is here).  Steve Wasserman, my former editor at the Los Angeles Time Book Review when it was the best in the nation, and more recently editor-at-large for Yale University Press, was returning to his rodina, Berkeley. He had just taken the helm at Heyday Books – in his words, “a unique cultural institution that promotes awareness and celebration of California’s many cultures and boundary-breaking ideas. Through well-crafted books, public events, and innovative outreach programs, Heyday seeks to build a vibrant community of readers, writers, and thinkers.”

We had spoken on the phone, we had emailed each other, but we had never actually met face to face until that chilly night on December 17, 2016.

The setting was Heyday’s cozy offices on University Avenue, only a mile from Chez Panisse, the legendary restaurant that is Steve’s second home. Heyday was a rabbit warren of booklined walls and dark wood paneling. Old Berkeley at its best. (It’s since had to move house, alas.)

That night, the corridors were crowded with chattering people and the tables laden with a lavish spread of potluck offerings. The band performing by the entryway made conversation improbable. Nevertheless, Steve and I found a quiet room to chat, and he told me about his new publishing initiative at Heyday called “California Lives.”

In his words again: “The series will consist of book-length biographical essays on the men and women who, taken singly and together, have built a state which is a source of relentless reinvention, a magnet for peoples the world over who have sought an escape from history and a new identity in a land of seemingly endless possibility.” He wondered if I had any ideas.

“Yeah, what about Czesław Miłosz?” I suggested. But … he’s Polish, he answered. “Well, we’re all from somewhere else, aren’t we?” I answered – it’s especially true in California. And, after all, the Nobel poet was a U.S. citizen – UC Berkeley’s first and only Nobelist in the humanities. Steve’s brow furrowed. But didn’t he dislike the U.S.?  And California, for that matter? Consider his arguments about Robinson Jeffers. “What could be more American than opposition?” I answered. “We’re all protesting something.” He loved Walt Whitman, quarreled with the spirit of Jeffers, and he engaged American culture – while always remaining ambivalent about it. I had the expertise to advance the argument: I’ve written a welter of articles about Miłosz, and have two volumes about him to my credit, Czesław Miłosz: Conversations and An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław MiłoszAnd I’m a longstanding Californian – though across the Bay from Miłosz’s (and Steve’s) Berkeley.

Steve was won over. Here’s what he wrote about the poet in a publisher’s statement for the NEH: “He is emblematic of a host of mid-century émigrés who sought refuge from the calamities of the twentieth century in California. It is a state that is both a place and a state of mind whose literature reflects a range of affection and unease. Miłosz’s contribution to that literature is a red thread that runs through some of his most important work, but is curiously neglected in most of the critical commentary. Heyday aims to correct that omission.”

Steve has another reason to be drawn to the subject: “I confess a personal stake in his story. I grew up in Berkeley and went to high school with his two sons. I spent time in his home on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Later, when I was deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times opinion section I was among the first to interview him when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.”

Steve has also been a longstanding champion of the proposed author of the book, too. Let me conclude with some praise for my humble self:

Thank you, Steve.

“Cynthia Haven’s writing on East European and Central European writers is superb, as I know from my years publishing her reviews in the Los Angeles Times. Moreover, as a longtime resident of California, she brings to bear a deep understanding of the state and its paradoxes. She is alive to irony and knows the virtues of a short declarative sentence. She is remarkably clear without neglecting nuance. She embraces the Eros of the difficult and translates it into terms that can be grasped by ordinary readers. Her perspicacity, diligence, and acute intelligence are ideal for this necessary book on Miłosz. She will help Californians in particular, and Americans more generally, enter Miłosz’s mostly unfamiliar but remarkably influential and important world. Her gifts as a researcher and writer—indeed, as a cultural journalist—are very nearly unrivaled in this arena.”

Steve was almost as pleased as I was by the NEH honor. And of course he suggested we celebrate at Chez Panisse soon, soon…

Stanford’s loss is Iowa’s gain: We look forward to your novel, Elaine Ray!

Sunday, August 5th, 2018
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Elaine with another Stanford legend, choreographer Aleta Hayes

This week, one of the most magnificent women ever to grace the Stanford org charts leaves for the harsher climate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, where she will be a resident fellow. (In fairness, any weather would necessarily be harsher than idyllic Palo Alto’s.)

Elaine Ray was the director of the Stanford News Service when I returned to Stanford as the humanities and arts writer for the university over a decade ago. It was an award-winning and nationally recognized institution, with plaques at the entryway signaling its many honors to all visitors. Elaine, a former Boston Globe journalist, was one reason why it was exemplary.

It was also one of the happiest workplaces I have ever known (and had a Stanford-wide reputation for being so). Elaine was a big reason for that, too. Said News Service staffer Pamela Moreland at one of her farewell parties a fortnight ago:

She is a wonderfully demanding editor who allows you to have your own voice and try new things while still adhering to the stylebook and expectations. She sees the big picture while at the same time, she will sweat every detail that you sweat and then some. She knows things before they happen. She never gave me bad advice.

In preparing for this event, I asked a few people to tell me a few things about Elaine. The superlatives came tumbling down:

Best confidante ever
Most considerate person ever
Kindest
Compassionate
No-nonsense in the best way
Best friend a person could have
Consistent
Best running buddy ever

So why is this remarkable woman leaving? The technical reason is “retirement.” But the real reason is that she’s been admitted to the Iowa Writers Workshop, the preeminent training ground for the nation’s best writers. It’s a creative and surprising way to spend a so-called “retirement.”

Elaine and daughter Zuri Adele, actress of “Good Trouble” fame

I wrote about the inspiring turning point to her story on the Book Haven some time ago, and at the party, former News Service videographer Jack Hubbard gave a shout out to me and the Book Haven for my post, “A writer to watch: Elaine Ray wins prize for her first published fiction.”

That was in January 2017, when I wrote: “one of the most beloved people at Stanford for her generosity and kindness, had emerged in fiction with an utterly new voice. We agree with the judge who called it ‘mercilessly exposed and utterly enigmatic,’ throwing light on a lost world that as foreign to most of us as the Incas.” More:

Her reaction to the $1000 award? “Blown away and humbled. The first piece of fiction I’ve ever gotten published wins an award.” According to one of the judges, Thomas McNeely, author of Ghost Horse: “In fewer than twenty pages, Pidgin sketches a world of its narrator of color’s post-colonial migration, political activism, and imprisonment within the choices offered him by history. At the same time, it’s a narrative that seems shaped by mysteries that transcend and yet throw into sharp relief its political moment, the chief one being the brilliant voice of its narrator, who is at once mercilessly exposed and utterly enigmatic. Elaine Ray is a writer who plays by her own rules, and is a writer to watch.”

You can read the entire post here.

“Elaine gets her chutzpah from her mom, who raised the family after Elaine’s father died when she was 13,” said Lisa Trei, the former social science writer at the News Service. “Elaine knew that her dad had worked in the composing room of the Pittsburg Courier but she didn’t know that he had also written a weekly column for The New York Age focusing on racial injustice. In 2010, quite by chance, Elaine stumbled upon the columns and created a blog about them. The fact that she wrote for Essence and The Boston Globe before she ever knew about her family legacy shows that printer’s ink is in her blood, for sure.”

Godspeed! We look forward to your novel, Ms. Ray.

“I have my freedom of speech,” he said – and then the cops dragged him away.

Saturday, August 4th, 2018
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The octogenarian dissident in China speaks out. Now one knows where he is. (Photo: Youtube)

Here’s the news you probably didn’t hear this week: 84-year-old professor and activist Sun Wenguang in China was speaking on Voice of America when the Chinese authorities burst into the room and dragged him away. His final words to the world: “I have my freedom of speech.”

He hasn’t been seen since. Is he dead? Is he beaten? We don’t know. From the Washington Post:

Viewers listened as Sun recounted his ordeal live on air. “Here they come again, the police are here to interrupt again,” Sun said in Chinese. “Four, five, six of them.”

Sun asked what the men were doing in his home and threatened to get a knife. “It is illegal for you to come to my home,” he said. He defended his VOA interview and called on the security officials to respect his rights.

They didn’t, of course.  According to Hu Jia, a prominent human rights activist in Beijing,  “They did that on air, and they didn’t care if it was in front of the whole world. This is an attack on press freedom, too. It just shows that they are willing to pay any price” to silence him.

At the time of his … shall we call it arrest? … he was criticizing China’s foreign investments: “People [in China] are poor. Let’s not throw our money in Africa. Throwing money like this is of no good to our country.”

Who is Sun Wenguang? He retired physics professor from Shandong University, he spent more than a decade in and out of prison at various times from the 1960s to the 1980s for criticising communist leader Mao Zedong. According to the BBC:

The long-time government critic is one of the original signatories of “Charter 08”, a manifesto which called for political change in China.

In 2009, Prof Sun was beaten while visiting the grave of Zhao Ziyang, a communist leader who was purged for supporting the Tiananmen protests of 1989.

The then 75-year-old said at the time he had suffered three broken ribs and injuries to his hands and legs. He was later admitted into hospital.

Prof Sun has also been denied a passport, according to the New York Times, and so is unable to leave the country.

Perhaps it’s time for Google to reconsider its confidential plan to release a censored version of its search engine for China. It’s own employees are furious. Read about it at The Intercept  here. Meanwhile, you can hear the Voice of America recording of his abduction below.

Two plays, two very different women: Euripides stars at the Stanford Repertory Theater

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018
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Doomed Polyxena (Lea Claire Zawada) mourns the life she will never have. (Photo: Frank Chen)

Euripides‘s play Helen is the most lyrical and tender of the playwright’s canon, and the most surprising as well. Here’s the story: Helen was never carried off to Troy by Paris; she was whisked away by the gods to Egypt to cool her heels while the Trojan War raged. (She is, after all, the daughter of Zeus … or maybe Tyndareus.) In her place, an eidolon – a specter, a lookalike, a double – went to the doomed city. Now the war is over. Menelaus is presumed dead. And the King of Egypt wants to marry Helen, twenty years older but still a humdinger. She’s clinging to a sacred shrine that offers sanctuary against his unwanted advances. What’s a queen to do?

Joe Estlack as Odysseus, Polymnestor, Menelaus (Photo: Zachary Dammann)

The story has its precedents. Herodotus advanced the same tale in his Histories. And the poet Stesichorus said the same in his Palinode. But Helen – almost a romantic comedy, really, but too tinged by tragedy to make it so – is most memorably told by Euripides. Too bad it’s not told often enough. So that’s one reason to see the Stanford Repertory Theater’s current production, Hecuba/Helen, in the Roble Studio Theater.  It opened last weekend and runs through August 19.

“Like the Odyssey and, even more, like the late Shakespearean romances, Helen has in some ways ‘got back to the fairy tale again,’ with its sunlit clarifications, reunions, and happy ending,” wrote poet Rachel Hadas about the play. “But its brightness is porous; plenty of suffering makes its way through. The enormous and tragic waste of the war, the pain of exile, isolation, and blame – the beauty of Helen shines through these elements without ever avoiding or denying them.”

The play is ingenuously paired with a very different offering from Euripides, Hecuba. Like the tragedian’s Trojan Women, it’s a rending,  agonized lament from the female denizens of Troy, now orphaned and widowed and childless, as they are about to be hauled into slavery and worse. The threnody is interrupted occasionally by men, kings, soldiers, messengers, coming to relate the latest disastrous news or murderous decision. It’s one steady momentum downward, to Hecuba’s final revenge against her betrayer, before the Trojan queen’s descent into becoming, as prophesied, a howling dog.

African American poet Marilyn Nelson describes Hecuba as “the distillation of the pain described in the slave narratives” – “Her children dead or stolen, her husband slain, her homeland lost forever, her nobility reduced to rags: again and again, I read Hecuba’s stories in the slave narratives. Children torn from their arms and sold, lovers beaten and sold or murdered, no place to run, no place to hide, their very bodies a badge of inferiority.” And so it is.

Courtney Walsh as Hecuba, Doug Nolan as Agamemnon. (Photo: Zachary Dammann)

All the roles are doubled up, or trebled up. Stanford Rep regular Courtney Walsh revels in the exhausting challenge of playing both Helen and Hecuba – though I think her touch is made for the dark-edged comedy of Helen more.

Two men in particular give an array of arresting performances  – Doug Nolan as Agamemnon a hardened soldier softened by the surprise of love. Less than an hour later he is the bullying Theoclymenus, the duped King of Egypt, alternately petulant and belligerent. Joe Estlack is the stalwart yet doubting Spartan king Menelaus – and also the oleaginous traitor Polymnestor. (He won me over when he inventively and energetically portrayed an entire shipwreck all by himself, with gurgling, coughing, spitting, and sputtering.) Props to Jennie Brick as the chorus leader and also the lippy portress-cum-bouncer at the Egyptian palace. And Stanford undergraduate student Lea Claire Zawada makes a moving and anguished Polyxena, whose life is sacrificed to the ghost of Achilles.

Thank you, sir.

The epigrammatic Greek Chorus is always a challenging convention in modern drama. Aleta Hayes‘s choreography updates the concept while hewing to its origins. It’s effective, though my own preferences run towards a plainer, less stylized interpretation, where the chorus women deliver their lines simply, singly, as lookers-on and occasional participants. The projections on the screen were more distracting than helpful, and opened the drama outward when it needed intimacy and tension.

The doubling and trebling of roles, as we watch very different characters and emotions shine through the same faces we saw minutes before, remind all of us how we each take so many roles in a lifetime – all but the best and worst of us swing from hero to villain, buffoon to sage, and back again. During Hecuba/Helen, a killer becomes lover and then a killer again, the powerful are humbled, a betrayer becomes the betrayed … and the smart-mouthed portress who kicks Menelaus away from the threshhold morphs into the benevolent prophetess Theonoe.

As the “Nevertheless, She Persisted” theme of the double show demonstrates, Euripides was an early champion of women. He was also deeply horrified by war, having lived through the long and bitter struggle between Sparta and Athens. Euripides shows both in the case of the Trojan women of Hecuba, and in Helen, which showcases a woman who been scapegoated for a war she never caused, and just wants to go home to Sparta.

Artistic director Rush Rehm translated these texts from the Greek for this production, and the final piece is stageworthy, more so, perhaps, than the more lyrical rendering of poets who have tried their hands at the task:

The gods reveal themselves in many ways,
bring many matters to surprising ends.
The things we thought would happen do not happen.
The unexpected gods make possible,
and that is what has happened here today.

Courtney Walsh (Hecuba), Lea Claire Zawada (Polyxena), and in the chorus Emma Rothenberg, Jennie Brick, Brenna McCulloch, Gianna Clark, Regan Lavin, Amber Levine. (Photo: Zachary Dammann)

Voices from the chorus: Brenna McCulloch, Amber Levine, Regan Lavin (Photo: Zachary Dammann)

Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard: “an important biography … beautifully felt and written”

Monday, July 30th, 2018
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Arielle Emmett and friend Lu Ze in Harbin, China

We’re having a bumper crop of reviews and articles for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardThis one appeared as a LinkedIn essay, “Mob violence and the roots of martyrdom: Cynthia Haven’s exploration of the philosopher René Girard.” It’s provenance is impeccable: journalist Arielle Emmett, a 2018-19 Fulbright Fellow headed for Africa. She has written for Smithsonian Magazine, Newsweek, The Boston Globe, and others. The LinkedIn piece is here and below:

This book about French anthropologist René Girard should put Cynthia Haven in the ranks of top literary biographers. Her exploration of Girard, a philosopher who developed a stunning theory of mob violence, scapegoats, and martyrs, is beautifully felt and written – illuminating for those who care about the origins of violence and religion, the schisms between Continental and Analytic philosophy, and the impact that mimetic desire and Greek tragedy has had on the evolving story of civilization.

Haven’s meticulous research displays deep historical knowledge and passion for the machicolated fortresses of Avignon, Girard’s birthplace, along with the American campuses – Indiana University, Johns Hopkins, University of New York Buffalo, among others – he frequented and taught in post WWII until his death in 2015. The author’s greatest strength is placing Girard’s ideas about “mimetic desire” and copycat scapegoatism within the context of 20th and 21st century war and mob violence. Haven’s resurrection of Girard is an important reminder of why wars still happen – and why strict adherence to religious ideologies are just as likely to tear societies apart than heal them.

Girard took on virtually every school of modern philosophy, replacing French structuralism, deconstructionism, American pragmatism and Freudian thinking with a more streamlined theory of collective desire. Clans, tribes, and whole societies are ruled, in the main, by competitive jealousy beyond envy, a universal need to have or be what the “Other” is having or being. Accounting for Homeric myth and even the modern mob story (read Shirley Jackson‘s “The Lottery”), Girard began his lectures on a seminal book, Violence and the Sacred (1972), with this observation: “Human beings fight not because they’re different, but because they are the same, and in their accusations and reciprocal violence have made each other enemy twins.”

The desire to find scapegoats and to invest individuals – whether women, ethnic minorities, Nazi collaborators or modern power figures – with the murderous guilt of an entire tribe or civilization also produces an “opposite” phenomenon: the sacred anointing of martyrs. “Human society begins from the moment symbolic institutions are created around the victim, that is to say when the victim becomes sacred,” Girard explained. Think Iphegenia and Helen of Troy, Joan of Arc, Emmett Till, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, to name a few. “With Violence and the Sacred, René Girard would present all human history as a crime thriller, in which the murderer escapes undetected, and the private investigator – in this case, Girard himself – is left only with hints and clues,” Haven writes. “Girard,” she continues, “was a theorist, but one with a complicated relationship to the very notion of theories…He wished his own work not to be taken as a foolproof formula, but as a working dynamic of human society.”

Haven attacks the Girard story with a combination of biography, “you are there” journalistic observation, and direct, often witty interviews with the philosopher himself. She knew Girard for eight years. As part of the story – and some readers may find her descriptions of academic politics somewhat daunting – Haven describes the rude ego battles between French structuralists and the “new wave” of post-structural thinkers, among them Jacques Derrida and the neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst who emphasized the importance of language in subjective constitution. René Girard stood apart from them both, assigning greater weight to the realities of human inheritance and social behaviors.

Though he was ultimately elected to the prestigious L’Académie Française, Girard was certainly never as celebrated or as controversial as many of his French contemporaries. Haven therefore deserves much credit for choosing to explore Girard’s life and work. The philosopher drew from a careful study of anthropology, history, and literature to illuminate, even presage the repeat cycles of horror and violence in 20h and 21st century life. And Haven draws important connections between Girard’s work and the salient examples of mob violence and martyrdom creation in America – for example, the murders of blacks during the Civil Rights Era, the attacks of September 11, 2001, the shootings and riots in Baltimore, and lately, the mass beheadings of Americans – on video – by ISIS.

Toward the end of his life, Girard increasingly focused on the contributions of forgiveness in breaking cycles of vengeance among competitive clans and tribes. His ability to draw connections between religiosity and war, forgiveness and healing are instructive as we face a world where ethnic violence and scapegoating not only continue, but frequently escalate.

For the totality and relevance of this analysis – and the care for which she devotes herself to Girard’s biography and foundational ideas – Haven has delivered an important biography that readers of philosophy and desire will thoroughly enjoy.

“Even My Revolts Were Brilliant with Sunshine”: The Solar Humanism of Albert Camus

Saturday, July 28th, 2018
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“THE SUN THAT REIGNED OVER MY CHILDHOOD FREED ME FROM ALL RESENTMENT.”

“If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

Those words marked a turning point for French-Algerian author Albert Camus. The context was the Algerian war for independence, which Camus ultimately opposed. He made the statement after revolutionaries began planting bombs on tramways in Algiers, where his mother still lived.

Camus was all for “l’instant.”

Jean-Marie Apostolidès, playwright, psychologist, and French professor at Stanford, and Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison trace Camus’s long intellectual and spiritual journey, from his impoverished Algerian childhood to the car crash that killed him at the age of 46. It’s the latest podcast up at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

In particular, they discuss his complex relationship with fellow traveller Jean-Paul Sartre, who was the greater philosopher and the more rigorous thinker of the two, while Camus was the greater writer and perhaps the greater soul. Their conflict fascinates intellectuals in France and around the world to this day.

“Camus’s strong bond with his mother is beyond and sometimes against words,” says Apostolidès. Yet Camus’s own mother never read a word of his many books. She was illiterate, half-deaf, and a speech impediment made it difficult for her to hold a conversation.

Apostolidès notes it would be a mistake to think of Camus’s adult life as serene and happy: he had several alcoholic crises, and his family life was undermined by his promiscuity. Yet his psyche was shaped by his sun-drenched childhood in Algeria, so strongly at odds with the bourgeois French upbringing of Sartre, who attended Paris’s premier École Normale. The Nobel Prizewinning Camus held to “the wisdom of a different tradition,” says Harrison, describing the sensibility of the Mediterranean basin and African that was a world away from the Nietzschean northern temperament of Europe. As a result, Sartre was interested in the arc of history; Camus was interested in l’instant of plays, journalism, theater.

Jean-Marie: “Nature has no lessons.”

“This was the main idealogical divide between the solar humanism of Albert Camus and the militant Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre,” says Harrison. “For Sartre, history was everything, and those who allied with it had to change the world, at all costs. For Sartre, there’s nothing redemptive in the sun and sea.” Sartre kept his “eyes fixed on the Medusa head of reality.

“That is finally the decisive difference between Sartre and Camus, and the reason why the dustbin of history awaits the one, and not the other.”

“I WAS POISED MIDWAY BETWEEN POVERTY AND SUNSHINE. POVERTY PREVENTED ME FROM THINKING THAT ALL WAS WELL IN THE WORLD AND IN HISTORY; THE SUN TAUGHT ME THAT HISTORY IS NOT EVERYTHING.”

POTENT QUOTES:

Jean-Marie Apostolidès:
“At the end of the line of history, there is death.”
“Nature has no direct lesson to teach us. Therefore our values are relative. Nevertheless, we have to create them.”
“Camus did not want a revolution, but at the same time he did not want to accept the passivity of the bourgeois attitude towards life. So he coined this median way between revolution and acceptance. He called it rebellion.”
On Meursault in The Stranger: “He refuses all the different figures of the father – the priest and the judge. By choosing death and blood, he tries to tries to find something equivalent to the sun.”

Robert Harrison:
“Absurdity is a weapon that you have in your heart, in your mind. Keep it present to remember always the constant of the human condition.”
“It’s very easy to be on the side of justice when nothing is at stake.”
If ever history, with its rage, death, and endless suffering, were to become everything, human beings would succumb to madness. History is reality.”
“For Sartre, there is nothing redemptive in the sun and sea. We must keep our eyes fixed on the Medusa head of reality.”
“The difference between a northern and southern sensibility is the difference between acceptance of life and an assault on life.”

Albert Camus:
“Even my revolts were brilliant with sunshine.”
“I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine. Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well in the world and in history, the sun taught me that history is not everything.”
“Poverty, first of all, was never a misfortune for me; it was radiant with sunlight. I owe it to my family, first of all, who lacked everything and who envied practically nothing.”
“The sun that reigned over my childhood freed me from all resentment.”

That feeling you got when the boy who left flowers at your locker was the creepiest guy in high school? Yeah, that.

Thursday, July 26th, 2018
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Not everyone’s cup of tea: the Prince Regent was widely reviled.

It was a love-hate relationship. He loved her; she hated him. But the man who was one of the more disgusting prince regents, the future George IV, was the first buyer of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

The story is told in The New York Times and The Guardian.

Austen sided with Princess Charlotte, the much betrayed wife of the prince. “Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband.”

She wasn’t alone in her distaste. According to The New York Times: “The man’s reputational troubles began at birth, when a courtier in attendance announced that he was a girl. By the time of his death in 1830, he had spent so extravagantly, and entertained such a long string of mistresses, that an early biographer accused him of contributing more ‘to the demoralization of society than any prince recorded in the pages of history.’”

Yet she owed the man a debt: he was the first one to purchase a book of hers ever. According to The Guardian:

Nicholas Foretek, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, was delving through Windsor Castle’s Royal Archives as part of his research into 18th-century printing and publications when he came across a bill of sale revealing that the future King George IV bought a copy of Sense and Sensibility for 15 shillings from his booksellers, Becket & Porter. The purchase was made on 28 October 1811 – two days before the first public advertisement for the novel appeared. Published anonymously, Sense and Sensibility was not an immediate hit, only selling through its first print run by summer 1813 after positive reviews.

“[This] is perhaps the earliest known transaction of any Austen novel,” said Foretek, announcing his discovery.

Austen was also informed that if she “had any other novel forthcoming she was at liberty to dedicate it to the prince.” And so she did. She held her nose and did what had to be done. She wrote her dedication to the prince in her 1815 novel Emma: “To his Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, this work is, by His Royal Highness’s Permission, most Respectfully Dedicated by his Royal Highness’s Dutiful and Obedient Humble Servant.” One scholar called it “one of the worst sentences she ever committed to print.”

His passion never waned; hers never waxed. After he became king in 1820, he bought two copies of Pride and Prejudice in 1813, alongside a second copy of Sense and Sensibility, as well as Mansfield Park in 1814. He also owned a gift copy of Northanger Abbey – and a gift copy of Emma, with one of the most reluctant dedications ever written.

“The reason we don’t have any privacy is because people can make money off of our not privacy.”

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018
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“A clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.” Dave Eggers, Tobias Wolff. (Photo: Rod Searcey)

My post a few days ago about Google and privacy  got me to thinking about our surveillance culture, about the suspiciousness directed towards those who want to keep something of their souls untouched by the masses. Where all is public, everything is outward, and when everything is outward, the inward shrivels. Sometimes we need to incubate, to mull awhile without the world screeching at our ears. For that reason, our culture is getting more and more superficial, more preoccupied with ephemeral trends, more focused on consumption. If there’s any shortage today, it’s a shortage of inwardness.

In a 17th century village, everything was known because it was nearby. The late twentieth century atomized that model. Now, in a strange inversion of the village culture, everything is known even if far away, while many of us do not know the names of the person who lives next to us,  in Apartment 3B.

index

And that turned me back Dave Eggers, author of The Circle, and his onstage conversation with Stanford’s Tobias Wolff, one of the nation’s leading writers. Here’s an excerpt from the November 9, 2014 exchange:

We live in a world where “your license plate is photographed sixty times a day,” said Eggers. Moreover, “if it can be collected and stored, it can be abused.” He continued: “It’s hard to stop. All of these things have never been that easy. You can’t go back, you can only go further.”

Go further to what? Utter transparency, 24/7. A world where we swim in ever vaster oceans of information. A world where knowledge of everything, all the time, is an inherent good. Everything that everyone is doing is known to everyone all of the time. “Accumulated shared knowledge” is the new community, and it’s considered “selfish” to hold back anything, to have secrets, to want to be left alone. “That philosophy is expounded in a lot of places,” said Eggers.

In such a world, shame is futile, because inescapable. Besides, you can see what everyone else is doing, too, and it’s just as bad. Maybe worse. But, but, but … isn’t shame an aspect of conscience, and isn’t it part of being fully human?  “It’s considered suspicious if you do want to hide anything,” said Eggers, and “deleting anything is inherently sinful.”

But what about the right to be a nobody, an inconnu, a nonentity? What about the right to be forgotten, to be invisible?

“By the time you ask to get the right to be forgotten, it’s already too late to be forgotten,” said Wolff. He recalled the case of a Columbia student accused of rape. The assailant’s name has been publicized, but the case has never been tried. Guilty or innocent, “that crime attaches to that person’s name forever.”

“The right of individuals to control their identity and narrative … should trump our right to know a person,” said Eggers. He called for a Center for Digital Ethics, perhaps at a place like Stanford, “to codify some do’s and don’t’s.” He said much of what’s happening now “is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment – the unspecified collection of data on citizens without a warrant or a specific crime.”

“The original sin where we got to this is that everything had to be free.” Stewart Brand famously said, “Information wants to be free.” It came true: “It is free, but in a “non-transparent, creepy way,” said Eggers. It’s like all those “terms and conditions” you have to check online before agreeing to things – or the endless supply of mail for you to review with revisions to your terms and conditions. Who does all that? “Keeping up terms and conditions is a full-time job,” he said.

So how has it changed in the years since? Here’s a more recent interview with Dave Eggers, on the making of The Circle into a major film. Here’s what he says now in an interview at The Marketplace called, ‘’The Circle’ author Dave Eggers thinks the internet is getting creepier”:

Eggers signing books at Stanford. (Photo: Rod Searcey)

Kai Ryssdal: So what was going through your mind when you wrote this novel, when you brought it out in print in 2013?

Dave Eggers: I think the thing that created the real impetus was one day I saw a friend on the street who said — he’d emailed me a few days before — and he said, “Hey, how come you haven’t answered my email?” And I did the usual white lie, “Oh, I haven’t gotten it yet. I didn’t check my email.” And he said, “Oh, I happen to know that you did get my email and that you opened it at 4:13 last Tuesday, and I have software that allows me to know when my mail has been opened, and I want an answer, why you haven’t answered my message.”  And I thought, well, you know that among so many things indicated a real sort of change in what I think we saw as the pure ideals of a connected world … sort of how it alters our, I don’t know, our moral fiber in a way.

Ryssdal: Do you think it does? I mean it’s interesting to me that that guy called you out and said “Oh no, I know you’re full of it man.”

Eggers: Well, that’s the thing is that it had altered him. The ease with which we can surveil each other alters what otherwise is normal relationships. You know, it creates spies in all of us. I mean people spy on their kids, they spy on their spouses, they spy on their friends, you know, actively, passively. So the book was exploring a lot of those themes, kind of creating a worst-case scenario.

I confess to googling friends. Especially since many of my friends are writers, I want to see what they’ve written lately. But where does it stop? The truth is it doesn’t. In this case the dynamite quote, or one of them, comes from the interviewer rather than the interviewee: “The reason we don’t have any privacy is because people can make money off of our not privacy.”

“Who’s monetizing it?” (Photo: Rod Searcey)

Eggers: Yeah, it’s moving a lot faster than I thought. And there’s not really a lot of speed bumps along the way. And then when we just had the rollback of some of the regulations —you know, the ISPs … they can buy and sell our search histories. You know, the regulations that Trump just rolled back — it’s very disturbing. I think that there needs to be a real pause. You know, why in the digital realm was privacy or surveillance — why was surveillance baked in?

Ryssdal: So here comes the deeply cynical answer, but it turns out that way in the book and the movie right? The reason we don’t have any privacy is because people can make money off of our not privacy.

Eggers: So, many of my friends, you know, did well in technology and created some amazing tools. What I didn’t see coming, and I think what was very disturbing, is that surveillance part that was baked in. Who’s collecting data on who? And who’s monetizing it? And who has control of it? And who’s storing it? All of these things make what could have been a beautiful thing into, I think, a very creepy and increasingly creepier machinery. And I don’t know, I think that we need to examine and think about what do we really want?  

Ryssdal: People are going to watch this movie though, and they’re going to look at that giant company at the heart of it that gets to the transparency and the privacy thing as a central plot point, and they’re going to try to puzzle out which company maybe you were talking about — or maybe you’re talking about all of them. But I’ll just, I’ll just throw out the fact that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has said that privacy is not a social norm anymore.

Eggers: Yeah, I thought that was an odd statement. I have to say, it has no basic basis in human history. We’ve always had privacy, and it’s always been integral to what makes us individuals. Right now all of these things — what you want and what you search for and what you’re looking at — all of these things are monetized, and they’re no longer private. So that’s one small step away from the elimination of the privacy of the mind. I say all this while I’m an optimist, so I always feel like I think ultimately people will do the right thing and demand, you know, some boundaries here. Who knows where it will go.