Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Tired of angst? Here’s a poem about a happy marriage.

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019

A family reunion at Stanford – with jazz scholar Ted Gioia at right.

Dana Gioia, former National Endowment for the Arts chair and former California poet laureate, met Mary Heicke in the staples department of Stanford Bookstore circa 1977. They have been together ever since – a long marriage indeed, and one of the happiest I know. He commemorated their union recently in a poem, “Marriage of Many Years”:

Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin—
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.

This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.

In an era that celebrates sturm und drang, poets write of abusive relationships, and the anguish of unrequited love, or the torments of triangular love – but how many write of long and happy fidelity? The late great Richard Wilbur, notably, mocks the romantic conventions and instead praises (read the whole thing here) his marriage

… which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart,
A passion joined to courtesy and art
Which has the quality of something made,
Like a good fiddle, like the rose’s scent,
Like a rose window or the firmament.

The Gioia marriage has an eyewitness to commemorate it – their son, Mike Gioia – who added it yesterday to his new youtube poetry series, “Blank Verse Films.” (You can subscribe here.)

Dropping acid with Michel Foucault

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

What is it like to drop acid with Michel Foucault? Now there’s a whole book to tell you about the renowned French theorist’s rendezvous with LSD in 1975. From Los Angeles Review of Books‘ review of Simeon Wade’s Foucault in California (Heyday). The location, of all places, is Death Valley:

After picking up Foucault at the airport, Wade drives to his house, where the philosopher is treated to Tequila Sunrises and a small bowl of hashish. After a light dinner, [Wade’s friend Michael] Stoneman “sat down at the Yamaha grand and gave us a spirited reading of Scriabin’s Tenth Sonata, a work of pure sorcery.” The evening’s activities break the ice, making the French guest feel at home. After a few hours of slumber, the trio rise at dawn in order to reach the high desert before midday.

Wade, who has not yet mentioned the idea of taking LSD, finally decides to broach the delicate subject during the drive: “[W]e brought a powerful elixir, a kind of philosopher’s stone Michael happened upon. We thought you might enjoy a visionary quest in Death Valley.” Given that Foucault was not fluent in English, it is unclear if he really knew what Wade was talking about. Wade’s account of the events leading up to the trip has the air of a “kiss and tell” memoir, but in this case the act described is not sex with a celebrity but taking psychedelic drugs in an exotic locale. Every moment leading up to the hallucinogenic climax is described in lavish detail.

Author and subject.

When the trio finally reach Death Valley, they hike down to the Artists’ Palette, an alluvial fan at the base of a canyon. The moment of truth occurs when Stoneman produces the LSD and Foucault uncharacteristically freaks out: “Foucault appeared troubled and with grim countenance […] walked away.” Wade is forced to admit that his elaborate plan might be ruined; the last thing he and Stoneman wanted was a bad trip under the hot Death Valley sun. “We both knew that the potion taken under any kind of duress can discompose the unwilling. We certainly would not wish to force anything upon Michel.” When Foucault finally returns, he declares “with quizzical eyes that he wishe[s] to take only half as much, since this is his first experience with a potion so powerful.”

This was the response that Wade had feared the most: although Foucault had described the effects of LSD in one of his essays, he had never actually taken the drug. Wade and Stoneman were surprised because Foucault was a follower of Nietzsche who had always expressed a keen interest in all things Dionysian. Perhaps to save face, the philosopher, after a lengthy bout of indecision, asks Stoneman about the proper way of ingesting it. Much to Wade’s delight, the LSD plot is on again.

Read the whole thing here.

#EndowSUP: from crisis to consensus on Stanford University Press

Friday, June 14th, 2019

More than 200 people attended yesterday’s Faculty Senate meeting. (All photos by Ge Wang)

Passions ran high and emotions were raw at yesterday’s Stanford Faculty Senate meeting, which had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate the crowd. One faculty said that the fury around this issue was unlike anything he’d seen at Stanford in more than a decade.

A recap: The university decided to terminate its support of Stanford University Press, which had been given $1.7 million supplements for several years. The amount, as many pointed out at the meeting, is chump change, about .027% of Stanford’s annual operating budget. The move, seeking to make the press “sustainable,” spurred national and international outcry and letters from thirteen Stanford departments, schools, and programs and sixteen letters from national and international learned societies, as well as extensive press coverage (including The Chronicle of Higher Education here). The controversy has been discussed on the Book Haven here and here and here.

In her brief remarks, Provost Persis Drell, claimed that the way her earlier comments had been interpreted was “totally contrary to my intent” and was “truly, deeply regrettable.” She said that she had held “no intention of closing the press.” She said the use of the word “sustainable” was not meant to be a synonym for “profit-making,” but added that the Press had to move “beyond one-year extensions” to its budget.

Thomas Mullaney, professor of Chinese history, who had spoken on KQED about the future of the press, disagreed sharply: “Although some have since tried to downplay or deny the record on this point, it is established fact that dismissive, insulting, and unfounded statements were made about SUP by our administration – not just once, but repeatedly – and that these statements, when coupled with Stanford’s rejection of Stanford University Press’ budgetary request – set off a chain reaction of criticism of the Stanford administration and support for SUP, in equal measure.”

“I’ve never witnessed this kind of anger and resentment,” he said, recalling “meetings small and large wherein hands have slammed tabletops, voices have been raised, and in some cases, tears have clearly been held back. And of course, the tone of criticism only gets louder and sharper as one listens to the broader scholarly community across the rest of the United States and the world. Truly, this has been such a self-inflicted wound for Stanford, such an unforced error, that the situation feels largely out of control.  It has been remarked that this PR debacle has probably already cost Stanford more money than it would have cost to endow SUP in perpetuity, let alone agreeing to the more modest 5-year package.”

Stanford Prof. David Palumbo-Liu asked Stanford University Press Director Alan Harvey point blank what would have happened without the resistance, what would have happened if the $1.7 million shortfall in their budget had, in fact, gone down as planned.

“I would have had to lay off half my staff,” Harvey replied in a beat. In turn, that move would have reduced the number of books the press could produce, which would have triggered more layoffs, he said. In short, a death spiral.

The negative impact are already evident in the current atmosphere of uncertainty, he said, with “hesitation on the part of scholars to submit books” for consideration to Stanford University Press. “The number of proposals has gone down,” and he characterized the pool of potential authors as “nervous.” When the university administration is conveying “a message of a lack of faith, people are going to hold off.”

There was much talk about finding a solution to this intractable problem, but the answer seemed pretty obvious. Harvey stated it upfront: “An endowment is the only thing for a long-term sustainable press.” An endowment is the foundation of other major university presses – Harvard University Press, among others, has a large one. To date, the university has not permitted the press to do its own fundraising.

Comments were poignant and sometimes fiery. Notable among them, graduate student Jason Beckman referred to the stress caused by the decision to axe Press funding to support a few graduate scholarships instead: “Do not threaten to impoverish our futures while making overtures of support for our mental health. We see the repeated attempts by the provost and deans to weigh funding for graduate students against funding for the press and categorically reject this logic as a false choice. Make no mistake that we stand firmly with our faculty advisors and the press on this issue, and will not be used as rhetorical human shields for the administration’s myopic stance towards the Press and academic publishing. If this university did in fact value our mental health and well-being, it would consult us in good faith as actual stakeholders on major issues that may profoundly affect the academic fields in which we hope to establish careers.”

He referred to meeting some graduate students had with Provost Drell on May 2, about how to interpret the standing of the humanities and social sciences at Stanford in the wake of her decision to effectively defund the press. He said she discussed on the two types of degrees that she believes will serve our society going forward. “First, social science degrees buttressed by data proficiency and computer science skills, and second, humanities degrees, which are the ‘best equipped’ to deal with post-human concerns in a world of proliferating robotics and artificial intelligence. Far from assuaging our concerns, such a response only reaffirmed that this institution does indeed marginalize the humanities and social sciences—which seem to have value only insofar as they support STEM fields. A university that stands behind and supports all of its scholars and students, and that values scholarship itself, should not position itself as openly hostile or indifferent to certain kinds of scholarship. We find that bias clearly manifest in the Provost’s initial decision to decline the budget request from SUP, a decision that would devastate the press. ” (His comments are included in full on the “Save Stanford University Press” website here.)

The meeting ended by approving a resolution, along with an additional faculty committee that proponents argued will provide additional transparency and an invigorated role for faculty governance in matters pertaining to the Press.

And below: a few samplings from the promised Twitterstorm:


Stanford Faculty Senate discusses Stanford University Press on Wednesday – prepare for a Twitterstorm!

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

The Faculty Senate will discuss Stanford University Press on Thursday afternoon. So many people will be attending the meeting has been moved to a larger venue. PLEASE HELP with our Twitter storm, 3:30 to 5 p.m. PST Thursday. Use the hashtag #SupportSUP.  We’ll be posting the best of the tweets at the Book Haven! (We got a head start on the job with some early arrivals below.)

Crisis at Stanford University Press: What is the answer? We have it in a single graphic!

Sunday, June 9th, 2019

We’ve written about the crisis at the Stanford University Press here. The insistence on making the Press “sustainable” is a will-o’-the-wisp – no university press is; they aren’t meant to be. The matter will be discussed further this Thursday, June 13, at Stanford’s Faculty Senate meeting. You can read the story “What Really Happened at Stanford University Press: An Insider’s View” by the Press’s director emeritus Grant Barnes in The Chronicle of Higher Education here.  The problem has been featured in the national media. What is the answer? We have the solution in a single graphic, courtesy Ge Wang, Stanford’s resident genius and associate professor at CCRMA (also co-founder of SMULE and designer of the Ocarina):


“Alt-ac” at the MLA? “Things are so desperate that a few academics are even considering change.”

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

He never looked back … well, almost never.

Stephen Marche, a refugee from academia, went as a sort of tourist to the Modern Language Association convention in Chicago this year, and it was a downer.  “The MLA this year took, as its principal subject, the death of its own significance,” he writes in the current Times Literary SupplementWhat’s happened to the humanities?  The lack of reading – c’mon real reading, like Kafka and Proust and Milton and Dostoevsky – and the omnipresence of the electronic media have “the rug has been pulled out from under a whole scheme of meaning.”

Marche’s particular target is a “neat piece of jargon for these alternatives to academia: the alt-ac track.” He found one alternative himself: the Canadian novelist, essayist, and cultural commentator taught Renaissance drama at CUNY until 2007, when he resigned in order to write full-time. He is now a contributing editor of Esquire. 

He reflected on his former life: “The cloistered interiorizing logic of the system makes life outside seem halfway impossible. From the outside, ‘academic prestige’ as an idea is completely ludicrous. From within, nothing could be more in earnest. Thus the inherent hilarity of the phrase ‘academic superstar’.”

“And this is what the graduate student facing a non-academic job has to confront: They’ve been collecting Disney bucks their whole lives and must now leave the magic kingdom. Alt-ac brings with it stigma and shame as well as terror.”

He maintains “the ostentatious left-wing politics of academia is camouflage for a deeply conservative way of life.” Elsewhere, he writes: “The cloistered interiorizing logic of the system makes life outside seem halfway impossible.”

Things are so desperate that a few academics are even considering change. Peter Kalliney, from the University of Kentucky, proposed a plan he had been imposing on his own department: “Fun, effective courses to non-majors” is “the way to the major”. What if you taught courses, in other words, that people wanted to take? At his department, Kalliney insisted on “a few strategic new courses in growth areas” – creative writing, film, mythology – and insisted, most radically, on senior faculty members teaching the most popular courses. This is the exact opposite of what is typically done, where senior academics toddle around their specialist subject among the upper years, while overworked contract staff slug it out in the trenches with the masses who have to take classes. Instead, why not have the best-paid, most experienced teachers teach students who need to be convinced of the value of literature?

The current state of the humanities can be found in the juxtaposition of these two sessions. First, academics devote their lives to writing things they know that nobody will ever read, then they gnash their teeth about why nobody cares about what they do.

In one of the more desperate pleas for relevance, the MLA introduced a session called “Humanities in Five” at this year’s conference. “Scholars from multiple fields present five-minute descriptions of their work in accessible languages”, the description read. “Chicago journalists serve as judges. The goal is to offer models for sharing work in the humanities with the general public.” The event itself, in a sparsely populated ballroom, had the painful incompetence of people doing stand-up for the first time. The professors reverted to the standard lecture speak and their weird fascinations: the trade in ivory between Zanzibar and Connecticut, the influence of Jewish conversos on early Jesuit writings, applying Bourdieu’s theories to YSL’s India collection from the 1970s. One of the scholars lost the ability to speak for fifteen seconds. Somebody played the blues harmonica, which is never a good sign.

Congratulations, from one angle. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

He recalled a student who told him she feels like she’s betraying her mentors by looking for a non-academic job. “I want to tell her: It’s the professors who betrayed you long ago.”

“It’s not just hurt feelings. The problem is practical. If you are a graduate student, and you want advice on how the world outside academia works, there is nobody worse to ask than an academic. Asking a professor for advice about how to find a job outside academia is about as useful as asking a priest for advice about the wedding night.”

As someone who has tethered her inflatable life-raft to the cruise ship of the university, and tied it to the humanities in particular, I find it tragic that the whole thing is going blub-blub-blub. But at least the TLS and Stephen March are helping us have a last drink and a few laughs as the ship hits the iceberg. And it’s the free online offering this week at the TLS, here.

What is Vasily Grossman’s novel like in Russian? “One of his strengths is that he does not try to dazzle the reader,” says his translator.

Wednesday, June 5th, 2019

At 2014’s international conference on the 50th anniversary of the death of Vasily Grossman.

Vasily Grossman is one of my all-time favorite writers, and Life and Fate one of my all-time favorite books (I haven’t started Stalingrad yet, but I expect I’ll add it to the shortlist). I’ve written about Grossman here and here and here.

Moreover, Robert Chandler is a remarkable translator. (He translated Life and Fateand now, with his wife Elizabeth Chandler, Stalingrad.) So good, in fact, that some of my Russian friends have insisted that the English translation is better than the Russian original. True? 

I had the nerve to approach Robert Chandler himself for an answer the questions, and a few others: What are Grossman’s books like in Russian, and what is inevitably lost, or created, in the English? And, with all due modesty, does he think the translations exceed the original?

The kindly translator sent me this reply:

Dear Cynthia,

In answer to your question: Andrey Platonov – an equally great writer himself, and a close friend of Grossman – followed a very different path. His first published book was poetry and much of the prose he wrote relatively early in his career, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, is complex and innovative. From the mid-1930s he began to write more transparently. His later prose, though extremely subtle, has at least the appearance of simplicity. Grossman’s writing evolved almost in the opposite direction. He began as a journalist and wrote better and better throughout his career. The last and greatest of his short stories (“Mama,” “The Road”) attain the level of poetry.

I would not for one moment imagine I could improve on the style of these last stories. The long novels, however, are inevitably uneven. There are paragraphs, and sometimes chapters, that are beautifully written, and there are also passages that are repetitive and ponderous. I have, on occasion, eliminated some of the repetitions.

One of Grossman’s strengths is that he does not try to dazzle the reader. He uses the plainest language adequate to the task. Some Russian readers, however, seem unable to see the depth of thought and powerful imagination that lie beneath the surface ordinariness of much of his writing.

One more point: Stalingrad IS a greater novel in English than in any published Russian version – but that is simply because we have been able to restore many brilliant passages from Grossman’s early typescript that his editors compelled him to omit.

Perhaps we too easily forget the way these manuscripts were written on the trot, hidden, transcribed, destroyed, and eventually recovered – it’s not the same as an academic novel written during a residency on the Amalfi coast.

In any case, those of you in New York City will have a chance to ask a few questions of your own. There will be a panel on Stalingrad at McNally-Jackson Bookstore, on Monday, June 24, 2019 – 7 p.m. Address:  52 Prince Street. Panelists include: Sam Sacks, the fiction critic at the Wall Street Journal; Phil Klay is a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War and the author of the short story collection Redeployment, which won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction, and Edwin Frank, founder and director of the NYRB Classics series. Read more about the event here.

Remembering Michel Serres (1930-2019): on angels, messages, and television sets

Monday, June 3rd, 2019


Responding to the challenges of the present. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The tributes have started to pour in from every direction. “No one is ‘surprised’ by a death  in the 89th year of life, even today. That his readers in many countries must have experienced the news of the death of Michel Serres on Saturday as a painful incision thus means – even if we, the successors and heirs, do not want to admit this – that an epoch of the spirit has come to an end is where one generation (not a ‘school’) of independent thinkers has responded to the challenges of the present – one last time from France and Europe for the world.” So wrote Stanford’s eloquent and eminent Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht in Die Welt over the weekend. That’s a rough translation. You can read “Der letzte Geistes-Gigant, (The last giant of the spirit”) in German here.

Dan Edelstein, chair of Stanford’s Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, confessed to a “grande tristesse.” He continued:  “I occasionally audited Michel’s classes when he still taught at Stanford. My favorite memory was when he stood up one day in mid-sentence, walked over to the white board, and wrote something in ancient Greek. Then he sat down, without bothering to comment on it. I’m not sure any of us could even read what he’d written, but it felt like we’d just witnessed the passing of an age.”

Derek Schilling, a former Stanford faculty member and now chair of the French Department at Johns Hopkins’ University, where Serres once taught, wrote this in a letter to Edelstein: “There were no thinkers of his generation fully comparable to Michel Serres, so original and idiosyncratic was his poetic approach to knowledge, and so firm his belief in the communicability of thought and in the exigencies of style. The breadth of Michel’s teachings, and the wisdom and openness to interdisciplinary inquiry that came along with them, were to mark generations of students and colleagues. Not all of them picked up a Gascon accent, though each would carry something of that particular music with them through the years.”

Chance meeting with lasting effects: Winchell and Serres

Another former Stanford faculty member, James Winchell, recalled meeting Serres long ago:  “When I first arrived at Stanford in 1988, I had yet to ‘check in’ at the Dept. of French & Italian (semester had not begun) and not all colleagues were back on campus yet. So I was taking a long walk around the quad and in the eucalyptus groves and in the distance I saw a white-headed figure pedaling toward me on a bicycle. As he rode up his hair stood out à la Einstein and he pulled up and said without pause, ‘Vous êtes James?’ (We hadn’t met during my ‘job-candidate visit’ because he wasn’t on campus at that time.) I of course replied in the affirmative, and received the warmest welcome to my new faculty from one of my two most prestigious – and least pretentious – colleagues. Michel even visited my class on occasion, and would afterward comment on my whiteboard visuals.” (Photo at right commemorated the occasion.) His more formal Facebook tribute, in French and English:

Hommage à Michel Serres: Comme m’arrive à l’esprit de plus en plus de ces jours, je me rassure que les atomes, les sémences et les particules (y inclus ses paroles, ses pages, son corps, et les reflets du souvenir chez ses étudiants et ses amis), qu’il a distribués si généreusement pendant toute sa vie, se ramasseront dans une turbulence aussi cosmologique et bien branchée que celle qui la précède: Comme chez Lucrèce, De rerum natura.”

In English translation: “As occurs to me more and more often these days, I find reassurance that the atoms, seed-grains, and particles (including his words, his pages, his body and the reflections in the memories of his students and friends), which he sowed so generously throughout his life, will gather themselves into a turbulence as galactic and pluri-formed as the one preceding it: As in Lucretius’ On The Nature of Things.”

I commented over the weekend that I had interviewed him for the only English-language video he had made – but it’s apparently not the only English-language interview. One appeared online over the weekend. Hari Kunzru‘s Q&A was commissioned by Wired, but then never published, considering it “to French.” The interview at London’s Hazlitt hotel in Soho took place on January 10, 1995. James Flint  made a third. “Serres kindly spoke in English and I have retained most of his quirky phrasing.” A few excerpts:

HK: Why are angels important for someone thinking about new media and communications?

MS: In my book about angels I try to put a short circuit between the very ancient tradition of angels in monotheistic or polytheistic traditions and the jobs now about messages, messenger and so on. I think that this connection, between ancient time and new time is very interesting to understand. On one hand, the ancient forms and ancient traditions, and on other hand, the new and the real jobs about medias. Because our job – your job – is to receive messages, to translate messages, and to send messages in some respect. Your work is about messages. You are a messenger. I am a messenger. I am a professor. You are a journalist. Our job is about messages.

HK: I’m interested in what you say about history. People conceptualise the present day as a time when there has been a rupture with the past. You are deliberately making a link between the two.

MS: The problem is to think about the historic link between ancient time and the new world because this link is cut. Many people think about our time without reference to traditions. But if you read the amount of books about angelology in the Middle Ages, if you translate certain words into modern language you see that all the problems were about translation, about messages. These are exactly our problems. When you put a short circuit, you obtain sparkles and these sparkles give light to the traditions and our jobs.

HK: Part of the effect of using the trope of the angel to understand communication seems to me to invest our world, the modern world with a sense of the sacred. Would you agree with that? Maybe you would make a distinction between the sacred and the spiritual.

MS: Yes, the spiritual. My first point was to understand and to clarify our jobs in a practical way. But I avoid in certain the spiritual problems. I prefer to speak about logical problems or practical problems. The problem of good and evil for instance is very easy to explain when you see that the messenger or channel is neutral, and on a neutral channel you can say I love you or I hate you.

HK: The channel itself is neutral.

MS: Yes, and the problem is not spiritual. The problem is to explain why with the same channel, the same messenger, you can get bad or good results. You see?

HK: Perhaps. You’re saying your book is a book of ethics.

MS: In many ways, yes you are right.

HK: But you’re saying we should approach ethics not in terms of some a priori sense of the spiritual, but framed in terms of transmission and communication.

MS: Yes. I can give an example of ethics. I am a professor, and when I give a lecture, in the beginning I am Michel Serres, I am the real person who speaks. I must make a seduction for my students. I may begin with a joke, for example. After that I must disappear as a person on behalf of the message itself. The problem of disappearing as myself to give way to the message itself is the ethics of the messenger. Do you see what I mean?

HK: So you reduce your own subjectivity

MS: Yes, the reason why angels are invisible is because they are disappearing to let the message go through them.


MS: Exactly. If you read medieval angelology you find exactly the same demonstrations because all the problems for angelology – what is a message? who are the messengers? what is the messenger’s body? – like Saint Thomas Aquinas, the early church fathers, the Pseudo-Dionysius, and so on. In the beginning of my book I quote the problem of the sex of the angels. Everybody smiles about this problem, but it is a serious one, a problem about transmission.

HK: A serious functional problem.

MS: Exactly.

HK:  This is what I began to find when I looked at scholastic philosophy. Having thought it was full of ridiculous problems about angels on pinheads I found that serious problems were simply framed in this vocabulary.

MS: You are right. I was very surprised to find that in the beginning of my career.

HK: Let’s talk about television. You return again and again to the negative things that TV brings us. I’m interested to know whether all media is a form of pollution, or whether its just the mass media, which makes the viewer or listener passive. I am interested in the possibility of two-way media, two-way means of communication, an interactive form. Do you think that would be less socially damaging than the mass media?

MS: In the beginning of our history many centuries ago, the Greek fabulist Aesop said that the tongue was the best and the worst thing in the world. This very ancient sentence is exactly the same for us. It is so for the tongue, for language, but also for very sophisticated channels of communication and for instance your question about the TV is a good question because TV is one of the best channels in the world to have information, to have education, to receive instruction, to have OpenUniversity, to have a good lecture, to discover the world. It is the best channel, but on the contrary, do you know that in the US now a typical teenager has seen 20000 murders already in his life, already at fourteen years old? It is the first time in history that we teach murder to children in this intensive way. It is the best channel and the worst at the same time, and it is not a discovery because Aesop told us this centuries ago. I think it is a paradox of communication. When all channel is neutral it can carry the best message and the worst.


JF: Ballard remarks that Britain and perhaps France because we have relatively few channels, we are more mediated than the US because there are so many channels and it’s on all the time like wallpaper.

MS: The increasing number of channels doesn’t really change the situation. whether you have ten or two hundred channels, they all say the same thing. The reality doesn’t change.

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on 4 June from Maria Adle Besson, who directs the Ivy Plus European Leaders – The Forum of European Leaders in Paris (we’ve written about her here and here): An exceptional philosophical storyteller, an encyclopedist in love with life, curious of connections, odd or secret links between things. I had the chance to meet Michel Serres at Stanford when he became an ‘Immortal’ and attend a few of his eclectic lectures across the years. The last one was on the Bearded Men of the 19th Century, where he intertwined Marx with Monet, Darwin,Victor Hugo, Freud, Zola, Renoir… Disrupters of the age of inventions all had beards; we were left to draw our own conclusions. In France, I called him several times to organize an event around him; his responses often threw me off. ” I am in the middle of the vineyards, in my country, I can smell the …, I hear… ” ” What do you mean, ‘open’ the conference? How does one ‘open’ a conference?” While his head followed all evolutions, his feet stayed grounded in the past, nature, the land and the French language.

When I asked the University to invite him for a major event in Paris, insisting that he was a major figure in France, the answer was: “He does not have an email. We cannot invite him. Who has heard of someone without an email address?”

Sad that after René Girard, another great man in the humanities disappears from my inner intellectual and affective landscape. 

Au revoir to Stanford’s Michel Serres (1930-2019), one of France’s foremost intellectuals and master of the “grand récit”

Saturday, June 1st, 2019

Resident Socrates (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Michel Serres, one of France’s leading public intellectuals, died today in his native land. He was 88. The longtime faculty member at Stanford and immortel of the Académie Française, had a regular radio spot, and the publication of his many books (he had written at least 60) was an event. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here

“Why do I speak on the radio? It’s very simple,” he explained to me. “A class that I teach may have 25 students; a radio audience 4 million. That’s interesting for a professor who is trying to raise the level of cultural life.” I was, to my best knowledge, the only person to ever record him in an English-language interview. See the short youtube video below. I also had the privilege of attending one of his small classes for a quarter back in 2009.

According to his friend, Robert Pogue Harrison, “For the last 150 years, Western philosophy primarily has been a story of telling philosophers that they cannot do this, that or the other. They cannot synthesize, philosophize, cannot tell the grand story.” This idea of the grand récit, he said, “is distinctly non-postmodern, maybe even non-modern.”

“His is the ‘yes we can’ of an older concept of the philosopher. Yes, philosophers can—even in our time—tell the grand récit.”

The comment is from my 2009 interview here. Here’s more from the article:

Serres was born in 1930 in Agen, on the Garonne river in southwest France, the son of a bargeman. Friends say his humble country origins are key to understanding the richness of his thought and his fundamental decency.

He was studying mathematics at the Naval Academy when he found Simone Weil‘s Gravity and Grace. Largely because of that book’s impact on him, he left the academy and turned to philosophy. He entered the famous École Normale Supérieure (which Weil had attended) in 1952; he received a doctorate with a thesis on Leibniz’s philosophy in 1968. He was appointed to a chair in the history of science at the Sorbonne, where he taught for many years.

To tell the grand récit, said Harrison, Serres must trawl “the natural sciences, genetic science, all new biotic, evolutionary, cosmological discoveries” as well as the history of science, philosophy, literature and religion and bring them to bear on philosophy, concocting “a coherent theory of where we are in human knowledge.”

“And he’s doing that. Especially in the last five to seven years, his work of synthesis is very compelling.”

Serres weaves the history of science, mathematics, thermodynamics, chaos theory, Balzac, Proust, Zola and Chateaubriand into his reflections. His thinking perhaps is better known for its roads than its destinations, whether he’s discussing le tiers-instruit, the third element between antitheses, or the pervasive relationships between parasites and hosts in human affairs or bridges.

It’s impossible to present the full Serres banquet—there are too many dishes for that—but perhaps it’s possible to offer the tiniest hors d’oeuvre: an ongoing concern of Serres has been the nature of time. He said the nature of time is more like the experience of closing your eyes, when images, thoughts and memories come to you in a jumble.

In his book-length interview with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, he compares time to a handkerchief. Flattened on a table, the distance between points can be measured. But crumpled in one’s pocket, he wrote, “Two distant points suddenly are close, even superimposed.” If torn, two points that are close will suddenly become distant—time becomes topology, rather than linear geometry.

“As we experience time—as much in our inner senses as externally in nature, as much as le temps of history and as le temps of weather—it resembles this crumpled version much more than the flat, overly simplified one.”

Incidentally, he was one of two immortels at Stanford. The other, his friend and colleague René Girard, died in 2015. Read the rest of the article on Michel Serres here.  My youtube video interview below.

Postscript on June 3: The video below was picked up and described by Radio France International here

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

Friday, May 31st, 2019

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

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

He said, “Non”!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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