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And then this happened…more on the inaugural NOVITĀTE conference

Monday, November 27th, 2023

I’m late telling Book Haven readers about my most recent honor: From Luke Burgis’s remarks at the inaugural NOVITĀTE conference earlier this month, in presenting me with the inaugural Novitāte Award:

This first ever NOVITĀTE award goes to someone whose work embodies “New Models of Thought and Desire”, which this gathering is all about. She has carved her own (anti-mimetic) path inside and outside the world of academia, oftentimes while standing at the periphery—which is where the misunderstood, and sometimes even the scapegoats, lie. 

Cynthia’s work has been not only intellectually illuminating for me personally—I couldn’t have written my own book, Wanting, without it—but also edifying. 

This award may not be prestigious—yet!—and it comes with a relatively paltry cash prize of $1,000 (we’ll work on that, too!)—but you are the first recipient, and the most worthy that I could think of. I’d like to invite you to the stage to accept this First Annual NOVITĀTE Award for making an outstanding contribution to this year’s theme. Please join me honoring the 2023 award winner: Cynthia Haven.

Cynthia, you are a special person who I’m proud to call a friend. This event would not have been the same without you. You’ve done so much good work for so many years. Nearly every time we talk you remind me of what it’s all truly about. Our time on this earth is very short. As René Girard reminded us ( and as you often remind me), we don’t know how much time we have left. None of us do. You’ve inspired me with a sense of urgency—with a quickening of heart and spirit. And for that I want to thank you. 

Postscript: I almost forgot to include my own brief comments on acceptance of the award: “When Luke first told me about his idea for a conference, I didn’t connect its title, Novitāte, to Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “And be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” These words have been a touchstone for me over the years. What I came to understand is this: We can’t change the past, we can’t change our height or our parentage. We can’t change our emotions, at least not directly, because they happen at lightning speed and shapeshift as they move. We certainly can’t change other people – we’ve all tried that. But the one thing we can change the way we think about things – that is in our power. We can rewire our brains a little, and interrupt cycles of envy or resentment or retaliation by shifting our perspective, unsettling our mind a bit. It’s something that can begin now, tonight, and continue for the rest of our days. This week has given us a toolkit for doing so – we can begin renewing our minds now. That may be the best way to commemorate René’s centenary year. I’m deeply honored by this award. Thank you, Luke. Thank you everyone. And most of all, thank you René, and happy birthday.”

A rabbi’s P.O.V.: Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s conversion is social, not doctrinal

Sunday, November 19th, 2023
Ruth in Boaz’s Field by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (Wikimedia Commons)

“Wherever you go, I will go…your people will be my people.” Ruth converts, as does Ali, not because Naomi convinces her that Judaism is doctrinally right, but because she is impressed by Naomi’s character and wants to join her culture. ~ Zohar Atkins

Much ink has already been spilled on Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s conversion to Christianity, which she announced in the online journal Unherd a week ago. It was less of a surprise to me, perhaps. During my interview with the Somali-born activist six years ago, published in Stanford Magazine as “To Change People’s Minds”, she made an offhand, slightly dismissive remark about Christianity in passing, and I told her I was one of “them.” She was momentarily off balance, startled, apologetic – and for a brief instant we were both wide awake and open. And then it passed.

My first encounter with her was a dozen years ago, as I attended an onstage interview in Palo Alto with writer Susanne Pari as interlocutor. The two women were discussing terrorism, and Pari brought up the case of Faisal Shahzad, an apparently assimilated Muslim who turned to jihad and attempted to bomb Times Square. But Hirsi Ali interrupted Pari’s comments about his job loss as a possible motive for his actions.

“I have a problem with that,” she said.  “If we even remotely entertain’the notion that foreclosure and health care and normal adversity is an excuse to take away the life of another, then, she said, “we are really going down.”

Podcaster, substacker, rabbi Zohar Atkins

“He has a freaking MBA!” she exploded. “I know people who can’t read!” Hirsi Ali denied that “the only therapy is to get an SUV and fill it with explosives.” Nor did she excuse Nidal Malik Hasan, who “got to be a major in a voluntary army.”

“Why don’t we take these people at their word? ” she asked. “Why don’t we examine their convictions?”

Pari noted that, in her Iran-American childhood, there was only one mosque in the nation, in Washington D.C., and now there are thousands (“1150,” corrected Hirsi Ali). She took Hirsi Ali, a fellow atheist, to task for the conclusion of her book Infidel, in which she suggests that the love and tolerance exhibited in much of Christianity might be a force to subdue Islam. “I was very naughty!” Hirsi Ali admitted with a chuckle.

Pari said the very idea “was disturbing to me, frankly…What were you thinking?”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali – who lives under a fatwa, still – responded in a beat: “The superficial answer is, if every Muslim became Christian, I would live without bodyguards.”

Back to the present. Over at Zohar Atkins‘s substack, What Is Called Thinking, the rabbi, poet, and theologian argues that “Religion is Social,” and that in fact Ayaan converted to Christianity … via Judaism. (You can catch my podcast with him, “From Envy to Forgiveness,” here.)

He begins:

Outspoken New Atheist Aayan Hirsi Ali has converted to Christianity, but her arguments are more psychological and consequentialist than fundamentalist—she makes no mention of Christian dogma or creed. Instead, she focuses on her own need for meaning and her appreciation for the legacy of Christian culture and civilization when compared to other alternatives. Her conversion story thus bothered Christians and atheists alike. The former, because they felt she had failed to address the question of the truth of Christian doctrine; the latter because they felt she had failed to address the untruth of it. Ross Douthat wrote a compelling piece on her conversion that points to a lacuna in her conversion story, aside from the truth question: “the weirdness of religious experience.” She didn’t just convert because religion is a source of meaning, he says, but because the strangeness of religious experience provokes a recognition that the world itself is strange.

Speaking from a Jewish perspective, the hardline distinction between the truth of a religion, its practical civilizational value, and its psychological import falls away. Both Ali’s Christian critics and atheist critics take too shallow (though possibly an appropriately Protestant) view of religion. In the story of Ruth’s conversion to Judaism, now the paradigmatic script for all Jewish converts, we note that her motivations are primarily social and relational. “Wherever you go, I will go…your people will be my people.” Ruth converts, as does Ali, not because Naomi convinces her that Judaism is doctrinally right, but because she is impressed by Naomi’s character and wants to join her culture.

Jews read the story of Ruth on Shavuot, the Holiday that celebrates the Revelation at Sinai, because the distinction between divine revelation and interdependent communal formation are two sides of the same coin. Some people join because of supernatural experience, per Douthat’s point. But some join because they like the people who have supernatural experience. Or better yet, sitting at the table of deeply kind, deeply thoughtful, deeply inspiring people can itself be a kind of supernatural experience — even if it requires no belief in virgin births or split seas. In the middle ages, Maimonides pushed to shore up Jewish theology along 13 principles of faith, but historically Judaism has drawn friends and converts not because people agreed with these logical and abstract principles but because it has impressed them as a way of life.

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

Kurosawa to Bergman: “The best is after 80.”

Saturday, November 18th, 2023

Words of wisdom: Think you’re past it at 70, 80, or 90? Here’s a cheering thought. I recently found this sentence somewhere on the internet: “In case you’re worried that you’re too old to pursue your dreams … Frank Lloyd Wright completed a third of his life’s work between the ages of 80 and 92.” Was it his best work? I don’t know. Does it really matter?

Another story in a similar vein, from a different part of the world: Swedish film director and theater Ingmar Bergman turned 70 on July 14, 1988. On that occasion, he received a letter of advice from the Japanese filmmaker and painter Akira Kurosawa. Here is the letter he sent, posted on Facebook … and, inevitably, elsewhere on the internet. Kurosawa contends: “A Human Is Not Really Capable of Creating Really Good Works Until He Reaches 80.”

He concludes: “Let us hold together for the sake of movies.”

Full letter below:

Anthony Hecht centenary: two books for “the most erudite of modern poets”

Monday, November 6th, 2023

Poet David Mason writes about friend and fellow poet Anthony Hecht in The Wall Street Journal. Two books mark Hecht’s 100th birthday this year – a biography and a new collected. Mason writes:

“The poet and critic David Yezzi’s Late Romance (St. Martin’s) is a first-rate literary biography, graceful, thorough and moving, without the bloat commonly found in such endeavors. And the English publisher and editor Philip Hoy has given us a superb Collected Poems: Including Late and Uncollected Work (Knopf), including not only work from Hecht’s previous collections but also seven beautiful ‘Late Poems From Liguria’ and a worthwhile selection of uncollected work. Since Hecht is among the most erudite of modern poets, steeped in the Bible as well as Shakespeare, readers may be pleased to find nearly 50 pages of textual notes, plus a brief chronology.”

Mason writes: “Born to a family of nonobservant Jews in New York City, Hecht grew up with privilege but also a sense of life’s precariousness. His father frequently failed in business and thrice attempted suicide. His mother’s social pretensions eventually got on Hecht’s nerves. At the age of 6 he saw one result of the 1929 market crash—the blanket-covered bodies of suicides lying on the sidewalks.”

Hecht served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and served as a translator from French and German at ‘the liberation of Flossenbürg Concentration Camp . . . an hour’s drive from his Jewish great-grandfather’s hometown of Buttenheim,’ Yezzi writes. “What he saw in that camp and in combat ruined his sleep.”

His marriage was unhappy. Patricia Harris, a fashion model whom Sylvia Plath called as “pleasant as razor blades,” eventually moved to Brussels. His second marriage iin 1971, to Helen D’Alessandro, celebrated in his marvelous book Millions of Strange Shadows (1977).

Mason’s review concludes: “Readers will differ in their own responses to individual works, but no other recent poet in English has left us such an abundant display of what a certain kind of talent—ironic, formal, elegant—can do. He was my teacher and friend, which leaves me echoing what he said of his friend Joseph Brodsky: ‘Reader, dwell with his poems.’”

Read the whole thing over at the Wall Street Journal here.

Another Look book club back in the news: still an oasis for book lovers everywhere!

Monday, October 30th, 2023
Two people talking and laughing on stage. Next Avenue
Werner Herzog, on right, with Robert Harrison  |  Credit: L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Stanford’s “Another Look” club has gotten a lot of praise in the years since it was founded in 2012 by novelist Tobias Wolff (and now under the directorship of Robert Pogue Harrison) – among other surprises, we were featured in The Guardian. We’ve bragged about Another Look’s triumphs here and here and here.

Someone else has taken up the banner. Journalist Sharon McDonnell wrote an article in Next Avenue about books clubs generally, but with special attention to Stanford’s Another Look. Next Avenue,  a digital journalism publication produced by Twin Cities PBS. The PBS site has served over 80 million people, and millions more through its platforms and partnerships.

Her article begins: 

The Continuing Studies Program of Stanford University was stunned when 961 people attended its book club’s free talk about A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf‘s 1929 classic, in April 2023, in person or via Zoom.

But then, it’s not just any book club. German filmmaker Werner Herzog has been a speaker. Philip Roth agreed to an interview. The club always features panelists who are scholars or writers, who discuss a book before opening to audience questions. Ostensibly for the Stanford community, the club is in reality for anyone who wants to listen, since its talks are posted on the Another Look Book Club website and on YouTube.

Woolf on Zoom

This club shines a spotlight on books that are forgotten or merit more attention, some plucked from obscurity, others read decades ago, that are short (200 pages or so) and in print. Almost entirely fiction, book choices span almost 400 years and three continents, from The Queen’s Gambit, which became a Netflix series, to The Princesse de Clèves, a 1678 book most people are unfamiliar with. (Unless you’re a public sector worker in France, whose entrance exams include questions on it. After Nicolas Sarkozy, then President of France, denounced the book in 2009, sales doubled in a year.)

Ask the Dust, a 1939 novel set in Depression-era Los Angeles, The Lover, a novel about Vietnam in French Colonial days and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde show the club’s range.

Why so much fiction?

Read the rest of the story here. And join our mailing list here.

Oedipus is guilty of…what exactly?

Tuesday, October 17th, 2023
An expert on Oedipus

Oedipus was one of René Girard‘s ongoing interests, and his interpretation of the Greek myth was controversial and groundbreaking. Hence, one of the liveliest presentations during last summer’s Paris conference for the French theorist’s centenary was anthropologist Mark Anspach‘s short talk on the subject. Anspach is the editor of 2020’s The Oedipus Casebook: Reading Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. (You can read previous posts by and about him here and here and here and here, among other places.) He began this way:

Last year, French television broadcasted a noteworthy debate between two eminent figures. On one side, a 1960s student activist who later served in the European parliament. On the other, a philosophy professor and former minister of education known for his critiques of French theorists of the ‘60s. I will quote highlights from their debate in the original French to avoid losing any nuances, and then I will attempt an English translation.

And then there will be a quiz.

First in French:

––Tu dis que des conneries.
––Ta gueule!
––La tienne, pauvre crétin.

Now in English:

––You’re spouting pure BS.
––Shut your face!
––You shut yours, you pathetic dumbhead.

When I saw media accounts of this dialogue, I immediately thought of… Sophocles! That is because my view of the Greek playwright was shaped by the late, great Stanford thinker René Girard. As we will see, the quoted lines illustrate the same dynamic of conflict that Girard uncovers in the dialogues of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.

Antoni Brodowski ‘s “Oedipus and Antigone,” 1828

So now the quiz. The first question is: what was the debate between the former student activist and the philosophy professor about?

Well, based only on the above excerpts, there is no way to know. I quoted from the most heated moment of the dispute, when passions ran highest. But in that moment, the original theme of the debate was forgotten. As Girard tells us, when a conflict escalates, the rivalry itself comes to the fore and the original object of the dispute is lost from view.

That doesn’t mean that the dispute is not originally motivated by real differences in political ideology or conceptual outlook. This brings us to my second question: which of the lines quoted were spoken by the activist and which expressed the Weltanschaung of the philosopher?

Once again, there is no way to know. Even if you studied for this quiz by reading every book either of them ever wrote, it would still be impossible to guess who said “Shut your face” and who replied “You shut yours.” No matter how far apart the antagonists were at the outset, their differences dissolve at the height of their rivalry. As Girard holds, the more a rivalry intensifies, the more the antagonists resemble each other.

Yet the more they resemble each other, the more each is convinced he is right and the other is wrong. As it happens, it was the philosophy professor who said “You shut yours.” At the moment he spoke, he had good reason to believe he was right. Was not his rival wrong to insult him by saying “Shut your face”? He should have kept his big mouth shut!

What the philosopher may not see in the heat of the moment is that, by opening his own mouth and saying “You shut yours,” he is behaving exactly like his antagonist. In fact, he is imitating him. Rivalry fueled by imitation is what Girard dubs mimetic rivalry. As Girard shows, conflicts intensify through mutual imitation, moving toward ever greater reciprocity and symmetry.

The more symmetrical a conflict is, the harder it is to say who’s right and who’s wrong. Indeed, if you look at the reasons invoked by each side, you will often find that both parties are right. The philosopher was right in that his antagonist should not have said “Shut your face.” But his rival was equally right in that the philosopher should not have said he was spouting BS.

Each party sees half the truth: the half that applies to the other. To speak the truth about the other’s role in a dispute without recognizing that the same truth applies to ourselves amounts to scapegoating the other. It amounts to scapegoating even if the other is guilty as charged.

This is a key point. A scapegoat does not have to be innocent. To single out one of the rivals as uniquely responsible for the rivalry is itself a form of scapegoating. If each of two antagonists is guilty, if each speaks only half the truth – the half that applies to the other – then the scapegoating is mutual or reciprocal. This kind of reciprocal scapegoating is typical of mimetic rivalry. It is part of the symmetry that characterizes the rivalry.

Tit-for-tat escalation

But symmetry is not the whole story. There is also a tendency to escalation. Each party tries to get the better of the other by launching a bigger insult, a bolder accusation, a stronger blow. This can be understood as an attempt to break free of the symmetry by establishing what Girard in Oedipus Unbound calls a “dissymmetry” capable of re-differentiating the antagonists.

The philosopher does not merely respond in kind to the phrase “Shut your face” by replying “Shut yours.” Responding in kind would leave both parties on the same footing. He also adds a new observation designed to transcend the tit-for-tat exchange. It is as if he were saying: “You tell me to shut my face. I tell you to shut your face. It may look like we are the same. But there is a difference between us. And that difference is that you are a pathetic dumbhead.”

The precise term used was “cretin.” Strictly speaking, cretinism is a form of mental disability caused by thyroid insufficiency. Now, our philosopher is a lucid and intelligent man. Do we take him at his word when he asserts that his adversary is suffering from cretinism? Of course not. We assume that he is speaking out of anger. We react as the chorus in Oedipus the King reacts amidst the debate between Oedipus and Tiresias. “It is anger, I think, that inspires Tiresias’s words,” says the chorus, “and yours too, Oedipus.”

The sage of Stanford: René Girard

The debate between Oedipus and Tiresias is at the heart of Girard’s analysis. Oedipus hopes Tiresias will shed light on the murder of the previous ruler, Laius. According to Creon, the oracle blames the plague in Thebes on the fact that this crime was left unpunished, and Oedipus has vowed to hunt down whoever is responsible. But when Oedipus questions Tiresias, the renowned prophet stubbornly refuses to answer.

Oedipus grows increasingly exasperated. Finally, he declares that Tiresias must be guilty himself. Tiresias retorts that it is Oedipus who is guilty. In Violence and the Sacred, Girard interprets Tiresias’s words as “an act of reprisal arising from the hostile exchange.” By accusing Tiresias of being behind the murder of Laius, Oedipus prods him into “hurling the accusation back at him.”

Oedipus dares Tiresias to repeat the accusation. Not only does Tiresias repeat it, he tops it with a new, more terrible charge, insinuating that Oedipus is the son of the man he killed and of the widow he married. It is as if Tiresias were saying: “You accuse me of killing Laius. I accuse you of killing Laius. It may look like we are the same. But there is a difference between us. The difference is that you, Oedipus, are a patricidal motherlover!”

Is Tiresias right? Is Oedipus guilty?

From hunter to hunted

Violence and the Sacred suggests that Oedipus is not guilty. In that book, Girard uses Sophocles’ tragedy to introduce the concept of the surrogate victim or scapegoat. Oedipus, an outsider with a lame foot, is a scapegoat made to bear sole blame for the plague in Thebes. The accusations of patricide and incest leveled against him are typical mythic accusations. As crimes that abolish the most fundamental kinship distinctions, patricide and incest are signifiers of raging undifferentiation.

The plague itself, an illness that strikes everyone without distinction, has the same meaning. The real plague, the gravest crisis afflicting Thebes, is the breakdown of distinctions, the plague of undifferentiation to which the protagonists contribute by hurling back and forth the same accusations. Each accuses the other of being responsible for the crisis.

The question is who will succeed in making the accusation stick. When Oedipus ultimately accepts the charge of patricide and incest, he becomes the monstrous embodiment of undifferentiation. The loss of difference is laid at the door “not of society at large, but of a single individual.” The social crisis is resolved at the expense of a lone victim. The mythic nature of the accusations of patricide and incest suggests that Oedipus is innocent. In his later works, Girard emphasizes the scapegoat’s innocence.

But in Violence and the Sacred, Girard also highlights the role played by Oedipus himself in the scapegoating process. In Sophocles’ play, Girard writes, the “entire investigation is a feverish hunt for a scapegoat, which finally turns against the very man who first loosed the hounds.” Oedipus is the man who loosed the hounds. He tried to pin the blame for the crisis on Tiresias and Creon. He took part in the game of reciprocal accusations that was one with the crisis afflicting Thebes.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

If Girard is right, Oedipus may well be an innocent man wrongly accused of patricide and incest. As shown in The Oedipus Casebook, the evidence against him is not as solid as one might think. But Oedipus is not wholly innocent. He accuses others of responsibility for a crisis in which he himself shares the blame.

What is important for Girard in his early writings is not the substance of the accusations of incest or patricide or murdering Laius. It is the fact that Oedipus accuses others of guilt only to discover that he himself is guilty. That is the feature of Sophocles’ tragedy that first drew Girard’s attention and ultimately led him to his famous scapegoat theory.

In an early essay in Oedipus Unbound, Girard compares Sophocles’ hero to the Proustian snob: “The snob has no other model than the snob. He therefore has no other rival.” That is why the snob trumpets “his hatred of snobbery.” Seen in this light, “Oedipus’s excessive indignation, his zeal to track down the culprit, are revealing.” They call to mind the passion with which the Proustian snob denounces snobs. So it is that Oedipus “accuses Creon and Tiresias of the crime he himself committed.”

To use the language of Girard’s later writings, Oedipus scapegoats his rivals. To single out one’s rival as uniquely responsible for the rivalry is itself a form of scapegoating. This type of scapegoating is taking place all around us today. The degeneration of public debate into exchanges of insults is a clear sign of crisis. In this sense, the situation we are living through now is not unlike the one portrayed in Oedipus the King. If we see Oedipus purely as an innocent man accused of patricide and incest, then his experience will seem distant from our own. But if we see him as a person who accuses others before realizing that they are not free of blame themselves, then perhaps Sophocles’ play can help us navigate the present crisis.