“A Titan”: Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s last voyage, 1930-2017

March 17th, 2017
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Shakespearean energy and scale

A few weeks ago, when I met Robert Pinsky for a quick coffee on San Francisco’s North Beach, he passed on the sad news that Nobel poet Derek Walcott wasn’t doing well, and to expect the bad news soon. And so I did, all the more when a Facebook friend, in touch with Walcott’s daughter, said the poet had slipped into a coma some days ago. He died today at 87.

The official cause of death has not been cited, but I’m pretty certain the poet died in the place, if not the way, he would have wished: on his native St. Lucia in the Caribbean, the sea that was the lifelong inspiration for his poems and plays. “I go back to St. Lucia and the exhilaration I feel is not simply the exhilaration of homecoming and of nostalgia,” he once said. “It is almost an irritation of feeling: Well, you never got it right. Now you have another chance. Maybe you can try and look harder.

He was born on the island, and attended the newly established University College of the West Indies in Jamaica. After graduating in 1953 he moved to Trinidad. He was awarded the Nobel in 1992. He is best remembered for his epic poem Omeros. The Caribbean’s brutal colonial history, as well as the native beauty of these islands, were his themes.

“He’s a titan.” That was from Garrett Hongo, another islander from another ocean, the Pacific: a Japanese-American poet from Hawaii. He continued:  “I’m weeping quietly and slowly. I cannot even begin to think of all the ways he has inspired me at different times in my life since I was a boy in an audience of a theater weeping at hearing his words in the dark, stage rain glittering down on the floorboards in front of me.”

“He was kind and encouraging to me when I was starting out. And he once called out my name as I stood in an autograph line, waiting with others. He said something to me I will never forget.” What did he say? “It was praise, I’ll just say that.”

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Another island poet remembers.

Garrett had hoped to travel to St. Lucia in February for his birthday but was told he was ill and would not be seeing any visitors this year. He thought to present the essay that was a tribute to him, which had been presented at the Folk Center on St. Lucia. It didn’t happen. “He mana’o he aloha,” [I have a feeling of love] he said, in tribute.

According to NPR, when Walcott was teaching at Boston University 1984, he said that a book-length poem like Midsummer was a natural extension of the language all around him. “You would get some fantastic syntactical phenomena,” he said in an interview, “You would hear people talking in Barbados in the exact melody as a minor character in Shakespeare. Because here you have a thing that was not immured and preserved and mummified, but a voluble language, very active, very swift, very sharp. And that is going on still in all the languages of the Caribbean. So that you didn’t make yourself a poet — you entered a situation in which there was poetry.”

More from The Guardian:

Walcott continued his project to make the western canon his own, summoning up the spirits of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats and Eliot in collections that explored his position “between the Greek and African pantheon”. His decision to write mostly in standard English brought attacks from the Black Power movement in the 1970s, which Walcott answered in the voice of a mulatto sea-dog in The Star-Apple Kingdom: “I have no nation now but the imagination./ After the white man, the niggers didn’t want me/ when the power swing to their side./ The first chain my hands and apologize, ‘History’ / the next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride.” While Omeros tackled the ghost of Homer head on, relocating Achilles, Helen and Philoctetes among the island fishermen of the West Indies.

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Accepting the Nobel from King Carl Gustav

In 2012, he told The Guardian that he felt that he was still defined as a black writer in the US and the UK. “It’s a little ridiculous. The division of black theatre and white theatre still goes on, and I don’t wish to be a part of any one of those definitions. I’m a Caribbean writer.”

We’ve quoted Dana Goia, California poet laureate and former chairman of the embattled National Endowment of the Arts, a lot in the last few days. Let us do so once more. This afternoon he said: “Derek Walcott was justly celebrated as the historic figure who entered the great tradition of English-language poetry with his Caribbean identity intact, thereby both enriching and transforming the canon. It’s less known what a superb playwright Walcott was. His theatrical legacy is in every way equal to his poetry. Foremost among his dramatic achievements was his reinvention of contemporary verse drama in plays bristling with Shakespearean energy.”

I had the same thought when reviewing his verse plays, The Haitian Trilogy fifteen years ago for The San Francisco Chronicle. I wrote that Walcott was attempting to re-create West Indian history on a canvas as large and mythic as Shakespeare’s War of the Roses:

Commenting about his plays to the Caribbean Quarterly in 1968, Walcott said, “I hope that there is a moment, or there are moments, when the thing becomes a poetry on stage; and I would prefer to eventually write a play which would be a poem.”

If so, Walcott has hit the target. “The Haitian Trilogy is like the great hull of a lost ship, its crushed timber shot through with starlight. And what lies at the bottom of the seas it once sailed is the inevitability of time, the inevitability of history to crush kings and the certitude of conquerors, the inevitability of remorse for things done and undone – and, as always, the ability of gold to betray men.”

Godspeed, Mr. Walcott. Requiescat in pace.

Postscript on 3/18: Courtesy Elizabeth Amrienwe have a 52-minute podcast with Derek Walcott at Boston University, on the theme “Poetry and Politics.” Irena Grudzinska Gross moderates. It’s here.

BREAKING NEWS: Finally, actual evidence that Trump plans to recommend eliminating the NEA and NEH

March 15th, 2017
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Vincenzo Camuccini’s commemoration of the day. He supported the arts, too.

It’s the Ides of March and President Trump has been busy with his knife.

This afternoon, Jane Chu, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, called in her staff to announce that the President has recommended the elimination of both cultural agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His budget will call for defunding both. A Republican White House political appointee was in the room during the meeting.

Harumph.

He supports the arts, too.

The decision now moves to the House of Representatives, where both cultural agencies have a great deal support, as we wrote about here. It’s time to flood the offices of your Congressional representative with letters and phone calls of support. Don’t know who your representative is? You’re not alone. Find it here.

“Now we know for sure where the president stands on the issue,” said Dana Gioia, California poet laureate and a former chairman of the NEA. “It is fortunate that in America we have a division of powers. The decision is now with Congress. I am confident that they will make the right decisions for our civic and cultural welfare.”

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Courage, Ms. Chu!

He added: “I urge everyone to write their representative in the House to speak for their cultural agencies.We want to win votes in the House!”

How is “defunding” different from the “elimination” of the agencies? An agency cannot be removed immediately. Its funding will be slashed over a period of several years as it winds down its operations.

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Grinch.

Seriously, though, if those hostile to the cultural agencies a quarter-of-a-century ago could not close the NEA – at a time when it was supporting photographs of crucifixes in urine – how will they successfully axe an agency that is now renowned for Shakespeare performances, jazz, and veterans writing about their war experiences? It seems little short of delusional. But let’s take no chances.

Speaking of William Shakespeare, let me repeat: it’s the Ides of March – you know, the day a mob of lynchers killed Julius Caesar. Let us echo Mark Anthony‘s words on this occasion: “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war!”

Postscript 3/15: And the race is on: Twitchy reported this story about  here. But they were citing The Hill here, but The Hill was reporting from Sopan Deb‘s 7:45 p.m. article from The New York Times here. But you read it first here, folks. And had you not read it here at about 11.30 a.m., you would not be reading it anywhere else. Stay tuned, folks. Postscript on 3/16: London’s Independent names Humble Moi, if not the Book Haven, in its story here.

Keep writing letters, and don’t panic! More on Trump, Congress, and the future of the NEA.

March 13th, 2017
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Spoleto Festival USA 2015; Opening Ceremonies

The opening ceremonies of the NEA-funded Spoleto Festival USA 2015.

From last week’s New York Times:

“New York City sees itself as the cultural capital of the nation — if not the world — but its artistic community is suddenly vulnerable to budget cuts in Washington, where the administration of President Trump is considering eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, which provides millions of dollars each year to groups in the city.”

News flash: Donald Trump cannot eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, or any of the other federal agencies. Got that? That’s good. The New York Times didn’t. These agencies were created by Congress, and can only be eliminated by Congress.

However, budgets can be slashed. An agency can be starved, if not murdered. Will it happen?

At least one hero I know is working behind the scenes to make sure that it doesn’t. A few words to the Book Haven from Dana Gioia, former chairman of the NEA, over the weekend: “There now seems to be a bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress to support the NEA and NEH. It is still uncertain what President Trump will propose, but it won’t matter in the end. The budget is done by Congress, and they are set to preserve the cultural agencies.”

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Dana Gioia takes advice from a friend.

A few weeks ago we wrote about the rumors that Trump will trash the NEA and the NEH. We wrote about Dana’s radio interview about the NEA and what you, as a private citizen, should do to protect it. The upshot: write, write, write your congressional representatives! It needn’t be long. Just two or three sentences. Go here for Dana’s remarks.
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Here’s some good news: Democrats and Republicans are voicing support for the agencies, in light of the concern that the Trump administration will propose a 2018 budget that will strike at the tiny, but popular NEA.

Not that it would help balance the books in more than an infinitesimal way. The NEA receives about $150 million annually out of a more than $4 trillion federal budget – less than one-tenth of one percent of the budget. Too small to be anything more than symbolic – and why axe popular institutions as a gesture?

Someone sent me an interesting column by Jennifer Shutt of CQ Roll Call, entitled “Some Republicans Lukewarm on Killing Off Federal Arts Funding,” noting that the NEA has been targeted in the past. But right now? There isn’t much interest in slashing it. Some quotes from the article:

Budget Committee member and Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla: “I think it has a lot of support,” he said, when asked how many House GOP members would back continued NEA funding. “It’s not a lot of money in this budget, so I think there is considerable sentiment for it. And a considerable belief that it’s a fight not worth fighting because there is not much money there.”

Walker: a fan of the arts

Walker: a fan of the arts

Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee: He said he has not looked at NEA funding extensively but added that he is not inclined to support cutting funding for the arts. “My background has a lot of music-related events to it: I’m from a music past, and my daughter is in a lot of the local theater and maybe even looking to go to New York,” Walker said. “I appreciate the education that is found in the arts, so at this point I have no path to making any kind of hard cuts right now.”

Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Charlie Dent, R-Pa.:  Speaking broadly about the upcoming fiscal 2018 process, Dent said, “We simply cannot increase Department of Defense funding on the backs of the non-defense discretionary programs.”

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y.: Speaking during the members’ hearing in February, he said, “I know it’s symbolic for a lot of people, but it does do a lot of good things in a lot of great communities, like my community in Buffalo and western New York.”

Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert:  “The arts and the humanities touches every congressional district in the United States,” he said. “So you know there is a lot of support for that, and I certainly take that into consideration … we’ll be working together to try to resolve these things,” Calvert said.

There’s more from Dana in a February 27 NPR broadcast, “Former Leader Of National Arts Fund Says Organization Should Be Protected” – go here. Quote: “What the NEA really does is fund art programs that are, for the most part, created in your community, by people in your community, to serve your community.”

Poet Elizabeth Bishop: “the loneliest person who ever lived.”

March 12th, 2017
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bishop-bookIn case you missed it, The New Yorker has a long feature by Claudia Roth Pierpont, “Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing.” It catalogs precisely how much Elizabeth Bishop lost over the course of a lifetime. In one passage, about her unrequited love for a Vassar classmate, Bishop mulls over that vague word in English, “friend,” that can describe Twitter followers you’ve never met or a man you’ve dropped two babies with: “Bishop confided to her notebook a few months earlier, while suffering over Margaret Miller: ‘Name it friendship if you want to—like names of cities printed on maps, the word is much too big, it spreads all over the place, and tells nothing of the actual place it means to name.'”

An excerpt from the New Yorker article, which discusses Megan Marshall’s new biography, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt),

Bishop began to travel restlessly—France, Morocco, Spain—at about the time she began to publish, in the mid-thirties. She had no real home, after all. At school, she had always hated holidays, getting through in an empty dormitory or as a friend’s appendage or sometimes just staying in a cheap Boston hotel. Her father’s estate provided enough money so that she didn’t need to work, and the Vassar classmate who did respond to her feelings, Louise Crane, was seriously rich. (The Crane family made paper, including the paper used in dollar bills.) Bishop was attractive to both women and men, sometimes too much so for her own good. In 1935, she turned down a marriage proposal from a young man she had strung along (just in case?) since college. He committed suicide the following year, and a postcard he’d sent her arrived a few days later, inscribed “Elizabeth, Go to hell.”

Louise whisked her off to Florida to recover, and she soon discovered Key West. Still a sleepy backwater of an island, it became her regular haven for nearly a decade, long outlasting the relationship with Louise. Bishop was deeply drawn to islands—places where she felt isolated, solitary, safe. Although she continued to spend time in New York, she hated the city’s pressures. Even having lunch with people from Partisan Review (including [Mary] McCarthy) gave her nightmares. She wrote very slowly, often working on a poem for years, and increasing requests for publication only made her aware of how little she had done. Her finest works of the late thirties were two Kafka-like stories that seem to reflect her emotional state: “The Sea & Its Shore,” in which a man toils to keep a public beach free of ever-accumulating papers, working every night, by lantern light, and trying to make sense of the scraps he finds; and “In Prison,” a condition that the narrator anticipates with relief.

And one more excerpt, on the publication of her collection North & South and her relationship with poet/critic Randall Jarrell:

Reactions to the book itself were mixed, but the most influential voices were highly favorable. Moore, wholly ungrudging, wrote a keen appraisal in The Nation, and Randall Jarrell, the most brilliant critic of the time, set the tone for future evaluations with his praise of Bishop’s “restraint, calm, and proportion,” just as she was entering a period when she seemed to be trying to drink herself to death.

Jarrell gave Bishop another important gift when, in January, 1947, he introduced her to Robert Lowell. Tall, handsomely tousled, and six years Bishop’s junior, Lowell charmed her as no one had since she’d met Moore. Indeed, he soon replaced Moore as her most valued friend, even though his first commercial book, “Lord Weary’s Castle,” also published in 1946, beat out “North & South” for the Pulitzer Prize. Throughout their lives, his work was far more celebrated than hers. Yet any competitiveness was softened by his devotion to her writing, by his eagerness (and ability) to help her in material ways—grants, jobs, reviews—and by an aura of romance, which he perpetuated (Lowell gave pretty much everything an aura of romance) and she indulged. Two years after they met, he nearly proposed; he remembered later that she told him, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”

Read the whole thing here.

Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem” comes to Stanford on Thursday night! Be there!

March 8th, 2017
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Robert_pinskyEvery U.S. Poet Laureate seems to initiate a project that puts a personal stamp on the office. For Robert Pinsky, it was the Favorite Poem Project. (it has its own website, with videos, here.) Since he’s at Stanford this quarter as a Mohr Visiting Poet (we wrote about that here), he’s brought the latest incarnation of the moveable feast here. The reading will be held on Thursday, March 9th at 7:30 at the Black Community Services Center.

Stanford’s new President Marc Tessier-Lavigne will be reading a poem, too. Join them Thursday night. It should be fun.

The event is free and open to the public. Read more on the electronic poster below.

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FPP Flier (Larger JPEG)
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Farewell to John Felstiner, critic, translator, poet: “an exemplary life in literature”

March 3rd, 2017
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Mary and John Felstiner at their campus home in 2009. (Photo: Linda Cicero)

Literary critic, translator, and poet John Felstiner died last week, on Friday, Feb. 24. He was 80, and had suffered from aphasia for six years. The Stanford professor of English is perhaps best remembered for his book Paul Célan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (Yale, 1997). His translation of Célan’s legendary poem, “Todesfuge,” is widely considered a masterpiece in itself (read more about his translation of the poem here). He is remembered by colleagues for his passion, humor, and fierce intelligence.

Don Share, poet and editor of the nation’s preeminent Poetry magazine, praised “an exemplary life in literature.”

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Exemplary. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“As [poet/translator] Michael Hofmann put it, his book Paul Célan: Poet, Survivor, Jew was ‘of inestimable value to anyone wanting to read Célan with understanding.’ That’s because John didn’t just translate the work, he translated the life – both difficult to narrate, but he succeeded. It should also be remembered that Felsteiner’s scholarly and literary service extended to the likes of work on Henry James, Max Beerbohm, Pablo Neruda, Franz Kafka, and editing collections of nature poems and Jewish-American literature, just to give a sampling.”

He was also known for his book Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems (Yale University Press), published in time for Earth Day, April 22, 2009. An NPR interview here; I wrote about the book here. An excerpt:

I’m not a scientist or a policymaker, I’m not a nature writer,” he said, deciding that he must be an environmentalist “for fear of being irrelevant.”

“In fact, environmental urgency trumps everything else,” he said. “I say that with due respect to the horrible tragedies happening all over the world.”

He began to wonder how he could use poetry about nature to reach people, using “the pleasure of poetry to reach their consciousness, and their consciousness to reach their conscience.”

“What’s the transition from consciousness to conscience—so that you will never drop an empty beer can in a bush?” he said.

The book that emerged from his labors—including six years teaching the Introduction to the Humanities course titled Literature into Life—took nine years to write.

At that time, I had interviewed John over the phone – he was at the couples’ home in the Santa Cruz mountains. But I interviewed both Mary and John face to face when I interviewed John and his wife, Mary Felstiner, a visiting professor in history, about a course they were teaching a course on what they called “creative resistance” during the Holocaust. They had given a talk at Stanford Hillel’s Koret Pavilion on their research.

What I wrote:

“People are so focused on the tragedy of the Holocaust – or if they think of resistance, it’s of armed resistance – that it’s so easy for humanities and arts and letters to get forgotten. Yet that’s what makes us human beings,” said John Felstiner their campus home.

The team is well positioned to map out this new branch of scholarship: He is the lauded translator and biographer of poet Paul Célan (1920-70). She is the acclaimed biographer of Charlotte Salomon (1917-43) in To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era.

celan-bookThe common feature of creative resistance, said Mary Felstiner, “is that pushing into the future, that sense that we need to mark this moment because there must be a future out there that will look back on us.”

The Felstiners’ investigations show that an explosion of drawings, paintings, music, writing, even graffiti was “pervasive all over Europe, all of the time, in unthinkable conditions.” …

For Stanford art and art history Associate Professor Jody Maxmin, the Felstiners’ April presentation offered “a clarity and simplicity that reminds me of what drove me to art in the first place.”

Perhaps that’s one reason why an unexpected sense of exaltation accompanied the standing-room-only event: “The last thing one wants to do is take joy in the Holocaust, but there is an elation to art,” said John.

Felstiner was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on July 5, 1936, and grew up in New York and New England. He graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard College, A.B. (magna cum laude), 1958, and Harvard University, Ph.D., 1965.

From 1958 to 1961, he served on the U.S.S. Forrestal, in the Mediterranean. He arrived at Stanford in 1965 as a professor of English, retiring in 2009.

He was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for Humanities. Paul Célan: Poet, Survivor, Jew was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. His Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan was published in 2001. See more of his books here.

He was three times a fellow at Stanford Humanities Center; a Fulbright professor at University of Chile (1967–68); visiting professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1974–75); and visiting professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale University (1990, 2002).

His collection of Célan’s manuscripts and letters, along with Felstiner’s own translation archive, are at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington.

He continued to swim every day until his final weeks, despite his illness. He went on expeditions with those around him, continued to enjoy music and poetry, and looked forward to visits from his children  and grandchildren. From my own occasional meetings with him, I know losing language and cognition frustrated him enormously, and I was moved to hear that he struggled against it to the last.

He is survived by his wife Mary, his two children: Sarah and Alek, and also two grandchildren.

Happy birthday to poet Edgar Bowers! He thought “intelligence and sympathy” would save the world.

March 2nd, 2017
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edgar-bowers3Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele has another birthday post (see earlier ones here and here and here). This time the Stanford alum is appreciating another Stanford alum, the under-recognized Edgar Bowers:

Born in Rome, Georgia, on March 2, 1924, Edgar Bowers served in Europe in the Second World War with the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps. After Germany surrendered to the Allies, he was posted to Hitler’s alpine retreat in Berchtesgaden, where he headed a unit of the “De-nazification” program, whose goal was to identify individuals and groups responsible for atrocities committed during the Third Reich.

In his later years, Bowers came to believe that the survival of the species depended on its intelligence and sympathy, though he recognized that human knowledge is inevitably limited and that science and peace will probably never entirely overcome the forces of ignorance and war. He published five books of poetry, including a Collected Poems in 1997.

Bowers died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in San Francisco in 2000.

One of Bowers’s best-known poems is “The Astronomers of Mont Blanc,” which he reads in the video below. The poem and the recording  (taken the early 1950s, when he was a graduate student at Stanford University) are reproduced with the kind permission of The Literary State of Edgar Bowers and its Executor, Joshua S. Odell.

Happy birthday, Edgar!

The Astronomers of Mont Blanc

Who are you there that, from your icy tower,
Explore the colder distances, the far
Escape of your whole universe to night;
That watch the moon’s blue craters, shadowy crust,
And blunted mountains mildly drift and glare,
Ballooned in ghostly earnest on your sight:
Who are you, and what hope persuades your trust?

It is your hope that you will know the end
And compass of our ignorant restraint
There in lost time, where what was done is done
Forever as a havoc overhead.
Aging, you search to master in the faint
Persistent fortune which you gaze upon
The perfect order trusted to the dead.

– Edgar Bowers (1924-2000)

Long after the Cold War, have we become our opponents? Václav Havel weighs in.

February 25th, 2017
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I have long observed how people become the thing they hate most, so when René Girard described how locked rivals come to resemble each other more and more, it was no surprise to me. Czech writer, dissident, and president Václav Havel apparently felt much the same way. This recent New Yorker article – Pankaj Mishra’s “Václav Havel’s Lessons on How to Create a ‘Parallel Polis” – has been an open tab in my Google Chrome window for at least a week. Don’t you wait that long to read it. Despite Mishra’s Manichaean cast of mind (it’s not a case of the pure and the monstrous, we could all use a little self-examination), it is essential reading that expresses some important thoughts for this particular historical moment:

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Have we become “statistical choruses of voters”?

The problems before humankind, as Havel saw it, were far deeper than the opposition between socialism and capitalism, which were both “thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories [that] have long since been beside the point.” The Western system, though materially more successful, also crushed the human individual, inducing feelings of powerlessness, which—as Trump’s victory has shown—can turn politically toxic. In Havel’s analysis, politics in general had become too “machine-like” and unresponsive, degrading flesh-and-blood human beings into “statistical choruses of voters.”

According to Havel, “the sole method of politics is quantifiable success,” which meant that “good and evil” were losing “all absolute meaning.” Long before the George W. Bush Administration went to war in Iraq on a false pretext, Havel identified, in the free as well as the unfree world, “a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction which can rationalize anything without ever having to brush against the truth.” In his view, “ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans” had amassed a uniquely maligned power in the modern world, which pressed upon individuals everywhere, depriving “humans—rulers as well as the ruled—of their conscience, of their common sense and natural speech, and thereby, of their actual humanity.”

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With Polish dissident editor Adam Michnik

Since Western democracies as well as Communist dictatorships had suffered a devastating loss of the human scale, it mattered little that free markets were more efficient than Communist economies. For, Havel believed, “as long as our humanity remains defenseless, we will not be saved by any technical or organizational trick designed to produce better economic functioning.” Individual freedom and social cohesion were no less under threat in the depoliticized capitalist democracies of the West. “A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system,” he wrote, and who has “no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.”

After he became President of his country, Havel attacked, in 1997, its “post-communist morass”: an iniquitous capitalist economy that convinced many that “it pays off to lie and to steal; that many politicians and civil servants are corruptible; that political parties—though they all declare honest intentions in lofty words—are covertly manipulated by suspicious financial groupings.” But Havel had long before noticed some manifestly deep similarities between the two rival ideologies and systems of the Cold War; they had provoked him to describe the Cold Warriors who wanted to eradicate Communism as “smashing” the mirror that reminded them of their own moral ugliness. Indeed, Havel predicted in the mid-nineteen-eighties, even as Communism began to totter, that the kind of regime described in Orwell’s “1984” was certain to appear in the West. He warned “the victors” of the Cold War that they would inevitably resemble “their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.”

Read the whole thing here.

Marcel Proust: The Movie!

February 20th, 2017
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proust4Kudos to our colleagues over at Open Culture. The website has posted for the first known footage of the French author Marcel Proust, fresh from the latest edition of the French journal, Revue d’études proustiennes. We include it, too, below.

The footage was recorded on November 14, 1904 – nine years before Proust the publication of Remembrance of Things Past. The occasion: the wedding of his close friend, Armand de Guiche. Proust descends a stairway, dressed in gray, not black – a little less formally, perhaps, than those around him. Look for him at the 37 second mark. (Hint of what to look for in the photo at right.)

A moment’s peace in World War I: Opera San José premieres Pulitzer-winning Silent Night

February 18th, 2017
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Colin Ramsey as Father Palmer and Mason Gates as Jonathan Dale. (All photos: Pat Kirk)

“War, we are taught to believe, is the work of opposing forces. The characters of  Silent Night are sworn enemies, soldiers from three countries facing each other in battle,” writes Georgia Rowe in The San Jose Mercury. “Yet, in Kevin Puts’ splendid dramatic opera, they come together, finding common ground and joining together in brotherhood.”

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Ricardo Rivera as Audebert, Matthew Hanscomas Gordon and Kyle Albertson as Horstmayer

The acclaimed Pulitzer prize-winning opera Silent Night, which retells a true Christmastime night of peace in the bloodbath of World War I, is making its West Coast premiere this month at Opera San José. It continues through February 26.

“One hears the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 so often that it’s tempting to suspect a little mythologizing, perhaps wishful thinking,” writes Michael Vaughn over at his blog, Operaville. “But no, the smallest bit of research reveals that not only did mortal enemies meet in No Man’s Land to exchange tidings and small gifts that winter, it happened at dozens of points along the front. Working from the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel, librettist Mark Campbell and and composer Kevin Puts did a masterful job of distilling those stories into three squadrons – Scots, French and German – and creating a moving, personal account of that astounding night. For their effort, they won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize.”

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Kirk Dougherty as Nikolaus Sprink; Julie Adams as Anna Sørensen

“After arranging for the composer to create a custom score for its 47-person pit, Opera San José has put on perhaps its most ambitious project ever.”

According to Vaughn:

The moral driver is (conveniently enough), an opera singer. Kirk Dougherty plays divo-soldier Nikolaus Sprink, singing his spinto protests against a terrible, pointless war with the kind of artistic passion that drives military folks crazy (“Artists make bad soldiers,” says his lieutenant). Preparing for a command performance before the Kronprinz with his singing partner/lover Anna, he refers to “all these fat old men, swigging their champagne,” the true beneficiaries of the bloodshed. Anna manages to talk him into taking her to the front for Christmas eve, and thus are the seeds planted for a rebellious truce. The Germans have Christmas trees, the French have chocolate, the Scots have whiskey. And the tenor arrives with an actual angel.

I watched the youtube preview video here – and the small, artificial Christmas trees are in it. That echoes an episode with the German soldiers in Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate(I wrote about the magnificent book here and here and here.) Which came first? Grossman’s 1959 novel, presumably – unless the incident actually happened in 1914.

“Opera San José, which takes seriously its role as an incubator for young artists, tends to concentrate largely on the works of the standard repertoire for understandable reasons,” writes Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle. “But the company’s occasional forays into more contemporary fare almost always seem to pay off, and this arresting production is no exception.”

silentnight

Colin Ramsey as Father Palmer, Mason Gates as Jonathan Dale, and others.


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