Lena Herzog on lost languages: “We are floating on an ocean filled with the silence of others.”

April 6th, 2018

Photographer Lena Herzog at work.

Our post a few days ago about lost languages evoked some interesting responses – one of them from photographer Lena HerzogLena has made an occasional appearance in the Book Haven, and I interviewed her for Music & Literature here. She was a guest panelist at the Another Look book event on Dostoevsky, and her Entitled Opinions interview got record traffic.  

As a result of our conversation, she offered us a guest essay on the origins of “Last Whispers/Oratorio for Vanishing Voices, Collapsing Universes, and a Falling Tree,” which was mentioned on the post several days ago. “I got addicted to these vanishing voices,” she writes:

At the age of six I decided to learn English so that I could understand a puzzle in a Sherlock Holmes story. I had to know how the detective had decoded a death threat to his client’s wife in The Adventure of the Dancing Men. The key to that puzzle was the recognition of the recurring definite article “the”—a mysterious notion to me then since articles do not exist in Russian. I grew up in the Urals, on the western border of Siberia, where very few people spoke foreign languages. I picked up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original in English, along with a dictionary and a grammar text book, and struggled through the entire book line by line. Later, also prompted by the desire to read literature in the original, I studied French and Spanish and, worked as a proof-reader at a printing press in Saint Petersburg, next to the compositors that were busily nestling letters into words, words into sentences, and sentences into novels at a staggering speed, throwing proofs over to me like hot bread. So it made sense to me that when I went to Saint Petersburg University, the door plaque of my faculty read philology φιλολογία—including the original Greek, which means “love of the word.” However, all my plans to become a Russian novelist were upended by a complete linguistic dislocation to American English at age twenty, when I moved to the United States. The sense of personal language loss was concrete and overwhelming, alerting me to a far more universal and dire fate for most languages.

The idea for a project specifically on the mass extinction of languages came to me more than two decades ago. My old failed 2003 Guggenheim application was titled “Vanishing Cultures” and was at first, in part, a photographic project. I’d planned to take large-format portraits of the last speakers of various languages and place them in a room filled with their whispering voices. The concept of sounding vanished voices by broadcasting them as a muffled chorus was already central and clearly articulated in my description of the project back then.

I realized that indigenous communities give up their languages and switch to dominant ones under pressure from the forces of globalization. My next natural iteration of this idea involved shedding the images of the speakers and having only voices in a forest. When a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? This old philosophical trope, the basic epistemological exercise, seemed handy. What is our sense of the unobserved, unheard worlds? I have come to think of this old exercise as one in empathy: Does it matter that trees and universes collapse all around us? Somewhere, between our obliviousness to others and our own oblivion, rest the scales of some brutal justice.

The British Museum installation of “Last Whispers.”

My team and I began amassing a giant library of recordings of extinct and endangered languages on loan from international archives, working closely with many collections, linguists, and anthropologists in the field. Our main collaborator was the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, a project of SOAS University of London that is headed by Mandana Seyfeddinipur. When I went through their archives online, I realized there would be no point in just “stacking” languages back-to-back to form a single piece. Because these recordings were already public, generously so, it would have been possible to perform this kind of compilation just by clicking “next” on their website, and that would have been too obvious a gesture for the work I had in mind.

While working in my studio and darkroom, I created a setup that randomly played thousands of these recordings, one after another. I marked those that felt right for the oratorio I was planning and began narrowing down the library. The extraordinary researcher Theresa Schwartzman, in Los Angeles, and her counterpart in London, Eveling Villa, began reaching out to archives, linguists, and indigenous communities (when this was possible) to obtain rights and permissions for the recordings. Sometimes there was no community to reach. We went beyond the letter of the law, which held that the copyright resided with the linguists and the archives, and tried to reach those who claimed heritage to the language. Sometimes last speakers changed their minds, turning us down mid-composition and mid-film, and we had to redo the work from scratch. Each case had a story, most often a tragic one. We began to publish some of them on our website.

Mandana Seyfeddinipur and Lena Herzog

Every dialogue with a linguist, no matter how banal, brought insight. The professionals who travel and live among these last speakers are the unsung heroes in this story; they are the ones who collect, preserve, and help revitalize endangered languages. In my dealings with them, they were the advocates for the last speakers’ rights. One might think that they would number enough to form an army, but there are barely enough of them for a battalion. Most work alongside volunteers and language enthusiasts. And all of them, at least those that I have met, are on the side of indigenous peoples. To put it in espionage terms, linguists of endangered languages almost always “go native.” They are the ones who hear the trees falling in the forest. Our long list of credits names both the speakers and the linguists—meticulously.

The polyphonic global chorus that I heard had the makings of an astonishing oratorio, and to bring it into a public space beyond the form of the archive, I needed music and imagery that would reveal it in a condensed form. This form had to be invented organically; it had to come from the recordings, from the voices themselves.

Marco Capalbo and Mark Mangini, who work fluidly in both sound design and composition, joined the team, and we began to shape the oratorio from our already-narrowed library. My concept was multilayered and concrete: it included the use of sounds of Russian bells, forest noises, wind, interpreted gravitational waves from outer space registered by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (a.k.a. “the Listening Ear”), and the specific parameters for the source library itself. In my first brainstorming session about the work, I wrote to Marco and Mark:

Lena Herzog’s team Marco Capalbo, Mark Mangini and British Museum curator David Sheldon during the installation

What is the balance of the piece? What holds it together?

The “founding idea” of making the work is based on the recordings of languages that had already vanished or are well on their way to extinction. The parameters within which the selection was made for the source library—I have defined. This is clearly a glue as the overall idea and basic building blocks. … Using cosmic sounds of the universe within the composition expands the arc. Gives us “eternal” time. … I really love the opening with the bell. The end will have to be a giant chorus that builds and builds and then abruptly vanishes—in an exhale.

Shifting from fragmentation to a lyrical cradling of the voices, then back to fragmentation, and ending with a finale of interwoven harmony and dissonance were key to the piece I was constructing with my team.

Listening to the sounds of the voices and the first sketches by Marco and Mark, the photographer Tomas van Houtryve and I mapped a precise choreography of drone footage. Animator Amanda Tasse and I decided to create a new topography for the world that would have no “real” geography. We collected NASA images of hurricanes, cut out their edges, and sewed them together, forming something like a digital quilt to cover the earth. I thought that the edges of these vortices textured the continents and islands well, lighting the globe like a strange marble.

There is lamentation and melancholy in the oratorio. How can it be otherwise? And yet it is not a requiem—it is an invocation of languages that have gone extinct and an incantation of those that are endangered. I myself got addicted to these vanishing voices. I listen to them all the time now. They remind me that despite the deafening noise of our own voices, we are floating on an ocean filled with the silence of others.

The Devil and John Milton in Chalfont St. Giles: did my residency inspire a poem?

April 4th, 2018

Was R.S. Gwynn was with us in Chalfont St. Giles, in spirit at least? He sent a short poem, “Near Milton Cottage,” obviously inspired by the recent posts on my all-too-brief stay at the only extant Milton residence in Britain.

Sam denies it: “Actually, I’ve never been to Chalfont St. Giles. This was inspired by a trip to a Marks & Spencer (my first) near Salisbury. There’s really nothing in the U.S. like these stores – a sort of cross between Trader Joe’s and Macy’s, but on a smaller scale. I could have spent half a day in this one, sitting on sofas, trying on jackets, eating free cubes of cheese. I saw at least a dozen kinds of sausage I’d like to have tried. How Satan got in there, God only knows, but he does seem to prefer hanging with the upper middle class.” Marks & Spencer upper middle class? We think not. Try Harrods for that.

Sam Gwynn

He continued: “I did use the meter of ‘L’Allegro,’ by the way. It alternates full trochaic tetrameters with catalectic ones. The rhymes on the odd lines were fun, especially pitchfork and which pork. I’ve rarely used trochaic. It has a tendency to be lead-footed if you’re not careful.”  Wish I had his breezy facility. 

Here goes:


Near the Milton Cottage

Satan shops at Marks & Spencer
With a trolley heaped with cake,
Shedding, like a swinging censer,
Whiffs of brimstone in His wake.

Everything there sports one label
(At a fair though upscale price).
Swarthy stockboys shout in Babel,
Keeping picnic things on ice.

Stabbing goodies with His pitchfork
— Capons, capers, casual clothes—
He slows down to ponder which pork
Sausage most excites His nose.

Loosed upon their shops by Milton,
Now, midst sprats and Mozart tinned,
He unveils a putrid Stilton
To remind them how they’ve sinned.

He wolfs down endangered species,
Grills with Amazonian wood,
Chips the poles for ice with ease;
He’s got a credit line. It’s good.

Satan, consummate consumer,
Thrives in both the boom and bust.
See Him give a housewife room!
Herself ahead, He swells with lust.

Is He Tory? Is He Labour?
Are His economics planned?
Do thy best to do thy neighbour
In this green and pleasant land.

“Paper? Plastic?” croons the checkout.
Satan smiles and answers, “Both.”
Mrs. Bean now sticks her neck out
From a slow queue bagged by Sloth:

“Sinful Satan,” cries the woman,
“Are Your actions ever Green?”
Satan nods and smirks to someone,
“Let’s recycle … Mrs. Bean.”

What? Philip Larkin the novelist? Another Look takes on the poet’s 1947 “A Girl in Winter”

April 2nd, 2018

The young poet-to-be, when he looked like this…

Philip Larkin is one of England’s most eminent postwar poets. But relatively few know of his early sallies into fiction. Hence, the Another Look book club, which takes on overlooked, forgotten, off-the-beaten track novels (or simply ones that haven’t received the attention they merit) is taking on Larkin’s 1947 A Girl in Winter. 

The event will take place at the Bechtel Conference Center at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 30. Panelists will include author Another Look Director Robert Pogue Harrison, who will will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor also hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions, and contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. He will be joined by renowned author and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English at Stanford. Literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest knew Philip Larkin—a close friend of her late husband, historian and poet Robert Conquest—and has written about Larkin’s poetry.

If you’d like to know a little more about the book (I always do), Clive James discusses the work here. there’s a 2011 Guardian article by the British poet Carol Rumens here. And also a 1976 discussion of the book by Joyce Carol Oates in The New Republic here. They each have a very different take on the exquisite novel.

A Girl in Winter is going to be a terrific book to end the sixth Another Look season. The book will be available at Stanford Bookstore on the Stanford campus and Kepler’s in Menlo Park.

The book is also available on Kindle, for those of you who prefer that format, and many used copies are on sale at Amazon and Abebooks. Please be aware that there are two editions of the book, listed separately and unlinked on Amazon: One from Faber & Faber here, and the other from Overlook Books here.


“Those who read books own the world.” Lost languages, an Algonquin Bible, the Herzogs, and more

March 30th, 2018

A stroll down the corridors of Cambridge’s treasure house.

I visited the Old Library at Jesus College, Cambridge, last week. Prof. Stephen Heath gave an enlightening show-and-tell of the library’s incunabula to me and my fellow pilgrims, John Dugdale Bradley and Michael Gioia (Stanford alums, both). He brought out  an astonishing succession of treasures, including Thomas Cranmer‘s Bible, with its triple columns for comparing the original language (Greek, on the pages I saw) to the Vulgate Latin and English.

“What would you like to see last?” he asked me. What could I say? I had no idea what wonders might be in the back rooms. “Surprise me,” I said.

Marvels tucked away in a corner of Cambridge

And so he did. He brought out another Bible, this one from America. It was a 1663 Bible translated phonetically by John Eliot. The Natick dialect of Algonquin had no written form until he gave it one. He inscribed the particular presentation copy under my fingers for his alma mater at Cambridge, Jesus College. Was the Eliot name a coincidence? I remember a prominent New England family that spawned another famous Eliot, also with one “l”. On the other hand, I also knew that spellings of surnames were very fluid even into the 19th century.

When I got back to California, I checked on John Eliot, the Puritan missionary. He is indeed distantly related to T.S. Eliot, from the same Brahmin family in Massachusetts. Both descended from Andrew Eliot, whose family came to America via Yeovil and East Coker, Somerset.

But the Algonquin Bible haunted me for another reason: I recently attended a private screening in San Francisco of photographer’s Lena Herzog‘s Last Whispers, about the mass extinction of languages. I meant to tell her about the Algonquin Bible on my return, but now this blogpost will have to do. Perhaps the Algonquin language, which still has more than three thousand speakers, owes something to Eliot’s efforts.

The coincidences continued: this week, a new friend, Paul Holdengräber of the New York Public Library, sent me the link for his interview several years ago with Lena’s husband, the unconventional filmmaker Werner Herzog. The Q&A, “Was the Twentieth Century a Mistake?”, touches on the same subject – lost languages. (His comments are unrelated to Lena’s project, although their interests on the matter converge.) So here’s a hefty and relevant excerpt from the conversation between the two men:

WH: But, Paul, before we go into other things, I would linger a little on the twentieth century. And one of the things that is quite evident and looks like a good thing in the twentieth century is the ecologists’ movement. It makes a lot of sense, the fundamental analysis is right. The fundamental attitude they have taken is also right, but we miss something completely out of the twentieth century, which is—

Lena Herzog: a lover of language

PH: Culture.

WH: What went wrong in the culture, yes. That is, we see embarrassments like whale huggers, I mean, you can’t get worse than that, or tree huggers, even, such bizarre behaviour. And people are concerned about the panda bear, and they are concerned about the well-being of salad leaves, but they have completely overlooked that while we are sitting here probably the last speaker of a language may die in these two hours. There are six thousand languages still left, but by 2050, only 15 percent of these languages will survive.

PH: So we are paying attention to the wrong things.

WH: No, to pay attention to ecological questions is not the wrong thing, but to overlook the immense value of human culture is. More than twenty years ago I met an Australian man in Port Augusta in an old-age home and he was named “the mute.” He was the very last speaker of his language, had nobody with whom he could speak and hence fell mute, fell silent. He had no one left, and of course he has died since then. And his language has disappeared, has not been recorded. It’s as if the last Spaniard had died and Spanish literature and culture, everything has vanished. And it vanishes very, very fast. It vanishes much faster than anything we are witnessing in terms of, let’s say, mammals dying out. Yes, we should be concerned about the snow leopard, and we should be concerned about whales, but why is it that nobody talks about cultures and languages and last speakers dying away? There’s a massive, colossal, and cataclysmic mistake that is happening right now and nobody sees it and nobody talks about it. So that’s why I find it enraging that people hug whales. Who hugs the last speaker of an Inuit language in Alaska? So it just makes me angry when I look back at the twentieth century, and I’m afraid it continues like that. And we have got into a meaningless consumer culture, we have lost dignity, we have lost all proportion.

“Ah, people. It’s the books that matter!” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

PH: In terms of preserving culture, preserving language, we can think of this library, which has many millions of books underground, seven floors of books, and it goes under Bryant Park.

WH: Paradise.

PH: Paradise, as you called it, but when we were underground, you asked the librarian: “In the case of a holocaust, what would we do with the precious books?” And the librarian was rather anxious about that question. [laughter] No provisions had yet been made, and I don’t know if they’ve been made since your question. But I remember the librarian wondering how to answer it. And he said, “Well, in the case of a holocaust, maybe we will come here.” And you said, “Ah, people. It’s the books that matter!” Do you remember that?

WH: Yes, it sounds misleading in the context of the previous, but please continue. [laughter]

PH: Well, the books are the repository of our memories and our culture. So that these languages that are disappearing as we are talking now have a place where they’re archived, where they’re kept, even if the culture itself has become mute, it still can be studied.

WH: But most of the six thousand still-spoken languages are not recorded in written form. So then they disappear without a trace. That’s evident. But, yes, books, sure, we must preserve them and we must somehow be cautious and careful with them, because they carry our culture—and, of course, those who read books own the world, those who watch television lose it. So be careful and be cautious with the books.

Tom Eliot has formidable forebears.

PH: And what you do with your time.

WH: Yes, but we do have disagreements of what are the most precious ones that we would keep. Of course, you would go for James Joyce immediately, and I have my objections, because I think he’s—

PH: Who would you go for?

WH: Hölderlin. No, I mean James Joyce isn’t really bad, but—

PH: James Joyce is on a trajectory for you—

WH: Which went somewhere wrong—

PH: Somewhere wrong, starting with Petrarch and then going to someone such as Laurence Sterne.

WH:. Yes, Laurence Sterne is somehow a beginning in modern literature, where literature really became modern but also went on a detour and the result—

PH: A detour from what?


WH: Detour from what, yes—that’s not easy to say, a detour that leads let’s say to Finnegans Wake, where literature should not end up. It’s a cul de sac, in my opinion, and much of James Joyce is a cul de sac, per se. But at the same time that he was writing, there were also people like Kafka, for example, and Joseph Conrad. I have a feeling there is something hardcore, some essence of literature; and you have it in a long, long tradition and you find it in Joseph Conrad, you find it in Hemingway, the short stories, you find it in Bruce Chatwin, and you find it in Cormac McCarthy.

You can read the whole fascinating interview at the literary journal Brick here. But I can’t help but wonder about something else, related to hugging pandas and kissing whales. This may be the very first era in history where there has been so much sentimentality and affection for animals, and comparatively little for babies and children. (This vegetarian cat-lover pleads guilty, at least a bit.) Why is that? And what does that say for the future of the race?

Meanwhile, enjoy this Huron carol, in a language now extinct. Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary wrote this carol in Wendat (Wyandot) sometime before he was martyred in 1649 – fourteen years before Eliot’s Algonquin Bible.

Lithuania’s Tomas Venclova: A poet of “metaphysical and political overlap”

March 28th, 2018

“Above all, love language” (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Last week, a friend told me that Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova was in the current issue of The Spectator – and of course, London was the perfect place to find an old-fashioned “hard copy.” I stopped in a shop or two in London – no luck. I stopped in a shop in Chalfont St. Giles – nada.

Fortunately, there is such a thing as the worldwide web. Here’s an excerpt from the article about the leading European poet:

He describes Nineteen Eighty-Four as ‘a very important book in my life, and the one that taught me the most about the Soviet system’. A passage he says made ‘a very strong impression on me’ comes in an exchange between Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien. Winston asks O’Brien: ‘Does Big Brother exist?’ ‘Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.’ Winston presses: ‘Does he exist in the same way as I exist?’ O’Brien replies: ‘You do not exist.’

The story chimes with a sense of erasure in many of Venclova’s poems. ‘Henkus Hapenckus, In Memoriam’, for instance — a poem inspired by the memorial notice to an imaginary person, attached to impossible birth and death dates, in the window of a funeral parlour in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas — opens in the English translation: ‘Only a true nobody can manage/ to shoulder the weight of non-existence.’

‘I invented this person, Henkus Hapenckus, who never existed, and an entire universe for him,’ Venclova says. ‘He could be anybody. Because almost every kind of existence in the Soviet Union amounted to non-existence.’

Venclova’s artful, frequently formal verse plays in that area where the metaphysical and political overlap — the nothings of Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’, perhaps, meeting the nothings of O’Brien. ‘Those things — those kinds of non-existence — they are in a sense overlaying each other and having something in common,’ he says. ‘More than one of my poems is about those overlapping sorts of non-existence.’

The role of poetry: East vs. West: “Poetry always means more in eastern Europe or Russia than it means in England or France. I wrote once that in the West, poetry mainly survives on the university campus, and in our countries it survives mainly in the prison camps. This is the difference. They managed to establish such an unshakeable system that every living word — not only but especially the poetical word — worked against it. Everything else was false.”

And of course the interview mentions his important new Q&A memoir, Magnetic North. I wrote about that book for the Times Literary Supplement here (excerpt here).  Read the whole Spectator piece online here.

“When rivalry becomes obsession”: René Girard, plus a few tweets, and a kind of anniversary

March 26th, 2018

On Sunday, The Los Angeles Review of Books ran an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. It’s also been generating some nice buzz on Twitter since then (see a couple of the tweets below), and one comment from James Winchell: “Cynthia Haven’s new biography focuses so clearly on the stakes implied by Girard’s work, instead of the ‘critical’ distractions generated by so many of his detractors – and his acolytes. She reminds us that his books constitute a primary source in twentieth-century philosophical, anthropological and spiritual history, one still unsurpassed in its burgeoning promise.”

Here’s an excerpt of the excerpt, “The Genius to Glue Them Together”: On René Girard and His Ideas”:

The “Romantic lie” Girard attempts to dismantle is the myth of personal autonomy, the “authentic self” so dear to thinkers from Rousseau onward. The hero wants something, and it is really “he” who wants it — unaffected by others, as if he were not also a slave to public opinion and the approbation of friends and family. Girard saw an inevitable third in these transactions — the one who modeled the desire, who taught us to have it.

Central to the novels he examined is the protagonist who aspires to freedom but is not free at all, since he (or she) worships the “mediator,” living or dead, whose desires the heroes adopts as their own. “The object is to the mediator what the relic is to a saint,” Girard wrote. Julien Sorel adores Napoleon, and keeps the emperor’s memoirs hidden under his mattress; Emma Bovary worships the fashionable ladies in Paris, and takes lovers in imitation of them.

“Even the most passionate among us never feel they truly are the persons they want to be,” he explained later in a Stanford essay. “To them, the most wonderful being, the only semi-god, always is someone else whom they emulate and from whom they borrow their desires, thus ensuring for themselves lives of perpetual strife and rivalry with those whom they simultaneously hate and admire.” We want the object because we believe it will make us akin to the admired rival, a false god we come to fear and hate as well as revere and emulate. Rivalry becomes obsession, enduring even after the objet du désir has been knocked out of the tennis court.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle provides one example: “The gold is nothing, clearly, since it’s the ray of sunshine that alights on it and transfigures it. And yet the gold is everything, since it’s what everyone is fighting over; it’s the fact of fighting over it that gives it its value, and its terror,” Girard explained in an interview.

Read the whole excerpt here. (And previous excerpts here and here.) Meanwhile, a kind of anniversary. I was reading a chapter from one of René Girard‘s books on the British Airways flight back from London, and I noticed he had inscribed the book to me – ten years ago to the day! It wasn’t on the occasion of the first meeting, but one of the early occasions of our working together, about the time we made the film used in the book-launch video here. The promised tweets below that, and the title page of the book below that.



How John Milton wound up blind and in disgrace in Chalfont St. Giles (and how he was inspired to start Paradise Regained).

March 24th, 2018

The “First Court” at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Milton would have walked it every day that he was here as a student.

Today I made my sad farewell to John Milton at his cottage in Chalfont St. Giles, but I expect it is an au revoir and not an adieu. Tonight, I am staying a few blocks away on the night before I head for Heathrow – with John Dugdale Bradley and his gracious wife Jan, who will comfort me in my sorrow. 

In my previous post, I mentioned how Milton’s Quaker friend, Thomas Ellwood, meant to greet the poet on his arrival here, as he fled the London plague and royal disfavor, but the government blocked Ellwood’s plans. Here’s the story in Ellwood’s words:

The “Great Gate” at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Some little time before I went to Aylesbury Prison, I was desired by my quondam Master Milton to take a House for him, in the Neighbourhood where I dwelt, that he might go out of the City, for the Safety of himself and his Family, the Pestilence then growing hot in London. I took a pretty Box for him in Giles-Chalfont, a Mile from me; of which I gave him notice: and intended to have waited on him and seen him well settled in it; but was prevented by that Imprisonment.

But now being released and returned Home I soon made a Visit to him, to welcome him into the Country.

After some common Discourses had passed between us, he called for a Manuscript of his which being brought he delivered to me, bidding me take it home with me, and read it at my Leisure, and when I had so done, return to him, with my Judgment thereupon.

When I came home, and had set myself to read it, I found it was that Excellent POEM which he entitled PARADISE LOST. After I had, with the best Attention, read it through, I made him another Visit, and returned him his Book, with due Acknowledgement of the Favour he had done me, in Communicating it to me. He asked me how I liked it, and what I thought of it; which I modestly but freely told him: and after some further Discourse about it, I pleasantly said to him, Thou hast said much here of Paradise Lost; but what hast thou to say of Paradise Found? He made me no Answer, but sate some time in a Muse: then brake off that Discourse, and fell upon another Subject.

After the Sickness was over, and the City well cleansed and become safely habitable again, he returned thither. And when afterwards I went to wait on him there (which I seldom fail|d of doing, whenever my Occasions drew me to London) he shewed me his Second POEM, called PARADISE REGAINED; and in a pleasant Tone said to me, This is owing to you: for you put it into my Head, by the Question you put to me at Chalfont; which before I had not thought of.

If you want to see the “pretty box,” I refer you to an earlier blogpost here. The photos here revisit Milton’s student days at Christ’s College, Cambridge. John and I visited yesterday with Cambridge graduate student and Stanford alum Michael Gioia (our first visit to Cambridge as a guest of Girton College here) – all the images make a splendid finale to this U.K. visit. All photos by John Dugdale Bradley, a Cambridge (and Stanford) alum himself.

From the First Court towards the Great Gate…

I sleep where Milton slept: my first night at the poet’s cottage in Chalfont St. Giles

March 22nd, 2018

Milton meets MacBook. In this room he slept and wrote.

I slept in John Milton‘s room last night. I’m told I was likely the first person to do so in hundreds of years. The sense of incongruity gave an unreality to the event, as I sat in the 17th century chair and worked at the desk next to the fireplace, first plugging in my Apple MacBook Pro with its adapter, and hooking up my cellphone to recharge. The sense of immodesty, too, as I pulled off my earrings, sweater, trousers, for the night, in the room where the Puritan poet spent his days, in royal disfavor after the fall of the Cromwell regime – though the poet was blind when he lived here, so my discomfort was meaningless on more than one scale. A hot water bottle generously provided by my real-life hosts kept me warm in bed, as well as mittens and heavy socks.

The view from the back, where the Milton Garden features the flowers that he loved.

To clarify, Milton’s bedroom doubled as his study, or rather vice versa. In 1665, he fled the plague in London to this refuge in Chalfont St. Giles, in Buckinghamshire, about 25 miles from the city.  His friend Thomas Ellwood had rented a residence for the poet now known as Milton’s Cottage, but he was arrested and jailed when he when he attended a Quaker funeral, and so wasn’t on hand to welcome him. Milton took on the place for a little over a year, a period that was bookended by the plague at the beginning, and the Great Fire that burned half London at the ending in 1666.

He completed Paradise Lost here, in Chalfont St. Giles. But it’s unclear how much work was done in this cottage, with its inexplicable layout of 8 or so rooms, cupboards, and many nooks and crannies. He had already given a draft to Ellwood, but Milton was an endless tinkerer and reviser. Certainly the final draft was finished here, and he began the inevitable sequel, Paradise Regained. He couldn’t leave his tale at this, at the end of Paradise Lost:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Blind, crippled with gout, he pretty much remained in this one room, with the parlor where he may have received guests. He slept in his study, next to the kitchen, where the challenging stairs wouldn’t torture him. He wouldn’t have seen the huge fireplace, about five feet high (parliament could meet in it), or the window that looks out onto the street, but I hope he could at least sense the sunlight, as I did, as it streamed through the small latticed eastern-facing window at the back of the room in the morning.

But perhaps there’s another reason why he slept here – one that captures the imagination more. Maybe he wanted to be close to ink and paper. He claimed he woke up with lines of poetry rolling through his head, and was anxious to take up his quill and write them all down – or rather, to have one of his daughters take up the pen and paper, as he dictated to her.

My Milton cup

Perhaps he fine-tuned lines like these:

More safe I sing with mortal voice, unchanged
To hoarse or mute, though fallen on evil days,
On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues,
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visit’st my slumbers nightly, or when Morn
Purples the East. Still govern thou my song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.


Joseph Brodsky a second Pushkin? “Prove it!” he said. And she did.

March 20th, 2018


Men attended, but only women and guest author lined up for photographer Jakob Margolis.

Valentina Polukhina was one of the women being honored during Mark Yakovlev‘s presentation of his book Joseph Brodsky and The Fate of Three Women. Valentina spoke at the Russian Cultural Center on Kensington High Street in London. She is one of the world’s leading scholars of the Russian Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky.

She proved it.

During her talk, she retold a story that she told me sometime earlier, so I’ll share it here. During her early days with the poet, she told him he was a second Pushkin. Not the first time he had been compared with the ur-Russian poet of all time, the author of the justly renowned Eugene Onegin.

But his reaction was skeptical. “Prove it!” he said.

Her response: to interview his fellow Russian poets, writers, and other colleagues. That was volume 1 of the remarkably insightful Brodsky Through the Eyes of His ContemporariesThen she followed up by interviewing his colleagues in other countries. That was volume 2. Then she interviewed still others for a third volume. (The series has been slightly abbreviated for the two-volume English-language series by Academic Studies Press.)

Humble Moi also spoke at the Russian Cultural Centre that evening, but my topic was George L. Kline, the pivotal scholar who smuggled his poems out of the Soviet Union and translated his Selected Poems. My words:

“George Kline was a modest and retiring man, but on occasion he could be as forthright and adamant as Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky himself. In a 1994 letter, he wrote: ‘Akhamatova discovered Brodsky for Russia, but I discovered him for the West.’ And in 1987, ‘I was the first in the West to recognize him as a major poet, and the first to translate his work in extenso.’

“And it was true. What’s lesser known is how greatly this quiet Bryn Mawr professor supported scholars around the world who were working with Russian poetry and Brodsky in particular.

“Though we had never met face to face, George Kline was a regular presence in my life. My publication fifteen years ago of Joseph Brodsky: Conversations was my carte d’entree to this world, decades after I had studied with Brodsky at the University of Michigan. Some months after publication George sent me a multi-page letter noting the errata in my text. I later learned that anyone in the world who wrote or published something about Joseph Brodsky could expect such a letter, delineating the errors in the text. He did the same for his own works, carefully setting out the mistakes.

Answering a question or two. (Photo: Jakob Margolis)

“He was thorough, neutral, scholarly. Nevertheless, I persisted, and I don’t think I could have made whatever scholarly contribution I have in the Brodsky world without George’s encouragement, advice, and occasional recommendation. And in 2012, we decided to create a long written record of his work with Brodsky, in the form of a conversation.

“I didn’t know then what I would learn. That he had been a World War II pilot, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. That he was the founder and acknowledged dean of the Russian philosophy in the United States as a scholarly specialty. And that he’d translated Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Tomas Venclova, and others. Even so, he’s mostly he’s remembered today as the man who brought Joseph Brodsky into English, and the poems into America itself by bootlegging manuscripts out of the Soviet Union.”

Yes, one person asked me, but did George translate the poet to replicate the meter and rhyme of the original? Yes, I said, he did. “But did he succeed?” queried a second. “Read for yourself! ‘The Butterfly’ is a masterpiece!”

Oh, and the bronze sculpture of the poet in the corner next to Valentina? It was also honored. But then, Yuri Firsov‘s creation had an event of its own, tonight:

Schiller’s Mary Stuart: a play of mighty opposites for two great actresses

March 18th, 2018

Up for grabs: the nightly coin toss determine who plays the Queen and who plays her vicitm. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

A coin toss … or rather a mesmerizing coin spin, with an actor whirling the coin in a shallow golden bowl. That highly symbolic event launches the performance of Friedrich Schiller‘s Mary Stuart every evening. The two lead actresses –  identically dressed Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson – are as inevitably paired as the two beats of an iamb. They await the result at opposite sides of the circular stage. When the verdict, heads or tails, is called out, the 15-or-so performers assembled onstage turn and offer a sweeping bow to one of the two women. The other has her black velvet jacket pulled from her back and is hustled to the offstage jail. Fitting, because Mary Stuart, retelling the confrontation between Queen Elizabeth I of England and the Frenchwoman popularly known as Mary Queen of Scots is a play “constructed around doubles, mirrors, equivalences, differences and mighty opposites,” according to the program notes. “It has also allowed the first word of the evening to anticipate its ending: ‘Heads’.”

Juliet Stevenson as Mary consoles her women. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

My dozen days in England this month are whizzing by like a spinning coin, but I wanted to make sure I crammed in at least one night in the West End. The Duke of York Theatre’s production was the chosen destination. I read the great German playwright’s 1800 recounting of the fatal pas de deux for the first time a few years ago, and so I shoveled my two-buck Dover Thrift edition (unabridged) to the theater with me. To say Robert Icke‘s adaptation takes liberties somewhat understates the case (I splurged and bought that version of the play as well, which was sold in the cloakroom like contraband), but his script, in a loose blank verse, makes for a stunning evening. (And surprisingly, I don’t think any of the reviews noted that this is a verse play – which my ear could pick up before my mind knew.)

Icke’s words on the subject:

“The heartbeat of an iamb closely echoes the human heartbeat. A continuing rhythm, like the baseline in a piece of jazz, and one that gives life. It gives no instruction to the actor. It is not to be counted or observed – though also not to be ignored. Hamlet warns us that – like all great art – it’s a matter of balance: discretion and also wildness (‘too tame’ is deadly).

The verse is the structure of the pipe. The words are the water. The pressure of the jet of water is a combination of the two things. The sound and the sense are two sides of the same coin. Inseparable, neither could exist without the other; ad mutually enriching.”

Goethe’s buddy: Well done!

Take the queen’s short speech to the French ambassador, as he tries to seal the deal on a betrothal between the French prince and the English monarch:

A little ring. A little circled gold.
This ring means different things in different places.
It’s duty – but it’s also slavery:
two rings can start a marriage – or a chain.
You may take this – and give it to His Highness
it’s – well – non-binding. It’s not yet a chain
but it could grow – and bind me to a king.

On the evening I sat in the balcony, the coin toss decided Stevenson for the role of Mary, and Williams as the sleek, sinewy, suited-up English queen. I would have liked a chance to see the roles reversed. I suspect everyone who attended one night or another wished the same. Too bad there’s only a few more days before the production ends.

I’ve been working too hard on another project to add much to a production about which there is much to say. So let me refer you to the The Financial Times review here, or this one from The Times here.

Lia Williams, Juliet Stevenson in matched roles. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


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