Robert Conquest’s Collected Poems in the TLS – “In all senses, he was: ‘A Man of the World.'”

September 13th, 2020
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Conquest at work in his Stanford home (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Poet Lachlan Mackinnon’s review of Robert Conquest‘s Collected Poemsedited by his wife Elizabeth Conquest, is up in the Times Literary Supplement – and for the time being, you can read the whole thing here.  Although a poet long before he became a historian, it is for the latter that he is best known. He is the author of The Great Terror (1968), a groundbreaking exposing the extent Soviet atrocities at a time when they were largely denied in the West. He wrote a dozen books about the Soviet Union. The Stanford poet died at 98 in 2015.

A few excerpts, starting from the beginning:

Robert Conquest edited New Lines (1956), thereby launching, almost accidentally, what became known as the Movement. This did him no good at all. If the Movement poets shared a common persona, it was that of a disgruntled university employee in a provincial city who bristled with lower-middle-class resentment. This was unfair to many of them, but particularly to the half-American Conquest, whose poetry is enviably unconcerned with the issues of class which troubled other Movement writers. Where Philip Larkin deplored poets’ resorting to the “myth-kitty”, a phrase suggestive of unearned or inherited wealth, for Conquest the “myth-kitty” was a fund held in common. Allusion came naturally to him, as when he ended his sonnet “Guided Missiles Experimental Range” (1955) with the missiles’ “target-hunting rigour”:

And by that loveless haste I am reminded
Of Aeschylus’ description of the Furies:
“O barren daughters of the fruitful night”.

***

The most exciting early poem, though, is “In the Marshes” (1947), which won Conquest a Festival of Britain Prize in 1951. It looks at lives in a Bulgarian village during the period from just before the alliance with Germany and the rising of partisans to the communist front government of 1945 and its removal by Stalin, and draws on the poet’s time as a liaison officer with Bulgarian partisans late in the Second World War. In the village we find Ilya, a student preoccupied with his lost love Stoyanka and translating Laforgue. Meanwhile,

In a small but handsome house beyond the village
Lives Professor Mantev, former Minister of Trade
And now in exile.

A girl “dreams of love” while in a hut “By the canal Pirov the lock-keeper / Holds the secret meetings of the party branch”. Professor Mantev is unperturbed by the “accident in the lock” of two days before, which left “Brown blood floating on the scummy water. / This happens occasionally”.

His Texan wife.

In this highly politicized context “Brown” must make us wonder whether the deceased was a Nazi and was murdered. “This happens occasionally”: Conquest catches exactly the slightly know-it-all tone of a young intelligence officer in very unfamiliar territory, anxious to please his superiors.

***

And finally, the poems to his beloved Texan wife, Elizabeth “Liddie” Conquest:

Travel was one of Conquest’s abiding subjects. At the end of his first, 1955, volume we find a kind of round trip in the tonally and formally varied “Sunset under Vitosha”, “Lamartine at Philippopolis”, “Pliska”, “Aegean”, “Messemvria at Noon”, “By Rail through Istria” and “In the Rhodope”. In the ten-page “Coming Across” (1978), the poet and his female companion drive from Florida to California with some diversions, one into Mexico. The zest of the poem is infectious, with “Interstate 10” as its refrain: “Once more we turn southward / Through white Cajun townships / On long, dark, still bayous. / The Bayou Teche leads us / Under intricate live-oaks / And then we are back upon / Interstate 10”. The poem is a vivid picture of places and time as it pretends to freewheel through its bouncy two-stress lines. In “The Idea of Virginia” (2009), Conquest wrote a rich essay-poem about the ideas behind the United States, yet he could almost burlesque his transatlantic sensibility in “Winter Welcome to a West Texan” (2009): “So here you are, lovely: / Arroyos of Kensington / With pekes for coyotes, / Green street-lamp saguaros, / Swirls of fog twisting / Like sidewinders over / The desert macadam”.

Again, read the whole thing here. While you can.

All of Europe is protecting Nobel winner Svetlana Aleksievich now.

September 9th, 2020
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Photo via Twitter

A few paragraphs from the Russian press:

Nobel prizewinning writer Svetlana Alexievich, a member of the Presidium of the Coordination Council of the Belarusian Opposition, said that unknown persons tried to get into her apartment. Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus writes about this on Wednesday, September 9 .

In the morning they called her at the door, as well as on the phone from unknown numbers. “They called me here in the morning. I was warned that there are two minibuses without numbers and a bunch of tihars, ” the Belarusian journalist, essayist, and oral historian told reporters.

European diplomats came to the writer’s apartment to protect her: the ambassadors of Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Austria, Romania and other countries, Delfi reports. “We have received signals that unknown people are calling into her apartment, probably from the security or police,” said the Lithuanian ambassador Andrius Pulokas. “We decided that [Aleksievich] could face detention.”

In addition, about 50 people gathered at the writer’s house: journalists and citizens who support her. A police car appeared in the yard.

Earlier it was reported that Aleksievich was the last member of the presidium of the council still at large in Belarus. She has stated that she was not going to leave the country. Opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova, detained earlier, is in jail .

Update: “There is no one left of my friends and associates in the Coordination Council. They are all in prison, or they have been thrown out of the country.” She continues: “I also want to address the Russian intelligentsia, to call it by its old name. Why have you remained silent? We hear very few voices supporting us. Why don’t you speak when you can see this proud little nation is being crushed? We are still your brothers.” Read her statement at PEN here.

Remembering Joseph Brodsky: “a whole and almost molecular engagement with poetry”

September 7th, 2020
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“Nothing of this man’s thinking was held back…”

Peter Filkins has an excellent retrospective, “Words Preserved Against a Day of Fear,” on Russian Nobel Poet Joseph Brodsky, with plenty of anecdotes, in a recent edition of The American Scholar But then, I’m a fan of the genre. Filkins was a student at Columbia in the early 1980s. He describes a class this way:

There, in what can only be described as the Soviet glumness of Dodge Hall, Brodsky would hold forth for two hours each Tuesday. Hardy, Frost, Cavafy, and Auden were the main fare, as well as Wilfred Owen, Osip Mandelstam, and Marina Tsvetaeva. Brodsky was not the most elegant of classroom managers, to say the least. His method mainly consisted of asking a question for which he clearly had the answer, and then proceeding to quietly reply to any student response with either “Garbage” or “Pretty good.” (I once received a “Pretty good—in fact, that’s awfully good!” at which point it felt as if the heavens would burst into chorus.) Described this way, Brodsky’s method sounds like a nightmare, and I’m sure for some it was, but for many of us the performance was mesmerizing.

Not a “failed poet”… not a boxer, either.

From three to five P.M. on those darkening fall afternoons, we felt that we were not so much in the presence of a poet, and certainly not an academic or a scholar, as of poetry itself. Nothing of this man’s thinking was held back, and it seemed as if he were making his case for poetry to the spheres rather than to a roomful of graduate students. Yes, he could be rude, and no, none of us ever got our essays back with any kind of useful comments, if we got them back at all. And he could be wrongheaded (his case for reading Frost’s “Home Burial” as a tragic rendering of Pygmalion’s love for Galatea seemed a stretch) or even flat wrong (Brecht and Neruda are not second-rate poets—they were just Marxists; Nabokov is not a “failed poet,” just a fellow genius of a different stripe). But once you found your way past the manner, you got to the matter: a whole and almost molecular engagement with what poetry can be, why it matters, and why it is the very manna of thought and feeling when read seriously.

This kind of gravitas remains the central attraction of Brodsky’s verse. He pegged poetry as “the supreme form of human locution in any culture,” representing “not even a form of art, but our anthropological, genetic goal, our linguistic, evolutionary beacon” (from his essay “An Immodest Proposal”). Although these ideals might seem too lofty for the marginalized art of poetry to bear up under today, they were at the core of what he felt to be his charge as a teacher. Agree with him or not on any particular poet or poem, there was no ignoring what he handed over freely to his class, and what he cites elsewhere in the same essay, namely, that poetry “is the only insurance available against the vulgarity of the human heart.” Reading poetry, “you become what you read, you become the state of the language which is a poem, and its epiphany or its revelation is yours,” and the same could be said for his teaching.

Underlined

I’ve published the reading lists that Joseph B. gave people, and the one he gave me,  here. But Filkins got a different one. Here’s the story:

That same night after his aria on Frost, as we walked out of Dodge Hall, I had the audacity to ask if he might want to go for a drink. “Let’s try it!” he offered, and before I knew it, I was sitting at a table in a bar across the street, waiting for Brodsky to collect our drinks and wondering, what the hell am I going to say now? Wisely, I started with the only thing I could think of: “What should I read?”

Nodding his head in approval, he asked for pen and paper, and there in a little notebook I carried around he scribbled down a list: Edwin Arlington Robinson, Weldon Kees (underlined), Ovid, Horace, Virgil, Catullus, minor Alexandrian poets, Paul Celan, Peter Huchel, Georg Trakl (underlined), Antonio Machado, Umberto Saba, Eugenio Montale (underlined), Andrew Marvell, Ivor Gurney, Patrick Kavanagh, Douglas Dunne, Zbigniew Herbert (underlined), Vasco Popa, Vladimir Holan, Ingeborg Bachmann, “Gilgamesh,” Randall Jarrell, Vachel Lindsay, Theodore Roethke, Edgar Lee Masters, Howard Nemerov, Max Jacob, Thomas Trahern, and then a short list of essayists: Hannah Arendt, William Hazlitt, George Orwell, Elias Canetti (underlined and Crowds and Power added), (Temptation to Exist added), and finally the poet Les Murray added in my own hand after he suggested it. The sheet of paper, roughly the size of an iPhone but, as Brodsky would say, with far more and far greater information stored within it, remains tucked away inside my copy of A Part of Speech to this day.

Read the whole thing here.

Signs of hope in New York City? Take the train to Greenport…

September 2nd, 2020
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Puppeteers in a time of pandemic – with masks. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The Book Haven’s roving journalist-photographer Zygmunt Malinowski sees signs of hope in New York City, “a return to what remains.” It couldn’t come too soon: “I just read part of Daniel Defoe‘s description of London during the plague – how similar to desolation of New York City!”

It’s a hard time for our footloose photographer – he can’t hop on a plane as he’s done here and here and here. However, he writes: “During this time when travel options are limited one can always take advantage of visiting local places. It is said that many New York city’s apartments are half empty with its residents moving to the suburbs and surrounding countryside, some even permanently. Not that surprising since small towns offer many benefits including a sense of community, safer environment and closeness to nature.”

In a stroll through New York’s Greenport Village, a historic site on Long Island’s North Fork, he found puppeteers in protective facial masks entertaining passers-by – including a curious photographer.”Greenport is a popular Long Island summer getaway, easily reached by car or train. Even though a lot less crowded as expected during this time of pandemic, the mood in this town seemed to be more cheerful as individuals, families and small groups of folks enjoyed a summer day.”

Summer, the Hum of Poetry, and the Wild Accidents That Gave Us Life…

August 29th, 2020
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Life is an excess – call it the self-ecstasy of matter.” Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Summer”

Labor Day traditionally marks the end of summer, and we have little over one week to go. Let us celebrate the time we have, marred, as it has been, by coronavirus and California wildfires. Over at Entitled Opinions, with a podcast up at The Los Angeles Review of BooksRobert Pogue Harrison puts a deliriously joyful spin on the season. “Life is an excess – call it the self-ecstasy of matter,” he says.

He recorded this monologue at the solstice. Now his reflections summarize the season that is coming to a close.

Čapek: Seriously into summer.

The reason for the solstice, he reminded us, is that the earth does not spin upright, but tilts at more than 23 degrees, and that obliquity is responsible for life on our planet. An upright planet like Mercury would lack seasons, and be so cold at the poles that it couldn’t foster greenhouse gases, hence, liquid water would never form. Uranus, with a tilt of more than 82 degrees, would be blazing hot for six months and intolerably cold for the others.

But there’s more to life than that. Harrison said that the Czech author Karel Čapek, who cultivated his garden plot in Prague, understood intuitively what science now accepts: in the beginning, the earth “aggressively resisted life’s colonizing adventures.” Harrison described “the animosity and callousness of dead and sterile matter,” resulting in “the terrible fight life must have undergone inch by inch to take root in the soil of the earth.”

It took the tremendous self-affirming struggles of life itself to transform the earth, sea, and air into elements hospitable to life. Life itself first brought about the conditions that favor life on the planet today,” he continued. “This is the great paradox and great miracle of life: it’s life itself that actually transformed the earth into a planet favorable for life.”

He closes with the literature of summer – the luncheons and garden parties in Virginia Woolfs novels, the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Christina Rossetti, and the “humming, inarticulate music that one can hear in one’s head that is in some kind of syntony with a season.”

Listen to the podcast here.

The larkspur listens, “I hear, I hear”;
And the lily whispers, “I wait.”

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Conversations with René Girard in the LARB: “Girard at both his most typical and his most surprising.”

August 27th, 2020
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Philosopher Down Under

Chris Fleming has written a witty and lively review of my Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy for the The Los Angeles Review of Books. (We’ve written about him here and here.) The Australian professor has written widely on issues of culture, philosophy, and literature, both in academic journals and in mainstream publications such as The Guardian, LitHub, The Chronicle Review, and The Sydney Review of Books. His debut on the West Coast is titled “The Last of the Hedgehogs” … well you see where that’s going:

IN 1953, Isaiah Berlin published his long essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” outlining his now-famous Oxbridge variant on there are two kinds of people in this world. He drew the title from an ambiguous fragment attributed to the ancient lyric poet Archilochus of Paros: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.” Written with the aim of pointing out tensions between Tolstoy’s grand view of history and the artistic temperament that saw such a view as untenable, Berlin’s essay became an unlikely hit, although less for its argument about Russian literature than for its contention that two antithetical personae govern the world of ideas: hedgehogs, who view the world in terms of some all-embracing system, seeing all facts as fitting into a grand pattern; and foxes, those pluralists or particularists who refuse “big theory” for reasons either intellectual or temperamental.

Berlin’s typology is beautifully blunt: perhaps more a serious game than a scientific typology, it works wonderfully only when it does. With the French American literary and cultural theorist René Girard, it works very well. As Roberto Calasso suggested, Girard was almost the Platonic ideal of a hedgehog: he belongs to that lineage of 19th- and 20th-century thinkers whose vast synthetic ambition is now seen by many in the academy as not simply wrongheaded but almost impolite. Sweeping intellectual projects such as his come across today as naïve and even oppressive, animated by the most obnoxious nostalgias for the Enlightenment. Of course, the academics who offer such judgments are typically those whose own work is parasitical upon grand synthesizing theorists like Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.

Like these older thinkers, although distinct from them in important ways, Girard was disinclined toward mere taxonomic labor, such as structuralist classification or the identification of linguistic “themes” and “figures,” but was interested rather in asking large questions about origins — the origin of religion, of language, of culture, of violence, of human psychic life. And although such explanatory ambition is hard to find in humanities academics these days, it is surprisingly common among contemporary scientists, who suffer far fewer anxieties — one might argue, insufficient anxieties — about their own capacities to address the big questions that interest them most. And so, physicists and biologists continue to write magnificently incoherent, best-selling books addressing large questions about human nature and culture on behalf of those of us who, some time ago, politely vacated the field. Whether this is because we in the humanities no longer find such all-encompassing theorizing intellectually tenable, or whether (less flatteringly) we have been conditioned by those institutional and funding frameworks that render such projects nonviable, a generation devoid of Freuds or Nietzsches or Marxes of its own might turn out to be something we will one day regret. (Unless, of course, we are now content to have Yuval Noah Harari carry the banner for us all.)

The upshot:

“Cynthia Haven’s fascinating new collection, Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, showcases Girard at both his most typical and his most surprising. Like many intellectuals, and not just hedgehogs, Girard returned repeatedly to the same themes throughout his career — what he called with self-mocking charm, in one exchange included here, his “monomania.” Of course, as one would hope, the reader will find in this book explications of the standard Girardian theses about imitative desire, scapegoating, and religion. And yet, throughout the volume, Girard also turns his attention to topics rarely if ever broached in his body of work: opera, eating disorders, Husserlian phenomenology, literary modernism. … Haven’s book is a welcome tonic for those of us for whom universalist theories are liable to provoke an outbreak of hives. As Adam Phillips once said about psychoanalysis: “like all essentialist theories,” it “makes a cult out of what could be just good company.” Regardless of how one evaluates Girard’s overarching intellectual project, there is little doubt that he was often excellent company indeed, as this collection amply attests.

Read the whole thing here. Many people did – it was picked up by 3quarksdaily, Books Inc. and Daily Nous, among others. A week after its publication it was still the best read piece at LARB. See the screenshot below for proof:

 

“He was so good at everything he did”: Robert Conquest and his poems of “elegant irreverence” in WSJ

August 23rd, 2020
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A literary scholar – and a very good one.

Robert Conquest‘s Collected Poems is out at last, thanks to the assiduous efforts of his widow, the literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest. And also to Philip Hoy of Waywiser, who is my publisher as well. But thanks especially, in the last few days, to David Mason, who has written a review, “The Impervious Dream,” in the Wall Street Journal. We’ve written about Stanford’s Bob Conquest, who died in 2015 at 97, here and here and here. among other places. We’ve written about Liddie Conquest here and here and herePhil Hoy is here, and David Mason here and here and here.

An excerpt from the review:

He was so good at everything he did—soldier, diplomat, historian and poet—that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he also left behind a few sonatas and paintings in oil. His histories of the Soviet Union’s failures and atrocities include The Great Terror (1968) and The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), meticulously researched and humane investigations of a criminal state, surely among the major historical achievements of the 20th century. His television documentary series, Red Empire (1990), distills this work and makes grimly compelling viewing.

But Conquest first came to readers’ attention as a poet of sophistication and grace, and as the editor of two New Lines anthologies (1956 and 1963) that introduced a group of English poets known as The Movement, among them Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings, Kingsley Amis and Thom Gunn. Though his poetry was pushed aside by his work as a public intellectual, we now have the opportunity to see it whole for the varied, remarkable accomplishment it is, a poetry praising “the great impervious dream / On which the world’s foundations rest.”

Mason: a poet himself

In her editor’s note for this new “Collected Poems,” the poet’s widow, Elizabeth Conquest, gives us a glimpse of his character: “Kingsley Amis, complaining to Philip Larkin of getting old, wrote: ‘Bob just goes on and on, as if nothing has happened.’ And so he did, walking a mile at light infantry pace until his 89th year, dying at age 98 in the midst of editing his 34th book, while also writing a poem.” Readers tempted to dismiss Conquest as a dinosaur for his lyric formality, his Old World erudition and his occasionally patronizing love of women would be too hasty. This is a civil voice, a man who in his poem “Galatea” praises both “passion and reserve.” An early poem about the Velázquez painting known as “The Rokeby Venus” begins, “Life pours out images, the accidental / At once deleted when the purging mind / Detects their resonance as inessential: / Yet these may leave some fruitful trace behind.” Conquest positioned himself between the life lived and its ideal expression, yet never lost the realism that chastened ornament.

I am particularly moved by Conquest’s poems about World War II. Another early work, “For the Death of a Poet,” echoes elders such as Eliot and Auden, while touching a nerve of its own: “But how shall I answer? I am like you, / I have only a voice and the universal zeals / And severities continue to state loudly / That all is well. / Even the landscape has no help to offer./A man dies and the river flows softly on. / There is no sign of recognition from the calm/And marvellous sky.”

Read the whole thing here (warning: paywall).

Rachel Hadas: “Poets and novelists have been writing about life under COVID-19 for more than a century.”

August 20th, 2020
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Rachel Hadas (Photo: Cynthia Haven)

There should be a word for it: a word for a passage or page of literature that anticipates, that seems to be written to address, a time that hasn’t happened yet. According to  of the New Yorker, “But good art is always prescient, because good artists are tuned into the currency and the momentum of their time.”

Poet Rachel Hadas gives a few examples over in The Conversation:

“Dipping a bit further back, into Henry James’ “The Spoils of Poynton” from 1897, I was struck by a sentence I hadn’t remembered, or had failed to notice, when I first read that novella decades ago: “She couldn’t leave her own house without peril of exposure.” James uses infection as a metaphor; but what happens to a metaphor when we’re living in a world where we literally can’t leave our houses without peril of exposure?

She continues:

In Anthony Powell’s novel “Temporary Kings,” set in the 1950s, the narrator muses about what it is that attracts people to reunions with old comrades-in-arms from the war. But the idea behind the question “How was your war?” extends beyond shared military experience: “When something momentous like a war has taken place, all existence turned upside down, personal life discarded, every relationship reorganized, there is a temptation, after all is over, to return to what remains … pick about among the bent and rusting composite parts, assess merits and defects.”

The pandemic is still taking place. It’s too early to “return to what remains.” But we can’t help wanting to think about exactly that. Literature helps us to look – as Hamlet said – before and after.

Read the whole thing here. It can be hard on deadline finding a photo that isn’t copyrighted. It was easy finding one this time over at Ablemuse. This photo was taken twenty years ago, when I met and interviewed the poet in NYC.

Lessons from the Iraq War: Scott Beauchamp on Antigone, Simone Weil, and “the unfathomable wickedness of murder.”

August 15th, 2020
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Painting by Sebastien Norblin (1825), Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

It’s a busy weekend for me, busier than is reasonable, but I wanted to take a moment to point out “The Problem of Force: Simone Weil’s Supernatural Justice,” a moving and provocative essay by Scott Beauchamp in The Point. It weaves together his experiences as a soldier in Baghdad, with Sophocles‘s Antigone, with the words of Simone Weil, who writes, “In all the crucial problems of human existence the only choice is between supernatural good on one hand and evil on the other.” 

It begins:

Every human death feels unnatural. Even the peaceful passing of elderly relatives who’ve lived rich lives and completed the full circuit of experiences we all feel entitled to—work, marriage, children, vacations, holidays—are attended by a grief so massive that it slips our processes of rational cognition. It hits us obliquely, and never chronologically. I’m walking through the produce aisle of the grocery store and unexpectedly, while lifting a bag of apples into my cart, I feel the shocking lightness of my grandfather’s body as I bathed him while he was dying of cancer. Anguish so vast that it reaches you in fragmented details outside of time. A sack of apples becomes a spirit medium. How can the loss of a person be natural?

Soldier turned writer Beauchamp

Every human death feels unnatural, but murder even more so. The first murdered corpse I saw was in Baghdad during my initial deployment as an infantryman in 2007. In the middle of an otherwise uneventful patrol through the heavy stench of narrow streets, a group of smiling children gestured for us to follow them. They laughed and danced their way to a road which opened up into a spacious dead-end street a little wealthier than the rest of the neighborhood. Patriarchs smoked nervously in doorways, aloof but expecting us. The children, still laughing and asking for chocolate, had clustered around a body slumped over on its knees at the edge of the curb. The man had been bound, gagged, tortured, and killed. His skin bloated and shifted colors in the sun. Flies filled the air, buzzing with the same strange energy as the children. In my memory, I can’t recall the man’s face, only his wounds.

It had been a political murder. This was at a time of sectarian violence, when Baghdad neighborhoods were being consolidated by a long-oppressed Shia majority and Sunnis, some former bigwigs under Saddam Hussein, were being run out of the city in often violent fashion. To the Shia, it was retribution for decades of a criminal dictatorship. What did it matter to them that Saddam was gone if the Sunnis still had the best houses, the best jobs, and all the money? The body we found had been mutilated and conspicuously placed as a warning: leave now or this will happen to you. The corpse that had nauseated me and shocked me into a life-altering sense of disgust had been created by someone’s idea of justice. That’s the double scandal of a person murdered in the name of justice, whether it happens in a Baghdad street or in the middle of the road in Minneapolis: the unfathomable wickedness of murder is justified in the grim vocabulary of order and stability. It’s enough to make you question the legitimacy of any manmade definition of justice.

How does Weil and Antigone come into it? Here:

Supernatural love, always.

For Weil, when agents of the state resort to violence, they are always morally wrong. On the other hand, the supernatural conception of justice also demands that we extend compassion to those who have recently been perpetrators of violence. After all, Polynices hadn’t been merely a passive victim. He’d fought and killed and if he’d been successful in battle very well might have pillaged Thebes and sold its citizens into slavery. Nevertheless, Antigone honors him with a burial. Why? Creon, confused himself, asked the same question. “I was born to join in love, not hate—that is my nature,” she responds.

What sort of eyes does it take to see your enemy as more than your enemy? What sort of heart does it take to love them? In a 1947 essay called “Void and Compensation,” Weil wrote, “I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.” The line reflects her conviction that transcendent love begins in forgiveness, including the forgiveness of one’s own previous failures to transcend one’s tribal “role.”

Read the whole thing here.

Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers”: a story for the era of doxxing, “outing,” and our right to be left alone – Zoom discussion on Monday, August 24.

August 10th, 2020
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James: “the canals assume to the eye the importance of a stage…”

It’s two weeks to our special Zoom discussion of Henry James‘s short 1888 classic, The Aspern Papers. The Another Look book club will be hosting the event, in partnership with Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute, on Monday, August 24, 3-4:30 p.m. (Register for the event here.) If you haven’t read the short novel, you should – you really should. Those of you who associate Henry James with sentences that go on relentlessly for pages will be pleasantly surprised by this tight, yet psychologically insightful work.

The Aspern Papers was inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s correspondence with Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. (Shelley’s novel was featured in a January 2017 Another Look event.) Clairmont cherished the letters until her death. Of course, James transposes that into fiction – but it’s a lively and insightful read, and those daunted by James’s three-page-long sentences needn’t be afraid. The plot keeps a good pace in this psychologically insightful work, while treating us to the wonder that is Venice.

Himself

The story: an elderly invalid who once was the beloved of a renowned American poet, Jeffrey Aspern, lives in seclusion with her spinster niece in a Venetian palazzo. The unnamed narrator goes through elaborate machinations to gain access to her private papers and literary relics from the long-ago romance.

The story has new relevance for us today. “What James delivered, in 1888, was not some dusty antiquarian fable but a warning call against the cult of celebrity that was already on the rise, and against the modern insistence that artists and writers can – or should – be prized out of their work like cockles from a shell, for public consumption,” critic Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker. In the era of doxxing and “outing,” the story explores our right to be left alone, and our right to have secrets. At the heart of the book is the rapacious desire of one man to reach through time to possess another.

Tobias Wolff and Robert Pogue Harrison will lead the discussion. Acclaimed author Robert Harrison, professor of French and Italian, writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. Wolff, a Stanford professor emeritus of English, is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts.

Elena Danielson, director emerita of the Hoover Library & Archives, will offer a few remarks as the author of The Ethical Archivist. And yours truly will have a few words to say on the occasion, too, as the author of the biography, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

Again, register here. We’d love to see you!


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