From the Met: a superb collection of Japanese books

July 9th, 2014



In the era of Kindle, we regularly retreat for refreshment to the book-as-art-object, and no destination is better suited to this shift-in-focus than the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Last fall, the museum acquired about 400 volumes spanning the 17th to 19th century, from a private collection – but unless you have mastered the Japanese from a few centuries ago, you won’t be able to read them. No problem!  You can simply look at them. That’s the whole idea of book-as-art-object. We’ll give you a head start.

japanese3Although the museum began collecting of fine art Japanese books began 60 years ago, the newest cache is choice: it includes masterpieces of woodblock printing, many nearly impossible to find in such fine condition today. Here are a few (photos by Karin L. Willis): Above, Santō Kyōden (1761–1816), New Mirror Comparing the Handwriting of the Courtesans of the Yoshiwara (1784).  Below, an illustration of seashell lovers from Kitagawa Utamaro‘s Gifts of the Ebb Tide (The shell book), probably 1789; the illustration at right is from the same volume.  Go to the the museum website here to see dozens more images. (Check out Katsushika Hokusai‘s One hundred views of Mount Fuji, 1834; 1835; ca. 1849, too.)

According to Asian Art curator John Carpenter, “Artists represented in the collection include Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige, who are best known today for their woodblock prints, but who also excelled at illustrations for deluxe poetry anthologies and popular literature. In one fell swoop, the Met now has a superb collection of Japanese books to complement its excellent holdings in paintings and prints of the Edo period (1615–1868).”



A few wise words from Dame Hilary Mantel about writing

July 7th, 2014

Photo: John Haynes

Yesterday, we mentioned author Hilary Mantel in passing, not knowing it was also her birthday. Thanks to Joseph Peschel, we found these wise words from her, more than fitting for the coming week:

“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”

birthday cake

– Dame Hilary Mary Mantel, twice awarded the Booker Prize

“Mock not, mock not”: Shakespeare’s curious nod to July 6

July 6th, 2014



Don Pedro: Well, you temporize with the hours. In the meantime, good Signior Benedick, repair to Leonato’s: commend me to him and tell him I will not fail him at supper; for indeed he hath made great preparation.

Clare Asquith

She solved the riddle.

Benedick:  I have almost matter enough in me for such an embassage; and so I commit you—

Claudio:  To the tuition of God: From my house, if I had it,—

Don Pedro:  The sixth of July: Your loving friend, Benedick.

Benedick:  Nay, mock not, mock not. The body of your discourse is sometime guarded with fragments, and the guards are but slightly basted on neither: ere you flout old ends any further, examine your conscience: and so I leave you.

I know of no one who has been able to explain these curious lines from Act 1, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare‘s Much Ado About Nothing better than Clare Asquith in her controversial book Shadowplay, which I reviewed years ago for the Washington Post.  Not even my comprehensive Riverside Shakespreare provides a gloss on the line. While I found some of her interpretations extreme (read more about them and Asquith’s book in The Guardian here), this one seemed spot on.

July 6 marks the anniversary of the execution of Sir Thomas More, an occasion that was remembered in England long after Harry the Eighth was buried. Yes, yes, I know about Hilary Mantel and what she said. Still, his contemporaries and near-contemporaries had a different view:  John Donne called him “a man of the most tender and delicate conscience that the world saw since Augustine.” Jonathan Swift referred to him as “the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced.” And if the play Sir Thomas More is to be considered as the Bard’s handiwork, Shakespeare himself called him “the best friend the poor ever had.”

Famous film about him below:

Henry David Thoreau: “I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion.”

July 4th, 2014

Free spirit

Happy Fourth of July. In my thinking about the day, it occurred to me that this may be the first and only nation that actually formed around the notion of dissent. We do more than tolerate dissent, we view it as the absolute bedrock of a democracy.

Then I recalled an all-time great American, Henry David Thoreau, who, in July 1846, spent a night in jail because he refused to pay six years of a delinquent poll tax at a time when American was waging what he viewed as an unjust war (the Mexican war) and while slavery was still practiced.

According to some accounts, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”

Emerson missed the point of Thoreau’s protest, which was not intended to reform society but was a pure act of conscience. If we do not act on our discernment of right from wrong, he argued, we will eventually lose the capacity to make the distinction.

Prior to these events, Thoreau had been living a quiet, solitary life at Walden, an isolated pond in the woods about a mile and a half from Concord (reconstruction of the place below looks pretty nifty to me). Perhaps the sudden collision with the affairs of the world was a jolt to him: “The State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

Toward his jailers, Thoreau expressed sadness: “They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are under-bred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. … I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.”


Home sweet home

Apparently, Bronson Alcott had been taken to prison for a similar refusal, but was sprung by a friend who paid the tab. Hence, he wrote, “I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s.”

Too often the importance of respecting dissent, not quashing it, gets lost in a big busy country. On my Facebook page this morning I posted a comment from Robert Reich, “True patriotism isn’t simply about securing our borders from outsiders. It’s about coming together for the common good.” I added this thought: Let’s make this a special Fourth of July. Left-wingers – go hug a right-winger. Right-wingers – go hug a left-winger. Try to listen to a point of view not your own. You don’t have to adopt it, just hear it out, trying to understand where the other is coming from without refutation, denigration, or ridicule. Try to see the other person as someone who also has a collection of life experiences and who is also fighting a tough battle. Put aside hatred, not just for today, but forever. Try to enjoy the cacophony of voices that make up a democracy. Any takers?

Meanwhile, here are a few words from Jerome Lawrence, one of the two playwrights (the other is Robert Edwin Lee) who wrote the very successful The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail:


Jerome Lawrence on The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail from William Inge Center for the Arts on Vimeo.

Long-lost recording of Tolkien … what’s it worth to you?

July 2nd, 2014

At the 1958 Rotterdam Hobbit Dinner… presumably after a few drinks.

What would you give to hear a recording of J.R.R. Tolkien at the top of his form? What if it held new revelations about The Lord of the Rings? It’s a practical question.

The Rotterdam Project is fund-raising to remaster a newly discovered  reel-to-real tape, partnering with the Tolkien site to raise awareness and funds in order to remaster the original recording, chronicle the event, and make it available to the world this fall.  From the scratchy youtube video below, they have their work cut out for them – that’s a pitch for your support. Hey all you techies in Silicon Valley – want to come to the rescue?

The recording is from the Rotterdam “Hobbit Dinner” on March 28th, 1958. The tape was found in 1993 by Tolkien enthusiast René van Rossenberg, who owns a shop for the Tolkien-obsessed in the Netherlands, “the only brick-and-mortar shop in the world entirely dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien,” according to the website.

So how come we didn’t know about the recording till now? ”Like Smaug I am guarding my treasure, hissing at any collector who comes near,” he recently wrote in response to an email query. Fortunately, he was persuaded him to open his dragon hoard. Now, he says, “I am looking forward to sharing with all Tolkien aficionados the great joy I felt when I first played the tape and heard Tolkien give his great speech.”

Noble Smith, author of The Widsom of the Shire, listened to the recording, the first person other than Rossenberg to hear it, and called it “awesome.” Here’s what he had to say about it at HuffPo:

At the start of the speech Tolkien is indeed full of high-spirits and cracks jokes in a way that we’ve never heard him do before. Rather than the ultra-serious Oxford don whom most of us know from his scanty recordings, we get Tolkien-as-Bilbo, right out of the chapter “A Long-expected Party.” He even makes reference to that famous eleventy-first birthday, for Tolkien’s oration was intended as a parody of Bilbo’s farewell speech. The author’s merry voice, with its brusque and rich accent, dances around your head like a hobbit drinking song. For the Professor, it was said by one of his former students, “Could turn a lecture room into a mead hall.”

Tolkien thanked the assembled “hobbits” for giving him the greatest party of his life. He spoke very modestly about The Lord of the Rings calling it “A poor thing, but my own.” He couldn’t believe that the people there would want to hear an after-dinner autobiography. So he jumped right into explaining the construction of his great narrative work, stating that the One Ring is a mere mechanism that “sets the clock ticking fast.” And then he quite plainly spells out what the books are about–something he only alluded to once in a letter, but is incontrovertible in this speech. (If you want to know exactly what he says you’ll just have to listen for yourself!)

At one point he read a poem in Elvish, joking that hobbits were always terrified when someone threatened to recite poetry at a party. He prefaced the poem by saying it was almost twenty years to the day since he had started working on The Lord of the Rings. His mellifluous voice makes the imaginary language come alive, like sinuous silvery mithril script etched in the mind’s eye:

Twenty years have flowed away down the long river
And never in my life will return for me from the sea
Ah years in which looking far away I saw ages long past
When still trees bloomed free in a wide country
And thus now all begins to wither With the breath of cold-hearted wizards
To know things they break them
And their stern lordship they establish
Through fear of death

Tolkien had spent the afternoon walking around Rotterdam–a city that had suffered much destruction during World War II. The sight of it had saddened him, reminding him of the “orc-ery” that he so lamented taking hold of the world. The “cold-hearted wizards,” in their quest for knowledge and power, were only good at destroying things. In his final salute to the assembly of hobbit-lovers, Tolkien said that Sauron is gone, but the descendants of the hateful, Shire-polluting wizard Saruman are everywhere. The hobbits of the world have no magic weapons to fight them. But, he adds with a robust and hopeful declaration:

“And yet here gentlehobbits may I conclude by giving you this toast. To the hobbits! And may they outlast all the wizards!”

The Rotterdam Hobbit Dinner was the first of its kind, and also the last. For Tolkien never again attended another party like this in his honor. But now we have the proof of what took place on that wonderful night, and what the great author said. And the sound of Tolkien’s voice, like his works, will outlast death.

Go here for an evening of Tolkien, W.H. Auden, and an evening of mushrooms and Elvish.

Happy 103rd birthday, Czesław Miłosz!

June 30th, 2014


“Evil grows and bears fruit, which is understandable, because it has logic and probability on its side and also, of course, strength. The resistance of tiny kernels of good, to which no one grants the power of causing far-reaching consequences, is entirely mysterious, however. Such seeming nothingness not only lasts but contains within itself enormous energy which is revealed gradually.”


Ida Lubenstein’s redemption

June 30th, 2014

The novice Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) comforts her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza).

Paweł Pawlikowski‘s Ida has bagged a zillion awards this year – but I hadn’t heard of the film until Marilyn Yalom, fresh from a trip to Poland, told me I must see it. It’s been called a grim “road movie” about two women – one an 18-year-old girl about to take her vows in a convent; the other her aunt, a judge and former state prosecutor called “Red Wanda,” who sent “enemies of the people” to their deaths during the show trials of the Stalin era. The two meet for the first time, and Wanda Gruz tells the convent-reared girl that she is in fact Jewish, born Ida Lubenstein, the daughter of her sister. It’s 1962, and the two take off into the drab Communist era towns to find out what became of Ida’s family during the war. The answer is not a happy one (spoiler alert): the German occupation inspired many murderous atrocities among the occupied; the Lebensteins were butchered by the people who were sheltering them, and their property seized. The baby Ida was dropped off at a convent doorstep.


Family reunion.

I won’t recap the many reviews, except to note a few Polish nuances that are likely to be missed by the Western audience. One viewer was surprised that the disillusioned commie Wanda’s taste for music extended to Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony” – but that’s no surprise in Eastern Europe. It’s more interesting to me that jazz played such a big role in Communist Poland  – there’s a lot of John Coltrane. American jazz was also big in occupied France, as a defiant symbol of resistance and freedom. Props to jazz-lovers everywhere.

More subtext: few in the West know how those who had resisted the Nazis, the Polish patriots, were harrassed and persecuted by the Communist government – hence Wanda’s social isolation, both Jewish and Communist. There are other distinctively Polish cues in the film – during a flashback to one of courtroom a man who protested the social state by whacking down with a saber the red tulips planted by social scouts. The saber had belonged to his grandfather, who had served with the out-of-favor Polish patriot and statesman of the interwar period, Józef Piłsudski. One Pole told me that every erstwhile Polish aristocrat has a plot of land, a title, and a sword under his bed. Well, here’s the sword.

ida3Some critics have taken issue with the film’s ending. So do I, but for entirely different reasons. It seemed to me a modern solution plopped onto an earlier era – one I happened to have lived through, so I have some firsthand memories.  The idea of a virginal 18-year-old novice dropping her drawers (literally) to have a one-night-stand with a saxophonist in a band is as likely as her twerking her way to Silicon Valley and making a killing in a start-up.  Many critics have also spoken about Ida’s return to the city need to “find herself,” live a little, daring to imagine another future, and experiencing a “fuller life” – all the usual clichés. They forget she has a funeral to go to. In any case, the sex scene hardly represents passionate abandon – it’s pretty joyless, tentative, and rote. Others have deplored Ida’s eventual rejection of romantic love – they are the true idealists, thinking that a traveling young jazz musician would have had an enduring fascination with the inexperienced teenager.

Others comment that both women’s are psychologically shaken by their experiences together, and that Ida begins to question her faith. I didn’t even see it touched, let alone bruised. Was I watching a different movie? Alright, alright – I’ll give you one suppressed giggle at the solemn and silent convent dinner, but otherwise it seems so much wishful thinking and projection on the part of Western viewers who don’t understand Ida’s choices. Wanda is a different case. Brittle and about to break, despite her apparent toughness, she jumps to her death.


Now we know.

Let me offer an alternative interpretation, perhaps just as fanciful: with the suicide of her aunt, the only relative she has ever met, she decides, for a day or two, to re-inhabit that lost, abandoned life – not just to accompany Wanda on her solitary path to death, to immerse herself in it, to revivify the life and to redeem it.  She wears her aunt’s clothes, stays in her apartment, plays her music (very like the redemptive “substitutions” in Inkling Charles Williams‘s writings.) Wanda’s taunt to Ida, vis à vis sex, has been frequently cited in the write-ups about the film: “You should try. Otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?” Perhaps Ida took it to heart on a far deeper level than Wanda had intended. She experiences it, so that she can renounce it consciously, rather than blindly. (This, of course, reduces the saxophonist to a mere object or symbol, but there’s really not much way around that in any reading of the film.)

Oh yes, and one more thing Western viewers are likely to miss. When Wanda deals the photographs of her family like cards on a table – Director Pawlikowski includes one photo that would not have been a family member, someone who was almost totally unknown in Poland at the time because, as a Polish patriot, she was persecuted by the Polish government and her reputation suppressed. Irena Sendler, with her team of women in Żegota, the underground council to save Jews, saved 2,500 Jewish babies and children in the Warsaw Ghetto. Every Pole knows that. The women of Żegota said not one convent refused to shelter a child.

Psssttt!!! Check out the comment selection below. Pretty interesting stuff about the woman who may have been the prototype for Wanda.

Robert Musil: “If one wants to prevent revolutions, one must encourage the writing of literature”

June 28th, 2014

Real writer

It’s the 100th anniversary of the assassination that triggered World War I. On this day in 1914, the 19-year-old Serbian Gavrilo Princip shot the Austrian  Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The assassin was one of those nobodies who pops up occasionally in history, rather like John Wilkes Booth, but the Austrian writer Robert Musil has another take on the schoolboy, who was secretly a poet – as well as French leader Georges Clémenceau, who “obviously had a poet living inside him,” and Italian novelist/playwright Benito Mussolini. In this passage taken from his notebooks in late 1935 or early 1936:


Writer wannabe

“In a word, one must remind those irredeemably blind people who despise literature that even Nero set Rome on fire once, and this not just because he was mentally ill, as is maintained, but above all because he was a writer. Their respect for writing will increase if they notice that not only amateur writers, writing dilettantes, but also writers who for one reason or another never fully managed to devote themselves to writing, have set the world on fire.

“Compared to them, the real or fully developed writers are not dangerous in any way and, aside from spiritual theft, bourgeois bankruptcy, and offences against public decency, have never done anything serious at all. The source of restlessness in the kind of people who destroy worlds is transformed in these writers to a quietly burning and nourishing hearth-flame and they make a well-ordered export business out of the adventures of their fantasy…”

Read the rest at the blog on Musil, Attempts to Find Another Human Being,  here. As I recall, Joseph Stalin was an aspiring writer, too, and Mao Tse-Tung was a poet of note. I suppose it could be flipped around to be an argument for killing all of us early… Some sort of fireworks exploding outside as I write. I find it rather chilling on a warm summer night.

Jenny Davidson is hooked on sentences

June 26th, 2014

davidsonJenny Davidson likes sentences.  More than that.  She says that “sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child…” She wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.  And she has. The Columbia University Press blog has an interview with her about her new book, Reading Style: A Life in Sentences.

An excerpt:

Q: You’re a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature, a novelist, and a blogger; how did these three hats you wear inform your approach to writing Reading Style?

Jenny Davidson: From my point of view, those three hats—scholarship, fiction-writing, blogging—are part of a single fully integrated set of activities, and I wrote this book partly to show what that means for me as a reader and writer. The separation between scholarship and fiction-writing has always seemed to me largely artificial—I will write a novel because there’s a problem or topic that I’ve pursued as far as I can by scholarly means and want to think about further in a different medium, and the same thing goes in the other direction. Blogging is something I took up about ten years ago: it was largely for my own enjoyment, with some minor self-promotional aspect I suppose, but I found as I continued to do it that it became an excellent way to develop and refine an easy, fluent critical voice that I could then take back into the more formal kinds of criticism I also write.


Q: Chapter 2 is intriguingly titled “Lord Leighton, Liberace, and the Advantages of Bad Writing,” so what are some of these advantages?


Many hats.

JD: The names in the title are drawn not directly from life but from one of my favorite novels, Helen DeWittThe Last Samurai, which among other things is a brilliant and profound examination of the relationship between morality and prose style. The kinds of bad writing DeWitt’s protagonist attributes to the characters she dubs “Lord Leighton” and “Liberace” are not redeemable. But other kinds of bad writing are, or at least that’s what I want to argue. George Eliot is a good bad writer, and so is Lionel Shriver: in the case of each of these authors, there is a kind of muscular intellectual force that bludgeons you and impresses itself on you at one and the same time. The sentences are often slightly cringe-worthy, but it is in aid of a greater good. Harry Stephen Keeler is another writer I single out for praise—the supposed “badness” of his writing really strikes me as a kind of imaginative strangeness that amounts at times to genius. If we always restrict ourselves to books written in the best possible taste, we risk losing a whole continuum of aesthetic and moral effects.

She also has a blog called Light Reading.  ”For me, blogging has not been a form of personal revelation,” she said to Columbia News. “Light Reading mostly gives me a way to comment on what I’m reading, watching or otherwise thinking about in a mode that’s at once less formal and more flexible than a conventional book review or an academic article. The personal voice of the blogger is part of what draws us to a given blog, but I don’t find myself drawn—either as a reader or a writer—to very personal blogs.


Simone Weil and “the mark of slavery”

June 23rd, 2014

George Bernard Shaw famously wrote, “Only fine arts and torture changes a man.”

Simone Weil focused on the “torture” part. Malheur is usually translated as “affliction” – best option, perhaps, for describing the conditions necessary so that, as she wrote, “the human creature may un-create itself.” “Unhappiness” is too subjective and mild; though “affliction” doesn’t quite convey the inevitability and doom of “malheur.” In his introduction to the piece, which was pulled together from her notebooks, George Panichas wrote about affliction: “Along with beauty, it is the only thing piercing and devastating enough to penetrate the soul.”

I sent this to an ailing friend, not knowing what he’ll make of it. I’m having a Job-like day today, so I need to reread it, too:

weil2In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery. Slavery as practiced by ancient Rome is only an extreme form of affliction. The men of antiquity, who knew all about this question, used to say: “A man loses half his soul the day he becomes a slave.”

Affliction is inseparable from physical suffering and yet quite distinct. With suffering, all that is not bound up with physical pain or something analogous is artificial, imaginary, and can be eliminated by a suitable adjustment of the mind. Even in the case of the absence or death of someone we love, the irreducible part of the sorrow is akin to physical pain, a difficulty in breathing, a constriction of the heart, an unsatisfied need, hunger, or the almost biological disorder caused by the brutal liberation of some energy, hitherto directed by an attachment and now left without a guide. A sorrow that is not centered around an irreducible core of such a nature is mere romanticism or literature. Humiliation is also a violent condition of the whole corporal being, which longs to surge up under the outrage but is forced, by impotence or fear, to hold itself in check.

On the other hand pain that is only physical is a very unimportant matter and leaves no trace in the soul. Toothache is an example. An hour or two of violent pain caused by a decayed tooth is nothing once it is over.

It is another matter if the physical suffering is very prolonged or frequent, but in such a case we are dealing with something quite different from an attack of pain; it is often an affliction.

Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain. If there is complete absence of physical pain there is no affliction for the soul, because our thoughts can turn to any object. Thought flies from affliction as promptly and irresistibly as an animal flies from death. Here below, physical pain, and that alone, has the power to chain down our thoughts; on condition that we count as physical pain certain phenomena that, though difficult to describe, are bodily and exactly equivalent to it. Fear of physical pain is a notable example.

When thought is obliged by an attack of physical pain, however slight, to recognize the presence of affliction, a state of mind is brought about, as acute as that of a condemned man who is forced to look for hours at the guillotine the that is going to cut off his head. Human beings can live for twenty or fifty years in this acute state. …

Read more here.

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