Flannery O’Connor onstage: racial divide becomes a chasm in “Everything That Rises Must Converge”

September 25th, 2019
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A flirtatious “toddler” (Carlton Terrence Taylor) crosses the racial divide. (Photo: Paula Court)

An interesting evening in Chicago with Flannery O’Connor‘s “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” a short story movingly performed (every word of it, including the “he saids” and “she saids”) by the NYC-based company Compagnia De’ Colombari at Loyola University’s Newhart Family Theatre last week. (It moves to Yale and Fordham this weekend, see here.)

The storyline underscores the racial tensions in the Jim Crow South, but, this being Flannery O’Connor, nuance and contradictions take center stage. The focus is on the tense relationship between a mother who reflects the unabashed racist views of the era, and a resentful “liberal” son returning from college – wholly  dependent on his mother’s pocketbook, pantry, and home.

Excerpt from Time Out New York‘s review of the play: “The ensemble is terrific, smoothly slipping in and out of character. …  dark unsettling magic of O’Connor’s art—coming through full force in this exceptionally sensitive translation.” (The translation from the written word to the stage, that is.)

To much of the audience, commenting during the onstage discussion with the cast afterwards, the racism was a shock. But my interest is, I think, where O’Connor’s was: the son is a hundred percent “right” in his message, but who he is interferes with what he says. The mother with the repugnant attitudes may be the more humane of the two. She flirts charmingly with a black toddler on a bus – the only time in the play there is a real connection across the racial divide.

Incidentally, the title “Everything That Rises Must Converge” refers to a sublime phrase from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”

Back to the story. O’Connor’s text drips with irony, noting that, in spite of his mother, Julian had turned out so very well. The story continues:

In spite of going to only a third-rate college, he had, on his own initiative, come out with a first-rate education; in spite of growing up dominated by a small mind, he had ended up with a large one; in spite of all her foolish views, he was free of prejudice and unafraid to face facts. Most miraculous of all, instead of being blinded by love for her as she was for him, he had cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity. He was not dominated by his mother.

The bus stopped with a sudden jerk and shook him from his meditation. A woman from the back lurched forward with little steps and barely escaped falling in his newspaper as she righted herself. She got off and a large Negro got on. Julian kept his paper lowered to watch. It gave him a certain satisfaction to see injustice in daily operation. It confirmed his view that with a few exceptions there was no one worth knowing within a radius of three hundred miles. The Negro was well dressed and carried a briefcase. He looked around and then sat down on the other end of the seat where the woman with the red and white canvas sandals was sitting. He immediately unfolded a newspaper and obscured himself behind it. Julian’s mother’s elbow at once prodded insistently into his ribs. “Now you see why I won’t ride on these buses by myself,” she whispered.

The woman with the red and white canvas sandals had risen at the same time the Negro sat down and had gone farther back in the bus and taken the seat of the woman who had got off. His mother leaned forward and cast her an approving look.

Julian rose, crossed the aisle, and sat down in the place of the woman with the canvas sandals. From this position, he looked serenely across at his mother. Her face had turned an angry red. He stared at her, making his eyes the eyes of a stranger. He felt his tension suddenly lift as if he had openly declared war on her.

He would have liked to get in conversation with the Negro and to talk with him about art or politics or any subject that would be above the comprehension of those around them, but the man remained entrenched behind his paper. He was either ignoring the change of seating or had never noticed it. There was no way for Julian to convey his sympathy.

His mother kept her eyes fixed reproachfully on his face. The woman with the protruding teeth was looking at him avidly as if he were a type of monster new to her.

You can read the whole short story here.

Racial discomfort on a public bus. (Photo: Paula Court)

Two views of a milkpod, and a (very) few words from Richard Wilbur

September 22nd, 2019
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The Richard Wilbur and his wife Charlee

As readers of the Book Haven may have gathered, I am out and about, speaking here and there about Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardI am currently visiting the University of Notre Dame for the very first time, and a friend advised me to take a walk around the lake.  So I did.

There must be milkweeds in California – Google tells me there are. But I don’t think I’ve seen a specimen of “Asclepias” since I left my native Michigan. Of course my they brought back another memory: the late great Richard Wilbur‘s poem to them, part of “Two Voices from a Meadow” (the two views below of a particular Notre Dame milkpod were taken by Denise Hergatt). Read it, and you’ll never look at them the same way again.

Anonymous as cherubs
Over the crib of God,
White seeds are floating
Out of my burst pod.
What power had I
Before I learned to yield?
Shatter me, great wind:
I shall possess the field.

Rest assured that the Book Haven will be returning to beautiful Palo Alto in the next few days, and resume it’s regular programming.

Your parents don’t want you to study philosophy? That fight has a long history.

September 15th, 2019
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Convincing your parents that a humanities degree is practical was a struggle even in the fourth century A.D.

From the Greek historian Eunapius, 461 A.D. – with a hat tip to Julia Judge

 

September 11, 2001: for some that day will never end

September 11th, 2019
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Today is the 18th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. We share a few memories from three writers below. One is the story of a “mind-numbing” few hours, another from a “short view” kind of guy, and a third of a job offer refused.

John Guzlowski, author. His parents were survivors of Nazi work camps – we’ve written his story about it here.

I got a letter on Sept. 12, 2001, from my friend Bill Anderson who tended to take a cynical view of people and government and the human animal in general.

The following was the response I wrote to him that day:

I wish I could take the long view the way you do, Bill: look at the attack, and see it the way it probably is –  President Bush seeing this as his way of putting a lock on his second term, Americans showing their true nature by making money on increased gas prices, Hollywood being angry because this will put the next Bruce Willis film on hold for two weeks. The long view: we’re all self-serving crooks.

I’m not good at the long view. I’m more of a short view guy: One of my wife Linda’s cousins saw the first tower go down from her office. Her name is Lisa. She was a wonderfully fat baby. One time her mom, Linda’s Aunt Anne, dressed her in a tutu, and Linda’s dad Tony laughed and laughed, and still 25 years later the family talks about the tutu and how much we all loved her in her tutu and laughed with joy at her beauty.

“I’m more of a short view guy.”

Lisa got out okay. She was evacuated, and finally found herself across the river at a phone booth in Hoboken, New Jersey. She called home to Aunt Anne and Uncle Buddy. He’s also a short view guy: He was with Patton’s soldiers when they freed the first concentration camps. He still shakes and cries when he remembers the piles of corpses.

My niece is an emergency room nurse at NYU hospital. (I think I saw her in the background on an NBC spot about the hospital – but I wasn’t sure. She looked old and tired and gray with pain.) Her dad, Linda’s brother Bruce, was calling her and calling her to make sure she was okay. Finally she got through to him late in the afternoon on Tuesday. He begged her to leave the hospital, said he would drive down from Connecticut and get her. Cried and begged her. He said he was her father and she had to listen to him. (Bruce isn’t much of a crier. He’s a jokey, tough Brooklyn guy.) But she was his baby and he wanted her away from all of it. And she said she couldn’t leave. He cried some more and pleaded, and she hung up on him. She had to get back to work.

And all those people looking for their relatives and friends, holding pictures up to the TV cameras and telling us about how some guy was a great friend, and he was a waiter in a restaurant at the top of the building. And I see a photo of this poor foreign-looking schmuck with a big nose and a dopey NY baseball cap that’s way too big, who probably came here with a paper suitcase and thought that working up at that restaurant was the greatest thing possible in the world. And the friend hoping to find this guy thinks this guy is alive someplace, maybe in a coma in some hospital.

And I know there’s not a chance in hell this guy or any other guy or gal in any of these pictures is alive. They’re dead, all dead, but I wouldn’t tell this guy holding the picture.

Boy, these are stories that touch me so hard I can’t think about the other stuff, the long view.

Mary Morris, author. We’ve written about her anniversary here. This is a different kind of story, for a different kind of anniversary:

MIA for several “mind-numbing” hours

Eighteen years ago Larry and I went for a walk. Normally he took the R train to work but it was a beautiful morning so he took a different train. One that didn’t let him off inside the World Trade Center. A beautiful morning, a twist of fate. When my mother-in-law called and asked if Larry was home, I told her she could call him at work. When she said, “Where exactly is his office?” my heart stopped.

During those mind-numbing hours our house filled with people. Someone brought sandwiches. The dog barked every time

a person came or went. And then he ran to the door, not barking, I knew that Larry had come home, covered in a fine dust of glass that would send splinters into my flesh and our daughters’.

This is very personal and hard to say. This is not something we will ever get over. When I see the lights in the sky, it takes my breath away. We were lucky that day. And I am grateful. My heart goes out to those for whom that day will never end.

Erin Huntzinger, professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who also recalls the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, with a rental truck filled with explosives – “a blind cleric was the master mind.”

I was on Wall Street during the first World Trade Center bombing [in 1993]. I had a lunch interview at the Trade Center’s Windows on the World restaurant with the firm of Canter Fitzgerald. I got too busy trading around a client’s big position and had to cancel our lunch. It was a overcast day with intermittent rain. The markets slowed, I got a coffee, and I took a phone call from my dad. Suddenly our building shook. At first I thought it was a lighting strike to our building. Soon after I looked down and saw black smoke which billowed from the Peninsula Hotel and the World Trade Center parking entrance. Then helicopters circled the towers. Our secondary generators, backup cell connections, computers, and trading platforms kicked on.

It’s personal.

As I walked home to my condo in battery park, I passed scores of cop cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. The Peninsula hotel was taped off as a crime scene. Its facade was unrecognizable. The West Side highway was closed at 14th street and traffic was backed up for miles. I eventually turned down the job a Canter Fitzgerald, even though a number of friends begged me to join them.

On September 11, 2001, I was in Los Angeles. I was woken by my girlfriend who was on location in Vancouver. She was almost incoherent as she directed me to “just turn the TV on.” I did. I watched in horror as my phone just kept vibrating from call after call. I watched as fire streamed from the towers from the commercial airlines. It was surreal. I wept and wept as I watched the looped visual of the planes impacting the buildings. Then the networks flashed to live shots. I watched as friends and acquaintances, many from Canter Fitzgerald, died in front of me. The firehouse, where I had hung out playing cards, was vaporized. As I unblinkingly watched the screen, Boris, my NYPD dog, comforted me by sitting in my lap intermittently licking the salt streaming down my cheeks. I was speechless for hours as my eyes just fixated on the bodies falling amongst the flames. For me the slogan never forget is extremely emotional and personal.

May God Bless them all.

Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was tortured and sentenced to 20 years – now he is free!

September 7th, 2019
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International protests for his freedom. (Photo: Amnesty International / Henning Schacht)

When asked if he understood his sentence, Crimean filmmaker and writer Oleg Sentsov stood up in his glass cage and sang the Ukrainian national anthem. Surprising to some perhaps, because he is an ethnic Russian, although Crimean-born. But he never recognized Russia’s brutal 2014 annexation of his homeland, and he said so. (Film clip below.)

With the testimony of tortured witnesses, a Russian court was sentenced for “terrorism” and sentenced to a series of Siberian prisons until August 2035. Now he is free.

Awarded by PEN in 2017

On Saturday, Russia and Ukraine finalized the exchange of 70 prisoners held in both countries. They include 24 Ukrainian sailors captured off the coast of Crimea last year as well as Sentsov. They returned to Kiev where they were  welcomed by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy and where Sentsov was reunited with his family.

His imprisonment has not been uneventful: at one point, he was beaten for 24 hours to force a confession. When he tried to prosecute for torture, the Russians accused him of sado-masochism and inflicting his own wounds. He and three other Ukrainian freedom-fighters were charged with planning to bomb power lines, bridges, and public monuments.

Over four months ago, he had declared a hunger strike, demanding Russian authorities to free all Ukrainian “political prisoners.” He lost 66 lbs. before ending the strike after 145 days under threats of force feeding. Sentsov, the 2017 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award winner is best known for his internationally acclaimed 2011 (non-political) feature film Gamer

Reacting to the news that Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and dozens of other detainees have been released as a part of prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine, Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said:

“Oleg Sentsov and many others jailed following Russia’s occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea are simply victims of politically-motivated prosecution and they should never have been imprisoned in the first place. While it is a relief that they are now free, it is a travesty to see them being used as human bargaining chips in political deals.

“The conflict in eastern Ukraine opened a new and tragic chapter for human rights in the country and beyond. Following his arrest, illegal transfer to Russia and deeply flawed trial by a military court, Oleg Sentsov spent more than six years behind bars.

“The Russian authorities derisively refused to recognize his Ukrainian citizenship and transported him 3,000 kilometers away from his family and native Crimea to the frost-bitten penal colony at Labytnangi in the far north of Russia.

“No-one should be prosecuted and imprisoned solely for political reasons; we demand justice for all remaining prisoners subjected to these politically-motivated trials, those who had been imprisoned solely for exercising their human rights, should be immediately and unconditionally release.”

“Does the calculus of numbers falter when it comes to matters of good and evil?” Coetzee on Australia and the refugee crisis.

September 6th, 2019
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“What is more of a mystery is why so many Australians wish refugees ill.”

Australia backs strong border controls, and its relationship to immigration has had a troubled history.

Like everywhere else in the world, however, the great refugee crisis from the Middle East and North Africa has affected Australia, too. Most refugees come via Indonesia, where they are routinely arrested and returned to their country of origin. According to Nobel writer J.M. Coetzee, who makes his home in Adelaide: “At the height of the boat traffic to Australia in 2009–2011, some five thousand people a year were setting sail from ports in southern Indonesia, in leaky boats provided by smugglers.” Some estimates put the number of deaths at 2,000 in the last two decades, with  a spike of over 400 in 2012. He continues, “To call their hostility racist or xenophobic explains little. Its roots lie further back in time…”

Coetzee considers imprisoned Kurdish-Iranian journalist  Behrouz Boochan’s  No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison in the current New York Review of Books. Incidentally, Boochan’s book was typed in Farsi on a cell phone that he kept hidden in his mattress, and then surreptitiously dispatched, one text message at a time, to a collaborator in the outside world.

An excerpt of Coetzee’s review:

Let us suppose that I am the heir of an enormous estate. Stories about my generosity abound. And let us suppose that you are a young man, ambitious but in trouble with the authorities in your native land. You make a momentous decision: you will set out on a voyage across the ocean that will bring you to my doorstep, where you will say, I am here—feed me, give me a home, let me make a new life!

A bold and persuasive claim

Unbeknown to you, however, I have grown tired of strangers arriving on my doorstep saying I am here, take me in—so tired, so exasperated that I say to myself: Enough! No longer will I allow my generosity to be exploited! Therefore, instead of welcoming you and taking you in, I consign you to a desert island and broadcast a message to the world: Behold the fate of those who presume upon my generosity by arriving on my doorstep unannounced!

This is, more or less, what happened to Behrouz Boochani. Targeted by the Iranian regime for his advocacy of Kurdish independence, Boochani fled the country in 2013, found his way to Indonesia, and was rescued at the last minute from the unseaworthy boat in which he was trying to reach Australia. Instead of being given a home, he was flown to one of the prisons in the remote Pacific run by the Commonwealth of Australia, where he remains to this day.

Boochani is not alone. Thousands of asylum-seekers have suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Australians. The point of the fable of the rich man and the supplicant is the following: Is it worse to treat thousands of people with exemplary inhumanity than to treat a single man in such a way? If it is indeed worse, how much worse is it? Thousands of times? Or does the calculus of numbers falter when it comes to matters of good and evil?

Borrowing from Kurdish bardic traditions…

Whatever the answer, the argument against Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers can be made as trenchantly on the basis of a single case as on that of a thousand, and Boochani has provided exactly that case. Under atrocious conditions he has managed to write and publish a record of his experiences (experiences yet to be concluded), a record that will certainly leave his jailers gnashing their teeth.

On Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers:

The preventive measures undertaken by the Australian navy to head off asylum-seekers are shrouded in secrecy; therefore we do not know how many of them have persisted in embarking for Australia since a harsh new policy of interning and processing them offshore was put into practice in 2013, but there is every reason to believe that the number has fallen drastically. It would appear that when the navy intercepts a refugee vessel, it immediately transfers the occupants to a disposable boat with a minimum of fuel, tows it back into Indonesian waters, and casts it off.

On the book, and Boochani’s imprisonment on Manus Island:

This is a bold and persuasive claim: that through their experience on the island the prisoners have absorbed an understanding of how power works in the world, whereas their jailers remain locked in complacent ignorance. The claim rests on an extended conception of what knowledge can consist in: knowledge can be absorbed directly into the suffering body and thence transfigure the self. The prisoners know more than the jailers do, even if they do not have words for what they know.

Read the rest of the article here.  

Portrait of the poet as stowaway: Reuters remembers Dan Rifenburgh’s life of crime at 15

September 3rd, 2019
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Not a bad place to hide. Queen Mary in its heyday. (Creative Commons)

It’s tough for poets to get attention for their poetry. But some writers start young and get a head start on fame … or even  notoriety.

So it was for Dan Rifenburgh (we’ve written about him here and here), who found infamy sooner than most, at age 15. The poet, veteran, and former truck driver  shared his story on about his 1964 experiences as a stowaway on the legendary British ocean liner Queen Mary. In Dan’s own words:

“I walked on board in Manhattan. My folks figured out I might be on the Mary. The ship was searched at sea. I was found and put in the brig. At Southhampton, I was given a small cabin and had two guards on me (Cunard pensioners). I gave them the slip and hitchhiked to London. My last ride, a Polish bulldozer driver, put me up with his family.”

A more lasting kind of fame…

“I saw the Tower, the Palace, St. Paul’s, Trafalgar Square. My face was on the cover of all the English papers. I had no money. I walked into a police station and gave myself up. I spent two weeks in a juvenile Remand Home and played soccer and cricket, then was put on the Queen Elizabeth and home to New York.”

“My Dad had to pay, but we sold my story to a journalist for enough to cover the trip. My photo was in the centerfold of the Daily News and I was on all New York television and radio for days. In our town of Port Chester, New York, I was something of a celebrity. They still remember.”

The ocean liner was retired a few years later (nothing to do with Dan), and is now permanently moored in Long Beach, California. The newspaper clip above is from a Liverpool or Manchester paper – Dan can’t remember which.

Reuters verifies the story below, which is recounted in The New York Times, too – here and here

SOUTHAMPTON, England, July 15 (Reuters)—A 15‐year-old American stowaway escaped from the Queen Mary here today and vanished.

The boy, Daniel Rifenburgh, whose father is vice president of a Port Chester, N. Y., glass manufacturing concern, was trying to travel to Switzerland to visit a friend.

He walked down the ship’s gangplank and mingled with workers going through the dock gates into town.

.

“A Genius, Without a Doubt”: Ted Gioia considers Gershwin’s legacy

August 31st, 2019
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The year of his death. (Photo: Carl Van Vechten)

Jazz scholar Ted Gioia‘s personal connection to George Gershwin’s music goes back to his teenage years, when he first started performing his music on the piano.

Ted reviews the newest biography, Richard Crawford‘s Summertime, in A Genius, Without a Doubt, in yesterday’s Wall Street JournalTed describes it as “a genial account … that demonstrates his passion for Gershwin on almost every page.” At nearly 600 pages, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Many biographies precede it: the earliest, George Gershwin: A Study in American Music, was published in 1931 to coincide with the composer’s 33rd birthday – not as soon as it might seem. The gifted composer died at 38 of a brain tumor.

It was the first of many biographies: “Two dozen more have appeared since, along with various musicological studies, sheet-music compilations and other works,” Ted writes. “Howard Pollack’s George Gershwin: His Life and Work, published in 2006, clocks in at almost 900 pages and stands out from the pack for its intelligence and depth. Ira Gershwin, the composer’s brother and frequent lyricist, left us a charming 1959 volume titled Lyrics on Several Occasions, a gossipy and insightful guide to their collaborations. Finally, I’ve consulted the chapter on Gershwin in Alec Wilder’s seminal American Popular Song (1972) so many times that my copy is falling to pieces (perhaps the ultimate testimony to a beloved book).”

His legacy? “Gershwin’s reputation as a composer is still going strong 100 years after he emerged on the music scene, but probably not in the way he envisioned. Sheet-music sales don’t generate much income nowadays, and Broadway has almost become a Disney theme park, but Gershwin calls the tune in other, unexpected places. You will hear his melodies everywhere from Starbucks playlists to United Airlines flight-safety videos.”

Yet Ted finds it puzzling that Gershwin “allegedly legitimized jazz as serious music with the success of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in 1924 but that not a single jazz musician was able to benefit from this crossover success.

“You might think that Duke Ellington or James P. Johnson or some other jazz star would have also been embraced as a composer of symphonic music. But the door opened for Gershwin and quickly shut behind him. We can hardly blame Gershwin for this—he was, after all, an ardent champion of his favorite jazz musicians—yet it remains an important matter and isn’t dealt with anywhere in these pages.”

He concludes: “We still need a book that makes a strong case for this towering figure’s relevance in our own time.” Read the rest here.

Postscript on 8/31: A Facebook comment from journalist Jeff Selbst:  The fallacy cited is that somehow Gershwin was a ‘crossover’ figure who should have been followed with the same respect by James P. Johnson or Duke Ellington. This fundamentally misunderstands Gershwin’s music and his place within music history.  He was emphatically not a composer of jazz. Every analysis will reveal a composer who began firmly in the tradition of Tin Pan Alley and transitioned successfully to a conservative classical tradition. “Jazz,” if it exists at all in his music, is a spice, an overlay, a hint of exoticism over well-shaped post-Romantic classical music. His most important works were written in the late 20s through the mid to late 30s, a period in which really revolutionary things were being done in music (Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Ravel), something Gershwin recognized when he went to Paris to ask Ravel to teach him and was famously turned down. (In a wonderful irony. Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto in G shortly after meeting Gershwin and guess who seemed to have rubbed off on him!)

The point of all this is that the door didn’t open and close around a seminal jazz figure. He was never the groundbreaking figure that some musicologists pretend. That said, I find his music bloody irresistible.

Ann Kjellberg asks: Is there a role for strong, considered thinking in our digital future?

August 27th, 2019
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Editor par excellence

Ann Kjellberg is known to many as the executor of the Joseph Brodsky Estate and a former New York Review of Books contributing editor. We’ve published her views of Joseph Brodsky translations of his verse into English here. She is also the editor of the journal Little StarBut for last year, she has taken on an additional role – she’s also launched Book Post, a subscription-based book review.

From her latest post, “Notebook: The Writer of the Future”

… the promise of the “free” internet, a public square where the best ideas rise to the surface, seems increasingly remote. Recent events have shown not only how easy it is to game the system, but that the system by its nature juices our most destructive impulses. Anger, fear, conflict—these drive clicks, the “engagement” that whips up user data, and the algorithms that determine what we see respond to engagement: a digital fight attracts engagement just as violence draws a crowd. “Whenever something significant happens it attracts negative emotions,” [tech pioneer Jaron] Lanier says, “negative emotions are the most addictive patterns … You engage people by ruining society. That is the current business model.” Algorithms reacting to the worst in us organize what we see; plus the Federal Communications Commission’s 2017 repeal of net neutrality enables industry heavyweights to buy our attention outright.Writing (read, any creative endeavor) begins in solitude. An editor approaches a solitary person, a person who has given long thought to something, whether a creative idea, or the product of careful research or analysis, something they have nurtured alone in order eventually to share it with others, and helps them navigate this transition, from thinking to disclosing. I began Book Post a year or so ago because I was looking into this feverish swamp of disclosure, where ideas are told to move fast, to scrape up “engagement,” to become “viral” (formerly a bad thing), and I wondered how strong, considered thinking is going to take hold in our digital future. What happens when people who develop substantive ideas cannot be compensated, and, on the other side, when readers and consumers are not provided with good information? News journalism has strong defenders, but what about other, slower, more fundamental ideas, the ones that ground our culture and inform our values?

She discusses the predicament of the writer, and her hope “to create rooms in which writing can grow,” here.

Au revoir to Yale’s Alexander Schenker: “intelligence,” “quick wit,” and “the ability to understand the soul of another human being.”

August 23rd, 2019
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A postwar life at Yale. (Photo: Andrzej Franaszek)

Author and Slavic scholar Alexander Schenker died today. He was 94. The Kraków-born scholar was deported to a Soviet labor camp in 1940, after the fall of Poland in World War II. As he put it, “As if answering my childish prayers, World War II interrupted my general education in the ninth grade of Polish high school. As a result, I had to spend my formative years outside of Poland.”

He studied at a university in Tajikistan, then left the Soviet Union in 1946 and studied at the Sorbonne, followed by graduate studies in Yale’s Department of Linguistics, receiving a Ph.D. in 1953. He taught at Yale until his retirement in 1995.

A Facebook tribute from Andrzej Franaszek, author of celebrated biographies of Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert (translated from the Polish by Alla Makeeva Roylance):

“Alexander Schenker has died, or rather, Olek, as he was called by those who knew him. His biography covers a whole chunk of the last century. From his life in Kraków during the 1920s and 1930s, the war flung him deep into the Soviet Union. A few years later, luck brought him to the States, then to his studies in Paris, and later a return to the East Coast, settling in New Haven, with decades of work at Yale. He was a Slavist, the author of textbooks. The last book, which apparently is being published by “słowo/obraz terytoria” [the name of a publishing house] is about the monument to Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. He was a man blessed with a gift of selflessness. A close friend of Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert; he also knew a good many Polish artists. He was veritable fountain of wit, but at the same time he possessed something much more important – psychological insight, empathy, the ability to understand a soul of another human being. His combination of intelligence and quick wit made him the perfect embodiment of the best Polish-Jewish cultural amalgam. In recent years, he came to Krasnogruda [Miłosz’s birthplace, now a conference center], on the invitation of Krzysztof Czyżewski; he began to work on his memories, and he also had a chance to talk about Herbert in front of Rafael Lewandowski‘s camera, so we will see him again in the fall – or at least his image, a specter of him. A very important person in my life. Kind, profound, I owe him a lot. If only for the  fact that eighteen years ago, in New Haven, Olek and his wife Krystyna made me feel like a family, invited me to their beautiful house in the woods – hosted, uplifted, mentored me. And many more such guests were there before me (and what guests! even Jerzy Turowicz) and after …”

I knew him from my work with him on his essay, “Wanderer,” in my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław MiłoszAn excerpt:

“I knew that Miłosz was superstitious; therefore, I never dared mention a possibility of his being nominated for the Nobel, although such a speculation circulated quite openly by then. Still, I was confident (and for good reason, as it turned out ten years later) that a simple comment on the “nobelization” process did not warrant a jinx from whatever dark forces were at play. Therefore, I allowed myself to remind him how important it was to have good English and Swedish translations of his work. As an example, I cited the case of a Bosnian writer, Ivo Andrić, who received a Nobel just a few years after his Bridge on the Drina appeared in a Swedish translation. I did it deliberately because I was satisfied neither with the quantity nor with the quality of existing English renditions of Miłosz’s poetry, which, unlike Herbert’s or Tadeusz Różewicz’s, does not lend itself easily to translation. Although clear as crystal in his prose, in his poetry Miłosz makes his exposition denser and emphasizes the phonetic aspect of the verse, especially in his frequent references to the language of bygone centuries and to dialects. The fact that, even in the loosely fitting garment of the English tongue, Miłosz achieved such an enthusiastic following among international readers and literary critics is yet another measure of his greatness.”

My last correspondence with him was on November 15, 2012. I had just suffered a nasty spam attack on my email account. I was mortified. My entire mailing list received an email purportedly from me, under the subject header: “Hey about careers in online marketing?” The body of the text included some cheesy story about hard work poorly remunerated, and urging clicks to a scammy website so that the recipient can say goodbye to bad jobs forever. The most witty and rueful reply to me was from Alexander Schenker, a former inmate in a Soviet forced labor camp:

“Mine was even worse – It was cold and I was paid in kopecks, Alex”

Postscript on August 24: An email from Prof. Susanne Fusso of Wesleyan University: “I would probably have left graduate school after one year if it hadn’t been for Alexander Schenker. He listened to me (a blessing in itself), gave me a stipend, and gave me a job. I will always remember his kindness. My deepest sympathy to his family.”


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