A cause for celebration: it’s America’s name day!

November 5th, 2014


Blogging makes for some interesting penpals. Two years at about this time, I wrote about the Saint Imre in a post titled “America’s Birth Certificate” here.  The gist of the post was the 1507 map that first recognized “America” by name. It was, of course, in honor of its Florentine explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, the first explorer to decide that the Americas were not the eastern tip of Asia, but a whole different continent – or, put another way, he saw the Pacific as a separate body of water.

Ah … but there the story only begins. Where did the name “Amerigo” come from? It’s the Italian form of St. Emeric, to non-Hungarians, or Saint Imre, crown prince of Hungary, to those of us with Hungarian blood. He had taken a vow of chastity (that’s why he holds a lily; see left) and was a hero to newly converted Hungary. He was gored by a boar in a hunting mishap, and died in 1031 A.D. That’s what I wrote in my post.

Some time later I received an email from Sándor Balogh, who told me that there is a campaign afoot to make today a holiday (he’s written more on the subject here and here). After all, in many countries birthdays aren’t celebrated, but rather “name days” – that is, one celebrates the feast day of the saint one was named after (think of all those Tolstoy novels, if you don’t believe me). Balogh had more info on how the Italian explorer came to be named after a Hungarian saint. Apparently he was named after his grandfather, another Amerigo, but that just takes the question back two generations.

Here’s the missing link, showing the connection between the Italian Amerigo and the Hungarian Imre:

imre2Msgr. György Pap published in the December, 1968 issue of the Magyar Kultúra a photograph of the triptych of the main altar of the Settignano St. Martino, a Mensola chapel near Florence, which was painted in 1391.  On it can be seen a man, holding a white lily, the symbol of virginity, representing Amerigo D’Ungueria. I was later successful in obtaining a photograph of the altar-piece, thanks to Maria Prokopp, an art historian. This shows the Virgin Mary, with the baby Jesus on her arm, surrounded by two saints, with the patron of the chapel, the creator of the painting, Amerigo Zati, kneeling in front of her.

The inscription at the bottom of the picture in its entirety:



Thus it is obvious that the businessman inserted his own name-giver and patron-saint into the painting, so the connection between the names Amerigo and Imre (Emeric) is undeniable. The other saint, Guiliano, is the patron-saint of Amerigo Zati’s brother Julian.

From this it is clear that it was not the altar-piece that caused the name Amerigo to become widespread, but independently of this, the name had been used for a long time and it was well-known who Saint Imre was, at least in the environs of Florence, and so this explains the triptych.

That said, I like the original image of St. Imre I used two years ago, preferring its faded, Giotto-like austerity to this more gaudy Florentine one. I don’t know where this image came from, other than Wikipedia. I also like celebrating something besides Guy Fawkes‘ Day, the rather nasty ending of what may have been a government sting operation.

The idea of recognizing November 5 is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Mayor Kathy Sheehan of Albany has already made the leap, declaring November 5 to be Amerigo Vespucci Day in the city. And Balogh will be speaking there today. Read about it in the Times Union here.

Roberto Calasso speaks on “The Last Superstition” – Wednesday, Nov. 5, at Stanford

November 4th, 2014

A one-man literary institution

In a 2012 interview, The Paris Review wrote this about Italy’s Roberto Calasso: “In a country where intellectuals like to complain, perhaps more than elsewhere, that literary culture has fallen by the wayside, Calasso has come to stand for a lost ideal: a writer on esoteric topics, a book collector, a translator of Nietzsche and Karl Kraus, and an editor who oversees the publication of some ninety books a year, in every domain from the scientific to the poetic, with a fiction list that ranges from Nabokov and Borges to Kundera and Bolaño.

Now he’s here. As part of the René Girard Lectures, Calasso will be speaking on “The Last Superstition” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 5, at the Cubberley Auditorium on the Stanford campus. The event is free and open to the public. Read more about the event here.

The lectures honor Stanford’s René Girard, one of the major thinkers of our time and a member of the Académie Française, by bringing bold minds to speak in Paris and Stanford, Girard’s two intellectual homes. The 2012 event in the series featured Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands. The Calasso event is co-sponsored by the Stanford Department of French and Italian, Imitatio (a project of the Thiel Foundation), and the Cultural Services of the Consulate General of France in San Francisco.

This excerpt of Calasso’s thought from The Paris Review interview shows some affinities with René Girard’s interests:

kaschCALASSO: …The point is, man has a surplus of energy which he has to dispose of. That surplus is simply life. There is no life without surplus. Whatever one does with that surplus, that decides the shape of a culture, of a life, of a mind. There were certain cultures that decided they had to offer it in some way. It is not clear to whom, why, and how, but that was the idea. There are other cultures, like ours, where all this is considered entirely useless and obsolete. In the secular world, sacrifice shouldn’t have any meaning at all. At the same time, you realize that it does, because the word has remained very much in use. In discussions of the economy, analysts speak all the time of sacrifices, without realizing what is inside the word. Even in psychological terms, sacrifice is a most usual word. It is considered illegal—for instance, if one celebrated a sacrificial ritual in the middle of London or New York, he would do something illegal, he would be put in jail. Sacrifice is connected to destruction—that is an important thing and the most mysterious one. Why, in order to offer something, you must destroy it. These are the themes of the last part of L’ardore.

INTERVIEWER:  You have said that Lévi-Strauss was afraid of the notion.

CALASSO: He couldn’t deal with sacrifice, it destroyed his whole theory. I have much admiration for Lévi-Strauss, and I learned a lot from him. But there are certain things, like ritual and sacrifice, that made him nervous, because they disrupted the architecture of his thought.

cadmusINTERVIEWER: But Bataille tackled it.

CALASSO: Bataille is the opposite. Bataille wrote of sacrifice all his life. His best book on that was La part maudite, a very audacious work. But Bataille was not a rigorous thinker. He wrote too much and had a terrible habit—ressassement, endless repetitions. Yet in a way, he put the question at the center of everything.

INTERVIEWER: I think it is also central for you. Why is sacrifice so important?

CALASSO: Maybe it’s simply because sacrifice brings us into dealings with the unknown. In the act of sacrifice, you establish a relation with something that you recognize as enigmatic and powerful. Our collective psyche seems to have lost touch with it, although science is providing countless motives for being overwhelmed by the unknown. The unknown itself is in our own mind as well—our mind is in its largest part totally unknown to us. Therefore, it is not only a relation to the exterior world, it is a relation to ourselves. We establish a connection with the unknown through the act of giving something and, paradoxically, the act of destroying something. That is what is behind sacrifice. What you offer and what you destroy, it is that surplus which is life itself.

kaINTERVIEWER: Descartes speaks of man as “maître et possesseur de la nature.”

CALASSO: Well, you find that notion already in Genesis. But that has its own consequence—guilt. Guilt lies at the root of sacrifice. Sacrifice is not a way to avoid guilt or to excuse guilt, it is a repetition of guilt. In a sense, it’s a reinforcement of guilt. The first guilt is the very fact of making things disappear. Killing is only one of the ways of achieving that. Eating is another.

These actions are all very closely connected and they reach very far back into prehistory. They have gone on for hundreds of thousands of years and have thus left their traces in our minds. You can take them into account or ignore them. Our world attempts to ignore them, it considers all of these things as very remote. In my books, I try to unearth them.

Read the whole thing here.

Poland’s Adam Michnik: “I think Putin is going to break his neck with his reckless policy.”

November 2nd, 2014

A simple impulse of compassion

Adam Michnik is a legend in the history of Solidarity movement in Poland, and though we had  corresponded a few years back, we’d never actually met (we had a close call in Kraków, here).

Hence, I made the hectic rush-hour trek to Berkeley to hear him speak at the cozy, wood-paneled Morrison Reading Room of the university’s Doe Library last week. The venue has warm associations for me – it was the site of the last public appearance of Czesław Miłosz in America in 2000, and the place where I met the Nobel poet before our first interview a few days later. It was a fitting association for Michnik, too: he told me later that Miłosz is his “guru,” as well as the man he considered the greatest Polish poet of the 20th century.

I arrived at a few minutes late for the gathering (parking at Berkeley is worse than Stanford, which takes some doing nowadays), but I caught most of historian John Connelly‘s opening remarks, which were excellent – more on that later.

Freedom in 1989 was the miracle that no one expected to happen so soon, said Michnik, speaking through a translator. It was also the year when “the fridge broke and everything began to stink. Bad spirits and good spirits were released,” he said, recalling the challenges with lustration and various ethnic and social disputes.

He didn’t stick to script, which was officially titled “25 Years of Democracy in Poland: Accomplishments and New Challenges.” No wonder, given events in Eastern and Central Europe right now. He called Putin “a gangster” who led “a bandits’ regime.”

“Russian propaganda today resembles the Moscow propaganda of 1937,” he said. It was “very effective – effective because it divided opinion in Europe.” He recounted the complicated and long history of moving borders, which left open a situation where any boundary can be challenged as inauthentic and provisional, and used to legitimize land grabs. “There are no ‘just’ borders in Central and Eastern Europe,” he said. “The easiest way to destabilize is to encourage disputes among ethnic or social groups.”

He said his Russian friends are pessimistic about the future. However, “I am an optimist. I think Putin is going to break his neck with his reckless policy, and the people around him may be the ones to break his neck. I won’t cry over him.”


“Democracy needs ordinary heroes.”

Now, the introduction: Connelly described Michnik in the days before Solidarity, the Polish trade union that became a national non-violent movement to oust Communism. It’s a history worth recounting, because American politics has become so parochial and blinkered that most folks don’t seem to know much of any history before George W. Bush, or the backstory of any place even farther away than  Texas or Iowa.

Connelly explained that, as a young student at Warsaw University,  Michnik was suspended from his studies several times, once for organizing a historic meeting and talk by Leszek Kołakowski in 1966. Michnik was also a major figure in the 1968 events in Poland in which students demonstrated for greater freedom and were suppressed. In 1969, he was sentenced to three years in prison for “hooligan-like” behavior.  In 1976, he helped found KOR , the Committee to Protect Workers, “one of the most important civil society organizations ever founded, in Eastern Europe or elsewhere,” said Connelly. Michnik was, of course, a major figure in Solidarity, in its legal and underground incarnations.

In 1989, he founded what has become Poland’s most important daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza – he’s still the editor-in-chief of Poland’s version of the New York Times. “Michnik is not only a historian, but a leading public intellectual , author of many books of political commentary, and some of the most influential essays ever written, for example ‘A New Evolutionism,” said Connelly.

“What I have just given you is a skeleton biography,” he said. Then he offered a few vignettes “to give you a sense of Adam Michnik body and soul, flesh and blood.”

The first was poet and translator Stanisław Barańczak, a member of KOR, who recalled one scene “with particular vividness,” said Connelly. “I always read this anecdote to students who think that change is impossible and that one person can make no difference.” Here goes:

Stanisław Barańczak with wife Anna (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

Stanisław Barańczak with wife Anna (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

“We stood—Adam and a group of friends—in a corridor of a Warsaw court where the participants of the June strikes in the city of Ursus were being tried. No one was admitted into the courtroom except close relatives of defendants, mostly the workers’ wives. We did not know what was going on inside the courtroom but after an hour or so we heard a sudden outburst of women’s crying piercing the walls. And a while later those weeping, wailing cursing women left the courtroom and made their way through the crowd—each of them stupefied by the fact that as a result of this sham of a trial she would not see her husband for the next two, three, five years and that nothing, nothing could be done about it. I stood next to Adam at that moment. His eyes were dry but I knew him well enough to know that he had just hit upon one of those ideas of his—ideas that at first seemed foolish even to his friends but then somehow always turned out to be right. The same afternoon he started collecting signatures for another letter of protest. KOR, the Workers Defense Committee, was formally founded a few months later, but for me that July afternoon will always remain the actualy beginning of KOR and everything that happened in Poland afterward. It began not with anyone’s political program or ideological statement. It began with a simple impulse of compassion.”

In the second passage, Connelly recalled that Miłosz likened Michnik’s “unbending commitment to non-violence” to Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha, in a 1985 essay otherwise permeated with the “gloom of the late cold war of the cynicism and despair.” And so Miłosz wondered:

“What is the efficacy of nonviolence elevated to the level of principle, and applied to the conditions of our contemporary life?…Purely peaceful movements – the Prague Spring of 1968 and Solidarity of 1980-81—have been smashed…What is then the use of nonviolence and what would Mahatma Gandhi have to say on that topic if he were still alive?

“It seems to me that habitual notions of links between causes and effects enclose us in simplistic, mechanistic, and desperate dilemmas. The history of the century provides us with a number of proofs to vindicate the role of actions that appear insignificant and likely to fail, yet are potentially fecund.”

Connelly concluded with a few reflections from Berkeley colleague Ken Jowitt: “Without heroism, public virtues cannot be sustained; they gradually deteriorate into egotistical calculi of social, economic, and political self-interests. … And yet … the charismatic hero abhors, is incapable of, democratically appreciating the deficiencies of average people.”

The lavish Morrison Reading Room in Berkeley

The cozy Morrison Reading Room in Berkeley

Said Connelly: “Michnik responds to this dilemma in a Weberian spirit. All historical experience, says [Max] Weber, “confirms the truth that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word.’”

“In short, democracy needs ‘ordinary heroes.’ Adam Michnik is an ordinary hero, a genuine man whose contributions to the culture of democratic individualism and toleration in Poland and the world are fallible and invaluable.”

Michnik seemed to be overwhelmed by the kudos, remarking that they were the kind of remarks usually heard only at funerals. “When you know me better, I lose a lot,” he told the audience.

After the talk, an equally intimate venue – dinner in a private room in Berkeley’s Cafe Liaison. Though the menu was French, the jovial mood was pure Polonia. Wonderful food, great conversation (mostly in Polish), and plenty of French wine – the label was “Ventoux,” which has all those Petrarch associations. Then I headed off into the night to find my car, somewhere in a dark hillside parking lot in Berkeley…


Au revoir, Galway Kinnell, 1927-2014: a long-ago reading and an oatmeal cookie

October 30th, 2014

His best years were ahead of him.

I met Galway Kinnell – very briefly, alas – when I received a Cranbrook Writer’s Guild Scholarship in the late 1970s. Cranbrook is less than a mile down the same street from my family’s home, and I used to take walks to the Eliel Saarinen landmark – so it was odd to have a weekend retreat so close to my familiar haunts.

Not every man seems like his poems – it doesn’t take too much poetry writing to see that the “voice” that emerges in one’s poems can be startlingly unlike one’s own – but Kinnell did. I was hungry and lingered over the refreshments  before the opening event, alone in the large, wood-paneled room – I could have taken just one oatmeal cookie without anyone noticing. But Kinnell walked into the room at the moment, and he teased me about it, in a lightly flirtatious sort of way. He was handsome, genial, and overwhelmingly masculine – and I was indeed overwhelmed. Well, I was getting over someone, as I recall, and I wanted to be overwhelmed. For those few minutes, he was just the ticket.

Now, as everyone knows, the Pulitzer prizewinning poet died at his home in Sheffield, Vermont, of leukemia, on Tuesday, October 28, at the age of 87.

He was the poetry section of the event; I was the prose. So my workshop sessions were with British author Paul Scott of Jewel in the Crown fame – I wrote about that here. Nevertheless, I attended Kinnell’s readings over the weekend, and somewhere among my books (where is it?) I have the one I purchased at that time, his breakthrough The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World, published in 1960, and I was bowled over by the words as well as the man.

avenueFrom the New York Times:

The poem is a 14-part work about Avenue C in Manhattan, a mother lode of inspiration for someone with Mr. Kinnell’s photographic eye and intuitive sense of other people’s lives. In these verses and on this street, Jews, blacks and Puerto Ricans walked in the spring sunlight, past the avenue’s mainstays at the time — the Downtown Talmud Torah, Blosztein’s Cutrate Bakery, Areceba Panataria Hispano, Nathan Kugler Chicken Store Fresh Killed Daily and others. The vendors’ carts clattered on the cobblestones. In the gathering shadows,

wiped-out lives — punks, lushes
Panhandlers, pushers, rumsoaks, all those
Who took it easy when they should have been out failing at something.

And after dark, the crone who sells newspapers on the street:

Rain or stars, every night
She is there, squatting on the orange crate,
Issuing out only in darkness, like the cucarachas
And dread nightmares in the chambers overhead.


I’ll always have Cranbrook.

His best years were ahead of him: “When his Selected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1983, and a share of the National Book Award the same year, it amounted to a fresh appreciation of his best work over 25 years.”

“Serious or droll, Mr. Kinnell was an imposing figure at poetry readings, a big, muscular man with powers of retention that enabled him to recite long pieces from memory, his own and other writers’ as well. One time, he confessed in an interview with Saturday Review, he even mesmerized himself. ‘I just folded my arms on the lectern and fell asleep,’ he said. ‘I suppose the audience thought I had fallen into a poetic swoon.’”

It’s not entirely common for an obituary to have quite as much exuberance as this one. You might check it out here. It matches the man. At least as I remember him … on that afternoon when he seemed so full of life, teasing me about the cookie I never ate.

My amazing Miłosz legs

October 28th, 2014

legs3Can poetry matter? At a time when poetry is put on subway signs and the backs of buses, in a desperate attempt to show its relevancy to our times, I decided to vote with my feet. Or rather with my legs.

Okay, okay … I know it was a bit naff. But when I saw poet Molly Fisk‘s Facebook post about a woman in Israel who makes Emily Dickinson tights, I knew I had to have a pair. But given a choice among poems to choose … with myself as a sort of billboard… what could I do?

The international package arrived a few days ago from “Coline” in Netanya – elegantly wrapped and tied with a red ribbon. Black letters on dark gray tights, in a photo taken by my artiste daughter, Zoë Patrick.

What did I choose? Who else but Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz! It’s poet Jane Hirshfields favorite poem, and soon became one of mine – she reads and discusses the poem in the video below. Not the usual thing to have on one’s legs, admittedly but it’s a great poem for the middle-to-the-end of life, and a great poem as we roll into a California winter. So here’s what’s written on my legs (translation by Robert Hass):


The pungent smells of a California winter,
Grayness and rosiness, an almost transparent full moon.
I add logs to the fire, I drink and I ponder.

“In Ilawa,” the news item said, “at age 70
Died Aleksander Rymkiewicz, poet.”

He was the youngest in our group. I patronized him slightly,
Just as I patronized others for their inferior minds
Though they had many virtues I couldn’t touch.

And so I am here, approaching the end
Of the century and of my life. Proud of my strength
Yet embarrassed by the clearness of the view.

"An omnium-gatherum of chaos..."

“An omnium-gatherum of chaos…”

Avant-gardes mixed with blood.
The ashes of inconceivable arts.
An omnium-gatherum of chaos.

I passed judgment on that. Though marked myself.
This hasn’t been the age for the righteous and the decent.
I know what it means to beget monsters
And to recognize in them myself.

You, moon, You, Aleksander, fire of cedar logs.
Waters close over us, a name lasts but an instant.
Not important whether the generations hold us in memory.
Great was that chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning of the world.

And now I am ready to keep running
When the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death.
I already see mountain ridges in the heavenly forest
Where, beyond every essence, a new essence waits.

You, music of my late years, I am called
By a sound and a color which are more and more perfect.

Do not die out, fire. Enter my dreams, love.
Be young forever, seasons of the earth.

Join us Monday night for the “Another Look” book club discussion of Calvino’s Cosmicomics!

October 26th, 2014

19It’s here! On Monday night, October 27, Stanford’s “Another Look” book club will take on Italo Calvino‘s twelve science-inspired fantasies, Cosmicomics, with moderator Robert Pogue Harrison, joined by panelists Tobias Wolff and Humble Moi. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Stanford Humanities Center at 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus.

Award-winning author Tobias Wolff, who founded the group three years ago, said that the book club is Stanford’s “gift to the community.” Hence, the Another Look book club  is open to all members of the public, as well as Stanford’s students, staff, and faculty. Not only can everyone attend, but we positively want you to come to our first event in the third season. The event is free, but come early, because seats are available on a first-come basis.

We’ve written about the Calvino event already here and here and here. There’s even more at the Another Look website here.  The only missing piece right now is you. Join us!



Nobelist Wisława Szymborska on “work as one continuous adventure”

October 24th, 2014
May in Kraków – must they be compared?

When I saw her Kraków, with poet Julia Hartwig (at right) – in May 2011

An embarrassingly long time ago, someone from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute’s online magazine, Culture.pl, wrote to bring my attention to a recent post about Wisława Szymborska and her “9 Secret Sides” – I’ve written about the poet here and here, but not much since. I liked this story about getting the Nobel Prize, though I’m not sure how “secret” it is. In Kraków, I spoke to the friend, Michał Rusinek, who “cut the cord,” literally, after the announcement was made, severing her endlessly ringing telephone line with a pair of scissors. Anyway, from the website:

“Szymborska was notoriously private and rarely gave interviews. It is thus not surprising that she met the sudden global recognition thrust upon her with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 with great hesitancy, calling it the ‘Stockholm Tragedy.’  Szymborska was at a writers’ retreat in the Polish mountain town of Zakopane when the prize was announced and initially refused to take calls with the news, preferring to instead finish her lunch privately.  It was only after a number of calls – including one from her friend and colleague Czesław Miłosz – that she agreed to speak to the press.  By the end of that day, however, she’d had enough and retreated to place even more remote, where she hoped she would not be found by reporters.

“Though the majority of media coverage of the prize feature quotations from her colleagues, rather than from Szymborska herself, she was, of course, center stage at the awarding of the prize.  She admitted to Miłosz that ‘the most difficult thing will be to write a speech.  I will be writing it for a month.  I don’t know what I will be talking about, but I will talk about you.’  In the end she delivered one of the shortest Nobel Lectures to date, the beautiful The Poet and the World.


With “love and imagination”

She didn’t mention him in the speech, actually, but it’s a good Nobel talk nevertheless (translated by the incomparable Stanisław Barańczak over here). I picked this passage out, in particular, on today’s rereading:

“I’ve mentioned inspiration. Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what it is, and if it actually exists. It’s not that they’ve never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It’s just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don’t understand yourself.

“When I’m asked about this on occasion, I hedge the question, too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners – and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’

scissors“There aren’t many such people. Most of the earth’s inhabitants work to get by. They work because they have to. They didn’t pick this or that kind of job out of passion; the circumstances of their lives did the choosing for them. Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven’t got even that much, however loveless and boring – this is one of the harshest human miseries. And there’s no sign that coming centuries will produce any changes for the better as far as this goes.”

I may not be a Nobel poet – but let’s raise a glass in thanks from those of us (Humble Moi included) who get to do our jobs with love and imagination. It’s always a privilege. I never forget it. Now let me get back to my work…

New children’s opera Three Feathers: “magic naturally lends itself to rhyming spells”

October 22nd, 2014

Dana, Lori, and a very tall Frog King

I wrote about the new children’s opera, Three Feathers, a week or two ago here. Since then, the collaboration of composer Lori Laitman and librettist (and friend) Dana Gioia made its world premiere on October 17 at the new Moss Arts Center in Blacksburg, Virginia. I haven’t been able to find an actual review online, but I did find an October 14 article in The Huffington Post here. An excerpt:

“‘We wanted to have a strong story that appealed to both kids and adults,’ Mr. Gioia explains in an email: ‘There’s nothing better than Grimm’s Fairy Tales for compelling plots and memorable characters that quietly speak to our deepest fears, fantasies, and desires. At the heart of Grimm’s best tales is a young person’s quest to find love and meaning in a world that seems scary and chaotic. Lori and I chose The Three Feathers because it was a great story that almost no one in America knew. Disney or Broadway had never touched it…And who can resist an underground world ruled by a giant Frog King?’

“Lori Laitman adds, ‘There’s also an upperworld with three princesses: Dora, the heroine, sings a soul-searching aria, ‘Just Once,’ and there’s an aria for the shopaholic Gilda and one for the athletic, bossy Tilda. While there are similarities in the lyrics for these princesses, I wanted to create distinct character differences in the music so each one had her own motif. When they return you can instantly tell which princess it is because of what’s happening in the orchestra.’

“‘Also, since there are three children’s choruses,’ Ms. Laitman says, ‘we wanted to have bats, rats, and frogs, the denizens of the underworld. The opera has a very large cast, and all the kids sing except for a few supernumeraries. Here’s where my prior experience was helpful, because I’d written the oratorio Vedem for a boys choir. And when you’re constructing musical lines for children you have to keep in mind that their ranges are different [from adults], and you have to create music they can learn that is instantly memorable to them.’

“Given the whimsical tone of the text, Dana Gioia chose to write all the songs and choruses in rhyme. ‘That’s what kids want, and so do adults, even if they won’t admit it. Our opera needed to be both fun and at times mysterious. Comic opera needs rhymes and magic naturally lends itself to rhyming spells. Oddly, writing a rhyming libretto nowadays is slightly avant-garde. Most of the new libretti I see are in free verse.’”

Happy birthday, Elfriede Jelinek! A few words from her on herd instinct…

October 20th, 2014

birthday cakeHappy birthday, Elfriede Jelinek! The Nobel-winning playwright and novelist was born in Mürzzuschlag, Austria, on October 20, 1946. To celebrate, you might want to check out the renowned Cahier Series edition of Her Not All Her here (and we’ve written about the Cahier Series here and here and here, among other places.)

A few rather severe words from Ms. Jelinek for the occasion:

“After all, people with a herd instinct hold mediocrity in high esteem. They praise it as having great value. They believe they are strong because they are the majority. The middling level has no terrors, no anxieties. They huddle together, indulging in the illusion of warmth. If you’re in the middle, you’re alone with nothing, and certainly not yourself. And how content they are with that state of affairs! Nothing in their existence offers them any reproaches and no one could reproach them for their existence.”

– from The Piano Teacher, translated by Joachim Neugroschel


Chevalier Robert Harrison: reason and the educated heart

October 19th, 2014

Consul générale Pauline Carmona, chevalier Robert Harrison, cultural attaché Stéfane Ré (Photo: Anaïs Saint-Jude)

Many of us at Stanford needed no proof that author Robert Pogue Harrison is a chevalier gallant, nonetheless formal certification was given on the mild California evening of October 9 when he was formally made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République Française, complete with a little green medal pinned to his lapel and a gift of 14th-century spurs. Someone mentioned that the spurs were from the Battle of the Spurs, which would have put them in the early 16th century, but no matter. I mention this detail only because I was curious about the story behind these heavy spurs, crusty with time and rust, laid out so beautifully in a presentation box. I should have snapped a photo, but I needed all the remaining juice in the smartphone to find my way home from the consul general’s residence, in a remote and tony corner of the hills overlooking San Francisco.


He got the one on the left, I think.

The occasion also welcomed the brand-new consul general to San Francisco, Pauline Carmona (the transition may account for the delay in the ceremony, since Robert was named to the honor a year ago – I wrote about that here). Her children were among the charming servers who passed the silver trays of hors d’oeuvres. A few of the consul’s words at the presentation (in translation):

“We are gathered tonight to celebrate Robert Harrison, a man whose dedication to the French language and culture and whose exemplary career have been recognized by his peers. It is for me a true honor to preside over this ceremony, which is, almost one month after my arrival in San Francisco, the first ceremony of arts et lettres I am hosting. … France is honored to thank you for the exemplary work you have accomplished in literature and in the realm of ideas. You are today one of the finest ambassadors of the dialogue between the United States and Europe, and you count among those who have achieved the most to further mutual understanding of the cultures of both continents.”

Robert delivered his own remarks ex tempore. He did homage to the French notion of reason, pledging to champion its cause. The French penchant for reason was one of several admirable traits he attributed to the nation. Now here’s the kicker: nobody recorded the talk and Robert apparently used no notes for the event. No one recorded it, that is – except that I nudged Anaïs Saint-Jude, standing next to me, and she dutifully whipped out her smartphone (which apparently had more juice than mine did) and caught the last few minutes of what was perhaps a memorable and unexpectedly provocative ten-minute talk.


Check the lost and found.

He spoke a good deal about reason, and also the limits of reason, with a wonderful quote from Charles Baudelaire about  the need to unravel reason for the sake of poetic creation – I couldn’t find the quote later, though I looked and looked for it. But I did find this one, which was intriguing: “I have to confess that I had gambled on my soul and lost it with heroic insouciance and lightness of touch. The soul is so impalpable, so often useless, and sometimes such a nuisance, that I felt no more emotion on losing it than if, on a stroll, I had mislaid my visiting card.”

Well, that comment illustrates the limits of reason, too. So much in life is intangible, invisible, and unreasonable, and reason may know the weight of things but not always their value. Reason makes good servant but a lousy master – the French know a little about that, too. For example, in the days when Notre Dame was made into a Temple of Reason. My own thinking, I guess, owes as much to Lev Shestov as to Diderot or Voltaire.

Harrison continued (and this is a part that was caught on tape): France, he said, offers “a shining example of how one can be absolutely modern without betraying or repudiating the legacies and traditions that allowed the modern era to come into existence in the first place. Oftentimes, experiments in modernization lead to schizophrenia between a modern present and a pre-modern past. France has known how to not surrender what is most valuable in its tradition.”

The next French virtue he named is an educated heart: “Emotional intelligence is one of the great lessons that I take from modern French literature, but it’s also a value that, strangely enough, is not shared many cultures, not even many modern Western cultures. We have a tendency in the United States and Italy, he said, to see emotions as “that which bring us back to a primordial spontaneity and a childlike innocence. It’s not seen as a cultivated part of the human psyche, whereas French tradition and culture has always valued very highly a certain kind of emotional intelligence.”


Maybe not so reasonable.

He used Simone Signoret as an example, for the attitude she expressed about her husband Yves Montand‘s very public affair with Marilyn Monroe. Signoret famously said, “If Marilyn is in love with my husband it proves she has good taste, for I am in love with him, too.” But surely the educated heart takes in more than what people say about themselves? After all, she didn’t get a vote in the situation, and was humiliated and embittered by it, later admitting, “I detest women who come too close to him. Our friends are very carefully selected.” Nine-tenths of what people say about themselves, I find, is self-justification, and the remaining tenth is PR. Moreover, I agree with William Maxwell, “In talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.” Signoret wrote of Monroe, “She will never know how much I didn’t hate her,” but that was after the movie icon was long and safely dead. The affair had accelerated the downward spiral that led to Monroe’s suicide. The unstable star had stumbled into a triangle where two people were playing poker, and one roulette. She was playing for keeps in a world where nothing was for keeps…

Anyway, these thoughts began to roll through my mind, so I almost missed what he said next – about France having “a kind of emotionality that is the fruit of a cultivation of certain intelligent analysis of what the emotions can do.”

veuve_clicquotThen his final point: “One quick word about form. One thing I respect the most about almost any kind of French event or meal or place, is that it’s done in a holistic fashion. There is nothing that is done halfway. Now that I’ve become a chevalier, I shouldn’t use the language that I might have used before,” he said and paused, with a glance at Madame Carmona. “I hope Madame le Consul will forgive me for the expression we use in English – saying we do something ‘half-assed.’ With the French, in my experience, it’s always ‘whole-assed.’ Tonight is another example of how things are not done halfway.” Everyone laughed.

Something about form, something that I wanted to say … oh, I don’t remember now. Like most of Robert’s talks, this one, though brief, was seminal, and I wanted to continue the conversation – but the room was growing loud, cacophonous even, and I was quickly enveloped by hubbub, champagne, and the solitude that occurs when what’s inside your head is so different from the noise around it.


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