Happy 250th birthday, François-René de Chateaubriand!

September 4th, 2017
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“The heart feels, the head compares.” – François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848)

Another reason why we need an independent Ukraine: Anne Applebaum’s grim new book on the Holodomor

September 3rd, 2017
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The starving on the streets of Kharkiv, 1933.

Everyone knows the crimes of Hitler. Why is it that the crimes of Stalin, with an even bigger body count (should that be the measure) are still too little known? In particular, the Holodomor, the state-sanctioned murder by starvation of millions of Ukrainians, still draws blank stares from otherwise informed people.

That’s why we have the excellent, Pulitzer prizewinning Anne Applebaum, who is among the cognoscenti of this too little known chapter in the Annals of Atrocity.

The warning signs were ample. By the early spring of 1932 the peasants of Ukraine were beginning to starve. Secret police reports and letters from the grain-growing districts all across the Soviet Union spoke of children swollen with hunger, of families eating grass and acorns and of peasants fleeing home in search of food. In March a medical commission found corpses lying on the street in a village near Odessa. No one was strong enough to bury them.

It was avoidable. The Soviet government could have called for international relief, for example, as it had in 1921 (we wrote about that here). As she writes in “Stalin’s starved millions: Anne Applebaum uncovers full horror of Ukraine famine,” in today’s Sunday Times of London:

Instead, in the autumn of 1932, the Soviet politburo, the elite leadership of the Communist Party, decided to use the famine to crush Ukraine’s sovereignty and block any future peasant rebellion. They took a series of decisions that deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside, blacklisting villages and blocking escape. At the height of the crisis, organised teams of policemen and local party activists, motivated by hunger, fear and a decade of hateful propaganda, entered peasant households and took everything edible: potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, farm animals and even pets. Immediately afterwards, they banned anyone from leaving Ukraine and set up cordons around the cities so that peasants could not get help.

The result was a catastrophe: at least 5m people perished of hunger between 1931 and 1934 all across the Soviet Union. Among them were nearly 4m Ukrainians who died not because of neglect or crop failure but from collectivisation and being deliberately deprived of food.

First they were hungry, then they went mad, then they resorted to murder, infanticide, and cannibalism.

Hanna Tsivka knew of a woman who killed her niece for stealing a loaf of bread. Mykola Basha’s older brother was caught looking for spoilt potatoes in the kitchen garden of a neighbour, who then grabbed him and put him in a cellar filled with waist-high water.

The horror, the exhaustion and the anger eventually produced, in the Ukrainian countryside, a very rare form of madness: by the late spring and summer cannibalism was widespread. Larysa Venzhyk, from Kyiv province, remembered that at first there were just rumours, stories “that children disappear somewhere, that degenerate parents eat their children. It turned out not to be rumours but horrible truth.”

Tell it.

On her street two girls, the daughters of neighbours, disappeared. Their brother Misha, aged six, ran away from home. He roamed the village, begging and stealing. When asked why he had left home he said he was afraid: “Father will cut me up.” The police searched the house, found the evidence and arrested the parents. As for their remaining son, “Misha was left to his fate.”

Police also arrested a man in Mariia Davydenko’s village in Sumy province. After his wife died, he had gone mad from hunger and eaten first his daughter and then his son. A neighbour noticed that the father was less swollen from hunger than others and asked him why. “I have eaten my children,” he replied, “and if you talk too much, I will eat you.” Backing away, shouting that he was a monster, the neighbour went to the police, who arrested and sentenced the father.

And then people wonder why the Ukrainians resist Russian incursions on their land.

If you have a strong stomach, read the rest of her article today in the Times of London. Be warned: this story makes Dante‘s Ugolino sound like a Boy Scout. Curiously, the Times article doesn’t include the title of  the new book, or show the cover. So go here.

Must we really “love one another or die”? A few words on Auden’s “September 1, 1939”

September 1st, 2017
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September 1, 1939, is the day Nazi Germany invaded Poland. W.H. Auden famously wrote a poem to commemorate the occasion. “September 1, 1939” begins:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

The poem was taken up after 9/11, and appeared under thumb tacks and refrigerator magnets throughout the nation. But the last lines of the second stanza got special scrutiny in the new century. Was it referring to eternal truths? Or claiming the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I justified the new invasion? Writing in the New York Times, Peter Steinfels asked: “One suspects that these characterizations would earn sharp rebukes if expressed in a poem titled ”September 11, 2001.’ More important, would a contemporary version of the 1939 poem be found guilty of what has come to be labeled ”moral equivalence’? Was Auden shifting moral responsibility from totalitarian evildoers to past misdeeds by those under attack and to a universal human egotism in which everyone was more or less equally complicit?”

Headline: “Bandit invasion of the German army without declaring war on the lands of the Republic of Poland”

I would argue that to state a human principle, based on observation, is not to say that it is justifiable, admirable, or advisable. It is simply to say that it happens. Look at the Middle East. Look at the reprisals and mutual blame among factions in our national politics. Or between Putin and Trump. Or everyone in the world and North Korea. Tit for tat is a universal principle. But can it be reversed? Even on a small scale in our political sphere, will kindness cause a reciprocation of kindness? Can turning the other cheek become contagious? Unlikely. It takes forethought, intention, and forbearance. Retaliation requires only impulse.

A number of posts on Facebook to commemorate the occasion and the poem. From the poet and friend Alfred Corn: “One of the building blocks of Auden’s poem is the idea that ‘The buck stops here.’ Those to whom evil is done 99.9% of the time do evil in return. But a better choice is to repay evil with good. To break the cycle of vengeance rather than perpetuate it. A radical proposal, departing from all natural and normal responses. And yet on those occasions when it has been adopted, the results were redemptive. Not easy. Takes practice. Worth it.”

The penaultimate stanza of the poem:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

There’s the rub: Auden withdrew the poem from several collections because the last line struck him as glib. We don’t die, do we? But there are so many ways to die, and so many ways to live, and six years after the poem was written, a couple big bombs over Japan convinced many of us we must live or die as a species.

In an essay, “The Normal Heart Condition According to Auden,” included in We must love one another or die : the life and legacies of Larry Kramer, Alfred Corn wrote:

Alfred Corn: an optimist?

If this poem engaged Larry Kramer so much that he chose to title two of his dramatic works with phrases drawn from it, we can also note that he is not alone in his admiration. It is one of the few Auden poems that ‘the common reader’ (that endangered species) can be counted on to recognize, and its apologists include Joseph Brodsky, who has written persuasively about its meaning and importance. The famous line from stanza eight, ‘We must love one another or die,’ has become proverbial, often quoted by people who have no idea where it comes from. A strange irony is that Auden himself, within a few years after the poem’s composition, came to dislike it. In his first Collected Poems, published in 1944, he reprinted ‘September 1, 1939’ minus the eighth stanza, which must have disappointed readers who were looking for what they regarded as its profoundest line. In later collections of his poetry, Auden dropped the whole poem and always refused permission for its inclusion in new anthologies; it was not reprinted until after his death, in the volume noted above. Auden decided that the famous line about love and death was untruthful; he remarked, in public and in private, that we are all destined to die, whether or not we love each other. 

It takes only a moment’s reflection to recognize this as a misinterpretation of the line’s actual meaning. In a poem whose point of departure is the date on which Nazi Germany invaded Poland and set into motion the Second World War, we are clearly meant to understand that the opposite of love is killing; that, if we fail to love, inevitably we’ll perform acts of violence. Auden could have revised the line and made its real meaning more explicit by saying, ‘We must either love or kill each other,’ but that revision wouldn’t fit the iambic trimeter in which the poem was written, nor would it rhyme with any other line in the stanza. No doubt Auden could have found some other workable solution, but he didn’t attempt to do so (apart from simply excising the stanza in its first reprinting).”

You can read the whole poem here.

Brodsky Among Us in English, and “the only form of moral insurance that a society has.”

August 30th, 2017
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Marat Grinberg writes about Ellendea Proffer Teasley’Brodsky Among Us over at Commentary. The article was published in June, but it was easy to overlook during this eventful summer. Also easy to overlook: Brodsky Among Us, which I wrote about for The Nationis now in English, published by Academic Studies Press (on Amazon here).

“The publisher Ellendea Proffer Teasley’s memoir of the poet, which became a sensation when it was first published in Russian three years ago, provides a penetrating and at times deeply moving account of both the myth and the man behind the work,” writes Grinberg. “She renders the Brodsky she knew not just as a great poet and deeply imperfect human being, but also as a political thinker who was uncompromising and unforgiving in his beliefs.”

“Proffer writes of Brodsky’s ‘determination to live as if he were free in the eleven-time-zone prison that is the Soviet Union.’ She emphasizes that his opposition to the Soviet power was presented in starkly moral terms: ‘A man who does not think for himself,’ she writes, ‘a man who goes along with the group, is part of the evil structure himself.’”

The Commentary article, in a magazine founded by the American Jewish Committee in 1945, takes on the Nobel poet’s Jewishness, a subject he himself didn’t dwell on, to put it mildly. An excerpt:

Proffer and the poet in Petersburg.

Proffer implicitly links Brodsky’s Jewishness to this resistance to the “evil structure.” It is a primary subject of their first encounter, which she describes thus: “Joseph is voluble and vulnerable. He brings up his Jewish accent almost immediately; when he was a child, his mother took him to speech therapy to get rid of it, he says, but he refused to go back after one lesson.” The “Jewish accent” had to do with Brodsky’s inability to roll his “r”s, which, while by no means unique to Jews, was a mark of the Jew in the largely anti-Semitic Soviet environment. Brodsky bought into the prejudice and at the same time wore it with pride, making it his own.

Jewishness is an ongoing theme in Brodsky’s early poetry of the 1960s, in which he speaks of a Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Leningrad and imagines his future “Jewish gravestone.” His “Isaac and Abraham” is a beautiful, tortured and complex midrash on the binding of Isaac. Brodsky transplants the biblical patriarchs onto the Soviet landscape, making the relationship between Abraham and Isaac symbolic of the rift between Russian-Jewish fathers and sons, who are burdened by the loss of Judaism as well as historical traumas both near and distant. The poem reveals Brodsky’s familiarity with Hebrew scripture as well as the kabbalah. In his later poetry, the explicit Jewishness all but disappears in accordance with his goal to become the greatest Russian poet of his era and instead becomes a powerful undercurrent.

The article makes a less persuasive case for Brodsky-as-conservative. He couldn’t be packaged that readily into any “isms.” Grinberg concludes: “A paradoxical thinker, Joseph Brodsky could combine an understanding that ‘man is a little bit corrupt, almost by definition’ with a wholehearted belief in American exceptionalism. Literature, and especially poetry, was for him both ‘the greatest… teacher of human subtlety’ and ‘the only form of moral insurance that a society has.’”
 .
Read the whole thing here.
.

First time in English: a powerful Russian voice from the Ukrainian conflict

August 28th, 2017
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A field in the Donbas. (Flickr)

Award-winning Ukrainian writer Vladimir Rafeenko, who writes in Russian, spent his whole life in the city of Donetsk, in the eastern Ukrainian mining region called the Donbas. Since the war between Russian-supported separatists and the Ukrainian state broke out in spring 2014, Rafeenko moved near Kiev.

When the characters in his novels refer to “Westerners,” it’s western Ukraine, facing Poland, Romania, and Hungary rather than Russia.

Ukrainian writer – in Russian.

It’s one of many terms that need unpacking in Семь Укропов (Sem’ Ukropov), in English “Seven Dillweeds,” taken from Rafeenko’s longer work, this year’s Долгота дней (Dolgota dnei, The Length of the Day). “Dillweed,” in the title, is Russian slang for a Ukrainian. Marci Shore, author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968, translated the piece in the current Eurozine, and explains some of the references for us in the introduction to this chilling short story about the conflict in Rafeenko’s native land, Donbas.

This story is the first time Rafeenko has appeared in English. An excerpt from the excerpt, about Pashka and his stepfather:

Matvei Ivanovich, having appeared out of the blackness of the coalminers’ night, took the boy under his protection, and succeeded in winning his heart.

Matvei Ivanovich had come there at a mature age; he’d come because of his ‘work transfer.’ And as he himself admitted, it wasn’t that he didn’t like Ukraine, it was more that he didn’t understand it. As he would say to the boy he was raising: ‘I don’t understand the Ukrainian language, son, and also all these complicated things with Stepan Bandera. I don’t like westerners, you understand? They’re barbaric somehow. Just barbaric people. And they only hang around with each other. Back at home there were a few of them working at our mine. And they only talked to their own and only in their own way. They even got beaten for that more than once. I don’t think there was any sense in that, though – just made them more spiteful. And so I figure: once you’ve got people like that, what can you do with them?’ …

Matvei Ivanovich tilted his head in a funny way, waved his hands, poured himself another shot of vodka, grabbed a half-salted pickle.

 спасибо, Marci.

спасибо, Marci.

When the shooting started in town, Matvei Ivanovich proceeded to study the situation. By then he’d already left his job, since he had a solid pension and at any rate the miners weren’t being paid any more. So he had time on his hands to learn about the state of the world. He walked around, talked to people. He would come back in the evening, tired, restless, but generally satisfied.

In the beginning of June, after he’d gotten his pension and the economy had sunk, Matvei Ivanovich was found in a city park, dead. He was lying in water with a sad smile and a deep gash on the right side of his neck. At the burial, Nina Ivanovna sobbed terribly. When they lowered the casket, she jumped into the pit. She tried to stab herself in the heart with a knife. But after a week she found work in the town centre as a janitor in a student dormitory, and in the new job she revived a little.

Pashka saw his stepfather every day in his dreams. There Matvei Ivanovich smiled and told stories, stories without endings and without beginnings, stories about coal, about Aleksandr Nevskii, about Belka and Strelka and the Battle of the Kalka. Truth be told, Pashka just caught the general tone, the details he could only make out hazily, as if through dirty glass. Eventually he signed up for the war against Right Sector, and thus for Gagarin and Gogol, and above all for Matvei Ivanovich, agronomist by his first diploma. They gave the boy a Kalashnikov and two magazine cartridges and sent him to fight with three dozen others like himself. It turned out, unfortunately, that in combat they were not alone – the enemy was there, too. And it quickly became clear that in a war, people kill each other. But truth be told, Pashka didn’t have time to make sense out of any of it.

Read the whole thing here.

“Myth does not reject any material”: Hilary Mantel on death and Diana, grief and mourning

August 26th, 2017
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Not the kind of fairy tale you were thinking of.

Not normally my thing, but I saw a link for of the late Princess of Wales on the 20th anniversary of her death – and from The Guardian, no less – and so I clicked. It’s a long piece, but as I read, the writing was so good I began to weep with envy (figuratively speaking). I kept wondering: “Who is the remarkable author of this piece?”

Well, it’s Hilary Mantel. I’m embarrassed to say I’m the only person in the Western World who has not read Wolf Hall, but if this gives any indication – someone please send me a battered paperback, priority mail:

By her own account, Diana was not clever. Nor was she especially good, in the sense of having a dependable inclination to virtue; she was quixotically loving, not steadily charitable: mutable, not dependable: given to infatuation, prey to impulse. This is not a criticism. Myth does not reject any material. It only asks for a heart of wax. Then it works subtly to shape its subject, mould her to be fit for fate. When people described Diana as a “fairytale princess”, were they thinking of the cleaned-up versions? Fairytales are not about gauzy frocks and ego gratification. They are about child murder, cannibalism, starvation, deformity, desperate human creatures cast into the form of beasts, or chained by spells, or immured alive in thorns. The caged child is milk-fed, finger felt for plumpness by the witch, and if there is a happy-ever-after, it is usually written on someone’s skin.

Mantel shares my own thoughts about grief and mourning, which, in our own superficial culture, is certainly worth a rethink:

A deathbed, once, was a location dense with meaning, a room packed with the invisible presences of angels, devils, ancestors. But now, as many of us don’t believe in an afterlife, we envisage no final justice, no ultimate meaning, and have no support for our sense of loss when “positivity” falters. Perhaps we are baffled by the process of extinction. In recent years, death narratives have attained a popularity they have not held for centuries. Those with a terminal illness scope it out in blogs. This summer the last days of baby Charlie Gard riveted worldwide attention. But what is the point of all this introspection? Even before the funeral, survivors are supposed to flip back to normal. “Keeping busy” is the secret, Prince William has advised.

Brava, madam

Grief is exhausting, as we all know. The bereaved are muddled and tense, they need allowances made. But who knows you are mourning, if there is nothing but a long face to set you apart? No one wants to go back to the elaborate conventions of the Victorians, but they had the merit of tagging the bereaved, marking them out for tenderness. And if your secret was that you felt no sorrow, your clothes did the right thing on your behalf. Now funeral notices specify “colourful clothing”. The grief-stricken are described as “depressed”, as if sorrow were a pathology. We pour every effort into cheering ourselves up and releasing balloons. When someone dies, “he wouldn’t have wanted to see long faces”, we assure ourselves – but we cross our fingers as we say it. What if he did? What if the dead person hoped for us to rend our garments and wail?

When Diana died, a crack appeared in a vial of grief, and released a salt ocean. A nation took to the boats. Vast crowds gathered to pool their dismay and sense of shock. As Diana was a collective creation, she was also a collective possession. The mass-mourning offended the taste police. It was gaudy, it was kitsch – the rotting flowers in their shrouds, the padded hearts of crimson plastic, the teddy bears and dolls and broken-backed verses. But all these testified to the struggle for self-expression of individuals who were spiritually and imaginatively deprived, who released their own suppressed sorrow in grieving for a woman they did not know. The term “mass hysteria” was a facile denigration of a phenomenon that eluded the commentators and their framework of analysis. They did not see the active work the crowds were doing. Mourning is work. It is not simply being sad. It is naming your pain. It is witnessing the sorrow of others, drawing out the shape of loss. It is natural and necessary and there is no healing without it.

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on August 28, from the poet Melissa GreenCynthia, I find most historical fiction what I call ‘Nike’ dressed up in Nikes – it isn’t real, it’s a costume drama with people speaking some sort of BBC British. But reading WOLF HALL (Yes, I too, came late to the party) I was quite astonished. I could see Cromwell standing in the garden with his cronies, and something about her language made me see utterly the sun on one cheek that shone differently on the cheek on another. The air sounded different, the footfalls, the wheeled carts, the snapping flags over Windsor, without even mentioning them. I believed I was there the way you do in the best movies–you blink when it’s all over and are stunned to find yourself in the 21st century. I was captivated as a reader, but as a writer, I kept flipping back and forth to find out how she did it, how the light looked utterly odd, the weight of their bodies on the paving stones sounded unusual. I couldn’t find out how she did it. And she did it better in the first book than in the second. I think she’s onto something here with Diana, and has written in a complex way about her. xo

Postscript on August 27:  On Facebook, Daniel Porter contributed  G.K. Chesterton‘s remarks on fairy tales to the post:  “Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” – Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”

The unforgettable James Baldwin and “the terror within”

August 24th, 2017
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With Shakespeare in ’69 (Photo: Allan Warren)

There’s a direct line between our moral and social crises and the collapse of the humanities. I wrote about that a little here and here, among many other places. Here’s one reason: literature is our chance to explore the world of  the “other,” to enter into some head other than our own. You can’t read The Brothers Karamazov without being able to understand multiple ways of living and thinking in the world, and some quite alien to one’s own p.o.v. That’s precisely what’s lacking in today’s public life, and that’s the understanding that should have been grounded in our educational system.

James Baldwin put it in his own insightful way: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”

I discovered James Baldwin late – in fact, I discovered him when Stanford’s Another Look book club took on The Fire Next TimeChalk it up to all those advertising pages about the Library of America series. As I recall, Baldwin, in shirt-and-tie, sat behind a huge desk that looked like it was situated somewhere in the White House. I figured he was probably worthy, stuffy, respectable, and dull.

Boy was I wrong. He eats fire. But he probes his own inner landscape as eloquently and profoundly as he does his nation and his world. Maria Popova has a post this month on Baldwin, with two great excerpts from The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985:

It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents — the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however, and by definition, a provisional self — and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.

***

It is perfectly possible — indeed, it is far from uncommon — to go to bed one night, or wake up one morning, or simply walk through a door one has known all one’s life, and discover, between inhaling and exhaling, that the self one has sewn together with such effort is all dirty rags, is unusable, is gone: and out of what raw material will one build a self again? The lives of men — and, therefore, of nations — to an extent literally unimaginable, depend on how vividly this question lives in the mind. It is a question which can paralyze the mind, of course; but if the question does not live in the mind, then one is simply condemned to eternal youth, which is a synonym for corruption.

Don’t forget the new film about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. Trailer below:

The sea “like a wide blue road into the sky”: Willa Cather’s French journey

August 22nd, 2017
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Marcia de Sanctis over at Lit Hub, recounts being on the trail of a major American author in  “Retracing Willa Cather’s Steps in the South of France.” I’ve written about Marcia’s book, 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go, here and here (and I wrote about her years ago interview with Joseph Brodsky here.) The new article, and the journey that inspired it, was born from that book:

Francophile (Photo: Ron Haviv)

A few years ago, while researching my book on France, I immersed myself in the country’s rich travel writing canon, and decided to retrace the voyages (or parts of them) of many of my literary idols. In Nîmes, I imagined Colette dancing in the Jardins de la Fontaine; I conjured the ghost of a bored Henry James by the Rhône River in Arles; and in Chamonix, I pictured 16 year-old Mary Godwin unwittingly gathering inspiration for Frankenstein while hoofing it across the Alps with her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.  With her 1908 road trip classic A Motor Flight Through France always stuffed into my bag, Edith Wharton was my frequent guru and guide. But no one lit my path brighter than Willa Cather, who I have read and admired for as long as I can remember.

The collection of essays, Willa Cather in Europe: Her Own Story of the First Journey, is a series of dispatches she filed for the Nebraska State Journal in Lincoln to help pay for her voyage. It was 1902, and Cather was accompanied by her friend Isabelle McClung. The book contains, to my mind, some of the most evocative travel writing in the English language. The stories bear all the elements—personal reflection, descriptive detail, observational insight, and cultural depth—we strive for when writing about place, and in perfect proportion.

For awhile, Cather and a friend stayed in Saint-Clair, in a villa that was owned by a painter. She wrote that it was “good for one’s soul,” to “do nothing but stare at this great water that seems to trail its delft-blue mantle across the world.” But the place she loved best was Lavandou, writing: “No books have ever been written about Lavandou, no music or pictures ever came from here, but I know well enough that I shall yearn for it long after I have forgotten London and Paris,” she writes. “One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world’s end somewhere, and holds fast to the days, as if to fortune and fame.”

And no wonder. Marcia writes, “The air was scented with dried lavender; the landscape was of pine, green fir and sea ‘reaching like a wide blue road into the sky.’”

Read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, photos by Marcia de Sanctis herself.)

John Milton, William Shakespeare on the Great American Eclipse: “disastrous twilight sheds on half the nations…”

August 20th, 2017
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For those of you who don’t have funky little glasses, here’s what it will look like.

The Great American Eclipse is coming tomorrow, and the Book Haven finally succumbed to the craze.  We’ll be picking up our funky little glasses later today. But what did our greatest bards have to say on this occasion? Hint: nothing good. Both saw eclipses as dire omens, and Shakespeare, at least, spoke from direct experience. Our friends at the Folger Library in Washington told us so.

So here goes:

William Shakespeare

England experienced a total solar eclipse in 1598, and Shakespeare would have seen it, since the path of totality tracking arced from Cornwall in the southwest up to Aberdeen in Scotland. And he had a lot to say about it, according to the Folger Library:

1. An eclipse as an ill omen

“These late eclipses in the sun and moon
portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of
nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds
itself scourged by the sequent effects.”
—Gloucester in King Lear (1.2.109)

2. The physical darkness of an eclipse as a metaphor for psychological darkness

“My wife, my wife! What wife? I have no wife.
O insupportable! O heavy hour!
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that th’ affrighted globe
Should yawn at alteration.”
—Othello in Othello (5.2.121)

3. An eclipse as that which mars beauty

“No more be grieved at that which thou hast done.
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.”
—Sonnet 35

John Milton:

John Milton may have missed his own personal total eclipse in his lifetime, but he had quite an imagination, and wrote about them. He may have been writing with a thought to Charlemagne’s son, Emperor Louis, who was so perplexed by the five minutes of total darkness (probably the eclipse of May 5, 840 A.D.), that he died shortly afterwards, some say of fright.

So what did Milton think? Context is all.

1.

The fall of Lucifer is compared to an eclipse in the opening of 1667’s Paradise Lost. For the eighteenth-century writer Edmund Burke, Milton’s description of the fallen angel who still retains traces of his heavenly glory was the most sublime descriptive passage in all of poetry.:

                                            He above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent
Stood like a tower. His form had yet not lost
All her original brightness, nor appeared
Less than archangel ruined, and th’ excess
Of glory obscured: as when the sun new-risen
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs. Darkened so, yet shone
Above them all th’ archangel; but his face
Deep scars of thunder had intrenched, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under brows
Of dauntless courage, and considerate pride
Waiting revenge. Cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold
The fellows of his crime , the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss), condemned
Forever now to have their lot in pain.

2.

In “Samson Agonistes,” the poet likened his own experience of blindness to eclipse:

Within doors, or without, still as a fool,
In power of others, never in my own;
Scarce half I seem to live, dead more then half.
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon, [ 80 ]
Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse
Without all hope of day!

3.

In “Lycidas,” the death of the eponymous hero is due to the building of his ship during an eclipse:

The air was calm, and on the level brine
Sleek Panope with all her sisters play’d.
It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
Built in th’eclipse, and rigg’d with curses dark,
That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.

Take note! All you writers lay down your pens tomorrow! Who knows what evil will be wrought by what you write!

 

 

Is our anger an addiction?

August 19th, 2017
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David’s “Wrath of Achilles” – but he doesn’t look nearly as angry as my friends.

Rage is contagious and addictive. I didn’t need the recent article in Time to tell me that. All you have to do is look at the social media, with all the shrill ridicule, the belligerent invective, the hectoring denunciation, the flared nostrils, the strong statements to one’s friends about how this or that cannot be tolerated, in the name of tolerance. These posts are immediately endorsed by other angry friends. No persuasion is occurring – it’s the far safer practice of preaching to the converted.

But the Time article about the (scientifically proven) nature of anger sure helps, and I hope it finds an audience. From Susanna Schrobsdorff’s “The Rage Flu: Why All This Anger Is Contagious and Making us Sick”:

Modern role model?

If we’re always ready for battle, any bit of breaking news can bolster the fear that things are out of control. And judging by the rise in violence at political rallies, some things are getting a bit out of control. But as Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, points out, our fears often don’t match actual risk. … “In a very fearful and tribalistic society, we run on emotion, which is the currency of social media. It’s emotive first,” says Levin. But all the sharing and venting we do has toxic side effects. One of those effects is the increased acceptability of crude or violent insults. They are now so commonplace that they fail to shock, whether they’re coming from the man in the Oval Office or a late-night comedian. And that ups the ante so that those trying get our attention have to go a little further each time.

Anger is particularly contagious on social media. Researchers at Beihang University in Beijing mapped four basic emotions in more than 70 million posts and found that anger is more influential than other emotions like sadness and joy–it spreads faster and more broadly. This is as much a physical phenomenon as a mental one. Anger gives us a burst of adrenaline and sparks a fight-or-flight response in our nervous system.

No wonder it feels as if the nation is a little sick. It’s as if we all have a virus and some of us are more vulnerable to it than others. That is in fact how some social scientists are describing the spread of rage and division. Violence and violent speech meet the criteria of disease, says Dr. Gary Slutkin, founder of Cure Violence and faculty of the University of Illinois, Chicago. Like a virus, violence makes more of itself. Rage begets more rage. And it spreads because we humans are wired to follow our peers.

The article was brought to my attention by a friend who lives in Charlottesville, John Murphy, who wrote: “As René Girard and others have pointed out, imitation leads to competition and competition leads to imitation. When we enter into tit-for-tat conflict with rage-filled people who say and do outrageous things, we end up eventually as rage-filled people who say and do outrageous things ourselves. It’s a moralistic arms race that can’t be won, with mutually assured self-destruction at the finish line.”

Schrobsdorff concludes:

More recently, big societal shifts, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage or the election of Donald Trump, have left segments of the population feeling profoundly destabilized. “People are experiencing a shock because they thought they knew who we are. Now they don’t. They think, Does that mean I don’t belong, or does it mean that I have to get rid of these other people?” says [author David] Berreby. “This becomes a big source of fear, and people get angry when they’re fearful.”

And if policy disagreements are described as existential threats to our identity, issues like immigration, climate change or GMO foods can feel like a clash of civilizations. Once it reaches that level, says Berreby, it’s no longer about the facts or the data. “It becomes a sacred conflict,” says Berreby. “If you don’t believe in this, then you’re not a good person.” Then it doesn’t matter what you say, no one’s changing camps. “At that point, it’s more important for you to stay with your team than it is for you to be persuaded,” says Berreby.

Tim

And therein may lie the problem. We don’t seem to have anyone capable of reminding us that we play for the same team.

One of the best antidotes is a poem by another friend, Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele.

It’s written in “sapphics,” named for the Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, 7th-6th century B.C.

Sapphics Against Anger

Angered, may I be near a glass of water;
May my first impulse be to think of Silence,
Its deities (who are they? do, in fact, they
Exist? etc.).

May I recall what Aristotle says of
The subject: to give vent to rage is not to
Release it but to be increasingly prone
To its incursions.

May I imagine being in the Inferno,
Hearing it asked: “Virgilio mio, who’s
That sulking with Achilles there?” and hearing
Virgil say: “Dante,

That fellow, at the slightest provocation,
Slammed phone receivers down, and waved his arms like
A madman. What Attila did to Europe,
What Genghis Khan did

To Asia, that poor dope did to his marriage.”
May I, that is, put learning to good purpose,
Mindful that melancholy is a sin, though
Stylish at present.

Better than rage is the post-dinner quiet,
The sink’s warm turbulence, the streaming platters,
The suds rehearsing down the drain in spirals
In the last rinsing.

For what is, after all, the good life save that
Conducted thoughtfully, and what is passion
If not the holiest of powers, sustaining
Only if mastered.


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