“The reason we don’t have any privacy is because people can make money off of our not privacy.”

July 24th, 2018
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“A clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.” Dave Eggers, Tobias Wolff. (Photo: Rod Searcey)

My post a few days ago about Google and privacy  got me to thinking about our surveillance culture, about the suspiciousness directed towards those who want to keep something of their souls untouched by the masses. Where all is public, everything is outward, and when everything is outward, the inward shrivels. Sometimes we need to incubate, to mull awhile without the world screeching at our ears. For that reason, our culture is getting more and more superficial, more preoccupied with ephemeral trends, more focused on consumption. If there’s any shortage today, it’s a shortage of inwardness.

In a 17th century village, everything was known because it was nearby. The late twentieth century atomized that model. Now, in a strange inversion of the village culture, everything is known even if far away, while many of us do not know the names of the person who lives next to us,  in Apartment 3B.

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And that turned me back Dave Eggers, author of The Circle, and his onstage conversation with Stanford’s Tobias Wolff, one of the nation’s leading writers. Here’s an excerpt from the November 9, 2014 exchange:

We live in a world where “your license plate is photographed sixty times a day,” said Eggers. Moreover, “if it can be collected and stored, it can be abused.” He continued: “It’s hard to stop. All of these things have never been that easy. You can’t go back, you can only go further.”

Go further to what? Utter transparency, 24/7. A world where we swim in ever vaster oceans of information. A world where knowledge of everything, all the time, is an inherent good. Everything that everyone is doing is known to everyone all of the time. “Accumulated shared knowledge” is the new community, and it’s considered “selfish” to hold back anything, to have secrets, to want to be left alone. “That philosophy is expounded in a lot of places,” said Eggers.

In such a world, shame is futile, because inescapable. Besides, you can see what everyone else is doing, too, and it’s just as bad. Maybe worse. But, but, but … isn’t shame an aspect of conscience, and isn’t it part of being fully human?  “It’s considered suspicious if you do want to hide anything,” said Eggers, and “deleting anything is inherently sinful.”

But what about the right to be a nobody, an inconnu, a nonentity? What about the right to be forgotten, to be invisible?

“By the time you ask to get the right to be forgotten, it’s already too late to be forgotten,” said Wolff. He recalled the case of a Columbia student accused of rape. The assailant’s name has been publicized, but the case has never been tried. Guilty or innocent, “that crime attaches to that person’s name forever.”

“The right of individuals to control their identity and narrative … should trump our right to know a person,” said Eggers. He called for a Center for Digital Ethics, perhaps at a place like Stanford, “to codify some do’s and don’t’s.” He said much of what’s happening now “is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment – the unspecified collection of data on citizens without a warrant or a specific crime.”

“The original sin where we got to this is that everything had to be free.” Stewart Brand famously said, “Information wants to be free.” It came true: “It is free, but in a “non-transparent, creepy way,” said Eggers. It’s like all those “terms and conditions” you have to check online before agreeing to things – or the endless supply of mail for you to review with revisions to your terms and conditions. Who does all that? “Keeping up terms and conditions is a full-time job,” he said.

So how has it changed in the years since? Here’s a more recent interview with Dave Eggers, on the making of The Circle into a major film. Here’s what he says now in an interview at The Marketplace called, ‘’The Circle’ author Dave Eggers thinks the internet is getting creepier”:

Eggers signing books at Stanford. (Photo: Rod Searcey)

Kai Ryssdal: So what was going through your mind when you wrote this novel, when you brought it out in print in 2013?

Dave Eggers: I think the thing that created the real impetus was one day I saw a friend on the street who said — he’d emailed me a few days before — and he said, “Hey, how come you haven’t answered my email?” And I did the usual white lie, “Oh, I haven’t gotten it yet. I didn’t check my email.” And he said, “Oh, I happen to know that you did get my email and that you opened it at 4:13 last Tuesday, and I have software that allows me to know when my mail has been opened, and I want an answer, why you haven’t answered my message.”  And I thought, well, you know that among so many things indicated a real sort of change in what I think we saw as the pure ideals of a connected world … sort of how it alters our, I don’t know, our moral fiber in a way.

Ryssdal: Do you think it does? I mean it’s interesting to me that that guy called you out and said “Oh no, I know you’re full of it man.”

Eggers: Well, that’s the thing is that it had altered him. The ease with which we can surveil each other alters what otherwise is normal relationships. You know, it creates spies in all of us. I mean people spy on their kids, they spy on their spouses, they spy on their friends, you know, actively, passively. So the book was exploring a lot of those themes, kind of creating a worst-case scenario.

I confess to googling friends. Especially since many of my friends are writers, I want to see what they’ve written lately. But where does it stop? The truth is it doesn’t. In this case the dynamite quote, or one of them, comes from the interviewer rather than the interviewee: “The reason we don’t have any privacy is because people can make money off of our not privacy.”

“Who’s monetizing it?” (Photo: Rod Searcey)

Eggers: Yeah, it’s moving a lot faster than I thought. And there’s not really a lot of speed bumps along the way. And then when we just had the rollback of some of the regulations —you know, the ISPs … they can buy and sell our search histories. You know, the regulations that Trump just rolled back — it’s very disturbing. I think that there needs to be a real pause. You know, why in the digital realm was privacy or surveillance — why was surveillance baked in?

Ryssdal: So here comes the deeply cynical answer, but it turns out that way in the book and the movie right? The reason we don’t have any privacy is because people can make money off of our not privacy.

Eggers: So, many of my friends, you know, did well in technology and created some amazing tools. What I didn’t see coming, and I think what was very disturbing, is that surveillance part that was baked in. Who’s collecting data on who? And who’s monetizing it? And who has control of it? And who’s storing it? All of these things make what could have been a beautiful thing into, I think, a very creepy and increasingly creepier machinery. And I don’t know, I think that we need to examine and think about what do we really want?  

Ryssdal: People are going to watch this movie though, and they’re going to look at that giant company at the heart of it that gets to the transparency and the privacy thing as a central plot point, and they’re going to try to puzzle out which company maybe you were talking about — or maybe you’re talking about all of them. But I’ll just, I’ll just throw out the fact that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has said that privacy is not a social norm anymore.

Eggers: Yeah, I thought that was an odd statement. I have to say, it has no basic basis in human history. We’ve always had privacy, and it’s always been integral to what makes us individuals. Right now all of these things — what you want and what you search for and what you’re looking at — all of these things are monetized, and they’re no longer private. So that’s one small step away from the elimination of the privacy of the mind. I say all this while I’m an optimist, so I always feel like I think ultimately people will do the right thing and demand, you know, some boundaries here. Who knows where it will go.

Why Google sucks: it rips off writers, and tells lies about you, too.

July 22nd, 2018
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A few days ago I published jazz scholar Ted Gioia‘s letter to the Library of Congress, “Writer to Library of Congress: ‘Pay us!” But there was one provocative argument in the article I didn’t cite, because I didn’t understand Ted’s contention that Google is the biggest thief of all. So I wrote back to ask Ted. Here’s what he said:

Google makes most of its money linking to content that it doesn’t pay for. There has been a huge shift of advertising revenues from newspapers (that create the content) to Google (which is a kind of parasite, living off the content of others).

I didn’t spell that out in the article. But I thought it was important to mention—because Google is the single biggest reason why earnings for writers have collapsed in recent years.

Ted’s not a Google fan (Photo: Dave Shafer)

Here are the paragraphs in full, from Ted’s 2014 Daily Beast article, “Rich People Want You to Work for Free”:

The worst offender, however, is not the government, but Google—a company that has done more to impoverish musicians and other creative professionals than any entity on the face of the planet. Google was once a struggling start-up with little money to spend, but that was a long, long time ago … before the music died. In case you didn’t know, let me point out that Google is now one of the most profitable businesses in history—with a market cap of almost $400 billion and more than $50 billion in cash in its coffers. But what started out as a search engine has evolved into a search-and-destroy machine.

When I ask people why they don’t pay for a music subscription service or (heaven forbid!) purchase physical albums, the most common response is: Why should I? I can get almost any song I want for free on YouTube. I’ve even had people laugh at me for my naïveté in considering any other way of consuming music. And who can blame these freeloaders from taking advantage of a “free” (if sometimes legally dubious) source for almost any song ever recorded? But the highly paid Google execs who run YouTube need to be at the top of any list of the culprits who destroyed the economic conditions for musical artists.

In a fair world, Google would be required to share advertising revenues when a user clicks on a search engine result linking to a newspaper or periodical.  A 50/50 split would be reasonable (and, frankly, 50% is very generous to Google, which is only an intermediary not a creator — what we once called a ‘middleman’). This would bring billions of dollars into journalism, and provide much needed financial support for writers.  And this kind of revenue sharing is entirely fair and validated by past history. Years ago, the government decided that radio stations and retail shops playing music were not just passive intermediaries, but needed to pay for these rights. We need a similar structural solution for the written word.

Google is like a bully who controls the door to a restaurant, and wants to siphon off all the money the previously went to the cooks, servers, food suppliers, etc. Or imagine if some company found a way of owning the sidewalk leading up to your home, and then tried to monetize access. What’s going on in writing in the current day is no different. Just because Google found a fancy high tech way of controlling the path people take to access a newspaper article doesn’t mean it can bleed the newspaper industry dry.

I have my own bone to pick with Google. They have a so-called “Knowledge Graf” that surfaces in every search for a prominent person’s name. It pops up with information that is not verified with the source or, really, anywhere else. Nor are they particular about who qualifies as a “public person” – does a very private author such as myself merit having personal information exposed internationally? Have I forfeited my privacy in the same way a Senator or Beyoncé become “public figure”? My memory of journalism law suggests not. I don’t even have a Wikipedia page.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai: I bet he gets to keep his privacy. (Photo: Maurizio Pesce)

They are profiting from slipshod aggregators such as Spokeo, Instantcheckmate, Intellius, and others that collect information on current and former spouses, sisters, brothers, birthdates, places of residence, arrests and traffic violations, and then erps it onto the worldwide web without any factchecking (for example, some of these sites list a Missouri as a former residence; I’ve never even been there). Google vacuums it up, publishing it with a reach The Washington Post would envy. Of course, they say they are not “publishing,” but rather disseminating “free” information, but how is this online publication different from, say, any online journal? As a journalist, I know what would happen to me if I published information from people from one of these sloppy websites without independently checking – after all, your info is shoveled in with everyone else who shares your name or part of your name. Why do they get away with it?

It’s gathered by ‘bots, and published by ‘bots. And no single human being will take responsibility. For, example, the possibilities of identity theft.

Once notified of the error, they defiantly refuse to remove fake information, however damaging it may be to one’s life or one’s career. (They have, with impunity pushed me into my retirement years – not helpful for a freelance writer, or any woman over 50. Age discrimination, anyone? They also list me as a literary critic for The San Francisco Chronicle – I haven’t written a word there for almost a decade. I could go on and on.) I’ve told them its wrong. They persist as if it is true. Malice? Perhaps not. But certainly a willful disregard for truth. In old-fashioned terms, it’s called lying.

I have spent hours and weeks contacting agencies to remove my listings. I have spent hours talking to Google employees – probably none were over 25 years of age, and they all act powerless within the diasporic organization they work for. None will give their last name. None will give a direct dial phone number so that you can contact them again. Or an email address (if you email back, you either get a rotating roster of kids with whom to discuss your privacy details, or else you get an error message). I have talked to lawyers. I have asked Google for the address of its Privacy Department, and the name of its director. The Kafkaesque organization that is so quick to share information about me is suddenly all shy about sharing simple corporate information that is easily available on most responsible business websites.

Of course, they have a way that you can manage your own site: send them a selfie with your face (not blurry) with government-issued identification. Every line of your driver’s license or passport must be clear and legible to them. They want to be sure, you see, that you are really you – even though they could contact me via my gmail address issued by Google, my Google Plus account, or even this blog. I wish they had been so impeccable about facts when publishing information for worldwide dissemination.

They miss the point, of course: they have to prove their information is correct. It is not my responsibility to provide them with correct information that I don’t want published anyway (let alone my passport number).

In any case, having mismanaged information about me already and violated my privacy, they wish me to give them more information – for example, my height, weight, eye color, hair color on my driver’s license. Oh, they’ll destroy it afterward, they promise. Sure. That’s what Cambridge Analytica said. Google is a big class-action lawsuit waiting to happen.

Google. You suck big time.

Update from Twitter – 7/22: 

“Restless digging for the deepest human truths”: playwright Christopher Shinn on “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard”

July 20th, 2018
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“The world that literary critic René Girard described and explored — one of runaway desire, obsession with taboo and scandal, and an overwhelming instinct to blame outsiders for our problems — is remarkably like the world we live in today. That Girard, who died in 2015, seems to be writing about our current moment is all the more notable given that his theoretical speculations were an attempt to explain the founding of functional human societies thousands of years ago.”

So begins Christopher Shinn‘s “An Intensity Leavened by Gentleness” in today’s Los Angeles Review of Books. Playwright Shinn is an Obie winner, a Pulitzer finalist, and a former Guggenheim Fellow – he writes and teaches playwriting at the New School. (His 2006 play Dying City will be revived at Second Stage next year.) It’s an honor to have his take on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

He takes issue with some of my choices – well, choices. Some of them were necessities. In particular, he questions my inability, perhaps reluctance, to overcome that peculiar combination of discretion and dignity, the antithesis of the self-proclaiming, tell-all celebrities today, that René always maintained. As Shinn writes: “his inner world remains mostly opaque.” True.

He concludes with one playwright’s reflection on another:

Perhaps Girard’s reticence about his life derived from a conviction that his ideas were too important to get contaminated by a cult of personality, and silence protected him from such temptations. While Haven sees in Girard’s last years an identification with his favorite poet Hölderlin, her biography’s dramatic arc puts one in mind of The Winter’s Tale, a play Girard analyzed in his remarkable book on Shakespeare, A Theatre of Envy (1991). According to Girard, the playwright was profoundly driven by imitative desire before a late overcoming of it — most clearly dramatized in his penultimate play, where Leontes’s envious reaction to a friend’s innocent conversation with his wife brings about a kind of personal apocalypse, followed by a long period of mourning and atonement, and finally a miraculous resurrection. An anecdote Haven memorably recounts suggests that Girard’s inner journey was not unlike Leontes’s: when a roomful of despairing theologians asks Girard what is to be done about our apocalyptic moment, he says, “We might begin with personal sanctity.”

The reply is pure Girard — at once modest and grandly challenging. The most important thing we can do in the face of catastrophe is to look at ourselves, try to understand our own violence, and become better. Could anything be simpler, or more difficult? While Girard’s thought opens up endless questions about — and possibilities for — the future of our civilization, it’s no surprise he answered the theologians as he did. In its tender closing chapters, Cynthia Haven’s moving portrait inspires readers to look inward and scrutinize themselves, unsparingly yet forgivingly — just as Girard would have wanted.

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on July 22: And Evolution of Desire and Christopher Shinn got some pickup from the Prufrock column in The Weekly Standard here.

 

Writer Ted Gioia to the Library of Congress: “Pay us!”

July 18th, 2018
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Ted Gioia in Austin, Texas, 2016. (Photo: Brenda Ladd)

Jazz scholar Ted Gioia has had enough. Today, he sent a letter to the Library of Congress that is making the rounds on the social media. Its message is simple: “Pay us!” (The letter is below.) ”

“I find it troubling that writers, musicians, and other members of the creative economy are often asked to work for free,” Ted wrote me. “No one would ever ask a car mechanic or plumber or the chef at the corner restaurant to provide unpaid labor. Why are writers treated this way? But it’s especially troubling when an institution such as the Library of Congress does this –and keeps on doing it over a period of years.”

At a film shoot in 2016 (Photo: Terri Dien)

He wrote an article on the subject for The Daily Beast several years ago here, when he was first approached by the Library of Congress. “I recently got asked by an administrator at the Library of Congress to do unpaid labor for its website. Yes, I am familiar with people asking me to do time-consuming projects for free—I get at least one such request every day. But I was dumbfounded to get hit up by a federal agency with an annual budget of $750 million,” wrote the author of The History of Jazz and Jazz Standardsboth published by Oxford University Press.

“Yet clearly my experience was not a random event. A few days later, the Smithsonian launched its Transcription Center, which relies on unpaid volunteers to digitize 75,000 pages of documents. I applaud this effort to preserve our nation’s heritage, but I also am puzzled why our overseers in Washington, D.C. can’t pay minimum wage for this project. They wouldn’t ask people to work for free at other government agencies, so why are arts and culture projects the exception?”

  1. Only charities and non-profits should ask for unpaid workers to staff their operations or undertake time-consuming projects.
  2. If a creative professional wants to volunteer to help a for-profit business, that is permissible. But the professional initiates these relationships, and the business should not request or expect it.
  3. Businesses that ask creative professionals to work in exchange for “exposure” should be publicly named and shamed.
  4. When an organization built on free labor starts making money, it needs to start paying for work. The wealthy should never ask the poor to work for free.

“Pretty simple, no? All this is really just good manners and fair practice.”

Postscript on July 21: Hey, there’s more ways you’re getting swindled. See our follow-up here.

 

Take heart from award-winning translator Mira Rosenthal! “A dirty secret I keep is that I started horribly.”

July 16th, 2018
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Tomasz Różycki: The “thematic weight of previous generations” and an “ironic attitude,” too.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mira Rosenthal when she was a Stegner fellow a few years back at Stanford. But I met poet Tomasz Różycki even earlier – at a party hosted by Izabela Barry in Westchester, when An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz launched in New York City back in 2011. She had been his translator, bringing him into English, and we chatted about that over coffee in the Stanford Bookstore. 

I was pleased to see she’s been interviewed over at the Center for the Art of Translation. An excerpt:

“Sound drives sense, not the other way around.”

Poland has an amazing poetic tradition, which I first became enamored of in English translation—poet’s like Czesław Miłosz, Anna Swirszczyńska, and Zbigniew Herbert—so much so that I decided to learn the language in order to be able to read their work in the original. When I went looking for more voices, I was both intrigued and disappointed to find that many younger poets had turned away from this post-war generation. In their desire to escape the burdens of recent history, they ended up embracing the New York School of American poets as models instead. How liberating Frank O’Hara’s I-Do-This, I-Do-That poetics must have been after Miłosz’s insistence on pondering the nature of good and evil.

What appeals to me about Różycki’s poetry is that he somehow has found a way to straddle these two stances. He engages with the thematic weight of previous generations while also cultivating an ironic attitude toward contemporary, urban experience, which also means a certain globalized experience today.

EW: How did you start with some of Różycki’s more formal poems, the series of sonnets, for example? Have you found yourself writing in form?

MR: Well, a dirty secret I keep is that I started horribly. And it’s well preserved in print! I began much more loosely than I ended up because, as a beginning translator, I was too concerned with sense. I cut my teeth on Różycki’s poetry—which is partly why it’s so easy now for me to drop into his work, his voice, his outlook, the weight of certain words that he uses repeatedly, and know what to do as a translator. I’m now translating the work of another poet, Krystyna Dąbrowska, and I don’t feel the same automatic facility. There’s an initial getting-to-know-you period in which I have to learn what a particular writer requires of me as a translator.

At first with Różycki’s poems, I figured that, in order to get the sense right, I would do away with meter and rhyme. Many translators had done so before with similarly formal poetry. But I was never really happy with those versions, even though they were picked up by journals. One of the main distinguishing characteristics of Różycki’s poetry is the sound: it convinces through its lyricism. You know, the kind of poetry where you’re not really sure that you understand what’s being said, but you’re overcome and moved by the language. As a writer, I know well the truth in the idea that sound drives sense, not the other way around.

Read the whole thing here.

“More world than we can ever know,” and a timely ghazal from Tasmania, too.

July 14th, 2018
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Tasmania at dusk, looking out towards the Southern Ocean. (Photo: Cally Conan-Davies)

It’s a late night and I’ve been working long … and thinking of friends far away, and some gone forever now.

As we move forward in time, the world seems to explode outward from us, as if we were the isolate center of some sort of Big Bang. Everything becomes more atomized and centrifugal. From self-contained infancy we become the locus of an ever-expanding circle of children and then grandchildren, the down and the dying, the post-its and text messages, the Twitter feeds and LinkedIn contacts, the rivers of money flowing outward for mortgages, car payments, insurance premiums, or the local vet.

Fortunately I had David Mason‘s new collection, The Sound: New & Selected Poetry (Red Hen Press) at hand, with this centripetal poem:

Saying Grace

If every moment is
and is a wilderness
to navigate by feel
whether half or whole,
the river takes a turn,
the forest has to burn,
the broken fern to grow.

The silence of a night
of supplicating stars
may answer us aright:
our worries and our cares
are not the same as theirs,
Give us this day more world
than we can ever know.

David Mason is currently on sabbatical in Tasmania, where he and his wife have five acres and a house looking out on the Southern Ocean. He returns to Colorado College in September 2019.

The mesmerizing ghazal of violence and love could have been written was in Gaza or any of the war-torn cities of the world. He assures me it was written in America. I know, I know. It suits our politics to a “T”.

We Stand Together Talking

We stand together talking, making love
in a burning city where forsaken love

hurls stones and bullets, and the livid face
declares it never had a stake in love.

Where love requires denying other love
like hammers driving nails in, breaking love.

From sleep I find you rising from your sleep
and kiss your eyes, so full of aching love.

My love, the harm was hidden, but the hate
would damn us living for the sake of love.

Did Charlotte Salomon kill her grandfather? Not so fast, says biographer Felstiner.

July 12th, 2018
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Mary Felstiner, with her late husband, translator and poet John Felstiner (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Our post yesterday, “Psssst! She killed her grandfather”  recounted the controversy surrounding a recently revealed confession of artist Charlotte Salomon, one of the great innovative artists of the last century, who was killed at Auschwitz. The “confession” detailed how she murdered her grandfather. But did she? I reached out to Mary Felstiner, the first historian and biographer of Salomon, author of To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon In the Nazi Era (HarperCollins, UC Press), which was awarded the American Historical Association Prize in 1995.

In fact, she is working on an essay on this very subject.

Mary’s judicious thoughts about the startling revelation:

The book where the confession appears…

Charlotte Salomon has gained a considerable reputation in the last year: a major exhibition in Amsterdam; her artwork reproduced by Taschen, in German, French, and English; a stunning full-size art book published by Duckworth/Overlook, including the first translation and notes revealing new material; a capacious and profound work of art criticism by Griselda Pollock, published by Yale University Press. These have prompted riveting recent reviews in The New Yorker, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, and Women’s Review of Books.

Charlotte Salomon’s 1941-42 artwork, Life? or Theater?, still astonishes onlookers, even in printed reproductions — her thousand-plus paintings create a new form, a visual operetta with staging and music and characters and political commentary. In addition, new interest in Charlotte Salomon has been stimulated by a multi-page painted “letter” she wrote in 1943. It was rediscovered in 2012, or rather, kept under wraps until 2012. Its content has proved shocking. Among deeper, more significant revelations, the artist – obliged to take care of her grandfather – rails against him, and then confesses to feeding him a morphine-based omelette as she writes the “letter.”

This rediscovered material has stretched new interpretations beyond previous historical, biographical, or art-critical accounts of the unprecedented artwork. It is now relabeled also as a story leading to murder by a victim of sexual abuse.

Was her confession truth or art?

A historian and biographer like myself, who decades ago located and interviewed many witnesses to Charlotte Salomon’s life, becomes concerned when interpretations rely principally on the paintings alone. For they are imaginative, theatrical, drawing on reality.

Neither inside or outside these paintings is there any direct evidence of either murder or abuse; and while such crimes are peculiarly hard to document in any specific case, the standard for non-evidentiary interpretation should be this: Are there significant numerous examples (say, of sexual threats and homicide within German Jewish families) from that time, place, and culture, and do these substantiate the interpretation? For instance, historians such as myself and Darcy Buerkle surrounded Charlotte Salomon’s artwork, which transmits a continuous theme of suicide, with serious archival research on suicide and secrecy in her time and place. Equivalent research would need to accompany the new material.

Personally, I tend to believe Charlotte Salomon wanted to put down her grandfather, but the act, if actual, was pressured by her historical context in 1943, and it’s not known if she succeeded in her fantasy or attempt. As for sexual abuse, she did paint one scene of attempted sexual abuse – by an unknown refugee on the road – so I am reluctant to accuse her grandfather without any direct word from the artist, either in an artwork that reveals other highly-charged family secrets, or in a “letter” revealing a more shameful and dangerous “confession.”

Psssst! She killed her grandfather.

July 11th, 2018
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Some months ago, I was squished in the backseat of a Lyfft with several other women, trekking back to Palo Alto after a San Francisco Middlebrook salon. One of the women wedged among us that night was Mary Felstiner, the preeminent biographer of the German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who died at Auschwitz in 1943. And so she told us in the car the dark postscript to Salomon’s life story: the letter hidden for decades in which she describes her murder of her grandfather. I thought this was an insider’s speculation, and it was, but not now, and not at the time I heard the story on the long road back to Palo Alto. The confessional letter is included in a new edition of Salomon’s complete work, Leben? oder Theater? Ein Singespiel (Life? or Theatre? A Musical Play) published last fall. Like the Taschen book, it celebrates the centennial of Salomon’s birth last year.

As I wrote last month, her masterpiece, Life? or Theatre?, may be the first graphic novel. It includes 1,299 gouaches, 340 transparent overlays of text, and a narrative of 32K words. In the words of Toni Bentley writing in the New Yorker: “It is a work of mesmerizing power and astonishing ambition. Placed side by side, the ten-by-thirteen-inch paintings would reach the length of three New York City blocks … its uncategorizable nature is another reason why she has been left out of the canon of modern art, and seen only on the periphery of other genres into which she dipped her brush: German Expressionism, autobiography, memoir, operetta, play, and, now, murder mystery”:

Kristallnacht

In February, 1943, eight months before she was murdered in Auschwitz, the German painter Charlotte Salomon killed her grandfather. Salomon’s grandparents, like many Jews, had fled Germany in the mid-nineteen-thirties, with a stash of “morphine, opium, and Veronal” to use “when their money ran out.” But Salomon’s crime that morning was not a mercy killing to save the old man from the Nazis; this was entirely personal. It was Herr Doktor Lüdwig Grünwald, not “Herr Hitler,” who, Salomon wrote, “symbolized for me the people I had to resist.” And resist she did. She documented the event in real time, in a thirty-five-page letter, most of which has only recently come to light. “I knew where the poison was,” Salomon wrote. “It is acting as I write. Perhaps he is already dead now. Forgive me.” Salomon also describes how she drew a portrait of her grandfather as he expired in front of her, from the “Veronal omelette” she had cooked for him. The ink drawing of a distinguished, wizened man—his head slumped inside the collar of his bathrobe, his eyes closed, his mouth a thin slit nesting inside his voluminous beard—survives.

Painting in the garden at Villefranche-sur-Mer, ca. 1939

Salomon’s letter is addressed, repeatedly, to her “beloved” Alfred Wolfsohn, for whom she created her work. He never received the missive. Nineteen pages of Salomon’s “confession,” as she called it, were concealed by her family for more than sixty years, the murder excised. Fragments of the missing letter were first made public in the voice-over of a 2011 Dutch documentary by the filmmaker Frans Weisz. Salomon’s stepmother had shown him the pages, written in capital letters painted in watercolor, in 1975, and allowed him to copy the text, but, as requested, he had kept them secret for decades.

I hesitated to tell this story in my earlier post, which told of her survival in a family of suicides … significantly, the women around her maternal grandfather, his wife and two daughters (one of them Salomon’s mother, and the other her namesake aunt), killed themselves. She loathed him. How does one casually drop this sort of story in a blogpost? How does one integrate it into one’s thinking of her as an artist?

In a wicked twist of fate, Salomon’s French visa depended on her being her grandfather’s caretaker, so she returned to the Nice apartment where he was living and where, several months later, she poisoned him. “the theatre is dead!” she wrote in her confession as he was dying, a declaration whose resounding Nietzchean echo appears to answer the very question she posed in the title of Life? or Theatre? With this murder, Salomon defied her “inclination to despair and to dying” and chose life.

Read the New Yorker story here. You must.

Postscript on 7/13: Salomon’s preeminent biographer, Mary Felstiner, responds here.

NBCC does more than hand out book awards: a report from the forefront of book culture at a San Francisco fête

July 9th, 2018
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Jane Ciabattari introduces “Emerging Critics” Jennie Hann, in San Francisco from Baltimore and Bay Area’s Chelsea Leu.

Most people know the National Book Critics Circle from the prestigious annual awards for authors, handed out every year in New York City. For those of us who are members, it offers collegiality, professional resources, and of course opportunities to talk books, books, books.

Not that I would know. I have been the quietest member of the NBCC for the last several years, as I’ve labored away on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. But now that the book is out, I thought I’d poke my head out above the trenches.

Jane Ciabattari at Zyzzyva

So I joined friends earlier at a cocktail party on June 28 in the tony offices of Zyzzyva in the historic Mechanics’ Institute Building in downtown San Francisco. The occasion was simply a get-together, and a rare chance to chat with colleagues. It was my first time in the quarters of the San Francisco journal of arts and letters that, years ago, spirited away my San Francisco Chronicle book editor Oscar Villalon. (He had taken over the helm after David Kipen‘s departure.) He’s now Zyzzyva‘s managing editor and a former NBCC board member. I hadn’t seen him face-to-face since, except for one occasion at Litquake, a San Francisco literary institution, and another at Stanford’s Green Library for the Saroyan prizes.

Oscar was a energetic and reliable presence for books at the San Francisco Chronicle, and his legacy continues with John McMurtrie. I’ve never reviewed for John, but I hassle him regularly for publicity on Another Look book events at Stanford.

Another guiding presence at NBCC is smart, kindly, and resourceful Vice President Jane Ciabattari. Jane has been a friendly, constant, and reliable source of information and advice for free-lancers, this one included.

At the gathering Jane spoke about about the “Emerging Critics” program to foster and polish the next generation of those who devote themselves to the written word. That’s a lesser known aspect to the NBCC, apart from the celebrated prizes. See what else NBCC does on the calendar here.

I met so many people at the event I can’t remember them all (my mental attention is greatly diminished nowadays). But I returned to Palo Alto in the evening, thanks to a lift from Susanne Paria fascinating Iranian-American writer who dropped me off in front of my waiting car at Kepler’s, and then disappeared into the night.

Oscar Villalon discusses books with a colleague.

Philly Inquirer praises “Evolution of Desire”: “an extraordinarily vivid portrait of a man … an ingenious travelogue of his life and thought.”

July 7th, 2018
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René Girard in conversation in 2008. A screenshot from our Youtube book trailer.

Kisses and billets-doux from the City of Brotherly Love! More warm words for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girardthis time from the Philadelphia Inquirer. The reviewer is Frank Wilson, the esteemed paper’s retired book editor and notable blogger. He begins the piece, Evolution of Desire: René Girard, a man in full,” this way:

The Wikipedia entry for René Girard describes him as a historian, literary critic, and philosopher. It’s a good start. Girard, who died in 2015 at 91, ventured into many disciplines. And Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire is an ingenious travelogue of his life and thought.

It’s a short review (under 800 words), so I won’t excerpt too much. You can read the whole thing, after all, right here. He concludes (spoiler alert!): 

Haven’s book, in fact, is something of a marvel. She knew Girard and got to know his friends and colleagues. She guides the reader along the trail of evidence, sketching deftly those she talked with and showing how she arrived at her conclusions. The result is an an extraordinarily vivid portrait of a man admired not just for his intelligence and erudition, but also for his character, wisdom, and humor. Let us give him the last word on what he referred to as “the so-called système-Girard”:

“What should be taken seriously … is the mimetic theory itself — its analytical power and versatility — rather than this or that particular conclusion or position, which critics tend to turn into some creed which I am supposedly trying to force down their throats. I am much less dogmatic than a certain reading of my work suggests.”

Order at Amazon here. Please.


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