King Lear: a ruler who thinks power is more important than love

November 23rd, 2018
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Hopkins as Lear, Florence Pugh as Cordelia

A few weeks ago we wrote about Anthony Hopkins‘s mesmerizing performance in a BBC production that squanders a lot of opportunities. We’ve been thinking about the play since.

So has the Wall Street Journal‘s Terry Teachout, who seems to be an expert on King Lear, at least from the number of recent productions he references in his article in Commentary magazine (thanks for the heads-up Frank Wilson). Glenda Jackson‘s performance of the role is coming to Broadway next April – according to him, that will be the third Broadway production of William Shakespeare‘s masterpiece in the last six decades. “Why were American versions of King Lear so uncommon for so long? Because it is to theater what Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is to music, an all-encompassing super-drama fraught with complexities that pose challenges of understanding to the playgoer.” Regional performances have more than filled the gap, however, making it one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays.

Here’s where the BBC production with Hopkins comes in: “Too often, however, the quest for ‘relatability’ results in modern-dress stagings whose every element seems to have been determined in advance by an arbitrary concept superimposed on the text by the director rather than arising organically from it. Some, such as the Eyre/Hopkins TV Lear, work reasonably well on their own restrictive terms, but others have been unconvincing, on occasion even preposterous. The worst Lear I have ever reviewed, directed by Robert Falls at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2006, turned the play into a tale of Eastern European gangsters whose opening scene was set in a men’s room with a working urinal.” I would argue the same for the Eyre/Hopkins chop suey production, which mangles the text.

He argues “Shakespeare’s plays work best when performed without scene breaks in open-stage productions that employ a bare minimum of props and scenery” – a contention that was made by Prof. Peter Styron at the University of Michigan, during my own undergraduate days.

Is King Lear petty? Not in many of the performances: “He is a ruler of towering stature who makes the fatal mistake of supposing that power is more important than love, then discovers the world as it really is, cold and hostile to the vanity of human wishes. ‘Is man no more than this?’ Lear cries at the piteous spectacle of the half-naked Edgar trembling in the storm, and in an instant he is invaded and conquered by self-doubt. To ‘humanize’ such a titan by playing him naturalistically is to diminish the pathos of his brutal humiliation.”

He concludes:

Have a scapegoat for Thanksgiving! “It’s a ritual sacrifice, with pie.”

November 21st, 2018
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Peas, the 2018 National Thanksgiving Turkey, prepares to be pardoned by President Donald J. Trump (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

I’ve always been ashamed of the annual White House ritual: the turkey pardoned for a crime it did not commit. Mock laughter accompanies the mock crime. Meanwhile, while thousands upon thousands of other helpless animals are slaughtered across the nation.

All across America, fractious families unite for the day over the real carcass of a dead bird – it is the very symbol of a national and familial unity. Is the Thanksgiving turkey a classic scapegoat? I figured I couldn’t be alone in my hunch, and I wasn’t. René Girard, who died in 2015 , is much on my mind this Thanksgiving, and he helps us get a handle on the strange ceremony, with a little help from his friends:

truman-turkey

Harry Truman started it in 1947.

Karen Davis writes in More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality (Lantern Books, 2001):

“The idea of a Thanksgiving turkey as a scapegoat may seem like a parody of scapegoating, but what is the scapegoat phenomenon but a parody of reason and justice? The scapegoat, after all, is a goat. Animals have been scapegoats in storytelling, myth, and history every bit as much as humans and probably more, as the scholar of myth and ritual, René Girard observes in Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation (Stanford University Press, 1988). Social animals especially have been scapegoated since time immemorial. ‘[I]n all parts of the world,’ Girard says, ‘animals living in herds, schools, packs – all animals with gregarious habits, even if completely harmless to each other and to man,’ have been vilified.

“This is not simply a matter of other cultures and ancient history. Evans shows how the belief that ‘everything must be “well-thought, well-said and well-done,” not ethically, but ritually, contributed to the fact that until quite recently, European societies hauled birds and other creatures before the bar in legal ceremonies as absurd as any scene in Dickens. ‘[E]xtending from the beginning of the twelfth to the middle of the eighteenth century,’ he tells us, the culprits were ‘a miscellaneous crew, consisting chiefly of caterpillars, flies, locusts, leeches, snails, slugs, worms, weevils, rats, mice, moles, turtle-doves, pigs, bulls, cows, cocks, dogs, asses, mules, mares and goats.”

Jared Christman explores another angle of the ritual, writing in Grave Pawns: Civilization’s Animal Victims: “The pardon therefore performs the same basic function as the scapegoating sacrifice theorized by Girard in Violence and the Sacred, although instead of one special victim being scapegoated, every animal except for one special non-victim is scapegoated.”

eisenhower-turkey

Eisenhower kept it up.

“Around the Thanksgiving table, the cultural relations of the nation merge with the blood relations of the family. Through the carcass of the sacrificial victim, the family becomes a microcosm of the nation and the nation becomes a macrocosm of the family. The size of the culinary victim is key: the entire turkey can be dismembered and consumed at a household gathering. This creates a ritual symmetry between the dimensions of the victim’s body and the dimensions of the cultural building block of the family. …

“This sovereign ‘pardon’ of a token animal has become ritually necessary because the industrialized scale of Thanksgiving creates a pressing need for expiation and the shifting of blame from the victimizers to the victims. Against the holiday’s backdrop of rampant factory farming, the pardon of the “innocent” bird scapegoats every other “criminal” turkey for advanced civilization’s sins against nature. …

“With each passing year, the comforting illusions of the Thanksgiving feast, its New World mythology, conceal less and less the industrialized context of the sacrament. Any serious pretense of the new Eden is long gone. The bird upon today’s Thanksgiving table is a bloated, assembly-line caricature of the wild turkey of the 17th-century American woods. Of soupcourse, even the mythology of the original Thanksgiving of the Plymouth pilgrims was a bright shining lie. The cagier fowl of yesteryear’s table was the victim of a ritual protocol of nation-building about as new as the Old World hills.”

Well, there you have it. History has it that the real Thanksgiving was celebrated in St. Augustine, Florida, some years earlier in 1565, when the Spaniards shared a communal meal with the local Timucuans. What was on the menu? Bean soup. Read about it here.

Update: NPR is onto the story here.

Update on 11/20/18: A comment from George Dunn: “It’s a ritual sacrifice, with pie.” ~ Anya on Buffy the Vampire Slayer

President Barack Obama, National Turkey Federation Chairman Gary Cooper; and son Cole Cooper participate in the annual National Thanksgiving Turkey pardon ceremony in the Grand Foyer of the White House, Nov. 26, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Obama, National Turkey Federation’s Gary Cooper, and Cole Cooper in last year’s “pardon” at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

And speaking of Proust … another wonderful quotation on the anniversary of his death

November 19th, 2018
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Luftmensch Paul Holdengräber is on a roll with Marcel Proust, and we posted his quote on the anniversary of the French author’s 1922 death yesterday. He followed up with this one today, and we couldn’t resist reposting it (see below). The reason: we use the same citation from Proust at the tail-end of the introduction to Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard:

Why? Why? Why?

I had a more modest view of my book and it would be incorrect to say even that I was thinking of those who might read it as ‘my readers.’ For, to my mind, they would not be my readers but the very readers of themselves, my book serving only as a sort of magnifying glass, such as the optician of Combray used to off er to a customer; my book might supply the means by which they could read themselves. So that I would not ask them to praise me or to speak ill of me, but only to tell me that it is as I say,if the words which they read within themselves are, indeed, those which I have written.

The translation I used was by the matchless Richard Macksey, a colleague of René Girard’s at Johns Hopkins University.

Incidentally, the whole introduction to Evolution of Desire was published in America Magazine over the weekend here. Notre Dame published it earlier, and it was linked in Hacker News, here. (Several people wondered why Artur Sebastian Rosman picked a golden image for the article, entitled “Golden Thoughts for a Nuclear Age” – you might note that it’s the “Mask of Agamemnon,” one of the findings of Heinrich Schliemann at the Troy excavation, an archaeological adventure described in the first paragraph of my intro.)

Remembering Marcel Proust, on the anniversary of his death…

November 18th, 2018
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We’ve been awfully busy in Denver for several days talking about Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girardand it’s time for bed, but we didn’t want to let the weekend pass without observing that this is the day Marcel Proust died in 1922. Luftmensch Paul Holdengräber helped us remember with the quote below:


A night for W.H. Hudson and Green Mansions: his love for animals was deep and his opinions were fierce

November 15th, 2018
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About 150 devoted book fans braved the campus-wide construction at Stanford to attend our Another Look fall event on William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions on Tuesday, October 30, at 7:30 p.m. in the Bechtel Conference Center of Encina Hall. The event launched Another Look’s seventh season.

First published in 1904, Green Mansions seamlessly blends nineteenth-century romanticism with the ecological imperatives that would come to the forefront in the twentieth century. Discussants included Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, director of Another Look, Prof. Laura Wittman, and the Dean of Continuing Studies, Charles Junkerman.

Harrison at the podium.

The book had more fame back then than it does now – despite a 1959 film with Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins. Said novelist Ford Madox Ford of the novel: “There was no one – no writer – who did not acknowledge without question that Hudson was the greatest living writer of English … I have never heard a writer speak of him with anything but reverence that was given to no other human being. For as a writer he was a magician.” According to Joseph Conrad, “Hudson’s writing is like grass that the good God made to grow, and when it is there you cannot tell how it came.”

The plot: Abel Guevez de Argensola, flees to the Venezuelan interior after launching a failed coup in Caracas with his friends. In the remote jungles and savannas, he lives among the native people, learning their language and their ways. While exploring the terrain, he hears strange bird-like singing and discovers a young woman with a mysterious story. His love for her desolates and transfigures his life.

Hudson was better known as a naturalist and ornithologist, and his opinions were fierce, particularly about cruelty to animals. On his grave is written: “He loved birds and green places, and the wind on the hearth, and saw the brightness of the skirts of God.”

But his opinion of his fellow man could be harsh. In 1915, he wrote to a friend, “You think it is a ‘cursed’ war. I think it is a blessed war. And it is quite time we had our purification from the degeneration, the rottenness that comes with everlasting peace. The blood that is being spilled will purge us of many hateful qualities – of our caste feeling, or our detestable partisanship, our gross selfishness and a hundred more. Let us thank the gods for a Wilhelm and a whole nation insane with hatred of England to restore us to health.”

Photos of the event, as always, by Another Look aficionado David Schwartz. And the podcast for the event is here.

Jill Lepore: “The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril.”

November 13th, 2018
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Writer and historian

Evan Goldstein interviews the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore for The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Lepore, an historian, is the author of These Truths (W.W. Norton), a new history of America.

She insists “facts come from the realm of humanities.” Do they? We don’t know what kind of facts you can find in Li Po or Euripides or Anna Karenina, but she nevertheless has some interesting observations about the state of the humanities in America, always an important subject at the Book Haven. A few excerpts below:

A. That transformation, from facts to numbers to data, traces something else: the shifting prestige placed on different ways of knowing. Facts come from the realm of the humanities, numbers represent the social sciences, and data the natural sciences. When people talk about the decline of the humanities, they are actually talking about the rise and fall of the fact, as well as other factors. When people try to re-establish the prestige of the humanities with the digital humanities and large data sets, that is no longer the humanities. What humanists do comes from a different epistemological scale of a unit of knowledge.

Q. How is the academy implicated in or imperiled by this moment of epistemological crisis?

A. The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

Congratulations in order? (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.

***

Q. You did your graduate work at Yale in the early ’90s in a post-structuralist American-studies department. You read a lot of Derrida and Foucault. You’ve said that you grew uncomfortable with how you were trained versus how you wanted to write.

A. I should say that I happened to land at a place where there were people writing in their own way. John Demos was my adviser. I also worked with Bill Cronon, who’s a tremendous writer. And Jon Butler. All of whom read my dissertation prospectus and said, OK, this is not a dissertation prospectus but we’re going to pass it because we love it. They were the exception.

Like any Ph.D. program, what you’re being trained to do is employ a jargon that instantiates your authority in the abstruseness of your prose. You display what you know by writing in a way that other people can’t understand. That’s not how I understand writing. Writing is about sharing what you know with storybook clarity, even and especially if you’re writing about something that’s complicated or morally ambiguous. Also, I like to write about people who are characters, who have limbs and fingers and toes and loves and desires and agonies and triumphs and ages and hair colors. But that’s not how historical writing is taught in a Ph.D. program.

***

Last of a kind. (Photo: Bernard Gotfryd)

Q. In your 2010 book, The Whites of Their Eyes, about the rise of the Tea Party, you note that Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970, was one of the last academic historians to reach readers outside the academy “with sweeping interpretations both of the past and of his own time.” You seem to occupy a Hofstadter-like space in American life. How do you see your role?

A. You can see in Hofstadter’s life why so many academics from his generation and the generation that followed retreated. Hofstadter was stricken by student protests at Columbia. Something had gone wrong in American political life, which had become zealous. It would be best for historians to therefore not be part of it.

Since serious academic historians have to a large degree retreated, that space is taken up by other people. Again, generally by presidential historians, most of them journalists. That’s not to say they’re not excellent journalists and brilliant biographers. But what they write is presidential history, and what they offer is political punditry that emphasizes the power of the presidency. Just this week I was frantically reading about the attempted assassinations, possibly, of Trump critics, and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and I just knew I was going to see Michael Beschloss tell a story about LBJ. That’s the casting call for the historian. I’m not convinced that it’s a great contribution, especially when you think of the incredible work scholars do studying patterns of political expression, social movements, the history of political violence; none of that is gathered up in a one-clause quote from Michael Beschloss. What I’ve tried to do in The New Yorker is figure out a different way for a historian to offer a contribution. It doesn’t refuse to engage with what’s going on in the present, but it also doesn’t offer up the comforting anecdote or the disquieting anecdote.

There’s lots more to be said on all this, and so much I want to question in what she says. You can read the whole article here.

“He never returned”: on the centenary of the end of World War I

November 11th, 2018
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Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. Out of all the rivers of words I’ve read and pictures I’ve seen, I found this image especially poignant today, from Catherine Lambert on Facebook:

“I lived in a tiny village called Essendon in England for a few years. We had a neighbor who had a tree in the front garden with a big knot – as you can see below. The story she told was that her grandfather tied the knot in the tree when he left to fight in World War I, telling his young bride that he would untie it on his return from the war. He never returned.”

“The tree died while we lived in Essendon and our neighbor actually gave us this knot – which I’ve had ever since as it makes me remember the forgotten lives of that painful war.”

L’art pour l’art in Paradise Lost

November 11th, 2018
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He’s got his priorities straight. (Screenshot from news footage)

Paradise has been destroyed – the city leveled to smoke and ashes, with 25 killed so far. We’ve been breathing the smoke in Palo Alto all weekend. “Three fires began Thursday — the largest in Northern California, where a Sierra Nevada town of 27,000 was destroyed by a fast moving-fire that quickly grew into the state’s most destructive on record. In Southern California, two fires were burning in the drought-stricken canyons and hills north and west of downtown Los Angeles,” according to the Associated Press today.

During my decade living in the Sierra foothills, I fled three wildfires before walls of flame. The first, which came within blocks of my home, was the year’s most destructive wildfire. I remember returning, several days later, not knowing if I’d have a home or merely cinders. The third and smallest started on my front lawn, when an old car backfired sparks onto the dry grass as it passed. Within a few hours, scores of helicopters were circling overhead, dropping chemical retardants and water.  (I made a post about those wildfire years here.)

I recall the process of sorting through what to take with our family (which then included two or three cats and a dog). My laptop first, of course. But after that … a Dali, a Chagall, and a few other original works of art. Family heirlooms. Clothes, of course, clothes. But I was living to live in my skivvies to save the my art and my labor and my history.

So I fully understand John Mescall, a cellist for the Paradise Symphony Orchestra. As the town was burning, he tried to flee by car. But his car wouldn’t start. So he grabbed his bike and pedaled to safety with his cello on his back. He’s headed for Chico.

He tells the story on Chico’s KCRA in the clip below. (You can read his story here.)

René Girard, meet the techies: Evolution of Desire climbs the charts at Hacker News.

November 10th, 2018
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Even though the Book Haven lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, we generally avoid the sphere of computer nerds and techies, except when we need our Macbook Pro repaired or have to figure out why we are getting spammed. But every so often, we get something that sends us into this brave new world.  So it was with yesterday’s news on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

Artur gave me the heads-up.

It began when I received a Facebook message from Artur Rosman at 6 a.m.: “Happy news, a techie link picked up your book excerpt that we ran earlier this year. It has 1,700 hits today so far. You’re going to crash our site!”

He was referring to the introduction to Evolution of Desire, which was excerpted on a Notre Dame University journal as “Golden Thoughts from a Nuclear Age” here. The techie link was an unknown website to both of us, but that’s what Wikipedia is for. I looked up Hacker News there:

Hacker News is a social news website focusing on computer science and entrepreneurship. It is run by Paul Graham‘s investment fund and startup incubator, Y Combinator. In general, content that can be submitted is defined as “anything that gratifies one’s intellectual curiosity”.

The site was created by Paul Graham in February 2007. Initially it was called Startup News or occasionally News.YC. On August 14, 2007, it became known by its current name. It developed as a project of his company Y Combinator, functioning as a real-world application of the Arc programming language which Graham co-developed.

Paul Graham turns out to be kind of a big deal. Computer scientist, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, author and essayist.

But meanwhile, back in Indiana, Artur was beginning to panic. The numbers kept climbing minute by minute. He was pondering whether he should take the page down quickly so the server wouldn’t go boom. It didn’t, but meanwhile it quickly racked up 2,700 visits in a few short hours.

Paul gave us the lift-off.

Faithful Book Haven reader George Jansen, who runs a terrific blog 20011 (we’ve added it to our blogroll), also saw us on Hacker News. “I was going to post about this on my own blog, but then figured that you should get first dibs.” We let him go first.

From his blogpost: “I often check the Hacker News to see what topics interest the tech world. Perhaps 60% of the linked items have to do with computing, science, or mathematics, another 20% to do with politics or economics, and the remainder can be curiously assorted. Over the last couple of days a link to an article about whether Nero killed Agrippina has been in the first few pages.

“Though I do now and then see them, I don’t go to Hacker News looking for links to pieces about the humanities. I was surprised, then, today to see what was evidently an item by Cynthia Haven about René Girard on the first page… A sometime co-worker has made it to the first page of Hacker News a few times. However, his blog mostly has to do with old computer hardware, which suits what I take to be the interests of most of the Hacker News readership. I am interested to see that the techies find mimetic desire so well worth reading and arguing about.”

In the Hacker News comment section, Oliver Jones urged people to read the article over at Notre Dame: “Our trade is strongly influenced by René Girard’s understanding of competitive mimetic desire and its violence. Why? The people who organize the ad-driven internet know all about Girard. Peter Thiel invested in Facebook because he saw its potential for harnessing mimetic desire to drive engagement. (reference: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-pr…)

“Facebook-style social media is addictive precisely because of the fear of not being as good as ‘friends.’ Mimetic desire is the the human yearning behind the Fear of Missing Out. Driving engagement is most effective when it exploits that fear. It works very well indeed. Other attempts at building social media networks (Stack Overflow, Linked In, Slack, for example) try to avoid that exploitation. They try to use other motivators than FOMO [“Fear of Missing Out” to the rest of us. – CH] to drive engagement. Can they be successful without overusing mimetic desire? It’s the key question they must answer to be successful. The obligatory panel of customer logos just below the fold on SaaS landing pages engages mimetic desire in IT buyers. ‘Wow! Schwab uses this! I want to be like Schwab!’ It’s benign in these cases.

“Girard offers a good unifying framework for understanding the human nature behind all sorts of marketing work. Convincing people their hair is ablaze and offering them ways to put it out is the heart of building new businesses. Getting people to set each others’ hair on fire, then putting it out, is the holy grail of new businesses.

“It’s no accident that Silicon Valley employs that framework in lots of ways: he was a scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. [He wasn’t – CH.] It can be a hard slog to learn about him. But it’s worth your trouble.”

I hope I’ve made the job a little easier for Oliver and the others with Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Meanwhile, read the whole discussion here. It includes the best quote ever from Peter Thiel, who studied with René at Stanford: “To believe yourself invested with divine self-sufficiency is not the mark of a strong individual, but of a person who has mistaken the crowd’s worship – or jeering – for the truth. The single greatest danger for a founder is to become so certain of his own myth that he loses his mind. But an equally insidious danger for every business is to lose all sense of myth and mistake disenchantment for wisdom.”

The excerpted introduction to Evolution of Desire, “Golden Thoughts for a Nuclear Age” is here.

Postscript: Speaking of signal honors, I received this Facebook comment, from another gentle reader, Marianne Bacon: “Cynthia, we are re-reading your book. Aloud. I am absorbing much more deeply and we are both loving it!”

Pushkin shows us how to write a government report in a single quatrain.

November 7th, 2018
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Russia’s ur-poet Alexander Pushkin was among the literary radicals of the czarist regime, but politics and poetry don’t often mesh. The government was anxious to sideline him. In 1820, he was exiled to the imperial backwaters to cool his heels.

And that’s where I found his lovely little abode in Kishinev (see above). My post a few days ago about homes of famous writers returned my thoughts to Moldova, among his many other homes as he traipsed the empire. But the Kishinev hideaway was particularly cozy and I have fond memories of it. He stayed there till 1823 – a rather long sojourn, given his peripatetic life.

Pushkin was then sent to Odessa, where he became entangled with Eliza Vorontsova. Bad move: she was the wife of the city’s governor. The cuckolded Vorontsov decided that Pushkin should be given an official project far away from Odessa. He was sent eastward to the Dnieper area to study the habits of locusts, so that the government might develop a plan for their eradication.

Pushkin’s response was in immortal verse, and perhaps should be a model for all government reports:

The locusts flew and flew over the plain.
They landed on the ground.
Ate everything they found.
And then the locusts flew and flew away again.


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