Posts Tagged ‘Fyodor Dostoevsky’

Remembering Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank: “He had no enemies.”

Sunday, May 26th, 2013
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Joe in his Princeton days (Photo: Robert Matthews)

Among the quieter events in a busy week at Stanford: about a hundred friends, colleagues, students, and family members gathered at the Stanford Humanities Center to commemorate the life and work of one of Stanford’s most eminent figures, Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank … well, “Dostoevsky scholar” … he was so much more than that.

As author Jeffrey Meyers of Princeton noted during his talk that afternoon (his remarks are published in his retrospective here):

Learned, widely read, and well informed about a wide range of subjects, Joe could talk intelligently about almost anything. The depth of his knowledge was astonishing and delightful. We talked about our current work, classic and recent books, Russian writers from Gogol to Solzhenitsyn, major biographers, struggles with editors, conferences attended, favorite films (if not, for Joe, “too depressing”), mutual friends in Stanford and Berkeley, wide-ranging travels, current politics, children and grandchildren, jokes and literary gossip. It was especially interesting to compare our reviews of the same book, Olivier Todd’s excellent life of André Malraux. I urged him to read the novels of Olivia Manning, J.F. Powers, and James Salter; he retaliated, unfairly I thought, by suggesting the German philosopher Max Scheler, “the founder of the sociology of knowledge.”

I liked to hear Joe reminisce about distinguished writers who’d been his friends—Allen Tate, John Berryman, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Robert Lowell, Anthony Burgess, and Carlos Fuentes — and urged him (unsuccessfully) to write a memoir about them. He remembered Elizabeth Bishop telling him of her visits to Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in D.C. and getting books for him from the Library of Congress. He recalled seeing Mary McCarthy in a hospital in New York, just before she died, and her pressing his hand at the time. He’d met the reclusive South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner, J.M. Coetzee, and found him “quite laconic and reserved, but with a kind of genuine inner warmth with people he likes.”

Bill Chace, president of Emory, opened the memorial event with the remark, “If Joe were with us today …,” or words to that effect.  Nobody seemed to notice at the moment the lights flickered for a moment, and then came on again.  Well, it is easy to make too much of small things, but still, for this observer it was a poignant moment, as if Joe were saying, “Don’t write me off just yet!”  One comment from Bill Chace’s remarks that I scribbled in my program:  “He had no enemies.”  From what I knew of Joe, it was true … but how?  How does one get through a life like this one without accumulating any enemies?  Given Joe’s unconventional path through academia, there must have been dozens of jealous or resentful knives sharpened for him.

JoeFrank2Perhaps part of the secret was related by Marilyn Yalom in her remarks. She  recalled how Joe used to light up when she came into the room.  It was only later that she realized that his face lit up when anyone entered the room.  We all thought he only had eyes for us – but that was only a fragment of his genial charm.

Granddaughter Sophie Lilla, a freshman at New York University, recalled the story of Joe leaping off the bus in postwar Paris, a stop before his intended one. He had seen an attractive woman on the bus and didn’t want to let the opportunity slip.  And shortly afterward, he went so far as to marry her.  Sophie said she wished she had the nerve – but I suspect she does (she’s could pass for the woman who inspired the incident so many years ago, her grandmama Marguerite Frank).  The tributes were interspersed with Benny Goodman tunes, and Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky‘s Eugene Onegin, a favorite of his.

Stanford Slavic scholar Gregory Freidin was in Paris, but colleague Gabriella Safran read his remarks – you can, too.  Grisha posted his talk on his blog The Noise of Time here.  An excerpt:

Great musicians, it is said, do not choose their calling—music chooses them. Reading and rereading Joseph Frank’s writings, it seems the spirit of modernity itself chose him to be its voice—a great choice for the age when brute force remaking the world was matched and animated by a titanic struggle of ideas.

Joseph and Marguerite Frank

Joe and the lady he saw on a Paris bus, in Linda Cicero’s now-iconic photo.

How else to explain, then, that Frank’s debut in Scholastic, bore a title more fitting for the epilogue of a career: “Prolegomena to All Future Literary Criticism?” The year was 1935. Frank was seventeen and an orphan. A mere decade later, while he worked as a reporter, came entry into the big leagues: The Idea of Spatial Form. His last book, Responses to Modernity, with a telling subtitle Essays in the Politics of Culture, was published just a few months before illness claimed him. In-between, there are almost three hundred essays and reviews, some in French, and a monumental biography of a Russian writer whose fictional characters come alive even as they reenact the metaphysical mystery play of the modern era.

Frank’s stutter, which he struggled with all his life (but I remember with fondness), looks in retrospect like a mark of election. The affliction came along with an extraordinary aesthetic talent and a gift for empathy. The stutter forced him to develop, while still in his teens, a powerful voice as a writer of critical prose. Authoritative and subtle, uncompromis­ing yet forgiving, it was so deeply resonant and expressive that had Hollywood come calling, only an Orson Welles with the strut of John Wayne could have filled the bill. Its force is already present in his  “Dedication to Thomas Mann,” published in the NYU student journal in 1937; it is undiminished in “Thinkers and Liars,” one of his last pieces in The New Republic, and it reverberates throughout the entirety of his Dostoevsky  Pentateuch, the first five books of every Slavicist Bible.

His writer’s voice was Aaron to his Moses, except that it was inflected with an extraordinary aesthetic intelligence—and a sense of empathy, too. For Frank, the world picture—like a poem for T.S. Eliot, as Frank noted wryly—had to “preserve some ‘impurity’ if it was to be humanly meaningful.”

I haven’t blogged the talk I gave on this occasion – and I don’t expect to – but you can read the earlier retrospective I wrote for Stanford Magazine here.

With all these articles and comments, and the memories of the man himself, which keep returning to me at odd moments, I’m coming to understand the scale of our loss. My appreciation for him grows, and in retrospect, I am humbled even more that he, who had so much to offer, appreciated me.  But he appreciated everyone, I suspect. Maybe that’s why he had no enemies.

“Sexy letters between the Dostoevskys … Who could have imagined it?”

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013
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Dostoevskij_1872

Hubba, hubba.

It’s always pleasant when Andrew Sullivan visits the Book Haven and takes a souvenir of his visit back to his “Dish” column – this time it’s a mention of our recent post about David Foster Wallace‘s review of Joseph Frank‘s massive, multi-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky.  (Hat tip to Martha Girard for alerting me to the article.)

Contrary to what one of his readers posted on “The Dish,” however, while it’s true I didn’t “dig up” the review, I didn’t read it in the collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, either – in fact, Joe’s widow Marguerite Frank handed me the ancient xerox copy, and it’s still on my dresser, waiting to be returned.

Coincidentally, while truly digging around today for some papers I never found, I rediscovered René Girard‘s 2002 review of Joe’s biography, in an article called “Dostoevsky’s Demons.”  Apparently, he thinks Fyodor may have been a rather sexy fellow.  He writes:  ”The most stubborn myth about Dostoevsky is his ‘sexual abnormality,’ a thesis countersigned by Sigmund Freud himself.  In the course of his five-volume biography, however, Joseph Frank quietly demolishes it.”  Freud was certain that “bad political ideas mean a bad sex life.”  Hence, poor Anna Grigoryevna is usually portrayed as an unfulfilled woman hooked up to a weirdo husband.

No one, it seems, bothered with the original sources before Joseph Frank – who has come up with a letter to Anna mailed from Germany, where his physician had sent the novelist “to take the waters.” Dostoevsky does more than politely insist he misses his wife; he mentions an erotic dream he had about her and refers to a prior letter from Anna in which she mentioned “some indecent thoughts” that she had about her husband.

lettersSexy letters between the Dostoevskys, seven years after their marriage! Who could have imagined it? Frank quotes this precious correspondence without even alluding to the myths crashing to the ground all around him. But it is a massive joke on the postmodern sex police and their hostile profiling of the novelist whose understanding of human motivation in such books as Notes from Underground, The Gambler, Demons, and The Eternal Husband – to say nothing of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov – is almost incomprehensibly far beyond their simple and easy explanations.

 René’s interest in Dostoevsky is longstanding, of course.  Dostoevsky is one of the handful of writers studied in the landmark Deceit, Desire and the Novel. However, René thinks the Russian author’s “most profound book” is not The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment, but rather the comparatively little-known The Eternal Husband.

According to René:

rene-girard

Not underground.

The two main idols of that modern, godless universe are money and sex. After Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky dealt with money in The Gambler (1866) and sex in The Eternal Husband (1870), …  the story of a man driven underground by the infidelity of his wife. The rather ordinary fellow who has cuckolded him turns into an object of hatred and worship combined. Freud was correct in noticing the attraction the wife’s lover exerts on the eternal husband, but Freud went on to decide that the author’s own unconscious desire was expressing itself in the story – and hence Dostoevsky was a latent homosexual.

The simpler reading is that what the eternal husband wants to learn from his wife’s seducer is the secret of seduction. What he desires is not his rival’s body – a ridiculous idea, really – but that rival’s expertise as a lover. He would like to become an eternal lover himself, rather than an eternal husband and an eternal cuckold. Like all underground people, the eternal husband is modern and liberated, especially in regard to sex. Far from solving his problem, however, this makes it worse. The idolatry of sex is destructive not merely of the old structure of the family but of sex itself. The eternal husband is a victim not of superstition but of obsessive rationality. He sees the seducer of his wife as a sexual expert whose services he tries to enlist.

The Dostoevsky marriage was an improbable one:  a 22-year-old stenographer marries a 42-year-old convict who was also an epileptic and a pathological gambler.  René thinks it was a match made in heaven:  ”She was the greatest blessing in his life … Joseph Frank is too conscientious a biographer to lapse into hagiography.  He does not hide, for example, Anna’s tendency to make both her husband and herself look better than they were. But Frank’s uncompromising honesty ends up making Anna seem almost heroic.  There was great suffering in her marriage, no doubt, especially the death of children, but there was more happiness.”

 

David Foster Wallace: “Dostoevsky wasn’t just a genius – he was, finally, brave.”

Monday, April 1st, 2013
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Joseph and Marguerite Frank

Joseph and Marguerite Frank

I drove over to visit Marguerite Frank at her Stanford apartment one night last week.  She was sorting through mountains of photos and papers of her husband, the late and wonderful Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank.

Among the pile, she handed me this, from the Village Voice Literary Supplement: a 1996 review of the first four volumes of Joe’s mammoth Dostoevsky biography.  Here’s the kicker:  they were reviewed by David Foster Wallace, the late great writer who killed himself in 2008.

I hadn’t had the chance to read the edgy author before.  I have to say it was, initially, a bit of a slog.  Wallace intersperses his review with italicized,  existential questions between asterisks (sample:  “What does ‘faith’ mean?” “Is it possible really to love somebody?”), and the determinedly rambling and offhand style began to grate early on.  Wallace’s long, digressive footnotes are a precursor to Junot Diaz’s running, footnoted commentary on the history of the Dominican Republic in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but Diaz is compelling; Wallace just goes on a bit.

It gets better: Wallace picks up considerable steam – both on Fyodor Dostoevsky (a.k.a. FMD) and Joe Frank.  It’s well worth the wait.  Here’s a long excerpt:

“The thing about Dostoevsky’s characters is that they live.  And by this I don’t mean just that they’re successfully realized and believable and ’round.’ The best of them live inside us, forever, once we’ve met them. …

wallace

Are we “under a nihilistic spell”?

FMD’s concern was always what it is to be a human being – i.e., how a person, in the particular social and philosophical circumstances of 19th-century Russia, could be a real human being, a person whose life was informed by love and values and principles, instead of being just a very shrewd species of self-preserving animal. …

So, for me anyway, what makes Dostoevsky invaluable is that he possessed a passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we, here, today, cannot or do not allow ourselves. And on finishing Frank’s books, I think any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes so many of the novelists of our own time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so impoverished in comparison to Gogol, Dostoevsky, even lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev. To inquire of ourselves why we – under our own nihilistic spell – seem to require of our writers an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of profound issues or else try somehow to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or juxtaposition, sticking them inside asterisks as part of some surreal, defamiliarization-of-the-reading-experience flourish.

frank_book_newsPart of the answer to questions about our own art’s thematic poverty obviously involves our own era’s postindustrial condition and postmodern culture.  The Modernists, among other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of metaphysics, and ‘Great Novels’ since Joyce tend to be judged largely on their formal ingenuity; we presume as a matter of course that serious literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life.  Add to this the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism, and it’s fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free from certain cultural expectations that constrain our own novelists’ freedom to be ‘serious.’

But it’s just as fair to observe that Dostoevsky operated under some serious cultural constraints of his own: a repressive government, state censorship, and above all the popularity of post-Enlightenment European thought, much of which went directly against beliefs he held dear and wanted to write about.  The thing is that Dostoevsky wasn’t just a genius – he was, finally, brave.  … who is to blame for the philosophical passionlessness of our own Dostoevskys? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t – could not – laugh if a piece of passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction was also ingenious and radiantly transcendent fiction.  But how to do that – how even, for a writer, even a very talented writer, to get up the guts to even try?  There are no formulae or guarantees. But there are models. Frank’s books present a hologram of one of them.”

Au revoir, Joe Frank: NYT remembers a terrific man, terrific scholar

Monday, March 4th, 2013
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Prof. Joseph Frank and his wife Marguerite (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The New York Times obituary for Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank is up today.  I don’t know why they chose to compare his work with three other books in the first paragraph, but other than that, it’s a good read.

It traces the story of Joe’s beginnings in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, his debilitating childhood stammer, the death of his father while a boy, and the acquisition of a stepfather who bestowed the name “Frank” (he was born “Glassman”).  He was rejected by the military (that stammer again), lost both mother and stepfather within the same year, and did poorly in high school.  He bypassed a bachelor’s degree, and went to Paris on a Fulbright scholarship in 1950.  (He got a PhD from the University of Chicago a decade later.)

According to the New York Times, “Mr. Frank was an emerging critic in the early 1950s and preparing a lecture on existentialist themes in modern literature when, to provide historical background, he began studying and analyzing Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky’s anguished cri de coeur in the voice of an embittered ex-civil servant, a novel that had influenced Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. The close encounter with the text changed his life, pivoting his interest to the intellectual culture of 19th-century Russia and consuming him to the degree that he undertook to learn Russian.”

His Dostoevsky biography, after Volume One:

“Not only a great book about the early life of a great writer,” Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “but probably the best book any American writer has yet given us on the literary culture of 19th-century Russia.”

Magnifique!

His Dostoevsky biography, after Volume Two:

“Everything about this ambitious enterprise is splendid — its intellectual seriousness, its command of the Russian setting and sources, its modesty of tone, its warm feeling,” Irving Howe wrote in The Times Book Review. “Mr. Frank is clearly on the way toward composing one of the great literary biographies of the age.”

His Dostoevsky biography, in toto:

“It’s now regarded as the best biography of Dostoevsky in any language, including Russian, which is really saying something,” Gary Saul Morson, a Dostoevsky scholar and professor of Slavic languages and literature at Northwestern University, said in a telephone interview, referring to the five-volume work. “That’s more or less universal. And this is my opinion, I don’t know if others will agree, but it’s the best biography of any writer I’ve ever read.”

Enfin,

“But he would always follow the evidence where it took him,” Robin Feuer Miller, a 19th-century Russian literature specialist at Brandeis, said in a telephone interview Friday. She added that his influence was immense. “Every time he would write something,” she said, “what a change in the reading of a novel it would engender!”

Read the rest hereA terrific man, a terrific scholar.

Postscript on 3/6:  Washington Post obituary here.  ”I cannot remember a time when I was not writing,” he once said.


The measure of the man: Remembering Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky scholar extraordinaire

Saturday, March 2nd, 2013
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Joseph and Marguerite Frank (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The appearance of a crow is said to announce a death – a superstition passed down as a truism from the Hungarian side of my family.  In California, however, there are so many of them  that it’s hard to take these pitch-black prognostications seriously.  I suspect the crows outnumber us.

However one, almost as big as a raven, didn’t want to be overlooked on my trek to campus on Thursday morning.  It barked at me repeatedly, insistently, as I biked past, a few feet away from it on Stanford Avenue.  The memory lingered for hours into the blossoming spring day.

Later, I learned that we had lost one of the most wonderful people at Stanford – a place not short of wonderful people – the night before. Joseph Frank, one of the preeminent Dostoevsky scholar in the world, who has mentored generations of students, died “painlessly and peacefully,” according to his wife Marguerite Straus Frank.   He would have been 95 this year.

I’ve written about him at the Book Haven here and here and here and here.  Our acquaintance began way back in 2009, when I wrote about him after the publication of the capstone volume in his series of six thick volumes on Dostoevsky. An excerpt:

‘Joseph Frank’s own rendezvous with the convict from Omsk began around 1950 in France, when he was one of the very early Fulbright Scholars. His influential essay, “Spatial Form in Modern Literature,” had already put him on the map as one of the most influential critics in the postwar era. Frank, who began his career as a Washington, D.C., newspaperman in the 1940s, was writing “Paris Letters” for the Partisan Review. Then he discovered Dostoevsky, who was beginning to find his way into English translation.

Frank was so impressed he began to learn Russian – Marguerite recalls him walking around in the mid-1950s with a Russian grammar and lexicon. (They were married “a century ago” in 1953, she said.)

What intrigued Frank about the Russian author? “The problems he writes about are really eternal in Western civilization,” he said. “He makes the fundamental issues of belief and the religious problems exciting – and contemporary. He poses questions in such a way that, whether you agree or not, it makes you think about them. That’s why I was so much taken with him. He writes exciting novels, with detective techniques – and raises it to such a level! The mystery of it is the mystery of the meaning of life.”‘

After my interview with him,  I attended several of his classes, for he was still actively teaching into his 90s, and I tried to take advantage of any opportunity to hear the master-teacher at work.

My occasional visits to the Franks’ Stanford home, crowded with books and photos and posters, usually included a long conversation and an afternoon glass of wine, a nice transition into the evening.  More recently Joe had been ill, and I shared a glass with Marguerite alone.

I hadn’t seen him since November 3, a week or so before I left for Europe for a month, and regret my last visit was so long ago (I wrote about it here).  We walked over to a café outside Munger – he was frail and wheelchair-bound, wearing a black baseball cap that had “Crime and Punishment” embroidered in white Roman type across the front. He was still very involved in the spirited conversation I was having with Marguerite, who was mostly advising me on places to visit during my first excursion to the south of France – a place as familiar to these Paris-dwellers as California or Joe’s native New York City (he always retained a bit of the accent).

That afternoon is how I remember him now – happy for the crackling fine autumn day, happy to be in the California sunlight, happy for the wash of glorious gold, the buckets of red and yellow and orange leaves, happy for the general brilliance of the day.

This morning I noticed I had his most recent book next to me, by my bed, in a stack of books.  I opened Responses to Modernity: Essays in the Politics of Culture, and saw that I had missed the inscription he had written for me last year:

“For Cynthia Haven, with thanks for including my work in her wide range of interests.  Stanford, May 26, ’12.  Joseph Frank.”

That was a measure of the modesty of the man.

The mockingbirds are singing wildly outside my window.  It’s springtime.  Godspeed, Joe.

 

Postscript on 3/2:  The word is getting around.  Poet Gwyneth Lewis wrote a few minutes ago from Wales.  She met the Franks during her recent Stanford residency, and shared the campus pool with the couple. “I just got an e-mail from Marguerite Frank, telling me that Joseph died on the 27th of Feb. What a lovely man he was. I’m so sad that my swimming partner isn’t swimming laps still.”  Me, too, Gwyneth.

 

A novelist? “He knows no obligations of honor.”

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012
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Joseph and Marguerite Frank, chuckling in their apartment. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Another sunny autumn day in Palo Alto.  And yes, California’s reputation for non-seasons notwithstanding, there were buckets of crisp red and orange and yellow leaves everywhere.

I spent the late afternoon chatting at a Stanford cafe with Marguerite and Joe Frank, the preeminent Dostoevsky scholar of our era, and the author of a big, thick, multi-volume biography.

Joe was in a wheelchair, wearing a black baseball cap that had “Crime and Punishment” embroidered in white Roman type across the front – a souvenir from a film crew. The longtime Paris denizen told me the cap was a good way to ferret out the Americans in France; they react to the title. Meanwhile, Marguerite advised me where to find Romanesque architecture in southern France next month.

Conversation inevitably turned Slavic.  Joe recalled Czesław Miłosz‘s visit to campus, some years ago.  The Polish poet thought highly of the Dostoevsky scholar – and said so in his address.  Miłosz taught Dostoevsky at Berkeley for years, but why is a little of a mystery.  Robert Hass told me a decade ago:  “Some of us asked him if he’d read Flannery O’Connor, and he said no. Had he read so-and-so? ‘No.’ And finally he said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with the novel.’ That’s a different way of thinking.”

It wasn’t the only different way of thinking on the subject of Dostoevsky.  I was reminded me of something I found this morning, while doing some reading for my upcoming talk on Miłosz at the British Academy.  From the Paris Review interview with the poet and Robert Faggen:

 

Without honor?

INTERVIEWER

Since then you have been uninterested in writing novels. You seem to have a quarrel with the genre. Why?

MILOSZ

It’s an impure form. I taught Dostoyevsky at Berkeley for twenty years. A born novelist, he would sacrifice everything; he knows no obligations of honor. He would put anything in a novel. Dostoyevsky created a character in The Idiot, General Ivolgin, who is a liar and tells stories—how he lost his leg in a war, how he buried his leg, and then what he inscribed on the tombstone. The inscription is taken from the tomb of Dostoyevsky’s mother. There you have a true novelist. I couldn’t do that.

Happy Halloween – here’s the best pumpkin evah.

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012
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Happy Halloween, everybody!

Enjoy the day with the best pumpkin of the year – perhaps the best pumpkin evah.  This beauty was commissioned for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and carved by Marc Evan and Chris Soria.  I wonder how long it took to make.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of the day, you might want to revisit Dana Gioia’s ghost story, or more recently the Jeff Sypeck’s take on the spooks from the rooftops of Washington’s National Cathedral.  Or how about George Orwell on love, sex, religion, and ghosts. Or… or… or… Dostoevsky, Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, and Paul West on evil — just in time for Halloween.

Enjoy the day, and take it easy on the candy.  Read a book instead.

Postscript:  From high art to pop art in a few quick hours.  Here’s another pumpkin to celebrate the day.  Sculptor Andy Bergholtz created the jack-o-lantern Joker in one manic 8-hour stretch:

“Surprisingly, Bergholtz has only been carving pumpkins for a year. He said that another sculptor he knows, Ray Villafane, had been encouraging him for years to sculpt squash, but he resisted.  Then last year Villafane recruited him to help carve pumpkins for Heidi Klum’s Vegas Halloween party. Bergholtz said, ‘I instantly fell in love with the art form and haven’t looked back since.’”

Want to know how the artist did it?  See video below.

“His sobering effect”: Czesław Miłosz’s “Notes on Joseph Brodsky”

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012
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Last weekend I was chatting with Joseph Brodsky‘s first translator, George Kline.  The Bryn Mawr professor befriended the young Russian poet in St. Petersburg, and went on to be the translator of the Harper & Row 1973 Selected Poems, with a foreword by W.H. Auden.  It was later reissued as a Penguin paperback – I carried that dog-eared volume with me from 1976, when I bought it in an Ann Arbor bookstore, until it was lost it in a foreign city … somewhere in Vilnius, as I recall, sometime in the late 1990s.

George thanked me for sending him Czesław Miłosz‘s “Notes on Brodsky.” I couldn’t recall having done so, but looked up a copy for myself in Stanford’s Green Library, in a 1996 Partisan Review, to make sure I hadn’t.

The piece is well worth excerpting.  “The presence of Brodsky for many among his poet-colleagues was a mainstay and as if a point of reference,” the Polish poet wrote.  Later, “whatever survived from the past has been due to the principle of hierarchical distinction.”

“Here was a man who by his oeuvre and by his life reminded us, against what today is so often proclaimed and written, that hierarchy exists.  That hierarchy cannot be contrived by syllogisms and established in a discourse.  Rather, by living and writing, we affirm it every day anew. It has something to do with the elementary division into beauty and ugliness, truth and falsity, goodness and cruelty, liberty and tyranny. But, first of all, hierarchy means respect for that which is elevated and unconcern, rather than scorn, for that which is base. …

“To go straight to the goal, not letting oneself be swayed by any voices calling for one’s attention. That is, knowing how to recognize what is important and clinging only to it. That was precisely the the strong side of the great Russian writers of the past.

“Brodsky’s life and writing tended toward accomplishment, as an arrow tends towards the aim. Yet, evidently, that was an illusion, just as in the case of Pushkin or Dostoevsky. We must therefore formulate it differently – that fate tends straight to the aim, while the one who is ruled by fate knows how to read its main lines and to comprehend, be it dimly, that to which one is called.”

His words brought back what the Miłosz had said to me on the same subject, about “maintaining one’s own vision, one’s own taste, let us say, against the current fashion of the day.”

Esse.

From my Georgia Review interview a dozen years ago: “I have lived a long time in the West and tried to remain faithful to a line of Polish poetry. The same applies to Brodsky and Russia. The history of poetry is the history of language. That’s why Joseph Brodsky wrote that we write to please our predecessors, not our contemporaries.”  I’ve quoted this part before, about Milosz’s crucial division between esse and devenir:

“There was at a given moment a stable world where we could see, hold on to values that were a reflection of the eternal order of things. Now we are in a flux. This is a very peculiar way of life. … When everything is in flux, revision, it is healthy to have some poets who preserve the feeling of respect.  In a way, Brodsky was a conservative voice in that sense – he had a lot of sense.”

“For me, the value of Brodsky was his sobering effect, and his enormous feeling of hierarchy. He had a great feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature.”

Nihilism, rebellion, and the perfect casting for The Brothers Karamazov

Monday, August 27th, 2012
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Malkovich ... the perfect Ivan Karamazov?

I’m not familiar with the writings of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, but my friend Artur Rosman posted this on his Facebook page, and I’ve been pondering it now for several days.

Remember the ”Grand Inquisitor” segment of Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov?  Long story.  Jesus Christ comes to Seville at the time of the Inquisition and is arrested after performing several miracles.  But just before he does, Ivan Karamazov makes a speech to his brother Alyosha on the intolerable suffering of children:

“And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price. … I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. … And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.”

Always seemed a bit of a put-up job to me.  Berdyaev finally explained why:

Law ... the perfect Alyosha?

“Ivan Karamazov is a thinker, a metaphysician and psychologist, and he provides a deep philosophic grounding to the troubled experiences of an innumerable number of Russian boys – the Russian nihilists and atheists, socialists and anarchists. At the core of the question of Ivan Karamazov lies a sort of false Russian sensitivity and sentimentality, a false sort of sympathy for mankind, leading to a hatred towards God and the Divine purpose of worldly life. Russians all too readily become nihilistic rebels out of a false moralism. The Russian takes God to task over history because of the tears of the child, returns back the ticket, denies all values and sanctities, he will not tolerate the sufferings, wants not the sacrifices. Yet he however does nothing really, in order to lessen the tears, he adds to the quantity of flowing tears, he makes a revolution, which is all grounded upon uncountable tears and sufferings.”

If you don’t have time for the 800-page book, you might try one of the films based on the book.  Like this one, with John Malkovich as Ivan Karamazov, and Jude Law as his brother Alyosha, and Sean Penn as Dmitri Karamazov, and Gerard Depardieu as their murdered father Fyodor Karamazov … whoops!  Movie was never made. I looked for it in vain.  Apparently, the Bernardo Bertolucci film is someone’s pipe dream of ideal casting.

While looking for a film clip telling me about this all-star film, I found this intriguing Russian miniseries by Pervyi Kanal seems to capture the spirit of the thing.

Ouch! A scientist’s sharp letter about the Albany massacre

Friday, November 19th, 2010
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Science nerd on the attack

Dan Edelstein brought this letter to my attention — a rather scalding letter to George Philip,  the president of the SUNY Albany, who recently announced that the university was cutting its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts departments.

The author, Gregory Petsko, a professor of biochemistry and chemistry at Brandeis, started out as a classics major.  Yet he writes, “Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.”

An excerpt:

“I’m sure that relatively few students take classes in these subjects nowadays, just as you say. There wouldn’t have been many in my day, either, if universities hadn’t required students to take a distribution of courses in many different parts of the academy … You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it’s because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs – something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.

University prez on the defense

“Young people haven’t, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it’s hard for most people. That idea is thrashed out better than anywhere else, I think, in Dostoyevsky‘s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is told in Chapter Five of his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs several miracles but is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in his cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining why. The Inquisitor says that Jesus rejected the three temptations of Satan in the desert in favor of freedom, but he believes that Jesus has misjudged human nature. The Inquisitor says that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle freedom. In giving humans the freedom to choose, Christ has doomed humanity to a life of suffering.

“That single chapter in a much longer book is one of the great works of modern literature. You would find a lot in it to think about. I’m sure your Russian faculty would love to talk with you about it – if only you had a Russian department, which now, of course, you don’t.

Bye bye, Fyodor

“Then there’s the question of whether the state legislature’s inaction gave you no other choice. I’m sure the budgetary problems you have to deal with are serious. They certainly are at Brandeis University, where I work. And we, too, faced critical strategic decisions because our income was no longer enough to meet our expenses. But we eschewed your draconian – and authoritarian – solution, and a team of faculty, with input from all parts of the university, came up with a plan to do more with fewer resources. I’m not saying that all the specifics of our solution would fit your institution, but the process sure would have. You did call a town meeting, but it was to discuss your plan, not let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend. In your defense, you called the timing ‘unfortunate’, but pleaded that there was a ‘limited availability of appropriate large venue options.’ I find that rather surprising. If the President of Brandeis needed a lecture hall on short notice, he would get one. I guess you don’t have much clout at your university.

Ciao

“It seems to me that the way you went about it couldn’t have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.

“The Inferno is the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There’s so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders – if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.  …” read more here.