Posts Tagged ‘Michael Krasny’

Heirs of history – or its orphans? Michael Krasny in conversation with Robert Harrison

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

Robert Harrison on radio (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Neoteny. It’s a word that combines two Greek roots: neos, meaning new or young; teinein, meaning to stretch or retain. In evolutionary biology, it’s “a general slowing of the rate of development that makes it possible to retain juvenile features in later stages of the life cycle,” writes Robert Pogue Harrison in his new book Juvenescence (we’ve written about it here and  here and here). “We don’t know if society can survive on genius alone without wisdom,” said Robert during a recent radio interview. “We may be on cusp.”

He spoke with Michael Krasny on KQED’s “Forum” (listen to it here), arguing that as the world gets older and the millennia stack up, we nevertheless have become younger than all previous generations – a very difficult paradox, he says.

Like Robert, I have pondered neoteny in our culture. We live longer and longer, on average – but have we had any net gains for human wisdom? Lately I’ve wondered if the added years are simply chunked onto a prolonged adolescence and youth. Education continues into one’s twenties and beyond. People wait till their forties and even fifties to have children. Old age has become a prolonged period of taxidermy.


KQED interlocutor

Still, we’re under the illusion that more time means better life, a greater fulfillment of potential. Does it? Mozart didn’t require middle age to finish his work (well, not much of it – he died at 45), John Keats completed his oeuvre at 25 – both relied on the youthful fire of genius. But what of the balancing wisdom of age? As Silicon Valley strives to extend our lifetimes to the brink of immortality (no doubt only prime specimens will be selected for the honor) – what kind of society will it yield, when the gravitas that traditionally comes with maturity is eschewed in favor of a fevered quest for the trappings of youth?

“I don’t deny that Silicon Valley high tech is every day changing our way of being in the world,” Robert said in the interview. But both he and Krasny  pointed out that the most highly touted “revolutionary” changes wrought by Silicon Valley are often producing … well … sophisticated toys and doodads.  A new app for local restaurants, for example. The trade-off should cause reflection, Robert said, for we’re increasingly passing our “reality” through the screen of a smartphone. Social media? I’m on Twitter, too, but I realize that it’s driven by a world of children – for teenagers with time on their hands, tweeting their grumbles about school lunches. We can never keep up. In the face of dizzying change, “we need a certain amount of inter-generational stability,” Robert said. Good luck with that. In a world of toys, who wants to be a grown-up? What’s the payoff?

Hey baby, it's you.

Hey baby, it’s you.

I recall  of comedy in the early 60s, the era of the beach party movies and others of that ilk, where you have fun, fun, fun till your daddy took the t-bird away. A staple comedic figure in these films would be a guy who had a title like “Dean of Students,” balding and a little stout and stuffy. He’d burst into the students’ dorm rooms where the girls in bikinis were partying with the boys. Arms akimbo, he’d open his mouth to raise his voice in outrage – and bam! – a bucket of slops prepared for a nerdy student would empty on his head instead. Laughter for all.

As I grew up, I realized what an essential figure the Dean of Students is – and not just for comedy. Somebody had to be the authority figure to say no. Somebody had to be willing to make themselves the figure of fun and face the ridicule of reckless youth, that hasn’t yet learned of the big pricetag attached to early decisions. It’s a thankless role – but part of a grown-up is not waiting for thanks or some sort of payoff to do what needs to be done. Maybe that’s words like “duty” have passed out of our rituals of praise – duty is a drag.

My father used to say that kids don’t need a dad to smoke marijuana with – they’ll find those buddies on their own. (Actually, his example was “to learn to skate,” not marijuana, but still…) Kids need parents to make sure they do their homework, are kind to animals, and can eat without revolting other people. They need grandparents for the lessons of time. Instead, our media regularly shows us a series of elderly women (cough, cough, Helen Mirren, Madonna) in bikinis, to prove to us they can still “get away with it” – and regularly features the masks of famous Hollywood zombies who have had so much surgery that they are now unrecognizable. In that sense, every Oscar ceremony is a “Night of the Living Dead.” This is what maturity offers us – the opportunity to compete with youth.

Who wants to be an adult? Growing up outside Detroit, the new Mrs. Henry Ford II, the Italian socialite Christina Ford regularly filled the local newspaper pages – her husband, in fact, rather resembled the Dean of Students in those beach party movies. I remember my mother reading one article where the forty-something Mrs. Ford lamented the disappearance of the Italian mamas of her youth, the thick-waisted, enveloping women in shapeless black dresses, who always had something wonderful about to pop out of the oven. My mother hooted with derisive laughter. “She’s supposed to be one of those women!” And well, you can see from the Life cover above.

juvenescenceWhich is not an argument in favor of wearing shapeless black rags. The emphasis on wishing to be mothered, rather than wishing to mother – the wish to be loved, rather than exposing oneself to the great suffering that loving often entails – makes me wonder. What became of maturity, and eventually the graceful surrender to time? There’s a great freedom in not needing to be cool. The evening by the fireside with conversation and port instead of the evening with the trophy bride and papparazzi. (Cough, cough, Salman Rushdie – we wrote about that here.) In our public and political life, many keep calling for a Churchill – but would we want one if we could find one, and would we recognize one if we saw one?

So does that mean that we are all in the throes of adolescence, that we are all young? Not really, says Robert. “We’re a youth-worshiping society,” and yet “our society is waging pitiless war against the condition of youth, which requires idleness, shelter, freedom to fail, full-bodied relationship to nature.” It also requires “the freedom to pursue idiosyncratic call of the self, which requires disconnection from the noise of collective. It bears fruit later in human relations. We have made it more difficult to be truly young.”

Robert recalled leafing through his father’s school yearbook – the teenagers were “fully grown adults – youngish, but fully grown adults. I hardly see that in my undergraduates today.” Similarly, the faces of boys in developing countries who look like “weathered, fully formed adults. Dignfiied, majestic, senile traits – in the First World, we hardly ever acquire them.” Senile, that is, in the classic OED sense – “characteristic or caused by old age” opposed to puerile, “like a boy.”  Our older people crave youth, and our youth are born into a vacuum. Are we the heirs of history – or its orphans?

A passage from his book:

“…neoteny resists the tyranny of legacy. To delay the rate of development entails not only a reluctance to grow up but a reluctance to reproduce a fixed and senile form that links us to ancestry by the laws of repetition and identity. In that regard neoteny gives humans a greater species freedom, both from the genetic dictates of the past and for new, as yet unrealized, possibilities. By holding on to the plasticity of youth for much longer periods, and in some cases throughout our entire lives, we have expanded our evolutionary options considerably, becoming over time a lighter, freer, more agile, and adventuresome species. In short, a more intelligent and youthful species. Or better, a more intelligent – because more youthful – species.

“The Ode on Man in Antigone offers us a glimpse into the more terrifying side of this youthful openness to wonder, discovery, and knowledge of the world. The determination to boldly go where no one has gone before takes us to the moon and into the arcana of chromosomes; it gives us the microchip and the atom bomb. Yet for all the novelties it has brought into the world since Sophocles composed the ode, there is one part of the ongoing human story that doesn’t change. Even if our youthful intelligence one day succeeds in rendering death optional rather than necessary, what the chorus says about anthropos will remain true: ‘everywhere journeying, inexperienced and without issue, he comes to nothingness.’ Thus, if our genius derives from our reluctance to grow up, our wisdom derives from our heightened awareness of death … it is when the two work together – and not one against one another – that human culture flourishes.”

Listen to the Robert Harrison interview on Michael Krasny’s “Forum” here.


Richard III, Roland Greene, and the lineaments of kingship

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

KQED host

The world will be talking about Richard III for awhile – and so was Michael Krasny yesterday on his radio program “Forum.”  You can hear the whole thing on San Francisco’s KQED here.

He was joined by Stanford’s Roland Greene, a professor of English and comparative literature and Rosemary Joyce, an anthropologist from UC-Berkeley.

Joyce pointed out the sheer improbability of it all:  the tiny plot of land being explored had a small probability of being the vanished Greyfriars priory – the fact that the researchers found the Franciscan monastery, which had been destroyed by Henry VIII, alone would have been a significant achievement.  When the University of Leicester set out its goals, “the least likely was being able to recover and identify the remains of Richard III,” she said.  “With ground-penetrating radar, they were able to find the images that suggested where the walls were.”  Then the grand slam: the scientists found the remains of Richard III “on the first day, the first hour.”

The English prof

A few snippets from the conversation with Roland:

MK:  What can we learn now that we have his skeleton intact?

RG: I think it’s a commemoration and an affective event more than a historical event.  In the sense, commemorative, because it takes us back to that moment in 1485 that’s really the end of Middle Ages in England beginning of Renaissance.  Affective because feel for that mortal body that’s under a parking lot.

MK:  Mortal, but regal, too.  There’s a difference between those two bodies, isn’t there?

RG:  As you know, in the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance there was a doctrine of  the king’s two bodies – which conceptualizes the difference between physical body, which gets sick and gets old, and the regal body, the body politic, that is the body in which the kingship resides. Any time you see the mortal body of a king, whether dead or alive – and you could say the same about the present day Queen of England – one is always struck by the mortal aspect and the frailty of a physical body.  At some time, people always want to look for the  lineaments of kingship in such a body.  …

The anthropologist

MK:  There’s still a lot of facts we don’t know …  there were a lot of things he did – innocent until proven guilty, bail as we know it today, helping the poor, easing book publishing – he made some real contributions.”

RG:   He was a very complex figure for that time. The difficulty of sorting out his historical veracity from the legend is that it’s clouded by Thomas More and Shakespeare, who wrote very powerful propaganda that gets between us and the historical reality. He only reigned for a couple of years.

Bare ruinèd choirs … post-dissolution Glastonbury Abbey

What will we learn?  According to Joyce, the bones have “already begun to tell us things we didn’t know. He  ate so much marine fish that radiocarbon was affected.  His diet was high in meat and fish.  Also, the kind of scoliosis we now know he had would have started when he was about ten, and was progressive.”

That finding alone has somewhat demystified the Richard III legend already, said Roland.  “There’s something very prosaic in what amounts to scoliosis in real life.  It reminds you of the imaginative distance spun by More and Shakespeare.”  In an earlier era where disfiguring disease could be seen as a curse, however, “his physical suffering may have made people look askance at him in his lifetime.”

Michael Krasny, a survivor – just like me!

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

A few weeks ago, I finally met Michael Krasny, the genial presence behind KQED’s Forum – though we’d been Facebook friends for some time.  He was a kindly and  affable man – surprisingly humble and more friendly than I had anticipated.

From his 2007 memoir, Off Mike, I also learned that we have something in common:  In our greener years, we’d both interviewed Gore Vidal – and survived.  That’s not nothing.

I was a teenage Lois Lane for the Michigan Daily. It was usual for the editors at what was hailed as “the New York Times of student newspapers” to send us out last minute, without warning or preparation to interview grandees visiting Ann Arbor.

So I wound up being shoveled into a taxi with Vidal, knowing little more than that he was a famous author – indeed, his name was a household word at that time.  My memories of that event are captured somewhere in the bowels of microfilm records, but the memory is even less perishable.

Michael Krasny, on the other hand, was a young academic in 1976, and had done his homework thoroughly.  Here’s how he remembers the event:

“Heading into the interview, I was sure – both of us being literary types with left-wing politics – that we would become fast friends. I wanted to do a professional job and ask good, thoughtful, intelligent questions.  I read as much as I could on Vidal and reread early works of his like Myra Breckinridge and The City and the Pillar, as well as his newest novel at the time, Kalki.  More impressed by Vidal’s essays than his fiction, I still felt certain that the two of us would have much to talk about and would get on well.

When we met briefly before going to the television studio set to begin the interview, Vidal seemed world weary, as if afflicted with terminal weltschmerz, but more important, he smelled of liquor and his voice was thick with booze. …

Now the amazing thing about the interview was that once we were on the air, Vidal was “on” in a way that took me as much by surprise as his prior world-weariness, condescension and anti-Semitism.  The lights and cameras rolled, and he was a different man: he sounded sober and was all performer. I gave him a short but flattering introduction that I had memorized, mentioning that I was an English professor and that Vidal’s real name was Eugene Luther Gore Vidal. He quickly ripped into me for bringing up what he archly called “my Christian name,” adding that, unlike our born-again president, Jimmy Carter, he, Vidal, was a born-again atheist. …

Vidal was animated and electrified, palpably alive as he proceeded to skewer his favorite targets – The New York Times, Republicans, corporations, Reagan, Nixon, President Jimmy Carter.  Some of it was clever stuff, refined and caustic humor that I might have enjoyed were it not for the anti-Semitic cracks and the invective against English profs. …

As the interview moved into politics and I asked Vidal about his social concerns, another self emerged.  Vidal was suddenly benign, casting himself in the role of munificent socialist.  When the interview ended and the cameras were off, he once again became world-weary, cold and aloof, the man I had met before the interview, as sterile as I’d found his apocalyptic novel Kalki.”

Ah, I remember it well.  The weltschmerz, the condescension, the weight-of-the-world sighs, as he gazed outside the window of the taxi as we tooled through Ann Arbor to his speaking engagement (though he was thoroughly sober, to my knowledge).  I was, of course, thoroughly intimidated, in a way no prep would have alleviated, anyway.  Then, at the theater on campus, he spoke to a crowd of what appeared to be mostly well-heeled, well-dressed Republican women, and managed to offend them all in the course of 45 minutes.

Finally, during a question-and-answer period, with written questions submitted from the audience on tiny bits of paper, someone let him have it: he was conceited, overbearing, a snob with an ax to grind… well, you get the picture.  So did he.

“That’s right,” he admitted. “I only go out into the world to have all my biases and prejudices confirmed.”

“That’s what makes me different from all of you!”

It was a good line.  Even the Republican women laughed.