So, while waiting for my luggage, and deepening my relationships with the baggage resolution personnel at United Airlines, I finally did spend a few minutes this afternoon wandering around my neighborhood, with my cellphone handy in case I had to rush back home for a joyful reunion with my suitcase. Alas, the phone call never came… (we’re getting close to three days now). Clearly, this arrondissement is big on the 17th century – so am I, so it’s a nice match.
Colette lived and died here.
Daniel Medin was right in telling me that this is a literary neighborhood – but really, aren’t all Paris neighborhoods literary ones? Certainly my previous digs near the Eiffel Tower had its share of literary associations. Since I could not meet Daniel at the Louvre today as we had hoped, this increasingly grubby woman could explore the sites that Colette, Diderot, Molière, Corneille, and even Peruvian writer César Vallejo (1892-1938) called home – or at least a place to die.
A few blocks away, French tragedian Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) is entombed at the magnificent Eglise St. Roch. Nearby, the Comédie-Française, which reaches back to the days of Molière (1622-1673). Good company for an afternoon walk.
The brouhaha with the airlines reminds me of the famous saying of Colette (1873-1954), “Plus je connais les hommes, plus j’aime mes chats.” Mes chats are far away, but I’ll settle for the company of a few ghosts, these eminent and familiar spirits.
This one, however, disquiets me. A marker for Ludovic J. Jacquinot, one of the “group of angels” who “fell gloriously” on the 26th of August, 1944. The name, which has slightly Slavic resonances for me, reminds me of the ones I saw in Poland, trying in my off-hours to find out what I could about these wartime victims and heroes. Unlike his Polish counterparts, however, there were no flowers at Ludovic’s marker.
There’s not much about him online. The FFI, or “Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur,” were the French Resistance fighters at the tail-end of the war. He may have been an architect, and may have lived on this or that street. He was forty years old, and of course did not fall but was “tué,” under what circumstances it isn’t clear, except that it occurred here, at 2 rue des Pyramides. Who remembers him? I will, I guess.
Postscript: Voilà! My luggage has arrived while I have been writing this. What a glorious thing it is to be clean again.
One of the pleasantest people I have ever met is Richard Wilbur, former U.S. poet laureate and two-time Pulitzer winner – a true gentleman, a great poet. So my bad that I almost overlooked his 91st birthday today. (I wrote about his 90th celebration a year ago here.)
Fortunately, Web of Stories kindly sent me a reminder that they have loads of video clips of the poet.
Here’s one where he describes his time at Amherst and meeting the love of his life, his wife Charlotte, who died in 2007. “I was terribly lucky she decided I would do,” he says with characteristic charm and humility:
Here’s another on his acquaintance with Russian poets, including Andrei and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Listen, in particular, to the tact and considerable diplomacy when, toward the end of the clip, he describes his interactions as he translated the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, who was notoriously tough on his translators:
Dick Wilbur was a brilliant translator of Molière – not shying away from the daunting challenge of the playwright’s rhymed couplets. Here he’s talking about his collaboration with Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman on the musical Candide. Said Hellman: “If he did alright with one witty Frenchman, he might be alright with Voltaire.”
I don’t know when this interview occurred, but his reference to his wife as still living tells us that it was at least four years ago.
Part Deux below, with two readings of two of his greatest poems.
Josh Landy’s practical application of Girard’s “mimetic theory”
2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of René Girard‘s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel – and if you don’t think that’s a big deal, try looking at the website here for scheduled celebrations at Stanford, Berlin, São Paulo, Cambridge, and Yale. Berkeley symposium is described here.
I can’t say I sampled many of the events, but I did drop by for a few of the Stanford talks, notably Robert Harrison‘s opening and closing remarks, and Josh Landy‘s anti-Girard talk, “Valentine’s Day,” especially since Josh said he had written his remarks with me in mind (we had quarreled somewhat over at Arcade months ago, which is how we met).
Robert noted that René is a leading Christian thinker – “to what degree is that a stumblingblock?” he asked. He said “René is one of the titans of the 20th century – of whom there are few.”
Yet “Girard’s standing is in doubt,” he said. “Precisely the Christian framework within which people understand Deceit, Desire, and the Novel can turn people off.”
The conference, to circumvent the perceived problem, limited its scope to the 50-year-old book they were celebrating, considering René’s mimetic theory and “the invidious nature of human desire,” but banishing his theories about the scapegoat mechanisms and civilizations from the event. Robert wanted to explore “to what extent one doesn’t have to buy into the whole theory,” since modern people don’t want “to submit to a totalizing theory.”
“Girard does not believe the truth of literature is confined to the text,” said Robert. “He believes that the truth has to be wrestled from concealment.”
Hence, he is “pressing to uncover the structure of certain psychological laws … the primary site of revelation.” He is trying to learn “the truth that applies to human religions in general.”
Noting that “very, very few anthropologists give any credence” to René’s thoughts on the anthropology of religion” because “he comes to anthropology as an amateur” (René called it “poaching” when he spoke to me), Robert compared him to Heinrich Schliemann, the German businessman who was right about Troy, but whose successful amateur attempts to excavate destroyed important archaeological layers of the real Troy.
“Even if it’s true, they will not take him seriously.”
I did, also, attend a few of the events in Berkeley. The two gatherings – one at Berkeley; one at Stanford – were like night and day. The Berkeley gathering focused on the theological aspects of René’s work, as well as the literary, with presentations on Girardian connections with Simone Weil, Molière, Rousseau, and others. The Berkeley crowd was older, and predominantly male; the Stanford crowd was younger, trendier, with more women. But there was an more profound split in orientation, which has interesting presentiments for the thinker’s legacy.
At Berkeley, I scribbled a few of René’s sayings in my notebook, as they were related by others. “Philosophers never include themselves in their philosophy.” “Laughter means a denial of reciprocity.” “Escaping from mimesis is something only geniuses and saints can do.” “I am really a positivist, but I’m too ashamed to admit that – it is such a peasant thing to be.” “All art is incarnation.”
Robert Hamerton Kelly, at Berkeley, trumped all with his quote, when René said of his work, “I really shouldn’t have called it a theory – but every French intellectual has to have a theory. It’s just a few observations of human behavior.”
Happy birthday, Richard Wilbur, on your 90th! Dan Rifenburgh reminded me of the poet’s birthday on Facebook a few days ago, but he didn’t know whether he’d be spending in Cummington, Massachusetts, or Key West. Either way, he will probably not be celebrating in NYC: I remember a characteristic passage in one his books where he described a brisk walk near his home with a guest: “But my friend from New York, an excellent abstract artist, walks through our Berkshire woods smoking Gauloises and talking of Berlin. It is too bad that he cannot be where he is, enjoying the glades and closures, the climbs, the descents, the flat stretches strewn with Canada Mayflower and wintergreen…”
Richard Wilbur turns 90 on Tuesday, but it’s unlikely that many Americans will stop to pay tribute to our finest living poet. Despite having earned almost every literary award this country has to offer, including a pair of Pulitzers and Bollingens, as well as the title of U.S. Poet Laureate in 1987-88, he has never enjoyed a rapt general following.
I had dinner with Dick Wilbur and his wife Charlotte oh, maybe a decade ago in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was as genial as his reputation had suggested, and his obvious, abiding affection for his high school sweetheart, an effervescent and gregarious matron, was charming. I never made it out for the Key West interview I had envisioned … perhaps there’s still time.
The poet-critic Randall Jarrell said Wilbur “obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing,” but his poems, since Charlotte’s death in 2007, have become increasingly death-haunted.
It’s unusual for poets to be productive so long — conventional wisdom is that they do their best work young, and “dry up” as Thom Gunn told me — but Anterooms: New Poems and Translations, is a marvel. One poem, “A Measuring Worm,” describes a caterpillar climbing a window screen, hunching his back as he goes:
It’s as if he sent
By a sort of semaphore
Dark omegas meant
To warn of Last Things.
Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,
And I too don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.
Woodward notes, “His productivity, never high to begin with, has slowed with age. He finishes poems at the rate that Antonio Stradivari constructed a violin. ‘I often don’t write more than a couple of lines in a day of, let’s say, six hours of staring at the sheet of paper,’ he told the Paris Review in 1977. “Composition for me is, externally at least, scarcely distinguishable from catatonia.”
David Orr in the New York Times writes of Anterooms that “it would be tempting to say that what we have here is a scanty manuscript that will nonetheless be extravagantly praised because its author is still deeply respected and, hey, isn’t it wonderful that he’s still making a go of it at his age? Tempting, but wrong. The better work in Anterooms, however limited in quantity, is as good as anything Wilbur has ever written, and upholds certain virtues other poets would do well to acknowledge, even if they travel roads different from the relatively straight one Wilbur has followed.” He concludes:
“More than 50 years ago, Randall Jarrell claimed that as a poet, Wilbur ‘never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.’ The observation is invariably quoted whenever Wilbur gets reviewed (far be it from me to break the chain). But to write convincingly about death — and also, as Wilbur has increasingly done, about grief — isn’t a matter of ‘going’ anywhere. It’s a matter of remaining poised in the face of a vast and freezing indifference. And while the strong, spare poems here are unlikely to strike many readers as the illustrious pronouncements of a Grand Old Man — the kind of figure Jarrell had in mind — they are wholly successful in meeting the darkest of subjects with their own quiet light. Which is, surely, a far grander thing.”
Anterooms includes some of two translations of poems by Joseph Brodsky (I still think his translations of J.B. are the best) one poem by Stéphane Mallarmé and an unpublished poem by Paul Verlaine. Wilbur has always had a affinity for French (his verse translations of Molière are unmatched) — and so was the perfect lyricist for Leonard Bernstein‘s Candide, in the spirit of Voltaire. Composer Stephen Sondheim called Wilbur’s lyrics “the most scintillating set of songs yet written for the musical theater.” I still occasionally find myself, on a sunny day, humming —
What a day! What a day!
For an auto-da-fé!
See the Lincoln Center’s 1986 version below (or for a real treat, check out Kristin Chenoweth in Candideon youtube).
Postscript: Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence celebrates the birthday here.