Posts Tagged ‘Paul Holdengraber’

And you thought your rejection letter was wiggy? Take a look at this!

Friday, September 7th, 2018
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This letter, to Gertrude Stein, comes to us via Paul Holdengräber, director of public programming at the New York Public Library (at right, he tips his hat back at us). I wonder if Arthur C. Fifield ever regretted it.

Claude Lanzmann and the “fiction of the real.”

Friday, July 6th, 2018
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In 2014 (Photo: ActuaLitté)

Claude Lanzmann died yesterday. He was 92. Obituaries usually slide towards eulogy, so I was interested when the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber drew my attention instead to a 2012 review of  Lanzmann’s The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir. Lanzmann, a French Jew, had joined the Résistance at 17. After the war, he had the distinction of being, for seven years, “the only man with whom Simone de Beauvoir lived a quasi-marital existence.” He was also a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre

He was, of course, best known for his 1985 film Shoah. According to reviewer Adam Shatz: “released in 1985 after more than a decade of labour, is a powerful nine and a half hour investigation, composed almost entirely of oral testimony. Neither a conventional documentary nor a fictional re-creation but, as Lanzmann called it, ‘a fiction of the real’, Shoah revealed the way the Holocaust reverberated, as trauma, in the present.”

From the review:

He was asked by the Israeli government to make not a film about the Shoah, “but a film that is the Shoah.” Lanzmann accepted the assignment.

Until the 1960s, Israel had shown little interest in the Holocaust. The survivors, their stories, the Yiddish many of them spoke – these were all seen as shameful reminders of Jewish weakness, of the life in exile that the Jewish state had at last brought to an end. But with the Eichmann trial, and particularly after the 1967 war, Israel discovered that the Holocaust could be a powerful weapon in its ideological arsenal. Lanzmann, however, had more serious artistic ambitions for his film than the Foreign Ministry, which, impatient with his slowness, withdrew funding after a few years, before a single reel was shot. Lanzmann turned to the new prime minister, Menachem Begin, who put him in touch with a former member of Mossad, a ‘secret man devoid of emotions’. He promised that Israel would sponsor the film so long as it ran no longer than two hours and was completed in 18 months. Lanzmann agreed to the conditions, knowing he could never meet them. He ended up shooting 350 hours of film in half a dozen countries; the editing alone took more than five years. Despite his loyalty to Israel, his loyalty to Shoah came first, and he was prepared to do almost anything to make it his way.

Shoah is an austere, anti-spectacular film, without archival footage, newsreels or a single corpse. Lanzmann ‘showed nothing at all’, Godard complained. That was because there was nothing to show: the Nazis had gone to great lengths to conceal the extermination; for all their scrupulous record-keeping, they left behind no photographs of death in the gas chambers of Birkenau or the gas trucks in Chelmno. They hid the evidence of the extermination even as it was taking place, weaving pine tree branches into the barbed wire of the camps as camouflage, using geese to drown out cries, and burning the bodies of those who’d been asphyxiated. As Filip Müller – a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, the Special Unit of Jews who disposed of the bodies – explains in Shoah, Jews were forced to refer to corpses as Figuren (‘puppets’) or Schmattes (‘rags’), and beaten if they didn’t. Other filmmakers had compensated for the absence of images by showing newsreels of Nazi rallies, or photographs of corpses piled up in liberated concentration camps. Lanzmann chose instead to base his film on the testimony of survivors, perpetrators and bystanders. Their words – often heard over slow, spectral tracking shots of trains and forests in the killing fields of Poland – provided a gruelling account of the ‘life’ of the death camps: the cold, the brutality of the guards, the panic that gripped people as they were herded into the gas chambers.

In The Patagonian Hare, Lanzmann describes the making of Shoah as a kind of hallucinatory voyage, and himself as a pioneer in the desolate ruins of the camps, ‘spellbound, in thrall to the truth being revealed to me … I was the first person to return to the scene of the crime, to those who had never spoken.’ …

Jan Karski makes an appearance in the review:

Karski tried to tell the West.

Defending his depiction of Poland, Lanzmann says that his ‘most ardent supporter’ was Jan Karski, a representative of the Polish government in exile who made two visits to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, and reported his findings both to Anthony Eden and to Roosevelt. Until Lanzmann approached him for an interview in 1977, he had not spoken in public of his wartime mission. His appearance in Shoah and in The Karski Report, an addendum released last year, is indeed shattering:

Lanzmann deserves enormous credit for conducting the interview. Karski praised Shoah as ‘the greatest film that has ever been made about the tragedy of the Jews’, but sharply criticised Lanzmann’s failure to interview [Wladislaw] Bartoszewski, [a member of a clandestine network that rescued Polish Jews during the war]. Karski did not say this to defend his people – in his report, he deplored the Poles’ ‘inflexible, often pitiless’ attitude towards their Jewish compatriots – but because he believed Bartoszewski’s absence left the impression that ‘the Jews were abandoned by all of humanity,’ rather than by ‘those who held political and spiritual power’. Karski’s Holocaust was an unprecedented chapter in the history of political cruelty; Lanzmann’s Shoah was an eschatological event in the history of the Jews: incomparable, inexplicable, surrounded by what he called a ‘sacred flame’. ‘The destiny and the history of the Jewish people,’ he said in an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, ‘cannot be compared to that of any other people.’ Even the hatred aimed at them was exceptional, he said, insisting that anti-semitism was of a different order from other forms of racism.

 

“Those who read books own the world.” Lost languages, an Algonquin Bible, the Herzogs, and more

Friday, March 30th, 2018
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A stroll down the corridors of Cambridge’s treasure house.

I visited the Old Library at Jesus College, Cambridge, last week. Prof. Stephen Heath gave an enlightening show-and-tell of the library’s incunabula to me and my fellow pilgrims, John Dugdale Bradley and Michael Gioia (Stanford alums, both). He brought out  an astonishing succession of treasures, including Thomas Cranmer‘s Bible, with its triple columns for comparing the original language (Greek, on the pages I saw) to the Vulgate Latin and English.

“What would you like to see last?” he asked me. What could I say? I had no idea what wonders might be in the back rooms. “Surprise me,” I said.

Marvels tucked away in a corner of Cambridge

And so he did. He brought out another Bible, this one from America. It was a 1663 Bible translated phonetically by John Eliot. The Natick dialect of Algonquin had no written form until he gave it one. He inscribed the particular presentation copy under my fingers for his alma mater at Cambridge, Jesus College. Was the Eliot name a coincidence? I remember a prominent New England family that spawned another famous Eliot, also with one “l”. On the other hand, I also knew that spellings of surnames were very fluid even into the 19th century.

When I got back to California, I checked on John Eliot, the Puritan missionary. He is indeed distantly related to T.S. Eliot, from the same Brahmin family in Massachusetts. Both descended from Andrew Eliot, whose family came to America via Yeovil and East Coker, Somerset.

But the Algonquin Bible haunted me for another reason: I recently attended a private screening in San Francisco of photographer’s Lena Herzog‘s Last Whispers, about the mass extinction of languages. I meant to tell her about the Algonquin Bible on my return, but now this blogpost will have to do. Perhaps the Algonquin language, which still has more than three thousand speakers, owes something to Eliot’s efforts.

The coincidences continued: this week, a new friend, Paul Holdengräber of the New York Public Library, sent me the link for his interview several years ago with Lena’s husband, the unconventional filmmaker Werner Herzog. The Q&A, “Was the Twentieth Century a Mistake?”, touches on the same subject – lost languages. (His comments are unrelated to Lena’s project, although their interests on the matter converge.) So here’s a hefty and relevant excerpt from the conversation between the two men:

WH: But, Paul, before we go into other things, I would linger a little on the twentieth century. And one of the things that is quite evident and looks like a good thing in the twentieth century is the ecologists’ movement. It makes a lot of sense, the fundamental analysis is right. The fundamental attitude they have taken is also right, but we miss something completely out of the twentieth century, which is—

Lena Herzog: a lover of language

PH: Culture.

WH: What went wrong in the culture, yes. That is, we see embarrassments like whale huggers, I mean, you can’t get worse than that, or tree huggers, even, such bizarre behaviour. And people are concerned about the panda bear, and they are concerned about the well-being of salad leaves, but they have completely overlooked that while we are sitting here probably the last speaker of a language may die in these two hours. There are six thousand languages still left, but by 2050, only 15 percent of these languages will survive.

PH: So we are paying attention to the wrong things.

WH: No, to pay attention to ecological questions is not the wrong thing, but to overlook the immense value of human culture is. More than twenty years ago I met an Australian man in Port Augusta in an old-age home and he was named “the mute.” He was the very last speaker of his language, had nobody with whom he could speak and hence fell mute, fell silent. He had no one left, and of course he has died since then. And his language has disappeared, has not been recorded. It’s as if the last Spaniard had died and Spanish literature and culture, everything has vanished. And it vanishes very, very fast. It vanishes much faster than anything we are witnessing in terms of, let’s say, mammals dying out. Yes, we should be concerned about the snow leopard, and we should be concerned about whales, but why is it that nobody talks about cultures and languages and last speakers dying away? There’s a massive, colossal, and cataclysmic mistake that is happening right now and nobody sees it and nobody talks about it. So that’s why I find it enraging that people hug whales. Who hugs the last speaker of an Inuit language in Alaska? So it just makes me angry when I look back at the twentieth century, and I’m afraid it continues like that. And we have got into a meaningless consumer culture, we have lost dignity, we have lost all proportion.

“Ah, people. It’s the books that matter!” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

PH: In terms of preserving culture, preserving language, we can think of this library, which has many millions of books underground, seven floors of books, and it goes under Bryant Park.

WH: Paradise.

PH: Paradise, as you called it, but when we were underground, you asked the librarian: “In the case of a holocaust, what would we do with the precious books?” And the librarian was rather anxious about that question. [laughter] No provisions had yet been made, and I don’t know if they’ve been made since your question. But I remember the librarian wondering how to answer it. And he said, “Well, in the case of a holocaust, maybe we will come here.” And you said, “Ah, people. It’s the books that matter!” Do you remember that?

WH: Yes, it sounds misleading in the context of the previous, but please continue. [laughter]

PH: Well, the books are the repository of our memories and our culture. So that these languages that are disappearing as we are talking now have a place where they’re archived, where they’re kept, even if the culture itself has become mute, it still can be studied.

WH: But most of the six thousand still-spoken languages are not recorded in written form. So then they disappear without a trace. That’s evident. But, yes, books, sure, we must preserve them and we must somehow be cautious and careful with them, because they carry our culture—and, of course, those who read books own the world, those who watch television lose it. So be careful and be cautious with the books.

Tom Eliot has formidable forebears.

PH: And what you do with your time.

WH: Yes, but we do have disagreements of what are the most precious ones that we would keep. Of course, you would go for James Joyce immediately, and I have my objections, because I think he’s—

PH: Who would you go for?

WH: Hölderlin. No, I mean James Joyce isn’t really bad, but—

PH: James Joyce is on a trajectory for you—

WH: Which went somewhere wrong—

PH: Somewhere wrong, starting with Petrarch and then going to someone such as Laurence Sterne.

WH:. Yes, Laurence Sterne is somehow a beginning in modern literature, where literature really became modern but also went on a detour and the result—

PH: A detour from what?

Hardcore?

WH: Detour from what, yes—that’s not easy to say, a detour that leads let’s say to Finnegans Wake, where literature should not end up. It’s a cul de sac, in my opinion, and much of James Joyce is a cul de sac, per se. But at the same time that he was writing, there were also people like Kafka, for example, and Joseph Conrad. I have a feeling there is something hardcore, some essence of literature; and you have it in a long, long tradition and you find it in Joseph Conrad, you find it in Hemingway, the short stories, you find it in Bruce Chatwin, and you find it in Cormac McCarthy.

You can read the whole fascinating interview at the literary journal Brick here. But I can’t help but wonder about something else, related to hugging pandas and kissing whales. This may be the very first era in history where there has been so much sentimentality and affection for animals, and comparatively little for babies and children. (This vegetarian cat-lover pleads guilty, at least a bit.) Why is that? And what does that say for the future of the race?

Meanwhile, enjoy this Huron carol, in a language now extinct. Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary wrote this carol in Wendat (Wyandot) sometime before he was martyred in 1649 – fourteen years before Eliot’s Algonquin Bible.

A luftmensch in search of the perfect conversation: NYPL’s “curator of public curiosity”

Saturday, March 10th, 2018
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A fellow luftmensch: Paul Holdengräber at NYPL

I have met amazing people on Twitter, and one of my golden finds was Paul Holdengräber. We both love literature, but we have something more in common: we’re both luftmenschen.

At work. (Photo: Jori Klein/NYPL)

There’s a Yiddish word for someone who may not be terribly grounded,” he says. “It’s a beautiful word: luftmensch. It means someone who has his feet firmly planted—in midair. There’s something of an untethered balloon in me.” It beats Merriam-Webster’s definition: “an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income.” Not true. I have a definite “business” of sorts: I’m a writer, a journalist, a blogger, an author. And Paul? He’s the director of public programs for the New York Public Library. He founded LIVE from the NYPL, and organized its literary conversations. Since February 2012, he has hosted The Paul Holdengräber Show on the Intelligent Channel on YouTube.

“‘I’m the curator of public curiosity.’ I’m the midwife,” he told Will Corwin at Art Papers last year.  “When you are in the audience, you are hopefully an interested listener. In some ways, you want to be in my seat—or maybe you don’t want to be in my seat, but you imagine what you would have asked. But my goal—as I did with David Lynch, Ed Ruscha, JAY-Z, Zadie Smith, Patti Smith, or Philip Glass—is to represent the audience as best as I can, their interests and curiosities. The question that I’m trying to phrase is—I’m hoping—the question that the audience as a whole, and some people in particular, may have.”

Once-a-year sanity. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A regular guest of his conversations is Werner Herzog. “I speak to him at least once a year to remain sane,” he says.

He has a reason for being a luftmensch. He was born in Texas and has an American passport. His parents, however, were Austrian Jews fleeing Vienna and the Nazis. They did so via Haiti, which had no immigration quota for Jews, and then Mexico, where his sister was born. When his mother was having a problem pregnancy, his father, a former medical student who had become a farmer in the New World, whisked his wife to Houston, where the best hospitals were located. Voilà! Paul was born an American citizen. And then the family moved to Brussels.

Paul studied philosophy at the Université Catholique de Louvain and the Sorbonne. The connection of philosophy with his his current line-of-work is obvious:

Tzara in 1923

“Yes, I believe deeply that we come to thought through words—thought is made in the mouth, or some such sentence from Tristan Tzara. Philosophy, as we believe it to be, started with a conversation. I don’t particularly think about how it will play itself out when written down. I think there’s such a difference between the written word and the spoken word. Some people speak in paragraphs; I don’t know what I speak in— I suppose my claim to a profession is to make other people speak, to find a way of giving them words and to find a way of bringing about a thought. I feel that through speaking we can discover ourselves. Not dissimilar is the word autobiography: auto-bio-graphein. It literally means “the life coming-to-be through its writing”; so, the self coming to life through writing and discovering itself through writing. Some people discover themselves through writing, if we consider literary history, from Rousseau to other great people who wrote autobiographies.”

His mother was fourteen when she left Vienna, “so she had seen enough to know it was terrible and to never, ever talk about it. But she transmitted the trauma. When the Austrian government, through the Austrian president, awarded me with the Austrian Cross of Honor for Art and Science—a funny thing to give a cross to a Jewish boy—I said to my mother, ‘I don’t think I should accept.’ She said, very firmly, ‘Be gracious, don’t mention the unpleasantness, and my story is not yours.’ Which is quite something.”

“Memories I don’t have…”

“My trauma is a secondhand wound; it’s a transmission of trauma. The [words] transmission and tradition are the same in Hebrew: they [translate to] “what is passed on.” So I’m living with the memory of something I never experienced, the memory of something I don’t know. I was inspired by Nathalie Zadje, a psychoanalyst who studied transmission of trauma from the point of view of certain émigré cultures, particularly in North Africa, and how different that transmission is in different cultures. She studied how trauma passes from one generation to the next. But I grew up very obsessed with the Holocaust, very obsessed with my parents’ history, maybe in a way that was unhealthy. I do think that my interest in Edmund du Waal, Werner Herzog, Anselm Kiefer, and Claude Lanzman all comes from the way in which the world was transformed, changed, and to some extent destroyed. When Jonathan Demme invited me to speak to him about Fahrenheit 451, both the Truffaut movie and the Ray Bradbury story, the burning of the books brought back memories that I don’t have.

His goal in life? “As I think of it, I’m after the perfect conversation. I’m after the Platonic idea of what the best possible conversation could be, and therefore it eludes me like a collector who would hope in some way never to have the last piece in his collection. If he did, then it would be the death of the collector.”

Read the whole conversation here.

A New Year’s resolution from Nietzsche: “I do not even want to accuse those who accuse…”

Sunday, December 31st, 2017
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~ From “Sanctus Januarius” in Friedrich Nietzsche‘s Joyful Wisdom (1882). (Krzysztof Michalski‘s interpretation of Nietzsche is here, in “Krzysztof Michalski: Without Death – there is no me.”)

Hat tip to our friend and colleague from the New York Public Library, Paul Holdengraber.

And a very Happy New Year to all Book Haven readers!

 

Here’s to Hitch on “Hitchmas”: “Never be a spectator of unfairness and stupidity.”

Saturday, December 16th, 2017
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Hitchens in 2008 (Photo: Creative Commons)

An anniversary passed yesterday, the sixth year after the death of author, essayist, and journalist Christopher HitchensIt’s not an event the Book Haven normally observes, but some in our circle do – mutual friend Steve Wasserman among them, and a few others who no doubt would raise a glass if they were here. The late poet and historian Robert Conquest (we’ve written about him here and here) was a close colleague. Some of Hitchens’s aficionados, whether they knew him or not, go so far as to call December 15 “Hitchmas” – there’s even a website for the celebrations here.

The title is catchy, but surely Hitchens himself would have scoffed at the implications of any “mass” in his honor. In any case, he hated Christmas (i.e., “Christ’s mass”) which he likened to “living for four weeks in the atmosphere of a one-party state” that “imposes a deadening routine and predictability.” Ah, but variation within custom is what makes all rituals memorable and moving – whether weddings, funerals, graduations, or holidays. It’s a delicate art. (See how fellow atheist Salman Rushdie celebrates here.)

You see? We are still arguing with him, even in absentia. While Hitchens is not a demigod to us, and while we are far from embracing all his views (indeed, who could embrace them all?), we nevertheless revere his eloquence, his frankness, his pugnaciousness, the fluency of his pen, his tenacity to what he held to be truth – and so we, too, raise a glass to him. How, after all, can one argue with this: “Never be a spectator of unfairness and stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.”

In this case, we have help in our fête. Paul Holdengräber of the New York Public Library has an undated commemorative post over at the Wild River Review, which includes a two-minute clip of his interview with the author and journalist, three days before he became gravely ill in 2010. The two discuss death, dying, and a mutual interest in obituaries. (The full hour-and-a-half interview at the NYPL is here.)

“I was particularly taken not by the politics, which everyone knew and though of interest, mattered less to me just then, than the literary side. Hitch was a great reader and more candid in print about his life, his mother and father, his origins,” Holdengräber wrote.

“When I played W. H. Auden reading, and Isaiah Berlin teaching a class on Russian Thought at Oxford, Christopher’s eyes lit up. He felt pleasure in reciting poetry, moving his lips to Auden’s reading, and hearing his old professor, Isaiah Berlin talk. A less pugilist side to Hitch.”

When he asked Hitchens why he wrote his memoir Hitch 22 at the relatively young age of 60, he answered simply: “You’ve got to do it in time.”

Junot Díaz: “Often our pain encourages us to isolate ourselves.”

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016
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Over at Lithub, an hour-long phone conversation with Pulitzer prizewinning Junot Díaz, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, and Paul Holdengraber. We always find the Dominican American author intriguing – here are a few excerpts:

On writing slowly

crmdiaz02z-c

Looking for the stories that death tells us.

Part of it is bad habit. But part of it is an attempt at a different kind of methodology. I have noticed that what matters to me is to reflect very, very long on what I might call my materials or very, very long on what I might call the sources of inspiration. Lately I’ve been thinking of my writing as—what interests me more than anything—is grinding these slow lenses. What I mean is giving events, giving history, giving people the time to unfold, the time to mean—to give forth their meaning.

On pain

Often our pain encourages us to isolate ourselves. The truth of it is our pain is a badge for how we are members of this larger community. Recognizing this and recognizing our shared humanity is not a small insight. The ego pushes us towards individual, pushes us towards fantasies of achievement of power… and all of those things pull us away from our common link, our common clay… We are made of a common clay, and among the most prevalent minerals in that clay is our fragility.

On stories from the dead…

There’s also the stories that death tells us. What are the stories that the dead tell us? That’s not a language that’s easy to crack. It’s a language that I’m trying to master—that I’m trying to become sensitive to the nuances, sensitive to the phonemes, but it has been resisting me.

Go here for more.

Philip Gourevitch on human rights: “Do you care what happens next?”

Thursday, July 26th, 2012
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French marines in Rwanda, 1994

Horrific things are happening – in Syria, Nigeria, or the Sudan.  We don’t send troops in – and face universal censure.  We send troops in – and later, when the bodies of American soldiers are dragged through the streets, or we face a long, debilitating war in a far-flung place, we want out.  Any commitment to human rights is cancelled. It’s their problem, after all.

We don’t want war. We can’t make peace.

So what’s the answer?

The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, doesn’t have an answer either, but he challenged some current household gods in a provocative talk at Stanford last night.  In particular, he questioned “human rights absolutism,” finding that the lens that human rights organizations bring to issues is sometimes “freezes time,”  without historical perspective or historical judgment, capturing complex events in one moment that clearly divides victims and perps like oil and water.

What would Human Rights Action have said about Abraham Lincoln?  He suggested that, with Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Sherman’s March, and “obvious gross human rights abuses,” the president would flunk the human rights test today. Yet we can also view these moves as bad actions in a cause we judge as good, rather than funneling them through a “single measure,” he said.

Of course, Lincoln’s drama unfolded over years.  Today’s immediate 24/7 media coverage means complex situations are frozen in a single, horrible moment almost instantly.  Think Abu Ghraib.  “If there’s a famine in Somalia, now you’ll hear about it” – Gourevitch snapped his fingers – “right away,” We seem to be living in an anti-historical, freeze-time era, fast as a camera shutter.

“A premise in our culture, in most religions, in the human rights movement and the law, is that we are united by a common humanity,” said Gourevitch,  “that the suffering that is happening far away might be our business.” However, he said, “In reality, few of us live that way.  What is near to us is near to us, what’s far away is far away,” he said.  But now it’s on CNN or twitter and in our living rooms – in an instant.

“Americans’ reaction is ‘why don’t we do something?’” said Gourevitch, a former editor of the Paris Review. “Why should I expose myself to grievous suffering if I can’t do something about it?”

“Frankly, it is naïve to think we know what’s right” – and even more naïve to think we can implement it.  “Action is often a story of distortion,” he said.

He questions "human rights absolutism."

Human rights groups are the “last universalist organizations still standing.”  They are neither left-wing nor right-wing, but rather they “take the side of the suffering,” and demand that human rights abuses be adjudicated as crimes.

They’ve met with success in public awareness:  20 years ago, there were no summer sessions in human rights and no human rights majors.

But their vision is “not entirely accurate,” he said, because “none of us live in an extra-statal world.”  Without considering political reality, “you might provoke a worse atrocity.”

“Human rights abuses are often a symptom,” Gourevitch said – a symptom of more systemic problems. While a human rights agenda is essential, it tends to be a legal agenda.  It’s “an entirely negative measure” – in other words, you find human rights abuses, and then you penalize them.  In such a view, “it starts to look like there are no politics,” he said.

And often the results need a rethink.  In 2009, the International Criminal Court indicted Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir for crimes committed against the people of Darfur and issued a warrant asking the rest of the world to arrest him.

“They’re calling for a coup d’état.  What’s your response?” he asked. “Do you care who comes next?”  When considering atrocities, “It’s always important to remember that the nastiest thing you see can be exceeded.”

We hope indictments, sanctions, and other actions act as a deterrent – but where does this confidence come from? he asked. “Right now it’s pure speculation.” We know that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime, “but the same exact people are arguing for the deterrent effect on heads of state.”

News board in Monrovia during Charles Taylor's trial

Often, we are dealing with nations where “there have always been wars about succession” and where  “there’s never been a head of state who has left office alive.”

For these leaders, “the primary fear is not that you might wind up being in a Swedish jail,” he said. “It’s bad for your image – but it’s not the worst option.”

Is it appropriate to let dictators “sneak out the door”?  Such arrangements were made for Liberia’s Charles Taylor, who had a safe exile in Nigeria for awhile.  He was eventually apprehended and turned over to Liberia – a series of actions that undermined such safe options, anyway.  Are such deals “promoting a culture where there is no accountability”?

“These are problems we should be thinking about,” he said, rather than focusing on them simply as legal issues. “Is this in the interests of that people?  Is this better for the people in that place?   A lot of the time it has nothing to do with the people in that place.  What they [human rights organizations and activists] are interested in is international law. They’re lawyers.”

In such cases, “the consequences for Rwanda are irrelevant.  It’s a different set of issues.  Moral clarity rams into political reality every step of the way.  It’s impossible to solve problems without it.”

And are these issues as black-and-white as they seem?  What would human rights scoresheet have looked like during, say, the Siege of Troy?  Would Homer’s lines be less moving if they described UN blue helmets and post-conflict resolutions for the Greeks and Trojans?  Or what about Macbeth?  “We look at those stories in their complexity,” he said.  (Incidentally, he’s providing another small argument for the study of literature.)

Gourevitch recalled meeting a survivor of a Rwandan atrocity, after school students refused the Hutu guerrillas’ orders to separate into Hutus and Tutsis, and were massacred. “That dark courage – that’s what hope looks like in that place,” he said.

But the story didn’t stop there.  The guerilla commander who is alleged to be responsible for the massacre has now been reintegrated into the Army – he’s even been promoted to colonel.  Gourevitch was able to get his phone number within a day. He met the officer, who said that he had nothing to do with the slaughter.  Yet it’s widely believed that he did, and there has been no trial.

“All of this is completely at odds with human rights thinking,” Gourevitch said.  But he was told by one Rwandan, “if we keep adjudicating, we’ll never build a nation and integrate the army.”

“It’s a very troubling proposition,” he said – but he suggests that the alternative may be even more troubling.

Justice?  Write to your congressman, attend a protest, send off an op-ed.  Instead, Gourevitch quoted the first line of William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own: “Justice? – you get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law.”

Meanwhile, Gourevitch below on the Paul Holdengräber Show: