Posts Tagged ‘René Girard’

Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard – in Russia’s high-traffic Colta just in time for New Year’s!

Friday, December 29th, 2017
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Another excerpt from Everything Came to Me at Once: A Life of René Girard – this time from the chapter called “Mankind Is Not So Kind” (Человечество не очень человечно). The excerpt appears in Colta,  Russia’s online equivalent of the New York Review of Books. Many thanks to editor, publisher, poet and journalist Maria Stepanova (we’ve written about her here and here). And thanks to the skillful translation of Svetlana Panich.

René Girard (1923-2015) began as a literary theorist was fascinated by everything. History, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion, psychology and theology all figured in his oeuvre. As I wrote in his obituary here:

International leaders read him, the French media quoted him. Girard influenced such writers as Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee and Czech writer Milan Kundera – yet he never had the fashionable (and often fleeting) cachet enjoyed by his peers among the structuralists, poststructuralists, deconstructionists and other camps. His concerns were not trendy, but they were always timeless.

In particular, Girard was interested in the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. Our desires, he wrote, are not our own; we want what others want. These duplicated desires lead to rivalry and violence. He argued that human conflict was not caused by our differences, but rather by our sameness. Individuals and societies offload blame and culpability onto an outsider, a scapegoat, whose elimination reconciles antagonists and restores unity.

Non-Russian speakers will have to wait for the Englishh edition, which will be out in April (but available for pre-orders here). Meanwhile, for all my Russian friends…

«Линчевание узнается по запаху», — сказал как-то Жирар, походя упомянув в разговоре роман Фолкнера. Эту непривычно жесткую фразу он произнес с несвойственным ему отвращением. Что имелось в виду, не уточнил, но друзья рассказали, что 1952—1953 годы, которые он провел на сегрегированном американском Юге, были для него сущей мукой. Кое-кто полагает, что именно там родилась его идея «козла отпущения», но это явная натяжка, к тому же недооценивающая его гениальную интуицию, которая сплетается со множеством наблюдений и научных находок в мощную теорию, описывающую положение человека и дающую ключ к нашему прошлому, настоящему и будущему. Эти идеи Жирар окончательно сформулировал уже после того, как книга «Обман, желание, роман» заявила о себе в литературном мире. «Я прожил год в Северной Каролине. — вспоминал он позднее. — Это было не худший штат на Юге, но полностью сегрегированный и довольно консервативный». Говорил об этом Жирар без сожаления: его завораживало буйство зелени, однако можно предположить, что роскошная краса этих мест только усиливала когнитивный диссонанс.

Жирар — не «певец природы», поэтому его описания Юга довольно резки. Он честно признавался, что новое место — «окруженная соснами глиноземная местность в центре огромного табачного региона, утыканного просторными сараями, в которых складывали на просушку огромные светлые листья» — доставило ему больше удовольствия, чем Индиана, но удовольствие, по его словам, оказалось сугубо чувственным:

«У меня остались очень яркие воспоминания о первом пребывании на юге Соединенных Штатов: ошеломляющее буйство цветов по весне, райские картинки пригородов, разбросанные пестрыми букетами и окруженные вековой листвой крошечные дома, похожие на новые игрушки, роскошные сады за домами; огромный эркер в гостиной, откуда открывался вид на синевато-зеленое мелколесье… Казалось, что меня, словно в научно-фантастическом рассказе, выбросили в капсуле в сияющий мир, где есть все знакомые нам соблазны, но они гораздо сильнее и лучше упорядочены».

О расовых отношениях он говорит, скорее, иносказательно и обтекаемо:

«Но как только наступало лето, на вас проклятием обрушивалась невыносимая жара. Мучились от нее не только физически; для меня эти страдания были неотделимы от того расового недуга, который всегда терзал эту землю и не стал слабее с тех пор, как о нем рассказали великие писатели Юга, прежде всего, Фолкнер. Я не разделяю склонность некоторых критиков сводить все к чисто литературным конструкциям: достоинство литературы в том, что она улавливает смыслы, которые уже разлиты в мире и не дают покоя именно потому, что большинство людей отказываются над ними думать. Помню, какой скандал разразился в Конгрессе, так и не сумевшем ратифицировать по умолчанию обязывающий на федеральном уровне закон, какой гарантировал бы полную справедливость во всем, что касалось судов Линча».

Read the rest here.

Be still my heart! France takes note of “The French Invasion”

Monday, December 18th, 2017
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A belated postscript to last week’s Quarterly Conversation publication of a single chapter from Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, which will be out in April (you can find the essay here; and our post about it here). It describes the 1966 Baltimore conference that René Girard organized, with Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, that brought French thought to America – and with it Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida.

A few days ago, a friend from Paris sent us a Tweet we might otherwise have overlooked. Pierre Assouline is one of France’s most visible critics, and he’s on the Goncourt jury, which awards France’s most prestigious literary award. Moreover, he has more than 32,000 Twitter followers, so that tweet was retweeted more in the days after this screenshot. We lost track of the other French posts after that. But our hard little heart fluttered a bit to see France taking note.

We were also pleased to hear that “The French Invasion” is one of the tony Quarterly Conversation‘s top hitters, with 10,000 readers in the first few days. Give it a click if you haven’t. As one reader said a few days ago, “Haven’t read anything on the internet in a while that’s given me so much pleasure.”

Postscript on 12/20: There’s more: The popular economist Tyler Cowen has featured Evolution of Desire as the lead news item on his website here.  Wikipedia tells me he is #72 among the “Top Global Thinkers” in 2011, by Foreign Policy Magazine.

Evolution of Desire – the excerpt: “Haven’t read anything on the internet in a while that has given me so much pleasure.”

Monday, December 11th, 2017
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Up at Quarterly Conversation, an excerpt from my Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard – to serve as appertifThe book will be officially out in April, and our kindly friends over at QC wanted to run an excerpt. Instead it became a whole chapter! “The French Invasion” describes a few wild days at Johns Hopkins University in 1966:

The conference has been called “epochal,” “a watershed,” “a major reorientation in literary studies,” “the French invasion of America,” the “96-gun French dispute,” the equivalent of the Big Bang in American thought.

To hear the superlatives, one would have thought that “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium held at Johns Hopkins for a few frantic days from 18 to 21 October 1966 was the first gathering of its kind ever held. It wasn’t, but it did accomplish a feat that changed the intellectual landscape of the nation: it brought avant-garde French theory to America. In the years that followed, René Girard would champion a system of thought that was both a child of this new era and an orphan within it. He was at once proud of his role in launching the symposium, and troubled by some of its consequences.

René Girard was one corner of the triumvirate that instigated the conference, and the senior member of the trio. The others were his Johns Hopkins colleagues Richard Macksey  (well, he will be familiar to Book Haven readers. We’ve written about him here) and Eugenio Donato. Donato was one of those rare birds in academia who “had a nose,” according to a French expression Dick Macksey borrowed. “He knew where the cooking was taking place.”

The only way up is down: Rachel Jacoff and Robert Harrison discuss Dante’s Inferno

Thursday, December 7th, 2017
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The fatal kiss of Francesco da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, as portrayed by William Dyce in1837.

The world of Dante scholars is a small and close-knit one, and Rachel Jacoff is one of its leading luminaries. In this Entitled Opinions conversation, she discusses The Divine Comedy, and more particularly The Inferno, with her former student, our Entitled Opinions host Robert Pogue Harrison, himself a major Dante scholar. It’s over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here. (It’s part one of a three-part series – but don’t worry; each operates as a stand-alone interview.)

They begin with the setting of the Divine Comedy, and the spiritual, existential, biographical, and political crisis in which it is born. The epic poem takes place in the Jubilee year 1300, when the Florentine was 35 years old, at the midpoint of his life. He was in the middle of two prose works he couldn’t finish, Convivio and De Vulgari Eloquentia. Instead, he undertakes the major work for which he is most remembered, The Divine Comedy.

Da man.

Entitled Opinions host and guest discuss the great poem’s background, the spiritual crisis that gave birth to it, the mysterious role of Virgil as Dante’s guide, and the role of women in the drama (both as mediators to Dante’s spiritual climb, and as sexual sinners in the Inferno). And, inevitably, they discuss the renowned Canto V, with the adulterous lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta. (More about the doomed couple from two other Stanford scholars, René Girard and John Freccero here.)

The discussion begins with the First Canto, and Harrison’s comments on the Florentine’s immortal opening to his Divine Comedy. Dante has hit an impasse, and the only way up is down:

“There’s always a before, and always an after, to the beginning. Every beginning starts in the middle of something. That’s what the ancients meant by in media res. For Dante, in medias res meant in the middle of a forest: ‘In the middle of our life’s way, I found myself in a dark wood, where the straight way was lost.’ What kind of middle of the way is this, where forward motion hits a dead end, where life’s vital energies come to a terrifying standstill, where every step you take could be your last step? This is the midpoint, a strange and uncanny place. It’s not the halfway point on a straight finite line. It’s not equidistant from beginning and the end. No, it’s a sentiero interrotti – a path without issue. It’s a place where all footing is lost, and where, if there’s to be any resumption of motion, it will have to be on a different footing altogether. That’s what it means to begin in the middle of the way. To find a new footing, and in so doing, to undergo a turn, a swerve, a clinamen, rather than continue on the same rectilinear course. The midpoint represents a turning point. … The only way up is down.”

Potent quotes:

Jacoff @Stanford

Rachel Jacoff:

“If we only had only the first canto, we wouldn’t know anything about the political crisis, we wouldn’t know about the exile, we wouldn’t even know Dante was a Florentine. … The language is deliberately vague enough so that almost everyone can find their own mid-life crisis in this language.”

Rachel Jacoff:

“People have read this as a poem about depression, they have read it as a poem about many different things, because they’re able to connect with the sense of a dead-end.”

“It has collective epic community, but also lyric individuality. It becomes a first-person epic, which distinguishes it. There is an ambiguousness about its autobiographical nature … and yet it is generic. There is a way in which Dante has to be an everyman.”

“Reading Virgil might have given him the idea that maybe he was writing the wrong book. He shouldn’t be writing a philosophical book, he should be writing a poem – and a poem informed on many levels by The Aeneid, in particular, the journey to the other world.”

“It is a very Christian poem; Virgil is a pagan. This is a primary, extraordinary fact. Unlike other texts with visions of the journey to the other world, in which the guides are angels or saints, Dante chooses a poet, and perhaps the most important thing to Dante, a poet of Rome and of the Roman Empire.”

Go to the new Entitled Opinions channel at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

Robert Harrison:

“In Dante’s age, there was no analysis or psychotherapy, no prozac. Help took a different form – the form of a literary ghost, the ghost of Virgil who comes on the scene.”

“Wouldn’t it also be fair to say that Dante was also chosen by Virgil? … He had been rereading Virgil’s Aeneid massively. Something changed in rereading of that poem about the founding of the Roman Empire. He landed in a dead-end as a result of reading Virgil, and so perhaps only Virgil could get him out.”

“Sometimes the living adopt their ancestors, but sometimes the dead have a way of adopting the living.”

“Dante was primarily a lyric poet before he wrote The Divine Comedy. Virgil perhaps provided a model for how he might go from being a lyric poet to writing a Christian epic.”

René Girard: our desires are less personal than we think

Thursday, October 5th, 2017
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Praise for the opuscule! An adapted chapter of my forthcoming Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has been published separately by the fine-press publisher Wiseblood as Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René GirardWell, we wrote about that already here. Here’s the news: Trevor Cribben Merrill has some kind words about it in Education & Culture, the new website launched by John Wilson, formerly the mastermind behind the now defunct Books & Culture.

An excerpt:

If I took one thing away from Haven’s little book, it was the likeness between Girard’s own creative conversion and that of the novelists he studied in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which despite his later shift to religious anthropology may still be his most compelling and characteristic work. Deceit is at once a brilliant take on five classic writers—Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky—and a history of desire in the modern west, tracing how pathological competition sprang up on the ruins of the Old Regime’s feudal hierarchies. But it is also, if more discreetly, a book about artistic creation. Great writers, Girard argues, come to grasp that our desires are less personal than we like to believe, and that others often wield a decisive influence over us just when we think we are free. Don Quixote is aware of imitating. Much as the Christian asks “What would Jesus do?”, at every moment Quixote wonders: “What would Amadis of Gaul do?” But Dostoevsky, writing as rapidly urbanizing Russia played catch up with the West, portrays an alienated self-love that feeds on others yet can only survive by denying this. Anticipating Seinfeld by more than a century, his “underground men” get worked up over tiny slights, and rush out to give their enemies the cold shoulder.

Unconscious “triangular desire” (the metaphor accounts for the way our desires draw strength from a model or “mediator” instead of going straight from subject to object) lives or dies on our tendency to buy the “romantic lies” we feed others. We tell ourselves—and our friends—that we are going to the beach to soak up the sunshine and feel the soft caress of a sea breeze. Or that we take an interest in literature out of a detached scholarly curiosity. But it may be that the beach is so tempting because an ex-girlfriend often goes windsurfing there, and that our heavily-footnoted study of Chinua Achebe masks a craving to write prize-winning novels. Our friends see right through us, of course—but they have their own obsessions, which we treat with a condescending indulgence to equal theirs toward us.

In short, triangular desire is something one complacently or indignantly observes in others, but it must be discovered in one’s own life. This is obvious on one level, but on another it can be difficult to grasp. Maybe that’s why a persistent misunderstanding surrounds Girard’s reading of literature. Some take the mere presence of triangular desire in a work as sufficient reason to declare its author a world-class genius, on par with Proust or Dostoevsky. Articles and dissertations trumpet the triangularity of this or that writer’s fiction, as if the ability to spot envy and jealousy in the modern world, which often encourages those vices, were especially noteworthy in itself.

Read the rest here.

Postscript on Oct. 5: Looks like we got pickup from The Weekly Standard here.

René Girard wrote words – his Avignon kin perform music.

Sunday, September 10th, 2017
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A few years ago, I drove from Paris to Provence in a little silver Citroën to explore Avignon, the birthplace of a French theorist who is the subject of my forthcoming book, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (spring 2018 with Michigan State University Press). One facet of Avignon I didn’t experience, however, was the Quatuor Girard, an eminent string quartet formed by members of the Girard family, René’s great-nieces and great-nephews. My interest was not entirely research, however, but largely aesthetics. Listen to the short recording below.

That’s Hugues Girard and Agathe Girard on violins, Odon Girard on viola, and Lucie Girard on the cello performing Ludwig Van Beethoven‘s
String Quartet no. 16 in F major, opus 135 – one of the astonishing late string quartets.

Perhaps a postponed pleasure for my next visit to unforgettable Provence…

 

See? Almost everybody is reading Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René Girard

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017
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From Dwight Green on Facebook, with his son Nate:

Nate: “So according to René Girard, a great work of art is possible through an author’s existential downfall. How does that work again?”

Me: “I think Cynthia Haven at The Book Haven goes into more detail. Let’s see what she says…”

You, too, can find out about the author’s existential downfall, and how it comes about. Get your own copy of Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René GirardOrder it here. And stay tuned for my magnum opus, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, out next spring with Michigan State University Press.

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“Everything Came to Me at Once”: my new opuscule on René Girard!

Friday, July 28th, 2017
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The première of my opuscule at University of Notre Dame. It’s the one with the bright blue cover.

I was finishing Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (out next spring with Michigan State University Press), when Joshua Hren, founder of a fine-press publishing house called Wiseblood, approached me to see if we could adapt and republish one of the chapters as a stand-alone. Dana Gioia had suggested the project to them, so … how could I say no?  Voila! This week’s publication of Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René Girard.

From the jacket:

French theorist René Girard promulgates a sweeping vision of human nature, human history, and human destiny, but few understand the mysterious experience that gave birth to his theories: “Everything came to me at once in 1959. I felt that there was a sort of mass that I’ve penetrated into little by little,” he said. “Everything was there at the beginning, all together. That’s why I don’t have any doubts . . . I’m teasing out a single, extremely dense insight.”

The tough question was: what color for the cover? Blue. It had to be blue. But Dana had already made a clear and dignified blue statement with his covers. Blue was “taken.” Red was simply out of the question. Yellow, Joshua suggested. How about yellow? But René was not a yellow kind of guy. So I picked a bright sky blue. But I nervously awaited the final to see if the white letters would “pop” enough. I think they do.

Artur Rosman, literary scholar, translator, and blogger at Cosmos the in Lost, (we’ve written about him here and here) generously served as a blurber: “René Girard devoted his career to tracking down the twists and turns of mimetic desire in literature, philosophy, and anthropology. Cynthia Haven’s primer makes an invaluable contribution to Girard studies by tracking down the places where Girard discussed how his theories emerged from a personal process of intellectual and spiritual conversion—and its public consequences. What emerges is a compelling picture of Girard as a post-secular thinker who tears down artificial boundaries, such as the ones between the religious and the secular, between the private and public. Haven invites would-be Girard readers to see themselves as participating in a common struggle rather than scapegoating each other. This is a must-read book for a time when mimetic competition, shorn of scapegoating safeguards, rends the fabric of civil society.”

Trevor Cribben Merrill congratulated me on the final essay – an “opuscule,” he called it. That was a new word for me, and I liked it. Now I use it all the time. I roll it around my tongue. I find ways of working it into the conversation. “Have you seen my little opuscule?” Well… I guess “little” is redundant.

Any, the opuscule (see? I did it again) begins this way:

“Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” – Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto 1, trans. Charles Singleton

René Girard had reached the traditional midway point of life—35 years old—when he had a major course correction in his journey, rather like Dante. The event occurred as the young professor was finishing Deceit, Desire, and the Novel at Johns Hopkins University, the book that would establish his reputation as an innovative literary theorist. His first book was hardly the only attempt to study the nature of desire, but Girard was the first to insist that the desires we think of as autonomous and original, or that we think arise from a need in the world around us are borrowed from others; they are, in fact, “mimetic.” Dante’s “dark wood” is a state of spiritual confusion associated with the wild, dangerous forests. Three beasts block his path; the leopard, the lion, and the wolf represent disordered passions and desires. Dante’s conversion begins when he recognizes he cannot pass the beasts unharmed. Girard experienced his “dark wood” amidst his own study of the disordered desires that populate the modern novel. His conversion began as he traveled along the clattering old railway cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad, en route from Baltimore to Bryn Mawr for the class he taught every week. …

Buy it here.

Postscript on July 31: Kind words from Frank Wilson over at Books Inq.: “Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve read this year is a mere 20 pages long and takes less than half an hour to read.” Read it here.

 

Long after the Cold War, have we become our opponents? Václav Havel weighs in.

Saturday, February 25th, 2017
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I have long observed how people become the thing they hate most, so when René Girard described how locked rivals come to resemble each other more and more, it was no surprise to me. Czech writer, dissident, and president Václav Havel apparently felt much the same way. This recent New Yorker article – Pankaj Mishra’s “Václav Havel’s Lessons on How to Create a ‘Parallel Polis” – has been an open tab in my Google Chrome window for at least a week. Don’t you wait that long to read it. Despite Mishra’s Manichaean cast of mind (it’s not a case of the pure and the monstrous, we could all use a little self-examination), it is essential reading that expresses some important thoughts for this particular historical moment:

Václav_Havel

Have we become “statistical choruses of voters”?

The problems before humankind, as Havel saw it, were far deeper than the opposition between socialism and capitalism, which were both “thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories [that] have long since been beside the point.” The Western system, though materially more successful, also crushed the human individual, inducing feelings of powerlessness, which—as Trump’s victory has shown—can turn politically toxic. In Havel’s analysis, politics in general had become too “machine-like” and unresponsive, degrading flesh-and-blood human beings into “statistical choruses of voters.”

According to Havel, “the sole method of politics is quantifiable success,” which meant that “good and evil” were losing “all absolute meaning.” Long before the George W. Bush Administration went to war in Iraq on a false pretext, Havel identified, in the free as well as the unfree world, “a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction which can rationalize anything without ever having to brush against the truth.” In his view, “ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans” had amassed a uniquely maligned power in the modern world, which pressed upon individuals everywhere, depriving “humans—rulers as well as the ruled—of their conscience, of their common sense and natural speech, and thereby, of their actual humanity.”

havel-michnik

With Polish dissident editor Adam Michnik

Since Western democracies as well as Communist dictatorships had suffered a devastating loss of the human scale, it mattered little that free markets were more efficient than Communist economies. For, Havel believed, “as long as our humanity remains defenseless, we will not be saved by any technical or organizational trick designed to produce better economic functioning.” Individual freedom and social cohesion were no less under threat in the depoliticized capitalist democracies of the West. “A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system,” he wrote, and who has “no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.”

After he became President of his country, Havel attacked, in 1997, its “post-communist morass”: an iniquitous capitalist economy that convinced many that “it pays off to lie and to steal; that many politicians and civil servants are corruptible; that political parties—though they all declare honest intentions in lofty words—are covertly manipulated by suspicious financial groupings.” But Havel had long before noticed some manifestly deep similarities between the two rival ideologies and systems of the Cold War; they had provoked him to describe the Cold Warriors who wanted to eradicate Communism as “smashing” the mirror that reminded them of their own moral ugliness. Indeed, Havel predicted in the mid-nineteen-eighties, even as Communism began to totter, that the kind of regime described in Orwell’s “1984” was certain to appear in the West. He warned “the victors” of the Cold War that they would inevitably resemble “their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.”

Read the whole thing here.

The year is already off to a great start for Ewa Domanska

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017
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domanska

2017 got off to a great start for one of our favorite people – the Poznan-based Stanford scholar Ewa Domanska. (We’ve written about her here.) She just got a big promotion from the President of Poland – with a big celebration at the Polish equivalent of the “White House” in Warsaw. The chic scholar is now a full professor of the human sciences. She teaches most of the year at the Department of History in the Adam Mickiewicz University at Poznan. Her teaching and research interests include comparative theory of the human and social sciences, history and theory of historiography, posthumanities and ecological humanities. She’s into “posthumanism,” too.

We met over our mutual interest in a mutual friend, the late French theorist René Girard. She’s told me of his influence in Poland during the Solidarity years, when his theories about violence were daily realities for the Poles, who were reading The Scapegoat in their classrooms.

From her letter:

Ewa Domanska 2011Just before Christmas I received an official letter from the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland that he granted me the title of full professor (so-called “Belweder”) of the human sciences. In Poland, the procedure is long and takes two to three years. You have five independent reviewers who evaluate your academic achievements and the book that is presented as your main “opus,” and one super-reviewer who evaluates the work of reviewers (formal procedure) and also summarizes all what was said about the achievements. Last Wednesday, there was a big celebration in Warsaw in the Presidential Palace, where I received an official document. It was a very nice event, where fifty-nine new professor got their promotion from hands of the President, Wojciech Duda. We came with families and friends.”

And one of them snapped the photo above.

Ewa teaches at Stanford every spring. It looks like we’ll celebrate with a little champagne when she comes back to California in March.