Posts Tagged ‘René Girard’

René Girard on terrorism: “We have to radically change the way we think.” Have we?

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015
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Police at the Charlie Hebdo offices, January 7, 2015. (Photo Thierry Caro)

The events in Paris and elsewhere have brought René Girard‘s prescient Battling to the End front and center, at least for me. Keep in mind this book was first published in Paris in 2007, long before the current cycle of events. Hence, he reflected on the devastation of September 11, 2001, but his suggestions are even more pertinent today, “as history has accelerated and politics has lost importance.” He called for a deeper understanding and a radical rethinking of our current assumptions, understandings, and strategies. “The work to be done is immense,” he wrote. Has that happened? I don’t think so. I reviewed this book for the San Francisco Chronicle here, and wrote an article about him here – which included part of the excerpt below:

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Work to be done.

Atta, the leader of the September 11 group who piloted one of the two airplanes, was the son of a middle class Egyptian family. It is staggering to think that during the three last days before the attack, he spent his nights in bars with his accomplices. There is something mysterious and intriguing in this. Who asks about the souls of those men? Who were they and what were their motivations? What did Islam mean to them? What does it mean to kill themselves for the cause? The growing number of attacks in Iraq is impressive. I think it is strange that there is so little interest in the logic of these events, which dominate the world just as the Cold War once did. Since when? We are not really sure. No one could have imagined that we would be in this situation barely 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell. This disturbs our vision of history as it has been written since the American and French revolutions. Our vision of history does not take into account the fact that the entire West is challenged and threatened by this. We have to say “this” because we do not know what it is. …

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“People were shaken, but they quickly calmed down.”

On September 11, people were shaken, but they quickly calmed down. There was a flash of awareness, which lasted a few fractions of a second. People could feel that something was happening. Then a blanket of silence covered up the crack in our certainty of safety. Western rationalism operates like a myth: we always work harder to avoid seeing the catastrophe. We neither can nor want to see violence as it is. The only way we will be able to meet the terrorist challenge is by radically changing the way we think. Yet the clearer it is what is happening, the stronger our refusal to acknowledge it. This historical configuration is so new that we do not know how to deal with it. It is precisely a modality of what Pascal saw: the war between violence and truth. Think about the inadequacy of our recent avant-gardes that preached the non-existence of the real. …

If we had said in the 1980s that Islamism would play the role it plays today, people would have thought we were crazy. Yet the ideology promoted by Stalin already contained para-religious components that foreshadowed the increasingly radical contamination that has occurred over time. Europe was less malleable in Napoleons time. After Communism, its vulnerability has returned to that of a medieval village facing the Vikings. The Arab conquest was a shock, while the French Revolution was slowed by the nationalism that it provoked across Europe. In its first historical deployment, Islam conquered religiously. This was its strength and it also explains the solidity of its roots. The revolutionary impetus accelerated by the Napoleonic era was checked by the equilibrium among nations. However, nations became inflamed in turn, and destroyed the only possible means of stopping revolutions from happening.

We therefore have to radically change the way we think, and try to understand the situation without any presuppositions and using all the resources available from the study of Islam. The work to be done is immense. …

battling to end_webOf course, there is resentment in its attitude to Judeo-Christianity and the West, but it is also a new religion. This cannot be denied. Historians of religion, and even anthropologists, have to show how and why it emerged. Indeed, some aspects of this religion contain a relationship to violence that we do not understand and that are all the more worrying for that reason. For us, it makes no sense to be ready to pay with one’s life for the pleasure of seeing the other die. We do not know whether such phenomena belong to a special psychology or not. We are thus facing complete failure; we cannot talk about it and also we cannot document the situation because terrorism is something new that exploits Islamic codes, but does not at all belong to classical Islamic theory. Today’s terrorism is new, even from an Islamic point of view. It is a modern effort to counter the most powerful and refined tool of the Western world: technology. It counters technology in a way that we do not understand, and that classical Islam may not understand either.

Thus, it is not enough to simply condemn the attacks. The defensive thought by which we oppose the phenomenon does not necessarily embody a desire to understand. Often it even reveals a desire to not understand, or an intention to comfort oneself. Clausewitz is easier to integrate into a historical development. He gives us the intellectual tools to understand the violent escalation. However, where do we find such ideas in Islam? Modern resentment never leads all the way to suicide. Thus we do not have the analogical structures that could help us to understand. I am not saying that they are not possible, that they will not appear, but I admit my inability to grasp them. This is why our explanations often belong to the province of fraudulent propaganda against Muslims.

René Girard and the roots of terrorism

Monday, January 12th, 2015
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“The French Revolution was thus such a huge event that some of its consequences are still being played out in the escalation to the extremes, of which Clausewitz was one of the first great military analysts. Thus, terrorism would have its roots in the Revolutionary Wars, of which Napoleon’s ‘regular’ army was the ultimate transformation.”


René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre (2010)

(my San Francisco Chronicle review of this book is here – and thanks to Artur Rosman for the quotation.)

We don’t know if there’s a heaven for animals, but we know for sure there’s a hell.

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015
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Mercy, please.

I think the better of Friedrich Nietzsche for this: “On January 3, 1889, he suffered a complete mental collapse when he saw a horse being flogged by a coachman in the city of Turin. He embraced the neck of the horse and wept uncontrollably. That moment of lucid insight into animal torment marked the end of his sanity.”

The incident is described in Robert Pogue Harrison‘s blog post yesterday, “Our Animal Hell,”  in the New York Review of Books, which considers the Pope’s recent remarks on animals, and compares it with our deplorable treatment of animals. I cannot describe how strongly I feel about this topic – people tend to blow you off when you attempt such a thing – so I’m glad Robert has done some of the talking for me, and more eloquently than I have ever done. The post is illustrated with Francisco de Zurbarán‘s famous painting (at left), which I have always found almost unbearable. If you read much about René Girard, you’ll run across the image a lot, used to illustrate his thoughts about sacrifice – he argues, plausibly, that the story of Abraham and Isaac is not a parable of blind and murderous obedience, but rather marks an anthropological shift from the sacrifice of humans to the sacrifice of animals as a substitution.  If you read much of the Old Testament, you’ll realize the ancient city of Jerusalem must have reeked the smell of animal blood and reverberated with the cries of terrified creatures.

An excerpt from Robert’s piece:

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With you on this one, Robert. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“We like to think of ourselves as the stewards or even saviors of nature, yet the fact of the matter is, for the animal world at large, the human race represents nothing less than a natural disaster. This applies to all creatures, from those we allow to roam ‘wild’ in designated nature preserves to those we cram together on our chicken farms; from the dancing bears of Anatolia to the bald eagles of Alaska, with their collar monitors; from the laboratory animals we test our cosmetic products’ chemicals on to the sharks whose fins leave the oceans to swim around in our nuptial soups. All creatures are under our yoke; and all, including our beloved horses, dogs, cats, and canaries, are subject to human persecution in one way or another.

“From a quantitative point of view our species guilt is more aggravated today than it ever was in the past, when Plutarch or Pythagoras cried out against animal murder and the consumption of animal flesh. As the French philosopher and biologist Jean Rostand put it, ‘Science has made us gods even before we are worthy of being men.’ While the scale of animal death has increased exponentially, the main issue today is no longer death but the coercive reproduction and perpetuation of animal life under infernal conditions of organic exploitation. Industrialized farming today, in its manipulation of the biological processes of genesis, growth, and multiplication, forces animals like cows, calves, turkeys, pigs, ducks, and geese into artificial, barely endurable forms of existence. Far more demonic than the slaughters and animal sacrifices of the past, our relegation of `these creatures to a standing reserve of consumable stock reduces their ‘lives’ to a worldless, merely mechanical process of flesh production.”

Nicholas Kristof expressed some of the same thoughts in a recent column in The New York Times: “Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.”

Read the whole thing here. Please.

Roberto Calasso’s Ardor: the Vedas, the mind, and the “inescapable role of violence”

Sunday, December 21st, 2014
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Super-compressed cores exerting an unseen unifying gravitation…

Roberto Calasso, one of Europe’s leading intellectuals and founder of Italy’s premier publishing house, Adelphi, frequently mentioned the Vedas was he was in town last month (I wrote about his visit here). No surprise, since the ancient Sanskrit texts have held a long held a fascination for him, throughout his career. Its verses and hymns are also the subject of his most recent book Ardor, which is reviewed by Pankaj Mishra in today’s New York Times Book Review and by Steven Donoghue in Open Letters Monthly. Donoghue offers a warning:

This author’s books are rhetorical equivalents of gas giants: their nominal subjects are the super-compressed cores exerting an unseen unifying gravitation, and the author’s enormous erudition, wide reading, and kitten-like distractibility form the layers and layers of roiling, chaotic, atmosphere extending for huge distances in all directions around the core. Outside the farthest reaches of that atmosphere, in the hard vacuum of space, wait the critics, their laser canons primed and ready – for the simple reason that Calasso’s scattershot, sometimes hysterical, and (kudos to [translator Richard] Dixon) frequently untranslatable scholarly woolgathering fails as often as it succeeds in, to further the planetary analogy, supporting life.

Calasso tosses Talleyrand and Tiepolo, Proust and Prajapati into his polymathic salad, along with many, many others (Kafka, for example). His guiding preoccupations: “the power and sovereignty of the mind and its relationship to the world, the basis of political and social order and the inescapable role of violence.”

An excerpt from Mishra’s review:

The Vedic Indians did not build great empires or monuments. Rather they sought an intense “state of awareness” that “became the pivot around which turned thousands and thousands of meticulously codified ritual acts.” Calasso is aware that most of his readers would regard the ritual of sacrifice as barbarous. But he sees in this contemporary recoiling an uneasy confession: that “this world of today is detached from and, at the same time, dependent on all that has preceded it.” Sacrifice was the means to acknowledge and contain violence through religious ritual and practice. But secular society with its frenzied worship of the new gods of money and power still consumes many victims without being aware of its sacrificial nature.

Calasso’s prose … demands familiarity with a very different intellectual tradition than the one manifest today in the pieties of radical, liberal and conservative thought. It assumes that the modern world can no longer explain its extraordinary violence and disorder in its own terms, and that we ought to understand the supposedly primitive customs and institutions, such as sacrifice, that linger invisibly in even postmodern societies.

ardor-coverOne of Calasso’s many interlocutors in Ardor is the religious anthropologist René Girard, who believes that mimetic desire — the desire to own what others possess — or envy, rather than transcendental authority, now underpins social order in secularized societies. But the mutual hatred and possibility of an “all against all” war it seeds is still defused by periodic scapegoating, the identification of internal or external enemies, whose violent suppression releases the tension built up by frustrated desire and unappeasable envy.

As Calasso sees it, modern warfare cannot rid itself, even despite a sophisticated machinery of killing and high death tolls, of the “lexical legacy of sacrifice,” which now includes words like “victim, self-denial, consecration, redemption, trial by fire.” The closing pages of Ardor echo the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen’s belief that “the submission of the individual to society — to the people — to humanity — to the idea — is a continuation of human sacrifice.” This has been continuously reflected in the catastrophic programs of social re-engineering from imperialism’s civilizing missions to Stalin and Mao’s socialist utopianism, and the more recent attempt to bomb whole countries into democracy, or shock-therapy them into free-market capitalism.

Today, the nation-states of Asia and Africa re-enact, in their pursuit of Western-­style modernity, human sacrifice on a vast scale and more pathological form. Calasso anticipates his reader wondering, “What can be the relevance of all we read in the Veda?” He is right to answer that such “microphysics of the mind” can bring about an “abrupt and disorientating shift of perspective” and, perhaps, snap us out of both naïve reverence for and smug disenchantment with the modern world. It is “now high time,” Goethe wrote in the early 19th century, “to envisage a humane global philosophy with no regard for nationality and creed.” Ardor outlines, in its own quirky way, that long-overdue and genuine intellectual cosmopolitanism.

Read the whole thing here. Or check out the Open Letters Monthly piece here. Or both.

Roberto Calasso speaks on “The Last Superstition” – Wednesday, Nov. 5, at Stanford

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014
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A one-man literary institution

In a 2012 interview, The Paris Review wrote this about Italy’s Roberto Calasso: “In a country where intellectuals like to complain, perhaps more than elsewhere, that literary culture has fallen by the wayside, Calasso has come to stand for a lost ideal: a writer on esoteric topics, a book collector, a translator of Nietzsche and Karl Kraus, and an editor who oversees the publication of some ninety books a year, in every domain from the scientific to the poetic, with a fiction list that ranges from Nabokov and Borges to Kundera and Bolaño.

Now he’s here. As part of the René Girard Lectures, Calasso will be speaking on “The Last Superstition” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 5, at the Cubberley Auditorium on the Stanford campus. The event is free and open to the public. Read more about the event here.

The lectures honor Stanford’s René Girard, one of the major thinkers of our time and a member of the Académie Française, by bringing bold minds to speak in Paris and Stanford, Girard’s two intellectual homes. The 2012 event in the series featured Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands. The Calasso event is co-sponsored by the Stanford Department of French and Italian, Imitatio (a project of the Thiel Foundation), and the Cultural Services of the Consulate General of France in San Francisco.

This excerpt of Calasso’s thought from The Paris Review interview shows some affinities with René Girard’s interests:

kaschCALASSO: …The point is, man has a surplus of energy which he has to dispose of. That surplus is simply life. There is no life without surplus. Whatever one does with that surplus, that decides the shape of a culture, of a life, of a mind. There were certain cultures that decided they had to offer it in some way. It is not clear to whom, why, and how, but that was the idea. There are other cultures, like ours, where all this is considered entirely useless and obsolete. In the secular world, sacrifice shouldn’t have any meaning at all. At the same time, you realize that it does, because the word has remained very much in use. In discussions of the economy, analysts speak all the time of sacrifices, without realizing what is inside the word. Even in psychological terms, sacrifice is a most usual word. It is considered illegal—for instance, if one celebrated a sacrificial ritual in the middle of London or New York, he would do something illegal, he would be put in jail. Sacrifice is connected to destruction—that is an important thing and the most mysterious one. Why, in order to offer something, you must destroy it. These are the themes of the last part of L’ardore.

INTERVIEWER:  You have said that Lévi-Strauss was afraid of the notion.

CALASSO: He couldn’t deal with sacrifice, it destroyed his whole theory. I have much admiration for Lévi-Strauss, and I learned a lot from him. But there are certain things, like ritual and sacrifice, that made him nervous, because they disrupted the architecture of his thought.

cadmusINTERVIEWER: But Bataille tackled it.

CALASSO: Bataille is the opposite. Bataille wrote of sacrifice all his life. His best book on that was La part maudite, a very audacious work. But Bataille was not a rigorous thinker. He wrote too much and had a terrible habit—ressassement, endless repetitions. Yet in a way, he put the question at the center of everything.

INTERVIEWER: I think it is also central for you. Why is sacrifice so important?

CALASSO: Maybe it’s simply because sacrifice brings us into dealings with the unknown. In the act of sacrifice, you establish a relation with something that you recognize as enigmatic and powerful. Our collective psyche seems to have lost touch with it, although science is providing countless motives for being overwhelmed by the unknown. The unknown itself is in our own mind as well—our mind is in its largest part totally unknown to us. Therefore, it is not only a relation to the exterior world, it is a relation to ourselves. We establish a connection with the unknown through the act of giving something and, paradoxically, the act of destroying something. That is what is behind sacrifice. What you offer and what you destroy, it is that surplus which is life itself.

kaINTERVIEWER: Descartes speaks of man as “maître et possesseur de la nature.”

CALASSO: Well, you find that notion already in Genesis. But that has its own consequence—guilt. Guilt lies at the root of sacrifice. Sacrifice is not a way to avoid guilt or to excuse guilt, it is a repetition of guilt. In a sense, it’s a reinforcement of guilt. The first guilt is the very fact of making things disappear. Killing is only one of the ways of achieving that. Eating is another.

These actions are all very closely connected and they reach very far back into prehistory. They have gone on for hundreds of thousands of years and have thus left their traces in our minds. You can take them into account or ignore them. Our world attempts to ignore them, it considers all of these things as very remote. In my books, I try to unearth them.

Read the whole thing here.

“Apocalypse as fate”: high-powered panel talks nuclear deterrence

Friday, June 20th, 2014
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dupuyIs nuclear holocaust inevitable?  Can we back away from the cliff we have been anxiously gazing over for 70 years – or in many cases, simply trying to ignore? Some say there’s no turning back. The German philosopher Günther Anders noted, after his visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1958: “Now that humanity is is capable of destroying itself, nothing will ever cause it to lose this ‘negative all-powerfulness,’ not even a total denuclearization of the world’s arsenals. Now that apocalypse has been inscribed in our future as fate, the best we can do is to indefinitely postpone the final moment. We are living under a suspended sentence, as it were, a stay of execution – a reprieve.”

Not everyone is so pessimistic. California Governor Jerry Brown joined Stanford historian David Holloway, who studies atomic energy during the Cold War years; Stanford cryptologist Martin Hellman, known for his risk analysis studies on nuclear threats; environmentalist and historian Jon Christensen, and Stanford philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who writes about the nexus of ethics and technology, for a conversation on “The Nuclear Menace” this week. Jean-Pierre was the principal reason I accepted the invitation to the event in Stanford Libraries’ Bender Room. He credited the man he called his mentor, René Girard, for some of his insights, which were also drawn from his recent book, The Mark of the Sacred, from Stanford University Press.

It was a dynamite panel all round, and Jerry Brown’s presence was enormously cheering. Why a California governor on a panel discussing nuclear deterrence? Brown reminded the group that, decades ago during his first stint as governor, he had been nicknamed “Governor Moonbeam” for his tendency to roam outside “the very narrow range of permissible topics. … The end of humanity ought to be a permissible topic.”

Back to the “Mark of the Sacred”: Jean-Pierre described how, in our world, “rationality appears to have relegated all remnants of the religious mind to the past” and yet is still greatly influenced by it. “The problem is not to reconcile reason and faith. It is to recognize the marks of the sacred in the most outstanding and the most terrifying achievements of the rational mind.”

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French author

Wait a minute. That’s where René Girard’s influence comes in. “The sacred” is a term that carries a lot of baggage, but it’s used here in a very precise Girardian way. “The sacred” is the way archaic societies bonded through rituals of sacrifice and violence. Jean-Pierre reminded us that the Latin root of sacred is sacer, which gives two faces to the sacred: a saint on one hand, the accursed on the other; the veneration on one, an abomination on the other. “One of the marks of the sacred is radical ambivalence. It is infinitely good, as it protects us from our own violence; it is infinitely evil, as it is intrinsically violent.” Elements of the archaic persist into our postmodern era for, as Hellman noted, we have powers that were once considered godlike. ”Only God could destroy a city; we can do that now,” he said – but would anyone consider the human race godlike in its maturity? he asked. Crickets.

Our attitude towards nuclear weapons matches this ancient pattern: “Their only usefulness today is said to be the fact that they protect us from others using them against us. In Biblical terms: Satan casts out Satan, and he is the only one capable of casting out Satan, that is, himself,” said Jean-Pierre.

While our nuclear arsenals are said to protect us against nuclear war, their absence would arguably be an even greater deterrent – a modern paradox. Dupuy cited military strategist Bernard Brodie: “one of the foremost factors making deterrence really work and work well is the lurking fear that in some massive confrontation crisis it may fail. Under these circumstances one does not tempt fate.” Jean-Pierre considered the interplay of accident and fate in our nuclear future – Oedipus’s fate required an “accident” at the crossroads for fulfilment, said Jean-Pierre. We are now dealing with “blind mechanisms, which make human passions, moral categories, intentions and strategic planning obsolete,” he said. In today’s world, “it may be rational to pretend to be irrational.” For example, Putin seems to prefer a chaotic, dangerous Ukraine rather than a democratic one that tilts towards European integration. “Putin’s behavior is a powerful generator of unpredictability. Strategic or not, this card may trump all the others.”

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Cold War historian (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

According to Dupuy, a nuclear holocaust could occur even without hatreds or passions. He reminded us of the dozens of times we were on the brink of nuclear war during the Cold War. Anders anticipated a “paradise inhabited by murderers without malice and victims without hatred. … No war in history will have been more devoid of hatred than the war by tele-murder that is to come … this absence of hatred will be the most inhuman absence of hatred that has ever existed; absence of hatred and absence of scruples will henceforth be one and the same.” (Sounds like warfare by drones, doesn’t it?)

A nuclear holocaust can occur even if no one wills it, given the automatic human tendency of escalation to extremes, as military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted, and as Girard elaborated in Battling to the End. The stakes that trigger such reactions can be ridiculously small – witness our entry into World War II, or the bickering between China and Japan over small islands in the Pacific. “All of this points to a new regime of violence in which human intentionality and human agency have become irrelevant.”

Martin-Hellman

Savvy cryptologist

Dupuy noted,”Linking Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Hannah Arendt and Günther Anders probed the scandalous reality that immense harm may be caused by a complete absence of malignity; that a monstrous responsibility may go hand in hand with an utter absence of malice. Our moral categories, they discovered, are powerless to describe and judge evil when it exceeds the inconceivable.”

Philosopher David K. Lewis summarized the situation this way: “You don’t tangle with tigers – it’s that simple.” The “tigers” are our own violent tendencies. Luck, chance, fate, and the tiger “point to a world in which humanity itself has become irrelevant and miscalculation can carry the day.”

Another Girardian note during the question-and-answer period: Jean-Pierre suggested that not all nations, even belligerent ones, aim for the annihilation of the other – for example, Iran may not be nuking up to destroy Israel, but rather because, in mimetic fashion, nations imitate each other, and “to be taken seriously on the world scene, you have to be nuclear.” He recommended that we “sever the link between prestige and nuclear possession.”

Someone quoted Whole Earth Catalog’s Stewart Brand, who updated his comment from 40 years ago, “we are as gods, we might as well get good at it” to the more imperative ”what I’m saying now is we are as gods and have to get good at it.” Jerry Brown offered what might be considered an “action point” for the afternoon: “Techno-optimism is a view that leaves out the virtue of humility. Optimism can be as lethal as pessimism,” he said, recalling the Tower of Babel. “Humility is in short supply among scientists and politicians and others as well.”  Well, that’s something we can start working on today.

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The guv’na with René Girard’s grandson, David Girard Brown of American University (Photo: Cynthia Hartley)

John Hennessy likes big fat books.

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013
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Love’s much better, the second time around: Stanford prez on the joy of rereading books. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford prez John Hennessy is famously techie, right?  Here’s the surprise: the former computer scientist also likes ploughing through the big-hearted, super-retro, thousand-page classics of the 19th century. “I like sagas, a big story plus decades,” he confessed to a good-sized crowd at Piggott Hall last week during an exuberant, free-wheeling talk on “Why I Read Great Literature.”  You know the books he means: the kind that gets turned into a year’s worth of BBC Masterpiece Theatre viewing.

les_miserables_bookHe’s clearly a man after my own heart – he singled out Victor Hugo‘s Les Miserables for particular praise, saying that he’s read the whole shebang several times. This is comforting to me personally, after watching René Girard, that anti-romantic sage and immortel, politely squelch a smirk when I told him of my childhood adoration of the book.

For Hennessy, an apparent turning point in his reading tastes occurred the summer before he entered high school – an over-the-vacation reading assignment that somewhat parallels Stanford’s Three Books program.  Clearly one of the books took hold of his imagination:  he’s read Charles Dickens‘s A Tale of Two Cities several times since.  And although he wasn’t up to reciting the magnificent 118-word opening sentence last week, he did refer to it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

How many books are enclosed by an immortal first and last sentence? Hennessy had better luck reciting the the famous close:  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

copperfieldDickens “has proven enough times that I could read anything he writes,” said Hennessy. “He grapples with Victorian England, social injustices, a system that obviously tramples on people.”  As for nasty schoolmaster Squeers, in Nicholas Nickleby: “If I ever met him, I would be forced to shoot him,” said Hennessy.  These books ask, he said, “How would I have approached that situation? What would I have done?”  Now we know. Hennessy would be compelled to commit homicide.  Fortunately, fortunately, Squeers must have died in Australia at least a century ago, presumably of natural causes.

Hennessy’s love for Dickens includes the worthy chestnut A Christmas Carol, which he rereads during the holiday season. As for David Copperfield, he gleefully quoted Mr. McCawber; apparently it’s one of his favorite lines: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Well, that’s the techie in him.  Throughout the talk he kept presenting numbered lists of thoughts – he likes counting.  I always wonder how you know that, when you say you have five points to make, it’s going to stay five points, and not meander into seven.  Or you’ll forget one and have only four left.  He seems to be good at keeping track.

Like many a young ‘un, he was frogmarched to the great classics.  Some books are not wise choices for teenage boys – Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example. “I wasn’t up to it. It was too deep, too much angst to it. High school angst is different.”

stendhal_5136“An author I was tortured by in high school was Edith Wharton,” he recalled pensively.  The inevitable high-school staple, Ethan Frome – it’s mercifully short, after all – was “not the right book for high school guys.”  What kid wants to read a tragic story of wasted lives?  They say love is much better the second time around – so it seems with these reheated feasts.  He’s warmed to Henry James, too, despite a premature exposure to “Turn of the Screw.”

I couldn’t agree more with his overall point, but I think the first exposure, however flawed, is important.  I’ve just rediscovered Stendhal in a big way after reading it in high school and finding it a little too cold-edged and cynical for my delicate teenage sensibilities.  It didn’t help that the class was reading it, for the most part, in French (we all cheated and found translations, of course – I now find it amusing that we thought Mademoiselle Vance didn’t expect us to do this). René Girard definitely approves of this late-life conversion to Stendhal.  I’ll have to have another go at Rabelais now, too.  These classics, reread at ten-year intervals, resonate within us at different layers of experience, but you do need a prime coat.

Hennessy’s passion is not restricted to Golden Oldies, or reheated feasts from early class assignments – he included some more recent fare in his endless list.  “Sometimes fiction is better at telling a story than non-fiction,” he said, citing this year’s Pulitzer prizewinning book, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (we’ve written about it here and here and here and, oh, lots of other places).  He also cited Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga‘s White Tiger, which helped prepare him for trips to India a few years ago.  Where does he get the time? Clearly, he doesn’t watch TV – I wrote about that here.

Orphan_Master_s_SonSepp Gumbrecht, author of In Praise of Athletic Beauty, offered what he called “the biggest compliment” to Hennessy: “I did not anticipate half an hour when I would not think about football.”  He praised Hennessy for taking a firm departure from clever literary theory and speaking with “unbridled and deliberately naïve enthusiasm” about books.  He noted the words and phrases Hennessy used most frequently in his talk (apparently, he was counting, too, which would certainly keep his mind off football):  1) redemption, redeeming; 2) tragedy, justice; 3) sacrifice, vengeance.  It doesn’t get better than this, does it?

divinecomedyWell yes, it does. Hennessy didn’t forget the slash-and-burn, blood-and-guts classics, Homer’s Iliad and Dante’s Inferno.

And what does he read at the end of the day, before bedtime?  “Junk,” he said.  Just like the rest of us.

He escaped by a side door during the refreshments – but not before George Brown and I pleaded with him to reconsider the Purgatorio, the only book in the Divine Comedy where time counts for something – which it did for Hennessy, too, clearly, as he rushed to his next appointment.

***

(Photo above has a gaggle of professors – the contemplative head-on-hand at far right belongs to Josh Landy.  Next to him with the snowy beard is Grisha Freidin.  The ponytail at his right belongs to Gabriella Safran.  Next to her (if you leap an aisle) is David Palumbo-Liu in black glasses, and the half-head to his right belongs to Sepp.  Humble Moi at far left with the black Mary Janes.  Many thanks for the excellent photography from Linda Cicero, which has often graced this site.)

 

Congratulations, Robert Harrison, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République Française!

Saturday, September 28th, 2013
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He deserves it. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

He deserves it. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Robert Pogue Harrison had a surprise when he arrived back at Stanford after his Italian summer.  In his mailbox, an official-looking letter had arrived from the French Minister of Culture, Aurélie Filippetti,  awarding him the diploma and bestowing the honorific title of “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres,” one of the highest cultural honors France offers.

The award was established in 1957 to “recognize eminent artists and writers and those who have contributed  significantly to further the arts in France and throughout the world.” In the past, it has awarded  T.S. EliotVáclav Havel, and Seamus Heaney, along with George Clooney, Frederica von Stade, Bono, and Sean Connery.  Think of Robert maybe as a cross between Havel and Clooney.  We’ve written about him before here and here and here and here.  He is one of Stanford’s most prolific and eminent authors, contributing to the New York Review of Books, oh, here and here and here.

Robert is the author of The Body of Beatrice (1988), Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992), The Dominion of the Dead (2003), and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008). All acclaimed and widely respected. His next book, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age, will be published by the University of Chicago in Autumn 2014. “It’s hard to characterize succinctly what it’s about,” he said to me. “What kind of age are we, culturally speaking, at this time? How old are we in this particular age?”

His esteemed books notwithstanding, he may be best known as the host (and founder) of Entitled Opinions, a weekly radio talk show that explores literature, ideas, ancient and modern history – all aspects of human experience, really. His guests are Stanford faculty and the scholars, writers and thinkers who visit the campus. (All the programs are available on the Entitled Opinions website.)

medailles

All three, please. Ta very much.

It’s not entirely a surprise that Robert, who is Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, has come to the attention of France in recent years. Three of his books have been translated into French.  Moreover, in Paris two years ago, he gave a well-received series of lectures at the prestigious Collège de France, founded by Francis I in 1530, on “Le phénomène de l’âge – Littératures modernes de l’Europe néolatine.”

However it came about, the honor, which is competitive and selective, is quite a coup. He will get a fancy little medallion and ribbon (see photo at right), which will be pinned to his left breast during a ceremony at the French consulate in San Francisco later this year.

Robert has been an invaluable inspiration to many over the years, persuasive in his thinking, passionate in his convictions, wise in his insights.  One of my own cherished memories of him was when he opened up a rather staid workshop on Hannah Arendt with a talk on “passionate thinking”:

The “overwhelming question” in the humanities, he said, is “How do we negotiate the necessity of solitude as a precondition for thought?”

“What do we do to foster the regeneration of thinking? Nothing. At least not institutionally,” he said. “Not only in the university, but in society at large, everything conspires to invade the solitude of thought. It has as much to do with technology as it does with ideology. There is a not a place we go where we are not connected to the collective.

“Every place of silence is invaded by noise. Everywhere we see the ravages of this on our thinking. The ability for sustained, coherent, consistent thought is becoming rare” in the “thoughtlessness of the age.”

He  is known as a brilliant scholar  – but among insiders, he is also celebrated as a loyal friend and a generous colleague.  In an academic environment renowned for egotism, Robert has been tireless in promoting others – not only the work of the great (for example, René Girard and Michel Serres, immortels of the Académie Française, are his friends as well as colleagues at Stanford), but also students, younger colleagues, the humble and the obscure.  I sat in on his Dante class last year; I know he is a gifted teacher as well.

The Ordre des Arts et des Lettres was confirmed as part of the Ordre National du Mérite by President Charles de Gaulle in 1963, adding to the luster of the award, which is competitive and selective. The order has three grades:  commandeur, officier, and chevalier.  From chevalier, one can rise within a few years to officier, and then commandeur.

But so far, Robert likes the title he’s got. Is it Chevalier Robert or Chevalier Harrison? Either way, it has a certain ring to it.  “I’ve always had a chevalier gallant complex,” he joked.  Does he award bestow anything beyond a medal?  “I’m looking for a horse.”  So we thought we’d find him one, here at right.  It’s a white one.

Postscript on 9/30:  Look what we found online!  Robert’s talk on “passionate thinking.”  Enjoy.  I know I will.

 

 

“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.”

 

René Girard gets new honor – from the King of Spain, no less

Friday, January 25th, 2013
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An immortel in 2005

I was visiting with René and Martha Girard last night at their Stanford home. He was a bit under the weather with an oncoming cold, and Martha brewed a Chinese tea for all three of us.  In the domestic setting, they didn’t whisper a word of the latest international news.  But here it is this morning:

Professor Emeritus René Girard will be granted the Order of Isabella the Catholic, Commander by Number, by the Spanish head of state, H.M. King Juan Carlos. Girard is receiving the decoration “for his outstanding work, during the past decades, in the fields of philosophy and anthropology.” … The Order of Isabella the Catholic is a Spanish civil order bestowed upon both Spanish citizens and foreigners in recognition of services that benefit the country.

What service has he rendered Spain?  Recall the role of Don Quixote in his landmark Deceit, Desire and the Novel.

A statement from the cultural advisors to King Juan Carlos points to Girard’s “profound attachment” to “Spanish culture as a whole” as reason for the award. Girard has repeatedly said that the works of Miguel de Cervantes, one of Spain’s greatest writers, have been crucial to him when it came to elaborating his theories.

Merci.

The article notes that the mimetic theory is “arguably” his most famous theory.  Okay, I’ll argue.  At least a little.  Having spent hours poring over the clippings in the Girard archives at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the biggest file of news clippings is easily Violence and the Sacred.  When I speak to Europeans – such as Mario Biagini, or Tomas Venclova – they say that Violence and the Sacred is the book that had a powerful impact on their thinking and their lives.

That’s the book that made an apparent (but only apparent) U-turn from literary theory to anthropology, sociology, and the social sciences.  He began to theorize about the origins of violence, and the role of the scapegoat in unifying societies.  He lost a few fans, no doubt, who wanted the shoemaker to stick to his last – but that’s the book that moved him into another sphere, making him one of the greatest thinkers of the last century.

The Consul General of Spain in San Francisco, Jorge Montealegre Buire, delivered the award to the immortel of the Académie Française in a private ceremony with his family today.  I hope it went well.

There is always a takeaway when I visit Girard.  This time I took away … his cold.  It may be a quieter weekend than I’d planned.