Posts Tagged ‘Robert Harrison’

Did Dante go mad in his hell?

Saturday, October 15th, 2016
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Virgil says don't listen

Did Dante lose it altogether? Hmmmm…

The Book Haven always enjoys Robert Harrison‘s reflections on Dantehere and here and here. There’s more of them this week over at the New York Review of Books website. Some will find it a controversial p.o.v. – I’ve studied Dante with Robert, as well as John Freccero (and Jeffrey Schnapp), so it’s less unfamiliar territory for me.

Robert has a slightly Girardian take on the Inferno – that is, adopting some of the perspective of the late, great French theorist René Girard – with his emphasis on reciprocal and escalating violence. You hit me, I hit you back, only harder. It’s the ruling principle of the Inferno. 

In a nutshell: Girard argued that we copy our desires from each other, and hence we long for the same object, honor, recognition, friendships as others do. Envy is one of our most underestimated vices. This “mimetic desire” leads to rivalry and competition, and sometimes violence and war. However, Robert brings genocide into the mix, with his eloquent and passionate argument.

Here’s a provocative excerpt from Robert’s essay, “Dante: He Went Mad in His Hell”:

If revenge and reciprocal violence are the essence of God’s justice, Dante’s Inferno despairs of God. It is impossible, at least for this reviewer, to read the cantos that bring Inferno to a close and not come to the conclusion that “Dieu n’est pas là,” as a French nun said of Bosnia-Herzegovina when it tore itself apart with civil war in the 1990s. The extravagance of the punishments in lower Hell suggests that in those cantos, if not in the canticle as a whole, an infernal rather than divine justice is on display.

When violence enters its cycles of reciprocity, when it spreads like a contagion out of all proportion, it turns into a form of mimetic insanity, drawing everyone, including God, into its vortex. Because Dante scholars operate on the assumption that their author is always in full control of his poem, they tend to blind themselves to all the indications that Dante—the author as well as his character—is starting to lose his mind at the end of Inferno.

rene-girard

We miss you, René.

In Inferno 28 the mimetic contagion is such that the pilgrim abuses a sinner with the words, “And death to your clan!” In canto 33, after Ugolino recounts how he cannibalized his children in the Tower of Hunger, Dante the author succumbs to wild murderous impulses. In his animus against the city of Pisa he bids the Arno River to overflow “so that it may drown every person in you!” Later in the same canto, Dante turns his rage against the city of Genoa: “Ah, men of Genoa, foreign to every decent usage, full of every vice, why have you not been driven from the world?” This is not the character but the author speaking. It is astounding, but true, that even the most acute commentators of The Divine Comedy pass over in silence these genocidal fantasies at the end of Inferno.

Read the whole thing here.

One of the best books of the 20th century? Werner Herzog is coming to Stanford to talk about J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine

Friday, January 15th, 2016
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J.A. Baker wrote The Peregrine at a precarious moment in environmental history: By the 1960s, the falcons had almost vanished entirely from the English countryside, thanks to aggressive use of pesticides. Baker’s response, an ecstatic panegyric to peregrines, stunned critics with its originality, power and beauty.

The little-known 1967 masterpiece will be the subject of an onstage conversation with legendary film director Werner Herzog, who has said that The Peregrine is one of his favorite books.

youngbaker

The young J.A. Baker, author of “The Peregrine.” (Photo courtesy Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex)

The Another Look book club event will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2. Free tickets have sold out; registration for the waiting list is offered through the Another Look book club’s website. The Peregrine is available at Stanford Bookstore and at Kepler’s in Menlo Park.

Herzog’s interlocutor will be Robert Harrison, an acclaimed author and Stanford’s Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular radio talk show Entitled Opinions. 

‘One of the finest pieces of prose’

Herzog has made edgy films about grizzly bears, prehistoric cave drawings in southern France, Rajput festivals, and more – but he also prides himself on his role as an author and screenwriter. The Peregrine is required reading in Herzog’s Rogue Film School, and he has called it one of the greatest books of the 20th century, praising “an intensity and beauty of prose that is unprecedented, it is one of the finest pieces of prose you can ever see anywhere.” [Read more here about what he’s said about the book. – ED]

The Peregrine, which received England’s prestigious Duff Cooper Prize, has no plot and no characters. Instead, Baker distills 10 years of observations into a single autumn-to-spring period, written as a diary. Baker’s passionate, unsparing descriptions of peregrine falcons in the fenlands of Essex convey the urgency of the historical moment:

“Before it is too late, I have tried to … convey the wonder of … a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa,” he wrote. By the spring of 1961, tens of thousands of birds were found littering the countryside, dead or dying in agony, along with other animals.

peregrine copyThe ecology movement has moved on to more global issues, but The Peregrine marks a point in history when the dangers were local and immediate. In that sense, it can be seen as a companion volume to Rachel Carson‘s book Silent Spring.

Some critics have attributed the elegiac tone to Baker’s own history. He had just been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and by 1969, when his second and last book was published, he was seriously incapacitated – just as Carson was mortally ill when she wrote Silent Spring.

Both Baker and his birds got a reprieve: The most lethal chemicals have been banned, and the peregrine population, once considered at risk of global extinction, has returned to levels not seen for centuries.

And Baker himself would live quietly until 1987, finally succumbing to the cancer that had resulted from the drugs prescribed for his condition.

‘Persist, endure, follow, watch’

In the days before Facebook, Twitter, selfies and Google searches, it was possible for a man to be little known outside his circle of friends. Privacy suited Baker, who was described as very reluctant to disclose anything about himself or his private views. In the years since his death, his trail has vaporized, leaving behind only his startling classic. A few details have become known in recent years.

Baker was born in Chelmsford in 1923, a son of the lower middle classes. His formal schooling ended at 16. He had no literary connections before the publication of his book. While initially said to be a librarian, he was in fact a manager of the local automobile association (though he couldn’t drive), and later a manager at a local depot of Britvic, a beverage company. He had a long and happy marriage.

Herzog

At the 2009 Venice Film Festival. (Photo: Nicolas Genin)

Sometime in his daily schedule, he found time to bike or hike to the Essex countryside, recording his observations in passages such as this one: “They had no song. Their calls were harsh and ugly. But their soaring was like an endless silent singing.” Baker became one of the most important nature writers of the last century.

“Baker’s legacy is real and lasting, evidenced in the fact that we’re still talking about it 50 years on, and cases like me are still trying to get inside his head,” wrote author and conservationist Conor Mark Jameson, who called the book “a love story of sorts.”

He noted that Baker “showed us how to relay feelings as well as bald records, how to write up notes, how to look, how to listen.

Experts then and now have challenged the accuracy of Baker’s observations, and a small controversy has erupted around the book – underscoring that this is an imaginative work as well as a personal record. But none challenge the mesmerizing beauty of his prose, which captures his despairing view of man and his own single-minded pursuit of the bird that obsessed him.

According to British naturalist and author Mark Cocker, “he drills down into the moment to haul back to the surface a prose that is astonishing for its inventiveness, yet also for its clarity and precision.”

Cocker added, “In fact if there is any criticism, it arises because there is so little down-time in the prose.”

Some have commented that The Peregrine is not so much about watching a bird, but is about becoming one: “Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms,” Baker wrote. “Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must become the thing he hunts. What is, is now, must have the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree. Yesterday is dim and monochrome. A week ago you were not born. Persist, endure, follow, watch.”

***

Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected have been Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces that people may not have read before. Visit the anotherlook.stanford.edu website for more details.

 

Dante in the dock: saved by his outrageous hope

Saturday, February 14th, 2015
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dante-eagle

And he talks, too: Dante and Beatrice before the eagle of Justice (Tuscany, Siena?), circa 1444-1450.

Dante Alighieri wasn’t a political exile – he was a criminal one. He was found guilty of corruption, extortion, and misuse of funds during his two-month term as city prior in 1300. The charge was based on little more than hearsay, and the sentence of permanent exile was irrevocable. He lost more than home and citizenship – he lost his good name.  And that’s the sore that itches throughout the Divine Comedy. As Robert Pogue Harrison eloquently writes in “Dante on Trial,” in the current New York Review of Books, “every reader of the Commedia, however naive or learned, hears the cry of this poem loudly and clearly. Its idiom may be medieval and alien, yet its clamor has the universal accent of a wronged individual shouting back at the world—a world that has the power to crush him but not to silence him. There is in each of us a stifled, potential, or inarticulate cry of this sort. The reason we read the Commedia is because no one in the history of literature has given it such a cosmic reach and sublime form.” (Read the whole essay here.)

steinbergThe story behind this anguish and this cry is told in Justin Steinberg‘s Dante and the Limits of the Law (University of Chicago Press), and Robert calls it the best book on Dante to appear in years.

Steinberg claims that, to a great extent, the Commedia’s “poetics are meant to rectify [Dante’s] damaged reputation.” One of the ways it does this is by dramatizing how wrong public opinion can be when it comes to a person’s moral character. Dante shocked his contemporary readers time and again by placing some of the most respected citizens of Florence in Hell (Farinata degli Uberti, Tegghiaio Aldobrandini, Arrigo di Cascia, Iacopo Rusticucci, Mosca de’ Lamberti, to name a few that Dante himself considered among the most “worthy”). By the same token he saves various souls who had been publicly condemned or excommunicated—people who, as Steinberg writes, “would have been considered infamous ‘instantaneously,’ ipso jure, without a trial or sentence.”

So the upstanding Florentines go down, down, down to one or another of the horrible circles, and things are looking up for some of the much-maligned. In short, the moral of the story (or one of them) is told when, in Heaven, the great eagle in Paradiso 20 declares: “And you mortals, hold back from judging, for we, who see God, do not yet know all the elect.”

But wait, there’s a hitch:

Hold back from judging. Fair enough. But where does that leave the Commedia? Either we believe that the poem had a superhuman authorship (that Heaven set its hand on it, as Dante claims in Paradiso 25), in which case we are free to believe that its vision represents God’s true moral order; or else we believe that it had a strictly human authorship—that Dante Alighieri, the historical individual, created its poetry of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven—in which case we must assume that Dante was the arbiter who saved or damned the souls his wayfarer meets on the journey.

This is not the first time Robert has taken issue with Dante – I’ve heard him lecture, and he’s deeply troubled by Dante’s harsh pronouncements of damnation. If, as he writes above, we attribute “superhuman authorship,” as Dante himself claims, we’re left with a bitter and judgmental man, vengefully dishing out punishments to his foes (and a few of his friends, such as Brunetto Latini, too). As Robert put it very bluntly, “Dante was virtually certain that upon his death he would be going to Purgatory and not to Hell. In Purgatorio he predicts that he will be spending significant time on the terrace of pride, but not much time on the terrace of envy, before ascending into Heaven to join the saints. If I were Dante, I would not have been so sanguine about my prospects. No one could write a canticle like Inferno without possessing a great deal of infernal powers, and considerable malice.”

shaw-danteHe notes that Prue Shaw, author of the other book he considers in his essay, Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity (Liveright) calls Dante a very “human” individual, always noting his own propensity to the sins he condemns (and indeed, he succumbs to them in the course of the drama). “The Commedia would be unreadable if Dante presumed even the slightest moral superiority over his readers. The only virtue he claims for himself in abundance is hope. Indeed, the reason Dante remained certain that he was destined for Heaven was not because of self-righteousness but because he had a profusion of hope.”

So was it “superhuman authorship,” or the long, grief-stricken exhalation of a lot of bitterness and shame? My answer: why not both? I’ll credit those who say the Florentine poet was greatly changed by his experiences – and some even claimed that his beard was singed by his infernal journey. In the first canto of the Inferno, he says he “came to” in a dark wood, which suggests some sort of altered experience that would change his life forever. However, that doesn’t mean that the vision wasn’t mixed up with his own subjectivity; visions always are. Look at all those seers who saw the Virgin Mary speaking in Croatian or speaking in Japanese and wearing a kimono. Look at all those Jeremiahs who predicted the end of a world that hasn’t ended yet, and, since I last checked, is still spinning like a top. Even trying to be as pure and as objective as can, we can’t get it right, we can’t get out of our own skins. We stand in our own light. That’s the human condition, too.

A more interesting question might be: what does Dante tell us about our world that we do not recognize ourselves? Here’s my take: we live in a time and in a generation that thinks everything is negotiable, and that every psycho-spiritual lock can be jimmied. As W.H. Auden put it, we push away the notion that “the meaning of life [is] something more than a mad camp.” For us, there’s always a second, third, and fourth chance. It’s a strength – but it’s a weakness, too. Maybe that’s why we resist Dante. We don’t realize that some things are for keeps. There’s not always another day. Not all choices can be reversed with every change of heart – and no, our heart isn’t always in the right place. Words unsaid may remain forever unsaid. And perhaps no choice is trivial or innocent: it is the choices that bring us to ourselves, the choices that reveal and work as a fixative for our loves, our priorities, and our direction.

little_florentine_angel_heart_sticker-rc2267a0b97ae44beb8622c15021a4af4_v9w0n_8byvr_324Speaking of unsaid words … I hope all of you have done your Valentine’s Day correspondence – for the day is a celebration of agape, even more than eros. No shirking, and no complaints that one is “alone.” If there’s any lesson to draw from Dante, it’s that we are never truly alone. Certainly I’m not. So consider this my Valentine to Dante, with gratitude, and thanks to all my faithful Book Haven readers, too. From the bottom of my cheesy little Florentine heart. Mwwwaaa!

 

 

 

“Oy!” said Dante…and no parking on the sidewalks.

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
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Dante_Giotto

“Ahi…”

We visited Robert Pogue Harrison today, and that short tête-à-tête reminded us of the excellent piece he wrote a few months ago, “Dante: The Most Vivid Version” in the New York Review of Books. It was a fascinating essay (read it here), but he had reservations about the Clive James version of the first canto of The Divine Comedy, and compared it unfavorably to Mary Jo Bang‘s translation:

Clive James gives us a much less dramatic version:

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out….

James omits the all-important pronoun “our,” and his smooth cadence does not suit the emotion of panic nearly as well as Bang’s staccato version. The only reason James tacks on “I found” to the first line, and then tacks on “the way” to the second, is for the sake of a rhyme (James decided to cast his translation in quatrains, and to rhyme them abab). James’s version continues:

 The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—

To interpolate a “keening sound” here is ludicrous, for at the start of the poem Dante has just returned from the luminous realm of Christian beatitude, so he would not “still” be wailing or shrieking with grief. The distortion seems a high price to pay for the sake of a rhyme.

Antony Shugaar of Charlottesville, Virginia disagreed. His letter was published some time ago, but we just found it today, here, and share it with you today:

Careful.

Careful.

I’m a professional translator from the Italian, and a longtime aficionado of Dante. I therefore read Robert Pogue Harrison’s piece with great interest. I feel that Professor Harrison may have slighted Clive James’s version on one point. “To interpolate a ‘keening sound’ here is ludicrous,” he writes. And yet, there is a keening sound present in Dante’s Italian, unless my eyes deceive me.

The fourth line of The Divine Comedy begins with the word “Ahi,” which represents a sound and a thought that we have in English only at a barely articulated level. It sounds like “eye,” but with a twist: “iyiyi” is one way I’ve seen it written in English. It is a slightly modified version of the sound an Italian might make after hitting himself on the thumb with a hammer. It is, in short, a keening sound. And as you can see, rendering it in English is no simple matter. Thus, James editorialized.

Longfellow rendered it as: “Ah, me.” Not a keening sound, perhaps, but neither is it the sound you’d expect from someone just back from the “luminous realm of Christian beatitude.” Longfellow’s version sounds like a maiden aunt. Dante’s did not, and in fairness to James, he rendered it, clearly and accurately, by editorializing.

It all goes to show the meaning that you can wring out of a careful reading of Dante.

We googled a bit, and found Shugaar on a number of websites. On this one, he explains his philosophy on translating from the Italian. Here’s an excerpt from Publishing World:

Of course, I understand the idea of preserving certain aspects for philological reasons. There is a translation of Machiavelli’s Discourses that intentionally reads as if it were written by a Martian, because it closely follows the sixteenth-century original, to give a perfect mirroring of certain terms. But it’s a pity, because Machiavelli was also a stylist.

But I believe that a translator should have freedom. Obviously, with freedom comes responsibilities. The responsibility to be absolutely faithful to the author’s intent (and that intent can only be found in the words of the original, so those words must be read closely). If you think the author’s intent was to write something weird, awkward, and foreign-sounding, embrace that. But on the whole, I think that if it sounded idiomatic in the original, you’re failing the author if you produce anything less than that in English.

shugaar

Translator Shugaar

I’m happy to produce a fully annotated version of anything I translate, showing where every element came from. Occasionally I’ll invent a joke or a pun to account for one that couldn’t come across. But that adheres to the law of the conservation of meaning: meaning can neither be lost nor destroyed in a closed translational system.

William Weaver once said that the hardest word in Italian to translate is “Buongiorno.” First of all, we think of it as two words. Second of all, it doesn’t mean “Good day,” except perhaps to an Australian. I often leave words like that in Italian. Unless, of course, the Italian novel is set in New York with American characters. For instance. Or Paris. Or Tokyo.

In Italian settings, you can have odd issues of style, protocol, and engineering. For instance, I remember a short story by Valeria Parrella that talking about someone moving from the road to the sidewalk. But in many places in Italy, the road is made of slabs of stone, and the sidewalk is paved with asphalt. Sort of the reverse of Brooklyn. So you might want to give the reader a tip as to which surface is asphalt, which stone. Or the fact that a sidewalk is where you park your car, now that we’re on the topic (that was a narrative point in a book by Fabio Bartolomei). The best illustration of that point I can think of was a street-cleaning/no-parking sign I saw in Milan many years ago. “Street cleaning next Wednesday, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Absolutely NO parking, NOT EVEN ON THE SIDEWALKS.” There you have it.

Man on the move … Dante, Robert Harrison, and The Divine Comedy in the NYRB

Saturday, October 5th, 2013
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Dante_Giotto

Da Man.

Links to Robert Pogue Harrison’s essay in the current New York Review of Books are everywhere – why should we be an exception?  All the more so, since we wrote about him a few days ago here, celebrating his most recent honor and title, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République Française, which has a rather pleasant ring to it. His latest review, “Dante: The Most Vivid Version,” considers Mary Jo Bang‘s translation of the Inferno and Clive James‘s translation of The Divine Comedy, as well as Dan Brown‘s Inferno.

I had the privilege of attending Robert’s class on Dante’s masterpiece a year or so ago, and so it’s no surprise to me that his essay focuses on … motion:

… the big difference between the sinners in Dante’s Hell and the penitents in his Purgatory is that the former are going nowhere, while the latter are moving toward a goal, namely the purgation of their sins and their eventual assumption into Paradise. In Purgatory time matters, and motion has a purpose. In Hell, by contrast, no matter how much the souls may be buffeted by storms, or run on burning sands, or carry heavy burdens, motion leads nowhere. In Dante’s vision Hell is a never-ending waste of time.

The great metaphysical doctrine underlying The Divine Comedy is that time is engendered by motion. Like the medieval scholastic tradition in which he was steeped, Dante subscribed to Plato’s notion that time, in its cosmological determinations, is “a moving image of eternity.” He subscribed furthermore to the Platonic and Aristotelian notion that the truest image of eternity in the material world is the circular motions of the heavens. Thus in Dante’s Paradiso, the heavenly spheres revolve in perfect circles around the “unmoved Mover,” namely God.

In the final analysis there are two kinds of motion in the world for Dante: the predetermined orderly motion of the cosmos, which revolves around the Godhead, and the undetermined motion of the human will, which is free to choose where to direct its desire—either toward the self or toward God. Yet be it self-love or love of God (love of neighbor is a declension of the latter), what moves the heavens is the same force that moves both sinners and saints alike, namely amor.

infernoRobert’s familiar music made for wonderful reading last night, but here’s the surprise.  He rather likes Bang’s translation.  If one one is going to take liberties with the translation – and she does– there should be a payoff, and “the payoff is a highly dynamic phrasing, with imagery and rhythms that intensify the sense of entrapment and disorientation,” he writes. I haven’t followed the reviews for Bang’s translation, let alone read the book, but most of the early critical bouquets were thrown by jazzed-up media types who like their Dante to sound like an addled meth addict.  Robert’s reading is more nuanced and intelligent than those hasty reactions … we have waited over a year for it.

Clive James does ring Robert’s bell on occasion – he singles out this passage towards the end of the essay, from the end of the Paradiso:

…but now, just like a wheel
That spins so evenly it measures time
By space, the deepest wish that I could feel
And all my will, were turning with the love
That moves the sun and all the stars above.

 

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.

 

 

Dante and crowds

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012
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Gustave Doré's version of Canto III: "...like a bird at its call."

Dante‘s Divine Comedy is brimming with crowd scenes.  Take this one, in Canto III of the Inferno, as Dante visits the damned souls who are waiting to be ferried to hell:

Come d’autunno si levan le foglie
l’una appresso de l’altra, fin che ‘l ramo
vede a la terra tutte le sue spoglie,
similemente il mal seme d’Adamo
gittansi di quel lito ad una ad una,
per cenni come augel per suo richiamo.

In Charles Singleton‘s translation: “As the leaves fall away in autumn, one after another, till the bough sees all its spoils upon the ground, so there the evil seed of Adam: one by one they cast themselves from that shore at signals, like a bird at its call.”

In a recent lecture, Robert Harrison pointed out the classical sources for the image of leaves: Aeneas sees the same infernal scene in his visit to the underworld in Book 6 of the Aeneid.  Since Virgil was by Dante’s side during his otherworldly excursion, the comparison would have been on his mind. Here’s Virgil’s version (in Robert Fitzgerald‘s translation)

..as many souls
As leaves that yield their hold on boughs and fall
Through forests in the early frost of autumn,
Or as migrating birds from the open sea
That darken heaven when the cold season comes…

Individual, particular names (Photo: Creative Commons)

But Robert noted that Dante put a new twist on Virgil’s old image, “It’s a traditional epic simile – but he singularizes it.”  Robert compared it to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, whose massive presence resolves, as you draw nearer, into thousands and thousands of individual, particular names.

So the Inferno is composed of carefully delineated individuals – the mass “that swirls unceasingly in that dark and timeless air, like sand when a whirlwind blows” never entirely fades into facelessness.

•••

In all the images of leaves, sand, and birds, this one could easily be overlooked:

E come li stornei ne portan l’ali
nel freddo tempo, a schiera larga e piena,
così quel fiato li spiriti mali
di qua, di là, di giù, di sù li mena;

“And as their wings bear the starlings along in the cold season, in wide, dense flocks, so does that blast the sinful spirits; hither, thither, downward, upward, it drives them.”

It certainly grabbed me: My daughter, Zoë Patrick, is a “birder,” and during a recent trip to Golden Gate Park, she pointed out the drab and speckled birds who could be identified (she said) because they look like “flying cigars.”

They are apparently not native here: a Bronx drug manufacturer, one Eugene Schieffelin, decided to import them, in an effort to have all the birds from William Shakespeare‘s works in the U.S.

Shakespeare, you see, chose to include the starling in Henry IV, when another soldier, the fiery Hotspur says, “The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he is asleep, and in his ear I’ll holler ‘Mortimer!’ Nay I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.”

That’s because starlings can be taught to talk – see the video below of a starling saying, “Give me a kiss, baby.” Or go here to see a video of an even more voluble starling besotted with its own name, “Damar.”

But why did Dante’s choose starlings for his metaphor of movement?  Christian Stanley Ciesielski let me know what a “murmuration” of starlings can do – see the first video below for that, too.

As Christian suggested, “Imagine a whole murmuration of ‘Give me a kiss, baby.'”   Another expression of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

50th anniversary of René Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel gets kisses and punches

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011
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Josh Landy’s practical application of Girard’s “mimetic theory”

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of René Girard‘s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel – and if you don’t think that’s a big deal, try looking at the website here for scheduled celebrations at Stanford, Berlin, São Paulo, Cambridge, and Yale.  Berkeley symposium is described  here.

I can’t say I sampled many of the events, but I did drop by for a few of the Stanford talks, notably Robert Harrison‘s opening and closing remarks, and Josh Landys anti-Girard talk, “Valentine’s Day,” especially since Josh said he had written his remarks with me in mind (we had quarreled somewhat over at Arcade months ago, which is how we met).

Robert noted that René is a leading Christian thinker – “to what degree is that a stumblingblock?” he asked.  He said “René is one of the titans of the 20th century – of whom there are few.”

Yet “Girard’s standing is in doubt,” he said. “Precisely the Christian framework within which people understand Deceit, Desire, and the Novel can turn people off.”

The conference, to circumvent the perceived problem, limited its scope to the 50-year-old book  they were celebrating, considering René’s mimetic theory and “the invidious nature of human desire,” but banishing his theories about the scapegoat mechanisms and civilizations from the event.  Robert wanted to explore “to what extent one doesn’t have to buy into the whole theory,” since modern people don’t want “to submit to a totalizing theory.”

“Girard does not believe the truth of literature is confined to the text,” said Robert.  “He believes that the truth has to be wrestled from concealment.”

Hence, he is “pressing to uncover the structure of certain psychological laws … the primary site of revelation.”  He is trying to learn “the truth that applies to human religions in general.”

Noting that “very, very few anthropologists give any credence” to René’s thoughts on the anthropology of religion” because “he comes to anthropology as an amateur” (René called it “poaching” when he spoke to me), Robert compared him to  Heinrich Schliemann, the German businessman who was right about Troy, but whose successful amateur attempts to excavate destroyed important archaeological layers of the real Troy.

“Even if it’s true, they will not take him seriously.”

I did, also, attend a few of the events in Berkeley.  The two gatherings – one at Berkeley; one at Stanford – were like night and day.  The Berkeley gathering focused on the theological aspects of René’s work, as well as the literary, with presentations on Girardian connections with Simone Weil, Molière, Rousseau, and others.  The Berkeley crowd was older, and predominantly male; the Stanford crowd was younger, trendier, with more women.  But there was an more profound split in orientation, which has interesting presentiments for the thinker’s legacy.

At Berkeley, I scribbled a few of René’s sayings in my notebook, as they were related by others.  “Philosophers never include themselves in their philosophy.” “Laughter means a denial of reciprocity.” “Escaping from mimesis is something only geniuses and saints can do.” “I am really a positivist, but I’m too ashamed to admit that – it is such a peasant thing to be.” “All art is incarnation.”

Robert Hamerton Kelly, at Berkeley, trumped all with his quote, when René said of his work, “I really shouldn’t have called it a theory – but every French intellectual has to have a theory.  It’s just a few observations of human behavior.”

“That took the wind out of my sails,” he said.

Robert Harrison, Atlantis, Athens, and us: “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire”

Friday, April 15th, 2011
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Robert Harrison, DJ for radio show "Entitled Opinions" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Before I attended the Workcenter’s I Am America the other night, I stopped by Cubberley Auditorium, where Robert Harrison was speaking about the communication between the living and the dead.  How could one resist such an intriguing topic?

T.S. Eliot said that “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” But the program was tamer: “the most ancient vocation of poetry – whether lyric or epic – is to keep open the channels of communication between the past and the present.”

Alas, because of the 8 p.m. curtain on the other side of campus, I didn’t get much farther than Rush Rehm‘s introduction (he called Robert “the most valuable humanist at the university”) before I had to dash.  But Robert kindly left me an intriguing scrap of what he’d said, inspired by Plato‘s Timaeus.

It begins with Critias telling Socrates an “old world story” that he had heard from his grandfather, who was over 90. The grandfather had heard it from his father, who had heard it from Solon the sage, who had heard it from an old priest during his visit to the Egyptian city of Sais.

...and Socrates told it to him.

“Athens, he declares, is even more ancient in its founding than the city of Sais, but the Greeks have no memory of its origins, due to the annihilations of its former civilizations.  These annihilations, brought on by periodic ‘declinations’ of the heavenly bodies, unleash ‘a great conflagration of things upon the earth.’ It was one of these conflagrations that destroyed Atlantis, an ancient civilization of which Solon’s Greek’s have no memory, even though it was their forefathers who thwarted the transoceanic Atlantean conquest of Europe.”

The old man concluded: “and so you have to begin all over again like children, and know nothing of what happened in ancient times, either among us or among yourselves.”

Then Harrison continued:  “Today we have the privilege of seeing this volcanic process at work up close, in technicolor, as it were, as the entire Christian-humanist civilization that slowly consolidated itself in the wake of Rome’s collapse unravels before our eyes.  It was said of President James Garfield that in moments of boredom or to amuse his friends he would take a pencil in each hand and compose sentences in Greek and Latin at the same time.

Ambidextrous

“If one considers that, as a student, Thomas Jefferson used to translate the Greek Bible into Latin, and vice versa, one realizes to what extent the ‘heavenly declinations’ have unleashed their fury upon the American presidency.

“It was not so long ago that a university professor in the classroom would typically leave Greek and Latin quotes untranslated. Then he began to provide a translation for the Greek but not for the Latin. Nowadays he must tell his students that there was once such a thing as the Greek and Latin tongues, that there was once a place called Athens, and so forth. Shortly the professor won’t know even that much. Oh he’ll know it, in a way, but he will not know what to make of it, and when you don’t know what to make of something you eventually forget about it.”

“By Love Possessed”? René Girard and John Freccero on Francesca da Rimini

Sunday, March 20th, 2011
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By literature possessed?

Patrick Hunt is off on his usual wanderings — this time he’s in London till the end of the month, but he did take time to drop me a quick note when he was  “again reminded how profound René Girard‘s impact has been on literature – not to mention other disciplines – in this Dante essay by John Freccero on Francesca da Rimini“:

The phenomenon of mimetic desire is at the center of the work of René Girard, one of the most powerful theorists of culture of our time. Perhaps because his early work on the novel has been overshadowed by his profound influence in anthropology, social studies and comparative religion, few students of Dante seem to know his essay of fifty years ago, dedicated to the canto of Francesca. In the briefest of terms, his point was that the desiring subject imagines, as does Francesca, that desire springs spontaneously from within, while the truth that is revealed by Dante and the greatest of novelists, is that desire is always triangular, “mediated” by the desires of the other—in this case, as in the case of Don Quixote, by a book. In a few mordant pages, Girard debunked the romantic reading of Francesca’s story, showing that it was simply a repetition of her own initial mystification. When Girard wrote, the best-selling love story of the time was entitled By Love Possessed; Girard’s title was polemic, summing up the delusion propagated by all such “romance” stories: “By Literature Possessed.” His point was that desire is essentially imitative, searching for a model, and that literature provides it with an imaginary map. Dante’s text was not complicit in “romantic” deception. On the contrary, Francesca’s last words exposed the roman as a panderer and seducer, leading the lovers to their destruction. Her story anticipated those of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Cervantes in the genre of the “anti-roman.”

Patrick added,  “I’ve heard Freccero lecture on Dante at Stanford, and only wish I’d heard Girard as well on Francesca and Canto 5 of the Inferno. I’ve written poems on this story – seemingly like everyone else! – and the tale of Francesca is nigh well eternal, as you know, and not just from Robert Browning onward. One magister’s encomium to another: from Dante to Girard to Freccero and this forthcoming book also has an excellent new essay by Robert Harrison on this same never-ending story. The haunting Ingres painting on this Dante passage is one of my absolute favorite ekphrases.”  Not to mention Tchaikovsky‘s opera.

Patrick’s own edited volume on the subject, Critical Insights:  The Inferno, will be out in September.  It includes Freccero’s essay.

Actually, I studied Dante with the world-renowned expert Freccero years and years ago — he assigned the Charles Singleton prose translation, he said, because we should never give up on learning the Italian.  I remember him emphasizing that the Paolo Malatesta, far from being the George Clooney of an earlier era, has become the voiceless lunk by Francesca’s side, and her attitude towards him is almost contemptuous.   “Amor condusee noi ad una morte.”