Posts Tagged ‘Robert Pogue Harrison’

“A Metaphysics of Negativity”: Brothers Robert and Thomas Harrison discuss Expressionism and the Year 1910

Thursday, June 21st, 2018
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“THE BEAST WE HAVE WITHIN US WILL STICK ITS HEAD UP THE MINUTE HE CAN GET AWAY WITH IT.”

Thomas Harrison

When Halley’s Comet passed over the world in 1910, newspapers prophesied doom. The era was already overshadowed by social, spiritual, and political unease. That year, Sigmund Freud published Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis and formulated his first sketch of the Oedipal complex. Rainer Maria Rilke published his only novel, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Writer and philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter completed his thesis and shot himself, one of the era’s many suicides. Meanwhile, Arnold Schoenberg was emancipating dissonance with his Theory of Harmony, which was written in the summer of 1910. The following year, Oswald Spengler would begin his landmark Decline of the West.

“The nihilism of the First World War was presaged, summarized, and mourned in the music, poetry, and thought which a great many artists and thinkers produced in the year 1910,” said Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison. “It seemed to play out all the worst nightmares that had obsessed the Expressionists.”

Just warming up with Oedipus

This episode of Entitled Opinions at the Los Angeles Review of Books is a family affair. Said Robert Harrison, “Brothers punctuate cultural history. We have the Brothers Grimm, the Marx Brothers, the Schlegel brothers, the Goncourt brothers. It so happens I have a brother, too, who like me, is a professor of literature who has written a few books.”

In the introduction to his 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance (University of California Press, 1996), UCLA professor Thomas Harrison wrote, “Nineteen ten is the spiritual prefiguration of an unspeakably tragic fatality, heard in the tones of the audacious and the anguished, the deviant and the desperate, in the art of a youth grown precociously old, awaiting a war it had long suffered in spirit.”

First and only novel

In this fraternal conversation, Thomas and Robert Harrison discuss leading figures in the umbrella movement called “Expressionism,” including poet Georg Trakl, painter Wassily Kandinsky, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Filippo Marinetti, as well as Rilke, Spendler, Schoenberg, and others.

What do the Expressionists say to us today? “Of course, the darkness of their vision didn’t turn a lot of people on,” explains Thomas Harrison. “During the reconstruction of Europe after World War I, we had to forcibly leave that stuff behind. But don’t forget that every time you leave something behind it comes back. So it came back in World War II. Human nature does not change, although we think we’re getting better and more rational. The depths of the soul that they probed are the same depths that people try to keep hidden and secret, over and over and over. While it may not be not much fun to listen to Schoenberg’s atonal music, it’s a reminder that the beast we have within us will stick its head up the minute he can get away with it.”

Listen to the podcast of this fascinating Harrison-on-Harrison discussion here.

“HUMAN NATURE DOES NOT CHANGE, ALTHOUGH WE THINK WE’RE GETTING BETTER AND MORE RATIONAL.”

More potent quotes from Thomas Harrison:

“These artists were perhaps the most ethically and philosophically committed generation of artists since the Romantics.”

“They developed a metaphysics of negativity. Being itself was considered a rotten set-up.”

“We no longer share this negative metaphysics today. We do everything we do to ignore it and forget about it and put it under the rug – to repress it again.”

“I Am Not a Man, I Am Dynamite” : Peter Sloterdijk on Nietzsche

Thursday, May 17th, 2018
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He saw a deep connection between moral philosophy and public relations.

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“IT’S VERY HARD TO CONCEIVE OF A SANE GOD.”

Peter Sloterdijk is one of the most controversial thinkers in the world. In many ways, he is the heir of Friedrich Nietzsche, who is sometimes said to have inaugurated the 20th century. On Entitled Opinions, host Robert Harrison opens his discussion with Sloterdijk with the sound of an explosion, and Nietzsche’s words, “I am not a man, I am dynamite.” The podcast is up today at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

Sloterdijk says the words had helvetic echoes, since Switzerland was the first to blast a passageway through the Alps to tunnel new passages to Greece: “That is the metaphysical question for all these northern peoples. How can we win back an easier access to the Mediterranean truth, the really big dream-essence?”

The enfant terrible of philosophy (Photo: Rainer Lück)

Yet Nietzsche had his own access to the Greeks — and had the dynamite within him. In particular, he was the first to ask what meaning Dionysius might have for us. Nietzsche’s whole life work was an effort to uncover the meaning of the non-Olympic god who is “something to come, and something already present.” Nietzsche sought to discover how “the dismembering of Dionysus and his suffering recreates the world and makes a new form of social synthesis possible,” according to Sloterdijk (who was bravely battling a cold during the conversation).

“Nietzsche was right, to certain extent, when says ‘my soul should have been a singer rather than a writer.’ What he did in his later days was exactly that. That’s why Nietzsche later became, especially in Zarathustra, ‘the singer of a metaphysics of high noon.’” Sloterdijk calls that passage a European answer to the enlightenment of Buddha under the bodhi tree: “He describes the messenger as a person sleeping in the grass under tree and tied to life only with a very thin thread. You must not move. Dionysus is there. Don’t even breathe. The world has become perfect. He’s looking for the moments when he was even able to bear the burden of his divine predicament.”

“Nietzsche was among the very rare thinkers who had a feeling that there is a deep connection moral philosophy and public relations. This can be shown in the subtitle of Zarathustra — a book for all and nobody. Ein buch für alle und keinen.” It’s a mark of Nietzsche’s genius. He was acting as a kind of “action teacher,” and discovered a higher morality in writing a book for everyone and no one, a path between animal and the superman. Nietzsche likens it to a rope-walker.

More than a party guy.

“He sees the ropewalker, he has fallen down. He says, out of danger you made your profession. There is nothing despisable in that. And for that reason I am going to bury you with my own hands. It’s not success that decides everything, it is the will to remain within the movement and to walk on the rope.”

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Philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk has been called a “celebrity philosopher,” and is one of Germany’s foremost thinkers. From 2001 to 2015, he was the rector of the State Academy of Design at Karlsruhe, where he has been a professor of philosophy and media theory since 1992. From 1989 to 2008 he was director of the Institute for Cultural Philosophy at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He co-hosted the German television show Im Glashaus: Das Philosophische Quartettfrom 2002 to 2012.

His books include: Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism (1986), The Spheres Trilogy (1998, 1999, 2004), Rage and Time (2010), Nietzsche Apostle (2013), You Must Change Your Life (2013), and Not Saved: Essays after Heidegger (2016).

In 2016, he taught a four week seminar at Stanford University on the philosophical implications of cynicism, with particular focus on his book Critique of Cynical Reason, a thousand-page book that sold more copies than any other postwar book on German philosophy.

“THERE IS A DEEP HILARITY IN WISDOM.”

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More potent quotes:

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“Modernity is all about disillusionment.”

“We rarely meet a person who such a high opinion of himself.”

“We live in the dust of deconstruction of metaphysical traditions.”

“In my ordinary voice I’m a baritone, but in my writing I’m a tenor. That is absolutely the case with Nietzsche.”

 

Did the earth shake? Another Look totally rocked Philip Larkin’s 1947 novel, “A Girl in Winter.”

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018
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Liddie Conquest discusses Philip Larkin with Robert Harrison. (All photos by David Schwartz)

Monday, April 30, marked a notable event in the literary world: perhaps the first-ever discussion of poet Philip Larkin‘s 1947 novel, A Girl in Winter at a top-ranking university. If the event does have a precedent, it’s unlikely to have matched the high-caliber expertise assembled at the Bechtel Conference Center that night. Another Look Director Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the discussion. The Stanford professor also hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions, and contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. He was joined by renowned author and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English at Stanford.

Literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest, universally known as “Liddie,” completed the trio of panelists. She knew Philip Larkin personally—he was a close friend of her late husband, historian and poet Robert Conquest—and has written about Larkin’s poetry.

Robert Harrison introduces the book.

Some said it was our best event ever – one compared it to a delightful dance for three, to a “delicious effect.” Another said simply that they wished we had four events a year, rather than three.

Robert’s introduction of Larkin’s forgotten early novel riffed on the opening lines of the overlooked classic, originally titled The Kingdom of Winter: “There had been no more snow during the night, but because the frost continued so that the drifts lay where they had fallen, people told each other that there was more to come. And when it grew lighter, it seemed that they were right, for there was no sun, only one vast shell of cloud over the fields and woods…”

The little-known novel takes place in wartime England, where a young refugee from Europe named Katherine Lind tries to recover her life while working in a provincial library. Meanwhile, she recalls a memorable summer with the Fennel family in England before the war, and a near-romance with the son Robin.

The book was the second in a trilogy, and the third was never completed. Larkin turned to poetry instead. Was the early, forgotten book a masterpiece? Toby’s conclusion at the end of the evening was decisive and emphatic. Yes, he said.

The sparks were lively and the balance of personalities was effective and harmonious. Toby’s background as a soldier was helpful in explaining Robin’s emotional state at the end of the book, and he also shared some chilling details of the destruction of Larkin’s hometown, Coventry. Liddie reflected on Larkin’s life and poetry – and she also shared a passage he wrote in a 1977 letter to her husband. The three discussed in detail the signficance of the noisy tick-tock of Katherine’s watch. But I won’t spoil it for you by quoting the end of the book, only part of the penultimate paragraph instead:

“There was the snow, and her watch ticking. So many snowflakes, so many seconds. As time passed they seemed to mingle in their minds, heaping up into a vast shape that might be a burial mound, or the cliff of an iceberg whose summit is out of sight. Into its shadow dreams crowded, full of conceptions and stirrings of cold, as if icefloes were moving down a lightless channel of water…”

From Robert’s opening remarks, to the lively and insightful audience questions and responses – it was a remarkable and memorable evening. David Schwartz outdid himself capturing the evening in photos. Did our panelists have fun? See the photos from the panel below. Or listen to the podcast below, and make your own judgment.

TONIGHT: Philip Larkin’s early novel “A Girl in Winter” at Stanford!

Sunday, April 29th, 2018
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Portrait of the poet as a young man… Philip Larkin

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Robert Harrison

Philip Larkin is one of England’s most eminent postwar poets, but few know of his early forays into fiction. All that changes tonight, Monday, April 30, when Another Look considers Larkin’s little-known 1947 novel that takes place in wartime England, where a young refugee from the Continent attempts to recover her life while working in a provincial library. Meanwhile, she recalls an idyllic summer with an English family before the war. Please join us! The event is free and open to the public. Come early for best seats.

 

Tobias Wolff

When, where, who …

The Larkin event will take place at the Bechtel Conference Center at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 30. Panelists will include Another Look Director Robert Harrison, who will will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor and author also hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by renowned author Tobias Wolffthe founding director of Another Look, and literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest. “Liddie” Conquest knew Philip Larkin—a close friend of her late husband, historian and poet Robert Conquest and has written about Larkin’s poetry.

Liddie Conquest

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Elizabeth Conquest in the Wall Street Journal

As we wrote in the Book Haven last week, “Liddie” Conquest was featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal. The article is available to subscribers here. The article is excerpted on The Book Haven here
 
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Directions
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The Bechtel Conference Center hosts all of Another Look’s events – a map is here. The nearby Knight parking structure, underneath the nearby Graduate School of Business, has plenty of room for free parking (see here for a map). In addition, parking is available on Serra Street and in front of Encina Hall itself.
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In keeping with the Another Look mandate, this book has been pretty much forgotten in 20th century literary history. Help us jump-start a public conversation of this overlooked work. 
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“My weight is my love”: on Augustine, Calvino, and Sepp Gumbrecht

Monday, February 12th, 2018
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One of the weightiest minds at Stanford.

Over the weekend, more than forty speakers from Europe, Latin America, and the United States addressed the state of literary studies after 1967, its methods and moods. The reason for the fête: Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a.k.a. “Sepp.” At Stanford, he is also known as the “Albert Guérard Professor in Literature in the Departments of Comparative Literature and of French & Italian and by courtesy, he is affiliated with the Department of Iberian and Latin American Cultures, the Department of German Studies, and the Program in Modern Thought & Literature.” The reason for the fête: we were celebrating 50 years of his life as a thinker, mentor, and indefatigable writer. It doubled as a splendid retirement party.

Heavy, man.

All that gives you an idea of his weight – but not of his lightness. He is one of the gentlest and pleasantest personalities at the whole university – as well as one of the most brilliant. And he also possesses one of the most memorable and remarkable faces on campus. (See photo.)

One of the most impressive and moving talks was given by Robert Pogue Harrison, who discussed “Pondus Amoris,” taken from Augustine‘s “my weight is my love [pondus meum amor meus].” Robert has often spoken of Italo Calvino‘s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, published in 1986, which identified six literary qualities, or values, that he believed would enable literature to survive into the next millennium – “that is to say, our millennium,” he added. Those qualities are lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. (He died before he finished describing his final one – consistency.) 

But because he often references the Six Memos (and I have come to, as well) I assumed  that Robert was on the side of lightness. Not so. From Robert’s talk:

I admire Calvino greatly, yet here too, as with Augustine, my sensibilities lean in another direction. If I had to choose, I would opt for slowness, heaviness, and vagueness over quickness, lightness and exactitude in literature. Be that as it may, in his lightness memo Calvino claims that we live in a leaden age, an age that would petrify us with its Medusa head:

Petrifying.

“At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies with winged sandals…. To cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror.”

I’m sorry to be so contrarian today, but I don’t agree with Calvino on this score. I believe that our age is in fact determined by free-floating bits and bites of information, and by the aerial vectors of telecommunications. The massive mainframe computers that Atlas himself couldn’t lift a few decades ago have become so light and fast that nowadays we carry them around in our shirt pockets. Modernity is an ongoing striving for lightness, and our world today is threatened not so much by the petrifying weight of reality but by the photoelectric pulsations of the virtual. Our Medusa head is the cell phone screen. We need a new kind of shield to protect us against the miniaturization of reality – a heavy, non-reflective Realometer, to borrow a term from Thoreau, to counter the increasing rarefaction of lived experience.

Did Augustine get it right?

In his memo, Calvino exalts Shakespeare’s character Mercutio, from Romeo and Juliet, as a hero of lightness.  … I would also like Mercutio’s dancing gait to come along with us across the threshold of the new millennium.

Calvino quotes only five lines from Mercutio’s long speech in Act One of Romeo and Juliet. It’s the scene when a group of Montague youngsters are heading toward the Capulet’s costume ball, where Romeo and Juliette will meet for the first time. What Calvino doesn’t mention is that Mercutio’s speech is over ninety lines long. By the end of it, the metaphors and conceits are spinning out of control, and his rave comes dangerously close to leaving the earth’s orbit altogether. It takes Romeo to bring Mercutio back down to earth: “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!” Romeo says as he grabs hold of his friend. “Peace, peace, Mercutio, thou talkst of nothing.”

That’s the trouble with lightness, it can easily wisp away into nothing.

More in the coming days from Stanford’s celebration for one of its most eminent professors.

The Ethos of “Cool”: Robert Harrison on Jim Morrison and The Doors

Friday, January 5th, 2018
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The Doors in 1966: John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison.

We know what you’re thinking: Is the high-toned Book Haven, lovers of Brahms, Bach, Beethoven and Byrd, getting into bed with rock ‘n roll? 

Just this once. Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison is a huge rock fan. So the latest podcast on Entitled Opinions’ new channel at the Los Angeles Review of Books features one of his favorite bands. We listened to it, wrote about it, and … well, found it fascinating. You might, too, especially Robert’s exposition of the “ethos of cool.” (Or go straight to the website to listen to it here.)

Here goes:

“Hot is momentary. It quickly turns to ashes. But cool stays cool.”

Fifty years ago, the award-winning album The Doors was released into the world – a landmark debut for what would become L.A.’s biggest band. The Doors and its lead singer Jim Morrison have few champions as articulate and passionate as Entitled Opinions host Robert Pogue Harrison, who interprets the band’s legacy in this podcast.

“The beginning holds sway over the entire unfolding of the story,” he explains, describing how Morrison was “incubating his future on a rooftop,” as he lived for weeks in “a high-perched nest in Venice, California.” He had little more than a blanket, candles, oranges, notebooks, and LSD, which was cheap and legal at the time. He meditated. He filled his notebooks with poems.

Although he’d never studied music, nor played a musical instrument, songs swirled in his head – and eventually “the ghosts became flesh,” says Harrison. Morrison described what happened this way: “I was just taking notes at a fantastic rock concert that was going on inside my head.”

These were most critical weeks of his life. “In little more than a month, Morrison had undergone a metamorphoses,” according to Harrison.

Harrison discusses Morrison’s military family, and how the young man was “raised to military code of order, discipline obedience, and stoical formalism.” He also explores the ethos of “cool.” Although many see Morrison’s music as a Dionysian expression, Harrison points out that “what you never hear is a convulsive maniac in need of an exorcism.” Morrison always returns to form, measure, restraint. “In the final analysis, Apollo always dominated over Dionysius.”

Potent quotes:

“Morrison had one of the great screams in the history of rock.”

“Jim Morrison had a great deal of fire, but it was the cool that prevailed and always called the shots.”

“Cool does not crave. But our age is craven.” 

“Morrison always withheld something, even when he appeared to let it all hang out.”

“The slowness of cool is not lymphatic, it’s the deliberate withholding of speed.”

“Jim Morrison was in a hurry only when it came to finding a way to die.”

 

Listen to the whole podcast here.

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Stanford celebrates Frankenstein on the bicentennial of its publication – be there on Jan. 24!

Monday, January 1st, 2018
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Artist: Lynd Ward, provided by the Estate of Lynd Ward

Today is more than the usual New Year’s Day. It marks the bicentennial of the very day the 20-year-old Mary Shelley published her masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus on January 1, 1818. It was an immediate popular success. The book would rock the world, and inspire films, theater adaptations, television shows, video games, sequels, and spinoffs. But today’s public conception of the hero may owe more to Boris Karloff‘s iconic 1931 film role than to the “the Creature” that Shelley created in her classic, with its complicated and troubling humanity.

Hence, the winter “Another Look” event spotlights Shelley’s Frankenstein. The discussion will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 24, at the Bechtel Conference Center. Frankenstein will be a special two-hour event with four panelists. So far, we’ve seen a lot of interest in this one from the medical and technology  communities – at Stanford and beyond. We’re bracing for a full house.

Another Look’s winter event on Frankenstein is part of Stanford’s year-long celebration of the bicentennial of the book’s publication. Shelley’s tale has proved timely, even prophetic, given our current concerns about artificial intelligence, stem cells, and animal-to-human transplants. Frankenstein explores the role of conscience in creation, and asks: What does it mean to be human? Is it wise to play God? What are the creator’s moral obligations towards his or her creation?

While the campus-wide Frankenstein@200 will explore the moral, scientific, sociological, ethical and spiritual dimensions of the book, Another Look will focus on the book as a literary work: a flowering of the romantic imagination, as well as a pioneering landmark in science fiction.

According to critic Harold Bloom, “The greatest paradox and most astonishing achievement of Mary Shelley’s novel is that the monster is more human than his creator. This nameless being, as much a modern Adam as his creator is a modern Prometheus, is more lovable than his creator and more hateful, more to be pitied and more to be feared, and above all able to give the attentive reader that shock of added consciousness in which aesthetic recognition compels a heightened realization of the self.”

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by three panelists who have all taught Frankenstein at Stanford: French Prof. Dan Edelstein, Classics Prof. Andrea Nightingale, and former Stanford fellow Inga Pierson.

The panelists will be focusing on the original 1818 version of the novel, rather than the later 1831 edition – and discussing some of the differences between the two. You can find the Oxford edition of the original at the Stanford Bookstore, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto. (But don’t worry if you’ve read a different edition!)

The Another Look book club takes on short classics that have been forgotten, neglected, or overlooked—or may simply not have received the attention they merit. The selected works are short, in order to encourage the involvement of Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Subscription at anotherlook.stanford.edu is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.

All Another Look events are free and open to the public – and please bring your friends!

A chevalier moderne: Cécile Alduy raised to glory!

Saturday, December 9th, 2017
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An intimate winter gathering at the home of the French consul. (Photo: Anaïs Saint-Jude)

On Thursday night, Cécile Alduy was raised to glory (we’ve written about her here and here). She was admitted to what the French Consul Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens called “one of the most select clubs on earth.” Its ranks include René Girard, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Salman Rushdie, Peter Brook, Jeanne Moreau, and many others – and more recently, Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison (we wrote about the occasion here) and Marie-Pierre Ulloa. In short, at the San Francisco hilltop home of the French consul general, Cécile became the most recent “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres,” one of the highest cultural honors France offers.

Consul General Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, Cécile Alduy, and cultural attaché Juliette Donadieu (Photo: Anaïs Saint-Jude)

Lebrun-Damiens noted that the order was created in 1957, and strongly supported by André Malraux when General de Gaulle created a Ministry of Culture for France in 1959. Then he praised Cécile.

“At the core of your work, you specialized in analyzing and deconstructing the notion and origins of the myth of national identity,” he told her. “You have used your exceptional artistic, aesthetic, and analytical sensitivity towards expanding artistic, political, and cultural horizons.”

“As a young researcher at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, you decided to dedicate your thesis to great Renaissance French poets and to study how they shaped the notion of national identity through their creative writing. Following that path, you eventually exceeded your original academic discipline – literature – and shifted towards contemporary political analysis, with a particular interest for the ideology and rhetoric of the French extreme right,” he continued, acknowledging her articles in The Atlantic, The Nation, The New York Times, Le Monde, and others.

Cécile’s children also attended the celebration, and gamboled with a few others in the room where she received the small green-and0white striped ribbon and medal. Their participation was fitting and significant: it highlighted the theme of generations that informed both her remarks and those of the General Consul: Lebrun-Damiens noted the role of both her grandmothers. Her paternal grandmother, Jacqueline Alduy, was the mayor of a little town Amelie-les-Bains in the Pyrénées-Orientales, holding the office for 42 years until age 77. “As a woman of convictions, she was especially proud of your work on the extreme right and the analysis of Jean Marie and Marine Le Pen’s discourse,” he added.

Her maternal grandmother figured not only in his remarks, but in hers.  Excerpt below:

Three Stanford chevaliers: Marie-Pierre Ulloa, Robert Harrison, Cécile Alduy. (Photo: Anaïs Saint-Jude)

My first thoughts go to those who instilled in me the sense that literature matters, that beauty matters, that the arts matter, more maybe than anything else. That they are not just the salt of life, a little extra spice or pastime, but rather the soul of the human experience, what makes us uniquely, truly human, what keeps us alive, that by which we might be redeemed as a species, and as individuals.

You named already some of the benevolent figures who imparted on me a love for words: my maternal grand-mother, Madeleine Daumas, a bookseller at one point, a typist who copy-edited the numerous books of her husband, but mostly an avid, yet quiet, composed reader. She read and re-read start to finish all the works by Racine, Montaigne, Balzac, Stendhal, Perec, Butor, Claude Simon, Steinbeck, Nabokov, Faulkner, Julien Greene, Kundera, Philippe Labro, Sollers, Yourcenar, de Beauvoir, John Le Carré, Simenon, Michel Serre. Each Christmas, we counted not the gifts, but the number of pages to read she had received. She was the first to read my first poems, short stories, essays, thesis… (and knowing she was made me pay scrupulous attention to spelling) …

In her family, her parents made “arts and literature and cinema the normal thing we do as a family, like going outdoors or watching the news. Yes, I have to admit that I was not always a happy camper after hours walking through the Pompidou museum staring at contemporary art installations, or visiting Greek ruins under a 110 degrees sun in the Summer. But thanks to them I learnt how to see: colors, and light and shadows; I learnt the shape and tastes of cultures close and far.”

An added bonus: the tree…

Then she spoke of the mission of the chevalier: “enriching French culture is not a matter of celebrating ‘roots’ and ‘land’ as the nationalist rhetoric goes, that culture defies borders and fructifies anywhere, everywhere, that arts and letters and the values they embody not only travel but flourishes by contact, migration, pollination.”

“If anything, this medal and this city rewards the work of bridging, of crossing boundaries (national boundaries but also the boundaries of academic disciplines and methodologies), of traveling across cultures and languages, of being on the move and in several places and cultures at once.

“At a time when borders and walls are erected, I am extremely proud to declare myself a migrant, an immigrant, a bi-national, and a citizen of the world.”

It was, she said, not an achievement as much as a beginning: “a peaceful military draft of sorts, a call to arms to resist the spoliation of our common right to a world where words mean what they say, where principles apply, where cultures are respected and humanistic values upheld.”

…and the flowers

“Being called to become a Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters is less a recognition of past works than an invitation, a request really, to fight for the arts and literature: it’s a call to arms to defend with the means of sharp thinking, and eloquence, and sensitivity, and aesthetic form the value of artistic creation, which is another word for the work of being human.”

With the beautiful decorations for holidays, there was plenty to please everyone. Only one expressed mild disappointment. Her four-year-old daughter asked a thoughtful question: if her mother was now a chevalier – where was her sword?

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

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

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

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

Da man.

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

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

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

Potent quotes:

Jacoff @Stanford

Rachel Jacoff:

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

Rachel Jacoff:

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Harrison:

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

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

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

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

 A triumph for Sándor Márai’s little-known classic Embers

Monday, October 23rd, 2017
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Another Look director Robert Harrison, with founding director Tobias Wolff

If you felt a slight tremor in the earth on Wednesday, October 18, the epicenter was at Stanford’s Encina Hall. The Another Look book club took on Sándor Márai‘s Embers – and the whole room rocked!

The event was close to a record-breaker, with about two hundred participants – not bad for an off-the-beaten track Hungarian novel (and only equaled by Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God).

Sándor Márai’s taut and mesmerizing novel, published in 1942, opens in a secluded Hungarian castle, where an old general awaits a reunion with a friend. It is 1940, and he has not appeared in public for decades. The long-estranged companions talk all night – or rather, the general talks, as the evasive visitor listens to the general discuss love, intimacy, honor, betrayal, and a beautiful, long-dead wife.

The novel is set against the backdrop of the disintegrated Austro-Hungarian empire, and shares the melancholy wisdom of its narrator: “We not only act, talk, think, dream, we also hold our silence about something. All our lives we are silent about who we are, which only we know, and about which we can speak to no one. Yet we know that who we are and what we cannot speak about constitutes the ‘truth.’ We are that about which we hold our silence.”

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He was joined by renowned author and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English at Stanford, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s Dean for Religious Life at Stanford.

Toby Wolff, Another Look’s founding director, opened by praising the courage of author Márai to sit down and create a remarkable novel about an all-night conversation – two men meet, but only one of them talks, and they persevere till dawn. The end. A daunting creative challenge that Márai pulls off magificently.

We were happy to see a lively Hungarian contingent in the audience, too – including the Hungarian Consul General for the Bay Area. And boy, did the Hungarians have a different take on the book – they praised Carol Brown Janeway‘s translation, but said that the richness of their native tongue is AWOL. And while Márai is little known west of the Danube, they assured us his books are everywhere in Budapest.

The podcast is here. And all photos, as always, are by by loyal Another Look aficionado David Schwartz.