“The first time I finished Too Loud a Solitude, I was up in Letná Park, and I remember leaping off the bench and running around in circles, holding the book above my head and shouting because I believed I’d experienced some religious illumination. A brief, ninety-eight-page, lightning strike of a novel, the book is about a man named Haňťa who has been crushing paper beneath a street in Prague for the last thirty-five years. People throw paper and books, books by the barrelful, down Haňťa’s hole in the pavement. Before he crushes them, Haňťa reads. The book of Ecclesiastes, the Talmud, Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant’s Theory of the Heavens. Kant, who argues that the heavens are not humane, nor is life above or below.”
.At 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 6, at the Bechtel Conference Center, the Another Look book club will discuss Czech author Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, a dystopian novella on the indestructibility of the written word.
“Too Loud a Solitude is an elegy for literacy. It is also about how worship of unfettered technological progress invariably results in a trouncing of the human spirit. And it is about how only individual human memory has the unique power to redeem us,” Orner writes (read the whole thing here).
Hrabal’s novella was published in a samizdat edition in Prague in 1976, and later published more widely after Communist rule ended in 1989. Its aging narrator runs a hydraulic press that crushes books and paper into bales. He rescues the best volumes for himself, and over time his thoughts and feelings merge with the treasures from the past – Hegel and the Talmud, Lao-Tze and Kant. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Hrabal’s is a cry of expiring humanism, and Too Loud a Solitude is a book to salvage from the deadly indifference that is more effective in killing the letter than the most sophisticated compacting machine.” You can read the New York Times review here.
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 Stanford Prof. Hans Ulrich “Sepp” Gumbrecht, a European public intellectual and a prolific author, and German Prof. Karen Feldman of the University of California, Berkeley, whose research explores the nexus between literature and philosophy.
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 are Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces you may not have read before. The events are free and open to the public. .
Too Loud a Solitude is available at Stanford Bookstore, and also will stocked at Kepler’s in Menlo Park and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.
Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God made for an exuberant and provocative discussion on the evening of Monday, October 24 – and a record-breaking amount of audience participation. It was a full house, and it rocked. Couldn’t make it? The podcast is already available here.
Another Look’s director Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the lively discussion as best he could. Harrison is an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, “Entitled Opinions.”
He was joined by Aleta Hayes, Stanford dance lecturer and founder of the dance troupe Chocolate Heads, and Tobias Wolff,National Medal of Arts winner, who is one of America’s foremost writers, as well as an English professor emeritus at Stanford. And perhaps the spirit of Hurston as well. (Among the podcast highlights: Aleta sings the spiritual that’s in the book.)
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 you may not have read before.
Loyal Another Look fan and photographer David Schwartz recorded the caught the flavor of the discussion in the photos below.
“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” .
Almost forgotten, now a classic
Zora Neale Hurston was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Then she all but disappeared, finally working in obscurity as a substitute teacher and a maid before her 1960 death in a county welfare home. The folklorist, anthropologist, and writer left behind four novels as well as short stories, plays, and essays. Foremost among them is Their Eyes Were Watching God, the passionate, exuberant tale of a woman’s journey to reclaim herself. The book will be Another Look’s fall offering.
For thirty years after its 1937 publication, Their Eyes was out of print and attacked for its portrayal of black people, when it was remembered at all. By the 1970s, however, it had been rediscovered as a masterpiece. Pulitzer prizewinning author Alice Walker wrote, “There is no book more important to me than this one.”
Aleta, a Stanford star
Join us for a discussion of this short, mesmerizing American classic at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, October 24, at Encina Hall’s Bechtel Conference Center on the Stanford campus.
Another Look’s director Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. Harrison is an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, “Entitled Opinions.” He will be joined by Aleta Hayes, Stanford dance lecturer and founder of the dance troupe Chocolate Heads, and Tobias Wolff,National Medal of Arts winner, who is one of America’s foremost writers, as well as an English professor emeritus at Stanford.
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 you may not have read before.
The event is free and open to the public. Come early for best seats. Books are available at the Stanford Bookstore on the Stanford campus, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.
Toby Wolff’s Another Look send-off last spring. (Photo: David Schwartz)
Author Peter Stansky‘s “A Company of Authors,” the annual event where Stanford authors present their books, had its best day ever last Saturday. As I told Stanford Report, “The author presentations were eloquent and excellent, without exception, and the audience questions ensured the discussion was spirited and intelligent.” And longtime Hoover fellow Paul Caringella even gave an impromptu pitch for my forthcoming René Girardbiography. What’s not to like?
“I always find these occasions extremely exhilarating,” Peter said. “The heart of the university is the life of the mind and you could not have a better example of that than in the books that their authors presented here today.”
Well, you can read the whole thing here. Nearly everyone stayed through all the presentations, and the excited and audible buzz in the lobby afterwards told the story.
And I told a story, too, during my ten-minute solo for “The Wonderful World of Books at Stanford.” Peter introduced me as “the leading figure at Stanford in keeping us involved in so many exciting ways in the world of books.” So I took up the cause of the Another Look book club it has been my privilege to manage for four years. Here’s what I said:
I’m here to tell you the Another Look story. It’s a good story, and I’ve been proud to be part of it. I think you’ll like it because it’s a story about books finding their people.
Founder Tobias Wolff. (Photo: David Schwartz)
Four years ago, the distinguished author Tobias Wolff– who was recently named a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts – approached me with an idea: he wanted to create a forum where members of the community would interact with Stanford writers, scholars, and literary figures in the world beyond, to talk about the books they love. He wanted the first book to be a beloved favorite, William Maxwell‘s So Long See You Tomorrow. He asked me if I could make all this happen. Frankly, I have to say, I was doubtful. The term “book club” did not have good associations for me. But as we hashed it out, I realized my issues were two-fold: first, I figured most people, like me, didn’t have the hours and hours to read long books of other people’s choosing; and second, the books tended to be mainstream, middlebrow, middle-of-the-road “safe” choices.
Inspired by Maxwell’s novel, we decided that we would focus on short books – short enough for Bay Area professionals who are pressed for time, and who may spend their days going through legal briefs or medical documents. Also, we would focus on books that were forgotten, overlooked, or simply haven’t received the audience they merit. We would call it “Another Look.” It would be for people who wanted to be part of the world of books and literature – a world they may have lost touch with once they left university. They would be connoisseurs’ choices for books you must read – discussed and even championed by the people who love them.
Nobless oblige. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)
We had a full house the first night, and our audiences have been steadily climbing upward ever since. One highpoint: for Philip Roth‘s The Ghost Writer, we were joined by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. It was the only time to date we have had a living author. And although he had become something of a recluse, I decided to see if I could interview him. The subsequent Q&A was published on The Book Haven and republished in La Repubblica, Le Monde, and Die Welt. It made the international press, and the high-profile Another Look was featured in The Guardian.
Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker’s book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
It’s been enormously gratifying for me personally to be the point of contact with all of you in our book-loving Bay Area community – and sometimes around the nation and world, too. We have one aficionado driving in from Carmel – others write from far-flung places to tell me they’re reading along with us. And Toby has talked about this program, during his speaking engagements around the country. He’s proud of his brainchild, too.
Why am I so keen on this program? Because it’s rocked my world. Those who know me as a literary journalist know that I’ve sunk my time into the world of Eastern European poets, particularly Nobel laureateCzesław Miłosz, and more recently, into the French theorist René Girard, a longtime Stanford faculty member, a dear friend, and the subject of my biography. Hence, there are huge holes in my knowledge of modern fiction, and particularly American fiction. Without too much investment of time, I’ve caught up with a lot of writers I’d somehow missed. No membership fees, no meetings with minutes, no commitments – just show up, please!
So please join us next month, on Tuesday, May 10, at the Bechtel Conference Center, when we discuss Joseph Conrad‘s novella The Shadow-Line. The story will run in Stanford Report Monday and be on the Stanford news website – we have books in the lobby. Meanwhile, take some freshly minted bookmarks – and take a few for your friends who might be interested, too.
Joseph Conrad (foreground) on board the special service ship Ready in 1916. He wrote The Shadow-Line on his return from the voyage. (Image credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
The author Joseph Conrad insisted his work The Shadow-Line: A Confession was not a book about the supernatural. But sometimes the real can be spookier than the imagined, and what we observe outpaces our worst nightmares. So it is with Conrad’s late novella.
“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness,” Conrad said a few years before World War I. Certainly the rest of the century bore out his conclusions.
The Another Look book club will discuss Conrad’s 1917 novella and the Polish author at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 10, in the Bechtel Conference Room of Encina Hall. The Shadow-Line is available at Stanford Bookstore, Kepler’s in Menlo Park and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.
The panel will be moderated by Another Look director Robert Pogue Harrison, an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature. Harrison is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Booksand the host for the popular radio talk show Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by drama Professor Rush Rehm, artistic director of the Stanford Repertory Theater, andMonika Greenleaf, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature.
The event is free and open to the public.
“I chose this short novel because of its exquisite prose and quintessentially Conradian drama,” Harrison said. “It probes the enigma of fate by putting circumstance, landscape and depth psychology into play all at the same time.”
He added, “Conrad is a master when it comes to putting his characters through trials. The Shadow-Line is one of the most intense of Conradian trials of character. It is not one of his best known novels and is certainly deserving of another look.”
Conrad’s short masterpiece describes the “green sickness” of late youth, when a young man desires to “flee from the menace of emptiness.” The unnamed narrator’s flight ends when he is captain of a merchant ship in Southeast Asia; the terrors of sickness and the sea bring him to grief, maturity and wisdom.
In a two-page author’s note, Conrad denies the supernatural has anything to do with his story. We are meant, then, not to draw a line between the mate’s superstitious and feverish fear of his former captain, buried at sea, and the destruction of the ship to weather, wind and contagious fever. The mate says the ship will not have luck until it passes the spot where the reckless and demented captain was put overboard.
(Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
The Shadow-Line can also be read as a psychological study of the disintegration of an entire ship’s crew. That would be in keeping with Conrad’s worldview; he once called life a “mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of inextinguishable regrets.”
The year The Shadow-Line was published, The Argus praised the novel: “It holds the reader under a spell so strong that the book must be finished at one sitting, and even when it is laid aside it keeps its grip on the memory, and the impression left remains with a curious persistence.”
The Sunday Times wrote, in 1917, “Mr. Conrad is an expert in the business of suggesting mystery and the action of malevolent agencies and the endurance of a man under the buffets of fate. Not even Coleridge has held passers-by more spellbound under a tale of horrors on the ocean than does Mr. Conrad in this work.”
Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski – Joseph Conrad – was born in 1857 in a largely Jewish village in territory that is now Ukraine; it had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Respublica before partition, and at the time of his birth was part of the Russian Empire. His father was a Polish patriot and man of letters, and the family had a migratory existence. Conrad began a seafaring career as a teenager, and eventually joined the British merchant marine and became an English citizen.
He was one of the very few writers to establish his literary reputation in a foreign tongue. (Vladimir Nabokov comes to mind as well, but the author of Pale Fire and Lolitawas reared in an aristocratic Russian family; however, he later claimed English was the first language he learned in his trilingual household.)
World War I was much on Conrad’s mind as he wrote Shadow-Land, and the book is dedicated to his son Borys, a soldier. By the time it was published, Borys had returned from the front, shell-shocked and gassed in the new technology of warfare. The war’s end would change forever the face of the Europe Conrad remembered.
Shortly after the war, a visitor to the Conrad household observed: “Conrad spoke fluently, but his accent, his manner of expression were such as I observed among the inhabitants of the south-eastern Polish borderlands. One felt clearly that when he thought of Poland, it was of a Poland of half-a-century ago. When I listened to him, I could not evade the impression that I am being carried back in time and talk to one of the people of long ago.”
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 are short masterpieces you may not have read before. This article is republished from my Stanford Report piecehere.
Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog makes a point. (Photo: L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)
Those of you who follow the Book Haven know that we’ve been somewhat preoccupied with legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, who visited Stanford on February 2 to discuss J.A. Baker‘s The Peregrine. The discussion ranged far beyond the book, to embrace Virgil’s Georgics, the 16th century Florentine Codex (originally in Nahuatl), the Edda, his films and his views on reading and filmmaking – well, he’s a force of nature. It’s all now available on youtube, in a full-length version (here) and a quick, two-minute highlights version (here). Or see below for both: short version on top, the full hour-and-a-half below (it’s worth the time, really).
A sublime pairing. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
The event was part of the ongoing Another Look book club series of events – Another Look’s director,Robert Pogue Harrison, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and host for the popular Entitled Opinions radio talk show, was the interlocutor for the discussion (we’ve written about him here and here and here, among many other places). In fact, the encounter was born in a friendship – but not with Werner, at least not initially. Robert met and interviewed Lena Herzog for the April 17, 2013 interview with Entitled Opinions about her photography (download Robert’s interviews, including that one, here).
The Another Look event was covered by columnist Caille Millner in “When Werner Herzog Came to Stanford” in the San Francisco Chronicle (here). An excerpt:
Herzog, 73, is legendary for many reasons: his passion, his punishing film sets, his contempt for personal comforts, his aversion to the contemporary gadgets that rule our lives (he grew up in a remote Bavarian village without running water or flush toilets) and, above all, for his absolute independence from Hollywood filmmaking
I was curious about how this remarkable man would fit into Silicon Valley for an evening. What’s an on-demand app to someone who didn’t make his first phone call until he was 17 years old?
It tells you something about Herzog that the reason he drove up to Stanford from Los Angeles was to talk about a little-known, long-out-of-print book about a man and a falcon: “The Peregrine,” by British author J.A. Baker (it’s been lovingly reissued by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint).
A genial superstar. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
She writes with style and brio, but I don’t agree with her when she dismissed the textual difficulties behind The Peregrine (as did Herzog). The issues of accuracy aren’t occasional and trivial, but pervasive and woven into the book, whose author insists on its authority as a work of direct observation. A small team of us, including an expert falconer, spent a good deal of time chewing over the magnificent text and its discrepancies – some of the issues are summarized briefly here. I even retrieved some of the letters of renowned falconer Dick Treleaven to Baker, which are now at the University of Essex (covered here), as we attempted to square Baker’s observations with reality. Robert, who wrestled even more deeply with these issues than the rest of us, had some very insightful things to say on the subject, but the onstage conversation veered off in another direction. The Peregrine is undeniably a masterpiece, but it raises questions about artistic truth, “real” truth, and what, exactly, Baker was doing. Robert’s remarks about Jimi Hendrix in the full-length video gives a hint of where his thoughts were taking him as he pondered this mysterious book. I’m convinced that these issues make the book more, not less, interesting, and raise fascinating questions about the process of creation.
One of my strongest memories of the evening, however, occurred after the conversation was over. I was the assigned person to whisk the genial superstar away to the back door and the car that was waiting for him there. He would have none of it. He wanted to shake hands and greet everyone who had come to see him. He was smiling and laughing as the crowd swarmed him. Impossible to pull him away. Who would want to?
Carr by a quince tree, 1969 (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)
Stanford’s Another Look book club spotlights masterpieces that have been forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise just haven’t received the audience they merit. J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Countryfits the bill perfectly. Other than an excellent biography by Byron Rogers, The Last Englishman, you’ll find little on the pitch-perfect book or its idiosyncratic, stubborn, and deeply private author.
That’s another reason to come to the Another Look discussion of A Month in the Country will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, October 19, at the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall on Serra Street on the Stanford campus. The conversation will be moderated by Robert Pogue Harrison, Another Look’s new director, along with acclaimed author Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English, and Jane Shaw, dean of religious life at Stanford and author of several books.
Parking is readily available around Encina Hall’s Bechtel Conference Center – a map is here. The nearby Knight parking structure, underneath the nearby Graduate School of Business, has plenty of room for free parking (seehere for a map). In addition, parking is available on Serra Street and in front of Encina Hall itself. Humble Moi will be at the front door by 6 p.m. for early arrivals, just to make sure you get in and save a seat.
Meanwhile, here’s ten things you probably didn’t know about the book or its author:
1. Carr’s book was born of a frustrating, decade-long endeavor to save a dilapidated 14th century Northamptonshire church. Read about it here.
2. “Splendid in their day – but not now.” Old English churches today are a staid affair, compared with their previous lives in the medieval centuries, where they were a riot of texture and color. Plus a short BBC film clip about how the stunning restoration of a Welsh church changed a village – which sheds some background on Tom Birkin’s labor to uncover a 14th century painting. Read about it here.
3. “He was my Dad, he wasn’t exceptional to me.'” J.L. Carr’s son doesn’t quite understand the fuss. “Carr was not an open man, neither was Bob, so theirs had been a perfectly friendly relationship with few confidences exchanged but no confrontations either,” wrote Carr’s biographer. “The result is that when you ask Bob Carr questions about his father, you sometimes feel you might just as well as be asking them of the lodger.” Read about it here.
4. “Thoo’s ga-ing ti git rare an’ soaaked reet doon ti thi skin, maister.” The Yorkshire accent was as mystifying to Tom Birkin as it is to Americans. Where did it come from? A short explanation, with a video clip on how the wrangling between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons can still be heard on the Yorkish tongue today. It’s here.
5. “This was the book nobody rejected, because they did not get the chance,” wrote Byron Rogers of A Month in the Country. But here are a few of the few words that have been said about this 1980 classic.
6. “’It was a sort of stage-magic’ : the Yorkshire countryside.” If you’ve never been to Yorkshire, here‘s your chance. A short video about the dales, rivers, and ethos of England’s enchanting county, a backdrop for Carr’s novel.
The author in Wales. (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)
7. “Hell? Passchendaele had been hell.” In the terrible history of the 20th century, the horrors of World War I were quickly overwhelmed by a greater war, but Passchendaele was unforgettable for those who remember the fear and the mud. It also marked the Germans’ introduction of mustard gas. Read about it here.
8. Penelope Fitzgerald, J.L. Carr, and the “death of the spirit we must fear.” The Booker award-winning author discusses Carr’s “nostalgia for something we have never had.” Read it here.
9. “Apples are the only exam I could ever hope to pass.” Carr would have been aware of the invasion of commercial apples, which was beginning about the time he wrote A Month in the Country. Have English apple-eaters have been seduced by the shiny red skins of foreign rivals? Read about it here.
10. Why Sara van Fleet and Wensleydale? Why did Carr pluck the Sara van Fleet rose for Alice Keach? And what’s so special about Wensleydale? Find out here.
The author next to a quince tree, 1969. (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)
The British novelist J.L. Carr had an implacable side. “Once he started something, he never let it drop,” his son recalled.
One example: Carr, a primary school headmaster, was wandering through a Northamptonshire village in 1964 when he ran across a dilapidated 14th-century church. Spending more than a decade in a tireless letter-writing campaign to restore the building, Carr battled bureaucrats, vandals, and a pilfering vicar. Eventually, the matter landed in the lap of the Queen of England.
From that infuriating experience was born a tender masterpiece: A Month in the Country, a late-life novel published in 1980, when Carr was well into his 60s. In the short book, two shell-shocked veterans of World War I look for healing and happiness in a Yorkshire village. One is restoring a medieval painting on the wall of the old church; the other is looking for a long-lost grave.
The Another Look book club will discuss the short novel at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19, at the Bechtel Conference Center in Stanford’s Encina Hall. Another Look events, which focus on off-the-beaten-track novels, are free and open to the public. (Stanford Bookstore and Kepler’s in Menlo Park are stocking Carr’s book.)
Another Look was founded by the distinguished author Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English. With his retirement this year, the book club was itself slated for demolition. The popular program has now been revived for its fourth season under the aegis of Stanford Continuing Studies, with Robert Pogue Harrison, a Stanford professor of Italian literature and an acclaimed author in his own right, as the new director. Harrison is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and host for the radio talk show Entitled Opinions.
For the Oct. 19 discussion, Harrison will be joined by Wolff, who received the National Medal of Arts this month, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s new dean for religious life at Stanford and author of several books.
Silent, watchful. (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)
“When I attended the last meeting of Another Look this past spring, I knew that no one had offered to take over for Tobias,” said Harrison. “Seeing the crush of people at Levinthal Hall fifteen minutes before starting time, with standing room only, eager to hear a discussion of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, I realized how much this book series means to people at Stanford and in the surrounding community. I felt it would be a real shame to let it let it die, so I offered to take over the directorship. And here we are, ready to go.”
Carr’s pitch-perfect short novel earned a Guardian Fiction Prize and was short-listed for a prestigious Booker Prize when it was published. The book’s fame was briefly outstripped by the 1987 film version, which effectively marked the film debuts of Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, and Natasha Richardson. The highly praised film was neglected after its release and finally rescued from oblivion by determined fans in recent years. The book, however, has a brisker pace, a quiet wit, a charm of its own – and a more enduring life.
“I read A Month in the Country about 10 years ago and was enchanted by its style, landscapes and themes,” said Harrison. “If any book fits the bill of Another Look – namely, a short novel from the past that richly deserves another look – it is Carr’s gem of a narrative, which takes on all sorts of different sorts of hues, depending on how you view it.”
Carr was the son of a Yorkshire stationmaster who was also a Wesleyan lay preacher. He eventually moved to Northamptonshire, where he was a teacher and schoolmaster for decades. He had a reputation for eccentricity: on school sports days, for example, he would set up Arithmetic Races where students had to complete sums at trackside blackboards before running on.
He decided to chuck it and become a writer. His first novel was published when he was in his 50s. To make ends meet, he founded Quince Tree Press, a publishing house that offered hand-illustrated county maps, idiosyncratic dictionaries and small, 5″ X 3.5″ editions of great poets, for less than the cost of a greeting card. It published the works of J.L. Carr as well – and still does.
But it was hard for Carr to build a literary reputation when each of his books was entirely different, in style, subject and outlook. The Harpole Report, for example, is a novel mostly in the form of a teacher’s log; the comedy writer Frank Muir called it “the funniest and perhaps the truest story about running a school that I ever have read.” As a result, Carr had a cult following, but no mainstream success until A Month in the Country.
Fame didn’t change him. He remained in Kettering, Northamptonshire, publishing books at Quince Tree Press, which is now headed by his son, Bob Carr. The author died in 1994 of leukemia, at age 81.
His biographer Byron Rogers described his visit to Carr’s deathbed as “uneasy bonhomie on my part, and silence and watchfulness on his.” Then he adds, “Though the irony is that most conversations with Jim Carr had been like that.”
The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the websiteanotherlook.stanford.edu is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events. The website also has additional articles about J.L. Carr and other information on the Oct. 19 discussion.
Firth and Branagh in the celebrated and long-lost film.
David W. Price builds his case on Robert’s most recent book, Juvenescence, but not only. He points out that the author “developed a particular style of writing that takes readers on a journey through time, tracing a particular concept or trope as it manifests itself in a wide array of literary and philosophical works” – and he recalls that the same approach winds through three of his previous books, too: Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, The Dominion of the Dead, and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition.
“In each of his books, Harrison demonstrates that responses to the most fundamental human questions often appear in the most unlikely places and that it takes a formidable intellect and an Auerbach-like memory to be able to discern a particular thread that runs through the tradition.”
Price flags a part of the book that caught my eye, too, especially since Robert has expressed some of the same thoughts elsewhere (try here):
Invoking Benjamin, he points out that “the newness that constant change brings into the world does not replace the ruins, rather, . . . it merely adds to the rubble.” For Harrison, real education involves immersing students in history and allowing them to hear “the dead speak in their own untimely voices.” Such an education appears increasingly hard to come by. Harrison argues that our current age “has declared all-out war on the dark continent of inwardness, silence, and attention, of the self in its wholeness wholly attending.” Those devices that miniaturize the world on a screen and enthrall us actually inhibit our maturation, claims Harrison. “[F]or some reason,” he writes, “the age demands that we remain at all times connected to the Borg collective, that we join its hive and hear inside our heads not the call of world renewal but the incessant drone that fills the network of globalized interconnection.” Harrison’s observations here give us pause, especially any of us who work within the broad field of education.
Price’s encomium includes a sort of prophecy: “In the not too distant future, there will be a book written on the works of Robert Pogue Harrison, and that author will surely note that at the heart of Harrison’s critical consciousness one finds his careful reading and profound understanding of the philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Just as Vico’s New Science grounded Harrison’s understanding of the relation between civilization and nature in his book Forests, the eccentric Italian’s philosophy orients Harrison’s understanding of the youthful nature of our current world.”
Neoteny. It’s a word that combines two Greek roots: neos, meaning new or young; teinein, meaning to stretch or retain. In evolutionary biology, it’s “a general slowing of the rate of development that makes it possible to retain juvenile features in later stages of the life cycle,” writes Robert Pogue Harrison in his new book Juvenescence (we’ve written about it here and here and here). “We don’t know if society can survive on genius alone without wisdom,” said Robert during a recent radio interview. “We may be on cusp.”
He spoke with Michael Krasny on KQED’s “Forum” (listen to it here), arguing that as the world gets older and the millennia stack up, we nevertheless have become younger than all previous generations – a very difficult paradox, he says.
Like Robert, I have pondered neoteny in our culture. We live longer and longer, on average – but have we had any net gains for human wisdom? Lately I’ve wondered if the added years are simply chunked onto a prolonged adolescence and youth. Education continues into one’s twenties and beyond. People wait till their forties and even fifties to have children. Old age has become a prolonged period of taxidermy.
Still, we’re under the illusion that more time means better life, a greater fulfillment of potential. Does it? Mozart didn’t require middle age to finish his work (well, not much of it – he died at 45), John Keats completed his oeuvre at 25 – both relied on the youthful fire of genius. But what of the balancing wisdom of age? As Silicon Valley strives to extend our lifetimes to the brink of immortality (no doubt only prime specimens will be selected for the honor) – what kind of society will it yield, when the gravitas that traditionally comes with maturity is eschewed in favor of a fevered quest for the trappings of youth?
“I don’t deny that Silicon Valley high tech is every day changing our way of being in the world,” Robert said in the interview. But both he and Krasny pointed out that the most highly touted “revolutionary” changes wrought by Silicon Valley are often producing … well … sophisticated toys and doodads. A new app for local restaurants, for example. The trade-off should cause reflection, Robert said, for we’re increasingly passing our “reality” through the screen of a smartphone. Social media? I’m on Twitter, too, but I realize that it’s driven by a world of children – for teenagers with time on their hands, tweeting their grumbles about school lunches. We can never keep up. In the face of dizzying change, “we need a certain amount of inter-generational stability,” Robert said. Good luck with that. In a world of toys, who wants to be a grown-up? What’s the payoff?
Hey baby, it’s you.
I recall of comedy in the early 60s, the era of the beach party movies and others of that ilk, where you have fun, fun, fun till your daddy took the t-bird away. A staple comedic figure in these films would be a guy who had a title like “Dean of Students,” balding and a little stout and stuffy. He’d burst into the students’ dorm rooms where the girls in bikinis were partying with the boys. Arms akimbo, he’d open his mouth to raise his voice in outrage – and bam! – a bucket of slops prepared for a nerdy student would empty on his head instead. Laughter for all.
As I grew up, I realized what an essential figure the Dean of Students is – and not just for comedy. Somebody had to be the authority figure to say no. Somebody had to be willing to make themselves the figure of fun and face the ridicule of reckless youth, that hasn’t yet learned of the big pricetag attached to early decisions. It’s a thankless role – but part of a grown-up is not waiting for thanks or some sort of payoff to do what needs to be done. Maybe that’s words like “duty” have passed out of our rituals of praise – duty is a drag.
My father used to say that kids don’t need a dad to smoke marijuana with – they’ll find those buddies on their own. (Actually, his example was “to learn to skate,” not marijuana, but still…) Kids need parents to make sure they do their homework, are kind to animals, and can eat without revolting other people. They need grandparents for the lessons of time. Instead, our media regularly shows us a series of elderly women (cough, cough, Helen Mirren, Madonna) in bikinis, to prove to us they can still “get away with it” – and regularly features the masks of famous Hollywood zombies who have had so much surgery that they are now unrecognizable. In that sense, every Oscar ceremony is a “Night of the Living Dead.” This is what maturity offers us – the opportunity to compete with youth.
Who wants to be an adult? Growing up outside Detroit, the new Mrs. Henry Ford II, the Italian socialite Christina Ford regularly filled the local newspaper pages – her husband, in fact, rather resembled the Dean of Students in those beach party movies. I remember my mother reading one article where the forty-something Mrs. Ford lamented the disappearance of the Italian mamas of her youth, the thick-waisted, enveloping women in shapeless black dresses, who always had something wonderful about to pop out of the oven. My mother hooted with derisive laughter. “She’s supposed to be one of those women!” And well, you can see from the Life cover above.
Which is not an argument in favor of wearing shapeless black rags. The emphasis on wishing to be mothered, rather than wishing to mother – the wish to be loved, rather than exposing oneself to the great suffering that loving often entails – makes me wonder. What became of maturity, and eventually the graceful surrender to time? There’s a great freedom in not needing to be cool. The evening by the fireside with conversation and port instead of the evening with the trophy bride and papparazzi. (Cough, cough, Salman Rushdie – we wrote about that here.) In our public and political life, many keep calling for a Churchill – but would we want one if we could find one, and would we recognize one if we saw one?
So does that mean that we are all in the throes of adolescence, that we are all young? Not really, says Robert. “We’re a youth-worshiping society,” and yet “our society is waging pitiless war against the condition of youth, which requires idleness, shelter, freedom to fail, full-bodied relationship to nature.” It also requires “the freedom to pursue idiosyncratic call of the self, which requires disconnection from the noise of collective. It bears fruit later in human relations. We have made it more difficult to be truly young.”
Robert recalled leafing through his father’s school yearbook – the teenagers were “fully grown adults – youngish, but fully grown adults. I hardly see that in my undergraduates today.” Similarly, the faces of boys in developing countries who look like “weathered, fully formed adults. Dignfiied, majestic, senile traits – in the First World, we hardly ever acquire them.” Senile, that is, in the classic OED sense – “characteristic or caused by old age” opposed to puerile, “like a boy.” Our older people crave youth, and our youth are born into a vacuum. Are we the heirs of history – or its orphans?
A passage from his book:
“…neoteny resists the tyranny of legacy. To delay the rate of development entails not only a reluctance to grow up but a reluctance to reproduce a fixed and senile form that links us to ancestry by the laws of repetition and identity. In that regard neoteny gives humans a greater species freedom, both from the genetic dictates of the past and for new, as yet unrealized, possibilities. By holding on to the plasticity of youth for much longer periods, and in some cases throughout our entire lives, we have expanded our evolutionary options considerably, becoming over time a lighter, freer, more agile, and adventuresome species. In short, a more intelligent and youthful species. Or better, a more intelligent – because more youthful – species.
“The Ode on Man in Antigone offers us a glimpse into the more terrifying side of this youthful openness to wonder, discovery, and knowledge of the world. The determination to boldly go where no one has gone before takes us to the moon and into the arcana of chromosomes; it gives us the microchip and the atom bomb. Yet for all the novelties it has brought into the world since Sophocles composed the ode, there is one part of the ongoing human story that doesn’t change. Even if our youthful intelligence one day succeeds in rendering death optional rather than necessary, what the chorus says about anthropos will remain true: ‘everywhere journeying, inexperienced and without issue, he comes to nothingness.’ Thus, if our genius derives from our reluctance to grow up, our wisdom derives from our heightened awareness of death … it is when the two work together – and not one against one another – that human culture flourishes.”
Listen to the Robert Harrison interview on Michael Krasny’s “Forum” here.