Posts Tagged ‘Sven Birkerts’

The death of reading and the state of the soul

Monday, July 24th, 2017
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Years ago, when I wrote the introduction to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław MiłoszI made some remarks about the Nobel poet’s consideration of the world of “être” and “devenir” – and a world where reading has been replaced by tweets. We live in an era of globalization—as literary scholar Valentina Polukhina describes it, “a period in which our long history has been put into single storage.”

My publisher chided me for sounding like an old fogey – but of course I wasn’t talking about what was happening to the younger generation. I was talking about what was happening to me, and the fragmentation of my own attention. The passage in question:

Sven Birkerts regrets the loss of “deep reading.”

Miłosz’s worldview, his sense of hierarchy and values, puts him squarely, if reluctantly, in a select spiritual salon. In our times, it is a lonely place to be. Miłosz has become an icon, his works canonical, but head-on-a-coin status can often be a substitute for real understanding. This is particularly true when those spending the coins never lived under the Generalgouvernement of the Gestapo. For Generation Y, the communism years (and communism itself) constitute only a tedious chapter in history textbooks. … It may be a universal truth that a younger generation must try to distance itself from the seriousness of purpose in an older generation of giants.

This mileage provides a raison d’être for this book, as the distance stretches to the horizon’s vanishing point and threatens with extinction the very values Miłosz endeavored to preserve. This statement is more than old fogeyism or the specter of apocalypse—for Miłosz’s peers are almost entirely gone (he would have been one hundred years old in 2011), and, moreover, the restlessness, the segmentation of attention, and the increasing difficulty in absorbing anything more than 140 characters long are not merely traits of the younger generation but affect us all. Few can deny the dizzying rate of social and technological upheaval in the information age, where we communicate in real time with Peru and Twitter back what we hear, yet human greed, cowardice, and power-lust remain essentially the same. That acceleration, juxtaposed with man’s fallibility, is very much to the point.

One metric for measuring the chasm pertains to what Miłosz called être and devenir. (Or, to put a Thomist slant on it, he uses the Latin esse elsewhere.) When I interviewed him at his legendary Grizzly Peak home a decade ago, I asked him about être and devenir. He dodged the question: “My goodness. A big problem,” he said.

After some hesitation, however, he elaborated. “We are in a flux, of change. We live in the world of devenir. We look at the world of être with nostalgia. The world of essences is the world of the Middle Ages, of Thomas Aquinas. In my opinion, it is deadly to be completely dissolved in movement, in becoming. You have to have some basis in being.

“In general, the whole philosophy of the present moment is post-Nietzsche, the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths. Postmodernism consists in denying any attempt at truth.”

Then he retreated to his initial reservations: “In truth, I am afraid of discussing this subject. The subject needs extreme precision. In conversation, it’s not possible.”

That was seven or eight years ago. Now everyone’s caught up with me, or perhaps everyone has caught up with Miłosz. Most recently, Philip Yancey observed the same thing. From the Washington Post:

The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around. When I read an online article from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links. Soon I’m over at CNN.com reading Donald Trump’s latest tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.

Worse, I fall prey to the little boxes that tell me, “If you like this article [or book], you’ll also like…” Or I glance at the bottom of the screen and scan the teasers for more engaging tidbits: 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl; Top 10 Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunctions; Walmart Cameras Captured These Hilarious Photos. A dozen or more clicks later I have lost interest in the original article.

Neuroscientists have an explanation for this phenomenon. When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush; functional-MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up. In a famous experiment, rats keep pressing a lever to get that dopamine rush, choosing it over food or sex. In humans, emails also satisfy that pleasure center, as do Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat.

Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows analyzes the phenomenon, and its subtitle says it all: “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” Carr spells out that most Americans, and young people especially, are showing a precipitous decline in the amount of time spent reading. He says, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” A 2016 Nielsen report calculates that the average American devotes more than 10 hours per day to consuming media—including radio, TV, and all electronic devices. That constitutes 65 percent of waking hours, leaving little time for the much harder work of focused concentration on reading.

In “The Gutenberg Elegies,” Sven Birkerts laments the loss of “deep reading,” which requires intense concentration, a conscious lowering of the gates of perception, and a slower pace. His book hit me with the force of conviction. I keep putting off Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age,” and look at my shelf full of Jürgen Multmann’s theology books with a feeling of nostalgia—why am I not reading books like that now?

Why indeed? Time to open all those J.M. Coetzee novels I have waiting on the shelves. Or return to Dostoevsky. Read the WaPo article here.

“The air of an enfant terrible”: remembering Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky on his 74th birthday

Saturday, May 24th, 2014
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birthday cakeToday would have been the Joseph Brodsky‘s 74th birthday. We laid the ground for the celebrations a few days ago with a post about the Nobel poet’s metaphysical experiences. Here are a few memories from two important friends.

Author Sven Birkerts of The Gutenberg Elegies, was managing a secondhand and rare bookstore in Ann Arbor when the poet befriended him. His mini-memoir matches my own recollections. Here’s what he wrote over Post Road Magazine:

SvenBirkerts2

A friend in cold climates

At this time, back in the mid-1970s, Brodsky still had the air of an enfant terrible. Impatient, aggressive, chain-smoking cigarettes, he liked creating dispute for its own sake. Suggest white and he would insist black. Admit an admiration—unless it was for one of his idols—like Auden or Lowell or Milosz—and he would overturn the opinion. “Minor,” he would say of some eminence I mentioned. Or: “The man is an idiot.” At first I did not understand the workings of this compulsion, and as we talked, drinking cup after cup of black coffee, I grew despondent. Here was my chance to meet the poet I had admired for so long, and I could say nothing right. Yet for all that, he seemed in no hurry to leave.

I would like to say that by the end of that long afternoon we had become friends, intimates, but that would not be true. I was, I think, too young and callow; I did not offer enough ground for real exchange. Instead, Brodsky assumed a fond, almost paternal role with me, teasing, chiding, offering suggestions about books. A limit was set. I did not feel that I was getting close to the turbulent soul that wrote the poems.

birkerts5From that time on, though, we did stay in contact. Brodsky would suddenly show up in the bookstore, searching for some book of poems. On several occasions, too, he handed me the typescript of some essay he was working on for the New York Review of Books, asking if I would check over his English. The task would invariably keep me at my desk for hours, for the fact is that brilliant and inflammatory as his insights were, the prose at this stage was a bramble patch—English deployed as if it were an inflected language.

Once, I remember, I stayed up much of the night, recasting sentence by sentence his discussion of the Greek poet Cavafy, finally typing the whole thing over afresh. When I handed the piece to him the next day, he quickly glanced down the page, smiled his wicked sultan smile, and put the whole bundle in an envelope to mail. I never found out what he thought of my deeply deliberated interventions.

Read the rest here.

wigzell2

She liked his smile.

Over on a Russian site, Yuri Lepsky interviewed the Slavic scholar Faith Wigzell, who offered her first comments ever on the poet she met in the 1960s in Leningrad in “Loving, Leaving and Living.” She is the dedicatee of several poems, including “A Song to No Music” and “On Washerwoman Bridge.” According to Lepsky, “In the fifteen years since the poet’s death, she has published nothing about her friendship with him nor has she given any interviews on the subject nor published their correspondence. She has also refrained from commenting on the poems he dedicated to her.”

An excerpt:

– How did you meet Brodsky? What kind of first impression did he make on you?

– I believe it was March 1968. I had come to Leningrad for a six-week research visit, connected with my PhD at London University. … I arrived in Leningrad and straight away phoned my old friends Romas and Elia Katilius. Back in 1963-64 I was studying in Leningrad and it was then that I met the Katiliuses and Diana Abaeva, later to become Diana Myers and to work with me at London University. But that would come later.

It was back then, in the early 1960s, that we met and became friends. They were wonderful people – kind, engaging, loving poetry and art, and saw the Soviet government for what it was worth. They were scientists: Romas was a theoretical physicist at the semiconductor institute. Diana, on the other hand, was in the humanities’ field.

So, in short, I called the Katiliuses; they were very pleased and invited me over that evening. I went of course to their enormous room in a communal apartment on Tchaikovsky Street… But apart from my friends I there found a young man whom I had not previously met. He immediately attracted my attention.

reading-russian-fortunes-faith-wigzell-paperback-cover-art– Why?

– Firstly, he had this very unusual smile.

– What do you mean by unusual?

– How can I put it? It was a shy or, more precisely, a timid smile. Yes, yes, timid. And his voice…

– His voice?

– Well, it was something special… Never since then have I encountered such a voice. When he read his poetry his voice made an astonishing impression …

– And that was Brodsky?

– And that was Brodsky. It turned out that he had been friendly with the Katiliuses for a long time, and with Diana as well. The Katiliuses had a young child, so guests could not overstay their welcome. Late in the evening Joseph and I went out on Tchaikovsky Street, and he walked me back to the hotel. And so that’s how it all began.

– And you spoke about literature, of course?

– Not only, not only… (Faith laughs) As it turns out Joseph and I had another friend in common – Tolya Naiman. When I found out, I decided to give them both a present. I had brought with me from London a large bottle, a litre I think, of whisky. At that time in Russia whisky wasn’t to be found in ordinary shops. They were more than delighted to accept, but what happened next seemed to me downright horrible: the two of them proceeded to drink the entire bottle in the course of the evening. I was absolutely stunned. I asked: why did you drink the whole bottle? They just shrugged.

* * *

wigzell5When her six weeks in Leningrad had come to an end and she had to go home, to London, it turned out that in addition to new impressions, research material and attractive souvenirs, she had packed something much more serious: an offer of heart and hand from the poet Joseph Brodsky.

She returned to London and four years later married an American who lived in England. In 1972, when Brodsky was expelled from the USSR, he flew to London together with the great W.H. Auden for an international poetry festival. Faith was expecting her first child. Seeing her pregnant was a shock for Brodsky. She subsequently tried to keep their meetings to a minimum, so as not to cause him any distress.

* * *

– How do you relate to the poems which he dedicated to you: are they just Brodsky’s poems or are they poetic letters to Faith Wigzell?

– I cannot see them as simply Brodsky’s poems. I read them for myself.

wigzell2

Slavic scholar

– Above all else, I like the poems he wrote in Russia, in Leningrad and in Norenskaya. The period when he began to translate John Donne.

– Which of his essays do you like?

– What he wrote in Venice. Watermark.

– Have you seen his grave on the isle San Michele of Venice?

– No, I haven’t. Actually, I have only been to his beloved Venice once, when I was young.

– I once happened to visit San Michele when Venice was besieged by a snowstorm and Brodsky’s gravestone was covered by a big pile of snow, just like back in his beloved Leningrad…

– Yes, yes, he loved snow very much, big snowdrifts in particular…

Read the whole thing here.

Josef_Brodsky

Ann Arbor days… happy birthday, Joseph.

 

Sven Birkerts: serious writing as a “rear-guard mission”

Monday, January 2nd, 2012
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"Concentration is no longer a given"

Ted Gioia alerted us to this interview with Sven Birkerts in The Morning News, and it’s too good to miss.

My acquaintance with Sven is born of our common ancestry: We are both former students of Joseph Brodsky, which seems to be an enduring bond with a number of his former students the world over (James Marcus is another one, so is Gwyneth Lewis).

Sven was one of the contributors to Joseph Brodsky: Conversations a decade ago – back in the days before he even had his own email account. According to this interview, there’s been progress: “I started writing on a computer maybe 10 years ago. It was not a direct move—I would still do everything longhand, but then instead of typing I would put it in a computer. Now I actually write on a computer.”

Now he’s a changed man. When interviewer Robert Birnbaum asks him about his future writing, if he planning to do something “wild,” he responds that he wants to write something that “makes sense of this utterly transformed world that we are moving around in. That gives it a kind of identifiable voice.”

He wears three hats: editor of AGNI, head of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and author. He says that “in each of those three areas I am feeling seriously embattled. With the journal, for example, I feel we are fighting an action in the face of diminished attention, and that wasn’t the feel of it when there was more action on that front. With the teaching I really feel like, ‘Boy we have to keep this enterprise alive,’ to keep communicating a buzz around serious writing. Who knows what’s going to happen? So it becomes a rear-guard mission there, too. And with my own writing: definitely.”

I’ve often been criticized (usually by those who live with me) for the size of my library.  Sven managed to formulate the explanation I could never quite manage:

RB: [Umberto] Eco reportedly has a library of 50,000 volumes. I asked him if they are catalogued—which they are not. Nonetheless, he knows where they all are. I asked if he read all of them. He hadn’t but said he had gotten something from all of them.

SB: Yeah, I would sign off on that. I have an unorganized library, but it’s much smaller. Same thing. I find that with me it’s not whether I have read something as much as it has survived my repeated attempts to get rid of it.

RB: (laughs)

SB: And if it has… Things that survive hold such a charge of your own sense of promise about yourself—which is valuable. Or it’s that they hold information that you know according to some obscure scheme is going to become important to you. I think the books that go unread are so important. If I got up and looked at my library and everything was a book I’d read, to me that would be like reading tombstones. I love the agitation, left and right—“Oh yeah, oh yeah.”

RB: I got rid of my vinyl albums. I should do that with books—what an albatross.

SB: Oh yeah. You need your ruins around you.

RB: That would require an enlarged sense of history.

SB: Right, and you have a visibly presented record both of your hopes and your failures. (laughs) It’s all there, kind of mapping you.

Sven is concerned about the role of the book review today, and the disappearance of book review sections … well, aren’t we all? Birnbaum doesn’t appear to “get it” – it’s not so much about the “middlebrow” reader, as it is about supporting a general culture where every educated person participates in literature, if only as a reader. As I’ve often said, as a writer for the Washington Post Book World or the erstwhile Los Angeles Times Book Review, my ideal reader was someone thumbing their way to the stock market page, becoming intrigued by my review, and buying a volume of poetry or essays. Maybe even forgetting the Dow Jones altogether.

RB: It’s not a contradiction but there is a kind of conflict that faces people who create—much of your world is not real. The real world is when you go to the grocery store or gas station. And then you deal with people who are attuned to scrambling to pay their bills and not the wonders of the creative enterprise. And I feel artists and writers have given up on those people, and there is something self-fulfilling about that attitude. Why did newspapers cut their book sections?

SB: It was largely economics.

RB: To cut features that a loyal core of the circulation read? Why would I go to the newspaper if they didn’t write about what I care about?

SB: That’s true, too.  …

RB: Anyway, what is the reviewing engine about today? I joined the NBCC just to see what critics in the aggregate think their mission is.

SB: My sense is what has fallen out in a big way is the great middle that used to be occupied by the dozens and dozens of critics and reviewers you could have named some years ago. They were writing for a host of papers that paid a certain kind of attention to books. And those are the places that have disappeared or are shrinking. … And now, because of this shrinkage, the reviews editors of those places are desperately playing catch up, saying “We have to do something with this because it’s such a highly-touted book.” What doesn’t get attention is the spectrum—not even the B-list, all those quirky books that are not even going to sell 5,000 copies.

RB: Doesn’t it strike you that as a consequence the [book] awards are looking at books from tiny publishers …

SB: Sure. This situation is probably giving them extra permission to look harder there. They are picking books that in a different order of things should have gotten enough attention so that they wouldn’t seem strange when they were put forward. But because of this great void in the middle no one’s ever heard of them, or they’ve been reviewed once or twice.

His mission, as he sees it:

SB: Sure. The question is whether we live in a culture and psychological climate that is made up of people who feel there is a reason to play the game or else made up of a lot of people who have given up. I’d prefer the former.

RB: Conscious people are more affected than unconscious people.

SB: Absolutely.

If this post looks long, the whole tamale weighs in at over 7,200 words. You can read it here.

I only had one middling disagreement with him, when he defends the writer’s craft and the life-of-the-mind thusly: “People don’t think that sitting utterly inert in front of a screen is as hard as laying bricks. They think, ‘Well he’s doing nothing. But that guy over there is sweating.’”

Some coal-miner working 12-hour days underground would love to exchange his lot for “sweating” in front of a computer screen. We should never forget it.

By the by, the interview alludes to being “part 3” of an interview – but I didn’t find parts 1 and 2 online.  But I did find this from Sven, and it’s absolutely priceless in the era of the tweet:  “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won. To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one’s essential position.”

Postscript on 1/8:  Another part of Birnbaum’s interview has been found:  Dave Lull sent us this Part 1, from way back in 2003, here.  Thanks, Dave!