Visiting old friends in Kraków…

July 10th, 2024

I paid a visit to an old friend today. Last time we visited was six years ago at her temporary digs in Wawel Castle, on a bitterly cold winter day in Kraków – and Polish winters have a sharp bite that has to be experienced to be believed. She was only about two feet away from my face, and no one else was around – as a friend observed, the experience changes when you can see the craquelure up close.

Today she seems to have found a more permanent home at the Muzeum Czartoryskich. Leonardo da Vinci’s 21″ x 15″ oil painting is one of Poland’s great treasures. Stanford archist Elena Danielson described her as “wonderful in person, and much finer and far more mysterious than the Mona Lisa.”

Joy Zamoyski Koch commented on the provenance of the painting: “Lady with an Ermine was purchased in 1798 by Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski for his mother (my 4th grandmother) Princess Izabella and incorporated into the family art collection at Pulawy (which is also a museum worth visiting).

“She rescued it from the invading Russian army in 1830, sent it to Dresden, then to Czartoryski family in exile in Paris, and finally to Krakow in 1882.

“In 1939, the Germans seized it and sent it to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. The following year, Hans Frank, the Governor General of occupied Poland, requested its return to Krakow. In 1945 it was taken to Frank’s country home in Bavaria, where it was duly liberated by American troops who returned it to the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków.”

Said one of my bros: “Very cool! I have liked that painting for many years – the ferret and girl have the same look on their faces.” How many people have noticed that?

On revising manuscripts: “Mistrust everything that is effortless!”

June 13th, 2024
Muriel Spark’s approach? Not for him.

We’ve written about Trevor Cribben Merrill‘s novel Minor Indignities here. We’ve written about Trevor here and here and here). And we’ve also written about fascinating substack, Writing Fiction After Girard, and we recommend a look, especially today, as he writes about “Dana Gioia and René Girard on the Art of Revision.”

An excerpt:

The British novelist Muriel Spark (author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie among many others) is said to have revised her work very sparingly, if at all. In this interview on the BBC she cheekily summarizes her novel-writing method: “I begin at the beginning, I write the title, then I write my name, I turn over, I write the title of the book, I write ‘chapter one,’ and then I write on. I leave a space so I can make alterations as I go along, but I don’t revise it afterwards. And then it goes to the typist, and she types it, and I revise that, and that’s the book. That’s finished.”

Trevor riffs on that theme: “’Man mistrusts everything that is effortless,’ the philosopher Joseph Pieper once wrote, and much as I love her novels, I will confess to mistrusting Spark’s approach to the art of fiction. But this may only be because I am so incapable of emulating it. I am the sort of writer whose drafts are usually bad to an embarrassing extent, though as a rule I only realize this in retrospect. Perhaps you have had the experience of sending what you think is a finished piece of writing off to a friend. No sooner has it escaped your control than its flaws become glaringly, horrifyingly obvious. Or else you close your laptop and go to bed in the smug belief that you have written something masterful, only to wake up the next morning, reread the previous night’s pages, and realize how abysmally wrong you were. If these experiences have the ring of familiarity about them, then you and I are the same sort of writers.

The first reaction in such cases is usually to do everything possible to save face—frantically revise and resend, begging your recipient to ignore the previous message; delete the subpar pages and, chalking their mediocrity up to fatigue, pretend they never existed. I suspect that this is because most of us, deep down, feel somehow that we should be capable of tossing off novels (or poems, plays) with the same ease as Muriel Spark. We see our imperfect drafts as evidence of a shameful defect from which our artistic betters have been spared.

Read the rest here.

Pierre Saint-Amand celebrates Robert Harrison: “a mix of rock’n’roll and oracular antiquity”

May 31st, 2024

On April 19, Stanford celebrated the remarkable and many-faceted career of Professor Robert Pogue Harrison, Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature in the Department of French & Italian. We published Andrea Capra‘s tribute to him “How to Think with Robert Pogue Harrison,” on the Book Haven. Capra, a grateful former student, is now Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Princeton. Today, we share the presentation from a colleague who attended the festivities. Pierre Saint-Amand, Yale University’s Benjamin F. Barge Professor of French (he was formerly at Stanford), focuses his research on 18th-century literature, especially the libertine novel, the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and literary criticism and theory. Some of you may remember also him from the Another Look 2019 discussion of Madame de LaFayette’s landmark 1678 novella, The Princesse de Clèves. He was a brilliant addition to the Another Look panel, and a lively presence at Stanford day-long symposium for Robert Harrison as he officially transitioned to “emeritus.” Here’s what he said:

I am pleased to say a few words about Robert Harrison as we open this conference on the occasion of his retirement. These will be not savant words but words of affection. Robert and I were both young assistant professors in the early eighties, here at Stanford. Robert was then a specialist of Dante, fresh from Cornell, having written on the Vita Nuova. I am glad I had a front row seat to the immediate rise of his global success and his amazing career. I saw him mutate to become a philosopher, in the old sense of the term, one expressing his views on the human condition, and a public intellectual as he took to the waves. Everything started with Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, a prescient book of which I remember the humble and patient beginning. Robert put it together assembling erudition and swaps of visionary poetic language, going from Vico to Zanzotto. I am attached to Robert’s early books, as I felt a part of them when they were being written, and as they got especially a second distinguished life in French. Robert enjoyed naming these translations (beautifully realized by Florence Naugrette): he repeated those names as if they contained a special essence; he would say Forêts, Jardins, Les Morts. They were not books but some kinds of ecstatic emanations of the originals. Robert was a true professor of French and Italian; he was the eminent bridge of these two linguistic regions of this department and certainly the major intellectual spirit linking the two communities.

Pierre Saint-Amand

 He writes beautifully of this place, Stanford, that he will never attempt to leave, as I did (for Robert likes the woods as much as I like the city life). The university, he writes in Jardins, gave him so much. It’s strange to think of Robert as a man of institution, but he valued the university, this university, as a place of humanist exception and certainly of civilized friendship. He sees the university positively as a perfected garden. He has stayed here to live at Stanford, finding his habitat, his habitation, on the most perfect and secret street, Gerona Road, a hidden route in a wooden local. Robert finally left a modest cottage in a garden where he wrote his most precious books, now, for his house: a modern construction barely elevated above the land; an almost invisible structure hidden in the landscape of trees. This place resembles him and entertains his monastic and savage legend. I am reminded that in the cottage the forest once came magically to him when a branch of foliage pierced through a window to keep company to his computer. That was an awesome sight, a miracle of provoked thought, we could say, that wanted to prove to Robert he was writing the right books on nature.

 Robert is retiring. He will be gone from his classroom, gone from the Quadrangle, but you will still be able to hear him when he takes to the waves. For he has this other life, really a voice, a mix of rock’n’roll and oracular antiquity. Who says KZSU like Robert Harrison? Where is the location of that electronic space that invites his baritone eloquence? You say it comes from the Stanford campus, better it is a global digital agora. That’s where you will find Robert Harrison, Robert the prophet, warning us of the impending doom and delivering an activism of the thought. In the manner of Hannah Arendt, his muse, he sees those dark clouds threatening of a rain that doesn’t come. Recently, Robert has left the forest for the cosmos (I mean by that the worlds) making an even more giant intellectual, philosophical, and critical leap. We have all become followers of Entitled Opinions, hooked to the news of dark times. Robert though has a secret, a pharmakos at the ready, nothing other than the poetry of his vision, a poetry that is always the promise of a survivable redemption.

Robert Pogue Harrison with  Chloe Edmondson and Pierre Saint-Amand discussing Princesse de Clèves (Photo: David Schwartz)

Cheers to the man whose name is a rhyme! Poetry champion Mike Peich turns 80!

May 20th, 2024
Mike Peich tirelessly shares his fine press books to visitors. Here in 2014

Way back in 1995, a literary movement was born: the West Chester Poetry Conference, with 85 poets and scholars in attendance gathering in the small burg outside Philadelphia. The original core faculty members included Annie Finch, R. S. Gwynn, Mark Jarman, Robert McDowell, and Timothy Steele.

Mike Peich’s “Aralia” fine press books on display

They had a mission. In a world where poetry has become almost irrelevant, the poets gathered in West Chester wanted to return it to a general audience. Their weapons of choice? Traditional forms, rhyme and meter, those age-old tools of the poet’s craft, which fell out of fashion in the last century but were making a startling comeback. Why did it appeal? Because it echoes with cadences that have been familiar to English-speakers for centuries.

The conference was co-founded by a maverick California poet, Dana Gioia, and a local fine-press printer, Michael Peich. It soon became perhaps the largest such ongoing symposium in America, with more than 200 by the time the century turned. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it “a true event, one of the most important such conferences in the United States.” Over the years, it’s pulled in such heavyweights as Richard Wilbur – arguably America’s greatest living poet – as well as Anthony Hecht and Britain’s Wendy Cope, among others. Together, Gioia and Peich made this small suburban campus into an unlikely literary mecca.

The birthday boy: Mike Peich turned 80 last weekend on May 18.

Not everyone was a fan of what the West Chester conference represented. The movement that gave birth to it – loosely called “New Formalism” – has been locked in a David-and-Goliath struggle with several of the more powerful institutions in today’s poetry world. Notable among them is Philadelphia’s prestigious American Poetry Review, which in 1992 published a blistering attack on it as “dangerous nostalgia” with a “social as well as a linguistic agenda.” Another critic labeled the group “the Reaganites of poetry.” And a recent issue of the American Poetry Review makes a dismissive reference to “neo-conservative formalism.”

Well, you can read the whole story here. It’s disappeared from the Philadelphia Magazine online, but we have preserved the article, “The Bards of the ‘Burbs,” just for you.

Meanwhile, many of the West Chester veterans praised him in – what else? – poetry, beginning with Dana himself, riffing on Tennyson‘s “Ulysses” with his good friend and fellow poet David Mason:

Michael Peich Turns Eighty

It little profits that an idle man
By a still press, with a half-empty can
Of beer should undertake a survey of his life.
One might as well carve water with a knife,
And water passeth underneath a bridge.
He flushes and returneth to the fridge.

The long day wanes. The game shows now begin. 
The existential question—switch to gin?
It is the evening makes him think this way,
As repetitious as a roundelay.
He can’t stay up too late, can’t see the stars,
The doctors have forbidden him cigars.

Old age hath yet its honor and its trauma,
From scheming poets and their endless drama,
Their endless readings and their endless woes,
Self-laureled poets with their souls of prose.
No blinded Cyclops roaring in a rage
Is half as awful as some poet’s page.

Such steady service to the Thankless Muse 
Would drive a less heroic man to booze.
(A recreation he can’t even try;
His poet friends have drunk his cellar dry.)
But wise Ulysses sees his shelf and smiles.
The books he printed are his Happy Isles.

Turn off the screen, and let the low skies darken.
Time to reread Dick Wilbur, Kees, and Larkin.
Though much is taken, he will undertake—
For Dianne and his worthy spirit’s sake—
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to growse,
Or let another poet in the house.

From Meg Schoerke

Tell all the truth but tell it “Peich”—
Success in Printing lies
Not in Broadsides, nor Matchless proof,
No Letter out of Line—
But Truest—be—the Type of man
For whom Ink Brayers roll—
His Font of Generosity
And Impress on our Soul—

From Leslie Monsour

Dear Mike,

The time has come, now that you’re eighty,
To turn to matters deep and weighty.
By now, you must be sage and wise;
No need for doubt or compromise.
Of lessons, you have gathered plenty.
Your insight measures twenty/twenty.
Now share with us your deepest findings
And what you’ve learned from life’s hard grindings.
And, while you share all this and more,
Don’t hesitate to freely pour,
Along with your profoundest self,
That twelve-year-old Macallan…up there…on the shelf. 

From James Matthew Wilson

To Michael Peich on His Eightieth Birthday

The great Romantic poet speaks of acts
Of “unremembered . . . kindness and of love,”
As, in our human lives, redeeming facts,
Graces descending like a blazing dove.
How many are the poets you have aided
In finding their first feet in verse and rhyme?
Your memory of such things may, now, have faded
As do most things beneath the wash of time.

So, at the rounding of these eighty years,
I write to recollect your kindest deeds
While offering you as well my hearty cheers
As your ninth decade in the world proceeds,
Such cheers come as a sonnet to ensure
That they and you alike may long endure.

From Robert B. Shaw

For Michael Peich’s Birthday

Poets, if you are out to seek
a paradigm for life and art,
observe how Peich has scaled his peak.
What’s eighty years? A fresh new start.

From Shirley Geok-lin Lim

I never met Mike.
This counts as a strike
Against me. No like
On FaceBook. Dislike
Me. I’ll take a hike,
You poets, a shrike
Among songbirds. 

From Mark Jarman & Robert McDowell

Celebrating Michael Peich
Is like riding a Schwinn bike.

Though he’s hardly a tyke,
He’s still someone we like.

He’s younger than Ike, 
He’s Mighty Mike!

Need a patched dike?
Depend upon Mike.

Transcontinental Mike
Drives home the golden spike.

You’ll quickly cycle
Through the best rhymes for Michael. 

But he is unique
Like the tip of Pike’s Peak.

If it’s favors you seek
Any day of the week

In a pet or a pique
He will soothe you and speak

Of the beauty of books
In crannies and nooks

Handcrafted, handmade
And never mislaid.

That’s the magic of Mike
Whom you know that we like.

On horseback or trike
Our Michael will strike.

And what is our takeaway?
80 bells for his birthday!                  

And a personal favorite from David J. Rothman:

Michael Peich
Is no longer a tyke.
His thoughts are more weighty
Now that he’s…fifty.

“While Malcolm’s shoes are singular,” he said, “I walk in my own shoes.” How a small publishing house found a new life.

May 12th, 2024
Steve Wasserman among his 20,000 books (Photo: Ximema Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight)

The story of small publishing houses in today’s world often aren’t happy ones. Here’s the story of one that is.

I know Malcolm Margolin, the legendary founder of the valiant publishing house, Heyday Books in Berkeley. I know his successor, Steve Wasserman, even better. I wrote for Steve when he was the editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books when it was the best newspaper in the nation. And now I’ve published with Heyday – well, I wrote about that here and here. Czesław Miłosz: A California LIfe is now a reality, and about to appear with Kraków’s Znak, the Polish poet’s favored publisher. I’ll be writing from Kraków as that event happens next month.

This, however, is the story of Heyday. Here’s an excerpt from Joanne Furio‘s article in Berkeleyside. Read the whole thing here:

In November 2016, four months after becoming the publisher of Heyday books, the independent, alternative press Malcolm Margolin founded in Berkeley in 1974, Steve Wasserman faced what he described as “a major hiccup.” The nonprofit imprint was  $250,000 in the red and couldn’t pay salaries. There were few options, including the possibility of closing up shop. 

“We had to really look at each other and say, maybe we could throw a 40th anniversary wake and celebrate the achievements that were made during the first four decades of Heyday,” he said. “On the other hand, if you look at the sweat equity that was put into the place over those 40 years, maybe there was something worth nurturing and a path forward.”

The staff chose a path forward. As Wasserman put it, everyone — himself included — cinched their belts and took a temporary pay cut. The 15-member staff was also reduced by a third. 

“Fortunately, the business rebounded,” he said. “We put our house in order, and now we are thriving. We’re in the best fiscal position we’ve ever enjoyed in 50 years.”


Heyday’s occupied a few rented offices around Berkeley over the years and is now in a ground-floor suite of a newish apartment building at 1808 San Pablo Avenue in Northwest Berkeley. Some 20,000 books belonging to Wasserman line the walls, practically from floor to ceiling. Storing the books in the Heyday offices, where employees had access to them, was a condition of his hiring and seen as a win-win for both. Wasserman’s been hauling them around the country for years. 

For Wasserman, returning to Berkeley closed a circle. He went to Berkeley High and UC Berkeley and has returned to the North Shattuck neighborhood he grew up in. He joked that his hometown has become “the La Brea Tar Pits of the counterculture,” which he also played a role in. 

At Garfield Junior High (now King Middle School), he organized the first demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1965. In 1968, he co-led a successful student strike there that founded the first Black history and studies department at an American high school. In 1969, he organized a sleep-in to protest the military occupation of Berkeley, a.k.a. People’s Park. 


Wasserman had known Margolin for years when he learned of the opening and called him. “‘Why would you want to leave the New York big-time to work at Heyday, this farshtunken publisher in Berkeley?’” Wasserman recounted, providing the translation for the Yiddish word farshtunken, which means “stinking.” 

Malcolm Margolin at his home in 2021 by Christopher Michel

“‘After all,’ he said, both flattering me and slightly insulting me, ‘you’re a big-time New York publisher. Why would you want to waste your time?’” Wasserman said. “I said, “What do you think big-time New York publishers do? They do the same thing you do. They look for good ideas and for fresh, original voices. The scale is different, the work is the same.” 

Wasserman sees his role as a steward to safeguard Heyday’s editorial and publishing program in a fiscally responsible way that honors the DNA of its founder as he helps write its second chapter — in his own way. 

“While Malcolm’s shoes are singular,” he said, “I walk in my own shoes.”

Since taking the helm, Wasserman has stabilized Heyday’s balance sheet and expanded its stable of writers to include the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley. “We’re expanding in every realm,” he said. 

Under Wassermann’s stewardship, Heyday’s no longer in the red and has managed to break even every year. Each year, the imprint has raised about $1 million, with sales revenue at just over $2 million. Sixty-five percent of its revenue comes from book sales, according to Heyday’s 2023 Annual Report. 


Recent books Wasserman has shepherded include Linda Rondstadt’s Feels Like Home (with Laurence Downes), Tony Platt’s The Scandal of Cal and Don Cox’s Making Revolution: My Life in the Black Panther Party.

In addition, Wasserman has recently tried on the hat of “author.” At the suggestion of staffers, he has collected his essays in a memoir titled Tell Me Something, Tell Me Anything, Even if It’s a Lie, due out Oct. 8. The book is being blurbed by such literary heavyweights as Joyce Carol Oates and Vivian Gornick

He has also written, with Gayle Wattawa, Heyday’s general manager, the intro to the book Heyday at Fifty: Selected Writings from Five Decades of Independent California Publishing, coming out Aug. 13 to celebrate Heyday’s 50th anniversary. Gary Snyder, Jane Smiley, Ursula Pike, Greg Sarris and Susan Straight are among the contributors. 

Looking ahead, Wasserman is encouraged by Heyday’s prospects in an industry that appears to be rebounding from the gloom-and-doom predictions of a decade ago. He noted that more independent bookstores have opened up in the last five years, and e-book sales have declined. He admits that attention spans are shortening, and that remains a challenge, but books as we know them are not disappearing anytime soon. 

“Ultimately, I want to no longer be the best-kept literary secret in the state of California. I want us to be the principal independent publisher that would-be authors think about when they want to publish their books,” he said. “My ambition is that we become a magnetic pole that attracts to our side like iron filings writers of ambition and talent who yearn to be published by us. And I want to do that by continuing the bespoke tradition that has been so well established, which is part of our identity.” 

Again, read the whole thing at Berkeleyside here.

How to Think with Robert Pogue Harrison

April 24th, 2024

He’s been called one of the America’s leading humanists, and now he’s taking a step back. Robert Pogue Harrison, Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature in the Department of French & Italian at Stanford and has formally retired and is now professor emeritus – but thank goodness he promises not to go away! We need him!

The all-day event to celebrate him on Friday, April 19, was intellectually rich and joyous, as everyone would have predicted. But perhaps the talk that might have the most immediate applications in today’s world was Andrea Capra’s lively presentation – “Matters of Ordinary Mentorship or: How to Think with Robert Pogue Harrison.” Mind you, not on learning how to think like Robert, but rather learning how to think with Robert. That might benefit all of us, in academia and out. Andrea, who is Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Princeton, gave permission for us to republish his talk as a Book Haven essay. I think we can all learn something from it – about Robert, and about thinking. Here goes:

One of my most memorable Robert Harrison moments occurred in the second year of my PhD. I had just begun dipping my toes into the waters of academic conferences, and that year, I submitted an abstract for the Canadian Association of Italian Studies. My topic was Beppe Fenoglio’s Una questione privata, a story about love, friendship, and jealousy featuring Milton, a young university student who has joined the Resistenza against the Republic of Salò. With the candor typical of a second-year PhD student, I aimed to unravel, once and for all, the theme of death in this novel. To this end, I was ready to summon a formidable array of concepts gleaned from the readings I had undertaken over the previous two years. With scarce interest for matters of internal consistency and theoretical coherence, my paper began by invoking Derrida’s lecture ‘La différence,’ was carried forward by the winds of Ernst Junger’s essay The Forest Passage, and concluded with a barely hinted—at yet profound, or so I thought—Heideggerian thrust.

In my paper, Milton, the protagonist of Una questione privata, symbolized what Derrida termed faisceau—a complex assemblage which, by possessing the structure of weaving, allows different threads and lines of meaning to diverge in several directions, just as they are always ready to intertwine with others. Indeed, these threads did intertwine—through an act of hermeneutical tailoring, I was the one weaving them together by referencing Junger’s The Forest Passage. In my paper, Milton’s deviation from the structured activities of the Resistenza in order to ascertain whether his beloved one had betrayed him, mirrored what Junger describes as ‘the forest rebel’—an individual whose claim to freedom is, I quote, “an affirmation of one’s desire as destiny.”

Andrea Capra learned from a maestro

But Milton’s story ends in disaster. Fully aware that his plan is doomed to fail, Milton nevertheless carries it forth. He dies, shot, in the midst of the action – and there I thought I had found it. In that act of willed martyrdom, I saw Milton being-towards-death – with all the hyphens in the right place too. There, my Milton expressed, I quote, “one’s ownmost and most extreme potentiality-of-being, that is, the possibility of authentic existence.”

As if I had discovered a magic formula to unveil the unplumbed depths of Fenoglio, I eagerly sent the paper to Robert. Knowing he liked Una questione privata, I was excited to share this theoretical concoction with him. Hours later, after teaching my Italian 103 class, I was on my way to Axe and Palm to grab some lunch when my phone rang. Typically, Robert took no more than a couple of days to read my writings, but I was somewhat surprised that this time, not even four hours had passed. I picked up the phone—and oh boy.

While I shall not disclose the content of that phone call out of a sense of pride, let it suffice to say that within minutes, my hopes of radically changing the reception of Fenoglio’s work had become a relic of the past.

“I did not ignore his comments. They lingered and festered.”

At first, I was baffled by Robert’s strong criticism. His intellectual style is deeply philosophical, which he applies to his readings of literature as well. I believed I was doing just that by weaving in the thoughts of Derrida, Junger, and Heidegger into my analysis of Fenoglio. To my surprise, the parts of my paper that Robert criticized most vigorously were those where I engaged with concepts from these thinkers. However, as everyone who knows me is aware, I can be somewhat stubborn, and so I presented the paper without making any changes. At the conference, nothing particularly bad happened—after all, in the humanities, one can indeed get away with murder, especially as a graduate student in a rapidly shrinking discipline.

While I was stubborn enough not to alter my paper in response to Robert’s critiques, I did not simply ignore his comments. In reality, they lingered and festered—the fact that I am sharing this anecdote with you today is a testament to their lasting impact. You see, Robert and I have had our fair share of intellectual disagreements over the years. Yet, I greatly admire him—his style, his intellect, his generosity, and his straightforwardness. This dynamic of occasional disagreements and enduring respect has fostered an extraordinarily productive intellectual relationship. While Robert never hesitated to critique my Latinate formulations and occasionally Byzantine sentences, given my respect for him I could not dismiss his insights lightly. And I must also add that, as I now know, criticizing a student’s work often requires more time and effort than simply endorsing it—professors sometimes choose the quickest and most frictionless path to conclude a conversation with their students.

But not Robert. And so I kept ruminating on his critique of my paper on Una questione privata. Over time, I realized that Robert’s main criticism wasn’t about my choice of approaching Fenoglio from a philosophical point of view. Rather, the problem was that in my paper Fenoglio was crushed by the theoretical weight of the names and concepts I employed. By relying too much on conceptually dense formulations, I did not promote legibility. Robert wouldn’t describe himself as a Cartesian – and in fact, some of my favorite pages of Robert are those where he describes Cartesians in revolt, such as he does in Forests – but Robert taught me that one’s ideas must be clear and distinct before they can be set free in our communities. This is, after all, an ethical imperative: if our goal is to communicate something, then legibility is key. My ideas, in that paper, were neither clearly nor distinctly conveyed. My use of Derrida, Junger, and Heidegger was obfuscating, rather than illuminating. The point was not to get rid of these thinkers – the point was that I wasn’t using them properly. Instead of carefully moving within Fenoglio’s novel, I was stampeding around, raising a cloud of dust that served no purpose. In fact, that dust prevented my ideas from being clearly seen.

Robert Harrison at University of Notre Dame in 2022.

Robert, I believe, was inviting me to rely more on ordinary language, rather than on the hyphenated and Latinate formulations of high-theory. Not because we should dismiss theory – but because theory works at its best when it is at its lightest. Otherwise said, if my words could convey the nuances and insights of Derrida, Junger, and Heidegger without my rookie attempts at parroting their style, then I would be doing a service to my primary source, to those thinkers, and, most importantly, to my audience.

“Contempt for ordinary language is contempt for the humanities.”

It is today my belief that once ordinary language is laughed out of the room, philosophical theories are no longer held responsible at all to the ways we actually speak and actually live. And aren’t the humanities ultimately for a good part connected to how we actually speak and live? To me, it is clear that the descriptions of human life we find in the novels of Samuel Beckett or in the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi are not mere entertainment. In my view, and among other things, they teach us to perceive and describe what goes on in social and individual life. To echo what Hilary Putnam once said, contempt for ordinary language is, at bottom, contempt for the humanities.

Robert’s work – in which I also prominently include his advising role – is a reminder that thinking and living are intimately connected. I am not sure he would speak of “ordinary language” à la Wittgenstein, Austin, or Cavell in relation to this connection. But so what? In the end, this is my way of thinking with Robert – not of thinking like Robert. An intellectual mentor in the trust sense of the term is someone who seeks to develop the voice of his mentee – not someone who wishes to see his own voice replicated.

My understanding of ordinary language philosophy is intimately tied to my work in phenomenology. This too is greatly influenced by Robert’s mentorship. It is with Robert that I truly started getting my hands dirty with phenomenology, and doing something with it rather than simply reading about it. This took place over long office hours and individualized reading sessions – with the most meaningful one probably being a legendary quarter when Robert, Corey Dansereau, and I, read and discussed Peter Sloterdijk’s book Not Saved. Essays After Heidegger.

An invitation to pay attention to the ordinary

I bring together ordinary language and phenomenology for a key reason: isn’t Husserl’s invitation to go back to the things themselves an invitation to pay attention to the ordinary? If we understand Husserl’s sentence as a rally cry to focus on the ways that things are given in experience, and to shift from what he terms a “natural attitude” to a “phenomenological attitude”, then we must for a good part resort to the language of the ordinary – even if just as a starting point. In phenomenology, this shift of attitudes involves a methodological bracketing, known as epoché, which suspends assumptions and judgments regarding a situation to explore the structures of consciousness underpinning it. Yet, in undertaking a transcendental reduction, we must be cautious not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. In other words, by doing phenomenology it is my contention that we build upon the ordinary, rather than dismiss it. This is because ordinary concepts and ordinary words are essential to describe ordinary experiences – in fact, this is what we do all the time.

Let me give you an example of how this may work in practice. As some of you know, I’m currently finishing a manuscript on how horror manifests in literary works not belonging to the horror genre. Why this seeming reluctance towards the horror genre? It’s in fact something different than reluctance – it represents a return to the ordinary. Consider how we already use the word horror beyond the horror genre. In languages such as English, Italian, French or Spanish, the word horror comes already socialized. Perhaps you used this word to evoke the catastrophes unfolding around the globe, such as natural disasters, violations of human rights, or forced displacements. Perhaps it reminds you of the illness that all of a sudden took hold of the life of a loved one. Or maybe, less tragically so, it brings back those couple of truly horrifying minutes that you experienced the last time you flew through turbulence.

Robert Harrison as DJ for “Entitled Opinions” podcast series

In such cases, we may resort to the word ‘horror’ and its derivatives because horror is mundane, widespread, and a facet of our life. Indeed, we use this word to speak about the concrete phenomena of our lives. For these reasons, my manuscript focuses on depictions of, for instance, warfare, poverty, or sexual violence, rather than on zombies, vampires, or masked serial killers. In so doing, I posit that moments of horror are interwoven into the fabric of literature across genres, like the varied experiences we encounter in our lives.

In this project, I reconnect horror to lived experience, while studying its aesthetics beyond the commodified motifs of the horror genre. This rediscovery of horror is achieved through a rereading of the modern Italian canon, showing a literary tradition not associated with horror to be in fact rife with it. To this end, Ireclaim the ordinary word horror in all its power to analyze Giacomo Leopardi’s pages on existential suffering, along with Primo Levi’s writings on Auschwitz, Elena Ferrante’s descriptions of violence, and the works of various other writers.

In pursuing this project, I cannot say that I always followed Robert’s suggestions. And yet, as I’ve been discussing, my thinking on the topic is profoundly affected by Robert’s mentorship. How to make sense of this apparent contradiction?

“Turn down the lights!” Come join us for Tanizaki’s masterpiece, “In Praise of Shadows” on April 29!

April 17th, 2024

The eminent Japanese author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki has been called an “ecological prophet.”

Please join us for a discussion of his 1933 classic In Praise of Shadows. It’s coming up fast! Another Look will discuss Tanizaki’s 73-page essay at 7 p.m. (PST) on Monday, April 29, at Levinthal Hall in the Stanford Humanities Center at 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus. This is a hybrid event, so you can come in person or via zoom, but we encourage you to register either way (link below). 

Some more praise for the book: “Tanizaki sums up what he feels Japan has lost in becoming modern. In brief, it is his view that the traditional Japanese arts thrived in the shade, and that the glaring light of the Twentieth Century is destroying them,” wrote Edward Seidensticker in The Atlantic in 1955. “At the end of the essay he suggests that we try turning down the lights.”

Ethen Wood, the associate director of Stanford’s Sustainable Architecture + Engineering, grew up in San Francisco’s Zen Buddhist community in the 80’s and spent part of his childhood in a Zen Buddhist monastery in the mountains of Carmel, without electricity. “This was part of a concerted effort by the temple to stay true to the traditions and historic experiences from Japan,” he said.

The book is available on or, at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto (call first). It’s also available on Kindle. Register on the link below.

Panelists will include Stanford Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, author, director of Another Look, host of the radio talk show and podcast series Entitled Opinions, and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and three special guests: Mark Gonnerman, who has a Stanford PhD in religious studies, has been a student of Japanese histories and cultures since he first ventured to Kyoto in the mid-1970s. Meri Mitsuyoshi is a longtime Another Look aficionado whose appreciation of Japanese aesthetics is informed by study of ritual and intergenerational cultural transmission. 

This event is sponsored by the Stanford Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford, and the Stanford Humanities Center.

Register here:

“A Company of Authors”: Hear the latest from Stanford writers on Saturday, April 20!

April 7th, 2024

April is here! That means the 21st annual “A Company of Authors,” hosted by Peter Stansky, Frances and Charles Field Professor of History, Emeritus, is making its annual appearance with the daffodils and California poppies.

Master of Ceremonies Stansky

Drop by to hear the latest Stanford offerings on Saturday afternoon, April 20th, at Levinthal Hall in the Stanford Humanities Center at 424 Santa Teresa (for those of you who attend Another Look events, you know the venue). Or attend virtually by zoom.

Below, the bill of fare for the afternoon – stop by for a session or two, or stay the whole afternoon. And come say hello to me! I’ll be presenting my Penguin Classic All Desire is a Desire for Being during the 1 p.m. first session. I’ll be chairing the panel on Poetry and Fiction at 3 p.m.

The “A Company of Authors” event is free and open to the public – open the link to the event page (where registration can be found) is here, .

If you would prefer to attend virtually, click the Zoom registration here:

Leading poetry critic Marjorie Perloff has died at 92: “Her passion was brilliant.”

March 25th, 2024

Marjorie Perloff, one of America’s leading poetry critics, has died at 92. At Stanford, she was the Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities emerita. There will be many tributes in the days and weeks to come. Meanwhile, a few words of an early Facebook tribute from Stanford’s Hilton Obenzinger, who interviewed her for his “How I Write” program:

Marjorie Perloff

She lived a full life, fleeing Vienna as a child and ending up a leading critic. She always had an acute vision of current poetics, and she could be raucous and demanding and irritating and sometimes oddly narrow-minded, racially blinded on occasion, but she cultivated new experimental directions in poetry with a passion that was brilliant. I remember she sponsored a series of readings by avant-garde poets at Stanford. There were good turnouts – but with a remarkable absence of English Department faculty. She participated in a “How I Write” conversation. All I had to do was get her going and I didn’t have to say very much, she would just roll on in brilliant and funny bursts. Here’s an excerpt from the book that came from those conversations,. How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experience:

Marjorie Perloff finds her subjects in a serendipitous or meandering fashion. She was asked to write an “omnibus review” of a hundred books of poetry, but she veered off when she discovered the work of one poet, Frank O’Hara, in an anthology. She was completely enthralled, and was compelled to write one of the earliest critical books about O’Hara’s work. “You’re going to write about something that speaks to you,” Perloff explained. “It does not mean it’s the greatest work; it just speaks to you. Nobody could be more different from me than Frank O’Hara, an Irish-American, gay, Catholic, male poet.” But she loved his work, his sense of humor; and she knew she liked the kinds of irony that O’Hara employs—so this became her project. Perloff explained that she has had to understand her own taste, “knowing what you like and don’t like,” and consequently her subject becomes a very personal choice, one that grows from that self-knowledge. “There are going to be certain things I never do like, that are, for me, sentimental,” and O’Hara was not one of those.

But it’s not only taste; it’s what she can offer to the conversation. Poets would often ask Marjorie Perloff why she hadn’t written about them or why she hadn’t written about some other writer. “It doesn’t mean you don’t like them,” she explained; but she may not have anything particular to say that hasn’t been said already. “There are a lot of people I like that I haven’t written about because I don’t feel I have anything to say that other people haven’t said. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t find them very interesting; it just means—Let’s take somebody like Faulkner, for instance. I adore Faulkner. But I don’t have anything to say about Faulkner, particularly.”

From Boris Dralyuk on Twitter: “I had this theory (ha…) that Marjorie was related to Shelley Winters. Like SW, she was a force, magnetic and grand. It was a joy to get her notes when she caught pieces of mine she liked, and it hurts to think that ’25 will arrive without one of her sumptuous New Year’s letters.

From Derek Beaulieu on Twitter: “Rest in peace Marjorie Perloff (1931-2024); an incredible scholar, critic, and colleague … Marjorie passed away peacefully, surrounded by her family. She was herself to the end – funny, opinionated, generous, and fiercely devoted to her friends and family.

Postscript from Peter Y. Paik of the University in Seoul, South Korea: “Ages ago when I was an undergrad interested in avant-garde poetry, it was Marjorie Perloff who made me want to pursue an academic career. I admired the clarity and grace with which she wrote on the most demanding sorts of texts, so much the inverse of much of the theory-heavy scholarship at the time. While my research interests moved in other directions, one of my fondest memories of graduate school was of getting to meet her in person at a conference in Cornell in 1995. She had an unabashed love for what she studied, which gave an invigorating and spirited quality to her conversation. Marjorie always retained the passion that drives one to study literature but which too often flags and flares out in the grind of the ivory tower. I pay my respects to a life well-lived, and offer the prayer that there will be more like her in the future.

Postscript on March 29: There’s more. From Robert Pogue Harrison (read the whole piece here):

“At Stanford, Perloff had a profound and lasting impact on her students and colleagues. Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, Emeritus, team-taught Introduction to the Humanities and two graduate seminars on the French 19th century poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud with Perloff in the late 1990s. ‘No one who spent an hour in Marjorie’s company could ever forget her,’ said Harrison, professor of French and Italian. ‘In addition to being the best scholar of modern poetry of her generation, she was multi-lingual, immensely articulate, and a tour de force of wit and storytelling. She gave greatly more to Stanford than she took from it. Team-teaching with her was an exhilarating experience that I will always cherish.’” 

Postscript on March 26, from Polish poet Julia Fiedorczuk:

Robert Harrison: “Our culture is getting more and more prosaic…We’re trafficking in concepts and not in spirit.”

March 23rd, 2024

You could easily miss this long article with the long title, “Writer, podcaster “Robert Harrison challenges A.I. brain delusion, the Humanities’ deathbed and Fear & Loathing with the Love Bots.” I wouldn’t pass it up I were you. Scott Thomas Anderson has a conversation with Robert Pogue Harrison, Stanford’s leading humanist and Dante scholar, and Aqsa Ijaz, who writes for The Marginalia Review (we’ve written about her on the Book Haven here) and it shouldn’t be missed.

An excerpt:

“We were talking about the horrifying and exciting possibilities of Chat GPT, and I asked, ‘What if it starts to write books like you?” Ijaz reminded Harrison. “And you said, ‘I’m not worried that A.I. will be able to think metaphorically, or write books like mine. I’m worry that it will hasten the day when human beings themselves will no longer be able to think metaphorically and lose access to those depths.’ What do you think is happening in the Humanities? Have students already lost access to their metaphoric depths?”

Robert Pogue Harrison

“I think so, yeah,” Harrison admitted. “At Stanford, when I arrived in the 80s, there was the whole war over the Western canon. It had gone from Western Civilization to ‘Civilization, Ideas and Values.’ So, when they changed the reading list from Western Civ. to ‘C.I.V.,’ essentially, they threw out all the poets. They retained Thomas Aquinas but threw out Dante. They retained Machiavelli and threw out Shakespeare. They retained the theorists, the people who think in terms of concepts, but not in terms of images. So, this isn’t even due to technology, it’s just the fact that our culture is getting more and more prosaic, and professors are more and more in the profession of trafficking in concepts and not in spirit. So, it’s that de-spiritualization. And we’re becoming completely illiterate in terms of the language of imagery, symbol, metaphor. This increasing literalization of reality is a terrible blight on the poetic imagination.”

For Harrison and many of his listeners, that has consequences: This weakening of the full breadth of the human experience is accelerating at the very same moment that the zealots of Tech utopianism would have A.I. replace the human creative capacity all together. Harrison thinks that many of his colleagues are too consumed with indoctrination to see this grim writing on the wall.   

“Rather than them being an antidote or tonic or some kind of corrective to the general disaster that has been visited upon our ordinary human intelligence by technology, and the whole sorcery of the screen, I think the majority of my colleagues in the Humanities – according to my general awareness of the tribe to which I belong – won’t be in a position where we should expect much from them,” Harrison offered. “They won’t be providing a productive alternative or some kind of counter-impulse to the worst disfigurations … It seems to me that it’s just going to render everyone more and more vulnerable to fraud, propaganda, ideological manipulation and greater political polarization. And it’s the same technology that enhances and enables all of these exploitations of human loneliness.”

Aqsa Ijaz

The conversation turned to AI, perhaps inevitably: NYU professor Gary Marcus, who spoke recently about the extreme confusion society will now face between reality and unreality.

“What criminals are going to do here is create counterfeit people,” Marcus said. “It’s hard to even envision the consequences of that. We have built machines that are bulls in a China shop. Powerful, reckless and difficult-to-control.”

In other words, as these forms of machine learning teach themselves how to play to people’s egos and vanity, breathing in our collective online behavior – and how we use social media to desperately grasp for breadcrumbs of affirmation – these bots get better and better at gauging how a person secretly likes to imagine themself. They will learn to cater to such vulnerabilities, doing so from the guise of some vaguely independent, apparently all-knowing ghost. This alone gives A.I. the potential to be as addictive, or more addictive, than any force we’ve yet encountered in our mammalian experience, especially when love and sex are forced into the equation. And Marcus’s reference to criminals? Up until this point, con artists of average intelligence have been successfully preying on isolated, withdrawn and hurting people, often managing to catfish those victims for tens of thousands of dollars; or in some cases hundreds of thousands. Now imagine what a predictive “super-intelligence” can do to isolated, withdrawn and hurting people.  

Can Silicon Valley and the academic breeding ground that bolsters it somehow chain this part of the genie?  

Having taught at Stanford University for 38 years, Harrison has little faith that the ivy league institutions will be the answer … Read the whole thing here.

Writer Christopher Merrill celebrates the “blessedness of gathering” in Hong Kong

March 11th, 2024
Merrill (far left) with IWP alumni from Norway, Honk Kong, and Japan

“Only connect,” E. M. Forster famously wrote. Forster’s dictum is a plan of action for writer, poet, editor, and translator Christopher Merrill, who is the director of the International Writing Program (IWP), based at the University of Iowa. It’s been callled the “United Nations of Writers.” The late W.S. Merwin called him “one of the most gifted, audacious, and accomplished poets of an extraordinary rich generation.” He’s in Hong Kong right now to celebrate the IWP’s 29th anniversary.

IWP organizes a number of programs that connects literary communities overseas with distinguished American writers. He delivered a short keynote address celebrating the connections at the Hong Kong Book Festival.

He offered some thoughts on literary residencies:

“When I was hired in 2000 to rebuild the storied International Writing Program, there was concern in the leadership at the University of Iowa that another academic institution might seek State Department funding to create a literary residency like ours, thus undercutting our partnership with that federal agency, which dates to the IWP’s founding in 1967. This did not worry me, partly because I had so many administrative fires to put out, and partly because it seems to me that any literary residency is a good thing not only for individual writers but for the larger community: when poets and writers are given space to read, write, and reflect, good things usually follow.

“I often return Robert Hass’s poem, ‘Spring Rain,’ which begins with the speaker taking note of the intervals of light sparked by “a Pacific squall, started no one knows where, which moves its own way, like water or the mind.”

Accordingly Hass makes an imaginative journey, tracing the likely path of the rain… and then charts ends with calls ‘the blessedness of gathering.’” More than 1,600 distinguished poets, fiction writers, essayists, and playwrights have gathered in our UNESCO City of Literature to write, give readings, and engage with their counterparts from around the world, expanding their aesthetic horizons and building a network of literary connections that endure, and that is why I was thrilled to learn twenty years ago that Hong Kong Baptist University had decided to create its own version of the IWP. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I am pleased to join Nieh Hualing Engle, the co-founder of the IWP, in welcoming the International Writers’ Workshop. That many alumni of the IWP have had the good fortune to take part in the IWW makes this all the sweeter.”

“This book will change the way you see the world around you”: Zabolotsky’s “Columns”

March 1st, 2024
His poems took Leningrad by storm

When Columns, a slim volume of poems written by an unknown young Russian poet named Nikolai Zabolotsky, appeared in 1929, it took the literary world of Leningrad [St. Petersburg] by storm. Zabolotsky was not part of the city’s artistic elite, having arrived in Leningrad from the provinces only eight years earlier, but the privations and confusion he found in the city following the 1917 Revolution and ensuing civil war stimulated his poetic imagination. Zabolotsky’s translator Dmitri Manin describes his poetry as portraying “a worldview with no oppositions, no differences between the living and dead, abstract and concrete, naive and sophisticated, artful and artless, meaningful and meaningless, high and low, important and trivial, funny and sad. It’s all mixed inseparably…”

Now you will have a chance to hear his translator, Dmitri Manin, discuss the new published Columns ((ARC Publications, 2023) at the Stanford Bookstore on Thursday, Mar 7 2024, 5 – 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. What’s more, I will be moderating the discussion. I’d love to see you there!

Los Angeles Review of Books editor emertis, the poet Boris Dralyuk,  wrote: “The early poems of Nikolai Zabolotsky present to us images of such stark and surprising vividness that they continue to stun nearly a century after their publication. Dmitri Manin’s translations retain the freshness of Zabolotsky’s vision – that of an imaginative outsider thrust into a world torn apart and remade, haphazardly, by a bloody revolution and civil war – as well as the solemn music that effectively counterpoints the poet’s cavalcade of novel images. This book will change the way you see the world around you.”

Dmitri Manin, translator of Columns 

Dmitri Manin is a physicist, programmer and award-winning poetry translator. His translations into Russian span the range from Robert Burns to Allen Ginsberg to contemporary American poets. His translations into English have been published in journals and anthologies, including The Best Literary Translation, forthcoming in 2024 from Deep Vellum. Nikolai Zabolotsky’s Columns is Manin’s first book in English.

Cynthia L. Haven is a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar and book author. She writes regularly for The Times Literary Supplement, numerous other periodicals and her award-winning blog, “The Book Haven”.

Navalny’s friend speaks out: “Yes, it’s scary to talk, it’s been scary for a long time.”

February 16th, 2024
The speaks out

Several years ago, I remember a long languorous afternoon at the Stanford Shopping Center, having coffee with Varya Gornostaeva, editor of the prestigious Corpus Publishing house in Moscow, and her husband Serguei Parkhomenko, a senior advisor at the Kennan Institute. How times have changed. Today I connected with Varya on a grimmer matter.

The whole world is outraged by the unexpected and unexplained death of Alexei Navalny, a heroic Russian opposition leader, lawyer, political activist, and freedom fighter. He died a political prisoner in the Arctic today. We know no more.

Here are Varya’s comments about the new and shocking events surrounding a man who was a personal friend, posted on Facebook in Russian:

No words for a long time. None at all today. But I have to find a few; it seems like it’s my duty. A duty to the man who was the hope of a huge country, although the country did not know about it or think about it. At best, it spat on him – and on itself at the same time; at worst, it oppressed and ridiculed him. A duty to the man I considered to be my friend and my personal hope, the man I trusted completely and in whom I had complete confidence. He wrote me amazing letters from prison – after reading them I would have been ashamed to break down and whine, ashamed to complain, ashamed to feel sorry for myself.

Navalny and an admirer

I have no words, but I have to find them. This is such terrible grief, such terrible loss, such terrible helplessness. Today we said to each other – that’s it, we have no more hope. And we immediately thought that Lyosha [Alexei] wouldn’t approved of us, he would be ashamed of us. No hope, really? He lived only for this hope of ours. He almost died for it once, but he survived for it, and he returned to Russia for it. And now he has died for it. No, that’s the point. Not died, you can’t say that. Not died, but murdered. Just like that – he was murdered, and many participated in this murder. The main murderer is Putin. And those who carried out his orders are murderers. And those around him are murderers. And those who were silent – they covered it up and protected the murderers. Yes, it’s scary to talk, it’s been scary for a long time. It’s scary to talk out loud, but at least tell yourself this truth, tell your children, tell your mom and dad. You cannot go out to the public square, now no one asks that of you anymore. If you did not go out before – it’s on your conscience. But now at least admit it to yourself – we live among murderers. I live among murderers. Murderers of the whole country of Ukraine, murderers of Russia, murderers of its best people. Say this to yourself. That’s already a lot.

Grief, grief. Feeling helpless, powerless in front of terrible evil. And also rage. And also burning hatred, so unusual, unknown even a few years ago. I never knew what hate was before. And now it is with me every day. There’s something about this hate. No, it does not destroy you, it does not eat you up inside, there is nothing to be ashamed of, there is no need to think that it is giving birth to a new hate. I gave myself permission to hate. This is noble hate. Hating evil is necessary for mental health. And also gratitude. That we lived nearby, that such a human example was shown to us. Such impeccable sense of language, intonation, such selfless dedication without pathos, such wit. And such fearless confidence in his own rightness. This is what hope is – it happened to us once and it can still happen again.

And it will.

How Rembrandt can help you survive in a sad, lonely, angry, and mean society

February 6th, 2024

How did we become a society where people shout at their neighbors, refuse to eat with relatives who didn’t vote as they did, honk at each other in traffic, yell at strangers on the social media, and otherwise snipe at each other. Whatever became of goodwill and neighborliness? David Brooks has got an answer: “I’d argue that we have become so sad, lonely, angry and mean as a society in part because so many people have not been taught or don’t bother practicing to enter sympathetically into the minds of their fellow human beings. We’re overpoliticized while growing increasingly undermoralized, underspiritualized, undercultured.”

What remedy? He makes one of the best cases I’ve read in a long time for the arts and the humanities in “How to Save a Sad, Lonely, Angry and Mean Society.” An excerpt the New York Times piece, which has more than 1,300 comments:

When I come across a Rembrandt in a museum, I try to train myself to see with even half of Rembrandt’s humanity. Once in St. Petersburg, I had the chance to stand face to face with one of his greatest paintings, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” He painted this one at the end of his life, when popular taste had left him behind, his finances were in ruins, his wife and four of his five children were in their graves. I have seen other renderings of that parable, but not one in which the rebel son is so broken, fragile, pathetic, almost hairless and cast down. The father envelops the young man with a love that is patient, selfless and forbearing. Close observers note the old man’s hands. One is masculine, and protective. The other is feminine, and tender.

Though this painting is about a parable, it’s not here to teach us some didactic lesson. We are simply witnessing an emotional moment, which is about fracture and redemption, an aging artist painting a scene in which he imagines all his losses are restored. It is a painting about what it is like to finally realize your deepest yearnings — for forgiveness, safety, reconciliation, home. Meanwhile, the son’s older brother is off to the side, his face tensely rippling with a mixture of complex thoughts, which I read as rigid scorn trying to repress semiconscious shoots of fraternal tenderness.

Experiences like this help us understand ourselves in light of others — the way we are like them and the way we are different. As Toni Morrison put it: “Like Frederick Douglass talking about his grandmother, and James Baldwin talking about his father, and Simone de Beauvoir talking about her mother, these people are my access to me; they are my entrance into my own interior life.”

Experiences with great artwork deepen us in ways that are hard to describe. To have visited Chartres Cathedral or finished The Brothers Karamazov is not about acquiring new facts but to feel somehow elevated, enlarged, altered. In Rainer Maria Rilke’s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the protagonist notices that as he ages, he’s able to perceive life on a deeper level: “I am learning to see. I don’t know why it is, but everything penetrates more deeply into me and does not stop at the place where until now it always used to finish.”

Mark Edmundson teaches literature at the University of Virginia and is one of those who still lives by the humanist code. In his book Why Read? he describes the potential charge embedded in a great work of art: “Literature is, I believe, our best goad toward new beginnings, our best chance for what we might call secular rebirth. However much society at large despises imaginative writing, however much those supposedly committed to preserve and spread literary art may demean it, the fact remains that in literature there abide major hopes for human renovation.”

I confess I still cling to the old faith that culture is vastly more important than politics or some pre-professional training in algorithms and software systems. I’m convinced that consuming culture furnishes your mind with emotional knowledge and wisdom; it helps you take a richer and more meaningful view of your own experiences; it helps you understand, at least a bit, the depths of what’s going on in the people right around you.

Read the whole thing here.

Micah Mattix also weighed in, with an excerpt from the introduction of his book, tentatively titled Literature as Encounter:

In 1959, Frank O’Hara complained in his sardonic Personism: A Manifesto about poets who worried about the reception of their work: “But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them? Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat.”

The same could be said of critics and scholars today. We are told, on the one hand, that we should read literature because it enriches our lives and our experience of the world. Poetry reclaims, “the power and grace of words,” as one New York Times columnist put it, and gives us hope. On the other hand, we are told that literature is a powerful tool in the war against oppression. It teaches us to love our neighbors and calls us to fight those who subjugate others. It preserves our democracy. How many scholars have argued that the reduction or elimination of humanities courses is a threat to our way of life?

But both understandings of the function and value of literature miss the mark. While certainly motivated by the best of intentions, such defenses of reading often end up reducing literature to little more than a tool of self-actualization or societal transformation. They admit too much to the utilitarian man—that only things that are morally and socially useful are worthwhile—and too often prove wrong.

After all, if literature makes us better people, why are the individuals closest to it—the writers themselves—so often so terrible? Gabriele D’Annunzio was a blood-thirsty warmonger, Ezra Pound was a fascist, E.E. Cummings was a misogynist, William Carlos Williams was a philanderer, Vernon Scannell was a wife-beater and a drunk, and Amiri Baraka was an anti-Semite. Anyone who thinks that reading literature makes us less petty, more empathetic, has never been to an English department meeting. …

Defending literature in terms of its therapeutic or moral value has also had the effect of making it more easily dismissed or censured. If reading literature is supposed to improve my emotional well-being, but I find myself “triggered” by its images of sexual violence, why should I read it? If a poem contains morally or politically objectionable material—and its primary purpose is to make us more moral and society more just—why should high school or college students study it? What is the case, in other words, for reading literature when the therapeutic and moral accounts of its value have proven misleading or wrong?

That some professors seem unable to give a clear answer to this question and even give warrant to its premise by removing “harmful” works from their courses or calling for the cancelation of certain writers shows how confused we have become about what literature is and what it does and doesn’t do.

In short, critical defenses of literature’s supposed utilitarian value do more harm than good. They say too much about literature’s secondary values, which disappoint or make literature into something it is not, and they say too little—or nothing at all—about what makes literature distinct from other forms of discourse.

He concludes: “What we need instead, I go on to argue, is a renewed understanding of the religious nature of all great literature. It provides us with an encounter—with something or someone “hors texte” in an idealized form that leads to a moment of recognition. This is the surprise of literature, which in the best works is also a moment of momentary transcendence. It is for this moment that we read, whether it changes us or not.

Reading the “Inferno” in Ukraine: “a millennium-long class in surviving hell with poetry”

January 20th, 2024

How is the shelling of Kyiv akin to Dante’s Inferno? Ukrainian Poet Ilya Kaminsky (we’ve written about him here and here and here) calls it “a millennium-long class in surviving hell with poetry, through music, imagery, and poetry’s willingness to look without flinching at the details of both terror and wonder: in a strange way, this book is a call to courage.” He adds: “The poem is outside of history, like snow and rain and wind.”

An excerpt or two from his piece in
Asymptote Journal:

I have a friend who, before she ran from Kyiv as Russia bombarded the city in early 2022, spent weeks shivering in the bomb shelters as the city was shelled.

Ilya Kaminsky explains why poetry matters. (Photo by Slowking)

At first, she first recited poems by heart, and then she began to translate the poems she remembered.

That is how she got through the hours.

Who is to tell me after this that poetry doesn’t matter?


Somewhere in Ukraine right now, my friend who publishes books orders printers in the bombed out city of Kharkiv to produce thousands of copies of Inferno. The trucks deliver weapons into Kharkiv. And, going back, empty, they decide to pick up thousands of copies of Dante’s Inferno.

This is an image of war that happens as I write it: cars are bringing weapons into the besieged city that’s bombed daily, and they leave full of books.


Opening Dante’s Inferno enrolls the reader in a millennium-long class in surviving hell with poetry, through music, imagery, and poetry’s willingness to look without flinching at the details of both terror and wonder: in a strange way, this book is a call to courage.


In the underworld Dante meets his enemies and heroes—great thinkers, murderers, poets, politicians—but no one is too monumental. They are all trying to stay relevant to a living man, all too human, fragile, grotesque, not unlike ourselves, trying to say something that still matters.

Read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, the journal reminds us: as support for Ukraine wavers in the US, we at Asymptote have kept up our coverage of the region also through Elina Sventsytska’s devastating poetry, a review of Oksana Lutsyshyna’s latest award-winning novel in English translation, and a dispatch about the chilling aftermath of a Russian dissident’s self-immolation.

Czesław Miłosz and the “wonder eclipse”

January 9th, 2024
His constant regret: that human experience eludes description.

In 2022, Tikkun published an article by the writer Lucien Zell, “The Wonder Eclipse: Scaling the Cliffs of Milosz,” in which he discusses his six-week Community of Writers” master class led by Pulitzer-prizewinning poet Robert Hass. The inevitable subject was Czesław Miłosz, since Hass’s life was transfigured by his contact with the Polish Nobelist. Hass became his foremost translator into English. Well, so many lives were changed by Miłosz. Mine too.

Zell discusses an interesting translation imbroglio with Miłosz’s 1936 poem “Encounter” in which the poet recalls a wagon ride through frozen Lithuanian fields at dawn. The final lines are famous:

A pupil of wonder, too.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
(Trans. by the poet and Lillian Vallee)

However, on a trip to Poland, another Polish poet told Hass that the poem’s final word (in Polish: zamyślenia) meant, not ‘wonder’, but, rather, ‘pensive contemplation’. “In class, Hass’s sharp scowl well-described his shock and dismay at his ‘poor’ translation . . . till, upon returning to Berkeley and rechecking his notes, he confirmed, breaking into a relieved chuckle, that Milosz himself had suggested ‘wonder’ as the appropriate English rendering of the term. In one of my course’s break-out rooms, we discussed the possibility that Milosz’s perspective had shifted enough to revise his initial poetic impulse, to the extent that by the time he found himself exiled to California (circa 1960s-70s-80s), his own ‘pensive contemplation’ had transmuted to ‘wonder.’”

Hass also described a moment when a colleague, recalling Milosz’s experiences of war and displacement, diagnosed Miłosz with ‘survivor’s guilt.’ Hass corrected him: “No, not guilt—wonder.” As Miłosz wrote in Witness of Poetry: “What surrounds us, here and now, is not guaranteed. It could just as well not exist—and so man constructs poetry out of the remnants found in ruins.” And so, I suspect, we construct our lives, too.

Joseph Brodsky thinks one basic mark of my poetry,” Milosz remarked, in an interview with Renata Gorczyńska, “is the constant regret that human experience eludes description.” Zell recalled what Milosz wrote in a passage from his poem “Notes”: “CONSOLATION: Calm down. Both your sins and your good deeds will be lost in oblivion.”

Read the rest here. And read the whole poem “Encounter” here.

Postscript: Meanwhile, don’t forget to read my own take on the great poet of California, who happened to write in Polish in Czesław Miłosz: A California Life. (Articles about that here.)

According to Cory Oldweiler writing about Czesław Miłosz: A California Life (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2021) in The Los Angeles Review of Books, “Haven lets us into her thought processes, even when she is questioning them, and lovingly recreates conversations — in the relative present, at a café with Robert Hass as they thumb through Miłosz’s 2001 volume New and Collected Poems; and in the recent past, at Miłosz’s Grizzly Peak home as the poet drinks bourbon and chats with friends into the wee hours.”

Said Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic
: Czesław Miłosz: A California Life asks about the meaning of exile, about the possibilities of a new home, about the transformation of a poetic perspective, about alienation and the building of literary bridges. But in the end, the book asks one big, nearly impossible question: How did the great Polish exile Miłosz change his newfound home—and how did California, after so many years, transform Miłosz’s own metaphysics? For it is a metaphysical question, after all: How does a place change the poet, and what does a poet do to shift our perspective on the place? On this unending journey, Cynthia L. Haven is an illuminating guide, one who brings knowledge, precision, and grace. There is much to learn from this book about Miłosz and California, yes, but also about poetry and the world.”

Eminent critic Leon Wieseltier had the final word: “Cynthia Haven’s book is delicious. She evokes so much so vividly and so intelligently; for me her pages were a restoration of a richer and less lonely time. And her intuition is right: Czeslaw Milosz and California are indeed a chapter in each other’s history.” 

Accept no imitations!

Can metaphysical ugliness promote beauty?

January 1st, 2024
Proust lover Trevor Cribben Merrill

How do authors get away with shallow, shabby, venal, morally deficient characters who appall us … but nevertheless, we read on? Trevor Cribben Merrill, author of Minor Indignities, explains: “the ‘spirit of the author’ shields the reader from the characters, ‘drawing the poison’ from their negative qualities of arrogant stupidity, shallowness, and triviality.” He writes about it on Genealogies of Modernity, a project supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities to explain “how we became modern.”

Trevor writes: “This essay is about as close as I have come to articulating an artistic credo.” Excerpt from “Three Lessons in Beauty” below:

We would not want to spend time with Proust’s snobs. In their most honest moments, even his characters describe the fancy dinner parties they attend as boring and stifling. But to read about these soirées, and the people at them, is another matter. Similarly, if we were to encounter him in real life, Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins would be a bore; on the page, he is at once a bore, and, with his absurd boasts about the size of the chimney-piece at Rosings Park, a pure delight. In both cases the authors make us enjoy the sort of people we would try to flee at a cocktail party. It is not only that Proust’s prose and metaphors are exquisite, but that he turns the wretched maneuverings and deceit of his snobs into poetry. Out of pretense, dullness, and even malice, Austen, too, makes art.

The formal innovations of the great masters always have a certain discreetness about them,” he writes. [italics his]

His characters disgust us, and yet…

Recently while sick in bed I listened to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 31, Op. 110 performed first by Rudolf Serkin and then by Glenn Gould. Composed in 1821, Op. 110 is the next to last of the composer’s piano sonatas, and falls squarely in his “late” period, during which he created many of his most beautiful and formally adventurous works. Beethoven is known for bridging classical and romantic styles. In his late years, however, he was also drawn to the contrapuntal music of the earlier baroque period.

The Op. 110 sonata is especially notable for its third movement, which employs musical structures from different moments in the history of music: classical homophony (a melody played by the right hand unfolding over chords played gently by the left); a more impassioned, stormy section expressing romantic emotion; and a fugue divided into two parts. In Serkin’s interpretation, and even more so in Gould’s, this fugue, built on a short, ascending theme, sounds very much like Bach. By paying reverent homage to the polyphony of Bach and Handel, Beethoven, as if by accident, created a novelty in the homophonic form par excellence, the sonata.

Can’t catch her in the act.

In one of his essays Milan Kundera praises this third movement of the Op. 110 sonata for “its extraordinary heterogeneity of emotion and form.” And yet, he adds, “the listener does not realize this, because the complexity seems so natural and simple.” From this beguiling naturalness Kundera draws the following lesson: “the formal innovations of the great masters always have a certain discreetness about them; such is true perfection; only among the small masters [petits maîtres] does novelty seek to call attention to itself.”

This observation calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s comment about Jane Austen: “of all the great writers,” she is “the most difficult to catch in the act.” One of Austen’s formal innovations occurs in Northanger Abbey, where she makes her “defense of the novel” as an art that gives “unaffected pleasure” while truthfully representing human nature in beautiful language. Austen admired Henry Fielding, who included mini-essays on the novel at the beginning of each of the eighteen books of Tom Jones.

When she shares her own thoughts on fiction half a century after Fielding, however, she makes them emerge seamlessly from her characters’ obsession with Gothic fiction, and—with the discretion of a great master—tucks them in at the end of chapter five. What in Fielding comes across as theoretical reflection added on to the fictional narrative is in Austen woven into the work’s fabric. In this way she keeps one foot in the aesthetic of the eighteenth-century novel, with its obtrusively playful authorial interventions, while bringing a new level of unity and polish to her chosen form.

To what other artists or works of art might Kundera’s insight apply? Because the kinds of formal innovations he singles out avoid drawing attention to themselves, it takes a certain amount of knowledge about a given art form to come up with good examples. And conversely, attempting to catch a glimpse of such shy novelties promotes a deeper appreciation for the habits of great artists as well as for the inner workings of artistic tradition. 

Read the whole thing here.

Poet Helen Pinkerton on the “gentle preference” of Bartleby

December 28th, 2023

We wrote some time ago about Stanford’s upcoming “Another Look” event on Herman Melville‘s long short story Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. It’s coming up fast on Monday, January 8 at 7 p.m. (PST) in the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Hall (This is a hybrid event, so you can come in person or via zoom, but we encourage you to register either way here).

Panelists will include Stanford Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, author, director of Another Look, host of the radio talk show and podcast series Entitled Opinions, and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and Stanford Prof. Tobias Wolff, one of America’s leading writers and the founding director of Another Look, as well as a recipient of the National Medal of Arts. Two special guests will round out the high-powered panel out to four: Robert’s brother Thomas Harrison, professor of European Languages and Transcultural Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Katie Peterson, an award-winning poet and Stanford alum. 

The upcoming events brought to mind the late Helen Pinkerton, Stanford’s Melville scholar and poet, who wrote Melville’s Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s. Los Angeles poet and friend Timothy Steele wrote an excellent and eloquent appreciation here.

Helen died on this day six years ago, December 28, at the age of 90, but her friend and longtime correspondent (I introduced them) was Patrick Kurp. Many of you will know him from his superb and indefatigable blogging over at Anecdotal Evidence. I wrote him to ask if she had written anything about Melville’s 1853 short wonder of a tale.

Poets Helen Pinkerton and Turner Cassity with me at a Stanford reading.

He responded by email:

“Thanks for reminding me of Helen. I don’t remember Bartleby coming up in conversation. Most of our Melville talk was devoted to his Civil War poetry and, of course, Moby-Dick.

“Perhaps you’ve already thought of this, but see her suite of five poems titled ‘Melvilleana’ (p. 38 in Taken in Faith; p. 55 in A Journey of the Mind). The second in the series is Bartleby the Scrivener, which comes with the obvious epigraph: ‘I prefer not to.’ Here it is:

His gentle preference endures,
In some of us as a bitter indignation,
In some as willfulness or whim,
Or new philosophy.

History’s strict demand ensures
Survival only of the strict creation:
Our anger’s cause exposed in him,
Our longing not to be.

Patrick added, “Naturally, Helen turns even Melville into a Thomistic thinker.” And so she does.

(Read more about Helen Pinkerton here. And please register for the Jan. 8 discussion of Bartleby here.)

Christmas cards from faraway friends

December 24th, 2023

Couldn’t resist a last-minute Christmas post with two seasonal holiday cards from from faraway friends. The first is from award-winning author (and translator) Bengt Jangfeldt, writing from Stockholm. He cites the words of our mutual friend, the Polish poet and friend Adam Zagajewski, who died in 2021 (still hard to write those words), whose lines from “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” translated by the matchless Clare Cavanagh, were never more timely, never more urgent.

The second is from Oslo-based Swedish poet and translator Håkan Sandell, and features a more traditional
winter image, a young girl braving the northern winter weather and Arctic darkness with a candle.

Wherever you are, I hope the holiday brings peace, love, and healing for our mutilated world.

Angels Herald the NYC Holiday Season – and Paris and Avignon celebrate, too!

December 23rd, 2023

A post from our New York City-based (but frequently world travelling) photographer Zygmunt Malinowski. We’ve written about him here and here and here, among other places.

“Right across the Rockefeller center Christmas tree at Promenade angels herald the holiday season overlooking Christian Dior colorful display – several stories high, on the Saks 5th Ave building facade. In the evening this magical display comes alive with dazzling lights when the astrology clock spins accompanied by holiday music. On hand are two girls – they could be Rockettes – decked out in holiday best. They give out fliers inviting visitors to see Christmas Spectacular /Starring the Radio City Rockettes at ‘iconic’ Radio City Music Hall.

Zygmunt is a pro, but he wasn’t the only one taking photos of the season. Farther afield in France, Maria Adle Besson, who heads Think Tank Ivy Plus European Leaders in Paris, celebrated the season at the Hôtel National des Invalides, a prominent Paris landmark, with its famous gilded Dome. (Her friend is Kerry Halferty Hardy.) Visitors can explore the history of France, through the Musée de l’Armée’s collections and the Tomb of Napoleon I in particular, though right now, its theme is Christmas.

And a few quick shots from an overcast Christmas in Avignon…

“It was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.” Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” on Jan. 8!

December 5th, 2023

Please join us for a discussion of Herman Melville‘s classic short story Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street at 7 p.m. (PST) on Monday, January 8, at Levinthal Hall in the Stanford Humanities Center at 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus. This is a hybrid event, so you can come in person or via zoom, but we encourage you to register either way (link below). 

Panelists will include Stanford Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, author, director of Another Look, host of the radio talk show and podcast series Entitled Opinions, and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and Stanford Prof. Tobias Wolff, one of America’s leading writers and the founding director of Another Look, as well as a recipient of the National Medal of Arts. Two special guests will round out the high-powered panel out to four: Robert’s brother Thomas Harrison, professor of European Languages and Transcultural Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Katie Peterson, an award-winning poet, professor of English at UC-Davis, and a Stanford alum. 

Melville is most famous for his masterpiece Moby Dick, but his 1853 Bartleby is a short wonder, and his protagonist’s repeated “I prefer not to” is one of the most famous lines in American literature. Novelist Sophie Hannah, writing in The Independent, called it “a flawless and ambiguous work of art.” She writes, “Bartleby, blank in character, tests the characters of others. … Bartleby is pure enigma.” 

The short story is famous and widely available – buy a copy on amazon or, in local libraries and in bookstores. It’s also widely available online – google for links. 

This event is sponsored by the Stanford Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, the Stanford Humanities Center, and the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford.

Register here.

For some perspectives on the twentieth century take on the long short story, you might check out the 1970 cult classic of the same name, starring Paul Scofield and John McEnery, here. You can see a short clip over the 2001 remake here. Better yet, read Melville. His long short story (it’s about 30 pages) will surprise you.

And then this happened…more on the inaugural NOVITĀTE conference

November 27th, 2023

I’m late telling Book Haven readers about my most recent honor: From Luke Burgis’s remarks at the inaugural NOVITĀTE conference earlier this month, in presenting me with the inaugural Novitāte Award:

This first ever NOVITĀTE award goes to someone whose work embodies “New Models of Thought and Desire”, which this gathering is all about. She has carved her own (anti-mimetic) path inside and outside the world of academia, oftentimes while standing at the periphery—which is where the misunderstood, and sometimes even the scapegoats, lie. 

Cynthia’s work has been not only intellectually illuminating for me personally—I couldn’t have written my own book, Wanting, without it—but also edifying. 

This award may not be prestigious—yet!—and it comes with a relatively paltry cash prize of $1,000 (we’ll work on that, too!)—but you are the first recipient, and the most worthy that I could think of. I’d like to invite you to the stage to accept this First Annual NOVITĀTE Award for making an outstanding contribution to this year’s theme. Please join me honoring the 2023 award winner: Cynthia Haven.

Cynthia, you are a special person who I’m proud to call a friend. This event would not have been the same without you. You’ve done so much good work for so many years. Nearly every time we talk you remind me of what it’s all truly about. Our time on this earth is very short. As René Girard reminded us ( and as you often remind me), we don’t know how much time we have left. None of us do. You’ve inspired me with a sense of urgency—with a quickening of heart and spirit. And for that I want to thank you. 

Postscript: I almost forgot to include my own brief comments on acceptance of the award: “When Luke first told me about his idea for a conference, I didn’t connect its title, Novitāte, to Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “And be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” These words have been a touchstone for me over the years. What I came to understand is this: We can’t change the past, we can’t change our height or our parentage. We can’t change our emotions, at least not directly, because they happen at lightning speed and shapeshift as they move. We certainly can’t change other people – we’ve all tried that. But the one thing we can change the way we think about things – that is in our power. We can rewire our brains a little, and interrupt cycles of envy or resentment or retaliation by shifting our perspective, unsettling our mind a bit. It’s something that can begin now, tonight, and continue for the rest of our days. This week has given us a toolkit for doing so – we can begin renewing our minds now. That may be the best way to commemorate René’s centenary year. I’m deeply honored by this award. Thank you, Luke. Thank you everyone. And most of all, thank you René, and happy birthday.”

A rabbi’s P.O.V.: Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s conversion is social, not doctrinal

November 19th, 2023
Ruth in Boaz’s Field by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (Wikimedia Commons)

“Wherever you go, I will go…your people will be my people.” Ruth converts, as does Ali, not because Naomi convinces her that Judaism is doctrinally right, but because she is impressed by Naomi’s character and wants to join her culture. ~ Zohar Atkins

Much ink has already been spilled on Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s conversion to Christianity, which she announced in the online journal Unherd a week ago. It was less of a surprise to me, perhaps. During my interview with the Somali-born activist six years ago, published in Stanford Magazine as “To Change People’s Minds”, she made an offhand, slightly dismissive remark about Christianity in passing, and I told her I was one of “them.” She was momentarily off balance, startled, apologetic – and for a brief instant we were both wide awake and open. And then it passed.

My first encounter with her was a dozen years ago, as I attended an onstage interview in Palo Alto with writer Susanne Pari as interlocutor. The two women were discussing terrorism, and Pari brought up the case of Faisal Shahzad, an apparently assimilated Muslim who turned to jihad and attempted to bomb Times Square. But Hirsi Ali interrupted Pari’s comments about his job loss as a possible motive for his actions.

“I have a problem with that,” she said.  “If we even remotely entertain’the notion that foreclosure and health care and normal adversity is an excuse to take away the life of another, then, she said, “we are really going down.”

Podcaster, substacker, rabbi Zohar Atkins

“He has a freaking MBA!” she exploded. “I know people who can’t read!” Hirsi Ali denied that “the only therapy is to get an SUV and fill it with explosives.” Nor did she excuse Nidal Malik Hasan, who “got to be a major in a voluntary army.”

“Why don’t we take these people at their word? ” she asked. “Why don’t we examine their convictions?”

Pari noted that, in her Iran-American childhood, there was only one mosque in the nation, in Washington D.C., and now there are thousands (“1150,” corrected Hirsi Ali). She took Hirsi Ali, a fellow atheist, to task for the conclusion of her book Infidel, in which she suggests that the love and tolerance exhibited in much of Christianity might be a force to subdue Islam. “I was very naughty!” Hirsi Ali admitted with a chuckle.

Pari said the very idea “was disturbing to me, frankly…What were you thinking?”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali – who lives under a fatwa, still – responded in a beat: “The superficial answer is, if every Muslim became Christian, I would live without bodyguards.”

Back to the present. Over at Zohar Atkins‘s substack, What Is Called Thinking, the rabbi, poet, and theologian argues that “Religion is Social,” and that in fact Ayaan converted to Christianity … via Judaism. (You can catch my podcast with him, “From Envy to Forgiveness,” here.)

He begins:

Outspoken New Atheist Aayan Hirsi Ali has converted to Christianity, but her arguments are more psychological and consequentialist than fundamentalist—she makes no mention of Christian dogma or creed. Instead, she focuses on her own need for meaning and her appreciation for the legacy of Christian culture and civilization when compared to other alternatives. Her conversion story thus bothered Christians and atheists alike. The former, because they felt she had failed to address the question of the truth of Christian doctrine; the latter because they felt she had failed to address the untruth of it. Ross Douthat wrote a compelling piece on her conversion that points to a lacuna in her conversion story, aside from the truth question: “the weirdness of religious experience.” She didn’t just convert because religion is a source of meaning, he says, but because the strangeness of religious experience provokes a recognition that the world itself is strange.

Speaking from a Jewish perspective, the hardline distinction between the truth of a religion, its practical civilizational value, and its psychological import falls away. Both Ali’s Christian critics and atheist critics take too shallow (though possibly an appropriately Protestant) view of religion. In the story of Ruth’s conversion to Judaism, now the paradigmatic script for all Jewish converts, we note that her motivations are primarily social and relational. “Wherever you go, I will go…your people will be my people.” Ruth converts, as does Ali, not because Naomi convinces her that Judaism is doctrinally right, but because she is impressed by Naomi’s character and wants to join her culture.

Jews read the story of Ruth on Shavuot, the Holiday that celebrates the Revelation at Sinai, because the distinction between divine revelation and interdependent communal formation are two sides of the same coin. Some people join because of supernatural experience, per Douthat’s point. But some join because they like the people who have supernatural experience. Or better yet, sitting at the table of deeply kind, deeply thoughtful, deeply inspiring people can itself be a kind of supernatural experience — even if it requires no belief in virgin births or split seas. In the middle ages, Maimonides pushed to shore up Jewish theology along 13 principles of faith, but historically Judaism has drawn friends and converts not because people agreed with these logical and abstract principles but because it has impressed them as a way of life.

Read the whole thing here. It’s wonderful and worth it.

Kurosawa to Bergman: “The best is after 80.”

November 18th, 2023

Words of wisdom: Think you’re past it at 70, 80, or 90? Here’s a cheering thought. I recently found this sentence somewhere on the internet: “In case you’re worried that you’re too old to pursue your dreams … Frank Lloyd Wright completed a third of his life’s work between the ages of 80 and 92.” Was it his best work? I don’t know. Does it really matter?

Another story in a similar vein, from a different part of the world: Swedish film director and theater Ingmar Bergman turned 70 on July 14, 1988. On that occasion, he received a letter of advice from the Japanese filmmaker and painter Akira Kurosawa. Here is the letter he sent, posted on Facebook … and, inevitably, elsewhere on the internet. Kurosawa contends: “A Human Is Not Really Capable of Creating Really Good Works Until He Reaches 80.”

He concludes: “Let us hold together for the sake of movies.”

Full letter below:

Anthony Hecht centenary: two books for “the most erudite of modern poets”

November 6th, 2023

Poet David Mason writes about friend and fellow poet Anthony Hecht in The Wall Street Journal. Two books mark Hecht’s 100th birthday this year – a biography and a new collected. Mason writes:

“The poet and critic David Yezzi’s Late Romance (St. Martin’s) is a first-rate literary biography, graceful, thorough and moving, without the bloat commonly found in such endeavors. And the English publisher and editor Philip Hoy has given us a superb Collected Poems: Including Late and Uncollected Work (Knopf), including not only work from Hecht’s previous collections but also seven beautiful ‘Late Poems From Liguria’ and a worthwhile selection of uncollected work. Since Hecht is among the most erudite of modern poets, steeped in the Bible as well as Shakespeare, readers may be pleased to find nearly 50 pages of textual notes, plus a brief chronology.”

Mason writes: “Born to a family of nonobservant Jews in New York City, Hecht grew up with privilege but also a sense of life’s precariousness. His father frequently failed in business and thrice attempted suicide. His mother’s social pretensions eventually got on Hecht’s nerves. At the age of 6 he saw one result of the 1929 market crash—the blanket-covered bodies of suicides lying on the sidewalks.”

Hecht served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and served as a translator from French and German at ‘the liberation of Flossenbürg Concentration Camp . . . an hour’s drive from his Jewish great-grandfather’s hometown of Buttenheim,’ Yezzi writes. “What he saw in that camp and in combat ruined his sleep.”

His marriage was unhappy. Patricia Harris, a fashion model whom Sylvia Plath called as “pleasant as razor blades,” eventually moved to Brussels. His second marriage iin 1971, to Helen D’Alessandro, celebrated in his marvelous book Millions of Strange Shadows (1977).

Mason’s review concludes: “Readers will differ in their own responses to individual works, but no other recent poet in English has left us such an abundant display of what a certain kind of talent—ironic, formal, elegant—can do. He was my teacher and friend, which leaves me echoing what he said of his friend Joseph Brodsky: ‘Reader, dwell with his poems.’”

Read the whole thing over at the Wall Street Journal here.

Another Look book club back in the news: still an oasis for book lovers everywhere!

October 30th, 2023
Two people talking and laughing on stage. Next Avenue
Werner Herzog, on right, with Robert Harrison  |  Credit: L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Stanford’s “Another Look” club has gotten a lot of praise in the years since it was founded in 2012 by novelist Tobias Wolff (and now under the directorship of Robert Pogue Harrison) – among other surprises, we were featured in The Guardian. We’ve bragged about Another Look’s triumphs here and here and here.

Someone else has taken up the banner. Journalist Sharon McDonnell wrote an article in Next Avenue about books clubs generally, but with special attention to Stanford’s Another Look. Next Avenue,  a digital journalism publication produced by Twin Cities PBS. The PBS site has served over 80 million people, and millions more through its platforms and partnerships.

Her article begins: 

The Continuing Studies Program of Stanford University was stunned when 961 people attended its book club’s free talk about A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf‘s 1929 classic, in April 2023, in person or via Zoom.

But then, it’s not just any book club. German filmmaker Werner Herzog has been a speaker. Philip Roth agreed to an interview. The club always features panelists who are scholars or writers, who discuss a book before opening to audience questions. Ostensibly for the Stanford community, the club is in reality for anyone who wants to listen, since its talks are posted on the Another Look Book Club website and on YouTube.

Woolf on Zoom

This club shines a spotlight on books that are forgotten or merit more attention, some plucked from obscurity, others read decades ago, that are short (200 pages or so) and in print. Almost entirely fiction, book choices span almost 400 years and three continents, from The Queen’s Gambit, which became a Netflix series, to The Princesse de Clèves, a 1678 book most people are unfamiliar with. (Unless you’re a public sector worker in France, whose entrance exams include questions on it. After Nicolas Sarkozy, then President of France, denounced the book in 2009, sales doubled in a year.)

Ask the Dust, a 1939 novel set in Depression-era Los Angeles, The Lover, a novel about Vietnam in French Colonial days and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde show the club’s range.

Why so much fiction?

Read the rest of the story here. And join our mailing list here.

Oedipus is guilty of…what exactly?

October 17th, 2023
An expert on Oedipus

Oedipus was one of René Girard‘s ongoing interests, and his interpretation of the Greek myth was controversial and groundbreaking. Hence, one of the liveliest presentations during last summer’s Paris conference for the French theorist’s centenary was anthropologist Mark Anspach‘s short talk on the subject. Anspach is the editor of 2020’s The Oedipus Casebook: Reading Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. (You can read previous posts by and about him here and here and here and here, among other places.) He began this way:

Last year, French television broadcasted a noteworthy debate between two eminent figures. On one side, a 1960s student activist who later served in the European parliament. On the other, a philosophy professor and former minister of education known for his critiques of French theorists of the ‘60s. I will quote highlights from their debate in the original French to avoid losing any nuances, and then I will attempt an English translation.

And then there will be a quiz.

First in French:

––Tu dis que des conneries.
––Ta gueule!
––La tienne, pauvre crétin.

Now in English:

––You’re spouting pure BS.
––Shut your face!
––You shut yours, you pathetic dumbhead.

When I saw media accounts of this dialogue, I immediately thought of… Sophocles! That is because my view of the Greek playwright was shaped by the late, great Stanford thinker René Girard. As we will see, the quoted lines illustrate the same dynamic of conflict that Girard uncovers in the dialogues of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.

Antoni Brodowski ‘s “Oedipus and Antigone,” 1828

So now the quiz. The first question is: what was the debate between the former student activist and the philosophy professor about?

Well, based only on the above excerpts, there is no way to know. I quoted from the most heated moment of the dispute, when passions ran highest. But in that moment, the original theme of the debate was forgotten. As Girard tells us, when a conflict escalates, the rivalry itself comes to the fore and the original object of the dispute is lost from view.

That doesn’t mean that the dispute is not originally motivated by real differences in political ideology or conceptual outlook. This brings us to my second question: which of the lines quoted were spoken by the activist and which expressed the Weltanschaung of the philosopher?

Once again, there is no way to know. Even if you studied for this quiz by reading every book either of them ever wrote, it would still be impossible to guess who said “Shut your face” and who replied “You shut yours.” No matter how far apart the antagonists were at the outset, their differences dissolve at the height of their rivalry. As Girard holds, the more a rivalry intensifies, the more the antagonists resemble each other.

Yet the more they resemble each other, the more each is convinced he is right and the other is wrong. As it happens, it was the philosophy professor who said “You shut yours.” At the moment he spoke, he had good reason to believe he was right. Was not his rival wrong to insult him by saying “Shut your face”? He should have kept his big mouth shut!

What the philosopher may not see in the heat of the moment is that, by opening his own mouth and saying “You shut yours,” he is behaving exactly like his antagonist. In fact, he is imitating him. Rivalry fueled by imitation is what Girard dubs mimetic rivalry. As Girard shows, conflicts intensify through mutual imitation, moving toward ever greater reciprocity and symmetry.

The more symmetrical a conflict is, the harder it is to say who’s right and who’s wrong. Indeed, if you look at the reasons invoked by each side, you will often find that both parties are right. The philosopher was right in that his antagonist should not have said “Shut your face.” But his rival was equally right in that the philosopher should not have said he was spouting BS.

Each party sees half the truth: the half that applies to the other. To speak the truth about the other’s role in a dispute without recognizing that the same truth applies to ourselves amounts to scapegoating the other. It amounts to scapegoating even if the other is guilty as charged.

This is a key point. A scapegoat does not have to be innocent. To single out one of the rivals as uniquely responsible for the rivalry is itself a form of scapegoating. If each of two antagonists is guilty, if each speaks only half the truth – the half that applies to the other – then the scapegoating is mutual or reciprocal. This kind of reciprocal scapegoating is typical of mimetic rivalry. It is part of the symmetry that characterizes the rivalry.

Tit-for-tat escalation

But symmetry is not the whole story. There is also a tendency to escalation. Each party tries to get the better of the other by launching a bigger insult, a bolder accusation, a stronger blow. This can be understood as an attempt to break free of the symmetry by establishing what Girard in Oedipus Unbound calls a “dissymmetry” capable of re-differentiating the antagonists.

The philosopher does not merely respond in kind to the phrase “Shut your face” by replying “Shut yours.” Responding in kind would leave both parties on the same footing. He also adds a new observation designed to transcend the tit-for-tat exchange. It is as if he were saying: “You tell me to shut my face. I tell you to shut your face. It may look like we are the same. But there is a difference between us. And that difference is that you are a pathetic dumbhead.”

The precise term used was “cretin.” Strictly speaking, cretinism is a form of mental disability caused by thyroid insufficiency. Now, our philosopher is a lucid and intelligent man. Do we take him at his word when he asserts that his adversary is suffering from cretinism? Of course not. We assume that he is speaking out of anger. We react as the chorus in Oedipus the King reacts amidst the debate between Oedipus and Tiresias. “It is anger, I think, that inspires Tiresias’s words,” says the chorus, “and yours too, Oedipus.”

The sage of Stanford: René Girard

The debate between Oedipus and Tiresias is at the heart of Girard’s analysis. Oedipus hopes Tiresias will shed light on the murder of the previous ruler, Laius. According to Creon, the oracle blames the plague in Thebes on the fact that this crime was left unpunished, and Oedipus has vowed to hunt down whoever is responsible. But when Oedipus questions Tiresias, the renowned prophet stubbornly refuses to answer.

Oedipus grows increasingly exasperated. Finally, he declares that Tiresias must be guilty himself. Tiresias retorts that it is Oedipus who is guilty. In Violence and the Sacred, Girard interprets Tiresias’s words as “an act of reprisal arising from the hostile exchange.” By accusing Tiresias of being behind the murder of Laius, Oedipus prods him into “hurling the accusation back at him.”

Oedipus dares Tiresias to repeat the accusation. Not only does Tiresias repeat it, he tops it with a new, more terrible charge, insinuating that Oedipus is the son of the man he killed and of the widow he married. It is as if Tiresias were saying: “You accuse me of killing Laius. I accuse you of killing Laius. It may look like we are the same. But there is a difference between us. The difference is that you, Oedipus, are a patricidal motherlover!”

Is Tiresias right? Is Oedipus guilty?

From hunter to hunted

Violence and the Sacred suggests that Oedipus is not guilty. In that book, Girard uses Sophocles’ tragedy to introduce the concept of the surrogate victim or scapegoat. Oedipus, an outsider with a lame foot, is a scapegoat made to bear sole blame for the plague in Thebes. The accusations of patricide and incest leveled against him are typical mythic accusations. As crimes that abolish the most fundamental kinship distinctions, patricide and incest are signifiers of raging undifferentiation.

The plague itself, an illness that strikes everyone without distinction, has the same meaning. The real plague, the gravest crisis afflicting Thebes, is the breakdown of distinctions, the plague of undifferentiation to which the protagonists contribute by hurling back and forth the same accusations. Each accuses the other of being responsible for the crisis.

The question is who will succeed in making the accusation stick. When Oedipus ultimately accepts the charge of patricide and incest, he becomes the monstrous embodiment of undifferentiation. The loss of difference is laid at the door “not of society at large, but of a single individual.” The social crisis is resolved at the expense of a lone victim. The mythic nature of the accusations of patricide and incest suggests that Oedipus is innocent. In his later works, Girard emphasizes the scapegoat’s innocence.

But in Violence and the Sacred, Girard also highlights the role played by Oedipus himself in the scapegoating process. In Sophocles’ play, Girard writes, the “entire investigation is a feverish hunt for a scapegoat, which finally turns against the very man who first loosed the hounds.” Oedipus is the man who loosed the hounds. He tried to pin the blame for the crisis on Tiresias and Creon. He took part in the game of reciprocal accusations that was one with the crisis afflicting Thebes.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

If Girard is right, Oedipus may well be an innocent man wrongly accused of patricide and incest. As shown in The Oedipus Casebook, the evidence against him is not as solid as one might think. But Oedipus is not wholly innocent. He accuses others of responsibility for a crisis in which he himself shares the blame.

What is important for Girard in his early writings is not the substance of the accusations of incest or patricide or murdering Laius. It is the fact that Oedipus accuses others of guilt only to discover that he himself is guilty. That is the feature of Sophocles’ tragedy that first drew Girard’s attention and ultimately led him to his famous scapegoat theory.

In an early essay in Oedipus Unbound, Girard compares Sophocles’ hero to the Proustian snob: “The snob has no other model than the snob. He therefore has no other rival.” That is why the snob trumpets “his hatred of snobbery.” Seen in this light, “Oedipus’s excessive indignation, his zeal to track down the culprit, are revealing.” They call to mind the passion with which the Proustian snob denounces snobs. So it is that Oedipus “accuses Creon and Tiresias of the crime he himself committed.”

To use the language of Girard’s later writings, Oedipus scapegoats his rivals. To single out one’s rival as uniquely responsible for the rivalry is itself a form of scapegoating. This type of scapegoating is taking place all around us today. The degeneration of public debate into exchanges of insults is a clear sign of crisis. In this sense, the situation we are living through now is not unlike the one portrayed in Oedipus the King. If we see Oedipus purely as an innocent man accused of patricide and incest, then his experience will seem distant from our own. But if we see him as a person who accuses others before realizing that they are not free of blame themselves, then perhaps Sophocles’ play can help us navigate the present crisis.

A hot fire on a cold night: Peter’s denial and “Mitsein”

September 27th, 2023
“Saint Peter’s Denial” by Caravaggio

It’s hard to pick a favorite essay from my new anthology, All Desire Is a Desire for Being: Essential Writings – all of the pieces by French theorist René Girard are exceptional, otherwise I wouldn’t have picked them – but the essay on Peter’s Denial is certainly high on the list. So I was very pleased when the University of Notre Dame decided to publish the piece in its eminent Church-Life Journal, under the editor and friend Artur Sebastian Rosman, who is also a Czesław Miłosz scholar.

An excerpt from “The Question of Mimesis and Peter’s Denial“:

After Jesus had been arrested, the disciples fled in all directions, but Peter alone or, according to John, Peter and another disciple, followed at a distance right into the courtyard of the High Priest’s palace, and, I quote: “there he remained, sitting among the attendants, warming himself at a fire.” John says that “the servants and the police had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and were standing round it warming themselves.” And Peter too “was standing with them, sharing the warmth.”

The text shifts to inside the palace, where a hostile and brutal interrogation of Jesus was taking place. Then we shift back to Peter and, again I quote:

Meanwhile Peter was still in the courtyard downstairs. One of the High Priest’s servant girls came by and saw him there warming himself. She looked into his face and said, “You were there too, with this man from Nazareth, this Jesus.” But he denied it: “I do not know him,” he said. “I do not understand what you mean.” Then he went outside into the porch; and the girl saw him there again and began to say to the bystanders, “He is one of them,” and again he denied it.

Again, a little later, the bystanders said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them. You must be; you are Galilean.” At this he broke out in curses, and with an oath he said: “I do not know this man you speak of.” Then the cock crowed a second time; and Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he burst into tears.

Auerbach makes some shrewd comments on that text: “I do not believe,” he writes, “that there is a single passage in an antique historian where direct discourse is employed in this fashion in a brief, direct dialogue.” He also observes that “the dramatic tension of the moment when the actors stand face to face has been given a salience and immediacy compared with which the dialogue of antique tragedy appears highly stylized.” It is quite true, and I am not averse to using such words as “mimesis” and “mimetic realism” to describe the feeling of true-to-life description which is created here, but I do not think that Auerbach really succeeds in justifying his use of the term “mimesis.”

Careful and sensitive as he is as a reader, Auerbach did not perceive something that is highly visible and which should immediately strike every observer: it is the role of mimesis in the text itself, the presence of mimesis as content. Imitation is not a separate theme but it permeates the relationship between all the characters; they all imitate each other. This mimetic dimension of behavior dominates both verbal and non-verbal behavior. Peter’s behavior is imitative from the beginning, before a single word is uttered by anyone.

In Mark and John, when Peter entered, the fire was already burning. People were “standing round warming themselves.” Peter too went to that fire; he followed the general example. This is natural enough on a cold night. Peter was cold, like everybody else, and there was nothing to do but to wait for something to happen. This is true enough, but the Gospels give us very little concrete background, very few visual details, and three out of four mention the fire in the courtyard as well as Peter’s presence next to it. They mention this not once but twice. The second mention occurs when the servant girl intervenes. She sees Peter warming himself by the fire with the other people. It is dark and she can recognize him because he has moved close to the fire and his face is lighted by it. But the fire is more than a dramatic prop. The servant seems eager to embarrass Peter, not because he entered the courtyard, but because of his presence close to that fire. In John it is the courtyard, upon the recommendation of another disciple acquainted with the High Priest.

A fire in the night is more than a source of heat and of light. A fire provides a center of attraction; people arrange themselves in a circle around it and they are no longer a mere crowd; they become a community. All the faces and hands are jointly turned toward the fire as in a prayer. An order appears which is a communal order. The identical postures and the identical gestures seem to evoke some kind of deity, some sacred being that would dwell in the fire and for which all hands seem to be reaching, all faces seem to be watching.

There is nothing specifically Christian, there is nothing specifically Jewish about that role of fire; it is more like primitive fire-worship, but nevertheless it is deeply rooted in our psyches; most human beings are sensitive to this and the servant girl must be; that is why she is scandalized to see Peter warm himself by that fire. The only people who really belong there are the people who gravitate to the High Priest and the Temple, those who belong to the inner core of the Jewish religious and national community. The servant maid probably knows little about Jesus except that he has been arrested and is suspected of something like high treason. To have one of his disciples around the fire is like having an unwelcome stranger at a family gathering.

The fire turns a chance encounter into a quasi-ritualistic affair and Peter violates the communal feeling of the group, or perhaps what Heidegger would call its Being-together, its Mitsein, which is an important modality of being. In English, togetherness would be a good word for this if the media had not given it a bad name, emptying it entirely of what it is supposed to designate.

This Mitsein is the servant girl’s own Mitsein. She rightfully belongs with these people; but when she gets there, she finds her place occupied by someone who does not belong. She acts like Heidegger’s “shepherd of being,” a role which may not be as meek as the expression suggests. It would be excessive in this case to compare the shepherd of being with the Nazi stormtrooper, but the servant maid reminds us a little of the platonic watchdog, or of the Parisian concierge. In John she is described as precisely that, the guardian of the door, the keeper of the gate.

This Mitsein is her Mitsein, and she wants to keep it to herself and to the people entitled to it. When she says: “You are one of them, you belong with Jesus,’ she really means, ‘You do not belong here, you are not one of us.”

We always hear that Peter acts impulsively, but this really means mimetically. He always moves too fast and too far; but still, why move so close to the center, why did the fire exert such an attraction on him?

Read the rest here.

“Haven’t I seen you before? At Stanford?” How John Fante married a Stanford girl.

September 16th, 2023

Stephen Cooper, the world’s leading John Fante expert, has a few more words to say about the author whose novel, Ask the Dust, will be featured at an Another Look discussion on Tuesday, September 19. We wrote about the event here, and we wrote about Joel Williams, the convict whose life was turned around by Fante’s book here. (Author Alan Rifkin has a few words to say here, too.)

But who knew Fante wrote a short story with Stanford on his mind? Says Cooper about the wistful Stanford references included in the pages above from his short story, ‘To Be a Monstrous Clever Fellow’: “Fante may have helped usher in The Book Haven’s first prison stabbing but something tells me his delirious ‘To Be a Monstrous Clever Fellow’ won’t fly. It’s awfully good for a laugh though …”

Stanford was more than on his mind, and more significant than a laugh. He was the son of lower-class Italian immigrants, and fell for Joyce Smart of Placer County, “the Stanford-bred daughter of one of Roseville’s first families,” Cooper wrote in his biography, Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante (North Point Press, 2000). Her mother’s reaction? “He looks so Italian,” she complained. “I can’t even pretend that he isn’t.”

“To Joyce, still fresh from Stanford, where ‘the winds of freedom blow,’ the whole dilemma smacked of another another century.” On July 31, 1937, they crossed the state line to Nevada and secretly married.

Rob Spillman, writing in The Boston Review on the occasion of the publication of The Big Hunger: Stories 1932-1959, edited by Steve Cooper and published in 2000: “With ‘To Be a Monstrous Clever Fellow’ we enter Bandini territory, the place where Fante’s legacy does and should rest. The clever narrator works on the docks, has rough, calloused hands, yet also quotes Nietzsche and tells himself that he is going home to write his ‘thousand words’ – but can’t help getting caught up in the chase for women at the local dance hall. It is classic Fante that the narrator lusts after the well-bred yet idiotic girl, passing himself off as a professor until she notices his horrible hands.”

“These smooth, neat stories are mainly interesting for the information they contain, like the episode in ‘Mama’s Dream’ when the aging, hard-drinking father tears apart the Fante character’s novel, which portrayed the writer’s father as a philandering drunkard. But mostly these later stories work to illuminate how good the early Bandini material is, how singular, how Romantically passionate his writing was, why John Fante so deserves to be read and placed among the great American voices of the twentieth century.” In short, he deserves “Another Look.” Come by on Tuesday, or in person or by zoom.

“Then give me lunacy, give me those days again.”

Spillman writes: “If only we could go back to the late-1930s and force Fante to turn his back on Hollywood, to keep going with Bandini, to keep pushing, one can only imagine the brilliant novels that the hard-working Fante would have produced. Or not. As Fante writes in “Prologue to Ask the Dust: ‘Do I speak like a lunatic? Then give me lunacy, give me those days again.'”

Back to Stanford. According to Steve Cooper: “Nearly a hundred years after writing that long-unpublished story—and ‘Washed in the Rain,’ likewise Stanford-inflected, whereby Stanford stands in for everything his alter-ego narrator wants but can’t have: talk about desire—Fante is finally being admitted!”

Come join us in welcoming Fante to Stanford, forty years after his death.


The spirit of L.A.:”What happens to a civilization that grows up alongside the constant vision of dust?”

September 6th, 2023

Our Tuesday, Sept. 19, hybrid event on John Fante‘s 1939 novel Ask the Dust  is coming up fast. Join us at 7 p.m. (PST) in Levinthal Hall in the Stanford Humanities Center, 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus. REGISTER FOR THE EVENT ON THE LINK HEREThe event is free and open to the public. Walk-ins are welcome, but registration is encouraged whether you plan to attend virtually or in personRead more about the event here.

This event is co-sponsored by the Continuing Studies Program and the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at Stanford, and also the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco.

Two weeks ago, we published a story how Joel Williams’s life as a convict turned around when he read Fante’s 1939 novel. “There were no creative writing classes in prison,” he wrote, but with the help of Fante scholar Stephen Cooper, he became a writer. Read about it here. But meanwhile, here’s an excerpt from another successful author, Alan Rifkin. According to NPR: “One of the true L.A. originals, Alan Rifkin is easy to catch in the act of being brilliant.” Here’s another chance to do so, as he discusses Ask the Dust.

Rifkin: “terminal desert from the depths of the paradise dream…”

Every Los Angeles writer at the outskirts of vision feels a connection to Ask the Dust, the 1939 novel that, more than any other, seems to weep over this city’s corpse in the ecstasy of possessing it. (“Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”i We all are sufferers. We’re not sure, exactly, if the intimacy of our suffering will survive the novel’s journey to the big screen, to the masses, to the world. But on the page, it’s strictly ours.

Stephen Cooper’s history with Ask the Dust is even more personal. “I was seeking to fill that absence that I didn’t even consciously know defined me,” he says. “And that was the loss of my father. So I would spend my days just mooning around, moving about, like most young writers, haunted by characters, trying to compose them and failing, failing, failing, failing, failing. . . . And then when I came upon Ask the Dust, it was a time in my life when I was living with every pore open to possibility.” (Citations are from Rikfin’s interviews with Cooper.)

Living, in other words, like Bandini himself, who finally writes his look-at-me novel, only to hurl it to the sands where his goddess went mad. “He’s gotten what he wanted, in terms of having written the book … to be on the shelf next to the big guys. But desire is such that it outlives its fulfillment. And so he must desire something else. … It turns to dust, doesn’t it, the fulfillment of desire. So getting what you want is, if you will, just a beginning of the eternal and unattainable story of desire.”

Stephen Cooper was my graduate professor at Cal State Long Beach, and as I was writing this essay, he coined a name for this school of writing: Southern California Dream Realism. Maybe Southern California Dream Realism is just the ultimate extension of anybody else’s literary mode—a way of seeing life stripped of time’s pretense. It’s a manner of always seeing the terminal desert from the depths of the paradise dream, or paradise from the stretches of life’s dry march.

I do know that in our past, in the dark of that pantry, I see the East Coast. Some remnant of ancestry, a quaint hope of continuity, a proper burial gone wrong—Waugh’s mortuary. I see how fooled my childhood was by every architectural simulation of history.

But I don’t know what happens to a civilization, and a literature, that grows up alongside the constant vision of dust. Does the rest of the country even make sense to us here? Was all this aftermath built in from the start? Even the apocalypse, in Los Angeles, feels like history now, the erasures of paradise barely detectable, the age of visions five minutes from over.

That is one scenario for where L.A. literature is heading. Then there is Francesca Lia Block’s view, which she offers in an unpunctuated e-mail: “life/death magic/reality young/old spirit/body masculine/feminine the walls seem to be dissolving and the worlds blending” (from correspondence to Block). In other words, “Paradise Next.”

*Claremont McKenna professor Jay Martin has pointed out that what W. H. Auden called “West’s Disease” — an L.A. collision of foolishness, desire, and illusion named after Nathanael West — could just as well have been named after Fante.


René Girard @100: the Girard Quartet comes to San Francisco on Sept. 13 for a free concert! Be there!

September 3rd, 2023

Grégoire Girard and Agathe Girard-Vitani (violins), Hugues Girard (viola) and Lucie Girard (cello)

The Book Haven has written much about French theorist René Girard – and this year is the centenary of his birth. I’ve celebrated the occasion with a new Penguin Classic anthology of his “essential writings.” (And I’ve also written about the centenary at Zócalo Public Square “Are We Ready to Listen to René Girard?” – read that article here.) Now the extended Girard family, in America and in France, would like to invite you to a memorial concert, sponsored by the Consulat Général de France à San Francisco. (You can listen to the quartet perform Schubert’s String Quartet #14, in D Minor here, or Beethoven’s 16 opus 135 “Vivace” here.)

Here’s the announcement from the French consulate, in English and French:

His hundredth birthday this Christmas Day

This year is the centenary of the birth of French theorist René Girard (Avignon, December 25, 1923 – Stanford, California, November 4, 2015). The Girard family and the Society of Friends of Joseph René Girard are honoring him with a public concert. The event is free, but you must register here.

On September 13, 2023 at 7 p.m., the Quator Girard will perform at a memorial concert for René Girard, at the Théâtre du Lycée Français de San Francisco (1201 Ortega street, San Francisco). The Girard Quartet includes the grandchildren of the Stanford professor’s older brother, Dr. Henri Girard of Avignon. Including on the program are Bach, Lekeu, and Mendelssohn.

His fellow immortel at the Académie Française, Stanford Prof. Michel Serres, called Girard the “new Darwin of the human sciences.” Girard, a prolific author, began as a literary theorist but eventually ventured into and history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion, psychology and theology. All were woven into his work.

Although René Girard was very humble about his attachment to music, it nourished him greatly and forged a very strong link between him and the Quartet. The quartet includes: Grégoire Girard and Agathe Girard-Vitani (violins), Hugues Girard (viola) and Lucie Girard (cello). The quartet was awarded at the Geneva Competition in 2011, and has been invited to prestigious halls and festivals in France, such as the Auditorium of the Musée d’Orsay. The quartet is also in demand abroad – particularly in Switzerland, Morocco, and Japan.

This event is possible thanks to the support of the Lycée Français de San Francisco, the Consulate General of France in San Francisco, and the Villa Albertine. It is also sponsored by the Académie Française.


À l’occasion du centenaire de la naissance de René Girard (Avignon 25 décembre 1923 – Stanford (Californie) 4 novembre 2015), la famille Girard et la Société des amis de Joseph René Girard ont souhaité lui rendre hommage publiquement.

Le 13 septembre 2023 à 19h, le Quator Girard se produira lors d’un concert hommage à René Girard, au Théâtre du Lycée Français de San Francisco (1201 Ortega street, San Francisco).

Son immortel collègue et professeur à Stanford, Michel Serres, l’appelait le nouveau Darwin des sciences humaines. L’auteur, d’abord théoricien de la littérature, se passionnait pour tout. L’histoire, l’anthropologie, la sociologie, la philosophie, la religion, la psychologie et la théologie se retrouvent
dans son œuvre.

Si René Girard exprime très humblement son attachement à la musique, il n’en reste pas moins que celle-ci l’a intensément nourri et qu’elle a été un lien très fort entre lui et le Quatuor. Composé de Grégoire Girard & Agathe Girard-Vitani (violons), Hugues Girard (alto) et Lucie Girard (violoncelle). Il est lauréat du Concours de Genève en 2011. Invité de salles et de festivals prestigieux en France tel que l’Auditorium du Musée d’Orsay, le quatuor est également demandé à l’étranger notamment en Suisse, au Maroc ou au Japon.

Cet évènement est possible grâce au concours du Lycée Français de San Francisco, du Consulat Général de France à San Francisco et de la Villa Albertine. Il est de plus parrainé par Académie Française.

L’événement est gratuit, mais vous devez vous inscrire ici.

The Girard Quartet.

What were Joseph Brodsky’s words on Yevgeny Prigozhin’s grave today?

August 29th, 2023

The funeral of Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin was held today at a private cemetery on the outskirts of St Petersburg, his home town. He died when his business jet crashed last week. It’s been two months since he staged an aborted mutiny against Russian military commanders. At that time, his troops briefly took control of the southern city of Rostov and advanced towards Moscow. Vladimir Putin did not attend the services today.

He was buried without military honors, according to Meduza, noting that instead, a few “cryptic” lines from Joseph Brodsky were placed beside his grave.

From The Guardian:

“The farewell to Yevgeny Viktorovich took place in a closed format. Those who wish to say goodbye may visit Porokhovskoye cemetery,” the press service said in its first post on Telegram in two months, ending days of speculation over how the warlord would be laid to rest.

“Pro-Russian media also published images of Prigozhin’s headstone at the Porokhovskoye cemetery. Prigozhin’s name is written on the headstone, alongside a poem by the St Petersburg-born Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky.”

I wondered which poem was it was, and was not surprised to learn it is “Nature Morte.” As I guessed, it’s the last three stanzas. In George L. Kline‘s translation:

Mary now speaks to Christ:
‘Are you my son? – or God?
You are nailed to the cross.
Where lies my homeward road?

‘Can I pass through my gate
not having understood:
Are you dead? – or alive?
Are you my son? – or God?’

Christ speaks to her in turn:
‘Whether dead or alive,
woman, it’s all the same – 
son or God, I am thine.’

“A window opening when doors were slamming shut all around me”: how John Fante changed a convict’s life

August 25th, 2023

Please join us at Stanford on for a discussion of John Fante‘s 1939 novel Ask the Dust at 7 p.m. (PST) on Tuesday, Sept. 19, at Levinthal Hall in the Stanford Humanities Center, 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus. It’s a hybrid event, so come virtually or in person. REGISTER FOR THE EVENT ON THE LINK HERE! The event is free and open to the public. Walk-ins are welcome, but registration is encouraged, whether you plan to attend virtually or in person. Read more about the event here.

Another Look takes on authors and books that we think deserve more attention.  Fante’s Ask the Dust was forgotten for decades after first appearing in 1939. Since being rediscovered in the 1980s, the novel has gained an enthusiastic international audience and influenced many writers. How much of an influence did Fante’s Ask the Dust have? Read the story below, from a Shoshone-Paiute American Indian prisoner whose life was changed by an encounter with Fante’s remarkable novel. Author Joel Williams’s story, republished from Fordham University Press’s John Fante’s ASK THE DUST: A Joining of Voices and Views (2020) with his permission, comes to us courtesy Stephen Cooper, English Professor at California State University, Long Beach. He is perhaps the world’s leading expert on John Fante.

In addition to the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco, this event is co-sponsored by the Continuing Studies Program and the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at Stanford.

I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard about the Los Angeles writer, John Fante. The year was 2008 and the place was Mule Creek State Prison, a maximum-security California penitentiary where I was dragging in my twenty-second year on a twenty-seven-to-life sentence.

I was on the yard, hanging out with a couple of other skins near the pull-up bars, when we heard the gunshot. Men everywhere dropped. It was the guard tower’s mini-14, a totally different sound from the usual 40mm “Big Bertha” riot-control block gun. I had suspected something was about to go down ever since another skin — the term we Natives used for each other — had warned me to keep on my toes. Somebody was going to get moved on.

Stretched out prone in the dirt I lifted my head an inch to eyeball the yard. Guards with batons out and keys jangling on their utility belts ran past with medical staff trailing behind. Cordite filled the air as one man was hoisted onto a gurney and another was led off in handcuffs. Beside me Bear, a skin nicknamed for his size, rested his chin on a paperback.

“What book you got?” I asked.

Fante expert Stephen Cooper with Joel Williams.

“You don’t wanna read this.”

“Why’s that?”

“Cause you won’t give it back!”

I smiled and he tossed it over, something to while away the next several days when the whole prison would be on lockdown. Hours later, when we were told to get up and go back to our cells, I stuffed the book in my back pocket.

My neighbor, Norm, later told me through the vent that the guy who got stabbed on the yard was my cellmate, a Maidu Indian named Lance. I was stunned. Sure, Lance had a gambling jones and was always in debt. Sure, he smoked too much herb. But hell, he was a nice enough guy and for me that counted, what with most everyone else out to pick your pocket and cut your throat. So sure, the news hit me hard.

To get my mind off things I picked up Bear’s book. It didn’t look like much — no flashy cover, no promise of action or sleaze. The title was an odd one, Ask the Dust, by a guy from my stomping grounds in Los Angeles. His name was John Fante and I’d never heard of him but as I flipped through the first few pages I saw Bukowski’s name. I knew who he was so I read his introduction. And Bukowski revered John Fante. My literary hero, Bukowski, had a hero himself. I stirred up a cup of instant coffee, climbed into my bunk, and set off on a long night of reading.

And what a night it turned out to be. Fante’s character Arturo Bandini pulled me into a Los Angeles I’d never experienced, an earlier world colored with subtle shades of poetry and streaks of vivid emotion. Bandini was exuberant, alive, searching. I reread sentences, whole passages, soaking in the beauty of Fante’s words, wringing every nuance of meaning from his prose. And as always happened when I savored another writer’s work, I felt the tug of jealousy. I too wanted to create beautiful works and move people, and once again I’d been beaten to the punch.

Read the rest of this entry »

“Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you … you sad flower in the sand.” Come join us Sept. 19 for John Fante’s “Ask the Dust”!

August 20th, 2023
“All at once I was full of plans. Laguna Beach!” John Fante (1909-1983)

Please join us at Stanford on for a discussion of John Fante‘s 1939 novel Ask the Dust at 7 p.m. (PST) on Tuesday, Sept. 19, at Levinthal Hall in the Stanford Humanities Center, 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus. It’s a hybrid event, so come virtually or in person. Registration here or below.

Something you may not have known about Fante. He was the son of Italian immigrants, born in 1909 (he died in 1983). Hence, Italy considers him one of its own. So we’re partnering with the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco for the event!

Poet Charles Bukowski (not Italian) said the book had a lifetime influence on his own writing, and that the works of Fante, a novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter, were “written of and from the gut and the heart.”

“One day I pulled Ask the Dust down from the library book shelf and stood for a moment, reading.  Then like a man who had found gold in a city dump, I carried the book to a table.  The beginning of that book was a wild and enormous miracle for me….Fante became my god.” 

The book was adapted into a 2006 film starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek.

Panelists will include Stanford Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, author, director of Another Look, host of the radio talk show and podcast series Entitled Opinions, and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and Stanford Prof. Tobias Wolff, one of America’s leading writers and the founding director of Another Look, as well as a recipient of the National Medal of Arts. Novelist Terry Gamble will round out the panel. Many will remember her from the Another Look discussion of Alfred Hayes‘s My Face for the World to See in 2019.

Copies are available as in Kindle and paperback. (In a pinch, the book is even available in a less user-friendly pdf format online.)

In addition to the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco, this event is co-sponsored by the Continuing Studies Program and the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at Stanford.


Postscript: There’s more! Read about how Fante’s Ask the Dust turned around the life of a convict: here. What happens to a civilization that grows up alongside the constant vision of dust? Read novelist Alan Rifkin’s take on that here.

“Ecstatic Pessimist”: Peter Dale Scott’s new book on poet, friend Czesław Miłosz is out!

August 2nd, 2023
Peter remembers a long collaboration

Author Peter Dale Scott‘s newest book has been a long time in the making. Peter has been sharing his drafts of Ecstatic Pessimist: Czeslaw Milosz, Poet of Catastrophe and Hope with me for at least a decade, and the road to publication has been long and arduous. The volume was finally published by Rowman & Littlefield in July. So a celebration is in order.

“Book Passage,” a vast and legendary bookstore in Corte Madera, fêted the occasion with a reading and onstage conversation on the hot afternoon of Sunday, July 16.

I made the long trip from Palo Alto to Marin to hear the nonagenarian poet, translator, author, Berkeley professor, and former Canadian diplomat – spending time with Peter is always a good idea. His wisdom is formidable and his anecdotes insightful. Many of the people gathered that afternoon thought so, too: it was a gratifyingly full house, and a very friendly one, as well. (Photos by the Book Passage’s Jonathan Spencer.)

Peter was the first translator of Milosz into English, collaborating with the poet in the early 1960s. He is also the first translator for Zbigniew Herbert. For that, the Anglophone world owes him a double debt of gratitude. And so does the Polish world. The work of Milosz’s translators then and since have brought Polish literature to the fore as one of the world’s great literary treasures. (Early in his exile, Milosz referred to Polish despairingly as an “unheard-of tongue.” How times have changed!)

My two cents are included on a back cover blurb: “We are fortunate to have Scott as a guide to one of the greatest poets of our times, offering us a wise, insightful, and deeply learned journey through Milosz’s poems and life in these pages.” And so he does.

Clarifyiing a point with Norman Fischer

Peter discussed his book and read several poems and passages before he shared the onstage conversation with Norman Fischer, a poet and Buddhist priest, and psychologist Sylvia Boorstein.

The excerpt he read from his book touched on his long, sometimes conflicted, but unforgettable relationship with the poet:

“I can only say that I have tried to be true to the Milosz I knew and loved in the early 1960s, the man who cared enough about literature to devote his life to it, and yet rejected the offer of a farm where he would not have had to do anything else,” he said. [Friend Thornton Wilder offered him that pastoral possibility when the Polish poet defected.]

Here’s what he read:

A question from Sylvia Boorstein

“‘What is poetry, that does not change/Nations or people?’ That question, not yet translated into English, electrified me in Milosz’s home in 1961, when I first read it. It was my hope, then, that Milosz’s poetry might help change not just American ‘poetry of the “well-wrought urn”’ but America itself, indeed the world.”

“I believed, in short, in the efficacy and potential of Milosz’s strategy for cultural evolution (ethogeny) or what Milosz called his ‘unpolitical politics.’ When I began this book … I was thinking of the power of poetry to enhance and advance politics, as I noted in the influence of Paradise Lost, described by historians, on the American Revolution.

book photo

“Thus the doorway to my thinking … on the acknowledged contribution of Milosz’s writings, both in poetry and prose, to the success of the Polish Solidarity Movement.

“That is still my hope today. But writing this book has changed me, just as Milosz himself evolved. I now consider his role in Solidarity to be incidental, almost a footnote, to his global role in renewing shared values twoard ‘an open space ahead,’ a revitalized mindset beyond conservatism, modernism, and postmodernism.”

Copies of the book were snapped up and purchased afterward and Peter signed them – a gratifying reception for the 94-year-old poet who still has more projects to finish. Thanks and congratulations to Peter, long may he live and write!

Three cheers for the Book Haven! We’re ranked one of the top literary blogs on the planet!

July 21st, 2023

We have to admit, most of the time we feel a little lonely, blogging out here on the edge of the Pacific, silently typing well into the night, tapping out these little blogposts for you, gentle reader.

Then, sometimes, we get some surprises in our inbox. Look who made the #8 spot in this ranking of the top 100 literary blogs? On Feedspot, a media/publishing database and RSS Reader, we’re jostling alongside the Paris Review, McSweeney’s, NYer Page-Turner, and World Literature Today! We’re nestled just below Lit Hub and just above the British Council! Yayyyy for The Book Haven!

From the text: “Author Cynthia Haven’s blog for the written word – from the literary world at Stanford University to the world at large. The Book Haven was founded in 2009, and over the years has been discussed and linked in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and more.

We’d pop open some champagne, but we have more work to do tonight, and miles to go before we sleep…

A small stack of “unforgettable books” featured by Stanford’s Another Look book series (Photo: Clay Lambert)

Is a good novel smarter than its author? Kundera thought so…

July 15th, 2023

One of the foremost writers of our times, Milan Kundera, has died, and the retrospectives and memories will be flowing for quite some time to come. The Book Haven has written about the Franco-Czech author before here and here and here. The author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, among other novels, was 94.

Is the author smarter than his novel? Non, žádný, ne, says Kundera: “Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.”

According to his publisher Miroslav Balaštík: “For me, Milan Kundera is one of the few last great classical authors who consider writing to be more than a single novel or story but a continual process. A process that includes essays and a reflection on literary tradition, what literature means and where one fits as a writer. I think that is one of his contributions to both Czech and world literature.” 

Trevor Cribben Merrill, who met the author on several occasions, writes a retrospective in a new magazine Compact

“The lure of a Kundera novel for American readers, I suspect, often had to do with a kind of political voyeurism. As a college student in the late 1990s, I didn’t just identify with the protagonist of The Unbearable Lightness, Tomas, a surgeon who critiques the ruling party, loses his job, and has to wash windows for a living—I wanted to be him. Contemplated from a safe remove, his status as a victim of totalitarian oppression was positively enviable—not to mention that the window-washer job brought the doctor into regular contact with lonely housewives.

“The allure of victimhood has hardly waned in the subsequent decades, and many of the obituaries and homages to Kundera have emphasized his role as a Czech dissident (he and his wife immigrated to France in 1975), as if to suggest that the enduring value of his oeuvre consists mostly in its portrayal of life in the Stalinist trenches. One posthumous appreciation says Kundera’s novels “brought news of sophisticated Eastern-European societies trembling under the threat of Soviet repression.” The sex also gets a predictable nod (‘RIP to one of the great horny novelists of the 20th century, Milan Kundera’).”

Trevor, author of Minor Indignities, discusses the influence of his friend René GIrard on the Czech author:

“Kundera could be described as the great revealer of what the French literary critic and philosopher René Girard called mimetic desire in its late, hyperbolic stage. He was a novelist descended not just from Kafka and Solzhenitsyn, but also from Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Proust.” (Read his 1980 interview with Philip Roth here.)

An excerpt from Trevor Merrill’s short retrospective:

“Kundera was a self-described hedonist. Yet he observed that a good novel is more intelligent than its author. His fiction is full of unhappy threesomes (“Even when she was with Eva, whom she loved very much and of whom she was not jealous, the presence of the man she loved too well weighed heavy on her, stifling the pleasure of the senses”); nude beaches characterized by a concentration camp-like uniformity; and would-be libertines who miss out on sex because they are too busy plotting revenge for a nasty comment some stranger flung at them in a hotel bar—scenarios out of Seinfeld, rather than Sade.”

“Kundera didn’t quite predict the sex recession, or go as far as Michel Houellebecq in taking stock of the ravages wrought by laissez-faire sexual economics. Then again, well-made novels don’t so much supply answers as imply them. At a time when the phenomena he was exploring were already plain to see, if less grotesquely obvious than they are today, Kundera hit on hard truths about the aftermath of the sexual revolution. He was the melancholy prophet of a world where mimetic desire increasingly outstripped the concrete pursuit of pleasure.”

Read the whole piece at Compact Magazine here.

Is Seneca staging a comeback? Maybe…

July 9th, 2023

For 1,500 years, no writer except Virgil held more esteem in the classical world than Seneca. And today? “We read every major tragedian in the Western tradition, except Seneca,” says poet and author Dana Gioia, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He’s setting out to rectify that situation.

“If Seneca’s plays survived the sack of Rome, the burning of libraries, the leaky roofs of monasteries, the appetites of beetle larvae, and the erosions of rot and mildew, they have not had a conspicuously easier time among modern critics,” he continues. “His tragedies have been dismissed both for too closely resembling Greek models and for too freely departing from them. As the classicist Frederick Ahl has noted, ‘no field of literary study rivals that of Latin poetry in so systematically belittling the quality of its works and authors.’ , “No Roman genre has suffered more consistent disparagement than tragedy.”

Seneca may be the season’s comeback kid. The former California poet laureate has just published a new verse translation of Seneca’s The Madness of Hercules (Wiseblood). Wiseblood notes that the violent and visionary play “takes the reader to the extremes of human suffering and beyond – including a descent into the Underworld, an account that echoes through the ages to Dante and Eliot.” The also book includes a rich introduction that is almost as long as the text – a good reason in itself to buy the book. After so much neglect, a thorough reintroduction is more than overdue.

The book is twenty years in the making – and every step of the way, Dana Gioia was convinced no one cared. But Seneca may be getting a major reconsideration, fueled in part by a new stoic movement taking place among the young. (Go here for a blogpost on the statesman, satirist, philosopher, and dramatist.)

Host Jaspreet Singh Boparai on Zoom

Poet/translator Gioia did another favor for Seneca: an hour-long discussion of the play and the translation that was hosted on May 30 by the Faculty of Polish and Classical Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. It’s on Youtube here. The conversation between Dana Gioia and Prof. Mateusz Stróżyński was hosted by classicist Jaspreet Singh Boparai – and as Dana noted, the university had the “kindness and courtesy” to host the event in English, not Polish.

Their discussion of the challenges they faced was excerpted in The Antigone Journal.

Here’s a bit of it:

DANA GIOIA: I chose Hercules Furens to translate because of its fabulous account of the Underworld. The play was the missing link between Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Inferno. My interest wasn’t scholarly. Those poems were foundational to my own sense of being a poet. I particularly admired Virgil and Dante’s ability to create powerful, multi-leveled narratives that never lost their lyrical impulse. Musicality is the necessary magic of narrative poetry. It is also a quality missing from most contemporary poetry. From Seneca I learned how to present drama that alternates between regular action and sudden but sustained moments of extreme emotion. You can call these high points verbal arias or poetic oratory. In theater, they are called “show-stoppers”.  Seneca’s lyric tragedies helped me write poetic texts for opera.

Mateusz Stróżyński in convo with Dana Gioia on Zoom

MATEUSZ STRÓŻYŃSKI: I became interested in Hercules Furens during my research on EuripidesHeracles and Medea, which I began around 2010. I tried to look at the meaning of infanticide in those two plays, from a psychoanalytic perspective, trying to bring together my interest in Classical drama and psychoanalysis as well as my experience as a practising psychoanalytic psychotherapist. What struck me was that Seneca’s Hercules was much more similar to Euripides’ Medea than to his Heracles. Both seem to give an incredible insight into what has been conceptualized in psychoanalysis as pathological narcissism, especially by authors such as Herbert Rosenfeld, Heinz Kohut, and Otto Kernberg. …

How do we conceive of performing Hercules Furens for a modern audience? 

DG: I wrote the first version of The Madness of Hercules to be performed. I was fascinated by the idea of reviving verse theater. I hoped to create a faithful poetic version of Hercules Furens that worked in live theatrical performance. I wanted the audience to feel the power of both the dramatic action and the poetic speech. There was a young businessman in New York City, Richard Ryan, who told me in a bar one night that he wanted to mount the project. (He was not rich, by the way, he was just enthralled by theater and poetry.) Ryan created Verse Theater Manhattan to stage my translation.  He went on to produce many other verse plays.

We made a radical production decision – we trusted Seneca and the play. We cut the text only slightly. The staging was minimal. The actors were directed to perform the text as verse – to let the power of the language animate their characters. The long speeches were not the impediments that most scholars declared; they were the driving forces of each scene.

Dana Gioia zooming to Poznań from his home library

My translations tried to preserve Seneca’s rhetorical design and recreate the poetry. I thought of the major monologues as great operatic arias for the actors.  They need poetry to work. The Madness of Hercules was produced in a mid-sized theater in lower Manhattan. We sold out both nights, and the audience responded enthusiastically.

Seneca’s Hercules (like Medea) describes a destruction of the inner capacity to love and depend on others, through a desire to control both the self and the others. I think the horrifying sterility of the Underworld in Seneca reflects the inner emptiness and deadness of a narcissistic personality, which inevitably manifests itself in aggression and destruction. But as we can see in Seneca, this narcissistic dynamic is often masked by a narrative of saving the world from monsters in order to bring peace and harmony.

Read the whole thing at the Antigone Journal here. Watch the Youtube video here.

I have a special reason to be grateful to this edition The Madness of Hercules. Dana has kindly dedicated the volume to me:

For Cynthia Haven
Tanquam Explorator

Ben Jonson used “Tanquam Explorator,” so I am in good company!

Postscript on July 10: A note on the dedication from Latin teacher Kevin Rossiter:

The Latin from Seneca’s Moral Epistles to Lucilius, letter 2, line 5.: “Hoc ipse quoque facio; ex pluribus quae legi aliquid apprehendo. Hodiernum hoc est quod apud Epicurum nanctus sum–soleo enim et in aliena castra transire, non tamquam transfuga, sed tamquam explorator–: ‘honesta’ inquit ‘res est laeta paupertas.”

“Explorator” is a spy, an eavesdropper. “tamquam” is like “so to speak”. There’s a line in Seneca where he talks about benefitting from reading people he disagrees with, saying “I go into enemy camps not as a deserter, but so to speak as a spy.”

My own translation would be: “For I am accustomed even to cross into the enemy camp, not so much like a deserter, but so to speak as an eavesdropper/spy.”

I see now that ‘tamquam explorator’ is being applied to you in the dedication – so, ‘an eavesdropper, so to speak’ does nicely, don’t you think? Every great writer is always a great eavesdropper!”

René Girard in Penguin Classics – now out! “This is a big deal, so buckle up.”

June 25th, 2023

Finally! All Desire is a Desire for Being, a Penguin Classics anthology of Stanford Prof. René Girard‘s “essential writings,” is officially out this week! To my knowledge, the French theorist is the first Stanford faculty to be celebrated in the eminent series. I was honored that Penguin invited me to create this collection of Girard’s finest essays.

Prof. William Johnsen, who directs the publication of a series of books on René Girard and his mimetic theory at the Michigan State University Press, spoke about All Desire is a Desire for Being at the Paris centenary conference for Girard’s 100th birthday, at the Institut Catholique de Paris last week. Here are Bill Johnsen’s words on that occasion:

Since All Desire is a Desire for Being is 95 percent pure Girard, it would seem that only the editor’s preface, selections and apparatus would be left to discuss. That’s all fine, I love what is in it, I am really happy to see especially the piece on Nietzsche from Paul Dumouchel‘s collection which shows the high-flying, often joyful colloques that Jean-Pierrre Dupuy and Dumouchel organized to integrate Girard with his intellectual peers in the Eighties, but I want to emphasize where Girard now appears (Penguin) and what that means: as my President says, this is a big deal.

In his interviews with Nadine Dormoy in 1988, René Girard attributes the 20,000 dependable French readers of serious books to the Écoles, and the smaller American audience to the silos of academic specialization. I have heard the same figure of 20,000 assured readers from Benoît Chantre so I assume that French readership is steady.

In 2006 I was invited by Girard and Robert Hamerton-Kelly to be Publications Chair of Imitatio, a project funded by The Thiel Foundation. One of the earliest projects was the public launch of Achever Clausewitz and Imitatio in Paris in 2007.

Imitatio had begun supporting production costs for books on mimetic theory at Michigan State University Press to find this readership. (We all should be grateful for their more than ten years of support, the slowest startup in Thiel’s stable). When Lindy Fishburne of The Thiel Foundation later assumed the directorship of Imitatio, she urged us to follow our core mission, to develop Girard’s ideas, to find them a greater recognition and circulation worldwide but also in the English-speaking world to catch up with the breadth of his readership in France and Europe.

I have spent my entire adult life in universities. As the editor of the series, I had some plans for how to spread ideas from the university to that outer world by influencing teachers who would influence their students who leave when they graduate, but I had no idea on how to approach the public directly, or whether America, despite its number of educated readers (my university alone granted 9,500 degrees this last spring), had any number approaching 20,000 dependable readers of serious books.

If Girard was besieged by reporters in Paris after Achever Clausewitz was published in 2007, nothing like that happened in America in 2009 when we published it in English as Battling to the End. In 2011, at a conference on Mimetic Theory and World Religions at Berkeley, I suggested to Cynthia Haven that she write a book about René Girard, something personal and accessible enough to help find him a wider audience in English. Girard had told me in appreciation that Haven had written specifically about the Clausewitz book in The San Francisco Chronicle, as well as other public venues in her one-person publicity campaign.

Evolution of Desire (2018) is informative both about Girard and his ideas, placing him effectively in a historical context by reference to his life and work and interviewing many people who knew him. She is both respectful and warm to her subject. It would be impossible to disentangle the circumstances that have made her book so popular: Girard himself, this century’s recognition of him with honorary degrees and awards, his election to the L’Académie Française, several organisations worldwide devoted to his work. But Haven has played a key role with her book and her reputation – she is a well-known and respected serious author for serious readers who bridges the academic and the public book world. She has her sights always on the dependable core readership of serious books in English.

My field is British Studies, I could go on and on about Penguin so I need to just summarize here. Penguin books has been the most successful venture in gaining a wide audience for serious books in English for the last one hundred years. Nothing else even comes close. So congratulations to Cynthia on publishing All Desire is a Desire for Being at Penguin, and to everyone else working in mimetic theory: this is a big deal, so buckle up.

An American flâneur, and the world in a garage

June 10th, 2023
Self-portrait of an American flâneur

Artist/painter J. Elliot (his Twitter handle is @j_elliot_art) is an East Coast artist working primarily in oil, as well as charcoal, watercolor, and pastels.

But he’s also one of a dying breed. A flâneur. Charles Baudelaire established the flâneur as a literary figure, referring to him as the “gentleman stroller of city streets.”

The thought started a sort of conversation on Twitter. Littérateur and pianist Koczalski’s ghost responded: “It isn’t possible to be a flâneur in America, for all of the obvious reasons.” Elliot, however, gave the concept an American spin: In the New World vernacular, flâneuring is “driving aimlessly around looking at yard sales and stuff.”

Is the day of the flâneur a thing of the past? In a 2013 article, “In Praise of the Flâneur,” in The Paris Review, Bijan Stephen writes: “The figure of the flâneur—the stroller, the passionate wanderer emblematic of nineteenth-century French literary culture—has always been essentially timeless; he removes himself from the world while he stands astride its heart. When Walter Benjamin brought Baudelaire’s conception of the flâneur into the academy, he marked the idea as an essential part of our ideas of modernism and urbanism. For Benjamin, in his critical examinations of Baudelaire’s work, the flâneur heralded an incisive analysis of modernity, perhaps because of his connotations: ‘[the flâneur] was a figure of the modern artist-poet, a figure keenly aware of the bustle of modern life, an amateur detective and investigator of the city, but also a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism,’ as a 2004 article in the American Historical Review put it. Since Benjamin, the academic establishment has used the flâneur as a vehicle for the examination of the conditions of modernity—urban life, alienation, class tensions, and the like. …

He goes on to assert the continued role of flâneuring in our times: “Real life hasn’t changed, and twentieth-century France was no different. Though Baron Haussmann’s avenues made flânerie more difficult, and though the rise of street traffic may have endangered those brave flâneurs who walked their turtles, the flâneur’s raison d’etre—to participate fully through observation—has always remained the same. Now that we’re comfortably into the era of the postmodern, perhaps it’s time to take a brief stroll into the past, to sample its sights and its sounds.”

Elliot took the photos below during his flâneuring excursion in Machias, Maine, where he discovered “Jim’s Books,” located in Jim’s very own garage. Elliot tweeted this a day or two ago from his East Coast digs: “Today’s flâneuring: this bookshop a guy keeps in his garage.”

Elliot’s Twitter bio includes this: “Józef Czapski frequently advised me: when you’re having a bad day, paint a still life.” For some of us, maybe. Did he actually know the legendary painter, writer, diplomat? Tell us more… (I wrote about Czapski for the Wall Street Journal. Article here.

René Girard @100: Stanford’s provocative immortel comes of age

June 6th, 2023
René Girard among the bamboo outside his Stanford home in 2008.
(Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

All Desire is a Desire for Being is becoming a reality! I got my advance copies of the new Penguin Classics anthology of René Girard’s “essential writings” this week. (You can pre-order a copy here.) It was an honor to contribute to his legacy with Penguin Classics, as we near his hundredth birthday on Christmas Day. To celebrate, I am republishing an article you may not have seen before. It was published June 11, 2008, by Stanford News Service. I had met the “French polymath” (that’s how the Google “knowledge panel” identifies him nowadays) only a months before. This would become the first of many interviews, essays, and books about the French thinker.

This article and many others from the Stanford News Service are now archived and no longer publicly available. So in the centenary year of René’s birth, I thought I’d make at least this one available to all of you. Enjoy!

The story goes like this: In 2004, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, a professor of  French at Stanford, is attending a conference in Berlin when he is  confronted by a man in a café who asks, “Why did you become a Girardian?” Dupuy replies in a beat: “Because it’s cheaper than psychoanalysis.”

Did it really happen? Although the event was witnessed, Dupuy responds  with a Gallic shrug and an Italian saying: “Si non e vero e ben trovato.” The American equivalent might be Ken Kesey‘s dictum, “It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”

In any case, the anecdote illustrates the kind of effect René Girard, the Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature and  Culture, Emeritus, at Stanford and one of the immortels of the  Académie Française, has had on people. Aficionados of the scholar even have a name: Girardians.

Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005,  published this spring by Stanford University Press, explores the  literary side of Girard’s thinking over his long career-a career that originally focused on literary scholarship but that has gradually embraced anthropology, religion, sociology, psychology, philosophy and  theology. French Professor Michel Serres, another immortel (America has only two, and both are at Stanford), has called him “the new Darwin of the human sciences.”

Girard’s Achever Clausewitz, published last year in France by Editions Carnets Nord, will be published in English by Michigan State University Press this winter. The book, which takes as its point of departure the Prussian military historian and theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), is considered by many to be groundbreaking. Its implications place Girard, known mostly for his studies of literature and archaic cultures, squarely in the 21st century.

“It doesn’t take much insight to realize that wars have been getting  worse every time – worse from the point of view of the civilian, more and more destructive, more and more total. Well, Clausewitz is about that,” Girard explained. “Therefore my book is a very end-of-the-world sort of thing.”

Girard lives a sequestered life in the academic burrows of Stanford, but his influence abroad is seismic. Even French President Nicolas Sarkozy cites his writings. While Girard walks the Stanford campus virtually unnoticed and unrecognized, in Paris, visitors say, reporters were on his doorstep every day after the publication of last year’s book.

René and Martha Girard at their Stanford home.
(Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The “Girard Effect” may become more prominent worldwide with a foundation, Imitatio, that has been established to promote his ideas. (Dupuy is its director of research.) Imitatio launched its research program with a conference at Stanford in April, with about 40 scholars from around the world attending. The Colloquium on Violence and Religion, an independent association of international scholars, also studies mimetic theory and publishes an annual journal, Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis and Culture.

Although Girard will turn 85 on Dec. 25 (he was born in Avignon), he is not resting on his laurels. Achever Clausewitz signals a new development of his line of thought, and he is already working on his next book, which will focus on St. Paul. Are there any more projects envisioned?

“Thousands more!” Benoît Chantre, his French editor and interlocutor for Achever Clausewitz, said and smiled.

Scapegoats and sacrifice

Girard’s thinking, including textual analysis, is a sweeping reading of human nature, human history and human destiny. His contention is controversial: Religion is not the cause of violence, as many suppose; it was, in archaic societies, a way of solving it.

Here’s why: People are social creatures, and their behavior is based on imitation to a much greater degree than generally supposed. How else to explain why a generation decides at once to pierce their tongues, or why stocks rise and fall? How to explain how a child learns language? Even our desires are not our own; we learn them from others.

“We don’t even know what our desire is. We ask other people to tell us our desires,” he said during a lecture at Stanford’s Old Union in February. “We would like our desires to come from our deepest selves, our personal depths – but if it did, it would not be desire. Desire is always for something we feel we lack.”

Envy and resentment are the inevitable consequences of this drive toward mimesis. These emotions, in turn, fuel conflict; it occurs whenever two or more “mimetic rivals” want the same thing, which can go to only one. It might be a woman, a presidency or a research grant. Many religious prohibitions are meant to regulate and control such 

“When we describe human relations, we lie,” Girard said. “We describe them as normally good, peaceful and so forth, whereas in reality they are competitive, in a war-like fashion.”

In literature, such mimetic desire can create comic masterpieces: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a classic he frequently cites. Or it can inspire the novels of Balzac, in which the characters strive to outdo each other in snobbery and imitative social values. Such imitation can even be totally imaginary. Don Quixote wishes to be a knight errant, because he is imitating the heroes in the books he has read.

On a societal level, such conflict seeks a release, and the outlet is a scapegoat. A third party-often an outsider, a foreigner, a woman, someone who is disabled, the king or president-is blamed and demonized for having caused the conflict. Scapegoats are not seen as innocent victims; they are seen as the guilty cause of the disorder. The calls mount for the sacrificial victim, and the mob itself creates a sense of harmony.

“Joining the mob is the thing that people don’t realize. They feel the unity but don’t interpret it as joining the mob,” Girard said.

The mob prevails. The victim is killed, exiled, pilloried or otherwise dispensed with. Rivals reconcile, and peace and unity are restored to the community.

“If you scapegoat someone, it’s a third party that will be aware of it,” he said. “It won’t be you. Because you will believe you are doing the right thing. You will be either punishing someone who is guilty or fighting someone who is trying to kill you, but you are never the one who is scapegoating.”

In a sleight of hand that unsettles Girard’s critics, the fact that there is no proof is proof. It is not that the scapegoaters suppress the history of their scapegoating, he said, “scapegoating itself is the suppressing.”

For this reason, tragedy and religion in ancient Greece are inextricably entwined. Take the story of Oedipus. A plague is destroying Thebes, and whom does the mysterious oracle find at fault? The outsider, the lame newcomer king, whose expulsion brings peace to the city-state. Euripides’ The Bacchae is the same-disorder is tearing apart the society and the women are going crazy. Pentheus, the young leader, is at fault-his collective murder brings sanity and harmony to Thebes.

“The first culture which rebels against that system is the Jewish culture,” Girard said. He explains that the Bible is actually counter-mythical. Over a period of centuries, the books of the Old Testament begin to catch on to mankind’s scapegoating mechanism. While they describe and even celebrate violence, they gradually begin to question and fight it as well.

For example, many of the psalms “show a narrator who is surrounded by a crowd of good-for-nothings, who are trying to encircle him and turn him into a victim.” The story of Job also is revealing: “It’s a small community, but he’s been the dictator for years. Everybody loves him, he does no one any harm,” Girard said at the Old Union lecture. “One fine morning he wakes up, and everybody is against him. His three ‘friends’ are ready to explain how bad he is now. And everybody is ready to explain how bad he is at the same time. He has turned from the absolute hero to the scapegoat of the community. Job is like a long psalm and shows you what happens to communities. No myth will  ever show you that.”

The climactic victimization is with “the announcement of what we call the Passion.”

“Jesus accepts to be the victim, and we don’t really know why,” he said. “There, what the Gospel said is that it is God himself who has allowed all this scapegoating, and says, ‘You can forgive me, since now I am ready to become your victim myself.'”

Thus, the world has arrived at a dangerous point, Girard said. The mechanism of scapegoating has been seen through; the escape valve is gone. War no longer “works” and no longer resolves mimetic rivalry among nations. While wars were once organized and carried out by states, concluding with a treaty and one side’s defeat, now individual actors can instigate acts of war in a free-for-all.  Moreover, the actors may insist on their own martyrdom to aggravate the conflict, rather than resolve it.

In an interview in Le Point last year, Girard presented the dire worldview that made Achever Clausewitz controversial: “The world wars marked an important step in the rise of extremes. September 11, 2001, was the beginning of a new phase. Today’s terrorism still has to be thought through, because we haven’t yet grasped that a terrorist is ready to die in order to kill Americans, Israelis or Iraqis. What’s new here in relation to Western heroism is that suffering and death are called for, if necessary by experiencing them oneself.”  We search in vain for scapegoats: “The Americans made the mistake of ‘declaring war’ on al-Qaida without knowing whether al-Qaida exists at all.

“The era of wars is over: From now on war exists everywhere. Our era is one of universal action. There’s no longer any such thing as an intelligent policy. We’ve almost reached the end.”

An existential downfall

Girard’s misgivings about war and a potential apocalypse are the extension of a long thought that has evolved over decades. The road was marked by various points of illumination: One light-bulb moment occurred during a “conversion” experience when he was a young professor at Johns Hopkins University in the late 1950s.

He explained to James Williams, in an interview included in The Girard Reader, the epiphany that was connected with the writing of his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel: “I started working on that book very much in the pure demystification mode: cynical, destructive, very much in the spirit of the atheistic intellectuals of the time. I was engaged in debunking, and of course recognizing mimesis is a great debunking tool because it deprives us moderns of the one thing we still have left, our individual desire.”

“The debunking that actually occurs in this first book is probably one of the reasons why my concept of mimesis is still viewed as destructive,” he said. “Yet I like to think that if you take this notion as far as you possibly can, you go through the ceiling, as it were, and discover what amounts to original sin. An experience of 
demystification, if radical enough, is very close to an experience of conversion.”

He described his eventual realization this way: “The author’s first draft is a self-justification.” It may either focus on a wicked hero, the writer’s scapegoat, who will be unmasked by the end of the novel; or it may have a good hero, the author’s alter ego, who will be vindicated at novel’s end.

If the writer is a good one, he will see “the trashiness of it all” by the time he finishes his first draft-that it’s a “put-up job.” The experience, said Girard, shatters the vanity and pride of the writer. “And this existential downfall is the event that makes a great work of art possible,” Girard said.

While he speaks easily of conversion, original sin and redemption, however, one visiting scholar wondered why he seemed to circumvent a related theme: the imperative topic of forgiveness. But it’s hard to beat Girard at his own game. Only a few months earlier, Girard had spoken at an informal philosophical reading group in History Corner for several dozen faculty and students.

Girard recapitulated the story of the Old Testament Joseph, son of Jacob, bound and sold into slavery by his “mob” of 10 half-brothers: “They all get together and try to kill him. The Bible knows that scapegoating is a mob affair.” Joseph reestablishes himself as one of the leaders of Egypt and then tearfully forgives his brothers in a 
dramatic reconciliation. It is, he said, a story “much more mature, spiritually, than the beginning of Genesis.”

The story is unlike any in archaic literature: “It’s a very beautiful  story, which like many biblical stories, is a counter-mythical story,” he said, “because in myth, the lynchers are always satisfied with their lynching.”

But at the reading group, he suggested his audience might not have noticed this before. After all, they had been trained to think that the Bible was a completely backward book, superceded and preceded by better efforts, with little that was new to the world. In short, Girard dropped the cat among the pigeons.

They erupted into debate. Girard slouched back in his chair a little, smiling softly and watching the feathers fly.

Springtime with a cuppa – New York style

May 31st, 2023
 ©Zygmunt Malinowski in Iceland

Zygmunt Malinowski, who has written for us here and here and here and everywhere really, has just filed a short quick photo report from the big city on the East Coast:

Cafés are everywhere in New York City, especially around business districts, shopping areas, and entertainment districts. New Yorkers grab coffee on the go while rushing to work, or sip their morning joe while casually lingering in the café. Friends meet friends and have a bite to eat, choosing pastries and light snacks, others to meet business colleagues for brief, casual, and productive meetings. Each café has its distinctive coffee brand and various snacks so one can choose among many. Some of the more popular venues: Au Bon Pain; Prett; Zuckers, known for cream cheese and bagels; Ole & Steen, a Danish bakery chain has wholesome breads and sumptuous pastries, and Starbucks is everywhere.

These two women at Ole & Steen near Grand Central were catching up with their families and friends over Skype during a rare quiet time in the café. I grabbed a quick cup of my favorite brew, my camera, and headed out to the streets.

Quiet time, Cafe Olé & Steen near Grand Central.  ©Zygmunt Malinowski

“Martin Amis’s 15 (or is it 16?) rules for writers: “You have to have a huge appetite for solitude.”

May 26th, 2023
“Try not to write sentences that absolutely anyone could write.” Photo: Bryan Appleyard

Martin Amis’s 15 Rules For Writers (2014) was on Abbas Raza’s 3quarksdaily today. We found a 16th online. Here they all are:

1. Write in longhand: when you scratch out a word, it still exists there on the page. On the computer, when you delete a word it disappears forever. This is important because usually your first instinct is the right one.

2. Minimum number of words to write every day: no “quota.” Sometimes it will be no words. Sometimes it will be 1500.

3. Use any anxiety you have about your writing — or your life — as fuel. Ambition and anxiety: that’s the writer’s life.

4. Never say “sci-fi.” You’ll enrage purists. Call it SF.

5. Don’t dumb down: always write for your top five percent of readers.

6. Never pun your title, simpler is usually better: Lolita turns out to be a great title; couldn’t be simpler.

7. At Manchester (University, where he taught creative writing) my rule is I don’t look at their work. We read great books, and we talk about them … We look at Conrad, Dostoyevsky.

8. When is an idea is worth pursuing in novel-form? It’s got to give you a kind of glimmer.

9. Watch out for words that repeat too often.

10. Don’t start a paragraph with the same word as previous one. That goes doubly for sentences.

11. Stay in the tense.

12. Inspect your “hads” and see if you really need them.

13. Never use “amongst.” Never use “whilst.” Anyone who uses ‘whilst’ is subliterate.

14. Try not to write sentences that absolutely anyone could write.

15. You write the book you want to read. That’s my rule.

16. You have to have a huge appetite for solitude.

Remembering Martin Amis: “It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

May 24th, 2023
Martin Amis: He didn’t smile for the camera … any camera… (Photo: Bryan Appleyard)

Never met Martin Amis in person, but I was a dozen feet away from him eleven years ago at Stanford’s Cemex auditorium – and wrote about it here. “As you get older – and this has to be faced – most writers go off,” said.  “I lay the blame at the feet of medical science.”

He cited W.B. Yeats: “Now I may wither into the truth,” he said. But although occasionally withering, he was far from withered. I wrote about him here and here and here, among other places.

In a puzzling move, he began the evening by recounting long lists of Nazi atrocities – a return to Time’s Arrow.  The subject matter is timeless, he said, and defies “that greasy little word – closure.”  (Fine.  About time someone took that cliché down.) “Rule Number One:  Nobody gets over anything.  It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

He was already thinking about death, and he died on May 19, of esophageal cancer, the same disease that claimed his friend, the author and journalist Christopher Hitchens, in 2011.

From Boyd Tonkin, writing in The Guardian, about the “writer whose acrobatic wit defied gravity and solemnity and who epitomised literary fame in an age of glitz and hype.”

“The writer Martin Amis, who has died aged 73, delighted, provoked, inspired and outraged readers of his fiction, reportage and memoirs across a literary career that set off like a rocket and went on to dazzle, streak and burn for almost 50 years. His scintillating verbal artistry, satirical audacity and sheer imaginative verve at every level from word-choice to plot-shape announced a blazing, once-in-a-generation talent.”

Read the rest here. A few words from a few who knew him. From the journalist and author Bryan Appleyard:

I saw Martin Amis in Brooklyn in 2014 and took this photo (above). I asked him to smile but he said he could not act. He had asked me to bring him a packet of rolling tobacco from London. I took him two packets. He smoked incessantly. In some interviews it looked as if his trousers were on fire. He died of esophageal cancer. He was a dazzling writer and deserves all the tributes and more. RIP

From the Hungarian poet and translator George Szirtes:

It’s oddly shocking to hear of the death of Martin Amis. A certain energy, a bullish certainty, a kind of headlong barrage of wit and Eighties street-wisdom passes with him. As a public figure he was almost more than himself. He was just a few months younger than me and he always seemed young. I met him only once when we were seated next to each other at a dinner in Manchester though I can’t remember what the occasion was. We talked a little about Thomas Hardy‘s poetry and Philip Larkin‘s too. He quoted chunks. He was friendly and mild and sad, possibly rueful. Novelists – did he say poets too? – should stop writing before they get old, he sighed. He was not joking. He had crashed out of critical adulation by then. The new wave of feminist writers had little time for him and his prestige counted against him. The £500,000 advance, the affair of the new teeth (reminds me I am back at the dentist on Monday), the book on Stalin, and the strange Booker-listing of Time’s Arrow, which – for me – was him at his brilliant but preening worst in the worst of all causes, did seem to hollow him out a little. But Money, for example, remains the work of a stunningly vivid writer. There also remains the image of the Fenton-Hitchens-Amis intellectual triumvirate with Fenton, in my view, the most princely of poets and Hitchens the most entertaining and commanding of polemicists. I imagine Clive James and John Fuller standing in the wings. And there also remains the suggestion – whose, I don’t remember – that the Eighties explosion of so-called ‘Martian’ poetry, referred to as Martianism, was so named as an anagram of Martin Amis, either that or (more likely) that it was a reference to Craig Raine‘s book of poems, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979). Much remains in other words. I liked the weary, rueful man at the Manchester dinner table and I do feel a sense of shock that he is gone. A slice of historical voice is gone with him. He was not an old man but a young man grown older.

From the Polish poet, literary critic, translator, and essayist Jerzy Jarniewicz

Martin Amis, author of, among others, London Fields, The Information, and Time’s Arrow, has died; also (although he did not write poems himself) co-founder of the poetic school called the “Martian School.” There is a well-known tale about fools who wanted to see the moon, and when someone finally pointed at it, they looked at the pointing finger. I’d say that Martin Amis was looking at his finger – not because, however, like this fool, he didn’t know that it was pointing at the moon – but because he was more interested in his fingers than blue bodies suspended far away in space. Especially since the father’s generation made him look at the moon for a long time. I wrote about Amis (father and son) in the “Attendance Note,” where you can also find a conversation that we had with Peter Sommer in November 1995.

Scott Timberg and “Boom Times at the End of the World”: the future that none of us wanted

May 15th, 2023
Leading chronicler and champion

“Humans doing the hard jobs on minimum wage while the robots write poetry and paint is not the future I wanted,” wrote architect, satirist, and cartoonist Karl Sharro on Twitter today. It’s not the future anyone wanted, but here we are.

Perhaps no one foresaw our civilizational predicament with such clarity and eloquence as the late award-winning music and cultural critic Scott Timberg.

I’ve written before about the Stanford-born author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (Yale University Press), whose 2019 suicide at the age of 50 dismayed not only his friends and family, but writers, artists, editors, and critics everywhere. (Go here and here.) Now we have a collection of his best essays as well.

“For many of us, Scott’s death revealed uncanny and disturbing connections with his professional life over the last decade, when he emerged as our leading chronicler and champion of creative professionals who had been squeezed and displaced in the ‘culture business,'” writes Ted Gioia in his eloquent introduction to Boom Times at the End of the World, just published by Heyday Books (Berkeley). If you want to read some of his music writing, go to the chapters on Glenn Gould or Gustvo Dudamel. If you want to understand his concern with the collapse of culture and media, you can read his essay, “How the Village Voice and Other Alt-Weeklies Lost Their Voice.” There’s lots to choose from.

Timberg writes:

My path into the creative class – as an observing reporter – was pretty typical. Growing up a middle-class kid, I had no illusion that I’d ever become wealthy, but I had a sense that I could get really good at something if I worked as hard as I could and surrounded myself with what someone once called – in a phrase that now sounds antique – the best that has been thought and said. Mine was a pragmatic, find-a-summer-job, get-Triple-A-and-change-your-oil-regularly kind of family. But there was also a respect for culture. Reading James Joyce‘s Dubliners showed me a new way to see: there was a world behind the world that you could discern if you squinted just right. …

But I’m telling this story not because of what happened to me, or what happened to my friends. … And while the Internet and other digital innovations had taken a huge bite out of some professions – disemboweling the music industry, for instance, though both piracy and entirely legal means – this was about more than just technology. Some of the causes were as new as file sharing; others were older than the nation. Some were cyclical, and would pass in a few years; others were structural and would get worse with time. There was a larger nexus at work – factors, in some cases unrelated ones, that had come together in the first decades of the twenty-first century to eviscerate the creative class.

As someone who has shared his struggles to make a living in the collapsing world of cultural journalism, I wanted to focus in this blogpost on his own journey in “Down We Go Together,” beginning in 2008, the year the housing bubble burst, as he was in Portland. He got the phone call so many of us dread (always assuming we have a house in the first place):

Then my cell phone rang, the face of my wife back home in Los Angeles showing up on its small screen. She didn’t waste time. “The bank,” she said, “is suing us.” She’d woken up to a courier posting a note on our front door. “I’m sorry,” was all he said before taking off. Pulling the photocopied forms off our door – in triplicate – she saw that one of the largest banks in the world had initiated legal action to take our little house from us. …

Timberg describes a world in which supporting players are being forced out of the culture industry, and hence “too much quality art becomes a tree falling in empty woods, and each artist, regardless of temperament, must become his or her own producer, promoter, and publicist.”

“These changes have undermined the way culture has been created for the past two centuries, crippling the economic prospects of not only artists but also the many people who supported and spread their work, and nothing yet has taken its place. The price we ultimately pay is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

The book is on Amazon of course, here – but you can also purchase directly through Heyday here.

Simone Weil: Be careful with words. It may save lives.

May 8th, 2023
Author Down Under: Chris Fleming

Simone Weil’s “Ne recommençons pas la guerre de Troie” was published in Écrits historiques et politiques (Gallimard: 1979, pp.257-8). This post was translated by Australian author and scholar Chris Fleming. He’s done guest post here and here, and we’ve written about him here. Simone Weil actually entered the public domain in 2014, which a good thing for all of us. The more we can spread her words the better. Here are a few:

The Greeks and Trojans massacred one another for ten years on account of Helen. Not one of them, except the amateur warrior Paris, cared one iota about her. All of them agreed in wishing she’d never been born. The person of Helen was so obviously out of scale with this gigantic battle that, in the eyes of all, she was no more than the symbol of what was actually at stake; but what was at stake was never defined by anyone, nor could it be, because it did not exist. Thus, it couldn’t be calculated. Its importance was simply imagined as corresponding to the deaths incurred and the massacres expected. From then on, its importance exceeded any assignable limit. Hector foresaw that his city would be destroyed, his father and brothers massacred, his wife degraded by a slavery worse than death. Achilles knew that he was condemning his father to the miseries and humiliations of a defenceless old age; the populace were aware that their homes would be destroyed by them being so long long absent; yet, none thought the cost was too great, because they were all pursuing a nothingness whose only value was in the price paid for it. When the Greeks began to think of returning to their homes it seemed to Minerva and Ulysses that reminding them of the suf­ferings of their dead comrades would be sufficient to shame them…. Nowadays the popular mind has an explanation for this sombre relentlessness in accumulating useless ruins; it imagines the supposed machinations of economic interests. But there is no need to look so far. In the time of Homer‘s Greeks there were no organized bronze merchants nor a Committee of Blacksmiths. The truth is that in the minds of Homer’s contemporaries, the role which we attribute to mysterious economic oligarchies were attributed to the gods of the Greek mythology. But there is no need of gods or conspiracies to force humans into the most absurd catastrophes. Human nature will suffice.

“We don’t need words to make us stupid.”

For the clear-sighted, there is no more distressing symptom today than the unreal character of most of the conflicts that are emerging. They have even less reality than the war between the Greeks and Trojans. At the heart of the Trojan War there was at least a woman and, what is more, a perfectly beautiful one. For our contemporaries, the role of Helen is played by words with capital letters. If we grasp one of these words, all swollen with blood and tears, and squeeze it, we’ll find that it is empty. Words that have content and meaning are not murderous. If sometimes one of them becomes mixed up with bloodshed, it is rather by accident than by inevitability, and the resulting action is generally limited and efficacious. But when we capitalise words devoid of meaning, then, on the slightest pretext, men will shed streams of blood for them, will pile up ruin upon ruin by repeating them, without effectively grasping anything to which they refer, since what they correspond to possesses no reality, since they mean nothing. In these conditions, the only definition of success is to crush a rivals who claim enemy words; for it is a characteristic of these words that they live in antagonistic pairs. Of course, that all of these words are intrinsically meaningless; some of would have meaning if we took the trouble to define them properly. But a word thus defined loses its capital letter and can no longer serve either as a flag or hold its place amidst the clanking of enemy slogans; it becomes simply a sign to help us grasp some concrete reality, a concrete objec­tive, or method of action. To clarify ideas, to discredit congenitally empty words, and to define the use of others by precise analyses – to do this, strange though it may seem, might be a way of saving human lives.”

Postscript from Chris Fleming: “What first strikes me in this essay is the clarity and moral intensity of Weil’s voice. And this is combined with a kind of analytic rigor which avoids all easy partisanship; there are no set targets in her piece, no free passes or ways in which we can say “they (over there) are the problem.” And what also strikes me, no doubt, is that what she says seems both true and shockingly contemporary: that we are prone to be shamed into conflicts over almost nothing, that we will fight not so much as the result of a just cause, but that the fighting itself will somehow justify that cause during and after the fact – that we will shed blood in defence less of ideals than words, words whose substance turns to vapour upon closer examination.”

In the original French below the fold…

Put Mikhail Iossel, a stranger, and Hannah Arendt into a shaker and what do you get? One odd conversation.

May 4th, 2023

Mikhail Iossel, author of Every Hunter Wants to Know: A Leningrad Life and contributor to The New Yorker, was born in the Soviet Union. Two years after his 1986 arrival the U.S., he began writing in English. Now he writes in both English and Russian … in Montreal. He’s also a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford. All that’s bound to give him an unusual perspective, and sometimes makes for an odd conversation, too. Here’s one brief one:

Recently in a conversation at a social gathering (god knows, I love those), a young man I hadn’t met before told me he wanted to be a prominent American poet.

How prominent? I asked him.

Well, prominent prominent, you know, he replied. Prominent, you know. It’s just a word.

I merely would like to understand the gradations of prominence here, I explained. Prominent to the point of selling out Madison Square Garden with an evening of your poetry – or prominent enough to be a reasonable potential contender for a tenure-track position of an assistant professor of English at East-West Podunk Hollow State College?

The second, he said, after a thought.

Then another man, still young but older than the first, slightly unsteady on his feet and with a drink of scotch in his hand, joined us and, staring off into space meaningfully, said that he found it difficult to love the world as it is, with all the horrible and evil stuff and all the injustice taking place in it.

I don’t have a problem with her, either.

I was kinda quoting Hannah Arendt, if you’d like to know, he added in a somewhat wounded tone, fixing his diffuse gaze on me, when we said nothing in response to that statement of his. Do you have a problem with Hannah Arendt?

I don’t have a problem with Hannah Arendt. I have zero problem with Hannah Arendt. I respect Hannah Arendt.

She also said that one doesn’t always have to speak, I told him, and he immediately took it personally and was up in my face and wanted to know what I meant by that and whether maybe I would like to take it outside.

At that point, his wife, suddenly materializing by his side with an apologetic smile, took him by the elbow and led him away.

One person was there with a dachshund. A very pretty little thing, turbo-charged, toffee-colored. Extremely friendly. It later peed on the floor. I forget the name.

Are Stendhal and Shakespeare ready for the world of AI? Mike Gioia says “yes”!

May 1st, 2023
Bringing Stendhal to the 21st century

Mike Gioia wants to broaden the reach of poetry through digital media. That’s why he created a poetry film studio called Blank Verse Films (you can find them on YouTube here), where he experimented with new, ambitious ways to bring poetry to audiences by adapting it into short films. He also founded a generative AI company called Pickaxe.

Name sound familiar? It should. He is the son poet Dana Gioia, former National Endowment for the Arts chair and former California poet laureate. I’ve written about him countless times on the Book Haven, for example here and here and here. Type in the search box for more.

Mike and I have something important in common: both of us share a love of literature and the humanities. Moreover, we’ve both received Emergent Ventures grants from the Mercatus Center, the creation of Tyler Cowen. Mike is one of the most recently honored by the grant program.

I’m a big advocate of video as a mass education tool and way to reach a broader audience,” he says. “I pushed my to dad to film and publish all the poetry videos on his YouTube channel.” (You can watch them here.) “I’m focused on making super powerful tools like Large Language Models accessible to ordinary people through good, simple design and practical applications.”

From Mike:

I’ll win Book Haven readers’ trust with an uncontroversial opinion: reading Shakespeare is enjoyable and worthwhile. And now I’ll lose you entirely: we should read Shakespeare with AI. 

On set of a comedy pilot, watching the director’s monitor.

Recently, I’ve been reading with the assistance of Large Language Models (abbreviated to LLMs). These are AIs that can process and generate text. 

When I use LLMs to read, I’m still reading. But AI is on the sideline to contextualize anything I want, transform paragraphs into new shapes, or even offer an opinion. LLMs are models trained on the entirety of humanity’s literary output with the goal of “predicting the next token” in any sequence of text. In other words, they’re super intelligent auto-complete systems. It’s surprising how agile these models are with such a narrow mission. They can simplify complex ideas, modernize archaic expressions, and even transform subjective prose into objective statements. This versatility proves invaluable when reading texts that may be challenging due to historical or cultural contexts. 

Take the example of French realist novels. I’ve always loved The Red and the Black by Stendhal, but my less than impeccable knowledge of the Bourbon Restoration in French made me suspicious I was missing context. So I created an AI tool with the instructions: “Please explain any context necessary for a modern reader to better understand the following text from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.” 

Here’s the opening of Stendhal’s novel: 

The little town of Verrières can pass for one of the prettiest in Franche-Comté. Its white houses with their pointed red-tiled roofs stretch along the slope of a hill, whose slightest undulations are marked by groups of vigorous chestnuts. The Doubs flows to within some hundred feet above its fortifications, which were built long ago by the Spaniards, and are now in ruins. Verrières is sheltered on the north by a high mountain which is one of the branches of the Jura. The jagged peaks of the Verra are covered with snow from the beginning of the October frosts. A torrent which rushes down from the mountains traverses Verrières before throwing itself into the Doubs, and supplies the motive power for a great number of saw mills. The industry is very simple, and secures a certain prosperity to the majority of the inhabitants who are more peasant than bourgeois. It is not, however, the wood saws which have enriched this little town. It is the manufacture of painted tiles, called Mulhouse tiles, that is responsible for that general affluence which has caused the façades of nearly all the houses in Verrières to be rebuilt since the fall of Napoleon.

And here’s the context my tool gave me: 

To better understand this passage from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, it is important to consider both the historical context and Stendhal’s literary style.

Historical context:

Mike Gioia directing on set.

–– Franche-Comté: Franche-Comté is a historical region in eastern France, bordering Switzerland. It was an important strategic location between France and the Holy Roman Empire during the 17th and 18th centuries. The region was known for its natural beauty, which Stendhal describes vividly in this passage.

–– The fortifications built by the Spaniards: During the 16th century, Franche-Comté was controlled by Spain as part of their Habsburg territories. Spanish forces constructed numerous fortifications throughout the region, including at Verrières, as a way of establishing their dominance.

This context is several steps more specific and more useful than writing a comparable google query. I was able to get this information within seconds without much effort. 

Now, there’s an obvious objection that using AI to translate classic works degrades the action of reading. This perspective misconstrues the role of AI in reading. In most cases, AI should be seen as an augmentation for an activity rather than a replacement for it. AI reading co-pilots promise to drastically expand the readership of many older literary classics. The opportunity to grow audiences is especially exciting with Shakespeare. While Shakespeare perseveres to become a favorite of anyone who gives him a fair try, for a lot of readers the Elizabethan language is a barrier to entry. Phrased more bluntly, Shakespeare is hard to read for first time readers! When they get it, they love it. But they have to get it first.

I’ve always maintained that the message of poetry is universal. And I’ve done a lot of work to bring poetry to wider audiences. It’s with this same mission I sat down to build an AI-powered Shakespeare Translator on Pickaxe to help young readers enjoy the Bard. The tool allows readers to instantly translate any Shakespearean text into modern English. The tool is not rewriting Shakespeare. It’s offering a plain English explanation for any chunk of language that isn’t transparent to a reader. These are not attempts to supplant the original. They present a simple interpretation of the original passage that maintains the original message and themes, and allows readers to return to the original text with enhanced enjoyment. 

Mike encourages everyone and anyone to try it or use it in classrooms. You can try the Shakespeare translator tool on Pickaxe here. Let us know how it goes.

Postscript: “So how does it go?” I asked. Like greased lightening. Mike Gioia is already in The Guardian, as of a few days ago. From the article: “Those who hate AI are insecure’: inside Hollywood’s battle over artificial intelligence”:

Some recent entrants to the AI industry say that the current technology is being overhyped, and its likely impact, particularly on writers, has been exaggerated.

“When people tell me the studios are going to replace writers with AI, to me, that person has never tried to do anything really difficult with large language models,” said Mike Gioia, one of the executives of Pickaxe, a new Chat GPT-based platform for writers with a few hundred paying customers.

He called the idea that AI could produce full scripts “science fiction”.

“The worst-case scenario for writers is that the size of writers rooms is reduced,” he said. …

Writers have made AI central to their strike in part because “it’s a good story”, Gioia argued and partly because they are much less accustomed to being disrupted by technology than other industry workers.

“A lot of people in post-production have lived through multiple technological revolutions in their fields, but writers haven’t lived through a single one,” he said.

Read the whole thing in The Guardian here.

Robert Harrison to explore “critical frontiers” in Cambridge’s Clark Lectures, May 9-18

April 30th, 2023
Courting adventure and possible disaster

Lecture 1: The Thin Blue Line here.
Lecture 2: Mysteries of the Plainosphere here.
Lecture 3: Tellurian Symbols here.
Lecture 4: On Separation
here .

Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison is the Clark Lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, this year – an important honor. In preparation for the lectures (the theme will be “thresholds”), he had a Q&A interview that was published on the Trinity College website. Read the whole thing here; excerpt below. He says: “The more deeply you explore the western canon, the more you realize how liberating and revolutionary it really is.”

Tell us a bit more about the theme of your lectures: why ‘thresholds’?

Thresholds both separate and relate what they come between. In my Clark Lectures I will examine a variety of thresholds: between the finite and the infinite, the terrestrial and extraterrestrial, the living and the dead, the apparent and the nonapparent. In an essay called “The Psychology of Places” (1910), the British writer and outdoorsman Algernon Blackwood wrote that “the threshold is ever the critical frontier that invites adventure and therefore possible disaster. The psychical aspect of a threshold is essentially thrilling.” He advises campers never to pitch camp on the edge of anything: “put your tent in the wood or out of it but never on the borderland between the two, since that is not a place of rest but of activity.” I choose not to follow his advice in my lectures but to court adventure and possible disaster by seeking out different types of edges where things get critical as well as thrilling…

You wrote Forests: The Shadow of Civilization over 30 years ago now and it has only grown in relevance. How differently would you write it now, if at all?

It’s quite amazing for me to remember how, when I was writing Forests (University of Chicago Press, 2009), most of my friends and colleagues thought I was crazy to pursue such a project and endanger my academic career by defying academic genres and specialization. I was young enough at the time to take that risk, yet even more than that, Forests was a book that wanted to be written. Some books write themselves almost independently of their authors.  At least that is the experience I had during the years in which I labored over this selective history of forests in the western imagination.  I’m sure there are any number of ways Forests could be profitably revised, supplemented, or reconfigured, yet I would not know how to change a word of it, given that I do not really consider myself its author, if by authorship we mean ownership of a book’s contents and manner of expression.

Your work covers what was once called, without challenge or embarrassment, the whole canon of Western literature. Is the idea of such a canon still defensible?

According to the idea of translatio imperii, western civilization has been on a westward course for quite some time. I live at the western edge of the western world, in a place called California.  From this edge, it seems to me that the western canon is poised for “a new birth of freedom,” to quote Abraham Lincoln. It’s not a question of “defending” it so much as rediscovering its astonishing richness and subversive radicality. The more deeply you explore the western canon, the more you realize how liberating and revolutionary it really is.

The Clark Lectures take place in the Winstanley Lecture Theatre. No booking is required. The website here says they’ll be available online. Watch the website space.

Tuesday 9 May at 5pm: The Thin Blue Line

Thursday 11 May at 5pm: Mysteries of the Phainosphere

Tuesday 16 May at 6pm: Tellurian Symbols

Thursday 18 May at 5pm: On Separation

Jean-Marie Apostolidès, a “provocateur … but with kindness,” dead at 79 (Postscript: a student remembers)

April 27th, 2023
Jean-Pierre Dupuy remembers

Jean-Marie Apostolidès died on March 24. We are still living in the post-COVID world where news travels slowly – hence, I just heard the news this morning. (We wrote about him here and here.) French and Italian Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who is also Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the École Polytechnique in Paris, has given his permission to publish his tribute on the Book Haven:

Jean-Marie Apostolidès is dead. As I write these words, my hand is shaking, and I have to swallow back my tears. A little older than him, I never imagined that I would one day have to mourn his loss. This is what being old is like. Either you disappear yourself, and your worries go with you, or you are doomed to face your own condition in that of your fellow men, including your dearest family members and friends, who fade away one after the other. I repeat here almost word for word a thought of Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician that Jean-Marie placed in the Pantheon of his models.

Like me, Jean-Marie arrived at Stanford University in 1987, hailing from Harvard. He was one of the pillars of the French and Italian Department at Stanford. In a university mostly driven by science and technology, the Humanities lose with him one of its most creative, productive, and endearing members. Jean-Marie was many things: a sociologist, a literary critic, a novelist, a playwright, a theater director, an activist and, of course, a teacher. Far from being a jack-of-all-trades, he was fully involved in each of these activities.

There will be tributes, conferences, seminars, devoted to his literary and scientific work. I am not proposing here, in this unprompted testimony which goal is neither to be exhaustive nor analytical, to list all his accomplishments. The source of these few words is my affection for a departed friend.

A work, his magnum opus, stands out from his production as an essayist: Heroism and Victimization. A History of Sensibility published first in French in Paris in 2003, and reissued in 2011, in a second version that he kindly asked me to preface. He diagnosed a change in collective sensitivities, relating to values, behaviors, and mores, moving abruptly from a culture of heroism, inherited from the Romans and Barbarians who founded the West, to a culture of victimization, inherited from Judeo-Christianity. The relevance of this book to understand the transformations that America is undergoing today is blatant.

“One of the pillars of French and Italian at Stanford” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Jean-Marie was a man of the left, but of a libertarian left stretching back to May 1968 and spiced up with shades of social democracy – what was called at the time in France the “Second Left,” which meant it was “non-Marxist.” He was keenly attentive to the excesses of the far left, in particular Guy Debord’s “situationisme” and the recourse to political assassination with the Unabomber, alias Theodore Kaczynski. He translated and prefaced the latter’s manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, reflecting on the thin line that separates this type of literature from the radical critique of industrial society presented, for example, by Ivan Illich, with whom I worked myself.

Jean-Marie was a provocateur, but used provocation with kindness, with no aggressiveness, wishing only to raise awareness and castigate stupidity. When the Marquis de Sade was fashionable in literature departments, he staged Sade’s Letters From Prison in a setting that was old latrines on campus. He got in trouble for that, because some had not grasped or appreciated the humor of this performance.

Jean-Marie loved women. He was a feminist in the traditional sense of the term, campaigning for equality of status, titles and salaries. A course he gave for several years was called “Women in French Cinema.” It attracted hundreds of students. But he witnessed with dismay the progress of “wokism,” “intersectionality” and “cancel culture” which according to him resulted in a “reification” of the great classics of literature or cinema. He saw with sadness that these American inventions were partly derived from French Theory. We shared the same fascination for the most metaphysical film ever made: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I very much hope that Jean-Marie had not heard before he died of the latest Hollywood project, which is said to consist of reversing the genders of the two protagonists. Madeleine, the fictitious woman, would become a man of flesh and blood, and Scottie, the transfixed lover, a woman. The shock would have hastened his death.

Jean-Marie was raised as a Catholic. He even considered becoming a priest. He broke up with the Catholic Church early and retraced the circumstances of this break-up in his moving book, L’Audience (2001). I have no doubt that the God of his childhood, if he exists, will welcome him nonetheless with mercy. Either way, he will remain a living presence in the minds of those of us who knew and loved him.

A postscript from Maria Adle Besson on April 28: Like Jean-Pierre Dupuy, I have tears in my eyes and a lump in the throat. When Jean-Marie Apostolidès arrived at Stanford, I had just been admitted in the PhD program at Stanford. From the first day in class, he stunned me. He challenged me to think anew. He shaped my understanding of societal, political, literary, economic, psychological phenomena. A true “Maître à penser,” he enabled me to see evolutions and links, he opened perspectives, he helped me develop critical thinking. A university professor “à l’ancienne”, he did not hesitate to challenge all his students to work harder, to think deeper, to read widely, well beyond literature, to see films, plays, exhibitions, and be self-demanding.

For my PhD exams, I chose the 17th Century and Theatre, because he was the 17th Century expert at Stanford. (He could have taught any century). He could take any work, ten times read since childhood, Le Misanthrope, Phedre, Andromaque (I remember his saying “I would have given an arm to be able to write this scene…” And suddenly the play was lit and revealed its multiple facets.

In 1981 he left for Harvard and advised me to turn to René Girard as PhD advisor. I left the same year for Paris in the exchange program with Ecole Normale Supérieure.

When my book came out in 1999, I sent it to him. He wrote me a wonderful two-page letter, telling me he found it deep, interesting and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. He urged me to continue writing – “ça sonne juste et on te découvre en lisant ce livre. Il y a des pépites dans ton livre que tu dois creuser dans d’autres. Tu as tellement de choses à dire. Puise dans ton enfance, en Iran et ailleurs… Relis Proust.” And to encourage me to work, he insisted, “Tu sais, la beauté ça passe, mais une femme intelligente reste toujours attirante.”

He was the epitome of the intellectual, while a specialist of cinema, theatre, literature, art, tapisserie, a bon vivant and an astute observer of society. He loved good food (he was himself a gourmet cook), wine, women, classical music but also Charles Aznavour songs, which he knew how to sing by heart. One of the times I saw him in Paris, at a dinner with his wife Danielle Trudeau and a friend of theirs, he went to get his computer and played “Pour Essayer de Faire une Chanson” then “La Salle et la Terrasse” (“une vraie pièce de théâtre” he mused). Danielle, also an author and a university professor, chided him for listening to such “light” songs. He was the first intellectual to find depth in Tintin and write a psychoanalysis of Hergé’s chef-d’oeuvres, titled Les Métamorphoses de Tintin. Well before philosopher Michel Serres and others.

I am forever indebted to Jean-Marie Apostolidès. In view of current societal changes, not a week passes when I do not think of him, wonder at his prescience, and do not thank destiny to have crossed the path of this brilliant thinker, professor and author. I had hoped he would stay alive a long time, giving me the occasion to write a Proustian books that would make him proud of me, and dedicate it to him.

 Postscript on May 24: John Sanford’s obituary for Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences is here. An excerpt:

“He was a true freethinker … who provocatively critiqued social and institutional norms,” said Christy Pichichero, a former student of Apostolidès’ who is now an associate professor of French and history at George Mason University and a Stanford Humanities Center fellow. “He brought something entirely unique and irreplaceable to the Stanford community.”

When asked about his diversity of interests in a 2010 interview with Post-Scriptum, a journal published by the University of Montreal, Apostolidès responded: “Peut-être l’unité de mon travail ne sera-t-elle perceptible qu’après ma mort.” (“Perhaps the unity of my work will only be perceptible after my death.”)

His goal? “To raise awareness and castigate stupidity” (Photo: L.A. CIcero)

Coming this weekend: “A Company of Authors” celebrates its 20th year!

April 20th, 2023
Our genial host Peter Stansky

Stanford’s resident George Orwell expert, Prof. Peter Stansky, hosts his annual “A Company of Authors” zoom event this Saturday, April 21, from 1 to 5 p.m. “A Company of Authors” gives you a chance to hear about this year’s latest offerings by Stanford authors. Tune in for the books that interest you, or stay for the whole afternoon! See the poster below for the line-up of books and speakers.

Registration is open and the link to the event page (where registration can be found) is here.  Feel free to share this link with your friends and networks. 

I’ll be moderating a panel, so I’ll look forward to seeing you there! 

And if you can’t need the iddy-biddy writing – you can go to the website to read, here.

George and Ann Smiley: “one of the strangest marriages in fiction”?

April 13th, 2023

Spy novelist John le Carré‘s anti-hero George Smiley is “arguably the most memorable character in modern fiction,” writes Rosa Lyster in her article “George and Ann” in the current Gawker, but comparatively little is said about Smiley and his wife Ann, “which plays out over the five novels where George Smiley appears as a central figure and is one of the weirdest portraits of a marriage ever committed to the page.” Lyster adds “it’s nice to think that le Carré’s portrayal of their marriage is not given the attention it is due because it is so strange, to the degree that if you start talking about it you will never stop.” Want to watch it? Just make sure you see the Alec Guinness, Patrick Stewart, and Siân Phillips version! The performances are matchless.


Alec Guinness as Smiley: “everyone in the world has an Ann.”

“Here is George attempting to interrogate Karla [i.e., the KGB agent whose chase is the central plotline of Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People]. “These two geniuses sit across from each other under a broken fan in the Delhi jail where Karla has been briefly detained after ‘the San Francisco operation’ has been blown and another KGB agent (referred to throughout as ‘Brother Rudnev,’ which is not important but still a nice treat for those of us who appreciate le Carré’s high, ridiculous style) is busily denouncing him in Moscow. Smiley tells Karla that he should defect because if he goes back to Moscow he will either be shot or put in jail. He tells him that he should defect because he is ‘an old man,’ and because surely it is evident that his faith in the system has been misplaced. Nothing. Then, who does he start talking to Karla about? Why, Ann! Ann. ‘As it was, the next thing I knew, I was talking about Ann…not about my Ann, not in as many words. About his Ann. I assumed he had one. I had asked myself … what would a man think of in such a situation, what would I? And I came up with a subjective answer: his woman.’

Siân Phillips as an unforgettable Ann

“Still nothing, but as anyone who believes they understand the resolution of these three novels knows, the Ann line of questioning is the one that ultimately leads to Karla’s defeat/defection. Thinking about who Karla loves and why becomes George’s chosen mode of attack and without attempting to paraphrase one of the most complicated plots on earth, this approach works. To George, it is self-evident that everyone in this world has an Ann, someone they love beyond all reason and would do anything for even when the rewards are dubious or non-existent. This belief is repeatedly exposed as false throughout the novels, which are full of people who don’t really love anyone and who are cheating on their pissed-off wives with exhausted violinists, but George sticks to it regardless.”

Lyster concludes: “These are spy novels, but there is a strong case to be made for them being romance novels as well, or at least ones that present a mortifyingly recognizable picture of what it’s like to not be able to live without someone, and to see the world and yourself through their eyes first. There are a lot of books that will confirm your sense that being in love is one of the most embarrassing things that can ever happen to a human being, but I can’t think of that many that go on to persuasively demonstrate that this state of abjection is to be sought out not only because it is exhilarating and consuming and makes you feel like a demon, but because it makes you smarter and better at your job, whether that job is being a spymaster negotiating the end of empires or a woman who has in her time lost her cool over someone to the extent of writing poems about it. This is one of the most comforting things Ican think of.”

Fascinating. Read the whole thing here.

Patrick Stewart as Karla: he loves someone too.

The wild parakeets of Palo Alto

April 8th, 2023

William Wang is part of the information technology team over at the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, but on his way to work he had an experience much older and wilder than any technology. So he wrote to the Book Haven.

Here’s how it happened: As he crossed the intersection of Loma Verde and Alma, he recalled: “I heard a strange bird call and saw a flock of these guys up in a redwood. I didn’t bother getting closer since they were high up, but after I got in my car to go to work and stopped by a shorter tree next to the redwood, I looked up and saw a bunch of them with their green feathers.”

“A local bird rescue has one of the individuals from this supposed flock, and it’s described as a Cherry Head/hybrid, so I’m guessing it’s half parakeet and half conure.”

Half parakeet, half conure (Photos: William Wang)

He continued, “I found your blog post from 2020 after doing a little research and figured I’d send you photos and sentence or two about my sighting of the critters. They are quite photogenic, but unfortunately I was in a rush to get to work so I didn’t have time to stick around and get a better shot.”

He found the Book Haven post from three years ago: “The wild parrots Telegraph Hill are famous – but have you seen the parrots of Palo Alto?”

From the post:

How Did They Get Here?
They were brought here to be sold as pets in the exotic pet trade. The U.S. was the largest importer of birds in the world before the government banned the trade of wild exotic birds in 1992.

How Did They Get Out?
The founders of the wild flock of conures either escaped or were released.

So what about the Palo Alto birds? They are said to be escapees from Monette’s Pet Shop on California Avenue. I remember it well from years ago. According to one post, a few took shelter in trees just on the south side of Oregon Expressway. Could these be these rugged birds?

Beware! Beware! They are not as innocuous as they might seem:

“Years ago there was a flock of about a dozen who were all over the place in our city. Two local churches had to have work done on their roofs to evict the parrot flock from carving out little caves in the eaves.”

And this: “Many years ago we heard the sound of ripping wood in our attic. I thought it was some aggressive rodent, but when I took a look a saw… a conure I guess making a nest !?!?”

One of the best nonfiction books of all time? Join us for Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” on April 11!

April 5th, 2023

Please join us for a discussion of Virginia Woolf‘s 1929 A Room of One’s Own at 7 p.m. (PST) on Tuesday, April 11, in Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center, 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus.

The Guardian called the book “a landmark in feminist thought and a rhetorical masterpiece” and rated it one of the top 100 non-fiction books of all time. Read about that here.

According to a contemporary review in The Los Angeles Times: “If you miss this book, which is profound and subtle and gently ironic and beautifully written, you will have missed an important reading experience.” Another Look will consider the work’s legacy a century later. The Bloomsbury author’s iconic book, an extended essay, is in public domain and widely available.

Panelists will include: Stanford Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, author, director of Another Look, host of the radio talk show and podcast series “Entitled Opinions,” and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and Stanford Prof. Tobias Wolff, one of America’s leading writers, a founding director of Another Look, and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts.

Constance Solari is a writing coach and the author of four novels, including 2012’s Sophie’s Fire: The Story of Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat. Maria Florence Massucco, is a PhD candidate in Italian Studies who specializes in the 20th century novel. You’ll remember her from our discussion of Dorothy Strachey‘s Olivia.

Join us in person or virtually, but please register here. Or scan the QR code. We look forward to seeing you on April 11th! It’s going to be a great discussion.

“Jewish and Russian – not the same! Say you’re Jewish next time! It’s better! And good luck to you in Ukraine!” Poet/translator Nina Kossman’s convo with a stranger at 35,000 feet.

March 27th, 2023

Russian poet Nina Kossman and a stranger sat next to each other on a recent flight from New York to Prague, en route to Ukraine. We’ve written about the U.S.-based writer’s translations of Marina Tsvetaeva here, but that was in a far less fraught time. A few minutes’ conversation between the two women laid bare the ongoing challenges of overlapping ethnicities, the terrible war, and the lifelong plight of the émigré. It went like this:

The woman in the seat next to me said something I didn’t understand right away. Something about a belt. I was thinking about something else, so I was a bit slow to react. Ah, a seatbelt! Is this my seatbelt or yours? I pointed at my seatbelt, already clasped on me, and then at hers, hanging from under her armrest.

Nina Kossman reading from her poems

“Ah!” she said, “Okay!” Her accent – the reason I didn’t understand her right away – sounded very familiar to me. “Do you speak Polish?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “And you? Where you from?” she said.

“I’m from the country that I’m sure you don’t like,” I said.

“Russia?” she guessed.

“Yes,” I said. “I was born in Russia. But I live here.”

“Why I don’t like?” she exclaimed with that mix of deep feeling and the hyper-drama I’m used to seeing in Eastern Europeans and which I notice in myself, too, once in a while.

“Russian people want war. So war.”

It sounded like a statement rather than a question, therefore I said, “The government wants the war, not the people. The people who approve of this war are just brainwashed.”

A very loud, emotional tirade ensued, and I suggested we not discuss politics. “I don’t want to fight with you while we are flying over the ocean.”

“You Russian,” she said. Again, it sounded like an assertion rather than a question, therefore I said, “Not really, although it’s true that I was born there.”

“What’s your last name?”

Ah, I thought, now I really feel like I am going to Eastern Europe. I knew what would follow my telling her my last name. Only in Russia and Eastern Europe I expect this question about my last name to be followed by “Not Russian,” and an instant later, by contemptuous “Jew?” Years ago, when I was a member of the now defunct PEN chapter “PEN/ Writers in Exile,” its Hungarian-born president never missed an opportunity to mispronounce my last name as “Koshman,” with barely concealed contempt, often followed by “Why is someone with the last name Koshman claiming to be Russian?”

That was in New York, where you don’t expect this sort of thing to happen, and it might be worth adding that the lady in question was not your usual illiterate antisemite but someone who knew every European writer personally and signed every PEN letter protesting the imprisonment of writers no matter where in the world the imprisonment took place, and herself was no lightweight as an author of critical studies of Hungarian literature as well as a literary translator. To prevent our conversation from taking the familiar route, I said calmly, “I’m Jewish, not Russian. Not ethnically Russian, that is.”

“Ah,” she said. “Then you not guilty. Not guilty of Russia war.”

“Right, I’m not responsible for this war – and not only because I’m Jewish and not Russian. “

“So why you say you Russian? Say ‘I Jewish,’ then no one thinks you guilty of this war.”

“In America, I’m seen as a Russian,” I say. “Being Jewish is a nationality only in Russia and Eastern Europe. In the rest of the world, and certainly in the U.S., you’re seen as Jewish if you go to a synagogue at least a couple times a year, that is, if you identify as a Jew, at least a Jew culturally, because here” – we were leaving the U.S., so I felt that “here” needed a clarification – ”in the U.S.,” I added, “Judaism is a religion, not a nationality as it is in Russia or Eastern Europe.”

“NO!” she said, with more feeling than I thought was necessary. “No! Say you Jewish, not Russian, then no one thinks you guilty. You not guilty of this war!”

“Whatever,” I said. “Perhaps we shouldn’t have this conversation here, just so we can have a peaceful flight.”

“You do not understand me! I say ‘Jewish – good!’ Not bad!”

“Okay,” I said, “Okay, okay.”

But we were not finished, because when a short pause during which she sat with her eyes closed was over, she said: “Tell me! Why you fly to Praga [Prague] now?”

“I’m flying to Prague just because I can’t fly straight to Ukraine. No passenger planes are flying to Ukraine, as you know.”

“I know!”

“Good,” I said, hoping this would be enough to end our conversation on a peaceful note.

I was wrong again. She sat in silence for a minute, and then said: “But why you go to Ukraine?”

“I want to work with animals that have been traumatized by the war.”

“But if you live in America, you can’t work in Ukraine! You need special papers to work there! Work papers! It’s another country! To work in another country, you need work papers!”

“I am not going to work for money. I’m going as a volunteer. Volontyor,” I used the Russian form of the word, thinking it might sound like Polish. “I wouldn’t work for money in a country at war.”

“Ah, you go there to help! Not to work!”


“That’s good!” she said Good luck!”

“Thank you,” I replied.

“My mother was a teacher of Russian in Poland. She went to Moscow many times. She said beautiful city! I wanted to see it but now I will never see it. Because of this war. Moscow is beautiful, right?”

“In a way.”

“But Leningrad is more beautiful. I always wanted to see it. Only if Putin dies! But he is only 70! And he has good Jewish doctors to keep him alive! War will end when he dies.”

“I hope it won’t be that long. But you never know.”

“Never know! That’s right! He wants to make the Soviet Union like in the old days. You know Poland was like number sixteen republic? It had fifteen republics – and Poland was sixteen!”

“Yes, I know.”

“It was like a train – one car, another car, Ukraina, Latvia, Belorussia, Estonia, Lithuania, fifteen republics, fifteen cars – and Poland car number sixteen! And after Ukraina, he will want to take Poland – to get his train back!”

“But Poland is part of NATO, so he won’t dare.”

“NATO is his fear! He sees NATO even where it is not!”

“Yes,” I said, “it’s a crazy fear of his.”

She touched my armrest gently.

“Jewish and Russian – not the same! Say you’re Jewish next time! It’s better! And good luck to you in Ukraine!”

“Thank you,” I said again. Like a real American, I’ve learned to say “thank you” to avoid saying anything substantial.

“I sleep now.”

“Okay,” I said, careful not to add “thank you” one more time.

She leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. I tried to sleep, too, but nothing came of it, so I took out a piece of paper and a pencil and jotted down our conversation, while every word we had said was still fresh in my memory.

“Everything’s about the economy of love”: Remembering Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić (1949-2023)

March 19th, 2023
Ugrešić with Daniel Medin and a be-antlered fox in Bergen. Photo: Alisa Ganieva.
In happier times: Ugrešić with Prof. Daniel Medin of the American University of Paris, and an antlered fox in Bergen. Photo: Alisa Ganieva.

The Croatian writer and Neustadt winner Dubravka Ugrešić died two days ago, on March 17, at her home in Amsterdam, surrounded by family. She was 73. I interviewed her at the inaugural Bergen Literary Festival in Norway, 2019. That interview was published in Music & Literature here. We talked about the break up of Yugoslavia, we spoke about the hate campaign against her and how she became one of the region’s many scapegoats.

But she also spoke the relationships between men and women, and, as the biographer of the French theorist René Girard, I couldn’t help but see a mimetic thread in her conversations. An excerpt from that interview:

CH: Something you said that I think is very true: “That through women, men find their way to other men.”

DU: Let us be fair, men are not the only ones who, consciously or unconsciously, manipulate. However, it is fair to say that there are some examples of women in history who attracted men because they were known as mistresses of other men. Love is often a struggle for territory and power, a social game. Literary life is rich in such examples. One such example is Lily Brik, wife of Russian futurist Osip Brik and mistress of Vladimir Mayakovsky. Both of her men died, and she carried on, living with another two men who were honored by inheriting “the territory” previously owned by two famous men. Such liaisons dangereuses are not foreign to human nature, but Brik’s story happened in the time of sexual liberation—remember Alexandra Kollontai! Also later, during the Communist era, sexual privacy was the only territory of freedom that was left.

CH: The comment we’re discussing is another remark from the character of the Widow in [her novel] Fox, who was speaking about Alma Mahler. You wrote—or rather, the Widow said—“her main talent was a deep and abiding knowledge of the economy of love.” What else might she had said that you didn’t have time to write down?

DU: Everything’s about the economy of love. When I see men—how they are natural, relaxed, and comfortable in the company of other men—I realize that it will take much longer for both genders to become emancipated from God’s given roles. Many men see the world like military life—that is the strongest human meme, where women stay at home and wait for men to come back from glorious battles with other men. Or, to use an analogy that is a bit more current, many men see the world like a football game, where they play with each other in order to play against each other. Why do men never wonder why women are so obviously excluded from so many zones of public life? Why doesn’t one of them ever protest that he will not participate in the conference, discussion, forum, or event unless the number of participants is equally divided: half women and half men? Why? Because they don’t see anything unusual in the landscape they are so used to.

Read more at Music & Literature here.

A piece of history for sale: author William Kennedy sells the townhouse where “Legs” Diamond was shot.

March 11th, 2023
67 Dove Street – it’s the brown townhouse, hidden behind the trees.

Want to buy a unique piece of real estate with some history behind it? Try this: the home where Irish-American gangster “Legs” Diamond was gunned down in 1931. The townhouse is currently owned by the novelist William Kennedy, Pulitzer prizewinning author of Ironwood and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. He is also the author of the classic novel Legs, the first book that launched his renowned “Albany Cycle.”

You may remember our recent Another Look event on Bill Kennedy’s Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game in 2021. You may also remember my interview with him, the “At the Mercy of My Passions and Opinions,” over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

Paul Grondahl, Director of the New York State Writers Institute and a columnist for the Albany Times Union tells the story. An excerpt:

Bill Kennedy: He’s part of the house’s history, too!

It is a stop on local history walking tours. Historic Albany Foundation attached a plaque to the brick exterior of the 19th-century building that operated as a rooming house in Diamond’s era.

Novelist William Kennedy bought the Center Square property in 1984, when Francis Ford Coppola planned to make a movie out of Kennedy’s novel about the legendary bootlegger and cold-blooded killer.

That movie never happened, but Kennedy used the rowhouse forwriting and entertaining. He wrote parts of several novels at 67 Dove St. The years piled up. Now, he is 95 and his wife, Dana, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.


Kennedy and his wife welcomed a who’s who of notable authors for nightcaps in the front parlor after New York State Writers Institute events, including Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, William Styron, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, George Plimpton, Stephen Sondheim, August Wilson, and Russell Banks.

If you stopped by in the morning or afternoon, you might hear the staccato clacking of Kennedy pounding the keys on a 1930s vintage L.C. Smith & Corona manual typewriter positioned on a glass coffee table in front of a sofa in the back parlor.

He hammered away at the keys and had so many stacks of heavy research books piled up on the coffee table that the glass top broke. He got the glass replaced and kept writing there.

He wrote much of his 1988 novel, Quinn’s Book, and his 1992 novel, Very Old Bones, as well as portions of others in his Albany cycle at 67 Dove St.

“I loved the neighborhood because it had everything I needed,” he said.

It’s a piece of history going for just shy of half a million dollars. Chump change in California.

Read the whole story here.

“It’s translating, not sex,” he said. “You can do it with more than one person.”

March 6th, 2023
Understatement as talisman

When Clare Cavanagh was first invited by a mutual friend to translate the poems of Adam Zagajewski, who died two years ago this month, how did she respond? “I froze, answered ‘No,’ and hung up the phone.” She was known for her translations of Stanisław Barańczyk, and so the suggestion seemed somehow disloyal. “How could I work without Stanislaw? How could I translate the great Zagajewski on my own? I told my husband, who said I was an idiot. ‘It’s translating, not sex,’ he said. ‘You can do it with more than one person.’ Adam loved that line.”

Cavanagh signing books in Kraków

You can read Clare’s article, “Working with the poet who told us to ‘Praise the Mutilated World,'” over at the Washington Post here. I love Clare Cavanagh’s writing – frank, unpretentious, and yet unpretentiously insightful. The occasion for the article: the great Polish poet’s latest collection, his final volume, True Life, is out in English this month.

Why did Adam approach her through an intermediary? “I discovered the reason for Adam’s shyness only long after. I’d published a scholarly book on the poet Osip Mandelstam that year, and Adam had actually read it. I’m still a bit shocked by that decades later,” she writes.

“He’d thought I would be some remote, imposing professor and was afraid to call me himself. This too continues to shock me. He was a great Polish poet after all, and I was just some Slavist in Wisconsin. But he knew I loved Mandelstam. And he knew I’d been translating Wisława Szymborska with his longtime friend, the great poet and translator Stanislaw Barańczak. So he thought it was worth a try.”

Again, read it all here. It’s worth it. I don’t want to spoil the stories for you, and I’d be tempted to tell them all.

I love Robert Pinsky’s writing, too, and his tribute to Adam, “A Poet Whose Tone Was Personal and Whose Vision Was Vast in The New York Times is here. It’s a retrospective as well as a review of True Life. An excerpt:

Poet, friend, and translator

“Proper names occur in many of the poems, sometimes the innocent-looking place name (Drohobycz, Belzec) of an extermination ghetto, sometimes the name of a crucial, renowned or emblematic victim, such as the artist and writer Schulz, or Jean Améry, repeatedly tortured, known for his writing about sadism as the defining, essential nature of fascism, not incidental to it.

“The poems of True Life do not denounce these horrors explicitly, but seemingly allude to them almost as if in passing. The surface calm avoids the customary postures of condemnation; this poetry has a blade of penetration that is less forgiving and more demanding than ordinary, rhetorical righteousness. To put that point another way, Zagajewski by implication doubts the reassurance of “never again” or “never forget.” Slogans cannot correct the absence of moral imagination.

“An extreme of truth-telling.”

“The poems are at an extreme of truth-telling. They deploy understatement like a talisman as they enter the grandly menacing yet oblivious borderland of our worst human doings. Where does this manner, with its indictment by reason, come from? Zagajewski invokes and declines a particular intellectual-historical source in a poem of 11 short lines, entitled “Enlightenment.”

Czeslaw Milosz wrote in his introduction to Zagajewski’s 1985 selected poems in English, “Tremor” (translated by Renata Gorczynski), that Zagajewski, “taking the lead in the poetry of my language,” gives “living proof that Polish literature is energy incessantly renewed against all probabilities.”

Robert Pinsky extends a line of thought I advance in my own book, Czesław Miłosz: An American Life: “The poetry of Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wisława Szymborska in English translation has been a powerful strand in American poetry. In a tradition Zagajewski inherited, those three senior poets, in their different ways, by necessity engage historical realities. That mission has mattered to American writers.”

Read the whole thing at The New York Times here.

Tyler Cowen: “I’ve never been convinced that AI will rise up and destroy the world or turn us into paper clips.”

February 26th, 2023

Economist Tyler Cowen, is always quotable – even when he doesn’t try to be. For the three or four of you out there who haven’t heard of him, he’s professor of economics at George Mason University and the director of the Mercatus Center, a free-market research center and think tank. He is also the co-founder of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, and he’s host of the podcast series Conversations with Tyler – he interviewed my humble self some time ago here

Check out this Q&A interview with Jon Baskin in “Progress Studies” in the current issue of The Point. The subject is artificial intelligence. When I saw the quote about paper clips, I knew this would have to be a Book Haven post. A couple excerpts that carry a lot of pith and punch:

“People are right to feel angst. But it’s also an opportunity.”

JB: What kind of benefits do you see AI delivering? Will it bring us some of those big public benefits that you’ve talked about have been missing since 1973?

TC: I think within two years or so, AI will write about half of all computer code, and it will write the boring half. So programmers will be freed up to be more creative, or to try new areas where the grunt work is more or less done for them. That will be significant. Of course, the code has to be edited and checked, there will be errors. But it writes so much of it for you so quickly. And I think that will lead indirectly to some fantastic breakthroughs and creativity of programming.

And then, individuals will have individualized tutors in virtually every area of human knowledge. That is something that’s not thirty years off—I think it’s within one year, when GPT-4 is released, or when Anthropic is released. So imagine having this universal tutor. It’s not perfect, but much better than what you had before. We’ll see how these things are priced and financed. But that, to me, is a very significant breakthrough.

JB: Obviously, there’s a lot of anxiety among, I guess, humanities people, broadly speaking, but also people like the effective-altruism crowd thinking about the ways that AI could go terribly wrong. Do you think those worries have merit? How do we create a market and situation where we are able to advance the beneficial parts of AI and limit some of the potential damages?

TC: I’ve never been convinced by the scenario that the AI will rise up and destroy the world, or turn us into paper clips. [Read about how paper clips could bring about the end of the world here. – ED] I just don’t see the evidence. It doesn’t interact with the physical world in a way where it can do that. It doesn’t think. It’s a predictive language model. 

You know, the humanities are going to have a lot of problems. So people are right to feel angst. But it’s also an opportunity. So far the most visible problem is students using GPT to write their term papers, right? I don’t know how we’ll deal with that. I don’t pretend to have the answer. I think there’ll be other problems related to misinformation, or maybe people treating it like a religious oracle. Every technological advance has difficulties, and this one will too.


Not a happy kind of guy.

JB: I want to talk a little bit about Tolstoy. Max Weber, in his famous 1917 lecture “Science as a Vocation,” says that Tolstoy is the person who most sharply raises the question of whether the advances of science and technology have any meaning that go beyond the purely practical and technical. And he quotes Tolstoy saying that, basically, for the person who puts progress at the center of their life, life can never be satisfying, because they’ll always die in the middle of progress. How would you respond to this charge from Tolstoy about progress?

TC: I’m pretty happy and Tolstoy was not, would be my gut-level response. 

I would put it this way. If there was backwards time travel, and you had to send me back to his time, apart from satisfying some historical curiosity, I would be terrified at that prospect. Life in Tolstoy’s Russia was quite horrible. Even for the intelligentsia, never mind the peasants who had been recently freed from being serfs. And then that’s followed by Soviet Communism, as the reaction against how bad things were under the tsar. That’s awful. Give me Australia and Denmark and northern Virginia. Ask random immigrants or would-be immigrants: Would you rather migrate to Fairfax County or, you know, to Tolstoy’s Russia? It’s not even a choice. I don’t think you’d get many people going to Tolstoy’s Russia. And that, to me, suggests the importance of progress.

Read the whole thing here.

Salman Rushdie: “I’ve always tried very hard not to adopt the role of a victim.”

February 16th, 2023
Salman Rushdie before the attack, with friend Abbas Raza in Brixen, in the Italian Alps.

It was the worst Valentine’s Day present ever: on 14 February 1989, the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini called for the novelist Salman Rushdie‘s death. The author’s crime? A brilliant book written with his characteristic wit, erudition, and playfulness called The Satanic Verses. Blasphemy, said the grim and fanatical ayatollah. Rushdie went into hiding, but as the years went by, he inevitably relaxed his guard and began to live more openly, appearing at speaking engagements, parties, P.E.N. meetings, and universities. It seemed he would beat the rap, until last August 11, when an rootless nobody named Hadi Matar attacked him at a speaking engagement in Chautauqua, NY. This month, a fascinating article in the New Yorker, “The Defiance of Salman Rushdie” by David Remnick, discusses his life under a fatwa, his injuries in last year’s attack (he’s lost an eye and the use of a hand), his books, and his indefatigable courage.


Did he think it had been a mistake to let his guard down since moving to New York? “Well, I’m asking myself that question, and I don’t know the answer to it,” he said. “I did have more than twenty years of life. So, is that a mistake? Also, I wrote a lot of books. The Satanic Verses was my fifth published book—my fourth published novel—and this is my twenty-first. So, three-quarters of my life as a writer has happened since the fatwa. In a way, you can’t regret your life.”


Whom does he blame for the attack?

“I blame him,” he said.


At this meeting and in subsequent conversations, I sensed conflicting instincts in Rushdie when he replied to questions about his health: there was the instinct to move on—to talk about literary matters, his book, anything but the decades-long fatwa and now the attack—and the instinct to be absolutely frank. “There is such a thing as P.T.S.D., you know,” he said after a while. “I’ve found it very, very difficult to write. I sit down to write, and nothing happens. I write, but it’s a combination of blankness and junk, stuff that I write and that I delete the next day. I’m not out of that forest yet, really.”

He added, “I’ve simply never allowed myself to use the phrase ‘writer’s block.’ Everybody has a moment when there’s nothing in your head. And you think, Oh, well, there’s never going to be anything. One of the things about being seventy-five and having written twenty-one books is that you know that, if you keep at it, something will come.”

Had that happened in the past months?

Rushdie frowned. “Not really. I mean, I’ve tried, but not really.” He was only lately “just beginning to feel the return of the juices.”

How to go on living after thinking you had emerged from years of threat, denunciation, and mortal danger? And now how to recover from an attack that came within millimetres of killing you, and try to live, somehow, as if it could never recur?

He seemed grateful for a therapist he had seen since before the attack, a therapist “who has a lot of work to do. He knows me and he’s very helpful, and I just talk things through.”

The talk was plainly in the service of a long-standing resolution. “I’ve always tried very hard not to adopt the role of a victim,” he said. “Then you’re just sitting there saying, Somebody stuck a knife in me! Poor me. . . . Which I do sometimes think.” He laughed. “It hurts. But what I don’t think is: That’s what I want people reading the book to think. I want them to be captured by the tale, to be carried away.”

Many years ago, he recalled, there were people who seemed to grow tired of his persistent existence. “People didn’t like it. Because I should have died. Now that I’ve almost died, everybody loves me. . . . That was my mistake, back then. Not only did I live but I tried to live well. Bad mistake. Get fifteen stab wounds, much better.”

Read the whole thing here.

Dana Gioia: running the long race

February 10th, 2023

A first, incandescent review for Dana Gioia‘s brand new collection, Meet Me At The Lighthouse (Graywolf). Seth Wieck‘s write-up, “Dana Gioia’s Bright Twilight,” is in included the newest issue of The Front Porch Republic, a blog (and book publisher) launched in 2009 with contributors, known as “porchers,” focusing on concepts of community, place, decentralism, and conservation. And sometimes they talk about poetry.

Poetry is a profession that bears well into the seventh decade of life and beyond – better than being an astronaut or Olympic gymnast, or pretty much any other non-literary profession. Dana is playing the long game, and he isn’t missing a beat, metrical or metaphorical. As Wieck writes, “Rather, he’s heeding Eliot’s warning. Don’t turn aside. Take up your lantern and charge into the darkness. Sing all the way into the afterlife. Gioia does not linger on the threshold of death; he wants to be our guide through the Inferno and beyond.” (Please be reassured, gentle reader, Dana is in the best of health.)

An excerpt:

“The book closes with the 14-page poem “The Underworld,” giving it a weight no other poem in the collection receives. The 17 seven-line stanzas return us to the afterlife with which the book opened. However, instead of a lively jazz club, now the ‘you’ is seated on a silent train commute to the Underworld. It flips the tropes of those ancient epics where a hero interviews a long train of shades, hoping to garner wisdom. In Gioia’s Underworld, ‘You’ speak to no one. There are no fantastical creatures, ‘no triple-headed dogs…no Titans bound in chains.’ There are no malebolges stuffed with squirming sufferers. There is only the commute full of dead-eyed passengers isolated from one another, turned to stone as if the Gorgon had gazed back from their morning mirrors, or the screens in their palms.

Gioia at the Sierra Poetry Festival (Photo: Radu Sava)

The train never quite arrives anywhere, yet all the passengers are anxious to get there. For those people like Tennyson and Baudelaire—like me on the days I get off work and succumb to sitting vacantly in a room with my family, each with a face to a respective screen, absence substituting absinthe—for those, the Underworld, Hell, is already here. As Gioia reminds us in the poem’s epigraph, quoting The Aeneid, ‘Descending into Hell is easy.’ The sentence doesn’t stop here, however. If we were to heed Gioia’s guidance and work our way back through the poets, the tradition, the wisdom handed down to us through the ages (with no lack of God’s providence in the process), then we’d arrive back at Virgil and finish the line: ‘Descending into Hell is easy / But to return, and view the cheerful skies, / In this the task and mighty labor lies.’”

“As I mount midlife—Tennyson’s rocky walls—and attempt to gather my bearings for what’s coming in the next 40 years, I find fewer and fewer people have been able to run the long race. The energy and ambition and love I had in my youth is running low. Wouldn’t it be easier to fold my hands, to repeat the catch phrases and sound bites, to laugh at the canned cues and teach my children to? Whose woods these are I think I know. Then out on the wrinkled sea, the high notes come shimmering over the cold waves, and 72-year-old Dana Gioia says, ‘Meet me at the Lighthouse.’”

Read the whole thing here.

California’s greatest poet wrote in Polish – from Berkeley!

February 7th, 2023

It’s been a spectacular few days for Czesław Miłosz: A California Life. Over the weekend, an opinion piece about the poet and my book, written by Joe Mathews, was featured on page 9 of The San Jose Mercury News here. Then The San Francisco Chronicle here. The East Bay Times here, Zócalo Public Square here, and southern California’s Ventura County Star here. It also went out on Yahoo News here, and that means it went everywhere. We’ll add any more links that come along. [Feb. 8 postscript: Here’s another one! The Bakersfield Californian here. And finally, a Feb. 12 postscript: we were featured today on the estimable 3QuarksDaily website here.)

His essay summarizes the book this way: “His experiences here, she writes, ‘transfigured him from a poet writing from one corner of the world to a poet who could speak for all if it, from a poet focused on history to a poet concerned with modernity and who always had his eyes fixed on forever.'”

Thanks to Elizabeth Conquest for the heads-up (we’ve written about her here and here). The whole thing might have passed us by, since proof pages and revisions are dominating the week.

Here’s the downside: Czesław Miłosz: A California Life sold out at Amazon. However, you can order directly from Heyday in Berkeley on website here: Or directly from Bookshop here.

Please do. I want you to enjoy the marvels of this remarkable poet, and let his astonishing life absorb you as it has me for almost a quarter century, since I first interviewed him on Grizzly Peak in 2000 – his last interview in America before he returned to Poland forever.

Amazon is out of books! Order from Heyday’s website here or Bookshop here until Amazon gets its act together.

A small correction: The article refers to Miłosz’s sisters. He had none. The two elderly spinsters (“Samogitian parakeets”) are women he knew in Vilnius. He describes them in section 12 of “City Without a Name”here.

Nine seconds of Edgar Degas on the sidewalks of 1915 Paris – and Philip Hoy has written an exquisite book about it.

January 30th, 2023

Eminent publisher now an acclaimed author, too!

Philip Hoy has been in the service of literature for decades, and I’ve been privileged to know him as a publisher and friend for the last 18 years of them. He’s the founding publisher of Waywiser, one of the leading poetry publishers in Britain. (My a book-length conversation with British poet Peter Dale was published by Waywiser in 2005, and I interviewed L.A. poet Timothy Steele for Three Poets in Conversation in 2006.)

Now it’s Phil’s turn for literary accolades for his own writng, with his new acclaimed book, M. Degas Steps Out.

The book-length essay is based on a 9-second 1915 film clip of the octogenarian painter Edgar Degas on the sidewalks of Paris. Author Julian Barnes called it “a fascinating forensic study and a scholarly tour de force.”

Phil begins his story this way:

In the autumn of 2011, I went to see Degas and the Ballet, an exhibition which had recently opened at the Royal Academy in London’s Piccadilly. Long an admirer of Degas’s art, I cherished this opportunity to see so many of his works – not far short of one hundred paintings, sculptures, pastels, drawings, and prints, as well as a number of the photographs he had taken in his later years. Although the exhibition was everything I could have hoped for, and more, my most vivid memory is not of the works on display, but of a grainy sequence of black and white film which was being shown in the exhibition’s last room. The sequence was very short, running for a mere nine seconds, but it was being played on a continuous loop, and I sat and watched it again and again, totally mesmerized. A notice to one side explained that the central figure in the sequence – a bowler-hatted man walking along a busy Parisian street, accompanied by a much younger woman – was the artist whose exhibition we had just visited. I don’t recall if it said anything else.

According to Matthew Reisz, writing in The Guardian, Phil Hoy was so mesmerized by the film clip of the elderly painter that he downloaded it onto his computer, slowed it down and broke it up into 250 stills – 42 of them are included in the book. Reisz continues: “Just before the screen fades to black, we witness what he describes as a ‘beatific’ moment as a passing young woman turns towards us, ‘we register how beautiful she is’ and she ‘positively beams at [the camera], and in so doing beams at us as well’ – and ‘the more than one hundred years which separate us are wholly annulled.’

“By subjecting this tiny sequence to intense analysis, Hoy shows how it reflects a tragic turning point in French life. Early in the first world war, the actor and playwright Sacha Guitry put together a short propaganda film showcasing leading figures in French culture. Friends such as Sarah Bernhardt and Claude Monet were happy to perform for the camera, but when Degas grumpily spurned his approaches Guitry was obliged to film him surreptitiously.”

Prof. Sherod Santos of the University of Missouri claimed, “I haven’t read a stranger, more original book in a very long time. It’s a wonder. I suspect that M. Degas, lover of privacy that he was, would have been delighted by the book, which it’s an understatement to call an ‘essay,'”

Dear Editor, why did you reject my piece?

January 20th, 2023
Chris Fleming asks the eternal question…

It is what writers everywhere ask, submitting their work to journals and editors, risking rejection or, arguably worse … dead silence. Writer and philosopher Chris Fleming asks the eternal question in faraway Sydney, Australia: Dear Editor, why did you reject my piece? And he gets a few answers … kind of.

Dear Author,
Thank you very much for the submission of your piece for our consideration. You can be certain that we receive many submissions – too many, in fact. We’ve discussed at some length how we might cut down on these, but to no avail. (Few besides the successful know the true cost of success, but it would be in unnecessary – and perhaps in poor taste – to rehearse here these reasons, to you.)

Needless to say, we don’t write back to most submitters, which would be impossible in any case, but even if we could, we wouldn’t. And yet we write to you! That is the good news; please enjoy it, as instructed.

The bad news is that we will not publish what you have sent. While your argument is coherent and original and your knowledge of the literature sound, we have been forced to reject the piece on certain grounds, even if the precise nature of those grounds is not yet clear. How to account for this? Do you believe in intuition? It’s too easy to be mysterious about this word, which all sorts of mumbo jumbo is wont to hide behind.

But intuition is the better part of taste, even judgement. We decide first and later rationalize our responses, dignifying them with things we call “reasons,” which gives the impression – most of all to ourselves – of them being causes of a decision; they never are. They are articulations after the fact, fragments collected from a crime scene, momento mori, post-hoc generalizations which answer to some grasping for the explicit.

We could offer such to you, but we desire, above all, to be honest. Needless to say, we have rejected your essay intuitively. To put this another way, you have been rejected on the basis that we couldn’t publish what you have written. We rejected it unanimously. We were in no doubts about it. You had nobody speaking on your behalf: “No,” one of the editors said, after reading your piece, and moved onto something else; “no thanks,” another said. I chimed in, “agreed.” Only one editor spoke on your behalf, although the content of her intervention has been lost and was, in any case, immaterial.

Talmud, Levinas, and unanimity. (Photo: Bracha L. Ettinger)

Thank you, and best luck in your future endeavours. ~The Editors

Dear Editors,
Thank you for your letter. I must admit I’m at a loss, however. On the one hand you say that the piece was rejected “unanimously” and then say that an editor spoke on my behalf. This seems inconsistent with any reasonable sense of the term “unanimously.” ~ Author

Dear Author,
To be honest, it is not our habit to get involved in these sorts of drawn-out tête-à-tête, but we will make an exception here. It is partly a matter of dignity – not ours, but the correspondent’s. While of course the term “unanimity” in a mathematical sense entails an “all in” with respect to numeration, I was using the term in its ethical sense. In Emmanuel Levinas’s readings of the Jewish wisdom texts he speaks at one point of the Talmudic principle that in a case before a court, a truly unanimous verdict against the accused would, in fact, attest to the defendant’s innocence – whereas a majority decision, a 9 or 8 or 7 or 6 out of 10 in favour of convicting would suggest guilt. Why? – because a mathematical unanimity is less an indication of sincere judgement than a mindless piling on. That a majority convicted the person, and yet not a mathematical unanimity, attests to their guilt. Were we to all have found your piece wanting, it might have suggested that we were merely drones, bloodthirsty fashionistas looking for a scapegoat. If anything, the single voice who advocated for you in fact corroborates the deficiencies in your submission, rather than any evidence of its worth.

The Editors


Does Kant get a mention?

Dear Editors,
As far as I can tell “mathematical unanimity” refers to nothing whatsoever. What you are referring to here is simply a “majority decision,” and so your choice of terminology is misleading. That you choose to then turn this into a lesson about Jewish ethics seems entirely beside the point. And that you refrain from citing either the original Talmudic source or Levinas’s commentary adds little confidence in your judgement. Further, numerous majority decisions in courts of law have proved wrong and unjust. In any case, as a writer who is interested in improving their work I’d be interested in what feedback you might have. It may well be the case that not all things are capable of explication – but that nothing at all is simply doesn’t follow.

Dear Author,
We fear the Levinas reference may have been lost on you. And your request for further details is, however psychologically comprehensible, still undignified. You are like a lover who, after the relationship is terminated, continues to look for “reasons,” to “understand” – and yet all these pleas amount to is a lack of acceptance. You understand perfectly well, but maybe what is needed here is not explication of propositions, but an image or figure that would assist in your process of overcoming denial. To this end, perhaps, for the sake of comprehension, you should imagine an out of focus and long-faded polaroid of a decaying organic object of uncertain provenance.

Yours patiently,
The Editors
Dear Editors,
I’m afraid this helps little. Perhaps it is my powers of imagination that have failed me, and this is the reason why my piece has been rejected. But what sense can be made of a decaying polaroid. Not only is this a poor justification; it is terrible poetry.


Chris Fleming in Turkey!

Dear Author,
We do believe you may be onto something here, although nothing to do with us, this case, or your rejection. Needless to say, we think you might want to pursue it in your own time.

Yours advisingly,
The Editors
Dear Editors,

Why did you reject my piece? ~ Author

Dear Author,
Thanks for your question. We wish you’d asked it sooner. We are unsure ourselves. We have speculated – and then discounted, and then speculated again – that it may be your relentless use of Times New Roman, your occasional invocation of the perfect present tense, or your unusual abstention from using the word “radical.”

But we already fear we are saying too much. Why this need for reasons? – this ongoing, repressive auto da fé of justification? We resent having to defend ourselves, not only to you, who create so much labour for us, but our shrinking and intellectually dubious readership, our department heads, our wives, our children, our pets, indeed all the children of the earth.

We have problems here. One of the editors refuses to read anything anymore on the grounds that he “smells the jackboot of fascism in words,” while another reads everything but only ever writes a one-line review: “The author has not mentioned Kant.” (This is the case, even when the author mentions Kant.) Further, owing to a certain biochemical imbalance I cannot explain, your article prompted a relapse of several degenerative disorders in those close to me. What can I say? Have you not already done enough harm? Would you like to impose upon us botulism as well? Send us another piece of your writing and you may well get your wish. For now, please leave the editors and our families alone.

Thank you for considering our periodical. We wish you every future success. ~ The Editors

Postscript on January 23: The fun never stops. Read Chris Fleming’s piece in Turkish, “Sayın Editör, yazımı neden reddettiniz?, here.

Dana Gioia is having a party – and you can come, too! Celebrate his sixth collection of poems on Feb. 16!

January 14th, 2023

Award-winning poet and critic Dana Gioia‘s new collection, Meet Me At the Lighthouse, is out with Graywolf Press next month – and you’re all invited to the launch party! Sign up for the event at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, February 16 over at Eventbrite here. The reading and reception will be held at Arion Press/Grabhorn Institute at 1802 Hays Street in San Francisco. (And you can pre-order the book here.)

The poet’s filmmaker son Mike Gioia produced a short Youtube video to honor the occasion. The two-minute spot features Dana reading the title poem of the new collection. (It’s his sixth. His earlier 99 Poems: New & Selected was winner of the Poets’ Prize, and Interrogations at Noon won of the American Book Award.)

Dana Gioia is also former California poet laureate and a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and appears regularly in the Book Haven. You may have read about him here and here and here. And for that matter, Meet Me At the Lighthouse may strike a familiar chord with Book Haven aficionados. We wrote here about some of the poems in the collection: “The Ballad of Jesús Ortiz, “Psalm and Lament for Los Angeles, “Psalm of the Heights” and “Psalm for Our Lady Queen of the Angels.”

The poet was born in California, and is of working-class Sicilian and Latino descent, as is evident from the poems in this collection. He has degrees from Stanford and Harvard.

More on the title poem, from Dana himself: “Jazz fans will recognize the names of the ghosts sitting in with the Lighthouse All-Stars — Gerry Mulligan, Cannonball Adderley, Hampton Hawes, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, and Art Pepper. Tartarus is the abyss of the Underworld.”

“I should point out that I am the only living person in the poem. It doesn’t matter for the reader to know, but I speak the poem to my dead cousin Phil, my best friend in childhood.” The cousin, Philip Dragotto, died at thirty-nine.

“The first two images show the jazz club, and at the end all of the musicians are shown.” The music is a song by Helen Sung for which Gioia wrote the lyrics.

The February 16 reading starts at 6:30 p.m. followed by a book signing with the poet. Come an hour early for a glass of wine at the reception! (Come say hello to me, too – I’ll be there!)

Meanwhile, since both Dana and I spend most of our days writing, what better way to celebrate the occasion of the sixth collection than with a poem about “Words, Words, Words”:

Is Sigrid Undset underappreciated? Ted Gioia makes the case (and includes diagrams, too).

January 4th, 2023
It’s complicated. The author in 1928.

How Sigrid Undset Went from Secretary at an Engineering Firm to Nobel Prize Winner over at The Honest Broker on Substack. Ted Gioia explains why he’s reviewing a “100-year-old book that almost nobody reads.” And 1,200 pages (over three volumes) at that. He also explains how the Danish-Norwegian writer (1882-1949) went from being a secretary to a Nobelist, during a time when cutting such a career path was less common than it is today. He includes diagrams, too:

Romance fiction may delight, but it rarely surprises us—after the first chapter, you can almost predict everything that’s going to happen. They will soon train AI how to churn out these stories. In fact, it may already be happening, judging by some recent offerings on the streaming platforms.

But nothing is more tired and predictable than the medieval romance. This type of story has been a literary dead end for hundreds of years—so much so that Cervantes was already mocking it when he wrote Don Quixote (1605), the ultimate send-off of the genre. And to be honest, the medieval romance had mostly exhausted its narrow range of devices a century before Cervantes made fun of its clichés.

We all know the formula. It requires a bold knight and a lovely, highborn lady, passionate love, and high adventure—with sword fights and secret rendezvous along the way. But the incidents are so predictable, and the emotions so stylized that whatever reality that might have set these stories in motion in the Middle Ages has long been lost to us. Instead we have stick figures, faux Lancelots and Guineveres, perhaps suitable for parody (along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail) but lacking in any psychological depth or plausibility.

That’s where Sigrid Undset enters the picture, and shakes everything up. Not only did she return to the medieval romance in the twentieth century in this epic work, published between 1920 and 1922, but she somehow reverses a thousand years of morbidity, bringing a long dead genre back to life.

He goes on to describe how deeply screwed-up and intense the characters are, and how the reader is begging them to reform or at least be reasonable. No dice.

The Honest Broker. (Photo: Dave Shafer)

Religion plays a large and recurring role in the plot, and we have some hope, or even expectation, that her main character will achieve a degree of saintliness. But few things are rarer than saints walking the earth—even in a spiritually-charged novel—and the tiny steps Kristin Lavransdatter makes toward a beautiful life, are almost always preceded or followed by stumbles, and occasionally complete reversals. Our hopes for her are never dashed, at least not completely, yet neither are they gratified by larger-than-life triumphs.

Yet we do well to remember that actual life, as we experience it, does not follow the narrative structure of a Netflix miniseries. And Undset’s seeming stubbornness in withholding expected cadences merely increases the verisimilitude of her finished work.

In fact, this novel is all the truer to its author’s worldview for its post-Edenic complexities. And perhaps all the more potent in its impact on readers, who may recognize themselves in its pages for the simple reason that Sigrid Undset does away with medieval figureheads and saintly lives. In this way, she somehow presents tales from the distant past that seem uncannily like the celebrity stories of our own time—but the resemblance is to the messy affairs from private lives (Kanye and Kim, Amber and Depp, etc.), and not the stylized formulas the stars present on screen.

Read the whole thing here.

Two million lights celebrate the season in NYC!

December 19th, 2022

Zygmunt Malinowski, the Book Haven’s New York-based roving photographer, reports on Christmas in the Big Apple:

“Hudson Yards is the new go-to place in NYC The main attraction is ‘the Vessel,’ an impressive spiral sculpture situated in the main square. Adjacent is a super modern high-rise residence which offers “exquisite service, unique shopping and dining with the city’s most breathtaking views,” and a new separate center for the innovative arts. This year the holiday decor is radiant with two million lights – and documented in ‘The Most Instagrammable Moments.‘ Here is one spot overlooking hot air-balloon with flying Christmas trees on Levels 3 and 4. You can see ‘the Vessel’ outside. Grab a hot chocolate or coffee in one of the cafés and celebrate the season.

‘To get the city’s fuller Christmas experience, visit the celebrated Rockefeller Christmas tree, walk 5th Ave to  see window displays and at Herald Square, Macy’s widow displays are always popular with children.’

You can see a few hundred of the two million lights below.

(Photos copyright Zygmunt Malinowski – see more of his work here and here and here and here.)

“Bah Humbug!” Was Ebenezer Scrooge neurodivergent? Maybe…

December 16th, 2022

Ebenezer Scrooge is a nasty misanthropic miser, unworthy of our sympathy. He’s cruel to everyone around him, right? Not so fast. One Notre Dame professor is turning the tables on who may be the victim in Charles Dickens‘s A Christmas Carol. “Is Scrooge experiencing his behavioral traits negatively, or is he experiencing the effects of the social stigma of these traits?” asks Essaka Joshua, associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.

But was this encounter *consensual*?

From Notre Dame’s Medical Xpress:

In a new analysis of Scrooge … Joshua offers an unexpected perspective, by asking a simple question: What if we were wrong about Scrooge? What if it is, in fact, the characters who surround him who may need more empathy for their fellow man—particularly if that man is neurodivergent?

Joshua, whose research and teaching focus on disability studies, is now researching how the reading of A Christmas Carol changes if Scrooge is seen in this way. 

“It does not matter what condition Scrooge may or may not have. These diagnoses change over time,” she said. “But what happens if we think of Scrooge’s lack of sympathy and other traits as a legitimate part of his personality? Does Scrooge cause harm to himself or others? And is his ‘cure’ consensual or desired?”

Scrooge’s personality is characterized by his lack of compassion, his solitariness, his reluctance to spend money and his frustration with the expectation that he should conform to societal behavioral norms. Examining which of those behaviors actually need correcting helps the reader understand how Dickens presents normative personality types and how non-normative behavior is stigmatized, Joshua said.

“In places, the text is quite explicitly nasty about his negative behavior, but in other places, there is more ambiguity,” she said. “He eats the same melancholy meal each day at the same melancholy tavern—and we have to join the dots on that one and say ‘because he’s mean.’ But it may well be that we shouldn’t infer that at all, and we should just say ‘because he has to, because that’s his routine and that’s what he needs.’  … In fact, Joshua argues, many of Scrooge’s behaviors can be seen as cognitive and behavioral coping strategies commonly used by neurodivergent individuals to reduce anxiety, by avoiding social interactions, sticking to routines and using verification rituals to calm himself.

Read the whole thing here. And Merry Christmas, Uncle Ebenezer! There’s a little bit of him in us all!

Another reason to visit NYPL: See the ONLY piece of writing in Mary Wollstonecraft’s hand!

December 10th, 2022
Martha Reineke: visiting NYPL for us.

A few weeks ago we gave Reason #1 to visit the New York Public LibraryCharles Dickens‘s desk. Now here’s Reason #2 to visit the NYPL: This is the only piece of writing in Mary Wollstonecraft’s original hand that still exists. And the NYPL has it! says Prof. Martha Reineke of the University of Northern Iowa. She writes:

“I received an excellent education in philosophy in college; however, due to the era, I never learned about Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). She is not only considered a founding feminist philosopher but also she was a major scholar of the French Revolution. Fortunately, college students today can learn about her contributions to philosophy and the study of history.

“Wollstonecraft’s life was profoundly altered by her father, who spent the funds that would have provided her with a dowry; as a consequence, she was ineligible for marriage. She would have to become a governess, which is what young women of a certain class and education did if they were precluded from marrying due to an absence of a dowry. In fact, even in the early 20th century these circumstances held: Wollstonecraft was the founder of modern feminism; Simone de Beauvoir was the founder of contemporary feminism–and, in the absence of a dowry, Beauvoir, like Wollstonecraft, had to make her own way in the world. Beauvoir started out as a teacher but went on to become one of the first generation of women in France to obtain an advanced education and the 4th in France to earn a doctorate. In the absence of dowries, these two women became legends!!!

So here’s a brief bio on Wollstonecraft:

“Wollstonecraft had access to education, largely through the support of her best friend’s father and, after a few years as a governess, she determined that she would make her own way in the world. She moved to London with a plan to support herself through writing and translating books. In pursuit of that career, she moved to Paris and had a first-hand view of the revolution. She grounded her writings on the revolution, which have long been neglected, with the tools of modern historiography: She used primary sources and she addressed with sophisticated arguments the complex political, social, and economic conditions that led to revolution. She also offered a nuanced account of the role of gender in the revolution. In multiple respects, she was 200 years ahead of her time!

Wollstonecroft, painted by John Opie

“While in Paris, Wollstonecraft also developed a relationship with Gilbert Imley, with whom she had a child. Rejected by Imlay, she returned to England and her life there as an author, writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman for which she is best known (this is the book that students should read in courses in the history of political philosophy!). Wollstonecraft became involved with William Godwin, with whom she had the child Mary who would become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. She died from an infection shortly after Mary was born. Inexplicably, Godwin published a memoir of her life in which he revealed that Wollstonecraft had never been married to Imley, was pregnant with Mary before she married Godwin, had had other love affairs, and had attempted to take her own life after Imley left her. These revelations tainted her reputation, but not only in her own time. It took well over a century for the name “Mary Wollstonecraft” not to be associated with sex and scandal. As a consequence, her brilliance as a philosopher and the contributions she made to philosophy in her lifetime were all but lost forever. 19th century advocates of women’s suffrage began her rehabilitation. She gradually came to prominence during the women’s movement in the 1970s; however, women lacked a critical mass as scholars in history and philosophy during the 1970s-80s that was required for her work to be viewed as important to scholarship in these fields. Only now is she getting the recognition she has long deserved.

It was truly amazing to be able to look into a display case and see 6 inches from me the only piece of writing that still exists from the hand of Mary Wollstonecraft!

Legendary Ukrainian poet Lina Kostensko: “Look for the censor within you.”

December 6th, 2022
The poet in 1948

The legendary Ukrainian lyric poet Lina Kostenko is 92 and still going strong. “We truly only value our life if we have something far more important, far more precious than the life itself,” she has said. Clearly her time is now.

Recently, she shared a few of her poems with the gifted Russian-American poet, essayist, publisher, and translator Boris Dralyuk.

According to Boris, Kostenko is known “not only for her immense lyrical gift but also for her refusal to bow to political pressure.” You can see that in the first poem below, “Look for the censor within you,” excellently translated by Boris. Never was it more timely, wherever you are in the world.

Kostenko is not only a poet, but also a novelist, and something of an aphorist, too. In 2005, an attempt was made by then-President Viktor Yushchenko to decorate Kostenko as a Hero of Ukraine,  the highest state honor. However, Kostenko refused the prize, declaring, “I will not wear political jewelry.”

During the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, she criticized the use of obscene language and publicly opposed its legalization. She wrote on the social media, “There is, perhaps, no other such thing [as the Ukrainian language] in the whole world. The language is a nightingale, while the devil is blabbering on.”

The second poem strikes a more natural note, prompting Boris to tweet (along with his translation): “May both the landscape of Ukraine, now scarred, and the beautiful names of its rivers and valleys, towns and villages, arise and flourish!” We couldn’t agree more.

The verdict? “This is genius,” said Peter Pomerantsev on Twitter, where you can follow Lina Kostenko here: @L_Kostenko

Martin Girard narrates his father René’s “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning” – and now you can hear it, too!

November 28th, 2022

A guest post from author Trevor Cribben Merrill:

Trevor Cribben Merrill in Pasadena (Photo: Sam Sorich)

I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (1999) is perhaps the most complete and compact statement of René Girards sweeping theory of scapegoating violence and the shattering revelation it brings. Now it’s been released as an audiobook, thanks to the late French theorist’s son Martin Girard, a businessman who devoted many hours of his time to narrating the work. Though he had no prior experience as a voice actor or reader, early reviews have been glowing. The audiobook is available on Amazon here.

Girard’s work is more relevant than ever today. Surely no other thinker can supply such a convincing explanation for the existence of the Twitter retweet button. But beyond the theory’s obvious ability to shed light on our online vices, it resonates because of the central place that Girard gives to competition and rivalry in his thought. Whether you’re working to get funding for your start-up, attract readers to a Substack post, or snag a house in a hot real estate market, competition is a daily reality in our world, yet one that we often prefer not to think or speak about too openly, even as we furtively check the ranking of a colleague’s newest release. Speaking of rankings: the audiobook of I See Satan has been selling briskly. I hope it can continue to bring new readers to René’s work, and introduce them to his compelling account of Christian truth. 

Earlier this month, Martin Girard and his wife Dee flew in from their home in Phoenix for a book launch and Q&A in Pasadena, CA to celebrate the I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Thiel Foundation) release.

First published in France in 1999 as Je vois satan tomber comme l’éclair (Grasset), and then translated into English by James G. Williams and published by Orbis Books in 2001, the new audiobook was published last month on October 20.

The event was held at the Pasadena home of Nicole and Ray Tittmann, who have hosted a number of book launch events in the last few years (including a launch of my novel Minor Indignities). A sumptuous spread of hors d’oeuvres greeted a crowd that included incoming Cornerstone Forum director Alex Lessard and documentary filmmaker Sam Sorich, who was in town from Chicago and photographed the event.  

Martin Girard was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, the oldest of the three Girard children, while his father was teaching at Bryn Mawr College. He graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in political science. He then became an entrepreneur, working between Paris and the US, and eventually founded a start-up that he later sold to a Fortune 500 company. He and his wife Dee are avid skiers, and in recent years Martin has been delving deeply into his father’s work.

I interviewed him at the event, in a conversation that included Martin’s youth and early adulthood, and touched on key milestones in René’s career. Martin recalled the buzz of excitement at the time of the 1966 Johns Hopkins conference, and visits from Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort to the family’s home near Buffalo, New York, after his father took a professorship there and began writing the book that would eventually be published as Things Hidden since the Founding of the World. When Things Hidden was released in France to great critical and popular acclaim, Martin was in his early 20s and was working in France. Business associates were surprised to discover that Martin was, in fact, the son of the same René Girard they had heard interviewed on the radio or TV. 

Martin described a childhood of French immersion, with frequent trips to and long stays in Avignon, and dinner table conversation conducted in French, even when the family was in the U.S. He and his younger brother sometimes chafed against their dad’s determination to immerse them in French culture and the French language, but later discovered that their bilingual and bicultural upbringing was a gift that opened up many opportunities and instilled a lifelong love of France. 

Martin emphasized the key role his mother, Martha Girard, played in supporting his father’s work and career, as well as her role in teaching her children by example to avoid the drama and rivalries that René described in his works of literary theory.  “Martha Girard came from a family with traditional Scotch-Irish, midwestern American values,” he said. “These values were an important part of the family’s dynamic and the children’s upbringing. René’s career and the exoticism of the French connection tend unjustly to overshadow the importance of the other side of the family, including the impact on René.”

Postscript: The Book Haven made a difference today! I See Satan Fall Like Lightning is the #1 new release in Religion & Philosophy.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is I-See-Satan-1-1024x698.jpg
Trevor Cribben Merrill in conversation with Martin Girard in Pasadena (Photo: Sam Sorich)
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Martin and Dee Girard (at right) talk with guests. (Photo: Sam Sorich)
An elegant Pasadena smorgasbord (Photo: Sam Sorich)

Saroyan prizewinners Claire Oshetsky and Wayétu Moore celebrate at Stanford Libraries on Dec. 1! Join them!

November 27th, 2022

Claire Oshetsky and Wayétu Moore were selected as winners for their ability to write imaginatively about harsh realities and challenge myths about motherhood and immigration, respectively.

The Saroyan International Prize for Writing will hold its biennial celebration of the 2022 winners on Thursday, December 1, 2022, from 4:30 to 6:00 pm, in person, Green Library, 5th floor, Bender Room. The authors will read from their books and copies will be available for purchase and signing.


Please register here if you would like to attend

Chouette (Ecco, 2021) a novel by Claire Oshetsky, and The Dragons, the Giant, the Women (Graywolf Press, 2020), a memoir by Wayétu Moore, have received the 2022 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing administered by Stanford Libraries and the William Saroyan Foundation. The biennial prize honors the life and legacy of novelist, playwright, and short-story author William Saroyan by encouraging and recognizing new and emerging writers.

Michael A. Keller, the Ida M. Green University Librarian at Stanford, announced awards of $5,000 to each winner and said, “These two books are fascinating and so obviously the results of serious and sustained creative effort by their authors that we are enormously pleased to continue the tradition of recognizing such new authors, hopefully to help them propel their literary careers.”

Claire Oshetsky, winner in the fiction category, lives in California and has published works in SalonWired, and the New York Times. Her debut novel, Chouette, which was also longlisted for the 2022 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction, deftly blends a dream of an owl, introduced in the very first sentence, with the reality of mothering a child with a congenital disorder.

The San Francisco Chronicle praised Chouette as “surrealism at its best” and as a book that “forces parents to consider their relationship with their children,” while the Saroyan Prize fiction judges summarized it as “a surreal and rollicking feminist tour de force about motherhood, marriage, and family.”

The finalists in fiction were A Sense of the Whole (Orison Books, 2020), stories by Siamak Vossoughi and The Office of Historical Corrections (Riverhead Books, 2020), a novella and stories by Danielle Evans. In the spirit of Saroyan’s depictions of Armenian Americans, their stories abound with Iranian American, Black, and multiracial characters whose encounters and experiences resonate universally.

Wayétu Moore, winner in the nonfiction category, published her first book, She Would Be King, in 2018. It was named a best book of 2018 by Publishers WeeklyBooklistEntertainment Weekly, and BuzzFeed. Her writing can be found in the Paris ReviewGuernica, and the Atlantic, among other publications. Moore is a graduate of Howard University, Columbia University, and the University of Southern California.

Wayétu Moore

The New York Times Book Review wrote of Moore’s The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: “This memoir adds an essential voice to the genre of migrant literature, challenging false popular narratives that migration is optional, permanent and always results in a better life.” 

The Saroyan Prize nonfiction judges said, “This memoir intricately weaves Moore’s stories of her family’s escape from the first Liberian war, their reunion in Sierra Leone, their eventual immigration to the United States, Moore’s complicated life as a black woman and an immigrant in (of all places) Texas, and finally her return to Liberia—all while trying to find her own place in the world. This is a crazy-quilt, heart-wrenching, fist-clenching, heart-expanding story of one woman’s quest to find something real in a reckless, violent, cruel but still beautiful world.”

The finalist in nonfiction was Kin (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021) by Shawna Kay Rodenberg, described by its publisher as “a heart stopping memoir of a wrenching Appalachian girlhood and a multilayered portrait of a misrepresented people.”

This year’s panel of distinguished Saroyan Prize judges included Sumbul Ali-Karamali, John Bender, Richard Holeton, Elizabeth McKenzie, Scott Setrakian, and former Saroyan Prize winner Lori Jakiela (2016). Over 220 volunteers, primarily members of the Stanford Alumni Association, read the entries and provided initial evaluations to the judging committee.

“We are especially grateful to our judges and readers, both new and returning, who make the Saroyan Prize possible,” Keller said. “The noticeable presence of Saroyanesque topics and themes in so many of the nearly 300 entries is testimony to the perseverance of the works of one of California’s and our nation’s greatest writers, William Saroyan, who just happened to be an immigrant from Armenia.”

Once again, please register here if you would like to attend!

What lasts forever? Carl Sagan’s letter to Chuck Berry is out of this world.

November 19th, 2022

Aliens may be listening to rock and roll singer/songwriter/guitarist Chuck Berry millions of years after our solar system is gone. Think about that.

Robert Harrison speaks on creation at the University of Notre Dame: it may be “the single best, and most deliciously surprising, conference talk” you’ve ever heard!

November 17th, 2022

Last week, the University of Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center held a three-day conference on creation, brought together more than a hundred leading thinkers to discuss ethics, culture, and public policy from the points of view of a range of disciplines: theology, philosophy, political theory, law, history, economics, and the social sciences, as well as the natural sciences, literature, and the arts.

The keynote address that launched the conference was Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison, of Entitled Opinions fame, and his talk was entitled, “The Thin Blue Line.” About a thousand people attended in-house, with hundreds more virtually – a big turnout by just about any standards. Artur Rosman, editor of Notre Dame’s online Church-Life Journal (we’ve written about that effort here and here) was glowing about the Stanford professor’s talk afterwards: “‘The Thin Blue Line,’ on what he calls sacramental geocentrism, was perhaps the single best, and most deliciously surprising, conference talk I’ve ever heard. I mean, the whole thing rocks. The whole notion of a sacramental geocentrism blew everyone’s minds. It’s a great provocation.” You’ll hear all about “sacramental geocentrism” during the last ten minutes of the Youtube video here.

For this year’s conference, the De Nicola Center partnered with Stanford University’s “Boundaries of Humanity” project, which seeks to advance dialogue on “human place and purpose in the cosmos, particularly with respect to conceptions of human uniqueness and choices around biotechnological enhancement.”

A surprising guy.

But back to the talk. Here’s how Robert Harrison began:

“One month after NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1 took the first photos of Earth from the moon’s orbit on August 23, 1966, Martin Heidegger sat down with two journalists from the German magazine Der Spiegel to answer some pointed questions about his thought and his involvement with the Nazi regime in the 1930s.  Late in the interview, which was published after his death in 1976, Heidegger decried modern technology’s deracinating effects on humanity, claiming that technology is not a tool and that humankind ‘has not yet found a way to respond to the essence of technicity.’  That essence, as Heidegger understood it, consists in an unmastered will to master nature by rendering all things orderable, fungible, and reproducible through objectification and manipulation.  Somewhat perplexed, the interviewers declared: ‘But someone might object very naively: what must be mastered? Everything is functioning.  More and more electric power companies are being built.  Production is up.  In highly technologized parts of the earth, people are well cared for.  We are living in a state of prosperity.  What really is lacking to us?’ A perfectly reasonable query, to which Heidegger responded as follows:

Everything is functioning.  That is precisely what is uncanny, that everything functions, that the functioning propels everything more and more toward further functioning, and that technicity increasingly dislodges man and uproots him from the earth.  I don’t know if you were shocked, but [certainly] I was shocked when a short time ago I saw the pictures of the earth taken from the moon.  We do not need atomic bombs at all [to uproot us]—the uprooting of man is already here.  All our relationships have become merely technical ones.  It is no longer upon an earth that man lives today. (Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker, 1981).

“Whereas the popular imagination at the time saw in those photos a wondrous revelation of our mother planet and cosmic home, Heidegger saw in them stark evidence of modern technology’s deterrestrialization of the human species – its increasing alienation from, and loss of essential relations with, the earth.”

You can watch the whole talk on Youtube, here.

Robert Harrison at the podium, on technology and the future of Mother Earth.

Gigante’s “Book Madness” is celebrated at – where else? – Stanford Libraries!

November 2nd, 2022

Last month’s celebration for Denise Gigante‘s brand new Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America (Yale University Press, 2022) was the first fête at Stanford University’s Green Library since COVID began, long ago in 2019. What a better way to rejoice than with a book about books? We’ve written about Denise’s earlier book, The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, here and here. We haven’t had a chance to dive into her latest yet, but it looks like a great read about reading.

Book Madness is the fascinating history of American bookishness as told through the sale of Charles Lamb’s library in 1848. From the publisher: “The library was a heap of sixty scruffy old books singed with smoke, soaked with gin, sprinkled with crumbs, stripped of illustrations, and bescribbled by the essayist and his literary friends. Yet it caused a sensation.”

“The transatlantic book world watched as the relics of a man revered as the patron saint of book collectors were dispersed. Following those books through the stories of the bibliophiles who shaped intellectual life in America—booksellers, publishers, journalists, editors, bibliographers, librarians, actors, antiquarians, philanthropists, politicians, poets, clergymen—Denise Gigante brings to life a lost world of letters at a time when Americans were busy assembling the country’s major public, university, and society libraries. A human tale of loss, obsession, and spiritual survival, this book reveals the magical power books can have to bring people together and will be an absorbing read for anyone interested in what makes a book special.”

Profs. Gavin Jones and Peter Stansky spoke at the celebration as well – and so did Stanford University librarian Mike Keller, of course. Prof. Elaine Treharne, Benjamin Albritton, Gabrielle Karampelas, and somewhere Roberto G. Trujillo made an appearance, too.

Colleague and friend Gavin Jones
(Photo: Stephen Gladfelter)

Gavin Jones (we’ve written about him here), made some insightful remarks about “sentimentalism” in America. An excerpt:

Book Madness took me back to my time in graduate school in early 1990s, and my growing awareness of power of Sentimentalism in mid-19th-century American culture. The fraught debate over the sentimental was still in the air – the strong, compassionate outpouring of feeling, usually toward subjects or objects thought to be in distress.

For scholars like Ann Douglas, Sentimentalism was “bad” – impotent, conservative – a mask for middle-class ideologies, rationalization of laissez-faire economics. For scholars like Jane Tompkins, Sentimentalism was “good” – a realm of social power, of salvation through motherly love, an agent of radical transformation toward higher values as religious feeling becomes secular.

Gigante: breaking down easy binaries
(Photo: Gabrielle Karampelas)

I always found Tompkins’s argument more interesting and attractive – and Denise’s book has proven me right through this account of bibliomania, which is also a kind of spin on the complex and powerful role of sentimentalism in the culture of the time, helping us see its significance in new ways.

American bibliomania, as Denise describes it, is an affective relationship with books, based in a texture of sensory and material associations left in a book by each new reading. It becomes another kind of association – one of communal belonging and affective relations in which human lives are lived in books and through the networks they create. Denise’s idea of the book as “relic” becomes shorthand for this transference of religious feeling into the secular domain. Like the promise that Tompkins found in the sentimental, this affective relationship with books becomes the condition for sociality and the potential for transformation into higher orders of being.

Book Madness may perhaps land on one side of this debate over sentimentalism, though what’s more remarkable is how the book breaks down so many categorical distinctions and easy binaries.

Peter Stansky is a great book collector himself.
(Photo: Gabrielle Karampelas)

Take the idea of “America” itself – that thing I’m meant to be an expert in.

We learn much in Book Madness about the rise of “Americana” at mid-century, the desire for a deep, sedimented, accumulated relationship with national history formed through material associations with books and other artifacts. But here we realize how the fervent nationalism in Young America is enabled by a much broader, transatlantic commerce in books. It’s fascinating to watch a kind of “American” Charles Lamb take shape through his reception in the U.S. For publisher and biographer Evert Duyckinck, one of the key players in this story, Lamb’s books come to possess that most American of powers, a Manifest Destiny to bind the nation together.

I wrote about Denise a decade ago here. As Gavin said then, as chair of the Stanford English Department: “Denise is the rare scholar with the power to tell a story that’s also the biography of an age and an intellectual culture.”

More binary-busting happens at the level of the book’s methodology. Early on, Denise makes a distinction in literary studies between book history, on the one hand, and textual interpretation on the other, only to show how intertwined they really are. Through a kind of “associative literary history” that weaves the content of books into the very fabric of their receptivity to the effects of reading, Book Madness shows how material becomes text for interpretation and how the textual becomes material to be handled and cherished.

Or think of that distinction between History and Antiquarianism – the former invested in a more abstract narrative of events, the latter more interested in moments of material culture found in artifacts, archives, and manuscripts.

This study dynamically questions that distinction by giving us the story of antiquarianism as these books – like relics – dramatically provoke the stuff of narrative. Books create relationships that demand storytelling – and it’s a story that’s part romance, part adventure – be prepared for murders and marriages, hauntings and shipwrecks along the way…. Indeed, there’s so much speed in this book – fast connections, and sudden moments of action as the study moves vertically down into the covers of books, down into those sedimental layers of readings, and then horizontally across time and space to bring books and people into enlightening associations.

I wrote about Denise Gigante a decade ago here. As Gavin Jones, then chair of the Stanford English Department, said then: “Denise is the rare scholar with the power to tell a story that’s also the biography of an age and an intellectual culture.”

John Hollander would have turned 93 today.

October 28th, 2022

Sylvia Plath would have turned 90 today.

October 27th, 2022
Sylvia Plath would have turned 90 today. Her poem for October.

Another reason to visit NYPL: See where Charles Dickens wrote

October 22nd, 2022

Reason #1 to visit the New York Public Library: Charles Dickens‘ writing desk, chair, and lamp from his home at Gad’s Hill Place. At this desk, this author wrote Hard Times and sections of Great Expectations, and much of his correspondence, too. “As a fan of Dickens, this took my breath away,” says Prof. Martha Reineke of the University of Northern Iowa, who took the photo. There will be a few more reasons to visit NYPL in future posts.

Arbery’s Boundaries of Eden: “Everything was going…”

October 18th, 2022
Author Glenn Arbery in his Wyoming studio.

Literary conferences are not a place I usually associate with excitement – given the number of them, the world would not be able to bear so much stimulation. Nevertheless, you should always be ready for surprises. For example, earlier this month, I attended a University of Dallas literary conference (I gave a talk on Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz, another on French theorist René Girard, and a non-fiction workshop) and among the many readings of poetry and prose, certainly one of the most memorable was Glenn Arbery reading the epilogue of his Boundaries of Eden, the story of a boy who doesn’t know his name when he appears near an abandoned country home. The novel was published by Wiseblood in 2020. It was a tense moment at the conference: the power had just gone out, and everyone was leaning forward expectantly as Arbery read the epilogue, which takes place during a visit to Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser. Here’s an excerpt:

Along the Firehole River and over Craig Pass, he remembered a dream of a melting road and wheels full of eyes. He had dreamed it in the time when he forgot who he was, the time of the Name. Whenever he thought of the Name, inner peace and outer disconnection came over him, as though everything he saw with his eyes were a great illusion. He watched the cars ahead of them, not knowing what to expect.

They turned off the Grand Loop Road toward the Old Faithful Visitors’ Center. Traffic was heavy, and the parking lot at Old Faithful, big enough for a football stadium, set his father on edge—huge tour buses, swarms of people from everywhere. They went slowly up and down the lot, row by row, and they were starting their second run through it, his father growing increasingly critical of the human race, when finally, a car full of Japanese tourists pulled out in the row nearest the geyser. Everyone in their car was holding up a cell phone, and a girl leaned far out of the front passenger window with a selfie stick.

“The real world now exists as material for smartphones,” said his father. “Look at it—the reduction of
reality itself to a set of images you can put in your pocket. Seized and possessed. The final conquest of the
modern project.”

“Dad! Geez. Give it up!” cried Magdalena. “We’re in Yellowstone.”

“Really, Walter. It’s a just way of seeing things,” his mother said.

“It destroys memory,” said his father.

“So you remember everything without it?”

They had their usual argument as they all got out of the car, but they were unusually playful about it.
The bleachers for watching the geyser were empty. They had missed the last eruption by fifteen minutes,
and the next one wasn’t for another ninety minutes or so. His father wanted to go for a jog, which was a new
habit, and he quickly disappeared up the asphalt walkway.

“We’ll be in the visitor’s center,” his mother said. “Are you okay poking around by yourself, Jacob?”

“Sure.” It was the first time she had remembered to call him that. As Magdalena walked with her, he
could follow the ripple of male attention that surged after her like the wave at a football game.

There were signs everywhere warning visitors not to stray from the trail. The appearance of solid ground
could be deceiving; the lava crust could give way, and you could be plunged into boiling water or mud. He
loved reading about it, even though it was sometimes gruesome. He had read about some young employees at
the Park who had gone out one night to drink beer or whatever teenagers do and had ended up falling through.
He imagined the sudden scalding drop. He didn’t even want to picture them. They came from somewhere; they
had names.

He wandered up the shorter way, thinking about his new name. Jacob, who wrestled with God. Who changed his name, too, not to Jacob but from Jacob to Israel.

Crossing the bridge over the Firehole River, he stopped and looked at the water weirdly flowing over white encrustations. He imagined the magma hunched far down under them like a trapped giant waiting to stand up, hundreds of cubic miles of rock liquified by heat. This whole place was an inevitable disaster—and the crowds swarmed over it happily, sure it wouldn’t be today. Not today, not today with its ice cream and pretty girls and new baseball caps.

It’s going, too. (Photo: NPS / Jacob W. Frank)

He moved on from the bridge up the trail. Everything looked like it was going to stay, but everything was really going away, even what you thought was still. Even these mountains were going in God’s time. Maybe the faith that moved mountains was a way of talking about God’s time. The time of the Name. In God’s time, mountains rose stretching upward and turned over and shook themselves out and got old and lay down like dogs too tired to stir, and then other ones sprang up, and the seas silted down, and rocks rose and the daylight was full of what the old seas had let drift down for millions of years. Everything was going. Life rose and ages passed and you were born and like the flicker of an eyelash you were gone and the going kept going right past you.

A big family came by, talking and pointing, and he stepped off the path to let them pass. A double stroller, two fat little babies whose parents spoke French.

Babies came into the going. He remembered when his father had told him that he couldn’t be alive now if he had ever been dead. But the going you came into wasn’t you when you were born, not the you you were conscious of. It was the going that would eventually be you. Meanwhile it ate and made a mess in its diapers and cried and slept until finally you started to show up at three or four. You grew and then you were convinced you were the going, because you had a name, you were Buford or Jacob, but you were never the going itself.

You couldn’t even explain your own body’s going. You rode in it and thought I think therefore I am but that was crazy because the going was more the am than you were. You fell into the going without any say-so, and when it stopped, the going didn’t stop, it was just you that stopped and maybe not even you. You died, and another kind of going took over what had been you, and you became another kind of going. …

It all came clear to him for a moment and he stopped. You could say I but God was the I AM in the going of everything, including you. And everything was going, not just things that were alive. Rocks, trees, mountains, clouds. Everything was going.

Read more about the book here.

“Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard” – in the Ukrainian press!

October 16th, 2022

In the August edition of Kyiv’s Krytyka, a review of my Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard:

Євген Мінко, рецензючи книжку Синтії Гейвен «Еволюція бажання: життя Рене Жирара», зазначає, що для Жирара наука була полем передчуттів і осяянь, інструментом вивчення ефемерних, але фундаментальних елементів людського буття: бажання, відчуття сакрального, непереборного потягу до насильства.

In other words, (which is to say, English ones): Evgeny Minko, reviewing Cynthia Haven‘s book The Evolution of Desire: The Life of René Girard, notes that for Girard, science was a field of premonitions and insights, a tool for studying ephemeral but fundamental elements of human existence: desire, the feeling of a sacred, irresistible urge to violence.

Evgeny Minko is a writer, journalist, and psychoanalyst. The title of his article is “У полі передчуттів і осяянь,” in English, “In the Land of Premonition and Visions.” It begins, in translation:

One of the most enigmatic philosophers of the 20th century, René Girard, died in the fall of 2015, and three years later his first biography was published. Literary critic Cynthia Haven was friends with Girard during the last years of his life and de facto started work on the book with his participation: in Evolution of Desire conversations between the author and the hero are quoted abundantly. The result is a kind of hybrid of biography and memoir, and the requirements of distancing the researcher from the object of research for the sake of objectivity aren’t met. However, this fits perfectly into the coordinate system of thought created by Girard. Science — history, literary studies, anthropology — was for him a field of premonitions and revelations. A tool of careful (as if by the hands of an entomologist) study of ephemeral but fundamental elements of human existence: desire, feeling of sacred, irresistible urge to violence.

The “desire” in the title of the book for the reader, who is not familiar with Girard’s work, will primarily be a desire to understand who, in fact, we are talking about. After all, in the imaginary philosophical canon of modern times, Girard’s place is quite marginal, as it often happens (should happen!) with truly interesting and original phenomena.

Minko (Photo: Gazettyar, Creative Commons)

René Girard was born in France in 1923, received a history education, and in 1947 emigrated to the United States, where he spent the rest of his life teaching literature at leading universities. A successful career path of a scientist, without upheavals and disasters.

However, a formal career does not convey the ambition of Girard’s entire life: to create a comprehensive system for explaining human behavior. Like the one created by Freud. And this system became his mimetic theory.

Read the whole thing here in Ukrainian. Otherwise, it’s off to Google Translate for you.

How a 21-year-old Texas college student became Lee Harvey Oswald’s only friend

October 14th, 2022

Paul R. Gregory, an economist and Slavic scholar, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is also Cullen Professor Emeritus in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston. He is the author are Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives (Hoover Institution Press, 2013), Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Institution Press, 2010), Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives (Hoover Institution Press, 2008). Now he is the author of The Oswalds: An Untold Account of Marina and Lee, out on Nov. 15 with Diversion Books.

Book Haven readers will remember his earlier account of the events of 1963 in The New York Times Sunday Magazine here. We’ve also written about his account of Lenin’s brain here. And his account of Women of the Gulag here and here. And Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin here.

He recalls, “remarkably, Lee’s actions on November 22, 1963, did not surprise me. Rather, it was as if the pieces of a puzzle were falling in place as I saw him brought handcuffed and bruised into the Dallas police station.”

This is his first book-length discussion of his relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald and his Russian wife Marina. He has offered the Book Haven an introduction to the book and some short excerpts:

As a 21-year-old college student, I returned to my hometown of Ft. Worth for the summer of 1962. At the same time, an ex-marine defector to the USSR returned the Ft. Worth with his wife and infant daughter. I was thus thrown into the life and troubled marriage of Lee and Marina Oswald, as Lee struggled to fulfill his dreams of fame and Marina was introduced to a new life in the United States. Through the pretext of Russian language practice, I became a frequent visitor as they settled into their run-down Mercedes Street duplex. As their only visitor besides Lee’s brother, I got hints of Lee’s visions of grandeur, abuse of Marina, and her scornful dismissal of her “loser” husband. It was through my initiative that we introduced the couple to the “Dallas Russians,’ who took an immediate dislike to Lee, as they became determined to free Marina from her unfortunate husband.

I returned to college, and the Oswalds moved to Dallas. Other than reports from Dallas of Lee’s outrageous behavior, I did not hear or see them until shortly before Thanksgiving, as Lee used me as a pawn to get Marina to move back in with him. My last image of Lee and Marina was them running to the Dallas bus at the Ft. Worth bus station on Thanksgiving Day 1962. My next image was November 22, 1963, as a bruised Lee was dragged into Dallas police headquarters to my shock and horror. Sitting in front of a TV screen at Norman, Oklahoma, I immediately understood that Lee had done it, and why, and that he had done it alone. I had ample opportunity to express my reasons before the US Secret Service and the Warren Commission. I was picked up early morning the day after the assassination as a ”known associate” of one Lee Harvey Oswald.

Economist, Slavic scholar Paul Gregory today

This book combines my experiences with Lee and Marina with the testimonies found in the tens of thousands of pages of the Warren Commission report, a reading to Lee’s largely unknown writing on socialism and communism, and Oswald’s KGB file. Some of the most important insights come from my father’s account of translating for Marina at a hideout arranged by the Secret Service in the week following the assassination as the FBI and Secret Service clashed and Lee’s mother went off the rails.

I largely refrained from writing on my experiences with the Oswalds because my parents both considered our association with a Marine deserter and communist to be shameful and best not talked about. Virtually everyone I write about is now gone; so it is time to tell the story.


That the Warren Commission’s lone assassin—Lee Harvey Oswald—was an unaccomplished, poorly educated misfit continues to feed the public’s skepticism. Nonentities do not change history. By this line of reasoning, we should be leery of the lone gunman conclusion unless we can explain with firsthand detail and confidence how Oswald could gun down the world’s most heavily guarded figure using only his own meager devices. And that’s what this book is about. It asks whether our “intimate” portrait of Oswald conveys in him the motive, resources, cunning, and killer instinct to have indeed changed our history as he fired on the president’s motorcade passing below him.

I would not be writing this book had I not known Lee Harvey Oswald personally. From June through mid-September of 1962, I was the sole companion of Lee Harvey and Marina Oswald outside of Lee’s immediate family. I visited this young married couple often in the duplex where they settled after Lee’s return from his defection to the USSR.


On their wedding day. (National Archives)

At 2:01 p.m., an excited reporter, located at Dallas police headquarters, shouted out on camera: “They are bringing in a suspect!” The TV showed a short man, disheveled in a white, V-neck tee shirt and dark trousers. He was surrounded by police officers. His face was bruised, and one eye was black. I stared in utter and stunned disbelief. It was clearly Lee Harvey Oswald! I muttered mainly to myself in shock: “I know that man.”


MR. JENNER (Warren Commission Deputy Counsel): Now, you were seeking to report to us the friends and acquaintances of your brother and your sister-in-law subsequent to their return to the United States in June of 1962. Now, who next in addition to Paul and [his father] Peter Gregory?

MR. OSWALD: None, sir.



The army of assassination buffs are wasting their time on missing bullets, Oswald doppelgangers, and Soviet, Cuban, or Mafia assassinations. We need to look no further than Oswald himself. We must ask how this “little man” with megalomaniacal ambitions mustered the wherewithal to kill the ideal target for someone who wanted to go down in history books.


As someone who has worked professionally with Soviet state and party documents for over a decade, the Yeltsin documents appear authentic to me. We learn that Oswald’s case was dealt with at the highest levels of the Politburo and KGB—not by the local passport office as I had previously thought. The original USSR counterattack eventually implicated the Gregorys in a “White Russian Conspiracy.”

This Soviet version remains an active thread in the JFK conspiracy portfolio. I guess Pete and Paul Gregory are still under suspicion of some kind in some quarters.

Agent Nielson bored in on whether Lee could have been part of an organized conspiracy. I answered that I had no evidence pro or con, but I volunteered that if I were to organize such a heinous crime, the last person on earth I would include in the conspiracy would be Lee Harvey Oswald. I stated that Oswald marched to his own drummer. He could not be relied upon, and he would not take kindly to orders from others. This personal opinion somehow did not make it into the official transcript of my remarks, but I am sure I said it.



Whoever thought René Girard would become “cool”?

October 10th, 2022

Who would have thought that Stanford’s eminent French theorist René Girard would enter the empyrean of “coolness”? Neil Scott did. That’s who.

On Neil Scott’s Substack – 95 Theses on Cool, parts 0-17: From Miles Davis to René Girard via Red Scare podcast – the French theorist made the cut. #16 is René Girard, and I get a mention:

“… In Girard’s view, everything we desire, everything we think is cool, is learned through copying someone else. As Cynthia Haven, writes: “We live derivative lives. We envy and imitate others obsessively, unendingly, often ridiculously. ‘All desire is a desire for being,’ [Girard] said, and the being we long for becomes wrapped up in a person. That person, whether we like it or not, is our avatar of cool.”

Read the rest here. Want to know more about him, so you can be cool, too? Try Jerry Bowdler’s excellent 2015 article in Forbes, “René Girard: The ‘Einstein of the Human Sciences.'” (Note: the late Michel Serres tagged René Girard as “the Darwin of the Human Sciences,” but Einstein isn’t bad, either.) A longish excerpt, reprinted with his permission:

Girard saw it first in literary studies. While engaging in a close examination of several great novelists, (Proust, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, even Cervantes) Girard noticed that despite the consensus that the great novelists were ‘singular’, i.e. one of a kind, they actually had several powerfully unifying themes. Those themes were that human desire does not generally emerge from within us, but rather comes from some ‘other’. We naively imagine that we simply are who we are, and that we want what we want because we are who we are. However, the great novelists present us with an inconvenient truth – that we import our most powerful desires from imitating other people.

“How did mankind survive this long? This is where Girard gets really interesting.”

Girard gives the example of a young man who admires the world’s greatest pianist. He is drawn to the pianist, and therefore he is drawn to what the pianist is drawn to – great achievement in piano performance. The great man wanted to be the best piano player in the world, and he got what he wanted. The younger man wants to be like his hero. But at precisely that point, when the younger man most idolizes his hero, they also become rivals. To truly imitate the master, the student must become the greatest piano player in the world. The two want the same thing, a thing which there cannot be two of – the title “greatest.”

The first stage Girard calls ‘mimesis’ – imitation. Young man wants to be like great man. The second stage is ‘mimetic desire’ – young man wants what his master wants (to be the greatest). The third stage is called ‘mimetic rivalry’ – young man and master want the same unique object of desire, so they become enemies.

Once you become aware of this process, you see it everywhere: celebrity feuds, geopolitical rivalries, financial asset valuation bubbles, everywhere that people interact. It’s even there among the animals, especially in the form of sexual rivalry, or rivalry over food. The Bowyer dogs desire a chew toy more when it is desired by another dog.

The idea is revolutionary because it overturns what Girard calls ‘the romantic illusion’, the illusion which goes back at least as far as Rousseau, that humans can be authentic. The romantic illusion proclaims that we can throw aside cultural and societal norms to follow our inner desires, that we can and must (as a thousand schlocky movie characters tell us to do) follow our hearts. Girard says we can’t follow our hearts instead of the group, because without the imitated other we don’t have desires in our hearts. Certainly we have instinctual urges, but not the higher purposes which we describe as desires. We get those from others.

But there is a problem larger than the disappointment in realizing that the romantic illusion is false and that genuine ‘authentic’ autonomous desire is an illusion. The larger problem is that the rivalries of mimetic desire tend to spin out of control. Switching to another of Girard’s metaphors: if I love a woman and you admire me and I praise that woman to you, you will tend to be drawn to her as well. Shakespeare does this a lot – it is the basis of the Rape of Lucretia and of Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance. So I love her and you imitate me and come to love her too. But the fact that you desire her makes me even more confident in my initial desire for her. I am confirmed. I was right to desire her: the proof is the desire which you have for her. This can stay contained in a little love triangle or it can expand into a square, or even a pentagon… which reminds me that all of this can take on a military significance: the object of desire can become a casus belli. As Peter Robinson said in Girard’s last public interview, “There is only one Helen of Troy.” Not that the object of desire in war is typically sexual, but there is not just only one Helen — there is also only one Hellespont, and as Russia and Turkey are all too aware, only one Black Sea.

This is a self-reinforcing mechanism. Mimetic desire increases the intensity of desire, and the intensity is also then imitated, and the imitation then sets off another round of desire. This often leads to physical clashes. Girard calls this stage ‘mimetic violence’.

Economist and Girard aficionado – Jerry Bowyer

When the process enters the violent phase, there is a subtle shift in the system. The original object of desire is no longer the point. No one cares that much about Helen anymore. Now it’s about fallen comrades: Hector must be avenged. Achilles’ cousin cannot be allowed to have died in vain. Agamemnon cannot go home empty-handed after so much shedding of Greek blood. The conflict itself takes on a life of its own. Menelaus cannot just go home and wed the second most beautiful girl in Greece after all those years of fighting. Ever have an argument with someone which quickly becomes an argument over the argument itself? Someone can appear from another room and settle the original point of dispute with a, “Hey guys, I googled it, and it turns out that what really happened was X,” but the argument keeps on going, the conflict generates new injuries, new injustices, new grudges. This can become a war of all against all, described in thousands of papers by anthropologists documenting thousands of ‘primal chaos’ rituals. The rituals re-enact the primal violence which preceded the establishment of our clan, village, city, empire – out of which order came. The rituals remind us how bad things can get.

So then why aren’t societies in a perpetual state of war? How did order come? How did mankind survive this long? This is where Girard gets really interesting. Order comes from a scapegoat, someone on whom the hatred and guilt of the community can be affixed, someone who can then be sacrificed to purge the hatreds of the community. The scapegoat is not truly guilty. He couldn’t possibly be. He probably wasn’t even there when the mimesis started, scapegoats are frequently foreign visitors. He doesn’t have the power to send a whole community into chaos. This blind man who wandered into the village couldn’t have stolen all those sacred artifacts. That strange babbling woman couldn’t have ruined the crop. Those Jews and/or Gypsies would have absolutely no reason to poison the village well. But the community needs them to be guilty, so it often invents supernatural powers (witchcraft) or supernaturally wicked motivations (devil worship), and the community has now found its point of unity – the strangers must be killed. Oedipus must have been a moral monster, a mother-raper and a patricide. He has brought the wrath of the gods down upon us and he must die, at his own hand or ours. Usually it’s the latter the hands of others, lots of hands, either casting stones or casting ballots.

The victim dies, and by dying, reunites the community. Now that they have died and are no longer a threat and have performed the sacred function of re-founding the city, they are to be honored. When a champion dies in the Hunger Games, the majestic music plays — they are now ‘the fallen’. They are heroes – the social order depends on them. They have restored order by their death. They save many lives by dying. Girard suggests that the rehabilitation of the victim is perhaps an unconscious admission that the victim was, in fact, innocent. The innocence of the victim is a useful lie which cannot be acknowledged; otherwise, it is no longer useful and the violence must begin again. Girard calls this final phase ‘the scapegoat mechanism’.

The discovery of this pattern is what Girard called his ‘first conversion’. This is the conversion away from the romantic illusion that autonomous authentic man was an achievable idea, from the modern idea that religion was optional for mankind and that violence was an interruption of, and imposition upon, the default equilibrium of peace. For Girard, violence is the origin of archaic religion and archaic religion is the foundation of human culture itself. These are the ‘things hidden from the foundation of the world’, mankind’s need to reenact the cycle of violence no matter what his intentions or aims. Modern man pretends that we’re past all that, but that is another useful life – another romantic illusion.

Read the whole thing here – there’s more, really, lots more – here.

Postscript: Can’t get enough of cool? Try reading Chris Fleming‘s essay on “Theoretical Cool” over at the Sydney Review of Books.

Timothy Snyder: “Don’t do Putin’s work for him!”

October 8th, 2022
Living a nightmare: Ukrainian soldiers assigned to third battalion (NARA/DVIDS).

We’ve written about historian Timothy Snyder ever since his book Bloodlands, here and here and here. He’s a compelling and insightful thinker, and always worth a look, but particularly about Ukraine. In a vital column from his Substack, he argues: “To be sure, there is a certain temptation to concede mentally to nuclear blackmail.  Once the subject of nuclear war is raised, it seems overwhelmingly important, and we become depressed and obsessed.  That is just where Putin is trying to lead us with his vague allusions to nuclear weapons.  Once we take his cue, we imagine threats that Russia is not actually making.  We start talking about a Ukrainian surrender, just to relieve the psychological pressure we feel.  

This, though, is doing Putin’s work for him, bailing him out of a disaster of his own creation.  He is losing the conventional war that he started.


War is ultimately about politics.  That Ukraine is winning on the battlefield matters because Ukraine is exerting pressure on Russian politics.  Tyrants such as Putin exert a certain fascination, because they give the impression that they can do what they like.  This is not true, of course; and their regimes are deceptively brittle.  The war ends when Ukrainian military victories alter Russian political realities, a process which I believe has begun.

The Ukrainians, let’s face it, have turned out to be stunningly good warriors.  They have carried out a series of defensive and now offensive operations that one would like to call “textbook,” but the truth is that those textbooks have not yet been written; and when they are written, the Ukrainian campaign will provide the examples.  The have done so with admirable calm and sangfroid, even as their enemy perpetrates horrible crimes and openly campaigns for their destruction as a nation.

Compelling and insightful thinker.

Right now, though, we have a certain difficulty seeing how Ukraine gets to victory, even as the Ukrainians advance.  This is because many of our imaginations are trapped by a single and rather unlikely variant of how the war ends: with a nuclear detonation.  I think we are drawn to this scenario, in part, because we seem to lack other variants, and it feels like an ending.  

Using the mushroom cloud for narrative closure, though, generates anxiety and hinders clear thinking.  Focusing on that scenario rather than on the more probable ones prevents us from seeing what is actually happening, and from preparing for the more likely possible futures.  Indeed, we should never lose sight of how much a Ukrainian victory will improve the world we live in.

But how do we get there?  

Read the rest here. Please.

E.A. Robinson, A.E. Housman, and three cheers for blogger Patrick Kurp

October 7th, 2022
Patrick Kurp: He’s da man…

I have been a busy girl. One of the misfortunes of my workload this last year or two is that I haven’t been keeping up Patrick Kurp‘s remarkable blog, “Anecdotal Evidence.” These are daily mini-essays, erudite, witty, and – how does he do it? – he’s apparently inexhaustible. In the 16 years he’s been running the blog, he’s only missed one day, to my knowledge. And it took a Texas flood to give him a coffee break.

While yours truly has just missed two weeks of posts, he has been indefatigably pumping it out. For example, taken almost at random, a few days ago he was discussing Uncollected Poems and Prose of Edwin Arlington Robinson (Colby College Press, 1975), which he called “an unruly grab bag of remnants.” Robinson’s “witty, aphoristic, sometimes acerbic conversational manner” is in full play during a 1916 interview:

“Within his limits, I believe A.E. Housman is the most authentic poet now writing in England. But, of course, his limits are very sharply drawn. I don’t think that any one who knows anything about poetry will ever think of questioning the inspiration of A Shropshire Lad [1896].”

Lilla Cabot Perry‘s 1916 portrait of Robinson

He goes on to praise the work of Kipling and John Masefield, and adds, “But I do not think that either of these poets gives the impression of finality that A.E. Housman gives.” By “finality” I think Robinson means inevitability, the sense that Housman’s lines, his rhythms and word choices, could not have been otherwise crafted. We read them and can’t imagine them otherwise.

I’ve always admired Robinson’s Yankee common sense, hard-headedness and lack of ostentation – in life and in verse. My judgment of Housman is similar – another no-nonsense fellow. According to one scholar, Housman was familiar with Robinson’s but not impressed: He told a correspondent he “got more enjoyment from Edna St. Vincent Millay than from either Robinson or Frost.” De gustibus . . .

De gustibus non est disputandum indeed. I’m rather fond of Millay myself. Check out his blog here. You won’t regret it.

NYRB publisher Edwin Frank on “The Pilgrim Hawk”: “Subtlety and ferocity, despair, and some genuine camp.”

September 20th, 2022
Edwin Frank: “A book of concrete observations and endless reflections and lapidary sentences.”

Stanford’s Another Look book club has often showcased New York Review Books’ excellent offerings, so as we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Stanford book event series, we’re pleased that our fall event on October 5 will feature Glenway Wescott‘s too-little-known 1940 novella, The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story. New York Review Books founder Edwin Frank (and, incidentally, he’s also a former Stanford Stegner Fellow), agreed to answer a few questions about the book, one of he first NYRB Classics published in 2001. (The Book Haven also ran an interview, “Great literature is literature that remains news,” between Edwin Frank and another Stanford alum, Daniel Medin, at Shakespeare & Company in Paris, 2016, here.)

Another Look was launched in November 2012, with William Maxwell’So Long See You TomorrowTobias Wolff, founding director of Another Look, talked about his choice in a short video here. Our tenth anniversary event for Wescott’s novel will take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 5, at Levinthal Hall in the Stanford Humanities Center, 424 Santa Teresa Street, on the Stanford campus. The event will also be livestreamed. Come celebrate our tenth with us! It’s not to late to register here
, for the virtual and live event. Walk-ins are always welcome, too.

The panelists will include a special guest, Steve Wasserman, former book editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review and editor at large for the Yale University Press, and now publisher of Heyday Books in Berkeley. Other panelists will include: Stanford Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, author, director of Another Look, host of the radio talk show and podcast series Entitled Opinions, and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books; Stanford Prof. Tobias Wolff, one of America’s leading writers, founding director of Another Look, and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts. Author Cynthia L. Haven, a National Endowment for the Humanities public scholar, will round out the panel.

The interview with Edwin Frank …

CYNTHIA HAVEN: Wescott’s prose is meticulous, keenly observed, epigrammatic, profound – and often very funny. Do we have any idea how he wrote? How he crafted this perfect novel? His papers and manuscripts are at Yale, do they give us any idea?

EDWIN FRANK: I don’t know how Wescott worked and haven’t seen the papers. Nor am I conversant with the details of his life, except in the vaguest way, and I hadn’t even realized that Yvor Winters was his mentor. Interesting! As to his neglect as a writer, in America, or perhaps anywhere, not writing a lot, and essentially giving up writing novels, as Wescott did, is not a great recipe for a career as a writer. Why he wrote so little is another question—I don’t know the answer—though both Pilgrim Hawk (with its ambisexual Alex) and Apartment in Athens can be read as tales of the closet, suggesting that Wescott found himself more and more caught out by not being able to write frankly as a gay man.

HAVEN: Pilgrim Hawk features a lot of complicated relationships: painful love, unhappy love, unrequited love, non-existent love—often suggested in glances, or a quip, or in silence. How much do you think this evasiveness reflects Wescott’s own ambiguities, as a gay man at a time when it was far less acceptable than it is today?

FRANK: The Pilgrim Hawk is clearly enough about frustration, in love and as a writer. Counting the triangles it traces is an interesting exercise: there’s Madeleine, Larry, and Lucy; Jean, Eva, and Rickert; Tower, Alex, and Tower’s brother (and one might treat these three triangles as constituting a higher order triangle in their own right of different—or are they all alike at some level?—kinds of marriage); and perhaps most importantly, Tower, Alex (and all the rest of them for that matter), and The Pilgrim Hawk, the story of a day (and his life) that Tower finally can be deemed to have put down  (though the narrator of a book is never quite its writer, close as they may be), fulfilling himself as observer, even as central to his observation is his own inability to love. The narrator is left as one of “The lovers [who are] to be pitied…are those who have no one to hate, whose rough shooting can take place only in the imagination, and never ends” (page 34). 

“More and more caught out by not being able to write frankly as a gay man.”

The rough shooting was about to hit a different order of magnitude in 1940…

FRANK:“Rough shooting” reminds me that the book also has World War II in the background, and here another triangle can be discerned, between the late 20s, when the action takes place—the past—1940, the date of narration and of publication, when the war had begun but the U.S. had yet to enter it—the present—and the future, undetermined apart from the war going on (perhaps parallel to the narrator’s loveless future). In that light the book can be read as a very subtle allegory of the feckless fashionable interwar years that the Cullens, and Alex’s showy but “not splendid” house with its big glass modern windows, epitomizes, as the senile French politician in the chateau next door does the corruption of the Belle Epoque. Implicit is the question of what future is there for the world at war (so ostentatiously charted in the first paragraph) and what kind of world was it that led to that war. (You could read the book alongside Civilization and Its Discontents.) But this question is very much implicit, and maybe I am making too much of it, though the central presence of the hawk inevitably puts questions of entrapment and predation in the air (or on a bloodstained gloved hand). The narrator’s predatory gaze is also emphasized increasingly throughout. 

But as Michael Cunningham nicely says in the introduction the poor hawk is doomed from the get-go to be a symbol and yet triumphs for all that, becoming, in the telling, wonderfully, electrically, real and distinct. Those burning claws! And there is a lot of edgy, self-aware humor, too: “Still, I felt rather as if I had a great thought of death concentrated and embodied and perched on me” (page 47). Rather!

A book of concrete observations and endless reflections and lapidary sentences: “She said this in a great sad false way” (page 88); “airy murderess like an angel; young predatory sanguinary deluxe hen” (page 94).

HAVEN :The falcon’s name Lucy is usually linked with Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor. But it also has associations with Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Its final act is one of the most frenzied in all opera. Certainly Westcott’s fierce and ominous Lucia has a good deal of madness about her. Can you channel Westcott for a moment and connect the Lucys—Wescott’s Lucy with Scott’s and Donizetti’s?

FRANK: There is nothing subtle about Donizetti’s Lucia, but there is nothing but subtlety in Wescott’s book, subtlety and ferocity, despair, and some genuine camp. That mix, so unusual, may explain why its audience has always been a little select. 


Go HERE to read more about it!

Another Look’s 10th anniversary pick: Glenway Wescott’s “The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story” – Wednesday, October 5!

September 13th, 2022

Another Look was launched in November 2012, with William Maxwell’So Long See You TomorrowNow we celebrate our tenth anniversary with another wonderful and too-little-known book, Glenway Wescott‘s 1940 novella The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story (NYRB Classics)The event will take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 5, at Levinthal Hall in the Stanford Humanities Center, 424 Santa Teresa Street, on the Stanford campus. The event will also be livestreamed. Come celebrate our tenth with us! 

Registration is encouraged, but walk-ins are always welcome. Register here – or on the QR code on the poster below.

The Book

The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story traces a single afternoon in a French country house during the 1920s. Alwyn Tower, an American expatriate and sometime novelist, is staying with a friend outside Paris when a well-heeled Irish couple drops in — with Lucy, their trained hawk, a restless, sullen, disturbingly totemic presence. Lunch is prepared, drink flows, and the story that unfolds is both harrowing and farcical.

Novelist Michael Cunningham in his introduction calls the book “murderously precise and succinct.” Critic and author Susan Sontag said, “The ever-astonishing Pilgrim Hawk belongs, in my view, among the treasures of twentieth-century literature, however untypical are its sleek, subtle vocabulary, the density of its attention to character, its fastidious pessimism, and the clipped worldliness of its point of view.”

The Panelists

The panelists will include a special guest, Steve Wasserman, former book editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review and editor at large for the Yale University Press, and now publisher of Heyday Books in Berkeley. Other panelists will include: Stanford Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, author, director of Another Look, host of the radio talk show and podcast series Entitled Opinions, and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books; Stanford Prof. Tobias Wolff, one of America’s leading writers, a founding director of Another Look, and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts. Author Cynthia L. Haven, a National Endowment for the Humanities public scholar, will round out the panel.

The Venue

Some of you may remember that Levinthal Hall is where Another Look began a decade ago. You’re right! Our audience attendance outgrew that venue in 2015, and we moved to a larger space. However, now we are offering virtual as well as in-person attendance, which allows us to return to our former home. We will announce how to register for the virtual event in our next email, as we are still finalizing arrangements.


Metered parking spaces are available along Santa Teresa Street. Parking is free after 4 p.m. Free parking is also available on the lot adjacent to the Stanford Humanities Center after 4 p.m.

How to get the book

Books are available at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park (650-324-4321) and Books Inc. at Town & Country in Palo Alto (650-321-0600). We’d recommend calling first to make sure a book is waiting for you. Books are also available at Amazon and at Abebooks. If all else fails, you can order directly from the publisher here.

Our October 5 event is sponsored by Stanford Continuing Studies, the Stanford Humanities Center, and the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages.

Literature, the real world, and Milton’s “tremendous creative energy”

September 10th, 2022
Fruitful forays into the world of Milton

I have been reading Barbara Lewalski’s excellent biography, The Life of John Milton (Blackwell, 2000) – so what a surprise to find that she has a former protégé at Stanford – Prof. Roland Greene, director of the Stanford Humanities Center.

Greene: he’s an inspiration, too

Here’s an excerpt from his appreciation for his “beloved mentor and colleague” over at Stanford’s Arcade. The article, “The Critical Horizon of Barbara K. Lewalski,” was written some time after the scholar’s death on March 2, 2018. He opens with her early 1953 article “The Authorship of Ancient Bounds,” about the provenance of an unsigned Puritan tract. Then on to the great Puritan poet, the subject of her first book in 1966, Milton’s Brief Epic: The Genre, Meaning and Art of Paradise Regained:

More than fifty years on, it is still the best thing ever written on Paradise Regained, but at this distance one is struck by how carefully Lewalski draws the horizons of her scholarship: that is, the sense of what this work is ultimately about. In a blog post called Misplaced Horizons in Literary Studies, I have written about the drawing of horizons in criticism and the perspectives that contribute to them, and how (especially now, as our common enterprise seems less and less urgent to the rest of the academy, let alone the public) we have to see the making of a horizon as a statement of values: is the horizon the real world, or intellectual history, or the Bible and its influence, with literary texts inside that horizon as perspective? Or is literature itself the horizon, with all of these things inside it as perspective? It is the latter kind of project, I argue, that has met certain parochial customs and rewards of our discipline while pulling us away from the intellectual life of other disciplines—because historians, philosophers, social scientists, and others simply do not see literature as a valuable horizon in relation to the real world.” He writes that Lewalski “broaches Biblical poetics as a guiding concept or a horizon. Suddenly the limitations of genre as a horizon are plain, and while that term continues to play an important role as a contributing perspective, from here on it is nearly always controlled by Lewalski’s more powerful and original concepts of Biblical and Protestant poetics that permit her to chart the flow of ideas and figures into and out of seventeenth-century literature.”

Stanford's Roland Greene remembers an important mentor, Miltonist Barbara Kiefer Lewalski
An unforgettable mentor

“Lewalski’s later work, notably three distinguished monographs, builds on this foundation, but the definitive moment in her scholarship is the passage through the first three books to 1979. A year later, she left Brown University, where she had taught since 1956, for Harvard, and remained there until her retirement in 2015. I had the privilege of knowing her as my teacher and adviser in my undergraduate years at Brown and then a few years later as my colleague at Harvard. For many of us, Barbara at Brown was her essential phase, in which her approach was still being formed in conversation with … peers such as [Earl] Miner, who became my Ph.D. adviser. By contrast, Barbara at Harvard in the 1980s and nineties was an eminence who embodied a settled method, a then somewhat old-fashioned historical scholarship that stood apart from the fashion for the New Historicism of the time. In the Brown years, moreover, she was younger (not yet fifty when I first knew her) and more informal, and her human existence took place in Providence, where she lived until the end of her life, as it never did in Cambridge. I can see Barbara in shabby Horace Mann House at Brown in about 1977, wearing casual clothes she would never appear in at Harvard, sitting at the head of the seminar table with one leg tucked under her and reciting in a brassy, colloquial tone: “Busy old fool, unruly sun, / Why dost thou thus / Through windows and through curtains call on us?” As I told my students a few days after Barbara’s passing, I’ll always hear certain poems in her voice. Maybe our voices that survive resonantly in the memories of students are as powerful as those in our criticism; or maybe these voices are somehow the same. I believe Barbara found her voice in those early books and in the Brown era.”

Read the whole thing here.

West Side Story: a movie review and Girardian analysis in 18 tweets. You’ll thank me and save $13.69.

September 3rd, 2022
It’s splashy, anyway. Photo by Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Studios.

Saturday night is usually the night people go to the movies. But it’s a Labor Day weekend, so you have two more nights to head out to your local movie theater.

Here. We can save you about $13.69 in AMC ticket prices. We have a review below of the new (okay, not so new) Steven Spielberg‘s West Side Story, and it’s a stinker. The review comes to us courtesy of “Paulos “(handle @myth_pilot) on Twitter. He describes himself as an “interpreter of dreams” – which is kind of what a movie reviewer does.

Here goes:

Tyler Cowen interviews the Book Haven, and “Czesław Miłosz: A California Life” is up for a book award!

August 29th, 2022

Last week I received some great news for me – and some terrific news for Czesław Miłosz: A California Life (Heyday Books), too! We’re both finalists for the Northern California Book Awards, in the non-fiction category (I am definitely non-fiction; so is the book). And that’s an honor, too, whatever happens at the event!

So join all of us celebrating on Sunday, September 11, 2022, 2:00 pm, when the 41st annual Northern California Book Awards recognize the best published works of 2021 by Northern California authors and California translators state-wide, presented by the Northern California Book Reviewers, Poetry Flash, and San Francisco Public Library, with community partners Mechanics’ Institute Library, Women’s National Book Association-San Francisco Chapter, and Pen West. Book sales and signing will take place in the lobby of Koret Auditorium at the San Francisco Public Library on Larkin Street.

The event is free and open to the public. And I’ll be signing books, too!

More good news: I have an interview with economist Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution fame (we wrote about his interview with Ted Gioia here.) Go to the podcast here. It’s been getting lots of traction on Twitter. Check that out, too.

Tyler has done lots of interviews – I’m #157. Collect the whole set here.

So lots to celebrate all around, as summer slowly winds to a close.

Celebrate the summer while it lasts: Milton’s Paradise isn’t lost at all in Chalfont St. Giles!

August 20th, 2022

I’ve written about the Milton Cottage, John Milton‘s only surviving residence in the world, here and here. And I’ve also written about Stanford’s one day-long celebration fourteen years ago, to coincide with the poet’s 400th birthday by reading Paradise Lost, here.

But why not just celebrate the season in beautiful Buckinghamshire? Paradise wasn’t lost at all today in Chalfont St. Giles, where Milton had a short sojourn in 1665-66. Milton fans gathered in the cottage to read Paradise Lost, beginning to end, all 10,550 lines of it, and commemorated the event on Twitter (@miltoncottage). And now we share it with you – the morning, afternoon, the evening, when they finished the last lines fortified with a few glasses of wine, as Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden:

Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

“Come and join us!” they call. Don’t we wish?

And an update this morning:

Poet Tomas Venclova in the LARB: “Whatever else, now speak. There is nothing more real.”

August 17th, 2022

The Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, one of Europe’s leading poets, has been a correspondent of mine for many years – since, in fact, the Czesław Miłosz centenary celebrationsl in Kraków, 2011, where we met. I have to admit I haven’t been a very good one. Tomas comes from the era of letters – I come from the era of the Tweet. Nonetheless, I treasure him and his emails, whenever we exchange them. (I’ve written about him here and here and here, among other places.)

Sometimes I’d get a postcard or two when he was vacationing in Kotor, Montenegro, one of his favorite cities. Two of them have been pinned to my dresser mirror for ages, so I thought I’d share them with you, along with a short note about Kotor on a third.

The streets of Kotor, on a postcard

I’ve always been eager to make Tomas Venclova better known outside Europe, so I was pleased to mediate the correspondence that brought two of his most recent poems into English and to the West, with the help of poet and translator Ellen Hinsey. They’re in the a recent edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

From the introduction, written by his translator Rimas Uzgiris:

“A human rights activist and an outspoken opponent of the Soviet regime — having spent, thanks to that, almost half his life in exile — Venclova has remained a cosmopolitan humanist, a skeptical lyricist whose poetry is guardedly hopeful. He holds tight to his ethical convictions — especially the sanctity of the individual life — and to the beautiful image, the music of the line, the logic of a complexly developed thought.”

The first poem “On Both Sides of Alnas Lake,” recalls the lake where the young Czesław Miłosz used to swim. It is set in Montenegro, on the Bay of Kotor, with its Venetian fortifications dating from the 15th century).

The second poem, “Before the Fort,” also recalls Kotor:

Before the Fort

Whatever else, speak. Verse hardly holds what is pressed
Over time into the hardening clay of consciousness.
There, we find contrasts of colors and fine detail,
The ocean’s gleam, shame, wonder, and our travail.
Maybe after death. But the plane rolls down the runway.
Maybe when you won’t exist. But a sentence has no fate.
Over the horizon’s line, by the switchback — a medley
Of roofs. The citadel casts its shadow by Gurdich Gate.

Greet the scorched grasses, whose dry clumps lock up
The stretch of bay where nameless towns of stone
Age and decay. Thunderstorms slip along the strand
On the other side of the well-burnished slope.
Clouds. An untamed motorboat stirs the current alone
And from bay bottom raises Mediterranean sand.
Now, in the darkening mirror, you don’t meet you.
A lamp, a keyboard, a dictionary. That much came true.

On the windward side of storms, at Europe’s deaf edge,
Where you’ve been taken by fate or divine caprice,
You will lodge in darkness, as others have found a place
Beyond horizon’s brushstroke or the switchback’s ledge.
The keyboard flickers, a presence hovers that you but feel.
The mirror fades. Age enfetters the fatigued body alive.
You can’t begin from the start, no matter how you strive.
Whatever else, now speak. There is nothing more real.

Read the whole thing in the Los Angeles Review of Books

On the Rushdie attack: “The illiterate cannot be allowed to dictate the rules of literature.”

August 13th, 2022
Salman Rushdie in conversation with Timothy Garton Ash in 2014. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Last night’s Twitter feed was dispiriting. A surprising number of tweeters from the Middle East came out of the woodwork to pray for the death of Salman Rushdie, who was attacked yesterday. Even many Americans didn’t seem to understand that “free speech” protects speech that you don’t like or find offensive. That’s the point. Other speech doesn’t need protection.

Douglas Murray posted “The Best Response to Salman Rushdie’s Stabbing” over at The Spectator. You can read the whole thing here. An excerpt:

Sontag: No surrender

In his 2012 memoir – Joseph Anton – Rushdie wrote about the fatwa years. The book is a detailed chronicle of all the people who let him down: the MPs who promised support and then whipped up mobs; the political figures of left and right who said that while the Ayatollah may have caused an offence so had the novelist; the authorities who allowed Muslims in Bradford and others on television to call for a British subject´s murder with impunity.

But it is also a chronicle of the people who supported him, the friends who stood by him and the public figures who stood up for him. One of them was the American writer Susan Sontag, who helped organise a public reading of Rushdie´s work in New York. As Sontag said, the moment called for some basic ‘civic courage’. It is striking how much of that civic courage has evaporated in recent years. Today no one would be able to write – much less get published – a novel like The Satanic Verses. Perhaps nobody has tried. From novels to cartoons a de facto Islamic blasphemy law settled across the West in the wake of the Rushdie affair. The attack today will doubtless exacerbate that.

So apart from willing, wishing or praying for Rushdie´s recovery, the only other thing that can be done now is to display that civic courage that Sontag called for three decades ago.  The Satanic Verses is a complex but brilliant novel. It includes an hilarious and devastating reimagining of the origins of the Quran. I hope that people will read it, and read from it, more than ever. Because what happened in New York today cannot be allowed to win. The illiterate cannot be allowed to dictate the rules of literature. The enemies of free expression cannot be allowed to quash it. The attacker should get exactly the opposite of the response he will have hoped for. Not just hopefully a failure to silence Rushdie, but a failure to limit what the rest of us are allowed to think, read, hear and say.

Read the whole thing here.

Update on August 13, from Google: “The Satanic Verses reached No. 1 in contemporary fiction on Amazon’s best-sellers list on Saturday, in the wake of the stabbing attack on the author the day before.

From Rushdie’s friend: “Always support free speech, especially speech we hate. Otherwise there’s no hope at all.”

August 12th, 2022
Salman Rushdie and Abbas Raza, at his the latter’s home in northern Italy.

For most of us, Salman Rushdie is only a name in the news, a man famous for his books and his marriages. To some of my friends, including Abbas Raza, founder of 3QuarksDaily (we’ve written about it here), he is more than that. Rushdie is a personal friend, and a friend of his extended Pakistani family.

Hence, Karachi-born Abbas Raza wrote on Facebook today about the attempted murder of the renowned Indian writer: “He is in critical condition with much blood loss. Apparently an artery in his neck was severed. I hope he comes back from this roaring. Let us all, in this dangerous moment, renew our commitment to always supporting free speech, especially speech we hate. Otherwise there’s no hope at all.”

On 3QD, he remembered Valentine’s Day 1989, when the fatwa was issued. In a 3QD post, he wrote: “… I knew in my gut that this was the opening salvo in what would become a massive internationalization of an Islamic war on freedom of speech and expression. After all, the government of Iran was threatening and planning to murder a British citizen, and even encouraging other Britons to murder him by putting a bounty on his head, with the enthusiastic approval of a large proportion of Muslims everywhere.

“And although, thank goodness, Rushdie remains safe, the Islamists have largely been winning this war since. They have successfully intimidated a very large number of writers and artists and journalists and film-makers all over the world into silence (and many live in exile because of threats to their safety), and within Muslim countries they have in addition used blasphemy laws to persecute their enemies and basically make any discussion of religion impossible.

“All this while religious apologists continue to proclaim to CNN and the BBC that their religion stands only for peace. Tell that to the tens of thousands of victims of religious violence in Pakistan alone. “Oh, the number of extremists is very small; most Muslims are peace-loving people.” The number of actual terrorists is always small. The problem is that too great a proportion of Muslims sympathize with these people, which is why it is impossible to eliminate them. Let us stop fooling ourselves with this nonsense. People need to stand up for free speech unequivocally, and against this barbarity, and especially Muslims need to. The battle must be joined now, in every way possible.”

Postscript from Abbas Raza: “I have written something about Salman Rushdie every year on Valentine’s Day since 1989, so for 33 years now. Here is what I wrote most recently: ‘Oddly enough, Valentine’s Day has become inextricably conflated in my mind with Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie. I can clearly remember where I was on this day in 1989: at my desk in the U.S. Department of Labor just off the mall in Washington, D.C., where I was working as a young engineer. I was shocked and dismayed to hear the news and revolted by the murderous threat issued by Khomeini. Of course, things have only gotten worse with religious bigots responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of people in the quarter century since that day. One can be thankful for Salman’s continued safety but, at least in my estimation, the damage done to free expression in the arts has been immense. I know for a fact (because they have told me) that writers practice a kind of self-censorship in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair because they do not wish to be killed. Sad. But happy Valentine’s day!’ I hope he will make it through this fine. But the world will still remain a darker, scarier place than it was yesterday. And free speech is under attack everywhere now.”

The comforts of artisanal toast and single-source coffee are finite. Try the humanities.

August 6th, 2022
Zena Hitz: seeking silence and contemplation in a noisy and confused world

“The exaltation of the articulate obscures the fact that there are millions of people in this world who feel and and in some way carry on courageously even though they cannot talk or reason brilliantly. This very talk may obscure everything we know of now, and who knows but that silence may lead us to it.”

So writes Zena Hitz, author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton University Press). It’s one of many thoughtful and brilliantly expressed ideas her quest for contemplation and connection in an increasingly fragmented, superficial, overloaded, and technological world.

What more beautiful defense of the humanities is there than this? “If intellectual life is not left to rest its splendid uselessness, it will never bear its practical fruit.” According to Stanley Fish, it’s an ancient thought, “but one that must be relearned, especially at times like ours when a passion for social justice is the new idol to which disinterested contemplation is being sacrificed.”

Here’s another passage, chosen almost at random, about how the fruits of contemplation are being suborned when social climbing appropriates intellectual terroir.

“As Pierre Bourdieu argued in Distinction, matters of taste and culture enforce social boundaries; it is part of their nature to indicate social status. But if there is nothing else to intellectual life, it is only sophisticated pleasure held in place by whatever supports a high-status lifestyle, then it cannot change us. It remains a form of entertainment rather than a means of self-examination or personal transformation. Nor can it be a refuge when the conditions for wealth and comfort collapse, or if the institutions that support us in our lifestyles fall apart, or if we fail to meet their conditions, or if we are the victims of dramatic political or economic change. (Would artisanal toast or single-source coffee be such a refuge?)

“The enemies of intellectual life are not simply yokels enmeshed in practical tasks who cannot understand sophisticated forms of inquiry. A real yokel, as we’ve seen, is not a simple rustic but someone who pursues wealth and status no matter the cost. We are ourselves the yokels. Inordinate desires for wealth and status are easier for the intellectually inclined to see when they are sought by those outside intellectual life, like Strepsiades [in Aristophanes‘s Clouds]. They are far more difficult for us to discern when they become deeply bound up with a specifically intellectual mode of being. The love of learning becomes fused with the love of wealth or status when we view intellectual pursuits as a way to join a superior race of beings, whether that is a higher economic class or an elite superior still.”

More praise: “Miłosz’s deeply fertile relationship with the United States, and the landscape and culture of California in particular, has not been fully appreciated.”

August 2nd, 2022

From J. Elliot’s August substack newsletter: an excellent paragraph of praise for Czesław Miłosz: A California Life:

Cynthia L. HavenCzesław Miłosz: A California Life. Having already read Andrzej Franaszek’s excellent Miłosz biography, the broad outlines of the poet’s time at U.C. Berkeley—where he lived for four decades before returning to Poland in his final years—were familiar to me. But Haven argues, persuasively, that Miłosz’s conflicted but deeply fertile relationship with the United States, and the landscape and culture of California in particular, has not been fully appreciated. There, he saw his original naive view of the American continent as a realm of pure natura, in contrast with the Sisyphean nightmare of Europe trapped in History, slowly unravel as he grappled with his adopted home’s complexities and contradictions. Seemingly providentially, the Californian anti-humanist poet Robinson Jeffers appeared then as a near-perfect interlocutor and foil for Miłosz’s particular fixations: his constant wrestling with the source of evil in the world and in himself; his alternating worship of and suspicion of Nature; his ambivalence over the redeemability of humanity; his hunger to locate a synthesis of change and eternity in art; and his exile from his native tongue and the political struggles of his homeland, which all at once isolated him, filled him with resentment and shame, challenged and deepened his spirituality, and ultimately elevated his work to the world stage.

Coming attractions: “René Girard: All Desire Is a Desire for Being” will be out with Penguin Modern Classics next spring!

July 28th, 2022

Proud to show off my new anthology: René Girard: All Desire Is a Desire for Being, published by Penguin Modern Classics in London. The cover illustration below features Pablo Picasso‘s 1933 etching, “Sculpteur Avec Son Modele, Sa Sculpture Et Un Bol D’Anemones” (Sculptor with His Model, His Sculpture, and a Bowl of Anemones).

René Girard would have loved the cover, I think. He knew Picasso during that magical summer of 1947, when René and his friends launched the Avignon Festival. (The actor Jean Vilar joined later, and the festival became known for its theater, not the art exhibition that started it.) René shared many fond memories of Picasso with me. A few of them are in remembered in Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard:

It was all heady stuff for the two footloose young men. “My friend and I were in a state of continuous mimetic drunkenness at the thought of being involved in such important cultural events. I remember going to [Pablo] Picasso’s painting studio in Paris, on the Quai des Grands Augustins, and picking out twelve paintings with my friend and others, which we then took down to Avignon in a little truck,” said Girard. “I also remember mishandling the Blouses roumaines, which was quickly repaired”—fortunately, because the festival offered no insurance for the masterpieces loaded onto trucks. It took a month for the duo to gather the twelve paintings from Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and also works by Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, and others for the exhibition.

In Palo Alto, Girard looked around his comfortably large living room, and waved his arm to indicate the space—the art impresario Zervos, he said, had “three times that full of famous paintings of the twentieth century.” He and his friend Jacques, he added, “were quite seduced by that.”

Into this war-torn and threadbare country, the superstars arrived: “Picasso came to Avignon during the summer, in his chauffeur-driven car. He complained humorously but loudly that there was no advertising for the exhibition along the road between Paris and Avignon.”

He had a hidden motive, according to Girard: he wanted to make sure that Matisse and Braque had given the same number of paintings, and ones of equal importance and value. For Girard, watching the painters jostle for supremacy, or at least parity, was another early lesson in mimetic rivalry.

Picasso spent two months among them, and pulled out his easel and paints while in Avignon. “My impression was that he was a very clever man—and because of that, he was a lot of fun,” he said. “Picasso was kidding all the time.” In keeping with the spirit of rivalry, Georges Braque came to spend a month among the Avignonnais, too.

Who started the Avignon Festival? Girard whimsically credits neither Zervos nor Vilar, but rather the poor, little-known Spaniard, on his way to Paris before either of the world wars: “It is possible that the original idea for the exhibition came from Picasso himself, who enjoyed talking about his first visit to Avignon. It was on his way from Spain, when he first came to Paris.

He stopped at the Castle of the Popes to see it and, being very poor, he had offered to paint the concierge’s portrait for five francs. The offer was rejected. It was Picasso’s desire at the end of his life to have his last exhibition in the Castle of the Popes, and that is what happened.”

It’s especially an honor for me to publish with Penguin Modern Classics. I became aware of the series in my early days at the University of Michigan, when I picked up the Selected Poems of my professor, the late Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, with its startling purple-and-green cover (see it here).

Boris Dralyuk’s “My Hollywood” in the TLS: “microscopic close-ups of experience.”

July 25th, 2022
Poet Boris Dralyuk…

Boris Dralyuk‘s My Hollywood (Paul Dry Books) continues to get high praise (we wrote about it here and here), this time in the Times Literary Supplement. The critic is the eminent poet Rachel Hadas (we’ve written about her here), writing: “The formal panache and ingenuity that make My Hollywood so pleasurable to read also serve to heighten its poignant blend of celebration and elegy.'”

An excerpt:

My Hollywood, Boris Dralyuk’s debut collection of poems, is so thematically coherent, so satisfying as an achieved gesture and mood, that it is easy to overlook just how multidimensional Dralyuk’s art is. While admiring the integrity of the collection as a whole, we can appreciate the minute details that stand out – “No molds or lasers, just the human touch”, as “The Minor Masters” has it. Or can we only take in the pattern of the whole when we have studied the details of Dralyuk’s craft? However we approach them, these poems reward close attention.

… and poet Rachel Hadas

Some lines offer almost microscopic close-ups of experience. Looking at old LPs in “Universal Horror”, the poet notices that “Motes build tract housing in the grooves of vinyl”. “Plants in Pots”, a couplet dedicated to the late Samuel Menashe, shares Menashe’s compressed wit and fondness for wordplay: “Calm captives, inch by inch, they make their flight, / and reach the window, bent on seeing light”. In “Notation” the view is closer still: “I was the tangled sheet / still clinging to your feet, / holding your ankles bound”.

Dralyuk’s imagery is consistently precise and unexpected, especially when it comes to technology. Thus, “A crow clacks in the branches overhead, / like a projector slowly going dead” (“Aspiration”); memories are “like VHS tapes after years of viewing / and spooling backwards to the sweetest spot” (“Bargain Circus”). In “Babel at the Kibitz”, “ACs burr and wheeze like old hasidim”.

The whole thing behind an inevitable paywall here.

A Pulitzer for Duke Ellington! Ted Gioia champions the cause. Will he win? Sign the petition.

July 21st, 2022
Portrait of the young Ted Gioia at the piano, before early arthritis ended his performing career.

It takes 5,000 signatures on a petition to get media attention. And it worked like a charm for musician and jazz scholar Ted Gioia. He’s now doubled that with more than 10,300 signatures. (You can sign, too, here or on the link at the bottom of the page.)

His campaign: A posthumous Pulitzer for Duke Ellington, who was denied the honor way back in 1965. As I write, “Duke Ellington” is trending on Twitter.

Here’s what happened:

“In 1965, the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Music recommended that jazz composer Duke Ellington receive the award in honor of his lifetime legacy of excellence. The Pulitzer Board denied the request, and decided to give no award in music that year rather than honor an African-American jazz composer. In the aftermath, two of the three jury members resigned in protest.

Duke Ellington in India (Creative Commons)

“The time has come to rectify this unfortunate decision, and name Duke Ellington as the winner of the 1965 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The recent precedent of Jim Thorpe‘s reinstatement as sole winner of the 1912 Olympic gold medals, taken from him 110 years ago, makes clear that even after many decades these wrongs can still be righted. Ellington was a deserving candidate back in 1965, and the significance of his legacy has become all the clearer with the passage of time. Giving him the 1965 prize is the right thing for Duke Ellington, the right thing for the Pulitzer, and the right thing for American music.”

John McWhorter of the New York Timesagrees: “I’m hoping it stimulates a big, beautiful noise that undoes this wrong.” He finds it unlikely that racism wasn’t involved in the Pulitzer decision-making.

He continues: “We assume that Pulitzers are awarded to work that qualifies as for the ages, that pushes the envelope, that suggests not just cleverness but genius. There can be no doubt that Ellington’s corpus fits that definition.”

“I’ll never forget deciding, in my early 20s, that I wanted to know what the big deal was about Ellington and popping in a CD with a recording of 1927’s ‘Black and Tan Fantasy.’ Just the opening, in all of its blue, narrative and outright odd soaring, made the proverbial hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It was one of those “What is this?” moments. I remember marveling about it with my father, a lifelong jazz fan, with him smiling and saying, “John, you got it!’ Indeed, Ellington was something one ‘got.’ Like James Joyce, the Coen brothers or Charles Mingus, you might not quite get what the hubbub is about at first, but when you do, watch out. ‘Mood Indigo’ opens with muted trombone on melody playing up high, then clarinet playing down low, then muted trumpet playing somewhere in the middle — deliciously weird! The result is a gentle astringence that results in an uncommon kind of tenderness.” (Read the whole thing at the NYT here.)

As of yesterday, Ted wrote in his Substack column, “The Honest Broker”: “There has been no response from the Pulitzer board. Zero. Nada. Zilch. But the media has just started paying attention to this initiative.”

You can read the whole back story here. Says Ted: “Revisiting the matter today would simply require the Board voting to accept the original jury recommendation. 

“A dozen other Pulitzer winners have already expressed their support.” And a number of American composers have also signed: John Adams, John Luther Adams, William Bolcom, Philip Glass, David Lang, Tania León, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Caroline Shaw.

I love the evocative photo of a young Ted above, before arthritis at a young age ended his career as a performer and composer. Want to hear one of Ted’s musical compositions? Check out here. And check out the story about it here.

Postscript from Ted Gioia:

I am now awaiting a response from the Pulitzer board.

I want to express my heartfelt thanks to the many of you who have supported this worthy cause. This is out of our hands, but we’ve made a historic effort, and my hope is that Duke Ellington will get the Pulitzer Prize he was denied in 1965.

“Give All to Love”: New film spotlights Emerson as a deeply original, a radical thinker – and features James Marcus, too

July 19th, 2022
A screenshot of James Marcus during our recent zoom conversation at legendary City Lights Books

James Marcus, former editor of Harper’s Magazine and author of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut, has been laboring for years on a book about Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we can’t wait for it to come out. Now he’s going to be in an Emerson film, too. Here’s more from Globe Newswire:

“Ralph Waldo Emerson is undoubtedly not only the father of American literature and the guiding spirit of that flinty idea called ‘Transcendentalism,'” commented Michael Maglaras, “but he is also the father of our American conscience.”

Emerson (1803-1882), through his journals, essays, lectures, and poetry, guided the development of American thought, spiritual expansion, and adherence to moral principles. Emerson’s approach to living and to life was dynamic, forceful, and radical in its conception and fulfillment. 

Bringing an iconic figure to life again

ASHFORD, Conn., July 06, 2022 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Connecticut-based independent filmmakers Michael Maglaras and Terri Templeton of 217 Films announce that their new film project will be a full-length documentary on America’s greatest philosopher and thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Ralph Waldo Emerson: Give All to Love” will be their ninth film in 18 years and the eighth “essay in film” by writer/director Michael Maglaras.

“Without Emerson’s legacy,” said Maglaras, “it would be difficult to imagine American cultural life and impossible to imagine the development of America as a society. Emerson is the spiritual father of the poetry of Walt Whitman, the music of Charles Ives, the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Currently being shot on location in and around Concord, Massachusetts, this film will have as its focal point and backdrop “Bush”: the wonderful Emerson home where the poet and his wife Lidian reared their children and where Emerson, the great “Sage of Concord,” resided as a simple but revered citizen of America until his death.

Emerson scholar and writer James Marcus will be featured in the film. “I’m delighted to be collaborating with director Michael Maglaras on this important project that will bring Ralph Waldo Emerson to life. Emerson speaks to our time with tremendous urgency…touching on the entirety of the American experience.”

Bay Emerson Bancroft, President of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association, has said of this film project, “We are so pleased to endorse this new documentary film on Emerson…really the first of its kind…and to cooperate with the filmmakers on its production. As we approach the 220th anniversary of Emerson’s birth, this film will introduce him to an entirely new audience.”

“What’s important for me as a filmmaker is not only what Emerson wrote and said,” added Michael Maglaras, “but also that he surrounded himself with people of brilliance, such as Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May and Bronson AlcottTo be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment… wrote Emerson. This film will capture the essence of Emerson as the deeply original and radical thinker he was.”

James told me on Twitter: “I think it’s going to be a classy, smart, artful film, and the first Emerson documentary in a really long time.”

James Marcus on PBS

Czesław Miłosz’s final resting place and the church that gave Robert Hass “the creeps.”

July 16th, 2022
Miłosz’s burial place: “Not liking the fact that it is,/Perhaps, what he would have wanted.”

Long ago, in 2008, I wrote a Los Angeles Times article about the death of Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz and its aftermath, called: Czeslaw Milosz: a poet’s long passage back home.

It begins like this:

During a late night in Krakow, nonagenarian Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz was tipping back the vodka with
Jerzy Illg, editor in chief at his Polish publishing house, Znak. Late in the evening, a touchy topic dropped on the table: Where would Milosz like to be buried?

Should his final resting place be with his mother, in a city near Gdańsk? Illg dismissed the notion outright. “Who will light a candle for you there?” he asked.

Should he be buried instead in his beloved homeland, Lithuania – perhaps in Vilnius, the city of his youth?

Illg proposed the famous cemetery in the Salwator district of Krakow. Many poets and critics were buried on the hilltop graveyard. It would provide “good company and a good view.”

When, sometime later, Illg told Bronislaw Maj about this conversation, the younger poet chided him. Milosz had been fishing for the obvious answer, the mollifying answer: Wawel, the ancient castle/cathedral complex at the very heart of Krakow. Poland’s leading poets are honored there – Norwid, Slowacki and, of course, the nation’s ur-poet, Adam Mickiewicz, another Polish-speaking Lithuanian. “Of course it was a joke,” Illg recalls, “but it has a deep truth.”

You can revisit the fuss over the funeral towards the end of my article here, from the University of Notre Dame’s eminent journal.

I remember what his foremost translator and close friend, the poet Robert Hass told me, as recounted in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz: “I was walking with Adam Zagajewski and Seamus Heaney down the middle of this jammed medieval street, following the casket from St. Mary’s in the Square to the Church of St. Peter on the Rock, where he was going to be buried in this crypt—it gives me the creeps to think he’s buried in the basement of the church.”

Well, “basement of a church” has certain limited connotations, of potluck dinners and bingo games, for example. He wrote about the church that gave him “the creeps” many years later, in his magnificent poem in his award-winning collection, Summer Snow, entitled “An Argument about Poetics Imagined at Squaw Valley after a Night Walk under the Mountain.” An excerpt:

Czesław was buried in a crypt – in the Krakovian church
Of St. Peter of the Rock – among other Polish notables.
I hated the idea of it and still do, that his particular body
Is lying there in a cellar of cold marble and old bones
Under the weight of two thousand years of the Catholic Church.
(Thinking about this still years later, imagining this dialogue
In the Sierra dark under the shadowy mass of the mountain
And the glittering stars.) Not liking the fact that it is,
Perhaps, what he would have wanted. You should
Have been buried – I’m still talking to him – on a grassy hillside
Open to the sun (the Lithuanian sun the peasants
Carved on crosses in the churchyard in your childhood)
And what you called in one poem “the frail light of birches.”
And he might have said no. He might have said,
I choose marble and the Catholic Church because
They say no, to natural beauty that lures us and kills us. …

So here are some photos of the famous church, which the Poles call Na Skałka. It’s not Wawel, nor does it have the cosy familiarity of the Salwator district, but it has charms of its own. Photos courtesy of Alex E. Lessard, who sent them after a recent visit to beloved Kraków.

Good grief: on death, mourning, and unpredictability

July 12th, 2022
“We do not ultimately recover from grief; if lucky, we merely at best are able to adjust to it.”

Grief is painful. We all know that. But Is there a “good grief”? Eminent essayist and man of letters Joseph Epstein discusses grief, theoretically and from personal experience, including the devastating loss of his son by opioid overdose, as well as departed relatives and friends in his essay, “Good Grief” in Commentary. Like him, I haven’t experienced the legendary “five states of grief,” which I see as an attempt to organize and manage grief, which is by its nature tormenting, chaotic, unpredictable.

Socrates argued that we should keep death foremost in our minds, and that our inevitable deaths will goad us to live better lives. “But no one has told us how to deal with the deaths of those we love or found important to our own lives. Or at least no one has done so convincingly,” he writes. A few excerpts:

Keepin’ it real.

Like death itself, grief is too manifold; it comes in too many forms to be satisfactorily captured by philosophy or psychology. How does one grieve a slow death by, say, cancer, ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s; a quick death by heart attack, stroke, choking on food, car accident; death at the hands of a criminal, which in our day is often a random death; death at a person’s own hands by suicide; death in old age, middle age, childhood; death in war; yes, death by medicine tragically misapplied. Grief can take the form of anger, even rage, deep sorrow, confusion, relief; it can be long-lived, short-term, almost but never quite successfully avoided. The nature of grief is quite as highly variegated as its causes.

Grief, like the devil, is in the details. I have a good friend whose son committed suicide at age 41. A young man devoted to good works, he ended his life working for an international agency in central Africa. At his suicide, the only note he left was about what he called “this event” having nothing to do with his work. To this day, then, his father and other relatives do not know the reason for his taking his own life, which adds puzzlement to my friend’s grief, a puzzlement perhaps never to be solved.


But no one has told us how to deal with the deaths of those we love or found important to our own lives. Or at least no one has done so convincingly. The best-known attempt has been that of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist, in her 1969 book On Death and Dying and in her later book, written with David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving (2005). Kübler-Ross set out a five-stage model for grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Yet in my own experience of grieving, I went through none of these stages, which leads me to believe there is more to it than is dreamt of in any psychology yet devised.

Or, one might add, in any philosophy. In Grief, Michael Cholbi, who holds the chair in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, informs us that philosophy has never taken up the subject of grieving in an earnest way. He attempts to make the positive case for grief: “The good in grief, I propose, is self-knowledge.” Cholbi defines grief as “an emotionally driven process of attention whose object is the relationship transformed by the death of another in whom one has invested one’s practical identity.” As for the term “practical identity,” it was coined by the American philosopher Christine Korsgaard, who writes that it is “a description under which you value yourself, a description under which you find your life to be worth living and your actions to be worth undertaking.” The value of grief, then, according to Cholbi, is that “it brings the vulnerability, and ultimate contingencies of our practical identities into stark relief” and, ideally, “culminates in our knowing better what we are doing with our lives.”

Did she get it right?


More recently Midge Decter, a dear friend, died at age 94. One cannot be shocked, or even surprised, by the death of someone who has attained her nineties, yet one can nonetheless feel the subtraction created by her absence. I loved to invoke her intelligent laughter, and it would never occur to me to attempt in any way to dupe her full-court-press savvy. One of the sad things about growing older is that one runs out of people to admire, as I admired Midge, for her good sense, her wit, her intellectual courage.


Cholbi, while allowing that grief is “perhaps the greatest stressor in life,” finds it neither a form of madness nor worthy of being medicalized, grief being neither a disease nor a disorder. He finds it instead part of “the human predicament,” a part that eludes even philosophical understanding. “We can grieve smarter,” he writes. “But ultimately, we cannot outsmart grief. Nor should we want to.” We do not ultimately recover from grief; if lucky, we merely at best are able to adjust to it.

Read the whole thing here.

Czesław Miłosz: A California Life: “Less a biography than an occasion for the deepest engagement with art and life. We need more books like this!”

July 2nd, 2022

Scott Beauchamp weighed in on Czesław Miłosz: A California Life over the spring, and we couldn’t be more delighted, though we’re a bit late posting the excerpt. Scott Beauchamp is an editor for Landmarks, the journal of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy. He’s interviewed me before, for Johns Hopkins University’s The Hub. We wrote about that here. From the Washington Examiner:

As one of Don DeLillo’s displaced East Coast professors says in the novel White Noise, “California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.” California has always been a screen for America to project its feelings onto. Even its staggering natural violence, from mudslides to fires, earthquakes, and droughts, counterpoints to its reputation for perfect climate, are themselves incorporated into the larger narrative of acquisitive dreaming and libertine utopianism.

These are the basic components to the fantasy of California: the implacable otherness of nature mingling with the dreaming human mind at the edge of the continent. Within this melange, nature always seems to have the upper hand. Far from reducing art to frivolity, this relationship liberates it in some sense, like a small fish riding the wake of much larger and completely oblivious sharks. And so, while there may not be one single “California style” in literature and poetry, surely there’s a unifying spirit that relishes proximity to the serrated edge of things.

Cynthia Haven, celebrated author of 2018’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of Rene Girard as well as two previous books about Czesław Miłosz, brings this energy to bear in her latest work, A California Life: Czesław Miłosz. More daring and more rewarding than a straightforward biography of the self-exiled Polish poet, A California Life channels the tensions between Miłosz and his adoptive home and lets that friction energize the project. In other words, this is less about a poet and his life and more about how a brilliant artist and thinker steeped in Old World culture learned to exist in the amnesiac fog of California. …

Understanding this, though, is only the beginning of appreciating what a triumph A California Life really is. Haven gives us Miłosz in all of his specific granularity: the way he dotes on the deer visiting his home on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley, his relationships with students and other poets, his relationships with his children. But as the philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset said, we are ourselves plus our circumstances. And in this book, Haven gives the circumstances a life equal to the human subject. There are too many beautiful passages to mention, but one that particularly stands out is when California wildfires are placed beside the destruction of Warsaw:

“We are choking on the air, which is filled with particles of everything that has burned so far. We inhale not only the blazing houses and stores and garages but also what’s in them, all this is toxic when airborne — asbestos in roofs and siding, car batteries, cadmium in television sets and mercury from old thermometers, detergents and cleaners, the contest of medicine cabinets, nail polish remover, paint thinner, light bulbs and electronics — all go up in the smoke plumes and fumes. We inhale the dead, too, with every breath we draw.”

This parallels, or perhaps rhymes, with the annihilation of Warsaw by the German engineers who were used to ensure total destruction. But it also in some sense captures the effect that Miłosz’s experiences had on his poetry. He didn’t simply write about the vanished buildings and people. He inhaled the dead and exhaled poetry.

A California Life is ultimately a book about relationships. Miłosz with California. Haven with Miłosz. Haven with California. California with the world. However, the sum is greater than the parts of this rich, knotted matrix. Some biographies succeeded by the biographed becoming translucent, by allowing us almost voyeuristic access to the subject. But in A California Life, Haven the biographer herself is intensely present, and necessarily so. When she includes her own experiences with Miłosz or moving to and living in California, it feels less like an intrusive aside and more like a quorum has finally been achieved. This book is less a biography than an occasion for the deepest engagement with art and life. We need more books like this.

Read the whole thing here.

My conscience is not your talking point.

June 26th, 2022

None of your beeswax (Wikimedia)

Of late, Twitter has become even more of a cesspool than usual. This morning, I noted that J.K. Rowlings, a children’s author, is obligated to explain herself and make announcements about her p.o.v. on Twitter. Twitter pundits say she “owes” that to us. In short, she “owes” us her opinion on any daily subject the mob chooses. She is not entitled to the privacy of her own thoughts.

We see it all the time, of course: famous people are asked to comment about matters far beyond their ken or even interest. Someone whose job is to imitate fictitious people onscreen is somehow expected to be a sagacious expert on the war in Ukraine, inflation, Constitutional law, or electoral politics.

Hence, Luke Burgis’s column, “Don’t Feed Your Conscience to the Dogs,” over at his website Anti-Mimetic, is vital reading: “We live in a society where people are forced to manifest their conscience on issues ranging from sexuality to geo-politics to abortion—even on whether or not they agree with someone else’s tweet—in real-time, and practically at gunpoint. The threat of ostracization, job loss, or public ridicule lurks behind the slightest deviation from the mimetic moral norm of the day.”

Luke is the author of Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, recently out with St. Martin’s Press. We wrote about it here.

His first job was an eye-opener

Luke learned the hard way, at his first job after college “when I dipped my toe into the investment banking waters (for what turned out to be less than a year, before moving to California and launching a company.) In our little investment banking ‘group’, the politics were particularly nasty. The junior people realized very quickly that senior bankers were trying to sniff out our degree of orthodoxy about everything from the president to clean energy (and this was 2004-5), and that there were professional consequences for saying the wrong thing.”

“As young and overly ambitious junior people, none of us wanted to be penalized for coming down on the wrong side of an issue just as we were starting our careers; we simply wanted to be evaluated based on our glorified-secretarial-duty merits.”

His time spent in a monastery formed much of his thinking, and he talks about that, too, in his column. However, he raises important questions, whatever your religious, political, or social persuasion.

He continues: “Learning to say ‘no’ can be difficult; learning to not reveal one’s conscience on every single issue that hits the news can be even harder, especially in a society where it is seen as good and noble to have a ‘take’ or a strong moral stance on practically everything…

“I developed responses ranging from ‘I don’t have anything to say about that’ to ‘no comment’ to much more ‘strongly’ worded statements that would help make boundaries clear. Why? Because in these situations, there was nothing to be gained by sharing my moral convictions about things that had absolutely nothing to do with my job. There was an asymmetry of outcome that would have made it idiotic to do so, and I realized right then that learning the skill of maintaining my silence at the appropriate times was a mark of maturity, not timidity or moral agnosticism. It simply means: ‘I choose not to share my conscience with you’ — period. Usually, that’s because I don’t trust the person to honor it and engage with me respectfully.

“I think back to those days because today I see a similar situation playing out in our culture. People are baited and coaxed into revealing things to people who have no goodwill toward them at all, and who may even seek to harm them. Yet most people will have never heard anything resembling the norms developed around ‘manifesting one’s conscience’ that I found buried in those monastic rules, and I think that is a tragedy.”

In conclusion:

“We should not let our monoculture to become a monoconscience; we should fight to erect healthy boundaries around our conscience while also respecting the boundaries of others. And we must understand that nobody should be forced, or ever expected, to manifest their innermost thoughts. These moral convictions are often the fruit of hours, if not years, of careful consideration and grappling—so why throw them to the proverbial dogs who will make our innermost beliefs into memes and soundbites that scarcely represent them at all, and may even deliberately misrepresent them?”

Read the whole thing here. Please.

The modest scholar who dared to send poems to Brodsky. Here’s one of them.

June 25th, 2022

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s interactions with his translators were not always harmonious; in fact, sometimes they were downright contentious. Yet there was often a good deal of mutual affection nevertheless – sometimes even devotion.

My interviews with his first translator, the eminent Bryn Mawr philosopher and Slavic scholar George L. Kline, are the basis of my volume, The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: Conversations with George L. Kline. Kline was one of the key figures in bringing Brodsky to the U.S., and one of the first in the West to recognize his importance as a poet, translating his early 1963 poem Elegy for John Donne, which I was pleased to include in my book (it hadn’t been republished since his first 1973 collection), and bootlegging manuscripts out of the USSR.

Poet and translator had a long tradition of exchanging birthday and holiday messages in verse, often delivered via telegram. It demonstrates the playful friendship that bound the poet and this translator, even through the rough patches when they disagreed about how to translate a line. But, I must admit, it must have taken some courage to send poems to the man who would win a Nobel.

I published several of the poems in the book. Here’s one I missed that I recently found among my papers. It’s dated 1975 – just three years after his expulsion from the U.S.S.R., and sent as a mailgram to Venice, where the poet was spending his holidays:

According to The New York Times
Wet Venice has been saved from sinking.
So let your spirits with her climb,
While light heads banish heavy thinking.

There. How many people would dare to scribble short poems to a world-class poet? I’m rather glad the unassuming scholar did.

“Why don’t you go jump off a cliff?”

June 19th, 2022
One of the most famous cases.

I have been reviewing proofs for my short forthcoming René Girard anthology in the “Was bedeutet das alles?” series [i.e., “what does it all mean?”] for the renowned Reclam publishing house in Leizig. The affordable paperbacks sell for about 6 euros, and introduce readers to a range of thinkers. (It will be out soon, German speakers!)

My introduction discusses mob violence, a recurrent theme in Girard’s corpus. How does a crowd rid themselves of the scapegoat?

One method, in particular, came to mind: René used to write about mobs surrounding a victim near a cliff’s edge, drawing closer and closer till the victim tumbles over the precipice. Nobody is guilty, yet everyone is. It seemed so archaic … but I wonder if it has a modern equivalent.

“Everyone participates in the destruction of the anathema but no one enters into direct physical contact with him. No one risks contamination. The group alone is responsible,” René Girard writes in The Scapegoat about these collective murders. “Individuals share the same degree of innocence and responsibility. It can be said that this is equally true of all other traditional forms of execution, especially any form of exposure, of which crucifixion is one variant. …

“These methods of execution do not feed the appetite for vengeance since they eliminate any difference in individual roles. The persecutors all behave in the same way. Anyone who dreams of vengeance must take it from the whole collectivity. It is as if the power of the state, nonexistent in this type of society, comes into temporary but nevertheless real rather than symbolic existence in these violent forms of unanimity.”

In today’s world, the hatred directed towards high-profile victims-du-jour is such that inspires some poor schnook to load his (it’s almost always a “his”) garage with firearms and make an attack. Then we can say it wasn’t us, it wasn’t our hatred, it was a “lone wolf.” Last week there was an assassination attempt on a Chief Justice, the following day, a hostile mob gathered around the home of a second Supreme Court justice and threatened to target her children. Nothing “happened,” but the ritual had a chilling familiarity. How much of this public unleashing of hatred is an attempt to incite a “lone wolf” attack, as happened in the case of the miserable assassin wannabe, Nicholas Roske? Is there a unacknowledged hope that if we stoke an atmosphere of public hatred someone will eventually tip over the top and “do something”?

One could say that “doxing” works on the same principle. Someone releases lots of personal information about a target – where they live, workplaces, phone numbers – knowing that some kook is going to zero in on him, or her, or them. Of course, the doxxers are completely innocent, since all they did was publish the information. They didn’t tell anyone what to do with it.

This passage from the Book of Luke, Chapter 4 gives a good example of one well-known incident in the archaic world:

16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.

17 And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,

18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

20 And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.

21 And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.

22 And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, Is not this Joseph’s son?

23 And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.

24 And he said, Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country.

25 But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land;

26 But unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow.

27 And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian.

28 And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath,

29 And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong.

30 But he passing through the midst of them went his way,

31 And came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and taught them on the sabbath days.

Postscript: A different version of this post appeared on Facebook’s “Mimetic Theory” page. It’s published on the Book Haven at the request of Mark Riess, who wanted to share it more widely. Names of government figures have been deliberately left off this post. That’s because this isn’t a political thing. It’s a murder thing.

Postscript from George Dunn: Isn’t murder what all hatred aims at? It doesn’t always get there, but it’s always moving in that direction whenever it is rising.

Simone de Beauvoir: on bad faith and old age

June 18th, 2022
Simone de Beauvoir in 1955

“Old age is not exactly a time of life that most of us welcome, although globally speaking it is a privilege to reach it. In Western societies, the shocked realisation that we are growing old often fills us with alarm and even terror. As Simone de Beauvoir writes in her magisterial study of the topic, La vieillesse (1970) – translated in the UK as Old Age, and in the US as The Coming of Age (1972) – old age arouses a visceral aversion, often a ‘biological repugnance’. Many attempt to push it as far away as possible, denying that it will ever happen, even though we know it already dwells within us.”

So begins Kate Kirkpatrick‘s article “Old Not Other” over article over at Aeon. She is an Oxford fellow, and author of Becoming Beauvoir (2019). 

A few excerpts:

Why do we neglect the condition we are all moving towards? Simone de Beauvoir has an answer: bad faith. “In her analysis of old age, Beauvoir expresses sadness and outrage at the bad faith of the not-yet-old with respect to the old. On her assessment, a characteristic attitude of the not-yet-old is ‘duplicity’. On the one hand, many acknowledge that the old deserve respect – at least the respect befitting any person, if not the greater, relative respect befitting a person whose life and learning are great. On the other hand, ‘it is in the adult’s interest to treat the aged man as an inferior being and to convince him of his decline’. Alongside preaching an official ethics of respect, in practice the words and actions of the not-yet-old are frequently demeaning.

“In fleeing from our own old age, we also seek to distance ourselves from its harbingers – from those who are already old: they are ‘the Other’. They are (with some exceptions) viewed as a ‘foreign species’, and as ‘outside humanity’. Excluded from the so-called normal life of society, most are condemned to conditions where their sadness, as Beauvoir puts it, ‘merges with their consuming boredom, with their bitter and humiliating sense of uselessness, and with their loneliness in the midst of a world that has nothing but indifference for them’. Beauvoir’s work sets out to show how old people are viewed and treated as the Other ‘from without’ and also – by drawing on memoirs, letters and other sources – to present their experiences ‘from within’. Her aim is to ‘shatter’ what she calls the ‘conspiracy of silence’ surrounding the old for, she insists, if their voices were heard, we would have to acknowledge that these were ‘human voices’ (emphasis added).”

She concludes:

“More than half a century has passed since Beauvoir’s Old Age was published, and many things have changed – and yet they have also stayed the same. The ‘conspiracy of silence’ has been replaced by a proliferation of public discourses about the old, who are now more often euphemistically referred to as ‘seniors’ or ‘the elderly’. However, for the most part, these discourses still treat the old ‘from without’ and their voices are not heard. Instead, they are presented as ‘problem’ objects: the old are a ‘they’ about which ‘we’ (the active members of the society of which they are no longer deemed a part) need to decide what should be done. But rather than considering how to enable people to flourish in old age for as long as possible, much of the focus is on what ‘they’ are said excessively to consume and how ‘they’ are harming society. An ever-growing number of those aged over 65 today belong to the post-Second World War ‘baby boomer’ generation, and it is about this so-called ‘gray tsunami’ that the silence has been displaced by voluble expressions of hostility and sometimes panic.”

To conclude, in addition to addressing our own bad faith, it is also vitally important to break the ‘conspiracy of silence’ about this furthest frontier of old age where Beauvoir herself did not venture. For it is the oldest of the old whose humanity is least recognised. It is they who are conceived as no more than bodies, who are treated as inert objects, considered outside humanity. And it is we who must resist their degradation

Read the whole thing here.

Message to writers everywhere: STFU!

June 11th, 2022

Talking is not writing. Different skills, different purposes. So I wonder: why are writers everywhere being asked to talk, talk, talk?

Not very good at it.

Becca Rothfeld asks the same question over at The Gawker: “When do writers find the time to do any actual writing? It sometimes seems as though they are always speaking — delivering lectures, pontificating in bookshops, opining on talk shows. If they are lucky enough to win awards, they clear their throats and make grateful remarks; when the books they have somehow secreted between their speaking engagements are at last released, they discuss their ‘inspirations’ and their ‘process’ on podcasts or radio shows. More and more, the life of a professional author involves not writing but talking.” They should not be encouraged, she insists.

Rothfeld continues: “Who in their right mind would want to talk, much less listen, to a person who has contrived to spend as much of her life as possible crouched over her computer in isolation, deleting unsatisfactory variants of a single sentence for upwards of an hour? Nothing in my daily practice has prepared me for the gauntlet of a tête-à-tête. Writing is an antidote to the immediacy and inexactitude of speech, and I resent any attempt to drag me back into the sludge of dialogue.”

Talked for an hour. (Photo: Aspen Institute)

Moreover, writers aren’t very good at actual talking, she adds. “For one thing, authors are often poor orators, inept at the most basic mechanics of verbalization. They hum and halt and hesitate, interrupting themselves, appending caveats to their caveats, thrumming a chorus of tentative ‘ums.’ They are drafters and amenders, if not by vocation than by profession, and in conversation, their strongest pronouncements tend to be timid, as if they were editing in real time. Even when a writer musters a declaration or masters the rhythm of a spoken sentence, her voice often betrays her. I once made the mistake of watching a video of a distinguished philosopher at a conference — and thereby discovering that he emits squawks as discordant as his papers are crisp and crystalline. And then there is the perennial challenge of pacing. Accustomed to laboring at length in seclusion, many writers speak glacially, as if they are lowering themselves into cool water, venturing one word and adjusting to its temperature before cautiously proceeding to the next.
“At least as embarrassing as all these failures of delivery are the things that writers actually say. Books and essays are the product of long bouts of thinking, which makes writers fantastically ill-suited to summoning opinions instantaneously. In spoken interviews, Jonathan Franzen has confessed, among other things, that he considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan as a means of understanding the younger generation — an admission that he surely would have found occasion to excise from an essay. Indeed, it was his New Yorker editor who later talked him out of the idea.”

The worst thing Joyce Carol Oates ever did was join Twitter, she writes. And Vladimir Nabokov?

Great conversation. But today?

“Nabokov, who famously insisted on preparing answers to interviewers in writing and then reading them aloud, was averse to talking precisely because he had the good sense to worry that utterances excreted on the spot would be graceless or inane. When one journalist accused him of trying to cultivate a more exciting persona by eliminating ‘dull patches’ from his public appearances, he explained, in characteristically polished prose, ‘I’m not a dull speaker. I’m a bad speaker, I’m a wretched speaker. The tape of my unprepared speech differs from my written prose as much as the worm differs from the perfect insect—or, as I once put it, I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.'”
She allows that we may have become worse listeners. “William F. Buckley talked to Eudora Welty and Walker Percy for an hour on ‘the Southern imagination.’ It is a great conversation, but it likely wouldn’t be broadcast today. It is too slow and too complicated, which isn’t the writer’s problem. It’s ours.”

Read the whole thing here.

When Nehru read “Lolita”…

June 7th, 2022
The author was always ready for a fight.

Should an “obscene” book be allowed in India? Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had to make the call on Vladimir Nabokov‘s notorious novel when it arrived on the shores of the Arabian Sea.

On April 6, 1959, Customs in Bombay had detained the imported copies of the bombshell book. The can was kicked to the police, the Ministry of Law, and the Ministry of Finance.

Although the book was widely touted in the West, it had been banned in France, England, Argentina, and New Zealand.

The police commissioner of Bombay (now Mumbai) and the local branch of the law ministry maintained that the book did not fall under the category of “obscene literature.” The verdict: free Lolita. However, although the collector of Customs also concluded that the book could not be considered “grossly indecent or obscene,” he nevertheless refused to release the consignment.

The complicated matter of Lolita was then turned over to the straitlaced Finance Minister Moraji Desai, who did not conceal his distaste. In a short note on Lolita, he wrote, “I do not know what book can be called obscene if this cannot be. It is sex perversion.”

Book-loving prime minister

Finally, the buck passed to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who opposed censorship in a book that could claim any literary merit. Here’s what he wrote after he had a chance to review the book:

“Reading this book Lolita, I felt that it was a serious book and in its own line rather outstanding. It is hardly a book which can give light reading to anyone. The language is often difficult. It is true that some parts in it rather shocked me. The shock was more due to the description of certain conditions than to the writing itself. The book is certainly not pornographic in the normal sense of the word. It is, as I have said, a serious book, seriously written. If there had been no fuss about it, no question need have arisen at all of banning it or preventing its entry. It is this fuss that sometimes makes a difference because people are attracted specially to reading books which are talked about in this way.”

In a June 10, 1959 letter, the poet R.V. Pandit wrote Nehru that “larger issues than merely a commercial transaction were involved in this matter and we are glad to have acquainted you with the artificially contrived situation that locked up Lolita for two months.”

Read Shubhneet Kaushik‘s article on the kerfuffle in India’s Scroll here. Read my own article about the book, and it’s curious links to Stanford, here.

W.H. Auden: “what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself”

May 20th, 2022

Some good news in a sad year: Princeton University Press has just published the two-volume set of the complete poems of W.H. Auden, one of the foremost poets of the twentieth century. The volumes, edited, annotated and introduced by leading Auden scholar Edward Mendelson, include unpublished poems, songs, juvenilia, original texts and revisions. Together, the two volumes total nearly 2,000 pages.

There’s significance in the publication date: 2022 marks the hundredth anniversary of the year Auden began writing poetry. Had Princeton waited another eleven years, it would have marked the centenary of another remarkable event in his life, which Mendelson describes in his introduction:

“At the same time, when he was looking publicly toward social revolution, he was quietly approaching an inner one. In May 1933 he wrote a sestina, ‘Hearing of harvests rotting in the valley’, one of his bravura historical summaries of many centuries in a few rapid stanzas. After describing earlier centuries’ fantasies of escape from ‘the sorrow’ of unhappy cities to the happiness of utopias somewhere else, the poem ends by imagining a different kind of transformation, not an escape from sorrow, but the sorrow itself melting into a revitalizing flood, after which ‘we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands.'”

“A few weeks later, in June 1933, he experienced what he later called, in a lightly-disguised autobiographical essay, a ‘Vision of Agape.’ This occurred when, sitting with three fellow teachers at the Downs School, he knew for the first time, because he was experiencing it, ‘what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.'”

An excerpt from the essay:

“One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another.

Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself…. My personal feelings towards them were unchanged—they were still colleagues, not intimate friends—but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.”

Ted Gioia on the hot seat: defending the humanities in a room full of med students

May 14th, 2022

We don’t always get to choose our gigs, so jazz scholar Ted Gioia recently accepted an unlikely invitation to talk to med school students about the humanities. (More news: the Jazz Journalists Association had chosen Ted’s lively and informed The Honest Broker as blog of the year, and also awarded him the Robert Palmer-Helen Oakley Dance Award for Excellence in Writing.)

Back to the med school visit:

So I agreed to give this talk, but with trepidation. When you’re involved in arts or culture and stand up in front of an audience of science or tech people, they expect you to justify the humanities. 

Why should we waste time with you? They don’t actually say that, but it’s hanging thick in the air like a bad odor.

A “casual talk” about the humanities turns into a plea to the jury for acquittal. There’s simply more skepticism about the humanities now than ever before, and you can’t avoid that cynical attitude, especially when talking to a whole room of future doctors.

Frankly, I don’t like defending the humanities. Don’t get me wrong—studying the humanities was life-changing for me. I grew up in a neighborhood where nobody’s parents, including my own, had gone to college. So when I got the chance, I found it liberating to study Dante, Plato, Shakespeare, Mozart, Sappho, Goethe, and all those other dead people from across the big pond.

But these individuals, so important to my development, aren’t as beloved nowadays. I don’t know how anyone can grapple with ideas or the world at a deep level without paying close attention to the leading lights of the past, but I don’t believe anyone should be forced to read Shakespeare, for example. Let those who are curious and willing, go down that path. If that’s just a tiny number of people, so be it. And if others think they have found a better way to wisdom that doesn’t involve learning from the past, I wish them well and send them off to their favorite TikTok influencers.

So how did it go? Read here, on Ted’s award-winning blog.

Ted Gioia at another speaking gig. (Photo: Brenda Ladd)

Kyiv-born author Peter Pomerantsev asks: how do you deal with the hate?

May 6th, 2022
“Fighting to join the civilized world”
Photo: Jindřich Nosek (NoJin)

Peter Pomerantsev is a Kyiv-born author, journalist, and TV producer who grew up in London. His family was exiled in 1978, when he was nine months old, after his father, poet and author Igor Pomerantsev was arrested by the KGB for distributing banned books, including Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. (His mother is film producer Liana Pomerantsev.)

Even so, he wrote, watching the atrocities “fills an émigré Ukrainian like myself with cold hate. I can feel my heart hardening. But it’s much stronger for those who live in Ukraine permanently.” And it affects the rest of us, too – as far away as California.

The Ukrainian-British author wrote a poignant article, “I can feel my heart hardening as the war goes on,” during Passover. An excerpt from The Spectator:

Recalling Ukraine during Passover Many Ukrainians I speak to worry that the war will brutalise them, that they risk becoming so full of hate it will eat them up inside. As I rode down to Rome airport I was reading WhatsApp messages from my friend and colleague Denys Kobzin, who is in Kharkiv. Before the war, just seven weeks ago, he was a famous sociologist. Now he’s joined a territorial defence unit and sends me selfies with a machine-gun slung across his shoulders. I asked him about how his unit copes with hate. He explained that the soldiers he is with see themselves as fighting to join the civilised world – which can help check the most brutal instincts.

The puzzle of how to keep your humanity while killing a genocidal enemy is also the most troubling part of Passover. This year it falls on Good Friday and overlaps with Ramadan. I’ve always found the Passover Seder a brutal affair, with its celebration of dead Egyptian firstborns, and rejoicing at the destruction of Pharoah’s army under the Red Sea. As my car passed from Umbria into Lazio I called my rabbi, Jeremy Gordon at New London Synagogue, to ask if there’s anything in the tradition that deals with this moral fallout. During the Seder there’s a line about asking God to ‘pour out Your wrath on the people who know You not’. One mollifying custom, Rabbi Jeremy told me, is to add another verse: ‘Pour out Your love on the nations that know You.’ Meanwhile in the Talmud there’s a passage describing how when the angels wanted to celebrate the drowning of the Egyptian army, God stopped them. How could they sing when His creations were dying? Even a genocidal enemy has some humanity. But if I’m honest, I celebrate every incinerated Russian tank. I tried to think about the soldiers inside them at the start of the war but I lost that moral battle by week two.

… At breakfast in the hotel I suddenly find myself weeping over the boiled eggs and coffee. That’s how you recognise Ukrainians these days – they’re the ones crying in public for no apparent reason. Like Zelensky, I may be angry at God, but religion helps: the ever-returning catalogue of mass murder imprinted in Judaism puts this current evil into a context of pain and ultimate resilience. Passover seems more special this year. Should I spend it at New London? With my parents in Prague? My new home in DC? No – there’s only one place which captures the puzzles, paradoxes and victories of Passover. I’m filing this as I head down to Warsaw station, then it’s a long, rumbling ride to the town of my birth. Next year, perhaps, in Jerusalem. But this week I can only be in Kyiv.

Read the whole thing HERE:

Living a nightmare: Ukrainian soldiers assigned to third battalion (NARA/DVIDS).

Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to students: “Dance home after school … Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”

May 2nd, 2022

Here’s something cheery and inspirational to add a little oomph to your day: Kurt Vonnegut‘s 2006 letter to Xavier High School students in New York City. The English teacher, Ms. Lockwood, had given the students the assignment of writing to prominent authors and inviting them to the school. None visited, and only one responded – Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five. Here’s what he had to say:

“Czesław Miłosz: A California Life” – in London! Plus: Miłosz’s odd interview with Wallace Stegner.

April 22nd, 2022

The eminent Poetry London has featured Czesław Miłosz: A California Life for its spring issue – and we couldn’t be more pleased that England is taking notice of the Nobel poet’s American life. The issue includes a long selection from the book, which was published by Heyday Books in Berkeley. In the selection, the Lithuanian-born poet talks about the American wilderness and the “prickliness” of California. Where to get your copy? Try here.

The journal’s Poetry Editor, André Naffis-Sahely, contacted me last winter to make all this happen, and he also recorded a podcast with me. Stay tuned for its appearance on the Poetry London website; it will also be online as an Apple Podcast. (We’ll link it on this post, too.)

Meanwhile, let us excerpt Poetry London’s excerpt, from the chapter in my book called, “I Did Not Choose California. It Was Given to Me”:

In 1985, Czesław Miłosz spent an awkward afternoon on a hilltop with the novelist Wallace Stegner, one of California’s most prominent conservation writers.

The occasion was a Public Broadcasting Service filming. The setting, Tilden Regional Park, is a mile or two down winding Grizzly Peak Boulevard from Miłosz’s home. Both of the eminent writers look slightly ill at ease conversing alone on the parched yellow grass, with conifers and hills in the background. Stegner is doing most of the talking, and he attempts to draw Miłosz out, but the poet’s replies are brief and tend to extinguish the line of thought rather than extend it. (“When Miłosz didn’t want to talk, you sure as hell felt it,” translator Clare Cavanagh once commented to me.)

“I lived through rebellion against California landscape,” Miłosz confesses on camera, in an accent still redolent of his European roots. It was a rebellion, he continued, that lasted twenty years.

Stegner affably agrees that California “offends a lot of people by being so dry and barren and prickly. Everything in it has barbs.”

Miłosz then recounts to Stegner his long history with natura: “When I was, I guess, twelve, I had an obsession of wilderness. I wanted to change everything into untouched wilderness. I was drawing maps of imaginary countries covered by forest, and the only means of transportation would be canoes. Yes, I had my dream of virgin land.” This was his America, and those images overrode all the crass TV shows and garish billboards he saw every day. His America was the America he’d read about as a child in the pages of James Fenimore Cooper. As he wrote:

America is for me the illustrated version
Of childhood tales about the heart of tanglewood …

He described himself, in third person, as “obviously in love with American Nature, which he duly romanticizes, as he did in his childhood when he read books for young people about travels in America.” (Watch the whole 33-minute film here.)

Stegner and Miłosz the Movie: Watch it here.

During his early adventures on the East Coast, he developed an extensive vocabulary of plants, animals, and birds, but they were sojourns, not an exile, and so the nearness of species and varieties, their similarities, were fascinating, not poignant reminders of a lost land. California and exile had made the relationship to natura more conflicted, highlighting the overwhelming abundance, and also the similar-but-dissimilar aspects, of everything he saw: “I had known only one sort of pine, a pine tree was a pine tree, but here suddenly there was the sugar pine, the ponderosa pine, the Monterey pine, and so on—seventeen species, all told. Five species of spruce, six of fir . . . . Several species each of cedar, larch, juniper. The oak, which I had believed to be simply an oak, always and everywhere eternal and indivisible in its oakness, had in America multiplied into something like sixteen species, ranging from those whose oakness was beyond question to others where it was so hazy that it was hard to tell right off whether they were laurels or oaks.”

Join Stanford writers for “A Company of Authors” on Saturday, April 23 – a great way to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday!

April 19th, 2022

Prof. Peter Stansky‘s annual “A Company of Authors” will take place from 1 to 5:05 p.m., this Saturday, April 23. The virtual event, sponsored by Continuing Studies and the Stanford Humanities Center, features Stanford authors discussing their newest books. (Some of us pictured above.) It’s free and open to all. You can read full schedule below. Bring a cup of coffee and enjoy! It’s a wonderful way to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday.

One among many reasons to attend: I’ll be presenting my new book, Czeslaw Milosz: A California Life on the 2:40 p.m. panel. I’d be happy to see some Book Haven readers – even if virtually only.

Register here.

And please forward this announcement to your friends! I look forward to seeing you there!

1:00 pm — Welcome (Peter Stansky)1:05 – 1:35 pm — Culture Peter Stansky, Chair Gavin JonesReclaiming John Steinbeck: Writing for the Future of Humanity Richard Thompson Ford, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History Jeannette Ferrary, Eating Alone

1:40 – 2:10 pm — A Better Life Barbara Gelpi, ChairJudith Mundlak Taylor & Susan Groag Bell, Women and Gardens: Obstacles and Opportunities for Women Gardeners Throughout History William Damon, A Round of Golf with My Father: The New Psychology of Exploring Your Past to Make Peace with Your Present Tracie White & Ron Davis, The Puzzle Solver: A Scientist’s Desperate Quest to Cure the Illness That Stole His Son

2:15 – 2:35 pm — Changing the World Larry Horton, Chair Lenora Ferro & Susan Southworth, Sidney D. Drell: Into the Heart of Matter, Passionately David Alan Sklansky, A Pattern of Violence: How the Law Classifies Crimes and What It Means for Justice Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami & Jeremy M. Weinstein, System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot

2:40 – 3:20 pm — The Arts and Humanities Roland Greene, ChairPeggy Phelan & Richard Meyer, Contact Warhol: Photography Without End Cynthia HavenCzeslaw Milosz: A California Life Emily J. Levine, Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University

3:25 – 3:55 pm — History and Humans Carolyn Lougee, Chair Steven Press, Blood and Diamonds: Germany’s Imperial Ambitions in Africa Niall FergusonDoom: The Politics of Catastrophe Henry T. Greely, CRISPR People: The Science and Ethics of Editing Humans

4:00 – 4:30 pm — The Bay Area and Beyond Tania Granoff, Chair Mary Beth Meehan & Fred Turner, Seeing Silicon Valley: Life inside a Fraying America Gene Slater, Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America Destin Jenkins, The Bonds of Inequality: Debt and the Making of the American City

4:35 – 5:05 pm — Germany Paul Robinson, Chair Samuel Clowes Huneke, States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany Adrian DaubThe Dynastic Imagination: Family and Modernity in Nineteenth-Century Germany Peter Mann, The Torqued Man: A Novel

Easter on Fifth Avenue, NYC – masks are optional and therefore rare!

April 17th, 2022

Easter celebrations have an additional layer of meaning this year, and the public fête on Fifth Avenue had an exuberant post-COVID feel. Zygmunt Malinowski, the Book Haven’s roving photographer, sent us a couple photos to share with California and the world, and yes, it looks like the pandemic is winding to an infamous close. So happy Easter to all of us!

What were the NYC festivities like? The street was closed to traffic, and very crowded, he said. Except for public transportation, masks are optional now. However, they are rarely worn as you can see. Party animals in front of St. Patrick’s were maskless, as well Cardinal Dolan celebrating mass within the cathedral. Woo hoo!

The women in the top photos remind us of the wreathed young women on St. John’s Day in Kraków, but that’s in June. We won’t ask what that guy in the bottom photo is chewing on. A burnt carrot? A cigar? Only Zgymunt Malinowski knows. “Yes, parades can be repetitive but still nice to be there,” he said. Outdoors in the springtime? What could be better.

(All photos  ⒸZygmunt Malinowski)

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” comes to Stanford on April 12 – we’re making it easy for you. Register on the QR code!

April 6th, 2022

Leon Wieseltier: “Her intuition is right: Czesław Miłosz and California are indeed a chapter in each other’s history.”

March 30th, 2022

The Book Haven has been pretty silent on our our newest book, Czesław Miłosz: A California Life. Let’s end that now, and begin catching up. Here are the words from one of America’s foremost critics, Leon Wieseltier: “Cynthia Haven’s book is delicious. She evokes so much so vividly and so intelligently; for me her pages were a restoration of a richer and less lonely time. And her intuition is right: Czeslaw Milosz and California are indeed a chapter in each other’s history.” 

From Cory Oldweiler over at the Los Angeles Review or Books:

The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz dubbed Dante “a patron saint of all poets in exile” and, as an exile himself for much of his life, likely could relate to both the Florentine’s proud defiance and his urge to seek some measure of solace in the constancy of the natural world. When, in 1960, Miłosz moved to the United States, accepting a teaching position at UC Berkeley, nature was very much on his mind. He was already living in exile, having defected to France nearly a decade earlier, but he had not escaped the haze of history that hung heavily over postwar Europe. The past was integral to Miłosz’s writing throughout his career, especially the horror he witnessed so viscerally in wartime Warsaw, but in order to continue to describe it “in such a manner that it is preserved in all its old tangle of good and evil, of despair and hope,” he had to soar above it, as he put it in 1980, after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Miłosz felt that the United States, specifically the American West, could provide that lofty vantage, that distance, that relative stability from the “demoniac doings of History.” He would live in the Golden State for 40 years, from 1960 to 2000, but according to Czeslaw Miłosz: A California Life, Cynthia Haven’s deeply considered new biography of the poet, Miłosz’s move to America was predicated on a fundamental error. “In immigrating to the United States, and specifically to California in 1960,” Haven writes, “he thought he was coming to the timeless world of nature. However, Berkeley was about to become a lightning rod for […] the world of change […] and he would be in the thick of it.”

He concludes:

Haven lets us into her thought processes, even when she is questioning them, and lovingly recreates conversations — in the relative present, at a café with Robert Hass as they thumb through Miłosz’s 2001 volume New and Collected Poems; and in the recent past, at Miłosz’s Grizzly Peak home as the poet drinks bourbon and chats with friends into the wee hours.

Oldweiler: “She evokes A California Life that soared high above an era of inescapable change.”

Miłosz, writing in his ABC’s, did not place much faith in biographies: “Obviously, all biographies are false, not excluding my own. […] They are false because their individual chapters are linked according to a predetermined scheme, whereas in fact they were connected differently, only no one knows how.” Haven does not possess any magical insight into those linkages in Miłosz’s timeline, but by giving relatively free rein to her decades of contemplation, she often achieves what Miłosz believed to be the only redeeming value of biographies, namely that “they allow one to more or less recreate the era in which a given life was lived.” In this case, she evokes A California Life that soared high above an era of inescapable change.

There’s more! Lots more! Over at the National Review‘s “Great Book” series, I have a podcast interview with John Miller about The Captive Mind, Miłosz’s examination of the human psyche under totalitarianism. It’s his bestselling book, the only book of his that has never gone out of print. Listen to it before it disappeared behind a paywall in early May: it’s here. Over at City Lights Bookstore, of Allen Ginsberg fame, I team up with my friend James Marcus, former editor of Harper’s and author of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut, for a video conversation to discuss Czesław Miłosz: A California Life. James is great fun. Go here. My Spotify/Apple Podcasts interview with xx over at The Athenaeum is here.

Stay tuned in the weeks to come for more about Czesław Miłosz: A California Life, out with Heyday Books in Berkeley.

After Adam

March 21st, 2022

Adam Zagajewski, polychromed plaster (©Hirschfeld, 1990)

It’s been a year to the day since the unexpected death of Poland’s leading poet Adam Zagajewski. He was 75. Yesterday, sculptor Jonathan Hirschfeld sent me his retrospective, “Without Irony,” in the January/February issue of Britain’s PN Review. I can do no better, in the waning hours of the day, to include a few excerpts from his excellent tribute. It begins:

About a year ago Adam Zagajewski wrote to me, and now his words echo as only last words can.

Dear Jonathan,

Today I’m crying for Wojtek Pszoniak who just died. As you know, when you lose a friend there’s an avalanche of things that come to your mind. I knew Wojtek for 70 years, he was like a brother for me.

I’ve read your essay on Milosz, I like it very much, you’ve found a way to capture his essence not only in clay but also in words.

It’s a pity that we’ve lost contact years ago. Let’s hope that – at least – we can be in touch through words. I remember many beautiful moments in your study, with leafless trees outside or spring trees.

Love to all of your family,

Last March I received the news that Adam was very ill. Initially there were some grounds for hope, but
within barely a few weeks it was over. Suddenly it was I, struggling to restore coherence to my own
recollections as he gazed from a pedestal a few meters away. “Leafless trees outside / or spring
trees” – this familiar hesitation and this nod to time – Adam’s voice.

I have become familiar with this feeling of irrevocable void, but nothing can compress the time it takes
to absorb it.


Early on we had shared our appreciation for a proverb that we only knew in English, by Malebranche, a French eighteenth-century religious philosopher: “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.”


One day Adam asked if we could use my studio as the setting for a documentary about him to be filmed for German television. We had spent many hours together in this luminous space, working against the background chatter of chirping birds that he loved and recognized. There is a sequence in which he meanders through the atelier and settles on the small head of a young boy, for which he felt a particular affection. As I watch this video today I am reminded of his affirmation, with which he concluded his Neustadt lecture in 2004, that “innocence is perhaps the most daring thing in the entire world.” The camera panned across the collection of portrait heads. Adam was among them.


On sculpting Adam:

I am reminded of what I saw and felt when I made the sculpture. He looked shy, yet warm, quiet, solitary and contained, watchful, extremely sensitive; a certain stillness. Yet there was also a current of inner motion, as if I could feel his mind at work, or more precisely, his way of sensing the world. This became a conscious theme for the portrait – a state of receptivity and preparedness, even his skin needed to feel like an organ of the senses. Within his way of being I sensed a quiet, determined strength. It took me some time to grasp that this demeanor was a reflection of his conscious urge “to dissent from dissidents”. He held true to his contemplative gaze and to an unabashed search for beauty; he could write of the ecstatic and he believed in the soul – this was the form of his resistance, more radical than it might appear. A dissident in the regime of post-modern decline, he wondered how the clay could take that on. And I thought to myself, only clay could take that on.

There’s more. Of course there’s more. Read the rest here. There’s much more about Adam in the Book Haven, too: type “Zagajewski” into the search engine.

“I dreamt we were occupied by Nazis, and that those Nazis were us.”

March 19th, 2022

Maria Stepanova, one of Russia’s most recognized and honored figures – as poet, novelist, journalist, essayist, and publisher – has penned a knockout essay (translated by the excellent Sasha Dugdale) over at The Financial Times. A few excerpts :

One of Russia’s most honored writers speaks out.

I can’t stop looking at photographs taken in Ukraine during these unending days of war, a war so unthinkable that it’s still hard to believe in the reality of what is happening. The streets of Kharkiv — rubble, concrete beams, black holes where windows should be, the outlines of beautiful buildings with their insides burnt away. A station, a crowd of refugees trying to board a departing train. A woman carrying a dog, rushing to get to a shelter in Kyiv before the shelling begins. Bombed houses in Sumy. A maternity hospital in Mariupol after a raid — this I will not describe.

An 80-year-old friend told me of a dream she’d once had: a huge field filled with people lying in rows of iron beds. Rows and rows of people. And rising from this field, the sound of moaning. I always knew, she said, that this was to be expected. It would come to pass. Dreams about catastrophe are common in what was once called the “post-Soviet world”; other names will surely appear soon. And in these recent days and nights, the dreams have become reality, a reality more fearful than we ever thought possible, made of aggression and violence, an evil that speaks in the Russian language. As someone wrote on a social media site: “I dreamt we were occupied by Nazis, and that those Nazis were us.”

The word “Nazi” is one of the most frequently used in the political language of the Russian state. Speeches by Vladimir Putin and propaganda headlines often use the word to describe an enemy that they say has infiltrated Ukraine. This enemy is so strong that it can and must be resisted with military aggression: the bombing of residential areas, the destruction of the flesh of towns and villages, the living tissue of human fates.

The word still horrifies us, and in our world there are certainly candidates for its application. But propagandists use the word like the black spot in Treasure Island, sticking it wherever it suits them. If you call your opponent a Nazi, that explains and justifies all and any means.


Urban training in Yavoriv (NARA/DVIDS)

Right now a decision is being made about the sort of world we will live in and, in some ways, have already been sucked into: we exist and act in the black hole of another’s consciousness. It calls up archaic ideas of nationhood: that there are worse nations, better ones, nations that are higher or lower on some incomprehensible scale of greatness; that all Ukrainians (or Jews, Russians, Americans and so on) are weak, greedy, servile, hostile — and these cardboard cut-outs are already promenading through the collective imagination, just as they were before the second world war. As they say in Russia, “the dead take hold of the living”, and here these dead are ideas and concepts into which new blood flows and they begin killing, just as in a horror film.


Resisting today means freeing ourselves from the dictatorship of another’s imagination, from a picture of the world that grasps us from inside and takes hold of our dreams, our days, our timelines, whether we want it or not. A battle for survival is going on right now in Ukraine; a battle for the independence of one’s own rational mind. It is going on in every house and in every head. Here as well as there, we must resist.

Read the whole thing over at The Financial Times. It’s brave; it’s stunning; it’s urgent.

Living a nightmare: Ukrainian soldiers assigned to third battalion (NARA/DVIDS).

April 12: Stanford discusses “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” – be there!

March 14th, 2022
It came to him in a dream.


Stanford’s “Another Look” book season continues in 2022 with Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The discussion will take place at 7 p.m., Tuesday, April 12, at the Bechtel Conference Center in Encina Hall. Go here to register.

Stevenson’s short 1885 novel is universally known but little read today – an important reason why it needs “another look.” Vladimir Nabokov called it “a fable that lies nearer to poetry than to ordinary prose fiction.” The Russian author compared it to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Gogol’s Dead Souls.

“Is Jekyll good?” he asked. “No, he is a composite being, a mixture of good and bad, a preparation consisting of a 99% solution of Jekyllite and 1% of Hyde … He is a hypocritical creature carefully concealing his little sins.” Popular author Stephen King agreed that Stevenson’s novel is moral tale, “a close study of hypocrisy – its causes, its dangers, its damages to the spirit.” Utterson, he contends, is the book’s real hero.  

Henry James called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a “short, rapid, concentrated story, which is really a masterpiece of concision.”  

Stevenson’s dark vision had come to him in a dream – as it had for Mary Shelley, who went on to write Frankenstein, a book that Another Look featured in 2018. Both works share a fascination with the limits of science, medicine, and technology on our humanity.  

Michael Caine as Jekyll and Hyde

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 eminent novelist Tobias Wolff, founding director of Another Look and a National Medal of Arts winner, and Ana Ilievska, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Stanford Humanities Center and a lecturer in Stanford’s Department of French and Italian. 

Books are available at Stanford Bookstore and Kepler’s – but the book is also widely available online and is offered as a free e-book on Amazon as well.

The event marks our first in-person event since the beginning of COVID in 2020. The occasion will also be offered virtually for those who cannot attend on the Stanford campus. (Registration encouraged, but walk-ins are welcome.) 

We survive on donations, so go here if you’d like to further the cause of good books. Register HERE to attend what looks like it will be a terrific event!

The 1920 silent film with John Barrymore – a silent classic.

Ukrainian poet Ilya Kaminsky: “the wrecked word” confronts the wrecked world.

March 10th, 2022
Born in the Odessa, now in America.

Ukrainian-American Ukrainian-Russian-Jewish-American poet, writer, critic, translator Ilya Kaminsky (we’ve written about him here and here and here) has been much in the news lately, which is often bad news for Ukrainians. Over at Lithub, you can read his 9-part essay on “Ukrainian, Russian, and the Language of War,” excerpted from Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine, published by Academic Studies Press.

Meanwhile, let us here focus on the essay’s section dedicated to the young poet Lyuba Yakimchuk:

In the late 20th century, the Jewish poet Paul Celan became a patron saint of writing in the midst of crisis. Composing in the German language, he has broken speech to reflect the experience of a new, violated world. This effect is happening again—this time in Ukraine—before our very eyes.

Here is the case of poet Lyuba Yakimchuk, whose family are refugees from Pervomaisk, the city that is one of the main targets of Putin’s most recent “humanitarian aid” effort. Answering my questions about her background, Lyuba responded:

“Literature is changed by war.”

I stare into the horizon
. . . I have gotten so very old
no longer Lyuba
just a –ba.

“I was born and raised in the war-torn Luhansk region and my hometown of Pervomaisk is now occupied. In May 2014 I witnessed the beginning of the war … In February 2015 my parents and grandmother, having survived dreadful warfare, set out to leave the occupied territory. They left under shelling fire, with a few bags of clothes. A friend of mine, a [Ukrainian] soldier, almost shot my grandma as they fled.

“Discussing literature in wartime, Yakimchuk writes: ‘Literature rivals with the war, perhaps even loses to war in creativity, hence literature is changed by war.” In her poems, one sees how warfare cleaves her words: don’t talk to me about Luhansk,’ she writes, ‘it’s long since turned into hansk / Lu had been razed to the ground / to the crimson pavement.’ The bombed-out city of Pervomaisk ‘has been split into pervo and maisk‘ and the shell of Debaltsevo is now her ‘debaltsevo.’ Through the prism of this fragmented language, the poet sees herself:

Just as Russian-language poet Khersonsky refuses to speak his language when Russia occupies Ukraine, Yakimchuk, a Ukrainian-language poet, refuses to speak an unfragmented language as the country is fragmented in front of her eyes. As she changes the words, breaking them down and counterpointing the sounds from within the words, the sounds testify to a knowledge they do not possess. No longer lexical yet still legible to us, the wrecked word confronts the reader mutely, both within and beyond language.

Reading this poem of witness, one is reminded that poetry is not merely a description of an event; it is an event.

You can read the rest of Ilya Kaminsky’s essay here. Ukrainian poet, screenwriter, and journalist Lyuba Yakimchuk’s poem “Crow, Wheels” is here.