“Love your active solitude like a sunset.” An ex-con offers a few reflections and tips on COVID isolation.

June 18th, 2021
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Advice: “You don’t like prison food, don’t go to prison.”

COVID is on the run – but new variants are afloat, and the occasional pandemic might be part of our collective future (though we hope on a smaller scale). What have we learned?

We are unaware how much society holds us all in check, contains our worst impulses. I have developed this theory: under COVID isolation, people became exaggerated versions of themselves, and not in a good way. The merely bad-tempered began throwing bottles in the streets, the mildly depressed are calling suicide hotlines, and the chronically worried took leave of their senses. And so on. We depend, more than we thought, on a smile, a frown, a real-life glance (zoom doesn’t count), a word of encouragement, a look from a close friend that says, “You’re not really going to go there, are you?” Then we were left alone with ourselves, and it wasn’t  pretty.  We are the victims of our own psychology.

I sought some guidance from my friend, the former bank robber and now author, Joe Loya. He spent a lot of time in solitary confinement in prison. What does he have to say?

“Now you all have entered my wheelhouse,” says Joe Loya. “Prison habituated me to hazard, so I have a super high tolerance for quarantined ambiguity.”

His thoughts on COVID privation: “If necessary, I can patiently wait in long lines after nine years of incarceration, waiting in Soviet-style bread lines in the prison pharmacy, laundry, and chow lines. These long supermarket lines ain’t shit.”

“I’ve been locked in a cell the size of a large parking space for months, 24 hours a day, with another prisoner, eating, shitting, and bird-bathing four feet from each other. So I know how to respect the density of confined spaces with another human.” These, it turns out, are transferrable skills in living with his family: “I can easily handle (wife) Diane, me, and (daughter) Matilde quarantined together in our house for three weeks.”

Here are his tips:

How To Survive Solitary Confinement

1) Get out of bed, make it, then lie down only once during the day for a brief 20 minute nap; then don’t lay down again till time to go to sleep.

2) Pace for 30 minutes while listening to music.

3) Everyday scrub your genitals.

4) Do not light your cell on fire.

5) Turn your solitude into an active solitude by testing your ability to stare at one spot on the wall for a decent length of time.

6) Read a novel a day.

7) Or a read nonfiction book within two.

8. Memorize a poem.

9) Rub one out.

10) Write a letter to your future self about your current squalor.

11) Did I already say to scrub your junk once a day? It matters. Eliminates the feeling of stewing in your squalor. Makes solitary practically sparkle.

12) Incline push-ups and back arm dips off the side of your bunk. Do a lot!

13) Read 10-pages of Ulysses daily. Take Saturday and Sunday off to catch up on the pages you didn’t read during the week.

14) Eat all your food and do not whine about the portions. You don’t like prison food, don’t go to prison.

15) Do not get caught singing Morrissey in the shower.

16) Love your active solitude like a sunset.

A pre-COVID New Year’s resolution. Now as good a time as any.

René Girard, Russia, and Evolution of Desire: “It’s hard to wish for a better biography of Girard.”

June 11th, 2021
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Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has just appeared in Russia with Moscow’s tony publisher N.L.O. (translated by Svetlana Silakova) – and the first review by Alexey Zygmont, about the serene Stanford professor who “exposed the nature of violence,” is glowing. The title of the article in Gorky Media is taken from a line in the book: Жирар, поджигающий под вами стул – in English: “Girard: Setting Fire to the Chair Beneath You.”

An excerpt:

Evolution of Desire is the long-awaited biography of the social scientist, philosopher and theologian René Girard (1923-2015). Girard is known as the creator of “mimetic theory” – one of the last “grands récits” of the humanities in the 21st century. Today, this theory finds application in a range of disciplines, from anthropology and sociology to psychiatry, biology, and the neurosciences. Through the efforts of Girardian scholars, it is gradually making its way in the universities, and it is really changing people’s lives. Actually, one of the facts facing us is that this first biography should be enough: even if the book were unsuccessful, it would still be used by both the historians of philosophy studying his thought and other researchers who adapt Girard’s theory to their own interests. The book, however, is a success, and its value is all the greater because throughout his life Girard spoke about himself reluctantly … It was difficult for an ordinary reader, familiar only with his major works, to imagine him as a living person; now that’s possible.

In Russian at last!

Often mimetic theory is presented as a kind of “sect,” consisting, as one author wrote, of the “disciples, translators, and proselytes” of the philosopher. This isn’t true – although some people are indeed unable to stop saying “Girard, Girard, René Girard, but Girard has…” and so on. In short, there was a high probability that the first biography of the thinker would be written by his apostle: there would be a risk that its objectivity and artistic merit would undermine the good memory of the teacher and the “common cause” bequeathed to him. But we were lucky with the author: Cynthia Haven is a professional journalist, author of biographies of Miłosz and Brodsky, and a longtime friend of the thinker. Hence the tone of the book: friendly, involved, critical when needed, and targeted for a wide audience.

The review concludes:

Until now, I have not yet said a single word of criticism about the book, and there is almost nothing to criticize it for. But Evolution of Desire is a biography almost written within his own lifetime, by someone close to the thinker and based on their personal conversations. Therefore, it lacks not only objectivity, but distance. The fate of Girard is almost devoid of “dark spots,” and he himself resembles a living icon: we constantly read about his merits and do not hear a word about his shortcomings – which would probably introduce something paradoxical to his image. The only thing we are told about is his childhood passion for practical jokes, his excusable youthful passion for “parties and cars,” and even the opinion of some colleagues that he dominated people and space too much. In an interview, Girard admitted that he was “very mimetic” and wrote only about what he experienced himself.

And yet, it’s hard to wish for a better biography of Girard. It will be of great service to both his followers and researchers, and deserves every possible recommendation.

Read the whole thing here. And you can order the Russian edition from NLO here.

Do we “live by bridges”? UCLA’s Thomas Harrison builds a persuasive case.

June 9th, 2021
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He grew up next to the oldest bridge in the world, Kervan Kprüsü.

Bridges connect us – and they have since the beginning of time, all the way back to the very first bridge, the rainbow. They connect us geographically, strategically, metaphorically, lyrically (if that last seems a stretch, think of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”). Now we have a book to explain all sorts of bridges to us, thanks to UCLA author Thomas Harrison, whose book Of Bridges: A Poetic and Philosophical Account, is just out with the University of Chicago Press.

Harrison gave a May 28 Zoom presentation to launch On Bridges, with discussants Christy Wampole of Princeton and Stanford’s Marjorie Perloff. The Stanford literary critic had already weighed in on the book: “Of Bridges is a dazzling investigation into the profound semantic and historical resonance of the seemingly simple word bridge, that passage between two points that is unique in its material, metaphoric, and philosophical properties. Harrison has chapters on every possible aspect of bridging, for example, the musical bridge, the poetic bridge as in Hart Crane’s famous poem by that title, the actual historic bridges of Greece and Rome, and the ‘thought’ bridges of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Throughout, Harrison’s book is astonishingly learned, well written, and imaginative. Bridges will never be the same after this brilliant study.”

Harrison didn’t hesitate to name his own favorite bridge: “I grew up next to the oldest bridge in the world,” he said, recalling his childhood on the Aegean in İzmir, Turkey – a city known as Smyrna in the ancient world. The bridge marked the western endpoint of the “Assyrian Route,” the 2500-kilometer stretch that was the most important trade route in the ancient world. In an émigré enclave within the metropolis, Harrison grew up with an Italian mother and an American father, “a nominal Christian in a Muslim City.” The Pont des Caravans (Kervan Kprüsü), constructed around 850 BCE, is a slab-stone single-arch bridge over the river Meles, which has seen a constant procession of camels, horses, mules, and donkeys, going back to about 850 B.C. Legend has it that Homer crossed it as a boy.

But the book also reminds us of metaphysical bridges: As-Sirāt (Arabic: الصراط‎ aṣ-ṣirāṭ) is, according to Islam, the bridge all must cross on Judgment to enter Paradise. It is said that it is “thinner than a strand of hair and as sharp as the sharper than a sword.”

The wide-ranging zoom conversation considered drawbridges as “fake bridges,” bridges as familiar figures of speech, and the role of bridges in suicide, including the Golden Gate Bridge. Otherworldly bridges were discussed – Milton‘s bridge from hell over chaos in Paradise Lost, for example. Nietzsche‘s “Over the Footbridge was mentioned – and his rope over the abyss is a kind of bridge:

“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.

“What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.

“I love those who do not know how to live, except by going under, for they are those who cross over.

“Always,” wrote Philip Larkin, “it is by bridges that we live.” In this lyrical, vertiginous book of bridges visible and imagined, Harrison builds a persuasive case that it is so.

“The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English” in the TLS: “Kline emerges as human, warm and vividly idiosyncratic in the pages of [Cynthia] Haven’s volume …”

June 7th, 2021
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The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: Conversations with George L. Kline is finally in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. We’d seen the online version, but there’s nothing like viewing the printed page – so here it is for you. In the words of reviewer Stephanie Sandler: “[George] Kline emerges as human, warm and vividly idiosyncratic in the pages of [Cynthia] Haven’s volume …” Also reviewed, the Selected Poems 1968-1996, edited by Ann Kjellberg, and Joseph Brodsky and Collaborative Self-Translation, by Natasha Rulyova.

From Ann Kjellberg’s introduction to the new Selected, which was published in English in The New York Review of Books and in Russia’s Colta: “We now live in a time of which Brodsky was an advance scout – a time when any writers operate beyond their original borders and outside their mother tongues, often, like Brodsky, bearing witness to violence and disruption, often answering, through art, to those experiences, in language refracted, by necessity, through other language. In Brodsky’s moment there was a cluster of poets, some from the margins of empire, some, like Brodsky, severed from their roots – Walcott, Heaney, Paz, Milosz, to name a few – who brought with them commanding traditions, as well as the imprint of history’s dislocations. We would do well now to attend to their song, standing as they did in our doorway between a broken past and the language’s future.”

And read the whole story of Brodsky’s “rich, complicated legacy” in the TLS here.

“Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard” – теперь на русском!

May 28th, 2021
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Attention, all Russians and Russian speakers: Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is available for pre-order with the tony Moscow publisher, издательство НЛО – for the rest of us, NLO (New Literary Observer). The cover features René Girard among the rocks of Half Moon Bay … so, a California note for this French theorist. You can pre-order the Russian version here.

From the book jacket (see left, above)

“All desire is a desire for being,” said the renowned Franco-American philosopher René Girard. Our desires determine who we are, but they do not belong to us: since they are mimetic (that is, imitative and mirrored), we become an endless series of other people’s reflections. Desire is a lifelong evolution: we begin to imitate as children, we compete at school and at work, we want more, we suffer without getting what we want, we have deathbed regrets. Cynthia L. Haven’s book is a first-of-its-kind biography of Girard, based on conversations with him, his family, his friends and colleagues from France and the United States. In it, the life of the thinker becomes an illustration of his theory, which is analyzed not as a speculative concept, but as a philosophy of life, which Girard was the first to put into practice. Years of study in his native Avignon and then chilly occupied Paris, the fateful move to the United States, religious conversion in the late 1950s, the discovery of the violent origins of culture, doubts, recognition and its temptations – the reader will learn how the philosopher’s spiritual and creative evolution unfolded from his first work, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, through his seminal Violence and the Sacred, to the dark apocalyptic prophecies of his final book, Battling to the End.

Oh yes, for you Russians:

«Любое желание — это желание быть», — говорил знаменитый франко-американский философ Рене Жирар. Именно наши желания определяют, кто мы, однако нам они не принадлежат: будучи миметическими (подражательными и зеркальными), они превращают нас в бесконечную серию чужих отражений. Желание — это эволюция длиною в жизнь: мы начинаем подражать еще детьми, соперничаем в школе и на работе, хотим все большего, страдаем, не получая желаемого, и раскаиваемся на смертном одре. Книга Синтии Л. Хэвен —первая в своем роде биография Жирара, основанная на беседах с ним самим, его близкими, друзьями и коллегами из Франции и США. Жизнь мыслителя предстает в ней иллюстрацией к его теории, которая анализируется не как умозрительная концепция, но как философия жизни, которую Жирар первый же и стремился практиковать. Годы учебы в родном Авиньоне и промозглом оккупированном Париже, судьбоносный переезд в США, религиозное обращение в конце 1950-х, открытие насильственных истоков культуры, сомнения, признание и его соблазны — читатель узнает, как разворачивалась духовная и творческая эволюция философа от первой работы «Ложь романтизма и правда романа» через фундаментальный труд «Насилие и священное» к мрачным апокалиптическим пророчествам его заключительной книги «Завершить Клаузевица».

Синтия Л. Хэвен — литературный критик, журналист, сотрудник Национального фонда гуманитарных наук (США).

Thanks to Maria Stepanova, Helga Landauer, and NLO’s Sergey Elagin for help making this book happen. The book will be officially out in a few weeks. Again, you can pre-order it here.

How an eminent Stanford poet saved an innocent man from hanging

May 21st, 2021
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Jazz scholar Ted Gioia is one of the latest internet refugees who have taken harbor at Substack, a subscription newsletter service for long-form blogging. He’s launched his column, Culture Notes of an Honest Broker, with a bang. In one of his posts, he revisits the 1933 death of Allene Lamson, whose husband David Lamson, a sales manager for Stanford University Press, was charged with the murder. Lamson was sentenced to hang, and imprisoned for three years in San Quentin prison before he was exonerated.

Poet with a passion for justice

“The case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence,” Ted writes. “A pipe found in the trash might be a murder weapon, although that was never more than hypothesis. His pregnant housekeeper might be Lamson’s lover—which seemed plausible until she gave birth to a redheaded baby who looked just like her redheaded boyfriend. Another woman in Sacramento might be Lamson’s mistress, but the evidence there never held together, and the prosecution didn’t dare put her on the stand during the ensuing trial. Above all, Larson’s character and personality—described by many acquaintances as ‘kind’ and ‘considerate,’ especially in his relationship with his wife—might be a charade, a violent, angry man hiding behind a gentle exterior.”

The hero of the story was Stanford poet-critic Yvor Winters, who investigated the case and wrote a pamphlet, The Case of David Lamson, that was instrumental in the ruling that the frail Allene Lamson died an accidental death. As Ted notes, the case, which dominated the news, was also an influential event for Winters’s wife, the poet Janet Lewis. The case led her to write The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941) and two other novels featuring “cases of circumstantial evidence.” I’ve written about her here and here.

Nowadays, Yvor Winters is too little known, though he was a powerful and influential critic and a notable poet. Ted writes:

Novelist of circumstantial evidence

“When I studied literature as an undergraduate at Stanford, Winters’s name was still said with awe and respect, although he had been dead for almost a decade at that point. But, more than any other individual, Winters had put literary studies at Stanford on the map. His work as poet and critic was known and cited all over the world, conveying an authority and erudition that none of his peers in the Department of English could match in those days. It’s important to recall that Stanford wasn’t yet an ultra-elite institution when Yvor Winters joined the faculty in 1934. And it definitely wasn’t a university associated with poetry. But he changed all that—a list of writers whom Winters taught or mentored would eventually include Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, Donald Hall, Philip Levine, Donald Justice, N. Scott Momaday, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, J.V. Cunningham and Kenneth Fields. People even talked about Winters as the progenitor of a whole school of poetry.”

“So I heard Winters’s name often during my student days. But no one ever told me about his involvement in a tabloidesque murder case decades before—or that he got a man off of Death Row. I only learned many years later about this strange crime story. And the reason for this silence, I now realize, is that many of Winters’s peers mocked and derided his fixation with a murder case and subsequent decision to play the role of amateur private eye. He was almost a laughingstock for this obsession—and it undermined the dignity both of Winters the professor, the Department of English, and the entire University.”

Read the whole story, “When a Famous Literary Critic Unraveled Silicon Valley’s Most Sensational Murder Case,” chez Ted Gioia here. (And if you go to Patrick Kurp‘s blog, Anecdotal Evidence, you can read Winters’s poem for Lamson’s heroic attorney.)

From Yvor Winters’s “The Case of David Lamson” (Courtesy Ted Gioia)

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