Happy 100th Birthday to the Soviet Homer! “Chilling out is not exactly his thing.”

December 13th, 2018

Here he is, not chilling at the Hoover Library & Archives.

This week’s quietest centennial belongs to Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the writer who destroyed an empire. That’s from the New York Times, commemorating the 100th birthday of the writer who wrote The Gulag Archipelago, and died in 2008. The article is by the Russian’s biographer, Michael Scammell (we worked together briefly at Index on Censorship, which he founded, in London):

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, pundits offered a variety of reasons for its failure: economic, political, military. Few thought to add a fourth, more elusive cause: the regime’s total loss of credibility.

This hard-to-measure process had started in 1956, when Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave his so-called secret speech to party leaders, in which he denounced Josef Stalin’s purges and officially revealed the existence of the gulag prison system. Not long afterward, Boris Pasternak allowed his suppressed novel “Doctor Zhivago” to be published in the West, tearing another hole in the Iron Curtain. Then, in 1962, the literary magazine Novy Mir caused a sensation with a novella set in the gulag by an unknown author named Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn.

That novella, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” took the country, and then the world, by storm. In crisp, clear prose, it told the story of a simple man’s day in a labor camp, where he stoically endured endless injustices. It was so incendiary that, when it appeared, many Soviet readers thought that government censorship had been abolished.

I looked for Anna Akhmatova‘s comment on Solzhenitsyn, but instead found Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s remarks in the Iowa Review in 1978 (from my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations):

Q: What’s your opinion of Solzhenitsyn and the legend which has been built around him?

A: (Long pause) Well, let’s put it this way. I’m awfully proud that I’m writing in the same language that he does. I think he’s one of the greatest men ever … one of the greatest and most courageous men who has ever lived in this century. I think he is an absolutely remarkable writer. As for legend … you shouldn’t worry or care about legend, you should read the work. And what kind of legend? He has his biography … and he has his words. …

Brodsky: not chilling, either.

Q: Please go on.

A: He has been reproached quite a bit by various critics, by various men of letters, for being a second-rate writer, or a bad writer. I don’t think it’s just … because the people who are judging the work of literature are sort of building their judgment on the basis of systems of aesthetics which we inherited from the nineteenth century. What Solzhenitsyn is doing in literature cannot be judged by this aesthetic standard just as his subject matter cannot be judged by our ethical standards. Because when the man is talking about the annihilation or liquidation of sixty million men, there is no room, in my opinion, left to talk about literature and whether it’s a good type of literature or not. In his case, literature is absorbed in the story.

What I’m trying to say is this. Curiously enough, he is the writer, but he uses literature, and not in order to create a new aesthetics but for its ancient, original purpose: to tell the story. And in doing that, he’s unwittingly, in my opinion, expanding the framework of literature. From the beginning of his career, as far as we can trace it on the basis of his successive publications, you see quite an obvious erosion of the genres.

What we start with, historically, is a normal novella, One Day, yes? Then he goes to something bigger, Cancer Ward, yes? And then he went to something which is really neither a novel nor a chronicle but somewhere in between, The First Circle. And then we’ve got this Gulag which is, I think, a new kind of epic. It’s a very dark epic, if you wish, but it’s an epic.

I think that the Soviet rule has its Homer in the case of Solzhenitsyn. I don’t know what else to say. And forget about legends, that is real crap … about every writer.

But something I always wondered was: what was it like to actually live with a man like Solzhenitsyn. For that you have to go to David Remnick’s 1994 New Yorker profile, “The Exile Returns”:

There is something at once frenetic and peaceful about the Solzhenitsyn household. Everyone has a job to do, and everyone does it with efficiency and evident pleasure. Upstairs, Natalia has her own office, where she runs what is, in essence, a literary factory. For Solzhenitsyn’s latest works, she sets the type on an I.B.M. composing machine, and then she sends the typeset pages to Paris, where their friend Nikita Struve runs the Russian-language YMCA-Press. Struve has only to photograph the set pages, print them, and bind them. Natalia has set all twenty volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s sobranie sochineny—his collected works. Only now that Solzhenitsyn has completed his series of immense historical novels, “The Red Wheel,” is either author or amanuensis able to concentrate on the move back to Moscow.

David Remnick (Photo: Martin Schneider/Creative Commons)

The children—Yermolai, Ignat, and Stephan, and their older half brother, Dmitri Turin—have also been very much a part of the Solzhenitsyn enterprise. During the family’s first years in Cavendish, they began the day with a prayer for Russia to be saved from its oppressors. They went to local schools, and when they came home in the afternoon their father gave them further lessons in mathematics and the sciences (Solzhenitsyn had been a schoolteacher in Russia) and their mother tutored them in Russian language and literature. Until the boys began leaving home for boarding schools and college, they, too, helped with literary chores, setting type, compiling volumes of Russian memoirs, translating speeches. Now they are spread across the world. Dmitri lives in New York, where he restores and sells vintage motorcycles. Yermolai, after two years at Eton, went to Harvard, and while he was there he studied Chinese and had a part-time job as a bouncer at the Bow &Arrow, a Cambridge bar; he is now living in Taiwan and wants to begin working soon in China. Ignat is studying piano and conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia, and has performed around the world, to spectacular reviews, including a series of triumphant concerts with his father’s old friend Mstislav Rostropovich last September in Russia and the Baltic states. Stephan is a junior at Harvard and is majoring in urban planning.

Ignat and Stephan were home for winter vacation, and I asked them if their father ever stopped working.

Ignat smiled slyly and replied, “No, he’s never said, ‘Today I’m just gonna chill out, take a jog, and blow off this “Red Wheel” thing.’ Not one day.”

“Chilling out is not exactly his thing,” Stephan added.

“So, fine. Why can’t the West get over this?” Ignat said, growing more serious. “Why is his working all the time such an annoyance? Why is it so bad that he lives in Vermont and not the middle of Manhattan?”

“They assume he must be weird,” Stephan said.  

Biographer Scammell

Scammell concludes: “After his death Solzhenitsyn was given a sumptuous funeral and buried at the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow. In 2010 “The Gulag Archipelago” was made required reading in Russian high schools. Moscow’s Great Communist Street has been renamed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Street, his centennial is being celebrated with great pomp this week in Russia, and a statue of him in Moscow is planned for the near future.

“All this would give the writer great satisfaction. But though feted and exploited by questionable allies, Solzhenitsyn should be remembered for his role as a truth-teller. He risked his all to drive a stake through the heart of Soviet communism and did more than any other single human being to undermine its credibility and bring the Soviet state to its knees.”

The New York Times piece is here. The long ago New Yorker piece here.

Theophrastus. Never heard of him? He could be a solution to your holiday gift-giving.

December 11th, 2018

Poet and classicist

Stuck for a gift-giving idea for the holidays? Worry no more! Theophrastus is your answer. Never heard of him? You’re not alone. But according to MacArthur “genius” awarded poet A.E. Stallings (we’ve written on her work with the Greek refugee effort here), Pamela Mensch’s translation of the philosopher’s Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behavior is “a perfect gift for the person in your life who mentions Plato’s cave or Zeno’s paradox, or wears a bow tie, or uses a fountain pen, or enjoys a bit of harmless armchair misanthropy.”

In the Wall Street Journal, she writes:

Among the lesser-known writers from classical Athens is a pupil of Aristotle (later his successor as head of the Peripatetic school of philosophy), whom he dubbed Theophrastus (“he who speaks like a god”). Theophrastus had been born Tyrtamus on the island of Lesbos around 370 B.C. and had moved to Athens to study philosophy. An immensely popular speaker, he attracted audiences of 2,000 strong at his public lectures. His life coincided with many of the historical vicissitudes of fourth-century Athens, including the rise of the kingdom of Macedon to the north under Philip II and the eventual domination of all of Greece by Alexander the Great —another pupil of Aristotle’s—including Athens, already diminished by its defeat in the Peloponnesian War.

Although Theophrastus wrote on a wide variety of subjects, he is known for his surviving work on plants (he is considered the father of botany) and an elegant, witty little study of human nature known as “Characters,” in which he depicts 30 different men, or types, representative of particular vices or foibles. It was humorous and sharply observed, with details of quotidian life that might belong in a novelist’s notebook, and there had been nothing quite like it before.

An example? Try this:

Man of the hour

Some types and characters are specific to Athenian free-born men and don’t necessarily translate easily to modern generalities. The Coward is afraid to sail (the ancient equivalent of having a fear of flying), seeing pirates and shipwreck at every turn. But most of his entry is given over to his avoiding the front-line of battle and hiding in sick bay—all free-born Athenian men had mandatory military service and were likely to have seen action. The entry for the Superstitious Man is entertaining less because we see in him a modern type (though his excessive hand washing might be OCD) than because we see superstitions that we share or learn about ancient Athenian ones we don’t. Thus a weasel (the Greek equivalent of a cat) crossing the road unnerves him. But we also find that he must shout “Mighty Athena!” if he hears the hoot of an owl. The Social Climber enjoys conspicuous consumption, even concerning his pets: He buys his jackdaw a tiny shield and ladder so that it will look like a hoplite scaling a wall, and when his imported Maltese lapdog dies, he erects a tombstone to this scion of Malta.

But there is also a Newshound who spreads some “fake news,” and a man so obnoxious that he flashes his genitals at free-born women (obnoxious indeed!). The Vulgar Man gives Too Much Information about his herbal colonic at the dinner table. There are cheapskates galore, dissemblers, busybodies, dullards and charlatans. The worst of the lot seems to be the Friend of Scoundrels, who does sound strangely contemporary, mocking good men, calling rogues “independent thinkers” and declaring: “We won’t have anyone willing to take trouble on behalf of the public good if we reject such men.”

Happy 410th birthday, John Milton! Here’s how you can thank him for Paradise Lost.

December 9th, 2018

And there was a little party tonight chez lui – cake and champers in Buckinghamshire!

Happy 410th birthday to the man who lost paradise, and then regained it – for all of us! There was a lovely little party to celebrate the event at the poet’s digs in Chalfont St. Giles, his only surviving home. Wish I’d been there! (I wrote about my own stay earlier this year here.)

Like to get him a little prezzie for the occasion? Here’s what he really needs, and you have a few more days to get it: make a contribution to keeping his place tidied up. The Milton Cottage in Chalfont St. Giles is his only surviving residence, and it’s a charmer. But after half a millennium, it needs a few repairs. “I visited the cottage last summer. It is an absolute gem and the staff are delightful,” according to Milton scholar Joe Nutt.

But move quickly: Thanks to a generous benefactor, any time up midnight on 14th December 2018 your donation will be quadrupled! For a tax-deductible contribution (via credit card or Paypal), Americans should go HERE to donate. Scroll down to note that your intended target for funding is “Paradise Maintain’d: Milton’s Cottage”!

“Yes, I’ve donated to Milton’s Cottage for several years. It is the only structure associated with Milton that remains intact, and it’s where he completed 𝑃𝑎𝑟𝑎𝑑𝑖𝑠𝑒 𝐿𝑜𝑠𝑡,” wrote Milton enthusiast Mark Hackler. He continued:

Milton was a Londoner for most of his life, but every house (at least four) that he lived in has been obliterated over time. One or two were burned during the Great Fire of London in 1666, and others were destroyed during the Blitz in WWII.

You can view the exterior of the “dorms” at Christ College at the University of Cambridge, where Milton shared a room with a half-dozen pensioners (scholarship students), and there is a memorial window dedicated to Milton at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey; sometimes his portrait is on display at the National Portrait Gallery. But nothing physical remains of Milton in London, except his corpse, which is buried in the floor of the St. Giles without Cripplegate church.

If you visit Bread Street in London, the street on which Milton was born and grew up, you’ll find nothing but soulless office buildings and a tiny gap between two banks called Milton’s Way. The school he attended (St. Paul’s) is gone; the Mermaid, the pub at the end of the street, where Shakespeare and other greats ate and drank, is gone (perhaps a young Milton, who was 12 when Shakespeare died, met the playwright as he stumbled from the pub on a foggy London afternoon); St. Paul’s Cathedral, just around the corner, looks very different now than it did in Milton’s day. Nearly everything in this part of East London (Cheapside) was bombed and burned during WWII.

The London of Milton – and of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron and many others – has vanished.

“Paris under siege”: broken glass and plenty of baguettes

December 8th, 2018


It is the fourth weekend of protests in Paris. Today, police fired tear gas and water cannon in street battles with activists wearing the “gilets jaunes,” the fluorescent yellow vests that are a hallmark of the new movement to protest rising taxes and the cost of living in France.

Our correspondent

One hundred forty people, including 17 police officers, were injured in the violence and more than 1,400 were taken into custody nationwide after they were found carrying hammers, baseball bats, and metal petanque. Eight thousand police were deployed in Paris to try to quell the unrest. 

Today we have a guest post from an eyewitness: the president of the Paris-based “Ivy Plus European Leaders” think tank, author Maria Adle Besson, who has written a moving account of what it was like today to live in the upscale 16th arrondissement, where some of the worst action took place. (All photos by Maria Adle Besson)

I went out to do some shopping in my quiet residential neighborhood at 5 p.m. Who would wish to invade Avenue Mozart? As I turned into the street, everything started to close and people gathered on both sidewalks near Metro Ranelagh. “Ils arrivent”– “They are here”… “Les Gilets Jaunes sont ici?” “Oui Madame, ne remontez pas l’avenue!” warned a restaurant owner, who recognized me.

The “casseurs” arrive at Carré Blanc

I turned back towards Rue de l’Assomption. A group of sinister-looking youth passed close to me, a cold expression in their eyes; I stared at them. They did not look like the middle-aged provincial gilets jaunes protesters I ran into last week. “Where are they coming from and where are they going?” I wondered. Are they extreme right activists? Is La Maison de la Radio protected? Then I thought, “Are we going to be suspicious of each other in the streets of Paris?” Police cars started arriving, from diverse directions, cheered by shop and restaurant owners. Sirens sounded and policemen came running. They slowed and stopped at the corner of my street, as if blocking it. From afar I heard someone scream, “Fils de Pute, Fils de Pute…” Car doors slammed shut. A mother was rushing with her stroller. Others lingered to thank the police. The smell of burning filled the air. I went inside my home, got rid of my bag, changed into a warmer coat and, as soon as sirens stopped and things seemed to quiet down, I headed out again.

I passed in front a group of banlieusards. A woman was arguing with the rioters: “Why are you breaking everything? Would you like it if people were breaking your home?” A young man screamed back: “Je m’en fous, je vis dans le 78, et je casse chez moi aussi car c’est de la merde chez moi. Vous, vous vivez ici dans le seizième dans un 90m2 [1K square foot apartment]* et vous allez me donner des leçons?” (What is sad is that’s not a large apartment. I would have expected him to say 150 square meters. He may have thinking of the Benalla scandal last summer when on top of all the reproaches, the president was blamed for giving his private security guard the use of a 90-square-meter apartment in Paris… which seemed luxurious for a single security guard.)

Here come the baguettes…

Another woman was standing watch over the boutique “Carré Blanc,” where a window was shattered. “Are you the manager?” I asked. She said, “No, I’m a neighbor; I am just a citizen watching over the property of someone else. I don’t want looters to walk in.” I grimaced. “Wouldn’t they be more interested in alcohol and luxury goods than sheets and towels?” She did not like my comment nor the fact that I was taking a picture. Indeed, I wasn’t the only passerby taking pictures of broken store windows, wrecked cars, out of stupefaction and dismay. Among the picture-takers were also men with gilets jaunes sticking out of their back pockets, as well as uncategorizable youth, wearing black and smirking. Thus, one wondered if the gilets jaunes and the “casseurs” – and several other distinct groups – were taking trophy pictures.

Rue de Passy was lined on one side by a long row of C.R.S. [riot police] vans. On the other side of the street, the big café on the small square, was open. Strangely enough, while the whole neighborhood had shut down, it had all its holiday decorations up and was packed with customers – people were even sitting outside on the heated terrace. Paris will always be Paris, I smiled, relieved. I went in and stood at the bar to have coffee amongst the crowd. Various groups of men were drinking beer and talking. I wondered who they were. Plainclothes  policemen? They had rather smart coats and outfits, but were wearing running shoes… I left the café and continued to walk. A truck stopped in front of me and started unloading big yellow plastic boxes. I startled, was it ammunition? Then from the smell that arose from the boxes and seeing baguettes – it is France – stick out of large bags, I realized that it was “dinner” being brought to the C.R.S. Hungry policemen, nostalgically bleu-black-beur, began to step out of the vans – one wonder-woman officer was overloaded with perhaps 40 kilos of police gear. They headed towards the “food truck.” Another Saturday evening of Paris under siege… Today, one warfront was home.

Hannah Arendt remembers W.H. Auden: “an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love”

December 7th, 2018

The one thing he knew well…

I was unaware the philosopher Hannah Arendt knew the poet W.H. Auden, and I certainly didn’t know that she had left a memoir of the poet. She did, and The New Yorker, which first published the piece in 1975, has republished it here. It’s a gem. A must-read. 

A few excerpts:

I met Auden late in his life and mine—at an age when the easy, knowledgeable intimacy of friendships formed in one’s youth can no longer be attained, because not enough life is left, or expected to be left, to share with another. Thus, we were very good friends but not intimate friends. Moreover, there was a reserve in him that discouraged familiarity—not that I tested it, ever. I rather gladly respected it as the necessary secretiveness of the great poet, one who must have taught himself early not to talk in prose, loosely and at random, of things that he knew how to say much more satisfactorily in the condensed concentration of poetry. Reticence may be the déformation professionnelle of the poet. In Auden’s case, this seemed all the more likely because much of his work, in utter simplicity, arose out of the spoken word, out of idioms of everyday language—like “Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm.” This kind of perfection is very rare; we find it in some of the greatest of Goethe’s poems, and it must exist in most of Pushkin’s works, because their hallmark is that they are untranslatable.


If you listened to him, nothing could seem more deceptive than this appearance. Time and again, when, to all appearances, he could not cope anymore, when his slum apartment was so cold that the plumbing no longer functioned and he had to use the toilet in the liquor store at the corner, when his suit (no one could convince him that a man needed at least two suits, so that one could go to the cleaner, or two pairs of shoes, so that one pair could be repaired: a subject of an endless ongoing debate between us throughout the years) was covered with spots or worn so thin that his trousers would suddenly split from top to bottom—in brief, whenever disaster hit before your very eyes, he would begin to more or less intone an utterly idiosyncratic version of “Count your blessings.” Since he never talked nonsense or said something obviously silly—and since I always remained aware that this was the voice of a very great poet—it took me years to realize that in his case it was not appearance that was deceptive, and that it was fatally wrong to ascribe what I saw of his way of life to the harmless eccentricity of a typical English gentleman.


The sad wisdom of remembrance…

Now, with the sad wisdom of remembrance, I see him as having been an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love, among which the infuriating substitution of admiration for love must surely have loomed large. And beneath these emotions there must have been from the beginning a certain animal tristesse that no reason and no faith could overcome:

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
The dance’s pattern; dance while you can.


It seems, of course, very unlikely that young Auden, when he decided that he was going to be a great poet, knew the price he would have to pay, and I think it entirely possible that in the end—when not the intensity of his feelings and not the gift of transforming them into praise but the sheer physical strength of the heart to bear them and live with them gradually faded away—he considered the price too high. We, in any event—his audience, readers and listeners—can only be grateful that he paid his price up to the last penny for the everlasting glory of the English language. And his friends may find some consolation in his beautiful joke beyond the grave—that for more than one reason, as Spender said, “his wise unconscious self chose a good day for dying.” The wisdom to know “when to live and when to die” is not given to mortals, but Wystan, one would like to think, may have received it as the supreme reward that the cruel gods of poetry bestowed on the most obedient of their servants.

Read the whole thing here.

Praise for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard in the New York Review of Books!

December 5th, 2018

The New York Review of Books has a three-page spread on our favorite French theorist, René Girard, in its Dec. 20 holiday issue – and Evolution of the Desire: A Life of René Girard is at the top of it. The article, “Prophet of Envy” by Robert Pogue Harrison, a friend and colleague of the Académie Française immortel, is a bold and brilliant, incisive and insightful consideration of René Girard’s theories and works. I hope it is cited, picked up, and republished everywhere. It begins:

A friend of Harrison’s and a friend of mine…

René Girard (1923–2015) was one of the last of that race of Titans who dominated the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their grand, synthetic theories about history, society, psychology, and aesthetics. That race has since given way to a more cautious breed of “researchers” who prefer to look at things up close, to see their fine grain rather than their larger patterns. Yet the times certainly seem to attest to the enduring relevance of Girard’s thought to our social and political realities. Not only are his ideas about mimetic desire and human violence as far-reaching as Marx’s theories of political economy or Freud’s claims about the Oedipus complex, but the explosion of social media, the resurgence of populism, and the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence all suggest that the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably “Girardian” in its behavior.

In Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, Cynthia Haven—a literary journalist and the author of books on Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz—offers a lively, well-documented, highly readable account of how Girard built up his grand “mimetic theory,” as it’s sometimes called, over time. Her decision to introduce his thought to a broader public by way of an intellectual biography was a good one. Girard was not a man of action—the most important events of his life took place inside his head—so for the most part she follows the winding path of his academic career, from its beginnings in France, where he studied medieval history at the École des Chartes, to his migration to the United States in 1947, to the various American universities at which he taught over the years: Indiana, Duke, Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, SUNY Buffalo, and finally Stanford, where he retired in 1997.

Of the seven books on the list, Evolution of Desire is the only one not authored by René himself. The  final book is one of my favorites, and I discuss it a good deal in Evolution of Desire: it’s his  Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre:

A frequent essayist in NYRB

It is in many ways one of his most interesting, for here he leaves behind speculations about archaic origins and turns his attention to modern history. The book’s conversations with Benoît Chantre, an eminent French Girardian, feature a major discussion of the war theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), whose ideas about the “escalation to extremes” in modern warfare converge uncannily with Girard’s ideas about the acceleration of mimetic violence.

Toward the end of his life, Girard did not harbor much hope for history in the short term. In the past, politics was able to restrain mass violence and prevent its tendency to escalate to extremes, but in our time, he believed, politics had lost its power of containment. “Violence is a terrible adversary,” he wrote in Battling to the End, “especially since it always wins.” Yet it is necessary to battle violence with a new “heroic attitude,” for “it alone can link violence and reconciliation…[and] make tangible both the possibility of the end of the world and reconciliation among all members of humanity.” To that statement he felt compelled to add: “More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying.” That meaning has to do with the primacy of violence in human relations. And to that statement, in turn, he added some verses of Friedrich Hölderlin: “But where danger threatens/that which saves from it also grows.”

Here’s the good news! “Prophet of Envy” is online here! And the holidays are coming up – time to buy some books for family and friends.

‘Tis the season to be generous: Milton’s only surviving residence needs your help!

December 3rd, 2018

Nestled within one of the toniest little villages in England…

John Milton was a visionary poet and political writer – one of the most radical and influential thinkers Britain has ever seen.

Milton’s Cottage in Buckinghamshire’s bucolic Chalfont St. Giles is his only surviving residence. It’s the place where he completed his epic masterpiece, Paradise Lost, and was inspired to write its sequel, Paradise Regain’d. These late, great works changed the course of literary history and ensured Milton’s enduring reputation as one of the world’s greatest writers. (We’ve written about it here and here and here!) 

The room where he wrote.

Paradise Maintain’d is an endowment fund to protect and preserve Milton’s Cottage in perpetuity. It’s roots go way back: in 1887 a public appeal was launched to save Milton’s Cottage for the world. The first donor was Queen Victoria, who gave the grand total of £20.

It has been open to the public ever since, making it one of the oldest writers’ house museums in the world. It receives no government funding, however, and continues to depend on the generosity of Milton aficionados, literature lovers, and freedom-lovers everywhere to ensure the survival of this unique literary landmark.

Join Queen Victoria and become part of the story and see Paradise Maintain’d for future generations. She’d approve.


Here’s the kicker: Thanks to a generous benefactor, any time up midnight on 14th December 2018 your donation will be quadrupled! For a tax-deductible contribution (via credit card or Paypal), Americans should go HERE to donate. Scroll down to note that your intended target for funding is “Paradise Maintain’d: Milton’s Cottage”!

Why We Want What We Want: René Girard and Robert Harrison in conversation

November 30th, 2018


“Know thyself.” It’s not an easy proposition. As Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison says, “To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire. Desires are what lurk at the heart of our behavior. It’s what determines our motivations. It’s what organizes our social relations. It’s what informs our politics, religions, ideologies, and above all, our conflicts.”

René in a video interview…

In this conversation and podcast, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here, Harrison talks with Stanford’s expert on human desire, René Girard, whose work on the subject was rooted in literary criticism, but eventually reached across disciplines to embrace anthropology, sociology, history, religions, and even the hard sciences.

Girard began his work in the 1960s with a new concept of human desire: our desires are not our own, he said, we are social creatures, and we learn what to want from each other. He has been called “the new Darwin of the human sciences” and was one of the immortels of the prestigious Académie Française.

… Robert Harrison as radio host

Their 2005 interview discusses envy and desire in literature — in Canto V of the Inferno, in Cervantes, Balzac, and Flaubert, but most of all in the plays of Shakespeare. They also discuss the role of vengeance as an act of mimetic rivalry, “snobbery” as a form of imitation, and the “sacramental” nature of advertising today. “If you consume Coca-Cola, maybe if you consume a lot of it, you will become a little bit like these people you would like to be. It’s a kind of Eucharist that will turn you into the person you really admire.”

Ultimately, they talk about the mimetic escalation of warfare, Girard’s late-life fascination with the war theoretician Clausewitz, and the need to renounce violence.

This is Part 1 of a two-part discussion – you can listen to it over at the Los Angeles Review of Books “Entitled Opinions” channel here. Meanwhile, Robert Harrison writes about René Girard in the Dec. 20, 2018, issue of the New York Review of Books here.

Potent quotes:


Envy is the emotion which plays the greatest role in our society.”

Mimetic desire is an absolute monarch.”

If you have a rivalry, your vanity is involved and you want to win at all cost.”

The institution that is most mimetic of all is the greatest capitalist institution – the stock market.”

Clausewitz constantly shows you the mimetic nature of war.”


Nothing is more mysterious, evasive, or perverse than human desire.”

We are far from overcoming the behavior that has characterized human history.”

Why is it that human behavior is so resistant to adapting itself to what the mind knows?”

To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire.”

It’s amazing that our governments invests billions of dollars in scientific research every year in order to better understand the world of nature, yet commits only a tiny fraction of that to advance the cause of self-knowledge in order to better understand ourselves.”

Join me for a talk with Eric Karpeles on his new Czapski biography: Thursday night at San Francisco’s City Lights!

November 26th, 2018

Czapski by Czapski

I’d love to see all of you at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 29 at the legendary City Lights Booksellers, on 261 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco. And here’s why.

The subject of evening will be a man too little known in the West: Józef Czapski, painter, writer, critic, war hero and prisoner of war, and above all a great humanitarian (the word somehow seems too small for him). We’ve written about him before, here and here. (His self-portrait is at right – he was 6’6″ and the long, narrow canvas demonstrates that.)

And now I will have a “public conversation” about Czapski with his biographer Eric Karpeles.

The occasion is the publication of several books by New York Review Books. First and foremost, Karpeles’s new biography of Czapski: Almost Nothing: The 20th Century Art and Life of Jósef CzapskiSecond, his translation from the French of Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (with Karpeles’s introduction), and finally Czapski’s Inhuman LandSearching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941-1942, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, with an introduction by Timothy Snyder.

From the City Lights website:

Biographer and painter, too.

Józef Czapski (1896–1993) was a writer and artist, as well as an officer in the Polish army. In 1918, he enrolled in the Warsaw School of Fine Arts, but shortly thereafter he suspended his studies in order to travel to Russia at the request of military authorities to search for officers in his division who had disappeared in action. At the end of the Russian Civil War, he went back to his studies, this time at Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts, and soon relocated to Paris with some fellow students, thus founding the Komitet Paryski (Paris Committee), later known as the Kapist movement.

That height thing, again.

Czapski was drafted into the army at the beginning of World War II, soon after landing in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp. Once free, he was assigned to investigate another disappearance of officers, who he would discover were victims of the Katyń Massacre, the subject of Inhuman Land. Czapski spent the rest of his years painting and writing.

Eric Karpeles is a painter, writer, and translator. His comprehensive guide, Paintings in Proust, considers the intersection of literary and visual aesthetics in the work of the great French novelist. He has written about the paintings of the poet Elizabeth Bishop and about the end of life as seen through the works of Emily Dickinson, Gustav Mahler, and Mark Rothko. The painter of The Sanctuary and of the Mary and Laurance Rockefeller Chapel, he is the also the translator of Józef Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp and Lorenza Foschini‘s Proust’s Overcoat. He lives in Northern California.

Hero, writer, painter: it will be his night.

Cynthia Haven is a 2018/19 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar. She writes regularly for The Times Literary Supplement, and has also contributed to The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and World Literature Today. Her newest book is Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, which was published by Michigan State University Press in spring 2018 and reviewed in the Times Literary SupplementThe Wall Street JournalSan Francisco Chronicle, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her work has also appeared in Le Monde, La Repubblica, Die Welt, Zvezda, Colta, Zeszyty Literackie, The Kenyon Review, Quarterly Conversation, The Georgia Review, and Civilization. She has been a Milena Jesenská Journalism Fellow with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, as well as a visiting writer and scholar at Stanford’s Division of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures and a Voegelin Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven was published in London, 2005. Her Czesław Miłosz: Conversations was published in 2006; Joseph Brodsky: Conversations in 2003; An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz was published in 2011 with Ohio University Press / Swallow Press.

Whew! That’s all a lot of words, and there will be a lot more Thursday night, but please do join us! There will be lots of books for signing – and a few of mine, too!

A chance to meet the man who “invented San Francisco”: Armistead Maupin at Stanford on Wednesday, Nov. 28

November 25th, 2018

Adrian Daub

On Wednesday, Nov. 28, author Armistead Maupin will be visiting Stanford – first signing books in the Bishop Auditorium lobby at 5:30 and then joining us for a screening of The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. At 7:15 p.m., Stanford’s Prof. Adrian Daub will engage him in an onstage conversation with filmmaker Jennifer Kroot.

A few words from Adrian below (some of you might remember his lively presence during the Another Look discussion of J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself):

For an entire generation of Bay Area residents, the Tales of the City, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in serialized form from 1976 to 1989, was appointment reading, but since then readers have largely encountered the Tales and their sequels in novel-form and in an HBO miniseries starring Laura Linney (and due to be revived next year). Which means, maybe he hasn’t been part of the fabric of their lives as much as he was for their elders. Nevertheless, they have lived in the world he created. Quentin Crisp once joked that in Tales, Maupin “invented San Francisco” — and the stories of various residents unknown, famous, and infamous indeed explained and dramatized tumultuous decades of San Francisco history as they were unfolding.

The Tales were also crucial in making LGBT culture mainstream — he was among the first novelists to feature a serious, fleshed out and sympathetic trans character, he was among the very first writers to tackle AIDS. But he never tackled them as issues, as challenges — they wove themselves into the Tales almost by necessity. The Tales are a spell he has woven around San Francisco for more than forty years, a spell that allowed the city to see itself for what it was, is, and could be. It therefore feels so appropriate that we get to host Armistead Maupin at Stanford on Nov. 28 — 40 years and a day after the murder of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. The forty years are about reflecting what that turbulent time meant, and how our own present would measure up before its fears and promises. And the day is about writing and thinking about the next step.

Next Series of Posts >>>