Archive for June, 2010

Wow. Why Hitchens won’t be in Palo Alto.

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Christopher Hitchens

Back when Ayaan Hirsi Ali was visiting Palo Alto courtesy the Commonwealth Club, I mentioned Christopher Hitchens was to appear next on June 27.  He was plugging his new memoir, Hitch 22.

A few days ago, I received an email that his appearance was “postponed until further notice.”  I wondered what the story was.

It’s this:  Hitchens has esophageal cancer.  From Vanity Fair:

“I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my esophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements at such short notice.”

This is one of the nastier and more aggressive cancers.

Whatever one’s opinions of him, his books, his journalism — wish him well. (I was about to say Godspeed — a thought he would hardly have encouraged.)

Iranian fantasies, bad translations, and electric cats

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Leon Wieseltier

In WaPo, the New Republics controversial literary editor Leon Wieseltier responds to the “false and heartless” June 21 op-ed by Fareed Zakaria, in which  the Newsweek editor worries that too much concern for Iranian democracy will lead to war.  Wieseltier is usually unbuttoned — but this article rather takes the biscuit.  He concludes:

“The Khameini-Ahmedinejad ‘oligarchy’ represses and imprisons and rapes and tortures and murders its own citizens. It also promotes theocracy and terrorism in its region and beyond. All this is pretty plain. Why is Zakaria so fearful that American foreign policy will respond to such a government with stringency and loathing? Perhaps he believes that President Obama’s policy of respect and accommodation will solve the nuclear problem and bring a measure of decency to the rulers of Iran, but there is no empirical basis for such a belief. It is a much greater fantasy than the ‘fantasy’ that Zakaria deplores, which is no fantasy at all. Real realism consists of the recognition that nuclear peace and social peace in Iran will be reliably achieved only with the advent of democracy, and that since June 12, 2009, the advent of Iranian democracy is not an idle wish.

Milani (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Morally and strategically — this is one of those perplexities in which they go serendipitously together — President Obama’s refusal to strongly support the Iranian resistance against the Iranian tyranny is not prudent, it is perverse. But when democracy comes to Iran, Fareed Zakaria will plummily assure us that this was his dream all along.”


However, in its central contentions that democracy will resolve the nuke impasse, he sounds a bit like Abbas Milani — without Milani’s tempered patience.  No surprise: Milani contributes to the New Republic and is a friend.  But glad that the taste for democracy as a resolution for the Iranian imbroglio is contagious.  I’ve written about Milani’s views on the subject here, and also on the Book Haven here and (along with writer Shahryar Mandanipour) here.


We’ve written about the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, and Marilyn Yalom’s defense of the controversial new translation.  Simone de Beauvoir herself was unhappy with the earlier translation by Smith College zoologist H.M. Parshley, who had never translated a book from the French and knew little about philosophy:  “I was dismayed to learn the extent to which Mr. Parshley misrepresented me. I wish with all my heart that you will be able to publish a new translation of it.”

In a Chronicle of Higher Education review of the new translation by Carlin Romero here, he concludes:

… it’s a shame that the Second Sex Translation Follies are turning into a well-made play in which everyone acts the role assigned by theatrical cliché. Maybe a wiser way to look at things is that it’s precisely because all have done so that we find ourselves in such a happy place. … The unabridged material before us … demands extraordinary respect for a writer and thinker who, earlier false images to the contrary, didn’t kneel to Sartre or write off the top of her head, but argued effectively and with rich evidence for a vision of women that now dominates the well-educated West.


Kit Smart

And finally, for fun, a friend alerted me nearly a year late about poet Robert Pinsky’s quick write-up of Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno” — a poem beloved to  all cat-lovers.  Last year’s Salon article (It includes a 6-minute reading of the poem by Pinsky — definitely worth a click — here)

A sampling for those unfamiliar with the poem — in which Kit Smart considers his cat Jeoffrey:

For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven
to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements. …

Robert Pinsky (Photo: Steve Castillo)

Ed Hirsch, too, referenced Kit Smart during his recent visit — perhaps Kit appeals to a modern sort of pantheism.

Smart was eventually consigned to a madhouse. According to Samuel Johnson, in Boswell’s work: “My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place…I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.”

By the by, you might enjoy Pinsky’s pre-millenial commencement address at Stanford, which is here (with video link).

The proof in the pudding

Saturday, June 26th, 2010
“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”– John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck’s comment (discovered above, after three days of writing about the Steinbeck auction) adds another slant on last week’s New York Times review of Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut, a thriller about marriage.  Bestselling author and practicing lawyer Scott Turow writes an insightful review of what sounds like a haunting book.  The review is here.  An excerpt with a local twist:

Nearly 40 years ago I was a fellow at the Creative Writing Center at Stanford. The director, Richard P. Scowcroft, who had helped his revered friend Wallace Stegner establish the program, told those of us in the advanced fiction seminar that the one subject he had always feared writing a novel about was marriage, because it still seemed to him the most complex and frequently unfathomable of human relationships, notwithstanding his own long and successful marriage.


Turow doesn’t mention that he endowed the Richard Scowcroft Fellowship in Creative Writing.  He has said that not only was Scowcroft, who died in 2001, “a distinguished professor of English and a fine scholar, but his works, such as Back to Fire Mountain, have been undervalued. Above all, his gifts as a teacher of creative writing are beyond dispute. He knew exactly when to bring you yet closer to being a good writer.”

Turow would seem to be proof.

By the by, Turow works most of his cases pro bono (including a case 15 years ago where he won freedom for Alejandro Hernandez, who spent over a decade on death row for a murder he did not commit).

“Ed Head” alert: an update on the Steinbeck auction

Friday, June 25th, 2010

Jerry Garcia of American science (Photo: Ed Ricketts Jr.)

Just got an update from Joe Wible of the Hopkins Marine Station Library about the mysterious sale of Ed Ricketts’s briefcase at the NYC Steinbeck auction earlier this week (I wrote about it here and here):

I did hear today from someone who knows the person who made the winning bid for the Ricketts briefcase and manuscripts. It did go to a private collector from southern California and is not likely to end up in a library or museum. Bummer.

Now I understand why a marine librarian would be interested in Ricketts — the only scientist to have 15 animal species and a nightclub named after him (I’ve never read Cannery Row):

Wible ... he told me so

“‘Ricketts is like a cult figure,’ says Joseph Taylor, professor of environmental history at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. Of all the scientists who ran marine research stations along the Pacific Coast, Taylor says, ‘he was by far the most colorful.'”

The quote is from a five-year-old San Francisco Chronicle article on Ricketts here.  I finally googled Ricketts, just as   Wible told me to do — and found this description:

“He is the Jerry Garcia of American science — a beer-drinking, bearded guru who ignored the social and scientific orthodoxies of his time, a progenitor of the counterculture, an enigmatic ecologist whose pioneering work was initially rejected by the scientific establishment.”

“And the winner is…” More on the Steinbeck auction

Friday, June 25th, 2010

National Steinbeck Center (Photo: Stuart Schwartz)

News is drifting in about the results of the Steinbeck auction earlier this week, and the big winner is … the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

How is that for good news?  You can read about it here and here.

They are the ones who acquired the desk chair and globe.  They are the ones who acquired the pipes and glasses.  They are the ones who acquired manuscripts and correspondence, film and audio recordings.

“We got everything we wanted and then some,” said Gail Steinbeck,  wife of the author’s son, Thom Steinbeck.

The Steinbeck Center people aren’t the only winners, of course.  And some players were working at a disadvantage.

Steinbeck in 1962

Academic libraries have it tough when it comes to auctions:  They don’t have a big pot of gold, and they can’t act on a whim.  They must get authorization for expenditures from their institutions, and that process doesn’t easily allow for the give-and-take, push-and-shove of an auction — where upping the bid a buck,  after intuitively sensing that a competitor has hit his limit, or deciding to forgo some objects so you can go-for-broke on another — could make the difference between having the winning bid or walking away empty-handed.  Moreover, their budget cycle tends to end with the academic year in June – so they are at the bottom of their financial barrel at this time of year. Nevertheless, the Stanford University Libraries did come away a winner, on both the items it bid for.

Not surprisingly for a university, they went after documents rather than glasses, pipes, or briefcases.  Stanford already has significant holdings in its Steinbeck collections, including manuscripts, notes, correspondence, photographs, and ephemera. The libraries will add to its Steinbeck holdings “Lot 205. Documents relating to 1956/1960 Elections,” including typed signed letters from William Faulkner, Adlai Stevenson, Harry Truman and others.

They also acquired “Lot 222.  Film and script documents. ‘Zapata’ Revisited,” including correspondence from Darryl Zanuck, Elia Kazan, and others.

“We don’t have much political material,” said Annette Keogh, successful bidder for the Stanford libraries in what she termed the “swift and surprising” auction — hence the interest in the first lot.  “There was some interesting film stuff about Zapata – we do have other film-related materials, thought would be a good compliment.”

“They struck me as something researchers a rather than collectors would be interested in,” said Keogh.

But who got the briefcase that had belonged to Edward Ricketts, a longtime Steinbeck friend and collaborator?  The mysterious lot went to an undisclosed bidder for $18,000.

Why did everyone want it, and why did it go so high?  According to Joe Wible, head librarian and bibliographer at the Hopkins Marine Station Library, who made an unsuccessful bid:

There are a lot of “Ed Heads” out there who would be potential buyers for the Ricketts materials.  Search “Ed Heads” and “Ricketts” in Google and you get over 500 hits.  I wish the auction house had separated the briefcase from the papers it contained into separate lots.  I suspect the bidding went so high because of the briefcase.  Other than maybe the telegram notifying Steinbeck of Ricketts being hit by the train, I don’t think the papers would have sold for such a large sum of money.  I was only interested in the manuscripts and correspondences that were inside the briefcase so that historians studying Ricketts would have access to those documents.

I am very curious to know who had the winning bid.  Unfortunately, if it was a private collector we may never know.

Meanwhile, drop the Book Haven a line if any more news surfaces.

Hasty and half-hearted Steinbeck auction raises questions

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

His glasses and pipes

If you weren’t at Bloomsbury Auctions in NYC today, you missed a great recession-era auction — half of the John Steinbeck items went below estimated prices, or failed to sell at all.

Steinbeck’s chair and terrestrial globe sold for $1,800 — below the $2,000 to $3,000 pre-auction estimate.  One manuscript, Steinbeck’s acceptance speech for his 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature, was among 26 lots (out of 50) that didn’t sell at all.

According to the Associated Press story:

His chair and globe

The most spirited bidding went for a briefcase that had belonged to Edward Ricketts, a longtime Steinbeck friend and collaborator who was the inspiration for the character of the lonely biologist ‘Doc’ in “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday.”

Estimated at $9,000 to $12,000, it sold for $18,000, one of the few items that went higher than expected.

One would-be buyer told me that the Steinbeck Center at San Jose State University was not bidding on any of the lots.  The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas bid on a few, and the Monterey Public Library made a bid for the briefcase, but dropped out.

The Ricketts briefcase

Nobody seems to know where this stuff is going — or where it went.  It’s too bad, as a major concern for many public-spirited bidders was that Steinbeck’s personal items might be sequestered into personal collections and therefore be lost to the public. Speaking in an Oakland Tribune article here, Executive Director Colleen Bailey of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas said:

“All of these things should be preserved and available for everybody to see, and not stuffed in a closet somewhere in somebody’s personal collection,” Bailey said. “It’s an opportunity for the world to gain access to his private world.”

Autographed manuscripts

“There’s such a fascination with the private lives of people who have done such wonderful things.”

Apparently, some were caught off guard by news that John Steinbeck memorabilia was to be auctioned — including the author’s son and daughter-in-law, Thom and Gail Steinbeck, who were quickly raising money to bid for items and take them back to Salinas.  As of Monday, they had raised $4,600 of a hoped for $15,000.

Meanwhile … has anyone heard anything?

The e-book: A sigh of the times

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Jennifer Howard, my former editor at the Washington Post Book Worldhas an article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education about the Association of American University Presses conference — a shindig held in, of all places, Salt Lake City this year.   What did they discuss?  E-books, e-books, e-books.  Some highlights from “Scholarly Presses Confront an Increasingly Digital Present”:

“If somebody can tell you what the models are that work, they’re lying to you. Nobody knows,” said Alexander M.C. Halavais of Quinnipiac University.  “But doing the same thing you’re doing now is not a good long-term strategy.”

“Too much or too little technology is dangerous,” said Tim Barton of Oxford University Press. “Getting technology right is really difficult, and mistakes are expensive.”

And if those comments don’t scare you, try this one from the “comments” section:

“I don’t think it is a bad thing that the internet is killing off ‘deep reading.’ I find that I prefer consuming information in a fluid, associative, montage-like way (I always loved Walter Benjamin’s “Arcades” project). As times change, our mode of reading must evolve, too.

Recession notwithstanding, the numbers were up from the mid-400s to 525 this year — even though last year’s conference was held in the comparative haven of Philadelphia, rather than Salt Lake City. Sigh of the times:  More than 80 people showed for a pre-meeting workshop on e-book-publishing strategies (organized by Stanford University Press‘ Alan Harvey).  Though the news is scary, at least two people look pleased to be en route to the great Salt Lake — my publisher David Sanders of Ohio University Press/Swallow Press and Marty Tuck, Ohio University’s provost for academic affairs.  From David’s Facebook page:

David Sanders and Marty Tuck revel in the vagabond life

Midsummer Night and medieval pilgrimages

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Happy solstice.  It’s the last night of spring, or the first hours of summer, depending on your p.o.v. — and it’s not too late to make a pilgrimage, if you’ve a mind to do so.  Robert A. Scott writes:  “We tend to associate pilgrimage with springtime, no doubt in part because of the evocative opening passage from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.”

You remember (I won’t cheat you by using a modern version):

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Bifil that in that seson on a day,
In southwerk at the tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To caunterbury with ful devout corage …

In his fascinating study Miracle Cures, which landed on my desk in time for the solstice, sociologist Scott says that spring was a popular season for pilgrimages — but not the only one.  “Nilson’s data from the cathedral churches at Ely, Hereford, Durham, and Canterbury suggest that the income from these shrines was greatest during the autumn, followed by the spring and early summer” — that means right now.

Robert A. Scott (Photo: Kate Shemilt)

But don’t grab your hat:  “a pilgrim did not act on impulse and of a morning, stumble out of bed, decide over breakfast to take to the road, pack a few belongings, and leave.  Pilgrimage required substantial forethought and planning. … Except for journeys of a day or two to a local shrine, permission of various kinds had to be obtained: from the pilgrim’s family, from the lord of the manor to which he belonged, and from the village priest.  For longer journeys, wills had to be drawn up, signed, and witnessed in case the pilgrim died along the way.  Debts had to be settled, provisions made to cover work obligations, and, for the head of a household, decisions taken about how to provide for the family.  An itinerary had to be prepared spelling out the route to be followed, the time of year to depart, what form gifts for the saint should take, and the proposed timetable.”

Scott wants to know, however, why people go on pilgrimages in the age of advanced biotechnology and MRI scans.  Why is it still a major industry?  Using the latest research, he examines accounts of miracle cures from the medieval times onwards, the power of relics and apparitions, and — here is the book jacket talking — “the transformative nature of sacred journeying, and shines new light on the roles that belief, hope, and emotion can play in healing.”

Sounds like Scott knows a good deal about the medieval world, and he does.  His earlier book was The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral.  One of the fascinating aspects of medieval studies is the integration:  architecture affects music, poetry affects painting, literature influences liturgy, early science and religion mingle — ages before it all shattered into shards.

Hannah Arendt on racism…

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Hannah Arendt, about the time she wrote her dissertation on the concept of love in the thought of Saint Augustine, under Karl Jaspers

Last month, I wrote about an international conference on Hannah Arendt — best known for her Eichmann in Jerusalem (which coined the term “banality of evil”); article is here.  At the conference, the organizers played a 3-minute clip of the political philosopher speaking — Arendt’s friend  Gerhard Casper and others called it “vintage Arendt.”

It was the first time I had heard her voice — so thickly accented in her native German  it’s almost impossible at times to decode, even though she had, by that time, spent more than two decades in America.  I wanted to include the sound clip with the article — to give a flavor of one of the last century’s most powerful thinkers.

No joy.  My ever-vigilant editors didn’t want to run the clip unless they could clear copyright permission.  We traced the talk back to a 1968 Bard College lecture that was once available online, but which had mysteriously disappeared.  Was it withdrawn because of flagrant copyright violations resulting from the link?

Never underestimate the power of the boo-boo.  We finally heard from Bard last week.  The clips had inadvertantly been dropped from the website during an update.  The link has been restored.  And we, belatedly, will be including it in the article.

Until that time, I include the links  here and here.  It’s more than three minutes.  I transcribed a short portion on the justifications of violence, and racism, before getting overwhelmed by the (at times) impenetrable accent.

Here she goes:

Casper at the conference, Robert Harrison in the background (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“We all know to what an extent the old combination of violence, life, and creativity has survived in rebellious state of mind of the new generation.  Their taste for violence is again accompanied by the glorification of life, and it frequently understands itself as a necessarily violent negation of everything that stands in the way of the will to live.  … Nothing, I think, is more dangerous theoretically than this tradition of organic thought. You saw it in all three:  revolution and power and violence.  You saw it in the concept of progress,  in the concept of power, and in the concept of violence. … The precedence of violence is justified on the grounds of creativity.”

“So long as we talk about these matters in non-political, biological terms, the glorifiers of violence will have the great advantage to appeal to the undeniable experiences inherent in the practice of violent action.  The danger of being carried away by the deceptive plausibility of such metaphors is particularly great, of course, where racial issues are involved.  Racism, white or black, is fraught with violence by definition, because it objects to natural, organic facts — the white or black skin, which no persuasion and no power could change.  All one can do when the chips are down is exterminate their bearers. Violence,  interracial struggle is always murderous, but it is not irrational.  It is the logical and rational consequence of racism — by which I do not mean some rather vague prejudices on either side, but an explicit ideological system.  Today’s violence, black riots, and the much greater potential for white backlash, are not yet manifestations of racist ideologies and their murderous logic.  The riots, as has recently been stated, are a particular protest against genuine grievances — and much the same is true for the backlash phenomena.  The greatest danger is rather the other way around:  since violence always needs justification, an escalation of the violence industry may bring about a truly racist ideology to justify it, in which case violence and riots may disappear from the streets and be transformed into the invisible terror of the police state.”

The Q&A session is supposed to be particularly interesting — haven’t gotten to that yet, but if I’m up to it, I’ll include a few notes later.

Plaudits for Nietzsche, Mithradates, Yalom & Mayor

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Marilyn Yalom writes to say Irv Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept just won the “Saint-Maur en Poche” prize administered by l’Académie Française for the best paperback of the year.  Nice touch:  The award came on June 13, psychiatrist Irv Yalom’s birthday.  Article in Le Point here.  The book was the toast of Vienna last year — we wrote about it here and here.

Adrienne Mayor’s acclaimed The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, was a finalist for the National Book Award last fall.  Now it’s received the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY Awards) — a gold medal for biography.  The book was also one of The Washington Post critics’ Holiday Guide’s “Best Books of 2009.”

Her subject is a fascinating one:  Mithradates VI (134-63 BC), an historical figure most of us know shockingly little about — and won’t learn much about from the few scattered reviews that have appeared.

He claimed Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia as ancestors.  He inherited a wealthy Black Sea kingdom at 14, after his mother poisoned his father. His mother favored his kid brother — hence, the ruler-to-be fled into exile and returned in triumph to become a leader of daunting intelligence (according to Pliny the Elder, he spoke the 22 languages of the nations he ruled) and relentless ambition.

He was one of the few foreign leaders genuinely feared by Rome.  After massacring 80,000 Roman citizens in 88 BC, he seized Greece and Anatolia. He fought  some of the most spectacular battles in ancient history with Rome’s foremost generals, before he was finally defeated by Pompey the Great.  He was the original Comeback Kid: his uncanny knack for eluding capture and bouncing back after devastating losses rattled the Romans.  And he was a chip off the old block:  he knew his poisons, which allowed him to thwart assassination attempts and snuff his rivals — a group of Scythian shamans were constantly by his side to  advise about poisons.  (Perhaps his best protection was that he kept his mother and brother under lock and key.)

Like Cleopatra VII, one of the most calumnied figures in history, Mithradates the Great seems to have had as his life’s aim the consolidation and continuance of his substantial kingdom in the face of a devouring Empire to the West.  Cleopatra lost Egypt —  rather than relaunching the Ptolemies, the Greek ruler became the last of the pharoahs forever.  Egypt became a Roman province after her suicide … or perhaps murder.  And Mithradates?

He too committed suicide, but he had a hard time of it.  Thanks to systematically building his immunity, he survived his attempt at self-poisoning, and appealed to his bodyguard to kill him by the sword.

I like this story the best: At night, Mithadates’s most reliable bodyguards were a horse, a bull, and a stag, which would whinny, bellow, and bleat whenever anyone approached the royal bed.  I wouldn’t have liked to clean up that bedroom — or try to get much sleep in it.