Archive for July, 2010

Guest Review: “Is Everything For Sale?”

Friday, July 30th, 2010

A first at the Book Haven:  Elena Danielson reviews Debra Satz‘s Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets (Oxford) — and she takes a Tolstoyan slant.  In addition to being a whiz at Russian literature, Elena, Stanford archivist emerita and a former associate director of Hoover Institution, has been writing about the ethical dilemmas of archival practice for a quarter-century. She published the “Ethics of Access” in the American Archivist in 1989. In 2005, she won the Posner prize for an article in the American Archivist about access to East German political police files. In 2001, she also received the Laurel Award of the Polish Prime Minister for her work with the Polish State Archives. In 2004, she was named a Commander of the Order of Merit by the Romanian government for her work related to archival holdings in Romania.

Is Everything for Sale?

Debra Satz’s emphatic title could have come from one of Leo Tolstoy’s moralistic essays.

Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale resonates with both sides of the political spectrum. Even MasterCard admits that some things are “price-less.” Pretty obvious:  humans and human bodies should not be put up for sale or auctioned off.

Certainly the United States outlawed the market in human slaves by 1865 and Russia outlawed serfdom about the same time, in 1861.  However, in the late 20th century, the libertarianism that sparked so much innovation and the globalization combined to produce some unintended consequences. Nearly everything has been swept onto the auction block. Satz reminds us that the clothes we are wearing were probably produced in a Third World country, and it’s likely that indentured, bonded or otherwise involuntary servitude, even child labor, helped produce the garment.

Satz champions "weak agents" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Immoral market mechanisms are not a new problem. Satz does not go into this long history, but it is the silent backdrop to her work. The issues she addresses have concerned some of history’s most thoughtful writers. Back in the 19th century, Lev Tolstoy was troubled by the legacy of serfdom that had enriched him and his family. Before the official emancipation of the serfs, he tried to liberate his own human holdings, but they were too suspicious or too savvy to take him up on the offer. Even after the Tsar liberated the bonded peasantry, Tolstoy continued to rail against the evils of private property and the ad hoc enslavement that goes with it.

Last winter at a Stanford “Ethics at Noon” brown bag talk, Satz analyzed the sale of body parts, especially the black market for human kidneys. Selling body parts is illegal, right? Well, in the United States human blood is certainly routinely bought and sold. Human eggs are purchased, often for large sums. This creates a “value forum.” A young woman attending Stanford may be able to command a higher price than a high school dropout. All the while the medical consequences for the seller are not yet clear. In Great Britain, such sales are illegal, the “donation” of body parts must be done altruistically without a purchase price. The sale of kidneys is still illegal in the United States, but the pressures are growing to create a legal market, just as there is for blood and human eggs.

He would have liked Project Gutenberg

As a social philosopher, Satz emphasizes the need to identify cases of “weak agency,” the vulnerable in society who will agree to almost anything for subsistence wages. As citizens with less clout, women often fall into the category of “weak agents,” forced into marketing sexual and reproductive labor.

The great Russian moralist was greatly disturbed by moves to detach sexual pleasure from the family-centered rituals of childbearing, making it a marketable commodity. The evils of prostitution in what we might call asymmetrical relationships are the subject of his highly moralistic, and nearly unreadable, last novel, Resurrection.

Satz points out cases of well-educated woman in the United States who have other options, but still sell their attractions to the highest bidder. Tolstoy also knew well that women of means could be caught up in this kind of marketing. The stunning and cunning character Hélène in War and Peace tells her husband she has no intention of having children. She takes up with powerful and wealthy men and then dies mysteriously at the hands of a French doctor after refusing to be treated by a good Russian doctor. The other great beauty in Tolstoy’s work, Anna Karenina, confidently tells her lover she has no intention of bearing any more of his children. She must also have had medical advice. In his essays, Tolstoy rants about the women and doctors who work against the will of Mother Nature. Modern medical technology has further detached desire from childbearing at each step in the process. Imagine what Tolstoy would think of the marketing of human eggs for substantial sums of money, and the use of surrogate mothers, who are often poorer women paid by wealthier couples.

The late 20th century era of great medical advances coincided with a time of great enthusiasm for the “invisible hand” of the marketplace as the best value forum for determining prices for just about anything. That naïve enthusiasm for deregulation has pretty much crashed, along with the market for hugely overvalued junk bonds, derivatives, and junk real estate loans. Satz points out that the same misplaced trust in financial markets crept into other areas of our American experience, and these need to be re-examined. As financial markets get re-regulated, other areas also need moral limits, some as legal measures and some as ethical standards.

Amazon has new copies for $16.47, used for $9.98, and a kindle version in between at $14.27.  I paid list price of $35 at the Stanford bookstore so I could have a copy that had been autographed by the author. Tolstoy, who opposed private property, would have wanted me to check it out of the library. While her writing is much more accessible than his, if you have the time, read both. His work is in the public domain, as free e-text on Project Gutenberg. He’d like that.

My neighbor: Volodya Nabokov

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Secretive West Chester's Poetry Conference

I had lunch on Memorial Day with poet R.S. Gwynn and his lovely wife Donna, the day before their 33rd anniversary, in a cosy little Mexican cafe on California Avenue. But Sam was sitting on a little secret he didn’t share with me.  Or perhaps I merely hadn’t had a chance to worm it out of him before the two visiting Texans swapped me for the more pedestrian charms of the Pacific coast.

Now he’s at the center of the storm:  Ron Rosenbaum, writing in Slate, announces the next hot Nabokov controversy, and the story is making the rounds in the blogosphere.  The poem “Pale Fire” is about to be liberated from Pale Fire. The 900-line poem at the center of what many call Vladimir Nabokov‘s finest novel, written presumably by the murdered John Shade, will be published separately by Ginkgo Press:  “Nabokov wrote it, and the question of why he wrote it and who he modeled Shade on is the subject of what will be an equally controversial essay accompanying the edition, by poet and poetry professor R.S. Gwynn.”

Vladimir Nabokov, my neighbor ... so to speak

Wait!  Wait!  Don’t dash for the exits in your excitement!

“I know, I know, this may seem to be more esoteric, it doesn’t have the built-in intrigue of a manuscript in a Swiss safe-deposit box. But it’s no tempest in a teapot, not to those familiar with the long-simmering controversy over the poem ‘Pale Fire.’ And with the unbearable beauty and delight both the poem and novel offer. But when you’re dealing with how to read—on the most basic level—the central node of perhaps the greatest work of the supreme artist of the English language of our era, the stakes are high and worth, I believe, my attempt to explain what it’s all about for non-Nabokov readers. (Needless to say, I’d prefer all of you latecomers to run out to read or reread the novel; it is a work of pure pleasure, eminently accessible, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, despite its deceptive “experimental novel” outer architecture.)

Rosenbaum continues:

“I was particularly struck by the degree of erudition about contemporary American poetry that Gwynn brought to his case that Nabokov meant ‘Pale Fire’ to be a reproof to over-casual, over-personal, over-trivial trends in American poetry. A reproof to the belief that formal poetics could not capture deep feeling in traditional verse forms. And that Nabokov had modeled John Shade on the well-known traditionalist American poet Yvor Winters, who was a partisan of formal poetics.

Lanz ... Humbert?

I’ve written about Nabokov’s brief, but fruitful, residency in Palo Alto here, in a little house on Sequoia Avenue so close to my own home that I occasionally walk my dog past it.  At that time, I was exploring the connection between Humbert Humbert and, believe it or not, the founder of the Stanford Slavic Department, Henry Lanz.  Sam had queried me about the connection between Yvor Winters and Nabokov, and I wrote to Helen Pinkerton on the subject: she seemed to have a vague memory of poet Janet Lewis, Winters’s wife, washing dishes with him at the Winters home in Los Altos.  She finally tracked down the reference in Larry McMurtry‘s “The Return of Janet Lewis,” in the New York Review of Books (June 11, 1998) — “a delightful essay on her and all of her work.”  McMurtry writes:

Winters...John Shade?

“Janet too is very polite, but she’s neither fussy nor chilly. She’s lived in that smallish but cheerful house for sixty-four years and is thoroughly the mistress of it; there she raised her family, there she watched war come and war be over, there she entertained generations of poets, artists, musicians, and even the occasional lepidopterist such as Vladimir Nabokov, who showed up at her door with his butterfly net one day in 1941.  The Nabokovs and the Winterses hit it off; the exiles came often for meals. I had heard that Navokov enjoyed himself so much in her kitchen that he sometimes helped her wash up; when I asked her about this she chuckled and said, ‘Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had.'”

Sam told me at the time “there doesn’t seem to be any record of their having met or corresponded after that. … For obvious reasons, the trail is pretty cold.”

That was then; this is now.  Rosenbaum promises the essay will be controversial:  “Was I right that Paul Berman‘s book would cause a brawl or what?”


UPDATE:  From Sam:  “If anyone has any information about the Nabokov-Winters friendship, please post a comment here.”  Read his post in the “comment” section below.

Thumbs up for “Wanderings of Odysseus”

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

It’s fun to sit in on rehearsals.  I like watching directors think (yes, that is exactly what I mean), and I like seeing how the directors’ and the performers’ notions of character, action, and theme crystallize into a final performance.  I relish watching the written word flower into gesture, nuance, inflection, gait.

It doesn’t always work, of course.  But when it all comes together, it’s magic.

At the point that I watched Wanderings of Odysseus a couple weeks ago, it was too early to tell how or if the production was going to gel.

It did.  So now I can say it:  Rush Rehm‘s production is a brilliant, inventive, and frequently witty retelling of Homer’s retelling of the Odysseus’ long voyage home.

No easy task:  the cast is unevenly mixed between students and pros, which could be problematic especially in an ensemble production where characters blend into each other (all the men get a crack at playing Odysseus, for example).  I expected L. Peter Callender to deliver, and he didn’t disappoint. But it was exciting to watch how the other characters snapped into focus in the couple weeks since my back was turned.  For example, I remember Ariel Mazel-Gee vaguely in the chorus of last year’s Electra: this year she has matured into a courageous and pensive Nausicaa.  Madhulika Krishnan, a 16-year-old from Notre Dame High School, holds her own in the ensemble, and is downright splendid when she dances at Alcinous’s feast — a sort of Kathak-style variant from southern India.  Stanford Summer Theater veteran Courtney Walsh is at her absolute best — I haven’t seen her sparkle this way before.  In fact, I can’t recall her performing in anything that so much brings out her evident gift for playfulness — she likes using her lithe 5’10” to spring and pounce and swoop and lollygag.  We saw Bronwyn Reed in last season’s Rent as a lively, belt-’em-out Mimi — but her vixenish, lighter touch shines as Circe and Aphrodite.

Rush Rehm

Nice dramatic arc, too, as the action breaks for intermission during the feast at Alcinous’s palace, then builds in the second half, with the eerie sirens singing behind a scrim, culminating in a bitter and devastating trip to Hades.

Perhaps best of all is the clever use of a bare stage, a few ropes, and a strange furry little poncho (or is it a throw?) that is used as a blanket, a sail, and as gift-wrap.  Rehm’s adaptation sparkles, too — Rush adapted Oliver Taplin’s translation into a four-hour piece that was performed for a month in Malibu’s Getty Museum nearly two decades ago.  Let’s hope it doesn’t fall into another long slumber.

Rush never loses sight of the protagonist of his story, and it’s not Odysseus.  It’s the sea.  The constant theme of the play is water — whether the performers are rowing in unison, or imitating the movements of the restless waves, or whooshing the sound of water with their breath — or simply percussionist Taylor Alan Brady splashing his hand in a kettle of water.


Postscript:  Even three millennia ago, a 20-year trip from Troy to Ithaca must have been a strange and inexplicable thing — like those occasional news stories one reads, where a World War II marriage proposal was waylaid by the mail, is delivered to an old woman, and results in a late-life wedding.

Bookshelf porn

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

The Dallas Morning News book editor didn't shelve books for a couple weeks ... and look wha' happened.

Nowadays when I put together a book proposal, I feel I am in a race against time.  Who knows?  This may be the very last book to be published in the Western world.

Jeff Bezos confirms my sense of panic at mediabistro.  Last week, he announced that “the Kindle format has now overtaken the hardcover format. customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books — astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months.”

Not everyone agrees. Thad McIlroy of The Future of Publishing reprimanded mediabistro:

I’m in the publishing world, but I am unrocked. Bezos is a master of media manipulation and hyperbole, and the patsies of the press pass it to the public in undigested form. Here Jeff compares his least expensive book format (if you factor in shipping) with his most expensive format, and rocks your world with the revelation that the cheaper product sells faster at Amazon.

Amazon ain’t the publishing world, and everyone but mediabistro knows that hardcovers vastly outsell ebooks overall. Can’t you pause long enough to recognize the Amazon agenda before you act as Amazon’s agent?

Amazon loves releasing selective data because the press takes what it can get without complaint. Here’s another piece for you: According to the top 10 bestselling books listing on as of 7:45 PDT on July 19, 2010, only two Kindle eBooks appear, and they’re both free: “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” in the #6 slot, and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in #9. Yep, “Amazon Reveals that Price a Key Factor in Book Sales; $0.00 the Most Popular Kindle Price.”

This from The Literary Saloon:

There’s been much ado about’s announcement that sales of e-books for their ‘Kindle’ platform now exceed their sales for hardcover titles — though since no hard numbers whatsoever (none, zero, zilch) are provided it’s flabbergasting how completely this claim has been swallowed and regurgitated.

No doubt the complete review-audience that clicks through to via links on the site is different from the average audience, but it’s worth noting that our numbers do not reflect these claims: so far in July only 11 per cent of all book sales have been for ‘Kindle’-platform versions; the paperback/hardback split seems to be about 60/30. (It can be hard to tell what format books are sold in — and I’m afraid too lazy to check each one; still, hardback sales clearly outnumber ‘Kindle’ sales by a significant margin.)

Lots of caveats with this data, of course, though I note ‘Kindle’-platform sales include versions of book for which no hardback equivalent exists (Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid), and that results may also be skewed by the fact that Amazon-links on the site lead to print-book versions but not to ‘Kindle’ versions. Also: many of the sales are of books actually sold by third-party vendors; looking at Amazon-only sales would yield totals closer to Amazon’s claims (though hardback sales would still be at least double ‘Kindle’ sales).

(Lots of other sites are, like us, Amazon associates, and I’d love to hear about their data in this regard.)

Wilson's library: Poetry section in the entry hall

There will be advantages to electric books: It will be easier for many of us to find an apartment or house if we do not have to find a home for our habit.  Witness the havoc wrought when the Dallas Morning News book editor didn’t shelve books for a couple weeks (it looks like my place, minus the dirty dishes).  He receives 400 books a week, according to the Book Publicity blog.  All in all, about 300,000 books were published in 2009.  Scott  Bryan Wilson writes about “Inveterate and Unrepentent Book Collecting: A Guide to My Favorite Contact Sport” at The Quarterly Conversation.

At The Onion, Mick Aveling of  Gear-and-Spline Grinder commented,  “Well, if you’re reading a hardcover book, strangers try to start conversations with you. If you’re reading off a Kindle, people just stare at your awesome Kindle.” Unemployed Joe Smith added, “This is the end of an era. I hate to think of an entire generation being deprived of the pleasure of letting a book fall open to the dirty parts.”

Morgan Meis of Antwerp could have told him that the dirty bits are on the cover.   He writes in The Owls:  “There is nothing sexier than a book you haven’t read yet. Especially if it has a nice cover and nice fonts. Especially if it is by someone with an aura. The volumes of Kierkegaard’s writings put out by Princeton University Press used to drive me crazy [see left]. The block of color on top and the pure black underneath. The line drawing of Kierkegaard’s profile in an oval in the middle of the book.”

Wait till he sees the cover of Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary featured  at Sutura — at right.  It’s positively obscene.

San Francisco’s “finger man”: Zborowski revisited

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Michelangelo painted the original "finger man"

I’m preparing for an interview with nonagenarian historian and poet Robert Conquest on Monday.  To that end, I purchased a battered $2.44 copy of his classic work, The Great Terror, from amazon.  I expected it to be a dry exhalation of facts and statistics.

Not a chance.  It’s rather a 500-page thriller.  Naturally, given my post of a few days ago about San Francisco’s Mark Zborowski, a medical anthropologist at Mt. Zion Hospital, I checked for Zborowski’s name in the index.

Conquest didn’t fail me.  Far from “colorless,” Zborowski sounds positively Shakespearean.  Here’s Conquest on the murder of Trotsky’s son, Lev Sedov:

The next NKVD agent to penetrate Trotsky’s political family was the extraordinary Mark Zborowski, of whom it has been said that he everywhere “left behind a trail of duplicity and blood worthy of a Shakespearean villain,” and who, after establishing himself in the United States as a respectable anthropologist at Columbia and Harvard, was finally exposed and convicted on charges of perjury in December 1958, getting a five- to seven-year term.

Zborowski had managed to become Sedov’s right-hand man, and had access to all the secrets of the Trotskyites. He was responsible for the robbery of the Trotsky archives in Paris in November 1936. Although he never committed any murders himself, remaining a finger man, he seems to have played some role in the killing of Ignace Reiss. He also nearly procured the death of Walter Krivitsky in Spain. The young German Rudolf Clement, secretary of Trotsky’s Fourth International, seems also to have been conveyed into his murderer’s hand by Zborowski, in 1938.  A headless body found floating in the Seine in Paris was tentatively identified as Clement’s; in any case, he has not been seen since.  On 14 February 1938 Trotsky’s son Lev Sedov died in suspicious circumstances in a Paris hospital. Since Zborowski was the man who rushed him there, there is a very strong presumption that he informed the NKVD killer organization of the opportunity which now presented itself.

Just the man you want working in a hospital. One pressing question remains: Qu’est-ce que c’est un finger man?  That’s what google is for.

From FINGER MAN: – noun Slang.  a person who points out someone to be murdered, robbed, etc.  Origin: 1925–30, Americanism

How did a Oxford-educated Englishman run across 1920s American gangsta lingo?

Walcott to Europe: “What is the meaning of your empires?”

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Rush Rehm‘s kind comment on yesterday’s post, “From Troy to the Caribbean: Homer onstage,” returned me to another passage from Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets.  The passage occurs after an acrimonious confronation between Miłosz, Brodsky, and Susan Sontag on the nature of empire.  Walcott “rejects linear thinking, the straight line linking today to the past. Because the straight line, in the words of Peter Viereck, ‘is the longest distance between two points. And the bloodiest.'”  She continues:

Walcott "rejects linear thinking"

“During the conference in which Miłosz debated Brodsky on the matter of Central Europe, Walcott also spoke.  He had been hesitating, he began, before speaking: ‘I’ve a very great difficulty here between friendship and ideology. And I think that’s a penalty of ideology.’ This conflict causes in him ‘flashes of rage and an alternation between that and nausea. … The imperial voices dominates this conference and its range increases with every representation by European tribe, by European nation. This is not merely a historical posture of ancestry and tradition which goes under the general name of “civilization.” I am talking about tone … about a linear concept of progress and experiment in literature which I find no different from the presumptions of the priest and the conquistador. You writers of Europe continue that tone, that responsibility of carrying the banner and the cross or the book.  I have found no breadth, no expanse of imagination and, even at the risk of sounding corny, no evangelical vision.  What is the meaning of your empires? To hear all this from contemporary writers is only to deepen my conviction that for all its wars, its museums, its literatures, its revolutions, the provinciality of Europe and of Russia increases. Writers are not inheritors of history.'”

From Troy to the Caribbean: Homer onstage

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Callender and Donnie Hill (Photo: Stefanie Okuda)

Last year, during the Stanford Summer Theater’s Electra by Sophocles, one performance stood out remarkably in the mixed bag of university theater. L. Peter Callender played a role that might have been negligible for a less accomplished performer.  The faithful family retainer, in this case a tutor, is a staple in Greek tragedy, but Callender infused it with dignity and distinction.

I’m not the only one who noticed him last year: A San Francisco Chronicle review praised his performance in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!, a play that some consider too persistently didactic, although in this production “one dedicated teacher’s tragedy is a fierce reminder of the complexity of trying to right social wrongs.  L. Peter Callender embodies that complexity with every paternalistic utterance and sidelong glance he casts as the prematurely aging black teacher,” Robert Hurwitt wrote.

He’s back.  I sat in on some of the rehearsals for a few weeks ago for the Stanford Summer Theater’s Homeric cycle, which showcases The Wanderings of Odysseus, an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, opening Thursday night.  It was the second year of the Greeks, but not for Callender, who has performed Greek tragedy for years, everywhere from his alma mater (Julliard) to Berkeley Rep.

“It’s one of my favorite types of theater when it’s done well,” he told me later by phone, “because of the language, because of the history, the mythology, the depth of character and the depth of passion.”

But he admitted, “I’m finding a lot of this very difficult to memorize.”

With Courtney Walsh (Photo: Stefanie Okuda)

No surprise.  His work with Shakespeare (he’s logged in a couple dozen Shakespeare roles in the California Shakespeare Theater alone) has given him a feel for the iambic beat of the Bard’s blank verse — the beat that mimics the rhythms of the heart.  Oliver Taplin’s translation of The Odyssey, which Rehm directed for the Mark Taper Forum in 1992 at the Getty Museum, uses a loose Anglo-Saxon prosody – a quicker four-beat line that’s dependent on a lot of alliteration and a big caesura in the middle of the line (think of Seamus Heaney’s bestselling Beowulf.) It’s a bit of a rhythmic (and therefore psychological) shakeup.

During the rehearsals, Callender joined Rush Rehm in making suggestions for the fine detail work of the challenging production. ”This text is not a play but a poem, it’s a very difficult task. Everyone has to be on the same page at the same time,” he said.

His self-confidence in the director’s chair isn’t a surprise, either:  he’s the founding director of San Francisco’s African American Shakespeare Company, launched in 1994 to “create an opportunity and a venue for actors of color to hone their skills and talent in mastering some of the world’s greatest classical roles; and to unlock the realm of classic theatre to a diverse audience who have been alienated from discovering these time-favored works in a style that reaches, speaks, and embraces their cultural aesthetic and identity.”

The “L.” at the front of his name was a sort of augury for things to come:  It stands for “Lear.”  (In answer the inevitable follow-up question, he replies, “I don’t know what my parents were thinking.”)


The Trinidad-born actor will probably excel also at the August 10 and 11 reading of Derek Walcott’s Omeros – which takes place in the poet’s native Saint Lucia.  It will return Callender to blank verse, as well as combining his love of the Greeks and his Caribbean heritage.  I was recently reading Irena Grudzińska Grosss comments on the Nobel poet:

Instead of history, which is degrading and calls for revenge, Walcott proposes a narrative, or a myth, which, because of its continuous present, opens time, making the new world equal to the old one.  His long poem Omeros show that the world of the Caribbean islands is as epic as Greece, because it contains a journey, a return to the native island, the fear of ancestors, gods.

Life in exotic Palo Alto

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Avowed Tolstoyan

Palo Alto is often portrayed as a boring and staid address, the southernmost fringes where hip San Francisco fades into the dull heart of Silicon Valley.  The most recent Times Literary Supplement to arrive in my mailbox makes it seem positively exotic.

Andrew Kahn reviews Elif Batuman‘s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.  He notes that Batuman is an “avowed Tolstoyan” who nevertheless gets drawn into situations of Dostoevskian hysteria.  Her book is filled with the “unlikely stories and eccentric characters that populate a post-Soviet globalized world from her doorstep in Palo Alto to Samarkand.”

“Few satirists since David Lodge’s campus novels have captured so sparklingly and sometimes cruelly the degree to which human banality (vanity, pettiness, spite, grumpiness) and idealism (selfless sacrifice, steadfastness, loyalty) vie in academic life”:

René Girard

“Her final chapter, initially an essay about Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, his twisted satire of Russian provincial life and nihilist conspiracy, becomes a group portrait of fellow graduates at Stanford who, just like that novelist’s characters, suffer from wasting passions, religious fervour and fits of torpor.  Behind their trysts lies the theory of the Stanford guru René Girard that a relationship between two people is mediated through an Other. His views were based in part on his reading of none other than Dostoevsky.  To be gripped by higher education in Batuman’s The Possessed is to be possessed by lovers possessed by Girard possessed by Dostoevsky.  Palo Alto might seem like an unlikely hothouse for a phalanstery of existentialists.  But who could possibly fault (well-funded) graduates for living out the texts they read?”

Slice of San Francisco history: Tinker, tailor, author, spy

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

Colorless ... like a mouse

“Colorless … rather like a mouse” and “not conspicuous in any way … There was nothing you could grapple with, except for his insignificance.”

Such was the description of Mark Zborowski by his Trotskyite comrades, who rather underestimated him.

He went on to co-author 1952’s influential Life Is With People, a book that “resolutely enveloped the Eastern European Jewish past in nostalgic amber,” according to Steve Zipperstein, writing about him in the current issue of the Jewish Review of Books. It is also “the book that Jewish historians of the region loathe more than any other.”

Zborowski was also a Soviet spy, and the NKVD’s most valuable mole in Parisian circles in the 1930s and New York in the 1940s.  While several of his anti-Stalinist pals died sudden, violent, mysterious deaths, nothing could ever, exactly, be pinned on him.

Trotsky himself was warned that “a Jew named Mark with excellent Russian and a young family … had infiltrated his Paris headquarters and was responsible for its decimation.  Moreover, the correspondent warned, Trotsky himself was to be this spy’s next victim.  Trotsky dismissed the note as “Stalinist meddling.”

He was warned.

Trotsky was murdered in Mexico in August 1940.  The following year, Zborowski emigrated to the U.S. with his wife, and the help of his still-deceived Trotskyite friends.

“When Norman Podhoretz first heard that Zborowski was a spy he dismissed it as nonsense because at their meal Zborowski sounded like a Stalinist.  Why, he asked himself, would he express such views openly if he was a spy?” wrote Zipperstein, author of last year’s acclaimed Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing.

The making of Life Is With People, a projected funded by (of all things) the Office of Naval Research and headed by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, was punctuated by curious conversations such as this one about Jewish prostitution in shtetls:

Mark Zborowski: I vaguely remember streets reserved for Jewish prostitutes and others for non-Jewish prostitutes in Lemberg.
Ruth Landes: But Lemberg is not a shtetl.
Naomi Chaitman: Yes.
Natalie F. Joffe: In Chortkov.
Margaret Mead: How big is Chortkov?
Zborowski: Population of about 15,000.
Mead: That’s a city!
Zborowski: The shtetl can be any size, if it’s big there can be sub-groups. But there is only the Jewish community. It’s not a place, it’s a state of mind. The problem of size is so different. You can’t use words ‘smaller’ and ‘bigger.’
Joffe: It’s interesting how informants time and again talk about the shtetl.
Elizabeth Herzog: Did people living there call it a ‘shtetl’?
Zborowski: No, ‘shtot.’ But the esprit was shtetl and the organization was shtetl. It’s not size at all.

Zborowski’s story has a happy ending.  At least for him. With Margaret Mead’s support (he lied to her till the end, telling her that he was forced to work for the Soviets because they threatened his Russian relatives), he got a job as a medical anthropologist at San Francisco’s Mt. Zion Hospital, a respected private institution in the city’s Fillmore district.  He eventually co-directed its new Pain Center and authored People in Pain, which studied the nexus of medicine and culture, as it applied to patients of different ethnicities.  According to Zipperstein, “The book solidified his clinical standing despite reviews, which ranged from equivocal to awful.”

He died in 1990, at age 82, of natural causes.

Join Oliphant, Garry Trudeau in petition

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

Since we wrote about cartoonist Molly Norris being added to an execution hit list a few days ago here, there’s been an article in the Huffington Post here, and an article in the Washington Post here.  (Nothing from the New York Times.)

It’s a spit in the bucket, I know, but Pulitzer Prizewinning cartoonists are circulating a petition protesting politically and religiously based attacks on cartoonists around the world.  Please join Oliphant, Garry Trudeau, and others by signing the petition here.  The petition is sponsored by Cartoonists Rights Network International, a sort of Amnesty International for cartoonists.

The organization last month gave its Annual Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning to Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani.  Sandya Eknaligoda also accepted a Special Recognition award for her spirited challenge to the Sri Lankan government to account for her disappeared husband, writer and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda.

Back to Norris.  CNN spoke to FBI Special Agent Marty Prewett:

“Prewitt declined to comment on where Norris is and whether she is receiving protection from law enforcement. Al-Awlaki also threatened eight other cartoonists, journalists and writers from Britain, Sweden and Holland.”

Colleague David Horsey, a Seattle cartoonist, blogs about Norris here.

Mark Zuckerberg

Meanwhile, BBC Urdu reports that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is being investigated by Pakistani authorities under a section of the penal code that makes blasphemy against Muhammad punishable by death:

“According to the paper, Section 295-C of the penal code reads: ‘Use of derogatory remark etc, in respect of the Holy Prophet, whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable for fine.’

Molly Norris

So, peace be unto Muhammad. But not unto Mark Zuckerberg.”

As the daughter and the mother of cartoonist, this cause has a special resonance.  However, one doesn’t seem to be able to address this issue without offering the politically correct proviso, so here goes:  I respect Islam.  But I also respect freedom of speech, and protecting those whose exercise of such freedom has been entirely non-violent. Freedom of speech can only begin when you say something that I find offensive.

Mollie Norris’s website, which disappeared when she did, is reported to be under construction.  We wish her well.