Archive for May, 2011

You see? Just like I said… Nicholas Carr thinks so, too.

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011
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We're still stupid, he says

“I think as a society we’re choosing information overload: we’re choosing to sacrifice the more meditative and contemplative aspects of our minds.”

I wrote on just this subject a few days ago, in a post entitled “Are We ‘Outsourcing Our Brains to the Cloud?’” – then I ran across the latest from technology writer Nicholas Carr, who appears to agree, as shown in his comment above.  His latest book, The Shallows, discusses what he fears the Internet is doing to our brains.  It’s sold 50K hardbacks in the U.S. alone – that’s real books, with paper pages.

Carr, the blogger behind Rough Type and the author of the controversial Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” got his first PC back in the 1980s and was an avid net user until “a few years ago, I noticed some disturbing changes in the way my mind worked. I was losing the ability to concentrate.”  According to the AFP article:

While the Internet has enormous benefits in delivering incredible amounts of information at incredible speed, it’s also a distracting and interruption-rich environment.

Carr said it encourages quick shifts in focus – and discourages sustained attention and the ability to think deeply and creatively about one topic and to challenge conventional wisdom.

Carr concluded, “We take in so much information so quickly that we are in a constant state of cognitive overload.”  He added that “multitasking erodes cognitive control. We lose our ability to say that this is important, this is unimportant. All we want is new information.”  However, when we open a real book with real pages, “there’s nothing else going on except words on a page, no distractions. It helps train us to be deep thinkers.”

Over at Books Inq., my previous column generated a few comments. Frank Wilson hoped we could find a sort of middle way:  “I think the problem is real, at least potentially. I just think we may be making too much of it. I have noticed, now that I have returned to work, that my memory is sharper for some reason. I think may be we just have to make some time to do things the old-fashioned way, things like memorizing poems. The way we still make bread, though we can buy it at the store.”

I hoped so, too.  But so far, Carr hasn’t had much success:

Carr admitted he himself has not had great success in limiting the time he spends online. But the biggest change he made as a writer and researcher was to use the web only to track down source material.

“Then I’d make an effort to actually read those things in print. I did find that made a big difference in my ability to be attentive and a thorough reader and hopefully a deeper thinker.”

But Carr said it was not just a matter of individual choice. If friends, colleagues and employers were constantly on line, “then you feel in many ways compelled to do so even if you don’t want to, because you don’t want to damage your career or your social life”.

Poet Fatima Frutos honors her grandmother and Irena Sendler with her prize

Monday, May 30th, 2011
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Congratulations, Fatima (Photo: Martin Roberts)

“She awoke without rancor thanks to poetry. She knew how to cuddle me with verse-like hands and swaddle me with stanzas by great writers.”

That’s what award-winning poet Fatima Frutos said, speaking of her grandmother, who brought her up while reciting poems she had learned by heart, because she could neither read nor write.  The Jerusalem Post has an article about here; the Reuters article is here.  Frutos beat more than 200 international poets to win the 2011 Kutxa Ciudad de Irun Poetry Prize, Spain’s second biggest poetry prize.

The award honors her  collection, Andromeda Encadenada (Andromeda Enchained), commemorating “unsung heroines” including Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Sendler is hardly unsung – I’ve written about her here and here and here and oh so many other places, like the History News Network here.

“The visibility of such women needs to be vindicated, the ones who have been deemed secondary, who have had no recognition but deserve that and so much more,” Frutos said.

“I start out with the anecdotes and build on them with lyricism and poetry, to vindicate them verse by verse,” she said. “It’s not just about giving visibility to invisible women, but also to 20th-Century geniuses whose work has yet to shake up 21st-century consciences.”

The volume also honors eminent Italian 17th-Century painter Artemisia Gentileschi and Spanish 19th-Century writer Carolina Coronado, who both struggled to achieve recognition in fields then dominated by men.  It also celebrates Carl von Weizsaecker, a 20th-Century nuclear physicist who later became a philosopher, German 18th-century mystical writer Novalis, and 19th-century lyrical poet (and another German) Friedrich Hölderlin.  (Both Reuters and the Jerusalem Post manage to misspell Hölderlin … but then, they also misidentify Novalis as a philosopher.)

Congratulations, Irena.

But her main inspiration as a writer has been Miguel Hernández, known as the “people’s poet,” fought Francisco Franco’s troops during the Spanish Civil War and was later sentenced to death for his poetry. The sentence was commuted to a long prison term, but Hernández died in prison at the age of 31 in 1942 .

“Hernandez has inoculated us with the blessed poison of poetry so that we may grow without rancour, but with the strength to vindicate social justice,” said Frutos, who works as a local government equality officer.  Her grandmother recited Hernandez’s poems to her from childhood.

In an awards ceremony on May 28, Frutos dedicated her price to her grandmother.  “I am a poet because of her. It needs to be said that an illiterate woman who lived in poverty also knew how to raise an international award-winning poet.”

Are we “outsourcing our brains to the cloud?” asks Bill Keller.

Saturday, May 28th, 2011
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Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, recently let his 13-year-old daughter join Facebook – my goodness, how had he stopped her before then?  Within a few hours she had over 170 friends, “and I felt a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth,” he admits.

This launches him on a meditation of our times. The column appeared last week, but in my travels I hadn’t gotten a chance to post a few words about it – nor have I had time to read all the comments, many of which are nuanced and excellent. It’s worth a look if you missed it.

Frank Wilson over at Books Inq. put this under the heading “More Complaining,” but I’m not so sure that’s the whole story.  I’ve made the same lament, and it’s not simply a curmudgeon criticizing the kids of today – I’ve noticed my own inability to concentrate without an every-five-minute squirt of dopamine from Twitter or Facebook … and yet, and yet, how else would I have met Arthur Sebastian Rosman, had not someone suggested our introduction on Facebook? (Actually, he had translated one of the essays in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, but he was just a name at the bottom of the page, back then.) I keep up with family, friends, and colleagues on Facebook, just as I rely on various news aggregators for news, and blogs for off-the-beaten track news.  Moreover, I’ve downloaded Henry IV, Part 2 onto my new Droid.

Yet I find it harder and harder to memorize a short poem.  Heavens, I find it harder and harder to read a short poem.  I find it harder and harder to get into that slow, reflective space where I can think long thoughts.  Keller writes:

As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse. The capacity to remember prodigiously still exists (as Foer proved by training himself to become a national memory champion), but for most of us it stays parked in the garage.Sometimes the bargain is worthwhile; I would certainly not give up the pleasures of my library for the ability to recite Middlemarch. But [Joshua Foer’s  Moonwalking With Einstein] reminds us that the cognitive advance of our species is not inexorable.

My father, who was trained in engineering at M.I.T. in the slide-rule era, often lamented the way the pocket calculator, for all its convenience, diminished my generation’s math skills. Many of us have discovered that navigating by G.P.S. has undermined our mastery of city streets and perhaps even impaired our innate sense of direction. Typing pretty much killed penmanship. Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans. And what little memory we had not already surrendered to Gutenberg we have relinquished to Google. Why remember what you can look up in seconds?

Robert Bjork, who studies memory and learning at U.C.L.A., has noticed that even very smart students, conversant in the Excel spreadsheet, don’t pick up patterns in data that would be evident if they had not let the program do so much of the work.

He concludes:

Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like FarmVille and “Real Housewives.” But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.

The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. Unlike the virtual fireplace or that nesting pair of red-tailed hawks we have been live-streaming on nytimes.com, Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation. Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from . . . from . . . wait, what was I saying?

The irony, the irony … I found the column because of an online news aggregator, and I read it on an Apple screen.  Now I am blogging about it.

OK, Frank. Call me grumpy.

(I’ll be in a literal cloud in 12 hours, back to the U.S.A.,  after spending a lot of zlotys and a lot of time getting 20 pounds of books from my travels into the Polish mail today.)

Postscript on June 3:  By now everyone knows that Bill Keller has stepped down as executive editor.  Apparently, NYT staffers had to intervene in his hate-hate relationship with Arianna Huffington and the new social media.  Could that be part of the reason why?

What he meant: postscript on Adam Michnik, Czesław Miłosz, and the Warsaw Uprising

Thursday, May 26th, 2011
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The bombing of Warsaw's Old Town

A few days ago,  I reported on Adam Michnik‘s haunting remarks during the Czesław Miłosz festival.  He recalled a few brief months of freedom in 1981, with the heady rise of Solidarity and the Polish poet’s return to Warsaw after decades of exile:


“It was a time of euphoria, carnival – it was our victory,” he said.

Miłosz was more cautious.  He told Michnik, “The atmosphere feels like just before the Warsaw Uprising. Please be careful.” Tanks rolled into Warsaw and martial law was declared a few months later.

I was intrigued, but somewhat puzzled by Miłosz’s comment.  I had always assumed that the days before the Warsaw Uprising were full of terror and apprehension. I chalked up Michnik’s recollection to pure prescience on Miłosz’s part.

Then, bumping along in the train between Warsaw and Vilnius, I found my answer.  I ran across this passage in the new collection of essays, Proud to Be a Mammal, in a reprinted piece called simply “G.G.”

Little by little the time was drawing near for the destruction of Warsaw. The uprising was a blameworthy, lightheaded enterprise … Handfuls of people stood on street corners, watching with a quiet smile as trucks were loaded with wardrobes, mirrors, rugs – the contents of German offices and private homes. They were fleeing. No one was afraid of them anymore.

Michnik remembers

In other words, what the Polish people saw as a retreat was simply the Germans evacuating a city they knew was about to be destroyed.

The posters that had been tacked up, ordering all males to report for work on the fortifications, were received with jeers.  You could already hear Russian artillery fire. Rumors of an armed uprising were greeted joyfully: a chance to throw oneself at one’s tormentors and take revenge … Soon, however, came the news that there would be no uprising. One of my Socialist colleagues told me that to take any sort of action now, when Mikołajczyk, the premier of the London government [in exile], was flying to Moscow, would be nonsense.  Stalin was too clever to negotiate with anyone using such a trump card, and whoever tried to outsmart him would never be forgiven.

The military leaders (caught between two fires, because the Russian Radio broadcasts called for the taking up of arms) did not enter into such subtleties; as a result their judgment was incompetent. The command was given so suddenly that it found most of the units without weapons. …

That day, the first of August, Janka and I were walking over to Tiger’s for an after-dinner chat and a cup of tea. I had something terribly important to discuss; namely, my new translation of an English poem. On leaving for a walk one should never be too sure of returning home, not only because something may happen to one personally, but also because the house may cease to exist.

The older I get, the more uncomfortable I am with any group emotions – whether crowd hatred or crowd euphorias.  And sometimes the euphorias are more blinding than the hatreds.

Why people don’t “get” Czesław Miłosz

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011
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Miłosz: "...the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths."

For a moment, let me return to the Aula in Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Novum.  (In fact, I must return to it in more than a literary sense in just a few minutes, when I go to meet a leading Miłosz scholar and Jagiellonian professor Aleksander Fiut).

Artur Sebastian Rosman, in a paper on Czesław Miłosz and Hans von Balthasar, recalled his own “first encounter with an honest-to-God, no holds barred, direct American reception of Milosz’s work and its religious dimension”:

It took place at an evening poetry discussion at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.  It was a meeting devoted to [Miłosz’s] Second Space, which had recently appeared in English.  All, and I mean all, of the Americans there were convinced that Miłosz was most likely a postmodern spiritual seeker, probably much like them, possibly fascinated by archetypes, certainly spiritual, and definitely not religious.  Had Miłosz been there he might have recycled the words he hurled at Kisiel in A Year of the Hunter, “[They don’t] take into account a particular, quite fundamental fact: all my intellectual impulses are religious and in that sense my poetry is religious.”  No such luck.  Yet, unbeknownst to me, I had an ally who was in on the joke Miłosz was playing, in absentia, upon this poor but sincere American audience.  This stranger/ally clearly had an Eastern European accent and he kept taking up my cause.  He kept waving the flag of Miłosz as a homo religiosus and, anathema sit, a practicing Catholic!  We  quoted poems from Second Space, made reference to his other work, and cited countless details of his biography.  All to no avail.  I’m convinced the Americans thought we were trying to play an inverse Polack joke on them.

His comments meshed quite nicely with my own reflections from An Invisible Rope. I cited one of my contributors, Natalie Gerber, Miłosz’s former assistant in Berkeley, now an associate professor at SUNY-Fredonia, where she teaches the poetry of Miłosz, among others:

The students come from a range of majors and, not infrequently, are intimidated by or resistant to reading poetry. Few have much experience with verse, and almost none have read poetry that overtly wrestles with conscience and historical circumstance, as does Miłosz’s, or, for that matter, poetry that requires its reader to work as hard as his does to understand both its literal meaning and its ethical import. … used to a culture that conditions all of us to read carelessly—they misread it and mistake its core lessons, its vital distinctions, at who knows what cost. … [they] don’t presume that the morally complex and personally engaged stances taken by the speakers in Miłosz’s poems are even possible.

Artur's not laughing

It alarms me that we are increasingly unable as a society to meet an authors on their own terms, in their own times.  We make them “like us” and therefore fail to mark, learn, and inwardly digest from earlier modes of thinking, of being.  We need not live wholly in our own era and subscribe to all its follies and fashions – we have an historical and international palette to choose from.  These thoughts always return me to Robertson DaviesWhat’s Bred in the Bone, where the protagonist, a Canadian painter, cannot relate to the modern era and instead creates new masterpieces of the early Renaissance, which only after his death are revealed to be “fakes” – but are they? An extreme and admittedly arguable case, but Miłosz argued more simply for the world of Thomistic esse. As he said to me in 2000 on Grizzly Peak:

“We are in an era of flux, of change. We live in the world of devenir. We look at the world of être with nostalgia. The world of essences is the world of the Middle Ages, of Thomas Aquinas. In my opinion, it is deadly to be completely dissolved in movement, in becoming. You have to have some basis in being.”“In general, the whole philosophy of the present moment is post-Nietzsche, the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths. Post-modernism consists in denying any attempt at truth.”

No violence, please.

At the end of his talk, Artur said:  “Milosz is almost universally recognized as a poet of wartime atrocities, the problem of evil and the ugliness of modernity, however, we should not make the mistake of identifying his frequent references to these 20th century phenomena as a preference for them. Just like René Girard is not an aficionado of violence.”

Of course, I thought he was joking, and we both laughed about it afterward.  Except him.  No, it’s not a joke, he said.  After such books as Violence and the SacredRené Girard told a colleague that enthusiastic readers were sending him slasher films, because they thought the mild-mannered and highly civilized Académie Française scholar would enjoy them.

I rest my case.

Joseph Brodsky: “If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”

Monday, May 23rd, 2011
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The city where Adam Mickiewicz taught secondary school. (Photo: C. Haven)

“If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”  That’s what Joseph Brodsky reportedly said in 1966 when he surveyed not Rome, not Athens, but humble Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city.

The words come from Ramūnas Katilius, fils, quoting his father, Ramūnas Katilius, père, from this vantage point overlooking the city.  The elder Romas, a physicist, was one of the poet’s greatest chums, sometimes seeing the poet several times a day when they were in Leningrad.  Romas was in the photos of Joseph Brodsky departure from the Soviet Union forever in 1972.

Both Romas and Algirdas Avižienis, professor emeritus at director of the Czesław Miłosz Birthplace Foundation, hosted my visit to Miłosz’s Issa Valley.  I’ve just returned to Poland.

While much of my discussion with Romas was about his friend, Tomas Venclova, the physicist was interested when I told him that I had been a student of Joseph’s (he called me part of “the family”) – and hence our discussion returned to his memories of Leningrad, and J.B.’s time in Lithuania. There’s even a plaque in downtown Vilnius where the Russian Nobel poet stayed.

Admittedly, the quote I have cited above is secondhand, but it’s suggestive of how much the poet liked Lithuania. You could guess that, perhaps, from his poem “Lithuanian Divertissement.”

Ramūnas Katilius, Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova in 1972 (Photo by Marija Etkind from the archive of Ramūnas Katilius and Elė Katilienė)

This remote and stunning little city was the temporary capital of Lithuania, when the Polish army occupied Vilnius in 1920.  The Nazis occupied it during the war, of course, and it was a Soviet Socialist Republic at the time Joseph Brodsky visited.

It’s also very early evidence, before he had seen Venice, Paris, or New York, of his early partiality of the cozy places on the outskirts of empire.  He was later to defend Russia’s historic hegemony in an acrimonious exchange with Miłosz, Derek Walcott and Susan Sontag, as described in Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets.

I’m in Poland right now, and obviously don’t have access to Irena’s book or anything else in my library, but a Keith Gessen’s piece in today’s New Yorker (with a dynamite photo by Irving Penn) makes the same point:

Poetry was immortal, he argued: “That which is being created today in Russian or English, for example, secures the existence of these languages over the course of the next millennium.” But this wasn’t true, as Brodsky eventually acknowledged in a great and furious late poem, “On Ukrainian Independence,” in which he berated the independence-minded Ukrainians for casting aside the Russian tongue. “So go with God, you swift cossacks, you hetmans, you prison guards,” it says, and concludes:


Just remember, when it’s time for you, too, to die, you bravehearts,
as you scratch at your mattress and visibly suffer, you’ll forget
the flatus of Taras, and whisper the verses of Alexander.

Alexander Pushkin, that is. Despite itself, the poem is an anguished admission that a Russian state and Russian-speaking subjects are still vital to the project of Russian poetry.

Now.  Here’s an interesting bit about the photo above.  See the white double spires?  That’s the Jesuit church.  Now take a look at the rather nondescript yellowish building in front of it.  That’s where Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish language’s ur-poet (and, like Czesław Miłosz, he was born in Lithuania) taught at secondary school to pay off his university tuition  at the Jesuit’s Vilnius University.

Note to self:  Must read Mickiewicz when I get back to California.  Anyone know the best translations?