Archive for January, 2013

What is Magpiety? An answer at last.

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013
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Czesław Miłosz wrote, as he recalled the familiar cry of a bird during a stroll through an oak forest:

What is magpiety? I shall never achieve
A magpie heart, a hairy nostril over the beak, a flight
That always renews just when coming down,
And so I shall never comprehend magpiety.

I have since heard scholars and poets discourse learnedly on this particular poem (which is here).

In a binge of self-improvement a year or two ago, I signed on for the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word for a Day.” The binge ended long before the avalanche of words stopped – they were either already familiar, easy to figure out, or otherwise not the etymological treat I was expecting.

But look what arrived in my inbox today:

magpiety, n.   Pronunciation: Brit. /maɡˈpʌɪəti/ , U.S. /mæɡˈpaɪədi/

Forms: 18 mag-piety, 18– magpiety.

Etymology: Humorous blend of magpie n. and piety n. Compare also mag n.3, mag v.2

Talkativeness, garrulity (esp. on religious or moral topics); affected piety.

1832 T. Hood Jarvis & Mrs. Cope in New Sporting Mag. Mar. 323 Not pious in its proper sense, But chattring like a bird, Of sin and grace—in such a case Mag-piety’s the word.

1841 T. Hood Let. in Memorials (1860) II. iii. 118 Such solemn questions as..whether your extreme devotion has been affected or sincere..in short, Piety or Mag-piety?

1891 Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. 150 400/2 Conceive the agony of suppressed speech when a man is as garrulous as a magpie by nature; and my friend is that, though his magpiety is of an elevated sort.

1987 M. Daly Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary Eng. Lang. 145 Magpiety, the impious impropriety of Prudes; irreverence for sir-reverence; Nagpiety’s Hagpiety.

Who knew?  The usage of the word does not begin with Milosz, as I had assumed.  In fact, it goes all the way back to 1832, and has a life of its own.

You can hear the poet read the poem here. He says:  “There is a very short poem, which when we translated with Peter Dale Scott – quite a trouble to find an equivalent for a notion of magpieishness … if there is a bird magpie, there should be magpieishness. We hit on the idea of translating that magpiety.”

Postscript on 2/3:  Poet and translator Peter Dale Scott has made an appearance in the comment section below. He wrote: “’Magpiety’ was my suggestion. Later I was ambivalent about it, but Michael Palmer assured me it was not such a bad idea after all. Apparently not, if it occurred to others before me.”

“One of the most significant short novels in English”: Janet Lewis and The Wife of Martin Guerre, Feb. 20 event

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013
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She loved to travel. (Photo: “The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis,” used by permission of Ohio University Press)

NOTE:  Some of you may remember the launch of the Another Look book club last fall – I wrote about it here and here and here.  This season’s pick is another winner:  Janet Lewis‘s 104-page The Return of Martin Guerre, a novel that was, in fact, born at Stanford.  As I wrote in an article here, it all began with a terrible scandal in 1933.  From the “Another Look” website:

In May 1933, a Stanford University Press sales manager was arrested for the murder of his wife at their campus home on Salvatierra Street.

Was it murder or accident? Placid Palo Alto was embroiled in a sensationalized scandal that endured for more than three years. After conviction, appeals and retrials, David Lamson was finally acquitted.

Young Janet (Courtesy Melissa Winters)

One of the unlikelier outcomes of the notorious case: three distinguished novels by Stanford poet Janet Lewis, focusing on historical trials that had been swayed by circumstantial evidence. The most famous was The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), which eventually became the subject of an opera, a play, several musicals and a film. Atlantic Monthly called it “one of the most significant short novels in English.”

The book will be the focus of the second “Another Look” book club event at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, at the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Room. The event will be moderated by English Professor Kenneth Fields, who was a friend of the late Janet Lewis (1899-1998) and her husband, renowned poet-critic and Stanford professor Yvor Winters (1900-68).  

Fields will be joined by acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff and award-winning Irish poet Eavan Boland, both professors of English. An audience discussion will follow. The community event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited and available on a first-come basis.

Winters’ role in the Lamson case was legendary: Outraged at the injustice, he actively campaigned for Lamson’s acquittal and helped prepare the defense brief. With a colleague, Winters provided a cogent 103-page pamphlet for public consumption, explaining why Lamson could not have killed his wife in the manner required by the prosecutor’s case.

A prescient colleague gave the Winterses a 19th-century book, Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence, including real-life accounts of the failure of justice. Lewis was struck by the 16th-century story of Martin Guerre and his wife, Bertrande de Rols.

Guerre abandoned his family and returned eight years later a changed man – or did he? Was he Martin Guerre at all? The case of imposture wracked southwestern France, just as Palo Alto had been roiled by the Lamson case.

Outraged … and right.

According to the New York Times, “Miss Lewis pursued a literary life in which the focus was on the life and the life was one of such placid equilibrium and domestic bliss that she had to reach deep down in her psyche – and far back in the annals of criminal law – to find the wellspring of tension that produced some of the 20th century’s most vividly imagined and finely wrought literature.”

But for Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre was also born of her love for France. Lewis had been a French major at the University of Chicago. According to her friend, poet Helen Pinkerton, Lewis’ passion for the country began in 1920. For her graduation, her father gave her a round-trip ticket to Europe and $400. Lewis got a job with the passport office on Rue de Tilsitt, behind the Arc de Triomphe, and stayed for nine memorable months. She returned with a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship in 1950.

There was another reason for Lewis’s novels and short stories: Lewis was a gifted poet, but her prose brought more money than verse – and the Winters family of four needed the extra cash. In pre-war days, academia was still something of a gentlemen’s profession, with many professors holding independent incomes.

Moreover, colleagues who had been riled by Winters’ pugnacious opinions delayed his promotion to a full professorship until he was 50 years old – although he went on to get an endowed chair, a Bollingen Prize, a National Institute of Arts and Letters award as well as grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

David Levin, writing in 1978, recalled that the Lewises “lived in extraordinary simplicity”: “The plain furniture in their small house in Los Altos did not change in all the years of our association, and Winters drove a 1950 Plymouth Suburban from 1949 until he stopped driving in the year before his death,” he wrote.

Her friends describe the Winterses devotion to their Airedale terriers, their cooking and their gardening in the Los Altos house they’d assumed in 1934 and never left.

The poet in her 90s. (Photo: Brigitte Carnochan)

Lewis nevertheless made time for her writing – and perhaps the externally uneventful life contributed to the celebrated psychological poise. The British poet Dick Davis wrotein London’s Independent: “Her books possess a quality of deep repose, a kind of distilled wisdom in the face of human disaster and pain, which is difficult to describe and impossible to imitate, but which, once encountered, is unforgettable.”

Lewis has never been short of admirers: W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan and others praised her work. Yet writer Evan Connell observed, “I cannot think of another writer whose stature so far exceeds her public recognition.”

In the years since her death, her reputation has been fostered by a circle of friends, including Los Angeles poet and Stanford alumnus Timothy Steele, who praised her poems for their “clear-sightedness” and “intelligent warmth.”

“They’re full of joy and sorrow. It’s very directly stated. No evasiveness. She doesn’t hide behind ironic postures or anything like that,” he said. “She is someone who has both a sense of the permanent patterns of existence and the transitory beauty of living things, of people and animals and plants.”

Steele recalled, in particular, a party on a summer day at the home of Helen Pinkerton and her then-husband, English Professor Wesley Trimpi. “Among the guests was [political philosopher] Eric Voegelin. He was brilliant, wearing a three-piece suit and discoursing very eloquently about Plato,” remembered Steele. “Janet appeared and said happily, ‘Does anyone want to go for a swim?’

“It seemed such a contrast – a rewarding experience in both cases. She was so vital and connected with physical activity and the warm summer afternoon.”

In any case, Lewis didn’t wait for a reply, but headed for the cabana and changed into her swimsuit for a quick dip. She was well into her 80s.

Yvor Winters: “The practical mind … has destroyed every state.”

Monday, January 28th, 2013
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Himself

Thought for the day culled from today’s reading.  I pass it along without comment on a busy day that is descending into a busy night:

“I am pessimistic about the human race. Few men are born with sufficient intelligence to profit by more than a small part of the tradition available to them. The practical mind, the mind which conquers, rules, invents, manufactures and sells, has dominated every civilization and ultimately has destroyed every state. The great philosopher, the great poet, the great painter or musician has almost always lived precariously on the fringe of the state, sometimes as the servant or dependent of the “great,” sometimes in poverty, sometimes in the priesthood, in our times as one of the most contemned members of the academic profession. But he has created and preserved civilization, often while working in the rubble of a collapsing state. Alexander of Macedon conquered the known world, but any mark that he has left on later times would be hard to identify. Aristotle, his tutor and his father’s servant, remains as one of the fundamental rocks on which our civilization is built.”     Yvor Winters, Forms of Discovery (1967)

“A chill went through me”: How a Twain scholar discovered a long-lost letter on racism

Sunday, January 27th, 2013
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“Is He Dead?”

Shelley Fisher Fishkin has scored a lot of “firsts” with Twain – we wrote about her rediscovery of a long-lost Twain play Is He Dead? some time ago here.  In a recent interview in the journal Americana here, she discusses her lifelong partnership with the author.

Her adventures began shortly after her 1988 From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America was published:

My first wild adventure with Mark Twain happened shortly before that book was published. I was infuriated by the efforts of a black educator named John Wallace to close down a production of Huck Finn at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and to take the book out of the nation’s schools, on the grounds that the novel and its author were racist. (He wanted to replace Twain’s book with his own edition of it – which, like the recent New South Books edition, replaced every use of the word “nigger” with “slave.”)

I wrote an op-ed that the New York Times published on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Huck Finn in the U.S.  I observed that Mark Twain had had to turn to satire in the first place because his direct exposés of racism (towards the Chinese in San Francisco) were censored; but now he faced the prospect of censorship once again because some readers couldn’t understand his irony.

The day that op-ed appeared in the Times, I was awakened by a phone call. A woman said, “I don’t know you, but I just read your piece in the New York Times, and I’ve got to see you right away.  I have a letter Mark Twain wrote that nobody knows about yet, and after reading your column, I know you’ll know what to do with it.  Here’s what it says.”  She read me the letter over the phone. A chill went through me as I realized that the letter contained the only direct, non-ironic condemnation of racism that we had from Twain during the period in which he published Huck Finn. Indeed, it was written the same year that Huck Finn was published.

The woman who called me was an antiques dealer who had found it in an old desk. I authenticated the letter and I researched its context single-mindedly over the next few weeks, reconstructing a story that ended up intriguing others as much as it fascinated me: Warner T. McGuinn, the young  black law student Twain wrote about in the letter,  a young man whom he would end up funding  through his own private “affirmative action” plan,  went on to become a major civil rights lawyer who was a mentor to Thurgood Marshall.  The story (which the New York Times ran on its front page) got huge national and international attention.

The discussion includes the book that made her a Twain superstar, her 1993 book Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices:

I was somewhat astonished by the ruckus it caused!  Why should people have been so surprised by the idea that black and white writers and speakers had been shaping each other’s work throughout our nation’s history? Segregated lunch counters may have disappeared in the 1960s, but segregated syllabi were still alive and well in the 1990s.  In the early 1990s, there were “American Literature” courses, which were populated almost completely by “white” writers, and there were “African-American Literature Courses” that focused on writers who were invariably “black.” My book challenged the usefulness – and accuracy – of those segregated silos. …

If I were to have the chance to write Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices, again, I would do one thing differently: I would explain the title.  It was a mistake to assume that everyone would know that my title was signifying on the “one-drop rule.” Some of my critics ridiculed my argument by charging me with denying that any white voices had shaped Huck’s voice in the book, which is preposterous.  My title was simply playing with the idea that if we applied the “one-drop rule” to culture, and if Huck’s voice was shaped at least in part by black voices, then Huck was “black.” I should have said so.

René Girard gets new honor – from the King of Spain, no less

Friday, January 25th, 2013
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An immortel in 2005

I was visiting with René and Martha Girard last night at their Stanford home. He was a bit under the weather with an oncoming cold, and Martha brewed a Chinese tea for all three of us.  In the domestic setting, they didn’t whisper a word of the latest international news.  But here it is this morning:

Professor Emeritus René Girard will be granted the Order of Isabella the Catholic, Commander by Number, by the Spanish head of state, H.M. King Juan Carlos. Girard is receiving the decoration “for his outstanding work, during the past decades, in the fields of philosophy and anthropology.” … The Order of Isabella the Catholic is a Spanish civil order bestowed upon both Spanish citizens and foreigners in recognition of services that benefit the country.

What service has he rendered Spain?  Recall the role of Don Quixote in his landmark Deceit, Desire and the Novel.

A statement from the cultural advisors to King Juan Carlos points to Girard’s “profound attachment” to “Spanish culture as a whole” as reason for the award. Girard has repeatedly said that the works of Miguel de Cervantes, one of Spain’s greatest writers, have been crucial to him when it came to elaborating his theories.

Merci.

The article notes that the mimetic theory is “arguably” his most famous theory.  Okay, I’ll argue.  At least a little.  Having spent hours poring over the clippings in the Girard archives at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the biggest file of news clippings is easily Violence and the Sacred.  When I speak to Europeans – such as Mario Biagini, or Tomas Venclova – they say that Violence and the Sacred is the book that had a powerful impact on their thinking and their lives.

That’s the book that made an apparent (but only apparent) U-turn from literary theory to anthropology, sociology, and the social sciences.  He began to theorize about the origins of violence, and the role of the scapegoat in unifying societies.  He lost a few fans, no doubt, who wanted the shoemaker to stick to his last – but that’s the book that moved him into another sphere, making him one of the greatest thinkers of the last century.

The Consul General of Spain in San Francisco, Jorge Montealegre Buire, delivered the award to the immortel of the Académie Française in a private ceremony with his family today.  I hope it went well.

There is always a takeaway when I visit Girard.  This time I took away … his cold.  It may be a quieter weekend than I’d planned.

“Review your platitudes”: Gombrowicz’s Princess Ivona onstage in San Francisco

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013
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Michael Hunter (right) and the Franconia Performance Series, 2012 (Photo: James Lyons)

The last time we ran across Michael Hunter, he was chumming around Stanford with Mario Biagini, the associate director of Workcenter, a theatrical endeavor based on the principles of 20th-century theater pioneer Jerzy Grotowski.  Michael has been busy since then.  He has recently established a theater company in San Francisco, The Collected Works, with four other graduates of the Stanford doctoral program in drama.  One of them is Florentina Mocanu-Schendel – we’ve written about her, too, here.

Gombrowicz in Vence, 1965. (Photo: B. Paczowski)

This weekend, they’re taking on Witold Gombrowicz‘s Princess Ilona in San Francisco. The great Polish writer is known mostly for Ferdydurke, Pornografia, and his Diary.

Princess Ilona was  first published in the literary journal Skamander in 1938, and first performed in 1957 at the Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw, when the Communist government in Poland briefly lifted a ban on Gombrowicz’s work.  After that, his work vanished from Poland until the 1970s (and was not published until the 1980s).

He’s not as well known, at least in the U.S., for his drama – so this Bay Area premiere will be a rare treat indeed. The  first performance begins on Thursday, Jan. 24 and continues through February 9 at San Francisco’s Performance Art Institute. Buy tickets here.

But wait!  It gets better!  Lillian Vallee, Swarthmore’s Allen Kuharski, author Erik Butler, Michael Hunter and Stanford’s Branislav Jakokljevic will have a panel discussion at 1 p.m. on Friday, January 25, in Piggott Theatre, Memorial Auditorium.  “We’ll be discussing Gombrowicz’s legacy, his Diary, and my production in San Francisco,” Michael wrote me in an email.

Lillian is mostly known to me as one of the fine team of Czeslaw Milosz translators; I got to know her when she contributed to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, and we later met face to face at a Milosz centennial celebration at the Nobel poet’s home in Berkeley.  She’s just published a new edition of Gombrowicz’s  Diary with Yale University Press.

Director Michael Hunter

The deadlines are swift and terrible this week, so I’ll pinch a short description of the play from the company’s press release:

Princess Ivona (or Ivona, Princess of Burgundia) is the first, and most internationally performed, of the plays of Witold Gombrowicz, the influential Polish novelist, playwright, and diarist, whom John Updike has called “one of the profoundest of the late moderns” and Milan Kundera “one of the great novelists of our century.” Widely performed and celebrated throughout Europe and on the East Coast, Gombrowicz’s timeless and wickedly funny allegory is finally being introduced to Bay Area audiences, by a brand-new company of gifted and experienced theatre makers, in the exciting new warehouse space of the Performance Art Institute.

The play follows the bizarre intrigues of a self-confident Royal Court, whose members enjoy an unchallenged sense of privilege, luxury, and control – over both themselves and others.  The presence of a strange, awkward, silent young woman who mysteriously wanders into their world soon throws the court into a tailspin – the King and Queen begin to unravel at the core of their being, and the rational functioning of the court’s administrators becomes increasingly lunatic.  As the play spirals towards its astonishing ending, both the story and Gombrowicz’s inventive language become more outlandish and theatrical.

Florentina

Florentina

The company calls the play a “well-built and versatile machine,” quoting Gombrowicz: “A writer can, if he wishes, describe reality as he sees it or as he imagines it to be; this produces realistic works (…) But he can also apply a different method in which reality is reduced to its component parts, after which these parts are used like bricks to construct a new edifice, a new world or microcosm, which ought to be different from the regular world and yet correspond with it in some way … different but, as the physicists say, adequate.”

I like this shorter Gombrowicz injunction, from the Collected Works website: “Review your platitudes.”

Lillian and Kuharski will hold a “talkback” after the Friday night performance in San Francisco.  Who knows?  You might even find me there.  It all depends on me clearing a few deadlines first…