Archive for March, 2015

Remembering Tomas Tranströmer: in the end, only music…

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

Transcendental moments (Photo: Alexander Deriev/Ars Interpres Publications)

I was out of town yesterday, so I’m late posting my news is late, but I did want to note the passing of Tomas Tranströmer, the Nobel-winning Swedish poet (we’ve written about him here and here).  I couldn’t put it better than this reader who commented on Facebook: “It goes without saying that I liked knowing that this man was somewhere on this planet, pen in hand.”

The New York Times obituary praised the “his shrewd metaphors couched in deceptively spare language, crystalline descriptions of natural beauty and explorations of the mysteries of identity and creativity.” He died on Thursday, March 26, at 83 years old.

With a pared-down style and brusque, forthright diction, Mr. Tranströmer (pronounced TRAWN-stroh-mur) wrote in accessible language, though often in the service of ideas that were diaphanous and not easy to parse; he could be precisely observant one moment and veer toward surrealism the next.

“The typical Tranströmer poem is an exercise in sophisticated simplicity, in which relatively spare language acquires remarkable depth, and every word seems measured to the millimeter,” the poet David Orr wrote in an essay in The New York Times in 2011. …

His poems often had transcendental moments that led some critics to consider him a religious poet or a mystic. In “Further In,” from the 1973 volume “Paths,” the quotidian and the unfathomable collide, in both the body of the poet and in the world.

He was trained as a psychologist, worked in state institutions with juvenile offenders, parole violators and the disabled. And he was also an accomplished pianist. After the 1990 stroke that left him unable to speak and unable to use his right and arm at the relatively young age of 59, he adapted to life as a lefty. Again from the New York Times:

Mr. Transtromer’s poetry production slowed after his stroke, but he took refuge in music, playing the piano with just his left hand. As a testament to his prominence in Sweden, several composers there wrote pieces for the left hand specifically for him.

He was also an amateur entomologist. The Swedish National Museum presented an exhibition of his childhood insect collection, and a Swedish scientist who discovered a new species of beetle named it for him.

I dropped a line to my Stockholm correspondent Alexander Deriev to ask if he had any memories to share, and he wrote this: “Alas, I don’t have many personal memoirs of Tomas. I meet him only a few times and communicated mostly through his wife Monica Tranströmer. As you know after suffering a stroke in 1990 he was almost unable to speak (only through Monica). At that Fourth Ars Interpres poetry festival that I arranged in 2010 (a year before he was awarded Nobel Prize), Tomas played Joseph Haydn‘s ‘Allegro ur Sonat F dur’ and Reinhold Glière‘s ‘Impromptu for the left hand op 99’ together with Swedish-Italian pianist Lucia Negro. And two actors in his presence recited his poems in Swedish and English.” At any rate, Alexander contributed this photograph (above right) of the Swedish poet at the festival in 2010, the year before he won the Nobel. The Swedes were reluctant to name one of their own, anticipating charges of favoritism; he waited years for the award, although he is hugely popular in Sweden.

Below, two short poems, relatively early in his career: one on death and the other on music. And at the bottom, a youtube video Alexander shared with me. In the end, the poet spoke through music, unmediated by words.

After a Death

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside.  It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

– Translated by Robert Bly, from Bells and Tracks, 1966


After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready.  Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag.  The signal is:
“We do not surrender.  But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.

– Translated by Robert Bly, from The Half-Finished Heaven, 1962

Postscript on 3/30: No sooner posted than Artur Sebastian Rosman alerted me to this video below, produced by another Book Haven friend, Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books in Northumberland.

On Czesław Miłosz, the living and the dead, and meeting famous people …

Friday, March 27th, 2015

miloszcoverOver at the blog A Citizen Paying Attention, Bruce Cole describes his two encounters with Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. I had encouraged him to write his memories down, and now he has. He attended the Polish poet’s reading in Portland on April 30, 1988. Miłosz describes his visit to the region in The Year of the Hunter, beginning with his reading the day before at Oregon State University in Corvallis:

…The reading was difficult, the auditorium was not entirely appropriate – a lack of direct contact.  Then drinks with the faculty.  The next day, this morning, that is, again the drive from Corvallis to Portland.   Sitting on the campus, I prepare a new program for my performance from twelve to one; very successful, direct contact.  Lunch in a restaurant with a few people, and then they drive me to the airport.

All the time, however, I’m divided into the person who already knows how to play the game the way they want him to, and another person who is immersed in his own thoughts.  About human society as a marvel.  And about Polish themes, thanks to that issue of Literary Notebooks.

Casting himself in the role of “pathetic fan boy,” Bruce tried to work on the “direct contact” part after the reading in Portland. A book signing. A few gestures and a handshake. Bruce’s post is, in part, a meditation on our wish to meet the great: “What does it mean to meet, however fleetingly, someone famous? Where are the borders between fandom (for lack of better word) and the wish for direct contact (exactly the right words) with someone whose work has meant a world (not the world, but a world shared between an author and you and, at a remove, with that author’s other readers)?  There is nothing inherently trivial about someone’s wish to see ‘in the flesh’ another human being who has assumed some kind of importance in your life, and whom you only ‘know’ through their work and whatever images the media offers up to you – which is why ‘celebrity’ and the attraction to it is so pernicious.  It perverts the healthy instinct of admiration for achievement into its infinitely inferior parody.” He discusses his other brushes with the famous, including Norman Mailer, and visiting the grave of Walker Percy. Then back to Miłosz:


Pathetic fan boy?

As they say in the movies, “the years passed.”  Now it was the autumn of 1993.  I was married, with a toddler daughter, and Czesław Miłosz and Robert Hass were billed as part of the Portland Arts and Lectures series.  A friend of mine (thank you, Terry!) had access to a free ticket.  This was a very different affair.  No community college, but the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.  Not two or three dozen in attendance, but hundreds.  A real reception afterwards.

When Miłosz and Robert Hass were introduced and went on stage, you could see the difference five and a half years had made. Miłosz was now 82, somehow physically diminished, and I noticed the nervous tic, for lack of a better term, that sometimes besets the elderly, as his eyebrows (those eyebrows!) shot up and down. When he read, his voice was softer and higher, and his recitation more rapid.  Still, we were hardly watching a man in mental decline. The “contact” was different than the previous reading, but still palpable. The audience was able to write out questions for Miłosz and Hass, which the M.C. selected and interspersed with some of his own.  At some point, Miłosz remarked (this was the partial revelation I alluded to earlier) that poetry readings took place all over America, that he had lived in France for a decade, and that he hardly ever saw anything like that there, and that for any one poetry reading in France, there must be fifty in the United States.

I have since considered that, allowing for the “concert-going” mentality, there must be a larger part of the audience at poetry readings who leaven the lump than at other “cultural events” and mysteriously make for the contact that a poet has to hope for in public.  I, too, had a question, and I scribbled away, hoping it would pass the gate-keeper on stage.  I wondered (big surprise) about translations. Why had Treatise on Morals (from the late 40s) never been translated? Why had only part of Treatise on Poetry (written in 1956 in Paris) appeared in The Collected Poems (this would be the late 80s edition).  [One of the best chapters in Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz is the one on that long poem, IMHO.]  Finally, only two chapters of Milosz’s volume on Stanisław Brzozowski, Man Among Scorpions (1962) had been translated and included in the book of essays, Emperor of the Earth (1977) – like The Land of Ulro read over and over again.  Anyway, the M.C. read only the part about the two poetic Treatises.  Did he stumble over pronouncing “Brzozowski”?  All I can remember now for an answer is that the earlier poem was written in a meter which precluded translation (as my knowledge of prosody matches my knowledge of quantum physics, I had to take his word for it).

hunter2The reception followed. Something to eat and drink, people greeting one another while wondering (how? when?) to approach the poets.  I was actually on one side of a table when Miłosz, beer in hand, went for something to eat.  He was otherwise unattended. So, leaning forward, I began the conversation which went something like:

“I was the one who asked about translations.”  Pause.  “About Treatise on Morals and Treatise on Poetry.  Pause 2.0.  “Also, I wondered about your book on Brzozowski.”

Here he corrected my pronunciation, though to my untrained ear it sounded the same, and then asked, “You are student of Slavic languages?”

“No, and that’s why I’m interested in translations. I’m particularly wondering about Brzozowski.”  [No correction this time, incidentally.  Not worth the bother?] “I’ve read the chapter in Emperor of the Earth over and over again. Has the whole work ever been translated?”

“No.”  This was said with a certain resignation, I think, and then a woman came up to Miłosz, telling him how much his poetry meant to her, etc.  The poet and I exchanged a mutual nod and the conversation was over.

The story picks up again a decade later:

I read of Miłosz’s death in the Washington Post on a Sunday morning in August 2004.  My family was away, and I was nursing a headache from the previous night (yes, I know) as the sunlight poured on the dining room and I was flooded with memories of my two encounters with the man, of having read almost everything of his translated into English, and of what I knew of his life now come to an end. As if in confirmation of that life’s struggles, over the next few days certain nationalists in Poland crawled out from under the rocks, casting aspersions on Miłosz as insufficiently Polish and hence not Catholic “enough” (echoes of Native Realm) and the Pope, dying in Rome, had to telegraph that this was not so.

In English, please.

Now, a decade later, I await the day when his massive biography is translated for dullards like me…And speaking of translations, any reader who has borne with me for this long remembers that early on in this piece I telegraphed a punch.  A full English translation of Treatise on Poetry was published in 2001, and ever since I have taken utterly unjustified credit (if only to myself) for having planted the idea in Czesław Miłosz’s head.

A longshot, but why not? Odder things have happened.  Read the whole thing here.

Mario Vargas Llosa on youth, words, age, and running out of time…

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Mario Vargas Llosa chatting with John King, 2013. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Nobel prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa is 78, and he has no intention of slowing down. The Peruvian writer has just published a new book, The Discreet Hero, and he wants to talk about it. He also wants to chat about writing, youth, words, and age in an interview “Mario Vargas Llosa: ‘the novels we read now are purely entertainment'” over at the Telegraph here.

A couple excerpts:

“When I was young,” Vargas Llosa nods, “I was influenced a lot by Sartre and Camus. Sartre said that words were acts, and that with literature you could produce changes in history. Now, I don’t think literature doesn’t produce changes, but I think the social and political effect of literature is much less controllable than I thought. I thought that you could really direct the effect by writing in a certain way and about certain subjects. Now I think that was completely wrong.”

“But I don’t think literature has no effect,” he goes on. “I think its most important one for me is to develop a critical attitude in readers, in very general terms. I think if you’re impregnated with good literature, with good culture, you’re much more difficult to manipulate, and you’re much more aware of the dangers that powers represent. So in that sense, I still believe in committed literature, but not, let’s say, in a dogmatic or sectarian way.”

[Actually, the word in the first sentence was “wars” not “words,” but I assume that’s a mistake in the original article – otherwise the sentence makes no sense – ED.]


discreethero“One very positive aspect is that censorship is now practically impossible,” he says. “But on the other hand, you have such a mass of information about everything that qualification disappears completely, and everything is equally measured. The function of the critic was very important in establishing categories and hierarchies of information, but now critics don’t exist at all. That was one of the important contributions of the novel, once, too. But now the novels that are read are purely entertainment – well done, very polished, with a very effective technique – but not literature, just entertainment.”

Hasn’t he ever read a superficial novel? “Ha, ha!” he says. “Sometimes I might. Sometimes they’re very well done. I like serials – I like House of Cards, it’s fantastic, very entertaining. But it doesn’t remain in the mind. It doesn’t produce positive effects in political terms, in ideological terms. My impression is that this extraordinary digital revolution is producing also an extraordinary confusion.”

Even so, he is determined to keep engaging with the world.He keeps up a regular newspaper column in El Pais, has several projects cooking – “I don’t have a lack of projects, I have a lack of time!” – and, as he approaches 80, shows little inclination to slow down. “Well,” he says, “I think what is important is to be alive until the end. Not to be defeated in life. I think it’s very painful and very sad, people who feel defeated before time and lose the idea of doing things. That is something that terrifies me.

“Not death,” he clarifies. “Death I think is all right, you know? It’s a natural ending of everything. But I think it’s very important to be alive until the last moment. It’s important that death seem to be just an accident.”

He nods judiciously. “So I keep making projects, planning many different things. This is a way of being alive, and taking advantage of the fantastic possibilities that life offers.”


Read the whole thing here.

Defending the “Eros of difficulty”

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

Every schoolkid in Mexico knows her poems.

One of the grace notes in my long career was writing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review when Steve Wasserman was its editor (I’ve written about him before here and here and here and here.) It was, at that time, the best book review in the country – the one that consistently offered the greatest number of “must-read” articles every single week. Here’s one of the things that made it terrific, in Steve’s own words:

In 1997, Penguin announced that it would publish a volume of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s selected writings. Years ago, Carlos Fuentes had told me of this remarkable 17th-century Mexican nun and poet. I had never heard of her. Nor was I alone. Much of her work had yet to be translated into English, even some 300 years after her death. It was, Fuentes said, a scandal, as if Shakespeare had still to be translated into Spanish. The whole of Spanish literature owed a debt to her genius. Thus I decided that an anthology of her writings, newly translated by the excellent Margaret Sayers Peden and published under the imprimatur of Penguin Classics, ought to be treated as news. After all, about a quarter of the readers of the Los Angeles Times had Latino roots.

I asked Octavio Paz, Mexico’s greatest living poet and critic, to contribute a lengthy essay on Sor Juana. When he agreed, I felt I had gotten something worth playing big on the front page of the Book Review. But when I showed my superiors the color proof of the cover, I was met with incomprehension. Sor Juana who? A nun who’d been dead for almost half a millennium? Had I taken complete leave of my senses? Couldn’t I find something by someone living who might be better known to our many subscribers, say, the latest thriller from James Patterson?

Dispirited, I trundled up to the paper’s executive dining room to brood upon the wisdom of my decision. When Alberto Gonzalez, the paper’s longtime Mexican-American waiter, appeared to take my order, seeing the proof before me, he exhaled audibly and exclaimed: “Sor Juana!” “You’ve heard of her?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “Every school child in Mexico knows her poems. I still remember my parents taking me as a boy to visit her convent, now a museum. I know many of her poems by heart.” At which point, in a mellifluous Spanish, he began to recite several verses. So much for my minders, I thought; I’m going to trust Alberto on this one.

After Paz’s paean appeared in the Sunday edition, many people wrote to praise the Book Review for at last recognizing the cultural heritage of a substantial segment of the paper’s readers. Their response suggested, at least to me, that the best way to connect with readers was to give them the news that stays news. In the end, it hardly mattered. In the summer of 2009, four years after I left, the Tribune Company, which had bought the Times for more than $8 billion, shuttered the Review. The staff was mostly sacked.

Well, this is just one of the many reasons I loved the late, lamented L.A. Times Book Review. Steve also had the courage to publish my piece on Irma Kudrova‘s remarkable work on Marina Tsvetaeva, Death of a Poet, which had not yet been published in English (my long ago piece is here). The book was published by Overlook Press as a result of the interest. Kudrova, one of those lifelong devotees every Russian poet of any stature attracts, had access to Lubyanka prison interrogation records during the brief period they were made available to the public in pre-Putin Russia, which makes her record even more imperative.

The excerpt above is from Steve’s essay, “In Defense of Difficulty,” appearing in the The American Conservative, a notable departure for this staunchly left-wing writer who contributes regularly to Truthdig – I applaud his attempt to fight our current  ideological segregation; it’s high time people learn to actually talk to one another again, especially on issues that should concern us all. Although he has described a telling incident from his L.A. Times days, the subject of his article is not self-promotion (I can do that for him) but rather the disappearance of serious criticism in our culture: “the ideal of serious enjoyment of what isn’t instantly understood is rare in American life. It is under constant siege. It is the object of scorn from both the left and the right. The pleasures of critical thinking ought not to be seen as belonging to the province of an elite. They are the birthright of every citizen. For such pleasures are at the very heart of literacy, without which democracy itself is dulled. More than ever, we need a defense of the Eros of difficulty.” (Cough, cough, Geoffrey Hill, cough, cough.)


Preach it, Steve.

I know, I know… don’t the old ‘uns always crab about the times? Yes and no. There are periods where this is not true, and everyone knows it – I think people do tend to know when they’re living in a golden age. In any case, shouldn’t an argument be evaluated on its own merits, and not whether or not others have said it before? Prima facie evidence is the disappearance of the book review section he once edited. Steve gets some reinforcement from such critics as Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier, who worried that “whatever advantages might accrue to consumers and the culture at large from the emergence of such behemoths as Amazon, not only would proven methods of cultural production and distribution be made obsolete, but we were in danger of being enrolled, whether we liked it or not, in an overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture that, as numerous studies have shown, renders serious reading and cultural criticism increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and sustained argument.” As Leon Wieseltier, of the recently trashed New Republic, wrote, “Writing is not typed talking.” I think, as Steve rightly points out, “A culture filled with smooth and familiar consumptions produces in people rigid mental habits and stultified conceptions.”

I have often rebelled against editors who have insistently tried to excise exotic words and phrases from my copy, in favor of the well-worn, the over-familiar, even the clichéd – so Steve, who is now editor at large for Yale University Press, has me in his pocket with this one: “Sometimes it feels as if the world is divided into two classes: one very large class spurns difficulty, while the other very much smaller delights in it. There are readers who, when encountering an unfamiliar word, instead of reaching for a dictionary, choose to regard it as a sign of the author’s contempt or pretension, a deliberate refusal to speak in a language ordinary people can understand. Others, encountering the same word, happily seize on it as a chance to learn something new, to broaden their horizons. They eagerly seek a literature that upends assumptions, challenges prejudices, turns them inside out and forces them to see the world through new eyes. The second group is an endangered species … The exercise of cultural authority and artistic or literary or aesthetic discrimination is seen as evidence of snobbery, entitlement and privilege lording it over ordinary folks.”

He also describes Theodor Adorno‘s reaction to receiving his good friend Gershom Sholom‘s translation of the Zohar. (I wrote about the current effort to get that dense and esoteric masterwork into English here.)  Adorno wrote that the casual reader will only discern the general schema, “which is truly revealed only at the price of a lifetime’s commitment – nothing less.”

“The price of a lifetime’s commitment.” Nothing less. I like that. Read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, I think I’ll go find that Penguin paperback on Sor Juana.


“If I don’t measure up as an American writer, at least leave me to my delusion.” Happy birthday, Philip Roth!

Thursday, March 19th, 2015
Not delusional. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Not delusional. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

“Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest. Its power arises from the authority and audacity with which the impersonation is pulled off; the belief it inspires is what counts.”

That’s just one gem from preeminent author Philip Roth, who turns 82 today. We’ve written about him here and here and here. The Book Haven has an especial reason to wish him a happy happy. Almost a year ago, he gave me an exclusive interview, before we launched a Stanford “Another Look” event for his 1979 classic, The Ghost Writer.

Two excerpts from that interview.

Haven: Many consider you the preeminent Jewish American writer. You told one interviewer, however, “The epithet ‘American Jewish writer’ has no meaning for me. If I’m not an American, I’m nothing.” You seem to be so much both. Can you say a little more about your rejection of that description?

Roth: ”An American-Jewish writer” is an inaccurate if not also a sentimental description, and entirely misses the point. The novelist’s obsession, moment by moment, is with language: finding the right next word. For me, as for Cheever, DeLillo, Erdrich, Oates, Stone, Styron and Updike, the right next word is an American-English word. I flow or I don’t flow in American English. I get it right or I get it wrong in American English. Even if I wrote in Hebrew or Yiddish I would not be a Jewish writer. I would be a Hebrew writer or a Yiddish writer. The American republic is 238 years old. My family has been here 120 years or for just more than half of America’s existence. They arrived during the second term of President Grover Cleveland, only 17 years after the end of Reconstruction. Civil War veterans were in their 50s. Mark Twain was alive. Sarah Orne Jewett was alive. Henry Adams was alive. All were in their prime. Walt Whitman was dead just two years. Babe Ruth hadn’t been born. If I don’t measure up as an American writer, at least leave me to my delusion.


Haven: You told Tina Brown in 2009, “I wouldn’t mind writing a long book which is going to occupy me for the rest of my life.” Yet, in 2012, you said emphatically that you were done with fiction. We can’t bring ourselves to believe you’ve completely stopped writing. Do you really think your talent will let you quit?

Roth: Well, you better believe me, because I haven’t written a word of fiction since 2009. I have no desire to write fiction. I did what I did and it’s done. There’s more to life than writing and publishing fiction. There is another way entirely, amazed as I am to discover it at this late date. 

Haven: Each of your books seems to have explored various questions you had about life, about sex, about aging, about writing, about death. What questions preoccupy you now?

Roth: Currently, I am studying 19th-century American history. The questions that preoccupy me at the moment have to do with Bleeding Kansas, Judge Taney and Dred Scott, the Confederacy, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, Presidents Johnson and Grant and Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, the Freedman’s Bureau, the rise and fall of the Republicans as a moral force and the resurrection of the Democrats, the overcapitalized railroads and the land swindles, the consequences of the Depression of 1873 and 1893, the final driving out of the Indians, American expansionism, land speculation, white Anglo-Saxon racism, Armour and Swift, the Haymarket riot and the making of Chicago, the no-holds-barred triumph of capital, the burgeoning defiance of labor, the great strikes and the violent strikebreakers, the implementation of Jim Crow, the Tilden-Hayes election and the Compromise of 1877, the immigrations from southern and eastern Europe, 320,000 Chinese entering America through San Francisco, women’s suffrage, the temperance movement, the Populists, the Progressive reformers, figures like Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, President Lincoln, Jane Addams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, etc. My mind is full of then.

birthday cakeI swim, I follow baseball, look at the scenery, watch a few movies, listen to music, eat well and see friends. In the country I am keen on nature. Barely time left for a continuing preoccupation with aging, writing, sex and death. By the end of the day I am too fatigued.


Read the whole thing here. And don’t forget his interview with Milan Kundera here. Meanwhile, we’ve baked him a little cake … well, very little…


Kierkegaard on inexhaustible, indescribable love – and solitude, too.

Monday, March 16th, 2015

A lovely man.

I recently dropped in on Martha and René Girard (I’ve written about him here and here and here) – and my visit pleasantly coincided with the visit of another friend, Randy Coleman-Riese, a Stanford alum. Somehow the conversation turned to philosophy, and Randy’s years at Stanford:

“In college I was introduced to the works of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In the preface to his book Works of Love I read this:

‘These are Christian reflections; therefore they are not about love but about the works of love.

‘These are reflections on the works of love – not as if hereby all love’s works were mentioned and described – far from it, nor even as if a single one described were described once and for all – God be praised, far from it! That which in its vast abundance is essentially inexhaustible is also essentially indescribable in its smallest act, simply because essentially it is everywhere wholly present and essentially cannot be described.’

“In this book Kierkegaard reflects on the strangeness, yet appropriateness, of being commanded to love – on the Christian duty to love – to love God, to love our neighbor, and to love ourselves. While this is certainly not romantic, he believes it is what saves the Christian from despair. It saved me. (Aspects of this despair can be seen in the current movie Birdman which involves the Raymond Carver short story ‘What we talk about when we talk about love.'”


All mine.

Well, I’ve killed the punchline somewhat – he wrote a Valentine’s Day blog post about it here. When I went home I googled a bit on Kierkegaard, and found the portrait at right. I also found the anguished story of his broken engagement with Regine Olsen – the encounter changed both their lives, but apparently, he didn’t impress everyone. Hans Brøchner wrote in 1836: “I found [his appearance] almost comical. He was then twenty-three years old; he had something quite irregular in his entire form and had a strange coiffure. His hair rose almost six inches above his forehead into a tousled crest that gave him a strange, bewildered look.” Well, I think he’s rather lovely.

I also found that his Works of Love had occupied another blog, two years ago, with these passages:

“From whence comes love, where does it have its origin and its source; where is the place, its stronghold, from which it proceeds? Certainly this place is hidden or is in that which is hidden. There is a place in a human being’s most inward depths; from this place proceeds the life of love, for ‘from the heart proceeds life’…

“…The hidden life of love is in the most inward depths, unfathomable, and still has an unfathomable relationship with the whole of existence. As the quiet lake is fed deep down by the flow of hidden springs, which no eye sees, so a human being’s love is grounded, still more deeply, in God’s love. If there were no spring at the bottom, if God were not love, then there would be neither a little lake nor man’s love. As the still waters begin obscurely in the deep spring, so a man’s love mysteriously begins in God’s love.”

Lost love.

Lost love.

Quotes taken from Manifest Propensity: Thoughts for Deposed Royalty here.

Last week, I had an unexpected package at the Stanford post office: Randy had performed a little act of love himself – or at least one of kindness. He sent me my own copy of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love – so now I don’t have to hunt around the blogosphere. In a perverse spirit, let me quote a passage of my own finding, which is not about love:

“It is a frightful satire and an epigram on the temporality of the modern age that the only use it knows for solitude is to make it a punishment, a jail sentence. How different from the time when – however worldly-minded temporality has always been – people believed in the solitude of the cloister, when they honored solitude as the highest, as a qualification of the eternal – and nowadays it is detested as a curse and is used only as a punishment for criminals. Alas, what a change!”

And that was written in 1847, long before the 24/7 din of the worldwide web!

Yalom’s Cure: Stanford’s famous psychotherapist onscreen – and it’s fun!

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

With Vienna’s mayor Michael Häupl in 2009 – and lots and lots of his books

André Malraux once asked a parish priest who had listened to confessions for half a century what he had learned about mankind. On the first page of his 1968 Anti-Memoirs, the French writer recorded the priest’s reply: “First of all people are much more unhappy than one thinks…and then the fundamental fact is that there is no such thing as a grown up person.”

Not a bad starting point for this week’s Stanford premiere of Yalom’s Cure, an hour-long film about Irvin Yalom, one of the world’s most celebrated existential psychotherapists. Irv is now a well-known author as well, leveraging psychology into literature with Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy, When Nietzsche Wept, The Schopenhauer Cure, The Spinoza Problem, and others. (We wrote about the Viennese “Eine Stadt. Ein Buch” celebration of his book here and here – 100,000 copies of When Nietzsche Wept were distributed throughout Vienna.)


The Yaloms enjoying Vienna’s Freud Museum.

Stanford’s Irv was obviously guest of honor for the screening, along with his wife Marilyn Yalom, one of the founders of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and author of the acclaimed How the French Invented Love – which, I’m told, is as big a hit in France as it has been on this side of the Atlantic. (We wrote about it here and here and here.) The screening was also attended by a number of Stanford luminaries we’ve written about – among them Gerhard and Regina Casper, John and Mary Felstiner, Myra Strober, Marguerite Frank, and also Georgia May, widow of the eminent existential psychologist Rollo May.

Writer/director Sabine Gisiger and her film crew filmed hundreds of hours of the Yaloms and their family – the result? “This movie is making me squirm. I feel very exposed,” the good doctor said. But I came to the event cold, with no expectations, and was both exhilarated and moved by the film, which premiered in Zurich and already has been featured in San Francisco and Mill Valley film festivals. For locals, it features an awful lot of Stanford and Palo Alto, and brought back memories of my previous visits to their idyllic Palo Alto home… well, I didn’t need much in the way of memory… I had visited a few days ago.

The doctor turns 84 this June, and said that facing death has been a “long odyssey… I’m much less terrorized by it.” He explained part of his attitude towards psychotherapy with Thomas Hardy‘s words: “If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.”

Don’t be puzzled by the German. The trailer is in English. Want the whole movie? Try here.

A minute’s silence? Try an hour: Billie Whitelaw and Beckett

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Ta very much, Billie.

One among the many attractions of living in London is getting a chance to see some of the world’s leading actors onstage – and so I was introduced to the legendary Billie Whitelaw as Andromache in a brilliant 3-night Sir Peter Hall/John Barton Royal Shakespeare Company production, The Greeks. Her powerful performance seemed rooted to the center of the earth. Whitelaw, best known for her work with Samuel Beckett, who wrote several roles for her, remained my favorite actress. She  was too little-known and appreciated in the U.S., so my chances to see her again were few (she appeared in The Omen and Hitchcock‘s Frenzy, but I don’t do horror films – the daily news is bad enough).

In the lead-up to Christmas, I hadn’t noticed that she quietly passed away in London on December 21. From The Guardian obituary:

Speaking in 1997, she said that death held no fear for her. “Death’s not one of those things that frighten the life out of me. Getting up on stage with the curtain going up frightens me more. I very often wake up at two in the morning with my stomach going over. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out why – it’s all the things you’ve put to one side during the day,” she told the Independent.


Ashamed of the good life.

During the war, her family moved from her native Coventry to Bradford to escape German bombing of the latter. Her father died of lung cancer when she was aged 10 and the family struggled for money at times.

Speaking about the stark difference between her relatively comfortable later life and her childhood, she said: “It’s something I haven’t come to terms with – I’m rather ashamed of having the good life I have.”

“Sad to see Billie Whitelaw has died,” tweeted comedian Robin Ince. “I’d suggest a minute’s silence, but I imagine Beckett would suggest it should be much longer than that.”

Below, her landmark performance in Beckett’s Happy Days (read about the Stanford performance here). This grainy video is taken from a production directed by Beckett himself, with Leonard Fenton as Willie.  Act II is here.  And thanks to George Szirtes for alerting me to this video.


Heirs of history – or its orphans? Michael Krasny in conversation with Robert Harrison

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

Robert Harrison on radio (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Neoteny. It’s a word that combines two Greek roots: neos, meaning new or young; teinein, meaning to stretch or retain. In evolutionary biology, it’s “a general slowing of the rate of development that makes it possible to retain juvenile features in later stages of the life cycle,” writes Robert Pogue Harrison in his new book Juvenescence (we’ve written about it here and  here and here). “We don’t know if society can survive on genius alone without wisdom,” said Robert during a recent radio interview. “We may be on cusp.”

He spoke with Michael Krasny on KQED’s “Forum” (listen to it here), arguing that as the world gets older and the millennia stack up, we nevertheless have become younger than all previous generations – a very difficult paradox, he says.

Like Robert, I have pondered neoteny in our culture. We live longer and longer, on average – but have we had any net gains for human wisdom? Lately I’ve wondered if the added years are simply chunked onto a prolonged adolescence and youth. Education continues into one’s twenties and beyond. People wait till their forties and even fifties to have children. Old age has become a prolonged period of taxidermy.


KQED interlocutor

Still, we’re under the illusion that more time means better life, a greater fulfillment of potential. Does it? Mozart didn’t require middle age to finish his work (well, not much of it – he died at 45), John Keats completed his oeuvre at 25 – both relied on the youthful fire of genius. But what of the balancing wisdom of age? As Silicon Valley strives to extend our lifetimes to the brink of immortality (no doubt only prime specimens will be selected for the honor) – what kind of society will it yield, when the gravitas that traditionally comes with maturity is eschewed in favor of a fevered quest for the trappings of youth?

“I don’t deny that Silicon Valley high tech is every day changing our way of being in the world,” Robert said in the interview. But both he and Krasny  pointed out that the most highly touted “revolutionary” changes wrought by Silicon Valley are often producing … well … sophisticated toys and doodads.  A new app for local restaurants, for example. The trade-off should cause reflection, Robert said, for we’re increasingly passing our “reality” through the screen of a smartphone. Social media? I’m on Twitter, too, but I realize that it’s driven by a world of children – for teenagers with time on their hands, tweeting their grumbles about school lunches. We can never keep up. In the face of dizzying change, “we need a certain amount of inter-generational stability,” Robert said. Good luck with that. In a world of toys, who wants to be a grown-up? What’s the payoff?

Hey baby, it's you.

Hey baby, it’s you.

I recall  of comedy in the early 60s, the era of the beach party movies and others of that ilk, where you have fun, fun, fun till your daddy took the t-bird away. A staple comedic figure in these films would be a guy who had a title like “Dean of Students,” balding and a little stout and stuffy. He’d burst into the students’ dorm rooms where the girls in bikinis were partying with the boys. Arms akimbo, he’d open his mouth to raise his voice in outrage – and bam! – a bucket of slops prepared for a nerdy student would empty on his head instead. Laughter for all.

As I grew up, I realized what an essential figure the Dean of Students is – and not just for comedy. Somebody had to be the authority figure to say no. Somebody had to be willing to make themselves the figure of fun and face the ridicule of reckless youth, that hasn’t yet learned of the big pricetag attached to early decisions. It’s a thankless role – but part of a grown-up is not waiting for thanks or some sort of payoff to do what needs to be done. Maybe that’s words like “duty” have passed out of our rituals of praise – duty is a drag.

My father used to say that kids don’t need a dad to smoke marijuana with – they’ll find those buddies on their own. (Actually, his example was “to learn to skate,” not marijuana, but still…) Kids need parents to make sure they do their homework, are kind to animals, and can eat without revolting other people. They need grandparents for the lessons of time. Instead, our media regularly shows us a series of elderly women (cough, cough, Helen Mirren, Madonna) in bikinis, to prove to us they can still “get away with it” – and regularly features the masks of famous Hollywood zombies who have had so much surgery that they are now unrecognizable. In that sense, every Oscar ceremony is a “Night of the Living Dead.” This is what maturity offers us – the opportunity to compete with youth.

Who wants to be an adult? Growing up outside Detroit, the new Mrs. Henry Ford II, the Italian socialite Christina Ford regularly filled the local newspaper pages – her husband, in fact, rather resembled the Dean of Students in those beach party movies. I remember my mother reading one article where the forty-something Mrs. Ford lamented the disappearance of the Italian mamas of her youth, the thick-waisted, enveloping women in shapeless black dresses, who always had something wonderful about to pop out of the oven. My mother hooted with derisive laughter. “She’s supposed to be one of those women!” And well, you can see from the Life cover above.

juvenescenceWhich is not an argument in favor of wearing shapeless black rags. The emphasis on wishing to be mothered, rather than wishing to mother – the wish to be loved, rather than exposing oneself to the great suffering that loving often entails – makes me wonder. What became of maturity, and eventually the graceful surrender to time? There’s a great freedom in not needing to be cool. The evening by the fireside with conversation and port instead of the evening with the trophy bride and papparazzi. (Cough, cough, Salman Rushdie – we wrote about that here.) In our public and political life, many keep calling for a Churchill – but would we want one if we could find one, and would we recognize one if we saw one?

So does that mean that we are all in the throes of adolescence, that we are all young? Not really, says Robert. “We’re a youth-worshiping society,” and yet “our society is waging pitiless war against the condition of youth, which requires idleness, shelter, freedom to fail, full-bodied relationship to nature.” It also requires “the freedom to pursue idiosyncratic call of the self, which requires disconnection from the noise of collective. It bears fruit later in human relations. We have made it more difficult to be truly young.”

Robert recalled leafing through his father’s school yearbook – the teenagers were “fully grown adults – youngish, but fully grown adults. I hardly see that in my undergraduates today.” Similarly, the faces of boys in developing countries who look like “weathered, fully formed adults. Dignfiied, majestic, senile traits – in the First World, we hardly ever acquire them.” Senile, that is, in the classic OED sense – “characteristic or caused by old age” opposed to puerile, “like a boy.”  Our older people crave youth, and our youth are born into a vacuum. Are we the heirs of history – or its orphans?

A passage from his book:

“…neoteny resists the tyranny of legacy. To delay the rate of development entails not only a reluctance to grow up but a reluctance to reproduce a fixed and senile form that links us to ancestry by the laws of repetition and identity. In that regard neoteny gives humans a greater species freedom, both from the genetic dictates of the past and for new, as yet unrealized, possibilities. By holding on to the plasticity of youth for much longer periods, and in some cases throughout our entire lives, we have expanded our evolutionary options considerably, becoming over time a lighter, freer, more agile, and adventuresome species. In short, a more intelligent and youthful species. Or better, a more intelligent – because more youthful – species.

“The Ode on Man in Antigone offers us a glimpse into the more terrifying side of this youthful openness to wonder, discovery, and knowledge of the world. The determination to boldly go where no one has gone before takes us to the moon and into the arcana of chromosomes; it gives us the microchip and the atom bomb. Yet for all the novelties it has brought into the world since Sophocles composed the ode, there is one part of the ongoing human story that doesn’t change. Even if our youthful intelligence one day succeeds in rendering death optional rather than necessary, what the chorus says about anthropos will remain true: ‘everywhere journeying, inexperienced and without issue, he comes to nothingness.’ Thus, if our genius derives from our reluctance to grow up, our wisdom derives from our heightened awareness of death … it is when the two work together – and not one against one another – that human culture flourishes.”

Listen to the Robert Harrison interview on Michael Krasny’s “Forum” here.


Join us tonight for James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time!

Thursday, March 5th, 2015