Archive for August, 2015

End of the Tour: the 21st century’s answer to My Dinner with André?

Monday, August 31st, 2015

On an impulse, I dropped in at CineArts in Palo Alto Square to see James Ponsoldt‘s The End of the Tour, the talky film on the late great author David Foster Wallace. Silly me. I hadn’t read much about the film and thought it would be a kind of documentary, made up of recorded interviews during his life. It’s not, at least not entirely. However, much of the 90 minutes of conversations is indeed Wallace’s own, since the narrator is another writer, David Lipsky, then a reporter for Rolling Stone, who interviewed Wallace on a five-day binge in 1996. The conversations were transcribed, fourteen years later, for publication in a book called Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

Remember 1981’s My Dinner with André? That’s another talky film recreating a long-ago conversation. How times have changed, even in three-and-a-half short decades! My Dinner with André, a restaged reunion between avant-garde director André Gregory and actor/playwright Wallace Shawn, did a deep dive into the human psyche, sure, but it was outward-facing, discussing worldwide travels and explorations and revelations. The End of the Tour is all inward and self-doubt and neuroses, shot through with insight, suffering, and light – but we never seem to leave these two men’s heads. The 1981 film never seems claustrophobic, although it is almost entirely filmed within a New York restaurant; in The End of the Tour, although it “opens out,” as they say, into Minneapolis, never seems to leave Wallace’s cluttered Illinois home in the middle of nowhere, in the overwhelming winters of the American Midwest. Well, this turn of events is what Wallace predicted would happen, isn’t it? See the film clip above.

So here I am. As one commenter put it, a writer writing about a movie about a writer writing about a writer. A few reflections:

The End of the Tour Movie (2)I’m ill at ease about portrayals of “America” as a land of spiritual desert and strip malls – and I come from the same part of the world that Wallace did. If one sits in front of a TV and gets one’s food from 7/11, yes, it will be that way. But the way of the Twinkie is chosen, not inevitable. Some of us listen to Schubert and talk about Stendhal with our friends, over tapas and Cabernet. I’ve never had a poptart. Why would I?

Full disclosure: I’ve only read some of Wallace’s essays and short stories – I’ve never even tried (yet) to read Infinite Jest. So I take this warning to heart, from A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times: “Funny, intriguing and revealing as this talk may be, it does not have anything like the status of Wallace’s writing. The film not only acknowledges this distinction, but it also insists on it. In his would-be profiler’s company, occasionally glancing at the menacing red light of the predigital tape recorder, Wallace is by turns cagey and candid, witty and earnest, but he is always aware, at times painfully, that he is playing the role of a writer in someone else’s fantasy. Actually writing is something he does when no one else is around.” A minor point: Lipsky flings his tape recorder from jacket pocket to restaurant table, from his hand to Wallace’s, casually waves it around – and yet he seems to get crisp, usable recordings out of it. How does he do that? I can’t do that with today’s up-to-date recorders.

my-dinner-with-andreAny journalist watching this film should cringe with self-recognition. Jesse Eisenberg‘s Lipsky, a journalist who is a Wallace wannabe, conveys hunger and avidity in his every beady glance. That’s why I flinched at the tear trickling at the end – he wasn’t a tear-trickling kind of guy. This is a wolf cub. It was as phony as the magic tape recorder that never runs out of tape or drops an AA battery into his Coca Cola.

I always felt reluctant to do investigative reporting, though I know it has a vital role to play in the public square. I am always aware that I am telling the story, spinning my narrative of what I see and hear. It has to be so. Nobody wants to sit through the undigested outtakes of hours of interviewing and pages of notes. You have to assemble the mess in a way that makes sense to a broad spectrum of readers and is, above all, a compelling read – even if the reportage partakes of your own obsessions and prejudices and quirks. But what if you’re wrong – as you are wrong or unjust in a thousand relationships throughout your life? How often did you misinterpret a parent, a teacher, a lover, a child, a boss? How often did we misinterpret Wallace himself, who died by his own hand in 2008?

From the New York Times again:

In real life, David Lipsky might be a great guy, but on screen he is played by Mr. Eisenberg, which means that his genetic material is at least 25 percent weasel. Wallace at one point playfully describes himself as “pleasantly unpleasant.” Lipsky is unpleasantly pleasant, which is much worse. Twitchy and ingratiating, he wants to be a tough journalist and a pal. He desperately wants Wallace to regard him as a peer and can hardly contain his jealousy. He berates Sarah after she chats with Wallace on the phone and falls into a defensive snit after Wallace accuses him of flirting with Betsy (Mickey Sumner), a poet who had known Wallace in graduate school.

His awfulness is, to some degree, structural. A profile writer, especially in the company of another writer, is a false friend who dreams of being a secret sharer. Lipsky’s assignment is to pry, distort and betray, to use Wallace’s words and the details of his existence as material for his own dubious project. Wallace knows this and acquiesces to it — “you agreed to the interview” is Lipsky’s fallback when his subject gets prickly — and generally handles himself with grace and forbearance.

endofthetourAs Emily Yoshida points out in The Verge, he makes his own deal with his own devil: “in the face of Lipsky’s insatiability, the Segel can’t help but portray Wallace as constantly on the defensive, protecting nothing less than his own interiority. This, perhaps in combination with the nature of the source material, paints an even more saintly, beleaguered picture of Wallace than a conventional Oscar-bait biopic would. The film is bookended by flash forwards after Wallace’s death by suicide in 2008: we see Lipsky eulogize Wallace on NPR and at a (much better attended) reading of Although Of Course…, and these are his final acts of consumption and assumption of his subject. After his death, Lipsky becomes the foremost authority on Wallace, which is almost as good as being Wallace.”

This is said to be a life-changing role for Jason Segel, as Wallace (I wouldn’t know; I very rarely go to films). His portrayal rather overshadowed Eisenberg, but Eisenberg, too, makes a portrayal of great subtlety. We all smell Oscars in the air. But can’t two guys win?

This isn’t about the real David Foster Wallace, of course. How could it be? No wonder family and friends have resisted this film. For purposes of comparison, watch the short clip from the Charlie Rose interview below, made about the same time as the setting of The End of the Tour, and note the difference in tempo, energy, pacing. Wallace is bigger, softer, fuzzier, more self-doubting. Even the timber of the voice is radically different. Segel has created a whole new person for the cameras.

The film doesn’t end with Wallace’s death, or Lipsky’s reading of his book about Wallace. It’s much better than that. Wordless after so many words, Wallace resumes his normal life after the departure of Lipsky. As he explained to the young reporter, he is part of a dance group that relives the dances of the 1970s in the basement of a Baptist Church. And we finally leave his head: we see him in the basement, jumping and gyrating to the music with uninhibited joy. It’s a good way to leave him. The end of the tour.

Marci Shore on Ukraine, a graduate seminar via Skype, and “the return of metaphysics”

Saturday, August 29th, 2015

marci-shoreIntellectual and cultural historian Marci Shore remembers Tony Judt in the current issue of the New Yorker, which quickly segues into the current plight of Ukraine:

“We are unwise to laugh too quickly at those who describe the world as a conflict between good and evil,” Tony said, in a lecture in 2003. “If you can’t use the word ‘evil,’ you have a real problem thinking about what happened in the world.” In February, 2014, the Polish philosopher Marcin Król told an interviewer that Europeans were facing a serious political crisis and a potentially fatal spiritual crisis: they had ceased asking themselves metaphysical questions, questions like “Where does evil come from?” As Król’s friend Adam Michnik, the Polish writer and dissident, once said to Václav Havel, “This is a civilization that needs metaphysics.”

Marci reminds us of Judt’s “insistence on the historian’s moral responsibility not only to understand, but also to engage.” Her own form of engagement, or one of them, took the form of skyping in for graduate seminar on Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century, Israel: An Alternative, and Past Imperfect. (The first is an excellent series of conversations between Judt and Timothy Snyder, who happens to be Marci’s husband.) “And so this spring, from my office at Yale, I saw Mykola [a graduate student and now soldier] in uniform on my computer screen, the unmarked walls of a Soviet-built bunker in the background. He had Skyped in as well, from the undisclosed location, and he appeared on one half of my screen; Yaroslav [Hrytsak], together with Mykolas’s classmates, appeared on the other half.”

In response to Michnik’s call, she said:

judtThe Maidan was the return of metaphysics. It was a precarious moment of moral clarity, an impassioned protest against rule by gangsters, against what in Russian is called proizvol: arbitrariness and tyranny. It united Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers, workers and intellectuals, Ukrainians and Jews, parents and children, left and right. The Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak … described the Maidan as akin to Noah’s Ark: it took “two of every kind.” For Yaroslav, the wonder of the Maidan was the creation of a truly civic nation, the overcoming of preoccupations with identity in favor of thinking about values. People came to the Maidan to feel like human beings, Yaroslav explained. The feeling of solidarity, he said—it cannot be described.

You can read more about Marci’s unusual graduate seminar here.

True to himself: Khalid al-Assad and what he “lovest well”

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

His unbroken spectacles were by his feet.

By now we all know the story. Last week, Khalid al-Assad, the 83-year-old director of the antiquities at Palmyra, was brutally butchered by ISIS. He had been held for about a month before he was beheaded, but steadfastly refused to divulge the location of ancient city’s finest treasures.  It was a murder “aimed at killing civilization, modernity, and all of humanity,” according to Syrian philosopher and thinker Ahmed Barqawi.

Khalil al-Hariri, a relative of Asaad’s, said that the scholar’s deep connections with “every artifact and every stone” in Palmyra meant he would not abandon his home. “Asaad refused to leave the city, although he was aware of the danger he was facing,” Hariri said. “They brought him to the square in a black van, then used loudspeakers to call for people to come and watch the execution,” Palmyra resident Abu Mohammed al-Tadmuri said after news of Asaad’s killing broke.

And naturally ISIS showed the pictures. From the same Atlantic article (here):

A graphic photo shared by ISIS accounts on social media purported to show Asaad’s bloodied and headless body hung by an orange rope on what looks like a traffic light. The elderly man’s head, its spectacles still intact, had been placed on the ground between his feet. A handwritten placard tied to the body identified the victim as “the apostate Khalid Muhammad al-Asaad” and accused him of being loyal to the “Nusayri regime,” a derogatory term for the Alawite government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He died in vain … from one angle, anyway. Palmyra was destroyed, and ISIS today released the photos of the destruction of the city, which was a caravan stop four millennia ago. It was part of the Seleucid Empire and, after the first century, part of the Roman Empire. Now it is rubble. I will not link to the photos, which are everywhere online, because the week belongs instead to Khalid al-Assad. He was Palmyra’s flowering achievement, rather than the other way around: He was a civilized man. I haven’t read much about this latest atrocity. There have been so many (and I’ve written about them here and here and here and here, among other places), but far and away the best thing I’ve read so far is by Henry Gould over at his blog, HG Poetics. In fact, it’s the reason for this post:

Asaad’s devoted life & iconic death reminded me of some remarks by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, about how a person’s death somehow sums up and defines their life.  This was certainly true in his own case : Mandelstam died a victim of a personal vendetta by another Osip (his evil twin), Joseph Stalin – after Mandelstam had written a brief satirical poem featuring Stalin as its target.  Not a prudent thing to do in 1930’s Russia (nor in today’s Russia either, as a matter of fact).  Yet Mandelstam had a commitment to something beyond his personal survival.  As did Khalid al-Asaad.  This is perhaps the “true” form of martyrdom, which, unlike the standard model popular today, does not require the mass murder of innocent bystanders in order to achieve its glorified apotheosis in Paradise.  No, you only have to give up your own life. …


The last word.

I would rather stand with Khalid al-Asaad, devoted as he was to some local piles of classical statues & pillars & broken ancient ruins.  His devotion & his death reminded me of some lines of another fanatic old codger, Ezra Pound (from Canto LXXXI) :

What thou lovest well remains,
                                                  the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
                                            or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
        Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
Read the whole thing here.

New short biography of Hannah Arendt: “Her hope for the world lay in ‘natality.'”

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

A photo from before the dark times.

I don’t follow publishing news very closely (I know I should), but I was disappointed when the Penguin Lives series, edited by James Atlas, disappeared shortly after I became aware of it. In the olden days, before I became a blogger, I used to gulp down biographies like dark chocolate, and the short format (about 200 pages) made these books bite-sized. According to the Observer:

The Penguin Lives boutique biography series – a collaboration between Viking publishing, former New York Times Magazine editor James Atlas and former deputy mayor and financier Kenneth Lipper – is kaput.

Mr. Atlas, the general editor for Penguin Lives, told Off the Record that after publishing 22 of the diminutive, handsomely designed hardcover books pairing noted authors with an eclectic range of subjects ranging from Napoleon to Rosa Parks, Viking – a division of Penguin-Putnam – has decided to pull out of the venture.

“They’re closing it down. No real explanation was given,” Mr. Atlas said. “It was a question of its place in the corporate structure. It fit well, but it didn’t always fit well.”

Well, there you have it. That was a dozen years ago. Shows how up-to-date I am. Cut away to a few weeks ago when I received a notice of a package at the Stanford Post office. I tore open the package on my way to a meeting. A book by Hannah Arendt about “dark times.” I assumed it was a fancy new reissue of her Men in Dark Times – I wrote about that here, and assumed it would return me to that time “when there was only wrong and no outrage.” I figured my earlier post and been flagged by some ‘bot for a publishers’ mailing list. So I added the book to a tall pile for future perusal.

Wrong! The book is a short (134 pages) new biography of the philosopher by Anne C. HellerA Life in Dark TimesIt’s one of the short biographies issued in a new Amazon Publishing series called “Icons” (more here.) Seven of the eleven “inaugural” titles have already been published. Next on the list: Karen Armstrong takes on St. Paul, and Brooke Allen writes about Benazir Bhutto. What a good idea this is! It is still a good idea! And the Arendt book had a release date of only four days ago, so I’m just in time!

According to Adam Kirsch (we’ve written about him here and here), “Hannah Arendt was one of the most compelling and provocative thinkers of her time, and she remains indispensable today. In this lucid, accessible biography, Anne Heller shows how Arendt’s eventful life – shaped by war and exile, love and friendship – gave rise to her most important insights into politics and the nature of evil.”

I found this passage in the last chapter, at the end of her life. It is not about dark times – I hear enough about those already in the news – but rather about miracles. And couldn’t we all use one about now?

Arendt-KellerHer hope for the world lay in “natality,” “the miracle that saves the world,” she wrote, by which she meant the unimaginable possibilities that attend every human birth and must be safeguarded until they can reach full flower. “The beginning is also a god; so long as he dwells among men, he saves all things,” she noted, quoting Plato in her 1971 tribute to Martin Heidegger upon his eightieth birthday. And as she would write poignantly in her last book, The Life of the Mind, published after her death in 1978:

In this world which we enter, appearing from a nowhere, and from which we disappear into a nowhere, Being and Appearing coincide. … Seen from the viewpoint of the spectators to whom [a human life] appears and from whose view it finally disappears, each individual life, its growth and decline, is a developmental process in which an entity unfolds itself in an upward movement until all its properties are fully exposed; this phase is followed by a period of standstill – its bloom or epiphany, as it were – which in turn is succeeded by the downward movement of disintegration that is terminated by complete disappearance.

The human soul is born to make an appearance on a public stage, Arendt seemed to have concluded in her later years, and to become most vibrantly itself in a shared world. For her, authenticity did not require withdrawal from noisy modernity into the solitude of Being, as it did for Heidegger, but neither did it permit taking action without standing back and thinking about “what is.” And in her later years what is always encompassed the point of view of people different, even alien, from oneself.

Poet William Jay Smith, 1918-2015: “the truest and purest poems an American has written”

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

A most gentle warrior.

A few days ago, I wrote about poems as memorable speech, and the kind of poem that lodges in your brain and won’t leave. William Jay Smith wrote a dark and magical one, and it’s carved in my memory. It’s his enduring gift to me now.

Smith died on Tuesday, August 18, at the age of 97. From the New York Times obituary yesterday:

Mr. Smith’s poems for adults were praised for diction that was at once unfussy and lyrical; for thematic variety (they ranged over the natural world, erotic love, the experience of war, his Choctaw ancestry and many other subjects); for their ability to see minutely into everyday experience; and for a deceptive simplicity that belied the rigorous formal architecture beneath.

He embraced poetic devices, like rhyme and carefully calibrated meter, that many 20th-century colleagues considered passé — a self-imposed set of strictures that, critics said, gave his best work the sheen of something meticulously constructed, buffed and polished.

I met him at a West Chester Poetry Conference a dozen or so years ago. Too briefly to make much of an impression, except that he was courteous, gentle, and humble. He didn’t make much of his Native American ancestry, though it was patterned on his face. As I recall, he read from his poems on the Trail of Tears during the conference, and I bought one of his books as a result. Luckily, I was able to find it on my shelf this morning. As I thumbed through, I found this one, “The Eagle Warrior: An Invocation” from his 1997 collection The Cherokee Lottery, about a life-size ceramic man costumed as an eagle, thrown into a lake by the conquistadors and for that reason, and only that reason, it survived. This is how the invocation concludes:

O Eagle-warrior, surrogate of the sun,
.     fly off in my mind now
to circle the sun, that “ascending eagle,”
and with your penetrating eye
and your calligraphic wing-span
.     printed high upon the air,
follow the westward movement
.     of every vanquished tribe.
O Eagle-warrior, quick-eyed, fierce-beaked,
.     tense-taloned,
be their emblem, be their witness, be their scribe.

smithbookRichard Wilbur called him “a most gifted and original poet … One of the very few who cannot be confused with anybody else.” Dana Gioia wrote that his best poems “are unlike anything else in contemporary American literature … Although often based on realistic situations, Smith’s compressed, formal lyrics develop language musically in a way which summons an intricate, dreamlike set of images and associations.” And X.J. Kennedy said that he “has given us many of the truest and purest poems an American has written: the most resonantly musical, the most magical.” 

Smith authored over fifty books of poetry, children’s verse, literary criticism, and translation. Noted for his prodigious career, which spanned the fields of creative writing, translation, academia, and politics, Smith served a two-year term in the Vermont House of Representative, from 1960 to 1962, and also served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (the position now known as the U.S. poet laureate) from 1968 to 1970. Smith was also a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters since 1975, as well as a former vice president for literature.

As noted over at, Smith’s honors include the Henry Bellamann Major Award, the Russell Loines Award from the National Institute of the Arts and Letters, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2002, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Louisiana Center for the Book. He also received honors from the French Academy, the Swedish Academy, and the government of Hungary for his translations.

Ah yes, the poem that lodged in my brain:


Band of brothers: the Inklings at Oxford

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Where the parties happened. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Everywhere I go, I seem to find something about the new book, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Carol and Philip Zaleski (and published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, no less). Now I see the story in The Atlantic, too, in an article (here) by James Parker.

I’ve always loved the Inklings, not only for their writing, but also because they represent a period in England that I love:

zeleskiIn this nearly magical room, amid fire-crackle and clink of glass, you can hear them talking. Pipe smoke is in the air, and a certain boisterous chauvinism, and the wet-dog smell of recently rained-on tweed. You can hear the donnish mumbles of J. R. R. Tolkien as the slow coils of The Silmarillion glint and shift in his back-brain. Now he’s reading aloud from an interminable marmalade-stained manuscript, and his fellow academic Hugo Dyson, prone on the couch, is heckling him: “Oh God, not another fucking elf!” You can hear the challenging train-conductor baritone of C. S. Lewis, familiar to millions from his wartime radio broadcasts; hear the unstoppable spiel of the writer/hierophant Charles Williams, with his twitchy limbs and angel-monkey face; hear the silver stream of ideas and argumentation that is the philosopher Owen Barfield. They are intellectually bent upon one another, these men, but flesh-and-blood is the thing: conviviality is, for them, a kind of passion. The chairs are deep; the fire glows gold and extra fiery in the grate. Lewis’s brother, Warnie, rosy with booze and fellow feeling, serves the drinks. And the walls drop away, and the scene extends itself backwards and forward in time …

Is it the famous Eagle & Child, my favorite Oxford pub with its cramped dark-wood interiors and nooks and crannies? No! It’s Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford – I have to admit, it is perhaps the most beautiful college at the University (although I’m also partial to Christ Church, W.H. Auden‘s college, since I stayed across the street from it and got to look out over its marvelous gardens leading down to the ducks and the boats on Cherwell).

More from the review:

And so it began, and so it went on, with additions and diminutions, until the late ’40s. Reading aloud and commenting upon unfinished work was the group’s primary activity. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve, and—most resonantly for us—Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings all made their debut in this context. Tolkien, like Lewis, was part of the fabric of Oxford University, a philologist and a professor of Anglo-Saxon, teaching Beowulf by day while tinkering at night, at home, with his own made-up languages. Tinkering is of course quite the wrong word: Tolkien was plunging, spelunking, delving, excavating, as pickax-happy as a dwarf in the Mines of Moria, because in the roots of language—the glowing word-cores, the namings—he had found the roots of story. “For perfect construction of an art-language,” he explained in a talk delivered in 1931, “it is found necessary to construct at least in outline a mythology.” And there it is: the DNA of The Lord of the Rings. It was at this level of thinking that Tolkien met the way-ahead-of-the-curve Barfield, for whom language contained “the inner, living history of man’s soul.” Barfield’s brilliant 1926 book, History in English Words, is a work of philosophical archaeology, tracking and illuminating, via the changing meanings of words, the development of Western mental reality. And for Barfield, all reality was mental reality. “When we study long-term changes in consciousness,” he stated unequivocally, “we are studying changes in the world itself … Consciousness is not a tiny bit of the world stuck on the rest of it. It is the inside of the whole world.” (In Barfield’s old age, his theories would gain him a notable acolyte in Saul Bellow.)

 Well, as mentioned, read the whole thing here.  And read my Polish friend Artur Sebastian Rosman’s interview with the Zaleskis here.


Ducks and boats on the Cherwell. (Photo: Humble Moi)