Archive for 2017

A New Year’s resolution from Nietzsche: “I do not even want to accuse those who accuse…”

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

~ From “Sanctus Januarius” in Friedrich Nietzsche‘s Joyful Wisdom (1882). (Krzysztof Michalski‘s interpretation of Nietzsche is here, in “Krzysztof Michalski: Without Death – there is no me.”)

Hat tip to our friend and colleague from the New York Public Library, Paul Holdengraber.

And a very Happy New Year to all Book Haven readers!


“No poet in English writes with more authority”: Requiescat in Pace, Stanford poet Helen Pinkerton (1927-2017)

Saturday, December 30th, 2017


At left, Helen Pinkerton at a Stanford event in 2010, with poet Turner Cassity at right. I’m in the center.

I met Helen Pinkerton fifteen years ago, when I wrote about her for Stanford Magazine. It was part of my effort to write about all the “Stanford poets” who had been in the orbit, however briefly, of poet-critic Yvor Winters – a circle that is largely unacknowledged and under-appreciated. Helen and I stayed in touch over the years, though not as frequently as either of us would have liked, for she was a indefatigable correspondent with a wide network and I had heavy writing commitments. (I have written about her here and here, among other places.)

En route to the Tucson airport yesterday, I received an email from her daughter Erica Light: “It is with infinite sadness I must let you know of the passing of the poet, scholar, Civil War historian, teacher, and friend to many, my mother Helen Pinkerton Trimpi, at her home in Grass Valley, California, at the age of 90. She made her peaceful transition yesterday, Thursday, December 28, 2017, in the morning with her family close about her.”

I would have written differently about Helen today, but there were nevertheless some good bits in my long-ago article:

“She has written some of the best poems of her generation,” says poet and scholar Timothy Steele, ’70. Pinkerton’s mentor, Yvor Winters, deemed her “a master of poetic style and of her material. No poet in English writes with more authority.” The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, calling her style “austere,” notes that “her carefully crafted poetry is profoundly philosophical and religious.” …

Meeting Winters turned her aspirations upside-down. “I discovered a whole new world, which was the serious writing of poetry,” she says. She decided she’d rather be a mediocre poet than a first-rate journalist. For Pinkerton, poetry “was a better thing to do—it was more interesting and more valuable. It was a funny choice to make, I must say,” she adds wryly.

A second turning point occurred a few years later, when she read Moby Dick on an ocean liner going to Europe after completing her master’s. It became the subject of her 1987 scholarly work, Melville’s Confidence Man and American Politics in the 1850s—and of a number of her long narrative poems. “I gave a lot of my life to Melville,” she says.

But poetry always came first, she says. “For fifty years, Pinkerton has been writing beautifully crafted poems, but the age has favored flashier and more improvisational talents, and her work has not received the hearing it deserves,” Steele writes in the afterword to Taken in Faith. Flashy and improvisational she’s not—but with a little luck, she may outlast both those trends.

Over at the Weekly Standard, James Matthew Wilson, another of her many friends and correspondents, wrote a retrospective of her work in “It’s a Battlefield”:

Over seven decades, Helen Pinkerton has published a small number of poems admirable for their austere intellectual beauty, such as the newly collected “Metaphysical Song.”

First Principle
Being’s pure act,
Infinite cause
Of finite fact,
Essential being,
Beyond our sight,
Without which, nothing,
Neither love nor light

Like those of her mentor, Yvor Winters, Pinkerton’s lyrics exhibit both philosophical depth and clean, classical lines. She exceeds him in her careful definition of the human condition in terms of its inescapable orientation to the divine “First Principle.” …

Over the years, I have published several articles on Pinkerton, in hopes of bringing her metaphysical lyrics to a wider audience. I see now, however, that I have given short shrift to what may be her most lasting contribution to American letters, her five dramatic monologues in blank verse on the subject of the Civil War. These, I believe, will become classics: miniature epics that, like Virgil‘s Aeneid, draw public history and private tragedy into a poetic whole.

And last but not least, Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence, wrote a tribute yesterday, “The Spirit’s Breath and Seed,” which includes a long excerpt from their own correspondence. (I believe I can take credit for introducing the two some years ago via email.) From Patrick:

Helen was among the last of Yvor Winters’ students to leave us. With their teacher, they – Helen, [Edgar] Bowers, Thom Gunn, Turner Cassity – along with J.V. Cunningham and Winters’ wife, Janet Lewis, represent the supreme flowering of the art of poetry in the United States.  Helen’s interests always surprised me. She published a book on Melville and another, Crimson Confederates, devoted to the students at Harvard who fought for the Southern cause in the Civil War. Last year, Wiseblood Books published A Journey of the Mind: Collected Poems of Helen Pinkerton 1945-2016.

Only death stopped her. Helen’s collected poems, A Journey of the Mind, was published last year – a late harvest indeed, but that’s not all. Her final poem, “Dialogue,” appears in the Fall 2017 issue of Modern Age. And even her last few days held a surprise: two days before her death, she received the completed and bound copy of her interview from the Stanford Oral History folks, which, according to her daughter,”looks very nice indeed.” The link for the video interview is here.

Requiescat in pace, Helen. Your grace, intelligence, and fine poetic ear will be missed.

Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard – in Russia’s high-traffic Colta just in time for New Year’s!

Friday, December 29th, 2017

Another excerpt from Everything Came to Me at Once: A Life of René Girard – this time from the chapter called “Mankind Is Not So Kind” (Человечество не очень человечно). The excerpt appears in Colta,  Russia’s online equivalent of the New York Review of Books. Many thanks to editor, publisher, poet and journalist Maria Stepanova (we’ve written about her here and here). And thanks to the skillful translation of Svetlana Panich.

René Girard (1923-2015) began as a literary theorist was fascinated by everything. History, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion, psychology and theology all figured in his oeuvre. As I wrote in his obituary here:

International leaders read him, the French media quoted him. Girard influenced such writers as Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee and Czech writer Milan Kundera – yet he never had the fashionable (and often fleeting) cachet enjoyed by his peers among the structuralists, poststructuralists, deconstructionists and other camps. His concerns were not trendy, but they were always timeless.

In particular, Girard was interested in the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. Our desires, he wrote, are not our own; we want what others want. These duplicated desires lead to rivalry and violence. He argued that human conflict was not caused by our differences, but rather by our sameness. Individuals and societies offload blame and culpability onto an outsider, a scapegoat, whose elimination reconciles antagonists and restores unity.

Non-Russian speakers will have to wait for the Englishh edition, which will be out in April (but available for pre-orders here). Meanwhile, for all my Russian friends…

«Линчевание узнается по запаху», — сказал как-то Жирар, походя упомянув в разговоре роман Фолкнера. Эту непривычно жесткую фразу он произнес с несвойственным ему отвращением. Что имелось в виду, не уточнил, но друзья рассказали, что 1952—1953 годы, которые он провел на сегрегированном американском Юге, были для него сущей мукой. Кое-кто полагает, что именно там родилась его идея «козла отпущения», но это явная натяжка, к тому же недооценивающая его гениальную интуицию, которая сплетается со множеством наблюдений и научных находок в мощную теорию, описывающую положение человека и дающую ключ к нашему прошлому, настоящему и будущему. Эти идеи Жирар окончательно сформулировал уже после того, как книга «Обман, желание, роман» заявила о себе в литературном мире. «Я прожил год в Северной Каролине. — вспоминал он позднее. — Это было не худший штат на Юге, но полностью сегрегированный и довольно консервативный». Говорил об этом Жирар без сожаления: его завораживало буйство зелени, однако можно предположить, что роскошная краса этих мест только усиливала когнитивный диссонанс.

Жирар — не «певец природы», поэтому его описания Юга довольно резки. Он честно признавался, что новое место — «окруженная соснами глиноземная местность в центре огромного табачного региона, утыканного просторными сараями, в которых складывали на просушку огромные светлые листья» — доставило ему больше удовольствия, чем Индиана, но удовольствие, по его словам, оказалось сугубо чувственным:

«У меня остались очень яркие воспоминания о первом пребывании на юге Соединенных Штатов: ошеломляющее буйство цветов по весне, райские картинки пригородов, разбросанные пестрыми букетами и окруженные вековой листвой крошечные дома, похожие на новые игрушки, роскошные сады за домами; огромный эркер в гостиной, откуда открывался вид на синевато-зеленое мелколесье… Казалось, что меня, словно в научно-фантастическом рассказе, выбросили в капсуле в сияющий мир, где есть все знакомые нам соблазны, но они гораздо сильнее и лучше упорядочены».

О расовых отношениях он говорит, скорее, иносказательно и обтекаемо:

«Но как только наступало лето, на вас проклятием обрушивалась невыносимая жара. Мучились от нее не только физически; для меня эти страдания были неотделимы от того расового недуга, который всегда терзал эту землю и не стал слабее с тех пор, как о нем рассказали великие писатели Юга, прежде всего, Фолкнер. Я не разделяю склонность некоторых критиков сводить все к чисто литературным конструкциям: достоинство литературы в том, что она улавливает смыслы, которые уже разлиты в мире и не дают покоя именно потому, что большинство людей отказываются над ними думать. Помню, какой скандал разразился в Конгрессе, так и не сумевшем ратифицировать по умолчанию обязывающий на федеральном уровне закон, какой гарантировал бы полную справедливость во всем, что касалось судов Линча».

Read the rest here.

Merry Christmas! A holiday card from Norway, and another from outer space …

Sunday, December 24th, 2017


It’s Christmas, and perhaps our favorite electronic card of the season was from a Swedish friend and poet, currently living in Oslo, Norway. We’ve written about Håkan Sandell before here and here. In the note he sent with it, he addressed Humble Moi this year in terms of Propertius‘s Cynthia, but we reminded him that she was a hell-raiser and a bad ‘un, not like our self-effacing, book-loving self. Moreover, as I recall, she died young. Too late for that, I thought, as I shoveled clothes and papers into suitcases for a trip.


“Arizona sounds more exotic than Swedish X-mas cards to me,” he wrote, when I asked permission to reprint his card. The occasion for the trek to Tucson? The wedding of a bro. And that brings up the tied frontrunner for the best card of the year.

Another of my tribe of brothers is an astronomer, long associated with the University of Arizona. You might gather that from his Christmas card at bottom, which features his 2017 photo. He also fits in with our literary preoccupations, as he is currently collaborating on two books with his friend and colleague, the renowned astronomer Guy Consolmagno who is featured in the current Newsweek article “God and E.T.: Vatican Astronomer Would Baptize Aliens If They Ask.”

Hard to beat a headline like that. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and raising a glass of bubbly to distant friends! We’ll catch up with you from a clime that is less chilly than northern California, and far less chilly than outer space.


“I should be drinking you from a mug, but I’m drinking you in drops, which make me cough.”

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

Beginning on a High C: Marina Tsvetaeva in 1914.

Too few Americans know the oeuvre of Muscovite poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) – partly, I think it’s because of the translations. How can one translate her? Where other poems end, hers begin. And her poems typically begin “at the far right – i.e., highest – end of the octave, on high C.”

Those are the words of her admirer, poet Joseph Brodsky, who wrote, “Tsvetaeva is a poet of extremes only in the sense that for her an ‘extreme’ is not so much the end of the known world as the beginning of the unknowable one.”

He continues: “Tsvetaeva is an extremely candid poet, quite possibly the most candid in the history of Russian poetry. She makes no secret of anything, least of all of her aesthetic and philosophical credos, which are scattered about her verse and prose with the frequency of a first person singular pronoun.”

So here are a few of those aphorisms, which have been gathered from her diaries and notebooks from about 1917 to 1922, over at the Paris Review:

I should be drinking you from a mug, but I’m drinking you in drops, which make me cough.

You don’t want people to know that you love a certain person? Then say: “I adore him!” But some people know what this means.

Kinship by blood is coarse and strong, kinship by choice—is fine. And what is fine can tear.

Betrayal already points to love. You can’t betray an acquaintance.

And this one is especially intriguing:

The heart: it is a musical, rather than a physical organ.

There! What a naughty thing I’ve been! I’ve used up six of the ten “aesthetic and philosophical credos” on this post. Find the rest over at the Paris Review here.

R.I.P. Russia’s Arseny Roginsky: “one of the great warriors against forgetting.”

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017

Arseny Roginsky, 1946-2017: “what decency itself sounds like.” (Photo: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)

Every year I have waited for the Nobel Peace Prize, wondering if at last Russia’s Memorial will be honored for its formidable work of retrieving memory of what Russia chooses to forget: the massacres and persecutions of the Soviet era. Memorial has fostered research on the arrests, imprisonments, murders and exiles, and commemorated them, while campaigning for human rights in modern Russia.

If it happens, whenever it happens, the Swedish honor will come too late for its founder, the historian and dissident Arseny Roginsky, who died on Monday at the age of 71. I was preparing to write something on this death for a man whose name too few in the West will recognize, but David Remnick, who knew Roginsky personally, beat me to it. He wrote an excellent tribute in the New Yorker yesterday, and I can do no better than to cite it:

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The line comes from one of Milan Kundera’s novels about the totalitarian experience in the twentieth century, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Now, in the twenty-first century, as the forces allied against democratic institutions employ historical falsehoods once more as a kind of distorting mirror, it is especially painful to lose Arseny Roginsky, one of the great warriors against forgetting.

Roginsky, who died on Monday, at the age of seventy-one, was a Soviet and Russian dissident in the tradition of Andrei Sakharov, Andrei Sinyavsky, and Nadezhda Mandelstam. He was pure of heart but hardly sanctimonious. And his achievement was immense. In the late eighties, Roginsky helped found Memorial, an organization determined to uncover the truths of Soviet history in defiance of the forces of censorship and repression. He was as brave as any human-rights campaigner I’ve known, but he was also funny, ironic, eternally bemused even in the face of what he had endured and, more, his country’s dark history and forbidding present. When I lived in Moscow, and for years after, I looked forward to our frequent meetings and his expansive monologues; as a blue-gray nimbus of cigarette smoke accumulated around him, he gave seminars not only in matters of historical fact but in what decency itself sounds like.

For that, this unassuming warrior – whose father died in a gulag when Roginsky was nine years old – was harassed, bugged, arrested, and eventually incarcerated, moving from camp to camp for years to keep him from “infecting” other inmates:

In younger, colder days…

When Roginsky finally returned home, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was coming to power with reform in mind. Sensing opportunity on an unprecedented scale, Roginsky joined forces, in 1988 and 1989, with a range of urban intellectuals and pro-democracy forces to start Memorial, one of the most important “informal” organizations in a nascent civil-society movement. Memorial put historical truth-telling at the top of its agenda, but it also served as a free-floating forum for discussion about the future of the intelligentsia and the country itself. On weekend mornings, I often went to meetings of Memorial to listen to speeches, meet with its leaders and younger followers, and, generally, to get a sense of where the movement was headed. Because where Memorial went, Gorbachev was often apt to follow. One of Gorbachev’s most important achievements was to insist that the future depended on an honest assessment of the past; this was the guiding principle of Memorial and Arseny Roginsky.

Here’s what he was working against, in an article, “The Gulag: Lest We Forget,” written by Anne Applebaum a dozen years ago, which illustrates the enormous importance of his work:

And yet in Russia, a country accustomed to grandiose war memorials and vast, solemn state funerals, these local efforts and private initiatives seem meager, scattered, and incomplete. The majority of Russians are probably not even aware of them. And no wonder: Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia—the country that has inherited the Soviet Union’s diplomatic and foreign policies, its embassies, its debts, and its seat at the United Nations—continues to act as if it has not inherited the Soviet Union’s history. Russia does not have a national museum dedicated to the history of repression. Neither does Russia have a national place of mourning, a monument officially recognizing the suffering of victims and their families.
More notable than the missing monuments, however, is the missing public awareness. Sometimes it seems as if the enormous emotions and passions raised by the wide-ranging discussions of the Gorbachev era simply vanished, along with the Soviet Union itself. The bitter debate about justice for the victims disappeared just as abruptly. Although there was much talk about it at the end of the 1980s, the Russian government never did examine or try the perpetrators of torture or mass murder, even those who were identifiable.

Why should it have gotten the Nobel? One reason: the future of Memorial is up for grabs in Putin’s Russia, and it work desperately needs the international recognition that will protect its work:

Under the Putin regime, Memorial has done invaluable research and advocacy work on abuses in the North Caucasus and other troubled regions of Russia. It remains a human-rights organization, despite heavy pressure from the Kremlin, which has little interest in human rights and regards Memorial as a “foreign agent.” Periodically, Russian politicians have threatened to close Memorial entirely. As Memorial’s chairman, Roginsky was always preternaturally calm yet unyielding.

Read the whole Remnick piece here.

“Thank you, Arseny Borisovich, you will always be with us,” Memorial said in the statement on its website.