Archive for February, 2017

Long after the Cold War, have we become our opponents? Václav Havel weighs in.

Saturday, February 25th, 2017

I have long observed how people become the thing they hate most, so when René Girard described how locked rivals come to resemble each other more and more, it was no surprise to me. Czech writer, dissident, and president Václav Havel apparently felt much the same way. This recent New Yorker article – Pankaj Mishra’s “Václav Havel’s Lessons on How to Create a ‘Parallel Polis” – has been an open tab in my Google Chrome window for at least a week. Don’t you wait that long to read it. Despite Mishra’s Manichaean cast of mind (it’s not a case of the pure and the monstrous, we could all use a little self-examination), it is essential reading that expresses some important thoughts for this particular historical moment:


Have we become “statistical choruses of voters”?

The problems before humankind, as Havel saw it, were far deeper than the opposition between socialism and capitalism, which were both “thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories [that] have long since been beside the point.” The Western system, though materially more successful, also crushed the human individual, inducing feelings of powerlessness, which—as Trump’s victory has shown—can turn politically toxic. In Havel’s analysis, politics in general had become too “machine-like” and unresponsive, degrading flesh-and-blood human beings into “statistical choruses of voters.”

According to Havel, “the sole method of politics is quantifiable success,” which meant that “good and evil” were losing “all absolute meaning.” Long before the George W. Bush Administration went to war in Iraq on a false pretext, Havel identified, in the free as well as the unfree world, “a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction which can rationalize anything without ever having to brush against the truth.” In his view, “ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans” had amassed a uniquely maligned power in the modern world, which pressed upon individuals everywhere, depriving “humans—rulers as well as the ruled—of their conscience, of their common sense and natural speech, and thereby, of their actual humanity.”


With Polish dissident editor Adam Michnik

Since Western democracies as well as Communist dictatorships had suffered a devastating loss of the human scale, it mattered little that free markets were more efficient than Communist economies. For, Havel believed, “as long as our humanity remains defenseless, we will not be saved by any technical or organizational trick designed to produce better economic functioning.” Individual freedom and social cohesion were no less under threat in the depoliticized capitalist democracies of the West. “A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system,” he wrote, and who has “no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.”

After he became President of his country, Havel attacked, in 1997, its “post-communist morass”: an iniquitous capitalist economy that convinced many that “it pays off to lie and to steal; that many politicians and civil servants are corruptible; that political parties—though they all declare honest intentions in lofty words—are covertly manipulated by suspicious financial groupings.” But Havel had long before noticed some manifestly deep similarities between the two rival ideologies and systems of the Cold War; they had provoked him to describe the Cold Warriors who wanted to eradicate Communism as “smashing” the mirror that reminded them of their own moral ugliness. Indeed, Havel predicted in the mid-nineteen-eighties, even as Communism began to totter, that the kind of regime described in Orwell’s “1984” was certain to appear in the West. He warned “the victors” of the Cold War that they would inevitably resemble “their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.”

Read the whole thing here.

Marcel Proust: The Movie!

Monday, February 20th, 2017

proust4Kudos to our colleagues over at Open Culture. The website has posted for the first known footage of the French author Marcel Proust, fresh from the latest edition of the French journal, Revue d’études proustiennes. We include it, too, below.

The footage was recorded on November 14, 1904 – nine years before Proust the publication of Remembrance of Things Past. The occasion: the wedding of his close friend, Armand de Guiche. Proust descends a stairway, dressed in gray, not black – a little less formally, perhaps, than those around him. Look for him at the 37 second mark. (Hint of what to look for in the photo at right.)

A moment’s peace in World War I: Opera San José premieres Pulitzer-winning Silent Night

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

Colin Ramsey as Father Palmer and Mason Gates as Jonathan Dale. (All photos: Pat Kirk)

“War, we are taught to believe, is the work of opposing forces. The characters of  Silent Night are sworn enemies, soldiers from three countries facing each other in battle,” writes Georgia Rowe in The San Jose Mercury. “Yet, in Kevin Puts’ splendid dramatic opera, they come together, finding common ground and joining together in brotherhood.”


Ricardo Rivera as Audebert, Matthew Hanscomas Gordon and Kyle Albertson as Horstmayer

The acclaimed Pulitzer prize-winning opera Silent Night, which retells a true Christmastime night of peace in the bloodbath of World War I, is making its West Coast premiere this month at Opera San José. It continues through February 26.

“One hears the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 so often that it’s tempting to suspect a little mythologizing, perhaps wishful thinking,” writes Michael Vaughn over at his blog, Operaville. “But no, the smallest bit of research reveals that not only did mortal enemies meet in No Man’s Land to exchange tidings and small gifts that winter, it happened at dozens of points along the front. Working from the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel, librettist Mark Campbell and and composer Kevin Puts did a masterful job of distilling those stories into three squadrons – Scots, French and German – and creating a moving, personal account of that astounding night. For their effort, they won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize.”


Kirk Dougherty as Nikolaus Sprink; Julie Adams as Anna Sørensen

“After arranging for the composer to create a custom score for its 47-person pit, Opera San José has put on perhaps its most ambitious project ever.”

According to Vaughn:

The moral driver is (conveniently enough), an opera singer. Kirk Dougherty plays divo-soldier Nikolaus Sprink, singing his spinto protests against a terrible, pointless war with the kind of artistic passion that drives military folks crazy (“Artists make bad soldiers,” says his lieutenant). Preparing for a command performance before the Kronprinz with his singing partner/lover Anna, he refers to “all these fat old men, swigging their champagne,” the true beneficiaries of the bloodshed. Anna manages to talk him into taking her to the front for Christmas eve, and thus are the seeds planted for a rebellious truce. The Germans have Christmas trees, the French have chocolate, the Scots have whiskey. And the tenor arrives with an actual angel.

I watched the youtube preview video here – and the small, artificial Christmas trees are in it. That echoes an episode with the German soldiers in Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate(I wrote about the magnificent book here and here and here.) Which came first? Grossman’s 1959 novel, presumably – unless the incident actually happened in 1914.

“Opera San José, which takes seriously its role as an incubator for young artists, tends to concentrate largely on the works of the standard repertoire for understandable reasons,” writes Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle. “But the company’s occasional forays into more contemporary fare almost always seem to pay off, and this arresting production is no exception.”


Colin Ramsey as Father Palmer, Mason Gates as Jonathan Dale, and others.

Ever wonder where Amphimachus was born? Now is your chance to catch up on Homer’s Iliad.

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017



A map for the questions you never thought you had: Where was Automedon, charioteer of Achilles, born? And where did Chromius, son of Priam, perish?

Making the homerrounds of the social media today is this map of all the characters of Homer‘s Iliad, including the walk-ons and bit-players. We thought we’d join in the fun.

I’m told that some of the locations are wrong – feel free to weigh in with your corrections. Here’s a big omission: where are the wimmen folk? The map comes to us courtesy of Wikimedia.

I note, with some satisfaction, that Delos, part of the Greek Cyclades, is shown – that is the place of Mount Cynthus, birthplace of Artemis, and our namesake.

Herbert Hoover: “He was a techie, a geek, a nerd. Where did he come from?”

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

Hoover with a homemade ham radio, probably at Stanford’s Lou Henry Hoover House. (Photo: U.S. Dept. of Commerce)

Elena Danielson, director emerita of the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, is one of Stanford’s most charming and engaging speakers – not to mention a fount of knowledge on a dazzling range of topics. The former Fulbright scholar is the author of The Ethical Archivist (Society of American Archivists, 2010) – we’ve written about it here. Her Ethics of Access will be published this year with the same publisher. One of her many enthusiasms is Herbert Hoover (we’ve written about the president’s astonishing philanthropic efforts to save a starving Russia here.) Elena spoke last week for the Stanford Historical Society. And what better venue than the Hoover Institution’s Stauffer Auditorium?

An excerpt:

Herbert Hoover’s particular mentality, while unusual for an American politician, is something familiar to us at Stanford and perhaps easier to recognize in the 21st century than it was previously. He is part of a Stanford tradition that has been with us since the founding in 1891, and only become more clear over the decades. He loved science, technology, engineering, math, and machines, chemistry, trains, steamships, radio, television. He was also a collector, collecting ore samples and semi-precious stones all his life, and also collecting books and manuscripts. Collecting seems to go with this mind-set.


Archivist extraordinaire. (Photo: Sunny Scott)

He was the kind of person who knew how to quickly take advantage of the new technology of the late 19th century. In 1898, he proposed to his beloved bride, recent Stanford graduate Miss Lou Henry, by telegram. Also fascinated by emerging technology, she immediately accepted by return cable. He traveled constantly by rail, steamship, ocean liner (an estimated hundred weeks of his life – or two full years – on ships). He went around the world at least four times prior to World War I, and crossed through war zones during the Great War.

During the belt tightening and labor shortages of the U.S. entry into World War I, he dismissed his chauffeur (normal for a man of his wealth to have), and delighted in driving his roadster a bit too fast for comfort. When he was elected president, before the inauguration, back then held in March, he got on a ship and took a four-week good will tour of Latin America. His train car or steamship cabin was always a mobile office. Going through his papers, I remember marveling at the number of telegrams he would shoot off every day to keep various business and philanthropic organizations mobilized, the way we send off emails. And he was never happier than when he was focusing his math skills on complex financial transactions with large numbers of zeros, the more complicated the better…He was different from Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Roosevelt, Truman. You’d have to go back to Benjamin Franklin to find the same combination of love of science, love of foreign travel, and love for complex negotiations.

He was an early adopter. He had a ham radio in his campus home for Herbert Hoover Jr. He was the first person to broadcast on TV in 1927. He was the first president to broadcast a campaign speech on the radio, the first president to have his own telephone on his desk, the first person to use a teleprompter on national TV (1952). He thrived on using emerging technology. It was his strength, enabled him to solve problems, and, in some ways, it was also his weakness, he expected problems to have solutions. He was a techie, a geek, a nerd. Where did he come from?


Stanford landmark

Then he took the technical skills he learned at Stanford, starting at age 22, to high-level, high-stakes ventures in Australia, China, and, what I consider the transformative period, in Tsarist Russia. This last is, in my opinion, one of the most significant and least researched episodes in his life. This technical career got him involved in Stanford campus politics, then some global politics and finally American politics, as he tried to apply engineering solutions to international and social problems, a technocrat in the good sense of the word, as a logical, fact-based problem-solver. Throughout this time, he remained deeply committed to helping the university that launched his career, and the career of his wife Lou Henry, his older brother Theodor Hoover, and his sons Herbert Hoover, Jr., and Allan Hoover, his closest friends such as Ray Lyman Wilbur. All Stanford grads, all techies. And we will see his two lasting monuments – not on Mount Rushmore, but two engineering marvels that both have strong connections with Stanford.

Hoover Dam was one of them. From Elena Danielson:

They excavated 3.7 million cubic yards of rock, poured 4.4 million cubic yards of concrete, built four tunnels through which they diverted one of the country’s greatest rivers, installed 45 million pounds of steel, imbedded 582 miles of one-inch cooling tubes, and built a 726 foot tall dam with a 2,000 megawatt power station. The electricity that was generated paid for the construction. Even as president, engineering was his great love.

And Stanford’s Hoover Tower is the other:

He planned the construction of Hoover Tower with instructions to make it as seismically sound as possible given the technology of 1939 with a steel I-beam skeleton and rebar reinforced concrete on a thick concrete pad. Here he stored the documentation he had collected from the turmoil of the Great War, the Russian Revolutions and subsequent political upheavals. The inspiration of those great collectors on the pioneer faculty John Casper Branner and Andrew D. White found tangible expression in the Tower. The Tower held up well in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that devastated much of the construction on campus. His intellectual interests and his engineering mind-set worked together.

You can hear the whole talk here


Not a bad legacy. Ansel Adams’s 1941 photo of Hoover dam.

Orwell Watch #27: What is fascism? Does anybody know?

Thursday, February 9th, 2017
Da Man

Da Man

I was talking online with friend and fellow blogger Artur Sebastian Rosman about the current obsessions in the news. One thing we both have noticed: suddenly everything and everyone is being called a “fascist.” But what, exactly, does the word mean nowadays, other than an all-purpose pejorative, something pleasant to scream at your opponents?

We went back the expert, George Orwell. Here’s what he said: “Of all the unanswered questions of our time, perhaps the most important is: ‘What is Fascism?’ One of the social survey organizations in America recently asked this question of a hundred different people, and got answers ranging from ‘pure democracy’ to ‘pure diabolism’. In this country if you ask the average thinking person to define Fascism, he usually answers by pointing to the German and Italian régimes. But this is very unsatisfactory, because even the major Fascist states differ from one another a good deal in structure and ideology.”

Seems it stumped him, too:

It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.


Real fascism

Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning. To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic. Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others. Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.

But Fascism is also a political and economic system. Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it? Alas! we shall not get one — not yet, anyway. To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make. All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.

You can read the whole thing here. It’s not very long. (Get this: it’s on a Russian website.) Alternatively, you can look at this equally befuddled website post, written at the time the Bush Administration was calling Islamic fundamentalism “fascist.”

It’s tonight, folks! Don’t miss it! Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude carries a message for our times.

Monday, February 6th, 2017

Last call for Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude! Our Another Look book club winter event will take place at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Monday, February 6, at the Bechtel Conference Center. I highly recommend this compelling dystopian novella from a little-known Czech author, which carries a special message for our times. Read more about the book and the event here


Will Trump trash the NEA and NEH? Here’s what to do.

Sunday, February 5th, 2017
Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA opens in 2015

Spoleto Festival USA 2015; Opening Ceremonies

It was all over the social media: President Donald Trump is going to trash the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I know, I know, everyone has said that for years. Even though the official U.S. agencies to promote the arts and the humanities only get tens-thousandths of a percent of the U.S. budget ($148m last year), they are regularly attacked – but now the threat looking less rhetorical and more existential. The source, however, seems to be a single story in The Hill that’s been repeated everywhere.


Dana with Doctor Gatsby. (Photo: Star Black)

California poet laureate Dana Gioia, former chairman of the NEA, appeared on WNYC’s Studio 360 this weekend, in a discussion with novelist Kurt Andersen, to discuss the prospects. The link is here.

“The NEA is very efficiently run nowadays,” he said. “The staff is small. Most of the money goes out the door” – that is, to individuals and groups in the arts. “The NEA does not subsidize the American arts. It doesn’t have enough money to subsidize anybody.” Rather, it serves as a catalyst for local groups in communities, and the imprimatur of the NEA means that an individual or group can be more successful in raising its own funding in the future.

Nor are the awards made only to coastal elites. He pointed out the NEA’s Shakespeare program, which brings professional-caliber Shakespeare to places that don’t have professional theater companies. It’s visited 4,000 towns – and these are small towns, for the most part.


Menotti (Photo: Carl Van Vechten)

What would he say to President Trump? “The presence of art in schools and the presence of art in communities makes them more economically viable. They become places that are desirable to live in, desirable to locate businesses in, desirable to invest in. This is probably one of the cheapest economic development programs that the United States has. That’s my Trumpean argument. It’s not the argument I would make to a cultural person.”

“When you do something positive, it tends to be positive in many ways,” he continued. He pointed out that Charleston forty years ago was a dying community. The mayor talked to a gay, Italian-American opera composer, Gian Carlo Menotti. The Spoleto Festival USA was born. “It tranformed Charleston into the most attractive city in the American South,” with galleries, restaurants, and huge local employment, he said.

“Donald Trump does not create the budget – he can suggest a budget, but Congress does.” He recommended that everyone write to his or her representative in Congress, a short, two- or three-sentence letter: “As a constituent, I am concerned about protecting budget of NEA.”

“I guarantee you that any member of the House who gets 500 individual letters on an issue will begin to change his or her mind. They will act on it,” he said. “We need American culture to win the battles. We will win this battle.”

The sewers of Paris: the conscience of the city?

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017


Our 2012 post, Enjoy Les Misérables. But please get the history straight is still getting comments – close to 150 of them now. And I also get some private correspondence. One recent email from a kind reader told me of a Smithsonian Magazine article featuring Victor Hugo‘s Paris – but only one of the locales it featured (unless you count the Jardin du Luxembourg) had any specific associations with his masterpiece. From The Smithsonian:


“A sewer is a cynic. It tells all.”

Paris’s underworld features heavily in Les Misérables, most famously its sewers, which once branched for a hundred miles beneath the city’s cobbled streets. It is here that Jean Valjean escapes in one of the book’s most dramatic scenes, fleeing the barricade with a wounded Marius on his back. “An abrupt fall into a cavern; a disappearance into the secret trapdoor of Paris; to quit that street where death was on every side, for that sort of sepulchre where there was life, was a strange instant,” writes Hugo. Baron Haussmann’s overhaul left few stones unturned, including the black, squalid sewer tunnels of Hugo’s day. But, visitors to the city can still catch a glimpse of Paris’ underground at the Musée des Égouts, which offers hour-long tours chronicling the sewer system’s modern development—no hazmat suit required.

That journey of clicks took me he Musée des Égouts on the Quai d’Orsay in Paris – it has a museum and a website.

A non-click journey to my library returned me to Hugo’s massive novel. Here’s what he had to say about the sewers where Jean Valjean escapes carrying his wounded son-in-law-to-be, Marius Pontmercy, who has had his brief and unsuccessful role in the 1830 uprising. About 1,260 pages into the book, the French maestro writes:

sewersThe sewer is the conscience of the city. All things converge into it and are confronted with one another. In this lurid place there is darkness, but there are no secrets. Each thing has its real form, or at least its definitive form. It can be said for the garbage heap that it is no liar.  … All the uncleanliness of civilization, once it is out of service, falls into this pit of truth, where the immense social slippage is brought to an end. It is swallowed up, but it is displayed in it. The pell-mell is a confusion. Here, no more false appearances, no possible plastering, filth takes off its shirt, absolute nakedness, rout of illusions and mirages, nothing more but what is, wearing the sinister face of what is ending. Reality and disappearance. Here the stump of a bottle confesses drunkenness, a basket handle tells of domestic life; here, the apple core that has had literary opinions becomes again an apple core; the spittle of Caïaphas encounters Falstaff’s vomit, the louis d’or that comes from the gambling house jostles the nail trailing the suicide’s bit of rope, a livid fetus rolls by wrapped in spangles that danced at the Opéra last Mardi Gras, a cap that has judged men wallows near a rottenness that was one of Peggy’s petticoats; it is more than brotherhood, it is closest intimacy. All that used to be painted is besmirched. The last veil is rent. A sewer is a cynic. It tells all.

Thi sincerity of uncleanness pleases us, and it is a relief to the soul. When a man has spent his time on earth enduring the spectacle of the grand airs assumed by reasons of state, oaths, political wisdom, human justice, professional honesty, the necessities of position, incorruptible robes, it is a consolation to enter a sewer and see the slime that befits it.