Archive for September, 2017

England takes notice of California’s poet laureate: Dana Gioia on the BBC

Saturday, September 30th, 2017

“I don’t want to be a visiting celebrity. I want to be a catalyst,” says California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia. The Book Haven has already discussed his efforts as poet laureate here and here, but it’s nice to see his work getting international recognition. He’ll be on the BBC tomorrow, Oct. 1, at 10 a.m. California Time (PST). The program, called “a radio road movie,” will be available shortly after broadcast.

From the BBC website:

When Dana Gioia was appointed Poet Laureate of California in 2015 he was invited to read in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. But Gioia believes the role is to encourage poetry throughout the state. He has a mission: to visit every county in the state of California.

There are 58, stretching from Del Norte 1,000 miles south to Imperial, bordering Mexico; from the Sierra mountains and redwood forests to the desert; densely populated Los Angeles (almost 10 million) to almost empty Modoc (fewer than 10,000); with established communities from Mexico and Europe joined recently by people from the Far East.

Everywhere Gioia is joined by other poets and young people participating in Poetry Out Loud. For nine years Gioia was Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. One of his initiatives was this nationwide competition for young people to memorise and recite poems. It is astonishingly popular.

40-odd counties in, producer Julian May joins Gioia to create a radio road movie for Radio 3. Gioia reads in a pub yard in Mariposa, an old gold-mining town, while humming birds dart and hover. A few days later Gioia hears of a huge wildfire coming within a mile of the wooden town. In a library in Madera, roasting in California’s central valley, a woman from Peru recites a love poem in Spanish. In marches a squad of lads – military boots, buzzcuts. They are from the juvenile hall youth correctional facility. Each, says Officer Martinez, can recite a poem by heart. There is an event in Turlock, settled by Assyrians, another in San Diego near Mexico and, in his home county, Sonoma, Gioia appears at poetry event in a vineyard.

All this, and more, in ‘Every County in the State of California’, a radio road movie.

It airs tomorrow morning, October 1, at 10 a.m., California Time (PST). You can read the press release, too, here.

Happy St. Wenceslas Day: the man, the legend, and the song

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

The majestic monument at Wenceslas Square in Prague. The king is the one on the horse.

Not every country’s capital is graced with the kind of public art that inspires silence, awe, and a sense of majesty. Prague is. I remember, walking downtown for the first time in 2008, and seeing the impressive Wenceslas Square, with its dark, massive monument: King Wenceslas on horseback, flanked by the Czech patron saints:  Ludmila, Agnes of Bohemia, Prokop, and Adalbert of Prague. On the base, the inscription: “Svatý Václave, vévodo české země, kníže náš, nedej zahynouti nám ni budoucím.” In English: “Saint Wenceslas, duke of the Czech land, prince of ours, do not let perish us nor our descendants.”

So far he hasn’t. But today is his feast day, and I thought I would honor him with a post. For my curiosity about King Wenceslas (a saint as well as a king) deepened when I visited the austere and spiky St. Vitus Church, built in the 14th century, which includes Wenceslas’ chapel and his relics, after the 28-year-old monarch was murdered by his brother Boleslav in 935 A.D.

I don’t remember how my curiosity resulted in Jan Rejzl sending me his Good King Wenceslas: The Real Story from the U.K. the following year: “In the English-speaking world, the Christmas carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ is well known. Every year it touches us with the warmth and generosity that is felt at this special time of year – Christmas,” he writes.

“When I came to Great Britain in 1968, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the carol as I knew a little more about Good King Wenceslas. I was able to tell my friends that Good King Wenceslas really existed and that I come from the country he once ruled. Indeed, I was born and raised in the town where his brother Boleslav had his castle. the town is called Stara Boleslav, and is situated where Boleslav’s castle once stood…”

In the carol, the king sees a poor man gathering kindling for warmth on a very cold night. He tells his page:

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.”

Romanesque door knocker at St. Vitus’s Wenceslas Chapel.

Not bloody likely. According to Rejzl, “As Wenceslas wanted his people to be freed from barbarian and pagan practices, he himself lived very modestly. He avoided banquets and overindulgence in food.” So much for the flesh and wine, then. “One legend says that if he indulged in eating and drinking, the next day he went to the church and begged the priests for forgiveness…”

Here’s the rest of the carol:

“Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.”

The footsteps may have been heating pads for the page, but for the king? Not so much, for “it is said in the Kristian’s Legend that Duke Wenceslas went barefoot in winter from castle to castle, visiting churches many times, leaving traces of blood in his footsteps on icy paths.”

The Book Haven makes no claims to saintliness, but certainly in one way we find him a kindred spirit: “I have already reported that he was well educated and indeed he frequently carried a book under his coat, so he could read it in his spare moments.” So do we, Wenceslas, so do we.

Happy St. Wenceslas Day! Find a Czech and celebrate with some Becherovka. In fact, I have some sitting in the fridge from my last trip to Prague. I may indulge in a nip tonight.

Bourgeois liberal democracy? “It’s done more for human happiness than the Buddha ever did.”

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

“What revitalizes philosophy is some genius suggesting new way of thinking.”

“Bourgeois liberal democracy has always been a very fragile creation … It’s easy to imagine after a nuclear terrorist attack that we’ll lose all our civil liberties overnight.”

Harrison as radio host (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Richard Rorty is considered one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century – and one of his last interviews is now available on the Los Angeles Review of Books’ new Entitled Opinions channel here.

Rorty is credited with reviving the philosophical school of American pragmatism and challenging the accepted pieties of analytic philosophy. He championed “quietism,” which he says attempts “to dissolve, rather than solve” sets of problems that should now be considered obsolete. This November 23, 2005, interview with Robert Pogue Harrison is among his last; he died in 2007.

Rorty came to Stanford as a fellow at the Humanities Center in 1996 and then joined the faculty of the Comparative Literature Department in 1998. Beginning in the 1970s, he challenged the notion of philosophy as a discipline that could discern timeless truths about the world. Such attempts were motivated by western philosophy’s misguided reliance on Platonic metaphysics, the notion that there are underlying structures, realities or truths that stand firm against the vagaries of history and social mores. Rorty insisted that we have only a linguistic and causal relationship with the world, so any attempt to find some kind of transcendent, unmediated knowledge about it is futile. He famously urged that intellectuals shift their focus from “the problems of philosophy” to “the problems of men.”

Harrison and Rorty on air, 2005

His Entitled Opinions conversation with Harrison moves to the limits of philosophy in describing the nature of reality, and then whether philosophy should tackle human aspirations for greatness or stick to maximizing human happiness. In an occasionally testy exchange with Harrison, Rorty makes a controversial defense of bourgeois liberal democracy, arguing that the rest of the world should be more like America, and America should be more like Norway. The potential cost for cultural diversity? “That’s the price we pay for history,” he says. He takes a number of provocative positions in the conversation. Does he stand alone? As he notes, loneliness is the lot of mankind: “If you don’t have any sense of loneliness you probably won’t be interested in religion or philosophy; if you do, you will.”

Potent Quotes

“Quietists say there is no such thing as the nature of the world. Science doesn’t tell it to us. Nothing tells it to us. The whole question is a bad question. You can ask about a real Rolex and a fake Rolex, or real cream and a non-dairy creamer, but you can’t ask about reality in general. ‘Real’ only has a sense when it’s applied to something specific.”

“The problems of analytic philosophy keep changing with each generation. It’s given rise to a literature that goes out of date every ten or twenty years.”

“The main problem with metaphysics is that it’s a game without rules … anyone can say anything and get away with it.”

Is mankind “on the right track”?

“The development of bourgeois society in the last two hundred years has put mankind on the right track.”

“The best we can ever hope for the globalization of the society we’ve managed to create in the modern West.”

“Bourgeois liberal democracy has always been a very fragile creation … It’s easy to imagine after a nuclear terrorist attack that we’ll lose all our civil liberties overnight.”

“With all the nuclear weapons floating around, I didn’t realize how likely it was that they would be used on American cities before 9/11. Now I think it’s overwhelmingly likely.”

On bourgeois liberal democracy: “How about it’s the best thing anyone has come up with so far? It’s done more for human happiness than the Buddha ever did.”

“We secularists lead as spiritual a life as anybody has ever led, but our focus is on what might come to pass here below, in the human future.”

“What revitalizes philosophy is some genius suggesting new way of thinking.”

Check out the whole interview here.

Steve Wasserman: “The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all.”

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Back home in Berkeley

We’ve written about Steve Wasserman before – here and here and here. On Saturday, he gave the keynote address at the 17th Annual North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference at the College of the Redwoods, Del Norte, in Crescent City. The subject: “A Writer’s Space.” He’s given us permission to reprint his words on that occasion, and we’re delighted. Here they are:

Not long after I returned to California last year to take the helm of Heyday Books, a distinguished independent nonprofit press founded by the great Malcolm Margolin forty years ago in Berkeley, my hometown, I was asked to give the keynote speech at this annual conference. I found myself agreeing to do so almost too readily—so flattered was I to have been asked. Ken Letko told me the theme of the gathering was to be “A Writer’s Space.”

In the months that have elapsed since that kind invitation, I have brooded on this singular and curious formulation, seeking to understand what it might mean.

What do we think we mean when we say “a writer’s space”? Is such a space different than, say, any other citizen’s space? Is the space of a writer a physical place—the place where the writing is actually done, the den, the office, the hotel room, the bar or café, the bedroom, upon a desk or table or any available flat and stable surface?

Or is the “writer’s space” an inner region of the mind? Or is it a psychological place deep within the recesses of the heart, a storehouse of emotions containing a jumble of neurological circuitry? Is it the place, whether physical or spiritual, where the writer tries to make sense of otherwise inchoate lives? In either case, is it a zone of safety that permits the writer to be vulnerable and daring and honest so as to find meaning and order in the service of story?

Early Babylonian shopping list

Perhaps it will be useful to begin at the very dawn of writing when prehistory became history. Let’s think, for a moment, about the clay tablets that date from around 3200 B.C. on which were etched small, repetitive impressed characters that look like wedge-shape footprints that we call cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. Along with the other ancient civilizations of the Chinese and the Maya, the Babylonians put spoken language into material form and for the first time people could store information, whether of lists of goods or taxes, and transmit it across time and space.

It would take two millennia for writing to become a carrier of narrative, of story, of epic, which arrives in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh.

Writing was a secret code, the instrument of tax collectors and traders in the service of god-kings. Preeminently, it was the province of priests and guardians of holy texts. With the arrival of monotheism, there was a great need to record the word of God, and the many subsequent commentaries on the ethical and spiritual obligations of faithfully adhering to a set of religious precepts. This task required special places where scribes could carry out their sanctified work. Think the Caves of Qumran, some natural and some artificial, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, or later the medieval monasteries where illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly created.

First story

Illiteracy, it should be remembered, was commonplace. From the start, the creation of texts was bound up with a notion of the holy, of a place where experts—anointed by God—were tasked with making Scripture palpable. They were the translators and custodians of the ineffable and the unknowable, and they spent their lives making it possible for ordinary people to partake of the wisdom to be had from the all-seeing, all-powerful Deity from whom meaning, sustenance, and life itself was derived.

We needn’t rehearse the religious quarrels and sectarian strife that bloodied the struggle between the Age of Superstition and the Age of Enlightenment, except perhaps to note that the world was often divided—as, alas, it still sadly is—between those who insist all answers are to be found in a single book and those who believe in two, three, many books.

The point is that the notion of a repository where the writer (or religious shaman, adept, or priest) told or retold the parables and stories of God, was widely accepted. It meant that, from the start, a writer’s space was a space with a sacred aura. It was a place deemed to have special qualities—qualities that encouraged the communication of stories that in their detail and point conferred significance upon and gave importance to lives that otherwise might have seemed untethered and without meaning. The writer, by this measure, was a kind of oracle, with a special ability, by virtue of temperament and training, to pierce the veil of mystery and ignorance that was the usual lot of most people and to make sense of the past, parse the present, and even to predict the future.

A porous epidermis

This idea of the writer was powerful. It still is. By the time we enter the Romantic Age, the notion of a writer’s space has shed its religious origins without abandoning in the popular imagination the belief that writers have a special and enviable access to inner, truer worlds, often invisible to the rest of us. How to put it? That, by and large, artists generally, of which writers are a subset, are people whose epidermises, as it were, are more porous than most people’s. And thus they are more vulnerable, more open to the world around them, more alert, more perspicacious. Shelley put it well when he wrote that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Think Virginia Woolf.

By the end of the nineteenth century, writers in their person and in their spaces are widely celebrated and revered, imbued with talents and special powers that arouse admiration bordering on worship. It is said that when Mark Twain came to London and strode down the gangplank as he disembarked from the ship that had brought him across the Atlantic, dockworkers that had never read a single word of his imperishable stories, burst into applause when the nimbus of white hair atop the head of the man in the white suit hove into view. Similarly, when Oscar Wilde was asked at the New York customs house if he had anything to declare, when he arrived in America in 1882 to deliver his lectures on aesthetics, he is said to have replied: “Only my genius.”

Applause, applause

Many writers were quickly enrolled in the service of nationalist movements of all kinds, even as many writers saw themselves as citizens in an international republic of letters, a far-flung fraternity of speakers of many diverse languages, but united in their fealty to story. Nonetheless, the space where they composed their work–their studies and offices and homes—quickly became tourist destinations, sites of pilgrimage where devoted readers could pay homage. The objects on the desk, writing instruments and inkwells, foolscap and notebooks, the arrangement of photographs and paintings on their walls, the pattern of wallpaper, the very furniture itself, and preeminently the desk and chair, favorite divan and reading sofa, lamps and carpets, all became invested with a sacredness and veneration previously reserved only for religious figures. Balzac’s home, Tolstoy’s dacha, Hemingway’s Cuban estate, are but three of many possible examples. Writers were now our secular saints.

Somehow it was thought that by entering these spaces, the key to unlocking the secret of literary creation could be had, and that by inhaling the very atmosphere which celebrated authors once breathed, one could, by a strange alchemy or osmosis, absorb the essence that animated the writer’s imagination and made possible the realization of native talent.


“Coetzee has always been an intensely metaphysical novelist.”

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

“Chaste, exact, ashen prose” drawn to “passionate extremity.” (Photo: Creative Commons)

A dispiriting Saturday sifting through bins of unsorted papers from the garage, deciding whether I really need the proofs of books published long ago, wondering how long I should keep old Christmas cards from friends, trying to decipher the signatures on yellowed letters, and asking myself whatever will I ever do with all the photos of nieces and nephews at one year old, then two years old, then three…

So why was I holding on to a Christmas issue of The New Yorker from almost a full decade ago? Ah yes. “Squall Lines: J.M. Coetzee‘s ‘Diary of a Bad Year'” – a review written by a literary critic who maintains that “the novel exists to be affecting…to shake us profoundly. When we’re rigorous about feeling, we’re honoring that.” His essays make me weep with envy.

I can do no better on a slow Saturday night than to quote from James Wood‘s 2007 review on the Nobel Prizewinning South African writer Coetzee, a novelist who, also, makes me weep with envy.

Diary of a Bad Year’s protagonist is a novelist who is, in some ways, an alter ego, who laments that his art is “not great-souled,” that it lacks “generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love.” But what a soul he has – as Wood comments, if not great-souled, than deep-souled:

Yet this is the cold air just beyond the reach of a fire. Coetzee’s chaste, exact, ashen prose may look like the very embers of restraint, but it is drawn, again and again, to passionate extremity: an uneducated gardener forced to live like an animal off the South African earth (“Life & Times of Michael K”); a white woman dying of cancer while a black township burns, and writing, in her last days, a letter of brutal truths to her daughter (“Age of Iron”); a white woman raped on her farm by a gang of black men, and impregnated (“Disgrace”); a recent amputee, the victim of a road accident that mangled a leg, helpless in his Adelaide apartment, and awkwardly in love with his Croatian nurse (“Slow Man”). Coetzee seems compelled to test his celebrated restraint against subjects and ideas whose extremity challenges novelistic representation.


James Wood

Coetzee is devoted to Dostoyevsky, and “Elizabeth Costello” made clear that part of that devotion has to do with what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called the “dialogic” nature of Dostoyevsky’s arguments. Bakhtin noted that it is impossible to infer from the novels what Dostoyevsky believed, because no single idea ever gains authorial dominance. Instead, ideas, like the characters themselves, are in constant circulation and mutual qualification. It is how Dostoyevsky the ardent Christian was able to argue against himself, awarding Ivan Karamazov the most devastating petition against conventional Christian belief ever mounted in a novel. Coetzee is interested in how we profess ideas, both in life and in novels. We tend to think of ourselves as intellectually stable, the oaken pile of principle driven reassuringly deep into the ground. All the Presidential-campaign cant about “values” testifies to this; to flip-flop is to flop. But what if our ideas are, rather, as Virginia Woolf imagined consciousness: a constant flicker of different and self-cancelling perceptions, entertained for a moment and then exchanged for other ones? Imagine a fervent Christian, who has always believed in the afterlife. One night, waking in terror, he realizes, for only a second, but absolutely, that there is no afterlife. The terror passes, and the next morning he reaffirms his public vows. He does not succumb to doubt. Still, the question remains: what has happened to his orthodoxy? If it has not been cancelled or refuted by the nightmarish doubt, does it now contain, like a trapped smell, the ghost of its opposite?



Unlike the philosopher, the novelist may take an idea beyond its rational terminus, to the point where the tracks start breaking up. One name for this tendency is the religious, the realm where faith replaces reason. Coetzee has always been an intensely metaphysical novelist, and in recent years the religious coloration of his metaphysics has become more pronounced.


It is not the force of Ivan’s reasoning, he says, that carries him along but “the accents of anguish, the personal anguish of a soul unable to bear the horrors of this world.” We can hear the same note of personal anguish in Coetzee’s fiction, even as that fiction insists that it is offering not a confession but only the staging of a confession. His books makes all the right postmodern noises, but their energy lies in their besotted relationship to an older, Dostoyevskian tradition, in which we feel the desperate impress of the confessing author, however recessed and veiled.

Here’s the good news: I can throw the 2007 New Yorker away! The article is all online! Read the whole thing here.

שנה טובה ומתוקה! And finding live fish in Palo Alto.

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

Some time ago I posted about Stanford’s Ruth Starkman, and how a t-shirt totally changed my mind about being a public intellectual. Now she’s changing my mind about time. We’re not in 2017. As of today, we’re in 5778. Shanah tova!

She knows how to be a public intellectual, too.

Her post on Facebook: “Preparing for the New Year’s ritual of taschlich – where one throws bread to the fish, whose unblinking eyes represent the all-knowing universe, I thought of all the things for which I needed to ask forgiveness – a long list! I also looked at the 613 mitzvot to mediate on the good and sweet things I could do this coming year. I always loved the command to feed one’s animals, elders, and children before one eats. This year I’m working on finding modern ways not to muzzle an ox while it’s working. I especially like the command to praise the ox and anyone who works with you for a job well done. Working on this for 2017-8 and 5778. A good and sweet new and academic year to all שנה טובה ומתוקה.”

Many of the ancient customs for the Jewish holidays seem to be drawn from the harsher passages of Leviticus. “So I looked for things that could be humane and meaningful as Autumn quarter starts and I know that these are the ones that have to do with animals.”

Praise them. Praise them.

For example, “not to muzzle an ox while plowing.” Not an issue for most of us. However, Ruth says, “I’ve been combing through these every darn year since my bat mitzvah looking for ways to capture the spirit of the good deed.”

Well I have no problem feeding the cat I live with before I feed myself. He demands no less. And he demands very loudly. And I’m a vegetarian. Surely the first step in kindness is not eating them. But what to do about the fish?

The fish … no bread in the house except a stale piece of pita. Could I find a fish? Where would I go? Ruth offered a helpful comment on Facebook: “Gosh, I wish there were fish somewhere near Palo Alto I can only think of the Bay or the canal where we were, and someone had dumped goldfish. Nope they were not interested in our bread crumbs.” Even the fish turn up their wet little noses.

Food fussers.

I biked to Stanford, but although the fountains seemed to have chlorine, there were no fish to be found anywhere, not even fashionable oversize koi in ponds next to the expensive new buildings. The only fish I found were over ice at Whole Foods on Emerson, where I stopped to pick up a ripe avocado on the way home, as the sun was dropping towards the horizon.

Is there no hope for me? Ruth extended some hope: “Taschlich usually is this afternoon, but I’ve known many who try to get this in between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – it’s a time to acknowledge your weakness and ask for forgiveness, as well as a time to throw away grudges, which mangle the soul and shrink the heart.” For example, she said, “working on not grudging nor envying other’s great work,” she said, mulling over the photo at the top of this post, “but that’s hard when you have to post someone else’s round challah of sweet and plenty – the pic above is not mine – because my own challah turned out like a Rubik’s cube!”

It’s the small things that count. And Wikipedia agrees with her about the timing:

The ritual is performed at a large, natural body of flowing water (e.g., river, lake, sea, or ocean) on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, although it may be performed until Hoshana Rabbah. The penitent recites a Biblical passage and, optionally, additional prayers. Optionally, if the ritual is performed not on the Sabbath, small pieces of bread are thrown into the water.

How much time does that give me? About six or seven more days. But “large, natural body of flowing water”? With fish in it, too? Where does one find that in Palo Alto?