Archive for August, 2018

“Sapiosexual”: why Lauren Bacall knew more about it than the media ever will.

Friday, August 31st, 2018
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She didn’t need the word. He didn’t need the cigarette. Bogie and Bacall.

“You fall in love with people’s minds.”~ Anaïs Nin, Henry and June (Photo: Elsa Dorfman) 

One of our newer clichés. You’ve all heard it: “sapiosexual.” I just saw it again and it never fails to irritate. Often, “sapiosexual” is illustrated for online articles with smug, snotty people quoting books to each other (or sometimes scientific formulae). Because that’s what passes for “intelligence” nowadays – not the snap of synapses making new connections, or the slow radiating realization of a profound truth, crackling wit, or the electric jolt of a great mind in conversation. It has something, in the popular mind, of showing off. Spouting off Kierkegaard or Heidegger in a sort of sexual display.

Glasses. They’re usually wearing glasses. And carrying books.

But “sapiosexual” is nothing more than a plodding recognition that the most important sexual organ is not below the waist, but well above it.

Below, Lauren Bacall. Because there’s nothing sexier than a saucy comeback.

The shadow of her father: an anthropologist’s take on Sylvia Plath

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018
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Getting “back, back, back to you”: Sylvia Plath with her parents.

The publication of Sylvia Plath’s last letters to her psychiatrist and other letters, too, has put the controversial Plath, one of the top American poets of the twentieth century, back in the news.

We’ve published a couple guest posts from anthropologist Mark Anspach (here and here), and one Q&A about his new book, Vengeance in Reverse. Mark had thoughts about the Plath legend – with a Girardian twist. He has given us permission to publish his words: 

The death of her father when she was eight left Sylvia Plath – in the words of her poem “The Colossus” – “married to shadow.” On February 11, 1963, Plath widowed her estranged husband, poet Ted Hughes, by committing suicide at age 30.

Many blamed Hughes for his wife’s death. At the time, he was having an affair with a mutual friend who went on to commit suicide herself. Why did the women who were drawn to him take their own life?

“Every woman adores a Fascist,” Plath wrote in one of her most famous poems. “The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you.” To his accusers, Hughes was a brute who kissed the girls and made them die. But Plath’s suicide likely had much deeper roots.

Death as sequel

In Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, Andrew Wilson asserts that she had already tried to cut her throat when she was ten years old. Earlier biographies and the poems themselves suggest that she was traumatized at a tender age by her father’s death.

In fact, the line “Every woman adores a Fascist” comes from the poem “Daddy.” Her father is the jack-booted brute who bit her “pretty red heart in two,” the “panzer-man” who scared her with his “neat moustache” and “Aryan eye,” his Luftwaffe and swastika. At least that is what the narrator says in this deliberately over-the-top poem.

In The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath, biographer Ronald Hayman suggests that she had actually worshipped her father when she was a little girl, doting on his praise. A hard-working, studious blacksmith’s son who immigrated to America as a teenager and forged an academic career teaching German and biology, Otto Plath was not a Nazi.

But he was an iron-willed domestic tyrant who subjugated Sylvia’s mother – a bright former student twenty-one years his junior – and may well have had a sadistic streak. To show off his disdain for the conventional prejudices that govern human behavior, Hayman writes, “he used to skin a rat, cook it and eat it in front of his students.”

The most brutal thing Otto did in Sylvia’s eyes was to abandon her by dying early. “Daddy” presents her first famous suicide attempt – the one described in her novel The Bell Jar – as an effort to be reunited with him. But after the doctors “stuck me together with glue,” she writes, “then I knew what to do”:

I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.

The man in black with the Meinkampf look was Ted Hughes, perennially decked out in his bohemian poet’s uniform: a regulation black sweater and black pants. She knew of his sadistic streak when she married him, confiding to a horrified mentor about his habit of “bashing people around.” But that didn’t stop her from saying “I do.”

Or rather “I do, I do” – as if she were wedding two men: not just Ted, but Daddy. For a poet who could write “I dream that I am Oedipus” (“The Eye-mote”) and blithely address her father as “bridegroom” (“The Beekeeper’s Daughter”), psychoanalyzing herself was easy – maybe too easy.

When she tells her father “I made a model of you,” she seems to mean that Ted was a stand-in for the man she really desired, the way a model train is a replica of the original. But the words “I made a model of you” may have a broader scope. Sylvia could easily have taken Otto’s premature death as a model for her own suicidal behavior, as the following lines from “Daddy” hint:

I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.

By saying she was ten rather than eight, Plath conflates the year of her father’s death and that of her own first suicidal gesture as revealed in Andrew Wilson’s book – although in “Lady Lazarus” she would allude obliquely to this “first time” as “an accident.”

Yet both poems put the emphasis on repetition: “I have done it again./One year in every ten,” she announces in “Lady Lazarus,” prefiguring her ultimate suicide at age 30. “Daddy” allows us to see her three attempts to end her own life – at ten, twenty, and thirty – as three efforts to get “back, back, back” to her father.

But if the repetition is rooted in imitation – if she made a model of her father – then she did not just want to go back to him; she wanted to do the same thing he did. “Though he didn’t quite kill himself,” Ronald Hayman notes, “he had set a suicidal example.” At age 50, when he developed symptoms similar to those of a friend who was dying of cancer, Otto Plath stubbornly refused to see a doctor.

His friend had undergone several futile operations, and Otto, who prided himself on his independent-mindedness, was determined to avoid unnecessary surgery. He had diagnosed his own cancer and did not want to put himself in the hands of doctors. If he was destined to die of cancer, so be it. He would accept his fate like a man.

Except that he did not have cancer at all, but diabetes. The condition could have been treated with insulin if only it had been caught in time. Four years later, when he complained of a stubbed foot, his wife saw that the toes were black, with red streaks going up the ankle. His gangrenous leg had to be amputated. A few weeks later he was dead.

According to Hayman, Sylvia regarded her father’s death as suicidal and “started to think about her own death as the unavoidable sequel to his.” This suggests that Sylvia Plath’s death wish was what the late Stanford theorist René Girard would call a mimetic desire – one imitated from somebody else.

He knew.

In his classic work Violence and the Sacred, Girard says the objects we crave most are prized less for their intrinsic value than for the importance conferred on them by an admired model: “If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, that object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plenitude of being.”

When Sylvia was a little girl, she looked up to her father as the most formidable man she knew. Because of his early death, that is the way he remained forever fixed in her memory – as the giant of the poem “Colossus.”

Nothing could be less intrinsically desirable than death. But if her father, that forbidding giant of a man, willingly embraced it, then death might well have appeared to Sylvia as the only object capable of conferring on her the greater plenitude that in her deep unhappiness she felt she lacked.

David Foster Wallace on John McCain: “the guy wanted something different from us”

Sunday, August 26th, 2018
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Journalist Peter Hamby brings an important writer to bear on the weekend’s events via Twitter: “Please read David Foster Wallace, writing in 2000 better than most of us hacks, on what John McCain stirred in so many. Especially those who never served.” The pages are taken from McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope.

An Oxford scholar ponders Joseph Brodsky, memory in Stanford’s archives.

Friday, August 24th, 2018
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Last June, I got an email from an Oxford scholar, working on a dissertation about Joseph Brodsky and memory. He wrote that he would be visiting the Stanford archives. Could we meet for coffee or lunch?

Sure, I said. But why don’t we start at the Brodsky archives at Stanford’s Special Collections and the Hoover Library & Archives, where he was doing his research? Book Haven readers will remember I shepherded one archive to Green Library, via the poet’s close friend, Ramūnas Katilius in Vilnius (I tell that story here), the other important collection came to Hoover through the efforts of archivist Lora Soroka via another close friend of the Russian Nobel laureate, Diana MyersI wrote about the collection for The Hoover Digest here. But I had an ulterior motive in my suggestion: it’s always fun and revelatory to see these collections through the eyes of others.

He stayed in touch. (Nationaal Archief)

He pored over both. What did he appreciate most of all? Oddly enough, the postcards – a perspective I don’t remember anyone considering before. With postcards, he said, the exiled poet was able to stay in touch with the friends he left on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and let them know what he was doing, where he was traveling, and what he was seeing. It was a sort of early “Instagram.” The number of postcards he sent reached their zenith in the 1970s, and then began to taper off.

Did time and distance dampen friendship? Not at all, he said. International phone calls became cheaper, and eventually email displaced written correspondence. Moreover, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians could travel all over the world, and meet Joseph in London, Paris, Rome, New York, or Venice.

As for myself, I liked the cryptic aperçus he would occasionally drop in letters, notes, and yes, postcards: “Shadow and light turn us into human beings,” or “Movement is the victory over emptiness.” Perhaps too offhand to be overthought, but still … a few sparks thrown off from the Catherine Wheel of his genius.

We ended each day with coffee and conversation at the Stanford Bookstore, hours and hours of talk about Russian writers, Oxford, Stanford, the humanities, the future, the past, and of course, always, Joseph Brodsky.

A book is born! A celebratory lunch for “‘The Spirit of the Place’: Czesław Miłosz in California” with publisher, friend Steve Wasserman

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018
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The Bandol Rosé was excellent.

A toast, a book, and bon appétit with Steve Wasserman at Chez Panisse. He promised me a celebratory repast for my National Endowment of the Humanities Public Scholar grant, and he delivered. The book that I will undertake during 2018-19 will be “The Spirit of the Place”: Czesław Miłosz in California.

What did it mean for one of the greatest Polish poets of the 20th century for to spend most of his career in California? In a 1975 poem “Magic Mountain” the lonely exile expressed his isolation and alienation this way:

So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?

Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”
.
But he also grew to love it, even as he criticized it – and he had a career here that would have been impossible in Communist Poland.

At Chez Panisse, we demonstrated some contrary California spirit with a French wine – a 2015 Bandol Rosé, Domaine Tempier. Steve told me it is one of the favorites of Chez Panisse founder and chef, the legendary Alice Waters, an old friend.

He worked quickly.

He recalled stories about his good friends Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens, and the experience of coming back to California after decades away, his most recent port-of-call at Yale University Press, where he was editor at large. I also recalled the Polish poet’s own adventures at Chez Panisse, as related by Ecco publisher Daniel Halpern in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. 

And I retold something that poet Robert Hass, a California native, once said after I mentioned I had grown up in Michigan. He paused a moment, and said, “Then your eye must be always searching for a shade of green it never finds here.” And so it does.

We talked about California – land of endless invention, miraculous weather, and addictive sunshine. Everywhere else is something of a disappointment. He recalled traveling through the Catskills as a child, and the adults pointing out the “mountains.” “Where?” he asked eagerly. “There!” they said. “I don’t see them!” “Over there.” Those were hills, he told me scornfully, “eroded stubs!” He pulled out a pen and swiftly drew a picture on the paper tablecloth. This, this is a mountain: snow at the top, timberline, hills at the bottom. The Sierras.

What did we eat? Normally I don’t say, but … Chez Panisse. I ordered the fettuccine with chanterelles, gremolata, and Parmesan; Steve had the summer vegetable tagine with shell beans, couscous, yogurt, and chermoula. I started with the baked andante dairy goat cheese with garden lettuces, he had the fennel and rocket salad with crème fraîche, mint, figs, and toasted almonds. We shared a bittersweet chocolate pavé with caramel ice cream and candied hazelnuts. No, we didn’t take any photos of our food. And yes, we had to ask the waiter what some of these words meant.

And I left with a celebratory gift from Steve: Heyday’s best-selling The California Field Atlas by Obi Kauffman, and a catalog of books-to-come. Spirit of the Place won’t be in it for a while yet.

René Girard and the Three Stooges

Monday, August 20th, 2018
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It’s an honor when a highly esteemed writer takes on your book. I’ve had several to date, and yesterday brought another: Patrick Kurp of the matchless Anecdotal Evidence blog reviews Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. It’s the lead story over at the University Bookman here.

He begins with the Three Stooges:

Merci, Monsieur Kurp.

In their 1941 short feature In the Sweet Pie and Pie, Larry, Curly, and Moe are ex-cons hoping to marry three wealthy debutantes. The girls have other ideas. They throw a high-society party and bribe the butler to dump a cake on Moe’s head, expecting the Stooges to disgrace themselves. Moe responds with a cream pie to the butler’s face. A matron, recipient of collateral damage, prepares to retaliate when the butler points at Moe and says: “He did it.” The matron replies, “Thank you, but you started it,” and beans him with a pie. Soon the Stooges and guests in gowns and tuxedoes are enthusiastically heaving pies, and René Girard would have laughed and understood the scene perfectly. Once encountered, Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, his essential contribution to making sense of human nature, is irresistible, and helps to explain everything from slapstick, to social media, to the threat of thermonuclear cataclysm. …

He continues with some kind words for the reviewer and her subject:

Haven is a seasoned literary journalist who has devoted books to Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky. She is attracted to the theme of civilization embattled, the persistence of culture, and its defenders in the face of barbarism and indifference. Her study of Girard is neither clinical nor drily academic. It welcomes readers previously unfamiliar with Girard and his work, as well as specialists. It also serves as an hommage. Haven befriended Girard and his family in his later years at Stanford University, an intimacy that provides glimpses of the husband, father, colleague, and friend not immediately available to readers familiar with his thought strictly through his books. Haven draws an attractive portrait of a thoughtful man who, until his death in 2015, was never too self-important to treat others with dignity and respect.

He concludes:

Summarizing Girard’s insights, Haven writes: “We live derivative lives. We envy and imitate others obsessively, unendingly, often ridiculously.… We find it easy to critique the mimetic desires of others, but our own snobbishness and sensitivity to public opinion usually escape our notice. We wish to conceal our metaphysical emptiness from others, in any case, and from ourselves most of all.” As the pies are flying in the Sweet Pie and Pie, Moe pauses and sententiously declaims, “Stop, stop. This has gone far enough. Love thy neighbor.” On cue, five guests, including a pompous U.S. Senator, push cream pies into his face.  

Read the whole thing here. And just for you, Gentle Reader, we include the film clip below: