Archive for October, 2018

He did it! He did it! Dana Gioia reaches all 58 California counties as poet laureate!

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

California poet laureate Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, had a goal to visit every county in the state. This week he completed his task. It’s taken two years, 16 flights, and 17,000 miles on the road for him to do it.

“Each California Poet Laureate takes on a significant cultural project, with one of its goals being to bring poetry to those who might otherwise have little exposure. As his project, Gioia’s county tour was an incredible achievement to that end,” according to the California Arts Council. His term of office, which began in December 2015, officially ends this week.

So what was his final destination, County № 58? Hanford Library in Kings County, in the San Joaquin Valley. “We ended things with a bang — a nice crowd, a live band, ten poets, and a dozen freight-train whistles blasting by,” he said.

As a friend, I know how demanding and labor-intensive that goal was for him – so often I phoned Dana when he was in a car, on a lonely stretch of some interstate, headed to a reading or a festival or other event in some remote city. Or else on his way into a meeting, celebration, a dinner. He was thoroughly devoted to his task.

I wrote about his inspiring appearance at the inaugural Sierra Poetry Festival here. He really did make a difference.

Earlier this month, Dana put the cherry on the sundae: he brought together more than sixty city, county, regional and state laureates, past and present, in a historic gathering and group reading at the McGroarty Arts Center in Tujunga. “The event marked the only large-scale gathering of California’s laureates since the termed position of state poet laureate was first established in 2001,” according to the council.

“My aim as California poet laureate was to reach the whole state, not just the literary centers,” he said. “Visiting every county in this huge state to create events with local writers was not just an adventure—it was fun. I traveled through astonishing landscapes, and everywhere I went, big town or small, I met poets, musicians, and artists. Serving as laureate has been one of the great experiences of my life.”

One of ours, too, Dana. California thanks you.

King Lear: a mesmerizing Hopkins in a disappearing script

Saturday, October 27th, 2018

All old men know what King Lear is about. Every old man has a King Lear within him. At least, that’s what Goethe thought. In veteran actor Anthony Hopkins‘s case, we suspected it all along.

Shakespeare‘s King Lear has come to town on BBC/Amazon Prime, and those of us on the social media have been salivating over trailers and clips for weeks now. It’s not Hopkins’ first crack at the king – he performed it thirty years ago, but he has aged into the role that all ambitious actors wait decades to play. He gives a mesmerizing performance, flickering from flint to fire and back in split-seconds as daughters Emma Thompson and Emily Watson belittle, betray, and torment him.

Hopkins and Pugh in a BBC “King Lear”

“Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all,” says Lear. Hopkins is ripe for this role at 80 – all thrash and shout and tremor and wail. But capable of vulnerability, too, and capable of the coolly delivered drop-dead line: watch the tail-end of the trailer above, the calm fury of his “Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.” He’s never been  better.

Aristotle said tragedy leaves us with horror and pity. The horror was in abundance in Richard Eyre‘s all-star production, most gruesomely for the close-ups in Gloucester’s eye-gouging scene. But tenderness was in short supply. This is a remorseless production that does not pause for pity. The dramatic line moves steadily downward; the viewer never has the tragic sense things could have been different, that there’s an almost-world waiting in a parallel universe just beyond reach. But you have your heart broken, and my flinty little heart was intact by the time the final credits rolled.

In large measure, the problem is not the sword, but the scissors. Too much has been cut from this play to make it emotionally intelligible, to give it a rhythm and pacing and keep from reducing it to mere plot. Lear usually clocks in at more than three hours; this production has been pared to a skinny 115 minutes. There’s plenty of blood and punches, but little time for Lear’s humanity.

For example, this poignant speech from captured and humiliated Lear to his faithful and doomed daughter Cordelia (Florence Pugh) was jettisoned for tanks and helicopters, machine guns and army trucks in a dystopian England:

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Soon she is murdered. Shakespeare’s Lear cries, “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” Typically, he carries and cradles her as he croons his lament. It is one of the most heart-rending scenes in the entire tragic repertoire. Instead Hopkin’s Lear, in a prison uniform, pulls her covered corpse across stage in a makeshift cart, barking “Ho, ho, ho, ho!” Like a hepped-up hobo Santa.

The Millennials I watched it with laughed. And it wasn’t the only time in film they did. Naturally, I blamed them. But I left disappointed, and not with them. I grieved for the wasted resources. The brilliant cast deserved some room to let the lines breathe in a production that could have, should have, haunted us forever. And you don’t need rat-a-tat-tat machine gun fire for that.

This could have been the King Lear for our times. On the other hand, perhaps it is. Alas.

Where great writers wrote, and why it fascinates us.

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

Why do the places where writers wrote – the rooms where they spent hours, day after day, over pen, typewriter, laptop, or quill – so fascinate us? I wrote a series of articles about pilgrimages I’d made for The Times Literary Supplement, including the home of Elizabeth Bishop outside Rio de Janeiro, the home of Constantine Cavafy in Alexandria, and the various homes of Alexander Pushkin in Moscow, Petersburg, and Kishinev, among other places. I’ve visited Mikhail Bulgakov‘s home in Kiev, and Boris Pasternak’s dacha in Peredelkino, and Marina Tsvetaeva‘s digs in Moscow. I’ve written about Czesław Miłosz‘s home in Kraków on the Book Haven. And on this site I’ve also recounted Patti Davis‘s visit to Albert Camus‘s home in Lourmarin. We’ve even written (a little) about our own oaken desk and Minerva owl here, where we write late at night for you, gentle reader.

Now we have Emily Temple writing about famous authors’ homes over at LitHub. You can go over here for all of them, but I’ll pick two of the lot that are my favorites: the studies of Mark Twain and Victor Hugo. Both have great views, which is something to stare at while you’re thinking.

Exile isn’t so bad if you can live in a place like this. Writes Temple: “Victor Hugo bought a house on Guernsey, an island in the English channel. There, sitting in his writing room (called the Crystal Room), looking out at gorgeous, light-filled vistas, he wrote his dark and depressing classic Les Misérables.” Depressing? Are we talking about Les Misérables? It’s shot with light. And no wonder, if he wrote it in a place like this.

Every year Mark Twain‘s family spent time with his in-laws in Elmira, New York. And so they built this study for him, and he loved it. So do I. It’s where he wrote his major books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and others. Here’s what he had to say about it:

“It is the loveliest study you ever saw. It is octagonal with a peaked roof, each face filled with a spacious window, and it sits perched in complete isolation on the top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills. It is a cozy nest and just room in it for a sofa, table, and three or four chairs, and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lightning flashes behind the hills beyond and the rain beats upon the roof over my head—imagine the luxury of it.”

Go here to read about how Ray Bradbury wrote Farenheit 451 in the UCLA Library – and why he needed a sack of dimes to do it. What James Baldwin drank at the Paris café where he worked on the first draft of Go Tell It on the Mountain. And all about the Istanbul hotel where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express.

“The book is alive!”: more plaudits for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

René Girard in my 2008 interview with him. (Youtube)



It’s not every day that we make an appearance at the Académie Française. In fact, this is probably the closest opportunity we’re going to have in this lifetime. So let us make the most of it.

Last week, the medieval scholar Michel Zink was formally received into the Académie, founded in 1635 by Richelieu. He will occupy Chair No. 37, vacant since the death of his predecessor, René Girard in November 2015. As I wrote, it is customary to offer a tribute to his predecessor. I wrote about René’s Girard’s own éloge for Father Ambrose-Marie Carré, in Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Zink’s tribte for Stanford’s Girard was highly praised – you can read it here.

But we were startled to hear that Evolution of Desire made an appearance in the talk, and so did your humble servant:

See? It’s there. Meanwhile, the good news kept pouring in last week:

James Winchell‘s article in the Jewish magazine Tablet could have been entitled, “How René Girard converted me to Judaism,” but instead it’s called, “The Brilliant French Literary Critic Who Revealed my Judaism.” It begins:

The publication of Cynthia Haven’s full-dress biography of René Girard, a major figure in the “French invasion” that  stormed the beaches of American academe across the final decades of the last millennium, marks a notable event on many fronts: academic, professional, literary, philosophical; and for some individuals among generations of students world-wide, deeply personal. In my case, that means religious.


Thanks to a series of synchronicities that I will never fully grasp, I served for five years as Girard’s junior colleague, having earned my first tenure-track post as assistant professor of French at Stanford University (1988-93), where the brilliant Catholic thinker occupied a Distinguished Chair in the department of French and Italian, and influenced, among many other students, Peter Thiel. My subsequent decision—seven years and another university later—to become a Jew-by-choice was significantly informed by Girard, whose writings, colleagueship, and friendship informed the ongoing, gradual uncovering of the pre-existing Judaism that I had already intuited within myself.

During my five years at Stanford, having my office directly across the hall from René Girard’s and being able to hang out, have meals with him, and to sit in on his classes, I learned more about the Torah and Tanakh from him than I had from any other source.

He concludes: “Cynthia Haven’s mind-altering biography of this towering figure in 20th-century thought brings so much new information, and so many interpretive insights, that it’s hard to imagine any full-service public library, not to mention any academic collection, without a copy. The book is alive.” From your lips to God’s ears, James!

Winchell’s piece is smart and quirky and fun. Read the whole thing for yourself here.



Meanwhile, M.D. Aeschliman in The National Review also ran a long review of my book – the alpha and the omega, taking us through Dante, Derrida, Dostoevsky, Tom Wolfe, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Here’s the alpha: “Cynthia L. Haven’s outstanding new biographical and critical study, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, is a brilliant survey of his life and thought.”

Here’s the Omega: “Cynthia Haven’s fine book on Girard is both brilliant cultural criticism and exquisite intellectual history, and an edifying biographical and ethical tale, providing a philosophical vision of a world beyond monkey-like mimicries and manias that demoralize, dispirit, and dehumanize the contemporary human person. It deserves wide notice and careful reading in a time of massive and pervasive attention-deficit disorder.”

And somewhere from beta to psi: “Girard in Mensonge romantique [i.e., Deceit, Desire, and the Novel – CH] grants that competitive envy is the very social-psychological motor that drives “enlightened,” atheistic modern personal and social life. ‘At the heart of the book,’ Cynthia Haven writes, ‘is our endless imitation of each other. Imitation is inescapable.’ And she continues: ‘When it comes to metaphysical desire — which Girard describes as desires beyond simple needs and appetites — what we imitate is vital, and why.’ We are inevitably afflicted with ‘mimetic desires,’ first of parents and siblings, then of peers, rivals, and chosen role models, and these desires endlessly drive and agitate us, consciously and unconsciously, causing anxiety and ‘ontological sickness.’”

Read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, from Twitter:

Dante’s greatest challenge: “This is something one cannot speak about. And he is going to speak about it.”

Saturday, October 20th, 2018


.“This is something that one cannot speak about. And Dante is going to speak about it.” 

“All the people who end up loving The Paradiso understand the great daring poetic achievement of the poem,” says Dante scholar Rachel Jacoff of Wellesley. Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison, a Dante scholar himself, joins his colleague and former mentor for a final discussion of The Divine Comedy — more specifically, of The Purgatorio and The Paradiso. It’s up at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

Harrison notes that “Dante’s Paradiso is the last full-bodied vision of paradise in Western literature. It’s all been Hell or Paradise Lost since then.” They explore the role of the Roman poet Statius in Purgatory, the disappearance of Virgil, the “tough love” of Beatrice, the nature of time in heaven, and Dante’s elusive attempt to express the inexpressible.

He’s gone at the end.

Jacoff compared Dante’s dilemma to Fra Angelico’s painting of “The Blessed Entering Paradise.” The souls dancing in a circle seem to represent paradise, but at the upper left is a white gate with light shining through it. “That’s the real thing out there, and he can’t paint it.”

When Harrison asked the Jewish Dante scholar whether the Christian theology of Dante’s masterwork created a barrier for her love of the poem, Jacoff replied:

Many great readers of Dante are not Christians. I think everyone has to answer this question for himself or herself. I find that it is one of the great works of art that I return to and it’s helped me understand all kinds of things. Clearly, much in it is alien to me, and always will be — but no more than Handel’s “Messiah” or Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.” These are foundational in my aesthetic experience — and it can’t only be just aesthetic. There has to be some way the spirituality of these works can be available to anyone.

This is the final interview of the three-part series with Rachel Jacoff on Dante. Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.¨

“Virgil is the tragedy within the comedy. Virgil’s fate is the thing that haunts the comedy.” 

“People who end up loving The Paradiso understand the great daring achievement of the poem… It’s the greatest challenge that the poet takes on.” 


More potent quotes:

“It’s always magical to me: we have known since the beginning of the Inferno that Virgil is not going the whole journey. … yet at the moment Virgil actually disappears, it’s always a shock. It takes one’s breath away.

“Paradox is so built into everything in the Paradiso, because it’s so central to Christian theology.”

“I think the difficulty people have with the Paradiso isn’t the theology – there is much more made of it than is really there. The theology is not overwhelming – however, the continual carrying on about how terrible things are on earth might be the thing that overwhelms people. Sometimes it overwhelms me.”

“I think the Paradiso is informed by a profound historical pessimism. Dante was living in a great crisis of authority.”

“The only time I ever quote Heidegger is with that great line, ‘Only a god can save us.’ I think that’s where Dante is at the end, in terms of history. There’s nothing that he imagines that we can do. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen by divine intervention.”

Annals of overheard conversations #2: The date that went south … way, way south

Friday, October 19th, 2018

The Book Haven’s recent experiment with the romance that blossomed on the flooded rails of the Metro North line outside New York City inspired us. (Read it here.) Why not run a series of overheard conversations? These are the seeds of great short stories. Or maybe even novels…

This one comes from my sister-in-law, the award-winning journalist Beth Hawkins, usually writing about education and public policy, financial inequities in education, and schooling for disabled students, but this time she was at the Chicago restaurant Leña Brava, featured in PBS’s “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.”

“Host Rick Bayless was floating in and out as the date cratered,” she explained to me. “And because I know you know: I was enjoying a buttery Chardonnay-Vermentino blend from Baja California’s Valle Del Guadalupe while they squirmed.” Here she goes:

Listening to a date go soooo far south. She won’t sit next to him. He’s unctuous. She’s texting. He’s making anxious jokes.

Waiter comes and starts the menu walk-through. Gets to Option #2, a tasting menu. “You choose two from this section, two from this one, but you gotta get together and agree on the same order. Both in, got it?”

She’s looking out the window. He’s joking with the waiter now, covering.

“Option #3, that’s our entrées for two. Two of you, one dish. You go all in, commit to exploring the same experience. Together.”

He leaves to get their drinks.

Dude: “Can I crash on your couch? You won’t hear me snore.”

Waiter comes back. They’re gone.

Looks like the PBS cameras were pointing the wrong way.