Archive for November, 2018

Why We Want What We Want: René Girard and Robert Harrison in conversation

Friday, November 30th, 2018
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“I THINK THE REASON WE TALK SO MUCH ABOUT SEX IS THAT WE DON’T DARE TALK ABOUT ENVY. THE REAL REPRESSION IS THE REPRESSION OF ENVY.” –RENÉ GIRARD

“Know thyself.” It’s not an easy proposition. As Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison says, “To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire. Desires are what lurk at the heart of our behavior. It’s what determines our motivations. It’s what organizes our social relations. It’s what informs our politics, religions, ideologies, and above all, our conflicts.”

René in a video interview…

In this conversation and podcast, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here, Harrison talks with Stanford’s expert on human desire, René Girard, whose work on the subject was rooted in literary criticism, but eventually reached across disciplines to embrace anthropology, sociology, history, religions, and even the hard sciences.

Girard began his work in the 1960s with a new concept of human desire: our desires are not our own, he said, we are social creatures, and we learn what to want from each other. He has been called “the new Darwin of the human sciences” and was one of the immortels of the prestigious Académie Française.

… Robert Harrison as radio host

Their 2005 interview discusses envy and desire in literature — in Canto V of the Inferno, in Cervantes, Balzac, and Flaubert, but most of all in the plays of Shakespeare. They also discuss the role of vengeance as an act of mimetic rivalry, “snobbery” as a form of imitation, and the “sacramental” nature of advertising today. “If you consume Coca-Cola, maybe if you consume a lot of it, you will become a little bit like these people you would like to be. It’s a kind of Eucharist that will turn you into the person you really admire.”

Ultimately, they talk about the mimetic escalation of warfare, Girard’s late-life fascination with the war theoretician Clausewitz, and the need to renounce violence.

This is Part 1 of a two-part discussion – you can listen to it over at the Los Angeles Review of Books “Entitled Opinions” channel here. Meanwhile, Robert Harrison writes about René Girard in the Dec. 20, 2018, issue of the New York Review of Books here.

Potent quotes:

From RENÉ GIRARD

Envy is the emotion which plays the greatest role in our society.”

Mimetic desire is an absolute monarch.”

If you have a rivalry, your vanity is involved and you want to win at all cost.”

The institution that is most mimetic of all is the greatest capitalist institution – the stock market.”

Clausewitz constantly shows you the mimetic nature of war.”

From ROBERT HARRISON

Nothing is more mysterious, evasive, or perverse than human desire.”

We are far from overcoming the behavior that has characterized human history.”

Why is it that human behavior is so resistant to adapting itself to what the mind knows?”

To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire.”

It’s amazing that our governments invests billions of dollars in scientific research every year in order to better understand the world of nature, yet commits only a tiny fraction of that to advance the cause of self-knowledge in order to better understand ourselves.”

Join me for a talk with Eric Karpeles on his new Czapski biography: Thursday night at San Francisco’s City Lights!

Monday, November 26th, 2018
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Czapski by Czapski

I’d love to see all of you at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 29 at the legendary City Lights Booksellers, on 261 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco. And here’s why.

The subject of evening will be a man too little known in the West: Józef Czapski, painter, writer, critic, war hero and prisoner of war, and above all a great humanitarian (the word somehow seems too small for him). We’ve written about him before, here and here. (His self-portrait is at right – he was 6’6″ and the long, narrow canvas demonstrates that.)

And now I will have a “public conversation” about Czapski with his biographer Eric Karpeles.

The occasion is the publication of several books by New York Review Books. First and foremost, Karpeles’s new biography of Czapski: Almost Nothing: The 20th Century Art and Life of Jósef CzapskiSecond, his translation from the French of Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (with Karpeles’s introduction), and finally Czapski’s Inhuman LandSearching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941-1942, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, with an introduction by Timothy Snyder.

From the City Lights website:

Biographer and painter, too.

Józef Czapski (1896–1993) was a writer and artist, as well as an officer in the Polish army. In 1918, he enrolled in the Warsaw School of Fine Arts, but shortly thereafter he suspended his studies in order to travel to Russia at the request of military authorities to search for officers in his division who had disappeared in action. At the end of the Russian Civil War, he went back to his studies, this time at Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts, and soon relocated to Paris with some fellow students, thus founding the Komitet Paryski (Paris Committee), later known as the Kapist movement.

That height thing, again.

Czapski was drafted into the army at the beginning of World War II, soon after landing in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp. Once free, he was assigned to investigate another disappearance of officers, who he would discover were victims of the Katyń Massacre, the subject of Inhuman Land. Czapski spent the rest of his years painting and writing.

Eric Karpeles is a painter, writer, and translator. His comprehensive guide, Paintings in Proust, considers the intersection of literary and visual aesthetics in the work of the great French novelist. He has written about the paintings of the poet Elizabeth Bishop and about the end of life as seen through the works of Emily Dickinson, Gustav Mahler, and Mark Rothko. The painter of The Sanctuary and of the Mary and Laurance Rockefeller Chapel, he is the also the translator of Józef Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp and Lorenza Foschini‘s Proust’s Overcoat. He lives in Northern California.

Hero, writer, painter: it will be his night.

Cynthia Haven is a 2018/19 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar. She writes regularly for The Times Literary Supplement, and has also contributed to The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and World Literature Today. Her newest book is Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, which was published by Michigan State University Press in spring 2018 and reviewed in the Times Literary SupplementThe Wall Street JournalSan Francisco Chronicle, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her work has also appeared in Le Monde, La Repubblica, Die Welt, Zvezda, Colta, Zeszyty Literackie, The Kenyon Review, Quarterly Conversation, The Georgia Review, and Civilization. She has been a Milena Jesenská Journalism Fellow with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, as well as a visiting writer and scholar at Stanford’s Division of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures and a Voegelin Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven was published in London, 2005. Her Czesław Miłosz: Conversations was published in 2006; Joseph Brodsky: Conversations in 2003; An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz was published in 2011 with Ohio University Press / Swallow Press.

Whew! That’s all a lot of words, and there will be a lot more Thursday night, but please do join us! There will be lots of books for signing – and a few of mine, too!

A chance to meet the man who “invented San Francisco”: Armistead Maupin at Stanford on Wednesday, Nov. 28

Sunday, November 25th, 2018
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Adrian Daub

On Wednesday, Nov. 28, author Armistead Maupin will be visiting Stanford – first signing books in the Bishop Auditorium lobby at 5:30 and then joining us for a screening of The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. At 7:15 p.m., Stanford’s Prof. Adrian Daub will engage him in an onstage conversation with filmmaker Jennifer Kroot.

A few words from Adrian below (some of you might remember his lively presence during the Another Look discussion of J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself):

For an entire generation of Bay Area residents, the Tales of the City, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in serialized form from 1976 to 1989, was appointment reading, but since then readers have largely encountered the Tales and their sequels in novel-form and in an HBO miniseries starring Laura Linney (and due to be revived next year). Which means, maybe he hasn’t been part of the fabric of their lives as much as he was for their elders. Nevertheless, they have lived in the world he created. Quentin Crisp once joked that in Tales, Maupin “invented San Francisco” — and the stories of various residents unknown, famous, and infamous indeed explained and dramatized tumultuous decades of San Francisco history as they were unfolding.

The Tales were also crucial in making LGBT culture mainstream — he was among the first novelists to feature a serious, fleshed out and sympathetic trans character, he was among the very first writers to tackle AIDS. But he never tackled them as issues, as challenges — they wove themselves into the Tales almost by necessity. The Tales are a spell he has woven around San Francisco for more than forty years, a spell that allowed the city to see itself for what it was, is, and could be. It therefore feels so appropriate that we get to host Armistead Maupin at Stanford on Nov. 28 — 40 years and a day after the murder of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. The forty years are about reflecting what that turbulent time meant, and how our own present would measure up before its fears and promises. And the day is about writing and thinking about the next step.

King Lear: a ruler who thinks power is more important than love

Friday, November 23rd, 2018
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Hopkins as Lear, Florence Pugh as Cordelia

A few weeks ago we wrote about Anthony Hopkins‘s mesmerizing performance in a BBC production that squanders a lot of opportunities. We’ve been thinking about the play since.

So has the Wall Street Journal‘s Terry Teachout, who seems to be an expert on King Lear, at least from the number of recent productions he references in his article in Commentary magazine (thanks for the heads-up Frank Wilson). Glenda Jackson‘s performance of the role is coming to Broadway next April – according to him, that will be the third Broadway production of William Shakespeare‘s masterpiece in the last six decades. “Why were American versions of King Lear so uncommon for so long? Because it is to theater what Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is to music, an all-encompassing super-drama fraught with complexities that pose challenges of understanding to the playgoer.” Regional performances have more than filled the gap, however, making it one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays.

Here’s where the BBC production with Hopkins comes in: “Too often, however, the quest for ‘relatability’ results in modern-dress stagings whose every element seems to have been determined in advance by an arbitrary concept superimposed on the text by the director rather than arising organically from it. Some, such as the Eyre/Hopkins TV Lear, work reasonably well on their own restrictive terms, but others have been unconvincing, on occasion even preposterous. The worst Lear I have ever reviewed, directed by Robert Falls at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2006, turned the play into a tale of Eastern European gangsters whose opening scene was set in a men’s room with a working urinal.” I would argue the same for the Eyre/Hopkins chop suey production, which mangles the text.

He argues “Shakespeare’s plays work best when performed without scene breaks in open-stage productions that employ a bare minimum of props and scenery” – a contention that was made by Prof. Peter Styron at the University of Michigan, during my own undergraduate days.

Is King Lear petty? Not in many of the performances: “He is a ruler of towering stature who makes the fatal mistake of supposing that power is more important than love, then discovers the world as it really is, cold and hostile to the vanity of human wishes. ‘Is man no more than this?’ Lear cries at the piteous spectacle of the half-naked Edgar trembling in the storm, and in an instant he is invaded and conquered by self-doubt. To ‘humanize’ such a titan by playing him naturalistically is to diminish the pathos of his brutal humiliation.”

He concludes:

Have a scapegoat for Thanksgiving! “It’s a ritual sacrifice, with pie.”

Wednesday, November 21st, 2018
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Peas, the 2018 National Thanksgiving Turkey, prepares to be pardoned by President Donald J. Trump (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

I’ve always been ashamed of the annual White House ritual: the turkey pardoned for a crime it did not commit. Mock laughter accompanies the mock crime. Meanwhile, while thousands upon thousands of other helpless animals are slaughtered across the nation.

All across America, fractious families unite for the day over the real carcass of a dead bird – it is the very symbol of a national and familial unity. Is the Thanksgiving turkey a classic scapegoat? I figured I couldn’t be alone in my hunch, and I wasn’t. René Girard, who died in 2015 , is much on my mind this Thanksgiving, and he helps us get a handle on the strange ceremony, with a little help from his friends:

truman-turkey

Harry Truman started it in 1947.

Karen Davis writes in More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality (Lantern Books, 2001):

“The idea of a Thanksgiving turkey as a scapegoat may seem like a parody of scapegoating, but what is the scapegoat phenomenon but a parody of reason and justice? The scapegoat, after all, is a goat. Animals have been scapegoats in storytelling, myth, and history every bit as much as humans and probably more, as the scholar of myth and ritual, René Girard observes in Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation (Stanford University Press, 1988). Social animals especially have been scapegoated since time immemorial. ‘[I]n all parts of the world,’ Girard says, ‘animals living in herds, schools, packs – all animals with gregarious habits, even if completely harmless to each other and to man,’ have been vilified.

“This is not simply a matter of other cultures and ancient history. Evans shows how the belief that ‘everything must be “well-thought, well-said and well-done,” not ethically, but ritually, contributed to the fact that until quite recently, European societies hauled birds and other creatures before the bar in legal ceremonies as absurd as any scene in Dickens. ‘[E]xtending from the beginning of the twelfth to the middle of the eighteenth century,’ he tells us, the culprits were ‘a miscellaneous crew, consisting chiefly of caterpillars, flies, locusts, leeches, snails, slugs, worms, weevils, rats, mice, moles, turtle-doves, pigs, bulls, cows, cocks, dogs, asses, mules, mares and goats.”

Jared Christman explores another angle of the ritual, writing in Grave Pawns: Civilization’s Animal Victims: “The pardon therefore performs the same basic function as the scapegoating sacrifice theorized by Girard in Violence and the Sacred, although instead of one special victim being scapegoated, every animal except for one special non-victim is scapegoated.”

eisenhower-turkey

Eisenhower kept it up.

“Around the Thanksgiving table, the cultural relations of the nation merge with the blood relations of the family. Through the carcass of the sacrificial victim, the family becomes a microcosm of the nation and the nation becomes a macrocosm of the family. The size of the culinary victim is key: the entire turkey can be dismembered and consumed at a household gathering. This creates a ritual symmetry between the dimensions of the victim’s body and the dimensions of the cultural building block of the family. …

“This sovereign ‘pardon’ of a token animal has become ritually necessary because the industrialized scale of Thanksgiving creates a pressing need for expiation and the shifting of blame from the victimizers to the victims. Against the holiday’s backdrop of rampant factory farming, the pardon of the “innocent” bird scapegoats every other “criminal” turkey for advanced civilization’s sins against nature. …

“With each passing year, the comforting illusions of the Thanksgiving feast, its New World mythology, conceal less and less the industrialized context of the sacrament. Any serious pretense of the new Eden is long gone. The bird upon today’s Thanksgiving table is a bloated, assembly-line caricature of the wild turkey of the 17th-century American woods. Of soupcourse, even the mythology of the original Thanksgiving of the Plymouth pilgrims was a bright shining lie. The cagier fowl of yesteryear’s table was the victim of a ritual protocol of nation-building about as new as the Old World hills.”

Well, there you have it. History has it that the real Thanksgiving was celebrated in St. Augustine, Florida, some years earlier in 1565, when the Spaniards shared a communal meal with the local Timucuans. What was on the menu? Bean soup. Read about it here.

Update: NPR is onto the story here.

Update on 11/20/18: A comment from George Dunn: “It’s a ritual sacrifice, with pie.” ~ Anya on Buffy the Vampire Slayer

President Barack Obama, National Turkey Federation Chairman Gary Cooper; and son Cole Cooper participate in the annual National Thanksgiving Turkey pardon ceremony in the Grand Foyer of the White House, Nov. 26, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Obama, National Turkey Federation’s Gary Cooper, and Cole Cooper in last year’s “pardon” at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

And speaking of Proust … another wonderful quotation on the anniversary of his death

Monday, November 19th, 2018
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Luftmensch Paul Holdengräber is on a roll with Marcel Proust, and we posted his quote on the anniversary of the French author’s 1922 death yesterday. He followed up with this one today, and we couldn’t resist reposting it (see below). The reason: we use the same citation from Proust at the tail-end of the introduction to Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard:

Why? Why? Why?

I had a more modest view of my book and it would be incorrect to say even that I was thinking of those who might read it as ‘my readers.’ For, to my mind, they would not be my readers but the very readers of themselves, my book serving only as a sort of magnifying glass, such as the optician of Combray used to off er to a customer; my book might supply the means by which they could read themselves. So that I would not ask them to praise me or to speak ill of me, but only to tell me that it is as I say,if the words which they read within themselves are, indeed, those which I have written.

The passage I cite was translated by the matchless Richard Macksey, a colleague of René Girard’s at Johns Hopkins University.

Incidentally, the whole introduction to Evolution of Desire was published in America Magazine over the weekend here. Notre Dame published it earlier, and it was linked in Hacker News, here. (Several people wondered why Artur Sebastian Rosman picked a golden image for the article, entitled “Golden Thoughts for a Nuclear Age” – you might note that it’s the “Mask of Agamemnon,” one of the findings of Heinrich Schliemann at the Troy excavation, an archaeological adventure described in the first paragraph of my intro.)