Archive for April, 2019

Australian poet Les Murray is dead at 80: “The deadliest inertia is to conform with your times” – and he didn’t.

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

With the Russian poet Regina Derieva in Stockholm, 2007 (Photo: Tomas Oneborg)

The Nobel evaded him, and now he shall never get it, though he was considered among the greatest poets of our era. The Australian poet Les Murray died peacefully yesterday at 80. In 2012, the National Trust of Australia classified Murray as one of Australia’s 100 living treasures, but he was much more than that, from the beginning.

David Mason – a new Australian

David Mason, writing in today’s First Things: “Murray grew up in dire poverty on a farm with no electricity or running water, and always felt exiled from the privileged classes. Largely self-educated, at university he was so poor he ate the scraps he found on plates in the cafeteria. Profoundly asocial, he once called himself ‘a bit of a stranger to the human race.’ He also suffered at times from debilitating depression, and was bullied in school for being bookish and fat. Yet he transformed his sense of personal injury to a poetic voice of rigor and flexibility, humor and empathy, and enormous formal range. He was a generous anthologist and editor as well as an essayist, poet, and verse novelist. ‘It was a very great epiphany for me,’ he once said, ‘to realize that poetry is inexhaustible, that I would never get to the end of its reserves.’”

We had mutual friends, among them Alexander Deriev, whose wife was the late Russian poet Regina Derieva, and the poet Dave Mason himself, who is now an Australian poet by choice rather than birth. He had corresponded with Murray, who published some of his poems (presumably in the Australian Quadrant, where Murray was poetry editor) but they never met face to face.

Here’s another treat: if you want to know something about him, you might go to this soundcloud 1985 PEN recording of Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, and Richard Howard in conversation with Murray. I’m still listening to it…

“The body of work that he’s left is just one of the great glories of Australian writing,”said his agent of three decades, Margaret Connolly. “The thought that there will be no more poems and no more essays and no more thoughts from Les – it’s very sad and a great loss.”

David Mason, writes: “Murray deserves to be ranked among the best devotional poets—from Donne and Herbert to Eliot and Auden—but his work has an earthiness and irreverence of its own, a tragic sense of human life and a Whitmanesque sympathy for the lives of animals. His wordscapes and landscapes were local, Australian, with everything that distinction signifies—including the transported convict’s sense of justice and the nation’s thoroughly multicultural heritage. His art wasn’t bound by pieties, political or otherwise, because he understood the position of poetry—and of language itself—in relation to reality.”

Faced with the theological question “Why does God not spare the innocent?,” Murray replied in a quatrain that is perhaps one of his best known poems, perhaps because of, rather than despite, its economy of words:

The answer to that is not in
the same world as the question
so you would shrink from me
in terror if I could answer it.

Les Murray, Daniel Weissbort and Alexander Deriev having meal after the Ars Interpres Poetry Festival. Stockholm, 2004.

David notes that the poem, called “The Knockdown Question,” is a minor epigram in the Murray oeuvre, “but it partakes of the same theological experience as Eliot’s Four Quartets. Murray was not always so blunt.”

David Malouf told the ABC that Murray was “utterly unorthodox” and described his work as “undoubtedly the best poems anybody has produced in Australia.”

“He knew that he could be difficult — nobody pretends that he wasn’t — but he was always difficult in an interesting way.”

He told the Paris Review:  I’m a dissident author; the deadliest inertia is to conform with your times.”

Is Stanford University Press doomed? “This is a reprehensible moment for one of the richest universities.”

Sunday, April 28th, 2019

Alan Harvey directs Stanford U’s press. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Prof. Peter Stansky opened his annual “A Company of Authors” event on Saturday with a somber comment: “Those in the Stanford community who are interested in books may be interested to know that the provost of the University has decided, it appears, to terminate significant financial support of the Stanford University Press which will result in the downgrading of the press, making it unworthy of this University. In fact the University should increase its support and pursue a search of an endowment for the Press that would make it, as is the university of which it is a part, a press as strong as those at its peer institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.  It is peculiar thinking that the Press, unlike the rest of the University, should be self-supporting.” 

I didn’t realized the story had already appeared the day before in The Chronicle of Higher Education: The article began this way: 

“Stanford has the world’s third-largest university endowment, valued in 2018 at $26.5 billion. Yet it is crying poverty to explain why it can no longer provide yearly $1.7-million subsidies to its acclaimed press. The announced cut, which became public in a Faculty Senate meeting on Thursday, has confounded and outraged faculty members and other press supporters, and is seen by many as a backhanded way of closing the scholarly publisher.

“‘This is a reprehensible moment for one of the richest universities in the world and a diminution of intellectual inquiry. It really boggles the mind,’ said Woody Powell, a Stanford sociology professor, a former member of the press’s editorial board, and a current adviser to it.”

Read the rest here.

Hundreds of signatures have already been collected on a petition (below). Anyone with a Stanford affiliation is urged to sign the online petition here. People not affiliated with Stanford, but support academic presses, sign here.

A University Press is a Vital Part of Stanford’s Identity as a University.

It is Not Meant to Be a Profit-Making Entity.

To President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell:

A letter from members of the Stanford academic community has been circulating in support of Stanford University Press. We are members of the larger academic community who rely on the Press for our own work. We want to add our voices to those of your own scholars at Stanford. The intellectual value of Stanford University Press extends far beyond your campus.

You have announced the elimination of the modest annual subsidy (~$1.7 million) to Stanford University Press, a move that will be severely damaging and likely fatal to the Press. Academic presses are vital to the life of the university and to the world of learning. They are the means by which we communicate the results of our research, and the entire university mission of teaching and scholarship relies upon them. Stanford University Press is the oldest press in the western United States, with a long tradition of publishing major works in many areas of inquiry. It provides a vital public service that Stanford should be proud of.

If we use a purely financial metric to assess the value of academic books, the scholarly mission of the academy will be lost. Presses will publish only profitable books, graduate students will write only profitable dissertations, and tenure will be awarded based on scholarship that is profitable. This will skew research and publication in exactly the wrong direction, away from the mission and purpose of a university, which is pursuit of knowledge and truth, and toward marketability The proposed elimination of Stanford University Press’s subsidy is an attack on academic freedom and free inquiry.

While of course a university needs enough money to continue functioning, no single unit need be “self-sustaining,” much less profitable, when viewed in isolation. We note that, according to Stanford Daily, the “net annual cost [of the athletic department at Stanford] is … around $67 million.” The Stanford Athletic Department thus appears not to be “self-sustaining.” Why have you chosen to single out the University Press for this application of supposed “business models” when other units on campus similarly do not turn a profit? The point of a University Press, or any academic department, is not profit. Nor, obviously, is this the mission of a major (non-profit) research university.

We urge you to rethink your approach to the Press and to recommit Stanford to its long tradition of fostering new knowledge, path-breaking intellectual work, and free inquiry. The Press forms part of the core mission of the great university that Stanford is and that, we hope, it will remain.

Please join us for Madame de LaFayette’s “The Princesse de Clèves” on Wednesday, May 1!

Thursday, April 25th, 2019

Please join us for the “Another Look” book club discussion of Madame de LaFayette’s The Princesse de Clèves. The final event of our seventh season will take place on Wednesday, May 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the Bechtel Conference Center of Encina Hall, 616 Serra Street on the Stanford campus.

Madame de LaFayette’s The Princesse of Clèves was published anonymously in 1678. Although the title character is fictional, most of the others are historical, and the people and their intrigues are rendered with precision and authenticity.

The plot centers on the 16-year-old heiress Mademoiselle de Chartres, who comes to the court of Henry II to make a good match. The beautiful and virtuous girl marries the stolid Prince of Clèves, but then falls in love with the dashing and seductive Duke de Nemours. Considered by some to be the first modern novel, The Princesse of Clèves portrays a milieu of appearances and deceptions, rife with suspicion, passions, temptations, and jealousy. This penetrating, finely wrought novel reveals a society where competition is unending – whether in war, in courtly games and gestures, or amorous adventures.

Nota bene: this is a historical novel, with Madame de Lafayette writing about events that took place in the previous century, when Mary Queen of Scots is still a 16-year-old girl and Queen of France. This seems to confuse a lot of publishers choosing cover illustration, who often get the wrong period. The Oxford World Classics edition edition, for example, features Anne of Cleves (no relation), the fourth wife of Henry VIII and a generation earlier before the action of this novel.

Speaking personally, I’m excited by this little book (it’s one of three novellas in the Oxford edition), not only a forerunner of the modern psychological novel, but an important work by a largely overlooked woman. That’s not why I adore it, however. The story is absolutely gripping.

Panelists include: Another Look Director Robert Pogue HarrisonChloe Edmondson, a Stanford graduate student studying French literary and cultural history; and a special guest, Yale Prof. Pierre Saint-Amand. The Yale expert in the philosophy of the Enlightenment (photo at left) will be a real treat for Bay Area audiences – the inside word is that he’s great fun! However, he has suggested that readers be patient for the first twenty pages, which introduce many names and titles from the French court. After the characters are in place (and you’ve sorted out the names and titles), the pace accelerates to its inexorable conclusion.

Oh yes, the most important part: The event is free and open to the public! Come early for best seats! (The parking areas closest to Encina Hall are Memorial Drive and Parking Structure 7, located off Campus Drive, underneath the Knight Management Center-Graduate School of Business. For parking information, contact the Parking and Transportation Department’s Visitor Parking page.)

Stanford authors, scintillating books at “A Company of Authors” this Saturday – be there!

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019

It’s that time of year again. For the 16th consecutive year, an impressive array of Stanford writers will be discussing their recently published books. The Book Haven has often presented at the event – last year for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girardthe year before for the Another Look book club (those events discussed here and here). But this year I will be mercifully silent, except for moderating one of the panels. (See schedule below.)

Here’s how it works: each author will make a brief presentation and be available for conversation and book signing. The even takes place Saturday, April 27, 2019, beginning at 1:00 p.m. at the Stanford Humanities Center, 424 Santa Teresa Street. The event is free and open to the public.  Light refreshments will be served. Come when you can, stay as long as you like. The event has been called the literary equivalent of “speed-dating.”

This program is hosted as always by the genial Peter Stansky, emeritus Field Professor of History. Better yet, spend the entire afternoon in the company of these bright, entertaining, and stimulating writers.

At the event, the Stanford Bookstore will sell books at a 10 percent discount, and authors will sign copies. There will even be a few copies of Evolution of Desire at the event.

Here’s the line-up:

1:00 pm: Welcome (Peter Stansky) 

1:05-1:35 pm: War and Its Study
Peter Stansky, Chair
Joan Ramon Resina, Josep Pla: Seeing the World in the Form of Articles
Elena DanielsonHoover Tower at Stanford University
Lisa Nguyen, ed., We Shot the War: Overseas Weekly in Vietnam 

1:45-2:15 pm: The World Beyond
Cynthia Haven, Chair

Alexander Key, Language Between God and the Poets Ma’na in the Eleventh Century
Ari Y. Kelman, Shout to the Lord: Making Worship Music in Evangelical America
Fiona J. Griffiths, Nuns’ Priests’ Tales: Men and Salvation in the Medieval Women’s Monastic Life 

2:25-2:55 pm: The Wider World
Larry Horton, Chair
Rob Reich, Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better
John L. HennessyLeading Matters: Lessons from My Journey
Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment

3:05-3:45 pm: History Here and There
Paul Robinson, Chair
David Como, Radical Parliamentarians and the English Civil War
Jonathan Gienapp, The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era
Ana Raquel Minian, Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration
James T. Campbell, Mississippi Witness: The Photographs of Florence Mars 

3:55-4:25 pm: Poetry, Feminism, and Design
Charles Junkerman, Chair

Karen Offen, Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic, 1870-1920
Albert Gelpi and Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, Adrienne Rich: Selected Poems, 1950-2012 and Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose
Ge Wang, Artful Design: Technology in Search of the Sublime 

4:30-5:00 pm: Fictions
Tania Granoff, Chair
Daniel Mason, The Winter Soldier
Jennifer deVere Brody, ed. of James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood
Peter Stansky, afterword of Elisabeth de Waal’s Milton Place 

This program is co-sponsored by Stanford Continuing Studies and the Stanford Humanities Center, with special thanks to the Stanford Bookstore. 

A happy Easter from New York City! Photographer Zygmunt Malinowski reports.

Sunday, April 21st, 2019

Defiantly pro-Easter for today’s parade. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

It’s been a sobering Easter – beginning with Monday’s castastrophic fire at Notre Dame, and concluding today, with the church and hotel terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka. But New Yorkers were, as always, ebulliently defiant. Photographer Zygmunt Malinowski writes: “It was unusually crowded at the morning service celebrated at St. Patrick’s Cathedral by Cardinal Dolan, with a joyful atmosphere on Fifth Avenue, which was closed to traffic to make way for the Easter parade. Folks dressed up with their own creations: women with colorful headgear with flowers, bunnies, eggs, or other seasonal themes; children in their very best outfits. Men were decked out, too – see above.”

A joyous Easter, and חַג כָּשֵׁר וְשָׂמֵחַ!

Friday, April 19th, 2019

After Monday’s catastrophic fire at Notre Dame, I posted the drawing below on the social media. It’s received more than 500 hearts and 42 retweets on Twitter to date, and pushing 170 “likes” on Facebook, so I thought it might be worth a share here. The image was drawn by a teenage boy in about 1942 – let me dissemble no more, gentle reader, it was my father, the artist and cartoonist Richard Hill, as a 17 or 18 year old young man. It circulated in our family for years as his pen-and-ink drawing of Notre Dame de Paris. In the larger original, you can see the eyes of Quasimodo peering out from one of the darkened archways, and a doorbell at the entrance. Well … my father … He died twenty years ago this month, on April Fool’s Day. I suspect it was the date he would have chosen for himself.

The attribution is wrong, however: the cathedral is not the Notre Dame de Paris, but a lookalike, Notre Dame de Reims. That is the cathedral where Charles VII was crowned, as Joan of Arc looked on. There are more than fifty “Notre Dames” in France, and a grand one in Montreal as well.

Whether you are celebrating Easter or Passover this weekend, may it be rich and meaningful and memorable, in a good sort of way. A joyous Easter, and חַג כָּשֵׁר וְשָׂמֵחַ!

“Notre-Dame can be rebuilt, because it’s been rebuilt before,” says medievalist. “We take solace in looking ahead.”

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019

From the Consul-General of France in San Francisco…


The Notre Dame has been saved, though the repair work is predicted to take decades.

President Emmanuel Macron apparently wants it tout de suite, in time for the Paris Olympic in 2024. Guess he has a learning curve ahead of him. French officials quickly declared it was a renovation mishap – even while the flames were still leaping over Paris. They all but ruled out arson completely. This is strange, because attacks on French churches (as well as Jewish and Muslim sites, to a lesser extent) have been rampant of late – hundreds vandalized or desecrated in the last year alone. It doesn’t matter if it’s a disgruntled teenager with a box of matches or a vast terrorist conspiracy, the millions for restoration will be money wasted if there’s no attempt to confront the causes. Let’s hope the officials know something we don’t – for example, other issues with lax precautions during the renovations. Let’s also hope they’re not looking for a scapegoat.


To some extent, the Notre Dame is a fiction of antiquity – we addressed that yesterday with Sara Uckelman’s heartening comments. Book Haven friend and medievalist Jeff Sypeck wrote on the same topic yesterday in his blog Quid Plura yesterday: “Notre-Dame can be rebuilt, because it’s been rebuilt before.” The spire that fell, for example, is not medieval. It was added in the 19th century. The cathedral been in dilapidated shape before: a 1840 daguerrotype shows “the great cathedral appears as a disintegrating patchwork pile,” according to author Michael Camille.

“The best known 19th-century additions to Notre-Dame are probably the 54 gargoyle-like creatures known as ‘chimeras,’ the most famous being ‘le Stryge,’ the bitter critter on the cover of Camille’s book. Within a few years, artists, photographers, and postcard-sellers were treating these new grotesques not as recent decorations meant to ‘look medieval,’ but as ancient survivors, timeless objects of melancholic contemplation, as if Notre-Dame had witnessed the centuries but had, through some miracle, remained untouched by them,” Sypeck writes.

Later additions … much later …

“When tourists at Notre-Dame in 2100 hear about the devastating fire of 2019, they won’t comprehend it. Even if docents point out a scorched pillar or emphasize the relative newness of the roof, visitors will know in their bones that they’re standing in a sacred place that hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages, as most tourists felt before yesterday’s fire. They’ll rightly look backwards, blind to the fire and smoke; so we now take solace in looking ahead.”

A Google search turned up Dwight Longenecker, who offered some orientation for those among us who were confused by exactly what happened:  “This is down to the way the church is designed. The whole building, except for the roof is constructed from stone. The ceiling of the nave is a vault designed by interlocking arches all built from stone. This acts like a cap covering the nave. To protect the vaulting, on top of that is the comparatively lightweight wooden roof structure which is invisible to anyone in the interior. It is this wooden roof which went up in flames, and the fire apparently started there in what is essentially attic space.

“If a fire started at floor level it could have gutted the interior, but it would have been almost impossible for the flames to reach the height of the roof beams, and even if the fire went that high it would have to burn through the stone vault to reach the roof beams.

“This design element explains why most of the interior was spared and why the restoration will not be that long or that expensive. They will have to repair the damage to the vault where, I believe the central spire crashed through the stone vaulting, and they will have to design and build a new roof, at least that’s how it looks this morning.”

In 1840: “a disintegrating patchwork pile”

Rolling Stone quoted Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor of art history at Harvard University whose research focuses on the art of the High and later Middle Ages: “The fact that the building did not collapse — a concern in the hours immediately following the blaze — serves as a ‘powerful testimony to the skill of medieval builders,’ Hamburger says. He credits the survival of the structure to the building’s iconic rib vaulting and flying buttresses, which prevented collapse. ‘It’s worth remembering why they went through the trouble building it this way — it wasn’t for aesthetic reasons, it was for fire-proofing,’ Hamburger says. ‘In a way, what we have here is proof of concept.’”

Other observations from around the web:

Douglas Murray writing “The Notre Dame’s Loss is Too Much to Bear” in The Spectator: “There will be recriminations, of course. There will be disputes about budgets, and overtime and safety standards and much more. It is worth reading this piece from two years ago about the funding problems that existed around the cathedral’s restoration. But if Notre Dame can burn then all this is as nothing, because it tells us something too deep to bear. As I said a couple of years ago in a book, in some ways the future of civilisation in Europe will be decided by our attitude towards the great churches and other cultural buildings of our heritage standing in our midst. Do we contend with them, ignore them, engage with them or continue to revere them? Do we preserve them?

“Though politicians may imagine that ages are judged on the minutiae of government policy, they are not. They are judged on what they leave behind: most of all on how they treat what the past has handed into their care. Even if today’s disaster was simply the most freakish of accidents, ours would still be the era that lost Notre Dame.”

Pamela Druckerman in “Were the Caretakers of Notre Dame. We Failed.” in the New York Times: “Though most Parisians don’t visit often — and some never do — Notre-Dame is more than just a tourist attraction or a historic monument. It sits in the middle of the city, walking distance from practically everywhere, on the bank of the river that divides the city. Residents might not have fully realized it until Monday, but I think it reassured them to know that at the heart of their highly planned city was someplace entirely non-rational and non-Cartesian. Notre-Dame’s hulking, Gothic presence has long suggested that there is something mysterious and unknowable at the center of it all … In his address to the nation, Mr. Macron described what Parisians are feeling as a ‘tremblement intérieur’ — an internal trembling. That’s an accurate description of our sense of emptiness and loss. There’s also a shared sadness and disappointment that, with the extensive damage, we’ve failed, as a civilization, to be the caretakers of something priceless. A hundred years from now, people will still be talking about the fire of 2019.”

She was taken to task by the inevitable combox harpies. Philistines and utilitarians grumbled about the money. But one woman named “Diane” had a reasonable bone to pick: “‘Notre Dame’s hulking, Gothic presence’? Some buildings hulk, but Notre Dame looks like it’s about to take wing.”

Over at Spinditty, a blogpost about the school of early music that started at Notre Dame.

Perhaps the most witless remarks were those quoted in The Rolling Stone. Take this paragraph: “’The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” says Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University. If nothing else, the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of ‘the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change,’” Michael Kimmelmann wrote for the New York Times.”

Some folks get their joie de vivre in some places, some of us elsewhere. And some of us thought it had plenty of joie de vivre already. I guess it’s what you bring to it. Hey, Notre Dame! Lighten up! (Some ideas below.)

E.J. Dickson continues: “Now that the world has rallied in support of the rebuilding of the cathedral, however, and donations have started pouring in from all over the world, there’s likely to be renewed interest around the cathedral as an emblem of French history and culture.” And, of course, religion.

The Associated Press article except is here. Said Titus Tichera on Facebook: “So if French Catholics want to not be the laughingstock of whoever the hell even cares anymore, they should take a long hard look at this, reported by AP, think things through, and start organizing: ‘The cultural heritage envoy for French President Emmanuel Macron says it is realistic to reopen Notre Dame Cathedral to the public in five years. Following a meeting at the presidential palace about the cathedral’s reconstruction: Macron’s goal is to allow visitors coming for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris to visit Notre Dame. Macron told the meeting that the new spire will hinge on the results of an international architecture competition.’ This is Philistinism of a very high order–I would rate it as high as desecration. One has to admire the drugged air of death on their breath.”

How Victor Hugo saved Notre Dame: “a thought written in stone … it is the freedom of architecture.” Plus a few words from a wise medievalist.

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

“This isn’t the first time Notre Dame has burned. I’m dead certain it won’t be the last.” (Wikimedia Commons)


“The church of Notre-Dame of Paris is without doubt, even today, a sublime and majestic building … a vast symphony in stone, as it were; the colossal handiwork of a man and a people.” So opens Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

It began as Notre-Dame de Paris in 1829 – he had an axe to grind. He was tired of seeing France’s magnificent heritage of Gothic architecture neglected, defaced, destroyed, or “improved” by subsequent eras. It had just survived the depredations of the French Revolution, where its statues and artwork had been broken, plundered, mutilated, and destroyed. Twenty-eight statues of Biblical kings were mistaken for statues of French monarchs and so beheaded. The cathedral was eventually used as a warehouse for for storage of food and other non-religious purposes. In 1801, Napoleon restored the cathedral to the Church “as is.”

Twenty years later, Gothic was simply out of fashion. Hugo had published a paper entitled Guerre aux Démolisseurs (War to the Demolishers) specifically aimed at saving Paris’ medieval architecture. “A universal cry must finally go up to call the new France to the aid of the old,” he had written. He declared war on the “demolishers.”

The repairs and “improvements” had made the cathedral uglier. Medieval stained glass panels had been swapped for clear glass to let in more light. “And who put the cold, white panes in the place of those windows” and “…who substituted for the ancient Gothic altar, splendidly encumbered with shrines and reliquaries, that heavy marble sarcophagus, with angels’ heads and clouds,” he asked.

Notre-Dame de Paris would later become The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and his preoccupations with the Gothic survived the transition. “There exists in this era, for thoughts written in stone, a privilege absolutely comparable to our current freedom of the press. It is the freedom of architecture,” he wrote in praise of these medieval builders and what they wrought.

He won, of course. He triggered a national effort to restore the cathedral. The Notre Dame we saw until yesterday was in part the result of his labors. Now we face an even greater challenge to restore the building that barely survived a catastrophic fire.


From Sara L. Uckelman, assistant professor of philosophy at Durham University and editor in chief at Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources, in a public post on Facebook:

While what has happened to Notre Dame today has shocked me and moved me to tears more than once over the course of the evening, I’m finding that my background and training as a medievalist means I’m, overall, finding it a lot less devastating than many people.


Because I know how churches live. They are not static monuments to the past. They are built, they get burned, they are rebuilt, they are extended, they get ransacked, they get rebuilt, they collapse because they were not built well, they get rebuilt, they get extended, they get renovated, they get bombed, they get rebuilt. It is the continuous presence, not the original structure, that matters.

The spire that fell, that beautiful iconic spire? Not even 200 years old. A new spire can be built, the next stage in the evolution of the cathedral.

The rose windows? Reproductions of the originals. We can reproduce them again.

Notre Dame is one of the best documented cathedrals in the world. We have the knowledge we need to rebuild it.

But more than that: We have the skill. There may not be as many ecclesiastical stone masons nowadays as there were in the height of the Middle Ages, but there are still plenty, and I bet masons from all over Europe, if not further, will be standing ready to contribute to rebuilding. Same with glaziers, carpenters, etc.

Precious artworks and relics may have been lost. There is report of one fireman seriously injured, but so far, from what I’ve read, no one else, and no deaths.

This isn’t the first time Notre Dame has burned. I’m dead certain it won’t be the last.

What’s Love Got to Do with It? Hayden White on Education and the Humanities

Saturday, April 13th, 2019

“I always tell my graduate students never work on anything you don’t love.”


Entitled Opinion radio show and podcast series is up at the Los Angeles Review of Books. You can listen to the whole episode here. Summary below.


American “metahistorian” Hayden White disagrees sharply with those who argue that the humanities have no utility: “The humanities are eminently practical and belong to the practical life, by which I mean the ethical life,” he said. “The humanities have a great deal to teach us about the relationship between genius and wisdom.”

It was a subject that resonated with both men in this 2008 Entitled Opinions conversation on education and the humanities. In the introduction, Robert Harrison had explained that wisdom and genius are the two kinds of “sapientia” in the homo sapiens species: “One is the intelligence that invents, experiments, discovers, calculates and brings about wholesale change through innovation and manipulation of the external world,” he said. “The other is the understanding that gave birth to the gods, the graves of the dead, the laws and scriptures of nations, the memory of poets and the archaeology of scholars.”

“I tell my students we’re here to discuss the meaning of life,” Harrison said. But it’s tough to support an education about the meaning of life when “everything else in our society that is dominated by science and technology becomes a wasteland because it’s deprived of meaning.”

Harrison said that there is one element in education that no one mentions: love. “I think most of us have, at a certain point, fallen in love with a book or a way of thinking,” Harrison said. “Desire is so much of a vehicle for the acquisition of learning.” On that point they both concurred.

White continued the thought: “The idea was very common prior to the modern scientification of knowledge that you could only know that which you love, and conversely, you could only love that which you genuinely knew,” he said. “I always tell my graduate students never work on anything you don’t love.”

“People who, in their dissertations, begin to feel it’s heavy labor usually don’t last long or become embittered and feel that they have been, in some sense, betrayed by the materials,” he said. “They reach a certain age and they’ve forgotten why they went into this business.”


An excerpt from this interview has been published, for the first time ever, as “We’re Here to Discuss the Meaning of Life” in the April 3, 2019 edition of  The Chronicle of Higher Education here.


“The humanities are eminently practical and belong to the practical life, by which I mean the ethical life.”

“I always tell my graduate students never work on anything you don’t love.”

“Many people who have studied the good effectively are not particularly good themselves.”

“I think Jesus was the greatest teacher of all time.


“The more one engages in the study of the past, the more one becomes an heir to it all.”

“I tell my students we’re here to discuss the meaning of life.”


Hayden White, who died in 2018, was a historian and literary theorist. He was a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he taught for many years in the History of Consciousness program, and was also a professor of comparative literature at Stanford University. His many books include Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (1978), and Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect (1999).

“Some died of fear, some of cold”: refugee massacres on the high seas

Thursday, April 11th, 2019

At the forefront of inhumanity

John Psaropoulos is an Athens-based journalist (he blogs here). Like his wife, the poet A.E. Stallings, he is on the forefront of the refugee crisis. I wrote about her work with the refugees for the Poetry Foundation here; illustrations by refugee children below are courtesy A.E. Stallings and the “True Colors” Facebook page.)

Psaropoulos, formerly an international reporter for CNN, has a disturbing essay in the current Sewanee Magazine (paywall alert). “How Refugees Die” opens with the story of Doa Shukrizan, a Syrian fleeing war with her fiancé on a fishing trawler bound for Italy, and then surviving a massacre on the high seas. “During the hour that we spoke, three coastguard officers sat at their desks not doing any work, transfixed by what she said.”

A few excerpts:

“On the fourth day after we set sail, between noon and two o’clock, we were met by another fishing vessel,” Doa said. “The people on it asked us to stop. They threw pieces of metal and wood at us and swore at our captain. Our boat refused to stop and they rammed us. They waited until we had sunk and they left.”

A child depicts a Turkish vessel firing a water cannon to try to sink a dinghy

Doa said the boat was submerged in ten minutes. She remembered hearing the screaming of women and children below decks. She survived along with about a hundred people because she had been on deck, but her fiancé did not. Over the next three days and two nights, all but five of those initial survivors would die of exhaustion and dehydration as they treaded water in the open sea. Doa and the other four were spotted by a Greek merchant ship south of Crete; a Greek coast guard helicopter airlifted them to Chania.

Only later, when I reviewed the video recording of our interview, did I realize that Doa wept quietly to herself during the breaks between answers …


[Hamad Raad, a Palestinian barber who had survived the same mass murder] explained how the breakdown of social bonds isolated each person and made them more vulnerable to the elements: “In the beginning people were in groups but each day the groups grew thinner. On the third day people lost their senses. Two people came up to me and told me I had taken their life vest and that it belonged to them, and tried to drown me. Many of us were afraid after that.”

An Afghan girl recalls drownings.

Hamad, dangerously disoriented, very nearly drowned himself. “I hallucinated that I had gone to a hotel and was asking for a room and food and drink,” he said. “I imagined that I was arguing with the hotelier, and I took off my life jacket and began to sink . . . the sinking brought me back to my senses.”

“Some people died of stress, others willed it to happen,” said Doa. “One man took off his own life vest and sank. Some died of fear, some of cold.”

“Those who had God beside them had strength, and those who didn’t began to end their own lives,” says Hamad.


In my article, “Crossing Borders,” for the Poetry Foundation, I include Stalling’s epigram, “From an autopsy report of an unknown drowning victim, Ikaria”:

Female. Nine years old. Found wearing a blouse,
And a pair of sweatpants patched with Minnie Mouse.

Here’s the story behind the poem:

A girl named Aqdas recalls those lost at sea.

My friend John Tripoulas, a general surgeon then at the Ikaria hospital, had to pronounce death on the body of a girl, perhaps six or seven years old, found bobbing off the north shore. She had spent so long underwater that her flesh had suffered what doctors call saponification — it had acquired a soap-like consistency. “It was a combination of sorrow and horror to see this young girl in an advance state of decay,” Tripoulas told me, his voice quiet and trembling. “I’ll never forget what she was wearing — pink sweatpants with a Mickey Mouse patch, white boots and a pink overcoat. Her facial features were not visible — they had been lost to the sea.”

The loss of facial features was a common observation. Kalliope Katte, a doctor at the Evdilos Health Centre on Ikaria’s north coast, described the body of an adult woman found washed up. “She was completely naked. It was an awful sight because although she had her arms and legs, her face was missing. There was no skin or flesh. It was just a skull.” When I asked about the missing faces, she said, “The bodies have been eaten by fish, they’re not just decomposing.”

John Psaropoulos concludes: “The combined population of the developed world – more than a billion people – could, in theory, absorb all the world’s refugees today – a manageable ratio of one refugee per fifty people.” He concludes, “With electorates divided on both sides of the Atlantic, Europe and the US are likely to continue to follow an incoherent and uncoordinated series of policies, aiming to salvage their self-definition as caring and open societies, while doing everything possible to keep the world’s unfortunates at bay.”