Archive for July, 2022

Coming attractions: “René Girard: All Desire Is a Desire for Being” will be out with Penguin Modern Classics next spring!

Thursday, July 28th, 2022
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Proud to show off my new anthology: René Girard: All Desire Is a Desire for Being, published by Penguin Modern Classics in London. The cover illustration below features Pablo Picasso‘s 1933 etching, “Sculpteur Avec Son Modele, Sa Sculpture Et Un Bol D’Anemones” (Sculptor with His Model, His Sculpture, and a Bowl of Anemones).

René Girard would have loved the cover, I think. He knew Picasso during that magical summer of 1947, when René and his friends launched the Avignon Festival. (The actor Jean Vilar joined later, and the festival became known for its theater, not the art exhibition that started it.) René shared many fond memories of Picasso with me. A few of them are in remembered in Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard:

It was all heady stuff for the two footloose young men. “My friend and I were in a state of continuous mimetic drunkenness at the thought of being involved in such important cultural events. I remember going to [Pablo] Picasso’s painting studio in Paris, on the Quai des Grands Augustins, and picking out twelve paintings with my friend and others, which we then took down to Avignon in a little truck,” said Girard. “I also remember mishandling the Blouses roumaines, which was quickly repaired”—fortunately, because the festival offered no insurance for the masterpieces loaded onto trucks. It took a month for the duo to gather the twelve paintings from Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and also works by Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, and others for the exhibition.

In Palo Alto, Girard looked around his comfortably large living room, and waved his arm to indicate the space—the art impresario Zervos, he said, had “three times that full of famous paintings of the twentieth century.” He and his friend Jacques, he added, “were quite seduced by that.”

Into this war-torn and threadbare country, the superstars arrived: “Picasso came to Avignon during the summer, in his chauffeur-driven car. He complained humorously but loudly that there was no advertising for the exhibition along the road between Paris and Avignon.”

He had a hidden motive, according to Girard: he wanted to make sure that Matisse and Braque had given the same number of paintings, and ones of equal importance and value. For Girard, watching the painters jostle for supremacy, or at least parity, was another early lesson in mimetic rivalry.

Picasso spent two months among them, and pulled out his easel and paints while in Avignon. “My impression was that he was a very clever man—and because of that, he was a lot of fun,” he said. “Picasso was kidding all the time.” In keeping with the spirit of rivalry, Georges Braque came to spend a month among the Avignonnais, too.

Who started the Avignon Festival? Girard whimsically credits neither Zervos nor Vilar, but rather the poor, little-known Spaniard, on his way to Paris before either of the world wars: “It is possible that the original idea for the exhibition came from Picasso himself, who enjoyed talking about his first visit to Avignon. It was on his way from Spain, when he first came to Paris.

He stopped at the Castle of the Popes to see it and, being very poor, he had offered to paint the concierge’s portrait for five francs. The offer was rejected. It was Picasso’s desire at the end of his life to have his last exhibition in the Castle of the Popes, and that is what happened.”

It’s especially an honor for me to publish with Penguin Modern Classics. I became aware of the series in my early days at the University of Michigan, when I picked up the Selected Poems of my professor, the late Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, with its startling purple-and-green cover (see it here).

Boris Dralyuk’s “My Hollywood” in the TLS: “microscopic close-ups of experience.”

Monday, July 25th, 2022
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Poet Boris Dralyuk…

Boris Dralyuk‘s My Hollywood (Paul Dry Books) continues to get high praise (we wrote about it here and here), this time in the Times Literary Supplement. The critic is the eminent poet Rachel Hadas (we’ve written about her here), writing: “The formal panache and ingenuity that make My Hollywood so pleasurable to read also serve to heighten its poignant blend of celebration and elegy.'”

An excerpt:

My Hollywood, Boris Dralyuk’s debut collection of poems, is so thematically coherent, so satisfying as an achieved gesture and mood, that it is easy to overlook just how multidimensional Dralyuk’s art is. While admiring the integrity of the collection as a whole, we can appreciate the minute details that stand out – “No molds or lasers, just the human touch”, as “The Minor Masters” has it. Or can we only take in the pattern of the whole when we have studied the details of Dralyuk’s craft? However we approach them, these poems reward close attention.

… and poet Rachel Hadas

Some lines offer almost microscopic close-ups of experience. Looking at old LPs in “Universal Horror”, the poet notices that “Motes build tract housing in the grooves of vinyl”. “Plants in Pots”, a couplet dedicated to the late Samuel Menashe, shares Menashe’s compressed wit and fondness for wordplay: “Calm captives, inch by inch, they make their flight, / and reach the window, bent on seeing light”. In “Notation” the view is closer still: “I was the tangled sheet / still clinging to your feet, / holding your ankles bound”.

Dralyuk’s imagery is consistently precise and unexpected, especially when it comes to technology. Thus, “A crow clacks in the branches overhead, / like a projector slowly going dead” (“Aspiration”); memories are “like VHS tapes after years of viewing / and spooling backwards to the sweetest spot” (“Bargain Circus”). In “Babel at the Kibitz”, “ACs burr and wheeze like old hasidim”.

The whole thing behind an inevitable paywall here.

A Pulitzer for Duke Ellington! Ted Gioia champions the cause. Will he win? Sign the petition.

Thursday, July 21st, 2022
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Portrait of the young Ted Gioia at the piano, before early arthritis ended his performing career.

It takes 5,000 signatures on a change.org petition to get media attention. And it worked like a charm for musician and jazz scholar Ted Gioia. He’s now doubled that with more than 10,300 signatures. (You can sign, too, here or on the link at the bottom of the page.)

His campaign: A posthumous Pulitzer for Duke Ellington, who was denied the honor way back in 1965. As I write, “Duke Ellington” is trending on Twitter.

Here’s what happened:

“In 1965, the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Music recommended that jazz composer Duke Ellington receive the award in honor of his lifetime legacy of excellence. The Pulitzer Board denied the request, and decided to give no award in music that year rather than honor an African-American jazz composer. In the aftermath, two of the three jury members resigned in protest.

Duke Ellington in India (Creative Commons)

“The time has come to rectify this unfortunate decision, and name Duke Ellington as the winner of the 1965 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The recent precedent of Jim Thorpe‘s reinstatement as sole winner of the 1912 Olympic gold medals, taken from him 110 years ago, makes clear that even after many decades these wrongs can still be righted. Ellington was a deserving candidate back in 1965, and the significance of his legacy has become all the clearer with the passage of time. Giving him the 1965 prize is the right thing for Duke Ellington, the right thing for the Pulitzer, and the right thing for American music.”

John McWhorter of the New York Timesagrees: “I’m hoping it stimulates a big, beautiful noise that undoes this wrong.” He finds it unlikely that racism wasn’t involved in the Pulitzer decision-making.

He continues: “We assume that Pulitzers are awarded to work that qualifies as for the ages, that pushes the envelope, that suggests not just cleverness but genius. There can be no doubt that Ellington’s corpus fits that definition.”

“I’ll never forget deciding, in my early 20s, that I wanted to know what the big deal was about Ellington and popping in a CD with a recording of 1927’s ‘Black and Tan Fantasy.’ Just the opening, in all of its blue, narrative and outright odd soaring, made the proverbial hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It was one of those “What is this?” moments. I remember marveling about it with my father, a lifelong jazz fan, with him smiling and saying, “John, you got it!’ Indeed, Ellington was something one ‘got.’ Like James Joyce, the Coen brothers or Charles Mingus, you might not quite get what the hubbub is about at first, but when you do, watch out. ‘Mood Indigo’ opens with muted trombone on melody playing up high, then clarinet playing down low, then muted trumpet playing somewhere in the middle — deliciously weird! The result is a gentle astringence that results in an uncommon kind of tenderness.” (Read the whole thing at the NYT here.)

As of yesterday, Ted wrote in his Substack column, “The Honest Broker”: “There has been no response from the Pulitzer board. Zero. Nada. Zilch. But the media has just started paying attention to this initiative.”

You can read the whole back story here. Says Ted: “Revisiting the matter today would simply require the Board voting to accept the original jury recommendation. 

“A dozen other Pulitzer winners have already expressed their support.” And a number of American composers have also signed: John Adams, John Luther Adams, William Bolcom, Philip Glass, David Lang, Tania León, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Caroline Shaw.

I love the evocative photo of a young Ted above, before arthritis at a young age ended his career as a performer and composer. Want to hear one of Ted’s musical compositions? Check out here. And check out the story about it here.

https://www.change.org/p/give-duke-ellington-the-pulitzer-prize-he-was-denied-in-1965

Postscript from Ted Gioia:

I am now awaiting a response from the Pulitzer board.

I want to express my heartfelt thanks to the many of you who have supported this worthy cause. This is out of our hands, but we’ve made a historic effort, and my hope is that Duke Ellington will get the Pulitzer Prize he was denied in 1965.

“Give All to Love”: New film spotlights Emerson as a deeply original, a radical thinker – and features James Marcus, too

Tuesday, July 19th, 2022
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A screenshot of James Marcus during our recent zoom conversation at legendary City Lights Books

James Marcus, former editor of Harper’s Magazine and author of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut, has been laboring for years on a book about Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we can’t wait for it to come out. Now he’s going to be in an Emerson film, too. Here’s more from Globe Newswire:

“Ralph Waldo Emerson is undoubtedly not only the father of American literature and the guiding spirit of that flinty idea called ‘Transcendentalism,'” commented Michael Maglaras, “but he is also the father of our American conscience.”

Emerson (1803-1882), through his journals, essays, lectures, and poetry, guided the development of American thought, spiritual expansion, and adherence to moral principles. Emerson’s approach to living and to life was dynamic, forceful, and radical in its conception and fulfillment. 

Bringing an iconic figure to life again

ASHFORD, Conn., July 06, 2022 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Connecticut-based independent filmmakers Michael Maglaras and Terri Templeton of 217 Films announce that their new film project will be a full-length documentary on America’s greatest philosopher and thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Ralph Waldo Emerson: Give All to Love” will be their ninth film in 18 years and the eighth “essay in film” by writer/director Michael Maglaras.

“Without Emerson’s legacy,” said Maglaras, “it would be difficult to imagine American cultural life and impossible to imagine the development of America as a society. Emerson is the spiritual father of the poetry of Walt Whitman, the music of Charles Ives, the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Currently being shot on location in and around Concord, Massachusetts, this film will have as its focal point and backdrop “Bush”: the wonderful Emerson home where the poet and his wife Lidian reared their children and where Emerson, the great “Sage of Concord,” resided as a simple but revered citizen of America until his death.

Emerson scholar and writer James Marcus will be featured in the film. “I’m delighted to be collaborating with director Michael Maglaras on this important project that will bring Ralph Waldo Emerson to life. Emerson speaks to our time with tremendous urgency…touching on the entirety of the American experience.”

Bay Emerson Bancroft, President of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association, has said of this film project, “We are so pleased to endorse this new documentary film on Emerson…really the first of its kind…and to cooperate with the filmmakers on its production. As we approach the 220th anniversary of Emerson’s birth, this film will introduce him to an entirely new audience.”

“What’s important for me as a filmmaker is not only what Emerson wrote and said,” added Michael Maglaras, “but also that he surrounded himself with people of brilliance, such as Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May and Bronson AlcottTo be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment… wrote Emerson. This film will capture the essence of Emerson as the deeply original and radical thinker he was.”

James told me on Twitter: “I think it’s going to be a classy, smart, artful film, and the first Emerson documentary in a really long time.”

James Marcus on PBS

Czesław Miłosz’s final resting place and the church that gave Robert Hass “the creeps.”

Saturday, July 16th, 2022
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Miłosz’s burial place: “Not liking the fact that it is,/Perhaps, what he would have wanted.”

Long ago, in 2008, I wrote a Los Angeles Times article about the death of Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz and its aftermath, called: Czeslaw Milosz: a poet’s long passage back home.

It begins like this:

During a late night in Krakow, nonagenarian Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz was tipping back the vodka with
Jerzy Illg, editor in chief at his Polish publishing house, Znak. Late in the evening, a touchy topic dropped on the table: Where would Milosz like to be buried?

Should his final resting place be with his mother, in a city near Gdańsk? Illg dismissed the notion outright. “Who will light a candle for you there?” he asked.

Should he be buried instead in his beloved homeland, Lithuania – perhaps in Vilnius, the city of his youth?

Illg proposed the famous cemetery in the Salwator district of Krakow. Many poets and critics were buried on the hilltop graveyard. It would provide “good company and a good view.”

When, sometime later, Illg told Bronislaw Maj about this conversation, the younger poet chided him. Milosz had been fishing for the obvious answer, the mollifying answer: Wawel, the ancient castle/cathedral complex at the very heart of Krakow. Poland’s leading poets are honored there – Norwid, Slowacki and, of course, the nation’s ur-poet, Adam Mickiewicz, another Polish-speaking Lithuanian. “Of course it was a joke,” Illg recalls, “but it has a deep truth.”

You can revisit the fuss over the funeral towards the end of my article here, from the University of Notre Dame’s eminent journal.

I remember what his foremost translator and close friend, the poet Robert Hass told me, as recounted in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz: “I was walking with Adam Zagajewski and Seamus Heaney down the middle of this jammed medieval street, following the casket from St. Mary’s in the Square to the Church of St. Peter on the Rock, where he was going to be buried in this crypt—it gives me the creeps to think he’s buried in the basement of the church.”

Well, “basement of a church” has certain limited connotations, of potluck dinners and bingo games, for example. He wrote about the church that gave him “the creeps” many years later, in his magnificent poem in his award-winning collection, Summer Snow, entitled “An Argument about Poetics Imagined at Squaw Valley after a Night Walk under the Mountain.” An excerpt:

Czesław was buried in a crypt – in the Krakovian church
Of St. Peter of the Rock – among other Polish notables.
I hated the idea of it and still do, that his particular body
Is lying there in a cellar of cold marble and old bones
Under the weight of two thousand years of the Catholic Church.
(Thinking about this still years later, imagining this dialogue
In the Sierra dark under the shadowy mass of the mountain
And the glittering stars.) Not liking the fact that it is,
Perhaps, what he would have wanted. You should
Have been buried – I’m still talking to him – on a grassy hillside
Open to the sun (the Lithuanian sun the peasants
Carved on crosses in the churchyard in your childhood)
And what you called in one poem “the frail light of birches.”
And he might have said no. He might have said,
I choose marble and the Catholic Church because
They say no, to natural beauty that lures us and kills us. …

So here are some photos of the famous church, which the Poles call Na Skałka. It’s not Wawel, nor does it have the cosy familiarity of the Salwator district, but it has charms of its own. Photos courtesy of Alex E. Lessard, who sent them after a recent visit to beloved Kraków.

Good grief: on death, mourning, and unpredictability

Tuesday, July 12th, 2022
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“We do not ultimately recover from grief; if lucky, we merely at best are able to adjust to it.”

Grief is painful. We all know that. But Is there a “good grief”? Eminent essayist and man of letters Joseph Epstein discusses grief, theoretically and from personal experience, including the devastating loss of his son by opioid overdose, as well as departed relatives and friends in his essay, “Good Grief” in Commentary. Like him, I haven’t experienced the legendary “five states of grief,” which I see as an attempt to organize and manage grief, which is by its nature tormenting, chaotic, unpredictable.

Socrates argued that we should keep death foremost in our minds, and that our inevitable deaths will goad us to live better lives. “But no one has told us how to deal with the deaths of those we love or found important to our own lives. Or at least no one has done so convincingly,” he writes. A few excerpts:

Keepin’ it real.

Like death itself, grief is too manifold; it comes in too many forms to be satisfactorily captured by philosophy or psychology. How does one grieve a slow death by, say, cancer, ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s; a quick death by heart attack, stroke, choking on food, car accident; death at the hands of a criminal, which in our day is often a random death; death at a person’s own hands by suicide; death in old age, middle age, childhood; death in war; yes, death by medicine tragically misapplied. Grief can take the form of anger, even rage, deep sorrow, confusion, relief; it can be long-lived, short-term, almost but never quite successfully avoided. The nature of grief is quite as highly variegated as its causes.

Grief, like the devil, is in the details. I have a good friend whose son committed suicide at age 41. A young man devoted to good works, he ended his life working for an international agency in central Africa. At his suicide, the only note he left was about what he called “this event” having nothing to do with his work. To this day, then, his father and other relatives do not know the reason for his taking his own life, which adds puzzlement to my friend’s grief, a puzzlement perhaps never to be solved.

***

But no one has told us how to deal with the deaths of those we love or found important to our own lives. Or at least no one has done so convincingly. The best-known attempt has been that of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist, in her 1969 book On Death and Dying and in her later book, written with David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving (2005). Kübler-Ross set out a five-stage model for grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Yet in my own experience of grieving, I went through none of these stages, which leads me to believe there is more to it than is dreamt of in any psychology yet devised.

Or, one might add, in any philosophy. In Grief, Michael Cholbi, who holds the chair in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, informs us that philosophy has never taken up the subject of grieving in an earnest way. He attempts to make the positive case for grief: “The good in grief, I propose, is self-knowledge.” Cholbi defines grief as “an emotionally driven process of attention whose object is the relationship transformed by the death of another in whom one has invested one’s practical identity.” As for the term “practical identity,” it was coined by the American philosopher Christine Korsgaard, who writes that it is “a description under which you value yourself, a description under which you find your life to be worth living and your actions to be worth undertaking.” The value of grief, then, according to Cholbi, is that “it brings the vulnerability, and ultimate contingencies of our practical identities into stark relief” and, ideally, “culminates in our knowing better what we are doing with our lives.”

Did she get it right?

***

More recently Midge Decter, a dear friend, died at age 94. One cannot be shocked, or even surprised, by the death of someone who has attained her nineties, yet one can nonetheless feel the subtraction created by her absence. I loved to invoke her intelligent laughter, and it would never occur to me to attempt in any way to dupe her full-court-press savvy. One of the sad things about growing older is that one runs out of people to admire, as I admired Midge, for her good sense, her wit, her intellectual courage.

***

Cholbi, while allowing that grief is “perhaps the greatest stressor in life,” finds it neither a form of madness nor worthy of being medicalized, grief being neither a disease nor a disorder. He finds it instead part of “the human predicament,” a part that eludes even philosophical understanding. “We can grieve smarter,” he writes. “But ultimately, we cannot outsmart grief. Nor should we want to.” We do not ultimately recover from grief; if lucky, we merely at best are able to adjust to it.

Read the whole thing here.