Archive for April, 2023

Robert Harrison to explore “critical frontiers” in Cambridge’s Clark Lectures, May 9-18

Sunday, April 30th, 2023
Courting adventure and possible disaster

Lecture 1: The Thin Blue Line here.
Lecture 2: Mysteries of the Plainosphere here.
Lecture 3: Tellurian Symbols here.
Lecture 4: On Separation
here .

Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison is the Clark Lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, this year – an important honor. In preparation for the lectures (the theme will be “thresholds”), he had a Q&A interview that was published on the Trinity College website. Read the whole thing here; excerpt below. He says: “The more deeply you explore the western canon, the more you realize how liberating and revolutionary it really is.”

Tell us a bit more about the theme of your lectures: why ‘thresholds’?

Thresholds both separate and relate what they come between. In my Clark Lectures I will examine a variety of thresholds: between the finite and the infinite, the terrestrial and extraterrestrial, the living and the dead, the apparent and the nonapparent. In an essay called “The Psychology of Places” (1910), the British writer and outdoorsman Algernon Blackwood wrote that “the threshold is ever the critical frontier that invites adventure and therefore possible disaster. The psychical aspect of a threshold is essentially thrilling.” He advises campers never to pitch camp on the edge of anything: “put your tent in the wood or out of it but never on the borderland between the two, since that is not a place of rest but of activity.” I choose not to follow his advice in my lectures but to court adventure and possible disaster by seeking out different types of edges where things get critical as well as thrilling…

You wrote Forests: The Shadow of Civilization over 30 years ago now and it has only grown in relevance. How differently would you write it now, if at all?

It’s quite amazing for me to remember how, when I was writing Forests (University of Chicago Press, 2009), most of my friends and colleagues thought I was crazy to pursue such a project and endanger my academic career by defying academic genres and specialization. I was young enough at the time to take that risk, yet even more than that, Forests was a book that wanted to be written. Some books write themselves almost independently of their authors.  At least that is the experience I had during the years in which I labored over this selective history of forests in the western imagination.  I’m sure there are any number of ways Forests could be profitably revised, supplemented, or reconfigured, yet I would not know how to change a word of it, given that I do not really consider myself its author, if by authorship we mean ownership of a book’s contents and manner of expression.

Your work covers what was once called, without challenge or embarrassment, the whole canon of Western literature. Is the idea of such a canon still defensible?

According to the idea of translatio imperii, western civilization has been on a westward course for quite some time. I live at the western edge of the western world, in a place called California.  From this edge, it seems to me that the western canon is poised for “a new birth of freedom,” to quote Abraham Lincoln. It’s not a question of “defending” it so much as rediscovering its astonishing richness and subversive radicality. The more deeply you explore the western canon, the more you realize how liberating and revolutionary it really is.

The Clark Lectures take place in the Winstanley Lecture Theatre. No booking is required. The website here says they’ll be available online. Watch the website space.

Tuesday 9 May at 5pm: The Thin Blue Line

Thursday 11 May at 5pm: Mysteries of the Phainosphere

Tuesday 16 May at 6pm: Tellurian Symbols

Thursday 18 May at 5pm: On Separation

Jean-Marie Apostolidès, a “provocateur … but with kindness,” dead at 79 (Postscript: a student remembers)

Thursday, April 27th, 2023
Jean-Pierre Dupuy remembers

Jean-Marie Apostolidès died on March 24. We are still living in the post-COVID world where news travels slowly – hence, I just heard the news this morning. (We wrote about him here and here.) French and Italian Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who is also Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the École Polytechnique in Paris, has given his permission to publish his tribute on the Book Haven:

Jean-Marie Apostolidès is dead. As I write these words, my hand is shaking, and I have to swallow back my tears. A little older than him, I never imagined that I would one day have to mourn his loss. This is what being old is like. Either you disappear yourself, and your worries go with you, or you are doomed to face your own condition in that of your fellow men, including your dearest family members and friends, who fade away one after the other. I repeat here almost word for word a thought of Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician that Jean-Marie placed in the Pantheon of his models.

Like me, Jean-Marie arrived at Stanford University in 1987, hailing from Harvard. He was one of the pillars of the French and Italian Department at Stanford. In a university mostly driven by science and technology, the Humanities lose with him one of its most creative, productive, and endearing members. Jean-Marie was many things: a sociologist, a literary critic, a novelist, a playwright, a theater director, an activist and, of course, a teacher. Far from being a jack-of-all-trades, he was fully involved in each of these activities.

There will be tributes, conferences, seminars, devoted to his literary and scientific work. I am not proposing here, in this unprompted testimony which goal is neither to be exhaustive nor analytical, to list all his accomplishments. The source of these few words is my affection for a departed friend.

A work, his magnum opus, stands out from his production as an essayist: Heroism and Victimization. A History of Sensibility published first in French in Paris in 2003, and reissued in 2011, in a second version that he kindly asked me to preface. He diagnosed a change in collective sensitivities, relating to values, behaviors, and mores, moving abruptly from a culture of heroism, inherited from the Romans and Barbarians who founded the West, to a culture of victimization, inherited from Judeo-Christianity. The relevance of this book to understand the transformations that America is undergoing today is blatant.

“One of the pillars of French and Italian at Stanford” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Jean-Marie was a man of the left, but of a libertarian left stretching back to May 1968 and spiced up with shades of social democracy – what was called at the time in France the “Second Left,” which meant it was “non-Marxist.” He was keenly attentive to the excesses of the far left, in particular Guy Debord’s “situationisme” and the recourse to political assassination with the Unabomber, alias Theodore Kaczynski. He translated and prefaced the latter’s manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, reflecting on the thin line that separates this type of literature from the radical critique of industrial society presented, for example, by Ivan Illich, with whom I worked myself.

Jean-Marie was a provocateur, but used provocation with kindness, with no aggressiveness, wishing only to raise awareness and castigate stupidity. When the Marquis de Sade was fashionable in literature departments, he staged Sade’s Letters From Prison in a setting that was old latrines on campus. He got in trouble for that, because some had not grasped or appreciated the humor of this performance.

Jean-Marie loved women. He was a feminist in the traditional sense of the term, campaigning for equality of status, titles and salaries. A course he gave for several years was called “Women in French Cinema.” It attracted hundreds of students. But he witnessed with dismay the progress of “wokism,” “intersectionality” and “cancel culture” which according to him resulted in a “reification” of the great classics of literature or cinema. He saw with sadness that these American inventions were partly derived from French Theory. We shared the same fascination for the most metaphysical film ever made: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I very much hope that Jean-Marie had not heard before he died of the latest Hollywood project, which is said to consist of reversing the genders of the two protagonists. Madeleine, the fictitious woman, would become a man of flesh and blood, and Scottie, the transfixed lover, a woman. The shock would have hastened his death.

Jean-Marie was raised as a Catholic. He even considered becoming a priest. He broke up with the Catholic Church early and retraced the circumstances of this break-up in his moving book, L’Audience (2001). I have no doubt that the God of his childhood, if he exists, will welcome him nonetheless with mercy. Either way, he will remain a living presence in the minds of those of us who knew and loved him.

A postscript from Maria Adle Besson on April 28: Like Jean-Pierre Dupuy, I have tears in my eyes and a lump in the throat. When Jean-Marie Apostolidès arrived at Stanford, I had just been admitted in the PhD program at Stanford. From the first day in class, he stunned me. He challenged me to think anew. He shaped my understanding of societal, political, literary, economic, psychological phenomena. A true “Maître à penser,” he enabled me to see evolutions and links, he opened perspectives, he helped me develop critical thinking. A university professor “à l’ancienne”, he did not hesitate to challenge all his students to work harder, to think deeper, to read widely, well beyond literature, to see films, plays, exhibitions, and be self-demanding.

For my PhD exams, I chose the 17th Century and Theatre, because he was the 17th Century expert at Stanford. (He could have taught any century). He could take any work, ten times read since childhood, Le Misanthrope, Phedre, Andromaque (I remember his saying “I would have given an arm to be able to write this scene…” And suddenly the play was lit and revealed its multiple facets.

In 1981 he left for Harvard and advised me to turn to René Girard as PhD advisor. I left the same year for Paris in the exchange program with Ecole Normale Supérieure.

When my book came out in 1999, I sent it to him. He wrote me a wonderful two-page letter, telling me he found it deep, interesting and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. He urged me to continue writing – “ça sonne juste et on te découvre en lisant ce livre. Il y a des pépites dans ton livre que tu dois creuser dans d’autres. Tu as tellement de choses à dire. Puise dans ton enfance, en Iran et ailleurs… Relis Proust.” And to encourage me to work, he insisted, “Tu sais, la beauté ça passe, mais une femme intelligente reste toujours attirante.”

He was the epitome of the intellectual, while a specialist of cinema, theatre, literature, art, tapisserie, a bon vivant and an astute observer of society. He loved good food (he was himself a gourmet cook), wine, women, classical music but also Charles Aznavour songs, which he knew how to sing by heart. One of the times I saw him in Paris, at a dinner with his wife Danielle Trudeau and a friend of theirs, he went to get his computer and played “Pour Essayer de Faire une Chanson” then “La Salle et la Terrasse” (“une vraie pièce de théâtre” he mused). Danielle, also an author and a university professor, chided him for listening to such “light” songs. He was the first intellectual to find depth in Tintin and write a psychoanalysis of Hergé’s chef-d’oeuvres, titled Les Métamorphoses de Tintin. Well before philosopher Michel Serres and others.

I am forever indebted to Jean-Marie Apostolidès. In view of current societal changes, not a week passes when I do not think of him, wonder at his prescience, and do not thank destiny to have crossed the path of this brilliant thinker, professor and author. I had hoped he would stay alive a long time, giving me the occasion to write a Proustian books that would make him proud of me, and dedicate it to him.

 Postscript on May 24: John Sanford’s obituary for Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences is here. An excerpt:

“He was a true freethinker … who provocatively critiqued social and institutional norms,” said Christy Pichichero, a former student of Apostolidès’ who is now an associate professor of French and history at George Mason University and a Stanford Humanities Center fellow. “He brought something entirely unique and irreplaceable to the Stanford community.”

When asked about his diversity of interests in a 2010 interview with Post-Scriptum, a journal published by the University of Montreal, Apostolidès responded: “Peut-être l’unité de mon travail ne sera-t-elle perceptible qu’après ma mort.” (“Perhaps the unity of my work will only be perceptible after my death.”)

His goal? “To raise awareness and castigate stupidity” (Photo: L.A. CIcero)

Coming this weekend: “A Company of Authors” celebrates its 20th year!

Thursday, April 20th, 2023
Our genial host Peter Stansky

Stanford’s resident George Orwell expert, Prof. Peter Stansky, hosts his annual “A Company of Authors” zoom event this Saturday, April 21, from 1 to 5 p.m. “A Company of Authors” gives you a chance to hear about this year’s latest offerings by Stanford authors. Tune in for the books that interest you, or stay for the whole afternoon! See the poster below for the line-up of books and speakers.

Registration is open and the link to the event page (where registration can be found) is here.  Feel free to share this link with your friends and networks. 

I’ll be moderating a panel, so I’ll look forward to seeing you there! 

And if you can’t need the iddy-biddy writing – you can go to the website to read, here.

George and Ann Smiley: “one of the strangest marriages in fiction”?

Thursday, April 13th, 2023

Spy novelist John le Carré‘s anti-hero George Smiley is “arguably the most memorable character in modern fiction,” writes Rosa Lyster in her article “George and Ann” in the current Gawker, but comparatively little is said about Smiley and his wife Ann, “which plays out over the five novels where George Smiley appears as a central figure and is one of the weirdest portraits of a marriage ever committed to the page.” Lyster adds “it’s nice to think that le Carré’s portrayal of their marriage is not given the attention it is due because it is so strange, to the degree that if you start talking about it you will never stop.” Want to watch it? Just make sure you see the Alec Guinness, Patrick Stewart, and Siân Phillips version! The performances are matchless.


Alec Guinness as Smiley: “everyone in the world has an Ann.”

“Here is George attempting to interrogate Karla [i.e., the KGB agent whose chase is the central plotline of Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People]. “These two geniuses sit across from each other under a broken fan in the Delhi jail where Karla has been briefly detained after ‘the San Francisco operation’ has been blown and another KGB agent (referred to throughout as ‘Brother Rudnev,’ which is not important but still a nice treat for those of us who appreciate le Carré’s high, ridiculous style) is busily denouncing him in Moscow. Smiley tells Karla that he should defect because if he goes back to Moscow he will either be shot or put in jail. He tells him that he should defect because he is ‘an old man,’ and because surely it is evident that his faith in the system has been misplaced. Nothing. Then, who does he start talking to Karla about? Why, Ann! Ann. ‘As it was, the next thing I knew, I was talking about Ann…not about my Ann, not in as many words. About his Ann. I assumed he had one. I had asked myself … what would a man think of in such a situation, what would I? And I came up with a subjective answer: his woman.’

Siân Phillips as an unforgettable Ann

“Still nothing, but as anyone who believes they understand the resolution of these three novels knows, the Ann line of questioning is the one that ultimately leads to Karla’s defeat/defection. Thinking about who Karla loves and why becomes George’s chosen mode of attack and without attempting to paraphrase one of the most complicated plots on earth, this approach works. To George, it is self-evident that everyone in this world has an Ann, someone they love beyond all reason and would do anything for even when the rewards are dubious or non-existent. This belief is repeatedly exposed as false throughout the novels, which are full of people who don’t really love anyone and who are cheating on their pissed-off wives with exhausted violinists, but George sticks to it regardless.”

Lyster concludes: “These are spy novels, but there is a strong case to be made for them being romance novels as well, or at least ones that present a mortifyingly recognizable picture of what it’s like to not be able to live without someone, and to see the world and yourself through their eyes first. There are a lot of books that will confirm your sense that being in love is one of the most embarrassing things that can ever happen to a human being, but I can’t think of that many that go on to persuasively demonstrate that this state of abjection is to be sought out not only because it is exhilarating and consuming and makes you feel like a demon, but because it makes you smarter and better at your job, whether that job is being a spymaster negotiating the end of empires or a woman who has in her time lost her cool over someone to the extent of writing poems about it. This is one of the most comforting things Ican think of.”

Fascinating. Read the whole thing here.

Patrick Stewart as Karla: he loves someone too.

The wild parakeets of Palo Alto

Saturday, April 8th, 2023

William Wang is part of the information technology team over at the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, but on his way to work he had an experience much older and wilder than any technology. So he wrote to the Book Haven.

Here’s how it happened: As he crossed the intersection of Loma Verde and Alma, he recalled: “I heard a strange bird call and saw a flock of these guys up in a redwood. I didn’t bother getting closer since they were high up, but after I got in my car to go to work and stopped by a shorter tree next to the redwood, I looked up and saw a bunch of them with their green feathers.”

“A local bird rescue has one of the individuals from this supposed flock, and it’s described as a Cherry Head/hybrid, so I’m guessing it’s half parakeet and half conure.”

Half parakeet, half conure (Photos: William Wang)

He continued, “I found your blog post from 2020 after doing a little research and figured I’d send you photos and sentence or two about my sighting of the critters. They are quite photogenic, but unfortunately I was in a rush to get to work so I didn’t have time to stick around and get a better shot.”

He found the Book Haven post from three years ago: “The wild parrots Telegraph Hill are famous – but have you seen the parrots of Palo Alto?”

From the post:

How Did They Get Here?
They were brought here to be sold as pets in the exotic pet trade. The U.S. was the largest importer of birds in the world before the government banned the trade of wild exotic birds in 1992.

How Did They Get Out?
The founders of the wild flock of conures either escaped or were released.

So what about the Palo Alto birds? They are said to be escapees from Monette’s Pet Shop on California Avenue. I remember it well from years ago. According to one post, a few took shelter in trees just on the south side of Oregon Expressway. Could these be these rugged birds?

Beware! Beware! They are not as innocuous as they might seem:

“Years ago there was a flock of about a dozen who were all over the place in our city. Two local churches had to have work done on their roofs to evict the parrot flock from carving out little caves in the eaves.”

And this: “Many years ago we heard the sound of ripping wood in our attic. I thought it was some aggressive rodent, but when I took a look a saw… a conure I guess making a nest !?!?”

One of the best nonfiction books of all time? Join us for Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” on April 11!

Wednesday, April 5th, 2023

Please join us for a discussion of Virginia Woolf‘s 1929 A Room of One’s Own at 7 p.m. (PST) on Tuesday, April 11, in Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center, 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus.

The Guardian called the book “a landmark in feminist thought and a rhetorical masterpiece” and rated it one of the top 100 non-fiction books of all time. Read about that here.

According to a contemporary review in The Los Angeles Times: “If you miss this book, which is profound and subtle and gently ironic and beautifully written, you will have missed an important reading experience.” Another Look will consider the work’s legacy a century later. The Bloomsbury author’s iconic book, an extended essay, is in public domain and widely available.

Panelists will include: Stanford Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, author, director of Another Look, host of the radio talk show and podcast series “Entitled Opinions,” and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and Stanford Prof. Tobias Wolff, one of America’s leading writers, a founding director of Another Look, and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts.

Constance Solari is a writing coach and the author of four novels, including 2012’s Sophie’s Fire: The Story of Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat. Maria Florence Massucco, is a PhD candidate in Italian Studies who specializes in the 20th century novel. You’ll remember her from our discussion of Dorothy Strachey‘s Olivia.

Join us in person or virtually, but please register here. Or scan the QR code. We look forward to seeing you on April 11th! It’s going to be a great discussion.