Archive for September, 2023

A hot fire on a cold night: Peter’s denial and “Mitsein”

Wednesday, September 27th, 2023
“Saint Peter’s Denial” by Caravaggio

It’s hard to pick a favorite essay from my new anthology, All Desire Is a Desire for Being: Essential Writings – all of the pieces by French theorist René Girard are exceptional, otherwise I wouldn’t have picked them – but the essay on Peter’s Denial is certainly high on the list. So I was very pleased when the University of Notre Dame decided to publish the piece in its eminent Church-Life Journal, under the editor and friend Artur Sebastian Rosman, who is also a Czesław Miłosz scholar.

An excerpt from “The Question of Mimesis and Peter’s Denial“:

After Jesus had been arrested, the disciples fled in all directions, but Peter alone or, according to John, Peter and another disciple, followed at a distance right into the courtyard of the High Priest’s palace, and, I quote: “there he remained, sitting among the attendants, warming himself at a fire.” John says that “the servants and the police had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and were standing round it warming themselves.” And Peter too “was standing with them, sharing the warmth.”

The text shifts to inside the palace, where a hostile and brutal interrogation of Jesus was taking place. Then we shift back to Peter and, again I quote:

Meanwhile Peter was still in the courtyard downstairs. One of the High Priest’s servant girls came by and saw him there warming himself. She looked into his face and said, “You were there too, with this man from Nazareth, this Jesus.” But he denied it: “I do not know him,” he said. “I do not understand what you mean.” Then he went outside into the porch; and the girl saw him there again and began to say to the bystanders, “He is one of them,” and again he denied it.

Again, a little later, the bystanders said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them. You must be; you are Galilean.” At this he broke out in curses, and with an oath he said: “I do not know this man you speak of.” Then the cock crowed a second time; and Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he burst into tears.

Auerbach makes some shrewd comments on that text: “I do not believe,” he writes, “that there is a single passage in an antique historian where direct discourse is employed in this fashion in a brief, direct dialogue.” He also observes that “the dramatic tension of the moment when the actors stand face to face has been given a salience and immediacy compared with which the dialogue of antique tragedy appears highly stylized.” It is quite true, and I am not averse to using such words as “mimesis” and “mimetic realism” to describe the feeling of true-to-life description which is created here, but I do not think that Auerbach really succeeds in justifying his use of the term “mimesis.”

Careful and sensitive as he is as a reader, Auerbach did not perceive something that is highly visible and which should immediately strike every observer: it is the role of mimesis in the text itself, the presence of mimesis as content. Imitation is not a separate theme but it permeates the relationship between all the characters; they all imitate each other. This mimetic dimension of behavior dominates both verbal and non-verbal behavior. Peter’s behavior is imitative from the beginning, before a single word is uttered by anyone.

In Mark and John, when Peter entered, the fire was already burning. People were “standing round warming themselves.” Peter too went to that fire; he followed the general example. This is natural enough on a cold night. Peter was cold, like everybody else, and there was nothing to do but to wait for something to happen. This is true enough, but the Gospels give us very little concrete background, very few visual details, and three out of four mention the fire in the courtyard as well as Peter’s presence next to it. They mention this not once but twice. The second mention occurs when the servant girl intervenes. She sees Peter warming himself by the fire with the other people. It is dark and she can recognize him because he has moved close to the fire and his face is lighted by it. But the fire is more than a dramatic prop. The servant seems eager to embarrass Peter, not because he entered the courtyard, but because of his presence close to that fire. In John it is the courtyard, upon the recommendation of another disciple acquainted with the High Priest.

A fire in the night is more than a source of heat and of light. A fire provides a center of attraction; people arrange themselves in a circle around it and they are no longer a mere crowd; they become a community. All the faces and hands are jointly turned toward the fire as in a prayer. An order appears which is a communal order. The identical postures and the identical gestures seem to evoke some kind of deity, some sacred being that would dwell in the fire and for which all hands seem to be reaching, all faces seem to be watching.

There is nothing specifically Christian, there is nothing specifically Jewish about that role of fire; it is more like primitive fire-worship, but nevertheless it is deeply rooted in our psyches; most human beings are sensitive to this and the servant girl must be; that is why she is scandalized to see Peter warm himself by that fire. The only people who really belong there are the people who gravitate to the High Priest and the Temple, those who belong to the inner core of the Jewish religious and national community. The servant maid probably knows little about Jesus except that he has been arrested and is suspected of something like high treason. To have one of his disciples around the fire is like having an unwelcome stranger at a family gathering.

The fire turns a chance encounter into a quasi-ritualistic affair and Peter violates the communal feeling of the group, or perhaps what Heidegger would call its Being-together, its Mitsein, which is an important modality of being. In English, togetherness would be a good word for this if the media had not given it a bad name, emptying it entirely of what it is supposed to designate.

This Mitsein is the servant girl’s own Mitsein. She rightfully belongs with these people; but when she gets there, she finds her place occupied by someone who does not belong. She acts like Heidegger’s “shepherd of being,” a role which may not be as meek as the expression suggests. It would be excessive in this case to compare the shepherd of being with the Nazi stormtrooper, but the servant maid reminds us a little of the platonic watchdog, or of the Parisian concierge. In John she is described as precisely that, the guardian of the door, the keeper of the gate.

This Mitsein is her Mitsein, and she wants to keep it to herself and to the people entitled to it. When she says: “You are one of them, you belong with Jesus,’ she really means, ‘You do not belong here, you are not one of us.”

We always hear that Peter acts impulsively, but this really means mimetically. He always moves too fast and too far; but still, why move so close to the center, why did the fire exert such an attraction on him?

Read the rest here.

“Haven’t I seen you before? At Stanford?” How John Fante married a Stanford girl.

Saturday, September 16th, 2023

Stephen Cooper, the world’s leading John Fante expert, has a few more words to say about the author whose novel, Ask the Dust, will be featured at an Another Look discussion on Tuesday, September 19. We wrote about the event here, and we wrote about Joel Williams, the convict whose life was turned around by Fante’s book here. (Author Alan Rifkin has a few words to say here, too.)

But who knew Fante wrote a short story with Stanford on his mind? Says Cooper about the wistful Stanford references included in the pages above from his short story, ‘To Be a Monstrous Clever Fellow’: “Fante may have helped usher in The Book Haven’s first prison stabbing but something tells me his delirious ‘To Be a Monstrous Clever Fellow’ won’t fly. It’s awfully good for a laugh though …”

Stanford was more than on his mind, and more significant than a laugh. He was the son of lower-class Italian immigrants, and fell for Joyce Smart of Placer County, “the Stanford-bred daughter of one of Roseville’s first families,” Cooper wrote in his biography, Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante (North Point Press, 2000). Her mother’s reaction? “He looks so Italian,” she complained. “I can’t even pretend that he isn’t.”

“To Joyce, still fresh from Stanford, where ‘the winds of freedom blow,’ the whole dilemma smacked of another another century.” On July 31, 1937, they crossed the state line to Nevada and secretly married.

Rob Spillman, writing in The Boston Review on the occasion of the publication of The Big Hunger: Stories 1932-1959, edited by Steve Cooper and published in 2000: “With ‘To Be a Monstrous Clever Fellow’ we enter Bandini territory, the place where Fante’s legacy does and should rest. The clever narrator works on the docks, has rough, calloused hands, yet also quotes Nietzsche and tells himself that he is going home to write his ‘thousand words’ – but can’t help getting caught up in the chase for women at the local dance hall. It is classic Fante that the narrator lusts after the well-bred yet idiotic girl, passing himself off as a professor until she notices his horrible hands.”

“These smooth, neat stories are mainly interesting for the information they contain, like the episode in ‘Mama’s Dream’ when the aging, hard-drinking father tears apart the Fante character’s novel, which portrayed the writer’s father as a philandering drunkard. But mostly these later stories work to illuminate how good the early Bandini material is, how singular, how Romantically passionate his writing was, why John Fante so deserves to be read and placed among the great American voices of the twentieth century.” In short, he deserves “Another Look.” Come by on Tuesday, or in person or by zoom.

“Then give me lunacy, give me those days again.”

Spillman writes: “If only we could go back to the late-1930s and force Fante to turn his back on Hollywood, to keep going with Bandini, to keep pushing, one can only imagine the brilliant novels that the hard-working Fante would have produced. Or not. As Fante writes in “Prologue to Ask the Dust: ‘Do I speak like a lunatic? Then give me lunacy, give me those days again.'”

Back to Stanford. According to Steve Cooper: “Nearly a hundred years after writing that long-unpublished story—and ‘Washed in the Rain,’ likewise Stanford-inflected, whereby Stanford stands in for everything his alter-ego narrator wants but can’t have: talk about desire—Fante is finally being admitted!”

Come join us in welcoming Fante to Stanford, forty years after his death.


The spirit of L.A.:”What happens to a civilization that grows up alongside the constant vision of dust?”

Wednesday, September 6th, 2023

Our Tuesday, Sept. 19, hybrid event on John Fante‘s 1939 novel Ask the Dust  is coming up fast. Join us at 7 p.m. (PST) in Levinthal Hall in the Stanford Humanities Center, 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus. REGISTER FOR THE EVENT ON THE LINK HEREThe event is free and open to the public. Walk-ins are welcome, but registration is encouraged whether you plan to attend virtually or in personRead more about the event here.

This event is co-sponsored by the Continuing Studies Program and the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at Stanford, and also the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco.

Two weeks ago, we published a story how Joel Williams’s life as a convict turned around when he read Fante’s 1939 novel. “There were no creative writing classes in prison,” he wrote, but with the help of Fante scholar Stephen Cooper, he became a writer. Read about it here. But meanwhile, here’s an excerpt from another successful author, Alan Rifkin. According to NPR: “One of the true L.A. originals, Alan Rifkin is easy to catch in the act of being brilliant.” Here’s another chance to do so, as he discusses Ask the Dust.

Rifkin: “terminal desert from the depths of the paradise dream…”

Every Los Angeles writer at the outskirts of vision feels a connection to Ask the Dust, the 1939 novel that, more than any other, seems to weep over this city’s corpse in the ecstasy of possessing it. (“Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”i We all are sufferers. We’re not sure, exactly, if the intimacy of our suffering will survive the novel’s journey to the big screen, to the masses, to the world. But on the page, it’s strictly ours.

Stephen Cooper’s history with Ask the Dust is even more personal. “I was seeking to fill that absence that I didn’t even consciously know defined me,” he says. “And that was the loss of my father. So I would spend my days just mooning around, moving about, like most young writers, haunted by characters, trying to compose them and failing, failing, failing, failing, failing. . . . And then when I came upon Ask the Dust, it was a time in my life when I was living with every pore open to possibility.” (Citations are from Rikfin’s interviews with Cooper.)

Living, in other words, like Bandini himself, who finally writes his look-at-me novel, only to hurl it to the sands where his goddess went mad. “He’s gotten what he wanted, in terms of having written the book … to be on the shelf next to the big guys. But desire is such that it outlives its fulfillment. And so he must desire something else. … It turns to dust, doesn’t it, the fulfillment of desire. So getting what you want is, if you will, just a beginning of the eternal and unattainable story of desire.”

Stephen Cooper was my graduate professor at Cal State Long Beach, and as I was writing this essay, he coined a name for this school of writing: Southern California Dream Realism. Maybe Southern California Dream Realism is just the ultimate extension of anybody else’s literary mode—a way of seeing life stripped of time’s pretense. It’s a manner of always seeing the terminal desert from the depths of the paradise dream, or paradise from the stretches of life’s dry march.

I do know that in our past, in the dark of that pantry, I see the East Coast. Some remnant of ancestry, a quaint hope of continuity, a proper burial gone wrong—Waugh’s mortuary. I see how fooled my childhood was by every architectural simulation of history.

But I don’t know what happens to a civilization, and a literature, that grows up alongside the constant vision of dust. Does the rest of the country even make sense to us here? Was all this aftermath built in from the start? Even the apocalypse, in Los Angeles, feels like history now, the erasures of paradise barely detectable, the age of visions five minutes from over.

That is one scenario for where L.A. literature is heading. Then there is Francesca Lia Block’s view, which she offers in an unpunctuated e-mail: “life/death magic/reality young/old spirit/body masculine/feminine the walls seem to be dissolving and the worlds blending” (from correspondence to Block). In other words, “Paradise Next.”

*Claremont McKenna professor Jay Martin has pointed out that what W. H. Auden called “West’s Disease” — an L.A. collision of foolishness, desire, and illusion named after Nathanael West — could just as well have been named after Fante.


René Girard @100: the Girard Quartet comes to San Francisco on Sept. 13 for a free concert! Be there!

Sunday, September 3rd, 2023

Grégoire Girard and Agathe Girard-Vitani (violins), Hugues Girard (viola) and Lucie Girard (cello)

The Book Haven has written much about French theorist René Girard – and this year is the centenary of his birth. I’ve celebrated the occasion with a new Penguin Classic anthology of his “essential writings.” (And I’ve also written about the centenary at Zócalo Public Square “Are We Ready to Listen to René Girard?” – read that article here.) Now the extended Girard family, in America and in France, would like to invite you to a memorial concert, sponsored by the Consulat Général de France à San Francisco. (You can listen to the quartet perform Schubert’s String Quartet #14, in D Minor here, or Beethoven’s 16 opus 135 “Vivace” here.)

Here’s the announcement from the French consulate, in English and French:

His hundredth birthday this Christmas Day

This year is the centenary of the birth of French theorist René Girard (Avignon, December 25, 1923 – Stanford, California, November 4, 2015). The Girard family and the Society of Friends of Joseph René Girard are honoring him with a public concert. The event is free, but you must register here.

On September 13, 2023 at 7 p.m., the Quator Girard will perform at a memorial concert for René Girard, at the Théâtre du Lycée Français de San Francisco (1201 Ortega street, San Francisco). The Girard Quartet includes the grandchildren of the Stanford professor’s older brother, Dr. Henri Girard of Avignon. Including on the program are Bach, Lekeu, and Mendelssohn.

His fellow immortel at the Académie Française, Stanford Prof. Michel Serres, called Girard the “new Darwin of the human sciences.” Girard, a prolific author, began as a literary theorist but eventually ventured into and history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion, psychology and theology. All were woven into his work.

Although René Girard was very humble about his attachment to music, it nourished him greatly and forged a very strong link between him and the Quartet. The quartet includes: Grégoire Girard and Agathe Girard-Vitani (violins), Hugues Girard (viola) and Lucie Girard (cello). The quartet was awarded at the Geneva Competition in 2011, and has been invited to prestigious halls and festivals in France, such as the Auditorium of the Musée d’Orsay. The quartet is also in demand abroad – particularly in Switzerland, Morocco, and Japan.

This event is possible thanks to the support of the Lycée Français de San Francisco, the Consulate General of France in San Francisco, and the Villa Albertine. It is also sponsored by the Académie Française.


À l’occasion du centenaire de la naissance de René Girard (Avignon 25 décembre 1923 – Stanford (Californie) 4 novembre 2015), la famille Girard et la Société des amis de Joseph René Girard ont souhaité lui rendre hommage publiquement.

Le 13 septembre 2023 à 19h, le Quator Girard se produira lors d’un concert hommage à René Girard, au Théâtre du Lycée Français de San Francisco (1201 Ortega street, San Francisco).

Son immortel collègue et professeur à Stanford, Michel Serres, l’appelait le nouveau Darwin des sciences humaines. L’auteur, d’abord théoricien de la littérature, se passionnait pour tout. L’histoire, l’anthropologie, la sociologie, la philosophie, la religion, la psychologie et la théologie se retrouvent
dans son œuvre.

Si René Girard exprime très humblement son attachement à la musique, il n’en reste pas moins que celle-ci l’a intensément nourri et qu’elle a été un lien très fort entre lui et le Quatuor. Composé de Grégoire Girard & Agathe Girard-Vitani (violons), Hugues Girard (alto) et Lucie Girard (violoncelle). Il est lauréat du Concours de Genève en 2011. Invité de salles et de festivals prestigieux en France tel que l’Auditorium du Musée d’Orsay, le quatuor est également demandé à l’étranger notamment en Suisse, au Maroc ou au Japon.

Cet évènement est possible grâce au concours du Lycée Français de San Francisco, du Consulat Général de France à San Francisco et de la Villa Albertine. Il est de plus parrainé par Académie Française.

L’événement est gratuit, mais vous devez vous inscrire ici.

The Girard Quartet.