Archive for November, 2023

And then this happened…more on the inaugural NOVITĀTE conference

Monday, November 27th, 2023

I’m late telling Book Haven readers about my most recent honor: From Luke Burgis’s remarks at the inaugural NOVITĀTE conference earlier this month, in presenting me with the inaugural Novitāte Award:

This first ever NOVITĀTE award goes to someone whose work embodies “New Models of Thought and Desire”, which this gathering is all about. She has carved her own (anti-mimetic) path inside and outside the world of academia, oftentimes while standing at the periphery—which is where the misunderstood, and sometimes even the scapegoats, lie. 

Cynthia’s work has been not only intellectually illuminating for me personally—I couldn’t have written my own book, Wanting, without it—but also edifying. 

This award may not be prestigious—yet!—and it comes with a relatively paltry cash prize of $1,000 (we’ll work on that, too!)—but you are the first recipient, and the most worthy that I could think of. I’d like to invite you to the stage to accept this First Annual NOVITĀTE Award for making an outstanding contribution to this year’s theme. Please join me honoring the 2023 award winner: Cynthia Haven.

Cynthia, you are a special person who I’m proud to call a friend. This event would not have been the same without you. You’ve done so much good work for so many years. Nearly every time we talk you remind me of what it’s all truly about. Our time on this earth is very short. As René Girard reminded us ( and as you often remind me), we don’t know how much time we have left. None of us do. You’ve inspired me with a sense of urgency—with a quickening of heart and spirit. And for that I want to thank you. 

Postscript: I almost forgot to include my own brief comments on acceptance of the award: “When Luke first told me about his idea for a conference, I didn’t connect its title, Novitāte, to Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “And be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” These words have been a touchstone for me over the years. What I came to understand is this: We can’t change the past, we can’t change our height or our parentage. We can’t change our emotions, at least not directly, because they happen at lightning speed and shapeshift as they move. We certainly can’t change other people – we’ve all tried that. But the one thing we can change the way we think about things – that is in our power. We can rewire our brains a little, and interrupt cycles of envy or resentment or retaliation by shifting our perspective, unsettling our mind a bit. It’s something that can begin now, tonight, and continue for the rest of our days. This week has given us a toolkit for doing so – we can begin renewing our minds now. That may be the best way to commemorate René’s centenary year. I’m deeply honored by this award. Thank you, Luke. Thank you everyone. And most of all, thank you René, and happy birthday.”

A rabbi’s P.O.V.: Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s conversion is social, not doctrinal

Sunday, November 19th, 2023
Ruth in Boaz’s Field by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (Wikimedia Commons)

“Wherever you go, I will go…your people will be my people.” Ruth converts, as does Ali, not because Naomi convinces her that Judaism is doctrinally right, but because she is impressed by Naomi’s character and wants to join her culture. ~ Zohar Atkins

Much ink has already been spilled on Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s conversion to Christianity, which she announced in the online journal Unherd a week ago. It was less of a surprise to me, perhaps. During my interview with the Somali-born activist six years ago, published in Stanford Magazine as “To Change People’s Minds”, she made an offhand, slightly dismissive remark about Christianity in passing, and I told her I was one of “them.” She was momentarily off balance, startled, apologetic – and for a brief instant we were both wide awake and open. And then it passed.

My first encounter with her was a dozen years ago, as I attended an onstage interview in Palo Alto with writer Susanne Pari as interlocutor. The two women were discussing terrorism, and Pari brought up the case of Faisal Shahzad, an apparently assimilated Muslim who turned to jihad and attempted to bomb Times Square. But Hirsi Ali interrupted Pari’s comments about his job loss as a possible motive for his actions.

“I have a problem with that,” she said.  “If we even remotely entertain’the notion that foreclosure and health care and normal adversity is an excuse to take away the life of another, then, she said, “we are really going down.”

Podcaster, substacker, rabbi Zohar Atkins

“He has a freaking MBA!” she exploded. “I know people who can’t read!” Hirsi Ali denied that “the only therapy is to get an SUV and fill it with explosives.” Nor did she excuse Nidal Malik Hasan, who “got to be a major in a voluntary army.”

“Why don’t we take these people at their word? ” she asked. “Why don’t we examine their convictions?”

Pari noted that, in her Iran-American childhood, there was only one mosque in the nation, in Washington D.C., and now there are thousands (“1150,” corrected Hirsi Ali). She took Hirsi Ali, a fellow atheist, to task for the conclusion of her book Infidel, in which she suggests that the love and tolerance exhibited in much of Christianity might be a force to subdue Islam. “I was very naughty!” Hirsi Ali admitted with a chuckle.

Pari said the very idea “was disturbing to me, frankly…What were you thinking?”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali – who lives under a fatwa, still – responded in a beat: “The superficial answer is, if every Muslim became Christian, I would live without bodyguards.”

Back to the present. Over at Zohar Atkins‘s substack, What Is Called Thinking, the rabbi, poet, and theologian argues that “Religion is Social,” and that in fact Ayaan converted to Christianity … via Judaism. (You can catch my podcast with him, “From Envy to Forgiveness,” here.)

He begins:

Outspoken New Atheist Aayan Hirsi Ali has converted to Christianity, but her arguments are more psychological and consequentialist than fundamentalist—she makes no mention of Christian dogma or creed. Instead, she focuses on her own need for meaning and her appreciation for the legacy of Christian culture and civilization when compared to other alternatives. Her conversion story thus bothered Christians and atheists alike. The former, because they felt she had failed to address the question of the truth of Christian doctrine; the latter because they felt she had failed to address the untruth of it. Ross Douthat wrote a compelling piece on her conversion that points to a lacuna in her conversion story, aside from the truth question: “the weirdness of religious experience.” She didn’t just convert because religion is a source of meaning, he says, but because the strangeness of religious experience provokes a recognition that the world itself is strange.

Speaking from a Jewish perspective, the hardline distinction between the truth of a religion, its practical civilizational value, and its psychological import falls away. Both Ali’s Christian critics and atheist critics take too shallow (though possibly an appropriately Protestant) view of religion. In the story of Ruth’s conversion to Judaism, now the paradigmatic script for all Jewish converts, we note that her motivations are primarily social and relational. “Wherever you go, I will go…your people will be my people.” Ruth converts, as does Ali, not because Naomi convinces her that Judaism is doctrinally right, but because she is impressed by Naomi’s character and wants to join her culture.

Jews read the story of Ruth on Shavuot, the Holiday that celebrates the Revelation at Sinai, because the distinction between divine revelation and interdependent communal formation are two sides of the same coin. Some people join because of supernatural experience, per Douthat’s point. But some join because they like the people who have supernatural experience. Or better yet, sitting at the table of deeply kind, deeply thoughtful, deeply inspiring people can itself be a kind of supernatural experience — even if it requires no belief in virgin births or split seas. In the middle ages, Maimonides pushed to shore up Jewish theology along 13 principles of faith, but historically Judaism has drawn friends and converts not because people agreed with these logical and abstract principles but because it has impressed them as a way of life.

Read the whole thing here. It’s wonderful and worth it.

Kurosawa to Bergman: “The best is after 80.”

Saturday, November 18th, 2023

Words of wisdom: Think you’re past it at 70, 80, or 90? Here’s a cheering thought. I recently found this sentence somewhere on the internet: “In case you’re worried that you’re too old to pursue your dreams … Frank Lloyd Wright completed a third of his life’s work between the ages of 80 and 92.” Was it his best work? I don’t know. Does it really matter?

Another story in a similar vein, from a different part of the world: Swedish film director and theater Ingmar Bergman turned 70 on July 14, 1988. On that occasion, he received a letter of advice from the Japanese filmmaker and painter Akira Kurosawa. Here is the letter he sent, posted on Facebook … and, inevitably, elsewhere on the internet. Kurosawa contends: “A Human Is Not Really Capable of Creating Really Good Works Until He Reaches 80.”

He concludes: “Let us hold together for the sake of movies.”

Full letter below:

Anthony Hecht centenary: two books for “the most erudite of modern poets”

Monday, November 6th, 2023

Poet David Mason writes about friend and fellow poet Anthony Hecht in The Wall Street Journal. Two books mark Hecht’s 100th birthday this year – a biography and a new collected. Mason writes:

“The poet and critic David Yezzi’s Late Romance (St. Martin’s) is a first-rate literary biography, graceful, thorough and moving, without the bloat commonly found in such endeavors. And the English publisher and editor Philip Hoy has given us a superb Collected Poems: Including Late and Uncollected Work (Knopf), including not only work from Hecht’s previous collections but also seven beautiful ‘Late Poems From Liguria’ and a worthwhile selection of uncollected work. Since Hecht is among the most erudite of modern poets, steeped in the Bible as well as Shakespeare, readers may be pleased to find nearly 50 pages of textual notes, plus a brief chronology.”

Mason writes: “Born to a family of nonobservant Jews in New York City, Hecht grew up with privilege but also a sense of life’s precariousness. His father frequently failed in business and thrice attempted suicide. His mother’s social pretensions eventually got on Hecht’s nerves. At the age of 6 he saw one result of the 1929 market crash—the blanket-covered bodies of suicides lying on the sidewalks.”

Hecht served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and served as a translator from French and German at ‘the liberation of Flossenbürg Concentration Camp . . . an hour’s drive from his Jewish great-grandfather’s hometown of Buttenheim,’ Yezzi writes. “What he saw in that camp and in combat ruined his sleep.”

His marriage was unhappy. Patricia Harris, a fashion model whom Sylvia Plath called as “pleasant as razor blades,” eventually moved to Brussels. His second marriage iin 1971, to Helen D’Alessandro, celebrated in his marvelous book Millions of Strange Shadows (1977).

Mason’s review concludes: “Readers will differ in their own responses to individual works, but no other recent poet in English has left us such an abundant display of what a certain kind of talent—ironic, formal, elegant—can do. He was my teacher and friend, which leaves me echoing what he said of his friend Joseph Brodsky: ‘Reader, dwell with his poems.’”

Read the whole thing over at the Wall Street Journal here.