Archive for 2024

On revising manuscripts: “Mistrust everything that is effortless!”

Thursday, June 13th, 2024
Muriel Spark’s approach? Not for him.

We’ve written about Trevor Cribben Merrill‘s novel Minor Indignities here. We’ve written about Trevor here and here and here). And we’ve also written about fascinating substack, Writing Fiction After Girard, and we recommend a look, especially today, as he writes about “Dana Gioia and René Girard on the Art of Revision.”

An excerpt:

The British novelist Muriel Spark (author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie among many others) is said to have revised her work very sparingly, if at all. In this interview on the BBC she cheekily summarizes her novel-writing method: “I begin at the beginning, I write the title, then I write my name, I turn over, I write the title of the book, I write ‘chapter one,’ and then I write on. I leave a space so I can make alterations as I go along, but I don’t revise it afterwards. And then it goes to the typist, and she types it, and I revise that, and that’s the book. That’s finished.”

Trevor riffs on that theme: “’Man mistrusts everything that is effortless,’ the philosopher Joseph Pieper once wrote, and much as I love her novels, I will confess to mistrusting Spark’s approach to the art of fiction. But this may only be because I am so incapable of emulating it. I am the sort of writer whose drafts are usually bad to an embarrassing extent, though as a rule I only realize this in retrospect. Perhaps you have had the experience of sending what you think is a finished piece of writing off to a friend. No sooner has it escaped your control than its flaws become glaringly, horrifyingly obvious. Or else you close your laptop and go to bed in the smug belief that you have written something masterful, only to wake up the next morning, reread the previous night’s pages, and realize how abysmally wrong you were. If these experiences have the ring of familiarity about them, then you and I are the same sort of writers.

The first reaction in such cases is usually to do everything possible to save face—frantically revise and resend, begging your recipient to ignore the previous message; delete the subpar pages and, chalking their mediocrity up to fatigue, pretend they never existed. I suspect that this is because most of us, deep down, feel somehow that we should be capable of tossing off novels (or poems, plays) with the same ease as Muriel Spark. We see our imperfect drafts as evidence of a shameful defect from which our artistic betters have been spared.

Read the rest here.

Pierre Saint-Amand celebrates Robert Harrison: “a mix of rock’n’roll and oracular antiquity”

Friday, May 31st, 2024

On April 19, Stanford celebrated the remarkable and many-faceted career of Professor Robert Pogue Harrison, Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature in the Department of French & Italian. We published Andrea Capra‘s tribute to him “How to Think with Robert Pogue Harrison,” on the Book Haven. Capra, a grateful former student, is now Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Princeton. Today, we share the presentation from a colleague who attended the festivities. Pierre Saint-Amand, Yale University’s Benjamin F. Barge Professor of French (he was formerly at Stanford), focuses his research on 18th-century literature, especially the libertine novel, the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and literary criticism and theory. Some of you may remember also him from the Another Look 2019 discussion of Madame de LaFayette’s landmark 1678 novella, The Princesse de Clèves. He was a brilliant addition to the Another Look panel, and a lively presence at Stanford day-long symposium for Robert Harrison as he officially transitioned to “emeritus.” Here’s what he said:

I am pleased to say a few words about Robert Harrison as we open this conference on the occasion of his retirement. These will be not savant words but words of affection. Robert and I were both young assistant professors in the early eighties, here at Stanford. Robert was then a specialist of Dante, fresh from Cornell, having written on the Vita Nuova. I am glad I had a front row seat to the immediate rise of his global success and his amazing career. I saw him mutate to become a philosopher, in the old sense of the term, one expressing his views on the human condition, and a public intellectual as he took to the waves. Everything started with Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, a prescient book of which I remember the humble and patient beginning. Robert put it together assembling erudition and swaps of visionary poetic language, going from Vico to Zanzotto. I am attached to Robert’s early books, as I felt a part of them when they were being written, and as they got especially a second distinguished life in French. Robert enjoyed naming these translations (beautifully realized by Florence Naugrette): he repeated those names as if they contained a special essence; he would say Forêts, Jardins, Les Morts. They were not books but some kinds of ecstatic emanations of the originals. Robert was a true professor of French and Italian; he was the eminent bridge of these two linguistic regions of this department and certainly the major intellectual spirit linking the two communities.

Pierre Saint-Amand

 He writes beautifully of this place, Stanford, that he will never attempt to leave, as I did (for Robert likes the woods as much as I like the city life). The university, he writes in Jardins, gave him so much. It’s strange to think of Robert as a man of institution, but he valued the university, this university, as a place of humanist exception and certainly of civilized friendship. He sees the university positively as a perfected garden. He has stayed here to live at Stanford, finding his habitat, his habitation, on the most perfect and secret street, Gerona Road, a hidden route in a wooden local. Robert finally left a modest cottage in a garden where he wrote his most precious books, now, for his house: a modern construction barely elevated above the land; an almost invisible structure hidden in the landscape of trees. This place resembles him and entertains his monastic and savage legend. I am reminded that in the cottage the forest once came magically to him when a branch of foliage pierced through a window to keep company to his computer. That was an awesome sight, a miracle of provoked thought, we could say, that wanted to prove to Robert he was writing the right books on nature.

 Robert is retiring. He will be gone from his classroom, gone from the Quadrangle, but you will still be able to hear him when he takes to the waves. For he has this other life, really a voice, a mix of rock’n’roll and oracular antiquity. Who says KZSU like Robert Harrison? Where is the location of that electronic space that invites his baritone eloquence? You say it comes from the Stanford campus, better it is a global digital agora. That’s where you will find Robert Harrison, Robert the prophet, warning us of the impending doom and delivering an activism of the thought. In the manner of Hannah Arendt, his muse, he sees those dark clouds threatening of a rain that doesn’t come. Recently, Robert has left the forest for the cosmos (I mean by that the worlds) making an even more giant intellectual, philosophical, and critical leap. We have all become followers of Entitled Opinions, hooked to the news of dark times. Robert though has a secret, a pharmakos at the ready, nothing other than the poetry of his vision, a poetry that is always the promise of a survivable redemption.

Robert Pogue Harrison with  Chloe Edmondson and Pierre Saint-Amand discussing Princesse de Clèves (Photo: David Schwartz)

Cheers to the man whose name is a rhyme! Poetry champion Mike Peich turns 80!

Monday, May 20th, 2024
Mike Peich tirelessly shares his fine press books to visitors. Here in 2014

Way back in 1995, a literary movement was born: the West Chester Poetry Conference, with 85 poets and scholars in attendance gathering in the small burg outside Philadelphia. The original core faculty members included Annie Finch, R. S. Gwynn, Mark Jarman, Robert McDowell, and Timothy Steele.

Mike Peich’s “Aralia” fine press books on display

They had a mission. In a world where poetry has become almost irrelevant, the poets gathered in West Chester wanted to return it to a general audience. Their weapons of choice? Traditional forms, rhyme and meter, those age-old tools of the poet’s craft, which fell out of fashion in the last century but were making a startling comeback. Why did it appeal? Because it echoes with cadences that have been familiar to English-speakers for centuries.

The conference was co-founded by a maverick California poet, Dana Gioia, and a local fine-press printer, Michael Peich. It soon became perhaps the largest such ongoing symposium in America, with more than 200 by the time the century turned. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it “a true event, one of the most important such conferences in the United States.” Over the years, it’s pulled in such heavyweights as Richard Wilbur – arguably America’s greatest living poet – as well as Anthony Hecht and Britain’s Wendy Cope, among others. Together, Gioia and Peich made this small suburban campus into an unlikely literary mecca.

The birthday boy: Mike Peich turned 80 last weekend on May 18.

Not everyone was a fan of what the West Chester conference represented. The movement that gave birth to it – loosely called “New Formalism” – has been locked in a David-and-Goliath struggle with several of the more powerful institutions in today’s poetry world. Notable among them is Philadelphia’s prestigious American Poetry Review, which in 1992 published a blistering attack on it as “dangerous nostalgia” with a “social as well as a linguistic agenda.” Another critic labeled the group “the Reaganites of poetry.” And a recent issue of the American Poetry Review makes a dismissive reference to “neo-conservative formalism.”

Well, you can read the whole story here. It’s disappeared from the Philadelphia Magazine online, but we have preserved the article, “The Bards of the ‘Burbs,” just for you.

Meanwhile, many of the West Chester veterans praised him in – what else? – poetry, beginning with Dana himself, riffing on Tennyson‘s “Ulysses” with his good friend and fellow poet David Mason:

Michael Peich Turns Eighty

It little profits that an idle man
By a still press, with a half-empty can
Of beer should undertake a survey of his life.
One might as well carve water with a knife,
And water passeth underneath a bridge.
He flushes and returneth to the fridge.

The long day wanes. The game shows now begin. 
The existential question—switch to gin?
It is the evening makes him think this way,
As repetitious as a roundelay.
He can’t stay up too late, can’t see the stars,
The doctors have forbidden him cigars.

Old age hath yet its honor and its trauma,
From scheming poets and their endless drama,
Their endless readings and their endless woes,
Self-laureled poets with their souls of prose.
No blinded Cyclops roaring in a rage
Is half as awful as some poet’s page.

Such steady service to the Thankless Muse 
Would drive a less heroic man to booze.
(A recreation he can’t even try;
His poet friends have drunk his cellar dry.)
But wise Ulysses sees his shelf and smiles.
The books he printed are his Happy Isles.

Turn off the screen, and let the low skies darken.
Time to reread Dick Wilbur, Kees, and Larkin.
Though much is taken, he will undertake—
For Dianne and his worthy spirit’s sake—
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to growse,
Or let another poet in the house.

From Meg Schoerke

Tell all the truth but tell it “Peich”—
Success in Printing lies
Not in Broadsides, nor Matchless proof,
No Letter out of Line—
But Truest—be—the Type of man
For whom Ink Brayers roll—
His Font of Generosity
And Impress on our Soul—

From Leslie Monsour

Dear Mike,

The time has come, now that you’re eighty,
To turn to matters deep and weighty.
By now, you must be sage and wise;
No need for doubt or compromise.
Of lessons, you have gathered plenty.
Your insight measures twenty/twenty.
Now share with us your deepest findings
And what you’ve learned from life’s hard grindings.
And, while you share all this and more,
Don’t hesitate to freely pour,
Along with your profoundest self,
That twelve-year-old Macallan…up there…on the shelf. 

From James Matthew Wilson

To Michael Peich on His Eightieth Birthday

The great Romantic poet speaks of acts
Of “unremembered . . . kindness and of love,”
As, in our human lives, redeeming facts,
Graces descending like a blazing dove.
How many are the poets you have aided
In finding their first feet in verse and rhyme?
Your memory of such things may, now, have faded
As do most things beneath the wash of time.

So, at the rounding of these eighty years,
I write to recollect your kindest deeds
While offering you as well my hearty cheers
As your ninth decade in the world proceeds,
Such cheers come as a sonnet to ensure
That they and you alike may long endure.

From Robert B. Shaw

For Michael Peich’s Birthday

Poets, if you are out to seek
a paradigm for life and art,
observe how Peich has scaled his peak.
What’s eighty years? A fresh new start.

From Shirley Geok-lin Lim

I never met Mike.
This counts as a strike
Against me. No like
On FaceBook. Dislike
Me. I’ll take a hike,
You poets, a shrike
Among songbirds. 

From Mark Jarman & Robert McDowell

Celebrating Michael Peich
Is like riding a Schwinn bike.

Though he’s hardly a tyke,
He’s still someone we like.

He’s younger than Ike, 
He’s Mighty Mike!

Need a patched dike?
Depend upon Mike.

Transcontinental Mike
Drives home the golden spike.

You’ll quickly cycle
Through the best rhymes for Michael. 

But he is unique
Like the tip of Pike’s Peak.

If it’s favors you seek
Any day of the week

In a pet or a pique
He will soothe you and speak

Of the beauty of books
In crannies and nooks

Handcrafted, handmade
And never mislaid.

That’s the magic of Mike
Whom you know that we like.

On horseback or trike
Our Michael will strike.

And what is our takeaway?
80 bells for his birthday!                  

And a personal favorite from David J. Rothman:

Michael Peich
Is no longer a tyke.
His thoughts are more weighty
Now that he’s…fifty.

“While Malcolm’s shoes are singular,” he said, “I walk in my own shoes.” How a small publishing house found a new life.

Sunday, May 12th, 2024
Steve Wasserman among his 20,000 books (Photo: Ximema Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight)

The story of small publishing houses in today’s world often aren’t happy ones. Here’s the story of one that is.

I know Malcolm Margolin, the legendary founder of the valiant publishing house, Heyday Books in Berkeley. I know his successor, Steve Wasserman, even better. I wrote for Steve when he was the editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books when it was the best newspaper in the nation. And now I’ve published with Heyday – well, I wrote about that here and here. Czesław Miłosz: A California LIfe is now a reality, and about to appear with Kraków’s Znak, the Polish poet’s favored publisher. I’ll be writing from Kraków as that event happens next month.

This, however, is the story of Heyday. Here’s an excerpt from Joanne Furio‘s article in Berkeleyside. Read the whole thing here:

In November 2016, four months after becoming the publisher of Heyday books, the independent, alternative press Malcolm Margolin founded in Berkeley in 1974, Steve Wasserman faced what he described as “a major hiccup.” The nonprofit imprint was  $250,000 in the red and couldn’t pay salaries. There were few options, including the possibility of closing up shop. 

“We had to really look at each other and say, maybe we could throw a 40th anniversary wake and celebrate the achievements that were made during the first four decades of Heyday,” he said. “On the other hand, if you look at the sweat equity that was put into the place over those 40 years, maybe there was something worth nurturing and a path forward.”

The staff chose a path forward. As Wasserman put it, everyone — himself included — cinched their belts and took a temporary pay cut. The 15-member staff was also reduced by a third. 

“Fortunately, the business rebounded,” he said. “We put our house in order, and now we are thriving. We’re in the best fiscal position we’ve ever enjoyed in 50 years.”


Heyday’s occupied a few rented offices around Berkeley over the years and is now in a ground-floor suite of a newish apartment building at 1808 San Pablo Avenue in Northwest Berkeley. Some 20,000 books belonging to Wasserman line the walls, practically from floor to ceiling. Storing the books in the Heyday offices, where employees had access to them, was a condition of his hiring and seen as a win-win for both. Wasserman’s been hauling them around the country for years. 

For Wasserman, returning to Berkeley closed a circle. He went to Berkeley High and UC Berkeley and has returned to the North Shattuck neighborhood he grew up in. He joked that his hometown has become “the La Brea Tar Pits of the counterculture,” which he also played a role in. 

At Garfield Junior High (now King Middle School), he organized the first demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1965. In 1968, he co-led a successful student strike there that founded the first Black history and studies department at an American high school. In 1969, he organized a sleep-in to protest the military occupation of Berkeley, a.k.a. People’s Park. 


Wasserman had known Margolin for years when he learned of the opening and called him. “‘Why would you want to leave the New York big-time to work at Heyday, this farshtunken publisher in Berkeley?’” Wasserman recounted, providing the translation for the Yiddish word farshtunken, which means “stinking.” 

Malcolm Margolin at his home in 2021 by Christopher Michel

“‘After all,’ he said, both flattering me and slightly insulting me, ‘you’re a big-time New York publisher. Why would you want to waste your time?’” Wasserman said. “I said, “What do you think big-time New York publishers do? They do the same thing you do. They look for good ideas and for fresh, original voices. The scale is different, the work is the same.” 

Wasserman sees his role as a steward to safeguard Heyday’s editorial and publishing program in a fiscally responsible way that honors the DNA of its founder as he helps write its second chapter — in his own way. 

“While Malcolm’s shoes are singular,” he said, “I walk in my own shoes.”

Since taking the helm, Wasserman has stabilized Heyday’s balance sheet and expanded its stable of writers to include the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley. “We’re expanding in every realm,” he said. 

Under Wassermann’s stewardship, Heyday’s no longer in the red and has managed to break even every year. Each year, the imprint has raised about $1 million, with sales revenue at just over $2 million. Sixty-five percent of its revenue comes from book sales, according to Heyday’s 2023 Annual Report. 


Recent books Wasserman has shepherded include Linda Rondstadt’s Feels Like Home (with Laurence Downes), Tony Platt’s The Scandal of Cal and Don Cox’s Making Revolution: My Life in the Black Panther Party.

In addition, Wasserman has recently tried on the hat of “author.” At the suggestion of staffers, he has collected his essays in a memoir titled Tell Me Something, Tell Me Anything, Even if It’s a Lie, due out Oct. 8. The book is being blurbed by such literary heavyweights as Joyce Carol Oates and Vivian Gornick

He has also written, with Gayle Wattawa, Heyday’s general manager, the intro to the book Heyday at Fifty: Selected Writings from Five Decades of Independent California Publishing, coming out Aug. 13 to celebrate Heyday’s 50th anniversary. Gary Snyder, Jane Smiley, Ursula Pike, Greg Sarris and Susan Straight are among the contributors. 

Looking ahead, Wasserman is encouraged by Heyday’s prospects in an industry that appears to be rebounding from the gloom-and-doom predictions of a decade ago. He noted that more independent bookstores have opened up in the last five years, and e-book sales have declined. He admits that attention spans are shortening, and that remains a challenge, but books as we know them are not disappearing anytime soon. 

“Ultimately, I want to no longer be the best-kept literary secret in the state of California. I want us to be the principal independent publisher that would-be authors think about when they want to publish their books,” he said. “My ambition is that we become a magnetic pole that attracts to our side like iron filings writers of ambition and talent who yearn to be published by us. And I want to do that by continuing the bespoke tradition that has been so well established, which is part of our identity.” 

Again, read the whole thing at Berkeleyside here.

How to Think with Robert Pogue Harrison

Wednesday, April 24th, 2024

He’s been called one of the America’s leading humanists, and now he’s taking a step back. Robert Pogue Harrison, Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature in the Department of French & Italian at Stanford and has formally retired and is now professor emeritus – but thank goodness he promises not to go away! We need him!

The all-day event to celebrate him on Friday, April 19, was intellectually rich and joyous, as everyone would have predicted. But perhaps the talk that might have the most immediate applications in today’s world was Andrea Capra’s lively presentation – “Matters of Ordinary Mentorship or: How to Think with Robert Pogue Harrison.” Mind you, not on learning how to think like Robert, but rather learning how to think with Robert. That might benefit all of us, in academia and out. Andrea, who is Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Princeton, gave permission for us to republish his talk as a Book Haven essay. I think we can all learn something from it – about Robert, and about thinking. Here goes:

One of my most memorable Robert Harrison moments occurred in the second year of my PhD. I had just begun dipping my toes into the waters of academic conferences, and that year, I submitted an abstract for the Canadian Association of Italian Studies. My topic was Beppe Fenoglio’s Una questione privata, a story about love, friendship, and jealousy featuring Milton, a young university student who has joined the Resistenza against the Republic of Salò. With the candor typical of a second-year PhD student, I aimed to unravel, once and for all, the theme of death in this novel. To this end, I was ready to summon a formidable array of concepts gleaned from the readings I had undertaken over the previous two years. With scarce interest for matters of internal consistency and theoretical coherence, my paper began by invoking Derrida’s lecture ‘La différence,’ was carried forward by the winds of Ernst Junger’s essay The Forest Passage, and concluded with a barely hinted—at yet profound, or so I thought—Heideggerian thrust.

In my paper, Milton, the protagonist of Una questione privata, symbolized what Derrida termed faisceau—a complex assemblage which, by possessing the structure of weaving, allows different threads and lines of meaning to diverge in several directions, just as they are always ready to intertwine with others. Indeed, these threads did intertwine—through an act of hermeneutical tailoring, I was the one weaving them together by referencing Junger’s The Forest Passage. In my paper, Milton’s deviation from the structured activities of the Resistenza in order to ascertain whether his beloved one had betrayed him, mirrored what Junger describes as ‘the forest rebel’—an individual whose claim to freedom is, I quote, “an affirmation of one’s desire as destiny.”

Andrea Capra learned from a maestro

But Milton’s story ends in disaster. Fully aware that his plan is doomed to fail, Milton nevertheless carries it forth. He dies, shot, in the midst of the action – and there I thought I had found it. In that act of willed martyrdom, I saw Milton being-towards-death – with all the hyphens in the right place too. There, my Milton expressed, I quote, “one’s ownmost and most extreme potentiality-of-being, that is, the possibility of authentic existence.”

As if I had discovered a magic formula to unveil the unplumbed depths of Fenoglio, I eagerly sent the paper to Robert. Knowing he liked Una questione privata, I was excited to share this theoretical concoction with him. Hours later, after teaching my Italian 103 class, I was on my way to Axe and Palm to grab some lunch when my phone rang. Typically, Robert took no more than a couple of days to read my writings, but I was somewhat surprised that this time, not even four hours had passed. I picked up the phone—and oh boy.

While I shall not disclose the content of that phone call out of a sense of pride, let it suffice to say that within minutes, my hopes of radically changing the reception of Fenoglio’s work had become a relic of the past.

“I did not ignore his comments. They lingered and festered.”

At first, I was baffled by Robert’s strong criticism. His intellectual style is deeply philosophical, which he applies to his readings of literature as well. I believed I was doing just that by weaving in the thoughts of Derrida, Junger, and Heidegger into my analysis of Fenoglio. To my surprise, the parts of my paper that Robert criticized most vigorously were those where I engaged with concepts from these thinkers. However, as everyone who knows me is aware, I can be somewhat stubborn, and so I presented the paper without making any changes. At the conference, nothing particularly bad happened—after all, in the humanities, one can indeed get away with murder, especially as a graduate student in a rapidly shrinking discipline.

While I was stubborn enough not to alter my paper in response to Robert’s critiques, I did not simply ignore his comments. In reality, they lingered and festered—the fact that I am sharing this anecdote with you today is a testament to their lasting impact. You see, Robert and I have had our fair share of intellectual disagreements over the years. Yet, I greatly admire him—his style, his intellect, his generosity, and his straightforwardness. This dynamic of occasional disagreements and enduring respect has fostered an extraordinarily productive intellectual relationship. While Robert never hesitated to critique my Latinate formulations and occasionally Byzantine sentences, given my respect for him I could not dismiss his insights lightly. And I must also add that, as I now know, criticizing a student’s work often requires more time and effort than simply endorsing it—professors sometimes choose the quickest and most frictionless path to conclude a conversation with their students.

But not Robert. And so I kept ruminating on his critique of my paper on Una questione privata. Over time, I realized that Robert’s main criticism wasn’t about my choice of approaching Fenoglio from a philosophical point of view. Rather, the problem was that in my paper Fenoglio was crushed by the theoretical weight of the names and concepts I employed. By relying too much on conceptually dense formulations, I did not promote legibility. Robert wouldn’t describe himself as a Cartesian – and in fact, some of my favorite pages of Robert are those where he describes Cartesians in revolt, such as he does in Forests – but Robert taught me that one’s ideas must be clear and distinct before they can be set free in our communities. This is, after all, an ethical imperative: if our goal is to communicate something, then legibility is key. My ideas, in that paper, were neither clearly nor distinctly conveyed. My use of Derrida, Junger, and Heidegger was obfuscating, rather than illuminating. The point was not to get rid of these thinkers – the point was that I wasn’t using them properly. Instead of carefully moving within Fenoglio’s novel, I was stampeding around, raising a cloud of dust that served no purpose. In fact, that dust prevented my ideas from being clearly seen.

Robert Harrison at University of Notre Dame in 2022.

Robert, I believe, was inviting me to rely more on ordinary language, rather than on the hyphenated and Latinate formulations of high-theory. Not because we should dismiss theory – but because theory works at its best when it is at its lightest. Otherwise said, if my words could convey the nuances and insights of Derrida, Junger, and Heidegger without my rookie attempts at parroting their style, then I would be doing a service to my primary source, to those thinkers, and, most importantly, to my audience.

“Contempt for ordinary language is contempt for the humanities.”

It is today my belief that once ordinary language is laughed out of the room, philosophical theories are no longer held responsible at all to the ways we actually speak and actually live. And aren’t the humanities ultimately for a good part connected to how we actually speak and live? To me, it is clear that the descriptions of human life we find in the novels of Samuel Beckett or in the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi are not mere entertainment. In my view, and among other things, they teach us to perceive and describe what goes on in social and individual life. To echo what Hilary Putnam once said, contempt for ordinary language is, at bottom, contempt for the humanities.

Robert’s work – in which I also prominently include his advising role – is a reminder that thinking and living are intimately connected. I am not sure he would speak of “ordinary language” à la Wittgenstein, Austin, or Cavell in relation to this connection. But so what? In the end, this is my way of thinking with Robert – not of thinking like Robert. An intellectual mentor in the trust sense of the term is someone who seeks to develop the voice of his mentee – not someone who wishes to see his own voice replicated.

My understanding of ordinary language philosophy is intimately tied to my work in phenomenology. This too is greatly influenced by Robert’s mentorship. It is with Robert that I truly started getting my hands dirty with phenomenology, and doing something with it rather than simply reading about it. This took place over long office hours and individualized reading sessions – with the most meaningful one probably being a legendary quarter when Robert, Corey Dansereau, and I, read and discussed Peter Sloterdijk’s book Not Saved. Essays After Heidegger.

An invitation to pay attention to the ordinary

I bring together ordinary language and phenomenology for a key reason: isn’t Husserl’s invitation to go back to the things themselves an invitation to pay attention to the ordinary? If we understand Husserl’s sentence as a rally cry to focus on the ways that things are given in experience, and to shift from what he terms a “natural attitude” to a “phenomenological attitude”, then we must for a good part resort to the language of the ordinary – even if just as a starting point. In phenomenology, this shift of attitudes involves a methodological bracketing, known as epoché, which suspends assumptions and judgments regarding a situation to explore the structures of consciousness underpinning it. Yet, in undertaking a transcendental reduction, we must be cautious not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. In other words, by doing phenomenology it is my contention that we build upon the ordinary, rather than dismiss it. This is because ordinary concepts and ordinary words are essential to describe ordinary experiences – in fact, this is what we do all the time.

Let me give you an example of how this may work in practice. As some of you know, I’m currently finishing a manuscript on how horror manifests in literary works not belonging to the horror genre. Why this seeming reluctance towards the horror genre? It’s in fact something different than reluctance – it represents a return to the ordinary. Consider how we already use the word horror beyond the horror genre. In languages such as English, Italian, French or Spanish, the word horror comes already socialized. Perhaps you used this word to evoke the catastrophes unfolding around the globe, such as natural disasters, violations of human rights, or forced displacements. Perhaps it reminds you of the illness that all of a sudden took hold of the life of a loved one. Or maybe, less tragically so, it brings back those couple of truly horrifying minutes that you experienced the last time you flew through turbulence.

Robert Harrison as DJ for “Entitled Opinions” podcast series

In such cases, we may resort to the word ‘horror’ and its derivatives because horror is mundane, widespread, and a facet of our life. Indeed, we use this word to speak about the concrete phenomena of our lives. For these reasons, my manuscript focuses on depictions of, for instance, warfare, poverty, or sexual violence, rather than on zombies, vampires, or masked serial killers. In so doing, I posit that moments of horror are interwoven into the fabric of literature across genres, like the varied experiences we encounter in our lives.

In this project, I reconnect horror to lived experience, while studying its aesthetics beyond the commodified motifs of the horror genre. This rediscovery of horror is achieved through a rereading of the modern Italian canon, showing a literary tradition not associated with horror to be in fact rife with it. To this end, Ireclaim the ordinary word horror in all its power to analyze Giacomo Leopardi’s pages on existential suffering, along with Primo Levi’s writings on Auschwitz, Elena Ferrante’s descriptions of violence, and the works of various other writers.

In pursuing this project, I cannot say that I always followed Robert’s suggestions. And yet, as I’ve been discussing, my thinking on the topic is profoundly affected by Robert’s mentorship. How to make sense of this apparent contradiction?

“Turn down the lights!” Come join us for Tanizaki’s masterpiece, “In Praise of Shadows” on April 29!

Wednesday, April 17th, 2024

The eminent Japanese author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki has been called an “ecological prophet.”

Please join us for a discussion of his 1933 classic In Praise of Shadows. It’s coming up fast! Another Look will discuss Tanizaki’s 73-page essay at 7 p.m. (PST) on Monday, April 29, at Levinthal Hall in the Stanford Humanities Center at 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus. This is a hybrid event, so you can come in person or via zoom, but we encourage you to register either way (link below). 

Some more praise for the book: “Tanizaki sums up what he feels Japan has lost in becoming modern. In brief, it is his view that the traditional Japanese arts thrived in the shade, and that the glaring light of the Twentieth Century is destroying them,” wrote Edward Seidensticker in The Atlantic in 1955. “At the end of the essay he suggests that we try turning down the lights.”

Ethen Wood, the associate director of Stanford’s Sustainable Architecture + Engineering, grew up in San Francisco’s Zen Buddhist community in the 80’s and spent part of his childhood in a Zen Buddhist monastery in the mountains of Carmel, without electricity. “This was part of a concerted effort by the temple to stay true to the traditions and historic experiences from Japan,” he said.

The book is available on or, at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto (call first). It’s also available on Kindle. Register on the link below.

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 three special guests: Mark Gonnerman, who has a Stanford PhD in religious studies, has been a student of Japanese histories and cultures since he first ventured to Kyoto in the mid-1970s. Meri Mitsuyoshi is a longtime Another Look aficionado whose appreciation of Japanese aesthetics is informed by study of ritual and intergenerational cultural transmission. 

This event is sponsored by the Stanford Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford, and the Stanford Humanities Center.

Register here: