Archive for 2024

Navalny’s friend speaks out: “Yes, it’s scary to talk, it’s been scary for a long time.”

Friday, February 16th, 2024
The speaks out

Several years ago, I remember a long languorous afternoon at the Stanford Shopping Center, having coffee with Varya Gornostaeva, editor of the prestigious Corpus Publishing house in Moscow, and her husband Serguei Parkhomenko, a senior advisor at the Kennan Institute. How times have changed. Today I connected with Varya on a grimmer matter.

The whole world is outraged by the unexpected and unexplained death of Alexei Navalny, a heroic Russian opposition leader, lawyer, political activist, and freedom fighter. He died a political prisoner in the Arctic today. We know no more.

Here are Varya’s comments about the new and shocking events surrounding a man who was a personal friend, posted on Facebook in Russian:

No words for a long time. None at all today. But I have to find a few; it seems like it’s my duty. A duty to the man who was the hope of a huge country, although the country did not know about it or think about it. At best, it spat on him – and on itself at the same time; at worst, it oppressed and ridiculed him. A duty to the man I considered to be my friend and my personal hope, the man I trusted completely and in whom I had complete confidence. He wrote me amazing letters from prison – after reading them I would have been ashamed to break down and whine, ashamed to complain, ashamed to feel sorry for myself.

Navalny and an admirer

I have no words, but I have to find them. This is such terrible grief, such terrible loss, such terrible helplessness. Today we said to each other – that’s it, we have no more hope. And we immediately thought that Lyosha [Alexei] wouldn’t approved of us, he would be ashamed of us. No hope, really? He lived only for this hope of ours. He almost died for it once, but he survived for it, and he returned to Russia for it. And now he has died for it. No, that’s the point. Not died, you can’t say that. Not died, but murdered. Just like that – he was murdered, and many participated in this murder. The main murderer is Putin. And those who carried out his orders are murderers. And those around him are murderers. And those who were silent – they covered it up and protected the murderers. Yes, it’s scary to talk, it’s been scary for a long time. It’s scary to talk out loud, but at least tell yourself this truth, tell your children, tell your mom and dad. You cannot go out to the public square, now no one asks that of you anymore. If you did not go out before – it’s on your conscience. But now at least admit it to yourself – we live among murderers. I live among murderers. Murderers of the whole country of Ukraine, murderers of Russia, murderers of its best people. Say this to yourself. That’s already a lot.

Grief, grief. Feeling helpless, powerless in front of terrible evil. And also rage. And also burning hatred, so unusual, unknown even a few years ago. I never knew what hate was before. And now it is with me every day. There’s something about this hate. No, it does not destroy you, it does not eat you up inside, there is nothing to be ashamed of, there is no need to think that it is giving birth to a new hate. I gave myself permission to hate. This is noble hate. Hating evil is necessary for mental health. And also gratitude. That we lived nearby, that such a human example was shown to us. Such impeccable sense of language, intonation, such selfless dedication without pathos, such wit. And such fearless confidence in his own rightness. This is what hope is – it happened to us once and it can still happen again.

And it will.

How Rembrandt can help you survive in a sad, lonely, angry, and mean society

Tuesday, February 6th, 2024

How did we become a society where people shout at their neighbors, refuse to eat with relatives who didn’t vote as they did, honk at each other in traffic, yell at strangers on the social media, and otherwise snipe at each other. Whatever became of goodwill and neighborliness? David Brooks has got an answer: “I’d argue that we have become so sad, lonely, angry and mean as a society in part because so many people have not been taught or don’t bother practicing to enter sympathetically into the minds of their fellow human beings. We’re overpoliticized while growing increasingly undermoralized, underspiritualized, undercultured.”

What remedy? He makes one of the best cases I’ve read in a long time for the arts and the humanities in “How to Save a Sad, Lonely, Angry and Mean Society.” An excerpt the New York Times piece, which has more than 1,300 comments:

When I come across a Rembrandt in a museum, I try to train myself to see with even half of Rembrandt’s humanity. Once in St. Petersburg, I had the chance to stand face to face with one of his greatest paintings, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” He painted this one at the end of his life, when popular taste had left him behind, his finances were in ruins, his wife and four of his five children were in their graves. I have seen other renderings of that parable, but not one in which the rebel son is so broken, fragile, pathetic, almost hairless and cast down. The father envelops the young man with a love that is patient, selfless and forbearing. Close observers note the old man’s hands. One is masculine, and protective. The other is feminine, and tender.

Though this painting is about a parable, it’s not here to teach us some didactic lesson. We are simply witnessing an emotional moment, which is about fracture and redemption, an aging artist painting a scene in which he imagines all his losses are restored. It is a painting about what it is like to finally realize your deepest yearnings — for forgiveness, safety, reconciliation, home. Meanwhile, the son’s older brother is off to the side, his face tensely rippling with a mixture of complex thoughts, which I read as rigid scorn trying to repress semiconscious shoots of fraternal tenderness.

Experiences like this help us understand ourselves in light of others — the way we are like them and the way we are different. As Toni Morrison put it: “Like Frederick Douglass talking about his grandmother, and James Baldwin talking about his father, and Simone de Beauvoir talking about her mother, these people are my access to me; they are my entrance into my own interior life.”

Experiences with great artwork deepen us in ways that are hard to describe. To have visited Chartres Cathedral or finished The Brothers Karamazov is not about acquiring new facts but to feel somehow elevated, enlarged, altered. In Rainer Maria Rilke’s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the protagonist notices that as he ages, he’s able to perceive life on a deeper level: “I am learning to see. I don’t know why it is, but everything penetrates more deeply into me and does not stop at the place where until now it always used to finish.”

Mark Edmundson teaches literature at the University of Virginia and is one of those who still lives by the humanist code. In his book Why Read? he describes the potential charge embedded in a great work of art: “Literature is, I believe, our best goad toward new beginnings, our best chance for what we might call secular rebirth. However much society at large despises imaginative writing, however much those supposedly committed to preserve and spread literary art may demean it, the fact remains that in literature there abide major hopes for human renovation.”

I confess I still cling to the old faith that culture is vastly more important than politics or some pre-professional training in algorithms and software systems. I’m convinced that consuming culture furnishes your mind with emotional knowledge and wisdom; it helps you take a richer and more meaningful view of your own experiences; it helps you understand, at least a bit, the depths of what’s going on in the people right around you.

Read the whole thing here.

Micah Mattix also weighed in, with an excerpt from the introduction of his book, tentatively titled Literature as Encounter:

In 1959, Frank O’Hara complained in his sardonic Personism: A Manifesto about poets who worried about the reception of their work: “But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them? Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat.”

The same could be said of critics and scholars today. We are told, on the one hand, that we should read literature because it enriches our lives and our experience of the world. Poetry reclaims, “the power and grace of words,” as one New York Times columnist put it, and gives us hope. On the other hand, we are told that literature is a powerful tool in the war against oppression. It teaches us to love our neighbors and calls us to fight those who subjugate others. It preserves our democracy. How many scholars have argued that the reduction or elimination of humanities courses is a threat to our way of life?

But both understandings of the function and value of literature miss the mark. While certainly motivated by the best of intentions, such defenses of reading often end up reducing literature to little more than a tool of self-actualization or societal transformation. They admit too much to the utilitarian man—that only things that are morally and socially useful are worthwhile—and too often prove wrong.

After all, if literature makes us better people, why are the individuals closest to it—the writers themselves—so often so terrible? Gabriele D’Annunzio was a blood-thirsty warmonger, Ezra Pound was a fascist, E.E. Cummings was a misogynist, William Carlos Williams was a philanderer, Vernon Scannell was a wife-beater and a drunk, and Amiri Baraka was an anti-Semite. Anyone who thinks that reading literature makes us less petty, more empathetic, has never been to an English department meeting. …

Defending literature in terms of its therapeutic or moral value has also had the effect of making it more easily dismissed or censured. If reading literature is supposed to improve my emotional well-being, but I find myself “triggered” by its images of sexual violence, why should I read it? If a poem contains morally or politically objectionable material—and its primary purpose is to make us more moral and society more just—why should high school or college students study it? What is the case, in other words, for reading literature when the therapeutic and moral accounts of its value have proven misleading or wrong?

That some professors seem unable to give a clear answer to this question and even give warrant to its premise by removing “harmful” works from their courses or calling for the cancelation of certain writers shows how confused we have become about what literature is and what it does and doesn’t do.

In short, critical defenses of literature’s supposed utilitarian value do more harm than good. They say too much about literature’s secondary values, which disappoint or make literature into something it is not, and they say too little—or nothing at all—about what makes literature distinct from other forms of discourse.

He concludes: “What we need instead, I go on to argue, is a renewed understanding of the religious nature of all great literature. It provides us with an encounter—with something or someone “hors texte” in an idealized form that leads to a moment of recognition. This is the surprise of literature, which in the best works is also a moment of momentary transcendence. It is for this moment that we read, whether it changes us or not.

Reading the “Inferno” in Ukraine: “a millennium-long class in surviving hell with poetry”

Saturday, January 20th, 2024

How is the shelling of Kyiv akin to Dante’s Inferno? Ukrainian Poet Ilya Kaminsky (we’ve written about him here and here and here) calls it “a millennium-long class in surviving hell with poetry, through music, imagery, and poetry’s willingness to look without flinching at the details of both terror and wonder: in a strange way, this book is a call to courage.” He adds: “The poem is outside of history, like snow and rain and wind.”

An excerpt or two from his piece in
Asymptote Journal:

I have a friend who, before she ran from Kyiv as Russia bombarded the city in early 2022, spent weeks shivering in the bomb shelters as the city was shelled.

Ilya Kaminsky explains why poetry matters. (Photo by Slowking)

At first, she first recited poems by heart, and then she began to translate the poems she remembered.

That is how she got through the hours.

Who is to tell me after this that poetry doesn’t matter?


Somewhere in Ukraine right now, my friend who publishes books orders printers in the bombed out city of Kharkiv to produce thousands of copies of Inferno. The trucks deliver weapons into Kharkiv. And, going back, empty, they decide to pick up thousands of copies of Dante’s Inferno.

This is an image of war that happens as I write it: cars are bringing weapons into the besieged city that’s bombed daily, and they leave full of books.


Opening Dante’s Inferno enrolls the reader in a millennium-long class in surviving hell with poetry, through music, imagery, and poetry’s willingness to look without flinching at the details of both terror and wonder: in a strange way, this book is a call to courage.


In the underworld Dante meets his enemies and heroes—great thinkers, murderers, poets, politicians—but no one is too monumental. They are all trying to stay relevant to a living man, all too human, fragile, grotesque, not unlike ourselves, trying to say something that still matters.

Read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, the journal reminds us: as support for Ukraine wavers in the US, we at Asymptote have kept up our coverage of the region also through Elina Sventsytska’s devastating poetry, a review of Oksana Lutsyshyna’s latest award-winning novel in English translation, and a dispatch about the chilling aftermath of a Russian dissident’s self-immolation.

Czesław Miłosz and the “wonder eclipse”

Tuesday, January 9th, 2024
His constant regret: that human experience eludes description.

In 2022, Tikkun published an article by the writer Lucien Zell, “The Wonder Eclipse: Scaling the Cliffs of Milosz,” in which he discusses his six-week Community of Writers” master class led by Pulitzer-prizewinning poet Robert Hass. The inevitable subject was Czesław Miłosz, since Hass’s life was transfigured by his contact with the Polish Nobelist. Hass became his foremost translator into English. Well, so many lives were changed by Miłosz. Mine too.

Zell discusses an interesting translation imbroglio with Miłosz’s 1936 poem “Encounter” in which the poet recalls a wagon ride through frozen Lithuanian fields at dawn. The final lines are famous:

A pupil of wonder, too.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
(Trans. by the poet and Lillian Vallee)

However, on a trip to Poland, another Polish poet told Hass that the poem’s final word (in Polish: zamyślenia) meant, not ‘wonder’, but, rather, ‘pensive contemplation’. “In class, Hass’s sharp scowl well-described his shock and dismay at his ‘poor’ translation . . . till, upon returning to Berkeley and rechecking his notes, he confirmed, breaking into a relieved chuckle, that Milosz himself had suggested ‘wonder’ as the appropriate English rendering of the term. In one of my course’s break-out rooms, we discussed the possibility that Milosz’s perspective had shifted enough to revise his initial poetic impulse, to the extent that by the time he found himself exiled to California (circa 1960s-70s-80s), his own ‘pensive contemplation’ had transmuted to ‘wonder.’”

Hass also described a moment when a colleague, recalling Milosz’s experiences of war and displacement, diagnosed Miłosz with ‘survivor’s guilt.’ Hass corrected him: “No, not guilt—wonder.” As Miłosz wrote in Witness of Poetry: “What surrounds us, here and now, is not guaranteed. It could just as well not exist—and so man constructs poetry out of the remnants found in ruins.” And so, I suspect, we construct our lives, too.

Joseph Brodsky thinks one basic mark of my poetry,” Milosz remarked, in an interview with Renata Gorczyńska, “is the constant regret that human experience eludes description.” Zell recalled what Milosz wrote in a passage from his poem “Notes”: “CONSOLATION: Calm down. Both your sins and your good deeds will be lost in oblivion.”

Read the rest here. And read the whole poem “Encounter” here.

Postscript: Meanwhile, don’t forget to read my own take on the great poet of California, who happened to write in Polish in Czesław Miłosz: A California Life. (Articles about that here.)

According to Cory Oldweiler writing about Czesław Miłosz: A California Life (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2021) in The Los Angeles Review of Books, “Haven lets us into her thought processes, even when she is questioning them, and lovingly recreates conversations — in the relative present, at a café with Robert Hass as they thumb through Miłosz’s 2001 volume New and Collected Poems; and in the recent past, at Miłosz’s Grizzly Peak home as the poet drinks bourbon and chats with friends into the wee hours.”

Said Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic
: Czesław Miłosz: A California Life asks about the meaning of exile, about the possibilities of a new home, about the transformation of a poetic perspective, about alienation and the building of literary bridges. But in the end, the book asks one big, nearly impossible question: How did the great Polish exile Miłosz change his newfound home—and how did California, after so many years, transform Miłosz’s own metaphysics? For it is a metaphysical question, after all: How does a place change the poet, and what does a poet do to shift our perspective on the place? On this unending journey, Cynthia L. Haven is an illuminating guide, one who brings knowledge, precision, and grace. There is much to learn from this book about Miłosz and California, yes, but also about poetry and the world.”

Eminent critic Leon Wieseltier had the final word: “Cynthia Haven’s book is delicious. She evokes so much so vividly and so intelligently; for me her pages were a restoration of a richer and less lonely time. And her intuition is right: Czeslaw Milosz and California are indeed a chapter in each other’s history.” 

Accept no imitations!

Can metaphysical ugliness promote beauty?

Monday, January 1st, 2024
Proust lover Trevor Cribben Merrill

How do authors get away with shallow, shabby, venal, morally deficient characters who appall us … but nevertheless, we read on? Trevor Cribben Merrill, author of Minor Indignities, explains: “the ‘spirit of the author’ shields the reader from the characters, ‘drawing the poison’ from their negative qualities of arrogant stupidity, shallowness, and triviality.” He writes about it on Genealogies of Modernity, a project supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities to explain “how we became modern.”

Trevor writes: “This essay is about as close as I have come to articulating an artistic credo.” Excerpt from “Three Lessons in Beauty” below:

We would not want to spend time with Proust’s snobs. In their most honest moments, even his characters describe the fancy dinner parties they attend as boring and stifling. But to read about these soirées, and the people at them, is another matter. Similarly, if we were to encounter him in real life, Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins would be a bore; on the page, he is at once a bore, and, with his absurd boasts about the size of the chimney-piece at Rosings Park, a pure delight. In both cases the authors make us enjoy the sort of people we would try to flee at a cocktail party. It is not only that Proust’s prose and metaphors are exquisite, but that he turns the wretched maneuverings and deceit of his snobs into poetry. Out of pretense, dullness, and even malice, Austen, too, makes art.

The formal innovations of the great masters always have a certain discreetness about them,” he writes. [italics his]

His characters disgust us, and yet…

Recently while sick in bed I listened to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 31, Op. 110 performed first by Rudolf Serkin and then by Glenn Gould. Composed in 1821, Op. 110 is the next to last of the composer’s piano sonatas, and falls squarely in his “late” period, during which he created many of his most beautiful and formally adventurous works. Beethoven is known for bridging classical and romantic styles. In his late years, however, he was also drawn to the contrapuntal music of the earlier baroque period.

The Op. 110 sonata is especially notable for its third movement, which employs musical structures from different moments in the history of music: classical homophony (a melody played by the right hand unfolding over chords played gently by the left); a more impassioned, stormy section expressing romantic emotion; and a fugue divided into two parts. In Serkin’s interpretation, and even more so in Gould’s, this fugue, built on a short, ascending theme, sounds very much like Bach. By paying reverent homage to the polyphony of Bach and Handel, Beethoven, as if by accident, created a novelty in the homophonic form par excellence, the sonata.

Can’t catch her in the act.

In one of his essays Milan Kundera praises this third movement of the Op. 110 sonata for “its extraordinary heterogeneity of emotion and form.” And yet, he adds, “the listener does not realize this, because the complexity seems so natural and simple.” From this beguiling naturalness Kundera draws the following lesson: “the formal innovations of the great masters always have a certain discreetness about them; such is true perfection; only among the small masters [petits maîtres] does novelty seek to call attention to itself.”

This observation calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s comment about Jane Austen: “of all the great writers,” she is “the most difficult to catch in the act.” One of Austen’s formal innovations occurs in Northanger Abbey, where she makes her “defense of the novel” as an art that gives “unaffected pleasure” while truthfully representing human nature in beautiful language. Austen admired Henry Fielding, who included mini-essays on the novel at the beginning of each of the eighteen books of Tom Jones.

When she shares her own thoughts on fiction half a century after Fielding, however, she makes them emerge seamlessly from her characters’ obsession with Gothic fiction, and—with the discretion of a great master—tucks them in at the end of chapter five. What in Fielding comes across as theoretical reflection added on to the fictional narrative is in Austen woven into the work’s fabric. In this way she keeps one foot in the aesthetic of the eighteenth-century novel, with its obtrusively playful authorial interventions, while bringing a new level of unity and polish to her chosen form.

To what other artists or works of art might Kundera’s insight apply? Because the kinds of formal innovations he singles out avoid drawing attention to themselves, it takes a certain amount of knowledge about a given art form to come up with good examples. And conversely, attempting to catch a glimpse of such shy novelties promotes a deeper appreciation for the habits of great artists as well as for the inner workings of artistic tradition. 

Read the whole thing here.