Author Archive

The modest scholar who dared to send poems to Brodsky. Here’s one of them.

Saturday, June 25th, 2022

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s interactions with his translators were not always harmonious; in fact, sometimes they were downright contentious. Yet there was often a good deal of mutual affection nevertheless – sometimes even devotion.

My interviews with his first translator, the eminent Bryn Mawr philosopher and Slavic scholar George L. Kline, are the basis of my volume, The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: Conversations with George L. Kline. Kline was one of the key figures in bringing Brodsky to the U.S., and one of the first in the West to recognize his importance as a poet, translating his early 1963 poem Elegy for John Donne, which I was pleased to include in my book (it hadn’t been republished since his first 1973 collection), and bootlegging manuscripts out of the USSR.

Poet and translator had a long tradition of exchanging birthday and holiday messages in verse, often delivered via telegram. It demonstrates the playful friendship that bound the poet and this translator, even through the rough patches when they disagreed about how to translate a line. But, I must admit, it must have taken some courage to send poems to the man who would win a Nobel.

I published several of the poems in the book. Here’s one I missed that I recently found among my papers. It’s dated 1975 – just three years after his expulsion from the U.S.S.R., and sent as a mailgram to Venice, where the poet was spending his holidays:

According to The New York Times
Wet Venice has been saved from sinking.
So let your spirits with her climb,
While light heads banish heavy thinking.

There. How many people would dare to scribble short poems to a world-class poet? I’m rather glad the unassuming scholar did.

“Why don’t you go jump off a cliff?”

Sunday, June 19th, 2022
One of the most famous cases.

I have been going over proofs for the short forthcoming René Girard anthology in the “Was bedeutet das alles?” series [i.e., “what does it all mean?”], for the renowned Reclam publishing house in Leizig. The affordable paperbacks sell for about 6 euros, and introduce readers to a range of thinkers. (It will be out soon, German speakers!)

My introduction discusses mob violence, a recurrent theme in Girard’s corpus. How does a crowd rid themselves of the scapegoat?

One method, in particular, came to mind: René used to write about mobs surrounding a victim near a cliff’s edge, drawing closer and closer till the victim tumbles over the precipice. Nobody is guilty, yet everyone is. It seemed so archaic … but I wonder if it has a modern equivalent.

“Everyone participates in the destruction of the anathema but no one enters into direct physical contact with him. No one risks contamination. The group alone is responsible,” René Girard writes in The Scapegoat about these collective murders. “Individuals share the same degree of innocence and responsibility. It can be said that this is equally true of all other traditional forms of execution, especially any form of exposure, of which crucifixion is one variant. …

“These methods of execution do not feed the appetite for vengeance since they eliminate any difference in individual roles. The persecutors all behave in the same way. Anyone who dreams of vengeance must take it from the whole collectivity. It is as if the power of the state, nonexistent in this type of society, comes into temporary but nevertheless real rather than symbolic existence in these violent forms of unanimity.”

In today’s world, the hatred directed towards high-profile victims-du-jour is such that inspires some poor schnook to load his (it’s almost always a “his”) garage with firearms and make an attack. Then we can say it wasn’t us, it wasn’t our hatred, it was a “lone wolf.” Last week there was an assassination attempt on a Chief Justice, the following day, a hostile mob gathered around the home of a second Supreme Court justice and threatened to target her children. Nothing “happened,” but the ritual had a chilling familiarity. How much of this public unleashing of hatred is an attempt to incite a “lone wolf” attack, as happened in the case of the miserable assassin wannabe, Nicholas Roske? Is there a unacknowledged hope that if we stoke an atmosphere of public hatred someone will eventually tip over the top and “do something”?

One could say that “doxing” works on the same principle. Someone releases lots of personal information about a target – where they live, workplaces, phone numbers – knowing that some kook is going to zero in on him, or her, or them. Of course, the doxxers are completely innocent, since all they did was publish the information. They didn’t tell anyone what to do with it.

This passage from the Book of Luke, Chapter 4 gives a good example of one well-known incident in the archaic world:

16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.

17 And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,

18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

20 And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.

21 And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.

22 And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, Is not this Joseph’s son?

23 And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.

24 And he said, Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country.

25 But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land;

26 But unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow.

27 And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian.

28 And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath,

29 And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong.

30 But he passing through the midst of them went his way,

31 And came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and taught them on the sabbath days.

Postscript: A different version of this post appeared on Facebook’s “Mimetic Theory” page. It’s published on the Book Haven at the request of Mark Riess, who wanted to share it more widely. Names of government figures have been deliberately left off this post. That’s because this isn’t a political thing. It’s a murder thing.

Postscript from George Dunn: Isn’t murder what all hatred aims at? It doesn’t always get there, but it’s always moving in that direction whenever it is rising.

Simone de Beauvoir: on bad faith and old age

Saturday, June 18th, 2022
Simone de Beauvoir in 1955

“Old age is not exactly a time of life that most of us welcome, although globally speaking it is a privilege to reach it. In Western societies, the shocked realisation that we are growing old often fills us with alarm and even terror. As Simone de Beauvoir writes in her magisterial study of the topic, La vieillesse (1970) – translated in the UK as Old Age, and in the US as The Coming of Age (1972) – old age arouses a visceral aversion, often a ‘biological repugnance’. Many attempt to push it as far away as possible, denying that it will ever happen, even though we know it already dwells within us.”

So begins Kate Kirkpatrick‘s article “Old Not Other” over article over at Aeon. She is an Oxford fellow, and author of Becoming Beauvoir (2019). 

A few excerpts:

Why do we neglect the condition we are all moving towards? Simone de Beauvoir has an answer: bad faith. “In her analysis of old age, Beauvoir expresses sadness and outrage at the bad faith of the not-yet-old with respect to the old. On her assessment, a characteristic attitude of the not-yet-old is ‘duplicity’. On the one hand, many acknowledge that the old deserve respect – at least the respect befitting any person, if not the greater, relative respect befitting a person whose life and learning are great. On the other hand, ‘it is in the adult’s interest to treat the aged man as an inferior being and to convince him of his decline’. Alongside preaching an official ethics of respect, in practice the words and actions of the not-yet-old are frequently demeaning.

“In fleeing from our own old age, we also seek to distance ourselves from its harbingers – from those who are already old: they are ‘the Other’. They are (with some exceptions) viewed as a ‘foreign species’, and as ‘outside humanity’. Excluded from the so-called normal life of society, most are condemned to conditions where their sadness, as Beauvoir puts it, ‘merges with their consuming boredom, with their bitter and humiliating sense of uselessness, and with their loneliness in the midst of a world that has nothing but indifference for them’. Beauvoir’s work sets out to show how old people are viewed and treated as the Other ‘from without’ and also – by drawing on memoirs, letters and other sources – to present their experiences ‘from within’. Her aim is to ‘shatter’ what she calls the ‘conspiracy of silence’ surrounding the old for, she insists, if their voices were heard, we would have to acknowledge that these were ‘human voices’ (emphasis added).”

She concludes:

“More than half a century has passed since Beauvoir’s Old Age was published, and many things have changed – and yet they have also stayed the same. The ‘conspiracy of silence’ has been replaced by a proliferation of public discourses about the old, who are now more often euphemistically referred to as ‘seniors’ or ‘the elderly’. However, for the most part, these discourses still treat the old ‘from without’ and their voices are not heard. Instead, they are presented as ‘problem’ objects: the old are a ‘they’ about which ‘we’ (the active members of the society of which they are no longer deemed a part) need to decide what should be done. But rather than considering how to enable people to flourish in old age for as long as possible, much of the focus is on what ‘they’ are said excessively to consume and how ‘they’ are harming society. An ever-growing number of those aged over 65 today belong to the post-Second World War ‘baby boomer’ generation, and it is about this so-called ‘gray tsunami’ that the silence has been displaced by voluble expressions of hostility and sometimes panic.”

To conclude, in addition to addressing our own bad faith, it is also vitally important to break the ‘conspiracy of silence’ about this furthest frontier of old age where Beauvoir herself did not venture. For it is the oldest of the old whose humanity is least recognised. It is they who are conceived as no more than bodies, who are treated as inert objects, considered outside humanity. And it is we who must resist their degradation

Read the whole thing here.

Message to writers everywhere: STFU!

Saturday, June 11th, 2022

Talking is not writing. Different skills, different purposes. So I wonder: why are writers everywhere being asked to talk, talk, talk?

Not very good at it.

Becca Rothfeld asks the same question over at The Gawker: “When do writers find the time to do any actual writing? It sometimes seems as though they are always speaking — delivering lectures, pontificating in bookshops, opining on talk shows. If they are lucky enough to win awards, they clear their throats and make grateful remarks; when the books they have somehow secreted between their speaking engagements are at last released, they discuss their ‘inspirations’ and their ‘process’ on podcasts or radio shows. More and more, the life of a professional author involves not writing but talking.” They should not be encouraged, she insists.

Rothfeld continues: “Who in their right mind would want to talk, much less listen, to a person who has contrived to spend as much of her life as possible crouched over her computer in isolation, deleting unsatisfactory variants of a single sentence for upwards of an hour? Nothing in my daily practice has prepared me for the gauntlet of a tête-à-tête. Writing is an antidote to the immediacy and inexactitude of speech, and I resent any attempt to drag me back into the sludge of dialogue.”

Talked for an hour. (Photo: Aspen Institute)

Moreover, writers aren’t very good at actual talking, she adds. “For one thing, authors are often poor orators, inept at the most basic mechanics of verbalization. They hum and halt and hesitate, interrupting themselves, appending caveats to their caveats, thrumming a chorus of tentative ‘ums.’ They are drafters and amenders, if not by vocation than by profession, and in conversation, their strongest pronouncements tend to be timid, as if they were editing in real time. Even when a writer musters a declaration or masters the rhythm of a spoken sentence, her voice often betrays her. I once made the mistake of watching a video of a distinguished philosopher at a conference — and thereby discovering that he emits squawks as discordant as his papers are crisp and crystalline. And then there is the perennial challenge of pacing. Accustomed to laboring at length in seclusion, many writers speak glacially, as if they are lowering themselves into cool water, venturing one word and adjusting to its temperature before cautiously proceeding to the next.
“At least as embarrassing as all these failures of delivery are the things that writers actually say. Books and essays are the product of long bouts of thinking, which makes writers fantastically ill-suited to summoning opinions instantaneously. In spoken interviews, Jonathan Franzen has confessed, among other things, that he considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan as a means of understanding the younger generation — an admission that he surely would have found occasion to excise from an essay. Indeed, it was his New Yorker editor who later talked him out of the idea.”

The worst thing Joyce Carol Oates ever did was join Twitter, she writes. And Vladimir Nabokov?

Great conversation. But today?

“Nabokov, who famously insisted on preparing answers to interviewers in writing and then reading them aloud, was averse to talking precisely because he had the good sense to worry that utterances excreted on the spot would be graceless or inane. When one journalist accused him of trying to cultivate a more exciting persona by eliminating ‘dull patches’ from his public appearances, he explained, in characteristically polished prose, ‘I’m not a dull speaker. I’m a bad speaker, I’m a wretched speaker. The tape of my unprepared speech differs from my written prose as much as the worm differs from the perfect insect—or, as I once put it, I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.'”
She allows that we may have become worse listeners. “William F. Buckley talked to Eudora Welty and Walker Percy for an hour on ‘the Southern imagination.’ It is a great conversation, but it likely wouldn’t be broadcast today. It is too slow and too complicated, which isn’t the writer’s problem. It’s ours.”

Read the whole thing here.

When Nehru read “Lolita”…

Tuesday, June 7th, 2022
The author was always ready for a fight.

Should an “obscene” book be allowed in India? Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had to make the call on Vladimir Nabokov‘s notorious novel when it arrived on the shores of the Arabian Sea.

On April 6, 1959, Customs in Bombay had detained the imported copies of the bombshell book. The can was kicked to the police, the Ministry of Law, and the Ministry of Finance.

Although the book was widely touted in the West, it had been banned in France, England, Argentina, and New Zealand.

The police commissioner of Bombay (now Mumbai) and the local branch of the law ministry maintained that the book did not fall under the category of “obscene literature.” The verdict: free Lolita. However, although the collector of Customs also concluded that the book could not be considered “grossly indecent or obscene,” he nevertheless refused to release the consignment.

The complicated matter of Lolita was then turned over to the straitlaced Finance Minister Moraji Desai, who did not conceal his distaste. In a short note on Lolita, he wrote, “I do not know what book can be called obscene if this cannot be. It is sex perversion.”

Book-loving prime minister

Finally, the buck passed to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who opposed censorship in a book that could claim any literary merit. Here’s what he wrote after he had a chance to review the book:

“Reading this book Lolita, I felt that it was a serious book and in its own line rather outstanding. It is hardly a book which can give light reading to anyone. The language is often difficult. It is true that some parts in it rather shocked me. The shock was more due to the description of certain conditions than to the writing itself. The book is certainly not pornographic in the normal sense of the word. It is, as I have said, a serious book, seriously written. If there had been no fuss about it, no question need have arisen at all of banning it or preventing its entry. It is this fuss that sometimes makes a difference because people are attracted specially to reading books which are talked about in this way.”

In a June 10, 1959 letter, the poet R.V. Pandit wrote Nehru that “larger issues than merely a commercial transaction were involved in this matter and we are glad to have acquainted you with the artificially contrived situation that locked up Lolita for two months.”

Read Shubhneet Kaushik‘s article on the kerfuffle in India’s Scroll here. Read my own article about the book, and it’s curious links to Stanford, here.

W.H. Auden: “what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself”

Friday, May 20th, 2022

Some good news in a sad year: Princeton University Press has just published the two-volume set of the complete poems of W.H. Auden, one of the foremost poets of the twentieth century. The volumes, edited, annotated and introduced by leading Auden scholar Edward Mendelson, include unpublished poems, songs, juvenilia, original texts and revisions. Together, the two volumes total nearly 2,000 pages.

There’s significance in the publication date: 2022 marks the hundredth anniversary of the year Auden began writing poetry. Had Princeton waited another eleven years, it would have marked the centenary of another remarkable event in his life, which Mendelson describes in his introduction:

“At the same time, when he was looking publicly toward social revolution, he was quietly approaching an inner one. In May 1933 he wrote a sestina, ‘Hearing of harvests rotting in the valley’, one of his bravura historical summaries of many centuries in a few rapid stanzas. After describing earlier centuries’ fantasies of escape from ‘the sorrow’ of unhappy cities to the happiness of utopias somewhere else, the poem ends by imagining a different kind of transformation, not an escape from sorrow, but the sorrow itself melting into a revitalizing flood, after which ‘we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands.'”

“A few weeks later, in June 1933, he experienced what he later called, in a lightly-disguised autobiographical essay, a ‘Vision of Agape.’ This occurred when, sitting with three fellow teachers at the Downs School, he knew for the first time, because he was experiencing it, ‘what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.'”

An excerpt from the essay:

“One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another.

Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself…. My personal feelings towards them were unchanged—they were still colleagues, not intimate friends—but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.”