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Who is the last man? Peter Sloterdijk on Nietzsche

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019
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Peter Sloterdijk is one of the most controversial thinkers in the world. In many ways, he is the heir of Friedrich Nietzsche, who is sometimes said to have inaugurated the 20th century. A year ago, the Book Haven published a summary of Sloterdijk’s Entitled Opinions conversation with radio host Robert Harrison. The podcast and summary was also posted at the Los Angeles Review of Books here. In December, we published a full transcript in German at Berlin’s Die Welt. You can read it here. Last week, the Los Angeles Review of Books published the full transcript, in English, here

A few excerpts below:

Harrison: I find that when it comes to Nietzsche being a prophet, in some ways he was blind about what would be the most dominant feature of the coming century, though many people consider him the inaugurator of the 20th century. He has almost nothing to say about the dominance of modern technology in the era to come. Okay, you can say that this was a blind spot in his thinking. In Zarathustra, especially in part four, however, he has a prophetic vision that has to do with our own time. He thinks of the last men. Who is the last man? In what way are the parameters of that last man contained within … for example, the consumerist of our own society, who is complacent?

We’re no longer dealing with the petite bourgeoisie or those 19th-century categories. It’s very much the contemporary citizen as a global citizen, a kind of capitalist of consumerism who does not think beyond the creaturely comforts of this day and the next day. There’s something in his thinking that promises to show us a way to transcend this fatality. European civilization after all these centuries and millennia cannot end in the last men. Or will it?

Sloterdijk: Here, in Nietzsche, appears a major problem that will occupy humanity in the centuries to come: the question of how to maintain what I call the vertical tension inside the human being. For everything that has to do with verticality, Nietzsche is the specialist coming from the tradition. He discovered this new type of problem — how to maintain the vertical tension if the higher region has been removed. As if Jacob’s Ladder, over which the angel can march up and down should still stand upright without having the support on the upper level. So there is still height, but no support from above. Everything has to be erected from below. The vertical tension has a rocket-like dynamic, a will to growth, and that can be easily expressed in biological terms. You can go back to Goethe, who said that all life is movement and extension, and from here you get to a less megalomaniac conception of growth.

World’s most controversial thinker? (Photo: Rainer Lück)

Harrison: Well, in fact, in Nietzsche Apostle, you speak about his extraordinary genius as a marketer of his own brand. You don’t merely invent a brand that then takes off in the market. What you do is create the market for the very brand that you’re promoting. And Nietzsche created a market for a brand of … I think it’s related to what you’re talking about, the ladder of having realized that — in the regime of the last man, a regime of egalitarianism — there will always be a drive for distinction. He marketed his philosophy as a promise, as a way to understand a need before it even became apparent to the world itself, that there was going to be a need for distinction in this world.

But you also say, somewhat prophetically, that he was promising losers a formula by which they could be on the side of winners. This was also part of his brand. Can you say something about this? When you speak about verticality, are you speaking about this need for distinction in this particular regime?

Sloterdijk: I think Nietzsche was among the very rare thinkers who had a feeling for the deep connection between moral philosophy and public relations. This can be shown by the subtitle of Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen — “A Book for All and Nobody.” And I’m convinced that this is Nietzsche’s genius. This subtitle betrays something of his innermost drive. His way of polemics, as Heidegger would put it, was not really polemics. It was teaching, and so it was a kind of “action teaching” — action teaching like Joseph Beuys would call his performances. Nietzsche was a kind of action teacher writing a book for all and nobody, and discovering in so doing the very structure of higher morality.

PR man?

This kind of morality creates a field of behavior that is not applicable to living populations but traces the horizon for new generations to inhabit. This necessarily has to be a challenge, just as Buddhism was before it was brought out as an Indian form of gospel, as a way of salvation, just as the Christian Gospel was a pure challenge to the pagan environment of the former world. And so Nietzsche designs a horizon for those who in the morality markets of the future will distinguish themselves as individuals who show how the path of humanity can be continued. And in that context, you read this most provocative sentence from the introduction, the so-called prologue to Zarathustra: “Man is a rope between the animal and the Superman,” and you decide if you want to be a successful rope-walker or not. And if you are not successful as a rope-walker — you have nevertheless tried it.

That is the meaning of this philosophical pantomime that concludes the prologue of Zarathustra. He sees the rope-walker who has fallen down, and he says, “You made the danger. Out of danger you made your profession. There is nothing to despise in that, and for that reason I am going to bury you with my own hands.” That is Zarathustra’s message. It’s not success that decides everything. It is the will to remain within the movement and to walk on the rope, if you do not want to remain a part of the masses that are looking up and admiring people doing crazy things.

Read the whole thing here.

Stanford Repertory Theater showcases a trio of works on the environment and social justice

Sunday, July 14th, 2019
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The Stanford Repertory Theater (SRT) has launched its annual summer festival with “Voices of the Earth: From Sophocles to Rachel Carson and Beyond.” The polished reading from nearly a hundred writers, thinkers, scientists, and politicians, compiled by the Artistic Director Rush Rehm and Charles Junkerman, Stanford’s dean (emeritus) for Continuing Studies, ends tonight, alas! But other shows on this year’s theme, “The Environment and Social Justice,” will debut in the coming weeks. Go here to read about two new plays, Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids, by Vincent Terrell Durham, and Anna Considers Mars, by Ruben Grijalva. SRT also hosts a popular film series.

“Voice of the Earth” was a moving tribute to our planet. However, the first quarter-hour made me wonder if the seven performers/readers could keep the show together for 90 minutes, entirely on snippets from the 7th century B.C. to now. Yet they did!

I had some quibbles about the tendentiousness – Reagan, Bush, Nixon, and inevitably Trump were excoriated, with satisfied groans from the liberal audience. But what about Obama‘s complicated relationship with fracking? And were the Native Americans really all peace and love and Great Spirit? (One quote referred to whispering to the bears, rather than killing them. Do not try that at home.)  There’s always a danger of sentimentalizing, even kitschifying nature, extracting the roughness and toughness of our familiar earth – it’s radical foreign-ness.

I was happy to see a number of Stanford “Another Look” book club author’s featured: J.A. Baker, Joseph Conrad, W.H. Hudson. And a few personal friends and favorites – Richard Wilbur, too.

Kudos to cast members Gianna Clark, Thomas Freeland, Jake Harrison, Sequoiah Hippolyte, Brenna McCulloch, Emma Rothenberg, Gabe Wieder.

I picked out a few quotes from the evening. Here they are:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste . . . ”

– Wallace Stegner (from a letter)

Rilke, in a painting by Leonid Pasternak

Do you still remember: falling stars,
how they leapt slantwise through the sky
like horses over suddenly held-out hurdles
of our wishes—did we have so many?—
for stars, innumerable, leapt everywhere;
almost every gaze upward became
wedded to the swift hazard of their play,
and our heart felt like a single thing
beneath that vast disintegration of their brilliance—
and was whole, as if it would survive them!

Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Edward Snow

“… I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of man, to life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way. Then another time, on the American Line, when I was lookout on the crow’s nest in the dawn watch. A calm sea, that time. Only a lazy groundswell and a slow, drowsy roll of the ship. The passengers asleep and none of the crew in sight. No sound of man. Black smoke pouring from the funnels behind and beneath me. Dreaming, not keeping lookout, feeling alone, and above, and apart, watching the dawn creep like a painted dream over the sky and sea which slept together. Then the moment of ecstatic freedom came. The peace, the end of the quest, the last harbor, the joy of belonging to a fulfillment beyond men’s lousy, pitiful, greedy fears and hopes and dreams! And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on a beach, I have had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again.”

Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey Into Night

“No proven Communist should hold a position at Stanford.” Yet Victor Arnautoff did, and scored a victory for academic freedom.

Wednesday, July 10th, 2019
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Much has been written about the proposed destruction of the remarkable murals at San Francisco’s George Washington High School, painted by a prominent student of Diego Rivera in the 1930s. The Book Haven doesn’t need to recap the controversy. You can look here and here, if you need help. Or just google.

But the Stanford side of the story has been generally overlooked: Victor Mikhail Arnautoff was an art professor here for almost a quarter of a century, from 1938 until his retirement in 1962. Stanford’s president, Wallace Sterling, had announced “no proven Communist should hold a position at Stanford.” And yet he did. He was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and investigated by Stanford advisory boards. And the outcome of his Stanford struggle redefined academic freedom.

Arnautoff’s legacy in the Bay Area area is notable: He made several murals at the Palo Alto Medical Clinic in 1932. (You can see some of his local artwork in this Art and Architecture article here.) One of the murals, visible at 300 Homer Avenue, caused traffic problems. “The Exam,” with a half-nude woman, was apparently outré at the time. He made more buon fresco works at Coit Tower, and then, at last, his largest project for the George Washington High School, murals that challenged the received wisdom about American history, though his perspective on slavery and genocide is generally accepted  today. Why has the San Francisco School Board unanimously voted to tear down this legacy? Apparently, students are upset by them, and students of color feel unwelcome in their own school. Apparently, they “trigger” some of the students.

Here’s why San Francisco School Board should be sacked, every single one of them: They have failed their students. They district has failed to “educate” them, in a way that should be part of any sound humanities curriculum.The cliché is that the humanities are to “teach you how to think” … well, so does mathematics. What is unique to the humanities is that it teaches you how to feel. Facing complicated emotions and objectionable ideas is part of it. Learning to empathize with others is part of what history and great literature teaches – especially literature which, in the end, is an education of the heart.

In short, kids can learn to shape their emotions – an important life skill. However, the operating paradigm here seems to be  that the students’ feelings are objective and immutable, and that art, along with the effort and skill and time of the artist, must give way before them.

In the Russian subway stations, students put flowers at the feet of the statue of Pushkin. Suppose the kids, instead of complaining to their teachers, honored Arnautoff’s fallen Native Americans by placing flowers beneath the mural? Imagine if, instead of crying, they left letters and messages of solidarity before the portrayed slaves?  The whole point of education, or one of its points, is that you can change the way you look at things. It takes a little discipline and fortitude at first, but you eventually get the hang of it.

Arnautoff also had troubles before with the political correctness brigade, back when it was on the other side of the political fence.

When he was called before HUAC in 1956, he refused to answer questions about his membership in the Communist Party and other organizations. He declined to answer questions about a political cartoon he had made. Here’s what he wrote to his fellow citizens:

“The Exam” in P.A.

“The Un-American Sub-Committee knew very well that I had not committed any crime. After all, an artist has as much right to make a political cartoon as any other citizen has to express a political opinion or viewpoint….

“Members of the Un-American Committee said I am a most dangerous man for the security of the United States [an accurate quotation]….

“Do they consider an artist’s colors, brushes, crayons and pencils as murderous tools? If they do, it is a new low in right-wing thinking, and it is time for the American people—and especially for American artists—to be concerned with a threat that affects everyone as fully as it does me. I value my freedoms, and I intend to defend my rights as a citizen and as an artist, and to express my belief in American principles in the future as I have in the past.

Stanford and its alumni were alarmed about having a “Fifth-Amendment Communist” in their ranks. Administrators worried that they had no means to “get rid of a known Communist who merely remained silent when asked whether he were a Communist … if a man won’t talk, we are stuck with him.” The Advisory Board met – not for the first time – to discuss the Arnautoff case.

Three years earlier, Arnautoff had already been a subject of discussion. Sterling had appointed a special university committee to clarify “what we mean by academic freedom and academic responsibility” and to address “the problem posed by the possibility of investigation by a government committee.” The special committee was undecided on “whether membership in the Communist Party should be regarded alone as sufficient basis for the removal of a faculty member” and “the freedom and responsibilities of the faculty member with regard to his activities of a nonprofessional character.” They decided to kick that can down the road. And here they were.

The upshot: the board found no fault with his teaching or competence – all agreed that he was a distinguished artist and able teacher. The board “concluded that, while there was reason to question Professor Arnautoff’s judgment about political matters, there was no evidence that he had permitted his political beliefs to affect his teaching of art at Stanford.”

“There is no such evidence in the case of Professor Arnautoff, although there is no question but what he is intensely interested in Russia and its problems. This, however, is not illegal. Nor are views which are unorthodox or unpopular.

“The right of free speech and free thought is a very important part of a strong democracy; it is easy to lose this privilege if we do not defend the right of people to hold views which differ radically from those held by most of us. And I am sure that we can leave up to the government the job which is properly theirs of identifying and prosecuting those whose actions threaten the security of the nation.”

And so it redefined academic freedom here, and likely farther afield as well.

Read the whole thing here, in a Stanford Sandstone & Tile article by Robert W. Cherny, who also wrote an Art & Architecture article about the Washington murals here.

Joy Harjo the first Native American poet laureate? Not so fast. On the Choctaw legacy of William Jay Smith.

Saturday, July 6th, 2019
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Reading “Cried the Fox”

A few months ago, Joy Harjo was named the first Native American U.S. poet laureate, and there was universal rejoicing in the land. According to the press release: “Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden appointed Joy Harjo as the 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress on June 19, 2019. Joy Harjo is the first Native American poet to serve in the position—she is an enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation.”

But wait! Isn’t the Library of Congress overlooking someone rather important? From 1968-70, the position was held by William Jay Smith, a poet who was well known, but he died in his 90s, perhaps outliving his renown (insofar as poets every, really, have renown). On the other hand, his death is not ancient history – he died fairly recently, in 2015 (we wrote about it here; conscientious Book Haven readers will also remember an earlier post here.) He was in the news; his obituary was even in the New York Times, not a given for poets. He was so well known that Princess Grace of Monaco invited him to represent the United States at a Monaco poetry celebration.

His Choctaw heritage was hardly a secret – he was proud of it, and mentioned it at readings. He also wrote about it in perhaps his best-known book, The Cherokee Lotterywhich recounts the 1828 “Trail of Tears,” which forcibly relocated his ancestors, along with a total of 18,000 Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Creeks as well, to Oklahoma from their native northern Georgia, where gold had been discovered and greed unleashed.

I remember him reading from this sequence of poems at the West Chester poetry conference, some years ago. That was the same conference where I met Richard Wilbur and his wife Charlee. The conjunction was not a coincidence, in fact the two poets were close friends, and lived near each other in Cummington, Massachusetts. So near that they picked up their Sunday New York Times editions from the same village shop. In fact, they had a tradition – whoever picked up their newspaper first would write scurrilous doggerel on the other’s. It was a tradition that continued for years.

He also wrote the matchless poem “Note on the Vanity Dresser” above. It’s been called the most perfect symbolist poem in the English language. Only eight lines, and it’s endless.

So given this history, why the omission? Is it because, as some have suggested when I floated the subject on Twitter, they hoped to make a politically correct splash, and make it sound like poetry has crashed some sort of intersectional sound barrier? Or what? He is included in the Library of Congress’ own record of the laureate history, Poetry’s Catbird Seat: The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987. Weirdly, the book, which should be a public record, is not searchable on Google Books. We include the relevant pages below.

All congratulations to Joy Harjo – but let’s set the record straight.

Postscript:  Since posting, I’ve learned that others have noticed this omission as well – Kay Day wrote about it here. Also, A.M. Juster raised the issue almost immediately on Twitter and directly with the Library of Congress. He is working on an article about it, forthcoming later this summer with Los Angeles Review of Books.

Post-postscript from Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and former California Poet Laureate: “It does Joy Harjo no dishonor to acknowledge that one of her predecessors, William Jay Smith, had some Choctaw ancestry. Smith was proud of his background at a time – the 1930s – when the association gained him no advantage, especially in the racist milieu of his childhood. He did considerable genealogical research to establish a ancestry many generations back. It was a remote connection, though Smith plausibly felt it had manifested itself in his physical appearance, but it hardly seems unlikely. Many Americans have mixed and complicated ancestry, which should rightly be a source of pride.” See combox below. Incidentally, Dana describes himself as “100% non-Anglo” – Sicilian on his father’s side, and mixed Mexican and Native American ancestry on his mother’s side. So he knows a thing or two about “complicated ancestry.”

Chris Fleming on the tyranny of trendy ideas

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019
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A few months ago Chris Fleming expounded on “cool” here. Now the Western Sydney University professor has an article in the current Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Tyranny of Trendy Ideas.” Chris, a former fellow beneath our palms, cites Stanford’s own “rich history of chasing trendy, meaningless causes.” Who can forget, he asked, our fling with MOOCs, the brief rise of the micro-Master’s degree, or farther afield, the University of Texas at Austin’s infamous “Project 2021”? “The susceptibility to fashionableness is revealed by a single oft-heard campus word: innovation.’ It’s a word we need to at least be wary of; it may one day be proved that even uttering it shuts down those parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and rational deliberation.”

A few excerpts:

Those of us who work in higher education consider ourselves above anything as ostensibly “cheap” and trivial as the whims of fashion. Our labor, including our research and contributions to university governance, is a serious endeavor marked by painfully obvious similarities to, say, those solemn 13th-century monks grinding out transcriptions of Aristotle’s Poetics at the University of Paris. … Behold our integrity to those who doubt it: We hath Latin mottos, Greek fraternities, and convocations that resembleth wizard conventions. (Not that we aren’t amenable to change: The maces carried by presidents and chancellors, for instance, are now purely symbolic; we have opted for other, more effective weapons, like restructures.) But by and large, we believe ourselves to be beyond the ephemeral. As every freshman course in “critical thinking” reminds us, the dull, unhappy burden of the rational mind is to follow the evidence where it leads, not the bandwagon.

And yet not. While we do understand this as an ideal, most of us know — at least during broken sleep or after the fourth beer — that ideals are unreliable witnesses. In fact, it may well be the university’s self-serious insistence on being above the whims of fashion that makes it so vulnerable to it. Like anti-vaxxers, we become entirely more susceptible to something precisely because we think we’re not.

***

Fleming demonstrates fashion…

Your choice of theorist was to be German, French, or Italian, not Spanish, Iranian, or Turkish. (Spanish, Turkish, or Iranian novels were great, though. If you wanted to stay with English you needed to look at either Dallas, soft porn, or the oeuvre of Roger Hargreaves.) You should have been familiar enough in the language of your favored theorists to be able to say “world-historical import,” “discursive formation,” and “being-toward-death,” but incapable of “My name is Simone,” “I’d like a cheese sandwich,” or “Which way to the Louvre?”

But to say that “fashion” influences us might seem to offer us little — even if true, it’s not particularly helpful. Maybe we can be clearer by saying that academics need to balance two opposing imperatives: the implicit demand to follow a herd and the requirement to appear trailblazing. Like all moderns, we disdain slavish imitation at the same time as desiring the security of the crowd. Fashion exists, if nothing else, to allow for precisely that possibility; it permits us to speak out of both sides of that consummately modern mouth.

In this context, one version of a good article — one that has a good chance of getting published — is one that implicitly spouts an orthodoxy at the same time as screaming about something minor. You agree, for instance, with everything Foucault says, except for the fact that he continually ignores Brazil, or the periodic table, or your supervisor’s criminally unsung trilogy. It’s a sure-fire formula in which much of the paper is able to write itself. All disciplines are, to a greater or lesser extent, faddish, even if any particular fad is later shown to be inadequate or myopic, or perhaps — as my undergraduate students might put it — just really lame.

***

This is not to say that the way fashion operates within the university is identical to any form outside of it. Unlike the fickle — and, from the outside, reassuringly absurd — shifts seen on the catwalk, fashion inside the university appeals to more than just a change in aesthetic allegiance — it invariably invokes images of rationality and progress. (Of course, the mere fact that rationality and progress are invoked doesn’t mean they manifest themselves any more than invoking a dead aunt will result in her attending Thanksgiving.)

Read the whole thing here.

Happy 108th birthday, Czesław Miłosz!

Sunday, June 30th, 2019
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“The River Neman, not far from its mouth on the Baltic Sea, is fed by several smaller tributaries flowing from the north, out of the very heart of the peninsula. It was on the banks of one of these tributaries, the Niewiaża, that all my adventures began…”

Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz (6/30/1911–8/14/2004), Native Realm

I had the great good fortune in May to visit Czesław Miłosz’s birthplace in the rural Lithuanian village of  Šeteniai. And yes, it is as idyllic as he said it was. I took this photo with my Droid on the former family estate, overlooking the river. The fishers called out to ask if we had permission to photograph them. Yes, one of us shouted back, there was a journalist in the group. They laughed, thinking it was a joke.


Józef Czapski. Haven’t heard of him? Here’s a chance to learn about one of the 20th century’s greatest men. With a podcast, too!

Friday, June 28th, 2019
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Keith Botsford’s very short “Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation,” in the Cahiers Series

 

 

It’s been quite a year for writer and artist Józef Czapski, thanks to his biographer, the California artist Eric Karpeles. Some time ago, I reviewed four books on or by Czapski for the Wall Street Journal: the review is printed in full below. At the bottom of the page: the Czapski book is now in Polish – and we’re blurbed! And my  interview with Eric Karpeles at San Francisco’s legendary City Lights bookstore last November is linked above (the Q&A begins around 28 minutes, after his short talk): 

In 1917, a Russian imperial cavalry cadet named Józef Czapski faced Bolshevik forces. He informed his commanding officer that he couldn’t kill his fellow man. The idealistic 21-year-old expected to be court-martialed or shot. Instead, his division chief told him, “When I was young, I also wanted to change the world. Go. Try.”

And so he did, for the rest of his 96 years. Czapski (1896-1993) was a writer, an artist, a diplomat, a humanitarian whose life spanned almost the entire 20th century. He was tireless in the fight against totalitarianism, whether of the Nazi or Communist stamp. He left behind more than 270 notebooks, as well as hundreds of paintings and thousands of sketches. As his renown grows, more works surface.

This gentle, tenacious, adamantine figure has been far too little known in the West—until now. New York Review Books recently published a moving and strikingly original biography by Eric Karpeles, Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski; a new translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones of Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941-42; and Mr. Karpeles’s translation of Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp.

Together these books document Czapski’s physical and spiritual survival during a nightmare era, but, more than that, they re-create an overlooked life, one marked by an exemplary measure of modesty, moral clarity and artistic richness. Moreover, Mr. Karpeles, a California-based painter and art critic, has ignited international interest in Czapski’s artwork.

Czapski was a larger-than-life figure (literally so—he was 6-foot-6) who early in life dropped his hereditary title of “count.” He had no fixed nationality: Of aristocratic Austrian, German and Russian heritage, he was born in Prague and reared in what today is Belarus. He chose to identify with his father’s Polish blood—a near-fatal decision, for the Poles had the distinction of losing World War II twice.

Czapski, a member of the Polish Reserve during that war, was among the 22,000 officers taken prisoner by Russia, which had made a secret pact with Nazi Germany. The soldiers were sent to three camps: Starobielsk, Ostashkov and Kozelsk. Czapski and some 395 others were later removed to Gryazovets, the site of a derelict Orthodox monastery. The others vanished without a trace.

The five Lost Time lectures that Czapski gave at Gryazovets in 1940-41 were delivered to a few dozen fellow officers. He had no access to the text, but worked from what he remembered. Proust’s masterpiece is a meditation on memory; Lost Time is one step further removed—a memory of memories.

He lectured in French, then recapped the lectures for two men to transcribe in the monastic refectory “under the watchful eye of a politruk who suspected us of writing something politically treasonous.” It was a way to save his sanity—and a Scheherazade effort to keep his fellow officers alive through a shared experience of literature. The half-starved, lice-ridden soldiers in threadbare rags juxtapose jarringly with Proustian salons; the tension between life and art could not have been greater, yet the chain he forged through time forever links Proust with Gryazovets. Not just for Czapski: for the rest of us, too.

In 1941, Hitler attacked Russia and the Polish prisoners were freed. Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, tortured and barefoot, emerged from the Lubyanka prison to form and lead an independent Polish army. He charged Czapski with finding his 22,000 missing comrades. Inhuman Land is his record of that fruitless search, of wandering the Soviet Union, badgering Soviet officials, and chasing down rumors of mass drownings in the White Sea or Arctic Sea and transports to faraway labor camps. Only in 1943 did he learn the staggering truth: Polish officers were systematically killed with a bullet in the back of the skull, then thrown into pits at Katyń and other sites. These men, his friends, were to have been Poland’s future.

“Inhuman Land” is not an easy read. It is not meant to be. It is an exhaustive 435-page witness to official lies and evasions and the methodical murder of Poland’s ruling class, as well as the spiritual and material degradation Communism had wrought on millions of Soviet denizens. Czapski says he had “more and more precise information about those missing, and less and less hope that the Soviet authorities were willing to take an interest in these people’s fate.” Later, he recounts the multilateral betrayal of Poland by its “allies.” Nevertheless, he finds moral action even in the darkest corners of human history.

Mr. Karpeles foregrounds what Czapski himself would have wished to be his legacy: his painting. Czapski had called it an “apprenticeship of looking.” Like a detective, Mr. Karpeles follows the leads to track down the original works so that he can gauge Czapski’s “mettle as a painter.” He wanders the dark corridors of museums in Warsaw and Kraków, making special requests for viewings, exhuming the neglected paintings in museum storage, and finding others in the homes of Czapski’s descendants—he even tracks down a painting at the Polish Museum of America in Chicago.

You can always paint, Czapski maintained, no matter what your mood. And yet he was an artist interruptus, his vocation sidelined by war, illness, imprisonment, grief. Perhaps in that sense he is a patron saint for our own hectic, disrupted lives in virtual space. As our lifespans extend to a century, readers may find Czapski a salutary companion for the road ahead in our era of distraction. But a better reason for his companionship is his conscience and sense of duty, for, in Mr. Karpeles’s phrase, he was a man “constitutionally incapable of not shouldering the burden.”

“How could one fail to love such an Eye?” Keith Botsford writes in his last book, “Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation” (2009)—a scant 41 pages, but it captures something of Czapski’s spirit. Botsford, who met Czapski in the 1960s, calls his little book a “biography from within,” but he begins from without: Czapski was “not just tall, he was elongated . . . enormously wide awake behind his glasses.” “I am setting down a quality of his mind,” Botsford writes, “the way he made connections.” In the hybrid text, Botsford intersperses his own commentary among excerpts from Czapski’s writings and color reproductions of 12 of his paintings. “I can recall no whining,” writes Botsford. “As he’d faced all the alterations of his long life, that Tolstoyan and Catholic streak in him was powerfully directed towards what was actively good, to what could still be celebrated about life.”

Biographer Karpeles

After the war, Czapski moved to the outskirts of Paris to edit and write for the legendary Polish cultural journal Kultura. There, in its offices, he eked out his days in communal life with some of the foremost Polish intellectual émigrés. He continued to paint, sketch and write until he was nearly blind—a late-winter bloom on old gnarled stock.

Once, in his frail final years, a relative found him lying on the floor. He had been unable to get up for hours. She asked how he had occupied himself. “Smiling, he hugged her and tried to calm her agitation. ‘Oh, no need to worry about me,’ he replied. ‘I just lay there, perfectly happy, thinking about Proust.’ ”

He kept writing and painting until he could no longer hold a brush or pencil. At the end, he kept scrawling one word over and over in his diary, in capital letters: KATYŃ . . . KATYŃ . . . KATYŃ . . .

 

International honors for “Women of the Gulag” – and an exclusive podcast from the Stanford screening!

Monday, June 24th, 2019
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It premiered in Hollywood and New York – but on June 11, Women of the Gulag, a documentary film based on Paul Gregory‘s book of the same name, came home to Stanford. It got a big audience at Hoover’s Hauck Auditorium, in the new David & Joan Traitel Building, with a splendid reception afterwards. (We’ve written about the film here and here and here and here.)

The film, directed by Marianna Yarovskaya of MayFilms and produced by Yarovskaya and Gregory, was also shortlisted in the best documentary category in the 2019 Academy Awards competition. It has been named the Best Non-European Independent Documentary in the 2019 European Independent Documentary Film Festival held in Paris. It was also shown at Moscow’s Film Festival. It couldn’t be more timely, as Russia sinks into denial, historical lies, and Stalin-fandom.

A very exclusive screening with George Schultz

The film tells the compelling stories of six remarkable women – among the last survivors of the Gulag, the brutal system of repression that devastated the Soviet population during the Stalin years. Most stories of the gulag have told of men’s experience. Women of the Gulag is the first account of women in the camps and special settlements.

Women of the Gulag, filmed entirely on location in Russia, turned out to be the last chance to tell the story of women in camps and special settlements. Several of the women featured in the film have died since their interviews.

You can listen to the podcast of the Q&A session from the June 11 screening below – it’s a Book Haven exclusive. Eric Wakin, director of Hoover Library & Aerchives, introduces filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya and author Paul Gregory, who have a short discussion and answer audience questions.

There’s more to come: The film has been cleared for screening on Russian Channel 2 Russiya – with an okay from the highest government levels. The film will also get Russian screenings at Дом Русского Зарубежья (Solzhenitsyn’s house) and Gulag Museum, as well as Tver and other smaller cities. Other European universities have signed on for a screenings, and so has South Korea.

But the most exclusive showing to date is the one that took place the following morning for 98-year-old former State Secretary George Schultz, who had a private screening at the Hoover Tower. He called Women of the Gulag “an outstanding work,” and praised the strength of character of the women it profiled.

Photos by Igor Runov

The BBC “Les Misérables” is fini! Get over it. Now go read the book.

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019
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I can tell that the BBC airing of Les Misérables is tout fini. For a month or so now, the Book Haven ratings have shot up into the thousands each weekend. No more. What were people looking for at the humble Book Haven when they could watch the multi-hour BBC splendor?

They were clicking on our all-time highest-ranking post: “Enjoy Les Misérables. But please get the history straight,” illustrated with photos from 16th-century church Église Saint-Merri, where the real-life insurgents staged a desperate last stand, in and around this church at the heart of the district where the fiercest fighting took place. Over the years, the single post has gotten about a million views. It also attracted the record number of comments – 150 – before we had to turn it off because of the relentless spam attacks that defeated even the Stanford techies.

The biggest mistake viewers make: even apparently educated fans refer to this as the French Revolution. Wrong. This is 1832 not 1789. Big difference. Different clothes, different leaders. The biggest difference of all: the revolutionaries won the French Revolution. The insurgents in 1832 lost, big time. Well, read the story here.

With the BBC film, there seems to be a second mistake: Victor Hugo did not write a musical. He wrote a novel. You can read about that here. Please don’t wait for the songs.

But I’m gratified that the long-ago post is still getting attention. And I still get letters, like this one from Doris Reffner last week:

“I wanted to thank you for your excellent article.  It was just what I needed to explain the musical Les Miserables to my twelve-year-old granddaughter.  Even her grandfather mistakenly thought it was about the ‘French Revolution,’ and we saw the musical at least twice as well as concert videos and the movie.  Perhaps we need to read the book.   If I can read a Russian classic novel, I guess I can work my way through a French one.  You provided great information, easily understood.  Thank you.”

Join Doris and go out and get the book. Hurry, before the next remake!

Tired of angst? Here’s a poem about a happy marriage.

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019
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A family reunion at Stanford – with jazz scholar Ted Gioia at right.

Dana Gioia, former National Endowment for the Arts chair and former California poet laureate, met Mary Heicke in the staples department of Stanford Bookstore circa 1977. They have been together ever since – a long marriage indeed, and one of the happiest I know. He commemorated their union recently in a poem, “Marriage of Many Years”:

Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin—
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.

This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.

In an era that celebrates sturm und drang, poets write of abusive relationships, and the anguish of unrequited love, or the torments of triangular love – but how many write of long and happy fidelity? The late great Richard Wilbur, notably, mocks the romantic conventions and instead praises (read the whole thing here) his marriage

… which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart,
A passion joined to courtesy and art
Which has the quality of something made,
Like a good fiddle, like the rose’s scent,
Like a rose window or the firmament.

The Gioia marriage has an eyewitness to commemorate it – their son, Mike Gioia – who added it yesterday to his new youtube poetry series, “Blank Verse Films.” (You can subscribe here.)