Posts Tagged ‘Frank Wilson’

An Advent villanelle from Philadelphia’s Frank Wilson: “one of those memories that are like photographs”

Sunday, December 1st, 2019
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The first day of Advent this year, on a footpath in Yonkers, NY. Photo courtesy Izabela Barry.

Today is the first day of Advent. Is there any poem to commemorate the day? I had to look no farther than “Books Inq.,” the blog of Frank Wilson, retired book editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer

Walking home

The poem began when he was visiting his friend, the composer Harold Boatrite, who had set another villanelle of his to music. Frank had been studying piano with the composer, who lived on a short, tree-lined street in the heart of Philadelphia, and the lessons often finished with discussions of religion. “As I left his house one day, I looked up at the sky and around at the trees, and the first line just came to me,” Frank recalled.

“Advent had just begun and I must have been thinking of it, because the third line, which of course rhymes with the first, then came to me. I had nice long walk home ahead of me and, like Wallace Stevens, that’s when I liked to work on poems. The second line reference to winter, despite the clear and sunny, not-so-very cold day, gave the line the context I needed, and I had the first stanza of a villanelle. If memory serves, it was mostly – if rather roughly – done by the time I got home.”

“That opening line coming to me just after I left Harold’s has been with me ever since, one of those memories that are like photographs. I never look at the poem without being back at that moment of that day.”  

Advent

The leaves are fallen, but the sky is clear
(Though winter’s scheduling an arctic flight).
The rumor is a rendezvous draws near.

Some say a telling sign will soon appear,
Though evidence this may be so is slight:
The leaves are fallen, but the sky is clear.

Pale skeptics may be perfectly sincere
To postulate no ground for hope, despite
The rumor that a rendezvous draws near.

More enterprising souls may shed a tear
And, looking up, behold a striking light:
The leaves are fallen, but the sky is clear.

The king, his courtiers, and priests, all fear
Arrival of a challenge to their might:
The rumor is a rendezvous draws near.

The wise in search of something all can cheer
May not rely on ordinary sight:
The leaves are fallen, but the sky is clear.

Within a common place may rest one dear
To all who yearn to see the world made right.
The leaves are fallen, but the sky is clear.
The rumor is a rendezvous draws near.

Philly Inquirer praises “Evolution of Desire”: “an extraordinarily vivid portrait of a man … an ingenious travelogue of his life and thought.”

Saturday, July 7th, 2018
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René Girard in conversation in 2008. A screenshot from our Youtube book trailer.

Kisses and billets-doux from the City of Brotherly Love! More warm words for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girardthis time from the Philadelphia Inquirer. The reviewer is Frank Wilson, the esteemed paper’s retired book editor and notable blogger. He begins the piece, Evolution of Desire: René Girard, a man in full,” this way:

The Wikipedia entry for René Girard describes him as a historian, literary critic, and philosopher. It’s a good start. Girard, who died in 2015 at 91, ventured into many disciplines. And Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire is an ingenious travelogue of his life and thought.

It’s a short review (under 800 words), so I won’t excerpt too much. You can read the whole thing, after all, right here. He concludes (spoiler alert!): 

Haven’s book, in fact, is something of a marvel. She knew Girard and got to know his friends and colleagues. She guides the reader along the trail of evidence, sketching deftly those she talked with and showing how she arrived at her conclusions. The result is an an extraordinarily vivid portrait of a man admired not just for his intelligence and erudition, but also for his character, wisdom, and humor. Let us give him the last word on what he referred to as “the so-called système-Girard”:

“What should be taken seriously … is the mimetic theory itself — its analytical power and versatility — rather than this or that particular conclusion or position, which critics tend to turn into some creed which I am supposedly trying to force down their throats. I am much less dogmatic than a certain reading of my work suggests.”

Order at Amazon here. Please.

Were the 1950s really that bad?

Friday, November 21st, 2014
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eisenhowerThe 1950s have taken a bum rap for years. You remember the 1950s: women were locked in their houses and forced to bake apple crumble and change diapers while men took their hats and briefcases to the office. Everyone was repressed, and unable to express their Innermost Selves. No one had any fun at all.

People forget how close the West came to losing it all. Had Hitler avoided a few military blunders, we might all be speaking German right now. Believe it or not, many men and women were happy to beat their swords into ploughshares and devote themselves to the virtues of peace. Being a riveter, though doubtless empowering, was not that much of a career enhancer. For kids, especially, it wasn’t a half-bad era. You had a pretty good chance of growing up in an intact home with the same parents, and children could walk to school safely and attend classes without gunfire. W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Frost were still alive and writing poems, and the Partisan Review was in its prime. Was it that much worse than the 1930s, the 1910s?

Two recent reviews over at Books Inq seem to reinforce my sense that the era has been much maligned. The book at hand is Paul Johnson‘s Eisenhower: A Life  – a biography that’s 134 pages long, including the index. The Times Literary Supplement review said of Johnson: “His zesty, irreverent narratives teach more history to more people than all the post-modernist theorists, highbrow critics, and dons put together.”

My colleague Frank Wilson reviewed the book here, in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“As recounted in Eisenhower: A Life, a new brief biography by the British writer Paul Johnson, the life of Dwight David Eisenhower was one of steady, uninterrupted success – five-star general, supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, 34th president of the United States, elected twice, both times by landslides, and still popular when he left office. Heck, just a year before he died, he hit a hole-in-one on the golf course.

“Yet one feels sad when one finishes Johnson’s book. Not for Eisenhower, but for the country he served so well.

“A joke making the rounds as his presidency neared its end told of the Eisenhower doll: You wound it up and it did nothing for eight years. But we could use plenty of that nothing these days. As Johnson points out, Eisenhower gave America nearly ‘a decade of unexampled prosperity and calm. The country had emerged from the Korean War and the excesses of McCarthyism. Inflation was low. Budgets were in balance or with manageable deficits. The military-industrial complex was kept under control. . . . Thanks to Ike’s fiscal restraint, prices remained stable and unemployment only a little more than 4 percent. …’

General Eisenhower Behind the Wheel of a Jeep

Maybe not such a loser, after all.

“Had he heard the joke about the doll, Eisenhower probably would have laughed, at least to himself. ‘He seems to have found it convenient and useful,’ Johnson writes, ‘for people to get him wrong. He chuckled within himself.’

“So, at the time, the all-too-conventional wisdom had it that he was inarticulate, not too bright, lacking in cunning, and lazy, preferring to hit the links and leave the business of government to subordinates. His critics, Johnson writes, got things exactly wrong: ‘Ike was highly intelligent, knew exactly how to use the English language, was extremely hardworking, and very crafty. In practice, he made all the key decisions, and everyone had to report to him on what they were doing and why.’ Like any genuine leader, Eisenhower did not insinuate. He issued commands. He led from above. … One in particular might find it interesting to learn that during six of Eisenhower’s eight years in office, both houses of Congress were controlled by the opposition party.”

Another one here by reviewer John Derbyshire, who seems to have suffered a sort of crush on the biographer once:

“In his 1983 book Modern Times, Paul Johnson made a point of talking up U.S. presidents then regarded by orthodox historians as second-rate or worse: Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower. He wrote:

Eisenhower was the most successful of America’s twentieth-century presidents, and the decade when he ruled (1953-61) the most prosperous in American, and indeed world, history.

bruce-cole

The real Bruce Cole

“The goal of political leadership is to secure for one’s country, so far as circumstances will allow, the things that most ordinary citizens wish for: prosperity and peace.

“On that score, Ike did superbly well. America’s 1950s prosperity glows golden in the memory of us who witnessed it, if only from afar. Peace? Paul Johnson draws a withering comparison between Ike’s masterly 1958 deployment to Lebanon—’the only American military operation abroad that Ike initiated in the whole of his eight years at the White House’—and the Bay of Pigs misadventure of the vain, shallow John F. Kennedy in the following administration.

“Discounting as best I can my partiality to P.J.’s prose, I’m convinced:  This was our best modern President.”

Postscript on 11/24:  Another country heard from! Not everyone agrees with the resurrection of Ike – below, Nevada blogger Bruce Cole elaborates on the comments he made Saturday. (Coincidentally, a Bruce Cole is a member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission – this is not the same guy.) Colleague Bruce, who blogs over at A Citizen Paying Attention, disagrees with the reviews about Ike – but he concurs about the silliness of lumping cultural trends into decades – and don’t get me going on how much of the 1960s happened in the 1970s. Here’s the important part: he tells me he shares my enthusiasm for Czesław Miłosz.

Cynthia has been kind enough to ask me to elaborate a little on my hasty early Saturday morning comments about Eisenhower and the 1950s (two subjects, though they overlap).

dwight-eisenhower

Maybe not so hot after all.

First, I mentioned John Lukacs‘ review of several books about Ike. The review ran in Harper’s in 2002 and was collected in the anthology of his writings, which I cited. He makes several points about the (again, two) subjects of Cynthia’s original post. Many of the characteristics of the 1960s (or things we associate so easily with that decade, or things we bemoan as happening since the Good Old Days) began in the 50s: the decline in our manufacturing and our savings, the deterioration of our cities, the net outflow of gold from the United States, the increasing problems of our public education system, the demotion of jazz as our most popular music, the “sexual revolution,” etc. The point is not that these were the fruits of Eisenhower’s presidency. Rather, they remind us not to indulge in a false nostalgia about an arbitrary set of years (a nostalgia whose mirror image is, of course, the 50s as staid, awful, and repressive).

Now, about Ike. Eisenhower (who, as a general in 1945, telegraphed Marshall Zhukov assuring him that the Americans wouldn’t reach Berlin before the Russians) came into office with talk about rolling back Communism, as opposed to the “cowardly containment” (Nixon’s words) of Truman. I am hard put to see where this ever happened. We did watch as Hungary (having been covertly encouraged by us) got tromped on in 1956. Lukacs has written often, and persuasively, about the chances in the years just prior to this when the West could have taken advantage of relative Soviet weakness to negotiate some kind of genuine rolling back of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe (Churchill, no softy, kept urging this course on Eisenhower). Even then, they removed themselves from Austria, forsook a naval base in Finland, recognized West Germany, etc.

All of that is as may be. Ike did not keep the “military-industrial complex under control.” The defense budget tripled throughout the fifties. Our military presence expanded all over the globe, including places where there was little or no Soviet threat. He fortunately did not intervene in Indo-China in 1954, but then there was little chance the US would. The Lebanon incursion in 1958 was an absurdity. The Korean truce of 1953 established what had been the status quo for about two years (nothing wrong with that, but it was no great accomplishment). Finally, there is that Bay of Pigs thing – all pre-packaged by Ike and the CIA for his successor, complete with “intelligence” assurances that a popular uprising against Castro would take place. So, “vain, shallow” JFK followed suit. Hmm, is there any reason to believe Richard Nixon would have fared better? No.

Eisenhower5

He’s happy with the reviews, anyway.

Then there is McCarthy. Ike did not work McCarthy’s destruction, but kept silent while various Senators in both parties prepared censure in the Senate. It also should never be forgotten how Ike kept silent while McCarthy repeatedly slandered Ike’s patron, General Marshall.

Much of the above I owe to Lukacs’ analysis (which I again urge everyone to read) with a few embellishments of my own and no apologies from me at that score! Let me add something, though, on our two, inter-related subjects.

The origins of Eisenhower’s rehabilitation go back, in no small measure, to an article Murray Kempton wrote in the 1960s (!) for Esquire with a title something like “The Underestimation of Dwight D. Eisenhower.” (Kempton was a great journalist, but when he went off the beam, look out!) The arguments were repeated by Garry Wills a few years later in an otherwise perceptive book, Nixon Agonistes. I think this was, in part, the reaction to “Camelot,” which spawned, of course, a multitude of anti-Camelots. We have a difficult time taking our presidents plain, anyway, and the contrast of the two in terms of age and “glamour” with LBJ following them, and Vietnam thrown into the mix, made it well-nigh impossible.

That leads me to the other subject (which actually I am more interested in). I, too, despise, “decade-talk.” Of course, the 50s were not simply the Age of Conformity and Repression. But notice how the nostalgia some people express for that time merely turns that idea inside out. I think this is the nub of the matter. So many of our debates occur between people who agree on terms and wouldn’t know a tertium quid if it hit them full in the face. That is why our “culture wars” have such staying power. Beyond the real issues, it is easy to sign up for a Line, a set of attitudes, a collection of loves and hates. Which, finally, is why the “bad” 50s will never go away as a cliché – but it is hardly alone in that.

Jacques Barzun: “I am a liberal, a conservative, and a socialist”

Thursday, November 8th, 2012
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He avoided the political fray. (Photo: Harper Collins)

Jacques Barzun died two weeks ago, on October 25, at age 104.  I’m only starting to think about it.  The New York Times described him as “the distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history and came to see the West as sliding toward decadence…”

“Mr. Barzun was a man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests, encompassing both Berlioz and baseball. It was a life of the mind first cultivated more than a century ago in a childhood home outside Paris that became an avant-garde salon.” He published his “most ambitious and encyclopedic work” at 92.

Barzun largely created the field of cultural history, which his biographer Michael Murray describes as “an all-inclusive synthesis: not only kings, battles, laws, and statistics, but also habits, beliefs, influences, and tendencies, in art and literature, manners, morals, science, and religion, and the social setting in which these were found.”

Murray’s comments about Barzun arouse my envy.  He writes: “it is hard not to be dazzled by a man who, during a four-week period in 1953, read and reviewed André Malraux’s Voices of Silence and The Letters of Franz Liszt, edited the galley proofs of his book God’s Country and Mine, adapted them into articles for the Atlantic Monthly and Vogue, gave speeches on campus and at a Partisan Review banquet, reworked four lectures for publication, and offered a broadcast on WNYC. All this, mind you, apart from his teaching and dissertation duties.”  Ah well, as Barzun himself wrote in The House of Intellect (1959): “The intellectuals’ chief cause of anguish are one another’s works.”

Now here’s the reason I’m going over all this.  Like many Americans, I found this year’s elections a dispiriting process.  I find the slagging matches between sides depressing, the gloating and the defensive justifications wearying, and the whole reduction of complicated thoughts and reactions into political labels outdated and simplistic.  So Frank Wilson of Books Inq sent me this quote from Barzun:

“In short, the market – like the state, like any institution – has its limitations, as severe as the state’s. Consequently, each device must be controlled by intelligence and adapted to circumstance. For my part, I am a liberal, a conservative, and a socialist, each dogma applicable to some necessary activity.

“I imagine, in fact, that the triple label applies to most people. Very few want the fire department a private concern; and again most people are communists within the family circle, at least until the children are grown up.”

Common sense, as Voltaire observed, is not so common.

Christopher

Postscript on 11/9:  What fun!  The recipient of the letter quoted above has come forward in the comment section below.  Christopher Faille, an author and a contributor to Forbes,  has lots more on his website, Jamesian Philosophy Refreshed – more excerpts from their correspondence here, and a consideration of Barzun’s affinities with William James is here.  “I’m trying to do some curatorial work, getting my letters from this great man into proper order with a commentary giving context. I believe Columbia University archives are the proper ultimate destination for the material,” he writes. Thanks for the heads-up, Christopher!

 

Brodsky, Miłosz, Wilson, and me on “a big problem”

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011
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A few stable points

Over at When Falls the Coliseum, columnist Frank Wilson‘s latest column, “We Need Techniques, Not Rules,” riffs on a few lines from my introduction to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

I wrote:

When I interviewed him at his legendary Grizzly Peak home a decade ago, I asked him about “être” and “devenir.” He dodged the question: “My goodness. A big problem,” he said.

After some hesitation, however, he elaborated.: “We are in a flux, of change. We live in the world of devenir. We look at the world of être with nostalgia. The world of essences is the world of the Middle Ages, of Thomas Aquinas. In my opinion, it is deadly to be completely dissolved in movement, in becoming. You have to have some basis in being.”

“In general, the whole philosophy of the present moment is post-Nietzsche, the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths. Postmodernism consists in denying any attempt at truth.”

Frank’s take on this is somewhat different than my own – read his thoughts here.

For my money, “être” is simply what we are, apart from fashions and superficial imitations. What T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world” can be a cop-out from the obligations imposed on us by choices, by the past and future. I like the simplicity and lack of wriggle room in Miłosz’s hallmarks:  “être” is characterized by a respect for a hierarchy that exists outside of time, and hearkens to a few stable points in history.  Miłosz used, for example, Joseph Brodsky‘s annual Christmas poem as the poet’s fixity, loyalty, and “respect for some stable points.”  (I reviewed the posthumous volume of Nativity Poems here.) 

Miłosz’s whole oeuvre is, from one angle, about precisely that, about “être.”

True confessions:  Miłosz referred to “être” and “devenir.” But I could very well have used the alternate term he used, and perhaps used more frequently, esse, a word that retains all its Thomist resonances. The editor in me got persnickety about pairing French with Latin, but I wonder if he would have preferred the Latin term.

Oh well.  Time to demur.  As I wrote: “Then he retreated to his initial reservations: ‘In truth, I am afraid of discussing this subject. The subject needs extreme precision. In conversation, it’s not possible.’” Miłosz would have responded, of course, with a poem.

(My 2000 interview with the Nobel laureate was published in the Georgia Review here.)

Postscript on 9/14:  Hey!  A nice review in Choice here.  Excerpt:

The umbilicus of recollections delivers the poet to posterity. This collection is a must for everyone aspiring to know Miłosz and his work. Summing Up: Highly recommended.

Newspapers, advertisers, and book reviews – cont.

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011
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A few days ago, I posted about “The future of book reviewing and one cranky man.”

I wrote about the absurdity of newspapers expecting book review sections to be supported by advertising from the strapped book industry:  “Of course, sports sections aren’t asked to support themselves by the advertisements of sports stores or the manufacturers of catcher’s mitts, so this standard has always been unevenly applied.”

In the comments section, medievalist Jeff Sypeck asked:

Is there a reason newspaper executives have behaved as if the ads in a book-review section could only be for books and publishers and similar literary/cultural products? Is it a lack of demographic info about book buyers for the ad sales people to tout? The unwillingness of, say, tire manufacturers to advertise alongside reviews of novels? A belief that the book section ought to be free of commercialism? Mere tradition or habit?

Good question.

Frank Wilson at Books Inq. explained the simple demographics of newspaper advertising succinctly: “the point is that a book section would attract more readers to a newspaper – even a lot of people who watch baseball read – and the more readers you have, the more advertisers you get.”

Not a reader anyway

Literary people read lots of things besides great literature and book reviews – they’re more likely to read newspapers in general.  As Jeff has pointed out before, that’s a much better bet than trying to get stoners to read.  Said Frank:

Newspapers flap their wings hoping to attract young readers by reviewing pop music, but those (theoretical) young reader don’t care what newspapers think about what they’re listening to. I certainly didn’t care that the local pop music reviewers thought little of Elvis when I was in high school. I also wouldn’t have cared if they’d thought the world of him.

But the experience of listening to music is fundamentally different from the experience of reading. Readers want to know what others have to say about what they have read. It’s an extension of the reading experience. Reading about the music you have heard is not an extension of the listening experience.

Maybe if more newspaper executives did some reading of their own, they would understand.

More comments followed. Jeff again:

Your last point reminds me of how for more than 15 years, the Washington Post has been trying to lure young people with reviews of video games and hip-hop concerts, apparently misunderstanding how many outlets are already devoted to discussing those subjects with greater affection and thoroughness. Time has shown them to be unlikely and unsuccessful ways to lure new readers to old media.

More comments at Books, Inq. here.
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