Posts Tagged ‘Marcel Proust’

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 . . .

 

The girl who didn’t make it to creative writing school: Dubravka Ugrešić on Scheherazade

Friday, April 5th, 2019
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Ugrešić with Ane Farsethås and Kari Jegerstedt at LitFest Bergen 2019. Photo: LitFestBergen

“What did you do in Norway?” everyone asks. It’s always hard to summarize a few chaotic days and nights in Bergen. But this Q&A goes some way to explaining. My interview with the Neustadt International Literary Prize-winning writer Dubravka Ugrešić, titled “Who Is the Enemy?”  just went online at the tony online site for Music & Literature. It’s here

This was my favorite passage in the interview:

CH: You write about the fox as the totem for the writer—adhering to the convention of the writer as dangerous, edgy, shape-shifting. But aren’t most writers’ lives rather boring? I think of what Philip Roth said: “Literature takes a habit of mind that has disappeared. It requires silence, some form of isolation, and sustained concentration in the presence of an enigmatic thing.” It’s not exactly gripping stuff—which is why it’s so hard to make a good movie about writers or the life of the mind.

What could be duller than Proust’s life? Most of us live lives that are rooted in our heads, and it’s isolated and isolating—what can be more boring than that?

DU: Yes, but there is something else, too. I’ve suggested that Scheherazade is the fox, Scheherazade is the writer who didn’t go to creative writing school. It’s too expensive, and she would have had to pay twenty thousand euros for two years. But she passed at the school of a thousand-and-one nights, okay? She gave as a fee, as a “scholarship,” her own head. So we can’t spit and be cynical about that. It’s a serious thing, to tell a story under such circumstances.

I’ve chosen the fox as a symbolic representation of a writer. The fox is rich with meaning. In the Western cultural tradition, the fox is mainly a male creature. In Eastern cultures, the fox is mostly a female creature. In Slavic folk culture, the fox is also predominantly female. The fox is not a superior creature: she is a loser and a loner, wild and vulnerable. The fox is one of the most popular hunting targets: her skin, her fur, has a commercial value, a detail which makes the fox a deeply tragic figure. The fox is betrayed more often then it betrays. Representations of the fox differ from culture to culture. I was raised on the fox’s representation in Aesop’s fables and Western European medieval novels. In Chinese, Korean, and Japanese mythology, the fox is a semi-divine creature, a god’s messenger, a demonic shape-shifter that passes the borders between realms—human, animal, demonic. The fox is also seen as a cheap entertainer, a liar, a cheater, a little thief with a risky appetite for the “metaphysical bite,” a thief with a constant desire to grab a “heavenly chicken.”

CH: Let’s go back, for a minute, to Scheherazade. I can’t disagree with your comments. And yet, “storytelling” has become this all-purpose cliché for the very complicated art of writing.

DU: I am irritated by these global buzz words that appear and disappear. However, they are in a way coordinates, or traffic signs, that regulate “intellectual traffic.” They do not mean much. They are just little helpers, and, yes, a sort of intellectual affectation. Most often such little structures are put into wide circulation by the global marketplace. The majority of participants in literary zones do not know anything about literary theory—or literary narration, for that matter. Nor are they obliged to know. That’s why such little inventions, like storytelling, help an ordinary participant to feel more comfortable in literature.

Read the whole thing here.

Early sci-fi: how Dante warps time and space

Saturday, March 2nd, 2019
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Was Dante a precursor to modern notions in sci-fi? Perhaps so. I was recently reading Disorder and Order, the book that came out of Stanford’s remarkable 1981 conference of that name organized by René Girard and Jean-Pierre Dupuy. I had seen the volume before, but somehow overlooked the brilliant essay, with the unalluring title, “Cosmology and Rhetoric,” written by one of the world’s leading Dante scholars, Stanford’s own John Freccero. In it, he makes the case for the written language as a spatial representation of time. He begins the discussion this way:

He recaptured time too.

“…I would like to cite the representation of the solar disc and zodiac in the pavement of the baptistry in Florence. Surrounding the Romanesque wheel of the heavens is a nearly effaced inscription – En giro torte sol ciclos et rotor igne – which may be roughly translated, “Behold the sun in its cyclical gyres and the wheel of fire!” Its significance is not in what it says but rather how it says it. The phrase, in fact, is a palindrome which reads the same from left to right and from right to left. In a tradition that goes back at least to Plato‘s Timaeus, the two apparent motions of the sun diurnally moving from east to west and zodiacally from west to east were described as a motion to the right and to the left. …

Dante’s disciple, John Freccero

“Dante’s literary cosmology is infinitely more complex, although elements like this can be discerned here and there in his voyage through the heavenly spheres. The complexity arises from the fact that the tautological structure of his poem warps the categories of time and space so that his voyage ends where it begins and time is recaptured. The arrow of temporality is also reversed in the final part of Proust‘s work where Le Temps retrouvé marks the end and therefore, paradoxically, the beginning. But the space was Paris, or at least the corklined study. In Dante’s work, however, space is a figure for this temporality so that it too bends back upon itself, boundless and all-encompassing, yet encompassed by the time that it takes to traverse it. The space-time continuum was familiar to Dante through the metaphor of written language which is a spatial representation of time. We are made surprisingly aware of this each time we run across phrases such as ‘as we saw above’ or ‘as we shall see below.’ The surprise comes from our temporal representation of space which is, in fact, the act of reading, in which we lend to space our own temporality as does a machine to the film frame placed before it. In the case of a book, however, the claim to totality is implicitly made – bound up and bounded by its covers, encyclopedic in the etymological sense of the word. When such a claim is translated into temporal terms, then all of time must be contained within it. When Dante refers to the primum mobile with one of his most bizarre images, referring to the outermost heavenly sphere as the flowerp0t in which time has it roots, he is making a claim not only for his voyage but also for the poem, which is coextensive with it. Since his story is in part how this story is written, it is inevitable that the closing of the book be its ending in which all of time and space are contained.”

And speaking of Proust … another wonderful quotation on the anniversary of his death

Monday, November 19th, 2018
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Luftmensch Paul Holdengräber is on a roll with Marcel Proust, and we posted his quote on the anniversary of the French author’s 1922 death yesterday. He followed up with this one today, and we couldn’t resist reposting it (see below). The reason: we use the same citation from Proust at the tail-end of the introduction to Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard:

Why? Why? Why?

I had a more modest view of my book and it would be incorrect to say even that I was thinking of those who might read it as ‘my readers.’ For, to my mind, they would not be my readers but the very readers of themselves, my book serving only as a sort of magnifying glass, such as the optician of Combray used to off er to a customer; my book might supply the means by which they could read themselves. So that I would not ask them to praise me or to speak ill of me, but only to tell me that it is as I say,if the words which they read within themselves are, indeed, those which I have written.

The passage I cite was translated by the matchless Richard Macksey, a colleague of René Girard’s at Johns Hopkins University.

Incidentally, the whole introduction to Evolution of Desire was published in America Magazine over the weekend here. Notre Dame published it earlier, and it was linked in Hacker News, here. (Several people wondered why Artur Sebastian Rosman picked a golden image for the article, entitled “Golden Thoughts for a Nuclear Age” – you might note that it’s the “Mask of Agamemnon,” one of the findings of Heinrich Schliemann at the Troy excavation, an archaeological adventure described in the first paragraph of my intro.)

Remembering Marcel Proust, on the anniversary of his death…

Sunday, November 18th, 2018
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We’ve been awfully busy in Denver for several days talking about Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girardand it’s time for bed, but we didn’t want to let the weekend pass without observing that this is the day Marcel Proust died in 1922. Luftmensch Paul Holdengräber helped us remember with the quote below:


René Girard: our desires are less personal than we think

Thursday, October 5th, 2017
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Praise for the opuscule! An adapted chapter of my forthcoming Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has been published separately by the fine-press publisher Wiseblood as Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René GirardWell, we wrote about that already here. Here’s the news: Trevor Cribben Merrill has some kind words about it in Education & Culture, the new website launched by John Wilson, formerly the mastermind behind the now defunct Books & Culture.

An excerpt:

If I took one thing away from Haven’s little book, it was the likeness between Girard’s own creative conversion and that of the novelists he studied in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which despite his later shift to religious anthropology may still be his most compelling and characteristic work. Deceit is at once a brilliant take on five classic writers—Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky—and a history of desire in the modern west, tracing how pathological competition sprang up on the ruins of the Old Regime’s feudal hierarchies. But it is also, if more discreetly, a book about artistic creation. Great writers, Girard argues, come to grasp that our desires are less personal than we like to believe, and that others often wield a decisive influence over us just when we think we are free. Don Quixote is aware of imitating. Much as the Christian asks “What would Jesus do?”, at every moment Quixote wonders: “What would Amadis of Gaul do?” But Dostoevsky, writing as rapidly urbanizing Russia played catch up with the West, portrays an alienated self-love that feeds on others yet can only survive by denying this. Anticipating Seinfeld by more than a century, his “underground men” get worked up over tiny slights, and rush out to give their enemies the cold shoulder.

Unconscious “triangular desire” (the metaphor accounts for the way our desires draw strength from a model or “mediator” instead of going straight from subject to object) lives or dies on our tendency to buy the “romantic lies” we feed others. We tell ourselves—and our friends—that we are going to the beach to soak up the sunshine and feel the soft caress of a sea breeze. Or that we take an interest in literature out of a detached scholarly curiosity. But it may be that the beach is so tempting because an ex-girlfriend often goes windsurfing there, and that our heavily-footnoted study of Chinua Achebe masks a craving to write prize-winning novels. Our friends see right through us, of course—but they have their own obsessions, which we treat with a condescending indulgence to equal theirs toward us.

In short, triangular desire is something one complacently or indignantly observes in others, but it must be discovered in one’s own life. This is obvious on one level, but on another it can be difficult to grasp. Maybe that’s why a persistent misunderstanding surrounds Girard’s reading of literature. Some take the mere presence of triangular desire in a work as sufficient reason to declare its author a world-class genius, on par with Proust or Dostoevsky. Articles and dissertations trumpet the triangularity of this or that writer’s fiction, as if the ability to spot envy and jealousy in the modern world, which often encourages those vices, were especially noteworthy in itself.

Read the rest here.

Postscript on Oct. 5: Looks like we got pickup from The Weekly Standard here.

Steve Wasserman: “The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all.”

Monday, September 25th, 2017
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Back home in Berkeley

We’ve written about Steve Wasserman before – here and here and here. On Saturday, he gave the keynote address at the 17th Annual North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference at the College of the Redwoods, Del Norte, in Crescent City. The subject: “A Writer’s Space.” He’s given us permission to reprint his words on that occasion, and we’re delighted. Here they are:

Not long after I returned to California last year to take the helm of Heyday Books, a distinguished independent nonprofit press founded by the great Malcolm Margolin forty years ago in Berkeley, my hometown, I was asked to give the keynote speech at this annual conference. I found myself agreeing to do so almost too readily—so flattered was I to have been asked. Ken Letko told me the theme of the gathering was to be “A Writer’s Space.”

In the months that have elapsed since that kind invitation, I have brooded on this singular and curious formulation, seeking to understand what it might mean.

What do we think we mean when we say “a writer’s space”? Is such a space different than, say, any other citizen’s space? Is the space of a writer a physical place—the place where the writing is actually done, the den, the office, the hotel room, the bar or café, the bedroom, upon a desk or table or any available flat and stable surface?

Or is the “writer’s space” an inner region of the mind? Or is it a psychological place deep within the recesses of the heart, a storehouse of emotions containing a jumble of neurological circuitry? Is it the place, whether physical or spiritual, where the writer tries to make sense of otherwise inchoate lives? In either case, is it a zone of safety that permits the writer to be vulnerable and daring and honest so as to find meaning and order in the service of story?

Early Babylonian shopping list

Perhaps it will be useful to begin at the very dawn of writing when prehistory became history. Let’s think, for a moment, about the clay tablets that date from around 3200 B.C. on which were etched small, repetitive impressed characters that look like wedge-shape footprints that we call cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. Along with the other ancient civilizations of the Chinese and the Maya, the Babylonians put spoken language into material form and for the first time people could store information, whether of lists of goods or taxes, and transmit it across time and space.

It would take two millennia for writing to become a carrier of narrative, of story, of epic, which arrives in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh.

Writing was a secret code, the instrument of tax collectors and traders in the service of god-kings. Preeminently, it was the province of priests and guardians of holy texts. With the arrival of monotheism, there was a great need to record the word of God, and the many subsequent commentaries on the ethical and spiritual obligations of faithfully adhering to a set of religious precepts. This task required special places where scribes could carry out their sanctified work. Think the Caves of Qumran, some natural and some artificial, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, or later the medieval monasteries where illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly created.

First story

Illiteracy, it should be remembered, was commonplace. From the start, the creation of texts was bound up with a notion of the holy, of a place where experts—anointed by God—were tasked with making Scripture palpable. They were the translators and custodians of the ineffable and the unknowable, and they spent their lives making it possible for ordinary people to partake of the wisdom to be had from the all-seeing, all-powerful Deity from whom meaning, sustenance, and life itself was derived.

We needn’t rehearse the religious quarrels and sectarian strife that bloodied the struggle between the Age of Superstition and the Age of Enlightenment, except perhaps to note that the world was often divided—as, alas, it still sadly is—between those who insist all answers are to be found in a single book and those who believe in two, three, many books.

The point is that the notion of a repository where the writer (or religious shaman, adept, or priest) told or retold the parables and stories of God, was widely accepted. It meant that, from the start, a writer’s space was a space with a sacred aura. It was a place deemed to have special qualities—qualities that encouraged the communication of stories that in their detail and point conferred significance upon and gave importance to lives that otherwise might have seemed untethered and without meaning. The writer, by this measure, was a kind of oracle, with a special ability, by virtue of temperament and training, to pierce the veil of mystery and ignorance that was the usual lot of most people and to make sense of the past, parse the present, and even to predict the future.

A porous epidermis

This idea of the writer was powerful. It still is. By the time we enter the Romantic Age, the notion of a writer’s space has shed its religious origins without abandoning in the popular imagination the belief that writers have a special and enviable access to inner, truer worlds, often invisible to the rest of us. How to put it? That, by and large, artists generally, of which writers are a subset, are people whose epidermises, as it were, are more porous than most people’s. And thus they are more vulnerable, more open to the world around them, more alert, more perspicacious. Shelley put it well when he wrote that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Think Virginia Woolf.

By the end of the nineteenth century, writers in their person and in their spaces are widely celebrated and revered, imbued with talents and special powers that arouse admiration bordering on worship. It is said that when Mark Twain came to London and strode down the gangplank as he disembarked from the ship that had brought him across the Atlantic, dockworkers that had never read a single word of his imperishable stories, burst into applause when the nimbus of white hair atop the head of the man in the white suit hove into view. Similarly, when Oscar Wilde was asked at the New York customs house if he had anything to declare, when he arrived in America in 1882 to deliver his lectures on aesthetics, he is said to have replied: “Only my genius.”

Applause, applause

Many writers were quickly enrolled in the service of nationalist movements of all kinds, even as many writers saw themselves as citizens in an international republic of letters, a far-flung fraternity of speakers of many diverse languages, but united in their fealty to story. Nonetheless, the space where they composed their work–their studies and offices and homes—quickly became tourist destinations, sites of pilgrimage where devoted readers could pay homage. The objects on the desk, writing instruments and inkwells, foolscap and notebooks, the arrangement of photographs and paintings on their walls, the pattern of wallpaper, the very furniture itself, and preeminently the desk and chair, favorite divan and reading sofa, lamps and carpets, all became invested with a sacredness and veneration previously reserved only for religious figures. Balzac’s home, Tolstoy’s dacha, Hemingway’s Cuban estate, are but three of many possible examples. Writers were now our secular saints.

Somehow it was thought that by entering these spaces, the key to unlocking the secret of literary creation could be had, and that by inhaling the very atmosphere which celebrated authors once breathed, one could, by a strange alchemy or osmosis, absorb the essence that animated the writer’s imagination and made possible the realization of native talent.

(more…)

Marcel Proust: The Movie!

Monday, February 20th, 2017
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proust4Kudos to our colleagues over at Open Culture. The website has posted for the first known footage of the French author Marcel Proust, fresh from the latest edition of the French journal, Revue d’études proustiennes. We include it, too, below.

The footage was recorded on November 14, 1904 – nine years before Proust the publication of Remembrance of Things Past. The occasion: the wedding of his close friend, Armand de Guiche. Proust descends a stairway, dressed in gray, not black – a little less formally, perhaps, than those around him. Look for him at the 37 second mark. (Hint of what to look for in the photo at right.)

Roberto Calasso’s Ardor: the Vedas, the mind, and the “inescapable role of violence”

Sunday, December 21st, 2014
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Calasso2

Super-compressed cores exerting an unseen unifying gravitation…

Roberto Calasso, one of Europe’s leading intellectuals and founder of Italy’s premier publishing house, Adelphi, frequently mentioned the Vedas was he was in town last month (I wrote about his visit here). No surprise, since the ancient Sanskrit texts have held a long held a fascination for him, throughout his career. Its verses and hymns are also the subject of his most recent book Ardor, which is reviewed by Pankaj Mishra in today’s New York Times Book Review and by Steven Donoghue in Open Letters Monthly. Donoghue offers a warning:

This author’s books are rhetorical equivalents of gas giants: their nominal subjects are the super-compressed cores exerting an unseen unifying gravitation, and the author’s enormous erudition, wide reading, and kitten-like distractibility form the layers and layers of roiling, chaotic, atmosphere extending for huge distances in all directions around the core. Outside the farthest reaches of that atmosphere, in the hard vacuum of space, wait the critics, their laser canons primed and ready – for the simple reason that Calasso’s scattershot, sometimes hysterical, and (kudos to [translator Richard] Dixon) frequently untranslatable scholarly woolgathering fails as often as it succeeds in, to further the planetary analogy, supporting life.

Calasso tosses Talleyrand and Tiepolo, Proust and Prajapati into his polymathic salad, along with many, many others (Kafka, for example). His guiding preoccupations: “the power and sovereignty of the mind and its relationship to the world, the basis of political and social order and the inescapable role of violence.”

An excerpt from Mishra’s review:

The Vedic Indians did not build great empires or monuments. Rather they sought an intense “state of awareness” that “became the pivot around which turned thousands and thousands of meticulously codified ritual acts.” Calasso is aware that most of his readers would regard the ritual of sacrifice as barbarous. But he sees in this contemporary recoiling an uneasy confession: that “this world of today is detached from and, at the same time, dependent on all that has preceded it.” Sacrifice was the means to acknowledge and contain violence through religious ritual and practice. But secular society with its frenzied worship of the new gods of money and power still consumes many victims without being aware of its sacrificial nature.

Calasso’s prose … demands familiarity with a very different intellectual tradition than the one manifest today in the pieties of radical, liberal and conservative thought. It assumes that the modern world can no longer explain its extraordinary violence and disorder in its own terms, and that we ought to understand the supposedly primitive customs and institutions, such as sacrifice, that linger invisibly in even postmodern societies.

ardor-coverOne of Calasso’s many interlocutors in Ardor is the religious anthropologist René Girard, who believes that mimetic desire — the desire to own what others possess — or envy, rather than transcendental authority, now underpins social order in secularized societies. But the mutual hatred and possibility of an “all against all” war it seeds is still defused by periodic scapegoating, the identification of internal or external enemies, whose violent suppression releases the tension built up by frustrated desire and unappeasable envy.

As Calasso sees it, modern warfare cannot rid itself, even despite a sophisticated machinery of killing and high death tolls, of the “lexical legacy of sacrifice,” which now includes words like “victim, self-denial, consecration, redemption, trial by fire.” The closing pages of Ardor echo the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen’s belief that “the submission of the individual to society — to the people — to humanity — to the idea — is a continuation of human sacrifice.” This has been continuously reflected in the catastrophic programs of social re-engineering from imperialism’s civilizing missions to Stalin and Mao’s socialist utopianism, and the more recent attempt to bomb whole countries into democracy, or shock-therapy them into free-market capitalism.

Today, the nation-states of Asia and Africa re-enact, in their pursuit of Western-­style modernity, human sacrifice on a vast scale and more pathological form. Calasso anticipates his reader wondering, “What can be the relevance of all we read in the Veda?” He is right to answer that such “microphysics of the mind” can bring about an “abrupt and disorientating shift of perspective” and, perhaps, snap us out of both naïve reverence for and smug disenchantment with the modern world. It is “now high time,” Goethe wrote in the early 19th century, “to envisage a humane global philosophy with no regard for nationality and creed.” Ardor outlines, in its own quirky way, that long-overdue and genuine intellectual cosmopolitanism.

Read the whole thing here. Or check out the Open Letters Monthly piece here. Or both.

Proust and the limits of ekphrasis

Monday, December 3rd, 2012
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My travels have slowed my progress into Proustitution – but I was arrested by this passage in Swann’s Way, in which Marcel Proust describes the plight of a pregnant servant girl, a verbal journey that takes him all the way to Giottos frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel of Padua.  While most who know the early 14th-century chapel, one of the masterpieces of Western art, comment on its famous Last Judgment, or the panels which narrate events in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ, Proust focuses on the comparatively insignificant panels on virtues and vices, which Giotto painted as if they were stone statues, a kind of ekphrasis.

Ekphrasis has its limits, however.  The passage was more insightful when I took the trouble looked up the image to compare it to Proust’s prose.  Here Proust describes the servant girl and the image of Charity:

What was more, she herself, poor girl, fattened by her pregnancy even in her face, even in her cheeks, which descended straight and square, rather resembled, in fact, those strong, mannish virgins, matrons really, in whom the virtues are personified in the Arena.  And I realize now that those Virtues and Vices of Padua resembled her in still another way. Just as the image of this girl was increased by the added symbol she carried before her belly without appearing to understand its meaning, without expressing in her face anything of its beauty and spirit, as a mere heavy burden, in the same way the powerful housewife who is represented at the Arena below the name “Caritas,” and a reproduction of whom hung on the wall of my schoolroom at Combray, embodies this virtue without seeming to suspect it, without any thought of charity seeming ever to have been capable of being expressed by her vulgar, energetic face.  Through a lovely invention of the painter, she is trampling on the treasures of the earth, but absolutely as if she were treading grapes to extract their juice or rather as she would have climbed on some sacks to raise herself up; and she holds her flaming heart out to God, or, to put it more exactly, “hands” it to him, as a cook hands a corkscrew through the vent of her cellar to someone who is asking her for it at the ground-floor window …

There must have been a good deal of reality in those Virtues and Vices of Padua, since they seemed to me as alive as the pregnant servant, and since she herself did not appear to me much less allegorical.  And perhaps this (at least apparent) nonparticipation of a personal soul in the virtue that is acting through her has also, beyond its aesthetic value, a reality that is, if not psychological, at least, as they say, physiognomical. When, later, I had occasion to meet, in the course of my life, in convents for instance, truly saintly embodiments of practical charity, they generally had the cheerful, positive, indifferent, and brusque air of a busy surgeon, the sort of face in which one can read no commiseration, no pity in the presence of human suffering, no fear of offending it, the sort which is the ungentle face, the antithetic and sublime face of true goodness.

Sounds rather like the way her friends have described Polish Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler to me.