Posts Tagged ‘Mario Vargas Llosa’

Has entertainment turned our minds into jello and our politicians into clowns? Vargas Llosa thinks so.

Monday, May 16th, 2016

Mario Vargas Llosa in NYC with interlocutor John King at right. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

We’ve written about Peruvian Nobelist Mario Vargas Llosa before (here and here and here). Now it’s The Guardian‘s turn. Vargas Llosa has just come out with a new collection of essays, Notes on the Death of Culture. (This isn’t a new article, but perhaps you also missed it when the book was published last year.)

From The Guardian:

llosa-bookVargas Llosa has long been known as a public intellectual as well as a novelist in the Spanish-speaking world – and indeed in the UK, where he lived in the 1980s. One-time contender for his country’s presidency, a cultural liberal who wants value in the arts, ideas and literature to rule over easy relativism, the register of price and the “civilisation of spectacle”, he worries over the dangers to democracy the latter group poses. He’s at home with the giants of French theory, from Guy Debord, inventor of situationism, to Jacques Derrida and his archival fever. Their impact, he notes, has hardly been salutary. Meanwhile, neither artists nor critics, journalists nor politicians value judgment or intelligence.

By succumbing to what Marshall McLuhan called an “image bath”, he writes, the 21st-century west has ushered in a time of “docile submission to emotions and sensations triggered by an unusual and at times very brilliant bombardment of images that capture our attention, though they dull our sensibilities and intelligence due to their primary and transitory nature”. A shallow levity has taken over. The ethics of Hello!, which he reminds us was originally a Spanish magazine, rule. Entertainment is all. Translated into the political sphere, this means our politicians increasingly become clowns, prepared to do anything to capture media attention. The press, whose freedom is crucial, is more symptom than outright cause of this regrettable phenomenon.

Read the whole thing here.

Mario Vargas Llosa on youth, words, age, and running out of time…

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Mario Vargas Llosa chatting with John King, 2013. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Nobel prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa is 78, and he has no intention of slowing down. The Peruvian writer has just published a new book, The Discreet Hero, and he wants to talk about it. He also wants to chat about writing, youth, words, and age in an interview “Mario Vargas Llosa: ‘the novels we read now are purely entertainment'” over at the Telegraph here.

A couple excerpts:

“When I was young,” Vargas Llosa nods, “I was influenced a lot by Sartre and Camus. Sartre said that words were acts, and that with literature you could produce changes in history. Now, I don’t think literature doesn’t produce changes, but I think the social and political effect of literature is much less controllable than I thought. I thought that you could really direct the effect by writing in a certain way and about certain subjects. Now I think that was completely wrong.”

“But I don’t think literature has no effect,” he goes on. “I think its most important one for me is to develop a critical attitude in readers, in very general terms. I think if you’re impregnated with good literature, with good culture, you’re much more difficult to manipulate, and you’re much more aware of the dangers that powers represent. So in that sense, I still believe in committed literature, but not, let’s say, in a dogmatic or sectarian way.”

[Actually, the word in the first sentence was “wars” not “words,” but I assume that’s a mistake in the original article – otherwise the sentence makes no sense – ED.]


discreethero“One very positive aspect is that censorship is now practically impossible,” he says. “But on the other hand, you have such a mass of information about everything that qualification disappears completely, and everything is equally measured. The function of the critic was very important in establishing categories and hierarchies of information, but now critics don’t exist at all. That was one of the important contributions of the novel, once, too. But now the novels that are read are purely entertainment – well done, very polished, with a very effective technique – but not literature, just entertainment.”

Hasn’t he ever read a superficial novel? “Ha, ha!” he says. “Sometimes I might. Sometimes they’re very well done. I like serials – I like House of Cards, it’s fantastic, very entertaining. But it doesn’t remain in the mind. It doesn’t produce positive effects in political terms, in ideological terms. My impression is that this extraordinary digital revolution is producing also an extraordinary confusion.”

Even so, he is determined to keep engaging with the world.He keeps up a regular newspaper column in El Pais, has several projects cooking – “I don’t have a lack of projects, I have a lack of time!” – and, as he approaches 80, shows little inclination to slow down. “Well,” he says, “I think what is important is to be alive until the end. Not to be defeated in life. I think it’s very painful and very sad, people who feel defeated before time and lose the idea of doing things. That is something that terrifies me.

“Not death,” he clarifies. “Death I think is all right, you know? It’s a natural ending of everything. But I think it’s very important to be alive until the last moment. It’s important that death seem to be just an accident.”

He nods judiciously. “So I keep making projects, planning many different things. This is a way of being alive, and taking advantage of the fantastic possibilities that life offers.”


Read the whole thing here.

Les Misérables comes to Stanford – and Book Haven gives a pre-show talk about it.

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

lesmiserablesLes Misérables has come to Stanford – and the Book Haven was asked to give a talk about it to a small group of students and alumni, as a warm-up for the opening-night event (see poster at right). The reason for the invitation was the high Google ranking for our earlier post, “Enjoy Les Misérables. But Please Get the History Straight.” Apparently, it appears fourth in the search engines when you type in “Les Misérables” and “misconceptions.” It was a late invitation, and we had little time to prepare. Hence, devoted followers of this blog will recognize some of this text from earlier posts, with amendments and additions. Here’s what Humble Moi said last night:

Do what we may to shape the mysterious block out of which our life is quarried, the dark vein of our destiny will always show forth within it.”

So wrote Victor Hugo in his masterpiece, Les Misérables. And so the book seems to be part of my own personal destiny – a book which, according to the author, is “a drama in which the leading character is the Infinite. Man takes second place.”

I run a popular blog, the Book Haven, on the Stanford website. A year or two ago, at the launch of the movie version of the musical, I wrote a post called Enjoy Les Misérables. But Please Get the History Straight,” which is now pushing close to 100 comments – not bad for a literary blog. But this is a love story that began long, long before, as an 11-year-old girl who discovered Jean Valjean, and spent my evenings with him, hiding my bedroom lamplight so my parents wouldn’t see that I was still awake long after midnight, still reading. Modern literature tends to be intensive rather than extensive nowadays, with texts that are descriptive not demonstrative – and so, despite the devotion of a few of us, Hugo’s meandering cathedral of a novel has been démodé for awhile.

Thanks to the world’s longest-running musical, which you will see tonight, this terribly out-of-fashion book suddenly is in fashion. I cannot say the same for the history of the period, which somehow fell by the wayside. We are repeatedly told to go see this story of the French Revolution.

Many of us have repeatedly corrected the media, Huffington Post included, for this oft-repeated gaffe.  No surprise, perhaps, since even the Les Misérables movie director Tom Hooper seemed a little muddled muddled about French history.


Louis-Philippe: the (perceived) problem.

I don’t have to tell a Stanford audience that the French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789.  The insurrection of Les Misérables take place in 1832. Different century, different sensibility. But some of the details may have become fuzzy since your years in the classroom, and many of them rush by rather quickly in the show, so it’s worth revisiting. Two years before the rebellion featured in Les Misérables, the July Revolution of 1830 had put the popular “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe on the throne. Popular for awhile, that is.  Despite his unpretentious manners and a character that Hugo commended as good and admirable, the poor got poorer, crime was rampant, and poverty was everywhere. Some of the Republicans felt they had spilt their blood in vain on the 1830 barricades, that the revolution had been co-opted by the cronies who put Louis-Philippe in power.

By the spring of 1832, a deadly cholera epidemic brought Paris to a breaking point, ultimately taking 45,000 lives in the city. The epidemic’s most prominent victim was the popular General Lamarque, a Republican and Napoleonic war hero who was forever lamenting Waterloo and hating Wellington. Hence, in the early morning hours of June 5, crowds of workers, students, and others gathered in the streets of Paris.  The crowd had hoped to accompany Lamarque’s hearse en route to his native district in the Pyenees, as the funeral cortege made its wide arc around the Seine’s right bank.  Mourners and rebels merged into a mob that numbered in the tens of thousands – some witnesses claimed it eventually grew to 100,000.

There were cries of “down with Louis-Philippe, long live the Republic.” A group of students took control of the carriage carrying the coffin, diverting it to the Place de la Bastille where speeches followed and eventually someone waved a red flag with the words “Liberty or Death” on it – you should see some sort of a flag in the production. Soldiers had been under orders to refrain from the use of deadly force, but when a shot rang out from somewhere, the crowd began to throw stones at the military. The June rebellion began.


Lamarque: sore loser.

Hugo was an unwitting participant. The 30-year-old author was nearby, in the Tuileries, writing a play and taking the fresh air his doctor had recommended.  Then he heard gunfire from the direction of Les Halles.  He should have gone home to safety, instead he followed the sounds of gunfire through the deserted streets. The shops and stores had been closed for some time. He was unaware that the mob had taken half of Paris, and the barricades were everywhere in Les Halles.  Hugo headed north up the Rue Montmartre, then turned right onto the Passage du Saumon, finally turning before the Rue du Bout du Monde – in English, the street at the end of the world, which was more than a fitting tag that afternoon. Halfway down the alley, the grilles at either end were slammed shut. Hugo was trapped, surrounded by the barricades. He flung himself against a wall and took shelter between shop pillars. For a quarter of an hour, bullets flew both ways. Three decades later, he would write about the unforgettable experience in Les Misérables.

The cry “To the barricades!” resounded through the streets, and the barricade is a central image in the show you will see tonight. But there wasn’t one barricade in Paris, but dozens. They took as little as fifteen minutes to set up.

traugott_bookAccording to historian Mark Traugott, insurgents ripped the saplings that had been planted to replace the larger trees cut down in the earlier revolution, in 1830. They also scavenged planks and beams from nearby construction sites and improvised tools for prying up paving stones. These raw materials added mass and helped knit the structure together. In the hour-and-a-half between 5 p.m., when the first sporadic gunfire was exchanged, and 6:30, when pitched battles were first reported, dozens of barricades had been completed on both the right and left side of the river.

As the first barricades were going up, the rebels searched frantically for weapons. Some made do with sabers, staffs, or scythes, but rifles were vital. Bands of insurgents seized them from soldiers on the streets; others looted the Paris gunsmiths shops.

But they needed more than weapons: they needed the citizens to rise up and join them. The insurgents pleaded for help, but no help came. The citizens of Paris were not as quick to join the revolution as they were to join the rowdy funeral procession.  In theshow, the army officer warns the insurgents:

You at the barricade listen to this!
No one is coming to help you to fight
You’re on your own
You have no friends
Give up your guns – or die!


The 1830 revolution: it was better in the Delacroix version.

And so it was.  The casualty toll among the insurgents mounted as high as 800 dead and wounded, particularly heavy because the people of Paris had abandoned them. The most committed insurgents paid for their rebellion with their lives.

That should have been a tip-off for the modern theater reviewers who got it wrong: after all, the whole point of the French Revolution is that the revolutionaries  won.  Recall the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and the rest.  This was different. In 1832, the last guns were silenced barely twenty-four hours after fighting had begun.

That about does it for the 1832 insurrection. We could follow with the 1848 revolution.  And then the 1851 coup d’état by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. And then the destruction of the last Napoleonic empire in 1871.  It goes on and on.  With all the upheaval, it’s a wonder they could manage an empire at all … oh, that’s right, they couldn’t… It does go some way to explaining the insane decision to sell off a third of the North American continent in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. They were distracted – in that case, by a slave rebellion in Haiti and an impending war with Britain.

llosa2We don’t have much in the world to remind us of this ill-fated one-day insurrection – except this book, and now this musical. Yet the influence of the book over the years has caused me to wonder: Can good be contagious, the way evil is? Can we make it so? One Peruvian writer thought so. He called the Les Miserables an “ideological time bomb that can explode in the mind and imagination of its readers.” It may have been a short-lived blip, but after publication there was an increased interest in philanthropy and the plight of the poor in France. Many people all over the world have drawn strength and inspiration from this novel, but I think, in particular, of this young man in a military academy in Lima, Peru, a century after Les Miserables was published. The Nobel prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa would go on to write a remarkable book about Les Mis, called The Temptation of the Impossible. He wrote: “Les Miserables is one of the works that has been most influential in making so many men and women of all languages and cultures desire a more just, rational, and beautiful world than the one that they live in.”

I know that in the winter of 1950, in my military uniform, shrouded by the drizzle and the fog on top of the cliff at La Perla, thanks to Les Miserables, life for me was very much less wretched.”

Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa in Manhattan

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

Mario Vargas Llosa in conversation with the leading Mario Vargas Llosa expert (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

My favorite Polish photographer, Zygmunt Malinowski, sent me his photo of the November 7  evening with Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa and John King, who is co-editor, with Efraín Kristal, of The Cambridge Companion to Mario Vargas Llosa and translator of several volumes of his essays.  And isn’t that room gorgeous? It’s the Americas Society in Manhattan. And don’t we all wish we lived in Manhattan?  Except for the weather … and the traffic… and the noise…

Vargas Llosa has also been awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s most distinguished literary honor; the Jerusalem Prize; and, most recently, the Carlos Fuentes Prize, among many other honors. His most recent novel is 2010’s El sueño del celta [The Dream of the Celt].  Vargas Llosa expert John King is on the faculty of the University of Warwick.

Zygmunt wrote in his email: “Having been to Peru several times on expeditions, I can say that Vargas Llosa captures that mysterious and fantastic Andean country like no other writer. He also publicly supported Solidarity back when that support meant so much.By the way, one of the questions after the discussion was: what are his thoughts regarding modern media (e-books, tablets) versus printed material – that is, books for the future, in about 10 or 20 years? His answer was that he hoped both would co-exist and that television/media is great for information and entertainment, but according to him, it was not capable of producing great art (such as War and Piece, Don Quixote, Ulysses). His concern was that ‘literature written exclusively for tablets may produce the kind of cultural objects that television produces’ and, if so, ‘literature would be impoverished.'”

Happy Halloween – here’s the best pumpkin evah.

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Happy Halloween, everybody!

Enjoy the day with the best pumpkin of the year – perhaps the best pumpkin evah.  This beauty was commissioned for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and carved by Marc Evan and Chris Soria.  I wonder how long it took to make.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of the day, you might want to revisit Dana Gioia’s ghost story, or more recently the Jeff Sypeck’s take on the spooks from the rooftops of Washington’s National Cathedral.  Or how about George Orwell on love, sex, religion, and ghosts. Or… or… or… Dostoevsky, Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, and Paul West on evil — just in time for Halloween.

Enjoy the day, and take it easy on the candy.  Read a book instead.

Postscript:  From high art to pop art in a few quick hours.  Here’s another pumpkin to celebrate the day.  Sculptor Andy Bergholtz created the jack-o-lantern Joker in one manic 8-hour stretch:

“Surprisingly, Bergholtz has only been carving pumpkins for a year. He said that another sculptor he knows, Ray Villafane, had been encouraging him for years to sculpt squash, but he resisted.  Then last year Villafane recruited him to help carve pumpkins for Heidi Klum’s Vegas Halloween party. Bergholtz said, ‘I instantly fell in love with the art form and haven’t looked back since.'”

Want to know how the artist did it?  See video below.

When literary tête-à-têtes ends in fisticuffs…

Monday, March 26th, 2012

The subject of the fistfight: Lewis and Tolkien

It’s not often that two guys having a literary discussion end up by hauling off and whacking each other. And yet  it happened in the city of my alma mater, after several hours of serious drinking:

A 34-year-old Ann Arbor man was sent to the hospital with a head injury after another man punched him on Saturday during a literary argument, according to police. … the man was sitting on the porch with some people he had just met, talking about books and authors.

The 34-year-old man was then approached by another party guest, who started speaking to him in a condescending manner. An argument ensued and the man was suddenly struck in the side of the head, suffering a cut to his left ear …

The injured man – who was smacked so hard his glasses flew off and a lens popped out – was treated at a local hospital.

The story jumped from Ann Arbor to The Guardian, whose blogger, Sam Jordison, telephoned Michigan to get the scoop:  “The details remain sketchy, but the prominent rumour around town is that the men were disputing the relative merits of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.”

Virgil says: Don't watch. Don't listen.

Then Jordison shares his own self-satisfaction and his derision of his betters (Henry James, for example, is “the old windbag”) – apparently, he never loses a fight and is always right, just like the rest of us.  (It is the one thing we all have in common.) Then he asks a question:

But all this does make me wonder whether anyone else has experienced book-based violence. Have you had a literary argument so heated that you’ve only been able to resolve it with blows? Or could you imagine doing so – or at least losing your cool? And what’s your tipping point? If, for example, I were to inform you that J.M. Coetzee‘s Disgrace is a clever book for people who don’t like to think, would you hold it against me? And how do you like to annoy other book-lovers?

Here’s a few.

Mailer, Gore

Mad men: Mailer, Gore

There’s the time Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal. “As usual, words failed him,” quipped Vidal.

And two Nobel laureates ended a friendship when Mario Vargas Llosa socked Gabriel García Márquez – story recounted here and here.

Then there’s the fistfight between Ernest Hemingway and Wallace Stevens, confirmed by others but recounted by Hemingway in a February 1936 letter:

"Nice Mr. Stevens" and Hemingway

Nice Mr. Stevens. This year he came again pleasant like the cholera and first I knew of it my nice sister Ura was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc. So I said, this was a week ago, ‘All right, that’s the third time we’ve had enough of Mr. Stevens.’ So headed out into the rainy past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door having just said, I learned later, ‘By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.’

So who should show up but poor old Papa and Mr. Stevens swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only trouble was that first three times put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him. But you mustn’t tell this to anybody.

The winners

Then there’s the time that Desmond Leslie punched journalist and theater critic Bernard Levin in front of 11 million viewers over an article Levin had written about his wife, the actress Agnes Bernelle. The incident occurred the TV show That Was The Week That Was in 1962.

I am forced to come to the conclusion that book-lovers are a quarrelsome lot, not so much from these incidents as from some of the unsupported character assassination in the reader replies (though they did tip me off about where to find the best fights). Basta! What is it in us that likes to watch a fight?  As Virgil says to Dante in the Inferno: “To hear such wrangling is a joy for vulgar minds.” It’s one reason the Inferno has always been more popular than the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. Something to remember when one indulges in the “Comments” sections.

The two who come out best from the whole mess are … those two tweedy Oxford dons, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Lewis, in particular, was generous and self-sacrificing to an extreme, and though the two men disagreed, they remained gentlemen and friends.

Top global thinkers read Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules — For Now … and an odd blunder

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Archaeologist Morris digs for the secrets of the ages

Foreign Policy has published its Second Annual Top 100 Global Thinkers List — “a unique portrait of 2010’s global marketplace of ideas and the thinkers who make them” — and there are inevitably some surprises.

The one that pleased us most is that nestled in Niall Ferguson‘s recommended reading list of three books (Ferguson comes in at #80) —  Ian Morris‘s Why the West Rules — For Now.  We’ve written about Morris, the man who knows everything, here and here.

Other names mentioned in these pages appear on the list — Christopher Hitchens, Liu Xiaobo, Mario Vargas Llosa, Clay Shirky, David GrossmanAyaan Hirsi Ali made the cut, and so, ironically, did the man who has derided her — Ian Buruma finishes the list at #100.  (Tariq Ramadan follows immediately after at #62).  But what’s curious about her blurb is this bizarre understatement:

“The first time you heard about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it was likely the story of a brave Muslim woman fleeing her forced marriage in Somalia to become an outspoken critic of Islam. But her flight didn’t stop there; after more than a decade living in the Netherlands, she left Europe and its painful debates over assimilation for more comfortable ground: conservative America.”

Well, no.  Not quite.  They neglect to mention that she fled Holland because a fatwa called for her death, her colleague Theo van Gogh was murdered, and the Netherlands not only failed to protect her, but turned on her, questioning her immigration status. Big difference.

Why did no one at Foreign Policy flag this boo boo?  I guess all the copy editors have been laid off.

Dostoevsky, Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, and Paul West on evil — just in time for Halloween!

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

In their book-crammed flat (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Still thinking about evil after my post a few days ago, in keeping with Halloween.  Where better to turn than a Dostoevsky scholar?

Joseph Frank sent me his book Between Religion and Rationality some time ago.  Morgan Meis over at The Owls would have found the cover sexy.  My tastes, alas, are a little more flashy and vulgar.  I found it too sedate.  Perhaps that’s why the book remained in a pile of books I meant to read.  But I picked it up at last for his chapter on “Dostoevsky and Evil.”

I was pleased to see Joe’s essay style is lucid and unaffected — and as digressive and roundabout as he can be in conversation.  So the effect is halfway between formal essay and a conversation in Joe and Marguerite’s book-crammed campus flat.

He opens with J.M. Coetzee‘s Elizabeth Costello, discussing the title character’s revulsion at Paul West’s The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, which describes degrading,  obscene details of the execution of Hitler’s would-be assassins.  But the details recounted are fictional.  No one was there to say what had actually happened.

Not sexy

“What troubles her above all is that, while appalled and repelled by the book, she had not been able to push it away entirely. It had resisted her feelings of revulsion and disgust, and she feared that some of the ‘absolute evil’ it depicted had, as it were, also infected her; ‘she felt, she could have sworn, the brush of Satan’s hot, leathery wing.”

(The protagonist also shares Coetzee’s passionate vegetarianism: “If Satan is not rampant in the abattoir, casting the shadow of its wings over the beast … where is he?”)

Mario Vargas Llosa, author of The Feast of the Goat, another book that portrays evil in graphic detail, has a different take.  (And here’s where Dostoevsky comes into play.)  Joe quotes the Peruvian author:

“Perhaps we would be able to read what Mr. West wrote and learn from it, and therefore come out stronger rather than weaker. … The manner in which a poem, a novel, a play works on the sensibility or on a character varies to infinity, and much more as a result of the reader than rather than of the work.  To read Dostoevsky may, in some cases, lead to traumatic and criminal consequences, while on the other hand it is not impossible that the spermatic iniquities of the Marquis de Sade have increased the percentage of virtuous readers, vaccinating them against carnal vice.”

Sorry.  I’m with fellow vegetarians Coetzee and Elizabeth Costello on this one. I know what it is like to feel polluted even by a brilliantly written book (perhaps more so then).  But the good Prof. Frank has a different p.o.v. altogether:  “The details chosen to evoke the scene are his [West’s] own creation, and her [Costello’s] horrified response cannot simply be fobbed off as a private reader reaction.”  Recalling Dostoevsky’s murders in Crime and Punishment, he writes:

Pity, terror, and dinner soon

“One would be hard put to match such grisly details in either the European or the Russian novel of the same period, but their effect is ultimately offset by the intensity of Raskolnikov’s inner suffering and his final inability to endure his total estrangement from the rest of humanity.  …  One can find example after example in Dostoevsky’s works of the same boldness in depicting evil at work and the same effort to overcome its effects.”

He returns to Costello, Coetzee, and Paul West:

“… as author he [West] is responsible for the manner in which he depicts this episode; and there is no evidence here of pity, only terror and even horror.  It is such horror that leads Costello to level against him the charge of ‘obscenity,’ and to arrive at her extreme conclusion. ‘To save our humanity, certain things that we may want to see (may want to see because we are human!) must for ever remain off-stage.  Paul West … has shown what ought not to be shown.'”

Costello longs to argue with West, “some confrontation leading to some final word” — however, concludes Frank, “one cannot help thinking that the person Costello really wishes to meet, rather than Paul West, is an incarnation of Dostoevsky.”

And perhaps Charles Dickens, as well.  And Victor Hugo.  Maybe Lev Tolstoy, too. May I come to that dinner?  Soon?

“I will embrace you with ashes”: Liu Xiaobo, the Writer

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo: "Visible and invisible prisons"

Two writers were awarded Nobel prizes this year — but only one of them won for literature.  In the brouhaha over his Nobel prize for peace, it’s easy to forget that Liu Xiaobo is a writer. Kind of a twofer, with Mario Vargas Llosa.

Liu Xiaobo is a writer, of course, but what kind of writer? From what I could glean on the web, he appeared at first to be a writer in the way all academics are writers.  His essays,  Critique on Choices – Dialogue with Le Zehou and Aesthetics and Human Freedom earned him glory in academia. The former critiqued the philosophy of a prominent Chinese cultural philosopher Li Zehou.

Then I found this from NPR over the weekend:

Mr. Liu is 54, a writer who became a dissident because, as he said, “an honest writer must live by his words.” In his essay, Philosophy of the Pig, he praises ordinary citizens who challenge China’s totalitarian rule, and castigates intellectuals who, he says, “feel brave because the government lets them write about sex, incest and human defects. In China, everybody has the courage to shamelessly challenge morals. Rare are those who have the courage to challenge reality.”

"A hard stone in the wilderness"

He was jailed after saving hundreds of lives in Tiananmen Square.  After his release 20 months later, he said, “I hope to be a sincere Chinese intellectual and writer. This can put me back into prison—which is what happens to people like me in China.”

He is, of course, in jail again.  His wife, the painter, poet, and photographer Liu Xia, said to Deutsche Welle:  “I can only visit him, bring him books and write to him. They have allowed him to read and write for a year now. And he’s been allowed to see the sun twice a day for a year and a half. He is also allowed to go outside and move around – one hour in the morning, one hour in the afternoon.”

Liu Xiaobo‘s tireless work for human rights in China has rather overwhelmed his writing.  But I daresay every writer would rather be known for his writing, rather than for doing time.

So this, from NPR.  It’s a letter to his wife, Liu Xia, written last year from prison:

Sweetheart … I am sentenced to a visible prison while you are waiting in an invisible one. Your love is sunlight that transcends prison walls and bars, stroking every inch of my skin, warming my cell, letting me maintain my inner calm, magnanimous and bright, so that every minute in prison is full of meaning.

Given your love, sweetheart, I look forward to my country being a land of free expression, where … all views will be spread in the sunlight for people to choose without fear. I hope to be the last victim.

I am a hard stone in the wilderness, putting up with the pummeling of raging storms, and too cold for anyone to dare touch. But my love is hard, sharp, and can penetrate any obstacles. Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes.

(Finally, I found more of his writings here.)

Joumana Haddad is killing Scheherazade

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Articulate, passionate, energetic

I was warned that the first twenty minutes or so of Joumana Haddad‘s presentation at Stanford on Oct. 4 would demolish the stereotype of the Arab woman.  But I arrived late from another appointment, and so I missed the Lebanese journalist and author’s presentation of the stereotype that, to me, seemed a straw man … or a straw woman.

I know, I know … the cowering Muslim woman, wearing a burqa, submissive to her husband, her son, her houseplant.  Anyone seen one of these around lately?  Raise your hand.  Anyone?

I thought not.  I don’t have that stereotype, and I doubt that many educated people do.  And it’s partly because the distinction was blurred — even in my invitation to this event, sponsored by the Stanford Center for Innovation and Communication, which is interested in fostering conversations about women’s rights in “the Arab and Muslim worlds” — about who, exactly, we are talking about.  Not all Arabs are Muslim; not all Muslims are Arab.


I was joined at the event by  a  high school friend, the elegant Turkish-American Erën Goknar — who is far from cowering, and even farther from burqa’ed.  Erën is one of my notions of the modern Muslim women, but I also think of Neda Agha-Soltan and all the determined women of Iran’s Green Revolution.  I think of Shahryar Mandanipour’s comment last year about them:

“He also thought of those who were still fighting — ‘brave students beaten with bottles,’ facing interrogation and torture in their struggle for human rights. ‘There are times the Iranian women are braver than the men. I think so,’ he said softly.

I think of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, too — even though she has forsworn Islam. Even though she’s been rejected by the politically correct.

And I also, too, think of the Iranian Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, sentenced to be stoned to death, a political event which Haddad seemed to think gets too much focus, at the expense of the modern face of Islamic women.  True, true, but there’s the old journalistic saw: If you passed ten houses, and one of them was on fire … which one would you go back to the newsroom and write about?

None of these thoughts represents Haddad fairly, or justly represents her book, with the admittedly catchy title, I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman. (Scheherazade, incidentally, is a legendary Persian queen, not an Arab one — so our confusion is understandable.)

The face of modern Islam

For balance, then, here’s what our new Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, had to say about her book:

“A very courageous and illuminating book about women in the Arab world.  It opens our eyes, destroys our prejudices and is very entertaining.”

Haddad spoke eloquently of the need for increasing not only literacy in the Arab world, but the practice of reading.  Beyond the skill of reading, she plugged for the wide availability of literature and magazines, reviews, newspapers.  Too much cannot be said on the topic.

Haddad (she was reared as a Catholic, not Muslim, and now calls herself an agnostic, “thank God … whoever He is”) is an appealing and very attractive figure.  The 40-year-old poet and journalist spoke about her creation, Jasad magazine, which wikipedia described as “a controversial Arabic magazine specialized in the literature and arts of the body.” She calls it “erotica.”  Not surprisingly, it is banned in Saudi Arabia.

For someone taking on the subject of stereotypes, I was disturbed by her reliance on cliché (especially troubling for a woman who considers herself a poet).  She spoke of the “free and emancipated” woman.  She spoke of how the internet “teaches you that the personal is universal” and that it’s “connecting the world together — I really believe in the power of that.”  She spoke of “empowerment.” So I wasn’t terrifically surprised when she said,  in answer to a question, “I never function by ‘outcomes,’ I function by fashions, needs, anger.”

She spoke of the goal of religions to “control” sexuality — but seemed to ignore that all archaic societies have extensive laws governing sexual behavior, as a way of preventing social chaos.  You will have a tough time finding an exception.  (Naomi Wolf’s now notorious 2008 article asserted that “Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private” — it’s a point worth considering.)

She spoke of the dreadfulness Barbie with a burqa, but I think it’s also dreadful to have a “doll” with the equivalence of a 50″ bust as a “toy” for girls.  Far be it from me to defend the burqa, but I have wondered if it’s any more imprisoning than a string bikini, with the attendant starvation and head-to-toe waxing and worrying and body obsession.  If that puts my thinking in line with Osama Bin Laden & co. (as someone on a website pointed out vis-a-vis Wolf’s article), so be it.  Every word that proceeds from a criminal and terrorist is not necessarily crime and terrorism.  That’s where thinking should kick in.

She spoke of Scheherazade and the title of her book. Evidently, Haddad is agin’ her, because she has “negotiated her basic rights — one of the things we have to stop doing is negotiating basic rights.  We are equal to men — we don’t have to ask for that.”  True, true … we are equal.  But we still are the ones who get pregnant.  Access to universal, quality child care is still a more pressing concern for women than men.  Maternity leave, as well.  You simply can’t unhook the welfare of women from the welfare of children.  In the sense that we create life, we are more than equal; we are also less free.  Anyone who has been a single mother can tell you that.

In the larger picture, Scheherazade represents not only a female heroine, but a universal hero — precisely because we are all negotiating the terms of our existence, every single day.  She’s speaks not only to other women, but to the whole human family.  She is speaking to the power of the word, and the endurance of the story.  Those things exist beyond “fashion, needs, anger.”

So what does it mean when Haddad wants to “kill” her — even in a flippant, symbolic  way, for a catchy book title?

As the much much-maligned Naomi Wolf wrote, “it’s worth thinking in a more nuanced way about what female freedom really means.”  Maybe we need some kind of “empowerment” that goes even beyond “erotica.”