Posts Tagged ‘Paul Berman’

My neighbor: Volodya Nabokov

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Secretive West Chester's Poetry Conference

I had lunch on Memorial Day with poet R.S. Gwynn and his lovely wife Donna, the day before their 33rd anniversary, in a cosy little Mexican cafe on California Avenue. But Sam was sitting on a little secret he didn’t share with me.  Or perhaps I merely hadn’t had a chance to worm it out of him before the two visiting Texans swapped me for the more pedestrian charms of the Pacific coast.

Now he’s at the center of the storm:  Ron Rosenbaum, writing in Slate, announces the next hot Nabokov controversy, and the story is making the rounds in the blogosphere.  The poem “Pale Fire” is about to be liberated from Pale Fire. The 900-line poem at the center of what many call Vladimir Nabokov‘s finest novel, written presumably by the murdered John Shade, will be published separately by Ginkgo Press:  “Nabokov wrote it, and the question of why he wrote it and who he modeled Shade on is the subject of what will be an equally controversial essay accompanying the edition, by poet and poetry professor R.S. Gwynn.”

Vladimir Nabokov, my neighbor ... so to speak

Wait!  Wait!  Don’t dash for the exits in your excitement!

“I know, I know, this may seem to be more esoteric, it doesn’t have the built-in intrigue of a manuscript in a Swiss safe-deposit box. But it’s no tempest in a teapot, not to those familiar with the long-simmering controversy over the poem ‘Pale Fire.’ And with the unbearable beauty and delight both the poem and novel offer. But when you’re dealing with how to read—on the most basic level—the central node of perhaps the greatest work of the supreme artist of the English language of our era, the stakes are high and worth, I believe, my attempt to explain what it’s all about for non-Nabokov readers. (Needless to say, I’d prefer all of you latecomers to run out to read or reread the novel; it is a work of pure pleasure, eminently accessible, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, despite its deceptive “experimental novel” outer architecture.)

Rosenbaum continues:

“I was particularly struck by the degree of erudition about contemporary American poetry that Gwynn brought to his case that Nabokov meant ‘Pale Fire’ to be a reproof to over-casual, over-personal, over-trivial trends in American poetry. A reproof to the belief that formal poetics could not capture deep feeling in traditional verse forms. And that Nabokov had modeled John Shade on the well-known traditionalist American poet Yvor Winters, who was a partisan of formal poetics.

Lanz ... Humbert?

I’ve written about Nabokov’s brief, but fruitful, residency in Palo Alto here, in a little house on Sequoia Avenue so close to my own home that I occasionally walk my dog past it.  At that time, I was exploring the connection between Humbert Humbert and, believe it or not, the founder of the Stanford Slavic Department, Henry Lanz.  Sam had queried me about the connection between Yvor Winters and Nabokov, and I wrote to Helen Pinkerton on the subject: she seemed to have a vague memory of poet Janet Lewis, Winters’s wife, washing dishes with him at the Winters home in Los Altos.  She finally tracked down the reference in Larry McMurtry‘s “The Return of Janet Lewis,” in the New York Review of Books (June 11, 1998) — “a delightful essay on her and all of her work.”  McMurtry writes:

Winters...John Shade?

“Janet too is very polite, but she’s neither fussy nor chilly. She’s lived in that smallish but cheerful house for sixty-four years and is thoroughly the mistress of it; there she raised her family, there she watched war come and war be over, there she entertained generations of poets, artists, musicians, and even the occasional lepidopterist such as Vladimir Nabokov, who showed up at her door with his butterfly net one day in 1941.  The Nabokovs and the Winterses hit it off; the exiles came often for meals. I had heard that Navokov enjoyed himself so much in her kitchen that he sometimes helped her wash up; when I asked her about this she chuckled and said, ‘Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had.'”

Sam told me at the time “there doesn’t seem to be any record of their having met or corresponded after that. … For obvious reasons, the trail is pretty cold.”

That was then; this is now.  Rosenbaum promises the essay will be controversial:  “Was I right that Paul Berman‘s book would cause a brawl or what?”


UPDATE:  From Sam:  “If anyone has any information about the Nabokov-Winters friendship, please post a comment here.”  Read his post in the “comment” section below.

Fear: “A simple fact of modern life”

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Pankaj Mishra discusses Ayaan Hirshi Ali‘s Nomad along with Paul Berman‘s Flight of the Intellectuals in the current New Yorker here.   Mishra puts some valuable context and nuance on both books — and nails the authors when their passion outweighs their argument.  Useful, since relatively few of us in the West know the Islamic figures Berman cites.  But it seems to me Mishra elegantly sidesteps Berman’s more central point, that while intellectuals rushed to defend Salman Rushdie in 1989, regardless of their opinion of his fiction, those similarly threatened today are increasingly isolated: “How times have changed! The Rushdies of today find themselves under criticism … During the Rushdie affair, liberals who called for courage were applauded.  Liberals from Muslim backgrounds were positively celebrated.”  Elsewhere:

“And so, Salman Rushdie has metastisized into an entire social class. … who survive only because of bodyguards and police investigations and because of their own precautions. This is unprecedented in Western Europe since the fall of the Axis.  Fear — mortal fear, the fear of getting murdered by fanatics in the grip of a bizarre ideology — has become, for a significant number of intellectuals and artists, a simple fact of modern life.”

Meanwhile, I like the New Yorker cover.  Before I got to the Table of Contents and learned its title is “Five Weeks Later…” I was anticipating it would be called “A Jury of Peers.”  I still like my title better.

Postscript: Paul Berman on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “the best-known feminist intellectual ever to come out of Africa”

Friday, May 28th, 2010

I came late to the table on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, so it was fascinating to read Paul Berman’s 50-page defense of the woman he calls “the best-known feminist intellectual ever to come out of Africa” in The Flight of the Intellectuals, published last month.  He recounts the charges that she is “strident,” “disdainful,” and “aggressive” — what?  Is this the same warm and effervescent woman I saw speaking Tuesday night?

Berman’s words:

“The campaign in the intellectual press against Hirsi Ali seems to me unprecedented … A sustained attack in the intellectual world on a persecuted liberal dissident from Africa, a campaign in the press that has managed to push the question of women’s rights systematically to the side, a campaign that has veered more than once into personal cruelty, a soft vendetta, but a visible one, presided over by the normally cautious and sincerely liberal editors of one distinguished and admired journal after another, applauded and faithfully imitated by a variety of other writers and journalists, such that, in some circles, the sustained attack has come to be accepted as a conventional wisdom — no, this could not have happened in the past, except on the extreme right…

How did this happen?  The equanimity on the part of some well-known Western intellectuals and journalists in the face of Islamist death threats so numerous as to constitute a campaign; the equanimity in regard to stoning women to death; the inability even to acknowledge that women’s rights have been at stake in the debates over Islamism …”

He also quotes Pascal Bruckner: “A culture of courage is perhaps what is most lacking among today’s directors of conscience.”

Perhaps a culture of interest, too.  Hirsi Ali’s Bay Area appearances went completely unnoticed by the media. No press coverage that I can find, other than this lone blogger.  (Haven’t given up yet.  I’ll keep looking.)

“Their honor is between my legs”

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

“You all know me — but I don’t know you!” she almost squealed.  She might have won over the crowd in that moment on Tuesday night, had she not already held them in the palm of her hand.  Hard, in that instant, to see her as a  fierce, unflagging critic of radical Islam and the target of a fatwa.

The Palo Alto audience had just been asked how many had read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Infidel.  Almost all the hands in the sold-out Cubberley Community Theatre shot up instantly.

I kept mine down. Two weeks ago I had posted the Guardian profile of the author on my Facebook page; I’d only heard the name a few times before.  The joy of blog reporting:  suddenly I found myself sitting within 15 feet of her.

“I love San Francisco!  I love the food, I love the people!” she cooed appealingly.

Let’s face it, it helps to be beautiful (Timothy Garton Ash was trashed for saying so), as well as incorrigibly likable:  The willowy Somalian with the unforgettable face was wearing a fashionable gray sweater and black slacks with trendy wedge-heeled sandals.  And Garton Ash was right to a point: beauty and appeal distorts our consideration of a woman who,  in this case, needs to be taken very seriously on her own terms.

“I wanted to write papers full of footnotes and statistics.  Nobody was interested,” she recalled.  People wanted to know instead how she made the break from her past; they wanted to know, in particular, about the family she described in Infidel. How is her mother? “I don’t know. She’s in Kenya.  Get lost!”… “I’d say shut up about my mother.  I’ve just written a paper!”

“They’re interested in experiences.  Most people in the United States and Europe have not had those experiences.”  So she shared her story instead.

And wow, what a backstory:  She survived genital mutilation, escaped an arranged marriage with a much-older man, became an MP in Holland, and collaborated with Theo van Gogh on his film, Submission, about the treatment of women in Islam.  Since his assassination (a letter addressed to her was pinned to his chest when he was stabbed), she has been accompanied by bodyguards to protect her from a fatwa.  She is the author of a New York Times bestseller, with a second memoir just published.  She has been championed by Paul Berman; she has debated Timothy Garton Ash.

When her moderator, Susanne Pari, author of 1997’s The Fortune Catcher, soft-balled her a question about “the patriarchy,” Hirsi Ali balked.  “I don’t know if you can call it a patriarchy,” she said, since the women “not only participate in it, but impose it.”  Her grandmother had insisted on Hirsi Ali’s genital mutilation; in honor killings and punishments, “the first stage is a sister, mother, mother-in-law. ‘She dropped her headscarf,’ ‘She’s wearing makeup,’ ‘She’s seeing so-and-so.'”

Boys are victimized, too:  they are taught that “the male individual is not to be soft but be hard … his honor is between my legs.”

When asked about recent U.S. compromises on female mutilation, Hirsi Ali refused to take the bait, preferring to go to root causes:  “It all comes back to honor” and  “the conviction that the girl has to be a virgin on her wedding night.”

She decried the Western focus on “poverty, poverty, poverty — let’s get rid of the poverty.”  Poverty, she said, “is only the outcome of these convictions.”

“It lets men off the hook.”  She favors a paradigm shift in the culture, allowing women to “own their sexuality,” and encouraging men to “want a fellow human being in a relationship.”

Pari brought up the case of Faisal Shahzad, an apparently assimilated Muslim who turned to jihad with the attempted Times Square bombing — but Hirsi interrupted her comments about the possible cause being his job loss.

“I have a problem with that,” she said.  If we even “remotely entertain” the notion that “foreclosure and health care and normal adversity is an excuse to take away the life of another,” then “we are really going down,” she said.

“He has a freaking MBA!” she exploded.  “I know people who can’t read!”  Hirsi Ali denied that “the only therapy is to get an SUV and fill it with explosives.” Nor did she excuse Nidal Malik Hasan, who “gets to be a major in a voluntary army.”

“Why don’t we take these people at their word?  Why don’t we examine their convictions?”

Pari noted that, in her Iran-American childhood, there was only one mosque in the nation, in Washington D.C., and now there are thousands (“1150,” corrected Hirsi Ali). She took Hirsi Ali, a fellow atheist, to task for Infidel’s conclusion that the love and tolerance exhibited in much of Christianity might be a force to subdue Islam. “I was very naughty!” Hirsi Ali admitted with a chuckle.

Pari said the author’s idea “was disturbing to me, frankly…What were you thinking?”

“The superficial answer is, if every Muslim became Christian, I would live without bodyguards,” Hirsi Ali replied.

“This is a really hard interview,” admitted Pari.

I, for one, would have liked a paper as much as the stories, if not more.  As a mother (and a daughter) reading some of the tales, I saw enough stock issues  of parent-child estrangement in the book  to wonder how much was culture clash and how much was the intergenerational conflict that takes place everywhere.

Leafing through her newest book, Nomad, I liked as much the bits of the book that were blistering polemic against misogyny – in short, a paper.  She exhorts wet-noodle Western feminists who “manifest an almost neurotic fear of offending a minority group’s culture,” where a dread of offending  overcomes compassion and justice:

There are 13.5 million women in Saudi Arabia.  Imagine what it’s like to be a woman there: you are essentially under permanent house arrest.

There are 34 million women in Iran.  Imagine being a woman there: you may be married legally when you are nine; on the order of a judge, you may be lashed 99 times with a whip for committing adultery; then, on the order of a second judge, you may be sentenced five months later to death by stoning.  This is what happened to Zoreh and Azar Kabiri-niat in Shahryar, Iran, in 2007; after being flogged for “illicit relations” they were then tried again and found guilty of “committing adultery while married.” The punishment they were to receive for adultery was death by stoning. Their sentence was recently confirmed, on appeal.

There are 82.5 million women in Pakistan.  Imagine being a girl there: you grow up knowing that if you dishonor your family, if you refuse to marry the man chosen for you, or if someone thinks you have a boyfriend, you are likely to be beaten, ostracized, and killed, probably by your father or brother, who has the support of your entire immediate family.  You’re also liable to be jailed  …

Virginity is the obsession, the neurosis, of Islam.

As I began to feel my own reservations during the conversation, I continued to hear the audience groan, moan, and applaud their approval.  It was love fest.  The crowd was one.

It was, in short, a friendly mob.  I was grateful for my moments of alienation; they kept me from falling into the crowd emotion.  As Auden wrote:

Few people accept each other and most
will never do anything properly,

but the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd
is the only thing all men can do.

Only because of that can we say
all men are our brothers …

I wonder if Hirsi Ali will keep her intellectual independence, or whether her nonconformity is in part a byproduct of repeated dislocation. Many forces are trying to coopt or own her. In her writing, she longs for acceptance and a place of belonging after so much rejection. Will applause wear away this brilliant woman’s provocative edginesss?

Pari opens last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle review of Hirsi Ali’s new book with: “For the very few of us who have chosen atheism over Islam, the world is a dangerous place. Radical clerics call for our death and encourage our murder. It is the time of our Inquisition, and the urgent issue is how to extinguish these threats so that we, and others, may safely believe what we wish.”

But after listening to Ayaan, I’m not sure how much this is Pari’s opinion, and how much the author’s.

They both seemed to endorse religion to the extent that people don’t believe or practice it. But religions and beliefs have always evoked the most passionate side of man’s nature and engagement – and so has as much chance of turning man into a devil as an angel.  As another Enlightenment, or perhaps slightly pre-Enlightenment figure, Blaise Pascal, wrote:  L’homme n’est ni ange ni bête, et le malheur veut que qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête.

Perhaps the volatility, the unpredictability, of man’s passionate possibilities helped drive both women to the blinkered god of rationality. They embraced instead what Hirsi Ali terms “Enlightenment” values – ah, but the Enlightenment had a few passions of its own.  A good reading of the excesses of the Revolution should cure whatever nostalgia anyone has for the Enlightenment, and for what happens to man when he imagines he is relying on nothing but his or her own sweet reason.

There are other cures as well.  Christopher Hitchens is coming to town next month…