Posts Tagged ‘Robert Pogue Harrison’

At last! At last! Stanford spotlights William Kennedy’s “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game” on Feb. 26!

Friday, January 29th, 2021
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The Bard of Albany, Irish-American author William Kennedy

It’s happening! It’s finally happening! At 3 p.m. (PST) on Friday, February 26, Stanford’s Another Look book club hold its long-postponed Another Look discussion honoring author William Kennedy, a Pulitzer-prizewinning, MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. Our event for the 1978 book was one of the early COVID casualties at Stanford last spring. Now it will be rescheduled as a Zoom event (isn’t everything nowadays)?

From our announcement:

Pulitzer prizewinning novelist William Kennedy has been called the Bard of Albany, but he began his career as a reporter. After a stint in the military and in Puerto Rico, he returned to his hometown, and saw the city of his birth with new eyes: “Without a sense of place, you don’t, as a writer, have very much. Place is all those forces of a given society impinging upon and determining character. Without it, a book becomes bloodless.”

According to Stanford’s Tobias Wolff, who will lead the discussion: Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game belongs to William Kennedy’s celebrated Albany sequence of novels. Set during the Depression, it concerns a young gambler and bookie, the Billy of the title, who suffers a setback that compels him to embark on an odyssey – and I use that word advisedly – through the demimonde of his city, during which he encounters temptations and dangers that test his resolve to the limit. There are gangsters, there is a kidnapping, but at its core this novel is about character, and what this man will do and endure to preserve his honor.”

The discussion will be led by National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, with panelists Carol Edgarian, novelist and founding editor of Narrative Magazine, and Another Look Director Robert Pogue Harrisonan acclaimed author and host for the popular radio series, Entitled Opinions

Like all our events, it is free and available to the public. Register here.

And check out my Los Angeles Review of Books interview with Bill Kennedy, discussing his life and, in particular, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. An excerpt:

CYNTHIA HAVEN: Hemingway wrote: “Everything changes as it moves. That is what makes the movement which makes the story. Sometimes the movement is so slow it does not seem to be moving. But there is always change and always movement.” It’s a thought you echo more than once in Billy Phelan, for example, when you write: “We are only as possible as what happened to us yesterday. We all change as we move.” You’ve said, “The movement is what creates the action, and the action is what creates the story” — which in turn creates more movement. Clearly, you’ve thought about this a lot. Could you share a few more thoughts?

WILLIAM KENNEDY: I must’ve been deeply persuaded by Hemingway’s lines to have lifted them without crediting him; but I always listened to what he said about writing. In The Angels and the Sparrows, I created Francis Phelan, a wino in his 30s, a clever, obnoxious loner returning home for his mother’s funeral (she kicked him out), who stops at a neighborhood bar for a beer and is hostile to the bartender. It was a good scene. He was a sad, broken young guy, but I disliked him seriously, even as I was creating him, and didn’t want to carry him forward.

Then, maybe 15 years later I started to write Billy Phelan and I reinvented the Phelan family. I had to get rid of Francis as that antipathetic young wino. He still had to be a bum, but I aged him into a tortured figure at the bottom of the world who was Billy’s father, and his life immediately became an open-ended challenge to my imagination. It turned out that he had abandoned his family 22 years earlier after his 13-day-old son, Gerald, slipped out of a diaper while he was changing him, fell off a table, broke his neck and died. In the fall of 1938, Francis drifts back to Albany to vote in a Democratic primary election, knowing the machine will pay him $5 for this; so he votes 21 times, earning $105, and is put in jail. Billy, the gambler, hears he’s in town and bails him out. The new Francis, after living through 16 years of shame and guilt over dropping the infant and running off, became a pitiable but likable human being. I don’t know where Gerald came from. There was no such incident in my life, nor can I remember hearing of one; perhaps I forgot it. But years ago I decided it was a gift from my unconscious, a fruitful one. In Billy, Francis was so vitally real that he leaped onto my typewriter and demanded his own novel. So I wrote Ironweed for him.

Again, register for the event here.

“Exact and expansive”: Stanford’s Robert Harrison speaks as friend, fan of Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard at NYC’s McNally Jackson – November 12 on zoom!

Tuesday, November 10th, 2020
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“Relentless.” (Photo: Christopher Peterson)

Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard is considered one of the finest fiction writers of the postwar generation. She died in 2016.

Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrisona friend as well as fan, will be a featured speaker at a Zoom event to celebrate her just-published Collected Stories. The event happens on Thursday, November 12, at 7 p.m. EST (4 p.m. PST) hosted by New York City’s McNally Jackson bookstore. The McNally Jackson website is HERE with an RSVP link is at the top of the page.

From the McNally Jackson website:

“Shirley Hazzard’s Collected Stories is a work of staggering breadth and accomplishment. Taken together, these twenty-eight short stories are masterworks in telescoping focus, ranging from quotidian struggles between beauty and pragmatism to satirical send-ups of international bureaucracy, from the Italian countryside to suburban Connecticut. Hazzard’s heroes are high-minded romantics who attempt to fit their feelings into the twentieth-century world of office jobs and dreary marriages. After all, as she writes in ‘The Picnic,’ ‘It was tempting to confine oneself to what one could cope with. And one couldn’t cope with love.’ And yet it is the comedy, the tragedy, and the splendor of love, the pursuit and the absence of it, that animates Hazzard’s stories and provides the truth and beauty that her protagonists seek.”

Her friend at Stanford.

“Hazzard once said, ‘The idea that somebody has expressed something, in a supreme way, that it can be expressed; this is, I think, an enormous feature of literature.’ Her stories themselves are a supreme evocation of writing at its very best: probing, uncompromising, and deeply felt.”

According to Harrison, “Conrad once said that the written work of art must justify itself word by word, sentence by sentence. That justification is always at work in her prose. Her use of English is at once exact and expansive. She inhabits the language as only someone who was nourished on its very best literature at an early age could inhabit it.”

“She has a unique stylistic signature, one that combines extreme narrative discretion with probing psychological insight; a masterfully terse yet complex prose that always looks for and finds le mot juste; the most astonishing and expressive metaphors of any writer of her generation known to me.” (Robert Harrison also interviewed Hazzard in 2006 for Entitled Opinions here.) He adds that ” the commitment to description in her books is relentless.”

Hazzard’s biographer Brigitta Olubas and Australian novelist Michelle de Kretser will also be on hand to discuss the author’s legacy.

Postscript on 11/11 from Dana Gioia, former NEA chair and California poet laureate: How good to see Shirley Hazzard remembered! I second Robert Harrison’s praise of her style. She had an amazing ability to present the emotional reality of her characters and a genius for vividly depicting the most diverse settings. “The Transit of Venus” and “The Great Fire” are among my favorite contemporary novels–two very different books similar only in their elegant prose and deep humanity.

I wonder if part of her obscurity is that, like the equally superb Sibylle Bedford, Hazzard was so international. She lived in Australia, New Zealand, Italy, and the U.S. She doesn’t fall neatly into either Australian or American literature. Thanks for featuring her work.

Summer, the Hum of Poetry, and the Wild Accidents That Gave Us Life…

Saturday, August 29th, 2020
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Life is an excess – call it the self-ecstasy of matter.” Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Summer”

Labor Day traditionally marks the end of summer, and we have little over one week to go. Let us celebrate the time we have, marred, as it has been, by coronavirus and California wildfires. Over at Entitled Opinions, with a podcast up at The Los Angeles Review of BooksRobert Pogue Harrison puts a deliriously joyful spin on the season. “Life is an excess – call it the self-ecstasy of matter,” he says.

He recorded this monologue at the solstice. Now his reflections summarize the season that is coming to a close.

Čapek: Seriously into summer.

The reason for the solstice, he reminded us, is that the earth does not spin upright, but tilts at more than 23 degrees, and that obliquity is responsible for life on our planet. An upright planet like Mercury would lack seasons, and be so cold at the poles that it couldn’t foster greenhouse gases, hence, liquid water would never form. Uranus, with a tilt of more than 82 degrees, would be blazing hot for six months and intolerably cold for the others.

But there’s more to life than that. Harrison said that the Czech author Karel Čapek, who cultivated his garden plot in Prague, understood intuitively what science now accepts: in the beginning, the earth “aggressively resisted life’s colonizing adventures.” Harrison described “the animosity and callousness of dead and sterile matter,” resulting in “the terrible fight life must have undergone inch by inch to take root in the soil of the earth.”

It took the tremendous self-affirming struggles of life itself to transform the earth, sea, and air into elements hospitable to life. Life itself first brought about the conditions that favor life on the planet today,” he continued. “This is the great paradox and great miracle of life: it’s life itself that actually transformed the earth into a planet favorable for life.”

He closes with the literature of summer – the luncheons and garden parties in Virginia Woolfs novels, the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Christina Rossetti, and the “humming, inarticulate music that one can hear in one’s head that is in some kind of syntony with a season.”

Listen to the podcast here.

The larkspur listens, “I hear, I hear”;
And the lily whispers, “I wait.”

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers”: a story for the era of doxxing, “outing,” and our right to be left alone – Zoom discussion on Monday, August 24.

Monday, August 10th, 2020
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James: “the canals assume to the eye the importance of a stage…”

It’s two weeks to our special Zoom discussion of Henry James‘s short 1888 classic, The Aspern Papers. The Another Look book club will be hosting the event, in partnership with Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute, on Monday, August 24, 3-4:30 p.m. (Register for the event here.) If you haven’t read the short novel, you should – you really should. Those of you who associate Henry James with sentences that go on relentlessly for pages will be pleasantly surprised by this tight, yet psychologically insightful work.

The Aspern Papers was inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s correspondence with Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. (Shelley’s novel was featured in a January 2017 Another Look event.) Clairmont cherished the letters until her death. Of course, James transposes that into fiction – but it’s a lively and insightful read, and those daunted by James’s three-page-long sentences needn’t be afraid. The plot keeps a good pace in this psychologically insightful work, while treating us to the wonder that is Venice.

Himself

The story: an elderly invalid who once was the beloved of a renowned American poet, Jeffrey Aspern, lives in seclusion with her spinster niece in a Venetian palazzo. The unnamed narrator goes through elaborate machinations to gain access to her private papers and literary relics from the long-ago romance.

The story has new relevance for us today. “What James delivered, in 1888, was not some dusty antiquarian fable but a warning call against the cult of celebrity that was already on the rise, and against the modern insistence that artists and writers can – or should – be prized out of their work like cockles from a shell, for public consumption,” critic Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker. In the era of doxxing and “outing,” the story explores our right to be left alone, and our right to have secrets. At the heart of the book is the rapacious desire of one man to reach through time to possess another.

Tobias Wolff and Robert Pogue Harrison will lead the discussion. Acclaimed author Robert Harrison, professor of French and Italian, writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. Wolff, a Stanford professor emeritus of English, is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts.

Elena Danielson, director emerita of the Hoover Library & Archives, will offer a few remarks as the author of The Ethical Archivist. And yours truly will have a few words to say on the occasion, too, as the author of the biography, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

Again, register here. We’d love to see you!

Christopher Lydon, Robert Pogue Harrison discuss our “worldwide theater of imitated desire”

Thursday, July 2nd, 2020
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“HISTORY IS A TEST FOR MANKIND, BUT WE KNOW VERY WELL THAT MANKIND IS FAILING THAT TEST.” – RENÉ GIRARD

Is Geryon an image of our time?

The tables are turned on Entitled Opinions’ Robert Pogue Harrison: public radio show host Christopher Lydon recently interviewed the interviewer for Open Source in Boston. The wide-ranging conversation considered the French theorist René Girard’s mimetic theory, the nature of warfare, the dangers of biotechnology, and the social media.

A recording of the conversation is available at the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Entitled Opinion channel here.

Mankind is an imitative species “with a terrible envy built into it, a competitive desire to be like some ideal of the other person,” Harrison said, citing the work of Girard. Facebook is the “perfect mechanical vehicle” of such envy. Facebook services mimetic needs with “a prosthetic self and a prosthetic social life and prosthetic friends.”

“We have this illusion that there’s nothing more proper to my inner self than my own desires,” said Harrison – but Girard challenges that assumption, showing that our desires are the result of imitation. No coincidence, then, that Facebook was “a worldwide theater of imitated desire on people’s personal computers,” he said. Certainly his former Stanford pupil Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook, understood the importance of Girard’s legacy when he said: “I suspect that when the history of the 20th century is written circa 2100, he will be seen as truly one of the great intellectuals, but it may still be a long time till it’s fully understood.”

Radio host Lydon

Imitation leads to violence, and Harrison noted that Girard is “more compelling in his diagnosis of the problem of violence rather than what he offers as an alternative.” Girard’s solution? “The refusal to retaliate he believed was the only sane recommendation in the face of this vortex that international violence could create,” said Harrison.

Harrison also took on the gene-editing boom: “In the name of doing good, you can license a lot of harm,” he said. “Mengele in Auschwitz will eventually be recognized as a visionary of the 20th century, although his methods will be condemned and his Nazi affiliations never endorsed.”

Radio host Harrison

Harrison, a Dante scholar, pointed out that the Inferno’s portrayal of sea-faring Ulysses was the “archetype of scientific discovery,” always heading to new frontiers of exploration and knowledge, which ultimately led to his death. “The line that’s being crossed today is taking the role of creation into our own hands and presuming to know better than nature.” He asked what the motivations behind biotechnology are. Dante’s Geryon, the furry monster who represents fraud in the Inferno, “has the face of a gentle, kind, smiling man, and the tail of a scorpion,” he said. “I want to know where the scorpion tail is hiding in this new explosion of biotech.”

Listen to the whole thing at The Los Angeles Review of Books here.

“THE ONE WHO BELIEVES HE CAN CONTROL VIOLENCE BY SETTING UP DEFENSES IS IN FACT CONTROLLED BY VIOLENCE.” – ROBERT HARRISON

The end of Another Look books? “Are quarterly gatherings of quiet readers really too expensive? Or simply priceless?”

Thursday, May 21st, 2020
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Harrison at the Another Look podium.

Needless to say, Tobias Wolff, Cynthia Haven, and I are disappointed. We believe in the vision of founder Tobias Wolff, who eight years ago had the idea to start a book club that would present vibrant, high-caliber discussions of books that deserve “another look,” either because they were published some time ago, or because they didn’t get the attention they deserved.  Tobias intended the program to be Stanford’s “gift to the community,” and so it has been.  We regularly get letters and emails praising and thanking us for our discussions, which we’ve made available in a popular podcast series. We’ve also gotten attention, from The Guardian, Die Welt, Le Monde, The San Francisco Chronicle, and more.  Our meetings typically drew around 180 people per session, but far more people around the world read the books along with us and tuned into the discussions via the podcasts.

Four years ago Continuing Studies, the under the leadership of Charlie Junkerman, generously offered to take over the sponsorship of Another Look from Stanford’s English Department.  Neither Tobias nor I received any financial compensation.  The budget covered the rental of the Bechtel Conference Center, a modest stipend for Cynthia Haven, and the cost of printing the posters and bookmarks.  We cannot thank Charlie Junkerman enough for his wonderful leadership and support. The same goes to Christina Fajardo, Public Programs & Special Events Manager for Continuing Studies.  All three of us are really grateful for their help and support, and I’m sure many of you are as well.

I’m sure that many of you will also ask if there’s anything you can do to keep Another Look going.  I’m not sure that there is, but if you feel strongly enough about it, I recommend that you send an email expressing your views to Jennifer Deitz, Director and Associate Dean for Continuing Studies; and to Dan Colman, Dean, Continuing Studies and Summer Session.  Please also copy Christina Fajardo.  You never know what a strong show of support might do to get Continuing Studies to reconsider their decision to put Another Look in limbo, possibly for good.  Their email addresses are:

Founding director Wolff

1. Jennifer Deitz, Director and Associate Dean, Continuing Studies <jdeitz@stanford.edu>,
2. Dan Colman, Dean, Continuing Studies and Summer Session <dhcolman@stanford.edu>,
3. Christina Fajardo, Public Programs & Special Events Manager, Continuing Studies <fajardoc@stanford.edu>

I for one can’t think of a better way to restore sanity and spirit to our society than by fostering a community of books.  Another Look has shown us just how many people are hungry for it.  It’s been a great run.  Thank you all for having been a part of our reading community

Wishing you safety and good reading,

Robert Pogue Harrison, Director, Another Look

Last night, Clay Lambert, editorial director of The Half Moon Bay Review, posted a tweet with a photo of “unforgettable” books he discovered through the program, and asking a poignant question: “Are quarterly gatherings of quiet readers really too expensive? Or simply priceless?”

It was followed a few hours later by a retweet from Marc Ventresca, a Stanford alum, now at Oxford as an economic sociologist in the Strategy, Innovation and Marketing Faculty at Saïd Business School and a Governing Body Fellow of Wolfson College.

Postscript: Another tweeter, Ksenia Lakovic, has taken up Clay Lambert’s challenge. I hope a few other Another Look aficionados photograph their favorite books from the series. You can read more about them here.

What Can Oedipus Teach Us About The COVID Crisis?

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020
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From the trendy, tony website 3quarksdaily (we’ve written about this bold venture here):

What is worse – coronavirus itself, or the social and economic catastrophe that comes with it?

René Girard, one of the leading thinkers of our era, argued that the biological and social aspects of a plague are interwoven: he points out that historians still debate whether the Black Death was a cause or a consequence of the social upheavals in the 14th century.

The Stanford professor, who died in 2015 at age 91, has been called “the new Darwin of the human sciences,” but he began as a literary theorist. His work, beginning in the 1960s, offered a new concept of human desire: our desires are not our own, he said, but are “mimetic.” As social creatures, we learn what to want from each other.

Imitation leads to competition, which leads to conflict, which then spreads contagiously throughout a community. Eventually, the community targets one person or group to blame for the disorder, someone like Oedipus. The targeted scapegoats are punished, expelled, or in the past, often killed. Girard began in literature, but quickly took on anthropology, sociology, religions, and more. And while he initially wrote mostly about myths in archaic societies, he eventually became an observer of contemporary culture, focusing on rivalry, violence, and warfare today.Towards the end of his life, he wrote about the social ramifications of natural disasters, and plagues are no exception. Certainly our desires and hostilities have proven as contagious as COVID-19, which has in many ways fueled and exacerbated them, and variously targeting presidents, governments, protestors, and the Chinese for blame.

In 2005, Girard met with Robert Pogue Harrison, author of Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age; Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, and The Dominion of the Dead, for a two-part interview on Harrison’s celebrated “Entitled Opinions” radio and podcast series, available on iTunes.

The full transcript is among the interviews included in the Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, edited by Cynthia L. Haven, published this month by Bloomsbury.

Read the rest here.

Robert Harrison in NZZ on quarantines, language, literature: “The social conversations of educated, successful people in Silicon Valley are of a poverty that frightens me again and again.”

Monday, April 13th, 2020
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The brigata gather to hear the tales of “The Decameron” (Painting by John William Waterhouse)

René Scheu, editor of the eminent Neue Zürcher Zeitung, recently  interviewed Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison for Switzerland’s eminent German-language daily. Read it in German here. An excerpt in English below:

Mr. Harrison, we are having this conversation via Skype. This is due to the situation we both currently live in. I see you are sitting in your study in your wonderful house on the Stanford campus, which I know is surrounded by nature and trees. Your books can be seen in the background of the room. . .

… yes, my private library, my books! They are my friends, in times of crisis and in normal times.

So, to be perfectly honest, how is your life in quarantine?

My life in quarantine is undoubtedly less dramatic than that of my relatives and friends in Italy. They are no longer allowed to leave the house, and the state intervenes drastically in their private lives–this put pressure not only on liberal minds. In California, we are required to stay indoors whenever possible, but we are not legally required to do so. So I feel restricted, but I don’t feel like a prisoner in my own house.

It sounds almost like you save yourself for your new position as a dedicated observer. Is that impression right – or are you constantly rubbing your eyes hoping to wake up from this surreal nightmare at some point?

Harrison on language: “we use it to shape ourselves.”

I feel–as others do these days–a constant mental and emotional tension that is paralyzing in the long run. It stems from a basic mood of angst–and I think we should use the German word in an existentialist sense here. On the one hand, we feel angst very concretely, so to speak in every waking second of this crazy time, and at the same time it remains–in contrast to angst–very diffuse. What are we afraid of? Well, in fear we get the world as such, the being as a whole, is lost. Martin Heidegger says that the big picture is slipping away from us.

***

In order not to go crazy, you held a semi-public seminar about Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, the quarantine book par excellence, above all.

I agree . . .

Briefly, pro memoria: It is about the Black Plague in 1348, which wiped out half of the European population. Seven women and three men retire to an estate and tell 100 stories to celebrate human life. They all survive.

No question: Boccaccio’s masterpiece is the book of the hour. And although some now quote it, it’s not only literary, but also its practical relevance is wide and still underestimated. It doesn’t celebrate escapism or pleasure in the face of catastrophe, no, it celebrates prudence in life, which is prudent for survival.

Boccaccio is relentless in his introduction, in which he describes the raging plague in Florence with unprecedented levels of detail. He differentiates between those who isolate themselves and renounce all social contact, those who live as if there is no tomorrow, and those who take flight. But nobody escapes the plague, it affects everyone.

Yes, the great Boccaccio provides a clinical sketch of life in the sign of black death. Those who only fight for survival will not survive. That is one of his cruel points.

When medicine and faith fail, only storytelling helps, according to Boccaccio.

Ten young people withdraw to the country, organize their lives, make every day precise, eat, drink, dance in a perfectly designed setting and tell ten stories in ten days, each in this environment. This storytelling is the human immune response to a physiological as well as a sociological crisis. Boccaccio focuses on this second meaning, and today, under the sign of the coronavirus, we think about it far too little.

***

In a comprehensive sense, the ten young people are rebuilding a world in their minds that is a substitute for the world they had previously lost through the plague.

Interlocutor René Scheu, editor-in-chief  of NZZ

I think now you’ve touch the heart of it. Institutions cannot revitalize them–but they regulate their days, make agreements, and adhere to them. And in their minds they create a new world into which they literally merge. It is a world with new, funny, and tragic protagonists with whom they can identify to a certain extent–because the center of every good story is always the same: being human. Sharing a common world helps them achieve mental stability and health. And this in turn ensures their survival. Narrative as a strong immune response: that’s what is at stake here.

The first tale is about a cheater and a sinner. Ser Ciappelletto lies so consistently and convincingly, even in the last hours of his life as he confesses, that he ends up going down in history as a saint. This novella is a story about the art of novellare itself, and it is as if Boccaccio told us that a good story need not necessarily be true. Or is it about a different, as it were poetic, truth?

The story of Ser Ciappelletto is about falsehood and lies, of course. But this mafioso was a first-rate cheater, and in the end, in the face of death, he was even able to convince the priest of his goodness. Ser Ciappelletto was a fantastic narrator before the Lord. As soon as the story about him goes viral and people continue to talk about what a pious and godly person this man was, it has an all-round positive effect: the listeners want to emulate Ser Ciappelletto’s example. They also want to become such a charitable and godly person, as he was supposed to be. It is here that history has proven itself on a higher level. To put it in a nutshell: only a really good story is true in the sense that it has a productive effect and that it helps people to advance in their own lives. It becomes true by making it true.

So Boccaccio was an incorrigible optimist because he shows how the worst person can make a story that inspires other contemporaries.

On the one hand, Boccaccio shows us how a bad cheater makes other people stronger in their belief–and on the other hand, he lifts the veil and lets us see how we indulge in fictions. But we need these fictions to outgrow ourselves in life. So for Boccaccio there are only stories that help us live better and stories that help us live worse. That is its form of radicalism.

Storytelling is a pretty dangerous thing.

Storytelling is not the pleasure of a few privileged people who escape the plague, no, storytelling is at the heart of our social life. Every institution, every religion, every civilization is based on a good story. Let us  think of our founding stories – those of Western Christian culture, our state, our age. All of these stories – which are somehow true, but never quite and literally – all of these stories strengthen our identity, and nothing man-made could exist without them. But as powerful as stories are, fake news can also be dangerous. They are highly contagious, infect our minds, and make us sick.

The good news is that really good stories go more viral than fake ones. They help to increase mental fitness. Boccaccio provides a lot of such stories in his Decameron. In this respect, he actually left us a kind of survival guide that we can use at any time.

Good stories strengthen the immune defense of the symbolic being that we humans are. Bare life is not a purpose in life, even if the plague or the corona virus is raging, although the latter is rather mild in comparison.

Pampinea speaks of the ben viver d’ogni mortale, of the good life worth living of every mortal.

The story of Ciappelletto (Vatican Library)

If you ignore the shape and the culture, you may survive biologically, but not as a person. We becomes an animals – Boccaccio compares uomini with capre in his description of the raven in Florence, he speaks of bestialità. Anyone who behaves like an animal will eventually become an animal.

So is Boccaccio the discoverer of what psychologists today call self-efficacy?

In a way, yes. Depending on how I present myself, I can influence the behavior of others–and these others in turn affect me. So in the end, whatever you say, think or do, it affects your fellow human beings and yourself. On the sixth day in the Decameron, there are some stories that deal with that. Male protagonists behave in rough and vulgar ways towards women. But women react with elegance, and men are ashamed of themselves and change their behavior by showing themselves at their best. It’s as if  women increase men’s self-esteem. So I think you are absolutely right with your inspiration: Boccaccio is a real humanist in that he constantly wonders how we can do it.

Boccaccio sees man as a being that forms itself. Almost 150 years later, Pico della Mirandola will deliver the programmatic text for this new, modern anthropology with his Speech on Human Dignity: God has created an unfinished creature that is not fixed and therefore called to form itself.

Boccaccio’s heroes are never passive victims of circumstances or fate, but are always creative actors. They take the initiative and show imagination, sensitivity, or quick comprehension to achieve their goals, be they noble, or profane, or sexual in nature. So you can say: the protagonists always make the best of themselves and the situation they are in, they learn and improve constantly. Their behavior is not set in stone, but adapts to the circumstances–and that is what makes Boccaccio so fascinating for us modern people.

***

Our whole social life is inconceivable without using our language. Through it, we become the beings that we are. We use it to shape ourselves every day. Depending on how we speak of ourselves, we act accordingly. In this respect, the language has a domesticating and ennobling function. We must never forget that!

Are the tech geniuses populating Silicon Valley aware of this?

I’m less optimistic on this front. The Valley is full of extremely intelligent people who articulate themselves artfully, but in a very prosaic, technical way. They are only interested in an understanding of problems and content, not the form, the beauty, the punchline. Let’s take the handwriting. When I attended school, the essay was graded according to two criteria: content and form, because both together make up the beauty of the story. And take a look at the handwriting of our tech geniuses today, if they even pick up a pen–they remind you of children’s handwriting.

Now you sound like a harsh cultural critic. Most people use a keyboard anyway or speak to their smartphone–this is easier and more efficient.

Yes, of course. But if you can no longer write, you may not be able to speak well. The social conversations of educated, successful people in Silicon Valley are of a poverty that frightens me again and again. Of course, when it comes to closing a deal, no novellare is required, although it certainly has a positive effect on sales. But the same poor language that applies in business has long shaped everyday social life. And this makes us poorer. When I go out to eat with a tech entrepreneur and we talk about where we’re from and what we’re doing here, I want to hear a story from him. What fascinates us about people is not the facts of their life, it is the stories they tell about themselves!

And the stories are dying out?

No. It’s just that they have been outsourced to only some of us. They watch fantastic Netflix series because they satisfy this basic human need. These are professionals at work, no question, and they know how to tell a good story well. The art of novellare has not changed since Boccaccio. So now people sit in front of the screen and consume stories, but they no longer work on their stories themselves. And that’s guaranteed to make your own life poorer.

If we look at the same Netflix series, we can at least talk about it and form a community.

Naturally. But we also have to do this with eloquence and elegance–we ourselves have to become storytellers, no one can do this work for us. But it is the most beautiful job I know.

We learn to tell stories when we read stories.

Read! Read! Read! Read Boccaccio. It will change your life. For Boccaccio, generosity and gratitude are the two greatest virtues: be grateful for what you have received. And pass it on with the same generosity. And that’s exactly how it is: literature is a gift that never ceases to give itself. Why shouldn’t we, now in quarantine, be so wise to accept this gift and become a giver ourselves?

“The fabric of life itself is woven into and by stories”: Boccacio’s back at Stanford on Sunday, April 5, for another Zoom discussion of “The Decameron”

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020
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He’s baaaack!

Many of you missed last Sunday’s Zoom discussion of Boccacio’s Decameron. Now you have another chance.

A second discussion will take place this Sunday, April 5, at 10:30 a.m. to noon – that’s Pacific Standard time. There’s a new URL here,  or use this Meeting ID: 183 283 555 .

Participants are encouraged to read the following stories: Second Day, story #5; Third Day, story #1 and story #10; Fourth Day, story #5; Fifth Day, story #9; Sixth Day, story #1. The Gutenberg ebook version of The Decameron at no cost here:

To warm you up for the discussion (and in case you didn’t hear the first one), Robert Pogue Harrison began with the notion of storytelling in a time of crisis.

Some of his remarks echo his words in his 2009 book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition:

“Human culture has its origin in stories, and its ongoing history is one of endless storytelling. Where would we be without stories? Without the art of recounting them? Without their narrative organization of events and their structuring of time? If you ask me where I’m from, or what happened at the gathering last night, or why my friend is so distraught, I can hardly answer you without telling a little story. In its formal as well as informal modes, storytelling is one of the most basic forms of human interaction. The fabric of life itself is woven into and by stories, so much so that the quality of human conversation depends to a great extent on our mastery of the art of narrative. This art is something we either bring or fail to bring to bear, day in and day out, on our relations with others.”

And again:

“It bears repeating that the brigata’s temporary escape from the demoralization of a plague-ridden Florence does not have any direct influence on the ‘reality’ of things. After two weeks in their liminal garden environment the ten storytellers return to the horrors they had left behind, yet meanwhile the stories of the Decameron, like the garden settings in which they are told, have intervened in reality after all, if only by testifying to the transfiguring power of form. By recasting reality in narrative modes they allow what is otherwise hidden by reality’s amorphous flow of moments to appear in formal relief, precisely in the way gardens draw attention to the aesthetically determined relations of things in its midst. That is the magic of both gardens and stories: they transfigure the real even as they leave it apparently untouched.”

Here’s a pleasant coincidence. One of the stories he told last Sunday will be one of the “assigned” tales this Sunday. The account is the first tale on Day Six. It pays tribute to “the celebration of wit and elegance in the prescribed theme for the day, namely to tell of ‘those who, on being provoked by some verbal pleasantry, have returned like for like, or who, by a prompt retort or shrewd manouevre, have avoided danger, discomfiture or ridicule.’”

Here is Boccaccio’s version:

… As many of you will know, either through direct personal acquaintance or through hearsay, a little while ago there lived in our city a lady of silver tongue and gentle breeding, whose excellence was such that she deserves to be mentioned by name. She was called Madonna Oretta, and she was the wife of Messer Geri Spina. One day, finding herself in the countryside like ourselves, and proceeding from place to place, by way of recreation, with a party of knights and ladies whom she had entertained to a meal in her house earlier in the day, one of the knights turned to her, and, perhaps because they were having to travel a long way, on foot, to the place they all desired to reach, he said:

‘Madonna Oretta, if you like I shall take you riding along a goodly stretch of our journey by telling you one of the finest tales in the world.’

‘Sire,’ replied the lady, ‘I beseech you most earnestly to do so, and I shall look upon it as a great favour.’

Whereupon this worthy knight, whose swordplay was doubtless on a par with his storytelling, began to recite his tale, which in itself was indeed excellent. But by constantly repeating the same phrases, and recapitulating sections of the plot, and every so often declaring that he had ‘made a mess of that bit’, and regularly confusing the names of the characters, he ruined it completely. Moreover, his mode of delivery was totally out of keeping with the characters and the incidents he was describing, so that it was painful for Madonna Oretta to listen to him. She began to perspire freely, and her heart missed several beats, as though she had fallen ill and was about to give up the ghost. And in the end, when she could endure it no longer, having perceived that the knight had tied himself inextricably in knots, she said to him, in affable tones:

‘Sir, you have taken me riding on a horse that trots very jerkily. Pray be good enough to set me down.’

The knight, who was apparently far more capable of taking a hint than of telling a tale, saw the joke and took it in the cheerfullest of spirits. Leaving aside the story he had begun and so ineptly handled, he turned his attention to telling her tales of quite another sort.

Our host, Robert Harrison

According to Harrison, “Boccaccio’s version opens onto a little garden, as it were.”

“To begin with, it introduces a gender dynamic that gives a wholly different kind of punch to Madonna Oretta’s repartee, which sparkles both in its elegance and its tact. The metaphorics of horseback riding arise naturally from the scene (ladies and knights, a long and fatiguing walk in the country, etc.). The specifics of the knight’s mangling of his tale are catalogued in what amounts to a kind of negative manifesto of narrative style, as the reader is directly drawn into the discomfiture and exasperation that the flailing performance induces in Madonna Oretta. The discrete sexual connotations of horseback riding in the tale also serve to establish an overt parallel between the ineptitude of storytelling and the ineptitude of lovemaking. In sum, while it too culminates in a repartee, there is a density to this reworking that involves far more than a punch line. It articulates an aesthetics of storytelling on the hand, and (like all the stories of Day Six) a discrete social ethics on the other.”

We’re not the first! Join us for a discussion of a 14th-century plague: Boccaccio’s “Decameron”! Stanford Zoom on Sunday, March 29.

Friday, March 27th, 2020
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While we wait for the all-clear on coronavirus so we can resume our lives, maybe you’d like some historical perspective. Robert Harrison for a Zoom discussion of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron this Sunday, March 29.

Links to join us are included in the notice below, from today’s Stanford Report:

Online discussionJoin a Zoom discussion of The Decameron, the 14th-century masterpiece that begins with 10 young people fleeing to the countryside as the plague of 1348 ravages the city of Florence, Italy. Robert Harrison, professor of French and Italian, will discuss what the book says to us today. The Zoom session will take place from 10:30 a.m. to noon (PST) on Sunday, March 29. Members of the Stanford community are invited to join via this LINK. Discussion will focus on the preface, introduction and first tale in the book, which was written by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). Participants are encouraged to read these in advance. The Project Gutenberg e-book of The Decameron is available at no cost here.

The announcement specifies members of the Stanford community, but Robert Harrison asked me to spread the word. Consider yourself invited. I’ll be there, too – cybernetically, of course. There is no “there” in cyberspace.