Posts Tagged ‘Robert Pogue Harrison’

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

Thursday, July 2nd, 2020
Share

“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
Share

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
Share

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
Share

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
Share

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
Share
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.

Question for the coronavirus era: What’s the opposite of loneliness? It’s not company.

Monday, March 23rd, 2020
Share

Arendt had the best company: herself

The business of being a writer is necessarily solitary. I’m used to it. In fact, with the current coronavirus “shelter in place” in  California and elsewhere in the country, little has changed in my work routine. One good adjustment: the rest of the world is on “pause,” so I don’t have the usual intrusion of emails, phone calls, and other interruptions.

Nevertheless, should all those fail, I have shelves of books I’ve never read. And it’s always a good day when you can reread Jane Austen, or explore The Divine Comedy again. Revisit Proust, or Stanisław Barańczak. Or finally get around to reading something by Michel Houellebecq, or the unopened novel by Ismail Kadare.

Yet all over the social media I hear complaints about loneliness and boredom during the coronavirus crisis. But the antidote to loneliness isn’t society – it’s solitude.

Hannah Arendt wrote that the ability to tolerate the solitariness of an internal space, in which one can commune with oneself and think for oneself, is central to personal responsibility. In an essay on “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” she argued such “being-with-oneself” is connected with the sustained practice of examining issues, weighing contradictory thoughts, making up one’s own mind. She observed that those who resisted the Nazi call had the habit and experience of daring to judge for themselves:

“The precondition for this kind of judging is not a highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters, but rather the disposition to live together explicitly with oneself, to have intercourse with oneself, that is, to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which, since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking.”

It’s what  Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison said a decade ago at a Stanford conference on Arendt, when he made the event’s most spirited remarks in a talk on “passionate thinking.” Read the whole article here. A relevant excerpt:

Stanford’s Gerhard Casper, Robert Harrison at back (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

[Harrison] considered Arendt’s notion of friendship and thought as rooted in solitude and the ability to commune with oneself – that “plurality begins with the individual.”

The “overwhelming question” in the humanities, he said, is: “How do we negotiate the necessity of solitude as a precondition for thought?”

“What do we do to foster the regeneration of thinking? Nothing. At least not institutionally,” he said. “Not only in the university, but in society at large, everything conspires to invade the solitude of thought. It has as much to do with technology as it does with ideology. There is a not a place we go where we are not connected to the collective.

“Every place of silence is invaded by noise. Everywhere we see the ravages of this on our thinking. The ability for sustained, coherent, consistent thought is becoming rare” in the “thoughtlessness of the age.”

So do take some time to talk internally with yourself during this unusual time. We hope it will be over soon! And if you want to read what Arendt wrote to James Baldwingo here.

Postscript from George Dunn of Zhejiang University: Ursula LeGuin has a powerful story that addresses issues of injustice and scapegoating, titled “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” I’ve used it in my Ethics class more times than I can count. The title refers to the very small minority of citizens in the imaginary city of Omelas who walk away from the hedonic paradise this city represents because they are unwilling to partake of a joy that’s purchased through the torture of a child. There is one line in the story had that always struck me as somehow key to what LeGuin wants us to understand, though it is spoken so causally that its import can easily be missed. Most of the citizens of Omelas are reconciled to the horror on which their happiness is built, though some leave in their youth the moment they come face to face with that horror. Yet, reports LeGuin, “Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home.” The phrase “falls silent” stands out for me, indicating as it does a retreat into deep introspection. Such a retreat into silence would be quite conspicuous in Omelas, whose citizens are depicted by LeGuin as highly gregarious. LeGuin then recounts how these few leave the city, three times using the word “alone” to underscore the solitude of those who walk away. Reading these passages always puts me in mind of Arendt’s essay on “Responsibility,” also assigned a few times, with its reminder that ethics is predicated on our ability to resist the crowd, which in turn depends on having cultivated an inner space for reflection. Being highly intelligent, articulate, and quick-witted in debate is no guarantee of a capacity for reflection. To the contrary, as we’ve both seen, those with the greatest intellectual gifts will also often display the greatest ingenuity in making excuses for themselves.

Alfred Hayes’s “My Face for the World to See” at Stanford – a tough look at Hollywood, with a surprise guest, too.

Thursday, January 23rd, 2020
Share

On October 30, Stanford’s Another Look book club took on Alfred Hayes‘s My Face for the World to See, a tough look at Hollywood by a film industry insider.

Author Alfred Hayes with friend

Photographer David Schwartz preserved the a terrific night for us – with four panelists, including David Thomson, the film critic and author who wrote the introduction to the NYRB Classics edition we were reading.

We had another surprise guest that evening, the author’s daughter, Josephine Hayes Dean, flew out to join us for the evening. David took a photo of that, too.

From left to right above: Another Look director Robert Harrison; the author’s daughter, Josephine Dean; novelist Terry Gamble; National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, and film critic David Thomson.

If you missed the stellar event, you can join us after-the-fact with the podcast here. It really was a lively and incisive discussion about a world where talent is chewed up and discarded, where thousands come to follow a dream that so rarely and randomly gets fulfilled.

Panelists in discussion below, from left to right: Robert Harrison, Tobias Wolff, Terry Gamble, and David Thomson.




Hollywood screenwriter rescues an actress from suicide in the Pacific. Then what happens? Come to Wednesday night’s discussion of Alfred Hayes’s book.

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019
Share

Also a veteran of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone”

Last call! Tomorrow night we celebrate screenwriter Alfred Hayes‘s My Face for the World to See. The event will take place at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 30, at the Bechtel Conference Center of Encina Hall, 616 Serra Street, on the Stanford campus. As you will remember, Serra Street is now closed. Directions and parking on the are on the Another Look website here.

The narrator, a Hollywood screenwriter, rescues a young actress from suicide in the Pacific. The incident leads to an affair fueled by gin, cigarettes, and ultimately madness.

Hayes (1911-85) was also a screenwriter and television writer, as well as a novelist. The best known of his seven novels is The Girl on the Via Flaminia. He received Oscar nominations for his work on Paisà, directed by Rossellini, and Zinnemann’s Teresa. He adapted Maxwell Anderson/Kurt Weill musical Lost in the Stars for film. His television credits include Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone.

Panelists include: Robert Harrison, author and professor of Italian literature; director of Another Look; Tobias Wolff, author and professor emeritus of English, founding director of Another Look; David Thomson, film critic and regular contributor to The New York Times, The New Republic, The Guardian, and Salon; and novelist Terry Gamble.

The event is free and open to the public. Please encourage your friends to join us! And visit our website for details: anotherlook.stanford.edu.

“The undulating quality of his thought”: Robert Pogue Harrison remembers Michel Serres

Saturday, October 26th, 2019
Share

“Michel Serres is indeed Stanford’s ego ideal, even if the institution itself is largely unaware of it.” Remembering the academician at the Stanford Humanities Center on Oct. 21.

Michel Serres, a Stanford professor, a member of the Académie Française, and one of France’s leading thinkers, died on June 1 at age 88. Earlier this week, we published French Consul General Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens‘s remarks at the memorial conference for him on Monday, Oct. 21. (Read it here.) Below, Robert Pogue Harrison‘s words on that occasion:

When I joined Stanford’s Department of French & Italian as a young assistant professor in the 1980s, I became close friends with Michel Serres. It was he who encouraged me to break out of the straightjacket of narrow academic specialization and to enlarge my conception of what it means to be a humanist. My first book offered an intensive textual analysis of Dante’s Vita Nuova. It was thanks to Michel that that I subsequently went on to write a history of forests in the western imagination, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to our own day. That book, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, published in 1992, is dedicated to Michel Serres, yet he managed to beat me to the punch. Just before Forests came out, I received a copy of The Natural Contract, which, to my great surprise, Michel had dedicated to me. That dedication, with a quote from Livy (casu quodam in silvis natus), was for me a far bigger deal than the appearance of my book a month or two later.

“Michel had a way of enchanting and entrancing his audience.”

In the late 80s and 90s, Michel’s seminars at Stanford were attended by a number of junior and senior faculty members. He was the only one I can remember who regularly drew other faculty to his classes. We went not only to learn but to experience the unique aesthetic flourish of his teaching. There was an Orphic quality to his seminars. Michel had a way of enchanting and entrancing his audience. His lectures were musical, operatic performances, with preludes, movements, arias, and crescendos. He created this musical effect by the lyricism of his voice; by the cadences of his sentences; by his measured use of assonance and alliteration; by the poetic imagery of his prose; and by what I would call the undulating quality of his thought. There was a distinct rhythm to his seminars that put their beginning, middle, and end in musical, rather than merely logical, relation to one another. A Michel Serres seminar was a highly stylized affair, both in content and rhetorical delivery – and the audience could not help but break into applause when he concluded with the words “je vous remercie.”

With Serres, the classroom became not only an intellectual space of illumination but also the site of revelations. In addition to what I’ve called the Orphic quality of his teaching, it also had a Pentecostal aspect. (I borrow the term from our onetime Stanford colleague Pierre Saint-Amand, who attended many of Michel’s seminars in the early years.) Michel himself speaks of that particular type of communication in his book, Le Parasite. With Michel, one had the impression at times that something was speaking through him, that he was bringing to the surface deep, long-buried sources of knowledge and wisdom. It was very close to what Hannah Arendt, with reference to Heidegger’s teaching in the 1920s, called “passionate thinking.”

“An Orphic quality”: Sharing a glass of wine in 2010

Whether he was teaching literary works or the origins of geometry, you could be sure that Michel would bring together religion and ancient history, anthropology and mathematics, law and literature. He had a wholly new way of reading philosophy, literature, and the tradition in general. Those of us who were drawn to his thought and his seminars developed a taste for complexity. In the heyday of deconstruction, Serres taught us that textualization led to inanition. The surest way to zombify philosophy, literature, or science was to textualize them. He taught by counter-example how to bring into play a heterogeneous plurality of perspectives. Texts were not folded in upon themselves but contained different strata of historical knowledge, of cultural instantiations and practices.

Serres’s model of reading is not easily duplicated. He would bring any number of scientific, religious, and historical deliberations to bear on his reading of authors like Pascal, Balzac, or La Fontaine like Serres was able to do. Serres provided us with a model of complexity for which the word “interdisciplinarity” does not do justice. One could call it a “new encyclopedianism,” but why not call it by a term that he himself coined in his book Genese – “diversalism.”

The concept of diversalism is not opposed to universalism but represents a very different declension of it than the German metaphysical one – a declension that finds universality in multiplicity rather than unity, contingency rather than necessity, and singularity rather than generality. The confluence of different streams of knowledge, diversalism is the very lifeblood of complexity, that is to say the lifeblood of life itself, not to mention of human culture in general.

Harrison interviewed Serres on “Entitled Opinions” in 2008.

I would like to think that diversalism – as Michel understood it – defines what Stanford University stands for among institutions of higher learning. In that sense Michel Serres is the local unsung hero of Stanford’s greater ambition to bring all fields of knowledge and research into productive conversation with one another. I would go so far as to say that Serres is – without Stanford even knowing it – this institution’s ego ideal. Let me go even further and say that, in his diversalism, Serres was a very representative member of the Department of French & Italian, which by any measure has been the department of diversalism par excellence. Our colleague Elisabeth Boyi, who is here today, reminds us that diversalism also includes what her friend and fellow traveler Eduard Glissant called “diversality,” namely the admixture of languages, cultural legacies, and ethnic origins in an “archipelago” of diversity, where archipelago means interrelated associations that are not organized hierarchically but laterally.

When you think of colleagues like René Girard, Jean-Marie Apostolides, Sepp Gumbrecht, Brigitte Cazelles, Elisabeth Boyi, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, as well as the younger generation of scholars in French & Italian, many of whom are present here today, you start to wonder whether there is another universe or timeline in which Donald Trump did not win the 2016 presidential election and that the Department of French & Italian figures as the fully acknowledged, rather than discrete, crown jewel of Stanford University. I mean Stanford in its commitment to a genuine diversalistic pursuit of knowledge. But as they say, nemo profeta in patria sua.

If Michel Serres is indeed Stanford’s ego ideal, the institution itself is largely unaware of it. Stanford and Serres always had a courteous but altogether perfunctory relationship. Neither was the explicit champion of the other. That is not unusual. Stanford has a history of accommodating but not exalting some of its most creative endeavors and ventures. Maybe it’s better that way. Be that as it may, Serres was always grateful to Stanford for allowing him to visit twice a year for some three decades. He did much of his best thinking here, interacting with colleagues and walking to the Dish daily. He used to say that he had no complaints about Stanford whatsoever. “Je vie comme un moine et je suis payé come une putain.” Wherever he is now, I’m sure he’s looking on Stanford fondly. Those of us he left behind here in California miss him dearly, and it is fair to say there will never be another one like him in our midst.

Stanford’s resident Socrates takes a break on his daily walk to “the Dish.”  (Photo: L.A. Cicero)