Posts Tagged ‘Robert Pogue Harrison’

“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 the role 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.

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

Monday, March 23rd, 2020
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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
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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
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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
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“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)

Alfred Hayes’s noir novella “My Face for the World to See” @Stanford on October 30. Be there!

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019
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Hollywood’s underside (Photo: Hayes Estate)

Your only vice is yourself. The worst of all. The really incurable one.” 

Another Look is returning from its long summer break, launching its eighth season with Alfred Hayes‘s 1958 noir novella, My Face for the World to See. The event will take place on Wednesday, October 30, 7:30 p.m., at the Bechtel Conference Center in Encina Hall on the Stanford campus.

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, television writer, as well as a novelist. He published My Face for the World to See when he was 47.

In The Los Angeles Review of Books, filmmaker Alex Harvey called the book “his most achieved portrait of male self-deception … a sharp, forensic examination of power and money…”

The discussion will be led by author Tobias Wolff, founding director of Another Look. Panelists include Stanford Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, novelist Terry Gamble, and film critic David Thomson, who wrote the introduction for the NYRB Classics edition.

Who is the last man? Peter Sloterdijk on Nietzsche

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019
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Peter Sloterdijk is one of the most controversial thinkers in the world. In many ways, he is the heir of Friedrich Nietzsche, who is sometimes said to have inaugurated the 20th century. A year ago, the Book Haven published a summary of Sloterdijk’s Entitled Opinions conversation with radio host Robert Harrison. The podcast and summary was also posted at the Los Angeles Review of Books here. In December, we published a full transcript in German at Berlin’s Die Welt. You can read it here. Last week, the Los Angeles Review of Books published the full transcript, in English, here

A few excerpts below:

Harrison: I find that when it comes to Nietzsche being a prophet, in some ways he was blind about what would be the most dominant feature of the coming century, though many people consider him the inaugurator of the 20th century. He has almost nothing to say about the dominance of modern technology in the era to come. Okay, you can say that this was a blind spot in his thinking. In Zarathustra, especially in part four, however, he has a prophetic vision that has to do with our own time. He thinks of the last men. Who is the last man? In what way are the parameters of that last man contained within … for example, the consumerist of our own society, who is complacent?

We’re no longer dealing with the petite bourgeoisie or those 19th-century categories. It’s very much the contemporary citizen as a global citizen, a kind of capitalist of consumerism who does not think beyond the creaturely comforts of this day and the next day. There’s something in his thinking that promises to show us a way to transcend this fatality. European civilization after all these centuries and millennia cannot end in the last men. Or will it?

Sloterdijk: Here, in Nietzsche, appears a major problem that will occupy humanity in the centuries to come: the question of how to maintain what I call the vertical tension inside the human being. For everything that has to do with verticality, Nietzsche is the specialist coming from the tradition. He discovered this new type of problem — how to maintain the vertical tension if the higher region has been removed. As if Jacob’s Ladder, over which the angel can march up and down should still stand upright without having the support on the upper level. So there is still height, but no support from above. Everything has to be erected from below. The vertical tension has a rocket-like dynamic, a will to growth, and that can be easily expressed in biological terms. You can go back to Goethe, who said that all life is movement and extension, and from here you get to a less megalomaniac conception of growth.

World’s most controversial thinker? (Photo: Rainer Lück)

Harrison: Well, in fact, in Nietzsche Apostle, you speak about his extraordinary genius as a marketer of his own brand. You don’t merely invent a brand that then takes off in the market. What you do is create the market for the very brand that you’re promoting. And Nietzsche created a market for a brand of … I think it’s related to what you’re talking about, the ladder of having realized that — in the regime of the last man, a regime of egalitarianism — there will always be a drive for distinction. He marketed his philosophy as a promise, as a way to understand a need before it even became apparent to the world itself, that there was going to be a need for distinction in this world.

But you also say, somewhat prophetically, that he was promising losers a formula by which they could be on the side of winners. This was also part of his brand. Can you say something about this? When you speak about verticality, are you speaking about this need for distinction in this particular regime?

Sloterdijk: I think Nietzsche was among the very rare thinkers who had a feeling for the deep connection between moral philosophy and public relations. This can be shown by the subtitle of Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen — “A Book for All and Nobody.” And I’m convinced that this is Nietzsche’s genius. This subtitle betrays something of his innermost drive. His way of polemics, as Heidegger would put it, was not really polemics. It was teaching, and so it was a kind of “action teaching” — action teaching like Joseph Beuys would call his performances. Nietzsche was a kind of action teacher writing a book for all and nobody, and discovering in so doing the very structure of higher morality.

PR man?

This kind of morality creates a field of behavior that is not applicable to living populations but traces the horizon for new generations to inhabit. This necessarily has to be a challenge, just as Buddhism was before it was brought out as an Indian form of gospel, as a way of salvation, just as the Christian Gospel was a pure challenge to the pagan environment of the former world. And so Nietzsche designs a horizon for those who in the morality markets of the future will distinguish themselves as individuals who show how the path of humanity can be continued. And in that context, you read this most provocative sentence from the introduction, the so-called prologue to Zarathustra: “Man is a rope between the animal and the Superman,” and you decide if you want to be a successful rope-walker or not. And if you are not successful as a rope-walker — you have nevertheless tried it.

That is the meaning of this philosophical pantomime that concludes the prologue of Zarathustra. He sees the rope-walker who has fallen down, and he says, “You made the danger. Out of danger you made your profession. There is nothing to despise in that, and for that reason I am going to bury you with my own hands.” That is Zarathustra’s message. It’s not success that decides everything. It is the will to remain within the movement and to walk on the rope, if you do not want to remain a part of the masses that are looking up and admiring people doing crazy things.

Read the whole thing here.

Do the French take their literature seriously? The furor over “La Princesse de Clèves”!

Friday, May 31st, 2019
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Another Look turned its attention to an earlier century on May 1, with Madame de LaFayette’s landmark 1678 novella, The Princesse de Clèves. The Another Look director, Robert Pogue Harrison, led the panel, joined by Chloe Edmondson, a Stanford PhD candidate studying French literary and cultural history, and very special guest, Yale’s Prof. Pierre Saint-Amand, the author of The Pursuit of Laziness: An Idle Interpretation of the Enlightenment. Mostly the participants spoke off-the-cuff, but Edmondson’s opening remarks were an excellent introduction to this short and compelling work:

“Many of you may be familiar with French classics like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, yet you may not have ever heard of Madame de Lafayette, not to mention the book she wrote in 1678. To the French though, it is as much of a national treasure and classic, as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The book in fact had a huge resurgence of popularity in 2009 after President Sarkozy publicly disparaged the book.

He said, “Non”!

He was talking about the entrance exam for public sector workers and how it included questions about Lafayette’s work. He suggested it would be absurd to ask a metro ticket clerk what he or she thought about the Princesse de Clèves, that it was useless that candidates must have a knowledge of the Princesse de Clèves.  He added, too, that he “suffered greatly by the princess” in school.

These comments triggered a full-blown scandal, and the French people took to defending the work as a pillar of their national and cultural heritage, a work they felt should be read and appreciated by everyone, not mocked as irrelevant. University strikes that year gave rise to marathon public readings throughout the country of La Princesse de Clèves as a form of protest. Publishers saw sales of the book double within a year. Even a book fair in Paris that year sold, in mere hours, more than 2,000 pins that said “I read The Princess of Clèves” and “This year, the Princess will vote!”

Edmondson also retraced the history of the book for the audience:  “Born 18 March 1634 to a family of minor but wealthy nobility, Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, became a maid of honor to Queen Anne of Austria in 1651, which initiated her entrée into the world of high society. It is during this time that she first became a part of the literary world of 17th-century France, frequenting the salons of Madame de Rambouillet and Madame de Scudéry, as well as becoming friends with Madame de Sévigné.

But the people said, “Oui!”  Vive la France!

“She married François Motier, Comte de LaFayette in 1655, and with him had two sons. She lived with him in the countryside until her return to Paris in 1660, when she started her own literary salon, regularly receiving in her home some of the most important men of letters of her time, like the Duc de La Rochefoucauld who introduced her to the great playwright Racine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she starts to write as well.

“In 1678, La Princesse de Clèves was published anonymously, though it is quickly attributed to Lafayette. At the time of its publication, it was the source of literary scandal. It was a question of genre – people weren’t sure how to categorize what seemed to be a unique text, combining elements of two of the most popular genres at the time – the romance and the historical novella.

“Romances were generally set in a time and place distant from the author’s, with implausible heroic plots and fantastical events, whereas novellas – short novels – were generally set in recent history, with historical characters behaving according to social conventions. La Princesse de Clèves, set in the court of Henri II in the mid-16th century would seem to favor realism, but readers believed that the characters did not conform to the ways that people “really” would behave, because of what seemed to be exceptionally strange behavior of the heroine, such as the Princess’ confession to her husband of her feelings for another man.

“Today, one of the big scholarly debates surrounding the book also has to do with genre – namely whether or not it really did mark the birth of the modern novel. Regardless, I think we can appreciate that it holds qualities that will become characteristic of the types of books we consider novels, works that give readers access to the inner thoughts and emotions of the main characters over an extended period of time.

“Indeed, if we look at the history of the work’s reception, what no one seems to contest, even in the 17th century, is that it captured – to quote her contemporary critic Jean-Baptiste Valincour – the expression of “what happens in the depths of our hearts,” the “expression” of things that all have experienced.”

Werner Herzog’s short talk about a long walk from Munich to Paris

Thursday, May 9th, 2019
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Legendary film director Werner Herzog during an earlier visit to Stanford. (Photo: L.A. Cicero).

Filmmaker Werner Herzog came to Stanford on Tuesday, to discuss his book, Of Walking in Iceduring a Q&A with Amir Eshel, Robert Harrison, and a small invited audience at the Stanford Humanities Center. The discussion was characteristically iconoclastic. Martian colonies? “The idea is obscene,” he said. “The universe is not harmony of the spheres, but chaotic and murderous and it’s not a good place out there.”

The 20th century saw the demise of political utopias, he observed – the Communist, the Nazi dreams were dashed to pieces. The 21st century will see the “bankruptcy of technological utopias,” he continued. “It is baloney – we’ll see in this century.”

“My consolation, my anchor,” he said, is the Psalms and the Book of Job. And he reiterated, as he did on a former visit, that it was for his books, not his films, that he will be remembered.

Before we adjourned for dinner at a restaurant in Menlo Park, he took about a dozen questions about his book. Of Walking in Ice is the publication of his diaries describing his three-week journey on foot from Munich to Paris in the winter of 1974. He believed his wild trek would throw a lifeline to his dying friend and mentor, Lotte Eisner. And it worked. An excerpt:

No, not a soul, intimidating stillness. Uncannily, though, in the midst of all this, a fire is blazing, lit, in fact with petrol. It’s flickering, a ghostly fire, wind. On the orange-colored plain below I can see sheets of rain, and the annunciation of the end of the world is glowing on the horizon, glimmering there. A train races through the land and penetrates the mountain range. Its wheels are glowing. One car erupts in flames. The train stops, men try to extinguish it, but the car can no longer be extinguished. They decide to move on, to hasten to race. The train moves, it moves into fathomless space, unwavering. In the pitch-blackness of the universe the wheels are glowing, the lone car is glowing. Unimaginable stellar catastrophes take place, entire worlds collapse into a single point. Light can no longer escape, even the profoundest blackness would seem like light and the silence would seem like thunder. The universe is filled with Nothing, it is the Yawning Black Void. Systems of Milky Ways have condensed into Un-stars. Utter blissfulness is spreading, and out of utter blissfulness now springs the Absurdity. This is the situation.

And a sampling of his conversation, during an earlier visit to Stanford for the Another Look book club, is below: