Podcast • March 8, 2011

Anthony Burgess: Language as Music, and Vice Versa

Paul Phillips is leading us here in a long digression — a step into yet another alternate universe of the odd genius who wrote A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess thought his famous tale (and movie!) ...

Paul Phillips is leading us here in a long digression — a step into yet another alternate universe of the odd genius who wrote A Clockwork Orange.

Anthony Burgess thought his famous tale (and movie!) of mindless mayhem was perhaps the least of his efforts, but what he really wanted apart from his endless book production — essays, plays, criticism, and novels of all sizes and styles — was to be understood for the music he wrote. The bet here is that the Burgess symphonies, songs and chamber music that Paul Phillips is sharing will not make the world forget Burgess’ Enderby series of novels, or his fantasy on Shakespeare’s sex life, Nothing like the Sun, or his all-encompassing “life” of a 20th Century expatriate English writer, Earthly Powers. But let’s hope anyway that surprise and delight are reason enough to digress on multiple senses and gifts — reason enough to grant Anthony Burgess’s heart’s desire. “I wish,” he said, “people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side.”

Anthony Burgess never forgot being stricken by music as a tot — by “a quite incredible flute solo” he heard on the radio, “sinuous, exotic, erotic.” It turned out to be Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” It was a “psychedelic moment… a recognition of verbally inexpressible spiritual realities,” and it triggered Burgess’s self-education at the piano, then in composition and orchestration. His family persuaded him that there was no money in music, but his artistic life became a synesthetic web of words and music — much as Thomas Mann rendered the experience of Adrian Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus: “… music and language, he insisted, belonged together, were fundamentally one. Language was music, music a language, and when separated, each always recalled the other, imitated the other, made use of the other means, always to be understood as the substitute for the other.”

Anthony Burgess by David Levine, from The New York Review of Books

I agree that the musico-literary analogies can be pretty tenuous, but in the widest possible formal sense — sonata form, opera, and so on — we’ve hardly begun to explore the possibilities. The Napoleon novel I’m writing apes the Eroica formally: irritable, quick, swiftly transitional in the first movement (up to Napoleon’s coronation); slow, very leisurely, with a binding beat suggesting a funeral march for the second… As for the reader having to know about music, it doesn’t really matter much. In one novel I wrote, “The orchestra lunged into a loud chord of twelve notes, all of them different.” Musicians hear the discord, non-musicians don’t, but there’s nothing there to baffle them and prevent them reading on. I don’t understand baseball terms, but I can still enjoy Malamud’s The Natural. I don’t play bridge, but I find the bridge game in Fleming’s Moonraker absorbing. It’s the emotions conveyed that matter, not what the players are doing with their hands.

… I still play jazz, chiefly on a four-octave electric organ, and I prefer this to listening to it. I don’t think jazz is for listening but for playing. I’d like to write a novel about a jazz pianist or, better, about a pub pianist, which I once was, like my father before me. I don’t think rock leads on to a liking for jazz. The kids are depressingly static in their tastes. They do so want words, and jazz gets along very nicely without words.

… I enjoy writing music precisely because one is divorced from “human” considerations like belief, conduct. Pure form, nothing more. But then I tend to despise music just because it is so mindless. I’ve been writing a string quartet based on a musical theme that Shakespeare throws at us, in sol-fa notation, in Love’s Labour’s Lost (the theme is CDGAEF), and it’s been pure, bliss. I’ve been thoroughly absorbed by it, on planes, in hotel bedrooms, anywhere where I had nothing else to do and there was no bloody Muzak playing. (Don’t the Muzak purveyors ever think of the people who actually have to write music?) Now I’m a little ashamed that the music engages nothing but purely formal problems. So I oscillate between a hankering after pure form and a realization that literature is probably valuable because it says things.

Anthony Burgess with John Cullinan, from the Paris Review Interview, Spring 1973

Composer-Conductor Paul Phillips, Senior Lecturer in Music at Brown University, is leading the Brown Symphony Orchestra in Anthony Burgess’ “Mr. W. S.” this winter. With the Manchester University Press and Macmillan, he has just published A Clockwork Counterpoint: The Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess.

Podcast • November 2, 2010

Daniyal Mueenuddin on Pakistan: At the Bedside of a Friend

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daniyal Mueenuddin (45 minutes, 22 mb mp3) Daniyal Mueenuddin is the leading light of Pakistan’s literary boom in the English-speaking world. Just in time, he’s a hit in ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daniyal Mueenuddin (45 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

Daniyal Mueenuddin is the leading light of Pakistan’s literary boom in the English-speaking world. Just in time, he’s a hit in America for an enthralling collection of linked stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, set in the feudal farming estates of the Pakistani Punjab. In conversation he’s telling us all those things about Pakistan today that only a novelist and story-writer can tell you. About the lethal floods, for starters, that submerged about a fifth of the country last summer. He is speaking of the decades-long “tail of a catastrophe… maybe the spark that lights the final fire.” He’s also imagining that the floods could be a disguised opportunity — an invitation to the West for “a more nuanced financial intervention,” a real chance to “improve the lives of the average Pakistani.”

Daniyal Mueenuddin is a mango farmer in his father’s Pakistan, where he grew up. He’s a Yale-educated lawyer in his mother’s America. I asked him if we could hear a conversation between the two perspectives in his own head. What he wishes his fellow Americans knew better is that the jihadist extremism that menaces Pakistan today is a monster substantially made in the U.S.A. It’s “very, very simple,” he says:

In 1979, the Soviets occupied Afghanistan and the Americans, as a part of their policy of containment and pushing back against the Soviet Union, decided that what they need to do was create an army in Pakistan of people who would be willing to fight against them. With the aid of Saudi money and American money vast numbers of Madrasas were built … they created a very effective army that did defeat the Soviets. The problem is that once you create an army and you pull out you lose control of it. This all flows from the first Afghan war. The Americans created this army and once the soviets had been beaten they sort of brushed their hands and said “Thanks for the job boys, we’re out of here.” … What’s funny is that even at the time, many of these leaders to whom the Americans were pouring cash, were saying “our greatest enemy is America.” I was there at the time and I used to find it absolutely bewildering that the Americans would be giving vast amounts of arms and support of various kinds to [men who were] basically saying we have a checklist, and the Soviets are number one on the checklist, but the Americans are on the checklist too. They are number two. And of course they are the ones who are now fighting against America.

Daniyal Mueenuddin is also opening up, as a man who could live anywhere in the world, on why he goes home to Pakistan:

In Pakistan…I feel the tug of attachment from so many different directions. Also, simply, the landscape, the sense of color and vim and vigor and excitement. The place is crackling in a way. People talk about New York as being full of energy. You haven’t seen what full of energy is until you walk through the bazaar in Lahore and feel just this incredible sort of thriving, multiplying life.

The culture is very much part of my life… the culture of the shrines where these incredibly devout people go and pay their respects to the saints who are scattered all over the Punjab. Even on my farm there’s a shrine to a saint. People come and hang these little cradles on the trees because they want to have a son… The art on the trucks, the embellishment of every surface. Even the guy who has the little ice-cream cart will have painted scenes all over it.

The storytelling: people are storytellers in Pakistan. A man came to me the other day and was explaining to me about all the different kinds of snakes. He said there’s one snake that stands on its tail and bounces along, and there’s another snake that, if he bites you, if you rush off and drink water than the snake will die, but if the snake rushes off and gets to drink water before you than you will die. So it’s a sort of race to the water. And there’s another snake that runs along the grass in the morning licking the dew.

Music is embedded in the culture. The music is tied up with religious belief and it enters lives in a really deep way. I was walking on my farm late one night and hearing from far away somebody ploughing a field. Farmers fit these very loud stereos on their tractors — and I was hearing from miles away Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn being played at incredibly high volume by some guy who was ploughing his field at night because it’s cooler than ploughing it during the day. I found that very moving.

Daniyal Mueenuddin with Chris Lydon in Springs, New York, October 20, 2010

This is the first of several conversations on real life in Pakistan in extremis, touching on dire multi-dimensional crises from floods to fundamentalism to war in an impoverished, nuclear-armed state. We’re prompted not least by Salman Rushdie’s cautionary last line in a talk at Brown last Spring. “… if Pakistan goes down,” as he said, “we’re all fucked.” Next: the physicist, film-maker and peace activist, Pervez Hoodbhoy.

Podcast • August 12, 2010

Real India: At Koshy’s Cafe, The Talk of Bangalore

Click to listen in on the conversation at Koshys Cafe. (35 minutes, 16 mb mp3) “… And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy ...

Click to listen in on the conversation at Koshys Cafe. (35 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

“… And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them. Especially in the field of technology. And these entrepreneurs — we entrepreneurs — have set up all these outsourcing companies that virtually run America now.”

From the self-satirizing narrator of The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize novel of 2008.

Koshy’s Cafe on St. Mark’s Road in the heart of Old Bangalore is the spot where India’s sense of itself gets born again every morning in once-and-future war stories — where dreams of a “second wave” of the entrepreneurial boom underlie every other conversation. As jumping-off point and non-stop salon, it’s Rick’s Cafe in Old Casablanca, from about the same starting point in 1940. Prem Koshy — today’s Rick — is the grandson of the founder and the chief of the “Ladies and Knights of the Square Table.” In his youth, Prem Koshy moved to Kansas to go to baking school, and then to New Orleans to tend bar and run a couple of night clubs. “Now I’m back home,” he explained, “ready to see India move out of its diaper stage and into our adulthood.” He invited us to sit in over eggs and record the daily gab one day late in July:

Ashok K: … What you had in Information Technology was a whole bunch of young people who created an industry from the ground up, without a rule book… That’s given them the ability to pick up something new and run with it, to go after any opportunity they see. Which area? You can get lists from renewable energy to pharmaceuticals to whatever. But the important thing is you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people who have the ability and the confidence to run with any idea that seizes them…

CL: What a visitor like me sees is that the new wealth of India is not eliminating the old poverty.

Satish S: As the pace picks up, the slums will disappear. I’ll give you an example. Many of us when we came from the rural area didn’t use a toothbrush; we used a stick. The marketing people have said: if they introduce people to toothpaste, no company will be able to meet the demand. India is a huge market. It’s a very simple thing.

CL: Are you going to buy one?

Satish S: Oh, I definitely use a toothbrush…

Prem Koshy: Now, about this trickling-down effect. It’s the 80-20 law that’s at work. Nature’s law of 80-20 — you know that, right? If you take all the wealth and equally distribute it, 20 percent will control the wealth again, and 80 percent will support them. In nature as well, 20 percent is the strongest part of nature’s crop, and 80 percent is usually the fringe that die. We need to move the 80 percent into the 20 percent that’s going to keep us going…

Hameed N: India needs people who can see things and say that the emperor has no clothes. For example, urbanization and this current model of development which I think is the most horrible thing. And yet we seem to be helpless. But no one is helpless. We wish to be helpless. And we follow the same models with the same consequences. We are rending our social fabric. We are destroying our environment. And yet we maintain this is the only way. I doubt it is the only way. Of course it is not. But either you are for this kind of thing or you are a Cassandra, or a leftist — all kinds of names unfortunately… I would say, if people are serious about change, start with children. And you educate them not merely in technology — also not in that bogus spirituality which India talks about all the time. You educate them about the real stuff: what’s good, living well, being kind, being generous, sharing, learning to cooperate, learning to collaborate.

CL: Oh, man. You’re my guru. You’re the man I came to meet.

Hameed N: Well, thank you. But a guru is a most dreadful person — India has lots of them — because then we suspend our thinking and start listening to what somebody else tells us. That’s India’s problem…

Mena R: I know you are American, but I feel the Americans have gotten into India very insidiously. They have changed culture in India — multinationals selling toothpaste and French fries and chips. They’ve changed Indian habits and customs for whatever reason, to sell, to make money… We have been filled with a lot of information and consumerism from Western countries which we could do without.

CL: What’s the worst of it?

Mena R: Indian children — upper-class and middle-class children — now their aspirations are to be American. The way they dress, the way they eat, their attitudes, are all American. Hollywood cinema, American TV, have influenced India — a lot!

CL: Do you see anybody you like on American TV?

Mena R: Yeah. I like Drew Carey! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha…

Mena R: About six months ago the newspapers were trying to bridge a friendship between India and Pakistan. And they sent musicians and artists back and forth. I was told the Americans were funding this. But there really is no way that India and Pakistan can ever talk. It’s foolish to accept that we are going to talk. We’ve been traditionally enemies since they broke away, since 1947. If you ask any Indian, “who’s your enemy?” they will not say England, or Burma, or Sri Lanka. Not even China. We always think of Pakistan as our national enemy, and we will never make friends. The Americans understand this, yet they come and tell us one thing and then hand over huge amounts of money to Pakistanis to buy arms. Where are the arms used mainly? Back on India. So-called they are trying to contain Taliban and Al Qaeda, but finally it comes back into India…

Ashok K: The second wave [of the Indian boom] is at the high-chaos stage. It’s a churn, a maelstrom. All the pieces are there: the old, the new, the confused present… You don’t have to spin the wheel anymore. It’s spinning on its own. It’s no longer a question of: will it succeed? Of course it will succeed. But how quickly can it happen? And how can you minimize the misery that’s going to happen? There’s a lot of misery in the making, and these are new kinds of misery. Crime is going to go through the roof… It’s very much America in the 70s, when you had a runaway crime problem and didn’t know what to do with it. You have a complete churning — everything you’ve heard around this table from the connection with the older generation, parental supervision, crime, the politics and the school of resentment that Harold Bloom would talk about. Everyone in Indian politics is carrying an axe. It hasn’t helped that Indian politics has been divisive — not to bring people together but to break people into groups which are convenient at election time. You don’t have an end in sight, but hope is very strong. One would like to see the worthies who take our tax money putting a plan behind this.

Hameed N: In the life of a nation, five or ten years is nothing… What more can India give? It has given Yoga. It has given the Indian philosophy. It has given Kama Sutra.

CL: And Gandhi, too. And Prem Koshy.

Prem Koshy: In the famous words of my grandfather: Listen, buddy: before you try to save the whole world, please try not to be the monkey who pulls the fish out of the water to save it from drowning.

Podcast • May 7, 2010

Graham Robb's Paris: 18 Arrested Explosions

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Graham Robb (49 min, 30 mb mp3) Graham Robb is making France and the French irresistible again. With an entirely unconventional gift for historically-informed tale-spinning, his Parisians delivers ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Graham Robb (49 min, 30 mb mp3)

Graham Robb is making France and the French irresistible again. With an entirely unconventional gift for historically-informed tale-spinning, his Parisians delivers nearly a score of long anecdotes about famous people in real scenes beyond imagining.

Here is Hitler on a tourist sweep through depopulated boulevards of Paris at dawn on a weekend in June, 1940 — thinking out loud with Albert Speer about how the Paris effect might be reproduced in Berlin.

There are Miles Davis and the singer Juliette Greco in love in 1949, and in guileless conversations about “existentialisme” with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the Cafe de Flore.

Then there is the assassination attempt that Francois Mitterand stage-managed against himself in 1957 — perhaps in a sort of homage to the “miracle” that saved Charles de Gaulle from great bursts of gunfire inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1944. Mitterand, who liked being known as “the Fox,” survived even the exposure of his own hoax — because, Graham Robb suggests, the French like a trickster and a touch of criminality at the top.

My favorite Robb character, from the 1830s, is the arch-criminal and escape artist Vidocq, a master of disguises who hid himself on Paris streets as a trash pile, who conspired with the cops and built the first private detective agency known to the world.

What is Graham Robb up to? In his fragmentary episodes, he seems to be telling us something of the non-linear course of events in general. His “explosive fragments,” I observe, remind me of David Shields’ ideal for the modern “lyric essay”: an explosion on every page. Yes, but no, Graham Robb rejoins:

Yes, it’s nice to have explosive fragments, but it’s also nice to just arrest the explosion at a particular moment and see exactly what’s going on at the moment of impact, the moment of destruction, and just take a lot more time to look at things which are just flashing past. It’s not a search engine kind of history. It’s almost the opposite. It’s the single fragment kind of history, and how much you can discover in one particular thing if you stop and look at it and go into it as deeply as possible, instead of skimming over the surface and collecting impressions.

Parisians extends the project of Robb’s breakthrough, The Discovery of France, the fruit of 4 years and 14,000 miles on a bicycle, in which Robb reintroduced France as, until yesterday, anything but a single, sovereign culture. He found a new planet at every bike resting spot, “a vast encyclopedia of micro-civilizations” in sum. His France is a nation of villages where, when the Eiffel Tower went up in 1889, only about 20 percent of the population spoke French. The short form of Parisians is: out with old notions of order, majesty and the grandeur of Paris; in with the ragged, the jagged, the forgotten personal perspectives, the violent and the out-and-out weird. Robb’s stress on fragmentation seems deliberately set against the national impulse in President Sarkozy’s politics — against Sarko’s famous contempt for the riotous, car-burning brown-skinned racaille, or scum, of Paris’s near suburbs.

It’s a bit ironic that Sarkozy started a debate on a national identity, because he is stressing the rifts that there are in French and Parisian society. He’s a very Parisian president. The biggest rift in France is between Paris and the provinces…. And there is also the rift between bourgeois Paris, white Paris and so-called immigrant Paris which very often isn’t immigrant at all, they’re French too. Sarkozy’s exploited that old fear that probably goes way back to the time of the Gauls… It’s the fear of what lies beyond in the hinterland, and that fear is more virulent than ever in Paris. And even today, if you tell some Parisians that you’ve been to Clichy-sous-Bois or one of the other northern suburbs, they won’t believe you. They won’t believe that you can go there and talk to people and come back alive.

Graham Robb in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, May 4, 2010.

Podcast • May 14, 2009

George Scialabba: the untethered, untenured mind

In this world of overrated pleasures and underrated treasures, as the songwriter said, I’m glad there is George Scialabba. In the din, that is, of over-caffeinated wonks and touts who pass for thinkers, I rejoice ...
Ideas as a life, not a living.

Ideas as a life, not a living.

In this world of overrated pleasures and underrated treasures, as the songwriter said, I’m glad there is George Scialabba. In the din, that is, of over-caffeinated wonks and touts who pass for thinkers, I rejoice in a modern guy from the old neighborhood who reads around the clock in Matthew Arnold’s realm of “the best that has been said and thought in the world” and keeps writing what he thinks. What Are Intellectuals Good For? is his new collection. The first answer to the question is his subtitle: “Essays and Reviews by George Scialabba.” With a vocation but not a speciality, George Scialabba meets the Irving Howe standard of the public intellectual: “By impulse, if not definition,” Howe wrote of the New York circle in the 1950s, “the intellectual is a man who writes about subjects outside his field. He has no field.” No tenure, either. No tank to think in, no social circle, no genius grant (yet), no seat in the opinion industry or on cable TV — “no province, no clique, no church,” as Whitman said of Emerson — not even a blog. Though yes, a website. George Scialabba’s “credentials” are only the steady heart and critical pen he brings to the ecstatic discipline of ideas. Ideas seduced George as a Catholic kid in the Italian-American working class precincts of East Boston, the harbor neighborhood often mistaken for an airport. Affirmative action brought him to Harvard (Class of 1969). A half-conscious zeal to be a “divine secret agent” brought him into the narrow way of the lay order, Opus Dei. “Intellectual concupiscence, I guess” brought him out of the church onto the wide path of modernism.

The gods and demi-gods in George’s cast include Nietzsche and D. H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell and Orwell; in America, Randolph Bourne and Dwight Macdonald, Susan Sontag, Walter Karp and Ralph Nader. The tilt is often but not always to the left. George’s deeper enthusiasm is for self-conscious humanists in the public square. “By that,” he writes, “I mean that their primary training and frame of reference were the humanities, usually literature or philosophy, and that they habitually employed values and ideals derived from the humanities to criticize contemporary politics… Their ‘specialty’ lay not in unearthing generally unavailable facts but in penetrating especially deeply into the common culture, in grasping and articulating its contemporary moral/political relevance with special originality and force.” Scott McLemee says it well in Inside Higher Ed: “If you can imagine a blend of Richard Rorty’s skeptical pragmatism and Noam Chomsky’s geopolitical worldview — and it’s a bit of a stretch to reconcile them, though somehow he does this — then you have a reasonable sense of Scialabba’s own politics. In short, it is the belief that life would be better, both in the United States and elsewhere, with more economic equality, a stronger sense of the common good, and the end of that narcissistic entitlement fostered by the American military-industrial complex.” My conversation with George Scialabba is about whatever happened to the Williams James lineage of public intellectuals — to Emerson’s ideal of “Man Thinking” in his “American Scholar” essay. I ask him toward the end for his own specifications of the post-modern intellectual, a description of the ideal he’s seeking today:

GS: I think post-modernity is premature. I think we ought to postpone post-modernity for a few centuries, at least. I don’t think that modernity has exhausted its potential and the very sad fact is that nine tenths of the world, or eight tenths, or seven tenths, hasn’t yet entered modernity. This is a great, terrible indictment of us who have. We need to stop improving our lifestyles and just start inviting, at least pulling up, people who are trying to climb into the modern political and literary and intellectual and scientific culture. When nobody is getting less than two thousand calories of food or culture a day, then we can take off into the post-modern future—together. But now it just looks like we are really heading for a species division: some people are on such a fast-track to the future that, when other people are sunk in pre-modern misery, and its just not a healthy prognosis for the species.

CL: So who, then, are we looking for in the way of an example?

GS: Well, culturally I would say Wendell Berry and Sven Birkerts. People who have the sense of the vast, unexplored riches in the printed word, in the case of Birkerts, and in the natural world, in the case of Berry. People like Ralph Nader, who have a sense of the vast riches of the civic realm. They seem to be the exemplary modern men, and I don’t think that we should try to extend or go beyond their example so much as we should try to emulate it.

George Scialabba in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Boston, May 6, 2009.

It’s easy to see George Scialabba as the exception that proves the rule that “public intellectualism” is dead — stifled by the “power elite” in corporate universities and government, by television and the tyranny of advertising — “the modern substitute for argument,” as Santayana said; “its function is to make the worse appear the better.” But I don’t buy the line. I don’t even buy George’s discouragement. The open architecture of the Web has diversified and, at many sites, enriched and intensified the play of accessible ideas, beyond our imagining, say, ten years ago. Among the exemplary great ones: edge.org, which keeps freshening the argument that biologists and brain scientists are now the critical source of public ideas; 3 Quarks, the best of global magazine racks; George’s favorite, Crooked Timber; my favorite, perhaps: Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, where a Middle East historian at Michigan became the Thucydides of the Iraq War. Yet clearly something is missing — some point of connection, some contemporary version of Chatauqua. Our moment of crisis and broad popular disillusionment might be a dream time for independent thinkers, but it isn’t yet. Is the fault in our stars or in ourselves, that we don’t have a bolder, more robust public culture?

Podcast • November 5, 2008

New Conversation, New Narrative: Stanley Fish

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Stanley Fish. (41 minutes, 19 mb mp3) Stanley Fish: Paradise Regained? Stanley Fish made the campaign’s most audacious — also the most thoughtful — attribution of a certain ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Stanley Fish. (41 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

Stanley Fish: Paradise Regained?

Stanley Fish made the campaign’s most audacious — also the most thoughtful — attribution of a certain aspect of divinity to Barack Obama. Fish was a Milton scholar before he became a culture warrior and, more recently, the New York Times’ “Think Again” blogger on the life of the mind, on campus and off. When Doctor Fish pictured the taunting John McCain and the imperturbable Barack Obama as a version of Satan’s contest with Jesus, he was drawing on Milton’s Paradise Regained — “a four-book poem in which a very busy and agitated Satan dances around a preternaturally still Jesus until, driven half-crazy by the response he’s not getting, the arch-rebel (i.e. maverick) loses it… The power Jesus generates,” in Fish’s reading “is the power of not moving from the still center of his being and refusing to step into an arena of action defined by his opponent. So it is with Obama, who barely exerts himself and absorbs attack after attack, each of which, rather than wounding him, leaves him stronger. It’s rope-a-dope on a grand scale… Jesus is usually the political model for Republicans, but this time his brand of passive, patient leadership is being channeled by a Democrat.”

We are talking in this election-day conversation about what feels already like a redemptive example and a profound turn in the civic culture. Are we ready for a touch of what could also be called a Gandhian model of doing the public business? I am asking Stanley Fish about the Obama challenge to public intellectuals, and about the Obama effect on the American “narrative.” Fish speaks as a Hillary Clinton Democrat who’s ready to make a considered and very large leap of faith.

SF: There will be, I believe, a three to six month period, which we can call a window of opportunity. By that I mean: countries around the world — some allies, some neutral, some our adversaries — will think there is a new opportunity for conversation and an opening up of old questions. So that is one part of the equation, the other part of the equation, if I’m right, is the response of the Obama administration is able to make.

In the Middle East, Latin America, Russia and Africa, there will be an opportunity for the United States, especially for the Obama administration, to start talking with people in ways that might lead to concrete resolutions, not tomorrow but down a road that has a discernable end.

I just heard this morning that Hugo Chavez, who is anticipating an Obama victory, said that he would be happy to sit down with the new American president and see what areas of compatibility and mutual self-interest we might identify so that we may no longer have to think of our two countries existing in an adversarial relationship.

CL: It’s remarkable. When Ahmadinejad calls then you know something has really happened.

SF: It is remarkable. If a bunch of things like that happen, and the administration has the savvy to take advantage of it, then I think we’ll see remarkable changes…

Stanley Fish in conversation with Chris Lydon, November 4, 2008

Podcast • November 4, 2008

The Hunter’s Evidence: Carlo Ginzburg

In Carlo Ginzburg’s beautifully extended metaphor, the original public intellectual was the Stone Age hunter: Man has been a hunter for thousands of years. In the course of countless chases he learned to reconstruct the ...

In Carlo Ginzburg’s beautifully extended metaphor, the original public intellectual was the Stone Age hunter:

Man has been a hunter for thousands of years. In the course of countless chases he learned to reconstruct the shapes and movements of his invisible prey from tracks on the ground, broken branches, excrement, tufts of hair, entangled feathers, stagnating odors. He learned to sniff out, record, interpret, and classify such infinitesimal traces as trails of spittle. He learned how to execute complex mental operations with lightning speed, in the depth of a forest or in a prairie with its hidden dangers…

The hunter would have been the first ‘to tell a story’ because he alone was able to read, in the silent, nearly imperceptible tracks left by his prey, a coherent sequence of events…

What may be the oldest act in the intellectual history of the human race [is] the hunter squatting on the ground, studying the tracks of his quarry.

Carlo Ginzburg, in an essay “Clues,” in Myths, Emblems, Clues, 1990.
Carlo Ginzburg: historian as card shark

Carlo Ginzburg: historian as card shark

This is an extra-credit conversation — for me a teasing introduction to the father of “micro-history,” Carlo Ginzburg, on a visit to Brown, and one of his gifted disciples, David Kertzer, the Brown provost. They write village-level history about people you never heard of. The micro-historian’s view of the world and their craft is not just bottom-up in the spirit of modern social history, representing the untitled, often unlettered peasantry, the poor and the powerless. They also aim, with the discipline of anthropology and the imagination of novelists and poets, “to see a world in a grain of sand,” in Blake’s line — to recreate a vast social and spiritual panorama from, say, the recovered or newly liberated transcript of a trial.

Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) is a classic text that became a film, a revelation of married life in 16th Century France. Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre (1984) unfolded the uprising in a Paris printer’s shop in the 1730s. The inspirational head of the stream was Carlo Ginzburg’s magical The Cheese and the Worms (1976). Told from archives of the Inquisition, it is the tale of a voluble miller, dubbed Menocchio, who was burned at the stake in 1599 for his imaginative (i.e. heretical) speculations about the stuff of the universe (like cheese somehow) and its penetration by angels and spirit (pictured as worms). In Ginzburg’s hands it is the story of early-modern man against authority; of the fusion of Menocchio’s little book learning, at the dawn of printing, with the zeal of the Reformation; and most memorably of a teeming, half-pagan popular religious culture in the rural precincts of Catholic Italy. David Kertzer’s new book this year is Amalia’s Tale, the story from trial transcripts of a wet-nurse from a village near Bologna who contracted syphillis from a farmed-out child of a foundling home. Kertzer’s canvas becomes a chronicle of disease and medicine, law and power, privilege and enterprising resistance, church rules and the meaning of motherhood, and much more.

The triptych of saints over the altar of micro-history, as Carlo Ginzburg recounts, represent Sherlock Holmes, Sigmund Freud and Giovanni Morelli, the 19th Century art historian and sleuth. The trick, as Freud put it, is to divine “secret and concealed things from unconsidered or unnoticed details, from the rubbish heap, as it were, of our observations.” The skill required (Ginzburg’s words again) is “the flexible and rigorous insight of a lover or a horse trader or a card shark.”

What they would teach us is a way of looking at the world right around us. This is, as we say, the short course.

Podcast • October 27, 2008

J. S. Bach’s “Habit of Perfection”: Andrew Rangell

Waiting the election returns (Obama v. McCain) in November, 2008, we repair to the consolations of J.S. Bach, and in this conversation, to the perfect nest of keyboard masterpieces known collectively as The Well-Tempered Clavier, ...
Andy Rangell at his Well-Tempered Clavier

Andy Rangell at his Well-Tempered Clavier

Waiting the election returns (Obama v. McCain) in November, 2008, we repair to the consolations of J.S. Bach, and in this conversation, to the perfect nest of keyboard masterpieces known collectively as The Well-Tempered Clavier, delivered to the world in two prodigious installments: Book One in 1722, Book Two in 1744. Daniel Barenboim, and others, have dubbed Bach’s WTC the “Old Testament” of piano literature — Beethoven’s 32 sonatas constituting the “New”…! We repair geographically to the studio near Boston of the “quirky, imaginative, intelligent” piano master Andrew Rangell. In 2020 he is sequestered with WTC, Book Two, having recorded Book One in 2007.

I think of Andrew as the Glenn Gould of our time and place. Like so many Bach pianists he grew up with Gould’s great first recording of the Goldberg Variations from 1955, the record that announced the “birth of a legend.” (See the equally famous 1981 re-recording in exquisite video). Like very few others, Andrew Rangell has grown into Gould’s roles as an original writer and performer, in celebrated recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Partitas, French and English suites, and The Art of Fugue. Also many of the Beethoven sonatas, the complete Chopin Mazurkas, and music of Janacek, Nielsen, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Enescu, Charles Ives, and many others. Like Gould but for different reasons (a 1991 hand injury) Rangell has largely traded the concert stage for the recording studio and its painstaking and exhilarating techniques of re-creation, both in the recording and editing phases.

I came to Andrew this time to ask what an immersion in the Well-Tempered Clavier does for one’s mind and spirit – this endlessly extended and refined masterwork that, as Andrew says, “encourages mind, fingers and heart, and that never turns anyone away.”

The Well-Tempered, for short, becomes the musical metaphor of the long human course in hearing multiplicities of voices — polyphony is the musical word — and their accents, inflections, their placements and interactions. It also becomes a “semi-religious experience,” says Andrew, the non-believer:

Bach was a man of God in the most overt and simple sense… But there is a fusion in Bach that is just mind-boggling to me. It has to do with the intersection of Man and God — and not at Yale. We’re talking about a composer who seemed to write for his own enrichment and edification and the need to enlarge himself. This was a person who studied deeply and who then produced; and even in his secular music there is a religious aura. There is something in which he is writing to God and he is writing for himself. And then everything else falls into place. It turns out that everything he is writing can stimulate and be used pedagogically. It can show young fingers where to go. It can show young composers how to think; it can clarify things about voice-leading. To study the Well-Tempered is to study the treatise of all time on harmony. Somehow God and human concerns are fused in a very profound way. I speak as a person otherwise irreligious. I consider myself a kind of secularized person. Nonetheless maybe music is a kind of religion and Bach is in a way always the high priest, just because of the richness there. Sometimes these days I quote Glenn Gould who said, “I believe in God — Bach’s God.” Through Saint Glenn, I can go there easily. I feel deeply the man is an ocean. He is fathomless. Over and over again he had, to quote Hopkins, “the habit of perfection.” He is godlike. When I practice Bach I feel, whatever my own struggles, whatever my own difficulties, I am sustained by it. There is no flaw there.

Andrew Rangell in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 21, 2008

Podcast • October 20, 2008

Poster Art Then and Now: RISD’s John Maeda

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with John Maeda (20 minutes, 9 mb mp3) Call this Take 2 on the show of Soviet poster art, through the eyes of a 40-year-old Japanese American graphic artist ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with John Maeda (20 minutes, 9 mb mp3)

Call this Take 2 on the show of Soviet poster art, through the eyes of a 40-year-old Japanese American graphic artist who just happens to be the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design, John Maeda. On a gabby, impromptu stroll through Tom Gleason’s show of Russia’s 20th Century art and propaganda, what struck me in John Maeda’s presence was how familiar and modern are the tools and the underlying power of this work – how closely the red-white-and-black Soviet posters of the 1920s suggest the basic scheme of the early LIFE magazine covers; how the red silhouettes of Lenin foreshadow the brilliant figures of the street dancers in the inescapable iPod posters of this moment in global advertising; how quickly the red-and-white Lenin poster (above) could be rearranged into a Coca-Cola ad. The experiment here, maybe the longshot lesson, is in thinking out loud about new images in front of our faces: away with the earphones and the recorded tour guide; can we tear our eyes off the tags and the texts and make our own links of eye, brain, memory and imagination with the public art of another time and place. The intrepid John Maeda plunges in with the mind of a computer engineer and designer (of sneakers and clothing, among other things) who did most of his art studies in Japan, who’s the shepherd now of a rising generation of artists in many media, including paint, pottery and posters.

Speaking of poster art… I asked John Maeda about the viral power and booming prices for the iconic images that RISD’s own Shep Fairey designed for the Obama campaign. What’s the secret of the posters’ colors, half-abstraction, apparent simplicity and openness to imitation and parody? And why, by the way, do we recoil from the personality cult when we see it in images of Stalin, and tend to embrace it in Shep Fairey’s rendition of Barack Obama?

Shepard Fairey’s Obama

Yeah, did a good job with that. His style is very authentic: it’s very grounded in history, grounded in the liberal arts… The secret? It’s the timing… It could have been any image, but he hit it at the right time with the right kind of scale. He uses the Web very well – another example of an artist who uses the Web in a very propaganda-infiltrator style. Combinations of these things create these perfect storms of popularity… You’ve got to love Obama first of all. If you don’t like Obama, you’re not going to like that [Shep Fairey image]. But the reason that image is liked is because Obama is no longer a person. Obama is an icon. Obama is abstracted into fewer colors. Obama is a radiant being, a belief figure, because we are so heart love-struck for someone or something to believe in. Think about people who aren’t religious, you know, we humans survive because we were inherently religious, inherently spiritual. So people who don’t have a god per se want to expect their political, their super-whatever, to be more than human: superhuman. So the Obama poster makes him look like he’s beyond humanity. We can trust him because he’s not one of us, he’s above all of us. But he’s also one of us.

Podcast • September 23, 2008

Slavoj Zizek: What is the Question?

The Elvis of the intelligensia, Slavoj Zizek, hot-links in our one-way conversation… …from nominating George W. Bush (for his trillion-dollar bail-out) to the Communist Party to Kung-Fu Panda, …from John McCain (“Bush with lipstick”) to ...

The Elvis of the intelligensia, Slavoj Zizek, hot-links in our one-way conversation…

…from nominating George W. Bush (for his trillion-dollar bail-out) to the Communist Party to Kung-Fu Panda,

…from John McCain (“Bush with lipstick”) to Naomi Klein,

…from Barack Obama’s risk of the “John Kerry syndrome” to the experience we’re all having of putting on the reality sunglasses in John Carpenter’s “They Live,”

…from the movies “Fight Club” and “300” (which he says left-populists should be studying) to his reading of gold-digger Kate Croy in Henry James’ Wings of the Dove as a plausible model of political militancy,

…from Immanuel Kant’s notion of the sublime, to racist jokes with a moral purpose.


In New York on the last day of an American tour, absorbing the demise of Yankee Stadium and maybe of Wall Street as we thought we knew it, Zizek’s talk is a blast-furnace but not a blur. The theme through all Zizek’s gags is that the financial meltdown marks a seriously dangerous moment — dangerous not least because, as in the interpretation of 9.11, the right wing is ready to impose a narrative. And the left wing is caught without a narrative or a theory. “Today is the time for theory,” he says. “Time to withdraw and think.”

Dangerous moments are coming. Dangerous moments are always also a chance to do something. But in such dangerous moments, you have to think, you have to try to understand. And today obviously all the predominant narratives — the old liberal-left welfare state narrative; the post-modern third-way left narrative; the neo-conservative narrative; and of course the old standard Marxist narrative — they don’t work. We don’t have a narrative. Where are we? Where are we going? What to do? You know, we have these stupid elementary questions: Is capitalism here to stay? Are there serious limits to capitalism? Can we imagine a popular mobilization outside democracy? How should we properly react to ecology? What does it mean, all the biogenetic stuff? How to deal with intellectual property today? Things are happening. We don’t have a proper approach. It’s not only that we don’t have the answers. We don’t even have the right question.

Slavoj Zizek of In

Defense of Lost Causes, in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 22, 2008

It’s almost impossible, I discovered anew, to interrupt Zizek. And impossible also to stop listening. Here’s the experiment: if you can break out of the Zizek spell, leave a comment, please, about where and why he lost you. He had me to the end.