“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
— George Eliot, Middlemarch
Terrence Malick‘s A Hidden Life has debuted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is the American filmmaker’s second work to be based on the events of the Second World War, and tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector who was executed by the Nazis in 1943. Writing for The Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang has praised Malick’s latest work as a return to form and “a spiritual call to arms”:
“At its simplest level, A Hidden Life exists to disprove the snarling Nazi soldiers we hear telling Franz that his act of protest is meaningless and that no one will ever remember him. (They have admittedly already been disproved, thanks to the scholarship of Gordon Zahn and Thomas Merton, as well as a 2007 papal declaration of Jägerstätter as a martyr.) But it is also a call for moral vigilance in any era, the present one very much included…”
Boyd Tonkin (NYRB) visits the Van Gogh and Britain exhibition at Tate Britain. He reflects on the painter’s religious background, his oft-overlooked writing talents, his interest in marginalised and working-class figures, and Victorian London as a European metropolis:
“Young Vincent often felt a failure. He endured loneliness and dejection—though nothing like the bouts of anguish and panic that would seize him in Provence—but he also felt the bittersweet melancholy of a dreamy, wandering outsider. He could go into raptures about autumn days in London, ‘especially in the streets in the evening, when it’s a bit foggy and the street-lamps are lit,’ while fading elm-leaves turn ‘the colour of bronze.’ His letters from England crackle with the descriptive and affective force of what, should he have chosen another fork on that pilgrim road, we would surely now call a born writer. Foggy Victorian London, where literature far outshone in status both the visual arts and music, helped make Van Gogh the artist he became and remained, even when the golden fields and cobalt skies of Provence blazed across his canvases.
‘He was a writer before he was a painter,’ insisted Carol Jacobi, as crowds flowed around us on the first day of public access to Van Gogh and Britain, the exhibition she has curated at the Tate Britain in London, next to the river Vincent loved to walk beside. ‘”Writing is like painting”: he says that thirty or forty times,’ she reminded me. Through his apprentice years, his writer’s pen obeyed him as his crayon or brush could not. Jacobi, curator for British Art 1850–1915 at the Tate, mentions an 1880 drawing titled Miners in the Snow at Dawn, completed in Belgium, where Van Gogh had gone to live and preach among the poor. It’s an early token of his new-found artistic ambitions. The ‘word picture’ that partners it in a letter is ‘beautifully accomplished, influenced by Dickens and Zola,’ she said. ‘But he’s struggling to express these things in visual terms.'”
“At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don’t need someone to share it with or tell it to.”
In With A Side of Knowledge, a podcast from the University of Notre Dame, Marilynne Robinson talks to Ted Fox about her novel Gilead, and shares her thoughts on faith, meaning, and the writing process.
“Jacques Derrida is widely regarded as the most important French philosopher of the late twentieth century. Yet when his name was put forward for an honorary degree at Cambridge University in 1992, a significant portion of the Anglo-American philosophical establishment was outraged. Eighteen philosophers from nine countries signed a letter to The Times opposing the award on the grounds that Derrida’s work consisted of “tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists or of the concrete poets” and amounted to ‘little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship’. Understanding Derrida’s legacy, then, must also involve understanding why he should have been the target of such vitriol.”
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
— Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
I really do think with my pen, for my head often knows nothing of what my hand is writing. MS 112 114:27.10.1931
Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened & will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For ‘recognition of sin’ is an actual occurrence & so is despair & so is redemption through faith. Those who speak of it (like Bunyan), are simply describing what has happened to them; whatever gloss someone may want to put on it! MS 118 56r c: 4.9.1937
If I am thinking just for myself without wanting to write a book, I jump all around the topic; that is the only way of thinking that is natural to me. Forcing my thoughts into an ordered sequence is a torment for me. Should I even attempt it now??
I squander untold effort making an arrangement of my thoughts that may have no value whatsoever. MS 118 94v c: 15.9.1937
One cannot speak the truth; – if one has not yet conquered oneself. One cannot speak it – but not, because one is still not clever enough.
The truth can be spoken only by someone who is already at home in it; not by someone who still lives in untruthfulness, & does not more than reach out towards it from within untruthfulness. MS 162b 37r c: 1939-1940
Resting on your laurels is as dangerous as resting when hiking through snow. You doze off & die in your sleep. MS 162b 42v c: 1939-1940
Thoughts at peace. That is the goal someone who philosophizes longs for. MS 127 41v: 4.3.1944
Words are deeds. MS 179 27: ca. 1945
If people did not sometimes commit stupidities, nothing intelligent at all would ever happen. MS 131 219: 8.9.1946
“Samuel Beckett kept a copy of The Divine Comedy by his bedside as he lay dying in a Paris hospice in 1989. Oxygen canisters stood nearby for his emphysema but, immersed in Dante, he appeared to be ‘having fun’, remembered the poet Derek Mahon (who visited him a month before he died at the age of 83).”
“Freud surrounded himself with visual sources of inspiration that made their way into his manuscript pages, confining the thousands of objects he stockpiled to the consultation room and study that constituted his workspace. The rest of his home was conventionally bourgeois, decorated with family photographs and fin-de-siecle furnishings. The Wolf Man later recalled that Freud’s study didn’t have the look of ‘a doctor’s office but rather of an archaeologist’s study.'”
A call to revisit and reclaim one of the 20th century’s most important thinkers
Cynthia L. Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is the first full-length biography of the acclaimed French thinker. Girard’s “mimetic theory” saw imitation at the heart of individual desire and motivation, accounting for the competition and violence that galvanize cultures and societies. “Girard claimed that mimetic desire is not only the way we love, it’s the reason we fight. Two hands that reach towards the same object will ultimately clench into fists.”
Often a controversial figure, Girard trespassed into many different fields — he was, by turns, a literary critic, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a psychologist, a theologian and much else besides. Haven’s biography is the first book to contextualize Girard’s work within its proper historical, cultural and philosophical context. The book presumes no prior knowledge, and includes several useful primers of the texts that established his reputation: Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), Violence and the Sacred (1972), Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), and his study of Shakespeare, A Theater of Envy (1991). But it is the author’s closeness to the man once described as “the new Darwin of the human sciences” that brings this fascinating biography to life.
Haven was a friend of Girard’s until his death in 2015, and met with family members, friends and colleagues closest to him to prepare for the book. She recalls a calm and patient man who was generous with his time. “I came to his work through his kindness, generosity, and his personal friendship, not the other way around.”
He lived with his wife, Martha, on the Stanford University campus, and followed a strict working routine: “Certainly his schedule would have made him at home in one of the more austere orders of monks. His working hours were systematic and adamantly maintained.” He began his day at his desk at roughly 3:30 in the morning, broke for a walk and relaxation sometime around noon, and spent his afternoons either continuing what he had begun that day or meeting his responsibilities to students.
One of the abiding questions that drives the book is how a man who appeared to lead such a quiet and ordered life was animated by some of the most troubling themes in human history.
Adopting the lively and accessible style of an investigative reporter, Haven looks to Girard’s formative experiences for an answer. The reader is along for the ride as she drives a rented Citroën through southern France, or pores over archival images and family photographs. Her research is rich in important and surprising details, and there are entertaining tidbits of juicy academic gossip along the way.
This extract is from my review of Cynthia L. Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 1 July 2018.
Reflecting on the decision to pursue my vocation in art, service, and simple living
One year ago today I made a decision to change my life. A cardiology appointment prompted me to think more carefully about my lifestyle choices, and I became motivated to start living according to values of simplicity, humility, and compassion. (more…)
Was Fyodor Dostoyevsky a true crime writer? In some sense, the answer is yes. Jennifer Wilson (The New York Times) draws attention to Dostoyevsky’s use of real-life criminal cases to critique nineteenth-century Russian society:
“[T]oday’s true crime resurgence has an antecedent in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Russian author of numerous novels about murder including, most famously, “Crime and Punishment.” Dostoyevsky was obsessed with the judiciary. He spent considerable time watching trials, debating with lawyers about the nature of innocence and guilt, visiting the accused in prison and trying to sway public opinion about certain cases. So enmeshed were Dostoyevsky and his writing in the legal consciousness of czarist Russia that defense attorneys were known to invoke Rodion Raskolnikov, the charismatic murderer-protagonist of “Crime and Punishment,” when seeking sympathy from the jury. (more…)