“The most important thing in life is not happiness but meaning.”
— John M. Hull, Notes on Blindness
Set in the summer of 1983, Notes on Blindness is a beautiful 2016 documentary that explores the life of writer and theologian John M. Hull.
Based on his memoir, Touching the Rock, the film offers a deeply personal account of an academic who permanently loses his vision while anticipating the birth of his son.
Filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney draw from audio cassettes recorded by Hull at the time, which attempt to explain and understand the experience of blindness through vivid philosophical reflections on everyday events and experiences. (more…)
Reading Jon Krakauer‘s Into the Wild. A compelling account of the tragic story of Chris McCandless and his idealistic trek into the Alaskan wilderness. At the same time, the book offers a cultural history of the fascination wild spaces hold in the modern imagination.
A collection that reveals a lifelong emotional engagement with the possibilities of art
How does one introduce a book of introductions by an author who needs no introduction? This month heralds the paperback release of Michael Chabon’s Bookends, an enjoyable collection of his introductions (as well as outros and liner notes) to an eclectic range of texts. Combining literary and cultural critique with revealing autobiographical reflection, Chabon shares his enthusiasm for everything from literature and popular fiction to comic books, Norse myth, movies, food, music, and baseball. He glories in the rhythms of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special, debunking a few myths along the way, and takes time to recommend West Oakland’s soul food restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen. There are also personal observations about his own fiction, including a short extract from his unpublished work, Fountain City. The collection even has its own (meta) introduction. Fans of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author will seize on this book to better understand the texts and experiences that shaped Chabon as an artist. More broadly, Bookends is a wander along the lost avenues and borderlands of the twentieth-century popular imagination.
Whether discussing the cultural significance of Superman’s cape, or the pastel, symmetrical frames of Wes Anderson, the pieces that form Bookends return time and again to the role that art plays in shaping who we are. Chabon remembers picking up paperbacks of The Great Gatsby and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus before embarking on his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. He talks about his immersion into the magical-realist settings of Greek and Norse myth as a third grader. He discusses the way Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Rocket Man’ changed his life forever when he was just ten-years-old: “I had never noticed, somehow, that stories were made not of ideas or exciting twists of plot but of language. And not merely of pretty words and neat turns of phrase, but of systems of imagery, strategies of metaphor.” Bookends celebrates the skill of artists and writers to conjure imaginary worlds, navigating the fantasy landscapes of Michael Moorcock and getting lost in the graphic dystopian cities of Howard Chaykin. Chabon has a critic’s awareness of poststructuralist and postmodern approaches to art and representation, with nods here and there to writers like Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin. But, ultimately, the success of Bookends lies in the way it demonstrates a lifelong emotional engagement with the possibilities of art, and the texts that speak to us at important moments in our lives. It traces the strange spark that arises at “the intersection of a wish and the tip of a pencil.”
This extract is from my review of Michael Chabon’s Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 23 January 2019.
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.
Sat down and read Cormac McCarthy‘s play (or “novel in dramatic form”) The Sunset Limited. An African American man saves a white college professor from suicide, and they share a compelling dialogue about life, suffering, religion, and humanism. Sometimes McCarthy’s stage directions lack racial sensitivity and tact (e.g. “the black” vs. “the professor”), but the characters have an intelligent and entertaining critical dialogue. Dianne C. Luce offers an interesting reading of the text’s conclusion over at the official Cormac McCarthy website (contains spoilers):
“The novel’s denouement rests on the intellectual triumph of White, which ironically leads to his suicide, and the temporary rhetorical defeat of Black, who courageously recommits to his belief in the possibility of goodness. Thus the dialogue remains elegantly balanced, poised between forceful articulations of opposing views of life and human nature, giving ascendancy to neither. McCarthy seems to have no ideological agenda here, but rather he aims at capturing the internal debate of the thoughtful individual seeking to navigate the subway of earthly existence, who hears within him- or herself the competing voices of, on the one hand, empirical reasoning and world-wearying experience and, on the other, hope and the transcendent spirit.”
Overall, a genuinely engaging work struck through with darkly comic elements. Recommended.
Finished reading Stephen King‘s Under the Dome. It’s one of the author’s longest works, and has been compared by publishers and critics to his earlier post apocalyptic novel, The Stand. While the story of an hermetically sealed American community has the feel of a modern parable, Under the Dome is ultimately a straightforward (if fantastical) crime thriller about small town political corruption.