William T. Vollmann – “Nothing is true; all is permissible.”

cq5dam.web.1280.1280Vollmann

photos: PHILIPPE MERLE/AFP/GETTYIMAGES

Unknown

Unknown-1
The Atlantic Magazine Interview

Writers Can Do Anything
William T. Vollmann, author of Last Stories and Other Stories, explains why he works by an assassin’s credo: “Nothing is true; all is permissible.”

1.0k 225
JOE FASSLER JUL 16, 2014
By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.
Doug McLean
William T. Vollmann surely takes artistic freedom as seriously as any living writer. His books—sometimes to the dismay of his publishers—routinely compare length-wise with the King James Bible and Infinite Jest. His three most recent books include a series of trangender self-portraits, an investigative report on nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japan, and this month, a whopping collection of what he calls “ghost stories.” Through it all, he deploys writing styles that range as widely as the broad topics he covers—war, economic inequality, fetishists, prostitution.

Vollmann, in other words, always writes the book he wants to write.

 

In our interview for this series, Vollmann discussed a short, paradoxical aphorism from the 11th-century cult figure, Hassan-i Shabbah, a mystic and religious leader who retained power using a stable of trained killers. In his unpacking of the maxim’s many paradoxical layers, Vollmann explored how freedom—in art, governance, and life—must be protected, and yet must have its limits.

Last Stories and Other Stories is a sprawling, enchanting casket of curiosities. Over 600 pages long, and copiously epigraphed, these stories range from novella-length to just a single paragraph. In their elegant, elegiac meditations on death and the afterlife, we cross broad terrain, including geishas in ancient Japan, vampires in preindustrial Bohemia, and bombings in modern-day Sarajevo.

Vollmann’s previous book of fiction, Europe Central (2005), won the National Book Award for Fiction. He spoke to me from his writer’s studio in Sacramento, where he lives.

William T. Vollmann: Hassan the Assassin, also known as the Old Man of the Mountain, was a legendary figure from 11th and 12th century Persia. He lived in a mountain fortress with a gang of young men he’d hired to be assassins, guys who were prepared to kill and die for him. He’d reward them for their work by drugging them with hashish—the words assassin and hashish actually have the same Arabic root—and they’d wake up in a cave filled with wine and beautiful women. He had brought them to paradise, he’d tell them. If they did his bidding, they would end up there forever.

Hassan the Assassin lived by a proverb that’s long been an object of contemplation for me:

Nothing is true; all is permissible.
I haven’t followed this line as any kind of guiding principle. These aren’t necessarily words to live by. But it’s a deeply resonant maxim, one that contains within it many layers of meaning, and there’s a great deal to be learned by looking at its two parts and turning them around. As a credo, it can be inspirational—or alarming—on many different levels.

If we apply “nothing is true; all is permissible” in its most immediate, literal meaning, it appears to be a horrible, dangerous idea—though perhaps perfect for an assassin. Saying “Nothing is true” is the same as saying “Everything is true,” as far as I’m concerned. Because if nothing is true, don’t all claims to truth have equal weight? If all is true, any form of human behavior becomes valid. Who can say it’s wrong to kill another person for money—or merely for hashish? All is permissible. You might read these lines as an insistence on the relativity of ethics, and they could even be applied to excuse a kind of moral nihilism.

At the same time, I see a kind of freedom in these words. In my book The Rainbow Stories, I spent time writing about communities in San Francisco where there’s a lot of BDSM stuff. The people in that world love to pretend all kinds of fantastic or preposterous or sometimes very frightening-sounding things—but none of it’s true, and so all of it’s permissible. Viewed one way, the Assassin’s maxim could be used to excuse terrible, harmful behavior—but it also could be instructive for role-players, gamers, and others who want to live out their fantasies on their own terms. It’s a reminder that the fictional aspect of the fantasy makes it permissible.
In fact, when we’re working in solely in the realm of the imagination, the assassin’s proverb becomes a very uplifting idea. For me, as an artist, it’s been a great help. While I’m working on a book, it’s a reminder that I don’t have to worry about making a mistake, about writing “poorly,” or about taking on a difficult or ambitious project. I try to remain open, reminding myself that all is permissible as I work. Of course, that doesn’t let me off the hook later—ultimately, I have to live with any work I publish and make public. But it’s a very freeing feeling during the composition process, when I try to keep in mind that nothing is off-limits.

Sometimes, this is very difficult. There have been times when I’m writing about things that are personally embarrassing. Like any human being, sometimes I can’t help but wonder—what are the people I know going to think about this? So I have to remind myself that all is permissible. Art has to be a free space. Language has to be a free space. And I just shouldn’t worry about that kind of thing while I’m working. I might pay the consequences later, but that’s not my problem while I’m doing the writing.

I feel the same way about the publishing marketplace. I’ve always thought the exchange of words for money is no more and no less problematic than any other kind of prostitution—and it’s important that we prostitutes control a certain amount of our production (and reproduction, for that matter). If I’m writing a book and I’m warned, “Oh, this is unsaleable, you need to make it shorter,” or, “It has to be this, or that,” I’m proud to say I don’t pay attention.

When we’re working in solely the realm of the imagination, the assassin’s proverb is a very uplifting idea.
Though this is becoming more difficult. As large publishers turn into monopolies, and the MBAs who are running them—maybe editors used to run them before—are steadily tightening the screws, they feel more and more that they get to call the shots. The last couple books I’ve written have had maximum-length provisions in the contracts. This had never happened before, but I couldn’t get them stricken from the contracts. So did the only thing I could: I just ignored them. This could mean that my book will be rejected, and I’ll have to pay my advance back, and a very unfortunate situation might develop. But I can’t let that outcome dictate what I want to do.

At the end of the day, when I’m dying, I want to think I did what I felt was best for the words I was writing. This may mean, at any time, that I won’t be publishable anymore. There’s all kinds of pressure on people to do this and that, and not this and the other thing—but I think I would feel ashamed, and despondent, if I let others dictate the terms of my work. If I let others tell me that nothing I wrote was true, and every demand of theirs was permissible.
This Assassin’s maxim was especially useful to me as I wrote the latest of my Seven Dreams series, called The Dying Grass, about the Nez Perce War of 1877. It was a very challenging project because I decided to invent what’s essentially a new form. You don’t read this book like other books: instead, as you read from left to right, the page works like a stage. The left-hand part of the page works like the forefront of the stage, and the right edge of the paper is the backdrop. And so, there might be conversations on the left hand on the page—and what people are actually thinking might occur in the center, and perhaps landscape descriptions appear in the back, or occasionally when they really strike somebody, they appear in the front. This approach gives the page a kind of dimensionality, multiple layers of foreground and background.

An example: In one scene, my protagonist, General Howard, and his aide-de-camp walk through a battlefield—and there are all kinds of wounded, lying there, calling for help. There’s a cacophony of voices, spread across the page. One wounded confederate solider in particular is crying for help, way on the right hand side of the page, lost among all these other voices. But gradually, this voice moves farther and father to the left—and suddenly, it’s in the same column as the main characters’ dialogue. So the reader can see right away they’re engaging with this guy.

It took years to figure this out and make it work. It’s just a very weird-looking thing. But it turns out to be very easy to read. There’s so much white space, that it’s almost like reading a play or a movie script or something like that. Much less dense than my books usually are. But I had to overcome my own resistance and fear when I started it. I thought it would be too difficult. I worried I’d put a couple of hundred pages into it, and no one would be able to make sense of it. Then I’ll have lost years, I told myself. But I ended up being proud of it, and very fulfilled by the experience. It was a wonderful experiment. And it helped me to remind myself that nothing is true, that reading in strict left-to-right rows of text is not necessarily the only true way, and all is permissible in art.
Of course, the same freedoms extend to science. It’s in part because nothing is true scientifically: No scientific observation can be proven true forever and ever, and great, widely accepted theories fall and will continue to. It’s crucial for the health of science that any thought experiment is permissible, that we’re always allowed to question even the most entrenched ideas. To the extent that science is like art, you want it to be a free space. No scientist should be told what to think, or what not to think. We’re all hoping that as a result of this freedom, scientists will get closer and closer to amazing new discoveries about the nature of reality.

But the difference is that art is mostly powerless to hurt people. When you extend “all is permissible” into the real world, it can become dangerous. It can encourage a certain lack of conscience—the unnerving side of the scientific method, which underlies so much of our culture today. Science doesn’t ask what is right—it just asks what is true. And a wonderful discovery that a scientist makes could lead to something that destroys life on earth.

Does evil exist in an artistic context? In other words, should some things not be permissible in art? I would say no. There have been people who think that it does. Plato thought certain kinds of music should be banned from the Republic because they were too effeminate, or voluptuous, or whatever, and would weaken the body politic. I prefer to think that all should be allowed in art. And that, in a way, comes down to my political belief about the right of the self. The First Amendment: What a great idea! Why not universalize that, and say we all have the right to express ourselves. Even if we hate what other people are saying—all the more reason to cherish the freedom that we are giving ourselves by giving those other people the right to make bad art, or to be Nazis marching down the streets of Skokie—whatever it is.

When looked at this way, “nothing is true” is a great, democratizing idea: If there is no objective truth, no person or entity should have the right to impose ideas on anyone else. In this sense, “nothing is true” leads naturally to the conclusion that “all is permissible”—if all ideas have an equal right to exist, people should not be given more or less freedom on the basis of their ideas.
But once we leave the world of art and ideas, and start talking about actions and behavior, it seems important to say that only some things are true. Extended to the realm of politics, the Assassin’s proverb quickly takes on troubling significance. I think of George W. Bush with the Iraq War: no weapons of mass destruction, no link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, nation building was another fraud, none of the proposed justifications were true. It was all bullshit. And how many thousands have we killed? So, we can say, he acted as if nothing was true, but all was permissible—including torture. That’s the definition of an unjust war. If political leaders are applying “Nothing is true; all is permissible,” we can be sure they’re going to be doing evil things. It’s the same thing as saying the ends justify the means.

Some of the more frightening people I’ve encountered insist only some things are true, but feel all things are permissible.
You see this with environmental issues as well. About a year ago I started working on a nonfiction book about coal versus nuclear power. Not so much about which is better or worse—they’re probably both awful—but what ordinary people think about them. I’ve found that so many Americans, especially in the coal counties of West Virginia, really don’t believe in global warming. But I suspect that a lot of the political leaders who say that they don’t believe in it, actually might think that it’s possible. They’re acting like nothing is true, and all is permissible. To take this stance, and behave as though all forms of rhetoric are justified in the pursuit of power, is harmful and irresponsible.

Some of the more frightening people I’ve encountered are the ones who insist only some things are true, but also feel that all things are permissible. I remember one time I was interviewing a Russian special forces guy in Belgrade during the Bosnian War. He really liked to kill people. He wanted me to join him. He told me that if I would just give him my passport right then, he would burn it, and then I would be completely dependent on him. He’d make me into a new man. He’d give me food and cigarettes. I wouldn’t get much sleep. He’s teach me how to jump out of airplanes, and rape muslim women and slit people’s throats, and I would become a real man like him. At some point, when he was making this very enticing offer, he took a bayonet and put it to my throat, pressing it almost hard enough to cut into my skin. My interpreter was quite afraid that the guy was going to cut my throat. And I was afraid, too. There wasn’t a lot I could do about it either, except try to be calm and accepting of whatever was going to happen. Every war journalist, I suppose, has moments like that. But that was definitely a moment that it seemed that he felt nothing I believed was true, and he felt that all was permissible, including killing me. He felt his point of view was truer than mine, and he had the latitude to do whatever he wanted about it.
He was creating, in his mind, this new order. He’d been with the Russian special forces in Afghanistan, and he conceded that they shouldn’t have been there. That was their place, and the Russians should have stayed out. And now the Muslims needed to be quiet, as he put in, in Serbia and in Bosnia because that wasn’t their place. He was a big believer in ethnic cleansing. I believe anyone has the right to any opinion, no matter how deranged. The problem is, it went beyond that. This stuff, which was just a sick fantasy, was something that he and a lot of other violent people were busy making into something true. Every day, they were going out there and removing the Muslims, so that it would not be a Muslim place anymore.

If only some things are true—then it holds that only some things are permissible, because there can be right and wrong. Once you’re willing to say that only some things are true, but all is permissible in the attainment of that truth, you are on very dangerous ground.

When I worked out my moral calculus in Rising Up and Rising Down, I began with the assumption that maybe is not too controversial: The self has certain rights. The self has the right to defend itself—violently, if need be, or not. And it has the right to defend others, or not; violently, or not. To the extent that we infringe on those rights, unless there are other compelling considerations, considerations of proportionality or discrimination, I would say we are committing evil.

So it seems to me the only just political credo would be: “Some things are true, and some things are permissible.” Anyone who says anything different, and has political power or a gun, needs to be watched carefully.

But if a writer says that only some things are true—saying only these aesthetic rules are true, and these things are never permissible, for all time—then I’m inclined to say, screw you.

I think that for an artist, certainly, it’s good to remember that nothing is true for all time—and therefore, that all is permissible. You shouldn’t get struck in any one truth. Every idea, every identity is doomed to die, just as we are. I think that’s one reason I try so many different approaches in my books—I don’t want to limit myself to one approach, one artistic self.

The last couple books I’ve written had maximum-length provisions in the contracts. I did the only thing I could: ignore them.
And why shouldn’t ideas continually change, when there’s so much we can never know—will never know? Death, for instance, will always escape us. I just finished writing a book of ghost stories, though I don’t really believe in ghosts. I can’t say there’s not an afterlife—nothing is true, after all, and there might be—and though I’m not holding my breath, I have to admit we can’t really know what death is! That’s why we’re always engaging with it, trying to understand death by animating and personifing it, by giving it some sort of life and face. And death, of course, is nothingness—so we’re always doomed to fail. And yet, it’s this effort itself that forms our only possible relationship to death. I like to think that creating these quite absurd characters—ghouls and ghosts, dead people, scenarios in the grave—was actually my way of trying to imagine something that helps me prepare myself for death. And maybe readers will feel something of the same.

With death, we know for sure that nothing we imagine is true—and so it might be that nothing is permissible, nothing will be permissible after we die, very likely. In the meantime, all is permissible in trying to understand death, because whatever we understand won’t be true anyway—so it doesn’t matter. We can only project ourselves onto it.
So this saying of Hassan the Assassin’s holds many things at once: it is nihilistic, it is democratic, it is brutal, it is fair. For me, in the end, it’s a reminder of the shifting terrain of self-knowledge—how nothing is true for long in our hearts, how anything can change in us, and how often one transforms in one’s attempts to know oneself. I am continually surprised in my autobiographical writing at how much my understanding of myself has changed. I recently put out a book of transgender self-portraits, and when I put on a wig and photographed myself, or drew watercolor pictures of myself as a woman, I thought: Who is this person? It’s not really me—this person, this woman, doesn’t exist. In another hour I’m going to take off the wig and the breast forms and wash off the lipstick. Yet I’m staring at this person in the mirror who is alive and looking back at me, and I don’t know this person at all. It’s very eerie. I couldn’t really have believed the strangeness of it if I hadn’t done it. Who was that person, looking back? It’s a reminder that everything we think about ourselves can change, our very notions of ourselves can change, and even the notions we’re surest of still change and die, they always will, like us.

 

JOE FASSLER is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

Copyright © 2015 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved. CDN powered by Edgecast Networks. Insights powered by Parsely

'Last Stories And Other Stories' book promo image.
‘Last Stories And Other Stories’ book promo image.

Susan Sontag – A biography – Review

imagesimages-1mccu600spanaHyNHMV3lisas9vw2cze3uLso1_400

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/03/books/review/McCulloch.t.html?_r=0

Daniel-Schreiber-Autor-Nuechtern

Susan Sontag – A Biography
Daniel Schreiber
Translated from the German by David Dollenmayer

Daniel Schreiber has created a wonderfully written, well organized short biography on Susan Sontag. The book is fluid in pace and provides an ample well of historical context to enable the reader to see the many connections and subtleties of Sontag’s life and thought. The book is very unacademic as was Ms Sontag.

Mr Schreiber is a German journalist based in Berlin and is a writer for various European periodicals.

Daniel’s German nationality helps to crystalize and give perspective to Sontag’s Americanness. This is no easy feat given Sontag’s closely developed alliance with Europe both in thinking and in culture as she spent a great deal of her adult life working on literary pieces in Germany, France, England and Spain. Mr Schreiber’s execution of this careful articulation with simple yet elegant prose is a very rare accomplishment especially given the complex task.

Ms Sontag’s journey in developing herself as a public intellectual begins as a young girl in New York and later in Arizona and Los Angeles before she moves to Chicago and then New York as an adult to fulfill her education and to develop the network of supporters who are so important to her success. Her contacts from the University of Chicago, including Kenneth Burke; and from Harvard, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Tillich and Michael Taubes were important throughout her professional life. Mr. Schreiber shows clearly that her key supporters are in the publishing sphere: Roger Straus of Farrar, Straus, Giroux and the literary agent Andrew Wylie spent considerable time and resources to aid in positioning Sontag.

While Ms. Sontag wrote both fiction and essays, it is clear that she will be remembered for her critical thinking abilities targeting literature, film, theater, art and political behaviour.

America lost an important voice of clarity and intellectual passion with her passing in 2004. Her radical predilection allowed her to unfold many ways of perceiving that were uncomfortable if not unconscious in the American public and their political representatives.

She demonstrated the importance of literature in life, the paths of nations and the fact that literature is a source of prophecy in the world – a singular contribution to the way of the world.

Mr. Schreiber was able to take advantage of the wealth of public interviews, in addition to traditional biographical sources, that documented her thinking and positions throughout Ms Sontag’s life.

Close relationships with both sexes, Philip Rieff, Maria Fornes, Nicole Stephane, and Anne Leibovitz were strong forces in her life and she used them to enrich her intellectual and cultural perspectives. Her son, David Rieff has also been a key advocate for Ms. Sontag’s books and articles.

http://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/special/sontag/sontag.htm

http://sontagfilm.org/timeline

In Putin’s Nationalist Russia, a Tolstoy as Cultural Diplomat

It is not a surprise that literature aids all countries in showing a human face in the midst of 
hard-edge politics and ideology.This piece is from The New York Times. Follwing the NYT piece is aninterview with Putin and Tolstoy concerning the culture policy document.
RLW

20150321TOLSTOY-slide-19NS-jumboCreditJames Hill for The New York Times

By RACHEL DONADIO, MARCH 20, 2015

YASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — On a sunny winter afternoon here, Vladimir Tolstoy, a great-great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy and an adviser on cultural affairs to President Vladimir V. Putin, strode up the birch-lined path that leads to the bucolic family compound where his forebear wrote “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” It is now a state museum. At each step, he was greeted by staff members heading home for the day.

“Good evening,” Mr. Tolstoy said with a warm smile. “Good evening,” the museum employees, mostly women, responded. “Please send our best regards to our czar and tell him we respect him very much,” one woman told Mr. Tolstoy, who nodded cheerfully.

At once friendly and feudal, the scene at this estate some 125 miles south of Moscow captured something of the mood in Russia today, where Mr. Putin is regarded as a czar, especially outside the big cities, even as the liberal intelligentsia reviles him and laments his popularity. It also reflects the benefits for Mr. Putin of enlisting the support of a member of an illustrious family as he continues to strike notes of national pride.

Since being tapped by Mr. Putin in 2012, Mr. Tolstoy, 52, has emerged as the more conciliatory, highbrow and Western-friendly face of Kremlin cultural policy. He works with, but is temperamentally different from, Russia’s more combative culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, who is known for aggressive assertions of Russian superiority and conservative values.

Mr. Tolstoy said he had worked to remove language from a ministry policy draft that was leaked last year stating that “Russia is not Europe.” But, like most Russians, Mr. Tolstoy is full-throated in his support of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, a territory that many Russians believe should not have been ceded to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954.

“Leo Tolstoy was a Russian officer who defended Russia in the Fourth Bastion in Sevastopol,” he said, speaking through a translator over tea in a cafe near the museum. “For us, in our mind, this has always been Russia.”

He was referring to the siege of Sevastopol in 1854-55 in the Crimean War, in which Russia fought the allied forces of France, Britain, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire and ultimately lost control of the city. “Of course, as a descendant of the Russian officer Leo Tolstoy, I cannot have any other attitude toward that,” he added.

Mr. Tolstoy was raised in a middle-class family in the Moscow region and trained as a journalist. In 1994, he was named director of Yasnaya Polyana, which is centered on the house where the novelist wrote and has been preserved as it was at the time of his death, in 1910. There are also a working farm and orchards, and Tolstoy’s grave is in a wooded glen that the writer associated with his beloved older brother, who died young.

Mr. Tolstoy improved the quality and range of activities at the museum, adding lectures, a literary prize and Russian-language classes. His wife, Ekaterina Tolstaya, took over as director after he became an adviser to Mr. Putin.

Continue reading the main story
Mr. Tolstoy said that Mr. Putin had offered him the post after a meeting of museum directors in April 2012 at which Mr. Tolstoy criticized the government’s cultural strategy and the president’s advisory council for culture as ineffective. “When the meeting was over, the president asked me to stay for a bit and asked if I was so critical, could I do this job better?” Mr. Tolstoy said. Now, he briefs Mr. Putin on cultural issues and acts a bridge between Russia’s cultural world and the Kremlin.

On a recent afternoon, he was fielding calls from Irkutsk, Siberia, for help with funeral arrangements for the writer Valentin Rasputin, who died last week at 77 and had expressed a preference to be buried in Irkutsk, his birthplace. Mr. Tolstoy said he regarded Mr. Rasputin as the best writer of the past half-century. He was known for his vivid portrayals of the environmental devastation caused by industrialization in rural Russia and also for his conservatism: He called for prosecuting the punk activist group Pussy Riot after its provocative performance in a Moscow church and inveighed against perestroika, the liberalization initiated under Mikhail S. Gorbachev before the Soviet Union disintegrated.

Not long ago, the sense that Russia had somehow lost its way after the fall of the Soviet Union was pervasive here, but Mr. Tolstoy and other Putin loyalists have succeeded in reviving a sense of national pride expressly through cultural policy.

Guided by Mr. Tolstoy, a committee of leading cultural figures and state officials ultimately produced an 18-page policy document that defines culture broadly, saying it is as valuable to Russia as its natural resources. It also touches on moral precepts, the importance of religion in shaping values and the place of the Russian language in uniting a country of more than 140 million people and diverse ethnicities. The document also highlights Russia’s distinctiveness “as a country which unites two worlds, East and West.”

Some cultural figures have criticized the document for not addressing the pervasive influence of Russian state television, which operates as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. Many didn’t pay it much attention. “It’s abstract, like a biblical text,” said Kirill Razlogov, a prominent film historian.

Far more concrete is the impact of laws that ban obscene words in the theater, films and public performances and that criminalize giving offense to religious believers, both of which were passed after Pussy Riot’s members were jailed in 2012.

While Mr. Tolstoy may agree with the general direction, his approach is more tolerant. “I believe everything has a right to exist unless it’s a provocation,” he said. “I think art shouldn’t be offensive.” As for Pussy Riot, he said: “I don’t support them, but on the other hand I also believe the reaction was inappropriate. An artist shouldn’t be punished in court.”

He described himself as a moderate who could “find balance” between traditionalists and liberals looking Westward. “On the one hand, Russia is open for cooperation,” he said. “And on the other hand, we have our own perspective on good and evil.”

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
Mr. Tolstoy seems to be generally respected by the intelligentsia. Victor Erofeyev, a writer who has been critical of Mr. Putin, said he thought Mr. Tolstoy was “a smart guy” who also reflects a growing tendency since Mr. Putin’s re-election in 2012 to see Russia as somehow purer than the West.

“They really believe in it,” Mr. Erofeyev said. “It’s not like during Communist times under Brezhnev” when “people say, ‘I love Communism,’ but we never believe in it. Here they play with a notion of Russia in a more delicate way. They say, ‘You know, Russia is still is a country of big culture, it’s a country of big human relationships, friendship, love affairs and so on, and that’s why we are more interesting than the West.’ ”

Back at the cafe, Mr. Tolstoy grew animated in talking about Russian pride. “Today’s Russia cannot be forced to do what it doesn’t want to,” he said. “It’s impossible to achieve either by sanctions, or even by an overt attack. Russia respects itself, and it wants only justice, nothing else.”

On that wintry afternoon, dozens of visitors flocked to Yasnaya Polyana. There was snow on the ground and gray ice on the pond, and the birch trees caught the afternoon light. The spirit of the novelist’s former home “is love,” Mr. Tolstoy reflected.

In Tolstoy’s novels, “there are no characters who are complete villains,” his great-great-grandson said. “All of his characters are real people.”

Correction: March 21, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of a Russian writer who died last week. He is Valentin Rasputin, not Vladimir.

__________________________________

Working meeting with Presidential Adviser Vladimir Tolstoy

April 23, 2014, 15:45 The Kremlin, Moscow

41d4d5ed89dacd5317ce

photo: The Presidential Press and Information Office.

 

Mr Tolstoy presented to Vladimir Putin the draft Basic Principles of State Culture Policy.

PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA VLADIMIR PUTIN: Mr Tolstoy, is the concept document for developing the culture sector ready now?

PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: Yes. Above all, thank you for entrusting us with its drafting. The result is an unprecedented and very interesting piece of work.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: As far as I know, it has aroused a lot of debate.

VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: Yes, it is the subject of active public debate right now, though what is being discussed is not the document itself, but the preliminary materials that made their way via various sources to the press and have indeed sparked a huge public discussion. This shows that the time is indeed ripe to address the various issues in the culture sector, and that the public wants a serious debate at the national level on this matter.

A working group headed by [Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office] Sergei Ivanov was established. We held two meetings, which produced the Basic Principles of State Culture Policy. The draft document, if approved, will then be presented for broad public discussion at various forums such as the Public Council, the State Duma, the Federation Council and youth forums, and the results of these discussions will then be taken into account in drawing up the final text. We will be ready to ask you to approve the Basic Principles of State Culture Policy in autumn, perhaps with its presentation for joint discussion by the Presidential Council for Culture and the State Council, as it is also extremely important to take regional aspects into account too, since the next stage of the work will involve these finer points. This is a national-level document and naturally it outlines the general framework.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: What are the main points, as you see them?

VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: I think the most important point is that we need to see culture in much broader terms than just the sector covered by the Culture Ministry: theatres, archives and libraries. Culture is a basic concept, a fundamental part of a person’s identity and the foundation of the national character and even of the state. It includes moral values, broader public education, youth policy issues, and the kinds of cities and villages we live in. We have tried to take an all-encompassing approach to culture. We realise at the same time that managing this process requires a special approach, and this will all be the subject of further discussion.

Culture has a particularly important historical role to play at this moment in our country’s life when we face a complicated foreign policy situation and special circumstances at home. Culture should play a consolidating and unifying role in this situation. Appeals – what I would call inflammatory appeals – that would lead to isolation are very dangerous in this context. We cannot allow internal divisions to emerge. We have a common cultural space, and we have talented people, who perhaps do not all share the same points of view, but it is important that the Basic Principles of State Culture Policy should unify the nation. This is what the document aims to do.

As far as foreign policy goes, you have probably heard from Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Spivakov and many of our other cultural figures about how many provocations take place before their concerts in the West, but how when the concerts are over, audiences of thousands of people give them standing ovations. This is exactly the kind of soft power that should be one of the state’s biggest priorities today, and this is the role that our national culture can play. This will send an important signal to our country and the world that Russia is a nation famed for its great culture and will continue to look for and encourage new talent, especially creative talent.

It is very important for us to keep producing talented composers, writers and directors. This requires a state support system. Talented people develop in their own right of course, but if we do not notice them in time and give them the support they need, we could be losing a national genius who would bring the country fame.

It is very important to educate viewers and readers. People are reading less these days, but Russian literature is a foundation for our moral qualities. We need not just talented performers but also talented listeners and viewers, who know and love music, theatre and film. Perhaps only one in 10,000 people accepted to arts schools will go on to become a real creator, but the other 9,999 people will be talented viewers and will fill up our concert halls.

We have just shown the whole world that we know how to build magnificent, outstanding sports facilities. We have shown that we know how to nurture and develop exceptional athletes who become Olympic champions. I think it is important that the world also see our ability to build equally magnificent theatres. This is already happening. We have the Mariinsky Theatre and the Bolshoi Theatre, theatres in Astrakhan and other cities. It is important that other regions should also become home to strong cultural venues of this kind. We can show the whole world that the flow of creative talent in Russia will never dry up and will always delight the world with new works.

I think the document reflects all of this. At least, it contains the premises that could help our country’s culture to flourish.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I agree with you that culture is our main, unifying national substance. What is important is not people’s official ethnic identities, but how they perceive themselves, who they consider themselves to be, which basic cultural principles were instilled in them from childhood, what kind of environment they were raised in, and what moral and ethical references they follow.

In this sense it is very important to create a common cultural space. I expect that this is the document’s basic aim, but we also need to put in place good conditions for developing cultural institutions and ensuring timely financing for priority areas. This is very important for developing culture as a sector. I hope the document will cover these matters too.

VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: Yes, of course. The document is also concerned with the importance of the information space and the content of television programmes and the Internet. Young people spend more and more time on the Internet today, and what they find there is very important. This is also the concern of culture policy.

We hope very much that these principles will be supported. This is a long-term programme, of course. You are right to note that it addresses primarily children and young people. We can expect to see some substantial results. Some say it will take a generation – 20-25 years – to really get results, but I am not convinced. I think that we could start seeing the first tangible results within 5-6 years or 10-12 years.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Let’s take a more detailed look. As I said, this is the main component and main substance for our self-perception and sense of identity as a nation. This is why it is so important that the document be balanced, and I hope it will be. Let’s take a closer look at it now.

<…>

April 23, 2014, 15:45The Kremlin, Moscow

Point Omega – DeLillo’s Literary Masterpiece

ovoid0216_2 copy

photo – towards point omega –  rlw

06/00/1991. American Author Don Delillo DonDeLillo_154310390

This book is a meditation held together by the flow of time; time says that one thing must come after another, we do not will this, it is. We can will to erect things, language, to look as though we have arrested the flow but it is a writers’ or readers’ willing suspension of disbelief that allows it to be.

DeLillo has arranged a Haiku-like narrative on America’s preoccupation with 9/11 and has set this constellation of thoughts next to, and intermixed with, the process of making art today; the act of erotic attraction; and what it looks and feels like to loose the one relationship in life that gives one reason for participating, being, in this flow of time.

This is how he makes art:

“I had him babbling in unsequential edits, one year shading into another, or Jerry soundless, clowning, he is knocked-kneed and bucktoothed, bouncing on a trampoline in slow motion, the old flawed footage, the disturbed signals, random noise on the soundtrack, streaky patterns on the screen. He inserts drumsticks in his nostrils, he sticks the hand mike in his mouth. I added intervals of modern music to the track, rows of tones, the sound of certain re-echoing drone. There was an element of austere drama in the music, it placed Jerry outside the moment, in some larger surround, ahistorical, a man on a mission from God. I tormented myself over the running time, settling finally on a freakish forty-seven-minute movie that was screened at a couple of documentary festivals. It could have been four hours, six hours. It wore me down, I became Jerry’s frenzied double, eyeballs popping out of my head.”

 

We learn one character, the artist, Jim Finley, telling the story, an artist in America putting his entire being into developing art projects of unusual makeup and uncertain destiny. We experience through him, the film maker, the owner of Deadbeat Films. This is his design for his next project:

“No plush armchair with warm lighting and books on a shelf in the background. Just a man and a wall. The man stands there and relates the complete experience, everything that comes to mind, personalities, theories, details, feelings. You’re the man. There’s no offscreen voice asking questions. There’s no interspersed combat footage or comments from others, on camera or off …. Who you are, what you believe. Other thinkers, writers, artists, nobody’s done a film like this, nothing planned, nothing rehearsed, no elaborate setup, no conclusions in advance, this is completely sort of barefaced, uncut.”

The main object of this project is the fleshing out of the character who was hired by the Pentagon to give the Iraq war, at the time it was being waged, “ words and meanings. Words they hadn’t used, new ways of thinking and seeing.” One imagines this man, Richard Elster, this intellectual, in the midst of the Pentagon strategists obsessed with “priorities, statistics, evaluations and rationalities“, to be in an ecclesiastical position. We do not know his effect on the analytical warriors, only that he performed his services for two years, which, just based on duration, leads me to think that he made some contribution to the equation. Elster wanted a Haiku war, “a war in three lines. This was not a matter of force levels or logistics. What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things.” Thus he attempts to change their perceptions to cut through the abstractions and see “nothing beyond what it is”. Elster wanted a war because: “A great power has to act. We were struck hard. We need to retake the future. The force of the will, the sheer visceral need. We can’t let others shape our world, our minds. All they have are old dead despotic traditions. We have a living history…”

In the midst of making his next art film project, basically an interview, to capture, Elster the intellectual lobbyist, in the aftermath of his war conjugations, Elster’s daughter, who has come to visit her father at the remote house in the California desert disappears after having lived with the two for a short period of time. She vanishes one afternoon and leaves Elster in a world absent of relationships and meaning. His daughter is his only close human attachment and her disappearance is a symbol of his ultimate detachment from all things human. He is left “alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamily self-aware…”

In some respects it is the same consequence for the artist, he had developed an erotic attachment to the daughter based on imaginations he had for her for the short time she was with them – she did not reciprocate interest, she simply allowed him to use her as an object. Finely takes to her given that she spent thirty minutes ( an adequate amount of time to register validation of interest per Finely) viewing his Psycho film. Urges lead him on to eventual voyeurism, standing in the hall looking at her in bed, wondering if he should approach her. She sees him standing there and turns in bed away from his gaze.

Finally, this book, this meditation is about human beings, their nature, their essence, what makes them complex, having a range of refractions, with no clear idea of which surfaces are real and which are abstractions, calls into question the nature of abstractions. Are they, the abstractions, not as real as the sense data we get from he real world? Blood, rain, wolves, arms, twelve, pi squared, maps, words, metaphors, myths. “Human perception is a saga of created realities”. And DeLillo goes beyond understanding being, he posits that humans ultimately want to go back to being inanimate, to undo the millions of years of evolution: “Paroxysm. Either a sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion. We want it to happen … Think of it. We pass completely out of being. Stones. Unless stones have beings. Unless there’s some profoundly mystical shift that places being in a stone.”

What a rush.

DeLillo inserts, one at the beginning and one at the end, two curious pieces in the book, both of which are called Anonymity. He uses these narratives to introduce the film Psycho and to explore some of its images and psychology that he thinks important and further that he uses in his film projects. We feel that his use of juxtaposition allows a seamless exploration of the dark and a maniacal edge to the American psyche and how this cultural development is exported to the world through film. It further illustrates the absence of anything close to a meaningful relationship. We see the influence of technology, introversion, divorce, science and egotism that literally shatters the human bond that naturally exists between animals developed on the earth.

We see an America displaying its cold analytical nature, especially through film exported around the globe, that the rest of the world reacts to with anger, opposition and passion. We are successful in blowing up other cultures civility and protocols with the ease and precision of our self-appointed role. DeLillo’s use of juxtaposition forms a new category in literary sub-structure.

 

rlw – June 2014

http://books.simonandschuster.com/Zero-K/Don-DeLillo/9781501135392

footerWPR

Camille Paglia – Making A Case For Real Gender Differences

 200sss
American culture and specifically Hollywood TV, is in the process of neutering the males of our society. Masculinity is boxed up and cauterised to fit into the restraints of a fantasy feminine world that is controlled through PC management. Camille Paglia is a woman who sees this clearly.

Camille Paglia: A Feminist Defense of Masculine Virtues

The cultural critic on why ignoring the biological differences between men and women risks undermining Western civilization.

By 

BARI WEISS
The Wall Street Journal

CONNECT

Updated Dec. 28, 2013 10:46 p.m. ET
Philadelphia‘What you’re seeing is how a civilization commits suicide,” says Camille Paglia. This self-described “notorious Amazon feminist” isn’t telling anyone to Lean In or asking Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. No, her indictment may be as surprising as it is wide-ranging: The military is out of fashion, Americans undervalue manual labor, schools neuter male students, opinion makers deny the biological differences between men and women, and sexiness is dead. And that’s just 20 minutes of our three-hour conversation.When Ms. Paglia, now 66, burst onto the national stage in 1990 with the publishing of “Sexual Personae,” she immediately established herself as a feminist who was the scourge of the movement’s establishment, a heretic to its orthodoxy. Pick up the 700-page tome, subtitled “Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, ” and it’s easy to see why. “If civilization had been left in female hands,” she wrote, “we would still be living in grass huts.”

The fact that the acclaimed book—the first of six; her latest, “Glittering Images,” is a survey of Western art—was rejected by seven publishers and five agents before being printed by Yale University Press only added to Ms. Paglia’s sense of herself as a provocateur in a class with Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. But unlike those radio jocks, Ms. Paglia has scholarly chops: Her dissertation adviser at Yale was Harold Bloom, and she is as likely to discuss Freud, Oscar Wilde or early Native American art as to talk about Miley Cyrus.

Ms. Paglia relishes her outsider persona, having previously described herself as an egomaniac and “abrasive, strident and obnoxious.” Talking to her is like a mental CrossFit workout. One moment she’s praising pop star Rihanna (“a true artist”), then blasting ObamaCare (“a monstrosity,” though she voted for the president), global warming (“a religious dogma”), and the idea that all gay people are born gay (“the biggest canard,” yet she herself is a lesbian).

Neil Davies

But no subject gets her going more than when I ask if she really sees a connection between society’s attempts to paper over the biological distinction between men and women and the collapse of Western civilization.

She starts by pointing to the diminished status of military service. “The entire elite class now, in finance, in politics and so on, none of them have military service—hardly anyone, there are a few. But there is no prestige attached to it anymore. That is a recipe for disaster,” she says. “These people don’t think in military ways, so there’s this illusion out there that people are basically nice, people are basically kind, if we’re just nice and benevolent to everyone they’ll be nice too. They literally don’t have any sense of evil or criminality.”

The results, she says, can be seen in everything from the dysfunction in Washington (where politicians “lack practical skills of analysis and construction”) to what women wear. “So many women don’t realize how vulnerable they are by what they’re doing on the street,” she says, referring to women who wear sexy clothes.

When she has made this point in the past, Ms. Paglia—who dresses in androgynous jackets and slacks—has been told that she believes “women are at fault for their own victimization.” Nonsense, she says. “I believe that every person, male and female, needs to be in a protective mode at all times of alertness to potential danger. The world is full of potential attacks, potential disasters.” She calls it “street-smart feminism.”

Ms. Paglia argues that the softening of modern American society begins as early as kindergarten. “Primary-school education is a crock, basically. It’s oppressive to anyone with physical energy, especially guys,” she says, pointing to the most obvious example: the way many schools have cut recess. “They’re making a toxic environment for boys. Primary education does everything in its power to turn boys into neuters.”

She is not the first to make this argument, as Ms. Paglia readily notes. Fellow feminist Christina Hoff Sommers has written about the “war against boys” for more than a decade. The notion was once met with derision, but now data back it up: Almost one in five high-school-age boys has been diagnosed with ADHD, boys get worse grades than girls and are less likely to go to college.

Ms. Paglia observes this phenomenon up close with her 11-year-old son, Lucien, whom she is raising with her ex-partner, Alison Maddex, an artist and public-school teacher who lives 2 miles away. She sees the tacit elevation of “female values”—such as sensitivity, socialization and cooperation—as the main aim of teachers, rather than fostering creative energy and teaching hard geographical and historical facts.

By her lights, things only get worse in higher education. “This PC gender politics thing—the way gender is being taught in the universities—in a very anti-male way, it’s all about neutralization of maleness.” The result: Upper-middle-class men who are “intimidated” and “can’t say anything. . . . They understand the agenda.” In other words: They avoid goring certain sacred cows by “never telling the truth to women” about sex, and by keeping “raunchy” thoughts and sexual fantasies to themselves and their laptops.

Politically correct, inadequate education, along with the decline of America’s brawny industrial base, leaves many men with “no models of manhood,” she says. “Masculinity is just becoming something that is imitated from the movies. There’s nothing left. There’s no room for anything manly right now.” The only place you can hear what men really feel these days, she claims, is on sports radio. No surprise, she is an avid listener. The energy and enthusiasm “inspires me as a writer,” she says, adding: “If we had to go to war,” the callers “are the men that would save the nation.”

And men aren’t the only ones suffering from the decline of men. Women, particularly elite upper-middle-class women, have become “clones” condemned to “Pilates for the next 30 years,” Ms. Paglia says. “Our culture doesn’t allow women to know how to be womanly,” adding that online pornography is increasingly the only place where men and women in our sexless culture tap into “primal energy” in a way they can’t in real life.

A key part of the remedy, she believes, is a “revalorization” of traditional male trades—the ones that allow women’s studies professors to drive to work (roads), take the elevator to their office (construction), read in the library (electricity), and go to gender-neutral restrooms (plumbing).

” Michelle Obama‘s going on: ‘Everybody must have college.’ Why? Why? What is the reason why everyone has to go to college? Especially when college is so utterly meaningless right now, it has no core curriculum” and “people end up saddled with huge debts,” says Ms. Paglia. What’s driving the push toward universal college is “social snobbery on the part of a lot of upper-middle-class families who want the sticker in the window.”

Ms. Paglia, who has been a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia since 1984, sees her own students as examples. “I have woodworking students who, even while they’re in class, are already earning money making furniture and so on,” she says. “My career has been in art schools cause I don’t get along with normal academics.”

To hear her tell it, getting along has never been Ms. Paglia’s strong suit. As a child, she felt stifled by the expectations of girlhood in the 1950s. She fantasized about being a knight, not a princess. Discovering pioneering female figures as a teenager, most notably Amelia Earhart, transformed Ms. Paglia’s understanding of what her future might hold.

These iconoclastic women of the 1930s, like Earhart and Katharine Hepburn, remain her ideal feminist role models: independent, brave, enterprising, capable of competing with men without bashing them. But since at least the late 1960s, she says, fellow feminists in the academy stopped sharing her vision of “equal-opportunity feminism” that demands a level playing field without demanding special quotas or protections for women.

She proudly recounts her battle, while a graduate student at Yale in the late 1960s and early ’70s, with the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band over the Rolling Stones: Ms. Paglia loved “Under My Thumb,” a song the others regarded as chauvinist. Then there was the time she “barely got through the dinner” with a group of women’s studies professors at Bennington College, where she had her first teaching job, who insisted that there is no hormonal difference between men and women. “I left before dessert.”

In her view, these ideological excesses bear much of the blame for the current cultural decline. She calls out activists like Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi for pushing a version of feminism that says gender is nothing more than a social construct, and groups like the National Organization for Women for making abortion the singular women’s issue.

By denying the role of nature in women’s lives, she argues, leading feminists created a “denatured, antiseptic” movement that “protected their bourgeois lifestyle” and falsely promised that women could “have it all.” And by impugning women who chose to forgo careers to stay at home with children, feminists turned off many who might have happily joined their ranks.

But Ms. Paglia’s criticism shouldn’t be mistaken for nostalgia for the socially prescribed roles for men and women before the 1960s. Quite the contrary. “I personally have disobeyed every single item of the gender code,” says Ms. Paglia. But men, and especially women, need to be honest about the role biology plays and clear-eyed about the choices they are making.

Sex education, she says, simply focuses on mechanics without conveying the real “facts of life,” especially for girls: “I want every 14-year-old girl . . . to be told: You better start thinking what do you want in life. If you just want a career and no children you don’t have much to worry about. If, however, you are thinking you’d like to have children some day you should start thinking about when do you want to have them. Early or late? To have them early means you are going to make a career sacrifice, but you’re going to have more energy and less risks. Both the pros and the cons should be presented.”

For all of Ms. Paglia’s barbs about the women’s movement, it seems clear that feminism—at least of the equal-opportunity variety—has triumphed in its basic goals. There is surely a lack of women in the C-Suite and Congress, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a man who would admit that he believes women are less capable. To save feminism as a political movement from irrelevance, Ms. Paglia says, the women’s movement should return to its roots. That means abandoning the “nanny state” mentality that led to politically correct speech codes and college disciplinary committees that have come to replace courts. The movement can win converts, she says, but it needs to become a big tent, one “open to stay-at-home moms” and “not just the career woman.”

More important, Ms. Paglia says, if the women’s movement wants to be taken seriously again, it should tackle serious matters, like rape in India and honor killings in the Muslim world, that are “more of an outrage than some woman going on a date on the Brown University campus.”

Ms. Weiss is an associate editorial features editor at the Journal.

The Wall Street Journal

Unknown-2 images