venerdì 26 febbraio 2010


Arthur, Merlin and love magic

The potency of romance through the ages and the enduring importance of speaking truth to power
Carolyne Larrington
Medieval romance created and authorized the making of fictions in Western literature. Its preoccupations – the failure of idealism in social institutions, the self-realization of the individual, the tensions and anxieties within the family, the agency of women, and the pressures of masculinity – reappear throughout the centuries, in the successor to romance, the novel, as well as in a multitude of other media from primetime television to opera. Romance’s varied contexts, its long history and its development into new forms in the twenty-first century, whether drawing on the national myth of Arthur or on the popular plots of romances such as “Sir Gowther”, in which a devil sires a baby on a desperate mother, all provide, as these four books show, fertile ground for thinking about our past, our present and our future.

One might be forgiven for thinking that Chaucer was not fond of romance. His devastating parody of the popular metrical romance “The Tale of Sir Thopas”, which is his character’s contribution to The Canterbury Tales, may have done more than adverse modern critical judgements to suggest the low status of the tail-rhyme subgenre. Yet Chaucer’s parody is affectionate: he compares his hero to a string of other English romance heroes: “Men speken of romances of prys / Of Horn Child . . . / Of Beves and Sir Gy, / Of Sir Lybeux and Pleyndamour / But Sir Thopas, he bereth the flour / Of roial chivalry”. Chaucer explores the literary possibilities of the genre elsewhere in The Canterbury Tales, adding at least four other examples to his curtailed experiment in tail-rhyme romance.

Among the secular genres in medieval literary culture, romance was by far the most popular and the most influential. Over a period of some 400 years, collections of romance catered for the tastes of both the nobility and those who aspired to noble status. From its earliest appearance in medieval literature a broadly defined category – its name derived from the simple fact of its being composed in a vernacular language rather than Latin – romance told tales of the adventures of noble men and women. Although it often claimed to take its impetus from history, many romances were highly fictionalized, allowing free play to the authors’ imaginations. Romance had no necessary connection to “romance” in the modern Mills and Boon sense; though romances might often end with a wedding, they need not be about love per se. Romance developed first in French as a mirror in which a European warrior-caste saw itself reflected as a courtly and chivalric aristocracy whose pursuit of honour was tempered by attentiveness to women, ritualized fighting with members of the same class, and a determination to face every danger. Romance, whether Arthurian or popular (the two are not mutually exclusive), may operate chiefly in the realm of fiction, but contemporary social concerns often manifest themselves in the episodes of knightly derring-do.

The four recent books reviewed here take different approaches to medieval romance and its reception. In Love Cures: Healing and love magic in Old French romance, Laine Doggett restricts her discussion to a group of important twelfth-century French romances. Stephen Knight offers a history of Merlin, from his earliest appearances in Welsh poetry to the recent BBC television series, and concentrates on the relationship between the sage and the king, as “speaking truth to power”. Raluca L. Radulescu and Cory James Rushton’s collection of essays, A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance, aims to provide new reading contexts for the popular romances of medieval England. The Cambridge Companion to Arthurian Legend has as ambitious a scope as Knight’s Merlin, reaching back to the period after the retreat of the Romans from the British Isles, when the historical Arthur would have lived had he lived at all, to Spamalot in 2005.

Doggett’s book makes large claims for a hitherto unregarded connection between romance and contemporary society. Looking closely at twelfth-century romances, and, by way of comparison, the thirteenth-century “Roman du Silence”, Doggett argues that the depiction of various noblewomen, notably Iseult and her mother from the Tristan legend, as possessing healing skills draws on historical practice: the tradition of unofficial healers, whom she calls “empirics”, whose knowledge of herbs and salves was passed down through the generations. The role of the romance heroine in healing the knight’s injuries overlaps with her granting him her love, so that at first healing and loving go hand in hand. Only later, as medical knowledge becomes the preserve of university- educated men and female empirics are excluded from practice through professional regulation, does the idea that women literally cure their lovers dissolve into a metaphorical understanding of the beloved as healing the wounds made by Cupid. Nor, Doggett stresses, should we assume that magic is at work in the healing process; the distinction between magical remedies – or the love potion of Tristan and Iseult – and effective drugs would almost certainly be differently understood by the medieval audience.

Doggett’s book has some repetitive passages; the arguments for the existence of female empirics is reiterated in different chapters, and there are some very lengthy quotations. However, the study carefully makes the argument that, along with elements which we might now consider fantastical, romance deploys concepts from contemporary medieval cultures. Thus individual romances can contribute evidence to the history of medicine, and indeed the histories of magic and of love, if attentively read.

The Companion to Medieval Popular Romance deals mostly with romance in English, with some examples from Anglo-Norman, the dialect of French understood in England after the Norman Conquest. Radulescu and Rushton, like many of their contributors, take their cue from Nicola McDonald’s rallying cry in her introduction to Pulp Fictions of Medieval England (2004), to reconsider the popular romances as exemplifying “that which is essential to all provocative literature, the interrogation of the norms that order and regulate our lives”. McDonald is interested in the academy’s discomfort with the unsettling and shocking in the popular romance. She adduces the gripping narrative of “Sir Gowther”, mentioned above, in which the devil’s offspring, a delinquent child, gnaws off his mother’s nipple when she breastfeeds him, kills several of his wet-nurses and in adolescence rapes convents full of nuns and forces friars to jump off cliffs, yet achieves absolution for his sins and wins a princess.

Other tales deal with the extraordinary luck of being chosen for love and unimaginable riches by a beautiful fairy mistress, or explore the tensions between a knight’s love for his best friend and his bond with his children, when the friend’s leprosy can only be cured by the children’s blood. The Companion is, however, not concerned with rehabilitating the individual romances, a task already taken on in several recent essay collections; it prefers to explore more general questions about the romances’ medieval contexts, and to examine their later reception. Outstanding essays here are Phillipa Hardman’s argument that the youthful protagonists in many English romances, including (as Helen Cooper has noted), a good number of feisty heroines, offer imaginative role models for young readers and Karl Reichl’s re-examination of the discussion of what kinds of oral contexts can safely be posited for texts which have been preserved for us only in written form.

Maldwyn Mills and Gillian Rogers look at manuscript collections of popular romances, noting how tales, which were composed in the twelfth century for courtly Anglo-Norman audiences, are rendered into English and collected in fifteenthcentury household miscellanies such as the Thornton manuscript. This manuscript (now MS Lincoln Cathedral 91) gives a snapshot of the kinds of reading matter, both religious and secular, that the Thornton household found entertaining. In another essay, Ad Putter succeeds in making metre and rhythm compelling, showing how some metrical forms, like the one parodied by Chaucer in “The Tale of Sir Thopas”, can produce striking poetic effects when listened to with a sympathetic ear.

Other chapters in the collection cast new light on familiar topics, such as gender or the popular topic of nationalism in what was already a multicultural island. What is most innovative about this Companion is not so much the revelation that popular romance can be fun, or that it shares tropes with Star Wars, but its discussion of material objects: it examines actual manuscripts and their contents, and the recurrent lists of popular romance heroes found in various medieval texts, even, as noted above, in “Sir Thopas”, showing that these low-status, but well-loved, stories left their mark on high literary culture.

The welcome new addition to the authoritative Cambridge Companion series traces Arthurian narrative from history through pseudo-history to romance, and on into the post-medieval centuries. The first half of the book traces the development of the legend in English and French tradition, by century from the twelfth century onwards. This works well for the first four chronological chapters; the limited number of significant texts or text collections in each period allows space for eminent scholars such as John Burrow to write at some length on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and the other Gawain romances, and for Barry Windeatt to give a detailed commentary on Malory’s Morte Darthur. Ad Putter’s chapter on the twelfth century is a masterpiece of compression, covering Geoffrey of Monmouth, the French and English translations of his work, and the romances of Chrétien de Troyes, while Jane Taylor gives a lively and informative account of the French Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles in the thirteenth-century chapter.

Once the milestone of Malory is passed, however, the two chapters on the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, and the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are taken at a gallop. Norris Lacy notes that the great bibliography of Arthurian writing, the Arthurian Annals indicates that 80 per cent of everything written on Arthur has been produced since 1900; an attempt to give a representative overview of the poems, novels, plays, films, musicals and ephemera produced in recent years leaves space only for a one-line critical verdict. Lacy detects a growing tendency towards humour, debunking and disillusionment, though, as he sensibly notes, the inherent flaws in the Camelot project were perceived from the earliest days of the Round Table. Many readers will share Lacy’s judgement that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the most successful Arthurian film yet made; he notes that the film “creates humour in the name of, but not necessarily at the expense of, the story of Arthur and the Grail Quest”. The twenty-first century seems to have heralded a revival of interest in the Grail; Umberto Eco, is, as ever, ahead of the trend with his marvellous novel Baudolino (2002), his return to the fully imagined medieval world of The Name of the Rose (1983).

The second half of the Companion traces several different themes from the Arthurian corpus. Elizabeth Archibald shows that medieval romance had already begun to question chivalric ideology; a critical appraisal of the system is not purely the province of the heirs of Don Quixote. Making his first appearance in the French Prose Tristan, the disaffected knight Sir Dinadan is prone to asking his fellow knights why they choose to fight against unfavourable odds, and why they are so obsessed with serving their ladies. A comic high point in Malory comes when Dinadan is made to dress in women’s clothing, a spectacle which amuses Queen Guenevere so much that she falls on the floor laughing, “and so dede all that there was”. Archibald points out that Dinadan’s view of chivalry, despite being both the butt and the source of comedy, is “honest but not destructive”. Jane Gilbert draws parallels between the world created in what she calls “Arthurian discourse” and online virtual worlds such as “Second Life”. “Arthur World” always exists in a past which cannot be recovered by readers or writers. Nor can its residents ever capture the originary perfect moment, the “brief shining spot” of “Camelot the musical”, when the Round Table was complete, before its destruction was ineluctably written by the choices made by its constituents: particularly in the disastrous conception of Mordred.

Gilbert also discusses how the “good” can be as difficult to identify in early romance, as it is in the modern computer game; gamers encountering a new creature know “we can hit it, kiss it or ask it a question”, so the adventuring knight is always facing new challenges, failing (or partially succeeding), but always – at least until the final catastrophe – living to fight another day. Peggy McCracken takes up the unusual theme of the adulterous French version of Arthur, who is always being taken in by pretty women with designs on his person or kingdom; the English Arthur is very much less susceptible. Chapters on imperial politics, religion and magic and on Arthurian geography complete this readable and thoughtfully assembled collection.

Merlin of course appears frequently in the Cambridge Companion, but he has a history of his own. Stephen Knight begins by outlining the combination of ancient Northern and Welsh traditions giving rise to the hybrid figure of Merlin the madman of the woods, and Merlin the prophet, an embodiment of pure wisdom. Knight gives full weight to Merlin as the traumatized survivor of the battle of Arfderydd, in which Merlin’s lord, and his sister’s son are killed; Merlin retreats – as he frequently does through his long history – from public life into a forest isolation which tips him over the edge of sanity, his only confidant an apple tree, or in another early Welsh poem, a little pig. Knight frames Merlin’s career in terms of the different functions he performs in successive periods. The medieval Merlin is predominantly an advice-giver, bringing prophetic knowledge of what is to come and adding a modicum of political sense to his dealings with Arthur and his royal predecessors. As in the Cambridge Companion, the fewer texts which survive from the earlier periods allow more expansive and always acute analysis; Knight demonstrates that the role of “grand vizier”, the king’s closest counsellor, whose supernaturally attained wisdom is inevitably respected, becomes scaled down by the fifteenth century, reflecting the changing structures of power; the king’s decision-making is no longer determined by personal links to his advisers.

The realization by Elizabethan historians that neither Arthur nor Merlin had a historical existence reconfigures the early modern Merlin as political prophet and proto-technologist. Considered under the rubric of Cleverness, this Merlin guarantees the imperial destiny of Britain in The Faerie Queene, but he also works with devils and creates quasi-magical devices: a diamond shield and a brazen wall surrounding Carmarthen. In the following centuries, this humanist scientist finds himself in some odd company, descending into low culture to fraternize with pantomime figures like Tom Thumb, or, more grandly, presiding over a “Hermitage” or cottage of learning, built in 1735 for George II’s queen, Caroline. Here he features as the central figure among six other life-size wax images, mostly representing historical and imaginary learned women.

The Romantics rediscover the Celtic Merlin; Knight offers a close reading of Tennyson’s Merlin, before embarking on his final section: “International Merlin”, in which Merlin embodies Education. Here T. H. White’s tutor-wizard is a key figure, but, perhaps inevitably, the scope of this section, covering Merlin’s appearances in French and German as well as anglophone culture leaves the reader breathless as one-line summaries come on apace. So Nicol Williamson plays Merlin in John Boorman’s film Excalibur as “an eccentric bully”; the Merlin figure in Robertson Davies’s The Lyre of Orpheus (1998) who narrates this subtle and inventive novel is “a sadly reduced, self-knowing form of modern Merlin”, the lessons mediated by the website for the BBC Merlin series are mere “electronic substitutes for knowledge”. Knight ends his history with a brief but heartfelt warning that the dialectical relationship between knowledge and truth and the public institutions of power remains crucial to both the academy and to the health of the body politic. The last Merlin-figure invoked is the weapons inspector, Dr David Kelly. Once again an indirect victim of war trauma, Kelly’s lonely apparent suicide in woods near Oxford removed for ever the chance of hearing what truths he might have had to say to the Blair government bent on the invasion of Iraq. Speaking truth to power remains a dangerous, yet absolutely vital, role in both old and emerging democracies.

Laine E. Doggett
Healing and love magic in Old French romance
256pp. Pennsylvania State University Press. $75; distributed in the UK by Marston Books. £61.95.
978 0 271 03531 4

Raluca L. Radulescu and Cory James Rushton, editors
209pp. Brewer. £50.
978 1 84384 192 0

Stephen Knight
Knowledge and power through the ages
288pp. Cornell University Press. $27.95; distributed in the UK by NBN. £18.95.
978 0 8014 4365 7

Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter, editors
261pp. Cambridge University Press. £50 (US $90).
978 0 521 67788 2

Carolyne Larrington is Tutor in Old and Middle English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. Her book King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan and her sisters in Arthurian tradition was published in 2006, and her translation of The Poetic Edda in 2008.

lunedì 22 febbraio 2010

Alemanha desafia Google e trabalha para montar sua própria biblioteca online

Alemanha desafia Google e trabalha para montar sua própria biblioteca online

Manfred DworschakReprodução/Divulgação

ScanRobot, uma máquina capaz de digitalizar livros inteiros automaticamente

A Biblioteca Digital Alemã quer tornar milhões de livros, filmes, imagens e gravações em áudio acessíveis online. Mais de 30 mil bibliotecas, museus e arquivos deverão contribuir com seus artefatos culturais digitalizados. A ideia, em parte, é competir com o Google Livros. Mas funcionará?

Em um dia bom, o leitor mecânico lê até 1.216 páginas por hora. Assoviando silenciosamente, devorando livro após livro. De vez em quando ele diz: “Pffft”.

Este é um robô moderno em funcionamento. Ele escaneia automaticamente todo livro colocado aberto diante dele. Uma cunha fina desce até a dobra, varre as páginas da esquerda e da direita e copia seu conteúdo. Elas são fotografadas e com um gentil sopro de ar –pffft– o robô vira a página.

E assim prossegue, dia após dia, no Centro de Digitalização da Biblioteca Estadual Bávara em Munique. Cerca de 45 mil obras já foram escaneadas –de “Nibelungenlied” em pergaminho até uma partitura original escrita à mão por Gustav Mahler.

Reconhecidamente, tesouros dos primórdios da cultura do livro costumam ser escaneados à mão. O robô cede lugar quando se vê diante de livros frágeis, que podem pesar dezenas de quilos, estar encadernados em couro ou apresentar capas de madeira.

No final, um novo portal de Internet se beneficiará da riqueza desses bancos de dados de Munique. A Biblioteca Digital Alemã (Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, ou DDB) se transformará em um centro online para milhões de livros, revistas, fotos e filmes. Bibliotecas, museus e arquivos de todo o país deverão contribuir com artefatos culturais digitalizados.

Uma câmara de maravilhas

Mas levará tempo. A primeira versão de teste poderá estar online em 2011 –“e será apenas para um grupo restrito de usuários”, diz Ute Schwens, uma diretora da Biblioteca Nacional Alemã em Frankfurt, que está coordenando a DDB.

O ministro da Cultura da Alemanha, Bernd Neumann, da União Democrata Cristã (CDU), chama a visão a longo prazo de “um projeto do século”. Os iniciadores prometem uma câmara virtual de maravilhas, boa tanto para pessoas leigas quanto para pesquisadores à procura de fontes específicas e documentos científicos. Digite “Beethoven” e você encontrará não apenas livros sobre o compositor, mas –no final– partituras escritas à mão, amostras de música e talvez até mesmo uma versão filmada de “Fidélio”.

O gabinete federal alemão deu o sinal verde no início de dezembro. A meta é integrar a DDB com o Europeana, o portal europeu lançado em 2008 com ambições semelhantes.

Essa diligência europeia foi estimulada, principalmente, pelo Google, que já digitalizou mais de 10 milhões de livros em todo o mundo. Houve alertas contra uma corporação privada obtendo um monopólio cultural. O Europeana e a DDB prometem respeitar os direitos autorais que o Google até o momento respeita apenas relutantemente. Jean-Noël Jeanneney, um ex-presidente da Biblioteca Nacional Francesa, falou sobre um “modelo anticapitalista para combater o poder do Google”.

A digitalização também é uma forma de combater a vulnerabilidade do livro como meio. Um incêndio em 2004 na Biblioteca Anna Amalia, em Weimar, destruiu 50 mil volumes, alguns deles insubstituíveis. Cópias digitais de backup poderiam limitar essas perdas no futuro.

Enquanto os especialistas na Alemanha embarcam nos trabalhos preliminares, está aparente que o empreendimento enfrenta desafios temíveis. As metas tecnológicas por si só parecem ambiciosas. O Instituto Fraunhofer em Sankt Augustin, perto de Bonn, é responsável pela tecnologia de informática da DDB. Ele está desenvolvendo programas para reconhecer pessoas em filmes, converter discursos gravados em texto pesquisável e indexar automaticamente os documentos.

Mais audaciosa é a abrangência proposta do novo portal. Mais de 30 mil museus, arquivos e coleções científicas por toda a Alemanha supostamente estariam interligados. Os criadores da DDB ficarão satisfeitos, por ora, com uma centena de participantes, mas instituições de prestígio como o Hamburger Kunsthalle ou o Museu Städel, em Frankfurt, ainda não estão nem mesmo na lista.

Ambição em excesso, recursos em falta

Rolf Griebel, diretor geral da Biblioteca Estadual Bávara, que considera o projeto “bom e que já devia ter sido iniciado há muito tempo”, todavia alerta contra planos exagerados. “Eu tenho sérias dúvidas sobre se a DDB conseguirá dispor de conteúdo apropriado e dentro de um prazo razoável”, ele diz.

Griebel estima que o escaneamento de um livro do século 16 ou 17 custa entre 70 e 140 euros, dependendo do volume de trabalho. Títulos contemporâneos são mais baratos, mas as quantidades envolvidas são enormes. A Associação Alemã das Bibliotecas está propondo a digitalização de cerca de 5,5 milhões de volumes nos primeiros 10 anos. Isso custaria pelo menos 165 milhões de euros. Mas de onde virá o dinheiro?

Os alemães estão olhando com inveja para a França, onde o presidente Nicolas Sarkozy prometeu recentemente levantar 750 milhões de euros para pagar pela digitalização da cultura nacional da França.

O projeto alemão, por sua vez, pode ter falhas culturais óbvias por muitos anos. O usuário ficará satisfeito em se deparar com grandes descobertas ocasionais? Não seria preferível fazer menos, mas fazer direito? “Para começar, certamente faria sentido limitar isto a áreas e temas selecionados”, diz Griebel.

Mas os planejadores da DDB não aceitam isso. Toda atividade cultural, toda ciência, todo tipo de documento é válido –preferivelmente de todos os museus e bibliotecas da Alemanha. E a tecnologia de busca será mais sofisticada do que apenas a procura por termos, como oferecida pelo Google. As coleções da DDB (segundo o plano atual) serão indexadas segundo uma variedade de critérios –local, tempo, tema. Esse índice só funcionará se os objetos forem descritos em detalhes.

Neste esforço, a DDB tem se beneficiado de alguma tecnologia básica do programa Theseus, financiado pelo governo alemão. Os pesquisadores do Theseus trabalham desde 2007 em métodos para indexação de imagens, filmes, gravações de áudio e livros. Se o computador tiver um entendimento rudimentar do que está acontecendo, ele pode preencher vários campos automaticamente –algo indispensável para as vastas quantidades de documentos com que a DDB terá que lidar.

Os pesquisadores estão informando um progresso inicial no reconhecimento de elementos em filmes e fotos. “Faces ainda são difíceis, mas está se saindo bem com árvores, carros e prédios”, diz Thomas Niessen, chefe do Theseus. O computador também está tendo certo sucesso em converter palavra falada em texto pesquisável –ele até mesmo tenta separar pessoas, lugares e eventos relevantes.

Completo com passagens de trem alemãs

Enquanto isso, um debate está em andamento sobre o quadro maior. Como exatamente a DDB deveria servir tanto a leigos quanto a pesquisadores? E como um portal ideal deve se parecer?

Reinhard Altenhöner, da Biblioteca Nacional Alemã, acha que os usuários poderiam poder postar suas próprias contribuições. “Se um arquivo municipal fornece material sobre a história de uma rua”, ele diz, “os moradores poderiam enriquecê-la com suas próprias histórias e fotos”.

Os museus poderiam inserir links em resultados de busca para exposições atuais relevantes. Uma pequena demonstração na tela ilustra como isso poderia funcionar. “E aqui”, diz Altenhöner, clicando em outro link, “aqui você até mesmo poderia comprar uma passagem para o Deutsche Bahn”.

Esses extras sutis não podem ser encontrados no Google. A empresa de ferramenta de busca prefere projetos que possam ser explicados em uma única sentença. No caso da digitalização, a meta é simples: todo livro do mundo em uma apresentação fácil para o usuário. Além disso, a melhor tecnologia de indexação é de pouca utilidade.

As consequências de ignorar este axioma são ilustradas pelo site Europeana. Após uma longa estagnação, a coleção deverá crescer para 10 milhões de artefatos culturais até meados de 2010. “Isso nos torna líderes globais”, diz Stefan Gradmann, um cientista da informação de Berlim e um membro do comitê executivo do Europeana.

Alguns itens já estão acessíveis pelo site, em caráter de teste, utilizando busca inteligente. Digite, digamos, “Paris” e o Europeana também retorna Montmartre e o Jardin des Tuileries; aparecem fontes relacionadas a Paris, o príncipe da mitologia grega. A ferramenta de busca também está familiarizada com seu feito fatídico, o “rapto de Helena”. Ele encontra documentos, em outras palavras, que não contêm o termo da busca. Mas navegar pelo Europeana não é muito agradável. Os resultados são exibidos em miniaturas do tamanho de selos postais. Se você clicar para ver uma imagem maior, você é levado ao instituto correspondente. Logo você se vê vagando impotente por dezenas de sites diferentes de museus e bibliotecas –e acaba perdido em algum ponto entre a “Vlaamse Kunstcollectie” e a “Wielkopolska Biblioteka Cyfrowa”.

Não seria preferível incorporar todas as exposições dentro da estrutura familiar do Europeana? “Nós preferiríamos isso”, diz Gradmann. “Mas então os museus não participariam.” Eles insistem em apresentar seus próprios tesouros.

Bibliotecas digitais, ao estilo babilônico

Se a DDB ceder à vaidade dos institutos participantes, o resultado será uma estrutura babilônica com 30 mil anexos. Alguém teria paciência para navegar por um índice consistindo de 30 mil sites idiossincráticos?

A promessa de observar rigidamente os direitos autorais também traz problemas. As únicas obras que a DDB pode escanear livremente são aquelas de autores que morreram há pelo menos 70 anos. Para documentos mais novos cujos autores não podem ser contatados, um acordo será acertado com as coletividades relevantes de direitos autorais.

Schwens, a coordenadora da DDB, também deseja incorporar material contemporâneo. “Seria uma vergonha”, ela diz, “se conhecimento científico atual não puder ser encontrado via a DDB”. As negociações com os editores também já estão em andamento. De modo ideal, diz Schwens, haveria uma “loja única” onde o usuário poderia comprar ou alugar eletronicamente a obra que o interessa.

A loja online Libreka, operada pela Associação Alemã das Livrarias, estaria disponível para venda de livros. Mas a Libreka tem uma reputação duvidosa: muitos de seus livros eletrônicos apresentam intricada proteção contra cópia. Os editores querem dessa forma. E muitos de seus livros best sellers tendem a não aparecer, por medo da pirataria digital.

O projeto alemão de digitalização é ameaçado de dois lados: não há dinheiro suficiente para o escaneamento de obras mais antigas, enquanto o acesso a novas obras –que podem já existir em formato digital– provavelmente será bloqueado por editores ansiosos.

Logo, não seria melhor deixar o Google assumir a coisa toda? Até meados de 2010, a empresa americana deseja começar a vender livros eletrônicos. Meio milhão de títulos já foi destinado para o projeto “Edições Google”, com 63% de cada venda destinada à editora e o Google ficando com o restante.

A experiência da Biblioteca Estadual Bávara com o Google tem sido boa até o momento. Desde 2007, o Google tem digitalizado livros sem direitos autorais e que estão sob custódia cultural de Munique –cerca de um milhão de volumes até o momento. Em duras negociações, a biblioteca assegurou o direito de ter sua própria cópia de cada livro, para apresentar da forma como bem desejar. O acesso livre a esses tesouros está, portanto, garantido.

E o escaneamento prossegue como um relógio. Toda semana cerca de 5 mil volumes deixam as salas da biblioteca estadual. Um caminhão os leva até um endereço secreto na Baviera, onde os scanners do Google trabalham sem parar. Neste ritmo, tudo estará concluído em apenas quatro anos.

Tradução: George El Khouri Andolfato

sabato 20 febbraio 2010

In Haiti Myths Obscure Voodoo

An interesting article published this morning on NYT.

On Religion
Myths Obscure Voodoo, Source of Comfort in Haiti


Barely 18 hours after an earthquake devastated Haiti on Jan. 12, the Rev. Pat Robertson supplied a televised discourse on the nation’s history, theology and destiny. Haiti has suffered, he explained, because its rebellious slaves “swore a pact with the devil” to overthrow the French two centuries ago. Ever since, he went on, “they have been cursed by one thing or another.”

A Haitian voodoo priest went into trance inside a voodoo temple during Day of the Dead celebrations in Belladère, Haiti, last November.
Crude and harsh as Mr. Robertson’s words were, he deserved a perverse kind of credit for one thing. He actually did recognize the centrality of voodoo to Haiti. In the voluminous media coverage of the quake and its aftermath, relatively few journalists and commentators have done so, and even fewer have gotten voodoo right.

Consider a few facts. Voodoo is one of the official religions of Haiti, and its designation in 2003 merely granted official acknowledgment to a longstanding reality. The slave revolt that brought Haiti independence indeed relied on voodoo, the New World version of ancestral African faiths. To this day, by various scholarly estimates, 50 percent to 95 percent of Haitians practice at least elements of voodoo, often in conjunction with Catholicism.

Yet in searching the LexisNexis database of news coverage and doing a Google search this week, I found that Catholicism figured into three times as many accounts of the quake as did voodoo. A substantial share of the reports that did mention voodoo were recounting Mr. Robertson’s canard or adopting it in articles asking Haitian survivors if they felt their country was cursed.

At a putatively more informed level, articles, broadcasts and blogs depicted voodoo as the source of Haiti’s poverty and political instability — not because of divine punishment, mind you, but because voodoo supposedly is fatalistic and primitive by nature.

“The kind of religion one practices makes a huge difference in how the community lives — for better or for worse,” wrote Rod Dreher on the Web site beliefnet. “I suppose it’s at least arguable that the Haitians would be better off at the Church of Christopher Hitchens rather than as followers of voodoo.”

For scholars whose expertise runs somewhat deeper, such words have understandably provoked indignation. Worse still, the dismissive attitude about voodoo follows a tawdry history of misrepresentation in American journalism and popular culture.

“The media has reported a lot about voodoo but not much of it very insightful or intelligent,” said Diane Winston, a professor of religion and media at the University of Southern California. “Voodoo is one of those flashpoints for Americans because it’s exotic, unknown and has strange connotations. It may be a matter of underlying racism because voodoo is African and Caribbean in its origins, or because voodoo seems so different from Christianity that it’s the perfect Other.” Prof. Leslie G. Desmangles of Trinity College in Hartford, who is the author of several scholarly and reference books about voodoo, views these current caricatures of voodoo as all too familiar.

“There’s been a very degrading, derogatory language about voodoo,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s language that goes back to the 19th century.”

The Roman Catholic Church in Haiti began a series of antisuperstition campaigns in the 1860s. These efforts continued until the early 1940s, and they imparted an assumption — often embraced by Haiti’s elite — that while Catholicism was legitimate religion, voodoo was pagan heresy.

The occupation of Haiti by American military forces from 1915 until 1934 introduced a cartoonish version of voodoo enduringly into pop culture. The 1929 book “Magic Island,” by a Briton, W. B. Seabrook, became a best seller in the United States. While Mr. Seabrook was arguably enlightened for his time, the commercial success of his book inspired an array of B-movies in the 1930s and 1940s, like “White Zombie.”

The resulting image of voodoo as sinister sorcery has, amazingly enough, survived into the present multicultural age. A sensitive book about voodoo in modern Haiti, “The Serpent and the Rainbow” by the ethnobotanist Wade Davis, was transformed by Hollywood into a fright movie that recycled every intolerant cliché about the religion.

In the past year, the animated film “The Frog and the Princess” featured a voodoo magician as its villain. The movie was produced by Disney, which if anything has been relativistic to a fault. But voodoo, apparently, does not even merit the condescending sort of exoticization that Disney afforded American Indian polytheism in “Pocahontas.”

In American political rhetoric, “voodoo” functions as a synonym for “fraudulent,” going back to George Bush’s description of supply-side economics. Would any public figure dare use “Baptist” or “Hindu” or “Hasidic” in the same way?

Superficially, the emphasis on Catholicism in recent reporting from Haiti appears sensible. A majority of Haitians are Catholic; major Catholic buildings were destroyed; the Catholic Church operates important relief and refugee agencies. Voodoo lacks such a visible infrastructure.

But Catholicism in Haiti, as too few journalists seemed to realize, is not more or less like Catholicism in a Polish parish in Chicago or an Irish one in Boston. It is a Catholicism in symbiosis with voodoo, a Catholicism in which saints are conflated with African deities and dead ancestors serve as interlocutors between God and humanity.

Prof. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, an expert in voodoo as well as a voodoo priest, likens the religious texture of Haiti to that of Japan. The same Japanese person, he said, will observe the Shinto faith for certain rituals and Buddhism for others, and will see no contradiction or mutual exclusivity.

“I’d tell reporters to go into the shanties and find the local voodoo priest,” said Amy Wilentz, the author of an acclaimed book on contemporary Haiti, “The Rainy Season.” “Voodoo is very close to the ground. It’s a neighborhood to neighborhood, courtyard kind of religion. And one where you support each other in time of need.”

venerdì 19 febbraio 2010



El pintor que vio un cuadro negro
RAMÓN LOBO Puerto Príncipe
El pintor de los colores vivos -azules y verdes-, de los soles majestuosos y las formas redondas en unos lienzos que transmiten fuerza y optimismo, no ha sido capaz de empezar uno nuevo desde el terremoto del 12 de enero . "Seis días antes me desperté y le dije a Chantal [su esposa]: 'He visto un cuadro negro. Algo terrible va a pasar". Durante esa semana, Exil Levoy, el representante vivo más destacado de la escuela haitiana de Saint Soleil, trazó las formas de uno sombrío y después lo inundó de morados, un color extraño en él. "Cuando la tierra tembló y todos estaban asustados, yo me encontraba tranquilo. Tengo una pierna dañada desde hace años y no puedo correr. Además sentí que mi hora no había llegado".

En su casa en Soisson-la-Montagne se respira aire fresco. Las nubes corren por los cerros e incluso hay abundantes árboles, algo inusual en este Haití desforestado y de tierra yerma y cansada. Desde su terraza se ven sus colores predilectos en el cielo y en la naturaleza. La luz es espléndida. "La vista me inspira. Me siento a observar y espero. No planifico. Es una de las reglas de la escuela de Saint Soleil. La pintura nunca nace de una de idea, no se trata de una propuesta intelectual, sino que sale de dentro, es pura inspiración. Tomo los pinceles y dejo que todo fluya hacia el cuadro".

Su mesa de trabajo machada de decenas de pruebas colores está escondida detrás de una pared de ladrillo gris coronada por una defensa de cristales rotos. Levoy necesita de ese muro para dejar de mirar el mundo exterior y abismarse en sí mismo. Tiene 66 años, 14 hijos, de los cuales cinco son adoptivos, y nueve nietos. Sus manos y su inspiración mantienen a una gran familia.

"Me cuesta pintar porque el terremoto se ha convertido en una obsesión. Cuando voy a la ciudad y veo las casas destruidas pienso en las personas que han muerto y en las que no tienen casa y soy incapaz de encontrar inspiración en ello. Sé que Haití recibe estos días mucha ayuda de todo el mundo pero si la eficacia con la que se está distribuyendo es la medida de cómo será la reconstrucción de mi país debo decir que soy muy pesimista. Ahora ocupamos la atención del mundo, pero pronto se cansarán de oír hablar de nosotros".

En algunas calles, cerca de los lugares donde viven extranjeros, crecen cada día unos mercadillos de cuadros de colores fuertes y máscaras enormes que están emparentadas con las del reino de Dahomey (actual Benin), de donde proceden muchos haitianos. Estos puestos de venta al aire libre desparecieron con los temblores de la tierra y el polvo, pero regresan ahora a sus lugares de siempre como una contribución al deseo colectivo de normalidad. Elizabeth se planta todos los días en la entrada del hotel Plaza en espera de que algún periodista o trabajador humanitario le compre un lienzo. "Los vendo por 50 dólares pero puedo bajar a 40", asegura en inglés sin dar tiempo si quiera a una negociación. "Llevo todo el día aquí y no he vendido ninguno".

Los cuadros de pintores de la categoría de Exil Levoy, con exposiciones en 57 países (nunca en España), no se venden en la calle sino en las galerías de postín como la Nader. Haití, el país más pobre de América, es rico en artistas. Sus pintores son célebres gracias a intelectuales franceses como André Breton y André Malraux y al estadounidense Hewitt Peters. También sus músicos, contagiados de todos los ritmos, de los africanos, que llevan metidos en el cuerpo, el merengue dominicano y los sones de Santiago de Cuba. "Somos gente que tiene el don. Somos capaces de sentir. Cuando te rodea la miseria sólo te pueden salvar la espiritualidad y el arte".

giovedì 18 febbraio 2010


When Margaret Atwood looks into the future, she sees catastrophe.

In "The Handmaid's Tale" (1985), religious fundamentalists rule the United States and women are treated as chattel. In "Oryx and Crake" (2003), genetic engineering has run wild and commercialism dominates society. And in her latest novel, "The Year of the Flood" -- a companion to "Oryx" -- civilization buckles under humanity's carelessness, wiping out much of the species.

Still, Atwood considers herself an optimist.

"Anybody who writes a book is an optimist," the much-honored writer says, with a dry impishness, in a phone interview. "First of all, they think they're going to finish it. Second, they think somebody's going to publish it. Third, they think somebody's going to read it. Fourth, they think somebody's going to like it. How optimistic is that?"

But what about the environmental disasters, corporate detachment, religious extremism and general human soullessness she portrays?

We already live with it, she observes -- just not in the quantity found in works such as "The Year of the Flood."

"That's what that kind of book is for -- it's for looking at things and pushing them a little bit further along the path, to see what it would be like if we went there," she says.

In "The Year of the Flood," set in the not-too-distant future, things have gotten pretty well along the path. Corporations and governments are intertwined, and the well-off live in protected corporate communities. Much of the population, however, lives in slums and scrounges for food -- some eating the creations of fast-food joints such as SecretBurgers, where the secret was "that no one knew what sort of animal protein was actually in them," Atwood writes ("Soylent Green," anybody?).

Latchkey kids roam the streets, stealing and making trouble. The unlucky dead are discarded like so much biological waste, perhaps to be made into something commercially useful. Animal DNA has been crossed and tinkered with to create beasts such as rakunks and wolvogs. And a handful of characters, notably the hard-bitten Toby and the wide-eyed Ren, make their way through the world, helped by the faithful of a religious group called God's Gardeners -- and their own wits.

"Flood" is, in some ways, a continuation of "Oryx and Crake," which introduced much of its world. (The characters Oryx and Crake, the latter a genetic engineer, have small but pivotal roles.) Atwood says she decided to continue the story because "so many people said, 'What happens?' ... I didn't know the answer, and therefore had to think about that."

A number of the issues raised in "Oryx and Crake," she continues, piqued her interest, particularly since they parallel what's going on in real life. "One of those is the way that nature, science and religion are coming together," she says, noting the popularity of the film "Avatar." "The interesting thing to me is [the] various trends, and my religion in the book is kind of what it would be if people just got a little bit more organized, though they might not go for those [shapeless] outfits."

Though Atwood deals with some weighty issues, "Flood" -- like her other works -- has some wickedly humorous touches, particularly in the product names and slang of the future society. The corporate security force is called the CorpSeCorps; the firms have names such as HelthWyzer and Seksmart. People wear the tresses of Mo'Hairs, an animal bred for its pelt, and drink at Happicuppa, a Starbucks gone mad.

It's a cleverness borne of necessity, says Atwood.

"I have a need for a word, then I have to find the word," she says. And it's not always easy: "What you have to do if you're putting a product or a corporation into a book, is you have to search and find out if there is one or not already. And if there is one already, you have to change yours so it's not the same." In "Oryx and Crake," she says, she had created an assisted-suicide channel called NightyNight. Unfortunately, in real life, that name belonged to a children's sleepwear company.

"You don't want a situation in which you name an assisted-suicide television program after a children's sleepwear company," she says.

Though Atwood, a strong supporter of environmental and social causes -- she recently wrote a nonfiction book about the impact of debt -- is skeptical of technology, she's by no means a Luddite. "The Year of the Flood" is connected to an extensive Web site, which includes links to an Atwood blog and -- yes -- even a Twitter feed. She also has her own Web page, She's also been touring in support of the book and giving lectures on favorite subjects.

But she can't help but be drawn to cautionary tales. Asked about works that she read growing up, she reels off George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four," Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon" and Curt Siodmak's horror novel "Donovan's Brain" which was made into a '50s B movie, and also inspired Steve Martin's comedy "The Man With Two Brains."

It's all part of the message that our current society could be as ephemeral as the life of a mayfly. Why, even the Internet -- this incredible repository of creativity and knowledge -- could be damaged by the impact of a giant solar storm. Better to keep information close at hand, says Atwood -- preferably on paper.

"Anything on the Web is very vulnerable," she says. "Anything you really want to keep, you should probably have in a hard copy."



Film reignites literary debate over Alexandre Dumas's ghostwriter

Scholars clash over Auguste Maquet's role in creating masterpieces such as The Three Musketeers

Lizzy Davies in Paris

He spent his life in the shadow of one of France's most celebrated authors and in death has become a mere footnote in literary history. Despite having co-written some of the most popular tales in the French language, Auguste Maquet has been forgotten by all but the most erudite of scholars.

Now, however, the quietly creative ghostwriter whose crucial role in the production of some of Alexandre Dumas's most famous novels has gone unacknowledged for more than 150 years is finally having his moment in the limelight. A film released in French cinemas tomorrow seeks to shed new light on the man who fans say was the true genius behind The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Starring Gérard Depardieu as the colourful Dumas and Belgian actor Benoît Poelvoorde as his downtrodden employee, L'Autre Dumas (The Other Dumas) mixes fiction with fact as it traces Maquet's attempts to outshine his master in the public eye. Through its retelling of the collaboration, the film has reignited a vigorous debate in Parisian literary circles about the real nature of the duo's professional teamwork.

Devotees of Dumas, one of the stars of 19th-century French literature, whose remains were transferred amid great pomp to the hallowed tomb of the Panthéon in 2002, insist Maquet was merely a dogsbody whose capacity for hard work was his greatest talent. They claim his only role as one of the great man's many assistants was to provide the basics on which Dumas could then build his masterpieces.

Others, however, insist that without Maquet's creativity and precision of thought the erratic and uncontrollable Dumas would have been lost. "There is a tendency to dismiss [Maquet] as a drudge and that's just wrong," said Bernard Fillaire, a novelist who has written an essay in support of the ghostwriter's rehabilitation. "Of course he wasn't a Balzac or a Dickens … but he definitely had talent."

The pair began working together in the 1840s, when Maquet provided the already illustrious Dumas with a manuscript which would go on to be published – under Dumas's name – as the novel Le Chevalier d'Harmental. Over the next decade, the two men would go on to produce dozens of novels and plays together, with mystery always surrounding the extent of Maquet's involvement.

In 1858, frustrated with his lack of recognition, the assistant turned on his master and took him to court in an attempt to gain the joint rights to their body of work. Maquet was awarded financial damages for unpaid fees, but Dumas retained his sole ownership of their output. While he admitted that he had been helped in his efforts, Dumas insisted he was the one true creator.

For loyal Dumasiens, this was a just ruling which vindicated their idol's brilliance. Theirs is a view shared by Safy Nebbou, director of L'Autre Dumas, for whom Maquet was an able accomplice but little more. "Maquet did not have the genius of Dumas; he could spend hours and hours writing but it didn't change anything. You can't learn genius," he said.

But many, including Nebbou, believe Maquet was an essential component of Dumas's success, if not his equal in terms of flair. And supporters of Maquet, who after the acrimonious split with his master wrote a series of moderately successful novels under his own name, agree. "There was this extraordinary alchemy between them," said Fillaire. "They needed each other. When Maquet left Dumas, neither did anything else that was really excellent. But Dumas did nothing more of any note, while Maquet went on to write a lot."

Later in life, once he had earned enough money from his own writings, Maquet bought himself a chateau in the French countryside. Literary legend has it that, in his library, he had a copy of The Three Musketeers rebound and retitled: "By A Dumas and A Maquet."

mercoledì 17 febbraio 2010



Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
By Elif Batuman
296 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $15.

Excerpt: ‘The Possessed’ (February 17, 2010) “What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?” Ms. Batuman asks. “All it had were its negative dictates: ‘Show, don’t tell’; ‘Murder your darlings’; ‘Omit needless words.’ As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits — of omitting needless words.”

Books of The Times
Tolstoy & Co. as Objects of Obsession


Early in Elif Batuman’s funny and melancholy first book, “The Possessed,” she describes her disillusionment, as a would-be novelist, with “the transcendentalist New England culture of ‘creative writing.’ ” The problem with creative writing programs, she says, is their obsession with craft.

Ms. Batuman’s search for something more from literature than “brisk verbs and vivid nouns” led her, swooning but alert, into the arms of the great Russian writers: Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Babel.

And it led her to write this odd and oddly profound little book, one that’s ostensibly about her favorite Russians but is actually about a million other things: grad school, literary theory, translation, biography, love affairs, the making of “King Kong,” working for the Let’s Go travel guidebook series, songs by the Smiths, even how to choose a nice watermelon in Uzbekistan. Crucially and fundamentally, it is also an examination of this question: How do we bring our lives closer to our favorite books?

Ms. Batuman is a young writer whose family background is Turkish, not Russian. Born in New York City, she grew up in New Jersey before graduating from Harvard and earning a doctorate in comparative literature from Stanford. Her career, thus far, has seemed blessed. Her first piece of journalism, a profile of a former Thai kickboxing champion, ran in The New Yorker. The longish essays in “The Possessed” first appeared in that magazine, as well as in Harper’s and n+1.

In one of these essays, Ms. Batuman delivers a paper at a Tolstoy conference in Russia. In another, she picks up Babel’s daughter for a conference at Stanford. In yet another, she travels to Uzbekistan to learn its language. Each of these essays unfolds both comically and intellectually, as if Ms. Batuman were channeling Janet Malcolm by way of Woody Allen.

Among the charms of Ms. Batuman’s prose is her fond, funny way of describing the people around her. One professor’s mustache and mobile eyebrows give him “the air of a 19th-century philanderer.” A boyfriend steps off an airplane looking “as philosophical and good-humored as Snoopy.” Even the Tolstoy scholar who becomes incontinent on a chartered bus trip and refuses to throw out his soiled pants becomes, in her hands, a comic figure out of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Ms. Batuman lets her opinions fly freely. She describes feeling “deeply, viscerally bored” by an Orhan Pamuk novel. About reporting on Turkey for a Let’s Go guidebook, she bemoans the “exasperating 20th-century discourse of ‘shoestring travel.’ ”

She explains: “The worst part of this discourse was its specious left-wing rhetoric, as if it were a form of ‘sticking it to the man’ to reject a chain motel in favor of a cold-water pension completely filled with owls.” About trying to secure academic grant money, she writes, “Translation jobs always made me want to jump out a window.”

Perhaps Ms. Batuman’s best quality as a writer, though — beyond her calm, lapidary prose — is the winsome and infectious delight she feels in the presence of literary genius and beauty. She’s the kind of reader who sends you back to your bookshelves with a sublime buzz in your head. You want to feel what she’s feeling.

About Chekhov’s story “Lady With Lapdog,” Ms. Batuman writes, “I especially remember the passage about how everyone has two lives — one open and visible, full of work, convention, responsibilities, jokes, and the other ‘running its course in secret’ — and how easy it is for circumstances to line up so that everything you hold the most important, interesting, and meaningful is somehow in the second life, the secret one.”

She describes two historical types of Uzbek writers: “the aristocrats, who loved beautiful women, nature and kings; and the democrats, who loved mud and head colds.”

Her defense of literary theory is lovely. “I stopped believing that ‘theory’ had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?”

Ms. Batuman is almost helplessly epigrammatical (“Air travel is like death: everything is taken from you”), and it’s tempting to keep quoting from her book forever. There are moments in “The Possessed” where Ms. Batuman loses the threads of the stories she’s trying to tell, moments where plot summary or historical précis drag on too long. But these data-dump moments are rare.

Elif Batuman is clearly one of those people whom Babel described, in one of his Odessa stories, as having “spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.” Her autumnal impulses are balanced by jumpy, satirical ones. It’s a deep pleasure to read over her shoulder.

martedì 16 febbraio 2010



Malraux, l’épouse éternelle

L’histoire littéraire est riche d’écrivains qui se seront acharnés à se faire un prénom. Plus rares sont ceux qui s’évertuent à conserver leur nom, surtout quand ce n’est pas le leur. Ainsi Clara Malraux (1897-1982) née Goldschmidt, issue d’une famille juive allemande aisée et assimilée qui fit le choix de Paris en 1881. Elle fut sa première épouse et la mère de Florence Malraux. Ils s’étaient rencontrés au banquet organisé en 1921 par la revue littéraire et artistique Action à laquelle ils collaboraient tous deux. Une nuit au Lutetia avant une échappée en Italie et, dès leur retour, les voilà mariés devant le maire du XVIème arrondissement contre la volonté des Goldschmidt qui ne voient dans ce très jeune homme (il est encore mineur) qu’un coureur de dot. Ils ont du flair car Malraux ne tarde pas à ruiner leur jeune couple en investissant dans des mines d’or mexicaines. Qu’à cela ne tienne, ils montent une expédition pour Angkor dans le but avoué d’y découper des bas-reliefs khmers afin de les revendre. Scandale, procès, pétition. Du mou pour la légende en marche. N’empêche qu’en lisant La Voie royale, prix Interallié 1930, elle peut déjà s’inquiéter sur l’avenir de leur couple puisqu’il l’a gommée de la transposition romanesque de leur aventure. Ils n’en poursuivent pas moins leur existence de « vagabonds heureux », flâneurs salariés chez Gallimard. Dès 1932, Louise de Vilmorin est pourtant dans la place et la concurrence se précise car si Clara est intelligente, cosmopolite, rapide et intellectuellement très charpentée, sa disgrâce physique et son caractère jouent contre elle. Un temps, elle reprend espoir tant la May de La Condition humaine, prix Goncourt 1933, lui ressemble. Las ! L’Espoir est le premier livre qu’il écrit loin d’elle, sa première lectrice. Clara Malraux devient dès lors une immense attente insatisfaite, allant de déception en déconvenues. Comment ne pas l’être en apprenant qu’il demande le divorce en janvier 1941, trois mois après la promulgation du statut des Juifs, ce qui la contraindrait à redevenir Goldschmidt au pire moment ? Clara Malraux, « qui n’est pas une femme qu’on abat », refuse et entre dans des mouvements de résistance français et allemand. Elle n’a vécu que par rapport à lui, qu’il se tînt à ses côtés ou qu’il la tînt à distance. La situation est assez pathétique. Tôt abandonnée, elle n’abandonna jamais : la rancœur est un moteur. Quand sa rivale Josette Clotis, pourtant morte tragiquement en 1944, fut ressuscitée trente ans après par un livre, elle en fit une maladie. Clara Malraux « Nous avons été deux » (474 pages, Grasset), le récit que vient de faire paraître Dominique Bona, est d’une grande fluidité. Il est si agréable qu’il encourage à flâner dans cette vie dont l’intérêt ne semblait pas a priori mériter 474 pages. A posteriori non plus. Difficile de revenir à l’un, après Jean Lacouture et Olivier Todd ; superflu de revenir à l’autre, après ses six volumes de mémoires. Un tel livre ne s’imposait qu’à la condition de joindre l’un à l’autre et c’est bien le parti pris de l’étude d’un couple qu’a au fond choisi l’auteur. Le sous-titre indique « Nous avons été deux ». Tout le drame de cette héroïne aura été de ne pouvoir dire, telle Billie Holiday évoquant sa complicité avec Lester Young : «Nous ne faisions qu’un, mais lequel ? ». Avant celle-ci, Clara Malraux avait déjà fait l’objet de trois biographies. C’est beaucoup pour un auteur à l’œuvre assez mince, essentiellement autobiographique, et qui n’aura eu d’existence que dans l’ombre d’un véritable écrivain dont elle n’aura partagé la vie que pendant une dizaine d’ années, mais dont elle aura gardé le nom « contre vents et marées ». Toute sa vie et toute sa mort.



"Dios es un novelista frustrado"

"Soy un realista lírico, traslado la música de las calles al papel"
-No lo sé, debía de ser más o menos la una.

-¿Y allí qué tal?

-¿Qué tal? A la que llevábamos cinco minutos dentro, Ike desapareció con una chica de la barra.

-¿Dónde desapareció?- preguntó Yolonda.

Eric volvió a mirarla.

-Por eso lo llaman desaparecer".

En diálogos como éste, habitantes de un territorio entre la alta literatura y la sabiduría callejera, se cimenta la enorme reputación de Richard Price (Nueva York, 1949), novelista, guionista de Hollywood (El color del dinero o Clockers) y autor de la revolucionaria serie de televisión The wire.

Gracias a sus dotes para la construcción de personajes, dolorosamente cercanos para cualquiera familiarizado con el siglo XXI, y a su prodigioso oído musical para la decadencia urbana, la crítica estadounidense ha comparado sus novelas policiacas, de realismo social, con Balzac, Saul Bellow o Tolstoi. Price estuvo ayer en Madrid para hablar de La vida fácil (Mondadori), su octavo libro y muy probablemente su gran obra. Una historia sobre el asesinato de un chico blanco en un atraco absurdo. Un tratado sobre el barrio neoyorquino Lower East Side y cómo las diferentes comunidades (los chinos, los negros de las viviendas de protección oficial y los niñatos blancos que duermen poco y creen haber vivido mucho) se relacionan en un barrio en pleno proceso de aburguesamiento para regocijo de las inmobiliarias y las revistas de tendencias. La entrevista se celebró en CaixaForum, poco antes de que Price dictase una conferencia sobre la escritura en estos tiempos audiovisuales. La misma fluidez de su literatura impregnó su conversación, brillante, provocadora, llena de giros y anécdotas.

Pregunta. ¿De dónde viene su talento para el diálogo?

Respuesta. Paso tiempo con gente sobre la que quiero escribir. Les escucho hablar. Trato de dilucidar cómo construyen sus frases y cómo ven el mundo. Pasar tiempo en la calle es la parte del trabajo que más me gusta. No me interesa tanto ir a casa y ponerme a escribir. Pero sí, supongo que es un talento. Como conducir rápido. Sabes o no sabes.

P. ¿Por eso ha tardado cinco años en entregar esta novela?

R. No tengo tantas ideas. Y tengo que trabajar de guionista para pagar la luz. Cuando gano lo suficiente para pasar dos años escribiendo una novela, me pongo. Ahora estoy con dos series para la tele porque no hay dinero en el cine para mis historias.

P. ¿Le interesa la revolución de la última narrativa televisiva?

R. El cable lo ha cambiado todo. Hay libertad creativa. Me siento orgulloso de mi trabajo en The wire. Pero sólo era uno más de la cadena de montaje. Cogía un episodio y seguía donde el anterior lo había dejado. Me parece un poco hipócrita que ahora todo el mundo la adore, cuando no la veía nadie. Nunca le dieron un premio, y mira los que acumula Perdidos. Yo podría escribir esos guiones dormido y con las manos esposadas a la espalda.

P. ¿Qué hace tan interesante al barrio de Lower East Side?

R. Es sobre el que más se ha escrito en la historia de la literatura americana. Su memoria, muy asociada a la inmigración, es apasionante. Mis abuelos vivieron allí. Pero no quería hacer una cosa sobre el pasado, ya leída cien veces. Quise escribir sobre lo que sucede allí ahora. Cómo uno de los barrios con memoria más infausta del país se ha convertido en el patio de recreo de niños bien llegados de todas partes del mundo. Es como el viejo Montparnasse, sólo que todo el mundo tira de tarjeta de crédito.

P. ¿Esos chicos no respetan el pasado?

R. Van allí a divertirse. Yo vivo en Harlem, y mis hijas bajan al barrio a conciertos todo el rato, en esquinas en las que su bisabuelo fue arrestado por robar para poder pagar el alquiler. Lo ignoran, eso es todo. Cuando llegaron los artistas, el barrio se regeneró, echaron a los pequeños comercios para abrir enotecas y pijadas de ésas. Y los artistas se fueron a Brooklyn. Pasa en todas partes. El día menos pensado las inmobiliarias los empujarán al océano.

P. ¿El aburguesamiento de los suburbios no es positivo?

R. Supongo que debe haber un punto intermedio. Lower East Side era la capital estadounidense de la heroína y eso no tiene nada de auténtico. Lo que es negativo es la ventaja que de ello toman las inmobiliarias.

P. ¿Existe la novela del siglo XXI?

R. No estoy seguro. Sólo sé que yo no soy moderno, ni posmoderno, ni un realista social. Probablemente sea un realista lírico. Traslado la música de las calles al papel.

P. ¿Sería diferente este libro de haberse escrito con Obama en la Casa Blanca?

R. No creo, la realidad no ha cambiado tanto. Lo bueno es que en Europa no tengo que empezar todas las conversaciones disculpándome por ser yanqui. Ahora es más bien. "¡Obama! Sí, no está haciendo una mierda pero al menos es negro". Estuve en Harlem la noche en que venció. ¡Las prostitutas invitaban a la gente a champán barato!

P. ¿Siente especial simpatía por sus personajes?

R. Es necesario ser compasivo con los asesinos. Tienes que arrancarles la maldad para destapar al ser humano. Y el personaje de la poli puertorriqueña me gusta. Está inspirada en una amiga mía. Una máquina, consigue hacer creer a los peores criminales que es la madre o la hermana que nunca tuvieron. Llora con ellos. Les hace confesar y sale de la sala de interrogatorios y dice: "¡Paf! ¡Otro mochuelo en el nido! A éste le caerán de treinta a perpetua". Es una psicópata brillante. La clase de personaje que aguarda en las calles. Dios es un novelista frustrado.

P. Usted hizo un vídeo para Michael Jackson en los ochenta. ¿Qué hacía el día en que murió?

R. Estaba en Harlem, todos lloraban y pensé: "Vamos, si era un maldito pederasta". Un viejo verde que quería ser una mujer blanca. ¡Por Dios Santo!


The Jockey Club, Buenos Aires, where the first annual Oxford-Cambridge dinner was held some 90 years ago. Dublin now has its own. Photograph: Dmitri Kessel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images CHRIS ASHTON


Irishman's Diary

IRELAND’S most celebrated Oxford son, Oscar Wilde, famously declared, “The two great turning points of my life were when my father sent me to Oxford and when society sent me to prison.” Of his late return from Greece after the start of term, for which he was punished, he recalled, “I was sent down from Oxford for being the first undergraduate to visit Olympia.” Some 70 to 80 Irish Oxford and Cambridge alumni, black-tied or evening-gowned, will gather in the Kildare Street and University Club on February 27th to pay tribute to Britain’s two oldest universities.

MC of the event, Dublin lawyer Mark Pery-Knox-Gore (Oxon.) will propose the toast to the Irish President; I will do the same for Queen Elizabeth. Minister of State Martin Mansergh (Oxon.) will speak and lead his fellow alumni to toast the Light Blues. Barrister, biographer and London Times obituary writer of Ireland’s good and great, Charles Lysaght, President of the Irish Cambridge Society, will lead the reciprocal toast to the Dark Blues.

Oxford and Cambridge alumni span the world. Cambridge claims 192,000 to Oxford’s 180,000, though in alumni societies, about 180 each, they’re level-pegged. The island of Ireland accounts for some 3,000 Oxbridge alumni, evenly divided between the two universities, although many, attending as post-graduates, owe their primary allegiance to Irish universities.

To make up the numbers, Ireland’s Light and Dark Blue graduates have amicably joined forces to establish the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Ireland, which joins an exotic melange of comparable societies, 40-plus, including five in southern Africa, 13 in Asia (among them China, India, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia), seven in Europe, four in the Middle East and eight in North America, not least New York.

The sole Latin-American country, Argentina, held its first annual Oxford-Cambridge dinner some 90 years ago. Why should Buenos Aires pay tribute to England’s most ancient universities? From the mid-19th century, for 100 years, though their numbers were miniscule, Britain was pivotal to Argentine commerce, industry, banking, railway construction, livestock-breeding and sporting clubs. The dinner is part of that legacy.

Convened in Buenos Aires’ illustrious Jockey Club, its November 1918 genesis, coinciding with the Armistice, perhaps signalled hope of a new dawn for humanity. In 1987, courtesy of the British ambassador, it was held for the first time in the ambassadorial residence, compared with which, no other venue-club, restaurant or hotel-could hope to compete. From the walls of the vast reception room monarchs of the House of Windsor and their consorts, variously stern or benign, gaze upon Oxbridge alumni resplendent in eveningwear below.

Until the 1960s, Anglo- Argentine undergraduates dominated the event.

Nowadays guests are older and more diverse: post-graduates from other Commonwealth countries, the US and Argentina, with women accounting for 20 per cent. In a country now long removed from the British presence, in its attachment to pomp and pageantry, to oratory in the language of Milton and Shakespeare blended with undergraduate mischief and self-mockery, it continues quintessentially Oxbridge. Rightly so.

Here I must declare a personal interest. From 2004, living in Buenos Aires, I attended four consecutive dinners. Two years ago with my Argentine wife, Ana, I moved to Dublin, and later that year attended the annual Oxford University Alumni Weekend, at which I met Lady Nancy Kenny, director of Oxford alumni relations. I sang the praises of the Buenos Aires dinner, prompting her to ask me at once to check out the prospects for a Dublin chapter of Oxford Alumni Society (OAS). To this I cheerfully agreed.

Two Trinity dons, while impressing upon me the enormity of the task ahead, got me started. “I do think you have your work cut out for you,” Joseph O’Gorman replied to my inquiry. “Many Irish graduates simply are not interested in this type of association . . . Oxbridge graduates in Ireland, if Irish, hardly need such a network, and if English, would tend to see Ireland as just ‘next door’ to England.” English-born Dr Gerald Morgan wished me luck while describing the cautionary tale of his own short-lived Dublin OAS and of others which had come to naught.

Joseph O’Gorman commended me to Martin Mansergh who suggested I consider instead the idea of an Oxford-Cambridge Society. The penny suddenly dropped. Why not an Oxbridge dinner à la Buenos Aires? This led me to Charles Lysaght, and to

Mark Pery-Knox-Gore who then enlisted two other Oxford alumni, Deirdre Kinlen, biochemist and GP, and John Carroll, self-confessed ardent angler and salmon conservationist.

With Mark chairing our meetings and attending to most of the detail, the five of us plotted the inaugural Irish Oxford-Cambridge dinner.

lunedì 15 febbraio 2010



Science,religion and plague
Old and new ways of thinking proceeded side by side in sixteenth-century Italy

Lauro Martines

n this brilliant study, a leading expert on the history of plague finds the origins of our understanding of the disease not in the science of seventeenth-century Protestant Europe but in the heartland of Catholicism, Counter-Reformation Italy. Here, in the upper part of the peninsula, the epidemic of 1575–8 gave rise to passionate debate, issuing in a stream of writings that would challenge the tenets of classical, Arabic and medieval views of plague.

Learned doctors in Milan, Padua, Verona and other cities continued to cite Galen, Hippocrates, or Arab authorities. And religious processions – cocking a snook at the idea of virulent contagion – were allowed to take place. But knowledge of the ancient authorities, and the idea of striving to placate God’s wrath by means of orchestrated prayer, did not stymie close empirical observation of the symptoms and pathology of plague. Old and new ways of thinking proceeded side by side. Yet in the teeth of plague, doctors and medical workers were revolutionizing the approach to it by rejecting Galenic and other mistaken assumptions about “corrupt air”, humours and the malign configuration of the stars. They chose, instead, to concentrate on exact symptoms, contagion, the movement of people, poverty, filth of all sorts, water pollution, the sequestering of the infected and the intervention of the state.

Tracts and other forms of discourse about plague had been a near monopoly of the university-educated physicians. But these savants were now joined by “surgeons, druggists, gentlemen magistrates, merchants, notaries, lawyers, judges, petty procurators, [city-]gate-officers, clerics from parish priests to the pope, and even artisans”. It looked at times as though the barber-surgeons and other people in the front line of plague work were the true empiricists, battling against the physicians and university professors – men supposedly in thrall to the ancients and to the bunk dished out by the Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino in his Consiglio contra la pestilentia (1481). But this was not so. The professors were themselves sharply divided, with some at the vanguard of the call for direct observation of the onset, symptoms and path of the disease, while others went on voicing the old theories concerning “pestilential” air and the mortal influence of heavenly bodies.

In a report commissioned by the Venetian senate (1576), a panel of distinguished physicians from the University of Padua concluded that the current disease was not “true” plague, because “it did not satisfy Hippocratic or Galenic criteria”. Later, after the epidemic had wiped out a quarter of Venice’s population, the star of the group, Girolamo Mercuriale, slyly recanted. But it must be emphasized that the group had met under a juggernaut of pressure. Like many in denial today, in the face of climate change, no Venetian in the 1570s really wanted official confirmation of the fact that the city was in the clutches of plague. For the senate and health authorities would then have had to step in with draconian measures, bringing trade to a halt. Shops would be shut down; thousands of artisans and workers, who lived from hand to mouth, would suddenly be out of work; plague-stricken houses would be barricaded, with surviving family members locked inside; the infected would be corralled into large quarantine facilities (lazaretti) or special plague-huts. And with food supplies sharply curtailed, famine would soar, especially among the many thousands of men and women without the wages to buy bread or other comestibles. Violence, moreover, would snap all controls, and the poor would be likely to revolt. How could the authorities stand up to all this? Nevertheless, at different times, health magistracies in Milan, Venice and other cities were driven to impose brutal strictures, having first organized the charitable distribution of food for the destitute.

An energetic concern with public health, more than with individual patients, edged into the forefront of medical thinking. The primary signs and symptoms of plague had been charted: explosive contagion, swift death, the household clustering of victims, continuous fever, headaches, vomiting, glandular swelling and buboes or other bumps. Poverty, filth and malnutrition were now consistently seen, for the first time, as the chief promoters, if not the causes, of plague; and this gave the lie to Galen’s claim that the malady was not “true” plague if it failed to cut a swathe through the ranks of the rich and privileged. This elite, in any case, had usually abandoned the stricken cities long before the disease had raced out of control.

Thanks to translations and direct influence, Northern Europe would learn from the change in medical thinking that issued from Italy’s experience of plague. By 1598, Joachim Camerarius, for one, a prominent Nuremberg doctor, had issued Latin translations of five of the principal publications that came out of the years 1575–8. Floating fascinating detail on relentless research, Samuel K. Cohn’s Cultures of Plague is a tour de force.

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr
Medical thinking at the end of the Renaissance
342pp. Oxford University Press. £65 (US $99).
978 0 19 957402 5

Lauro Martines, former Professor of History at UCLA and an expert on the Italian Renaissance, is preparing a book on war in Early Modern Europe, 1400–1700. He is the author of Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy, 2006.


Valentine's day is gone, I'm always late, but the post is so interesting...


Verbal Valentines: books that make perfect couples
Certain books have an almost romantic affinity with each other. Today seems like a good day to put them together

"I think I'll arrange a marriage. Come over often, Nick, and I'll sort of – oh – fling you together. You know – lock you up accidentally in linen closets and push you out to sea in a boat, and all that sort of thing – "
F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Some books are meant to be together. Oh, they may come across all coy, or act as if they can't stand the sight of each other – but deep in their heart of hearts they know that it's only a matter of time before they're pressed up against each other on some heaving bookshelf, shamelessly comparing marginalia.

What is the attraction between these books? To the casual observer they may well appear the most unlikely of couples, but there's something that gets these books circling each other warily before giving a cautious sniff. Maybe it's a shared style or technique (such as the use of diaries to change narrative perspective halfway through the twin tales of obsessive love of John Fowles's The Collector and Graham Greene's The End of the Affair). Or it could be common themes or settings (for example, The Great Gatsby and Breakfast at Tiffany's depictions of New York-based dreamers intent on reinventing themselves and transcending their humble beginnings).

Whatever it is, the chemistry does its work: the sparks fly, the sap rises, and books get together, to give a richer reading experience by bringing out the best in each other. Seeing them as a couple, they can help remind us of the inexhaustibility of literature; that no book is an island. They call into question the idea that a single work can ever be deemed the Definitive Text on any given subject, that there are always going to be new ways of seeing and interpreting the world.

And so, with high-concept wooden horse duly established, let me elaborate on the laborious conceit concealed within: this Valentine's Day, I thought it might be interesting to play literary matchmaker and – oh – fling a few titles together. Please feel free to disagree and point out that no, no, no, The Catcher in the Rye should ditch The Bell Jar and try shacking up with A Clockwork Orange instead – the change may raise a few eyebrows, but you never know, it might do all parties some good …

Here then are a handful of books I've locked together in linen closets for the weekend. I'm sure there are many more who wouldn't mind be pushed out to sea in a boat given half a chance …

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (James Joyce) & Ask the Dust (John Fante)
Two very different approaches to the old chestnuts of self-loathing, Catholic guilt, the artistic temperament, juvenile arrogance, and unrequited love. Ah, the folly of youth ...

Wise Children (Angela Carter) & London Fields (Martin Amis)
Two master stylists writing at the top of their game, with hyper-real depictions of alternative Londons. The comic novel as high art. Innit.

The Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann) & One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest (Ken Kesey)
Callow youth, meet prick-kicking rebel. Neither Hans Castorp nor Randall McMurphy really belong in their respective medical institutions, but each would almost certainly benefit from taking a leaf out of the other's book.

Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf) & If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (Jon McGregor)
It's debatable as to whether we would have If Nobody... without Mrs Dalloway, but Jon McGregor's debut novel is a lovely illustration of how, though times may change, human nature remains as varied and as fascinating as ever.

Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis) & Billy Liar (Keith Waterhouse)
London as The Great Escape – though only one of these Disgruntled Young Men makes it down south.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark) & A Disaffection (James Kelman)
Hmmm. Opposites attract, anyone?



It was a stunning work of art – so why is the Wall hanging in a Las Vegas loo?

Germaine Greer

The greatest artwork of the 20th century was 100 miles long and nearly 12ft high. A multitude of hands took 13 years to make it, out of house paint, vehicle paint, spray paint, any paint they could find. They had to work fast to evade the ­border police, for they were working three metres inside the perimeter of East Berlin. Defacing any part of the border installation was streng verboten.

The rough stone and cement blocks of earlier Berlin walls had offered ­little opportunity for anything but slogans, awkwardly lettered with a broad brush, and the odd wobbly sight joke. ­Border Wall 75, which began to replace them in 1976, was made of smoother cement panels that were, unwisely, painted white. Gradually, artists began to cover the western face with words and ­images, some vivid, some feeble, some ­accomplished. There were no rules, beyond the subtle discipline of graffiti everywhere. Good stuff would be respected, but weak stuff would be drawn and painted over, making a ­palimpsest of protest old and new.

In April 1984, two Frenchmen living in a squat not far from the wall began to paint on it on a larger scale. Thierry Noir painted over the existing graffiti, rapidly covering whole panels. When passers-by objected, he pretended not to understand. Christophe ­Bouchet preferred to use the earlier graffiti as bases for his own designs. The ­eventual aim was to produce a painting five kilometres long.

In 1989, the wall began to come down. At first, the mauerspechte ­(wall-peckers) chipped off small pieces, eventually making holes big enough to walk through. The East German government then took the wall down. There was no outcry. Berliners were only too glad to see the wall go. Most of it was smashed up to make road base, but the more striking panels were placed in storage. Small sections were deliberately left, at Potsdamer Platz, on Bernauer Strasse and on ­Mühlenstrasse. Artists from all over the world were invited to paint the eastern face of the fragments left standing, in a visual enactment of reunification, and so posterity was granted to the Wall Park and the East Side Gallery, a 1.3km ­section of wall.

Celebration does not fire the ­imagination or drive the arm the way protest does. In 1990, even Noir and Bouchet could only manage to parody their earlier work. Other ­artists used the ­opportunity to promote ­themselves, in profound contradiction to the spirit of the wall. The cement panels are now sagging and crumbling, and the paint is flaking off. The East Side Gallery has been restored, for the second time, at a cost of €2m – money well spent as it is now Berlin's leading visitor attraction. Many of the tourists are unaware that the slick images they have come to see were no part of the historic wall.

When artist Edwina Sandys ­arrived in Berlin in February 1990, she was told by the East German minister of culture that, if only she had come a few weeks earlier, she could have taken whatever she wanted and no ­questions would have been asked. As it was, ­government agents were ­preparing to sell panels off at $60,000 each (10 times what the last ­authenticated panel ­actually fetched when it was auctioned in 2008). Sandys, who is a granddaughter of Winston ­Churchill, was hoping to use sections of the wall as the basis of her own sculpture for the Churchill ­Memorial and ­Library at ­Westminster College Fulton, ­Missouri (where Churchill made his famous "iron ­curtain" speech). She was ­eventually allowed to choose eight from 400 ­"better pieces" of the wall for shipping to New York, where she had male and female silhouettes cut out of them by high-pressure water jets to make her own sculpture, Breakthrough, ­unveiled by Ronald Reagan in November 1990. The pieces also became part of a ­second sculpture called Breakfree, now at the Roosevelt Library in New York.

Sandys was probably the last or even the only person to persuade the East Germans to let her have bits of the wall for free. In June 1990, 81 segments from the Waldemarstrasse, including 33 painted by Thierry Noir and 12 by Kiddy Citny were put up for auction in Monaco, where they fetched €1.5m. Noir immediately sued for a share of the proceeds. Litigation dragged on until February 1995, when his claim was upheld.

Until recently, no concerted attempt was made to document the wall. There are few colour photographs beyond those taken by Noir to record his and Bouchet's activities. Now, German documentary film-maker Hartmut Jahn has traced fragments of the wall as far as the US, where they can be seen in a men's room in a Las Vegas casino, in a floating restaurant in Maine, in the Microsoft cafeteria in Redmond, Washington, at Fort Knox, at the Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando, in the headquarters of the CIA in Virginia, on Ronald Reagan's ranch – and to Poland, Italy, Spain, and Japan. Since mid-2009, Jahn has been mounting exhibitions of panoramic photographs called variously The New Owners of the Wall and The Berlin Wall – Sold Out. His photographs are the final proof that a stupendous human artefact has been lost forever.

domenica 14 febbraio 2010



Il y a trois cent soixante ans, jour pour jour, dans la lointaine et glaciale Suède, s'éteignait René Descartes. Officiellement, d'une pneumonie. Dans un livre non encore traduit, l'universitaire allemand Theodor Ebert (professeur de philosophie à l'université d'Erlangen, en Bavière) remet en cause la version officielle. Entretien.

Mais d'abord, la version « officielle » : la reine Christine, qui avait attiré le philosophe à sa cour, obligeait Descartes à lui donner des leçons dès 5 heures du matin dans une pièce très mal chauffée : il en serait mort.

Pourtant, il y eut aussi des soupçons d'empoisonnement, vite étouffés. Dans « La Mort mystérieuse de René Descartes » (« Der rätselhafte Tod des René Descartes », non traduit en français), Theodor Ebert soutient donc, documents à l'appui, la thèse de l'assassinat.

Quelle est la version officielle de la mort de Descartes ?
Officiellement, Descartes est mort d'une pneumonie. C'est la version rapportée par Pierre Chanut, ambassadeur de France à Stockholm, dans sa lettre à la princesse Elisabeth de Bohème du 19 février 1650, et répétée depuis dans presque tous les livres qui donnent un récit de la mort du philosophe.

Pourquoi pensez-vous que cette version est erronée ?
La version officielle ne s'accorde pas bien avec les symptômes constatés dans les rapports sur la maladie, surtout avec ce que nous trouvons dans la longue lettre (en latin) du médecin Van Wullen et dans la lettre (en néerlandais) de Henri Schluter, le valet de Descartes.

Van Wullen raconte qu'en examinant l'urine de Descartes, il a vu que le philosophe était atteint de quelque chose de très grave (il emploie le mot grec « deinon ») et en a conclu à une mort imminente. Cela veut sans doute dire qu'il y avait du sang dans l'urine.

Or, ce n'est pas là un symptôme de pneumonie. C'est en revanche un symptôme d'empoisonnement, notamment à l'arsenic.

Van Wullen rapporte en outre que Descartes s'est fait préparer un émétique et qu'il l'a bu afin de provoquer un vomissement. Quelle conclusion en tirer, sinon que le philosophe, qui connaissait bien la médecine de son temps, croyait avoir été empoisonné ?

Par la suite, la reine Christine de Suède a obligé Van Wullen à ne pas divulguer sa lettre. Cela montre qu'elle aussi s'était aperçue que, dans cette lettre, il n'était pas question d'une pneumonie. Bien sûr, Van Wullen dit que Descartes est mort d'une pleurésie (« peripneumonia »), donc d'une maladie des poumons.

Mais il est évident qu'il n'aurait pas pu parler ouvertement d'un empoisonnement (pas plus que Chanut) : cela aurait été un scandale absolu, et en ce temps-là il n'y avait aucun moyen scientifique de démontrer qu'une mort avait été causée par l'arsenic.

Etes-vous le premier à émettre l'hypothèse d'un assassinat ?
L'hypothèse d'un assassinat a déjà été émise par Eike Pies dans son livre « Der Mordfall Descartes » (« L'Affaire Descartes »), paru en 1996. Malheureusement, Pies a fondé sa thèse sur un seul document -la lettre de Van Wullen. Il a ignoré les autres textes qui relatent la maladie et la mort de Descartes (surtout la lettre de Schluter et les lettres de Chanut à Elisabeth). Il ne connait aucun des documents qui existent sur François Viogué à qui il veut attribuer le meurtre.

De plus, il a commis une vraie bévue en se vantant de la découverte de la lettre en question, alors que ce document avait été publié dans l'édition des « Œuvres de Descartes » par Adam et Tannéry -qu'il cite pourtant dans la bibliographie de son livre.

Qui était ce François Viogué, à qui vous attribuez le meurtre du philosophe ?
Viogué était aumônier à l'ambassade de France à Stockholm depuis plusieurs années et en même temps missionnaire pour les pays du Nord de la congrégation pontificale de Propaganda Fide. Il a très probablement commis ce meurtre au moyen d'une hostie empoisonnée à l'arsenic le 2 février 1650, jour de la fête de la purification de la Vierge.

Adrien Baillet, à qui nous devons une grande biographie de Descartes (publiée en 1691), rapporte que le philosophe a reçu la communion de la main de Viogué ce jour-là. Il cite, pour étayer cette affirmation, un rapport d'un membre de l'ambassade français (rapport aujourd'hui perdu).

De plus, il est probable que Descartes a reçu une deuxième hostie empoisonnée le 8 février, si l'on en croit Catherine Descartes, nièce du philosophe, qui rapporte en 1693, les propos d'une personne qui était à Stockholm en 1650.

Quelles auraient été les motivations de Viogué ? 

Viogué connaissait les tendances catholisantes de la reine Christine. Il en avait informé ses supérieurs à Rome dès juin 1648.

Il est très probable qu'il a vu en Descartes un obstacle à la conversion de la reine à la foi catholique (Christine, pourtant élevée dans le protestantisme et reine d'un pays protestant, se convertira au catholicisme après son abdication en 1654).

Viogué est convaincu que la métaphysique de Descartes est incompatible avec la théologie catholique de la transsubstantiation -de la présence physique du corps du Christ dans l'hostie- et que sa métaphysique s'accorde beaucoup mieux avec l » « hérésie » calviniste.

C'est ce qui ressort clairement de ses lettres à Claude Clerselier de 1654 (lettres publiées pour la première fois en français et en traduction allemande dans mon livre).

Fait significatif, Viogué n'a pas voulu donner à Descartes (après tout son pénitent ! ) l'extrême onction.

Viogué a-t-il agi seul ? N'était-il pas l'instrument d'une plus vaste machination, impliquant les plus hauts responsables de l'Eglise catholique ?
Je suis convaincu que Viogué a agi seul et surtout que ses supérieurs à Rome n'ont rien à voir avec son forfait. Viogué a vécu en Suède pendant tout le temps des négociations qui ont amené Descartes à Stockholm.

Et, durant cette période, aucun cardinal ne s'est rendu à Stockholm (la Suède protestante était territoire ennemi pour Rome). Viogué n'a donc pas eu l'occasion de s'entretenir de vive voix de son projet avec un prélat.

Discuter un tel plan avec ses supérieurs à Rome par correspondance aurait été trop dangereux (même avec le système d'écriture chiffrée dont disposait le Vatican). Il n'est même pas sûr que les cardinaux de Rome aient pris très au sérieux l'information fournie en juin 1648 par Viogué au sujet de la sympathie éprouvée par Christine pour la religion catholique. Peut-être, après tout, ce jeune moine ne voulait-il que faire son fanfaron…

Pourquoi cette thèse de l'assassinat ne s'est-elle pas imposée ?
Pour plusieurs raisons. Lorsqu'elle a été exposée pour la première fois dans le livre de Pies, à cause de fautes commises par l'auteur et de son ignorance de documents importants, elle n'a pas été prise au sérieux. En outre, pour les spécialistes français de Descartes -souvent des catholiques- l'idée qu'il ait été assassiné par un prêtre de l'Eglise n'a pas un grand charme…

C'est probablement pour cela que Jean-Luc Marion, professeur à la Sorbonne, déclare dans Le Point que « la question, purement anecdotique, n'a aucun intérêt ».

A tout cela s'ajoute que des documents importants pour l'éclaircissement de ce problème n'ont pas été publiés dans l'édition des Œuvres de Descartes par Adam et Tannery (reéditée par Costabel et al.). C'est le cas des deux textes écrits par Viogué au sujet de Descartes et publiés dans la biographie de Baillet (1691) ou de la lettre d'Isaac Vossius à Saumaise du 16 février 1650 (publiée en latin et en traduction allemande dans mon livre).

D'autres textes n'avaient, quant à eux, jamais été publiés auparavant, comme les lettres de Viogué à Clerselier. Enfin, la lettre de Van Wullen n'a jamais été analysée sous l'angle médical -sauf par Pies-, et la lettre de Schluter jamais analysée du tout par qui que ce soit. Il reste à espérer qu'à l'avenir les spécialistes français de ce grand philosophe prendront plus au sérieux les documents concernant sa maladie et sa mort.

► Der rätselhafte Tod des René Descartes (« La mort mystérieuse de René Descartes ») de Theodor Ebert - éd. Alibri.



Cultura do crioulo doido
Dois estudos discutem as relações entre literatura e gêneros musicais como tango e samba

Por quais motivos a malandragem permanece como um traço distintivo de nossa cultura?", pergunta Giovanna Dealtry, autora de "No Fio da Navalha - Visões da Malandragem na Literatura e no Samba".
Em seu estudo, ela descortina fatos e personagens da cultura brasileira e, mais especificamente, do Rio de Janeiro do início do século 20, como se fosse uma mascarada, vista como um jogo de esconde-esconde social.
Mostra como o samba, de símbolo de malandragem -negativo-, se torna um de nossos "símbolos nacionais".
Ao buscar a genealogia do compositor de samba carioca, o livro nos faz mergulhar na própria construção de suas estratégias de identidade mutante, em que ser "malandro" é uma ferramenta de sobrevivência.
Eram compositores que não queriam ser confundidos com malandros ligados à marginalidade, que queriam reconhecimento e espaço social, mas que ao mesmo tempo se serviam de uma certa mitologia desse universo como distintivo de promoção social.

O negro e a cidade
A famosa polêmica entre Noel Rosa e Wilson Batista é um dos exemplos aparentes desse processo de tensão no estabelecimento do espaço social do sambista.
O compositor que passava a ganhar a vida com o samba, e que tinha em Sinhô um de seus exemplos mais conhecidos, transitava entre dois mundos na sociedade carioca, modulando sua atuação segundo a situação. Isso possibilitou que atravessasse fendas de classe, estabelecendo novas pontes e possibilidades.
Em "No Fio da Navalha" fica claro como o índio, símbolo de preguiça e desajuste ao mundo civilizado, à época vai sendo afastado do imaginário de um Brasil positivista. Já em 1888, havia a "proibição das fantasias de índios durante o Carnaval da belle époque".
O Estado precisava transformar o negro liberto em operário padrão. Nesse contexto, uma série de perseguições contra a sua cultura se operou, como a proibição da prática da capoeira. Giovanna Dealtry nos faz percorrer os meandros desse processo de transformação e assimilação do negro no contexto da cidade.
Estudando a literatura carioca do maldito Antonio Fraga em "Desabrigo", de cujas personagens as gírias "espelham os sambistas da Cidade Nova", e recorrendo a Luiz Edmundo e João do Rio, cronistas essenciais do Rio de Janeiro dos "tempos dos vice-reis" e do início do século 20, tem-se uma dimensão retrospectiva das negociações sociais que se operaram e que hoje ocorrem, só que na ponta do fuzil.
Com fluidez e sem afetação acadêmica, "No Fio da Navalha" acompanha, em paralelo, as dimensões mais mundanas do universo do Rio de Janeiro, ao lado de uma reflexão mais profunda num âmbito socioantropológico.

Modernidade primitiva
Já "Modernidades Primitivas - Tango, Samba e Nação", da argentina Florencia Garramuño, busca, por meio do estudo do tango e do samba, investigar o "paradoxo de modernidade primitiva" e os sentidos culturais que dele emergem.
Sentidos culturais cambiantes na formação dos conceitos fundadores do que se compõe uma identidade nacional levam a autora a tecer paralelos entre a trajetória do tango na Argentina e a do samba por aqui.
Trata também de suas relações com a literatura de vanguarda do início do século 20. À raiz negra, ora exaltada (por Jorge Luis Borges, por exemplo) e ora contestada, num processo de aburguesamento e domesticação do tango -à maneira do samba-, "acompanham e registram, como fiéis termômetros, a civilização e a modernização das culturas argentina e brasileira", segundo Garramuño.
Discussões similares sobre a genealogia dos estilos, entre outras, mostram trajetórias próximas no período do estabelecimento do tango e do samba em suas respectivas culturas urbanas.
O maior mérito do livro e sua originalidade é apresentar os elementos culturais e as negociações sociais envolvidas sem perder de vista especificidades, buscando uma verdade totalizadora e teórica.

Tecidos sociais
Se muitos elementos os aproximam, como suas origens, há outros tantos que os distinguem. Tangueiros e sambistas transitavam entre os tecidos sociais, e nesse trânsito traficavam símbolos, gírias, hábitos e comportamentos próprios.
Seguindo a máxima do Velho Guerreiro, Chacrinha, não vinham para explicar, mas "para confundir".
LIVIO TRAGTENBERG é compositor e criador da Orquestra de Músicos das Ruas de São Paulo.

Autor: Giovanna Dealtry
Editora: Casa da Palavra (tel. 0/ xx/ 21/ 2222-3167)
Quanto: R$ 32 (208 págs.)
Autor: Florencia Garramuño
Tradução: Rômulo Monte Alto
Editora: UFMG (tel. 0/ xx/31/ 3409-4650)
Quanto: R$ 43 (224 págs.)