domenica 30 maggio 2010

The little Welsh town that inspired a literary giant


Dylan Thomas said Laugharne was a strange place. But it's beautiful, too. No wonder this is thought to be the setting for 'Under Milk Wood'

By Sankha Guha, Travelling man

The voice takes me by surprise. "Have you seen any of them electric cars here?" it seems to be asking, though I'm not sure I've heard correctly.

I wheel round, quickly tearing my eyes away from the view of the 13th-century ruined castle. A tidy middle-aged man with a striking ginger moustache is closing in on me across the car park. Too late to run. "I'm sorry?" I say. "Them electric cars," he repeats, "I seen them on the telly like. They reckon they'll be everywhere, but I never seen one. Have you?" Laugharne, described by Dylan Thomas as "the strangest town in Wales", seems determined to live up to its reputation.

It's warm – maybe that brings out the cuckoos. But spring has properly sprung and it's no time to be mean-spirited. Thomas catches the mood perfectly in Under Milk Wood.

"The sun springs down on the rough and tumbling town. It runs through the hedges of Goosegog Lane, cuffing the birds to sing. Spring whips green down Cockle Row, and the shells ring out. Llareggub this snip of a morning is wildfruit and warm."

This snip of a morning, I don't even mind if I am drawn into conversation, on the edge of the municipal asphalt, on the vanishing rarity of electric cars. When that's done, I ask the man with the ginger tash if he lives here. "Settled here 28 years ago," he says, "mind you, they still don't accept me."

Dylan Thomas also settled here, spending the last four years of his alcohol-curtailed life in the town. Laugharne, in the great British tradition of misleadingly spelt place names, has more letters than it needs – it is pronounced "Larn". It is officially a town, but that's a rather grandiose title for what is little more than a village perched on the Taff estuary – albeit a very picturesque one. Its main claim to fame is in the (much-debated) suggestion that the fictional Llareggub of Thomas's most famous work was modelled on Laugharne.

Thomas wrote his "play for voices" here. To see exactly where, I take the path from the car park around the perimeter of Laugharne Castle, which commands the mudflats and marshes of the oozing estuary. The castle, with its wrecked turrets and crenellations, is an archetypical romantic ruin that has inspired poets and painters alike – Turner painted it in 1831. Dylan Thomas picked his spot. Having lived in the town at various other addresses, he had his eye on the Boat House for years. In 1949, he finally got his chance, courtesy of his benefactor, Margaret Taylor, who bought the house for him.

The Boat House is now a bijou museum. Some of the rooms have been preserved as they were in DT's time. The house balances on the cliff, an unlikely beacon of domesticity in an elemental wash of sea, sky, clouds, mud and rocks. With home comforts managed by his long-suffering wife, Caitlin, Dylan would retire to his writing shed (a converted garage) about a hundred yards from the house. Bathed in the ever changing play of estuary light and surrounded by the cackle of water birds – cormorants, scoters, lapwings, gulls, sandpipers and herons – the shed is a perfect factory for poetry.

It seems likely that the Llareggub ("bugger all" spelt backwards) of Under Milk Wood is a composite invention drawn from various places the poet lived in. But no matter, Laugharne has become Dylan Thomas's creation anyway – where his work and likeness are milked for every last drop of associative value. There is a Fern Hill B&B named after his famous poem, and Seaview, one of the Thomas homes in the town, is now a hotel trading on its literary heritage. At the aspirational Hurst House hotel, just outside town, Thomas's poster-sized image looks on, entirely appropriately, from behind the bottle clutter of the bar. In souvenir shops you can buy Dylan Thomas CDs, DVDs, books and, I kid not, "Do not go gentle" coffee mugs.

Dylan's favourite bar, however, Brown's Hotel in the high street, is shut and in a sorry state – it was bought a few years ago by Neil Morrissey (Men Behaving Badly), but his plans to redevelop it have foundered. The high street itself comes as a surprise to anyone expecting a typical Welsh village in the sticks. Though run-down in parts, much of it is Georgian and rather grand.

The house we are staying in is a Queen Anne mansion called The Great House – which is an understatement. The first indication of its splendour is the elaborate architrave of the front door. The wonders pile up thick and fast. Graceful carved archways, antique furniture, oil paintings, oriental rugs, sweeping staircase, four-poster bed, heated pool, sun terrace – a little breathless, I ask my 13-year-old son, Niko, what he makes of it. "This house is so ... so ... unnecessary," he splutters, struggling to find the precise words to express himself.

I think I understand what he is getting at. Little in the house is strictly necessary. This is not a house for quotidian existence. It's for luxuriating. Why have a single living room when you can have two? Both are lavishly furnished with an antique bookcase, fireplace and wallowing sofas. The bedrooms on the first floor are oblivious to practicalities. They are cavernous and panelled from floor to ceiling, but there are no wardrobes – the rooms are almost monastic, eschewing ornamentation and spitting at cosiness.

The en suite attached to my bedroom is an Alice in Wonderland inversion of the bed-bath relationship – with bathroom as show stopper. A roll-top tub is stranded in the centre of a vast space within which entire Welsh tribes could set up camp. The walls are scattered with pictures (I count 63 frames), inviting Through The Keyhole style reveries. Who might live in a bathroom like this? Are there clues here in the military memorabilia or the black and white photos of Prague? It's all wildly eclectic – photos of Himalayan peaks jostle sea-scapes, family photos alongside prints of famous Renaissance portraits, and a huge Italianate mural (signed KW Hancock 1933) is screwed crudely to the wall.

"I bought that at a local auction," says Tim Lowe, the owner, when I talk to him later. "I think it's painted by a vicar from the Mumbles Head parish in Swansea." Tim was a captain in the Gurkhas, and now works in the City. He took on the "unloved" house in 1998 and its restoration has been a decade-long labour of love. The building was stripped to its core and reassembled as funds became available "bonus by bonus". The trick, he maintains, is not to over restore, which explains the wave of warped pine flooring that flows tipsily across the first-floor landing.

This intriguing house has been let to us by a new holiday cottage company called Sheepskin, which has hand-picked a selection of similarly interesting properties across Wales. It is hard to leave the house, but the surrounding countryside, Dylan's country, is calling.

Up on St John's Hill, where "the hawk on fire hangs still", the views take the eye down the river estuary and out to sea beyond the gold braid of the Pendine Sands.

The beach and the dunes are owned by the Ministry of Defence. Visitors are faced with a series of increasingly ominous signs: "Danger. Firing Range. No entry" says the first bluntly, the next declares "SECURITY: The emergency state is HEIGHTENED".

I press on, albeit with a mounting sense of unease, down the deserted road, threading through the live-fire zones. I am relieved to reach the public car park, unscathed. Now it's the council's turn to ratchet up the stress – "No Swimming, No Crossing the Estuary, DANGER – Sandbanks, Mudflats, Tides" – says the stern notice.

Out of the car park I get a final warning – "You are now entering a Potential Explosive Site" – accompanied by a graphic image of an explosion. By the time we hit the beach I'm convinced this is the most dangerous spot on earth. But it is also one of the most beautiful. The tide is out and the flats seem a mile wide, to the right the highway of sand stretches west for seven miles up to the village of Pendine.

The surface is so perfectly flat that it was used for attempts on the land speed record in the 1920s. Malcolm Campbell set a series of records in Bluebirds 1 and 2 here, before a fatal crash decapitated another driver and the attempts were stopped. A tragedy – but, as Karl Marx predicted, history repeats itself as farce. I learn later that somewhere on the beach today, Campbell's grandson is breaking the world lawnmower land speed record by hitting nearly 88mph.

The Laugharne end of the sands is blissfully quiet and unpeopled. In the distance, through the shimmering haze, I can see a couple, hand in hand, walking barefoot at the surf's edge.

Much closer, a round man is flying his radio-controlled toy plane – pushing it into angry little circles in the sky. A dog then appears through the dunes – overcome by the vision of endless space – he takes off like an ecstasy fuelled rocket. I wait for him to explode, either by treading on some discarded munitions or, more likely, from pure joy.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Sheepskin (01865 764087; sheep offers a three-night stay in Great House, Laugharne, which sleeps six, for £855, and a week's stay for £1,875. Sheepskin's prices stay the same year-round, with no premium charged for peak school and public holidays. The cottage rate also includes the company's "concierge-style" service, which provides information on what to experience locally, from shopping to walking, in a guide that is tailor-made for each stay.

Further information

Camarthenshire Tourist Association (

Sean Haldane: 'I now think poetry has more capacity to change people than psychotherapy'


Sean Haldane, a nominee for the post of professor of poetry at Oxford, talks about his dual life as a poet and neuroscientist

Tim Adams The Observer

Sean Haldane is a poet and consultant clinical neuropsychologist working with the NHS in east London. His collected poems Always Two, were published last year. He is a nominee for the post of professor of poetry at Oxford University.

Would it be fair to say you lead a double life, as a poet and neuroscientist?

Well, I've been working in psychology and neuropsychology for 30 or 40 years. I decided ages ago that if I were a poet, I didn't want to make a career of it. So I had to make a living another way. I tried farming, I tried living off the land in Canada. I tried publishing, and then I gravitated toward psychology and neuropsychology.

Your poetry has seemed to come quite sporadically: in the introduction to Always Two, you talk about waiting for poetry to overtake you. That makes it sound like an involuntary act?
I think that's right. It is as if you have a voice in your head speaking poems. If that sounds mystical, then I know enough of neuroscience to make it less so. The brain's right hemisphere, for example, "talks" under certain circumstances to the left hemisphere. That can feel like an alien voice, or that something new is happening in the mind that is coming from somewhere else. I wouldn't want to make a mystery of poetry, but I have never felt it has been in my control.

What does your professional life involve?
As I am getting older and somewhat senior in the NHS, I do about half clinical work, mostly assessing diseases of memory, dementia, some acquired brain conditions in younger people. Then the rest of the time I am involved in the provision of memory clinics across east London.

You were born in Sussex but grew up in Belfast?

Yes my father had been a major in the army during the war and when that finished he took us back to live in Northern Ireland, where he was from. Belfast then was like living all the time on top of a bomb that was about to go off. I had an English accent, but an Irish name, so both sides tended to give me a rough time to begin with.

You lived a long time in the States and Canada, what brought you back?
I got sort of stuck in Canada, my wife is French Canadian, we had two daughters there, and I had a daughter from a previous relationship, so we stayed. We lived there for 25 years, but after about 15 I was ready to come back, I was homesick, but for England rather than Ireland.

You started as a psychotherapist?
I did private practice psychotherapy in Canada and the US. I studied Reichian techniques of breathing and expression of emotion and so on. Then I moved into working in public health systems and using practical neuropsychology more. I don't have huge faith in the possibility of psychotherapy to change people as I used to. In fact, I now think poetry has more capacity to change people than psychotherapy. If you read a poem and it gets to you, it can shift your perspective in quite a big way, and writing a poem, even more so.

Is that one of the reasons you have put yourself forward for the role of professor of poetry at Oxford?
Not really. The Oxford thing was a long way from my mind, but my book of poems was published last year at about the same time that the Ruth Padel and Derek Walcott scandal, as it were, blew up. And a friend said: you should run. And I thought, well, perhaps I should. For two reasons: one, because when I went to Oxford I met Robert Graves, who was then professor of poetry, and we had one or two extremely close conversations that meant a lot to me. I would love to think a really good professor of poetry would be like that, would be available, talk to people. Second, Graves packed the halls with students from all faculties, scientists as well as Eng Lit. It is not so much that I want the job, just that I would like to be in the position to give those lectures.

Has work been done in studying the effects of reading poetry on the brain?

Neuropsychology can help to explain poetry, to demystify the impulse. There has been work done on why poetry can send shivers down our spine. The poem activates the same parts of the brain that react when a child is separated from its mother. A deep sense of separation and longing.

To borrow from psychoanalysis, do you think poetry gives closure on emotions?

I do think they finish things off, yes. Most of my poems are written in the heat of emotional things. I publish them much later. Someone once asked my wife what my poems were about. And she replied "what torments him". Because I am almost too close to them, it has taken me almost until last year to read them to other people.

Does a poem like your 'Desire in Belfast', which looks back on a teenage romantic encounter, come to you fully formed?

I was driving along an icy road in Canada and I pulled off the road to write it. About two-thirds of it, 60 odd lines, arrived right there. It was triggered by an anniversary actually, I suddenly realised part of it had happened exactly 30 years before.

It is almost as if memories have a shape or a syntax of their own?

I think you are right. It is not for nothing I work in memory clinics. I grew up mainly in Northern Ireland. Over there, the word "mind" and the word "remember" are interchangeable. I think they were synonymous for Shakespeare, too.

If we are anything as individuals, we are the sum of our memories?

Absolutely, or we certainly are not ourselves without memory. I deal with people whose memory function is patchy. I think it was Buñuel who said "loss of memory is loss of self". From what I observe that is true.

Does that make you fear memory loss?

I certainly wouldn't like it. Though, for example, Graves was quite demented in later life and wrote some wonderful poetry at the onset of that, so perhaps sometimes poetry can break through that impairment.

Have you recommended poetry as a therapeutic practice?

Never. In that sense I am more than happy to be a split personality

Novelist Dave Eggers backs radical child literacy move


Pioneering child-friendly workshops to be launched in Britain

It is hard to get some children inside a library – but a high-street shop selling pirate eye patches or superhero equipment is much more of a draw.

This is the simple principle behind a literacy movement that has taken hold in America, and is coming to Britain.

The novelist and screenwriter Dave Eggers, best known for his 2000 bestseller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and his publishing house McSweeney's, has set up a series of enticing drop-in centres in cities across the US to promote writing and reading among children. Now a British team of writers and arts entrepreneurs is to create a version in London, with the backing of Eggers and initial funding from Arts Council England.

The first children's centre to try his radical approach was established in 2002, in Eggers's native San Francisco.

Named after its address in the Mission district of the city and guilefully hidden behind a Pirate Supply Store shopfront, "826 Valencia" helps students aged from eight to 18 to develop writing skills in informal workshops. By seducing young patrons with pirate parrots and peg legs, it removed the stigma associated with extra literacy lessons.

The San Francisco store was followed by a Superhero Supply Store in Brooklyn, New York, which sells capes and tins of "anti-matter". Seattle then took up the challenge, setting up the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company. The growing network of individual projects is linked through the Once Upon a School website.

Writers behind the London project are to pilot a similar venture in an unused shop for six months, and are seeking a suitable space and further funding.

As in America, the store will be largely staffed by volunteers. Eggers recently attended an open meeting in London and called for public support. Ben Payne, one of the British organising team, was inspired: "He did a call to action that brought together a passionate and excited group of volunteers after the show, all buzzing about how we could make an 826 London centre." The novelist's instruction to "follow the weird" is crucial, Payne believes, and he is now looking for an unusual shopfront for the store. Plans for a London centre started in earnest this February, but other writers and community workers have also been keen to copy Eggers's idea.

A project called First Story has already sent well-known authors such as Zadie Smith into schools. Writer Kate Waldegrave, who co-founded First Story, said she believed there is a better tradition of "educational charitable enterprise" in America. "That's a bit of a shame about England, but I think it is changing."

In Ireland the novelist Roddy Doyle has established a writing centre in north Dublin called Fighting Words.

El viaje oficial a África que torció el destino de Federico García Lorca


En los talleres de un periódico granadino, como venganza contra la familia Rosales que había dado refugio al poeta y que simbolizaba a la Falange local y con el objetivo de acumular poder y notoriedad, Ramón Ruiz Alonso sentenció a muerte a Federico García Lorca al redactar una denuncia en la que le acusaba de masón y de ser el secretario personal de Fernando de los Ríos, ministro durante la República. Los cargos eran muy graves, más aún teniendo en cuenta que Lorca era homosexual y poeta.

Hasta ayer, la mayoría de los investigadores se ha empeñado en negar los cargos de la acusación. Desde ayer, el hecho de que García Lorca fue secretario de Fernando de los Ríos, aunque de forma temporal, parece más que demostrado. El investigador granadino Miguel Caballero (1958) lo desvela en Lorca en África. Crónica de un viaje al protectorado español de Marruecos (Ediciones del Patronato Provincial Federico García Lorca). Caballero reúne pruebas que sitúan a Lorca en Ceuta, Tetuán, Alcazarquivir y Xauen acompañando al entonces ministro de Instrucción Pública.

"Estaba trabajando en una recopilación de unos 3.000 artículos periodísticos en los que se cita al poeta y entonces me topé con uno de 1931 en el que se anunciaba una visita de Fernando de los Ríos a Marruecos acompañado por su secretario, Federico García Lorca. Eso me puso sobre aviso y comencé a tirar del hilo", explicó ayer Caballero, que ha encontrado una fotografía en la que puede verse al poeta en la comitiva oficial y un vídeo en el que se le intuye en la cubierta del buque Almirante Ferrándiz junto al político el 26 de diciembre de 1931.

De los Ríos visitaba Marruecos por diferentes motivos. Uno de ellos era que había recibido varias cartas de grupos masones del norte de África. "Esas cartas estaban dirigidas a Jugan, que era su nombre dentro de la masonería, y luego fueron utilizadas por el franquismo contra él", añade Caballero. Durante el viaje, el ministro y el poeta se alojaron en casa del general Cabanellas, uno de los militares que después participó en el levantamiento de 1936. García Lorca aprovechó la estancia, de cinco días, para visitar a un primo hermano suyo farmacéutico que murió en 1938 a causa de una sobredosis de morfina.

"No hay duda de que Federico trabajó como secretario de Fernando de los Ríos. Tenían una simpatía personal muy grande y García Lorca fue nombrado vocal de la Junta Nacional de Música y Teatro Lírico en sustitución de Manuel de Falla, lo que tampoco fue una casualidad", explica el investigador, que afirma que el propio García Lorca "escribió algunos de los discursos del ministro, como es evidente en los que leyó en África por sus referencias a San Juan de la Cruz y a su relación con los judíos".

venerdì 28 maggio 2010

A Flowering Tribute To Emily Dickinson

by Lynn Neary

he poet Emily Dickinson lived a reclusive life at her family's home in Amherst, Mass., but while she rarely went out into society, she did spend a lot of time outdoors. Dickinson loved nature and was an avid gardener, and now an exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden called Emily Dickinson's Garden: The Poetry of Flowers is putting on display a side of the poet that is little known.

Gardening was a huge part of Dickinson's life and her art. "I was always attached to mud," she once wrote, and a sophisticated understanding of plants and flowers is reflected in her poetry. According to Gregory Long, the president and CEO of the New York Botanical Garden, Dickinson used to tuck little poems into bouquets of flowers that she gave to her neighbors.

"The people of Amherst who were the friends of Emily Dickinson and her family often received these poems, these short poems with presents of flowers or food," Long says. "They knew her as a poet because of these. Because nothing was really published in her life, or very, very little. So they found the poems, of course, very eccentric."

In fact, Dickinson was better known as a gardener than as a poet.

"She knew a great deal about plants, and she grew them very well," Long says. "And what we found is that her poems are not sentimental valentines to flowers. They're serious poems, but they're tied to her great passion for plants and nature. So we decided, well, we should introduce people to Emily Dickinson not only as a poet, but as a gardener."

On the path that runs between beds of flowers at the New York Botanical Garden, more than 30 poems are displayed on boards next to plants and trees and flowers that inspired them. The walk begins near a delicate rosebush accompanied by a poem, called "She sped as Petals of a Rose," that Jennifer Rothman, who helped design the poetry walk, says Dickinson wrote in memory of a young child who died.

"It started by going through all of her poems and finding first the ones that had to do with flowers or plants and narrowing it down to that group," Rothman says. "And so then we chose poems that would reflect the flowers that would be in bloom or the landscape."

Nearby, four trees stand in front of a large lawn of grass, accompanied by Dickinson's poem "Four Trees — upon a solitary Acre." And inside the Botanical Garden's glass-domed conservatory is a re-creation of Dickinson's own garden.

Todd Forrest, who designed the garden, says it is filled with the types of flowers Dickinson might have planted around her family's home. Foxgloves, daffodils, zinnias and hydrangeas all bloom at the same time in this hothouse atmosphere and overflow the garden beds. There is even a small orchard nearby, blanketed in flowers that might have grown naturally near Dickinson's home. In something of a shock, Forrest made sure the mix of flowers included dandelions, a move that he says raised an eyebrow or two around the Botanical Garden. Long adds that they have to keep the staff gardeners from uprooting the tiny yellow flowering weeds.

"I know for a fact that this is the first time we've grown dandelions for a flower show," Forrest says. "But dandelions were very important to her. In fact, she referred to herself more as a dandelion. She felt more comfortable and more natural in the fields with the dandelions than she would in the drawing rooms with the fancy folks around Amherst."

A Sepal -- Petal -- And A Thorn
By Emily Dickinson

A sepal -- petal -- and a thorn
Opon a common summer's morn --
A flask of Dew -- A Bee or two --
A Breeze -- a'caper in the trees --
And I'm a Rose!

Dickinson text reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Varorium Edition, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright 1998 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard CollegeDickinson loved getting her hands dirty.

"She tramped through the woods her entire life," Forrest says. "I have no doubt that she was out there deadheading, dividing. Any gardener is only happy when you're out in the garden pulling a weed or two, including dandelions."

Within the Botanical Garden's re-creation of Dickinson's garden, a path leads to a facade that represents her family's home. Just inside, there's a small replica of her bedroom.

"She wrote most of her poetry sitting at a small desk," Forrest says. "She would go out to visit her brother and sister-in-law next door, come back, and then light a lamp in the window to let them know she had returned. And we have found our visitors like to stop and look out the window. And it makes them slow down and look at the garden very much as Emily might have."

Dickinson rarely left the estate — she did not even attend her father's funeral in 1874. The garden, and the path between the two houses — in Dickinson's words, "just wide enough for two who love," according to Rothman — was her entire world.

"She used to bring her niece Maddy to her room and she would close the door and lock it, and say, 'This is freedom,' " Rothman says. "And so she really felt that when she was in her room and she was looking out along the wooded path between her family homes, that she was free."

The exhibition concludes in the Botanical Garden's library, where objects from Dickinson's life are on display — including the white cotton dress she wore even while gardening. She always kept a poem she was working on in the pocket of the dress.

Le voyage dans le passé de Stefan Zweig


L'écrivain autichien sur la Côte d'Azur. Polyglotte accompli, il traduisit notamment des oeuvres de Baudelaire, Verlaine et Rimbaud lors de son séjour sur la Riviera au début des années 30.
Près de soixante-dix ans après son suicide, l'écrivain autrichien continue à fasciner des millions de lecteurs. Ses inédits s'arrachent, les biographies qui lui sont consacrées, aussi. Mais comment devient-on un écrivain culte?

Entre 1911 et 1933, Brûlant secret, l'une des plus fortes nouvelles de Stefan Zweig, fut diffusé à plus de 140 000 exemplaires en Allemagne. Celui qui exécrait le succès y sera abonné jusqu'à son suicide en 1942, et après. Vivant, on le traduisait déjà presque partout en Europe, sur le continent américain, et aussi en russe, en chinois, en turc, en arménien. Brûlant secret, Amok, Lettre d'une inconnue ont chacun connu trois adaptations au cinéma, Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d'une femme en compte six. Aujourd'hui, la Zweigmania se poursuit, en France notamment, où l'on s'est récemment emballé pour deux inédits en français: Le Voyage dans le passé et Un soupçon légitime, traduits en 2008 et 2009 chez Grasset, qui réédite ce mois-ci La Pitié dangereuse.Symptomatique, aussi, le succès en librairie de Laurent Seksik imaginant Les Derniers Jours de Stefan Zweig (Flammarion).

Pourquoi cette passion? Dans la sagace et vibrante biographie qu'elle lui a consacrée et qui vient d'être rééditée (récit fluide, empathique, quasiment sans notes, à la Zweig), Dominique Bona avance des explications. Il «écrit vite et efficace», ses nouvelles sont intemporelles, «détachées de l'Histoire»et «visent l'humain». Il y a autre chose. Crépusculaires, ses fictions ont la couleur de notre époque, elles parlent à des consciences troublées. De plus, elles explorent souvent le thème du secret, et ce monde a perdu le sens du secret, le code qui chiffre et déchiffre les coeurs dans le temps.

Avec Lotte Altmann, sa seconde épouse, qui se suicidera avec lui le 22 février 1942.Secret et crépusculaire, mais aussi sombre et sensuel, solitaire et amical, sage et victime, c'est bien le cas de Stefan Zweig, né le 28 novembre 1881 dans les beaux quartiers de Vienne, la capitale d'un empire austro-hongrois opulent et figé dans sa magnificence. Son père a gagné des millions dans l'industrie textile. Sa mère porte des robes de taffetas et sillonne les salons de la bourgeoisie. Stefan Zweig est juif, mais ne pratique pas. Comme son frère aîné, il fréquente le Maximilian Gymnasium. A ce lycée qui sent la prison, l'élève passable préfère le théâtre, les concerts de Brahms ou de Schönberg, les cafés fumants de littérature. Il n'ose cependant s'aventurer au Café Central, où s'attablent Hugo von Hofmannsthal et Arthur Schnitzler, avant d'avoir fait ses preuves en poésie. Il les produira à 19 ans avec le recueil Cordes d'argent.Rainer Maria Rilke a beau lui écrire à cette occasion, Zweig doute de ses propres dons. Et déjà, il songe à partir. A Berlin, l'avant-garde le change quelques mois des chocolats de l'empire. Revenu à Vienne, il boucle un doctorat en philosophie en 1904, puis va et vient pendant dix ans: l'Europe, l'Inde, l'Indochine, les Etats-Unis, les Antilles, Cuba. Il débute comme il finira, en errant, avec pour visa permanent sa propension à l'admiration et au partage des idées. A Montparnasse, en 1911, il rencontre Romain Rolland, qui notera un jour: «L'amitié est sa religion.» Sur la toile du Vieux Monde bientôt déchirée par la Grande Guerre, il tisse des liens puissants: Emile Verhaeren, Hermann Hesse, Heinrich Mann, James Joyce. Plus tard, sa maison de Salzbourg accueillera Pierre Jean Jouve, Paul Valéry, Rabindranath Tagore; Béla Bartók, Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss y joueront du piano.

Depuis la terrasse de sa maison à Salzbourg (vers 1930).Avec les femmes, malgré sa timidité, c'est une autre affaire, joyeuse et prolétaire. Il apprécie les lingères, les vendeuses de bonbons, les serveuses, les fleuristes, les prostituées, les étudiantes. Rien qui n'engage, que des extases, parfois multipliées, pour dissoudre l'angoisse. Dans son journal de 1912, on lit qu'il a amené chez lui «deux amies dont les beaux corps» le «réjouissent». Cette année-là, il se lie avec Friederike von Winternitz. Séparée, émancipée, elle écrit des romans sentimentaux. Elle l'aime, respecte sa liberté. Lui l'aime, à sa façon: «J'aimerais qu'elle se débarrasse de sa sensualité, qui perturbe chez elle la pure sensation que j'ai de son admirable univers.» Mariés en 1920, elle se peindra en épouse protectrice, «prophylactique», «gardienne de son oeuvre». Une femme de paix, en somme.

Belliciste, Zweig le fut une fois, en 1914. Pétri de culture allemande, il tempête contre la France qui «se bat pour sa naïveté et l'Angleterre pour son portemonnaie». Il reviendra de sa colère en visitant comme adjudant l'horrible front de Cracovie à Budapest. Face au désastre, il écrira une pièce de théâtre, Jérémie, à la gloire d'un prophète de la paix. Jérémie est un vaincu, c'est important pour Zweig, qui postule que la défaite grandit plus que la victoire. En 1917, lorsqu'il se rend en Suisse épauler les intellectuels pacifistes, ses discours prônent le «renoncement». Certains y voient de la lâcheté. Zweig n'est pas un lâche, c'est un idéaliste. «Citoyen d'Europe», il appelle à «considérer fraternellement comme une unité notre monde multiple». Pendant plus de vingt ans, il défendra cette idée dans des tournées de conférences, le laissant parfois épuisé «comme un chanteur de concert qui n'a plus de voix». Basé à Salzbourg à partir de 1919, il contracte des alliances purement spirituelles. Trois maîtres traitent de Dostoïevski, Balzac, Dickens. Le Combat avec le démon se consacre à Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche. Trois poètes de leur vie rassemble Stendhal, Casanova, Tolstoï. Ses essais et biographies s'écrivent à l'encre empathique, à l'exception de Fouché (1929). Traître à tous sauf à lui-même, le policier de Napoléon fait figure d'intrus dans la galerie, mais il a valeur d'indice, cristallisant l'effroi politique de Zweig face à ces «joueurs professionnels que nous appelons diplomates», «ces artistes aux mains prestes, aux mots vides et aux nerfs glacés».

1933 : ses livres sont brûlés à Berlin, comme ceux de Mann, Einstein, Freud...
Antinazi, antifasciste, anticommuniste, Zweig n'en réfère qu'à la raison et à la poésie, si richement servies par la langue allemande depuis des siècles. Le style national-socialiste le mortifie. En 1931, il publie La Guérison par l'esprit, où l'on trouve une apologie de Freud, sur lequel on crache déjà. Freud s'agace un peu de ses simplifications. Mais Zweig se trompe sur un point plus essentiel: l'Europe ne guérira pas par l'esprit.

Ostende, en Belgique, avec son ami l'écrivain autrichien Joseph Roth, qui disparaîtra en 1939.Après l'incendie du Reichstag en février 1933, les nazis interdisent le film que Robert Siodmak a tiré de Brûlant secret. En mai, à Berlin, on brûle ses livres, comme ceux de Thomas Mann, Schnitzler, Einstein, Freud. Joseph Roth et Klaus Mann l'exhortent en vain à prendre position. Certains s'exilent, il reste en Autriche à travailler sur une vie d'Erasme, l'humaniste combattu par Luther: «Ce sera, je l'espère, un hymne à la défaite.» Il ne dévie pas de sa ligne. La logique de guerre, non plus. En février 1934, à Linz, la révolte ouvrière est écrasée par le chancelier autrichien Dollfuss allié aux mussoliniens. Le lendemain, quand la police surgit chez lui à la recherche d'armes imaginaires, il se décide à partir, seul, écrire sur Marie Stuart, à Londres. Il y rencontre Lotte Altmann, 26 ans, née en Silésie. C'est une longue fille brune, à l'air triste, de complexion fragile. Le tragique les unit; de secrétaire, elle devient sa maîtresse. De Londres, il file aux Etats-Unis pour des conférences, New York le revigore un peu. Quand il séjourne à Salzbourg, il y sent la mort. Insouciante, Friederike supporte mal sa hantise du malheur. Elle a tort, son mari a des antennes pour le pire. En mai 1936, il écrit à l'écrivain Carl Seelig: «Saisir toutes les chances qui s'offrent à nous, qui sait si nous ne serons pas tous gazés d'ici quelques années?» En août, le Brésil l'accueille tel un roi. A son retour, l'Europe spectrale lui serre l'âme comme à «un homme qui passe ses nuits dans un cimetière, sur la tombe de sa femme disparue». Toujours pas d'engagement public. Mais un livre, Le Chandelier enterré, parabole sur la persécution des Juifs au Ve siècle. En 1938, sa dépression prend corps historiquement avec l'Anschluss qui phagocyte l'Autriche. A Salzbourg, ses oeuvres partent en fumée, on saisit ses biens, sa collection d'autographes et de manuscrits. Où flotte la mèche de cheveux de Beethoven qu'il gardait précieusement? Friederike réussit à fuir en France, ils vont divorcer.

A Londres, il se démène pour aider financièrement Joseph Roth, qui meurt en mai 1939 à Paris. Dans l'oraison funèbre rédigée pour son ami, Zweig condamne Hitler à sa manière, l'accusant d'avoir fait subir à la littérature «la plus terrible défaite de son histoire». En septembre, il épouse Lotte. Naturalisé anglais, il loge à Bath dans l'adversité: «Une vie avec une France détruite, dans une Angleterre hostile à l'Allemand et au Juif que je suis, n'a plus de sens.» L'été 1940, il quitte l'Europe avec Lotte. Après une escale aux Etats-Unis, le couple part pour le Brésil et l'Argentine, revient à New York, se pose dans le Connecticut, réembarque en août 1941 pour le Brésil. Terminus Petrópolis, dans la montagne, à 80 kilomètres de Rio. On dirait une station thermale européenne, avec un petit air tyrolien, en plus chaud, plus humide. Il écrit Brésil, terre d'avenir, mais il n'a plus que des souvenirs, et c'est Le Monde d'hier qui restera, posthume. Comme Le Joueur d'échecs. Il a perdu. Lotte va le suivre encore. Le 22 février 1942, on les trouve allongés sur leur lit, elle agrippée à lui, suicidés au Véronal. Il y a beaucoup de suicides dans les nouvelles de Zweig. A son propos, Jules Romains parlera d'un «sage». Oui, mais d'une sagesse ployant sous son propre absolu, une sagesse vulnérable, finalement invivable.

* Stefan Zweig, de Dominique Bona, Grasset, 460 p., 20,90 euros. Les citations de S. Zweig et de F. von Winternitz proviennent de cet ouvrage.

Le crépuscule de l'âme

"Egobody - La fabrique de l'homme nouveau", de Robert Redeker.

Longtemps, l'âme fut une évidence. Quoi qu'on ait mis sous ce nom - les définitions étaient multiples, certaines âmes étaient matérielles -, son existence ne faisait aucun doute. Son salut - entendu lui aussi de diverses manières, matérialistes incluses - était le souci primordial de l'existence humaine. Robert Redeker constate qu'il s'agit, désormais, d'une affaire ancienne. A présent ne règne que le corps. Et il se trouve, à son tour, radicalement métamorphosé : réduit à une enveloppe de peau, il ne se distingue plus du moi de l'individu.

L'intérêt de cette dissection philosophique d'Egobody - le nom que donne Robert Redeker à ce post-humain dont le corps et l'ego se confondent - est de souligner l'ampleur et la profondeur des mutations en cours. Il ne s'agirait pas simplement d'effets de surface, mais bien d'une rupture sans précédent dans la longue histoire de ce qu'on appelait, naguère, "homme". Les transformations affecteraient non seulement la chair elle-même, devenue industrielle par le biais d'une alimentation quotidienne nouvelle, mais aussi le rapport à soi, au monde, aux autres.

Dépourvu d'âme, ce nouvel humain serait aussi dépourvu de détresse, de cosmos, privé de figure du mal et de toute représentation du diabolique. Détaché du moindre ancrage dans un terroir, il survivrait perpétuellement connecté, en étant toujours, si l'on ose dire, à la fois prothéisé et protéiné. Limité à un salut de type zoologique, il n'entretiendrait plus que des rapports lointains avec l'homme des époques antérieures... Voilà des affirmations discutables, dans la mesure où Robert Redeker présente souvent comme achevés, et irréversiblement triomphants, des processus qui semblent être plutôt des tendances. Même s'il s'agit de mouvements de fond, on peut penser que leur issue demeure encore incertaine.

L'avantage de ce parti pris philosophique est de souligner l'urgence de faire retour à une interrogation sur la définition même de l'homme. Aux yeux de Kant, "qu'est-ce que l'homme ?" était encore la question ultime de la philosophie, celle où venaient aboutir toutes les autres. Depuis que Michel Foucault a conclu Les Mots et les Choses (1966) sur "la mort de l'homme", cette antique question a souvent semblé sans objet. Ce nouvel essai de Robert Redeker rappelle que le débat n'est pas clos. Plus ancienne et plus résistante que Foucault ne l'avait pensé, la question de l'homme est à réexaminer à nouveaux frais. Vaste programme.

Egobody. La Fabrique de l'homme nouveau, de Robert Redeker, Fayard, 204 p., 16 €.

Roger-Pol Droit

Le commerce des corps


Un prélèvement d'organes, dans un hôpital en région parisienne.Depuis les années 1950, rein, coeur, poumon, foie, intestin puis pancréas ont successivement été transplantés par la médecine d'un corps humain, vivant ou mort, à un autre. Grâce au sacrifice accompli par ceux qui donnent leurs organes, la mort elle-même a été défiée, depuis deux générations, par le génie médical. C'est que, comme l'écrit le sociologue Philippe Steiner au seuil de son ouvrage, "pour réaliser une greffe, il ne suffit pas de planter une aiguille dans la peau ; il faut pratiquer une opération sur le corps de la personne prélevée, l'inciser et aller chercher au tréfonds de l'organisme la ressource désirée".

La transplantation d'organes a longtemps fasciné. Philippe Steiner l'aborde ici au moyen d'une vaste enquête historique qui mobilise de nombreuses sources anglo-saxonnes peu connues en France. Plus qu'au geste héroïque du médecin ou au transplanté lui-même, c'est à cette nouvelle "ressource corporelle humaine", comme il appelle les greffons, que le sociologue se consacre.


Connu pour ses travaux sur les relations entretenues par la sociologie et l'économie depuis le XIXe siècle, Philippe Steiner s'applique ici, en quelque sorte, à mesurer les conséquences sociales d'un problème très simple d'économie politique. Le déséquilibre entre le nombre de personnes en attente de greffe et le nombre de donneurs prélevés chaque année étant très grand, l'offre de greffons est toujours inférieure à la demande. Le scalpel du chirurgien-transplanteur est, de ce fait, investi d'une mission sociale en plus de son utilité médicale. Il s'agit d'exploiter de la meilleure manière possible "les ressources offertes par la mort, un peu chichement pourrait-on dire, aux vivants". Ou, comme le dit aussi Steiner, de s'engager dans la "productivisation de la mort".

A la fin des années 1960, partout où des transplantations avaient lieu, la "frontière de la mort" fut d'abord redéfinie au moyen d'un critère nouveau : l'activité encéphalique. Considérer comme morte une personne dont le coeur n'a pas cessé de battre mais dont l'activité encéphalique est nulle, c'est en effet augmenter considérablement le nombre de donneurs potentiels.

L'avis des familles n'a-t-il pas continué, souvent, à faire obstacle au prélèvement ? La loi apporta elle aussi sa contribution à l'exploitation des nouvelles "ressources corporelles" en présumant le consentement du défunt.

La "frontière de la peau" s'ouvrit quant à elle dans les années 1970, dès lors que des traitements antirejet performants, comme la cyclosporine, permirent d'assurer le passage des greffons d'un organisme à un autre. Ce passage fut aussi facilité par la coordination des équipes médicales chargées des différentes étapes de la transplantation. Petit à petit, la "politique de l'exhortation" à l'adresse des familles fut efficacement secondée par une "économie de l'incitation" visant à rétribuer - symboliquement et financièrement - les équipes médicales participant à la transplantation.

Reste aujourd'hui une dernière frontière pour les organes : le marché. Banni du commerce social autour de la transplantation, comme l'écrit Steiner, celui-ci n'a paradoxalement jamais été aussi prêt de le dominer. Les limites "quantitatives" de l'exhortation au don désintéressé entre vivants, comme celles du sacrifice des défunts en situation de mort encéphalique, ont déjà été atteintes. La mondialisation du marché des organes et la création d'une véritable "traite de transplantation" vers les pays où l'offre est plus importante, comme la Chine, l'Irak ou la Turquie, en attestent. Par ailleurs, la rationalisation des systèmes de coordination des équipes médicales a conduit à mettre en place des systèmes d'"appariement" entre offre et demande qui ressemblent à s'y méprendre à un véritable marché. Les différents organes, à défaut d'y avoir déjà un prix, s'y voient attribuer un tarif facturé aux organismes de Sécurité sociale.


Peu de sujets abordés par les sciences humaines répondent aussi justement que la transplantation d'organes à la définition de ce que l'anthropologue Marcel Mauss appelait un "fait social total". Depuis que Joseph Murray réalisa la première greffe de rein entre deux jumeaux à Boston en 1954, la loi, l'économie, la morale et l'opinion interfèrent régulièrement, dans ce domaine, avec la pure technique médicale. La société ne cesse, en effet, d'interroger les limites de ce nouveau "commerce entre les êtres humains", comme l'appelle Philippe Steiner. Le sociologue joue à dessein sur la polysémie du terme. Echange désintéressé ou négoce sordide ? Don ou trafic d'organes ? La greffe renvoie alternativement à ces deux imaginaires contradictoires.

Seul l'Iran possède aujourd'hui un véritable marché des organes, où s'affrontent la concurrence des receveurs et celle des vendeurs. Pourtant, selon Philippe Steiner, le risque est grand que se généralisent les "biomarchés". L'argument du sociologue est très influencé par ceux que l'historien Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) utilisa dans les années 1930 pour décrire le lent processus de marchandisation du travail humain entamé avec la révolution industrielle. Le "commerce", au sens économique du terme, se désenchevêtre régulièrement et s'autonomise, pour le sociologue, des relations sociales entre les humains.

La "comédie du don" ne décrit que très imparfaitement l'échange d'organes tel qu'il se déroule dans le monde. La "fiction du marché", entretenue à dessein pour rendre toujours plus productive la mort, se transformera-t-elle en réalité ? Philippe Steiner apporte à cette question des réponses historiques mais aussi morales. Le marché des organes a, en effet, parfois été défendu au nom du libéralisme, comme l'aboutissement d'un long processus de conquête de son corps par l'être humain. A y regarder de près, dans les sociétés où ce marché commence à exister, le scalpel du chirurgien semble pourtant fabriquer autant de misère, de domination et de détresse que de "ressources corporelles". Le contraire, en somme, de la liberté.

La Transplantation d'organes. Un commerce nouveau entre les êtres humains, de Philippe Steiner. Gallimard, "Bibliothèque des sciences humaines", 342 p., 24,90 €.

Gilles Bastin

How the Greeks met their gods

What was so mysterious about mystery cults in the ancient world?
Mary Beard

The ancient Greeks and Romans must have been very good at keeping secrets. Or so our lack of information on the famous “Eleusinian Mysteries” (celebrated in an impressive sanctuary just a few miles outside Athens) would suggest – not to mention our lack of information on all the other, similar, initiatory religions found throughout the ancient world, from the ecstatic cult of Dionysus featured in Euripides’ Bacchae to the worship of the god Mithras by the Roman squaddies on Hadrian’s wall. There must have been literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of initiates, across the millennium of Classical history. And at Eleusis they included some of the most prominent (and garrulous) writers, thinkers and politicians of antiquity: Socrates and Plato, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, and many more. These cults are often set apart, by modern writers, from the calmer, less participatory, less emotional traditions of Graeco-Roman state religion. But we have no explicit ancient account of what the secret mysteries of any cult actually were, what happened at initiation or what exactly was revealed to the initiates. So far as we can now tell, there was hardly a leaky vessel among them; or, at any rate, whatever the gossip on the ancient street, there was no one who risked committing the religious secrets to writing and so sharing them with posterity.

It is true that on one notorious occasion, in the middle of the Peloponnesian War just before the disastrous expedition sailed to Sicily, a group of elite young Athenians were said to have parodied the Eleusinian Mysteries at private parties, and so “revealed the secret things to the uninitiated”. The jape (assuming it was no more than that) had a deathly serious end. Prosecuted for the offence, the men were found guilty and – those that had not escaped into exile first – were executed. But we hear of nothing of that kind ever again. The attitude of Pausanias in his second-century ad Guide to Greece is far more typical. Whenever he comes to describe a sanctuary of a secret cult of this type, he makes it very clear that he cannot give the game away. At Eleusis he even claims to have been warned in a dream not to divulge any of “the things within the wall of the sanctuary” – because “the uninitiated [that is, many of his readers] are not allowed to learn about what they cannot take part in”.

In the absence of any explicit eyewitness (or even second-hand) accounts, we have to rely on various kinds of indirect evidence. There are some general descriptions of initiation by ancient writers, which often dwell on strange sounds and bright lights, or the clash of light and dark. There are some notable works of literature which may engage with the theology of these cults: the so-called “Homeric Hymn to Demeter”, which tells the story of Demeter’s grief after the rape of her daughter Persephone by Hades, is often thought to reflect the myth underlying the rituals at Eleusis. There are also a number of speculative, and probably almost entirely imaginary, accounts written by ancient critics of the cults. Livy includes in his history of Rome a lurid tale of the cult of Bacchus, which stresses debauchery, murder and a clever trick with sulphurous torches, which stayed alight even when plunged into the waters of the Tiber. Early Christian writers found these initiatory cults a predictably easy target. Clement of Alexandria, for example, at the end of the second or beginning of the third century AD, tried to forge an etymological link between the ritual cry of the Bacchic worshippers (“euan, euoi”) and the Judaeo-Christian figure of Eve – helped by a reputed fondness of the Bacchists for snakes. Clement’s idea was that they were actually worshipping the originator of human sin.

So, for modern scholars, it has always been a frustrating task to discover the secret of these ancient mystery cults (“mystery” from the Greek mysterion, which has a range of meaning, from “Eleusinian ritual” to “secret knowledge” in a wider sense). What was it that the initiates of Dionysus or the “Great Mother” knew that the uninitiated did not? In his refreshing new survey, Mystery Cults in Ancient World, Hugh Bowden suggests that we have perhaps been worrying unnecessarily about that question. In fact, we don’t have to imagine the ancients were so much better keepers of secrets than we are, for no secret knowledge, as such, was transmitted at all. To be sure, there was a whole range of objects involved in these cults that outsiders could not see, and words that they were not allowed to hear. (In the cult at Eleusis, from descriptions of the public procession to the sanctuary, we can judge that the cult objects were small – at least small enough comfortably to be carried in containers by the priestesses.) But that is quite different from thinking that some particular piece of secret doctrine was revealed to the faithful at their initiation.

Bowden would prefer to see the religious culture of the mysteries in “imagistic” terms. Drawing – perhaps a little over-enthusiastically – on recent work on the anthropology of prehistoric religions, he contrasts imagistic with doctrinal forms of religious experience. The latter are best seen in the institutionalized, regular patterns of (relatively low-key) worship, associated with modern mainstream Christianity. The former rely on the kind of striking, occasional, intense, episodic moments of religious change that are associated with ancient mystery and initiatory cults: impressive and mind-blowing maybe, but not defined by a doctrinal message (hence all that stuff about sound and light).

Not to say that it was, therefore, all empty impression, signifying little. For Bowden, what these initiatory religions offer is a face-to-face vision of the divine. One of the big issues of Greek and Roman culture in general is exactly how far the gods are, safely, visible to mortals. The cautionary mythological tale here is that of Semele, who (as brilliantly refigured in Handel’s opera) demands to look at her lover, Jupiter, only to be destroyed by that vision of godhead. In standard ancient ritual practice, there were all kinds of ways in which the worshipper’s direct vision of the gods was avoided (through representation in statues, for example). Bowden shows convincingly that the mysteries broke through this veil, and offered a direct vision of the god – and, unlike Semele’s experience, one that did not kill the worshipper. As Lucius, the initiand in the cult of Isis in Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass, observes: “I approached the gods below and the gods above face-to-face, and worshipped them from nearby”.

Bowden’s Mystery Cults is a consistently sensible book in a field where common sense is often lacking (the temptation to see some ancient initiatory rituals as if they were New Age religions has proved almost irresistible). And, in the course of a wonderfully, and intelligently, illustrated 250 pages, he debunks an impressive number of myths about ancient mystery religions. He pours some much-needed cold water over the idea that the inscribed golden “leaves” (offering instructions for navigating the underworld) found with a number of burials in the Greek world attest to a defined “Orphic cult” with advanced ideas of eschatology; better, perhaps, to see them as examples of a much more humdrum commercial religious trade, selling reassurances of a happy afterlife for grieving relatives to put in the graves of their loved ones. And he takes many scholars to task (myself included) for assuming that the cult of the Great Mother in Rome, based on the Palatine Hill, just next to the Roman imperial palace, was served by ecstatic eunuch priests who castrated themselves with a piece of flint. Some of us had already been a little more circumspect about this than Bowden allows: you only have to read accounts of pre-modern full castration (for the Great Mother was supposed to demand the removal of both penis and testicles) to recognize that few priests could have survived any such procedure. But he shows that, feasible or not, the practice is anyway much less clearly attested in Roman literature than we like to think.

More often than not, in fact, the details of these cults may not be quite as they seem. He cites an intriguing second-century AD inscription from just outside Rome, listing the members of a Bacchic troupe (or thiasos), under a priestess called Agripinilla. It is anyone’s guess whether we see here a group of respectable Roman men and women really imitating the mad Bacchants of Euripides’ play, and taking to the mountains in religious fervour – or whether this was the ancient equivalent of modern morris dancing (that is to say the Roman equivalent group of bank managers on their days off pretending to be lusty medieval rustics). My hunch, as Bowden almost suggests, is the latter.

The book, however, is concerned to do much more than debunk. Taken overall, Bowden’s examples of mystery cults – from the famous rituals of Eleusis to those little communities of Mithraists huddled in their ritual “caves” along Hadrian’s Wall – suggest a much fuzzier boundary with the official, civic cult of Greece and Rome than even he acknowledges. For a start, many of these religions are not only personal and initiatory but also part of the state religious framework. The rituals in the sanctuary at Eleusis, where the secret initiation (whatever it was) happened, were preceded and followed by large public processions of the citizens of Athens. The sanctuary of the Great Mother at Ostia was a place of considerable local splendour, castration or no castration – and, as we know from the inscriptions found there, it was subsidized by grandees of the local community.

But it is also the case that some of the concerns of the initiatory religions overlap strikingly with those of civic cult. Bowden rightly lays stress on all kinds of problematic issues of naming, and on the uncertainty of divine identity within mystery cults. Some mystery gods are nameless, some are addressed under a variety of alternative titles. Some inscribed texts hedge their bets: “Great Gods of Samothrace”, or “Dioscuri”, or “Kabeiroi”? Uncertainty and ambivalence, in Bowden’s view, were part of the essence of the mysteries. But so also were they part of the essence of civic cults, where those who wanted to play safe in addressing a god always hedged their bets: “whether you are god or goddess” was a standard Roman formula of prayer, just to make sure that there had been no mistake about the sex of the deity.

Likewise the question of incomprehensibility. As Bowden explains, the Greek mysteries of the island of Samothrace “included someone reciting incomprehensible words” – another index of the intellectual puzzlement at the heart of such mystery cults. But, although Bowden does not mention it, there is plenty of incomprehensibility in ancient civic, official cults too: in the first century AD, when the priests known as the “Salii” danced through the streets of Rome twice a year and sang their special hymn, no one (not even the priests themselves) had the foggiest clue what the hymn meant. Perhaps in the early periods of Rome’s history, the participants had understood; or more likely it had always been mumbo-jumbo. All ancient religion celebrates its own incomprehensibility, as part of its mystique.

This overlap between civic and initiatory religion comes out particularly vividly in a series of inscriptions commemorating leading pagan aristocrats of the late Roman Empire, which proudly list all their religious offices – initiation into mystery cults next to official state priesthoods. These were men who boasted of holding the traditional offices of augur or pontifex, as well as of being initiated into the cult of Mithras or Egyptian Isis. Bowden rightly focuses on these at the end of his book and argues against a common view that they reflect a new form of aggressive pagan religiosity, developed in response to the rise of Christianity, or that they are part of a pagan “revival” in a Christian context. Much more likely they show – albeit under the magnifying glass of late imperial Rome (where everything appears larger than life) – just how closely different forms and styles of cult, “mystery” or not, had always gone hand in hand. However secretive they might have been about what went on in their ceremonies, however uncertain or elusive the “message” of the cults might have been amid all that sound and light – initiation in a variety of different cults was something that these late antique aristocrats were happy to parade.

Hugh Bowden
256pp. Thames and Hudson. £28 (US $39.95).
978 0 500 25164 5

Mary Beard is the author of The Roman Triumph, published in 2007, and Pompeii: The life of a Roman town, 2008. Her most recent book, It’s a Don’s Life, a collection of her TLS blogs, appeared in 2009. She is Professor of Classics and Professorial Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, and the Classics editor of the TLS.

Autopsias paternas

Varias publicaciones ponen de relieve la importancia creciente de un subgénero, el que indaga sobre la relación paterno filial.- Richard Ford, Marcos Giralt y Hector Abad nos desentrañen las claves

Las relaciones paterno filiales serán uno de los temas de la próxima semana en la cobertura de Babelia en la Feria del Libro, que incluye un encuentro digital con Marcos Giralt Torrente, autor de 'Tiempo de vida'

"¿Y yo? ¿Qué clase de comentario acabo de hacer? ¿Qué he hecho al abrir a mi padre en canal de este modo, al examinarlo, diagnosticarlo, operarlo de modo que este trabajo resulta un cruce entre hacer el amor y una autopsia?". Quien se pregunta esto es Hanif Kureishi, escritor británico que realiza en Mi oído en su corazón (Anagrama) una de las más valientes disecciones de la relación paterno filial y los conflictos que genera, un tema que ha entrado con cierta fuerza en el panorama editorial español en los últimos meses. El libro, que parte del hallazgo de Kureishi, escritor de éxito, de varias novelas sin publicar escritas por su padre (escritor frustrado, inmigrante desarraigado, padre en eterno conflicto) tiene gran parte de los ingredientes de este subgénero que a tantos escritores ha cautivado antes a autores como Kafka o Ackerley: dudas sobre el papel de la memoria, miedos, rencor, reproches no formulados, elegías aún por cantar, redenciones pendientes y ausencia del ser querido.

Marcos Giralt Torrente, autor de Tiempo de Vida (Anagrama) explica en conversación telefónica con este diario el porqué de la fuerza que han adquirido estas exploraciones del pasado familiar. "Este tipo de libros es más común en los países protestantes, puritanos y anglosajones que aquí, en la cultura mediterránea, aunque se supone que tenemos que ser más tolerantes. ¿Por qué ahora? Porque nos estamos asimilando a otras tradiciones. Ahora que hay más traducciones que nunca, que se puede elegir tu propia tradición y eso hace que todas las literaturas converjan y se asimilen".

Los peligros de la memoria

La memoria juega un papel esencial en la reconstrucción narrativa de vidas ya extintas, más aún si quien la cuenta formó parte de esa biografía. "La memoria es un proceso creativo", afirma el escritor Andrés Neuman, quien en Una vez Argentina (Anagrama) disecciona un siglo de la vida de su país de origen a través de la historia, inventada o no, de su familia. En conversación con EL PAÍS el ganador del premio Alfaguara por El viajero del siglo no se esconde cuando se le pregunta por el valor y los peligros del recuerdo: "El pasado casi no existe hasta que es escrito, no se trata de recordar sino de recrear". ¿Conflicto entre la realidad y el relato? No para Neuman: "No hay dictotomía entre autoficción y memoria. Se trata de conciliar lo aparentemente irreconciliable y tratar de unir los extremos en otro tipo de armonía".

Anagrama ha publicado recientemente Mi madre, de Richard Ford (publicado en EE UU a finales de los ochenta), quien responde por correo electrónico a algunas de las preguntas de este diario. La inquietud por los límites de la memoria también está presente en su obra. Lo resume así: "La memoria es imperfecta e incompleta en sí misma. Lo más importante es decir qué pasó y no inventar lo que nunca ocurrió".

El colombiano Hector Abad Faciolince es uno de los escritores que de manera más intensa ha tratado el tema en los últimos años. Hijo de un médico activista por los derechos humanos asesinado por la extrema derecha en su país, Abad dedica un libro, El olvido que seremos (Seix Barral) a la memoria de su padre y otro, Traiciones de la Memoria (Alfaguara), a analizar los efectos de "esa forma tan peculiar de la brutalidad que es la mala memoria". "Cada vez estoy más convencido", asegura, "de que una memoria solamente es confiable cuando es imperfecta, y que una aproximación a la precaria verdad humana se construye solamente con la suma de los recuerdos imprecisos, unidos a la resta de los distintos olvidos".

Giralt Torrente responde a estas otras afirmaciones similares: "¿Cuál es la verdad de la vida? ¿Quién la imparte? La realidad es múltiple. Hablar de la verdad me parece naïf. Cuando estás hablando de tu vida no hay más verdad que la tuya. La memoria modifica y reinventa".

Retratos imperfectos

Malos modales ("Tú te hurgabas las orejas con mondadientes", Kafka en Carta al Padre), tremendas costumbres como sacarse mocos de la nariz y hacer una bola con ellos (J.R. Ackerley en Mi Padre y yo, Anagrama), infidelidades, extraños hábitos sexuales, alcoholismos, comportamientos rastreros y defectos forman parte de estos relatos construidos unas veces desde el rencor, otras el vacío de la ausencia, otras desde el deseo de recuperar el tiempo perdido y muchas desde todas a la vez.

Después de varios imprevistos y conversaciones diferidas entre Italia y Colombia, conseguimos hablar con Abad sobre la escritura paterno filial: "Es más fácil escribir sobre la maldad que sobre la bondad. La maldad nunca es cursi. También es más fácil escribir sobre el desamor que sobre el amor, porque la falta de amor es más elegante. El amor vive al borde del sentimentalismo. Escribir sobre un padre malo tiene la fuerza de la venganza poética. Yo no podía escribir durante años porque todo lo que me salía era lamentable, por lamentoso. Describir aun hombre bueno, sin sentimentalismo, es casi imposible".

Pero es la tradición anglosajona la experta en cargar las tintas. En su Experiencia (Anagrama) Martin Amis traza un retrato sincero, a veces cariñoso y despiadado de su padre, el también escritor Kingsley Amis. Valga este párrafo como ejemplo: "Emborracharse: no había duda de que ése era siempre el objetivo. Estar borracho tenía sus cosas buenas pero emborracharse era la parte realmente buena. Kingsley había escrito a menudo y con garra sobre este instante en que el emborracharse se convierte súbitamente en estar borracho. Y él era, por supuesto, el campeón de las resacas".

Terapias y vacíos

Ackerley, culto, mordaz, desengañado y desprovisto de cualquier corrección política escribe un texto que destila nostalgia por la ocasión perdida, por la imposibilidad de hacerle unas cuantas preguntitas a su padre, un próspero comerciante que tras su muerte resultó no ser quien parecía ser y que mantenía una familia paralela a la del escritor.

No es el único que ha utilizado el reproche, más o menos oculto, en su prosa. Kureishi, que es un trasunto mestizo, heterosexual, pop y no clasista del autor de Mi padre y yo lanza continuas hondonadas matizadas, no siempre, con párrafos como el que sirve de inicio para este artículo.

Giralt Torrente en cuyas páginas se puede percibir un reproche al padre por todo lo que no fue, no cree que la literatura y ni siquiera este tipo de relatos, sirvan, tengan una función terapéutica: "La terapia es curativa. La literatura no te cura de nada, ni cuando la escribes ni cuando la lees. Puede paliar una situación de estrés emocional, lo que quieras, pero al final, porque de lo contrario no sería literatura, el objetivo es estético". Tampoco cree en esta función Ford, quien considera que hablar de literatura terapéutica es "subestimar un proceso mucho más complejo".

Neuman sí le encuentra objetivo a este tipo de textos: "La función no era solo inventar recuerdos sino despedir cuando se debe de los seres queridos, hay que despedirse cuando están vivos".

Hector Abad describe el proceso: "Durante la escritura hay momentos muy difíciles pues si la materia es íntima uno se resiste a contarla. Yo tuve que hacerlo contra mi voluntad muchas veces, porque mi memoria se resistía a repasar y revivir con palabras los momentos más dolorosos".

Sin narración no hay nada

Marcos Giralt tercia en un debate que surge con cualquiera de los escritores con los que se hable sobre esto. "No sentí la paradoja (de la ausencia del padre) muy lacerante porque en última instancia el destinatario final era yo. A pesar de ser una historia tan íntima, yo estoy haciendo literatura". El escritor madrileño es uno de los autores en los que está más presente la preocupación por el valor literario de lo escrito, por la estructura narrativa como tabla de salvación para evitar convertir el relato en mero exhibicionismo, un poco al modo de ese Philip Roth que toma notas mientras su padre agoniza para su posterior publicación en Patrimonio (Mondadori). "Sentía un rechazo moral a tomar notas durante la enfermedad. Tengo manía a Patrimonio de Roth por eso. No sabes si es un libro sobre el padre o sobre el autor tomando notas mientras su padre se muere", afirma.

Ficción o no ficción, eso lo de menos. "Cada vez me interesa más la realidad y menos la ficción, pero cada vez me parece más que todo, todo, es ficción", llega a afirmar Hector Abad. "Me di cuenta de que tenía una historia que contar", asegura Ackerley sorprendido por la revelación. Giral Torrente, de nuevo, se lo tiene más que pensado: "El hecho de que el material del libro provenga de la realidad no es tan relevante. La forma de escribirlo no es distinta a la de la novela. Eso me permitió dotarlo de tensión narrativa. Si dijese "no es mi vida real" eso no le quita mérito, se leería de la misma manera. Que sea autobiográfica es irrelevante. Hay un tratamiento narrativo, que podemos clasificar de ficcional. La ficción no es sólo inventar, es todo lo que implica el trabajo de mesa del escritor, manipular, y no quiero decir tergiversar, los hechos para que sirvan para contar una historia".

A nadie le preocupa tanto la estructura narrativa y nadie la alimenta tanto con el conflicto paterno filial como Kafka. "Si se analiza detenidamente la obra entera de Kafka, uno cae en la cuenta de que la figura de su padre, consciente o inconscientemente se convirtió para Franz en el núcleo simbólico y el alma de su compleja maquinaria literaria", asegura Jordi Llovet, responsable del prólogo de Padres e hijos (Anagrama) la obra que reúne los principales textos del escritor sobre su relación con su padre.

La presencia del padre, y en ocasiones de la madre, es esencial para la vida de muchos escritores y va más allá de su muerte. O, en palabras de Kureishi cuando se entera de que su padre está al borde de la muerte por un problema de corazón: "Sabía que adonde quiera que fuese e hiciese lo que hiciese, él siempre estaría observándome y condenándome. Como Dios".

martedì 25 maggio 2010

Cory Doctorow: Publish books free online

The author and blogger explains why he publishes his books free online

Aleks Krotoski The Observer,

Politically engaged and disarmingly geeky, Cory Doctorow is one of the better-known faces of the digital revolution: co-editor of the celebrated blog Boing Boing ("a directory of wonderful things"), he is also author of half-a-dozen science fiction novels and a journalist. Born in Canada, the 38-year-old writer now lives in London, although when we speak, he's in the US, promoting his latest book, For the Win. This tells a story of teens rebelling against global corporations and is pitched at the "young adult" market. As with all his fiction, the book has been released simultaneously in bookshops and, for free, online.

You've released For the Win using a Creative Commons licence, giving it away for free. Why?

I give away all of my books. [The publisher] Tim O'Reilly once said that the problem for artists isn't piracy – it's obscurity. I think that's true. A lot of people have commented: "You can't eat page views, so how does being well-known help you earn a living as a writer?" It's true; however, it's very hard to monetise fame, but impossible to monetise obscurity. It doesn't really matter how great your work is; if no one's ever heard of it, you'll never make any money from it. That's not to say that if everyone's heard of it, you'll make a fortune, but it is a necessary precursor that your work be well-known to earn you a living. As far as I can tell, these themes apply very widely, across all media.

As a practical matter, we live in the 21st century and anything anybody wants to copy they will be able to copy. If you are building a business model that says that people can only copy things with your permission, your business is going to fail because whether or not you like it, people will be able to copy your product without your permission. The question is: what are you going to do about that? Are you going call them thieves or are you going to find a way to make money from them?

The only people who really think that it's plausible to reduce copying in the future seem to be the analogue economy, the people who built their business on the idea that copying only happens occasionally and usually involves a giant machine and some lawyers. People who are actually doing digital things have the intuitive knowledge that there's no way you're going to stop people from copying and they've made peace with it.

Your young adult novels are concerned with the political issues surrounding new technologies, such as questions of privacy. Why?

Kids' relationship with privacy is really confused; they're told by teachers and adults that their privacy is paramount, that they should stop disclosing so much information on Facebook and so on. And then they go to schools where everything they do is monitored; there's mandatory spyware that takes every click they make, every word they utter and sends it back to teachers and headmasters for disciplinary purposes.

When they go out in public, they're photographed every five minutes and there are signs that prohibit taking any affirmative step to hide themselves from scrutiny or maintain any privacy.

So on the one hand, we're telling kids that their privacy is the most important thing in the world and that they have to guard it as jealously as anything that matters to them. On the other hand, we're systematically depriving them of their privacy and punishing them for asserting it.

The problem with privacy is the same problem as with smoking: the consequences of doing something that's bad for you are a long way from the action itself and so you don't learn.

If we want kids to give less information to Facebook, then we should start by having them give less information to everybody. That means giving them the tools that help them to understand that privacy really matters and that giving up your privacy is something that's hard to stop doing once you start.

Do you see young adult fiction as an effective way of getting a message across?

Young adults treat literature with a lot more seriousness and often see literature as a call to action – whether that's to go to the library or to try to write some software or even to found a protest group. I do hope to have this alerting presence about the risks of technology. I want to inspire kids and adults to ask how we can start seizing the means of information again, how we can use technology to liberate us as it did when I was an adolescent.

Independent bookstores see glimmers of hope

By Hillel Italie
Associated Press

NEW YORK — On the eve of BookExpo America, the publishing industry’s annual convention, independent booksellers are enjoying a pleasant surprise: Membership is up.

“Despite fears of a significant number of store closings as a result of the worst economy since the Depression, the good news is that much of the ABA membership is holding its own,’’ says Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, which represents independent stores.

The rise is tiny, from 1,401 a year ago to 1,410, but a deluge in comparison to the past two decades, when membership dropped from more than 3,000 to last year’s low.

Independent stores have been on the wrong end of some of the biggest trends: the spread of superstore chains; the emergence of and other online retailers; the rise of the e-book, a tiny market three years ago, but now, for some major publishers, approaching 8 percent of total sales.

Teicher credits last year’s turnaround mostly to the smarts of the independent community and a willingness to experiment, such as the literary day camp at BookPeople in Austin, Texas, or the clothing store in the Northshire Bookstore in Vermont. ABA president Michael Tucker, co-owner of Books Inc. in San Francisco, says the economy may have helped some stores, making it less costly to find retail space in downtown locations.

“People aren’t willing anymore to travel great distances just to buy a book, so you can’t really afford to be off the beaten path,’’ Tucker says. “You have to be close to the Laundromat, or the movie theater or the hardware store. Our members appreciate that you have to be part of a mix of stores.’’

Booksellers have also learned to economize, and BookExpo, which begins Tuesday, is one opportunity. Show manager Steven Rosato says that until recently a given store might send five to six employees. This year, two to three is more common. Librarians, enduring budget cuts nationwide, are following a similar pattern.

Organizers Reed Exhibitions have moved the show from the weekend to midweek and reduced the number of days from four to three.

Instead of rotating among cities around the country, the convention has settled indefinitely in New York, home to virtually all the major publishers, who have openly questioned whether BookExpo is worth the expense when so much business can be completed online.

“I have mixed feelings, because it does add some excitement when you’re moving around to different cities. But if you look at it, as a cost basis, New York is preferable,’’ says Jamie Raab, executive vice president and publisher of Grand Central Publishing.

giovedì 20 maggio 2010

Ways With Words 2010: Ian McEwan interview

Ian McEwan explains why his latest novel Solar was rejected by the American literary establishment.

By Lorna Bradbury

Ian McEwan 'Something is missing in our culture,” Ian McEwan proclaims. “We can’t quite celebrate the scientific literary tradition.” And then a little later: “We overvalue the arts in relation to the sciences.”

McEwan is taking questions at the end of a lecture he has given to the Royal Society of Literature on Darwin and Einstein and the ways in which notions of “originality” might relate to the sciences compared with the arts.

"I want to try and usefully blur the distinctions between the two realms,” McEwan tells me the next morning. “On the one hand there is a scientific tradition. Scientists do stand on the shoulders of giants, just as do writers. Conversely, in the arts we do make discoveries. We do refine our tools. So I am arguing with, or at least playing with, the idea that art never improves.”

McEwan is rare among his peers in taking an active interest in the sciences — and in welcoming scientific ideas into his fiction. “I’m not interested in a form of modern intellectual who has no interest in science,” he says. Since he wrote Black Dogs (1992), which used a failing marriage to dramatise the argument between rationalism and faith, rationalist ideas have won out, and have often been the driving force of his novels.

In Enduring Love (1997), a science writer was stalked by a delusional man. Saturday (2005) featured a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, who tried to protect his family from a violent intruder. And McEwan’s new novel, Solar, fashions a dark satire out of the most trumpeted scientific issue of the day: global warming. The novel is steeped in research, and uses a technology — artificial photosynthesis — that is not yet a reality but is within our grasp. But its brilliance stems from the fact that it does not preach.

McEwan might, like his “liberal arts, know-nothing friends”, as he puts it, feel gloomy about climate change, but he is as comfortable sending up the scientific optimists, in the form of the anti-hero, Michael Beard — a deeply flawed philanderer and professional chancer — as he is the politicians, or the industrialists, or the journalists caught up in the story.

“It should simply be an empirical matter whether the climate is changing or not and whether we’re responsible,” he says. “But the various sides of the debate have now become so tribal that it’s no longer a matter of changing our views as more information comes in.”

Solar received glowing reviews and was warmly received by scientists, too. McEwan tells me that Graham Farmelo, the biographer of the theoretical physicist Paul Dirac, wrote to him to express his admiration for the novel, “but there was a word or two he would change in the description of Dirac’s work. I ran it past a physicist friend who said it was a bit hairsplitting, but, yes, OK, change it,” he says, at once humble in the face of proper science and pleased with the scientific accuracy of his own formulations.

But the novel has suffered at the hands of the American literary establishment, with the influential critic Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times dismissing it as one of McEwan’s “lesser efforts”.

“It was horrible,” McEwan says. “They didn’t get it at all.” I ask whether their response has to do with the subject matter – maybe American critics felt unwilling to read a comedy dealing with such weighty matters? But McEwan says it has more to do with formal than political concerns, comparing his experience with the dismissal by Americans of late-period John Updike, who is quoted in the epigraph and whose Rabbit Angstrom is the inspiration for Michael Beard. “Americans don’t like an unattractive character who is not redeemed at the centre of a novel,” he says. “And maybe it’s a matter of British humour too. Our comic writers – Michael Frayn, for example, Evelyn Waugh initially, Malcolm Bradbury certainly – were never really warmly received in the States.”

As McEwan argued in his lecture, we might think of Einstein and Darwin battling to be the first to get their theories into print, but this notion isn’t at odds with literature either. It might not have been artistically important that Solar emerged as the first book in a no-doubt blossoming literature of climate change, but it can’t have done it any harm.

Robo kafkiano de los manuscritos de Kafka

La Biblioteca Nacional de Israel sospecha que el patrimonio del autor de 'El proceso' está siendo liquidado por parte de dos hermanas que heredaron sus manuscritos

Una importante colección de manuscritos de Franz Kafka parece estar desapareciendo de forma kafkiana. Dos hermanas residentes en Tel Aviv, que heredaron los documentos de su madre, han denunciado frecuentes robos en su apartamento (dos la semana pasada), pero dicen no saber qué ha sido robado. La Biblioteca Nacional de Israel, que pleitea con las hermanas por la posesión de los manuscritos, sospecha que el patrimonio está siendo liquidado.

La historia es complicada. Los manuscritos de Kafka formaban parte de la biblioteca de Max Brod, editor y amigo del escritor checo, que emigró a Israel en 1939 y murió en 1968. Brod legó sus posesiones a su secretaria y colaboradora Esther Hoffe, que falleció a su vez hace dos años y dejó los manuscritos y el resto del material a sus dos hijas, Eva y Ruth.

Esther Hoffe, la ex secretaria de Brod, no tuvo un comportamiento demasiado leal. Existen claros indicios y varias pruebas documentales de que Brod sólo le dejó su biblioteca con los manuscritos de Kafka para que acabara de clasificarla y la entregara luego en su integridad a una institución pública israelí, con preferencia a la Biblioteca Nacional. Esther, sin embargo, vendió el manuscrito de El procesoy donó todo lo demás a sus hijas.

La Biblioteca Nacional interpuso una demanda para conseguir la custodia de los libros de Brod y los manuscritos de Kafka. Pero mientras se desarrolla el proceso se han sucedido los robos misteriosos en casa de Eva Hoffe, la hermana que, hasta donde se sabe, guardaba los documentos. En septiembre de 2009 se denunció un robo. La semana pasada hubo otras dos incursiones en el apartamento, el lunes y el miércoles.

Según Eva Hoffe, de 76 años, han desaparecido "libros, cartas y partituras", aunque se declara incapaz de detallar qué libros, qué cartas y qué partituras. El abogado de las hermanas Hoffe, Uri Zfat, afirma por su parte que lo robado son "documentos insignificantes".

La Biblioteca Nacional de Israel sospecha que el legado de Max Brod está siendo liquidado en beneficio de las hermanas o de alguien vinculado a ellas, y exige al juez que todos los documentos le sean entregados inmediatamente; si ello no es posible, exige que al menos se efectúe un inventario sobre los documentos guardados en el apartamento de Eva Hoffe para evitar que sigan produciéndose robos misteriosos y el legado de Brod y Kafka siga esfumándose.

mercoledì 19 maggio 2010

The secret to creativity

by Robert McCrum

Proust said original books were the offspring of 'darkness and silence', but there's not so much secret inspiration today. Can creativity flourish in the age of the internet where all is exposed?

The summer festival season is about to begin with the opening of Hay 2010, and one of the questions that will inevitably crop up, a question that authors and panellists dread, is: where do you get your ideas from?

The pursuit of creativity is not generally a question that gets a good answer. But last week, at the Royal Philharmonic Society Music awards, the artist Grayson Perry, a wonderfully transgressive character, said something that struck a chord with me, especially in the context of an issue I've been puzzling over viz. the effect of the IT revolution on the creative process.

In the course of his remarks, which were mainly about classical music, naturally, Perry observed: "Being creative is all about being unself-conscious; being prepared to make a bit of a fool of myself. In my experience, embarrassment is not fatal."

He followed this with some remarks about the dangers of "cool", and concluded: "I'd like to make a plea for difficulty over cool. In the end, being difficult is the coolest thing you can be."

But it was Perry's focus on "unself-conscious" that caught my attention. To me, that's the essential – perhaps the only – key to creativity.

Art is a mystery whose lineaments are often obscure to its protagonists. The artist – writer, painter, musician – does not like, indeed often cannot begin, to explain his or her work. That will be because, if genuine originality is at stake, the artist will probably be in two minds about what he or she is up to, and unwilling to offer an easy account. This, I think, is where Perry's plea for "unself-consciousness" comes into play.

For new and original books to flourish, there must be privacy, even secrecy. In Time Regained, Marcel Proust expressed this perfectly. "Real books", he wrote, "should be the offspring not of daylight and casual talk, but of darkness and silence."

How many "real books" enjoy "darkness and silence" today? Not many. In 2010, the world of books, and the arts generally, is a bright, raucous and populist place. The internet – and blogs like this – expose everything to scrutiny and discussion. There's a lot of self-expression, but not necessarily much creativity.

So the question I ask is: can the secret state of creative inspiration flourish on global platforms on which everything is exposed, analysed and dissected?

This, I think, is a topic that has begun to exercise quite a few writers, but just off the radar. As Don DeLillo puts it in his recent novella Point Omega: "It's what no one knows about you that allows you to know yourself." And self-knowledge must be the vital first step in the creative process

Cannes Film Festival: BBC film to show Charles Dickens' secret love affair

The clandestine love affair between Charles Dickens and his young mistress is to be portrayed on screen.
By Anita Singh, Showbusiness Editor Cannes
Charles Dickens during a visit to America in 1867-1868. Photo: CORBIS A new film will tell the tragic story of the author’s love for Nelly Ternan, an actress with whom he conducted a secret relationship for nearly 15 years.

Dickens met Ternan when he was 45 and she was just 18. The BBC Films production will claim that the couple had a son who died in infancy, leaving Ternan broken-hearted.

The author’s wife, Catherine, discovered the affair when Dickens ordered a bracelet for his mistress and it was mistakenly delivered to his home address. They separated but Catherine remained loyal to him until his death.

The film, which goes into production later this year and has yet to be cast, is based on Claire Tomalin’s biography, An Invisible Woman. The script is by Abi Morgan, who wrote the screenplay for Brick Lane and the acclaimed television drama Sex Traffic.

Stewart Mackinnon, the producer, said: “The heart of Dickens’ novels were love for one’s family, but here was this man who had a wife and ten children and for 15 years he had an affair. His stories described the world as he saw it, and yet he was living a lie.

“The tragedy of the story is that both Nelly and Dickens realised they had to make a choice. Should he give away his position as a great writer for love? It is a terrible dilemma.

“The film really will make you read Dickens in a different way. It will show him as a human being in all his frailties.”

Strange Trip for a Piece of Nazi Past

from nytimes

BERLIN — Robert Edsel, author of “The Monuments Men,” came to town the other day with a heavy album bound in green Moroccan leather. “Gemäldegalerie Linz XIII” was embossed on the spine. Inside were black-and-white photographs of mostly obscure 19th-century German paintings.

The album was one of the long-missing volumes cataloging the never-built Führermuseum in Linz, Austria, which Hitler envisioned someday rivaling Dresden and Munich. Starting in 1939, Nazi henchmen and art dealers bought and stole thousands of paintings, sculptures, tapestries and other objects from private collections across Europe, then stockpiled them. Hitler helped draw up architectural plans, which megomaniacally grew to include a theater and an opera house, a hotel, a library and parade grounds. Photographs show him, pencil in hand, pondering plans and gazing raptly on the model for the site.

“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,” the German novelist W. G. Sebald wrote in “The Emigrants.” “At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.” He was recalling a long-forgotten Alpine climber, whose remains a glacier in Switzerland suddenly released, 72 years after the man had gone missing.

But really Sebald was describing the past, which everywhere turns up unexpectedly, jolting us from our historical amnesia. A German publisher, Berliner Verlag, just released a book of photographs of postwar Berlin that had somehow languished in its archives. I know a man in Spain who has been accumulating long-forgotten photographs and other private relics from the war: a mesmerizing and mysterious stash of soldiers’ snapshots and letters, and documents scrawled with Hitler’s notes. The missing Linz album surfaced not long ago outside Cleveland, of all places. An 88-year-old veteran, John Pistone, who fought with Patton’s army, picked it up in 1945 while rummaging through the Berghof, Hitler’s retreat in the Bavarian Alps. Like other soldiers, he wanted a souvenir to prove he’d been there. He didn’t know, or particularly care, what the album was, and only learned its significance when a contractor installing a washer-dryer in his house noticed the volume on a shelf, hunted for information via the Internet, then called Mr. Edsel.

Mr. Edsel heads the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, an organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of the 350 or so Allied soldiers tasked with looking after cultural treasures in Europe. A 53-year-old, white-haired former oilman, Mr. Edsel isn’t the sort of person who takes no for an answer, and he persuaded Mr. Pistone to relinquish the volume to the German Historical Museum in Berlin , which has the other extant Linz albums. (This makes 20; 11 are still missing.)

Hitler was presented with the albums every Christmas and on his birthday. They featured reproductions of the latest art to go into the museum. The books were a virtual museum-in-waiting, a museum without walls. You imagine him cradling the bulky volumes, ogling bucolic scenes of a bygone German countryside now in ruins, imagining himself the next Medici.

It’s hard to overstate how seriously he took the whole project. Art collecting obsessed him for years; his staff endured nightly soliloquies, Hitler droning on about art while Germany collapsed around him. He fussed even about how the rooms in the museum should be decorated.

“I never bought the paintings that are in the collections that I built up over the years for my own benefit,” he took pains to write in his brief will, just before putting a pistol to his head, “but only for the establishment of a gallery in my hometown of Linz.”

A model of Linz had already been moved to the bunker in Berlin so it would be among the last things he saw.

Volume XIII, Mr. Pistone’s album, contains reproductions of 19th-century German and Austrian pictures, the art Hitler admired most. He may have bought some of these works with royalties from “Mein Kampf.” They’re mawkish idylls by painters largely obscure even to Germans and Austrians today. The best pictures are by Adolph von Menzel and Hans Makart, with whose early underappreciation Hitler perversely identified.

Time whitewashes evil, or not. Mr. Edsel expressed his opinion this week that more and more curios like Mr. Pistone’s album would surface now that the last surviving veterans are dying.

“Emotional value doesn’t transfer across generations,” is how he put it. “People don’t inherit passions.” One man’s private memento becomes another’s opportunity to sell something on eBay, notwithstanding that German and American authorities insist that artifacts like the Linz album are cultural property that shouldn’t be sold. Regardless, he meant that in the process of passing between generations, the object gains new life.

In a ceremony on Tuesday, Volume XIII was delivered to the German Historical Museum here, joining other Linz albums on display behind glass, like contaminated evidence. The jury is out over whether the “disproportionate amount of time and energy,” as the head of the Allied art-looting investigation unit put it after the war, that Hitler demanded go to amassing art, diverted German resources from the war effort, hastening its end, or the reverse — whether Hitler’s obsession with Linz, and with collecting generally, in some measure motivated him to press on.

Historians can thrash that out. Meanwhile, there are the 11 unaccounted-for albums. Presumably they’re still out there, like Sebald’s polished bones.