Commentaries - April 2009

“An iron law of avant-garde art is that theorizing expands to fill a void of talent.” And when the untalented theory-mongering avant-garde approaches the Holocaust, there’s special trouble. According to George Will.

I’m talking about a George Will column in 2002: on exploiting the Holocaust intellectually.

Will surveyed Holocaust-related games and toys and avant-garde exhibits and academic theories. He associates this stuff with “the explosive growth of Holocaust studies [which] has turned that genocide into a ‘wonderful, creative teaching opportunity.’” (So such wonderfulness and creativity is tragically ironic, such “growth” lamentable.)

In the end this piece becomes another excuse for skewering liberal, facile academia, for “what hope can there be for even minimal decency and understanding when today’s intelligentsia is hospitable to trivializations of a huge tragedy?” Here’s your link to the whole article.

The dogwood in the Writers House garden was starting to flower. A just-arrived Joan Didion at left, the amazing Jamie-Lee Josselyn at right. Thanks to Barbara Brody Avnet, who took the shot.

I’m pleased to announce that Emma Morgenstern has won the Terry B. Heled Travel & Research Grant at the Kelly Writers House. We received dozens of fine applications.

Emma (class of 2010) is majoring in Linguistics. She has been published in The Boston Globe Magazine and Penn’s own F-Word. Emma is also founder and editor-in-chief of Penn Appetit, Penn’s first-ever and only student-run and -written magazine of food writing. Emma has also participated in the Penn Reading Initiative at Huey Elementary School.

Enabled by this grant, Emma will travel to Greece and Turkey to research and conduct interviews with the Jews of Thessaloniki and Istanbul, to learn about their culture, customs and linguistic behavior. She hopes to learn how being the member of a religious and ethnic minority affects attitudes toward religious, ethnic, and linguistic heritage. She will present her writing next fall at the Writers House.

As a way of memorializing her mother, Terry B. Heled, and of honoring the students of her alma mater in gratitude for the encouragement her own research and writing received while she was at Penn, Mali Heled Kinberg (C’95) has created this endowed fund at the Kelly Writers House that, each summer, will enable a student to travel for the purpose of conducting the research that will lead to a significant writing project.

For more about the Heled Grant, see:

Both audio (mp3) and video (streaming) recordings of Joan Didion’s two-day visit to the Kelly Writers House are now available, linked here: LINK. And a few photos are here (taken by John Carroll).

I spent a good measure of my time and energy, during our various discussions (several public, others informally), focusing on the continuity between her early writing and The Year of Magical Thinking which so many people say marks a big change. But grab your paperback copy of that recent elegaic memoir and look at the bottom of page 7 and top of 8. She begins there to say that the manner of her writing has always been — increasingly in fact — a matter of hiding “thoughts” (she doesn’t say feeling but means that) behind an increasingly untransparent, impenetrable skein of words. In other words, she does with language what I and many others who enjoy modern (and experimental) writing have always admired: the significance is in the words and the manner means something, so don’t think you must find the true feelings below in symbols of some truth under or beyond the language that is itself no more or less itself the truth of what is being said. In that prefatory passage Joan Didion seems to say that now — now that the trauma of loss has struck her — she wants to be less impenetrable, since she herself is her writing and she wants that self no longer to hide what’s really true about her feelings. Yet that’s just a prefatory expression of hope. If you read the book closely you’ll see that she “fails” to do what I think is the cliche of writing about the death of a loved one — that is to say, she does not change — but rather she reaffirms — that being made in the writing. It’s the writing and only the writing. Indeed it’s the main lesson she learned from the love relationship with her writer husband. It’s the writing. That’s where one is. So in the end, the fact that Magical Thinking is no more “personal” in its writing than Miami is the most remarkable thing about the newest development of his great writer.

When (in ’67 or so) Joan Didion wrote through her first major breakdown she described a rejection of the conventional American narrative mode (a mode that tried to prevent improvisation, for one thing), she charted a move from narrative to image, from “ethical” to “electrical,” and her mantra was — it still is — the Poundian call for juxtaposition: petals on a wet black bough. If one reads The Year of Magical Thinking as a Poundian foray rather than a self-help manual for grieving, one won’t have it quite right but will be close enough, and, I believe, will derive tremendous pleasure from the reading. Read or reread the passage about the family photographs along her hallway and I think you’ll see what I mean.